A/N: My apologies for the tardiness of this chapter - real life hit in a big way. Hope you enjoy the chapter! Many thanks to Buttercup for the awesome beta services.
The Dutiful Wife
The chronometer moved slowly.
Hours after she received the news about Ensign Chireth, Natrie lay wide awake beside her slumbering husband. Every time she attempted to sleep, the memory of their conversation reared, and her eyes sprang open to stare at the timepiece on the wall. Ensign Chireth. She feigned sleep when her husband turned over and mumbled something, and then she sighed when his breathing grew slow and even once more. She had given the names to the Rebels; she had shone the target on the young man's head.
She turned over, wiping beaded sweat from her forehead. Though she tried, it proved impossible to ignore the chronometer's mocking stare. One hour until dawn, and six hours until her lunch appointment with Sera. She could make it until then. She just had to go through the motions: see Mierie off to her classes, see her husband off to the string of meetings that he told her had been scheduled, and then survive until lunchtime. She could do it. She could.
She repeated that to herself, trying to drown out the memory of her husband's voice. He's been executed.
She could make it.
A few hours later, as she and her husband prepared for their appointments, she wasn't so certain. She stared at the holoprojector, each word from the reporter piercing her flesh like tiny needles.
"…after the tragic loss of three stormtroopers and an Imperial officer, Ensign Chireth, the Imperial Navy has vowed to increase their work against the small group of insurgents that reportedly call themselves the Rebel Alliance-"
Despite her attempt at casual indifference, she couldn't stop from flinching. Her husband crossed in front of her, blocking her view, and with a flick of his wrist he cut the power to the broadcast. She swallowed and stared at the spot in midair which had, just a moment before, held the form of a solemn-faced HoloNet reporter.
"Rebel activity? That's a clever way to put it." A clever way to lie.
Natrie couldn't see her husband's face as he headed to the closet, but she could imagine his expression all too well. "It would be unwise to tell the full truth," he said.
"I suppose so." She fiddled with her comb, plucking at the thick tines with a fingernail. "This is much easier for his family, I'm sure."
"The shame would be impossible to overcome," he said, "if they're loyal. We're watching them closely, of course."
Her head snapped up. "Watching-"
"To see if they attempt any contacts." He paused to pull the undershirt over his head – he would never speak when his voice might be muffled. Precision, always. "It's possible he didn't work alone."
Her hand holding the comb faltered. Now Ensign Chireth's family was under watch, because of her. Her logical side sternly reminded her that Lieutenant Bala's family would have been watched, also, and they were more likely to be Rebel sympathizers than Ensign Chireth's family. The reminder did not offer much comfort.
Deliberately, she set down the comb. "I'd better send a call to the transport, if I'm to make Sera's on time."
"Take the speeder."
"Darling, you know I don't like piloting-"
"I insist. In fact, I was thinking of getting a second one."
"A second one?" She stared at him. Speeders were expensive, and he'd never mentioned it before. "Why?"
"It's safer for you to have your own transportation."
"But you caught the spy-"
"It would be beyond logic to think all threat is ended, just because we found one spy. There are doubtless more, and…" His voice trailed off, an unusual thing for him, and she inspected his face. He was tense. More than normal.
He frowned. "There might be attacks. I don't want you targeted."
"Me? Why would I be targeted?"
"You don't understand how vicious these people can be, Natrie. If one of them heard that I was on this committee, or – Natrie, you don't understand how ruthless, how mindless these people can be! Just being recognized as a military family member could be enough." He pulled on his uniform jacket, straightening it with a clean snap.
You don't understand how vicious these people can be. She shook, the sentence repeating itself in her head – that sentence, along with the one that had haunted her since the night before. He's been executed. Oh, she knew how vicious they could be. She knew.
He spoke again before she could formulate a response. "It's not just your safety, Natrie. Or did you forget that Mierie will need to be collected later, while I'm in my meetings? Neither one of you will take public transport. It's not safe."
"I don't want outsiders knowing your movements." Suddenly, he stopped, and the very fact that he'd started to explain himself spoke volumes on just how concerned he really was. "I'm not discussing this with you any longer, Natrie. Why you feel the need to challenge my every request-"
Request? Order, more like. Despite her impulse to argue further, she knew what she needed to do. "I'm sorry, darling, I'm just… I'm worried about you." She turned away from him and bit her lip, knowing he could see her face reflected in the mirror. Artfully, she squeezed her eyes shut and let out a shuddering breath. "If they want revenge, wouldn't they target you? I couldn't… I couldn't bear it, if…."
"Ah, Natrie." As expected, she heard him approach, felt his hands on her shoulders. "Don't worry about me. You forget one very important difference between us: I'm armed. You're not."
Catching an odd tone in his voice, she opened her eyes and met his piercing gaze in the mirror. With a squeeze of her shoulders, he added, "Not yet."
"Not yet… what are you saying?"
"I'm getting you a blaste-"
"No!" The bile rose in her throat. "I won't use it."
"There are smaller models that would suit you." Another squeeze to her shoulder, and somehow she held back from jerking away. "I'll feel better when you're carrying it, Natrie."
When, not if. The memory of another man's voice slid into her mind: We aren't looking to you to hold a blaster pistol. A delicious contradiction - the Rebels didn't ask it of her, but now the Empire did. Demanded it of her. Setting her jaw in a tight line, she said, "You'd feel better, even though I'd never use it?"
"It's final." He stepped back from her and straightened his already-precise uniform. "I'll bring one home today. And you will take the speeder, if you wish to leave this apartment."
She turned to protest again, but she stopped when she took a good look at his face. "All right, darling. I'll take the speeder."
The cold melted from his face at her acquiescence and he moved to her, stroking her cheek. "Have a good time with Sera."
Wordlessly, she nodded, and accepted his precise kiss with a tight smile.
A short time later, she found herself carefully navigating the tall spires of Coruscant, cursing her husband for his stubbornness. Cursing the Rebellion for their role in a young man's death. Cursing herself. She rehearsed, over and again, the speech she needed to make. She wouldn't be thwarted this time.
This wasn't the first time she'd piloted herself to Sera's house with her emotions in her throat, but this time they hung over her like a heavy drape of velvet. There was no frantic rush this time, just a dreadful pull of guilt and grief.
Soon enough, the landing pad outside of the Saan's home came into sight. She noted the presence of Vrindo's speeder with relief, which surprised her. He was, after all, the one who had brought her into all of this. Who had made her a killer by proxy. And yet, a part of her couldn't wait to see him, to talk to him, to let him tell her it was all a mistake….
Cursing herself again, she threw open the hatch of the speeder and headed to the doorway.
Sera smiled widely when she greeted Natrie, but Natrie ignored her, her attention on the man rising from his seat on the overstuffed couch. Vrindo. She stepped towards him, shaking, her fists clenched. A bitter anger grew, replacing the cocktail of guilt and shame that had swirled within her since she'd heard the words from her husband's lips. He's been executed. That voice had held such a casual tone, to speak words with such a dreadful finality. And the two people in front of her were just as casual about the work they did.
All her carefully constructed statements flew out of her mind, and with a sort of horror she heard herself exclaim, "You had him killed!" She took a step back when Vrindo approached. "No, not even you. Me. I killed him. I killed him. Because of me, Ensign Chi-"
"Because of you, Lieutenant Bala is alive."
"And because of me, Ensign Chireth is dead! An innocent man-"
Sera's snort drew Natrie's attention. The blonde's face held a half-smile, and one eyebrow was raised. "Innocent? He was an Imperial soldier, Natrie. How innocent could he be?" Natrie looked away, her stomach tight.
Vrindo stopped his sister with a sharp gesture. Rubbing his forehead, he sighed, and then turned back to Natrie. "Why don't we all sit down and talk this through." He held a hand out, an entreaty, and after a moment's hesitation she allowed him to guide her to the couch, his skin warm against her cold fingers. He did not release her hand as they sat.
"Natrie, I know it's hard, but try to focus on the positive. You saved someone's life."
"By murdering another!" She snatched her hand away. "You… you put just as much spin on things as the Empire does!
He sighed, but did not bother to deny her accusation. "This is a war, Natrie. People will die."
"I know… I knew that…" Did she? "But…." A war. She should have known – she had known, she just hadn't allowed herself to admit it. It was exciting to be a spy, like a mystery program on the holonet, but it was also real.
And real people were dying.
"But what?" His voice was gentle, and when he took her hand again she didn't pull away.
Before she could answer, Sera broke in, her face no longer smiling. "Would you rather it be one of us that was killed? One of ours?"
Natrie shook her head, her thoughts in a jumble. "Why does it have to be anyone?"
Sera snorted and stood. "Oh, for the love of…. How can you be so naïve?"
"Sera," Vrindo began, but Sera cut him off and turned on Natrie.
"Do you think they'd hesitate? Did they hesitate when they slaughtered the entire Jedi Temple, not even caring if everyone was involved or not-"
"Sera, this isn't helpi-"
"Coddling doesn't help her either, Vrindo!" Sera snapped without taking her eyes from Natrie's. As Sera's voice increased in volume, Natrie's gaze was caught and held by the fire in the other woman's expression. "Did they hesitate, did they care, when they gunned down Suni Neroon? For the horrible crime of trying to leave a cold, supercilious bastard of a husba-"
"Sera!" Vrindo shouted. "That's enough."
Sera stopped, but her jaw was set tight as she glared at Natrie. Cold snaked through Natrie's belly, the cold of truth, but she didn't break eye contact. Finally, Sera released Natrie's gaze and, with a final venomous look at Vrindo, stalked from the room. As she passed Natrie, she stopped long enough to hiss, "Welcome to the real world, little girl."
The words burned more than she'd ever admit. Naïve. Simple. Words she'd heard before, but from another's mouth. A mouth she now hated.
After Sera left the room, Vrindo was the first to break the silence. "I apologize for Sera."
"It's not for you to do." Suddenly, the intimacy of their position hit her, and she gently pulled her hand from his touch.
"Maybe not, but I still feel like I should." He watched her closely, and she summoned a small smile.
He nodded; they both knew it was the only apology she'd receive. She opened her mouth to say more, but at that moment Sera burst back into the room. They watched her in silence as she smacked the panel that opened the closet door and yanked Vrindo's cloak from within.
"Would you like to borrow my cloak?"
"You two have your cozy little talk. Explain the facts of life to her, Vrindo - I don't have the patience. I'm going for a flight."
"In my speeder, I presume?"
Sera shoved her hair back into the hood, inspecting herself in the mirror before pulling the hood even farther over her head. "I'm you, if anyone's watching."
"Walk like a man!" Vrindo called out as Sera left, and Natrie saw him smile slightly at the rude gesture his sister threw in his direction.
She would never understand the dynamic between those two. "You're letting her take your speeder?"
"It's replaceable. And she's a good pilot." Vrindo shrugged. "It's best to let her blow off steam. She's been under a great deal of stress, lately, and this-" He waved a hand between himself and Natrie "-is just one more thing."
"She really doesn't understand why I'm upset by Ensign Chireth, does she?"
Suddenly sober, he looked down at his hands, pausing a moment before answering. "She doesn't. She sees only the goal, not who is hurt along the way." In a low voice, he added, "I almost envy her that."
Natrie looked at him. Vrindo, at least, seemed to understand the gravity of what had happened. While she might be naïve, as Sera believed, something like this should affect anyone - anyone with an ounce of conscience. She sees only the goal. "The Emperor only saw the goal, also."
Vrindo remained silent, his face pensive. Slowly, he nodded. "It might seem that way…." With a heavy sigh, he sat back, his long torso collapsing against the cushions. "I'm just glad she's on our side. She'll do whatever needs to be done, to further the cause."
"Without a pesky conscience getting in her way," Natrie murmured, staring at the door through which Sera had disappeared.
"And thus my envy. I have too much conscience."
"But if we don't feel anything, when an innocent-"
"I know, Natrie. Though I believe the ends do justify the means, in this instance, it's still not easy. Necessary, but not simple." Vrindo rubbed his chin. "And it can never become easy, if we wish to avoid turning into what we are fighting against."
Natrie swallowed and stared down at her hands. Necessary. She knew, in her mind, that it made sense. And yet…. She thought of the most recent social event, of the young men that stood around the edge of the room, watching the older officers mingle, sometimes speaking to a higher ranking officer with those masks of false bravado firmly in place. So young, so much future. Ensign Chireth had been one of those men.
So had Lieutenant Bala.
"I know it's difficult, Natrie. You've already dealt with things few other spies have. Even long-standing spies." His eyes were soft as he smiled at her. "The shine wore off of all this rather quickly, didn't it?"
She laughed, but it was a short sound, and she fell silent quickly, feeling the weight in the air between them. "Yes."
"Usually, it lasts a bit longer. Years, sometimes, before something so drastic happens." Vrindo took a deep breath. "I don't know what it is about you that made things come to a head so quickly. But I can't let that go to waste, you have to understand.
"I do understand. You'll do anything to help the Rebellion... even flatter a woman."
"I rarely flatter someone that doesn't deserve flattering." He smiled at her startled glance. "Do you really think I could stand next to Vice Admiral Ozzel's beastly daughter and make a sincere attempt at flattery?"
Natrie burst out laughing at the thought. It was unfortunate, really, that the poor child had taken so much after her father. Natrie might feel more pity had the girl been a bit less beastly in her attitude, also.
Vrindo shuddered. "I'm not that good an actor."
"Oh, I don't know about that. I imagine you'd do quite well on the stage. You even charmed my husband, after all."
"Motivation. It's all about knowing their motivations. He's simple, really - straightforward, easy to read. It's more difficult with others, such as the Admiral. He's a sneaky sort... can never tell what's going on behind those measuring looks."
"Measuring looks!" She snorted. "You sound like a badly written holonet mystery program. This whole situation does - the dashing leader, the reluctant spy…" She trailed off.
She took a deep breath. "Vrindo, I can't-"
"Wait. I know what you're going to say."
"We couldn't do half of what we've been able to accomplish, without your help." Vrindo moved closer to her, and her breath caught when his eyes fell on hers. "Not just the Bala situation, but the little tidbits you've found, input as to the personalities that we're dealing with…. We need you."
"You have plenty of spies." It was a guess, but she was relatively certain that it was the truth. He accepted it without argument.
"Plenty, yes. But you are one of the best-placed."
"But not one of the best, overall. I question so much…." She trailed off, reminded of Mierie's words from the day before: But if we don't question, and just follow orders blindly, we're no better than droids!
"We've all questioned, at one time or another." He placed a hand over hers, squeezing it gently.
He smiled slightly. "Well, most have. Not all of us are as cold as Sera." Vrindo leaned forward, and his gaze was no longer mild, but as intense as she'd ever seen it. "Natrie, you are very valuable to us. You play your role well."
"I've had practice. I've played it too long."
"Did you ever love him?"
Stricken by the suddenness of the question, she blinked a few times at him before turning to look out of the window. For some reason, it was easier to speak about this without his eyes in her vision, though she was overly aware of his presence beside her., of his hand still resting on hers.
"Yes. Yes, I did. When I was young and blind. Too blind to see him for what he really was." His hand twitched, but when she turned to look at him his face was clear, and she decided that she must have imagined it.
"And what is he, really? All I see is ambition, stuffed into a gray suit. Is there anything else?"
"I thought there was, once. He loves his daughter-"
"And he loves you, still."
"Yes. I think he does."
"I almost pity him, then."
They stared at each other, and this time it was Vrindo that broke the eye contact. "I think we can both use a drink." He motioned her to stay and disappeared into the kitchen
She sat back and sighed, absently cradling the hand he'd held. When she realized what she was doing she deliberately put it beside her, twisting her fingers in the spill of her cape. Its textured surface was rough against her skin, and she squeezed it tightly, seeking something to ground her.
Vrindo returned a moment later with a bottle and two mismatched goblets. He poured some of the dark red liquid into each goblet and then handed one to her.
She eyed the drink with suspicion, looking up when she heard Vrindo's chuckle.
"Don't fret, Natrie. I promise I'm not trying to drug you, or take advantage."
Pity. Startled by the thought, she eyed the drink once more and, mindful of her low tolerance, she just wet her lips with the liquid. Then Vrindo smirked at her, and she knew he had noted the action.
They drank in silence for a time, then Natrie sighed. "There has to be some other way, some other…" She stopped, watching as Vrindo shook his head slowly.
"I wish there was."
"There has to be!"
Sitting forward, he smiled slightly, a sad smile. "If you can think of a different method to achieve our goals, I'd love to hear it."
She swallowed. She couldn't think of a way, and they both knew it. Abandoning that argument, she sank back into the cushions, cradling the goblet. "I hate feeling so helpless."
His eyes caught hers in a gaze so intense that it would have made her squirm, if she could move. "And how helpless would you feel, if you turned your back on us, and returned to your life? You would try and try to forget what we're fighting for, try to feel a little less helpless, but you wouldn't be able to." She closed her eyes as he leaned closer, even, and she trembled when she felt his breath against her cheek. "Even more vulnerable, you'd watch and wonder, whenever something occurred, if you could have been a part of it. If you could have helped."
A light touch on her fingers, then he moved away. And, even as she silently cursed herself for a fool, her decision was made.
It was a few days before Natrie was brave enough to return to her regular lunches with Sera, but it was surprisingly easy. Sera's moods were day and night, with very little in between. Natrie made sure to schedule their meetings for when Mierie was otherwise occupied with school or friends.
She didn't realize her daughter was keeping track of how long it had been since they visited Sera together until one slow restday, while her husband was off on assignment.
Natrie had been struggling with a recipe her grandmother had left her when Mierie wandered into the kitchen. After some small talk, Mierie said, "We haven't been to Sera's lately."
"I go a couple of times a week," Natrie answered, distracted. How had her grandmother kept the filling inside the crust on this thing? She frowned at the pastry.
"I haven't, though."
"You've been in school." She just wasn't a cook, that was all; some people had certain innate talents, and that wasn't one of hers. Maybe if she stuffed more pastry dough around the edges….
"Well, she did say I could go by alone, if you couldn't come-"
The dough slipped from her hands, falling with a glomp onto the shining silver plate. "Oh." Natrie looked at her daughter. "She did?"
"Yeah. So, can I go after school tomorrow?"
"I'll pick you up and take you."
Mierie's face fell momentarily, but she recovered in a heartbeat. Natrie's misgivings grew even more. "That would be good."
Natrie nodded and, without another word, Mierie left the kitchen. She stared after her, frowning, and Vrindo's words echoed in her mind, a neverending loop of warning. She sees only the goal, not who is hurt along the way.