For the second time in less than a standard day, I had woken up, unable to be certain that I hadn't dreamed what had happened to me mere hours earlier.

The sun had already set, but only just, and my mom was already at my side again, waiting on me to wake. I was startled at first, afraid what she would think if she saw Cordira laying in bed beside me, but...Cordira was gone, and I quickly determined that Mom hadn't even known.

"Are you still hurting?"

She must have mistaken my bewildered expression for pain. I shook my head. "No, I, uh..." I scrambled for some explanation she'd accept. "I just...hadn't intended to sleep for so long."

She nodded understandingly. "Your father spent more than four months working up the strength to stand again after what had happened to him. You only had it for a very short time, but...it takes a lot out of you, I know."

She smiled as I sat up in bed, but it fell when I began looking around the room. She knew who I was trying to find, and I still feel the same hole in my heart being ripped open every time I remember her words.

"Cordira's gone. The Jedi assigned the Natiyrs to an extended mission...and they took her with them."

At first, I was angry - no, furious - that she hadn't said goodbye. I was angry for a long time, actually, probably for a good part of the first year, until I realized that I probably wouldn't have wanted to say goodbye, either. How much harder would that have made her departure? No, I had eventually convinced myself that it had been better that we had parted so...abruptly. Another difficult year went by, and I nearly became physically ill every time I thought of her, I missed her so fiercely. My parents had gotten messages from them from time to time, but they never contained much more than simple pleasantries, and it was as though they were intended for anyone to read...or intercept. Few details were known of their mission, and I knew even less. I had to assume by their messages that they were all still okay, but it became harder to maintain that optimism as even more time went by.

Four years, almost to the day since we had...kissed, since we had fallen asleep together on my bed, and not a day had gone by where I didn't once see her beautiful, serene face in my mind. Asleep on my shoulder, not a care in the universe though we both had just survived certain death...

I had been sitting on the balcony railing outside my room for hours, staring up at the clear, starry night sky in thought as I had countless times over the years. Every time a ship passed overhead or flew nearby, I imagined she was on it, finally returning home...even though I knew she wasn't. It wasn't that I was out of hope or that I cared for her less, but I had just accepted that I would have to be that much more patient, that I'd have to wait much longer than I wanted to before I'd see her again. I comforted myself with the thought that she was getting invaluable experience in the field with her Jedi Master parents, experience her younger twin sisters could only dream of while studying in the safety of the Jedi Academy.

...it was actually of little comfort to me, but I imagined it was what she wanted, and if it made her happy, then I could be happy for her.

The night's cold air was beginning to chill me to the bone, even though I was still wearing my heavy flight suit from training with the Edgepoint Squadron earlier in the evening. Despite knowing I wasn't about to get much sleep, I stepped back inside my room and closed the balcony doors, resting my hand on the frame briefly to gather my thoughts. If anyone could read what was in my head at that moment, I'm sure I would've seemed little less than pathetic: nineteen years old, a Rys'tihn Royal, one of Paneau's best pilots, but only focused on the woman I loved who I hadn't seen for almost four years... I would have dropped everything to go find her myself if I had to -

"...Derek?"

I whirled around so fast, I thought my head would snap off my neck. I stared in disbelief into the darkness of my room at a silhouette that was both familiar and foreign, and as she stepped closer to me, more moonlight shone off her face, and her hair...her unmistakable fire-red hair.

For four years I had dreamed of this moment, what I would say, what I would do...but I couldn't do anything besides stand there in stunned silence like a moron in front of her.

She stepped closer again, smiling shyly. "...I'm home." My reaction must've been easier to read than I thought. "We're home," she corrected herself quickly for me, still smiling. "My parents are downstairs. They didn't want to wake anyone since we got in so late. I hoped you would still be up, so I came to see you."

I hadn't taken a breath since recognizing her; I was too shocked to notice how much my lungs were burning for fresh air.

She seemed to take my silence for hesitance or anger, though. "Look, I know you must have a thousand questions for me, and...I'll be honest with you right now: I can't answer most of them." She was beginning to look nervous, but I still couldn't shake myself out of my stupor. "I'm sorry I left the way I did, but...I didn't have much of a choice, and it was better for both of us, as hard as it was to leave in the first place." Her eyes begged me to breathe, so I did. "Please...say something, anything. I thought you'd have plenty to say to me when I returned..."

I knew she probably wouldn't hear me, so I took a slow step closer to her, desperate to quell my shaking... "I missed you."

Her face lit up instantly, her gray eyes sparkling in the starlight filtering into my room from the balcony window behind me. "I missed you, too." She laughed after a moment, shaking her head. "I missed your jokes, mostly. Believe it or not, my parents' jokes couldn't quite measure up..."

I had to laugh, too. "I can't imagine they would." I was still so breathless and in complete denial. Was she really standing in front of me? Or was I dreaming? I looked her over, studying her lankier, leaner frame, and though she had a few new small scars on her face and she wore rugged yet form-fitting clothing, she was still nothing less than stunning. "You look...great."

Her genuine smile stole my breath again. "Thanks." She looked me up and down, too. "I like your suit. Let me guess...Edgepoints?"

I nodded with a shrug. "Who else? Like father, like son."

Grinning with sudden inspiration, she grabbed my hand and excitedly tugged me over to my bed, sitting me down on it as she sat beside me. "Tell me all about it. I want to hear your stories, everything I've missed!"

With her touch, I was starting to come to my senses, and once again, I struggled to come up with an answer. "Well, ah...I only just started training with them a few weeks ago, so...there's really not anything interesting to tell. I mean, of course," I eased a bit, grinning myself, "I'm showing them all up, but that's not a surprise, right?"

Unimpressed, she rolled her eyes with a laugh. "Not at all. I am surprised, however, that they haven't named you Commander yet."

Thankfully, the darkness of the room cloaked my blushing cheeks. "Maybe next week. But I don't want to talk about me... You're here now; tell me what you've been doing all this time. It has to be way more exciting than - "

"Derek," she shook her head, her expression falling. "I already said, I can't tell you much of anything... I just can't."

"I know," I reassured her quickly, hoping to keep her talking. "I know. So...be as generic as possible. Give me an outline, or a summary, paint a picture...just something."

She smelled just as appealing as I remembered, and we were even sitting in the same places we had been that night...that night only I seemed to remember. I watched her as she thought for a moment, still holding her hand between us. I wonder if she knew how much power she had over me... All she had to do was speak, and I was undeniably enchanted.

"Well, we...traveled a lot," she began with a shrug. "Places I've never seen or heard of. Honestly, I'm not even sure if most of those places have even been charted." She paused a moment, taking in a slow breath. "We were...busy, not much downtime, but...we were very, very alone. That was actually the hardest part of the mission, the isolation...at least it was for me. I can't speak for my parents, though; maybe they enjoyed it... I learned a lot from them, as much as I could. We completed our mission, we spent a few days on Coruscant debriefing the Jedi, and...then we came home."

I wanted to ask her a number of other questions as I studied the scars on her face, but I knew she had already told me what she could. "So...what now?"

She looked almost afraid to answer. "I...don't know. I'm sure my parents will want to visit my sisters soon... Actually," she continued with a darker tone to her voice, "I'm surprised we didn't stop there on our way here."

"No, I meant you. What are you going to do now?"

Though she at first remained timid, a small smile spread across her face. "Well, I have had quite a bit of time to think about it...and I think I know now." I arched my eyebrows, waiting anxiously, even moreso when her expression fell again. "Now, don't take this the wrong way. There's not a direct threat...right now, but I think it's time that King Verojec had a...a different kind of guard."

Without any context, I was more than a little confused. "A different guard?"

"Yes. I know his Scepter Guard is very well trained, and they've served him well, but... I've just had this...this feeling that he needs to have more protection."

"How would they be different?"

She examined my face for a long moment, apparently determining if she could trust me with the details of her plan. I tried to look as interested and as non-judgmental as I could.

"They would be...Force-sensitives."

I blinked. "Jedi."

"No," she corrected sternly, "not Jedi. Force adepts. They'd be trained as guards...with a few extra skills on the side."

As crazy as it seemed, I was actually already sold on it. I could only hope, though, that my mind was sound enough to have processed her proposal rationally.

"So...a new guard for the king." I released a long breath. "You'd train them, I assume?"

She nodded. "At least, the Force skills. You know I don't need a lightsaber to be...effective." I nodded, too. It was one of the many traits she had inherited from her mother, much to her dismay. Cordira shunned almost everything about herself that reminded her that she was a clone of her mother...except for her skills at weaponless combat, which still baffled me.

"And what would this new guard be called?"

She held my gaze a long silent moment, again gauging my reaction. "Verojec's Guard." She winced, seeming to have heard it aloud for the first time. "For now."

"Verojec's Guard," I repeated, nodding with approval. "It sounds...good."

Apparently, 'good' wasn't the reaction she was hoping to hear. She looked down at her lap, sighing heavily, hardly masking her exhaustion. I had to recover somehow.

"What can I do to help?"

Her expression brightened as she looked back up at me, even though she seemed unsure. "I don't know. I have to get approval first. If it gets that far...you could help me narrow down the recruits?"

"Whatever you need."

Again, her smile broadened, and she took in a long, deep breath as she glanced around my dark room absently for a few moments. "You have no idea how glad I am to be home..."

I doubt she knew how ironic that was. "I think I do."

Without warning, she fell backwards onto my bed, not even gently. Her fatigue seemed to have very suddenly caught up with her.

"Can I crash here?" she mumbled, almost half asleep already. "I really don't want to walk all the way down to my room... I have still got a room here, right?"

I grinned. "I could carry you."

I only heard a weak grunt with a negative tone before she reached up and grabbed my collar, forcefully tugging me down onto the bed beside her. I froze, unsure what she wanted, even as she rolled up onto her side and snuggled against me. Her head rested on my shoulder again, and once more, I was breathless.

"You need to sleep, too," she mumbled even less coherently. "I can feel it. You're tired."

"Okay," was all I could manage. She was comfortable and asleep on me within a matter of minutes, leaving me in a state of fear and disbelief. Would she still be there in the morning when I woke up, or would it have all just been a dream again? She had trusted me with a plan that was obviously very important to her, and it was as though we had picked up right where we left off four years ago. Was it weird that we hadn't noticed a change in each other? Or had we just mutually agreed to ignore the changes without knowing it? So many questions were still dashing through my mind, and though she was right, I was quite tired, I wasn't going to let her escape again.

As gently as I could, I reached over and picked up her hand, holding it against my chest. She was already so deeply asleep, she didn't stir, so I felt reasonably sure I could whisper without waking her.

"...I love you, Cordira Natiyr. I always have."

Again, she remained asleep, and content as I hadn't been in years, I felt a sense of peace wash over me; I eventually gave into sleep, too.