He had been walking back and forth, forth and back, to and fro for nearly an hour. His lips were moving constantly as he mouthed words to himself, rehearsing the little speech he had composed. His hands were clenched at his sides, but every now and then he would reach up and nervously rearrange his hair.
Whatever the source of his anxiety, he was so intent on it that he didn't notice Jolee until the old Jedi Master spoke.
"So what's on your mind, Carth?"
Carth jumped visibly, spinning around to face the intruder. Jolee was leaning against the doorway, one eyebrow quirked slightly in amusement.
"Oh. Hi, Jolee," Carth said, relaxing a bit as he recognized the owner of the interrupting voice. "I, uh…oh, it's nothing. Nothing important, really."
Jolee's eyebrow rose higher. "Important enough to be worth wearing a hole in the carpet, apparently."
Carth gave a shaky laugh and glanced down at where he'd been pacing. "Ah, cheap carpet…y'know how it is."
"Of course," Jolee said, the faintest trace of a smirk appearing. Then, instead of leaving as Carth had hoped he would do, he walked further into the room and sat on one of the beds. "So how about telling me about it? Might help to get it off your chest."
Carth smiled wanly and plopped heavily onto a bed opposite Jolee's. "Thanks, but I guess it's not really something I feel like talking about right now."
Jolee was silent a moment before speaking up again, his tone now decidedly sly. "Well…Malae never seems to have too much trouble getting secrets out of you. Maybe I should run and get her?"
An expression of pure horror appeared on Carth's face, even as he flushed a bright crimson shade. "No! No, no, no. She doesn't need to know anything about this."
"Hmmm," Jolee said, his grin looking rather predatory. "Judging from your reaction to my suggestion, and the fact that you look as nervous as a lone bantha being stalked by a krayt dragon, I'm guessing whatever 'this' is has something to do with her."
Carth gave a noncommittal grunt.
"Yep, I thought so," Jolee said with an air of satisfaction. After a pause, he added almost conversationally, "She is quite a fine woman, isn't she?"
Carth said something that might have been a muffled curse, then buried his head in his hands.
Jolee couldn't help but laugh at how pitiful the pilot looked. "Come now, Carth; surely it can't be all that bad!"
Carth's smile was a bit sheepish this time. "I dunno, maybe I'm blowing things out of proportion, it's just…" He paused to give a frustrated sigh before plunging on. "It's just that I haven't done anything like this in, well…a long time."
"Well," Jolee began, his tone soft and conspiratorial. Carth instinctively leaned forward slightly so as to hear the old Master better. "I have it on good authority," Jolee continued, "that Malae is sitting quite alone in the cockpit right now. So, if you would like to give a dramatic confession of your undying love…or something else," he added diplomatically as Carth glared daggers at him, "without having nosy or squawking crewmates looking over your shoulder, now might be a good time."
Carth took a deep breath, let it out, and tapped his fingers in a nervous pattern on his leg. He made no move to get off the bed. "Well…"
"You won't get anywhere unless you try," Jolee pointed out with a knowing look.
Carth blew out another breath. "All right, all right. Obviously I'm not going to get any peace until I do." He shot Jolee an amused look, then stood up off the bed and strode resolutely across the room. As he reached the door, he turned and looked back at the Jedi Master. "Thanks, Jolee."
Jolee answered with a wink and an incline of his head. "Good luck."
The soldier swallowed and left the room.
- - -
The Ebon Hawk was currently in hyperspace and wouldn't reach Tatooine for several hours, so the cockpit was not heavily frequented. It was a habit of Malae's to go curl up in the co-pilot's chair to spend time thinking, relaxing, or just having a few moments to herself.
Carth reached the cockpit and paused in the doorway. He let out a barely audible sigh and let his head rest against the doorframe. Things had been a lot less complicated before he met Malae. He'd had one goal, a goal he pursued with a ferocious single-mindedness: to avenge the destruction of Telos and the death of his wife by killing Saul Karath. He had no one or nothing else to get in the way of that mission.
But then he'd met Malae, and it was like the universe had turned on its head. He'd never expected to find anything that would distract him from his goal; for years he had accepted the fact that the rest of his life would be devoted to tracking down and killing Saul. But now…it wasn't that he'd lost the desire to kill Saul—no, that was definitely still a topmost priority. But Malae had made him realize that this mission—tracking down Star Maps and finding the Star Forge—was also important. She'd made him realize that she was important—to him. And that was the most confusing thing of all. He'd certainly never expected to fall in love again, not after what happened to his wife. But did he really love Malae? Was it only a passing attraction? They'd only known each other for a couple of months, after all. But he had to admit that he had never found himself getting this flustered—and frustrated—over a woman before, not even back in the days when he was courting his wife.
"Are you coming in, Carth, or are you going to stand in the doorway forever?"
Carth jumped, hitting his head on the doorframe. "Ow!" he yelped, then swore under his breath.
Malae chuckled, swiveling the co-pilot chair so that she was facing him. "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you."
"I didn't think you knew I was here," Carth admitted, entering the cockpit. He took the pilot's chair opposite Malae and rubbed the bump on his head. "I thought I was being pretty quiet—soldier, y'know, we have to have at least some degree of stealth."
Malae tried to hide her amused grin and didn't have much success. "Oh, you were being stealthy, but I sensed your presence when you first walked up."
"Should've figured that, I guess," Carth said. The ability to sense another's presence was one of those weird—and slightly creepy—Jedi things he hadn't quite gotten used to yet.
Malae brought her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on them, surveying Carth through her blue eyes. "So, is there something you want to talk about?"
"Did you sense that, too?" Carth asked, a grin tugging at his mouth in spite of himself.
"Not in particular," she replied. "But I was getting the feeling that you were pretty deep in thought, and that there was a little bit of angsting going on. "
"'Angsting?' Hey, I'm not angsty!" Carth exclaimed indignantly. At Malae's incredulous look, he paused. "Well, maybe a little," he admitted.
Malae let out a peal of laughter at that, and Carth suddenly wished he could hear her laugh more often. He quickly tucked that thought aside and cleared his throat. "Well, actually, I was more just thinking about how things have changed since…well, since I met you. Since we started this whole crazy ordeal. But, uh, that's not what I came in here to talk about."
Malae raised her eyebrows but said nothing, waiting for him to continue. Carth took a deep breath and reached into his jacket pocket.
"I saw this when we were on Manaan," he said, pulling out a small object. He opened his hand to reveal a necklace. He suddenly realized the rest of the little speech he had prepared had fled to the Outer Rim of his mind. Refusing to give himself time to panic, he plowed on. "I, uh, thought you might like it. Thought it might look good on you."
Malae took the necklace and held it in the palm of her hand, looking it over. It was a simple chain strung with three of the water jewels native to Manaan. Two of the jewels were smaller in size, framing a slightly bigger gem in the middle of the chain. Light from the control console reflected off the iridescent jewels, lighting her face with a prism-like effect.
"It's beautiful," Malae said softly. "No—gorgeous," she corrected herself, shooting a slightly mischievous glance at Carth, then looking back at the necklace. "I've never had anything like this before."
"I know you don't normally wear jewelry, at least not that I've seen," Carth said, feeling the need to say something. "But I saw it in one of the shops and couldn't resist."
"Well, it's never too late to start!" Malae said with a smile. "Thank you very much, Carth." She fastened the chain around her neck and positioned the necklace so that it was hanging correctly. "How does it look?"
Carth grinned. "Just as pretty as I envisioned when I first saw it." He let out a small sigh of relief. Not that he'd actually expected her to toss it back in his face or anything, but…it didn't hurt to be prepared for the worst case scenario.
Suddenly Carth realized that Malae was no longer in the co-pilot seat. She had gotten up out of the chair and had come closer—much closer. It took a second for his brain to fully inform him that she was giving him a kiss on the cheek. Carth felt an involuntary grin spring to his face.
"Well," he said when she was back in the co-pilot chair, "I didn't know you liked it that much."
She grinned back, a hint of mischief in her eyes. "I did. And I was thinking…maybe tonight, if we can manage to get away from the rest of the gang, we could have dinner together, just the two of us. I'm sure I could whip up something extra tasty from the galley," she added with a wink.
Carth laughed, feeling the last traces of his nervousness evaporate. He resolved to listen to Jolee more often in the future. "I'd like that."