Part Five — At Heel

Rating: PG-13

"Uhh," Tahiri groaned, rubbing her jaw.

The newcomer wasn't a hunter — he wasn't even a Yuuzhan Vong. A tall, ascetically lean young man. Black boots, blue breeches, a khaki waistcoat worn over a white tee-shirt. With his long, tousled hair, unkempt beard, and pronounced cheekbones, he reminded Anakin of a young, gangly Wookiee.

You know him? he frowned.

Tahiri grimaced.

"Hi, Jacen," she said, trying to smile, then grinned — finding enough to be amused about in Anakin's puzzlement to make it look as though she really was pleased to see the newcomer.

Jacen? Anakin yelped, starring in surprise. The man who was standing in front of him didn't look like the brother he remembered.

Guess he took your death worse than either of you realised, Tahiri quipped.

"I, uh ... Sekot sent you, didn't she?"

"N-no," Jacen said, his hesitation suddenly making him look far more the Jacen Solo Anakin remembered.

Hi, big brother, Anakin smiled, but still Jacen seemed as though he couldn't see him. He was looking straight at him, or at least, at the tangled ghost of Force energy that he had become, intertwined with Tahiri's soul. He was reaching out for him with the Force, with a strength and confidence — a power, even — which was new to Anakin.

But he couldn't recognize him. For all his power, all his maturity, he couldn't make sense of what he was seeing.

He was puzzled, perplexed. Worried.

He blinked.

Anakin blinked back.

"What happened to you?" Jacen asked. "Tahiri?"

"Long story," she shrugged. "Sekot is trying to kill me. You're here with the Wandering Star?"

"Yeah," Jacen nodded. "It's, um ... complicated. Ah, look, how about a caf at Taxi's? There are, uhh, things ..."

"Tell me once we get out of here," she suggested. "Sekot's trying to kill me, in case you didn't understand that the first time I said it."

"You might want to switch that thing off," he said, nodding at the 'saber she still held in her hand.

"Maybe," she noted, cool and calm. "Not until I'm sure that's really you, and not another of Sekot's avatars. What part of Jacen, she's trying to kill me didn't you understand?"

"Nothing — it's just ... uhh."

Jacen paused, looking at Tahiri with a sort of sombre skepticism, trying not to frown.v "I'm sorry," he said. "This is Sekot we're talking about. And you — you just killed those hunters, Tahiri."

"I ...," she tried, glancing at the sprawl of dismembered corpses in the alley behind her, then sighing as she looked back at him, asking for understanding with her eyes. She snapped off Anakin's lightsaber, buckled it clumsily to one of the belt-loops on her shorts. This isn't working.

Anakin gave a mental nod of agreement. Neither of them could sense any immediate threat, but Jacen was cautious, uncertain.

Worried, even.

He trusted Sekot — and he didn't like what he'd just seen.

What do we do? Tahiri asked, her thoughts small in the silence. For a moment, Anakin didn't answer.

Then ...

Hang on, he grinned. I have an idea.

Tahiri's response was a star of wordless surprise, like a disbelieving laugh. But it just made Anakin's smile shine all the brighter as he began to walk towards his brother, hips swaying slightly as he moved.

Anakin! Tahiri giggled, amusement and panic mixing in her voice. Hey — stop that!

Anakin just kept grinning, turning his smile at Jacen. He cleared his throat, tweaked his smile, and hoped that he could make his voice sound like something that Jacen could mistake for Tahiri's.

"Hey, Jacen," he tried. "It's me."

Jacen blinked.

"Tahiri?" he asked.

Anakin grinned in answer, laid one tanned hand on his brother's shoulder, and looked deep into his eyes. He thought he saw something stirring, waking slowly in the dark depths.

Wrapped around him in the Force, he felt Tahiri shiver.

Anakin, she whispered. I don't think I like this ...

You think it's easy for me?! he countered, frowning slightly now, but not breaking eye-contact with his brother. "Come on, Jacen. You know me. You can trust me, right?"

"I ...," Jacen stammered. "Sekot. You're fighting Sekot, Tahiri. That's not right. Sekot wouldn't want any harm to come to you ... ."

"Sekot?" he asked, a steely edge on his voice now. "Do you really know Sekot, Jacen? You have to trust one of us — one or the other. So who's it going to be? Me — or her?"

"Tahiri," Jacen said, gently taking her hand from his shoulder, but not letting go. "Tahiri. I ..."

His eyes flickered, asking questions he was afraid to speak aloud.

Just keep calm, Anakin told himself, finding echoes of Tahiri's doubts in his own thoughts now. Breathe.

He knew that the situation could spin out of control at any moment, but he needed his brother — or, more exactly, he needed his ship, and he didn't want him to go over to Sekot's side.

All the same, the reckless enjoyment he'd felt a few moments earlier was gone. Now, he felt guilty for what he'd made Tahiri do.

Tahiri, he promised her. I'll make it up to you. I really mean that ...

You'd better, Anakin Solo.

Thanks. I love you too.

Still, Jacen hadn't said anything. Through the Force, Anakin could sense his indecision. He wondered if he should feel guilty for the way he was playing him, too.

Another heartbeat.

Still, Jacen hesitated.

Anakin sighed, and saw a flicker of puzzlement in his brother's eyes, answered by a mental scowl from Tahiri.

He could have kicked himself. There had been far too much of Anakin Solo in that soft, exasperated sigh. He was lucky that Jacen hadn't recognized him there and then.

Now, his brother was looking at him oddly, eyes narrowed, head cocked to one side.

Well, Tahiri hissed. Say something!

Anakin blinked, his words catching in his throat. He felt suddenly, self-consciously, himself, and he knew that anything he could say or do would give the game away.

Uh-oh ...

Typical, Tahiri sighed, with a sort of reluctant resignation in her voice. You get us into this mess, so I have to get us out ...

"Jacen," he heard her say, smiling in gratitude as she slid back into control, relegating him to his rightful place as a spectator in her mind.

Her eyes narrowed, her gaze — at once intense and vulnerable — finding the seams of confusion in his thoughts, and instantly unraveling them.

She smiled, weakly. But to Jacen, that didn't seem to matter.

"Jacen," she repeated. "I would really, really appreciate it if you could help us out here ..."

Jacen didn't answer. He swallowed hard.

And it wasn't because he was looking at Tahiri either.

Slowly, they turned, to see a slim, sinuous Twi'lek girl standing behind them, long-nailed hands planted on the curves of blue-skinned hips, cool amusement in her eyes.

"Alema," Anakin managed, his voice high-pitched enough to pass for Tahiri's.

"Alema," Jacen said, grimacing. "I, ahh ..."

"Hi, you two," Alema Rar said, with a grin that seemed big enough for all three or them. Winking at Tahiri — though to Anakin, it seemed as though it was aimed straight at him — she walked past, wrapped her arms around Jacen's neck, and drew him down into a long, lingering kiss.

Anakin turned, tempering Tahiri's impatience with calm control.

"Hey," he said, his voice still shriller than he'd have expected.

That's my brother, Tahiri finished for him, and they both frowned.

"These Solo boys, huh," Alema grinned. "Cute and stupid, just the way they should be."

Anakin flinched, glad that that was something they could mistake for anger in Tahiri. She was just glowering, cold light in her eyes.

"Alema," Jacen frowned. "That's hardly fair."

"No?" Alema asked, looking Tahiri up and down. "I heard Tahiri found herself a new boyfriend recently. Big hunk of local meat. Anyway, if she wants, I don't see any reason she shouldn't come with us." She switched to Jacen, wrapped herself around him again. "I don't like Sekot, lover. Okay?"

"Okay," Jacen mumbled, and Alema grinned triumphantly at him, disentangling herself and glancing back at Tahiri with a bright smile that seemed identical to the one she had just favoured her boyfriend with.

"Well, come on," she said, sliding her hand round Jacen's waist, and leading him away. She glanced after them. "Best hurry — it's you they're after, isn't it."

Tahiri just nodded, glaring at the Twi'lek girl.

Dummy, she thought at Anakin.

He answered with silence, not sure that anything he could say would make things better. Belatedly, he recognized the numb, mildly nauseous exhaustion that came after combat. It seemed strange.

Not something I missed, he told Tahiri. I'm sorry.

She twisted her lip, and bit her tongue — but they followed, all the same.

Lapsing into silence again, Anakin watched Alema and his brother, frowning slightly to see quite how easily she was leading him.

Like walking at heel, Tahiri thought, sourly.

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