A/N: Thanks again for all the awesome reviews, favorites and private messages! This is part two of the conversation with Thrawn as promised. :)
Disclaimer: I own nothing but my OCs. Please do not sue. This is purely for fun.
I didn't know what to think, what to do or say as I stared at Tam and Reese. There was no military training for this instance, nor protocol or set guidelines of behavior when shocked down to the core of your being. My brain felt as if it had short-circuited, as if my nervous system had simply hit maximum usage and shut down. It was all I could do to remain where I was, my hands locked behind my back and my shoulders squared.
And just stare.
Even with the evidence floating in a holographic display that spelled my doom, there had been a part of me that had hoped he would dismiss Tam's part in the death of Ensign Orn. That he could possibly blame that death on the man that had already died in disgrace at his vey feet. Petty and cowardly, and so horribly wrong that I would wish Pieterson to take the fall for our mistakes. But Pieterson was already dead, and the Admiral could not do anything to him anymore. It made me want to vomit to think of it that way.
But it positively made me want to die just thinking about Tam or Reese coming to harm. With all my being, I prayed that the Admiral would ignore Reese's involvement in our actions against Ensign Tarn. Without realizing it I began to hope with all my heart that if he would not blame Pieterson, he would have thought me the ring leader of our group. That he would punish me and simply let the others go.
With the ysalamiri projecting their bubbles in the air, appearing before my eyes like faintly shimmering motes of dust in the air, I couldn't project my wants to Tam or Reese. I couldn't express my sorrow or hear their thoughts in return. We were separate people again, individuals instead of a whole, and I felt as if I was missing half my ability to see, half my ability to hear. It was… painful to be apart from them.
Reese was the first to see me, and the shock that danced across his eyes was quickly replaced by a relief so strong I could nearly feel it even without our bond. He hid it well, and I had the feeling that unless you knew him as well as I did, you never would have seen that emotion. Not a flicker, not a bat of an eyelash. But it was there in those stormy grey eyes.
And a fleeting moment of joy that I still breathed.
Then I realized what must have happened, what it must have been like for the two of them. I had gone into this meeting filled with fear and dread and emptiness, consumed with grief. Not the most ideal of situations in which to speak to anyone, nevertheless the Supreme Commander of the Empire. And my last thought before I crossed the ysalamiri boundary, the last thing they would have felt from me even through the thick shielding walls we had all thrown up between us, was utter shock and horror.
Which was abruptly cut off without warning. Just gone. Non-existent due to the Force nullifying ability of the ysalamiri.
It was as if I had died.
Judging from the look on Tam's face, the slightly winded way in which he breathed, the two of them had literally dropped anything they were doing and ran—ran—here. I felt the blood drain from my face, felt my head droop. Oh stars, how much they had revealed about us with that one frantic action. I was willing to bet that the Admiral did not have half the information I had originally credited him with obtaining in regards to our Force abilities. But now… now by their actions, he had more than enough to justify any speculation.
"Eyes forward, Crewman," Admiral Thrawn reproved.
My head lifted, my eyes forward. My posture back to that painful military attention. And inside, I quaked.
Tam had a harder time of things than Reese, stumbling down to one knee when he crossed that invisible barrier, gasping and clutching his head in his hands. He was so much stronger in the Force than Reese and I, and loosing that connection must have been like a punch in the gut. A hard punch that stole the breath from your body and left your head ringing.
The only thing I could do now was cling to basic training, to stand at attention next to my superior officer and wait for instructions. I watched Tam climbed back to his feet, coming forward to stand next to Reese in a similar posture of attention. Waiting for the Admiral to acknowledge their presence.
It wasn't a long wait.
"Lieutenant Reese, Crewman Tam, thank you for joining us," he greeted, lip twitching in a slight smile. "It saved me the trouble of having you summoned. Please, come closer."
They did. Reese moving forward, first, and Tam moving a step behind him, giving difference to the other man's higher rank. They settled into a similar stance at the edge of the outer display ring much like I had in the beginning. And I blinked. I hadn't remembered moving this close to the Admiral, walking into the display rings until I stood at his right. It was also then that I noticed the images of my artwork were gone, but the image of Ensign Orn remained.
Tam couldn't help but flick a glance towards that image, going slightly pale. To his credit, his face set into lines of determined resignation, ready to accept whatever judgment the Admiral would hand down. There was no point in denying our involvement. No point in resisting whatever fate was about to be bestowed upon us.
I glanced at the Admiral, torn as to what to do. Should I join the others or stay at his side? Did the absence of my paintings conclude our conversation? No, that couldn't be it. He had alluded just moments ago to the fact that Reese and Tam were going to be part of that conversation.
"Remain where you are, Crewman Idelas," he said, eyes focused on Tam and Reese. Almost absently addressing my unspoken question.
He pushed a button the arm of his chair and the holo of Orn's death sprang to life again. Once that completed its gruesome show, the holo flickered and became Ensign Tarn, going through the stages we had set up in order to save her life. Then it flickered to key points in what we foolishly thought were our secret meetings in that abandoned storage closet. The selection of moments mostly focused on Pieterson and his rants. Tam went completely pale at that. I was fairly certain I took a step backward, caught myself, and stepped forward. And Reese showed his discomfort with the barest of compressions of his lips.
Stars above, he knew! He knew. He knew every word, every motion, every action.
Did that have something to do with his decision to end Pieterson's life? I thought back to that one damning sentence, the one where Pieterson had alluded to the fact that Tam and I could use our powers to run away from our duties. And I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that our adamant refusal was the only thing that kept the Admiral from adding my blood to Pieterson's that moment on the bridge.
"In time, you may be able to simply do what you want and waltz right off this ship without anyone being able to challenge you."
Growing powers or not, I was still here. I had proven my loyalty again, escaping Reese's prophecy by a hair's width.
Instinct demanded that I start spouting excuses, start uttering words to justify what we had done. And right on its heels, discipline caught my instinct and viciously beat it to the proverbial ground. I would not speak until spoken to when a superior officer was in the room. So far the Admiral had not given any of us permission to so much as crack our lips to draw breath.
"Your thoughts," Admiral Thrawn said as the last holo image ran to its end.
I glanced at Tam. Tam glanced at Reese and then me. Reese stared straight ahead, obviously giving the center stage to one of us that understood this Force thing better than he did.
"Our intentions were good, sir," Tam said, breaking the silence first. "I want to state that for the record before we discuss anything else. Master C'Baoth has been using the Force to influence the minds of the crew, to twist them to his own dark purpose. We first became aware of this when Lieutenant Hollinger's personality began to change…"
To his credit, Tam laid it all out on the line. Honestly. Concisely. As if giving his daily report to his superior officer. He included the projecting of his abilities on to me during that first confrontation with C'Baoth at the battle of Bpfassh and everything to the point where Ensign Megga Tarn had become tainted. Reese picked up the tale then, confessing his own involvement and the planning he put into recovering the sanity of the Ensign. But what neither of them added was my part in the story, how my abilities worked. And I saw something in the Admiral's expression flicker, a minute change I would not have been able to catch had I not been standing that close to him.
He was aware that the other two were omitting things. And that could mean I would lose two more friends this day.
"I'm the link," I said, cutting off Reese in mid-word.
The other man stared at me in disbelief. Admiral Thrawn turned those eyes on me, lifting an eyebrow. Staring at me as if I had just spoken out of turn. I took a deep breath. There was no going back now.
"Crewman Idelas speaks the truth," Tam rushed in before I could say anything more. "She forged the link between us, and can amplify the Force powers in others. I identified this earlier in her, and fought to keep it out of the hands of C'Baoth. As did Lieutenant Reese."
"And after Master C'Baoth proved he could tamper with the minds of those of higher rank, you chose to err on the side of caution and not report this to your superior officers, I assume."
Tam swallowed once. "Yes, sir."
"It was never our intentions to cause harm, sir," I put in. "We saw a problem with the ship, and without any procedures to guide us, we did the best we could to repair it."
"You claim loyalty as your defense in the death of Ensign Orn, then?"
I swallowed hard this time and nodded. "Yes, sir. When we confronted Ensign Orn, he was in the process of delivering a package for Master C'Baoth. We intercepted it, which lead to our attempt to… cleanse him, I think that is the best way to state it… of C'Baoth's taint. Though I may state for the record that Lieutenant Reese is not complicit in any activity that is connected with the death of Ensign Orn. Crewman Tam, Crewman P-" It hurt to say his name, still. And I licked my lips. "Crewman Tam, Crewman Pieterson, and I were the individuals responsible. We accept your judgment."
He glanced up at me. "Do you still have this package?"
Tam reached into a pocket of his jumpsuit, pulling out the second data card that we guarded closer than our own lives. "This was all that was contained in the case, sir," Tam replied, handing over the data card. "We couldn't make out what was on it. It reads like—"
"A moment, Crewman," Thrawn cut him off. "Allow me to make my own determinations."
He slotted the data card on his display circle, the information flowing on a screen only he could see. I already knew what was on it, though I didn't quite understand it. Something about chemical compositions and mixes, of a selection of private samples once held by the Emperor, himself. It also referenced a piece of spaarti technology recovered from some mountain on Wayland.
It all looked like medical gibberish to us, and despite our best efforts, we weren't able to so much as crack a line of it. It had been my hope that Vyns would soon win his bet with Torre and bed Dr. Ashta Flores. At least then I would have a legitimate excuse to visit her, maybe ask some questions related to all that unintelligible scrawl. Yes, I felt a slight bit of shame in using the bet between Vyns and Torre to my advantage. But as the Admiral had said before, we were at war.
Just because my war was personal and wasn't over lines on a star map didn't make it any less of a war. I had to use all advantages at my disposal.
After what felt like an eternity, the Admiral leaned back in his seat again. Lips compressed slightly, looking as if he had come to a final decision. We all stood straighter, even Reese. Ready to accept the judgment.
"Crewmen Idelas and Tam, I hereby clear you of your involvement in the death of Ensign Orn. You did well in that regard," he said, pinning each of us with a stare. "However, I do not absolve you of your actions. You are guilty of failing to report this to a superior officer. Your abilities in the Force do not excuse you from following the proper chain of command. Whatever you may consider yourselves, you are still members of this Fleet and you will learn to follow its rules. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," we both replied at once.
"I am given to understand that you both perform exceptionally well in your assigned duties. Yet it appears that when left your own devices, you tend towards a certain lack of discipline," he continued, glancing at the frozen hollow of the two of us in that empty supply closet, chatting with Pieterson. "You will report to Lieutenant Reese at the end of your shifts for no less than two hours each evening. This will continue until the Lieutenant informs me that you have learned to focus your free time on less improper activities."
"This will also serve as a lesson to you, Lieutenant," The Admiral touched a button on his chair. The holo image of our activities with Ensign Tarn replaced the other. Particularly the portion in which Reese led. "You have fought with these two as if they were part of your unit. Perhaps using your free time for the provided duration to put them through rigorous training will reinforce your dedication to those already under your command."
"Good. Now, I assume the individuals listed on this data card are all working under C'Baoth's influence."
He produced a second card from a slot on his display. The one that Pieterson had on his person when he died, the one containing all our notes and research regarding those tainted by the Dark Side. To my credit this time, I felt my heart flip in my chest but my outward appearance remained unruffled. We'd been cleared in the murder of a senior officer. We'd come clean about our actions regarding C'Baoth.
It was over. We could go back to being simply crewman again. Someone more competent, more qualified, could handle things from here.
"Yes, sir," Tam replied, his voice more confident than I'd heard it in months. Relieved as much as I was that this was finally over. "I have personally verified the levels and length of time under C'Baoth's influence that each person listed has suffered."
"Have you noticed any further activity in these officers that are out of the ordinary?"
Tam hesitated. "Not really, sir. It is difficult to track them. I… am running out of excuses to be in areas I shouldn't in order to check every one. Lieutenant Reese and Crewman Idelas have done their best to assist. However…"
"However neither of the two possesses your strength in the Force, and thus cannot adequately tell for certain."
"I see," Admiral Thrawn continued to scan down the list, frowning briefly at this name or that. Eye brows lifting or eyes narrowing slightly. "How long will it take you, if you have the 'excuse' to be near these officers, to verify the levels of taint as you put it?"
Tam started, eyes slightly wide. "Uh… Three days, sir. Give or take a few hours. It… uh, it honestly all depends on the length of time and the amount of access C'Baoth had to them."
"And if Crewman Idelas assists you?"
"Her assistance for this really isn't necessary," he replied honestly. "It's when we cleanse someone that I need her strength, and that of Lieutenant Reese."
Admiral Thrawn drummed his fingers on his armrest, eyes turned inward for a moment, considering. "Take them with you anyway," he said at last. "Tomorrow, I will provide you with a list of names and a reason to be in specific areas of the ship. Consider it your first command assignment under your new rank, Ensign Tam."
Tam's eyes widened all the way this time. "Sir?"
"The correct response is 'Thank you, sir.'"
"Uh, T-thank you, sir," Tam stuttered out. "But, sir. My post on the bridge—"
"Your talents are worth more to me in the Imperial Security Bureau than working a communications station on the bridge," he said pointedly. "The ISB division has become severely fragmented since the events at Endor. I have decided to alter their original purpose slightly, given that Jedi once again rove the galaxy. You have proven yourself useful in rooting out Force users and those under the influence of Force suggestions. What I am asking you to do is nothing more than you have already done. "
"Y-yes, sir. But what about Crewman Idelas and L—"
"Stormtroopers as highly trained and specialized as Lieutenant Reese are in short supply. For the moment, he will remain where he is. If you have need of him and his talents, I will see that he is available. As for Crewman Idelas, she will also be made available to you as needed. However, she remains primarily on the bridge, where I need her to be."
He didn't like it, but Tam finally surrendered. We were going to be split up, and no amount of argument was going to change that. I had to wonder if that was part of our punishment. Together, we had proven ourselves dangerous, destructive even, and without direction. As much as I wanted to, I couldn't fault his logic. We'd be separated until he could fully trust us as a unit. Until the other two proved they had earned the right to stand in his palm, like I had.
I glanced down at the Admiral's hand resting on the arm of his chair, could almost see the silver ring on his little finger and the matching chain that would flow to the cuff on my wrist. I was already bound to him symbolically, allowed to stand at his side to show the others that he trusted me.
I watched my best friend lift his head and square his shoulders, as if he'd realized this, too. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
"You will report directly to me for the time being, Ensign," the Admiral said. "Additional orders will be issued to you in the morning. I trust I do not have to impress upon you the need for discretion regarding this conversation. You are dismissed."