Autumn   Rating: PG
Diana DeRiggs

"Don't be crazy, I'm an old lady! I have grandchildren!"

"Well, need I remind you? I'm an old man. I am a cranky old man, thanks to the fact that my brother had the good fortune and excellent sense to jump where I should have hopped."

There was a deep pause, and she whispered, "Really now ... well, that's very flattering."

He picked a piece of imaginary lint off his sleeve, "I'm not being flattering. I'm simpling stating the truth. I am not a man given to poetry or empty flattery."

She fumbled her fingers, "Can you start from the beginning ... I'm sorry, I feel like a schoolgirl ... it's been a long time. I'm rather confused. Do you find it warm in here?"

* * * * *

I saw you (he began, after clearing his throat a bit) in the Culture and Law class. You were sitting in the back, looking uncertain about something. Maybe you had second thoughts about being a sophomore in a graduate class. I was the teaching assistant, do you remember? It was my first year of graduate work. I was nervous, and I wondered if I should sit with you. Two newbies, eh? I didn't, of course. I just sat and tried not to stare at you.

You won't mind me being frank, will you? It's not that you were pretty. I'm sorry to be brutally honest here. But there was something about the way you looked ... the way you pressed the buttons on your datapad. The way you hummed when you thought about something the lecturer said. I don't know, maybe it was just YOU ...

I met QuiNan at the attorney's offices after class, that day. Our parents had been in a speeder accident, you know about that. Our relationship, which as close -- albeit forced -- was beginning to unravel. But he was my brother, adopted or by blood, and there were a lot of things to deal with, and we tried to be decent to one another about them. We had a long wait in the foyer and we chit-chatted, in that polite, strained way some people have.

He'd been dating a gorgeous girl; I don't recall her name. But things were rocky between them. He confided that he felt the end was coming for them, and QuiNan was uncharacteristically blue about it. I told him not to worry, there are plenty of girls to date, all shaped, all sizes, species, the usual stuff ... he was too young to worry about settling down. True, she was beautiful, a glamour-girl type. I could see why he thought it was too bad they didn't get along.

In fact, QuiNan had had a bad run of the girlfriends that year. The problem, I told him (I am the older brother, it was my habit to do the lecturing and advising, and it was his job to at least pretend to listen), is that he always rushed into a relationship with the full intention of marrying the girl before he got to know her. Hell, the girl may only be out for a good time, not into marriage!

Poor kid always blamed himself for the bad results, when the relationships came to their inevitable ends. He said he had strong feelings about people in general and girls in particular, but he didn't always obey them. I remember he smiled at me and said he knew I looked like a grumpy young curmudgeon, but that he knew I was protecting a soft heart under it all. I told him to mind his own business. I mean, what could he know? It put me in a bad mood, so we waited the rest of the time at the office in silence.

We saw the attorney -- turned out to be no big deal, just a lot of things to go over and put our marks on. Our parents had done the right things, so there was a minimum of legal fuss. Much to my surprise, my parents had left the hard assets -- property, the house, etcetera -- to me. QuiNan got the liquid assets. I believe I made out better, and QuiNan thought so, too. I think we had both assumed that our parents would leave most things to him ...

But we are brothers, and in deference to our parent's memory, we honored their intentions. It didn't take long to go through the paperwork, but QuiNan insisted on reading the holos over again. As we got up to leave, we both realized we were hungry and went to a tapcaf nearby. We got some drinks, something to eat -- you know, the usual things. We must have both remembered our previous discussion and we started scoping out the girls sitting around the cavernous room, giving our assessments of their apparent virtues. It was innocent enough, and we were both relieved, I think, that we had something in common to talk about after the stress of signing the inheritence paperwork.

You were slowly walking past the tapcaf -- you remember the one? The air was cold, the leaves on the deciduous trees were changing colors. You were wearing a yellow topper, and it seemed you were an integral part of the view. The room had café-style windows, so I could see you clearly. I saw you and I remembered thinking about you so intently during the class that morning. I half got up to tap on the window to say hello, but in truth, I was too shy and still very nervous. Something about you made me so.

QuiNan wondered why I was awkwardly half-sitting, half-standing, I guess. He followed my gaze, glanced at you, and grinned at me, asking if I was finally going to give my virginity away. I hadn't dated much, you see. I'd never had sex with anyting. It didn't bother me, but his smart-aleck tone bothereed me a lot and I told him to shut up. Again, this foul temper of mine flared up.

The next time I saw you was a few days later, when the class met again. I had more courage then, and I'd resolved to talk to you that day. I was all ready to sit next to you, and I had it all planned out. You'd sit down, and I'd move my things and ask if the seat next to you was taken? Clumsy, I know, but it was as smooth as I could manage at the time. But just before you stepped into the room, you turned around to talk to someone. I saw QuiNan, and before I could wonder what he might want to see me about, he leaned down to kiss you on the cheek. I saw you smile, so radiantly ... so in love ....

Even now, I cannot express my emotions. You cannot imagine the turmoil in me at that moment! As I told you, my relationship to QuiNan was brotherly, but forced by my parents. With them gone, the strain between us had increased. I could almost physically see the bond between me and my brother stretch thin ...

In my mind, you were mine. I had planned and thought about every phase of our courtship. Sitting down next to you was just the first step, the next was dinner, then a holomovie, then dancing, then ... well, I skipped over to engagement, to marriage, then to sex, raising a family. My imagination had run wild, I was completely enthralled by you!

But there you were, being embraced by ... not me. By my ... brother. Putting his hands where I dared not put mine, even in my imagination. My love for you was chivalrous, pure, innocent. What an old fool, eh? Well, I was a young fool, too.

I know you're probably thinking, how could QuiNan have known how I felt about you? He knew all right, and he was doing it to torture me. He was always like that, goading me, getting me to play into his hands so that our mother would favor him.

I choked down my pride and said hello to him. I think you were surprised that he and I were related; come to think of it, you probably never noticed me before. It stung, but I decided the best revenge was to wait ... when this relationship disintegrated like so many other's of QuiNan's, I'd be there to comfort you and take care of you.

Of course, the next time I saw you was at the registry office, telling the clerk that you promised to love and honor my brother ... and I never spoke to him again after that. I remember walking out of the building, staring at the bright blue sky, wondering how it could be so beautiful and crisp, when my heart felt cloudy and humid. I felt so heavy I imagined myself sinking into the ground, burying myself alive.

For one, I couldn't get above my hatred for stealing my girl, double-crossing me; for another, I couldn't stand to see you so happy with him ... I thought of the upcoming winter, so cold ... so alone ...

* * * * *

Dareen Milson smiled at him, "I wasn't pretty?"

RigaRios sighed, "Why is it that you can pour your heart out to a woman and she picks out the negative bits about her? No, you're not, not to me. If you must know, I have a weakness for brunettes in all shapes and sizes. To me, they are sexy, mysterious, absolutely gorgeous. I've made a fool over big, buxom, voluptuous, gorgeous, loud, brash, smart brunettes in my lifetime. I still feel my blood boil if I see such a specimen ... But there was always something about you, even though you're small, quiet, and blonde. Never could explain it to myself." He shook his head, still perplexed.

"So you have to believe me ... despite my preferences, I have never forgotten you. It was the memory of you that kept me from marrying, I hate to say."

Dareen was surprised to feel the prickling in the back of her eyes which always signaled tears were on the way. She tilted her head back to look up at him, and to keep the drops from falling out of her eyes. Her vision blurred as the moisture collected in her eyes, and the tears made her orbs brighter. "RigaRios, you stop that. You're making me cry! I didn't know you even noticed me! I thought you didn't approve of my marrying your brother, and I felt so bad that I caused the rift between you two!"

RigaRios picked up a blotting cloth and dabbed lightly at Dareen's cheeks, catching the tears as they brimmed out of her eyes. "I hope you understand now. It would have been easier for you to think that it was you, but it wasn't. QuiNan should have known better, too. My brother is not the saint everyone seems to think he is. I regret that he died without my knowing about it. I am a powerful man; I might have even been able to save him."

To her surprise, the big man leaned forward and tenderly embraced her, then held her tightly, almost making her shake. "But more than that, I wish you'd come to me when he was taken away. Sela told me about how you took her and ran away from Alderaan, how you'd contracted that disease and nearly died. It stung me more that you had nearly died, I'm ashamed to say. It hurt worse than finding out the QuiNan was taken in the Jedi purge. I'm sure someone turned him in as a secret Jedi, especially seeing your granddaughter's Force talent. I daresay he was killed immediately; there was a bounty."

She pushed him away, tears flowing now, "How can you say that? How can you feel less upset about your brother being killed by those monsters? What kind of a heartless-"

"Stop!" Dareen hadn't realized how loud his voice could be, "It's because I'm NOT heartless -- I have a heart! I can't explain it, but maybe it's because I love you more than I loved my brother ... it's because I never stopped loving you, even when QuiNan was dead to me. Don't you see? It's because he died in my heart when he married you, but try as I did to bury you too, I couldn't. I am not a stupid man; I'm a logical, smart man. I have done many great things. I have power, money, fame. If I could have cast you aside, I would have. Believe me ..." Now he was crying hard, "But I couldn't! Damn you, I couldn't!"

He let go of her and turned away. He blew his nose, and said more quietly, though with a noticible tremor in his tone, "Maybe you should go now."

Dareen walked briskly around him so she could look into his face, than reached back and slapped him as hard as she could. Before the shock could turn to anger, she reached up and grabbed his ears and pulled his face toward hers. Her lips found his in an instant. Feeling more alive than they'd felt in a long, long time, neither one could remember to breathe.

* * * * *

"Sela, I'm sure your mom is fine," Hobbie Klivian was a bad sabacc player because he couldn't fake his mournful expression very well. Right now, he was trying to be comforting to his wife, and doing a poor job of it, for he was worried by his mother-in-law's day-long, too. It simply wasn't like her to not "check in" daily. "But if it'll make you feel better, sure, let's swing by her place and say hello?"

"I'm sorry, Derek," Sela was the only person who seemed to refer to her husband by his given name, "it's just not like her to go out and not comm me by now. Listen to me, I've turned into the nagging mother and she's turned into someone's Nia's age!"

Hobbie laughed nervously. But as they neared Dareen's apartment complex, his eyes widened, "Sela! Do you see what I see? Your mom ..."

Sela gasped, "Oh my gosh, Derek, keep driving, don't let her see us!"

Dareen Milson was sitting next to her brother-in-law in his late model speeder, looking flushed and happy. They were locked in a deep kiss ... just like teenagers! Her fingers were still entwined in RigaRios's thick hair, her eyes closed, her body language -- what they could see of it -- conveying total satisfaction.

Hobbie realized his wife's mother was more than just the grandmother of his child ... she was a sexy, desirable woman. He also realized, trying to suppress a smile, that his daughter, Nia, and Dareen Milson were now emotionally the same age. He hoped his wife didn't see him grinning. Looking away, he drove off quickly, the dried leaves falling off the trees flowing out in the displaced air, looking like lace and confetti. It's like a celebration, thought Sela, peering back through the sunlit-sparkling debris to the very happy looking couple.

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