Sar Bordax hadn't changed in the slightest since the first meeting at the misleadingly named Gamorrean Trough Cantina. Swoop gangs terrorized the streets as usual, with the exception that they seemed to be holding something of a get-together this time. It would take a watchful eye and careful step not to run afoul of the belligerent and drunken swoopers, as Grithis had discovered the hard way.
The Bith smuggler currently held a stained cloth to the still bleeding cut on his bulbous head while his fellow smugglers waited for their drinks to be delivered. As they had come to expect of the Gamorrean Trough, service was prompt, though not exactly friendly. The Twi'lek waitress smiled, but it was clearly forced. As she turned to leave, Brel took the opportunity to give her a lecherous grab. She jerked around to stare at him, but promptly forced the anger from her face and forced the smile to return, then left.
"Better watch it, Brel," Dravis commented, "or the barkeep's gonna start charging for damaged goods."
"Damaged goods?" the Twi'lek asked with a sly grin. "But I haven't broken anything." Brel leaned across the table, drawing the other smugglers down close to hear him, before he added, "Yet." Raucous laughter erupted from the table as the smugglers reared back in their seats.
Except for Grithis. "Could you please keep it down?" he pleaded, replacing the bloody cloth with a bag of ice that the waitress had brought along with the drinks. "As if this place isn't noisy enough already."
"Just put down a few drinks, Grithis," Raylic encouraged. "Before long, you won't feel it."
"And have a hangover plus this head injury in the morning? No, thank you," Grithis replied. "What is taking Kressk, Doole, and Haygn so long?"
"Probably steering clear of the Swoopies," Dravis suggested. "I expect they've got a little more sense than you do."
Grithis gave Dravis an annoyed stare while the others chuckled again. When it died down, Raylic spoke.
"Haygn and Doole won't be joining us," he said ominously. "Kressk, on the other hand, should be along shortly. In fact, I think I see him now."
Sure enough, the Trandoshan had just stepped into the cantina. There were a couple of rips and scuff marks on his dirty gray flight suit, and it looked like he was bleeding slightly from a cut in his upper left arm. In his right hand, however, hung what seemed to be a piece of swoop steering linkage or control rod.
Brel and Dravis hastily scooted aside to clear a spot for Kressk, who dropped heavily into his seat and tossed the swoop part on to the table.
The assembled smugglers stared at the component for a while before Brel finally worked up the nerve to ask, "So, should we get some help for you, or the Swoopie?"
"I do not require aid," Kressk hissed. "Neither doesss he," he added darkly.
"So, if we're not waiting for anyone else," Dravis said, "can we get on with this meeting? I've come across some very important information."
"Oh really?" Raylic asked. "I have some interesting news myself."
"Let's start with this," Grithis interrupted with a grunt of pain. "Doole's dead."
"What? When? How?" Brel gasped.
"Turns out he never left Kijloor after our first meeting. Someone snuck aboard his ship and killed him."
The table was silent for a moment.
"How did you find this out?" Raylic asked. "I've been trying to track him down for weeks now."
"I got here for this meeting a couple days early, so I did some snooping around." Grithis pulled his ice bag away and pointed to the cut, swollen lump on his head with a quick jerk of his other hand. "How do you think I ended up with this?"
"So that's that," Dravis mumbled. "What about Haygn?"
"That's where I come in," Raylic said rather loudly. "Haygn sold us out."
A gasp of shock came from everyone except Raylic and Kressk. Dravis practically choked.
"Where did you hear this from?" Brel inquired. "This is a very serious charge."
"Any of you know Fynn Torve?"
All three nodded.
"Now wait a minute," Grithis asked, "why would he tell you that? Isn't he a close friend of Red?"
"He only told me because he didn't think I'd get back here to tell you. But thanks to some help from Kressk, here I am."
"Talon Karrde hasss returned," Kressk pointed out. "Raylic wasss imprisssoned. We releasssed him."
"Who's 'we'?" Brel asked.
"Not important right now," Raylic replied. "We need to plot our next move. I propose we accept Kressk's original suggestion."
"No!" Grithis exclaimed. "We have been betrayed! This scheme is doomed."
"Calm down, Grithisss," Kressk growled.
"He's right," Raylic said confidently. "Don't be such a coward. We'll have to bide our time and play the game more carefully, that's all."
"I wouldn't be so confident if I were you," Dravis retorted. "I take it you haven't heard the latest rumors from Coruscant?"
"What rumors would those be?" Raylic asked haughtily. "I just escaped from there one week ago. I doubt you could tell me anything I don't already know."
"Maybe not, but I think the rest of us are entitled to know it. First of all, Red's finally resurfaced."
"So Skywalker, Solo, and Calrissian managed to rescue her after all," Raylic said. "I didn't know that for sure, but I assumed they might."
Dravis, Brel, and Grithis looked at each other, silently inquiring if anyone knew of this.
"How did you know they went to rescue her?" Brel queried.
"Well... okay, someone tipped me off," Raylic confessed. "I got word that she was being held by that Daala person Doole mentioned, and I went to break up the rescue. Turns out Karrde had more help there than I thought."
"So why didn't you mention this to the rest of us before you took independent action?" asked Grithis.
"There wasn't time. I had to act, or miss my chance."
"Sounds like you missed it regardless," Dravis pointed out. "So, then, I take it you already know the big news about Red and Skywalker?"
That got Dravis the immediate and undivided attention of all four smugglers.
"What about them?" Brel asked. "Wait, you can't possibly mean..."
"Yep. Red Jade's a Skywalker now."
From the look on their faces, it was clear that they were having trouble accepting that announcement. Except Kressk, who didn't seem to care one way or another.
"I... I don't believe it," Raylic mumbled. "Where did you hear that?"
"It's all over Coruscant, and rapidly making its way through the space lanes. The news only broke a couple days ago."
"Rumors, nothing more," he dismissed.
"But you yourself said Skywalker participated in rescuing her," Grithis noted. "Sorry, but I'm out."
"I'm sorry, too, Raylic," Brel said. "Red alone is bad enough. Her and Skywalker together? You've got to be mad!"
"Especially," Dravis added, "given what I hear they did to the guy who took the Sun Crusher. Face it, Raylic. It's over."
"It's not over!" Raylic practically shouted.
"Yes, it is," Brel retorted. "If Haygn sold us out like you said, they'll be after us next!"
"All the more reason to finish it!"
"I was against this from the beginning," Grithis reminded them. "Jade Skywalker is out of our hands for certain now."
"But as for Haygn..." Brel intoned.
Grithis and Dravis nodded in agreement.
"Haygn isss no longer a concern," Kressk hissed. "He had an unfortunate encounter with piratesss."
"Hold on," Dravis requested after an awkward moment of silence. "What exactly does that mean?"
"It means," Raylic answered, "that I wasn't about to let Haygn get away with betraying me. I planted a homing device on his ship, and gave the tracking frequency to a certain pirate band. He won't be selling out anyone else, ever again. Captain Glancha also tells me that they might be willing to arrange for someone else to disappear..."
"No, Raylic," Grithis replied. "I don't want any part of it."
"We're all together in this!" Raylic insisted. "You can't just leave." Something in his tone implied that was more a statement that a plea.
"Do it yourself if you want to," Brel told him. "Like you did when you got caught by Karrde. We're not going down with you."
"So, you're all selling me out," Raylic said darkly.
"You will all regret thisss. Jussst like Haygn," Kressk threatened.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Dravis demanded. Whether he intended it or not, his hand dropped to his holster.
"Before this goes any further, there's something I want to know," Grithis said, raising his non-ice holding hand. "Raylic, just when did you find time to put a homing device on Haygn's ship? I was with him at Ord Mantell for a couple of days last week before he headed off for Corvella. That's a week long hyperspace trip itself. There's no way you could have gotten to Ord Mantell from Coruscant by the time he left, and he'll be in hyperspace until tomorrow evening."
"You mean... he already had it there," Brel concluded. An angry snarl developed on his face. The Twi'lek stood up, letting his hand rest on his blaster's handle as well. "So tell me, Raylic, did you put a homing device on my ship also?"
"Me?" Raylic said in a mock-hurt tone.
"A reasssonable precaution on our part," Kressk explained, rising to his feet. "To dissscourage betrayal."
"You never trusted us to begin with, did you?" Dravis exclaimed, drawing his blaster. All conversation in the Gamorrean Trough abruptly stopped. "Where did you put them, Raylic?"
"Where did I put what?" Raylic asked snidely.
"I should have expected as much from a Trandoshan," Grithis growled. He dropped his ice and drew his blaster, much to the surprise of everyone. No one had ever seen the Bith so angry. "But from you? Spill it, Raylic. Nobody plants a homing device on me and gets away with it."
"So that's how it's going to be," Raylic said. "Looks like I was right not to trust you after all."
With impressively quick and smooth movements, Raylic kicked the table over. The Gamorrean Trough erupted in blaster fire.
The lone man aboard the freighter Snatch and Run checked the time once again. The ship's owner had been gone far longer than he should have. He started pacing the deck, blaster still in hand.
It was almost disturbing to be back on Kijloor so soon. Unsettling, at the very least. The planet was a cesspool, one that he was more than happy to leave the first time. He'd be even more happy to leave it this time.
He swore as he checked the time again. No smuggler in his right mind would leave his ship unattended for so long in a place like this. Especially with the valuable contraband it contained. If only this Raylic fellow could be as prompt as Moruth Doole had been...
The first sight that greeted the returning fleet was that of a large, ancient-looking star cruiser, bearing what were certainly pirate markings. A host of tugs were working to haul it to the base.
As they got closer, more and more battle debris became visible. Starfighter pieces, hull plates, even the occasional body of a pilot or crewman, both Imperial and pirate, though mostly pirate.
Rear Admiral Pellaeon ordered Captain Ardes to take the Inexorable around Enigma, so he could survey the damage from all angles before docking. Meanwhile, the damaged ships of the fleet would work their way into empty and undamaged space docks. Tugs had already formed up on the battered Judicator and Vengeance, and a large group of them congregated around the Death's Head, the bow of which had broken off as soon as it exited hyperspace. There was still no sign of the Relentless, which he had ordered to cloak until its hyperdrive was repaired.
Lightly damaged or undamaged ships would hold positions around the base, partially on the lookout for further attacks, but mostly just to stay clear of the damage control efforts. The entire carrier task force had, to Pellaeon's relief, made it back without any damage whatsoever.
Nearing Enigma base, Pellaeon could see the mostly cosmetic damage that had been inflicted. Occasionally a more significant impact had occurred, and work crews were already out, frantically trying to seal up the stations hull in those areas. He identified the charred crater that had once been his secret cloning center.
Before long, they passed the dock holding the Chimaera. It was being completely ignored at the moment, as it apparently had during the attack. Little repair progress had been made so far. Not that he expected overnight results on damage of that scale.
As soon as the Chimaera passed out of view, the special projects slips demanded Pellaeon's attention. Several of the spyships were affected, their delicate antenna arrays being especially susceptible to damage. Passing a pair of empty slips, Pellaeon remembered that they had, until very recently, been holding the two Victory-class light carrier conversions. Which reminded him...
There it was, in the largest construction dock the base had to offer. The keel of an immense vessel, running a little over twice as long as an Imperial Star Destroyer, had been laid out. It could only be the beginning of the skeletal framework for the fleet carrier Hoth that Thraawn had mentioned. Pellaeon thought at first to cancel the project as being a waste of valuable resources, but the question of towing capability came into mind. Perhaps now would be the right time to move Enigma...
His thoughts were interrupted by a long, cylindrical piece of wreckage that floated past the Inexorable's bow, far too close for comfort. Getting a better look at it, he then looked toward the slip that held the Gorgon. It was still some distance away, but by squinting he could make out... yes, just what he was afraid of. One of the superlaser booms had broken off the ship's bow during the attack. Something would have to be done to rectify that situation, he noted. It wouldn't do for them to be that fragile.
Setting the losses right would be a long and difficult task. When it was done, though, the Rebels wouldn't know what hit them.
If, that is, the fleet could be held together long enough.
If Haygn bore even the slightest bit of responsibility for this disaster, he'd wish he'd never been born.
"Huh?" Pellaeon gasped. The Inexorable's communications officer had taken him by surprise. "Oh, sorry. What is it, Lieutenant?"
"Captain Ardes asked me to tell you that the Interdictor Cruiser Stranglehold has powered up, and is refusing to respond to our hails."
"It seems to be moving to a hyperspace jump position."
"Are there any ships near enough to flag it down?"
"No sir. It's got a clear shot."
"Blast!" Pellaeon swore. He turned toward the crew pit, then shouted down at the helmsman: "Takes us back out, and chase down the Interdictor Stranglehold."
"But sir, we'll never be able to catch them!"
"Do it anyway, we've got to at least try!" Five Interdictors lost at Couragahr, and now another one getting hijacked. Stranglehold... there was something about that one, but it skipped his mind at the moment. Could things get any worse?
As the helmsman answered in a bewildered affirmative, Pellaeon's comlink crackled to life.
"Rear Admiral Pellaeon," came the voice of Thraawn, "I want to see you in the conference room. Now."
"Sir," Pellaeon replied, feeling a scant hint of relief that Thraawn hadn't done anything... desperate, "we're in the process of pursuing..."
"Yes, sir," he grumbled. "Lieutenant, tell Captain Ardes to continue after that ship."
The lieutenant nodded as Pellaeon went to the conference room.
The room was totally dark when Pellaeon entered it. He turned to activate the light controls, but before he did the door slid shut behind him. Cursing softly, he fumbled around a little longer until a light suddenly came on of its own accord.
Turning to face it, Pellaeon found that it was not a light at all, but a quarter sized holographic image of Thraawn.
"Rear Admiral Pellaeon," the shimmering, silvery image said, "I have thought long and hard about what you told me. I have yet to determine exactly who or what I am, but I have realized this: my period of service to the Imperial Fleet is over. I've already laid down my life for the Emperor once.
"Perhaps I should apologize for not accomplishing what you expected of me, but then perhaps you should also apologize for creating something beyond your ability to control. It matters little now. I have decided to take my leave. I don't know what I shall do from here, but I will not return to the Fleet, regardless of who asks.
"So to you, I vow to never interfere to any extent with Imperial Fleet affairs, as long as you, Admiral Pellaeon, are in command. You, however, must vow to stay out of my business, whatever it may be. Now, Rear Admiral, there is something I want to show you."
Right on cue, the lights came on. Pellaeon was blinded for a moment as his eyes adjusted. When his vision finally returned, he was greeted by the sight of a pure white, perfectly pressed Grand Admiral uniform laid out on the conference table in front of the hologram. He looked back up at the hologram, confused but with a nagging sense of dread.
"Rear Admiral Pellaeon," the hologram said, spreading its hands to the sides to encompass the uniform in front of it, "this uniform is yours. Before I departed, I finished the procedure for promoting you to the rank of Grand Admiral."
"No!" Pellaeon gasped, despite the fact that he knew good and well the hologram couldn't hear him.
"You'll have to command the fleet in person from now on, rather than through me. Now, here is the puzzle I leave for you: you can accept the promotion and my soon-to-be transmitted resignation as if I am the real, original Grand Admiral Thrawn; or you can refuse the promotion and my departure on the grounds that I am not the real Thrawn. Think carefully: I'm sure you are well aware of what will become of the Fleet based on either decision.
"As you have no doubt already noticed, I have commandeered the Interdictor Stranglehold. Don't come after me. You'll never find us, and even if you could, how would you explain it to your officers?"
Blast it! Pellaeon dropped himself into one of the seats. Of course we'll never find him. The Stranglehold's the Interdictor we gave a spyship modification to!
"In exchange," Thraawn continued, "I have instructed one of my agents to deal with the smuggler who sent the pirates to Enigma. You might want to move the base, though.
"Farewell, Grand Admiral Pellaeon. We won't meet again."
The hologram blinked out of existence, leaving Pellaeon completely alone. He stared in silence at the white uniform arrayed before him, then slumped forward, resting his forehead on his hands in despair.
"Master Luke, sir! It's so good to see you!"
"You, too, Threepio," Luke replied with a smile. "I take it your talk with Senator Bel Iblis is over?"
"Oh yes, although he will need me again tomorrow to translate for Chewbacca. Unless, of course, that delightful G-2M0 fellow would be willing to fill in for me."
"I must have something stuck in my ears," Mara said, coming out of the bedroom, "because I thought I just heard the words 'G-2M0' and 'delightful' in the same sentence."
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry," Threepio apologized. "I didn't know you had company, Master Luke. Good day to you, Mistress Mara. You're looking well today..."
C-3P0 trailed off as he noticed just where Mara had come from. He turned to look at Luke, then back at Mara.
You didn't tell him yet, did you? Mara asked Luke telepathically.
"Well, anyway," Threepio continued, apparently deciding it was none of his business until Luke made it his business. "That G-2M0 is such a fascinating droid. Did you know he was specially ordered for the Royal House of Anderra? Recently, he had a most fascinating adventure. Shall I tell you about it?"
"No need. I was there," Luke mumbled.
"You were?" the astonished Threepio replied. "He never mentioned you. He only mentioned being amongst mercenaries, thugs, and ruffians. He said he gave them quite a thrashing."
"Did he now..." Mara said, a wicked glint in her eye. "Maybe we should go and refresh his memory, dear."
"Maybe later," Luke offered.
Threepio glanced back and forth between them again.
An especially heavy knock heralded the arrival of Han, Leia, and Chewbacca.
"Hey, nice place you got here, kid," Han said as soon as he entered. "Not as nice as ours, of course," he winked at Leia, "but lots better than that closet you used to have, even before it got wrecked."
"It wasn't that bad, Han," Luke replied before giving his brother-in-law a hug, having just finished giving one to Leia.
"No, but not the place to raise a family. How you doing, Mara?"
"Fine, Han, thanks. The doctor says everything looks good. Well," she corrected, flexing her right hand, "there's still a bit of therapy on the slate for my arm. As for the other matter," she said with a smile, "well, this is going to be the toughest kid you've ever seen."
A bit of chuckling came from the humans and the Wookie. The protocol droid just looked stunned.
Suddenly, Chewbacca emitted a loud growl and scooped Luke and Mara together in his arms, giving the both of them a fierce hug.
"All right, Chewie, all right!" Luke laughed as Han and Leia looked on.
Chewbacca, however, wasn't quite finished yet. Upon releasing the couple, he put a hand on each of their heads and ruffled their hair.
"Gee, thanks," Mara muttered, spitting hair out of her mouth and frantically trying to brush it back out of her face with her hands.
"That's just Chewie's way of saying welcome to the family," Han informed her.
"Never spent much time with Wookies before," Mara sputtered. "Looks like I'd better get used to it quick."
"Luke," Leia asked, her voice suddenly becoming more serious, "will you be able to make it?"
"Oh, right," Luke replied, almost like he had forgotten. "Yeah, I'll be there."
"Be where?" Mara asked, a scowl appearing on her face. "You didn't tell me you were going anywhere."
"A visit to Couragahr, to help the Noghri dig out and start rebuilding," Luke explained. "Admiral Ackbar's report said that the Noghri specifically asked if Leia and I could pay them a visit."
"And you didn't think to mention this to me?"
"Well, I meant to..."
"I've got to get packed, you know."
"You've got to..." Luke repeated, "You mean you want to come along? Didn't you tell Karrde you wanted to lay off on the space travel for a while?"
"I said I wanted to lay off the hectic travel schedule," she corrected. "A trip here or there is fine. Besides, I don't want you going away without me. Never know when you'll need backup, right?"
"That's true, I suppose..."
"And we've got so much lost time to make up for, I can't just let you travel alone," she added with a sly grin.
"Since you put it that way..." Luke replied, "maybe we can find a nice, quiet, out of the way planet to spend a week or two after the official business is done."
"Sounds nice," she agreed.
Han coughed to get their attention. "Hey, Luke, sorry to break it up, but you just reminded me of something. We finally found out who gave Furgan the directions to Anoth."
"Who?" Luke asked, taking the opportunity to sit down on the couch, with Mara beside him.
"You remember Ackbar's aide, Terpfen?" Han asked as he, too, took a seat. "Well, turns out Furgan had some kind of circuit implanted in him. He's the one who passed on the information about Anoth, and he's also responsible for the crash on Vortex."
"How did you find that out?" Luke asked.
"He's been working Furgan over for a few days now, Luke," Mara interjected. "Didn't you figure that out yet?"
From Luke's disturbed expression, he obviously hadn't.
"Well, anyway, we went to confront Terpfen about it, so we could help him. Unfortunately, it was too late. He'd already killed himself before we got there. Before Furgan was even on-planet, in fact."
"It's so sad," Leia commented as she, too, sat down.
"I wonder," Luke commented thoughtfully, "did he reveal the alternate safe worlds as well?"
"Now that you mention it, Luke, I've been thinking," Leia replied, "I don't want to send Anakin away again. It's not that I don't trust Winter - she did a great job - it's just that I have a problem with the idea of someone else raising my kids for me, on a distant planet."
"I agree. I mean, look what happened," Han said bluntly, crossing his arms, "they found him anyway."
"That's true, Han, but..."
"Hold on a second," Mara interrupted. "What's this all about?"
"After we lost Coruscant," Leia explained, "we sent Jacen and Jaina away under Winter's care. Anakin went to the same place when he was born. Luke told us that after they were two years old, they would be less susceptible to the Dark Side, and it would be safe to bring them back."
Mara took a fierce glance at her husband. "You told her WHAT?"
"I read about it in some ancient Jedi texts I found on Byss," Luke replied.
"On Byss? And you believed them?" she retorted. "So, are these the same ones that gave you the idea that a one-master Jedi academy was a good idea?"
"Luke, let's get this straight right now: You are NOT sending MY kids away."
"But if you'll just..."
"No, and that's final. I won't stand for it. Leia, how did you ever let him talk you into this? Luke, I swear, you have some of the strangest ideas..."
"Could I please get a word in here?" Luke practically shouted. Seeing he had got everyone's attention, he went on. "I was about to say I realize it was a bad idea, and wanted to apologize to Leia and Han for talking them into keeping their kids there so long. And no, Mara, I don't intend to send ours away."
"Oh," Mara said in a funny sort of way, "Well, that's different, then."
"Jacen and Jaina will be glad to hear it," Han informed him. "They've been asking me if their brother can stay." The speaker near the door abruptly buzzed. "Speaking of which, that should be them now."
He went to the door and let in Winter, cradling baby Anakin in her right arm, while holding Jaina's hand with her left. Jaina, in turn, held Jacen's hand.
"Sorry we're late," Winter said as she handed Anakin over to his father. "Slight emergency." Her tone made it clear it was not the type of emergency that warranted alarm. "Now, you two," she said softly, leaning down to Jacen and Jaina, "go on and do like I told you."
The two-year-olds stood still for a moment, no longer holding hands. Jaina sucked on a couple of fingers, while Jacen bobbed side to side, looking up at Winter, then to his parents, then at Luke and Mara, and back to Winter. She gestured the twins onward.
Finally, the pair toddled forward. Slowly and awkwardly, they approached Mara.
"Well, hello there," she said pleasantly, leaning down toward them. Jaina timidly stepped behind Jacen before he had the chance to hide behind her. Mara pulled back a little. "I'm not scaring you, am I?"
The twins shook their heads no, but it wasn't a very confident no.
"Jacen, Jaina!" Winter scolded. "Be polite!"
"It's okay," Leia entreated them.
"Ummm..." Jacen started, as Jaina continued to suck on her fingers behind him. "Ummmm.... Winter said... Winter said we can call you Aunt Mara. Is that okay?"
It brought a big smile to Mara's face, as well as a short chuckle that made the twins cringe a little. "Of course it's okay!" she assured them. "You can call me that all you want."
That inspired a smile from Jaina. Jacen, however, was still nervous.
"What else did I say you should do?" Winter asked him instructively.
"She said we should give Aunt Mara a hug," he muttered, as if he thought that was a bad idea.
"That's okay, too," Mara replied, holding her arms out. To Jacen's great surprise, Jaina leapt right past him to embrace her aunt.
"Come on, scaredy," Jaina teased. Reluctantly, Jacen went ahead. He let out with a "yuck!" when Mara gave him a kiss on the cheek.
"Oh come on," she said, "I'm not that bad, am I?"
Jaina eagerly shook her head no, then hugged her again. Jacen tilted his head as if considering the question more deeply. Eventually, he gave up and wrapped his arms around her neck.
After a few more seconds, Mara whispered to the kids, "Hey, don't forget about Uncle Luke."
That got them off her in an instant as the twins turned their affection toward Uncle Luke.
"So," Han asked holding Anakin out a bit, "want to get some practice in?"
"Well, okay, I guess..." she started. "Now wait a minute, do you mean just hold him, or do you have something else in mind?"
"Han..." Leia scolded.
"All right, all right," he muttered, heading for Luke and Mara's guest bedroom with Winter in train, shutting the door behind them.
"Now that's a task I'm not looking forward to," Mara muttered. "So Leia, about this cruise we're taking?"
"Oh, right," Leia replied. "We leave tomorrow morning and meet Admiral Ackbar in four days. We'll be traveling as part of a rather large task force, and since it's kind of cramped for so many of us we won't be able to use the Falcon. But Han insists on bringing it along anyway."
"A show of force now?" Mara asked. "Isn't that 'too little, too late'?"
"Not when there's still the possibility of a cloaked Star Destroyer hanging around."
"What have they decided to do about Thrawn?" Luke interjected, now with Jacen and Jaina sitting quietly on each of his knees.
"Right, I meant to tell you about that," Leia answered. "Considering the beating we gave them at Couragahr, everyone is convinced that it was not the real Thrawn in charge of the Imperial Fleet. There was mention of a secret base in some of the interrogation reports from Imperial pilots we picked up, so we've got to check on that still. There are also the items removed from the Maw installation before General Madine got there. But with the Sun Crusher destroyed and Thrawn debunked, alert status has been reduced to what it was before this mess started."
"I'd still recommend a bit of caution there," Mara commented. "Pellaeon may not be as brilliant as the original Thrawn, but he's no idiot."
"I'll pass that along," Leia promised. "Now Luke, there's something I need to ask you. Ambassador Cilghal was wondering if you have made any new decisions about Jedi training."
"Hmmm..." Luke sighed. Taking the cue, Chewbacca walked over to him and lifted Jacen and Jaina up and away, taking them over near the still stupefied Threepio. "Actually," Luke said, after whispering a quick 'thank you' to Chewbacca, "I'm not quite sure yet. Like Mara said, a one-master academy just doesn't work, and relying on the students to help each other discover the Force..."
"Well, they certainly discovered at least ONE side of it," Mara muttered.
"Anyway," he continued, "Yoda warned me of my impatience, and the lesson finally sunk in. I need help. I need to train one person all the way, then that person can help me to train more. And for that to work, there's only one person it could be."
"They're going to say you're playing favorites, you know," Mara warned.
"They will," Leia observed, "but when confronted with the facts, they'll have to admit that you're the one best suited to be the first."
"Look, I don't know that I even want to teach Jedi," she protested.
"You'd be great at it," Luke encouraged. "Look how much you've taught me."
"Well, that's true," she mumbled. "Oh, all right."
"By myself, I failed," Luke said. "But together, we'll get it right this time.
Chewbacca's growl caught everyone's attention. He was busy wrestling with Jacen and Jaina. Jaina had just pulled out a double handful of hair from his chest and was now looking at it with an expression of curiosity.
"Jaina!" Leia gasped.
Mara couldn't help but laugh. "No offense to Chewie, but your kids are adorable, Leia!"
Chewbacca stared at Mara for a moment, then turned away and shook his great, shaggy head. He roared out something rather long and complex sounding.
Threepio suddenly jolted out of his stupor in shock. "Chewbacca, you watch your language! That is hardly an appropriate way to speak when there are children present, and you know it!"
Leia shrugged, then turned to Mara. "Welcome to the family."