Undertow
by Antigone

"Pulled down by the undertow,
never thought I could feel so low.
In all this darkness I feel like letting go..."
Sarah McLachlan; "Full of Grace"~*~*~*~*~

He made no pretense at being fully human.  What was the point?  One look at him and anyone could see that he wasn't.  The metal plate over the left side of his face, the red, blinking optical sensor where his eye should be-- he was clearly damaged goods.  A mistake.  Less than a man.

"A waste of space."  Ton Phanan hefted his shot of brandy and downed it with a practiced flick of his wrist.  As his muscles seized in protest, he quickly chased it with a glass of lomin-ale.  His hands clenched on the polished countertop and he inhaled deeply, feeling the liquor burn down his throat.

"Most people start spilling their guts right about now."  The bartender flicked a towel over the pre-fab wood counter, wiping off invisible specks of dust.

"No guts left," Phanan muttered.  "Just machinery."

The bartender smiled sadly and patted his hand, then stepped away to refill a lum for the Twi'lek next to him.  Phanan stared after her.

She was, he supposed, like most bartenders; a willing ear and a liberal hand with the whisky.  But it seemed that she had a special smile for him, a soft, understanding expression that she never turned to the other patrons.

Phanan had discovered this bar shortly after he was stationed on Coruscant, right after the Liberation.  He'd been transferred to a patrol squadron.  //No more battles for Ton.  Not much of him left to shoot up.//  He knew it was his last chance to stay in the New Republic military, and his time there was running out.  The captain was uncomfortable with this walking casualty; wasn't sure what to do with him.

The bar wasn't much, but it was quiet and out of the way, peopled by other rejects who were trying to decide if they should bother anymore.  The liquor was hard, the lights were low, the booths were private.  The perfect place to drown your sorrows and contemplate the unthinkable.

He pushed his ale glass toward the bartender without looking up.  She took it and smiled slightly.  "You're not flying tonight, are you?"

Phanan half-heartedly returned the smile.  "You don't ask anyone else that."

"Yeah, well, I don't much care for the rest of that lot.  I just don't want to see you twisted into a burning wreck."

"Too late."  Phanan took the proffered drink and sipped, then looked up.  "So, tell me about you."

She smirked, mot able to hide the dimple in her cheek.  "Why?"

"C'mon.  You spend all night listening to a bunch of drunks bitch and moan.  Who listens to you?"

"Rick listens just fine."

"Rick?  Husband?  Boyfriend?"

"No, he's a miniature sand panther."  The dimple deepened.  "The best part is, he can't interrupt me."

"True, I guess."  Another sip.  "Tell me your name, anyway?"

"Ilsa."

"That's nice."  Phanan stretched out his hand.  "Glad to meet you, Ilsa.  I'm Ton."

"Enchanted.  I-  Yeah, I'm coming."  She stalked to the end of the bar, where an irritated Rodian was waving his glass.  From the looks of it, his chair was swaying back and forth, and he was bout to fall off.

Phanan watched her move, surprised by the tiny spark of interest he felt.  It had been months since he'd taken notice of anyone, longer since any woman had taken notice of him.  But Ilsa had a nice smile, and she didn't look away from him.  The pilot noticed that a few wisps of blonde hair had escaped her ponytail and lay intriguingly against
the nape of her slender neck.

He shook himself and looked up at the lady.  "I'm sorry, what did you say?"

She smiled again.  "I was just asking why a cute little soldier like yourself would be hiding out in a civilian bar."

He stared at her, startled.  "How did you know?"  He always wore civvie clothes, he'd never shown his ID, and he'd certainly never spoken about himself.

"I have an eye for things like that.  Let me guess, you're... medcorps?"

He shook his head, unsettled by how nearly accurate she was.  "Pilot. But not for much longer."

"Why's that?"

"Hell.  Look at me, woman." Phanan's voice was rough and he felt the alcohol taking hold.  "Do I look like a successful pilot?"  He snorted.  "Not exactly the image the NR wants to project."

Ilsa leaned on the counter.  "You were shot down?" she asked softly.

"A couple of times.  But this?" Phanan tapped his faceplate.  "No, this happened at Endor.  The medship was hit and I was lucky enough to be right there."  He fell silent as the memory overrode his senses, the moment before made serene by the aftermath, the mercifully brief instant of pain, then the horror of waking up to a half-metal face and a prosthetic leg, with a pump in his chest to make his heart beat.

He shuddered and looked up into Ilsa's concerned face.  "I've had some spare parts added since then, but most of it is courtesy of some Imp pilot over Endor." 

He swallowed the rest of his lum and thunked the glass down.  "Another."

"I don't think so."  Ilsa dropped his glass into the dish recycler.

Ton glared at her.  "I'm a paying customer, and I want another."

"Sorry," she smiled sweetly.  "Bar's closing."

"It's barely one o'clock!"

Ilsa cupped her hands over her mouth and bellowed, "Last call!"  Ton found himself surrounded by people, human and alien, all clamoring for drinks.  He tried to catch the bartender's eyes, but she ignored him.  She handed a steaming mug to the Ithorian next to him, and he grabbed her sleeve.

"Lum, please," he asked, baring his teeth in an unfriendly smile.

Ilsa grinned, shook her head, and continued to serve her customers one-handed, swatting at Phanan every few seconds.  As the last of her patrons wandered away, Phanan released her and sat up expectedly.

Ilsa shook her head, dimple deepening with mirth.  "Oh, look at that.  You're too late.  Sorry."

"Won't the boss be mad if you close early?"

"I am the boss."

Phanan stood and fished some credcoins out of his pocket to settle the bill.  "Just for that, you don't get a tip."

"I'll survive.  Do you need me to call a taxi?

"Yeah, sure."  He exhaled loudly.  "No, nevermind.  I'll walk."

"Suit yourself."

He made it halfway to the door, then turned around and went back to the bar.  Ilsa had her back to him, loading glasses and mugs into the recycler.  Phanan leaned on the counter and admired the way her trousers clung to her legs and backside.

//Give it up, doc.  She'll never look at you; no one does.//

His shoulders slumped and he turned away, then swore as something soft hit him in the back of the head.  Wheeling around, he glared at Ilsa and tossed the bar towel back to her. 

"Nice shot."

"Thanks."  She stood with her hands on her hips.  "Did you need something?"

"No.  Yes."  He tried a rakish grin.  "Does the lady need an escort home?"

Her smile didn't fade, but he was conscious of something moving behind it.  A wariness, perhaps, sizing him up as a potential threat.

He did his best to appear harmless and silently willed her to agree.

She threw the towel down on the counter.  "Sure."

They left the cleaning droid twittering to itself and walked along the outer balcony of the skyrise.  The cool air felt sharp against his face, waking him up,  and he was glad he'd forgone the taxi ride.

"Are you from Coruscant?" he asked.

Ilsa nodded.  "Lower Palace District, born and raised."  She paled as Phanan walked over to the railing and looked down.  "And you?  Where are you from?"

"Rudrig.  Went to school on Commenor, though."  He glanced back and saw Ilsa twisting her hands.  "You OK?"

"Oh, yeah.  I'm just... could you step away from the side there?"

Phanan grinned and took to big steps backward.  "You don't like heights?"

"No."  She shuddered.  "It makes me sick."

"You live 520 floors above the surface!"

"Thanks for reminding me."

He laughed and linked arms with her as they neared her door.  //End of the line, Phanan.  There's no way she'll invite you in.//  She might have, once upon a time before Endor.  He used to be a handsome man.  As his ex-wife liked to say, he used to be a lot of things, but he wasn't much of anything now.

He was startled out of his reverie by soft lips against his cheek.

"Thank you for walking me home, Ton.  It was sweet of you."

"That's me.  I'm sweet."  He didn't sound quite so morose, and she laughed in response.

"I think you could be a lot of things, if you'd just let yourself."

"Oh, that's deep.  You should write that down." 

"Smartass."  She slid the keycard and opened her door.  "Do you want to come in?  I can brew some caf."

"Trying to sober me up?"

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

"None."

She shrugged.  "You're sober.  Do want the caf or not?"

He apartment was small and cluttered, with datacards and holonovels on every flat surface.  Ilsa laid down her bag and keycard and headed for the kitchen, calling to him over her shoulder.  "Make yourself at home."

Phanan approached the large, green-upholstered sofa and jumped back as a tawny animal raised its head and glared at him.  It had to be a full meter from nose to rump, with an equally long tail.  Its huge, furry paws kneaded the sofa cushions as it stood, arching its back.

A low growling sound made Phanan reverse thrust.  He backed away slowly, jumping when he touched the wall.  The creature slid off the sofa and followed.  Phanan swore that it was sneering at him.  It growled again, flopped down on the floor and rolled onto its back.

Ilsa came in, bearing two steaming mugs of caf.  She grinned at the huge feline and handed one cup to Phanan.  "I see you're making friends."

"You might say that."  He gratefully sipped the hot caf.  "I thought you said he was a miniature."

"He is."  Ilsa took his hand and led him to the sofa.  "You should see the big ones."

"No thanks."

She laughed and turned so that she was leaning on the arm of the sofa, facing him.  "Have you been a pilot long?"

Phanan shook his head.  "A couple of years.  After this," he gestured to his face, "I had to relearn... well, everything.  That took a while."

"And before that you were...?"

"A doctor."

"A doctor?"  Ilsa choked on a mouthful of caf.  When her coughing and sputtering subsided, she shook her head apologetically.  "I'm sorry, Ton.  I didn't mean... you just don't act mush like a doctor."

"But I have a great bedside manner."

"Do you?"  She smiled at him over her mug.

"You should see it sometime."

"I might like that."  She sipped at her caf.  "If there are no other doctors available."

"I'm wounded.  I'll have to get a prosthetic ego."

"Bit young to be so grim, aren't you?"

Phanan smirked.  "I'm thirty-four."

"Oh, you're just a kid.  Act like it."

"Yeah, how old are you?" he asked.

"Thirty-seven.  Want to make something of it?"

"Going to challenge me to a pillow fight?"

"I might," Ilsa grinned.  "You should smile more often.  You look nice when you smile."

Phanan snorted, then jumped as she smacked him on the shoulder.

"You know what your problem is?" she asked.

"No, but I bet you're going to tell me."

"Your problem," she said angrily, "is that you're so caught up in *this*," she tapped his faceplate, "that you can't see that there's more to you."

"Not much more."

She ignored him.  "You define yourself by the amount of metal in your skin, and you expect everyone else to see you the same way.  You think you're washed up, so everyone else must, too.  I hate to disappoint you, but not everyone thinks in ratios of metal to flesh."

"Finished?"

"No.  And furthermore..." she paused.  "Yeah, I'm finished."

"Good.  Thank you for the caf.  It was nice talking to you."  Phanan rose stiffly, stepped over the now-sleeping sand panther, and left.

- - - - - - - - - - -

"Flight officer Phanan reporting for duty, sir."

"At ease."

Commander Venden stared at the slender, goateed pilot, then down at the record on his datapad.  He was silent for several minutes as the pilot grew ever more uncomfortable.

Finally he spoke.  "You've heard of Wedge Antilles, haven't you, Phanan?"

"Of course."

"He's putting together a new squadron, and he's looking for pilots.  He wants your type."

"My... type, sir?"

Venden seemed to struggle with the words.  Phanan watched him uncertainly.  //He can't possibly want my type.  Washouts?  Screwups?  Losers?  No way.//

"Antilles wants people with special skills.  Skills besides flying.  He asked for candidates and I gave him your records.  Now he wants to try you out."

Phanan rocked back on his heels and considered this, then narrowed his eyes.  "Did you send him my entire record?"

"Of course."

"Including my less-than-sterling flight reports?"

"Certainly.  Why would I hide them?"

//Bite your tongue, Phanan.  You can't accuse a superior officer of trying to fob you off on some unsuspecting commander.//

"And you recommend that I try out for this new squadron?"

"I certainly do.  You need to utilize your talents, and I just don't have any way for you to do that."

//And you're sick of my attitude and constant crashing.//

"-so if you want to pack your things, I'll get you on the first transport tomorrow morning."

- - - - - - - -

The bar was more crowded than usual; it was Friday night and the work-week teetotalers were out for a bit of fun.  Phanan checked his wrist chrono.  One-thirty, fifteen minutes before last call.

The pilot hung back from the bar counter, watching Ilsa and her assistant try to keep up with the steady exchange of credits for liquor.  He didn't want to bother her while she was busy.  He wasn't sure that he ought to bother her at all, not after the way they'd parted the night before.  He didn't know exactly what he was doing there.

She gave last call and Phanan stepped back to avoid being crushed.  He thought about slipping out before she saw him, before she could get that look on her face that said he'd screwed up, he'd disappointed her.  Something kept him from leaving, something made him move to the far end of the bar and wait for the crowd to disperse.

She turned then, caught his eye and smiled uncertainly.  "What can I get for you?" she asked over the crowd.

He shook his head and gestured at her to keep working.  After she'd refilled the last lomin-ale, she wandered toward Phanan and repeated her question.

The pilot shrugged and looked around at the depleted population of the bar.  "Aren't you closing now?"

Ilsa bit her lip.  "Yes."

"Can I walk you home?"

The look from last night, that penetrating, evaluating stare.  Phanan held his breath. 

At last she looked away.  "Can you close up for me, Tr'kai?"  At the Weequay's nod, she grabbed her bag and slipped out from behind the bar.

The two were silent on the walk to her apartment.  He didn't touch her, didn't link arms with he as he had the night before, just surreptitiously studied her face.  She seems lost in thought, unaware that he was even beside her.

Ton cleared his throat as the reached her door.  The woman looked up, keycard in hand.  The cyborg's human eye darted around the corridor as he worked up the nerve to speak.

"I washed out."  Ilsa frowned.  "My commander wants me gone."

"He said that?"

"Not in so many words, but he-"

"Come inside."  The door slid open and she led him in.  Rick looked up from his seat on the sofa and growled moodily when Ilsa shoved him to the floor.

"Caf?" she asked.

"No.  Thanks."  He sat down heavily and stared at the floor.  "He's sending me to another commander, to sort of `audition' for a new unit."

"Well, that's good, isn't it?  A new chance."

Phanan laughed, an ugly, bitter sound.  "Not by a long shot.  I know about this commander; he only takes the best.  There's no chance he'll want me."  He stared forlornly at the carpet.  "I'm out of Starfighter Command."

"You don't know that."  Impulsively, Ilsa squeezed his hand.  "You've convinced yourself that he's setting you up.  Why not take this at face value?  Why not believe that he's trying to do you a favor?"

"I could believe that.  And I could believe that glitter fairies will grant me three wishes, too."

"You're impossible."  But she didn't move away.  She leaned closer, her hand now resting on his shoulder.  "What will you do?"

Ton shrugged, reaching up to stroke her hand.  "Go, I guess.  Try to outfly myself."  He leaned into her a little, enjoying the press of her body against his.

"You could make it, you know."  Her voice was lower, more intimate.

Ton straightened and smirked.  "After all, with my superior intellect and talent, I'd have to succeed."

"That's right."  Ilsa stood, leaving him cold and alone.  "Now quit moping and have a drink."

Rick jumped up into the seat she vacated and nudged his head into Phanan's palm.  The pilot absently stroked its tawny fur, listening to the contented purr.

"Here you go."  Ton looked up to see Ilsa holding a glass of ruby-red liquid.  He swirled it in the glass and took a sip.

"Alderaanian Chianti?"

"Indeed."  Ilsa smiled and sat on the arm of the sofa.  "'68.  The last vintage shipped off-planet."

"Must have cost a fortune."  The wine pooled on his tongue as he savored the woody, dry flavor.

"Yes, but it goes perfectly with fava beans and gornt liver."  She raised her glass.  "What shall we drink to?"

"To challenges."  Ton clinked his glass against hers.  "And chances."

He drank deeply, watching the crimson liquid slide between Ilsa's soft lips, her fingers curled around the bowl of the glass.  He shifted slightly, painfully aware of a growing problem.

"I want to take a chance, Ilsa."  She sat her glass down and looked at him curiously.  "I want..." Ton reached out to touch her cheek and she caught his hand between both of hers, gently raising it to her lips to kiss the tips of his fingers.

She bent slowly towards him, her lips brushing along the edge of his faceplate.  Ton shivered, his human eye closing as she traveled down his face to his mouth.  Tiny droplets of wine clung to her lips, and his tongue darted out to lick them away.  Her hand came to rest under his chin, raising his face to deepen the kiss.  Her other hand rested against his chest, moving downward as she leaned into him, making him tense as she brushed his stomach, coming to rest atop his leg.

His mechanical leg.

//What if it feels different?  What if she can tell that it's not real?  What if she wonders what else isn't real?//

Ton stiffened and pulled back.

"What's wrong?"  Ilsa sounded out-of-breath.

"Sorry.  I shouldn't... I can't ask you to..."

"Shut up."  She kissed him again, pushing forward until he fell back and felt Rick's soft fur under him.  The sand panther squeaked unhappily, then jumped off the sofa, turning about to watch the oblivious humans.

They parted for air and Ton looked up to see Ilsa straddling his waist, her upper body propped up on her hands.  She opened her eyes and smiled lazily.

"Now, what was it you shouldn't do?"

"Uhh..." He couldn't remember, so he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her down onto his chest.  She laughed as his hands roamed over her ribcage, pausing at the swell of her breasts.  Ilsa cooed and arched against his searching fingers, pressing her lips against his even as her hips came down on his, moving wantonly against the rapidly hardening bulge.

"Ah- Force!"  This sudden, undeniable display of desire rocked him, made him slide his hands to her ass and pull her hard against him.  His lips trailed down the side of her neck, tasting her throbbing pulse, wanting to be with her, to be inside her.

His longing flooded through him and his hands came up, under her blouse, not gentle in his urgency.  Ilsa raised up, panting, kissed him fiercely, then stripped off her shirt, revealing small, pert breasts.

Ton felt his abdomen clench as he sat up halfway, finding her tight nipple with his tongue.  He fumbled with the fastener of her trousers, groaning with frustration, until she mercifully took over, undoing the old-fashioned wooden buttons, then raising up enough to slide the fabric to her ankles.

Ton stared at her, at her skin glistening with sweat, her chest heaving, her lips parted as she watched him through heavy-lidded eyes.  His hands traveled down her body, memorizing the shape of her, his eyes soft with wonder.  She sighed as he kissed her stomach and held her close, then her eyes widened in surprise as he leveraged
himself off the sofa, rising to his feet with her legs still wrapped around him.

"What are you doing?" she asked, eyes twinkling.

"I'm going to do this right," he answered, kissing her forehead.  "Which way to the bedroom?"

She pointed the way and he strode across the floor, kicking open the bedroom door and laying her gently on the soft bed.  He stripped off the tangle of her pants and tossed them on the floor, then stepped back and unbuttoned his shirt.

"Want help?"  Ilsa raised herself onto her elbows and watched him, her eyes following every move of his hands.

He shook his head, heart pounding faster than the artificial pump should be able to work.  His hands were steady, not betraying his nervousness as he stepped out of his boots and trousers.  The leg wasn't grotesque; it was made to look like a human limb, but there was an obvious line where it connected to his right hip.  Holding her gaze, he stood before her and waited for her reaction.

Ilsa looked him over, wetting her lips with her tongue.  Her voice was husky, filled with longing.  "You're beautiful, Ton."

His breath came out in a rush and he bent over her, kissing her lips before he laid beside her.  Slowly, carefully, he teased and tormented her with fingers and lips until she writhed beneath him, moaning like a panther in heat.  Her essence was sweet on his lips, her voice sweeter to his ears as she cried out and begged for release.  His tongue flicked over her, drawing another strangled cry, then he raised up and covered her with his body.

"Ilsa," he whispered, and she opened her eyes.  His hips twitched and plunged him into her warmth, and she rose to meet him, wrapping her legs around him as she buried her face in his neck.

They moved slowly, their bodies fitting together in the easy way of people who've loved many times.  Ton rested his weight on his forearms and kissed her lips, feeling her clench and release around him.  She moaned his name, urging him to thrust harder, faster, and he obliged as she came again, her sheath convulsing.  Then he was lost in her eyes, drowning in her body, and he filled her with his heat as he closed his eyes to hold back the tears.

He lay beside her, his head on her breast.  Ilsa ran her fingers through his hair and gently stroked the exposed half of his face. 

"You're leaving early?" she asked, and he sighed, holding he close.

"I suppose.  I'd rather just stay here."

"I'd rather you did, too."  He looked up at her, but her eyes were closed, betraying no emotion.

"Well, if I don't make it, do you need another bartender?"

"No, but I could use a good comedian."

Ton laid his head back down and closed his eyes, filled with the dread of a man leaving behind all that he cared for.


Finis


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