Jacen Solo meditated.
There was a knock at the door.
He snaked out tendrils of the Force to discern his visitor's identity.
Familiar, yet distant.
The door opened.
Tenel Ka Chume Ta'a Djo.
She wasn't dressed her usual brief leather uniform; her formal suit screamed regal business. Her hair, once in rows of braids, instead fell around her shoulders, cut short and held back by a thin coronet of rainbow gems. Her countenance was steely, her eyes were moist, her presence burned brightly in the Force.
She stared up at him in a state of disbelief. Once she had been the taller one, now their heights were reversed. Everything was the inverse of before; everything a parallel and a paradox.
Tenel Ka's eyebrows drew together. Hesitant. She lifted her hand and rested it on his shoulder for a second before quickly pulling away.
They stood at the doorway for a long moment.
"You should come in," Jacen said awkwardly. He took a step back in deference.
Tenel Ka nodded and walked into the Skywalker apartment. They sat down in opposite fluffy sofas across the small table in the living room.
There always used to be something to say. He never used to be at a loss for words when he was around her. Jacen tried to remember to before his captivity, on the worldship at Myrkr. He vaguely recollected Tenel Ka stepping up to kiss him, Vergere intercepting and sweeping him away to a separate destiny.
They both spoke at the same time.
"You first," Jacen said, an elusive smile spreading across his face.
"You've changed," Tenel Ka said. "Of course. What I mean to say-" She looked away, stopped abruptly.
"Go on," Jacen said gently.
"Leaving you at Myrkr was the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life. And feeling you die...losing my mother soon after..."
"Your mother," Jacen said numbly, recalling Teneniel Djo. "I-I'm sorry."
"There is no death, there is the Force." Her voice was without bitterness.
Jacen cleared his throat. "The crown you're wearing. You're Queen Mother."
"I never wanted to be. But who else? My grandmother, Ta'a Chume? My Grandaunt Alyssia? One of my cousins? Certainly not your mother or sister. I was the only one in position to bring any good to Hapes."
"You said my sister?"
"Perhaps you shouldn't have asked. My grandmother wanted my father to marry Jaina."
He let out a sharp laugh. "That's ridiculous."
Tenel Ka smiled. "Maybe my grandmother is becoming senile in her old age."
Jacen composed himself again, reached out to her mind in the Force. "You don't seem to believe your joke."
"There is question that she was involved in my mother's death. No evidence, of course. Ta'a Chume is very careful and very experienced at murder."
There was bitterness now, and it was well warranted. But no thirst for vengeance, no hate...only calm acceptance.
"What has brought me to the crown is past. Irrelevant. I wear it now in hopes I never fail the Consortium. Sometimes destiny will take you down the strangest of roads."
"I think I'm in a position to agree. We should drink to it. Excuse me." He scrambled out of the guest area and into the kitchen gulping for air. Why was speaking to her again so difficult? He wasn't nervous, just uncomfortable. After some digging, he found a jug of blue milk in the refrigeration unit and two mugs in the dishwasher.
"They aren't chalices," he said, returning with the drinks.
"They're fine," Tenel Ka said.
At least something is, Jacen thought.
"To friendship," Tenel Ka's mug met his with a clink.
He'd forgotten the taste of blue milk. Jacen finished his drink at once.
"Oh. Yeah." He held out his muscled arms and scrutinized them. "I'm almost as fit as you are."
"Maybe it's the beard," Tenel Ka said objectively. "It is so strange, speaking to you right now. I went through the past months knowing, unconditionally, that you were dead. I felt you die."
Her words reminded him of the hurt he'd inflicted on his family and friends. They'd felt his death, believed him dead...all of them except his mother. They'd grieved needlessly with that knowledge. The fact that it'd been necessary for their protection, to prevent them from rescuing him, did nothing to assuage his guilt.
"Even now, with you physically in front of me...it's difficult to believe you are not some sort of imposter."
"I'm back from the dead," Jacen replied calmly. "But the boy you knew died at Myrkr."
"Then it's what I thought," she said softly.
"I wish I could say something to make you laugh."
"Just seeing you alive is enough."
Unexpectedly, he released a loud burp. "Sorry! I'm not quite used to normal food yet."
"I think blue milk has that effect on everyone." Instead of mortification there was a mischievous glint in her gray eyes. "Please, allow me." Her burp was louder.
"Excellent performance, Queen Mother of Hapes."
"I suppose we're different people, now. I gave up hope on you. I'm sorry that I did-that I let go of my love for you. I screamed and cried when I felt you die. Everyday I would look in the mirror, catch my reflection, look at my left arm. And I'd think..."
Jacen's gaze drifted towards the stump that was her left arm. He'd left that mark. A lifetime ago.
"You took it away," she began again. "My left arm. But you also replaced it, became it...until we went our separate ways after our promotion at the Academy. I thought maybe...on the voxyn mission...I was being idealistic. I never though Anakin would die. I never thought I would lose you. I loved you, and I grieved you. I forced myself to move on."
I didn't know, Jacen thought. Here she was, spilling her heart out to him. I'd wanted to her to... but when she did...I didn't even know.
It'd been obvious.
"And now you're alive, after all."
"I died," Jacen insisted. "The boy you loved died at Myrkr."
"No," Tenel Ka said firmly. "The boy I loved died at Myrkr, but the person you are..." she brought her hand to her heart. "Why would I stop? How could I?"
"You've always meant a lot to me," he said, "and nothing changes that. But I'm not the same. I'll never be back to who I was."
"I've accepted that truth." She rose to her feet, her eyes brimming with restrained tears. "I've also accepted that it is the wrong time and place. That I ask for too much. A few years ago I would've shaken my fist at the air and screamed about fairness. Things change. I accept that. Having you back is a gift. Wanting more would be greed."
Jacen maneuvered around the table so he could stand next to her.
He reached out to her in the Force again. Can I-?
As always, she took initiative and hugged him fiercely with her one arm. Hot tears wet his shirt. They stood in silence, holding each other, connected through the Force.
Jacen held back his thoughts. He didn't want to startle her with the details of his captivity on Yuuzhan'tar. How could he explain Vongsense to her, or his newfound empathy with the enemy? His despair and depression? His appreciation for Vergere, despite the pain he'd been put through?
She shared most of hers.
Her memories of her mother. Running wild on Dathomir-Dathomir, now a wasteland conquered by the Yuuzhan Vong. Racing through the trees on Yavin 4 at the Academy, looking over her shoulder to make sure he was never too far behind. Braiding her hair with one hand-a technique she had learned from Anakin. Anakin...if she'd saved him, perhaps Jacen would have been spared capture, perhaps Jaina would have been spared the dark side. Her joy in having him back, even if he wasn't the same person. Her willingness to let go...for the second time...because she had duties to her people, and in order to fulfill them she could not have him in her life. She could never ask him to be with her, ask him to be consort to the ruler of sixty three worlds. Not with the ongoing war. Not ever. Not while she held the crown.
"The timing is wrong," Jacen whispered.
"Yes. Our lives were never destined for the exact same path. I accept that truth with the knowledge that even the most separate paths may one day cross again.
"I'm releasing you," she said. "Do you understand? I'm releasing you to your destiny so I can fulfill my own. So you can stay true to yourself." Stepping out of the embrace, she wiped her arm across her face, straightened her hair and tiara.
"I leave for Hapes tonight, immediately after the knighting ceremony."
"See you when the war is over." But he cracked her a smile to let her know he was only joking.
"There's something I want you to have." She reached behind her neck, used the Force to help unclasp a thin silver chain. She placed the chain in his hands.
A large emerald ring dangled from the end of the necklace.
"My mother gave it to me just before she died. I'm not asking for you to wear it, unless you wish to. I give it to you in order to renounce my grief."
Grief over me. Grief over her mother, over Anakin, over Dathomir, over a life she wants but can't have.
Another knock at the door.
"Your majesty." A woman's voice. One of Tenel Ka's bodyguards. "The Chief of State awaits you."
"In a moment, Captain," Tenel Ka called regally.
"Meeting with the Chief of State?"
"One of many necessary evils."
Before she stepped out the door, Jacen took her hand. He held onto it, unsure of what to say. Would saying goodbye only hurt her more? "I'm grateful for you, Tenel Ka."
She raised her chin high, a posture fitting for the Queen Mother of Hapes. "And I, you."
It wasn't enough for her.
It was all he had to give.
His forehead rested against the cold metal of the door.
"A friend of yours, Jacen Solo?"
At the sound of her voice, Jacen turned to face his mentor. She sat perched on the sofa, her crest of feathers flushed a bright green.
"Yeah," Jacen nodded. "Hello, Vergere."
"Interesting. A matriarch, a Jedi Knight. A Hapan Jedi Knight. My, the galaxy has changed." She tilted her head to the side lazily, like a child unwilling to divulge secrets. "A pretty girl. What happened to her arm?"
"It had a little accident with my lightsaber."
"Ah." She hopped off the sofa, began pacing around him in a wide circle. "There is much I don't understand about this new order. Marriage, romance, all permitted? Love is possessive, it leads to disarray."
"How much did you hear?"
"It's not a matter of hearing, Jacen."
"Maybe lack of love was what brought the old Jedi order to its knees," he argued half-heartedly, too tired to make up a concrete defense. Arguing with Vergere was always a waste of time. The didactic way she phrased her responses made it worse.
"Perhaps." Her eyes narrowed. "In times of war, a romance is hardly fitting."
"You're right, Vergere. But I disagree."
"Oh?" Her pacing stopped.
"You're trying to tell me that it isn't worth it at all. I know for a fact that it is." He shut his eyes, conjuring up stubborn memories. "You know...it's strange. I remember you blocking Tenel Ka from me before I went to kill the voxyn queen."
Vergere's voice was acerbic. "Of all the memories from your old life, why do you remember that one?"
Jacen smiled at her and shrugged. "I don't know."
The metal chain felt foreign around his neck, Tenel Ka's heavy ring resting against his sternum. Sighing, he slipped the thing off and gripped it in his fist for a moment before wrapping it in paper and tucking it into his luggage.
He didn't need to wear it to remember her.
Some memories were difficult to forget.
Original cover by Jedi Freac. HTML formatting copyright 2002 TheForce.Net LLC.