Paneau, capital city of Dalon
New Dalon Palace
Thankfully the secret alcove that Cordira sought refuge in was darkened and vacant, well removed from the bustling activity of the Grand Ballroom nearby. For some reason, the solitude offered her the peace she needed to process her feelings once more.
It had only been a few short minutes since she had left Derek behind on the main floor, but she was beginning to feel her anger subsiding with each passing second. Not only could she see herself having done the exact same to him had she been in his shoes, but she practically already had. They had spent several days together since returning home from Coruscant, but she had yet to tell him about her...condition. She knew that her time was limited to days, maybe months before she would no longer be able to function, but she found herself utterly incapable of telling her best friend, the one person who would do anything to support her and help her. How could she tell him, when she knew full well there wasn't anything he could do to save her and she would have to explain that to him? There was no way he'd accept that he could only sit back and watch her die over the next year, so when was she supposed to bring it up? Once she could no longer distract him or disguise her poor health? Wouldn't he resent her even more for not confiding in him something so important and so dire?
Conflicted but regretting the way she had just treated him, Cordira sighed heavily. Tonight was not the right time to tell him, she decided, but she shouldn't have reacted so harshly to the news he had withheld from her. She owed him an apology at the very least, and although she couldn't share her own secret, she couldn't stand to remain angry at him any longer. Aware of her surroundings once again after her lengthy reverie, she sensed that she was no longer alone, and she turned around to meet a familiar face she was hoping to see. He had followed her from the ballroom, but she gave him a small smile as their gazes met again.
He was even more handsome up close than she had prepared herself for, with well-kept dark brown hair and crisp, soulful hazel eyes that were locked with hers. His New Republic uniform was tidy and as impressive as she remembered seeing on Coruscant, the white jacket boldly pronounced even in the dim light. He seemed momentarily stunned before he finally stumbled over his words, appearing to be somewhat out of his element. Surely the debonair pilot wasn't nervous, was he?
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
She had to control her growing smile. "It's alright. You didn't." When he remained silent, she continued. "I just stepped over here to escape for a quiet moment...but I don't mind the company."
His expression was so perplexed, as if he were desperate to solve a riddle and not yet willing to give in and ask for a clue. She let a coy smile play on her lips. "...you don't remember me, do you?"
"I should," he blurted guiltily, though instantly regretting it. "I mean, I do, I'm just... I know we've met before, but I'm having a hard time placing where. You're Coruscanti? So, did we...train together for the New Republic?"
She knew it was cruel, but she merely grinned while shaking her head; she was enjoying his flustered state a bit too much. He only looked more defeated.
"You'll have to forgive me, I'm usually really good with names and faces. It's so embarrassing, I don't know how I could have forgotten yours."
She had to laugh lightly. "Well, in your defense, Lieutenant Redgrave, it has been quite some time since we last saw each other, and I looked considerably different back then."
His brows furrowed tightly together, he remained so puzzled...
She had tortured him long enough. "I was perhaps only a few...hours old?"
An intensely contemplative expression rolled over his face before his eyes lit up in realization. "Cordira," he breathed with relief. "Of course, the Old Dalon Palace collapse..."
She nodded with a smile. "Your mother took care of me while my parents were a bit...busy."
"It can't have been that long. I spotted you from across the room and I immediately felt the connection. I'd recognize you anywhere."
She wasn't prepared to have to control her heart rate so soon as he stepped closer. "I think perhaps you merely noticed my hair, Lieutenant. It earns me a great deal of attention, whether I want it or not."
"Please," he whispered with anticipation, his eyes deeply locked with hers, "...call me Ethan."
"Commander Natiyr," a familiar, imposing voice broke into the room, reluctantly stealing her attention in such a quiet moment. "Is everything alright?"
She turned to see one of her Guards, armed and clad in their signature white uniform jacket with the indigo and gold stripe down the left, stepping toward her directly. Ethan reacted by leaning back as if intimidated, but Cordira brought a hand up to halt the Guard, shaking her head with a polite smile. "Yes, I'm fine, Collmes. Thank you. Please, return to the king."
Mildly surprised that she still retained such loyalty from her Guards she had trained, she released a slow breath as he finally nodded and returned to the Ball, though not before giving Ethan a hard glance. "Yes, Commander."
With a curious expression on his face, Ethan watched Collmes leave for a moment, but he returned to her looking more impressed than anything. She smiled meekly. "I'm sorry, I had forgotten how good he was at his job. He must have noticed how upset I was earlier."
But Ethan paid her apology no mind. "Commander, huh? I didn't know you were part of the Royal Forces here."
"My Guards are just one small group attached directly to the King. My rank isn't much more than a name. But you," she deflected his attention in earnest, "you're a pilot for a New Republic squadron. A lieutenant, even."
His broad, captivating smile was full of pride. "Rallye Three. And we Rallyes are here for as long as we need to be."
"If you and your Rallyes are half as good as you seem to think you are...then we may not need you for very long at all."
"Oh, come on, now," Ethan laughed, seeming to enjoy her tease. "You hardly even know us yet. Does our reputation already precede us wherever we go?"
She grinned playfully, retreating further into the room toward a window softly glowing with incoming starlight. "It doesn't have to. I know your type. You pilots are easy to predict." She faced him once more with triumph, resting back against the sill as he followed her. "Let me guess. You've got a close friend, a rival, a partner, and a leader who trusts you the most. You're the charismatic one."
Though he was determined to control his reaction, she could easily sense just how correct her read had been. "You may be right, but there's more to me than just being 'charismatic'. I'm also the best pilot in this squadron, maybe even in this entire sector right now. You'll see."
"Is that so?" she humored his assertion, withholding a laugh. "That's quite a statement, considering your company here, you know. You're flying...what, an old T-65?"
"An XJ, actually. It's faster, stronger, and even more impressive with my own mods, if I do say so myself. Except for one Recon-X, we Rallyes all fly XJs."
"I've never seen an XJ, at least, not in person. There were plenty of them buzzing around Coruscant while I was there, but I haven't yet been able to see one up close."
The sparkle of excitement in his eyes was impossible to ignore. "Want to?"
She had suddenly found it hard to breathe. "Right now? I...I'm not sure I should leave just yet..."
"Need to get back to your boyfriend?"
Her strength left her in a weak scoff. "He's not... We're not dating... Derek is...just a friend."
"Then let's go," he pleaded earnestly, extending his hand to take hers. "All the formal announcements and awards were finished a while ago. We won't miss anything important."
Had his invitation come at any other point in her life, she wouldn't have hesitated to decline, but despite herself, despite having been so heavily guarded for years, she was already so taken with him. She had used every Force power and technique in her arsenal to calm her feelings and keep her heart from racing, but to no avail. Feeling such a strong attraction was so foreign to her, yet the exhilaration was so enticing, so addicting, her hand moved to touch his without a second thought. He effortlessly lifted it to his lips with a soft kiss, and she knew she had to be visibly blushing. If he had noticed, though, she couldn't tell, as his eyes hadn't yet parted from hers.
He seemed equally as thrilled as he swiftly led her away through the halls, just as interested as she in not being noticed in their departure as he clasped tightly to her hand. "There's a landspeeder just behind the Palace that we can take."
Her stomach sank the slightest bit. "You planned this? Or are we going to steal some royal official's speeder?"
His grin was just mischievous enough to settle her concern. "Don't worry, we're only going to...borrow it for a while. My brother can find his own way home just fine."
She had to laugh to herself. At least she wasn't the only one abandoning family for the evening.
"These sublight engines have such amazing acceleration, I've heard..."
As Cordira scoured intently over the exterior of his X-Wing in the Mazari Hangar, Ethan followed patiently behind her, answering every technical question she had asked. He honestly hadn't expected her to be so...learned.
"4j.4 fusial thrust," he responded, doing his own visual inspection out of well-trained habit. "The best the New Republic has to offer. I've been able to coax just a bit more power out of her than I should, but...don't tell my commander that."
She looked back at him with a challenging grin, as if daring him to prove it, and he couldn't resist the urge to oblige. Stepping even closer to her, he took her hand gently and held it against the cool durasteel plating, just over a small irregularity in the curve of the engine. He could feel her eyes watching him warily, but he reveled in the attention. "Feel that? I was running a training mission through an old asteroid mine shaft when a grav-loader failed and dumped its payload right in front of me. I was punching and killing the thrust so much to navigate through it, I damn near blew out these engines just to survive. This one choked with exhaust backup and threatened to buckle completely, but one last hard burn got me out of the mine and back into open space...in record time. My squadmates haven't managed to come anywhere near the pace I set, and that was almost three years ago. A couple of them still hold a grudge for it, too."
"A grudge against you?" she teased. "I can't imagine."
"It's not my fault the New Republic gave the best ship to one of their best pilots."
"Sounds to me like you were lucky, and you continue to be if you've been flying with these engines for three years."
He gave her a sideways grin. "I don't believe in luck. I keep my ship in excellent condition, and my hunk-of-grease astromech Zip likes to think that he contributes."
"Are you always so certain that you are solely responsible for your achievements?"
Still pressing her hand against his ship, he curled his fingers around her palm tightly. "I think I've done pretty well for myself so far."
Her slate gray eyes were practically glowing with anticipation as she stood there motionless, enchanting him further. He waited but a moment longer before he leaned into her with a sweet, effortless kiss, bringing his free hand up to the base of her neck. She gave back so gently, he was afraid he had been too forward, but when she pulled away after a long moment, she was breathless. Her long, fire-red hair framed her face so perfectly as she studied him in silence, he remained mesmerized until she finally spoke.
"You know, I am very well aware of your...history...with other women, Ethan."
He couldn't help but smile with an arched brow. "And yet you still agreed to come with me when I asked."
"A moment of weakness."
He leaned in once more. "Just one?"
"I've been known to repeat my mistakes..."
With her invitation, he swept her up into another delicate kiss, feeling time slip away and stand still simultaneously in her embrace. It was already well into the night and he was to report for duty first thing in the morning, but he didn't care at all.
"Ethan! Ethan Redgrave! You are damn lucky I don't feel like reporting you again!"
Pallas Jax pounded her fist on the apartment door repeatedly, beyond frustrated that their new assignment was going to start just like all the others. Some of her fellow Rallyes continued to envy her for being partnered with him, but she swore up and down that a pet rancor was easier to look after. None of them believed her.
"You had better be ready to go in three blasted minutes, or I'll - "
Before she could finish her threat, the door opened as Ethan reached up to intercept her swinging fist, catching her off guard. She back pedaled as he stepped out to join her, fully dressed and even clean shaven, but with his finger pressed against his lips to quiet her, she stole a quick glance inside before he had the chance to close the door.
"Are you serious?" she demanded incredulously, having spotted what he was desperate to hide as the door sealed shut behind him. "That redhead? Are you out of your mi- "
"Pallas, please," he begged in a hushed voice. "She's still sleeping."
"I don't care! Ethan, we are starting an important mission of uncertain length, on our own homeplanet! Do you ever stop to think that your actions may have lasting consequences? Consequences that we all have to live with?"
Having spotted the taxi speeder that had brought her to his apartment, Ethan walked away, accustomed to her tirades. "It'll be fine, Pallas."
"Right, fine," she fumed as they climbed into the speeder. "When Tidu notices that you weren't at the barracks with the rest of us last night, I am not going to defend you. Don't even think about feeding me some cooked up excuse to get you out of another reprimand. I won't do it."
He remained frustratingly calm against her anger. "I wouldn't ask you to lie for me."
"So what have all the past 'excuses' been? They certainly weren't the truth."
He even had the gall to grin. "They were...plausible fictions."
"You are unbelievable."
The journey back to the Royal Forces Security Complex was tensely quiet, and though she sat in a huff with her arms tightly crossed over her chest, she stole furtive glances at her partner. She couldn't help but notice that, despite the fury she had leveled at him, he still looked so damn...happy. It wore away at her ire as the minutes passed, and finally, her curiosity got the better of her.
"...what's her name?"
He stared off into the distance with a small smile. "Cordira."
A strange expression must have formed on her face; it pulled his attention back to her. "What?"
"My cousins grew up with the Natiyrs."
"You're related to the Rys'tihns?"
She shrugged. "Distantly. High Commander Rys'tihn's mother was a Jax, and my father and he were good friends."
"So that's why you act the way you do. You wish you were Paneau Royalty like me, like Tegg and Malix."
Her frustration returned in earnest. "That has nothing to do with it. I act the way I do because I'm your partner, and we're supposed to have each other's backs. I never know if you're going to make it to morning call because you've been out the night before with the spice of the week, and no one knows where you are."
"I wouldn't have been late, but you found me, anyway."
"Yeah, because your brother told me where you'd gone! We're going to be lucky to make it back before the rest of the squad wakes up, Ethan. And if they start asking questions...you're on your own."
As the speeder reached the complex's main entry, Pallas and Ethan climbed out, headed inside in tandem before Ethan reached out to stop her, turning her to face him.
"Pallas...I'm sorry. It won't happen again, I promise."
She narrowed her eyes to study his face, unsure if he were truly sincere. He hadn't made such an assurance after his previous offenses, but something in his tone finally forced her to accept it with a reluctant sigh.
"Fine. Just be sure to wipe that grin off your face. We have some pirates to hunt."