Talon had no doubt that many unkind things could be said about the Dlarit family. From Erisi's manipulative streak and her almost arrogant self-assuredness, to the many dark deals Aerin must have struck to amass such wealth and climb so high in Xucphra. But when it came to procuring more ships, both had been true to their word. Talon only had to wait a little less than a week for his plan to bear fruit, and what fruit it bore. Six lancer anti-fighter frigates and two ton falk escort carriers had answered the call. To make matters all the better, many of them had arrived partially crewed by ex-mercenary or even ex-Imperial servicemen who, lured by Xucphra money, had chosen to become permanent THDC employees. Talon was momentarily tempted to arrest the former Imperial men and have them charged with desertion. But Aerin had not been so dense as to recruit men straight from Isard's ranks. These were troops from disaffected isolated hold outs or other warlords. It was still desertion, but at least now they were fighting on his side, and putting them all up against the wall would be beyond counterproductive. So, for now he would look the other way… for now.

But not everyone who had previously crewed these ships had been lured away by coin, and fresh THDC recruits were making up the difference. There was still a lot of training to do. Not only that, but these ships were still too few in number to meaningfully escort every convoy that would pass in and out of Thyferra during the course of normal operations. A change in approach was still required. But no such orders came, both the Director and Captain Drysso were almost entirely silent save for the most routine of reports.

With the Prosecutor still out of action, Talon acted on his own initiative and ordered much of his crew off ship, temporarily billeting them aboard the new THDC ships or THDC surface instillations to take charge of the training. But for all of his crew's building experience, it was still a less than ideal solution. He knew that instructors and veterans were two very different beasts and few of his men had been taught how to teach, and were instead being forced to rely on imitating their own instructors and improvisation. But this is what he had, he would have to make do.

It had been three weeks since the arrival of the new ships, and Rogue Squadron continued to pick away at the vulnerable bacta shipments, occasionally being chased off by hasty Imperial reinforcements. But whilst the Rebels were winning, there had yet to be a decisive engagement. However, Talon had a different, and more immediate concern to deal with. Lieutenant Mannis Revik. The man was a decorated fighter ace, with a string of successes and a distinguished service history in some of the Empire's most prestigious units. Talon considered it to be a great stroke of good fortune to have such a man in his crew. But since their last battle Talon had heard concerning reports. The man was showing up to duty, he was not drunk or disorderly, nor was he openly defiant or disrespectful. But where he had once offered vital advice, he was silent. Where he had once thrown everything into his duty and the training of his men, he was barely present. Where he had once flown with the agility of a gnat and the lethality of a nexu, he now moved like the novices he was supposed to be training. Something was amiss, and Talon needed to get to the bottom of it.

"Please come in." He said as he heard the door to his personal quarters chime. When Mannis entered, he was well dressed, well presented. To any stranger on the street there was no indication that anything could be wrong, but the reports did not lie. Perhaps it was his imagination, but Talon fancied he could sense something, off. The snap in Mannis' boots as he came to attention that little less sharp, his pace just a little less brisk, his eyes just a little less alive. Gesturing to the sofa that he was more used to entertaining Lani on he invited Mannis to take a seat, whilst Talon joined him in the more casual seating area, in a comfortable chair diagonally across from the lieutenant. "Thank you for joining me, can I offer you any refreshment?"

"No thank you sir." There it was again, that almost imperceptible lack of enthusiasm, a resigned hollowness.

"Very well then." Talon was careful not to adopt a disciplinary tone, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees he tried to project a more sympathetic demeanour. "I have asked you here because I am concerned for you Mannis. How are you holding up?"

"I thank you for your concern sir. But there is really nothing to be worried about." Dismissed the lieutenant in a fashion that seemed almost rehearsed.

"If only that were so Mannis." Again, by dropping rank he was trying to be informal, more personal. But it was an effort. Neither his training nor his upbringing had prepared him for quite this kind of conversation. His only sources of inspiration were the talks his parents had with him in his youth, when he had been upset or perturbed by all those things that unnerved a child. But imitating that here seemed to Talon more likely to only cause offence as concern was misconstrued as condescension. "The reports don't lie, I can see what is happening to your performance and you are not pursuing your duties as you once did."

"Everyone has off periods sir." This was not just an off period, there was something deeper at play, even Talon could see it. He could hear it in the casual dismissal of Mannis' voice, the pilot might as well have shrugged his shoulders. It was not just the poor performance that was worrying Talon now, it was the apparent lack of any desire to address or fix it.

"True Mannis, true. But an off period now is likely to get you killed. Your squad needs you alive, and the THDC needs every ounce of good instruction they can get in their training." Mannis did not seem to be unsettled by the thought of dying, or if he was, it did not register in his face, which just sat there, blankly. Talon waited a while for a reply, but none came. "Mannis?"

"I don't know what to say sir." He did not sound defeated or sorry, it was just a statement, delivered with the same passion as, the sky is blue, and, the post office is on your left.

"Well you have to say something Mannis, because we need to solve this." Insisted Talon, doing his best to remain soft and sympathetic but firmly refusing to allow Mannis to evade the problem.

"Maybe Bantoo Arseid can step in for a while and Commander Dlarit-"

"No, you Mannis." Interrupted Talon. "I am not going to solve this problem by just reassigning some duties. You have to face this, you are an Imperial officer and a decorated veteran." Had it not been for this man's distinguished previous record, and the many acts of bravery and skill that Talon had witnessed for himself, he might have grown frustrated with Mannis' attitude. Neither decent officers nor decent men simply walked away from problems like this. In training that kind of defeatist attitude would have had the lieutenant mopping up rain every night for a week. But Mannis had earned substantial credit, and so Talon restrained himself. Though the pilot's next words seemed almost calculated to get under Talon's skin.

"Why?" From the look on his face, it seemed that Mannis almost immediately regretted letting that slip."

"Why do you have to face this?" Asked Talon, with barely contained incredulity, as if it were the most self-evident thing in the stars. "There is a war on Mannis. We need to win it. You can't let one near death experience-"

"You think this is my first near death experience sir?" Cut in Mannis with a bite. "Every time a TIE pilot climbs into his cockpit it's a near death experience. I didn't earn medals for avoiding near death experiences!" Talon reflexively wanted to silence the man, put him in his place for snapping at a senior officer. But he decided against it. This was not an occasion to discipline a man for speaking freely. Instead, he remained silent, allowing Mannis to vent without reprisal. "This may be my first time getting spaced, but every time my men and I fly the reaper is only an inch behind us. I stopped fearing death long ago." The way he seemed to emphasise the word fearing caught Talon's attention. As if it were intentionally specific. He might not fear death, but perhaps it was something other than fear that was bothering him.

"I understand." Assured Talon, forcing comforting sympathy into his voice. "But if it is not fear then what's behind all this?" At first Mannis answered with only silence. "Come on Mannis, speak up, say something. Even if it makes little sense to you."

"Why keep this up?" He said with the slow uncertainty of a man walking on a frozen lake, with no notion of how thick the ice was. But Talon could only answer him with a bemused expression, to him it was as if someone had asked why breathe. "It was over, I was going to die. And it was… okay. But I am still alive and…" He gestured about him, but did not seem to be indicating anything in particular. As if the notion of what he wanted to say was out there, somewhere, but he could not grasp it. Talon did his best, but was struggling as much as Mannis with this unknown and disturbing ground. But at least he managed to sound a little surer of himself.

"Because it is the right thing to do. Like the separatists before them we cannot abandon the stars to traitors. It is even worse than the clone wars. The separatists wanted some of the galaxy, these rebels want it all."

"But is it worth all of this? I keep seeing young men and women come in full of…" Again, he gesticulated seemingly without aim, trying to pluck the right word out of the air and failing. "I know them, I look after them, I get used to the sounds of their voices, I overhear their hopes and fears and then." He snapped his fingers. "Out goes one, in comes another. Another, person!" He stressed that last word, hard, as if it carried more weight than a star. "Then again." He snapped his fingers once more. "And for what? Your average factory worker, your office clerk, your street vendor. None of them notice anything. The only thing that changes is the face on the holo broadcasts." This sentiment appalled Talon, it struck at the very heart of what they, and the entire Empire were. It rendered every sacrifice almost worthless and made selfishness and treason morally no worse than duty and loyalty.

"That's not so Mannis, we both know that." Experience had not dulled his conviction and Talon still spoke with the same zeal and dedication he had shown as a member of the youth movement of COMPNOR. "There will be wide sweeping reprisals against those who did not support the rebellion. Those who supported sedition will be showered with riches and praise. Patriots meanwhile will be forced to go into hiding or be taken out and shot, you nearest and dearest most likely included for their simple association with you! We know what these rebels can do. Do you think law, order and justice will mean anything to those who violated the core principals of government just because it no longer suited them? Do you think prosperity can survive when left in the hands of those driven by a desire to destroy the success of others?" Talon was unused to making emotional displays in his pleas, he considered them inelegant and unworthy. But this was no common discussion, a fire had to be lit in Mannis once more. And so, as Talon spoke, he allowed his hostility and spite toward the Rebellion, and his desperation to save the good citizens of the galaxy, to surface. To try and drive home just how much people could suffer in the grip of the despoilers, and how far morality might plummet! This strength of feeling did not fade as he resurrected the spectre of those old traitors. "To make matters worse those jedi will try to cease power again. You know what happened last time!" Mannis was forced to fall silent for a few moments in the face of such an earnest plea. But the light did not return to him, he still seemed, empty.

"it's not just that." He eventually said quietly, almost timidly. Not because he was afraid of Talon's reaction. But because he was a little afraid of it himself.

"Then what?"

"I didn't mind." Answered Mannis, hesitantly, the uncertainty palpable.

"What do you mean?" Pressed Talon as softly as his desperation to understand the problem, and growing unease, would allow.

"I didn't mind dying. The thought of just not fighting the war anymore. It was a relief… relaxing." Now that was a concern, and one Talon did not immediately know what to do with. It explained his drained demeanour but what to do with a soldier who was almost looking forward to dying? Of course, every man here had accepted the possibility of death, some more than others, it was an impossible prospect to avoid when you put on a uniform. But to not merely accept it, but welcome it, was as rare as it was unnerving. Talon could feel that the silence was growing too long as he wrestled with the alien notion, he had to fill the gap, an admission like that could not be left unanswered, nor could it be met with hostility.

"But you survived." Talon did his best to be as sympathetic as he could whilst remaining firm. This was not something Mannis had any choice over and he had to face it. But Talon would do everything he could to soften that message, whilst still unambiguously delivering it. "As you accepted dying, now you have to accept living. You have a home that needs you to win this fight, and a team that needs you today."

"The casualties are just going to keep mounting Talon!" Insisted Mannis almost pleadingly, as if it were within the Commander's power to end the war and spare those men. Talon nodded his head, solemnly accepting that undeniable fact. But he remained undeterred.

"That is true. That is true, but if you don't help those poor buggers, there are going to be more. You're right, this is a bad situation, and even making the best of it is going to be ugly. But it will be so much worse without men like you." He locked Mannis' eyes with his own. The lieutenant kept trying to look away, but Talon would not let him. "You are one of the best, serving in two elite squadrons, decorated, proven, highly skilled." Continued Talon, his hushed and moderated tone only accenting the emphatic undertones in his voice. "If someone else steps into your shoes they won't bring your talents, your dedication to the work. We won't just be short an ace. We will be short an ace who trains aces! You have seen how your squad's performance improved since coming aboard. I would wager my ship this is the best squad in the Thyferra flotilla. That's because of you." But Mannis just shook his head.

"Not good enough, they're aren't good enough. They are still going to die Talon!"

"Then make them good enough!" Talon was still keeping his voice down but that had the mark of an order. "The 181st was a joke, then they became near legends. You can do that, here and now. You can even pass some of it on to the THDC. They are going into combat one way or another. You have to make them as ready as is possible, and lead them."

"And if I can't?" Whilst the doubt was seeping out of every poor on Mannis' body, that almost sounded like a challenge. The man wanted out, to be relieved of duty and sent home, or at least sit out the war on some back water base. But Talon could tell this was not cowardice or desertion, like a man shooting himself in the foot in an attempt to be medically discharged. Mannis was valorous, and had not done this to himself. But Talon would not let him withdraw into himself, nor would he allow him to shirk the heavy burden of potentially leading his men to their graves. Mannis had to face that, just like every other officer.

"Then there will be excess casualties." Stated Talon bluntly. "The battle is happening Mannis, neither of us can change that. But we can change whether we win or lose it. And maybe reduce the cost we have to pay." Mannis shifted in his seat uncomfortably, eyes downcast.

"Sir, it is apparent you don't think I am in the right state of mind. Maybe somebody else could –"

"No, you!" Cut in Talon. "You will train these men and soon you will lead them into battle. As you have done before, with distinction." Then, after a few heavy seconds he added. "Do you understand?" Talon did not relish having to so firmly order Mannis, he would far rather have persuaded the lieutenant than commanded him. But it seemed that Mannis was immune to persuasion, for now at least. Meanwhile Talon suspected that the longer the man was allowed to stew, the worse it would get, and he needed his decorated chief pilot today.

"I understand Talon." The lieutenant appeared less than committed in his response. But it seemed that was all that could be done for now. Talon could only hope that this talk had set the man straight, or at least begun the road to recovery. If it took the whiff of laser fire to wake Mannis up, it might already be too late.

"Very good Mannis, very good." Talon forced himself to sound assuring, even congratulatory, as if he had total confidence in Mannis. He could not ignore the uncertainty and profound doubt chewing in his gut, but he could conceal it. "Now go and get some rest. It is an early start tomorrow."

"Aye aye sir." When Mannis moved to stand and leave the office, he still lacked that sharpness Talon would expect of a fully mentally present crewman. But at least he was now no longer moving like a man in a daze. It had been replaced by the heavy, uncertain expression and ponderous step of a man carrying a great load. It was certainly different, but Talon was not sure it was any better.

Talon returned to his duties, adjusting schedules, inspecting repairs, being updated by his subordinates on the THDC training, keeping one eye open for anything from Erisi. But throughout it all Mannis' situation continued to eat at him. Not just because it was challenging, it was something more insidious. Poor morale spread like mould on cheese. At first it is nothing, you do not even notice it growing. But look away and you fast find it consumes everything. It had already planted a spore in Talon's mind, one he was determined to excise. What effect would it have on everyone else? And how long before it became contagious?

Fortunately, a potential solution for his own unease was coming aboard. All but a skeleton contingent of his own troopers were now on the surface of Thyferra, helping to protect key facilities. This included his chief scout. But whilst she could have chosen to take her off duty hours on the surface, in a rare treat of a city for members of the corps, Lani had instead decided to hop aboard a shuttle to the Prosecutor, and spend her off hours cooped up in the same impersonal confines most of her teammates were scrambling to get away from. When Talon had asked why she was coming aboard the answer made him grin ear to ear. Apparently, she was concerned he might be neglecting his P.T. without her to keep him in line.

Just keep moving, just keep moving. Talon thought to himself, feet pounding hard on the deck as he ran, his form starting to break down as his breathing grew more ragged. Glancing to his left he could see Lani, in full scout trooper armour, keeping pace with almost insulting comfort as they ran laps around the exercise hall. Her logic for doing as much exercise as is possible in full gear made complete sense, she would hardly be wearing her P.T. kit in combat. But Talon could not help but think it was to allow her to rub it in his face as well. Not that he had anything to be ashamed about. He could still meet the physical standards of the service, and with Lani as a task master, he was fitter now than he had ever been. But it was clear, to Lani the standards were simply too low. But he was still glad that he was able to find a slot in the timetable when this room would be empty, and could use his rank to lock the door. It did not do to see your C.O. panting and red faced.

He could have sworn he heard Lani chuckle just a little as she dove to the floor only to seamlessly move into a series of push ups, prompting Talon to do the same with somewhat less grace and comfort. Not long after she was up once more, darting ahead, with Talon dashing to catch up. Suddenly she spun around, arm outstretched, fist careening toward Talon's face at speed. He just about managed to bring both his arms up to protect himself, but he was still sent staggering back by the blow. Through his guard he could just about see Lani's plasteel encased foot hurtling toward his stomach in a strike that would threaten to send back up his lunch. But when she made contact, Talon only felt a firm tap, the force pulled at the last moment.

"You'll be ragged when the Rebels jump you!" She chided. "And they won't ask for an appointment."

"I know." Insisted Talon, catching his breath and steadying his feet.

"Humm… Well, I suppose you are improving. Not long ago I would have caught you with the first sucker punch."

"Oh, so I'm a sucker now?" He asked with a grin, knowing exactly what he was inviting. But Lani gave him a playful little shake of the head instead.

"Don't make it too easy for me Talon!" She teased. "Come on." With no more warning than that she resumed her assault. He fancied he could hear her own laboured breathing beneath the mask, but it was clear that he was still having the worse time of it. She delivered blow after blow, always keeping Talon on the back foot as he hastily blocked and deflected her. Every time he tried to seize the initiative, and start making attacks of his own, he was answered by a deft counter, followed by a flurry of intensity as Lani briefly upped the tempo of her attacks to keep Talon on the defensive.

In a desperate move Talon threw his whole body against her, shouldering the blows and trying to break Lani's assault even for a moment. He had hoped to just stagger her, but to his amazement his gambit sent them both tumbling to the ground. He could feel Lani's hands on him, grasping at anything as they fell, or so he thought. The reality of the situation did not dawn on him, until he found himself being planted face first into the deck, the woman who should have been beneath him now somehow on his back, pinning him down.

"And you're dead." She said with a note of triumph, causing Talon to just let out a groan underneath her, though he was far from annoyed.

"This always seems to happen." He observed, not even trying to roll over for now but rather just lying there and recuperating. "Me on the deck, you on top of me, smirking."

"What makes you think I'm smirking Talon?" She protested with mockingly thin feigned innocence.

"I know you, at least well enough to not have to see your face to know when you get that look."

"Ahh, you caught me." She confessed with a laugh. "But really Talon, am I going to have to start leaking pictures of you beaten on the deck before you start getting the message?" For a brief moment Talon seemed to take the threat seriously.

"If you have been taking pictures Lani, so help me." But again, she just laughed, playfully shoving him in the back.

"No no, but I could be." At last Talon summoned the energy to squirm around beneath her, mercifully Lani allowed him to turn to face her, before settling her weight back down on top of him.

"Besides, what message?" He asked with a perked brow.

"That you need, need!" She emphasised sternly. "To be able to stand up to me better than this." Talon began protesting but Lani just carried on. "Yes, yes. You are getting better. I hate to admit it but I'm hardly going easy on you anymore." Though at that admission she felt the need to lean down, face plate just an inch from his nose and whisper. "But don't get any funny ideas. I could still put you down any day." Talon just gestured about himself, the fact he was currently pinned to the deck was evidence enough of her claim. A move that made her pat him lightly on the chest before straightening up and continuing. "And I know naval officers rarely engage in this kind of fighting. But when they send someone after you, you need to be ready."

"When they send someone after me, they will come with a blaster or turbo laser." He insisted, causing her to chuckle at the thought.

"I pity anyone who comes for you ship to ship, and I think you can handle a blaster fight well enough. But whoever they send to kill you is likely going to be better than me, and they might choose to do it up close, where they know they will have the greatest advantage." Then after a pause she added with a sense of levity to dispel the tension. "Besides, we have to keep this fast." Tapping the side of his head. "And this trim." Poking him almost aggressively in the stomach.

"Oh, so I'm fat now." A comment that caused her to let out a short cry of derision that sounded more like a startled bird than a human.

"Skin and bones is the problem you have Talon, though I have seen far too many portly officers. They usually have grey hair and ridiculous moustaches though." The pair chuckled at the thought, Talon had to admit that was far too good a description of far too many subpar officers. He wondered if there was a secret inverse corelation between waist size and command ability. Get lazy in one field, perhaps it was a sign you got lazy in the others.

"You might be on to something." He joked. "But seriously Lani, why all this?"

"Because I'm not there every moment of every day, and you wander into danger more than a new-born pup!" Talon was tempted to answer her with humour, just as she had. It would certainly have been easier. But he wanted to get to the bottom of this.

"That explains why I need help, not why you are giving it to me. How many other ship captains get this from their chief scout?"

"Do you want me to stop?" She asked, and from the tone of her voice Talon feared he had actually touched a nerve.

"No, no." He hurriedly insisted, reaching up and gently running his hands down her arms. The near panic that set in at the thought that he might have wounded her caught him by surprise. He had not expected that, but felt it acutely. "Not at all. Not at all." He assured her, speaking as one might to a startled horse. "I enjoy your company."

"Then why ask?" She sounded genuinely curious, but there was an accusatory bite to her words. Talon had very suddenly found himself on thin ice.

"Perhaps because I don't understand it." He said carefully, but it was clear he was fumbling for words to describe a concept, a sensation, that he did not understand. "Perhaps because I don't understand why I enjoy it, look forward to it. Perhaps because if I knew your thinking, I might better understand my own." He braced himself for criticism, but at first he was only met with silence. Her impersonal helmet staring down at him, unmoving. He would have given almost anything in that moment to see her face, to have some clue as to her reaction, her thoughts, her feelings. When at last she spoke, after what felt like an age, her words were soft. Lani could not restrain herself from injecting just a touch of mockery. But it was obviously devoid of all cruelty.

"I never thought I would quite see the term, over educated, so perfectly demonstrated." Of all the reactions Talon had been expecting, that was not one.

"Pardon?" He asked, his confusion obvious.

"Look at you." She said soothingly, rubbing a calming hand on his chest. "This line of thinking clearly isn't pleasant for you. Yet you persist."

"I have to understand."

"No you don't." She interrupted, before softly chuckling and at long last removing her helmet. The look on her face was one of overwhelming warmth, though there was a dash of sympathy in her emerald eyes. But it was a face he was always glad to see. "You really don't." She looked at him in silence for several long seconds, contemplating Talon with an odd, almost pitying, smile. "You would dissect an endangered snow hawk to understand how it soars. Leaving you with nothing but a corpse, when you could have watched its majestic flight for years." That comment left Talon dumbfounded, causing Lani to softly smirk as she released him from her pin, and rolled over to just lay down next to him for a few seconds, both of them staring at the ceiling and the cold synthetic lights.

Talon felt his heart unclench slightly as the moments passed, allowing himself to grow comfortable in the appreciative silence. Part of him just wanted to close his eyes and go to sleep, enjoy the moment, rather than risk shattering it. But that scratching need to understand could not quite let him rest. Eventually he began to speak, only to be immediately silenced by Lani.

"If the next sentence out of your mouth contains the word how or why, these plasteel boots are going to give you some very bruised shins!" Though it was said with a grin, Talon knew her threat was far from empty. But he found himself stumped, lips flapping like a goldfish as he struggled to reconstruct his thoughts into something other than a question. Lani just gave him the comedic evil eye as he struggled. He wanted to ask her how she did it, how she saw right into him, and knew just where to lance him for his own good. Or, as his mind recalled the time she had supported him as he struggled to outthink the Republic's pursuit and comprehend the treachery of his allies in the mission before Thyferra, how she had known just how to prop him up. But he forced himself to speak on her terms. Not just because he was afraid for his shins, but because he wanted to prove to her that he could do it, that he could just appreciate something he did not understand. Even if the practice was less than comfortable.

"You can cut straight to the heart of it." He finally said in a whisper.

"Of some things Talon." She sighed with a smile, keen not to claim to be more than she was. "I am a simple woman in a complicated galaxy. But sometimes things are more straightforward. And the good things are rare enough in life that I have learned not to pick at them too much."

Talon turned his head to look at her, and found her tender expression already waiting for him. Reflexively he smiled at the sight, he could not help himself. Her words only deepened that smile and without thinking he reached across and swept a few strands of auburn hair from her eyes. But as he let his fingers drift gently across her cheek, every inch sending an enlivening charge through his body, a dawning horror sounded in the back of his mind.

It had been festering slowly for some time, a dull scratching beyond perception, easily dismissed and ignored. But now, as his heart beat stronger and urges pressed heavy in the front of his mind, these misgivings, this fear, grew louder to. Talon knew that this was not the way friends behaved, nor was the way he felt when Lani entered a room the way any man should feel about a simple colleague. But this was as troubling as it was rejuvenating. He knew he could, or should, advance no further. From the look in her eye, the pull at the corner of her mouth, the heat in her breath, he wagered she felt much of the same unspoken want, but he dare not ask. For either answer would be devastating. He was already dangerously walking the line of acceptability. On the one hand he worried for how she would cope in his world at peace. It was clear she had no love for the trappings of the aristocracy or many of the people who occupied that class. Would she really be able to live in it? For Talon would not abandon it. Not only that, but what did they have in common other than the war? Perhaps that would be enough, but would it survive the stresses of peace? He wagered she might enjoy hunting but that was about the sum of it. Yet none of this dampened his feelings, but instead only gave them long shadows. There was another, greater, concern, rules and regulations. It was for good reason that relationships with subordinates were prohibited. Even if both parties behaved professionally. It was vital to ensure that the integrity of supervisory authority and the impartiality of command was maintained. Simply the mere appearance of, or potential for, impropriety could be toxic. It was no secret that the more senior ranks had enjoyed a degree of laxity in the enforcement of these rules. But that did not make it right or wise. He was sure that if he put his mind to it, he could carve out some rationale or justification for the breach. But none of that would quell the twisting sensation in his stomach.

He earnestly hoped none of this showed in his face, this was not a moment he wanted to sour. The part of him that wanted to sob as much as he wanted to smile was driven down. But he could not lie here forever, and the longer it went on the harder it all became. Reaching over he patted her hand, resisting the urge to just hold it, before forcing himself up with a grunt of effort that was only partly staged.

"Come on." He said, more to himself than to her. "We can't keep this place all to ourselves forever. You have to get back planet side and I have to whip the THDC into shape." At least work provided a temporary escape, and a good excuse.

"I hope their space borne forces are better than their ground troops." Grunted Lani. "Their average soldiers are passable I suppose, for planetary forces. But their junior officers and their whole methodology just are not built to fight this kind of asymmetric war." She sounded regretful, if they had to fight a guerrilla style conflict with the Ashern, men were going to die needlessly. Oh, they might still win, but the cost would be higher.

"It is a bit early to tell." Mused Talon. "But I'm training them like they were my own crew, they may not be navy but I won't just feed them into the grinder. Plus Erisi seems to be doing a good job, but there just isn't enough time."

"Careful of her." Lani cautioned, her tone suddenly growing serious, prompting Talon to look up suddenly from his thoughts. "I haven't met her, but I hear the talk. You can't trust those kind of undercover agents."

"I am aware of the risk." Assured Talon. "But if it weren't for her, we would not have these frigates and pocket carriers. Nor would we have anything close to a competent THDC fighter force or vital Rogue intelligence." It sounded almost like he was defending her. Though Lani's next words again cut to the heart of things, and made Talon a little unsure of his footing.

"Just be careful that she doesn't use you." He could not help but feel a slight twinge at that caution. She had manipulated him once before after all, and another intelligence officer had previously deceived him entirely. Fortunately, he was at least content with the results of Erisi's machinations. But Lani was clearly less than comfortable with Talon's situation as she continued. "And that she doesn't…" But Lani seemed to drift into an awkward, apprehensive silence. It was not like her to be hesitant or uncertain.

"Go on Lani, finish that thought." Encouraged Talon, with the same cautious trepidation a family member might show when helping someone walk after surgery for the first time. It took a few moments for Lani to seemingly muster the courage to say.

"That she doesn't grow something, nasty in you." Talon only looked perplexed but now that she had summoned the nerve to start, she continued. "People aren't just changed by the events they live through, but by the people around them to. Between the Director and her minions. It is not just your life you have to worry about Talon. It's your soul to."

Talon could not help but think it was a bit rich for a woman with her criminal record to be making such comments. For all the tenderness she seemed to show him, she was far from a paragon of virtue. He was on the edge of challenging her, but stopped himself. He would not answer her concern with criticism. And something in her plea, the worry in her eyes, touched him.

"I will be vigilant Lani." As he sought to assure her, Lani, without warning slipped her hand into his and held it tight. Even beneath the armour he could feel the urgency, and the warmth. The sudden gesture caused his heart to leap and his lungs to reflexively take a sharp breath. But Lani seemed not to notice as she enclosed her other hand around his, in a half tender, half pleading grip.

"You're one of the good ones Talon. That's one of the reasons why. Don't let them get to you."