Disclaimer - Lucasfilm owns the characters in the Star Wars Universe. I am not making an imperial credit out of any of them.

I would like to thank Mona for her dedication and diligence in tidying up my grammar, pointing out the holes in my plots and generally helping with ideas when I am stuck.

Any comments would be more than welcome. Please E-mail me and let me know.

ashontatooine@btopenworld.com

SPIRIT OF THE SHIFTING SANDS

The sand blew over the restless dunes and time was ever unchanging in the hostile environment. Tatooine was and is a place of strange half-truths and illusions. During the time of the storms the natives say if you looked very hard you can see the souls of all the people lost in the vast desert. If you look even harder you could see those that were still alive.

CHAPTER ONE

Tatooine

Mara Jade pulled the skimpy top down over her curvaceous figure as she hid behind the pillar. At nineteen, she had to be one of the most beautiful things ever to grace the chambers of the B'omarr Monastery, lair of the notorious gangster Jabba the Hutt. The combination of face and figure was alluring to most humanoid species and, of course to the Hutt. Then there was her hair, a shade so unusual it instantly made you notice the girl to whom it belonged. Mara couldn't remember where she had come from, but perhaps one of her parents had lustrous thick red-gold hair.

"Greeting Exalted One......"

The holo played itself out and Jabba laughed with his cronies and dismissed it.

Mara shrank into one of the corridors and made for the small cell that doubled as her room. She was supposed to be dancing with the rest of the troupe, but she needed to clear her mind of all distractions and think - really think.

"That was the rebel Skywalker," she said aloud. Her mouth firmed and green eyes narrowed with deadly intent. Skywalker. The name conjured up in her so many feelings of repugnance. He was said to be one of the rebel leaders and a traitor to the Empire. She'd read the complete dossier, which the Empire had compiled about the young man and it was sketchy to say the least. He'd come from nowhere, an unimportant boy this rebel traitor, apart from two things which had been discovered about him. He was said to be the pilot who had blown up the Death Star and he was probably Force strong. She gripped her tiny blaster; he would die for his many treacherous atrocities. Her master had willed it and Mara was his loyal servant. She was the Emperor's Hand.

The following day she stood, head bowed in front of her temporary master, fuming as events took off without her. Things had suddenly moved beyond her control. This, Mara Jade did not like. She was always in control, but there was something else at work here and she definitely didn't like it. First the holo-message from Skywalker, then the arrival of the Wookiee, Chewbacca, and finally the unmasking of the rebel Princess as she tried to rescue the smuggler. How could the Princess Leia Organa, last survivor of the Royal House of Alderaan, have stooped as low as this? When Jabba had tipped Skywalker into the Rancor pit Mara had expected him to die but somehow, miraculously, he had survived. She knew then that the Emperor had been right. This boy was no ordinary one - the Force ran strong in him. Pleading with all the skill she had at her disposal Mara had begged the Hutt to let her travel on the sail barge. She even used the Force to sway his decision, but to no avail. Jabba took instead the captive Princess Leia Organa. Skywalker was her closest friend and Solo, it was rumoured, was her lover. Mara knew then that she had failed. She and the Hutt had both underestimated the young Jedi. Somehow he was controlling all of them and Mara had seen it too late. She knew it and if she did then her master, Emperor Palpatine, knew it for she could hide little from him. She had failed.

Luke Skywalker, blond, blue eyed and aged in his very early twenties had come wide-eyed from this miserable backwater dump of a planet it was supposed and he'd become a Jedi. She snorted disdainfully. There were no Jedi left to train him, so how could he have trained himself? Skywalker appeared wet behind the ears, a raw unchallenged youth. This looked as if it was going to be easy, but Mara Jade was no fool and took stock of the situation. Promptings from within her made her question her opinion. Something told her that this boy... No. He wasn't a boy now - there was a maturity and strength of purpose behind those clear blue eyes, despite his apparent youth. This young man then, for he was indeed dangerous if he had received Jedi training, could and did act as a symbol for the rest of the traitorous rebels. Mara suspected that Palpatine feared him and that was enough to make anyone stop and take notice. Palpatine feared nothing and no-one. For the first time in her service to her Master, Mara wondered if he had made a mistake and hoped it would not prove too costly. For all of them.

Coruscant - Spaceport

Mara bolted upright in her bed aboard the Jade's Fire. Wiping the perspiration from her very clammy forehead she arose and padded silently to the fresher. Surveying her flushed face in the mirror, she groaned. It had to be the middle of the night and another one without sleep. A quick glance at the chrono on her wrist confirmed the fact. Why had it to be Skywalker who'd awoken her? She hadn't thought about the past in a long while until these dreams had begun. Her failure at Jabba the Hutt's palace had happened over ten years ago and was best forgotten. Perhaps she still held a lingering resentment of Skywalker. She didn't know. But her feelings about him had changed over the years, gone through many different permutations. From scorn and disdain to hate and confusion and now.... She just didn't know what she felt about him, or what she wanted to feel. Mara gazed into her own green eyes, her expression troubled. Why was she remembering a time she longed to forget, one that was dead and buried and especially at this hour in the morning? Why was she thinking of Luke Skywalker at all when she continually tried to bury his image to the deepest recesses of her mind? This man she'd wanted to kill in service to the only man she'd ever trusted. She grimaced at her tired reflection in the mirror. She'd sure got it the wrong way round.

Mara turned from the mirror and padded silently to the galley. Perhaps a hot chocolate would help her sleep the rest of the night. How Karrde and the others would laugh if they knew of her predilection for the drink. But it was soothing and it tasted good. Skywalker had introduced her to it. She smiled suddenly. Him again - at least he was good for something other than arguing with. Or trying to ignore as he tried to make her do something she knew she should do, but didn't want anyone telling her she should do. Least of all Skywalker. Did she still hold a lingering resentment of him? She didn't know. Anyway she hadn't seen him for nearly a year.

'Surely not,' she told herself. 'It can't possibly have been all that time.' She stopped, the cup of chocolate almost to her lips. 'No I saw him only… only a… No I didn't. I haven't seen him in nearly a year. Moving slowly towards her cabin she sipped at the drink and let the warm, rich flavour soothe her troubled mind. She climbed back into bed, suddenly and inexplicably sad.

Mara had been working on some trading project for her smuggler boss, Talon Karrde, when he'd requested her to visit Coruscant to deal with some matters of business. She arrived on the city planet and duly set up the trade deals and arranged to visit one of the annual business conferences that were being held. Mara hadn't planned being anywhere near the centre of power, but it happened that the trade fair was being held in the Imperial Banqueting halls. Karrde had, of late, been moving his position from that of smuggler to a more legitimate centre of operations and had been invited to participate in the conference. Mara had to give a speech on the way some of his new business practices were succeeding. So here she was, her red gold hair artfully arranged around her beautiful face. Her slim dancer's figure encased from head to toe in a formal dress of clinging back silk. No flesh was visible, but it left you in no doubt that she was a human female and a rather nicely packaged one at that. Mara caused quite a few hearts to speed up as she joined the socialising and business of the evening.

Disguising a yawn Mara headed towards the buffet table and selected something to eat.

"A drink, Trader Jade?"

"That would be most pleasant," she replied smoothly.

Mara balanced her drink on her plate and secured it with the Force. Skywalker would have a Jedi fit if he saw me using the force for such trivial means, but it sure helps to make sure that I don't spill this glass down some important personage's outfit. Skywalker. Her mind closed over the word. 'Look Mara,' she told herself. 'You're safe enough. Skywalker hasn't been off his jungle moon in a long time as he broods over the workings of the Force. Safe!' Why should she need to feel safe from him? They'd made their peace long ago - or had they? Her eyelids flickered momentarily and she stood in the lighted doorway, suddenly feeling restless and on edge.

Mara had often found his unwelcome image before her eyes, but recently he was there in her dreams constantly when she slept and she often thought about him in idle waking moments. The tenor of those dreams did not bear delving into too deeply. Mara Jade did not daydream and this was getting to her.

Imperial Palace - Coruscant

Luke arrived on Coruscant to celebrate the birthday of his twin niece and nephew. He'd missed so many of these. He also wanted to spend time with Leia and Han. For the first time in years he found himself unsure what to do next and he wanted to tell Leia of the decisions he had made. Something else drew him to Coruscant, but he hadn't worked out yet what it was. He didn't feel entirely happy there because all the evil committed on that world left an echo in his soul, but he needed to be with his family. The Force would let him know in time. He would trust its guidance.

When the Alliance had taken Coruscant the leadership had moved into the Imperial Palace. Luke didn't like the palace apart from one place - the old Imperial library. Luke worked at his desk in the private booth he'd been allotted. He genuinely loved this room, with its greel wood panels and stacks of real books and holodisks. It had an atmosphere of real reverence for learning. Luke didn't know that Palpatine hadn't liked this part of the library and had never used it, but it wouldn't have surprised him had he known. He switched off the luma at his workstation and rubbed his eyes tiredly. Hidden away in the corner of the library he was alone. No one ever used this particular desk, possibly because it was so out of the way. He smiled as he pictured Jacen and Jaina earlier at their birthday party. He'd played the fond uncle to perfection and, indeed, it was no part. They were beautiful children and strong in the Force. Leia and Han were lucky. He envied them their family life. If only...

He glanced at the documentation in front of him and switched the luma on again, but the words on the holobook danced in front of his eyes. He pushed his hand wearily through his hair and sighed. By the Force, he was tired. He got stiffly to his feet and, glancing at his wrist chrono, he winced. It was late - far too late - and he didn't feel so good. Wrapping his Jedi cloak around his shoulders, he switched the light off with the Force and noiselessly left the building. As he headed towards the internal palace transport system he passed the main reception rooms. Noise, light and chatter spilled in his direction. The sense of many people involved in dealing and information swapping, of high spirits, gaiety and celebration, all came bursting upon his tired senses. The sudden need for contact with another being, it didn't matter what race or creed, impinged upon him and he started towards the noise and light.

A couple of drunken Nikto traders lurched out of the main hall and Luke eyed them with amusement as they wobbled their merry way. Then he stiffened as his eyes and senses caught the vision and presence of a slim redhead standing alone in the lighted doorway. The phrase 'dressed to kill' ran quickly through his mind. It would be appropriate too, as the stunning woman was none other than Mara Jade. Once she had vowed to kill him, then had become a good friend. They had saved each other's lives on many occasions. Luke hadn't seen her in months; it might even be nearly a year. He stood rooted to the spot for a moment, then turned on his heel and headed towards the shuttle bay away from her all too disturbing presence. He couldn't even remember what they'd argued about. It could have been her refusal to finish her training, his to return to the real world, or her relationship with Lando. It could have been and probably was a combination of all three. They'd said things they shouldn't have and she'd left Yavin before he could apologise. Hell, he'd been sore at Callista deserting him, but not really surprised, and then Mara had deserted him too. It wasn't his entire fault. Mara had said things that she had no right to say and then left him. He hadn't realised that he still bore a grudge. Lando had not been the right man for her. It was just another thing that pulled her farther away from becoming a Jedi.

Mara didn't have the monopoly on a fiery temper. All the Jedi training hadn't rid him of his own imperfections. There was still much anger in him – like his father.

Inexplicable panic assailed his senses. He had to get out of there fast. She wouldn't want to see him. She hadn't even attempted to contact him in all that time. He'd tried once but she'd been away on a mission for Karrde and it had been with a certain amount of relief that he'd let it be. Almost running he swerved past the drunken Nikto and made it to the small shuttle station. She wouldn't want to see him. Besides, he didn't feel too good or look too good and he didn't want her to see him like that - not when she had looked so beautiful. He'd never thought of her as beautiful before - attractive and highly competent, but not beautiful. He stopped and gazed towards the small two-man shuttles as they hurtled into the bay. The Imperial palace was so vast that these small transport capsules were used by those with the proper clearance permits. Three small shuttles went past before Luke came to himself and climbed in, selecting his destination. Just as he was about to programme in his destination he closed his eyes in pain.

Mara.

Beautiful, deadly Mara Jade. The loss of their comradeship hadn't hit him until now. Something had indeed drawn him to Coruscant and that something was Mara. The Force was prompting him to effect reconciliation with her, but he hadn't quite prepared himself for the impact she would have upon his senses - the senses that had lain dormant since Callista had left. He'd thought at one time that he'd never feel anything for anyone again. He'd been hurt too many times. Callista's betrayal had been the final wire in the circuit.

Mara yawned, for once taking no pleasure in the gathering wheeling and dealing their way to more riches. It suddenly struck her as meaningless. She shifted her Force grip on her plate and wineglass and as she did so there was a rushing in her ears, a whispering in her senses that spoke of the Force at work around her. Mara reached out and touched power. There was only one man who had that kind of power - trained power. Not even Kyp Durron had that control and strength.

Luke.

Luke was here on Coruscant and he was very close. His presence moved away, almost running. She reached out again and this time, spoke in his mind.

'Luke! What are you doing here?'

She felt the shock, then the hesitation as he answered her. 'I could ask you the same question,' he replied warily.

'Where are you?'

Again there was the hesitation, the uncertainty, almost as if he didn't want to speak to her. 'I'm at shuttle station 5, Level D, Imperial Palace.'

So close, she thought. 'Stay there, I'll meet you.'

'Is that a good idea Jade?' Luke's voice was sardonic. 'After all we didn't part too well. I'll see you tomorrow. It will give me a chance to strengthen my hide. It took me a long time to take out all of your barbs. We can arrange a time when it would be convenient.'

'Like an interview,' she thought, 'between strangers.' 'Skywalker!' It was suddenly imperative that she met him now.

'Mara I don't want to argue with you. It's better perhaps if......'

'Skywalker!' she snapped. 'Shut up and stay there.'

"Leaving so soon Trader Jade?"

"Ah, yes. Something has come up that requires my personal attention," she returned smoothly. "A businesswoman such as myself cannot let opportunities slip away." She winked at the Duro and he nodded, a gleam entering his eye.

"I understand, of course Trader Jade. You have long been a credit to our calling."

Mara wrapped her velvet cloak around her shoulders. Why was Luke avoiding her? She hadn't seen him in ages she realised and she actually missed him. Not since.... Not since they'd had that big bitter argument on Yavin IV. It had started out as something so trivial. She couldn't remember the details clearly - her refusal to finish her training, his obstinacy in burying himself away and her fake relationship with Lando. She would have told him the truth about that if he'd asked, but he'd accused and lectured. She hadn't been aware how much she'd actually missed him. She swore silently to herself. Missed having someone to criticise and lecture her, more like. But that was unfair. He'd never criticised her - really. All he wanted for her was that she achieve her true potential within the force and take her proper place among the Jedi Knights. The place that Palpatine had ultimately denied her.

She saw him standing alone beside an open shuttle. 'He doesn't plan to stay long,' she thought shortly; he looked tired. She studied him carefully for a few moments. He was thinner, looking in need of a shave and a good haircut. His blue eyes were red-rimmed and watery and his face was white under his tan. He didn't look particularly healthy.

"Well Skywalker?" she said, raising a finely shaped eyebrow. "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes."

He glanced down at himself and winced a little. "I didn't think I would meet anyone at this hour who would care what I looked like." He sighed wearily. "Have you finished?"

"Finished what?"

"Analysing my person Mara. Listing my shortcomings. Whatever." Luke's voice sounded flat and cold.

She surveyed the Jedi coolly. "I might have."

Luke then stared at the former assassin properly for the first time. "You, on the other hand, look good Mistress Jade; very prosperous and elegant."

"Thank you," she returned composedly.

"Is there something you require? I don't know if my ego can stand a verbal slaughtering just now," he muttered. "I'm tired and as you rightly pointed out. I'm in need of a wash, a shave and a good rest." He lightly touched his words with sarcasm. "So if you've finished with the inspection I can go?"

'Boy,' she thought. 'Was he hostile or what!' "I.... I...." she floundered.

"It's ok. I'm sorry too."

"I wasn't apologising." She hissed back crossly.

This time Luke raised his eyebrows and a derisive expression flitted across his face. "Weren't you?"

Mara turned away, furious at his ability to read her so easily. Turning back towards him, she opened her mouth to goad him with a caustic comment, only to see that he was climbing back into the small shuttle.

"Skywalker!"

"I'm too tired to fight with you tonight Mara Jade and my patience has gone."

"Don't walk away from me while I'm speaking to you, Jedi, and patience has never been one of your virtues."

"Mara!" The word emerged from Luke as a husky plea for peace. "Just leave it. Us being here like this is inevitable, but I'm not up to dealing with it tonight." With that he dragged himself wearily into the shuttle. He'd gone.

"Skywalker!"

The light from the tail end of the tiny transporter winked as it disappeared down the tunnel. Mara stood and watched as it faded from view. He had seemed tired and depressed. An air of loneliness shrouded his compact form. For a moment Mara stood immobile, undecided on what to do; then she came to a decision and opened a channel on her comlink.

"Leia! Mara Jade here. What's up with Skywalker? I'm coming round to talk to you right now. He's not right."

Solo Apartment

Leia Organa-Solo stood with her comlink in her hand and stared at it fixedly, a bemused expression crossing her face. Han looked up at his wife from where he sprawled on a repulsor couch.

"What was that about?" he asked, only mildly interested. He hadn't heard the conversation, only watched as his wife opened and shut her mouth like a fish, without uttering a sound.

"Mara. That was Mara. She's coming round."

"Mm."

"Now."

"She never does waste time on unnecessary words. What does she want?"

"She's worried about Luke. Apparently she bumped into him this evening."

"Well," Han drawled. "What a coincidence. Is he to be worried over and since when was it her business?"

"I don't know. I get the feeling that Luke and Mara haven't been communicating much recently, but they've always had this strange relationship." Leia glanced thoughtfully towards her husband. "You know, I did think he was thinner, but he works too hard - he's obsessive about it."

Han opened his mouth to make a smart comment - then thought better of it and muttered lamely. "I think there's more to it than that but he's your brother."

"He could move to Coruscant now that the Academy is firmly established. We could use him here in the Senate. I'm involved in talks just now that will guarantee his place as a Jedi adviser to the Inner Council."

Han winced slightly, but Leia didn't notice.

"Uh... Sweetheart I don't think he's ready..." His voice tailed off.

"Luke is finally allowing himself to grieve for Callista and it's hard for him. Even when Gaeriel died he found this reserve from somewhere. Grieving is part of the healing process. I, of all people, know that." Her mouth trembled just a little and Han knew she thought of Alderaan.

"Come here Princess." He patted the seat beside him and she allowed herself to relax in his arms. "Luke is a law unto himself, but he is tired and working too hard. Hell, when was the last time he was here?"

The buzzer at the door sounded and Leia cocked a glance at Han. "She is determined," he muttered. "But we knew that."

"I'll go and arrange some refreshment, if you get Threepio to let her in."

"Whew!" Han whistled appreciatively at the glamorous picture Mara presented as she walked into the room. He had always thought her attractive, but hadn't grasped the full impact she could deliver. "They let you out in that dress Jade?"

"Can it Solo." But her green gaze held no overt threat. Mara Jade had mellowed. Oh she was still deadly, but the fire that had served Palpatine had largely been quenched.

Han considered the history and current career of the woman in front of him. She worked for the smuggler Talon Karrde as his second in command, but had helped the New Republic out on several missions. She held a fund of useful bits of Imperial information, which had proved to be invaluable over the years. Leia and Mara, although they couldn't be called friends, got on well together; especially since Mara no longer desired Luke's demise.

"Mara!" Leia glided into the room, serene in blue.

"Good evening Senator."

"Mara!" Leia's placid voice held a hint of a mild rebuke. "I thought we'd agreed to drop all this 'Senator' nonsense."

Mara smiled briefly and relaxed. "I do beg your pardon, Leia."

"That's better." Leia gestured to a seat and Mara sat down, smoothing her dress carefully over her hips.

"I've been to a trader's reception, that's why I'm dressed up like this. I'd rather be less formal, but Karrde insisted and as I'm representing the boss, I'd better do what he says."

Leia smiled. "I know the feeling Mara, but you look very beautiful this evening. "

Mara fidgeted in her seat self-consciously. Han smothered a quick grin.

"Successful?"

"Perhaps," she answered guardedly.

Han grinned openly at that. He knew the smuggler's ways.

Mara pushed a tendril of hair from her cheek and sat up straight in her chair. "Now!" she said firmly. "Skywalker; what's up with him?"

Leia blinked at the direct approach and wondered what to say. Why was Mara suddenly so interested in her brother's health?

"Quit stalling Leia. Do you or do you not know what's wrong with that brother of yours? I haven't seen him for a long time and tonight I unexpectedly bump into the man and he looks dreadful."

"To be honest Mara," Leia said slowly, "I don't really know. I've ideas, theories, but it's just supposition. I've hardly seen him this year - we've both been so busy. We talk weekly on the holonet, but it's not the same. Han saw him a few weeks back on Yavin, didn't you?" She glanced at Han. "You thought he had a lot on his mind." She looked down at the heavy fabric of her tunic. "He came to Coruscant to help celebrate the twins' birthday. He said since he'd missed so many he'd come to this one, but I never thought I'd actually see him here. It really made the day special for Jacen and Jaina."

"He's not still pining?" The scornful tone in Mara's voice drew an angry glare from Han. But Leia ignored the tone and considered the question seriously.

"No," she said thoughtfully. "I don't think he is." The Princess stared Mara straight in the eyes. "He's come home," she said simply. "The real Luke, the one who's been missing for a very long time, has come home. I think he has started the healing process and returned to be with his real family and friends. He'd cut himself off from us all emotionally and that must have been crippling for him, because he has the biggest heart in the galaxy. He's such an emotionally open person. Luke just gives and gives, but he gave too much. It must have been like losing his other hand. It's completely alien to Luke's nature to try not to feel and just get on with the daily business of living and teaching."

Han didn't have the Force, but the old smuggler's instinct had served him just as well on many an occasion. "Yeah, he is alone in many ways and I think he felt some of his friends had deserted him." He looked pointedly at Mara, who squirmed and flushed a little bit.

"We had a fight." she muttered towards the floor.

The Solo's gave each other a startled look and suddenly Han grinned.

"Ah. About what?" asked Leia inwardly smiling at Mara's discomfiture, but trying not to show it through the Force. Mara Jade still had the temper to go with the hair.

"I can't remember," she flared defensively. "Many things. It didn't start as anything, but blew up in our faces. We said too many hurtful things to each other - the kind of things you can't take back when you've said them. We created a tide of dark energy that Streen was still trying to remove from the atmosphere when I left. I was so angry and bitter, I just stormed out of the Jedi Academy and immediately left Yavin. I know I have a temper, but Luke was.... was just.... I don't know, unlike himself. It was awful. The vitriol that came from us both...." she concluded sadly.

"Mara, the woman he loved had walked out on him," Leia instructed gently. "Have you ever loved someone so much that to be without them is to be half alive."

"No, you know I haven't. But I don't think Luke loved Callista in that way. What you're talking about Leia, that depth of feeling belongs to you and Han." She glanced at Leia, her green eyes shadowed and wary. "Callista couldn't have loved him either to leave like that. She must have known what it would do to him."

Leia was speechless and looked towards Han for help. Han too was gazing at Mara trying to fathom out her last comment. Leia knew the woman was smart, but she was proving to be intuitive as well.

"If you think that way," she began a little stiffly. She'd grown genuinely fond of Callista while she'd been with Luke.

"No Leia!" Mara interrupted. "I don't mean that he didn't love her, he just didn't love her enough and in the right way and she didn't love him enough to accept her loss of the Force. She should have died with the 'Eye'. She didn't and left Luke an emotional coward."

Leia grimaced and tried to return to her earlier idea. "Mara, Luke is trying to find his way back to all of us and if you meet him half-way, he'll be there for you too. It's time to forget past words and move on."

"He hasn't been there for me in a long time, but I see what you mean," Mara replied softly. "I just don't know if I can."

Han gave Mara a perplexed look, and then nodded at Leia who continued.

"He's started to open up and to feel real emotions. Perhaps your fight was the catalyst. He's starting to hurt, finally experiencing the loss and the loneliness he should have done two, three years ago."

"But being Skywalker," Mara cut in. "He's still trying to keep going for everyone's sakes and save the whole galaxy." She pulled at a thread on her dress and then looked up at Leia, her eyes bright. "I wanted to make him so mad - throw things, whatever. Anything to get away from that maddening Jedi calm he'd adopted. Leia it was awful - he was awful. He started glacial and if anything got more so, before things got out of hand. He went still and then something burst inside him – he just exploded."

Leia nodded. "And we ended up with the shell of the Luke we know."

"And love," put in Han quietly to himself. He cleared his throat loudly. "We could all have helped him a little more."

Mara hunched her shoulders guiltily. "Would he have listened?" she shot at Han.

"No, probably not. He's a Skywalker for Sith's sake."

Leia intervened, always the diplomat. "We've all had our problems to work through. None of us have had easy lives, but we've survived this far. Luke will work things out in time."

Han rubbed the scar on his chin, as he often did when he was thinking. "Why don't you head to Yavin for a while and make your peace with the Jedi Master, or let him make his peace with you. Perhaps you should be the one to sink your pride. I don't think Luke will stay on Coruscant much longer. He's not overly fond of the place." Han wondered if his wife had remembered that fact about her brother. He knew Leia was planning things involving Luke and the Senate.

Mara threw them a look, but wisely said nothing.

"Think about it Jade," said Han. "You're Force strong too. Go to Luke on Yavin and complete the Jedi training. He's been harping on at you about it for years. He might get such a shock that he'll never mention it again."

"Cute Solo." she bit out.

Leia twirled a cord at her waist; on it hung her lightsaber. "I'm working on finishing mine very soon, if I can get the Senate to give me leave of absence. Luke has worked out a study programme for me on Coruscant, so when I have time I do a little work. What more would convince Luke that we care for him?" She fixed Mara with a very direct stare and the former Emperor's Hand could only sit and fume.

Han chuckled quietly. His wife was very astute - she'd got the picture, but had Mara? The force had obviously decided it was time for Mara to train.

"Why don't you stay here for a little while and persuade Luke to give you some training here on Coruscant, then you can be near your business contacts too." Leia suggested evenly

"I don't know if it'll work." Mara shrugged vaguely.

"You won't know unless you try."

Luke's Coruscant Apartment

Luke Skywalker sneezed. He'd known he was coming down with something, but a cold? Wonderful. Just about the only thing bacta wouldn't cure. He peered in the mirror at his red-rimmed eyes and came to the conclusion that he looked hellish. Artoo beeped anxiously. "It's ok Artoo, I just need a couple of days in bed without anybody wanting me to save the universe." He smiled wearily at his own comment and steered his favourite repulsor chair back through to his sleeping chamber. Climbing into bed, he grinned at the thought of actually enjoying an illness in peace and quiet. The local clinic would send round the latest in pills and he would take them and sleep. What a luxury. He settled down and drew the covers up to his chin and resolutely closed his eyes. His last thought was of a slim redhead standing in a lighted doorway, every curve outlined in black silk. He chuckled. Rather an erotic thought for a Jedi Master to be having, even if he was feverish. Were Jedi Masters allowed to have such thoughts?

Luke awoke a few hours later to the feel of a cool slim hand touching his forehead. "Eh! What!" He coughed hoarsely.

"My, my Skywalker. I've seen you look better."

He opened bleary eyes to peer at the sardonic expression on the face of Mara Jade 'I'm dreaming,' he thought as he gazed at the vision in black silk, but she glared at him and he had to conclude that this was reality. Mara sat on the edge of his bed and gingerly helped him lift his head.

"Here," her voice softened a little. "Drink this. It's the curative the clinic sent over."

"How did you get in?" His voice emerged hoarse.

Mara jerked her red-gold head in Artoo's direction.

Luke coughed painfully. "He did?"

The little droid rotated his head and let out a series of high-pitched warblings. Mara shrugged. "I was passing and there was a courier from a medical centre buzzing at your door and no answer. All I could hear was Artoo sounding more and more frantic. What kind of lock did you have on it? Don't answer that, probably some Jedi thing. I still know one or two Imperial tricks round here and with Artoo's help relieved the courier of the package and let myself into your apartment."

Luke swallowed the draft she gave him and sank back on the pillows. "I'll be fine in a day or so. I just need peace. I told you...."

"What you need, Skywalker, is to sleep. Leia will be in to check on you later." She brushed his fair hair back from his forehead with a surprisingly gentle hand and bent awkwardly to kiss him on the cheek.

Luke stared at her amazed at the unexpected contact. "Why?"

"You helped me many years ago. I guess it's my turn and I wanted to say I was sorry."

"It doesn't matter," he rasped.

"Yes it does. But you're in no shape to debate the issue. Now put yourself in a healing trance for a couple of hours and the Senator will come and force feed you your pills then."

"Mara! Will I see you before you leave."

"That depends on how quick you recover farmboy."

He chuckled gruffly, then laid back his head on the pillow. "Oh by the way Jade...."

"Skywalker!" she threatened warningly.

"I only wanted to say that dress isn't good for my heart." He attempted an admiring whistle, but fell back on his pillows limply.

"Sleep Skywalker, or I may be tempted to dispatch you more permanently." She gazed at him her green eyes troubled as he finally gave in and slept. There wasn't any point in going back to the reception. Why Karrde even wanted her there in the first place was beyond her at this moment. Luke needed her and that was enough. She flicked open her comlink and spoke urgently. "Leia! It's Mara Jade. Your brother is sick. Oh don't worry," she put in testily at his twin's anxious squawkings at the other end. "It's a cold, but he's rather run down, so he's looking and feeling rough. Could you come and do the next feed?" Mara smiled to herself. Skywalker was no baby, but he acted like one when ill. Typical man – a cold and they thought they were dying.

She watched the sleeping Jedi for a while. He was quite handsome in his own way and regretfully she turned to go. Just as she did so her elbow caught a small vial of a golden glittering substance. Suddenly her heart missed a beat. Skywalker hadn't been taking spice had he? Then common sense reasserted itself. It was sand. Sand from Tatooine, his home planet. She itched at the thought and her strange dream of two nights past surfaced briefly in her mind.

It was a full three days later before Luke even felt like getting out of bed and a couple more before he even considered having a proper meal. As a result he was thinner than ever and trailed round his apartment listlessly. Leia had been every day to see him and on occasions brought the children, but Mara hadn't returned. Perhaps he had dreamt her, he'd certainly dreamed of her while he'd slept. The contents of those dreams left him faintly embarrassed - images of Mara in his arms and passion burning between them. They had felt so real, so disturbing. His hands trailing over her smooth supple body, hers pleasuring him and he'd awoken hard and unsatisfied. That dress had done strange things to his equilibrium. The silk had left nothing to his imagination, which had been vivid.

He thought about returning to Yavin, but his students there were to be his no longer. He wasn't a teacher. It hadn't come naturally to him and he'd had his fair share of disasters. There were others better qualified to do the job. Surprisingly, Luke hadn't realised he'd become rather good at what he'd had to do. For one so young and unlearned in the Force he had set out to do what Ben and Yoda had commanded of him. Luke had learned patience and he'd always been open and honest. He could be a little rough round the edges at times, but the students still preferred his classes to all the others. Something about Luke begged you to listen to him. There was a vibrancy in the Force when he was there and you believed things could happen.

Luke wasn't quite sure how Leia would take his decision. He was giving up the headship of the Yavin Academy. She'd been hinting about various things quite a lot lately, but they held no appeal for him so he'd tried to ignore her. Even at the twins' birthday celebration there had been politics and politicians at the dinner table. He supposed he had to tell her - she was his only sister, his Force strong twin. So far only his first set of trainees still on Yavin knew, for they were to advance the training of the students to come. Kam Solusar was to be the nominal head of the Academy, with Jedi Tionne as chief administrator. Streen, Kyp and Cilgahl would also teach, although Cilgahl would eventually be returning to Mon Calamari to take up Jedi duties on her home planet. Luke himself had agreed to undertake a series of lectures, but not for at least another year. He needed to find himself and regroup in meditation and study. He grinned. How boring that sounded; but Luke knew it would be anything but and he was still eager to learn. He stopped grinning. Leia would be unhappy that he hadn't discussed it with her first, but she had burdens of her own and didn't need his added to hers.

"I need to take a different path and move on. I'll always be involved in training Jedi, but I just want to think through my proposals and formulate a lucid plan before I submit that to the Senate."

Where would he go? Han was correct - he didn't enjoy Coruscant much. He'd been raised on a rimworld and lived most recently on a planet out on the rim, devoid of much of what civilisation considered necessary for survival and entertainment. I could go somewhere completely anonymous and have a holiday. He coughed a couple of times.

Sith! He never usually held on to a cold this long.

A quick glance round his painfully neat apartment told him that he was ready to go. Then he threw a couple more things into his carryall. Perhaps he would take off and go where the Force led him. Now that sounded appealing.

A flicker of something caught at his sense and he reached out with the Force to discover its origin. It wasn't Leia. It was someone infinitely more disturbing - Mara Jade. He could feel her indecision as she stood outside his door, the turmoil within her churning her emotions.

'Stop dithering Jade,' he commanded and slid the door open. They had begun – whatever was going happen to them had begun. Luke knew this with a certainty he hadn't felt about anything in months.

It was a more normally attired and recognisable girl that walked in and stood before him. This time, he studied her. The abundant red-gold hair was braided neatly at the nape of her neck and the slim dancer's figure encased in one of her form fitting jump suits, covered with a dark green tunic. His old lightsaber hung at her waist. She looked back at him without saying anything, the green eyes for once open and direct.

"I've come to apologise for Yavin, Skywalker."

"You didn't need to," he returned emotionlessly, pushing the memory of the previous night's dream and the rather disturbing emotions she made him suddenly feel, as far back in his mind as he could.

"Yes I did. I said some hurtful things without thinking. I never was good at considering your feelings."

"Look Mara, I said things I'm not proud of either. You don't have the monopoly on a bad temper,"

"I do not.... have a bad temper." Her sense rose then fell with her emotions. "I'm sorry Skywalker."

"You fall for it every time Jade." Luke let his mouth curve upwards.

She bristled silently.

"Mara, I'm sorry too. I can't remember what was said. I don't want to remember. What I regret is the distance we've let happen between us. We were good comrades once, you and I." Luke gestured to the seat beside him and Mara sat awkwardly down. He reached out and grasped her hand tightly. "I want our friendship back. It might not be the same as before, but I've missed you and I want to have whatever friendship you grant me." He gazed earnestly into her face, which she tried to turn away from him. Lifting his hand he caught her under the chin and pinned her eyes to his with an intent look. "I'm planning to change some things in my life and I'm going to need all the friendship I can get. You're probably the person who can help me the most. But I have neglected you and for that I'm truly sorry."

Mara stared down at their linked hands, her red gold head bowed. Raising her head she glanced back into his clear blue eyes and stopped, swallowing at his gaze. Something about the way he was looking at her was somehow different. She blinked and firmly concentrated on what she had to say. "I, too, didn't realise how the quarrel had affected us, or how long it was since we'd last been together. I'm sorry I didn't respect your feelings about Callista."

Luke's gaze shuttered silently as if he didn't want Mara picking up on his emotions. He didn't want to make a fool of himself again, especially with her.

"She was a noble Jedi once and I cannot myself envision life without the Force but, Luke, she wasn't right for you and the desperate search when she left pulled you apart. She didn't love you enough in the end and I couldn't bear to see you...."

Luke nodded. "I know."

Mara stared at him surprised. "You know?"

"Yes."

Taking his courage in both hands he put his arms round her and embraced her, kissing her on the cheek. Mara took a sharp indrawn breath as electricity coursed through her, just from the simple touch of his lips briefly against her skin. Luke had never been particularly tactile towards her - she didn't allow it. But here she was and he was, holding her hand, embracing her and then giving her that gauche salute on the cheek. Something sparked in his blue eyes. Mara then glanced down at his attire. Gone was the Jedi tunic and robes; instead, he was in his flight suit.

"You're going back to Yavin. Are you well enough?"

"No and yes. I don't know where I'm going, but I have the shuttle, Artoo and my X-Wing. I'll go where the force wills it."

"But... But..." she stuttered. "You're running away, giving up the Academy?" Genuine shock swept across her face.

"No, no," he soothed gently, his hands warm on her shoulders. "I'm taking a sabbatical of sorts. They don't need me on Yavin. I wasn't cut out to be a teacher forever - now there are enough who are."

"But you're their figurehead, their inspiration, their hope for the future."

"I shouldn't be Mara. I'm an ordinary man - you've said so often enough. What if I died tomorrow, huh?"

"But Luke!"

"Mara," the firmness in his voice told her he was serious. "I need a break. I'm worn out saving the galaxy, teachingthe next generation of Jedi and getting over women who keep deserting me. When I find a place I'll let you know where I am and if I'm needed I can be contacted there. I've some personal training I need to work on. You never stop learning about the Force and all its mysteries."

"You've cut down on your use of the Force, haven't you?"

He smiled. "I have it when I need it. I'm working on something and I've ideas about other things. I need to choose a new path. Leia wants to nudge me in a direction I've no wish to go in. I'm not cut out for politics. "

"No, Skywalker, I can't see you there. Too tactless."

"Still my biggest fan, eh Jade? What I'd really like to do is find a nice girl and settle down, but I'm beginning to think that's impossible. They don't seem to want to stay around." He favoured Mara with his first real smile and she blinked.

"Luke, I am sorry about what happened between us on Yavin."

"Ssh, it's ok." He stood up pulling her with him, his arms falling naturally around her waist. "I'm sorry too, but we've wasted enough time on past errors. We have to go forward, not continue to dwell on the past. I've said I'll contact you and I will. You know I don't say things I don't mean. When I said I wasn't cut out to be a teacher, I meant on Yavin at the Academy. I would like to do what Yoda did for me and possibly help out with the occasional New Republic mission if they need a Jedi on board." He pulled Mara towards him; her nearness was beginning to affect him. They stood nose to nose staring into each other's eyes. "I should have made you stay on Yavin with me the last time," he gritted. "You have so much potential within the Force. Mara Jade, you could be a very powerful Jedi." He took a deep breath. "I would like to complete your training."

She stared at him speechless.

"If you could wait until I've found somewhere to go, then you could join me there to complete your training." He rushed on a little nervously. "It could be secret and private, whatever you want, but you would have completion and everything that would mean. Could Karrde spare you for a time - could it be arranged?" He looked at her with the earnest unsure expression, which used to annoy her and Mara opened and shut her mouth without uttering a sound. "You don't have to be the traditional sort of Jedi. You are not me. The Jedi should fit in with all types of people and existences. Corran hasn't given up on Rogue Squadron and you could still work with Karrde, nothing has to change that. But you would have all the skills you may need and I think something within you wants that very much. I would like to give that to you. It's your right."

Mara swallowed nervously, her emotions in a tangle. Luke was offering to teach her again, but this time she would fulfil her potential within the Force. She would complete the task they'd started ten years ago. She looked up into his face and found it was closer than expected. His arms still clasped her loosely round the waist. A hot tide of embarrassment ran over her fine features, but she couldn't look away. Something was pulling them together. Luke felt his breathing quicken as he gazed into the lovely face of the girl in his arms. The girl who had shared his adventures and haunted his dreams for the past ten years. Oh yes, his dreams. What would happen if he leant in a little closer - touched his lips to hers. Would she...? Mara felt her own heartbeat alter and her lips parted, their breathing loud in the silent apartment. Luke's arms tightened, pulling her towards him and Mara raised hers to encircle his neck. It was just a hug, she told herself - a forgiving embrace between friends. Then Luke dipped his head and brushed his lips lightly across hers.

"Goodbye Mara Jade, till we meet again and many thanks for your nursing care."

"It was nothing Skywalker," she whispered and closed her eyes. Finally, inevitably, his lips covered hers properly for the first time. Luke crushed her into his hard body - their lips parted and his tongue caressed hers. All he could think about was the feel of her, the taste of her kiss on his lips, her warmth and softness. Mara relished their connection through the Force – it seemed brighter and stronger. His hands trailed over her body, touching, caressing, wanting; but they had run out of time. Reluctantly they drew apart and gazed warily at each other.

"What are we doing?" Mara asked incredulously.

Luke swallowed and allowed a shaky grin to emerge. "Now Jade, even though I am the Jedi Master and you don't think of me as a normal man, I would say that it was pretty obvious what we were doing." He turned serious again. "I knew I was being drawn here for a reason and I was right. It was you."

"Luke!"

"But I still have to go." He turned away and gazed silently out of the window. "I don't want to, but I have to and I don't know why." He swivelled to face Mara and blue eyes met sparkling green. Closing together once more Luke caught her in his arms and kissed her fiercely, passionately and Mara had to realise later, possessively.

She subsided onto the repulsor couch and watched as he threw items into a carryall. Then with an intent look at the girl on the couch and at the lightsaber attached at her waist, he left and Mara was alone.

New Republic Administration Block

"Master Skywalker is still on Coruscant - good."

The figure turned to the vid-screen and listened intently.

"What do you mean you haven't put the proposition to him? Do so immediately. I'm sure you can persuade him it's a necessary direction for him to take. He upset quite a few council members with his last speech. No, I understand, but it would make things easier and allay the fears. We wouldn't have to put restrictions on the Jedi and believe me we will take steps if he gets out of control."

Luke Skywalker's Coruscant Apartment

Leia arrived half an hour after Luke had left, trailing her two oldest children. Mara was secretly glad the Princess had left her youngest son, Anakin, at home. His blue eyes reminded you uncannily of his uncle's and he had the trick of looking through you into your soul. Mara shivered suddenly. How could an eight-year-old child do that to you? The Force only knew, but he did. 'There is more Skywalker in him than Solo,' she thought.

Leia was at first surprised to see the silent Mara Jade sitting alone in her brother's deserted apartment. Mara held out the message cube, but said nothing.

Leia looked at the strained expression on Mara's face and something flashed in her eyes. "Luke's gone," she stated without activating the message stored within.

Mara nodded. "Yes."

Leia motioned the children forward; putting her arms around them as their faces fell. Mara smiled sadly. It was obvious that Jacen and Jaina adored their uncle. Mara stretched out a tentative hand and clasped Jacen's shoulder. "You'll see him soon."

"How do you know?" he demanded with a scowl reminiscent of his father's.

"I just know," she answered.

When Mara searched her own feelings, she knew that was what she felt deep inside. Jacen would see his beloved Uncle soon. The boy looked searchingly at her then took his sister's hand.

"You have the Force too," Jaina whispered solemnly. "Is Uncle Luke in trouble?"

Mara closed her eyes then gave Leia a speaking look above the children's heads. Although she was upset at her brother's disappearance a flicker of what might be amusement crossed her features. "You obviously know your Uncle Luke well kids, but he's not in trouble yet."

"Not that we know, anyway," put in Leia smoothly. "But we'll see him on Yavin."

"But Mama!"

"Leia!"

"Tell her, Trader Jade," insisted Jaina. "Uncle Luke's not gone to Yavin."

Leia froze. "Luke's not gone back to the Academy?"

Mara shook her head. "Your daughter's right. Luke's not gone back to Yavin. In fact he's not sure where he's going." How had the child known?

"Dagobah?" Leia whispered and something which resembled irritation crossed the serene features.

"I don't know," answered Mara.

Jacen grabbed hold of Mara's hand, much to her consternation. "Mistress Mara, you'll find him and look after him won't you? He's depending on you to."

Mara shook her head; she was completely bemused with these children. Leia gathered the twins into her arms. "How do you know?"

"We just do," they answered in unison.

Leia made a face at Mara then sent them to play in another room, so the adults could talk in peace. "Mind you, I don't know if privacy is ever completely guaranteed with my children around. They have Han's inquisitiveness."

"Surely Leia, it could be termed your quest for knowledge or Skywalker's nosiness."

"Perhaps."

Mara sensed a shift in Leia's emotions. "What's wrong?"

"Why did he tell you and not his family? Why did he have to go now?"

The woman was actually hurt; Mara couldn't quite believe it and stifled the feelings of disquiet she felt at being classed as a stranger. Mara knew she meant more to Luke than that.

"He only told me because I was here. He was standing in his flight suit holding a large carryall - hardly the actions of a man staying around. So being reasonably intelligent I hazarded a guess that he might be leaving and he can't lie convincingly to me. And," she stretched out the last word her voice rising irritably. "He knows it, so he 'fessed up."

"All right Mara I'm sorry. I'm just upset that he left without telling us. You made up your quarrel then." Leia murmured and was surprised to see Mara's face flush ever so slightly.

The blush deepened. "You could say that." she answered.

Leia stood up to go and at once the twins returned to her side. "I only care about his well-being, but I wish he had trusted me enough to discuss it with me."

"I don't think his intention was to hurt you. Luke's not like that. He wants to make his own decision and it is his to make. If it helps any Leia, you were right. The old Luke is back. He just needs a fraction more time, without the responsibility. Before he realises it, he'll miss what he had previously and will be back, worse than ever."

Leia smiled and extended her hand. "Mara, if you find out where he is could you keep in touch and let me know. I won't interfere, but I need to know that he is safe." She grinned wickedly, suddenly looking like her brother. "Usual terms."

Mara laughed lightly. "Sure. I did put a tracker in his baggage."

"You didn't!"

"I did," she chuckled. "Karrde says 'information is power,' and having an accident prone Jedi Master running round the galaxy does not give me restful sleep. Han's getting too old to pull him out of trouble again."

"I agree with you there, but don't tell my husband I said so."

Mara was finally left alone when the Solo family departed. Luke had left just in time to avoid his sister. Mara wondered if that was the reason he'd gone. She wandered through Luke's empty apartment her mind twisting itself into knots. "Why didn't those women stay with Skywalker if he kisses like that?" Her lips tingled at the memory. Reaching out with the Force she searched for him, checking to see if he'd left the system.

"Luke, are you still on Coruscant?"

"Yes," the answer came back. "I'm on the Jade's Fire."

"What!"

"I thought you might want to see me safely off the planet."

"My ship?"

"It's comfortable while I'm waiting for you. Took your time."

She sensed his amusement. "Wait till I get there Jedi."

"Mm hm."