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The approach is swift and the deployment conducted with typical Chiss efficiency: Eli knows what's coming, of course, has consulted on every piece of it, but the speed still surprises him. The time between the dim shifting of light in the corridors that indicates zero minus ten and the moment his boots hit the plates on the New Republic light cruiser Union seems nothing more than a sequence of moments, disjointed and brief: the click of the buckle on his shoulder-holster, the pressure of the shuttle crashbelt against his chest, the way the thousand carefully arranged braids of the marine strapped in next to him lift into weightlessness for a split second as they leave Requital's gravity field and then fall again, beads tapping gently together. A Republic officer in about half a uniform meets them at the airlock, all ease and informal charm; if she has suspicions or concerns none of them show. All told, he goes bridge to bridge in less than 40 minutes: he feels every second of it, but in retrospect it's a strange, bright blur.

 

And then the waiting.

 

It's hardly his first rodeo, at least. Moffs and governors used to pull this stuff, generating increasingly implausible excuses for why he and Thrawn were sitting in a conference room drinking stale recycled water instead of discussing fleet support: he'd taken it for barely concealed insult, at the time, though Thrawn had of course been more philosophical. Here, at least, they're allowed to remain on the bridge, suspended in the stilted chatter of a crew pretending not to be on high alert; whether it's a game or not, the Chiss contingent receives the delays with a faintly disdainful stoicism which Eli has learned to affect, if not entirely share. He's here, his brain keeps offering unasked, in interruption of more useful thoughts (the makeup of the ship's company—almost exclusively human; the somewhat dated interface on the consoles—repurposed,  perhaps?). He's here.

 

When the cruiser's commander finally makes her appearance, still doing up her jacket, along with the usual apologies—had to consult her superiors; needed the correct authorizations—it's with Thrawn three steps behind her, his shoulders straight and his hands behind his back, and Eli is fundamentally glad that his role as translator is entirely for show and that Ar'alani's getting all of this anyway, because he's certain he misses several key points.

 

Thrawn looks—pale. A little tired. So exactly like himself that it starts something aching, somewhere in the pit of Eli's stomach: the ink-black of his hair, still swept back sharply from his high brow; the straight line of his nose; the slight upward tilt of his jaw that suggests at pride or defiance; the particular tone of his skin, which Eli had once just thought of as blue and now knows is a little vibrant, a little pale, set against the darker, smoother tones you mostly see in Csaplar. Cseyya-csia, they'd say. Ice-bright.

 

His eyes sweep the room: Eli watches him subtly count the marines, assess the space between Ar'alani and the ship's commander, evaluate the sidearms every single person here is carrying: and then his gaze snaps to Eli's and he draws breath, sharp, and it's like—like a charge finding a way to ground. Like something falling. He looks at Eli, and Eli looks at him.

 

And then he swallows and looks away. His shoulders in their borrowed Republic fatigues tense, slightly, and relax.

 

Ar'alani tilts her head, just barely, in Eli's direction; just barely raises a brow.

 

"Suppose we should do it by the book," says the cruiser's commander, brightly enough, oblivious or pretending. "Admiral, with the full authorization of the interim senate and on behalf of the citizens of the New Republic, I formally cede the aforementioned prisoner of war to you, as a gesture made in the name of lasting peace between our people and in exchange for future considerations." It is scripted, of course, but neatly done nonetheless. Ar'alani responds in equally scripted Cheunh, and Eli translates, though he hardly needs to: respectfully accept this gesture, acknowledge and receive the prisoner, will convey the message of peace to the Aristocra and all the Chiss. She inclines her head slightly, and the cruiser's commander salutes, and it's over. Thrawn unfolds his hands from behind his back—he hadn't even been bound—and steps across the invisible line separating one reality from another.

 

A trooper comes up, at the commander's right elbow, with a small hardshell case in hand:  the commander clears her throat. "Your effects," she says, cooler now.

 

Thrawn half turns to her, all politeness: "Thank you, Commander, but they are not required; please feel free to incinerate them." (His voice. His voice is a little rougher than Eli remembers, a little deeper: something like still water, cold. It makes Eli draw in a sharp breath through his nose like winter air.) The commander makes a gesture; the trooper steps back; the Chiss close ranks around Thrawn, sixth pattern, and they are off the bridge in thirty seconds.

 

"Good riddance," says a quiet Republic voice, just as the doors close behind them.

 

+

 

There are no delays on the Chiss side of things. On the shuttle, an intelligence officer called Paena (no other names given, which unsettles him a little: and doesn't that just show how long Eli's been with these people) performs a preliminary intake debrief, the sort that's just meant to ascertain that the recovered agent is who they seem to be and mitigate any threats: she draws a vial of dark blood from the crook of Thrawn's arm, performs some sort of full body scan, and engages in an odd call-and-response conversation with him—crisp on her end, somewhat slower on his—about the beauty of snowfall in winter, which Eli understands is an exchange of codephrases.

 

Thrawn doesn't look at him again.

 

Ar'alani says nothing, though her bright unblinking gaze swings between them thoughtfully. Only when the pilot calls the ten-minute warning for docking does she speak: "Will you need rest before the shipboard debrief," she says, barely glancing at Thrawn. No, Eli thinks, of course he won't; they will go straight from the shuttle bay to the command room and they will be there three days, all hours, preparing for the full debrief on Csilla, which will be months; he'll have to ask the medical officer for some stimulants; his first words to Thrawn, he realizes with a slight sense of irony, are probably going to be a request for him to confirm a spelling

 

"I think that would be advisable," Thrawn says, softly. Ar'alani looks at him: she doesn't seem surprised. "I would at least like to change my clothes."

 

"Indeed," Ar'alani says. Eli has served with her too long not to recognize the edge of amusement in her voice.

 

On the floor, the unsettling little intelligence agent packs her kit up neatly and looks to the admiral. "Confirmed," she says, in her soft unsettling little voice.

 

"Mitth'raw'nuruodo," says Ar'alani. "The Ascendancy receives you."

 

It's not quite "welcome home," but it will have to do.

 

+

 

Eli is fully expecting that he'll get hauled into a debrief—the Defense Fleet loves a debrief—even if Thrawn is free; there is no question that Ar'alani will want his perspectives on the political state of the Republic, as gleaned from the bridge and several corridors of a single small cruiser on detached service, and he is already prepared to provide them. But she stops him at the shuttle door instead and tells him she will see him at 0800: looks meaningfully at Thrawn, and then strides off towards the lift without waiting for acknowledgement, just as she always does. The marines disembark, and then the shuttle crew and the intelligence officer, and then, finally, Thrawn.

 

He steps out into the bay like a sleepwalker, less precise than Eli has ever seen him. Stands there—blinks—looks at Eli—

 

They both speak at once, of course, Eli's Cheunh "It's good—" and Thrawn's Basic "You look—" getting tangled in each other, tying a little knot between them. Eli smiles: can't help himself. A little pause, not uneasy. Thrawn, he notices, has lines around his eyes.

 

"It's good to see you," Eli tries again, still in Cheunh. Thrawn—swallows.

 

"And you, Captain," he says, after a moment. "You look well," also in Cheunh, this time.

 

There are any number of things Eli could say: has thought of saying, at one time or another, lying in his bunk during his off-shift or trying not to bleed out on the floor of some pirate's dingy freighter—furiously, aboard Chimaera, turning "Good day, Lieutenant Vanto" in circles in his head—but he has never exactly settled on one or another. Sometimes he'd thought he might just go for it, throw caution to the wind and try for hello, darlin', the kind of thing people say in the old holos his mother used to watch. Other times, mostly on the verge of falling asleep, he'd had a whole eloquent speech worked out, something meaningful and understated just the way Thrawn likes things, full of the kinds of turns of phrase he'd never think of in the moment. Or maybe he might just stay cool, let Thrawn call the shots: no guarantees, after all, that a few (more than a few) casual fucks seven years ago had retained any meaning for him at all.  When the Chiss do casual, Eli has learned, it's with a degree of detached coolness that would turn the most professional Coruscanti courtesan's heart to stone; and if Eli remembers Thrawn as warmer, more prone to letting his hand linger on Eli's shoulder, his knee, the back of his neck, well—seven years, still.

 

What comes out of his mouth now is "I missed you," in flat Basic, which is not as awful as it might be. "Are you okay," he tries, because that seems urgent too, even though Thrawn can only ever have one answer.

 

"I believe so," Thrawn says. Something unplaceable, there, some undertow. "Certainly I have suffered no harm in custody." His eyes drift to the starfield outside the bay, visible below the shuttle's truncated wing. Mostly shadow. "There are things we should discuss," he says, looking at deep space.

 

"Debrief at 0800," Eli says, faintly stung.

 

"I am not speaking of a mission report," Thrawn says, "Although perhaps it will have some bearing." His eyes drift back to Eli's face: slide down his throat; assess his shoulders. Return. "I must account for myself." His voice is soft, quiet. Faintly—distant. Sad, perhaps. He opens his mouth as if to say something else, then closes it again.

 

Eli wants to reach for him. Wants suddenly, fiercely, to hold him, just as though they were other men entirely: as any other lovers might hold one another, after so long apart.

 

But Thrawn is Thrawn, and he is always so hard to touch.

 

Eli folds his arms across his chest.

 

"Selfishly," Thrawn says, "I find I would have liked to spend time with you first." 

 

You can, Eli thinks, but then his comm pings urgent, his first lieutenant with a systems report, and he is half-turning to receive it before he has processed the way Thrawn's shoulders tighten, the way his back goes straight.

 

"Hey," Eli says, as the space stretches out between them, the light on his comm still blinking, blinking. "I'll see you soon."

 

"Command suits you," Thrawn says, inclining his head, as though he means something else altogether.

 

+

 

The shipboard debrief, when they get around to it, is infuriating. Half of what Thrawn describes sounds like it comes from a children's adventure story and the other half raw horror: Governor Pryce's increasing reliance on torture; strikes against civilian populations; the Death Star project; the staggering incompetence of Central Command and the suicidal desperation of the rebels. He relates it all in a flat, disinterested tone, occasionally marking with some aside his own failure to manage a situation adequately and the estimated death tolls, rebel, Imperial and civilian, attendant on such a failure. Occasionally out of sheer frustration Eli hounds him on a point—had he not attempted to mitigate Pryce's enthusiasms? had he really ordered a star destroyer to fire indiscriminately into a residential zone?—and receives elucidations delivered in the same dispassionate tone: yes, he had attempted it, and failed; no, the targeting patterns had been controlled and aimed at unoccupied quarters, but the likelihood of civilian casualties was nevertheless reasonable. It's only made worse by the fact that everyone else at the table seems to receive these statements the same cool spirit in which they're offered; it's all very dry and very professional and very Chiss, and it makes Eli want to yell. They talk for 16 hours straight, and when they do break—for eight hours, a double watch—Eli has a strong suspicion it's for his benefit alone.

 

As the panel rises and files out he looks at Thrawn across the table and thinks what the hell happened, and thinks I'm sorry I wasn't there, and thinks, with an odd defiance, it's not my job to absolve you, but what comes out is: "You want to spar?"

 

Thrawn looks back at him, steady and level. A perfect blankness to his features. "Yes," he says, after a moment. "I would like that."

 

It's not as though they're actually obligated to fuck afterwards. They didn't always.

 

Just most of the time.

 

+

 

On the mats, just the two of them, it's easier.

 

It always has been: this is how it started, after all, in some anonymous fitness room, the two of them circling one another. Eli, cautious, wanting not to want: wanting not to notice the way Thrawn's shoulders had looked in the harsh dull light, the way his undershirt pulled across his broad chest. "Focus, Eli," Thrawn had said, sounding—not quite amused—and Eli had flushed, rushed the attack, wound up with his cheek pressed to the mat. "Again," Thrawn had said, still cool and level and faintly, faintly wry, letting him up, and again and again—pressed to the wall, pressed to the floor, knocked to his knees and held there, Thrawn's steady hand on his shoulder.

 

And then, finally, against all odds, an opening: a slight stiffness revealing itself in the way Thrawn rolls his shoulder, pauses, rolls it a second time. An old injury, perhaps, or perhaps merely an invitation for Eli's benefit, but he takes it—swings a kick, a sweep, lets Thrawn's momentum carry him forward as he aims his counter. Catches his wrist and locks it. Brings him down.

 

In the instant it had all worked miraculously well, as though the whole universe was on his side, and a little rush of glory had gone through him: but then he'd found himself with one knee on the mat and the other on Thrawn's sternum, and Thrawn's wrist still in his hand. Thrawn, still breathing evenly, looking up at him with bright, blank eyes, his lips slightly parted. Again, Eli had meant to say, but somehow he hadn't. At least he can't blush when he's already flushed from exertion.

 

"I yield," Thrawn had said, and then pulled Eli down against him.

 

And it had gone on like that, for—years. The long glance, the tilt of the head, that said I'll see you later. The fights, sometimes neat and precise, sometimes sloppy with emotion on Eli's part at least—always silent, save for the occasional again, and those final submissions: an even share between them, though if it were down to combat alone, of course the greater part would be Eli's. But he has learned: Thrawn likes to yield. Likes Eli's hands around his wrists, likes Eli's knee between his thighs, likes Eli inside him, Eli's fingers over his mouth as though to keep him quiet though he is always quiet anyway.  They don't talk about it, not really. Talking would necessitate Eli explaining that he wants more than he has been permitted: more than sex and something that looks almost like friendship, in the right light. Talking might lose him either of those things. Talking might end it.

 

They aren't talking now.

 

Requital's training rooms are small and high-ceilinged, the walls padded in the same smooth grey soft-touch poly as the floor. Overhead the lights don't buzz, and their glow is a dimmer blue-white, not dark but not bright either, like the hours after dawn. Across the mats Thrawn is waiting for him, still looking just exactly like himself, in plain black purser's-issue clothes, sleeveless shirt and loose trousers: the same as Eli's, though less worn. Barefoot, of course.

 

"Come," Eli says, in Cheunh, to start it.

 

They do not circle: the shape of the room would not allow it. A few steps this way, then that, testing one another's responses: then Thrawn finds his first angle, moves swiftly into it, his hand settling on the back of Eli's neck: Eli moves with him, rolls into the pull, slips his grasp; they switch positions. He ought to be exhausted, after sixteen hours of sitting, but he instead he feels strangely perfect, awake and alive. He moves lightly. Thrawn tracks him.

 

He makes a move himself, an oblique shot for the knee, and Thrawn redirects, sending him twisting into the corner: Eli recovers, resets. Resumes his opening stance.

 

"You have improved," Thrawn says, from his distance. He has washed his hair, Eli realizes: it is pushed back, still, but without anything to hold it it falls forward, now and again, into his eyes.

 

"Yeah," Eli says, because it's true.

 

Again.

 

They move through again, again—attacks slipped, dodged, redirected, Eli's neat rolls taking on a kind of rhythm of their own. Thrawn gives him no openings, no hints, but as the pace quickens even his level breathing takes on a ragged edge, and Eli thinks: soon enough. He has got good at this, this paced and hungry waiting.

 

When the moment comes he's ready: a little break in the pace, a slight inattention in Thrawn's face. Eli ducks, sweeps, twists into Thrawn's steady even advance, slides under his guard, close enough to feel the slight inhuman heat off him, to smell the slight salt-tint of his sweat: catches Thrawn by wrist and elbow and follows through: and then Thrawn is under him on the mats, face down, one arm wrenched up behind his back, held just at the edge of pain. His counterthrow will come quickly and Eli waits, plans for it, wondering if it will come from hip or shoulder; when it does it's both, and the activation of the thigh too, unexpected, ingenious: but he corrects himself to manage it, holds, waits for whatever it is that will eventually throw him.

 

Nothing comes.

 

Under him Thrawn breathes, barely winded.

 

"You...yield?" Eli says, half-perplexed, and then Thrawn, impossibly, says "No," the slightest annoyance in his voice—annoyance? Something—

 

He moves to throw Eli again, a different twist this time, and Eli again rides it through, keeps him down, his knee pressed to the back of Thrawn's well-muscled thigh, Thrawn's wrist still twisted in his hand, the tendon a plucked string against his palm. Another pause. Nothing.

 

"Ah," Eli says, falling still, understanding at last. Again, he ought to say, and spring back up, but he. Doesn't.

 

He fits against Thrawn's back as he always has, but he is stronger, now, and better at the game, and Thrawn—Thrawn cannot throw him.

 

Warmth settles somewhere in his gut, pooling like honey.

 

At the back of Thrawn's neck the hair is a bit too long and the soft ends of it curling, just slightly. Below, between his shoulders, there is a place where his spine is close to the surface and the bone presses out against the skin: there is a word for this place, in Cheunh. In Basic it is nameless.

 

Eli presses his mouth there, light as breathing, barely a kiss at all.

 

The noise Thrawn makes is just at the edge of sound, somewhere deep in his throat: not a growl but a kind of rumbling whine, felt as much as heard, wild and unfamiliar. Under Eli his hips move, barely, against the mat; his thigh slides against Eli's and Eli is aware of the edges between them, suddenly, aware of the place where Thrawn's shirt has pushed up and the skin of his back is pressed to the skin of Eli's belly. You like that, Eli thinks, and smiles.

 

It would be possible to have him here: to take him apart, piece by piece, until he shudders and covers his face with his hand—a last resort, an admission in itself. It wouldn't even be difficult, not now. But he wants—he wants time. Hours and hours and years and years. He wants to do things properly. I've got you, that's what he wants to say: isn't sure what it means, even. He swallows it instead. Lets go.

 

Releases Thrawn's wrist and pushes off Thrawn's shoulders to roll over and lie beside him on the mat, face up, shoulder to shoulder. Eye to eye, though Thrawn's are shut.

 

There are things happening outside, Eli thinks: there are shifts changing, drills being run, people sleeping and eating and playing at dice. On the bridge there is a small girl to whom fate is a language, who knows the stars like sisters, on whom their lives are balanced. Out there somewhere governments are falling, fleets are mustering, the grand movements of history are arranging themselves like the passages of a piece of music: people are talking about freedom and tyranny and how things ought to be. People are being bought and sold and loved and killed for no reason at all.

 

In here Thrawn is lying beside him, his eyes closed, breathing through his nose, a little rough. His hand, the one not still resting at the small of his back where Eli had dropped it, is between them on the mat, softly curled on nothing, the bones visible, gathered at the wrist. Not fragile in the slightest.

 

"I yield," Eli says.

 

Thrawn opens his eyes.

 

"If you want," Eli says. "I don't really care."

 

Thrawn blinks at him, slowly. The very faintest motion at the corner of his mouth—concern, perhaps, that little pull of muscle, there and then smoothed away.

 

"I mean," Eli says, feeling—hollow, light—"I don't really care how this goes. I just want you." He brings his hand up, almost absent-minded, to touch the side of Thrawn's hand with his knuckle.

 

Thrawn watches, all curiosity, and then he lifts his head a little—swallows—opens his mouth—

 

"You don't have to say anything," Eli says, because Eli has known him for—years. Decades, nearly. Knows he is brilliant and cunning and a force of nature, a scalpel cutting its way through the galaxy, and also that he is after all just a man who would rather not talk about himself.

 

Thrawn nods, and that's all Eli needs.

 

+

 

They return to Eli's temporary quarters in near-perfect silence. Eli steers them, a little, around corners, in the same careful way he knows Thrawn once steered him: two years, this has been his command, and he knows these halls like the back of his hand. Knows where the patrols will be and when; knows the routes that receive less scrutiny. Not that his crew are likely to care about his company, but he's half hard in his trousers, and he'd rather not get waylaid by some engineer with an unsigned requisition slip.

 

They manage, somehow, not to get distracted on the way.

 

"It's not the penthouse," Eli says, when the door slides open at his touch and Thrawn stops as if something has stopped him, looking into the little dim grey space: familiarity, Eli thinks, or foreignness. One or the other. Both, maybe. "Come on," Eli says. "At least I'm not sharing."

 

He slips past Thrawn into the narrow room, six paces long by two: the bunk recessed into the wall barely above deck-level, below a bank of storage lockers. They have had more elegant quarters, but Requital is a combat frigate, not some deep-space bastion, and with the admiral aboard space is tight: Eli had been happy to cede his cabin at the time, though he slightly regrets it now. Something to be said for nostalgia, maybe, at least: they've fucked worse places, too.

 

Thrawn is still standing with his back to the door as it slides shut behind him, as though he might turn and go, and for a moment Eli isn't certain he won't: with his shoulders bare, with his hair loose from its slicked Imperial hold and tucked behind his ears, he looks half like a stranger, some unknown quantity, stripped of his calculations. And yet: that tense cautious precision, that prideful lift of his jaw that still wires something hot through Eli's veins: and the way he tilts his head at Eli as if waiting for him to understand.

 

Eli drags his eyes away, after a moment. Thrawn will stay or he won't; Eli will hardly keep him if he wants to go. For his own part he sits on the edge of the bunk to take off his boots. Thinks about the space between them, and the quiet.

 

"I think I'd like to talk, this time," he says, as he works at a buckle. "If you don't mind." He looks up at Thrawn: rests his elbows on his knees. "I don't think we talked enough, before."

 

"Eli," Thrawn says, in that odd soft way—

 

"Come here," Eli says, and Thrawn's mouth shuts. He comes.

 

And when he stops between Eli's knees Eli stands, easily, so that they're face to face—Thrawn between him and the light, now, and only the faint glow of his eyes to sketch out his strange intent face—and then he puts a hand on the back of Thrawn's neck and pulls him down to kiss him on the mouth.

 

It isn't as though they haven't kissed: it's just those seven years. Seven years, Eli has learned, will teach you certain things about yourself.

 

Thrawn's mouth is hot—always shockingly hot, against the coolness of his skin—and his tongue is slightly rasped and when his breath hitches Eli's hitches to match, just like it always has. Their teeth click a little, painlessly, and Eli pulls back—a split second to draw breath—and then he moves to kiss at the corner of Thrawn's mouth, the swell of his lower lip which has started to flush plum-dark with attention. Thrawn has brought his arm up to support himself against the lockers overhead, his hand planted above Eli's shoulder, and Eli turns his head to kiss that, too, the hollow of his elbow, the little bruise where the blood  left him.

 

"Eli," Thrawn says again, and his eyes are flat and red and give everything, everything away. Eli brings his fingers up to touch Thrawn's cheekbone—the barest discolouration there, some childhood scar—and to push the soft hair back behind his ear. "Will you have me," Thrawn says in Cheunh—formulaically, the way it's always said. It sounds lovely in his mouth, soft and lilting, lovelier than Eli had imagined it would.

 

He flushes, despite himself.

 

"Yeah," Eli says. "Yeah."

 

Something gives, then, between them, like river ice breaking, and then it's just exactly as it always was: Thrawn's fingers slipping into Eli's hair to tug, a little, at the length of it; Eli's fingers on the hem of Thrawn's shirt and then under, skimming up, over his cool firm skin—gripping his hip forcefully, not enough to bruise Chiss flesh but enough to make Thrawn draw breath, sharp—enough so that he feels it. He shifts his stance and then they are closer than kissing, Thrawn's nose buried in Eli's hair, Eli's forehead tipping against his collarbone, his arms around Thrawn's waist. He does not recall Thrawn holding him like this, not once: the thought of it aches, somehow. Wasted time. He presses his mouth to the cloth of Thrawn's shirt, feels it slide over skin.

 

"How do you want it," Eli says, and Thrawn says nothing—presses closer—the faintest shiver though him, like something half-imagined. His hand is running down Eli's spine to his waist, and then back up under his shirt to settle at the small of his back, open. He pulls Eli against him, sudden, firm, and Eli's hips rock sharply, involuntarily, against his thigh. Thrawn makes a small noise of approval and Eli bites his own tongue—can't help snorting at himself—and there's Thrawn's little inquisitive stillness, as he tries to parse it out—

 

"No," Eli says, warm, "Nothing, it's just—you're so—"

 

Stars, he's—Eli has always been hot for him, since the first moment they spoke, since the smooth grace of his competence first revealed itself: through irritation and tolerance and longing and satiation and love Eli has wanted him, at every turn and in every way, quite apart from caring. Both together tie a sweet intoxicating knot in his chest and it's always, always so good, and it's been so long—

 

"You're you," Eli says, still amused at his own intensity of feeling, and Thrawn responds with a quiet amused hum of his own. Who else, Eli can imagine him asking, wry.

 

He can't wait any longer.

 

He tugs at the knotted drawstring of Thrawn's trousers and slips a hand downwards from his hip, seeking heat of his slit: he is half out, half hard, already, and Eli curls his fingers gently in to take him in hand, to tug him out the rest of the way, stroking gently at the edges of the slit with his knuckles—Thrawn bites off some unformed sound and shifts his stance wider, and Eli can feel the tremor in the muscle of his thigh against his own cock—thrusts against it again, almost beyond sense, and Thrawn thrusts back, and then his cock is fully out, long and hard in Eli's hand.

 

"Ah," Eli says, pleased with himself—pleased with himself for keeping his feet. "There you are." He strokes, gently, and feels Thrawn jerk in his hand. When Eli glances up his eyes are slitted, nearly shut, only the slightest dim glint off his lashes to show he is watching at all. He has brought his hand back up to the wall to support himself, and he is breathing with careful, practised evenness, and Eli—loves him very much. Wants him almost indescribably.

 

He could kneel. Have Thrawn in his mouth, the weight of him on Eli's tongue, the hot, salty taste of him, the way he would shudder when Eli's mouth slipped from cock to slit and then inside—still after so long some part of him shocked by it, this not-done thing Eli had never known not to do—

 

"Eli," Thrawn says, against all odds, barely shaken. "Please." If he means to say more he loses it: Eli watches his throat work. From Thrawn, with Eli's hand on his cock, it is a whole soliloquy.

 

"Okay," Eli says, gently. "On the bed, then." Catches his fingers in Thrawn's shirt: "And this, off," he says, as he turns to pull his own shirt over his head.

 

When he turns back Thrawn is on his back, pushed up on his elbows, watching: Eli looks back, drags his eyes along the lean, elegant lines of him, down to the arch of his cock. He has removed his trousers too and his thighs are spread, slightly, as if by accident: an invitation if there ever was one. Eli grins a little, pushing his own trousers off and stepping out of them, and climbs over Thrawn's calf to kneel between his legs.

 

Thrawn's hand comes up, somewhat haltingly, to rest on Eli's shoulder, his thumb in the against Eli's neck. He swears, faintly, in Cheunh, and then swallows.

 

"Tell me," Eli says, taking Thrawn's wrist in his hand. The other he lets settle on Thrawn's knee: strokes it idly up his thigh and back down, the flat of his nails dragging slightly against skin.

 

Thrawn looks at him, that perfect unreadable look, and Eli thinks for a moment that he won't, that he can't—but then he blinks, swallows again. "You have more freckles than I remember," Thrawn says, quietly, in Basic. And then quieter: "Like stars."

 

Another day Eli might tease him for that, but now he just leans forward to kiss him again: settles his weight against Thrawn's belly, his hips against hips, cock against cock, trapped between them. Thrawn's hand comes up to Eli's upper arm and holds there, squeezes, and Eli realizes with pleasure that he is testing the strength of the muscle: is enjoying it. "You like that, huh," he says, smugly, and then catches Thrawn's lip between his teeth:  tugs: lets go.

 

"Yes,"  Thrawn says, steady. Eli rolls his hips, smooth, his cock dragging against Thrawn's.

 

"I want to fuck you," Eli says, more evenly than he feels.

 

"Yes," Thrawn says again, less steady.

 

"How," Eli says, rolling his hips again. There are choices. "Like this?" He could: press himself into the slit at the base of Thrawn's cock and rock, gently, Thrawn's cock in his hand. This, he has learned, is mildly scandalous: but he's pretty sure it makes Thrawn cross-eyed, so that shows what the Chiss know. It would be a slower, smoother pleasure, all flaring nerves and bitten lips—

 

"No," Thrawn says. His eyes are shut again, and his hand is on Eli's hip, holding him flush.

 

It's enough.

 

"Right," Eli says. He leans in for a short, close-mouthed kiss before he tips himself sideways off the bunk, leaning from the waist to press the latch on the drawer below and pop it open: he has lube, somewhere. Thrawn's hand settles warm on his back—to stop him falling, maybe. A warmth in its own right.

 

His fingers find the cold metal of the tube and he rolls back up, settling back on his knees. Pauses: "I'm clean," he says. "But if you want..." There are prophylactics in the drawer, too, though it's been years and ships since he needed one or thought he might.

 

Thrawn swallows: "Unnecessary," he says, his eyes on Eli's fingers as he uncaps the tube, squeezes a bit of clear gel into his palm. Eli leans forward to kiss him again just because, and his mouth is tender, yielding: when Eli tries to pull back Thrawn follows him, chasing the kiss, and then falls back against the pillow. He looks so thoroughly kissed, for all that he still looks perfectly himself, that Eli smiles a little, and Thrawn tilts his head to the side, curious. "There has been no one else," he says, just—easily, as though it costs him nothing.

 

Eli pauses. Something rushes through him, coils: something fierce and inexplicable, not quite possessive, not quite proud. Something a little guilty, too. "That wasn't the deal," Eli says: resumes rubbing his hands together to warm the lube. Just a statement of fact: nothing raw to it at all.

 

"No," Thrawn says. He rearranges himself slightly, against the pillow, then: "Ah," he says, smoothly, as though discovering. "I did not mean to suggest any obligation," he says, sounding—equivocal. "You are a young man." Not so young, Eli thinks, but doesn't say.

 

"Yeah, well," Eli says. "It's been a few years for me too." Thrawn's brows pinch at that, as though he isn't sure what to make of it: no way to say nothing is as good as you are, so Eli  doesn't bother. "Ready," he says instead, and places his dry hand on Thrawn's knee.

 

Working Thrawn open has always been a pleasure, especially like this when he can see it, the tension in brow and throat and jaw, the little shudders that give way to one another. He is tighter, certainly, than Eli can remember him being, but that is a pleasure too: the intense responsiveness of him, the way his foot flexes against Eli's side, the way he brings his hand to his mouth and then lowers it again as if he isn't sure what he'd meant to do with it. It is all strange and all familiar: he feels somehow as if they had last been together a week ago, or a day, as if no time at all had passed: and yet he knows that seven years ago Thrawn would not have held his gaze so long before he turned his face away, twisting. Seven years ago Eli would have blushed and stammered and missed far too much.

 

Thrawn takes two fingers, and then three, and then with a final crook of them Eli pulls out: presses a last kiss to the side of Thrawn's knee, raised beside him on the bed. Moves himself into position: settles.

 

"All right," he says, one last time, and Thrawn raises his head to look him in the eye: nods, once.

 

Eli slides home.

 

There's no easy way to say what it's like. It's like fucking someone: the heat, the pressure, the stupid animal part of his brain going yes yes yes more, making his mouth water. And then because it's Thrawn it's everything else, too, the clench of his heart like a fist, the perfect ease of being settled here again where he should be, the intense arcing joy of giving pleasure to this man who is—whatever Thrawn is, to him. His match, they'd say in Cheunh, meaning: one of a set.

 

He rolls his hips and Thrawn pushes back against him without even trying to suppress it. Eli bends to press a firm kiss to his firm pectoral: nips, a little, gently, at his collarbone. Finds the angle. Hears the faint hiss of breath above.

 

"I'm not going to last long," Eli says.

 

He doesn't: a few minutes, perhaps, of long sliding strokes, of Thrawn hard against his stomach, though he has lost all sense of time in the way Thrawn feels under him, in the way his eyes slide slowly shut and then open again, his lips slightly parted. There is a moment among the others when his head tips and turns against the pillow to show the lovely column of his throat, and a moment when he shifts to press his heel tight against the back of Eli's thigh, forcing him deep: and then there is a moment when he says faster, his voice as dry and raw as if he had said nothing in years, and Eli, delighted, obliges: kisses Thrawn messily on the mouth and then increases his pace. Someday, he thinks, in a vague drifting way, you're going to tell me what you want. Feels Thrawn clench, suddenly, around him, and stiffen:  and then comes as Thrawn is coming, Eli's face pressed to the side of his throat, and fades into static.

 

+

 

He comes back to himself with Thrawn's hand stroking slowly down his shoulder blade and the twitch of Thrawn's spent cock between them as it tries to retract itself.

 

"Shit," Eli says, and pulls out, as smoothly as he can: rolls sideways towards the wall. "Sorry."

 

Thrawn says nothing, but then Eli hadn't thought he would.

 

Eli looks at him, his face in profile, side-lit by the dim ceiling panel: his eyes are open, fixed on the low ceiling of the bunk. He is, Eli thinks, really exceptionally beautiful, in a way that Eli will probably never be able to express to him.

 

"A moment," Thrawn says, evenly. "And then I'll go."

 

They are still touching, in a few places: at the knee, at the wrist. Just easily. Eli has the urge to take hold of him, to sling an arm over his chest and fall asleep: suppresses it.

 

"If you want," he says instead. "You don't have to."

 

Thrawn turns his eyes to Eli's face. "I will be missed," he says. For a moment Eli isn't sure if it's an excuse or a grievance or both: but then Thrawn's hand edges towards him, just slightly, and he knows.

 

He reaches up to slide the interface panel above his pillow open one-handed, without looking: presses the comm switch. "Bridge," he says. "This is Captain Eli'van'to. The passenger is with me. Acknowledge." There is a brief pause, and then "Acknowledged," crisply returned.

 

He slides the panel shut again, firmly.

 

"'The passenger,'" Thrawn says, faintly wry. Then he turns, slightly: rolls onto his side so that they are facing one another. For once, the bunk is long enough for him: he pulls his knees up anyway, to press against Eli's bare thigh. "It was different," he says, thoughtfully. "This time."

 

"Well, yeah," Eli says. Seven years, after all: and yet he knows that's not what Thrawn means, either. He swallows, thinking: too much, just to say it? Settles a hand on Thrawn's hip, instead, just casually, as if he hasn't thought about it. "You were my CO, back then." Odd, now, not to think sir, but he finds he doesn't mind. They serve each other, now: speak a language of their own. No charts, no maps, for what lies ahead.

 

Love love love goes pounding through his veins.

 

"And now you're fraternizing," says Thrawn. He brings own his hand up, slowly: touches his knuckle to the dip of Eli's clavicle. Drifts, a little, to touch a freckle instead, and then the next, as though remembering.

 

"I'm not fraternizing," Eli says. "As far as I know, you're a civilian." It's a little absurd, as a thought, and he can't quite stop himself from grinning.

 

"Ha," says Thrawn, a thoroughly human affectation, flat and implausible in his voice.

 

It will be too cool in the room, soon, for bare skin: Eli ought to pull the blanket up. He ought to go and get a cloth and clean Thrawn's drying come off his belly. Instead he lies there and looks Thrawn in the eye: lets all the the rest of it, the scars and the sorrows and the whole blasted galaxy with its wars and treaties and betrayals, slide away. Thinks, somewhere deep, that they are in alignment. Matched.

 

Thrawn brings his hand up again, this time to touch Eli's cheek. Another freckle, maybe.

 

"You used to blush," Thrawn says, sounding: something. Longing, maybe. Interested, in that way he is when some problem takes the whole of his attention.

 

"Yeah, well," says Eli, leaning to kiss him. "Embarrass me."

 

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