I told you I was going to test your tolerance for cheese. BOOM.
Chapter 6: Tangle
“It’s… a… wampa? Wearing a dress!” Isme rolled to her back, shaking with laughter at the ridiculous vision her friend had shared. The other girl giggled and reached to grab Isme’s hands, pulling her back to a sitting position.
“I thought it was pretty funny! Your turn!” the girl encouraged, focusing on Isme’s face. Isme grinned and swiped her chestnut hair away from her eyes, concentrating.
Her companion pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, fighting to focus. The pair had created a game, taking turns projecting and reading the most humorous images the other could conjure.
Isme’s friend tilted her head, considering. “Master Faron?”
“Yes, but…” Isme giggled and redoubled her efforts.
“With… with a green beard!” the other girl laughed hysterically, clapping her hands with delight.
“Don’t tell!” Isme warned playfully, tugging at her friend’s thick platinum braid.
The other child giggled and patted her hair. “Master Faron would think it was funny, too,” she grinned mischievously, “but I won’t tell. Promise.”
Isme smiled gratefully and reached forward to hug the other girl, who returned the embrace. For the first time in months, Isme felt welcome and valued, warm and safe. It was due to Master Faron and her new friends at the Jedi Temple, especially this girl. Somehow her newest friend seemed to understand her better than anyone.
Though she was well behind the other younglings in their clan, Isme had nonetheless demonstrated a powerful connection to the Force and a spirit of determination. Her history as an orphan on Dantooine remained her secret; her memories of scrambling for her very existence until she was rescued by the Jedi were painful and frightening. She was endlessly grateful to have been pulled from the wreckage of the besieged world, but months later she still suffered nightmares and harbored fears of abandonment. The terrors had only recently begun to abate, after spending time with her new friend. Isme was unspeakably grateful.
She scooted to her friend’s side and flopped onto her back, arms behind her head, and gazed at the dazzling ceiling of the Room of a Thousand Fountains. The other girl copied her motion, landing with a hiccup and a giggle.
“Here, Isme, I have another one for you,” the girl said, grabbing her friend’s hand. Isme clasped the child’s hand back, overwhelmed with a sudden effervescent joy. “It isn’t exactly funny, but it makes me happy.”
An image of a golden-haired toddler filled Isme’s mind, the baby giggling uncontrollably, plump arms and legs waving wildly. Isme laughed in response.
“I don’t know, I think that’s pretty funny, too!”
The other girl kicked her heels in delight. “That’s my baby sister. I get to go see her tomorrow, and my mother and father.”
Isme started, surprised at the admission. “Wow, really? I didn’t think anyone was allowed to do that.”
Her companion shrugged. “I’m lucky, I guess. But they live here on Coruscant, too, and Master Faron thinks it’s okay.” The girl rolled to face Isme, her head supported on one hand. “What about your family?”
Self-conscious and uncomfortable, Isme looked away before whispering her reply. “They’re gone.”
The silver-haired girl sat up suddenly, her hands at her mouth. “Oh, Isme! I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
Isme remained on the soft grass, eyes faraway. “It’s okay. I didn’t really tell anyone. But I don’t mind if you know.”
“Do you remember them?”
The question startled Isme. In the years she spent scraping for her very existence day to day, she’d never had time for reflection, for remembrance. The fact that Jedi spent much of their time doing just that was still new to her, and she struggled with those exercises. But…
“I have one memory.” Isme sat up and reached for her friend’s hand, bowing her head to concentrate. The image took a while to materialize, but once it did it was strong and brilliantly detailed.
It was Isme herself, several years younger, being twirled about by a young man barely into his teens. They shared the same auburn hair, the same dark eyes. Isme was laughing with delight, and her happiness was echoed in the boy’s smile. Their affection was palpable, and Isme allowed the vision to fade with a twinge of regret.
“Who was that?” her companion asked, green eyes curious.
“My brother, Tallis,” Isme replied, fidgeting with the hem of her tunic. “He was a lot older than me, but he took care of me.” She found herself fighting back tears, tears she’d never had the chance to shed for her lost loved ones.
“Oh, Isme!” the other girl cried, sweeping her arms around the smaller girl. Isme sniffled and dragged a sleeve across her eyes, trying to hide the evidence of her weeping. “Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t we see if you can come with me to see my family? I don’t know what Master Faron will say, but it can’t hurt to ask, right?”
Isme blinked rapidly, shocked by the generosity of the invitation. “Are you sure?”
“Of course!” the girl replied, nodding enthusiastically. “It’s actually a celebration for my mother. She’s a teacher, and they’re giving her an award for taking care of her school. She’s really nice, you’ll like her…”
The apprentice jerked violently back into consciousness, suddenly and painfully aware of the howling wind at her back. There was a storm moving in, and she’d be in dire straits if she didn’t find cover immediately. The speeder she’d taken wouldn’t be able to outrace the storm, so she was trapped right where she was.
Fortunately, Isme’s encounter with the distant Jedi had left her so furious that drawing enough power to create a reasonable shelter would be easy. Wrenching herself to her feet and ignoring her screaming muscles, she raised her hands and unleashed a torrent of Force lightning that tore away the ice before her, leaving a sizable crater.
Stalking around the half-finished shelter, Isme clenched both hands into fists, guiding the frozen shards from the crater to create a dome that would shield her from the biting winds. For additional insulation, she piled more snow and ice atop the dome with a sweep of her hands. Drained but satisfied, she secured her speeder and brought her supplies into the makeshift shelter, sealing the opening with a twitch of her fingers.
Isme’s exhaustion came with a sense of morbid pleasure, however, recalling that she’d been able to repel the foolish Jedi’s efforts at tracking her. Physical distance meant little in terms of the power of the Force, and when Isme had sensed the seeking presence of the Jedi, she’d lashed out in full strength, attempting to drive her away, even cripple her.
She’d succeeded in shaking her pursuer, but not without taking a toll on herself. The Jedi and Sith had struggled for endless moments, the Jedi somehow able to resist Isme’s attacks, a powerful shield in place between them. Isme had almost been impressed, until she’d found the cracks in the Jedi’s armor: doubt, worry, impatience. She’d driven at those weak points until the Jedi’s protection shattered.
It was certainly satisfying, but Isme had spent too much power, drawing too heavily on the Force, and flung herself into darkness in the same moment she rebuffed the Jedi for good. She’d had a strange dream she could barely recall; echoes of her past threatened to break through the carefully constructed prison she’d created for them. Her past didn’t matter.
The Sith girl shook her head, hissing in frustration. This was a distraction she couldn’t afford. Now she was trapped here until the storm abated.
“Blast her!” Isme snarled, lightning crackling at her fingertips. No, she thought, not now. No point in wasting her fury with this obstinate Jedi now. Later, when Isme could use it to her own advantage and be assured she would no longer be followed.
Or at least until the Jedi was no longer useful.
When Aitahea opened her eyes, she was only somewhat surprised to see Erithon next to her, sitting on the floor of the stateroom and leaned awkwardly against the bunk that Aitahea occupied. She remembered sensing the comfort of his presence throughout the night, exhausted but grateful.
Erithon had curled his arm around Aitahea’s head, fingers brushing her opposite shoulder, and he’d apparently finally fallen asleep with his own head next to hers on the cot. Their foreheads were just barely touching, and though Aitahea mused he couldn’t possibly be comfortable like that, he slept peacefully.
Remaining still so as not to disturb him, the Jedi closed her eyes again and reached out in the Force. Aurek was still and calm around them, most of the other occupants taking the opportunity to rest or relax, but beyond the walls, the storm continued to rage. Aitahea opened her eyes again and sighed. They would be trapped at the base for some time before the weather would clear and provide them safe passage to track the Sith apprentice.
She smiled at Erithon’s closeness, though it still twisted her heart into a tangle of questions and confusion. She couldn’t decide how to separate the warmth she felt in his presence from the uncertainty that accompanied it. Romance was dangerous; it was constantly said that it drew out emotions and passion that could lead to the dark side. Attachment was just a step toward breaking the Jedi Code.
Attachment had ever been Aitahea’s greatest flaw as a Jedi, frequently tolerated only because of her exceptional talent and dedication to the Order. Unusually close to her family as she was, she struggled to understand why others were determined to be a solitary presence as Jedi. There could be no compassion in isolation; a truly secluded Jedi could serve no one, and service to others was the core of their philosophy. Aitahea had always felt that she was her strongest and wisest when she had others to rely on, learn from, and support. It was the very way that Masters trained their Padawans.
But romantic affection like this, it was so much more complex than the love of friends and family, students and teachers, and light years distant from the altruistic service she pursued. There was so much at risk, the choices were so all-encompassing. She wondered briefly if her ambivalence to the idea was simply a way to protect herself from all the potential danger to her own heart. Wasn’t that simply lying to herself?
Under all her training and conviction, Aitahea was human. As a Jedi, she could control and mitigate her emotions very effectively, but she recognized that like all sentient beings she desired connection. Jedi weren’t without emotion, desires, or even hopes and dreams… It was simply that duty and service came first. After that, then what?
Erithon shifted beside her, and Aitahea hurriedly sat up. The trooper groaned and put a hand to his head, rubbing his eyes.
“You slept well, I trust?” Aitahea teased, and Erithon squinted up at her out of one eye.
“Is that what you call it?” he grunted, shaking his head and shifting to a sitting position. She noticed that his armor was gone, leaving him in simple tunic and pants, although they both still wore the necessary cold weather layer under their clothes. “What about you?”
Aitahea nodded. “I’m better, thank you.” She smiled gently as Erithon scrutinized her face. “Thank you for taking care of me.”
Wincing, Erithon leaned forward to place his arms on his knees. “Do you remember what happened?”
Aitahea paused to sift through the hazy memories of the evening before, her search for the Sith apprentice and resulting reaction. “Vaguely. I found the apprentice, but she rebuffed me. Rather violently,” the Jedi added dryly. “But I have a connection to her now; she’ll be easier to track. I don’t think she realized the contact would result in that.”
“You seemed pretty beat after you came out of it,” Erithon replied, “Had me worried there for a minute.”
The Jedi glanced away but smiled nonetheless. “I apologize, I didn’t anticipate her reaction. In truth, I was hoping to track her without her noticing, but she’s quite strong.”
“I got that. How do you feel now?”
“I’m well, thank you,” she replied, nodding positively. “Rest was what I needed most; thank you for making sure I got it.”
Erithon nodded, winced, and put a hand on the back of his neck. “Ow… you’re welcome,” he grunted.
“Oh dear,” Aitahea sighed, moving to kneel in front of her companion. “It seems you didn’t get the same quality of rest that I did.” Erithon attempted to shrug but the movement just elicited another groan of discomfort.
“Don’t worry about me, I’ve slept worse,” he joked, surprising Aitahea once again with that charming grin. “Compared to some of the places out in the field, this is a palace.”
“Nonsense,” Aitahea protested, “I can help. It’s the least I can do.”
Erithon shrugged again, flinching with the motion. “I’m not about to turn anything down. Go for it.”
“Try to relax a little,” Aitahea insisted, reaching up with gentle hands. With her right, she placed two fingers at Erithon’s temple. Her left she curled softly around the back of his neck, hoping he wouldn’t notice her trembling fingers.
Aitahea couldn’t help but be aware of Erithon’s surge in attraction, his pleasure at her touch – never mind her own comparable response. She swallowed hard, stilling her emotions and focusing on the effort of healing. Closing her eyes, she reached into the Force for strength and tranquility, conducting the energy through her hands to ease stiff muscles and soothe any soreness away. Her efforts warmed them both, and she felt Erithon’s rigid posture gradually easing into comfort.
Erithon sighed peacefully and reached up to catch the hand she had pressed to his temple. Her eyes opened at the touch. Much to Aitahea’s astonishment, he pressed her hand to his lips, planting a kiss into her palm. Aitahea gasped, and her fingers tightened on the back of his neck, her pulse quickening.
Their eyes met, and Aitahea sensed that he felt the same startling mix of desire and uncertainty that she did. Erithon’s gaze was ardent and inquisitive; he continued to cradle her hand next to his cheek, waiting to see what she would do. The Jedi was reeling, unable to control the flood of emotions that surged through her. It was too much.
A sudden panic overwhelmed her, and Aitahea jerked away from Erithon, pulling the hand he’d kissed to her chest in a tight fist. She stood swiftly, half turned away to avoid his gaze as she attempted to calm her breathing. He followed her up, regret and concern as evident on his face as it was in his Force presence.
“Aitahea-” he began, taking a step toward her before she shook her head discouragingly.
“N-no,” she stammered. The sound of her name, not simply her title, on his lips… She shook her head again. “It’s fine. Just… you feel better?” The Jedi clamped down firmly on her emotions, lifting her face to offer a neutral smile to her companion.
Erithon’s hands dropped to his sides, and he shrugged experimentally. “Yeah, a lot better actually. Thank you.” He paused, glancing to the locked door, before continuing. “But, Aitahea, I want to-”
“Please,” Aitahea pleaded, alarm sending her heartbeat skittering wildly again and shattering her composure. “Later? We can talk later.” She walked unsteadily to the room controls and unlocked the door before allowing it to swish quietly open.
Reluctant but compliant, Erithon walked through the entry, casting an apologetic glance at the Jedi as he passed. She almost stopped him then; she wanted nothing more than to throw herself into his arms, share her confusion and desire, the conflict tearing her apart, and plead for some measure of solace. Instead she clung tightly to the door frame with numb fingers, looking away.
“Later, then,” Erithon muttered, and closed the door using the exterior controls.
Aitahea dropped to her knees, fighting physical tears as fiercely as she battled her inner frustration and uncertainty. She leaned her forehead against the freezing durasteel door, the temperature difference almost painful against her flushed skin, and clenched her right hand tightly.
“Erithon,” she whispered, and let the tears fall.