An epilogue for Legacy of the Force: Invincible written with the J/J fans in mind.
one standard day after Chief of State Daala's inaugural address...
Only a couple of hours out of the bacta mist, Jaina's body protested contact with the medbunk. The combination of new skin and ceaseless attempts to find some position that was comfortable weren't helping matters any. Her ribs ached. Her sternum throbbed; each breath came mildly painful at best, agonizing at worst. Her broken arm, immobilized in a bactacast, insisted on resting at a contorted angle. Her legs cramped intermittently. Her head pounded constantly.
Moments before, Cilghal had left the convalescence suite. Jaina was still having trouble processing the myriad of medical treatments the Jedi Master had outlined to mend her broken body. A week straight of bacta dips, broken only by one surgical procedure after the next. Even then, they merely would have mended her body mechanically. It might be months before the resources would be available to fully repair the damage to her face.
She couldn't think about the shallow crater of her crushed cheekbone, or the hideous scar that drew attention to it even to the casual observer. And her hair...
The suite faded in a watery blur. Jaina turned her uninjured cheek to rest on the pillow. She shut her eyes, banishing the tears back from whence they came. Just beyond the door, voices carried on a whispered discussion. Jedi perceptions allowed her to catch fragments without even trying.
... any faster? ... hard on her ... resources just aren't available ... bacta supplies at a premium ...
Finally her father, crystal clear. "That's no kriffing excuse! How much more does she have to sacrifice?"
With simply a thought, Jaina willed the vidscreen's volume louder. She turned her stare straight ahead, and tried to focus on the program her father had chosen: an odd narrative series about the perils of tohalia crab fishing in the Hoth ice-seas. She couldn't imagine who had time to watch such a thing. But that wasn't as bizarre as the notion of having a holocam detailing your every move, only to have some random being edit the footage to increase the dramatic flair to mythical proportions.
She flicked the channel. Tree-fellers on Endor. Flick. The familial relationships of Tatooine desert-dwelling rodents. Flick.
"...news today, the peace conference stalled when the Alliance delegation leaders failed to reach agreement regarding Admiral Niathal's status in the -"
"So," came her father's voice, "how about a game of Falcon Command?"
Jaina continued to study the vidscreen. "You hate the idea of that game."
Han walked across the room and blocked her view. "I hate the idea of watching politicians at work even more."
The volume on the display began to soften, and the channel flicked back to the tree-fellers of its own accord. Her mother drifted into view, hovering over the medbunk. "Liar. You don't mind watching this politician."
"Yeah, well, at least you've got some good moves, Princess."
"Do you two need to get a room?" Jaina appreciated that her parents were doing their best these days to keep things lighthearted, but the trying to remind each other that there were things to live for, like each other, was just a little too desperate, and it only succeeded in producing a sinking feeling in her gut. Sometimes it sure didn't seem like there was much left for Jaina to live for. Maybe the Sword of the Jedi really was meant to stand alone forever, not just in the battle to the death with Caedus.
"Maybe I'll take you up on that game of Falcon Command, Dad."
From the suite's entrance, a male voice replied. "Would you be upset if I patched in as your wingman instead?"
"Jag." Jaina couldn't stop the smile forming on her lips - even if it did hurt like the Corellian Hells.
"Sorry I couldn't get here sooner." He crossed the room straight to her, and without the slightest hesitation bent over and placed his lips very gently against her brow.
A warm burst pulsed between them in the Force, soaring joyously upward like a crier bird on a hot air current. Yet an undertow of overwhelming grief kept it grounded.
From somewhere behind Jag, Han cleared his throat. At first Jag didn't move. Then the new head of the Imperial Moff Council turned away to acknowledge the room's other occupants. "Leia. Han. Could I have a word with you?"
Leia smiled politely. "Of course."
"Outside." Jag raised his hand, beckoning them to the door.
There was a brief glance between Jag and Leia, and only the slightest of flickers in her brown eyes before she touched Han's arm. "We'll be just a moment, sweetheart."
"But... I -" They were already gone - the door shut behind them - leaving Jaina to wonder what it was that made everyone think they could dismiss her like some fragile child. She had just decided to give the first person through the door a piece of her mind on that very subject when Jag stepped back into the room. The look in his eyes stopped her short, and made her worst fear realized. The enormous hollow ache in Jag's spirit confirmed her suspicion. "You're leaving."
"No." Jag reached her medbunk in an instant. "I'm not."
"I understand," she said, barely hearing herself. "Duty calls, and you've got all kinds of -"
Something squeezed her hand, and reality drew back from the unimaginable murk. "-isten to me," Jag was saying. "I will never leave you."
She blinked, and inhaled deeper than she should have. "Then why are you here, Jag?"
"Did you hear what I just said?"
"Yes," Jaina exhaled. "I'm simply wondering why, if you're sticking around, you aren't moving these peace talks along."
"One man can only do so much. And the Moffs are already quite clear on what they'll bring to the table." Despite his attempt to lighten the moment, there was immeasurable sadness in Jag's words. And that look - something profound was now missing from his life.
"What's wrong, Jag?" She clutched his hand back. "Wedge?"
As far as she knew, the Corellians hadn't seen much action in the last mad dash before the truce was declared. But KIA reports were constantly being updated, and Jaina had been out of the loop for a while. The swelling pit in Jag's heart told her she was close to the truth.
Sinking a hip onto the medbunk, Jag placed his other hand over hers. "Jaina, as of 1400 hours, all search and rescue operations in the Mists have ceased."
She glanced at the wall chrono - 14:20. Even if Jag had read the dispatch the moment it was released, immediately left the negotiations, flown the fastest fighter to the Healing Seas, and run to the infirmary, there was no way he could have made it here.
He had been forewarned.
"Not the Jedi operations," she insisted. "It's too soon."
"Jay, it's been over four days."
"Jedi have been known to survive in stasis for at least that long."
"Which Jedi specifically?"
Jag remained stone-faced as if her answer was reason enough to validate his point.
"Luke wouldn't give up on him so easily."
"The Jedi Grand Master has made a considerable effort to use every resource at his disposal, including his immeasurable Force skills. Everything points to the same conclusion."
"So it's up to me again." Jaina made a move to sit up; Jag halted her effortlessly with a hand on her shoulder. She beseeched him with the watery sheen of her eyes. "Luke doesn't know him like I do. We can find him."
Jag looked away, staring blankly down at the linens upon which he sat. After an interminable silence, he spoke. "Jaina, my gut - no, my heart - wants to be out there looking. I want to believe this hasn't happened. Even as your uncle dragged me from you to confront the Moff Council, there was only one place I wanted to be, if I couldn't be at your side, and that was looking for my friend. But my heart - and my mind - also knows that Zekk would have wanted me to be exactly where I've been for the last few days: working to end this madness."
"This isn't the first time my uncle's assumed wrong."
"Jaina... Don't you think if he were alive out there somewhere, even on the brink of death, Zekk would have found a way to reach you?" Jag's green eyes bored into hers, smashing past her barricades of denial. "Your pain has been like his own for years; he would stop at nothing to ease your suffering these last days. Even if it had been as simple as a brush in Force. You know that; Luke knows that."
Her lip trembled. "He's all alone out there. I left him."
Then the sinking crush of sorrow engulfed her. Color faded to dark. Sound muted. She wanted to cry, to scream, to shriek in defiance that Zekk wasn't gone, but her voice was drowning in tears.
Suddenly a pair of arms embraced her. A voice beckoned, its light radiating like sunshine visible from deep beneath the water's surface. "I'll miss him too, Jay."
Despite her body's aches and protests at being held, she wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else. Only in that moment, clinging to him, did she recognize Jag's grief was as great as her own. "I know."
The starless darkness of the Transitory Mists loomed as a gloomy backdrop beyond the soft glow of the magcon emitters lining the Healing Seas' ceremonial bay. Most larger naval vessels had one, kept pristine for significant events such as receiving dignitaries or field promotions. This bay, though, bore witness to the ravages of war. Unseemly scorch marks pocked the durasteel walls; the chamber still stank of melted metal. And then there was the gathering of warriors standing in an informal array - some Jedi, their robes singed from battle; others uniformed officers, who appeared to not have seen a sanisteam in days. The deep weight of sorrow smothered them all.
Everyone had lost too much. Now, days after farewells had been made to all the other fallen comrades, the living remembered yet another life given back to the Force. In an unprecedented move, Kyp Durron presided over the ceremony. Leia was sure that was because her daughter had asked him specifically. There were very few people Jaina could turn to, but the scruffy Jedi Master had been a steadfast mentor to his former apprentice, especially since Mara had died. His closing remarks sounded more like an expression of a true friend's loving remembrance, and Leia wondered if Kyp wasn't just channeling Jaina's thoughts on her behalf.
Leia glanced at her daughter, trying to see around the hood that concealed Jaina's features, but she remained hidden within the dark folds of brown fabric. For the last few days, since Zekk had been declared killed in action, Jaina had been an unreadable mask to Force-blind and Jedi alike. They had delayed the ceremony until she had been declared physically fit to attend, but even now, even being her mother, Leia was unsure how a perfectly whole person could have stood upright with so much emotional pain crushing her soul.
Yet Jaina did just that, the only sign of her fragile state the white knuckled grip she kept on the man at her side. Once, long ago, that support undoubtedly would have been Han. Later, Jacen had been the quiet comfort that buoyed her spirits in somber times. Now it was Jagged Fel who acted as her anchor and shield.
Kyp finished speaking. Leia sensed the rising swell of emotional release into the Force that was customary for grieving Jedi. The moment of silence lengthened until the Force-blind became uncomfortable, glancing side to side or rocking around on the balls of their feet. Jedi were bonding, sharing their pain and then releasing it into the Force, and Leia wanted to have nothing to do with it.
Apparently, neither did Jaina. She stepped forward, then slowly reached out to the remembrance box hovering before Kyp.
"Miss you," she whispered, before nodding to the Jedi Master.
Kyp stepped aside, and in unison twelve Jedi Knights strode in two lines past Leia, past Jaina. The last pair motioned subtly with their hands, and the remembrance box drifted along between the processional. The Jedi escorted the remembrance box to the magcon barrier. Then, in a synchronous snap-hiss, the first five Jedi pairs ignited their lightsabers, creating a tunnel through which the box passed.
They've had too much practice at this, Leia thought, watching the box fuzz blue and pass effortlessly out into the vacuum of space.
No body...just a box...all alone... remember forever. Thank you. Those weren't Leia's thoughts, though, and her eyes snapped to Jaina, wondering if the walls had broken. She half-expected to see her daughter slumped on the ground, but she wasn't. Back still straight, Jaina pivoted, her damp brown eyes meeting Leia's for an instant before she and Jag moved for the exit.
"Come on," Han said.
Briefly, Leia wondered how she had gone through the whole ceremony without acknowledging he was there. Then she felt a tug on her hand, the one he had been clutching all along, and realized Han was so much a part of her she didn't need to.
Leading the way, Han zigged left, zagged right among a seemingly endless throng. It struck Leia that the orphaned boy who once ate a dinner centerpiece as salad had become a beloved and respected Jedi. Zekk had been a private man, a man of few words, but the assembled crowd demonstrated he had touched many lives.
"Excuse me" quickly changed to "Out of the way" and "Watch it" as Han fought forward. Everyone respected Jaina's space and made way for her and Jag before closing back, uniting in their sorrow. Her parents weren't so lucky.
Han wheeled suddenly, heading away from the main entrance. "I think we can catch them this way."
"The infirmary is on the other side of the hangar." They slipped out a side door, Leia hustling to match his stride.
"Yes, but that security detachment will slow them down. They'll have to stick to the larger corridors and lifts."
He had a point. Jag, as the head of the Moff Council, was now constantly tailed by an elite unit of stormtroopers. Imperial excess at its best. Jaina, self-reliant as she was, had been given no option to decline when Luke had placed two Jedi Knights with her at all times. Leia was unsure if the real concern was the death threats from Caedus loyalists, the sudden appearance of a twin-worshipping Yuuzhan Vong faction, or an impending emotional collapse that might wreak havoc in the Force.
Twisting through back corridors, they caught sight of the white trooper armor marked with a red stripe down the legs and arms at a junction point ahead.
"That's them," Han said.
They rounded the corner, catching the retinue sooner than expected. The troopers stood at the ready, one noting their approach with a slight shift of his grip on the rifle held across his chest. The pair of Jedi waited in a silent pose, their stare aimed away. In the middle, Jaina was bent over, a hand placed on her ribs.
Han shouldered his way between the troopers to reach Jaina's side. "Hey, kid."
"Hi, Dad." Jaina slowly straightened. The artificial light in the corridor illuminated her face within the hood. Her lips tried to smile while her eyes blinked back a pool of tears. "Just a little tired."
Han glanced over at Leia, and she tipped her head. Jaina wasn't just tired physically; she was tired of being cooped up, of having nothing to do but replay the last months in vivid detail.
"Okay then," Han said, putting on his very best sabacc face. "I guess my plan's out of the question. Maybe when you're not so tired - "
Still playing the worried father, Han looked from Jaina to Leia and back. "I just thought after all those rounds of Falcon Command you might like the real deal."
Jaina snagged Jag's hand. "Can we?"
"I cleared my whole afternoon, but if you're tired maybe you shouldn't push -"
"No. I'd love it."
Without another word the foursome changed course, heading toward the auxiliary bay where Han had been fixing the aging freighter for the past several days. The Jedi led silently, and the troopers took up the rear. The lead trooper - an enormous man who appeared to have missed his calling as a smashball lineman - marched at Jag's side.
When they reached the base of the Millennium Falcon's boarding ramp the commanding trooper kept right on marching, as though he intended to stalk up the ramp. Before he had taken more than a single stride, though, Han had him by the arm.
"Just one minute, buddy."
"We need to clear the ship, " the trooper responded in the typical filtered voice.
"You're not doing anything to my ship, pal," Han snarled, stepping in front of the burly man. "And didn't anyone teach you manners? Ever heard of asking a captain for permission to board his ship?"
The trooper's sudden trepidation came through in his reply. "Trooper Aitch-Endor-Lekku-Four-Aught-Five requests permission to come aboard, sir. "
Han crossed his arms.
The trooper turned to Jag. "Sir, I must protest the deviation from the schedule. "
As Jag approached the formidable trooper, Leia beckoned Han to accompany their daughter up the ramp. Once they were inside, she turned to the pair of Jedi. "I'm sure my brother won't mind leaving Jaina in our hands."
The human Jedi seemed willing to concede, but the Rodian Jedi Bak wasn't as convinced. He raised a green hand to his mouth and activated the comlink. "Let's ask him, then."
Leia tried to keep an ear on Jag's hushed discussion with the trooper while trying to ascertain the finer points of the Rodian's garbled Basic. She did a poor job of following either, so instead she took a deep breath and reminded herself of the reason they were here. Jaina needed this, and there was nothing that would stop Leia from doing what was best for her daughter. She held onto that thought as Bak handed her the comlink.
"What's going on, Leia? " Luke asked.
"Jaina just needs some time away from everything. A short trip out on the Falcon would do her good. Don't worry, Han, Jag, and I have everything under control."
"That's a good idea. Just give Bak the details so they can be waiting when you get back to the Healing Seas. "
"Not a problem. And thanks." Leia ended the transmission. She fished a datacard out of her pocket and handed it to Bak along with the comlink. "That should have everything."
No sooner had the pair of Jedi begun their bow of respect than Leia pivoted to check on Jag's progress. The squad of troopers was striding away, but the enormous one was staring down at her from Jag's side.
"He insists," Jag said apologetically.
"It's not worth the argument on a day like today." Leia started up the ramp. "Just stay out of the way, or my husband is likely to try out that fancy blaster he wears only on special occasions. Or I might use the Force to hurl you out the airlock. We can get protective that way." She led the trooper to a data station as far away from the cockpit as possible. "You're welcome to monitor things from here, if you like."
To his credit, the trooper was smart enough not to object.
Leia continued on toward the cockpit, a bit slower. "That could have gone better."
Jag matched her slow pace. "I handpicked the unit myself. There's nothing to worry about."
"I hope so. He's certainly not weak-minded enough to bother with a mind trick."
"He's big, but that's all he is. You could take him."
Leia frowned, suddenly worried today's plan was going to fall apart. "You're not suggesting I might have to?"
"Sorry. It was a joke. Just not a very good one." He stopped her with a slight touch to the shoulder. "Please, trust me?"
"It's not you I'm worried about, Jag. I'm just..." She shook the doubt away. "Never mind. This isn't about us."
The hum of warming engines reverberated through the floor. Their expressions brightened, and the two of them hurried toward the cockpit. There was something about the old freighter preparing for liftoff that always gave Leia a renewed burst of energy.
Leia and Jag ducked into the cockpit to see Jaina pound the console with her fist. "Dad, the high side port shield generator is showing a power fluctuation."
"Just a bad wire," Leia said simultaneously with her husband.
"Oh hey, Mom. I'll let you have your seat."
Leia gently pushed Jaina back into the co-pilot's seat before sitting behind Han. "You're the Falcon Command champion in the family. You earned it."
For just a moment an awkward pause filled the air, as if the ghosts of Jacen and Anakin had rushed in to dispute the point. Han exhaled loudly, banishing the memories to another moment, another day. "Want to take the old girl out?"
"Seriously." Han smiled. "She's all yours."
Jaina donned the headset and requested clearance while Jag strapped in behind her. Watching the small hands wrap around the controls and flip buttons, Leia couldn't help but remember a little brown-haired girl scampering into the Chief of State's office.
"Mom! Mom! Dad let me fly da Fawcon! "
"He did? "
"Just for a second. We weren't near anything she could hit. "
The strained features of Jaina's face gave way to the carefree abandon a Solo heart knew only when flying. Leia felt her daughter soar along with the rising ship.
"Beautiful," Jag whispered.
"Hey, it's not like I've forgotten how to fly," Jaina snapped.
Everyone else laughed, even harder when Jaina's expression dawned with the realization that Jag hadn't been admiring her flying skills.
"It's good to see the old Jaina," Han said with a grin.
Once they were clear of the Healing Seas, Jaina spiraled the freighter a couple times, then focused on maneuvering through the large fleet toward open space. Everyone enjoyed the comfortable whir and occasional growl of protest from the ship as it angled from side to side in one graceful move after another. When they were safely clear, she asked, "So what's the plan?"
"Just fly casual," Han pointed a little starboard of their vector. "There's an interesting gravitational anomaly I heard some A-wing pilots talking about."
The Falcon roared into the Mists, her pilot undaunted by the opaque cloud of stellar gases. The passengers were content to let Jaina become lost in the act of flying.
Until the distinctive sound of a filtered voice burst over the intercom. "Unidentified mark at heading one-one-aught."
"What the kriff?" Han bellowed. "Who let that hairless Wampa on my ship?"
"I did," Leia said. She settled her hand on Han's shoulder, squeezing it gently. "Jag vouched for him."
"Why the hell would he do something stupid like that?" Apparently her husband had forgotten that the offending party was sitting beside her.
"At least we know whose side the Wampa is on," Jaina remarked coolly, easing the ship in the direction of the unidentified vessel. "Right now I'm a little more concerned about our unexpected guest."
"Really, Jaina, perhaps it's best if we call this one -" The Falcon accelerated abruptly, slamming Han back in the pilot's seat. "-iiiinn. "
Their daughter looked determined. "We'll check it out first. I insist."
Ionized particles swirled among stellar gases, obscuring the target, but Jaina flew on instinct. Proximity alarms wailed, announcing an impending crash, just as the bulk of a gleaming silver craft erupted from the Mists. The hailing channel squawked. An instant later the ship vanished beyond the viewport when the Falcon twirled up and away.
"You better get that," Leia said, pointing over Han's shoulder toward the flashing light.
He slapped on the pilot's headset. Han barely had acknowledged the hail when a voice barked so loud its muffled anger was audible to everyone in the cockpit. Whirling his finger in a silent instruction for Jaina to reverse course and close on the other ship, he replied blandly, "Acknowledged. Next time, try saying that to my face."
All eyes were trained on Han as he closed the feed.
"Do you know who that is, Dad?"
Leia cleared her throat. Han replied, "Let's just say your little flyby didn't do much to help Jag's cause."
The silver craft once again burst from the ever-shifting gases, but Jaina's eyes were glaring at her father. "What kind of an answer is that?"
The Falcon decelerated, pivoting to starboard on her axis. Even Han seemed a bit alarmed by their approach vector. "That ship is carrying a Chiss ambassador. The one they sent to meet with the new leader of the Imperial Moff Council. So do Jag a favor and don't hit it."
Jaina reversed thrusters sharply, feathering the maneuvering jets. The freighter slipped within a meter of the other craft. With practiced ease the docking rings aligned. In a matter of minutes the two ships were beginning to equalize atmospheres.
No one had said a word the whole time. Finally Jaina turned away from the console. "Why am I starting to get the feeling the arrival of this ambassador wasn't a coincidence?"
"Good question." Han unbuckled his crash harness and rose. "Well, I'd better go see to our guests." He offered Leia a hand, then gave Jag a somber look. "Good luck, kid."
Hurrying toward the docking ring, Leia almost felt sorry for the young man. Leaving him to deal with Jaina alone probably hadn't been fair. "Remember this is the Chiss ambassador you're speaking to, Han."
"I can remember a lot of things about this guy. Not one of them suggests he'd make a good diplomat -"
They arrived to find the Imperial trooper preparing to open the airlock. "Wait here until I report clear, sir. "
Han threw his hands up in mock despair. "Do I get to make any decisions around here?"
A few impatient heartbeats later, the trooper stuck his head back through the hatch. "All clear. Permission to come aboard. "
Han charged into the airlock. "Thanks for nothing."
Leia followed and emerged into a vat of testosterone. Han hadn't been this charged with dominant male aggression since... She pushed that thought aside quickly.
"What kind of foolish, hairbrained stunt was that back there, Solo?"
"Jealous because you don't have the skills to match it, Fel?"
"Oh, I do. With one eye and one hand tied behind my back."
Just when Leia figured she'd better put an end to the machismo before fisticuffs broke out, a tall blonde stepped forward. "Han Solo," she purred, all liquid charm, "you've aged better than a fine Corellian brandy."
Her aura demanded both men take notice, and a blissful silence graced the small receiving foyer. Seamlessly Syal Antilles Fel shifted from charming beauty to a mother who understood the loss of a child all too well. "Leia, I am so sorry."
The two women embraced. For a moment they shared sorrow and found comfort in each other's pain. Then they separated, and the past was pushed aside in favor of the future.
Syal glanced at the docking portal, then back to Leia. "Where is Jaina?"
"Right behind me." Jag stepped through the threshold, leading Jaina by the hand. He guided her to Leia's side and let go.
Wrapping her fingers into Leia's robes, Jaina watched Jag reunite with his parents in fierce hugs. Leia studied Jaina in turn. She had removed her robe, and the simple brown tunic seemed to swallow her. She kept her scarred cheek turned slightly away, and swept back behind an ear a stray lock, one that had slipped out of the bun meant to conceal all the damage to her hair. Jaina had stood toe to toe with the likes of Alema Rar, Boba Fett, even a Dark Lord of the Sith - yet her hand trembled visibly performing the simplest of acts. And why not? Jaina had prepared, trained, sweated blood for all those momentous events. This was something she'd let herself believe might never happen - certainly not any time soon.
Jag wrestled himself away from his proud parents and retreated to Jaina's side. "Mother, Father, may I present Jaina Solo."
Syal would have nothing of formality. She scooped Leia's shell-shocked daughter into her arms, kissing Jaina's forehead. Instantly Leia knew this had been the right choice, even as Jaina returned the sentiment reluctantly. Syal finally pulled back. She cupped Jaina's cheeks gently within her palms. "Isn't she beautiful, 'Tir?"
"Jag's messages haven't done her justice," the burly man replied. Jaina's expression softened, and everyone else's shoulders dropped a centimeter or two. Soontir reached over and keyed a control panel. "Come on out, child."
Syal brushed Jaina's arm as she turned to face the narrow corridor jutting out of the docking foyer. "She's been eager to finally -" A long-legged blonde bounded into the room and leapt into Jag's arms "- meet you."
"Jag! I can't believe we're here." Wyn bounced from his embrace. "Sorry, where are my manners. I'm Wyn. You must be Jaina."
"Can I give you a hug?"
Jaina tried to smile. "Uh... sure."
Her lack of enthusiasm didn't stifle the taller blonde's heartfelt embrace. Abruptly Wyn pulled away. Her eyes were fixed on the towering trooper, who had snuck into the foyer during the commotion and now stood at attention at the airlock door. Then, equally abruptly, she laughed. "You look ridiculous."
"Uh... Thanks? "
"Behave, you two." Soontir motioned the trooper forward, until he had the soldier on his right and Wyn on his left. When Soontir gave a nod, the trooper tugged off his helmet, revealing a chiseled face marked with the lineage tattoos typical of the humans on Gandeal, a planet that had long been part of the Remnant. But there was something familiar about his sparkling blue eyes...
"I suppose Wyn has already managed to introduce herself," Soontir said. "So allow me to present Cem Fel, my son."
Leia had to focus to keep her mouth from flapping open. Not that anyone would have noticed; Han was projecting enough shock for the whole room. He shook his head in consternation. "You got this one exiled too, Fel? One for the Alliance, one for the Remnant. How... convenient. "
Wincing, Leia put a hand on her husband's arm. For good measure, she shot Jag a beseeching look. "I'm sure there is a reasonable explanation."
Soontir stepped forward. "No, Solo, I'm afraid only the one son had the good fortune of being banned from Chiss space and denied the right to come home to his family."
Jag tried, but he was too late. The accusations flew between the two stubborn Corellian aces like a dogfight of deadly laserfire. The more Jag tried to intervene, the louder they got. Leia and Syal shared a helpless glance, forever bonded in a profound understanding of the concept of futility.
In the end, it wasn't Jag who silenced them.
"I'm sorry." Jaina rarely raised her voice, but there was always a conviction behind her words that demanded they be heard. She stood with feet apart, hands out from her sides, unafraid to accept the pain her choices had caused. "I understand if you never forgive me for the wrong I did to your family. I hope someday I can find a way to repay you."
Jag rushed over to her, but his eyes remained fixed on the old Academy foes. "We are not going to discuss that. Certainly not right now. Father, we both know I would make the same decisions again. Han, I can assure you my exile is as real as it gets."
The truth of Jag's painful isolation from his family was palpable. Still, Leia knew the Fels hadn't been entirely forthcoming. "Yet your father is here to meet with you as an official representative of the very government that banished you."
Baron Fel crossed his arms. "The Chiss aren't much different from any other species. They value power. Thanks to the generosity of your brother, Jag has unwittingly become one of the most powerful men in the Remnant - a job, by the way, I wouldn't have wished on my worst enemy. Accordingly, the Ascendancy has begun to reconsider whether their official position toward my son is... wise."
"Do you mean Jag can go back?" Jaina's voice was a mix of excited relief and expectant apprehension.
Cem leaned into the conversation. "My brother defeated Alema Rar and has fought valiantly to end the chaos threatening our galaxy. He will undoubtedly be declared a hero upon his return."
"By some, yes. Not by others." Syal sighed. "I fear the politics of the Chiss would take months for us to explain, and would lead to nothing but terminal boredom for all involved. Can we spend what little time we have celebrating what brought our families together?"
Leia smiled. "I think we would all like that."
Syal smiled back. "Perfect. We can't carry a lot of fresh provisions on the Starflare, but I've taken the liberty of preparing a meal."
At the promise of food, everyone inhaled.
"Endwa stew," Jaina said.
"Jag's favorite," Syal confirmed.
Jaina grinned. "My dad's, too."
The food was indeed excellent, and for the next hour they reveled in the simple joy of family. The Fels laughed and teased one another with the same dry wit many in the Alliance had a hard time understanding from Jag. Deep down, Jag really was that man who had taken the liberty of slouching in Han Solo's chair. Jag and his siblings draped themselves over each other, hugged and wrestled playfully in between assisting their mother and father with the meal.
Jaina sat across from Leia, between her father and Jag. She seemed to quietly relish the relaxed atmosphere, but occasionally her eyes would lower, staying that way for a few seconds.
"Do you need to rest?" Leia asked her daughter softly while the friendly banter continued among the others.
"I'm fine." Jaina forced a smile. "Plenty of time for that in my bacta dip."
"Really, Mom. This is... nice." This time the smile was genuine.
"I would have to agree," Soontir proclaimed from the end of the table. Leia and Jaina found that all eyes were upon them. He rose and rifled through the galley cupboards, ending with a handful of tumblers and an etched bottle of dark amber liquid. "I'd like to propose a toast."
Soon all the tumblers were filled and glasses were raised. "To family," Soontir said, and downed a large swallow. Sharply exhaled breaths and coughing echoed from around the table.
"I gotta hand it to you, Fel. You brought the homeland's finest." Han held his drink up. "To Corellia."
This time their throats were partially numb and the shock of the burning beverage didn't register quite as much.
Jaina offered a toast next. "To our dear friend Zekk."
"To Zekk," Jag affirmed. He chugged a mouthful, finishing off his tumbler. He picked up his glass and Jaina's also. "I think that's enough, for both of us."
Everyone else groaned.
Cem rose, gathering his plate and utensils. "Technically, I'm on duty anyway."
With a sigh, Wyn followed him to the galley sink. "So am I."
Slowly, Jaina picked up her plate as Cem and Wyn made their way from the room. "I suppose the two actual politicians here need some private time to discuss business."
Jag stayed her with a hand on her forearm. "There are no secrets today."
She arched an eyebrow. "And Ewoks can fly."
"Lieutenant Kettch would be offended," Jag said.
Jaina looked pointedly from Jag to her mother and finally her father. "Apparently, in my current indisposed state, I'm gullible enough to fall for something like that."
"Father?" Jag implored Soontir.
"Yes, on to business. No more secrets." The Baron cleared his throat. "High Councilor Jagged Fel of the Imperial Moff Council, it is my honor to extend an invitation to you on behalf of the Chiss Ascendency."
"For the purpose of?"
"Restoring cooperation between the Chiss and the Empire, for the mutual benefit of all our peoples."
"I accept. My staff will begin negotiations for the particulars as soon as I return to the fleet."
No sooner had Jag and his father grasped forearms in a gesture of agreement than a sharp burst of heat emanated from Jaina's aura.
"That's it?" She stared at them, incredulous. "You expect me to believe they sent you all the way here for that?"
"No, the business could have all been done by communiqu?," Soontir said matter-of-factly. "I came to see my son."
Syal, who had been silently scrutinizing the discussion, pivoted in her seat to face Jaina directly. "The truth is that we came because Jag asked. Because he needs our help."
"Oh." Jaina's scowl faded. "So you're staying?"
Soontir glanced at his wristchrono. "Actually, our departure window is closing rapidly."
Syal and Leia exchanged a silent agreement before the blonde met Jaina's curious gaze. "Jaina, we'd like you to come home with us."
Jaina said nothing. She didn't even blink. She simply turned her head, her brown eyes drilling into Jag's green ones. Everything on the table vibrated and shifted. Syal's eyes widened, returning to normal just as quickly. Doubt flickered in Leia's mind; perhaps this had been a mistake. Sending Jaina off to a world with no Jedi, no one familiar, nothing to do.
But there wouldn't be a constant barrage of pitying eyes everywhere Jaina went. Or the smothering presence of Luke in the convalescence suite. He was trying to do the right thing, things he hadn't done for Jacen, but somehow Leia knew it was all too raw. Painful emotions threatened to savage Luke's and Jaina's delicate relationship if he pushed too hard. Knowing him, he would. And then there was the pressure from many circles to make Jaina a Jedi Master. Promoted for killing her own brother? Just hearing the idea might fracture her psyche irreparably.
Suddenly, Jaina was on her feet. Jag tried to take her hand, but she slapped his away. "Don't." Anger radiated in her glare. "I will not be maneuvered like some weak helpless fool."
"We're not maneuvering you, Jaina." Jag rose. "The weeks ahead are going to be daunting. Ceaseless negotiations. Fleet repairs. Endless work days."
"Don't mind me. I'll just be floating around in a bacta tank, whenever one becomes available."
"That's just it. You won't have to wait on Csilla. They have the resources to -"
"Have you gone mad? I'm not putting my fate in the hands of some kriffing Chiss!"
And that was the tipping point. The Chiss had been Jaina's enemy not more than a few years before; they had pitted Jaina against Jag. It would require an extreme act of faith for her to accept this plan. One she wasn't ready to give.
Jaina turned on her heel and stalked from the room.
Jag went after her. Leia caught him in a couple steps. "Wait."
"I have to do this, Leia."
"Yes, you do. But you need to tell her the whole truth."
"What more is there to say? This is the best option for Jaina's recovery." His face bore the weight of Jag's existence. Unending burden. Exhaustion. Desperation.
"And yours, Jag. She would do anything for you."
He wiped his palm across his face, and the battle-weary man had been replaced by the determined Jagged Fel everyone knew. "I know."
"Go." Leia sent him away with a wave of her hand. By the time she returned to the table, Leia barely had the strength to stand, and she practically flopped into the seat beside Han.
He patted her hand. "That went better than expected."
"Better?" Soontir huffed.
Han met his stare. "She'll go because she has nothing better to do. Well, let me rephrase that. She's too much her father's daughter. She's just lost her brother; she doesn't know what else to do."
Soontir didn't appear reassured. "Please know we will protect Jaina like one of our own. Her care will be the finest the Chiss have available."
"Correction," Syal smiled. "Jaina will be one of our own. I know it's not official, but as far as we're concerned, Jaina is part of this family. Is there anything else we should know?"
Han fished a datacard from his pocket. "Everything you need is here."
Soontir accepted it. "Encrypted, I assume."
Han winked. "Fire up that rusty brain of yours, you might even figure out the encryption key by the third guess."
"Give her some space," Leia said to Syal. "Even when she looks like she'll break, you have to let Jaina come to you. It will go against all your instincts as a mother."
Syal tipped her head appreciatively. "I'll do my best."
"That means no morning hugs, lunchtime cheek squeezes, or bedtime kisses, dear," Soontir chuckled.
Blushing, Syal crossed her arms in mock defiance. Han and Leia tried to offer more advice, but it just seemed all convoluted. Jaina was Jaina. What more was there to say?
Han thrust his finger up in the air. "Her hands. Give her something to do with her hands. She's always been the first one to jump in when things needed fixing."
Soontir stroked his black goatee. "Come to think of it, the garbage compressor could use a few good turns of the hydrospanner."
"No, that's good," Han countered. "Something like that is exactly what she needs to be doing."
"Anything besides malfunctioning household appliances you want to add to that list?" At the sound of Jaina's voice, everyone spun in their seats. Jaina stood side by side with Jag, holding his hand so tightly the whites of her knuckles showed. She smiled meekly. "So where do I stow my gear?"
Scrutinizing her latest project, Syal faltered. She pondered the alternatives, eliminating each in rapid succession before an idea struck her. "How about snipping me a couple of the burning jasmine?"
Jaina turned, her shoulder-length ringlets floating gracefully, and scanned the hothouse's rows. Her expression was serious, more suited to a dogfight, until her eyes honed in on a particular row. Pride burst on her face, and Syal's own rose inside - until Jaina walked right past the burning jasmine.
"I'm wrong." Jaina stopped. "Why is this so difficult?"
"Because it's not a malfunctioning starfighter." Syal chuckled, pointing in the correct direction. "The red and yellow buds."
"No, think burning star."
The younger woman had been a good sport about Syal's guidance. Jaina liked to call it IEBC - Imperial Etiquette Boot Camp. In fact, the determined fervor of her approach spoke to Syal of how important this information was to Jaina. Yet no matter how much she wanted to learn the intricacies of the Imperial court, flower arrangement seemed one step too far even for a Jedi's legendary patience. As if to emphasize the point, upon finding the correct flower and snipping it from the vine, Jaina absentmindedly wiped the stem sap on her dress.
Realizing what she had done, she blushed. "You really should have let me borrow some of Jag's coveralls from the hangar."
Syal beckoned her over. "Lesson number thirteen, always remember you're -"
"- a lady." Jaina glanced down at the shimmering smudge on the green icecotton daydress. "I'll try."
"What's that famous Jedi saying?"
"Do or do not -" Jaina studied the arrangement of flowers between them, then stuck the burning jasmine into the vase. "- there is no try."
Syal noted the perfection of the arrangement and grinned. "Well done."
"At least something is sticking." Jaina tipped her head appreciatively. "So what's next? The kitchen for some cooking? The study to discuss Chiss politics?"
"Actually, we have a few more arrangements to prepare. It's the solstice holiday tomorrow, and Soontir will be returning home from the capital for the day. He really likes fresh flowers." In truth, it wasn't just her husband who was returning, and somehow Syal had been tasked with keeping Jaina oblivious. It had proven harder than expected, but Wynssa Starflare was an accomplished actress and always up to the challenge. Facing a Jedi, she banished all thoughts of their expected company from her mind. Just in case. Fiddling with the arrangement, she adjusted her teaching plan. "Why don't we skip learning more varieties and just focus on making something beautiful for one of the rooms. Your pick."
"Oh-kay." Jaina accepted the vase Syal offered her, then wandered down two rows to begin. "Have you heard anything more from the diplomatic liaison's office about Jag's visit?"
Syal's shears slipped, and she missed the stem she'd meant to cut. "The Imperial flagship is expected in Tanoth today. There are at least two other Remnant worlds on the tour to the Unknown Regions. I'm sure Jag is moving the process along as quickly as possible."
"I don't doubt that. Sounds like he has things more stable now. He actually had time to manage more than a brief hello in his last message."
"You realize it will be a little hectic once the formal talks begin. Dealing with Nine Ruling Families can be quite demanding."
"I'm getting that from our Chiss history lessons." Jaina disappeared into a large-leafed bush. "But when you get down to it, only two families hold all the cards. Jag will have them sorted out in no time."
Syal scrunched her nose. Her student was a bit too astute for her own good. "I just want you to be realistic about your expectations."
"Honestly, after the past few years, I don't have many."
"He's a Fel. I hope you have a few."
"That didn't come out right." Jaina erupted from behind a variegated leaf. "I just want to be with him. Everything else is just icing on the ryshcate. Does that make sense?"
"I think it does." Syal was beginning to feel guilty for her part in today's plan. It felt more like a form of torture. She remembered Soontir's stern reprimand: "It's just torture to keep your excitement contained. Remember there is a slim possibility their plan won't work. " Syal bit down her resolve. She refused to disappoint the men in her life, even if that meant keeping her secret for a little bit -
Glass shattered. Jaina's face matched the color of the white sword lilies in her hand. Her eyes were focused on something unseen.
"Child, are you all right?"
The black void in Jaina's eyes dissolved back to a warm brandy. "Blast! I thought I had at least until tonight."
With that, Jaina dashed off.
"Well, Wynssa Starflare," Syal muttered, "it appears you need to brush up on those acting skills." She hustled out of the hothouse, through the kitchen, toward the foyer - where she was met with a blast of arctic air. Grabbing two coats from the rack, she slipped out the wide-open front door. "That girl is going to catch a chill."
Donning her coat, Syal paused at the top of the stairs. At the end of the stone path leading to the arrival port, Jaina was flinging herself into the arms of the man who stepped from the speeder. Jag dropped his bag just in time to catch her, but his balance was hopelessly lost. They ended in an undignified heap in the snow, and Syal thought perhaps it might just melt around them. Jaina kissed Jag unabashedly. He would have kept kissing if not for the stark woman who emerged from the speeder behind him.
The woman straightened her Imperial uniform, smoothed a stray hair back into her strict bun, and cleared her throat. "Sir, I must insist."
"You would," Jag growled.
Syal decided to avoid a trip out into the flurries, and instead called down to them. "Get our guest out of the cold, Jagged Fel."
Her son snapped out of his euphoria. Scrambling to his feet, he swept Jaina into his arms, hustled up the path, and then bounded up the steps two at a time. Meanwhile the Imperial woman tapped on the speeder's roof, and it whisked away. She picked up Jag's bag and joined them in the foyer.
Jag placed his lips to Jaina's once more. He let them linger before finally placing her feet back on the floor. For a second, Syal almost thought Jaina floated when his supporting arm dropped away. She blinked, and decided it was just her aging eyes playing tricks on her.
Jag brushed a few flakes from Jaina's hair, his green eyes blazing mischievously. "You can place the bag in the study, Miss Starwind. That will be all, for now."
The bag flew across the room. A swipe of Jaina's hand deflected it harmlessly away from Jag, and it thumped to the floor just short of the wall.
Starwind snorted. "Damn right that will be all, Jag." She plucked out two pins and the bun cascaded down to reveal sandy brown locks. Her spectacles came off and her other hand unbuttoned her uniform collar.
Finally, a half-recognizable face appeared before Syal. "Well played, Wyn."
"I learned from the best." She stepped forward and hugged her mother. "Although keeping His Majesty's butt in line sorely tests even my acting skills."
"I suppose your brother agrees."
"Who knows. Cem gets to do all the fun stuff. Like fly and drive. He's pulling the speeder around. It'll take him a while to clear the property; you can ask him when he gets back."
"Tell him not to bother." Apparently her hushed whispering with Jag hadn't kept Jaina from listening to the other conversation in the room. When Wyn offered her a blank stare, she touched her temple. "Jedi, remember? There isn't a living sentient within kilometers of the estate."
"That's probably correct in this weather," Wyn agreed, "but there are plenty of other ways to keep track of your foes here."
Jaina smiled innocently. "You mean long range holocams, heat-activated motion detectors, sound recorders, and digital transmission intercept tracking?"
Jag raised a brow. "Please tell me you didn't."
"Found the last one yesterday."
Syal refused to allow the shock she felt register on her face. She knew Jaina was a highly skilled Jedi, but she honestly had no clue how the young woman had managed to find time to hunt intelligence devices - on multiple occasions, no less. Wyn looked like she was about to express the same frustration when Jag interceded.
"We'll discuss what Jaina found later. And how she managed to find it."
Wyn brought a comlink to her mouth. "But Cem -"
"Could use the practice."
"Right." Wyn's shoulders lowered and she pocketed the comlink.
Syal took her daughter by the elbow. "I'm sure you two would like some time to catch up."
Jaina clutched his arm. "Actually, Jag would like to be fed."
"Jedi mindreading?" Syal wondered aloud.
"Not quite." Jaina paused and a gurgling melody drifted from Jag's midsection. "Just regular hearing, I'm afraid." They all laughed, except Jag. "He'll need his energy for later."
Jag had avoided blushing at her first tease, but this one proved more than his pride could manage. His shocking white scar stood out against his fiery red face. "Jaina, that's my mother."
Jaina winked at Syal. "Yes, I'm sure you're a child born purely of the Force like my grandfather."
He opened his mouth and shut it just as quickly. Wyn chuckled. "Not one Moff has broken his composure, yet you manage to knock him down and leave him speechless in under five minutes. You and I are going to get along just fine. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get out of this disgustingly dreary get-up."
Left alone with the eager couple, Syal spoke just to end the awkward silence. "I'm happy to make you a snack, dear. But no one will think it rude if you disappear."
Jaina tugged on Jag. "No, you two talk. I'll make the snack."
She led the way into the dining area, shoved Jag into a chair, and scurried off to the kitchen. Which left Jag to gaze up at Syal. He shot out of his chair. "I'm sorry. I haven't greeted you like a proper son."
She accepted his hug greedily. "No harm done. She is the woman in your life now."
They sat on either side of the table's corner, watching Jaina as she rifled through the food chiller. He smiled. "She looks great. Even happy."
"She's had moments, but I've tried very hard to heed Leia's advice. Let her deal with things in her own way and time."
Jag placed his hand atop hers. "No one expected a miracle, but her face, it's as good as new. And her hair, and a dress?"
"The Chiss surgeons can take credit for the facial reconstruction, but the hair is an old holostar's trade secret." Jaina was scanning the cupboards, and Syal was about to remind her where the plates were when the young woman reached toward the correct door. "The dress, that's as much Jaina's doing. She could have dug in and insisted I get her a few drab tunics when I presented the first one."
"There's more than one dress?"
"Six, actually." Syal leaned closer. "But don't fool yourself. There's still a lightsaber hidden beneath under all that luxury. Jaina is a warrior. She's just fighting a different battle; this time for you."
"But she's got me, mind, body and soul."
"And she's set her heart on giving you the princess a head of state deserves."
"I don't need -" Beeping from the heating unit interrupted him.
"Let her do this, Jag."
"She's perfect the way she is."
"You remind me so much of your father." Syal leaned back into her seat, sighing wistfully. "It's a good thing you're here, though. If this is Jaina at seventy-five percent health - which is what the Chiss doctors claim - she'd give me a heart attack at full speed. As it is I could use a day in bed myself just to recuperate."
Jag leaned back as well. "I'm glad I chose to listen to Leia back on the Starflare."
"Do you know how long it's been since I actually groveled? To anyone? But until I begged Jaina on my knees to come with you and Father, I hadn't realized how important this was to me."
"You asked her to do it for you?"
"Do what?" Jaina asked, entering the room.
He gave a knowing smile that only Syal could see, then surveyed the plate of meats, cheeses, and fruit Jaina placed on the table. "Looks delicious."
"There'll be no clever redirection today, High Councilor. Tell me now or tell me later when I tickle it out of you."
"That's quite the conundrum." Jag popped a sliced juri fruit into his mouth. "After deep reflection, I choose tickling, later."
"Food!" said two voices simultaneously. Cem and Wyn burst into the room from opposite sides. They plopped into chairs, snatching food from the plate.
Jaina settled softly into the seat beside Jag. Her bearing was ladylike, almost regal. Probably a perfect imitation of Princess Leia of Alderaan. "They act like Rebels."
Cem swallowed. "Me? I thought you were the Rebel."
Jaina faced him. "Didn't anyone teach you rule number fifty-nine?"
"Fifty-nine?" His tattooed face contorted in thought. "There's no rule number fifty-nine."
Syal shared a conspiratorial wink with Jaina. "Of course there is, son."
"Don't forget, Cem, you're a man. We could never expect you to count that high," Wyn added with a giggle.
"Don't worry, little brother." Jag rose. "I'll tickle it out of her later."
Jaina glanced at his proffered hand, arching an eyebrow. "Finish eating, Jag."
"Who?" Wyn asked. "The Fel cyborg that lives on air and zero sleep?"
"If you ate, little brother -" Cem bit down on a hunk of cheese. "- you oodn't ee oh scrawny."
Jag remained straight-faced. "I can still take you."
"Then how come I got two guards in engineering and you only got one?"
"Because I'm the smart one."
"Wait," Jaina and Syal said together. They giggled and looked at each other. Then Jaina finished, "What guards?"
Wyn threw up her hands. "Oh no. Don't get them started. I've had to listen to these two beat their chests and shout victory howls the whole way here in that rodent-trap of a ship."
"Perfectly executed, Wyn." Jag.
"We were awesome." Cem.
"Oh, they were Rebels all right." Wyn rolled her eyes. "Rigged the hyperspace drive to drop a coolant cell in mid-jump while we were hiding in a bucket of bolts underneath the Fist of Bastion. Coincidently, High Councilor Fel here had made a point of reviewing and altering poor Captain Kolaf's protocols - "
"Including the trash release schedule," Jaina finished. "So where exactly is the Fist now, Jag?"
"Limping toward the only planet in the sector with the capability of fixing a COP-2209 second gen hyperdrive."
"In other words, here. So you think you'll just get a couple free days. That no one is going to make a stir over the fact that you're missing?"
Jag smirked. "If you were Captain Kolaf, would you admit to the Moff Council that you lost their newly appointed leader?"
"Two days is long enough for them to plan your funeral."
Jaina's eyes hardened. "It's not about trusting you."
Wyn had made her way around the table. She stood a head taller than Jaina and engulfed her in a hug. "Trust the Fels. By the way, it's good to have you here."
Syal smiled; her daughter always had a knack for diffusing a situation. Wyn peered over Jaina's shoulder at her mother and winked. When she stepped back, Wyn feigned seriousness. "Speaking of my brothers playing Imperials and Rebels, Cem's got a nasty gash on the back of his head."
Given the opening, Syal focused her attention on her youngest son. Between her and Wyn, they managed to dote on him until he submitted to their ministrations. When Syal looked back, Jag and Jaina were gone. She had known he would have whisked his lover away, but some part of her mother's heart missed him dearly.
"Mom... don't cry," Cem's voice said from beneath the watery haze of her vision. "It's just a flesh wound."
She wiped the back of her hand over her eyes. "Shush. Let your mother take care of this."
The warm glow of sunshine permeated Jaina's consciousness, beckoning her from the blissful peace of sleep. Some part of her mind wanted to greet the new day, but her body simply refused to heed the morning's call. She couldn't recall the last time she had truly slept like this. Life - survival - seemed as though it had been a waking daze from one restless slumber to the next. Lately she had endured the comparatively tolerable thoughtless voids of healing trances. Brief moments of sleep, when it came, usually had ended in the breathless rush of horrific nightmares.
But this was different somehow. She had dreamt the most wonderful dreams. Jag had come to her, held her in his arms. Kissed her in every way imaginable, then a few ways that until last night had been unimaginable.
Reality struck like a lightning bolt. Her eyes popped open, and rays of sunshine blinded her. She blinked, then squeezed her eyes shut tight. She couldn't bear to find out this really was all a dream. Slowly, she allowed her eyelids to drift apart. She gazed at the unfamiliar white bedsheet before letting her eyes drift further and further away.
Jag's handsome face was exactly where her heart hoped it would be.
Jaina remained utterly still, amazed. She was awake, and her lover slept peacefully at her side. In all the years Jaina had been with Jag, she had never seen his expression so unguarded. There had been nights on Borleias she would lay awake, still as only a Jedi could be, for fear of waking him. When she had stirred, so had he. Always. In time she had accepted that was simply who he was, and learned to appreciate the soft whispers his restlessness could afford when sleep had eluded her.
Now, he displayed a serenity she had thought might elude his warrior's heart forever.
This moment was a rare gift, and Jaina cherished it. The strength of his chiseled jawline. The tousled waywardness of his jet black hair. The tantalizing history of the scar that chased from his hairline down to his right brow. The calm in his infinite heart. The fingertips that told her body how endless his love truly was. The seductive set of his parted lips... and the endearing rumble of a soft snore.
He'd never snored before. When did that start?
Stifling a grin, Jaina recalled a time long ago when she had discovered the first man in her life snored. He had been everything a girl could have wanted. Strong, wild, giving. He had loved her beyond compare. The perfect measure of a man, Han Solo, snored. A vivid memory slammed into her like a wave - she, Jacen, and Anakin clambering into her parents' bed in fear of a terrifying thunderstorm, then giggling in delight when they discovered the secret of their father's noisy slumber. Three happy children cuddled between their parents, safe and secure in the knowledge no one could be scared of thunder if their father snored louder. A man so perfect even his imperfections could make her love him all the more.
The waves of remembrance threatened to pull her under, as they often did, but Jaina focused on the strength of the man beside her and reminded herself she was not alone. A hope she had kept buried in her mind, locked away deep within, tapped its foot impatiently. A wish for a future in which she and Jag would be sheltering their own children from the boisterous explosions that were nothing more than clouds making noise along with the rain.
As the emotional pain ebbed, her newly healed ribs began to protest being immobile so long in one position. Slowly, hoping not to disturb her bedmate, she slipped from underneath the covers. Jag didn't offer even a tiny flinch, so she took a minute to study her surroundings. The walls were green - a strong, forest green - and unadorned. The furniture was practical, yet well-crafted from a luxurious Corellian wood. A matching desk, armoire, and chest stood at attention along the far wall. The only sign that this had ever been a young man's room was a model of a blue-tipped clawcraft hanging from invisible wires in one corner. Every cubic centimeter resonated with Jag's presence.
Shivering from the perpetual cold outside that constantly drained the estate's interior heat, Jaina decided clothes might be a good idea. Amid a trail of discarded garments that led inward from the door, she spotted a familiar green sleeve. With an outstretched hand, she summoned the daydress and wriggled into it. Extending her senses out across the upper floor, she felt the presences of Syal, Wyn, and Cem all soundly sleeping in their bedrooms. Yes, it would be safe to slip down to the kitchen to grab Jag a strong cup of caf and his favorite pastry, which Syal had taught her to make, before he woke.
She tiptoed down the stairs, rounded the corner, and yelped.
The Fel protocol droid froze in place, its optical sensors increasing their illumination. "I apologize, Mistress Solo, for causing you alarm."
"No worries, Efnine."
Jaina tipped her head and continued toward the kitchen. On her way to the pantry she carefully avoided the two floorboards that squeaked. Retrieving the pastries, Jaina snagged a quick bite and crossed to the cafmaker, only to realize the pot was missing. It was never out of place. She froze, her heart thundering. As her fingers spread, itching to call to her lightsaber, a voice rumbled from the darkness of the dining area.
"It's in here."
Recognizing the voice, Jaina compelled her body to relax. "You're home, General."
Soontir Fel sat at the end of the table, the dim illumination of a portable workstation highlighting his features. The brow over his good eye arched. "I'm not at work. Why don't we dispense with the formalities?"
Jaina remained in place, partially obscured in the recess of the kitchen. "All right. What would you prefer?"
The chandelier buzzed to life. "Why don't you join me and we'll discuss it."
"Maybe after I take this up to Jag." Jaina sunk deeper into the unlit kitchen, easing toward an escape.
"What about the caf?"
"I'll just grab some juice."
"Shall I make it an order, then?" Every ounce of Soontir Fel's words dripped with authority. Jaina crept back toward the dining area and drifted across the threshold. A chair had been pulled out next to his position at the head of the table. "Have a seat."
Slinking into the chair, Jaina could feel his eye appraising her tangled hair, her bruised lips, and the abrasion on the side of her chin from Jag's scratchy beard. Then she remembered rule number thirteen and straightened her spine, her palms crossing in her lap. She smiled. "I suppose Baron is too formal. Shall it be Mister Fel, or Soontir, or simply Sir?"
He tried very hard not to smile. "Whatever makes you comfortable, Jaina."
"Then I'll stick with General." When his eye dimmed, she added, "Just until I figure out something suitable to us both."
"You do realize I'm not on active service."
"Once a commanding officer, always a commanding officer."
"Your last rank was a command, as I recall. Yet you don't consider yourself an officer."
"That surprises you."
"Well, you do have a reputation for being... headstrong."
"I've never really understood why that is," she said. When Soontir hesitated to reply, Jaina continued, "I've been doing as I was ordered for as long as I can remember. From the Force, from the Jedi, from the Alliance. You don't get to be a Rogue at sixteen just because you're good. I followed orders. Honestly, it went back long before that. On my father's ship there was only one captain; I did as I was told." She affected an imitation of her father. "There's no room for discussion in the middle of a furball. "
Memory erased years from the General's face. "Instructor Inraj. The good old Academy days."
"Dad could take an order, too, even if most people have forgotten he was ever anything but a smuggler."
"He knew how to take an order, and he knew how to get a rise out of me." Soontir leaned forward. "Just between you and me, I know your father is a good man."
"I know. He's the man who bested you."
"Once," Soontir insisted. "In the end it came down to a single final score. But that was also one of the most valuable lessons of my life. One that I don't regret learning. It's kept Jag alive on more than one occasion."
"Losing is never an option." At least they had some common ground to work from. But Jaina could still sense the protective shield the Fel patriarch had erected. That dreaded unspoken answer from earlier. "So... do you want to talk about it?"
"It? Supply Depot Thrago?"
"All of my actions -" Jaina glanced down. "- and their repercussions to your family."
"We really don't -"
"We really do. And I'd rather cut to the power cables. I'm not na?ve enough to think everyone can just move on like nothing ever happened. I want a chance to explain."
"Then pour yourself some caf, and fire away."
She stood slowly and retrieved a mug from the kitchen. When she returned Soontir had finished refreshing his caf and poured her some. Jaina inhaled deeply, then started from the beginning. Without impatience or interruption, Soontir listened quietly to her account of the events that transpired from the weeks before Lowbacca's parole to Jacen's fateful betrayal at the Chiss station. She didn't try to paint her actions as anything but what they were.
There was only one thing to say when she finished. "I'm sorry that my choices resulted in pain for your family. Most especially for Jag."
"He never promised me or anyone else you would uphold Lowbacca's condition of parole, you know."
She shook her head. "We don't talk about it. When the Alema Rar task force was first formed, he was still angry. And we stayed busy focusing on finding her. Later, by the time Jag finally got her, what little time we did have..."
He cleared his throat into the silence. "I can recall being in love and young once upon a time."
"As you see it, your failing was trusting your brother about the supply depot."
"As I see it, you refused the orders of your uncle and recklessly took matters into your hands. On more occasions than simply Supply Depot Thrago." The Baron's carefully controlled emotions radiated heat strong enough to remind Jaina of the burns from which she had just barely recovered.
She didn't flinch, though. This was too important. "I'm not going to try today to change your opinion, and I accept that it may never change. Based on the outward appearance of my actions, you have every right to see me in that light, General. What I would like you to know is that, while I acted against the Jedi Council's will, my uncle's will specifically, I believe I never acted contrary to my duty to the Force." She exhaled. "And that is something I may never truly be able to explain."
"Following your own conscience rather than your superior's. Sounds a bit headstrong."
"I suppose it does."
"Grunts, as a rule, are never headstrong. Strictly military muscle."
"I'm sorry?" She had no idea where he was going, which probably meant she was about to be hit with an infamous Fel broadside maneuver.
"Good officers always know when to question their orders. The telling mark of a good admiral or general is understanding when to listen to those questions, in case they might be well aimed. As between you and your uncle, I will withhold judgment for now. But I know better than to assume he was in the right, simply because he was your superior." Soontir took a long breath. "I trusted Jag was doing the right thing in mortgaging the Fel name. Ultimately his loss was all that mattered to our family. I am no big believer in destiny; I subscribe to the notion that we make our own destiny. Much like your father, I think. But the truth of the matter is, if Jag had not been exiled, he most likely would never have found a way to bring you back into his life. And that loss would have been far worse than any humiliation the Chiss could have inflicted upon him. There is no doubt in my heart that you are Jag's one true love."
"The Force works in mysterious ways," Jaina said quietly. That was one of the few certainties in her jumbled mind. What if she hadn't been so afraid to marry Jag the first time? Was their time apart during the Killik war inevitable? Was it preordained? A test? She held no more doubts about Jag and his place in her life. But could all this have been different? She felt the same quickening of her heartbeat that always came when her thoughts became overwhelming. It was often followed by an elongating tunnel around her vision and, invariably, panic. She rubbed her palms on her skirt. "Perhaps enough's been said for one day. It appears you have plenty of work to do."
Soontir surveyed the stack of flimsiplasts and datacards stacked around his portable workstation. "Indeed. Once Syal awakens there will be a darling-do list a meter long."
Jaina could tell he harbored no ill feelings for the things he did for his wife. In fact, Soontir yearned for the simplicity of them. "I'm surprised she's not up by now. She is usually the first one on the go."
"Ah, yes. This is the first time in as long as I can remember - when she was about to give birth to Wyn, in fact - that Syal wasn't awake when I arrived home. She must be exhausted."
Thoroughly chagrinned for her contribution to his wife's state, Jaina opened her mouth to apologize.
He silenced her with a raised palm. "Apologies are not necessary. In fact, I don't believe they do much for either party but erode the ability to be confident in oneself. No one works to bone-tired weariness or offers their name in return for probation unless they choose to. If you can learn one thing from living under this roof, it should be to accept your choices in life with a critical eye to the motivations that drive them. Regret is not an option; acceptance is. In the end, the cruelty of the past few years has made my son stronger, and his love for you will hold the bitterness about it all at bay. He will be better for it in the end, as will my wife once she wakes."
"No regret." Jaina spoke the words like they were a concept so surreal it was as untraceable as a ship drifting through the Mists.
"It's probably not my place, but I'm going to tell you this because you need to hear it. Do you know why you were able to defeat your brother?"
"Uh..." She really didn't want to go there. Jaina's chest tightened and her vision spiraled into a dark tunnel. She half-expected the Baron to voice her own guilt. Because it was necessary to restore what was taken from Jag after the run on Supply Depot Thrago.
"Because," he said, "your brother fought with regret. You, on the other hand, had accepted your choice. Despite its consequences, even to yourself."
Jaina forced her eyes to focus on something. Anything. Her ears buzzed and her breath raged in her head. She caught sight of a red and yellow starry flower amid a blur of colors - the floral arrangement she had completed only the day before. Words formed on her lips. "I hope you like the flowers."
Then she was moving. There was a reason why she should have stopped in the kitchen, but Jaina couldn't dredge up what it was from the flurry of voices shouting to be heard from the dark recesses of her mind. She stumbled up the stairs, then turned into the first bedroom on the left. The one that had belonged to Jag's dead sister, Cherith, and had served as Jaina's room.
Dead sister. Dead brothers.
Her vision folded, but that wasn't such a bad thing. It was better she didn't see it. Jaina could feel the wet sensation seeping up her fingertips. It happened less often now. Still there were days she couldn't shake it. Shortly her hands became engulfed in a warm viscous fluid.
Blindly she found her way to the refresher and thrust her hands into the sink. Cool, cleansing water flowed over her hands, through her fingertips, until she dared brush the tears from her eyes. She willed her eyes to find focus in the mirror, to assure herself that she had control. What she found looking back at her was a swath of blood where her hands had just traveled.
Holding her hands out, Jaina realized the red blood hadn't been washed away.
"No, no, no."
She scrambled into the sanisteam, flicking it to full power. No amount of rubbing her hands or detergent or high pressure flow seemed to stem the tide. The walls ran red, and her feet slipped in the mix of water and blood pooling on the floor.
The implosion inside her was imminent. Mental barriers breaking down. Not now, she begged the Force. But it was getting more and more difficult to hold onto the light. Darkness began to pull her under, and she was engulfed in its vice grip.
It felt comfortable and safe. Seductively good.
She refused to give up that easily. She began to fight.
She flailed back at it.
"I've got you."
Reality slammed back into her. The sanisteam. The blood. But all that paled to the strength wrapped around her. She stopped fighting and slumped into Jag's arms.
"The blood." She held up her red-stained hands for him to see. "It won't come off."
He held her tighter. "Are you hurt? Are you bleeding somewhere?"
She saw it, redder than the lava on Mustafar. "No, it's not mine. It's his. Jacen's."
"There is no blood, Jaina. It's not real."
She shook her hands in front of her face, and glanced back at him just to be sure he wasn't an illusion, too. Jag stared at her hands, then looked back at Jaina. Sadness pooled in his green eyes. When she turned forward she saw her hands, clean and freshly pink from the warmth of the liquid-steam mixture still bombarding them both. "There is. And it will never go away."
Her fingers curled into fists, then smashed the tears in her eyes. Jag's hands closed over them, pulling her arms across her chest. Suddenly they were sinking down and somehow she ended in his lap.
"Shh, my love," he whispered. "I've got you."
Trying to look unaffected by Jaina's sudden collapse, Jag stepped into the hall. Neither his mother's overly concerned expression, nor the worried stares from his siblings beside her, folded his determination; it was the thought of leaving Jaina alone that did. He slumped against the wall as the door slid shut.
Syal placed a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I honestly thought she was doing better."
"You were right." He wiped his hand over his face. "Where is he?"
When Jag started walking his mother matched his step, cutting him off. "Let's get you in some dry clothes."
"Later."He side-stepped past -
- to find Cem blocking his path. "You really should change first."
Wyn filled in the remaining one-fifth of the corridor. "Jaina needs you."
"I think Mother can handle Jaina's needs for the next few minutes." He spun back to Syal. "She asked to go for a walk. I think she probably could use some help with her hair." He looked at Wyn. "And a bite to eat." Then back to Syal. "And no mirrors, please."
Syal hesitated, biting her lower lip before nodding toward Wyn. They departed silently. That left one.
Jag glared daggers. "Don't try me today, little brother."
Cem held up his hands in front of his chest. "I'm big, but I'm not stupid. Just don't say anything you'll regret later."
"We're Fels; we don't regret."
"Sometimes -" Cem stepped aside. "- that's easier said than done, big brother."
"Where is he?"
"In the dining room."
"Why am I not surprised?"
Jag's feet carried him down the stairs and into the kitchen of their own accord. It was a good thing they knew the way, because all he saw before his eyes were swaths of red. His mind worked like a targeting computer, seeking out his quarry.
He found his father huddled over his portable workstation, his head propped up in his hand. Soontir felt the target lock and straightened in his chair. "Jagged."
Clenching his jaw, Jag tamped back a primal instinct to leap across the distance. "What were you thinking? Have you exacted the price from her soul that you feel owed? Is her debt repaid now?"
"The slate is clean, son."
"Now that she wailed in agony for the whole house to hear?"
"So many questions."
"Because I want answers," Jag roared. "I awoke from one of the best nights of my life to hear her screams of terror. And what do I find? Jaina standing fully clothed in the sanisteam, trying to rinse imagined blood from her hands - her brother's blood. I held her in the water until she was too spent to shed another tear. Finally she said to me, I chose you over my brother. What the hell was that supposed to mean?"
"Then answers you shall have." Soontir beckoned Jag to the chair next to him, still pushed out from where Jaina had sat next to him not more than an hour ago.
Jag paused in the threshold between the kitchen and dining area. His eyes glanced at the chair's garnet and gold brocade upholstery and the rare belliwood floor. The damp cling of his shirt took him back to his childhood, and for an instant he wondered if perhaps fear of his mother's wrath for sullying the furniture had been more of a deterrent to his earlier urge to barge into the room than fear of his father.
Soontir beckoned to the seat again. "She'll forgive you this once."
Jag stepped into the room, his bare feet registering the cool, polished sensation of the floorboards. Willing a deep breath, he tugged the chair further back from the table, then settled straight-backed into it. His stare never wavered from Soontir's sole obsidian eye. Jag crossed his arms because it was the only way he could contain them.
"How is Jaina?"
"You expect me to believe you care?"
"Well, I do."
"How could you?" Despite Jag's best efforts, it came out as the hurt question of a boy who believed his father could do no wrong.
"This - today - was inevitable."
"It most certainly was not. It's a fairly simple concept - called keeping your mouth shut and your blasted opinions to yourself."
"Jaina had to face her choices or face a bleak future."
"That was supposed to be the reason she was here in the first place. So she could take the time she needed to deal with -"
"One doesn't deal with killing one's own twin, Jagged. Jaina isn't the person she was; won't ever be the person she was. She can only move past it and recreate herself."
"Don't spout a post-traumatic stress briefing at me. She's not some teenaged recruit run through boot camp in six weeks and hustled off to the front lines."
"No, she certainly is not. Jaina is different. Daughter of Princess Leia Organa and Han Solo. Granddaughter to Darth Vader. Twin to Darth -"
"No, I have not said enough. Jaina is a Jedi. Capable of vibrating a table's worth of dinnerware with a simple raw burst of emotion, wielding a lightsaber against attacks coming at the speed of light, redirecting a pilot's hand from the yoke of his starfighter, influencing the thoughts of a squad of troopers, holding whole walls of air at bay. Must I go on?"
"She's not evil, any more than Luke or her mother."
"Leia was raised in a Royal Court; she understands discipline. She didn't choose to train as a Jedi until she was much older, when self-control was the furthest thing from necessary in her personal curriculum. And while I'm sure she is a ferocious warrior, Leia wasn't powerful enough to take Caedus down. From what I understand, Caedus had more Force tricks than the Bessies Boba Fett kept at home for Mandalore. By all accounts, Jaina is his equal in raw power, if not esoteric knowledge. Lucky for us, then, that Jaina has chosen the light - and, unlike her brother, to limit her own power."
Soontir paused, a gamesman reveling in the moment a point is scored. Jag had nothing to say. Jaina's struggle with the Dark Side was undeniable.
"I have been told," Soontir continued, "the report from Nickel One states that Caedus shattered a beskar chestplate with the Force."
"I haven't seen the report."
"Can she? Shatter a beskar chestplate using her mind?"
Jag was incapable of lying to his father, not even for Jaina. "Yes."
"Interesting power. Better than any of our finest Chiss weaponry."
"Your implication is offensive."
"I am merely agreeing with your own analysis, Jagged. Jaina is not like most. She's stronger, smarter, faster, and - unlike a proton torpedo - she is self-aware."
"She is not a weapon."
"Oh, but she is. A sword - wielded by her uncle."
His father had gone too far. It was bad enough to slander Jaina. Jag wasn't about to listen to another long list of alleged offenses by Jaina's entire family. "Luke Skywalker - "
"- is an idiot."
Datacards erupted from the table, ricocheting off the walls, the chairs. Glass splintered in the hutch. Jag was standing, his left arm flung out before him. "Stop!"
The erratic staccato of Jag's ragged breathing only served to highlight the uneasy silence. He hovered over his father. This was the moment every son feared, yet knew would come. Soontir must have known it too; he practically aged before Jag's eyes.
Wearily, Soontir rose. One by one he retrieved the datacards, returning them to their rigidly ordered stacks beside the work station. He settled into the chair, and Jag, still shocked by his own outburst, did the same.
"Jagged, I won't lie to you. Perhaps I did not do the right thing today. But I did the necessary thing."
The rage began to boil again in Jag's veins. Somehow an upraised palm from his father held it at bay.
"Hear me out." The general closed his workstation and set it aside. "Then, if you still feel like hitting something, I'll oblige you."
"I..." Jag hesitated; he couldn't deny that the thought had crossed his mind, more than once. He shifted back into the chair, then tipped his head. "Proceed."
"Jaina is a Jedi, not a grunt or a hotshot ace or even an officer holding together the front line. No mental care professional in the galaxy has a roadmap for dealing with the trauma she has endured. We can't even compare it to your recovery after Tenupe. But at least we recognize this and can be aware -"
"I know the signs of a Jedi leaning toward the dark. I saw it in Jacen when he contacted me during the Killik crisis. I won't let Jaina stumble down that path again."
"So you propose we spend our whole lives on the watch, hoping she'll never stray, dreading the unmistakable signs."
"If that's what it takes." Jag had already accepted this as his burden. He had to believe his love would be enough.
"You do not think we can do more?"
"More? What's that mean? Sending her back to the incapacitated state I found her in on the Anakin Solo?"
"Not at all. In those first moments after she had killed her brother, there was more grief than her mind could ever filter. Now she's on the mend; the war is over. She's been sheltered in a safe haven, and you're here with her. There is even the glimmer of a future, but even that doesn't include her best friend. Not to mention the grim, unavoidable reality that her twin is still dead by her own hand, and his death is what made all this new happiness in your lives possible."
"So how about we face this together, as a family, rather than provoking psychotic episodes?" Jag had trusted his parents to care for Jaina, despite everything. Perhaps he didn't really know them at all...
"Her decompression was inevitable. Best it happen in a controlled environment."
Jag rose so fast his chair tumbled. "I don't have to listen to this."
A firm hand on his upper arm yanked him back. "You don't have to like it, but you do have to listen."
"Let go of me, Father."
Soontir's fingers dug into his flesh. "Make me."
Jag ripped his arm away, sweeping a foot at the same time. His father took the blow, but somehow remained standing. Then an unseen strike doubled Jag over. Another exploded across his cheek. He bounced off the table and felt his weight being hurled down. His vision dimmed to black for an instant, then returned with a sharp inhale - which was met by the expert execution of a Jaharat press between his ribs. Resistance would result in far more pain than the stiff pressure already blaring through his nervous system.
"Now, you'll listen," Soontir growled. "The Myrkr mission. You remember the consequences, yes? Anakin Solo dead, Jaina's trouble on Hapes, Raynar Thul and the Dark Nest, Alema Rar, Tahiri Veila and Jacen Solo fallen to the dark side."
"What's," Jag wheezed, "your point?"
"My point? Luke Skywalker is a moisture farmer from a Rim planet no one would remember the name of if he hadn't bumbled his way into destroying the Death Star. He's spent the last three decades trying to cobble together an aimless order of Jedi with nothing more than the same seat of the pants decision-making that dropped a lucky torp down an exhaust port. Even a good pilot is going to miss sometimes. One of his was sending those kids on a suicide mission. Another was ignoring the repercussions that decision yielded when the survivors came back. They were alive, but their hearts might as well have stopped beating. A trained commander would have reeled them in, dealt with the damage, not let them fight again until they had learned how to manage their trauma and their grief. Wouldn't you agree?"
The pressure in Jag's ribs waned; he inhaled deeply. "Yes."
His father still didn't give him enough relief to do more than that, though. "So, are you prepared to listen like a civilized being?"
Jag nodded. The paralyzing weight dissipated, and he rolled over on his side. Rubbing his ribs, he tried to recall how exactly Soontir had gotten the drop on him. He had thought his father had taught him every move he knew. Apparently not.
Both men struggled to a sitting position on the belliwood floor, Soontir a little slower than Jag. "I'm getting too old for this."
"My skull says otherwise." Jag tried to stretch out the knot in his side. "Perhaps you have a point about Jaina's recovery, but that was more than a decade ago. It doesn't explain what you did. Why today? When I only have a couple days at most with her? There will be plenty of time going forward."
"No, Jagged, there won't. Three days from now you will be greeted by the Chiss ruling families, and everything will be set in motion again. Today, tomorrow, and a random afternoon here or morning there will be all the peace that's left for the two of you any time soon."
The truth tugged at Jag's ire, dipping it like a hot iron in the smith's waterbath. "She'll have mom, and our home. It might take some time, but there's no need to rush."
"Wrong again, I'm afraid," Soontir said. "Jaina will be at your side."
"No, she will not. She's not ready."
"She'll insist, and you'll let her."
"You will not dictate her life."
The corner of his father's mouth curled in amusement. "I wouldn't dare try. This will be her suggestion, her decision, entirely - and I'm going to tell you why you'll agree to it."
Jag sighed. "I'm listening."
"Jaina cannot be allowed to return to the Alliance." As Jag stiffened at the implication, Soontir motioned his palm down. "And it has to be her choice. We're just going to make it the most compelling choice."
"My duty is to the stability of the new alliance. But if Jaina wants to be my wife, we will decide together where and how we will live."
"As you should." Soontir paused, considering his words carefully. "Han Solo is a man I raised my children to think of as the epitome of Corellian willfulness run amuck - lacking discipline, if not slightly mad. The truth is, he towed the line at the Academy and bested me when it counted. He bested me because he pushed me beyond the rigid control that I believed made me the ultimate soldier. When Jaina sat down at this table and addressed me directly about Lowbacca's parole, I knew she was her father's daughter. Just like Han, she was determined to confront the eight-hundred kilo nexu in the room."
"She brought it up? We don't even talk about it."
"She did. I had decided long ago that Jaina would need to face her guilt, and she willingly providing the opening that was the most logical opportunity to push her beyond the breaking point -"
"Like metal, overheated." Jag thought back to that day he had kissed Jaina for the very first time. He had presented that same rationale to his uncle in Jaina's defense. "Forever changed."
"For the better. Forged stronger."
Jag was beginning to think his father was the mad one, not Han Solo. "And you believe this can be accomplished in two days?"
"Of course not. I'm not insane." His father's face flushed in an unusual display of emotion. Lumbering to his feet, Soontir reopened the workstation and punched a series of keys. "Since I returned home late last night, I have been reviewing the transcripts of your dealings with the Moffs. Turning over every angle, making sure I understood every player. This is an extremely treacherous group, and we'll need every advantage."
He toggled through file after file, looking for something in particular. "Then suddenly Jaina is sitting there, the same proud face her father presented. I owed Han Solo nothing less than to push back. This was the woman who had the guant'no banahs to put a sword through the heart of her twin because she had to. There was no way she was going to admit being rattled by Soontir Fel, and to her credit she didn't. When she walked away from me she had faced the demon of her debt to this family because she felt she owed you. She walked up the stairs riddled with guilt over the fact that restoring your honor came at the cost of her brother's life. Metal heated one too many times."
Jag just sat there. Sick, numb.
His father's eye lit up with recognition. "Here."
He swiveled the screen toward Jag, who rose slowly. Jag paced the couple of steps to the table and looked down. "And what is it I'm looking at?"
"The timetable for the transition of power in the Moff Council."
"My actions thus far have been so deficient they merit immediate removal?"
"Hardly. Truth be told, you've performed beyond expectations. There is simply a better candidate."
Jag tried to study the words on the screen, but he just wasn't making the connections. He looked back at his father. "Who?"
Jag blinked. "I'll admit, I was wary of politics. But it never occurred to me to beware of a coup by my own father."
"Leading the Empire into a new era, that always has been our duty. I will not risk your life, however, in the political machinations of the Moff Council. Not yet. I have a far more important task in mind for you."
"Your job is to convince your wife it's time to stop being a Sword wielded by others, and time to finally start forging her own destiny - as a Knight in the Empire."
Hidden away - in an isolated private estate, on a world covered in snow and ice - the room still felt crowded. Yet there was no one else but Jaina. It was her thoughts that ran amuck in the darkened room, filling the space to bursting. They all clamored to be heard; she didn't even know where to start.
After Jag finally had left Cherith's old bedroom, Syal had tried her best to pacify Jaina's sorrow while patiently plaiting her hair. Then Wyn had offered food. None of it had worked; Jaina just wanted to be alone.
But not in that room. In search of a quiet corner to meditate - upstairs, definitely not down there - in the end she had slipped into the darkness of Syal's sitting room. The bay window protruded from the stone wall, giving the sensation of being exposed to the elements on the frozen tundra it faced. The room wasn't lit; the brightness of the sun projecting off the snow offered sufficient illumination in daylight.
For some reason this room felt different. Distant from thoughts of war or battle, or even day to day work. This was a happy place, one where bleak thoughts were banned. A haven. Safe.
Jaina had chosen to bypass the few comfortable chairs. Instead she curled up in the window's cushioned seat. Alone.
Time had passed immeasurably as the snow fell outside. It was the longest day of the year - solstice. And, quite possibly, the longest day of her life.
When Jag had left the room, she had wanted him to go. Suddenly he had become a painful reminder of all that she had lost. It wasn't even his fault...
Jacen. Was it Jacen's fault? Or had she been remiss as a twin sister? Where had she lost him? Jaina turned inward, and her twin was there. He had been missing for a long time. Since Myrkr, now that she finally admitted it. Relief over his return from captivity had clouded the truth - for all of them, even Jaina. He hadn't actually come back.
Memories long locked away peeked down the hidden passages of her mind. Jacen and his latest crystal snake. Anakin and Jacen hanging from Chewie. Running through the Falcon's curved halls. Happy moments, in a seemingly endless parade.
Jacen was gone, but he would live inside her, forever. Somehow she felt him now, free of the dark shroud. Had he gone into the light?
Suffering. That was the one concept Jacen had never been able to grapple. At first he fixed animals; as he got older he tried to fix problems. He was a healer, a connector. Yet faced with his own suffering, he had lost the voice of reason that kept a person rooted in compassion. Jacen had thought he could save the entire galaxy from suffering at the cost of his own soul. He was wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.
Fear is the path to the Dark Side.
Jaina remembered sitting by Jacen's side - at any number of training sessions, at whatever moment could be spared - and staring up with reverent eyes as her uncle spoke those words.
Fear leads to anger...
Anger at losing Anakin had given Jaina the excuse she'd needed to stray into the darkness. Anger was a natural emotion, especially when confronting the many stages of grief. But her friends had shown her the error of her ways. Kyp, who faced every waking moment, and nightmares besides, with knowledge of his failings to his family and the millions of innocent lives his powers were meant to protect. Jag, who already had lived beyond the loss of two of his siblings. Life always went on. They had proved it to her.
... anger leads to hate...
It was the love of friends, family, and, most importantly, Jag that had tugged Jaina back. It seemed so long ago now.
... hate leads to suffering.
In her heart, where the light of her twin once again resided, Jaina knew one thing with absolute certainty: Jacen, her Jacen, would not have hesitated, even for a second, to sacrifice his own life to stop the tragic swath Darth Caedus had sown across the galaxy. Her love for the heart of her brother, the heart which had beaten in time with her own since the womb, had given her the strength to bury a lightsaber inside it. To stop its beat, forever.
Yet her certainty, her love, could not erase one burning question. One that might haunt Jaina to her dying breath. Had it been necessary?
Jacen had made his choices, and they had been his alone to make. No one had compelled him to do the things he had done. He should have known better. No, he did know better. And yet he had chosen the dark anyway.
Still, despite all that, she couldn't stop wondering if her brother's fate could have been avoided. What would have been the turning point? Was it a moment in time? A hand on the shoulder? A kind word? Or was it nothing more than the slow unraveling of a thread?
Jaina recalled watching Medrit work the beskar during her stay on Mandalore. The preparation of the metal was an integral part of the process. Without the proper care, the raw ore would fail to become the legendary Mandalorian iron. Creating a Jedi Knight, it seemed, wasn't so different.
She wasn't sure there were right answers to her questions, but finding out whether there were had become a quest she could not avoid. But she couldn't start that journey today, or tomorrow.
First she had to find Jaina Solo.
Because right now Jaina Solo was a lonely woman, hidden in a tiny dark sitting room, shielded from the galaxy she had given everything to protect. In the territory of a former foe. In the home of a family from whom she had taken so much. All this for the sake of the brother -
Jacen used to shout that at Jaina in their youth, when she had begun to fret. Everyone said her brother was the introspective twin; she, the doer. They were right. Jacen always thought. Jaina did - because thinking was a sure path to paralysis. Too many possibilities, endless variables, innumerable consequences. What if I had done this? Why didn't I do that? How did I -
And he would shout at her to stop. Later, as they grew older and the end results came at higher and higher prices, Jacen would sit quietly beside her, hold her - like after Anni had died - and whisper in their bond until the voices of fear and doubt and regret were silenced. Life always went on.
Had she missed the moment when she should have shouted it right back at him? If she had only told him to stop, at just the right time, would he have chosen otherwise?
It didn't matter. What was done, was done. And she had done what had to be done.
In everything in their lives up to now, this moment was an incomprehensibility. Yet here she was. The girl who had killed her twin and knew he would have wanted it that way. And that he would have wanted her to move on.
Stark against the harsh white stretching out endlessly before her eyes, a lone, black-clad figure caught her eye. He moved deliberately across the pristine plain. His stride was slow and marked by an uncustomary uncertainty. It pained Jaina's heart to witness his struggle. Jag's burden had become so heavy, even his formidable strength was beginning to flag under the load.
Why was she here, and Jag out there in the cold?
Something Soontir had said... It was all so muddled. Yet there was a truth that had been spoken by a father who cared for his son beyond reason. Jaina's instincts told her Baron Fel possessed the fiercest of loves for his children, no different than her own father. A passion impossible to explain, but as a Jedi she was lucky to be able to feel it. There had been no malice in his actions. His deed was simply something that had to be done.
Just as she'd had to face Jacen.
Jaina had a debt to repay to this family. Twofold. One mark cashed in years ago, a second for her recovery now. Yet she felt no hold or expectations from any of them. A gift, freely given, simply because Jag loved her.
Together they had fought past insurmountable odds. If she had learned nothing else in this past year, life made no guarantees - and it certainly didn't ever wait until a person was ready. All the wishes in the galaxy wouldn't grant her one last hug for Mara, or a familiar half-cocked smile from her brother, or even something as heartbreakingly simple as a chance to apologize to Vatok for not realizing he'd taken a shining to her. Those moments were past, forever lost.
Uncurling from her tight knot, Jaina shot her hands forward. She banged on the window, desperate to get Jag's attention. He didn't hear her. Couldn't. The winds howled constantly. She reached for the window release. It swung open, and a frigid draft nearly knocked her back. Squinting against a flurry of snowflakes, Jaina called out.
Jag continued his trudge across the fresh snow, his path taking him further and further away. She didn't think, she did. This time, doing meant - jump!
Onto the small balcony, one foot banking off the balustrade, and she was plummeting. The Force caught her and settled her softly to the ground. The snow crunched under her feet, then again and again to propel her body forward.
He froze, and turned slowly around.
She hurled herself into his waiting arms. He caught her, and this time they didn't fall. His arms tightened around her shoulders and his breath warmed the top of her head. His lips tickled her hair.
"Are you crazy," he said, holding her out to arms' length, "running out here after me?"
"Maybe a little." Jaina buried her cheek into his chest.
He hugged her to him again, tighter this time, and just held her for one timeless breath. "I love you."
"I'd hope so." She smiled, her cheek brushing against the rough grain of his parka. "Otherwise I'd have to ask you if you were crazy."
"Guilty as charged. Crazy in love."
Jaina turned her head up, and the wind whipped her hair in front of her eyes. She didn't miss the honesty in his expression. Sometimes he revealed the true man inside his heart, and only to her. That was fine as far as she was concerned. "Jag -"
"Shhh." His finger pressed to her lips. "Do you want to leave?"
"Yes." She grabbed his hand and ran. "Follow me."
He did. She could feel his concern bringing up the rear. It didn't take that many strides, though, before she dashed into the hothouse's back entrance. A quick turn brought them away from the estate proper and into a rarely used service tunnel. Jaina paused while Jag dipped his head beneath the low threshold where the tunnel eased down into the earth. When he was through she picked up her pace and yanked him along until they reached the end.
Her hand hesitated at the door controls. "Can we call off the shadows for a few?"
Jag stood stonefaced, his eyes blinking as though he didn't recognize her. He turned over his shoulder and called back up the tunnel. "Leave us." He paused, just momentarily. "We'll be fine."
The hovering presence that had trailed them the whole way discretely slipped back toward the estate. The impression was clear as crystal - disapproving but unwilling to disobey. Jaina had accepted a future of careful scrutiny, but today was different. Today was going to be theirs - alone.
"The Noghri," she said, "are much more subtle."
"Perhaps the Empire can hire some."
"Uh, I don't think it works that way."
"I know. I'm sorry."
Jaina punched the door's code. " You're a Fel. No regret, remember?"
He cringed. "About my father -"
"Don't. It's done. It's all right."
"It's not all right." His shoulders drew up. "You're not all right."
"Not yet. But I will be." She waved her hand over the illumination pad. "Let me show you something."
Lights flickered, drawing power from the estate's generators. After a moment's pause the room erupted in a warm glow, revealing a generous cavern. The existence of the chamber wouldn't have been a surprise to Jag, but its contents were. A random assortment of durasteel frames, disassembled parts, and randomly strewn tools. For a second, Jagged Fel, Moff High Councilor, disappeared - leaving in his place simply Jag, the young man who believed his ideals were enough.
"The Blue Flame?" He walked forward until his fingers could caress the single outstretched assembly that gave any indication the oddly formed ball cockpit had ever had wings. "Where did you find her?"
"I took a walk one day, looking for... intelligence devices, and I came across a storage hold in the woods, on the edge of the north glacier."
He arched an eyebrow. "You don't ever turn it off."
She knew what he meant - the warrior, forever guarding against the foe, didn't just stop for the day. In sickness and in health, there was always a wary eye toward potential threat. "Do you?"
He sort of frowned, sort of smiled. That was admission enough. They were two of a kind. "The north face isn't exactly just a stroll away."
"I suppose not."
"I didn't know there was a structure out there."
"No, I suppose you wouldn't."
Jaina wouldn't show it to him, either. It hadn't been meant for her to see - a small, perfectly engineered chamber concealed within the confines of the terrain. It was a testament to a man's legacy, and his failings as a father. There had been only three things inside: the partial debris of a vaped TIE fighter, the fractured cockpit ball of a TIE bomber, and the shattered clawcraft that rested before them. All three had borne unmistakable impressions in the Force: the first two drenched in the reflection of death, the last resonating with those distinctive fleeting overtones Jaina had always associated with Jag.
"I talked to your mother about it. She said none of you did. I'll tell your father - later. But she said it would be okay if I brought her back here. I... just wanted to fix it."
"I'll talk to him."
"No." She held up her hand. "I will. You have to let it go, Jag. If for no one else, then for me."
"But..." It wasn't often Jag didn't know what to say.
"It's going to be awkward, but I think we've proven we can survive awkward together. Don't you?"
"How can you just dismiss what happened this morning?"
"I'm not. It's obvious I still have things to deal with, that I haven't faced. But I will, eventually. I killed my brother and -" She stopped herself, and took a slow breath. "There. I've finally said it." She signed again. "Like they say, you have to admit to a problem before solving it."
"I have a problem with what my father said to you today. It's none of his business."
"You see," she said, cocking her head, "you've admitted it. We're halfway there."
Jag grabbed her shoulders. "I know you think being a Jedi gives you this extraordinary ability to exist on some other plane than everyone else. But that doesn't mean you have to deny your right to be angry."
"Oh, I'm angry, Jag. Trust me. I'm angry about a lot of things. I'm sad, too. Miserable, in fact. But I refuse to let those emotions define me." She took his hands in hers. "I didn't do all this for everyone else. I did it for Allana, and my parents, and that little blue-eyed girl I saved from the Tadnigan pirates eight years ago. And for you and me, too. For the future - theirs and ours."
Jag blinked, a rare occurrence for him even when confronting an uncomfortable conversation. And there was something unsaid, churning at the tip of his tongue. He wasn't ready to say it; Jaina could tell.
"How about," she said, waving her hand in the general direction of the disassembled form of his old fighter, "we fix something."
Jag's eyes followed. "I'd like that."
"Okay..." She crossed to a darkened recess. It concealed a mobile mechanic's chest, complete with work bench, numerous drawers and cabinets holding a veritable multitude of tools.
Still studying the starfighter, Jag stripped off his parka. His inspection of her handiwork so far was intensely focused; Jaina decided not to interrupt. Instead she slipped deeper into the shadows, tugged off her Nubian cotton top and pants, then shimmied into the old jumpsuit she had left draped over the mechanic's chest after her last late-night repair session.
"You've done a lot of frame restoration, and - " His gaze drifted back her way. "You, uh... changed."
Jaina placed the folded shirt in a drawer. "These clothes your mother gives me are too nice. I happened across one of your old jumpsuits in the basement storage room. I figured you wouldn't mind."
He scanned her over, appraising the black garment and its red piping at the collar and waist. "Are you sure that's -"
"Not Cherith's? Yes. I would never. It's yours; I know." She unrolled the sleeve to its full length - it more than emphasized the truth. "Wouldn't fit you any more, I don't think. Probably from your scrawny teenage years or something. But it's definitely yours."
"Sometimes I forget the odd things you can pick up with your Jedi senses."
"Not this time, actually." She buried her chin in the collar and sniffed. "It just smells like you."
He raised an arm toward his face and inhaled deeply. "Well, I don't care if this outfit gets dirty. I'm throwing everything from today in the furnace the first chance I get."
"Jag, I'm sorry." She crossed to him. "I've ruined your whole holiday."
"You're going to have to forgive your father someday, you know." Jaina scooped up a hydrospanner, then stepped under the fuselage. She didn't need to see his face to know his jaw was flexing and his green eyes blazing. Jaina dogged down a console she had missed previously.
"We still have tomorrow. Let's have our own holiday - just you and I."
"I promised your mother I'd go with her to the conservatory. She volunteers in the mornings once a week. "
"Still, after all these years." A wistful countenance washed across his features. "You should go. I do have a few reports to sign off on, anyway. Then they'll be out of the way, and we'll have the rest of the day to ourselves."
"Sounds like a plan." Pondering what would be an appropriate project for her current state of mind, she strolled around the fighter. "So you have tomorrow completely free as well?"
"We don't expect the Fist to arrive any sooner than the day after tomorrow." Jag eyed a contorted support beam jutting out from where the lower starboard wing should have been. He tugged it with his bare hands.
Looking away, she fiddled with an injection hose supplying the laser coolant system. "The arrival ceremony has been scheduled, then?"
"I don't think there's even a word for 'tentatively' in the entire Chiss language, Jag."
He grunted, trying harder to loosen the support. "You got me. It will be three nights from now, at nineteen hundred."
"Convenient. That'll give you plenty of time to sneak back aboard the Fist. Think you'll need any Jedi assistance?"
"I think this time we've got it covered." With a muttered curse, Jag finally gave up. She wasn't surprised it had taken him this long to concede that muscle alone wasn't going to bend durasteel. Even when it was weakened. He picked up a uniwrench and proceeded to beat the torqued metal.
As the rhythm of his effort increased, Jaina worried which would break first. She left her task and eased up beside him. Carefully, she touched his forearm. "Hey. How about I show you a trick?"
"I'm very good at concentrating, but I've never had any luck bending metal with my mind."
"Nope. This one's entirely technological." She retrieved the plasmatorch and isothermal gauge from the workbench. "Grab that pair of gloves, the hammer, and the longest-handled grip you can find."
As Jag gathered his items, Jaina affixed the gauge's probe at the point where the support connected to the frame. When Jag arrived, she exchanged the gauge for the gloves.
"Calibrate the gauge and let me know when it passes the superheated threshold." Jaina was adjusting the blowtorch when a thought struck her. "Eye protection."
She turned, and two pairs of goggles zipped in their direction. Jag snatched one out of midair; Jaina let the other fall into her open palm. After securing them, Jaina powered on the torch. The application of the white hot flame wasn't a skill she had used recently, but it quickly returned from some hidden alcove in her memory, pushing away newer, raw remembrances with relative ease. A familiar voice of experience whispered in her ear, and she watched the metal glow red, then orange, and finally a golden hue.
Jag wasn't a novice to working metal, and he watched with guarded interest. "Approaching threshold point. Ninety-five percent. Ninety seven, ninety eight, ninety nine... One hundred."
Now it was all about feel. Jaina steadied her hand, ensuring the center of the flame enveloped the connection point. Gold metal grew brighter until it was practically indiscernible from the fire. Much longer and it would be lost in a liquid pool. She waited one more second longer than she thought reasonable, then suddenly switched off the torch.
"The grip and hammer."
An intrigued accomplice to a precision maneuver, Jag traded tools with her. She clamped the grip down on the end of the broken support while shifting the hammer to a better hold. Then the delicate task began.
Pull. Hit. Pull more. Hit, hit. Each iteration more subtle and more precise.
Slowly the golden tinge returned to the superannuated metal. Timing was everything. One last tap...
Not realizing she had been holding her breath, Jaina released the tension in her body with one huge sigh. She unlatched the grip and lowered the hammer.
Without a word Jag moved around her, his eyes carefully evaluating her results. Finally he met her gaze. "Impressive. You've repaired the connection, avoiding the need to reconstruct an entire portion of the framework."
She smiled, happy he could appreciate the benefit compared to ripping off the damaged support with brute strength. "We can rebuild the frame from this point." She flicked off the gloves and removed the goggles. "It'll be better than new when we're done."
"We?" Jag's shoulders relaxed visibly. His emotional barriers softened.
"You do want to help, right?"
"Oh, absolutely." He shook his head as if clearing off a fog. "Sorry. This is all new to me."
"Me too." She felt suddenly exposed and held up the tools. "Guess we're finished with these."
Raising his eye protection, he walked toward the chest. "Neat trick. Did you learn it from Medrit?"
"Actually, from my father."
Jag stopped in his tracks, if only for the span of a heartbeat. Just as quickly he continued as if it never happened. He placed each tool back in its proper place. When he turned to face her, his face caught the direct light from above.
"Jag." For the first time since rising that morning, Jaina looked upon him clearly. His chiseled features had been obscured earlier by her inner turmoil and tear-filled eyes, and until now by the gloom in the chamber and her concentration during their work. "Your cheek."
She reached for the discoloration marring his cheekbone, but he turned his face aside. "It's nothing."
She bit off a sharp retort, forced her eyebrow not to arch curiously. The source of the contusion was obvious; the only question was whether she needed to press the issue.
Admittedly her own mental soundness held a precariously off-kilter equilibrium. She had existed in a haze these last few months, but every once in a while there had been moments of clarity that made everything more palpable. They included the good along with the bad, though. Pain always faded with time, but her most pressing concern was the present. That voice inside her head kept shouting at her to stop this foolish self-inflicted battery on their souls. The past was gone. It was undoubtedly time to move on.
"Nothing..." The word hung on her tongue like a finger over a trigger. "I guess since you never actually promised your father I would honor Lowbacca's parole, then nothing is all I ever did to you or your family."
"Jaina, let's not go there."
Oh, she wanted to crawl in a hole and avoid the whole mess, all right. The agony had been weighing on her since the very first time he had spit venom when Luke had paired them together for the Alema task force. She had never wanted to hurt Jag. But fretting over wrongs done would get them nowhere. She simply wanted to put the ordeal behind them. Somehow. This would be harder than breaking planetary orbit, but it was so inextricably tangled with her guilt that she had to make a start. "We never go there. Why not?"
"Because it's in the past."
"So are a lot of other things - Myrkr, Hapes, Bolis Island, Tenupe, Shedu Maad. It'd be nice to jettison them and use them for target practice. But that's about as practical as firing on your own fighter. It's our past. We can't run from it. So let's deal with it - once and for all."
Pivoting away, he balled his fists. "I don't want to say something I might regret."
"I killed my brother, Jag. Nothing you say could hurt me more than that."
He spun back. "Jaina, I -"
She cut him off with a raised palm. "Besides, there'll be no talk of regret. It's not allowed, remember? The General Baron forbids it."
"My father's ideals, much as I admire them, can be a bit... impractical in implementation."
She walked over to him and looked up into his eyes. "Ideals tend to be that way. Do or do not; there is no try. It rolls off the tongue, but all we can do is our best - and sometimes doing our best is never going to be enough. Sure sounds like trying to me. Same for no regret. In a perfect world, maybe; in real life, not so much. Ideals give us something to strive for, to be better than ourselves. But that's all they are."
He looked like he was about to say something, then simply nodded.
"Let me ask you a question," she said.
"If you hadn't been exiled, would you have stayed in Chiss space forever?"
Jag's eyes fell, defeated by some long ago memory. "There was nothing left for me... after Bolis Island."
When she had broken off the engagement. Jaina could feel her heart cracking. "I was wrong; I was scared. It was a mistake. Possibly the worst one of my life." She took his hands in hers. "But we've been given a second chance because you couldn't do anything except protect my friend from a Chiss penal hearing, and I couldn't do anything except trust my instincts. Perhaps they weren't the right choices, but they were necessary to bring us back into each other's lives. Maybe it was destiny, or maybe meddling relatives, or a little of both. I don't know; I don't care. But I can't waste this chance on regret for -"
Everything else she would have said was lost in the swirling vortex of the perfect kiss.
Left foot crossing right, Jag carefully skirted the edge of the training mat. He held his arms in a practiced Janarak defensive posture, wary of his opponent's size and speed.
He dodged right, avoiding a high jab, then ducked when the feint was followed by a wicked left hook. He glimpsed an opening and dove. Arms wrapped around his opponent's legs, they both tumbled to the ground. Jag lost his grip and rolled away from the impending attack to his exposed kidneys. Two thuds proclaimed the near-misses. Using his momentum, he sprang to his feet, back to the guarded stance.
"You're getting slow, big brother," Cem said, not a bit breathless from a half hour of sparring. He bounded to his feet with remarkable ease for such a large man.
Jag shook his head. "Not slower." He wiped the sweat from his brow. "Just testing your skills. You are, after all, in charge of my protection detail."
Cem rolled his head to the left, cracking vertebrae. "Not sure how much longer that'll be my job, but while you've got me, my life is your life." He bowed in mock respect.
"What does that mean?"
"No need for a big lug once you have a Jedi by your side."
"Jaina's not my bodyguard." Jag lunged.
Cem sidestepped away. "Not officially. Yet."
Jag whipped his leg back and around, aiming for Cem's midsection. "Yet?"
With a perfectly timed grab, Cem snatched Jag's foot from midair. His leg torqued, and an instant later he was prone on the mat. The heel of a palm whizzed towards Jag's face, stopping millimeters from raising a new bruise. A tattooed face leered down. "You are going to marry her soon, aren't you?"
"Look, I'm not pushing the subject. That didn't turn out well for me last time."
"You're telling me. We were halfway to Bolis Island when we had to turn around. And I was already all dressed up."
Jag batted Cem's hand out of the way. "Can we not go there?"
The burly brother stood and offered Jag a hand. His brow wrinkled in genuine concern. "Is there something wrong between you and Jaina?"
Jag accepted the help, then walked toward the water chiller. Silently.
"Are you angry with her?"
Deliberately Jag drew himself a drink and sipped it slowly. When he was finished, he said, "Jaina and I are going to be fine. Some day, yes, I think we'll be married. But there's a lot of important things to do at the present time. For both of us."
"Good." Shoving him aside, Cem guzzled a drink. "So she'll be around."
"Not to be my bodyguard," Jag growled.
Cem held his palms up defensively. "Hey, all I'm saying is if the poodoo hits the turbine - which is inevitable where the Moff Council is concerned - I'm staying out of the way of any twirling glowy swords that can slice me clean in half. Official protection or not, I'm pretty confident she surpasses ISS standards."
The flimsicup crinkled under Jag's tightening grip. He shut his eyes in an attempt to force back the barrage of maddening thoughts that ricocheted from the depths of his mind. Unbidden, an image exploded - he in a black dress uniform; Jaina in red armor, hair slicked back, the bland palette of the Imperial court highlighting her features, drawing her lightsaber and igniting it in a crossing guard while stepping forward into a defensive posture in front of him.
The flimsicup splattered against the wall. This wasn't the life he wanted for Jaina. He didn't want her to be the Sword of the Jedi, but neither did he want her to replace that destiny by becoming nothing more than his shield.
A hand gripped his shoulder. "You all right, Jag?"
"I'm just tired. Jaina didn't sleep well." He didn't say the rest; neither had he. Yesterday had been difficult at best, and even after working on the Blue Flame until blisters formed on both their hands, they had found sleep elusive. Hungry, yet unable to eat. Emotionally leveled, yet unable to cry. Exhausted, yet unable to rest. They had lain in bed, finding comfort in each other. Eventually Jaina had fallen asleep in the early morning hours. Finally knowing she wouldn't pick up on his thoughts, he had begun to think about everything that had occurred over the solstice holiday.
"Ah. So that'll be your excuse."
Jag spared a glance toward his brother. "Excuse?"
"For me beating you just now."
"You didn't beat me."
Cem's shoulders drew back. "Yes, I did."
"No, you didn't. You had me down but certainly not out."
"You just can't do it, can you?"
"I didn't lose."
"Well, you certainly didn't win, either. And where I come from, walking away from a bout counts as a forfeit."
"Fine, then." Jag stalked back to the center of the mat. "Let's finish it."
Cem stayed firmly planted where he was. "Good ol' big brother Jag. Gotta make sure Cem remembers who's best."
"Here's your chance to prove otherwise, little brother." Jag beckoned him with a flick of his fingers.
"I don't think so. I'm not in the mood to take the pummeling you want to dish out right now."
"So apparently I am bett-"
Cem charged; Jag dove. The younger brother had an incredibly long reach and caught Jag by the heel. He dragged Jag toward the center of the mat. "Bet-ter figh-ter pi-lot ..." He spun Jag around, then kicked his feet up to drop his weight elbow first. "... yes."
His brother's enormous body slammed into the spot Jag had just been. "Bet-ter tac-ti-cian ..."
Knees first, then feet, Jag quickly rose.
"...may-be." A lightning fast swoop of Cem's leg sent Jag toppling over.
Twisting with the momentum of his fall, Jag punched down with his fist. He connected with Cem's solar plexuses, and his knuckles exploded. "Frag!"
"Strong-er ..." Cem, apparently unfazed, snatched Jag's wrist and tugged. "... no-eeeeow!"
Jag would have seconded his brother's howl, except the excruciating pain ripping down the side of his neck rendered him entirely speechless. He recognized the devastatingly effective earhold their mother had perfected from being the mother of five Fel children.
"Smarter?" The pinch on his earlobe released and his mother's face, younger and lacking the wear of time, appeared before them. "That would be neither of you two banahs."
Cem flopped on the mat holding his ear. "Wy-yn."
Jag dropped down next to him, trying to clench a fist with his hand, which hurt ten times worse than his ear. He wasn't going to give his younger siblings the benefit of sharing his pain, though.
She towered over them, fists on her hips. "They left the conservatory about fifteen minutes ago." Wyn eyed Jag. "You said you wanted to get that paperwork out of the way."
Cem dragged his massive body to standing. "Duty calls. I'll monitor the security feeds until you're done, Wyn."
She watched him go, chewing on her lower lip. When she finally faced Jag again, she hadn't lost that stern disapproving stare. "You should have let him win."
Jag harrumphed, then rose and moved toward the shelves on the far wall, lined neatly with training equipment. "He'll win when he earns it."
Wyn clicked her tongue. "So like Father."
He grabbed a towel with his uninjured hand and tried to pretend she hadn't just said that. He wiped his face, burying the scowl in his heart in the towel's folds. "Cem will be fine."
"Of course he will. He's a Fel, but he's also your younger brother."
"He should try being me sometime."
"Get over yourself, you pompous loon." Wyn barreled across the room. "Stop playing the martyr; it's unbecoming. Cem has spent his whole life wanting to be you: accepted completely by the Chiss, commander of one of our finest squadrons, colonel by twenty, joined at the hip to Jaina Solo, flown the Millennium Falcon, best pilot in the history of - "
"That's an exaggeration." His chin drew back.
"Oh? Who's better, then?"
"What about Davin?"
"If he was so good, why isn't he still here to beat you up when it serves his mood?"
"That's unfair, Wyn."
"Is it?" Her eyes drilled into him. "Funny, I'd have thought you'd mention Dad first."
"And here I thought you were attempting to be serious. No one can outfly the Baron."
"When's the last time you simmed with him?"
"It was -" He paused. "Well, it was a while ago. But it doesn't matter. Besides Cem is a great pilot."
"Compared to the average flyboy in the corp, sure. In this family, not so much. He's a good pilot, but throw in Uncle Wedge and his relatives are three of the greatest who ever lived. Trust me; it's no fun. The best thing that ever happened to Cem was growing to the size of a rancor. Once we had to start jumping on his shoulders to fit him in a cockpit, he had an out. A reason to be different."
Jag tossed the towel in the soiled linen receptacle. "And now he's Csilla's reigning Janarak champion and commander of the ISS's Elite Guard. That's nothing to feel sorry about."
Wyn punched Jag in the shoulder, hard. "Cha'ka leeg."
"That -" Jag rubbed his shoulder. "- was uncalled for."
"If you say so. Sir."
He ran his palm on his brow. "If I'm that bad, then why did you two take these positions in the High Councilor's staff?"
"Why did you accept yours?" His sister arched her eyebrow, and he couldn't decide if the answer embedded within her retort was cynical or sincere. Before he could shape a conclusion either way, she held out a datapad. "The information you requested this morning, sir."
Just like that Wyn had become Britna Starwind, executive assistant to the High Councilor. His sister was nowhere to be found behind the stern visage she presented. Her eyes even seemed to have shifted colors.
Accepting the datapad, Jag struggled with the incongruity of the moment. Then he realized he was barely in a position to manage his own fractured state, let alone mend whatever rift had emerged between his siblings these past... days? Weeks? "Thank you."
"You'll note -" She reached over and tapped the screen, highlighting two files. "- these are for signature. I can forward them out today." She tapped again to call up a particular file. "This one I think you should read first."
"The intel brief from Coruscant?"
"I know you've been concerned mostly with the machinations within the Moff Council, but there are some changes in the Alliance that affect... shall we say, the Jedi."
Jag quickly scanned the document. "She's moving faster than I ever expected."
"For what it's worth, Father didn't anticipate this one either." A distant hum drew Wyn's attention.
They both glanced toward the large window, which allowed a panoramic view of the snowswept back half of the estate. A white plume marked the path of an approaching snowskimmer. Jag admired the deft hand piloting the craft as it banked around the last turn toward the estate. "Mom must be in a brave mood to have let Jaina drive today."
"Good guess, but that's Dad."
"Oh. I thought you knew." Shrugging, Wyn headed for the door. "I'm going to relieve Cem. Have a nice afternoon with Jaina."
"Wyn, please don't mention this to her."
Turning slowly, his sister met his stare. "Oh, I wouldn't dare. That's going to have to be your job, I'm afraid." She blinked and Starwind was back. "I'll put a priority sort on this type of information coming into the office."
Then she was gone.
Jaina. He needed to see Jaina.
He jogged out of the workout room and down the access corridor to the sheltered hangar, where the terrestrial craft were housed. He arrived just as his mother and Jaina burst into the house, giggling about some Chiss youngling who apparently had developed a crush on Jaina.
The pair hesitated just inside the threshold, then greeted him in unison. "Jag."
He stepped forward to hug Jaina. "I missed you," he whispered into her ear.
She shared the same sentiment silently, tightening her arms around his waist. When he finally moved away, Jag noticed his mother waiting patiently. He pecked a quick greeting on her cheek. "Mom."
Syal grinned, then turned and held out her arm. "I missed you, too."
Like he had been taught as a young man, Jag assisted his mother in removing her heavy coat. Jaina moved to shed her own, but Syal cleared her throat discreetly and Jaina stopped. By the time Jag had hung his mother's coat in the closet and turned to help Jaina, though, his father had entered the room. With the grace of a gentleman, Soontir slid Jaina's coat down her arms.
"Thank you, Soontir." The name didn't roll naturally off Jaina's tongue.
Jag simply stared at them both. Fortunately his mother interrupted the awkward silence. "You should tell Jag about our important discovery, Jaina."
Training his focus on Jaina alone, Jag compelled his mind to listen to her words and not the thoughts buzzing around his head.
"One of the junior cadets is Force sensitive."
Jag blinked. "Really?"
"A Chiss Jedi," Syal said.
"Not a Jedi," Soontir corrected.
Jaina nodded. "No, that would require some training. He's certainly got innate abilities, but no skill to speak of."
"So, what did you suggest?" Jag asked, truly curious. "Send him to your uncle?" A Jedi among them certainly might improve the Chiss mentality toward the Order.
"Actually, no." Jaina's brow furrowed. "I think the structure at the conservatory better suits the boy's needs at this time. The Academy is still in disarray..."
Jag didn't hear the rest. His heart pounded so loud he couldn't. Why, he wasn't sure. Things were just... shifting. Up was down. Jaina zigged when she usually would have zagged. And she didn't even have the benefit of the information Wyn had just provided: now that Daala had proposed drastic cuts to the Jedi operational budget, the Academy would surely be in further disarray. War always kept funds flowing to those willing to risk their lives on the front lines, but once peace seemed real it was easy for politicians to maneuver expenditures away from the very warriors who had ensured their power. Except Daala was no ordinary politician; she had the tactical genius of a soldier who had survived the front lines by the thinnest of margins for decades.
"Jag," Jaina was saying, "did you hear me?"
He met her brown-eyed gaze. "I'm sorry. I was simply considering the implications."
Jaina looked right at his mother. "Like I said, he must be in shock."
Syal curled her lips into a playful pout. "And I always thought he enjoyed those dance lessons."
"Wait." Jag looked at his mother too. "What?"
Soontir chortled. "Not likely. Jag's always been the son who did what he was supposed to do, whether he enjoyed it or not."
The two men locked stares. Neither blinked. Syal drifted between them. "Allow me my delusions, dear. I prefer to think he rather enjoyed our time together." She caught Soontir by the arm. "Come along now. Feed me; I'm quite famished."
"As you wish."
Now Jag and Jaina were alone. "I will get cleaned up quickly," he said. "Then I'm all yours."
"You're all mine already." She snaked her fingers through his. "Come on, flyboy. You don't have to be clean to show me your moves."
Jag resisted her pull. "Uh... I have a confession."
"You didn't hear a word I said. I know." Jaina pivoted back around to face him. "Executive summary - you and I have to polish off our dancing skills."
"Jaina, I haven't danced with anyone since Hapes..." He stumbled over the memory. So much happiness wrapped up in sorrowful times. Darkness and death tangled with discovery and newfound love, inseparable.
Toe to toe, she leaned into Jag. Her palms soothed the front of his shirt, and she stared up into his eyes. "Stop doing that."
He opened his mouth to protest, but she silenced it by raising up on her toes and kissing him. Pulling back, he grasped her hands and held them firmly. "Jaina, I..."
Jag couldn't find a way to vocalize his thoughts, but Jaina had no trouble voicing hers. "What's wrong? I can feel your turmoil, and that just doesn't happen. Talk to me."
He tipped his head. "I don't want you to feel compelled to associate with my father. This is a big estate -"
A distinct slap echoed off the back of his skull. Jaina hadn't moved a muscle so much as to blink. "Your father and I are trying, Jag - which is more than I can say for you. This isn't easy. Not for any of us." She sighed. "Yesterday was bad, I'll admit. But I've had too many bad days in my life and not enough good. So I've decided I'm not going to dwell on the past, because that will just make a few more notches on the bad day tally. I've been thinking a lot lately about how Anakin took a mortal wound for me. You know what I realized last night while I was tossing and turning?"
Jag knew better than to say anything. She was going to tell him.
"I had already sacrificed Jacen on Myrkr. When we were making our escape. I couldn't leave without Anakin's body, but I left Jacen behind. If our situations had been reversed, I wouldn't have wanted him to be sucked into the vortex of regret. I would have wanted him to live and not waste my sacrifice. So that's what I have to do now." Abruptly she smiled. "Now... can I have that dance?"
Without waiting for a reply she spun, dragging him by the hand.
He resisted. "Wait."
"Oh, I suppose you'd like to know which one?" She glanced over her shoulder, using her Force-enhanced strength to continue forward. "The Kralhal."
"Oh, no." Jag reversed thrusters hard. He had thought Jaina's recent dance lessons were a pleasant distraction his mother had dreamed up in Jaina's remaking. But the Kralhal was not a dance that invited courtiers to display their interest, nor even a wedding reception dance - which he had suspected had been his mother's true motive all along. No, this couldn't have been his mother's doing at all. "We are not performing the Kralhal. In fact, you're not coming to the fete in the High Councilor's honor at all."
"Ha. I'd like to see you enforce that edict."
"This isn't negotiable, Jaina."
She arched an eyebrow, playfully waggling her fingers in a threat to tickle. "Where have I heard that before? Despite the fact the Chiss don't have celebrity newshounds taking vids of every bad hair moment a girl has ever had, it's no secret I'm here. It will be expected that I will be at your side - but more importantly, I want to be by your side." She peered up at him menacingly. "Isn't that what you want?"
"Yes, of course. Just not like this."
"Well, tough. The reality is, I'm Jaina Solo and you're Jagged Fel. With genes like ours comes responsibility, and we often don't get what we want."
"Would you give it all up to be average?"
"Then I wouldn't be me."
If Jag were honest with himself, her ability to cut right to the heart of the matter was one of the things he loved the most about Jaina. Through everything she had persisted, and always had remained true to herself. She rarely complained or bemoaned her duty, despite the cost to her. And even in the face of the most horrible realities, like the one she was struggling through now, Jaina always found a way to rise above the misery and claim a small measure of happiness. Yes, Jag could perform his official duties alone, but it would only be a gesture to shield Jaina from a future she would never shirk. They both were duty bound, and they both wanted to be with each other. How could he deny her - or himself?
"Very well. It would be my pleasure to escort you to the fete, Lady Solo." He bowed gracefully. When he straightened she was grinning victoriously. "However - you will not stay so long as to tire yourself out, and we will not be performing the Kralhal."
He held up a peremptory hand. "It's not negotiable. The Kralhal is strenuous and requires considerable training. We haven't practiced any dancing, much less something like this. Those few evasive maneuvers across the dance floor hardly count. And I'm afraid you might think from that slick set of moves that I'm smoother than I really am."
"So you're telling me you used them all up just to get me across the dance floor and lure me alone into one of the palace studies?"
He fought a smile. "I might have one or two more."
Even after all these years, he could taste and smell the heady rush of the first glimpse of possibility he had found in Jaina all those years ago. At the time he had made a mental note to thank his mother for every dance lesson he had suffered through as a boy, simply because it had given him a chance to hold Jaina in his arms.
"Oh? Then show me." Jaina held her hands out in the standard hold for the Hapan revelade.
"Right here? What about music?"
"We don't need it." Her eyes narrowed to slits, as they often did when she was dropping into a meditative state. "Take my hand, Jag."
Scooting his left hand to the curve of her waist, he reached out with his right. He flinched when her fingers closed around his.
Her eyes flew open, and she stared at his bruised knuckles. "What happened?"
"Nothing. Just a little sparring accident."
"Uh huh. Fist met man of durasteel, and fist lost." She gently rubbed her fingers over his hand. The pain subsided. "Nothing's broken."
"I would have been better off punching some beskar armor."
"No, you wouldn't. Trust me." She chuckled. "Better?"
Flexing his fingers, Jag tipped his head. "Much."
Unexpectedly, she pulled his hand between them and lowered her chin. Her lips brushed his knuckles softly, and that wonderfully giddy feeling of dancing with Jaina for the first time swept through his body. She was right; they didn't need music. He could remember the sounds, the drumbeat under the lyrical tones of stringed instruments. Their feet moved as one, the melody all their own.
They danced in the back foyer, dodging the small credenza and narrow walls, yet the floor felt limitless as they swept and dipped like experienced partners. There was no fear of failure or hesitation over a possible misstep, just absolute trust from his partner and faith that she would follow his lead. It was a wonderful feeling; he wished it could last forever.
Of course it didn't, and the final flourish of the revelade approached. Jag twirled his partner, capturing Jaina close to his body. She fell into the strength of his arms, waiting for him to execute the next move. He stepped, widening his stance, and at the same time dipped Jaina over his supporting arm. The dance was over, but neither of them wanted it to end. They held the final pose, breathing in unison.
Jaina waited for him to break the moment. Finally he pulled her upright, refusing to allow her to step away. His arms wrapped comfortably around her.
"Passable," she said. "You might need some more practice, though. I'll talk to Starwind about scheduling me some time."
He studied her. Jaina's levity wasn't just her usual banter used like a shield. There was something brighter and different about her. Eyes sparkling, the lines on her face softened, smile expressing genuine happiness. Not just happy - content. "What's changed?"
She lowered her gaze momentarily, and standing so close to her, Jag knew instantly the answer to his question. "Where's your lightsaber?"
"Adrift on the Meti Glacier."
"Wow. You did this today?"
She nodded. "Your father was kind enough to take a side trip on the way home."
"Was this his idea?"
Stiffening in his arms, she said, "Of course not. It was mine." She exhaled, relaxing back into him. "When we saw that youngling today, things starting clicking together like puzzle pieces. Here was this boy with so much potential to do so many things - and all he could do was stare at my lightsaber in awe."
"Can you blame him?"
"No. But maybe we've been sending out the wrong signal. Jedi are taught that our lightsaber is our life, that it's a representation of what we are. And in some sense I suppose it is. But is a lightsaber really a true reflection of what a Jedi is?"
"Symbols aren't necessarily a bad thing, Jaina."
"True. Sometimes, though, we cling to them out of a selfish need to touch the past, and in doing so forget to see the present. My lightsaber is simply a weapon. It doesn't make me a Jedi; only my actions do. I've changed, and the parts of my life I need to remember, they're here." She touched her heart. "I don't ever want to become so attached to something that I forget who I am - and most importantly what I'm meant to do."
Jag almost wilted from her words. His gut throbbed like Cem had landed a thousand punches. He could barely make out that Jaina was still speaking, except that he knew she was saying something while clutching both his arms. He willed himself to listen.
"...not what you think. Please, let me finish." She led him over to the small bench by the door and helped him sit down. "I'm not going to throw you out on the glacier too, okay?"
"Wow, and I thought I was a mess."
"No, you're not. But together we're going to be. Now stop jumping to conclusions and listen, will you?"
He tipped his head.
"What I was trying to say was that I don't want to ever make the mistake of getting so attached to something from the past that I ruin my present. That's why I'm starting over with my lightsaber. I'll make a new one soon. Just nothing personal or special this time. You see, somewhere along the way I started clinging to things - my astromech, my lightsaber, my X-wing - almost like they were companions. At first I couldn't figure out when that happened, but then I remembered that raw desire to retrieve Anakin's body at all costs, and the emptiness of not finding his lightsaber. Do you remember Anakin's funeral?"
"I do." The memory of the funeral was inseparable from the joy of their dance earlier in the night. The good with the bad.
"I watched Anakin's body burn and I didn't want to go through that again. Caring for someone that much... Astromechs can be replaced. Even with you..."
Reaching up, Jag brushed away the lone tear that ran down her cheek.
She clutched his hand, her grip like he was her lifeline against a perilous tumble into an abyss. "When I went after Anakin, it was the only thing I cared about. Even Jacen; I cut myself off from my own twin. After Myrkr, I didn't realize he hadn't truly died because I couldn't - I was lost in myself. And when Jacen came back, I never let myself connect with him again. I was riddled with guilt and shame, and I didn't know how to make it better. He was just the idea of my brother; not like it was when no part of us was separate. It was never the same."
"What happened to him wasn't you fault."
"Ultimately, no. I'm not trying to absolve Jacen for his choices, but I'll always wonder what might have happened if I hadn't held him at bay out of my own fear. If I might have been able to see the signs early enough to make a difference. I don't want to make that mistake again. Ever."
"So you've realized your lightsaber can be replaced." Her decision was obvious now. Why would she want to keep it? The weapon that had felled her twin would haunt her. Sometimes an action was more powerful than a symbol.
"Over and over again. Jacen can't."
"Like Anakin's funeral." He understood. "You can allow yourself to mourn now."
Yet she sat there beside him shaking her head, telling him he had got it all wrong. "I already have; now it's time to move on."
"Don't feel compelled to march past your pain out of some sense of obligation. I have waited, and I will still be waiting when you're ready."
"I'm not doing this for you, Jag. It's for me." She stood suddenly and walked across the foyer, staring at the wall. "Anakin died suddenly, and it took me a long time to pass through all the natural states of grief - denial, anger, sadness. With Jacen, I had done all that before I fought him on Nickel One. My dad said Jacen was already dead, and really he was right. I'd already mourned him. The only emotions left in me when his body died was a strange sense of relief - and a dash of regret for not catching my brother when he first fell."
"Who says you even could have caught him?"
"I'll never know." She turned around slowly. "Don't worry, I'm not taking this on my shoulders. He walked away for five years, and when he got back again he did just as much to shut me out, too. "
"I wouldn't let you fall. You know that, right?"
"I wouldn't expect any less. That's why I'm going to stick to you like a Ployi moth hovering around a flame." She walked over and cupped his cheeks. Leaning forward, she kissed him tenderly. "That, and to keep all the females Moffs' hands in their own laps."
He kissed her back. "Jealousy - I kind of like that on you."
"More like over-protective, but whatever works for you, Councilor." She held his gaze, running her fingers along the side of his head, just above his ear. "I want to share it all with you. The good and the bad. I'm done mourning the past and fearing my future. I'm ready to take a leap, and trust that you will catch me."
Jag was afraid to breathe. She wasn't healed, not by a long stretch of the imagination, but somehow Jaina had caught sight of the light at the end of the tunnel - and she was running toward it as fast as she could. Some imbedded fear of the next setback made him wish they could just stay frozen in that very second. Hope, promise, the possibilities of tomorrow.
He reached forward and buried his face into her, wrapping his arms around her thin frame.
"I'm not going anywhere," she whispered while her fingers stroked his hair. "You've chased me across half the galaxy. Now it's my turn. You have work that needs to be done. We'll just make the most of the time we do have."
His fears bubbled up in unspoken questions. Jag knew that reality would raise its head eventually. There was the Alliance and, most importantly, the pressing matters of the Jedi. A delicate pressure lifted his chin; he was forced to gaze up at her.
"I'm not going back to the Jedi any time soon. I've settled that in my mind, Jag, so don't even worry about the possibility. I won't be much good to them anyway, because I'm not clear what being a Jedi is to me anymore. Not to mention the fact that they'd want to parade me around like the newest galactic hero -"
"Jaina, you need to know something." He rose, but still clutched onto her. She would change her mind, once she knew. "Daala is positioning against the Jedi."
"That was inevitable."
"She's mandated drastic budgetary shifts and is funneling most military funding into rebuilding efforts. Her latest interview suggested that the Jedi should be audited to verify all their technology and activities."
"I'm sure Luke can manage. He participated in the negotiations to bring Daala into the fold, after all."
Jag hesitated. "And she has reconvened the Caridan tribunal."
Jaina's eyes widened. "That was dropped a long time ago."
"Officially, the tribunal was never closed. It's simply been a matter of precedent that no Chief of State has pressed the issue because Kyp has been a valuable asset up to now."
"Yet none have stepped forward to pardon him, either."
"That would have been tricky even for a popular politician."
She arched a brow. "You're beginning to think like one."
"Not by choice."
"No, I suppose not." Her nostrils flared momentarily, and she paused on an unspoken thought. She was obviously troubled.
"It's all right. I told you knowing what your choice would be."
"No, Jag, this doesn't change anything. I don't know how to say this the right way." She exhaled. "I'm not sure I can face my uncle in the near future. I have a lot of anger in his general direction. I'm not sure it's all justifiable, but it's there. And not just Myrkr, either, but everything after that. On some level I'm finding it easier to forgive Jacen than I am Luke. It doesn't make any sense, maybe, but it's how I feel."
"It makes perfect sense, actually. You never stopped doing your Jedi duty while Jacen wandered in search of himself. Your uncle allowed it, then chose Jacen to guide Ben. It's only natural to wonder if his choices didn't quite add up."
"Not just those," she snarled. "He was wrong to send you into the rancor pit of the Moff Council."
"Maybe he knew you would be there for me..." The idea didn't even sound plausible to Jag.
"All I know is that I'm done being anyone's dejarik piece. I am going to do what I want to do, and that means -" Her eyes radiated defiance as fingers walked up his chest. "- doing things I want to do."
Jag wanted to believe this was happening, especially since her palms were now rubbing up and down his shirt. "What about Kyp?"
"I won't abandon my friends, and I'll find a way to help if I can, but I am beginning to think I can do more at this point by laying low."
He placed his hand in the small of Jaina's back. "Going to formal receptions with the head of the Moff Council doesn't sound like laying low."
"Maybe not, but it's about as far removed from the Sword of the Jedi as I can possibly get." Jaina rested her cheek against him, sighing wearily. "Jag, I'm tired of killing. I just want to make something, leave a legacy that people can look upon and remember I tried to have a positive effect on their lives."
He didn't need to remind Jaina that her actions already had benefited the galaxy a million times over. She wouldn't have made the choice she had if she didn't already know it was true. All he could do was hold her and remind her that she was loved beyond measure. He rested his cheek on the top of her head. "I want that, too."
The brilliant stars of the Unknown Regions sparkled like jewels in the nighttime sky. With the primary moon a tiny sliver, the secondary moon only beginning its new phase, the pinpricks of light faced hardly any competition as they twinkled in their unique way. The air outside was crisp and particularly clear for the season, allowing starshine to dance off the snowy horizon beyond the walls of the Sym'pak'ha Grand Pavilion. Enormous windows soared to high-vaulted ceilings in an extravagant display of the architectural and technological capabilities of an advanced civilization, allowing those inside to enjoy the spectacular view without braving the freezing temperatures outside.
Yet not one set of eyes marveled at the sight, not even the first-time visitors brought down from Fist of Bastion. All were captivated by the display set against this brilliant backdrop - a man in black and a woman in red twirling around the floor with unrivaled skill and timing never soon to be matched.
The Kralhal was a stunning dance, and only the steeliest of hearts braved it publicly. Performed without music, the dancers had to hold their own tempo, match their own movements. The dance form was as old as the written history of the Chiss, and over the years almost had been lost as an art - until Grand Admiral Thrawn had revived interest in it. Like no other, Thrawn had understood the importance of studying a civilization's culture. The Kralhal required intense passion from its performers, but it was not a dance of romantic coupling, rather of unification in power.
And that, thought Syal, indeed made the Kralhal the ultimate expression of the Chiss soul.
As a couple, Jaina and Jag transitioned from step to step seamlessly. Tempo rose and fell in perfect accord. The struggle for prominence shifted effortlessly to dueling partnership, until the partners reached a natural harmony. Motion in concert revealed true strength; a lift signified the greater heights reached in union. A paired spin, hands joined, widened their reach; a close hold made them both stronger.
So had gone the life of Jaina and Jag, and Syal experienced the same awe as any other witness to this moment. A tear threatened to fall as the dance drew to conclusion, and instinctively she opened her fingers. The strongest of grips engulfed them and drew her hand up. Her husband brushed his lips over the tender skin on the back of her hand, then let go. The inscrutable mask of Baron Soontir Fel returned without eyes ever wavering from the dance.
Jag bowed appreciatively to his partner, and approval cascaded to the rafters. A son of the Chiss, leader of the vanguard into the Known Regions, at long last had returned home - and honored them with an impeccable rendition of their age-old dance. True to her royal heritage, Jaina curtsied in the proper expression of human respect, but she didn't bow her head. Her presence had benefited Jag's rise to power, the one thing the Chiss valued above all else; their pairing brought power to the Ascendency and she acknowledged it as only a ruler should.
The closing of the Kralhal required the performers to accept praise from their host. Because Formbi had been instrumental in the Chiss ventures back to the Known Regions, he had been the choice to preside over the ceremony. As he began his opening remarks, it was obvious the Chiss ambassador still relished any chance in the spotlight.
Syal leaned closer to Soontir. "Here we go."
Her husband kept his eyes trained on the speaker and pretended not to hear her remark. He listened to the first few minutes before finally deeming himself satisfied enough to allow his attention to be divided. Soontir simply glanced toward a remote, unoccupied corner of the Pavilion before taking Syal by the elbow. "I'm sure you need to rest your weary feet, dear."
"Actually..." A squeeze on her elbow made her reconsider. "Yes, that would be nice." Syal allowed herself to be guided the rest of the way, making sure she played the part of a weary matriarch.
Soontir flicked a hand at one attendant and the Chiss dashed off. Seconds later, he reappeared with another attendant in tow. The first carried a chair; the second bore a goblet. Syal accepted both politely. Taking a few careful sips of the golden beverage, she waited until the attendants were out of earshot.
"Stock from the Nuruodo vineyards? You know how this affects me, 'Tir."
She took another sip, because her husband was the one person in the galaxy who could get past her guard and induce a blush. "I am glad Jag decided to go forward with the Kralhal. It has garnered him much favor tonight."
"Unfortunately," Soontir said wearily, "it had little to do with my skills of persuasion."
"Give him time."
"If only galactic affairs would be so generous." His gaze had remained steadfastly toward the events occurring across the room. For his part, Formbi gave the impression his speech was not about to end any time soon. Soontir heaved his shoulders, steeling them for the duration, when his stare began to track a target.
In the midst of one of the many carefully timed pauses within the ambassador's speech, when Chiss and Imperials alike banged their fists into palms in a gesture of approval, Jag made his way toward the dais. He banged his fist and expressed the appropriate measure of endorsement for a man of Formbi's regard. Then Jag held his arm out toward Formbi and with the other indicated the crowd should renew their applause. As the cheers swelled, Jag moved swifter than a nexu snatching its prey to steal the spotlight.
"Thank you, Ambassador Chaf'orm'bintrano. " Jag repeated the statement in Cheunh.
Syal stood. "That was bold."
"Staking his claim in the hierarchy." Soontir looked grim. "Jagged has spent more time than any of us living and working with the Chiss. He understands what it will take to bring the Chiss into the Imperial fold."
"That's what you trained him to do."
"It's not his dealings with the Chiss that trouble me." He clucked his tongue while listening to their son's words.
Syal wasn't sure what was more captivating, her son standing before an entire alien civilization as one of their most powerful allies or the weary sadness of a father who had trained their son for this exact moment. Soontir's expression had not looked this distressed since the day he had come home to announce their first-born son was dead.
"He won't be alone in this." Had she said that for her own benefit?
"No, he won't."
The crowd erupted in the loudest chorus of fist-banging yet, and Soontir put forth a modicum of effort. While Syal cheered on with the resounding ovation, her husband let his hands fall to his side. Their son walked from the dais back to the spot in the center of the room where Jaina had waited patiently. Jag held out an elbow to escort Jaina in a round of official greetings. The young couple moved toward the far side of the room, causing Soontir to brace suddenly.
Jag guided Jaina until they were face to face with a trio of Chiss garbed in ruby robes. Syal snatched her husband's forearm. "What is he doing?"
The corner of Soontir's mouth curled up. "Finally listening to his father, apparently."
"He can't greet a second tier family first."
"To be fair, our son has previously proven himself willing to do whatever he wants when it comes to politicians."
"Jaken'thaldu'od will not approve."
Soontir's good eye snapped to a contingent of green-robed Chiss. "Correct."
"Isn't Jag's mandate to bring the Chiss into the Empire? This is an affront to their perception of power. He's not playing by the Chiss rules."
"No, but he has done exactly what I had hoped he would do." Soontir's weighted gloom seemed to have magically lifted.
"But... Now there will be too much dissension for Jag to bring in the Chiss and be their representative to the Council."
"More than likely." Her husband wore the same expression he did right before he entered battle.
"Then who will - Oh. No. Please tell me you're not thinking what I think you're thinking."
Syal's hands trembled. Only one thought could terrify her to the point of loss of control. As long as she had Soontir...
An arm snaked around her, reminding her she was not alone. Silently they watched Jag and Jaina move among the guests. It was a beautiful sight to see her son happy, belonging again. But truly he could still be stranded on Tenupe and he would have been just as content - as long as he had Jaina. Their son deserved exactly what Soontir and Syal had enjoyed in the early years of their marriage: a home, a purpose, and security to start a life together.
There were days when Syal was so tired that she looked forward to letting go of their responsibility to the future generations, and simply live. As her tear-filled eyes watched Jag, she tried to come to terms with the reality that retirement was not going to happen any time soon. Yet she would lay down her life for any of her children without hesitation.
"I know it's not the right decision," her husband whispered.
"But it's the necessary one." Syal compelled her back straight and tall. It would do no good for the wife of the future Grand Moff to show any hint of weakness. Syal was ready.
Wynssa Starflare had one last role to play. "Come, dear. We had better rescue our son."
Soontir willingly took the lead. He dove into the crowd with the fearlessness of the Empire's greatest fighting ace returned for one more dogfight. He gracefully dodged a conversation here, an interruption there. To outward eyes, it would have seemed they were heading straight for their son, the High Councilor, but instead they intercepted the green-robed trio.
"Thal, my friend," the Baron said loudly enough that it was impossible to ignore him, "retiring before the High Councilor has a chance to greet you?"
The figure in the center of the trio turned slowly and paced back toward the Fel couple. He spoke softly, but his vehemence was unmistakable. "Your son has missed his chance."
"Ah, yes. That is why I stopped you." Soontir paused, shifting his glance around before leaning in to Thal. "My son was raised among the military. There is much he still needs to learn about the higher calling of the Families."
The Chiss regarded the father's words, and his countenance softened - but only slightly. "Hopefully you can guide him."
"Jagged has never been one to disrespect the Chiss ways. He even obeyed his exile impeccably, despite the personal toll. This new position was not one of his choosing, but I can assure you he will listen to counsel and do his duty."
There wasn't time for Thal or either of his cohorts to answer. Jag and Jaina drifted into earshot, heading straight for them.
Soontir stepped back, welcoming them into their discussion. "And here he is, the man of the hour."
For an instant father and son connected gazes, before Jag tipped his head toward Thal. "It is a pleasure, Your Eminence. May I present Jedi Knight Jaina Skywalker Solo, Princess of Alderaan, Guardian of the Alliance for her efforts in the Yuuzhan Vong War and Champion in a battle to the death with the Sith Lord Darth Caedus."
Syal wanted to wince. She wasn't sure who those words would hurt more, Jaina hearing it or Jag saying it over and over again throughout the night. But this wasn't something a mother could protect a child from, so she regarded the words with the same esteem that any Chiss would have. The formalities were over quickly, and Syal wondered how far the small talk would go before Thal fired the first salvo at their son. Then she noticed his piercing red eyes never wavered from Jaina, and worried Thal had already determined Jag's one true weakness.
Not intimidated in the slightest, Jaina directed her attention at Thal. "So what did you think of our interpretation of the Kralhal, Your Eminence?"
"Clearly there were liberties taken to account for your being human." Thal definitely had already formed an opinion.
"True," Jaina said with a quaint smile. "We don't have quite the same range of motion in some of our limbs."
Soontir cleared his throat. "But no Chiss can match Force-enhanced spins. It is remarkable that you two could perform it at all on such short notice. Let alone as admirably as you did."
"It is a warriors' dance, based on hand-to-hand combat techniques," Jaina said. "True?"
"A Chiss warriors' dance," Thal corrected.
"The Fels are worthy of dying for the sake of the Chiss," Jaina said, "so are they not Chiss warriors?"
Thal regarded Soontir for a moment, hesitating on the answer. Syal scored the first point to Jaina, then prayed the verbal volley wouldn't mark a quick escalation to full-on warfare. A familiar voice heralded a strategic retreat.
"High Councilor, I must insist we stick to the timeline." Britna Starwind shifted her spectacles officiously.
Jag offered a rueful sigh. "I am afraid duty calls. Your Eminence, I look forward to our discussions tomorrow." After exchanging respectful nods with the Chiss, he turned to Soontir. "Father, would you and Mother be so kind as to escort us out?"
"We would be honored."
With that the two couples began their journey toward the exit. It might have been a painfully slow process, but between Britna's stern stare and the imposing size of the ISS guard who slipped quietly into the retinue, they made it to the hangar in half the time Syal would have expected. It held a complete squadron of TIE fighters, an Imperial Lambda-class shuttle, and a beautiful gleaming silver space yacht. They wheeled in unison toward the yacht and its lowering boarding ramp.
Once inside, the family exhaled as one. Cem and Wyn only allowed themselves a few seconds of relaxation, then marched off toward the cockpit. Jag put his arm around Jaina, tugging the petite woman to him. Jaina still looked on knife's edge as he placed his lips atop her carefully coifed hair.
"It's over," he told her.
She tipped her head silently, and Syal wanted desperately to hug the young woman. Instead, she offered a suggestion. "Why don't we get you out of that dress?"
Jaina forced a smile. "I would like that. Thank you."
"Go," Jag said. "I need to speak to my father."
That seemed to buoy Jaina's spirits; her eyes brightened visibly as she pivoted away. Syal glanced toward her husband and son, a matched pair, so alike that at times she wondered if they might collide until they destroyed each other. Yet now she knew they had found an understanding. She cupped her son's cheek with a palm and smiled. Yes, she would do anything for him.
As Syal followed Jaina down the corridor, she heard her husband say, "I'm proud of you, son."
Syal didn't realize she was clutching a hand to her heart until she entered the cabin. It had always been the boys' room. Now, it unofficially served as Jag's - and Jaina's.
The petite brunette looked so much like her mother. "Are you feeling all right?"
"Yes." Forcing her hand to her side, Syal smiled. "It's just been a long day."
"You should go rest." Jaina fiddled with the fasteners on her dress. "I can manage. Jedi, remember?"
Syal dismissed the young woman's concern with a wave. Crossing the room, she began to untie the laces at the back of the dress. One particular knot gave her trouble, and frustration swelled. Syal focused on a happy thought. "I will never forget the look on Jag's face when you made your entrance tonight."
"I suppose he was pleasantly surprised."
"Pleasantly surprised? Child, you may just be the queen of understatements."
Jaina chuckled. "I think that's the first time I've ever been mentioned in the same breath as the word 'understatement.'"
Syal wasn't going to argue with her, but the more she saw of Jaina the more she was convinced what she'd said was true. Jaina could be torn apart inside and only show a glint of a tear, face the most difficult of task and finish it with hardly breaking a sweat. "If you say so."
Jaina wiggled out of the dress. For just a moment, the last traces of the scars from her battle with Darth Caedus caught Syal's eye. Her chest tightened, and her breath stuck in her throat. Jaina grabbed the red shimmersilk to cover herself, then walked toward the clothes locker. Silently she dug through the contents, discarding each article with only a moment's consideration.
"Wear whatever you're comfortable with," Syal offered. "No one will see you tonight."
Jaina paused, then tugged a plain brown tunic from the bottom of the pile. "I don't know why, but I always feel best in this ratty old thing."
A low, barely audible hum announced the ignition of the yacht's engines. As Jaina tugged on the tunic and a matching pair of pants, the comm speaker chirped twice: five minutes. Syal crossed the cabin and took the red dress from Jaina. Searching for its hanger in the locker, she said, "We've got time to get your hair down before we launch."
"Won't take much time, not with this short hair." Jaina never complained about it, but what she left unsaid spoke volumes about how much her hair's current condition bothered her. She settled cross-legged on the bed, facing the mirror, and began unraveling the braided extension wound into a high bun atop her head. "These extensions are pretty easy to work with."
Syal hung the dress in the back of the locker, secured the door, then moved to assist Jaina. "Yes, they do come in handy."
Brown eyes reflected back at her. "I have a question."
"You might not have gotten to this part yet, but from everything you taught me about Chiss politics, I thought Jag would have greeted Jaken'thaldu'od first. According to the ranking of families."
Syal studied the extension she was trying to remove. "I'm sure Jag knew what he was doing."
The younger woman considered it. "Well, he is the authority on all things Chiss. I just wanted to understand, to make sure I don't screw up something like that."
Removing the final extension from Jaina's hair, Syal carried it to the refresher. "I wouldn't worry too much."
"I do, though."
Syal pressed a knob and a recessed drawer extended from the wall. She stowed the extension neatly. There wasn't a right way to assure Jaina that no matter what she did, she wasn't going to chase Jag away. Suddenly Syal began to worry about the implications of her husband's plan for Jaina. Thankfully, a lone chime sounded. "Time to strap in."
Jaina rose, fluffing her hair with her fingers. "I can't wait to see the Fist. Even if it is just to drop Jag off."
Syal followed Jaina through the cabin door. "I can't say I have your fondness for warships."
"Are you sure you're Wedge's sister?"
They joked about the siblings' lack of similarities all the way to the galley, where the table seating also served as crashcouches for take-offs and landings. Once strapped in, Jaina tapped the comm panel, signaling the cockpit they were ready. Almost immediately, the ship began to rise beneath them.
"The Chiss seem to have quite a lengthy protocol for departures," Jaina noted.
"They like to be thorough." Syal knew from experience it usually wouldn't have taken this long, but she kept that to herself. What she needed was a distraction... "So, how did you convince my son to perform the Kralhal?"
"I see. Underhanded use of feminine wiles usually does the trick."
"Something like that. But I'd prefer to keep my tactics a secret." A pink blush rose instantly on the young woman's cheeks, but Syal was pretty sure it had less to do with the fact she was talking to the mother of her lover and more to do with a vivid memory of the chosen tactics. Just as quickly, though, Jaina's eyes darkened, her shoulders fell, and she sighed softly. "I've enjoyed these last couple of days. I wish I had more time to... uh, negotiate."
"True, things will be hectic for a few days, but then Jag will have more time again." The Starflare rattled around them as it passed through the sound barrier. Syal had intended simply to squeeze Jaina's hand, but her hold ended up as a death grip.
The seasoned pilot glanced at their joined grasp. "We're in good hands, you know."
Syal huffed. "Doesn't mean I have to like take-offs - or landings."
"There are a lot of things we do in life that we don't have to like."
The former holostar felt her stomach lurch as the yacht dropped suddenly. "Oh, my." She swallowed, compelling her mind to focus on Jaina's current situation, and not her own. "If you could choose, what would you do?"
"Build something." There was no hesitation in Jaina's reply. "Something better..." She paused, eyes searching. Her head tilted, listening. "We haven't broken atmosphere. I should check -"
"Change of plans, ladies, " crackled Soontir's voice over the comm. "Remain strapped in. We'll be landing shortly. "
"Great. Now I'm really worried." Jaina fished around in her tunic pocket and extracted a comlink. She toggled the transmit key.
"Shut it down, Lead. " Jag sounded amused. "Situation normal. "
Scowling, Jaina settled back into the crashcouch. She didn't say another word until they landed a few minutes later. She yanked off her restraints, then barged down the corridor toward the boarding ramp. Syal followed at a more normal pace. Ahead, Jaina's impatient questioning had already begun. "Why are we back at the estate?"
Glancing at his father, Jag said, "I told you she would need more explanation."
"She is going to have to learn patience, and to trust." Soontir, walking with his slight limp, arrived at the couple the same time Syal did.
"I don't like last minute changes to plans," Jaina replied.
Soontir snorted. "Then your quibble is with him," he said, pointing an accusing finger at Jag, "because he didn't tell anyone his plan."
"My plan?" Jag took Jaina by the hand, leading her down the boarding ramp. "This wasn't really my plan, but it is a good plan."
Soontir had a certain look, the one that said what was about to happen wasn't in his plan. He motioned toward the exit. "Come along, dear."
Syal wasn't feeling particularly sympathetic. Once Jag and Jaina were out of earshot, she asked, "Should I even ask?"
"Jag is already... tweaking the plan."
"Not yet willing to cede complete control, I take it?" Syal wrestled with relief for herself and despair for her son. No matter how they went about the transfer of power, Jag would have to lose face - either to the Imperials or the Chiss, possibly both. The Lowbacca incident had left an indelible scar on his pride. Could he stomach another one?
"Not completely. But Jagged has made up his mind." He gave her a sly smile. "I was in his shoes once. The love of a woman can be enough to cast aside an entire career's worth of work. He just wants to do it his way."
"Will it be that bad for him?"
"Not if I have anything to say about it." Her husband paused at the hangar's exit, glancing back over his shoulder. He called out, "Move it along, you two."
Wyn scampered down the ramp. "We're coming," she called back, impatience in her voice. A moment later, Cem loped down behind her. "He acts like we had time to prepare for this."
Soontir glanced sideways at Syal. "She is your daughter - in every sense."
"Someone has to keep you Fel men in line." Syal leaned forward, kissing her husband lightly.
He frowned, apparently unaffected. "That's the trouble for me, don't you see? With Jaina in the mix, I think the men are now consigned to the losing team."
Stepping into the ice tunnel leading from the Starflare's hangar to the house proper, Syal decided it was best simply to let her husband believe he had been part of the winning team once, a long time ago. On a professional level, of course, he was a skilled tactician, a master manipulator, a leader of men and capable of doing whatever he set his mind to. When it came to his family, on the other hand, his heart trumped reason - a big part of why she loved him so fiercely. Not even Soontir would ever see the truth behind his latest machinations, but Syal did.
Soontir walked at her side, studying her from the corner of his eye. "A private joke you're not sharing, dear?"
"Nothing you would find funny, 'Tir."
He stopped her with a hand on her upper arm, and they waited silently for Cem and Wyn to slip past. When Soontir and Syal were alone in the tunnel, he softened to the kind, loving husband only she would ever know. "I am sorry for... this."
She could see the doubt and worry draining the life from his face. "What you do is necessary."
"I can protect the children in the short term, but ultimately we will be back to where things stand today."
"And by then they will be better prepared, and perhaps be as blessed as we have been."
He snatched her into his arms, burying his head into her shoulder. "That you could consider this - abandoning a holostar's life to live on the run, married to a career military man in an alien culture, with five children to raise more or less alone - a blessing is beyond me."
"All I ever needed was your love." Syal ran her palms around his waist and hugged him back. He held her tightly for several heartbeats. "Don't worry. Jag will learn to trust you in time."
Soontir released her. "Jag is the least of my concerns."
"Ah. So he altered your plan to include Jaina. Well, you will just have to learn to trust her, too."
"I believe she would do anything to protect Jag - and that's what worries me. If she knows the endgame and what it might do to Jag's reputation, Jaina may be our biggest hindrance."
"What does Jag think?"
"He wants to tell her right now." Soontir's shoulders rose. "The game is already afoot and we're not seeing eye to eye."
"I think you should trust his instincts about Jaina."
"She is headstrong."
"And Jag isn't?"
"She is rash, besides."
"And he's not?" Syal arched an eyebrow. "The only difference between those two is that you have three decades of practice at predicting Jag."
"You are right, as always," he said, holding up his palms in mock surrender.
"Of course." She winked.
Soontir beckoned toward the tunnel's exit. "Shall we?"
Syal welcomed the warmth of their home and the happy sounds that filtered down the hall. Taking her husband's hand, they walked together in the direction of laughter. Upon reaching the den, they paused outside and listened as Cem recounted a childhood adventure with Jag and Davin. Jag, his formal jacket set aside, his sleeves rolled up, straddled a chair. Jaina, informally dressed, sat on the floor with her head resting against his knee. Cem and Wyn were perched on the couch, their uniforms still intact. And they were all smiling.
True to form, the merriment ended as soon as the parents entered the room. Soontir stiffened too, reverting back to the commanding officer visage he wore impeccably. "How much time did you buy us, Wyn?"
Their daughter straightened her shoulders; she was now reporting to her leader. "I tabled the Fist's CO briefing until oh-six-thirty fleet time. Captain Kolaf wasn't particularly pleased to be put off by the High Councilor again, but I reminded him that the extra time could afford additional repairs between now and the briefing."
"Indeed. Clever girl, that Britna Starwind." Soontir smiled uneasily, and an awkward hush fell across the room.
Jaina seemed to be the only one unaffected. She lifted her head, glancing up to Jag. "So you'll be spending the night planetside?"
"I'm afraid not." Jag stared at Soontir. "I need my father's advice, and he in turn will need the Starflare. He will be returning with us to the Fist."
Jaina looked heartbroken; Cem and Wyn genuinely curious. Father and son continued their silent faceoff. Finally Soontir exhaled his breath in a hiss, turning to Syal. He indicated the loveseat. "This could take a while."
The family formed a rough circle, each facing into the center of the room. Jaina shifted uncomfortably. "I guess this is one of those family talks. I'll just -"
"Sit," Soontir commanded. Jaina obeyed, plopping back down to the floor while Jag, Cem and Wyn bristled to an attentive state. The father forced his body to relax from its natural militaristic set as he waved a palm down. "Yes, this is one of those family talks. Cem, Wyn, you're off duty and off-the-record until I say otherwise. Jaina, you are family, so you stay. Jag, this is your tactical maneuver; I yield the floor to you."
Jag opened his mouth, then hesitated. "Maybe you had better explain, Father."
"No, really. I insist."
"A few days back, Father suggested I consider a plan to cede my power to him -"
"How will that ever work?"
"Let me finish." An ice-cold, green-eyed glare silenced further protests. "I'll admit, that was my initial reaction as well. But there is something I can't deny about it. Beyond the potential impacts to my future career and life among the Chiss, this is the one chance I have for a target lock on the future I have always wanted..." He turned his gaze down, twinkling emerald eyes gazing into Jaina's. "With you."
She blinked, as if she didn't recognize the man before her. "I..."
"We will need to move quickly," Soontir said, interrupting Jaina's tumbling thoughts. "Jag has already sown the seeds for this eventuality by his actions tonight. Cem and Wyn, you will be an integral part of this operation..."
Her husband continued the discussion with unerring precision. The children fell into line, weighing options and making the appropriate queries about procedural soundness. They had adjusted course as easily as if they were flying a TIE in space - all in a day's work for the Fel family. Syal could not take her eyes off Jaina, who seemed to easily follow the ebb and flow of a tactical discussion but unable to lock down to center and participate. A haunting quality shaded her brown eyes - dark, as if drowning in the suffocating depths of a sea. Then, abruptly, they flashed wide open, bright with instant lucidity.
"This is all unnecessary," she murmured.
Jag took her hand from his knee. "Did you say something, Jaina?"
"You don't need to do this," she said clearly.
"I want to do this."
"I won't let you sacrifice your career again. Not even for us. There has to be another way."
Soontir interrupted. "Trust me, Jaina. I've been over this from every side. This is the only way."
Her eyes had never left Jag. "You want a future badly enough to do this. As do I." She turned to Soontir. "There is a better way than sacrificing Jag's reputation."
"I don't think you should go there, child," Soontir warned.
Jaina wasn't swayed. "I should take the fall for this, and you know it," she told the general. "We can make Jag a sympathetic character now, and in the end his regard will rise."
"What are you suggesting?" As usual, Jag had asked the question everyone else in the room wanted answered.
Shutting her eyes momentarily, Jaina receded into the private place she often went when things troubled her. Then she was back, stronger than a few seconds before. "I killed my brother. What if I all this proved to be too much? Who wouldn't wonder if I might go a little mad by the events of the past few years? Who would doubt the possibility?"
"You think," Jag asked incredulously, "I should announce I am ceding power to care for my incompetent... girlfriend?"
Jaina shifted to her knees, taking his hands in hers. "Jag, half the galaxy thinks I'm Solo crazy anyway. So I turn it up a notch, get out of control at a public function. Your mom can help me with the acting, right?" Syal hadn't expected to be a named accomplice. She opened her mouth, but Jaina didn't give her an opportunity to interject. "I have those two last graft procedures for my back that will put me out of commission one last time for a month so we time it with that. It appears you've whisked me off so I don't embarrass myself further and -"
"Jag is shown to be truly noble, torn between duty and love," Wyn said.
Cem weighed in next. "So when Jag chooses to step down to care for Jaina, everyone thinks the better of him."
"He did what was best for Jaina and for the Empire. Surely her illness would be a distraction no matter what," Wyn concluded.
The latest twist in the discussion had proceeded no differently than any other in the Fel household. Jaina had presented an idea, and the children had learned to look at all options before rejecting them. But unlike any other weighing of ideas, Soontir had remained utterly silent and Jag wore that determined expression he had perfected as a boy dead set on having his way. He could be as stubborn as a yaka-ox, her son.
Cem was the one who finally chose to break the awkward silence that had blanketed the room. "Jaina's plan would keep your prestige, give you both what you want -"
"I don't want this!" Jag was angry at the idea, but his younger brother landed on the receiving end of his untargeted wrath.
Syal had already noticed odd fractures in the relationship between the two boys. Jag was seething; Cem bristled physically. Something this personal might splinter their brotherhood irreparably. She leaned forward, wearing that sweet angelic smile of the Fel family matriarch - a mother, not a warrior - and as usual it softened the posturing.
"Perhaps we should all take a moment and reflect on our blessings." She had an idea, too, but it had to be a last resort. And she needed time develop a little courage. "'Tir, I think it's time for a drink to celebrate our family."
"Certainly, my dear." As he rose and turned toward the built-in wooden shelves that lined the den's back wall, Soontir appeared grateful for the distraction. Jaina was rash, but somehow Soontir had foreseen her reaction. His reasons for keeping this from Jaina were now becoming clear. He opened the glass doors that protected the alcohol reserves for occasions such as this.
She followed him over, helping to withdraw the crystal glasses. "The good stuff, please."
His hand drifted from the Balanston's, one of Corellia's finest brandies, to a decanter full of a sparkling ruby liquid. The room was silent as husband and wife prepared the drinks, Syal putting forth one glass at a time and Soontir decanting the beautiful liquid into each. For at least a moment, the expectation of the drink served as a distraction.
Soontir picked up a pair of glasses and walked toward Cem and Wyn. Syal took another two and proceeded toward Jaina and Jag. Her son accepted his, then Syal was free to bend forward as she handed Jaina hers. "Careful, it's pretty strong."
Syal met her husband back at the loveseat, accepting the glass he had brought over for her, and they both sat down.
"Haven't met a liquor yet that can best me," Jaina said, holding her glass up in a gesture of thanks.
"You haven't met the Chiss' finest then," Cem chuckled.
Jag grinned a little. "Go on, Jaina. Give it a try. But I should advise you, it's an acquired taste. If you don't like it, Father will pour you a brandy."
Jaina held out the glass, then placed it to her lips. Her neck arched as she took a mouthful, swallowing quickly. As she lowered the glass, Jaina's eyes were already watering and she exhaled like a Krayt dragon breathing fire. "Ooo, da fiss."
Laughter erupted around the room.
"Id wah-ent 'at funny." Jaina studied the drink, swirling the glass slowly. Bubbles erupted from within red liquid, exploding with tiny pops once they reached the surface.
Wyn couldn't contain her giggle. "No, actually, it was that funny."
"This is Chiss red ale. The typical first toast is..." Cem held up his glass, "To the Chiss."
Jag rubbed her back. "I told you you were Chiss at heart."
"Would you still say that if I told you I'd prefer a brandy? I can handle the fiery sensation like a plasma torch, but that fizz is like taking laser fire the whole way down."
"I suppose it wasn't quite fair that we let you drink it right away without proper preparation," Jag admitted.
"But it was funny," Wyn and Cem chimed in.
"The drink needs to warm, to complete the fermentation cycle." Jag held his glass forward, nestled between his two palms. "Hold it like this for a few minutes and that will allow the gases to bubble out."
"I see," Jaina said, mimicking his hold on her own glass. "Perhaps we can spend that time talking about -"
"How the new lightsaber construction is coming along," Syal cut in. The Jedi had flung her old weapon into the Meti Glacier without a moment's hesitation, but since then she had been intent on replacing the weapon almost immediately. It was as good a subject as any to keep Jaina off her proposed adjustment to Soontir's plan.
"Uh... That's not what I had in mind."
"I would like to hear, though," Jag persisted. "Between the reception and my dealings with the Moff Council, we haven't had much time to talk about your lightsaber. I know you may need assistance with resources."
"I'm still working out a few minor details." Just that morning, Syal had found Jaina pondering detailed sketches at the breakfast table before anyone else in the house had risen. Another Jaina understatement, Syal thought.
"If there is anything you need, Jaina, we will happily provide it." The sincerity in Soontir's words was unquestionable.
Jaina gazed at the Baron, and the tip of her head acknowledged that she had no doubt of that, either. "Thank you." The churnings of Jaina's mechanically-inclined mind became visible in the curve of her lips and the momentary inner focus of her eyes. "I want to make the housing with beskar if I can get my hands on it."
"That could take some time," Soontir replied.
Jaina held up her palm. "That's fine. I'll need to model the casing with a softer material on the first pass anyway, to be sure I've got it right. Besides, there's no rush. Until I can find a suitable crystal, the lightsaber will have to wait."
"The crystal is for?" Syal was genuinely curious.
For a moment there was no response, and everyone waited in silence as Jaina shifted her position on the floor once more.
Placing his drink on the endtable, Jag rose from his seat. "You're uncomfortable. Take my seat."
Jaina ignored him at first, looking to Syal instead. "The crystal harnesses the energy, focuses the beam, and creates the blade." Then she glanced up at Jag. "I'm uncomfortable that we're avoiding the subject."
The general cleared his throat. "We don't avoid tough subjects in this household, Jaina. But sometimes you have to let ideas settle, like this red ale."
"Jaina, please," Jag beseeched her.
The stubborn set of her chin signaled that Jaina was about to refuse, but Soontir intervened first. "Jaina, you may not mind the ache of your healing body sitting on that floor, but I assure you nothing can cut to the quick more for a man than to watch the woman he loves suffer. So take that seat, young lady."
Silently, she did.
"Now for that toast." Soontir raised his glass. "To the Chiss."
"To the Chiss." Cem, Wyn and Syal saluted the air with their drinks, then swigged a quick drink. The first sip always burned the most. Syal could feel the passage of fire, like a long lava flow passing down the side of a volcano. The burn did not dissipate until it settled deep into her center.
Jag was slower in offering the toast, but when he brought the red ale to his lips he gulped down a sizeable portion of his drink.
Jaina held her glass, not uttering a word until they were all finished. "To the Chiss," she said softly, then batted down a healthy swallow. This time she was prepared and simply released her breath in a hiss.
"Better the second time?" Jag asked.
She craned her neck up. "Better if you'd sit beside me."
The corner of Jag's mouth curled, and he didn't hesitate to settle a hip onto the corner of the chair Jaina had made available. He took her hand. "You want to cut to the power cables. That would make it even better, I know."
"Not better, Jag. Just resolved. I won't let you sacrifice your career, again. I couldn't live with that, and it might just drive me crazy."
"My father's plan is better -"
"There's a first," Soontir muttered. Syal shot him a warning glance, and he remained silent while Jag continued with his explanation. This time Cem and Wyn sensed that rational discussion had been tainted by the raw edge of emotional wounds not yet healed, and held their tongues, too.
Syal leaned toward her husband, whispering, "You were right. About Jaina. Your concern wasn't about trusting her." She shut her eyes and kissed his cheek. "I'm sorry." Then she sat forward and spoke to everyone. "Might I play the advocate for a moment?"
Jag ceased his disagreement with Jaina, blinking at his mother. Among the Chiss, an advocate was commonly used in disagreements about critical decisions when one or both parties had a vested interest and had difficulty seeing all angles of an argument. His surprise was understandable, though. Until today, Syal had seldom contributed more than a word here or an idea there when it came to the family's strategic choices. No matter what Jag and Jaina felt, this decision would affect the entire family. Their future balanced on a blade's edge, and she wanted them to make the right choice for the necessary reasons.
Her son nodded and was about to explain to Jaina, when she tipped her head to Syal. "I'm pretty sure I follow."
"Jag, what is it you truly want from your life?"
"To spend the rest of it with Jaina."
"And what would you two do?"
"Make the galaxy a better place."
"And your career?"
Syal chuckled, staring into her son's green eyes. "For argument's sake, let's pretend it is relevant."
"To what gain?"
"I could ask the same question of you, for all the choices you've made until now. To what gain did you struggle to lead a Chiss squadron before you were twenty? Or accept the position of High Councilor? You lead because you must. That is the man Jaina fell in love with; that is the man you must be."
Jaina smiled victoriously. "You see -"
"I'm not done." Syal turned her attention to the Jedi. "What was it you said you would do, given the choice?"
"Build something. But my plan doesn't preclude that."
"It certainly delays it. Moreover, just as you fear for Jag, your plan might reduce your ability to be an effective leader in the future."
"I think I've done enough leading the charge for one lifetime."
"Then why construct a new lightsaber?"
Jaina shrugged. "Personal protection."
"Not with all the rest you can do with the Force. No, you're making it because you're a Jedi and you must. That is the woman my son fell in love with."
"So we're back to there being no right decision, and I won't accept the Fel family plan." Jaina's expression hardened. "I'll leave first."
Syal believed her; that was why her next words were necessary. "There is a third way." She heard Soontir suck in his breath behind her. "It's quite simple, actually. We act as if this was the plan all along. From Jag's insertion into the GFFA, all the way down to his position as High Councilor."
Jag connected with the idea first. "I hand over the position to Father because that was my assignment - to gain power and respect in the Known Regions."
Jaina frowned. "That would cast your family as power-mongers. The opinion of some would change in regard to you, Jag. Adversely."
"Not if he were just following his father's orders," Soontir said.
Jaina snorted. "Not even Thrawn had enough foresight to plan out that type of coup. No one would believe it."
"Don't underestimate the power of the Holonet," Syal offered.
"Or the mind," added Soontir. "Many beings thrive on seeing conspiracy even where there is none."
"It's too simple." Jaina wanted to like Syal's plan.
No, Syal reconsidered, Jaina needed Syal's plan to work. Jag's mother sipped her red ale and sat back in the loveseat. The discussion had begun; she was content now to let the rest work itself out.
The kitchen table was strewn with an odd assortment of parts, some familiar, others entirely foreign in their Chiss design. The room was not lit save for the sporadic flare and dimming of the Holonews, where carefully chosen images of the Imperial-Chiss diplomatic conference flashed by. The loop of footage was on its fifth cycle, so Jaina now knew when to raise her eyes from her work to catch a glimpse of Jag. She had followed the commentator's Cheunh script enough times with the captioned translation that she was beginning to recognize certain phrases.
So far, there was little to be learned beyond what she already knew: the Chiss were entertaining the new leader of the Moff Council and negotiating assistance in the post-war rebuilding efforts. Her knowledge didn't make the waiting easier. In fact, it was what she did know that kept her nerves on edge. When Jag and his father had returned to the Fist two nights before, they all had seemed in agreement that Syal's suggestion was the best course. But Jag was more than capable of making immediate course corrections when he saw obstacles. She feared he and Soontir would revert back to Plan A should they perceive a threat to their success.
The Holonews reached the droning dissertation on the credentials of Ambassador Formbi, which had bored Jaina practically to sleep on the first cycle, and she returned to the task before her. Split into two distinct halves, the mock-up of a lightsaber hilt sat parallel to the table's edge atop the protective stainproof beige cloth covering its surface. Studying the circuitry and array of wires, Jaina knew it wasn't quite right. She inhaled one deep breath, falling into the Force, stretching to ride a current back into the recesses of her memory, to a time when her Master and aunt still lived.
While Mara had struggled often with the fact that she had been used by the Emperor for many years, there was no doubt that her training as the Hand had proven invaluable. Assassination required the ability to circumvent alarm systems and protection droids as well as the knowledge to make whatever technology was available work on the agent's behalf. No doubt, Mara had been chosen for more than just her Force skills, but also for an innate ability to manipulate technology. Jaina took pride in her own lightsaber building skills, but Mara's blade had been a masterpiece. Not one cubic millimeter had been wasted, filled with redundancies and countermeasures. It had been years since Jaina had glanced over Mara's shoulder as she had modified the emitter, and she was having difficulty envisioning the right set to the wiring.
But that wasn't a surprise. Sometimes, especially when she was troubled, Jaina had difficulty even recalling Mara's face. Anakin, Chewbacca, Mara, Zekk - would they all fade into the mists of her mind and disappear forever? More often than not, they came in images intertwined with memories of Jacen. Those inevitably turned to nightmares, so she shut them all out instead.
Squeezing her eyes shut and pinching the bridge of her nose, she pushed it all away. Improvements designed by Mara Jade Skywalker would have to wait for another day. Picking up a tool for welding wiring, Jaina began to work the connections she felt confident about.
"Not tired either, I see."
Jaina practically jumped out of her skin at the sound of Syal's voice. Luckily her hand remained steady, and no damage had been done to her handiwork. She powered down the tool, placing it on the table. "I don't sleep well when Jag's not here."
The former holostar drifted across the darkened kitchen toward the pantry. "You're worried."
"All the time. Sleep isn't always a restful place for a Jedi, so lately I've tended to just not do it. When Jacen and I were kids nightmares didn't seem so frightening because he was there. Now..."
"Jag makes you feel safe." Syal disappeared momentarily into the pantry, emerging with a package of processed cereal and a wistful expression. "I know that feeling very well."
"Not tired either?"
"Oh, I'm exhausted. Just have to feed a craving." Syal held up the box so the picture of the silly fictional character on its front reflected the light from the Holonews. "Corellian Cocopops - Wynssa Starflare's secret addiction. This, and some warm blue milk, and I will sleep like a baby."
As Syal prepared her snack, Jaina eyed the scattered parts and equipment heaped upon the table. "I'll pick this up -"
"Leave it. I'll just steal a little corner."
Jaina stretched toward the end of the table where Syal usually sat and tugged the protective cloth and its contents clear of that side. "Are you sure this is okay? I can move this stuff back to the workshop if it's in the way."
"It's fine." Syal settled into her usual chair, placing a bowl and mug on the wooden surface. "You aren't the first to use the kitchen table for a special project, and hopefully you won't be the last."
"Well, it works great. A big space to spread out on, and I can keep an eye on the news."
"Plus plenty of snacks."
Syal scooped a spoonful of the cereal into her mouth, studying the Holonews. "Nothing new from earlier in the day?"
"No. Just stock footage of Jag's arrival and a few of the key Chiss players."
"No news is good news," Syal said, then sipped from her mug.
"Reasonable in theory, but did that ever stop you from worrying when Jag was off in the Known Regions?"
"Hardly. But there is little for you to fret about. Everything will work as it should."
"If it works as it should, by your own plan, you'll be wife of the High Councilor shortly. That doesn't trouble you?" It was a question Jaina truly wondered. Syal had taken everything these past weeks in stride. On one level she was a soft maternal character, completely unlike Jaina's own mother. Not weak, just possessed by an amazing ability to nurture, a haven in the midst of a storm. Syal usually remained soft-spoken on family matters and deferred to her husband and children on tactical matters - yet two nights before, Syal had trumped them all.
"My only wish is for my children's' health and happiness." Syal was a different type of warrior. In her determined eyes, Jaina saw the same fire Wedge Antilles possessed. Syal Fel would make a formidable foe. "I won't lie and say I'm not scared, but I have faith in my husband. I've put my life completely in his hands before, and I'll do it again. Our goal is the same, to ensure a future for our family. If your life is immobilized by fear, then the struggle is for naught."
"Or you turn into a Sith Lord." Jaina said the words without thinking. Her mouth flapped shut.
"Jaina, that won't happen to you." Syal picked a spare circuit board off the table and examined it. "You've past the hardest of tests."
"What if the test isn't over?"
"Then we won't allow you to fail." There was a brutal truth behind Syal's words, a grim acceptance to see the galaxy for what it was and not hide from it. Perhaps that was where they had let down Jacen, to not recognize his failings soon enough.
Still, the Fel family was not without weaknesses, and Jaina wondered if this new test would push those cracks to a breaking point. After feeling the pain in her parents' hearts, she wasn't sure she could bear to watch another family torn apart from the inside. "Can I ask you a question?"
"One of those frank questions, I suppose." Syal looked Jaina in the eyes. "As you pilots like to say, fire away."
"Your plan..." Jaina didn't really want to know the truth behind it, not yet anyway. "Aren't you afraid Jag will wonder whether -"
"It's real?" The actress' eyes flashed dark for only a second, until the calm sparkling cerulean, the color of the waters around Bolis Island, returned. "Does it matter?"
"It could. Nobody wants to think their life has been a piece in one big dejarik match."
"Are you talking about Jag, or yourself?"
"Does it matter?"
"Hmmm." Slowly, Syal returned the circuit board to the table. "Being named the Sword of the Jedi must have been hard for you. You were newly knighted and your uncle was proclaiming your destiny for all the galaxy to see. Jag told me that was one of your main reasons for calling off the engagement. Ultimately it seems you did fulfill that role, but does that mean your uncle manipulated your whole life?"
"I don't think so."
"But you wonder."
"He certainly manipulated me recently, at least to some extent."
"Having gotten to know you, I have no doubt you choose your own path, Jaina. Sometimes things just work out a certain way because they're supposed to."
"So why do I feel so angry toward my uncle?"
"Because he has disappointed you. And we don't expect that from our family."
"That's exactly what I don't want to happen with Jag."
"Do you know your uncle loves you, though?"
Jaina recalled the look in Luke's eyes as he had helped her prepare for the drop onto Nickel One. "Yes."
"Then that is all that matters. At some point in everyone's life, their path diverges from the people who raised and loved them. It's inevitable. Sometimes it happens because of death, other times misunderstanding. If we're lucky it's because we've moved on to build our own family." Syal waved her hand out before her, indicating the unfinished lightsaber. "You still choose to be a Jedi, like your uncle."
"I'm not about to run around the Empire unarmed, especially in the company of Moffs."
"The galaxy is a dangerous place, but the Moffs won't be your problem much longer."
Jaina fiddled with the casing, trying to fit the two halves together. "Anyone who is a threat to my family is my problem."
"I'm glad you'll be by Jag's side, young lady." Syal chuckled softly and picked up her dishes. She rose, then walked back into the darkness of the kitchen. "I suppose you feel rather exposed with that weapon unfinished."
"At times." The hilt came together, but Jaina noted a small inconsistency along the edge. She would have to rework that later. "But my dad likes to say he's always gotten along fine with a good blaster at his side. I can make do with one of those for a while."
"Still, a lightsaber is a Jedi's weapon. It won't be the same."
"No, but I also need to get it exactly right. Besides, I won't have a crystal in the near future."
Syal rinsed her bowl and mug. "Yet you work into the wee hours on it."
Jaina shrugged. "Don't have anything better to do."
"You could spend some more time on your Imperial protocol studies." The mug and bowl clinked into the saniwasher as if to emphasize Syal's point.
"Point taken. In the morning -" A different pattern from the holonews caught Jaina's attention.
She started to focus on the commentator's words when Syal spoke. "Ah, they're on the way home."
The new footage showed Jag amidst of sea of blue-skinned dignitaries. One of the Chiss stepped toward a podium mounted before the Yowghru Capital Building, where the talks had been held. Jaina recognized the brooding features of Jaken'thaldu'od from the reception. He began to speak in Cheunh. She turned to Jag's mother. "How can you be sure?"
Syal pointed to the controller panel mounted on the wall behind Jaina. "You will find news travels slowly in a closed society."
A blinking red indicator light brought a smile to Jaina's lips. "Incoming."
Syal shuffled around the kitchen behind Jaina. "I guess we should start some caf, then."
"I'll go get..." Stepping toward the door, Jaina hesitated, noting the mess her lightsaber construction still left on the kitchen table. "I'll pick this up."
"Leave it." Syal waved the caf pot in her hand. "I'll bring this to the den. Run along and say hello."
Jaina barely managed to utter a word of gratitude before she shot out the door. She trotted, turned a quick left, then right, before entering the long hallway leading to the spacecraft hangar. The hangar door had just begun to cycle open when she entered. Moonlight twinkled across the frozen tundra, illuminating the night sky. A glistening silver ship whisked into view, snow pluming behind it. The Starflare dropped sharply toward the snow and decelerated abruptly before hovering gracefully inside the protective cover.
The landing was definitely not Jag's style, so she wasn't surprised when her welcoming wave was returned by Soontir and Wyn in the cockpit. She was, however, disappointed when he was not the first one down the ramp. "Cem."
The ridge of the burly soldier's facial tattoo curled up toward his hairline. "Hello to you, Jaina. Not quite the handsome mug you were looking for?"
"Handsome, yes. Hoping for, no."
"Brutally honest, the makings of a good Fel. He'll be right along." Cem cast his gaze back over his shoulder just as his father and sister began walking down the ramp side by side. "Uh, eventually."
"Oh!" Jaina had nearly forgotten. "Your mom said she'd have drinks ready in the den."
Cem paused on his way into the house. "Red ale?"
Jaina grinned. "If you'd like."
"It just so happens I'm off-duty for now - and you have some bragging rights to prove, Jaina Solo."
"Currently taking all bets," Wyn said as she reached Jaina's side. "Father?"
"I put my money on Cem," Soontir said loud enough for his son to hear before the door closed behind him. "I am obligated as a father, of course. Also as a father, I am obligated to ask that you don't shame him too badly, Jaina."
Jaina chuckled. "Red ale is not quite my style. Cem is probably safe this time."
"Having watched your father drink a Hutt under the table and clean out everyone in sabacc at the same time, I'd venture my son doesn't stand a chance."
"No Corellian drinking games tonight." Jag's voice resonated from the top of the boarding ramp.
The others were forgotten at the sight of his rugged face, and she jogged up the ramp to greet him. Jag looked tired, but he exuded a more relaxed aura than she remembered feeling in him in ages. Her feet stopped toe to toe with his. "Hi."
His shoulders shuddered with a sigh. Then, silently, Jag bent over and placed the package in his hands by his feet. When he stood he was closer, leaning toward Jaina. She could feel his breath as his fingers caressed her cheek, and the familiar spice of his body tickled her nose. They inhaled as one the heartbeat before their lips brushed together, gently. He tasted so good.
Jaina's world erupted in a vision as white and dazzling as the snowfields of Csilla. She felt warmth and strength and hope; she felt loved. The touch vanished, and with it the white faded to the black behind her eyelids. Opening them slowly, she saw only the two blazing emeralds that were his eyes.
"Hi," he whispered.
"Door's closing!" Wyn's shout echoed across the hangar, ending with the whirring clang that signified the movement of the hangar doors.
Shutting his eyes, Jag shook his head with a rueful smile. "Little sisters."
"I wouldn't know. But can't they be Force smacked with impunity like little brothers?"
"I'll consider it." He bent down and scooped up the package, and tugged her along with his free hand. "Come on, let's get inside before the warmers shut down."
"What's in the box?"
"I figured you would be sound asleep by now."
Waiting until after they were inside the house, she slammed her feet to a dead stop. "You didn't answer my question."
"Technically, I did."
"Don't you want to ask me about the talks?"
She did, and she would, but his little feint was maddening. "Clever, trying to distract me with a present."
"Oh, this?" He held it up. "No, this is for me."
Striking off down the hall, Jaina stuck her chin in the air. "How were the talks?"
He followed and answered smugly, "Fine."
"Yes." Walking behind her, Jag apparently wasn't going to say anything further. As they drew closer to the kitchen, they saw light cast out of the room, indicating the glowlamps had been turned up; the drone of the Holonews echoed down the narrow walls in the hall. "Seems you were keeping up anyway, so there shouldn't be much to tell."
Jaina stepped into the kitchen and immediately noted the newly released footage of the Starflare blasting out of the capital's port. She crossed her arms, and canted her head toward the display. "Funny, they're just now showing that the talks have concluded. For all I know the Chiss have declared themselves the Masters of the Universe and you've been assigned to Tenupe for a couple more years."
Jag strode past her, examining her work laid out on the table. "It is a matter of safety to delay the news slightly."
"Slightly? It's a forty-five minute flight."
"Tell that to my father."
Jaina threw up her hands in exasperation before flopping back into her chair. She picked up the welding tool and tried to look occupied. "You know what, I was just in the middle of something."
Jag simply looked at her. "I see. So you're not interested in hearing about the past two days."
"That's not what I said."
"Point." His fingers splayed gently across her shoulders. "You've got to finish something."
He found her pressure points, and it took every ounce of will for Jaina to resist the sigh that wanted to burst out from inside. "It's just..."
Wet warmth pressed against the back of her neck. "Yes?" he whispered into her ear.
"You're far more relaxed than I've seen you in... Well, a long time." His lips taunted her ear, and she resisted the urge to throw her head back. "Must... uh... mean all is going as planned."
His finger stroked along her hairline. "You think I'm relaxed."
It wasn't the only thing he was, but there was no reason to let Jag feel too victorious. She rose suddenly. The chair, bumping his kneecaps, sent Jag springing backwards. "The others are in the den."
"But I thought you -"
"Your mother is waiting. I wouldn't want to be rude."
He closed the distance. "She will understand if -"
Jaina stopped him with a hand to his chest. "And your father."
"He will absolutely understand."
She scowled. "Blast."
"You're more than relaxed." She raked her finger down his uniform, "You're ...overconfident. Very overconfident."
She waited just long enough for his grin to wilt, then marched right past him.
He caught her halfway to the den, and matched her stride. To her annoyance, she sensed only amusement beneath his steely fa?ade. Forcing a smile as they entered, she crossed to the loveseat where Jag's father sat.
"General," she said, bending to peck her lips to his cheek, "it appears your plan has been a success."
He stared at her in bewilderment before returning the kiss to her proffered cheek. "I appreciate the sentiment, but the credit all goes to my brilliant wife."
"Of course." Arching her eyebrow, Jaina glanced over at Jag. "I just meant there was no unforeseen trouble these past couple days."
"Nothing we couldn't manage." Jag whisked her toward the chair they had shared the other evening. This time she landed unceremoniously in his lap; his arms planted firmly around her. "Father had plenty of documents from over the years which lent considerable circumstantial evidence to -"
A politely cleared throat brought Jag's discourse to a halt. "Caf, anyone?" Syal asked with a smile.
"I would love some, dear." Soontir leaned forward to accept a steaming cup from his wife's tray.
"So would I," Wyn said. "I've got a few personal things to take care of before the night is through. Thanks, Mom."
Cem waved Syal off, swilling a glass half full of red ale. "Finally off duty, and happy for it."
"You're back on at oh-five-thirty, big guy," Wyn reminded him.
"Don't worry, just the one." The youngest Fel leaned back on the couch. "I've been told Councilor Jagged Fel's final orders include no drinking games." He raised the glass and slammed back a hearty mouthful of red ale.
Jaina spun so she could see Jag's face. "You did it already?"
"No." Jag's brow furrowed. "Cem is counting the days."
He frowned. "It is best done in person."
"Yes, the Moffs." She nodded in understanding. If left to their own devices they would sow the seeds of dissension before Soontir even reached the edge of Chiss space. But that meant - "How soon do you plan to tell them?"
"We leave for Bastion the day after tomorrow." Jag's arms tightened around her.
"So this is going to work?" Syal asked.
Jaina gazed into Jag's eyes and knew the answer before Soontir gave it. "Yes."
Inhaling a deep breath, she leaned back into Jag. "Guess I'd better hurry and finish my lightsaber, then."
"I thought you were missing a few items?" Soontir sipped his caf. "And if the table is any indication, you seem to have quite a bit of work left to do."
"The hilt will be a work in progress for a while. I can use the tinuium until I get the balance and feel exactly the way I like it. That way I'm not rushed with the beskar. And the crystal... Will just have to wait. Besides -" Jaina winked at Syal, who stood by the shelves where the liquor was stored. "- I still have my blaster."
Syal stood, unblinking, apparently unaffected by their inside joke. Slowly she looked from Jaina to Jag, then Cem and finally Wyn. Her lips pursed. Abruptly she grabbed the red ale and began pouring a drink into the nearest unused mug.
"Mom, really, it's all right," Cem said. "One was plenty for the night."
Syal kept pouring, topping off the mug, then moved on to fill another glass.
"Mom?" Wyn rose.
Syal was undaunted. When red ale rose to the top of the glass, Syal held up the bottle, scrutinizing its contents. There was a only sliver of red in the bottom now, and something clinked as she swished it around. "Well," she sighed, "this could prove quite messy." Then her eyes flickered, and the next thing Jaina knew Syal was standing in front of her. "I keep forgetting how handy a Jedi can be. There seems to be something in the bottom of the decanter. Could you retrieve it, please?"
"Uh, sure." Jaina took the decanter by the throat with one hand and held the other above the rim. The small object inside practically sang out to her in the Force, and a second later rose up into her fingers. She rolled it over onto her palm. It was a crystal, a little shorter than the width of her hand. She could have curled her fingers around its circumference and touched the flesh by her thumb.
"Mom?" It was Wyn again; she had come up beside Syal. "Is that what I think it is?"
"An amurzinth, yes." Syal plucked the brilliant crystal from Jaina's hand and held it out to her husband, who still sat calmly in his chair.
Cem let loose a low whistle as his father drew out a handkerchief and wiped the amurzinth clean. The red liquid gone, the brilliant silverish-white crystal sparkled in the light. An array of colors danced about the room.
"My parents, as you know, worked on a fueling station," Syal began. "When I chose to run from the Empire, I needed to liquidate and hide my money quickly, so I contacted some of their associates in the business. My investment in several Gus Treta mines turned out to be far more lucrative than I could have hoped. This -" She took the amurzinth from her husband. "- was one of my more fortunate returns."
Wyn stretched the fingers of her right hand forward, her left arm wrapped around her torso. "It's beautiful."
Syal eased the crystal away until it was suddenly level with Jaina's eyes. "This is for you."
For a couple of heartbeats words eluded Jaina. Her eyes drifted to Wyn, who had drawn her hand back; to Cem, who now stood beside his sister. Soontir was the only one not radiating strong emotion; he didn't even seem surprised. Jag, still gripping Jaina tightly in his lap, seemed torn between excitement and apprehension.
Finally Jaina managed to say, "I can't..."
Syal shook her head. "You must."
"It's just n-not right." Jaina couldn't recall the last time she'd stammered. And she couldn't quite put a finger on what terrified her so much about this moment.
"Oh, but it is." Syal's blue eyes bore into Jaina's, perhaps sensing her weakness. "You need a crystal; I have one."
Jaina's gaze darted to Wyn. "I need a fraction of that."
"Take it, or refuse it," Syal told Jaina.
"I don't know what to say."
"Amurzinth have unrivaled reflective qualities," Wyn said. "You might know it better by its common name - the heart stone."
Jaina studied the crystal; she felt for it in the Force. "They don't really exist. They're just a Corellian legend."
"Oh, this one is very real." Wyn put her hand on Jaina's arm. "You should say, 'yes.' But if you don't mind, it's been a long couple of days."
Just like that, she was gone. Before the awkward pause could smother the room, Cem indicated in the direction his sister had just fled. "I'd better... go."
"I should -" A hand on her arm stopped Jaina from leaping from Jag's lap to follow. She looked from the hand to its owner - Soontir. "I can't accept it." Jaina's eyes were drawn back to the amurzinth. "That should go to your children. It's practically worth a full inheritance. I can't justify something like that for a lightsaber."
Syal curled her fingers around the crystal. "I have saved this for many years, although I never quite knew why. I suppose I felt it was some kind of insurance. Now, I do know. I have no doubt this crystal inside your lightsaber will return my investment a hundred times over."
Jag reached past Jaina, holding his palm up. "May I?" His mother deposited the amurzinth in his hand. Without saying a word, he studied it for a couple of seconds. "It is beautiful. Not quite Jaina's color, however. Assuming you're staying with violet?"
Jaina clenched her jaw, and tried to not stare at the crystal. He knew her well; well enough to know when she had tossed her old lightsaber out onto the glacier, she had intended to make a complete change. "Color is not the issue."
"Then it's settled -"
"No." She wasn't about to let Jag corner her.
"Actually it is." The Fel family matriarch patted her son's arm lightly and exchanged a conspiratorial smile. "If you won't take it, then I'll just give it to Jag. To do with as he pleases, of course."
Jaina knew a losing battle when she saw one, so she accepted defeat with a resigned sigh. Instantly Syal swept her into an all-encompassing embrace, squeezing her tightly. "Remember," she whispered. "You are part of the family now."
When the two women separated, Jaina stared at the ground, afraid the emotion of the moment might overwhelm her.
Syal and Soontir offered a quick parting, leaving the younger couple alone in the den. The tears that had threatened now fell unhindered in Jag's presence. He said nothing, simply took her into his arms. It was enough; it was everything. She wiped the salty moisture from her cheeks, then gazed up at him. "Let's get out of here."
"My thoughts exactly." Jag led her out of the den, down the hall, and up the stairs.
Jaina paused to glance at the light leaking out from under Wyn's bedroom door. With an insistent pressure Jag tugged Jaina into his room.
"Maybe I should speak to your sister."
He shut the door. "Why?"
"She's obviously disappointed."
"She's a Fel, she might as well get used to it." He studied the amurzinth in his hand.
His candid admission caused Jaina to step away. She rested her back against the wall, eyeing Jag curiously. "I didn't realize being a Fel was that bad."
Blinking, Jag snapped out of his reverie. "It's not. Sorry..." He hesitated before crossing back toward Jaina. "That came out wrong. What I meant was, this isn't the only family heirloom. Just one of many valuables my mother has secreted away. But Wyn has gotten a little too accustomed to being the only female heir, and she's starting to imagine all these sorts of things will be hers one day, instead of shared among all the women in our generation." He sighed deeply. "I'd trade my full share of them all for Cherith."
His admission mirrored the truth in Jaina's own heart. If things could have been different, she wouldn't have to be building a new weapon. She wouldn't be mourning Jacen. Jag wasn't indifferent to his sister's disappointment; he just knew that in the scheme of things, it was trivial. "So what are you going to do with that heart stone?"
"I was thinking it would look lovely split in two for a pair of cufflinks. Or perhaps as the centerpiece of a monocle to wear-eeoww!"
The carefully aimed jab ended his fanciful musings. The amurzinth wobbled in Jag's grasp, and it took barely a thought for the gem to fly into Jaina's hand. She peered into the crystal, captivated by the play of light in blue and violet tones that were so bright they bordered on white.
"All I have is yours," Jag said softly. "You know that, right?"
Jaina closed her fingers around the crystal, and she immediately sensed Jag's contentment. He knew her answer without even a word being spoken. "This crystal is symbolic of our love. Just as it will focus my lightsaber blade, so you empower my life. I will treasure this gift."
His arms engulfed her. "Was that so hard?"
Jaina hid her blush by burying her face in his chest. "No."
A fingertip on her chin drew it up. Jag's lips tempted hers with delicate kisses. Her mouth opened, begging for more, but Jag seemed unwilling to press onward. When she reached out to Jag in the Force, she found his attention divided. Jaina pulled away.
"Don't mind me." She crossed her arms, putting her back to him.
"What?" Jag rounded to face her. "What did I do?"
"You're distracted, High Councilor. I wouldn't want to interfere with affairs of state, or whatever other critical matter is keeping your thoughts."
"No, my thoughts are purely on you." When Jaina answered with a disbelieving arch of her eyebrow, Jag added, "More accurately, you and your new lightsaber."
She sensed eagerness from him and decided to humor him. "Go on."
"I didn't tell you the whole truth earlier."
"About what, exactly?"
"The package. You thought it was a present."
"Yes, you said it was for you."
"Technically, it was for me... to give to you."
Shutting her eyes, Jaina quickly wound through Jag's thought process: the lightsaber, a new crystal, the package. "You got your hands on some beskar."
"No fair using your Force skills."
"The power of the Force pales compared to the might of sheer logic. Especially given your transparent fascination with my Jedi weapon, as opposed to deepening Jedi-Imperial relations."
"Ah." He scooped her into his arms. "But that was exactly where my thoughts were leading."
She wrapped her arms around his neck and tilted her chin up to gaze into his mischievous green stare. "I fail to follow that logic, Councilor."
"I was thinking," Jag said, crossing to the bed, settling down on it, "now that you have all the pieces for your lightsaber and your health is returned..." He shifted her to sit beside him, then took her hands in his. "You could come with me to Bastion."
Jaina's breath caught, and he plowed forward with his proposal. She was sure he was making sensible arguments for her to join him, but she knew her answer. "No," she said softly, then again more firmly when he hadn't seemed to have heard. "No, Jag. I can't."
"I'm not ready. Almost -"
"Just not yet." He looked defeated, and for a man who seldom lost, it was difficult to see him this way. His excitement from only moments before deflated, leaving the room feeling empty, almost hollow.
She hurried to explain. "I want to go; I do. But -"
"I'm pushing too hard. I know." He blinked, and when his eyes opened there was nothing left of the deflated, expectant man of only moments before. Just steely resolve reflected in his gaze.
Jaina heard his voice like the words had been spoken. A stern reminder Jag had offered to himself. Patience for what? Then she remembered a fateful conversation years ago, a turning point in their lives when she had uttered the words that had crushed Jag to his core.
The room was empty. No attendants, no overbearing wedding coordinator, no family. Just Jaina, alone. The door slid open, and Jag entered, smiling. He got no farther than two steps into the room, before his feet faltered and his face froze into an inscrutable mask.
She looked him straight in the eyes, because he deserved that above all else. "I'm not ready."
"Oh, no." With the past lingering between them, Jaina was frantic to explain. "It's not like that at all. I am ready - ready for us. It's just that when I leave here, I want to leave complete and whole, nothing left unfinished." How did she say she wanted that moment back again? The attendants, the overbearing wedding coordinator, her family - which now included Jag's as well. She wanted to wear that beautiful dress of her dreams with no visible scars, no physical reminders of the horrible choice she had made. That meant staying and finishing her last skin grafts. After that, she wouldn't deny Jag a moment by his side. He needed to know that, though. In no uncertain terms, she would be his forever.
It wasn't a conscious decision, yet somehow Jaina ended on her knees before Jag, clutching his hands in hers. "I am ready, Jag. For you and I. For us."
"It's okay, Jay." He tugged her up off her knees.
She resisted, falling back down to her original position. "No, I need to say this. So you know where I stand."
He winked at her playfully, extricating one hand to brush back a lock of her hair. "From where I sit, it looks like you're kneeling."
"Please, Jag, I'm trying to be serious. This is important." She wiggled forward on her knees and captured his free hand. "Jag, I want to -"
"Don't say it," he snapped. There was no levity or attempt at playful banter this time. The silence that fell between them was deafening. "I'm not ready. Not for that."
Without another word, Jag stood and walked from the room.
"Hey, Mom." Jag stuck his head into the kitchen, keeping his body concealed in the darkened hall. "Just you?"
Syal glanced up from her mixing bowl and smiled warmly. "Just me and the ryshcate. And no, you can't have any yet."
He relaxed and hoisted his duffel bag over his shoulder before stepping into the room. "That's fine. I'll wait."
She arched an eyebrow curiously. "So you were hoping it was just me?"
"I'm always happy to see you, Mom."
"You're home early." She studied her batter as she guided a spoon around the bowl.
"I had some things to take care of before we leave tomorrow."
"Things with Jaina?"
He slung the bag onto the kitchen table, taking care not to disturb the scattered mayhem of Jaina's lightsaber construction. He noted with satisfaction the box of beskar was opened and empty. "You could say that."
"Did you two have a fight?"
"What makes you think that?"
"I don't know. Maybe it was finding you asleep in the den this morning. Or perhaps it's been Jaina's unusually distracted demeanor all day."
He looked up quickly from surveying the contents of the bag. "She's been distracted?"
"Good." Grabbing a wrapped parcel in one hand and a small velvetin satchel in the other, he fought down a smile.
"Jagged Tiberion Fel, what has gotten into you?" his mother asked with a flick of her mixing spoon.
He ignored her stern gaze, offering a quick smile as he passed through the kitchen. "Distracted enough that she's left on a long run across the grounds?"
Syal canted her head. "Yes. Gratefully. After she beat on that poor beskar for most of the morning, I was about to become distracted myself with all the racket."
"Dinner is still at nineteen hundred?"
He crossed to his mother and planted a kiss on her cheek. "See you then."
"You actually think turning on the Fel charm will be enough to keep you from having to tell me what you're up to?"
"I'd love to, but I'm afraid I can't. Top secret, you see. Need to know."
She eyed him warily.
"This better be good." His mother held the spoon between them. In unison they both swiped a finger through the batter and popped it into their mouths.
Jag grinned as he swallowed the sweet concoction. "Oh, it will."
Leaving the kitchen, Jag hastily made his way to the hothouse. He hadn't asked permission to cut one of her precious flowers, but he knew his mother wouldn't begrudge him the gesture on Jaina's behalf. He went straight to the one he needed, and after that brief detour, Jag wove down through the lower levels, until he finally reached the auxiliary hangar that housed the Blue Flame.
Even a quick scan of the ship told him Jaina hadn't made any progress from their work earlier in the week. Just as he had anticipated. While his actions had Jaina obviously distracted, it was impossible for Jag to explain to his mother why they were necessary. But it had been.
Last night he had severely underestimated Jaina's progress. Years before he had been the one to push for marriage, and the resulting pressure had dissolved their relationship into an unrecognizable jumble of frustration and hurt feelings. In asking Jaina to accompany him to Bastion, he had only wanted to give them time together, to allow Jag the opportunity to court Jaina once more. No pressure, let things come as they may. At first he had thought her refusal meant she wasn't ready to spend that kind of time with him, that perhaps she still needed the shelter offered on the estate. Instantly he had counseled his eager heart for patience, reminded his brain that their relationship would have to be rebuilt slowly and carefully.
Then before he'd really understood what was happening, Jaina had scrambled down to her knees. The love in her eyes had begged him to realize the depths of her feelings, and Jag had recognized the desperation to connect. His father had been more right about Jaina than Jag could ever have believed, because beneath her trembling hands he had felt her need to take the next step. Despite his attempt to deflect her with levity and calm certitude, Jaina had been a trigger's pull away from proposing. And Jag wasn't ready for that.
Stuffing the velvetin pouch in his pocket, Jag walked over to the starboard engine. Carefully he placed the newly snipped bud on the rim of the engine's intake, then extricated the parcel tucked under his arm. He unwrapped the package and removed a shiny sphere from the box. Opening the device, he placed the flower inside and activated the containment field so the bud would be held upright. He triggered the sphere to close and began to ponder how exactly to place it so Jaina could spot it easily.
"Wondering where to go next with this monstrous rebuild?"
Jag practically jumped out of his skin at the sound of Jaina's voice. He glanced down at the sphere, noted the closing clip of her boots, and quickly stuffed it deep into the recesses of the intake. Then he stepped in front of the opening, blocking any potential sight line inside.
"My thoughts hadn't wandered that far yet."
Jaina ambled around the sweeping wing of the clawcraft. She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against it casually. She wore a red form-fitting utility suit. Her hair frolicked out of the band that fixed it back from her face. That and the rosy hint to her complexion confirmed she had just returned from a particularly strenuous run. Definitely distracted.
"So what were you thinking, then?"
"Doing, actually." Jag strolled her way, keeping his body between Jaina and the engine intake. "I was looking for you."
"Ah. Guess I found you instead." She straightened, starting in the direction from which Jag had just come. "So you really have no thoughts on what we should do next?"
He reached out with an arm and balanced against the wing's strut, blocking her path. "More like, too many to count. Perhaps we can come back later, after dinner, and work up a priority list."
She stared at his arm momentarily. Finally she cast her brown eyes up. "I think there might be more important things we need to hash out before you leave tomorrow."
"Of course." He stepped away from the wing and guided her around toward the corridor, which led back to the estate. "Seeing as we'll be apart for a while, I hurried home so I could be all yours this evening."
She stopped suddenly. "Listen, Jag. I didn't say this right last night and I need to get it right this time. I didn't say I couldn't go with you because I don't want to be with you. Especially considering what's going to be happening over the next couple of weeks. But I don't want to leave here until I'm completely healed physically. I had your mother contact the hospital today and set up all the remaining graft procedures. As soon as I've got those done, I'll take the first shuttle out of here, to wherever you are. I promise."
It had all come out in one breathless deluge, and there was only one way to respond. Jag bent down and placed his lips to Jaina's. She greedily returned the kiss, her arms wrapping around his neck. Then abruptly she pulled away.
"Wait. You're not mad at me?"
"Not at all."
"But nothing." He held Jaina at arm's length. "Can we forget about last night? I reacted poorly, and should be flogged accordingly. Or perhaps tickled would be more appropriate."
The charming Fel approach worked its magic. Jaina grinned one of those special lopsided grins that made Jag's heart race. "That could be arranged."
"Before dinner?" he offered, hoping she would take the bait and leave so he could finish his arrangements.
"I think I can squeeze you in, Councilor."
Jag spun Jaina around by the shoulders and shoved her toward the exit. "Off you go, then."
She dragged her feet to a stop. "Aren't you joining me?"
"Shortly. I just remembered I never keyed up the sequence in the cockpit computer board I installed the other night. If I don't do that now, you'll have a difficult time trying to interface the binary technology into the Chiss protocols. And I'd best just take care of this now before I forget again." He edged toward the cockpit ladder. "Remind me to show you that tonight."
"Okay," she said with a wave. He waited until the door swished closed behind her, then trotted over to the nearest cluster of tools. After locating a small hydrospanner, he clambered up the ladder and dropped into the open cockpit.
Scooting down in the pilot's seat, he felt like a contortionist in a traveling circus. He twisted his shoulders one way and his hips the other to get the right angle to apply the tool. A few grunts later, he had successfully released the hatch just above the foot rudder controls. He fished the velvetin pouch from his pocket and pressed it into the small opening. This was the safest place to hide his treasure he could imagine on short notice.
"Done yet?" asked a cheery voice from somewhere above him.
Jag snapped the hatch closed and straightened around in his seat. He tried not to act surprised when he found Jaina's deep brown eyes peering down at him.
"I didn't hear you climb up," he noted to her curious arch of an eyebrow.
In an unspoken answer, she drifted a half a meter closer. The cockpit shifted as her weight settled on the pilot's ladder.
Jaina traced her finger along his shoulder, then up his neck toward his ear. "I was thinking, wouldn't it just be easier for you to show me right now? That'll leave more free time later for -"
"It's, uh, not quite ready. Several of the connections came lose. I'll need to solder them again."
"Are you alright?"
"Because you look a bit flushed." Jaina extended her palm toward his brow.
"Upside down." He snatched her hand out of the air. "And a little steamed this didn't work quite as I planned."
"Even the best laid plans are bound to have a few hiccups," she chuckled.
"I prefer it when mine don't," he responded curtly, racking his brain for a way to get Jaina back on track. More precisely, out of the hangar.
"Why don't you show me what needs fixing." She started to shimmy down to get a closer look. "It'll go faster if we work on it together."
Jag pushed her back out of the cockpit. "Without the interface running, I can't engage the fans. We'll roast up here."
Hovering on the edge of the cockpit, she lazily traced the line of his scar through his hair. "In that case, we could just shed some clothes."
"Here? In my parents' hangar?"
"Come on. Isn't that every teenage pilot's fantasy? Being very naughty in the cockpit of their first fighter?"
"Misbehave in your fighter?"
The corner of Jaina's mouth curled up in a smile. "We only got as far as -"
"Uh uh." Jag waved his hands. "I don't want to hear about it."
"Then I'll show you." Jaina dove over the side of the cockpit. Her hands cupped his face and her lips stole his breath. For a few bounding heartbeats he didn't even remember this was about something else that had happened some other time. Long, long ago.
There was just Jaina and Jag.
She fell into his lap. Their bodies became intertwined. If it had been warm before, now Jag was quite hot. Except where his uniform shirt had been pushed open from the neck to his midsection, and Jaina's fingers traced shivers across his chest while she twisted in his lap to straddle him. In an instant he remembered, and shoved her back against the controls.
"Borleais," he gasped.
She batted him on the shoulder. "Obviously, you hair-brained monkey-lizard. What did you think? We're sharing part of your youth by fixing up your beloved Blue Flame, so I thought I'd take my own stroll down memory lane with the other first serious boyfriend, who apparently I never actually bothered to mention to you at any point previously?"
"Well, you are Jaina Solo."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. Just that... you're, well, you."
She still glared.
"And desired by practically every man galaxywide."
"You've been hanging around with the Moff Council too long, Jagged Fel." She leaned forward and feathered her lips along his jawline.
This was a hopeless battle - and a good commander always knew when to improvise. Jag released a little sigh, then gave in to his desire. They kissed and teased and tempted. Their hands were everywhere. It was primal passion, young and eager, like all those years ago on Borleias. He heard Jaina growl as he leaned forward and nipped her ear.
The growl was followed by a piercing shriek - but not from Jaina. The mechanical shrill snapped Jag back to reality. He slapped the emergency kill switch just behind her, where she lay braced against the control board.
"Oops," she said, blushing.
The engines ground to a halt, ending in an agonizing squeal of metal on the starboard side.
"Oh, that's not good," Jag said.
"Sounds like the -" Jaina rose up and slipped over the side of the ship. "- intake manifold." She sorted through the mess of tools left scattered across the floor at her feet. "Be right back."
"Ktah," he muttered. Jag was better equipped to handle an unexpected foe in the middle of a dogfight than the total disintegration of this carefully conceived plan before it ever really got started. He furrowed his brow and frantically pondered how he was going to rescue this one. Worst case, he decided, was that the sphere was mangled beyond recognition. He'd just scratch that part and go straight to the second part of his scheme, carefully hidden in the cockpit. But he'd be hard pressed to get Jaina back up there. So he needed to devise a new way to complete his plan.
"Got... hatch... ee." She was already into the engine compartment!
He stretched down to the small hatch in the control panel. In his haste, Jag kept missing the correct angle to wedge open the cover.
"Hey!" Jag straightened back up and peered down from the cockpit. Jaina stood with her legs apart, hands on her hips. "I think I see something stuck in the intake."
"Stuck?" He swallowed. "Really?"
"She's a relic. It could be anything."
"You worked on the engines, right?" She wasn't asking a question, though.
"Yes," he agreed, then slid down in the crashcouch in an attempt to avoid the next oh-so-obvious Jaina question. And in the process banged his knee. He reflexively popped back up in the seat, stifling the urge to shout a few choice obscenities.
"Didn't you clear the compartment before you dogged the hatch?"
"That is standard protocol." This time he dove upside down, feet above him. He visualized the panel as his eyes adjusted and frantically pawed at the cover.
"...ag!" Jaina's muffled shout reverberated through the antiquated fighter.
"One second," he yelled back as he tugged the panel open.
Retrieving the pouch he had carefully planted only minutes before, Jag acknowledged silently that his plan was truly forked. Yet in a moment of profound clarity he suddenly recognized that it didn't matter. Her propensity to unleash mayhem was one of the reasons he always had gravitated toward Jaina like a planet to a sun.
This was just the way life was going to be. He inhaled once, deeply, before climbing out of the cockpit.
Surprisingly, Jaina was still dangling - or at least her legs were - out of the engine compartment.
"One second." She huffed. "Whatever it is, it's pretty stuck."
Her feet swirled one way, then the other. She grunted a couple times before pulling one leg completely inside the compartment to leverage her weight on the housing. With one final groan of exertion, she exclaimed, "Got it!"
Knowing her hands would be otherwise occupied, Jag reached in and tugged her out by the waist. Jaina didn't seem to notice as he settled her to the floor. She was entranced by the object in her hand.
"This is odd; it looks brand new. I hope..." Her expression changed instantly to the inscrutable mask of a Jedi in search of the truth.
"It's not dangerous," Jag reassured her.
She peered up at him. Her face was streaked with grease, and wisps of her hair sprouted every which way. Her dark eyes asked a question she didn't need to voice, and Jag knew he could imagine this moment no other way.
"It's a Salylic containment sphere. You open it like this." He flattened his palm face up, swirled it ninety degrees as if he were palming the sphere, and returned his hand to the position it started.
Jaina mimicked his movement, and the metallic surface phased into a transparent state. She eyed the contents, then turned her gaze back to Jag. "An Alderaanian orchid?"
He reached through the containment field and grasped the white flower's stem. "Not quite as lovely as you, but it definitely complements the picture."
"Jag! I'm covered in twenty-plus-year-old grime from -"
A finger from his free hand stifled the protest on her lips. At the same time, he tucked the orchid behind her ear. "You're perfect."
"A perfect pain in an Ewok's rear, maybe. Apparently I've well and truly detonated some grand scheme to fix yesterday's misunderstanding."
"Shhhh." Jag's finger pressed her lips into silence once more. "Not a plan to fix anything. You had the right idea. Unfortunately, the execution was outside my carefully considered operational parameters. So I had to create a diversion. An apparent misunderstanding turned out to be quite effective."
She blinked, obviously befuddled.
"It's really quite simple, my love. I was supposed to be the one -" Jag dropped to a knee. "- who initiated the status change protocols. What I'm asking, Jaina, is if you'll have me as your wingman - from here to eternity?"
Original cover by oldjedinurse. HTML formatting copyright 2009 TheForce.Net LLC.