Disclaimer: The people and situations used in this fic are the property of George Lucas and Lucasfilm Ltd. Also KJA as I've used some of his words to further the story. I'm only writing this for my own enjoyment and am making no Imperial of Republican credits in this endeavour. Many thanks to all the girls for their help and encouragement as always. And this is for my friend John who died recently. He knew I wrote fic and waded through quite a lot of my efforts. I'll miss you very much.

I wrote this a few years ago and at that time it was NC-17. It can still be accessed as that at the SSB website but for other sites, here is a toned down version. It will also have additions because I can never leave things alone if I re-read them. The fic is still for John and I still miss his irreverent sense of humour.

Ash

Watching, Waiting, and Hoping by Ash D.

The steady sound of the waves rolling gently to lie briefly against soft golden sand accompanied the whirlpool of the young woman's mind as she gazed into her glass of rich, red claret.

So the rumours were true after all. She'd heard the talk and now that she had proof… She carefully placed the glass on a side table with shaking fingers. What did she feel? How did she feel?

Mara Jade moved trance-like through the filmy white draperies framing the tall open window and out onto the balcony. A gentle wind skimming off the wave tips teased the red-gold curls framing her heated cheeks. The silk of her evening gown rustled faintly against the marble tiles and she gripped the carved railing tightly with both hands. Before her stretched one of the most beautiful vistas in the galaxy. Miles of golden sand stretched for mile after unspoilt mile, dotted with trees to give shade in the heat of the day, all framed by the purple sky with its crimson sun. The sun had begun its descent into the oblivion of night, seeping into darkening shades of pinks and purples. The planet was famed for its sunsets, yet Mara saw none of it, the expression on her face pensive, her mind troubled. A bird cried for her mate somewhere in the indigo darkness as the last rays of the sun finally vanished.

"Mara?"

She turned reluctantly to face the elegant man standing in the light, his clothes proclaiming his wealth and good breeding. He rubbed his hand over a neatly trimmed beard.

"Karrde."

"You seem a little far away tonight. What is it?"

"Nothing, I'm just tired."

He raised his eyebrows, but wisely kept his opinions on the subject to himself. He had a very good idea what the matter was, but he was pretty sure Mara would not open up and tell him. The trick was to have already guessed at the root of the problem. There was always one conundrum where Mara was involved – one that wouldn't go away. She could ignore it, but she never forgot about it. He walked out to join her on the balcony and pressed her abandoned drink into her cold fingers.

"Here's to another very successful trade run, Ms Jade… very successful." He sipped his own drink carefully, savouring the multitude of flavours on his tongue.

Mara shrugged a slim, bare shoulder. "It was a job and I did what was required. End of story. Her voice was flat… unemotional… dead.

"Still – you did a good job. That's what this dinner was all about. The rest of the crew appreciated it." The muffled laughter and chink of knife on plate and glass against glass could be faintly heard as the crew still celebrated inside without them.

The gently worded reprimand penetrated the fog Mara was operating in and she turned cool green eyes towards her boss. "I'm sorry, Talon… it's…" Her eyes warmed a little. "As I said, it was a long run and I'm tired. I don't mean to be ungracious."

"Do you want to go to Coruscant?"

The eyes chilled again. "Why would I want to do that?"

Pale blue eyes surveyed her calmly. "It was your home for much of your life and I wondered if there were people you wanted to look up? You have friends there."

There was no mistaking the frost as her face closed against him. "No."

"You sure?" Talon wondered briefly if he was being foolish or suicidal, but he'd heard the rumours and had wondered if Mara had heard them too. The mood she was in and had been in ever since she'd returned from her last buying and selling trip on behalf of his organisation gave him his answer. She'd heard them all right. Damn Skywalker and his ability to throw Mara into a spin. It was the one constant in an ever-changing galaxy. They circled each other, fed emotionally from each other, Mara was the moon to Luke's sun, but neither of them would admit it. 'Hell!' Karrde swore in his mind. He was sure they had no idea and the strength and depth of the connection linking them together. She was tied to the Jedi and their ancient order, yet she continually chafed at the pull of their silken threads.

He watched her throw the rest of her drink down her throat with a recklessness that didn't match her appearance. She could be anything, changeable as a Corulag Chameleon, one of the reasons she was so useful to his organisation. At this moment, she was stunningly beautiful in soft green silk, her pale creamy throat and soft arms bare of all jewellery, her fiery hair caught on top of her head in an intricate arrangement of coils and curls. The next time he saw her; she could be fighting like any seasoned soldier or covered in engine grease wielding a macrofuser without effort. She could don a number of disguises at the drop of a hat and then she could plan and execute any strategy she wanted to with a brilliance that rivalled Grand Admiral Thrawn himself. She would also tell him what he needed to know, whether he liked it or not. Mara Jade hadn't the inclination to dress up the truth to make it more palatable. That's what he liked best about her – her all-encompassing honesty and the intelligence that lanced out at you. Then there was the side of her that she continually tried to deny – the hidden warmth, the love of life and the vitality so sharp and strong.

"I need a break, Karrde. I can't do this any longer." Her voice was low… tired.

He winced because he'd known this was coming. The lure of the Jedi was stronger than she realised – not that she'd said anything yet. Mara had grown steadily closer to the Jedi order through her friendship with Skywalker even as she sought to distance herself. She was being pulled in two ways and it showed – either be a Jedi or deny the Force ability Skywalker said was so strong within her. But if the rumours were true, Mara was in for a tough time.

"You need to go see him."

She hesitated, wondering whether to feign ignorance of the topic he was broaching. "I don't."

"Mara, you do and you know it. They're rumours. Do you think that she is good for him?"

"No. I never did."

"It's up to you to make him see sense."

Mara snorted. "Make him see sense… what is there for him to see?" So he knew. She should have guessed. How many of the others knew? The anger coursed through her at the thought of being the subject of such speculation. She turned away from Talon's penetrating gaze and stared out into the night, the final death throes of the sunset leaving blood-red streaks across the sky. "How do you know so much?"

"I make it my business. You're my second in command, Mara. That's reason enough for me." Karrde was willing to bet the Wilde Karrde and the Starry Ice that she knew almost as much, if not more, than he did about Skywalker's most recent movements.

Mara gave him her first amused glare of the evening. "I don't know whether to slug you or hug you, Karrde."

He grinned dryly. "I suggest you don't attempt the first. This is a new suit and I don't want to have it ruined in a brawl with a lady on a balcony."

"Yes, Sir." Mara smiled ruefully. "You're as bad as he is." She didn't have to say who 'he' was; Karrde understood. "Both of you trying to run my life. I run my life."

"You do? I thought it was the Force… or destiny?"

"Bite your tongue. I'm in charge of my own destiny." She looked down at the empty glass still clasped in her hands. "I have to go and see if he's okay."

"Mara… Do you…?"

Mara twisted around, her expression carefully blank. "What?"

"Forget it." He shook his head.

"It's nothing to do with you, Karrde," Mara murmured softly.

He watched her lips move and strained to hear her almost inaudible words.

"Or me," she whispered.

Coruscant – Solo Apartments

Leia stared at the image frozen on the holovid. Her brother was shutting her out. She had seen him when he'd first returned to Coruscant. He'd almost been back to his old self – a little unsettled, perhaps, but he'd been smiling and serene - the epitome of the assured Jedi Master. Now she was back and Leia wondered what it would do to her beloved brother if it didn't work out this time. He hadn't graced them with his presence since her return. She wandered slowly over to the large transparisteel window where Han stood gazing out into the early evening sky.

He glanced at her and smiled. "Leave him alone this time, sweetheart."

Han's softly voiced comment echoed through her.

"If he'd wanted you to help him with this one, he'd have asked your advice." The look he sent his diminutive wife was a loving one. Han knew that his wife's propensity for meddling in her brother's life was fuelled by the very best of intentions. "I know you want him to be happy, but this is not our affair."

"I only knew she was back because of the holofootage." Leia indicated the viewer. "He didn't say anything."

"Maybe he didn't know what to say."

"I can't get any reading on his emotions. He's locked up tighter than the New Republic precious metals vault. There's no point trying to read… her."

"You can say her name, Leia. Just because she left him doesn't make her worse than Palpatine was. Hell, I want to set her straight on one or two facts myself. I'm not even letting Chewie near her vicinity. Luke is part of his honour family too. If Luke wants us for support we'll be there with Ewoks to help. But in all the holos I've seen, he looks happy."

"Yesm he does." Leia sighed and turned to nestle in her husband's arms. "When did you get so wise, nerfherder?"

"I think it might have been around the time I met a beautiful Princess and fell in love with her. She's also pretty wise and clear headed herself, except sometimes…where her brother is involved. She just wants him to be as happy as she is." Han dropped a kiss lightly on the end of Leia's nose. "It's one of the things I most love about you."

"I guess you're right… for once." She smiled wistfully up at him and he settled his warm lips over hers. Even after three children and many years of marriage, Han could still make her bones ache.

"Hey," he gently said as he tenderly smoothed her hair back from her face. "I'm always right, Highnessness."

The old nickname still made her want to bristle and smile at the same time. Leia settled into his comforting embrace, her head falling to his shoulder. Luke deserved happiness more than anyone she knew and if she had to accept Callista back in his life again, she would. She'd liked Callista at first, mainly because she had made Luke happy. As she'd come to know the woman residing in Cray's body, she'd realised that she had liked her because she was intelligent, compassionate and funny. Callista genuinely was a nice woman. Han had originally voiced doubts about the relationship but even he had grown to accept her. The children had never been totally at ease with her, Leia recalled. The total absence of the Force around her had seemed strange to them. All living creatures left a signature in the Force, but not Callista and the children had not understood. Eventually this had been her reason for leaving Luke. His strength in the Force was too painful for Callista to bear. She had to be her lover's equal. Anything less was not acceptable.

"It couldn't have been easy for her. She lost so much." Leia murmured.

"She gained a life – she gained Cray's life."

"Because Cray didn't want it any more and she didn't know..."

"Perhaps not, but she took it regardless of the consequences. There are always consequences. You and I both understand that only too well, and as for Luke…" Han spread his hands in the familiar gesture of helplessness that he often used when talking about Luke. Who knew what went on in his brother-in-law's head these days? "In some ways it would have been better for him if she had died on the Eye."

"Callista said that herself once. It wasn't long before she left Luke. I don't think they were truly happy by then, either of them. He was trying so hard to help her find what she had lost and she was trying to turn him into the perfect Jedi Master from a bygone age. In the end she felt her lack of Force skills would only hold him back."

"In the end, sweetheart, she did hold him back. You know what he was like when she left. He was devastated by her departure; searched the galaxy for her. Put the Jedi order on hold until he finally admitted to himself that she wasn't going to return. It was a long time before we got the old Luke back."

Leia sighed, her cheek pillowed on Han's chest. "I don't think we ever did get the old Luke back. I don't know if we ever will. He's been through too much."

"Just like the rest of us. Life is a growing process, sweetheart. He'll come and tell you all when he's ready. You know he will. So quit worrying and leave him in peace to do his courting."

"You think he's courting? You think that is why she's back?"

"I don't know." Han's voice rose in irritation. "It's just an expression, but they've certainly spent enough time together." He dropped onto the old well-stuffed couch and pulled Leia into his lap. "Has she regained her Force ability?"

"No," Leia answered quietly. "That was the reason I thought she had returned. Somehow she had discovered her ability to touch the Force again. When I saw them together in the restaurant the other day I could sense Luke… oh, not his emotions. I told you he was shielding with every bit of skill that he possesses. But his presence resonated with a warm hum. Luke has this glow in the Force, a light stronger than any other creature. All things register in the Force except for Callista. Where she sat there was this gaping black hole. I could not feel her through the Force. I was going to speak to them, but they were in the middle of a very animated discussion and had eyes only for each other. That was when the holo-reporter cornered me and I learned Callista had been on Coruscant for three weeks. Most of which had apparently been spent in the company of my brother."

"Oh, Luke!" Han slumped back against a couple of cushions and closed his eyes. "I didn't know this had been going on quite that long."

"He's refused to speak to the press or the Senate…"

Han bristled at the mention of the latter. "Why should he? It's got nothing to do with them."

"He's still the Jedi Master." Leia sat up.

"So?" Han's tone grew hostile. "He is a private citizen of the New Republic and shouldn't have to report to the Senate or the Council every time he wants to blow his nose in public. It still has nothing to do with them."

"Han!" Leia uttered in amazement. "He doesn't have to do that. You know it – stop exaggerating."

"Anyway… wife," Han announced, a wicked twinkle sparking into his hazel eyes. "We are alone for a couple of hours. Winter has taken the kids away for the rest of the afternoon and I'm playing hookey from my office, as are you. What say you, that we spend it together?"

Leia frowned. "I do have a lot of paperwork to catch up on…" Her voice slowed and an elegant hand traced a path up the front of Han's tunic to find the fastening. "But since I've left most of it at my office, I'll just have to find something else to do to pass the time."

Mara

Mara felt his presence as clearly as ever. As soon as she landed on Coruscant she recognised the familiar warmth that was Luke Skywalker. His power drew her to him. A long time ago she had mistakenly thought that Luke would use her as the Emperor had done, but she'd been wrong. Luke would never do that to her. Suddenly anxious to speak to him she stretched out with her feelings and tried to contact him, but found he had his barriers up tighter than she had ever known.

'Callista.'

'I should have told Luke how I felt about him, but how could I? He has absolutely no idea, but then again, why should he? I never gave him any indication of my feelings; he only saw the negative side of my anger. It's too late now.'

Mara sighed as the strange sensation of regret swirled around her empty stomach. Food hadn't been on her mind at all on the flight to Coruscant, but Skywalker and Callista had. Why had Callista come back and why now? Mara hadn't known the woman at all well, partly because she hadn't stuck around to be all cosy when Callista had been rescued from the Eye, and partly due to her non-recognition by the Force. Mara shivered at the thought. Callista totally unnerved her. In fact, Mara hadn't liked her much and suspected that the Jedi woman had been suspicious of her motives. Mara had, after all, wanted to kill Luke at one time. That little gem of a fact still haunted her. Luke had never, for one moment, had any doubt that she would let him live, and she had. Still, Mara supposed any woman might be a little concerned about a former Imperial assassin holding a grudge against her lover. She banished the disturbing image of Luke and Callista as lovers from her mind. It turned her stomach.

Mara resolutely pushed her way through the busy Coruscant walkway, head down, hell bent on getting to her destination, holding her wretchedness close to her heart. Why she was so miserable Mara didn't care to analyse too strongly – not yet. The throng of Coruscant citizenry heading for the entertainment district began to grate on her frayed nerves until she caught a shuttle leading to her apartment block. She wanted to talk to Luke or be alone. Mara pulled her carryall from the shuttle and slung it over her arm, eyes fixed on negotiating the steps to the door of the building. As she keyed in her security number, the door opened and a man and a woman emerged.

The swirl of tightly held Force-fed emotions buffeted Mara like a physical assault. That, and a strange feeling of emptiness. Her head snapped up and green eyes glittered like the brightest jewels in her white, tired face. She slammed down the barriers over her own feelings and stood inches from the mesmerising blue eyes of Luke Skywalker. For what seemed like an aeon, Luke and Mara stood transfixed, gazing at each other. Both struggled to read what the other was thinking, and both ultimately failed.

The green eyes were strangely shuttered, yet still, Luke tried to imprint the vision of Mara Jade into his mind, when a woman with malt-coloured hair and calm grey eyes broke the spell.

"Hello, Mara."

Mara's face turned to stone and with an abrupt "Callista!" and an inscrutable glance at Luke once more for good measure she vanished into the building. The sound of the door sliding closed echoed behind Mara and for a moment her body sagged and an expression of pain crossed her face.

So the rumours were true after all and now she had seen it for herself. Callista was back and she was with Luke.