Standard Disclaimer: These characters belong to George Lucas and The Great Timothy Zahn. Don't get upset! Imitation, however poor, is the highest form of flattery, after all.
Author's Note: This story can be considered a sequel to After the Dance, but it is not
necessary to have read that story. This is an AU, although that isn't typically my thing. However, I find many elements of non-T.Z. profic frustrating. Too much "my super weapon is bigger than your super weapon," "my Jaina, Jacen and Anakin are more precocious than your Jaina, Jacen and Anakin," and especially "my original Force-sensitive character is more powerful and important than your original Force-sensitive character." After all, if everybody and their mama that Luke runs across is a powerful potential Jedi (or as is usually- yawn- the case, a Dark Jedi) why could C'baoth only sense Luke, Leia and Mara? I won't even mention that malt-headed beast or a ten-year courtship! Okay, okay, gripe over! Please enjoy and thank you for your time!
Setting: A month or so after the end of The Last Command.
People and Lights:
Mara Jade stood at the chest-high wall surrounding the roof of the Imperial Palace, allowing a swift air-current to blow her hair around in a rippling, red-gold banner. The lights of the Imperial City sparkled in the dark night like a star field, an illusion that gave her a slight sense of comfort. Although she had only been a member of Karrde's smugglers a short while, she had grown used to space travel, and still found the idea of permanent, planet-based home an odd concept. Especially this home, this palace she had been raised in. For some reason, the familiarity of the corridors, swarming with Republic interlopers, only served to make her feel lonelier and more out of place.
There was a subtle ripple through her sense, followed by the soft click of the roof door's lock.
"Was I keeping you up?" Mara asked, not bothering to turn around. She knew who it was, of course.
Luke came up beside her and folded his arms across the wrought-stone ledge. "No, I was sleepless, anyway."
"The Alderaanians?" Mara turned her head slightly to study his profile, her words causing a muscle in his cheek to twitch.
"Probably," He sighed, closing his eyes briefly. "I can't imagine how hard it must be for Leia. For the first time, I think I'm glad she's not more attuned to the Force than she is."
Mara leaned her back against the wall to face him. He looked worn, similar, she imagined, to how she must look. The last remaining people of Alderaan had been in Coruscant for the last two weeks, participating in a program spearheaded by their once princess to establish a New Alderaan colony. The raw grief, anger and continuous suffering of the survivors abraded upon Mara and Luke's Force senses and the constant effort to keep their barriers up was not only exhausting, but also made any hopes of continuing Mara's training near impossible. Opening their mind to the Force only caused them to be assaulted by a virtual sandstorm of pain and anguish.
"Are you all right?" He asked, gently running his eyes over her familiar features. He knew that the transition to life in the New Republic's capitol wasn't easy for her. It was hard, he supposed, to let go of the past when you had to live inside it's walls. Sometimes, while walking through the corridors of the Palace with her, he would catch a hitch in her emotions, as if she half-expected to see the wizened, hunched ghost of the Emperor materialize around a corner.
Add that to the near constant media scrutiny she was under. After NRI had discovered her previous position in the Imperial government, it wasn't long before that fascinating tidbit of information was passed on to the holo-journals. One reporter had even dug up a holo-photo of the Imperial Court as it's height, complete with a very young Mara Jade in a shimmering dancer's costume, sitting at the feet of the Emperor, along with a bevy of other dancers, Royal Guards, and Senators. 'Jedi Assassin or Imperial Concubine?' Ran the headline beneath the picture. With a slight grimace, Luke recalled how he had been so furious he had thrown his holo-net into the wall. It had taken him days of relentless persuasion to keep Mara on Coruscant after that.
For her part, Mara just shrugged. "I never slept much anyway."
Luke smiled a little at her, admiring, again, her strength and deep, if unspoken, commitment to her training. "What I wouldn't give for some ysalamiri right now, though." He muttered, hoping to coax a grin or groan out of her.
"Intelligence has some, you should ask them to borrow one." The moment those words slipped from her mouth, Mara regretted them. She had promised herself she wouldn't let him find out about that . . .
Luke's sense tightened, just noticeably. "What do you mean? Why would New Republic Intelligence have ysalamiri?"
She hesitated, and then gave a short, mental shrug. The sonic grenade had been tossed, it was to late to push the pin back in. "Page bought some from Karrde, just after the final reports on C'baoth came in. I suppose they figured-"
"You suppose they figured they had better be prepared in case someday I turn into a C'baoth?" Luke's lips thinned bitterly. "Or a Vader?"
Even with her barriers up, she still felt his hurt and betrayal. Spurned by the inexplicable urge to touch him, she rested a hand briefly on one of his tense shoulders.
"Do you blame them, Skywalker? They fought a war against the Dark Jedi once."
"I fought that war, too." He snapped, bitterness surging through him again.
"And . . .?" She prompted, taking her hand away.
"And this-" He motioned out at the city, down to the Palace beneath them, "isn't what I fought for. Squabbling politicians, bickering traders and planets, backstabbing, ruthless ambition." He shook his head, as if to make that truth disappear.
"During the war, flying like I did, you never knew what battle would be the one, the one your luck or skill wouldn't be enough anymore. We'd break formation never knowing who would come back. You could lose your wingman, your gunner," his hands curled into fists against the stone wall, "your folks. But always, there was the comfort of knowing that they had died for some greater good, for this dream of freedom. The New Republic was our dream, what we died for." His eyes seemed very far away, and although he was looking at her, he was utterly removed in time and space from the Palace roof.
"You can destroy or build a government on ideals, Skywalker. But you can't run one on them." Mara interrupted, her voice mildly scolding. If the great and noble Jedi Luke Skywalker was having second thoughts about his precious New Republic, it was far, far too late.
"I know." Luke sighed. "I just have a hard time letting go of those ideals, I guess. In the Rogues, our Squadron patches were stitched with a phrase-"
" 'You can kill a freedom fighter, but you cannot kill freedom.' " Mara supplied softly. He jerked in shock at her words.
"Yes. How did you know that?"
"You were wearing your flight suit in one of the pictures the Emperor had of you. I was made to study it. "
Luke felt a shiver run through him at her words, at how meticulously Palpatine had planned his death.
"Cold up here," He observed, pulling the conversation back to present, pushing away thoughts of the Emperor's treachery and the New Republic's disappointing bureaucracy.
"You're always cold. I swear you're half-Jawa." Mara shot back with a crooked grin, never resisting a chance to needle him about his desert upbringing.
"Yes, but I'm especially cold up here. Know what I could go for now?"
Mara rolled her eyes. "Hot chocolate?" She drolled. In truth, she enjoyed the sweet, hot drink, certainly more than Luke's other favorite drink-- that disgusting blue milk he was so fond of.
"Come on, Mara," Luke motioned to the roof door, "I'll treat you."
They maneuvered through the winding hallways of the Palace in silence, Luke briskly rubbing his arms for warmth. As they moved past the Grand Ballroom, Luke's heart sank at the sound of Alderaani classical music.
"The reception . . ." He whispered with dread. So far, he had been able to keep Mara as far as possible from the Alderaanians, but before he could lead her from the room his sister stepped from the wide doors, flanked by several men and women; Winter and Tycho Celchu among them.
At first glance, the Alderaanians smiled at him but those smiles faded when they took a moment to study his companion.
"You!" One of the men shouted pointing a finger at Mara. A rage and grief, so profound it blasted through their shields, slashed across Luke and Mara's minds. "Killer!" He screamed.
Luke put his right arm out across Mara's chest to hold onto hers, keeping her solidly in place, slightly behind him. In an identical motion, Leia placed a hand on the man's arm.
"Jan." She began, but he brushed her aside.
"My wife was on Alderaan when your master destroyed it. My daughters . . .You and the other Imperials ought to be executed!"
Glancing quickly at Mara, Luke noticed that she had gone a little white with the force of the man's words and emotions. But she was not silenced.
"Don't blame me, pal." She spat shakily. "Maybe if your people had thought to build some sort of a defense system-"
"Mara!" Luke cut her off, shocked despite the fact she had similarly provoked the Noghri on Wayland often enough.
Jan's face twisted in fury and he made a quick lunge at her. Before he could advance, Luke had Mara backed up behind him and Tycho had wrestled the man's arms behind his back. As he pulled Jan to the ground, Tycho looked up at his old Squadron leader with an expression of reproach and betrayal.
"You let yourselves be destroyed," Mara continued, her voice on the verge of breaking. "You should have-"
"Mara, stop it." Luke snapped. "Just stop it."
Leia and Winter were bent over Tycho and Jan, who had finally been subdued with a choked sob. Leia glanced up at her brother, her eyes giving a silent command. Yielding to it, Luke grabbed Mara's arm and began pulling her away. He felt her give her arm a testing tug but when she realized she couldn't break free without a considerable production and perhaps not even then, she relented, letting Luke lead her away.
Luke slapped the access pad outside his apartment and fairly tossed Mara inside. He was teetering on the thin edge of control, barely able to separate his emotions from Mara's, Leia's and the Alderaani. Mara spun to face him, livid.
"Fools, they're all fools. If they loved their families so much they should have fought to protect them, they shouldn't have just *let* them be taken away--"
She broke off suddenly, her throat and sense clutching frantically and Luke felt his disgust with her faded just as suddenly.
"Mara." He whispered, closing slowly in on her, his hands held out.
"They just let the Emperor walk in and . . ."
Luke placed his hands on her arms gently, fighting the urge to take her into his arms as he would to comfort any other friend. Instead he touched her mind soothingly, placing his forehead against hers.
Mara stood very still under his hands, fighting to regain her control. A voice in her head screamed at her to shove this upstart Jedi away, but she ignored it, allowing his signature gentleness to wash over her raw sense like a cool balm. The violence of the Alderaani's hatred and sorrow had sheared her walls from her, leaving her no method of defense other than tapping into her own hatred and sorrow.
Sensing the return of her control, Luke stepped away. "Let me get you something to drink." He said quietly, thinking to himself that he sounded very much like his Aunt Beru just then. Whenever he was upset or hurt, his aunt hold him tightly until he calmed down, and heat up some milk for him, all the while singing some old lullaby about Tatooine's mythical angels. She had been dead for over eight years now, and he still missed her desperately at the oddest moments.
Mara sat on his window ledge, still reeling slightly. When Luke returned with two steaming mugs, her words came as no surprise.
"I can't stay here anymore." She announced, locking eyes with him. "Maybe in a couple months, Skywalker, after things calm down we think about training again."
"No!" Luke exclaimed with more force than he intended, the liquid in his glass sloshing. "We can't start putting your training aside. We gain nothing by procrastination."
"I can't stay here. I won't." She countered, just as forcefully.
"I know." Luke admitted to himself. Placing his mug on a table, he took a deep breath. "Then let's go somewhere else."
"What? You can't be serious." Mara said, dropping her own mug next to his.
"I am. And why not? If we can't work here, let's go somewhere else. Someplace where we can't be bothered."
"But the Smuggler's Alliance--"
Luke shook his head. "Karrde and the New Republic are still smoothing out the details. We have time."
"Where would we go?" She scoffed, Skywalker could dismiss her responsibilities, but there were few places where he could dismiss her controversy.
"Somewhere strong in the living Force. Dantooine, Yavin, Dagobah . . . "
"Dagobah?" Mara's brow crossed. "I've never even heard of that."
"Yes," Luke said excitedly, his words hopping all over each other. "Dagobah. That's where my master began my training. No cities, no people, just us and the Force."
Mara felt her trepidation and hesitation at the thought of another camping trip with Skywalker sliding away as his enthusiasm flooded her mind. Perhaps he was right, she needed to leave this place, and like it or not, she had given Skywalker her word that she would complete her training and share her previous training with him.
"I'll have to clear this with Karrde first." She said slowly. Some of Luke's eager verve drifted from his face.
"Yes, and I'll have to discuss it with Leia as well." He murmured soberly. Leia wasn't going to like this at all.
Luke reached out and touched the back of her hand. "Walk you back to your place?" He offered with a slight smile.
"I think I can make it on my own, Farmer."
Thinking of the Alderaani flocking the Palace, he rose. "I'll go anyway, if you don't mind."
Mara shrugged. "Suit yourself."
Luke studied her face on the walk to her apartment. It was quite late, and if she were anything like him, she probably hadn't slept well in days.
"When do you want to leave?" She asked, either unaware of or ignoring his scrutiny.
"As soon as possible, I'd like."
"I agree." Mara stopped at her door, examining Luke's face closely in the muted light of the hallway.
"You look tired." She observed critically. Luke offered her a half-hearted smile.
"It's late, I'm getting old."
"Oh, please. How old are you? Twenty?"
Luke laughed, leaning his back against the hallway wall. "I'll be twenty-seven soon. Hey, we can have a party for me on Dagobah. We'll make swamp soup and ration bar cake."
Mara smiled back at him, for all Luke's affability, he was very rarely silly and she appreciated his effort to lift the night's grim mood.
"I can't wait." She groused sarcastically, opening her door.
"I'll see you tomorrow." Luke called to her retreating figure.
"Tomorrow." She called back as her door shut behind her.
Talon Karrde sat behind his desk on the Wild Karrde, listening to his former second-in-command via the view screen in his office.
"Skywalker thinks we should go someplace removed. He knows of a planet, the once he was trained on during the war. I'd be out of commission for a while . . .?
She left that phrase open as a question, almost asking his permission. Perhaps even seeking an out, a way of getting off the hook with Skywalker, if Karrde should say he needed her. And, of course, Karrde was tempted to do just that. He had never been able to crystallize his feelings toward his young associate; his emotions constantly wavered; sometimes seeing her as a lover, sometimes a child.
Karrde had caught a glance of her medical report while she lay recovering on the Wild Karrde after the whole Wayland mess and had been shocked to see her age approximate as only twenty-three. 'I'm old enough to be her father.' he'd thought immediately and was helpless to prevent a flush of bitter disappointment, and following close upon the heels of that thought was reproach and shame. A girl, really, a young woman, at most. Only three years younger than Skywalker, when there was something in her eyes that made her seem at least three decades older.
But one thing was painfully clear to Karrde; he didn't want to give her up, give her over to the New Republic and Luke Skywalker's Jedi Order. His mind fairly spat the name of the young pilot. When one came right down to it, this whole mess was entirely fault. If Mara hadn't been Hoth-bent on pulling his broken X-wing out of the barren wilderness of deep space, Mara would still be on his ship and he and his whole organization would still be safely on the fringe. For a smuggler, Talon Karrde clung tenaciously to security and routine, he had no desire for adventure, neither for himself nor his people. And Mara was one of his people. In theory.
With a sigh, shook his head and mind sharply. Like it or not, Skywalker and his clan were part of Mara's life now. And she didn't belong to him, never had. She may have been on his payroll, may have slept on his ship, lived in his complexes, but she had never been one of them. To believe anything more was to coddle his own illusions and one didn't survive as long as he had, doing what he did, by coddling illusions.
Karrde smiled stiffly to himself. There was something different about Mara certainly, her eyes were no longer tortured and bitter, they were missing that persistent ache. Karrde had given her shelter, a job, a position of respect, but he hadn't been able to take away her pain. Whether hating Skywalker or fighting by his side, the young Jedi had far eclipsed whatever place Karrde and his crew had in Mara's life. And he considered himself man enough to accept that and move on.
"It's your decision, Mara." He said at last, for he would not force her to stay, but neither would he encourage her to go. "If training with Skywalker is what you think you must do, I can manage without you."
But, of course, whom was he kidding? A lightsaber wielding Jedi Knight could not be expected to smuggle contraband on the side. As if sensing his thoughts, a look of sudden loss passed over Mara's eyes. Despite the preposterousness of the thought, Karrde almost believed he had hurt Mara.
"If you should find, however, Mara," He added smoothly, "that isn't the path for you, you'll always have a place with the organization."
That look faded so quickly from Mara's eyes, Karrde didn't quite know if it had ever been there. But the tension around her mouth had eased.
"Thank you." She said, simply and sincerely, saying goodbye to Karrde, and in a way, her short life with his organization.
"We appreciate your presence today, Jedi Skywalker." Mon Mothma said warmly, if a trace remotely. "Especially on such short notice."
Luke withheld a sarcastic smile. It was, perhaps, short verbal notice, but he had known this meeting was coming for along time.
"We understand that you are seriously considering training Ms. Jade in the ways of the Jedi, as you did your sister."
'Yes,' Luke thought, "only Mara is determined to complete her training unlike Leia.' Luke immediately reproached himself for that thought, which jumped to the front of his mind reflexively. He was unfairly demanding to his twin in this regard, he knew. She had a responsibility to the New Republic, to her husband and children, and all too often her responsibility to Luke and the Jedi were forced to the periphery.
"Yes, I am." He answered aloud, considering mentioning his plans to leave with Mara for Dagobah. Ultimately, though, he decided to defer that piece of information until later.
The council members, save Leia, murmured softly among themselves. Mon Mothma gave a polite, thin smile.
"Needless to say, Luke, the council would like to discuss some concerns with you." She spread her hands on the table, her tone placating. Luke studied the quiet, fierce woman who had once lead him and his squadron into war. There seemed to be a great distance between them now. The Alliance had won, and it was wrong and more than a little pointless to be nostalgic for war, but there had been a simplicity then he sorely missed.
"Concerns," Luke forged on, determined to end his internal debate. "About what in particular?"
Mon Mothma, Colonel Breman and Lieutenant Page exchanged glances. A slender thread of defensiveness snaked its way through Luke.
"We have certain qualms about you training an ex-Imperial Agent in the Jedi ways." Colonel Breman said flatly, no trace of contrition in his tone.
"We feel there could be a risk of propagating more Dark Jedi." Page tossed in.
Ah . . . so had the ysalamiri been for himself or Mara? Or both? Keeping his voice calm, Luke leaned foreword.
"The only prevention from the Dark Side is proper training. She's extremely Force-strong on her own and stands to become a great risk should she not receive further discipline and instruction."
"But surely, given her nature--" Breman began.
"Mara Jade will reach the full potential of her powers." Luke said in a voice as unyielding as transperisteel, spitting each council member with steadfast, adamant eyes. "It is her destiny. The question is not whether she will be trained, but by whom. And, as far as I know, I'm the only Jedi on your side."
Leia, who had remained silent thus far, flinched at her brother's choice of words. It had, for Luke, stopped being 'our' side sometime ago.
"Furthermore," Luke continued. "Mara Jade and I will be leaving Coruscant for the duration of her training. We both feel this is not the proper place her instruction."
"Pardon me?" Leia interjected in a painfully controlled voice. Luke faced her, his expression an odd mixture of intractability and apology.
"I'm sorry, Leia, I was going to tell you today. I'm sorry but it has to be this way."
Only a lifetime of political training kept Leia from shouting that no, it didn't have to be that way. She needed Luke on Coruscant, needed his advice, his council, his gentle pressure in her mind. She had a husband, and children, but life would be empty without her twin. And she desperately feared him slipping from her, feared that his power was growing too quickly and brilliantly, a super-heated sun that would burn out long before it's time. Feared that one day he would burst into a pyre of white-hot power before her very eyes, leaving her alone in the galaxy, save for the memory of a slender, blue-eyed boy chirping 'I'm Luke Skywalker! I'm here to rescue you!'
Sensing her fears, Luke reached across the glossy conference table and clutched her hand. 'I love you, Leia. You have to trust me.'
Leia nodded slowly, gripping his hand tightly. She trusted Luke, trusted him with the galaxy. However, she didn't trust the galaxy with him. But as Han was fond of reminding her, Luke was a grown man, and a Jedi Knight. Sooner or later, she would have to start letting him out of her grasp. She just hadn't wanted to do it so soon.
"Are you certain, Luke?" She asked, tears burning her eyes.
"Yes, Leia," he answered, turning to the other occupants of the room. "I am certain." And, to that, there wasn't much of anything anyone could do to argue.
Luke found Mara on the roof, as usual, and took a moment to admire her lovely form and glorious hair but he kept his admiration closely guarded; Mara would skin alive if she caught that.
"So that's it then, we're leaving?"
"Yes." He answered, stepping up to her side. "We can leave in the morning."
"They weren't happy about it, were they?"
Luke curled his fingers around her wrist and shook it gently. "I don't care what they think, Mara. I know this is the right path, and so do you."
"You shouldn't put so much faith in me, Skywalker," Mara warned coldly, though oddly warmed by his touch. "For you own sake."
Luke turned her wrist and pressed a quick, delicate kiss to the center of her palm. "You promised me, Mara." He whispered, his eyes glittering impishly. "And I know you keep your promises."
Before her shock could wear off and she could mount swift retribution, Luke scuttled toward the roof door.
"I'll meet you at docking bay twelve at oh-five-hundred tomorrow. Oh, and enjoy the shower tonight, it's the last you'll see for a long time." He called over his shoulder, laughter laced through his voice.
People and Lights Part II
Please see Part I for disclaimer and notes.
Special Thanks to JadesHand for the fab corrections and suggestions. And especially for your wonderful series!
"Yes, Artoo." Luke sighed as he knelt to buckle the straps on yet another box of camping gear. He and Mara had planned to bring only the bare essentials, but judging from the small mountain of crates and parcels he'd discovered this morning in front of their borrowed Lambda-class shuttle, his sister had had other plans. "I'm sure I can manage to find the planet without you."
The little droid rocked back on his wheels and moaned sadly.
"I know," Luke responded, smiling over his shoulder at his dome-topped companion. "And I'll miss you, too. But I won't be taking my X-wing, and remember how much you hated it there last time? Remember the swamp monster? And all the times I dropped you?"
Artoo whistled plaintively.
"Yes, you took it very positively. I wasn't implying that you were complaining." Luke chuckled when he realized Artoo had used the sound code for Threepio as the verb 'to complain.' "And, of course, this way you and Threepio will be able to spend some time together."
Luke listened to his droid's blast of wounded fury, occasionally having to glance at Artoo's translation screen. "He called you that, did he? Well, you know he just says that sort of thing to torment you. Don't let it get to you, he enjoys your company very much."
Artoo shot out an epitaph that was short, but epigrammatic. Luke hid a grin as he walked over and patted his friend on the head.
"Did you two want to be alone? I could come back later." An amused and sarcastic voice echoed across the empty docking bay. Artoo whistled something jealous at low volume and spun his wheels scornfully as Mara strode over to the ship, shaking her head at the mound of gear.
"What does your sister think, we're going to raid a Star Destroyer on our way to Dagobah?"
"Given present company," Luke spread his hands at them. "She probably couldn't dismiss the possibility."
Mara smiled crookedly and clapped her hands together. "I suppose that's wise. Let's get it packed up."
Leia set a gurgling, grinning Jacen into his carryall and slid it over her shoulder, casting her husband and daughter a glance.
"Ready?" She asked in a strained voice. She couldn't quite understand why she was taking her brother's departure so hard. They had been apart for eighteen years before meeting, and since, had spent months on separate missions and assignments. But for some reason, this seemed different. Luke had questioned her about it last night, wondering if she was, perhaps, sensing some foreboding through, some warning of future danger or death.
But, no, she knew it wasn't that, but she couldn't quite verbalize what it was. She knew he would return, but when he did, he would not be her Luke, he would be somehow different and she wouldn't be able to get him back.
Han walked over and slipped an arm around her waist, hugging his family tightly. "Cheer up, Princess. He'll be back before you know it."
Leia sighed. "I know. I'll miss him, though. And I'll worry. I don't think he'll be very happy, suck on some planet with Mara Jade of all people."
Han made a sound like a choking taun-taun. "Oh, I think he'll be plenty happy."
Leia spun, frowning. "Whatever do you mean? Surely, you don't think . . .?"
Han held up a hand and steered her toward the door. "I'm not saying anything. I just think it'll do the kid some good to spend some time with a girl his own age. I swear, honey, if I had to hear one more time from the guys about how my brother-in-law goes to the fliks with his droid, I wouldn't be able to show my face around the cantina."
"Oh, right. When was the last time you went to the cantina with 'the guys'?" She snorted, indicating her perfectly contented husband balancing a dozing Jaina across his shoulder.
Han made a face and pointed to the door. "Let's go, Your Highness-ness." He grumbled.
The shuttle was just about packed when Han, Leia, Chewie, Threepio and the babies arrived.
Han laughed and rolled his eyes when saw Luke and Mara standing side-by-side in identical khaki flight suits, boots and lightsabers.
"Just what the galaxy needs," He laughed, slapping Luke on the shoulder. "More Jedi twins."
Luke caught Mara's eye and sent her a smile. "I'm going to have to change, Mara. I can't go to the swamp wearing the same outfit as you."
Mara glared and Luke and his brother-in-law in turn, scowling. "Funny."
Leia gave her husband an odd look, as if to say 'see?' But Luke only grinned harder at Mara's reaction.
Mara stood aside the group and watched Luke kiss his sister's cheek, hug Solo and the Wookiee and tickle the babies. She watched the infants with fascination; wondering at the fragile lives she had helped to protect for reasons she still couldn't coalesce.
Luke caught the bittersweet tone of her thoughts and felt moment of empathetic sorrow at the odd thought of Mara as a child. Who had she been to her family? A long awaited firstborn child? The cherished and teased only girl? The pampered baby? Precocious and innocent, regardless, before Emperor stole her.
If Mara was anything like him, and Luke knew that was truer than she would ever admit, her lost past was something they would have to deal with before the completion of her training.
With one last kiss to his sister, niece and nephew, promises to be in touch and assurances that 'yes, they would take care of each other, didn't they always?' Luke and Mara boarded the Lambda and lit out of Coruscant.
Luke eased himself onto his bunk and closed his eyes. It had been an exhausting day. Mara, under the best of circumstances, was not much for small talk, and for some reason today was more averse than usual. Luke knew from long experience that deep space travel for prolonged periods of time, without conversation, was enough to drive a person through the space dock. It was, quite possibly, the reason he was so close to his droid.
Nor was Mara in the proper frame of mind for giving or receiving any instruction. He'd even provoked her ire further by cutting short a lightsaber practice that had taken on a dangerous edge of seriousness. He couldn't help but wonder if she was regretting her decision to take this trip with him. They had traveled together often enough in the relatively short time they had known each other: through the forests of Myrkr and Wayland, the tense, four-day trip from Jomark to Wistril, from Coruscant to Wayland and back. But this time was different, this time they were traveling not as reluctant, but as willing, allies. He wondered how significant that difference was to his companion.
"Skywalker?" The object of his most recent thoughts interrupted.
"Yes?" Luke answered, rising to a sitting position. Mara was leaning in the doorway of his quarters, her long hair loosed from its tight braid.
"I'm going to bed." She announced.
"What's wrong?" Luke asked, his brow creasing as he sensed a hesitation in her sense. Mara stiffened and narrowed her eyes.
"I hate when you do that." Her voice was colder than he'd heard in some time. Backpedaling quickly, Luke shook his head.
"I'm sorry, I wasn't doing it on purpose."
"Well, watch yourself in the future." She commanded, a faint touch of pink coloring her cheekbones.
"All right, I will. But since I've already sensed it, why don't you tell me what is wrong?"
Sith, but Mara hated that patient, rational tone of his. Gritting her teeth, she barreled ahead.
"Look, Skywalker, I have sometimes . . . I get these . . . I have nightmares, okay? I've had them ever since the Emperor died. I thought they would go away after I killed your clone but they haven't. I just wanted let you know so you don't come barging into my room in the middle of the night lightsaber at the ready, okay?"
Luke blinked once; again. "Mara . . . that isn't normal. What are these dreams about?"
He figured she would shove him off, but to his surprise, she entered the room slowly and sat on the edge of his bed, folding her hands on her lap like a schoolgirl.
"I don't know really. Before I would always see you and Vader killing the Emperor, and I would hear his voice ordering me to kill you. But now, they're more . . . elusive. I don't remember them clearly when I wake. Just sounds, really."
"What sort of sounds?" Luke prompted softly, sending her quiet encouragement.
Mara tilted her head up and around, as if sifting the memory from the air. "Leaves . . . falling to the ground. The sound of something slumping over, small but weighty. A bag of grain, perhaps."
"And these are nightmares?" After the murder of his family and the war, Luke was familiar with the demons that seized a mind vulnerable with sleep. A collection of gentle sounds didn't seem enough to drive someone as hardened as Mara from sleep.
"Yes," Mara whispered. "They're horrifying." Her hands had balled into the fabric of her flight suit, her knuckles whitening even as her eyes darkened.
Before Luke could regain his voice or even touch her, she rose to her feet and stepped back into the doorway.
"Anyway, so now you know. I'll see you in the morning."
A few moments after the door shut behind her, Luke closed his mouth. Some time after that, he closed his eyes again.
// Wide orange leaves, dry and curled at the tips like half-closed hands, rustled shyly to the ground. Falling, but not randomly. They nestled to the ground in a series of perfectly concentric circles, a bull's eye arranged as if by the air itself. Someone thought it was funny because there was laughter, a bright one-bell laugh. In response, a garland of leaves laced through the sky, spun in a tight spiral, spread out in a starburst, and embraced each other in a loose, sloppy heart. There was laughter again, and a growing sense of fear, the heart collapsed and settled in the dust. There was a white noise and then a limp, weighty sound. And the crushing, hysterical awareness of unspeakable horror. //
Mara shot to a sitting position, flushed and freezing with a clammy cold sweat. Her breath rattling in her lungs, eyes fluttering away a hot wash of sudden tears.
As she rolled onto her stomach for a bottle of water, she shook her head at the figure in the doorway.
"I told you to stay out." She spat, taking a long pull of water.
"I know," Luke murmured. "I tried."
"Well, as you can see, I'm fine. So you can get out, Skywalker." Mara's voice shook slightly with the residual effects of the nightmare. When Luke made no indication of leaving, she heaved a sigh and drew her legs up to allow him to sit on the edge of her bed.
"I thought I told you to get out." But there was no fire in her voice, only a frayed exhaustion.
"I'd rather help, if I could." He suggested.
"Well, you can't."
"No, not tonight." Shifting, he tugged the blanket from under his legs and held it up. "Lay back down, Mara."
"What are you doing?" She narrowed her eyes and scooted back down.
"Relax. I'm just going to put you in a hibernation trace for the rest of the night. That way you'll be fresh to fly tomorrow."
"Your concern for my piloting ability is touching, Jedi." She muttered into the pillow.
"I take what you allow me, Jedi-in-training." Luke placed his fingers lightly on his temple and closed his eyes in concentration. A moment later, she was sound asleep.
Luke studied Mara in sleep, her face smoothed with an expression no more jaded than a child's. He reached out and touched the back of his fingers to her cheek, marveling at the way her silken cheek turned into his touch, as one might admire a soft piece of cloth.
And although he sat very still, something inside him was raging fiercely with the overwhelming desire to act. To get up right at that moment and take away her pain and fear. Protecting others was all he'd done his entire adult life. But it was more than a habitual personality trait with Mara, it was a need as strong as the need to breathe or sleep. He longed to shield her, in part, because it was something no one had ever bothered to do before; no pain or horror had ever been spared her. The sheer novelty of preserving even an ounce of whatever passed for innocence left in Mara made it a noble pursuit.
To others who questioned him; Han after Myrkr, the Rogues after the Battle of Bilbringi as he frantically wrangled for a ship to rescue her ejected life pod, and most painfully, his sister after their assault on Wayland, he tagged it up as part of the Jedi Code. Privately, looking deeper, he saw himself in her, himself and Leia, and how their life could have been if Obi-Wan had not so vigilantly hidden them. And, gods forbid, Jaina and Jacen, had Mara herself not laid aside her hatred to save them. Looking even deeper than that . . . was something he was unprepared to do.
Luke amused himself a long while, slipping his fingers through her gossamer hair, watching as something close to peace took over Mara's face.
"So this is it?" As she gazed out the port at the murky gray-green planet, Mara's voice was several shades less than impressed. Luke keyed open the hatch and watched in sink into the fetid swamp. Mara sauntered down the hatch, shifting her balance as it wobbled in the loose earth. A brownish snake shot out of the swamp and slithered across her boots.
Kicking it aside, Mara tossed Luke a pithy grin. "Boy, Skywalker, bring in a couple restaurants and hotels, and the tourists will be beating down your door."
Luke grinned back and stepped up to her, tossing an affectionate arm around her shoulder. "But you feel, it don't you? The Force is everywhere here." He took a deep breath to emphasize his point.
With a glare, she stepped out from under his arm; paused and took a deep breath of her own.
"Yes." She could feel the Force filling her lungs as if the air itself was alive and breathing inside of her. All at once, she felt lighter, more alive. Standing side-by-side, they luxuriated in the depth of their connection to nature, reality, the universe and even each other. They lingered there in a content, relieved silence until another wayward swamp creature made itself known.
"We better set up camp." Mara decided briskly, hopping off the hatch. They waded cautiously through the waist high water. Luke had already told her about Artoo's misadventures. Once on land, they Force-lifted the essentials, opting to leave most of Leia' supplies on the ship until a point they may become needed.
"Set up under that tree?" Luke suggested, a sheen of sweat already covering his face. "It'll keep a good portion of the rain off."
Mara bit her lip, thinking. "No, we should stay in open ground, the shelter has a rain-guard and that way we'll be clear of any falling branches."
They carried on in this fashion for some time, setting up a precise rhythm defined by their efficient, complementary work relationship. Before long, they built an orderly, well-stocked camp on the lee side of a large tree.
While Luke set up their communications console, Mara pulled out a ration bar and wandered the perimeter of the camp. Off to her immediate left, she noticed a dark, leaf-less tree, wretched and tangled, seeming to emit an icy, brooding malevolence. Without conscious thought, her hand dropped to the hilt of her lightsaber, and she stepped closer.
"Mara!" An urgent voice rang out over the misty air. Luke jogged over to her, his face tight. "Don't go in there. Not yet."
"What are you talking about? What is it?" Mara eyed him closely, as he looked over her shoulder, his eyes growing vacant and distant.
"That place . . . it is strong in the Dark Side. I . . .I rushed in there too soon, against my master's warnings. It was a mistake." He seemed to shake himself of whatever had a hold on him, and turned back to her. "I'm hoping you'll be a more prudent pupil than I."
Mara glanced back at the cave. It certainly didn't look like a barrel of laughs. She would stay away. For now. Brushing past Luke, she grinned.
"More prudent than Luke Skywalker? That shouldn't be too hard."
The sun was setting as they settled back to camp; Luke sat to himself, watching the hazy sun sink lower into a rubbery web of trees. This place was a he remembered it, wet, musky air that was an odd, but not entirely unpleasant, mixture of sweet and decay. The throb of the living Force, the low-slung mynock-like birds, coasting above the snarled earth before dipping suddenly, cutting whip-thin lines through the misty air. The cave; Vader, Yoda, Ben, Mara. . .
So completely lost in memories, he wouldn't have noticed Mara save for the abrupt sway of bright red curls across his peripheral vision.
"Didn't mean to startle you." She said, settling beside him on a log. "Something wrong?"
Luke shrugged. "It's nothing you have to worry about."
"Hey, I'm not implying I was going to loose sleep over it." Mara said defensively. "I just thought you might want to talk."
"I'm sorry." He said quickly, touching her hand lightly. He could have kicked himself; Mara reached out so rarely and reacted so strongly to being pushed away. "It's not that. It's only. . . I saw you for the first time in that cave."
Mara started slightly. Before she could ask, he continued.
"I came here shortly before I met you. Driven here, really. For some reason it seemed very important, although once I got here I felt foolish. Artoo's sensed the presence of metal inside that cave."
"A rarity here, no doubt." Mara observed, her tone encouraging.
"To say the least. Inside," He voice slowed, his hands flexing. "I saw Jabba's Palace and myself on the plank. Leia was still bound, Han still blind. I called my lightsaber to my hand but before it could reach me, it arched up in the air. And a girl caught it, a slender girl with red hair. I didn't know it was you at the time but it haunted me, nonetheless. If Jabba had let you on the sail barge-"
"You would be dead. And the Emperor would still be alive." There was a long silence in which a question was neither asked nor answered. Mara broke it at least, her staring straight ahead.
"The first time I saw you, I was fifteen years old. The Emperor came into my quarters one night. He had been gone for many months and when he arrived, he scarcely said a word to me. Instead, he made me show him my lightsaber technique for hours, defending against those lightening blots, remember? Like C'baoth?"
Luke shuddered. He remembered.
"Anyway, at first I thought it was just a stress-reliever, zapping me to take his mind off his loss at the Battle of Yavin. But then, he drew me aside and handed me a holo-cube of you. I thought it was a joke, at first. You were sitting the cockpit of your ship, this farmer, this boy, and I felt fear, *fear*, in the Emperor's sense. You have to understand, I'd seen and helped him do the most terrible things you can imagine, to powerful and courageous people. And here he was, terrified of some boy."
Mara shook her head. It seemed so long ago, but the memories had not lost their clarity or potency. Nor could she dismiss the irony of her position at this point in time.
"If the Emperor could see me now." She murmured. "You'd be one less Jedi."
Luke leaned over and nudged her with his shoulder. "Well, he's gone and even if he weren't, he's not invited. This is a strictly Lightside Jedi retreat, no Dark Jedi allowed."
Mara smiled crookedly at him, lingering her gaze, perhaps, a moment too long. "In that case, I have a treat for all the Lightside Jedi here." She teased, rising and heading back to the camp. Luke scrambled to his feet and ran after her.
"I think that's just us." He laughed, playing along. Here, on Dagobah, he felt clean, almost happy. No politicians no awed and frightened looks, no pressing demands or dilemmas. As he said before, just Mara and the Force, two very appealing companions.
Mara dug into her bag and spun around, hiding something behind her back.
"I thought we should celebrate the inauguration of my training in traditional, respectable Jedi fashion." With a wicked gleam in her eyes, Mara pulled out a silver flask of brandy.
"Mara! I thought you were going to give that back!"
"I did, farm boy. Then I bought it back before we left. Are you complaining?"
"No, not at all." He smiled, glancing around the tent. "But we don't have glasses."
Mara twisted off the cap and tipped the flask back, her eyes bulging with the fiery drink. "Who needs glasses?" She choked.
Half an hour later, they were sitting on the floor, the scattered remnants of a sabacc game smeared before them. Mara was gingerly cradling her head between her fingertips. "This stuff is mighty." She hissed "I haven't felt this dizzy since the first time I tried spice."
Luke widened his eyes. "You've had spice?"
"Of course, once or twice. I was a smuggler, after all. What, you haven't?"
"Well . . . there was this one time during the war." Luke grinned a little at the memory. "Pilot parties were something else, all right."
Mara poked his foot with hers. "I can just see you, noble Jedi Skywalker, rabble-rousing and whoring with the soldiers."
"Hey! I never went whoring."
"Never?" Mara asked with a brow cocked. Luke blushed.
"No. I . . . it's a long story."
"No, come on, tell me."
Luke sighed, better out with it before she heard the rumors. "You have to understand, Leia and I didn't know we were related until just before the end of the war. I spent most of my time with the Rebellion trying to impress her. It would hardly do for her to catch me, you know, with other girls."
Mara looked as if she were about to burst, her teeth clenched to hold back a fit of what Luke assumed would be mocking laughter. "And?" She wheezed.
Luke blushed deeper, cursing his fair complexion. "And after the war, I met Gaerial Captison, a Bakuri senator. She was lovely, too. Unfortunately, I was against her religion."
"Ah, no, Jedi in general. And after that, well, I was constantly being watched, by the media, the New Republic. It's not like I could just go out and . . . So there you have it."
Mara carefully placed her flask down, a smile forcing itself into a tight pucker. "Are you telling me that the greatest hero of the Rebellion is-"
"Mara!" he moaned, flushed. "Can we please pursue another line of conversation?"
Feeling an unprecedented flicker of pity, Mara relented. "Oh, fine. It's getting late, anyway, we should turn in."
Relieved, Luke turned his attention to unfolding his bedroll and removing his boots. How they had ever gotten on that subject was beyond him but he was grateful she was willing to let it go.
"Good night, Skywalker." She murmured, and he could swear there was still a smirk in her tone.
"Good night, Mara."
After a moment, she rolled over towards him. "Skywalker? You do know how it works don't you? Because if you think part of your 'instruction' here is going to involve . . ." Mara let that dangle, a merry streak of mischief coursing through her sense. Luke pulled the blanket up over his head.
"Yes," He bit out, muffled by the cloth. "I've heard the other Rogues talking about it once. I think I pieced together most of the basics."
"Oh, yeah?" She teased, delighted by the rare opportunity to upset the stolid Jedi's equilibrium. "And what did you hear?"
This time, it was Luke's turn to relish in mischief. "I heard," he said, pausing melodramatically. "That it's even better than blowing up a Death Star."
And for the first time since he'd met her, Mara let out an impulsive laugh before quickly stifling it, tossing a data pad at his head, and rolling back over, a smile haunting her sleep.
Mara woke slowly and easily, marveling that, for the first time in ages; she'd not been waken by some nightmare. Shifting onto her back, she looked out over the camp, her sense reaching out instinctively for Luke's warm, familiar presence.
He was standing off to at the perimeter, stripped to the waist and shaving.
" 'Morning!" He called with much too much cheer with the sun barely scraping the horizon.
Mara grumbled something in response and rose, dragging her hands over her eyes.
"Sleep well?" He asked, wiping his face and pulling his tank top back on.
"Actually, yes. Yourself?"
He shrugged. "More or less."
Mara pulled out a ration bar and ate while she tugged her boots on.
"How can you eat those things all the time?" Luke made a face and indicated his own breakfast, a fresh stew bubbling in a small tin pot. Mara sniffed it and turned away.
"I'll stick to rations, thanks." She muttered, giving her sleepy body a final stretch. She walked over to him, planted her hands on her hips and scrutinized the foliage.
"So, how do we start?"
"When I was training here," Luke began, stepping over to her and placing his hands lightly on her shoulders. "My master would ride around on my back, shouting Jedi philosophy into my ears. I guess we could do it that way." Luke tensed his hands as if making to jump.
Mara whirled, her hands shoving against his chest. "Don't you dare!" She hissed, and then glowered when she saw the glimmer in Luke's bright blue eyes.
Revenge, Luke thought with a grin, was a sweet, sweet thing but given the hot green glare lasering into his forehead, he figured he'd better let up.
"I don't really know, Mara." He admitted, fetching his light jacket and pulling it on. "I get the feeling Yoda gave me a crash course, just enough to face Vader and the Emperor. He told me in the Old Republic Jedi were trained from infancy to their early twenties. I think I had a total of three weeks, Yoda and Ben combined. You're actually at the advantage here, Mara, you received years of rigorous training."
"That' true, in a manner. However, most of my training was in sabotage, assassination, subterfuge, flight and espionage. Hardly the curriculum the New Republic is gunning for."
"You have extraordinary skill in communications and self-healing. Why don't we work on that for a while?"
As usual, Mara was a quick study and an excellent teacher. They passed the morning and early afternoon establishing an easy communication through the Force. Things didn't begin to go sour until later in the evening when Luke attempted to teach Mara the finer points of meditation.
Mara closed her eyes, impatiently. Skywalker was dead-set on her on becoming a more 'cerebral' Jedi.
"Through meditation, the Force can communicate directly to you." He explained, settling comfortably on the ground and closing his eyes.
"I have good instincts. Isn't that the Force communicating with me?" She groused, mimicking his position, but not finding it nearly as comfortable as he seemed to.
"Yes, it is. But I have good instincts, too, and my understanding of the Force has increased incalculably since I began meditating. Please, Mara, just give it a try."
Mara was not the kind of person who typically enjoyed sitting silently and, in her opinion, doing a whole lot of nothing but she reacted to the idea meditation with more antagonism than necessary.
Luke cracked open an eye to watch her as she let her conscious drift deeper and deeper, her breathing slowly to an almost unnoticeable pace. She appeared to be completely engrossed when suddenly her eyes flew open, her breath coming in a great hitch.
"Mara? What's wrong?"
But she was on her feet already, stalking away from him.
"Mara?" He called again. He could have sworn he felt something similar to fear tainting her sense.
"I'm not doing it anymore, Skywalker, so you can just drop it." She snapped, disappearing through a web of rubber trees.
Luke allowed her privacy for nearly an hour, until he sensed the complete return of her control. Walking over to where she was perched on a low-lying branch, he watched her study a small leaf she'd plucked from the ground. It was broad and plasticy green, a rounded triangle shape. Luke knew it had fallen from one of the jik-jik trees that grew in abundance around the swamp.
"Look at this," Mara said softly, as close to an apology as Luke figured he'd ever get. Mara held up the leaf for him as he sat down beside her. Closing one eye, she held the leaf up in front the jik-jik tree it had fallen from. The leaf and the tree were the same fat, rounded triangular shape.
Luke straightened and adopted his 'teaching' voice. "In nature, each individual part is a mirror the greater whole, that nothing ever neglects from where it was begot."
Mara looked up at him, eyes curious. "Did your master teach you that?"
Luke grinned down at her. "No, I just made it up."
Scowling, Mara gave his arm a hard shove.
"Sounded pretty good, though, didn't it?" He asked, eyes glittering. Mara shook her head, an unwilling smile touching her lips.
"Yeah, it did." She admitted. There was a moment of forgiving silence. Pushing himself up, Luke held out a hand to her.
"How about we go for a run before bed? Running around here without breaking a leg or a neck can be a real work-out of your danger-sense."
Mara ran along slightly behind Luke, watching him, emotions held tightly in check. Their exchange of words last night haunting her. If the Emperor could see me now . . .. She had filled his last command, yes, had killed a Luke for him. But he'd raised her, he'd trained her and given her everything that had ever made her special, and here she was racing through a deserted planet with his greatest enemy, eating with him, sleeping across a room from him, drinking and joking with him. A brush of humor curled through her sense. Joking . . . Luke had always enjoyed cracking little, usually lame, jokes at her, even when she wanted desperately to kill him. But his entire mood seemed to have changed since they'd arrived here. He was more inclined to openly tease her, to create a mood of fun. Indeed, his entire sense appeared to have abandoned much of its characteristic seriousness.
Two sets of shoulders, she imagined, where better than one, when it came to the weight of the universe.
So absorbed in her thoughts, Mara hesitated, just a moment, on the crest of a fallen log. Just long enough for a branch she'd swept aside to come whistling back. It slammed across her back, her sharp cry of surprise and pain punctuated by her face-first fall into the tangled underbrush.
She distantly heard Luke's return call, and his subsequent race to her side. His voice and emotions were cloudy though, as she'd already constructed a protective pain-suppression barrier around her mind.
Luke knelt beside Mara as she began struggling to her feet. The branch had torn a long, diagonal line from shoulder blade to waist, blood already seeping through her ripped shirt. There was no way he could carry, he quickly realized, without causing her further pain, nor could he even slide a supporting arm around her waist. Instead he gently took her arms, withdrawing as much of the pain as he could, sensing her own, advanced technique as he did so.
He lead her back to the camp, the only sound was her rapid, shallow breathing. Standing her in the center of their sleeping area, Luke fished through their bags for the medpac. Returning, he began pulling aside the edges of the torn shirt, trying to get at the wound.
"Mara," He said softly. "Mara, you're going to have to take this off." Mara made an affirmative noise, her attention still drawn inward. She twisted her arms around and gasped when the movement only tore at the edges of her wound.
"It's okay, I got it." Luke soothed, tugging up her shirt in the back and slipping it over her head, leaving her arms through the holes. Grateful for her single, long braid, he pushed her hair over her shoulder.
The cut was long and deep, Mara was too slender to offer herself much in the way of protection and in some spots, he could see white bone peeking through. The edges were already swelling, pushing up angry, red sinew and leaking blood down into the waistband of her pants. But the blood loss was not the volume expected for a wound of this size. Mara must already be implementing a self-healing process.
As gently as possible, Luke cleaned the gash and began applying bacta. "You're self-healing abilities are remarkable, Mara." Already, the shallower, top edges of the wound were closing together.
"Yes . . ." She murmured dully and distantly. "The Emperor even taught me how to heal blaster burns."
"Oh, really?" Luke asked, trying to keep her from withdrawing completely; the intensity of her concentration was scaring him. "How did he do that?"
"He shot me."
Luke dropped the tube of bacta salve. Swallowing, he picked up again quickly. "He shot you?"
"Yes," She answered, her tone still dreamy. "How else would you teach someone that?"
"I suppose." He admitted, feeling slightly sick. Always with Mara there was a practicality that overrode her humanity.
"There." He said, sealing up the tube and rising. Mara was standing perfectly still and he could see her over her shoulder, loosely holding the remains of her shirt over her breasts.
"Have I made you sad?" She asked in that same unreal tone.
"A little." Luke confessed, unable to take his eyes from the milky lines of her shoulder and neck, down to the soft rise of the tops of her breasts.
"I'm sorry." She whispered.
"It's not your fault." He assured her. An apology from Mara Jade. Too bad she was nearly out of it completely. Luke rested his hands on her upper arms, laying his cheek against the back of her head. "A night in a healing trance and you'll be as good as new."
He ducked his head and pressed a light kiss to her shoulder. A kiss promotes efficient healing, his aunt had always told him when he scraped his knees or elbows. Mara turned her face slightly towards him, their noses brushing. Her lips parted and her eyes closed as she rubbed her cheek softly against his, as much as she could without jarring her back or turning to face him. Luke stared down at her parted lips and creamy, white skin, his heart thudding loudly in his ears. That moment extended itself in a rush of sudden possibility, the tenderness of her skin against his driving coherent thought from his mind.
There was no telling when Luke would have regained full capacity of his thoughts, had one of the many mynock-like avians not chosen that moment to give a high, long shriek into the night.
Stung, Luke jerked backwards and stumbled back a few paces. "I think . . ." He took a deep breath, and then another. "I think you better lay down."
Mara nodded, her sense revealing no trace of what had occurred. Keeping her back to him, she stripped the bloody shirt off and tossed it to the ground. Gingerly, she lay down on her stomach on her bedroll and slipped completely into a healing trance.
Luke stood dumbly in the door way for some time until firmly deciding to meditate.
Yes, a good, long, calming meditation.
People and Lights Part III
Mara drifted slowly from her healing trance, her mind clouded and hazy. It took her several minutes to determine where she was and why she was half-naked in a tent with Luke Skywalker. Gradually, the circumstances behind her trance came back to her with a blush. Becoming distracted in dangerous territory was a stupid, amateurish mistake and one she was committed not to make again.
She rolling onto her back, she clutched her blanket to her chest. No, not her blanket, she was laying on that. Luke's blanket. He was curled up on his bedroll across the tent, hugging his arms around himself. Mara smiled, if she was cold, someone as desert conditioned as Skywalker was probably having flashbacks of Hoth. Glancing around she noticed Skywalker had had enough forethought to lay one of her shirts beside her bedroll.
After pulling it on, she rose and stretched. It was several hours before dawn but already her back felt completely healed. Stopping at Luke's side, she tossed his blanket back over him. He muttered something in his sleep and rolled onto his back, throwing one arm over his head like a child. Mara sighed and bent over, yanking his arm back down. He'd be no good at lightsaber practice tomorrow with a sore arm.
"Mara?" He murmured.
"What?" She asked, but he was still sound asleep. Judging from the fretful crossing of his brow and the general unease of his sense, his dreams were none too pleasant.
"Watch out." Luke muttered, twisting slightly.
'Luke Skywalker,' Mara thought with a sigh. 'The only person in the galaxy more afraid for me than of me.' Reaching down again, she laid a finger on his cheek.
"Stop dreaming, Skywalker." She whispered and watched as he stilled under her touch. Something wild cried out in the murky night. Mara jerked her head up, one hand still on Luke's face. Although she sensed no immediate danger, she was vividly reminded of those long, long nights on Myrkr, sitting awake, shooting vornskrs off the peacefully sleeping Jedi.
She stepped away from him and laid down, wrapping herself in her own blanket. Solo had once told her Luke looked after the galaxy simply because he was no good at looking after himself. Mara sighed again, ruefully. If protecting Skywalker instead of killing him was to be her destiny, and it certainly seemed to be shaping up that way, she had no choice to but to accept it.
One Week Later:
Luke hunched over the communications console, toying with the transmission as the image of his sister wavered across the screen.
"Can you hear me, Luke?" The image was still flickering, but he could hear her clearly.
"Perfectly, Leia, how are you?"
Leia smiled a little sadly, Luke thought, wishing he could touch her mind. "I miss you. But other than that, things are fine. We've picked out a planet for New Alderaan. It's in he Owega-Colli system. Big oceans, forests, canyons, it's just beautiful."
"I can wait to see it, sis. How are Han and the babies?"
"Just fine." Leia rolled her pretty brown eyes. "Han swears that Jaina said 'Daddy' yesterday."
Luke laughed. "I'm sorry I missed it."
"Well, I'm sure he'll have more hallucinations when you get back."
She hesitated and Luke braced himself from the inevitable. "So, when are you coming home, Luke? Any idea?"
"I really can't say, Leia. This sort of thing doesn't follow an itinerary."
"I know," she sighed. "It's just that you've been gone for almost two weeks . . . "
"And I miss you, too, sis, but this is important."
"Okay, okay." She smiled at him, letting him know the subject was dropped. "I'll let you get back to work. I'll call you for our birthday, then. If you aren't home by then."
Luke touched his fingers to his lips and blew her a quick kiss. "If not. I love you, Leia."
Leia caught his kiss. "I love you, too."
Luke signed off, a quiet ache fading after a moment. He was enjoying himself here, certainly more than he enjoyed Coruscant. But he did miss his family terribly.
He stepped out of the tent and walked over to Mara, bending at the waist and twisting his neck to look at her face. She was standing upside down on one hand, her long hair pooling on the ground. In front of her, numerous rocks and sundry from the camp were forming a precarious pile.
"How's it going?" He asked.
"Fine." She grunted, face turning pink. "Your family?"
"Good." He watched as her Force awareness drifted off again. These same concentration exercises Yoda taught him were the only ones Mara could bear. Perhaps because they were easily disguised as physical training and not mere meditation.
But, as always, it failed. Just when he could feel her mind detangling from his and the universe around them and truly becoming one with the Force, she jerked away, mentally and physically. The pile of rocks and supplies dropped to the ground and she rolled her legs down and under herself, much more gracefully than he'd ever managed.
Mara could feel Luke's disappointment, even as he tried to shield it from her. Her own frustration set her teeth together grimly. There was no longer any point beating around the bush.
"This is pointless, Skywalker."
"I'm not talking about meditation. At least, not just meditation. This whole thing." She swept one hand over the scattered mess of rocks and boxes.
"Tell me what you mean." Luke crouched beside her, his head cocked to one side.
"For the last week and a half, I've learned how to move little rocks around, big rocks, boxes. I can talk to you through the Force just as easily as I can verbally. My command of the lightsaber is as good as yours. But can you say, honestly, that I'm any closer to being a Jedi than I was when I came here?"
"I think you've made tremendous improvement." He wanted to encourage her, but he couldn't deny the truth of her words. Mara demanded too much forthrightness for anything less. "But, yes, Mara, there is a barrier there. One that prevents you from reaching your full potential."
Mara didn't respond to that, she simply sat there and stared at the ground. Something deep inside her tightened painfully. She'd been fighting against this for a long time, preferring to sacrifice sleep and peace of mind rather than know the truth behind her nightmares. That truth shimmered just beneath the surface of her consciousness, rising up unawares in sleep or deep meditation.
"I don't want to." Mara voice was soft, nearly frightened. He'd heard that same tone when she'd whispered to him that she didn't want to face down C'baoth. But as before, she knew it was inevitable.
"I know." Luke's voice was strained with sympathy as he scooted closer to her, putting an arm around her shoulders and drawing her near. "I know."
They sat like for a long time, watching the sun droop and the shadows lengthen.
"Okay." Mara said at last, moving to a sitting position in front of him. "Let's do this."
"Sure?" He asked, although he could see in her eyes that she was.
Luke reached out and laid his fingers gently on her temples, entering her mind as unobtrusively as possible. Mara's mind, which he had touched on dozens of occasions since they'd met, reminded him of a high security computer console and not only for its precise, efficient mode of operation. She had rigidly defined clearance levels: on the most basic existed the general color of her thoughts; anyone with a lick of Force sensitivity could touch it. The next level, only he and Mara were allowed, it was the level they visited together often, during intense moments of training, or in the heat of battle. Beyond that was the private, lonely level Mara hid herself in, comforted by the familiarity of its empty walls. Further still were parts even she wasn't allowed, levels of her mind the Emperor had purged and warped, deconstructing whomever Mara had once been and turning her psyche into a temple in his own honor.
And, although they had no evidence of its existence, Luke and Mara both desperately prayed there was a further level, one so deeply hidden in the recesses of her soul, one so sacred and protected, it remained safe, all those years, from Palpatine's ravages. A part that remembered and was never afraid. That was where they needed to go; what they needed to find.
And so they burrowed together, skirting past dark and brooding patches of her mind, military and icy parts, angry and cheated parts, lonely and longing parts until, with sweat pouring down their faces, a sound rose up.
It was the sound of falling leaves, running feet, the swishing of cloth. Rising up against the murky backdrop of sound, images rose to Mara's mind, running through the thread of their connection into Luke's. The images were dense and blotted, as if staring through frosted glass.
Mara's hands flew up and locked around Luke's arms at the wrist, but she did not pull him away.
Luke could see, vaguely and hazily, the shape of two small creatures, animals perhaps. No, children. Sitting on the ground. Luke gritted his teeth and put all his concentration into amplifying Mara's memories. The image cleared noticeably. He could see blurs of bright red-gold hair and plain, brown clothes. A boy and a girl, judging from the lengths of hair. The boy reached out to touch the girl, paused and jerked his head up.
/Did you hear that? / The voice, neither his nor Mara's lurched into their mind; quiet, child-like.
*Stop! * That voice was Mara's certainly, a cry that slapped violently against his mind.
*Mara, it's okay, it can't hurt you-*
*No! Stop! Stop, Luke, stop it. Stop it! Stop it! * Her frantic insistence, coupled with her unprecedented use of his first name was enough to startle Luke into retreat. His hesitation gave Mara opportunity enough to shove his mind from hers.
They parted, physically and mentally with a gasp, resting on the ground, panting desperately. Luke recovered first, struggling up and turning his head toward Mara. She was leaning on one hand, breathing in dry, gulping sobs.
"Mara." He murmured, creeping over to her. "Mara." He repeated, simply because he hadn't regained enough equilibrium to form another thought. Reaching out, he pushed back her shining curtain of curls. With trembling hands, he tried to frame her face but she was shaking her head away from him.
"Mara, tell me what happened. Please."
"I don't know." She admitted, dragging one grimy sleeve over her eyes. "I don't know, but something terrible was about to happen. I didn't want see it."
"Mara," Luke kept his voice soothing, as much for himself as for her, they were both reeling from the effort to establish such an intense connection and the suddenness with which it was severed. "It isn't going to get any easier by waiting."
"Don't you think I know that?" She snapped, pushing herself to her feet. "I'm not ready yet." Her tone was hot and furious, not frightened. The familiarity of that tone comforted Luke.
He considered leaving her alone for a while, but she, although now standing, made no motion to leave.
"I think we've had enough meditating for one day, anyway." Luke said, his casual voice belying what had just occurred. The lines around Mara's lips relaxed and he sensed her relief and appreciation for that gesture. "How about something a little more active?"
"Lightsabers?" Mara asked, an almost-smile flitting across her face, her hand moving to where her lightsaber hung from her belt.
"Indeed." Luke agreed, palming his own and dropping to a half--crouch.
These frenzied, exuberant mock-battles were a highlight of their days on Dagobah. They would parry and chase each other across acres of swamp, leaving tempests of torn leaves, shattered branches and frightened animals in their wake.
They were able to reach a dizzying, almost frighteningly deep connection through the Force during this play, perhaps because they were both so acutely trained in military strategy. Though this connection, they performed beautiful, synchronous acrobatics through the swamps, springing summersaults over fallen logs, flying high on dangling vines and jumping from tree to tree, lightsabers spinning blazing arcs of color, white-green to blue-white. After hours, they would collapse, filthy, sweating and laughing.
Today was no different as they tore their way through the once-peaceful planet. After an hour or so of voracious activity, Luke was quick to spot and press an advantage. Feigning a swipe at her lower legs, he snatched the wrist that held her lightsaber with his free hand, laughing breathlessly as he backed her up hard against a nearby tree, pinning her arm high above her head.
They were evenly matched in every aspect of swordplay. Luke may have had the advantage of height, weight and reach, but Mara was far more agile and creative. They each won and lost matches in roughly equal amounts, the thrill of a challenging, fair fight far outweighing any wounded pride.
Mara felt a sheepish grin split her face at how she'd been tricked and she tilted her head up to join him with a gasping laugh.
And suddenly, it wasn't funny anymore.
Luke's triumphant smile evaporated faster than ice on Tatooine as every synapse in his body became keenly and undeniably aware of the panting length of Mara's body, sandwiched between his and the tree. His eyes flickered downward and locked with her bright green ones as her laugh died deep in her throat.
For her part, Mara's solitary instincts were clashing violently with a flush of visceral titillation. She knew, throbbing under the surface of all Luke and her interactions, a helpless attraction sparked violently. At first, she had passed it off to their peculiar connection through the Force, but that didn't explain the half of it. It didn't explain Myrkr, where denied the Force, she found herself drawn to the soft-spoken Jedi faced her down without a trace of fear, knowing full well what she was capable of. Yes, it was there, because deep inside they were both warriors and warriors can only be attracted to an equal. And, in all the years of her life, Luke was the only equal she had ever found.
Unable to move a muscle, Luke studied his companion's beautiful, fierce face, framed by that fascinating, sun-blood hair, curling, shiny and wild, in the humidity of the swamp. His mind careened with dozens of future paths, filled with eager motion. Her breath, coming even quicker now, grazed rhythmically against his lips.
They remained still, eyes locked, until Mara shifted, pulling her head up higher, closer to his. It wasn't quite an invitation but Luke acted regardless, bending his head and covering her warm, lush mouth with his.
Luke had kissed other women, two to be perfectly exact-- Gaeriel Captison and Leia. And none of them had felt remotely like this, like dipping his body in a pool of raw plasma and treading for life. He touched an insistent, questing tongue against her lips which open fervently and pressed her head further back against the tree bark, left hand settling on the curve of her waist, right still pinning her arm up. Instinctively, he sought her mind with his, nudging up against her walls, seeking entrance and union.
A mistake, obviously, as in the next instant he found himself sitting hard on the damp ground, an ache in his shoulders and no idea how he'd changed positions so quickly. Mara was standing above him in glorious fury, her hands balled at her sides, face flaming.
"If you ever, ever touch me again, Skywalker, I will break you neck. I swear it, I will."
Luke struggled to his feet, biting back his own blast of fury. He hadn't assaulted her; she'd been more than willing. But, still, he should have known better. 'Control, control.' Yoda's voice echoed in his ear. He still had to master control.
"Mara!" He called to her retreating figure. "Mara, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."
She stopped, mid-stride and turned to him, something dark coloring her eyes and sense, but she had her barriers up much too high for him to get over. "I know you didn't." She told him, in a voice that wasn't quite angry any longer.
He sat alone for a long, until the sun set completely. When he returned to their camp, she was already in bed, her back to him.
"Happy Birthday, Skywalker." Mara called down to the top of Luke's head as he cut off the comm connection to Coruscant. She punctuated the benediction with a light kick to his ribs with the side of her foot.
"Ow, Mara. Thank you." He turned his face up to her with a bright smile. It had been three sullen, tense days since the debacle against the tree and they had exchanged perhaps thirty words, preferring to retreat to their own devices in wary silence.
And although they had both strongly considered it, neither could bring themselves to suggest returning to Coruscant. Whoever made that suggestion would be conceded a weakness; a weakness neither was willing to admit existed in the first place.
However, on this morning, the morning of his twenty-seventh birthday, Luke was delighted to find Mara in a relatively polite and conciliatory mood. If she was willing to put the whole matter behind her, Luke was satisfied with that. For now.
"Where's my cake?" He teased, accepting the hand she offered and pulling himself up.
"Unless your sister packed one, it's on Coruscant, I'd say."
His eyes saddened somewhat and Mara regretted mentioning Leia. "Look, Skywalker, you didn't have to stay here this long, you could have gone home for your birthday."
Luke shook his head quickly. "No, it's not that. I miss Leia, but Mon Mothma and her ilk are having a celebration. I'm sure I wouldn't have enjoyed it."
"You'd much rather be sponging up the humidity in some deserted swamp with an assassin?"
"An ex-assassin." Luke corrected with a wry grin.
"If you say so."
They shared a brief, awkward smile of apology and Luke felt three days of tension melt from his mind. For the moment, things were all right between them again, all right, Luke acknowledged, but not the same. Not nearly the same. He'd kissed her with a passion that was too overwhelming to be dismissed. It was no fluke of proximity and adrenaline.
"I got you a present." Her grin was contagious and Luke made a mock groan, imagining what sort of gag she was going to vex him with.
"I hope it's more brandy. We're all out."
"If we've drunk an entire flask of Corellian, we don't need a refill for a lifetime more." She shot back, stepping into their tent and rummaging through her back. She pulled out a small, flat object wrapped in thin, rice paper and thrust it unceremoniously at him. It occurred to Mara that this was the first gift she had ever given someone.
Luke laughed lightly at her as he tore the paper off cautiously. Then froze, his breath grinding to a sudden halt low in his chest.
His mouth worked wordlessly for a few moments. "I . . .I . . . Mara, where . . .? Where did you get this?" In his hands lay a small holo-card containing the image of his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.
Luke's sense blazed so hotly, so suddenly with strong emotion that Mara's instinct was to flee from it. Instead, she rode it out, answering him in an unconsciously chilly, casual tone.
"I knew I had seen a photograph of them in the file the Emperor kept on you, along with several photos of that grubby farm you grew up on. Unfortunately, those files were all destroyed by Imperial troops just before the Rebels took the Palace. But, obviously, those photos couldn't have been taken after he learned of your existence because your aunt and uncle were dead by then. So, I knew he must have had them long before then, which lead me to your father's files, that is, Anakin Skywalker's file, Vader didn't have one. Those files, along with the files on many of the Jedi, were too buried in the Imperial computers and too heavily encrypted to be either destroyed by Palpatine's lackeys or noticed by the New Republic. So Ghent and I-"
Mara cut herself off abruptly as Luke's hand reached out and gently lifted her chin up to meet his eyes. She had been babbling, she knew, and averting her eyes in a desperate effort not to acknowledge the storm of unnamable emotion brewing in Luke's eyes.
Mara swallowed, unraveling slightly under his intense gaze. "You once mentioned on Wayland how you much you wished you had a picture of them." She finished weakly.
"Mara . . . this is . . . this is the one thing in all the galaxy I . . . I can't begin to thank you for this." He tapped the card against his chest, his eyes growing bright.
Mara jerked back, filled with the sudden, horrifying suspicion that Skywalker was about to cry.
"No, no." He said, waving a hand and smiling. "I'm not going to cry." He laughed, a tad damply, regardless. "I've shed all my tears long ago. I don't know how Han stood it, in fact. Leia and I stayed on the Falcon for several weeks after the Battle of Yavin. Poor Han, this hard-boiled pirate having to put up with two grief-stricken teenagers crying themselves to sleep every night. It's a wonder he didn't toss the pair of us out an airlock."
Mara didn't know what to do with his confession, so she just shrugged and looked away. "Well, I figured I owed you one anyway," she made a motion to her hip, "For the lightsaber."
Luke placed one finger on her cheek, head tilted to one side, studying her. "I think," he began slowly, "that, at times, you are a very different person than you would have the galaxy believe."
Mara met his eyes blankly. "I haven't a clue what you're talking about."
Luke smiled and leaned in close, placing a chaste kiss on her smooth cheek. He knew he was treading a fine, fine line, but he couldn't help himself.
They parted and, in an effort to distract himself, Luke looked back down at the picture she'd given him. His aunt and uncle appeared much younger than when he'd known them. They were standing before the bleached white farm he'd grown up on wearing weathered, smiling faces. An old ache flared up in his gut and he clenched his teeth against it.
Sensing that he wanted to be alone, Mara clapped her hands together lightly.
"I'm going to check in with Karrde." She said by way of excuse. Luke didn't even glance up, his eyes distant, a bittersweet ghost of a smile touching his face.
That night Luke dreamed. He was flying his T-16 Skyhopper across a calm sea of desert sand, the world a harsh, brilliant curse of arid glittering gold-white. A panic so profound it left his skin crawling and his heart thundering drowned out the whine of the repulsor engines. 'Not Aunt Beru,' he begged silently, tears stinging his eyes, 'Please not Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen.'
But he saw the smoke miles off across the flat desert and he knew. Closer to home, running across the courtyard he'd played in as a child, he saw the charred remains of the only parents he'd ever know. He fell to his knees and buried his face in the sand, sicking up violently into the earth.
The sand clung in a hard, abrasive mask to his face, dampened from tears, as he divided his attention between digging a grave and throwing burned wood and metal at the scavengers circling the perimeter of his once home.
As he swept aside a small mountain of sand, he noticed long strands of red-gold hair woven through the grains. 'Mara?' He thought, and then shook himself. No, he didn't know Mara yet, not until years later. He didn't have time to concern himself with Mara; he had to finish burying his parents.
But there was more hair the further he dug, until he saw the smooth lines of her white skin, buried deep within the sand. No, not her white skin, the dull white of wind -burned bone. She was dead, too. They were all dead, Mara, Aunt Beru, Uncle Owen, Leia, Han, the babies . . . he couldn't save any of them, couldn't do a thing . . .
'No!' His mind screamed desperately. 'It isn't fair!'
"Luke!" A loud voice close to his ear tore through the dream. Luke shot up from his bedroll, almost colliding with Mara. He was shaking and drenched in a sticky, cold sweat.
Looking past the sweat soaked cowlicks of hair hanging in front of his eyes, his gaze settled on Mara. Flesh and blood Mara. His sleep drugged mind struggled to superimpose her lovely face over the horrifying image of her bleached skeleton. Irrational terror was still surging through his body, thick and corporeal as blood. Without thinking, he reached out and pulled her tightly into his arms, burying his face in her long, tousled curls. His breath was coming out in ragged, painful gasps.
"You're okay." He murmured, disbelief warring mightily with a dawning relief.
"I'm fine." She assured him firmly. "It was just a dream. You woke me up."
Luke slowly opened his eyes, her words tossing ice water onto his hazy mind. Just a dream. It was just a dream. Only, most of it hadn't been and those memories still tore at his soul.
Reluctantly, he released her, the trembling receding from his muscles, the panic fading into a dull embarrassment.
"I got you all wet. I'm sorry." Luke apologized, gesturing to her damp jacket.
"It's okay." She said quickly, unzipping it. "I can take it off. Here, change your shirt before you get sick." Mara jumped to her feet and dug out a fresh shirt for him. Luke accepted it wordlessly and stripped his soaked shirt off.
"Are you okay?" She asked, standing above him. He nodded silently and laid back down, his breathing finally relaxing. Feeling mildly foolish hovering above him, Mara sat down across from him.
"It was about your family, wasn't it?"
Luke nodded, rubbing at his eyes with his broad, callused hands. "Yeah. I'm sorry for waking you."
Mara tossed her head. "Call it returning the favor then, I woke you on the trip over here." She reminded him. "I probably catalyzed it, anyway. Giving you that picture."
Luke's eyes shot back open and he sat up, clutching at her hand in sudden fervor.
"No. If I had to have nightmares like that every night for the rest of my life, it would be worth it to have that piece of them back."
Mara was taken aback by his passion, fascinated by depth of his love for his dead guardians, a concept so foreign to her she couldn't help but feel a hollow ache in her chest.
"Tell me about them." She entreated softly.
Luke closed his eyes again and Mara sucked in a small gasp of air as he sent a stream of images into her mind.
She could see Luke, a dreamy little boy with curly white-blonde hair dancing a model space ship through the air while a stocky, middle-aged woman stirred dinner at the stove.
/Put that down, angel, before your uncle gets back from the fields. / The woman's gentle voice scolded without a trace of anger. The boy walked over and hugged her knees, tipping his head up to look at her face.
/Play a game with me? / He asked, devastating her with a impish grin.
/Not now. I'm making dinner-- there, I hear Uncle. Go meet him. / She swatted the small child lightly on the rump as he ran from the room, holding his toy high up in the air.
/Toy ships, again, Luke? Get your head out of the clouds, boy. / Luke's tall, gruff uncle admonished, sweeping the boy off his feet and tossing him over his shoulder. The child laughed and squealed, kicking his feet playfully.
/That's it, Beru. I'm selling this boy to the Jawas! / The man called out, turning to the door. Beru laughed and set the stirring spoon down.
/Owen, stop teasing him. Come on, give me back my baby. / The woman took the child from her husband and kissed his flushed face, before setting him down and watching him run off outside.
As Luke slowly pulled his memories back, Mara fought against the urge to keep them with her.
"Was it always like that?" She whispered in amazement as he withdrew completely, unable to comprehend a world such as that.
Luke smiled sadly. "No, not always. That was just after harvest, we had money, plenty to eat. Things were tenser during off-season. And," His voice darkened slightly with guilt. "As I got older."
"It wasn't your fault they were killed."
"I know. I know that. It was the will of the Force. But they were my folks, Mara. My family. It was my duty to die with them." Those words, a long time in the back of his mind, shocked Luke as they materialized. What shocked him even more was that he was telling Mara Jade, of all people, this. But then, he often found himself telling Mara things he would never tell others, even Leia.
"You don't really believe that, do you?" Her tone, surprisingly gentle, was laced with scorn.
Luke pursed his lips and looked out at the pearly mist drifting in the dark night. "Sometimes, yes, I do believe that." He gave a short, humorless laugh. "I saved the galaxy, or so they say. But I couldn't save them. If I were to save the galaxy a hundred times over before I die, the scales will never be tipped in my favor."
His confession burned a hole through Mara's Force sense, so great was his pain and guilt. And in that moment, Mara saw Luke as he saw himself-- not as a hero who emancipated the galaxy, but as a boy who let his family die.
"You miss them very much?"
Mara took a moment to gather that information up. "Do you know," she told him slowly, her voice a thin thread of sound in the silence of the night. "That I can't even remember what my mother looked like?" Her voice colored with wretched self-disgust, the tone startling her companion. "What sort of person forgets their mother's face?"
"I don't remember what my mother looked like either." Luke reminded her, taking her hands again.
"Yes, but you were a baby when you were taken from her. I was a child. I was old enough to remember. I imagine the Emperor must have searched the galaxy for ages before he came across a child capable of that."
Luke swallowed as he caught the meaning of her words. "Mara . . . you think the Emperor selected you because of some special inclination for disregarding your family? That's absurd."
Mara shook her head. "No, I've thought about this for a long time, Skywalker. About why the Emperor selected me in particular. At one time there were thousands of Jedi. He may have killed them off, but there are still hundreds and hundreds of untrained Force sensitives and their descendants out there. But he chose me, of all of them. There had to be some other reason." She made her case calmly and rationally, as if they were discussing conflicting flight patterns.
Luke lifted his hands from hers and tightened them around her upper arms. "Mara. Listen to me very carefully. The Emperor took you because he wanted your gifts for his own evil, twisted reasons not because of some depravity he sensed in you. You were a child, Mara, children don't think that way."
"Then why don't I remember them, Skywalker? Why don't I miss them the way your miss your parents?" This time, something fractured deep in her sense, the sudden brightness of tears sparking in her eyes, catching the glow of the lamp like a prism. Luke squeezed her arms and rubbed them, as if bringing forth warmth.
"I don't know, Mara, but we will figure it out, I promise." He ached to hold her again, to stroke her hair and pull her down onto his bedroll and curl up with her. He could keep his arms around her and keep them safe from all horrors, within and without. But that was not an option
He could feel her regarding his comfort the way a starving person would eye a banquet of poisoned food; need and fear. It infuriated him to think of that evil creature, Palpatine, who had fixed them so good, they couldn't even comfort one another for the pain he'd inflicted upon them.
That everyday, they woke up and donned armor, preparing to fight a battle they had already won, long ago. The Emperor was dead and sometimes, Luke thought he and Mara were the only people in the galaxy still awaiting liberation.
And of course, Mara felt his confliction deeply as her own. She dropped her head against his, and then laid her cheek upon his.
"Just say it'll be all right someday, Skywalker. Even if it's a lie." It was all he could do, when you got right down to it.
"It'll be all right, someday, Mara."
Somehow, that made it easier to sleep the rest of the night through.
People and Lights Part IV:
Please see Part I for Standard Disclaimer. There have been a couple questions about the canon and setting of this story. My fault, I know, for not rewriting the Disclaimer every time. This takes place right after the conclusion of the Thrawn Trilogy and accepts ONLY the movie trilogy, Truce at Bakura and Zahn's trilogy as canon. Thanks!
Luke stomped across the camp and slumped in loose-limbed sullenness to the ground beside the log Mara was perched upon.
"I take it Leia is growing impatient for your return." Mara remarked, not glancing up from her data pad; Karrde was expecting this inventory acquisitions report by the end of the day.
"Yes," He muttered, his tone laced with childish petulance. "She says she need me to mediate the Sullust treaty."
"And that's not true?" Mara's eyes and fingers flicked rapidly over her work, carefully keeping her voice deceptively disinterested.
"No, it's not true. Well, mostly not true. I don't know." He sighed and wrapped his arms around his knees, wishing Mara would put that pad down and stop pretending she wasn't listening. "I'm not a politician."
"So tell her that."
Mara finally looked up at him with a mocking stare which Luke met. For a moment. Sighing again, he rested his chin on his knee.
"Okay, maybe not in those words exactly, but I strongly implied it on several occasions."
Chuckling, Mara reached down and rapped him none too gently on the crown of his head with her knuckles. "Stop fighting with your family, Skywalker."
"Owww." He moaned, rubbing his head.
"And don't whine."
Luke glanced up at her with laughing bright eyes and hiked the act up a notch. "I don't whine!"
Mara laughed again and, Luke noted with satisfaction, put her data pad down. Her chin set a little as she pressed her hands flat against the rubbery log beneath her. Luke could feel her mind turning over and over thoughtfully.
"What is it?" He asked mildly, turning his head to look at her, his cheek lying upon his kneecap.
"Your sister might have a point, though, Skywalker."
"About mediating the Sullust treaty?" Luke shifted to a straighter sitting position, wincing at the tightness in his lungs and hoping Mara wouldn't sense it.
"Not in the particular, but in the broader sense." A faint frown flitted across her forehead and Luke knew she was picking up on his vague discomfort, but she didn't pry. "We can't hide out here forever."
"Is that what you think we are doing? Hiding out?"
"Everybody needs a vacation. But this isn't the place for you, for either of us. You have a Republic to build and I have the Smuggler's Alliance."
"But your training—" Luke began, fighting a flush of desperation. With only Mara and the Force, he felt a simplicity and emotional balance he hadn't known since boyhood. He didn't want to let that go. Would not let that go.
But, of course, even as those thoughts formed deep in his mind, they were as apparent to Mara as a reflection in a mirror. Escape from the frustrating drudgery of the New Republic's bureaucracy certainly wasn't the sole reason they'd come here, but he would be lying to himself if he didn't acknowledge that it was a reason nonetheless.
"There's time enough for whatever is left of my training at another time. The Jedi belong in out there." She made a motion towards the hazy sky and the stars hidden beyond the atmosphere. "You know, Skywalker, out with all those people and lights, as we were saying on the roof."
Luke opened his mouth to rejoin when he suddenly seized by a fit of ragged, damp coughing. The tight pain in his lungs flared up violently as he scrambled to control his autonomous nervous system. Mara's fist landed hard against the center of his back, thumping until the fit passed.
"You okay?" She asked as he dragged one sleeve over his mouth. He colored faintly with embarrassment.
"Fine. It's just all the moisture in the air. It really gets to me after a while." He kept his face between his knees for a few moments longer before favoring her with a crooked smile. "I suppose that doesn't help my case much."
"Jawa." She mocked lightly, her mouth tightening. She didn't particularily want to leave either. One of her hands dropped onto the top of his head and rubbed down, flattening his wayward cowlicks. The motion was rough and clumsy, but there was an honest desire to comfort buried somewhere in it. Luke blinked back the cough-induced dampness from his eyes.
"We could leave in the morning." He said after a long moment of silence.
Mara shook her head. "No, there won't be enough light to pack up the rest of the camp tonight. We'll do it tomorrow."
"The day after tomorrow, then." Luke amended, fighting a flicker of disappointment as her small hand left his hair and landed flat against the log again.
Another silence surrounded them as Luke turned his attention back to the swamp around them. Some small and dark green amphibious creature darted out from under a glistening carpet of leaves and moss, as it passed, Luke caught that familiar musk of sweet decay. A nest of leathery birds cut and dodged through the trees above their heads, their calls piercing the air. He would miss it here, it was Yoda's home and a place where he first felt the truest sort of peace, the kind that came with the gradual eclipsing of ignorance by knowledge.
"Yes." Mara echoed softly, distantly, her mind in perfect conjunction with his. "Skywalker, before we leave . . I need to know."
Her eyes, a radiant green clearer than glass, met his, pleading so subtlety she was perhaps not even aware of it. Pleading to offer his help because she could not ask for it.
"Are you sure?" He asked, rising up on his knees and moving in front of her.
She set her chin again, and the lines of her jaws hardened. She nodded firmly. "I need to know what happened. You're right; I gain nothing by procrastination. I have important work ahead of me both with the Smuggler's Alliance and Karrde."
At the unspoken question in his gentle eyes, Mara crooked her lips lightly. "And, of course, with the Jedi. I need peace of mind."
Luke reached out and took her hands, a liberty usually allowed to him. "It may not be pleasant, Mara." He warned. At the risk of cracking teeth, her jaw set further.
"I can handle it."
Luke studied her eyes and sense carefully. She tossed her head and locked eyes, defying his concerned scrutiny. With a nod, he pulled her down to the ground beside him. Taking several slow, deep breaths, they cleared their minds of daily concerns and future puzzles.
When Luke spoke, his voice was measured and calm. "Okay. We do this together, Mara. If you want to stop at any point-"
"I won't." She said flatly.
Touching her mind casually at first, Luke allowed Mara to lead him through the mazes and passages of her mind, familiarizing himself with which parts were unfit for entry and which lines would have to be crossed eventually. Moments later, or perhaps hours, they came upon that locked chest of memories. Luke felt her strained courage and sent her more from his own reserves. She was willing to open the lock, needed to release what was inside before it ate her from the inside out.
Though blurred again, at first, the image of that pair of small children cleared to precise crispness.
Mara? Luke asked, sensing her mind withdrawing from his and becoming engrossed in the view before them. Mara, stay with me, okay?
I . . . know this place. She answered, instead, her voice laced with trepidation. Deep within her mind, Luke could feel how much Mara had grown in the Force since the last time they'd visited here. She wouldn't back down this time.
Talk to me, Mara. Where are we?
She didn't answer immediately, instead focused her attention on the children before them. Their clothes were simple and comfortable, their faces clean and pink from cool wind. A ribbon of leaves spun through the air and dropped to the ground in a neat bull's eye. There was laughter.
The images faded and wavered. Luke amplified her memories, squeezing her hands and sending quiet encouragement.
That girl, that's me. She said slowly. No surprise there, the bright green eyes and brilliant hair tipped that off. That Mara was willing to recognize this herself was a surprise.
And the little boy? Luke prompted.
My brother, I think. Younger. I can't remember his name. Her mind was whirling with a sudden flood of knowledge, frightening in its intensity. She was entering now with steely determinism to discover the truth and the truth would now not masquerade itself from her. Luke could feel her grudging gratitude that he was near and almost without her knowledge, her slender fingers laced through his.
Oh. Luke sat back mentally and watched the ballet of leaves.
I'm not supposed to be doing this. Mara said suddenly. Moving the things around like that. I think . . . they're afraid of it. My parents. They're afraid someone will find out what I can do. I'm sneaky but it makes him laugh and I never thought . . . didn't think anything would happen.
Her voice, inside his mind, wavered and they braced themselves. It was coming.
It began as a rush of sound, the sound of pounding feet across a blanket of dry leaves. A woman was running toward the children, white-knuckled hands clutching a woolen apron.
/Mara! Sato! Run! / Her scream was bleeding raw, hysterically desperate. Luke felt her cry like a shot of adrenaline to his heart.
Mara jerked, her nails biting into the skin of Luke's palms, although neither had any awareness of the physical world beyond their joined minds.
For a moment the children's emerald eyes met in shock and fear. The little boy turned toward the sound of his mother's voice. A man with a bright shock of orange hair had joined her in the run, his face taunt and smeared with dirt. He was pointing towards the woods behind the children, frantically urging them toward some place to hide.
/Run! / He yelled, turning his head over his shoulder to the left. Mara, Luke and the children in her memory all followed his gaze.
Like an army of white ghosts rising up in the night, seven stormtroopers appeared at the crest of a small hill, marching shoulder-to-shoulder in a bent-diamond formation, black blaster rifles slung over their shoulders.
Casually, the lead solider raised his weapon and fired two shot in rapid succession. Because a very young Mara's gaze was fixed only upon the stormtroopers, all Luke heard of her parents' death was a sudden, boneless thud and the snapping of dry twigs as their bodies hit the dirt.
Another shot was fired at a closer range, and this one the young Mara did see. Her brother's eyes widened and Mara felt it deep inside as the shot struck him dead-center in the chest. She watched without sound as his shoulders slumped and he slid off to the side, quietly, like a sack of flour sagging to the ground.
Footsteps grew louder and rough hands picked the child Mara up, her hot cheek pressed to hard, cold armor and she bounced slightly, staring back at the site of a massacre that had only taken moments. And then, it was over.
Feeling sick, Luke gently withdrew from Mara's mind. Her face was stark white and her eyes were closed. Luke stared down at their joined hands, tracing the lines of blood her nails had spilled, as if, from them, he could parse out the appropriate way to react to what had just occurred.
"Mara-" He began hoarsely. She jerked at the sound of his voice, her hands slipping from his and fluttering in the air.
"I'm . . ." her words faded, then rose again. "I'm going to take a walk now."
Luke swallowed. "Mara, please, it's dark. Just . . . just stay here with me."
She shook her head, sending wild ripples through her curls. "No. I'll be fine. I'm only going to sit by the shuttle." She rose to her feet, not appearing to be as shaky as Luke felt.
He followed her, hands desperate to touch and soothe. "Mara, please." Without haste, she pulled her arm from his grasp.
"I need to be alone for a while, Skywalker." She told him quietly, not meeting her eyes. Slowly, he nodded, trying, with no avail, to touch her mind.
"I'll wait up, then." He offered. Her mouth quirked, although there was no humor in it.
"I wouldn't expect any less."
Luke hovered in the entrance to their tent, studying Mara's silhouette, illuminated by her glow rod. Her back was to him, yards away, sitting atop a crate. She hadn't moved in hours and he was torn between his respect for her privacy and the overwhelming desire to comfort her. Her emotions were hidden from him, but if they were anything similar to his, she was alternating between shock, horror, grief and an incandescent fury at the nonchalant and banal way Palpatine's army annihilated an innocent family.
When at last she stirred and turned toward the camp, Luke jumped back and slithered under the covers, smothering another damp cough. Mara stepped into the tent in silence, although she certainly knew he was awake. She stripped off her jacket and laid down upon her bedroll.
A dull moonshine fell upon her face through the clear rain net on the roof of the tent. Her cheeks and eyes were unmarred by tears and her lips were straight, without quiver.
"Nothing has changed." She whispered at last. Luke slid closer to her, resting his cheek on the back of his hand. She leaned in further, voice hushed as if someone outside would hear. "I know, I've always known that he must have killed them. There was no practical reason to leave them alive. And even though I knew, inside, that he killed them-" She stopped suddenly and dropped her voice even lower, one wavering hand making elaborate, random patterns in the air until Luke caught it and trapped it beneath his. "Do you want to hear the most terrible thing?" She asked in a conspiratorial whisper.
Luke sent her a quick mental caress, encouraging her to continue.
"Even though I knew, I loved him anyway." Her sense flushed with self-hatred and disgust. "I loved him. I would have died for him, done anything he asked of me."
Luke inched even closer, wanting to be close enough to feel her breath. "It wasn't your fault, Mara." He soothed, murmuring words so true they had lost any meaning.
"I loved him, Luke. Don't you think, in some very important way, loving a monster makes you part monster?" Even without the Force, he could tell that she was deadly earnest.
"I loved my father. Even knowing the things he did."
Mara shook her head. "It's not the same." She countered firmly. "You loved Anakin Skywalker, not Darth Vader."
Luke rested one broad, calloused hand on her smooth cheek, almost covering half her face. "You can't separate people from their actions like that. I loved all of him, even the evil monster Anakin Skywalker became. That's part of being human, Mara, loving people even when they don't deserve it."
His fingers brushed a lock of hair behind her ear and she let him smooth over her skin, desperate to feel goodness, if only vicariously through Luke. He reached out and tried to touch her mind again, but her barriers were intractable.
He frowned a little.
"Why are you always trying to get in my head, Skywalker?" She asked, taking absurd comfort in this little charade.
"Why are you always shutting me out? After all we've been though, what are you afraid I'll find in there?"
A smart retort died on her lips as the answer surfaced in her mind. Nothing, Luke. She thought, grimly. I'm afraid you'll find nothing there. Afraid he someday overpower her barriers, crack her open and find nothing more than a puff of stale air and a delicate stirring of dust where a human soul should have been.
Luke allowed her silence without pressure. They had done enough for one day. Shifting, he slipped an arm under her head.
That was not, Mara realized, as comfortable as her pillow, but she would allow it for a short time. He always seemed so pleased to offer her these minor displays of affection, which he showered frequently and unconsciously upon his friends and family.
"Nothing's changed." She repeated, pulling back her original discourse. "But seeing that, knowing for sure, I feel like I need to do something. Make it right, somehow. But everyone involved is dead now."
"There's nothing you can do, Mara. Nothing I could do either when they killed my folks. Except . . . except maybe hoping, even assuming, that wherever they are, they forgive us. For surviving them. For still," he broke off and glanced down at her beautiful ivory face, listening intently to his words, tuning into the particular frequency of his thoughts and emotions through the Force. "For still trying to find ways to be happy. Without them."
She nodded, her hair rubbing into his arm. Mara closed her eyes, mulling over his words, thinking she would ask him to move back soon. Instead, she fell asleep.
Mornings were the worst, Luke reflected as he desperately tried not to cough. Mist was rising up from the swamps, mingling with the morning dew and competing for space with the remnants of a midnight rainstorm. His lungs felt like thick, heavy sponges and his dreams had been filled with the weird mental image of reaching into his chest and squeezing out great bucketfuls of dank Daghobah water. That, among other dreams. The night had been long and tangled with mournful, uneasy dreams, both his and Mara's.
As such, he was reluctant to wake Mara, who was sound asleep in the crook of his arm, with yet another coughing fit nor could he determine any way of extracting himself from her without disturbing her. He, quietly as possible, cleared his throat in search of some relief. Mara stirred and the hand laying on the center of his chest curled into a fist, her short nails dragging across the thin fabric of his shirt.
"Are you okay?" She muttered, eyes fluttering open.
"I'm sorry." He whispered, pulling his arm from under her head and covering his mouth as a coughing spasm racked through his body. Mara sat up, blearily sweeping her long hair from her face. She quickly scanned the tent, her eyes straining in the pre-dawn light.
Luke took a deep, clear breath and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Go back to sleep, I'll go outside."
"Don't be stupid," Mara scoffed. "You'll just get sicker. Can't you take something from the med pac?"
Luke shook his head. "No, it's okay. I'm awake now, anyway."
"How can you be awake? It's not even dawn."
Luke gave a soft, crooked smile as he took in her tousled hair and sleep-flushed cheeks. "It's dawn on Tatooine," he murmured.
Mara caught his smile and returned it, gesturing to the rumpled bedroll beneath them. "Lay back down," she entreated. "There's something I want to try."
Luke's eyes widened with warily, but he did as she asked. She placed her hands gently on his chest and closed her eyes. Luke felt the Force swirling around her, drawn from the swamp, the trees, the animals and each other.
"It's a technique I learned once, before I was sent to Mon Cal," Mara explained in a voice that seemed unnaturally far away. "You need to teach your lung cells to absorb the water into your bloodstream rather than let it collect."
Very slowly, like ink infusing into water, her Force awareness, sweet and vivid, steeped into his mind and body. He could feel her exquisite control directing his body, channeling the suffocating moisture from his tired lungs. Every cell in Luke's body filled with her essence, a signature more familiar than her face or voice; navigating his own body was like stumbling through a maze of mirrors reflecting only Mara.
It was profoundly surreal, dizzying and exotic. The palms resting flat upon him seemed to be burning a hole through his chest, so powerful was her concentration in the Force.
All too soon, she began to retract her sense from his.
//Don't leave . . . // He pleaded. But she had already slipped away.
When Luke finally managed to shove his eyes open, Mara was leaning above him, little drops of sweat sprinkling her brow and upper lip. On the front of his shirt were two damp handprints.
He tried to open his mouth but his mind felt dull and gummy.
"Relax," Mara whispered. "Stay in a healing trance for an hour or two. You'll be as good as new."
//The camp has to be packed-// He began, too far gone to speak aloud.
"Has anyone ever told you that you worry too much, Skywalker?" She asked as his eyes drifted closed again.
Mara watched him in sleep for some time, noting with satisfaction that his wheezing was less pronounced. Her skin was still crawling from their deep-mind contact. They had touched and entered each other's mind on dozens of occasions since they'd met, but this had been an adherence of cells, of Force awareness and synaptic impulses. Throughout the bond, she couldn't recall if she was breathing herself or merely experiencing the sensation vicariously. The intensity of the coupling frightened her as much as it exhilarated.
Dragging her mind back to practical matters, Mara glanced about. The sun had risen grudgingly, casting a diffuse glow across the camp. There was still a muggy chill to the air and her exhausted mind and body longed for sleep. Last night . . . she flushed unwillingly at the thought. No, she told herself firmly, there was nothing to be embarrassed about. She had been cold, inside and out, emotionally over-stimulated, and confused. Luke had been comforting in his warmth and simplicity, as always, and for once, she had been weak enough to take advantage of that. It wouldn't happen again and she was certain that his farm-boy integrity would prevent him from bringing the matter up.
Mara pushed herself up and threw a blanket over Luke. Briskly dusting her hands off, she stepped out of the tent and set to work.
She had most of the periphery of the camp packed by the time Luke rose from his healing trance. Crouched over a crate of emergency rations, Mara glanced up at him and blew a curl of hair out her eyes.
"Feeling better?" She asked, critically scanning him with her eyes and sense.
Luke grinned and stretched. "I feel fine. That was an extraordinary healing technique, Mara." He complimented, sitting atop the crate Mara had been fussing over. "The only other person I've meet capable of that is Clighal and she is trained healer."
Mara placed her hands on her hips and twisted her lip sardonically. "What can I say, Skywalker? I'm gifted."
"Yes," Luke said insistently, refusing to allow her to lighten the mood. "You have remarkable gifts and I just want you to know, before we leave, that I'm honored to have been able to teach you."
Mara ducked her head briefly at the earnestness in his voice. "Yeah, well, for all that I'm still not a Jedi yet."
Some complex and strange thought colored Luke's sense but it was shut away before Mara could get an accurate read on it.
"What?" Mara asked, her brow knitting.
Luke shook his head quickly. "Nothing, stray thoughts." He slapped his hands against his thighs and rose. "Why don't you let me pack my half and rest for awhile? Meditate."
Mara scowled. "You just can't let up, can you?"
Luke placated her with a warm smile and mental touch. "My vigilance is part of my charm."
Mara turned on a heel and marched off with a snort and an indelicate thought.
// Jedi! //
Deep in concentration, Mara balanced her entire body weight on her thumbs. Unbidden, the memories and sounds rose, nuzzling against her mind with feline persistence. Now, though, she did not fear them; she embraced them for their violence, their terror, comforted them and packed them securely away in a part of her mind that would not forget again.
The young boy in her mind, the one with the deep ginger hair turned his cheek and laughed as a storm of dry, autumn leaves rained around his head. He turned up his small, worn palms and watched a credit-sized burnt orange leaf settled there.
Mara scrutinized the memory, studying the play of light and shadow across the child who had only a few precious moments left to live. Lost in the meditative trance, she reached out to touch his cheek. The image shivered and dissipated like touching a reflection on a still pond.
Can you hear me? She asked desperately as the vision began to fade. Stay for a moment, please! But neither time, memory nor the Force were obliged to her wishes. I don't remember you, your name or what you were like. Mara spoke quickly, feeling her mind drifting from the trance. But I miss you, I swear I do.
With a start, Mara jerked up. She was still standing upside down, out in the swamps. Tucking her legs in, she rolled to a sitting position.
A brush fire of rage began to scorch the edges of her mind. That monster had taken all that from her, life, security, love . . . Pulling out her lightsaber, she jumped to her feet.
"I hate you!" She screamed, igniting the blue-white blade and driving it through the shiny, tough bark of a jik-jik tree. "Scum breathing son of a-"
She cut herself off abruptly when she realized what tree she had just attacked. It was enormous, gnarled, twisted like a cyclone up toward the steamy, leaf-obscured sky. It stood like an Imperial Royal Guard at the entrance of the Dark Side cave.
Luke had requested prudence from her with regards to this evil place. But it was so powerfully dark, Mara could almost smell the Emperor, feel his overbearing presence upon her mind. That presence had awed her, inspired her, tormented and reassured her as a child.
Well, she wasn't a child any longer. Clutching Luke's old lightsaber in her hand, she stepped into the clammy, shadowy dark.
Vines and branches thick around as her legs hung in front of her eyes and twined mercilessly around her feet, tripping her. Twice, she was up-ended, slamming down nearly face-first onto the ground, her hands sinking to the wrists in the muck. But, doggedly, she advanced.
"Come on, My Emperor," she hissed, gritting her teeth against the pain in her wrists. "Show yourself, Master. Tell me, My Lord, do you fear me now?"
Squinting in the darkness, Mara stepped forward again. And again, she fell to the ground, her chin slamming hard against a fat root. Sparks flashed before her eyes and slowly withered away. Clearing her mind with a sharp shake of her head, Mara saw him.
Against a rock wall, the folds and creases of his black robe became discriminate from the icy stone. His wrinkled and gray hands were curled at his side, his yellow eyes burning like sulfur underneath the cowl of his hood.
Mara inched forward on her hands and knees, sliding her lightsaber along the uneven ground.
"See this?" Mara slapped the lightsaber against the ground as she kicked a loop of vine from her foot. "This is the weapon of a Jedi. Whether or not you show it, you fear this, Master. You fear me."
"I fear nothing, My Hand." He rasped maliciously, evenly.
Mara felt a snake of trepidation uncoiling in her gut. This was the Emperor, after all, he could kill her with a thought . . .
No! No, he was a phantom, a memory, a bruise on the Force that had lingered long after his death. A nightmare, yes, but she was no longer asleep. And he did not own her.
"You are right to fear me, child. I could destroy you as I destroyed them." Stronger than a bolt of his blue lightening, the image of her desperate parents slashed across Mara's mind. Her brother slumping off to the side, eyes wide and green and dead.
"No!" Mara cried, struggling to her feet, her blade snap-hissing to life. The light from the blade cut across her mind as she advanced upon the demon of her youth. The sputtering light of Anakin Skywalker's weapon hit her like a splash of icy water. Drawing deep inside herself, she heard Luke's voice reciting the maxim that was his leitmotif.
Hate leads to aggression . . . aggression leads to the Dark Side . . . Even more than Luke, Mara knew the danger of the Dark Side; she had lived it, had heard it whistling through her chest like obscene music. She would disavow the history to this weapon if it became her dying act.
Dropping to her knees, she shut down her blade.
"There is no emotion; there is peace." She whispered, closing her eyes.
"There is no ignorance; there is knowledge."
"Enough, Mara Jade."
"There is no passion; there is serenity."
"You will fail, My Hand, you are mine, you always will be."
Mara gritted her teeth, squeezing her lightsaber until her knuckles became bleach white. "There is no chaos; there is harmony."
"You will fail him, as you failed me."
"There is no death; there is the Force," she bit out defiantly.
A laugh like the tearing of paper rose up from the grim spectre before her. "Death, My Hand? I will show you death."
From the hollows of the cave, two figures rose up. One was in a scuffed field suit, the other in a tattered brown robe. Those facts aside, they were exactly identical. Shimmering at first, the cave around her disappeared and Mara found herself in the throne room on Wayland.
The clone reached into his cloak and pulled out a lightsaber—the one that rightfully belonged to her—and wielded it viciously at Luke.
Mara tried to call out, to scream him a warning, but her throat was sealed tightly as a vaporlock. The clone advanced as a mentally-hindered Luke tried to split his attention between Mara, his sister, C'baoth and the clone.
"He will die, Mara Jade, and it will be your hatred that kills him."
No, Mara thought fiercely, this isn't the way it happened. I saved him. I killed the clone.
"No, you didn't," the Emperor answered, a grin rising up from the thick, drooping folds of his face. "It was too tempting to watch, to let the clone finish him off for good. Even though it was too late for me, even though you were still a failure."
"No," Mara found her voice and tried to rise from her sitting position beside the throne. "No, this isn't how it happened. I saved you, Luke."
The clone raised his lightsaber high above his head, his stolen face reflecting off the view screen beside Luke. Cornered by the wall, Luke managed one last lingering glance at Mara before the clone struck, one last gaze filled with betrayal, hurt and blame.
Mara's throat and heart constricted into a bloodless lump, her eyes squeezing shut in childish denial. No, no, no. Not Luke, not after all they had been through.
When Mara opened her eyes again, she was sitting on her hands and knees on a vast frozen lake, utter silence and nothingness around her. She was alone without his voice to comfort her, his sense to believe in her, and his unwavering devotion that for the first time in her life, made her feel something close to human. Colder than a night on Hoth, darker than wild space, emptier than a Hutt's promise, her life stretched out before her.
"Mara?" A warm hand on her shoulder punctuated that concerned and insistent query. Mara's eyes snapped open and she was in an ordinary cave. No Emperor, no clone, just vines and roots . . . and Luke.
Vaulting to her feet, Mara threw her arms around Luke's shoulders, digging her nails painfully into his skin.
"Mara?" He asked, his voice muffled by the mass of hair against his face. He covered the back of her head with one hand, the other wrapping around her waist. "What is it? Tell me what's wrong."
Mara shook her head, her nose pressed against his collarbone, his sense flooding her mind with light. The panicked chaos in her mind was slowly calming. He was alive; he felt alive, he smelled alive.
"Whatever you saw in here," he whispered against her temple. "It wasn't real, Mara. It was just a vision."
"I want to leave here." Mara said at last, pulling from his embrace. His blue eyes were dark with concern and Mara found herself unable to meet them. "Please, let's just leave here."
Over hot chocolate, sitting across from Luke, on the last remaining crates, Mara half-told, half-Force transmitted the entire ordeal to him.
"I saw that thing kill you," she whispered, concentrating on the play of his glow rod across the surface of her drink. Skies above, when had darkness fallen? How long had she been trapped in that evil place? "I let him kill you."
Luke placed his drink down and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "That isn't what happened, Mara. You were stronger than that. I—"
Luke hesitated, biting his lower lip in that odd, nervous way of his.
"What?" Mara asked, crossing her brow.
"Mara, I've been meaning to ask you . . . for a long time. When you killed that clone, what exactly changed in you?"
"I was free. I finally gave into that hate and killed Luke Skywalker. I fulfilled the Emperor's last command."
Luke shook his head slowly. "No, I don't think that's true, Mara. The clone and I may have had identical genetic structure, but our essence, our Force senses were vastly different. That clone was not Luke Skywalker. Your reasoning just doesn't make sense."
"But that's what happened," Mara insisted, not following the line of his argument.
Luke shifted again and took her hands. "I know the Emperor's voice left you, Mara, and I know you became free. But I don't think it was for those reasons. Why did you kill the clone? At that moment, were you assuming if you did so, the Emperor's voice would leave you?"
"Of course not. I didn't really think about my reasons. It was going to kill you, so I killed it."
A smile blossomed on Luke's face and his aw-shucks blue eyes gleamed. "You see, Mara? You get it? That day, you saved me. Not because you needed me for something, like on Myrkr or Jomark or Wistril. You could have killed C'baoth on your own—did kill him on your own. You saved me because I needed to be saved. You weren't giving into hate, Mara, you were giving up hate. His voice isn't gone because you fulfilled his last command, it's gone because you renounced it."
Mara's mind spun wildly at his words, part rebelling, part rejoicing. Her mouth worked a little. "Then I am a Jedi." She murmured slowly, unknowingly echoing the same words Luke had said here years ago.
Luke's smile widened as he reached across and took her face in his hands. "Yes, I think you are. I think you have been; we just weren't skilled enough to realize it. Maybe weren't ready to acknowledge it."
Her brilliant eyes glittered and her chin firmed. "I guess I have no choice in this," she muttered reluctantly.
Luke laughed and kissed her lightly, overcome. "Fight it 'til the end, Mara. I wouldn't expect any less from you."
Their eyes met across a very short distance as their thoughts began to catch up with them.
"I was lost in my vision, without you." Mara confessed, her breath fanning Luke's face.
"I'm still here, Mara. You're not getting rid of me so easily."
Closing in on her again, he brushed his lips against hers, seeking any sign of resistance. Instead, she pressed a quick kiss against his passing lips. He was warm and giving, cared for her deeply, perhaps foolishly, but Mara remained human enough to cling to that the way a climbing plant clings to a window for light. Unlike their first kiss, this one lingered and healed.
When it wound down to it's natural conclusion, Luke pulled away and rested his head in her lap, catching his breath. A great wave of emotion crested above Mara and she feared it desperately.
Luke lifted his head and tightened his hands around her waist. "It's just us, here, Mara," he whispered. "And we can handle anything together."
She could have resisted him, should have. Instead, she watched the wave descend and engulf her, relishing its sublime freedom and uncontrolled intensity.
Luke pulled back, settling on his heels and taking her hands. They locked eyes as he gently pulled her down beside him onto their bedrolls. Mara lay prone across the floor, eyes closed, seething for his touch. He propped himself up on one elbow and traced the lines of her face, pausing to drop random, tender kisses onto the smooth lines of her cheekbones.
Impatiently, Mara reached up and tugged his jacket off, shivering as she slid it down his arms, fingers rippling over corded muscle. She loved his build, just slight enough to cleverly disguise a deadly potential, the same way her ruthless skills were dismissed by those who saw only her delicate beauty.
One of Luke's dry, broad hands slipped under her crop top, soothing over her flat stomach before cupping a breast gently. He kissed her slowly and for a long time, his tongue filling her mouth until she saw stars glittering in the darkness of her mind.
"Please . . ." She whispered against his lips. This had been coming for a long time and she was in no position to stop it.
They undressed each other quickly and without awkwardness, until Mara lay, breathing shallowly beneath him. Her bright green eyes glowing in the dull light with the need to be touched by unselfish, undemanding hands. The need to hear his tender, honest words.
"Mara," Luke choked, "Wait. I don't have any. . . I mean are you . . .?"
"Yes, I am. Don't worry, Luke." It was a small lie, forgivable under the circumstances. Mara knew it would only break Luke's heart to hear why pregnancy was not now, and never would be, a concern.
Poised above her, he entered her slowly and carefully as if afraid of hurting or scaring her. He knew who she was, what she had done and still acted as if she were some pure girl, someone deserving of the utmost gentleness and care. His acute and excessive consideration brought unheard of tears to Mara's eyes. Luke froze.
"Am I hurting you? I can stop. Are you all right?"
Mara shook her head, his worry only adding fresh tears. Sliding her arms around his neck, she buried her face in his shoulder so he wouldn't see. Luke pulled her back down, and brushed her already damp hair off her forehead.
"Don't cry," he whispered, kissing her eyes. "Please don't cry. I love you, Mara, there's nothing to cry about."
Mara quickly covered his mouth with a pair of fingers. "Don't say that, Luke, please."
"But it's true," he took her fingers into his hand and kissed them as he began steady thrusting into her. "I love you, Mara Jade. I've loved you since the moment I saw you. I've loved you from the time you suggested we break into an Imperial Star Destroyer with no back up. I've loved you since you took my lightsaber and wore it . . ." he longed to continue, but his breathing was becoming desperately labored.
"Don't waste all that on me, Luke." Mara breathed, her entire being reeling in the chaos of his words and the feel of his body inside hers and against hers and in her mind and threading through her soul.
Luke shook his head. "I love you, Mara." He repeated those words in a hoarse whisper, over and over, faster as their searing bodies climbed towards climax. He slid his hands up her arms and laced their fingers together, kissing her as if he could impart that truth through his lips.
Mara arched her back and wrapped her legs around his hips, her mind and body tightening in kaleidoscope of images, stars and a shattering of barriers old and strong, dragging Luke down with her.
Gasping, Luke collapsed against her, his face buried in the straight, ivory line her shoulder. When he regained enough strength to move, he kissed her shoulder gently, then her breastbone and then the silky underside of her jaw.
Mara buried her fingers in his wayward, soaked cowlicks as they carefully reconstructed their barriers, re-establishing their separate identities.
Luke craned his neck and kissed her lips sweetly, weaving his fingers through her glorious, fiery hair.
"Tell me, Skywalker," Mara whispered playfully, "Was that better than blowing up a Death Star?"
Luke laughed and kissed her again. "By leaps and bounds." They shared a giddy, secret smile which faded as the euphoria of climax receded.
Mara turned her head from him, reaching up to trace the stitching of their therma-vinyl tent.
Luke hugged her tightly, trying to draw her attention back to him. "Mara, whatever you're thinking, please tell me."
Mara looked back at him, her eyes withdrawn and sad as Luke tugged a blanket over their cooling bodies. "Look at us, Luke. What were we thinking?"
Luke ran a finger along her jaw line, brushing hair behind her ear. "I'm not well versed in these matters, but don't people normally wait until the next morning to have this conversation?"
"We aren't normal people, Luke. That's rather the point."
Luke sighed and closed his eyes. "I love you, Mara," he murmured, nuzzling her throat. "Isn't that enough?"
"Enough for whom? There are people out there, Luke, who will only see-"
"I don't care about that." He said quickly.
"You sister will-"
Luke covered her words with a soft kiss. "I love my sister, Mara. But this is my life."
"Luke. Let's be smart about this." She pleaded, offering him, and herself, an out.
An out Luke refused to accept or grant. "This isn't about being smart, Mara. It's about . . ." His mind failed him utterly at that moment and he scrambled for purchase. "It's about a happy evermore ending. Just like in the faerie stories. We've given up everything, our families, birthrights, innocence and peace. We deserve a little bit in return. We can grant ourselves that much, can't we? "
Mara scoffed gently. "'Happy evermore'? Luke, I'd say happy evermore stopped being an option for us long ago."
Luke tried not to groan in frustration. "What about Han and Leia? Hum? They weren't exactly nurtured at the bosom of fortune's bounty either and they've managed to sort out a life together."
Mara reached up and clapped the side of his face. "Big words for an illiterate farmer," she teased lightly. When he refused to be softened, she twisted her lip a little in thought. "It's different for us, Luke."
"How?" He demanded.
"It just is. We're too different. Or too similar. We're incapable of compromise. We're-," she sighed and turned her cheek from him again. "Luke, you try so hard, you push so much . . . and still, you have to realize that people aren't fixable like X-wings. You can't just take two broken halves and try to make a whole. It doesn't work like that."
Luke covered her mouth once again, tasting her and relishing in her awareness, as dangerous and aching as his.
"I don't want to discuss this any longer," he whispered after a lingering kiss which left Mara's arms locked around his neck. "Let's forget it all, just for tonight. A night of let's-pretend, if that's all we get. We'll be on our way back to Coruscant tomorrow . . ."
Luke trailed off, clutching her a little tighter. His elusive inner-realist knew Mara was mostly right. Once they hit Coruscant, everything would change. Constant media scrutiny and internal pressure would be enough to fracture the most stable couple. Not to mention their wildly different jobs—an overwhelming sundry of complications and rationalizations hit him at once, his optimism stifled and suffocated. Was this, then, how Mara saw things all the time?
Mara caught his disappointment and the clouding of his bright eyes. As much as she berated him for his ceaseless idealism, she relied upon like the sunrise.
Before he could ruin his boyish face with a frown, Mara kissed him with an urgent desperation that kept dark thoughts far at bay.
Some time later, Mara awoke to a light tickling sensation on her stomach. Luke was propped above her, his face lined with concentration as he ran one finger across her flat abdomen.
"What are you doing?" She asked, giving a lazy, feline stretch.
"I'm drawing a map of the galaxy." Luke answered, lifting his hand from her. "Is Pzob in Sector Alpha 87-6 or 87-7?"
Mara raised one brow. "Do I look like your astromech?"
Grinning, Luke ran his hands along her body, up to her smirking face. "No, you certainly do not."
"Good." Mara laced her fingers through his sandy hair. "Now, I realize this is a trip you've only taken once before, but I should hope you wouldn't need a map."
Luke laughed gently, sweeping his hand across her stomach as if erasing his imaginary charts and hauling her above him. "You're right. Forget the galaxy."
Another, less trained person would perhaps have been disoriented to wake up to the sensation of someone breathing in her hair after a lifetime of sleeping alone. But from the split second her eyes opened, Mara knew whose chest was pressed against her back, whose muscular arms were draped around her waist and whose belt buckle was digging uncomfortably into the small of her back.
She rolled onto her back and smiled as Luke muttered in protest, twisting onto his stomach and half-covering her in the process. Mara studied his face, unlined in sleep, wondering just when the furies that had driven her to him had become the eumenidies that wouldn't allow her to leave.
Rising carefully, Mara slipped on a pair of slacks and pulled off the shirt of Luke's she'd been wearing, replacing it with a clean one of her own. It didn't matter, she still smelled of him, of his sweat and his mouth.
The misty air outside the tent was cool in the early morning light. Luke ought to get up soon, she imagined. They had to break orbit by mid-morning if they wanted to reach Coruscant on schedule. Mara walked to the edge of their dismantled camp and sat gingerly on a low-lying branch. They had almost made it, Mara thought in resignation. A couple more days and he would have been back on active Jedi-duty on Coruscant and she would have been helping Karrde and Solo cement the Smuggler's Alliance.
Although filtered through a dense haze, the morning light was still harsh enough to make last night's rapture an undeniable, glaring mistake. There were no two ways about it. She'd slept with men before, certainly, but it had always been a means to an end, one minor step in a greater objective. Skywalker, she knew, would not see last night as such. He would demand more, stubborn to the last.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the awareness of Luke's waking mind. Gods, she'd never sensed that before. Would it be like this forever then? No matter how far she wandered the galaxy, would she know every waking step he took? How far had they gone last night?
Luke took a seat beside her, his sense tinged with apprehension and disappointment that she hadn't woken in his arms. They sat and stared at the net of vines and leaves before them, almost camouflaging their lambda shuttle.
Finally, Mara broke the silence.
"You know, I had everything I was going to say to you figured out," she glanced at him over her shoulder. "But now I've forgotten it."
Luke wanted to reach for her hand, but couldn't shake the feeling that in the course of one night they had taken a thousand steps forward and three thousand steps back. So he simply looked at her.
"Speak off the cuff, then, Mara." He set his jaw. "I can handle it."
"Yes, I forgot, the brave Jedi can handle anything." Mara flinched at her own words; however inappropriate, she could not resist mocking him.
A hurt look passed over Luke's eyes. "Almost anything, then," he amended.
Mara balled her hands and tapped into her hidden reserves of Jedi calm. This was more than no way for a Jedi to act, it was no way for an adult to act.
"I'm sorry. I . . . I've been thinking a great deal . . . about last night."
"Come to any conclusions?" Luke asked with cold, deceptive calm. Mara winced at his tone, but squared her shoulders. If she was going to provoke him, she had better be able to handle the consequences.
"Do you remember when we were talking about what would happen if the Emperor could see us now?"
"You said he'd kill you without hesitation."
Mara nodded grimly. "Until yesterday, until after my trip through the cave, that's how I still saw my life. Every step I took and every decision I made, I would ask myself what the Emperor would say or do about it. Habit, I suppose."
Now, Luke did take her hand, unable to keep up the standoffish façade.
"Thank you," Mara said evenly, continuing. "If he were alive to see me in your bed last night, Skywalker, he definitely would have killed me. And maybe—maybe I did what I did last night to prove to myself once and for all that he's not."
Mara watched him absorb her words with no discernable expression on his handsome face. Taking a breath, Mara plunged ahead.
"And you, Luke, you made love to the Emperor's most loyal servant. What could prove your victory over the Empire more conclusively than that? A final victory against Palpatine, for both of us." She squeezed his hand tightly. "We won, Luke, it's over. We're free."
After a brief silence with surging thoughts, Luke spoke slowly. "I appreciate your analysis, Mara. But I wasn't so much interested in ending something last night as beginning something."
Mara handed him a heart-breaking little smile. "I know. But I can't, Luke. You don't want what I think love is. Remember the last person I loved?"
"Mara, I cannot make this any clearer. I am not the Emperor."
"But I'm still the Emperor's Hand," she whispered, looking away. " I don't yet know how to be anything else."
Luke reached over and unhooked her lightsaber, holding it before her face. "You're a Jedi, Mara. You're a smuggler and a pilot and an ambassador for the Smuggler's Alliance. And you're my friend. You can't hide behind your past forever, it won't always keep the rest of the galaxy out."
Mara snatched back her lightsaber, frustration grinding her teeth together. "What to you want from me?" she bit out.
"I want—" Luke laughed suddenly and raised his hands helplessly. "I want to marry you," he began, smiling as he eyes widened nearly out of their sockets. "I want to run away and live on some sand farm with you. I want to train with you and fight with you. I want to go back to Coruscant and give the tabloids something to talk about. I want to sit in this swamp and make you promises."
Mara narrowed her eyes into two brilliant green slits. "I should have known you'd be as damnably relentless about this as everything else."
Luke lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it.
Sighing ruefully, Mara rubbed one hand roughly through his hair. "Fine then, Skywalker. Promise me this—"
"Promise me," Mara continued, glaring at him for interrupting her. "Promise me that you'll have some patience."
Luke's grimace was nothing less than comical. "Mara—anything but patience. Patience isn't my strong suit."
Mara smirked at him, clapping him on the shoulder. "And fraternizing with relentlessly idealistic Jedi isn't mine."
"I thought you said we weren't able to compromise on anything?" Luke teased, still hoping to appeal her ultimatum.
"Prove me wrong, farmer."
Luke bowed his head to the inevitable, and then, to her lips. The ground rules she'd laid down for their future was less than he wanted, but more than he'd expected.
He'd wear her down eventually, he'd know from the moment she caught him in her blaster sights that their destinies were entwined. And even Mara's stubbornness couldn't budge the will of the Force. It was only a matter of time.