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"Aerodynamic"
By Violet Light

Star Wars: Empire of the Hand

Chronology Note: Rated NC-17. This story takes place late in 35 ABY, between The Joiner King and The Unseen Queen. It is a work of fan fiction and not written for profit. The Star Wars Universe and EU canon characters ultimately belong to the maker George Lucas.

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He had thought she loved him.

Try as he may, Jagged Fel could not get the images of betrayal out of his mind. What had happened to the Jaina he had loved, the fiery, determined “Sword of the Jedi”? How could she have betrayed his love, his respect for her by Joining with the enemy? That was the question repeating over and over again in his mind: Why?

“Hey, buddy. You in there?”

Jag grunted a reply, still staring blankly into his drink, like he had been doing for at least the last half hour.

“Jag? JAG! Yo, Flyboy!” Still no response. “Come on, man, we’re supposed to be having a good time, before you’re shipped out again. Now smile, Sith damn it, or your whole squadron’s gonna hear about how you used to think there were dianogas in the ‘fresher!”

“If I recall, I wasn’t the only one who fell for that, Shran.” Jag managed to smile.

“Yeah, well the places I go, there really can be dianogas in the ‘fresher, if you’re lucky enough to have a refresher at all!” Shran was an unusual-looking Chiss. He was a little over 1.5 metres tall, short for his species, with spiky jet-black hair that refused to stay in place. His looks were not the only things unusual about him, as Jag knew only too well.

“You’re the one who wanted to be an Explorer,” Jag reminded him

“What can I say? It’s more fun than just flying around shooting at things.”

That’s one way to sum it up. Jag thought to himself. Shran’s comment brought back a fountain of memories, of flying alongside a certain X-wing in his Clawcraft, the pair of them blasting coralskippers back to whatever hell the Yuuzhan Vong came from. Flying together, it almost felt like they were one mind, a single bird of prey swooping down on intergalactic vermin. It had felt so right.

“…I, on the other hand, get to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no Chiss has gone before!” Shran continued. “Jag? Oh, great, not again!” He moaned. Jag would never admit it, but seeing his old friend get frustrated was pretty funny. The spiky-haired Chiss’s bright red eyes flashed in annoyance. “Jag. Buddy. Knock it off. Look, I know it’s tough, but she’s gone and she’s not gonna come back.”

“How would you know? You’ve never stayed with any girl for longer than one night.”

“There’s Leska …” Shran started, referring to his on-again, off-again “relationship” with a fiery-tempered fellow Explorer.

“Leska kicked your spiky ass last time she saw you,” Jag pointed out.

“That’s just her way of showing she loves me and how she can’t live without me,” Shran shrugged. “Look, if Leska really wanted to kill me, she’d tell me ‘Shran, I’m going to kill you!’ And I’d say ‘oh really, how?’ and she’d bring out something kinky like a lightwhip …”

“Shran, I don’t want to hear about your sick fantasies.”

“I’ll tell you later. Anyway, the point is…”

“You have a point? There’s a first.”

“Funny, Bro. The point is that Leska has enough respect for me to tell things as it is. She wouldn’t leave me hangin’ for years on end, just to go off and play with the bugs.”

“That’s low, Shran.”

“’Low’ is such a negative term. How about ‘realistic’?”

“Whatever.” Jag resumed moping, occasionally looking out the window at the streets of Chakra City beyond, the starry skies of Nirauan overhead. It was strange, despite spending the majority of his career in space, he had rarely bothered to actually look at the stars. Which one was she around now? Could she possibly be looking up at her sky, wondering the same about him?

He glanced over at Shran, who was now watching the rest of the bar, a bored expression on his face. Two other Chiss in black and silver-trimmed Explorer uniforms walked by, nodding a greeting to Shran. He waved back; they were probably members of his crew, just as landlocked and bored as he was. Jag remembered Shran telling him how his Explorer ship, Discovery had been at the Spiral shipyards for the last two months, undergoing repairs from the emergency landing they had been forced to make when they were attacked by the Kiliks. The arrow-shaped Explorer mainships were not meant to go in atmosphere at all. The fact that Shran had managed to “land” his, get his crew to safety, and most importantly, preserve all of the Explorers’ research, spoke of his skill as a captain. Now, Shran was here, trying his best to help Jag, when he clearly had problems of his own. As exasperating as his friend could be, he was still that – a friend.

“Sorry, Bro...” Jag started. He had lost so much lately. He would never want to lose his lifelong friendship with Shran as well.

“Don’t worry about it,” Shran smiled. “Hey, if I hadn’t been laid since before the Bug war started, I’d be pretty grumpy too.”

“Actually Jaina and I … I mean, we never had time…” Jag trailed off.

“What?! You’re telling me you’re this upset and you two never even …? Fla’conde mais! Shran spat out a particularly nasty Cheunh curse. “Was it some stupid Jedi thing or something? I heard they’re not allowed to get married, or was that the Old order? I forget. I think I ski … I mean, was absent from that Imperial history class.”

“No, the new ones can marry.” Jag answered dully.

“Oh yeah! I remember how pissed Mom was when she heard Mara had married their little fruit of a leader, what’s his name again?”

“Luke Skywalker. You know, the guy who blew up the first Death Star. Jaina’s uncle.” Sometimes, Shran did not seem to care who he insulted. Not that Jag had any love for the Skywalkers, but still.

“See, there’s another problem. You definitely don’t want Jedi in-laws. Imagine how family reunions would go then. It would be bad enough with your Dad and Han Solo supposedly being in the same room. Add lightsabers to that and you’ll have an episode of ‘Troops’ on your hands.” Shran continued, seemingly oblivious to whether or not Jag was listening at all. “Where was I? Oh yeah, about you not getting any…”

“We were fighting a war.”

“So? Plenty of people got laid in the Vong war. I did. Quite a few times.”

“Thanks for sharing.”

“Any time. So why didn’t you afterwards, if you don’t mind me prying?”

“I do mind, and … I don’t know. She always said it never felt like the right time. Some Force thing, or something.”

“So it was some stupid Jedi thing. That moactan teel…never mind. Well, at least I know how to fix you now. Come on!” Shran grabbed Jag’s arm and began pulling him out of the bar.

“Fix me? Shran! What are you doing?”

“Just trust me,” the spiky-haired Chiss smiled. This worried Jag. He knew from years of experience that when Shran smiled like that, trouble was not far behind.

****

Whether it was just morbid curiousity that prompted Jag to allow his friend to drag him through a maze of streets, or just the suspicion that he would once again have to get Shran out of trouble, Jag would try to remember later. Whatever the reason, they ended up in a familiar part of town, one he had drag Shran out of more times than he would have liked.

“Little Ryloth? Shran!”

“See, just the place for a sad, pathetic little flyboy to pick up some lekku.” Shran grinned, continuing to drag Jag down a street that made Corillia’s Treasure Ship Row look as barren as Tatooine’s Dune Sea. Brightly coloured lights shone from the restaurants, shops, theatres and hotels lining the streets, of which some looked more questionable than others.

Jag remembered a mission from before the Vong war, where his squadron had rescued at least a hundred Twi’lek women and young girls from a Hutt slave ship that had blundered into Hand space. The would-be slaves had been sold to the Hutts by their own clans. They could not return to Ryloth and if they went anywhere else, they would have put the then-secret existence of the Empire of the Hand at risk, so the Empress had allowed the Twi’leks to settle on Nirauan. Most had started up the businesses on this street, using the only skills they ever knew, though most were now sending their daughters to school, giving them a better life than they ever could have hoped for.

Predictably, the Twi’lek part of Chakra City had become quite popular with Fleet personnel ever since, though Jag never visited himself, except to drag home Shran or members of his squadrons who indulged a little too much. He knew why Shran would take him to a place like this, and he didn’t like it.

“I think I should go check on my Clawcraft…” Jag started.

Shran rolled his eyes. “Honestly Jag, you’re more Chiss than I am! Look, you need this. The girls here are nice and they don’t expect anything but a one-night stand … and maybe a few credits. Pick one, or I will!”

“Have fun.” Jag started walking back in the direction of the spaceport.

“I meant for you this time!” Shran chased after him. “I hate to sound sappy, but I’m worried about you, Bro. Look, this isn’t Spike Squadron, or a Star Destroyer, or Csilla. You don’t have to put on the emotionless act. Just relax, enjoy yourself, and don’t worry for once.”

“Look Bro, I know you’re just trying to help, but I really don’t think…”

“How about that one?” Shran interrupted, looking over Jag’s shoulder.

Jag turned around. Walking down the street towards them was a lavender-hued Twi’lek, dressed in a form-fitting, black bodysuit, a black jacket with white patches on her shoulders and a black headband with a white circular patch over her forehead. As she moved closer, Jag could see the patches were old-style Imperial insignia.

“A cos-player. This should be fun,” Shran grinned. “Excuse me, Miss…”

The Twi’lek’s lekku twitched in annoyance, and she turned to cross the street. Not to be discouraged, Shran slid in front of her. “Hello Evening Star. I have something that needs an engineer’s fine touch. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to accommodate, would you?”

Twitch. “Sure you do. I’m not your type, trust me.” The Twi’lek sighed.

“I know you must be aching to work on my engines, but my friend here could use the … maintenance more than me. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. Jag! Come here.” Jag stood where he was. “Jag!” Shran grabbed the Twi’lek’s wrist and dragged her over to him.

“Sorry about my friend. He means no harm, Major.” Jag tried to explain.

“Major?” Shran asked, noticing for the first time the rank insignia over the Twi’lek’s front pocket. “Hey, nice touch!”

“It’s okay,” the Twi’lek replied. “I deal with idiots like him all the time.”

“I’ll bet,” Jag confirmed.

“Hey!” One thing Shran could not stand was to be ignored. He then realized that things were actually going in his favour. “This is my friend, Jag. He’s been through a lot of poodoo lately and I was wondering if you could, you know, cheer him up?”

“Jag?” The Twi’lek questioned. It was her turn to notice Jag’s flight suit and Fleet insignia. Her eyes grew wide. “Captain Jagged Fel?”

That was all Jag needed right now, a fan. “I apologize again, Major. Come on
Shran.” He grabbed Shran’s arm and turned to walk back to the spaceport.

“Wait.” Jag looked back. “I’m Neela Sen, Walker Corps,” the Twi’lek held out her hand.

Jag took her hand. “Jagged Fel, Starfighters. He’s Captain Mitth’shra’nuruodo, Explorers.”

“I thought so,” Neela said resolutely. “Only one Chiss in the whole galaxy is so … unique.”

“That’s one way to put it.” Jag agreed.

Shran smiled to himself. Mission accomplished. “Have fun, you two.” He smirked, as he started walking down the street.

“Shran, the strip club’s the other way.” Jag observed.

“Not tonight, Bro. This may sound lame, but my Mom commed earlier, saying she had a new assignment for me. Maybe they finally got my baby out of drydock!” Shran called back. “Oh, one more thing…” he added.

“What?”

“You owe me details tomorrow! Evening Star, thanks again. And I will make it up to you!” Shran yelled as he turned the corner.

Jag shook his head, then turned back to the waiting Twi’lek. “I really am sorry about him …” he started.

“Don’t be. You friend’s reputation spans the Empire.”

“So does his ego. I’ll let you get back to whatever it was you were doing now.”

“Actually, I didn’t really have any plans for tonight. The Cerberus won’t be leaving until tomorrow morning,” Neela supplied. “How about I take you out for dinner?”

“You mean, like a date or something?” Jag asked, startled.

“Sure! Why not? Your friend may be an idiot when it comes to women, but he’s right about one thing – it looks like you need some downtime. What do you say?”

Jag shrugged. He was here, it was a long walk back to the spaceport, and he was hungry anyway. “Okay. Why not? Lead the way.”

****

Jag was enjoying himself, and that made him feel even worse. Neela had taken him to a nice little Twi’lek restaurant down a side street from Little Ryloth’s main strip. It was quiet and peaceful, the stir-fried dish of bantha steak strips and native Rylothian vegetables was surprisingly good, and Neela was pleasant company. She did most of the talking, telling him about her adventures as an engineer and gunner for the renowned Walker battalion, the Nightstalkers. Unlike Shran or his wingmates, she didn’t seem to mind his own quietness. He found that refreshing, that someone would just let him listen. Paradoxally, his enjoyment of the date was also making him sad. Try as he may, he couldn’t remember when Jaina had ever let him just sit and listen like this in the few dates they had managed to have after the Vong war.

Jag? Jag!? Are you listening to me at all?

I was just thinking…

I was trying to tell you about the new discoveries about the Force my brother has made in his journeys. He just sent me a letter, and it’s really interesting.

Jaina, you know I don’t really get this Force stuff. Can’t we talk about something we both like?

You always do this!

Do what?

Ignore me, when I’m trying to tell you something important.

How long had it been that way? Jaina had been getting more and more frustrated by Jag’s lack of understanding about the Force, but how could she expect him to truly understand what he could never experience for himself? It would be like trying to explain a beautiful symphony to someone who was deaf. Why didn’t Jaina see that?

“Jag, are you okay?”

It took Jag a moment to comprehend the question. There was no prying into what he was thinking, no demands to pay attention. Just a simple question, ‘is he okay?’

“I’m doing alright, considering.” Jag answered.

“Is it the bantha? I found it a little overdone tonight, which is strange for this place. They’re usually pretty good.” Neela asked. She seemed genuinely concerned.

“No, no, the food is excellent. It sure beats Star Destoryer cafeteria food.”

“Tell me about it. Back on my old ship, the Typhonus, we got a choice between gruel and slop. Nine out of ten stormtroopers can’t tell the difference. The food got much better after our little rag-tag band of Imperials joined up with the Hand.”

Jag managed a small smile. Neela’s stories about the first years after Endor, when the remaining Imperials were on the run from the increasingly powerful Rebels, were fascinating. Still, he couldn’t help but feel guilty. Was smiling at another woman’s jokes cheating? Could he cheat on someone who had dumped him?

Jag sighed. “I’m sorry Neela. I’ve been trying to enjoy myself; I really have …”

“But something’s bothering you, and my little stories can’t get your mind off it?” Neela concluded. Jag stared at her, shocked. Was she Force-sensitive too?

“Oh, quit staring like you’ve seen a Fosh. I’ve been around humans, especially human males, for longer than I care to admit. Why is it whenever something unexpected happens, you guys immediately blame it on the bloody Force?” Neela sighed.

Jag thought about that for a moment. “I guess I have been hanging around Jedi too long. Whenever Jaina did something like that, I could have sworn she was trying to read my mind.”

“That’s freaky.” Neela replied. “If someone was doing that to me, I’d grab a ysalamir off a tree, strap it on and never take it off.”

“Yeah, that is kind of disturbing, now that I think of it.” Jag had to admit.

“So I’m guessing this Jaina, who’s presumably a Jedi, is the one you’re worried about?” Neela asked. “I don’t mean to pry. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s okay.” She stood up from the table, her dinner finished, Jag’s about half done. “Are you still hungry?”

“Not really.”

“How about we go for a walk?”

Jag glanced at his chrono. “But it’s almost 23:00.”

“Come on, we have to get back to the spaceport anyway. You have quarters there, right? I’ll walk you home.” Neela insisted.

“Well…okay. I guess.”

****

The night air was cool as Jag and Neela walked down a riverside footpath towards the military spaceport at the edge of town. The area was surrounded by city parks, with ysalamiri-covered elpam trees standing at not-quite even intervals and softly glowing lamp posts lighting the way for evening walkers. Jag and Neela were not alone, as they passed others on the trail, mostly Chiss and human couples. At one point, Jag felt a faster breeze overhead as a Draconian lazily flapped home. He stared after the flying reptile in envy. To be able to fly unaided, that was the dream of every human who ever took up the siren’s song of aviation. He felt so peaceful, he almost didn’t notice Neela snuggle up against his arm.

“You know, I really love this planet, almost as much as my new homeworld.” Neela absently commented.

“You don’t live on Nirauan?”

“Nah, Typhonus is home. It’s on the other side of the galaxy from the rest of Hand space, not too far from Bespin, actually. Before we joined the Hand, we had to settle there when our Star Destroyer was on its last legs, so we named our planet in our ship’s honour.”

“Really?” Jag had never heard of Typhonus being settled, but the story reminded him of those he had heard throughout his childhood of Nirauan’s settlement.

“Yeah. They’re building a new hyperspace beacon highway to link us to Nirauan. Everyone’s already nick-naming it, the ‘Hand Span’.” Neela giggled. “And the funniest thing is, this is happening right under the Alliance’s noses, and they don’t know about it!”

Jag wondered what Jaina would think of that? Then again, Jag’s duties had required him to keep Jaina in the dark about some things. For example, she and the other Jedi had immediately assumed that Jag worked for the Chiss Ascendancy, and he had done nothing to tell them otherwise. After all, it wasn’t technically lying. He had been working for the Chiss Ascendancy’s military as an exchange soldier, much like how his father served the Hand as the Ambassador to Csilla, and the Ascendancy as an Assistant Syndic. He had always assumed that when he and Jaina finally got married, he could bring her back to Nirauan and fill her in on the truth about the Empire of the Hand, but now that looked like it was never going to happen.

“Well, we’re here!”

“We’re where?” Jag and Neela had come to the end of the path, right outside the Walker corral of the spaceport/base. “What are we doing here?”

“Remember back in the restaurant when you went to use the ‘fresher?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I commed a couple of friends and arranged for a surprise.” Neela explained as Jag heard the beeping of someone activating the security lock on the other side of the corral’s doors.

A woman wearing stormtrooper armour, minus the helmet, opened the door for them. She looked bored, with a magazine tucked under one arm. She quickly looked over Jag’s military ID card, handed it back to him with a raised eyebrow, and didn’t even bother scanning Neela’s. “Never thought you were the flyboy type, Neela,” she commented.

“You’re one to talk, Rose. How’s Trig doing?”

“Same old, same old. He still thinks he could beat Old Ma … I mean, this young man’s father, in a TIE race.”

“Tell him to keep dreaming, from me.” Jag had to grin. He had yet to beat his old man in a race.

“Will do, Sir,” Rose the Stormtrooper replied. She turned to Neela. “Trainer 8 and 9 are ready.”

“Thanks. I owe you.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll collect,” the trooper assured her, going back to her guard station, presumably to read her latest issue of Weapons and Technology Monthly.

****

Starfighters, especially Chiss clawcraft, were wondrous metallic birds of prey. Their speed, grace and power had captivated Jag ever since he had first seen his father’s TIE scream across the sky as a child. Even if he hadn’t been born the son of one of the Old Empire’s greatest fighter pilots, Jag knew that space and sky had always been his destiny. Although he loved starfighters with all his heart, as he followed Neela though the Walker corral he had to admit his respect for the sleeping monsters therein. He passed familiar, boxy AT-STs and walked between the legs of a giant AT-AT close to the entrance of the corral. However, the deeper into the monsters’ lair he traveled, the stranger its resident beasts became. He recognized Walker designs that had just been theoretical blueprints in his engineering textbook at the Academy and another six-legged beast he remembered as a relic from the Clone Wars, an AT-TE. The small pods-with-legs AT-PTs were an even older design than that, being the staple ground support vehicles, Jag recalled, from Grand Admiral Thrawn’s Katana fleet.

Neela stopped in front of one of the two-legged monsters. It was a design Jag had never seen before, looking at first glance like someone had stolen a bubble-canopy fighter and stuck its cockpit on legs. Jag examined it closer. The strange Walker actually had two cockpits, not one, the first lower and protruding forward, the second above and behind it. Each seemed to be made of the same blast-darkening transparisteel as his clawcraft’s canopy. Unlike the awkward, ridiculous-looking AT-STs that Jag was more familiar with, this new two-legger was sleek, aerodynamic. Its legs were at its sides, like an oversized PT, and were longer, with an extra, fourth joint. A long, metallic tail with what looked like a vibroblade on the end stuck out behind the Walker, which probably helped with its balance. Its curved vibroblade foot claws, a mere fence-slicing afterthought on STs, were longer, sticking straight up while the Walker was at rest. It looked like they could swing downwards to do some terrible damage to enemy infantry.

“Do you like it?” Neela asked.

“I’m not overly familiar with Walkers, but yes. I’m impressed.”

“This is the All-Terrain Strike Transport, or ‘Raptor’. When you hear ‘deploy the STs’, from now on, this is what they’ll mean.” Neela gazed up at the Walker with almost motherly pride. “She’s my baby.”

“You mean you designed that beast?” Jag asked.

“Yep. My boss was busy working on the replacements for the ATs, but a new scout and support Walker’s been needed for some time so I took up the project myself. I hate to brag, but I’m really proud of her!”

“Is this what you wanted to show me?”

“Well, I’m not not happy to show her off, but no, I had something else planned for you. Come on!”

Neela grabbed Jag’s hand and ran excitedly towards another section of the corral. Too quickly for Jag to realize where he was going, he found himself pulled up a metal staircase, to the top of one of the Walker mounting platforms. Neela finally came to a stop. In front of them, seemingly floating in midair, were two seats, with a primitive control panel and speeder bike-like handlebars mounted in front, nothing more. He looked down over the edge of the platform, to see the seats were actually mounted on two legs that looked almost the same as Neela’s Raptor’s. Jag raised his eyebrows in surprise. He hadn’t thought AT-RTs had been used since the Clone Wars.

Without hesitation, Neela jumped expertly into the seat of one of the RTs. “You coming?”

“You want me to climb into that?”

“I know Walkers aren’t your usual cup of Caf, but I thought it would be fun to take the RTs for a spin.”

“I didn’t even know they still made these things.”

“They don’t. They’re old Clone Wars models; we use them and the PTs as trainers.” Neela explained. “Don’t worry; I’m only a basic pilot myself. I’m good at designing and fixing these things, not piloting them.”

“’Piloting’ isn’t the term I’d use for a ground-pounder,” Jag commented wryly, but he climbed aboard his Walker anyway.

****

Controlling the AT-RT was easy enough, once Jag got used to it. The handle bars and basic display were similar to those on the speeder bikes and swoops Jag had flown during his Academy training. What he couldn’t get used to was the actual feeling of feet hitting the ground, the lopping, even gait of the Walker. It was more like a “Runner” actually, as Neela gradually speeded up their laps around the practice court. Racing around the court, feeling the wind though his hair, piloting the walker was exhilarating, especially since Jag had never before been on something that could move so fast, but could not hover or fly. He never could forget that he was on the ground. It was a different type of thrill than what he got while behind the controls of his fighter, but it was still fun.

Neela’s Walker raced past him, coming so close if Jag had wanted to he could have reached out and brushed her lekku, which streamed behind her head like a pair of ribbons. That was another difference from fighters – you could never actually touch your wingmates.

Neela laughed and twitched the ends of her lekku invitingly. “Come on, flyboy, this is a Walker, not a sandcrawler. Let’s move!”

Before Neela had finished yelling, Jag had raced up beside her Walker. Now, he actually did reach out and brush his hand gently against her one of her lekku. He was surprised how soft and smooth the serpentine headtail was, and she didn’t seem to mind his touch, as the tip of her lekku curled gently around his wrist. Too late, he remembered that stroking lekku was the Twi’lek equivalent of a kiss. Shocked, he quickly pulled his hand away.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean…” Jag started.

“It’s okay,” Neela assured him. She smiled seductively. “You’re good at that.”

Jag didn’t know what to say to that. He followed in silence as Neela guided her Walker back towards the mounting platform.

****

“Neela, I’m …” Jag tried to apologize again as he dismounted from the AT-RT.

“Shhh.” Neela pressed her forefinger against his lips. “I told you, it’s okay. I was beginning to wonder if you’d ever make a move.”

“But I didn’t want to…what I mean is…nothing against you or anything, you’re very attractive, but I’m just not ready for this kind of thing.” Jag stammered as they once again passed the various Walkers on their way out of the corral.

“Jag, I know you’re confused right now. Your world’s turned upside down and you don’t know where you’ll go from here. Trust me, I know what you’re going through…” Neela started.

“How could you understand what I’m going through?!” Jag snapped, walking quickly away from Neela. “You weren’t dumped for a bunch of fraggin’ bugs!”

“Maybe not, but the man I love married my best friend!” Neela shouted back.

Jag turned around, startled. Neela knelt in the shadow of the AT-AT, shocked about what she had just revealed. Her pale orange eyes glistened with unshed tears; Jag could not guess how long they had been there. He walked back to her and put his hands on her shoulders, like he would to any comrade in pain. This small action seemed to comfort her, and he sobs quieted slightly.

“Jag, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that.” Neela started between sobs.

“No, I’m the one who should be apologizing.” Jag countered. He moved a little closer. “I’ve been so wrapped up in my own problems I didn’t even see …”

He was cut off as Neela leaned forward and pressed her lips against his. Her kiss was soft and gentle, and said more than words ever could.

“I think we need a place to talk,” Neela murmured when their lips finally parted.

Jag nodded, too shocked to argue. They walked hand in hand out of the corral.

****

“The Commander rescued me from Tatooine, and took me with him to Cardia,” Neela began. She was sitting on the end of Jag’s bunk in the small, spartan quarters he had at the spaceport. She hesitated.

“Neela, it’s okay.” Jag assured her, from his seat on the opposite end of the bunk. He took her hand, waiting patiently, not pressuring her. She would speak when she was ready.

Encouraged, Neela continued. “He really didn’t have to save me, I mean, I did try to kill him. What he should have done was turn me in to the local authorities, or kill me himself, but he didn’t. He got me off that sandball, and instead of keeping me as a ‘pet’, like most other Imperials would have, he sent me to the Academy. He said I had a real talent for mechanics and he was right; I just needed an opportunity to prove myself and The Commander gave me that. He gave my life meaning, and I guess I’ve always been grateful to him for that. Over time, my gratitude grew into something more. I realized I loved him.” Neela paused.

Jag gave her hand an encouraging squeeze.

She took a deep breath and continued. “At the Academy, I roomed with one of the few other girls there, a Corillian named Kat Tetra. Now, she’s one of the best Walker pilots to ever stomp on a Rebel, but back then, we were both punk kids, trying to prove ourselves in a galaxy that seemed set against us. We were two women, trying to excel at the Imperial Academy when the Tarkin philosophies of anti-women and anti-alien biases were in full swing. You’re too young to remember that, but it was pretty bad. I’m so glad the Empress and Grand Admiral got rid of that in the Hand.”

Jag remembered his father’s stories about how the Old Empire’s corrupt policies had gotten to be too much even for him, when he had defected and joined Uncle Wedge in Rogue Squadron. It must have been even worse for an alien woman like Neela. “Why did you stay with the Empire, if things were that bad?”

“The Commander was also our primary instructor at the Academy, and he always thought Tarkin was an idiot, so Kat and I we were lucky. We worked hard in our courses and managed to beat the odds. I guess knowing that not all officers were like Tarkin, that there were those like The Commander and Grand Admiral Thrawn out there, who appreciated skill no matter who it came from, really made a difference. I stayed with the Empire because I grew to love what the Empire really stood for -- a united Galaxy, strong enough to stand up to any threat, especially bastards like the Yuuzhan Vong and Kiliks. The Rebels ‘winning’ really screwed the galaxy over.”

“Believe me, I know.” Jag agreed

“Anyway, Kat and I have been best friends ever since, a lot like how you and Shran are. I love her like a sister. So what if I’m a Twi’lek and she’s human? Like the Mandalorians always say ‘Family is more than blood’.” She paused again and looked down at the floor.

“What happened?” Jag asked gently.

“What I didn’t know until it was much too late was that Kat loved The Commander just as much as I did. Five years after Endor, Kat and The Commander got married.” Neela choked back a sob. “I loved them both so much; I wanted them to be happy, even at the cost of my own happiness. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself. I’ve never told either of them how upset it made me feel to see them together. Hell, I’ve never told anyone at all, before now.”

“Then why are you telling me?” Jag asked. “We’ve only known each other for one night.”

“I think because I just know I can trust you. When I first saw you, how sadness and confusion were just radiating off you, I wanted to help you.”

“Was it really that apparent?”

“If you were Twi’lek, your lekku would be twitching like a Jedi on Myrkr.” Neela smiled. “The point is, I saw you in pain, the same kind of pain that I’ve been having, and I wanted to help you in any way I could. I don’t want you to suffer like I have.” Neela sighed, seemingly in relief, and laid her head back onto Jag’s lap. “You know, it feels good to finally talk to someone about all this.”

“I’m beginning to feel better too. I’m still upset about what happened with Jaina, but I feel better about being upset.” Jag admitted, looking down into Neela’s eyes. He absently stroked her right lekku.

Neela closed her eyes, enjoying his touch. “I won’t lie to you. It’s not going to stop hurting for a long time.”

“I know, I know. But now it doesn’t feel like the galaxy’s going to end, at least.” Jag admitted.

“You know, Joiners can be saved, if the Kiliks in their nest are all killed,” Neela added. “There may be hope for you and Jaina yet.”

“I don’t know. It’s not just the bugs; things haven’t been, well … perfect between us since the end of the Vong war.”

“I know this is the galaxy’s biggest cliché, but maybe you’re better off as friends?” Neela suggested. “Like I said before, I love Kat like a sister, and that hasn’t changed. She’s still my best friend, and I serve under The Commander on the Cerberus right now. He and I have a friendship that I wouldn’t trade for the galaxy, one that goes beyond mere romantic love. Most of the time, I’m happy with the relationships I have with my friends now. It’s just once in a while that my emotions get the better of me. Maybe I should spend more time around the Chiss.”

“As long as it’s not Shran!” Jag joked, and they both laughed. “Maybe you’re right, maybe some people who think they should be lovers are better off as friends.”

“And maybe some friends would make better lovers.” Neela countered. “Relationships are weird that way.”

Jag absently looked at the one piece of decoration hanging on the wall at the thought of friends, Spike Squadron’s group holo, and his eyes wandered to the tall Chiss woman standing beside him, Shawnkyr Nuruodo, his executive officer. Shawnkyr, Shran’s cousin, his childhood friend and Academy classmate. Shawnkyr, who had followed him into the Known Regions even after practically begging him not to go during the Vong War. Shawnkyr, who had always flown at his side, who had never said anything about his relationship with Jaina …

“I am such an idiot.” Jag moaned.

“What’s wrong?” Neela asked, concerned.

“Nothing, only that I’ve just realized how my XO probably feels about me, and I, the clueless idiot that I am, never even considered it until now. Shran’s right. I am just a pathetic flyboy.”

“Jag?”

“Yes, Neela?”

Neela turned over and planted another kiss on Jag’s lips. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” she told him once their lips parted. “And stop worrying, at least for tonight. Jaina, your XO, and especially Shran, aren’t here. I am.” She kissed him again, this time more passionately, her tongue sliding seductively into his mouth, tasting delicately at his lips.

He returned the kiss slowly at first, then more eagerly, his hands sliding smoothly down her lekku, which curled around his arms encouragingly

“Right now, just for tonight, you’re mine,” she breathed between kisses, and pushed him gently down onto the bunk.

“I know better than to argue with a woman who’s made up her mind.” Jag whispered, and pulled her headband off over her lekku.

“You’re learning; that’s good.” Neela smiled, and traced the scar on his forehead with her tongue, while unzipping the front of his flight suit. The battle scars crossing his chest, which Jaina had found unsettling, seemed to turn Neela on even more. She placed his hand up inside her own shirt and he felt a few similar scars on her. They were clearly both warriors, both soldiers for the Hand.

Not that The Empire of the Hand had Jag’s attention at the moment. He was more interested in what Neela’s hands and lekku were doing, rubbing gently against his body as more pieces of clothing met the floor. He repeated the favour, pulling her shirt and military bra over her head. Her nipples were a deep violet colour, standing out against her lavender skin, enticing him. He took one into his mouth and sucked gently, causing Neela to sigh in pleasure. He felt her claw-like fingernails rake gently against his back, then one of her hands crept downwards, under his undershorts. He gasped as she found her target and squeezed firmly.

Their underwear finally joined the rest of their clothes on the floor, and Jag saw a sight that few men in the galaxy had ever seen: a beautiful, naked, and willing Twi’lek woman. Not, however, willing to wait, as she playfully pushed him down, and crawled on top of him, positioning herself just behind his erect member. He gasped as she rubbed herself enticingly against him, he could feel how wet she was, how much they both wanted each other, but she wasn’t letting him have her. She was teasing him mercilessly, and that just made him want her even more.

“Do you want to dock with my hanger bay, flyboy?” Neela purred teasingly.

“It’s definitely time to land,” Jag teased back, and flipped her over onto her back. He bent down between her legs, running his tongue over her, searching until he had found her hard little bud. He licked it gently at first, then faster, causing her to gasp and moan as he felt her quake with pleasure. Now it was his turn to tease her, as he brought her to the brick of passion, then smiled slyly and pulled his tongue away.

Neela slid further under him, and reached out and grabbed his manhood, rubbing it more firmly than before. Finally, she guided him into her, they both gasped as he entered her. It wasn’t like Jag was a virgin. He had a few encounters during his Academy years with fellow classmates, always human; he had been too nervous to approach the intimidating Chiss women he had really been attracted to. However, during his relationship with Jaina, he had not slept with anyone else, which had added to his frustration when Jaina continuously refused him. He had literally not made love to a woman for years. Now was his chance to make up for lost time.

Jag was surprised as Neela lifted her legs up over his shoulders, wrapping her feet around the back of his neck. This caused him to go even deeper inside her; he liked this unusual, but pleasurable position. A Twi’lek’s reputation for “creativity” was well-deserved. He began moving rhythmically in and out of her, feeling her moving under him in unison, matching him thrust for thrust, her soft little yelps of pleasure encouraging him. It took all his self-control to keep from crying out himself – he didn’t want the whole base to hear them, or he’d never hear the end of it from his wingmates.

Suddenly, he felt her arch her back under him, almost lifting him off her as she finished passionately. He smothered her mouth with his, covering her screams of pleasure. Seeing her in such sexual bliss was all it took to send him over the edge. Neela returned the favour, smothering his cries with her kiss as he came.

Exhausted, sweat dripping down his forehead into his eyes, Jag rolled over onto his back, utterly spent. Neela snuggled up to his side, using his shoulder as a pillow as they both fell blissfully asleep.

****

BANG! BANG! BANG! “Jag! I know you’re in there! Open up!”

Jag groaned and pulled his pillow over his ears. He was having such a nice dream about a sexy Twi’lek. Couldn’t Shran just leave him alone?

“Jag! It’s 09:00!”

That got his attention. Two hours late getting up? “Sithspit!” he swore. “Shawnkyr’s gonna kill me!” He leapt out of bed, and ran to go open the door, then realized he was naked. That was strange; he usually slept in his shorts. He found them lying on the floor with the rest of his clothes. Then, he remembered.

It wasn’t a dream. Everything he remembered about last night really happened. The date, the walk back to base, the Walker ride, and …

Jag looked back towards his bunk, searching the tangled sheets for a lavender form. All he found was Neela’s Imperial headband, peeking out from under his pillow. He picked it up, remembering all they had been through last night, a memory he would treasure. She must have left earlier that morning as Jag vaguly recalled her saying something about her ship’s departure. At least she locked the door before leaving.

He then heard the keypad on the other side of his door beeping. Shran must have been trying to slice his way in. Jag hurryingly pulled on his shorts just as the beeps stopped. “For Force’s sake, haven’t you heard of knocking?!” Jag complained as the door slid open.

“Woot! Leska owes me five creds!” Shran smirked, seeing Jag’s state of undress. “Looks like somebody had fun last night, Bro. Oh, and don’t worry about my Cuz. I sent Shawnkie on a wild bantha chase. She won’t yell at you for at least another hour, long enough for me to show you my new cool thing!”

“Your what?” Jag asked as he pulled on his flight suit, stuffed Neela’s headband in his pocket, and ran a hand through his messy black hair. He finally looked up, and noticed something different about Shran. Gone was his black and silver Explorer uniform. He was now wearing light grey, with silver epaulets on his shoulders and shiny new black boots. A new rank insignia replaced his “Captain” one.

“I’m assuming your ‘cool thing’ has something to do with your promotion, Admiral? That is, as long as you’re not just borrowing one of your dad’s old uniforms again,” Jag concluded.

“If I were stealing Dad’s uniform, it’d be white. No, they really promoted me. Oh, and call me ‘sir’, and I’ll bust you down to aircab driver.”

“Don’t worry about that, Bro. So what’s this thing?” Jag asked, as Shran led him down the hallway towards the doors to the main courtyard.

“It’s this thing and it’s cool and it does things – cool things!” Shran replied, solving nothing. They stepped out into the sunlight, where Jag was greeted by the sight of ... absolutely nothing. He was expecting to see a new Explorer ship on the lanchpad, a prototype fighter, anything. Instead, a few Chiss and humans, mostly pilots, were just going about their business as usual. Occasionally, a few would look up at the sky.

“Shran!” Jag suddenly heard from across the courtyard. An angry-looking Chiss woman in an Explorer uniform was walking towards them, and Jag recognized Shawnkyr following her.

“Hey Leska! Shawnkie! Glad you could joi …” Shran started.

“What. Did. You. DO?!” Leska cut him off. She was clearly a Chiss that liked to get straight to the point.

“What makes you think I did anything, Bright Star?”

“I know you, Shran. And don’t you ‘Bright Star’ me!”

“Hi Shawnkyr. Sorry I slept in.” Jag said, embarrassed, and not wanting to get involved with Shran and Leska’s argument.

Shawnkyr managed a small smile. “That’s okay, Jag. Shran explained to me that you were helping him last night, and asked me to let you sleep,” she replied. She leaned close to Jag’s ear. “Not that I believe him for a second. You can tell me later,” she whispered.

“There was something I wanted to talk to you about …” Jag began, but then noticed that Shawnkyr didn’t seem to be listening. She was staring up at the sky, her expression unreadable. Jag followed her gaze. She seemed to be looking at the moons, which were just starting to disappear for the day below the horizon. That was odd. Nirauan’s two moons were nothing much to look at, just a couple of grey, dead rocks.

“Shawnkyr, what is it?” Jag asked. He then noticed something even odder than Shawnkyr’s sudden interest in astronomy.

There were not two moons sinking below the horizon. There were three.

“Son of a Sith …” Jag began.

“See. That’s my cool thing.” Shran said smugly.

“They gave you command of that?” Leska asked, disbelieving. “I weep for the Galaxy.”

“I wish we had that thing during the Vong war.” Shawnkyr replied, still gazing up at the sky, at something that could either solve the Empire of the Hand’s bug problem, or cause a lot of trouble if the Galactic Alliance found out about it.

Jag stood watching the sky silently, thinking about the night before and the future that was to come. He reached over and took Shawnkyr’s hand in his, and to his surprise, she didn’t pull away. Things had changed in his life, and in the Galaxy, and he didn’t know for sure where they would go from here.

One thing he was sure about. The Kiliks, Yuuzhan Vong, and whoever else threatened the Galaxy better watch out from now on. Let the Jedi think they were the only hope if they wanted. With the Empire of the Hand as its shadowy guardian, he knew the Galaxy would really have the protection it deserved.

That was something Jagged Fel could smile about.

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