Title: A Simple Twist of Fate

Timeframe: OT; about the time of ANH

Characters: Luke, Mara

Genre: AU, vignette, romance

Summary: Fate can work in unexpected ways.

There were fifteen minutes left.

Luke strode swiftly through a hallway in the Imperial Palace's west wing, not bothering to glance at the wonders that had once held him spellbound. The high vaulted ceilings with their elaborately carved friezes, the transparisteel windows with decorative etching around their perimeters - he briefly remembered his initial awe at those windows; each was as wide as his home's entire courtyard back on Tatooine - that revealed Coruscant's endless cities beyond, the potted trees and flowers and plants more lush than he would once have believed possible: all this had rendered him nearly speechless the first time he'd set foot in the Palace. As a new graduate of the Academy and a prime candidate for the TIE pilot corps, he'd been so anxious to not look out of place - but his first glimpse of the Palace had made that an impossibility.

Even now, he felt his face flush with residual anger as he recalled the other cadets' taunts of "rimkin" and other, even less civilized terms for those who hailed from the Outer Rim. He should be grateful to Fixer and Camie, he supposed; if not for the self-control their constant prodding had instilled in him, he might have punched the most obnoxious of his tormenters the way he'd wanted to, and getting written up for fighting within the ranks was no way to impress one's superiors.

But all of that was only a memory now, and the main areas of the Palace had become nearly as familiar to him as Anchorhead had once been. It was easy to ignore the careless luxury when he wanted to, and today he had something far more important to think of.

She hadn't answered her comm when he called. That could mean any number of things - she could be performing, or engrossed in research or training, or maybe on one of the missions she was always so reticent about. Few knew what Luke did, that her status as a Palace dancer was merely a front for her real job as a special agent. But not even Luke knew exactly what her true position was, or to whom she answered. He did know that she was very highly placed in the Imperial hierarchy, and that she easily outranked him.

He squirmed inside over that at times. It wasn't that he was jealous, or that he was ashamed to be with a woman of higher rank the way so many of his fellow pilots would be. In truth, he was exceedingly proud of her, and wouldn't have traded places with her for anything. He'd achieved his dream of being an elite pilot, and until he'd met her, that was all he'd ever wanted. Aside from her, flying was his deepest joy in life. Still, her rank was like her innate elegance, her easy familiarity with Coruscant's intricate mix of cultures, her sharp intelligence, and her beauty that could still leave him breathless: all were reminders that she was far too good for him.

She'd never so much as hinted at that, of course. She was proud, and perfectly aware of her worth, but she'd never looked down on him or implied that she was ashamed of him in any way. Luke knew she deserved better, though, and was determined that someday he would achieve a position and rank worthy of her.

Today's news was a large step in that direction, but it came with an almost immediate order to ship out. Luke was nearly desperate to speak with her first, but with her comm stubbornly unresponsive, he had only one chance left.

He turned a corner at an even quicker pace than before. The dust motes that a moment before had been floating languidly, shining golden in the oblique rays of the setting sun, suddenly swirled around and behind him as his passage disturbed the still air. A few people sat on benches positioned near the windows, watching the clouds slowly change colors; they looked up as the swift clicking of his boot heels against the marble floors echoed along the length of the hall, but Luke barely glanced their way. She had to be here. He couldn't leave Coruscant without seeing her again.

Halfway down the hall, he came to the door he was seeking. Part of his brain wanted him to hesitate; this wasn't really a place where he belonged, and he knew it. But the urge to see her was far stronger than his concern for social propriety, and surely it was a small enough indiscretion to be overlooked. He touched the pad beside the door and strode boldly in when it opened.

And stopped abruptly.

It was another world behind this door, one he'd barely even suspected existed. He'd seen the Palace dancers before, and gaudy, enchanting creatures they were. But that was at state occasions, balls and the like, where the dancers were glittering jewels, a welcome relief from the sea of somber uniforms and the elaborate yet conservative gowns favored by Imperial ladies of rank.

This - this was the dancers' realm, and Luke was briefly overwhelmed by the sheer unapologetic femininity of the place.

The antechamber in which he stood was spacious - his mind flashed to thoughts of hangar bays; though it was nowhere near that large, it had the same feeling of swallowing intruders whole. There was a sort of diffuse lighting throughout that he couldn't quite pin down, but which gave one the feeling of having an intangible gauze before one's eyes, like a dancer's veil. To his left was any number of semi-private conversation areas, a scattering of plush settees of all shapes, made of fine embroidered shimmersilk; their iridescent colors seemed to waver within his gaze, like a mirage on desert sands. Some had translucent drapes flowing from the ceiling like a waterfall around them, pooling on the floor and granting a greater illusion of privacy. He could see silhouettes behind some of them - dancers and their visitors? - but couldn't make out any distinguishing features.

Along the walls were old-fashioned tapestries and paintings he was sure were priceless, as well as types of art he'd never seen before; on stands of marble and crystal and smooth wood were statuettes of all styles, from abstract to stately to downright blush-worthy. Between and among the overstuffed settees were pots nearly as tall as he was and twice as wide, overflowing with exotic plants, their trailing vines full of heavily scented flowers that somehow made the sturdy pots seem dainty and fragile.

The atmosphere reminded him vividly of the bordello his fellow cadets had occasionally frequented back at the academy - the old wave of embarrassment washed over him as he recalled the time they'd brought him along without bothering to first tell him exactly where they were going - but with a far greater air of dignity and respectability. The conflicting impulses this place inspired left him standing confused, gaping like a new recruit all over again.

"Can I help you?"

Luke shook his head and turned to the right, toward the sound of the voice. In the far corner of the room, an older woman sat at an ornately carved desk. Her eyes were on him, with a single eyebrow raised in stern inquiry. To her left was a scattering of chairs and benches, all as luxurious as the settees, but in a more business-like way, somehow. He took a deep breath and advanced toward the desk, trying to look calm and authoritative and suspecting that he was failing badly at it.

"Good afternoon," he said, with careful courtesy. "I'm Captain Lars. I'm here to see Mara Jade. Is she here?"

The woman eyed him a moment longer, then consulted a datapad before her, scrolling down several times before pausing. "She's here, yes, but she's busy. I'm afraid she isn't available for visiting at this time."

"You don't understand," Luke said, putting both hands on the desk and leaning forward before he thought. "I have to see her."

"She's not available," the woman said again, with a long-suffering air that irritated him. "If you come back tomorrow -"

"I won't be on Coruscant tomorrow," Luke interrupted. "Please. It's an emergency. I'll only take a few minutes of her time."

The woman raised an eyebrow again and looked at him the way his old astrography professor had always glared at students who spoke out of turn. With an effort, Luke held his tongue and waited silently. Twelve minutes before he needed to be at the hangar bay . . .

Finally the woman waved a hand toward the chairs behind him. "I'll call her out - briefly. You can wait over there, Captain."

A sigh of relief escaped him before he could catch it and hold it back. "Thank you."

He turned to the chairs and felt his heart sink just a little. They were all just as silky and iridescent and pastel as all the settees on the other side of the room, and looked so smooth that Luke was sure he'd sit on one and slide right off, thus destroying whatever shreds of dignity he had remaining. He'd never expected to be intimidated by furniture. He glanced over his shoulder at the woman behind the desk, who was speaking quietly into a comm unit and not paying the least bit of attention to him. He glanced back at the chairs, and decided that he'd both look and feel too ridiculous in one of them. Instead, he walked as nonchalantly as he could manage to the wall behind them and looked carefully at the charts and schedules of training and performances posted there, pretending that he understood them and belonged in this strange room full of terrifying daintiness.

A door slid open behind him. He turned toward the sound, grateful for the reprieve from slippery chairs and lists of unfamiliar names - and nearly swallowed his tongue.

Mara stepped through the door beside the desk, swinging her gaze toward the waiting area and smiling when she caught sight of him. He'd seen her in her dancing guises before, but never anything like this.

She was clad in a brassiere and a skirt with only just enough coverage for decency, both made of embroidered silk and long fringes of beads in sunset shades of brandy and spice and orange and gold. The brassiere was low cut, with the fringes of beads falling in consecutive chevrons from the sides to the center, with the central chevron being both the darkest in color and the longest, falling past her navel; the skirt sat low on her hips with elaborate beadwork along the edges and matching consecutive chevrons of fringe falling from the waistband, with the central chevron reaching halfway to her knees. Around her throat was a tight necklace made of more beads, with another long chevron of beaded fringe dangling from it. Long strands of gold and orange and deep brown beads were woven into her hair, she wore elaborate makeup and soft-looking golden slippers, and perhaps most startlingly of all, she glittered - literally. Every centimeter of exposed skin sparkled faintly golden under the diffuse light, with occasional flecks of red.

She looked like a being straight out of myth, a living embodiment of flame. His beautiful Mara, more exotic and enticing than he'd ever seen her - it suited her, matched her fiery personality. It was like seeing a goddess among mortals. Luke had to remind himself to breathe, then make his feet move toward her.

"Thank you, Matron," she was saying to the woman behind the desk. "We won't be long."

"See that you aren't," the woman said, raising both eyebrows this time. Did she ever just look at someone normally, Luke wondered irritatedly, or was her natural expression that of a scolding parent? "The rehearsal starts soon, and you need to be in place."

"Yes, Matron," Mara said, calm and respectful, but with a laughing glint in her eyes that Luke recognized. "This way, Captain."

Mara led him, trailing admiringly just behind her, to one of the draped booths in the visitation area, behind one of the tall vases and thus out of view of the woman at the desk, for which Luke was grateful. She pulled one of the airy drapes aside with a slender, glittering hand. "After you."

Luke stepped in and briefly eyed the silky circular divan with distaste, then turned to Mara as she slipped in between the curtains in his wake. He reached out both arms for her, but she shook her head regretfully. "Can't," she said. "The glitter was just applied; it's not dry yet. It'll get all over your uniform."

"I don't care," Luke said fervently, but he reluctantly let his arms fall back to his sides nevertheless.

"Yes, you do," Mara said, her eyes sparkling more silent laughter at him. "Or your superior officer would, at any rate. Quit ogling me; it's only a dancing costume."

"You look incredible," he said, drinking in the sight of her.

"Flatterer," she said, rolling her eyes.

"Hardly." The desire for her was pooling in his belly, making it hard to breathe. "Mara, this is inhuman. You can't come out like this and then tell me I can't touch you."

"We'll make up for it later," she promised, her voice dropping to that smoky tone he knew so well.

At that, Luke blew out a breath, suddenly remembering why he was here in the first place. "Not for a while. Maybe a long while." He looked at her, seeing the sudden concerned question in her eyes. "I have a new assignment, Mara. I have to report in -" he looked at his chrono "- shavit, less than ten minutes. We're leaving Coruscant tomorrow."

Mara tilted her head; the soft light made her hair shine and the beaded strands sparkle. "When will you be back?"

Luke shook his head, frustrated. "I don't know. It's - well, you probably know more about this assignment than I do, actually, though I know you wouldn't be able to tell me if you did. It's all being done very quietly. There's a new space station - state of the art. It's supposed to be the final step to crushing the Rebellion. I hear Grand Moff Tarkin himself is commanding it, and Darth Vader is supposed to be accompanying him for the first tour of duty."

A flash of recognition came into her eyes, and was just as quickly smothered. "Oh?"

He grinned. "You do know, don't you?" She narrowed her eyes at him, and he waved a hand. "I won't ask anything, you know I won't. But I haven't told you the best part yet." He paused dramatically, wanting to catch her hands in his and having to restrain himself. "Mara, I'm commanding a squadron. My very own."

Her breath caught, the smile spreading across her face before he'd finished speaking. She began to reach for him, then remembered the glitter and stopped herself. "I knew it! I knew they'd give you a squadron before long! You're practically the best TIE pilot the Empire has, after all."

"Not the best," Luke said modestly, then grinned. "Yet."

Mara grinned back. "Close enough; practically only Vader and Fel can outfly you, and even they won't be able to for long." She cocked an eyebrow at him, her eyes shining mischievously. "Didn't I tell you I had good taste in men?"

Luke laughed. It had been a simple twist of fate that led them to each other, a single rare instance where one of his first commanding officers, impressed with his performance on a tricky mission, had invited him to a ball the Emperor had thrown for his higher ranking military officers. Luke had thought it a good opportunity to make connections - even the military didn't operate on skill alone - but he hadn't expected to make the acquaintance of a dancer with fire-shaded hair and emerald green eyes.

That remained the one and only time they'd ever crossed paths without appointment, each moving in very different social circles, but the mutual attraction was strong and they soon managed to meet again - and again, and again. The attraction became an affair; the affair became something far deeper. Despite their differences, it wasn't long before they were devoted to each other. Neither had much free time, but what little they could find was nearly always spent together. One day, Luke hoped they'd be able to spend much more time together - but first, he'd have to make something more of himself than a mere TIE pilot.

"I like mere TIE pilots," Mara whispered, leaning in close.

"I don't know how you always do that," he whispered back.

She smiled. "Trade secret."

He shook his head, smiling back at her. "Nothing like a mysterious woman to add excitement to a guy's life." He sobered, wondering when he'd next see those deep green eyes. "But if I was more than a mere TIE pilot, Mara . . ."

She tilted her head again, a familiar sadness settling over her features. "If it was up to me, Luke, we wouldn't be waiting. Not for rank, or for anything else. But we both have our duty."

"I know," he murmured.

She lifted her hand to hover just over his cheek as though she were caressing him, so close that he could feel the heat of her skin on his even without touch. "Fly safe and shoot straight, Luke. You be sure to come back to me."

"Always," he whispered.

She sighed. "It never bothered me that TIEs don't have shields until I knew you."

He grinned at her. "Shields are for Rebel cowards."

Mara rolled her eyes again. "Pilot egos." She drew her hand back with tangible reluctance. "Get going. You aren't going to gain any points for being late."

Luke looked at his chrono and swore again. He looked back at her. "Mara . . ."

"I know," she whispered. "Contact me when you next get leave. I'll find a way for us to meet."

"I will." He reached for her automatically; remembered the glitter and stopped. "Whatever you're doing besides dancing, Mara, be careful."

She smiled. "Always."

He smiled back and turned to leave, then paused. "And if you're dancing at the Naval Officers' Ball next week," he said over his shoulder, "watch out for Admiral Ophir. The man's a lecher."

Mara laughed. "If he tries anything with me, that won't be a viable hobby for him any longer."

"You'd be doing the fleet a favor," Luke said with a grin. He held the drapes open for her, then let them fall behind her. "I have to run."

"Literally," Mara said. She blew him a kiss. "Go. You know how to find me."

He exited the dancers' antechamber sedately enough for the sake of the matron's watching eyes, then broke into a run as soon as the door closed behind him. Fortunately the hangar wasn't far; he'd be cutting it close, but he was sure he could get there in time.

And it had been well worth the side trip. Being able to talk to Mara in person was worth almost any sacrifice. He wondered if he'd be able to talk her into wearing that dancing costume again the next time they were together.

He skidded into the hangar with nearly a full minute to spare and took a moment to collect his breath before reporting in. It wouldn't do to appear harried before the deck officer.

Mara was right; they each had their duty to the Empire. But in the carrying out of his duty, he would manage to climb the ranks; in climbing the ranks, he would at some point reach an elevated enough one that he could formally propose to her. And as the Empire stood right now, a Death Star assignment was one of the quickest ways for a line officer to be noticed. He wasn't about to waste this stroke of luck.

With renewed hope, Luke stepped forward to report for duty.