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Bloom

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She has the perfect body for Ataru, Maul thought, as the girl’s small foot connected with his cheekbone. He saw stars, and he wasn’t sure if it was all the concussion.
Damn, he was out of shape.

He rebalanced himself and whipped out what he would never admit was a cane, activating the first blade. After all this time, still the showman. He loves to see the fear in their eyes when he ignites the second blade. It always ends the same—he’s a little slower than he used to be, so while he’s warming up it looks like he’s sloppy. They become confident. He ignites the first blade and by now he’s limbered up and they’re breathing harder. They spar like this for a while and when Maul is tired of the exercise, he ignites the second blade and spins like a red propeller of death. And that’s when they get scared. And they should be.

After all, he was minding his business, cutting down some of the sick oversized pitcher plants that grew too close to the property, when out of nowhere, this girl--she couldn't have been more than mid-twenties for a human--came up and threw down, demanding to know where the cave was--how did she even know about that in the first place and also RUDE--and hell if she didn't have a lightsaber, good, he hadn't really worked out hard in a while.
What fun!

He watched the girl’s eyes when he could, brown and intense with little flecks of gold in them when the light hit them right. She’d probably used a staff or similar her whole life, he thought. Her lightsaber form was non-existent. She held it wrong, like it was too light for her to swing around properly. She kept leaving herself open in the lower half, and he wasn’t going to accept such a cheap shot. The blue blade did reflect nicely off her skin and he supposed it suited her, but something about her stirred an irrational hatred in the very back of his mind. He tried to temper this—he hadn’t seen a woman in years, hadn’t betrayed one in longer. There’s no way she knew him.

He tired of watching her ineffectively swing at him—and landed a flip a bit harder than he’d intended on a large stone—and ignited the second half. He watched her face.
She blinked, but she didn’t look away and her eyes didn’t blow up in terror.
Instead, she took two steps back and then hopped up, enhanced by an instinctive pulling at the Force, looking a little surprised that she pulled it off and didn't fall
and her mouth moved but he couldn’t hear what she said
Maul’s hearts beat out of time and he felt the whole world stop just for a second.
He would probably never admit that’s when he knew, but it was.

His arm drooped and his stance flagged and in those few seconds, she got him again—graceful dismount, perfect form even if it was amateur's luck, connected the blue blade with his hip and it showered them in sparks, and that was when she paused, wide-eyed and ridiculous, because instead of him falling to the floor in pain, he stood there with his pants smoking a little. The look in her eyes said “fucking Jedi devildry” and he felt something weird—his heart surged, the one in his throat. He hadn’t felt this alive in years.
For the first time in forever, he thought about the script hidden in his left palm.
“I have the high ground."

He’d first heard the words from that goddamn Kenobi what felt like a lifetime ago.
Both of them reckless jackasses in their twenties, Maul a perfect killing machine let loose on the galaxy, cutting a red streak across creation, Kenobi an absurdly passionate young man in an order that thrived on tepidity. He could never be sure what he felt for him other than blinding-white-hot hate, but Maul erroneously assumed that to basically be the same thing as love since he hadn’t known the difference and Kenobi said the words. He’d learn later the greatest favour the Jedi ever did for the Sith was convincing the galaxy that they were incapable of love.
That just wasn’t the case.

He heard it again from a dark-haired young man he met in the guts of a Sith temple, who played apprentice to his master then and a few more times as the years kept going. Maul was looking for something, anything, he wasn’t alive if he wasn’t hunting something. With the filthy old man dispatched, his saltmate out of commission, and most of his enemies from his life of crime long gone…he didn’t have anyone to hate anymore. It was a curious feeling to have spent so much of his life focused on wrath and then just having a gaping absence of it. Something else took root in its place over time and more exposure—and it was terrible—Maul heard him say the words, but had no way of knowing if it clicked both ways. Of course it wasn’t serious, they were sparring at the time and Ezra was about to come at him from on top of a log and truly had no idea the impact of his words. Maul waited for a burst of pain and passion and heat but it didn’t come. Over time, they drifted apart--Ezra had to return to his duty to repairing the damage done by Palpatine's legacy. He pretended to be fine, but he just wasn't. He'd seen too much, lost too much, to ever be okay again after that. He decided to just wear gloves and dedicate his life to the pursuit of knowledge--there were plenty of books in his mother's old house and nobody to read them.

But every once in a while, he wondered:
If it wasn’t Kenobi and it wasn’t Ezra, who was it?

He’d waited a long time to find out.
But he had to be sure.

“What did you say?”
He turned on his heel and stared her down again. Her eyes were avoiding his, darting back and forth between trees, trying to find a weak spot to press. She was full of anxiety (rightfully so) and also puzzled. He sighed, rolled his eyes so far he thought they’d stick, and powered down his blade. This made her panic more. It was almost like talking was worse than fighting for her. (He would rather die than admit he smiled, but he did.)

“Put that down, you clearly have no idea what you’re doing.”
She opened her mouth to say something snappy, no doubt, but nothing came. She sputtered for a second and then pulled it together, looking just indignant. She turned up her nose and stood straighter, not that it helped.
“I’ll do no such thing,” she said.
He snorted and replaced his saber on his belt and raised his empty palms and attempted his best impression of reason.
“Would you really kill an unarmed man you just met?”
She seemed to legitimately question this for two whole seconds, then re-steeled herself.
“Yes! You have the same blade as HIM.”
Her thoughts broadcasted, it was impossible to not see who she meant. Some young, handsome human with a red blade modeled after holy shit he’d seen those on the walls of malachor what even was this--
He didn't know the full story, but he saw the man's face and whatever he'd done, he'd hurt her badly.

“I don’t know who he is, but I assure you, we’re not on the same side and we’ve never met,” he said, making an effort to use the people-voice Savage told him he had.
“How did you…GET OUT OF MY HEAD!”
Great, that made it all worse.
He couldn’t get either heart to calm, so he did something impossibly stupid given the circumstances.
He sighed and walked towards her, fully aware that she’d probably use this opportunity to try to cleave him in half, for some reason all the pretty ones try to DO that—and took a knee right in front of her. It hurt, but he hoped it would send the correct message.

“What are you doing? Get away, we’re fighting, aren’t we?”
“You may still be, but I’m done. It wasn’t fun. I have an unfair advantage.”
“I have the high ground,” she said, taking a step back from him, obviously bewildered and trying to figure out exactly how she could get out of this and not fall into whatever trap she imaged he’d set here. He looked up, not believing what he heard, and she may as well have hung the moon in place.
“So you do. Now, what are you going to do about it? I’ve disengaged and am no longer a threat to you. I’d like to talk if you’re quite finished flinging yourself around like an idiot.”
He couldn’t hold the position any longer without getting stuck that way, so he dropped down and crossed his legs, something that should be familiar to her if she’d been messing about with Jedi—were there even any left anymore? That seemed to do it—the blue blade dissipated into the hilt and she let it fall to her side, but still didn’t take her thumb off the ignition switch.
“You know,” he started, looking at her palms all covered with cloth strips. “If you’d use your palm there’s a wider surface area and it’s easier to activate the switch under pressure when your fine motor skills aren’t at their best.”

She stood like that, mouth hanging open a bit, unable to process what was happening. Five minutes ago she’d probably been in fear for her life no matter how well she hid it, and now he was sharing pro-tips. The Force works in mysterious ways.

“I’ve come to seek knowledge from the one who guards the cave,” she said quietly.
“The books said it was a witch. In a red gown. What have you done with her?”
Maul felt a heaviness in his chest he hadn’t felt in a long damn time and wondered where to start. It was her, he knew it, and was resigned to it. He desperately didn’t want to have to kill her, she said the thing, he’d been out here alone for so long and it hurt and he hated to think about it but it did.
“That was my mother. She’s long-dead. Since the Clone Wars.”
“The…the Clone Wars? How long have you been out here? Those were…so long ago.”
The girl turned and finally started to relax a bit. She had three buns and something about her face in profile stirred something in his memory but he couldn’t quite catch it, it was smoke.
“Long enough.”
She came very close now—close enough to look over his face. Hers had softened, but her mind was like an iron box now. He almost wished they'd kept fighting--he was in vaguely unfamiliar territory now and was exhausted with living in general and felt far too old to learn how to navigate this.
The alternative was being harassed to death by his mother's ghost, though, so it was worth a shot. They hadn't killed each other yet. That was a good sign maybe.

She apparently found him...whatever she was looking for. He wasn't sure exactly what. Non-threatening? Defeated? More useful alive? Not that she could win, of course, but whatever. He caught himself just kind of watching her, and being watched by her stupid trusting big brown eyes. How gauche.

She looked him up and down, still making notes in her mind. She decided to speak.
“Will you tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“What I’ve come for.”
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re here for. Let’s start with what to call you or I’ll just call you ‘Rude’ forever.”
“Rude?”
“Yes. Rude. Generally what you call people who invade your swamp and fight you with little provocation.”

She sulked and it was adorable and he hated it.
“I’m Rey. She.”
“Old Master. Him.”
“Strange name.”
“Yours isn't?”
"Fair enough."
She was quiet then. He stood, stretched, and idly wished he’d oiled his moving parts a bit better before leaving the house. She stepped back and tried to hold the saber the right way--sudden movements startled her, joy. As if he didn't have enough minefields to get through just existing, seeing the shit he'd seen. Other people's issues still made him tired.

He pinched his nosebridge and sighed.
“Come on, then.”
“What?”
“Come on. It gets dark quickly here, grown bull-krayts wander the woods at night, and they are the apex predators in this environment. We have honey-wasps and mosquitos the size of birds, both nocturnal as well. You could try to go back to your ship, but you’ll get turned around without navigational aids. I don’t see a bag, so you probably didn’t pack for the environment or exposure to it. And if I need to sell the idea further, I have indoor plumbing.”
She tucked the saber into her robe-thing and followed him a few steps behind.

When he opened the door to the Big House, she passed in front of him and it smacked him in the face hard just exactly who she reminded him of and that made everything much, much worse.
Maul really didn't want to consider the possibility he'd murdered her grandmother but it was hard to not think about it when it was right in front of him like that.
He decided to save that awkward conversation for later.