A/N: Thanks again for the reviews and favorites and follows! As always, this is a continuation of AgelessGrace66's Lovesong Fic challenge with Grand Admiral Thrawn. The song for this chapter is "Familiar Taste of Poison" by Halestorm. Again, not a traditional lovesong, but I really found it fitting. Let me know what you think! :D
Disclaimer: I own nothing but my OCs. I am not making any money from this. Please do not sue. This is purely for fun.
Ella was standing at that dreaded closet again, wondering idly when she'd become some sort of living kriffing dress-up doll for an Imperial kriffing Grand Admiral's kriffing pleasure. Her lips were pulled down into a frown, eyes blazing at the very audacity of the situation. She was a smuggler, a mechanic, a drifter. A literal nobody. To someone like Grand Admiral Thrawn, she shouldn't have been so much as a blip on his regal radar.
The tradeoff for being a literal nobody was the gratifyingly blessed freedom afforded to the unknown and unwanted.
She had been free. There had been no demands on her time, no schedule she had had to keep, no one giving her orders and expecting her to blindly follow them. Even her Uncle had acknowledged her ability to pack up her tools and run off whenever and to wherever she wanted.
And the locks that had been on her quarters functioned from the inside instead of the outside.
She turned her fuming gaze on the outer door of her suite, as if the sheer magnitude of her anger could burn the electronics to ash. Her feet moved before she realized she was doing it, fingernails scraping along the smooth faceplate of the door release mechanism until she found that sweet spot. And she froze, fingers poised to flip that panel open and reveal its innards, mind focused on the wires she could twist, cut and reinsert into different ports. Slicing the lock in milliseconds.
And alerting every Tom, Dick, and Security Guard in the entire area to her actions. There was a part of her that wanted to do exactly that, to show these oh-so-superior-acting Imperials that she could undermine their attempts to keep her corralled with a bare flick of her wrist. When they came pouring into the suite, near to drowning in their own righteous indignation that she would dare attempt to compromise one of their systems, they would find her dressed for dinner and seated on one of the plush sofas. Idly scanning some text or the other on her data pad, smiling in sugary innocence. Showing them that she could come and go as she pleased, and that it was her desire to stay at the moment and indulge their glorious leader with his infuriating game.
Oh, how she yearned to do just that! To take back a measure of control from a situation that was quickly spiraling away from her.
Her fingers pulled away from the panel, though, curling into fists at her sides. She couldn't do it, and not for a lack of training or desire. But because it would gain her nothing and give him everything. Security would be doubled—tripped if she read him correctly. What little freedom she had with just Lieutenant Strackton following closely at her heels would be lost as well. And the last thing she wanted was to replace that cold-eyed man with a squad of stormtroopers. No, she couldn't throw her skills into the Admiral's face, couldn't outright defy him.
She knew enough of him from these two past meetings to know that he would have her in whatever little box he wanted her in. And if she refused to go willingly, he would put her in that box by force.
The nerve… the arrogance… the… the strength! Stars above, the sheer power that he welded! How… why… What could have motivated her uncle to ever have crossed this man? How could he have put Mara and herself into this position? Whatever he had gained, she hoped it had been worth it. Or Thrawn could just save himself the trouble of hunting down Talon Karrde because she would do it for him!
And none of this was bringing her any closer to figuring out what she was going to wear to dinner.
Spinning away from the door, Ella stomped back towards that kriffing closet again. Her breath heaved in and out of her chest, small beads of sweat breaking out over her forehead. The room was stifling, too small to contain her. Never mind the fact that her brain recognized that the suite was perfectly fine, was larger than anything she had had off planet. Acknowledged that a space this size on a ship like the Chimaera probably housed six to nine men of Lieutenant rank. But to her, it wasn't just a room anymore. It was a symbol of her predicament, and the sum total of her present universe.
At least, until the Grand Admiral deigned to parcel out more for her. Like with the information she so desperately wanted.
Miserly kriffing bastard, she thought viciously. Not daring to speak that aloud, not with the knowledge that they watched her every move even now. Privacy, apparently, was only reserved for loyal Imperial officers and civilians. Since she was a no-named spacer living on the charity of their leader, dressing in his gifts and dancing to his kriffing tune, the last thing she could expect was a moment to herself. She had deluded herself if she thought she was a guest as he had stated.
No, she was a prisoner. And this was her torture.
Forced to wait on his convenience, to crawl on bended knee and beg scraps of information from his proverbial table. His promises were worse than any interrogation drug, his knowledge of her mother and father slowly breaking her down. And that conversation on the bridge—on the BRIDGE!—of his flagship with everyone watching? It had left her bare, stripped anew of layers she hadn't realized she'd had left to shed. Tongue-tied as she knew better than to treat a Captain, or in this case an Admiral, with less than the utmost respect before his own crew. Not even the worst pirate would have found her mouthing off to him before his team.
She'd left that conversation with her head spinning, her heart breaking. Torn between the memories of her parents. Her father would have never stood for anything of this manipulation, would have taken death instead of being led around with the promise of answers. Her father would have slugged the Admiral in his perfect face, and laughed when the stormtroopers burned him to the ground for it. Never sacrificing his freedom for anything.
But her mother?
She… well… she… Ella sighed, and leaned her head against doorjamb of the closet. The fight draining out of her. Her mother would have done as the Admiral had suggested. Maris Ferasi would have listened, absorbed, sorted through all the clues he had been dropping, and pieced together the whole story. Patiently, so infuriatingly patiently. Uncle Talon would have done the same thing.
"Patience, Miss Ferasi. I would suggest that you follow your mother's example in the next few days and not jump to conclusions without first knowing all the facts."
Ella sat down the edge of the bed, pressing her fingers to her eyes until the shaking passed. Until her temper was under control. Until tears of frustration and fear stoppered themselves behind her eyes, refusing to be shed. It was a long wait, and longer still before she rose to her feet and chose her outfit for dinner… and settled herself to study Cheunh.
She was pale, he noted, as she let him push her seat under the table. The pallor of her skin set off starkly by the formal gown of black and silver she'd selected. And in her eyes the storm raged, the seeds of promise he'd planted growing steadily, producing fruits of lightning that scourged her soul. Such things were amplified by the forced isolation, the sense of imprisonment. With her thoughts as her only companion, and Imperial training her only way to alleviate the boredom. It was an inelegant combination of techniques, but no less effective in their simplicity. He was the only one to grant her freedom. He, by his own orders, was the only one to have full conversations with her.
Forcing her reliance, her trust. Forcing her to come to the conclusions he wished, and all the while believing they were her own.
It did not please him, the torment visible in her gaze, nor the need to resort to such manipulations to earn her trust. But neither was it something he could spare her. Not in the limited time he had. If his calculations were correct, they would arrive at Talon Karrde's location a few hours or so behind Mara. Long enough for the smuggler to listen to the message Mara was delivering at his behest. Long enough for him to realize that his only option was to make this deal.
Long enough for the man to foolishly disregard that option and scramble his associates in a last ditch effort to flee. Only to run headlong into an Imperial task force in which he would lead, with Ella witnessing her Uncle's betrayal. Realizing that Talon would have left her in Imperial hands to torment and die.
He gauged the stress fractures in her defenses as he took his seat. Yes, she was nearly where she needed to be emotionally. One more gentle push, one more knife-edged slice, and she would be ready for the final blow that would end her former life.
"Before we continue with our previous discussion," he said in Cheunh as he placed his napkin in his lap, the serving droid pouring the wine. "I must warn you that what I reveal most likely will lead to more questions. And the answers to those questions may not bring you the closure you wanted."
She picked up her wine with fingers that only trembled slightly, taking a long swallow rather than a measured sip. It was good wine, strong wine, a vintage from a planet unknown to most of the galaxy at large. And chosen for that specific reason. He watched her frown, blink once, and set the glass down. The trembling was gone, the wine spreading through her, soothing the aching rage, the churning storm.
He lifted an eyebrow questioningly, asking without asking if she was alright. She blushed faintly, embarrassed by her attempt at nonchalance. "My life hasn't exactly been all about pleasantries, dresses and fancy dinners with Imperial royalty. So forgive my lack of surprise if what you tell me isn't going to fill my life with happiness and gratification."
Ah, they were back to this ground already. The brutish, unpolished commoner and the domineering, manipulative lord. Surrendering before the battle began, or merely seeing this conversation as a continuation of the confrontation upon the bridge. Considering the victory already his. Perhaps it was time to be gracious. To prove that surrendering to him wasn't death and defeat but merely a setting aside of misguided assumptions in order to earn greater rewards.
"I would hardly consider myself royalty, Miss Ferasi," he countered. "I am a servant of the Empire just as any, merely with more authority than most. Yet I still have those to which I am accountable."
"The Council of Moffs."
He paused in reaching for his wine, nodding once before taking the glass in hand. "Yes. I see that you have spent some time reading."
"Forewarned is forearmed," she replied, mirroring his motion. "Besides, I have limited access to outside holonet news. And I would rather stick this fork in my left eye than review the latest holodrama or news about it."
He permitted himself a soft laugh. "Then I think you chose the better of the options, Miss Ferasi. While the concept of blinding yourself forevermore to avoid a moment of misery is intriguing, I would think it rather hard to continue our dinner meetings that way."
She slumped back in her seat, swirling her wine. Unhinged by his refusal to be riled by her rudeness. But refusing to, as she had so callously put it, play his game. "You need to stop this," she said softly, switching back to Basic. "Stop being so damn gracious."
"Why?" he continued in Cheunh.
"Because it makes it hard for me to hate you." Again, in Basic.
"And why do you wish to hate me?"
"It is a legitimate question," he replied just as smoothly, as easily, as if she had not made a personal declaration of war against him. "If I am to be hated, I would like to know the reason why, Miss Ferasi."
"Stop calling me that."
He paused one more, lifted an eyebrow. And again she blushed, staring down into her wine. Silent, and not out of a need to delay a reply, but closing down emotionally. Moving ever backward in their progress, regressing to the silence she had tried upon that first meeting between them, when Mara had given him not only the keys to taking down the Rebellion, but also the means to repay his vow to Maris. It had been a good day.
And this… this was proving a most gratifying evening. One more push was all it would take. One more twist of the conversation and she would be the villain and he the downtrodden. She the domineering and manipulative one and he the innocent. And when she left his presence, the isolation in her rooms and the forced contemplation would cement all his efforts.
One more twist, one more shatter. One more battle to be won swiftly and mercifully.
Maris, she should have been mine. Ours. But I will correct that flaw in Fortune's pattern, as I have done for so many others. This time it is for you, for me. And for her. For a life that was robbed from us.
"I can't do this," she muttered, rising to her feet and tossing her napkin onto her untouched plate. "I'm sorry. I can't. We aren't friends. We aren't business associates. We aren't anything. And I can't sit here at this table and pretend that we are. Not for anything, even my mother's memory. So keep your information. I'll find it through other means."
She turned her back on him, and he rose, unleashing the final blow he could deliver.
"Ownership of Parabolic Enterprises is divided between three individuals at this point in time," he called after her. Watching her come to a dead standstill. Watching the trembling return. Watching her realize that she was defenseless there in the center of the room without even the wine to hide behind. "At its original inception, it was so, with the split favoring your father by ten percent. Zabetta Erst and Sha'en Whistler each held thirty percent interest in the company. Upon your father's death, that controlling forty percent interest was to be passed to you. Considering you were beneath the age of majority to claim your inheritance, per your father's wishes, your inheritance was given to a guardian until you reached the age in which to claim it. Once you reached that age, five percent of your forty was to be given to that custodian as payment. Which would leave you with controlling interest at thirty-five percent."
He sat again, taking a bite of his meal and watching her without apology. "Even if you do not wish to dine with me, Miss Karrde, you will of course indulge me while I partake of my dinner. Even a servant of the Empire such as I must keep to a schedule, and that leaves precious little time for meals as it is."
She turned slowly, her face a mask of yearning and pain, one hand gripping her thick braid in a white-knuckled grasp. "Don't call me that, either," she whispered.
Another bite, another sip of wine to wash it down with. An eternity in which they stared at one another across the ruins of their private battleground. Both knowing it was over. Both knowing he had won. And still that damnable Karrde pride held her in check, kept her from coming to him as she should.
But that could be dealt with in time. Shattering the last of her resistance was not his to complete. No, she would shatter herself and come to him. She must.
"Then how shall I address you?" he replied coolly, the edges of pleasantness blurring in his tone. "Please understand that I have been very patient with you out of respect for your mother's memory. Yet even I have limits, young miss. If you force me to be rude, then so be it. But understand that was your action and your decision, not mine."
"Ella," she whispered again. "Just call me Ella. Everyone else does."
"You will find out soon enough that I am not 'everyone else.' As you have put it, we are not friends. I would not address you in such a fashion any more than I would approve of your use of my core name without proper title before it."
"Sullaren," he cut in, watching her start at the name. "It is your given name, your formal name. If you do not wish to be addressed by your father's family or your mother's, I will call you by your given name. You may wish to hate me, Sullaren, but I have no desire to return such animosity to you. Now, you may continue to stand there or you may join me again at the table. The decision is yours."
"As I was saying," he continued, picking up where he left off as the serving droid changed out the courses at the table. His tone as distant and politely cool as if he were giving a briefing rather than sharing a meal. "The named custodian of your inheritance was to claim five percent of it as fee for maintaining the trust. That same guardian managed to acquire Erst's twenty percent on his own, presumably buying out a portion of her control after her rather tragic and unexpected death. Effectively setting the playing field at twenty-five percent as the guardian's own interest, plus the thirty-five percent that was held in trust for you, for a grand total of sixty percent interest in Parabolic Enterprises. Which, I am sure you are aware, is not a small amount of wealth and influence in the shipping industry. The remaining ten percent of Erst's share was purchased by Whistler. So in the end, it left your guardian with sixty percent interest and Whistler with forty."
She had moved up to the table, standing next to him, eyes blazing with a rage that had nothing to do with her wished hatred for him. Hands gripping the edge tightly enough to make the dishes rattle faintly. Eager, hungry for her chance to reclaim her lost fortune and spread her vengeance for the years of poverty and pain.
And yet the hidden blade was coming, his final strike not yet embedded in her heart.
"Who?" she hissed. "Who is my guardian?"
He smiled faintly, leaning back in his own seat and regarding her. "The proper question is who was your guardian. You see, shortly after you disappeared, your guardian had you declared legally dead. With no one to challenge his claim, all your shares became his."
She leaned in, a position that would have seemed threatening from anyone else. A position that would have had anyone else dead in heartbeats. Save for the fact that he had orchestrated this one, pulling her to him as effectively as if he had a string tied to her waist.
"Who was my guardian?"
She jerked as if she had been slapped. "What?"
"The word is self-explanatory, is it not?"
Her eyes widened and she stepped back, disbelief on her face. "But you said you would tell me."
"Yes, I did. Only if you explained why you had chosen to wear the grey and burgundy ensemble to our meeting earlier today."
"So now you put a price on it?"
He shrugged a shoulder, took another bite. Took his time. Drank. And watched her pride start to crumble. "You were the one that rebuffed my offer of friendship, Sullaren. You, yourself, stated that we weren't anything. And I am not in the practice of giving away vital information for free."
She closed her eyes, spun away. Paced. Considered what little options she had. And he enjoyed his dinner, watching and learning. Gauging the strength needed to thrust his blade of truth into her heart without destroying her completely.
"My mother told me a story once," she said at last, turning back to him. "About meeting someone close to you. Someone she called Thrace or something. He was wearing those colors when they met. She said they were important for some reason, and so was the number eight."
"And you thought you could use a piece of my past to throw me off balance."
"Yes," she said, eyes wide again, as if she could not believe what she was saying. "And I would do it again in a hot minute, only this time I would go back and actually pay attention to what my mother had said."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because I didn't want to know about you!" she shouted. "My mother loved you more than my father. And I hated her for it. And I hated you for it. Fine, are you happy now? You know everything. Congratulations. You win and I surrender. I'll literally crawl if you ask me to right here and right now. Just stop these insipid games, already. Stop hurting me with your memories of my mother and just tell me what I want to know. Please, I'm so close to reclaiming the last of my father's legacy. Don't take it away. Just… don't."
There was no joy in him at her forfeiture. Not in the way she turned away, her shoulders shaking with the silent tears. There was no satisfaction as her pride peeled away in layers, sliding like discarded banners after a parade. But there was a sense of … beauty to it. As if examining a painting that had been cleaned of corrosive ash and dirt, seeing the masterwork hidden beneath. She had said they were not friends. She had claimed to hate him.
Neither was true. And that revelation had torn her apart on the inside, leaving her raw and unfinished. Ready to be polished into something magnificent.
She would be his masterpiece.
He rose and crossed those few steps to stand beside her. Close enough to touch, and yet his hands stayed behind his back.
Maris, I have done it. She is mine, or will be soon. Just a little longer, a little more patience.
"I loved her," he said quietly. "It is said that a man can care for many in his lifetime, but only have one real love. She was that love. Oh, yes," he said when she glanced up at him, smiling faintly. "I knew Maris would be that love the moment I laid eyes on her. But because of that love, I let her go. At the time, I could not give her what she wanted. I could not give her a home and children, at least not in the Republic. She would have been content, I believe, if I kept her on Csilla. But she would not have found happiness, and therefore would not have been the woman I loved for long."
"Why do you tell me this?"
"Do friends not share confidences, Sullaren? Do they not share each other's hardships? You have shared with me something I believe you had not dared admit to yourself until this moment."
He watched her ponder that, take it in and finally accept it as truth. And her confirmation, her act that proved that all his work had finally come to fruition, was when she reached a tentative hand behind him, taking his fingers in hers. He allowed it, let her draw his arm out before him. Locked his eyes on hers.
"Don't be lying to me," she whispered. "I beg you, don't be lying to me. On my mother's memory, swear it."
"I have never once lied to you, Sullaren."
"Ella," he agreed. "Though I must warn you, in the name of our friendship, what I will say next will hurt you more than you know."
"Please, I have to have the answer. I think… I think the not knowing is killing me more than knowing ever would."
His lips compressed in a thin line. "We shall see. Come, you should be seated before I tell you."
She did not resist when he lead her by their entwined fingers through a hidden door and into a private lounge area. She sat where he indicated, and accepted the glass of Corellian whiskey he gave her. Their meal was brought in to them, the setting more intimate than the formal dinner and yet less suggestive. Here they were not the Grand Admiral and his dinner companion. Here, they were… friends of a sort.
And after she had taken several swallows of her whiskey, he spoke two words… and with them drove that final emotional blade deep into her heart.