Kaas City Center was alight with Life Day cheer: lights adorned eaves and windows, booths manned by droids had been set up along the market streets, and tents filled with couches and tables had been erected in the center itself. Vendor droids selling favors and fake snowballs were stationed at every corner.
When the sun set, Life Day itself would begin. Force-blind revelers clad in red and white would fill the streets, feasting on food from the booths and making love on the couches: celebrating the pleasures of life which gave life. The Sith hosted grand parties in their estates. At midnight the Sanctum would light up the storm-filled sky with darkside lightning and force illusions. Force ghosts would dance and walk among the living, for even the dullest force-blind could see ghosts on Life Day.
After that, it would be the Sith taking to the booths and the streets. Only the bravest or most foolhardy force-blinds would remain outside, hoping to win favors by being toys in Sith games. Intelligence employees were forbidden to be out past the light show. It was too risky, both for the agents and for Intelligence itself. The Sith had enough hooks in the agency as it was.
Keeper walked the balconies surrounding City Center, observing the final preparations. The sun was low in the sky, the first purple fringe of twilight ringing the horizon.
In the Empire, Life Day was sacrosanct. Neither slave nor freeman worked between the two sunsets. Even at the height of the war, the Sith had kept the Life Day truce. It would make no sense for the Eagle to attack the celebrations. It would sour the very proletariat support the terrorist was trying to build, and crimes committed on Life Day were subject to the harshest vigilante justice.
Still, it could not hurt to keep a wary eye on things. The attack on Jadus's dreadnaught had caught Intelligence by surprise. That attack had been no less foolhardy than an attack on Life Day would be.
Keeper did not work his people on Life Day whenever he could help it. Still, Cipher Nine was in plainclothes below, ducking in and out of every corner and shop under the guise of escorting Kaliyo. The agents responsible for the rest of the city had already reported the all-clear. Keeper watched the balustrades and rooflines, looking for wires and shadows that didn't fit.
The sun had fully set by the time he completed his inspection.
The strings of lights and false candles in the window provided the only illumination for the crowded streets below. Speakers set up on the deactivated light posts played soft Life Day melodies. The smell of roasted meat and baked bread from the food stalls made his stomach cramp – a sharp reminder of how long it had been since he'd eaten.
Keeper felt himself being watched, then heard footsteps behind him. Keeper checked the window across the street for a reflection of his visitor.
The man approaching was called Marr now, though Keeper had called him by a different name long ago. Of course, Marr had once called Keeper by a name instead of a designation.
“It's bad luck to be working on Life Day,” Marr said, his voice muffled and echoing in his mask.
“It's only working if I see something,” Keeper replied dryly. “I'm surprised to see you in City Center.” As a Dark Councilor, Marr's patronage would be keenly sought after by the Sith estates.
“You weren't in your office,” Marr said simply, standing next to Keeper at the railing. Keeper was still in his uniform. As far as it looked to anyone on the ground, a Sith was conferring with a senior Intelligence officer. Marr's mask hid any trace of familial resemblance. Their body types were certainly disparate enough not to arouse suspicion. Not that secrecy mattered much anymore – Keeper was a formidable enough as Director of Operations that any attempt to use him as Marr's weakness would be suicide.
Their family had even given up trying to forbid Marr to speak to him.
“Happy Life Day,” Keeper said simply. He nodded at Marr to follow, then resumed his circuit along the railings. Moving would make it more difficult for eavesdroppers.
“Happy Life Day,” Marr replied, his hands behind his back and saber bobbing at his hip.
Keeper could see from the railing that Kaliyo had chosen a revealing set of modern robes: Cipher had finished inspecting the marketplace. To the untrained eye, Kaliyo was teaching Cipher to dance. To the trained eye, each time Cipher turned she was on a line-of-sight to either a speaker stand or audio equipment.
The dance was a sensuous one. Cipher drew her arms down slowly, fluttering her hands and swaying her hips. She stretched upwards only to draw them down again, dipping lower. She stood and drew herself down a third time, this time dropping nearly to the floor. All of her curves were on full display: hips, buttocks, breasts, thighs. Cipher stood tall, kicking out her leg and flaring her long skirts. She made a quarter turn and began the steps again.
No one would suspect Cipher of being Intelligence. She was absolutely breathtaking. Cipher's long red curls, red lips, and red cybernetics contrasted sharply with her pale skin, like her white gloves against her red reveler's robes. The velvet cloth fit snugly against her breasts. Despite the high neck, it was delightfully provocative.
“Who is she?” Marr asked, lilting his vowels. “It's not like you to be distracted.”
Learning not to blush was a skill taught at the Intelligence Academy. Still, Marr would be able to sense his embarrassment at being caught.
“An agent of mine with a particularly appealing disguise,” Keeper deflected. He forced himself to look away from Cipher, sweeping his gaze over City Center as if it was of equal import. Most of the square was in pockets of shadow among the lights.
“You should offer her a nice promotion and borrow her for the night,” Marr said seriously. “Relaxation would be good for you. Overwork makes people cut corners.”
Keeper had been a Medical operative, he knew Marr was right about rest being a good idea. He wasn't about to use Cipher as a paid companion. She had been used as a prostitute before joining Intelligence. Assigning her sex work now that she had paid her dues, as it were, and moved up to agent-- It would be insulting.
“If you are so worried about my performance, I'll go to bed early,” Keeper said witheringly.
Marr tilted his head. His mask was unreadable.
“Don't play Jedi with me, Baby Brother,” Marr said dismissively. “The Minister has you purr in Vowrawn's ear every year for an extra 7% of budget allocation and I don't hear you complain.”
He did a Hell of a lot more than purr in Vowrawn's ear.
“That's different,” Keeper kept the asperity out of his voice, but it did no good. Marr tilted his head the other way. He was planning to do something Keeper wasn't going to like -- for Keeper's own good, of course.
When Cipher finished her rounds, she left Kaliyo at one of the alcohol stalls and scaled the stairs to Keeper's position. She waited respectfully at a distance until Marr waved her over. Cipher's manners, as ever, were impeccable.
“My Lord. Keeper.” Cipher dropped a civilian bow instead of a military salute. “All is clear.”
“Thank you,” Keeper stated crisply. “Enjoy your Life Day.”
There were cords draped on the lights and rails around the square. Couples or those interested in being a couple volunteered to be tied together for the race preceding the light show, or just for the pleasure of extricating themselves. Untying the wrist knot involved no small amount of brushing your partner's neck even if you were trying not to.
Cipher's brows drew together as the cords to her left slithered off the railing of their own accord.
“Marr!” Keeper barked furiously as Cipher pitched forward with an utterly uncivilized curse.
Warriors weren't trained for deft Forcework. Cipher slammed into Keeper hard enough to stun them both. Marr worked quickly, slipping a cord around Cipher's neck and tying it loosely. Invisible hands pulled Keeper's hands up to the back of Cipher's skull. Marr tied Keeper's wrists together tightly. Keeper couldn't struggle without strangling his agent.
Keeper ground his teeth. Marr was moderate for a Sith, and somewhere under all the dark side politics his older brother was still rattling around in there, but in the Emperor's name--
There was nothing he or Cipher could do. Even as a freeman of rank, Keeper had little more recourse against a Sith's whims than a slave. Cipher, who was a freedwoman, had even less than he.
Marr tied Cipher's wrists to Keeper's neck and then tied the final cord around both their waists. Marr pulled Cipher's hair through the rope, letting her curls fall over Keeper's gloved hands.
“Happy Life Day,” Marr said smugly, clapping Keeper on the shoulder before leaving.
Every breath made Cipher's breasts brush against his chest. Trying to go down the stairs, find Kaliyo, and ask her to untie them was out of the question. With Cipher's skirts and legs rubbing against his, her body pressed so tightly against his own-- the stimulation would have him fully erect by the time they made it. With their waists tied together it would be impossible for Cipher not to notice.
“I'm sorry, sir,” Cipher apologized.
“What for?” Keeper demanded sharply. “Not wearing a bag over your head?”
The corners of Cipher's lips curled in spite of herself. It was-- distressingly charming.
Cipher tilted her head to the side. She was giving Keeper room to untie his hands, but Emperor's name if it didn't look like a mute request for Keeper to--
Best not to think about it.
“My knot is facing away from me,” Keeper stated. “If yours is to the side it would be faster for you to untie yourself.”
Cipher cleared her throat.
She pressed even more tightly against him, hooking her chin over his shoulder to reach her wrists with her mouth. Keeper held his breath, focusing on keeping his breathing steady even as the blood surged in his body.
Treat it like torture. Think of something else. Keeper closed his eyes, picturing himself far away in a library with nothing demanding his time but the books in the library terminal. He could manage for minutes at a stretch, but pleasure was far more difficult to ignore than pain. Every time he returned himself to his library, there was a new detail demanding his attention in the real world.
Cipher's palms were resting against the base of his skull so she wouldn't choke him, her fingertips digging now and then into his hair. The corner of her mouth brushed against his ear. Her hair was soft against his cheek, and her shampoo smelled like falnir flowers. Her hipbones were pressed against his. Cipher's wasn't wearing breastbands under her dress.
It was taking every ounce of self-control not to grind shamelessly against Cipher.
Her breath kept catching oddly, as if she was trying not to pant with pain. Keeper realized he'd clenched his fists to maintain control. Some of her hair had been caught in his grasp.
“Cipher?” Keeper asked. He released his fists, letting her hair loose.
“I'm sorry, sir, I'm trying to hurry.” Cipher's voice was tight. “Your rope rubs where my collar used to be whenever I move. Between that and the hair-pulling--” Cipher shook her head.
“I understand that increased nerve sensitivity is a common side effect of a slave collar,” Keeper chided sternly, “but friction and light follicular stimulation hardly warrant that kind of pain response.”
“It's not a pain response, sir.”
A normal agent would have been seductive, not contrite. She would have pressed more firmly against his body, breathed her desire in Keeper's ear and rubbed firmly against the rope. She would have offered Keeper any favor he wanted if only he didn't stop, and then named her price.
There would be no concern that Keeper might be embarrassed, nor that his reserve might not permit such public displays. A normal agent would not modestly acknowledge that she'd failed to conceal her reactions.
Cipher wasn't a normal agent.
She was... genuinely kind, for lack of a better term. She hadn't hesitated to put down the lunatics in the Black Temple, but he would bet a month's pay she'd been the one to see to it Karrells' surviving child had been looked after. Or she had spared the man outright, against Keeper's wishes.
Idealism was for children and fools.
Cipher was neither, she had pulled off too many miracles already to be otherwise. Nem'ro had sided with the Empire, the Flame was now a farmer, the Eagle's network was falling in pieces, and Zhorrid thought Cipher was simply wonderful. Cipher had survived the Dark Temple with sanity intact. Not only had she stopped the terrorists, but she had also sealed the Force ghosts inside for Lord Alaric.
She clung to the very ideals Keeper had abandoned long ago. They worked. It felt like a knife between his ribs. He had never questioned exchanging the honorable course for the practical one. Accomplishing his goals in the quickest manner with the least expenditure was the only way to get enough authority to build a better Empire. Every atrocity, every ruined life had been a regrettable stepping-stone to that goal.
Cipher made him wonder if he'd given up too easily. If he had been quicker to seduce instead of torture, to bargain instead of manipulate, to risk a little disorder for the sake of mercy--
It made Keeper want things he had no business wanting from an agent. He found himself wanting to offer Cipher favors other agents had failed utterly to coax from him. Keeper already had, promoting her over the head of more senior agents and giving her a ship.
Sex with Cipher was a terrible idea. Not that Marr had bothered to discover the reason for Keeper's refusal before forcing his decision onto Keeper. Ever the eldest.
“There is nothing to apologize for,” Keeper said. He hated how gentle his voice sounded to his own ears. “This was Darth Marr's goal. I will endeavor not to stimulate you further.” He rested his palms against her occipital bone, digging his fingers into her hair. It would be easier to match her movements this way.
Cipher pressed herself against him again. She made short, sharp movements. Her chin brushed against the corner of his jaw.
She pulled her arms free, then slid the rope away from Keeper's neck. She leaned back slightly, reaching behind her head to untie his ropes.
The position made her breasts look--
Keeper averted his gaze. When Cipher finished pulling the rope around his wrists free, Keeper untied the cord around their waists. When they stepped apart, the chill air hit his heated flesh and made him shiver.
“They'll have warm drinks at the booths, sir,” Cipher said solicitously. His stomach growled. “And food.”
There wasn't as much room for mercy and fairness in the Empire. Cipher was a freedwoman. Her entrance evaluation for the Academy would have disqualified her if she'd shown any overt resentment for her time as a slave. But hope for a new life could ameliorate bitterness. If freedom was not all she'd dreamed it would be--
Potential defectors had their uses, but only if Keeper knew they were such ahead of time. It could not hurt to use this opportunity.
“Lead on,” Keeper said. As they made their way down the lane, a joyously drunk reveler reached for Cipher's waist. Then he saw Keeper's uniform and immediately reconsidered. Keeper offered his arm mutely, since Cipher did not have her own uniform to hand.
“I wonder,” Cipher purred softly as they crossed the square, “am I courting favors? Is the Intelligence agent extorting my companionship with threats? Or do I simply find an older man irresistible?” Cipher raised her eyebrow in a very professional flirt.
“You may cipher at me all you wish,” Keeper said dryly, “I am not buying your food.”
Cipher smiled with amusement, leaning into him so her skirts brushed against his legs as they walked. It should have been worrisome that Cipher was so easily swayed into lowering her guard, but Keeper was not so foolish as to discount himself as a variable. He was her superior, he was keeping watch, and he wanted her relaxed. She trusted him and always seemed genuinely happy to see him when he called for check-ins. Why wouldn't she accede to his wishes?
Whether she would expose her heart to his scrutiny was another matter.
“I think Kaliyo gave up on me,” Cipher said as they passed the alcohol stalls. The Rattataki was nowhere in sight.
“As far as she could see you had gotten yourself tied,” Keeper stated mildly. “I highly doubt she finds 'older men irresistible.'”
“Show her your account balance,” Cipher teased. “It would change her mind.”
“No, thank you.” Even in his youth, Kaliyo would have been too unpredictable for his tastes.
Cipher had never had Mandalorian food and it was Keeper's favorite. They made their way to the Mando cart, which had relocated from the Enclave. Mandalorians did not keep Life Day. Instead of being manned by a droid, the cart was manned by its owner, Kharul.
“Intelligence,” Kharul growled happily. “The usual?”
“Please,” Keeper said. The menu on the cart itself was in Mando'a. To the left there was a battered little card in badly-translated Basic. Cipher perused it, her brows drawing together in consternation.
“This says 'rat.' It's not really whomp rat, is it?”
“Rat-tail, chinila,” Kharul said gruffly. “It's a plant.” He gave Keeper a firm glare and switched to Mando'a. “Why do you bring this pathetic little weakling to my cart, Intelligence? I thought we had an understanding.”
“This 'chinila' can drop a Gen'Dai and take five-on-one Nikto twice her size,” Keeper said mildly. Cipher nodded.
“No lie, eh? Well, then you buy her tiingilar. Any woman who can survive a plate of that is a keeper.”
“It isn't that sort of outing.” Not that he could blame Kharul for the misunderstanding: Keeper usually dined alone.
“If she can handle the tiingilar, you make it that sort of outing, Intelligence. What do you say, Intelligenishka?”
“If that is a diminutive, you're on,” Cipher stated.
“'Diminutive?'” Kharul asked. Keeper supplied the Mando'a equivalent, and Kharul grinned as he began preparing their dishes. Tiingilar took hours to make, but Kharul always had some on-hand to reheat.
Cipher wrinkled her nose when Kharul handed her her food. Mandalorians called the sensation noseburn, and it was the hallmark of good food. Kharul smirked.
“'Intelligenishka,'” he drawled, giving the diminutive a mocking lilt. “You can do better, Intelligence. I'll introduce you to some of my clanmates. Get your Blooding and they'll give you good, strong children.”
The idea was frankly appalling. Cipher was affronted by the remark: she set her jaw and walked toward one of the food tents. She sat on one of the couches in full view of Kharul's cart.
“You don't have to eat that,” Keeper said, joining her. Tiingilar was the spiciest dish in Mando'a cuisine, and Cipher had never eaten Mandalorian food.
“You're a regular,” Cipher stated, having read Kharul's body language despite not being able to speak Mando'a. “He will never let you live it down if I don't.”
“Kharul's opinion is not that significant,” Keeper said seriously.
“Do you want him bringing his clanmates by?” Cipher demanded, then added in a more conciliatory tone, “sir?"
“No,” Keeper admitted. “But that is my problem.”
Cipher scowled, took a deep breath, and took her first bite.
She gagged. Sweat stood out on her forehead. She forced herself to swallow.
Then she took another bite.
It was so painful to watch that even as hungry as he was, Keeper could barely taste his own food. Cipher cleared the plate methodically, counter-clockwise from the top. By the end her curls were matted to her temples with sweat. Her collar, armpits, and beneath her breasts were stained dark red by perspiration as well. If her tear ducts had not been removed as part of her cybernetics' installation, Keeper was certain she would have had tears streaming down her face.
Cipher stood and returned her plate to Kharul's cart.
“It lives up to its reputation,” she said hoarsely.
“You're all right, Red,” Kharul said, clearly impressed. Cipher nodded her thanks and rejoined Keeper.
“I'm taking you home,” Keeper said firmly as soon as they were out of Kharul's earshot. “You're going to be sick.”
“But no clanmates,” she pointed out.
“Yes. Well,” Keeper said formally. “Thank you for that.” There really wasn't anything else to say to someone who had just derailed their entire evening to save you from unwanted matchmaking.
How he was going to steer the conversation to how Cipher was enjoying freedom, he had no idea.
Cipher had retaken his arm. She was as tall as he, so she couldn't rest her head on his shoulder. But she had both hands on his arm, half-cuddling as they made their way through the crowds to the speeder terminal. Her face was unnaturally pale. It was clear from their expressions that several of the revelers they passed believed Cipher had been drugged and was being absconded with. None of them were willing to interfere with an Intelligence agent to save her, however.
Fools. Cipher's shoulders were loose, her walk steady, and she was looking ahead instead of at the crowd. Cipher was miserable, no doubt about that. But her body language was trust, not drugged confusion or desperate fear.
Trust, and the stomach cramps were a powerful distraction.
“How different is it,” Keeper asked, adopting a conversational tone, “the seduction we do and brothel-work?”
The question made Cipher chuckle despite the pain.
“Thinking of switching careers?” she asked wanly. “I know some people who know some people who would pay quite handsomely for a few Sith games with you.”
Deflection or discomfort?
“Darth Vowrawn controls the Sphere of Production and Logistics,” Keeper said mildly as they took their place in line. He kept his voice soft. “Which means he controls where the un-landed tax revenue goes. He can be swayed, to some extent, in how those funds are administered. I was a cipher agent once.”
“Ah,” Cipher replied, her voice gentle. Discomfort it was. “Sometimes the sex is good and sometimes it's really bad, that's the same. The finessing is, too – marks give better information if they think you really desire them on some level, clients tip better. The main difference is that if the mark is into Sith games you have the option to bully them into giving you what you need, or just shoot them. With a client you grit your teeth and pretend to enjoy it. I guess with Vowrawn there isn't a difference at all.” Cipher squeezed his arm lightly. “We appreciate the extra funding, sir.”
Keeper placed his hand on Cipher's. Kindness again. He breathed out, slowly and silently.
“Did you have many Republic clients? What were they like?”
“Red hair is Sith ancestry,”she said. “It's much rarer in the Republic, and they fetishize it. The sadists always used the Imperial girls. 'People aren't abused in the Republic,' but we weren't people. We were Imps. The enemy. They could do whatever they wanted because we deserved it.” Cipher pulled down the zipper of her dress, and pulled the soft fabric aside. On the tops of her breasts were--
“Those are lightsaber burns.” He had authorized and conducted torture countless times. The scars on Cipher's skin made his stomach drop all the same. They weren't inflicted out of necessity, but for pleasure.
“Trooper captain,” she said, pulling the zipper up again. “He killed a Sith and kept the saber as a trophy. He liked to hurt us up top before using us down below. There was a Senator who liked to use hardened reeds and rope -- stress positions -- then spray us with pressurized water. One time I struggled so hard one of the reeds broke. It cut me badly.” Cipher gestured to her midsection. “The water hurt so we always screamed, and it diluted the blood enough he couldn't tell I was seriously hurt. If the water hadn't been as cold as it was I would have died.”
“A Jedi sensed what was happening. He kept me alive, but he didn't do anything to the Senator or my master. The Republic only 'cares' about Imperial slavery. If your master is a Hutt they can't be bothered.” Cipher shook her head. “My master owned plenty of people from Coruscant and Alderaan who'd sold themselves because they had no other choice. If the Jedi campaigned half as much for Pub poor as they did 'for Imperial slaves'-- but they don't. And the senators don't care.”
There was no love for the Republic in Cipher.
Cipher told the transit droid they wanted to go to the Expansion. Only once they'd climbed inside and the speeder was safely in the air did Keeper reply.
“Jedi passivity nets us as many defectors as we lose to Sith cruelty.” Keeper paused, then continued, “I've spent over a decade hiring alien and slave agents. I've been Keeper longer than any of my predecessors. That is not an accident. Now Zash and Baras have alien apprentices. Vowrawn puts forth the economic sense of legal protections for slaves every year. Someday the Council may pass them.” If they were to win the next war, the Council would have to. Well-cared for slaves did not cast their lot with the Republic, as a general rule.
The Republic was too bogged-down in its own bureaucracy to ever change. Slaves rebelled. It was waste, cost -- pressure to change even among the Sith. Poor quietly locked out of the economy and told they were better off because at least they weren't Imperial slaves... Who would care about them? The Jedi certainly didn't. They were too focused on eradicating the Sith. Cipher had seen that first hand.
She had also seen how Republic citizens viewed all Imperials, not just the Sith. Keeper had read enough reports on how Imperial defectors were treated to know her experiences were more the norm than the exception.
Intelligence had discovered the Hoth fleet during the war. He knew about the Republic's continued flirtation with planet-killers. As horrifying as the Sith could be, the Imperial proletariat would fare much worse under Republic rule.
Keeper wouldn't let that happen.
“Will you be able to make it home before the light show ends?” Cipher asked as they left the public speeder and began walking to her apartment. She did not take his arm again. The Expansion bordered the Dark Temple and the surrounding wilds. If they came upon a wandering beast, Keeper would need his gun-hand free. Cipher drew a small micro-blaster from her belt pouch.
“No, but the Citadel is not far.”
“That's the first place Vowrawn would look for you. Or anyone else,” Cipher said as they neared her apartment building. It was on the outermost edge of the Expansion. “Stay with me. It's safer.”
It was a classic seduction tactic, but even if the half-light he could see Cipher was looking green. Seduction was the last thing on her mind, and every moment he delayed her by arguing was one moment closer to her throwing up on his boots.
“Thank you,” Keeper said. Cipher swiped her identicard to open the building door. They rode the elevator up.
There was a giant vine cat sleeping on her balcony, and a Force-ghost wearing ancient armor in her living room.
“That's Reg and Stripes,” Cipher said. “The place is haunted and I can't use my balcony when Stripes has kittens, but the view is amazing and the rent's cheap.” Litters of fluffy green vine-cat kittens with huge gold eyes were most likely the reason Stripes hadn't been shot.
Reg was glaring at him, hovering in the air. He had dark-side bruising around his eyes, and thick scarring down his face. Cipher went into her bedroom, gathered a change of clothes, and ducked into her bathroom. Reg floated in after her.
“I won the dejarik game last time,” Cipher said behind the closed door. Reg floated back out and resumed glaring at Keeper.
“How do you move the pieces?” Keeper asked. Reg pointed at a piece on the board, then pointed to an empty square. Clearly Cipher did the physical manipulation. Reg had been strong enough in the Dark Side to return as a ghost, but not strong enough for his ghost to have powers or even speak. It was obvious why he'd died.
Being glared at silently by a ghost while listening to Cipher vomit was awkward.
Keeper removed his jacket. He politely took off his boots and placed them next to Cipher's shoes. Then he turned left into the kitchen. Cipher wasn't home much anymore, and the cabinets were barren of perishables as a result. He found cups, a teapot, and some insta-tea with powdered creamer.
Reg was still glaring at him when the water boiled. He was hovering in the kitchen door.
“Are you glaring at me, personally, or is this your normal expression?”
Reg pointed at the apartment door.
“I was invited to be here.”
Reg's mouth opened in a silent howl. Force lighting crackled around his hands and he dived at Keeper. Keeper knew intellectually that a ghost who couldn't even move dejarik pieces couldn't hurt him. Sheer instinct had him diving out of the way. Reg turned and swooped for another pass. Keeper dodged again, scrambling out of the kitchen. The third time Reg succeeded. When he passed through Keeper it felt like being plunged in ice water.
Reg swooped again and Keeper rolled to the side. Shooting the ghost would be pointless beyond damaging Cipher's walls.
“Reg!” Cipher demanded, stepping in front of Keeper. Reg veered sharply right, apparently unwilling to fly through his mortal “roommate.” “We have talked about this. Boundaries.”
Reg pointed angrily at Keeper, then again at the door.
“You were fine with Kaliyo being here,” Cipher countered. Her hair was still dripping wet from the shower. She'd chosen standard-issue sleepwear, soft pants and a soft undershirt stamped with the Imperial sigil. She wasn't pale anymore, so throwing up and a shower had been sufficient.
Reg pointed at Keeper again. He created illusory force-lighting, then curled his hands into his own chest.
“Keeper isn't old enough to have killed you,” Cipher said.
The Sanctum light show was over. Trying to make it to the Citadel now was out of the question. It wasn't protocol to say anything about his life outside of Operations, but Reg wasn't going to let up.
“My ancestor must have,” Keeper said, pushing himself to his feet. “I'm sorry for what happened to you, but I'm Force-blind. I have nothing to do with my family, nor they with me.”
Reg pointed to the door.
“I know your grave is nearby, but this is my home,” Cipher said firmly. “The Sith are reveling. He can't go out there, Reg, it's too dangerous.”
Reg pointed again.
“You're being unreasonable,” Keeper said flatly. “I'm not a Sith. I had nothing to do with your death. When you were alive my parents would have killed me at birth.” It still stung to admit, even as old as he was.
Reg folded his arms, considering. Then he floated to the dejarik board and pointed.
“We're not playing dejarik over it,” Cipher said. “Keeper is staying.”
Reg made a silent howl and flew at Keeper. Cipher stepped in the way. Reg whipped around her only to dive at Keeper from another angle. When Cipher stepped in the way again, Reg floated back to the dejarik board. The threat was clear: they could play or Reg could make their night miserable.
“Fine,” Cipher assented. “But if I win, you have to haunt one of the other apartments tonight.”
Reg shook his head and pointed at Keeper.
“If I win, you will haunt one of the other apartments,” Keeper said. Reg nodded.
Playing dejarik with Cipher's dead roommate and sipping cheap insta-tea was not how Keeper had planned to spend his Life Day. It was still significantly more pleasant than being a Sith plaything. Or a more pleasant variety of Sith plaything, since Reg was still a Sith?
Best not to think about it.
Even with Cipher's bare hands as a distraction, Keeper won. Reg held up two fingers and then three. When Keeper won a second time, Reg held up three fingers, then five.
“It's almost 0300,” Cipher protested. “You promised.”
Reg scowled, but floated through the floor.
“You'd better sleep with me,” Cipher said softly as Keeper put the pieces away. “If he can torment you without hurting me, he'll keep you up all night. He doesn't come out after sunup.”
Cipher's logic was sound, but “you'd better sleep with me” coming from Cipher was--
Be professional, Keeper scolded himself. Being sick off Mandalorian food and offering to play human shield so you aren't tortured by her dead roommate does not constitute a come-on. This is no different than if one of you was hypothermic.
Keeper brushed his teeth with his finger. He and Cipher were of a height but not of a size, so Keeper had no choice but to sleep in his undershirt and shorts. Socks weren't sexy, so he left them on. When he slid into Cipher's bed, he turned his back to her for good measure. The view from her bedroom window was stunning. The moon was full, the city wreathed in lights. The Dark Temple was silhouetted in purple lightning visible even through the rain. The steady patter of drops against the glass was soothing.
Cipher took it as an invitation not only to spoon, but to snuggle. She pressed her knees against the back of his, cupped his buttocks in the hollow of her hips, and nuzzled against the back of his neck. She threw an arm over him, handing him the second pillow to press against his chest. Then she rested the palm of her hand on his bare wrist.
Keeper had made it through the first half of Life Day without having sex with Cipher.
Reg's head floated up through the floor. He glowered when he realized he couldn't pass through Keeper without freezing Cipher as well. Reg sank back through the floor.
He needed to give Cipher a raise. This was one of the most ridiculous living conditions he had seen in a long time. She apparently had to win a dejarik game for her privacy to shower. What if she brought a lover over? When she lost the game was it, “Don't mind Reg, he just likes to watch”?
Cipher took a deep, slow breath. Her long exhale tickled his hair. Her fingers tightened slightly on his wrist in contentment. Her body was warm. He was warm, tucked between Cipher, the pillow, and the blankets.
Avoiding sex hadn't stopped him from becoming emotionally entangled at all.
Cipher woke him when she got out of bed to relieve herself. Keeper stretched. He could smell caffa. He remembered Cipher had disappeared during one of his games with Reg: she'd been programming the caffa machine. Keeper rolled onto his back, keeping one leg bent discreetly.
He was lounging in Cipher's bed, waiting for his morning erection to subside so he could use the bathroom. They were going to have Life Day breakfast and he was going to use the fresher, her fresher, her soap. Her smell would be on him all day.
The thought sent a thrill of desire down his body. If he was home, that thrill would lead to contemplating in detail all the various ways a pair of ciphers could bring pleasure to each other.
He was not masturbating in Cipher's apartment.
Keeper folded his hands decorously on top of the blankets.
Cipher left the bathroom and headed into the kitchen. Her bedhead curls were absolutely riotous. Her thin shirt did little to disguise that she'd taken her breastband off to sleep. He could catch glimpses of her body as she stretched upwards to reach inside her cabinets.
Ice, cold, half your age. The usual litany was there, and utterly ineffective against the counter-litany of fresh from bed, no underwear, warm.
There was nothing for it, he was going to have to walk it off by pacing in the bathroom.
Keeper slid from the bed. He was half-way to safety when Cipher returned to the bedroom, a cup of caffa and a meal-bar in each hand.
Her gaze swept up his body, caught mid-dash wearing a single sock, day-old underwear, and sporting a morning erection that still hadn't passed.
“Cipher.” Keeper cleared his throat. He took refuge in formality. “Good morning.” He had spent the night trying to dodge adding a sexual component to their relationship, and this most certainly would accomplish that goal – far too late to do any good.
“A very happy Life Day to you, too, sir,” Cipher said cheerfully as she set the cups down on her dresser. She was grinning.
“I will be ready for breakfast in a moment,” Keeper stated briskly. Reprimanding her for levity would only appear insecure, and encourage disrespect. Not that Cipher was the sort.
“No rush,” Cipher said. She caught his wrist with one hand, the other skimming briefly across his ribs, pectorals, over his trapezius--
Oh. His mind blanked of everything but Cipher and kissing, mint and caffa mixed, and hot.
She'd brushed her teeth in the bathroom. She'd deliberately not put on a breastband after waking to tempt him. Taking his arm so easily last night, leaning into him, eating tiingilar so Kharul wouldn't introduce Keeper to his clanmates-- testing his receptiveness, and chasing away the competition.
Foolishness to think because she had cipher training that she'd use cipher tricks when she was sincere.
Lazy thinking, to assume because Cipher didn't have an agenda that she wouldn't make advances in the face of mutual attraction.
Cipher released his mouth. Her thumb was rubbing up and down the back of his neck.
“You did specify you preferred older men,” Keeper rasped.
Cipher smiled wickedly. She released his wrist to run her hand up his arm, over his shoulder.
“I did,” she agreed in a throaty purr. She trailed her fingertips over the hair peeking out of his collar. “Your chest hair is silver. Is the rest, I wonder?” Her fingers trailed down his sternum, then lower.
Emperor alive. Cipher's touch was sending his heart racing. He was already entangled. Cipher had managed just by being herself where so many others had failed with all their guile.
Turning her down now would serve no purpose but frustrating them both. Longing was the downfall of the Jedi, time and again. The Empire knew better. Peace was a lie.
The spaceport would reopen after sunset. They had plenty of time before Cipher had to leave for Tatooine.
“That depends,” Keeper purred back. “Are you a natural redhead?”
Cipher's laughter was delighted.
Peace is a lie . There is only passion .
Through passion, I gain strength .
Through strength, I gain power .
Through power, I gain victory .
Through victory, my chains will be broken .
The Force shall free me.