“Nice landing,” Canderous growled when Carth emerged from the cockpit.
“I'd like to see you try that with all your crevices filled with dead rancor,” Carth replied, much too used to the Mandalorian's conversational gambits by now.
“How did that even happen?” asked Mission. “I mean, I understand the air vents, sort off, but...”
“Because our hotshot pilot decided to do some culling of the species before we took off?” Canderous suggested.
“What's important is that we're all alive, and the Hawk can take off again as soon as T3 and Zaalbar check out how much damage there is,” intervened Briel diplomatically, as ever.
Carth smiled at her, and her returning smile ignited the now familiar slow burn reaching from his scalp to his feet.
They'd waited. First not wanting to get burned if what they were feeling wasn't real, wasn't enough, because neither one of them was the type for casual relationships; then because there really wasn't much privacy inside the Hawk. By now the longing he could see in her eyes was about to make him spontaneously combust.
And damn if he wasn't making himself even hotter with all these fire-related metaphors.
“Is it just me, or is it hot in here?” asked Mission, and at first Carth though she was referring to his thoughts, which made his face burn.
“Our heroes would choose to crash land on another desert planet,” replied Bastila, her tone still carrying reminders of her time as a Sith.
“First of all, not a crash, second, I really don't think trying to fly until we found a nicer planet sounded like a good idea with all the burning dead rancor smell we were getting, thirdly...”
“So!” said Briel, clapping her hands together in a parody of excitement. “Who wants to go explore?”
- - -
They left the droids and Zaalbar to work on cleaning the vents, and suited up lightly to take a brief look outside. They had detected no large settlements in the area but there were life signs, and besides, Briel thought, she was always ready for an adventure.
If she had secretly hoped she could go alone with Carth, and maybe find a suitable cave to ravish the man... well, the others didn't need to know.
She couldn't really deny Mission the chance to share the possible adventure, didn't really feel comfortable with Bastila out of her sight – especially if it meant leaving her alone with Juhani – and Canderous was always fun to have around. Jolee... well, Jolee she could give or take.
'Desert planet' was a fair description of their surroundings, too. The ground was like dried mud, hard enough to support the Hawk, but dead in every direction she could see. There were mountains in the horizon and lower mounds directly west of the Hawk. When she closed her eyes and concentrated on the Force signature of the world around her she could feel life, lying dormant within the land, and water, somewhere close but not in sight – maybe beyond the hills but not close enough to hear.
“Well, this looks... dull,” Canderous concluded.
“Nothing for you to kill?” asked Bastila with a sweetly and insincerely compassionate voice, then frowned.
Briel could feel it, too, the Force singing with presence, and then the others heard it as well, and reached for their weapons.
- - -
The dried mud of the land transferred vibrations and sound well, and the approaching footsteps indicated a larger band of beings just beyond the closest mound. Soon they could see them, too – a group of humanoids, armed with primitive looking weapons and threatening expressions closing in on them.
Briel, being Briel, refused to draw her weapon but waited for the war band with her hands empty and in sight. Carth just hoped she could speak their language, too, because despite his years in the Fleet he was enough of his mother's son to not want to start butchering new cultures without as much as a hello.
The group – maybe a whole tribe, seeing that it consisted of people of all ages – came to a halt maybe twenty meters from them, and a young man, dressed only in a leather loincloth and some type of beaded jewellery walked half way in the middle of the two groups.
Hidden drums started to play somewhere among the natives, and the man started to tap his left foot on the ground to the rhythm of the drums, then gradually the rest of him joined in, until he was dancing a wildly aggressive dance in front of them.
It all seemed very familiar to Carth, and it only took him a moment to place the memory.
“I think we're being challenged,” he said with wonder in his voice.
- - -
“What?” Briel asked, tearing her eyes off the... war dance? to meet Carth's eyes.
“My mother was an xenologist. She may have even been here... I... Just... trust me, okay?”
And then he holstered his guns, and removed his gun belt. Okay, mildly worrying, but she would work with him here. Then he removed his orange flight jacket, and his under shirt. Her eyes lingered on the sweaty skin being revealed and fought to stay in focus. Damn, that man was pretty.
Carth stooped to remove his boots and socks, then moved forward, leaving everything in a pile behind him. Briel grabbed his arm, and he turned to smile at her confidently.
“Trust me,” he repeated, and she let go.
The alien had stopped his dance and had returned to his people, so Carth took his place and after a moment of hesitation, started to dance.
It was not like the war dance of the native warrior, but not like any dancing Briel remembered seeing in any cantina, either. It was raw, and powerful, and the glistening of his sweaty muscled form made her mouth water.
The drums had quietened, so Briel started to stomp one leg on the ground, making those vibrations work for them, and after a while she could hear the others joining in. Mission started clapping, and soon they were all creating their own rhythm section for their defending warrior.
She got it now. They were being challenged, and Carth was their champion, in effort to avoid armed conflict.
She had seldom seen him in anything but his flight jacket, and never without a shirt. She had sworn her love and devotion, had kissed him, and had fought the urge to consummate their relationship for what felt like years, and here he was, in (almost) all his glory, and all she could think of was licking those droplets of sweat off his back, following their trail to where they disappeared into his pants, and why hadn't she ever known he could dance?
They would have spent all available time in the nearest cantina if she had!
- - -
Carth concentrated on the beat his companions were providing, and tried to let his body channel it without conscious thought – because if he started thinking about what he was doing, and in front of Briel, he would get too self-conscious to continue. It had been years since he'd danced, and even that had been with Morgana, not the wild and alien moves his mother had taught him.
He hoped he was right about this, too, or he would die a very embarrassing death, but the aliens seemed content to just watch him do his thing, no one was attacking, so he figured he had been right.
He continued his wild movements until he ran out of breath, then slowed down, and turned to face his companions for the first time. Briel was the only one he could see, her eyes smouldering, the desire kept hidden for so long pouring out of her.
Like a conquering hero he returned to his mate and pulled her close for a deep kiss, right there in front of everyone, and the dance still in his blood he wanted to take her there, too. He forced himself to pull back.
“You were amazing. How did you know?” Her voice was a little hoarse as if she was burning, too.
“Told you. My mother. Some cultures try to avoid wasting battles and test their potential opponents in other means. He was saying 'I am strong, I am fast, I can take you,' so I replied.”
Briel was looking at the tribe again, and Carth followed her gaze.
“Let me guess – now they're saying even their old can take us.”
“So it would seem. Hey, Jolee, how are your moves?”
- - -
Briel supposed she shouldn't have been surprised that Jolee's moves were good – the man was a Jedi, after all, even if not in name, and his dancing resembled fighting more than anything, with the aerial moves he used in battle. There was also something else, something familiar... and then she got it. He reminded her of the feast in Zaalbar's village, of the Wookiees dancing by the fire.
When he finished, Briel thought she detected a sense of admiration from the tribe, and hoped that was it but then two women marched to the now familiar spot.
“I think they're a mother and daughter,” Carth said. “And I think they're it. Three seems like an important number for them: look at the decorations on their clothing, their jewellery, even those three pronged weapons. I think this is it.”
“Mother and a daughter, huh,” Briel said, and, looking at the dance had to agree. There was no softness in their movements, nothing to distinguish it from the way the men had danced, but the older woman was clearly protective towards the younger, like a tuskcat protecting its cub.
“We will fight to the death protecting our young,” Carth interpreted.
The pair had hardly finished before Mission took Briel's hand to tug her towards the “stage”. Briel had to blink back tears at the implication.
“Stop it,” Mission said, because of course she would notice it. “You'd protect me to the death, and I'm the closest thing we've got for a kid. And yeah, yeah, you're the closest thing and blah blah blah.” The little imp was grinning like a loon.
“Love you too, Mish,” Briel said, grinning back.
“Good. Now, can you actually dance?”
- - -
Briel kept herself between Mission and the alien tribe through all their moves, her first instinct, as always, her safety. She knew the girl could hold her own in a fight but that didn't stop the need to keep her safe.
It also meant she couldn't let herself get lost in the movements, no matter how much she wanted to. Dancing, letting her body follow the currents of the Force around her, was a way for her to reconnect with everything she had lost, muscle memory telling her of how her body worked and what it had known – it was like fighting, like sparring with Bastila with her lightsabre, rediscovering her lost skills.
Their dance was more fluid than the men's, the rhythm less controlled. She let Mission choose the tempo and the direction, and followed her like she had that rude, rude dancer back at Taris. On the background, she heard Bastila raise her voice in a song, a perfect accompaniment to their dance.
It sounded like a lullaby, sweet and lilting, and Mission changed her movements to follow. Briel took her hand, and joined in.
When Bastila ended the last chorus, Briel brought their movements to a halt, still keeping Mission behind her, and turned to look at the tribe.
They were smiling now, and an older woman walked closer, unattended. She raised her arms, palms facing them, and spoke loudly and clearly.
To her instant relief, Briel understood her.
“They see now that we respect our elders, like they do,” she translated. “We love our children, like they do, and our warriors can protect us, like theirs do them. We are worthy... allies? Not-enemies? Anyway, we are invited to... dance with them? Feast with them? And share their shade and water.”
- - -
Carth smiled to the first dancer, the warrior who had challenged them, and exchanged some sort of handshake with him before accepting a full waterskin from him. He drank thirstily, and his counterpart laughed out loud.
He said something, and Carth looked around for an interpreter. Briel appeared as if summoned by his side.
“He admires your prowess,” she whispered into his ear. “So do I.”
Carth closed his eyes and felt a shiver go through his body from the contact. When he opened them, the warrior was looking at him, quizzically. Then his smile widened, and he called for those of his people who were playing musical instruments.
“Dance with me,” Briel said, taking his hand.
Now it was more like with Morgana, and yet nothing like it – had he ever desired her this much, been so aware of her every movement against him? Maybe he had, likely he had, but it was a long long time ago, and Briel was here now, and his pulse throbbed in time with the alien music.
“Hey, Bast, I don't think you should accept any offers for dance right now,” Briel yelled to the younger woman. “This is a mating dance – I think you might be expected to go through with the promise of the song.”
She was grinning widely, and Carth twirled her around, arms still around her, and found he couldn't stop smiling himself.
“A mating dance, you say.”
“I could blush, listening to the words,” Briel said, the same hoarseness from before in her voice.
“Tell me,” he said, pulling her closer, moving his hips in time with hers. “Show me.”
- - -
The flames inside her were burning everything else from out of their way, reason, sense of self, sense of their surroundings – everything but the person in her arms, the beat of his heart, the song of his presence in the Force. Her body was liquid metal, but empty and yearning, and he was the substance she wanted to mix with to create a new alloy, stronger and more beautiful than they could be alone.
She pulled back, so that she could walk without getting distracted by the hardness of his body against her, and eyes and hands still locked with his she took a step towards the Hawk. When he caught up they were running.
The ship was cool compared to the planet, and the filtered air felt light and pure without the dust of the desert. Briel noticed it, then ignored it in favour of claiming Carth's mouth in another kiss, all the while steering them towards the crew quarters.
Some part of her mind hoped the others would be too distracted by the feast to notice their absence, or smart enough not to follow them, because this was it, she was done waiting, and she was so irrevocably in love with this man that no matter what would happen, no matter what their future would bring, she would have this moment, she would have him, and never regret it.
They continued their dance with no clothes to hinder their movements, and the only music their panting breaths and beating hearts.
- - -
The fires banked, sweaty body naked in his arms Carth took a deep breath and basked in the presence of his beloved, in the peace he felt for the first time... for the first time since the war had started.
He pulled Briel closer.
“I love you,” he said, needing to find words to share what he was feeling, but settling on the most important.
“Love you too,” she muttered against his chest, then raised her head to meet his eyes. “My hero.”