Thanks as always to the wonderful ginchy for looking this over for me Tags: Gemma ________________ Chapter 6 1 NRE Mara Jade walked swiftly through the hallways of the Myrkr smuggling base, telling herself that her pace was because Karrde had summonded her, not because she wanted to put as much distance as possible between her and Skywalker. Two years she had spent hating him. Two years she had been living with her failure. Two years of watching his every move on the holonews, every one of his victories a bitter twist in her heart. And now he had fallen quite by accident into her lap, and she couldn’t even do anything about it. At least not until she could talk some sense into Karrde. Despite herself, Skywalker had unnerved her. Mara had expected arrogance and conceit – he was a Jedi after all. And yet he had seemed quite…normal. More a farmboy in appearance and demeanor than the terrorist she had expected. It had caught her offguard, which had likely been his intention. Mara berated herself for slipping. She never should have told Skywalker she was going to kill him, but her pride and anticipation had gotten the best of her. Now he would be expecting her attack, when it came. But Mara shook those thoughts off, squared her shoulders and walked into Talon Karrde’s office without knocking. Karrde sat behind the ornate desk, shifting through flimsiplasts. He was perhaps ten years Mara’s senior, with brown skin that had seen many summers on the homeworld he refused to disclose, and deep-set, dark eyes watched everything and everyone. When he saw her enter Karrde looked up and beckoned her to take a seat. “Is Skywalker secure?” he asked conversationally. “As you requested,” she answered as she sat down and crossed one leg over the other, trying to appear nonchalant. “Now we need to decide what to do with him.” The corner of Karde’s mouth quirked into a smile at her use of “we.” She was his second in command, but Mara knew ultimately the decision would rest with him, and she respected that. It was how she’d been raised, to follow a clear chain of command without question. “He’s a hero of the New Republic,” Talon stroked his chin thoughtfully. “They are the obvious choice for ransom. We could contact them.” “And make yourself and this organization known to them,” Mara pointed out. “Better to deal with someone like the Hutts, they won’t ask questions and they won’t come after us later.” There had been a price on Skywalker’s head ever since his destruction of Jabba on Tatooine; the Hutts bitter about their fallen brother. Mara had even considered offering her services as a bounty hunter to them, but had been waylaid by her duties to Karrde’s organization. The man himself regarded her for several moments, the ghost of a smile on his face. “And your counsel, Mara, has nothing to do with the fact that the New Republic will want him alive?” he queried. “Whereas the Hutts would be quite happy and pay us just as much if we delivered Skywalker’s corpse?” Mara raised her chin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Karrde.” “Of course not, my dear,” Karrde said, although his tone indicated his opinion was otherwise. “I have ordered that Skywalker remain safe and well cared for until I decide what to do with him,” he continued, his penetrating gaze on her again, but she held firm. “And I know you follow orders, Mara,” he added smoothly. “I just ask that, for now, my orders take precedence over any…others that you may feel are unfulfilled.” His words struck her with cold dread as she took his meaning. Mara thought she had been so clever destroying all record of her origins and life before the death of the Emperor, but Karrde had been more diligent and resourceful than she’d given him credit for. “You know about that?” she asked anyway. “I’ve always known, Mara.” Karrde was inscrutable. Mara furrowed her brow, unsure of what to do with the knowledge. “And you let me in there alone with him?” she queried. “How did you know I wouldn’t just do it?” “I didn’t,” Karrde answered simply. “I trusted you.” Mara looked away. The last man to trust her had been the Emperor, and she had failed him. And now she had a choice – avenge her former master, the only person who had ever meant anything to her, and kill Skywalker as he had ordered. Or follow Karrde, whom she genuinely liked and respected and had given her a fresh start despite knowing her origins. For perhaps the first time in her life, Mara Jade wasn’t sure what to do. ___________________________________________________________________________________ Leia Organa Solo stood on the balcony of the Varykino villa on Naboo, looking out over the beautiful vista of lochs and mountains. Warm orange light from the rising sun rippled against the gentle waters of the lake surrounding the island, and in the distance she could hear the calls of water gulls in their nests. Naboo reminded Leia a great deal of Alderaan – the majestic peaks and swirling seas of her homeworld long lost to her. And yet her sadness was countered with a new happiness to see the home of her biological mother, Padmé Amidala, and to know that the world Leia had been raised on resembled it so closely. That, in turn, made her feel closer to Padmé. Briefly, Leia had wondered whether, if her mother had survived childbirth, Padmé would have raised her and Luke here on Naboo, perhaps in the very Lake House she and Han now shared. There was an intense and bitter longing in Leia’s heart for that, to know the woman who had given birth to her, to have grown up beside Luke having always shared the deep connection which gave her such fulfillment. The connection which she no longer felt. “Morning, sweetheart.” Han appeared and wrapped his arms around her, kissing the top of her head. Leia leaned back into his chest and closed her eyes, taking his strength for her own and telling herself she was worrying over nothing. “Something wrong?” Han asked, sensing her discontent. “It’s Luke,” Leia told him. She’d felt it since the previous day, a loss of contact with her brother. It had been a sharp, intense pain, as if half of her heart had been ripped away. The sting had slowly reduced to a dull ache which refused to go away. “What?” Han asked worriedly. “Is he hurt?” “I don’t know,” Leia answered truthfully. “I still can’t feel him at all.” “That damn kid,” Han growled. “I told him to take backup to that stupid planet.” “It could be nothing,” Leia reasoned. “He told me this might happen. I just didn’t expect it to feel like this.” It was true their bond in the Force had strengthened with the knowledge that they were twins, but Leia didn’t remember ever feeling so devoid. The bond had always been there, even before they met. It had never broken before. Han tightened his grip around her and Leia accepted his comfort gratefully. “I just thought he would have contacted me by now,” Leia added. “To let me know he was okay.” “He would’ve,” Han agreed and kissed her hair again. “I’ll comm Wedge, get him to send a squad to check on him.” He slipped away and went over to the comm station, and Leia was flooded with relief and love for her new husband. Han would never dismiss her concerns, or complain about their honeymoon being interrupted. He simply acted. Leia turned back to the view over the lake, and although the emptiness in her heart was still there, her worry was alleviated. Her thoughts returned to her dream of a childhood with Luke and Padmé; of swimming in the lake, of days spent in the sand of the beach making castles, of visiting family in Theed and making friends with the local Gungan children. Of her and Luke whispering secrets to each other in the night, teasing and poking each other through the Force while their mother scolded them playfully. And yet, Leia knew those thoughts were treacherous, because her life may have turned out very differently. She would never have known Bail and Breha Organa, or perhaps only know them indifferently as her mother’s friends. She may never have met Han, and that would be a loss she would not bear. It was enough, Leia decided, to be here now. To know Naboo and meet her mother’s family. To spend time in the beautiful villa, and to dream of the day she and Han would bring their own children there to swim in the lake and play on the beach and know the life that she never had. __________________________________________________________________________ 29 NRE Practice remotes hovered in the air around her. Although Jaina’s eyes were closed, she could sense them – two in front of her and one to her left, which was her weak side. Jaina’s hand hovered over her lightsaber, still clipped to her belt, her fingers twitching in anticipation. When she’d been just a youngling Uncle Luke had taught her to reach out through the Force and sense when the remotes were about to fire. But while her Uncle relied on his instincts alone, Jaina was more practical, sharpening her focus and hearing to the internal mechanicals of the drone and the slight whir which indicated the shot a split-second before it was released. Both of the remotes in front of her fired - Jaina opened her eyes, grasping and activating her saber instantly. The violet blade blurred in the air as she deflected each bolt in a flurry of movement. The fire from both remotes increased, but Jaina was too quick and precise, the exercise easy for her. But she kept one eye on the remote to her left, which hovered dangerously but had yet to cast a shot. That made her nervous, and Jaina always struggled with split concentration. She reached out through the Force and finally heard the left remote whir and fire. She spun to deflect the sole blaster bolt her left side, but was a split-second too late, the blast stunning her arm slightly. Jaina deactivated the drones with a wave of her hand, thumbed off her saber and clipped it back onto her belt. Then she pushed up the sleeve of her robe and rubbed the reddening mark on her arm with a grimace. “I thought those things weren’t meant to hurt?” Jaina turned to see Zebula Pavish approach, and noted that he wasn’t wearing senatorial robes, but tight-fitting black trousers and a hooded leather jacket with a wool lining. She guessed he must be finished work for the day. “Yeah, Aunt Mara must have raised the setting on that one,” Jaina said and pushed the sleeve of her robe back down. “Even when she’s not here, she’s teaching me.” Zeb raised his eyebrows. “How so?” “I favour my right hand,” Jaina explained, grabbing her saber again to demonstrate. “So she deliberately set that drone up to focus on my left, but I tried to keep both hands on my saber and turn to deflect the bolt.” She pivoted on her feet, and swung the saber handle with a two-handed grip. “But I wasn’t fast enough,” she continued. “What I should have done was use my left hand only,” she dropped her right hand from the grip and swung the saber with the left, showing him how much quicker the movement was. “I tried to compensate, when I should have adapted.” Zeb nodded. “Still, it’s a painful lesson.” He reached forward to take her hand and gently pushed her sleeve back up to examine the skin of her forearm which was red and already starting to blister. “Better I learn it with a remote than in battle,” Jaina answered, suddenly aware of the gentle warmth of his hand holding hers. “I think that’s what Aunt Mara wanted to remind me.” Zeb grinned at that. “She’s a tough lady.” “Most of the time,” Jaina agreed. She knew her Aunt often came across as cold and even hostile sometimes, but Jaina also knew when it came to her family, Mara felt things as deeply as any of them. Jaina had felt how much she had missed Uncle Luke while he’d been on Dathomir, and now he was gone again. “Your Mum sent me,” Zeb changed the subject and brought Jaina’s attention back to him. “There was a breach of NRI security today, and….an attack on Corellia.” “I know,” Jaina replied solemnly, dropping her hand from Zeb’s grip. “I know about Dad, too. They commed Master Soulser about Jedi Riu.” Jaina knew the Twi’lek well, and wasn’t afraid for her. Yara was strong and determined, and she would pull through. As for her father – well, Jaina knew nothing could keep him down. “Leia needs to work tonight as I’m sure you can imagine,” Zeb continued. “But she suggested – actually she ordered me to take you out. I mean, erm…” Zeb was suddenly flustered. “That we go out together. No…” “Alright,” Jaina smiled, the first time she had done so all day. “Let me change into my civvies and we’ll go.” It was a quick stop off at the women’s locker room, and Jaina neatly folded her Jedi robes away in her personal compartment and slapped a bacta patch on her red arm. There were some Jedi who chose to wear their robes constantly as the old Order had done, but Jaina liked the thought of being out of “uniform.” Of course, a Jedi was always on duty and mindful of when their skills might be needed, but on some level she considered that being a Jedi was no different from being a fighter pilot or NRI operative or a soldier. It was nice to wear civilian clothes. She didn’t have much to choose from in her locker, not that Jaina was particularly fussed about appearances. She changed into black trousers and boots, a light green tunic and a fitted dark green jacket. Always cautious, Jaina also pulled on her holster and blaster and clipped her lightaber to her belt. She pulled her hair out of the tight ponytail she wore for training and before leaving the room paused at the mirror. She brushed her fingers through her brown locks to smooth out the kinks, something she usually wouldn’t have bothered with. Zeb took her down to the lower levels, as if sensing she needed to go somewhere inconspicuous. Jaina liked the pulse and thrill of Coruscant’s underbelly, so different from her parent’s large and luxurious apartments, the Jedi Temple, or the family lake house on Naboo. It was exhilarating to be among the life of Coruscant, a million different beings of a thousand different species and worlds – smugglers and criminals and carefree socialites, people seeking their fortune, or drowning their sorrows, all together in a melting pot of a city. They went to a small bar in the smuggler’s district where no one paid them much attention. Zeb led her to a quiet corner and they sat down in a small private booth across from one another. A harried waitress arrived and plonked down two glasses of ale without them even ordering anything. “This an old haunt of yours?” Jaina asked, although she knew Zeb didn’t like to talk much about his childhood. “Nah,” Zeb said with a smile, and she knew he was not offended. “I think your father would kill me if I ever took you to one of those, yeah?” Jaina liked that when they were alone, the crisp formality of Zeb’s inflection faded slightly and his natural accent bled through. His speech became slightly more punctuated with lower-level slang, his pronunciation of ‘th’ came across more like ‘f’, ‘were’ became ‘was’ and he said ‘da’ instead of ‘the’. Jaina had spent a lot of time cataloguing the differences in his speech, and it made her smile whenever she heard it. They chatted quietly for a while, and Zeb did an admirable job of keeping her mind off the day’s events as she made short work of her ale, but they were soon interrupted by a brash voice calling out across the bar. “Oi, Zeb!” Jaina looked up to see two figures approaching. The one who had spoken was almost two metres tall with greyish-purple skin and yellowed eyes – a Lasat, Jaina surmised. His pointed ears were feline in appearance and he was bald except for thick purple whiskers on his chin and jaw. The other was a human male with olive skin and dark, curly hair. Zeb seemed surprised but pleased, and rose to greet the pair as they approached, sharing a complicated handshake with them both. “What’re you two doing here?” Zeb asked them, sinking back into the booth. “Isn’t this place a little tame for you?” “Good for a change sometimes, innit,” the Lasat shrugged, then turned and looked at Jaina appreciatively. “Hello, luv.” “Alright, lay off,” Zeb waved his hand. “Jaina, this is Quix Treelaj,” he indicated the Lasat. “And Petar Sillow.” The human male gave a sardonic little wave. “Mates from the old days.” “So you’re the Solo girl, huh?” Petar gave her a smile. Whilst Quix had the accent and slang of a Coruscant lower-leveller, she could tell that Petar was Corellian. “Jaina,” she corrected him. “Nice to meet you.” “Check you, with your new fam, bruv” Quix slapped Zeb on the arm. “Heard you levelled up. And talking like a right toff, too.” Zeb shrugged and took a large gulp of his ale. “You don’t, though,” Quix observed, turning to Jaina. “You sound like ‘im” he pointed a thumb at Petar. Jaina was well aware that she didn’t have the crisp Coruscanti accent of her aunt and cousins. “I spent a lot of time on Corellia as a kid,” she explained. “And when we came back here I guess I couldn’t get rid of the accent.” “That’s the way it’s meant to be,” Petar grinned. “Once a Corellian, always a Corellian.” “That’s what my Dad says,” Jaina returned his smile. “So you’re a Jedi, yeah?” Quix’s sharp eyes looked down at her lightsaber. “Ya know, my Uncle used da ride around with one of youse.” “Really?” Jaina sat up straighter, intrigued. But Zeb waved a dismissive hand. “Knock it off, Quix, she ain’t impressed.” “We heard what happened at the pig-pen today,” Petar said, changing the subject, his glee a little too evident. “Pig-pen?” Jaina queried. “NRI,” Zeb clarified. “That’s not public knowledge,” Jaina frowned. Petar and Quiz both laughed heartily, and even Zeb gave her an indulgent smile. “Ain’t no secrets on Coruscant, me lovely,” Quix told her. “So, any word on who was behind it?” Zeb asked. Quix gave Jaina an appraising look, and then turned back to Zeb and shrugged. “We don’t know nothin’, bruv,” Quix said. Jaina didn’t need to Force to know he was lying, and almost reached out to touch his mind and see what she could glean, but stopped herself. Uncle Luke always said that just because you could do something, didn’t mean you should, and that went double when it came to using the Force. “Quix,” Peter nudged the Lasat and nodded towards the doorway, where a group of uniformed officers had just entered. “The fuzz.” “Alright bruv?” Zeb asked, falling back into his childhood slang. “Nah, da NRI, bruv,” Quix said, indicating the officers, who approached the bar and ordered drinks. “They find us, they’ll give us a right bollocking.” “Probably shouldn’t tell me why they’re after you,” Zeb advised. “Plausible deniability and all that.” “Alright bruv, good to see ya.” Quix clapped him on the shoulder. “Laters.” “Laters,” Zeb replied. Quix gave Jaina a wink, and Petar a two-fingered mock salute before the pair sidled off into the crowd. “You don’t think they’re involved, do you?” Jaina asked softly, watching them retreat. “Nah,” Zeb shook his head. “They know something though.” “We should go after them,” Jaina suggested, but Zeb shook his head again. “They won’t tell me anything with you around,” he shrugged. “Sorry, Jaina, it’s the way things work down here.” Jaina huffed in frustration. “Then I should learn how things work,” she said. “Your Mum and Dad wouldn’t like that.” Zeb took another sip of his ale, and signaled to the waitress to bring him another. “I’m starting to not give a damn about what they wouldn’t like,” Jaina complained, drowning her own ale and accepting the fresh one gratefully when the waitress arrived. “I’m nineteen - by the time Mom was my age she’d was already working for the Alliance and going on covert missions – Dad was already exploring the galaxy as a smuggler, and Uncle Luke had blown up the Death Star. How am I ever going to prove myself if I’m not allowed to do anything?” “Well, you’re their only child,” Zeb pointed out, ever the diplomat. “They’re protective – especially your mother.” Jaina knew that – and she knew why. Still, it rankled. “Yeah, but they didn’t have to drag Uncle Luke and Aunt Mara into it,” Jaina pouted. “I know I’m ready for the Jedi Trials, but have they let me take them? No.” “Did you maybe think you’re just not ready?” Zeb shrugged. “You said yourself, you need more experience.” “That’s the problem!” Jaina exclaimed. “I need more experience to be Knighted, but I can’t be Knighted until I get that experience.” “They got you sewn up real good, Jaina,” Zeb laughed. “I don’t know why you’re worried,” he continued dismissively. “Most Jedi are still padawans at your age, yeah?” “I guess,” Jaina answered. “But I’ve been training practically since birth to be a Jedi.” “So was your cousin,” Zeb pointed out. “And he only became a Jedi a few years ago.” Jaina bit her lip to stop her smile and looked away. “Oh, I see,” Zen said with a chuckle. “You want to beat him to knighthood.” Jaina could no longer stop herself from grinning and turned back to Zeb, laughing. “So what?” she said, slapping his arm. “Everyone thinks it’s just a given Ben will be Grand Master of the Order someday. They still see me as a little girl, but I’m not,” she insisted. “I could do it.” “I thought you wanted to join Rogue Squadron?” Zeb asked. Jaina shrugged. “I could do both.” Zeb laughed again. “I bet you could.” He saluted her with his glass of ale and took a generous gulp. “And when I’m Chancellor and you’re Grand Master of the Jedi and Admiral of the fleet, we’ll rule the galaxy together.” “Count on it,” Jaina laughed. Zeb put down his drink and relaxed back into the booth, sighing deeply. “Might be too much like hard work, though,” he said conversationally. “Your parents were married for ten years before they had you. I always wondered why they didn’t have kids before,” he continued, and despite herself, Jaina tensed, her good mood dissipating. “But now I understand, most nights I’m too exhausted to move.” He laughed and ran a hand over his eyes. “Yeah,” Jaina said dryly. “Sitting down all day talking sounds like it would really drain you,” she added. “Try training with Aunt Mara – one hundred push-ups and a five mile run, and that’s just the warm up!” They both laughed, but his words hung at the back of her mind. Jaina took a sip of her ale and held it on the table, tracing the rim of the glass with her finger so she didn’t have to look back up at Zeb. “My parents did have another child before me,” she said quietly. “What?” Zeb sat up straight, shocked by her revelation. “I was never supposed to know,” she continued, eyes still on her glass. “But Aunt Mara told me once after she’d had too much whiskey.” Jaina chanced a glance up to gauge Zeb’s reaction, and saw confusion, but acceptance and curiosity. She took a shaky breath – no one would ever talk about it, and yet it was something Jaina had desperately wanted to share with someone. And who could she trust, if not Zeb? “It was about a year after my parents got married,” Jaina continued, thinking back to the time when, blind drunk, her Aunt hadn’t had the presence of mind or inclination to lie. “Aunt Mara hadn’t known them very long, she’d only just become friends with Uncle Luke,” Jaina thought back to what she was sure was a highly edited version of meeting her Aunt and Uncle’s first meeting. “Well…she’d stopped wanting to kill him at least.” “What happened?” Zeb asked gently. “He died,” Jaina looked away, hot tears burning behind her eyes. “Stillborn.” “I’m sorry.” Zeb moved from the other side of the booth to take a seat next to her. He took her hand gently, and Jaina watched as their fingers intertwined. “After that,” she forced herself to continue. “Aunt Mara said my Mom and Dad couldn’t bear the thought of having another child. Not even when Ben and Micah were born.” “So what changed?” Zeb asked. Jaina looked up, into his dark eyes and knew that he would not be offended if she didn’t answer. And yet, Jaina found such comfort and relief in his presence that she wanted to tell him everything about herself, every thought and desire she had ever kept hidden. “Aunt Mara said it was the will of the Force,” Jaina told him simply. Zeb furrowed his brow. “That doesn’t sound like her.” Jaina managed a light laugh. “Yeah, well she was pretty drunk at the time.” But then she sobered as she remembered the date. “It would have been his birthday next week,” Jaina added sadly. “That’s why Mom always gets sad around this time of year.” Zeb nodded. “I did wonder.” He looked down at his hand in hers, running the fingers of his free hand lightly over the scars on his knuckles. They were souvenirs, Jaina knew, from his childhood. “It was about this time of year that I first met her.” Jaina squeezed his hand in comfort and solidarity, feeling a closeness to him that she never had before. She and Zeb had been friends since her mother had brought him home one day out of the blue, but it was only in the past year or so that they’d become close. When they’d been younger, Zeb had spent most of his time getting into mischief with Micah, but since her cousin had left to join Talon Karrde’s organization Zeb had been spending much more time in Jaina’s company. They were not her cousin Ben and Syal Antilles, who had been in each other’s pockets since childhood to the point where romantic entanglement had been a foregone conclusion. She’d had her own entanglements at the Jedi Academy – first a serious crush on Master Durron when she’d been fourteen, until her friend Tenal Ka had talked sense into her and prevented Jaina from embarrassing herself. She was forever grateful that Master Durron had never discovered her crush, or worse, that her cousins had become aware of it which would have meant merciless teasing until the day she died. She had dated fellow student Zekk for a while, but it had never been love, and when he’d been knighted and left for missions with Corran Horn they’d lost touch. Zeb had always been there, of course, but she had never looked at him as a romantic prospect. Trying to be objective, Jaina wondered why not. He was certainly good looking, and clever. Jaina felt comfortable in his presence. She loved her family and Jedi friends dearly, but she always felt an undercurrent of obligation and expectation. She was Jaina Solo, the only child of Han Solo and Leia Organa, the child the Force had gifted to them to heal the chasm in both of their hearts. But Zeb was different. He knew what it was like to be misunderstood, to feel the need to prove himself, to always be on edge about what others thought. But when Jaina was with him, she felt none of those things, and suspected it was the same for him. They could just be. “Are you alright, Jaina?” Zeb asked, his dark eyes gazing into her own. She had shifted closer so that their knees were touching, and Jaina felt her heart race at the contact. “I’m fine,” she told him, smiling brilliantly and brimming with newfound confidence and daring. Impulsively, she cupped his face in her hands, leaned forward and kissed him.