(Set in 18 ABY.)
The best part of the skyhook was the sprawling park adjoining the diplomatic compound. The best part of the diplomatic reception was that the children had the run of most of it, albeit mostly in view of their parents and under the careful supervision of several nannies. And Chewbacca, who had set up in one of the vine trees and seemed like he was enjoying himself.
The worst part of all of it was the other girls.
Jaina Solo fought to keep from scuffing her shoes over the ground and shoved her hands deeper into her pockets. Her pants pockets – which was one of her current problems.
It wasn't that she wanted to wear a dress. She had chosen her clothes herself, a pants-and-tunic combination that she thought was fancy enough while still being comfortable. Her mother had smiled when she'd asked her to braid her hair in an Alderaanian style, and her father had hugged her to his side and called her his little princess.
And now Jaina stood here, with her Alderaanian braid and fancy clothes, and wanted nothing more than to rip the whole lot off and hide in her room.
"I like your shoes, Jaina," Lianni said now. Jaina looked up at her. Lianni was half a year older than Jaina and the undisputed leader of the small group of girls her age. She wore a dress that Jaina knew had to be the height of fashion, her black hair was unbound and curled around her shoulders, and she was smiling.
The other girl, Devitha, giggled at her words, and Jaina knew that she hadn't meant a word of it. Somehow, Lianni could say the nicest things and mean them as an insult. And there was nothing Jaina could do about it.
"Thanks," she mumbled, and because she knew her manners, added, "I like yours, too."
"They're nice, aren't they?" Lianni lifted a delicate foot to show off her gleaming silver shoes. "They're Verina Doliotte. My mother had them ordered special. What are yours? I don't think I'm familiar with the designer."
Jaina hadn't even known that people designed shoes until she'd met Lianni. She had picked hers out, but she had no idea who had made them. She'd liked the colour – dark red and purple – and they were comfortable. She fervently wished that Leia were here to answer for her.
"My Mom bought them," she said instead, hoping that Lianni wouldn't criticise her mother's taste. She seemed to admire Princess Leia of Alderaan. She had spent ages talking to her earlier, smiling in that sweet way of hers, and Leia had complimented her dress and her hair while Jaina stood nearby and tried not to think about it too much. Maybe she wasn't the perfect daughter for a princess, but her Mom was proud of her. She knew that. Leia had said so.
Still, she suddenly couldn't shake the thought that maybe it'd be better if she were more like Lianni. It was a horrible thought, but it refused to go away.
"Oh," Lianni said. "My mother has let me pick out my clothes for years. But then, I suppose, I have very good taste."
Jaina glared at her. "I've got taste."
"Never said you didn't," Lianni said, smooth as silk. "We can all see that you do."
For some reason, they found that hilarious. Jaina balled her fists and looked around, trying to find a reason to escape. She saw one of the nannies sitting nearby, watching the girls with patient indulgence, and knew that she couldn't expect any help from there. The other adults stood around just outside the fancy reception building, enjoying their open-air buffet and talking.
The boys were on the other side of the small plaza, on the large lawn. Jaina could make out her brothers, standing side by side as they discussed something with the other three boys.
She made up her mind. "I gotta go talk to Jacen," she said, and walked away. She could feel them watching, almost heard their whispered remarks and thoughts, but she held herself straight and ignored it.
"Whatcha doing?" she asked as she came up behind Jacen and the others.
"We're gonna play chase," Piovy said. He was half a year older than Anakin, but slightly smaller; his hair and skin were darker, but his eyes were almost as blue. "Gorrak's it."
"Am not!" Gorrak said straightaway. He smiled at Jaina and tried, as he always did, to flatten the blond hair which stuck straight up from his head. "You wanna play?"
"She can't play," Soren said. "No girls, remember? We agreed."
Jaina glared at him. He was the biggest, almost a year older than she and Jacen, and had been in charge of their group from the beginning. Up until two minutes ago, she would have said that she liked him just fine, but now... "That's not fair. Why can't girls play?"
"'Cause you're slow," Soren said. "I want to play properly for once. Girls are too slow."
"That's not true!" Jaina put her hands on her hips. "I'm not slow!"
"She's not really one of the girls," Jacen spoke up. "She's not like Lianni."
As soon as Jacen mentioned the name, Jaina remembered the previous day. They'd played chase for a little while then, too, with Lianni and the two other girls. And Lianni had been slow. Jaina had tried to encourage her to run faster, but all that had got her was some glares and muttered remarks that she hadn't quite understood. By the end of it, Jacen had said afterwards, they'd pretty much ignored her because it was no fun playing that way; it was almost like she wanted to be caught, and she'd giggled far too much whenever he or Soren did. Jaina hadn't really noticed; she'd been too busy trying to keep from getting caught herself.
But given that, it made a kind of sense that they wanted to play without her. Still, it was hardly fair to exclude Jaina, too, just because they were both girls.
Soren just scoffed. "Girls can't run," he said.
"Yeah we can." Jaina gave him her best glare. "I'm just as fast as Jacen. I'll prove it if you want."
"Hey, yeah, they can have a race," Gorrak said. "Jacen's right, she's fast."
"Fine," Soren said. "But you have to race me. Jacen's just gonna let you win because you're his sister."
Jaina opened her mouth to argue, but thought better of it. "Okay, sure. I don't care."
They declared one of the flower beds the start line, and Gorrak stood almost all the way across the lawn with his arms outstretched. "Okay!" he called. "Whoever hits my hand first wins! Ready!"
Jaina balled her fists and bent her knees, ready to start running; beside her, Soren mimicked her pose.
"Set!" Gorrak yelled. "Go!"
Jaina ran. The world changed like it always did in races, shrinking until all she could see was Gorrak in front of her and all her will was directed at her legs. Faster, faster, faster...
She brushed Gorrak's hand and slowed down, feeling her heart pounding in her ears. She turned back, trying to catch her breath as she looked expectantly at Gorrak.
"Soren wins," he said. "Sorry." He looked like he meant it.
"Told you," Soren panted. Jaina was glad that at least she hadn't made it easy for him.
"You know, it was pretty close, though," Gorrak said. "You're faster than me, too."
"She was way faster than Lianni," Jacen said.
Soren blew out a breath. "Well... Yeah. Okay." He held out his hand towards Jaina. "Sorry for what I said. Friends?"
She grinned at him and shook his hand. "Sure. But I'm not gonna be it."
They declared the small fountain in the plaza the safe spot, and the other girls disappeared from Jaina's thoughts as she concentrated on escaping from Piovy. And then Anakin. And then Gorrak.
Just after Gorrak managed to catch her, she became aware that Lianni and the others were striding over to join them. Her heart skipped a beat as it seemed to sink down into her stomach. So much for getting away from them. Now they'd make fun of her for playing chase with the boys instead of talking about designer shoes.
"Hey!" Lianni called. "Wait! We want to play."
Soran appeared beside Jaina. "You can't," he said. "No girls."
"She's playing." Devitha pointed at Jaina.
"She can run," Soren said.
Lianni shot Jaina a contemptuous look and leaned over to tell Devitha, "She's not really a girl, Devvy, you know that..."
Devitha giggled. Lianni turned a smile on Soren. "I can run. Come on, it'll be more fun with more people."
Jaina almost groaned. They weren't going to get rid of her. She would just stay here and keep trying to interfere.
"Hey, Lianni." Jacen had appeared at Jaina's other side. He didn't understand what was going on, exactly, Jaina knew. But he was on her side regardless.
Lianni gave Jacen a big smile, and Jaina would have sworn that she saw her eyelashes fluttering. "Hi Jacen."
Jaina could feel the devious calculation in Jacen's mind as he stepped forward and gave Lianni his best crooked smile. "I like your dress. It's very pretty."
Lianni blushed. "Thank you." She didn't mention any designer names this time.
"It'd be a real shame," Jacen continued, "if you got it dirty. I'd hate to see that."
He leaned in conspiratorially. "It's not really because you're girls. It's just that it's hard to run in a dress and not ruin it, you know?" There was a brief pause as he caught Jaina's suggestion. "That's what my Mom says," he added. "I think she's right, don't you?"
And somehow, Lianni didn't have a choice except to smile at Jacen and say "Yes" in a soft voice.
Jacen flashed her another grin. "You can be the one who gives the winner the medal when we're done."
Lianni nodded and smiled eagerly. "I'd love to."
"Great," Jacen said. "You can plan the ceremony. Come on, guys."
"What medal?" Soren asked when they were out of earshot.
"Oh, we'll just use a flower or something." Jacen shrugged.
"We're not even gonna have a winner," Gorrak pointed out. "That's not the point."
"I know that," Jacen said. "But it got her off our back, didn't it? Either we'll play until we have to go home, or we'll say that Jaina won it. She won't even want to do it then."
Jaina laughed. "Definitely not."
She couldn't believe how easily Jacen had convinced Lianni to leave them alone. And he hadn't even offended her in any way. She had smiled at him in return. Jaina knew perfectly well that Jacen had only been copying their father, but still, she couldn't believe that it had worked so well. It wouldn't have worked on her, that was for sure.
But then, she didn't spend all her time worrying about who had designed her shoes or giggling at Soren.
They played for a while longer, but after a while, the game wound down. Jaina made half-hearted grabs at Piovy and Jacen, they retreated just as half-heartedly, and Anakin sat down on a low wall around one of the flower beds.
"I don't want to play anymore," he said.
"Yeah," Soren said. "Let's do something else."
"Like what?" Gorrak asked. "I'm done running, just so you know." With a huff of breath, he sat on the wall beside Anakin.
"Me too," Jaina said.
They were sitting around discussing the next game when Lianni came to join them. "So who won?" she asked.
"Jaina," Soren said.
Lianni's eyes widened. "No way."
"Yeah way." Jacen jumped to his feet and plucked a bright red flower from the flowerbed beside Anakin and Gorrak. "Here's the medal."
Lianni held onto it. "Actually, I was thinking that Jaina ought to hand out the medals, you know? Like Princess Leia did at Yavin 4. But I suppose that she can't really give herself a medal, can she?"
"I can try," Jaina said.
"Here then." Lianni thrust the flower at her ungraciously. "Have fun. In the meantime—" she smiled at the boys, "—what are we going to play now?"
"We?" Jaina asked.
"Oh, I know," Lianni said. "Maybe Jaina could give us all some fashion tips. Where did you get that tunic, Jaina? It's so stylish."
"Yeah, I love it," Devitha added with a glint in her eye. "And you can't possibly ruin it by playing chase."
Lianni giggled. "So true."
Jaina's hands curled into fists. How did they manage to turn everything into an insult? And how did they manage to be so mean without anyone noticing? She could feel heat rising within her at the unfairness of it.
"I bet your mother is so happy to have such a stylish daughter," Devitha said, clearly getting a kick out of having made Lianni giggle.
"Oh, absolutely." Lianni nodded. "I know my Mom would be proud if I dressed so well and played with boys instead of behaving like the daughter of a princess."
The heat spread up to her head and into her hands, and Jaina had had enough. She really wanted to shove Lianni to the ground or use the Force to muss up her perfect hair, but she wasn't supposed to use the Force when her Uncle Luke wasn't around, and her mother always said that hitting was for when you'd run out of words.
Jaina hadn't run out of words. "Why don't you, then? Oh, wait, you're not the daughter of a princess. And y'know what my Mom says?" She took a step forward and smiled, a vicious smile that wasn't really a smile at all. "No amount of glitter and fancy designer clothes can make you a princess. Or even pretty. And I think your dress is the ugliest thing I've ever seen in my life."
It wasn't exactly true – the dress was pretty – and Jaina felt briefly guilty about lying, but then she saw that her words had hit Lianni, and the guilt vanished.
Lianni glared. "Is not! You don't know what you're talking about! Why are you so rude?"
"Why are you so rude?" Jaina mimicked in the whiny voice that her Dad sometimes used to make fun of her Mom's colleagues. She knew that she was being mean. But Lianni had started it, and Jaina could out-mean her any day. "Why are you mad at me? It's not my fault you're so ugly."
Lianni shrieked and lunged forward, catching Jaina's arm with her left hand and clawed at her shoulder with the right one. Jaina reacted without thinking; she ripped her arm free and landed a punch on Lianni's chest. The black-haired girl screamed with pain and tried to hit back, but Jaina ducked out of the way and gave her a shove. Devitha was screaming now, too, trying to tug Jaina away. But Jaina was stronger.
She shook off Devitha and kicked at Lianni's legs, getting another howl of pain. Her parents' advice echoed through her head as she fought – aim for shins and arms, never hit someone's head, don't scratch or bite. Lianni fought mean; she caught hold of Jaina's braid and tugged, and Jaina reached up to grab her hand and prise it away. When that didn't work, she caught one of Lianni's curls and yanked.
Lianni screamed and let go, and with a final push, Jaina threw her to the ground. She drew herself up and glared down at the older girl, catching her breath.
"You hurt me! I'm telling!" Lianni yelled. Jaina noted with no small amount of satisfaction that there were tears running down Lianni's face, and her hair was no longer neat and glossy.
"Go ahead!" Jaina yelled back. "And I'll tell them who started it!"
She heard a roar and a worried female voice, and then Chewbacca was there, followed closely by two of the nannies who'd been sitting some distance away.
Lianni was crying loudly now, sobbing as she sat on the ground. Devitha crouched beside her, comforting her and directing the occasional glare up at Jaina. Jaina turned away. It didn't matter who had started it, she knew. She'd done her part to provoke the fight in the first place. She braced herself for the trouble she was going to be in.
Leia hurried along the path that led from the reception area to the plaza where the kids had been playing, vaguely proud that even without running, she was several steps ahead of the others already. All except Han, of course; the only reason why he was striding along beside her was that she'd held onto his hand, firmly, to prevent him from running off towards the sound of their daughter's voice.
Chewbacca was there already, crouched down before Jaina, making sure she was okay. Jacen stood beside his sister, holding her hand. Behind them, Leia made out two of the other children – Lianni and Devitha – on the ground. Lianni was crying her eyes out, clutching Devitha's hand, one of the nannies tending to her.
"Jaina!" Leia called. "Are you okay?"
Her daughter turned. Her face was flushed, and her eyes glinted with a mix of triumph and defiance, as well as a hint of fear. Her hand tightened around Jacen's, and he leaned a bit closer. It always tore at Leia's heart to see either of the twins like this, automatically reaching out to the other for comfort and knowing that they would get it.
Jaina nodded. "I'm fine."
"What happened?" Han's question was directed at Jaina, but it was Jacen who answered.
"She fought with Lianni!" he said.
"She started it!" Lianni wailed from behind her. "She was so mean, and then she hit me!"
"I didn't!" Jaina yelled back. "Not until you did!"
"Shhh, sweetie." Leia reached out to put a hand on Jaina's shoulder and cast a worried glance at the nanny who was now tending to Lianni. "Is she all right?"
The woman nodded. "There might be a bruise or two, but it's not bad."
At that, Lianni screamed. "Bruises?!"
Leia suppressed a sigh, memories rushing back to her. Growing up at the Alderaanian court, she'd known several girls like Lianni, and if it were up to her, she'd have turned and gone back to the reception and let the kids work it out. But Lianni's father was an important person at this meeting. She doubted anyone would see it as more than a childrens' spat, but she also knew that she'd have to deal with it.
"What's going on?" a female voice demanded, and Leia turned to see Lianni's mother Ovania heading for them. She was a tall woman, expensively dressed in the height of fashion, and put her hand to her mouth when she saw her daughter on the ground, face tear-streaked and hair mussed. "Oh, sweetie!"
"Momma!" Lianni cried, and reached out to be enveloped in her mother's arms. "Jaina Solo beat me up!"
"Oh, honey." Ovania rocked her daughter, and for all that Lianni wasn't really hurt, Leia understood her. Had it been Jaina, she supposed, she would have reacted the same way.
Not that Jaina had ever stayed weeping on the ground after being beaten up.
Ovania stroked some hair out of her daughter's face. "Why did Jaina hit you?"
"I dunno." Lianni sniffed. "We were just talking. I think—" she gulped down some air "—maybe she was jealous of my dress."
"I think so too," Devitha said; the girl was crouching down beside Lianni, one arm around her friend.
"That's not true!" Jaina burst out, shaking off Leia's hand and tugging her own hand free of Jacen's. "You hit me first! Everyone saw it!"
"She did." One of the other boys had appeared on the other side of Lianni, one hand trying to pat down his wild blond hair, the other shoved in his pocket. "Lianni started it."
Ovania smiled a tight smile that Leia knew all too well. "But Jaina isn't hurt, sweetie. If Lianni hit her, why isn't she hurt? It looks to me like—"
"Because I won!" Jaina burst out indignantly. "Because Lianni fights like a baby!"
There was a strangled snort from Han that told Leia he was trying very hard not to laugh. She glanced up at him. He was looking at Jaina, eyes filled with pride.
Leia shared it, but showing it would not help the situation any. She hunkered down and reached for her daughter's hand. "Why did you fight, Jaina?" she asked. "You know it's always better to solve these situations by talking."
Jaina came up to her and let out a sigh. "I know. And I did!" Tears shimmered at the corners of her eyes now, and Leia could see her battling them. "I guess I provoked her a little. But she started it, Mom. She kept saying all this stuff. She said I'm not like you, and you'd prefer if I was—"
Leia shook her head, her daughter's desolation tugging at her heart. "That's not true," she said, tugging Jaina closer. "You're my favourite little girl, and I wouldn't change you for anyone in the world."
"Me too." Han reached down to ruffle Jaina's hair. "Besides, I've always been glad that you take after your Mom."
Jaina pulled away from Leia to look up at him. "But everyone says I take after you."
"In some ways." Han grinned. "I've never been half as pretty, you know. Or half as good with words. You must've given her a hell of a tongue-lashing to make her hit you. And everyone knows your Mom is the expert at that kind of thing."
A smile crept into the corner of Jaina's mouth. "Yeah, I guess. But I didn't provoke her just because, you know. She did start it. It doesn't sound like it, and you can't prove it, but..." She trailed off, helpless.
"Lianni's kinda mean," Jacen spoke up. "But you can't really – I mean, you'd never know, only she feels kinda mean. She never really says anything really mean."
Jaina nodded. "She says something that sounds nice, but it means something really nasty."
"Kinda like the people at your work, Mom."
That, combined with Jacen's earnestness as he said it, made Han lose the battle with his self-control, and he had to turn away from Ovania to hide his laughter. Only years of political training enabled Leia to keep the smile off her own face. "Believe it or not, I understand," she said. She looked at her daughter. "And I know it's difficult to deal with people like that. But fighting isn't the way."
"I couldn't let her beat me up!" Jaina exclaimed.
Leia hesitated and wished, just for a moment, that Luke were here. She knew the Jedi stance on provoking someone into an attack. She didn't know how it applied to children, or how it applied to situations where the provocation itself had been provoked. The way of the Jedi was serenity, she knew. The way of the Jedi was not to allow yourself to be provoked.
It seemed like a lot to demand of an eight-year-old. It was more than Leia herself managed at times.
"So you did what?" Han asked.
"I hit her and shoved her away," Jaina said. "And she pulled my hair, so I pulled hers until she stopped, and then I shoved her again, and she gave up."
Han grinned and reached out to ruffle her hair. "Good girl. That's exactly it. If you gotta fight, you fight until they leave you alone, and then you stop and walk away."
He was right, of course, and his words lifted a weight from Leia's heart. It wasn't serenity, perhaps, but it was revenge or aggression either. She would talk it over with Luke, and she would talk to Jaina about finding ways to avoid this situation in the future, but for now, it was enough.
"I know I shouldn't have got mad," Jaina said. "But I did."
"I would have, too." Leia gave her daughter a reassuring smile and a hug. "Everyone gets mad sometimes. It's how we handle it that's important. I'm proud of you, you know."
Jaina's eyes widened. "I'm not in trouble?"
Leia shook her head. "But you'll have to make up with Lianni."
Jaina opened her mouth to argue, but then she glanced at Jacen and her eyes got that spark that Leia swore the kids had all inherited from Han. "Do I have to really mean it?"
Leia raised her eyebrows, then she shrugged. "It's up to you how you sort it out."
Jaina and Jacen exchanged another look, and Jacen nodded and stayed put as Jaina marched over to where Lianni now stood, righteously upset, while her mother fixed her hair.
"I'm so sorry for hitting you, Lianni," Jaina said, her expression apologetic and as un-Jaina-like as Leia had ever seen it. "And I'm sorry for what I said about your dress. I think it's really pretty. Can't we be friends again?"
Confronted with Jaina's wide-eyed earnestness, and with her mother watching, Lianni had no choice but to say "yes" and grasp Jaina's proffered hand.
Han whistled under his breath. "That was pretty good."
Leia agreed, but then cast a glance down at Jacen, who was watching his sister with a devious grin on his face, and knew where the sudden change in Jaina's behaviour had come from. The twins learned differently but together, each pulling the other up as they learned something new. It never ceased to amaze her.
They left the kids to play after that, returning to the reception to soothe any remaining bad feelings with glimmerwine and dessert. Later, when they'd rounded up the kids and were heading home, Jaina said, "I taught Lianni how to do an Alderaanian braid. Can you believe she didn't know how to do that?"
"She's not very good at it," Anakin said. He was draped over Chewbacca's arm, head nestled against the Wookiee's chest. He'd turned seven recently, but apparently, that was still not too old to be carried home when he was tired. Anakin had always liked to be carried. "Yours looked way better."
"It's in the genes," Leia said, smiling at Jaina. "We Organa girls are good at braiding. Right?"
Jaina grinned. "Right." She slipped her hand into Han's. "And guess what? I almost beat Soren in a race!"
"Wow!" Han said. "You've had a busy day, huh? I bet you're tired now."
Jaina looked up at him, immediately suspicious of where that conversation was leading. "No..."
"I bet you're half-asleep already," Han said.
Jaina giggled. "No!"
Han grinned and looked over at Jacen. "How about you, Junior?"
"No!" Jacen took Han's other hand. "I'm even less tired than Jaina. I didn't have to race anyone."
"But you played more chase than me!" Jaina said immediately.
"Well, how about we fix that then?" Han asked before they could start arguing. "I'll race you home, Jacen. And Jaina, you can chase us both."
"No, I wanna race, too!"
"Okay, then. Get ready."
Anakin struggled in Chewbacca's arms. "Race," he said. "Let me down, Chewie!"
Leia exchanged a glance with Han, smiling, as the kids lined up to either side of him. One of their unwritten rules was to try to tire the children out before they got home in the evenings; it usually made getting them into bed a little bit easier.
"Ready," she commanded, watching them shuffle into line and ball their fists. "Set. Go!"
Chewbacca chuffed softly beside her as they watched Han and his kids take off down the path towards the apartment. Leia smiled up at him. "I know. It was a good save. He's not nearly as bad at diplomacy as he likes to pretend."
Chewbacca growled speculatively as the racers disappeared from view.
Leia chuckled. "Of course he's going to lose."