EPILOGUE: MAN

"But some emotions don't make a lot of noise. . . . Caring is real faint – like a heartbeat. And pure love—why, some days it's so quiet, you don't even know it's there."—Erma Bombeck

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"You've almost got it," Luke said warmly, moving toward her to fix a few details of her stance. With a gesture, he guided Mara to where she should place her right foot, and then he placed his hand on her right elbow to change its angle. After putting her arm in the proper position, his hand lingered on her bare skin for a few moments, and then he pulled it away, embarrassed with himself.

He was a full Jedi Knight now. After Vader's conversion, Luke had returned with him to Dagobah to see Yoda and Obi-Wan. Yoda had spoken a few happy words to them before passing away, for, with Vader (who was now called "Anakin") turned back to the Light and Luke having passed his trials, the wizened being had no longer needed to cling to life. And so, he had disappeared into the Force bearing the knowledge that the Jedi would rise again. It was a day of sadness, certainly, but it engendered a hope in all of them for the future.

Luke had wanted to train Mara himself, and Anakin and Obi-Wan had being easily convinced to let him do so—the problem had come in convincing Mara to be trained, but she had agreed at last. Every now and then, however, he found himself regretting his request, for he found his emotions to be in a turmoil most of the time he was around her.

"Thanks for taking a chance on me," the redhead said quietly as he moved in front of her to double-check her stance with a critical. "And for wanting to train me—despite everything..."

The young Jedi gave her a tender smile. His fingers came up of their own accord and brushed her cheek gently. "Everyone deserves a second chance, Mara."

He thought she deserved one most of all. During the time he'd spent with her—both when she was an Imperial and when she was a Jedi trainee—he'd found glimpses of the wonderful person she hid beneath a tough exterior. The woman who had laughed at his terrible attempt at juggling—well, that was the woman he had given his heart to. He didn't know when or how it had happened, but it had. He cared deeply for her, and the time they had been spending together during her training had simply driven that fact home. He had known there was a danger she would flee—that the collapse of the Empire might lead her to forsake every part of her past life—but he had somehow managed to convince her to stay.

The young woman avoided his gaze, so he lifted her chin with his hand. His two blue orbs stared steadily at her. "You're a good person, Mara," he told her sincerely. "All you needed was a chance to shine."

Though she shook her head at his somewhat lame choice of words, a tear glistened in her eye, and he slowly and carefully wiped the droplet away with his thumb.

She gave a weak attempt at a smile, but those vivid green eyes of hers gazed at him with a thoughtful intensity. "You're a great man, Luke. I'm just sorry I didn't see that before."

Luke blushed and withdrew his hand, his modest gaze going to the ground. Then she grabbed his chin and pulled his face down toward hers.

The young man was startled when Mara's lips met his, but he soon found himself responding to her gesture with all his heart, even tangling his fingers in her beautiful red-gold hair as his heart cried out, "Yes!"

When they pulled away, he noticed with no small pleasure that her face was flushed—she had apparently been just as affected by the kiss as he had.

"Luke," she whispered, her voice tentative and unsure, "I think—I think I love you."

As cliché as it was, Luke felt like his heart—which had before been shouting—was now beginning to sing. "I love you, too, Mara," he said quietly. It felt good to get the words out at last—being so close to her these past several months had been torture, for he had felt like everyone was moving forward but him and Mara. Shortly after his conversion, Anakin had called a meeting of the Imperial Senate and reinstated the Republic, handing over the power of chancellor to the surprised Bail Organa. Not long after that, Luke's sister—how strange it was still to think of Leia as that—had gotten married to Han. When the two had announced that they would be having twins, Luke had been happy for them, but he had begun to despair that he could ever lead a life like theirs. But now—now, there was hope. And really, he'd carried a private hope for a short while now—he just hadn't known how close it was to coming true.

Mara's eyes searched his unsurely. "But Luke—I'm—I'm not really sure I know how to love."

Smiling at her reassuringly, he grabbed both her hands with his left. "We'll learn together, Mara." His right hand searched his pocket for his mother's gift to him. Perhaps the kind but hopeful woman had thought he might never get the chance to use it in the way it was meant to be used, but she'd given it to him all the same. It was a token of hope from her to him.

As he opened the small box and revealed Arelis's mother's wedding ring, a few simple but significant words passed his lips: "Mara...Will you marry me?"

Several years ago, if asked, she would have said that there was never a chance she would get married, much less that she would want to marry anyone. Now, however, more than a year after that important but harrowing experience in the throne room where she had begun the journey of discovering that a life of hate was no life at all, she found herself accepting the ring Luke proffered with a quiet "I will."

This time—with a smile he felt could never disappear—Luke pressed his lips to hers.

Balance had been brought to the galaxy—it might be a shaky balance, it was a balance nonetheless. And he—well, he had never known he could ever be so happy. He was no longer a boy wracked with indecision over what path his life should take. He was now a man.

He knew now that he was someone of worth, and he'd finally found peace with himself. Stars, how happy he was.

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Author's Note: Thanks for sharing this journey with me! It was a fun write. I appreciate all the reviews a lot.

Fic Trivia: This fic didn't go as expected. The Luke-as-politician part was going to become a fic called "The Campaigner," while the Luke-as-slave part was going to become a fic called "Worthless." Combining the ideas meant neither title worked. Several things I intended—Vader's actually retrieving Luke on Alderaan, Palpatine's actual survival after retrieving Vader, Alderaan's destruction and Arelis's subsequent death leading to Luke being angry at the Empire—just refused to happen, and the Alderaan "conspiracy" wrote itself well into the second part.