In difference to the journey leaving Coruscant, the journey back to the core planet was a lot more fun. Thrawn was a good travelling companion and the conversations were as varied as they were interesting. I badgered him to teach me more about his mother tongue and we spent a large amount of time engaged in Cheunh language lessons.
“You certainly do have a gift.” He told me after a particularly intense session. “Most beings have a great deal of difficulty managing to even pronounce our names correctly.”
“It’s a beautiful language.” I told him honestly. “Like music in some ways, one just needs to get the phrasing, the intonation just so.”
That had pleased him and we had continued. I had to laugh though, like with every other language I had ever had to learn the first things I was taught how to say were, ‘Hullo my name is, I come from and where is the nearest docking bay, cantina, hotel.’
When we were not engaged in discussions and language lessons, we were taking watch and or sleeping. My sleep patterns had not really changed much and I still woke up, more often than not, bathed in cold sweat, gasping for breath. It was frustrating more than anything else.
“These episodes, they will abate eventually but that will take time. The ordeal you suffered is not easily forgotten. The body remembers and it takes time to let go. On Hjal you made the first steps in this particular journey but you cannot expect to be free so quickly.” Thrawn had said as we sat at the small dining table after a particularly bad episode that had me screaming blue murder. He had poured me a shot of brandy and watched as I drank it with still shaky hands holding the tin cup. “Humans are so full of strong emotions, and you are like a wild storm. It is a curiosity to me how you can be so conflicted, so full of such feelings and still be rational and even logical. Your dreams are perhaps a way for you to come to terms with these conflicted emotions, and maybe you should pay attention to what it is telling you.”
“I don’t even know what they are of.” I said with a sigh. “I just wake up terrified, there are no images to remember, nothing concrete to hold on to and analyze. It’s just fear. How do I fight that? How do I get past that?”
He had shaken his head. “Well, I do not know.” He said honestly. “Nightmares are not something I have much experience with and I am in no position to give you advice on how to cope with them. Perhaps you might want to talk with Lord Vader on this subject, after all he is also Force sensitive and maybe he has a better idea of where the dreams come from and why you do not remember them.” I had said nothing to this. The thought of having a conversation on the topic of night mares with Lord Vader was about as appealing as having my hands chopped off.
We were twenty seven hours into our trip back to Coruscant and I was just tired of being tired. I lay my head on my arms on the table and listened to the hum of the ship. It took me a few seconds to realise that something was not quite right with the pitch of that hum and there was a slight, almost imperceptible shimmy that shouldn’t have been there. Thrawn went to say something but I shut him up suddenly with a wave of my hand and then before he could even ask what was wrong I raced to the bridge and looked over the consol. The read outs confirmed my fears and I was in the middle of shutting down the hyperdrive when Thrawn caught up with me.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Hear that sound?”
“I hear engines.”
“Hyperdrive’s overheating.” I said hoping I had initiated shutdown in time. The ship shuddered more violently. Hyperdrive malfunctions were usually fast and fatal.
“What was that?”
“Not sure, if we’re lucky it is…” but I never got my sentence finished, we suddenly dropped out of hyperspace just as a very large resounding bang came from the stern of the ship and we rocked about like a repulser with a bad lift.
“Buggery sandrats!” I swore and raced to the engine room. I opened the door and stepped back quickly. Smoke poured from the small room and it stank of over heated machinery and hydraulic fuel. I hit the vents and grabbed a filter mask, took the flashlight off the hook and opened up the engine hatch. I was ass up and head down in the pit when Thrawn came in and squatted down beside me.
“So what is the news?” he asked calmly, cupping the second mask over his mouth and nose.
“Wait a second...” I said Squirming further down the pit wall trying to peer under the hyperdrive. My arm brushed the engine and I yelped as it burned me.
“Shut up and let me do my job, damn it!” I yelled at him. “Grab a hold of my legs will you!”
He did as I asked and I slid further down along side the engine and twisted underneath it. I shone the light across the still steaming machinery and sighed when I finally found the problem, or at least what I figured was the problem.
“Up, up.” I said reaching my arm up for him to grab. He was strong and hauled me to the floor with ease. I sat with my legs dangling over the edge and brushed sweat and hair from my face.
“Well, we were incredibly lucky.” I told him trying very hard to keep the anger from spilling over into my voice.
“Define lucky.” He said as I got up.
“Lucky, as in still alive and not obliterated into tiny bits.” I replied crossly.
“What is the problem?” he asked ignoring my snippiness.
I began looking through my spare parts chest and getting tool kit out. “I think we blew one of the transpacitors and the hyperdrive over heated. If I hadn’t started shut down procedure when I had, we’d be space litter now.”
“How did you know, was it your force sense?” he arched an eyebrow.
“No.” I sighed and shook my head. “I know my ship, Captain, as you pointed out I am an excellent mechanic. I heard the problem; she told me what was wrong. ” I said patting the bulk head. “I told you to watch pushing the hyperdrive that much.”
“This ship was refitted with a top of the line engine, one that we should be able to push past specs for a decent amount of time.” He said with a hint of annoyance.
I nodded. “Yep, one should be able to do that but not with sub standard transpacitors in it.”
I nodded. His jaw clenched and he was clearly angry.
“Can you fix it?” he asked.
“I can, lucky for us I have a spare transpacitor on board but we’ll be on auxiliary power and life support till I can get this fixed, can’t run the sublight engine either I need to get right underneath everything, can’t do that while she’s running, too damned hot and,” I added. “I’ll need your help.”
“What ever you need me to do just tell me.” He said.
“Well it’s not complicated; I need you to hold on to me.” And I grinned at the expression that flashed across his face. “Hand me those coveralls, please?”
I stripped out of my dress and stepped into the coveralls. Laid all the tools I was going to need out beside where Thrawn was, still heel to haunch staring at the hyperdrive as though just looking at it would fix the problem. I had the spare part in my hand and sighed. I really hated this particular operation. Transpacitors were in the worst place on an engine and an absolute bugger to get to. In order to fix this I had to hang upside down with my back to the pit wall. Usually the hyperdrive would be lifted out while in space dock or ground based dock but that would just take far too long in our case and we didn’t have the equipment on board for it either. One could if one was small enough slide in under the entire engine and work there but I never liked being under an engine that way. I had seen a man pinned when the whole engine block came down on him and after that incident I never wanted to risk it. Usually, there wasn’t much on that side of the hyperdrive that could really go wrong. Transpacitors, even when they were not that good, rarely blew.
“Just make sure I don’t fall into the pit.” I said as I explained what needed to be done. “Or else it will take you until you are an old man to reach Coruscant.”
“What do you usually do if you are alone and this happens?” he asked coolly.
“If I was on my own it wouldn’t have happened, I am not the one pushing the engines over their limit.” I said more tartly than I had meant to, “But usually there would be grab bars I’d hook my feet under to brace myself, however when the ship was refitted some moron saw fit to have them removed without thinking about engine repairs! So now you will have to sit and somehow hang on to my legs so I don’t split my skull open fixing this engine. Think you can handle that?”
“Yes.” He said. And I shimmied backwards, upside down to work in the small space under the hyperdrive engine while he made sure I didn’t fall in.
I love engines. I love everything about them, the feel, the smell, the complexity, but I really wished that who ever designed them thought about having to fix them on the fly as well. The HWK series ship was well loved but there was some design flaws that made it interesting to mess about with. Whoever had done the refit and overhaul of this ship had really not given any thought to repairs, and it annoyed me to no end that in order to replace the transpacitor I had to be an acrobat with contortionist abilities.
Hanging upside down in a tiny space next to a hot, oily engine that smelled like a cross between over cooked hyper drive fluid and burnt metal, was not my idea of fun. The Transpacitor was right underneath and I had to twist to work on it. It took a lot of cursing and swearing to get the part off. When that was done I had Thrawn pull me back up and I showed him my find.
“Blown.” I said, annoyed. “I hate it when people put crap on a good engine.” I grabbed the new part and the tool I would need to attach it and with a deep breath, bent backwards as Thrawn eased me down carefully.
It was fussy work to attach the new transpacitor and more than once I was certain my colourful language made him wince. Not for the first time did I wonder why everything had to be so small, hard to get at and annoyingly difficult to reattach.
“Hand me the sealant will you, small tube of yellow stuff to your left.” I yelled, shifting enough so that I could hand him the small spanner I didn’t need any more. He placed what I had asked for in my hand and I finished the work. When that was done I took a good look at the rest of the engine from this angle, it wasn’t often I nose dived into the pit so it was a good opportunity to check everything out. I didn’t see anything unusual or out of place. This was a new engine and as Thrawn had said, top of the line. The use of substandard external parts was a bit worrisome though. I handed back the sealant goo and asked for the hydro-spanner again to make some minor adjustments here and there. When I was done, and Thrawn had helped me back up I just sat for a moment, a little dizzy. We were now sitting legs locked over legs, the way circus artists who fly on swings did. It was a good way to support my weight while I was upside down but now it meant I straddled his lap. I looked straight into his face, while he held me, hands on my hips. There was a moment when I wondered if we would blow the engine up with the tension that had suddenly flared between us. I didn’t take my eyes from his until he broke the moment.
“Everything under control?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Think so.” I nodded finding my voice. “Just can’t feel my legs any more.” I patted his arm to let me up. I had to shake the pins and needles out.
“So, what is the status, are we good to go now?” he asked, watching me put my tools away and clear up.
“No, not yet. Need to wait another hour, to let everything cool right down. I don’t want to risk damage to the second transpacitor. I don’t have any more spares.” I put the tool box back in its cubby hole. Once I was done clearing up, I unbuttoned the coveralls, I was sweating to death. I stripped off the top half and tied the sleeves around my waist. I was glad the little undershirt I wore had no sleeves.
“No way to push that?” he asked.
I turned around and caught him looking at me intently. There was a flash of hunger in his expression and while he masked it swiftly with a raised eyebrow and a slight smirk I still felt it. It made my heart race.
“What?” I asked testily.
“Can you speed up that start estimate any?” he repeated, ignoring the question behind my question.
I picked up the transpacitor. “See this? We don’t want another to blow. By rights we should be dead. Under normal circumstances I would recommend we stay dark for three or four hours so that I can run some serious diagnostics but you are in a hurry so I calculated I can push it to two. Now, I’ve already spent one hour hanging up side down fixing this thing so that leaves another hour for cool down. When we start the drive up again it has to be slow and easy. I know you are in a rush to get away from me and back to saving the galaxy from evil, but this is the best I can do. If you think you can do better, you are welcome to try.” I stood with my hands on my hips.
He took a few steps towards me, I backed away. “Miss Gabriel,” he said with a slow smile. “I would not presume to question the quality of your work or risk raising your ire.” He reached out and took the blown transpacitor from my hands and studied it. “Good that you had a spare.”
“I don’t like being caught out; it can lead to … unpleasant situations.” I said backing up a few more steps as he manoeuvred me slowly against the bulk head so that he could put the broken part he still held in his hands on the shelf to the left of me.
“So I infer.” He said softly. There was look in his eyes that made my stomach drop. “You have grease on your nose.” He pointed out.
I wiped at it with my fingers and this only made him laugh.
“Now you have more grease on your nose.” He told me. We were standing very close to each other and I had no place to go. The bulk head at my back was warm.
“Well, think of it as a fashion statement then.” I told him as casually as I could.
“Suits you.” He told me. “Flattering accessory to your…” he gave me the once up and down, “elegant outfit.”
I scowled at him, he was playing games. “Don’t you have work to do?” I asked.
“I thought we now had an hour of down time?”
“So that means I have an hour of nothing specific to do.” He said softly, leaning with both hands against the bulkhead, trapping me in between his arms.
“I am certain you could find something to pass the time.” I said trying to ignore the sudden swell of sandjiggers fluttering in my belly.
“Well, I had thought perhaps we might continue a much earlier conversation.” He told me casually but the tone of voice didn’t match the predatory look in his eyes. With the fingers of his left hand he traced the skin of my right arm. His touch gave me goose bumps and that made him smile.
I swallowed, my mouth was dry. “I’m not feeling that chatty right now.”
“Pity, I thought you enjoyed a heated debate.” He whispered, brushing his lips against mine.
“Well,” I conceded, “the taste of certain words can be stimulating.”
He smiled. “And you certainly do have a talent with an alien tongue.”
I made a face. This was a dangerous game he had started. “You know this constitutes serious verbal abuse, right?” I asked.
With a twitch of his lips, Thrawn leaned against my body with his and the heat between us rivalled the heat from the cooling engine. He watched my face, studied my eyes and then shook his head. I tried, without a lot of success, to get my breathing and my heart rate back under control, wondering what had brought this sudden passion play into game. He hesitated for just a moment and then he growled softly, “That’s enough oral foreplay, don’t you think?”
I am certain, that had I been given enough time to think of it, I would have come up with a suitable reply. He moved swiftly, smoothly wrapping one arm around my waist and the other hand he slipped behind my head pulling me to him. In the same graceful motion he brought his mouth crashing down on mine. Words, all thoughts of words, all consideration of spoken conversation were suddenly driven from my mind.
I loved how he made me feel. His mouth, his hands, my body, I lost myself to his beguiling attentions and just enjoyed it for what ever it was, hoping he did as well. This was not the first time we had done this, I hoped it would not be the last and each time we took it just a little further. His affections sent me reeling and left me utterly breathless. Time spun around us, warping forward and before I knew it he had drawn back from me and was caressing my face with his hands. I did not need to see any physical tell tale signs to know how he felt; I could sense the desire in him as certainly as I could taste my own. It built and gathered within us, between us, swirling about like smoke. I could feel the wildness, the hunger of it. I took a deep steadying breath to try and control it, pull it back so that, unlike last time, I didn’t shower him with it. I know he was aware of this but he didn’t say anything about it.
“I thought this was not the place for such… discussions.” I breathed against his chest.
“My dear,” He chuckled. “This was merely a minor discourse. Consider it a reminder, if you will, of how interesting our conversations can and will be.” He brushed his face against my hair.
I sighed. “For someone whose billionth foreign language is basic you use it with remarkable skill.” I told him.
“It was a good way to pass the hour, was it not?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Oh I see, small talk. Just a minor distraction against the boredom of waiting?”
“Something like that.” He smiled disengaging himself from me. “You know what they say, practice makes perfect.”
I wondered just exactly what it was we were practicing. “Either that or one of us will spontaneously explode from all this… tension.”
“That will be most interesting to observe.” he said.
“These games are driving me crazy, you do know that right?”
His smile was slow and easy. “Perhaps that is the idea.”
I shook my head. “You are so impossible.”
He laughed out loud and then kissed my forehead. “Small moments such as these are rare. They remind me that I am more than just a member of the Imperial Navy, that there are distractions worth stopping for every now and then and that hidden under layers of dirty work clothes and engine grease are treasures well worth finding” He spoke softly. “These moments of stolen pleasure are precious.” And then he left abruptly.
I took a long, deep, steadying breath and stripped out of the overalls and back into my dress. It took my body longer than my brain to calm down and I was grateful when my knees stopped trembling. I went the fresher and washed the grease off my face. I looked in the mirror and sighed, shaking my head. I was playing with fire, bound to get burned in the worst possible way and I was encouraging it.
I made my way to the bridge where Thrawn sat waiting for me. With a silent tiny prayer that the busted transpacitor was the only problem with the hyperdrive I started up the engines and listened to its whine. I didn’t even realise I was holding my breath. The sublight engine revved and when that was hot I began the start up sequence for the hyperdrive. It sounded okay so I hit the switch. The ship shivered a little and the stars did what stars always do when one slipped into hyperspace. Nothing sounded out of the ordinary and I let go the breath I was holding.
“Seems okay.” I said.
“As I said before, you are an excellent mechanic.” He told me with a cool smile.
“I am glad one of us has some faith in my skills. Now, I think I need a cup of tea. Want one?”
“Just do me a favour?” I asked.
He arched an eyebrow in reply.
“Do not run her hot. Don’t push our luck any further.” I said.
He gave me a little mock salute. “Aye, aye captain.”
I just stuck my tongue out at him and with a sigh went to make tea. I sat down at the little dining table and rested my chin on my arms. I loved fixing engines but it was hard work. I listened to the sounds all around me and smiled. Everything was normal. I just hoped it stayed that way.
The rest of the journey back to Coruscant was uneventful. I babied my engines although they didn’t really need it and Thrawn indulged me on this. We spent the remaining time easy with each other’s company. The language lessons continued only now it was my turn to share my knowledge of Huttese. I was surprised at how quickly he picked up on what I had to teach and only a couple of times did I catch him out, laughing at the funny things he had said.
“Huttese is mostly a spoken language but I do have some data that might help you if you really want to learn more.” I told him.
Thrawn smiled. “That would be most helpful, but I do enjoy our joint language lessons and nothing can substitute learning with a native speaker.”
“True.” I agreed. “Will I be able to understand Navaari if I become fluent in Cheunh?”
He nodded. “Probably, while the two languages have splintered and the dialects have distinct differences, they do share the same base. You have a good ear, it would not take you long to pick those differences up,” he said. “But you will have to work hard to be fluent, it is not an easy language for non Chiss to attempt, let alone master, even for someone as gifted as you.”
“Too bad you are not sticking around.” I grinned.
He just nodded. “Well, as you so aptly put it, duty calls.”
The sudden passion and heat of our wordless conversation in the engine room was not spoken of but also not forgotten. Certain glances and smiles hinted at the heat beneath the winter and more than once I had wanted to ask him about it but there was just never the right moment. In the end I was glad of this, some things were better left just enjoyed and not analysed to death. I liked his attention, his affection but I respected his distance. I also, oddly enough, understood it.
We arrived on Coruscant very early in the morning. The tall buildings were half buried in a sea of cloud. The sun was just beginning to show itself and everything was bathed in a beautiful pink light that danced about us as we made our descent to the landing pad.
“I have made arrangements for ship repairs.” Thrawn told me after the ship had touched down and the engines were shut off.
I nodded. “I hope this crew will know what they are doing.”
He gave me a tight smile. “Well, if they do not then there will hell to pay.”
For a moment we stopped what we were doing and just looked at each other, words were not necessary.
“If there is time I will try to see you before I leave but I cannot promise it.” He said.
“Then say goodbye now and leave it at that.” I told him.
He smiled. “In Cheunh there is no word for goodbye. We say a’chitra saf tyn’oni, which means something like, until the next moment.”
I nodded and repeated the words, tasting them. He gave my one of those rare smiles that reached his eyes and lit up his face. His kiss was passionate and full of promise. “You will hear from me, the usual way. Jarack will see to it that your correspondence reaches me.” He said, opening the main hatch.
I nodded. There was nothing else to say and he left the ship without looking back.