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Commander Fox stopped entertaining himself with Thire’s attempts at small talk to doublecheck the camera feeds. It had seemed like Senator Chuchi had swerved away from Senator Amidala, putting distance between herself and the senator from Naboo. There’d been nothing in the briefing packets about a split in that faction. If they’d been trying to conceal it, the Honourable Chuchi had just ruined the plan.

“Thire!” he called, rescuing the sephi comms officer. “What do you make of this?”

On rewatch, Chuchi was uncharacteristically graceless, slingshotting herself from Amidala’s orbit. Fox would’ve expected her to split with Organa before Amidala. Alderaan was a formidably wealthy Core world with an unyielding faith in the Republic; Pantora was located in the Outer Rim, and Naboo was still rebuilding. Both planets were vulnerable in a way that would be utterly unfamiliar to Organa. Even without the political similarities, Chuchi and Amidala were young women in positions of heavy responsibility. Fox had been used to thinking of them as battle buddies.

Thire frowned at the screen, and shook his head. “No idea, ner vod. You going to tag it?”

“Yeah.” Anything interesting got forwarded - not to Senate Intelligence - but so the Coruscant Guard didn’t lose its footing in the shifting sands of senate politics. Thire swiveled back, only to find the sephi was wearing headphones. Her pointed ears, Fox saw with amusement, were twitching under the foam.

Relations between the senators did not normalise. Instead the rift grew wider to include Organa, and soon Mothma as well. More than once, Fox found himself wondering why. Hoped it wasn’t Tano’s self-imposed exile from the Jedi Order. Hoped it wasn’t Amidala’s failure to defend Skywalker’s padawan from the crimes that she hadn’t committed. Not that she’d been punished for the ones she had - he turned his thoughts away from the brother-killer. There was always more work to do.

He was on-shift when Chuchi’s driver called in a frantic mayday. The speeder was still inside Senate airspace, and he scrambled along with the rest of the emergency response squad, jetpacks burning through the grey Coruscant sky. Traffic control talked the driver downwell, finding a safe place for what was going to be a rough landing.

Dug reflexes brought the speeder in nice and level, gouging trenches in the filthy plascrete as it spun to a halt. Chuchi and the driver popped their hatches, running towards the mouth of the well as the shock troopers swooped in. Fox landed slightly behind Choruk squad, superfluous and feeling a little foolish. Chuchi knelt next to her driver, a hand on the dug’s shoulder, clearly congratulating them.

The driver’s head exploded.

Fox moved. Chuchi fell backwards, face frozen in horror, legs scrabbling as she tried to push herself away from the corpse. The second shot burned through her skirts, and then Fox was lifting her in his arms to throw them both off the edge of the platform. His afterburners kicked in, and she yanked her skirts tight so they wouldn’t catch the air. Krans’s icon flickered pale yellow just as Fox’s helmet belatedly calculated the sniper’s firing vectors. In an ambush, the killing zone is small, his flash-training told him. Get out of it.

They dropped like a stone, his men framing them in a loose cross. Chuchi tucked herself into his chestplate, one hand holding her headdress down while her free hair streamed upwards.

“Break break. 1000 below on my 3. HUD mark set.” Vitie’s voice was calm. Fox switched his view over; Vitie had outlined what seemed to be the entrance to a residential sector. Moderate traffic, foot and vehicular, flowing nice and even. Plenty of cover.

“Choruk squad, on the mark.” Fox replied. “Well done. Arnott, check high.”

“Roger.” He’d be watching upwell, seeing if anyone was tracking them down.

Seconds later, they were boots on the ground. Fox pulled Chuchi along until there was a cross tunnel they could turn down.

“Mint, Arnott, on the corner. Mint, comm ops with a sitrep.” They peeled back towards the entrance. Krans had opened his medkit to patch up whatever crease the sniper had given him, while Vitie stood between them and the pedestrians. No-one wanted to make eye contact, so they stood in a bubble of looks-like-trouble and not-my-problem.

Chuchi had a greyish undertone to her skin that he didn’t like. His HUD said she was cold, which could be shock, or the jetpack ride, or because it hadn’t flagged her as Pantoran. GAR software was terrible at species recognition. Fox winced when he looked closer; he’d only ever had to clean his armour. She had stuff on her skin and in her hair. Probably her skirts and poncho as well, although it wasn’t obvious on the dark blue material.

Krans tapped Fox on the shoulder, and handed him some antiseptic wipes.

“Don’t move,” he told Chuchi, and began getting rid of the gore.

“What is -” She reached for her face, and he slapped her hand away.

“I said, don’t move,” he repeated, harshly, like she was a misbehaving cadet. Krans and Vitie pretended they weren’t watching, the liars.

“We need to keep moving, ma’am,” he said once the worst was gone. “If they’re pursuing the contact, we need to find somewhere defensible until backup arrives.”

Chuchi nodded briskly, and reached for her waist. She twisted something; her skirts came loose, and she stepped out of them to reveal a pair of loose trousers and low heeled boots. Krans and Vitie locked their knees.

“The underlayer is always blast weave you can run in,” she explained, bundling the others up in her arms. “Naboo handmaiden protocol.” Something flickered across her face before she smoothed it away. Chuchi had handled herself during the hostage situation, and she was handling herself now. The lady had grit.

“Would you be so kind as to help me remove my head piece, Commander Fox? It's position is, I am afraid, rather precarious.”

She wasn’t wrong. It was already half loose on one side, making it a good target of opportunity for a thief. Fox gritted his teeth - he wanted them to be moving - and started removing jeweled hairpins as fast as he could. She took it off him, and concealed it in her skirts.

“Where to now, Commander Fox?”

That was a question he’d dearly like the answer to; his maps didn’t extend this far. Their best chance seemed to be following the flow of foot traffic, to camouflage themselves in a larger group. The Coruscant Guard red and white armour couldn’t be helped, and Chuchi would be beautiful anywhere, even in her current state of déshabillé.

“We’ll find you something, ma’am,” he said.

“I have the utmost faith in all of you.” Her back was perfectly straight.

“I'm with the senator, Choruk squad on me, Arnott on point.” said Fox. They began to walk, keeping pace with traffic, always turning towards the busier intersections, and going upwards when they could. The ceiling was too low for anyone to get a good vantage point. Finding Chuchi would be difficult, let alone getting a shot at her.

All, too soon the concourse spat them out into an open area, grimy neon advertising goods the Guard would’ve ordinarily confiscated. The thump of glimmik basslines and speeder engines echoed off the walls of the irregular hollow cube.

“I don’t like this,” said Vitie, looking up. Fox agreed. The walkways above were a nightmare of sniper perches, and with the way the noise was bouncing around they’d never get a acoustic track on a shot. Arnott led them through, keeping to the edges.

“There’s a hostel,” Chuchi said, but didn’t point. “Green 35 degrees, AOS twenty.” Jedi style bearings. Learnt from Tano, no doubt.

“I see it.” Fox had already seen and discarded it. “Walls are too thin. Rounds will punch right through.”

“My mistake.” Chuchi rearranged her bundle.

“Good spotting, though,” he added. Like a fool.

Five klicks and another grey market later, Chuchi was beginning to slump, will eroded by exhaustion and - Fox presumed - inferior physical conditioning. By now, they’d reached the edges of an industrial district. Buildings here were older, more permanent than the flimsy structures he’d rejected before.

Fox no longer believed in the benevolence of the Force - not since Tano, not since he’d faced down Skywalker, not since Fives, not since Rex - but he breathed gratitude to it anyway when Arnott reported there was something promising ahead.

Backing onto the foundations of a residential block was a mushroom farm. Switching to thermal visuals showed him there was enough mass to act as a heat sink. It was the best thing he’d seen yet, by far.

“Nice and slow,” he said, holstering his pistols, and rapped on the door. “No need to act the heavy.”

The door opened a crack, and a blaster muzzle pointed through. Eyes glinted behind it, in the dark. Fox saw Mint’s leg twitch with the repressed need to kick it wide, get out of the open.

“What.” Saurian, by the teeth. He switched to low-light mode; a chistori? Not too promising.

Chuchi put one hand on Fox’s chestplate, and stepped forward.

“Please,” she said, a fine tremour in her voice. “We were attacked, and we need shelter, please let us inside.”

The muzzle swung to and fro. Thermals showed more people behind the doorkeeper. No more saurians, though. Smaller. Gran, from the skull outline.

“You bring trouble.”

“I hope not,” Chuchi said. “Please.” Consciously or not, she was holding her bundle close to her, like an infant.

Voices from inside. They were talking about it.

“What you want.”

“Just let us inside,” Chuchi was nearly begging, and the tone of her voice was something Fox would never be able to forget. “I can explain then, please.”

More voices. The blaster was pointing at the ground.

“Please, I can pay you for your trouble,” she said. “I’ve got this -” Chuchi held up one of the strands of jewels that usually hung from the back of her headdress. Fox didn’t even know when she’d detached it. There was a squabble of voices, and the door opened. Definitely a chistori.

“Inssssside. Now.” Fox grabbed the back of her poncho. Choruk was going to go in first, not a senator who wasn't even wearing armour. Krans gave the green light, and Fox ushered her through into what looked to be a reception area. The bolts slammed home behind him; Chuchi wasn't safe, but she was safer than she had been five minutes ago.

“May the Force bless you for your mercy,” Chuchi said to the room. The chistori dropped its gaze, blaster slack in one scaled hand. Clustering around a counter were a group of wide-eyed gran and abednedos. Most were dressed in grubby overalls, smeared with earth and something pungent.

There was a brief squabble of voices, and a gran in street clothes stepped forward, ushering Chuchi into a tiny windowless office.

“Make a show of putting your safeties on,” Fox told Choruk squad before following her. “See if you can find out if there’s a camera feed for the door. ”

Tears were slowly rolling down Chuchi’s face. The gran fussed at her kindly, handing her some small squares of fabric.

“My driver was shot,” the senator said, obviously upset. “She was so brave.”

The gran offered Chuchi silvergrass tea in a tiny cup. What did the lady need?

Standing in immobile support was a role any of the Coruscant Guard could have played. Fox tuned out, confident that Chuchi had the situation in hand. He tried to raise ops but only found static. He ran through the rest of his frequencies. Nothing.

“Ma'am,” he interjected, quietly. Surely someone here had a hardline tap.

The call cost Chuchi another strand, but once it was made the crawling tension left Fox. The gran - Las Wove - also seemed to be relieved. Probably that their unexpected guests wouldn’t be overstaying their welcome. Fox sympathised. He didn't want to be here either.

After negotiations were over, an abednedo showed them to a bunkroom, further into the structure and damp with it. Arnott and Mint took first watch - Choruk squad had managed to relay the existing security cameras to their helmets - while Krans and Vitie tried to rest on the too-short bunks.

Senator Chuchi was sitting on her bunk in her shirtsleeves. She'd thrown her gore-stained poncho aside with some force as soon as the abednedo had left. The blast-weave lining explained why she’d kept it on for as long as she had. One hand held an open nutrient bar that she was nibbling at without enthusiasm.

“You should get some rest if you can, ma’am,” Fox told her. He’d taken his helmet off. Birthers of all species felt more secure when they could see a face.

She sniffed. “No.”

“Ma’am?”

“My hair’s got things in it.” Chuchi looked sick. “Can’t lie down, can I?”

He'd been trying to calculating where they were and minimum time until pickup, and had forgotten.

“I’ll help you get it done.” It was the work of a moment to discard his gauntlets and vambraces. Fox rolled his blacks up to his elbows, doing his best to project calm reassurance. "Come on, ma'am. It'll be okay.

Shoulders wrapped in a towel, Chuchi shivered over the basin. Fox poured another jug of water over her head, watching the rivulets trickle through the fine curls on the nape of her neck.

“For a Commander of the Guard, you make an excellent maid.”

“We were created to serve the Republic, ma’am.”

“The Republic is grateful.” She’d had to close her eyes while he worked the clots free, teeth worrying away at her bottom lip. A couple more tears had slipped loose, but she hadn’t acknowledged them, and so Fox had pretended he never saw them. “I should commission you a medal. Services to senatorial cleanliness.”

“That’s all of it, ma’am.” The water was clear now, blood rinsed away.

“Extremely grateful.” She sighed. “Thank you doesn’t seem enough.”

“It’s nothing, ma’am.”

“This is slightly more than nothing, Fox.” She fumbled for his hand, and squeezed it. "Thank you."

Later, he idly watched her work her fingers through her drying hair. None of the species working here had much hair; Chuchi had managed to arrange everything except a comb. When she’d finished she twisted it on top of her head, securing it with one swift stab of a hairpin.

“Well.” She drew in a breath, and began to remove things from the head dress.

Fox sat up.

“Come and look,” she urged him. They were unquestionably recording devices of various kinds. Fox picked one up, dropped it back into her blue palm.

“You’ve probably guessed most of it. Padmé and Bail were in from the start. I lost the elections on Pantora, but was asked to stay on as an adviser. We - me and Padmé - thought there was a window of opportunity before I left office. If I broke away from her, if I wasn’t taking the official line. See who came sniffing around. You must know there’s a lot of people at home who think we should’ve joined the CIS.”

He did. It was one of the things he’d been made for.

“Anyway, we were right, but I got stupid. Set the hook too well, and they - panicked.” Panicked. Tried to kill her. “I wasn’t lying, you know. Sallee was my friend. I met her family. I hope it was worth it.”

Senator Chuchi’s face twisted, bitter with self-recrimination. He knew that feeling all too well.

“You don’t always get to know,” Fox found himself saying, awkwardly trying to comfort her. “Not all the time.”

“It would be so much easier if you did,” she said, turning the headpiece over and over on her lap. Like a shiny who’d lost their first batcher. Although if that were the case he would’ve known what to do.

“Do you know how to play pazaak?” Fox asked.

Chuchi let him distract her with the card game and small talk; the fish incident, the eternal question of why Nute Gunray was still alive.

“Not that I exactly condone assassination,” she said wryly. “You’d just think someone would’ve by now.”

Fox agreed. There should be a queue to wring his wretched neck. Still, she should be thinking about something else, so he told her about the time some stuffed shirt from the Senate Bureau of Intelligence had given a briefing with his fly down, and senate blue underpants visible in the gap.

“I got hiccups in a closed session once,” she offered in return. “Ended up hiding on the floor of my pod.”

“So much for upholding the dignity of your office.”

“Fox!” She was smiling.

Choruk was silent, apparently asleep in their helmets. Fox suspected they were gossiping on their squad channel.

Watch had switched off twice before Arnott cocked his head and rolled off the bunk.

“Our ride’s here.” Mint exited close on his squadmate’s heels.

Chuchi had put her cards down and gone to sleep some time ago. He’d been pleased for her sake then, but now; how did you wake a senator and a lady? Fox crouched next to her, shook her shoulder. Nothing. He shook again, harder, and she blinked her warm gold eyes open, focusing on him.

“Fox?” she asked in a voice thick with sleep. No one else was in the bunkroom. He could -

He could scramble to his feet and step away. “There’s a LAAT/i waiting for you outside, ma’am.”

“We are rescued?” She’d gone from sleepy young woman to self-possessed senator. "Very good, Commander Fox. Shall we go?"

Fox rolled the poncho up, dirty side inwards, and added it to the bundle of headdress and skirts. She took it from him, and paused, looked up at him as if she was going to say something, but didn’t. Instead, she saved her thanks for the gran and abednedo, and even bowing to Las Wove as they left. Fox jammed his helmet on; safer behind the visor in public.

She waved to the mushroom farm’s crowded doorway as she boarded the LAAT/i. Fox swung in next to her, checked her straps, and told the pilots to boost out topside.

The gunship rose into bright daylight. Chuchi blinked, her eyes watering. As soon as they touched down on the Senate pads, her people descended on her like a flock of gulls, ushering her back where she belonged. Fox watched her amidst them a little too long before turning back to his fellow clones.

She sent them a crate that same week, along with a note. The paper envelope was embossed with her personal crest, and the address was written by hand. Fox took his gloves off to open it.

“My dear Fox,

Please find enclosed some very carefully selected Pantoran delicacies. While it could be said that serving the Republic is your duty, it doesn't mean that I can't be grateful for the skill and speed with which I was rescued. In lieu of any formal honours, I would appreciate it if you distributed these to Choruk squad and everyone else involved, and don't forget to save some for yourself.

I won't forget your kindness.

Sincerest regards,
Riyo.”

‘Very carefully’ was underlined, twice. Fox leaned back in his chair and grinned at the paper. The fish incident. Riyo Chuchi had gotten some traditional Pantoran foodstuffs delivered after the hostage crisis. Unfortunately, the morale boost had backfired when the smell from the fermented fish had escaped from her senator’s suite to drift down a corridor that had some newly installed chemical detectors.

His frustration at the false alarm was gone, replaced by amusement at the Pantorans’ horrified embarrassment. If it wasn’t poisonous to them it wasn’t going to poison clones, but at the time he’d definitely regretted removing his rebreather. That show of good faith had let the eye-watering reek into his helmet.

Riyo Chuchi had blushed when they’d spoken of it, downbelow. They’d been close enough that he hadn’t needed his helmet to pop an alert about an abnormal vasodilatory response. The golden quarter circles of her tattoos had stood out, as bright as her eyes.

Fox cut off that train of thought, and investigated the contents. Small sealed pots - he turned one, looking for the ingredients, and was cheered at the promising amount of sugar. He opened one, scraped some out, and ate the rest of it with a spoon.

Held up to light, many of the jams shone in Coruscant Guard red. Choruk squad decided that the Honourable Riyo Chuchi had done that on purpose.

But the outgoing senator’s new-found popularity was limited to the Guard. For some reason that escaped Fox, mushroom dishes began to be served everywhere. More familiar was the barely concealed tittering about being trapped with clones from other, less sympathetic factions. Organa and Amidala insulated her from the worst of it; she’d been folded back into that group as though she’d never left.

Fox rarely saw Riyo Chuchi in person in the next few weeks, though he made sure to attend the inauguration of the new Pantoran senator and thought she yielded her precedence with a serene calmness her detractors couldn’t seem to touch. When he did see her, however, Fox thought he saw shadows under her eyes, a certain tautness at her mouth and jaw. If only the Senate Blues had caught the car bomb; if only Riyo Chuchi and Sallee had stayed inside the blasterproof cabin; if only he’d been quicker; if only they hadn’t had to dive so far; if only, if only, thought Fox, and damned himself for a fool. He wasn't even sure what to call her, even the privacy of his own head. She'd signed the note Riyo, but her first name seemed too familiar a term of address.

He was still grappling with this when Confederacy attempted to invade, and failed. Thire held them off long enough for the Open Circle Fleet to jump in; Marshall Commander Cody brought his ships around in a textbook pincer move and the Coruscant Home Fleet rose to the occasion. Grievous' invasion force was crushed between them. Count Dooku died to the Order he'd forsaken. The Supreme Chancellor was rescued. The holonet gloated for almost a week before squabbling over how it could’ve done it better. Victory banners went up all over Coruscant.

It didn’t feel much like a victory. Not going over the casualty lists with Thire and Stone. Fox was very tired. Powdery dust still hung in the air and made its way through his armour and blacks to his skin.

Coruscant space approach was barely cleared of debris before the Senate decided to host a Victory Ball. To congratulate themselves on their survival, Fox supposed; there’d been enough holos of civil defence pulling limp bodies from the ruins that they might've felt the shadow pass over them.

Even by Coruscant standards the Victory Ball promised to be quite something. A holoclip of the Supreme Chancellor’s majordomo nearly coming to blows with the Chief of Protocol of the Senate was passed around the Guard. Professions that they'd never dreamed existed on Kamino - caterers, stylists, florists, musicians - were hired, and flooded the Senate Dome in a security nightmare that somehow got dumped on Fox. Not that clones were invited. Not even Thire, without whom they wouldn’t have had a Homeland Security Command. Clones would be present, but only to protect the Coruscant elite, a bulwark against the idea that the war might make its way home again.

So Fox stood in an archway, watching the colours and movement of the thronging crowd. He wasn’t needed in the event control room, and was restless to boot; walking the sentry posts seemed as good a thing to do as any. Force help any hapless Guard he caught napping.

He didn’t quite realise why he was waiting there until he saw Riyo Chuchi. Fox swallowed. She was wearing Papanoida’s colours, had been since the inauguration. The dusky violet and gold suited her very well. Gems lay across her bare shoulders, and shone in the mass of her hair.

Even secure in the knowledge that his grey-blue uniform and brown face blended well with the shadows, Fox did not dare let himself watch for long; like this, she blazed like a beacon of all the things he wasn’t allowed.

“Fox!” Impossible. He took a step backwards, but it was too late. “Fox, I didn’t know you were here!”

By then she’d nearly reached him, offering her hand like he was a gentleman, and Fox bowed over it reflexively. He straightened to find her smiling, brimful of mischief and not in the least bit ladylike.

“Did they flash-train that bow?”

“When we were first assigned here we had to take classes.” He straightened his jacket.

“You all would’ve been woefully underprepared for this battlefield. Tell me - did you have to take classes in how to dance, too?”

“I did. We all did.” Ridiculously easy, compared to what was demanded of them on Kamino.

“Really? I only see you leaning up against the wall, pretending to be a potted plant.” Distracted by the knowledge that Riyo Chuchi had been watching him - and he did not lean, none of them did - Fox failed to notice that she was pulling him out into the hall until they reached the parquet.

“Ma’am, I can’t -”

“Riyo to you. And you just said you could!”

“That’s -” Fox did not belong out there, in the light. Her fingers dug into his arm.

“Please.” She bit her bottom lip, and he wavered. “I find I am all out of patience, and I would much rather dance with you.”

The world stuttered, fell.

“As the lady wills it,” said Fox, pulling the phrase from nowhere, and a delighted Riyo Chuchi pulled him into the throng.

Moving with the other dancers crowding his peripheral vision wracked his nerves, but Fox relaxed a little as Riyo Chuchi led him through the figures. If the pressure of her hands burned him through her gloves and his uniform, then it also told him where he should step, and how he should move. He did not want to make her regret whatever strange fancy had possessed her.

“You’re frowning,” she said lightly. “Is it so very bad?”

“No, no. Not at all.” It was only a small lie. “I’m concentrating.”

“You’re doing well.”

“Mostly due to my partner, I'm sure.” They danced on, willfully ignoring the trail of stares behind them and, in Fox’s case, the knowledge that everyone would be watching from event control.

At the end of the measure she spun them out close to Fox’s corridor, and let her arms drop away.

“My thanks for honouring me with a dance, Commander Fox.” She curtsied.

“The honour was mine, Dame Chuchi.” He bowed with equal formality.

“There is one other matter,” she said. “Why I approached you, in fact.”

“Yes?” They were standing close enough that her skirts touched the front of his boots.

“Yes. But not here. Do you know where my new office is?”

“New -? Oh, of course.” She’d had to vacate the senatorial suite.

“Meet me there,” said Riyo Chuchi. “In two hours.”

“Two hours,” Fox echoed in disbelief. He had an assignation.

Fox arrived, a good ten minutes early. Thire had offered to lend him his holdred’s foot, but last time the sephi and Thire had been on the same shift, she’d put her headphones on while glaring directly at Fox’s hapless brother. Fox would make his own luck.

Riyo Chuchi opened the door herself, and smiled at him.

“There you are. Come in.”

She led him through the waiting room and into her office proper.

“I had it swept this morning. We should be clear.” Her jewellery and gloves were gone. Locks of hair were escaping her coiffure. “Do you want anything to drink?”

“No. Thank you.” He fidgeted with his cuffs.

“Straight to business?” She handed him some sheets of flimsi. “These were sent to Senator Papanoida in the mail a week or so ago.

Fox wasn’t sure what he’d expected - the usual death threats, perhaps - but not some holos of a Pantoran woman with an ARC trooper. They were holding hands under a flower arch, their faces lit with identical smiles.

“It’s a wedding,” Riyo Chuchi said. “She managed to get a license. There’s a copy in there somewhere, and the certificate.”

So there was.

“I’ve got some of our lawyers looking into it. Early days yet, but it might stand up in court. Depending on the court, of course.”

“How -”

“Reference librarian.” Riyo Chuchi rubbed her temples, working more of the soft pink strands loose. “There's an old Ord Mantell statute on the books - anyway. Guess she knew were to look.”

Fox sat heavily down on the edge of her desk, flimsi in one nerveless hand.

“From your reaction, it’s news to you.”

He nodded.

“Frozen hells. I’d hoped -”

“Hoped?”

“Hoped you know if there are any other couples trying the same legal avenue. Wait - there’s a holo group shot.” She came around the desk and watched him shuffle until he found it. “If you recognise anyone, maybe you could ask around?”

“I don’t mind.” He would’ve done it even if it hadn’t been Riyo Chuchi asking. “Can I keep these?”

“Yes. They’re copies. The originals are very safe.”

He nodded back, and tucked them into a jacket pocket. Tension fell from her shoulders.

“This is important to you,” Fox realised.

“Yes.” He must have looked surprised because she continued. “I could say it’s about how ludicrous your legal status is, and how much I hate the war, how unnecessary all the death is, and how nobody seems to be thinking about what will happen when it’s over, but. But that’s not right, not really. They just look so pleased with each other I want to make sure no one ruins it for them. You don’t see that sort of happiness very often. I want to protect them. It’s a little ridiculous, honestly.”

“It’s not.”

“It is. I am.”

“You’re not.”

“Are you arguing with me?”

“No,” Fox lied for affect, and she giggled. He was miserably aware of how close she was, leaning on the desk next to him; how much her reputation would suffer if someone found them, but he was pinned in place by the curve of her neck, and the perfume rising from her hair.

“Why do they care so much about the mushrooms?” he blurted into the silence.

“Mushrooms?”

“After the attack. The farm, underneath? People were serving them for weeks afterwards.”

“That is because they’re tremendous sithfucking assholes,” Riyo Chuchi said, and startled him into a laugh. “My family isn’t very old or prestigious as they reckon these things. Mushrooms spring up overnight, out of nowhere. They grow in waste. They thought it was very funny, that even clones would know where a Chuchi belonged.”

“Even clones.” His capacity for outrage ballooned outward.

“That’s the galactic aristocracy for you.” Her smile was lopsided, knowing. “Not having to deal with them any more was a great consolation to losing, but Chairman Papanoida was worried about his daughter, so -” Riyo Chuchi spread her arms wide. “Still here.”

“It’s hard to believe they voted you out,” Fox said. She’d ‘negotiated’ personally with Gunray to break the Blockade. Brothers would never have forgotten.

“Should’ve gone home to campaign.” She shrugged. “Though without the Chairman’s backing, I might’ve lost anyway. But I think being an adviser will suit me very well. Less having to live for Pantora, and considerably more latitude.” She glanced up at him through her lashes.

“What will you do with your latitude?” Fox’s heart kicked itself into an unsteady gallop.

She slid off the desk to stand face to face with him. Sitting as he was, they were nearly the same height.

“I’ve thought of some things.”

“What things?” He hadn’t been sure his voice would work at all.

Riyo Chuchi picked up his hand. She folded his jacket cuff down, put her mouth on the inside of his wrist, and kissed his skin.

Fox's breath caught, and he froze. Somehow his reaction seemed to satisfy Riyo Chuchi, and she leaned into him, tugging at his glove. She kissed his hand as it was revealed, the palm, the back, each knuckle of his fingers until the glove came free. Holding his hand curled over hers, she searched his face. Whatever she found there, she opened her mouth, and slid his forefinger inside.

The warmth and wetness was shockingly intimate. Fox’s hips jerked on the edge of the desk when she began to suck. His head was spinning with the soft pull of her lips, seeing how they fit around his finger, how they’d have to stretch thinner to fit around the greater circumference of his cock - it was like nothing he’d ever known, and he nearly shook with the effort to contain it. His next breath came late, one ragged heave. She stopped.

“Fox,” she said, anxiously. “Do you want - you don’t have to - tell me -”

“I don’t know,” he admitted, voice hoarse. “I don’t know what you want.”

“I want to know what you want.”

“I don’t know,” Fox repeated bleakly.

“Mmm. We can practice.” She was holding his hand, his finger still wet from her mouth. “Do you want to paint your armour blue, like a proper Senate guard?”

“No.” The word was out of him before he had time to think.

“There you go. So you don’t want to paint your armour blue. Would you want to dance with me again?”

“I - yes.” He closed his eyes.

“Do you want to leave?”

“No.”

“Do you want me to let you go, stand on the other side of the room?”

“No.”

“Do you want me to touch you, again?” Her voice lowered.

“Yes,” Fox said, even quieter.

“Fox. Do you want to touch me?” She was right there, turned into him.

He shuddered against the soft press of her body.

“Fox.”

“Yes. Yes.”

Riyo Chuchi cupped his hand over her breast, and held it there. The bodice of her dress was so thick with embroidery she probably couldn’t feel anything but - she was facing him, golden eyes bright with what he thought was hope. Fox couldn’t have looked away from her if Nala Se had called his serial number.

She bit her bottom lip.

“I want to kiss you,” he said, astonished at the depths of his presumption.

“Oh,” said Riyo Chuchi. “Oh. Yes.”