It was the scent of her close by that roused him.
Usually it was a faint clean smell of Trillium soap, a lingering scent of metal polish from the pristine maintenance of her lightsabers, combined with something fresh and sharp — almost like the fresh cut grass on an Alderaanian summer day. All of those were there, but the scent of the soap was hardly detectable, almost drowned out by the tang of sweat, grime, and the antiseptic and sterile smell of the medbay. The warmth of a body pressed close was almost enough to lull him back to sleep, but he found himself cracking his eyes open anyway.
The sight that greeted him was not an unwelcome one. A smaller lithe body was firmly snuggled into him, with her blond head pillowed on his arms. So close he could feel every exhale of the heavy breaths of deep sleep combined with the uncomfortable sensation of a thin line of drool dripping down from her mouth onto his bicep.
Approaching a year in to their time on Odessen, it was an increasingly familiar sight for him to wake up to, but one that had yet to lose its charm completely. Although he did find the image a bit more adorable when the drool was puddling on a pillow rather than his arm, but considering the circumstances, it was a small price to pay. He wasn't sure the last time he had seen her resting quite so comfortable, certainly not since Valkorion had made his reappearance. That she was doing so now, despite the events of the past few days, lit a fire deep within his belly.
Her pallor had improved some since the last time he was awake, a hint of her normal color starting to surface beneath the unhealthy gray that had taken up residence. Apparently her prediction about Valkorion's dedication to preserving the health of the body he had taken up residence in was proving accurate. A fact he was both comforted and still very disconcerted by. He hated that the monster that had nearly broken her once before was free to continue poking at her mind on a daily basis — but Theron couldn't help but find the smallest bit of relief in the fact that there was a power out there beyond himself trying to keep her on this plane of existence. At least for now.
Theron had no delusions that the evil presence that had devoured every soul on Ziost had suddenly turned over a new leaf out in the depths of Wild Space. Whatever the malevolent spirit was up to, it definitely didn't have the best intentions in mind for the woman that was resting peacefully in his arms. Every single thing that Theron had been able to unearth about the Sith once known as Vitiate had led him to believe that every action taken was to further his own goals. That, combined with Dirai's mad ramblings about the spirit's future plans for his current host, had Theron forcing himself to keep from pulling her tighter into his embrace.
Ever since he had first set foot on Odessen, there had been an almost queer sense of belonging for the former spy. Prior to his time with the Alliance, the SIS had been the closest that he'd ever felt like he had been a part of something bigger than himself, like he had been making a difference in the galaxy at large. If he didn't quite have the words for how that simple act of acceptance from the odd collection of individuals that made up the organization they were both now leading, then the definition for what he felt for the woman next to him eclipsed even that. He'd never had the normal family life growing up, but ever since he'd found himself drawn into her orbit, he'd finally found something that started to resemble that stability that had always eluded him his entire life.
He was content to watch for now, the slow rise and fall of her chest, the slight twitch under her eyelids that let him know she was dreaming. Hopefully it was one of the more pleasant dreams, if her neutral expression was anything to go by. The nightmares hadn't revisited him since she had performed whatever Force mojo to pull the dark corruption out of his body and into her — and so far, it looked like she had been spared that at least.
It was still beyond him how he'd gotten someone quite like her to fall for him, and was still waiting for the day when he would wake up to realize that all of this had been some elaborate, cruel dream his mind had conjured up. The fact that he kept waking up to this reality was still something he was trying to get used to, something he wasn't sure he would ever quite be able to wrap his mind around. They were nearing the one year mark and the novelty had yet to wear off. Surely it would at some point and reality would set in. Every day that this stretched on, even if it wasn't completely perfect in every way, leant some credence to the fact that maybe he'd found something nearing permanent. Or at least it would be, if they could find some way to wrest her free from the devil from inside of her.
Theron wanted to give a name to the feeling that bubbled up inside him in quiet moments such as these. Sometimes the thought of saying it aloud made him break out in a cold sweat while a numb sense of panic gnawed from some part of him that he couldn't quite shut out. Other times it felt like a giant weight hanging from his shoulders, and if he could just get out that innocuously simple phrase, maybe everything would feel lighter. And all of that was just his own baggage, before he even factored in their unwanted third wheel. The one they couldn't show any weakness to lest he pounce on the opportunity to snatch her away for good.
"You're thinking too loud," she murmured quietly into his arm, words muffled.
Grey's eyes cracked open a slit, sleep still obviously weighing her down. One hand lightly ran up his chest as she gingerly shifted her position on the cot. "I can practically hear you brooding. Makes it hard to sleep."
"I do not brood."
"Yeah, right." She let out a small huff of laughter, the cracked eyes sliding back shut. "Pull the other one."
"I'm just quietly contemplating."
"There's nothing quiet about that frown." She murmured, hand sliding up his chest to wrap around his neck. "You don't have to say anything aloud for me to see that you're worrying about something."
"Your eyes are literally shut right now."
"Would you believe me if I said I used the Force to tell?"
"How will you ever know if you don't believe?" She murmured softly, looking like she might fall back to sleep as she settled against his chest.
He let one of his hands drift down to her hip, softly tracing the curve of it with his palm. "I'm more of a tactile guy."
Her lips twitched, obviously suppressing a smile. "You are at that."
Theron decided to lean into the moment, curling around her as much as their cramped position on the cot would allow. He buried his face into hair, still soft and silky despite the fact that she likely hadn't seen a shower in about as long as he had. As heavenly as getting clean sounded, it was hard to justify moving from his current position. For a long time they just lay like that, and he might have thought she'd fallen back asleep if it wasn't for her fingers idly playing with the hair at the nape of his neck.
"Did you have any dreams?" His question was nearly lost to the quiet, but he felt her still for a moment, before her fingers resumed their rhythmic motions.
"No," she said softly, "at least none that I can remember. I suppose I should be grateful. I know yours were not very pleasant."
"You were quite delirious. I tried talking, but I don't think you heard me."
"I don't know… it's all fuzzy." Snatches of the nightmares came back, and he tightened his hold ever so slightly. "But I think maybe I did? A little at least."
Pulled in so close, he couldn't actually see her smile, but he felt the soft exhale of her breath on his chest, and felt her cheek twitch upwards where it was pressed against him. "I am glad."
That strange warmth that only she could bring filled his chest, and he found himself speaking without even really realizing it. "You're amazing, you know that, right?"
"No, you are," he continued, quietly, "what you did, I… how can I even begin to repay—"
"We are partners," she said firmly, pushing against his chest until there was enough distance to catch his eye, "and we do not keep a tally on such things."
"Probably for the best. Pretty sure I'd never catch up at this rate."
"You are too hard on yourself."
"Am I? How are you feeling right now?"
"I am," she hesitated for a moment, "okay. It is nothing to worry about."
"I'm pretty sure I'm incapable of that at this point," he shot back. "This is my fault, I should be the one dealing with the fallout of that. Not you."
"This is not all your fault, Theron. Please do not beat yourself up over it."
"Pretty sure I skipped that day in SIS training."
"I am not blameless either." Her fingers twitched against his neck, tugging lightly at the hairs she had woven her fingers through. "I know I have been… distant lately."
"Don't take that on too." He leveled her with a serious look. "I was the one who screwed up here. All of this is on me."
"Your decision to go to Skeressa to try and find a way to help me was your own, yes. But why did you feel compelled to make it?"
He pressed his lips together tightly, looking away. His reasoning for this sidetrip into hell was a jumble of everything that had been building up, and at this point he wasn't really sure where one excuse began and another ended. But each one had a common thread, and they all led back to the unwanted presence in her head. The one who had been conspicuously silent ever since Theron had woken up from his nightmares.
Out of habit, he loosened his tight hold on her so he could start slowly tracing the shell of his ear — their private little signal — but she seized his hand, stopping him before he could finish the motion.
"No," she said firmly, "don't."
"But he'll hear—"
"I don't care." Her eyes began to shimmer and she clamped them shut, trying to shove the emotion away. "I had time to think, Theron. I had nothing but that while you were slipping away."
"I know, and I'm sorry—"
"No, you don't know," she insisted, "because I stopped talking. Ever since he came back, I've been so focused on trying to put up this front so he could not see any weakness to exploit."
"Stars, I know that." Even if it felt like a kick to the gut sometimes being cut out, he wouldn't deny her any means to deal with that daily torture. "I understand why too."
"Was it fair for me to ask that of you?"
"You never have to ask," he insisted.
"As romantic as that is, it's not very practical," she whispered. "Did you feel like you were free to bring any concerns to me? Or did you feel like you too had to hide things for fear of him listening?"
"I…" He was glad that she wasn't looking at him right now, because he was pretty sure that his face was showing how close she was hitting with that question. "I just want to help. And would never ask you to do anything to risk giving him control. I know what that monster did to you."
"But am I not still hiding if I do that?"
He didn't have an answer for that. At least, not one he wanted to say aloud.
"In trying to put up an invincible front and pushing away those that matter the most, am I not just letting fear of what he might do with that information isolate me? Am I not just letting him dictate my actions in a different way?" The shimmer gathered on her lashes, the collected moisture threatening to spill over on her cheeks.
Theron couldn't stop himself from reaching out, brushing the unshed tears away. "What are you saying?"
She opened her eyes, still watery with intense emotion, but she graced him with a confident and bright smile that he had not seen in what felt like an eternity. "I refuse to let that monster control me any more."
A fresh burst of pride swelled up in Theron's chest, filling him until it almost felt like he might burst. He couldn't stop himself as he surged forward, capturing her lips in a deep, heartfelt kiss that he hoped could express one-tenth of the emotions surging through him. Her fingers tangled further in his hair as she pulled him in, eagerly, almost clumsily, returning the action in kind. They were both nearly breathless, but unmistakably grinning by the time they came up for air, noses bumping as they tried to settle back into place.
His thumb brushed across her cheek, still slightly warm to the touch, but noticeably cooler and full of more color than earlier. Theron didn't care if he looked like the biggest dope in the world, he couldn't stop himself from marveling in wonder at the reappearance of the woman who he'd almost thought gone. "That's my girl."
Somehow that just made her beam brighter, although he wasn't sure how it was possible.
And beyond that smile, he could see a much deeper, nearly unquantifiable emotion shining in her eyes. Something that made his throat constrict a little as three small words tried to bubble up from his chest. It seemed like maybe this was a proper moment to actually give voice to them, but try as he might, he couldn't seem to work them past the lump in his throat.
She seemed to sense his struggle, as the bright smile faded to something gentle and knowing, her breath catching a little. Sometimes he wondered if she could read his emotions through the Force, or if he had just gotten that bad at hiding his true feelings where she was concerned. It probably didn't matter either way, as this wasn't something he wanted to hold back on anymore.
He trailed off as she looked at him expectantly, possibly even suspecting what the rest of that sentence was supposed to be. It should have been easy to finish, but it seemed like his tongue had grown thick again, his chest feeling suddenly tight as panic closed around him like a vice. Theron Shan had faced down countless horrors, routinely laughed in the face of danger, but when suddenly freed to utter three simple words he found himself frozen in terror.
Not to be deterred, he tried again, but he couldn't even get the first word to form. The phrase was so innocuous when he'd heard other people utter it, usually in holos or in passing, but try as he might, he couldn't get his tongue to wrap around it. He squeezed his eyes shut in frustration, the feelings of warmth and joy chased away by the bitterness of self loathing.
Damn it. How was he so bad at this?
Her expectant look faded, but the smile didn't as her fingers untangled themselves from his hair so they could gently cup his cheek. He reluctantly cracked his eyes open, wishing he didn't look so miserable for being unable to give voice to torrent of emotions rushing through him.
"You can tell me anything," she whispered, "but only if you want to. And it's always all right if you don't."
But he wanted to, that was the problem. He'd wanted to for a very long time, and he'd thought that the biggest obstacle in the way of that was their third wheel using that against her. Her bold declaration had removed that roadblock, and with it, his last excuse to cling to. There was only one thing preventing him from saying it now — the same thing that had always been. Like everything in his life, Theron's biggest problems were somehow of his own creation.
"I do," he finally choked out, "I just… what I mean is… I want to. It's not you, but I… I'm not good at this part."
She silenced him with a gentle peck to his lips. "You're better than you think."
It was a nice gesture for his ego, but that had never needed any pampering. Unfortunately the moment had passed, chased away by his embarrassing fumbling. Maybe if he just changed the subject, the awkwardness he'd brought on would fade without any further comment.
She let out a heavy sigh. "Theron, that's a bit of an overreaction."
"No, I mean I smell. I definitely wouldn't say no to a shower."
If she was disappointed in his obvious redirection, she didn't show it. "Don't you think you should attempt just standing and walking first?"
"Why crawl when you can run?"
"No running," she said firmly.
"You could always join me in there."
"Are you saying I stink?"
"Never. At least not to your face."
"I'm not sure if I should feel insulted."
"Hey, I'm just saying if you're worried, you could always join me — make sure I don't try anything too strenuous."
"You're incorrigible." She rolled her eyes. "And my refresher is all the way on the other side of the ship. Unless you want to chance Guss walking in."
"Fine, you win. We'll just stink for a little while longer."
"Small victories," she muttered sarcastically. "But we probably should change your bandage before anything else."
"Probably," he admitted somewhat reluctantly, "although that does require moving."
"I'll move," she protested, "in a second."
He let his hand drift up and down her back, the warmth of her skin seeping through the thin material of her undershirt. "No need to rush on my account."
"You're going to put me back to sleep if you keep that up."
"You make that sound like a bad thing."
"I should be taking care of you," she mumbled, "not napping."
"It can wait a little longer."
His fingers drifted under the thin material of the shirt, gently kneading the taught muscles of her back. The feeble protests seemed to die away as she leaned into the motion, eyes drifting shut. It was a testament to how exhausted she was that she didn't try to keep up her typical veneer of propriety. He was used to gently cajoling her a little more before the half-hearted protests dried up.
Her natural tendency to try and take care of everyone around her sometimes drowned out her own needs. That was where Theron usually had to step in. He might still have been tired and sore from his own ordeal, but he was more than happy to do his part to take care of his girl. Even if that was as simple as convincing her to take a well-earned rest.
Her breathing had just started to even out, when a sudden shout from the door had them both nearly jumping out of their skin.
"Commander, I know you said not to disturb—oh, is this some sort of new Force healing technique?"
Grey's cheeks flamed bright red as she buried her face deep into Theron's chest, unable to completely muffle her embarrassed groan. From his position on the cot, Theron could just catch Guss's eye, and gave the Mon Calamari a withering glare that was promptly ignored.
"It seems very complicated if you ask me," Guss continued on. "Don't you think kolto would work better?"
Theron dropped his voice low to a conspiratorial whisper. "You give me back my blasters and I'll shoot him for you."
"Don't you dare." Her protest was muffled by the fact that she was still hiding her face in his chest.
"Not even a tiny blaster bolt?"
She let out a heavy sigh before reluctantly pulling herself out of his embrace and struggled to sit upright.
"I'm sorry, Guss," she said tiredly, "what was it that you needed?"
"Darth Eyeliner is on the holo waiting for an update."
"Lana better not hear you calling her that," Grey cautioned.
Theron couldn't help but arch an eyebrow at the moniker, unable to completely smother his mirth despite his lingering annoyance at the rude intrusion.
"She can't Force Choke me over the holo."
"Guss." She gave him a stern look.
"Fine, fine. I can tell Lord Beniko you'll call her back." The last bit he muttered under his breath. "Again."
"No, I can talk to her." She scrubbed a tired hand across her face. "I'll be there in a moment."
The Mon Cal looked skeptical, but reluctantly trudged back out towards the common area where the Defender's main holo-comm lived. It was unclear if that was because of his teacher's fatigue and shortness with him, or possibly just having to deal with an impatient Lana Beniko. Not that Theron blamed him on the latter part. When Lana reached the end of her patience, it was generally a good idea to find somewhere else to be. Not that he had extensive experience on that particular subject.
Grey took in several deep breaths to steady herself and gather her strength. Theron gently grasped her hand, feeling her stiffen for a moment before she relaxed again.
She nodded. "Just a little tired."
"You can call her back later."
"She's just worried," Grey said quietly. "Last time we spoke, things weren't… it wasn't good. I should let her know everything is okay now."
That seemed like a bit of a stretch of the truth, but they were probably closer to it than the last time the two had spoken. In her current state, the Jedi would probably raise a few concerns, or at the very least a few eyebrows. Almost half of her hair had fallen from the normally perfect ponytail, and several more stray hairs poked out from the leatheris wrap that usually held it all in place. Had he not been still on the mend, the sight might have lit a fire of completely different type inside of Theron.
As it was, he found himself giving her hand a soft squeeze, gaining a curious look.
"I just want you to know that I…" His throat still felt a little tight, so he swallowed, trying to force something—anything—out in the vicinity of what he wanted to say. "I'm glad it was you who came for me. You're always there for me and… that means a lot."
Her lips twitched up into the ghost of a smile.
"You mean a lot to me." His voice sounded a bit hoarse, but he forced himself to continue on before they dried up again. "Hells… do you know what I'm trying to say?"
The words might not quite have been right, still clumsy and awkward as it always was for him when it came to this sort of thing. But at least the sentiment was there. And she'd heard it.
"I know." She dipped down, lips brushing against his forehead. "And I feel the same."
In the end, that was all that really mattered.