On the edges of Hapan space
Hurry up, ni'le'a.
As soon as the thought entered his head, Jag swore. Grimacing at his own mental lapse, he once again made sure the cockpit video feed was tuned to the docking ring monitors, then triplechecked the frequency on the console's comm. The Alema team's current ride was a modified YT-2400. It was similar enough to the Falcon in design, but Jag wasn't as comfortable as Jaina with Corellian Engineering's cockpit designs - he couldn't afford to be anything less than perfect. Not now.
Times were decidedly dangerous, and recent events had been a painful reminder that nothing was a sure bet when darkness prowled the galaxy. Even simple stops, like their current layover at Anancion Station, got complicated. His patience unusually short, Jag keyed the comm.
"I'm working on it."
A Csilla blizzard had more warmth than Jaina's voice; Jag opted to leave the conversation there. For once, Zekk had been the smart one. The tall Jedi had volunteered to pilot the X-wing Jaina had borrowed in her rush to follow her uncle to Hapes.
Which left Jag riding in tight quarters with Jaina in the YT-2400. In just about any other situation, Jag would have felt victorious. Zekk gone; the two of them alone. Except now, today, he couldn't seem to drag any joy from their circumstances. Jaina had few friends, but those she had she loved fiercely. For Jaina to have lost her mentor, especially with her brother gone mad and her parents on the run, had to be soul-crushing.
Jaina's voice shattered his thoughts. "Get ready for a quick disconnect!"
Years of battle training snapped his body into pilot mode. He tugged on his restraints and activated the comm.
"Engines coming online. Docking clamp disconnect on your mark." He glanced to the video feed. Jaina crossed the screen, not quite at a run but close to the controlled pace of a frontal assault. At least they weren't fleeing for their lives - this time. His hands steady, Jag deliberately continued his launch sequence. The pitch of the engines was rising gradually by the time she was aboard.
"Cycling airlocks." A few seconds later, her voice reverberated down the access shaft. "Nail it!"
Without looking at the controls, Jag released the docking clamps and immediately feathered the thrusters to slip away from the station.
Footsteps barely gave him warning before Jaina dropped into the co-pilot seat, her fingers immediately going to work at the nav computer.
"So...," Jag finally said, "I take it we've been stood up?"
Jaina cast an arched eyebrow in his general direction, then returned to calculating jump coordinates. "Heading oh-five-seven."
Bringing the freighter around, Jag urged the engines to full power. The console chimed, indicating her task was done. Glancing down, he checked for the begin and end markers - and realized they were jumping within the Hapes Cluster, but not to any particular planet. "Ready?"
When she didn't answer, he looked her way. Sitting stiffly in the co-pilot's chair, Jaina nodded once.
No sooner had he pulled the levers and the viewport filled with the bright streaks of hyperspace than Jaina leapt from her chair. Her fist smashed the cockpit bulkhead, and a wordless roar left her mouth.
Jag flipped on the auto-pilot, took his time slipping off his restraints, and rotated his chair slowly. To his relief he didn't find the girl he remembered from their first escapade on Hapes, all those years ago. Her eyes were dark, not obsidian. Her fingers were curled in a fist, not crackling with energy.
She stared at the durasteel plating. "If only we had our X-wings..."
"I'm sorry, Jaina." That was his fault. He had chosen with his heart, not his mind, when word of Mara's death had reached Coruscant. The Dactyl would have been slower in reaching Hapes, but they would have had all of their usual resources with them.
Now something had made Zekk abort their rendezvous at Anancion Station. "We'll catch up to him."
Jaina paced the back of the cockpit like a caged nexu. "He should have waited."
"Probably." Reaching out, Jag stayed her with a hand on her arm. "But we don't know the specifics. What I do know is Zekk probably had a good reason if he missed our rendezvous with the Dactyl. It's safe to say his priorities don't include you and me alone."
She dismissed his reasoning with a blink. "I left our destination with the station controller. The Dactyl will follow us. We'll need it."
"Where? And why?"
"Roqoo Depot. Reports of a freighter crew having been slaughtered with a lightsaber were just coming in when Zekk docked -"
"And he went ahead to investigate," Jag finished. "Good call."
"No, it wasn't!" Jaina spun away. "It's too dangerous."
"Jaina, we've been ordered to hunt down Alema Rar. Danger is part of the mandate."
She was shaking, but not with fear. "Ordered as a team, not solo investigators. This was stupid. No one should face a dark Jedi alone. Look what happened..."
The words hung between them. She still couldn't say it. Mara was dead. Jaina might not be able to accept the loss for some time now. The Galactic Alliance - no, it could only have been Jacen Solo personally - had insisted that the task force double their efforts or face the withdrawal of funding. Jaina, in turn, was being denied the right to grieve at the funeral. Between investigations, training bouts, and brainstorming sessions, she barely had a chance to breathe - let alone recover from the kick to the gut that accompanied such a profound loss.
The harsh reality was, their team wasn't being given the chance to recover. Jaina was off-kilter and that meant Jag and Zekk weren't bringing their top-flight game to the table, either. If they weren't careful, more death would surely follow.
"You're right. It was stupid. We need to act more like a -"
"Stop, Jag. Just stop. Why do you always have to do that?"
"Put Zekk down, like he's some bug you need to squash."
Jag clenched his jaw. There was no safe response to that - especially not pointing out that it wasn't true. Jaina wanted - needed - someone to lash out at, and he was conveniently available. Suddenly Jag wondered if Zekk had gone separately not to make Jag suffer Jaina's wrath, but to avoid it himself.
But Jag did not fear anything Jaina could say now. Whatever it might be, it would pale in comparison to the words that had cut his heart in two. During his stay on Tenupe he had learned patience beyond that of any Jedi, patience enough to wait until her fury subsided and her true self returned.
His silence offered Jaina even more fuel than agreement or denial, Jag steeled his will for the verbal fire she volleyed into his soul. He accepted her hurt because he wanted it to be his own.
Suddenly, an ominous noise erupted deep within the freighter, an echoing retort like a Krayt dragon venting a loud burp after a satisfying meal. Simultaneously, the freighter lurched, depositing Jaina unceremoniously in Jag's lap.
For a heartbeat, the universe stopped. His arms circled around Jaina, and all was right. Everything was worth this.
In his hesitation, she bolted from his lap. Only then did Jag hear the low-pitched whir within the usual engine hum.
"Sounds like we blew a motivator." She paused in the bulkhead, refusing to look at him. "Shouldn't reduce engine output but it might get a little cold in here. I'll get right on that, Colonel."
"Just a little... more."
Right on cue her grip slipped. The hydrospanner, which she had been holding in her right hand to blindly ratchet down a lug between two conduits, clattered to the durasteel plating.
"Oh, blast it to all hells!"
The hydrospanner vibrated, then shot up from the deck, slapping into her palm. It hit so hard her knuckles cracked into the pressure valve straddling the conduits. The pain of her skin splitting across her knuckles unleashed a volley of oaths that would have made even her father blush. She beat the offending hydrospanner against the equally offensive valve.
"I assume this is a repair technique straight from the Solo manual."
Jaina spun. Jag stood leaning against the bulkhead, unnaturally casual. One hand cradled a mug filled with steaming liquid. She was chilled and hungry; it smelled delicious.
"There's even a holo included with the directions." Accepting the mug with her left hand, she had to remember not to smile. As the ceramic warmed her palm she tried to remember why she was so angry. She inhaled deeply, noting the hint of spice. "Hot juri-cider."
"Corellian Ag's finest." Jag paused, as if he wanted to say more. But he didn't.
She sipped some cider, finding she was more comfortable studying it than waiting for whatever he might say next. Their earlier argument swirled in the back of her thoughts, yet now it didn't seem he had done anything worthy of being verbally throttled. Maybe it hadn't been that important after all.
Taking another drink, she reflected on its taste and tried to banish the anger that swirled dangerously, banging on the door she had vowed to never again open. The drink was tangy and crisp, probably a custom blend. Not something from the Jedi's quartermaster. No, if Jaina had to bet, Jag had pulled this mix from some private stash of rare treats in his rucksack. She never ceased to be surprised at how many things he could pack and keep with him - or what he chose to bring along. Instead of asking how he managed, though, she placed the mug on a structural crossmember nearby, nodded her thanks, and resumed her work.
At first she tried to focus on the task at hand. Her fingers were more pliable from the renewed warmth. Despite stretching at an awkward angle, she managed to get in a few solid rotations on the lug. Her concentration, however, became increasingly divided between controlling the hydrospanner, and Jag.
He hadn't moved. He just stood there, watching her.
The tool slipped off the lug. She barely managed to keep hold.
"Could I help with that?"
She refused to face him. "I can manage."
He took a step toward her. Jaina reached for the lug with the hydrospanner. In her haste she misjudged it, and the tool once again fell to the deck with a loud clang. Unfortunately, it landed closer to Jag.
He scooped it up. "You really do make things so difficult sometimes."
"I do not."
Ignoring her, Jag moved forward. She had to shuffle back to avoid body contact. He angled his shoulders between the two conduits, raised his arm, and easily tightened the lug without having to stretch.
"You do, Jaina," he said once he'd finished, holding out the hydrospanner almost like a peace offering. "We're a team. Remember?"
His expression was so genuine she couldn't bring herself to argue. Returning his earnest stare, Jaina reached for the tool. Her fingers brushed his, and for one moment the entire universe stopped. Jag broke their gaze first - to look at her fingers, touching him.
She snatched her hand away, the hydrospanner with it. "It's nothing."
"It would be something to the woman I remember."
Shutting her eyes, Jaina forced away a flood of memories. Yes, he would know. She was a pilot and a swordsman. Her hands were her life. No matter where she was or what she was doing, Jaina always had made the care of her hands a necessary ritual. He had waited many a night for her to use healing salves and anti-inflammatory creams to keep her hands fresh and nimble. And, if she dared admit it to herself, to keep them as delicate as her mother's hands, the ones Jaina had so admired as a child.
Yes, he did know.
His hands were there, taking away the hydrospanner. Slowly he turned her hand over to expose the wounded knuckles.
"You know." She tried to jerk her hand away - unsuccessfully.
"It's cold in here." Jaina wasn't cold, though. Jag was so close she could feel the warmth from his body. She felt hot, sweaty. Trapped. She yanked her hand away. This wasn't what she wanted. If nothing else came of Mara's death, Jaina would honor her aunt's last piece of advice.
"I said -" She sounded weak in her own ears, and made a point to emphasize the last part, "- stop it."
He stood before her, posture straight and regal-looking, feigning innocence.
"I know what you're doing, Jag."
He said nothing in his own defense.
"I've seen enough holodramas about my parents back in the good old days." She shook her forefinger at him, just like her father. "The whole scoundrel-in-the-engine-room routine won't work on me. I'm not some na?ve princess -"
Jag leaned forward, so close Jaina thought he might kiss her. So close she thought she might have to slug him. His breath warmed her cheek. "And I'm not a nice man, ni'le'a."
She inhaled sharply. He hadn't called her that since... since the day she had calmly handed the pledge bracelet back to him along with some pathetic excuse. I can't marry you. I'm a Jedi. We have different priorities, different allegiances. We're just too different. Back then she had known - as he had quietly bent down and claimed her lips for one last time - that it had been the right thing to do. Jag had wanted a family, a life, a home. Things she hadn't been ready to offer him. Not before she knew what she wanted herself.
Jaina still didn't know who she was. He would still be waiting.
"No, Jag. You're a good man."
The corner of his mouth twitched down. "Apparently, not good enough."
How could she explain? How did she tell him he deserved better than the cold, tasteless dish destiny was serving her. Even Jag understood her role as Sword of the Jedi. Mara's brutal honesty had hit its mark. Jaina had to stop playing games with Jag and get her eye back on her mission. If Jaina was going to be a good Jedi, do her duty, and honor her aunt's wisdom, she couldn't lose focus.
Tweootweootweoo. The door to their past slammed close with the shrill siren indicating an inbound hail.
"We've arrived." Jag squared his shoulders as he stepped back. "I'll see about contacting your partner. I'm sure he has much to report." He paused in the bulkhead, but didn't look back. "See to your injury before we dock. I'm making that an order, Jedi Solo."
Original cover by oldjedinurse. HTML formatting copyright 2008 TheForce.Net LLC.