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Gungan to the left


The Courtship of Jagged Fel (PG)


By : Darth_Lex; TKeira_Lea

Archived on: Monday, October 23, 2006

Summary:
One year after the treaty with the Yuuzhan Vong, peace at last prevails in the galaxy. Yet simmering disputes threaten to explode into open conflict at the edge of the Unknown Regions and in the great unresolved love of The New Jedi Order.

CHAPTER ONE


With his hands clasped at the small of his back, Jagged Fel stood on the bridge of the battlecruiser Polar Wind and gazed out the wide viewport at the small blue-and-white orb suspended against the star-speckled blackness of space.

He sighed. "They always look peaceful from a distance."

"I'm sorry, Colonel?"

Jag turned to face his aide, and raised an eyebrow.

"Ambassador, sir," Shawnkyr Nuruodo said. The Chiss officer did a creditable job of keeping her embarrassment from her expression. "I'm sorry, Ambassador?"

"I said," he replied after a moment, turning to look out the viewport again, "even the most troubled planets look peaceful from a distance."

"Yes, sir. At least since the end of the war."

He nodded. The peace treaty with the Yuuzhan Vong a year ago had brought innumerable changes to the galaxy, including the fact that one no longer arrived at a planet to find it surrounded by warships, if not aflame. Most noticeable for Jag, though, was the cessation of the nearly constant hostilities that seemingly had dominated the entire span of his life and career. Contemplating the planet in front of him, he found it difficult to comprehend that he was no longer first and foremost a military commander, but rather a diplomat. Chiss Expansionary Defense Force liaison to the Galactic Alliance and unallied planets in the Known Regions, to be precise.

A Fel turned diplomat. Jaina's mother probably had a good laugh when she thought of that.

Jag turned back to Shawnkyr. "Any changes to the situation since our last update?"

"Only a few," she replied. "The military deployments in the commercial lanes have escalated slightly."

"Only slightly is promising, I suppose."

"The forces from Vikova -" Shawnkyr tipped her head to indicate the planet they circled in high orbit "- now have three squadrons of starfighters in place. The government of Achebi has yet to respond."

"So the Achebians have two squadrons, to the Vikovans' three?"

"Correct, sir."

Jag ran his fingers through his hair. If he had to defuse the situation with forcible intervention, the Polar Wind and his single Chiss squadron of clawcraft could handle it. So long as the crisis didn't escalate much further. "The Vikovans still believe invasion is imminent?"

"Yes."

"Do we have any evidence that supports their claim?"

Shawnkyr's bright red eyes didn't look down at her datapad. "Not directly, no. But the Achebians have an unusually high number of naval and ground forces on maneuvers."

"What percentage of their total forces?"

"Nearly sixty."

Jag scowled. "That certainly sounds belligerent to me."

"Agreed. It could be merely an intimidation tactic, however."

"True," he said, and crossed his arms over his chest. "But we can't be sure either way."

"No, sir."

"Do we have any idea what the Achebian's motives for invasion might be?"

"The Achebians are accusing the Vikovans of war profiteering. The Vikovans remained neutral during the war, while the Achebians sided with the New Republic and suffered a number of devastating reprisals from the enemy because of it."

"Indeed." He took a deep breath. Many on Csilla still believed it was the Chiss leadership's decision to avoid overtly joining the war against the Yuuzhan Vong that had spared them. Personally, Jag thought good fortune had a lot more to do with it. "Jealousy is no doubt exacerbating the existing rivalry between the worlds."

Shawnkyr nodded. "Exactly. The enemy attacks decimated the Achebians' mining operations and refining facilities, and their reconstruction is far from complete. The Achebians maintain that the Vikovans will only sell them raw ore and finished durasteel at grossly inflated prices, and this greed is greatly hindering Achebi's recovery."

"And they seek to remedy this alleged injustice with invasion and conquest."

"Yes, sir."

"Do we know if the Achebians' assertions have merit?"

"The preliminary economic analysis from Csilla suggests that while the Vikovans have charged prices exceeding prewar market levels, the Achebians are exaggerating the scope of any unfairness in light of the galaxy-wide supply disruptions caused by the war."

Jag nodded. "Have the Achebians acted aggressively toward any of their other neighbors?"

"No, sir. But Vikova is the weakest planet in the sector."

He chuckled in helpless bemusement. "Of course it is."

"Perhaps we will learn more after we have met with delegations from both planets in person."

"We can hope so." Jag gave one last look at the planet, then began to walk toward the open portal at the rear of the bridge. "Anything else to report?"

She fell into stride with him. "The political assessment you requested from Csilla is completed."

Jag grinned. Chiss efficiency at its finest. "And?"

"The analysts have been aware for some time of a conflict within the Vikovan regime between those who seek closer ties with the Chiss, and those who seek closer ties with the Galactic Alliance. The Csilla and Mon Calamari factions, respectively."

"Our labels or theirs?"

"Ours"

"Understood." As he spun into the narrow corridor, Jag clasped his hands at the small of his back again. "So it would seem the request for our aid is a bold move by the Csilla faction in their government."

"Exactly. The analysts believe the planet's new leader is using this action to consolidate her authority and preempt those who opposed her rise to power."

A woman. Interesting. "And her name?"

"Iliana."

"Iliana...?"

"Members of the Vikovan aristocracy apparently use only a single name."

"How charming."

"I'm sorry, sir?"

"Never mind," Jag said, keeping his smirk to himself as he saluted the two Chiss ensigns they passed. "Do we know anything more about this sector historically? Where its allegiances fell?"

"Until the last century the sector was quite isolated," Shawnkyr replied after a glance at her datapad. "At the time of the Clone Wars it still was considered too close to the Unknown Regions to warrant attention by either side. The sector technically was part of the Empire, but only rarely did the central authorities intervene in its affairs."

"No strategic value?"

"Not that we're aware of. The Achebians' aggression appears to be a matter of local dispute, not one of military or commercial importance to either the Chiss or the Galactic Alliance."

Jag sighed. "And we are yet another piece in that game - a piece to be played by the Vikovans against the Achebians, and by this Iliana against her opponents."

"It would seem so. Unless more is happening here than we know."

"Which is always possible."

Shawnkyr nodded once, decisively. "Yes, sir."

He frowned. "I don't appreciate being made a game piece."

"Of course not, sir."

"Then again," he said, "perhaps this request for assistance is genuine. Vikova is far closer to Csilla than it is to the Core. Increasing political and commercial ties to the Chiss might very well be of great benefit to the Vikovans, in the short term and the long run."

They arrived at the open portal to Jag's office on the battlecruiser. He waved Shawnkyr ahead, then followed her inside.

"That's true. Your presence here could be simply the fortuitous event needed to instigate the Vikovan government to move forward."

Jag stopped in his tracks. "I'm sorry? Your presence?"

"Yes, sir," Shawnkyr said. "I thought you knew."

"Knew what?"

"That the request for assistance was made specifically to you."

He tapped the wall panel, and the door slid shut with a hiss. "I was under the impression that the Vikovans requested that the Chiss mediate the crisis with Achebi."

Shawnkyr shook her head. "No. They requested that Ambassador Fel mediate."

"That would have been nice to know before now."

"I'm sorry, sir. I will inquire into the error immediately."

"Of course." Jag shrugged off her formal apology and sat down at his desk. He looked up at Shawnkyr where she still stood by the door. "They requested my involvement specifically?"

"They did. But it would not have taken much for them to find you. Our departure from Adumar three days ago was prominently featured in the planetary media reports."

"You could be right. Still, I'm no diplomat, Shawnkyr. Everyone knows that."

"That may be true. A diplomat might not have outflown the local Adumari aces quite so brazenly. But don't forget, you are a war hero."

Jag was about to deny it when he stopped himself. "I suppose I am."

She stood silently, patiently, while Jag snatched up the small holocube on his desk.

He twirled the cube in his fingers and gazed at the images of the beautiful young woman inside. "Why would anyone want a war hero to mediate a dispute on the brink of hostilities? Wouldn't you want a diplomat for that? A real diplomat?"

Shawnkyr blinked. "Those are rhetorical questions, I take it?"

He faced his aide again, and laughed. "Yes, Shawnkyr. Yes, they are."

She smiled, nodded once, and let herself out.

Jag stopped spinning the cube, then tapped in a code to the long-range transmitter.

CHAPTER TWO


Side by side, two Jedi strode down the bustling halls, the tall blonde female towering over the petite brunette. The corridor was lined on one side with doorways and on the other with a sheer transparisteel wall that overlooked the ever-turbulent Mon Calamari ocean. Even more than their rapid footfalls, the weary relief on the two women's faces revealed their delight at exiting the Jedi Council chambers.

Finally they stopped at the turbolifts, yet neither made a move to press the call sign. They didn't have to. Both knew the lift was coming. Instead, in unison, they faced the panoramic view of swirling seas below and gazed off to the horizon.

"That was fun." The blonde chuckled. "Knights Tainer and Solo, do you think dropping the Facsreni premier in a loppi pool was necessary to achieve your directive on this mission?" she said in the best imitation of Jedi Master Hamner.

Jaina huffed. In her attempt to not laugh at the serious diplomatic flub on their parts, she found an impish giggle welling up. The harder she fought it the more the laugh couldn't be denied. She unsuccessfully stifled a snort. When Tyria lost control first with a giggle, the pair fell from Jedi seriousness to teenage hilarity in a matter of a second.

They laughed long enough to release the last bit of tension still lingering from their latest mission. They laughed hard enough that Jaina found she was holding a stitch in her side. They laughed their way into silence, and were left staring once more into the tempestuous waters below.

"Quite a remarkable contrast to Facsren, wouldn't you say?" Jaina noted with a tip of her head at the never-ending vista of ocean.

"A welcome contrast," Tyria said. "I still feel the grit and grime of that planet in every single one of my pores."

Just as the lift doors opened, Jaina stamped her booted foot and a plume of dust erupted into the air. "Tell me about it." She flashed a half-cocked grin at the cluster of Jedi who chose to wait in the lift while the dust settled at her feet. "Just the lingering effects of a blasting from the Council."

The Jedi shuffled past, giving both women wide berth. Jaina followed Tyria into the lift and tapped the button that would send them to the Jedi residential level. "Are you going to stay here tonight, or head back?"

"Although the idea of a thorough shower and long nap are enticing, I really should make the trip back to Tidal City." Tyria stretched across and activated the button for the transportation level.

"But that's completely on the other side of Mon Cal. Surely Kell can spare you one more night."

"I am sure - if he were home - Kell wouldn't begrudge me the rest. But when we checked in there was a message waiting." Tyria paused and sighed. "Kell's unit got called away, and he left Doran with our neighbor."

"The one with a son about Doran's age?"

"The same."

"Well that's nice for Doran -"

"Not really," Tyria interjected with a frown. "The message was from the neighbor."

Something in the other woman's voice caused Jaina to mutter a simple, "Uh oh."

"Exactly," Tyria agreed. "It seems the two boys had a little too much fun together - ending in a run-in with the local constable."

The lingering sense of regret that hung over the taller blonde caused Jaina to reach out and touch her on the shoulder. "I'm sorry. I know it's hard to do this, to be away."

Tyria gave Jaina's hand a reassuring pat as the lift slipped to a halt. "Kell and I hoped moving to one of the less dense populaces would be good for Doran. And both our assignments were supposed to exclude travel." She exhaled sharply. "But in these times we know how that goes."

The lift doors whisked open and Tyria motioned Jaina out. "You'll see. Someday you and Jag will be fighting the same losing battle."

Jaina backed out, shaking her head. "Oh, no. Not me. I'm going to have everything settled before I even think about marriage - let alone kids."

Tyria chuckled. "Settled, huh? Good luck with that."

The tall blonde was still laughing when the lift swished closed.

Heading for her quarters down the hall, Jaina waved at the sealed doors as the lift shot away. She would have offered a barbed reply to the air, but none came to mind. Only the thought, They'll see. She wasn't about to make the same mistakes her elders - not that Tyria was really an elder - had made as far as children were concerned. No, Jaina had been that child, left behind. Her parents had done what they had felt necessary. That truth, however, had never taken away the lonely nights when only a mother's kiss or a father's hug could have eased the ache in her heart.

She was still lost in the rightness of her thoughts when she reached the entrance to her apartment. It wasn't home, but it was a place to call her own. Her fingers managed the entrance code without a glance, and in the next second she was trudging inside.

"Illumination seventy percent."

The lights began to glow softly until the room was clearly visible. Nothing looked out of place; everything sat just as she had left it. There wasn't much to the apartment - a great room with an office area, a small kitchen next to that, and in the back a bedroom with a refresher.

Out of habit, Jaina crossed first to the comm console at the small table nestled in one corner by the bedroom. As expected a blinking light indicated there were messages waiting for her review. She scanned the log and found the usual mundane list of friends and family, and an occasional solicitation. Only the final notation caught her eye.

A touch to the screen called up the last message. A small blue image flickered to life, revealing Jag from the shoulders up. He smiled, as best as he knew how.

"Hello. I guess my timing was a little off. Again. I hoped to catch you. I have been sent to mediate a dispute between two minor systems in the Rim. Achebi and Vikova - maybe you have heard of them?" He grinned just a little. "Probably not. I doubt anyone actually has. I had better go learn as much as I can before I attempt to mediate away my first war. Any reason to take a break would be greatly appreciated. You know how to reach me." He paused. "I love you, Jaina."

The image dissolved in a hiss of static, and Jaina stared at the holoimager for a silent moment. Suddenly, the room somehow felt emptier.

A short lyrical toodle broke her melancholy. She smiled at her droid as he rolled out of the bedroom. "Hey, Cappie. Feeling refreshed?"

The droid beeped an affirmative.

"Great. Hopefully I can hit the sack and recharge, too."

She bypassed the droid and entered the bedroom. The lights were still down, and Jaina almost tripped over her travel bag, which rested in the same place she had dropped it hastily earlier. She scooped the bag up and moved it the short distance to the bed. While she rummaged around in the bag Cappie came to her side. The droid spun once and tooted inquisitively when he reached her.

"Just trying..." She tugged at her refresher kit buried deep under a pile of clothes. "...to get some stuff to clean this grime off." After a final yank loosed her prize, Jaina grinned victoriously down at her companion. "So I'm off for a long hot shower."

Cappie gave a low sliding whistle as she walked the short distance to the refresher. She paused at the door and turned back. "I won't be long," she said with a smile. "Hey. Why don't you do me a favor while I get cleaned up?"

Cappie honked and rolled forward and back excitedly.

"I need you to find out anything you can about two systems out near the Rim." She had to stop and recall their names. "Achebi and...Vivoka. No, that's not right. Vikova. Yes, Vikova."

Lights on Cappie's dome twinkled as he processed the information. He chirped once, then whirled out of the room, already intent on his task.

As soon as the droid was gone, Jaina peeled out of her clothes, leaving them in a heap on the ground. She triggered the heated setting and eagerly stepped into the pounding stream of water.

Within minutes, she began to feel her own skin again. Beating water pellets knocked away the last week's grime and grit, and with it the tensions that had plagued her from the moment she had left for Facsren. With a sigh, she realized it was good to be back.

Her thoughts turned eventually to what she would do next, what task the Jedi Council would set before her. Despite the apparent calamities surrounding her latest mission, Uncle Luke had assured both her and Tyria that they had performed admirably. Yet the Council had hedged on assigning either to another task. Jaina wondered...

An excited mechanical squeal from beyond the bedroom drew Jaina's thoughts back to the moment. She turned off the water and groped for a towel to wrap around herself. As she tracked water halfway across the refresher, Cappie barreled into the bedroom, tweeting and bleeping all the way.

Satisfied he had her attention, the droid twirled and went back the way he had come. Only then did Jaina hear the insistent call of the comm.

She stalked after the droid. "What? Who is it?" She leaned over the commstation, looking for an identifier on the incoming relay. "Don't you think...Oh." She grinned and hit the receive button. An image coalesced immediately. "Hi!"

Framed in the blackest of hair, Jag's handsome face broke into an unusually seductive grin. "Hello. This is certainly some welcome."

Jaina glanced down. She looked at her hand clutching the towel around her dripping torso, and immediately felt the heat of a blush rising. "Oh this," she taunted. "I greet everyone like this. It's the Facsreni way."

"Really? I am beginning to like these Facsreni, even if your last message made them sound a bit disagreeable. Especially if your time spent with them means I get to be greeted by the most stunningly gorgeous woman ever...dressed only in a towel."

"In your dreams, Ambassador." She traipsed back into the bedroom, going straight for her travel bag.

"Uh, Jaina?" his disembodied voice called.

"Just a minute," she hollered. She dug until she found a pair of comfortable casual pants, then quickly slipped them on.

"I don't have much time between meetings."

"Okay. One sec." Jaina snatched a sleeveless top and shrugged it on, too. Then she jogged back into the main room. "Better."

Jag's smile had returned to his usual composed state, and it stayed that way as he replied, "Not really."

He sounded deadly serious but she knew instinctively he wasn't, and she couldn't help but laugh. Just the sight of him was intoxicating. "Sorry."

"You are just as beautiful now," he insisted.

"I see the diplomatic skills are beginning to come naturally."

"There is only truth to my words, Jaina."

She grabbed the nearby chair and parked herself before his holoimage. She wanted to be as close to Jag as she could get. There was a sense of completion in the simple notion of proximity - even with his likeness. "I know," she answered while her hand rose up as if to touch his face. She sighed. "So things are going well?"

"Yes - except that I miss you..." She shot him an inscrutable arch of the eyebrow, causing him to falter. He quickly regrouped. "Yes. This latest mission might be a bit sticky. I have met with the Achebians. I can only hope the Vikovans are more...agreeable. And your mission? I heard it went well."

"From who?"

"Your uncle. I talked to him earlier today. That is how I knew you would be back."

Jaina felt her brows furrow. "You were looking for me?"

"No. I wanted his input on a few matters. Your name came up in the course of the discussion -"

"My name just came up?" she asked playfully.

"Right." His eyebrow twitched. It was the only sign he ever gave when he felt cornered.

"Right," she repeated.

His attention was drawn away momentarily, and Jaina noticed him wave off an unseen visitor. Focusing back on her, he inhaled sharply. "So I was wondering...I was thinking that since I am so close to Csilla that I might take a few days to visit my parents."

"That sounds like a good plan. I bet they would be thrilled to see you."

"They would. But they would be ten times so, if they were able to meet the woman I love. So I was hoping was that you might want to come along with me."

A heavy silence filled the air before Jaina said, "Really?"

"Yes."

"I don't know what to say..."

"Say you will come."

Jaina fidgeted in her chair. "I don't know...I mean, I'm not sure what the Council has planned for me yet. Uncle Luke didn't -"

"He told me you had no upcoming missions, that you had been working too hard. A short trip might be just the thing right -"

"Wait a minute. You talked to Uncle Luke about my assignments?"

"Not exactly."

"What, then, exactly?"

Jag ground his jaw for a moment. "I mentioned the possibility of taking you to Csilla..." He took a deep breath, and his expression softened. "Listen, Jaina. I am sorry if I overstepped my bounds with your uncle. My intention was never to upset you. I just miss you - a lot. And I was excited about the possibility of spending some time with you."

She stood and took a few steps away. When she turned back to the holo, she crossed her arms over her chest. She found it difficult to meet his earnest gaze.

"Jaina?"

She had no choice then; Jaina looked up. "Yes?"

"I don't have much more time before my next meeting. Will you go home with me?"

She glanced away, and back. "I don't know, Jag. I just don't know if I can."

Can't or won't? She felt the words as if they had been said, but he had merely stared her down. Perhaps it had been her own guilt speaking.

"You know, I've had a long trip," she said quickly. "Probably the thought of travel just seems uninviting. How about I sleep on it, and get back to you tomorrow?"

He tried, but he wasn't very good at faking a smile. "Certainly. Take whatever time you need."

"So we'll talk tomorrow?" She eased her arms to her sides.

"Of course. I will look forward to your comm."

"Okay."

"Goodbye, Jaina."

"Goodbye. I -" As Jag flickered out of existence, Jaina finished, "- love you."

CHAPTER THREE


Jag strode deliberately down the narrow corridor of the Polar Wind and tried to compel his thoughts back to his mission. The meeting with the delegation from Achebi had been disturbing, if insightful. Presumably the impending session with the delegation from Vikova couldn't go any worse. He just had to have confidence that at least one side in this dispute would be agreeable, and trust in himself to find a way to keep the peace.

Then again, if he couldn't handle a task as simple as convincing the woman he loved to spend some time with him, what made him think he had any chance of preventing a war? Jag took a deep breath and pushed the heartache from his mind. Two disappointments today were enough. Three in a row was too unlikely to worry about.

Or so he hoped.

As he walked toward the briefing room, Jag pondered again the discussion with the Achebians. He remained uncertain of their motives and intentions, but he was confident about several matters. For one, the Achebians had been deceitful from the start, evading difficult questions and contradicting themselves at every turn. Jag didn't trust them any more than a Hutt whose life was on the line. For another, the Achebians were even more belligerent in person than their actions had suggested. They had seemed less than impressed by the possibility of intervention by the Polar Wind and its clawcraft, and he already had resolved to request backup from the nearby Alliance forces as soon as possible. In addition to their warlike nature, he also had noticed a distinct undercurrent of resentment, if not outright hatred, directed at their Vikovan neighbors. That would complicate considerably attempts to reach a peaceful settlement. Finally, the Achebians had conducted the entire session with an arrogance and condescension that Jag hadn't seen since Borsk Fey'lya's death.

In other words, they were just plain insufferable.

Yes, he definitely hoped the meeting with the Vikovans wasn't going to be worse.

Shawnkyr was waiting for him outside the briefing room. "They are ready for you."

He nodded. "Good. What do they seem like to you?"

"They are human, sir."

He shook his head. Why he had expected a different answer, he didn't know. The Chiss were notoriously inept at reading human character. Actually, that dynamic worked both ways. "All right. Let's get this over with."

"Of course, sir."

With Shawnkyr on his heels Jag marched through the open portal of the briefing room to find the Vikovan delegation huddled in a conversation on the other side of the long mahogany conference table. Three Chiss officers popped to attention on his side. The Vikovans also noticed his arrival immediately and turned to face him.

"I am Ambassador Jagged Fel," he said. "Welcome aboard the Polar Wind. Please, take your seats and we will get started."

His plan to observe carefully each member of the Vikovan delegation vanished as soon as his gaze fell on the young woman in the center of the group - the one who was moving to take the seat opposite him in the middle of the table.

She was tall - nearly as tall as Jag himself. Her blue eyes sparkled with a brilliance found in the rarest of gemstones. Her long, straight blonde hair whispered around her head and shoulders like a solar corona. Her high cheekbones and full lips gave her face a divine beauty Wynssa Starflare would have envied. A shimmering white dress flaunted each and every one of her voluptuous curves. She couldn't be real. No flesh and blood woman was this gorgeous.

Jag had to remember to breathe.

"I am Iliana," she said. "It is a great pleasure to meet you, Ambassador Fel."

He swallowed hard. Her voice was melody and harmony, a song all its own. He had to hear it again. It was...exhilarating. "The pleasure is all mine, Your Grace."

Iliana smiled. It wasn't simply a diplomatic smile. There was something..."Thank you for responding so promptly to our entreaty, Ambassador," she said. "Such alacrity speaks well of your honor and integrity."

Jag tipped his head in acknowledgement. "I will admit, Your Grace, that your request for intercession in this dispute comes as a surprise."

"It is understandable that it would," she replied. "My planet has long followed a policy of isolation from galactic affairs."

"And this policy has changed?"

"It has." Iliana met his gaze firmly. "The recent war has proven beyond all doubt that it is not possible for a single star system, or even a single sector, to thrive and prosper independently. For although my people fortunately were spared the direct depredations of the Yuuzhan Vong, we have been devastated all the same. Trade has collapsed and shipping is infrequent. Opportunities for education and careers on other worlds have all but disappeared. Now our planet truly is on its own, and the consequences are dire."

Jag nodded. Self-sufficiency was possible for a society with as many worlds and resources as the Chiss possessed. Not for one planet, and a far from wealthy one at that. "An end to isolation is a choice many leaders have made in the aftermath of the war."

"Or at least have considered," she added, her eyes darting to the four blue-skinned Chiss seated on Jag's side of the conference table.

"Indeed." He leaned forward slightly. "You must be aware that the Galactic Alliance has a notable presence in several nearby sectors, and its leadership constantly strives to reduce barriers and increase ties throughout the galaxy."

"That is true."

"Why, then, did you not seek their assistance in this dispute?"

"Because the Galactic Alliance, for all its lofty rhetoric, cannot be trusted."

Jag raised an eyebrow. "Surely you are not accusing the Alliance of dishonorable intentions?"

"Oh, no," Iliana said. The flicker of chagrin on her face revealed clearly her knowledge of Jag's extensive involvement with the Alliance. "The leaders of the Alliance do not act with malicious ambitions - of that I am entirely confident. Yet from a soldier's eyes, Ambassador, you must have seen far too many occasions on which promises made sincerely could not be kept - when the Alliance has turned away from its pledges."

Jag took a slow, silent breath. He knew what the striking beauty meant. He knew all too well. "War changes many things, Your Grace, including a leader's power to fulfill obligations that would otherwise never be abandoned."

"Of course," she said. She smiled again, knowingly. "Yet I speak not only of wartime decisions under harrowing conditions. No, my people have witnessed this pattern across the years - the Old Republic and the New, the Empire and the Rebellion, and now the Galactic Alliance. The central regime, Coruscant or elsewhere, always favors expediency and pragmatism. Choices are made, and far too often those of us in outlying sectors, those of us without critical military or economic value, are simply forgotten - if we are lucky."

"It is only a matter of scale, Your Grace. Whether a military command, or a city, or a planet, or a galaxy, it is the very responsibility of a leader to make those difficult choices." Jag couldn't believe the boldness in his voice. What in blazes was he doing? "No matter how you seek to increase ties to the worlds beyond your sector, you will face this dilemma."

"It would seem you are as wise as you are candid, Ambassador. Your reputation is well deserved."

"Thank you, Your Grace," Jag said. "I think."

Iliana laughed lightly. There was that...something again. In her smile. In her eyes. "It is a compliment indeed, Ambassador. To you, and to the Chiss."

He leaned back a few centimeters. "To the Chiss?"

"Yes. As their Ambassador, you represent and uphold their values to the galaxy. Is that not so?"

"It is."

"Your father's station among the Chiss is legendary." Iliana eyed Shawnkyr at his side. "You must be proud to have earned such admiration in your own right."

"Yes," Jag said. "I owe my life to the Chiss. They made me who I am."

Iliana nodded once, decisively. "If you consider the true nature of the Chiss values, Ambassador Fel, you will understand why I have sought your assistance, and not the Alliance's."

He paused for a moment, and wondered if your assistance meant the intervention of the Chiss - or his personally. "I'm afraid, Your Grace," he said, "that I am not yet accustomed to the nuances and inferences of diplomatic discourse."

"Candor deserves candor in return," she said. "As you wish, Ambassador."

He nodded appreciatively, and waited.

"The Chiss and my people have much in common," she began. "Our historic isolation. Our location on the periphery of galactic affairs - geographically and politically. Our pride in our cultures. Our desire to remain free, and to prosper, and to give our children better lives than we have lived. All this we share."

Jag nodded again.

"But above all else, Ambassador," she said, "the Chiss and the Vikovans value loyalty. Commitment. Trust. Duty. Honor. All these, from loyalty."

"It sounds, Your Grace, as though you seek not merely intervention in this dispute, but an alliance." He frowned. "I cannot speak for Csilla on such matters."

"Of course not," Iliana said with sincerity. "I would never be so presumptuous in our first encounter. No, Ambassador, I seek only to open a dialogue - to make the initial connection, to lay the foundation upon which further ties and bonds can be built."

He tipped his head. "Then we understand one another, Your Grace."

She smiled again. That smile..."We do, Ambassador. There are many things the Chiss can offer Vikova, and many things the Vikovans can offer Csilla. Economically, politically, militarily, culturally - an alliance between us would benefit us both greatly. All in due time, as we come to know each other better."

Us both...We...Each other..."Very well, Your Grace," Jag said. "For now, however, we must return to the crisis at hand. The Achebians were not willing to discuss any concessions in their demanded price reductions for your ore and durasteel. They do not seem willing to compromise."

Iliana shook her head. "I had not expected that they would be."

"Then we must consider how best to defend your planet from attack." Until he heard the words leave his mouth, Jag didn't realize he apparently had made a decision to take sides in the dispute he was supposed to be mediating. "Perhaps as a first show of goodwill, you will allow your generals to brief me on the full range of military capabilities Vikova has available?"

"As you wish." Iliana met Jag's gaze for a long moment, then turned to one of her aides at the table. "General, tell the Ambassador anything he wants to know."

CHAPTER FOUR


Jacen Solo leaned back in his chair and looked across the small wooden table at his uncle.

"We must unlearn what we have learned," Luke Skywalker said. The small smile that always crossed his face when he remembered Master Yoda made its appearance. "We have to think about this situation from a new angle. Break through the preconceptions that limit us."

Jacen nodded. Even a year later he still found it hard to believe that all along Shimrra had been Onimi's puppet, not the other way around. "Jedi can always make a contribution. We just have to figure out how."

"Exactly."

"If the Achebians carry out their threat of an invasion, thousands of innocent people will die. We can't allow that to happen."

"I know." Luke crossed his arms over his chest. "But negotiations appear to have failed. Sending a few Jedi wouldn't add any worthwhile intimidation to what Jag already has at his disposal."

"True. A couple of Jedi Knights can't repel an invasion army."

For a long moment the two of them sat in silence, contemplating the swirling currents of the Force and Jag's request for Jedi assistance to supplement the meager military backup the Galactic Alliance had been able to offer him.

"I've got it," Jacen finally said.

Luke smiled, and sat forward to listen.

"We've been focusing on compensating for the weaknesses." Jacen leaned forward too, and propped his elbows on the table. "Vikova's army is outmatched, and two frigates and one battalion are all the Alliance can get there in time. Maybe we should focus on bolstering the strengths -"

"Like Jag's squadron."

"Exactly."

"A few Jedi on the ground might not make a difference against an army - but a few pilots could turn the tide above."

Jacen flashed his uncle the trademark Solo smirk. "Something you've done once or twice yourself, if the legends are true."

"Possibly." Luke clasped his hands in front of him on the table. "You're right, Jacen. A team of Jedi pilots could very well make the difference."

Jacen tipped his head. "Thanks."

"It's your idea," Luke said. "You should lead the team."

"Me?"

Now Luke was the one grinning impishly. "Sure. Why not?"

"No. Not me." Jacen scowled. "I'm not that good a pilot."

"Don't let your father hear you say that. It would kill him."

"You'd be right, except that I was born at the same time as daddy's little girl."

"True. It's easy to forget your shortcomings in the cockpit with Jaina lighting up the skies."

"There are some advantages to being a twin. Jaina should lead the team."

"Jaina? You're sure?"

"Yes." Jacen ran a hand through his hair. "This is the kind of mission she craves."

"It is. But she's working herself too hard lately. You know that. I was just telling Jag she needs to slow down a little. She needs to relax."

"She does. But this is my sister - and your sister's daughter - we're talking about. What better way to get her to relax than to let her do what she loves, and let her see Jag again while she's at it?"

His uncle gazed off thoughtfully across the room for a few heartbeats. "I suppose you're right about that, too."

"Of course I am."

Luke laughed. "Don't let it go to your head."

"I won't."

"While we're on the topic of your sister and Jag, what's going on with them?"

"Actually," Jacen said, "I've been meaning to talk to you about that."

"Oh?"

"Yes." Jacen took a deep breath, and sighed. "She loves him. I don't doubt that at all."

"I didn't expect you would. So what's the problem?"

"She won't commit to him. Really be with him."

Luke smiled warmly. "She's young, Jacen. There's no rush."

Jacen chuckled. "Oh, I know. Look at me."

"True."

"It's not that, though. It's almost like she's blocked herself from even thinking about the idea of commitment. She won't let herself see how right being with him is - how much peace she could find if she'd stop holding back from him."

"I see," Luke said. "She's afraid."

"I think so, yes."

"Of what?"

"I'm not sure." Jacen sighed again. "She told me that after Anakin died, while I was with Vergere, there was a time when she was convinced that everyone she loved was going to die. That she was going to die too, for that matter. If she was still feeling that way, she might hold back from Jag to spare him from that fate."

"She's past those emotions, though."

"Yes, she is."

"So it must be something else." Luke frowned. "I hope it's not because of what I said to her at the Knighting ceremony on Mon Calamari."

"You mean the Sword of the Jedi thing?"

"Yes."

Jacen shook his head. "Don't worry about it. She got over that a long time ago. She's certainly proven herself as a warrior and a Jedi since then, don't you think?"

"Absolutely," his uncle said. "And she's steered well clear of the dark side as well. It's not always an easy balance to find, but she has found hers."

"Yes, she has. Better than I've found mine."

Luke reached out and squeezed Jacen's shoulder. "Don't be so tough on yourself."

"Sorry," Jacen said. "I can understand why she spent some time away from Jag last year, when the war finally ended. So much had happened in those five years. Chewie...Anakin...All that death and suffering..."

"She needed time to be herself, and discover who she had become after all she'd been through."

"Yes. Just like I did."

"And have you discovered who you've become?"

"No," Jacen said, shaking his head in consternation. "Not by a long shot."

Luke met his gaze. "Then maybe Jaina hasn't either."

"Maybe." Jacen shrugged. "But I don't have someone in my life like she does. I don't have a love like that. When I see Jaina and Jag together I feel...something in the Force. Brightness. Light. Hope for the future. I can't describe it. But when I see Jaina alone...it's not there. It's gone."

"I've sensed that too, on occasion. I'm sure it's much clearer for you."

"Probably," Jacen said. "Even without the Force it's obvious, though. You've seen them when they're together. It's like watching my parents. Or you and Aunt Mara."

"I can't argue with that." Then Luke laughed. "Although we've never been...observed in the engine room of a starcruiser."

Jacen laughed too. "I don't think I'll ever feel the need to outdo Jaina on that one."

"Besides, you'd remember to lock the door."

"Right." Jacen took a deep breath. "We've got to make her come to her senses. I won't let her throw away what she has with Jag. I just won't."

"All right...I'll ask Mara to speak with her. Maybe Jaina will open up to another woman."

"It's worth a try."

"Who knows? With all Mara had to overcome before she could accept that she was ready to commit to me, maybe she can reach Jaina in a way you or I can't."

"I wouldn't put it quite that way to her, though."

Luke grinned. "Oh, I don't plan to."

Jacen stood up from his chair. "Thanks, Uncle Luke. You won't regret this."

"You're welcome, Jacen."

"And someday soon, Jaina will thank you, too."

"You think so?"

"I do." Jacen nodded decisively. "Yes, I do. Could be we're worrying about all this for nothing. Maybe when she gets to Vikova and sees Jag again, that will be all it takes for Jaina to see how she's gone wrong."

Luke stood too, and held out his hands. "I think, Jacen, that this is one of those times when we can't rely on the Force to be with us. I think we just need a little Solo luck."

CHAPTER FIVE


With his hands parked behind his back and his feet firmly planted apart, Jag watched and waited. He waited for the hatch to the Vikovan diplomatic transport to close. In fact, the process was so agonizingly slow Jag had to compel his tightly held lungs to breathe. There was no relief in the act, however.

Eventually the hiss of an airtight seal rippled across the hangar of the Polar Wind, and Jag exhaled along with it. He counted to ten - in Chiss - then executed a smart about-face just as the Vikovan ship wheeled in its low hover. Without pause Jag marched directly for the exit that would take him to the privacy of his office.

Above the rhythmic clap of his boots on the polished floor, he heard Shawnkyr dismiss the Chiss honor guard. Not more than a second later, he recognized his second's determined strides, heading in his direction with the single-mindedness of a torpedo in a hard lock. Jag passed out of the hangar and noted the paltry seventy-two steps he had left to straighten out his thoughts.

Only one other time in his life had Shawnkyr been so indomitable; the whole experience had been worse than a dressing down from a superior. The subject had been Jaina - and Jag's behavior around her following a successful space battle on Hapes. Apparently, the second such confrontation would be about a woman - and his actions around her. The problem this time was that he hadn't a clue what had brought on this uncharacteristic bout of rash conduct.

He had better find a reason, and fast. He only had sixty-four steps to go.

By sixty in the countdown, Shawnkyr reached his side. Experience told him not to bother seeking answers in her inscrutable blue face, so he concentrated on what he could do. In the background of his mind, the ingrained soldier catalogued and stored bits and pieces of pertinent information Jag had gleaned from the meeting with the Vikovans. At the fore, however, Jag scrolled through his introduction with their leader.

Iliana. Of one name only. One stunning woman who had cast a spell on him apparently more mystifying than a Jedi mind-trick. At the thought of the Vikovan beauty, Jag's pulse quickened and sweat formed on his brow. He needed a distraction...

He decided to count the steps remaining. Fifty. Forty-nine. Forty-eight. Forty-seven. Forty-six.

He hadn't the luxury for more so Jag returned to the task at hand - figuring out where exactly he had lost control.

No doubt the picturesque blonde embodied the human concept of beautiful. Jag supposed he should know that better than most - his mother was Wynssa Starflare. Jag had lived most of his life in the care of the quintessence of galactic good looks. And certainly the fact that Wynssa Starflare was his mother had prevented Jag from being stupefied in her presence - except when she was exercising her motherly wiles as Syal Fel to locate the honispider he and Davin had hidden in their study desk. But Jag had always figured he was bigger than the average fools who had left their tongues wagging at the mere presence of a genuine beauty like Wynssa Starflare.

Apparently he was not.

Well, he knew a way to calm his fluttered soul. Jaina.

Still thirty-some steps from his office, Jag attempted to focus on the one person who always managed to center him. Jaina was, without a doubt, the most captivating presence ever to fly into his sights. He tried to recall her in detail - to drown out the disruption the Vikovan leader produced. Desperately Jag tried to recount Jaina's voice, from the stunning first encounter over Garqi to the heated exchange after the battle of Galantos, but it all played back like some hollow recording of missions long ago.

Not to be swayed, he tried a new tack - just the simple recollection of Jaina. She was petite, not at all like Iliana. No, Jag. Don't go there.

He doggedly brushed the thought aside. Jaina's hair was the deepest of browns, much like the color of a rich cup of caf served up for rousing pilots, and her eyes...

Those eyes had inspired numerous fantasies and even more insane actions. How could he ever forget the first time he had seen those eyes, defying years of ingrained discipline and the galaxy along with it to step off the dais on Ithor, simply for a chance to look into those dark pools and believe she was the woman of his dreams? Jag knew that Jaina's eyes were as deep and consuming as the tempestuous South Polar Seas on Mon Calamari, but when he tried to envision them in his mind, recreate the minute flashes of brandy-hued fire that sparkled within them, he was at a loss. They had been separated for too long. Jag realized that now Jaina was simply a bluish wavering holo - at one-quarter size no less.

As if on cue a thought popped to his mind. Someone somewhere had once told him that smell had the greatest influence on memory recall. Jag inhaled sharply once, hoping to bring back the simple lilting scent of Alderaanian lilies - so essentially Jaina - but all he got from his nose was Corellian roses, the tantalizing aroma left behind in Iliana's wake as she had said her farewell.

He could still recall their parting in acute detail. The Vikovan leader had bent close, too close, and had placed her palm on his shoulder before whispering, "Ambassador Fel, I would like to speak to you privately."

Jag blinked. That wasn't what she had said! Not even close. He scrambled to get his bearings. He was standing at his closed office door, halted for no apparent reason. And he had no idea what he intended to do next.

"Ambassador Fel?"

Snapping his head to the right, Jag noted Shawnkyr parked appropriately to his starboard, her blinking red eyes expecting some kind of response. Only then did Jag realize his blunder; lost in thought to the point of distraction, he had digressed once more from the task at hand. Moments from squaring off with one of his closest friends and soon-to-be harshest critics, he found himself unprepared and out of sorts.

Instinctively Jag tipped his head, then waved his palm over the office's entry panel. The device blinked blues and oranges as it processed his identification parameters before finally emitting a positive tone. An instant later the door whisked open, the two ill-at-ease comrades paced into the utilitarian confines, and the door finally sealed them off from the rest of the ship.

Unlike their previous encounter when Shawnkyr had stood toe to toe with Jag and had taken him to task for his actions, he skirted his desk, then settled stiffly into his seat. With Shawnkyr left standing uncomfortably at attention, Jag said, "I assume you wanted to express some thoughts on our latest meeting."

"Permission to speak Chiss to Chiss, sir?"

And so it began. Inhaling a long, deep breath, Jag folded his hands on the desk. He resolved in that moment this conversation was unavoidable, and exhaled softly. "Always, Shawnkyr."

"What just happened in there?" she asked in their native tongue.

He had to think before he answered, not only to measure his words but also to form them correctly - he had been away from Csilla for far too long. "I weighed the matters before us and made a decision. It was as simple as that."

The towering Chiss female took a step closer to his desk. "You may have signed us on for a full-scale war, one that could last weeks or even months, before the Ruling Families had time to discuss the merits of an alliance...with either of these worlds."

"The Chiss certainly will not want an alliance with the Achebians -"

"A conclusion you have reached so definitively after a single meeting?"

"They are arrogant, belligerent isolationists who only see things their way. There is nothing gained from an alliance with those types."

"True, if that is their nature," she said with the tip of her head. "But many have often said the same of the Chiss."

"True. Thrawn spoiled the Chiss image galaxy-wide, but he certainly does not represent our people as a whole," Jag insisted. "Look to the gains made since our involvement in the war."

"And you are so confident - already - that your negative impression of the Achebians could not simply be a similar misrepresentation or anomaly of who they really are as a people?"

He shook his head and leaned back in his chair. "No. If there is one thing I am certain of, it is the cloud of mistrust surrounding the Achebians. Call it instinct or gut reaction, whatever. I got a bad feeling while sitting in the room with them -"

"Versus the feeling you got in the room with Iliana?"

As if to manifest his internal wince, Jag's stomach muscles clenched. He had to wait a second to respond. "I was impressed with the sincerity of the Vikovans."

"You were impressed with the anatomy of one Vikovan in particular."

Maintaining a passive reaction when all he wanted to do was slam his fists on the desk turned out to be a next-to-impossible task. It was a fierce struggle of mind over impulse. Years ago it would have been a matter of course to block his Corellian instincts. Now he realized he was becoming far too...human.

"I admit the Vikovan leader is what humans classify as beautiful, but do you really think of me as weak-minded, my friend?"

"Not generally, but years ago you proved to be as spineless as an uranje worm when it came to Jaina Solo." The Chiss' eyes were the color of cold blood as she finished.

Jag coughed, in shock. "Spineless? Really? Did you think of me that poorly, Shawnkyr? Did I not do my duty on Hapes, and after?"

She turned to the side, her profile hiding the thought process in her eyes. Only the set of her jaw spoke to the internal battle waged deep within her soul. When she turned back her harsh expression wasn't as severe as seconds earlier.

"At first I did. I did not understand your human side. You were - to me - as true as a Chiss blood-brother could be. And I understood even less why someone like Jaina would appeal to you." Shawnkyr paused. "As I have come to know her, I have learned to appreciate the distinctive qualities that attract you to her. She is forthright and honest, brave and unwavering, all qualities deserving of a Chiss. Not to mention pleasing to the eye - or so I have overheard on many flightdecks."

"She is that," Jag said with a smile. Suddenly the mental image of Jaina that had been so elusive burst into his mind.

"But not in comparison to the Vikovan leader?"

"There is no comparison."

"So you did find this Iliana appealing."

"Yes. But -"

"You will simply dismiss all that you have achieved with Jaina because of the brazen advances -"

"What?! Wait. No. You've got it all wrong." He hadn't realized he had slipped back to Basic until he had finished his outburst. He swallowed, taking the time to force his mind to think like a Chiss, and speak like a Chiss. "I admitted that Il- the Vikovan leader is eye-catching, but my heart cannot be swayed by simple exterior trappings. Jaina is the woman of my dreams, everything I could ever want and need."

He felt wonderful having said it; not until that moment had Jag realized how deeply he felt that truth in his heart. Jaina was his true love.

And only then did Jag realize what Shawnkyr had said. "What exactly do you mean by brazen advances?"

"Just as I said. It was quite apparent she is the reason your personal involvement was requested."

"That is preposterous."

In a strikingly human move, Shawnkyr cocked her head. "Do you think, then, that her behavior was simply the Vikovan way?"

"No...No, you are simply misinterpreting her actions. Admittedly you have never been adept at reading humans."

"Perhaps. But there was no mistaking what happened in the briefing room. The Vikovan leader was..." Shawnkyr appeared to mull over her words. She finished in Basic. "...putting the moves on you."

Jag couldn't help the laugh that escaped his lips.

She stiffened, more so than usual. "Did I say it wrong?"

Waving off her embarrassment, he quickly stifled the remaining chuckles. "No, you said it right...It's just funny to hear something so human coming from you."

Jag could think of nothing more to say, and an uneasy silence fell between the friends. He thought of what chances Shawnkyr had taken to brave this conversation, and how much their friendship had grown over the course of the war to reach this point. His best friend was actually defensive, possibly even on Jaina's behalf. She had even confessed to liking Jaina, or at least respecting her. But Shawnkyr was also wrong.

"There is nothing between the Vikovan leader and me."

Her nostrils flared. "You are mistaken...or blinded. Your actions and decisions today speak clearly to that end."

"I did nothing wrong. I have no doubt my superiors at the CEDF would agree with my decision today."

"You entered us into a battle not our own."

"Yes. I did. But if the Chiss have learned one thing during these last years it is that hiding our heads in snowdrifts will not keep away the woes plaguing the galaxy. Peace on our borders is peace for us all." Jag tapped his index finger on the desk to emphasize his next point. "Besides, this is a fight we can and will win."

"We have only one squadron to complement the Polar Wind. Any battle will be hard fought. We will be pressed to achieve any sort of victory, much less a lasting peace."

"You forget. I am Corellian. We prefer less than favorable odds," he said with a mischievous grin. The effort had no effect on his friend's scowl, so instead he sought to reassure her. "I have put into motion certain things that should even out the odds, if we are forced into a fight."

This last statement seemed to allay her misgivings somewhat. Shawnkyr's eyes glowed with less intensity, but there was still that indefinable edge to her demeanor.

He sighed. "Do you honestly think, Shawnkyr, that I acted under the influence of the Vikovan leader's feminine wiles?"

In an uncharacteristic gesture, she hesitated. "I do."

"Were my choices wrong, then? In your opinion." When she stalled, he pressed. "I need to know."

"On the surface it would appear so, Jag." The words struck to his core. "But you always manage to see things on different levels and contexts even the most astute Chiss mind cannot fathom. Perhaps you see something I simply do not."

He tried to offer her an appreciative smile for the second part. He imagined it pained Shawnkyr as deeply to say what she had as it pained him to hear it. He studied the plane of his desk for the span of several heartbeats until he could formulate a coherent thought. He glanced quickly to the holocube resting on the far corner. Jaina's smiling face stared back at him, but it was simply an image, not the real thing. It seemed he had failed on more than one level today - or at least the women in his life thought so.

Jag could not bring himself to return Shawnkyr's scrutinizing gaze.

"What should I do?"

The tall blue-skinned alien leaned over, placing her palms on the desk. "Call in Ambassador Chu'itha. He is the one who defined your mission to the Known Regions. If you have strayed from the CEDF's mandate, he would be the one to know."

After thinking about her suggestion for only a heartbeat, Jag looked into Shawnkyr's red eyes. His answer was simple - a nod.

CHAPTER SIX


The halls of the main Jedi residential level thankfully were devoid of activity as Jaina hurried through their lengths. As it stood she was late, and there wasn't time to say a cursory welcome let alone socialize - not that she wanted to wish a good morning to anyone. Hers certainly hadn't started out well. She had found waking up extremely difficult, a lingering effect of Facsren's longer daily rotation. Only Cappie's insistent chirping had alerted her to the early morning comm - the one concerning her current appointment, which she just might make. Rounding the final turn, she exhaled in relief. This hall led to one lone apartment, and it was her destination.

Trotting the last couple of steps, Jaina drew her feet together before the door. She checked her wristchrono quickly - barely a minute to spare - then brushed a hand down to smooth her tunic. Her appearance really shouldn't have mattered for this visit, but subconsciously it did. Luke and Mara were her uncle and aunt - family was family - but they were also her superiors - and goals were goals. After the war, Jaina had identified a distinct set of priorities, the list she needed to accomplish before she settled down. Earning a seat on the Jedi Council was her loftiest ambition, and she needed to impress the Jedi Masters Skywalker if that was going to happen any time soon. Besides, once there she would be able to set her own priorities, stay in one place, and protect and raise her family from a real home.

Satisfied her appearance met specs, Jaina reached out and triggered the door chime. The door opened immediately, and a bundle of flailing legs and arms sprinted through the portal with a welcoming cry.

"Jaya!"

She would have made a move to greet her enthusiastic cousin except for the binding grip that engulfed her legs. "Hey, Bennie," she said while ruffling the mop of sandy-red hair nestled into her legs.

Ben tilted his face upward, never relenting on his hold. His blue eyes danced in impish delight, only to be followed by a grin deserving of a rogue. It was the fact that the grin stood out in such striking contrast to the dark smears all over his fair skin that caused Jaina's joy to turn to instant dismay.

"Ben Skywalker, what have you gotten into?!"

"Da motimouse got away!"

"It did? Did you catch it?" Apparently the wrong twin had stopped by for a visit. While Jacen would have relished scurrying around to find a wayward critter, the thought had no appeal to Jaina whatsoever.

"Uh-huh."

"Oh good," Jaina said with a little smile. No critter chasing today.

With one arm Ben partially released his crushing hold on Jaina and extended his hand upward. His fingers uncurled to reveal a quaking motimouse. "You wanna see? I found him in da -"

"Beh-en," Jaina moaned. She reached down in an attempt to wrest the remaining arm from around her legs. Managing to free herself, she groaned at her discovery. Sure enough, her pants were now as dirty as her cousin. "What...oh...blaster bolts! Where have you been?!"

"Ben Skywalker!" The bellow of Mara's voice caused both Jaina and Ben to jump. The boy ended with his back pressed to Jaina's legs. One hand clutched the material of her pants, the other squeezed the motimouse so hard it squeaked.

The sight of Mara marching into the front room with a bedraggled plant wilting in her grasp, trailing a path of dirt clumps behind her, made Ben draw back even further. Instinctively Jaina placed a reassuring palm on his shoulder. She had been on the receiving end of Mara's wrath enough times to sympathize.

"Ben Skywalker, what happened to my Drangorian roses?" Mara shook the uprooted plant to emphasize her question, and a few more clods of dirt fell to the floor.

"I...I..." Ben stammered.

"Well?"

"I lost Snuggles," the boy said quickly, holding out his hand to reveal the motimouse.

"And you found him in my garden," his mother finished with a frown. The unfortunate rose plant thumped unceremoniously at her feet.

"Uh-huh." Ben answered despite his mother's exacting glare, but a second later he spun to bury his face into Jaina's legs and began to cry.

Without giving thought to her actions Jaina scooped the blubbering child into her arms. She kissed the top of his head and smoothed away the hair in his eyes. Only then did she notice Mara's pose, complete with an uncompromising glare and fists propped on her hips. Looking into her aunt's green eyes, Jaina instantly recognized her mistake. She grinned sheepishly.

"Hey, Ben," Jaina whispered. "Maybe you should say you're sorry and give your mom a big hug." He shook his head defiantly. "Ah, come on. Your mom's a big softie...It always worked for me."

Ben wrinkled his brow. "It did?"

"Yep. Give it a try?"

He mulled it over for a couple of heartbeats. "Kay."

"Okay." Jaina set Ben back down, then sent him on his way. After a quick look down, she blew her bangs in dismay at the damage wrought to her once pristine tunic.

In the meantime the five-year-old toddled across the floor to his mother with the motimouse clasped to his chest. When he arrived, Ben lifted his pensive gaze and blinked away a tear. "Sorry, Mama."

Mara's hands left her hips, one going to her chest, the other wrapping her waist. It was heart-wrenching to watch a mother's love wrestle with the disciplinarian inside. In the end, Mara's rational self won out. "Don't do it again, young man."

"But Snuggles -"

"No." Mara held up a finger. "Next time ask for Mama's help before you go rooting around in the flowers."

Ben's head drooped in acceptance. "Kay."

Mara chucked her son on the cheek. "Go put away Snuggles and get cleaned up."

The boy nodded before shuffling from the room. He barely made it a few steps down the hall, though, when Luke's voice greeted his son. "Hey. kiddo. What happened to you? You're a mess!"

Ben's response was muffled.

"I bet she was," Luke's disembodied voice said. "Go do what you were told and hurry back. Breakfast is almost ready."

The pattering of feet disappeared into the apartment just as Jaina's uncle appeared from the hallway. Luke paused once he realized Jaina was standing in the room. "Hi, Jaina...Oh, wow. Looks like you're a mess, too."

"Serves her right," Mara muttered.

Jaina shot her aunt a perturbed upturned eyebrow, then turned back to her uncle. She held out her arms, partially in disgust, partially in embarrassment over the current state of her clothes. "I guess I am."

"You can borrow some clothes from Mara and change before we sit down for breakfast," Luke said.

"Breakfast? I thought you called me over to brief me on my next assignment?"

"I did. But we hardly get to spend any time together as a family these days, with you running all over the galaxy and our time tied up with one thing after another at the Council." Luke crossed to Mara and wrapped an arm around his wife. "We thought breakfast would be a good enough excuse to get you to hang around for more than the usual five minutes it takes you to absorb a mission briefing."

As if on cue the smell of a scrumptious feast reached her nose, and Jaina's stomach grumbled audibly. "Can't argue with my stomach, especially if the food is going to be as poor at my next destination as it was on Facsren."

Mara and Luke exchanged a knowing look.

"Where's the Council sending me? It can't be worse, can it? Please say it isn't."

"No, I don't think so." Luke released his wife and walked over to Jaina. "In fact, I think this assignment will agree with you...and your stomach."

Jaina crossed her arms and cocked her head. "So?"

Without a word, Luke reached out and guided Jaina around by the shoulders until she faced the hall. "Don't you want to change? We can discuss this all after breakfast."

Jaina dug in her feet and remained rooted in place.

Mara sighed. "Just tell her, farmboy. You know she won't budge until you do."

"Very well. The condensed version for now?" he suggested.

"Fine," Jaina agreed.

"I need a team of top pilots to bolster the military presence backing up some sensitive diplomatic talks between two systems in the Outer Rim."

At the word pilots Jaina's interest piqued. "Why Jedi? Why not simply send Rogues or the Aces?"

"It's never as simple as that," Mara said.

No, it never is, Jaina thought.

Luke tipped his head in agreement with his wife. "As you know, resources are still spread very thin, so the Galactic Alliance doesn't have a lot of available units, and shifting manpower causes ripple effects throughout the galaxy. But most importantly, in this case the political situation is a little sticky -"

"Sticky?" Time for the Jedi. We always make a good fall guy when things go sour. Better yet, Jaina Solo makes a great fall gal.

Luke paced across the room, his hands clasped behind his back. "One of the systems I question remained neutral during the war, and the other sided with the Galactic Alliance. The second system, for all intents and purposes, is in the wrong this time and -"

"And the bureaucratic stick-in-the-muds don't want to appear to side against our friends," Jaina finished.

Luke grinned. "Exactly."

At that moment a thought hit Jaina right between the eyes. "Hey, wait a minute. These systems wouldn't happen to be Vikova and Achebi, would they?"

Luke's grin grew even wider. "Your boyfriend has got you up to speed already."

Mara rubbed her hands together. "Great, then we can go eat."

Jaina pursed her lips. Things were happening much too fast for her liking. And it seemed that people in her life were conspiring against her. She didn't like it. Not one bit. Jaina ignored her aunt. "Not really, Uncle Luke...At least not in the telling-your-girlfriend-you-were-scheming-to-get-her-to-come-for-a-visit-any-way-you-can sort of way."

"Oh, this wasn't Jag's idea."

Jaina snorted. "Right. And I'm a Hutt."

"Honestly," Luke said with all seriousness, and Jaina detected no deception in her uncle's reply. "Jag and I did talk yesterday, but he only requested that I pursue options within the Council because the Alliance commanders' hands are tied. Actually, if you're going to accuse anyone of scheming, it should be your brother."

"My brother?!" Jaina blinked. "No wait. I believe you. Jag would never think a dozen hotshot pilots could make a difference to a couple of feuding systems."

Luke coughed. "...quite a dozen."

Jaina couldn't have heard him right. "What's that?"

Mara chuckled. "Oh, you heard him correctly, all right. Your uncle said, Not quite a dozen."

Jaina shot her uncle an incredulous stare. "How many?"

"Six," he said.

"Six!" Jaina decided her uncle had gone insane, or suddenly had reverted to the na?ve farmboy who had left Tatooine with her father over thirty years before.

Mara tiptoed over to where Jaina fumed and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "At least there's this...your uncle is going to let you handpick the Jedi team."

"Good," Jaina snapped. "Then my meddling brother's got himself a new assignment."

"Why don't we get you cleaned up and discuss the specifics on a full stomach?" Mara suggested.

Jaina shot her aunt the not-you-too look, but her former Master was unimpressed.

Mara merely tipped her head in the direction of the hall. "Come on. I'm getting hungry."

This time it was Jaina's turn to sigh. "All right. You win."

Mara's gaze shifted to Luke; their eyes conversed silently. Then she smiled warmly at Jaina. "It's not about winning, Jaina..." Her aunt stopped the lecture short. The corner of Jaina's mouth curled in appreciation, and the two women started to walk.

They strolled comfortably the short distance down the hall before turning into the master suite. Once there, the two women parted. Jaina paced uncomfortably around the open floor while Mara rifled through her closet. "What's the long face for, Jaina?"

"I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to say no."

Mara's head shot back out of the closet. "To your uncle?"

"No. To Jag." Mara's quizzical gaze prompted Jaina to elaborate. "He commed last night - after I got back - and asked me to go home to Csilla with him after this mission. And meet his parents."

Mara had disappeared into the closet at some point during the explanation. Jaina paused, expecting a response. She got none, only the sound of clothes rustling.

"Once I'm out there, it will be hard to explain why it's not a good time to go to the Unknown Regions."

Mara emerged suddenly with a familiar dark green tunic and matching pants Jaina had seen her aunt wear many times before. "These should serve your purpose."

"Thanks." Jaina stepped forward to accept the clothes, then continued on to the refresher. Although she preferred the privacy to change, she left the door open hoping her aunt might...

"So why wouldn't you want to go?"

Jaina paused halfway out of her stained pants. "Umm...because." She sidled the rest of the way free, and reached for the clean pair. "Because I don't have time to spare for a vacation. There are still important things left to be done. And because I don't want to give Jag the wrong impression." Jaina had finished fastening the pants and ripped off her tunic. "He might think I am ready for more before I truly am." She yanked the clean tunic over her head and stepped out of the refresher. "Besides, the timing is just all wrong."

Mara looked up from where she had propped a hip on the bed and taken up folding a basket of Ben's tiny clothes. "Seems like you've made up your mind, then."

Jaina furrowed her brow. "That's it?"

Mara rolled together a pair of socks and placed them in a neat pile on the bed. "That's it. There's not much more I can offer if you've already thought this through."

"But you think I'm wrong?" Jaina knew the answer to the question, but she asked it anyway.

Placing her fingertips together, Mara sat quietly for several slow breaths. Finally, she looked up. "No. I think I was wrong." Jaina started to ask about what when her aunt continued. "For years I charged through life - and ignored the greatest gift offered to me - simply to prove something to...myself. I had an agenda, a plan...a goal. Somewhere in the course of my life I decided that self-reliance was the only way to self-worth. I was so utterly wrong.

"I know, though, that when I was your age, no one could have told me otherwise. I was so certain that I was always right. There was always something important left to be done, another crisis to be averted. And I avoided your uncle because I didn't want to give him the wrong impression -"

"But your circumstances were so different." Jaina stepped across the room and settled on the bed to take Mara's hands in her own. "You were afraid to love and to be loved. It's not like that with me and Jag."

"It's not?"

"No. Jag knows how much he means to me. But I've got my plan. We talked about it on Zonama Sekot and agreed this was right, for both of us. Even back then he understood why I couldn't go to Csilla. At least not yet."

Mara tightened her grip on Jaina's fingers. "Of course. You and Jag are both intelligent, thoughtful people, who know what's best for your situation. I guess silly sentimental me just wants to see everyone married and happy like I am."

Both women laughed at the idea. When the giggling finally stopped, Mara donned her Jedi Master mask one last time. "Can I just ask you one question?"

"Of course. Anything."

"How does it make you feel to know your parents approve of and respect Jag?"

"Happy." The answer was out before Jaina could even think about it. Finally Mara had made her point, and Jaina saw where she had gone all wrong. "It makes me really, really happy."

Jag deserved no less.

CHAPTER SEVEN


Jag hopped down to the floor and returned the hydrospanner to its place in the utility case. He took two long strides backward and appraised his clawcraft, then the others from his squadron docked in the Polar Wind's hangar. His starfighter was in optimal condition, and he knew his Chiss wingmates had readied theirs to similar levels of perfection. If the Achebians initiated hostilities, they were going to regret it.

A light, airy laugh from behind him broke his contemplations.

"An ambassador who performs maintenance of his own starfighter," a feminine voice said. "I would have thought you had more important ways to spend your time."

That voice...Jag swallowed hard, then turned around to face Iliana. "Time is worth little if I am shot out of the sky."

"A fair point. Although if even half the reports of your skill are true, you are a difficult kill indeed."

"I can assure you the reports are all true."

Iliana smiled and began to stride gracefully forward. "The reports of your deficient sense of humor, however, seem to be inaccurate."

Jag felt the sweat beading on his neck at the sight of her heading straight at him. "Perhaps, Your Grace, you should rely less on reports, and more on your own observations."

"Appearances can be as deceiving as reports, Ambassador Fel."

His thoughts scattered to the stars as Jag's gaze followed her luscious form - and inexplicably she went right past him and swayed up to his fighter.

"For example, these clawcraft of yours," Iliana said, languidly stroking her hand along its wing. "At first glance one would think them no less deadly than the old TIEs the Empire built and used up like so many child's toys. Yet, Ambassador, my reports" - she glanced back over her shoulder to grin in bemusement at him - "clearly indicate otherwise."

Jag swallowed hard, and tried to calm himself. She was here to see his fighters, and nothing more. Words tumbled from his mouth of their own accord - again. "It seems I am not the only one with an under-appreciated sense of humor. And please, call me Jag."

"As you wish." She tipped her head graciously. "Then I must insist you drop the honorifics as well."

"Very well." He scrambled to remember what they were talking about. Oh, right! "It is true that the clawcraft are far superior to the older fighters they resemble. Your reports are reliable this time...Iliana."

The briefest of grins flashed across her face. "So...Jag...Tell me, what is it about these clawcraft that gives them such impressive capabilities in combat?"

He walked around his fighter and began to describe the notable features of the Chiss clawcraft as he pointed them out to her and she followed him. Strong shields. Heavier weaponry, and linked firing. Improved sensor packages. And most importantly, unmatched maneuverability.

"I can see why the clawcraft are so feared," she said when he finished. She turned away from the starfighter to gaze out across the hangar toward the array of stars beyond the open bay doors. She paused, and when she spoke again there was a distinct hint of wistfulness in her words. "The Chiss must be very proud of their engineering designs. I do not believe our planet could produce a fighter so sophisticated."

"Their pride is well deserved," he replied. "But technological sophistication can only accomplish so much. The most advanced fighters are easy targets when flown by inferior pilots."

She chuckled. "Which is not a problem in your squadron."

"No," he said, allowing a flicker of a grin to cross his face. "It is not."

"I look forward to seeing them in action." Her shoulders slumped. "If the Achebians choose violence, of course."

"Of course," Jag said. "Although unfortunately that seems increasingly likely."

"I agree." Iliana sighed deeply, still facing the stars. "They believe I am weak. That is why they threaten my planet."

"They think you are weak?"

"They do." Her long blonde hair whispered along her back as she shook her head slowly. "I am a new leader, and there are many on my planet who still oppose me. I am young, and therefore inexperienced. And I am a woman."

"If those are their reasons, then they are fools."

"Perhaps. Or perhaps they are right about me."

"I do not think so."

"We shall see," Iliana said, turning to face him again as she stepped away from the fighter. "Until I lead Vikova through this crisis, the Achebians have no reason to respect me, much less fear me. It is easy enough to take power, Jag. It is far more difficult to keep it."

He chuckled. "Spoken like a Chiss."

She nodded, seemingly lost in thought. As she passed Jag the back of her hand brushed against his, but she did not react in the least when she stopped at his side and met his gaze. Maybe she hadn't even noticed...

After only a few heartbeats the heavy silence had become utterly intolerable. Jag said the first thing that came to mind. "Did you need something?"

Iliana arched an eyebrow. "Yes."

He held his breath and waited.

She took a step closer to him. "Your perceptiveness serves you well."

Her proximity made his legs feel as if the ship's gravity had tripled.

"Will you join me for dinner tonight? Planetside, at my palace."

Yes! No! Wait! What's going on? Thankfully Jag's instincts didn't let him down. "I am not certain all of my diplomatic staff can be assembled -"

"No, Jag," she said. "Not an official function with staff. Just dinner. The two of us."

"Ah."

Iliana appraised him, but said nothing.

"I'm afraid I must decline."

"Why?"

Unfortunately Jag's brain hadn't thought up anything better in the meantime. "It would not be appropriate in light of my role as mediator in this -"

"You are no longer a mediator," she interrupted. "You already have taken sides, and planned the defense of my planet against attack."

She's got you there. "There is much planning left to be done."

Iliana laughed. "You are a very bad liar, Jag."

He took a deep breath and sighed, and chose the truth. "I do not wish to mislead you."

"In what way?"

"About my intentions."

"You are an honorable man, Jag. I do not question your intentions."

He sighed again. "My heart belongs to someone else. I feel that by joining you for this dinner, I would be misleading you into believing otherwise."

"I see." She looked away. "It seems I may have overstepped my bounds. Please accept my apology for any offense I have inadvertently given."

"There is nothing to apologize for, Iliana," he insisted. "And no offense was taken."

She nodded appreciatively. "Nevertheless, I am sorry. I was not aware that you were married."

"Oh, I'm not," Jag blurted out.

Her gaze fixed to his in an instant. "Then you must be betrothed?"

He hesitated.

She took another step closer to him, and suddenly her blue eyes had...darkened somehow. "Either you are betrothed or you are not."

"I am not."

"Then what is the nature of your commitment?"

That, Jag realized suddenly, was a very good question. "My heart belongs to her, and hers to me."

"But you are not betrothed?"

"No."

"You are loyal to one another? Committed exclusively?"

"Yes."

"And you are certain she feels the same as you?"

"Yes," he lied.

Iliana chuckled in amusement. "Surely you do not mean your dalliance with Jaina Solo?"

"Of cour - yes," he said. "I love her."

"I would have thought, Jag," she replied, frowning, "that if you were going to decline my invitation, someone of your intelligence and strategic cunning could at least invent a more plausible excuse than this."

"What?"

"Do not take me for a fool. We have seen it all on the Holonet." All at once Iliana seemed to tower over him. "The Chiss prince and the Alliance princess. Such excellent publicity. Such great symbols of newfound ties."

"It's not -"

"Honor and duty, Jag. The Chiss are your people as surely as the Vikovans are mine. Your commitment to them is complete."

"Yes, but -"

"You would do anything to further their interests." Her stare seemed to bore straight into his soul. "Including -"

Before she could say more the loud beeping of Jag's comlink intruded.

"Fel here."

"The Jedi task force has arrived in the system, Ambassador," a male Chiss voice reported. "They will be docking in the main hangar bay in five minutes."

"What Jedi task force?"

The next voice from the comlink was Shawnkyr's. "Six Jedi aces have been sent to assist us."

He couldn't have forgotten that, could he? Had he lost his faculties completely? Fortunately his second had everything well under control as always, and didn't even wait for him to reply.

"The decision was made yesterday, but Luke's transmissions only arrived an hour ago," Shawnkyr explained. "A problem with the relays, apparently. In any case, you had said you needed some time to think over what we had discussed while you ran the diagnostics, so I thought it best not to disturb you until now."

Jag hissed out a quick breath. "All right. I understand. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Shawnkyr said. "I expect as commanding officer you would like to greet the task force when they arrive in the docking bay."

"Right. Of course."

Shawnkyr clicked off the feed, and Jag clipped the device to his belt again. He turned back to Iliana.

"Duty calls," she said. "Go."

Jag replied with a tip of his head. After Iliana tipped her head in return, he spun on his heel and headed off across the docking bay toward the corridors to the main hangar. Only one issue dominated his thoughts. Shawnkyr had been right about Iliana's intentions. He took a deep breath and quickened his pace. What else was Shawnkyr right about?

CHAPTER EIGHT


Jaina finished the final powerdown sequences and tugged off her gloves. She rolled her head from side to side to work out the tightness in her neck while she waited for the cockpit canopy of her X-wing to rise. Then she stretched her arms in front of her before hopping over the edge of her starfighter and dropping smoothly to the ground without waiting for a boarding ladder.

She hardly had adjusted to the feel of solid floor beneath her feet when a familiar voice called out to her from across the Chiss battlecruiser's main hangar.

"Jaina!"

She turned, and smiled. "Jag!"

He jogged up, then stopped right in front of her, hesitantly. "You came."

She pulled him into a fierce embrace. "As ordered."

"Ordered?"

"Uncle Luke claims he's not conspiring with you, but I'm not sure I believe him."

"He is telling the truth." Jag ran his hands up and down her back. "Besides, I would never have told him to put you in charge of the task force. I would want a commander who remembers to call ahead to be sure she is included in the battle plans."

"Oh. Yeah." Jaina smiled in chagrin as she let him go. "I suppose I should have commed to tell you we were on our way, huh?"

"It's all right. I am just happy that you're here."

"Me too."

Jag's green eyes darted past her for only a second. "So I have to ask. How did Jacen possibly convince your aunt to let him fly the Jade Shadow all the way out here?"

"Makes you wonder if she's feeling well, doesn't it?" They both laughed. "Actually, the hyperdrive in Jacen's X-wing has been acting up. Mara knows how much it helps to fly your own fighter in combat, so she said he could bring his X-wing in the Shadow's hold. She and Luke are stuck on Mon Cal for Council business for the next few days so it'll be fine."

"As long as he brings her ship back without so much as a scratch."

"Exactly. On pain of death." Jaina smiled. "Look, I've been thinking about what you -"

"Lieutenant Colonel Solo?" From behind her a male voice cut her off.

Jaina spun around, and laughed. "We're a Jedi task force, Garrett. Not a military squadron."

The tall young man nodded an apology, and ran his fingers through his short black hair. His green eyes appraised Jag for just a moment, then met her gaze again. "Right. Anyway, the rest of us are heading to the mess. Valin is insisting we hold you to your word of immediate food."

"Sounds good," Jaina said. "I'll meet you there in a few."

"Got it, boss," Garrett said. He saluted crisply, spun on his heel with an overdramatic flourish, and jogged off to rejoin the other Jedi across the hangar.

The promise of getting to eat right away when they arrived had been the bribe Jaina had used to get her team to leave a few hours sooner. She looked over to see Jacen, Tyria, Alema Rar, and most of all Valin Horn making desperate plate-to-mouth motions with their hands. Jaina shook her head and laughed, and threw them a quick approving wave. When she turned back to Jag, his face was an unreadable mask.

"That's Garrett Trace," she told him, answering the unasked question.

"From Anaxes? The one who single-handedly destroyed the worldship at Osarian?"

"That's him."

"I didn't know he was a Jedi."

Jaina shrugged. "Neither did he. No one did. Only after the war was over did Uncle Luke get a chance to test him."

"That is understandable."

"He's only been in training a few months. He's got a lot to learn about using the Force to aid him more effectively when he's flying. But he's a natural pilot with it anyway, raw talent-wise."

"I see."

She furrowed her brow. "Is something the matter?"

"No."

Jaina wasn't sure she believed him, but there was no use in pressing the point. "So, has the balance of forces in the system changed since that status report we got before we went into hyperspace?"

Jag blinked. "No. No, it has not."

"That's good," she said. Her stomach rumbled, and she realized she was hungrier than she'd thought. "I've really got to get something to eat, and they're expecting me. Why don't you join us?"

"I wish I could," he replied. "But I'm afraid I have too much to do right now. Our battle strategies have to be adjusted to include your task force. And since I did not know you were coming, I also do not have a briefing ready for your team. I should prepare that right away."

She laughed. "Yeah, that'd be good. Thanks."

"Of course."

"Can you at least walk me to the mess?"

"I would love to."

She headed toward the doors on the rear wall of the docking bay, and he followed her. "I think we stand a pretty good chance of holding off the Achebians if they attack, don't you?"

"I think so, yes."

"We're still outnumbered pretty badly, but with your squadron and my team I think we actually hold the advantage."

Jag chuckled. "I am not sure I would go quite that far."

Jaina laughed, and slugged him in the shoulder. "Don't be modest. Your squadron alone makes a huge difference."

"I suppose it does."

"And now you've got me here to back you up."

He glanced down at her, and one corner of his mouth had curled up just a bit. "What makes you think I will leave anything for you to clean up after?"

She grinned at him. "You do a good job of hiding it sometimes, Jag, but it really is Corellian blood pumping in your veins."

He nodded once. "Guilty as charged."

"Do you think they're going to attack?"

"Unfortunately, yes." He blew out a sigh. "The Vikovans have made several reasonable settlement offers, but the Achebians refuse to agree to any terms. Even when the Vikovans made concessions greater than I would have in their place."

"So it really does look like war."

"Yes."

Almost reflexively Jaina reached down for the lightsaber hanging from her belt and the blaster pistol on her hip. "Well, I guess we'll just have to make sure they regret that choice."

"Yes. I am certain we will see to that together."

She looked up at him. "Together, huh?"

"Yes." He paused, but didn't say anything more.

"Well, we're here," she said, stopping in the corridor just outside the open portal to the mess. "I have time to enjoy my food before you're ready to brief us, right?"

"Yes. It will take me at least that long."

"You know..." She grinned mischievously. "I could eat fast, if you want."

"Why?"

"To leave time for a pre-briefing debriefing in the conference room. I might even lock the door this time."

He blinked again. "Jaina, I..."

"I'll leave it up to you," she said, shaking her head and chuckling. "If you change your mind, you know where to find me."

"All right."

"Good. Go get to work, and write me a really amazing briefing." She reached out and squeezed his hand quickly. "I'll see you then?"

He nodded silently.

"Jag?"

He met her gaze. "I will see you then."

"Great!"

Jag nodded again, slowly, and turned on his heel to walk back down the corridor.

Jaina took a slow, happy deep breath as she watched him stride quickly away - four years later he still looked awfully good from all angles. Then she turned around to head into the mess. Just as she reached the open portal, though, a figure that seemed to appear from nowhere stepped into her path.

The tall blonde woman extended her hand graciously. "You must be Jaina Solo."

"Yes, I am," Jaina replied.

"I am Iliana," the striking beauty said, smiling down at her knowingly. "Your wingmates told me I might find you here."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace."

"The pleasure is all mine. I must extend my deepest thanks to you and your task force for coming to the defense of my planet."

Jaina tipped her head. Another politician with a pretty face, fancy words, and an empty head. Once you'd met one you'd met them all - and sometimes Jaina wondered if it was her destiny to actually have to meet them all. She sure hoped not. "We are proud to serve."

Iliana tipped her head in return. "I am certain the Jedi presence here will turn the tide in our favor. My people will owe your Masters a debt of gratitude."

"That won't be necessary. We are Jedi. Preventing unjustified aggression is one of our primary responsibilities in the galaxy."

"Very well. I am confident you will carry out your duties admirably."

"We'll do our best." Jaina took a quick breath to prevent her stomach from growling audibly in the Vikovan leader's presence. One diplomatic incident this week was enough. "I'm sure that along with your forces and the Chiss squadron, we'll be more than strong enough to succeed."

"We can hope," Iliana said. "Ambassador Fel's unit is most impressive."

"Yes, it is."

"You must be pleased to have an ally of his caliber."

"I am." Jaina smiled. "There's no one else I'd rather have up there with me in a furball than Jag."

Iliana smiled back. "That is...understandable."

Before Jaina could figure out why something just didn't feel right all of a sudden, a young Vikovan officer rushed through the open portal. He snapped to attention at Iliana's side and saluted her. "Urgent bulletin, Your Grace."

Immediately Iliana's eyes grew sharp, decisive. "Yes, Lieutenant?"

"The Achebians have fired on one of our patrols in the neutral zone."

"Acknowledged, Lieutenant. Order an immediate red alert," Iliana said. The vacuous regal elegance in her voice was gone, replaced by unnervingly icy confidence. "Convene the emergency response briefing at once."

"As ordered, Your Grace." The young man saluted again, and hurried away.

Iliana looked back at Jaina. "If you came here to fight a war, Jaina Solo, it seems you have flown into one."

CHAPTER NINE


"You wan' that?"

"Yes. Get more if you're that hungry. This is for Jaina." Jacen slapped Valin's hand away from a heaping plate without missing a beat in his own ravenous consumption of food. If the Chiss did one thing right, apparently it was cook.

The Horn teenager snorted as he stood, then stomped across the mess. Jacen watched the young man go. Young man? Who was he kidding? Valin had inherited his father's short stature, and looked like a Jedi learner not a Jedi ace. Still, Jacen trusted Jaina's judgment. If she said Valin was the best, the kid was the best.

"That boy's going to be trouble," Alema hissed. "You mark my words."

"Jaina sees something in Valin. He just lacks life experience," Jacen countered.

Tyria shuffled in her seat. "He's barely older than my son."

"I've heard rumors in the ready rooms that Valin rivaled his father in combat kills by the end the Vong incursion," Garrett said.

Jacen shot a glance at the green-eyed Jedi. "Being a Jedi is not about destroying. It's about protecting and defending -"

Alema's lekku smacked Jacen on the back of the head. "Space it, Solo. You know flying is all about the numbers. You're good - or you're dead."

Jacen opened his mouth to defend his position, then snapped it shut without saying anything to the four ace pilots staring him down. True, flying was in Jacen's blood. There was no denying its call. The dilemma came in acknowledging that to become catalogued as a good or even great pilot, one had to log stats and numbers - some of which tallied those who had met their demise at the end of a fighter's sights. For not the first time in his life, Jacen was at a loss for words, mostly because he honestly hadn't found the answers himself.

But then he was saved by the whistle.

Jaina's ear-piercing, overly shrill summons harkened back to the days when their father expected the twins to react - quickly. That whistle, which Jaina now did so well, activated years of ingrained childhood discipline - when Han Solo resorted to the signal, he meant business. So Jacen instinctively jumped from his seat ready to go.

His sister waved them over from the entrance to the mess. "Time to fly. Let's go."

The reaction of the Jedi aces was instantaneous and brisk. Chairs hopped. Drinks were slammed back. Trays were gathered. All signs of the pilots' meal were discarded or disposed of in a matter of seconds. Jacen, not accustomed to the rapid response required of fighter squadrons, followed suit a few seconds later. He did, however, take the time to grab the shuura fruit from Jaina's untouched tray before he dropped it in the recycler. By the time Jacen trotted over to join the others, Jaina made the displeasure he already sensed from her known.

"Any day, Jace."

He had reached her by then, and chose wisely to avoid her scowl. She was perturbed, all right, but not necessarily at him. He was just a target of opportunity. Quickly, Jacen extended the shuura fruit as a peace offering. "I saved this for you."

"Not hungry." Swishing it away with a flick of her fingers, Jaina started off down the corridor.

Despite his longer legs, Jacen had to hustle to keep up with Jaina's all-business march, and the other four Jedi fell into step behind the twins. Jacen knew his sister well enough to give her some space, but the group's youngest member stuck his head forward. Valin was going to learn that lesson the hard way.

"Time to show these 'chebians exactly why they shouldn't mess with the Jedi?"

Jaina rounded on Valin, her nostrils flaring. "Horn! Wrong attitude. Keep it up and I might have to show you why it's not smart to mess with this Jedi."

The others had jumped back. Valin, left to fend for himself, found his cocky bravado melting like a sliver of ice on Tatooine's sand. "I didn't think...I mean -"

"No, you didn't. This is war, Valin. Not a joke." Jaina was gone before the others realized it.

Being Jaina's twin, Jacen had tracked her intention with ease and managed to stay at her side. He hedged initially at breaking her somber contemplation, and silently matched her pace along the corridors. The other four trailed a respectful - or was it safe? - distance behind. Out of the corner of his eye, Jacen saw what all the Jedi felt. The thin determined set of her mouth was the only overt sign of the roiling sentiment churning underneath Jaina's steely demeanor. And the odd thing was it had nothing to do with the impending battle. Jacen was certain of that.

"Where're we going, Jay?" he finally asked.

"The main briefing room."

"Oh. Right. You'd know where that is on this ship, just like the engine - Yeow!"

The sharp impact of a Force slap ended his taunt, and answered the underlying question he'd never have the courage ask. Simply the thought of Jag had caused Jaina's turbulent emotions to focus and spike suddenly.

He spent a moment pondering exactly what had happened earlier between his sister and Jag to set her feelings afloat on a Kaminoan sea, and came up with a blank. Cautiously Jacen placed a hand on Jaina's sleeve. She stopped suddenly and snapped her brown eyes his way. She dared him to ask; Jacen, as always, was a yellow-bellied junglethrush.

Her gaze darted past him, and he heard the swish of an opening door. "We're here," she said, and stormed past.

Jacen shook his head. Things sure weren't off to a promising start. He sighed in resignation, then followed his sister into the Polar Wind's briefing room. Just inside the door, though, he paused, and gaped. Briefing theater. That was definitely a better word for it. The large semi-circular room swooped down from where he stood, with rows of seats facing toward one of the most impressive battle assessment holoimagers Jacen had ever seen. Red and blue threat and asset projections orbited Vikova's likeness in the center.

A low whistle from behind expressed the awe Jacen felt. He glanced over his shoulder at the line of Jedi forming just inside the door.

"You can say that again," Alema said.

Garrett started to inhale for another whistle - until Tyria ribbed him with an elbow. "Act impressed, flyboy, just not too impressed." The former Antarian Ranger threw back her shoulders and proceeded to glide down the stairs.

Alema shoved past Jacen to join Tyria. Garrett and Valin quickly followed, bounding down into the ever-growing gathering of Chiss intermingled with an assortment of Alliance pilots and soldiers. Jacen watched them go, his eyes ending front and center. His sister stood next to an Alliance commander, her arms crossed uncomfortably while she forced a stare at the situational assessment's constantly changing lights. Jaina appeared to be immersed in an intense conversation.

Jacen bypassed the row where the Jedi aces had marked their territory and went to his sister. A closer review of the two opposing fleets showed little of note, certainly not to cause the grim lines around her mouth, but then again Jacen had little on his twin as far as battle tactics.

When the Alliance officer, a squat Kuati man, finished describing the current malfunctions of his aft batteries, Jaina nodded just enough to give the impression she cared, then turned to her brother. "Jacen, I'd like to introduce you to Commander Hypho Shesh."

At the mention of the officer's last name, Jacen's eyes darted back to the man, who rubbed his palm on his pants before offering it to Jacen. He took the clammy hand into his own. "Nice to meet you, Commander."

"Yes. Yes." Hypho shook Jacen's hand vigorously. "Always a pleasure to meet the famed Solo twins. I was quite excited to learn you and your sister would be -"

"Commander, I think the briefing is about to start."

"Oh. Yes. Of course," Shesh said with a nod. "I need to share our latest readiness analysis with Colonel...uh...Ambassador Fel."

Jacen watched the commander scurry off and head for a cluster of Chiss. Jag was among them, and looked up when the Alliance officer inserted himself into the huddle. His green-eyed gaze crossed the room, stopping at Jaina. Jacen thought he saw the corner of Jag's mouth curl slightly. Almost as quickly Jag's face turned to ice, save a polite nod in greeting directed Jacen's way.

Jacen would have tipped his head in turn, but he was caught...captivated...mesmerized...by her.

A tall, luscious golden-haired, blue-eyed woman drifted into the room. Her face was indefinable - Jacen knew he had never known such beauty. She had a quality that drew him in like an unbreakable spell.

"Who's that?"

Jaina shifted her stance. "Who?"

"Her," he said with a mental nudge in the beautiful woman's direction. Jacen couldn't be bothered to look away to address his sister directly, at least until he felt the dangerous flare in her emotions. By the time he glanced over, it was all but gone.

Reflecting the holoimager's light, Jaina's eyes shimmered as she faced Jacen. "That is Iliana."

"Iliana?" The name danced on Jacen's tongue, and he had to turn back to put the name with the face.

"That's what I said...She's the Vikovan something-or-other."

Jacen watched Iliana finished her stroll past the group of high-ranking Chiss and Alliance officers finishing the last details of the battle plan. She parted the group merely with her presence, and ended standing between Jag and Commander Shesh.

"Really? Their leader, huh? I thought maybe she was a holostar or holomodel. She's too beautiful -"

"Oh stars, Jace," Jaina huffed. "Spare me."

Across the room Jag appeared distracted, his gaze darting between Jaina and the conversation Iliana was clearly trying to have with him. With a simple glance from Jag, Jacen realized they were being summoned. Jaina marched his way like a podracer off the starting line, but Jag wasn't going to wait. The two met on the far side of the immense holoimager, where a long table wrapped around to provide all parties a good view of the display while still allowing the audience access to the participants.

"We should start," Jag said to Jaina.

"Of course. Problems?" Jaina asked, all the while watching Iliana approach.

"Not really." Jag reached out and squeezed Jaina's hand quickly. "Or better said, nothing we're not used to by now. This will be a working briefing."

Jaina withdrew her hand. "Working out the kinks on the fly. Always fine by me."

Iliana had sidled up next to Jag, then laid a couple fingers on his sleeve. "Do your Jedi compatriots need more time to be fully apprised of the situation, Jag?"

"We're more than ready," Jaina snapped.

Iliana graced Jaina with a pleasant smile. "Then we should begin...but first -" Iliana's gaze drifted to Jacen "- I must be introduced properly."

Jag stiffened, drawing his legs together so he distanced himself slightly from Iliana, and her hand fell away. "Your Grace, I would like you to meet Jedi Knight Jaina -"

"Oh, I have already met your paramour, Jag. It is her handsome Jedi escort who interests me." Iliana offered her hand to Jacen, palm down, fingers curled and parted daintily.

"Your Grace, meet my brother Jedi Knight Jacen Solo. Jacen, Iliana of Vikova." Jaina concluded the introductions with all the delicacy of a raging Wookiee in an Alderaanian china-dealer's shop.

Despite the blush burning in his face, Jacen managed to take Iliana's hand and hold it for a gentle shake without further incident.

"Jacen Solo, of course," Iliana said with a knowing grin, refusing to release his hand.

Jag cleared his throat. "It's time."

"Yes," Iliana agreed, then tucked Jacen's arm into her own. "Shall we?"

Jacen had no choice but to escort the world leader to her chair. He sensed she wanted the head of the table - only fitting for a woman in her position. Quickly he helped Iliana into her seat, then moved to join the others in the briefing seats. A hand on Jacen's shoulder practically shoved him into the chair next to the beautiful leader.

"Please. Stay," Jag ordered.

Complying, Jacen plopped into the seat. Jag sat next to him with Shawnkyr on his other side. Further down the table Jaina was seated next to a Chiss Jacen vaguely recalled as being part of the joint Chiss-Twin Suns missions at the end of the war. With all parties of import seated, the constant din in the briefing theater started to die.

As the last murmurs quieted, Jag and Shawnkyr exchanged a short dialogue while staring grimly at the battle assessment holo. The Achebian fleet seemed to be growing in size every minute, and Jacen shook his head in dismay. This was going to be one heck of a furball.

Once the room was silent, however, Jag wasted no time in beginning. "As you well know, the Achebians have fired on one of the Vikovan patrols in the neutral zone. Based on movements at the fringe of the system, we believe a naval attack, followed by a ground invasion, is imminent. Commander Shesh has brought to light some deficiencies in the Alliance frigate Imminent Reward that will require us to reconsider some of our fleet tactics. Currently our biggest asset is our combination of fighters, and I intend to capitalize upon that."

An excited buzz from the pilots gave Jag reason to pause. His business-like stare brought an abrupt end to the interruption.

"The Polar Wind carries one complete clawcraft squadron while the Imminent Reward boasts one partial squadron of older Y-wings. Add to that the Jedi aces and we still find ourselves numerically at a disadvantage against the six complete Achebian squadrons our intel suggests."

Shawnkyr keyed a remote in her hand and the battle assessment image of Vikova morphed to a recreation of an Achebian-designed fighter. The Chiss continued, "The Zanxes SpaceFlight Corporation's Hawkbat fighter is a post-Republic era model. It equals the Y-wings in speed and maneuverability, but lacks strong shielding. A well-placed series of hits here -" the area above the fighter's engine compartment glowed red for a moment, then dimmed in time for the image to flip and highlight an equivalent weakness on the fighter's belly "- or here will remove the Hawkbat efficiently from the fight."

Jacen took note quickly before the holo reverted to the grander scale likeness of Vikova. The red indicators showed a line of Achebian vessels moving closer. Instinctively he looked to Iliana. The Vikovan leader wasn't watching the imminent threat to her homeworld, though. Instead her intent stare was honed straight across table. Jacen followed it to its conclusion - Iliana was studying his sister.

Jaina, who had been conferring with the Chiss beside her, looked up at that moment. "If I may offer a suggestion, Jag?"

Jag tipped his head.

"Jocell just proposed something along the lines of our old Twin Suns days on the Selonia -"

"Jedi, clawcraft, clawcraft," Jag finished, then flashed an uncustomary grin. "Just like the good old days. I like it."

Jaina held up her hands, palms first. "Again, Jocell gets all the credit. But I think we could use the Jedi battle meld to benefit a larger cross-section of the fighter force, rendering us more effective."

"What about us?" the leader of the Y-wings asked from the audience.

Jag fielded the question with hardly a pause. "You'll stay back and protect the fleet. Some of the Hawkbats will undoubtedly get through." Finished with the Alliance pilot, Jag turned his attention back to Jaina. "We'll need to make some quick adjustments to the clawcraft so they can communicate with your Jedi fighters on localized frequencies, but the six different bands should give the Achebians reason for concern. They won't know where to listen, or what we are going to do next."

Jag looked to his aide. "Shawnkyr, you should supervise the modifications."

"As ordered, sir. How do you want me to break the shielding trios?"

Jag pulled out a small handheld datapad and scanned its screen. Jacen assumed he was making quick study of each pilot's weaknesses and strengths. "Flight One - Jaina, myself, Hop'tu. Flight Two -"

"Certainly, Jedi Knight Solo does not require the protection of the Chiss ambassador -"

"That is not my intention, Your Grace. Jaina is more than capable. During the war, my time spent flying Jaina's wing taught me that she is hard to keep up with -"

"I am sure she is," Iliana said right over the top of Jag.

"I am just trying to put the pilots most able to stick on her wing in her flight."

Iliana eyed Jag. "My understanding is that your Chiss pilots are all exceptional. Perhaps your talents would be wiser spent elsewhere."

This turn in the conversation was most unusual. In fact, Jacen sensed some underlying tension. So he searched his sister's emotions and face for any clue as to exactly what he was missing. Jaina simply smiled, an overly sweet smile.

"Of course, you know best, Your Grace. Jag, fly with Valin. He could use your experience." Jaina cast a glance out into the seats. "Or your sense of discipline. Either way, I'll know he's in good hands. And I'll take Jocell with me."

Iliana turned back to Jag and smiled victoriously. "Excellent. Now that we all know where we stand, let us continue planning this engagement."

Only then did Jacen realize a gauntlet had been thrown. Looking to Jaina, who glowered unabashedly from the other end of the table, he knew this was true without a doubt. They were flying into battle in no time short, but the first salvo had already been fired.

CHAPTER TEN


Jag hurried through the narrow corridor of the Polar Wind. The first wave of warships in the Achebian invasion fleet had crossed into the neutral zone minutes ago, which meant Vikova's defenders had only minutes left before the battle would begin. There was no time to waste. They had to launch the fighters now.

Shawnkyr ran up to him from the opposite direction, then swung around on her heel to match his pace as they headed toward the battlecruiser's main hangar bay. "The modifications are completed," she told him. "Communication between the clawcraft and X-wings is optimal."

"Well done," Jag said. "And just in time."

"Yes. And I suppose I should mention that I have already ordered the pilots to their fighters."

"One step ahead of me as usual. I don't know what I would do without you, Shawnkyr."

"You would fail miserably." Shawnkyr met his gaze. Her face was serious as always, but there was a twinkle in her red eyes. "Sir."

Jag chuckled. "You're probably right, my friend. You're probably right."

They burst through an open portal into the main hangar bay. The cavernous room was a hive of frenetic activity, with Chiss pilots and support crew scurrying in all directions to prepare the bay to serve as a facility for refueling and repairs on the fly, even in the thick of the fighting. The six Jedi X-wings were readying for takeoff, along with the Vikovan delegation's shuttle.

Jag's eyes sought out the distinctive colors of Jaina's X-wing, and he located his target in an instant - but Jaina was nowhere to be found. They had a lot to talk about, but now was not the time. No, not now. As good as they both were as pilots...Well, this was still a battle. And in battle, nothing was ever certain. Nothing.

Jag needed to tell Jaina that he loved her, and that the Force was with her. Just in case.

He didn't get more than a few more long strides toward the Jedi fighters when a musical voice called out to him.

"Ambassador Fel!"

He stopped and turned. Surrounded by her intimidating - if not downright menacing - guards with their quite visible repeating blasters, Iliana was standing at the base of her heavily armored shuttle. Jag motioned Shawnkyr ahead to perform the status checks in the hanger, then walked toward Iliana. "Your Grace?"

She waved the guards apart and strode to meet him. She stopped a step closer than he had expected. "I believe the Chiss have a saying - Clear skies."

He tipped his head. "Thank you, Iliana."

"I am confident you will lead us to victory."

"I will do my best."

Iliana reached out to take his hands in hers. Then she leaned in and kissed him, lightly and briefly, once on each cheek. "Fly well, Jag. Be safe."

"I will," he said sincerely. "I promise."

Iliana squeezed his hands, then released her hold and stepped back. "If you'll excuse me," she said with a teasing grin, "I had best make my exit before the unpleasantness begins."

Jag grinned back. "I understand."

He watched Iliana glide back to the boarding ramp until the swirls of her white gown vanished inside the shuttle. Shawnkyr no doubt would have completed the status checks by now, so all he had to do was find her and -

Abruptly Jag felt a spike of cold in his back, as though a frozen vibroblade had been impaled right through him. Instinctively he spun around -

To find Jaina's brown eyes fixed on him from across the hangar. Her stare was so icy the chill now ran all the way up and down his spine. Before he could react, before he could figure out what to do or say, Jaina narrowed her eyes, shook her head in disgust, and sprang up into the cockpit of her X-wing in a single Force-powered leap.

"All clear in here," Shawnkyr called from behind him, "and the clawcraft are ready to launch. We have to go. Now."

"All right," Jag replied. A final glance toward Jaina showed her cockpit canopy already closed, and her attention solidly directed on takeoff procedures. There was nothing more he could do. Maybe once they were up there...

"All right," he said again. "Let's go."

Together they ran to the clawcraft's docking bay, and arrived there just as the other ten pilots in the Chiss squadron charged across the wide floor and clambered into their waiting starfighters. Jag and Shawnkyr barely had made it to their own ships when the others began to lift off and head toward the open bay doors into space.

Jag bounded into his cockpit and sealed the hatch behind him. He snapped on the restraints with one hand and flicked switches and adjusted controls with the other. The next second he was feathering the repulsors and lifting off, then firing the engines to propel him out to join the others. He emerged from the bright docking bay into the stark blackness of space, and swung his fighter around the Polar Wind's hull to the point off its bow where the dozen clawcraft and six X-wings were forming up into their shielding trios.

The latest data scrolled past on Jag's cockpit viewport. "Vanguard Squadron, set course for mark one-nine-zero," he ordered into his helmet's comlink. "Enemy fighters moving in fast."

His seventeen pilots double-clicked their confirmations, and the six trios of one X-wing and two clawcraft sped away from the Polar Wind.

Jag clicked over to a private channel. "Jaina?"

"What?"

"Look, I need to -"

"Not now, Jag," she hissed. "I don't need the distraction."

"But it's not -"

"Not now."

Jag sighed. "All right. May the Force be with you."

Jaina's only reply was a click closing the private channel.

Jag switched back to the squadron feed and took a deep breath. He didn't like the way this was starting out. Not one bit.

After a moment the voice of Garrett Trace snapped Jag's focus back to the battle at hand. "How's it look, Vanguard Leader?"

"See for yourself, Jedi Five," Jag said. He flicked a switch on his console and sent the stream of data to Shawnkyr and the six Jedi.

"Roger, Vanguard Leader," Garrett said.

"Vanguard Leader," Alema asked, "are we still keeping a rearguard of just the Y-wings and the Imminent Reward?"

"Roger, Jedi Three," Jag replied.

"You really think that's enough?"

"No," Jag said. "But we don't have any choice."

"It doesn't look so bad in warships," Valin pointed out. "Our one cruiser and three frigates against their two cruisers and four frigates. That's manageable enough, right?"

"I suppose it is," Jag said. Fortunately the direction from which the Achebians had chosen to attack had allowed the Vikovan forces to shift two frigates and two squadrons into position at the last minute. Otherwise the prospects would have been grim indeed.

"We're still outnumbered almost two-to-one in starfighters," Garrett reminded them. "If we don't find a way to deal with that fast, the Hawkbats will hit our warships hard and that'll be that."

"He's right," Jaina said. "If we don't solve the numbers game, this'll be over in a hurry. And we won't like the way it ends."

Jag just barely managed to bite back his retort about the underwhelming brilliance of Garrett's "insight" before it left his mouth. He had enough problems right now without insulting Jaina on top of it.

"Enough talk," he ordered. After months with his Chiss pilots, he'd forgotten how annoying it could be when Rebels wouldn't just shut up and fly. "Attack formations. They're almost here."

Jag checked his readouts and confirmed that the Polar Wind was moving swiftly to join them. Quickly he looked back over his shoulder at the formation of three dozen Vikovan starfighters escorting Iliana's shuttle down to the planet. At least that was taken care of. One less thing to worry about.

A glance to one side showed Lieutenant Gorsk's clawcraft in position off Jag's starboard wing, and to the other side...

"Horn! Have you lost your mind?"

"I'm sorry, Vanguard Leader?"

"You fly my wing."

"But...the trios...I thought -"

"Not this trio, Jedi Six," Jag said over the kid's rambling protestations about what Jaina had said and battle melds and who knew what else. "Are we clear?"

"Roger, Vanguard Leader," Valin said, sounding a bit flustered.

Before Jag could say more, Shawnkyr's voice intruded. "Enemy fighters fifteen seconds away."

"Vanguard Squadron, stay in formation for the first pass," Jag said. "See how they respond."

Affirmative clicks sounded in his ears as the final seconds before the battle ticked away. The swarms of onrushing Hawkbat fighters sped toward them outside his viewport.

And then it began.

Jag lined up the lead Hawkbat in his sights and squeezed his triggers. The first green bolts from his laser cannons slammed into the enemy fighter's shields - and the next ones brought them down. Jag squeezed the triggers again and the Hawkbat incinerated in a ball of flame.

"Wow, great shot!"

All around him more Hawkbats exploded as the Chiss and Jedi pilots opened fire with an intense barrage against their opponents.

"Cut the chatter, Jedi Six," Jag told Valin on his wing. "Time to get serious."

Besides, even if it was helpful to know that it only took a few laser blasts to rip down a Hawkbat's shields, it still was much more efficient to hit the weak points around the engine compartment. But that wasn't an option in a straight charge - only in dogfights.

"Stay in formation for another pass," Jag ordered. "They're not prepared for it."

The clawcraft and X-wings swung around and surged straight toward the Hawkbat squadron they had just engaged. The second enemy squadron was closing rapidly, but they still had time to decimate the first. Probably - if the next pass could be as successful.

The Hawkbat fighters weren't nearly as maneuverable as the clawcraft or even the X-wings, so the enemy ships hadn't been able to loop back around into their defensive formations. More importantly, the angle of attack left their engine compartments exposed. This was just the advantage Jag's pilots needed - and he knew he didn't have to say a word.

Jag targeted the nearest Hawkbat and squeezed his triggers. The green bolts lanced through the weak point in the craft's shield coverage and blasted the fighter cleanly in two. Jag watched as Valin's quad cannon bolts tore apart the Hawkbat right behind.

"Nice shot, Jedi Six," Jag said. The kid hadn't deserved to be snapped at earlier.

"Thanks, Vanguard Leader," Valin said even as he followed Jag's clawcraft in a swift arc to chase down another Hawkbat.

The enemy pilot dove to port, and Jag followed. Valin and Gorsk had no problem keeping up with him. They swerved again, three fighters hot on the Achebian's tail.

Jag had an idea. "Jedi Six, next time he turns -"

"- hit him on the long side," Valin finished.

Only a split-second later the Hawkbat climbed into another evasive maneuver to port. Valin fired a burst from his quad cannons that slammed into the Hawkbat's shields. Jag fired right after, aiming for the same spot. The nearly simultaneous hits were too much for the enemy craft's inferior shields, and Gorsk's shots sailed straight into the Hawkbat's unprotected hull and blew the ship to pieces.

If Jag had wondered about Valin Horn's skills as a pilot, he didn't any more. Jaina was right - the kid could fly.

"Enemy squadrons in range," Shawnkyr barked.

Jag looked at his sensors. Although only three Hawkbats remained from the first enemy group, two more squadrons were right on top of them.

"Split up! Outfly them and pick them apart," Jag said quickly into the comlink. "Jedi One and Four, mark zero-two-five. Jedi Two and Five, mark one-four-four. Jedi Three, you're with me."

With Jocell and Hop'tu on her wings and Garrett Trace's trio right behind, Jaina's X-wing swerved away. On Jag's other side the trio with Jacen and Shawnkyr as wingmates - that had been Jaina's suggestion - followed Tyria Tainer's trio in the opposite direction. A quick glance over his shoulder showed Alema Rar already in position on his aft.

Jag charged toward an incoming group of Hawkbats. "Jedi Three, take the ones to port. We've got starboard."

"Roger, Vanguard Leader," Alema replied. The X-wing and two clawcraft surged around from behind him and squared up on the enemy fighters.

Jag turned his attention back to his designated Hawkbats and readied his hands on his control stick. He held course for a few heartbeats longer, then swerved his clawcraft into a sudden dive, roll, and climb. The less responsive Hawkbat was no match for the swift maneuver, and now Jag had a clear shot at the enemy ship's vulnerability. Instantly the target lock beeped, and Jag squeezed his triggers. The burst of cannon bolts ripped through the Hawkbat's shields and blasted the fighter to bits.

Scanning quickly past the fiery nova of the explosion, Jag saw Valin and Gorsk execute matching loops, then combine their cannon fire to obliterate another Hawkbat. A quick check of the sensors showed that Alema's trio had taken out two more, and the other trios had managed to make similar reductions in the enemy's numbers.

It wasn't enough, not nearly, but it was something. It was a start.

"Another squadron on the way," Shawnkyr announced. "Watch your backs!"

Jag spared another glance at his sensors. A fourth squadron of Hawkbats was indeed bearing down on them. "Ktah!"

He switched over to the broader battle map to check on the final two Achebian squadrons and found that fortunately the two Vikovan squadrons had flown into position on the flanks and were keeping them occupied. That stalemate was a welcome relief, but it still left Jag's pilots facing off against nearly three full squadrons of Hawkbats.

"Stay sharp!" Jag tightened his grip on his control stick. "Keep your trios together!"

Suddenly the Polar Wind's batteries opened fire. The heavy laser cannon bolts and shimmering ion cannon blasts blazed through the maze of dancing starfighters and slammed into the shields of the first Achebian cruiser. The enemy warships returned fire, but neither their range nor their aim was as good as the Chiss battlecruiser's. The cruisers and frigates on both sides began to shift into combat positions, and the barrage of cannon fire between them continued.

Now the battle to defend Vikova truly was joined. Even after observing only the opening fusillade, Jag had confidence the superior skill of his crew on the Polar Wind more than made up for their slight numerical disadvantage in warships. Just as they'd thought from the start, this battle was going to come down to the starfighters. And those numbers weren't good at all.

Jag had to change the odds, and fast.

Valin and Gorsk formed up on his wings again, and the three of them raced after another pair of Hawkbats. Jag locked his concentration on the one to starboard, and pursued the enemy pilot with grim determination. Dive. Roll. Loop.

Valin took a shot at the Hawkbat to port, but the Achebian fighter spun away at the last moment. The X-wing pursued with cannons blazing.

"Vanguard Seven, stay with Jedi Six," Jag said. Gorsk acknowledged with a double-click and took off after Valin.

Jag matched his prey's rolling climb, then swerved hard to shorten the angle. It only bought him a few degrees to shoot through, but that was all he needed. Jag slammed down on his triggers and hit the Hawkbat right on the weak spot atop its engine compartment.

Even before the explosion had faded Jag wrenched his clawcraft into a sharp barrel roll to send him back into the depths of the furball. Gorsk had baited an Achebian fighter into chasing him toward Jag. Without hesitation Jag dove his clawcraft down and around, ending up with a clear shot at the Hawkbat's exposed belly. The unsuspecting enemy pilot never saw the shots coming before his fighter exploded in a ball of fire.

Jag switched over to a private channel. "Lieutenant, where's Jedi Six?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, sir," the Chiss pilot replied.

Jag cursed under his breath and switched back to the squadron feed. Before he could open his mouth to berate Valin, however, triumphant yells from Jaina and Garrett Trace seized his attention.

"Wahoo!"

"Yeehaw!"

Even as Jag checked his sensors, the celebratory shouts continued.

"That was amazing, Garrett!"

"At your service, boss."

Whatever trick Trace had pulled off, he somehow had managed to wipe out three Hawkbats in a single pass. And apparently earned Jaina's admiration in the process.

And given himself more kills in the battle than Jag had.

Jag hissed out a breath. Even if Trace could repeat his little miracle - not likely - they needed to take out clusters of Hawkbats several more times before the numbers would be anywhere close to even. And they needed to do it right away.

There weren't many promising possibilities on the sensor readouts, but Jag kept looking. There had to be something. There just had to be.

A second later - just as Valin suddenly reappeared on his wing - he saw it. "Jedi Six, Vanguard Seven," he said hurriedly, "mark one-two-zero. Clear me a path."

Two double-clicks confirmed the order, and the next moment Jag was following his wingmen across the battlefield. When they reached a formation of Hawkbats his escorts opened fire with their laser cannons and scattered the enemy fighters. Jag shot through the gap and pushed his ion engines to top speed. It didn't take long for him to find the group of Achebian fighters he'd picked out. Sure enough, the greedy enemy pilots took the bait - the chance to get the kill of a squadron leader was just too good to pass up.

Jag dove into a hard loop with six Hawkbats on his tail. Red laser cannon bolts flashed overhead and underneath as he juked and rolled to avoid the onslaught from behind him. His pursuers were no match for his skill, but fleeing from six at once was never easy. Jag narrowed his eyes and steeled his focus as he set a zigzag course through the frantic furball of clawcraft, X-wings, and Hawkbats toward the vicious exchange taking place between the Polar Wind and two enemy warships.

"Jag!"

"Yes?"

"You're not doing what I think you're doing." Apparently Jaina had enough time to spare from flying with her new favorite ace to figure out what Jag had planned.

"Actually," Jag said, "I am."

"Have you gone mad?"

"We'll find out." He paused. "I love you, Jaina."

With that, Jag charged forward with the six Hawkbats dogging his tail and disappeared into the blinding barrage of cannon blasts volleying between the battlecruiser and the Achebian frigates.

CHAPTER ELEVEN


It was going to work!

Jaina and her wings were spread wide, herding two flutterslugs - Alema's ungracious moniker for the Hawkbats, which shook when they were pushed to their unimpressive limits - along the hull of an enemy frigate. Without needing to check her tactical boards, she knew Garrett and his wing were converging from the other direction with a second pair of hapless Achebian fighters in their sights.

And they were all going to round the end of the Achebian frigate at the same...time.

Steady. One more second than you'd like. Her father had said that often. Always one more second. One centimeter closer. It was the difference between being good at this and being great.

Ahead the two flutterslugs were about to clear their own frigate's bow. Jaina's trio would have to drive them all the way, then veer hard to port in time to clear the impending collision. The Achebians skimmed the frigate's hull and darted over the bow. Jaina feathered the stick, and adjusted her grip.

Just in time, too. The glint of another Hawkbat appeared out of nowhere, surprising Jaina even though she expected it. She jerked her stick left and kicked the foot rudders, slewing her fighter over and around its own spiraling trajectory. Even amid the harried roll, the explosive blast darkened her cockpit's transparisteel for a second.

Garrett's plan had worked. Two flutterslugs had collided head-on. The other two narrowly missed, but the debris from the explosion ripped through one of them. It whirled out of control, then smacked into the frigate, spacing a good portion of the bow.

"Wahoo!"

"Yeehaw!"

"That was amazing, Garrett!"

"At your service, boss."

There was no time to say more. An enemy fighter strafed Jaina's shields, causing her X-wing to jerk violently. When that one was past, another Hawkbat careened over the Achebian frigate's hull, then reversed hard to come about on her tail. The Achebian pilot went immediately for a hardlock, and Jaina's warning klaxons blared.

She yanked the stick hard, too hard because her vision collapsed, but not so much that she didn't see a torpedo flare past - a bit closer than she would have liked. She thought she should've shaken the hardlock with that maneuver, but her cockpit warning system still sounded. Swinging her head left then right, Jaina tried to locate her pursuer. Nothing!

Except a volley of red laserfire whizzing by. Jaina forced her snubfighter into a spiral.

"Cappie! Shut that kriffin' alarm off!" She needed some peace and quiet to think. In the meantime, her intuition told her to reverse. Another spray of fire barely missed her starboard S-foils.

Thankfully the ceaseless din ended, only to be replaced by her astromech's shrill protestations. "Put a spanner in it, Cap."

The metallic wail ebbed until it was just a woeful plea.

"I know. I know." Jaina wigged and wagged, trying to shake the Hawkbat or at the least get a visual. "I'm trying..."

The cockpit fell quiet save the whine of her engines as she tugged the stick toward her. This time she used the Force to compensate for the excessive gravitational forces, which were trying to suck all the blood to her feet. She breathed slowly and deeply, and waited. The bright flashes of trailing lasers grew farther and farther away. Then experience told her to look up, so she did.

There it was. Right above her. If she could keep coming around. She grunted, the strain on her body almost intolerable. One more second, and the flutterslug would be in her sights. Abruptly, though, the enemy pilot caught on and broke hard to the right.

Before she could be miffed about it, Cappie shrieked - just as Jaina's own internal danger sense drove her to dive. Not a second too soon, as laser blasts from a new Hawkbat shot toward her port side. Her snubfighter only took a couple hits, which bounced harmlessly off the shields, before she cleared the line of fire.

"Seems they want a piece of me," she said while throwing the yoke left, down, right. Where were her wingmen? Obviously they had been forced to scramble after Garrett's risky stunt, but Jaina was starting to feel abandoned. She clicked her localized comm line open. "A little help, guys."

"Turn to one-four-eight, Jedi One," Jocell responded.

Flying fighters was about trust, because turning that way practically put a clear target mark on Jaina's backside for the closing Hawkbat. Still she executed the turn, cleanly and precisely. The enemy fighter followed, and fell right into Jocell's line of sight. The flutterslug erupted in a blaze of fiery clouds as the Chiss performed a surgical strike.

Jaina exhaled in relief. "Thanks, Vanguard Six."

"I apologize for the delay, but you were...difficult to catch," Jocell said.

Spotting Hop'tu high to port, Jaina led Jocell around to pick up the third member of their trio. The second clawcraft swooped into formation just as Jaina started back toward the furball.

"Nice of you to join us, Vanguard Twelve," she taunted Hop'tu.

"Any time, Jedi One."

Jaina chuckled. She had forgotten that even the Chiss squadrons had at least one smart mouth. It figured Jag would put the sharp talker in her trio. Thoughts of Jag compelled her to reach out, seeking to at least get a sense of him. She found him easily, and through their unique connection knew he was concerned but safe. For now.

For now? Why did her flesh bump as if something was very wrong?

Charging back into the engagement, Jaina let instinct take over while her years of experience absorbed the battle as a whole. The Achebians were trying a new tack; they seemed to be angling most of their offensive at the Jedi. It was a smart move - eliminate the trio leaders.

Quickly she focused on the Jedi battle meld. It was always there in the back of her mind. She was so accustomed to the meld that it had become second nature. Spikes and valleys of attention. Subtle signals or more overt warnings. All those signals and feelings flowed through her without thought. Other times, when the information was more important, Jaina had to apply herself. Times like now.

Tyria. Smooth. Controlled. Definitely a veteran under fire.

Alema. No worries. Ice ran in the Twi'lek's veins.

Garrett. Good. Harried. Still pumped from his stellar feat.

Jacen. Working harder than the others. Grateful for Shawnkyr's experience. Yet still a Solo through and through - holding his own one way or another.

Valin. Adrenaline pumping. Energized. Not the slightest hint of undue stress, just normal battle-ready nerves. The kid was having too much fun, even for a Horn.

Wait! Valin wasn't leading the last trio; Jag was. Things happened fast in furballs, and maybe none of the Achebians-in-charge had figured that difference out...

Frantically scanning the tactical display, Jaina found Jag's clawcraft - highlighted in its usual special green color so she could keep a watchful eye on him - ripping through the heart of the furball. With a clawcraft and snubfighter clearing him a path, Jag was practically begging the enemy to pounce on him. No wingmen. No evasive maneuvers. Just a straight, predictable path.

If Jaina had been cranky with him earlier - she shoved aside the mental flash of that woman kissing Jag - she was now out and out angry. How could he do something so stupid?

She punched the comm over to the first available frequency he would hear. "Jag!"

"Yes?"

"You're not doing what I think you're doing."

"Actually, I am."

"Have you gone mad?"

"We'll find out." He paused. "I love you, Jaina."

The line clicked off, and Jaina watched helplessly as Jag blasted away with a horde of Hawkbats locked on his exhaust. His clawcraft vanished behind the Polar Wind, right into the narrow hunk of space that separated the battlecruiser and two Achebian frigates.

Oh gods!

She drove her fighter to maximum velocity, heading along the hull of the Chiss battlecruiser. She had to get to the other side. To see for herself...she pushed that fear aside. So she could be the first to chew Jagged Fel a new -

Frag! Where was his indicator? All she saw now on the tactical display was a mix of red beyond the Polar Wind - a cluster of enemy targets. No green. There was no green!

"Nooooo!" Jaina loosed a scream into the vacuum of space.

No one had heard her, but the Jedi had all felt it. Jacen was the first to send her settling waves. She didn't want it; she just wanted to know. Leave me alone. With a mental shove, Jaina broke away from the battle meld, from the meaningless comfort. There was only one way to take away this hollow fear chewing up her insides.

Her limbs and mind worked numbly, dipping, bobbing and weaving over the enormous hull, surging toward the other end. The Polar Wind seemed to stretch on endlessly.

"Come on. Come on."

Not soon enough she reached the enormous engine section with its blinding afterglow. She couldn't shave it too close; the heat draft from the sublight engines would fry her X-wing in a heartbeat. Luckily experience was her ally, telling her where and how to make her cut. Diving, Jaina clicked her firing control to lasers.

If Jag made it...No. When Jag made it through, he would need someone to shake anything else hanging on his aft. He was still alive. She could feel it.

Jaina had almost made it across the entire engine section with no sight of Jag. He should have been here by now. She knew just how fast her fighter was and how fast his clawcraft could go. She had timed it perfectly -

Red bursts of laserfire missing their targets were her only warning before a smoking clawcraft erupted past the luminosity of the battlecruiser's engines. Two Hawkbats shadowed the Chiss fighter, firing volley after volley in a desperate enraged fury. They were barely a fighter-length past her when Jaina veered after them like a nexu stalking its prey.

Her trained eyes pegged the Hawkbat with the lesser damage in an instant. Not bothering to wait for a tone, she fired as fast as her cannons could recycle. Round after round as she arced into line. The early shots weren't clean but they bounced off the flutterslug's outer shields, distracting the pilot from his task.

"Not my man," Jaina gritted through her teeth, making the last feathering adjustment in her trajectory. Then Jag turned just the right way - and the Achebian dropped into her sights. One precise hit; one flutterslug gone.

Out of the corner of her eye, Jaina saw the brilliant blaze of the second enemy fighter's demise. Her breath left in a hiss as she flew blindly straight through her target's fireball. When Jaina came out on the far side, she was practically on top of Jag's fighter. She eased up on his port wing. A quick survey told her things were not pretty.

She reverted to their private channel. "What exactly were you thinking?"

"Had to do something...fast or we'd have been in trouble." If she hadn't known better, she'd have thought Jag sounded shaken.

"And getting yourself killed would have helped us how?" Jaina was beginning to wonder if this was the man she had grown to love. He was behaving so...What was the word? Rash.

"I had no intention of getting killed. My plan worked exactly as I predicted. All those who pursued me are dead, aren't they?" He paused. "And thanks to that, our side is turning this into a rout." Now that was the Jagged Fel who had stolen her heart.

She turned her head so she could smile in Jag's direction. He couldn't see it, of course, but he would know. "Um...Jag...was your starboard engine spewing flames part of the master plan, too?"

He didn't answer immediately. In fact, there was a long silence while his clawcraft listed and shook.

"Jag?"

"Fixed," he said matter-of-factly, then began a slow roll back toward the furball in the distance.

Jaina accelerated and blocked his turn. "Oh no, you don't."

"Out of my way, Jaina."

"Not a chance. Back to the Polar Wind for you. Right now."

"I'm the squadron leader and I -"

"No," Jaina spat. "With that damage, you really will get yourself killed."

"I don't have time for this. The battle is at its most critical point."

She didn't budge when the clawcraft's wingtips pushed within centimeters of her S-foils. "There is nothing out there I can't handle. And you know that. Or is this about something else? Or should I say somebody else?"

"Jaina." Not often had Jag actually growled to make a point.

"Jag." She wiggled her X-wing a little closer until she could meet his gaze through the transparisteel of his viewport.

He glared back. "Don't make me pull rank on you, Jedi One."

"Vanguard Leader, I am a Jedi Knight and a Solo. Rank doesn't apply to me."

"I'm an Ambassador and a Fel. And I'm in charge. Now move."

"Oh. Right. I guess you forgot that I'm the woman in this partnership." Jaina grinned. "Now tell me again who's in charge?"

CHAPTER TWELVE


Leaning back in his seat in the passenger compartment of the shuttle, Jag read from his datapad the initial battle assessment reports compiled by the bridge crew of the Polar Wind. The first wave of the Achebian invasion fleet had been soundly defeated. One enemy cruiser and two frigates destroyed, along with well over four squadrons of Hawkbats. The remaining cruiser limped away with major hull breaches. One badly damaged frigate towed another in its wake while the surviving Hawkbats provided cover. Only a need to regroup the forces defending Vikova had prevented them from pursuing the Achebians and wiping them out.

Remarkably the expected second wave of the invasion fleet had never come. The Vikovan scout ships had confirmed that the next flotilla of frigates and troop transports had turned around and returned to Achebi. Without the cleared path and secured landing zone the first wave had been intended to provide, the invasion plan had failed. At least for now.

Jag reviewed the casualties on his side. Nine Vikovan starfighters lost from their two squadrons. Two clawcraft lost as well. Minor damage to the Polar Wind and one frigate, already under repair along with Jag's own clawcraft. No damage to the Imminent Reward and no Y-wings lost, much to the delight of the obsequious Commander Shesh. And one of the Jedi X-wings destroyed, with its pilot - Valin Horn, who else? - recovered unharmed after ejecting EV in the nick of time. More than acceptable, all things considered. Still, Jag vowed to review the battle recordings until he could determine how his two Chiss comrades had died. Even if it was not always attainable, perfection was his goal.

The victory was hard-fought and well deserved. Whether it would deter the Achebians from attempting another attack in the days or weeks ahead depended on too many factors, none of which Jag could know right now. What he did know was that he had won, and it was a good thing, too.

While his shuttle descended toward the Vikovan capital city, the Chiss battlecruiser Ordained Guardian approached from the planet's far side. Aboard was Ambassador Chu'itha, the wise and trusted counselor who would pass judgment on Jag's decision to commit his forces to Vikova's defense.

To Iliana's defense.

Jag knew he could not avoid greeting the Vikovan leader when he landed. The conventions of diplomacy might not yet come naturally to him, but he couldn't deny that refusing to allow Iliana to express her planet's gratitude and congratulations would be an affront of gigantic proportions. Neither could he have declined her invitation to the celebratory dinner in honor of the victory. At least his officers, his diplomatic staff, and the Jedi - Jaina included - were attending the fete as well.

No matter, Jag was hardly in the mood for diplomatic games. The adrenaline of battle still pumped full throttle in his veins. As reluctant as he had been to admit it initially, Jaina had been right about his clawcraft, and he had spent the final harried half hour of the battle on the Polar Wind's bridge. It wasn't starfighter combat, but it had been frantic and intense all the same. After that he hadn't been able to afford even a few minutes to cool down before the necessities of respect for Iliana and Chu'itha had required him to clean up, put on his dress uniform, and depart the battlecruiser immediately. Not exactly an ideal way to continue an already awfully long day.

Jag closed his eyes and took a slow, deep breath. He tried to focus on the positive. For one, Jaina and the others wouldn't be too far behind him in the other shuttles, and the dinner would begin soon after they arrived. Hopefully that meant he could greet Iliana quickly and hurry off to the meeting with Chu'itha. There was so much to discuss, no doubt he and his superior would only get into the very basics at first. So Jag certainly would find a few minutes alone with Jaina before the dinner began, to say all the things he needed to say.

Yes, tonight was going to work out just fine. At dinner he would have some of the famous Vikovan firebrandy Iliana had told him about - until he was good and relaxed. With any luck Jaina would have some too, and...

"Ambassador Fel, sir."

He forced open his eyes. "Yes, Lieutenant?"

"We will be landing momentarily, sir."

"Very good."

Jag switched off his datapad and stashed it in the console at his side. Even though he knew the Chiss pilot would land the shuttle smoothly, from habit he checked the tightness of his restraints and made sure his blaster pistol's safety was on. Then he waited.

A few moments later his seat rocked gently as the shuttle settled onto its landing gear. Jag released the restraints and stood. He smoothed out his uniform and ran his fingers through his hair before reaching down to his waist to flick off the safety again.

Like it or not, it was time to go. With deliberate strides he left the passenger compartment and headed for the boarding ramp.

When he stepped off the bottom of the ramp, the sight awaiting him was not at all what he had expected. He emerged onto a broad stone plaza nearly a kilometer square. Towering statues of planetary leaders and heroes long dead rose at regular intervals across the space, and ancient stone temples and monuments stretched along the plaza's edges. And the entire vista before him was filled to capacity with Vikovan citizens.

A tremendous roar shook the air as the throng of humans and the occasional alien burst into joyous cheering and applause. Jag was so stunned he nearly forgot to acknowledge the ovation with a wave - a wave that only caused the exclamations of triumph to swell even more.

Jag quickly scanned the situation around him as he raised both hands to accept the accolades. A ring of Iliana's heavily armed and armored guards had formed the landing circle for his shuttle, and two rows of the guards kept the crowd at bay to give him a clear path to a raised stone dais about fifty meters away. Iliana was waiting for him there, as breathtaking and radiant as ever. The bright sun glittered off her sparkling multicolored dress, and her long blonde hair drifted easily around her head and shoulders in the light breeze wafting across the plaza.

The celebratory clamoring continued unabated as Jag strode toward the dais. His waves to each side elicited louder cheers with every meter forward, and by the time he had reached the dais the sound was almost deafening. He walked up the tall steps and stopped at Iliana's side.

She smiled broadly. "Well done, Jag."

"Thank you, Iliana."

For an instant her glimmering blue eyes darted toward the crowd. "I will not keep you here long," she said. "But even a few brief moments of public acclaim can be quite valuable. To me and to you."

"Of course," he replied, turning to face the crowd as well. As much as he disdained such political maneuvering, he also knew that it came with the territory of being an ambassador. If he couldn't tolerate it now and then, he shouldn't have accepted this position. "I understand."

"As I had known you would." Iliana reached out her left hand and clasped Jag's right, and hefted them high in the air. Another thundering roar burst from the gathered citizens.

Iliana held their hands up for a few heartbeats, then lowered them and released her hold. She glanced back quickly to nod her appreciation to Jag before she stepped forward to the podium at the front of the dais. Within only a few seconds the raucous cheering had quieted to a dull murmur.

"My people," she said, her musical voice soaring across the plaza. "Today our sovereignty has been secured, and our freedom protected. A great victory has been won - a victory that would not have been possible without the leadership and bravery of a true champion of our planet, Ambassador Jagged Fel, esteemed representative of the Chiss Expansionary Defense Force."

The crowd erupted in applause again. Jag bowed respectfully several times while waiting for the noise to abate.

"Thank you, Ambassador Fel," Iliana continued. "Your heroism is a debt we can never repay. Vikova is blessed to have you as an ally, today and for the future. I believe later generations will look back on our victory today as the moment when Vikova truly joined the brotherhood of planets in the galaxy. This will be a day long remembered. It has seen the end of the Achebian aggression, and soon it will see -"

"To tyrants, death!"

A shouted threat from within the crowd. Blasterfire. An explosion at the base of the dais - a fragmentation grenade. Screams. Panic. Blasterfire everywhere. Another grenade.

Things happened so fast Jag was surrounded by smoke and flames and shimmering blaster bolts before he even had a chance to understand what was going on. He drew his blaster pistol and looked around. Iliana was standing at the podium, too shocked to move. All the guards atop and beneath the dais were dead, killed by blaster shots or shrapnel. The crowd below them had become a chaotic rampage of terrified, fleeing citizens.

And standing at the base of the dais, blasters pointed straight at Iliana, were two men.

Jag reacted instinctively, leaping forward to tackle Iliana to the ground just as the assassins' laser bolts flew through the air where she had stood a split-second earlier. With his free arm wrapped tightly around her he rolled her away from the front edge of the dais. The hard stone pounded his knees, elbows, back, and head, and Iliana cried out in pain. After a long moment Jag flung out his arms and legs to stop their tumble.

Iliana was beneath him, crushed to the stone by the weight of his body. Her hands clung to his back, and his legs straddled her hips. Jag pushed himself up with his free hand, and her chest heaved in a ragged breath. Their eyes locked, and her gaze was full of fear.

But there was no time to say anything. Jag scrambled off Iliana and set himself in a firing crouch between her and the front of the dais. Just as he'd expected, a moment later one of the assassins rushed up the steps with his blaster firing. Laser bolts slammed into the stone at Jag's feet, sending shards of rock spraying upward.

He didn't hesitate. He squared his aim and squeezed his trigger. Three blaster bolts drove into the tall, flaxen-haired man's chest, knocking him off his feet and launching him backward down the steps. Simultaneously the pulsing thrum of repulsordrives from above intruded over the screams and cries of the horrified crowd.

Jag couldn't afford to look up, though. The second assassin ducked around his comrade's flying body and took aim right at Jag. Fortunately Jag got off the first shot. It didn't find its mark, but was enough to make the assassin dodge.

Watching the man scramble for his life, Jag knew he would never forget his face. The man had flaming red hair and a long, vicious scar across the left side of his face. But it was his malicious grin and the cold fire in his dark eyes that chilled Jag to his core. Now totally certain the man needed to be stopped, he squared his aim and fired.

Before he could fire more shots a pair of hands seized him by the shoulders and flung him roughly through the air. The crowd, the sky, blurs of uniforms and armor whizzed through his vision.

"Don't shoot," a sharp male voice barked as a hand grabbed Jag's wrist and his blaster was ripped away.

"Go!" another male voice shouted as Jag thumped against a bench seat. "Go! Go! Go!"

Suddenly a door swung closed and the bench beneath Jag lurched into motion. Only then did he realize they were inside the passenger compartment of an airspeeder launching away into the sky. And more than that, not only had the guards left him alone with Iliana, but they had tossed his blaster pistol in with them. Considering they'd just been swooped away from a nearly successful attempt on her life, showing a foreign diplomat like Jag that level of trust seemed...well, wrong.

Trying to shake the uneasy feeling, Jag hauled himself upright on the bench, then scooped up his blaster from the floor at his feet and slid it into his holster. Across from him Iliana pulled herself up on a bench seat too, then reached out to tap a button on a small panel above her head.

"The palace," she ordered. Her voice was strong and firm, but her eyes and the pale hue of her skin betrayed her true emotions. "Right away."

"Already on our way, Your Grace," another male voice replied from the speaker.

"The other shuttles," Iliana said. "Where are they?"

A short pause. "Descending as we speak, Your Grace."

"Give them clearance directly to the palace," Iliana said. "We can no longer be certain the spaceport is secure."

"Understood, Your Grace."

Iliana tapped off the comlink panel and turned to face Jag. Only then did he notice the tears streaming down her cheeks.

Jag leaned forward. "Are you hurt?"

"No," she said, her voice suddenly tremulous. "No. It's just...there's only so many times I can go through this."

"What?" He leaned forward more. "They've tried to kill you before?"

"Oh, Jag..." She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "You have no idea."

He didn't know what to say. "I...I'm sorry."

"Thank you," she said. She leaned forward too, and clasped his hand in both of hers. "I am a strong woman, Jag. But I don't know if I can keep doing this alone."

"You're not alone. You have generals, and trusted advisors. The leaders on Csilla may very well offer you the treaty you -"

"I did not mean politically, Jag." Her blue eyes seemed to gaze all the way into the depths of his soul. "I don't just need allies and supporters. I need a partner."

"A partner?"

"Yes," she said. She was closer now, her face too close to his, her grasp too intimate on his hand. "A man I can always count on. Not simply unwavering loyalty, but complete faith and trust as well. A man to whom I can entrust my secrets and my safety. And my soul."

He tried to speak, but the words froze in his throat.

"You have saved my planet, Jag, and now you have saved me as well." Iliana reached up a hand to caress the side of his face. "You are the partner I have sought all my life."

He swallowed hard. "Iliana, I -"

Abruptly the speeder swerved, and the motion threw them apart. He crashed back against the bench seat, his eyes still fixed to Iliana across from him. Her gaze was pleading and intense, yet forlorn and fearful at the same time.

He had to reply somehow. "I don't know what to say."

"Say you will consider what I can offer you, Jag." She did not move closer this time, but kept her respectful distance. "What we can accomplish together."

"Iliana, I can't possibly..."

When he trailed off, she met his gaze with a steely stare. "Do not offer me excuses about Jaina Solo and love. Leaders like you and I, lives lived with such stature and consequence, we are bigger than love, Jag. We rule people who value honor and duty above all else. What I offer you is a chance to secure the futures of both our peoples. To make them stronger. To ensure their survival by a mutually beneficial alliance. There is nothing more honorable than that."

No rational argument came to his mind, even as much as his heart cried out otherwise. Thankfully the speeder slowed, and their seats rocked slightly as the craft settled on its landing gear. They were out of time.

A moment later the door swung open and a guard extended his hand inside. "Please, Your Grace," the man said. "We need to get you to the medcenter."

Iliana took his hand and stepped out of the airspeeder. "No, Lieutenant. That will not be necessary."

"I must insist, Your Grace," the man said as Jag exited behind her. "We must make certain you are not injured."

"I am fine," she said. "What of the assassins in the plaza?"

"One is dead, Your Grace," a different guard reported from the side. "The other was gravely wounded and is in custody."

"We must uncover who was behind this plot," Iliana said. "Many innocent lives were lost today. Make certain this assassin survives so he can be interrogated."

"As ordered, Your Grace."

"Your Grace," the first guard said boldly, "we must -"

Iliana cut him off with a wave of her hand. "I must escort Ambassador Fel to his meeting with Ambassador Chu'itha. Anything else can wait until after that."

"No," Jag said. "It can't."

She spun on him. "What?"

With all the glittering colors of her dress, it would have been difficult to spot a wound. Still, the dark stain on her arm looked like a blaster burn. "You may have taken a glancing shot," he said, tugging at the charred fabric with his fingers. "Or worse. Your body could be in shock and you wouldn't even know it."

Iliana crossed her arms over her chest and looked at him sternly. "Spoken from experience?"

For a moment Jag frowned, looked down at the floor, and nodded reluctantly. Then he looked up again. "I am sure your guards can point me in the right direction," he said calmly. "Your duty to your people must take precedence. Let your guards do theirs, Iliana. Go to the medcenter."

"Very well, Jag," she replied. "I will see you shortly at the fete?"

"Yes. Of course."

She tipped her head, then turned to her guards and nodded. Five of them surrounded her and ushered her away down the hall.

The sixth guard remained behind. "Down this hallway to the main atrium," he said. "Take the corridor beneath the arch with a figure of a falcon at the apex. That will lead you directly to the ceremonial reception area where Ambassador Chu'itha should be arriving within the next few minutes."

"Thank you," Jag said, suddenly realizing just how exhausted he really was.

"No, thank you, Colonel Fel," the man said. "If it weren't for you, our leader would be dead."

Jag could only shrug. After a bemused smile the guard saluted crisply, and Jag managed to lift his hand to salute back. Then the guard spun on his heel and hurried off in the direction Iliana had gone.

Somehow Jag compelled his feet to carry him forward, and he headed down the hallway toward his destination. He didn't get very far, though, before another wave of exhaustion crashed over him. He leaned back against the wall, resting his palms and the back of his head on the cool stone wall. He closed his eyes and breathed slowly.

What a day. Almost getting himself killed was more than enough. Almost getting shot to death on top of that was just too much. And Iliana...He couldn't even bring himself to think about that. How could he possibly pull himself together and meet Chu'itha? It was just too much...

"Jag?"

He opened his eyes and realized he had slid down the wall and was now sitting in a heap on the floor. How had that happened? And then he realized who had called to him from down the hallway. Through blurry vision he saw her running his way.

"Jaina?"

"Jag!" She was almost to him now. "You're bleeding!"

CHAPTER THIRTEEN


"Jag?"

Jaina wasn't sure it was him. Perhaps her eyes were deceiving her; Jag couldn't be slumped against a wall like a broken man. Yet there was that telltale Chiss uniform. It was far from crisp and clean, though, and Jag would never shame his uniform. At least not the Jag she knew. Still, her heart told her the truth, that this was Jag. There could be only one reason he was in such a predicament - there had to be something wrong.

Jaina broke into a run.

Slowly Jag raised his head out of his hands and turned his head. He blinked repeatedly, and Jaina wasn't even sure he recognized her.

"Jaina?"

"Jag!" He did! She was close now, and that was when she noticed the crimson trickle leaking from his hairline. "You're bleeding!"

By the time she reached him, Jag was struggling to rise. She grabbed him by the elbow and wrapped an arm around his waist. For a woman her size it should have been a formidable feat to stand up a man of his stature, yet she managed with little effort. "Easy there, hero."

He didn't lean on her for long. Stepping away, he attempted to straighten his disheveled uniform and said, "I'm fine."

She canted her head and scowled. "You don't look fine."

"Really. It has just been a long day..." At that precise moment an overfull drop of bright red blood seeped off his cheekbone and plopped onto his uniform with a quite audible drip. One hand rose and gingerly felt around for the injury atop his head.

"What happened?" She tried to brush away his hand to get a closer look for herself.

In the process, though, she knocked Jag's fingers right onto the edge of the broken skin on his scalp. "Ow!"

"Sorry," she said, yanking her hand away reflexively.

"No, Jaina. It's okay." He winced. "There was an assassination attempt on Iliana's life when I landed -"

"Someone tried to kill her?!"

He nodded.

"And you were too close to the action?"

"You could say that." Jag finally stopped probing his forehead and lowered his hand, his fingertips now glistening with blood. "I'm still trying to sort it all out in my head. At some point I must have taken a harder hit...than I realized."

An awkward silence fell between them. Jaina figured he just didn't want to talk about it, and she wasn't inclined to press the point while he was still bleeding. "May I?"

Absentmindedly, he studied the blood on his hand. "I guess you had better."

With great care, Jaina stretched up her hand and placed her fingers on the tip of the ragged wound. Time and experience with minor injuries made it easy to visualize and then clamp off the miniscule blood vessels at the lips of the cut. The bleeding ceased almost instantly, and she smiled as the rivulet of blood slowed. Studying the injury with her eyes and her extrasensory perceptions, she realized he had indeed taken a considerable blow. She also could sense that his thoughts were muddled and indiscernible, and there was the distinct heavy weight of inundation. Jaina imagined such a state could only come from Jag being weakened from the injury. It was just so...unlike him.

"Has the bleeding stopped?" he asked.

Looking up into his green pools of eyes, Jaina's voice caught for a moment. He was so utterly irresistible in this beleaguered state. She wanted - no, needed - to take him in her arms and hold onto him forever. Instead she just nodded.

"Thank you," he croaked, then moved to draw away.

"No, wait." She didn't want him to leave; she could do more.

He stilled and waited as she had asked. Leaving her fingertips on the damaged skin of his forehead, Jaina flattened her hand so her palm cupped his cheek. Her free hand went to his chest, over his heart. In this position she felt more connected, and the Force was simpler to channel. Jacen might have been able to mend Jag from afar, just by visualizing the energy flowing through him. But positioned as she was, Jaina could feel the healing energy pour into Jag, through his skin, down his body and into his center, into his heart. Beneath her hand it beat loud and true.

Staring into his eyes, she felt the beating strengthen and swell. Drawing her in. Closer. To the warm fire burning in his eyes. So full of love. So captivating. She could fall in...

And then her lips pressed to Jag's. Her fingers curled into his shirt. The pounding of his heart now combined into one thunderous storm with hers. There was nothing hesitant or cautious from either of them. Their tongues plunged desperately, diving and dancing. His hands stroked her cheeks. Lips crushed together with bruising strength.

He tasted so good. It felt wonderful to be in his embrace again. Connected as one. Giving completely of herself. Giving him strength when he needed it most.

When he needed it most! Blaster bolts! This wasn't what he needed -

Jaina used every ounce of willpower to tear her body from his. He yelped wordlessly in protest and gaped at her. Her fingertips that had never once abandoned their duty to his wound during the kiss now shot away and curled into her palm.

"Sorry," she said. "Old habits die hard."

He searched her eyes. "Die hard?"

What could she possibly say? That she could become so utterly consumed by the amazing connection between them that she lost all control. That she could still be so totally enthralled by the simple act of kissing him that she forgot where they were and what they were supposed to be doing. He was an Ambassador now; she was a Jedi Knight. They were on a diplomatic mission, guests in an open corridor of a planetary leader's palace. Embarrassed by her complete lack of discretion, Jaina cast her eyes down.

"Yeah, I guess I'll have to remember we're not love-struck fools on Borleias anymore." She met his gaze. "We're grown up now, Jag. Things have to be different - "

In one swift move, Jag captured her hands in his own and swept down to claim her lips. Apparently his mind was on the mend, and his thoughts clearly organized, because he had managed to catch her by surprise.

She gasped or tried to protest or something, but there was his tongue, doing that thing. She was rendered speechless and thoughtless besides. No control, only his arms guiding and his mouth tempting her body to fall into that timeless dance.

Her legs were weak but he was strong, holding her crushed to his body. She could hardly breathe, sneaking ragged breaths in the rare moments the suction of his mouth relented. Then she was lost again under the current of his kiss. She could feel that easy melding of mind and heart, when their souls began to join and sing a glorious song of union. His thoughts would come to her, and she would know him completely.

And as they often did, images from Jag's calculating brain began to pour over her. They were difficult to catalogue at first, statistics and numbers, strategies and ideas. They used to bother her - when she had thought they meant that he couldn't simply focus on the moment with her - but then she had come to know they were just part of who he was. Those never-ending thoughts were there, hidden in his subconscious. They were always silenced when he truly let go, but here and now, in some hallway in Vikova, Jag was not about to turn the master switch off. He didn't work that way.

More images slowly washed over and around her, and Jaina gave into them. A radiant, glowing memory of her in a towel a few days earlier. Shimmering blue like a holoimage, but so utterly real to him. He practically reveled in the remembrance, pressing harder to Jaina, clutching to her as if she were a lifeline. He moaned into their kiss.

Then a rush of images broke free from his mind. Iliana. His first encounter with the Vikovan leader, Jaina could just tell. Shawnkyr with a sterner than usual expression, and Jaina felt Jag's remorse toward his friend. She sensed a swell of pride as an image of his clawcraft formed, then concern. Before Jaina could flush out the unease she was again faced with a picture of Iliana.

Abruptly Jaina saw herself again. Jacen seated next to Iliana. Herself slapping Garrett on the arm on the way out of the briefing. Everything went red. Fighters pouring out of the Polar Wind. A crowd of people. Herself and Garrett smiling at each other. Iliana waving to the crowd. Blasterfire and chaos. The gauntlet between the starcruisers, cannonfire exploding everywhere. Rolling with Iliana on a stone floor. Garrett. A bright light accompanying a painful burst above the eyes. Jaina. The inside of a luxurious airspeeder. Jag's blaster on the floor. Iliana. Again!

Angrily, Jaina broke the kiss and wrenched herself out of Jag's embrace. Her hand shot out of its own accord and slapped him with her open palm right where it had been cupping his cheek not a minute before. "No more!"

Stunned, Jag backed away. His face was expressionless save the slow grinding of his jaw. For some time he said nothing, did nothing. Eventually the fire in his eyes cooled, and any antagonism left in a slow exhale. "What did I do wrong?"

"I wanted you to stop it," Jaina rasped, her fingers going to her throbbing lips.

"You could have simply asked."

"You were...you were crushing me. You were...too strong."

His eye narrowed to slits. "A few minutes ago you were ministering to a wounded man, and now I am overpowering you?" He stepped forward, into her space. "What is really wrong, Jaina?"

She squared her shoulders defiantly, and waved off his protest with a flash of her hand. "You're fine, Jagged Fel. Your head's as hard as my father's, and apparently just as foolhardy."

"Foolhardy?" He cocked his head. "You are angry about something. I can tell. Apparently I have done something to upset your sensibilities. You're giving me that same look you had right before you sicced Lowie on me years ago."

"Yes, I'm mad at you." The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. How could she admit that she was jealous? Because then she would have to admit she was reading his mind. "You took needless risks today."

"No. I took calculated risks today."

"No," she snapped, poking her finger into his chest. "You were showing off!"

He snatched her hand into his. "I have no need to impress the leadership of Vikova. They already know what I am capable of. That is why they requested me personally."

"Ha! I'm not talking about Iliana, you pompous Imp!" She ripped away her hand. "I'm talking about you trying to prove you could outfly Garrett with that insane stunt."

"Is that what you think? That I'm jealous of your new Jedi flyboy?"

"Yes, that's exactly what I think. And I said so when you tried to get back into the furball earlier today, in case you've forgotten."

"Oh..." Jag blinked, then tugged on the bottom of his uniform jacket. "You really think I risked my life just to show up Garrett Trace?"

He sounded so sincere and hurt Jaina barely had the nerve to push the issue. "Yes. I do. That has always been your sore point - between us - that you're not a Jedi. It's getting a little old, Jag."

"Maybe you're right. Maybe I was out of line." He dropped his gaze to his feet.

And Jaina's heart almost broke. "You don't have to prove to me that you're the best pilot ever, Jag. You did that a long time ago."

His chin shot up, and his eyes glinted. "Really?"

"Well, except for my dad."

"He still can't beat my father."

They shared a smile, Jag's as always barely there. Still, its subtle flare took Jaina's breath away. "Promise you won't ever do something that rash again. At least not over something as silly as being jealous. You're better than that."

"My father would agree with you."

"Would he, now?" She arched an eyebrow, then quickly straightened her expression at the sight of Shawnkyr stalking down the hall toward them on her long legs.

"Speaking of my father...have you given more consideration to coming home with me?" The look in his eyes was a mixture of trepidation and anticipation, and he clearly hadn't noticed Shawnkyr approaching.

There was so much to say. Jaina's eyes darted from Jag to Shawnkyr and back. Could she say it all in time? Yes. I've been so wrong. Please forgive me. I will go happily once this is all over. How could she fit it all in before they had to part? She needed more time to tell him everything he needed to hear from her. "Jag, we'll talk about this later, okay?"

He opened his mouth to reply, but he was cut short by the dreaded voice of Shawnkyr Nuruodo. Chiss duty called as always. "Ambassador Fel, Ambassador Chu'itha requests your presence immediately."

For an eternal heartbeat Jag's eyes bored into Jaina's. He refused to relinquish the moment. Then the green orbs went dull, and he spoke. "Understood. Let's go, Shawnkyr."

Jag turned on his heel, and was gone.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN


Jag followed Shawnkyr down the corridor. Toward the meeting with Ambassador Chu'itha. Toward his disgrace. His doom.

But Jag didn't even care that his superior was about to accost him with what would no doubt be a quite extensive list of misjudgments, errors, and mistakes. His career was about to vaporize like so many pitiful Achebian Hawkbat fighters, yet the thought could not instill even the smallest bit of apprehension in his heart. It all seemed so pointless now.

One foot in front of the other, toward his executioner. With each step, the horrible words echoed in his skull. "Jag, we'll talk about this later, okay?" "Jag, we'll talk about this later, okay?" "Jag, we'll talk about this later, okay?" "Jag, we'll talk about this later, okay?"

"No," Jag muttered. It's not okay!

"Jag?"

He glanced ahead at Shawnkyr, who was looking back at him with a concerned expression in her bright ruby eyes. "Sorry," he said, glancing away from her gaze immediately. "I was just thinking about...Never mind. I was talking to myself."

Shawnkyr shrugged, and reached a hand into her pocket. "I have no doubt it is a very edifying conversation." Without breaking stride she passed a white handkerchief to him. "When you start it up again be sure to remind yourself not to meet your superiors with blood on your face."

"Right. Thanks." He'd completely forgotten about the blood. Quickly he used the handkerchief to wipe down his forehead and cheek. Sure enough, the pale cloth was stained with several faint streaks of crimson. Jag crushed it in his fist, then jammed it into his pocket.

What made Jag angriest was that it had been such a simple question. Had Jaina thought more about coming home with him or not? A simple question. Yes or no. How difficult was that? Yes or no. After all they had been through, she couldn't even give him that.

Then again, maybe she had. Maybe "let's talk about this later" was woman-speak for "no" and she expected him to understand that. Maybe the fact that she hadn't said, "Yes. I'll go with you happily as soon as this is all over. I've been wrong for so long. Please forgive me, Jag." was all he needed to know.

The toe of his boot stubbed the polished stone floor as they emerged into the main atrium of the palace. Jag nearly stumbled, but he found his balance and stayed upright. He blew out a quick sigh and clenched his fists for a moment.

"Jag? Are you well?"

He did his best to square his shoulders and straighten his bearing. "Well enough, I suppose."

She frowned. "You are not acting well."

"I'm fine."

Clearly, she did not believe him.

"All right," Jag said. "I am exhausted from the battle, and a bit nicked up from the assassination attempt on the plaza. But I am fine. I promise."

Shawnkyr crossed her arms over her chest. "I did not mean physically."

He blinked.

"First, yesterday. After the initial meeting with the Vikovan delegation and Iliana you were so out of sorts you forgot what we were doing at your office." She took a long stride toward him, and seemed to tower over Jag as she met his gaze sternly. "Now, today. I do not think I have ever seen you this preoccupied."

He didn't know what to say.

"I do not know what Jaina said to you, but if you are not capable of meeting with Ambassador Chu'itha you must tell me now. I can stall, explaining that your injuries were serious and you have been taken to the medcenter. Or something similar."

"I'm fine, Shawnkyr. Really."

She uncrossed her arms and waved a hand in the direction of the hallway under the arch with a falcon at its apex. "I hope I do not regret trusting you on this."

"You won't," Jag said. What he thought was, Me too.

Less than a minute later they arrived at the grand doors to the ceremonial reception area where Ambasssador Chu'itha was waiting for him. Jag paused for a moment and adjusted his uniform one more time. Possibly for the last time. At least the small drop of blood from the cut on his scalp was hardly visible on the black fabric. The cut Jaina had healed with the Force...right before she kissed him...but then she had...

"No," he muttered again. Don't go there.

Shawnkyr put a hand on his shoulder. "Are you certain you are ready?"

"Yes." He exhaled. "Yes, I am."

She shoved the heavy wooden doors open and Jag followed her inside. In the center of the large room Ambassador Chu'itha spun on a heel to face them. The renowned Chiss diplomat stood a bit taller than Jag. The short hair atop his head was as white as the arctic snow of Csilla, and his red eyes glittered with a proud fire. He wore a dark dress uniform similar to Jag's, but with far more medals and golden trim. The ambassador strode directly toward them.

Jag didn't even have time to offer a formal greeting in Chiss.

"Jagged!" And then Chu'itha was right there, standing in front of Jag with his arms outstretched in greeting, palms up.

Jag couldn't have been more flabbergasted if Chu'itha had pulled him into an embrace and kissed him full on the lips. Never before had Chu'itha addressed Jag by his first name. For that matter, Jag had never even heard Chu'itha address his father as Soontir. And not only that, but Chu'itha had offered Jag the informal friendly greeting - about as close as the Chiss ever got to hugging - and had offered it in the inferior manner, palms up, so that Jag would extend his hands in the superior manner atop them, palms down.

It was truly and utterly bizarre. Perhaps the head injury was worse than he had thought, and he was hallucinating. That might explain it.

"Ambassador Chu'itha," he finally managed to say. He placed his hands atop Chu'itha's and nearly gasped at the firmness with which the elderly diplomat shook them.

"Well done, Jagged," Chu'itha said, releasing his grasp. "Very well done indeed."

Jag blinked once. Twice. Three times. "Thank...you, sir."

"Please, come," Chu'itha said, leading Jag toward three elaborately carved chairs arranged around a small table. Atop the table were three crystal chalices of wine. "Sit, and let us talk."

Jag nodded, and he and Shawnkyr sat down opposite Chu'itha. He took a long drink of wine from his glass, hoping that might shock his brain enough to end the delusion. It didn't, though, so he took a deep breath. "So, my actions were acceptable?"

"Acceptable?" Chu'itha laughed. "They were far more than acceptable. You have accomplished here exactly what Csilla desires in this sector."

"I have?"

"Oh, yes. Vikova is to be a crucial new ally."

Jag took another drink of wine. Although the cut on his scalp was healed, what had started as a small throbbing pulse of pain directly beneath it was steadily growing into a raging headache engulfing his entire brain. "Nothing in the dossier suggested it would have such significance for our people."

Chu'itha steepled his fingers under his chin. "Perhaps that is true. Perhaps the intelligence department deemed the information too sensitive to include in a diplomatic dispatch bearing only limited assurances of secrecy."

"The information?"

Chu'itha closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. "Months ago our astronavigation specialists discovered a new hyperspace corridor running from several dozen parsecs within our territory, across a short expanse of uninhabited space and into the Outer Rim, then nearly to the Core, terminating at the Restvo system. Only in the last several days have the final confirmations been achieved."

"A direct route from Chiss space to the Core?"

"Precisely."

Jag leaned back in his chair. "This is...incredible. It changes everything."

"Indeed it does," Chu'itha said. "Our historic isolation is about to come to an end."

The three of them sat there silently for a long moment. The implications - economic, cultural, technological, and more - were simply too staggering to put into words.

"And our historic security comes to an end as well," Shawnkyr finally said.

Chu'itha nodded slowly. "Yes. For as long as we have been a strong people, we have focused on the threats beyond our borders, in what the inhabitants of the rest of the galaxy so graciously call the Unknown Regions. The Clone Wars, the Civil War against the Empire, these conflicts raged for decades on our flank without so much as a passing effect."

"Even the war against the Yuuzhan Vong," Shawnkyr added quietly. "Despite some of the initial setbacks and the" - abruptly she paused and glanced furtively around them, then continued more circumspectly - "disputes over whether to maintain neutrality or engage the Vong aggressively, our people suffered little compared to most in the galaxy."

"Quite true," Chu'itha said. "But you are correct, Major Nuruodo. That security will be traded for other opportunities. The flank that once was closed to all but those we chose to admit to our territory will now have a significant vulnerability."

Jag blew out a deep breath. "All the threats from the Known Regions are now potential threats to us as well. Spies, disease, war, piracy...The galaxy's problems become our problems."

Chu'itha leaned back in his chair, too. "The future of the CEDF will be nothing like its past. Protecting our people is now vastly more complicated."

"And Vikova," Jag said, "is the key."

Chu'itha waved a dismissive hand. "Vikova itself is insignificant. The planet is nothing. All that matters is its location."

"Of course," Shawnkyr said. "This is where the hyperspace route crosses into the Outer Rim from uninhabited space."

"Exactly," Chu'itha replied. "And not just this sector. The safest, most direct route our astronavigators have devised uses Vikova's primary as a gravity source that will redirect starships as they head to or from the Core. Many of them no doubt will drop from hyperspace to refuel or take on supplies or crew at this stage of the journey."

"So whoever controls Vikova," Shawnkyr said, "controls the corridor."

"And whoever controls the corridor," Jag finished, "controls our flank."

Chu'itha smiled approvingly. "So perceptive for two so young," the elderly diplomat said warmly. "It is such sharp insights that earned you this mission."

Jag tipped his head to accept the very high compliment. "So my decision to defend Vikova was the correct one?"

"Without a doubt," Chu'itha replied. "The instructions I bring from Csilla are clear: to strike an alliance and sign a treaty with the Vikovans at once. We must control this location at any cost."

Jag nodded. "I understand."

"Your victory, repelling the Achebian aggression so decisively and impressively, already has earned the Chiss great levels of esteem among the Vikovans," Chu'itha explained. "Now all that is left is to seize upon that goodwill while it remains high, and conclude a treaty that will ensure our dominant presence on Vikova for the future."

"Yes," Jag said. "Of course."

"I will leave that to you," Chu'itha said. With a satisfied clap of his hands he rose to his feet, and Jag and Shawnkyr stood as well. "You seem to have already earned the trust and admiration of the Vikovan leader of the moment, this...Iliana, is it?"

"Yes, Iliana," Jag supplied.

"And it certainly seems," Shawnkyr said dryly, "that he has earned her admiration."

Jag tried to scowl at her, but she was very deliberately looking at Chu'itha and refusing to meet his gaze. "I have my orders, then. I will make obtaining a treaty with the Vikovans my top priority."

"Very good, Jagged," Chu'itha said. "Get us our treaty - by any means necessary."

"Yes." Jag swallowed hard. "I understand."

Chu'itha extended his hands, palms up. "May the Force be with you, Ambassador Fel."

"Thank you, Ambassador Chu'itha," Jag said, clasping his hands, palms down, atop the other man's. "It was a great pleasure to see you again."

Abruptly Chu'itha broke the grasp and leaned in toward Jag. "Jagged? Is that blood on your jacket?"

"Just a little," Jag said. "It is nothing."

Chu'itha frowned skeptically.

"There was an...incident on my way to meet you," Jag explained. "I am sure you will be briefed on it momentarily. In any case, I received a small cut on my head. It bled for a short while but it has already...been taken care of."

Chu'itha glanced at Shawnkyr. "Does he speak the truth? Or is my loyal subordinate shading the facts in an attempt to please me?"

"He speaks the truth, Ambassador." Shawnkyr chuckled. "This time, anyway."

"Good," Chu'itha said, chuckling too. He motioned toward the exit with a hand. "Come, Jagged. We have a fete in your honor to attend."

CHAPTER FIFTEEN


"Where is he?"

Jaina pounded her fists together and stood on the tips of her toes, shifting from side to side to get a better view of the grand entrance to the Hall of Celebration. The fete was now in full swing, so formal introductions and applause were no longer part of the festivities. It seemed a little odd to do that before the key players - Chu'itha, Iliana, Jag - had made their entrances. Still, avoiding boredom was always a good thing and Jaina wholeheartedly agreed with whoever had made the call to give up on waiting for them to show.

Iliana. Jag. Iliana and Jag.

After a deep breath in, Jaina blew the bangs off her forehead. She had to let go of that thought. That was exactly what had gotten her in trouble earlier.

Flopping down flat-footed once more, she glanced over to her brother. Jacen was, as usual, lost in what she liked to call his mindless party trance. From a position of silently stuffing one planjain chip after another in his mouth, he jolted with a start from her elbow in his ribs, nearly fumbling his plate in the process.

"What?"

"Can you see him?"

"Who?"

She'd just about had it up to her ears with genetically clueless men for the day. You asked for it, brother.

"Ow!" Jacen yelped practically in time with her Force slap. The plate flew in the air, and somehow landed back in his hand. At least he had seen that one coming.

"Stop being a baby and think for once."

"How?" He rubbed his head gingerly, all the while trying to balance the plate on one hand.

"You ask too many questions!" She snatched the plate away and stared into his eyes, ignoring the pained contortion of his face, one brow twisted, the other dropped. "Focus, Knight Solo."

At her feigned militaristic tone, Jacen snapped to attention - sort of. There was a little too much pomp and certainly a hint of the Solo grin. He was anything but serious.

She giggled despite herself. "What is - Look over yonder." Jaina pointed to the entrance with a sweep of her arms. "Who is Jag. How is..." She rolled her eyes and smacked the plate back into his hand. "Do I have to explain everything to you?"

While scanning the crowd, he popped another chip is his mouth. "Ope. On't ee im." Obviously satisfied that he had performed his brotherly duty, Jacen looked back down at her. "What do you need me for, anyway? Can't you two just feel each other?"

Glaring through her squinting eyelids, she concluded a Force slap was too kind. She raised her fist, prepared to sock her brother full out on the shoulder. "Why. You. Little."

"Hey, now. Watch it." With relative ease, Jacen palmed her fist and gently pushed aside the painful blow. Then he cast the same old don't-embarrass-me-in-public look she'd seen a hundred times before.

The old Jaina - or rather, the younger Jaina - wouldn't have cared what people thought of her. But now, here, in this place, in this role, she had to think differently. She was a Jedi Knight on a mission. What would Jag think?

"Sorry." She dropped her hand and stared at her balled fist. "It was wrong of me to get mad at you, when I was really mad at myself."

"Why?"

Always a question. Jaina left her face down-turned, but she drew her gaze and with it her eyebrows upward to meet her brother's quizzical stare. "Because there is a good reason I didn't just feel for Jag. You see earlier, when we were..." She inhaled through her nose and curled her lips. "Because earlier when we were..."

"Kissing?"

Jaina exhaled sharply as her cheeks heated. "You could tell?"

"Who couldn't?"

"Oh, kriff! Do you think all the Jedi -"

"I was joking," Jacen said, his arm closing around her shoulder. "Just me. It's hard to not tell when you are that...happy."

"Well, I wasn't happy for part."

"I thought Jag was the best kisser in the galaxy?"

"Oh, he is," Jaina said with a grin, recalling that...thing he did with his tongue. She blushed anew, then whistled a little sigh. "It's just that when I feel Jag - especially when we're kissing - I see more than I should sometimes, too."

"And you saw something this time?"

Jaina nodded.

"And it upset you?"

She nodded again.

"Is this the part where I have to threaten to go kick your stupid boyfriend's -"

"Jacen," she hissed.

He flashed a lopsided grin. "Kidding."

His smile receded quickly when she wasn't quick to follow suit. Being a twin made it mandatory to laugh at her brother's stupid jokes, especially when they weren't funny. This time, though, as she recalled what she had and hadn't done in that palace corridor an hour ago, she began to feel sick.

"Jaina, what is it?"

Putting her fingers to her temples, she tried to explain. "I saw flashes of his thoughts...about today. And in some of them I saw her." Her fingers curled reflexively as she met Jacen's gaze. "I saw Iliana...and Jag. And it made me jealous."

"That's it? You were jealous of her? Iliana's got nothing on you, sis -"

Jaina wiped an imaginary streak of saliva off the side of Jacen's mouth. "Says who? You, droolboy?"

"I di-did not drool!"

"Oh, really?"

"All right, so I admit she's not bad to look at, but come on. Think about it from Jag's point of view. She's a politician." Jacen started marking off his points with his fingers. "And a blonde. And she's no pilot. And a wimp besides - did you see that entourage she needed to fly escort down to the planet? And most importantly, she's not truly beautiful where it counts." Jacen placed his hand over Jaina's heart. "Inside. There is no one - Force-blind or not - who can't see that Jagged Fel is totally and absolutely in love with you."

"So why do I keep messing it up?" She threw up her hands. "It's like I make reasons -"

"Yes, you do make reasons. You're a doer, Jaina, not a feeler. But sometimes you need to just stop - and feel."

"I know," she admitted.

"So what does your heart feel?" he asked, his eyes sweeping across the room.

Just for a moment the room stilled and the Force swirled in a mighty vortex around the twins. It was a rare and powerful connection they found easiest to form together. In unison they inhaled, and the Force entered Jaina with a rush of insight. She swayed with the current pulling her inexorably toward the entrance, and smiled, her eyes half-closed while she clutched Jacen for balance.

"Jag," she whispered.

With his warm breath on her ear, Jacen said in a low voice, "Go."

And so she went, with a gentle shove from the one person who knew her truly. Well, not the only one - not any more. Opening her eyes, Jaina found Jag easily through the swirling masses, his dark hair with its contrasting white so shockingly stunning even to this day. He had stopped inside the entranceway, framed among the brilliant burgundy drapes. The black uniform was back to its crisp form despite the afternoon's events. It was almost as if his clothes simply knew they looked good on him, and set themselves accordingly.

Each and every time Jaina saw Jag, he took her breath away.

His green eyes were scanning the crowd. She simply thought, I'm here, and that unadorned notion was all it took for their eyes to meet. And for the subtle curl of his lips to form. Her heart melted. She had almost lost him today, and now she felt compelled to tell him everything. Tonight. No dallying like earlier. No excuses. Just the truth.

Jag deserved no less. He had always been forthright with her - from the very first time he had confessed his love that fateful day on Borleias when they had almost lost each other. It had taken that harshest of lessons to bring them together. Since then Jag had been her center - an unmovable rock standing amidst a Calamari gale. All too often Jaina had found herself latching onto his strength. If she was truthful with herself, she needed him as much as she needed air to breathe.

She walked straight and true to her love, not stopping until she almost drowned in the cool depths of his eyes. "Jag."

"Jaina." His eyes glinted like emeraudes twirling in the sun. "Sorry about earlier."

She shook her head, but left it slightly cocked so she had to gaze up out of the corner of her eye at him. "You had business to attend to. I understand."

In an unusual display of affection he reached out and squeezed her hand. "I am so glad you're here."

She repositioned her hand and tightened her grip in turn. All the while her eyes searched his face. "Is everything all right, Jag?"

"Can we ta-"

"Jagged! How long must I wait for you to introduce me to your lovely friend?"

Jag snatched his hand away. It was a reactionary move, but it hurt nonetheless. She missed him already. But just as abruptly Jag stepped to Jaina's side and openly placed his palm on her back. "Ambassador Forchu'itha'nuruodo, may I present Jedi Knight Jaina Solo."

"Jedi Knight Jaina Solo, it is my honor." The dignified Chiss held out his hand and Jaina stalled momentarily, unsure what to do. Her limited experience with the Chiss had shown them to be impersonal and aloof, shunning physical contact even with others of their own kind. Perhaps as an ambassador, this Chiss was accustomed to greeting other races in their own unique manner. Hesitantly she offered her own hand, expecting perhaps a curt handshake. Instead the white-haired dignitary swept her hand up into his own, bent low at the waist, and planted a perfect kiss on the top of her knuckles. "And my pleasure."

Jaina graciously accepted her hand back when the ambassador let it go. At a loss for words, she simply smiled that polite affectation her mother had taught her long ago. "Ambassador, I must say -"

"I am not what you expected," Chu'itha said. With a flourish he swept his hand toward Jag and then Shawnkyr, who had just arrived. "I am terribly sorry if my more militarily minded brethren in the CEDF have given you the wrong impression. Not all Chiss are quite so...grim."

The ambassador's final word gave Jaina good cause to smile, particularly at Jag.

"After everything I have heard about you," Chu'itha continued without missing a beat, "I am surprised Jagged has not yet brought you to our wonderful homeworld and given you the opportunity to learn this for yourself."

Still looking at Jag, Jaina raised an eyebrow curiously. "Oh, it's not for lack -" she swiveled to face the aging Chiss "- of trying."

Then Chu'itha did something even more unexpected. He laughed - long and hard. "Ah. Very well, then. A hard one to catch are you, Jedi Knight Jaina Solo?"

Jaina giggled - his mirth was genuinely infectious. "Just married to my work."

Chu'itha's shoulders stopped bobbing and his expression grew more somber. "Yes. I would imagine the life of a Jedi must be difficult. Little time for frivolous matters such as romance when the galaxy's greater good is your duty. I have always suspected that is why you understand Jagged so well, with his similar commitments to honor his duty on behalf of his Chiss comrades and the CEDF."

Before she could express her agreement the Vikovan band struck up a lively tune that Jaina recognized instantly. It was the Corellian dowling tango, one of her favorites. Her foot started tapping of its own accord.

"Do you want to dance?" Jag's question caused Jaina to spin around and stare at him agape. She had to remind herself to shut her mouth. The idea was so out of character in the midst of a conversation with his superior - yet reminiscent of another time and place - she wondered if Jag hadn't taken a harder hit than anyone realized. Jaina looked from Jag to the ambassador.

"I suppose I should find this...Ilana...no, Ilaina...or Ilina...Oh dear." The Chiss ambassador shook his head and rubbed his angled chin, then looked to Jaina with a mischievous sparkle in his red eyes. "How is it again that you say her name?"

"Illy-ahna," Jaina answered, using every ounce of her willpower to do so graciously.

"Ah. Yes, well, at least I was close. Iliana it is, then." Chu'itha glanced over to Shawnkyr. "Major, do you mind?"

Snapping to attention, Shawnkyr dipped her head respectfully and offered him her arm. "This way, Ambassador."

Chu'itha grinned and linked his arm into hers. Then with a perfectly executed pivot, the two tall Chiss were gone. Jaina watched the ambassador walk away, and wondered if all her suppositions about the Chiss were entirely wrong. She would find out soon enough -

"Jaina?"

Jag was standing with his hand outstretched, waiting. The tantalizing beat of the dowling tango was at full tempo now, and Jaina was quickly caught up in its hypnotic rhythm once again. Very gently she placed her hand in Jag's, and an instant later he swung her onto the dance floor. At that point the dance took over. It was intricate and energetic, and Jag was more than an adequate partner. He guided her through the dips and turns that up until now she had only performed with her dad or brother, and Jaina learned something new - Jag was in fact an amazing dance partner.

Only at the chorus, when the steps finally repeated, did she dare speak. "Why Jagged Fel, you never cease to amaze me."

He spun her once, then captured her back in his arms. They were body to body. "How's that?"

"You're good. Really good. It's almost as if I don't know this man before me."

Dipping her back, his expression was entirely serious as he said, "I am the same man I've always been."

Once righted, she finally could answer. "But you seem so comfortable...here. It's almost as if you belong -"

"I am only comfortable because you are here." He left her as the dance dictated and after a quick four-step turn they were back in each other's arms. "I could be happy anywhere with you."

"Happy on Csilla?"

"Yes. You would like it there -"

"Obviously you think so." Jaina smirked as they locked hands and began the fast pair spin that accompanied the final musical flourish. "You've even convinced Ambassador Chu'itha to aid in your effort to get me to go home -"

Jag lifted his hands and twisted Jaina into the tight spiral. The room spun by in a flurry of colors until she landed safely in his arms, his eyes locked on hers. "I did no such thing."

Of course she knew Chu'itha's taunt regarding her visit had been unsolicited, but the look on Jag's face suggested he thought otherwise. Time to stop teasing. "You know, Jag, I've been meaning to talk to you."

He stepped back, rolling Jaina out until they ended at arms' length. Jag's free hand flared out from his side. "As have I."

Jaina curtsied as she should. "You have?"

He bowed. "Yes, actually. There's something rather important we..."

The rest was lost in a flourish of applause. Looking left then right to see what all the ado was about, Jaina quickly realized everyone in the enormous ballroom had been watching their dance. Now that it had ended, the thunderous approval signified that they had done an admirable job. When she turned back to Jag, he appeared solicitous of the crowd and expressed the correct degree of gratitude, but there was something uneasy about the set of his jaw.

He wasn't looking at her, though, but rather just past. The applause died away, and Jaina sensed the crowd parting. Soon only one set of softly clapping hands remained.

"Iliana," Jaina spat as she tried to take her hand back. Jag, however, was entirely unwilling to relinquish her. With some effort Jaina's fingers popped from between Jag's, and he frowned. Jaina turned to face the meddling intruder, crossing her arms as she did.

"Well, well, Jaina, my dear. You and Ambassador Fel are quite the pair. In the air, and on the dance floor," the Vikovan leader said aloud. Already she had passed through the crowd and sauntered onto the center of the dance floor. More softly, from the corner of her mouth, she said, "Or so it would appear."

"Appearances aren't everything, Your Grace," Jaina replied with a sickly smile.

"Indeed. They can be deceiving - or just for show." Iliana turned to Jag, wrapping an arm through his as if she owned him. "What matters is what is inside. The reasons that drive each of us. Our motivations."

Jaina clenched her teeth. She knew the game at hand; she knew what Iliana wanted - to make her jealous and do something utterly stupid. Deep down Jaina knew that Iliana's shallow games weren't fooling Jag. He saw nothing but a beautiful yet hollow shell when he looked at the tall, voluptuous blonde. When he looked at Jaina, on the other hand, she felt his spirit soar, as if she alone could fill the hollows of his heart. Jaina would not let herself become the jealous fool she had accused Jag of being earlier in the day. She wouldn't let Iliana ruin tonight.

Jaina dipped her head respectfully. "Of course. You're right."

The fete guests, who by now had clustered around them, all grinned and nodded in unison, a room full of puppets at their leader's beck and call. Iliana smiled as well, but she seemed none too pleased. Then Jaina remember her mother's assertion that the best way to kill an opponent's momentum is to deny them your true self. Obviously Iliana had not expected Jaina to act like her mother, to choose restraint. She had to admit it was an unnatural choice for her, but right now she was finding the results entirely too satisfying to do anything else.

Turning her back on Jaina, Iliana addressed Jag. "I am glad my advice to keep you off Jaina's wing ended fortuitously. Working separately seems to favor the two of you."

Oh, she's good. Jaina imagined a Force-slap landing precisely between the blonde's perfectly spaced eyeballs. Instead she gave the woman an overwhelming itch between her shoulder blades. It gave Jaina an unhealthy but great pleasure to watch Iliana squirm to hold her regal air while Jag offered a bland tactical answer. Scratching her back in public of course would never do.

It turned out that a little jealousy was quite fun after all.

"I would have been in dire straights without Jaina in the end. She always seems to have my back...when I need it the most," Jag finished. He was now staring at Jaina. Intently. Very intently.

"Maestro, the music, please."

As Iliana signaled to the orchestra, Jaina found herself fighting a blush. It was an odd sensation indeed, but not unexpected when she recognized the heated thoughts coming from Jag. An embrace. A kiss. Oh, that kiss. A caress up her sides to her...

Every fiber of Jaina's being fought to control the rising blood in her body. Even then she felt flushed. How could Jag just stand there and think those things? And still remain so in control?

Suddenly, an entirely evil thought popped into her mind. "I'll leave you two, then. To share this dance." Jaina flashed Iliana her patented Solo grin. That's all you'll ever get of my man, sister. So enjoy it now, because you'll never get any better. "Gotta go."

Jag hurriedly extricated himself from Iliana's grasp and stepped toward Jaina. "About our talk..."

Jaina batted her eyelashes. She knew exactly what he wanted to "talk" about. The anticipation would only make things more passionate later on. "It can wait." Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a group of pilots - Galactic Alliance and Jedi - heading into one of the hallways. "I've got to check on my guys. You know where to find me, okay?"

She patted his arm, then trotted off. The moment he was free from his duties Jag would find her in her room like he always did, and Jaina would be waiting to welcome him with open arms. She wasn't sure why her room and not his, but that was just the way it always happened. Soon he would be there. They would be alone, really alone. She would tell him everything, and they would celebrate. Oh, they would celebrate, all right - all night long.

Tonight would be a night they would both remember. Jaina had no doubt of that at all.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN


Jacen strode slowly down the wide boulevard leading away from the rear of the Vikovan palace. It was dark now, well past midnight, and the street was deserted. He heard the occasional chirping bird or scurrying nocturnal rodent, but that was about it. He hadn't had time to meditate since the battle, and he needed it badly. He would have preferred somewhere a little less public, but this would do. Besides, it had been a while since he'd done a walking meditation. Always good to mix things up a little bit now and then.

The battle had been a victory and Jacen had managed not to embarrass himself with his flying. When he had shared a slow, close dance with Shawnkyr during the fete she had insisted that he had flown admirably. Personally he wasn't too sure about that, but he couldn't think of any reason she'd not tell him the truth. And the fete itself had been entertaining enough. It had taken all of his willpower not to openly laugh at Jaina's impatience and jealousy waiting for Jag to arrive. He'd managed to share only one dance with Iliana, a feat of which he was very proud. Then he'd caught up on the latest news from Csilla and the Fels with Ambassador Chu'itha, who was far more gregarious than any Chiss Jacen had ever met before. Then again, Jacen had only ever met military officers, not diplomats. Still, a Chiss who reminded him so much of Lando Calrissian was quite disconcerting. After that he'd passed some time with the other Jedi until making his early escape. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Gradually Jacen stretched more and more of his awareness into the Force. His feet moved forward methodically. His breathing slowed. He clasped his hands at the small of his back. He closed his eyes and relied on his perceptions to guide him along. It was definitely relaxing.

A disturbance in the Force jolted Jacen back to reality with his fingers closed around his lightsaber handle and his feet set in a ready stance. He had no idea where he was or how far from the palace he had walked, but right now that didn't matter. What mattered was the very profound spike of dangerous emotions sheering through the Force around him.

Aggression. Fear. Anger. Panic. Annoyance.

Annoyance?

Jacen's eyes were drawn to the storefront of a nearby building along the moonlit street. It had no windows and the door was closed. He could barely make out the sign above the entrance: Rathe's Lomynaille Cantina. Yes, whatever violent feud he felt stirring was most definitely inside there. With rapid strides Jacen closed the distance to the building and marched inside.

He assessed the situation in a heartbeat. To one side of the dark, grimy cantina two groups of men were facing off. Harsh words were being traded and fists were clenched. Aggression and anger - and it was about to get ugly fast. In the rest of the cantina the other patrons, mostly men but a noticeable number of women too, were scattering and doing their best to get out of the way of the impending melee. Fear and panic - and if things didn't calm down soon it might very well end in a stampede.

At the bar one man sat with his back still to the spectacle. His was the annoyance.

Before Jacen could decide the best course of action, the squabbling drunkards chose for him. One of them threw a punch, which smacked authoritatively into the face of another. Shouts exploded from both sides of the standoff. Another punch flew, and another.

Then one of the combatants drew a blaster.

Faster than the blink of an eye Jacen acted. His lightsaber ignited in his right hand while his left hand reached out with the Force and yanked the blaster from the man's grip. He sliced the pistol in two when it arrived an instant later and used the Force to fling the pieces flying off to clatter into opposite corners of the room. Then he carved a pattern of practice strikes through the air to make sure everyone in the cantina heard the distinctive thrumming of his blade.

"I think," came a very irritated male voice from the bar, "it's time everyone sat down and shut up before you make me do something you'll regret."

Jacen glanced over at his newfound ally, who had a blaster trained on the rowdy group, and grinned. "Yes," he added, affecting his best intimidating Jedi Knight demeanor and tone, "I think it would be a very good idea indeed if everyone took Ambassador Fel's advice."

Even without the Force, Jacen would've felt clearly the surprise and awe racing around the silent room. No one in the cantina had probably ever seen a Jedi Knight before, and his brief display of power had been more than enough to convince them not to mess with him. Add to that the now obvious presence of the man who had defended their planet and been honored by their leader, and the patrons of the cantina were dumbstruck.

The men in the two feuding groups stammered apologies, bowed respectfully, saluted in chagrin, or otherwise acted humiliated. Within a few more seconds the men had returned to their seats and were unconvincingly pretending as if nothing had happened. Around the rest of the room the other patrons chuckled and shook their heads, and went back to their own conversations and sabacc games.

Jacen shut down his lightsaber and clipped it to his belt. He tipped his head or smiled to acknowledge the gratitude and respect of those he passed while he made his way to Jag's side at the bar. By the time he got there the stool next to Jag was empty - he had no idea who to thank for clearing the way, not that he would ever have asked the person to move - and he sat down next to his friend.

"Whatcha havin'?"

"Whatever he's having," Jacen told the bartender.

"Heh," the surly man said. "You'll regret it."

Jacen only smiled, then turned to Jag. "So what brings you to this fine establishment?"

"Red ale," Jag replied with entirely too much earnestness. "Took me ten...no, eleven tries to find a place that actually serves red ale."

On cue the bartender smacked down a tall mug of bright red liquid right in front of Jacen. The bartender started to turn away, then spun back. "Hey, bud. You not plannin' to keep up with your pal here, are you?"

Jacen frowned. "Why wouldn't I?"

"Heh." The bartender reached over the wide counter and slapped Jacen on the shoulder. "This stuff? Heh. May the Force be with you, Jedi."

Jacen picked up his mug and sniffed it. Fruity. "I've never heard of red ale."

"It's not Corellian," Jag said in a tone that reminded Jacen of his father's proclamations that Corellian brands were the only kind worth consuming. "But it is Chiss."

"Chiss?"

Jag pointed at his own mug. "Ale." Very deliberately at Jacen's. "Red." He raised his finger to his face. "Like their eyes."

"Right," Jacen said, trying very hard not to laugh. "So how did the Vikovans get their hands on this, then?"

"Dunno." Jag drank half his mug in a single huge gulp. "Does it matter?"

"I suppose not," Jacen said. He took a shallow drink from his mug - and thought his entire head was about to explode. His mouth blazed. His throat constricted. His eyes dampened. His ears rang with the thunder of a fragmentation grenade detonating inside his skull.

Jag wiped his lips with the back of his hand. "You like?"

Jacen managed to set his mug down without spilling the rest. "Yeow!"

"Heh," the bartender said from halfway down the counter. "Told ya."

"Clawcraft...and red ale...Csilla's finest, both." Jag raised his mug in the air and spun on his stool to face the crowded cantina. "A toast to the Chiss, my friends! I owe them my life. To the Chiss!"

An immediate roar of approval responded, with clinking mugs and applause. "To the Chiss!" the crowd exclaimed in unison, then again when Jag pumped his mug in the air. "To the Chiss!"

"Oo da Fiss!" Jacen said, raising his mug with them.

"Good stuff," Jag said, nodding in delight at Jacen's momentarily numb tongue. "Good stuff."

Jacen blinked away his tears and set down his mug a little further away. About now all he wanted was some protective distance. "All right, so you're here for the red ale. But that doesn't explain why you're here. In some bar. Getting drunk."

"Heh." Jag presumably wasn't aware he'd been listening to the bartender a bit too long. His shoulders slumped and he rested his head in his hands. "Where else should I be?"

"Oh, I don't know..." Jacen leaned in. "Maybe...you know...with my sister?"

"You think I don't want to?" Suddenly Jag's eyes were sharp, his voice precise. "You think I want to be out here alone? Do you?"

"Well...no. Of course not." Jacen reached out and put a comforting hand on Jag's shoulder. "Then why are you here?"

The flash of cogency was gone. "No point...Tried everything...If she doesn't...want me any more then...then I've got to move on. Right?"

"Jag, I'll be honest," Jacen said. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Oh..."

Jacen waited a long moment. "Um, Jag?"

"Right," his friend said. "Right. See...I asked her to come to Csilla. Meet my family."

"And she said no?"

"Well, she...not so much no, as not yes."

"So what's the -"

"You've been to Csilla," Jag exclaimed suddenly, throwing his arm around Jacen's shoulders. "You've met my family. You're so good to me, Jacen."

"Jag, I -"

"Aren't they great?"

"Your family? Yes, Jag. They are."

"See?" Jag gazed pleadingly at Jacen. "So why wouldn't she want to meet them? They're great!"

"I don't know. Maybe -"

Jag's head flopped down on Jacen's shoulder. "She doesn't want to meet them," he said in the most pathetic voice Jacen had ever heard from anyone, much less a Fel. "And if she doesn't want to meet them...it must mean she doesn't really love me."

"Of course she loves you, Jag," Jacen said, adjusting himself on the stool a bit to make sure Jag's weight wouldn't knock him completely off balance. "That's crazy."

"Is it, Jacen?"

"Yes."

"I dunno." Jag shook his head very elaborately. "I just dunno any more."

"What's gotten into you tonight?"

"Well, I'd tell you," he said, "but then I'd have to - oh, wait! This is you! I can trust a Jedi to keep a secret, right?"

For a moment Jacen was very afraid of what kind of secret this was going to be, but he took the risk. "Of course, Jag."

Leaning closer, Jag whispered in Jacen's ear. "See, it all started..."

Jacen tried his very best to listen to everything Jag was saying, but it was incredibly difficult. For one thing, Jag was whispering a little too quietly. For another, Jag kept forgetting he had to speak in Basic, not Chiss. On top of that Jag's thoughts weren't exactly progressing in linear fashion. Jacen was in deep trouble. Still, he managed to gather that Jag's crisis had something to do with hyperspace routes, Ambassador Chu'itha, an alliance with Vikova, Iliana wanting something in exchange, Garrett Trace, and Jag owing something to somebody.

Jag leaned away when he finished. "You see my problem?"

"I sure do," Jacen lied. He looked down in horror to see that he unconsciously had finished off his mug of red ale while listening to Jag. That would explain why his mouth stung like a swarm of Yavin 4's poisonous insects had taken up residence inside.

"So if I'm going to lose Jaina anyway...I guess the best thing for everyone is if I just do my duty to the Chiss and marry Iliana."

"What?"

Jag shrugged. "What other choice do I have?"

"Don't be stupid, Jag. You can't really -"

"Maybe it's better this way," Jag said to his empty mug. "Jaina seems to like that Trace guy well enough. I'm sure they'll be really happy together. And I'm sure I'll -"

"Garrett? Have you lost your mind?"

"He'll take good care of her. Maybe not as good as I would have, but -"

"All right, now you're really starting to scare me, Jag." The bartender refilled Jag's mug, but Jacen waved him away from his. "There's nothing between Jaina and Garrett. Nothing."

"Maybe you're right." Jag took a long drink. "It doesn't matter, though, Jacen. If Jaina won't commit to me, then I don't have a choice. I just don't."

"Did you tell this to Jaina? Does she know about this?"

"No. I tried to tell her, but...I never got the chance."

"You have to tell her." Jacen slapped Jag on the shoulder. "Come on, Jag. You can't give up. That's not like you at all. You have to tell her."

"What difference will it make?" Jag shook his head. "I don't want her to be with me just to save me from Iliana. I want her to be with me because she loves me."

"She does!"

"They why won't she just come to Csilla with me?"

Jacen had to think of something, and fast. "I watched you and Jaina together at the fete tonight," he said gently. "Dancing. Talking. It sure looked to me like she loves you very much."

"But that's just the thing," Jag replied forlornly. Then the floodgates opened, even more impressively than a minute earlier. "See...we were dancing...and I had things I needed to tell her, and she had things she wanted to tell me, I know she did, but then when Iliana got there Jaina just left, she just walked away and left me there with Iliana, I don't know why she'd do that, I mean I know Iliana just showed up out of nowhere, and she's got on this dress that shows off her, well, you saw it, like she's just out there for everyone to see and she doesn't care a bit, it's crazy, so she shows up and starts talking on and on about -"

Jacen wondered if Jag was planning to breathe, but he didn't have the heart to interrupt him.

"- who knows what, and all I wanted was for Jaina to rescue me, you know? Wave her pretty little hand and make Iliana walk around making bird noises or something, you know, wow, how funny would that have been, watch Iliana chirping like a bird, chirpy chirp chirp you arrogant fool of a woman! Being a Jedi is so great that way, Jacen, I'm telling you, you guys are really missing an opportunity there with all your rules and codes and all that, you could have some serious fun someday if you wanted to, you know that?"

"Definitely," Jacen said. He glanced down at his half-empty mug of red ale. Half-empty! He hadn't asked for more...And he didn't remember drinking more...Vowing to watch himself more carefully, Jacen pressed on. "But still, Jag, maybe Jaina thought you had to deal with your diplomat things with Iliana?"

"Maybe," Jag said. "But I was sending her signals. I dunno how she could miss them."

"Signals? What kinda signals?"

Jag peered very seriously into Jacen's eyes. "In...the Force."

"If you say so."

"No, really! I was!" Jag whispered in Jacen's ear again. "Lemme tell you another secret. See, when I think really strong thoughts about Jaina she can feel them. So Iliana's there and I start thinking about Jaina and me sneaking away for a debriefing if you know what I mean -"

"Jag..."

"- so I'm thinking about kissing Jaina really hard -"

"Jag."

"- and there's this thing I do with my tongue that just drives her wild -"

"Jag!"

"- and then I slide my hands up to her -"

"JAG!"

"What?"

"She's my sister, Jag. Please, please, please spare me the details?"

"Oh, right. Right!" Jag's hand on his shoulder patted Jacen a few times. "Sorry about that."

Fortunately Jacen was positive the former contents of the half-full mug of red ale had wiped those mental images right out of his mind forever. "Don't worry about it."

"But you see, right? She couldn't have missed those signals."

"I wouldn't think so, no," Jacen conceded. "But there has to be some other explanation, Jag. There just has to be. Jaina is madly in love with you, I know she is."

"Well, she sure she isn't acting like it."

"Jag..."

"Maybe I'm better off without her. Maybe I've waited too long already. Iliana can't be that bad. She has to have some good qualities in there somewhere, right?"

"Come on, Jag! You're not just going to give up, are you?"

"Why not?" Jag smacked his palm on the bar. "Maybe I should."

Jacen took a slow, deep breath. "You're making a big mistake, Jag."

For a long moment he didn't reply. "I know."

"So don't just sit there, do something!"

"What?"

"I don't know. Something!"

Jag hissed out a breath. "Some Jedi insight you've got there, Jacen Solo."

He didn't have any response to that. Not at first. "Hey, I've got it!"

For the first time all night, Jag's face brightened. "You do?"

"Well, it's not Jedi insight, exactly, but it's something, all right!" Jacen leaned in close and whispered in Jag's ear. "Let me tell you a story about the time..."

Jag nodded slowly when he finished. "I have to hand it to you, Jacen. With a few adjustments here and there, it just might work."

"It will work. She'd never be expecting it, not in a million years."

"It does have that going for it," Jag said. He met Jacen's gaze, and the haze in his green eyes was entirely gone. "We will have to keep it a secret."

"No kidding!" Jacen slapped Jag on the back. "I say we get planning right now."

"Yes. We should." Jag braced himself on the bar and stood up on wobbly legs. He tossed down several large denomination aurodium coins and waved a hand to the bartender at the other end of the counter. "Keep the change."

"Think it's safe to say you'll be welcome back here any night," Jacen said. He linked his arm through Jag's and they began to stagger toward the exit. "So...what do we plan first?"

"Ship," Jag said. "First, we need a ship."

"Done."

"Really?"

"Trust me, I've got that figured out already."

"All right." Jag's shoulder smacked into the doorframe as they emerged outside into the chilly nighttime air. "Then next is the...you know...the things...with the..."

"Done," Jacen said. "I'll handle that, too."

"You sure?"

"Got it covered." Jacen waggled a finger at his friend. "I'm a Jedi Knight, remember? I have all sorts of connections for things like that."

"Truth be told, I'm a lot more worried about your Solo connections."

"If I didn't know you better, Fel, I'd be insulted."

"Actually..."

They stumbled and nearly toppled over - and burst out laughing.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


"Great job on the mission, Jacen," Luke's quarter-size hologram said. "Make sure your sister hears that, too."

"I'll be sure to tell her, um, later."

"I'd appreciate that. I suppose I can tell her myself when she reports in later."

"Oh...Right! Yes, you can."

"In fact, I was surprised to hear from any of you. Isn't it well into the night there? And you had a rough day and all?" It was hard to read expressions over the holocomm, but the tone and inflection to his uncle's words definitely revealed some degree of concern. Or perhaps it was the red ale still at work? That stuff just made everything seem...fuzzy and overblown.

"Jacen?"

At the sound of his aunt's voice - she had slipped into the holo at some point - he snapped back to here and now. "Huh?"

"Are you all right?"

Out of the holocam's sight, Jacen pinched himself. "Yeow!" A little too hard.

"Jacen?" Luke asked this time.

Batting away an imaginary bug, Jacen made light of his exclamation. "Just one of those Vikovan skeeters. Got me on the leg. I'm fine." He glanced up to find two disbelieving faces staring back at him. "Really. I'm fine."

"Must be some big bloodsucking insects on Vikova," Mara noted with a hint of sarcasm.

Jacen flashed a lopsided grin. "Oh, you have no idea how big, Aunt Mara. They'll suck the life right out of you given the chance."

"No doubt," Mara said, sharing a conspiratorial smirk with Luke.

Jacen scrambled to regain control of the conversation. "So how's Ben? Jaina said he's enjoying the motimouse I gave him."

When Mara crossed her arms and the infamous Jade scowl appeared, Luke intervened. "Ben's great. Best we leave discussion of Snuggles for another day."

Already afraid even to make eye contact with his aunt, Jacen had to agree with Luke's assessment. This is going badly, he thought. Maybe I'd best get to the point and be done. "So you'll be happy to know, Aunt Mara, that the Shadow didn't see a moment's action, and is in perfect order."

"Considering I lent her to you merely as a transport ship, I would certainly hope not." The arms never came uncrossed. And while Jacen knew intuitively that Mara wouldn't have batted an eye if either he or Jaina had needed to fly the Shadow in battle, he still squirmed under her scrutiny.

"Not even a micrometeor dent on the hull on the way here," Jacen offered meekly.

"Good," Mara snipped, "or you'd have been rubbing it out on your return tomorrow."

Jacen tried to smile, but he wondered if it looked more like a grimace. He glanced to Luke for help, and found all his uncle could offer was a quick shrug. Red ale or not, Mara in a mood was unmistakable. Somewhere along the line, his aunt had forgotten that women were supposed to be inscrutable.

The way Jacen had it figured, Jaina was either going to hug him or kill him after all this. What difference was one more raving mad Jedi female in the equation going to make?

Jacen dove in head first. "So about tomorrow -"

"You are planning to bring my ship back tomorrow." Mara's arms uncrossed - a good sign. Until the hands went to the hips - a bad sign.

"Well, not exactly."

"Not exactly?" The hands flew in the air. "What does not exactly mean?"

Luke placed a calming hand on Mara's shoulder. "Perhaps their mission is not completed -"

"Oh, it is." No sooner were the words out of Jacen's mouth than he realized the grave miscalculation. Blast that red ale! Quick! Think, Jacen. "It's for something else. But I can't tell you what."

"You can't?!"

Jacen was sure there was steam coming from Mara's ears. Okay, that's definitely the red ale. "Well..." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "It's for a rescue mission."

"Who needs rescuing?" Suddenly Mara remembered the inscrutable part, because Jacen couldn't tell if she was softening or not.

"We've been trying to keep it under wraps," Jacen said theatrically, leaning even closer to the holocam. "Still are actually. In fact, I'm kind of exposed so I don't want to talk too much about it."

"That doesn't answer -"

"Jacen," Luke interrupted with all the serene patience of a Jedi Master, "just tell us as much as you can."

Jacen knew his uncle would pay for the intervention later, so he had to oblige. With something. Fast. "Well, there was this, um, problem with the Vikovan leader...An assassination attempt. Right! Things got a bit hairy around here...what with the murders...and the, um, you know...hostage..." Jacen glanced around furtively. "Someone prominent, unfortunately."

Ending with that, Jacen decided he technically hadn't lied to his aunt and uncle, yet he wasn't quite sure how much further he could push it. So he held his breath, and waited. In the meantime Luke looked to Mara, and she back to him in turn. There was an unspoken exchange before Mara tipped her head ever so slightly.

"And you believe use of the Shadow is necessary to accomplish your objective?" Luke asked.

Jacen simply nodded, afraid to say more.

Luke clutched Mara's hand. "Well, then we trust you, Jacen."

Mara took up where Luke left off. "If you say this is important, then I don't see how I can deny you."

With a low, muffled hiss Jacen's breath left his lungs, but he was careful to conceal any telltale signs over the comm. "Thanks, Aunt Mara."

She shook a finger, and arched an eyebrow. "I better not regret this, young man."

"Oh. You won't." This time Jacen couldn't help the revealing hint of a grin. Damnable red ale at work. "I promise. Um, so...do you think I could have the next week's codes?"

"The next week's?!" Mara practically shot off the seat like a rocket. Like a rocket! Jacen felt a snicker about to erupt at the mental image of Mara's head atop a rocket shooting into space. Even as it welled deep in his core, his aunt continued on, blabbing about how long and for what reason. When the first guffaw stalled in his mouth - only due to some immeasurable Jedi control - Jacen figured he'd better get a grip. With some degree of concentration he focused on Mara's words as they grew in intensity and volume. "And exactly what kind of rescue -"

"Shhhh!" Jacen waved one hand and held a silencing finger from the other over his lips. After Luke aided him by yanking Mara back to sitting, Jacen continued in a hushed tone, "No mention of rescue. Like I said, I'm not sure who I can trust."

Finishing with his best imitation of a young Jedi in dire circumstances, Jacen could only wait. Mara did nothing to lessen his dilemma either, shifting uneasily in her seat and muttering intently. After some time, Jacen found himself squirming in place, crossing his arms, crossing his legs. Bantha brains! I must look like Ben with piranha beetles in his pants.

He stilled, and waited some more.

Thankfully, not more than a few seconds later Mara reached forward and her arm disappeared past the holocam range. "Sent."

A blinking light on the communicator confirmed that she had done just that. Jacen punched a succession of keys and a second later a datacard popped from the console. "Thanks, Aunt Mara. You're the best."

"So I've been told," she answered wearily. Luke wrapped an arm around her and kissed her neck.

With every intention of making a hasty goodbye, Jacen started to rise. That was until Mara said out of the blue, "One last question, kiddo."

Jacen felt sweat form on his brow instantly. "Um...yeah?"

"Why didn't you just ask Jaina for the codes? She knows every rotation there is on the Shadow."

Think fast, nerfherder, or you're rancor roast. He smacked a palm to his forehead, and in that instant the truth also saw fit to smack him there as well. Literally. His one thought was, Tell them the truth. "Oh, right! Of course! I can't believe I forgot to mention that."

"Mention what?"

"Um, well...you see...Jaina's unavailable. She's already left, in fact."

Luke sat forward first. "Left for -"

Jacen waved his hands to ward off any questions. "But it's all good! She and Jag are going to spend some time together these next couple of days. Like we all hoped."

"Jaina's just going to hand over her Jedi obligations and run off with Jag for a couple days?" Mara asked incredulously.

"Exactly," Jacen said with a grin. "Neat, huh?"

Mara tipped forward and peered through the holocam with eyes so cool Jacen thought she was actually face to face with him. "Who kidnapped your sister and -"

"No one!"

"- left an insane woman in her place, Jacen Solo?"

Jacen swallowed, hard. Stupid red ale! "Not insane at all, Aunt Mara. Really. She just needs some time to, um, be alone with Jag. Like we all wanted for them when she came here. I've got it all under control while she's away. I promise."

He could tell Mara wasn't the least bit convinced, but fortunately a sharp rapping on the doorframe broke the tension. Jacen glanced toward the sound, to where Jag stood just beyond holocam range. Quickly he turned back to the shimmering blue image. "My team's here. Got to go! Thanks, Aunt Mara. Bye, Uncle Luke."

Before either could protest Jacen slapped the transmission button, ending the comm. Then he flopped back in his formchair and ran a hand through his wayward locks. "Whew," he said with a dramatic sigh. "That was close."

Jag stepped into the room. "Did you get it?"

"Man, you can't get anything by Mara," Jacen exclaimed. "I'd swear she knew exactly what I was up to."

"I am sure she is quite the mind-reader. But did you get it?"

Jacen wiped a palm down his face, still mulling the conversation over in his mind, and that look. He could swear Mara saw right through him. "She has to know...something," he muttered to no one in particular.

"I guess that means no," Jag huffed, flopping into a chair across from Jacen.

"Huh?" Straightening abruptly, Jacen realized what Jag had said.

Jag did not look dejected, though. Instead a mischievous glint lit his eyes. "I guess I'm just going to have to steal your aunt's ship."

No doubt. Jag still had the red ale sickness. The corners of Jacen's mouth curled. Until today, he hadn't known the pompous Imp had it in him. Perhaps Fel's Corellian blood was finally asserting itself.

"Not if you know what's good for you. The Shadow has a series of rotating operating codes. Enter the wrong code, and it means big trouble."

Jag waved off the warning with a swat of his hand. "There has to be away around it. Besides, it's probably some tale Mara told you and Jaina to keep you from borrowing her ship."

Initially that idea didn't seem utterly ridiculous. Jacen furrowed his brows and pondered the thought - for all of two seconds. "No. They're real. We're talking about the woman even Luke Skywalker - the greatest Jedi ever - fears."

His honesty seemed to chase the conspiratorial Corellian right out of Jag, and the poor man slumped forward to bury his head in his hands. "Great. So I have Jaina locked up in your aunt's ship, which I can't use, and a gazillion credits worth of ysalamiri that I have to feed."

"Could be worse."

"Right, because when she wakes up Jaina is going to hate me."

"Yeah. My sister is going to be steamed for sure."

"Thanks for the moral support."

"Hey, Jag," Jacen said. When the poor man looked up from his miserable lament, Jacen tossed him the datacard, which had been hidden in his hand all along. "Catch."

Even with reflexes dulled by the red ale, Jag snatched the flying object from the air. He glanced curiously from the datacard to Jacen and back again. "What is this?"

"She said yes."

Nothing registered immediately on Jag's face.

Jacen stomped his foot, and then pointed at the datacard. "The codes. Those are the codes."

Jag's jaw dropped for only a second. "You nerfherder!"

Jumping to his feet, Jacen scooted toward the door. "You sound like my sister."

Jag hopped up and followed Jacen into the long deserted corridor of the Polar Wind. "And that's bad?"

"No, not really..." Jacen shook his head, then pondered exactly how he felt about that. The next moment he found his arm wrapped around Jag's shoulder in a brotherly sort of way. "You know, Fel, you're all right. I should trust my sister's instincts more often."

"So you didn't like me? At first?"

"Did you like any of Wyn's boyfriends?"

"My sister will never be allowed to have boyfriends," Jag said very seriously.

"Right." Jacen winked before taking his arm back so they could pick up the pace. "Even an army of Fels can't stop that. In fact, I'd venture to guess your sister Wyn is in complete control of the Fel men."

"Much like your sister."

Rounding one last corner, the two men emerged into the Chiss cruiser's auxiliary hangar. Jacen stared across the floor at the Jade Shadow, only then realizing the momentous event in which he was intricately involved. "Yeah, like my sister." He sighed. "She's usually right, though. She told me once that Mara was a big pushover. After tonight, when she let me take the Shadow despite her suspicions, I realized my sister always knew Mara a little better than I did. And she was right about you. There isn't a better guy in the galaxy for her."

Jag stopped where he was. "You think so?"

"I know so," Jacen said, drawing up beside his partner-in-crime. "Don't doubt it for a second, Jag. My sister for some insane reason thinks she's meant to suffer, that it's our lot in life. But when I see her with you, she's truly happy. It's a feeling in her heart that no words can describe. Ultimately she may hate me for this, but it's a chance I'm willing to take, to prove to her once and for all that being a Solo doesn't exclude us from everything else. We just have to do things a little differently, is all."

Jag snorted. "Differently. I would say kidnapping your sister is definitely differ-" The chiming of Jag's comm cut his remark short. He snatched the pestering device from his belt and scanned the comm codes quickly. "Ktah!"

"What?"

"It's her again."

"Who?"

Jag arched an eyebrow.

"Ah," Jacen said. "The arrogant fool of a woman. What's Chirpy Chirp want now?"

"To meet or...something. She has tried to contact me three times since we flew back up here."

"Have you talked to her?"

"No." Suddenly a worried expression slid across Jag's usually somber features. "This could be bad. Now that Ambassador Chu'itha has told me the importance of Vikova, maybe I shouldn't -"

Jacen grabbed Jag by the elbow and started tugging him toward the Shadow. "Nope. No changing your mind now, flyboy. You're leaving. Now."

"But I really -"

"I'm not kidding, Jag." They already were at the bottom of the boarding ramp. Jacen was tempted just to shove Jag in and slam the ramp closed behind him. "Get onboard. Now."

Jag scowled. "This could be important. Look, I can get Shawnkyr to run interference for me. Just let me just go make one quick comm."

"And what am I supposed to do?"

"I don't know...Go check on Jaina or something."

Jacen reached out and snatched Jag back before he got two strides away. "No. Not a chance. There are ysalamiri in there, and I can't even tell you how creepy they are. Oh, and something else...what could it...oh, right! My probably homicidal sister, if she's awake. I'm not going anywhere near her either. Especially if I don't have the Force."

"You really think she'll be that angry?"

Jacen shrugged, and shoved Jag toward the ramp. "Guess you'll find out shortly."

"I promise just the one comm and then I'll -"

"Nope, we'll have none of that, I'm afraid." With another shove, Jacen sent Jag stumbling halfway up the ramp. "You've already bound and gagged my sister on my aunt's ship, which, in case it wasn't entirely clear to you earlier, I'm not rightfully borrowing for you. Who are you more afraid of? Jaina and Mara or a few million Chiss?"

Finally, Jag smiled - just a little. "Well, if you put it that way..."

"Besides, if you ask me, the Chiss are much too sneaky with all this political intrigue stuff."

"If you only knew..." Suddenly Jag rushed back down the ramp and boxed Jacen on the shoulders. "I've got it!"

"What?"

"You could go meet Iliana!"

"Why?"

"To buy me time."

"If you think my sister is going to come around in a couple of hours, you've got another think coming, Jag."

"No, no. Just buy me enough time to get away, that's all. I'll need some time to get Jaina to agree to some formal announcement about the two of us, but once I do I'll be able to come back without having to worry about Iliana, or the Chiss for that matter. They would never dare challenge an alliance like that." If Jacen didn't know better, he'd have thought Jag was convincing himself as he talked. "Last thing before I go to comm silence I'll transmit a message to Shawnkyr, telling her that Jaina and I have gone off on some clandestine reconnaissance of Achebian space. That will buy me a couple of days at least."

Jacen didn't like where this was going. "And I'm the lucky one who gets to break the news to Iliana."

"Why not?"

"You ever heard the expression, 'don't shoot the messenger'? Because, yeah, I don't think Iliana has."

"You're overreacting. Besides, she'll be too surprised to be angry."

"She will?"

"You didn't let me finish my plan, Jacen." Jag pointed across the hangar. "She'll be expecting me, because you'll be flying my clawcraft down to the planet."

"Blaster bolts! Are you kriffin' kidding me?"

"No joke." In one hand Jag held up the datacard with the Shadow's codes while he stuck the other into his pocket for a moment, right before he slapped another datacard into Jacen's hand. "Fair trade, don't you think?"

"You realize this means I'll have flown your clawcraft first, right? If you thought Jaina was going to be angry before, she's going to really be ripe when she gets wind of this."

"Leave that to me," Jag said with a certain set that made Jacen squirm. "I am sure I can make it up to her."

Jacen waved his hand. "Uhuh. I don't want to know."

"Didn't think so." Jag clasped Jacen's hand and shook it firmly. "May the Force be with you, Jacen."

"May the Force be with you, Jag." Jacen watched Jag hustle up the ramp, then spun on his heel and strode quickly toward the safe-zone stripe on the docking bay's floor.

"Hey, Jacen."

He spun back to see Jag's face peering through the half-closed ramp. "Yeah?"

"I owe you one."

Jacen smiled and tipped his head just as Jag disappeared from view. He paced over and stood behind the red line. Not five seconds later the repulsorlifts fired, and the Jade Shadow slowly began to rise from the floor. Jacen couldn't see through the cockpit's viewport, but he could sense the pilot looking his way.

He unclipped his lightsaber handle from his belt and lifted it to his head, and snapped Jag a salute of good fortune. The Shadow waggled an almost imperceptible farewell, then swung around on its axis and headed toward open bay doors and the stars of space beyond.

Jacen looked down at the lightsaber in his hand. "So...You ready?"

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN


Jagged Fel was not a man who could be impressed easily. Sitting in the cockpit of the Jade Shadow, admiring the console in front of him, Jag was very impressed indeed.

From this single seat he could control the entire vessel. Fifty-five meters of heavily modified SoroSuub star yacht. Superior ion drives and a hyperdrive as fast as the Millenium Falcon's, courtesy of improvements made by Han Solo himself. Concealed laser cannons and concussion missile launchers. A tractor beam projector. Unparalleled communications array, sensor suite, and jamming devices.

"I could get used to this."

Jag swiveled the pilot's seat and confirmed the hyperspace route on the nav-computer one more time. He checked the hyperdrive's output readings and the sublight engines' readiness levels. The life support systems were running smoothly, and the weapons were maintaining standby. Everything was operating at peak efficiency.

Not that he had expected otherwise from Mara Jade Skywalker's personal starship. If there was anyone in the galaxy as meticulous about starship maintenance as Jag, it was Jaina's aunt.

Which reminded him...The starboard repulsor on his clawcraft was acting up. The Chiss technicians had repaired his fighter with remarkable speed after the battle. Despite his orders to allocate repair time to all damaged clawcraft equally, he suspected his subordinates had respectfully ignored him and restored his ship first and fastest. He'd only had a few minutes to inspect and test the repairs during Jacen's transmission back to Mon Calamari to request the Shadow for a few days longer, and everything on his clawcraft had checked out. Everything except that pesky repulsor. As long as he was careful during -

"Ktah!"

Jag spun to the communications console. "You stupid...intoxicated...fair-haired..." Rapidly he added a comlink code to the transmission coordinates. "Polar Wind, Polar Wind, Polar Wind."

TRANSMISSION DENIED, the Shadow replied. COMM SILENCE IN EFFECT.

"Don't even..." He repeated his entry.

TRANSMISSION DENIED AGAIN. COMM SILENCE STILL IN EFFECT. OR DID YOU NOT NOTICE THE LAST TIME?

"What the -" Jag hissed out a sigh. "Right, right. Try the override code, genius."

OVERRIDE DENIED.

"Oh, come on!" Jag spun back to the small screen where the codes from the datacard Jacen had given him were displayed. "All right, all right..."

OVERRIDE DENIED. GUESS AGAIN, FARMBOY.

"Farmboy! Don't talk about my father that way you - Oh. Right." Jag glanced over the list of operating codes again. He had no idea which one was the correct override code, and he had a nagging suspicion that a third failure would be...unpleasant.

"Think...think..." There had to be some way to contact Jacen and warn him about the malfunctioning repulsor. Not that there was really much chance Jacen would crash - he was quite a fine pilot whatever he might think. Probably he'd be able to compensate for the defect in plenty of time. And besides, his Jedi intuitions would give him lots of warning before anything really bad could happen.

Wouldn't they?

"Well, Jagged Fel, this is certainly off to a promising start," he said to the empty cockpit, and he was mildly surprised when the Shadow's communications console didn't respond. "Derogation of duty. Starship theft. Kidnapping. Might as well crash-land her twin while I'm at it."

Her twin! Of course!

Jaina could contact Jacen through the Force. Even if she couldn't tell him about the repulsor specifically, she could at least let him know to be extra careful for landing. That would be more than enough with all the skills Jacen had at his disposal. All Jag had to do was -

"Oh..."

New plan. Jacen would be fine. He was a Solo, after all. He'd be just fine.

So maybe Jacen wouldn't think that plan was so great, but he wasn't here to argue, was he? Plus, right now Jag had bigger problems than whether his soon-to-be brother-in-law -

Soon-to-be brother-in-law! Jag grinned. He grinned until he thought about telling the woman he wanted to marry that her brother had lost control of the clawcraft on landing and had crashed into the Vikovan spaceport.

"Much, much bigger problems," Jag said with a frown.

He rose from the pilot's seat, spun on his heel, and marched off to face his destiny. His insane, ridiculous, absurd, crazy, red-ale-inspired destiny.

He paused outside the sealed door to the cargo hold. From the deep shadows of the dimly lit corridor a small pair of eyes glistened down at him.

"Hello, my little friend." The ysalamir blinked, and Jag heard a rustling as the creature readjusted itself on its nutrient cage. He peered more closely into the shadows. "I don't see why you're so creepy. I think you're rather cute."

The ysalamir blinked again, and turned away.

Jag reached for the control panel to the door, then let his hand fall back to his side. He stood there for a long moment, staring at the smooth gray metal surface of the door.

"Get over yourself, Fel," he finally said. "What's done is done. You have to face her eventually."

Actually...

Jag shook his head. He reached up and tapped in the access code. The door swished upward. He took a slow, deep breath and strode inside.

The cargo hold was small, about six meters square. It was dark, illuminated only by a single glowdisc on the ceiling. Jag paced slowly to the crashcouch he and Jacen had hurriedly bolted to the floor, and found Jaina's limp body still sitting there peacefully. She was gagged with a silken scarf and bound on the wrists and ankles in stuncuffs - precautions against a premature awakening from the inhaled sedative they had drugged her with when they'd snatched her from her room. Her lightsaber and blaster were stowed with Jag's gear in the stateroom - a safe distance from here. For good measure her comlink was smashed to bits - to prevent any possibility of her working her way around the comm silence. And thanks to the ysalamiri strategically placed outside and throughout the ship, her powers in the Force were all but gone.

Jaina was defenseless. Jag would never have thought that concept could be so wonderful.

He gazed down on his slumbering lover. She was so beautiful. So serene. Like the most gorgeous icons in ancient Corellian paintings and statues, her perfect features seemed to possess the divine splendor of nature itself. The infinite possibilities of the Force could not create a woman lovelier than Jaina. Her eyes were closed. Her chest rose and fell to the rhythm of her slow, steady breathing. Jag was utterly entranced.

Finally Jag simply couldn't help himself. He leaned down to kiss her tenderly on the lips. His face drew within a hairsbreadth of hers -

Jaina's eyes shot open.

He froze.

Then her forehead flew upward, ending with a devastating thwap into Jag's.

"Aaaaah!" Jag stumbled backward from the strength of the unexpected blow. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed a palm to his head. After a long moment he opened his eyes - but left his hand where it was. "Jaina!"

When he saw the fire in her eyes, he was even more grateful for the ysalamiri.

"Jaina, that hurt!"

"Udd," she said. "Udd! Duskrrgnumrd."

He staggered backward a few more steps and stopped. He pulled his hand away from his head long enough to make sure there wasn't blood on it - he was almost surprised to see none - then returned to massaging the impact point. All the while Jaina never left his sight.

She didn't try to rise from the crashcouch. Instead she sat in place and struggled mightily against the bindings. Her muscles tensed beneath her flightsuit, and her eyes closed for a long moment. The stuncuffs were unrelenting, though. Jaina opened her eyes and met Jag's gaze with a stare that sent a chill down his spine. She tried to scream, but the gag stifled her rage and her face grew bright red from the effort.

When she seemed to have calmed, if only a bit, Jag took a step forward.

"All right," he said, holding his hands out defensively. "I'll take off the gag. Only the gag."

"Rnndrvg."

Jag took another step closer. "But you have to promise not to hit me." She nodded. "Or kick me." Nod. "Or headbutt me again." Nod. "Or attack me in anyway."

"Vudbrdjrpnt, Ggg."

"All right, then." He slowly walked the last few steps to the crashcouch. He reached around her head and untied the gag, and gently drew it out of her mouth.

"You're dead."

"Jaina, I can expl-"

"You're dead, you spineless monkeylizard, kriffin' son of a -"

"Jaina, calm -"

"Dead, Jag! Dead!" She clearly wasn't about to stop her rant and rave, and he was inclined to let her stew for a minute. "You're only lucky Lowie isn't here or I'd get him to - Oh, wait! I'd get Kyp to - No, he'd be too kind..." She grinned with such diabolical intent, Jag actually felt his skin crawl. "No, I definitely think my grandfather -"

"Darth Vader! Jaina, now really."

"You're right. Too painless. A thousand years of digestion in the Sarlacc's belly."

"But if you'd just let me explain -"

"Shut it, Jag!"

Laser beam eyes and the potential for further eruptions more powerful than the strongest supernovae forced him to think better of a reply, even to agree. He simply nodded. Better to let her go first.

"I waited for you. I waited for you all night." The fire in her eyes only grew as she spoke. "Every minute, every hour that passed thinking the next moment there'd be that knock on the door. And it never came. It never came. Finally I got so tired, I cried myself to sleep. I cried myself to sleep, Jag! Do you know when the last time I did that was?"

Rhetorical question, he thought.

"I don't even remember the last time! But it was a long time ago, I can tell you that. I never thought I'd cry myself to sleep over you. Never. And you...you...Gah!"

"Jaina, I -"

"You left me there, all alone. Worried. Did something happen to you? Crying. Where are you? You left me there, until I finally cried myself to sleep. And then when I woke up...There's stuncuffs and a gag. My weapons are gone. I don't know where I am, although it feels like a starship's artificial gravity, I guess. And then I realize...I realize I can't touch the Force."

"I -"

"And I was afraid, Jag. So afraid. Because then I knew I'd been kidnapped. By someone who came prepared and ready to grab a Jedi, no less. Everything was perfect. Exactly the way I'd have done it myself. Perfect."

Jag couldn't help himself. He smiled.

"It's not funny, Jag! You can't even imagine what was going through my head. Who took me? What do they want? Are they going to kill me? How can I get out of this? Does anyone even know I'm gone yet? Will I...will I ever see you again? And then...then...it was you."

"Jaina, please -"

"It was you. You! I can't even...I just...Gah!" She looked away for a long moment and took a few deep breaths. When she looked back at him again her eyes were slits of fury. "You. Are. So. Unbelievably. Truly. Dead."

He waited until he was sure she was done. "In the ballroom...I thought you were just brushing me away again, Jaina. I showed you how I felt, what I wanted."

She grinned. "Oh, I read you loud and clear, Tongue Boy."

"Then why did you abandon me there with her? Why did you just walk away?"

"I didn't!"

"You did!"

"I did not!" Jaina rolled her eyes. She actually rolled her eyes! "I told you - you know how to find me later."

"You never said that!"

"Yes, I did."

"No."

"Yes."

"Well, I never heard it."

"Well, maybe you should've been thinking less about ravishing me and more about, oh, I don't know, maybe listening to what I was saying?"

Jag sighed. "You really said that?"

"Yes."

"I see." He ran his fingers through his hair. "Then I apologize."

"How generous of you. Now untie me."

"No."

"What?"

"No."

"That's some apology, Jagged Fel."

He met her gaze. "I apologize for not having listened closely enough in the ballroom."

"And?"

"And what?"

"And you apologize for..."

"For the rest of this?" He shook his head. "No, Jaina. I may not have listened closely enough in the ballroom, but that's not our problem. Our problem is that we haven't been talking. Really talking. We need time alone and we need it now. So I'm sticking to my plan."

"You're joking."

"No." He crossed his arms over his chest. "I am...dead-ly serious."

"Jag, this really isn't funny."

"I didn't say it was."

"Fine, I'll play along with your little mind games." She slumped back into the crashcouch. "So tell me your brilliant and amazing plan."

"It is very simple, actually. I have set course for Dathomir, and we are not leaving there until you agree to marry me."

She laughed. "Cute."

Jag waited.

"No, really. Might as well tell me the truth at this point, anyway. What's your plan?"

"That is the plan."

She kept laughing, then suddenly stopped. "You're not messing with me?"

"No."

"Oh." She frowned thoughtfully. "Well, I have to admit I didn't see this one coming."

"That's exactly what Jacen thought."

"Jacen?"

"Um...what I meant was -"

"Jacen? He put you up to this?" Jaina nearly bounded off the crashcouch, but at the last second she looked down at the stuncuffs and stayed where she was. "Didn't he?"

"I wouldn't say he -"

"But he helped you?"

"Yes."

Jaina shook her head and smacked an elbow into the crashcouch. "Well, that explains a lot."

"Such as?"

"Such as how you could be so unfathomably stupid!"

"Ah."

She looked up at him. "So the best you can do is copy my father?"

"It worked for him." Jag shrugged. "A good plan is a good plan."

"It's not a good plan. It's a completely moronic, thickheaded, very, very bad plan."

"Of course. I forgot. It is a Solo plan."

"Jag, just give it a -" Abruptly she stopped and looked away. For a long moment she was silent. "You...you just don't get it, do you?"

"Perhaps I do not."

Jaina took a lingering, ragged breath. "Forget it."

"No," he said. "This has been our whole problem. Tell me."

"Jag..." She turned to face him again, and tears were running down her cheeks. "You're my rock. You're the stable one. You keep me grounded. I need to know that whatever happens, no matter what life throws at me, I can count on you to be there. That no matter how crazy things get, you will always be that immovable anchor in the storm."

He nodded.

"And then you go and do something like this!" Her tears flowed even harder. "You're supposed to be the one keeping me from doing crazy things. You're not supposed to be the crazy one yourself."

"You need me to be the Fel, so you can be the Solo."

"Exactly!"

"Then I am sorry." He met her bloodshot gaze. "For everything."

Jaina nodded, and she smiled just a little. "You were really that desperate, huh?"

"Yes."

"Wow."

He chuckled, and handed her the silken scarf. "I will confess there may have been some red ale involved as well."

She clutched it in her cuffed hands and wiped off her wet cheeks. "That would explain the paranoia."

"Paranoia?"

"Ysalamiri, Jag?" More tears poured from her eyes. "Were they really necessary?"

"It's not what you -"

"You have no idea how horrible they are," she said, her body wracking with sobs. "You can't even understand."

"I'm sorry. But I have to know if our love can truly withstand -"

"Imagine if...if I used the Force to make you blind. Or deaf." She wiped her cheeks and eyes with the scarf again. "Taking the Force from me is like that. It's a shock. It's disorienting. And really...it hurts."

"I had not thought of it quite that way," he said. "But I am sure I can find a way to contain the ysalamiri to only part of the ship."

"That'd be great."

"All right." He took a step back from the crashcouch. "Let me deal with that first, and then we can talk some more when you are feeling better."

"Okay."

He turned away and headed for the door. Just before he got there she called out to him.

"Jag?"

He glanced back over his shoulder. "Yes?"

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

Amazed at how agreeable Jaina had become, he entered the code on the panel and the door swished upward. He was about to stride through when something told him to look back - to see a triumphant grin spread wide across Jaina's face.

Stepping into the starship's corridor, Jag shut the door. His body was taut with fury. She'd tricked him! And he'd almost fallen for it...

"So," he whispered, "it's a Fel plan you want, is that it? Then it's a Fel plan you'll get."

He took off straight for the cockpit. "You can forget about sweet old Dathomir, my darling. Oh, no. I have somewhere much better in mind. Somewhere that will make Dathomir look positively cosmopolitan." He clapped his hands together. "I always said I'd get you to the Unknown Regions one way or another. Well, my dearest Jaina, that time has come."

CHAPTER NINETEEN


Feathering the foot pedals, Jacen gingerly tested the clawcraft's responsiveness in its first seconds of flight. It hovered effortlessly and rotated, swooping around so the walls of the auxiliary hangar careened by.

He whistled appreciatively. "Wow. I could get used to this."

Jacen had flown plenty of Imperial-based models - squints, eyeballs, dupes - and simmed on many more. He'd even simmed on the clawcraft. What pilot hadn't? And based on the sims anybody with an ounce of pilot's blood would have given a limb for the opportunity to actually fly the superior Chiss fighter. For most, though, sims were the closest they ever got. Yet here Jacen was, flying one. Flying Jag Fel's clawcraft!

The sims had given Jacen a good idea of how beautifully designed and artfully crafted the clawcraft truly was. But the real thing was so much better. He eased the yoke forward, urging the fighter toward the blackness of space waiting just beyond the magcon field. The shimmering curtain buzzed and glinted as the tips of the four forward sweeping wings nudged their way toward freedom. A second later the cockpit passed the barrier, and Jacen experienced that glorious first moment of weightless flight.

Instead of fighting the pull of gravity with sublight engines or thrusters, Jacen flipped off the repulsors and allowed the gravitational tug of Vikova's massive multi-colored sphere to take hold of the clawcraft. The fighter fell and rotated, offering an impressive view of the Chiss battlecruiser as it drifted away. He might have spent some more time free-falling toward the planet below, admiring the structure and functionality of the Polar Wind out his canopy, but there was the matter of procedure. His comm had begun beeping - in time with a flashing red light on the console - and he realized he hadn't confirmed any critical details with Jag. Namely, what the Chiss would do when they realized Jacen was flying Jag's clawcraft.

"Nammock dun ka, faton dra dra ot."

"Uh oh." Panic came and went in the course of a single breath. A simple Jedi healing technique had purged his body's systems of the last remaining effects of the red ale, and Jacen silently thanked the Force for the renewed clarity it brought. A critical slip might endanger Jag's fighter, and he couldn't afford that.

As the disembodied Chiss voice spoke again in Jacen's ear, he figured the first order of business was to not get blasted into vacuum dust by the Polar Wind's dorsal batteries. Clicking his comm button twice in rapid succession, he drove the nimble fighter into a steep climb, skimming the battlecruiser's sleek hull. With skill that substantiated his Solo heritage he buzzed the command tower, passing within a fighter's length of the transparisteel viewport. He imagined the Chiss watch officer ducking in surprise - even the blue-skinned humanoids had to register spontaneous alarm - and chuckled.

A string of virulent Chiss shouts in Jacen's ear brought the burgeoning hilarity to an abrupt end. Thanks to his sister, Jacen knew every form and variety of Chiss curse - who would ever have guessed such a dispassionate race could express such vitriol? And he definitely was getting an earful now. Deciding to throw the flight officer for one last loop, Jacen powered up the transponder as he swung away from the Polar Wind on a direct vector for the planet below.

The incensed tirade ended as quickly as it had begun. The Chiss flight officer's contrition was not lost in translation. It is good to be flying Ambassador Jagged Fel's personal clawcraft, Jacen thought.

Laughing at his own prank, he waggled the sweeping wings in a farewell. By the time they determined he had never actually answered the comm, Jacen figured he would be planetside - and under Iliana's protection.

Iliana's protection. For some reason Jacen perceived the Vikovan leader as a force to be reckoned with, although he wasn't sure being indebted to her was a position he really wanted to be in. He might not be sure of the nuances within her planet's political and social hierarchy, or even how Iliana came into power, but Jacen was sure of one thing. Iliana knew what she wanted, and more times than not she got it.

And that meant she was not going to be happy when she found out about Jag.

Unconsciously, Jacen patted his lightsaber. Just to be sure.

The first tug of the ionosphere kicked the clawcraft abruptly to port, and Jacen snatched the yoke with both hands. Apparently the fighter's responsiveness went both ways - sensitive to the pilot, but just as sensitive to atmospheric influences.

With a steady hand on the stick and a few minor adjustments to the foot pedals, Jacen balanced the list and smoothed out the atmospheric entry trajectory.

"Easy enough," Jacen said to no one in particular.

Now it was time to contact Vikovan Control. A short conversation confirmed the coordinates of his landing destination - the Vikovan Palace. Coupling that information with experience, he started the first sweeping loop of his approach. Carefully performed S-curves were critical for bleeding kinetic energy and speed safely...and another great opportunity to see exactly what this flying masterpiece could do.

He was barely into the upper stratosphere when the comm chimed, interrupting the peaceful interplay of pilot and fighter. A high cloud enveloped the clawcraft, and for a brief moment Jacen pretended he was alone, truly alone, and that no one was demanding his attention. Then the cloud was gone - and the chime was back.

Glancing at the comm frequency, he confirmed his hunch that the incoming transmission was from the Polar Wind and not Vikovan Control. In the middle of pondering how and why to explain his presence in their Ambassador's personal fighter, the Chiss forced his hand.

"Knight Solo, what is your destination?"

"How'd you know it was me, Major Nuruodo?"

There was a distinct pause. "Simple deduction, Knight Solo. Ambassador Fel has not pulled a stunt like that since...A Chiss would not abuse the privilege of flying for the CEDF. Such a brazen maneuver could only be -"

"You thought I was Jaina!"

Another pause.

"Admit it. You thought I was Jaina."

"Admittedly, Knight Solo, I believed you to be more...controlled than your sister."

"Ah." Jacen's mouth curled. For some reason that thought was troubling, even though the Chiss warrior meant it as a compliment. While considering the implications, he straightened from the latest turn, then feathered up on the foot rudders to decelerate his descent.

"Your destination, Knight Solo?"

"Right. About that...Uh, hold on." The clawcraft shuddered as it shed velocity. Time for the repulsors. The problem was, Jacen was distracted enough that he had momentarily forgotten where the repulsors were located. The Chiss had made enough modifications to the TIE cockpit that the placement wasn't instinctive. To top that off, everything was written in Chiss.

"Your destination." Shawnkyr sounded...perturbed.

"Yeah. Give me a sec." Jacen released the comm trigger, then ran his finger in a scanning pattern from one section of the controls to the next. No. No. The wingtips started to chatter. Come on. You just used them to lift off the flightdeck, bantha brains. The simple thought triggered his memory and Jacen's hand shot to the control.

"That one!"

Jacen flipped up the two switches simultaneously - port and starboard - and waited for the distinct sensation of floating that would follow once the field generators countered the effects of gravity.

What happened instead caused his stomach to do somersaults and his heart to jump in his throat. Somehow the fighter lurched to starboard, and Jacen found himself hanging precariously in his crashbelts as the clawcraft began a spiraling dive toward the planet's surface.

"Knight Solo, I must insist you explain why you are in possession of a fighter that belongs to the CEDF, and that you make your intent known," Shawnkyr snipped amidst the blare of warning klaxons.

"Why don't -" Jacen slapped off the repulsors amid his grunted response. "- you ask Jag?"

"Ambassador Fel is currently unreachable, and - Are those alarms?"

With some muscle on the yoke and fancy footwork - literally - Jacen convinced the clawcraft to emerge from the corkscrew fall. He grinned as the fighter planed and leveled. "Lost your Ambassador, Major Nuruodo?"

"From a certain point of view, Knight So-"

"Jacen. Call me Jacen." Unsure of his next step, he scrutinized the repulsor controls. Having corrected his course and heading, Jacen was nearing his final approach.

"Jacen," Shawnkyr replied begrudgingly.

"Thanks. Just for that I'll tell you what I do know..." Jacen paused when the clawcraft began to rattle again. He needed to get those repulsors working.

"Which is?"

"Jag's gone on a mission with my sister." Probably just a glitch on those repulsors last time. "Top secret." The Chiss are maintenance freaks. "So secret even I don't know the details." Jag is a maintenance freak. "He said the mission was crucial to Chiss, uh, relations." They wouldn't leave Jag's clawcraft half-repaired. He'd have their blue hides. Daring fate, Jacen chanced a restart on the repulsors. "He said to tell you to che-EAAAACK-"

The clawcraft pitched abruptly to starboard before tumbling end over end into a twisting plunge. Everything out the canopy was a mess of greens, blues and earthen tones - like one of Jaina's awful fingerpaintings from their childhood - that spun and spun endlessly while alarms clanged from every corner of the cockpit.

"-peat! Check what?" Shawnkyr shouted in his ear.

"Not good." Generations of pilots' blood ran option after option through Jacen's mind.

"Knight Solo!"

His hands flew and feet danced looking for a solution, and all the while his stomach tossed along with the nauseating fall.

"Your status!"

With a bellow, Jacen finally just tried to muscle the fighter into conforming to his demands.

To no avail. The world below just kept spinning. His brain kept on whirling too, and his insides revolted in new ways.

"Jacen!"

Shawnkyr! With the ground rushing at him, Jacen realized she might be his only hope. He stopped arguing with the fighter and triggered the comm. "Starboard repulsor malfunction." A quick breath. "Need. Help."

"Malfunction? What are you talking about? I personally ordered Jag's clawcraft repair-"

"Not fixed!" Jacen was certain he was going to be sick, but he focused on staying calm, on not giving into his fears. That wasn't easy with the Vikovan Palace now clearly evident amidst the swirl of images beneath him.

"That is impossible."

"Tell that to Jag -" Breath. "- when you peel the remains -" Breath. "- of his clawcraft -" Gasp. "- off Iliana's roof."

"Turn on the data relay."

Jacen drew his eyes away from the churning vision of impending doom to look for the switch. "Frag! Everything's in Chiss."

"Transponder section," Shawnkyr barked. "Upper right -"

Saw it. "Got it!" Punched it.

Then he waited. Fortunately, Shawnkyr was quick.

"The power junction relay is shorted. Follow my procedures."

"Go!"

"Blue switch to power down."

"Done."

"Underneath release switch to drop panel."

Jacen flicked the panel's emergency release. "Done."

"Remove starboard relay." Jacen already had yanked out the duplicated yellow wires. "Stub port relay." His fingers were a blur of motion. "Tie into starboard re-"

"Way ahead of you, Major." He might not be half the starship tech his sister was, but Jacen had been rewiring shorted relays for as long as he could remember. "Initializing repulsors. Now!"

With a sudden jolt the clawcraft righted itself. Just in time to reveal that Jacen was seconds away from crashing the starfighter straight into a massive stone wall. The Palace, presumably.

"Jacen? Are you -"

"Ambassador Fel!" Vikovan Control was on the emergency comm channel. "Follow approach vector one-two-four immediately!"

"It worked," Jacen told Shawnkyr. "Gotta go. Thanks, Major." He pulled on the yoke with all his strength and swerved the fighter into a sharp turn to port. He closed his eyes - that way when he told Jag he didn't know how close he'd come to crashing, it would be the truth.

He opened his eyes and checked his heading. A small shift of the yoke and he was right back on course for the Palace's hangar. Jacen flicked the comm switch. "My apologies, Control. Just...ah...well, a slight malfunction. Situation normal."

"Copy, Ambassador," the male voice replied. Quite skeptically, it seemed. "You are cleared to land in bay 94."

"Ninety-four," Jacen said. "Vanguard Lead out."

Much to Jacen's delight, the last thirty seconds of his flight were entirely uneventful. He set the clawcraft down smoothly, then slumped back in the seat and ran his fingers through his hair. How is it, he wondered, that I can fly through an entire battle and not fear for my life, but a simple atmospheric descent is too much for me to handle? A few deep breaths and a long moment immersed in the Force cleared his mind and slowed his pounding heartbeat.

"I survived this," he muttered. "Iliana can't be any worse."

He unbuckled his crashbelts, hit the cockpit's hatch release, and hopped out. After a quick tug smoothed out his flight suit, Jacen strode quickly toward the group of Vikovan dignitaries who had gathered in the hangar bay to greet Ambassador Fel. No doubt it was already clear to them that he was not the man they were expecting, so there was no point in delaying the inevitable.

As he drew closer Jacen appraised the individuals waiting for him. Iliana, of course. A dozen of her advisors he recognized from the fete. Six of her guards, decked out in full armor and armament. And standing between Iliana and one of the guards, a man dressed in prisoner's garb and restrained on the wrists and ankles by stuncuffs.

Stuncuffs. Jacen couldn't help but smile.

A disturbance in the Force yanked his focus back to the prisoner. A long, vicious scar crossed the left side of his face, and his flaming red hair made a sharp contrast to his dark eyes. The man was peering at Jacen so intently that his hand reflexively moved to his lightsaber. He felt the man's intention the split-second before -

"A Jedi!" the prisoner exclaimed, already spinning toward the guard at his side and reaching out with his cuffed hands. "I've been betrayed!"

- but not soon enough to stop him. The prisoner snatched the guard's blaster pistol from its hip holster and opened fire at point blank range. The guard dropped.

Another shot, and the next guard fell too.

Jacen burst forward, powering his feet with the Force and igniting the lightsaber in his hand. The prisoner spun toward Iliana with the blaster held ready. For a moment Jacen considered throwing his blade to slice the pistol in two, but he knew that would endanger too many innocent bystanders. Instead he extended his other hand and prepared to stretch out with the Force -

When one of the surviving guards delivered a violent chopping blow with his arm that knocked the pistol clean out of the prisoner's hands. Another guard charged the prisoner, but the red-haired man somehow ducked around the attempted tackle.

Jacen was closing the distance rapidly, but the melee in front of him already had become impenetrable chaos. The advisors were scattering in all directions. The four surviving guards were a blur of motion. The prisoner bobbed and weaved, punched and lunged. Iliana backed away. Shouts. Punches. Screams.

He was almost there now. The prisoner was prone. Two guards had him pinned him to the floor while the other two moved in -

The distinctive high-pitched pwing of a single blaster shot sheared the air.

The prisoner slumped lifelessly at the very moment Jacen's boots thumped to a stop. He looked up to see Iliana aiming the discarded blaster pistol straight at the prisoner's chest. Two guards took up positions at her sides while the other pair rose to their feet.

At some point during the melee klaxons had begun to sound and emergency lights had started flashing. Blaring sirens echoed throughout the hangar bay in a deafening peal.

One of the guards tapped his wrist. "All clear," he said. "Repeat, all clear."

A moment later the spacious chamber fell eerily quiet.

With a hiss Jacen's lightsaber retracted into its handle. "Why did you do that?"

Iliana met his gaze and narrowed her eyes. Then she glanced away, took one last look at the corpse, and passed the blaster pistol to the closest guard.

"He was beaten," Jacen said. "It was over."

"We don't know that," she replied. Her voice was as cold as ice.

"Two of your guards had him -"

"He already had killed two others. He was still a threat."

"How?"

"Tell me, Jedi Solo," she said, crossing her arms over her chest. "What were his capabilities? His skills? His means of attack even while prone?"

Jacen hesitated. "I didn't mean -"

"Not all of us are blessed with magical powers to foresee the future." She shrugged. "Perhaps if I could have known with certainty he was no longer a threat..."

"The risk was low," Jacen insisted. "You didn't need to kill him."

Iliana remained impassive. "It was necessary."

In the Force he sensed not a single shred of regret or remorse in her presence. There was something else whispering in the ether, too. Something...elusive.

Betrayal.

The prisoner had felt betrayed. Had been betrayed. How? And why? Most importantly, by whom? Jacen didn't have time to figure that out right now. Yet he perceived something in the Force all the same - the prisoner wasn't the only one being betrayed.

Iliana raised an eyebrow.

For the briefest instant his heart stopped beating, Jacen wondered if Iliana had attended the Princess Leia Organa Solo School of Intimidating Demeanors. "Your Grace?"

"Unless you suddenly have become a master of disguise," she said, "it would seem you are not Ambassador Fel."

Jacen swallowed hard. He was very glad his lightsaber handle was still in his hand, not clipped back to his belt. "True."

Iliana only continued that most unnerving stare.

"The Chiss haven't contacted you?"

Stare.

"They will shortly."

Stare.

"I apologize for the error. It won't happen again."

Stare.

"Well...um...I can explain."

"Indeed?" Iliana began to stride toward the open portal on the far wall, and motioned for him to follow. "Then by all means, Jacen Solo, please do."

CHAPTER TWENTY


This was getting old. Fast.

Jaina hadn't dared move around too much in her makeshift prison. The crashcouch, which had served as her eternal seat and bed, would've been fine for a few hours, but even then - for a normal flight - she would've gotten up and down from time to time, not just stared at the ceiling for hours on end. But she stayed this way because to stand risked a mild yet painful zap from the stuncuffs secured around her wrists and ankles. Who was she kidding? Sitting up too quickly or even simply moving the wrong way shifted them just enough to warrant a scolding from the belligerent devices.

To make matters worse, she had no defense against them. True, Jag had set the stuncuffs to a mild setting - knowing him, he'd probably used the mildest one until Jacen had warned him otherwise - but even so there was enough current to shock her senses and confound her reasoning. She cursed her brother mildly. If the setting had been a hair less, she could've borne the consequences of moving about while strapped in the cuffs. But Jacen had known her precise tolerance. That little bag of bantha poodoo -

Suddenly, the Shadow shuddered. The familiar tug of a hyperspace drop. Instinctively Jaina rolled on her side and sat -

"Ow!" She shook her hands as vicious currents of energy raced along her skin. "Kriff. Frag. Sonofasith!"

Somehow, even with her brain protesting and her body rebelling against the assault, Jaina's Jedi training took over. Force or no Force, finding her center and convincing her body to act against instinct wasn't that hard. Mind over matter. She stilled. Breathed. The stuncuffs fell inert. Now all she felt was an odd tingling in her arms and fingers. A few moments later, the residual sensation was completely gone. The only thing left was complete and utter frustration.

Under normal circumstances, Jaina would have accessed the Force and shunted the stuncuff's barrage aside. Under normal circumstances, she wouldn't have endured any pain of note - not at this setting, anyway. Under normal circumstances, she would have found a way to get the toolbox down from its position high on the storage shelves and picked her way out of this mess.

She grinned wickedly, imagining the justice she already would have exacted on one Jagged Fel.

"When I get my hands on you, Jag, you'll wish I was my - Wait!"

Jaina glanced down at her feet. Maybe she had only imagined it. Rolling her eyes up and playing back the previous few seconds, she began to think not. Her hands and fingers had hurt. Definitely. But she couldn't recall any pain from her feet. Perhaps...

Prepared for the worst and hoping for the best, Jaina leaned over gingerly. Her body was stiff, her muscles wary of another shock. Yet she had to know.

She extended the index finger on her right hand, aiming it for the small button on the binders around her ankles. With a slight nudge the button depressed.

Click.

"Yes! Yes, yes, yes. Finally something going my way. I can't believe my luck..."

She paused, staring back down at the stuncuffs half off her ankles, then kicked hard to send them flying across the room. They landed with a sharp clang against the far wall.

"Luck's got nothing to do with it, does it, Jag? Convenient to leave your girlfriend bound hand and foot, thinking she's stuck like that. So sure I would figure it out, were you? Well I did, and it will be your mistake. If you think that headbutt hurt, just wait to see what my knee can do..."

Jaina's voice trailed off at the abrupt sensation of movement. Her aunt's ship was designed first and foremost for fight and flight and secondly as a passenger vessel. For that reason, the centrifugal effects of any turn were easily felt, and this turn was hard and fast. Out of habit Jaina reached out with her Force sense, trying to lock onto a landmark by which to mark the scope and degree of the turn. What she felt was more like...nothing.

"Sithspit! Being Force-blind sucks!"

The tug of inertial energy pulling her toward the hull wall ended, and forward flight resumed. Without a point of reference she was unsure how complete the turn was, but she had felt enough to figure it was close to a full reversal. She also knew she had been captive on the Shadow for a couple of hours, but ventured a guess it wasn't long enough to have reached Dathomir. In fact, she knew it couldn't have been long enough because she wasn't even -

Bweorweorweorweor.

- hungry.

"I take that back," Jaina said. "Maybe a little hungry."

The crashcouch shimmied, and the room elongated in a timeless second. Then everything fell still and back to normal. The Shadow had jumped to hyperspace again.

Jaina set her feet into a balanced position, held her hands out before her, and focused on her core muscles. Taking great care, she rose.

"What are you up to, Jag?"

She waited silently for an answer to come. None did. Not one to wait around for life to pass her by - even if it was this boring, maddening Force-blind alternate universe where Jag had transformed into some insane nutcase with red ale paranoia and her brother had gone to the dark side to play the cruelest joke ever on her and Jag both - Jaina decided action of any kind was better than the alternative: going crazy right along with the two pillars in her life.

Treading slowly and deliberately, Jaina set out to scope her surroundings. There had to be one spot in this hold where the ysalamiri Force-neutralizing bubble didn't work. There had to be.

Jaina moved from one corner to the next, testing for the Force with each step, every time waiting for that burst of energy to fill her soul. Each step she was sorely disappointed. By the third corner, Jaina felt her nerves running headlong back toward frustration and stopped dead in her tracks. "There can't be that many ysalamiri on Vikova. Can there?"

She shook her head. She had to stay positive. She still hadn't paced off the hull wall. It would be the hardest to guard from the Force. Even one of those lizard slugs couldn't survive in a vacuum. They would have had to put two, probably three, at both outer corners to get Force repulsion all the way across that side. Closing on the midway point along the hull section, Jaina steeled herself for relief, yet at the same time she just knew.

Jacen had checked every centimeter. Not even a glimmer of the Force. Or a whisper. A pinch. Nothing.

"Jag first, my dear brother. But you'll be a close second. When I get through with you both, you'll wish you'd never messed with me. I can't even begin to describe the ways I will make you both suffer."

At some point she had started stalking the room. She took a break from her tirade but kept right on walking, back and forth along the hull wall. Pacing her cage, so near to freedom and the Force, yet so far.

After only a minute of tracking a path along the wall, Jaina felt a bead of sweat form on her brow and her lungs demand more air.

"Oh, great!" She threw her bound hands up in frustration.

"Ow!" And lowered them just as quickly when the stuncuffs reprimanded her for the excessive movement.

"All right, all right." Jaina resumed her pacing. "Jagged Fel, you are well on your way to becoming Ambassador of Men Who Have Met the Bootheel of Jaina Solo."

"Crushed into the ground like the piranha beetle that I am?"

Jaina spun at the sound of his voice. She wasn't sure what made her madder - simply the sight of Jag or not noticing he had arrived. Not that it mattered. Her eyes narrowed to mere slits.

"Pulverized to a grain finer than Tatooine's sand."

Jag grinned, that sexy halfcocked smile only he was capable of. "I love it when you talk dirty."

Glowering, she said, "I don't envision you enjoying it. I'm picturing it -"

"Rough?"

"Exactly."

Upon her answer, his expression slipped from mischievously happy to seductively playful.

Every fiber in her body stiffened. "You arrogant nerfherder!"

Jag only shrugged. In the same instant his face went from teasing to grim. "I see you figured out about the ankle binders."

Stepping out of the hold's doorway, he crossed the room with slow, deliberate steps. Only then did Jaina recognize the small serving plate in his hands. Without making eye contact Jag bent over and deposited the plate on the crashcouch. When he straightened his gaze was shielded and inscrutable, as if he were trying hard not to show how much he cared.

"You should eat," he said.

Jaina's body wanted to cross her arms defiantly over her chest. She stopped the impulse a moment too late, and got a sharp jolt because of it. "I'm not hungry," she gritted from between clenched teeth.

"You should be. It's been over...It's been long enough."

Her nostrils flared. He was fighting the need to be truthful with her. He didn't trust her.

No, he would always trust her. Something had changed.

Of course. Jag had changed his mind.

With a flicker of hope, she took a step toward him. "A minute ago, did you turn us about?"

He took a step closer as well. "Don't you mean, are we going back?"

Jaina snuck forward. "Yes."

"No." He shook his head once for effect. "We're not going back."

"Then where?"

Not a sound passed between his lips. Nor a slip in his eyes as hard as jade. Jag's stony demeanor had its benefits, but at times like this it could be exasperating.

"What?" she snipped. "The Solo plan not working out for you?"

"I thought you wanted me to be a Fel."

Jaina's brow furrowed momentarily. It was amazing how he could disarm her with something as simple as his words. But in true Solo fashion, she came back swinging harder. "If you're up to it."

"Oh, I'm up to it. I'm ready to put a hundred percent into it - being the man you need. My only question is, are you up to it?"

"Am I up to it?" Jaina charged the last few steps until she was toe to toe with Jag. "I'm the one who was waiting in my bed for you to come to me. I'm the one who wanted to tell you how much I wanted to be with you. How much I missed you. How I finally decided to take you up on your offer. How stupid I had been -"

"Jay-"

"Don't interrupt me, Jagged Fel. I'm just getting started. Instead I wake up here to find you've gone mad. That you don't believe in me enough to talk to me. That you feel compelled to kidnap me and force me to see how wrong things are. Well, they are wrong, Jag. All wrong." She yanked her wrists up to present the stuncuffs and yelped for it. "Sonofasith!"

"Jaina."

Stomping her foot, Jaina came down on Jag's boot. "I'm not finished. When it's your turn, I'll let you know. Now where was I? Oh. Right. You've got me in stuncuffs, Jag. Stuncuffs! And not in a fun way. You've taken away my right to participate in this relationship. To face things because I can, not because I have to. This thing you've done is a betrayal. How could you have so little faith in me not to believe I would come to this decision on my own?"

"What decision?"

"The decision that you're the only man for me. That I couldn't imagine a life without you. But now I think I must have been on spice because there's no way in my right mind I would've decided to fall head over heels for a cropdusting, ill-mannered, stuck up wannabe Imperial, no good son of a second rate TIE flying traitor."

"Jaina." He breathed her name like a warning.

"Can't take the truth, Jag?"

"I can handle the truth. Just leave my family out of it."

"Why should I?"

"Because I -"

"Say so? I see how this works. Jag Fel dictates -"

"Jaina."

"- how this relationship is going to be -"

"Be quiet."

"- run. We don't have a communication problem we've got a communication -"

"Shut."

"- breakdown."

"Up."

"So now you're going to tell me when it's okay to-oooo-uuuummm..."

In an instant Jaina plunged from a fuming mad rant to breathless delirium. Her lips had been silenced by the press of the skilled application of Jag's mouth upon them. She wanted to argue, to protest. To break the wonderful heady vacuum that existed between them. Instead she felt compelled like a magnet to draw closer and fuse with his being. No matter how hard she fought it. She wanted - no, needed - to enjoy the taste and dance that always accompanied Jag's kiss.

Eventually her traitorous body submitted completely, melting into him.

His arms had been around her, holding her, but abruptly her shoulder felt the pinch of a firm grip shoving her away.

"What did you do that for?" Jaina blurted out.

"Kiss you?"

She nodded mutely.

"Because you could use a good kiss. Because you needed to be reminded of what it was that was right between us."

"Oh." She bit her lip. "It was only a kiss..."

Jag's expression hardened to one she hadn't seen in a long time. Not since Ithor. Not since he had defied decorum and a room full of politicians to meet her. Jaina could not remember ever seeing him more determined or vulnerable.

"That was more than a kiss, Jaina. What you need to decide is if you still feel what it is I feel every time we're together." His eyes bored into hers, and she actually feared to interrupt. "We're not going back, but we do have to go forward. It's up to you. You get to choose."

He spun on his heel and marched for the door, pausing with his hand at the control. He spoke with his back to her. "I'm not taking us to Dathomir like your father. We're going to a place my second rate traitor of a father once took my mother. Someplace safe. Someplace very few people even know exists." He sighed softly. "When you're ready to talk, I'll be waiting."

Jag triggered the door and walked through without another word.

Jaina snorted. "You'll be waiting?"

The only reply was the door sliding shut. She walked over to the crashcouch and flopped into it. "I'm the one tied up here."

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE


Jacen was halfway down the grand staircase when it struck him.

"Some Jedi memory you've got, bantha brains."

He turned around and jogged back up. The meeting with Iliana had gone surprisingly well, all things considered, and she had seemed to take the news of Jag's sudden clandestine mission to Achebian space with hardly the blink of an eye. At the end of the meeting she'd given Jacen a datapad containing certain information Jag had requested.

The same datapad he had left behind in the conference room.

He hurried along the corridors. Not that he was particularly worried about having to admit his mistake - he'd done plenty of apologizing already today. And no doubt the Vikovans would've noticed his error and made sure the classified information wasn't just left lying around. So the forgetfulness itself wasn't the problem at all. The problem was that this place flat out gave him the creeps.

That whispered admonition of betrayal persisted at the edges of his perceptions in the Force. Nothing specific, nothing he could pin down in any way. Only the clear sense that something was wrong here. Something was very wrong.

He strode through the open doorway to the conference room and stopped just inside. The spacious chamber was empty. Sunlight poured in through the huge windows, which revealed a stunning vista of a stone terrace and the formal gardens beyond. Everything had been cleared from the top of the long oaken table, the chairs were neatly pushed in along its sides, and everyone had left. And just as he'd expected the datapad in question was nowhere to be seen either.

"Sithspawn!"

Jacen placed his palms against the cool, smooth wood of the table and closed his eyes. A slow deep breath assured him there was no reason to panic. A simple comlink call to -

His eyes shot open and the Force flung his gaze to the far end of the room. One of the glass doors leading outside was ajar, and the faint sound of two voices drifted through. Jacen glanced over his shoulder, then walked quickly to the opposite corner of the room. Keeping his back flush to the wall, he got as close as he dared.

"- whatever is necessary," a woman was saying. An indistinct male voice responded. "Yes," she said. "Alive. If you want to be paid."

Jacen took another step closer and risked a peek onto the terrace. Halfway to the gardens, Iliana stood with her back to him. Her companion was a tall man in black fatigues with a pair of blaster pistols strapped to his hips. The left side of his bald head wasn't skin but shining silver metal, and where his left eye should have been was a glowing red cybernetic orb. His left hand wasn't organic either, but instead a silver robotic replacement.

The man asked a question, but Jacen couldn't hear his words.

"If you can, yes," Iliana said. "But her fate is none of my concern."

The man smiled, then dipped his torso forward in a bow. Iliana nodded in acknowledgement before he jogged away and vanished into the flora of the gardens.

She would turn back to the conference room any second. With a fierce burst of focus Jacen muffled his footfalls with the Force as he used a burst of speed to reach the door to the hallway. Dropping his pace to a casual stroll as he emerged, he snatched the comlink from his belt and raised it to his mouth.

"Knight Solo!" a man's voice called out from behind him.

Jacen spun on his heel to see one of Iliana's aides approaching at a frantic clip, the missing datapad in hand. "I see you have what I forgot." He hefted the comlink and indicated the conference room he'd just left. "I was just about to contact you."

"I am pleased I could save you the trouble," the aide replied with a relieved smile.

Jacen took the datapad from him and tucked it under his arm. "Thank you."

The aide simply bowed, and scurried away.

Iliana would be here any moment, so Jacen walked as briskly as he could without running until he reached the first crossing corridor. Not even caring where he was heading, he turned down it and kept up the rapid pace. Right now, all he wanted was to distance himself from Iliana. The farther, the better.

A minute later he was sure he was clear, so he activated the comlink. "Major Nuruodo?"

A short pause. "Go ahead, Jacen."

"No time to explain. I need you to monitor any outgoing transmissions from the Palace grounds right away."

"Understood." A muffled conversation. "It will be implemented momentarily."

"Great! How should I -"

"I am in the Palace hangar bay with Ambassador Fel's starfighter. Meet me here."

"I'll be there in a few minutes, Ma-" Jacen ground his teeth. "Shawnkyr," he finished, and flicked off the comlink.

Then he remembered he had no idea where in the Palace he'd gone in his escape. Fortunately it only took a minute to regain his bearings, retrace his steps to the correct corridor, and head in the right direction. After that, he got there pretty fast.

"Interesting."

Well before he reached the sealed blast door to the Palace hangar bay housing Jag's ill-repaired clawcraft, Jacen could clearly see that the soldiers posted outside were Chiss. In fact, Iliana's distinctive heavily armed and armored guards were nowhere to be seen. Considering another attempt on her life had been made in the room not even two hours ago, the absence of the Vikovans was curious indeed.

Jacen picked up his pace down the long, narrow corridor. It seemed that he and Shawnkyr had even more to discuss than he had anticipated.

"Knight Solo," one of the blue-skinned soldiers said as he approached. "Major Nuruodo has been expecting you."

Leave it to the Chiss to find a formal way to say, You're late. Jacen tipped his head, and the other guard reached over to the wall panel. The blast door slid open just as he arrived.

"Thank -" Jacen said over his shoulder, except that the door already was sliding shut behind him the moment he passed through. "- you."

The only reply he received was the decisive clang of the immense metallic slabs colliding and the simultaneous hissing of the seals forming.

"Yeah." Jacen shook his head. "Next time I won't get lost."

The interior of the hangar bay certainly looked different this time around. A Chiss shuttle dispatched from the Polar Wind dominated the chamber. To one side sat a pair of clawcraft; to the other Jag's starfighter, right where Jacen had left it. A half dozen technicians were swarming over the Ambassador's ship, while Shawnkyr was huddled with a group of four intelligence officers at the base of the shuttle's lowered boarding ramp. Ringing the room, thirty Chiss soldiers stood watch.

"Well, now I feel safe," Jacen muttered.

Over the din in the room Shawnkyr couldn't possibly have heard him, but she looked over at him as if she had. She said something quickly to the officers, then came right toward him while they boarded the ship. Jacen met Shawnkyr midway between the door and the shuttle.

He didn't waste any time telling her what he'd seen and overheard outside the conference room, and she immediately relayed additional orders to the Polar Wind.

When she finished, she turned back to him. "It is good to see you again, Jacen."

"I couldn't agree more, Shawnkyr," he replied. "I owe you a debt of gratitude."

"I simply did my duty."

"Hardly. You saved my life."

"I am confident you would have avoided the crash on your own."

"Don't be so humble. It doesn't suit you."

The Chiss woman scowled. "You are not going to concede, are you?"

He grinned. "Would my sister?"

"Ah. Yes. I suppose she would not."

"So you admit you saved my life?"

Shawnkyr rubbed her palm over her forehead. "Yes."

Jacen grinned. "Look, there's something else important -"

"- we need to discuss at once," she finished over the top of his declaration.

Jacen laughed. "You first."

"No, you," she said. "I saved your life. Humor me."

"All right." He took a deep breath, and told her what had happened in the docking bay when he'd arrived, including the dead prisoner's exclamation of betrayal and Iliana's brutal killing of him. "Combine that with what I saw just now," he said in conclusion, "and I'm beginning to wonder who we're really dealing with here."

"As am I." Shawnkyr's red eyes gazed off thoughtfully. "Yesterday an assassination attempt was launched just after Ambassador Fel had landed on the plaza. Today a second attempt was made, again when Ambassador Fel was expected."

"They tried to kill Iliana."

"Iliana was present for both attacks."

Jacen furrowed his brow. "Wait. You think Jag was the target?"

"I think we should not assume Iliana was the intended victim," she replied. "Perhaps the timing is coincidence."

"Or maybe it isn't."

"That is what we are trying to determine."

"Wait a second. Is that why you have so many technicians working on Jag's clawcraft? It's not just a repulsor malfunction?"

"Perhaps," she said. "I have instructed the technicians to examine the ship thoroughly for any evidence of foul play."

"You think it could have been sabotage aboard the Polar Wind?"

"Admittedly unlikely. And you likely would have detected any attack carried out during the descent. Nevertheless it is prudent to avoid ruling out any possibility, however improbable we believe it to be."

"Makes sense." It was amazing, Jacen mused, that Jag's frighteningly meticulous side hadn't driven Jaina completely insane by now. He took a step closer and lowered his voice to a whisper. "So what other information do we have?"

She matched his hushed tone. "Although we do not yet know his identity, the available recordings of both attacks confirm that the prisoner you saw killed during the second incident is the same assassin who was captured alive in the first incident."

"Hmm." He rubbed his fingertips over his temples. "But why would Iliana bring him here when Jag landed? What was her purpose?"

She shook her head. "If you can determine that, let me know."

A joke! He grinned. "You'll be the first to know, I promise. So where'd the recordings come from in here? Security cams or something?"

"As it happens, there are no surveillance cameras in this hangar bay." Shawnkyr held out her hands, and left the implication unspoken. "The images are from the recording device on Ambassador Fel's clawcraft."

Jacen frowned. "He didn't mention anything about that to me."

"There are many things he has not told you."

"Oh, really?"

"Some other time. I still need to tell you about -" Her comlink trilled, and she answered it immediately. "Go ahead."

"We have intercepted a ten-point transmission to an unidentified vessel orbiting the sixth planet of the system," the male Chiss voice said in Basic. "The ship immediately broke orbit and moved toward the hyperspace lanes."

"Track its trajectory and report to me right away," Shawnkyr ordered. She motioned Jacen to follow her toward the shuttle. "I'll be lifting off shortly."

He was surprised how quickly he had to walk to keep up with her. "You're sure this is worth pursuing, just from that?"

"Yes. The transmission met all ten suspicious criteria."

"Oh," Jacen said. "I get it."

"As I was about to say -" The comlink warbled again. "Yes?"

"Preliminary calculations plot its destination as the Kyrrtol system," the voice reported. "We will try to determine the error at once."

"Very well. Nuruodo out."

"So?" Jacen met her anxious gaze. "What's going on?"

"This is very bad," Shawnkyr said. "They are pursuing the Shadow."

"What? Surely Jaina and Jag are in Achebian space by now," he replied innocently.

She simply stared him down. Unwaveringly. Like she knew.

Despite the nagging desire to squirm like his cousin Ben, Jacen managed to remain utterly and passively immobile.

But those red eyes knew. "After the incident with his clawcraft I checked my personal comms, and found Jag's hastily prepared message. What were you two doing? Drinking red ale?"

Jacen couldn't squash the heat rising in his face. "How'd you know?"

Shawnkyr's brow arched. "There were a few...flaws in the message that were uncharacteristic of my friend. That had to be red ale talking. And if Jag is that far gone, he is taking his personal travails harder than I ever anticipated. I worry -"

"Oh, you don't have to worry about Jag, or Jaina for that matter. Jag's got a plan -"

"A red ale inspired plan?"

"Uh...no." Jacen cocked a half-smile. "A Solo plan. And they're going nowhere near that system, uh, Krit-tul or whatever it is."

"Kyrrtol." Shawnkyr abruptly fell silent. When she finally spoke again, it was merely a whispered thought. "It has to be him. It can be no one else."

"I've never heard of the Kyrrtol system. Why would Jag go there?"

"Because no one has heard of it," she replied. "All starcharts list it as uninhabitable. That is why my crew believes they have made an error."

"But it's not, and they haven't."

"No." Shawnkyr stopped in her tracks at the base of the ramp and leaned in close. "Baron Fel established a safehouse there years ago. No one outside the family knows about it."

Jacen narrowed his eyes. "No one except you."

Shawnkyr dipped her head unapologetically. "I'll tell you in flight. We have to leave right away."

"All right. I trust you." He jogged after her up the shuttle's boarding ramp. "But what I still don't understand is, how could they possibly have tracked the Shadow?"

"That," she said over her shoulder, "was what I needed to tell you."

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO


Jag stood outside the closed door of the cargo hold. His finger moved toward the button to open it, then fell back. Toward, then back. Toward. Back.

He sighed.

The Jade Shadow was on autopilot, making its way from the edges of the Kyrrtol system to the second moon of the fourth planet. When they got there and he landed at the safehouse, he would have to let Jaina out of her confinement. So really he had nothing to lose by seeing if she was reasonable enough now that he could get it over with a little early.

Nothing to lose, of course, except everything.

He'd never seen her that angry with him before. Never. Since he'd left the hold he'd been able to think only of his fears - What if she couldn't forgive him? What if she could never understand why he'd done this? What if she said it was over, and meant it? What if, by trying to show her the truth in her heart and soul, he'd only managed to destroy the one right and good thing in his life? What if he'd blown it, forever?

But there were the words she'd said, and he knew he hadn't heard her wrong. Even as her rage had exploded like a supernova, those truths he'd known were there had spilled out. She'd been waiting for him, waiting to tell him she wanted to accept his offer. She wanted to be with him. She'd decided he was the only man for her, the only life she could imagine. Her true feelings had been revealed. A little bit of anger - well, a lot of anger - couldn't undo that.

Jag reached out and tapped the button.

"So you've come crawling back," she said in an eerily quiet voice. "Ready to apologize?"

"I need to talk to you."

She rolled her eyes. "Guess not."

"I need to know if you meant what you said earlier."

"You mean the part about you being well and truly dead? Yeah, that's looking more and more likely about now."

"No, not that part," he said, treating her jibe with complete seriousness in the hope it would throw her off. "The part about how I am the only man for you, how you can't imagine your life any other way than with me in it."

It worked. "Oh."

"Did you mean it?"

She couldn't meet his gaze. She was looking at the floor, her feet, anywhere but his face. She scooted to the edge of the crashcouch but didn't stand. She wanted to, though. She wanted to stand and run into his arms. He could see it.

"Jaina?"

Suddenly there was a loud thwump and the floor beneath his feet shook. Jag nearly fell, but kept his balance at the last second with a long stride forward. Jaina toppled over and slammed backward into the crashcouch.

"What the hell was that?" she demanded, after swearing at the stuncuffs.

"Perhaps a small asteroid got past the autonav."

Awkwardly she sat up again. She narrowed her eyes. "Didn't sound like that to me."

"I'm sure it's nothing," he said, even though she was right. "The alarms aren't -"

THWUMP. "Gah!" she cried as she smacked back into the crashcouch again. "Ktah!" he barked when his knees crashed to the floor.

"You know," Jaina hissed, "I don't think it's nothing."

"Yes. I noticed," Jag shot back. He scrambled to his feet and charged toward the door.

"Where are you going?"

"Where do you think?"

"Jagged Fel, don't you dare leave without releasing me!"

He stopped in the open portal and spun back. "If you weren't so blasted stubborn, Jaina, you'd have released yourself an hour ago."

"What are you talking about?"

THWHU-WHUMP! This time Jaina benefited from having stayed where she was, and Jag caught himself on the wall.

"I'm leaving." He waved his hand at the untouched food. "Catch up when you're full."

"Jag! You'd better explain yourself this -"

The door slid shut behind him, and he ran as fast as he could toward the cockpit. When he arrived he sprang into the pilot's seat and immediately began to scan the readouts.

"How the -"

He wrenched the control stick with both hands and plunged the Shadow into a swift downward loop to avoid the laser cannon blasts being fired by a hostile ship dogging his aft. He barely had time to process the fact that he'd successfully avoided another thwump, or that the shields actually remained nearly at full strength, or that the ship that was firing on him was a quite ordinary-looking cargo freighter.

He was under attack in the Kyrrtol system. That shouldn't be possible.

And then it got worse. A lot worse. The console beeped just as the six small dots appeared on the tactical display.

"You can't be serious!"

The cargo freighter that wasn't really a cargo freighter, that wasn't supposed to be anywhere near this system in the first place, had just launched fighters.

The display updated, identifying the new arrivals as standard TIEs from the old Imperial fleet. Jag blew out a quick breath. This was a good sign, at least. TIEs would be no match for the Shadow. All he had to do was draw them a little further from the freighter and pick them off. Shouldn't be too difficult to -

"Asteroids?"

Jag spared Jaina a quick glance over his shoulder. "No."

"What, then?"

He didn't have to reply. A trio of TIE fighters screamed straight at the Shadow with their cannons blazing, and Jag barely managed to initiate an evasive roll in time.

"Let me fly," she said.

"No time."

"Why not? I've flown this ship more hours than you've spent admiring Iliana's -"

"Funny." Jag swerved the Shadow into a steep arc, squeezed the triggers, and incinerated one of the TIEs. "How about instead of cracking jokes you -"

"- do something to help. Yeah, yeah." Dramatically she flopped into one of the seats at the consoles behind him. "Shields?"

"That would qualify as help, yes." Another squeeze of the triggers, another TIE met its doom.

"You know, putting the key in the food was a neat trick."

"I thought so." Three down, three to go.

"I'll have to remember that one for the next time you're -" On the display the fore shields weakened and the aft shields strengthened. The incoming barrage of cannon blasts from the freighter behind them dissipated harmlessly against the energy barriers. Immediately the shields evened out again. "What've we got out there, anyway?"

"Apparently a heavily modified Kuat Engineering cargo hauler."

"That's who's firing at us from aft? A cargo hauler?"

"Yes."

"And they launched the TIEs, too?"

"Yes."

Jaina whistled approvingly. "Yeah, I'd call that heavily modified, all right. I bet Karrde would be mighty impressed."

"Perhaps we can regale him with the tale later. But first that requires us to -"

"- live through this." She laughed. "Point made, flyboy. How many TIEs to worry about?"

"Three left, of six."

"Not so bad."

"On their way right now -" He watched the shields adjust just as the remaining TIEs began a head-on charge toward the Shadow. "- as a matter of fact."

"Way ahead of you," she said. He could hear the grin on her face.

Jag lined up his targeting reticule on one TIE and squeezed the triggers. He didn't even wait for the Shadow's cannon fire to strike home before he retargeted and blasted the one next to it. The final TIE broke off its charge and dove away frantically.

"We can outrun the freighter," Jag said. "Plot us a hyperspace jump out of here."

"To?"

Steering the Shadow into pursuit of the last enemy fighter, Jag snatched one of his datacards out of the command console and tossed it over his shoulder in her general direction. "Nirauan."

"On it." Her lack of complaint must've meant she'd caught it. "We'll be ready to jump out of here in just a - hey, where is here, by the way?"

"The Kyrrtol system."

"The what system?"

Almost...there... "Kyrrtol."

"Never heard of it."

"No one has." Jag fired again, and the last TIE fighter exploded in a ball of flame. "It's an inhospitable and abandoned system. Starcharts skip right over it."

"Just the place to woo a lady."

He chuckled. "My father stayed in a safehouse here a long time ago. No one outside of my family and our most trusted associates even knows of its existence."

"Good thing you trust me, then."

"Apparently." The sublight drives were increasing the distance from the cargo freighter with each passing second. "How much longer?"

"Fifteen seconds, twenty tops."

"Perfect." He pointed out the viewport. "I'll take us around that moon."

From the corner of his eye, he saw her nod. "So they can't track our jump."

"Right."

"Unless..."

He looked back at her sharply. "Unless what?"

"Unless they can track us there the same way they tracked us here." She met his gaze sternly. "You do know how they tracked us here, don't you?"

He turned back to the viewport, and the rapidly approaching moon. "Not exactly."

"Then what makes you think -"

I'm not seeing this. I'm not seeing this. "Jaina."

"Don't Jaina me, Jag! We really need to figure out -"

No, no, no..."Jaina, look!"

She did, and cursed.

Coming into view around the dark side of the moon, more and more emerging into view with every racing heartbeat in Jag's chest, was the distinctive triangular bow of an Imperial Star Destroyer. The immense gray warship was heading straight toward them.

"How," Jaina finally exclaimed, "could you possibly have failed to mention that there was a fraggin' Star Destroyer in the system?"

"It was hidden in the moon's mass shadow," Jag explained even as he checked the tactical display. "The sensors couldn't pick it up. It's not my fault!"

"Fault or not," she said, "get us out of here right now!"

"I am!"

Except the Star Destroyer was only growing bigger in the viewport.

"Um...Jag?"

"Busy."

"Why aren't we getting away?"

"It seems," he replied after a long moment, "that we are caught in a tractor beam."

"This isn't funny, Jag."

He faced her again. "I'm not joking."

"My dad was right," she muttered, glaring at him even worse than she had when she'd been tied up with stuncuffs in the hold. "Only a Fel could mess things up this badly."

"Jaina, I...I'm sorry."

She snorted. "So let me get this straight...We've been ambushed in a system no one knows about, we don't know how they found us, none of our friends knows we're here, we're in a ship I'm quite sure you didn't properly borrow in the first place - which, I might add, is loaded full of ysalamiri so the one Jedi we have aboard can't use the Force - and we're caught in a Star Destroyer's tractor beam?"

"When you put it that way," he said, "it does sound pretty bad."

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE


Engines screamed in shrill protest. Structural members groaned under intense strain. The floor bucked and kicked in vain pursuit of relief. The entire ship shuddered, marked by the shrieks of failing metal.

"Enough, enough!" Jaina barked. "Shut her down!"

In front of her Jag leaned against his restraints and slapped the emergency shut-off. The Shadow seemed to let out a sigh as stress bled from her connections and the engines thrummed down. Jaina was out of her seat by the time equilibrium was restored.

"Where are you going?" he shouted after her.

"To space those blasted Force-sucking lizards," she snapped, not too loudly, hoping he might not hear.

"What? Wait!" He was after her in a flash. "You can't do that."

Strutting down the hall, she snorted. "Just watch me-YEEE!"

A sudden jolt threw her into the bulkhead, and Jag on top of her. "I would not advise it," he breathed into her hair. She could feel him taking in the scent of her, enjoying the proximity.

Placing a hand on either shoulder, she shoved for all she was worth. "You don't say."

She took off down the corridor, but he stuck to her like a planet to a sun. "Not if you want to see that precious backside of mine you're always gawking at ever again."

Jaina stopped and spun on him. "What does that mean?"

He practically ran her over. "You see, it turns out that -"

"Wait. Who'd you get these stinking ysalamiri from, Jag? Jabba?"

"Well, I don't think he would go as far as to encase me in carbonite, but he -"

Throwing up her hands, Jaina said, "Karrde. It's Karrde, isn't it?"

His look of chagrin was all the evidence she needed.

"Of all the kriffin' bantha-brained schemes..."

The problem was, Jaina knew Jag was right. Karrde wouldn't forgive him - or her. If they ever got out of this mess, he'd surely tell Mara what they'd cost him, and where, and how. Then they'd both be in a sarlacc's pit of trouble. Mara's wrath for eternity was more than even Jaina could fathom. "All right. How about we just move them?"

"Much better."

She started down the corridor at a fast clip. A moment later the whush and whirr of an airlock attachment sounded from the starboard hull. Jag jogged to catch up to her.

"We can't be in the destroyer yet," he noted as they came upon a door. "Jaina, I'll -"

She slapped his hand away from the door's console, and tapped the entry code. "Probably afraid we're crazy enough to blow the ship in the hangar..." Jaina stared at the console when it flashed red. "What the -"

He reached around and punched a quick sequence. "Couldn't be too careful."

The door whisked open and Jaina stormed inside. "You know, Jagged Fel, if we weren't about to be boarded -"

"You'd kiss me hard and proclaim my quest for a declaration of love a success?"

Now on either side of the dreaded ysalamir's cage, she shot him the dirtiest look possible. Her father would have been proud. "Move it, flyboy. Toward the other one."

Glancing from Jaina to the second ysalamiri nutrient cage deeper in the room, then back, Jag said, "Some help would be nice."

She stared at the large bulbous eyes blinking out at her, and shivered. "On second thought...I'll pass. Where's my lightsaber?"

"In the stateroom," he grunted out as he began to drag the cumbersome cage across the floor. "In my -"

Without waiting for the rest, Jaina sprinted from the storage closet. For the briefest flicker of a moment, the Force erupted into her soul like a bright beacon of warmth. Almost as quickly it was gone, leaving her wistful for another taste. She lowered her head and charged forward.

Sliding to a stop, Jaina overshot the stateroom's door. Unaccustomed to such missteps, she cursed while she punching the entry code.

Red light!

"Sonofasith!" She smacked a palm to her forehead. "The code, Jaina. What's the code?"

Quickly, she considered her alternatives. Recall the code Jag had used on the other door? Assuming he used the same code everywhere, Jaina wasn't sure she even could remember. She definitely didn't have the benefit of the Force to enhance her memory recall. Run back to Jag and ask? Already the sounds of their attackers' efforts to gain entry were filtering down the corridor in a series of clangs and whines.

Momentary panic set in - until suddenly Jag raced into the hall.

"Two-seven-two-seven," he shouted at a run.

Not in the mood to thank him - not until they'd both gotten out of this mess safe and sound, at least - Jaina beat the code into the panel. A green light followed and the door whisked open. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jag charge into the next storage compartment even as she dove into the stateroom. Once inside, though, she hesitated.

"Where would he keep it?"

Predictably, everything was neatly stowed. If she hadn't known better, Jaina might have missed the fact that he had ever been there. She'd shared a bunkroom with Jag enough times, though, to give her plenty of insight about where to look. Kneeling, Jaina felt under the bed's comforter for the latch to the storage compartment. The hidden drawer hissed, then slid forward to expose its contents.

She grinned despite everything. "Same old Jag."

His black travel bag sat nestled in a corner. Not overstuffed, just perfectly filled. With no regard for the time or effort it took Jag to maintain such perfection, she unlatched the bag and unceremoniously dumped its contents on the floor. Immediately, she began rustling through the myriad of clothes and personal items.

Pants pressed perfectly. Crisp white shirts. Belts. A bottle of cologne she'd given him on Jiawai. Rolled socks. Briefs. A dash of red -

"Wait a second..."

Jaina yanked on the red string and out came a racy negligee, lacy and barely there. Batting her eyes, she regarded it for a heartbeat - or two.

WARNING. WARNING. BREACH OF HULL.

The Shadow's automated voice broke Jaina's reverie, and she hurled the sexy apparel on the bed. Back to digging through the bag's contents, she found her usual calm increasingly elusive. Without the Force she felt truly helpless, especially since her search was coming up empty. Typically, she could have found her lightsaber with merely a thought, like sensing an extension of her very being.

Her fingers hit something hard but indeterminate; it was wrapped in the material of a shirt. Desperate she pulled it out. The object wasn't round, but something piqued Jaina's curiosity. She unwrapped the small box, and paused.

There was no mistaking the velvety container. Only one thing could be inside. For about a millisecond she considered looking, but then her conscience - always speaking in her uncle's most severe Jedi Academy lecture tone - took over. You have given up the right to pry.

With a sigh, Jaina dropped the small box and resumed her search. Almost immediately, her fingers hit something cool - and round. "Thank the maker!"

Snatching the long familiar cylinder, she jumped to her feet just as a wave of comforting energy washed over her.

"Even better!"

Jaina bolted for the door, then stopped. She turned back, eyeing the small box where it lay on the floor. Scrambling, she snatched the box and then the negligee.

"No way some stinking pirates are going to get their grubby hands on these," she huffed while crossing to the back wall. Only two other people in the galaxy knew what she did - there was a secret compartment, seamless and undetectable, built into the wall. With practiced ease, Jaina located the invisible button and pressed it with the Force.

There was a soft tone followed by a hiss. A second later there was a hole in the wall where none had been. She tossed in the precious items before hitting the trigger again. She blinked and the wall was once more intact.

"Jaina! Hurry up!"

She glanced around the room, wondering what she was forgetting. Outside the room the sound of metalcutters droned louder and louder. She sprinted for the door.

"Mara is going to kill me..."

At the thought of her aunt, Jaina drew up, then about-faced abruptly. With a simple thought she found another hidden latch. Servomotors sprang to life, and the cabinetry along the side wall spun through a complete half-circle. In their place three huge racks, overloaded with every type and make of weaponry imaginable, emerged.

"Now we're talking." Jaina snatched a vibroblade and stuffed it in her boot. A sonic grenade she snapped to her belt. A LMD-89 Disruptor she slung over her shoulder. Then one blaster for each hand.

There was a loud bang right before her ears popped from a change in pressure. Almost instantly the rapid burst of charric fire staccatoed between laser fire. With no thought for her own safety, Jaina leaped into the corridor, both blasters blazing. She fired and cross-stepped into the opposing doorway, flattening her back to the door.

Ten. She counted ten invaders.

Jag was pinned down in a bulkhead between her and their attackers. Her immediate concern was getting him behind her - behind her lightsaber.

"I'll cover you," Jaina shouted over the din of the crossing volleys.

Jag nodded. After a two-count Jaina stepped out from her cover, firing bolts as fast as her blasters would allow. Jag ducked and scrambled toward her, slinging his charric over his shoulder by its strap as he came. Shooting quickly but accurately, Jaina overwhelmed their opponents momentarily. A Bith dropped. Nine.

The intruders were skilled warriors, though. They recovered in seconds, returning fire with coordinated precision. The instant Jag was clear, Jaina tossed the pair of pistols back over her shoulders into his waiting hands. Simultaneously her lightsaber jumped into the air, igniting with a snap-hiss.

The result was dramatic and effective. The sight of a glowing purple sword stunned her assailants, and there was a momentary lull in the spray of fire. Jaina stood in ready position, her blade crossing from hip to shoulder, humming ominously. The pirates - or so she guessed by their motley appearance and mixed species - stared back, wary and waiting.

Then from out of the wisps of smoke at the far end of the corridor, a commanding figure appeared. The tall man in black fatigues strode forward with icy composure. A pair of blaster pistols were strapped to his hips. Even more menacing, though, was the shining silver metal covering the left side of his bald head, the glowing red cybernetic orb instead of a left eye, and his silver robotic left hand. Filing in behind the cyborg were a dozen or more armored men.

"Okay, so not pirates," Jaina muttered.

Her Force sense was hindered by the odd arrangement of voids around the ship, but Jaina could still tell this man was definitely someone to be reckoned with. He regarded her for a moment before addressing the troopers forming up along the narrow corridor.

"Get them."

"Oh kriff," was all Jaina got out before laserbolts drenched the air.

She blocked shots as fast as she could, returning most toward the shooters, zipping others off to scar her aunt's ship. Jag fired the pair of blaster pistols unerringly. They both hit their marks repeatedly, but immediately realized their accuracy was futile. Every hit was easily absorbed by the soldiers' armor.

And not only was the armor effective in nulling their efforts, but the soldiers were beginning to coordinate their targeting. It was becoming increasingly difficult for Jaina to maintain her position. She retreated slightly to give herself distance, that slightest bit more of time to parry the shots.

Try as she might, she couldn't find a way to turn the tide. Jaina blocked and parried. The soldiers crept forward with practiced skill. Then Jaina retreated. Repeat. Then again.

She'd lost count by the time she glanced at Jag out of the corner of her eye and noticed the beads of sweat on his brow and streaks of perspiration marking his shirt.

"Getting to you, flyboy?"

Jag aimed and fired. "Those things were...heavy."

"Oh." Jaina whipped her blade in a figure eight, pinging four bolts away. "Need to step up the performance training, then."

"Jaina -"

"No time, Jag." The bolts were coming fast and furious. "Get back."

"Jai-"

"Jag," she growled, unsure how long she could hold this position.

He heeded her warning and sprinted to the next protruding bulkhead. Jaina took one deliberate step back, then another, all the while trying to devise a plan -

The current of information vanished abruptly. She'd backed into a void! The lightsaber became an unbalanced, awkward tool in her hands, and Jaina's mindset shifted from guarded to vulnerable. She never stopped guiding the weapon; she would continue her task as best she could.

One shot whizzed past. Then another.

Poing. Poing.

"Ktah!"

"Sorry," Jaina grunted, her arms now feeling heavy and slow. Desperate, she marched forward until she found the edge of the void. She fell into the Force, allowing it to guide her hands.

"That last swing of yours almost took my head off."

Poing.

"You should've warned me how close we were to your lizard friends," she panted.

"You should try letting me finish a sentence. You might learn something."

Poing. Poing. Ping.

Shots were still getting by, but only ones she allowed. Sweat beaded on Jaina's brow and trickled into her eyes. Her body was a flurry of motion, random movements strung together by the guidance of the Force. She couldn't keep this up forever.

"Can't you kill a couple of those things behind us?"

"At this point, gladly. If I could," Jag said.

And he was right. They were pinned against the wall, and her tired defense was too flawed to protect him. Seemingly out of choices, Jaina hesitated on her next move.

Switching the blade to one hand, she reached for the sonic grenade on her belt. Blindly she triggered the fuse, then palmed the cylindrical device.

"Forgive me, Mara."

She would have to drop her guard momentarily to wind up for the throw. She timed the maneuver the best she could. Just as her blade lowered and she attempted to judge a good target for the grenade, Jaina saw the cyborg aiming his blaster.

All she saw after that was red fire, followed by a bright light. Then black.

Jaina's legs buckled, and she heard the grenade hit the floor beside her.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR


"What did you tell them?"

Leading Jacen down the corridor of the Polar Wind, Shawnkyr glanced back over her shoulder. "I instructed them to calculate the most likely destinations using Kyrrtol's primary as a gravity center for a propelled jump."

"Do you think they bought it?"

"I think they are not inclined to question my judgment."

"Right. So you're sure we're the only ones who -"

"You ask too many questions."

He laughed. "Sorry."

She stopped at a closed portal and entered a code on the wall panel. The indicator light flashed green, the door swished open, and she waved him ahead. "Apology accepted."

"Impressive," he said, taking in the formal office. "I wouldn't have thought - Oh."

"Correct." Shawnkyr walked around the desk. "In light of Ambassador Fel's...unapproved leave -" she took a seat in its chair "- I have decided to make unapproved use of his office."

"Sounds fair to me."

"I am delighted you agree."

He sat down opposite her. "What are we going to do?"

She settled her hands in front of her on the desk. "Unless you know the override codes for the Shadow's comm silence..."

"No," he said into her pause. "Sorry."

"Then we have no way of sending a warning to them directly, by conventional means or through the Force."

"Unfortunately." Jacen leaned back in his chair and rubbed his hand over his face. "The estimated hyperdrive rating of that ship was fast, but not too fast. Maybe we could just outfly them there and warn Jaina and Jag that way?"

For a moment Shawnkyr tapped the desk pensively with her fingertips. "The combination of the distance and their head start is problematic. Even the fastest of the clawcraft would not make it to Kyrrtol in time."

"An X-wing, though?"

"With aggressive astronavigation plotting, it might be possible."

"Then I'll go."

She looked up sharply. "You?"

"What? I can do it."

"No, no," she said, shaking her head. "I do not doubt your piloting. But I was under the impression your fighter's hyperdrive is out of commission."

"Well, it is. But I'm sure I can borrow -"

"The other Jedi will need their own fighters in case combat is called for."

He frowned. "You're right."

"Perhaps we could -"

"Wait!" He shot forward in the chair. "I can take Jaina's. It's just sitting down there collecting dust, if you think about it."

Shawnkyr only raised an eyebrow.

Against his will Jacen's gaze found the small holocube off to the side on the desk, from which a small image of his twin sister smiled back at him. To Jag's eyes the grin no doubt was a sultry greeting; to Jacen, in this moment, it was a predatory smirk. She's already going to have my hide for getting to fly Jag's clawcraft first... "Forget I mentioned it."

"Mentioned what?"

He chuckled. "You really have been hanging around with Jag too long."

She nodded in bemusement. "I was afraid of that."

"If getting a warning to them isn't feasible," he said, "how about we just go after them?"

"Go after them?"

"Sure. Why not?"

She rose to her feet and paced toward the far wall. "We do not know what opposition, if any, we could encounter."

"I suppose not. But how bad could it be?"

She spun around. "Bad enough."

"Come on. You really think so?"

"Any number of groups could present a serious threat." She reached the desk and paced away again. "For all we know this is an operation of the Vikovan military."

"You really think Iliana would risk that?"

"No," she admitted quietly. "But there is no doubt that gangsters and pirates operating in this region are heavily armed. So are several mercenary organizations that have yet to disband from the war. Even simply a team of bounty hunters might give us trouble."

"We have to take the chance," Jacen said.

"If we had a better idea of who we were dealing with, perhaps it might be possible."

"Don't be so pessimistic. We'd have the Polar Wind and the clawcraft, plus the Jedi -"

"Even if it were not an absurdly great risk," she said, cutting him off, "I still could not give the order. The Polar Wind must remain at Vikova."

"Oh, right." Jacen sighed, defeated. "In case the Achebians attack again."

For just an instant she hesitated, and if he didn't know better he'd have thought he'd caught her off guard. "And sending any smaller of a force would be unwise. Realistically we lack any capacity to mount a rescue operation."

"All right." He took a deep breath, looking to the Force for clarity. There was always another answer to be found. "Someone else will have to rescue them for us."

Shawnkyr stopped at his side, just a bit closer than he'd expected. "We cannot reveal the significance of the Kyrrtol system. I already have breached a confidence by even telling you."

He'd never noticed how tall she was - until right now, when she seemed to tower over him. "I understand."

"Nevertheless, I imagine we could plausibly explain away Kyrrtol as a transit point toward Chiss space."

"Jag was hurrying back for...some ambassadorial duty, real quick like...and Jaina tagged along to spend some time with him."

She nodded slowly, and paced away. "It might work."

"So if we have an explanation for why they'd be ambushed at Kyrrtol, who can we contact that can get there in time?"

"And with enough firepower."

"Yeah." Jacen furrowed his brow. "Not the Alliance."

"No. Spread too thin as it is, and too far away."

"The Chiss?"

She tilted her head. "Without Ambassador Chu'itha blowing our cover?"

"Oops. I forgot about that."

"Then it is a good thing I am here to back you up."

"Too bad you weren't with us last night to fix up that crazy plan of ours."

"Agreed."

He flashed her the trademark Solo scowl, but she only held out her hands as if to dare him to disagree. Which he couldn't - the plan was pretty crazy. With that thought, inspiration struck. "Hey, I've got it! Karrde could probably do it."

"And what," she said, reaching the desk and sitting down across from him again, "gives you the confidence he has sufficient resources nearby to achieve this?"

"Ah..." Jacen had a sudden, terrifying vision of Mara, Jaina, and Talon Karrde cackling with evil glee as they ripped him limb from limb. "It was just a guess."

Shawnkyr leaned forward and propped her elbows on the desk. "A guess?"

He swallowed the lump in his throat. "Well, I don't know for sure."

"But you know he has at least some assets nearby?"

"Umm..."

Shawnkyr leaned even closer. "Who do you fear more, Jacen? Talon Karrde, or your aunt and your sister?"

Too easy. "The ysalamiri," he explained in a rush. "It was Karrde's people who got us the ysalamiri for the Shadow."

"Of course." She chuckled. "I should have known."

"Look," he said anxiously, "you can't tell him I -"

She cut him off with a wave of her hand. "I did not tell you about Kyrrtol's significance, and you did not tell me about Karrde's presence in this sector."

"Right." He sighed in frustration. "But we're getting really low on options."

"Unfortunately, yes."

"We have to do something, Shawnkyr. We can't just leave Jaina and Jag out there on their own."

She nodded, then snatched the holocube into her palm. She held up the small box and pondered the images inside. "You know, Jacen, there are times I rue the day your sister entered his life." She spun the cube in her fingers, appraising each image in turn. "And there are times I wonder how he ever existed without her."

"Which is it right now?"

Her twinkling red eyes glanced away from the cube to meet his gaze. "Do you really want the answer?"

"On second thought, no."

"Very well." She returned the holocube to its spot on the desk. "Regardless, it is safe to assume that I will bear the full brunt of Jag's wrath should we fail to prevent any harm coming to her."

"Yeah, and it's safe to assume I'll never hear the end of it from my dad if I can't figure out a way to save her either."

Abruptly she sprang to her feet. "You, Jacen Solo, are a genius!"

"I am?"

"Yes," she said, striding briskly toward the door and waving him to follow. "Now, come on. We have a transmission to make right away."

"All right, all right," he replied, hurrying after her as she disappeared into the corridor. "But what'd I say?"

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE


As if in slow motion, Jag watched Jaina's body slump toward him. The sharp tang of singed flesh seared his nostrils. The lightsaber in her hand deactivated with a hiss, and the grenade she had been about to throw clanked to the floor. At the same instant the cyborg and his minions steadied their aim right at Jag.

"Oh, kriff."

He turned and ducked just as a volley of blaster fire tore through the air where his torso had been a split-second before. Stuffing a blaster pistol into his belt and fleeing at top speed, he grabbed hold of Jaina's limp form by whatever he could - the strap of the disruptor rifle, it turned out - and with one hand dragged her around the corner of the Shadow's narrow corridor. Immediately the cyborg barked an order and the clomping of boots echoed toward them.

"Jaina, wake up!" He continued to hurry down the hallway, dragging her with him. "Jaina!"

A metallic jingle caught his attention, and he looked down to see the sonic grenade trapped in the crook of her ankle, rolling right along with them. The detonation indicator was blinking rapidly.

"Double kriff!"

With a fierce yank he flung Jaina to the side, freeing the grenade. Even as his booted foot flew toward it he wondered whether it would explode on contact.

Fortunately it didn't, and his kick sent the metal sphere sailing back into the crossing corridor. Somehow he'd managed to put just enough arc on its flight so that when the grenade exploded a second later, it inflicted most of the damage on their enemies. Still the force of the blast knocked Jag to the floor.

Just before he slammed down on top of her, Jaina's palms flew up to catch him on the chest and her thighs swung closed to pin his hips a hairsbreadth from hers.

"Is this what you've stooped to now, Jag?" she asked, grinning up at him. "Kidnap me, then drag me off and ravish me?"

"Just the way you like it."

"True. But now's not exactly the best time."

He kissed her lips once, quickly. "You think?"

She shoved as he pushed off from the floor, and in a flash Jag was on his feet again. He offered Jaina his hand, but instead she kicked down with her heels and sprang into a backflip that landed her upright at his side. Her lightsaber ignited with a snap-hiss, and she slung the rifle off her shoulder and passed it to him.

He shot her a glance. "What if I have to drag you again?"

She shrugged, and took the other blaster pistol from his hand. "Then I guess you'll just have to use the hair."

He hefted the rifle in his hands. "Attack or retreat?"

"You have to ask?"

"Just being polite," Jag said, following her toward the crossing corridor.

When they reached the intersection, Jaina pressed her back to the wall and threw a quick look around the corner. "Ready?"

"Ready." Then he stayed her with a hand on her hip. His eyes indicated the tear in the fabric on her shoulder, where the cyborg's shot had grazed her. "You sure you don't want a bacta patch first or something?"

She nodded firmly. "Just nicked me. I can barely feel it. I'm good."

"All right." He met her gaze. "Let's get our ship back."

She grinned. "Yes. Let's."

Right on her heels Jag swung into the corridor, tracking the rifle's sight back and forth with practiced precision. Four of the armored troopers lay sprawled on the ground, along with a Rodian and a Nikto from the first group of interlopers. Everyone else was gone.

"They're regrouping," Jaina said, shutting down her blade.

"And they've got numbers."

"That's an understatement. Numbers plus, we have to assume, reinforcements."

"Yes."

She compressed her lips and blew out a fast breath. "They'd move to disable the engines first, right? Then take the cockpit?"

"Presumably. Whoever they are, they seem to know what they're doing."

"Yeah, they do. So we need to stop them there. Unless..."

He raised an eyebrow. "Unless what?"

"Unless we cut them off. Then hunt down the ones in here."

"Seal the hull breach?" It was either mad - or brilliant.

"They'll never expect it."

"I'll give you that. But how would we do that?"

"I was hoping you'd have the answer for that one."

He chuckled. "Afraid not. Unless your aunt keeps a ten-grade thermo-flashwelder on board that I don't know about."

She grinned at him. "Engine room it is, then. What are we waiting for?"

They moved quickly through the corridors, constantly on alert for the intruders as they headed aft. Fortune was on their side, because they made it nearly halfway back to the engine room before they encountered anyone.

At the intersection of hallways Jaina stopped ahead of him. Silently she held up her left hand and signaled - seven opponents. She glanced back over her shoulder at him and readied the inert lightsaber pommel in her right hand.

Jag snapped the butt of the rifle up to his shoulder, then gave her a quick tip of his forehead.

She flicked a salute with the barrel of the pistol and thumbed on her lightsaber. Even before the snap-hiss had finished she had surged around the corner, unleashing an ear-splitting bloodcurdling war cry as she went.

He charged after her, swinging around the corner and opening fire. His first shot slammed straight into the chest of the armored trooper in the middle of the enemy group. He held the trigger down, and more laser blasts pounded into the armor until it gave way. The blaster bolts ripped into the man's flesh, and he fell forward with a bellow of agony.

In the instant it had taken him to kill the trooper Jaina had gunned down the Twi'lek and the Devaronian in the rear. She took a long stride toward Jag and whipped her blade through a quick defensive pattern to swat away the shots from the remaining four invaders, who had spun around and opened fire.

Jag squeezed the trigger and sprayed the enemy group with a devastating barrage of blaster bolts. A moment later, he and Jaina were the only ones left standing.

"All too easy," she said. A quick flick of her wrist clipped her lightsaber to her belt, and she took a moment to swap out the power pack in her blaster pistol.

"You think we should split up?" he replied, checking the rifle's charge. Still almost full power. "It's your turn to fly. I could take the engines."

She paused. "No," she finally said, snatching her lightsaber handle into her palm again. "I think we should stick together."

There was something in her voice...No time to ponder it now, though. "All right. We'd better get moving. They have -"

"- too big of a head start as it is." She thumbed on her blade and cut three quick practice strikes in front of her, and the trademark Solo smirk crossed her lips. "Got my back?"

"Always." Their eyes met in a lingering gaze until she spun on her heel and broke into a brisk jog.

Presumably the invaders were taking the most direct route from their entry point, so he and Jaina skirted the opposite hull of the vessel as they hurried to catch up. Not much more than a minute later Jaina gave him a signal with a quick tip of her head. They ducked into a narrow mechanical closet and prepared for battle. While Jaina closed her eyes, Jag tightened his grip on the rifle, readied his finger on the trigger, and took a couple of quick deep breaths to center his focus.

"I don't have the Force back here," she whispered.

He nodded once.

She clipped her lightsaber to her belt and gripped the blaster pistol in both hands, its barrel pointed straight up. "You've got the big gun. You lead this time."

"As ordered." With the rifle cradled in perfect firing position in his hands, Jag lunged back into the corridor and ran the ten paces straight to the open door of the engine room.

Jag whirled inside, the rifle spitting white-hot bolts of plasma faster than he could aim. The three troopers just inside the door staggered backward from the force of the unexpected blows to their armor. They tried to raise their blasters toward him, but he whipped the muzzle back and forth to keep up a continuous spray of laser fire on them.

The other raiders in the engine room were starting to react. Over the sharp retorts of his rifle Jag heard them shouting, scrambling for weapons and cover. He took two strides forward, keeping his shots directed at the three closest troopers. In his peripheral vision he saw Jaina duck past him and dive into a firing crouch behind one of the heavy mechanical cabinets near the door.

One of Jag's scattered shots caught a gap in a trooper's armor, taking him down instantly. Jag risked the time to aim a shot at the head of the next trooper, and in the moment it took that enemy to duck he blasted three bolts squarely into the chestplate of the third. The surviving trooper got off an awkward shot at Jag, but it was too little too late - the unrelenting barrage from the disruptor finished him off.

Immediately he assessed the situation in the engine room. Jaina already had gunned down two Rodians and a human raider. Another armored trooper was firing at her from behind the large cylindrical sublight drive core while she tried to take out the Zabrak scurrying forward from the hyperdrive area.

Without hesitating Jag rushed toward the trooper. Blaster bolts from the Zabrak flew at him, but he pressed onward. Three long strides later he burst around the drive core and opened fire on the trooper. His opponent never even got off a shot - the vicious blasts from the disruptor were simply too much.

Jag whirled at the sound of thumping boots and gunned down an Aqualish making a mad dash for the door. A shot from Jaina took out the Zabrak. And just like that, it was over.

Beep.

Ba-bweep.

Jag turned and looked down at the base of the sublight drive core. Sure enough, a blinking device was affixed to the metal surface. "Jaina?"

She rushed to his side. "Electromagnetic pulse detonator."

He whistled. "They do know what they're doing."

Beep.

Ba-bweep.

"Yeah." She canted her head. "There's another one on the hyperdrive."

He glanced at the blinking indicator on the detonator at his feet. "Not much time. I can get this one."

"Perfect," she said, already running toward the hyperdrive area further back in the room.

"I think." Dropping to a knee, Jag set the rifle on the floor and reached for the detonator. His fingers traced quickly over the keypad. Fortunately the boarders hadn't expected resistance in the engine room, and a simple press of a button deactivated the timer.

Ba-bweep-eep.

"Jaina?" he called out, rising to his feet.

"Kinda busy here."

Ba-bweep-eep.

Jaina was certainly more adept at any sort of electronics, so Jag's immediate reaction was one of concern. He started in her direction -

"Impressive," a baritone male voice boomed from behind Jag. "Most impressive."

Jag spun around to see the cyborg standing in the open portal to the engine room. He took dead aim at his chest.

Ba-bweep-eep.

"You are a most difficult man to capture." The cyborg smacked his clenched flesh fist into the open palm of his silver robotic hand. "It appears I will have to finish this myself."

Jag took three strides forward, putting himself squarely between the cyborg and the path to the hyperdrive area. "You can try."

Ba-bweep-eep. Ba-bweep-eep.

The cyborg lunged, and Jag squeezed the disruptor's trigger.

The rifle fizzled and sputtered. He held it out, eyeing the battery readout. Out of power!

Ba-bwee-ooo-eep.

Jag sidestepped, barely avoiding an attempt to grapple him to the floor. Instinctively he swung the inert rifle like a bludgeon straight for the cyborg's head.

The cyborg didn't even try to dodge the blow. The rifle clanged into the silver metal on the left side of his head and bounced away harmlessly.

"Oh, not good," Jag muttered.

The cyborg lunged again, and Jag sprang to the side. Despite the attempted evasion, the cyborg's boot slammed into Jag's chest, sending him sprawling backward to collide with the sublight drive cylinder.

Ba-bwee-ooo-eep.

The cyborg laughed. "You're running out of time, Knight Solo."

Jag shook his head to clear the haze of the collision, and try to make one cyborg out of the two he saw.

Ba-bwee-ooo-eep.

"It's a shame," the cyborg continued, drawing a blaster as he strode deeper into the engine room, "that you won't live to find out if you'd have deactivated it in time."

Ba-bwee-ooo-eee-wooo-eep.

Jag reached for the blaster pistol tucked in his belt -

Ba-bwee-ooo-eee-wooo-eep.

And found nothing. It must have fallen out during the fight! With no time to look for it and no options left, Jag hurled himself toward the cyborg with all his strength.

Ba-bwee-ooo-eee-wooo-eep.

Jag chopped his arm at the cyborg's robotic hand, which held the blaster aimed toward Jaina. His opponent let the blow come -

Ba-bwhooooooooo...

- and only then did Jag see the vibroblade in the cyborg's other hand. Just as the cyborg squeezed the trigger Jag slammed into him, and the shot flew wide.

Jaina! Darkness engulfed Jag's vision as the vibroblade sliced into his gut. I'm sorry!

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX


Jaina sprinted to the hyperdrive core, then skidded to a stop.

Ba-bweep.

She only heard the tone of one detonator this time, and it was the one right in front of her. Jag's turned his off already.

Considering the speed of his success, she assumed the devices must be simply armed. While their attackers were efficient and knowledgeable enough to attempt to disable the ship, they most certainly had made a mistake in assuming she and Jag would not predict this move. Without giving it a second thought, Jaina tapped the button on the timer.

The green countdown light darkened instantly, and she heaved a sigh -

Until a yellow light, blinking much faster, erupted in the green one's place.

Ba-bweep-eep.

"Jaina?" Jag asked before she could utter an appropriate curse.

"Kinda busy here."

Ba-bweep-eep.

Even without the Force, an eerie calm draped across Jaina like a comforting cloak. An EMP detonator wouldn't kill her - hurt like there was no tomorrow, sure, but not kill her. It would all but kill their chances of escape. Which meant the possibility of her death, and Jag's, was intimately linked with her success or failure in the next few seconds.

Without the benefit of her trusty multitool - Jacen or Jag, one of dynamic duo, had remembered to take that too - she was forced to improvise. With the butt end of her lightsaber she smacked the corner of the detonator housing, causing it to pop off and drop to the floor.

"Most impressive."

The deep male voice startled her so much she swung around. She assessed the situation even before she finished assuming a battle stance. The cyborg stood in the open portal to the engine room. She couldn't see Jag, but it was obvious the cyborg was addressing him.

Ba-bweep-eep.

"Sonofasith," she spat while dropping down to face the open detonator. With a pang of regret, she admitted to herself that she could only deal with one problem at a time. Besides, Jag would protect her at all costs. She'd just have to make that window as short as possible.

Ba-bweep-eep. Ba-bweep-eep.

The bothersome device continued to announce its imminent detonation, and Jaina retaliated by ripping the faceplate off the internal components to expose the wires. Green, blue, yellow, brown, white, black. The assortment of protectively shielded wires looped from one side to the next, sending signals and connecting each element in a confusing array.

Ba-bwee-ooo-eep.

Tracing the wires with her finger she found only two that wound into the trigger. Red and blue.

Clang!

Jaina glanced over her shoulder toward the metallic impact. Jag stood sprawl-legged, looking as if he had just tried to fell a tree - and failed.

"Oh, not good," he muttered.

The cyborg lunged, and Jag sprang to the side. Still, the cyborg's boot met Jag's chest with an intense thud and sent him flying into the sublight drive cylinder.

Ba-bwee-ooo-eep.

Frantic, Jaina pivoted back to the detonator and attempted to retrace those two critical lines.

The cyborg laughed. "You're running out of time, Knight Solo."

She was inclined to agree, yet having that truth pointed out only fired her up.

Ba-bwee-ooo-eep.

"It's a shame," the cyborg continued, "that you won't live to find out if you'd have deactivated it in time."

Even as she exposed and isolated the red and blue wires, Jaina could hear the clomp of his shoes on the floor, drawing closer.

Ba-bwee-ooo-eee-wooo-eep.

Her fingers almost shook trying to separate the coiled mess. She really could have used the Force about now, for a whole number of reasons. Jaina stilled and breathed.

Ba-bwee-ooo-eee-wooo-eep.

That quick moment was all the time she could spare, and the blasted noise persisted in its announcement of their impending doom.

Ba-bwee-ooo-eee-wooo-eep.

Reciting one of her dad's favorite lines, "Red, you're dead," she yanked out the blue wire.

Ba-bwhooooooooo...

Everything happened fast after the dying gasp of the detonator's timer.

Jaina twisted around. A red-hot plasma bolt whizzed past. Jag, who had gotten himself entangled with the cyborg, rolled over, then slumped to the floor.

Shades of red consumed her consciousness as she charged forward. Blinding crimson filling her vision. Vibrant red dripping off the vibroblade in the cyborg's hand. Deep scarlet spreading across the fabric of Jag's flightsuit.

Her primal yell echoed off the walls. She dropped her head and executed a roundoff. In a one-on-one fight, without the Force, Jaina hadn't a chance, and she knew it. The cyborg had reach and mass on her, by quite a bit. If she ignited her lightsaber, he might simply cut her down with a blaster shot, and she wasn't confident that in close quarters she could anticipate the shot. Her only hope was that this metallic demon was enough of a sadist to enjoy the thought of administering a good pummeling with his hands.

Using the momentum of her flip, Jaina slammed feet first into the cyborg's massive chest. She had put every ounce of her being into collision, but she felt as though she had hit a brick wall. She smacked to the floor, her breath leaving in a whoosh, images of fighting Cundertol on Bakura flashing through her mind. Her gut reaction was to retreat and regroup, but while attempting to push off the floor, she caught sight of Jag hoisting his body upright.

She knew then that retreat was an impossibility.

"Quite the fighter you are, Fel," the cyborg drawled.

Jaina heaved in a quick breath, then focused on climbing to her feet. She took care to keep her hand away from her lightsaber, still clipped to her belt. Their opponent most definitely meant business, deadly business. She wanted to avoid that part, if at all possible. Jag swayed unsteadily between her and the cyborg, his body trying to maintain a battle stance. When she started forward, Jag held a bloodied palm back to her.

"Jaina, stop."

"Fool," the cyborg crowed. "I'll kill you, then the Jedi princess. She's defenseless as a newborn with the ysalamiri you've helpfully provided."

Jaina was about to snap a retort when Jag spoke. "No. You won't." He brought a hand up to his side and probed the wound. "You could have killed me before now. You want us alive."

The cyborg laughed a deep menacing chuckle. "You're right. Partially." He pointed at Jag. "You get to stay alive." Then waved the blaster in Jaina's general direction. "She doesn't."

The moment of clarity hit Jaina almost as fast as Jag dropped and rolled. It wasn't much, but it was enough. Jaina's hand flew to her belt, and in a single swift motion detached the lightsaber and ignited it. The cyborg, who had fallen prey to Jag's diversion, brought his eyes back to her from their momentary distraction. He leveled the blaster just as Jaina hurled the blazing sword in a thrumming whirl.

It took only two rotations for the blade to strike its mark. Sparks and screeching metal coupled with a dying howl announced the killing blow.

The monster had been gone from her thoughts the instant the lightsaber had left her hand. Jaina scrambled to where Jag still lay on the floor, motionless. She could barely breathe as she tugged him into her lap.

"Jag?"

His skin was ashen. His eyes closed. His body utterly limp.

With a trembling finger she smoothed away a bead of sweat on his brow. "Jag?"

Green eyes and a moan. "I'm all...right."

She pushed his hand away from where it protectively covered the gash in his side. With delicate care she examined the wound. The slice was clean and seemingly shallow, but something was wrong. She didn't have her usual almost subconscious perceptions of his well being, but she still knew it.

She managed a smile. "Okay."

Without the Force she had no way to confirm her fears, or to do anything to help heal Jag. Already he was trying to rise from her lap. All she could do was help. Soon he was sitting, she kneeling, and a plan for what to do next was formulating in her mind.

"We can't fight them like this."

Jag climbed to his knees, and groaned. "No."

Crawling a short distance to her right, Jaina eyed the engine room floor. It was easier to perceive the details with the Force...

"What...are you...doing?"

Jaina spotted the almost invisible seam in the floor, and smiled. She began running her hand along its length, feeling for an impression. "Mara may like to fight -" she found the almost imperceptible dip and pushed "- but she always knows how to make a stellar retreat."

A small tile in the floor moved aside to reveal a keypad. she punched a code, then pulled back just in time for the floor to retract and reveal a hidden access tunnel. She grinned at Jag. "In the chute, flyboy."

He didn't argue, and dragged himself to the edge before tumbling in. Jaina flinched when she heard him yelp. Ducking her head inside the narrow, dark tunnel, she couldn't really see his face.

"You okay?"

He coughed. "Landed funny."

Jaina shut her eyes and tried to deny the panic rising in her gut. She couldn't tell how grave his injuries were. She couldn't tell his physical state. She couldn't tell where her enemy was. She couldn't carry Jag or help him to safety.

"Stop it," she whispered, then louder and with a positive air. "Hand over hand..." She hesitated. "As best you can. Okay?"

He grunted and started to move off. Quickly Jaina rose and sprinted to where the cyborg's corpse lay sprawled on the floor. She snatched her lightsaber, then rushed to the engine room's open portal. A quick code on the door controls caused it to shut and lock. Satisfied, she ran to the hole in the floor and dove in. Rolling on her back, she found the interior controls and sealed the secret passage's entrance.

The tunnel plunged into darkness. Jaina began the laborious task of pulling herself along the shaft using a narrow conduit built in overhead. Available light was infrequent, so she was left to use her other senses. Ahead she could hear Jag. His breathing was labored, and on a few occasions he cursed or groaned or just exhaled sharply.

Jaina felt something on the slender metal pipe; it was slimy and wet. She recognized the sensation easily, by feel and smell. Blood.

The thought only caused her to pick up the pace. She practically gave herself a concussion smacking into Jag's feet.

"Ow!"

"Uh."

"Sorry," she said softly. "What's wrong?"

"Which way?"

Jaina practically cried at the realization they were at the junction already. "Straight."

"Good."

Jag coughed and grunted, then began to shift and reposition himself to begin the last leg of their trek.

"Wait," Jaina said, thinking ahead in their fight. "Let me go first."

"Copy," he answered, adjusting himself to one side.

The squeeze was tight and Jaina moved cautiously, fearful of hurting him further. "This passage leads directly to the cockpit. Right the quarters. Left the hold."

When she was even with him, the two of them scrunched in the tiny horizontal shaft, Jaina paused. "We're almost there. I promise."

"I'm..." A haggard breath. "Fine." In the dim light she could make out the white of his smile, and she could tell it was half-hearted.

"A kiss for luck?"

He blinked his response.

She leaned forward and claimed his lips. The kiss was tender and desperate, passionate and pure, all at once. "I love you, Jagged Fel."

He moved his hand, the back of his knuckles brushing her cheeks. "I will always love you, Jaina."

It felt like a goodbye. Her stomach flipped a somersault and her heart pounded. But not with panic. Instead steely resolve had taken root. She flashed a half-cocked Solo grin. "You know, I was really looking forward to you taking me out to the Grishan Glacier. Although I'm not sure it could live up to the stories you tell."

She started down the tunnel, talking softly as she went. "Maybe you could ask your mom to make that Endwa stew you're always raving about. I hope she doesn't think me too much a flitty fan if I ask her to autograph something."

She paused and glanced back. Jag was following, albeit slowly; he already had fallen some distance behind. In her best commander voice she barked, "Move it, Feh-el."

The trick worked. His military instinct took over, and his pace quickened. Grinning despite herself, she resumed the exhausting hand-over-hand drag down the shaft. He must have been in agony, her injured arm throbbed mercilessly. To keep them both distracted she talked about random events that might take place if - no, when - they got to Csilla. She babbled all the way to the end of the shaft.

She lay there panting for a few seconds. She knew, though, that there wasn't much time. Their attackers were surely looking for them, feverishly by now. The locked door to the engine room would only have held them out for so long, and then it would have been only a matter of time before they figured her ruse out. Jaina knew she would have to take the cockpit quickly and decisively before the invaders could devise a way to locate them or gather too many reinforcements.

Reaching down, Jaina pulled the vibroblade from her boot. A lightsaber had its advantages, but stealth was not one of them.

"Stay here," she whispered to Jag. He barely managed a reply.

She adjusted her position so she was face down, looking at the controls. She tapped in the code, then triggered the manual override button and steadied her hand on the release. Slowly Jaina slid the hidden access up. She could see most of the cockpit's floor, and hear everything. By sound and sight she determined there was no one positioned behind her in the seats and only two guards at the door - the only other way in and out.

Inhaling a long deliberate breath, Jaina braced herself and rushed into the cockpit. She burst out of the opening with predatory speed. Both guards heard her, but only one could get through the narrow access. Surprise was her ally; the man was slow to get his weapon up. A vibroblade piercing his chest armor caused his blaster to fall. Jaina's kick to the gut flung him back into the second guard. Before either one knew what hit them, Jaina had the door shut and locked.

"Jag," she called back into the hole in the floor.

He said nothing, but emerged, pale-faced and clammy, from the darkness. She grabbed him under the arms, and using her legs hauled him out. Somehow between the two of them, they managed to wrestle him into the co-pilot's chair.

The pounding had already begun at the door. Ignoring it, Jaina buckled Jag's restraints. Her hand paused when she noticed the tear in his shirt. Somewhere along their trip from the engine room, the hole in the material sliced by the cyborg's blade had gotten caught and torn more. Now much of Jag's side was exposed, and so was the blooming discoloration that spread across his ribs in a telltale sign of internal bleeding.

"Jag?" she asked shakily.

He glanced down to where her hand rested, and blanched. What resolve had been on his face vanished at the sight of the truth. Jaina too felt the truest form of fear, one she had felt only once before in her life.

On Myrkr.

She shook her head. "Oh no. No, no, no." Dropping into Mara's seat, she strapped on her restraints. The banging on the door became more insistent. She punched systems to life all over the console. Engines. Shields. Weapons.

The pounding stopped. They were going to blow the door.

Jaina double-checked the door locking mechanism; it glowed red. "Hold on. This could get rough."

Jag rolled his head and stared at her through glazed eyes. "Jay..."

She turned away, slamming the throttle forward. The Shadow bucked and slammed to a halt. Undaunted, she rocked the throttle forward and back. Accelerate. Pitch. Reverse thrust. Forward again.

"Jaina?"

"Hush, Jag. I'm getting us out of this mess." And that she was. The Star Destroyer wasn't holding them in a tractor beam while the boarding ship was docked to the Shadow. She was using that fact to her advantage. The trick would be to survive the separation from the other ship. The decompression of ripping away would strain the Shadow incredibly. As long as the cockpit door held...

"Mara's going...to kill...you."

"They're planning to kill us first!" Jaina yawed the ship and kicked the rudders.

The Shadow shuddered, and stilled - then suddenly leapt forward like it had been shot from a cannon. From the howling rush of vacuum-induced winds and the groaning of the ship it was quite evident they had broken free of the freighter's docking clamp.

"Yeah, you're right. Mara's gonna kill us," Jaina whimpered.

Most unexpectedly bright blue laser bolts ripped past the cockpit viewport. Jaina yanked the ship to port and dove. "Oh kriff!"

Instincts kicked in, and she captured the tactical heads-up in one quick glance. Then she did a double take, still juking and turning. She read two Star Destroyers! And eighteen fighters!

"Oh you've got to be kidding -" A thought occurred to her. "Wait! How many fighters in a standard Chiss squadron?"

There was no answer. Jaina spared a second to look at Jag. He was slumped against the restraints, his heading bouncing with each near miss of a laser volley. "Jag? Jag!"

She wanted to go to him, to hold him. To tell him to keep fighting. But fly was all there was time for her to do. Bank. Spiral. Evade.

The skirmish unfolded in a matter of seconds that felt like a lifetime. The newly arrived destroyer was not firing at her but past her. A squadron of clawcraft screamed by. This was their salvation, and it might have come too late.

She had been too late!

Jaina aimed straight for the new destroyer's yawning hangar. An unfamiliar voice in an unfamiliar language barked over the comm. She ignored it. The voice returned, in the familiar clip of broken Basic so common among the Chiss.

"Light freighter, state your intention."

"Landing, you jaknotdome." If nothing else Jaina had gleaned a few Chiss words that were meant to disparage an individual's lineage.

That shut him up, and before anyone - even Jaina - knew what was happening the Shadow was careening into the cavernous hangar. She made out blue-skinned humanoids scrambling and ducking out of the way. Between the existing damage and their speed the landing was far from pretty. The Shadow bounced and skipped to a stop in the dead center of the docking bay.

None of that mattered, though. Jaina sprang free of the restraints and rushed to Jag's side. She unsnapped him too, and he toppled into her arms. "Oh frag."

Balancing his weight, Jaina hoisted Jag's dead-weight body down to the floor. She took one glance at his lifeless face and knew the Force was her only hope. She slapped the ramp controls on the console, then bent over and grabbed him under the arms. Heaving and tugging with all her might, she dragged him out of the cockpit. She wasn't sure how far it was until she would reach the end of the void, but she would've carried him to Coruscant and back if that's what it took.

"Don't. You. Dare," she said between tugs, "Think about. Leaving me."

Jaina was almost to the same spot in the corridor where she had found the Force during their battle against the boarders when a clipped voice issued a stern warning.

"Step away from the Ambassador."

Refusing to release him, Jaina looked over her shoulder. "He needs medical attention."

A company of Chiss soldiers filled the corridor, stepping over downed boarders as they came. They all aimed their charrics directly at her.

"Step away from the Ambassador," the captain repeated.

Every nerve in Jaina's being screamed fight! but this was about Jag. She lowered him gently to the floor and backed away with her palms forward. "Okay."

A team swarmed past the troops and swooped down on Jag. She tried to listen, but they spoke in Chiss and their equipment was foreign to her. In less than a minute they had Jag attached to any number of tubes and devices and loaded him on a stretcher. When she tried to follow the medical team, every Chiss soldier re-aimed his charric in her direction.

"Not you."

Jaina had raised her palms instinctively, and she left them high. Tipping her head after Jag, she said, "He needs me."

"Your status is undetermined, Jedi," the Chiss captain retorted. "Relinquish your light sword."

"Now wait a minute -"

Every Chiss stiffened. "Drop your weapon," the captain commanded again.

Jaina was at a loss. She just wanted to be with Jag. She needed to be with Jag. Submission was the quickest path to her objective. "Oh-kay."

Slowly she reached down - every pair of beady red Chiss eyes scrutinized her - and unclipped the hilt of her lightsaber. She let it clatter to the floor, then kicked it across the corridor. It ended at the captain's feet. With a flick of the toe of his boot he launched it up into his waiting palm.

"Restrain her," he said, "and take her to the brig."

A pair of Chiss burst through the formation. The one on the right had stuncuffs ready in his hands.

Jaina glowered in disbelief. Not again...

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN


Something had drawn his mind back to reality.

With a quick touch of the Force, Jacen enhanced his short-term memory and discovered that a woman had spoken his name. That was odd. What was a woman doing in his bedroom?

"Jacen?"

His eyes shot open, and he realized he wasn't in a bedroom after all. Just an office. He was slumped in a chair with his legs stretched out before him, arms crossed over his chest, and head flopped ungracefully over the back.

He cleared his throat. "Yes?"

Three thumps announced the arrival of Shawnkyr's blue face and bright red eyes across the smooth white tiles of the ceiling. She gazed down at him. "What are you doing in the Ambassador's office?"

He pinched his own arm to keep himself from laughing at how silly she looked upside down. "I was...meditating." Liar, his conscience said. More like asleep. "Yes, meditating."

"I see," she said. "And did your meditations give you a solution to our problem?"

"Huh?" The Force had guided him to trust in her plan for rescuing the Shadow from Iliana's goons - and he would have felt something if anything bad had happened to his twin. He sat up in the chair as Shawnkyr walked around it to face him. "What problem?"

"I just received word from the Ordained Guardian," she replied. "A shuttle is on its way here."

"Uh oh."

"Precisely."

Jacen ran a hand over his face. The haze of tiredness had vanished; nervous sweat already was taking its place. "I don't suppose we can convince him to come back some other time?"

She shot him a scowl. "You don't think I already tried that?"

"You did? Really?"

She shrugged. It was an entirely human gesture, and she probably wasn't even aware she was doing it. "In the past I have taken far...bolder measures to cover for Jag."

"I can only imagine."

"No," she said, shaking her head. "I do not think so."

"Jaina is my sister," he retorted with a wink. "I think perhaps I can."

She tipped her head. "Very well, Jacen. We are even."

"And about to be evenly in deep trouble if we don't figure out something fast."

"Agreed." Shawnkyr gazed pensively toward the far wall. "So what do we tell him?"

"Tell whom?" inquired a deep male voice from the open doorway.

Jacen already was springing to his feet as he spun to face the new arrival. "Ambassador Chu'itha," he said, his brain scrambling to bring all the diplomacy lessons his mother had given him back to the fore, "what a pleasure to see you again."

"Ambassador, sir," Shawnkyr said, snapping to attention then executing a crisp bow.

"Please, please," the tall Chiss said. "These Vikovans are so thick on formalities, I am beginning to think they have given over power to the protocol droids."

The idea of Threepio having power over anything made Jacen shudder - until he shuddered even more when he realized Iliana knew Jag wasn't here...

"You met with the Vikovan leadership just now?" Shawnkyr asked. Her sidelong glance at Jacen revealed she was thinking the same thing.

"Leadership is being generous," Chu'itha replied, striding into the room to join them. "Functionaries. Underlings. Minor bureaucrats. It seems this Ilannia feels compelled to demonstrate the competence and enthusiasm of every single department and agency of her regime. Quite tiresome, as it happens."

Jacen breathed a sigh of relief. At least their cover wasn't already blown. "They must be very serious about an alliance with Csilla if they are making such efforts."

"So it would seem." Chu'itha paused in front of the framed Corellian landscape painting hanging on the wall. For a moment Jacen thought he was contemplating the work of art - until the ambassador ran his fingertips through his short white hair a few times and adjusted the cuffs of his dress jacket. "Sadly," he said with a mischievous grin, turning back to them, "I fear I will have to foist off the remaining inane meetings upon Ambassador Fel."

"He deserves it," Shawnkyr muttered.

As Chu'itha raised an eyebrow, Jacen said, "I'm sure he'll follow orders."

"Yes," the aged diplomat said. "That is something of a habit of his. And where is my loyal and dutiful subordinate?"

Jacen and Shawnkyr traded glances. "Jag is...unavailable," she offered.

"Unavailable?"

"Yes," Jacen added, nodding enthusiastically. "Unavailable."

"I see." Chu'itha sat down in the chair at Jag's desk; Jacen and Shawnkyr remained standing. "What kind of unavailable?"

Jacen blinked. "I'm sorry, sir?"

"What kind of unavailable?" the Chiss repeated. "Taking a nap unavailable? Hiding from superiors unavailable?" Chu'itha tipped his head toward the holocube of Jaina. "Do not disturb me if you know what is good for you unavailable?"

Fortunately Shawnkyr opened her mouth first. "Off on a secret mission he neglected to mention unavailable."

"Ah." Chu'itha rubbed his fingers over his chin, then looked right into Jacen's eyes. "So tell me, Jacen Solo, where is Jag really?"

"He ran off with my sister, I'm afraid."

The elderly ambassador chuckled. "Good. It's about time."

Simultaneously Jacen and Shawnkyr exclaimed, "What?"

"I am delighted for him," Chu'itha said. "If we could all be so blessed to find such a truly matched partner to share our lives."

Dumbfounded, Jacen and Shawnkyr could only nod.

"That said," Chu'itha continued, "the situation here is developing rapidly. Ambassador and soon-to-be Lady Fel will have to cut short their little romantic excursion for now." He looked at Shawnkyr. "You can tell him I will repay him threefold for the inconvenience."

"I would," she replied. "But it is not that simple."

"Of course it is." Chu'itha spread his hands. "Those two are made for each other. I told them as much at the ball last night."

"Apparently," Shawnkyr said reluctantly, "Jag did not exactly hear it that way."

Chu'itha propped his elbows on the desk and folded his hands together. "Why do I suddenly suspect," he mused aloud, "that I should be getting a bad feeling about this?"

"Not quite yet," Shawnkyr advised. "Wait until you hear the part about the red ale."

Jacen blushed mutely, but a discerning gaze from the elder Chiss statesman compelled the entire story out of him. He started from the beginning.

"I still do not understand," Chu'itha said when Jacen got to the part when Jag flew off in the Shadow with Jaina restrained in the hold, "how Jagged could have misunderstood so greatly what I had told him."

Jacen frowned. "I'll be honest, Ambassador. I'm not sure I understand myself."

"I made it quite plain. The hyperspace route is the key. This location is all that matters. Vikova itself is insignificant aside from that. So is the regime of the moment. This Ilannia -"

"Iliana," Shawnkyr interjected.

"Yes, yes, of course. Iliana." Chu'itha shook his head. "Such an unmemorable name for such an unmemorable leader."

On a very memorable body, Jacen thought before he could stop himself, and immediately as the thought formed in his mind he almost could feel Jaina's Force-slap on the back of his head.

"Regardless," Chu'itha pressed on, "this Iliana is of no concern. Her only purpose is to sign the treaty - to give Csilla the foothold it needs in this system."

Jacen frowned again. "And if she won't?"

Chu'itha looked at Shawnkyr. "You didn't tell him?"

Jacen looked at her, too. "Tell me what?"

She met the ambassador's gaze for a brief moment, then nodded. "If she will not sign the treaty," she said coolly, deliberately, "then we will find a Vikovan who will."

Jacen felt his insides flop over. "That's what you meant when you said by any means necessary."

"Of course it is," Chu'itha said, exasperated. "I never imagined Jagged would manage to create a personal romantic crisis out of this."

"None of us did," Shawnkyr pointed out.

"You're forgetting how persistent Iliana is," Jacen said. And how beautiful...This time he could've sworn the Force-slap was real; he had to fight the urge to cringe. "And how devious. She played right into all of Jag's doubts and fears about Jaina, and exploited his loyalty to the Chiss."

"What she forgot," Chu'itha said, "is that for all his Chiss upbringing and tutelage, my dear Jagged is still full-blooded Corellian."

"Unfortunately," Shawnkyr muttered.

"And our Corellian friend has finally let his heart take over. An understandable act, to be sure. He is very much like his father in that regard." Chu'itha sat back in the chair. "Yet Jagged is too much a Chiss to forsake his duty for too long. His return is no doubt imminent - and part of the plan itself. Correct?"

Jacen looked at Shawnkyr, but she was studiously avoiding his gaze. "Well, actually..."

Chu'itha raised an eyebrow.

"You see," Jacen began, "there's been a bit of a -"

The shrill warble of Shawnkyr's comlink cut him off.

"Nuruodo," she said.

A male Chiss voice emanated from the small device.

"Tight beam transmission from Nirauan," Chu'itha translated for Jacen. "Two words: mission accomplished."

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT


Crying hadn't helped. Nor had beating her forehead against the cool metallic plane of the single desk in the room. Jaina still sat alone, stuncuffed in a small dank cell, cut off from the Force.

"They had to bring the ysalamiri," she muttered.

Jaina flipped her head up, tossing her loose scraggly hair away from her eyes, then used the heels of her hands to wipe the streaks of tears from her cheeks. She didn't cry for herself. Stuncuffs, prisons, hours of solitary confinement - those were all necessary evils of being Jaina Solo. What drove her to the edge of reason was not knowing. Not knowing where Jag was. Not knowing what they were doing to treat him. Not knowing if she might make a difference.

And most importantly, not knowing if she'd ever be able to tell him -

Jaina sprang up from the chair she had been unceremoniously plopped in, toppling it with a clang. She howled in rage and kicked the desk for good measure. Frustration had led to anger, and ultimately rage. A tantrum ensued.

Storming. Stomping. Shouting about Chiss-Alliance relations. Threatening to send her father after them all. It was a futile act, certainly, but the display at least gave her pent up emotions somewhere to go. Besides, she was positive someone was watching. So she gave them quite a show, from one corner of the small room to the next until -

She hesitated only for a split second, then continued with her rant, circling around to get back to that same spot.

No, she hadn't been mistaken. There, with its familiar glowing warmth, she found the breath of the Force. Unlike her dear brother's flawless arrangement on the Shadow, the Chiss had failed to properly overlap the ysalamiri's Force-voiding bubbles. That mistake left one small section of the room open to the Force, and left one ray of sunshine in Jaina's bleak imprisonment.

Now to end the drama without raising suspicion from her observers.

With a flourish Jaina threw herself down to the floor, landing in a cross-legged slouch. Her head bent over, her bound hands fell in the crook of her legs as if she were spent. Jaina bobbed her shoulders a couple times for good measure, but on the inside she was smiling. She let the Force flood into her, filling all the empty places in her heart and soul, drinking it in like a parched Tatooine traveler at an oasis.

With relative ease she visualized the stuncuff's internal wiring, then tricked the locking mechanism into believing it had received the proper code. Electrons flashed and powered an invisible lead she could only see in her mind's eye, and - click - the cuffs flopped open.

Rehhh-rwooooorsh.

The opening portal caught her by surprise. Jaina's Force perceptions were limited to the small space around her. Beyond that she felt nothing, and so she had not known someone was coming. But the Force filled her with peace and clarity of mind. She allowed her initial start to flow into yet another forlorn bob of her shoulders. Head down, she fiddled with the cuffs so they appeared locked, and waited.

"Knight Solo, you are to come with us."

Slowly Jaina lifted her face, her displeasure plainly evident. The Chiss captain from the Shadow - or at least, she thought it was him - stood stiff-legged and at the ready just inside the door. Two armed guards flanked him. The captain regarded her for a moment, then tipped his head in her direction. The guards moved with graceful precision toward Jaina. Still she waited.

The captain wasn't taking any chances, though. As the guards moved into position to help Jaina to her feet, he leveled his charric at her. A firm hand now on either elbow, she found herself being hoisted up.

"Remove her restraints," the captain said.

"You mean these?" With a simple thought, the stuncuffs dropped to the floor. She grinned at the tall, officious Chiss.

Both guards and the captain leapt into action. In the blink of an eye, Jaina was looking down the barrel of three deadly weapons...set to stun.

She took a step forward, her hands held out calmly. "Listen, you obviously have orders to not hurt me. And I have no desire to hurt you." Jaina stopped within centimeters of the taller Chiss captain's weapon; it pointed directly at her chest. "I just want to see Ja-Ambassador Fel."

The captain twirled his weapon and deposited it smoothly into its holster. "Come with me," he said brusquely before spinning on his heel and striding out of the small room.

Jaina had to jog to keep up. There were a million questions chasing each other around in her mind, yet they found no voice. The Force was beginning to whisper to her in greater and greater detail. With the two guards flanking her, she tailed the fast-walking captain, and with each stride she knew more of what she sought.

At first Jag was merely a glimmer with no direction or focus, like a wavering landing beacon in a foggy nighttime sky. But soon, as they wound through the destroyer's barren halls, she recognized the infirmary ward. It was there she began to feel the truth that was Jag.

Her feet faltered momentarily. Where there had always been a steady calm energy, she felt only a dim thread of light - and life.

"Oh no," Jaina gasped, then broke into a run.

The Chiss captain made a grab for her, but Jaina was unstoppable. Only she and Jag remained in her galaxy. Jag and Jaina. Nothing else.

No fears of failure. No concern over making her mother's mistakes. No Jedi duty. No Chiss honor. No war or conflict. No Vikova or Achebi or Iliana.

Just Jag.

She found him without thought, barreling into the medroom on a wave of panic. She skidded to a stop.

Jaina's hand found her heart, and a whimper escaped her lips. Lying on the lone medbunk, intertwined with tangles of wires and tubes, Jag looked the picture of death. A fateful vision flashed through her mind of poor, darling Anakin as he rested on his funeral pyre. She felt sick and heavy, weighed down by emotions too powerful to bear.

The captain burst in behind her. "I apologize, General, but she -"

"That will be all, Captain." Only when the tall, dark stranger dismissed the captain with a curt wave did Jaina notice him in the shadowy corner of the room.

Then there was just Jaina and the stranger...and Jag.

Jaina ignored the man, and went to Jag's bedside. Reaching for him with her quivering heart and trembling hand, she sensed the trauma inflicted upon his body during their struggle on the Shadow. If it had come to this...if it had come to this for their love to be complete, then maybe it was all wrong? Still she could do nothing less than twine her fingers around his cold hands and hold on for dear life. Jaina was not a healer; Jacen was. Yet she poured every bit of Jedi knowledge into the act of keeping Jag in her life.

Drawing his closest hand to her, Jaina bent and laid her lips upon it, and remembered words said to her long ago. "Come back to me, Jag."

A solitary tear traced down her cheek, paused on her lip, then plummeted to their clasped hands. She felt the chill of it and shivered.

"You truly do love him, don't you?"

The question emerged from the shadows, issued with the gravest of tones. It carried such weight and clarity, almost as if the Force itself had asked to see the sincerity of her heart, asked her to look where most dared not. But the voice was real, the stranger's. He moved from the corner, drawing closer like a cowled specter. Despite her wide-eyed dread, he was nothing more than a man.

A big man. An imposing man. A man who knew no fear, yet was afraid.

Then she saw the limp, and the eye patch. Just like that, she understood.

His one-eyed stare focused down, to where her hand linked with Jag's. "Jagged is a fighter. He was always the fighter. But this may...be too much."

"No," Jaina hissed defiantly. "Not after all we've been through. Not over this."

"This? The mission?"

Jaina hesitated. No, he couldn't know. How could he? No one knew what Jag had done, and all because she had been too selfish to just love Jag like he had always deserved. Now he might die for it...

She was unworthy, and too ashamed to admit it to his father. He might chase her from the room in Jag's final moments. So she mustered a meek nod and went back to staring at Jag's lifeless hand, begging it to move a finger, praying for some respite from the Force.

At that moment Jaina would have sold her soul to the Corellian hells so that Jag could live.

"I am not one to put much stake in ancient religions and unseen myths."

Jaina gazed up into the eye of the man who had fathered Jag, the man who for decades had rivaled her own father. "You sound like my dad..."

General Baron Soontir Fel stiffened.

"...a long time ago," she finished with a half-hearted turn of her mouth.

"If your aunt is any testament to the power of the Force," he muttered, then paused to inhale a shuddering breath. "I have heard tales that Jedi can use their powers to heal?" It was a question, but it came out like a prayer. Prayer, faith, hope. Jag's father hoped she could save this battered body.

Could she? She nodded. "I can try..."

Jaina bit her lower lip until it bled. She could hear her uncle doing his horrible impersonation of a long-dead Jedi Master - Do or do not. There is no try.

This was hardly lifting a starfighter from a swamp. The stakes were far higher than that. If Jag were to die...

"What do you need?" he asked. "What can I do?"

She didn't know what to say. Jaina met the steely brown eye of the Empire's most feared fighter pilot. She looked into the soul of the man who had faced death over and over without so much as a safety suit or shields to protect his life and limb. She looked into the same eye that now exhibited fear - not for his own life but for the man they both loved to the depths of their beings.

Jaina shut her eyes and inhaled a long breath, taking in the power of the Force, drawing its strength into her. As that breath left her lungs, she became part of Jag and he part of her, indelibly linked.

Until death do us part.

And she simply said, "Believe."

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE


Until death do us part.

The words echoed across the mists and pinpointed things her eyes could not see.

Death do us part.

Jaina paused somewhere in the foggy shroud and tried to track the words as they spirited past. Death? she wondered. Who's dead?

Do us part.

The soundless voice whisked over and through her, and Jaina spun. Seeking the source.

"Us?"

She was so confused. Lost. Adrift on a memory or a dream.

Us part.

Then she remembered something. She remembered who.

"Jag?"

His name ricocheted off nothing and everything. Imaginary and reality. Then disappeared into an unseen void that welcomed it inside.

She took a step toward where her voice had last been.

"Jag?"

Jag. Jag. -ag. -ag.

Gone again. She took another step. More sure this time, and felt a familiar sensation. Like she was going home.

"Jag? Are you there?"

Of course he wasn't really there. Nor was she. For here was nowhere, yet somewhere.

Somewhere in the depths of his mind.

No. Not mind. His soul, his being, his essence.

"Jag, I'm here," she called, trying to hide the quiver.

This moment was more important than any other. This moment had been her fault, and if the outcome was anything other than...

She couldn't think of that; she couldn't live with that. This is all my fault. If only I had let myself feel. If only I had let myself love. If only I had told him.

She clenched a fist defiantly. "He doesn't deserve this."

"No. He doesn't."

Jaina would have screamed aloud from the shock of the male voice, save her Jedi reflexes that clapped her teeth shut just in time.

"Kriff, Anakin! I hate it when you sneak up on me."

The words had barely left her mouth when Jaina realized what she had said. Then all she could do was stand there, frozen in place, and stare at the embodiment of Anakin, as he had been once, a long time ago.

She tried to speak, but the words ran into the hand over her lips. With a concentrated effort Jaina willed her hand down. It flopped to her side, and what she had meant to say next was all but forgotten.

"What is it he doesn't deserve, Jay?" Anakin's words emanated in a swirl of light, a light that shown from the very depth of him.

"To be like this."

"Really? You sure you don't mean, you don't deserve him?" Now the light was part of Anakin, casting increasingly brighter and outward. It consumed the mist, burning the fog away with its power.

"Uh...I...No."

Anakin stared. He was so bright now, aglow with a fire that made everything appear in perfect clarity. His light cast off the shadows, yet somehow left her blinking and blind.

He was right. She hated that he was always right.

What good were little brothers? Except to be a royal pain in your -

He laughed. Anakin clutched his torso and laughed some more. He laughed at her. The radiance of his joy flared, chasing the last remnants of cloud away. They were left standing in a long angular hall, white walls and barren. They stood in an unfamiliar hall, and Anakin laughed at her.

Jaina giggled despite herself. "Bantha brains."

Anakin swallowed a chuckle. "Oh, come on. I was never that bad."

"Yes, you were." Jaina said, then tackled her brother in a loving embrace. She clutched him to her, head buried in his chest - when had he gotten so tall? - and whispered, "But I miss it every day."

"Do you miss Jag?"

"Every day."

"Except he's not -"

"Dead," she gasped.

Jaina watched her own lonely future flash out before her. It was one thing to be denied a loved one in death, another to deny oneself out of fear or insecurity. She had wanted to protect her future, her children, her career, and in the process had denied herself one of the things that was dearest to her. She had denied herself love. Not anyone else; not death, or fate, or circumstance.

A weak cry escaped her lips, and a tear dripped off her cheek onto Anakin's tunic. "I'm afraid."

"So?" Still in their embrace, Anakin's voice reverberated through her.

"Jag's not afraid of anything. Certainly not afraid to love. And I've given him so little in return." Jaina drew back, and stared up into Anakin's beautiful eyes. "He doesn't deserve that."

Her brother's smile faded a little, but there was only kindness in his expression as he said, "You are wrong, my dear sister."

With that he vanished, and all that was left was his voice. "Fear is the path to the dark side. It steals the truth."

"Anakin?" In a panic Jaina spun. Frantic. "Anakin!" Eyes darting. Head snapping side to side. "Don't leave me!"

"Find the truth, Jaina," he whispered from his unity in the Force. Anakin was gone, but he had not abandoned her. She held onto that, shut her eyes and called upon the peace and serenity she desired.

Breathe. In. Then out. Comfort in. Then anxiety out.

When she opened her eyes, Jaina noticed what had been left in Anakin's wake. The hall was not just a barren white hall, but rather a corridor of ice. She could feel its chill but it did not cool her. And along these icy walls, there were distinct openings.

Doorways. To what she had no idea.

But she imagined that if she were meant to find the truth, it would be behind one of these doors. Before Anakin's voice returned to admonish her again, Jaina drew herself up tall and braved a step forward. Somehow she knew this was the right direction. Possibly because she could find some balance now, balance that had been so remiss these last days without the Force. Maybe because she could sense Jag now, more clearly than ever.

Always the pragmatist, Jaina went about her search like anything she had done before. She began opening doors. The first revealed a room full of schematics, three-dimensional renderings spun in every nook and cranny, while flimsiplasts and even books were stacked neatly from wall to wall. Jaina wandered in to take a closer look. A clawcraft dominated the center, but a holo of an X-wing sat evenly beside it. There were Supes and TIEs, Y-wings and skips, every ship or fighter imaginable. She even paused to note renderings of the Falcon and Shadow, and next to them another ship she could not recall.

Jaina knew this wasn't her destination, so reluctantly she drew back. She could have stayed there forever. Yet that was only a desire to hide in familiarity, and nothing more.

The next room was lined with holoframes filled with a wide variety of scenes. Unlike the first room, this one's interior had nothing on the floor. Only the walls were decorated. Jaina couldn't help but look.

There were many different types of holocaptures, some bigger, some small. Most showed happy moments - what appeared to be a graduation ceremony with Jag among a unit of Chiss, his family throwing snowballs in a frozen field. Others showed sad moments - a casket draped with the CEDF flag, a downed clawcraft broken in two. What struck Jaina was the sheer number of memories saved, and with how much love they were preserved.

She continued deeper into the memory room, eventually finding a recollection of her. It was a small holoframe, holding a still-smaller image. The moment was their first encounter on the Tafanda Bay. As she journeyed onward she found even more captures sprinkled among the others, until finally Jaina stopped in place and realized that now almost every moment was of her alone.

One of those images sprang to life before her. A scene she had no memory of, at least not in this way. She was lying on a medbunk and Jag was at her side. Though he was a man of little emotion, there was not one she couldn't have read on his face. Despair. Pain. Grief. Hope.

"I love you, Jaina," he said. "Please come back to me."

It had been so easy for him to say. And she had missed the simplistic and beautiful truth of it.

The agony and desperation of his plea broke something in Jaina's heart. The torment was her own. She felt it cut through her like a knife, dissecting her heart in two.

Jaina sprinted from the room.

After that, she lost herself in a frenzied search. She flung open one door after another. She noted each particular grouping or ordered storage it represented, before rushing back out. None of them held what she sought. She didn't need little pieces of Jag. She simply needed Jag.

Jaina didn't stop, driven by some hidden, undeniable urge. She didn't stop until one door opened into not a room of ice walls and ordered containment, but rather chaos. It frightened her so horribly, she had no choice but to seek its truth. For this room was not Jag. It couldn't be.

After a few seconds she began to make some sense of the psychotic disorder. There were images swirling within a dark and dank environment. The floor was muggy, almost liquid; the walls dripped with brown ooze. The air was so hot and foul, Jaina almost backed away. Yet she could not.

Soon the images began to take shape. Some of them she recognized - the day she had almost been captured on Borleias, the Citadel's escape vessel blasting away from Coruscant in the final battle of the war. Others she could not recall, even though they were images of her - standing next to an indeterminate man, leaning up to kiss Kyp, lying lifeless beside a downed X-wing, blasting Force lightning from her fingers.

Jaina stumbled, scrambling for purchase on the shifting ground. Almost falling, she collided with a memory, a memory of the moment she had rejected his overture on Zonama Sekot. The apparition consumed her and wrapped around her and drenched her in cold, unadulterated fear.

Somehow Jaina made it out of the room, and collapsed against the wall. Panting, she tried to find her balance again. There was nothing good about the currents of the Force emanating from that room. There was nothing in that room that Jaina could even conceive of as being part of Jag. But they were all truths - his truths.

In that moment, Jaina realized that these were more than just painful memories. These were Jag's fears.

Suddenly, she was running, running down the hall of ice and crying out.

"Jag! Jag!"

She turned a corner, demanding for him to hear her. "Jag! Come back to me! Please?! Come back to me!"

Running past doors, Jaina knew each one was wrong. They weren't really Jag, not his totality. That was what she had to find. So she ran down corridors of ice, squared and even, not an angle out of line. She ran around corners and bends, desperate for something other than smooth planes and occasional glimpses at parts of the man she loved. She ran until she could run no more.

Out of breath and lost in her despondency, Jaina slumped forward and laid her forehead against a wall. Then pounded her fist into it. Over and over.

"Kriff. Kriff. Kriff." She heaved a breath. "Please! All I want is Jag." She slammed her fist so hard something cracked. "Just Jag!" Again, crack! "Give! Me! Jag!"

It wasn't her bones breaking, rather a screeching of shattering ice pierced the air. Jaina teetered and practically toppled forward. Where there had been a wall, there was no longer. The ice gave way, collapsing and disappearing into nothingness.

Left behind was a place green and alive and...beautiful beyond imagining.

Jaina stood in a field of grass that stretched as far as the eye could see. There were wildflowers and naniflys and blossoming katabushes. As she turned slowly in place, the scenery did not change. Everywhere the ice was gone, and all that remained was perfection. Jaina felt the sun on her shoulder, so she spun to face it, looking up to allow her face to absorb the warm rays.

This was Jag. She could feel him everywhere, even in the breeze.

"I dream of us here."

Jaina's eyes snapped open. Where the sun had been, Jag's green eyes stared down at her.

"I dream of us...together," he said.

Jaina looked to her right, and left. She smiled at the rightness of it.

"It's perfect," she said, canting her head. She hesitated, on the cusp of something. She wanted it so bad, yet she still feared it. Did he really deserve her personal demons?

Now Jag was there beside her, and took her hand. "Yes. I do."

Jaina blinked. Jag smiled. "Hey, this is my mind, right? Or soul, or wherever we are."

She giggled. "I suppose you're right." Then stopped abruptly. "Really, Jag. Do you want this? I mean, us? I'm hardheaded as a Star Destroyer hull and opinionated and obstinate and always off on some Jedi calling and I'm just a scruffy Skywalker-slash-Solo Rebel and afraid I'll bunk up motherho- "

Jag's finger pressed to her lips. "Yes. Every part of it. The simple fact that you recognize those faults makes me love you more. And as for motherhood, I have no doubt you will be the best you can be. There is no more any man could ask."

Glancing down at their feet, Jaina inhaled, drawing in her shame. "I put you here. You're hurt because of me."

"Jaina, I am here because of my own choices, because of my own fears. I am far from perfect myself -"

"But this is perfect."

Jag lifted Jaina's chin gently. "Jaina, this is us."

Her heart soared, picking her up off her feet. Her lips met Jag's; their bodies united. For a brief instant they were perfection. Two but one. Synchronized hearts. A fusion of souls.

Pulling away, she found that grounding herself was nearly impossible, yet Jaina did. She gazed up at Jag, and reveled in the way his eyes adored her. With her palms flat to his chest, noting the slow, steady rhythm of his heart, she whispered, "Jag, come back to me."

CHAPTER THIRTY


Soontir Fel leaned forward in his chair and propped his elbows on the desk. "Everything is in place, then," he said to the empty room.

"Yes, sir," replied the female Chiss voice from the transmitter.

He hoped Chu'itha knew what he was doing. For all the effectiveness of subtle Chiss machinations, sometimes Soontir longed for the swift capitulations provided by the old Imperial strategy of intimidation with overwhelming military superiority. Then again, if the Vikovans believed they were choosing the alliance of their own free will, they would be somewhat less likely to betray Csilla later on.

All that really mattered, though, was that the treaty would be signed, and the Chiss would have their foothold on their soon-to-be vulnerable frontier.

"Very well done."

"Thank you, sir."

He smiled lightly to himself. He didn't need a visual feed to pick up her unresolved anxiety. "Will there be anything else, Shawnkyr?"

"No, sir."

"Ah."

There was a long pause. "If I may, perhaps -"

"Jagged will make a full recovery," he told her, barely suppressing a chuckle. "Another dip in the bacta tank, and he will be as good as new."

"Jaina's brother will be very pleased to hear the news."

This time, Soontir did chuckle. "And you?"

"I'm sorry, sir?"

"And you? Are you not pleased to hear the news?"

She paused again, only for a moment. "Apparently my plan to usurp his post has failed, sir."

"Your day will come, my friend," he said. He meant it. "Inform Chu'itha it will not be much longer now. His bait will return shortly to carry out the plan."

"Acknowledged. Nuruodo out." The transmission popped with feedback signaling the termination of the feed.

Leaning back in the chair, Soontir took a long, slow breath. For a moment he let his intense focus slip away, and let relief and gratitude wash over him. He had come frighteningly close to losing Jag, and he didn't know how many more times he could face something like that. The prospect of losing another child was...terrifying. Jag would never walk away from his duty and the constant risks it posed, of course, but at times like these Soontir wished his son could find a calling with a lower quotient of death-defying feats.

Not that there was any chance of that with Jaina Solo in Jag's life.

Despite himself, Soontir smiled. The young woman certainly had all of her father's temper and bravado. In his first minutes of observing her over the security cams in her detention cell, countless memories of a rivalry long past had flooded back to him, and he had begun to think that Jag's attraction to her lay principally in the fact that she was the polar opposite of the Chiss and the Fels in every way. A stereotypical Corellian - to the core.

In Jag's room in the medward, though, she had turned his impression of her upside down. Her devotion to his son had been apparent in every glance, every touch, every anxious tremor in her voice. Her fear had been written plainly across her face. She had exhausted every last bit of mental and physical energy using her Jedi powers to save Jag's life. Yet without hesitation she had sat at Jag's bedside and talked to Soontir when she had awakened. How she had found the strength to do that, he could not imagine - except that it was a strength she had gained from both her parents.

And like her father, she was a very bad liar.

Soontir hadn't pressed her for the truth. There would be time for that later, or better yet to extract it from Jag. Whatever the truth was, it wasn't the completely implausible tale of secret reconnaissance of Vikovan spies gone horribly awry that Jaina had tried to spin for him. Yes, something else entirely had led to the attack on the Jade Shadow with Jag and Jaina - and Force-repelling ysalamiri, of all things - aboard. Soontir had to swallow his long ingrained inclination to blame the Solo for the fiasco that almost had cost Jag his life, though. If one thing was clear, it was that Jaina was covering for Jag. How and why, Soontir couldn't possibly guess. But she was definitely covering for him. He had no doubt of that at all.

He and Syal had discovered long ago that lying to protect the one you love was strangely romantic. Apparently Jag and Jaina were following in their footsteps.

Footsteps. The soft tap of approaching boots snapped Soontir immediately back into focus. He looked up to see his subordinate standing patiently in the open portal to the corridor. "Yes, Lieutenant?"

"He is waiting for you, sir."

"Excellent." Soontir rose to his feet and strode quickly out of his office on the Star Destroyer. "I trust you have not kept him waiting long?"

"No, sir."

He cast a sidelong glance at the Chiss officer. "You seem uncomfortable, Lieutenant."

No reply.

Soontir hadn't expected the man to lie. "You doubt my judgment?"

"It is not that, sir," the lieutenant said. "But..."

"But what?"

"But he is a smuggler, sir. A pirate."

Soontir shook his head in wry bemusement. If what he had seen today was any indication, it wouldn't be long now before he had one of those in the family. "Perhaps he was a smuggler and a pirate, Lieutenant. But I was once a Rebel, was I not? A member of Rogue Squadron, no less?"

"That is true, sir."

"Do not judge him too harshly for his past, Lieutenant. Judge him by the man he is today."

"Understood, sir."

The officer saluted and headed off down the corridor as Soontir walked into the hangar bay. His guest saw him enter, and paced over to meet him at the base of the Jade Shadow's lowered boarding ramp.

"Fel," the tall man said. His mane of hair and full beard had a lot more gray than the last time Soontir had seen him. He extended his hand.

"Karrde," Soontir said, and shook it.

"We were just about to raise ship when your pal said you wanted me to stick around."

"Cut your losses and run, is that it?"

Karrde grinned. "Turns out, most of the little buggers survived after all. It'd probably cost me more to hassle your boy to pay me for them than he owes."

"Relinquishing a debt? You are getting soft in your old age."

"Maybe I am." Karrde shrugged. "How's Jag?"

"The armed guards posted outside his door are the only reason he has not left the medward and already returned to Vikova."

"Sounds about right. And Jaina?"

"Asleep. Her Jedi efforts were quite exhausting, apparently."

"I'm just relieved they're both all right." Karrde met Soontir's gaze. "So what is it you wanted?"

Soontir waved a hand to encompass the Shadow. "You've seen the extent of the damage, I assume?"

"Oh yeah." Karrde whistled. "Mara's not going to be happy."

"Yes. That was my assessment as well." He smiled. "That is why I need to repair the ship."

Karrde blinked. "Repair? You want to repair the Shadow?"

"Preferably so Jade cannot even tell that her ship was ever damaged."

"Are you serious?"

He affected a grim scowl. "When am I ever not serious?"

"Fair enough." Karrde frowned thoughtfully. "You should've gotten started hours ago, though, if that's your goal."

"I am aware of that," Soontir said. "Nevertheless, I am quite certain the ship is rigged with numerous traps and other unpleasant features."

There was no comment from Karrde, and for Soontir that was as good as an admission.

"And you may recall that Jade's ships and my hangars do not always interact in a way that is beneficial to my interests."

Karrde chuckled this time and nodded. "I may have heard something about that at some point, yes."

"So you can understand my reluctance to simply attempt the repairs on my own." Soontir met his gaze firmly. "You and Calrissian made most of the modifications and enhancements to the Shadow, and I do not have time to call upon him. So I need you."

Karrde crossed his arms over his chest and carefully looked the ship up and down twice before he spoke. "How long do we have?"

"A day. Two at most."

"You've gone mad, Fel."

"I will pay whatever is necessary."

"For once it's not about price," Karrde said. "It's logistics."

"I understand." Soontir spread his hands, and sighed forlornly. "I should have known such a unique vessel could not be repaired so quickly."

"Hey, now," Karrde said, wagging a finger at him. "I didn't say it can't be done." He rubbed his hands together. "Plus, it'll be fun to see if I really can fix her up so Mara doesn't know the difference."

"You'd better," Soontir said. "Lives depend on it."

Karrde laughed. "So your boy did this, huh?"

"Let's just say there's plenty of responsibility to go around."

"I see."

"I trust I can count on you for complete discretion in this matter?"

"You can. Information is my business, and I can't afford to get a reputation for not keeping the secrets I'm supposed to keep."

Soontir nodded.

"Besides," Karrde added, appraising the Shadow again, "if Mara finds out I knew about this and didn't tell her, much less that I'm actually the one who helped you hide this from her, Jag and Jaina won't be the only ones running for their lives."

"It wouldn't be just you, either."

"True enough." He clapped his hands once. "Well, I guess I'd better get my people started on this right away. There's a lot of work to do."

"There is. Let me know how I can assist."

"I will."

Soontir smiled. "Thank you, Karrde. I owe you one."

"That you do." Karrde grinned wickedly. "I'll call in that favor next time Mara's got it out for me."

Visions flashed before Soontir's eyes. The Hand of Thrawn. An eerily similar ship to the tattered one before them. Explosions. Flames. A decimated fleet. At first a sickening dread filled him to the core. Then he remembered the moment Jag finally had awakened in the medward and looked into Jaina's eyes.

Soontir smiled at Karrde. "It will be more than worth it."

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE


"What...pened...your captain?" The quarter-sized holoprojection of the leader of Vikova crackled, cutting in and out from some type of subspace interference. Still, there was no question of the alarm in the woman's visible demeanor.

Jaina liked that. She refrained, however, from expressing that sentiment quite yet, and instead remained rigid in her posture, emotionless on her face. At her side, General Fel exhibited an intimidating scowl to emphasize the deadly intent of the charric aimed right for their hapless prisoner's gut. When the man hesitated in responding to Iliana's question, Soontir waved the business end of his weapon to hurry the conversation along.

"He-He was killed in the battle." The space pirate bowed his head not in respect, but shame.

"Killed!" Iliana screeched. None of the effect was lost over the vast distances of space. Abruptly, though, her bearing softened; Jaina decided Iliana probably was stuffing the madwoman back in her box. "That half-human was...abomination to...ature. No great loss."

"But, your Majes-"

"Don't...all me that...ou fool!"

The space pirate bowed again. "Forgive me. I forgot."

Jaina spared a glance to Soontir, and he was conveniently eying her. Their mutual look said, This is too easy.

"Has your...ission failed, then?" Iliana asked.

"Uh..."

Jaina whipped her head back to face the prisoner. The man started to look their way, away from the projector. Perhaps their confidence had been misplaced. She hated to do it, especially in front of Jag's father, but she had no other effective option. Shutting her eyes, she dropped into the Force as easily as a child jumping into the sea.

Tell her, she commanded.

The pirate's mind was easily manipulated. Words slipped from his mouth instantly. "No. The mission was not a complete failure."

Jaina winced; they needed better than that. The mission was a success.

"You captured...jective?" Iliana's question was broken and veiled, but the point was unmistakable. Jaina wanted to throttle the blonde hussy for that alone. At the same time, a sense of protective rage flared from Soontir Fel, so powerful she had to shield herself from its strength.

"Not quite," the pirate replied. Jaina's eyes flew open. What was this fool doing? She wasn't that bad at mind manipulation. "We could not capture the primary objective, but the secondary target was a casualty of the battle."

Secondary target? Jaina considered the coded speech for a moment.

"So she...dead?"

Jaina lunged, but a firm hand on her shoulder stopped her in her tracks. Expletives and an assortment of foul epitaphs bubbled to her lips, and only her Jedi discipline stayed them, too. Soontir squeezed her shoulder gently, then removed his hand and waved off the comms officer who had been affecting the transmission with carefully placed jamming. This was the part he wanted to be very clear on.

The pirate glanced hesitantly across the communications center in Jaina's general direction. His eyes narrowed, and Jaina glared in return while not so subtly handling her lightsaber. The man swallowed, hard, before turning back to the projector.

"Yes. She is dead."

"And the primary objective? What of that?"

"He escaped during the battle. The woman, she gave her life for him."

"Really?" The miniature blue form of Iliana leaned forward, and grinned like a feral sandpanther full on its kill.

The pirate nodded rapidly. "Yes."

"Perfect," Iliana purred.

Soontir, in the meantime, swiped the flat of a hand across his throat.

The pirate, seemingly fully engaged in the production of the charade, continued on. "When can we expect payment for our trou-hey!"

The holotransmission had flickered, faded to indiscernible galactic fuzz, then blinked out.

"Hey!" the prisoner repeated his protest with a sweep of his hand to the now dormant projector station. "You can't do that."

"Sure we can." Jaina stormed forward and slapped a stuncuff on the outstretched arm. Before the man could protest further, both wrists were secured behind his back.

"Wait a minute! I did exactly what you said."

Shoving the man toward a waiting Chiss guard, Jaina offered, "And we thank you."

The pirate spun to face Soontir Fel. "You see how Jedi treat people like us. This isn't right."

If the man had thought he would find sympathy from the former Imperial, he was sorely mistaken. "And I see how you treated my son, an Ambassador of the Chiss people. That was not right." Soontir swept his hand like he were shooing away some pesky shoikler. "Take him away. We will deal with his punishment later."

The guards ushered the prisoner out of the control room. His exclamations of profound injustice could be heard until the door slid shut.

Jaina prowled the room to alleviate her maddening frustration while Soontir spoke to the communications officer. She had known. Jacen and Shawnkyr had warned them. Even so, she wanted to scream, or hit something, or -

"Are you envisioning the million ways to run Iliana through with that thing?"

Soontir's query snapped Jaina back to the reality of the room. All eyes were on her, and the lightsaber she had been slapping against her palm. "Oh." Jaina quickly snapped it back to her belt. "Yeah. Sorry."

For the first time, Jaina actually saw Jag's father hint to a smile. He held out his hand, indicating the door. "Shall we?"

She tipped her head silently, and together they exited the room. For much of their walk along the Star Destroyer's corridors, Jaina kept quiet. Mostly, she was embarrassed for exhibiting such raw emotion. Worse still, she was worried that her seething mental bashing of Iliana of Vikova - the woman who had tried to have her killed, the woman had who tried to steal her man - would lead to another humiliating spectacle.

Poor Jag, she thought. Mom. Dad. Meet my Jedi brat.

"Jaina?"

She stopped and looked to her right. Nobody. Then a little back. Soontir stood, waiting in the entrance to a side corridor. "Oh. Sorry." She looked back the way she had been going, the way to the infirmary, to Jag, then back to his father. "Aren't we going to see Jag?"

With his solid frame and legs set a bit apart, Soontir Fel cut an imposing figure, bigger and fuller than Jag. His one eye was usually dark and brooding, but right now it sparkled. He nodded his head down the hall's length. "Come with me."

Soontir didn't wait. Jogging to catch up, Jaina began to understand what Jag had said so many times. With my father, it is never a request.

As soon as she fell in step he said, "You know my son. Jag will be demanding the latest update as soon as we arrive."

Jaina glanced up, walking in large strides to keep up with Soontir's long, uneven gait. "You're right. He should rest, if we are to return -"

"You worry."

"How could I not? Iliana's obviously had her sights on him from the beginning. She's a treacherous -"

When she stopped abruptly, the aging Corellian glanced down at her. "A treacherous...?"

Jaina blushed.

He chuckled. "In Chiss, it would be guant'no banahs."

"Jag hasn't shared that one. What does it mean?"

Soontir bent over and whispered the translation in Jaina's ear. Her breath left in a sudden cough. "Now that's an insult. Wait until I tell my Dad."

"You will do no such thing, Jaina Solo." When the silly amusement fell from Jaina's face, though, he erupted in deep throaty laughter. "You would ruin my starchy reputation for sure."

"Oh. Right. Wouldn't want to do that." The corner of her mouth curled up in a grin. "Wait until I tell Jag what I learned in Chiss."

Jaina felt the warmth of chagrin before it registered on the general's normally stern face.

"Maybe you had better not reveal that one to Jag quite yet either," Soontir said.

"Really?"

"Yes. Really." He paused. "Syal has never been one for foul language or excessive cursing."

"But she married a pilot."

"She thought she was marrying a gentleman."

They both laughed. Soontir stopped at a bank of turbolifts and called for one. He looked at the floor, seemingly a bit uneasy until the lift arrived. Once inside he turned to address her.

"I wish Syal could have met you, Jaina. We have known about you for some time. And known you were the reason Jag stayed away from the Unknown Regions."

Now Jaina felt uneasy. "I'm sorry. I never meant to keep -"

"No. No. Don't apologize." He laid a hand on her shoulder, and met Jaina's wondering stare. "You have made Jagged happier than we could ever have hoped."

"But I'm a Solo and a Rebel. And it seems I haven't made him very happy these last few years."

"For one, Jaina, there is nothing wrong with being a Solo. Your father was only as driven as I. We were rivals, not enemies. And perhaps you have forgotten, but I was a Rebel for a time myself. Most of all, if you could see the difference in my son's eyes, like I do, every time you walk in that medward, something that has never been in them before, you would know how utterly happy he is. Some day, I hope you return to Chiss space so Syal can see that love in Jagged's eyes as well."

For all her one-liners and mouthy retorts, Jaina was at a complete loss for words. Save one lone tear that escaped her watery eyes. She batted it away, self-consciously. "Thanks."

With that, the turbolift door swished open and Soontir walked out. "So have you figured out why I've brought you down to the bowels of the ship?"

Jaina surveyed their surroundings. "An auxiliary hangar maybe? Still stumped, I'm afraid."

Stopping at large bulkhead, he nodded. "You and Jag will need to make haste back to Vikova now that the tuskcat is out of the bag. So I have arranged for some speedy transportation. I just wanted to be sure you were familiar with this class of craft."

The reminder of the devastation to Mara's ship made Jaina's stomach flop and her pulse quicken. In a nervous habit she rubbed the back of her head. "Yeah. I suppose we'll need some sort of transport."

Soontir donned a concerned expression. "What is wrong, Jaina? You look ill."

"You've met my aunt, right?"

"Unfortunately."

"So you understand."

"Her ship?"

Jaina nodded, barely.

Soontir tapped the door controls. "Well, I am sure she will forgive you." The hangar doors swished open. "You are her niece, after all."

He might have said more, or maybe not. All Jaina knew was that the Shadow sat, perfect and gloriously shiny, in the center of a small hangar bay. She must have flown across the floor, because within a second her hand was caressing the sleek edges and her trained eye was testing for any flaw. Jaina roamed around the large vessel, awed and overcome with emotion. It was just so -

"Hey." A stern voice drew Jaina's eyes to a pair of leg descending the extended ramp. "How many times have I warned you to not touch the ship." The legs turned into a well-dressed torso. Then a silver-streaked beard. Last a familiar face whose grim expression broke instantly into a smile.

"Uncle Karrde!" she exclaimed, jumping into his arms.

"Hi, kiddo." He hugged her, then stepped back and tossled her hair.

"I can't believe..." Jaina stared up at the Shadow again, speechless.

"I can't believe you did all that to Mara's ship, young lady."

Her hands went to her hips. "I did this? Now that's where you're wrong. Jacen's the one who's responsible for starting this whole mess."

Karrde chuckled and acknowledged Soontir's arrival with a dip of his head. "Good old Jaina. Somehow Jacen always got blamed for everything."

"He always was the gullible one."

"She was such a cute little girl. I don't know what happened to her," the smuggler said to Soontir.

"Did you do this?" Jaina asked Jag's father.

Soontir pointed at Karrde. "No, he did."

Jaina couldn't help herself and wrapped her arms around Soontir's broad frame. "Thank you," she said into the fabric of his perfectly pressed uniform.

Surprisingly, two powerful arms engulfed her in return. "No. Thank you, Jaina."

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO


Jag strode into the hangar bay just in time to watch his father give Jaina one final brief embrace before she smiled, tipped her head, and bounded up the boarding ramp into the Jade Shadow. His father turned to face him, and gave a warm smile as Jag arrived.

"I do not know how to thank you enough," Jag said. "For everything."

Soontir shook his head. "There is no need."

Without meaning to, Jag straightened his shoulders. "I have spoken to Shawnkyr. Everything is in place, and we will make our move as soon as I return."

"You will be swift and merciless, I am certain."

"I will do what I must."

There was a flicker of something in his father's good eye. "You always do."

Jag looked at the floor, unable to hold his father's gaze. "I nearly compromised the entire operation."

"You are alive. That is all that matters."

"I will not let you down again."

"Jagged, listen carefully," his father said, reaching out to clasp Jag's shoulder. Jag looked up again, and obeyed. "Duty is important. Loyalty is important. This operation is important. But there are some things in life that are far more important than all of those put together. Including the young woman waiting for you on that starship, and how you feel about her."

Jag could only nod.

His father crushed him into a firm embrace. "Be safe."

"I will," Jag promised.

They held the hug for a long moment before Jag stepped back, snapped his father a crisp salute, spun on his heel, and hurried up the boarding ramp. Even before he reached the top it began to rise beneath his feet, and he'd hardly started down the corridor when its seals hissed shut behind him. Yes, Jaina was definitely impatient.

When he hustled into the cockpit, she was in the pilot's seat running the final preflight sequences on the console. "You're late."

"I thought we agreed -"

"You're late," she said, glancing back over her shoulder with a wicked grin on her face, "and I'm flying."

"Very well," he replied, and slid into the seat at the console at her right shoulder.

"So," she said, already intent on her tasks again, "did your dad tell you you'd better not bring me around any more?"

Jag shifted a grin. "Not quite."

She entered one more code. "Now that I've met him, I can see why he and my dad didn't get along. They're too much alike."

"Funny." Jag sat back in his chair. "I said the same thing at Hapes."

The Shadow lifted off smoothly from the deck of the hangar, and Jaina guided them toward the star-speckled blackness beyond the magbarrier. After a long moment they felt the small bump of passing outside the Star Destroyer's artificial gravity, and Jaina swung them around toward their hyperspace jump point.

A Chiss voice crackled over the comm.

Jaina snorted. "Would it kill them to speak in Basic?"

"To be fair," he said, trying very hard not to laugh, "they think I'm flying."

"Oh. Right." She met his gaze in their reflections in the viewport, and smiled sheepishly. "So what'd he say?"

"She said we're clear to make our jump."

Jaina laughed, and tapped the comm button. "Copy that. Shadow out."

"You didn't say, may the Force be with them."

"You know, they do have tractor beams on that thing, Jag. Let's not push our luck."

"As you wish." Jag sat forward again and called up the hyperspace navigation data on his console. Everything was in order. "Coordinates ready to jump."

"Perfect." Jaina gave the control yoke one last nudge, then reached for the hyperdrive lever. "And away we go."

The stars blinked, then elongated to streaks of white.

Jaina was already out of her seat. "You did set course for Vikova, right?"

Jag rose too, and held out his hands defensively. "You don't trust me?"

"Not so much, no."

"Ah." He took an overdramatic step backward as she slid past him toward the corridor, then followed her. "Yes, I set course for Vikova."

"Good. I have a score to settle with a guant'no banahs."

He stopped in his tracks. "With a what?!?"

She kept walking. "Nothing."

Jag burst after her. "Where'd you learn that?"

"Nowhere. I...made it up."

I know how to get it out of her later, he thought deviously just as he caught up to her. "I thought Jedi weren't supposed to seek revenge?"

"Tell that to my aunt, if she finds out what we did to her ship."

"You make a valid point."

"Besides, it's not revenge."

"Oh?"

She tossed him a wink over her shoulder. "Just a little taste of the Solo brand of justice."

"Somehow," he said, reaching out to clasp her hand, "I think your...victim will find the distinction to be elusive."

She spun to face him, and shrugged. "I can live with that."

"I'm sure you can."

She tugged him inside the stateroom. "There's something else," she whispered, her voice low and suddenly fierce, "I can't live without."

Jag saw the look in her eyes, and swallowed. Hard. "Really?"

"Really." She shoved off his chest with both hands and headed toward the open portal to the refresher. "Be right back. Don't go anywhere."

"Not planning to," he managed to say just before the door slid shut.

Jag walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. He'd never expected to be back in this stateroom again, much less on his way back to Vikova in the Shadow. The damage had been extensive, and he had even wondered if the starship would ever be the same. But his father and Karrde had accomplished the impossible. Jag's preflight inspection, in all its obsessively thorough glory, had failed to find a single flaw. Everything had been restored exactly the way it had been before. Not a bolt out of place or a panel off kilter. The food stores had been restocked, and his father had even made sure their personal belongings were right where they'd left them. If he hadn't been here for the battle, he would never have believed it had occurred onboard.

The refresher door slid open. The blasting sounds of the water shower nearly drowned out Jaina's words as she peeked her head around the doorjamb. "By the way, just before I boarded your dad said something to me about the powerpack for your holdout blaster. Swapped you out a new one or something."

"Thanks, I'll check -" She vanished and the door swished closed. "- on it later."

He sat there for a few minutes before the sense of uneasiness began to crawl all over him. Something bothered him about what she'd said. Not the powerpack. That was fine. His father was very detail-oriented that way. Even worse than Jag himself, probably. It only made sense that while they were repairing the Shadow, his father had made sure everything was ready for the return to Vikova. Especially Jag's weapons, in case he needed them.

So if it wasn't the powerpack, what was it? He had packed the holdout blaster in his black travel bag, right next to Jaina's lightsaber. Organized protectively on top of the wrapped shirt in which he had concealed the small velvety box with the -

"Ktah!" Jag sprang off the bed and dropped to a knee. In a flash he triggered the hidden storage compartment under the bed. The drawer hissed and slid forward. He snatched his bag from inside and unlatched it.

The holdout blaster was resting on top. The rest of the contents were neatly folded and arranged, just as he had left them.

No, not just as he had left them. The shirts were on the wrong side. He grabbed the pistol and the shirts and set them on the floor. The pants were backwards. The belts weren't on top, like they should have been.

Frantically, Jag began to dig.

"No," he muttered to himself. "Oh, no."

He was almost to the spot where they should be...

"No," he spat. They weren't there!

He began pulling out items one by one. He had to find them. He had to know. It was one thing if his father had found the ring. But the thought of his father finding the -

"Whatcha doin'?"

Jag barely managed to stifle his yelp. But he wasn't going to give Jaina the pleasure of knowing she'd snuck up on him so badly. "Looking for something."

"What?"

He wasn't looking at her. He was still digging. "Something."

"Can I help?"

"No." Where are they?

He could hear her pacing closer. "Maybe if you tell me -"

They're not here! "Just give me a -"

Her hand on his shoulder, silenced his voice as it drew him up and turned him around. "Whatever it is, you can find it later," she said. "Don't you think?"

"Uhh..." Jaina stood before him, her brown hair loose and damp around her shoulders, her skin glistening, her eyes sparkling. She was wearing only the skimpy red negligee. The skimpy red negligee. How did she -

She traced her fingertips along his arms. "Tell me how beautiful I am."

He had to remember to breathe first. "You are...the most beautiful woman in the galaxy."

She kissed him. Hard. Claiming his lips with hers, demanding every ounce of passion in his soul in that single act.

"Jay..." he gasped when she finally relinquished him. The ring!

In a single swift motion she tore his shirt off over his head. "Tell me how much you love me."

"I love you..." He was falling backward. Where's the ring? Tumbling. Did she find it too? Crashing onto the bed. "...more than life itself."

She kissed him again, and Jag no longer cared.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE


Jacen Solo looked across the small seating area of the enclosed armored speeder to the passenger on the bench opposite him. "You're sure this'll fool them?"

"Yes," Shawnkyr replied. She checked the charge on her large blaster pistol, and flicked the setting from kill to stun. Then she paused and met his gaze. "Do you feel some terrible premonition in the Force of yours?"

"Well, no." He raised an eyebrow. "No charric?"

She slapped the weapon into its holster. "Not this time. This has more power."

He nodded, then paused. "You're sure this will fool them?"

She held out her hands. "Do you not trust me?"

"Oh, I trust you fine. It's your Vikovan contacts I'm less confident about."

"Fair enough. But I assure you, we are riding in an entirely authentic Vikovan armed forces prisoner transport, and it will serve perfectly as our cover."

"I hope so."

Her red eyes sparkled. "Jacen..."

"All right, all right. It'll work."

Shawnkyr nodded approvingly. "You will find your life is much easier when you cease doubting my capacity to do my job."

Jacen scowled. "Does that line ever work with Jag?"

"Not particularly."

"I figured." Jacen barely managed to stifle his chuckle. The Jade Shadow had hardly been back at the Polar Wind for an hour before Jag had insisted they begin the final operation. That, of course, had necessitated Ambassador Chu'itha explaining what the operation actually was going to be, at which point Jag had become slightly less enthusiastic. Nevertheless, Jacen had been impressed by how effectively Chu'itha and Jag's father had been able to keep their months-old plans a secret, even to the point of keeping Jag and Shawnkyr completely oblivious as they had implemented the first stages. Now, though, everything was in motion.

The speeder slowed, and Shawnkyr reached for her comlink. "We are in position," she said into the device. "Standing by."

"Copy," replied Jaina's voice. There was a long pause. "Commence Operation Guillotine."

"Commencing," Shawnkyr said, and stashed the comlink on her belt.

Jacen ran his palms down the front of the blue-and-gray Vikovan colonel's uniform he wore. "I'm ready," he said. "Let's do this."

The speeder swung to a stop. A moment later the heavy door unlocked and swung open. Jacen stepped out first, with Shawnkyr right behind. With full martial confidence in his bearing, he strode directly through the main entrance of the prison facility and marched across the wide foyer to the guard station beside the sealed blast doors.

"I am here for the prisoner transfer," he declared.

The sergeant in command frowned. "I was not informed of any prisoner transfer."

Shawnkyr passed a flimsiplast document to the sergeant, who began to read it.

"Prisoner transfer from cellblock AA23 -" Jacen tipped his head to indicate Shawnkyr "- for joint interrogation."

The sergeant was still reading the flimsi.

Jacen bounced his hand through the air. "Everything is in order."

The sergeant looked up. "Everything is in order."

"The approval comes from Her Grace directly."

"The approval is from Her Grace directly."

"Very good, Sergeant," Jacen said. "Your expeditious and meritorious service will be noted in my report."

For a moment the sergeant actually flushed. "Thank you, Colonel. Open the doors."

Two of the guards hustled to the control console. A few seconds later the blast doors slid open with a loud metallic swoosh. Jacen snapped a salute to the guards before he and Shawnkyr walked through. They hadn't even reached the open turbolift car when the blast doors slammed shut behind them.

Jacen chuckled. "Getting out should be fun."

Shawnkyr entered the code on the car's wall panel. "Are you always this optimistic?"

"No."

They rode in silence until the turbolift began to slow. "Humans are all the same."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means," she said, waving him out as the turbolift's door slid open, "quit talking and get moving."

"Right," he muttered, and surveyed the small control room.

Four guards. Two at the console, one posted to either side of the open portal to the cellblock. Only one security cam, over his left shoulder. Not bad.

"You're here for the prisoner transfer?" one of the guards at the console asked.

"Yes," Jacen said, already moving toward the cellblock.

"He's in cell three-two-seven," the guard said just as Jacen and Shawnkyr passed the console.

"Not the one we're looking for," Jacen replied.

Before the guard could even comprehend what he had said, a swift blast in the Force smashed the security cam the instant before Shawnkyr drew her blaster and fired a stun bolt into the backs of each guard at the console. The other guards trained their weapons on them, but a flick of Jacen's wrist sent a wave of power through the Force and smashed their helmeted heads into the walls. The guards never got off a shot before they slumped unconscious to the floor.

Jacen hurried into the cellblock corridor. "Which one?"

It took Shawnkyr a moment to answer. "One-six-two," she said from behind him.

He reached the cell and tapped on the wall panel. The door slid upward and he went right inside. Seated on the metal bench was a middle-aged man dressed in drab prisoner's attire. His dark hair was laced with gray, and his hands were clasped regally in his lap. His eyes narrowed.

"Baron Contico?" Jacen asked.

"You know who I am," the man spat. "I imagine the tyrant has finally found the nerve to order my execution? I'd wondered if she ever would."

"Oh, right," Jacen said. "You don't understand. My name is Jacen Solo. I'm a Jedi Knight, and I need you to come with me right away."

Contico laughed. "She has plenty of evidence of my so-called treason already, does she not? Do you really think I will help her concoct more?"

"I'm here with soldiers of the Chiss Expansionary Defense Force to liberate you. Your planet will be in your hands again by nightfall." Jacen stared firmly into Contico's eyes. "This is not a trap. I need you to trust me."

Contico held the stare for a long moment. "Very well," he said, rising to his feet. "I will trust you." He followed Jacen out into the cellblock corridor. "Besides, I have nothing left to lose except my life, and the opportunity to save my people is worth that."

"I know," Jacen said with a glance back over his shoulder. "That is why they chose you."

They emerged into the control room. Shawnkyr was standing in the turbolift portal, holding the car open for them. "Baron Contico," she said, tipping her head, "are you well?"

"Well enough," he replied, returning the greeting. He cast a significant look at Shawnkyr's blaster, then looked to Jacen. "You weren't kidding about the Chiss."

"No. I wasn't."

The car door swished closed, and they began the short ride up. After only a few seconds, though, the emergency lights on the wall panel began to flash, and the muffled sound of klaxons blaring intruded into the car. Another second later, the turbolift slammed to a full stop - midway between floors, no less.

"Oh," Jacen said, "I have a bad feeling about this."

"Pessimist," Shawnkyr muttered, and reached for her comlink.

He ignored her, and stepped over to the wall panel. It looked ordinary enough. Nothing complicated. No special security precautions.

Shawnkyr's comlink hissed and crackled to an open feed. "Engage countermeasures," she said. "Implement rendezvous offensive."

A wave of Jacen's hand popped the fasteners on the panel's metal covering, which clanked to the floor at his feet. He knelt down to examine the exposed electronics of the panel.

A Chiss voice confirmed the orders, and then from behind him Shawnkyr said, "What in the name of ktathanol are you doing?"

"What's it look like?" He already had three wires in his fingers, and he was tracing them back to their tangled origins.

"Reinforcements are on the way," she said. "Stop that before you get us all -"

"Too late," Jacen said, because a yank of his grip had torn away the blue wire and yellow wires, leaving the red one in place, and the turbolift car had begun to climb again.

He stood and turned back to see Shawnkyr glaring at him and Baron Contico looking from him to her and back again.

"What?"

"Are all of your rescues so..." Contico cleared his throat. "Well planned?"

Jacen canted his head toward Shawnkyr. "This is her rescue. I'm just along for the ride."

"Then try not to get us killed," she said, setting her blaster pistol from stun to kill, "will you?"

"If you insist."

"I must."

The turbolift's emergency brakes kicked in, and the car slowed to a stop at the upper level of the prison facility. Jacen and Shawnkyr traded glances, and moved to stand between the door and Contico. The door slid open, and they found themselves staring down the muzzles of a half dozen heavy blaster rifles, with more troopers behind those.

"Hands up," one of the Vikovan soldiers shouted. "Don't move."

Jacen's reply was simple. He flicked his right wrist, launching his lightsaber into his palm. With a snap-hiss the thrumming blue blade ignited, and a single wide arc of the energy blade sheared the barrels off all the rifles pointed at them.

For a moment he considered offering the soldiers a chance to surrender, but the thought vanished when the sharp retorts of laser blasts filled the room beyond the turbolift. Some of the bolts slammed into the backs of the disarmed troopers, and Jacen realized the others were willing to gun down their comrades to achieve their objective.

That left Jacen no choice.

He sprang over the corpses of two soldiers in the portal and surged into the room. The Force guided his hands, whipping his blade in whirling arcs to cut down enemy soldiers and deflect away the few blaster bolts aimed his way. Shawnkyr's cover fire flew from the mouth of the turbolift car, and Jacen exploited the distraction to finish off three more troopers. Another high slice and low chop, and it was over.

While Shawnkyr and Contico emerged cautiously from the turbolift, Jacen deactivated his blade and listened. Sure enough, he could just make out the sounds of a firefight on the other side of the blast doors. He looked to Shawnkyr. "Status?"

Her comlink was already in her hand. "Blade to Base, ready for extraction."

"Copy, Blade," Jaina's voice replied over the crackling feed. "They'll be through any second now."

"Copy, Base."

On cue the blast door's wall panel began to beep. The heavy metal doors slid open, and a squad of armored Chiss commandos swept inside the room. They formed a protective circle around Jacen, Shawnkyr, and Contico and hurried them across the foyer toward the main entrance. In a flash they were outside and running toward a waiting Chiss military shuttle.

Suddenly Jacen felt a tremor in the Force. In his twin bond with Jaina. "Shawnkyr?" Still running, she glanced back at him. "I need your comlink."

Without hesitation she tossed it to him, and he caught it in his free hand.

He thumbed the switch. "Jaina? What's wrong?"

"She's got...and I gotta...him."

"Jay, you're breaking up."

"Ilia-...got Jag...kill him...hurry!"

"Slow down," he said as soothingly as he could. "Repeat."

"Will you...-ten to me...once you...brained...-ana's got Jag...going to...and I have...him!"

He realized he had stopped in his tracks halfway up the shuttle's boarding ramp. Shawnkyr waited at the top, looking down at him. Her hand was on the ramp's control button.

He didn't even think about it.

"Sorry," Jacen said, tossing her back the comlink. "I have to go. I don't have a choice."

Lightsaber in hand, he sprang in a single bound down the ramp. Reaching for his sister in the Force, he ran.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR


Jag stood on the wide stone terrace outside Iliana's lavishly appointed office and gazed out over the formal grounds of the palace. He clasped his hands behind his back and focused on one of the soaring trees in the distance. The green fronds were painted bright by the midday sun, giving him a sense of beauty and calm utterly at odds with the events about to transpire on Vikova.

Make that, the events that were transpiring on Vikova. He had been here too long already. He had to make his exit, and quickly, or things might get very...disagreeable.

At his side, Iliana seemed lost in the vista too. "Do not decide so hastily, Jag," she said. "Do not return just yet."

"Why should I not? There is nothing left for me in the Known Regions now."

"Surely you are exaggerating."

He glanced over to her. "I do not think so."

She smiled. "You have many things. Fame and admiration. Opportunities for advancement. Respect. Influence. Power."

"I have those among the Chiss as well."

"Perhaps. But not so widely, and to such a great extent. As a heralded ambassador, you have virtually unlimited access to whatever resources or information you require. You can serve your people throughout the galaxy merely with your presence, and your strength."

"There are other ways," he said distantly, his hands unclasping and coming to rest on the stone balustrade before him, "to serve."

She chuckled. "You are not an easy man to convince, Jagged Fel."

"No, I am not."

"Your mind is made up?"

He did not look at her, and said nothing. The less he said, the easier it was to keep up the act.

Iliana leaned closer and rested a hand gently on his shoulder. "There is nothing I can offer to persuade you to stay?"

He met her gaze, and waited.

"An alliance."

"Ah."

"The Vikovans and the Chiss." Her hand stroked down his back to his waist. "Our alliance."

It was a very good thing, Jag decided, that Jaina was only listening over the feed from the hidden comlink in his collar, not observing. Somehow he didn't think the fact that he was only holding up his part in the ruse would lessen her bloodthirsty reaction any. "That. Yes."

"What is it, Jag?"

"My superiors have been less than impressed with my ability to forge that bond."

She ran her hand once up and down his back. "Perhaps..."

"Yes?"

"Perhaps, if you stay..." She guided him with her hand until he was looking into her eyes. "I would sign the treaty."

"Iliana, I -"

The sudden sound of soldiers rushing through the office behind them interrupted him. An instant later a squad of Iliana's heavily armed and armored guards had taken up positions around them. One of the troopers stepped forward.

"Your Grace," the man said in a tense, sharp voice, "we have a situation. I must advise you to leave for a more secure location immediately."

Iliana spun to face him. "What is the nature of the situation, Sergeant?"

The trooper tipped his head respectfully. "There has been an...incident at the Turkinsk facility. A level three emergency has been declared."

She looked to Jag again. "I must deal with this at once."

"I understand," he replied. Time to get out of here before she figures out how bad it really is. "Perhaps it would be best if I returned to my shuttle."

"No," she said. "It is too dangerous."

"I am certain your guards can protect me within the palace. And I assure you, the Chiss security for my shuttle is more than sufficient."

"I am sorry, Jag," she said, waving the sergeant to lead them into the office. "There is no time for that. Not under a level three emergency."

He frowned. "If you insist."

"I do."

She didn't seem to be lying, but if the true nature of Shawnkyr's and Jacen's mission to the prison had been discovered, Jag needed to get as far from Iliana as possible in case the attack on the palace was ordered next.

He followed her as she strode briskly into the palace. The guards maintained the protective cordon around them, even though as far as Jag could tell there was no one else in the corridors. After a short walk, Iliana stepped into a narrow alcove and brushed aside a long tapestry hanging from the ceiling. A quick tap of the small wall panel opened the door to a turbolift car.

"This leads to my secure bunker," she explained as the guards began to move inside.

Jag nodded. "You are certain my presence there is wise? Would it not be a breach of your security protocols?"

"I doubt my advisors would approve," she replied with a chuckle. "But that is no matter. They will do as I say, and I trust you."

"Nevertheless, I am not -"

"Please, Jag," she interrupted. The guards were ready to lead them into the turbolift car, but she held them up with a show of her palm. "You are an honorable man, and you serve an honorable people. Just as Jaina was an honorable woman, who served an honorable cause. If the security of my people is at stake, I could do no better than to rely on that honor."

Why did she have to bring that up now? "Very well."

They entered the turbolift, and as soon as the guards had filed in behind them the door sealed shut and the car began to descend. After only a short moment the car slid to a stop, and the door opened with a whoosh of air. The guards hustled them down another corridor before they ushered them into the bunker.

"If you will excuse me," Iliana said to Jag, "I must consult with my advisors."

"Of course."

She marched directly to a trio of military officers huddled over a holoprojector console, and immediately began a hushed conversation with them. The guards who had escorted them here filed out again, leaving Jag in the room along with a dozen more of Iliana's advisors but no other security. Then again, he realized, how much of a threat did he really pose? He wasn't even carrying a blaster.

Jag moved to stand off to the side, and from there appraised the bunker's control room. It was decked out not just with sophisticated surveillance and monitoring stations, but also high-grade communications arrays. This room wasn't merely a safehouse within the palace - it was a complete command facility. From here, one could coordinate not just the defense of the palace or the city, but the entire planet.

One could also, Jag thought wryly, coordinate the conquest of the entire planet. Unfortunately, he didn't have quite enough self-confidence to attempt a takeover of the room by himself. He had to play his role, and leave the rest for others. For Jaina.

Iliana stepped away from the holoprojector console and walked toward him. "It seems the situation has escalated."

How much do they know? "In what way?"

"We are waiting for more information," she said. "But it seems another attempt to topple my regime is underway. Perhaps even an attempt on my life."

The former, yes. The latter is entirely up to you. Jag's steady breathing kept his outward composure entirely solid. "That would be...unfortunate."

"Indeed it would."

Before he could say more, a Vikovan officer rushed through the control room's door. Without even a glance or word to Jag, Iliana turned to face the new arrival.

"Your Grace," the man said through his ragged breaths, "we have confirmed a Code Blue."

In a flash Iliana was facing Jag again. "Unfortunate indeed, Ambassador Fel. You have betrayed the wrong woman."

She flicked her right wrist, and a holdout blaster appeared from nowhere in her palm. With a grim concentration in her savage blue eyes, she leveled the blaster right at Jag's chest.

"As always, the lady is right." Jag threw up his hands. "I will not fight you."

Iliana only laughed darkly. "It does not seem, Ambassador, that the choice is yours to make."

Then she waved her left hand, and one of the officers at the holoprojector console entered a command. A moment later, Jag heard the soft pop of his concealed comlink overloading and shorting out from the blast of jamming signals.

Good timing, Jag thought. He said, "Apparently not."

Iliana waved the blaster toward one of the chairs at a nearby communications array. "Please. Have a seat."

Jag complied with a tip of his head, and lowered himself into the chair.

She grinned. "Now, Ambassador, you are going to tell me everything you know about this little operation of yours."

"And if I don't?"

"Then, Jagged Fel, you will die."

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE


"You should get out of there, Jag."

"We have time."

Jaina glanced at the tactical display, which showed the movement of a Chiss armored speeder through the city. "Jacen and Shawnkyr aren't that far from their target. It's too risky."

"There is still a possibility to avoid bloodshed, Jaina."

Stifling an urge to snap, she bit her tongue for a minute. Literally. Ever since learning of the Chiss plan, and how they had used him to forward their goal of obtaining a foothold in Vikovan space, Jag had been unsettled. Well, perhaps not all the time, she thought, recalling their trip home in the Shadow. Still, there was something that made him uncomfortable about his whole unknowing role.

"I've got a bad feeling about this," she mumbled.

"As always, the lady is right."

"Huh?"

"No matter how this happens, it will be bad."

"Jag -"

"She's coming," he whispered.

"Be careful." Blast it! There was so much more she needed to say. "I love you."

"I know."

Jaina double-checked the progress of Jacen's team. "You're pretty tight -"

"Greetings, Your Grace."

"Jag." Iliana said his name with the compassion of an old friend. Then there were muffled sounds and the hint of lips pressing close to Jag's hidden earpiece.

"That better be your cheek," Jaina grumbled as she switched off her own earpiece.

She hated this. There was nothing worse than sitting by while everyone else had all the fun - well, hopefully Jag wasn't having too much fun - but this was the best plan they had.

Jaina was "officially" dead, just as the pirate had told Iliana. Jag had returned from his "secret mission" to conclude his Chiss duties. The Vikovan leader had been briefed by Ambassador Chu'itha on the tragedy and informed that Jag would be returning to Chiss space for a period of mourning. Jag's goal in meeting her was to play on Iliana's sympathy and convince her to sign the treaty before any unnecessary bloodshed.

Jaina thought the whole ploy was a fool's gambit. Iliana was too slick and too crafty to be maneuvered into anything she hadn't planned to the letter. That was the whole reason the Chiss had kept Jag in the dark about his part from the beginning. If Jag had known Iliana's interest in him had been an anticipated necessity of the Chiss scheme, he would never have been able to pull the deception off. It was his innocent participation that had sold the Vikovan leader on his genuine nobility.

To be otherwise was not in Jag's nature. Jaina wasn't even sure he could pull this short charade off -

The transmission light from the assault team blinked, and she flipped over to their channel in time to catch Shawnkyr say, "Standing by."

"Copy," Jaina answered, then jumped back to Jag's frequency. She listened for a moment, and decided the sounds of Iliana fawning all over Jag were entirely more frustrating than missing a good fight like Jacen was about to enjoy. Warning Jag wasn't going to help either. He knew exactly how much time he had; it was his plan, after all. Jaina switched back to the assault team. "Commence Operation Guillotine."

"Commencing," Shawnkyr replied.

Then Jaina was left in silence. For the first few seconds she felt a cool chill take root in the base of her spine and begin to crawl its way up. Inhaling, she fought it off momentarily. When it wouldn't stop, though, she clutched the closest reminder of Jag. Deep in the chest pocket of her jumpsuit, the ring Jag had kept hidden on the Shadow now resided close to her heart. Perhaps it was a wee bit wrong to have concealed the ring from him, but then again Jag could have asked. For now, the love that resonated from the simple orichale band was the one thing that could still her heart.

After a long, drawn out release of breath, Jaina rose and walked the short distance through the tight confines of the Chiss shuttle high in orbit over Vikova. "We're on."

The officer seated at the navigator's station rose and followed her into a small control room. A second blue-skinned humanoid emerged through the far bulkhead. Each of them took a seat. With Chiss efficiency, the task of monitoring the assault team's progress became a carefully timed initiative of brief reports and succinct analysis.

Jaina let the pair drone on, registering their feedback with her subconscious Jedi abilities while her mind wandered back to the Vikovan palace, and Jag. Without thinking she flipped to his channel, some part deep down hoping to hear Jag making his exit.

"There is nothing I can offer to persuade you to stay?" Jaina's back stiffened at the seductiveness of Iliana's tone. "An alliance," the Vikovan vixen finished.

"Ah," Jag said in reply.

Ah? Jaina shut her eyes and imagined a good, hard Force slap landing upside the back of his head.

"The Vikovans and the Chiss," Iliana purred. "Our alliance."

She heard Jag swallow. He was nervous; Jaina could feel it. And it wasn't concern for the timing; it was about Iliana and more so about Jaina personally...

Then Jaina knew. "Why that simple-minded, bubble-brained, silver-tongued, man-stealing daughter of a -"

The assault team's channel blinked suddenly. Jaina flipped her input over to catch one word from Shawnkyr. "Offensive."

Casting a quick look to the nearest Chiss, Jaina indicated he should respond. Orders spewed out in a mixture of Chiss and Basic, and seconds later the displays showed the secondary extraction team speeding away from its hideout. Things apparently were not going to be as easy as any of them had hoped, and that bode poorly for everyone.

Luckily, the extraction team vehicle met no resistance in the city - or if it did, it rolled right over what opposition was met. In less than a minute, the flashing light denoting the Chiss military transport reached the red square marking the Vikovan prison.

"Blade to Base, ready for extraction," Shawnkyr barked in Jaina's ear.

"Copy, Blade," Jaina replied, all the while watching the extraction team's video feed of Chiss warriors blasting down targets on their way through the prison entrance. "They'll be through any second now."

"Copy, Base."

There was nothing left for Jaina to do, and in her Force bond with Jacen she sensed that the situation wasn't quite Solo bad - at least not yet. Her thoughts reverted instantly to Jag and the predicament that would now be confronting him after this latest turn of events.

When she first clicked over to Jag's channel, she heard only silence. Her heart sank. Then came a scuffling of feet and muffled speech. The best Jaina could make out was, "Code Blue."

"Fortunate indeed...-dor Fel." Iliana. "You...-rayed the...-ong woman."

Jaina's danger sense was practically singing.

"As always, the lady is right. I will not fight you." Hearing Jag's voice made Jaina's heart soar.

As always, the lady is right. Jag had said that to Jaina - earlier, when she had offered her father's infamous prediction. This time she said, "I've got a really bad feeling about this."

Jaina could hear a feminine cackle. "...does not seem, Ambassador..." It was nearly impossible to make out Iliana's words, but the malice was unmistakable. "-at...choice is yours to -"

SCREEEEEEEEEE!

"Son of a -"

Jaina snatched her earpiece and threw it to the ground.

"- Sith!"

Four red eyes appraised her curiously, then the offending device. One of the two Chiss operators had to have been on the receiving end of the same feedback, but both remained as impassive as if they had just heard a Mon Cal opera.

"They're jamming us," she said, eliciting only a blink from the nearest blue-skinned alien. "Do you have a fix on him?"

"We tracked the Ambassador from the reception hall into turbolift one-three-two. The lift descended -"

"Transfer the data to my console," Jaina ordered.

The Chiss tapped away at his console. "Done."

A three-dimensional image appeared on Jaina's heads-up display detailing the palace layout. It spun and highlighted the public area where Jag had met Iliana. His location was indicated by a green dot. A green line traced a path into the turbolifts. Halfway down the shaft, a red dot flashed, signifying a loss of signal.

Jaina shot out of her seat, calling the earpiece back to her hand as she went. She crossed the distance to the shuttle's cockpit in a matter of seconds. "Take us down."

The pilot didn't even turn his head. "Our orders -"

Thhhhrrummmm.

"You've got new orders."

As expected, the hot end of a purple lightsaber blade got his attention. Without so much as another word from the pilot, the shuttle dove so fast for the planet below Jaina practically toppled backwards. Instead she used the Force to settle into the navigator's position as she extinguished her blade.

While she waited for the nav computer to generate a suitable landing site, Jaina popped the earpiece back into place, just in case. In that time a plan formed in her mind. She keyed in some data and transferred it to the pilot's console. "Take us to these coordinates."

"Yes, Knight Solo."

"Open the ramp. All I need is a touch and go," she said, then started out of the cockpit.

"But -"

She stopped. "You're going to be in enough trouble for breaking orders, Lieutenant. Don't get yourself killed on top of it."

"Of course," the pilot said matter-of-factly. "Twenty seconds to drop point."

"Don't worry. I've got some pull with the Ambassador," she said with a wink and salute of her lightsaber before dashing out of the cockpit.

And pull she did have. This whole escapade was keeping Jaina from the one thing she had discovered to be truly right in her life. Her love for Jag and his in turn for her was pure and sacred. Perfect. What she had wanted after leaving the Unknown Regions was to cement that truth in her life, in their lives. But Jag hadn't been ready, and Jaina hadn't pushed it.

In her heart, their partnership was already alive and real. What needed to happen next was a formality, but Jaina wanted it more than anything. As the wind from the opening boarding ramp buffeted her and the palace rose up to meet her, she realized that Iliana's petty power play was all that stood between Jaina and total happiness. It was hard not to hate the Vikovan space hussy in that moment. Jag was in danger because his noble sensibilities wouldn't permit him to take advantage of a truly evil person. And Jaina believed beyond a doubt that Iliana was just that - evil.

Suddenly, Jaina felt like she was going to be sick.

"Jaina? What's wrong?" Jacen's voice immediately soothed her fears. He might be able to help.

"She's got Jag and I gotta get to him."

"Jay, you're breaking up."

"Iliana's got Jag. If she knows about the strike team she might try to kill him. We've got to hurry!" Had she just said that? Iliana couldn't. She wouldn't. Jaina glanced out the open door, wondering if fear or the insane descent was making her so nauseous. She didn't have time to be sick; the shuttle was seconds from the drop site.

"Slow down," Jacen said. "Repeat."

"Will you listen to me for once you lame-brained bantha behind! Iliana's got Jag. Who knows what she's going to do. You and I have to get to him!"

Jaina had no intention of letting her horrible prediction come to pass. She jumped from the shuttle, landing on the palace roof softer than a tuskcat on the hunt.

Her lightsaber was sizzling before the first laserfire left any of the guards' blasters. She batted each volley away, redirecting the bolts as best she could. Her feet were swift, though, and she was gone before they realized it. Crashing through a roof entry door and flying down stairways, Jaina reached a level she recalled had access to the proper set of turbolifts.

She saw no one along her way except palace staff, who had no intention of crossing a wild-eyed Jedi on a mission. Soon she was pounding on the turbolift controls, demanding the blasted thing come to her floor. It only took a few seconds to realize the overrides were activated.

"Fraggin' frag!" Stomping her heels, Jaina released her momentary frustration in a hopping storm. Then her Skywalker sensibilities kicked into gear. "Going to have to do this the old-fashioned way I guess."

With a swipe of her hand through the air, she visualized the control panel popping off the wall, and it did. Reaching into her belt, Jaina extracted her multitool and extended the blade. A couple of seconds were all it took to rewire the controls, and the doors to the empty shaft whizzed open. One down. Next she used the metal tip to test the leads at the same time as she felt the panel's function parameters through her connection to the Force. A carefully timed and precise order of taps on the leads summoned the lift into motion. Jaina grinned. Two down.

She could feel the turbolift hurtling through the shaft. Sticking her head inside, Jaina glanced up and saw it plummeting from above. Only then did she realize that the lift wasn't going to stop. Drawing her head out of the shaft, Jaina inhaled and reached into the Force. Timing was everything. Jumping too late would leave her in an endless freefall - endless until she smashed into the bottom of the shaft.

Now! the Force told her just as the rush of moving air brushed her skin. Jaina leapt even when her sense of sight told her there was something in the way. The lift passed in an instant and the opening was free as she somersaulted and flipped. Falling for a few seconds, she wondered if perhaps she had jumped a split second too late.

Thump.

Jaina bent her knees, but the landing on the roof of the turbolift car was soft because it was plunging at close to freefall speed. She bent her knees again, and locked onto the Force as the lift slowed abruptly. Slicing her lightsaber into the durasteel beneath her feet, Jaina split her focus while she could. She reached for Jag, and felt nothing...

Clang!

A circular section of the lift's roof had fallen after she completed the cut. Jaina winced. She had let her attention slip, and made more noise than she should have. But the Force told her to wait rather than charge ahead. Just then the car slowed to a complete halt. The lift doors slid open, and two blaster tips eased into the empty car below her.

She waited.

Finally both Vikovan guards tiptoed underneath her, one staring at the roof section laying on the floor and the other pointedly glancing up at the opening. In his mind, the second guard saw nothing until Jaina allowed it. By then it was too late. A tremendous Force shove smacked the guards headfirst into each other, and they slumped to the floor.

Jaina jumped into the lift, her blazing lightsaber ready for action. Her instincts were right, though. All she found was a narrow, empty corridor that led to a lone door. A door that led to Jag!

She sprinted down the corridor's length and drew on the Force. An intense burst of concentration coupled with a swipe of her free hand compelled the door to open against all its failsafes. The effort should have affected her immensely, but the thought of Jag waiting just inside was more than enough compensation.

As she burst into the bunker, Jaina's danger sense flared. She struck left with her lightsaber and took down one Vikovan. Her hand waved right and sent a second crashing over a bank of controls.

In the center of the room Iliana spun, a small blaster in her hand. She fired twice, but Jaina batted them away as she charged. She sent them wide because Jag was there, behind Iliana. The risk was too great.

Iliana was undaunted, firing again and again. Jaina kept coming, her feel in the Force allowing her to block bolt after bolt. Until -

"Ah!"

A red bolt seared Jaina's sword hand and she dropped the lightsaber. Somehow she had misjudged. And it appeared Iliana intended to hit her mark once more. Jaina rolled, trying to get a sense of her weapon or Iliana.

She felt nothing.

What she heard was a woman screech and the rumble of bodies, the clatter of furniture. As Jaina struggled to rise despite her wounded hand, she saw Iliana trying to wrestle out from under Jag, who was still tied to a chair. The Vikovan leader swung around her blaster and took aim at him.

Jaina jumped, grabbing for blonde hair and pulling for all she was worth. "Not my man!"

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX


"It won't work," Jag said. He still sat in the chair where Iliana had restrained him. Binders held his wrists behind the back of the chair and his ankles together. For good measure another binder wrapped around his waist.

"Of course it will," Iliana replied from her position seated at a communications console. Moments earlier she had transmitted a message to the Chiss, informing them that any attempt to capture her or rescue Ambassador Fel would result in his immediate execution.

"Nothing will dissuade them from the plan."

"We shall see." She rose and turned away. She conferred with her advisors for several minutes before they filed from the room. A pair of Vikovan guards took up positions to either side of the door, but otherwise Jag and Iliana were alone.

He fought the urge to do something. He had no means of escape and no weapons. Iliana was too focused on the consoles, and on barking orders in her native tongue into the communications stations, to fall for simple distractions like taunts or shouts.

All he could do was wait.

A moment later the running chrono on one of the display screens caught his eye, and Jag's mind went to work. Quickly he considered what had transpired since the Vikovans had jammed his comlink and estimated how long that had taken. Then he calculated the length of the shuttle's descent and an infiltration into the palace. After accounting for the mandatory Solo shenanigans, he was done. It wasn't much, but it was something.

Jag watched the chrono run. When his countdown expired he said, "Iliana."

She didn't look up from the console she was watching, but only trained her blaster on him.

"Jaina's alive."

Iliana looked up. After a long, stunned silence she said, "That's impossible."

"Think again. And I doubt your reunion is going to be pleasant."

"It can't be. I made certain -"

The high-pitched whoom of a rapidly moving lightsaber announced Jaina's arrival through the bunker's open door. A single stroke of her purple blade cut down one guard, who collapsed in a lifeless heap. A wave of her hand blasted the other guard backward across the room, where he crashed over a command console and flopped limply to the floor.

Iliana spun and opened fire, at first only a pair of shots, as if she actually expected the laser bolts to strike home and kill a Jedi. Jaina swung her lightsaber and deflected the shots aside. For an instant Jag wondered if he should heave himself to the floor in case the bolts ricocheted off the walls - but of course Jaina had directed them into one of the consoles, which exploded in a shower of sparks and smoke.

Jaina kept charging, and Iliana kept firing. The purple blade repelled shot after shot until -

"Ah!"

His heart skipped a beat when Jaina screamed and her lightsaber winked out. Even as the handle clattered to the floor, though, Jag realized Jaina hadn't stopped charging toward Iliana. His heart soared again. She wasn't about to let the loss of her weapon stop her.

Iliana, however, was still very much armed, and she was taking dead aim at Jaina...

Jag didn't think. He simply acted. With every bit of strength he could muster he lunged - chair and all - at Iliana.

It wasn't graceful, but it worked. She screeched in rage as he slammed into her and drove her to the floor. He tried to pin her down, but that was turning out to be a difficult prospect in his current state. Then again, he hadn't exactly planned what he was going to do after he knocked her over.

Iliana wrenched herself around beneath him. She couldn't get free, but she did manage to point her blaster right at his head.

"Not my man!" Jaina yelled.

Another screech accompanied the blaster's disappearance. Jag rolled to try to keep Iliana pinned, but in the process only succeeded in plopping himself unceremoniously prone on the floor. He heard the scuffling of feet and incoherent grunts of effort. A twist of his shoulders spun him enough so he could check on Jaina.

She was doing just fine. One hand held a thick fistful of Iliana's long blonde hair; the other was latched to the wrist of Iliana's blaster hand. Iliana tried to take a swing with her free hand, but Jaina hopped away with all the skill of a fighter well versed in messy brawls. Iliana lunged, trying to aim the blaster at Jaina, but instead she only sent them both tumbling to the ground amidst more wordless growls.

Jag tugged at his wrists and wrenched at his ankles, but nothing he did seemed to make any progress toward ridding himself of the binders. Then he tried contorting his shoulders to wiggle his arms out from around the back of the chair, except the binders were too tight and the angles too awkward. He hissed in frustration and attempted to rise to his knees.

In the meantime the two women continued their enthusiastic melee on the floor. A mighty kick sent Iliana sprawling. Jaina bounded to her feet and reached for her holstered blaster. Just as she drew it, though, Iliana swung her leg in a vicious sweep that Jaina barely managed to leap over. That distraction gave the tall blonde time to spring up and throw another kick that knocked the blaster from Jaina's hand.

A heave of effort drew Jag up onto his knees and an elbow. A push and a lunge created a pain-filled hop, but it moved him forward.

Then he realized he had nowhere to go.

"Yee-ahh!" Jaina yelped as the two women slammed to the floor yet again with the much larger Iliana on top.

The Vikovan's advantage didn't last. This time Jaina had a firm grip on both of Iliana's wrists. She kicked out with both feet and held on, propelling Iliana into a full heels-over-head flip that crashed her flat on her back. Never releasing her hold, Jaina pounced atop her foe. Jaina leaned down hard to keep the blonde trapped, then smacked Iliana's weapon hand against the floor until the holdout blaster finally skittered away - in the opposite direction from Jag.

Jaina glanced over to him. "Any help here would be great."

"And what exactly," Jag demanded as he prepared himself for another hop, "do you expect me to do?"

"Die!" Iliana shrieked, for which she received a backhanded blow across the face.

"There!" In between throwing and blocking punches, Jaina was indicating something with entirely indistinct flails of her head.

Jag scanned the floor as best he could. "What? Where?"

"Over -" Somehow Jaina was pinned beneath Iliana again. "- there!"

"I don't -"

"My saber," Jaina gasped, pushing with both hands at Iliana's forearm over her throat. Her brown eyes flicked, just for an instant, toward the same general direction as before.

This time Jag saw it. The glint of the lightsaber handle resting against the base of one of the consoles. And it was only a few hops away!

"Oof!" Jag sprang as hard as he could. He sucked in a deep breath and hopped again.

"Hurry it - ow! - up, flyboy," Jaina said.

He couldn't look back. He was concentrating too hard on his hopping. His latest endeavor ended up as more of a lunge-flop, but it still moved him forward. "Why don't you just -"

"I can't!" Jaina explained over the sounds of fists pummeling.

"What?" Now Jag did look over his shoulder. Jaina had a new fistful of blonde hair in her right hand, and was bludgeoning Iliana on the head with her left. An earlier blow had left a nasty red welt; the next tore a bloody gash under Iliana's eye. Jaina was really doing some damage, confirmed by the choice Vikovan curses spewing from Iliana's mouth. All the while the taller woman attempted to wrap her hands around Jaina's throat. "How is that -"

"Ysalamiri? Witchcraft?" In the form of dodging a punch, Jaina spared him a glance. "Does it fraggin' matter?"

"Not really," Jag said, and hopped.

Finally he was almost there! He didn't even bother to hop again; a couple of quick shoves with his elbows were all it took to slide his feet up to the lightsaber handle. He tested his mobility within the binders, then judged the distance to Jaina. Carefully he used the toe of his boot to roll the cylinder around until he had it positioned just the way he wanted. Now all he had to do was pretend this was all just another ballgame against Davin...

"Jaina!" he shouted, and flicked his ankles.

The lightsaber slid lengthwise along the floor like a rocket. Right on cue Jaina freed her hand and stretched, seizing the weapon and igniting its shimmering purple blade.

Iliana sprang back just in time to avoid the arcing swipe of the blade, then scampered to her feet. Jaina launched upright too, and surged toward her. When the blonde ducked to avoid the blade's next swing, Jaina's knee flew into her chin with a decisive kerthwack. Iliana slumped to the floor.

"Nice kick," Jag said, looking up as Jaina arrived over him.

"You too," she replied with a grin. She readied her lightsaber. "Now hold still."

"What? I thought you didn't have the Force!"

"Well, I don't. But this is -"

He saw a motion out of the corner of his eye. "Jaina!"

"Oh, calm down you -"

"Behind you!"

She spun just in time to use her blade to deflect the blaster bolts being fired by a Vikovan guard crouched behind the command console where he had fallen earlier.

"Get him," Jag said. "I'll wait."

"I'm sure you would," Jaina replied, ducking behind a console, "but it'll be easier if we do this together, don't you think?"

He scowled at her, but knew better than to argue.

"Don't move."

"As ordered."

The whistling thrum came disturbing close to Jag's ears on its way past, but the sound of a lightsaber blade shearing through metal was unmistakable. The next moment Jag was free, and hauling himself to hunch at Jaina's side behind the console.

Their eyes met.

"Go," she whispered.

Jag burst around the console and dove for the communications array. A blaster bolt whizzed over his back close enough to singe his uniform. Before the next shot came he was behind the array - right where Jaina's blaster had fallen.

He scooped it into both hands and popped up over the top of the array in a firing crouch. The Vikovan guard was shooting toward the command console again, where Jaina had stood up to draw his fire. Jag squared his aim and squeezed the trigger. His shot flew straight into the chest of the Vikovan guard, who collapsed with a dying moan. Jaina's lightsaber deactivated with a hiss.

"Jag..." The tone of Jaina's voice made his blood run cold.

He spun and stood. Jaina was standing behind the command console. So was Iliana - with her holdout blaster pressed against the side of Jaina's head.

Jag leveled his blaster.

Iliana sneered. "You wouldn't dare."

Jaina met his gaze. Her brown eyes said simply, I trust you.

Jag fired.

The next moment Jaina was in his arms, crushed against him in an embrace so tight he thought it might break both their ribs. He didn't hold her for long, though. He guided her with his hands until she stepped back so he could look at her. She was disheveled and exhausted. Definitely bruised. A little bloody, although he wasn't sure it was hers.

"Are you all right?" he whispered.

She gave him a little smile. "You should see the other guy."

He kissed her, long and passionately. The feeling was like no other. Flying. Soaring. Free. And he wanted this forever.

"Jaina..."

She nodded. "I was afraid I was going to lose you, too."

"Jaina, I..." He took a deep breath; just the thought that he might have missed his chance, their chance made him shudder. "There's something I...need to say."

She met his gaze curiously.

He had planned it all. Down to the last detail. Everything just the way he knew she would have liked it. "I wanted it to be perfect."

"Wanted what to be perfect?"

"It wasn't supposed to happen like this...Not here. Not this way. But I..." He shook his head. "I can't wait like I did on the Shadow last night. I have to do this -"

"What are you saying, Jag?"

"I'm sorry. Just know this isn't the way I planned it. I don't even have the ring." He took her hands in his. Only then did he realize they were shaking from fear of losing the one perfect thing in his life. That simple thought made it even more important to say the words now. "Jaina, will you marry me?"

At that very moment, her twin brother burst through the bunker's open door. "Sorry I'm late," Jacen said. "Did I miss anything?"

Jaina stifled a giggle and freed her hands.

Jag felt sick. Don't say no.

She looked at Jag, then her brother, then back to Jag.

By the heads of the Four Families, please say -

Her right hand went to his cheek, and she held up her left hand.

Jag noted the glint in her brown eyes, and the gentle, happy burst of love in Jaina's features. He might have been entranced by it, too, except the wiggling of her fingers caught his attention. His eyes darted to the sparkle of each wave of her fourth finger. The ring!

She had the ring on. His ring on. His mouth moved, but no words came out.

Jaina's answer. "Yes."

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN


With his arms crossed over his chest, Jacen stood leaning against a wide stone pillar at the back of the Great Hall in the Vikovan palace. On a raised dais at the front of the spacious, ornately decorated room, Baron Contico was concluding his remarks to the people of Vikova. He had explained the details of the commerce treaty and new alliance with Csilla. In grandiose and profuse words, the newly installed leader had lauded Ambassador Chu'itha and the Chiss for their bravery and integrity in securing his planet's freedom from tyranny. Now, Contico declared, Vikova's democracy and prosperity would be assured not only by the dedication of its people, but by the wise and just guidance of its powerful new ally.

Jacen did his best not to look bored. At times like these, he wondered how his mother had ever made a career out of politics without going mad.

Fortunately the ostentatious ceremony soon ended, and the gathered nobles and dignitaries began to disperse. Jacen gradually made his way toward the front of the room. As the only pilot still remaining at Vikova, the duty fell on him to bestow the Galactic Alliance's - and the Jedi's - well wishes upon Contico and his planet. If he was going to have to play politician for a little while, Jacen was going to do it the way he preferred. Not the bombastic rhetoric of speeches, but simple words, face to face.

It didn't take Baron Contico long to notice Jacen's arrival near the dais. The bearded noble acknowledged him with a silent tip of the head, then returned to the task of accepting the accolades of his colleagues as he introduced them each in turn to Ambassador Chu'itha. After a few minutes the rest of the Vikovans were gone, and Contico and Chu'itha made their way to Jacen.

"Knight Solo," Contico said. "How gracious of you to stay for the ceremony."

Jacen bowed. "It was my pleasure, Your Grace."

"I hope you will understand," Contico said with gesture toward Chu'itha, "that my address was in recognition of our new treaty with Csilla. I did not intend to slight the most valuable assistance the Galactic Alliance rendered during the recent incident with Achebi."

"No offense was taken, Your Grace, I assure you," Jacen said. "The Chiss, and Ambassador Fel in particular, are the ones to whom your people truly owe thanks. We are pleased to have assisted them in some small way in securing peace for your planet."

Before Contico could reply, Chu'itha stepped forward. "Such humility is a testament to your honor, Knight Solo," the white-haired Chiss said. "But do not deny your comrades the credit they deserve for our victory. The Alliance contribution was most appreciated."

"As you say," Contico affirmed. "I have already been regaled with stories of the feats of skill your Jedi friends performed during the battle. I look forward to viewing the recordings for myself. I am certain I will be as impressed as they were. Perhaps someday Vikova will be able to repay the Jedi for your efforts."

Jacen shook his head. "We are proud to serve where we are needed. We do not expect anything in return."

For a quick moment Chu'itha met Jacen's gaze and raised an eyebrow. The elderly diplomat kept his thoughts to himself, though.

"If that is true, the galaxy owes the Jedi even more respect than ever." Contico grinned slyly. "And surely, you can at least accept the gratitude of my people?"

"Of course." Jacen extended his hand, and Contico shook it. "If I may ask?"

"Please."

"What will be Iliana's fate?"

Contico nodded thoughtfully. "Do not worry, Knight Solo. I think your Jedi values will be most satisfied by the decision our new leadership council has made."

Chu'itha leaned in. "Which is?"

"As tempting as it may be to...shall we say, accidentally disconnect the power source for the bacta tank," Contico said, "that would be to perpetuate the very tyrannical methods so many have fought and died to oppose."

"As you say," Chu'itha said.

Contico shot him a knowing glance. "When she recovers from her injuries, she will stand trial for the numerous crimes against our government and our people that took place under her direction. There is no greater irony than to award the despots the rights and privileges they were so quick to deny their opponents. Our new regime has nothing to fear from freedom and justice."

"A brave and noble choice," Jacen said. "And certainly one which the Jedi respect."

"Then perhaps," Contico said, "Vikova's ties to the Jedi will prosper from these events as well."

Jacen smiled. "Perhaps so."

Contico looked to Jacen, then to Chu'itha. "If you will excuse me, I have matters of state to which I must attend."

After they bade the new leader farewell, Chu'itha stepped closer to Jacen. "Baron Contico is a good man. He was one of the few in the Vikovan regime who joined the Csilla faction out of principle, not political expediency."

"He appears to be trustworthy and dedicated to his people," Jacen said.

Chu'itha chuckled lightly. "Not traits one would list among Iliana's qualities."

"No."

"We were quite lucky indeed that she had not yet had him executed."

Jacen nodded. "It's a good thing the Chiss didn't have to ally with someone that ruthless."

"Ideally somewhat less so, yes," Chu'itha said. "Although over the years we have formed our share of less than ideal alliances when necessary."

"I think we all have, at times."

"A wise insight, young Solo." For just a moment Chu'itha glanced quickly across the room. "Intimidation and decisiveness have their place, but callous brutality is excessive."

"That sounds like something Thrawn might have said."

Chu'itha grinned. "More or less."

"Well, fortunately for the Vikovans," Jacen said, "Baron Contico seems to be a much more suitable leader."

"Yes. I expect he will have a long and effective term of office."

Jacen met the red gaze. "As long as he does not divert Vikova too greatly from Csilla's interests here."

Chu'itha only smiled. "Major Nuruodo," he said, waving the tall Chiss pilot to join their conversation, "what news do you bring us?"

"Your shuttle is waiting, Ambassador," Shawnkyr replied. "The Ordained Guardian can depart whenever you are ready."

"Excellent," Chu'itha said. "And did you locate my young friend Ambassador Fel?"

Shawnkyr scowled. "After considerable effort, yes. As it happens, he would like to speak with you before you leave."

"That will not be necessary," Chu'itha said. "There will be plenty of time -"

"I am sorry, Ambassador," she said, cutting him off as deferentially as she could. "But Jag was most insistent about discussing the matter in person and at once."

Chu'itha furrowed his brow. "What matter?"

Shawnkyr tipped her head respectfully. "I apologize. I am not at liberty to say."

The elderly Chiss looked to Jacen expectantly.

"Ambassador?" Jacen asked.

"You are a Jedi. Can you not read her mind and spare me the secrecy?"

"I'm sorry, sir, but -"

He laughed and slapped Jacen on the shoulder. "Do not fear, Knight Solo. I am only joking. It appears the Major is more loyal to her friend Jagged than she is to me. Not that I blame her."

Shawnkyr snapped a crisp salute.

Chu'itha sighed overdramatically. "So, Major, you will tell me only that Jagged insists on speaking with me at once?"

"Jag along with Knight Solo," Shawnkyr replied, then added quickly, "The other Knight Solo."

"I see," Chu'itha said, grinning broadly. "In that case, I will be on my way. Until we meet again, this Knight Solo."

"Until we meet again, Ambassador. May the Force be with you."

With a flourishing bow Chu'itha spun on his heel and left.

Now Jacen and Shawnkyr were alone. For a long moment they stood in silence and looked anywhere in the room but at one another.

Finally, he said, "So...what's next for you?"

She appraised a painted mural on the ceiling. "I will return to Csilla with the Polar Wind."

"Oh, right." He shook his head. "I'm sorry. Of course you would."

She glanced over quickly. "I will admit service in the CEDF often lacks the...excitement I have found commonplace in your Known Regions, Jacen."

"And that doesn't tempt you to stay? Even a little?"

"It does."

"But?"

"But I am Chiss." She held his gaze. "My place is with my people. It is the only life I can imagine. Perhaps a difficult concept for a Corellian."

He nodded slowly. "I understand. Duty calls."

"It always does."

"Yes."

"And you?"

He blinked. "Hmm?"

"What is next for you?"

He paused, then grinned. "I'm a Jedi Knight. Duty calls."

"Ah, yes. Of course."

"Don't forget, I'm only half Corellian."

"True enough." She chuckled. "Nevertheless..."

His momentary confusion vanished when he saw the mischievous twinkle in her red eyes. "Duty does not call tonight."

"So it is true."

"What is?"

"That the Jedi can read minds."

Jacen laughed. "Hardly. Just good at guessing what my friends are thinking."

"I am honored to be included in that company."

"And I'm honored to count you among my friends."

Shawnkyr nodded crisply. "Very well, Knight Solo. As I think my commander and your sister are otherwise occupied, what shall two friends do tonight?"

"Well, Major Nuruodo," Jacen said, flashing her the trademark Solo grin, "I do know about this local cantina that serves red ale..."

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT


Piloting the Falcon into the Vikova system, Han let out a low whistle. Her husband's simple response reflected the sentiment Leia was also feeling. Ahead, a pair of Chiss battlecruisers hung in geosynchronous orbit over the capital city of the system's eponymous planet. All around the two warships, clawcraft and shuttlecraft swarmed in an intricate dance. The Chiss might not believe in striking first, but Leia was convinced they used their precise and sophisticated military displays as overwhelming acts of intimidation.

"Quite a little fleet," Han noted, as if he could read her thoughts.

Leia's eyes never left the viewport. She was too busy studying a cluster of clawcraft guarding an Imperial-era shuttle dipping toward the planet below. "Considering the insignificance of this system, I'm inclined to agree."

"Insignificant to the Alliance, but obviously not to the Chiss." He nudged the aging freighter into a slow, winding dive right at the nearest Chiss cruiser.

"Han..." She clutched the console. "What are you doing?"

"Having a look."

"You can't just fly up to a Chiss battlecruiser."

"Sure I can." He waggled his hand at their intended destination. "They don't own Vikovan space."

Leia glanced from her husband - who still never ceased to confound and bewilder her - to the looming warship. "What exactly are you planning to do?"

"I don't know." He shrugged. "Fly casual."

An exasperated huff of air was the best she could manage in rejoinder, especially in light of their impending collision with the burnished durasteel of the Chiss vessel's command tower. "Han..."

He grunted a reply in time with a sharp roll to starboard. Leia could see the red of the watch commander's eyes as the Falcon shaved within meters of the Chiss ship. Han continued a slow roll along the length of the cruiser, skimming the smooth surface with the practiced ease of a veteran pilot who knew exactly how close he could get.

"You couldn't help yourself, could you?" she asked, shaking her head.

"Nope. I really couldn't."

Whizzing past the stern, Leia peered at the ship's name emblazoned in both Chiss and Basic across the side. "Ordained...Guardian."

"Never heard of it."

Leia didn't think she had either. There were only a handful of Chiss ships in Galactic Alliance territory. Even though the CEDF had taken a small role in the Alliance following the war, they had been hesitant to commit much more than a token ambassadorial fleet...

A sudden thought struck her. "Fated Protector is the lead ambassadorial ship in Alliance space."

"Formbi's ship?"

"Yes. He gave me a tour when we were negotiating the trade dispute on Fondor. I recall him saying the Protector had a sister ship." Leia inspected the second cruiser as they approached and confirmed that the first ship was a newer, much improved version of the classic Imperial design. "I'd say that it would be a fair assumption that Ordained Guardian is it."

Han whistled long and low again. "So not only do we have a sizeable Chiss fleet orbiting a planet of minimal consequence, but also probably one of Csilla's biggest diplomatic guns in the mix. I'd say we've got something more than a small sector dispute on our hands."

Leia arched an eyebrow and cast her gaze across the cockpit at her husband's half-cocked grin. "Not bad for a scruffy Rebel."

Han feigned indignation. "Hey! Who's scruffy?"

Chuckling, Leia proceeded to initiate landing protocols. Her fingers moved deftly across the command console. "Why is it that our children always seem to end up in the middle of these unimportant important events?"

"You still worried?"

Her brow furrowed in a moment of reflection. No, she wasn't worried. Not anymore. There had been a time, not more than a couple standard days ago as the Falcon rushed through hyperspace, that Leia was sure fate had decided to play a cruel trick on one of her twins. No, not on one. On Jaina. Leia had felt that truth. Something had been horribly wrong in her daughter's life.

Then the feeling had dissipated, only to be replaced by a disconcerting but not disturbing emptiness. For some reason Jaina had withdrawn from her mother. She was out there, alive and well, but she was distant and hidden. Leia didn't like it, not one bit. But she wasn't worried.

"They're fine," she said with a practiced smile. Han turned his head and scowled. Worse, she couldn't even lie and spare him the worry. "Okay, maybe a little concerned."

"Well, based on the comm Karrde left at our hyperspace drop point, it seems Jacen and Jaina are both in one piece."

"I suppose," she mumbled.

"What?"

"I don't know." Karrde. Vikova. "What do you suppose he was doing all the way out here?"

He chuckled. "Like our children, Karrde has a way of landing smack in the middle of events."

"But it wasn't coincidence he commed."

"No, it wasn't. He was telling us without telling us to check on the kids, dear."

"That's what I thought." Just then, Vikovan Space Command crackled in her headset. Leia confirmed their identity and mission, choosing to reveal their true names instead of using one of their many covers. She still felt a sense of urgency that demanded she make haste for the planet's surface. Not surprisingly, the Millennium Falcon was granted priority landing privileges at the Palace spaceport.

"Not too bad," Han said once she finished.

"There are times..."

"When abusing your reputation has its definite advantage."

"Using, not abusing," she countered.

Then Han swung them into a dive for the green, blue, and white sphere below. "Let's see those kids of ours," he proclaimed.

The minutes it took to reach planetside and then the Palace spaceport seemed like an eternity. When they arrived, Han and Leia discovered the planet was a veritable hotbed of activity. They had received a datastream from the Alliance diplomatic network with a brief update on the current political state of Vikova. The former leader Iliana, apparently had been deposed, and in her place a new head of state was being seated on this very day. From the looks and general feel of surrounding area, Leia suspected this was exciting and promising news. Workers walked at a happy clip, and Vikovans and non-Vikovans alike all wore hopeful expressions.

"Brings back memories of the Rebellion days," Han said while the Falcon settled on its landing struts.

"That is does," Leia answered with a smile. Not about the fond memory of those sweet victories against the Empire, but rather at the sight of a tall, handsome young man who reminded her of the swashbuckling pirate who had stolen her heart during those precious years. "Jacen!"

Springing from her seat, Leia fled the cockpit with wings on her feet. The patter of her soles echoed off the round walls of the Falcon's corridor until she stutter-stepped at the ramp controls. Before she could hit the controls, though, she heard the whine of servomotors and gave her husband an absent hug for dropping the ramp from the cockpit. Seven strides down the ramp, then only a couple more delivered Leia into her son's arms.

He engulfed her in a bold hug that lifted her off her feet. "Hey, Mom."

The only reply Leia could muster was a satisfied grin hidden in the folds of his Jedi tunic.

"What? No hello for the old man?" Han said with a chuckle from somewhere behind her.

Jacen settled Leia to the ground and released her. Father and son reunited with some obligatory backslapping and male bonding grunts. Crossing her arms, Leia basked in the fleeting sensation of completion at the sight.

"It seems you've taken over the Solo-Skywalker destiny of righting all the wrongs of galaxy," Han said as the two men separated.

"One system at a time." Jacen waved to someone behind him. "Shawnkyr, don't be a stranger."

A tall, lithe Chiss female strode over, snapped to attention, and executed a dramatic bow. "General. Princess."

Leia scrutinized Shawnkyr's uniform. "Major Nuruodo. It is always a pleasure."

Shawnkyr dipped her head respectfully. "No, I assure you the pleasure is all -"

Jacen elbowed her. "Cut it out. They're just my parents."

Her red eyes widened, one a little more than the other, in the closest assimilation of playfulness Leia had ever seen on the Chiss' face. "They are far more than your parents, Jacen Solo."

"Well, a couple hours in the cantina with my dad will cure you of that," Jacen replied with a mischievous curl at the corner of his mouth. Then he leaned a little closer to Shawnkyr and spoke not nearly quiet enough. "And he's going to need it."

Leia fought down a surge of dread. "Where is your sister?"

Tipping his head in the general direction of a Chiss shuttle, Jacen answered, "Over there."

Both Han's and Leia's gazes darted across the hangar, ending on the sight of Jaina and Jag walking hand in hand. For a second, Leia's heart sank; she hadn't even felt her daughter. Then Jaina smiled, and a flood of raw, vibrant emotion overwhelmed Leia. Her daughter practically glowed.

"What happened to you?" Han called out to Jaina, his voice resonating alarm as he strutted across the distance to meet the pair.

Only then did Leia notice the cuts and bruises across her daughter's face. Still, she didn't worry. While Han enveloped their daughter in a loving embrace, Jacen whispered in Leia's ear, "We'll catch up later, Mom."

Her gaze remained fixed upon the sight of Jaina - and Jag. Together. She nodded mutely. After Jacen kissed her on the cheek and tiptoed away, Jaina tore herself from Han's arms. She looked at Leia and said, "Just a little action, Dad."

"I hope the other guy looks worse." Han pushed back Jaina's wayward bangs to inspect a particularly nasty gash over her left eye.

"She does," Jag said dryly.

"Anyone we know?" Han asked.

Jaina grinned at Jag, who looked a little worse for wear as well in Leia's estimation. "What was her name? Ill..."

"Um." Jag stroked his chin. "Illy something."

The truth dawned on Leia. The deposed former leader, her name was Iliana. "Oh, Jaina. You didn't."

"Hey, I only beat her up." Jaina thumbed over at Jag. "He shot her."

Clearly fighting a blossoming desire to laugh at Jaina's amazing ability to wind up in the middle of high profile political incidents at every turn, Han stuck out his hand. "Hello, Jag. Good to see you -" he glanced to Jaina "- two fighting for the same side again."

Jag shook firmly. "Thank you, sir."

Jaina touched Jag on the arm before stepping away. She crossed to Leia, and the two women hugged. "Mom, I'm so glad you're here."

Leia felt something different and new in her daughter as she drew away. "Is everything -"

"It's perfect," Jaina said, grinning. She backed away, and tugged Jag to her side. "Mom, Dad, there is something Jag would like to ask you."

For a moment Han blanched, but to his credit he recovered quickly. Leia and Han gravitated toward each other, and in a couple heartbeats their hands were intertwined. His fingers practically cut into her skin, but it didn't matter. All that mattered was the awkward young man building up the courage to ask the parents of his lover -

"Sir, Princess, as honorary diplomatic dignitaries of the Galactic Federation of Free Alliances," Jag started, then swallowed hard.

A bit formal, but a good start, Leia thought.

Jag adjusted his grip on Jaina's hand. "I would like to formally request your blessing and support in my petition for asylum to the -"

"Asylum!" Han blurted out.

"Han," Leia hissed.

Her husband waved his free hand at Jag. "Is that all? With the pomp and excitement I thought for sure you were going to ask for Jaina's hand in marriage or -"

"Dad!"

"Han!"

The exclamations of mother and daughter brought a thick pause to the din of the bustling hangar.

Jag seemed unfazed, and offered Han a slight bow. "I was getting to that, sir."

The sound of Han's palm smacking his forehead mirrored the blow Leia felt herself, even though she had been somewhat prepared. The sensation was one of breathlessness, like the air had been sucked out of her lungs. It only lasted a second, until the warmth of unadulterated joy and happiness flowed into her. For too long, Leia had worried that Jaina would forsake the wonderful blessing of true love. But here, in this moment, it was all coming true.

A squeal of glee fled Leia's lips. It was undignified, but so was the barrage of kisses and hugs she bestowed on the young couple. Somewhere in there, Han managed to get in a word or two of congratulations, but Leia couldn't contain herself, or the tears.

"Leia," Jag said softly, holding out a handkerchief.

She accepted it with an appreciative nod, then daubed her eyes. "Thank you. For everything."

"Then may I assume the answer is yes?" Jag asked tentatively.

"Can you marry Jaina?" Han asked incredulously. "Of course!"

But Jag was still watching Leia; his eyes were plaintive and concerned. At some point, he had made a choice. He wanted a life with their daughter so much that he had chosen to give up everything just to be with her. Leia understood and reached out for his hands. "Yes, Jag. I will personally see to your acceptance into the Alliance."

"Thank you," he mouthed, the usually emotionless man actually unable to speak.

Jaina placed a hand on either cheek and kissed her fianc?. "See? Nothing to worry about."

The sparkle of brilliant ice crystals glimmering off Jaina's hand caught Han's and Leia's attention simultaneously. "Woo-eee!" he exclaimed "They must be paying you too much, son."

"Oh, Jaina," Leia gasped as her daughter held the ring out for closer inspection. An orichale band with sizeable ice crystals set all around, the ring was quite impressive. "It's beautiful."

"Yeah, well, don't forget - I gave you a planet, sweetheart," Han said.

Jag stifled a chuckle. "I tried that, sir, but I fell short on the endeavor."

Han puffed his chest. "It's all right. We'll forgive you those Fel inadequacies. You're a Solo now."

Jaina grinned at her father. "I'm going to be a Fel, Daddy."

Han groaned playfully and snagged Jaina into what they affectionately called a Chewie-love-lock. Then with one arm wrapped around her tiny shoulders, Han dragged her along. To an outsider, it would have looked like Han was the happiest man alive, but Leia saw that momentary flash in her husband's eyes. He was the happiest man alive for Jaina's sake, but for the father in him, his heart was breaking. Today, he had lost his daughter.

And gained a son, Leia reminded herself.

In true Han Solo fashion, though, still wrestling with his little girl as they crossed toward the Falcon, he said, "So, your Aunt Mara wanted to know how the Shadow was doing..."

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE


"Soontir?"

A long pause. Her husband was pretending to concentrate on the cockpit consoles in front of him. Unlike Syal, he was not a good actor. He tried, he really did, but she could always see through him. Besides, their family's luxury space yacht, the Starflare, was still in hyperspace. Anything that required so much focus from the pilot during a lightspeed jump would be too big a problem for even someone as skilled as Soontir to hide.

"Hmm?" he finally said, still not looking at her. "Did you say something, dear?"

"I asked," she replied from where she stood leaning in the open doorway to the cockpit, "when you were planning to tell me where we're going?"

"Ah." He spun around his seat, his good eye twinkling mischievously. "I would like to, my darling, but it's a secret."

"A secret?"

"Yes."

Syal affected an intimidating scowl. "Likely story, General."

"It is true, my love," he insisted, motioning her to sit in the chair directly behind his. "A very important and dangerous secret."

She sat down, then leaned forward and narrowed her eyes dramatically. "So dangerous and important," she said in a hushed, conspiratorial voice, "you cannot possibly reveal it, even to your wife."

Soontir grinned. "Exactly."

She laughed. "It's not Vikova, then."

"Hardly. Such a dull place, I hear."

"Oh." She used her best acting skills to feign a smile. A little part of her had hoped this secret might have entailed visiting their son. Wishful thinking. "I so do hate dull places."

He chuckled, and turned back to the controls. "So you say."

"So it's not Vikova."

"Correct."

"Kyrrtol?"

"That wouldn't be a surprise."

"Oh." Syal leaned back in her seat. "I thought the surprise was when we get there."

"Well, that too," Soontir said. "But where we're going is not just a secret. It's also a surprise."

"Did you rebuild the base on Nirauan?"

He waved a hand dismissively. "No, no. Have a little faith in me. Much better than that."

She frowned thoughtfully. They had been in hyperspace for an unusually long time, and had made a number of course adjustments. Nevertheless, with all the obstacles and dangers in Chiss space, much less Soontir's eternal precautions against being followed, they could be almost anywhere. "Are we going to the ice caverns on K'noth?"

"Someday, but not today."

"You realize I'm guessing wildly."

"Yes. And very entertainingly so." Soontir tapped buttons on the console with one hand while gripping the yoke in the other. "We're about to drop from hyperspace."

Shifting to her right, Syal tried to eye the navigation display.

"No cheating."

"Oh, all right," she replied, settling back into her seat.

He slid the hyperdrive lever, and the streaks of light outside the wide viewport condensed into a sparkling array of stars.

It had been years since Syal had seen the constellations of the galaxy from anywhere but Chiss space, and even its frontiers were beyond the Outer Rim. Memories of her youth flooded back as she gazed upon the speckled swath of black. They weren't just in the Known Regions.

They were in the Core.

She drew in a breath to regain her composure. "I suppose this rules out my next guess."

"Which was?"

"Gyuel." She still could not believe her eyes. "Are...are we going to Corellia?"

"Oh, excellent guess," he said. "But no. For multiple reasons, in fact."

"Which, I take it, also must remain secret?"

"For now."

"Well, that's an improvement." She gave up trying to determine their location from the arrangement of the stars, and tried to formulate a guess. They wouldn't have come to Coruscant; the former capital planet was still too devastated from its occupation by the Yuuzhan Vong. And as far as she knew, Wedge was still living at the seat of the Galactic Alliance government on Mon Calamari. "I give up."

He swung the nose of the Starflare around. "Does this help?"

Slowly the round orb of a planet began to slide across the starscape. The blue and green hues of its surface were obscured by white expanses of clouds. Syal thought it looked vaguely familiar, but more precise recollections of the Core worlds had faded over the years.

"Sorry," she said breathlessly. "I don't recognize it."

"That's all right," Soontir said. "I wouldn't either."

"So? Where are we?"

"Chandrila, of course," said Wyn.

In unison Syal and Soontir turned to find their daughter leaning precariously into the cockpit from the hallway, practically toppling over as she craned to read the navigation display.

"I thought you were studying your lessons in your room," Syal said.

Wyn shrugged, almost falling in the process. "I got bored."

"You haven't been invited into the cockpit by the pilot, young lady," Soontir scolded.

Waving one arm in the air to keep her balance, Wyn pointed at her feet, which were planted firmly just beyond the threshold. "I'm not in the cockpit."

Soontir scowled at Syal. "Who teaches her such technicalities?"

"Let me know if you figure it out."

They both laughed. Wyn, however, did not seem to find it amusing. "So, Father," their daughter said impatiently, "may I enter the cockpit or not?"

"Yes," he said. "And strap in. We'll be landing soon."

"Why are we going to Chandrila?" Wyn asked.

"Your father won't say," Syal explained.

"We're going to see Jag, aren't we?"

Soontir deliberately continued looking out the viewport. "What would give you that idea?"

"Soontir?" Syal's heart was pounding, and a million fears raced through her mind. "Has something happened? Is something wrong?"

"Nothing is wrong," he said, glancing quickly back over his shoulder to flash her a reassuring smile. "I promise."

"You're certain?"

"Very much so."

Wyn, of course, had picked up on her father's implicit confirmation of her supposition. "Is Jaina with him?"

"I don't know," Soontir said with as much nonchalance as he could muster. It wasn't enough.

"Oh, you never could lie to me, Father," Wyn said, laughing. She might have hopped from her seat if she hadn't been held back by the crash webbing. "She's here too, isn't she?"

Syal leaned forward until her chin hovered a hairsbreadth from her husband's shoulder. "So tell me, beloved," she said softly, bursting her words against the skin of his neck, "is it true?"

Soontir swallowed hard. "I am not prepared to confirm or deny anything at this time."

"Oh, 'Tiiiiiir," Syal purred.

He shuddered, then whispered to her. "That won't work."

Syal ran her fingertips languidly along the back of her husband's neck. "Jag and Jaina, Soontir? Why visit them here now, after all this time?"

"Oh!" Wyn exclaimed. "I bet it's because -"

"Enough, both of you," Soontir hissed.

A wounded expression came over Wyn's face. Syal reached over and put her hand on their daughter's knee. Wyn looked at her expectantly. Syal grinned. "Said too much already, have you, 'Tir?"

"No," he muttered.

Just then a male voice crackled over the com. "Unidentified yacht, this is Chandrila Defense Fleet. Come around to heading one-six-zero and prepare to transmit credentials."

"We should let your father handle this in peace, sweetheart," Syal said. A cranky Soontir was an uncooperative Soontir.

Tightening her crash webbing, Wyn sighed. "All right. If you insist."

A short time later the Starflare settled onto its landing gear in an empty hangar bay in a quiet spaceport on one of Chandrila's southern continents. When he finished the final powerdown sequences, Soontir unbuckled his crash webbing and stood. Syal and Wyn did the same, and together the three of them headed for the boarding ramp.

They emerged into the vacant hangar, and Syal took her husband's hand. "What's going on, 'Tir? When are we going to get to see Jag?"

"Soon enough. I expect the welcoming party -"

"Here comes someone," Wyn said, pointing toward a corridor on the far wall.

Sure enough, a tall man dressed in a simple green flight suit strode into the hangar and headed right for them. Syal thought she actually recognized him. "Is that...?"

"Jacen!" Wyn bounded one step before her Fel sensibilities got the better of her. She stayed put at her father's side.

The Jedi Knight was smiling broadly when he reached them. "Soontir, Syal, Wyn," Jacen Solo said, nodding to each of them in turn. "It's wonderful to see you again. We're all so happy you were able to travel so far to join us."

Which "we all" would that be? Syal wondered. Aloud she said, "It's good to be here."

Soontir squeezed her hand, and tipped his head to Jacen. "Yes. It is."

Jacen smiled at Wyn. "It's not Coruscant, I'm afraid, but I think you'll enjoy it here all the same."

"Oh, I'm sure I will," Wyn replied, grinning broadly.

"Well, I promised I wouldn't hold you up," Jacen said. "Jag is waiting. If you'll follow me?"

Predictably, Wyn went to Jacen's side and began a barrage of questions as they walked. Syal and Soontir stayed a few paces behind. Soontir was silent until they reached the corridor. Once he was sure Wyn was thoroughly distracted, he leaned in and whispered.

"Try to act surprised."

She kissed his cheek. "It won't be a problem."

"Didn't think so," he said, and kissed her forehead.

Jacen led them into a small pilot's lounge. The room was actually quite elegantly appointed, but Syal gave little notice to her surroundings. The sight of Jagged, whole and alive, demanded her undivided attention.

She rushed straight to her son and pulled him into a fierce embrace. "Oh, Jag," she gasped. "Are you all right?"

"Never been better, Mother," he replied, hugging her back with equal enthusiasm.

Syal couldn't keep the tears from streaming down her cheeks. She wouldn't let him go, not yet. "It's so wonderful to see you again. It's been too long."

"I know," Jag said. "I'm sorry."

"I've been so worried."

For once he didn't seem bothered by her fretting. "Everything is fine. More than fine."

"This is just so wonderful." When she saw the small grin forming on Jag's face, she realized she had been so focused on confirming her son's well-being that she hadn't given him the chance to do something very important to him.

Syal gave her son a sheepish smile, then followed his gaze.

Her husband was releasing a petite brunette from a warm embrace. "I'm so relieved you're well."

"I feel better than I look," the young woman said, grinning.

Soontir caught Syal's confused expression. "We've, uh, already met."

Syal arched an eyebrow. "Oh really?"

"Tell you later," Soontir said, backing away as much to get a little distance from Syal as to let the young woman step forward.

Syal gave him a stern glare, then turned to her son and his blushing girlfriend.

"You must be Jaina."

Jag took the petite brunette's hand and led her to them. Jaina barely managed a nod.

"It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Jaina," Syal said, pulling the young woman into a firm embrace.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, too," Jaina replied, returning the hug a bit stiffly.

Holding Jaina, Syal glanced to Jag. Her son beamed, but there was also a hint of concern in his sculptured features. Concern only a mother would recognize. She pulled back and appraised Jaina at arms' length. "My, you are as beautiful as Jag has described in his hololetters."

"Thank you," Jaina said meekly. "That's kind coming from you."

Syal looked quickly at Soontir, but he reflected none of the worry she felt. Something was making Jaina nervous, perhaps -

"Hi! I'm Wyn. You're prettier in person than in the holomags." The youngest Fel inserted herself between the two women, and practically tackled Jaina in a hug. "I read once that you could use the Force to -"

"Wynssa Fel!" Tugging her daughter back, Syal scolded, "When have you gotten hold of those horrible publications? You know how I feel about what they write, always distorting the truth about people."

Wyn simply shrugged. Her daughter had no intention of answering her now.

"We'll discuss it later, young lady," Soontir admonished, then turned to Jag. "I was surprised to receive your urgent summons, Jagged."

"Yes. I am sure you would be. About that..." Jag reached for Jaina's hand, and they shared a dramatic look. "Good news or bad news?"

Jaina winked. "Bad first, I think."

Syal instinctively wanted to grab hold of Soontir's thick arm. Instead she commanded her body to still; she compelled her mouth to smile. Likewise her husband stood like a rock, unmoving and seemingly unfazed. She wondered how he could be so calm and unaffected when their son was about to deliver bad news. And he wasn't even an actor.

"In my communiqu? I told you it would be impossible for me to return home," Jag said to his father.

"Yes, you did. You also said it was imperative we meet in person. I trust you had good reason."

Syal faced Soontir, trying to keep her mouth from dropping. Smile. Everyone is watching. This was dreadful; something was horribly wrong. Possible scenarios flickered in her mind like horror scenes in a holodrama. What could it be? Smile. What could it be?

"I did," Jag said with a tip of his head, then passed his father a datacard. "This is my official resignation from the CEDF. Effectively immediately."

"What?!" Wyn exclaimed. Smiling suddenly seemed the wrong expression, so Syal simply rubbed her daughter's arm.

Soontir accepted the datacard without flinching. "I will pass this along the proper channels. You will be...missed."

Syal fought the urgent trembling threatening to overcome her, and held her passive face. "Jag, what does this mean?"

"It means, my darling, that Jagged will no longer be able to come home to Csilla," her husband explained calmly. "That is why we had to come to him."

How could he be so calm? Their son was leaving the only life he had ever known! "Oh," was all Syal said, though. Then she reminded herself to not cry.

Jaina spoke up tentatively. "Time for the good news, maybe?"

"Yes," Soontir said. "The good news."

Why was he so interested in moving on? They needed to get to the bottom of this!

"Yes. The good news," Jag chimed in. Despite the stunning announcement of a few moments before, he showed no signs of anxiety or worry, just pure joy. "Mother, Father -"

"I know!" Wyn hopped in place excitedly.

"Hush, child," Soontir snapped before offering a rare smile to Jag - and Jaina. "Let them share their news."

Them? Their? Syal stole a glance at Soontir. He avoided her gaze, tipping his head to the young couple in encouragement. Her husband knew something, and hadn't shared. How could he keep a secret from her like this? It was becoming painfully clear that the secret extended far beyond flying to the Core to visit their son...

Soontir touched her arm. "Syal, dear, did you hear what Jag said?"

Of course she hadn't, but for an actress of any skill fibbing through that would be a snap. She looked from her husband's expectant face to Jag, who looked anxious, to Jaina, who looked sick, and to Wyn, who looked like she had bantha beetles in her pants. And all their emotions appeared to be hanging on Syal's next words.

She smiled sweetly and said, "That is wonderful news."

Jag's face wasn't immediately satisfied. Jaina's expression went from sickly to pure nausea. But all Syal could absorb was Wyn bouncing all over the pair, hugging Jag and then Jaina. "I can't believe you're going to be my sister."

Sister? Sister. That would mean...

"Pretend like you really did hear Jag tell you he asked Jaina to marry him, dear," Soontir whispered in her ear, and then shoved Syal forward.

Jaina looked utterly forlorn. All that worry and awkwardness suddenly made sense. The poor young woman probably had fretted incessantly over this moment - only to have her mother-in-law-to-be simply say, "That is wonderful news."

Syal wanted to cry, and she did. "Oh, my precious Jaina..." There were no words.

Jaina started crying.

Syal felt her husband's fingers intertwine with her own, and magically the right words sprang to mind. "There could be no one better for our son. Welcome to our family."

The dam of emotion broke. Jag smiled; Jaina did too. Wyn continued her happy dance. Soontir nodded his approval. There were hugs, and congratulations, and tears of joy. In the midst of the giddy celebration, it finally hit Syal that her son was all grown up. His service in the war, his years away, his brief holocomms and short letters, his maturity, his dedication to risking his life to fulfill his duties - none of those had touched her the way this moment had. Jag was getting married. He had chosen to leave behind his own family to start a new one. Soon, he might even be a father himself.

Yes, her little boy was definitely all grown up now. Syal wiped away a few bittersweet tears.

"Mother," Jag said. "Would you like a handkerchief?"

She accepted the white folded cloth and dabbed dry her tears.

"This is so exciting," Wyn said. "We'll get to stay and celebrate for a while, right, Father?"

"Absolutely," Soontir said. "We've been invited by Jaina's family to stay for their winter holiday celebration."

So there was some of the secret. Syal narrowed her eyes. "I expect you to behave."

He held out his hands. "That was a long time ago."

"Right. And you never hold a grudge." She looked back at Jag and Jaina, and the simple sight made Syal's heart skip a beat. The too-close distance between them. Her hand on the sleeve of his black uniform, and his hand on the waist of her slim red dress. The tilt of his head, listening to her, and the lift in her stance to whisper up to him. Their smiles. Most of all the pure, intense, unlimited devotion deep within their eyes.

Syal released a contented sigh. "The good news most definitely trumps the bad news."

"I'm glad you think so," Jaina said, smiling broadly. She was finally beginning to let down her guard. "I'm just grateful Jag was patient enough to wait for me to come to my senses."

Jag chuckled happily. "You are more than worth it."

"You'd better hope so," Jaina said, elbowing him playfully.

"True," Jag said, wrapping an arm around her waist. "Fortunately the mission to Vikova provided the perfect opportunity for me to...persuade you to see things my way."

They all laughed. Something about Jag's words struck Syal, though, and she glanced over at her husband. There, hidden on his face where only she knew to look, was a tiny tell-tale smirk of Corellian self-satisfaction. Her eyes widened. She had figured him out. "You didn't," she mouthed.

"What?" he mouthed back, smiling angelically.

"Oh, this is going to be so much fun." Wyn seemed almost as happy as Jag. "And then we'll get to come back for the wedding!"

Inexplicably Jacen, who had remained a passive observer, burst out laughing.

Syal looked at him, then to Jag and Jaina. "What?"

"About the wedding," Jag said. "It's...well...it's tomorrow."

EPILOGUE


"Sonofasith!"

The brush in Jaina's hand began a perilous flight across the small room, landing against the far wall with a resounding thud! Denting the wall or shattering the plasteel handle wasn't exactly a productive effort toward finishing her hair, but she sure felt better.

A wave of blossoming heat accompanied a twittering sensation deep in her gut. Or did she feel better?

Jaina fanned her face, which now appeared an odd combination of flushed and peaked. Leaning toward the mirror, she moaned at the pitiable skin tone and unruliness of her hair. Why today of all days did she have to look like this?

Independent to the last, Jaina had insisted on preparing alone. She needed the time, she told herself. These were her final minutes as Jaina Solo - Jedi Knight, pilot and professional loner. Today she would become Jaina Solo Fel, wife and lifemate to Jagged Fel. Not that she didn't want to be those things; but there was something disconcerting about the fact that for the rest of eternity her fate would be inexorably tied to her husband's. In less than an hour, there was no going back.

With an exasperated sigh, she crossed her arms over the small dressing table and then laid her head on them. Maybe some breathing exercises would calm the flock of Ployi moths taking up residence in her gut. Slowly and deliberately she began to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth. In. Out. Positive energy in. Fear and confusion out. Soon she felt lighter and freer. Able to manage a slightly victorious smile, Jaina lifted her head...and gasped at the sight.

Hair frizzy and every which way. A blooming pimple on the tip of her nose. The bruise under her eye beginning to darken again and the gash from her fight days earlier reopened and oozing. She scowled at the pathetic excuse of a woman in the mirror. "One look at you and he'll run for the Unknown Regions as fast as he can."

"You know that's not true," the Jaina Solo in the mirror replied.

"You don't know that."

"Yes. I do," the mirrored self said with a half-cocked grin.

Jaina chucked a lipgloss at her reflection. "You just had to go there, didn't you?"

"Yes. I did...I mean I do."

Slapping her hands on the small table, Jaina howled a burst of pent up emotional energy. "Stop it!"

Her reflection suddenly stilled. "I'm sorry."

"No, you're not."

"Yeah, you've got me."

"I am you, remember?" the real Jaina asked, arching an eyebrow.

"So you say. But if you are me, then why don't you feel as confident as I do? I want this. I love Jag. He loves me even like this." The reflection tugged at a wayward lock of tangled hair.

"So do I, but what if I mess this up?"

"You can't mess this up more than you already have."

"By this, do you mean the hair or the marriage?"

"You're not married yet.

Jaina wanted to punch her likeness and give it another black eye. "And I won't be at this rate."

This time Jaina in the mirror howled and slapped her hands on the table. "Stop it!"

"No! I won't!"

The reflection pursed her lips as if preparing for a curt rebuttal, but only huffed instead. "I'd fight you on this, except I know better than most that it's a losing proposition."

"You're a -"

"Uhuh," the two-dimensional Jaina scolded, wagging a finger. "Not nice calling yourself names."

She crossed her arms defiantly. "I'm done talking. The more I think about it the more I realize this is all a big mistake."

"Marrying Jag?"

"No."

"What, then?"

"Just the timing. It's...too fast. I'm not ready. The bacta hasn't even healed my wounds."

"You'll never be ready."

"You're right. I'm going to call it off."

"Some help here, guys?" the reflection called over her shoulder.

"Who are you talking to?" Surprised, Jaina glanced from one side to the other half expecting someone to be standing there behind her. "Oh..."

Where her reflection had been now sat a green troll with long ears extending horizontally from his face. "See? Worse you could look this day," it said, extending a gnarled finger in her direction.

"You've got a point," she admitted. "So who are you? My inner demon come to life?"

"Mhhmhhhmhhmhh," the troll chuckled merrily. "Not demon. Not from inside." Its eyes lifted dramatically. "From beyond."

"I don't have time for this little mind game or Force vision or whatever this is." Jaina started out of her chair. "I've got to put a stop to -"

"Sit down, young one."

There was no questioning the order. Jaina felt its command over her in the Force, and plopped unceremoniously into her seat. "Oh-kay. You win."

"No. Win do you!" He emphasized the end by smacking a knobby stick on the table. "Feel it you should." The creature, no taller than Jaina's waist, crawled onto the table, through the mirror - which wasn't a mirror at all but rather a frame - and jabbed her in the collarbone with his finger. "Feel it here you should."

"Ow!" Jaina drew back and smacked away the prodding hand. The chair toppled beneath her, yet somehow she caught herself before smacking the ground right along with it. Still in her undergarments, with her frazzled locks now a certifiable mess hanging in her eyes, Jaina scrambled to her feet. "Now look here. I don't know who you...Oh."

In the green troll's place stood a bearded man. Tall and handsome, he resembled what Jaina always had imagined the Jedi of old would have looked like.

"Hello there," he said with a simmering smile.

The troll's voice wafted around the room. "Tell her you should. Nothing know I of marriage."

The man turned his sculpted face up and to the side. "And you think I know better, Master?"

"Master?" Jaina rasped.

The regal man turned back to her, a mischievous sparkle in his blue eyes. "Yes, Master. Didn't your Uncle Luke ever teach you that appearances can be deceiving?" He looked back into the emptiness of the room's hollow space. "On this matter, though, my Master is mistaken."

"Much do you know of love, Obi-Wan," the troll's disembodied voice replied.

"Ben! Ben Kenobi?" Then the abrupt realization hit her. She stabbed her finger at the spot where she had last seen the...creature. "Then that must have been...Oh, no. Please tell me I did not slap Yoda."

"I'm afraid so."

Jaina's world spun in a dizzying array, and her legs shook. A comforting hand found her back, and somehow she managed to make her way to the small settee. "Steady," Obi-Wan encouraged as Jaina took a seat. "Better?"

She rubbed a hand across her brow. "What a nightmare."

He chuckled, the sound a happy, low rumble deep in his chest. "Not quite."

Jaina lifted her gaze and looked the Jedi Master directly in the eyes. "You're not glowing blue, so this can't be really happening. So it must be a nightmare."

"A nightmare, dear child, would be for you to live a life without love simply because you were afraid."

"But I'm only going to delay the wedding."

A golden brow arched. "You're too much like your grandfather. For all your bravado you too often let fear guide your choices."

"You never married, so what can you know about love, or choices. Maybe I want to dedicate my life to the Jedi like you."

For a heartbeat Obi-Wan flinched as if he had been struck, but then the hurt surprise was gone, replaced by a mask of serenity. "My path was laid out before me, just as yours is. My calling was always to be a servant to the Force."

"I'm a Jedi. Mine is too -"

"Shhh, young Jaina." He waved a palm in admonition. "Just like Anakin you don't know when to listen."

Jaina crossed her arms. "Fine. I'm listening."

That same brow arched again, challenging her. She unfolded her arms with a flourish. "Okay. Okay. I'm listening."

Obi-Wan drew in a deep breath, and his whole presence seemed to grow into something that could not be denied. "Yoda was right. I do know a thing or two about love. It was the love of my Master that sent me on a life's journey for the sake of a young boy. It was the love of the boy that made me press on with my teachings when my hands wanted to throttle my young apprentice. It was the love of the man he became that made me turn a blind eye to his flaws..."

An awkward silence descended on the pair, and Jaina found her eyes gravitating toward anything but Obi-Wan's pained face. She wanted the hollow ache of bitter memories to leave, so she tried to banish them with a joke.

"Do you think Jag will turn a blind eye to this?" she asked, pointing to her throbbing pimple.

In a flash he had snatched her shoulders, his eyes ablaze. "Don't you see? Love is blind to all that. I loved Anakin even as his eyes glowed yellow with hate, as he turned upon the woman of his dreams, as he tried to strike me down. I couldn't stop loving him as he lay in pieces at my feet, his flesh burning, his head encircled by a crown of singed hair. I still loved him. That will never change for me, or for you, Jaina. You will always love Jag."

Jaina didn't know when she had started crying. By the time her eyes clouded and her breath came in ragged sobs, she was powerless to stop it. Nodding her head mutely, Jaina forced the words out. "I...know Jag is the love of my life. I don't know why I do this to myself. It's stupid. I can fly into battle with ice in my veins, but the thought of walking down the aisle makes my knees weak."

"A healthy dose of fear isn't a bad thing, Jaina. Letting it control your actions is. Anakin used to have trouble with that, too. He would listen to his gut, and let it drive his actions."

Wiping a tear away, she asked, "Am I truly that much like him? Grandfather, I mean."

"In many ways."

"Oh."

Obi-Wan patted her wringing hands. "Mostly in the good ways. Your Skywalker blood feels like a curse, I am sure, but it is what makes you the best type of Jedi. Learn to use your passion, in service of the Force..." His eyes twinkled. "...and in your married life."

"I get the picture." Jaina inhaled sharply. "I'll stop being an idiot." She sniffled, then pulled at her wayward hair. "But what am I going to do about this?"

"Unfortunately, not even the Force can help me guide you through that journey," Obi-Wan noted wryly.

"Thanks," Jaina said, frowning.

"I don't think the state of your hair will matter to your groom."

"Do you realize who his mother is?"

"Should I?"

"Only the biggest holostar ever."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Jag is used to perfect..."

The sage brow rose yet again.

"How about close-to-perfect on the beautiful scale." Looking away, Jaina crinkled her brow and twirled a finger in her hair. "I certainly know I'm far from perfect."

"I've got her beat in that department, don't you think?" The voice was not Obi-Wan's cultured, serious clip, but a playful, happy-go-lucky lilt.

Now accustomed to the ever-changing cast of visitors, Jaina turned to greet her new advisor with a smile -

"Yeeeooww!" she shrieked, jumping off the settee and fumbling for her lightsaber. When her weapon proved elusive, Jaina resorted to pointing a finger at the abomination. No legs. No arms. Durasteel prosthetics in their place. Seared and hairless, the monster was something of childhood horror stories. "Stay right there!" she ordered, then called to the vanished apparition of Obi-Wan Kenobi, "I told you this was a nightmare."

"Give the child a break, my old Padawan," Obi-Wan commanded from thin air. "A wedding is enough of a fright for one day."

"I'm just trying to make an impression, my Master," the hideous beast replied with a respectful dip of the head. Then he transformed into a handsome young man with laughing blue eyes and the grin of a Granjonian imp. "Better?"

"Possibly," Obi-Wan said. "With you I never can tell."

"I just want to make this one point." The young man curled his right arm and began rolling back his tunic sleeve. Jaina could faintly make out the whir of servomotors.

Obi-Wan's voice wafted down from the ceiling, "Which would be what, Anakin?"

"Anakin?" Jaina breathed.

"Who else do you know missing four limbs and charred to a crisp, Jaina?" The specter finished rolling his sleeve, then patted the settee. "Come. Sit. You get the less frightening side of me for this lesson."

She stayed in place. "Va...Vader."

He ignored her, instead plucking the glove off his right hand. Only when it was fully removed did Jaina realize his arm was cybernetic. The hum of moving parts was evident with the flexing of each finger. "Before I became Vader, I was already less than perfect." He looked up with those piercing blue eyes. "I lost this arm in a battle with a Sith Lord."

There was something so sad in the way he recounted the loss that Jaina felt compelled to sit next to her...grandfather. They locked gazes for a heartbeat, until he snapped his eyes back to the mechanical arm.

"Even from the first moment Padm? - your grandmother - saw my damaged body, I knew she loved me no less for it. Just like she loved me no less as I denied my true self, or denied our love. She loved me no less as the limbless abomination -"

Jaina flinched.

"- that I became." Anakin patted her knee. "It's all right. I've been thought of worse. The important thing I've learned is to make peace with one's self. The truth is the truth, and acceptance of it is salvation. We all have dark sides, Jaina." He paused. "But you know that, don't you?"

She nodded. Jaina remembered the fateful day she had plunged into Jag's mind. Even he had darkness buried inside his wholesome soul. His biggest fear, the greatest source of his darkness, was the thought of losing her.

"I too feared losing your grandmother," Anakin noted sadly. "That fear cost me everything."

"What if -"

"Jag is a far better man than I," her grandfather said, shaking his head sadly.

"Oh, Ani." A beautiful woman appeared before them. Her brown hair poured down in a cascade of curls and flowers. Her dress was fashioned from strips of magical blue fabric that flowed and sparkled like water.

"It's true, my angel," Anakin said, patting Jaina's hand this time. "It's true."

Unexpectedly, her grandfather vanished and the woman, Anakin's angel, lowered onto the settee. She moved with a grace Jaina had only seen in her mother.

"You must be...Pad-m?." Jaina had to think hard on the name. She was learning so much, so many things to take back to her family. Until now their history had been shrouded in mystery. "My grandmother."

"I am."

"I'm..." Overwhelmed? Overexcited? Delirious? Delusional? Crazy?

Padm? smiled, and for a brief moment Jaina saw part of herself in those beautiful brown eyes. "You're not crazy at all, just madly in love, and all the more beautiful for it."

"Umm...the hair?"

Her grandmother - the title struck Jaina as odd, considering Padm? appeared hardly older than her - cocked her head and smiled. "I'm confident we can do something about that."

"We?"

"No more questions," Padme answered, twirling her finger. "Turn around."

Jaina acquiesced reluctantly and spun in her seat with her back to her grandmother. "I'll let you try."

Smug alien laughter filled the room. "Do or do not -"

"There is no try," the two women said in unison, then immediately broke into a fit of giggling.

"Yoda really did say that." Jaina snorted trying to catch her breath, and both women laughed even harder. "I...I always thought Uncle Luke made it up."

"Yoda said it, all right, more times than my poor Ani cared to hear." Padm? leaned over and whispered in Jaina's ear, "Personally, I think it's a bit of an arrogant taunt. More like can and can not."

"You're absolutely right!" Jaina laughed so hard she had to clutch her sides.

Padm?'s arms engulfed her. "Now that's more like it. Brides should be happy."

Jaina leaned into the hug. "Mmm. Thanks to you, I am."

"They should be beautiful, too." Pushing Jaina upright, Padm? began to gently run the brush through her hair.

"This brings to mind one of my last happy days on Coruscant." Padm?'s voice slipped out in a soothing lilt. "I was pregnant with your mother and uncle, and I didn't feel the least bit attractive. But it didn't matter, because Ani was home."

Listening to the story, Jaina felt her limbs relaxing and her eyes getting heavy. Each stroke of the brush drew her deeper into a serene, blissful state.

"I was brushing my hair when Anakin found me on the balcony. He told me..."

"You are so beautiful," Anakin's voice said.

Jaina smiled inwardly. The words filled her with the warmth that only came from being loved and accepted. Overcome with contentment, her eyelids drifted shut as she continued to listen. There were only the words.

"Despite my swollen ankles and hollowed cheeks I knew I was beautiful solely because of my love for Anakin," Padm? said.

"No, it's because I am so in love with you," Anakin countered.

"So love has blinded you?"

"Well, that's not exactly what I meant."

Jaina knew Padm?'s words were true. Love wasn't a handicap; it was a gift that filled you up and made you whole. Love was a blessing. Jag wouldn't be blind to her faults - especially not this hair, because she knew there was no fighting her horrible hair - but he would accept them and love her no matter.

Finally at peace with the day and this momentous step in her life, Jaina decided to enjoy the tingling sensation spreading across her scalp and the tender attention of her grandmother's skilled fingers.

Still with her eyes closed, Jaina said, "It's been an odd assortment of lessons I've learned today."

"What has, Jay?"

At the sound of Jag's voice, Jaina's eyes flew open. Her head was propped on her arms, which were crossed on the dressing table. "Uhhh."

"Jaina?"

Suddenly, she realized Jag was not an illusion - and that he was in her dressing room! She sprang from her seat, wrapping her robe around her. "You're not supposed to see me." She gasped for a breath as the chair clattered to the floor. "Yet."

"You don't believe in all that ceremonial superstition," Jag noted, taking a step forward.

Jaina held her ground, lifting her chin defiantly. "Maybe. Maybe not. Why risk it?"

Jag grinned. "Oh, I think we've already risked far greater and come out the better for it."

"You don't say," Jaina replied, putting up a hand to stop his advance.

Jag halted with his chest against her palm. She could feel the electric pulse of his raw emotion pouring between them in the touch, and it caused her to blush.

"You are so beautiful."

Jaina blinked. "What did you say?"

"I said, you are so be-"

"Never mind." Jaina launched herself into Jag's arms. He caught her halfway, and hoisted her up to his eye level. "Kiss me quick," Jaina urged breathlessly.

"If you insist." Jag's lips met hers with carefree abandon. Their sensuous ministrations reminded her that no matter what - bad hair or bad mood - Jaina was the woman of his dreams. In that moment, being kissed feverishly, she was beautiful simply because she was a woman in love and loved in return.

She broke the kiss, craning her neck to look into his shimmering emeraude eyes. "Was it worth it?"

"What?"

"All this? The risk. The trip to the Unknown Regions. Almost getting killed. The years of waiting for me to come to my senses."

"I could picture our courtship no other way, Jaina Solo..." Jag's voice trailed off, her name seeming unfinished.

All of a sudden, Jaina couldn't wait to get on with the ceremony. Jumping out of Jag's arms, she heaved a breath or two before swiping her arm to point at the door. "Out."

"But -"

"No. I've got to finish my hair and get dressed. There's no time!"

"I don't know what more you have got to do your hair. It looks stunning. A masterpiece."

"Stop teasing, Jagged Fel."

"I'm not," he answered, entirely serious.

Hesitantly, Jaina touched her hair. It felt soft and curly, not fried and brittle as she had expected. She dashed to the mirror. The face staring back at her looked so much like her grandmother Padm? had in her dream, framed by cascading curls and exotic flowers, radiant and glowing with inner love. Jaina stumbled back in disbelief. "Oh, stars."

Jag moved to stand behind her and wrapped his arms around her. "Are you all right?"

Jaina grinned - no, beamed - at their reflection in the mirror. "Actually, I am."



Original cover by obaona. HTML formatting copyright 2006 TheForce.Net LLC.


Fan Fiction Rating

Current Rating is 9.52 in 97 total ratings.

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Author: Chimpo_the_Sith
Date posted: 10/25/2006 7:27:20 AM
Chimpo_the_Sith's Comments:

Very good story. Characters are well written and the plot keeps you interested from the begining to the end.

Author: Shinar
Date posted: 10/25/2006 11:50:45 AM
Shinar's Comments:

This is the Post-NJO story that should've been published. DN is a tragedy compared to this!

Author: Vanya
Date posted: 11/1/2006 1:43:16 PM
Vanya's Comments:

I am so relieved that someone has FINALLY written a story about Jagged Fel. I love this character and the way you portrayed him. It was very realistic! You should try writing a story about Jag's younger days with the Chiss.

Author: Sani_Atasa  (signed)
Date posted: 11/14/2006 7:30:23 PM
Sani_Atasa's Comments:

I was up untill three in the morning night before last reading this and still didn't finish it untill yesterday morning. It just wouldn't let me put it down! A very good read!

Author: Shuro
Date posted: 2/27/2007 2:34:56 PM
Shuro's Comments:

"This is the Post-NJO story that should've been published." i definitly agree this has to be one of the best fanfics ever written!!!

Author: little_green
Date posted: 3/21/2007 12:28:28 PM
little_green's Comments:

Oh...my....that....was too amazing for words.... I loved it! It really ought to be one of the published books

Author: RebelScum  (signed)
Date posted: 2/19/2008 9:11:37 PM
RebelScum's Comments:

This is the best written fic I've read so far, definitely better than DN!

Author: DarthBellumSolo
Date posted: 9/3/2008 10:11:17 AM
DarthBellumSolo's Comments:

Simply delightful thing! One of my most favourite fic. I always loved Jag and was for that they with Jaina have got married, and how you all has turned it, have surpassed all my expectations. And my favourite Jacen simply remarkable! And my favourite scene - when Jag and Jacen sit in a bar. Shawnkyr is good. In general, many thanks!!!

Bel

Author: JainaSolo  (signed)
Date posted: 12/24/2008 7:39:45 PM
JainaSolo's Comments:

this is my absolute favorite fic I've read DN was horrible and I think this is what should have happened. hopefully it will in the future books after LotF. parts made me want to either cry or laugh, an incredibly well written story

Author: Atarumaster88  (signed)
Date posted: 2/11/2009 10:54:19 AM
Atarumaster88's Comments:

I dunno, maybe it was just me, but I thought a lot of the mains were OOC. Characterization of Jag, Jaina, and Jacen treated them like they were still teenagers and Mara seemed bipolar. Also, had a hard time buying some of the plot-pirates shouldn't have ISDs in the Unknown Regions and the whole ysalamiri thing was a bit much.

Author: Jedi_Aryeh
Date posted: 3/30/2009 9:53:00 PM
Jedi_Aryeh's Comments:

I love this story. I just read it for the second (or third?) time, and cried and laughed my way through it all over again.
When Jag said "you are so beautiful" at the end I had tears steaming down my cheeks.

You two are such brilliant authors. I think you captured the characters (especially Jaina, Jacen and Jag; but Shawkyr, Mara, Talon, Obi-Wan, etc as well) perfectly, as well as the spirit of SW.

Absolutely perfect. *sigh*

I love this whole series, I hope to see more!!


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Archived: Monday, October 23, 2006







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