Mara Jade toggled the comm switch on her console. "This is Captain Jade of the Jade's Fire, requesting landing clearance to Yavin IV." Mara leaned back against her captain's seat, absentmindedly fingering the small bag of data crystals that was the end result of about eight months' worth of searching. And maybe, these crystals could bring Luke back to normal.
Mara was waiting for landing clearance. What she didn't expect was to get the President of the NR her own royal self on the comm.
The former assassin straightened in her chair, alarmed by Leia's tone. "Leia, what is it?" she asked, concerned.
Leia shook her head. "If I knew the whole story, I'd tell you. As it is, we don't have much time. Mara, we need you to get the Falcon in a tractor-beam lock. It's coming up now – here's its expected flight-pass." Leia tapped a button, and suddenly a hologram of the Falcon appeared on Mara's display, along with a arcing red line that was supposedly its flight-pass.
"Mara, you have to do it now. The ship will be in range in five seconds."
"You got it."
Anakin, his feet dangling off his father's seat, turned to look at the smaller boy beside him. "We are in such deep trouble…"
Luke leaned forward, fingers flying over the console. He scrambled to his feet and stood on the copilot's chair, swaying slightly as he fought to keep his balance on the not-exactly-smooth-going ship. He stretched to his fullest height, just managing to throw several switches on the Falcon's ceiling. Immediately, Anakin felt the slightly bucking ride of the ship smoothen.
"C'mon, Ani," Luke said impatiently, "we've gotta get the ship turning back…"
Just then, a strange keening whine filled their ears, and the smell of burnt wiring, which they had smelled in the engine room, reached their nostrils once more. Anakin looked at his display and paled.
"What is it? What is it?" Luke asked, worriedly. "Is it the sublight engines we just fixed?"
"No…" Anakin said, shaking his head, "those are holding steady. It's the…um, you aren't going to like this…it's the stabilizers…"
Mara used gentle burst of her jets to maneuver the Jade's Fire into a proper position to catch the Falcon, wondering all the while what kind of person was clever enough to hijack Solo's overprotected baby away from him.
Then she watched, eyes furrowing as the other ship shuddered once, and then began to vibrate wildly as though shaken by a giant hand.
'What in all the kriffing hells?'
She pushed the Fire into a dive, racing to intercept the suddenly erratic Falcon. It was clear to her what had happened – the Millennium Falcon, famously irascible and breakdown-prone ship that it was, had chosen to malfunction while in the hands of whoever had stolen it. She wondered idly if Solo perhaps kept the Falcon so incomprehensible to others for situations like these.
Her ship blared out a proximity warning as she swung dangerously close to the out-of-control Falcon. She tapped a few buttons, trapping the Falcon in a tractor-beam lock; and her alarms were shrilling louder than ever, because she had gone in even closer for a sure lock, and because she had rerouted most of her weapons- and shield systems' power to the tractor beam.
'Come on, Fire…'
The light on top of the tractor-beam controls turned green, and Mara unconsciously relaxed. She leaned back in her seat – strange, she couldn't remember leaning forward – and flipped a switch, establishing communications with the ship in her tractor-beam.
"Attention to those onboard the Falcon. You are in tractor-lock by my ship, the Jade's Fire, and if you so much as sneeze without my permission, I'm opening fire."
She could almost hear Solo's squeals of protest.
"Now, I want you to move forward of my ship, starboard about twelve degrees, and we'll perform a nice little Dawrt assisted-landing."
A human named Arass Dawrt had, about seventy-five or so years before the fall of the Old Republic, developed a maneuver which involved two ships landing while one was locked in a tractor beam. Perfect for landing captured spacecraft.
Instead of a sullen affirmative, or a try at bargaining or threatening, the response from the Falcon was one that threw Mara for a loop.
Since performing a Dawrt was totally out of the question considering that the two 'pilots' onboard the Falcon had ages below the double-digits, Mara instead told the two of them to shut down all of the systems onboard the ship, letting it stay as stationary as possible.
With very careful maneuvering, she moved the Falcon close enough to the Fire to initiate a docking. She'd had to move all of the power not involved with life-support to the tractor-beam, so that she was cut off from communications with Yavin, with the Falcon – with everyone, as a matter of fact. She wished that she could use the Force to move the Falcon, but the one person in the galaxy with enough control to manhandle a spacecraft with the Force was currently a five-year-old boy…
'…no matter how highly Kyp Durron thinks of himself.'
When it was done, she heaved a sigh of relief. She unbuckled her safety restraints and stood up, stretching her limbs before heading out to the door. She tapped a key on the panel beside the door, watching as the door slid aside to reveal a pressurized tunnel connecting to the Falcon's hull. Glad that she insisted on the very best equipment for all of her ship, even if only to match Karrde, she walked across the tunnel. Before she had quite reached the end of it, the Falcon's end of the tunnel opened, and two small blue-eyed boys bowled into her.
She found herself with children hanging onto her legs. "Boys…"
"We're so sorry, Aunt Mara!" bawled Anakin. She could, with the Force, feel the lingering panic and nervousness that had plagued both boys. 'It must have been scary, to be all alone on a spacecraft and have it take off…'
She sighed. 'Five-year-old or twenty-five-year-old, whenever I meet Luke Skywalker he's always in trouble.'
Mara raised Leia on the comm, but didn't stay long – just long enough for her to confirm the story that tumbled out of the boys' mouths, and for Leia to (repeatedly) thank Mara and to see for herself that the boys were safe.
She made Luke and Anakin stay, buckled tightly, in the seats of the non-existent crew, the navigator and copilot seats. She decided to keep them there so as to have an eye on them while she negotiated her re-entry into Yavin IV's atmosphere. She expected to be plagued with questions about the bridge and the Fire, but both Anakin and Luke were quiet – uncharacteristically subdued.
'Well, that's good, isn't it?' the redhead asked herself. 'What they did was wrong – though not really that out of character for either of them – and they need to know that and reflect on it, don't they?'
The silence felt odd and uncomfortable to her, though.
They landed with little incident, despite the difficulty of a spacecraft docked to her own. Mara Jade was a good pilot, one of the best in the galaxy. There were few who could match her in sheer finesse when handling a ship – Han Solo, though he could perhaps push a ship to be faster than she could, could not; Lando Calrissian could not; the only ones who could were Corran Horn and Luke Skywalker.
'Maybe it's a Force thing.'
She stood at the Fire's entry, waiting for the door to raise completely. Anakin and Luke waited behind her, shifting from foot to foot nervously. Mara glanced behind her, noticing for the first time the smears of oil and the aroma of engines on the boys. She watched as Luke, seemingly reflexively, brought up a hand to run through unruly blond hair, while Anakin tried to wipe his face with a shirt sleeve just as grubby as he was.
The door opened.
As the three moved down the ramp, they saw the doorway to the hangar slide open, and Han and Leia were running towards them. Anakin darted past her, running to his father and jumping into Han's arms, all the while babbling apologies. Han laughed, the sound a little louder than usual from sheer relief, rumpling his son's sandy hair. Leia seized her son from Han's hold, and Mara could see her checking over Anakin with both a mother's eyes and with the Force, a sigh of relief when she was convinced of his health. And then, of course, came the scolding – but Mara caught the sense, from Han's feelings, that it was much milder than the one Leia had given Han. And as for the roguish ex-smuggler himself – well, with no training at all in the Force, it was easy to feel the waves of rather reluctant pride for his son fixing whatever was wrong with the Falcon.
And then they looked at the other culprit, and Mara could suddenly feel a sudden jolt in the Force from Luke's direction. It was sudden and quick, and in the manner of Luke's newly-altered Force-presence, hard to get a handle on. Yet something about that lightning-flash of…of something…disturbed Mara.
Han began to walk towards them, grinning. Mara could just imagine the teasing he'd give Luke…
There it was again, but more intense this time. Mara turned to look at Luke and was shaken. The child was trembling, as if exposed to biting Hoth winds. He was hugging himself, arms wrapped around a skinny chest, in a vain attempt to stop the shivering. But what struck her was the look of pure, unadulterated fear in blue eyes wide in a suddenly pale face.
She frowned, puzzled. "Luke…?"
Those fear-struck eyes fastened onto her face with intensity born of desperation. The fear that was growing in them was coupled with a silent plea. A plea for what?
Han, who had not yet noticed Luke's strange behavior, came closer.
A shudder wracked through Luke's tiny frame, and he hugged himself tighter. Tears began to brighten his eyes, and one clear teardrop slipped free to trace a slow path over his brown cheek. Mara knelt down in front of him, to see him better at his eye-level.
By this time, Han had seen something wrong with the boy. "Hey, kid!" he called, worry clear in his tone. He began to pick up his pace. His wife, suddenly alert, looked up from her talk with Anakin.
Luke whimpered, a heart-broken and heart-breaking sound, and flung himself into Mara's arms. He buried his face into her shoulder, like an orphaned cub seeking refuge from a coming storm. Mara, shocked, could only bring her arms around the shaking, suddenly-sobbing child in front of her.
And then she heard what he was saying, and her blood ran cold.
"I'm sorry…I didn't mean to…I'm sorry…I'm sorry…" he sobbed. He nuzzled closer, but it was no warm affectionate gesture…it was a reaction of pure terror, a try for shelter. "Please, I'm sorry, I won't do it again…please don't let him hurt me!"
Mara spun, her green eyes flashing. "Solo…get out of here!" Han stopped dead in his tracks. Confused, he asked, "What?" and took one step closer. Luke, who had tightened his arms around Mara when she spun, afraid she was going to leave him, whimpered again.
"Solo…please…you've got to get out of here."
By now, Leia and Anakin had picked up on the waves of sheer terror emanating from Luke, even with the difficulty of registering anything in the Force concerning the boy now shivering in Mara Jade's arms. Leia began to come nearer, her fear for her twin pushing her into a run. Anakin stood stock-still where his mother put him down, clenching his fists tightly.
Mara stood up, still cradling the small boy in her arms. She looked straight at Han. "Solo, I know this is confusing, but you have got to leave here…now! You being here is just making this all worse." Her gaze fastened on the other child in the hangar. "And take Anakin with you."
Confused and anxious, but recognizing the seriousness in Mara's eyes, Han backed off. He seized his youngest son's hand, eyes still fastened on Mara, Luke, and the approaching Leia. Anakin did not react to his father, except to follow him when Han shepherded him out of the hangar.
Mara reached one hand up to stroke Luke's silver-blond hair, murmuring soothing words into the sobbing boy's ear, the urge to calm coming nearly instinctively to the hard-bitten, assassin-trained, former Imperial. "Shh…shh…he's gone now…look, see, he left…Luke, no one is going to lay a finger on you without your consent…we won't let them…shh…shh…Luke…"
He just held tighter to her, still crying.
Leia was next to them, then, and reaching out anxious hands for Luke. Mara let him go slowly, loath to move him – he was crying so. But Luke showed no evidence that he was aware or reluctant towards the move – he just latched onto his sister's neck with the same desperation, still crying.
"What's wrong with him?" cried Leia, her own fear at what was happening to Luke bright and obvious in the Force. She, however, rubbed soothing hands up and down the boy's back, and stroked his hair, and basically brought to bear the experience of hugging and assuring three children through at least seven years brought. And, Mara noticed, Luke was beginning to calm down, sobs lessening in volume, his heaves for breath gentling.
Mara shook her head. "He was…he was desperately afraid that Han was going to beat him for taking the Falcon."
"But Han has never laid a finger on children…"
"But I bet that the only adult male authority figure that this Luke knows did," Mara said, suddenly grim. She was staring at Luke's back; the child's hysterical sobbing had caused his tunic to ride up somewhat, and she could see the pale tell-tale scars on the tanned skin.
Leia caught the sudden chill and anger in Mara's sense. She craned her neck over the boy's head, and saw what Mara saw. A horrified silence descended upon them.
Luke, exhausted by his ordeal of ship-'stealing' and the subsequent terror and rescue from certain agony, fell asleep on Leia's shoulder.
You were born on a night filled with stars
You were crying weakly in your mother's arms
Not knowing joy, not knowing sorrow
And innocent eyes