“Maybe,” she finally began, “the humour lies more in that the princess thought she might live a normal life.”
Queen Mother Tenel Ka Chume Djo slowly raised her eyes, hardly daring to believe that he was here. The worn Jedi outfit was his - as were the broad shoulders, the firm line of the thick lips, the tanned skin, and the intense chocolate eyes. Swallowing, she set down the report she had been reading.
Jacen Solo is here...?
He grinned lopsidedly, looking very much like his father. "Hello, Tenel Ka - or should I say 'Your Majesty'?" He bowed gallantly.
She took a breath, hardly deeper than her normal intake, and rose. "Tenel Ka," she corrected quietly, to avoid catching the gossiping eyes of her attendants.
His smile grew. "I'm glad. I don't suppose the queen mother of Hapes could spare a few moments for an old friend?"
She ignored the flutter in her gut as she nodded and stood. "The gardens are especially beautiful this time of year," she noted, gesturing for him to follow her.
He walked beside her, his gait not boyish as it had been when they were at the Academy, but reassuring nonetheless. "I'm sorry to take you away from your work," he said finally.
She glanced at him, thrown a little off balance by the odd quality to his voice. When she studied his profile, she remarked on the change in his face. "You look tired, my friend."
He leaned against an archway, taking in the sight and scent of the royal Hapan gardeners' pride. "Things have been particularly busy lately, and the dreams don't help," he replied vaguely, not seeming to really think about his answer.
Her forehead creased in concern. In these times, with the remaining 'Vong readying themselves for a revolt and the trouble within the Galactic Alliance's political circles, it was wise to get as much sleep as possible. But then again, Tenel Ka thought wryly, she was not the one to talk, was she? "My physician - "
Jacen cut her off. "It has little to do with medical problems," he assured her. "The Force has been disquiet of late, that's all."
She frowned. "Visions?" she queried, privately grateful for the topic of conversation as it gave her the opportunity to study him. The holos, she had decided, did him little justice.
"In a way." He paused. "Things certainly have changed," he remarked quietly, his eyes resting on hers.
She returned his frank stare without flinching. "Yes; in the galaxy and within ourselves."
He laughed. "Who would have thought - you, the Queen Mother, despite all your protests. And a wonderful queen, what's more. Your people love you."
An odd light entered his eyes and for the first time, she felt a prick of discomfort. No. She shook her head slightly. That was not the right way to describe the sensation flowing through her. It was...unusual, as if she had felt it once before and left it behind somewhere, long ago.
It did not take a genius to figure out what that was, but when Tenel Ka focused on the weight of the bejewelled crown on her head, she was able to push it to the back of her mind, where it would wait for a moment of solitude and privacy.
"And you," she replied. "The carefree young man in love with animals... According to some, you have started a Jedi rebellion." She raised a questioning eyebrow.
He snorted. "Either that, or I've gone insane - it's a rather controversial issue as to which is true." He was referring, of course, to the Jedi who would not leave their traditional views of dark and light.
"I doubt the second is an accurate description, my friend," she replied smoothly, her lips curling upward just the tiniest fraction.
His sudden smile reminded her of the boy he used to be. "Oh, I don't know - I suspect we're all mad on some point or another...we just learn to hide it."
Tenel Ka maintained her solemn expression. "This is a fact."
Jacen's grin stretched. "And here I thought being the Queen Mother would change you."
She sat on a nearby bench, conscious of her suit's delicate material. "Many things have changed; I am no exception."
Jacen looked meditative, even as his feet shuffled almost...nervously? "I suppose," he conceded. "Almost makes you wish for the old days at Yavin 4, doesn't it?"
Almost? she wondered. "One cannot expect to live a child's life forever," she said instead. "Wishes help no one."
What had she said that made his eyes fly up to hers? Tenel Ka met his gaze squarely until she realized her cheeks were becoming pink with...something. Sighing quietly, she stood and turned to fix a branch that came out too far. A lock of her titan hair, which had long free been free of her warrior braids, escaped the tight knot on her head and landed in front of her eyes. She brushed it aside.
"Tenel Ka..." Jacen sighed in frustration and she knew he was biting his lip as he searched for words.
A part of her realized what he was here to say, and her heart sped up, but she didn't - couldn't - stop him. Her mind shut down and she could only listen, hoping that maybe...
It will change nothing.
Why did she have to care?
Jacen touched her shoulder gently and she looked up, her face carefully arranged. "Do you want to hear a joke?" he asked, but his eyes were determined, intense.
Tenel Ka turned so she was facing him. Her grey eyes scanned his chocolate ones for a moment before she said, "What is it, my friend?"
"It's more of a funny story than a joke, actually," Jacen remarked. "See, once there were two friends. One was a princess - beautiful, of course, and incredible, and intelligent - and the other was a knight. The knight, he, well, he always wanted to make the princess laugh, because he thought she had the most gorgeous smile. He only did it once, though, and that was because...well, he didn't really know why she laughed, because he hadn't said anything funny.
"But while the more he got to know her, the more he realized that he would do...anything for her. Anything. Because he loved her. Even though he could never, ever hope to be loved in return, and even though he would only be in her way." Jacen looked straight at her as he said it, and she couldn't pull her eyes away. When he reached out and tentatively brushed her cheek, she started but still the spell did not release her.
"Then things started to get crazy, because the knight died and the princess became a queen - even more unattainable than before. And when the knight came back from the dead, there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. He had his own destiny to fulfill.
"But the thing the knight most regretted was that he couldn't even make her laugh, which was all he really wanted to do. Then, he realized he knew the best joke of all: that a lowly knight ever thought he could be near enough to her as a friend."
Tenel Ka swallowed hard and still could not speak. Jacen's eyes were fastened on her, and she thought he looked afraid - terrified of any response she might make. "Maybe," she finally began, "the humour lies more in that the princess ever thought she might live a normal life."
Her lips trembled, but she had no time to consider this unusual event. It took everything to keep pushing on. "Jacen, things are not...the same. I am promised to Hapes, and - "
For a moment, Jacen's eyes squeezed shut and his fist clenched, and then he nodded. "I know. More than anyone else, I...I do understand, my love. It was selfish of me to speak."
What little she had said would have to do; Tenel Ka could barely breathe past the lump in her throat, let alone speak. It had been a long, long time since she cried, but she was very close to doing just that. Jacen's confession was years late, but at least he had made it. She couldn't even say the words.
"I suppose even the queen mother's marriage must strengthen her country, rather than the queen herself." Jacen smiled crookedly, and if Tenel Ka could have turned away from the cheerless sight, she would have. "I just...I needed to say it, just once. I'm sorry."
Don't apologize. Her mind began to work again, and her heart restarted its beating, and the words were on the tip of her tongue. She just needed a little more time.
Jacen took a sudden, deep breath and shook his head. "No. I love you, Tenel Ka," he exclaimed. "And I'm not sorry for that." His entire body was tense in defiance, as if he expected her to lash out at him or deny it.
Tenel Ka's lips found their strength. "Jacen - "
He didn't let her continue. Was he so terrified of what she might say? "I know. It's impossible." He studied her a moment, then said, "I need to leave, beloved. You're not the only one who lost control of their fate. Besides," the corner of his mouth tilted upwards, "I don't want to cause trouble."
In a movement that completely undid her, he strode forward and pressed his lips against hers. The queen's hair fell from its intricate stylings as his hand held her head close, while his other arm wrapped around her waist. Her only hand raised to embrace him, but before she could make contact he pulled away...and ran.
She let him go, but... "Wait," she whispered. "Wait."
I love you too.
Tenel Ka never had the chance to say the words to him. She had a consortium to lead; he had a galaxy to convince. What very few times she saw him, he was across the room, or she was playing the role of supreme ruler. He never sought her out, never spoke of their love again, but she saw it there in his eyes, waiting for her, as if she had any choice in the matter.
Her people. She had always loved them; now she hated them, too, or wished she did, just a little. At the very least, she despised her crown - the delicate, heavy diadem that refused to let her feel anything but complete loyalty to her people.
Tenel Ka heard news of Jacen's trouble mostly through Jaina, his twin. The holos had begun a month after the night in the gardens, and Tenel Ka was not fooled by their casualness. It didn't matter if they came at Jacen's behest, or if Jaina had picked up on what was occurring; Tenel Ka was grateful for the more personal view on Jacen's fate.
She did not, however, need a holo on the morning Jacen was killed.
The morning was cool, and the sky just beginning to lose its dawn rose and orange tints. It was breakfast time, and Tenel Ka was accompanied only by her aide, who was going over the morning's appointments.
"Your Majesty is to meet with Lanic Yubiv about the...legalization of male rights at thirteen hundred hours," Nira continued, her voice kept carefully respectful.
Tenel Ka smiled faintly at her aide's obvious distaste. The new law would do little more than make what was already true official, but she expected disquiet from her people for that little recognition. The matriarchy would continue - Hapes neither wanted nor needed that to change - but Tenel Ka was not about to let her consortium fall behind the other planets.
"Does the idea bother you, Nira?"
The blond woman's jaw tightened, but she said, "No, Your Majesty. Of course not."
"Good - " And then it blasted her. Jacen's life flared before Tenel Ka's eyes, then vanished for the second time in her life. This time, however, she knew it was the real thing.
Everything within her froze in shock, in pain, in loneliness that she had never expected to feel.
She had dropped her fork and her hand now curled into a fist. Years passed. Slowly, very slowly, a tear escaped her eyes and trailed down her cheek. In her mind, Tenel Ka could hear her grandmother denouncing her mother for being too empathetic - too "weak" - to be a queen.
It had taken the destruction of the Hapan fleet to make Teneniel Djo cry; it took much less, and so much more, to make Tenel Ka's insides shatter.
Jacen. It was almost a prayer. I love you.
"Your Majesty? Are you well?"
Queen Mother Tenel Ka swallowed and her grey eyes cleared, but she did not brush away her tear, which was now nestled between her neck and her shoulder. She did not apologize; she was the queen mother. No one could know the sacrifices she made for her people; no one could understand them. The only thing she could be married to was her people.
"After the luncheon with Lord Yubiv...?" Tenel Ka sounded as if her mind was worlds away, something she usually tried to avoid.
Nira studied her queen with something akin to puzzlement. Her Majesty never acted like this. "There is a public dinner tonight; after the luncheon you must prepare."
"Reschedule both the luncheon and the dinner for tomorrow; the food prepared for today shall be given to the poor, of course - while it is still fresh. I wish to be left alone for the day." Without waiting for a reply, Tenel Ka stood and walked to the gardens.
Just once, her people would have to wait. Just for one day - the one day on which she could never turn back. Maybe it was selfish, but Tenel Ka needed it.
Just one day.