This was why Mara disliked coming to Skywalker's academy. The students, among other things.
There was one waiting when she descended the ramp of the Jade's Fire, a youngish human male, vaguely familiar, with blondish hair. Durron? No, he was dark-haired. Durron was the schutta who'd stolen her headhunter on her first, disastrous visit back when Exar Kun's disgruntled ghost was haunting this place.
Whoever he was, the student was frowning at her in a distant kind of confusion.
"Mara Jade," she introduced herself. His confusion cleared, and he blinked.
"Master Skywalker is resting," he said. Something about the tone made it sound as though this was an unusual occurrence. Mara didn't doubt that in the slightest: Skywalker was a damned fool when it came to looking after himself.
"Right," Mara said. She felt compelled to add, because – who said she was here to see Skywalker anyway? "I'm just passing through."
"Okay." The student blinked at her again vaguely, then turned and headed off into the jungle. Mara listened a moment, heard distant sounds of lightsaber combat from that direction. Sparring, most likely. That, or Exar Kun's ghost had decided to show up again from whatever netherworld he'd vanished to.
She headed toward the academy proper. Tionne wasn't hard to find, standing in the main entrance chamber with a tall craggy-faced man – Kam, wasn't it, something like that?
The silver-haired woman blinked at Mara, eyebrows shooting up. "Master Trader Jade."
Mara nodded shortly, looking around. There were quite a few students in the main area, some sitting in conversation circles, some bent over datapads. One looked like he was meditating. "Tionne," Mara said.
"Luke's in his room," Tionne said.
"So I heard," Mara said, a little irritated at the assumption. "I was just passing through this sector, anyway. If he's indisposed…"
"Oh, no, no," Tionne said instantly. "He'll appreciate the company."
"Hm." Mara frowned at the other woman, who met her gaze innocuously. "Well, I guess I can spare a few minutes."
"Of course." Was that the edge of a smile around Tionne's lips? "His room is on the upper level, east."
"Yes, I remember." Mara cast a narrow look at Tionne, just in case, then gave the woman a short nod and turned to head for the turbolift. She glanced over her shoulder before she entered, but Tionne and the man had returned their attention to a datapad he was holding.
So. Students and instructors, both annoying. She'd known that already, though – Skywalker was a damned instructor, wasn't he.
They didn't have to act so conspiratorial. It wasn't like her presence was that startling an occurrence. She'd visited before, more than once. The visit when that Callista woman was here might have been very much in passing, true, and it had been a while before that since she'd visited, but still—
Why was she bothering to wonder whether it mattered?
Mara scowled. And Skywalker asked why she didn't visit more often…
Speaking of the man, his rooms were a mess. She was a little surprised, because he didn't really seem the untidy type. Stubborn, painfully obtuse at times, yes, but untidy… not really. He kept his life so appallingly frugal with the teaching and the training and the adherence to duty; she'd expecting something similar in his housekeeping.
More like her, perhaps. Mara couldn't stand disorder of any kind, domestic or otherwise. Even now she was experiencing an itchy and unnerving urge to clean some of the mess.
Mara Jade most definitely did not tidy up after others.
She tamped down ruthlessly on the offending urge, offering instead a belated, "Skywalker?" to the empty room. It appeared to be a small living area that had been reworked into a training space, judging by the chairs awkwardly positioned against the wall to create a central cleared area and the training droids lying haphazardly on the floor.
Maybe he wasn't in. The main door had opened at her touch, but Mara didn't think that was particularly indicative of anything. She suspected Skywalker wasn't one for locks.
Just as she was about to leave, there was a kind of muffled noise from a room off to the side, followed by a "Here."
Mara crossed the living space/training area, turned a corner, and found herself in Skywalker's bedroom. It was bare of decoration but managed to share the cluttered effect of the entry room by merit of strewn datapads and odd parts littering the stone floor. Mara frowned at the mess on general principle, then shifted her gaze to the bed.
The bed was more of a pallet, really. Skywalker was sitting upright, knees bent under a roughspun blanket, frowning as he fiddled with something on a datapad. He glanced up as she entered and did a comical double-take, eyes widening in surprise.
"Hello to you too," Mara said dryly.
"I, uh – " Skywalker stared. "What are you doing here? When did you arrive?"
"Just now. Passing through, you know."
Skywalker blinked at her. She assessed his appearance. Red-eyed, obvious bed-hair, faced paler than usual except for some redness in his cheeks, possibly from fever. Dark shadows under his eyes, and were his eyes always that bright a blue?
"You look terrible," she said frankly. "Contagious?"
Skywalker blinked again, blank for a moment, then shook his head. "Uh, no. Just some kind of bug." His voice sounded different: hoarser, slightly blocked up. "Nothing life threatening." He did something with the datapad then lowered it.
Mara narrowed her eyes. "What are you looking at?"
Skywalker shook his head, something of a smile around his lips. "It's been a while."
"And?" She quirked an eyebrow, waiting for the lecture.
"And it's good to see you." Skywalker shifted, drawing his legs up under the blanket, crossing them, coughing once.
"I thought you'd be able to ward off illnesses with the Force?" Mara crossed her arms.
"Ah, normally, yes. This… snuck up on me." Something almost sheepish crossed his face, then he recovered with a hasty, "I've found it's probably better to let these things run their course, anyway."
"How uncharacteristically wise of you," Mara muttered.
Skywalker pulled a face and said, "Now Mara, don't coddle me or anything."
"Wouldn't dream of it."
Skywalker's lips curved into a smirk. "That's what I like about you."
Mara eyed him. "Either you're delirious, Skywalker, or you're just a very strange man. Judging from previous experience, I'm going with the latter."
He snorted, then coughed; shook his head again and settled back. Mara paced a few steps into the room, and he watched her.
"Why are you really here?" he asked.
"What do you mean?" Mara countered.
She practically heard his shrug. "I haven't seen you for – well, quite a while. And then you show up out of the blue? Why?"
Mara closed her eyes for a few seconds. She opened them. The wall was directly in front of her, naked stone, ancient and worn. It looked grey from a distance, but up close there were swirls of faint colour running like seams through the rock. Funny; she'd never noticed before. "That's an interesting question," she said.
"And?" Skywalker asked.
"I… wanted to check, that's all."
Mara glared at the wall, then turned. "I was in the area, Skywalker. Passing through."
"I know." There he went, that placid tone that drove her insane.
"You know, you're good at this." Mara lifted her hand and opened it, indicating Skywalker, red-eyed under the covers of the bed. "You get yourself severely injured on a regular basis. How anyone can be stupid enough to walk into half the trouble you do… Concussed so many times I'd be surprised if you don't have a permanent dent in your head, not to mention the gangrenous leg from a few years back, and those weird parasite things, and now a virus? Which I've heard was a little more serious than you're claiming, by the way, so don't think I'm fooled by the nothing, I'm fine routine."
Skywalker stared. His expression was caught somewhere between confused and offended, like he couldn't decide which way to go.
Mara let her hand fall. "You know what? Never mind. Just forget it."
"Uh…" Skywalker blinked and frowned. "Okay."
"I mean, Skywalker, it's ridiculous, how many times you've been injured in the past few years. Do you have no sense of self-preservation at all?"
More blinking, which was getting annoying. He was looking a little bleary, though, his eyes bright in colour but somehow still duller than usual, lacking the animation that was characteristic in almost everything he did. "I don't exactly do it on purpose, Mara. Believe me."
"Sure you don't."
"I don't try to be injured or sick."
"Yeah, well, you could work on your avoidance skills, I think."
Skywalker opened his mouth, then closed it. He scrubbed a hand through his hair and shrugged in surrender, then leaned his head back against the wall behind him.
Mara watched him for a moment, then exhaled her frustration. She didn't know why she was bothering; it was almost certain that Skywalker would never stop putting his life on the line for all and sundry. There'd be the last-minute save, pulling a feint on death, saving his life only to risk it again in the next cause that came along.
It was such a fundamental part of who he was, and it drove Mara crazy. It was completely against her philosophy. She'd always thought people who did things like that were in it for the reward, whether it be attention, or the adrenaline kick, or – whatever. Or that they were just plain stupid, hapless pawns in someone else's dejarik game, too naïve to see how they were being used.
Luke Skywalker didn't fit either of those descriptions. Maybe to begin with, he'd been naïve, little more than a pawn in a battle that had begun before he was born, but he'd shed that role quickly, becoming more than his teachers and sometime manipulators fashioned him to be when he chose to believe in his father instead of killing him. And ever since, knowingly, again and again, he put himself on the line for people who barely bothered to acknowledge the pain and sacrifice suffered on their behalf.
He'd ever done it for Mara, back in C'baoth's throne room, offering himself to a crazed maniac in the place of a woman who'd sworn to kill him. Mara didn't think she'd ever quite forget the look in his eyes at that moment, knowing what he was condemning himself to and coldly resolute nonetheless.
When she shifted her gaze to him now, she was startled to see he was drifting to sleep. Another habit of his she'd noticed early on, back in the jungles on Myrkr – he'd go from awaking to dozing in a matter of seconds. Probably carried over from his days as a soldier – she'd utilised the same skill often as an assassin, never knowing when the next opportunity for rest would come.
There was a slowness to his breathing, though, Mara noticed as she watched him. It struck her as being somehow different to his normal breathing patterns, indicative of his lingering illness and exhaustion.
Mara turned to leave, moving silently, careful not to wake him. His breathing shifted nonetheless when she reached the door. She paused as he said, "Mara."
When she turned back, he was blinking at her, barely awake. "Don't go," he mumbled.
Mara hesitated for a long moment, there on the threshold of his room. But then she turned, stepped back into the room, and settled cross-legged on the stone floor.
"Did I ever tell you I hate being sick like this?" Skywalker was barely distinct, but Mara understood him. "I was allergic to dust storms on Tatooine, used to get sick for days…"
He didn't say anything else. Mara waited, then when she was sure he was truly asleep, she rose and crouched by the bed. He was startling in how utterly vulnerable he was, she thought, the observation taking her by surprise. Normally he kept the vulnerability shielded from view, tucked away like something devastating. Mara had always known it was there, was ever-aware of it, but never before had it struck her as quite so obvious.
Mara reached toward a limp strand of hair falling down over his forehead, but withdrew her fingers at the last moment. She slid down against the wall and watched as he slept.
She made sure to be gone when he woke, though – wouldn't want him to get the wrong idea.