The Senator fetched three chilled glasses from a unit attached to the wall, filling each one with amber-colored wine. In an obviously deliberate breach of protocol, he handed the first glass to Faro, who flicked her eyes at Thrawn before accepting it. Across the room, looking like he was barely paying attention, Thrawn inclined his head in the slightest nod, and Faro took the glass without further hesitation.
Her fingers brushed the Senator’s, which were less like fingers and more like a loose bundle of rings and over-stuffed sausages. Faro was unspeakably glad to be wearing her dress-uniform gloves. She took a polite sip from the glass as the Senator crossed the room and offered the second glass to Thrawn.
Glancing away from a painting on the wall, Thrawn took in the glass of wine and said, quite seriously, “No, thank you, Senator.”
The Senator blinked. He kept his hand extended, the glass closer to Thrawn’s body than it was to his. “I insist,” he said.
Turning fully away from the painting, Thrawn said, “It’s inadvisable. I have an unfortunate tendency to over-indulge.”
Eyebrows raised, Faro buried her nose in the glass and looked away. She’d never seen Thrawn drink anything alcoholic the whole time they’d been stationed together.
She looked back in time to see the Senator’s baffled expression dissolve into comprehension and, subsequently, a smile. “You’re joking,” he informed Thrawn.
“Not at all,” Thrawn disagreed.
“Please.” The Senator jovially forced the glass into Thrawn’s unwilling hand; he had to peel Thrawn’s fingers apart and rearrange them around the glass to do so, but didn’t seem to mind. “Your self-control is legendary around these parts, Admiral. If you’re worried about drinking on duty, you’re more than welcome to change out of that—” He grabbed the hem of Thrawn’s tunic lightly, flicking it upward and away from Thrawn’s thighs. “—and into something more comfortable.”
Faro’s lips twitched. Normally, it was Vanto’s job to accompany Thrawn to Coruscant, but he’d put in for leave long before this particular summons came through. He’d told her before he left that the only way to break up the monotony — for him, at least — was to count the number of times high-society types flirted with Thrawn and compare it with the number of times they threatened him in thinly-veiled ways.
This was the third time he’d been flirted with tonight. Faro waited to see if he’d noticed.
“My species is similar to humans in many ways,” said Thrawn blandly. “Our levels of aldehyde hydrogenase are, however, markedly lower than yours on average. Alcohol affects us quickly and, in many cases, more severely than it would a typical human.”
So no, he hadn’t noticed. The Senator just smiled and nodded, either not understanding a word of what Thrawn said or else simply disbelieving it. He drew away and turned toward Faro at the exact moment that Thrawn tried to hand the glass of wine back to him.
“Everything to your taste, Commodore?” the Senator asked. Behind his back, Thrawn stared down at the wine for a moment, his face blank.
“Of course, sir,” said Faro. She watched as Thrawn gave a minute shrug and took a drink. “It’s an excellent vintage.”
“It’s Alderaanian,” the Senator told her.
“Yes, I could tell.”
“Ah,” said the Senator approvingly — well, patronizingly, if Faro were being honest. “A connoisseur!”
It didn’t exactly take a connoisseur to recognize Alderaanian wine, but Faro accepted the label with a silent nod. Behind the Senator, Thrawn had turned back to the painting — a garish affair depicting a battle from the Clone Wars, but done up in a rather ineffective homage to the classical Coruscanti paintings of centuries past.
Damn, Faro thought, he’s rubbing off on me.
“Sit, please,” the Senator said, gesturing vaguely toward a set of four armchairs clustered around a hovering firepit full of artificial flames. Faro glanced at Thrawn and only acquiesced when he looked over his shoulder at the chairs — just from working with him on the bridge, Faro knew this meant that he’d heard the request and would be over to join them soon enough.
She lowered herself into one of the chairs, deliberately choosing the one farthest from the chair the Senator was currently standing in front of. He noted her decision halfway through sitting and hesitated for just a second, almost unbalancing himself, before his eyes flicked toward Thrawn. Perhaps realizing that the Grand Admiral would now be forced to sit next to him, the Senator decided not to change his seat.
Belatedly, Faro grimaced. She had no desire to sit next to the Senator — not at all — but since he had blatantly flirted with Thrawn and not with her, it would have been best if she’d placed herself between them as much as she could. She had a feeling Thrawn wouldn’t appreciate the Senator’s advances, if he ever happened to notice them.
As if on cue, Thrawn turned from the painting and took a silent step toward the circle of chairs. At the same time, not glancing back, the Senator said, “Come, Thrawn — I can call you Thrawn, yes? Join us!”
Thrawn hesitated mid-step, eyes narrowing. After an almost imperceptible moment of internal debate, he forced himself to approach the circle and took one of the chairs set equidistant between the Senator and Faro.
Immediately — at the exact moment that Thrawn’s uniform brushed against the seat — the Senator reached out and pulled Thrawn’s chair closer to him. The wooden claws at the end of the chair’s legs squealed terribly against the floor; Thrawn stopped his wine from spilling and managed, quite admirably, not to glare.
“About this donation—” Faro started.
“Drink up,” the Senator reminded Thrawn. “Please. You wouldn’t want to upset your host.”
A threat! Faro thought, mentally marking it down. This was the seventh time he’d been subjected to a threat tonight, and Faro had a feeling Thrawn was better at noticing the threats than he was at noticing the come-ons. He raised the glass to his lips obediently and took a tiny sip.
“You like it?” the Senator asked, his eyes glued to Thrawn’s face.
“It’s sweet,” said Thrawn noncommittally.
“It’s a very tart wine, in fact,” the Senator said.
It absolutely wasn’t. It was about as tart as the sugary peach-flavored stuff Faro’s little sister still drank because she couldn’t handle proper wine — or, even better, a good, dark ale. Faro swirled the wine around a little, watching it stain the walls of the glass, before she took another drink.
“About this donation,” Faro said again. This time, the Senator allowed himself to be prompted.
“Yes, yes,” he said, waving his hand like a king humbly accepting praise from the peasants. “No trouble at all, I assure you. The military has always had a special place in my heart; I had multiple cousins fight in the Clone Wars, you know.”
Faro gave him a tight smile and tried to figure out a polite way to ask him what he wanted in return. “To finance the TIE Defender program, even in part,” she said, “is an outstandingly generous gift, sir. Most Senators refuse to involve themselves in the military at all; they see it as a risky move, politically. Too many civilians view even a little bit of funding as war-mongering.”
“Drink up,” said the Senator to Thrawn with a sharp movement of his wrist. Faro couldn’t be sure he’d heard a word of what she said. She made eye contact with Thrawn as he took a drink; the glass was still against his lips when the Senator leaned toward him and put one hand on Thrawn’s forearm and the other hand on the bottom of the glass, tipping more wine down Thrawn’s throat.
It was a wonder he didn’t choke.
If the Senator left his hand on the bottom of the glass a moment longer, Faro felt sure that either she or Thrawn would have been morally obligated to feed him to a rancor. Luckily, he seemed to have an innate sense of how far to push things, and pulled away just as Faro resolved to intervene. She settled back in her seat, doing her best not to glare; Thrawn, for once, hid his feelings with significantly less grace than usual. He set his glass — now nearly empty — down on the floor and put a hand over his mouth under pretence of wiping the wine stains from his lips; it looked like he was physically restraining himself from throttling the Senator.
“Good, isn’t it?” said the Senator with what seemed to Faro like gleeful malevolence.
“What are your conditions for the donation?” Thrawn asked, his voice flat. Faro shot a sharp look at him, but couldn’t bring herself to even think a reprimand; in truth, after watching the Senator force wine down Thrawn’s throat, she didn’t really feel like being polite anymore.
“My conditions?” the Senator asked, blinking innocently. He cut his eyes Faro’s way, silently commanding her to leave.
“Your conditions,” Faro repeated firmly. Like hell she was leaving.
The Senator looked at her. He looked at Thrawn. His lips were parted, his eyes glazed; Faro could see his mind overheating as he tried to think of a subtle way to proposition Thrawn in front of her.
The silence went on too long, and before the Senator could form the right words, Thrawn was standing and Faro was following his lead.
“No conditions, then,” said Thrawn, brushing the wrinkles out of his tunic, with special attention paid to the spot on his forearm where the Senator had touched him. “That is quite generous of you, Senator. The Empire will remember this, I’m sure.”
They left the room at a sedate pace, each of them careful not to look hurried. In the hall, with the door shut behind them and the noise of an Ascension Week party trickling their way from the ballroom, they looked at each other at last. Faro sighed; Thrawn’s shoulders shifted in what might have been a sigh of his own.
In silent agreement, they got away from the Senator’s office as quickly as possible. The sound of the party enveloped them within seconds, and soon enough they were standing on the edge of a brightly-lit crowd full of elegantly-dressed men and women — almost all of them human, almost all of them famous in some way, shape, or form.
It was at this point, Faro knew, that Thrawn’s already erect posture would somehow become even more tense than usual; when she looked at him, she knew she would see an uncharacteristic tightness to his jaw and a flinty cast to his eye, like he was bracing himself for something unspeakably unpleasant: social interaction.
She sneaked a glance at him, ready to offer him her sympathy and suggest they go back to the hotel.
He was completely relaxed.
It wasn’t any of the types of Thrawn-brand relaxation she’d seen before — it wasn’t the drowsy meditation he slipped into over art, nor was it his typical mid-battle confidence. What she saw now was Thrawn leaning against the wall with his head tipped back, his eyes hooded, a perfectly neutral expression on his face.
“Sir?” asked Faro, managing to keep some of the incredulity out of her voice. Thrawn glanced her way almost lazily, and now that he was looking at her, she noticed the slight flush on his cheeks. “Are you drunk?” she whispered.
“Why?” Thrawn whispered back, a faint smile playing at the corners of his lips. “Because I’m not hiding from the crowd?”
Faro faltered for a moment, unsure what to say. Thrawn didn’t sound drunk; he wasn’t slurring his words in the slightest, and every word was still crisp and cultured. But it was undeniable that he was drunk — first of all, because he was joking around with her. Second of all, because that smile had a decidedly teasing quality to it that Faro definitely didn’t like.
Definitely. Not at all.
“Do you want to go back to the hotel?” Faro asked. Thrawn turned his eyes back to the crowd, watching the dancers whirl around each other. A woman in an iridescent gown twirled past, and for a moment, Thrawn looked almost dazed.
“I’m fine,” he said, and he certainly sounded fine.
“You are drunk, though,” Faro said. “Aren’t you?”
He gave her the most confusing smile Faro had ever seen. It was dazzling — white teeth seeming almost to sparkle against Thrawn’s blue skin — and mischievous, and charming, and compelling, and so utterly unlike Thrawn that for a moment she was sure she’d hallucinated it. There must have been something in that wine, she thought, bewildered. The Senator probably drugged us both.
Dimly, she heard Thrawn say, “Yes, I’m drunk,” in the exact same tone he’d used a thousand times to say, “Commodore, you have the bridge.”
“You weren’t lying, then, about the aldehyde hydrogenase?” Faro asked. Thrawn had already turned his attention back to the crowd, but at the words aldehyde hydrogenase, he glanced at Faro again, making an impressed face.
“Most people wouldn’t remember that,” he pointed out. “But then again, I’ve seen your service record — you took a remarkable amount of hard sciences at the Academy. As many as they would allow, I suspect.”
He suspected right. Faro folded her hands behind her back and averted her gaze, hyper-conscious of the blood inexplicably rushing to her face.
“You’re blushing,” Thrawn commented. “Don’t worry — so am I.”
She glanced at him, surprised, and he indicated his wine-flushed cheeks. She’d been counting on Thrawn not to be so wildly impolite as to point out her blushing — but Thrawn was impolite even when he wasn’t drunk. There would be no predicting him now.
“You’re an extrovert when you’re drunk,” Faro observed.
“Oh, yes,” said Thrawn readily. “I used to drink before meetings when I was a young man. It was the only way I could make it through. Now, of course, I have a much more elegant solution — I simply don’t go to meetings.”
Faro couldn’t quite manage to stifle a laugh; it came out as a choking noise, and when she got herself under control, she found Thrawn watching her, an amused glint in his eye.
“It’s alright to laugh,” he told her softly. “You were meant to. It was a joke.”
Faro smiled by reflex — then, once again, the whole situation seemed too absurd to be real and the smile died on her lips. Thrawn turned his gaze back to the crowd again, apparently unoffended by the frown taking over her face.
“Would you like to dance?” he asked.
Faro bit her lip. “You really think that’s a good idea, sir?”
He glanced at her sideways. “You don’t think I can dance?” he asked.
That god-awful smile was playing around his lips again. Faro flushed and looked away.
“I’m sure you can, sir,” she said. “Maybe I’m the one who can’t dance.”
She whipped her head around to stare at him and found him already staring back at her. He acknowledged her confusion with a smile and a shrug.
“Commander Vanto taught me that,” he admitted. “It’s vulgar, I know. I’m sorry.”
Faro’s lips twitched. Anyone looking at Thrawn — anyone who didn’t know him, to be precise — would think he was sober. Only someone who’d worked with him, who knew him as well as Faro, would see the relaxed posture and open smile as cause for alarm.
He raised an eyebrow at her.
“No dancing,” Faro said.
He accepted that with a gracious nod and a facial shrug. Smiling despite herself, Faro took his arm.
“Let’s get you back to the hotel,” she said.
Outside the Celebration Hall, it was bitterly cold. Coruscant was in the middle of its harshest winter in years, with snowflakes swirling wildly in front of the city lights and icicles hanging from the undersides of parked speeders. While Faro hunched in on herself, burrowing into her coat for protection against the night air, Thrawn seemed to straighten up and take a deep breath, welcoming the cold in as much as Faro was trying to keep it out.
At least, he welcomed it for a little while. Then, still looking pleased with the low temperatures, he unfolded a slim white scarf from his coat pocket and wrapped it around his neck.
“Perhaps we should look into a cab,” he said reluctantly.
So he’d been planning to walk back to the hotel? Faro eyed Thrawn judgmentally for a moment, but decided not to comment. She stepped up to the curb instead, pressing a universal cab-call installed on the nearest street shield. But her fingers slid right off of it, leaving her grasping at nothing; the button was encased in a scrim of ice and refused to budge.
“Hm,” said Thrawn. He leaned past her, his arm brushing against hers as he laid his own hand against the button. He simply held it there for a long moment, allowing his body heat to melt the ice — and Faro wasn’t at all surprised that it worked. She could feel the heat radiating from him even through both their coats.
After a few minutes, Thrawn pulled his hand away, inspecting the now-thawed button. He pressed it primly, watching as it lit up in response.
“Your cab,” said a pleasant, automated voice, “is three minutes away.”
“Thank you,” said Thrawn, who apparently didn’t know there was no one on the other line. Faro bit the inside of her cheek to hide a smile. They walked back to the waiting area, standing side by side as speeders of all shapes and sizes zoomed by overhead. Faro watched them go by, picking out the occasional high-demand or vintage model that she remembered from the holo-zines she’d loved as a teen.
“What is the etiquette for riding in a cab?” Thrawn asked her.
“You’ve never ridden in one before?” Faro said, eyebrows raised.
Ah. At least that explained why he’d thanked the recording.
“It’ll pull down to the curb here,” Faro told him, “and we’ll get in the back seat — you never sit in the front seat, it’s considered rude. We’ll put up the barrier so the driver doesn’t try to make small talk.”
Thrawn frowned, but he didn’t protest. Likely, he saw it as a wasted chance for information-gathering, but also recognized he wasn’t in a state to do much surveillance.
“I do not mind Coruscant,” he said.
Faro said nothing. After a moment, she realized she was waiting for Thrawn to somehow tie this statement into his lack of cab experience — but simultaneously she remembered how drunk he was and figured it was just a non sequitur.
“Did someone tell you that you should mind it, sir?” Faro asked, glancing sideways at him. “Most people like Coruscant. It’s the capital for a reason, sir.”
“Yes,” Thrawn acknowledged, his eyes far away. “But I did not mean to imply I like Coruscant. Only that I do not find it entirely disagreeable; in winter, it’s especially extraordinary.”
He was watching the snow fall, Faro realized, his gaze tracking individual flakes and flurries as they spiraled past the lights.
“So what you’re saying, sir,” said Faro, “is that you don’t like Coruscant, but you do like winter.”
Thrawn’s face creased for a moment. “Yes,” he said gravely. “I believe that’s accurate.”
Before Faro could question his abrupt change in tone, their cab arrived, descending rapidly from the channel overhead. Thrawn allowed her to enter first, then slid into the seat next to her, carefully folding his scarf over his arm so it wouldn’t catch in the door. Next to him, Faro glanced at the driver, relieved to see it was just a droid, and hit the button for a barrier. A plastisteel shield slid into place, blocking the droid from hearing anything she and Thrawn had to say.
Thrawn, meanwhile, had quickly sussed out the datapad installed in the seat before him, inputting their hotel’s address via the keyboard. He sat back when he was done, crossing his legs with a finicky sort of grace she’d never seen in him when he was sober.
“Your manners are more delicate when you’re drunk, sir,” she noted with some amusement.
He cast her a dry sidelong glance. “Better than being sloppy, I suppose.”
Faro snorted, suddenly cast back to an incident earlier that night — at least an hour before that dreadful Senator pulled them aside. They’d had a run-in with General Ruis Neers of the ground army, who’d been fairly drunk himself at the time and had looked down his nose at Thrawn with the most obvious sneer on his face.
Now, now, he’d said with a meaningful eyebrow-raise in Faro’s direction. We don’t want to see you getting sloppy.
She felt her cheeks heating up at the memory and wondered with a sense of unease if Thrawn had used that word again deliberately, as a purposeful call-back to General Neers. And if he had, why? Did he simply find the verbiage amusing, or was there some deeper meaning Faro was supposed to catch? Did he even realize what Neers had meant?
She sneaked a quick glance at Thrawn, her eyes catching on the column of his throat, the way his blue skin stood out so starkly against the snow-white color of his uniform. He loosened the scarf as she watched, tugging it away from him so that it hung loosely around his shoulders and staring distractedly out the window at the passing city lights of Coruscant.
Was he flirting with her? Did she want him to flirt with her? Was there anything she could do about it if he was? Imperial regulations about fraternization were fairly lax when it came to officers, especially high-ranking officers like her — but Thrawn was an alien, and the rules were always different for him. And in addition, he was drunk (by his own admission), though it seemed almost condescending to suggest that he of all people wasn’t capable of consenting after a single glass of wine. She felt certain that statement wouldn’t go over well.
If she ever said it. Which she wouldn’t.
Because this was Thrawn. He wasn’t flirting with her. Absolutely not.
She sneaked another glance his way. This time, he turned his head and met her gaze, cocking an eyebrow.
“Are we going the wrong way?” he asked. When Faro just blinked, he leaned forward and called up a navigation map on the screen embedded in the seat ahead of him. “You look anxious,” he explained, eyes scanning the map quickly before he banished it again.
Faro took a major gamble. “I think perhaps the alcohol is affecting your perception, sir,” she said, tacking a smile on the end of the sentence to soften the blow.
“Perhaps,” Thrawn said. He sat back, leaning his head against the seat and covering his eyes almost delicately, as if to keep out the light.
“Too bright in here, sir?” Faro asked.
“It’s always too bright,” said Thrawn dismissively. He blindly waved her off as she started to adjust the backseat lighting; Faro ignored him and adjusted it anyway, bringing it down to 20%. In the new dimness of the backseat, Thrawn removed his hand and blinked, acclimating for a second before he sat up again.
After a moment, he shot Faro an inquisitive look. She shrugged, holding back another smile.
“I’ve noticed you keep your office lights low even when there are no holos up,” she said. “I figured it probably bothers you how bright the rest of the ship is, but there’s not much you can do, is there? Either it’s bright enough to hurt your eyes or it’s too dim for the rest of us to see.”
For a long beat of silence, Thrawn only studied her, refusing to confirm or deny her suspicions.
“The rest of you?” he said eventually.
Faro faltered. She’d thought the meaning of those words, ‘the rest of us,’ was pretty clear, but if Thrawn was questioning her on it, she must have been somehow off in her conclusion.
“The rest of us humans, sir,” she clarified.
“So your hypothesis is…” Thrawn made a circular gesture toward his glowing red eyes.
“Yes...?” said Faro. “Or that’s what I thought my hypothesis was. I figured maybe your species is better at seeing in the dark than we are, but at the same time you’re too sensitive to handle bright lights like humans can.”
“Hm,” said Thrawn, looking vaguely amused. “Perhaps I shouldn’t disabuse you of that notion. I suppose theories like yours are how flattering legends are formed. Did you know Commander Vanto’s people have an entire subsection of local mythology devoted to my species?”
“You’re saying my entire hypothesis was wrong?” Faro checked.
He seemed a little disappointed in her lack of interest regarding Wild Space mythology, but he brushed it off soon enough. With a confidential air, he leaned in closer to her and whispered, “I get headaches. It is not a trait inherent to my species. Rather, it’s an individual character flaw.”
Only Thrawn, Faro noted, would describe a personal tendency toward headaches as a character flaw. He was always lenient with his subordinates on practically everything bar incompetency, and he was surprisingly pragmatic about physical needs, like the need to eat and sleep. But when it came to injuries or illnesses or things like this — a simple, physical aversion to bright lights — he became more strict again, always envisioning how limitations like this could affect him on the battlefield.
Aloud, Faro’s only response to Thrawn was, “Hangovers must be hell for you, then.”
He grimaced. “Quite.”
Not long after that, their speeder pulled out of the swarm of traffic, slowing down as it approached a hotel landing pad in the mid-upper levels. Faro exited first, offering her arm to Thrawn as he climbed out. To her surprise, he accepted the help without reservation, leaning on her ever-so-slightly until both his feet were firmly on the ground.
And Faro definitely didn’t blush about it, nor did she blush when he squeezed her forearm in thanks before moving away. They quickened the pace to get inside, both eager to escape the cold gusts of wind — and for Faro, at least, the desire to change out of her uncomfortable winter dress uniform and into civvies was almost overwhelming.
Inside the hotel lobby, heat blasted out at them from every corner of the room, stopping them both in their tracks. Thrawn blinked a few times, looking startled, before he deftly undid the buttons on his coat and slid it off his shoulders, hanging it neatly on the crook of his arm. Faro did the same thing as she walked up to the front desk.
“Reservation for Thrawn,” she said.
The clerk didn’t glance away from the datapad screen he was staring at. Nor did he remove his hand from his cheek; he looked like he was maybe ten minutes away from finishing his shift and was no longer capable of putting any effort in. “First name?” he said flatly.
“Thrawn,” Faro said again.
“Last name?” the clerk asked in the same tone of voice, his eyes flickering in what might have been irritation.
“No last name,” Faro said. “It’s just Thrawn. We made the reservation through the Imperial Travel Bureau.”
If that helped the clerk in any way, he didn’t bother to acknowledge it. “I need a last name,” he said. Thrawn stepped up next to Faro, apparently keying into the conversation now.
“There is no last name,” he said politely. “My full name is Thrawn — spelled Thesh, Resh, Aurek, Wesk, Nern.”
The clerk finally glanced up from the datapad, but only briefly. He took in Thrawn’s blue skin and red eyes with a distasteful curl of his lip. “Alien guests are required to make their reservations with a provisional surname if they don’t have a proper one,” he said.
“Seriously?” said Faro. Thrawn glanced at her sideways and Faro got the impression he was somehow embarrassed by her clipped tone, when by all rights he should have been pissed at the clerk. “What does it matter?” Faro continued. “We made the reservation just fine yesterday. You’re telling me we’re not allowed to check in because he literally only has one name?”
“That’s the gist of it, yeah,” said the clerk, his eyes sliding back to the screen. Faro grabbed his datapad, twisting the monitor around so he couldn’t see the display.
“Maybe if you bothered to glance up for more than half a second, you’d see that uniform he’s wearing,” she said, pointing to the flashy golden epaulets on Thrawn’s dress uniform. “You familiar with rank plaques? He’s a Grand Admiral in the Imperial Navy. That means he was personally promoted by Emperor Palpatine himself.”
The clerk made a phlegmy noise in the back of his throat that might have been a scoff. “What are you, a Pantoran?” he asked Thrawn. Then, to Faro: “You’re telling me the Emperor personally promoted a Pantoran? What, you think I’m stupid? That’s not even a real Imperial uniform. If you wanna pull a con like that, at least go to a surplus store and get the real thing.”
Faro clenched her fists, letting her fingernails dig into the tender skin of her palms. Maybe the pain would help clear her head a little. She resisted the urge to explain that both of them were wearing real Imperial uniforms — winter dress uniforms, sure, but real nonetheless — and set the issue aside. It wouldn’t get her anywhere, anyway.
Through gritted teeth, she said, “You’re not going to give us the room we paid for?”
The clerk shrugged. Next to her, Thrawn pulled out his slim, travel-size datapad and started typing. A moment later, he turned the screen her way, showing that only fifty credits had been removed from the Chimaera’s travel account — meaning they hadn’t accepted Thrawn’s reservation in the first place, and hadn’t bothered to tell her about it until now.
“Fifty credits,” Faro murmured, tapping the amount. A new window opened up, listing the credit charge as this hotel, reservation name: Karyn Faro. With a stifled sigh, she handed the datapad back to Thrawn. “What about the reservation for Karyn Faro?” she asked, digging her ID out of her coat pocket.
The clerk studied her ID for an insultingly long amount of time. Eventually, without touching the card, he turned back to his datapad and typed something in.
“Still standing,” he said a bit sourly. “Your bags were delivered earlier today.”
“Can you bump it up to—”
“—two beds—” Faro clamped her mouth shut as she processed the clerk’s refusal. Anger was turning her ears red, she could tell, but at least they were hidden by her hair. She glanced at Thrawn, trying to silently ask what he wanted her to do.
His face was impossible to read.
“Give me the key, then,” said Faro, losing even the slightest semblance of civility as she turned back to the clerk. He slapped a key card down on the countertop next to Faro’s ID, leaving her to collect both of them. Thrawn met her scowl with an unreadable but meaningful-looking expression when she turned around.
Silently, they walked to the lift. Faro jabbed the call button with her free hand and was still glowering when the doors slid open, letting them inside.
“It happens often,” Thrawn said quietly when the doors were closed again. “Commander Vanto typically makes reservations under his own name instead.”
Faro wasn’t comforted by this knowledge at all. “It doesn’t make sense,” she growled. “Ten years ago, Coruscant was full of aliens. Most of their highest-paying customers would have been aliens, too. Now suddenly they want to pretend like they’ve never seen a non-human before?”
Thrawn said nothing. His head was bent as he studied his datapad. Faro leaned over to take a quick peek and saw that he was looking up Pantorans, calling up images from the Holonet.
“The eyes are different,” Thrawn murmured.
“Yeah,” said Faro.
“That explains some comments I’ve heard.” Gingerly, he touched the faint red line underneath his left eye; Faro waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t. Instead, he turned the datapad off and put it away, just in time for the doors to open.
Faro checked the number on the room key and pointed to the left, allowing Thrawn to lead the way. They found the room quickly enough and entered it with a certain degree of caution, both a little tense about what they would find.
The room was plain but clean and very, very cold, reflecting more or less the best that the military would allow — even for high-ranking officers, the Empire’s purse-strings stayed tight. None of the heat from the lobby seemed to be funneled to the guest rooms. A single, spacious bed sat in the middle of the room, taking up most of the available space. Opposite it was a dormant holoprojector and a caf service.
Faro’s suitcase sat right inside the open closet space, resting up against the wall.
Just Faro’s suitcase.
Grimacing, she turned and met Thrawn’s blank gaze.
“Unfortunate,” he said blandly. He looked down at his uniform and Faro couldn’t help but wonder if it was as uncomfortable as hers. She knew from years of locker-room talk that Imperial dress uniforms for women had an almost painful tendency to ride up between the legs, the trousers so high-waisted to make them unbearable to wear for more than an hour or two at a time. If the men’s uniforms were similarly terrible, she wouldn’t know.
“I’ll call downstairs,” she promised Thrawn. “Maybe they’re holding your luggage somewhere. They didn’t say they sent it back.”
He made a face at that, eloquently expressing his opinion of the downstairs clerk. While Faro moved toward the comm, Thrawn moved toward the heating unit near the window, examining the dials with a frown.
Neither of them had anything good to report by the time Faro was done talking with the clerk.
“He says your bags were already sent back to the Chimaera,” Faro said.
“This heating unit is broken,” Thrawn informed her, twisting the dial. None of the lights on the display lit up, and the temperature in the room didn’t change.
“Oh,” said Faro. “Brilliant.”
She waved Thrawn aside, but he only moved back one step, staying close as Faro inspected the heating unit herself. It was completely unresponsive, like a droid with a busted CPU. Faro tried to suppress her shivers as she popped open a side panel, taking a look at the wires inside — all hooked up where they were supposed to be.
“Not that you don’t trust my analysis, but…” Thrawn said, trailing off so she could fill in the blank.
Faro winced as she put the side panel back in place. “Sorry, sir. I just thought maybe — you know, with all you had to drink—”
Thrawn helped her to her feet, looking vaguely amused. With his hand in hers, Faro could tell he was shivering a little, too. “I’m not that drunk,” he said as he let go.
“And I did think to check the wiring. Surely you must have heard me removing the panel while you were on the comm.”
Faro could feel herself blushing a brilliant red. “Sorry, sir,” she said again. Thrawn’s lips quirked a little as he let her past him.
“No matter,” he said. His eyes flickered briefly to the single bed, then casually moved over to the window. Faro felt herself blush even harder.
“So…” she said.
“I’m taking a shower,” Thrawn said before she could finish the sentence. “Assuming you don’t need the refresher, of course.”
Faro shook her head. Thrawn looked down at his dress uniform, a frown marring his face for half a second — thinking, no doubt, about how he would need to wear it tomorrow as well, and possibly for the rest of the week if he couldn’t arrange for his luggage to be delivered. Faro checked her chrono while he sussed it out mentally.
“What’s your size, sir?” she asked.
“Size,” Thrawn repeated, sounding distracted as he brushed past her and hung his coat and tunic in the small closet.
“Clothing size,” said Faro. “This is Coruscant, after all. It doesn’t matter how late it is, I can still go out and buy some civvies for you. And tomorrow — I mean, if we can’t get your things — we can find an Imperial Exchange and maybe get some extra uniforms tailored so you don’t have to keep wearing the same one.”
“Thank you,” said Thrawn, still sounding distracted. He straightened the sleeve of his hanging tunic, pressing out a wrinkle in the arm. The winter dress uniform for a Grand Admiral included a pristine white shirt with a high collar beneath the tunic; it was tucked tightly into Thrawn’s trousers, and after a moment, Faro realized she was staring and forced her gaze away.
“I will still need to wear this uniform again tomorrow,” said Thrawn a little regretfully. “Although I suppose there’s no tangible harm in wearing civilian clothes. After all, who’s going to reprimand me?”
“Uh, any of the other Grand Admirals?” Faro reminded him.
“Savit was wearing a tuxedo tonight,” Thrawn said.
Grand Admiral Savit isn’t an alien, Faro thought with a grimace. And sure, there wasn’t anyone in the military high-ranking enough to reprimand Thrawn, but what about the Moffs and Senators who would be gathered there — or the planetary governors, even? People like Arihnda Pryce, who would see Thrawn out of uniform and immediately file it away as further evidence that he didn’t belong — that he wasn’t a good fit for Imperial service — that he didn’t deserve his rank in the first place?
“Size, sir?” said Faro out loud.
Thrawn eyed her thoughtfully, as if he could tell what she’d been mulling over. “Large,” he said. He stuck his left hand in his pocket, procuring his personal credit stick and handing it to her. Faro wasn’t sure how big a Grand Admiral’s salary was, exactly, but she took it without complaint.
“Large everything?” she checked.
Thrawn raised an eyebrow. To her mortification, Faro felt herself blushing again.
“I mean — that is—”
“Large everything, yes,” said Thrawn calmly, cutting her off. “I’m sorry, Commodore. I didn’t understand at first what you meant.”
“Right,” said Faro, the blood lingering on her cheeks. “Yeah. Kind of a weird sentence; I get it.”
She turned away, unable to even look at Thrawn as she gave him a half-hearted wave goodbye. He was heading into the refresher as she left the room; outside, she leaned against the door and stared at the ceiling, letting out her breath in a long, quiet sigh.
This was going to be the longest night of her life.
Unbelievably, the shower was still going when Faro pushed open the hotel room door almost an hour later, a trio of shopping bags digging into the crook of her arm. She deposited the bags on the bed, feeling grimy and exhausted from her nighttime foray into Coruscant’s cheapest stores.
Eyes half-closed, she sorted through the bags, extracting individual packages of socks and underwear and tearing through the plastic. She’d picked up an assortment of boxers from the nearest big-box store, and at first she’d been determined to just grab the first one she saw in size large without paying attention to how they looked or what kind of underwear it was. But something had stopped her, and somehow she’d ended up spending ten whole minutes in the underwear section trying to find an assortment she liked.
She didn’t want to think about her motivations on that one. Part of her wondered if Thrawn needed white boxers to go with his white uniform; if he wore the more colorful underwear she’d bought him tomorrow, would it show through? She pictured Thrawn walking around a Coruscanti party with the hot-pink outline of his boxers totally visible beneath his pants.
Well, good thing she hadn’t gotten him any hot-pink boxers, then. She supposed he’d just have to go commando if his uniform was flimsy enough to show the more muted array of colors she’d picked out. She folded up a pair of wine-red boxers — this color would match his skin nicely, not that she was thinking about that — and tried not to notice how silky the material felt as she set them aside.
She folded a t-shirt for him, too, adding a pair of loose athletic pants to the pile. When she was done, she gathered the whole mess in her arms and approached the refresher door, knocking loudly to be heard over the sound of the shower.
“It’s unlocked,” Thrawn called.
Faro opened the door tentatively, casting a quick glance toward the shower. Rather than a curtain, there was an opaque screen covering the entire area from floor to ceiling, meaning she could see only a vague, fuzzy outline of Thrawn.
“I’m leaving your clothes here on the counter, sir,” she said.
Thrawn didn’t answer. Faro beat a hasty retreat, returning to the bedroom and dumping the rest of the shopping bags on the floor nearby. There wasn’t enough room for them all on the desk, and there was no other surface where she could put them — not even a chair.
As she flopped backward onto the bed, still wearing her uniform, she supposed she could hang them up in the closet. But hell, that would take forever, and all she wanted to do now was sleep. With an overdramatic sigh, she sat up and started peeling her uniform off, forcing herself to at least put her own clothes in the closet so they wouldn’t gather anymore wrinkles than they already had.
It was odd to see her clothes hung up next to Thrawn’s, she reflected. She pulled her tunic off, putting it on a hanger and digging through her suitcase for her sleepshirt. It was old and faded, an athletic shirt bearing the logo of the Corulag Imperial Academy where she’d graduated as an ensign.
She’d just kicked her shoes off when the shower abruptly stopped.
Swearing, Faro shimmied out of her trousers as quickly as she could — then hesitated, absolutely flummoxed, as she realized she hadn’t packed any pants to sleep in. Normally, her sleep ensemble was exactly this: a t-shirt and her underwear, nothing else. She’d assumed she and Thrawn would be in separate rooms, so it hadn’t even occurred to her to grab something else.
She heard Thrawn shuffling around quietly in the other room, undoubtedly getting dressed. He’d be out any minute now. Making a quick decision, Faro pulled her uniform pants back on and had just pulled the belt tight when the ‘fresher door opened and Thrawn stepped out, his hair still damp.
There was a long, silent pause as they examined each other.
“Is that what you’re sleeping in?” Thrawn asked evenly.
Faro felt heat rush to her face. “I, ah, neglected to pack any pajama pants, sir.”
He eyed her uniform trousers a moment longer, then turned to look at the shopping bags on the floor. “They don’t carry your size?”
Faro bit back another curse, her embarrassment ramping up a notch. “I didn’t realize until I got back,” she said. She checked her chrono reluctantly, noting the late hour. If she were shipboard right now — even if it was one of her days off-shift — she’d have been in bed for ages already. She cast a hesitant look toward the rest of her uniform and her boots. “I guess I could go back,” she said.
“No need,” said Thrawn, shucking off the sweatpants she’d bought him. “These are a little too small; I believe you purchased a size medium by mistake.” He stepped out of them and held them out to her. Faro, still processing Thrawn’s bare legs, didn’t move to take them. She was pretty damn sure she had not bought size-medium pants. “And in any case,” said Thrawn, as if she needed additional persuasion, “I prefer not to sleep in trousers.”
“Ah,” said Faro, making a valiant attempt not to stare at the new boxers she’d just bought for Thrawn. The boxers he was currently wearing. Right now.
The sweatpants hung in the air between them. Eventually, with a great deal of effort, Faro tore her gaze away from Thrawn’s general below-the-waist area and took the pants.
“Thank you, sir,” she managed to say.
“You seem perhaps too tired for another venture into the city,” Thrawn said, which was apparently his version of ‘you’re welcome.’ He navigated around the discarded shopping bags, giving Faro a fascinating view of his … back. She was so engrossed in this that she didn’t immediately register it when Thrawn pulled back the thin coverlet and climbed into bed.
“Ah,” said Faro aloud when her brain caught up with her eyes.
Thrawn lifted his head off the pillow to stare at her, his eyes hooded. He looked already half-asleep. “What?” he said. When Faro didn’t immediately answer, he sat up, letting the blanket fall away from his chest. He was already cooling down from the shower and shivering in the chilly air.
“Are we, ah, sharing?” Faro asked, pointing to the bed.
Thrawn stared back at her for a long moment. “I showered,” he said, as if the only potential issue here was his body odor.
“You’re not … uncomfortable with that?” Faro asked.
“Yes. There are plenty of pillows,” said Thrawn reasonably.
Which still wasn’t the issue, Faro reflected, but then again, what other option did they have? As she’d noticed earlier, there weren’t any chairs in the room — not that it would be comfortable for either of them to sleep on a chair overnight — and there wasn’t enough floor space in the cramped bedroom for one of them to stretch out, and they didn’t have extra bedding to pad the floor with anyway.
So yeah, it looked like she was sharing a bed with Thrawn.
Oh no. What a shame.
“Alright,” she said aloud, still awkwardly holding Thrawn’s sweatpants and wearing her uniform trousers with her sleepshirt. “But let’s set some ground rules first, okay?”
Thrawn eased back down, resting his head on one of the pillows and covering his eyes. “Proceed,” he said.
“First,” said Faro, “we’re not gonna tell anybody about this. Okay? Politically, I mean, we don’t want word getting out that you slept with one of your subordinates.”
Thrawn snorted softly. “I’ll be sure not to tell my vast assembly of friends and associates,” he said, his voice dry.
“I mean it,” Faro warned. “Not even Commander Vanto. This sort of thing wouldn’t ruin any of the other Grand Admirals, but we never know when it comes to you.”
“Perhaps, then, we should not have loudly and emphatically drawn attention to my name and rank prior to announcing our intent to share a room.”
He had a point there, but Faro wasn’t willing to cede it to him. She stayed silently until he uncovered his eyes and said, “Yes, Commodore, I accept the first rule. Might I add some of my own?”
Faro wasn’t exactly finished with hers, but she figured she could wait. “Go ahead, sir.”
“No touching,” said Thrawn flatly. He glanced up, eyeing her as if he could sense the spiral of disappointment she was trying not to acknowledge even internally. “I understand space is limited,” he said, “and I will of course not hold it against you if this rule is breached accidentally. But I am not fond of being touched, and I would prefer to avoid it.”
“Of course, sir,” said Faro through numb lips. “Perfectly understandable.”
“Additionally, no purring,” Thrawn said. “If you can control it.”
“You mean snoring, sir?” asked Faro, her eyebrows furrowed. Thrawn waved a dismissive hand.
“The guttural noise humans make when they sleep,” he said. “With Commander Vanto, it was particularly loud.”
“Yeah, that would be snoring,” said Faro. Since Thrawn wasn’t looking, she shucked her uniform pants off again and stared at the sweatpants for a moment, contemplating how uncomfortable she would be with them on. And, well, if Thrawn had already instated a no-touching rule, what did it matter if they were both in their underwear?
A slippery slope, certainly, but one Faro was more than willing to take a chance on. She tossed the sweatpants onto the closet’s upper shelf.
“I don’t snore,” she informed Thrawn as she turned off the lights.
“Supposedly, neither does Commander Vanto,” he said.
She approached the bed in the dark, feeling her way there until her eyes adjusted and she could see. She put her comlink on the bedside table, keying in an alarm for late the next morning.
“Nine a.m.,” she informed Thrawn.
“Hm,” he said, his forearm draped over his eyes. He shifted slightly as Faro sat on the bed, pulling her legs up under her while she fiddled with the comlink. She glanced at him, saw that he was lying as close to the edge of the bed as he could get without falling off, and tried not to feel mortified.
Was he really that touch-averse? She’d noticed once or twice that he tended to freeze when people got too close to him on the bridge — not pulling away and not stiffening, exactly, but seeming almost to hold his breath. She’d noticed, too, that he avoided shaking hands or standing too close to people, but that was only at parties — so far as she knew — and she’d chalked it up to a general dislike of high society, not physical contact itself.
But he’d taken her hand when they left the speeder — and he’d offered to dance back at the party — and he’d helped her to her feet just an hour earlier, when she took a look at the heating unit. So maybe it wasn’t an aversion to touch, exactly; maybe it was a lack of faith in Faro’s self-control.
Which would mean he’d noticed Faro’s endless blushes.
Faro clicked the neutral-mode button on her comlink, darkening the screen for the night, and lay down carefully on the bed. She pulled the coverlet over herself gingerly, careful not to accidentally brush Thrawn’s hand — easy to avoid when he was all the way over there — and stared blindly up at the ceiling.
“Goodnight, sir,” said Faro, her voice strained.
“Goodnight,” he said easily, like he didn’t have a care in the world. “Don’t snore.”
It was, Faro reflected an hour later, too damn cold to sleep. She lay on her side, staring at the back of Thrawn’s head and shivering beneath the blanket. The coverlet was so thin that it offered absolutely no protection from the chilly air, and since she was sharing it with Thrawn, she couldn’t wrap it around herself to trap her body heat inside, either.
And Thrawn, damn him, had fallen asleep right away. In fact, it was probably more accurate to say he’d passed out — Faro suspected the wine he’d had at the party was playing a major part here, because he’d lost consciousness as soon as he said goodnight and hadn’t so much as shifted since. No doubt he was warm — he’d have to be, with how drunk he was — but he certainly wasn’t sharing that heat.
Silently, her eyelids itching from lack of sleep, Faro slipped out of bed and hit the comm to the lobby.
“Hey,” she said, trying not to sound as sleepy as she felt, “are there any extra blankets available?”
There was a pause before the clerk answered.
“Is this Room 5233?” he asked, his voice flat. “Karyn Faro?”
Damn it. It was the same guy from earlier. Through gritted teeth, Faro said, “Yes.”
“No extra blankets,” he said firmly. Before she could argue, the green light next to the comm blinked off. He’d hung up on her.
“What a dick,” Faro hissed, her hand slipping off the button. She wrapped her arms around herself and tiptoed over to her suitcase, poking through it in hopes that she’d packed something warm. She was gazing dubiously at a thin long-sleeved blouse when Thrawn suddenly spoke, startling her out of her skin.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, his voice hoarse and scratchy from sleep. Faro hesitated, dropping the blouse and straightening up so he could see her.
“I’m freezing,” she said. “I called down for some extra blankets, but it was the same guy from earlier. At this point, I don’t think he’d piss on us if we were on fire.”
Thrawn blinked at her so slowly that it looked like he might nod off. Wordlessly, he gathered the blanket up in his arms and pulled it toward him, leaving her side of the bed bare.
“This is worse than snoring,” he muttered. “Get in. I rescind the first rule.”
“The no-telling-people rule?” Faro asked, her eyes narrowed.
“The no-touching rule,” said Thrawn wearily, falling back onto his pillow.
After a full hour of Faro shivering her ass off next to him, now he was willing to rescind the no-touching rule? Faro resisted the urge to stomp back to bed, her mind a swirling mess of dark thoughts as she climbed in. She dragged her pillow closer to Thrawn and was still on her knees when he tossed part of the coverlet over her and rolled onto his side again, facing away.
Faro lay down with a huff. She had to admit, though, it was way, way warmer next to Thrawn than it was over on the other side of the bed by herself. She was close enough that her right arm was pressed up against his back, and she could feel body heat emanating from him through his shirt. Pulling her side of the blanket tight around her, she was able to create something of a nest — nice and snug and warm.
Next to her, for all his complaints about the noise level, Thrawn’s breathing had evened out, his entire body relaxing as he slipped immediately back into sleep.
How Faro envied him. She couldn’t seem to relax at all; she was too cognizant of Thrawn’s back pressing against her arm, and as a result she was just lying there, her entire body stiff as she stared at the back of his head. His hair had dried in the hour or so they’d been in bed, and without any sort of product in it, it looked unbelievably soft.
“Sir?” Faro whispered, checking if he was really asleep.
“Hm,” he grunted, the sound coming out fuzzy, like he was too lazy to move his lips or tongue.
“Never mind,” Faro said.
There was a beat of silence just long enough to briefly convince her that just saying ‘never mind’ would be enough. But then, with an audible sigh, Thrawn rolled over to face her, bringing their noses uncomfortably close. Faro’s hand, which had been pressed up against his spine, was now firmly stationed against his chest.
“What is it?” he said, his eyes heavy-lidded.
She could feel his nipple directly underneath her hand, hidden only by his shirt.
“I was just checking if you were asleep,” she whispered, trying not to look too cognizant of where her hand was.
“Mm,” said Thrawn, his eyes slowly drifting closed. “Why?” he murmured.
“I don’t know,” said Faro. It seemed like Thrawn might be just tired enough to accept even the flimsiest of excuses; she hoped desperately that this was true. “I was just curious, I guess.”
This time, he didn’t respond. Faro waited a long moment, feeling his chest move beneath her hand as he breathed.
“You’re a light sleeper, aren’t you?” she said tentatively, quietly.
“Yes,” he murmured, his accent soft and his voice barely audible. He didn’t bother to open his eyes. “But I’ll be fine. Just don’t snore, please.”
Faro smiled, secure in the fact that Thrawn couldn’t see it. She allowed herself to relax a little as he fell asleep, curling up closer to him. He slipped his arm around her waist — whether he was awake enough to even know he did it, Faro couldn’t tell — and she shifted until her legs were tangled with his, offering her maximum comfort and warmth.
And making her hyper-conscious of the slip of bare blue skin where Thrawn’s t-shirt had ridden up, exposing his abs, his hips, the waistband of his boxers.
The loose waistband of his boxers. Apparently, whatever store Faro had purchased the boxers from was into vanity sizing; the elastic in the waistband was just a smidge too big, leaving a small gap between the boxers themselves and Thrawn’s skin. If she craned her neck, she could probably see straight down to his…
She wasn’t going to crane her neck. She absolutely wasn’t going to do that. Instead, she gently pushed at Thrawn’s shoulder, easing him onto his back so she could use him more or less as a mattress. He went willingly, after only the slightest urging, once again arousing her suspicions that he wasn’t quite as asleep as he seemed.
She rested her head on his shoulder, her arm going around his waist — over the strip of bare skin she’d noticed earlier. Sleepily, Thrawn brought his left hand up and rested it between her shoulder blades, his touch light and warm and comforting.
The events of the day came rushing in, dragging Faro down into her exhaustion. Gradually, she felt herself relaxing almost against her will, her body melting into Thrawn’s as her eyelids drooped and her breathing evened out.
With her commanding officer serving as the warmest mattress in the galaxy, Faro fell asleep.
She woke ten minutes before her alarm to the soft but unmistakable sound of Thrawn snoring.