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Two Against the Empire

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When he finds her, she is mere moments from sweet oblivion.

For the two weeks they have spent on his ship after fleeing Mandalore, he has mostly ignored her, treating her with distant respect, but leaving her mostly to her own devices. Now, as he slams the door of the 'fresher open and runs in, metal feet slipping on the tiles wet with water and blood, his patterned visage is alive with emotion, his fire-gold eyes filled with anguish and worry and anger.
Maul, formerly Darth, kneels on the floor next to her. His trousers are soaking with blood-tainted water, but he doesn't seem to care.
His fingers find the pulse on her neck and his lips move, mouthing a curse.

She doesn't hear it. Her pulse is weakening, but the sound of her own shallow, fast breaths and of the shower cascading over them both sounds as loud as plasma cannons to her ears.

A surge of Dark Side tickles against her skin. She forces her eyes open once more. Her vision is blurring more and more with every second, but she can tell he is pleading with her as he tears strips out of his shirt to wrap around her slashed forearms.

Theirs was a temporary alliance, forged in a moment of despair and for the sole sake of survival. She did not expect him to care at all if she died. She is wrong, again.

Not that it matters anymore, but she can't help the sliver of guilt that courses through her all of a sudden.

"It is not your fault." she wantes to tell him, but she doesn't have any strength left to talk.

She is not ungrateful for his help, that he has given her the chance to escape the death-trap on Mandalore, that he was there, but it just isn't enough. She has been bleeding long before that moment, bleeding inside from wounds that cannot be sealed.

 Once again, her world is over, and this time she doesn't have the strength to fight anymore. She doesn't have a reason. The Sith have won. All that she has ever loved had died and nothing she can ever do would make it better. It is too much to take. She just can't face it. She can't...

"You can't save me... Why do you even want to?" she thinks, using one last dredge of Force to push the message towards him, hoping that somehow he will hear her and just stop, just let her go, but if he does hear her, he doesn't heed her request.

His arms slip under her shoulders and knees and he lifts her from the floor, holding her tight against his chest as he stands and skids out of the 'fresher.

His skin is burning hot, his four-part heartbeat pounds in his chest as he runs, ever more determined to not give up on her. It this he is so similar to Anakin that if it hadn't shattered already, her heart would break anew.

Regret washes through her, flooding her with the temptation to hold on to him just as fiercely and let him drag her back to life, but it ebbs away in a moment.

Everything goes dark.

There is peace.

 

When she comes to again, everything is white and full of light.

For a moment she believes that she had managed to pass on to the Force. For a moment there is no pain, only relief...

 Then a noise intrudes on her senses: a thin, beeping noise, coming from somewhere close and to the side of her head. Sensations start to trickle back in: the whirr and hum of motors, the press of bedclothes against her skin, the softness of a pillow under her head, the dull pain of a needle taped to the back of her hand, the sound of someone else's breath.

With a supreme effort, she forces her eyes to open fully and focus.

 She is lying on a hospital bed, in the infirmary of the Gauntlet. Someone has dried her up, wrapped her in an old, soft, faded black tunic, and tucked her in underneath clean white sheets. Her forearms have been carefully bandaged and a bag of military-grade blood substitute is trickling into her through a drip. A heartrate and oxymetry monitor beep steadily at her bedside. If she had not known the place beforehand, she could have tricked herself into thinking that she was back at the Temple, after a tough mission.

 

One thing would have immediately weaned her off the illusion. One person, actually.

Maul is sitting on the other side of the bed, on the doctor's chair, bent forward, head down, elbows propped on his knees.

His shirt is nowhere to be seen and his usual gloves are missing. His patterned fingers are stained with old blood, like his trousers.

Ahsoka lets a small sigh escape her lips and he jolts up from the chair, immediately alert and focused. His eyes dart from her face to the monitors and back again, full of relief.

"Welcome back, Lady Tano..." he whispers. His steps falter as he closes onto the bed, and his eyes are even more bloodshot than normal, circled by deep, dark shadows. He looks exhausted and even his incongrously cultured voice sounds rougher than usual.

"How... how long?" Ahsoka manages to rasp. Her throat feels swollen and painfully dry, her tongue unwieldy and awkward in her mouth.

Maul doesn't reply, but somehow produces a glass full of water and holds it against her lips with surprising gentleness, allowing her to take a few tentative sips before moving it away. Water has never tasted better.

"Two standard days and two standard nights." he says finally.

"You remained here." Ahsoka doesn't have to ask. The answer is written all over him.

He nods all the same.

"You had lost too much blood. You nearly died." He looks away, fists clenching at his sides.

"I wanted to." she whispers, looking away from him and the infuriating edge of pain half-emerging from his voice. She tries to sound defiant, but her voice just sounds frail, defeated.

"I know." is the only reply. Ahsoka lifts her eyes back towards him. Something in his voice, in his eyes, makes her think that he doesn't just sympathise with her, but he really understands what she is feeling, what she is going through, that he feels the same. It is just a moment, though, before the idea becomes too much for her and she looks away again.

"Why this?" she asks.

There is a sharp intake of breath, then a long pause. She can hear him move away from the bed and across the room with a faint whirr of servos and some muffled clanking, but she resolutely doesn't look up and keeps on staring at the bandages wrapped around her wrists. The contrast between white linen and orange skin seems strangely fascinating.

"Because the likes of you don't deserve to die like that." he says finally, but Ahsoka can sense that it isn't the whole truth so she waits, and waits, and finally he speaks again.

"Because I had done all that I could, and if I it had not been enough, at least I wouldn't have let you die alone." there is an edge to his voice now, as if he was angry with her for pushing him to say it.

Ahsoka doesn't know how to feel. She can't bring herself to feel anything, actually, nor pain for her loss, nor anger at him for having taken her well-deserved peace away from her, only a very mild disappointment at still having to trudge on through life. She doesn't even want to kill herself anymore. She doesn't have the energy.

"Did you give me something? To make me stop wanting to..." she asks.

"No. I didn't. You're just exhausted. That's all." He sounds sincere, even though, being a former Sith and all, it is hard to tell. Ultimately she finds that she doesn't care.

"Do you feel like some food?" he asks.

Ahsoka doesn't reply. What she really, really wants is for him to stop talking, stop caring, and just let her go back to sleep, bonus points if she didn't ever wake up again.

"You need to regain your strength." he continues instead, strangely patient. She would have never imagined he had it in him.

"Starving is not a pleasant or quick way to go, you have to trust me on this." he admonishes eventually, when she makes no effort to reply.

Ahsoka looks at him again, sensing another moment of unguarded truth.

"Talking from experience?" she prods.

"Unfortunately." he acquiesces with a nod. There is a hollow look in his eyes and his gaze is lost in the distance, fixed on something only he can see, but only for a moment before he snaps out of it with a visible jolt. 

Ahsoka feels a twinge of guilt pierce through the apathy. She didn't mean to trigger him.

"What's on the menu?" she forces herself to ask.

"Protein shake. You're too weak for anything else." he gives her a stern look when she makes a face.

"These are not too horrible, compared to some. At least they taste like something." he adds almost immediately.

A bottle of thick, brownish liquid appears in his hands. It looks very unappetizing, but her guilt is still there, nagging at her so she reaches for it.

"Wait. Let me unscrew the cap." he chides, pulling it back.

Another emotion filters through the fog: irritation.

"I think I can do it myself." Ahsoka challenges.

"I think you can't. You lost nearly half of your blood volume. You'll be weak as a kitten for a few days." he retorts.

"But you're welcome to try, if you wish." he adds after the barest pause, handing the bottle over to her.

Much to her chagrin, he is right. Her hands shake badly and it's an effort just to hold on to the bottle. She tries anyway, though. Tries and tries, until her hands nearly hurt and the wounds on her forearms throb.

"Your strength will return." he says, slipping the bottle out of her weakened grasp and twisting the cap off.

The sweet, earthy smell of ratha fruit hits her nostrils and Ahsoka realises that she is hungry, no, starving. Her stomach rumbles, claiming for sustenance.

Maul hands the bottle to her without a word and she falls upon it like a ravenous beast, squeezing every drop of the sweetish liquid out of the container. The metallic aftertaste of the iron supplements is not unwelcome. It reminds her of a fresh kill.

"More?" he asks. Another bottle has appeared on the bedside table.

Ahsoka can't help but nod. Death is the last thing on her mind now.

She makes short work of the next bottle. Her stomach feels almost too full. She can't remember the last time it happened. After leaving the Temple, her life has been hand-to-mouth at best.

"Better?" Maul asks. He has been standing there the entire time, watching her drink as if it was fascinating.

Ahsoka nods. She is starting to feel drowsy, like the bloody kitten he has likened her to.

It is incredibly galling.

"It will get better." He means her wounds, or her health, surely, but she can't help the words that come out of her mouth next.

"No, it won't and you know it." She doesn't quite know how he should, but his reaction, the flinch, the sharp intake of breath, the flash of darkness in his eyes, tells her that he does, without any doubt.

"Even if it doesn't, what other option do we have?" he barks, seething with anger.

"You know that too." she retorts, facing him without flinching. If he does lose it and kills her, all the better for her.

He does not rise to the provocation though. No, he backs away, physically. He takes a step back, eyes widening.

"No. That is not an option." he shakes his head as if he wants to dislodge the idea out of his head. His voice sounds too desperate, as if he is trying to convince himself more than her.

"You are afraid." she can almost smell it, like the scent of prey and she knows this is a low blow, and that it is not the Jedi way, but at this stage she doesn't care. She quit, and now the Jedi Order doesn't even exist anymore. All she has ever believed in doesn't matter anymore. To her less than to anyone.

"Fear has nothing to do with this. We're what's left. If we die, he will have succeeded in erasing our cultures, our people." There is no need to say who was that "he". Sidious' shadow hangs large over them both, Ahsoka thinks with a shiver.

"Who says I care?" she spits. Those words have hit too close to home. She needs to push him away, but he is far too good at whatever game this might be. He reads her as clearly as if she was an open book.

"You did. With your grief." he waves a hand towards her bandaged forearms. Her cheeks burn with shame.

"Your pain... It will take time for it to lessen. Maybe it will never really go away. You can either let it control you, or own it and learn to use it, to make something out of it." his voice is even softer than usual, almost gentle.

"Is that what you did? Back when...?" Back when you should have died but didn't, she thinks, but not quite dares to say.

"It is." he drops his gaze to the floor and his left hand moves to press at the edge of his prosthetics in a self-soothing gesture. A shiver runs through him, hard enough that she can see it. He is moving way out of his comfort zone in an attempt to help her, and somehow that makes her furious, because this is all wrong that this... assassin, this Sith reject is doing more for her than the Order has ever done.

It is wrong that she is grateful and would like nothing better than to listen to him tell her how it might not ever be OK again, but she will manage, how this does not have to be the end.

She needs to hurt him, to humiliate him, to push him away, to punish both him for his daring and herself for her own weakness and gullibility. She can't afford to feel any hope anymore.

"I will not become like you." she lashes out, trying to put all the contempt she has learned to feel for him in those words. She just wants to see him bleed.

He tries to laugh it off, but his laughter sounds bitter and hollow. She has struck her target, but all her satisfaction evaporates when she sees how deep the wound runs.

"Wise words, my Lady. But you shouldn't worry: I won't ever let you, I promise." he hisses. His voice drips with self-loathing. He turns away from her, busying himself with some piece of medical equipment on the far side of the room. He is fuming: it is evident in every tense line if his body, in every gesture made sharper and more forceful by the intensity of his anger, compressed inwards and eating him up like acid.

Ahsoka feels tears burn in her eyes. Words of apology throng in her throat but she doesn't even dare say them. She didn't mean to do that, not really. She doesn't know what is happening to her.

The only thing she knows, as exhaustion overcomes her again, is that everything would be so much easier if she never opened her eyes again.