When they finished the briefing, the Commander dismissed everyone with an almost imperceptible nod at Koth, then led Jorgan to her office. She had no sooner shut the door and turned before she discovered Jorgan leaning against her desk, arms crossed with an unmistakable smirk on his face.
“Something on your mind, Jorgan?”
“So, this Zakuulan…”
“Senya? What about her?”
“Don’t get cute with me, Colonel.”
“I’ve got a name, and I’m not your commanding officer anymore, Jorgan. I may be the commander, but everyone here is an ally, not a subordinate..”
“And I have a first name. Use it. And you’re trying to change the subject. So, you like this Zakuulan, Koth Vortena I think?”
“Dammit, Aric, you met him for the first time fifteen minutes ago, don’t you think you might be jumping to conclusions on some pretty flimsy evidence? If any?”
“Dammit, Tery, I spent years at your shoulder, and you might be the only person I ever knew who was more married to the military than I was.” He watched her lips tighten and nodded. “And yes, I know why. Guessed some and Balkar might have slipped a little.” He raised an eyebrow at the stormy look beginning to grow.
“Gossiping? And with the SIS? I’ll have to remember not to trust either of you with anything again.”
“Relax. We got drunk together after your service. Not that either of us really bought the claim that you’d died, but…” He shrugged and the storm began to retreat. He waited until she finally nodded before continuing. “He didn’t slip much, just enough to connect some dots. But that’s not the point, dammit. When we walked in, your eyes raced over everyone else until you saw him. You may fool other people, but I’ve never seen you look at anyone like that. The closest you ever got was Balkar, and that was just…”
“Blowing off a little steam with someone I could trust not to ever ask questions? Mostly because he already knew the answers, but obviously didn't share his bosses' reservations? Just as glad that I never had to explain to my mother that I was dancing with a spook on a regular basis. But what makes you think this isn’t something like I had with Jonas? Someone to get together with on leave for a few drinks, a few hands of pazaak, maybe a little more, maybe not?”
“Bull. Even with Balkar, you were detached. There was nothing detached about the way you looked for that guy. And definitely nothing detached in the way he smiled at you.” His smirk returned. “In fact, that was about as smitten as I’ve ever seen a man his age.”
Tery set her chin mulishly. “Sounds pretty thin to me.”
“Since I’ve seen you putting the fear of the Void into someone in a bar while we’ve been on leave just for looking you up and down, not so thin in my book.” He challenged her to deny it with one raised eyebrow.
“Dammit, Aric, when did you get so snoopy about my private life?” She was openly glaring at him now.
He sobered abruptly, barking out his words. “When? Since I watched senators who weren’t fit to polish your boots question your loyalty and honesty just because you look like the enemy. Since you stopped me from killing Zane on Hoth and destroying my career along with my self-respect. Since I watched SOBs like Garza and Darok use you and sell you out.” He hesitated before continuing with less heat, and more sympathy. “Since you went on a three day drunk after we got back from the A-77 mission and Balkar helped me locate you and smuggle you back on board quietly before anyone was wiser. Since we went on that drunk together after Saresh handed Rakton back to the Imperials and Balkar made sure neither of us did anything we’d face a court-martial for.
“Dammit Tery, I watched Garza and the rest shove a hundred vibroblades into your gut and leave you to bleed, blast it, we took more than a few of those shots together. I think we’ve long gone beyond just having each other’s backs in combat, and after five years of wondering if the only person I really trusted was dead or alive, I’m past worrying about shoulds.” The Chiss woman stared at him, then blinked slowly as a wry smile twisted her lips.
“I suppose you’re right. And before I took my carbonite nap, you and Elara were the only people I could completely rely on.” She took a deep breath, arms crossed behind her back, chin out. “We both know I’m never going back to the Republic military, even assuming I survive long enough to bring down Arcann and Vaylin.”
“Good. And I'll always have your back. But don’t think I’m going to be distracted. Who is this Zakuulan?”
She shrugged. “He doesn’t talk about his past a lot, but I know he grew up around the rough district of Old World and captained one of the last warships with a non-droid crew until he was given orders he couldn’t follow. He deserted with his ship and crew and was recruited by Lana.”
“That Sith you worked with so much during the last year before you vanished?”
“The same. She’s the one who located me and organized my rescue. Koth helped.”
“Huh. I’d rather work with her than ninety-nine percent of the Imps we’ve ever met. Not that I’m going to trust her too far.”
“We’re all Alliance now, Aric, and the sooner we all start thinking that way, the better.” Tery spoke firmly, holding his eyes with a steady gaze.
“True. But do you expect this Alliance to stick once Arcann and Vaylin are gone?”
“For some of us, at least, yes. I think Lana has burned too many bridges to return to the Empire. Theron too. And Koth and Senya.” She paused for a second, then added softly, “and me.”
For a moment, Aric looked as if he was going to protest her assertion, then closed his mouth and nodded. “You’re right. People were too quick to suspect you of disloyalty before, even with your record. Now? It won’t matter how much you accomplish, you’ve been working with the enemy in the minds of too many people.”
She shrugged. “And Koth only complicates that. He did take part in the campaign against the Core Worlds, he admits he did his share of damage, and part of me is afraid that he doesn’t talk about it because the order he refused wasn’t the first time he’d been ordered to take part in an atrocity.” Suddenly, the Chiss glared at Aric. “You’re right, of course, but how the Void you spotted that the second your boots hit the War Room makes my head spin.”
The smirk was back. “Practice. An XO has to be able to anticipate his commander’s orders. Besides, he was about as subtle as a gundark. Leave it to a skyboy to not remember people are watching.”
“That accounts for you guessing about him . How’d you know it went both ways?” She adjusted the hem of her tunic unconsciously, not meeting his eyes.
Aric snorted, and straightened from the desk. “Gonna tell me you didn’t know he was staring at your backside as you walked away? Because if I had a credit for every time you caught someone at that and spun with a glare that made them think they’d better book passage to Ilum to warm up, I’d be able to retire. Until now, Jonas was the only one you let get away with that, and you sure as blazes didn't smirk when he did.”
“Shit. I’m never going to hear the end of this, am I?” Tery huffed out an irritated breath.
“Probably not. Can’t say I’m not glad to see you’ve discovered there’s more to life than being the perfect soldier.” He shrugged.
“You’re one to talk.”
“Maybe watching you made me realize you could go too far.”
Slowly, Terry offered her hand to Aric, and they shook solemnly as if sealing a bargain of some sort. Then, as she walked around to take a seat behind her desk, she casually asked over her shoulder, “Speaking of which, how is it I never caught you watching my backside, Aric, if you've been watching people watch it?”
He snorted as he straightened from the desk to take one of the comfortable chairs drawn up in front of it with a too-innocent grin. “At first, you were under my command, then you were my commander. It would have been unprofessional to have been caught admiring your...excellent physical condition.” Tery chucked a data pad from her desk at him, which he caught deftly, still grinning.
“I notice your concern wasn't with denying you looked, just that you were concerned about getting caught.”