"…Thank you all for your time. I hope that what I have told you here today prepares you all for what might lay ahead for our Galaxy," Jaina said resolutely as she stepped back from the podium. She made her way out of the Council Chamber leaving behind the Perator and the other officials. She left heavy hearts and gloomy faces in her wake.
Shaking off the weariness she felt, Jaina tried to let go of the feelings of sadness and anger her words and the memories of the Yuuzhan Vong had dredged up. She made her way though the labyrinth of corridors back to the ballroom she had left earlier. With one last shake of the head to ease the tension in her shoulders, she entered the room.
As she crossed the threshold, all conversation near the doorway ceased. A moment later, all conversation in the entire room ended as they stared at Jaina. Calling the Force to her, she tried to steel her resolve and began to walk through the room. As she passed by each table, silence turned to hushed whispers and Jaina's heart pounded in her chest. In all her times at diplomatic functions of the grandest scale, never had she been so obviously the center of attention. And the attention seems to be anything but kind, Jaina thought as she began to look for Anni.
It was a few minutes before Anni came trotting up to her. During the time Jaina managed to discern the object of the whispers and stares - the twig of thorns. "I can see you still know how to make an entrance," Anni quipped as she gently took Jaina by the elbow and led her towards the palace's exit. "Can you believe no one here was willing to play sabacc with me? There wasn't even one table in the whole palace!"
Jaina cleared her throat. "Can we get to addressing the situation at hand, please?"
"Sorry," Anni replied with a smirk and a chuckle that conveyed the fact she wasn't really sorry.
"It has something to do with this," Jaina whispered to her as she gestured at her lapel with her chin. "Though I can't figure out for the life of me what."
Her wingmate smiled knowingly as she guided Jaina out of the Palace and onto the streets of Cartann City. When they were about a hundred meters from the palace, Anni plucked the thorns from the lapel and tucked them into Jaina's pocket. "You're gonna want to keep those. The story just won't be the same without the visual aide."
"Well, that might be true," Jaina replied. "If I actually had a story to go along with my visual aide."
Anni giggled madly. "I suppose I should enlighten you then. It seems it was pretty common knowledge to everyone that was there why he invited you to his private chambers."
Jaina blushed. "Well yes, but that wasn't really what happened."
"Obviously not, since you are wearing the Thistles of the Shrew." Anni broke into giggles again.
"The what?!" Jaina exclaimed.
"The Thistles of the Shrew," Anni repeated. "According to the man I was talking to, you are the first woman to refuse a Perator's invitation for carnal pleasures in over a century."
"So that's what all the whispering was about."
Anni nodded. "At least it was around me. Opinions ran from prudishness to pretentiousness as to your reason for refusing. Though, a few of the women highly respected your refusal. It seems that times are changing here in more ways than we read about."
So, that's why he pinned it on me. To save me from assumptions that I had conceded to his advances. To protect my honor, since he clearly figured I would have refused even if he had tried, Jaina thought. I presume that the beautiful flower would have implied something else all together. I guess I don't feel so bad now that I got the thorns.
"So, why did you refuse?" Anni asked, shocking Jaina from her thoughts.
Jaina stopped in her tracks and stared at Anni, mouth agape. "Why did I refuse?" she asked, not wanting to believe she had heard her friend correctly the first time.
Anni stopped and turned to face her. She laughed again and smiled at Jaina. "Sticks," she chuckled. "You need to learn to take a joke." Anni began walking again with Jaina following her.
Finally, Jaina laughed at the absurdity of the entire situation. "You're right, I just…it was totally insane."
"I can't believe he actually did that," Anni replied. "It might have worked with one of his people but not with a respected woman from the New Republic."
Jaina shook her head. "No, it's not that at all." She pulled a datapad that she quickly showed to Anni before returning it to her pocket. "Though I can't say I fully understand the Adumari customs, he needed an excuse to get me alone to discuss some things."
Trying to rile her up, Anni interrupted, "Is that what they call it now?"
Ignoring her, Jaina continued. "First, he asked me to deliver a message for him to Wedge. Then he took me to a secret meeting deep within the Palace." Her voice became a whisper. "It seems the Adumari are more than ready to jump into the war against the Vong. The Perator just needed a little help explaining just what they would be getting themselves into, allowing cooler heads to plan exactly how they would proceed."
Anni nodded but did not offer any further comment as she turned down a street Jaina did not recognize. After walking in silence for several minutes, Anni came to a stop in front of a rather seedy looking cantina. Throwing a smile over her shoulder at Jaina, Anni walked through the door.
Jaina followed her since she really couldn't do anything else. The room was crowded with many different people. Almost all were humanoid, likely Adumari, and most wore dark masks over their faces. Jaina had no idea why, but it didn't seem out of the ordinary. If anything, it was more common in this place for one to be masked than it was to be without one.
Anni looked around for a few moments before making her way to a nearby booth. It sat in the darkest corner of the room and had just been vacated by two very armed, heavily masked and cloaked men. Anni sat down and drummed her hands off the table as Jaina sat.
"Nice place," Anni commented.
Jaina looked around in response and gave a half-amused frown. "Looks like how I imagined Mos Eisley looked when Uncle Luke met my father." She chuckled and added, "Well, except for the masks."
Soon a skinny, young girl, wearing a skimpy outfit, came over to take their drink orders. Anni ordered two Podracer Collisions, one for each of them. A few moments later, the drinks arrived and the two each took their first sips.
Jaina felt the spicy and bitter liquid splash over her tongue. She barely choked it down before she coughed. "By the Force…"
"I know," Anni replied with a smirk. "These are a little weaker than normal. We'll just make sure to tip her well next round and maybe we will get ones that aren't as watered-down."
Jaina smirked back at her. For the next couple of hours, Jaina and Anni had a few drinks and talked about a variety of subjects. First, their impressions of Adumar and its people. And second, life aboard the Ralroost and life as members of Rogue Squadron. The second topic got Jaina thinking of her assignment from Colonel Darklighter to try and gauge Anni's state of mind, though, after a few of the drinks Anni had ordered her, she was feeling more than a little fuzzy. She wasn't sure she could accurately evaluate anything.
"Jaina," Anni said. Her voice was soft and she had leaned over the table closer to the young Jedi. "I just wanted to say thank you for everything you have done for me since…" she trailed off, her expression pained. "Well, you know. It's meant more to me than you could possibly know."
Well, I guess I don't need to bring it up, Jaina thought. But, I'm still not sure how I should try and discuss it with her. Anni could see she was struggling for words. They both took a few more sips of their drinks, Anni hoping Jaina would continue.
Jaina eventually discerned Anni was waiting for her to speak. "I am glad I could be," Jaina began. "I know how hard it is to lose someone you love. When we lost Chewbacca, it affected all of us but it hit my dad especially hard." Her impaired mind quickly caused her to stammer. "Not that their relationship was the same…I mean…he did love him…but…" Jaina stopped herself, realizing she was babbling like an idiot.
Anni laughed. "I understand, Sticks. Don't worry about it. I know what you meant."
Jaina chuckled nervously. "Good, though I doubt I conveyed it properly."
"You did fine. That is the nice thing that comes with flying someone's wing. You get to know them," Anni replied, smiling warmly and resting her hand gently on Jaina's. She looked like she was about to say more when a shadow cast itself over the two ladies at the table.
Jaina and Anni turned to see six cloaked men. None wore blastswords or other Adumari garb or weapons. In fact, both girls were able to recognize their dress and weapons as being of Corellian make. "Lieutenant Solo?" the man closest to the table asked. His basic was accented with Corellian but also with something else Jaina couldn't immediately place although it did remind her of the accent her father had in early recordings of him.
"Yes," Jaina answered cautiously as Anni withdrew her hand. "What can I do for you?"
The man's face was heavily bearded and his hair was bushy and unkempt. He leaned down, almost seemingly trying too hard to look discreet. "I am Captain Yerys, NRI." He nodded to Anni. "I need to speak with you both immediately in a more secure location. I have urgent orders from Coruscant."
Anni and Jaina looked at each other, confusion evident on both their faces. Neither could figure out why they just hadn't had messages delivered to them through the comms on their fighters or through their contacts on Adumar. Slowly, Jaina stood. Her legs were a little wobbly beneath her. "Very well. Lead the way, Captain."
The other men moved to flank Anni and Jaina as the bearded man led them out of the cantina. He said nothing as he guided them through a kilometer of twisting streets. Eventually, he led them into a dark alleyway. The five other men stopped at the mouth as the Captain motioned for Anni and Jaina to step to the alley's dead-end.
Jaina looked around, suddenly not feeling very comfortable with her surroundings. Thinking a little too late, Jaina asked, "Captain, may I see some credentials?"
In response, he drew his blaster from its holster and pointed it directly at Jaina. "How's this for credentials, war-monger?"
Anni reached for the blaster at her side but the man moved to point his weapon at her. "Don't even think about it," he said as the two women heard the sound of blasters clearing leather at the mouth of the alley.
"What is this about?" Anni asked, her voice trembling slightly.
"We're not here for you," he said to Anni turning his weapon quickly back to cover Jaina. "In fact, we could use more people like you."
"Like me?" Anni asked, obviously confused.
"Sure," he answered with a smile. "A pilot - someone who knows her way around a blaster."
"Someone who isn't ugly and bearded!" they heard one of the men behind them shout. A chorus of guffaws accompanied the comment.
He cast an icy glance back in the direction of his fellows but didn't comment further. "It's people like your friend here that are going to get us all killed." To emphasize his point he gestured with the barrel of his weapon to Jaina. "The Jedi will be the death of all of us."
"Death of all of us? What are you talking about?" Jaina asked, unable and unwilling to hide her shock. "The Jedi are the protectors of the Galaxy."
His face grew red and his eyes took on a dangerous stare. "No!" he shouted at her. "It is because of you the Yuuzhan Vong are invading further into our Galaxy! It is because of you that they seek war! Because the Jedi attacked them!"
Jaina raised her hands a bit higher to show him they were empty. "I'm afraid you don't have your facts quite straight."
The man looked at her as if he was going to shoot her right there, in cold blood. "Your part of this discussion ends right now, Jedi," he hissed. "Or I'll kill you. Right here. Right now." Jaina said nothing as the man turned his attention back to Anni. "We will bring peace to the Galaxy. You might not have heard much from us yet but our movement is just beginning. Soon the Jedi will be dead and gone and we will be able to broker peace with the Yuuzhan Vong."
Anni almost laughed at the absurdity of the idea but she wanted to try and learn more. "How many are you? And what group are you talking about?"
"For now we are small. But soon, people will see that we are right and flock to our banner," he replied cryptically. "But, enough of this. Either you are with us or against us." He glared at Anni.
She seemed to think heavily on this for a moment. Slowly she turned to face Jaina so that her back was almost completely towards the man holding Jaina at gunpoint. She reached for her blaster but stopped suddenly. Instead, she wrapped her fingers around the hilt of the blastsword. The hissing of metal on metal sent a shiver down Jaina's spine. Turning the blade over in her hand, Anni held the razor-sharp edge to Jaina's throat. When she flipped a switch on the hilt, the weapon began to hum and the nozzle at the point began to glow a bright blue.
"Sorry," Anni began. "He might be right, he might not be. But, either way, I'm not dying for you. And maybe now I won't be running second best to the Jedi Princess who acts like everyone should do what she says just because her mommy used to be Chief of State and her uncle blew up the Death Star." Looking over her shoulder at the man, she asked callously, "Dead or alive?"
He grinned at her evilly. "Alive, for now. The Yuuzhan Vong can do with her as they wish."
"Very well," she said turning back to Jaina.
Jaina's heart was pounding in her chest. She couldn't believe that her friend would do this to her, especially after what she had just said in the bar. But something in Anni's demeanor made Jaina have misgivings. Finally, when it appeared that Anni would draw the blade across her throat, she gave Jaina a wink and began to mouth, soundlessly, "One…two…three."
Anni pulled the blade back a few millimeters and lunged to her right. The man holding his weapon on Jaina suddenly lost his smug grin and tried to turn his blaster towards Anni but the glowing tip of her weapon touched his chest first.
The weapon snapped and a puff of smoke wafted from a now smoldering hole as it sent him sprawling back. Even as the kick tore the blastsword from her hand and sent it clattering against the alley wall, Anni spun around and dropped her hand to quickly whip the pistol out of its holster. Raising it and dropping to her knee, she took aim.
It seemed the man's cronies were confused by Anni's ruse at first. She was already unloading her blaster into their ranks before they even raised their weapons to fire and two more of the men fell with smoking holes in their chests. They were still twitching when the snaphiss of a lightsaber echoed through the alley and Jaina stood, with her weapon in hand, bathing the space in an indigo light.
Jaina leapt in front of Anni, quickly batting aside two shots that came too close to hitting her friend. The Force burned brightly in the young woman evaporating the last of the effects of the alcohol and bringing her senses into perfect sync with her body.
Anni continued to fire, sending the remaining men diving for cover. She sought to do the same and scurried to crouch behind a couple discarded cargo containers off to her right. Jaina charged forward, deflecting bolts aimed at her as she went. One man, panicked by the sight, stepped out in front of her, dropped his blaster and drew a vibroblade.
His clumsy stab left him open for Jaina's attack. She swung her blade gracefully and the man shrieked in agony as his arm fell away at the bicep. He crumpled to the ground with a groan. Jaina moved onto the next man who continued to fire down the alley at Anni. She swung down viciously and slashed brutally across the man's chest. He too fell to the ground as his last breath escaped him.
The last standing assailant threw his hands up in surrender. Jaina held the lightsaber pointed at him menacingly. "Don't move and drop your weapon." He complied and his blaster fell from his fingers to the street. As Jaina looked at him, she felt the Force warn her of danger. She spun just in time to duck beneath a shot from the man whose arm she had cut off. He bucked once as a shot from Anni slammed into his back.
Sensing more the image of a plan than any actual danger, Jaina continued her spin to again face the man who had just surrendered. He was pulling at a holdout blaster from an ankle holster. He had just gotten it free and was beginning to raise it as Jaina leapt forward and impaled him on her blade. He stood there for a moment, hanging off her blade. His eyes glazed over and he fell off Jaina's blade to the ground.
"Are you alright?" Anni asked breathlessly as she ran up to stand beside Jaina.
Closing down her lightsaber, Jaina responded, "Yes, but we should get out of here. We have no idea if there might be more of them."
"Good idea," Anni said, already trotting off in the direction of their quarters.
"Thank you very much for your help," Anni said into her comlink as Jaina sat on a nearby couch. "Please let us know if you find out anything further."
Jaina looked at her friend. Her hands were still slightly trembling, much to her disgust. The aftereffects of adrenaline, plus the idea that someone wanted to give her over to the Vong for no reason she could figure out, had taken their toll.
"Well, it looks like we are safe here. The Perator has ordered guards to be stationed around the building and has his security force is searching the surrounding area and spaceports for signs of any more activity," Anni informed her as she moved to sit on the couch next to Jaina.
"Thanks Anni," Jaina said as she felt something being thrust into her hand. It was another drink. Anni must have been making them while she was on her commlink.
Jaina held it up to look at it. "Oh Anni, I'm not sure this is such a good idea. Had we not been drinking, we might not have been stupid enough to follow those guys off in the first place."
"Nonsense." Anni raised her own glass on clanked it off Jaina's before taking a sip. Jaina reluctantly raised her glass, taking a small sip as well. "Those guys ruined our good time. I say," she began to list off her fingers. "There are guards here, we are secure in our home away from home, we had our last party ruined and, most importantly, we need to live for today."
Taken back by the conviction in her voice, Jaina smiled. "Is that how you really feel about things?"
"Of course," Anni answered. "Who knows how long we are going to be around? We need to treat every day like it might be our last and have what fun we can." Her expression became slightly sad. "Especially now, with the war, it's even more so."
Jaina thought on her words for a moment. "You're right." After taking another long pull from her drink, she smiled in agreement at her friend.
For the next couple hours, the drinks flowed freely. Anni had immediately made the rule that no topic involving the military, the assault on their lives or the Vong was permitted under any circumstances. So the topics became wide and varied. Not one in particular seemed to dominate the conversation or even stay for any significant portion of it. Before long, both were no longer in full possession of their faculties and were wandering around their shared quarters.
Anni wandered into her room, complaining that Adumar was experiencing gravitational anomalies for she was sure she could feel the world spinning. She flopped onto the bed as Jaina followed her inside. Meaning to sit on the edge, Jaina kind of fell over to lie next to her friend.
Laughing, the two girls enjoyed the moment before their laughter slowed. Jaina then felt Anni's hand gently come to rest on her forearm. "Sticks," she said softly. "I never did get to finish what I was saying in the cantina."
Turning to face her, Jaina looked into Anni's soft blue eyes. "Sure Anni, what did you want to say?"
Taking a deep breath, Anni began slowly. "I was saying how much you helped me when Casey died. And how much that meant to me." Anni's fingers began to gently trace over Jaina's arm. "The truth is, Casey was very special to me and losing her hurt a lot. But…" Anni trailed off, not finishing her thought.
Jaina was lost a moment in the sensation of Anni's caress. Jaina shook her head, trying to organize her thoughts and clear away the cobwebs caused by alcohol, coming down from the fight and general exhaustion. "But, what?" she asked.
Anni smiled dreamily at Jaina. "But it would be a disservice to everything she believed in and everything I still believe in to let her loss keep me from living everyday to its fullest." Reaching over slowly, she gently ran her fingertips across Jaina's cheek.
Sighing at the pleasantness of the touch, Jaina leaned into it. Anni slipped her arm around Jaina's neck and pulled her into a loose embrace. Resting her head against her wingmate's shoulder, the young Jedi nuzzled into the nape of her neck and, unable to think of anything other than how good the embrace felt, Jaina lost herself in the moment.
Jaina's mind struggled with a multitude of questions in the blink of an eye. The first was how she really felt about Anni. The second was the fact that Anni was a woman. Although she had no great objection to the idea of two women being romantically involved, it was a feeling she was quite unfamiliar with. Then, as much as she fought it back, the memory of her dream came to her.
Anni held the beautiful young woman she had come to know rather well in her short time with Rogue Squadron. She could tell that Jaina was struggling with her thoughts even as she held her. I need to give her a little time, Anni thought. Sithspit. I know how much trouble I had with the idea when I started to think of women like I did. I care for her. So I need to make sure I don't rush her into anything but can still tell her how I feel...
Slowly, she moved to place her lips against Jaina's forehead. Anni planted a soft and loving kiss there. "Good night, Sticks," she whispered as she could see Jaina's eyelids beginning to droop.
As she felt the damp heat of Anni's lips on her skin, Jaina felt her
thoughts wash away in a flood of contentment. Feeling warm and
comfortable in Anni's embrace, the events of the day finally caught
up with her and she drifted off to sleep.
Continued in Part Seven