A/N: Written as a gift for AgelessGrace66 and her challenge to write a Thrawn fic based on a lovesong. I chose "Making Love out of Nothing at All" by Air Supply. The inspiration for my Thrawn interpretation comes from the amazing work of Chissscientist (love your Thrawn!). This is dedicated to all the people that are fans of Thrawn/Maris pairings. With a little sprinkling of Karrde, Mara, and Luke thrown in for fun. Please be kind with reviews, as this is the first time I've ever tried to write from Thrawn's POV. As always, please let me know what I am doing right or wrong.
SPOILER ALERT: The opening scene is taken from Dark Force Rising by Timothy Zahn. 95% of the dialogue between Mara and Thrawn comes from that book. For those that haven't read it, this scene comes when Thrawn has captured Mara and is currently hunting Talon Karrde's smuggling organization. Mara is trying to make a deal to save Karrde from Thrawn's wrath.
Disclaimer: I own nothing but my OCs. Please do not sue. This is purely for fun.
He got an acknowledgement and keyed off the circuit. "Very well, Emperor's Hand," he said, looking up at Mara again. "We have an agreement. The Dark Force for the lifting of our death mark against Karrde. How long will it take you to return to Karrde's current base?"
Out of the corner of her eye, Ella saw Mara hesitate, and her jaw nearly dropped. Was Mara really going to give this man so much as an inkling as to where to find Karrde? Had she suddenly forgotten just what Thrawn was capable of doing? As if the pure white of his uniform wasn't indication enough! Her mind started to flash, to race through all the things her mother had shared with her about him. About Commander Mitth'raw'nurudo of the Chiss Expansionary Defense Fleet, now known as Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn…
The name and title inspired mixed emotions of utter elation and absolute dread. Could this really be the man that a young Maris Ferasi once held in such utter esteem? If it was, what in the known galaxy was he doing here? Didn't the Chiss race as a whole harbor an isolation doctrine?
Part of her wanted to know, wanted to know desperately if only to appease her mother's spirit. But the other part just wanted to get the kriff off this ship alive. The man her mother had described was an utter contrast to the stories she'd heard of this Grand Admiral. They just couldn't possibly be the same man unless…
… unless the stories about the Grand Admiral were all crap. Unless there was something more to this man that what the New Republic led them all to believe.
Ella wasn't certain what made her feel worse in that moment: the idea that she and Mara were possibly betraying the confidence of Talon Karrde, the smuggler chief that had been like a father to her, or the notion that they were the ones that had been betrayed by a brand new government that was supposed to have the galaxy's best interests at heart. Which it couldn't, not if it was spreading lies and propaganda about the Empire. Wouldn't that, in turn, make it just as bad as the enemy it was fighting?
She shook her head slowly, deciding to put that question to rest until other wiser people could answer it for her. She stopped gaping at Mara like an idiot and lowered her eyes to the deck, making an art form out of studying the impeccably clean surface.
"On the Etherway, about three days," Mara was saying. "Two and a half if I push it."
"I suggest you do so," Thrawn said. "Since you have exactly eight days to obtain the location and bring it back here to me."
Mara stared at him. "Eight days? But that—"
"Eight days. Or I find him and get the location my way."
Ella jerked at that, eyes snapping up to Mara and the Grand Admiral, unable to stop that reflexive maneuver. Everyone knew, or at least heard tell, of Imperial interrogation techniques. The thought of what could happen to Karrde and all the information that he would spill under those drugs and tortures… A second shiver ran up her spine that she didn't bother to hide. A lot of people would die, then. A lot of good people.
She suddenly understood why Mara was willing to trade what she was offering. A fleet of ships for the lives of thousands of people. It was worth it no matter which way you stacked the chips.
A dozen possible retorts rushed through Mara's mind. Another look at those glowing red eyes silenced all of them. "I'll do what I can," she managed. Turning, she headed back across the room.
"I'm sure you will," he said after her. "And afterward, we'll sit down and have a long talk together. About your years away from Imperial service… and why you've been so long in returning."
That was her cue, Ella supposed, turning to follow Mara out the door. Determined to slide out of his presence before she was noticed. Maybe, if Fate was with them, they'd be able to wiggle out of this deal. Karrde was exceptionally good at finding loopholes in established bargains. Hopefully he would find a way to—
"Tell me, Mara Jade," the Grand Admiral called after them, a slightly amused tone in his voice. "How many people does it take to deliver a message?"
Mara froze. There was fear and sorrow in her eyes, and an intense anger simmering to life just beneath those other emotions. "Look," she began, voice taking on a hard edge again. But fear tempered it, made it loose some of its teeth. "This is a difficult system to navigate through. I need a co-pilot."
He lifted an eyebrow. "I'm certain that can be arranged if you feel you are not up to the task, Emperor's Hand."
Something shifted in Mara, something that had her dropping the reasonable tone she'd so struggled to maintain in his presence. Dropping the reasonable words as well and going for blunt honesty. "You promised the death mark would be lifted," she bit out, grabbing Ella's arm and shoving her not too kindly towards the door. "Why do you want her? She doesn't know anything. And damaging one of Karrde's people would go against our bargain!"
"Wouldn't it, though?" He answered, voice starting to frost over again. "I never stated that your young friend would come to harm. She will remain here—" He lifted his hand, cutting off Mara's coming rant—"as a guest of the Empire. If you truly intend to keep our bargain, then she has nothing to fear."
"And if not?" Mara snarled out. "You'll kill her after you sift every bit of information out of her."
Thrawn shook his head, one precise movement from the left to the right. "You'll soon realize that my Empire is not in the habit of wasting resources. I consider lives a rather powerful and precious resource," he replied, a hint of true anger starting to thaw that cold aloofness. "Now go, Mara Jade. Keep our bargain, or you will learn the limit of my generosity."
Ella stood there, trying not to show her fear, as Mara did the only thing she could in that situation. She nodded stiffly. And then tossed Ella a look that was somewhere between fear and a command to stay strong. Then Mara Jade walked out that door. And she was alone with the man she knew only through her mother's stories and half-hearted New Republic propaganda.
His guest. She was his… guest.
It was strange how things came together full circle, she mused as she took the two steps back into the room, planting her back firmly against the nearest wall. He had said the same words to her mother all those years ago, inviting her and her companions to remain as guests until he could ascertain whether or not humans were a threat to his people. Jorj Car'das, Dubrak Quennto, and Maris Ferasi weren't idiots. They knew he used the term "guest" to soften the fact that they were captives of the Chiss Acendency, guilty of accidentally trespassing across borders in which they were not welcomed.
Their sentence for their crime would depend on what Commander Mitth'raw'nuruodo found on their ship, and of course, their actions while they were his "guests."
Ella took deep breaths, letting them out slowly, quietly. Unlike her mother, Ella knew what her sentence would be. Death at worst or indentured servitude on some prison planet at best. The Empire was notorious for its hatred of smugglers. And she was a smuggler, like her mother had been. Unlike her mother, Ella had willingly plied her trade in Imperial territory. Willingly crossed its boundaries, knowing full well the laws against such things. Her fate, it seemed, hinged on Mara's ability to convince Karrde to make this deal, and her own behavior while a "guest" of the Grand Admiral.
Maybe her situation and her mother's hadn't been all that dissimilar. Especially with the way that glowing red gaze stared at her in silence. Waiting… but for what? And how in the stars had he come to serve the Empire? The question was near to driving her mad.
A thousand different conversation-starters danced behind her lips as the silence stretched thin. But somehow saying "hell of a day, isn't it, your Admiralness," or "how about that last swoop race? Was that guy a real piece of work or what?" seemed hardly an appropriate way to engage him in conversation. Not to mention that there was something wrong with her eyes. For the life of her, she couldn't seem to peel them away from their eternal vigilance on the floor. The orbs felt glued there, staring at durasteel buffed to a near mirror shine.
And all the while, the silence remained.
She tried to tell herself that she was content to spend the rest of her life rooted to that one spot, staring down at the floor and her boots. They were dirty, she noted—the boots, not the floor. Speckled here and there with hyperdive grease, stained in places from deck polish and various drinks spilled on them from equally as varied nights at the cantina with some of the crew. That got her eyes moving, glancing at the hem of her jumpsuit, at the frayed strings and spotty stains there, too. Her mother would be so disappointed in her, she thought with a frown. Maris had always been lovely, made up presentable even when sleeping.
Ella lost count of the stains by the time she reached her knees. Compared to the rest of this Star Destroyer and her crew, she looked like a mish-mash of space debris. Besides, wasn't a person supposed to be dressed nicely when in the presence of a Grand Admiral? She wasn't too sure on that one. Imperial etiquette wasn't high on the list of required reading for smugglers.
"You are Loriella Ferasi, daughter of Miras Ferasi."
It wasn't a question. But she knew he wanted an answer nonetheless. "Yes, sir," she said softly, eyes locking back on that safe patch of deck plating once again.
"Look at me when I speak to you, Loriella."
Her head snapped up so fast she thought she gave herself whiplash. The rich unforgettable command in his tone, even in a simple statement had her ready to jump. His eyes glittered with renewed interest as hers met his, and she realized what had just happened. He hadn't spoken that last sentence in Basic.
It had been in his native language. It had been in Cheunh.
"So I see your mother taught you everything," he continued in that same language.
Ella frowned slightly, struggling to pick out the words and meaning in that last statement. Two months of intense language lessons that he'd given her mother did not make for a complete understanding of a language. Not by a long shot. And to her, his words came off with a faint accent. Though, to be fair, she'd only ever heard her mother speak them until now, so it could have been her human tongue that gave the words the faint lilting tone. Instead of the crisp, too clear edges in his voice.
She bit her lower lip uncertainly. But there was nothing he could do to her mother now, if he was suddenly displeased with the teaching… "Yes, sir," she replied, forcing herself to keep eye contact.
"Where is your mother now?"
This time she dared close her eyes, unwilling to let him see the pain. "Alderaan, sir. She and father and…" Ella cleared her throat. "Everyone, sir."
He seemed to consider that. "How long have you worked for Karrde?"
It was an abrupt change in topic, at least to her understanding. She tried to call to mind what her mother had told her about him, his people. Every word, every nuance, meant something. If she stayed focused, she could see where he was going with this. "Six years, sir."
"And before that?"
"Here and there, to be honest. Any place that needed a good mechanic." Why was he asking? Didn't his Intelligence division have a detailed file on every member of Karrde's organization, considering he was trying to hunt them down like wild animals? "Never any place for too long before that."
She bit her lip again. "Never really fit in anywhere."
"That may change in your future," he said, and her eyes lifted to his on reflex.
There was a tight smile on his lips, his eyes unreadable. But his hands… She'd been around enough intelligent calculating men in her time with Karrde to read his hands. They were steepled before him, the first two fingers on each hand tapping together thoughtfully. Indicating that he'd come to a decision about her, one that existed outside of the agreement he had reached with Mara. And then the exact wording of his agreement sunk in.
The Dark Force for the lifting of our death mark against Karrde... Our, as in the Empire. Not I, as in he was free to carry whatever personal grudge he wished. And the fact that he promised not to hunt to them to death anymore didn't necessarily mean they were all free to go. He simply promised he wouldn't kill them. And there were so many things a man in his position could do that were worse than death.
"Yes," he said, as if reading her thoughts, inclining his head slightly. "I see you understand perfectly. Did your mother tell you that she once saved my life?"
"Then you understand that I still owe her a debt. That debt was not erased with her passing. It merely transferred ownership."
She stared at him, a growing horror climbing up her spine. "To me?"
"I release you from that debt," she spouted immediately. A favor… from a man in his position… It wasn't the spiceload that it sounded. In the hands of someone like Talon, it would have been worth more than this ship. In the hands of someone like her, a badly inexperienced young woman who only wanted to be left alone? It was too powerful, and way too dangerous.
His lips twitched, the tight smile becoming somewhat amused. "I'm afraid it's not that simple, Miss Ferasi. I will repay my debt to your mother," his comm. board pinged and he glanced down at it, the smile fading slightly. "However, I am afraid we are out of time for the moment. I have arranged quarters for you. If you are willing, we will speak again over dinner tonight."
It sounded like a request. If she said no, he might very well let it go. But… what price would she pay for that refusal later?
A man in a black uniform entered the room, snapping out a salute to the Grand Admiral. Who, incidentally, was now focused on the readouts on his double display ring.
"My name is Lieutenant Strackton," the man next to her identified himself. "I will escort you to your quarters."
She let him lead her away.
He waited until the doors closed, taking the young Loriella Ferasi from his view. And still he waited several heartbeats before glancing upward. Staring at the ghosts of his own imagination in that vacant space between where Loriella had stood and the door. It had been years since he'd let himself think of Maris for more than a few minutes at most. She was tied to too much of his past, too many memories that started off sweet yet bled to ashes all too quickly.
And now he had Maris's daughter in his hand. The memories couldn't remain locked under his iron control in the wake of that knowledge. A flick of a switch had the reports on Mara's ship and his coming battle plans sinking back into electronic memory, replaced with a selection of art that he only viewed in his darkest moments. Only in those very rare infuriating moments when he needed to remind himself that he was not hated by all.
Perhaps it was best to revisit the past now, instead of letting it nag at him, proving a distraction at the most inopportune time.
Like Loriella's appearance had been.
Correlian art appeared on the walls, sprinkled here and there with the artwork of a few outer rim worlds. The artwork that he and Maris had discovered together on that Vagaari slave ship so long ago. He leaned back in his command chair, eyes slowly closing as he prepared to unleash the memories he often ignored. A small ironic smile touched his lips as those pieces of his past came into sharp focus. Ironic as these were the memories he often wished would fade. He could barely remember his childhood, when he and his brother Thrass had been young boys dreaming of being adopted into one of the Ruling Families. At times even Thrass's face blurred in his mind, the image of his brother fraying as the years separated them.
But Maris was always crystal clear, called up from the mists of time as if he had glimpsed her but yesterday.
She had become synonymous with kindness in his mind, with acceptance during his long years of exile on that uninhabited world. Her memory a comfort when the madness of loneliness started to flirt with the edges of his sanity. His focus on his goals was what kept that madness truly at bay, to be certain, his desire to protect the Chiss Ascendancy the fire that kept his heart alive and his mind sharp. But Maris has been the tempering of that flame, reminding him that he wasn't a monster, that what he wanted for his people wasn't the horror they had made it out to be.
In the darkness of those years, staring up at the stars as he attempted to sleep, it was her eyes that whispered to him instead of his former wife. Mitth'ari'sedai had been beautiful, nearly perfect in his people's view of appearances. Her voice had been charming, mesmerizing, and her smile when it was announced that they were matched as husband and wife equally as lovely. And when he fell from grace, her frown and cold looks of disapproval had been equally as ugly. She had been rematched to another trail born adoptee of the Mitth family before his tribunal was even concluded.
She had forgotten him and their years together in the blink of an eye.
Maris had not, he now knew. If only because she had taught her daughter everything he had taught her.
His eyes opened, staring at the works of art, breathing slowly and steadily through the weight that appeared around his heart. To anyone else, his visage was that of unconcerned calm. Meditative even. His control that strong, that unshakably firm. Inside, he mourned. It was always a possibility that Maris would have died already. Smuggling was an occupation that did not lend itself to longevity. But he had always held out hope that she had left Captain Quennto, that she had gone on to marry a man worthy of her attentions, to have children.
When he was rescued from his exile, when he joined the Empire and rose quickly through its ranks, he knew it would have been too dangerous to contact her. To even check up on her progress through life would have assigned a death mark to her head. Imperial politics was vicious even when it was at its most kind, and out of necessity he had become an active participant in the Royal Court politics. His interest in anyone had been viewed as a tool to use against him. He owed her too much to put her through such things.
But he had never dreamed that she would have died on Alderaan. That this war would have consumed her.
The glow of his eyes intensified and he sat up in his chair, staring at the holographic image of the painting they had spent hours debating over when she was his guest onboard the Crustai base in Chiss territory. This war had killed her, had taken away one of the brightest and best things in his life. He would be the one to end it, to bring this so-called New Republic down and fold it back into the Empire where it belonged. He would see to it that Maris Ferasi's death was not empty, that her death had been for nothing.
His eyes shifted to that empty space between the door and his command chair, where the young woman that had shattered the chains around these memories had stood. He would personally see to it that Loriella Ferasi lived a long and safe life. That goal pacified the pressure in his chest, smoothed over the rough edges of that loss until it, too, could be wedged into that dark place in his heart. In a rare flight of fancy, he could almost see Maris standing where Loriella had stood, nodding approval to his goals. Thanking him for protecting the daughter she had left behind.
It was enough.
His fingers deftly pressed the buttons on his double display ring, calling back the reports he had previously been reading. And lost himself to the work that would ensure victory for those he swore to protect.