The whimpers escaping his lips weren’t far off from the ones he would hear when he came across an injured animal in the jungle. He found it oddly fitting though, in a perverse sort of way, that Tenel Ka had been him in this situation and had come across just that -- an injured animal in the jungle.
“I will count to three, yes?”
He could only respond with a grunt that sounded somewhat affirmative, his eyes unfocusing but gaze still locked on his right arm, which hung limp at his side.
His name came to him from somewhere far away, echoing inside his head, said by a voice he had heard constantly in the previous few years, one that had become like music to him; it was his air -- both cool and crucial. The realization that he couldn’t place it anymore came right before the realization that he was about to pass out.
Two fingers met his chin, gently pushing it upwards and to the side, where a blur of tan skin clad in shiny scarlets and viridians with a smattering of copper atop it came into his field of vision. Forcing himself to focus, assisted mentally by the comforting touch of her fingers on his flesh, Tenel Ka came into view and she moved her hand away from him, shifting it into a gesture that had been growing quite familiar to him.
She pointed to him and then turned her hand, her pointer and middle fingers spread apart and pointing to her eyes.
“Look at me.”
Her fingers stayed ahead of her eyes until he focused on her completely. Blinking away a mixture of sweat and tears was the only action that took her out of his sight momentarily, but as he stared at her, his gaze boring into the sharp, gray storm of her eyes, he felt his shaking calm the slightest bit. He felt his pain faintly ebb away.
Jacen Solo realized that when he looked at her, he could do anything.
“Stay here,” she whispered, her fingers still pointing to her eyes.
He gave her a slow nod.
“One… two…” On two, Jacen yelped as he felt her pull, popping his shoulder back into place.
He hadn’t stopped staring at her eyes -- getting lost in them had helped him forget the pain.
“Thank you,” was the only thing he could breathe before he slowly collapsed forward, falling into her. Her muted shock at his sudden movement went unnoticed by him as his energy and adrenaline faded, and he breathed in her scent as he shut his eyes, pressing his face into the crook of her neck. Jacen felt her arm snake around him, her fingers burying themselves in his hair, and the only other sense of his that was clear was his hearing.
There were birds outside the temple, trading mating calls, and close to him -- closer than he ever remembered her being -- was Tenel Ka, her breath shaky and uneven.
He felt the fingers in his hair, the ones that had motioned for him to keep his eyes on her.
The ones that had formed the gesture that made him realize that his attention on her was something that could drive him to do so many things.
The lake sat a couple minutes from the temple -- a surprisingly clear body of water that was an oasis during the sweltering afternoons on Yavin IV. The surface was still, except for a slight ripple here and there and the bubbles Jacen Solo could see rising from the depths. The movements were traveling in a line, back and forth, and occasionally his best friend would break the surface of the water, inhaling a deep breath and vanishing back under. If he shielded his eyes from the sun that filtered through the treetops, he could see her underwater, a shadow of a being clad in gray and a mess of red-gold hair.
Sprawling out on the rock where he had seated himself when they arrived at the lake, he felt his back touch the surface -- the warmth from the stone that had been baking in the sunlight spreading across the bare skin and up his spine. He rested a lanky arm over his closed eyes and heightened his other senses with the Force. The smell of the jungle crept into his nose, the familiar scent of the lush foliage and the rich soil beneath it comforted him, as did the sound of someone exiting the water to his left. With his senses elevated, Jacen could feel each drop of water that flew from his friend’s skin as she emerged from the lake and shifted around, seating herself on the rock next to him.
When he finally moved his arm from his face, he squinted against the sunlight and turned his head to her, grinning when she leaned a little to the left to block the sun for him.
“Thanks, Tenel Ka.”
“You are welcome, friend Jacen.”
Her silhouette was strong, the lines of it familiar to him -- save for one. She was a stark, black shape between him and the bright sky and he didn’t try to hide the fact that his narrowed stare was tracing the outline of it, up her right arm and shoulder, over her jawline and around the braids in her hair, and then back down the other side, where he finally hit territory still unfamiliar to him.
It had been months since the lightsaber accident, but her lack of left arm still caught him off guard sometimes. Tenel Ka had adapted to it quickly, like she did with many things, but Jacen still found himself struck by the sight. He did that. It was his fault.
Brandy-brown eyes that had caught on the stump of her left arm so many times in the past were stuck there once more, and followed the movement of Tenel Ka as she turned, putting the sunlight to their sides.
He didn’t respond. His eyes had glazed over and his lips froze pursed, air barely slipping in and out between them.
Tenel Ka shifted, leaning so her head was in his field of vision, filling the spot her truncated left arm had just vacated.
“Jacen,” she said.
He only snapped out of his trance when he saw her right hand move, her pointer finger aiming at him for a moment before she pulled her hand back, turning it to point that same finger and the middle one at her eyes. When he finally focused on her, she spoke.
“It was not your fault.”
“No, how many times will we have to go over this?”
“You know me, Princess. I’ll bug you about it forever,” Jacen said, realizing now that he wasn’t able to tear his gaze away from the hypnotizing tempests that lived in her eyes. He did catch, at the edges of his field of vision, the upward twitch of her lips at his words though.
The thudbug had grazed his neck, missing his jugular by mere inches. Tenel Ka had pulled him out of the way in time and the claw of the creature was the only thing that touched him, leaving a thin slice in his neck that Jaina had applied a bacta bandage to afterwards. It still had him shaken up a bit -- not just the fact that he almost died, but the pain it would have caused the others in the battle meld, and the image of him falling to the ground holding the lethal wound on his neck sticking with them for the rest of their lives -- that’s what got him the most. He had been more worried about traumatizing his friends and siblings than his own safety.
It didn’t surprise Tenel Ka one bit, how he felt. She always told him his empathy was one of his most becoming features, but also one of his most dangerous. He understood now, why she had said that.
He searched for her, out over the sea of sleeping bodies ahead of him. The other members of the strike team were resting and they were all taking turns keeping watch for any approaching enemies or other forms of danger. Jacen’s turn was almost complete and he spent the last few minutes of it with his senses heightened, listening for anything out of the ordinary around their makeshift camp. Since the Yuuzhan Vong couldn’t be felt in the Force, that would have to do. His eyes though, they sought out the familiar curves of the young woman that had saved his life earlier. The team’s brown jumpsuits were nondescript and a little bulky due to all the armor and equipment, but he could still pick her out of the team. She was resting on her side, an arch of a defined hip covered in sturdy, drab fabric stuck out to him visually, along with the bunched up top of her jumpsuit which sat around her waist, the sleeves tied together. The thick braids she had put her hair into fanned out over her bare right arm, which she was using as a pillow. Light around them was dim, mostly from a couple glowrods here and there, but he could still see the red-gold that haloed her head and the black that made up the sleeveless undershirt that covered her top half.
Myrkr was filling Jacen’s mind with so many scenarios he didn’t want to confront. The death of anyone around him would prove more than devastating -- they had already lost some of their friends and the ache was still sharp, each one like the twist of a vibroblade in their collective hearts. What if he had died earlier, what if Jaina died? What about Anakin?
What would he do if he had to watch Tenel Ka die? If he had to watch the life drain out of her eyes and her existence end without him ever telling her how he felt. He had chances over the years, a good number of them. But he had never taken any of them and there was a hollow pit in forming in his stomach now because of it.
Though Jacen wasn’t sure how he felt exactly, he knew there was something. He knew that being in her presence gave him an emotional sensation he never felt around anyone else -- it had been like that since they were young. He would admit, only to himself, that he had thoughts of them together at times -- daydreams, usually. And on occasion, actual dreams he would wake from, disappointed that they weren’t real but usually warm and flustered at whatever was happening in the dream between the two of them.
There were times when he thought about how things would feel -- simple things like his fingers running through her unbraided hair (which he had done once in his life, on one of their many adventures as kids, but they had been on the way to freezing to death and he couldn’t really remember it), how his hands would feel resting on her hips, how her very rarely heard laugh would sound muffled against his neck while she was wrapped up in his arms.
There were other occasions where his thoughts about her would get more complicated -- his teenage mind concocting amazing scenarios that always ended with them confessing their love to each other or tangled up in the sheets together. Or both. The one that tended to recur the most was one where they went to Dantooine for a camping trip and sprawled out on a blanket together in the dark of night, pointing to the little colored dots in the sky that were stars and planets that they recognized. It always turned into them talking, both on their sides facing each other, foreheads almost touching, and finally led to them slowly ridding one another of their clothes, savoring each reveal of more skin -- visually and haptically -- between kisses. That would lead to them making love under the deep purple sky; the stars blanketing them and the sounds of the stream and nocturnal creatures closeby acting as a lullaby when they collapsed into each other’s arms afterwards.
That scenario always ended with them wrapped up in the blanket they had been laying on, skin to skin, with Jacen gently using his fingertip to trace the patterns of visible constellations in the sky on the freckles that smattered her shoulders.
He could barely make out a patch of her shoulder freckles in the lambent light and the sight caused the tension in his shoulders to loosen. She stirred slightly and Jacen turned his head, moving his gaze to the pile of supplies stacked to the side of where he sat. A flush rose in his cheeks and even though he knew that everyone ahead of him was asleep, he still hunkered down, dropping his chin to his chest to hide his face. He felt, for a moment, like he had been invading her privacy and he scolded himself inwardly for staring.
Jacen knew though, if he could, he would be content to stare at her for the rest of his life. Watching her across the chamber at Jedi council meetings, or his eyes tracing the clearly Hapan jawline she had inherited while he sat at dinner with her -- their feet playfully knocking into the other’s beneath the the table, waking up beside her and seeing her cool gray stare first thing in the morning -- the rest of his life.
A frustrated sigh passed his lips -- this was getting him nowhere. Although, it had been the most optimistic he had felt since arriving on Myrkr, so that was a positive. The realization made him shrug slightly and brought him back to the task at hand.
“My turn, J.”
Jacen looked up to see a silhouette hovering over him, tall with gangly limbs and long, tied back hair.
“Yeah, thanks.” Pulling himself to his feet, he began to move to his spot in the group, stopping for a moment to look back. “Zekk, if you need anything, don’t hesitate to wake any of us. No trying to take care of things yourself.”
“Who do you think I am? Kyp Durron?”
With a tired chuckle, Jacen carefully stepped over and around his dozing companions until he came across the empty sleeping pad he had vacated earlier when his turn had started. As he settled down on it, he was surprised to see the person next to him peering in his direction with a set of light, sleepy eyes. She watched him briefly before her eyelids dropped shut once more and Jacen could feel a small smile hit his lips as he laid back on the sleeping pad, turning on his side to face her and slipping his arm under his head.
He had zoned out, falling into his thoughts again (mostly replaying the thudbug incident repeatedly, picturing the horrific outcomes it could have had) and was broken out of his reverie by a strong hand clutching his wrist.
“Hey,” he whispered.
The grip on his wrist tightened a bit. “Hello, Jacen.”
He knew right away that she was aware of his thoughts, he could see it in the way her brow furrowed and her lips thinned. Gaze dropping to her fingers still on his skin, it was a few heartbeats before she shook his wrist and he looked back up to her, his attention following her hand as it left his flesh.
Tenel Ka pointed to him with one finger before turning her hand to point two fingers towards her eyes. The easily recognized motion calmed him immensely and he felt somewhat at ease (as much as he could in the situation they were in) when her voice, almost silent, hit his ears with two words.
With a nod, he reached out and slipped his fingers around hers, resting their joined hands in between their bodies. He closed his eyes only after that action, drifting into a slumber to the reassuring feeling of her thumb running back-and-forth across his knuckles.
Mon Cala was a welcome break from Hapes. Really, anywhere was a welcome break from Hapes and she hadn’t even been the Queen Mother for that long yet.
She had been looking forward to relaxing at least a bit -- maybe after the ceremony -- alone, with no guards. It was another thing she hadn’t grown used to; being followed around at all times by at least two tall, powerful women, each with at least two weapons on them somewhere (and that didn’t include what they could do with their fists and feet). She was lucky if she could convince them that she could go to the refresher alone.
The Hapan guards were flanking her now, near the long table where she had eaten her meal with the other newly knighted Jedi. But while the other newly knighted Jedi were out on the massive marble floor ahead of her -- celebrating, drinking, talking -- Tenel Ka Djo stood silently, stock still, shoulders back and chin up, in between two Hapans who would glare vibroblades at anyone who approached her.
She had been lucky to get a few words in alone with Jaina and Tahiri before the ceremony, a hug from Zekk and a clap on the shoulder from Lowbacca. The nothing she received from Jacen Solo was what stuck out in her mind, though. Tenel Ka had seen him here and there, obviously on stage with her, but also during their meal, down at the other end of the table, and now mingling with dignitaries and friends in the crowd. Her gaze had locked on him a few times, but she never saw him notice.
It was understandable. He had been gone a long while, captive and alone, and she knew his ordeal had changed him. She could tell by the way he carried himself. She figured he didn’t recall their last meeting before he left with Vergere, where she had leaned in to give him a kiss and was cut off.
The Queen Mother felt silly remembering it herself. It was childish. It was stupid to be thinking about now.
She had debated approaching him, giving him a welcome back, maybe shake his hand and congratulate him on fully becoming a Jedi Knight, but she found that while her mind kept urging her to do this, her feet would stay planted on the marble floor, locked in the painful heels that Hapans somehow equated to shoes.
Her time at the ceremony and celebration had been fulfilled, she thought. She had been seen by who she needed to be seen by -- politicians and such -- and had given her polite and practiced Queen Mother spiel to each one. Opening her mouth to give her guards the notice that they would be departing shortly, she froze, lips pursed and attention focused past the soldier on her right.
Jacen Solo stood alone at one of the many entrances to the main hall, a drink in one hand and the other with a pointer finger aimed at her. She felt her lips press together around a mouthful of dry air when he turned his hand around and pointed two fingers towards his eyes. Even at that distance she could see the pools of brandy that hadn’t changed a bit.
She watched as he took the last swig of his drink, raised his eyebrows at her and dropped his hand, nodding his head towards the archway he then slipped through.
Tenel Ka kept her calm demeanor about her, as she always did, but she could feel her heart hammering in her chest.
“I shall be back in a few minutes,” she said to the guards, stepping out from in between them. “I need to use the refresher.”
They both stepped forward, ready to follow her and one said, “Your Majesty--”
“I will be fine. Stay here.” When they still looked ready to follow her, she continued. “That is an order.”
Backing away from them slowly, Tenel Ka grabbed a handful of the bottom of her dress as she did (tripping now would help no one -- she still wasn’t used to the fashionable footwear she had been forced into), then finally turned and casually walked towards the archway Jacen had just been in, slipping out of the chamber in the exact place he had.
The Force wasn’t helping her find him, as she moved down the carpeted corridors of the building, eyes scanning the small groups of people scattered here and there. He must have closed himself off -- a thought that didn’t sit right with her. His return from captivity had exploded in the Force, her mind filling with a light she thought had burnt out for good, and it stayed there -- a comforting constant again. But now, the light was out once more. Not as severe as when he was taken. She could tell he was alive. But that was all.
Her senses were alert, more than usual, and she lifted her hand, letting her fingers drag across the wall beside her. Before she knew it, someone grabbed at her wrist and jerked her into an alcove. They almost got an arm around her waist as well, but Tenel Ka turned, twisting the arm behind the person’s back and slamming their front against the cool stone wall.
“That’s my Tenel Ka.”
Quickly letting go of him, she took a step back, clapping her hand over her mouth and slightly muffling her voice. “Friend Jacen, my deepest apologies.”
He turned around, brushing off his Jedi robes and delivering that lopsided grin that caused her heart to leap. It had been so long since she had seen him. And seeing him close up for the first time since his return was a surprise -- not a bad one by any means, but still a surprise.
There was a scar on his cheek she didn’t recognize, a few days worth of stubble on his face and when he reached out a hand to her, she could see how calloused and scarred his fingers and palms had become. What had they done to him? What had he done to them?
Without thinking, she slipped her hand in his and complied easily when he gently pulled her towards him.
“Congratulations,” he said.
“Well, not for becoming Queen Mother. I’m pretty sure you aren’t too excited about that. But you’re a Jedi Knight now.”
She said nothing, knowing her path in life wouldn’t be the one she wanted to follow.
“I will say though…” Jacen trailed off, letting his other hand rise to her shoulder where he brushed his fingertips over the crystals that hung in strands from her tiara. He did this slowly, methodically even, moving his fingers to her hair after that. He seemed lost in his thoughts for a moment. “You look…”
“A bit,” he responded.
A wave washed over her, a sudden urge to tighten her grip on his hand and leave the festivities, leave Mon Cala and live in hiding with him somewhere. The inward scolding arrived scant seconds later. Jacen had his own life, his own problems -- there was a war going on. This was no time for daydreaming. There were years ahead of her for that, while she sat by herself on the cold throne of the Hapes Consortium, alone with only heavy decisions to make and threats of assassination to keep her company.
Her silence had made him shift and when she brought her mind back to the present -- back to reality -- she realized he had her hand in both of his and the distance between them had closed even more.
“You look beautiful. Slightly unhappy. But beautiful,” he whispered. “I know this is the last thing you wanted, but your dedication and your strength and your resolve are -- I don’t even know how to put this into words. I’ve always admired you, always. And I didn’t think I could any more than I did, but seeing you today, holding your head high, acting every part as elegant as you’ve always been -- not to mention this dress -- you just… I…” Jacen stopped and she could see his brow furrow slightly, followed by a visible gulp in his throat.
Tenel Ka didn’t need him to continue; she could feel everything he was saying to her through their connection and it was one of the most fascinating feelings she had ever experienced. He was back. Jacen was back and he had sought her out, spilling emotions to her that she never thought she would receive from anyone -- let alone him, especially after she thought he had died. She dropped her chin, her forehead resting against his chest, and she felt one of his palms gently cradling the back of her head.
“I missed you,” she said.
“I missed you too, Princess.”
The thought of those slimy courtiers seeing that face every single day -- the hair he used to watch fly out behind her like the tail of a copper comet when she ran around the jungles of Yavin IV, the lips that parted for the rarest and most genuine laughs every once or twice an eon, her -- it tied the most complicated knot in his stomach. They had none of the memories of her that he had and cherished and revisited. They didn’t deserve her. He didn’t deserve her, yet here he was, raveled up in her bedsheets, his eyes trailing up the bare, smooth back of the Queen Mother of Hapes.
She stood from her seat on the edge of the bed, padding across the carpet to the foot of it, and Jacen Solo found himself staring more intently than he had thought. The legs, still perfectly as toned as they had been since the day he first met her, caught his attention for a moment before that smile did -- the one she seemed to reserve only for him. The motion reached her steely eyes that then softened the slightest bit, which was how he knew the positive curl of her lips was authentic.
Her hand was currently rooting around the mess of clothing they had left on the chaise lounge at the foot of the bed.
“You don’t need any of that, Princess,” Jacen chided.
The sly expression she gave him in return sent the most welcome shudder through his body and he felt his arms break out into goosebumps when she gave up searching for her robe and continued across her quarters in nothing but the loose, leather tie that held her hair out of her face. She stopped at the small table near the doors to the balcony, which were propped open to let a breeze in, and began to fiddle with the stacks of flimsiplast on the table as if she was searching for something.
His gaze trailed past her, outside to the night sky for a moment, and he felt his lips upturn slightly as he recalled her words from earlier that evening. They had still been partly clothed and on the sofa in the sunken salon, whispering and chuckling to each other between kisses, and he had slipped a hand under her skirt and let his fingers dance up her inner thigh.
“We have to be quiet. I am absolutely sure some of the suitors are hanging around in the gardens below my quarters,” she had murmured.
Jacen’s face had twisted into a look of disgust. “That’s... creepy. Why do they do that?”
Her answer had been silenced by the feel of his hand between her legs, his fingers slipping into her Hapan silk undergarments quite easily. And any noises of pleasure she had made from there on out were somewhat hushed, but her lips had always been right by his ear when she made them.
Those sounds had lit a fire in him.
“Tenel Ka,” he said.
“Mmm?” She responded, still shifting things around on the table.
“What are you looking for?”
“My ring. The one I got from my mother, I took it--”
“It’s on the nightstand over here,” he said, his attention back on her and drifting up what remained of her left arm and up her neck to her profile. Her skin seemed to glow in the pale moonlight that slipped in the chambers from the seven moons of Hapes and the way her tongue aimlessly ran over her lips as she peered back to him -- the scene looked like a work of art.
She turned towards the bed and his eyes anchored on the birthmark between her breasts.
Glancing upwards, he saw her pointing at him and watched as she turned her hand around to motion to her eyes with her pointer and middle fingers.
“Stay here.” She couldn’t hide the ghost of a grin from her face as she spoke and Jacen laughed.
“Shhh,” she waved her hand quickly, finally finishing her way around the bed and trying to keep the smile from her face. “They will hear you .” Picking her ring up, she deftly slipped it on her finger one-handed with no issue and fell into bed next to him.
“Let them.” Jacen threw his leg over her body and pulled himself up, hovering over her on his hands and knees and staring down at her. The sparkle in her cloudy eyes was mesmerizing and he found that he couldn’t look away.
When they made love for the third time during the one night he was able to stay, he silenced her moans with his lips.
It had been a mere seven minutes since Jacen Solo was introduced to his daughter and from across the nursery, the newborn’s mother watched as he gently cradled her in his arms. The tiny girl had only been born a week before, but to Tenel Ka it felt like it had already been years. Not only had she been almost exclusively taking care of her daughter (which would be normal for any mother, but not one who also had 63 planets to run) but there was Hapes to worry about, as well as the always present and underlying fear of Jacen -- telling him about their daughter, introducing him to their daughter, and hoping he didn’t look at the situation the wrong way.
She could see the joy etched on his face. He almost looked like the teenager she had fallen in love with -- the familiar scrunching of his nose and the lopsided upturn of his lips sparked a warmth in her mind, while the new additions like the barest hint of crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes and the five o’ clock shadow were enough to make her want to fall in love with him a second time. She hadn’t seen him enough in the previous years, since the war with the Yuuzhan Vong ended. It wasn’t his fault at all, she knew and accepted this. He had a life and ideas and needs and wants and questions. She had Hapes.
His soft eyes lifted over their daughter, locking on Tenel Ka, and a wide smile spread across his face. “She’s so perfect,” his voice barely sounded over the girl’s cooing.
Tenel Ka opened her mouth to reply but stopped when she noticed how her breath had caught in her throat. It was a rare feeling for her -- that sensation of instability when one was about to cry, and she found herself fighting it as she watched Jacen sway back and forth slowly, leaning down to whisper to the little girl.
She knew time was unforgiving and the moment would be fleeting, but she didn’t want to stand up and approach him, she didn’t want to shatter the purity and beauty of the image she had absently been searing into her mind. Tenel Ka was well aware that it would be one she would want to remember for the rest of her life, no matter how long it was -- no matter how her and Jacen’s relationship played out.
When the bundle of blankets in his arms began crying, Tenel Ka watched Jacen’s face instantly contort into an expression of worry so severe that she could have sworn the universe was ending.
She continued to watch him.
“Princess, she’s crying. What do I do?”
Her eyebrows lifted at the name he had used for her (one that she had somehow let slip her mind), yet she didn’t move otherwise.
Jacen looked back up to Tenel Ka, then to the newborn, then back up to Tenel Ka.
“She is most likely hungry, Jacen.”
“Alright,” he said, the fear still apparent in his features as he peered down at the fussy baby in his arms before lifting his head and somewhat frantically turning it back-and-forth to visually search the room.
Tenel Ka found herself slightly amused, but also overjoyed in a way. His reactions were putting her a little more at ease about the questions she had for him regarding their daughter’s existence.
“How do I feed her?”
The Queen Mother raised her eyebrows even higher -- the highest they had ever been raised, she thought, in the back of her mind.
“Tenel Ka, how do I feed her?”
The worry that had seized him over the little girl’s protests was so strong that Tenel Ka had to resort to grabbing his attention with the Force to get him to look over to her. When he did, she raised her hand to point at him for a moment before shifting to point with two fingers to her own eyes. She held her fingers there until she saw his expression soften slightly -- a change that only someone as close to him as her (aside from family, most likely) would pick up on -- then spoke.
“You do not.”
The inquiring noise he made over the baby’s cries was easily heard and his brow furrowed instantly. He stared at the girl’s mother with a dropped jaw and a slightly shaking head.
She waited for him to register a fact of human nature that he should have been well aware of, but when he didn’t move, Tenel Ka took to just using her only hand to motion to her own chest, specifically to the flap of her nursing gown she wore.
“Oh,” Jacen started over to her. “Ohhhhhhh, wow. Tenel Ka, I--” He didn’t finish his thought as he approached her, but shook his head and gently herded her back into the chair with his elbow when she moved to stand up.
Pulling the flap down, she took their daughter in her arm softly, with the skill of a woman that seemed like she had been a mother for decades, and cradled her against her body. Once the newborn latched on and began to eat, the Queen Mother peered up from the child to the child’s father, who was staring at them both with a gleam in his wide (and watery) eyes.
“I cannot believe you, Solo.”
“I can’t either,” he said, a grin so childish crossing his face that Tenel Ka felt the joy of it radiating through their connection. “I just…” He began to laugh at himself, covering his face with his gloved hands as his cheeks flushed.
“A man who had experience with countless animals as a child -- many of them mammals, no less.”
Kneeling beside the plush chair Tenel Ka was seated in, Jacen removed his gloves and dropped them on the ground. He said nothing, but she could sense him watching her and when she moved her gaze to him she could see his eyes moving the slightest bit, searching her features before looking down in wonder at their daughter. She didn’t want to bring up anything that would dampen the mood, but she knew she needed to talk with him about this specifically before he disappeared again.
(Like he always did.)
“You are… alright with this -- with her. You aren’t mad?”
“Mad? Tenel Ka, why would I be mad?”
“I know she must seem… out of the blue. I mean--”
“Out of the blue? Come on, Tenel Ka, I know I’m a little dense sometimes. But I’m not that dense.” He reached out, running his hand over the baby’s wispy fluff of hair. His voice lowered slightly and she could see his lips curling upwards. “I know how babies are made --”
“But couldn’t remember how they were fed,” she interjected, motioning down to the baby who was still cradled against her chest and feeding.
His laugh was rich, it was genuine. It made her heart jump.
“Yeah, a little dense, I know. But, I knew when I was here last year and we were together for that one night… I could have prevented this then just as easily as you could have.” He paused, shifting his fingers up to caress her cheek. “But you didn’t… and I didn’t.”
“Why didn’t you?” She surprised herself by whispering her question, as if the words didn’t want to sound.
Jacen didn’t speak right away, but gnawed on his lip for a few moments before narrowing his eyes and opening his mouth, hesitating once more. He seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “Do you know how long I’ve had feelings for you? Really?”
The Queen Mother had no answer.
“I… I used to dream about this. About us. It got me out of bad mental situations. Sometimes when I was worried about something I used to think about us living together on Dantooine or Kamino -- I know you like thunderstorms… or you did… maybe you still…” He trailed off, shaking his head and focusing again. “We had kids. They had pets. We were always happy in these… thoughts of mine and I just… I wanted that. I wanted you. I still do.” His features tightened and Tenel Ka watched as his focus slid from her face to their daughter’s. “I kind of hoped -- a few months after my last visit -- that I’d get a message from you.”
“Something of this sort,” he smiled wistfully, still watching the tiny girl. “But the months came and went and I got a message from you a year later and when I stepped in here I thought my heart was gonna just… shatter.”
Instances where Tenel Ka Djo wished she still had her left arm were extremely rare -- almost nonexistent -- but at that moment, when she saw a tear slip from the corner of Jacen’s right eye she had the urge to reach forward and wipe it away. She knew what her remaining arm held though, was much more important to both of them.
“I know our situations are… the worst when it comes to us being together. I know this. I’ve known it since the first time I saw you wearing the Hapan crown. I don’t care though. I didn’t then, I don’t now. I wanted this so bad. I knew the risks then, I know them now and I will do anything for this.” He planted a delicate kiss on their daughter’s head. “For her. And for you, Princess.”
“I’m not the princess anymore,” she admonished almost playfully, tossing a glance down to their daughter.
“Your Majesty,” he amended, leaning towards her. Being mindful of the newborn between them, he gently pressed his lips to hers.
It took a good hour for him to get used to their disguises. Seeing himself in any reflective surface -- the decorative mirrors in the restaurant, the water in the fountains they passed on the way and even in the brass utensils that sat beside their plates -- caught him off guard. His windswept blond hair and blue eyes gave him pause almost as much as his Hapan cheekbones.
The other two people that sat at his table, a pair of beautiful women, were also hidden under the guise of different features and clothing. The small one to his left, the one with the brown ringlets and blue eyes, her form shook slightly in a strict pattern as she sat in her seat -- he could tell she was absently kicking her feet back and forth under the table.
It was something she usually did during meals.
His slight grin at the thought led him to the woman on his right. She was staring down at the food on her plate, poking around at the sourfry noodles with a fork she held in her prosthetic left hand. The fingers of her right brushed locks of auburn from her cheeks and then moved to pick up the spoon on the other side of her plate. He could tell having a second arm for their disguises was throwing her off.
The woman looked up at him. Even disguised he could recognize the shine in her eye and the barely noticeable upwards curve of the corner of her lips. It almost broke his heart.
He would have to leave them again, like he always did.
The smile he delivered to the woman was lopsided -- something he couldn’t help, even though he knew they were supposed to be the Faal family and Keval Faal would never smile in such a crooked fashion. He couldn’t help himself.
“Ayla, you need to finish your vegetables,” he said, turning his head back to the girl.
“Pffffft,” the little girl responded, before leaning forward and picking up her fork, spearing a stalk of celto greens off of her plate and trying to shove the whole mess of it in her mouth.
“Ayla,” the girl’s mother said.
Her parents looked at each other, trading arched eyebrows over the girl’s claim of “I can do it” that had been muffled by the sound of the vegetables in her mouth. Her cheeks had comically puffed up as she gnawed on them and both he and Ayla’s mother had started to stare at her to make sure she would actually finish the mouthful with no issue.
When she did, she gave them both a toothy grin, which came complete with a leaf from the stalk of the celto covering one of her front teeth. He chuckled and watched as she went back to moving slightly again, her legs swinging back and forth under the table once more, while her attention wandered around the establishment. Because of her position, she wasn’t allowed out of the palace much at all -- a thought that depressed him. She would never have a childhood where she could run around in the woods and act up like he and his friends (including her mother) did when they were young.
He trailed his gaze up to meet with a set of violet eyes and found himself hit with a wave of perverse pleasure at the fact that he was the only one in the restaurant (besides “Ayla”) who knew that he was seated and dining with the Queen Mother of Hapes. All the people around them -- mostly Hapans who held their chins a little too high -- had no idea their Queen Mother (and the Chume’da) was seated at a table in their vicinity.
“Are you sure you cannot spare one more night here? With your family?”
Resting his elbows on the table, Keval interlaced his fingers in front of his face and placed his chin against them. He wanted to spend the rest of his life there -- maybe not Hapes, exactly -- but anywhere where Tenel Ka and Allana were. His plans had already started gaining momentum; the visions he had been having slowing down thanks to his confidence in what he was doing, how he was helping.
For the good of the galaxy.
He hadn’t answered her question before they paid the bill and headed out onto the streets of Ta’a Chume’dan, their daughter in between them and holding their hands as they walked. She squealed when they came to a clearing in the middle of the main square, where fresh cut grass and a giant fountain with a low ledge sat, a soft blue light emanating from the water.
“Be careful,” her mother said.
“Mmmhmm!” She let go of their hands and wandered over to the fountain, crouching and holding her hands out in front of her, giggling when the water from the spouts hit her palms.
The woman turned to him, raising her eyebrows in a silent inquiry. Even through the facial changes her disguise provided, he could see Tenel Ka Djo. He could see her in her movements, the way she tucked her breeze-tousled hair behind her ear, the way she pursed her lips when she was in thought -- even the way she stood with her weight slightly on one foot and her hip out. The sheath dress she was wearing made that particular quirk easy to catch.
“Your question,” he said.
“What about it? Can you provide me with an answer?” Her eyebrows had lowered, but one had arched in a sly fashion as she prodded him before moving her attention away from him and out to the fountain where their daughter was playing.
“I could. But what if you don’t like the answer?”
A sigh slipped through her lips. “I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to go on a date with you.”
He chuckled, mildly shocked at her somewhat humorous response. The delivery and timing reminded him of himself, years before.
“Daddy!” Ayla was waving at him, motioning him over.
Without a second thought he brushed past Verna, running his fingers along her arm as he did, and moved to the clearing, stopping at the fountain and leaning down to their daughter.
He hadn’t been keeping track of time at all -- he usually found he didn’t when he was around the Queen Mother and the Chume’da -- but when he glanced up to check on Ayla’s mother, he saw her seated on a bench nearby, one leg crossed over the other, back straight and eyes shining. The cool night breeze caused the hem of her dress to flutter around her calves, which were still just as strong as the rest of her muscles -- like they always had been. The disguise couldn’t hide that from him.
The glint in her eyes caught him off guard. He felt his brow furrow. Had she been crying?
Are you alright?
Of course. Keep playing. I’m fine.
As they spoke through their connection in the Force, he kept trying to get her visual attention, wishing to lock their gazes in hopes it would help answer some of the questions he had. But she avoided him, shifting her focus whenever it got too close to Keval and Ayla.
“I like pretending you’re my daddy.” Ayla grinned up at him and he couldn’t help but smile back. She had gotten her dress all wet, the water was splashing into her hair and her shoes and socks were soaked -- she also still had the celto leaf stuck on her front tooth -- but none of that mattered. She was his daughter and she was the most beautiful thing in the galaxy. “I wish you were my daddy.”
“That would be nice, yeah. I agree, Princess,” he said, severely trying to keep his voice from wavering.
The girl went back to playing in the fountain and Jacen Solo looked up to where the Queen Mother sat on the bench ahead of them. In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to take them both back to the palace, tuck Allana in like a father should and tell Tenel Ka everything. She was the only one he could trust.
At her name echoing in her mind, she flicked her eyes to him, the rest of her body still.
He raised his hand and pointed at her, turning to hold his fingers towards his temporarily blue eyes until she moved her head to stare at him.
You’ll grace us with your presence for one more night?
He grinned crookedly, but it faded from his face after a moment, his features and thoughts growing serious.
I need you, Tenel Ka.
Rain didn’t fall often in Ta’a Chume’dan, but when it did, the storms were fast, violent and almost hypnotizing. It was dusk, and between the tempest in the sky above and the commotion at the Fountain Palace on the cliffs not as far up, no one on the streets paid any mind to the figure wrapped tightly in a deep gray cloak, sprinting down the main thoroughfare, sandals hitting puddles and kicking up water.
Following a Force signature that she didn’t recognize anymore, the Queen Mother of Hapes dodged citizens, carts, fountains and creatures, hoping that she would get to the source of the anger she felt pounding in her head before it was able to cause more damage. The trail ended at a small restaurant. An establishment with which she was familiar -- she knew of it, she had been there before. Not as herself, though.
The patrons and bartender needed only one glance at their Queen Mother after she pulled the hood of her cloak down, her face red and her cheeks wet with either tears or rain from the torrential downpour she ran through to get there – they knew they needed to leave. They knew this wasn’t something to question.
When they saw Tenel Ka Djo screaming at them to get out, they did.
The only noise in the restaurant after it cleared out was the sound of the storm beating down on the roof and the low background music she managed to pick up notes of here and there as she turned her head back and forth.
Tenel Ka knew he was here. She could feel him. Some sick shadow of what he used to be, anyways.
“Where are you?”
“What? Too good to play hide-and-seek with me like you used to do with Jacen and the other brats at the academy?”
Rounding the column that he had been lounging against near the back of the restaurant, Caedus pressed his shoulder to it, crossed his arms, and kept his gaze locked on her back. He had caught a glimpse of her flushed face when she had yelled at the people who had vacated mere moments earlier, and now all he could see was the damp and tangled corona of copper hair on her head and the shapeless form of the cloak she wore. He knew what she looked like underneath it though. He always would.
“You look well.”
Caedus almost said her name, but after she had betrayed him, he had considered her just another part of the faceless crowd that stood in his way. The others were easily forgotten at this point. But her . She would be difficult. She had been too deeply ingrained in everything he did, thought about, and planned. And now he had to force himself to see her as just another nothing. It was so hard, but he had to.
Her set jaw met her shoulder as she turned towards the sound of his voice, while her eyes only managed to reach a spot on the floor between them. Tenel Ka made no effort to spin her body to face him. She didn’t want to look at him, she couldn’t look at him. Seeing him was like watching Jacen Solo physically deteriorating in front of her.
“Why are you here?”
Even the Force signature she felt from him, the bond they had, it was filled with such negativity and anger – like a plague had infected everything they had built mentally over the course of almost two decades, weakening it with each second that passed.
“You know why I’m here.” Caedus pushed off of the column and sauntered across the empty establishment, stopping close behind the Queen Mother and leaning down to the side, tilting his head and stretching closer to her – almost comically – to ensure his eyes could meet hers. Something she had been trying so hard to avoid. With direct, unflinching eye contact and a lopsided sneer , he whispered something he knew would make her blood boil.
“I’m here to take my daughter away from the woman unfit to be her mother.”
There it was. The reason Tenel Ka was able to turn around and reciprocate his unforgiving gaze, her eyes growing sharp and her features tightening.
“And the thing that took over and killed her father is well enough to care for her?” Her instincts told her to move away from him, but her feet were frozen to the floor. The satisfaction of her backing down was something he wouldn’t be getting, not now. Even through his constant angry haze he should have known that she would never back down that easily. “I think not.”
The comment he made hit her deep down, but she clamped down on the reaction as fast as she could manage, hoping he didn’t catch it. That was what he wanted.
The place in his mind where he always felt Tenel Ka reacted the same way as her place for him did – burying a feeling that suddenly needed to be hidden and then building up mental walls around it. Her words pinched a nerve, but when he caught his own reaction to them and shoved it where no one could find it, he wasn’t only hiding it from Tenel Ka, but from himself as well.
Feelings were a thing he couldn’t afford. Not now.
Swallowing – and cursing – the sudden lump in his throat, Caedus continued to hold eye contact with the Queen Mother as he took one slow step backwards, two, three, until the small of his back met with one of the tables. Leaning against it, he pushed his cloak back over his shoulders, revealing the rest of the black he wore – armor, gloves, belts, boots. The only thing that stood out was the silver hilt of a lightsaber that hung at his side.
“Killed? Last time I checked, this was the same body in bed with you that night.”
And all those other nights too, he shot her through the Force, raising his eyebrows in obvious mock disbelief at the fact that she “forgot.”
Seeing him like this, a hollow, angry shell of the man she loved, was almost unbearable. But she stood, still and tall, keeping her cool gaze on him as he backed away, an almost imperceptible wince hitting her as she saw the flash of silver at his hip. That wasn’t his lightsaber. That wasn’t the saber she had been so familiar with, the one that cut through her first unstable blade, the one involved in their accident.
As if his physical changes weren’t enough – as if the mental agony between them wasn’t enough, the absence of Jacen Solo’s lightsaber drove it all home. She briefly studied the new hilt and found herself quite confident in her guess regarding the color of the blade.
“Maybe so. But any trace of the man who was Allana’s father is gone, sucked dry by you – the thing wearing his skin.”
It was no surprise what he was sending her through their bond – and his expression made it that much more sickening. She blocked him out and in return, shuffled through a series of memories, sending him bits and pieces of times she spent with Jacen. Tenel Ka didn’t hold anything back and mentally hit him with everything from the aquatically adorned room she gave to him at Reef Fortress, to the time she popped his shoulder back into place in the middle of the jungle, to them sleeping hand-in-hand next to each other on Myrkr, to the horrible marathon of that popular holo-reality show they sat through on one of his visits – after those and countless others, she ended with them taking their less-than-a-month-old daughter, bundled in blankets, out to the Fountain Palace gardens in the middle of the night. It had been when they named her.
All of those memories took seconds to relay to him, and it only took her seconds after that to let out the breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding.
The sound of leather protesting against itself broke the silence that settled after she had spoken out loud, his gloved hands clinging tightly together, shaking with the mess of rage he felt at her sudden – but somehow anticipated – round of mental warfare. He had channeled all of his physical reaction to the memories into his hands, which he was quite sure were white-knuckled inside the black gloves at this point. Caedus wasn’t sure how to handle his other reaction though – the emotional one. The one he wasn’t expecting to experience.
Responses raised to his lips, but he bit them back, waiting for the perfect one. The one that would sting her like the others had. It never came. After everything Tenel Ka had poured into the wave of nostalgia she delivered, Caedus found his voice only able to produce three quiet words.
“He was weak.”
Mild surprise stirred in some part of his mind at the fact that the words were even audible over the leather of his gloves, the hands inside still wringing slowly.
“Weak? He was a hero. You were a hero. You cannot act like Jacen Solo was never a part of you – no matter how far you’ve fallen.” Unclasping the dark gray cloak she wore, still damp with rain from her sprint to the restaurant, she tossed it over the back of the nearest chair and hesitated a moment before taking only two steps towards him. The brilliant green of the dress that had been underneath the cloak shimmered in the dim light overhead, the hem of the skirt drifting across the tops of her feet. Her sandals had provided no shield from the puddles she had hit on the way over and the frigid air of the establishment slid over her feet and up across her skin.
The feeling – and the mere idea – of steeling oneself against the cold air of a building after being out in a warm rainstorm, it only served to remind Tenel Ka of the times Jacen would attempt to drag her outside during the humid downpours on Yavin IV. Sometimes he succeeded. It was how she learned to love thunderstorms.
“Yes. Weak . It was noble of him to sacrifice himself though, I’ll give him that. But the only reason he had to was because he wasn’t strong enough to do what needs to be done. The galaxy needs fixing, Allana needs safety. The type of safety that will hold. Jacen Solo couldn’t do that.”
“What am I supposed to tell Allana?”
Caedus studied her now uncloaked form as he spoke. He vaguely recognized the sandals, easily recalled the dress – he could even identify where the beads braided into her hair had come from – but he found the hurt and disappointment in her features absolutely foreign.
“You won’t need to tell Allana anything.” There was a small part of him that was shrieking inside, beating against the walls of the mental cage that small part had been locked into – reacting to the words that were falling from his lips with no hesitation at all. “But I’ll be sure to tell her what a confident, strong and beautiful woman her mother was.”
Without a second thought, Tenel Ka Djo ignited her lightsaber, the turquoise glow that lit up the air surrounding her managing to comfort her the slightest bit. It was a shade of bluish-green that she was so familiar with, a weapon that felt right in her hand, but the situation she was using it in felt so wrong. She was raising it in front of her defensively, putting it between her and the one man she never thought would be on the other side for anything more than sparring and training when they were younger.
In the cool radiance from the blade of her lightsaber, she caught the flinch that marred his features for just a moment when she lifted her weapon between their bodies. There was a little bit of him left in there, there had to be -- she refused to believe there wasn’t. It hurt her to know that she wasn’t able to get him out of Caedus without resorting to this .
“Jacen …” She pleaded.
The slow shake of his head at the name alone was enough to get her to tense up.
“Your Majesty,” he said. “You should have never turned on me. I trusted you.”
Tenel Ka could feel her teeth grinding together. He had the nerve to bring up trust now.
He must have seen the change in her demeanor (he was always so good at that), or felt her flare of disbelief in the Force because his hand lowered to his belt and he unclasped the hilt of the unfamiliar lightsaber, wrapping his gloved fingers around it.
“Don’t make me do this, Tenel Ka.”
“You want me to just walk away, pretend this never happened and let you take Allana?”
The color of his eyes terrified her, but she didn’t let it show. She could see the glare of them in the dim light even clearer when he nodded.
“You’d be leaving with your life. And a promise that Allana will be safe.”
Tenel Ka could see the table where the three of them had sat when they had visited the restaurant they stood in, so long ago. She could remember the feel of Jacen’s hand resting on her thigh under the table and the sparkle of excitement in Allana’s eyes at the “family meal” they were having. Tenel Ka recalled almost breaking down that night when Jacen had told her, while the two of them were curled up in bed together, that Allana said to him she wished he was her real father.
Is that why he waited for her in this restaurant? To try to mentally attack her even more than he already had?
“Oh, I will be leaving here with my life and a promise that Allana will be safe. A promise to myself, because you aren’t getting anywhere near her.”
A red glow joined the turquoise one.
She just shook her head at him. Slowly. Deliberately. All while trying to keep her focus on his face and not the crimson blade that he was shifting between them.
“What happened to you?” She whispered, her voice barely reaching him over the hum of their weapons and the storm outside.
Caedus didn’t answer her aloud. He also tried to clamp down on his thoughts before she could catch any of them in their connection, but one word slipped through, then another.
“I just wanted you and Allana to be safe,” he finally said, his voice low, almost a growl. “I wanted the galaxy safe.”
“Ruining it is making it safe? Ruining us is helping as well?”
“If you had just let me--”
“No, I have let you enough. This isn’t you. You aren’t the boy I fell in love with, the man I fell in love with again -- your intentions are… admirable… but there has to be a better way to achieve your goal.”
“You won’t give that up, will you?”
“I never wanted to give up on you. Never. Not when you were captured during the war. Not when you left for five years. Not every single time you left us for your plans.” She paused, swallowing a mouthful of the damp air from the storm seeping in through the open windows of the establishment. “But it looks like I have to.”
“Don’t make me do this,” he repeated, the barest thread of desperation slipping into his words.
There was no first strike from either of them, they both reeled back and crashed blades at the same time, both trying not to wince at the violent emotional burst that came with the hit. Tenel Ka spun her lightsaber in her hand, a reverse grip, holding the hilt so the blade ran along the length of her arm, and she raised it ahead of her, preparing for his next move.
The pain that had seized his features was apparent to her as he lunged forward, swinging his new lightsaber wildly. That move alone was enough for Tenel Ka to know that he wasn’t at his best -- physically and mentally. He had never been that uncoordinated in battle, at least she had never seen him that way. Maybe when they were just starting out, around the time of the accident where she lost her arm.
That didn’t mean she let her guard down though. She brought her arm up just in time, crimson striking turquoise again, the hiss of the colliding blades almost deafening, masking the sound of the storm outside. When he shifted around her, she moved with him, both of them circling each other between actions. Her mind briefly recalled a conversation they had at the academy so long ago, where Jacen Solo had told her details of some of the predatory lizards on Yavin IV, and how they stalked their prey.
His eyes had turned a shade of orange, both brilliant and somber at the same time, and they were narrowed, locked on her, just like one of those predators he spoke so in awe of as a child. When a shadow crossed his face as they moved, his eyes darkened and for a moment they looked brown again. The memory of the pools of brandy she knew her own eyes would never meet again drove her to lunge at him, the monster that took over Jacen Solo, their blades clashing once more.
Twice more, three times.
Her heart beat violently in her ears, the rhythm of it matching with the loud crashes of thunder and reminding her that she was still alive. She would stay that way. For herself, for Allana and for Hapes.
Caedus dodged one of her charges, bringing them both closer to the windows of the restaurant, which were propped open next to the tables along the wall to let the breeze in. It had been a fine evening before the storm, cool and calm. Then everything had collapsed -- there was chaos in the Fountain Palace surrounding a sudden kidnapping attempt on the Chume’da and the Queen Mother had vanished -- only her closest advisors aware of where she was going.
The rain that had fallen through the open windows left drops of water on the plates of half eaten food and discarded cloth napkins and when Tenel Ka caught a glimpse of one of the many tables the patrons had fled from, she could only think of how these images would be forever frozen in her mind. The table they had sat at with Allana, all in their fancy disguises so long ago, had three plates on it and someone -- a child -- who had been sitting there had left a stuffed wampa by the glass of blumfruit juice. The rain that had pattered in through the window onto that specific table was sparse, but it was enough to make it look like someone had been crying while seated in that spot.
Pulling her mind back to the issue at hand, she could feel her adrenaline pumping and her limbs shaking because of it. Fatigue was easily on the horizon for her, she knew she hadn’t been training daily as much as she should have been -- her worry for Jacen and his goals occupying her mind more often than not in the recent weeks.
Tenel Ka ducked out of the way of a decorative vase that had been on the shiny tile floor near the entrance, which had been picked up and thrown by Caedus, all with the Force, in an attempt to distract her from the sabers between them. She didn’t fall for it, she wasn’t injured by it, but it just assisted in fueling the fury she felt growing inside of her. It was a feeling she knew she shouldn’t give in to -- a feeling that led to the dark side, but shutting it away now seemed impossible.
Feeling anything but fury and rage at the monster that overtook Jacen Solo was a distant and seemingly impossible option.
With a swift motion of her right leg, Tenel Ka kicked the vase back in his direction, following it up right away with another stab at him, flipping the lightsaber back around in her hand in the milliseconds between. She had caught him off guard, but only for a brief moment as he slid out of the way of her weapon.
The fight felt like it went on for hours when in reality they hadn’t even been in each other’s presences for more than fifteen standard minutes. They had broken dishes as their sides slammed into tables while the pair of them maneuvered around the dining area, they had knocked over chairs in attempts to stall the other person from getting any closer and Tenel Ka realized she could taste blood when a cut from her cheek -- from a stray piece of glass that had hit her cheek from a shattering flute half full of wine -- had dripped the sadly familiar copper taste onto the curve of her lips.
Caedus had succeeded in tripping her at one point, her lightsaber dropping to the floor beside her, and before she could reach out to grab it, he slashed down in her direction. She rolled out of the way, under the table she had fallen next to, her wide, stormy eyes moving between her weapon and him. Reaching out with the Force to bring her saber to her was interrupted as the table she was under was flipped up, landing on its side next to her.
Tenel Ka froze. There was a red blade at her neck, inches away from her skin, and she could feel the heat and hear the sizzling next to her ear. Strands of her hair were being singed off and before she realized what she was doing, she was slowly standing up, her back to him. The crimson beam followed. With a swallow, she raised her right hand, even slower than the speed at which she stood, and turned around to face him, being mindful of the blade he still held at her neck.
The blueish-green of her lightsaber, still lying on the ground, was visible out of the corner of her eye but a deep red was the shade flooding her vision. Her gaze lingered on the blade for a moment before following it to the hilt, then up an arm clothed in black and finally to a face, with tight features and narrowed eyes. A familiar face that had been distorted and now belonged to someone Tenel Ka Djo had already begun to mourn.
“Do it,” she whispered.
He didn’t move.
“Just.... please…” Her right hand, that had been hovering next to her face in a surrender, moved again, her pointer finger and her middle finger holding still in front of her eyes. “Stay here while you do it.”
Tenel Ka witnessed him crumble. After she spoke, he had stayed frozen for only a few standard seconds (that seemed like forever) while the words sunk in, and then his sharp eyes shut and his brow furrowed. A breath he had been holding came out in a shuddering exhale and he carefully pulled the blade away from her neck, dropping his arm by his side and shutting the lightsaber off, leaving the establishment in a turquoise glow. The weapon was dropped on the table he stood closest to and before he made any other moves, he inhaled deeply, letting out another shaky exhale.
As he stumbled to her, he pulled his gloves off and dropped them on the now-scuffed floor, stopping in front of her and placing warm palms on her cheeks. Tenel Ka felt herself freeze -- she knew he wouldn’t hurt her, she knew -- but she still feared for her life. She still realized, somewhere in the back of her mind, that she was steeling herself against his touch, almost every muscle in her body tightening while her heart beat violently in her chest.
Caedus pulled her to him, pressing his cheek against hers and whispering in her ear. She could feel his tears on her cheek as he did.
“I could never…” He trailed off, shifting his head slightly to plant a kiss on her jawline. “I could never, Tenel Ka.” His movements were rushed, clumsy, and his words were like a fervent plea for something they both wanted to return to, more than anything. “Please, forgive me. For this.” Heated breath glided across her skin, under her ear and down her neck, slipping from his lips as he spoke. “For everything.”
Caedus forced himself to pull back, to tear himself away from her, but he hesitated, cupping her cheeks in his hands and gently leaning forward to plant a kiss on her forehead. “You and Allana are my universe, my life -- my everything.”
Tenel Ka’s gaze was hovering on one of the clasps on his shoulder armor, any words she was planning to say locked up in her throat, caught behind the breath she was holding. She couldn’t look at him. The angle at which her lightsaber had been dropped to the ground cast a harsh light on his features, bringing out how gaunt his face had become and how sunken his eyes had grown. Caedus was like a ghost of Jacen, a shade that haunted the corners of her mind she rarely traveled back to.
“I love you, Tenel Ka.”
Backing away, he slowly let go of her face, his fingers staying in contact with her skin as long as he was still in arm’s reach. His lightsaber returned to him with a sloppy flick of his wrist and he lowered it to his side, only managing to clip it back to his belt on the third attempt at trying. He passed her, his shoulder (the same one she had popped back into place when they were younger) brushing hers on the way by, and she could hear him making his way towards the main entrance of the establishment -- where they had stood so long ago, waiting for a table that night. Where he had slipped his hand under the auburn hair of her disguise and rubbed her neck with one hand while Allana (Ayla) was putting flowers that she had found outside in his other hand.
“Wait,” Tenel Ka said, the word coming out much more shaky than she had hoped. She heard his heavily booted footfalls stop, the last step he took echoing on the tile, and she inhaled deeply before turning to bore her gaze directly into his. The sight of him -- drained, tired and lost -- was enough to make her want to look anywhere else, but she didn’t.
“Tell Jacen I love him too,” she said, still keeping her eyes locked with his, as difficult as it was.
For a split second, one beautiful moment she would never forget, never get back and never experience again, his lips shifted, the corner tugging up into that warm lopsided grin that never failed to fill her heart with emotion. She briefly wondered if she was hallucinating it, but the passion she felt in their connection informed her that it was real. It was wonderful. And it was Jacen.
It was over in a heartbeat.
“You would say that, Princess,” he murmured, the crooked smile going into hiding once more, forever this time.
Caedus stared at her, drinking in the sight of her for what he assumed and dreaded was the last time in his life, and then he vanished into the thunderstorm outside, becoming a shadow before disappearing completely in the dark maw of the alleyway.
He had only been gone for less than half a standard minute, but it had already felt like an eternity. Tenel Ka found her gaze absently trailing around the restaurant, eyes moving in any direction she hoped would help hold back the tears in that were threatening to escape them. She cursed inwardly at the quiver of her chin and the shaking in her legs and finally she just gave up, collapsing to her knees, her eyes pressing shut as hard as she could manage. The tears pushed through and she brought her hand to her face, covering her eyes while choking back a sob.
Those eyes would never see him again. They would never drift over his collarbone and down his arm to where his fingers tapped gently on her thigh while they sat in bed together. They would never widen in muted glee at him tickling Allana until her cheeks turned ten shades of red. They would never again get lost in the pools of brandy-brown that she would find studying her skin while he traced patterns in the freckles on her shoulders with blades of grass from the gardens.
Stay here, she thought.
If only he had.