The Emerald Price

By Ash Darklighter

Disclaimer: - The characters and situations used in this story are the property of George Lucas and Lucasfilm Ltd. I am only using them for some entertainment and will not even make one Republican credit from this endeavour. This is set around eight to ten years after Luke and Mara met each other for the first time. This one is for all the girls on the AA list.

Two Weeks Previously

Bright green eyes bored into his face drilling right through him with the intensity of her gaze. He knew they were trying to tell him something – but what? There was only one woman he knew with eyes of that vibrant shade – that clear, true colour. Only one woman in the entire galaxy.

"Luke!"

Her voice was loud inside his head, so loud that she could have been standing next to him – calling to him.

"Luke! Help me!"

And then there was nothing – only an ominous, deafening silence, the sheer abruptness of it shocking.

"Mara!" Luke jerked into wakefulness and an upright position at the same time, the covers falling to his waist leaving his sweat-soaked torso bare. "Mara," he whispered, pushing his damp, tangled hair away from his face with shaking fingers. "What has happened to you?"

Slowly the space he was starring out into, wistfully hoping for an answer, began to seep its familiarity and emptiness into his consciousness. Until with a breath Luke closed his eyes and bowed his head. It was just a dream. At least that's what he tried to tell himself. But he knew from experience that he rarely had ordinary, normal dreams like other beings. His dreams usually had some sort of portent for the future – not always good either.

Luke swung his bare legs over the side of the bed until his bare feet touched the floor. Propelling himself upright he straightened his quilt before staring out into the night. He could see the lights of Coruscant glittering from the large viewport in his bedchamber. What was happening? He walked to the window and stared out. His apartment inhabited one of the tallest buildings in the city – the panoramic view was breathtaking but Luke couldn't appreciate that view right now, so preoccupied with his dream was he. Force, he was deathly tired. The last few missions he'd undertaken for the New Republic with scarcely a break in between had been ruthlessly demanding. Even Leia, glad that he was back helping the New Republic on a regular basis, was wondering if he was trying to kill himself through overwork. Luke placed his head against the cool transparisteel and sighed.

Mara

Luke turned away from the viewport and shrugged his naked body into a black towelling robe. With a wave of his hand, the lights came on at a dim setting until his eyes got used to them. He made his way through the bare apartment to the communications centre and tried to get a lock on Mara's whereabouts.

Nothing.

When that didn't work he tried to reach out to her through the Force. He couldn't seem to sense her, unable to tell if she were well. It was unnerving, but he felt something was definitely amiss. She had been calling him, there was no doubt. Now his fears began to twist inside his belly. It always came down to Mara Jade and the effect she had on his life. If she wasn't well, she was in trouble and if that was the case, he was the one that could help her. That's all she would take from him – his assistance. He'd better contact Karrde.

***********************************************

Coruscant Spaceport – The Present

Darkness had fallen quickly, still the spaceport was busy. There was almost no difference between day and night as far as traffic on Coruscant was concerned but docking bay 30456B was quiet. The beings housed on the CEC Action VI transport – the Wild Karrde - had long retired for the night, tuning out the sound of constantly arriving and departing spacecraft until it resembled nothing more than a dull roar. All of them were asleep, apart from a necessary security detail and the captain who remained very much awake. He was worried – very worried.

Talon Karrde sat sleepless for the fifth night in a row in his office in front of his com screen. He'd barely moved from the ship in over a week. On the surface everything appeared to be fine with his life and his business. The port officials had all been bribed not to look too closely at the ship's weaponry and the customs officials had come and gone without finding the hidden contraband he was carrying in shielded compartments. Everything was normal unless you counted the fact that his trusted second-in-command had set off on a mission three weeks ago and hadn't been heard from since.

The crew didn't think anything unusual about Mara Jade's disappearance and Karrde had not bothered to enlighten them. He didn't want to worry them too. She did very much what she wanted and often was away from the main group for weeks on end but, somehow, this was different. There had been no distress call, nothing to indicate that she could be in trouble – just silence. She had her own mode of transport and her own way of operating even though she was working for him. This trip was on organisation business… almost.

He had made the first com-call to Jedi Master Luke Skywalker nearly two weeks ago which had occasioned an immediate reaction from the Jedi Master but since then he'd heard nothing. The fact that Skywalker had also been concerned didn't bode well in Karrde's opinion. He had also tried to contact Lando Calrissian without success since Mara had disappeared. To his annoyance and frustration, the man had been out of reach – a bad move for any businessman Karrde had decided. His information network had finally located the suave, dark-skinned gambler on the planet Systra. The gambler was in top-secret negotiations with the owner of a chain of casinos. Lando was planning a major expansion of his business empire.

Karrde decided that it was time to acquaint Calrissian with his feelings about facing the situation before the media were alerted to the fact that Mara had gone on this trip alone and had not returned to spend time with her alleged current lover.

The holopress had taken an almost unhealthy interest in Mara's activities of late. Ever since she'd been seen regularly with Lando Calrissian, hero of the Rebellion, they had followed her every move. Mara had been linked with him romantically much to their delight but only Mara, Lando and Karrde knew that it was a cover for a fact finding mission on Karrde's behalf.

The holo-reporters had seized on the idea of a love affair between Jade and Calrissian with an almost animalistic fervour. There was no war, no crisis of government, no health scares, no uprising by the remnants of the defeated Empire… not yet there wasn't. Karrde would know as soon as any one of the jumped up little Mofflings and their pet warlords got ideas too far above their abilities. There was nothing going on in the galaxy to take the media's interest away from the little set-up he'd engineered. He knew that it couldn't last much longer. Mara had just about had as much of Calrissian as she could stomach. There had been a murderous glint in her green eyes and several muttered comments about how a well-placed slash of a vibro-shiv might end the Baron's life and give her some peace. So instead of travelling with Calrissian she had chosen to go alone.

Karrde smoothed his hand over his well-trimmed goatee. His trading organisation didn't need the kind of publicity that Mara's disappearance, without Calrissian following her, would bring – even the legitimate part of it. They'd been almost inseparable for weeks. Too much publicity alienated his best and most exclusive clients and he did not want to risk the guaranteed credits any longer. Mara had been right – it wasn't his best idea and it should be over.

Karrde stared at the old-fashioned, wind-up chrono on his desk. Time was passing and Mara had still not contacted him. The feeling in his gut told him that he couldn't wait any longer before heading out after his second-in-command. Maybe he'd acted too quickly in the first instance when he'd contacted Luke Skywalker but he'd felt uneasy about Mara's trip and her failure to keep in regular contact. Now, perhaps, he was too late. He reached out an elegant hand and pressed the buttons that would make that com-call.

"Lando." He greeted the dark-skinned man on the other end of the viewscreen with cool politeness.

"Hey, Karrde!" Lando's loudly exuberant voice echoed around the office as his image shimmered into view. As always, Lando Calrissian was dressed immaculately, not a gleaming black hair out of place. "Business is good, I take it?"

Karrde gave him a restrained nod. "Business is what it always is," he replied carefully.

Lando chuckled. "Then it is good," he murmured thoughtfully. "But something's wrong." Lando stared at Karrde for a moment, not saying anything as his expression changed. The twinkle in his eyes sharpened to curiosity. "How did you know where I was?"

"I have my sources, which I will not divulge, but it still took me several days to find you."

"What is it?" Lando gave the impression that he was shallow – an impression that had fooled people many times over the years. Lando Calrission's intelligence gleamed from his dark eyes if one cared to look behind the charming facile facade. He had been fooling lesser beings in this manner for many years. He considered that it gave him an advantage. "Something's wrong," he repeated. "Han and Leia… The Empire?"

"No, not yet. It's Mara," Karrde said succinctly. "She's missing. Let's hope the days I wasted trying to find you are not costing Mara dear."

"How could that be?" Lando tried to gauge the lack of expression on Karrde's face; never an easy task at the best of times but his opening words had been distinctly lacking in warmth. "How long has she been missing?"

"I haven't heard from her in over two weeks."

Lando relaxed. "Is that all? Mara's been away for far longer than that without you worrying about her. She'll have forgotten to call in. Mara can take care of herself," he dismissed Karrde's worry, conveniently forgetting that Karrde never worried without good reason.

Karrde's pale blue eyes flashed warningly. "Mara does not forget, Calrissian. She may be used to working alone but she never neglects to inform me of her whereabouts especially in potentially dangerous situations."

"Where was she headed?"

"You know damn fine where she was headed."

Lando bristled. "I have no idea where she's gone. How could I? I don't keep notes on your order book and your clients."

"She was heading for the sector nearest to the Kathol Rift. You were supposed to be with her. You said you would go with her."

"Oh, she's already left on that trip." Lando shrugged. "Something came up and I had to drop out. It was business, Karrde. You understand business more than anyone else I know. How else would you be so successful? Mara didn't seem to mind going alone. She's a professional and understands the way a successful business works."

"Of course she's a professional. Mara does not take unnecessary risks. It's kept her alive and in a job so far. But business is not what this is about. I told you that I have been trying to contact you for days," Karrde continued with a cold stare. "That's hardly good business to be out of contact for so long."

"My negotiations were… delicate. I couldn't be distracted," Lando excused.

"If you had been with her then…"

"We both might be missing," Lando interrupted. "I told you, the Casino is just taking off and I couldn't leave Systra just now – not with such an opportunity to extend my holdings. It's my livelihood Karrde, you understand. Mara said she could manage without me – she understood."

"Is that all she said?" Karrde's voice was suspicious.

"Yes."

The guilty look quickly masked on Lando's face made Karrde grit his teeth. Lando was an accomplished con-artist but he didn't fool Karrde in the least. "You didn't think that accompanying her would keep up that little fiction you have concerning the relationship between the pair of you?" Karrde shuffled a stack on data cards on his desk. "I suppose there is no real need for you to keep that little story going now. It has served its purpose. I can't see us finding out anything else useful for the moment. Still, when it gets out to the media that you are on Systra and Mara has gone…" Karrde slammed the data cards back on to the smooth wooden surface. "They'll have a field day. My organisation doesn't need or want that kind of publicity. You were supposed to go on this trip together and end the 'affaire' there."

"I think Mara and I could be good together. Let's not be hasty, Karrde. Mara's beginning to warm to me. I can see the look in her eye. I've seen it often enough in other women."

Karrde shook his head in weary disbelief, his face seeming to age, and Lando scowled looking like a small boy thwarted of his favourite toy.

"I don't want to end it."

"Maybe not. But your constant harassment of Mara means that she does want to end it – she told me this herself and I asked her just to wait a little longer." He gave a sigh of frustration. "This is far too sudden. The holopress are still too interested in what you and Mara are up to and if she is in trouble – it could affect her safety. I'm not often mistaken about things but I was wrong about this. We should never have started it in the first place. You wanted Mara as a conquest and she doesn't take kindly to that kind of pressure."

Lando's charming veneer slipped. "I was persistent. I wasn't pressuring her."

"Weren't you?"

Lando's mouth twisted. "She said she didn't want me within ten parsecs of her or her ship," he admitted finally and then grinned. "She loves me really. If I keep up this arrangement Mara will come around to see that she cannot live without me. I think I've made some headway."

"You tried to proposition her, didn't you?" Karrde's voice was drier than the Dune Sea.

"I never laid a finger on her."

"I know."

"You do?"

"Hold up your hands."

Mystified, Lando did so.

Karrde gave a mirthless chuckle. "It's easy. You still have all of your fingers."

Snatching his hands away from the viewer, Lando's mouth tightened as he replied, "One of these days she'll say 'yes.' She just enjoys the thrill of the chase. I know she likes me. She's just playing hard to get."

"Mara plays hard - I guarantee you that one," Karrde admitted coldly. "But she doesn't play hard to get. If she wants you, she'll get you. Therefore, she doesn't want you. Face it, Lando."

"She doesn't want you either," Lando sniped back, beginning to feel out of his depth. Karrde was far too shrewd to fool.

The smuggler chief laughed with the first sign of genuine amusement he'd shown since he'd faced Calrissian. "Of course not. We do not have that kind of relationship, nor are we pretending to have that kind of relationship. I am her boss. Such liaisons are usually destructive to the people and the organisation involved. Hence my 'no involvement with a member of my organisation' clause."

"So cool, Karrde," Lando observed bitterly. "She's a beautiful and passionate woman. Are you made of stone?"

"One has to be calm in my position," Karrde returned evenly, biting back the retort he wanted to make. "After all, I make the decisions and they have to be the right ones. I admire and respect Mara greatly but I do not desire her body." He leant back in his chair, pressing the tips of his fingers together. "However, I am worried about her whereabouts and her safety. She may have all the skills of an Imperial assassin and a Jedi Knight rolled into one lethal package but she is not invincible and she told me that herself. She is my second-in-command and I look after my people."

"There is no one more capable of fending for herself than Mara," Lando blustered.

"I thought you might have shown some concern because of your professed 'interest' in my second-in-command. If you really love her…"

"Love?" Lando questioned. "What is love? I cannot say if I love her or not. It's a bit premature to be involving emotions don't you think?"

"To win Mara Jade, Calrissian, love is what you will need."

Lando chuckled. "I never took you for the romantic, idealistic type, Karrde. That's more Luke Skywalker's territory."

"Luke is more ruthless than you think, Calrissian. Don't take him for a fool. He's seen quite a bit of the seamier side of life and has fought hard for everything he has. Don't forget his little brush with the dark side."

"Of course I won't but he's learned his lesson as far as that is concerned. He won't take that route again."

Karrde nodded. "I believe that he won't but it has given him more depth of character."

Lando smirked. "I don't mean to malign Luke. He's a good buddy."

"I'm being pragmatic," Karrde continued. "Mara is not an easy conquest as I'm sure you've already found out."

Lando's grin faded and his face settled into lines of discontent. "Yeah!" Although they had played at being lovers in the public eye, when alone, Mara had treated him with outright disdain. It had rankled.

It had been a joint decision to try and locate Karrde's former boss, Jorj Car'das and Mara had agreed to pretend to be involved with Calrissian to do so. They had acquired shares in a mine together and the relationship was a good smokescreen for ferreting out information on the whereabouts of Karrde's long disappeared associate. Karrde suspected that Car'das was still alive somewhere and had valuable information - that had been the man's passion. More than anything, Jorj Car'das had desired to acquire information. Car'das would know what the Empire was up to Karrde was certain that they were up to something. Bastion had been far too quiet recently and that always spelled trouble.

Lando wanted Mara Jade in his bed – he wanted the fabricated relationship to be real. He couldn't resist the lure of a beautiful woman. However Mara did not want Lando. She'd seen through him a long time ago.

But she had reluctantly accepted the charade and had played it most convincingly until now. There was no need for the deception to continue and Mara would not continue making up to Calrissian forever. Karrde suspected that Mara would rather sleep with Luke Skywalker, and that was saying something, before she would let Calrissian touch her again. The Jedi Master had never appeared to be one of her favourite people and she treated him with a peculiar mixture of hostility, indifference and warmth. Ah, yes, Karrde thought. Luke Skywalker. Where did he fit into the mix? What was he to Mara and she to him? There was something powerful between them which could not be easily explained away. But he still suspected she would rather sleep with the Jedi than Lando and wasn't sure if that was as a last resort or because it wasn't.

"All I'm saying, Calrissian, is that you need to be aware of what's happening. The media are still very interested in you and Mara."

Lando gave a heavy sigh, grudgingly admitting to himself that if Karrde was worried, then Mara was probably in some sort of trouble. He could save her and then she'd regard him as a hero and be properly grateful. "Okay, Karrde. Give me a day or two to clear my schedules and then…"

Karrde waved a hand cutting him off. "No, there's no need..."

"You're just going to leave her?" There must be something he'd missed. Karrde's face had suddenly appeared almost smug as if something Lando had said had proved him right.

"No, not if I can help it. I do have contingency plans. I contacted Luke Skywalker well over a week ago. He happened, most fortuitously, to be on Coruscant."

"You contacted Luke before you contacted me?" Lando frowned.

Karrde nodded. "You were unavailable until two days ago. I tried to get hold of you…" The smuggler sighed. He hadn't tried very hard. "Fortuitously Luke was on Coruscant and because he has the Force he has ways of locating Mara that you and I do not. Yes, I contacted him."

"He's there on Coruscant more often than he is on Yavin these days," Lando commented. "Seems that the galaxy doesn't want him to save it as much as it once did. Plus the Yavin Academy doesn't hold his attention like it used to."

"There are still trouble spots around the galaxy and the Empire has been a little too quiet for a little too long in my opinion. They're up to something and Luke wants to be ready. Besides, the Yavin Academy is fully operational and Luke never really wanted to teach full time. It was something he had to do until more knights were trained to take his place. He is now free to look at the wider picture in the galaxy."

"And that means Coruscant?"

The smuggler chief bent over his desk and stared into the monitor. "For the moment… Yes."

Karrde couldn't get the difference in their reactions between Lando and the Jedi Master out of his mind. Skywalker had appeared stunned for a moment, his face whitening. The Jedi had quickly masked his feelings, hiding his emotions behind an impassive expression, but Karrde knew that Luke Skywalker would go and search for her. He was the one person Karrde could trust to do so.

******************************************

"You're at the Spaceport? Expect me in about an hour. I'm on my way," was all that Luke had said before the screen went blank.

Luke had arrived at the Wild Karrde a little over an hour later and Karrde knew that the blond-haired Jedi was worried.

"Where was she headed?" Luke asked. "Is she in trouble?"

"I don't know." Karrde's voice was grim.

The memory of Mara's voice calling for him resurfaced in Luke's mind. "She's in trouble," he gritted between closed teeth. He stared into Karrde's pale eyes willing him to understand. "I heard her call for me. I knew she was in trouble." Luke lifted his hands and gazed at them as if he were examining a foreign object under a microscope. "I have a bad feeling about this."

"You and me both." Karrde checked his data. "She and Lando were…"

"Lando? Lando is with her?" Luke's voice held a strangely hollow ring to it. "They're both in trouble?"

Karrde shook his head. "No. Mara went alone. He was supposed to be with her but he didn't go. Something else came up."

"Don't tell me," Luke said flatly. "It was casino business."

"How did you…?"

"I know Lando."

"Yes, it was casino business. He and Mara had some sort of…"

"Altercation?" Luke enquired dryly with a raised eyebrow.

"You could put it that way." Karrde's voice was equally dry. "He should not have let her go alone."

Luke's mouth formed a flat, tight line of disapproval. "No, he should not. But you and I both know Mara Jade too well. If she made up her mind to go alone then she will have done exactly that regardless of how Lando felt."

"I suspect that Lando wasn't given any choice in the matter," Karrde murmured.

For a fleeting moment a ghost of a smile hovered on Luke's lips. "Ah," he said. "There isn't a word to describe how stubborn she is. Stubborn just doesn't even come near it."

Karrde had to agree. Mara did what she wanted to with a dewback-like obstinacy. Luke knew her well and in Karrde's view was the only person who could match her – the only person she would listen to.

*************************************************

"So Luke has gone after her?" Lando asked carefully.

"Yes."

"Great!" Lando said, relief colouring his voice as he leaned back in a dark, nerf-leather chair. He had time to finish his business and dally a little longer with the fascinating lady he'd picked up. Karrde's information broker couldn't know that his business with the casino involved delicate negotiations with the soon-to-be former owner – a most attractive and wealthy widow. Unlike a certain red-head of his acquaintance, this female was quite happy to share his bed. "Luke will find her but if he needs my help, just let me know. I'll try and clear my schedule - just in case."

"Good." Karrde's voice was sardonic. Lando had no intention of clearing anything. "I'm heading out to the Rimma trade route myself to wait for Skywalker or Mara to contact me. I've business out that way in any case. Mara was heading for the Kathol Rift. That's a long way out on the Rim and Luke was available immediately. He left ten days ago."

"Sure. Look, Karrde…" Lando peered over his shoulder as if staring at someone behind him. "I have to go… An important meeting. Contact me as soon as Mara turns up."

"Oh, don't worry," Karrde said grimly. "I will."

**************************************************

Westport, Coruscant

As he prepped his ship for takeoff, Luke Skywalker wondered at the strange behaviour of the supposedly devoted couple. Why Lando Calrissian could bear to be apart from someone like Mara Jade for any length of time when he could be with her puzzled him. If Luke had been in the market for a relationship, someone like Mara would be his ideal. She was beautiful, fiery, had wit and intelligence. She wasn't afraid of danger or overawed by his status as the head of the New Jedi Order. But Luke wasn't in the market for a relationship now or ever even as if Mara would glance in his direction – not that she would. She hardly seemed aware of him in that way. Although, over the years perhaps he had glanced once, maybe twice across some makeshift camp at her. When his relationships inevitably failed he hurt too much and he was too tired of the repeated pain and heartbreak that followed each disastrous affair. No, he was far better alone.

It had been instinctive to offer to go and find Mara. When Karrde had told him she was missing, he was conscious of the leaden weight of dread settling in the pit of his stomach. He had known something was wrong. And then there were his dreams. They usually had some basis in fact, no matter how much motion affected the future. She couldn't go missing – nothing could happen to her. All the usual guilty feelings about endangering the life of someone he… Luke's mind shied away from even thinking any more along those lines. She was his friend and he was damned if she would come to some grief while he had breath left in his body. He would do the same for any of his friends, he fervently assured himself.

All Karrde could tell him was that she had been headed for the Elrood sector towards the Kathol Rift. That was a long way out on the Rim. It would take him a couple of weeks to even get near it. That could be a couple of weeks too late and Mara was depending on him. He needed a faster ship than the one he was currently prepping. An idea quickly took shape. Perhaps there was one ship available to him – one far more suitable to his needs. He could ask.

Taking a deep breath Luke flicked open his comlink and prepared for an argument or at least some sort of questioning. "Han?"

"Hey, Kid!" Han's cheerful voice sounded loud and clear. "Where are you? Leia expected you for dinner half an hour ago."

"Sithspit!" Luke swore.

"Don't tell me you forgot?"

"I forgot," Luke said heavily.

"Your sister was getting worried," Han murmured. "You know how she fusses if you don't appear on time. She thinks you'll rush off on some 'damn fool crusade' without informing her. I'll tell her you're on your way now, okay?"

"Something came up," Luke hedged carefully and wasn't surprised when his brother-in-law picked up on his unease.

"Something came up," Han repeated slowly, his voice sounding tinny through the comlink.

"Yeah," Luke admitted. "I'm going to have to leave Coruscant immediately."

"Immediately."

"Yes, Han, immediately."

"Want to tell me what, or perhaps I should ask who, has you jumping into a ship without informing your family, who were expecting you round for dinner? And what was I just saying about some 'damn fool crusade'? It wouldn't happen to be something like that?"

For the umpteenth time in their relationship, Luke wondered if Han was gifted with the Force or just plain good at reading Luke's too transparent mind. "I need to borrow the Falcon."

************************************

Mara Jade and Lando Calrissian's affair had been filling the holonet for weeks now. Image after image of their smiling faces attending a gala event together somewhere in the galaxy had been on every vidscreen and holo-monitor in all the places he went. To Luke it had seemed unreal somehow but he hadn't been in their combined presences for more than five minutes. The whole relationship made him feel ill at ease. In fact, the thought of Mara kissing Lando made Luke downright uncomfortable. However, it was none of his business how Mara and Lando spent their down time. He would never admit it openly because he considered Lando to be a friend but Luke just didn't think the former administrator of Cloud City was right for her.

Luke hadn't talked to her properly in months. She had been aloof lately and just when they had begun to lapse into a comfortable friendship something had changed

Lando.

When he had voiced his surprise about her seeing so much of the entrepreneur, Mara had retreated from his company. He had not been her favourite person again for some reason only Mara Jade knew about. Perhaps she really liked Lando and Luke had hurt her in some way by his doubt and surprise. Still, Luke was tired of being her whipping post, the continual target of her barbed comments, and had reacted by removing himself from her admittedly dazzling orbit whenever she and Lando appeared. His prolonged absence only seemed to make the verbal darts she aimed in his direction when they did meet far more stinging. He was as much a victim of her beauty as the next man but recently she had always been accompanied by a smugly grinning Lando. All that happiness was enough to make anyone turn to the dark side. But now she was in trouble and he owed it to her to get her out of it. When the credits were down Lando was nowhere to be seen and Mara was on her own.

Luke had the feeling, and he had learned never to ignore the strange prescience that he gained through his ability in the Force, that Mara was in real danger. The knot that had formed in his stomach as soon as he'd seen Karrde's face on the monitor, tightened. He'd known as soon as Karrde had contacted him. There was no other reason for Talon to contact Luke. Mara was in trouble.

What was so important to Lando about a mere casino when the woman he supposedly loved was in danger? Luke couldn't understand the man at all and he considered him to be a friend. But then, Luke Skywalker had never been influenced by power or money. In that respect he and Lando were worlds apart.

"Luke!"

The Jedi strode swiftly down the ramp of the Academy shuttle he'd been preparing for take off. "I'm here, Leia."

"What's wrong?" Leia rushed towards him. "Why did you forget about dinner? Why are you leaving now and where are you going?"

"So many questions," Luke joked quietly but his humour was forced.

"Answer them and I'll maybe ignore that you asked for my ship," Han interjected, as he leisurely strolled up behind his wife.

Luke stared at the Millennium Falcon sitting next to the Yavin shuttle. There was no comparison. Han's ship still exuded excitement and adventure for the young Jedi Master. That, and a whole pile of bittersweet memories. Travelling in that ship had been part of his transition from boy to man. "I need a fast ship and this hunk-of-junk is one of the fastest."

"I've said it before and I'll say it again, she may not look like much but she does still have it where it counts," Han said with pride.

"And that's why I need to borrow her."

"You still haven't told me why. Tell me and I might even lend it to you."

"Mara's missing." Luke declared impassively. "I need to…"

"Mara…" Han's face changed as everything began to fall into place. "Ah, Mara!" he drawled. "What kind of trouble is she in?"

"I don't know yet."

"Karrde or Lando can go and find her. Why does it have to be you?" Leia interrupted.

"Why not? She's my friend and we're both Jedi. I'm the best shot at finding her. You know that, Leia."

"Where's Karrde?"

"He's getting ready to head out in the same direction I am for the exact same reason. Karrde looks after his people, Han. You know that and Mara is his second-in-command. Lando…" Luke broke off his comment and scowled.

"Lando is too busy to help find his girlfriend?" Han asked.

Luke nodded. "Yeah!"

Leia shook her head. "Lando always did think of number one first and foremost."

"Apart from when he helped rescue you, Han," Luke spoke in Lando's defence. He had to be fair.

"I'm not so sure," her husband said. "Lando had tried the Empire and that didn't work too well for him so he thought he would give the Rebellion a chance instead. He always was the gambler. This time his gamble paid off. Plus he reckoned that time that he owed me. I'm not saying he isn't a good friend and he is courageous. Leia's right though. He does think about number one first."

"Well, will you lend me the Falcon or won't you?" Luke was getting anxious. He had already delayed his departure by at least an hour. "I have a long way to go and if I have to use a slower ship, I will have to leave now to have any chance of finding Mara in time."

"You don't know that, Luke," Leia protested.

"I do," her brother maintained stoutly.

"Mara's resourceful and can take care of herself," Leia argued. "She'll be fine."

"I heard her call for me through the Force." Luke was resolute. Mara needed him. "I've got a…"

"Don't tell me – I can guess. 'A bad feeling about it.'" Han looked at his wife's face. She gave a minute nod. He'd actually made his decision, with Leia's blessing, as soon as the kid had asked. "You can have the ship, Junior, but just to make sure I get her back in one piece," he gave the familiar lop-sided grin, "I'm coming with you."

******************************************

The Millennium Falcon

"Where are we headed?" Han asked flicking an array of switches purposefully. The Falcon shuddered. "Come on, old girl. Don't let me down. He wants a fast ship."

Luke raised an eyebrow at the familiar cajoling of Han's beloved ship. "We're taking the Hydian way until the nexus with the Rimma Trade Route. Then we head for the Elrood Sector and the Kathol Rift."

Han whistled. "That's a long way, kid."

"I know. That's why I need a fast ship. It is a long way."

"We've been there before. No trouble…" Han hesitated. "At least I think there was no trouble. Chewie would remember better than me. It was before I hooked up with you and Leia."

"You've been there? I'm surprised about the 'no trouble' part."

"Watch it, Junior. I can switch off the engines and return to my wife and children. This ship might need an immediate an extensive overhaul."

"What, again?"

"You are so amusing, kid. It's a pretty wild place. You better be careful once we get there…"

"And Tatooine was law-abiding?" Luke enquired. "I think I can manage."

Han slapped at a panel above the cockpit door and there was a rumble from the sublight engines. "Come on, baby, that's not good enough."

A youthful smile broke through on Luke's normally grave countenance. "Force, Han! That's sounds like something out of the old days."

Han turned a disgruntled face on the compact yet powerful figure of his companion. "Yeah! It does, doesn't it? Some things never change." He aimed a kick at the bulkhead and then beamed his familiar quirky-grin as the ship roared to life.

Luke chuckled.

Tiny lines around his eyes crinkled as Han smiled. "Just for a moment there, kid, you looked as wet-behind-the-ears as you did when I met you. It's good to see you smile, Luke. You don't do it enough these days."

"I do," Luke protested and then gave a rueful grin. "Maybe I don't. I can't say I've had much to smile about recently. I don't see my family and friends as much as I'd like."

"That's in your own hands, Luke."

"I know. Time just seems to slip away."

"Strap yourself in, kid. If Mara is in trouble then time is against us."

Luke sat in the co-pilot's seat and fixed his gaze on the controls. He could see the route they needed to take way stretching out across the stars in his mind.

Han brought the engine fully to life, requested clearance from the spaceport authorities and then they were away.

***************************************************

The star lines merged as the Falcon entered hyperspace. Luke studied the navicomp from the console in the crew quarters and made a couple of adjustments to the chosen route. They wouldn't emerge from hyperspace for another three days. Then a couple more short jumps and Luke gauged they could save quite a bit of time – several days if he'd got his calculations correct.

Han entered from the cockpit. "That's us until the next hyperspace jump," he muttered. "I hope you're not going to land us in the middle of a star or even worse down a black hole. I always get the shudders when I pass near the maw."

"Trust me," Luke replied absently, his brow furrowed.

"That's my line," Han complained.

Luke glanced at his friend and grinned. "So it is. Honest, Han, this will shave a few days off our journey."

"I'll believe you when I know that I'm not scooping my insides out from where you landed us by mistake." Han poked ineffectually at a piece of yellow wiring sticking from the bulkhead and winced as it fizzled and sparked. "Aw…" His mouth closed over the swear word he'd intended to say. He pulled a tool from his pocket and began to attempt a repair. The lights in the cockpit flickered briefly.

"It'll be all right," Luke soothed calmly.

"That's my line, too."

Luke moved to the crew area and sat behind the old hologame table. He cast a wary blue eye at his brother-in-law. "What persuaded Leia to let you let me borrow your ship?"

"Let you let me…" Han paused in the doorway waving a macrofuser thinking about Luke's confusing question. "Let me tell you this, kid. Leia doesn't let me do anything."

Luke grinned. "I'd heard that. Easy to say when she's light years away."

Han scowled. "That blaster helmet with the shield over your face is looking real good at this moment. I don't need a smart-mouthed Jedi Master. I can do what I want. This is my ship."

"Han!"

The Corellian capitulated. "Oh, alright. The reason Leia let me go… was you."

"Me!"

"Yeah, you." Han turned and pulled a panel from the bulkhead. There was a pop and more sizzling sparks burning white hot and then fading away to a soft grey puff of smoke. "She was worried about you." Han glared at the mess he'd made.

"I hope that's not important."

"Nah! But don't be surprised if the sonic shower doesn't work."

"Didn't work the last time I was in this crate."

"I fixed it."

"Oh!" Luke stared down at the old holographic games table. "Leia made you come…"

"To keep an eye on you."

"Doesn't she trust me?"

"Well…" Han pulled a face. "She trusts you… to get into trouble."

"I like that. I don't need looking after."

"Leia thinks you do. I'm backup and rescue combined."

"The backup is great. I appreciate your company because you can sometimes be entertaining." Luke's face twisted into a scowl. "But I don't need rescuing."

"Sure you do. Who pulled your Jedi butt out of trouble the last time?"

Luke's brow furrowed even more as he tried to recall that occurrence. "Mara did," he pronounced.

"Eh! Are you certain?" Han asked.

Luke nodded. "Yeah, it was Mara."

"Well, the time before that."

"Mara again," Luke said, the worry evident on his face.

"I'm sure I rescued you in there somewhere, kid," Han muttered.

"You probably did." Luke's voice was weary.

"Hey, kid!"

"Yeah?"

"We'll find her."

Luke sighed. "I hope so because I…" He closed his mouth, not sure what he was going to say. Whatever it was – it was too much.

Han hoped so too. He liked Mara Jade and he gazed speculatively at his brother-in-law. He wasn't certain of the effect losing Mara Jade would have on Luke. Not a good one - that was definite. It was odd really. Han never really thought Mara was a good influence before, but she certainly seemed to ground Luke in a way no other person was able to. 

Yeah, he hoped they could find the red-haired trader and quickly. For Luke's sake.