Tie Me to the Mast

              By Jedi Molly

Rating: R for now—I'm probably being paranoid but I don't want to offend anyone.

Author's Note: Special Thanks to the Girls, especially Melanie, Anna, Sheyla, AJ and Michele for all of your support and comments.  I couldn't post this without you. And thanks to Pam, for the cabin and the quiet. 

Setting: This story takes place about six months after Planet of Twilight.  Comments, critiques and flames are all welcome.  

         Mara Jade hoisted her shoulder bag a little higher and squinted across a rainy field.  For the fifth time, her knee-high black boots skidded on the mud-slicked path before her and she would have fallen had it not been for the firm hand of her guide on her arm.

"Thanks," she muttered, not feeling very gracious.  Her hair was soaked through and matted uncomfortably to her neck and shoulders, and although her flightsuit was water-repellant, the material was clammy against her flesh.  Only the thought of the Riishi artisans on the other side of the meadow kept her doggedly trudging through the rain. 

She'd seen several pieces of Riishi artwork on a trade jaunt through the Outer Rim and had known at first glance that they would fetch rich reward in the Core Worlds.  The trader from whom she'd purchased those select pieces warned her that they were infamously difficult to obtain; they came from a remote planet, near the edge of Wild Space from a people with no flight capabilities.  Were it not for the fact his own ship had become briefly stranded in a near-by orbiting space station, the trader himself would never have encountered the art. 

While Mara did not relish the difficult travel described, she knew several Master Traders—Mirax Terrik for one—who would pay a king's ransom for such rare and unique craftsmanship, the sort of money that would turn Mara's own trading business from merely profitable to wildly successful and add considerable mettle to her reputation.  And, Mara thought, as she struggled to remove her left boot from the gluey mud, a little hard work never hurt anybody.

After almost two weeks of foot travel, Mara fervently wished she had thought to bring a speeder bike along with her, a thought closely followed by the desperate hope that Slips was guarding the Jades's Fire with every fussy electrode in his little metal body.

Her guide, a short, compact native, halted her with one calloused hand.  Not one for words, he merely pointed to a jagged ravine slicing through the center of the meadow.  It was rather large—several dozen kilometers wide.  Despite the cloudy sky, Mara could make out the glitter of crystals at the bottom of the canyon.  Smoke drifted from small, thatched huts and she could just barely discern the forms of white-robed humans wandering about the crevice floor.  

Mara stepped close to the edge and peered down. Drifting to her mind like smoke, she felt the faintest curl of . . . warmth.  A sweet, deep warmth.  She stretched out with her mind and, tender as a lover, the Force soothed her cold body, infusing her every cell.    A soft, beatific smile crossed her face as her muscles relaxed.   She could feel the Lightside of the Force, corporeal as a liquid filling her lungs. 

I need to be closer to it. Mara thought suddenly. I need to be down there.   She could tell by the ragged and overgrown terrain that it would take several days to descend to the bed of the canyon. What am I thinking?  She scolded herself sharply.  Scampering down a jagged cliff for a taste of the Force sounds like some stupid stunt Skywalker would pull. 

Dragging her mind from her dreamy reverie, she turned back to her companion and tried to concentrate. 

Impatiently, her guide nudged her toward a wooden bridge leading across the canyon.  Mara dug her boots into the ground.

"No," she murmured, pressing her fingertips to her skull.  She suddenly found it hard to remember why she was on this trail in the first place.   "What . . . is down there?"

Her guide's face twisted into an ironic smile. 

"Niraci."  He answered in his native tongue.  The dammed

                                                                                                                           ********************

            Luke Skywalker leaned back in his chair and smiled warmly at his sister as she poured more wine into the glass at his left elbow.   He snagged her wrist as she passed by and kissed her warmly on the cheek, relishing in her delighted surprise.

            "You're certainly in a good mood today," she teased, easing into her own chair.  Her voice was hardly audible over the rambunctious chattering of their friends, scattered about Han and Leia's apartment in the Imperial Palace. 

            Luke felt himself tense at her statement before forcing himself to relax.  It's all right to be a good mood, he reassured himself.  It's all right to move on.

            "I can't grieve forever, Leia," he responded softly.  "Callista is gone; it's what she wanted.  I have to respect that."  It had been six, long, lonely desolate months before he'd felt comfortable enough to say that.  Surprising, Luke wasn't even sure he could have said that six hours ago, but Leia's modest dinner party had been a slap in the face. 

            Listening to their friends, some of whom he'd known for nearly ten years, Luke realized how desperately he'd missed this simple camaraderie.  The Jedi Academy and his intense, doomed relationship with Callista had isolated him from his friends and family for far too long.  He'd missed feeling like just another pilot, just Leia's brother, just Han's buddy and, sadly, he hadn't even realized that until today. 

            "Uncle Luke!" 

            Luke shook his head and glanced down at the small hand tugging at his trouser leg.  Bending at the waist, he scooped up his young nephew and sat him on his lap. 

            "Yes, Jacen?"

            "Are you staying here forever?"  He asked, staring up at his uncle with Leia's deep brown eyes. 

            "Not forever--a couple months."

            "A couple months?"  Han's voiced boomed out from across the table, snagging the attention of Wedge Antilles.  "Can the Academy spare you that long?  Knowing your students, they'll burn the damn place to the ground."

            Luke smiled, tossing his blond hair from his forehead in a swift movement so oft-repeated it had become unconscious and involuntary.  "I've given the students a reprieve for an undisclosed amount of time." He answered calmly as if it were merely casual news.  "After the Academy's most recent misadventures, I've decided to spend some time re-evaluating my approach to teaching."

            There was a long pause; the only sound at the table was Han's low whistle. 

            "Oh, Luke." Leia sighed finally. "I'm sorry. I know how hard that must be for you."  She reached out and placed her hand over his. 

            Luke shook his head.  "To tell the truth, it's actually a relief."

            Han nodded.  "Of course, I told you from the beginning it was too much to train all those Jedi at once."  Somehow, after all these years, Han still said the word 'Jedi' the way most people said 'nutcase.' 

            "Hey, Luke, if you get bored, I'd love to have you on with the Rogues for a couple weeks." Wedge interjected.  "You could give me a hand with the new recruits."

            Although Luke could have sworn they weren't listening, there were several concurring hollers from the veteran Rogues scattered throughout the room. 

            Luke couldn't hide his grin at the thought of rabble-rousing with the Rogues again.  "I'd like that, Wedge."

            "First he's gotta sweep the cobwebs off his X-Wing, boss!  You know all our fighters are computerized now, don't you?  We don't peddle them by hand anymore,"  Wes Janson shouted from the couch. 

            "Wouldn't you peddle something by foot?" Hobbie Klivian asked philosophically, tipping a few sips of ale onto his shirt as he gestured with his glass.

            Artoo hooted merrily, spinning his wheels with glee at the thought of showing off in Luke's X-Wing again. 

            "It seems the mob has spoken, Lu--" Wedge stopped mid-sentence with a jerk as the wine glass before him suddenly exploded in a blood-red eruption of wine.

            With the pops and bangs of dozens of fireworks, every glass in the room shattered, punctuating the room with startled gasps and cries from Leia's guests. 

            Jacen, still perched on Luke's lap, went rigid for a moment before bursting into tears and reaching for his mother.  At the same time, his twin sister clapped her hands over her tiny ears and buried her face in Han's vest. 

            "What in the sith-spawned . . . " Han trailed off as he caught sight his brother-in-law's face. 

            Luke sat at attention in his chair, his eyes a thousand parsecs away, staring intently at the widening stain of wine on the tablecloth before him.

            "Luke?" Leia cried, reaching out to shake him.  "Luke, what's wrong? What's happening?"

            Luke felt his vision expanding out, returning to Leia's living room from wherever it had traveled.  His mouth worked helplessly as he became aware of the frightened gazes of the partygoers. 

            "I don't know."  He shuddered and repeated himself.  "I don't know."

                                                                                                                                                                        ********************

            Luke stretched out on the bed in his Coruscant apartment, drawing another blanket around him, hoping to quell the shakes that had been running through his body since the incident at the party. 

            All he knew was that, at the moment all the glasses had exploded, he'd felt a rush of Force energy such as he'd rarely experienced.  All of that sudden power had needed an outlet and Luke had shoved it onto the inanimate glassware rather than the people around him.  The source of that energy was as yet inexplicable and the more Luke tried to pin down the cause, the more frustratingly elusive the answer seemed.

            Out of the stars, the memory of making breakfast for Mara Jade popped into his mind.  She had made him laugh at one of her sarcastic observations and his hand had slipped, knocking a bit of Filu eggshell into the bowl of egg yokes.  The harder he tried to pin that shell down with the tip of his index finger, the faster it twitched out of his reach. 

            The golden image of Mara laughing at his frustration, her glorious hair resplendent in the morning sunlight, brought forth a relieving measure of warmth to Luke's body.  He tried to remember why he had been making her breakfast and was saddened to realize there had probably been no reason at all.  There was a time when he and Mara had been inseperable.  Before the Academy, before the Jade's Fire, before Lando and Callista . . .

            A sharp, incessant beeping tugged Luke's attention back to the present.  He rolled off his bed and staggered over to his comm center. 

            "Speak of the Emperor and he shall appear. "  Luke muttered.  The comm signal was from the Wilde Karrde, Mara's second home.

            But instead of Mara's pretty face, Talon Karrde's aquiline features materialized before him.  Luke took in the uncharacteristic worry line carved into Karrde's normally impassive face, the faint, sleepless red tinge to his pale blue eyes.  With overwhelming and black dread, the elusive answer Luke had been puzzling over crystallized. 

            Mara.  He couldn't sense Mara Jade at all.  He stretched out, heart hammering, oblivious to whatever Karrde was saying.  His only concern was finding the faint melody in the back of his mind that was Mara's Force presence.

             She wasn't gone, he realized after a time.  He didn't feel the deep, sinking hole he knew would form if Mara's spirit ever left his completely.  It was more that he couldn't find her; didn't know where to look for her anymore, or perhaps, didn't recognize whatever her sense had become.  It was perplexing, painfully so, and unlike anything he had ever experienced.

            "—Skywalker?  Are you listening to me?  Have you heard from Mara recently?"

            "I . . . I, no.  I can't . . . I can't sense her.  What's happened?"  He blinked rapidly, trying to ignore his swimming mind and to focus on Karrde. 

            "I don't know.  No one knows.  One of my scout ships in the Outer Rim caught a distress signal from the Jade's Fire.  They found it, abandoned."

            "Abandoned?"  Luke echoed.

            "There were four pirates on board, dead.  Looks like her droid flooded the ship with poison gas shortly before it was destroyed." 

            Luke swallowed; it was hard to hear Karrde over the frantic drumbeat of his own heart.  "Mara?"

            Karrde shook his head.  "No sign of her.  Anywhere.  But there are some . . . troubling aspects to this little mystery."

            "I'm listening."  Luke forced his white-knuckled hands to stop gripping the edge of his comm center.

            "Mara's ship has fugue camouflage.  She sets it whenever she leaves the Fire in space dock.  It creates artificial signs of inhabitance to ward off would-be robbers and pirates.  But pirates boarded her ship regardless.  This suggests two possibilities to me.  Either the pirates were incredibly stupid and decided to board an inhabited ship with extensive exterior and interior weaponry—"

            "Unlikely," Luke interjected.   Karrde inclined his head in agreement.

            "I thought so as well.  The other possibility is more disturbing.  It is possible the pirates had been watching the ship for long enough to determine that no one was actually entering or exiting the ship at any time.   After several weeks of close observation, it would be safe to assume the ship was equipped with fugue camouflage."

              Karrde paused, as if waiting for Luke to complete his train of thought for him.   When he didn't, Karrde set his jaw and continued.

            "Which means Mara must have left the Fire in space dock for at least three or four weeks."

            Luke felt his eyes bulge in surprise.  "Three or four weeks?" 

            Karrde nodded.

            "But Mara would never leave the Fire for that long, that ship means everything to her." Luke continued, his voice rising to a childish whine of surprise. 

            "Not while she was alive, anyway."  Karrde finished grimly.  "But I doubt that she is deceased," he continued.  "All of my highest ranking employees are fitted with subcutaneous sensors.  They transmit a signal to the Wild Karrde's computers when the wearer's vital signs cease."

            "I've never heard of such a thing," Luke said automatically.  "I think the New Republic government would be very interested in that technology."

            "I doubt they could afford it," Karrde answered dryly.  "Regardless, I haven't received any sort of signal from Mara.  Either she's far out of range, which is possible, considering how far into the Outer Rim the Fire was found drifting—"

            Luke shook his head.  "No.  She's not dead.  She's not." 

            Karrde seemed to study the younger man for a long moment, piercing him with those icy blue eyes that always unnerved Luke slightly.  At last he merely shrugged, a smooth, certain motion that implied neither belief nor disbelief. 

            "She could be held prisoner somewhere, as well."  Karrde continued.  "Either way, your presence is required immediately."

            Luke started.  "My presence?"

            "Yes.  There were a series of messages coded into Mara's computers that can only be opened by you or her.   It's unlikely any of them have any clue to her whereabouts.  From what Ghent could crack—which wasn't much, I might add—the last message was recorded almost six months ago."

            "You sliced into Mara's personal messages?  Personal messages to me?"

            Again, Karrde shrugged, no trace of shame or discomfort on his handsome, urbane face.  "Of course. There might have been valuable clues to her location on them.  Unfortunately, whatever program she used, it's completely unfamiliar to Ghent and rather than waste any more time, it might be more expedient to simply have you open them yourself."

            Luke smiled thinly, attempting to brush away his anger.  Karrde cared about Mara and while his methods might have been on the unethical side, his motives were not.  "I'd be happy to go through the messages, although I can't imagine why Mara would have recorded and coded messages to me."

            Karrde stared at him with an unreadable expression.  "No, I suppose you can't." 

            Luke snapped his head up and narrowed his eyes.  That was the second time Karrde had alluded to some secret knowledge regarding Mara's relationship with Luke, and Luke was growing annoyed.  But the most important battle to be fought was the recovery of Mara and Luke wouldn't waste time playing knowledge games with Talon Karrde.

            "Give me your location and I can take my X-Wing out immediately."

            Karrde shook his head.  "Not necessary.  I'm towing the Jade's Fire back to Coruscant.  I will need a stationary base of operations to conduct my fleet's search-and-rescue, as well as Coruscant's resources.  I will arrive in approximately two standard days."

            "Two days," Luke repeated.  "I'll see you then." 

            The comm flickered to black.  Luke sat for a long time, staring at the backs of his hands, the mystery of Mara's disappearance swirling in his mind.  He stretched out with all his power, desperately scouring every corner of his sense, searching for the faintest taste of Mara Jade. 

            Nothing—except . . . except some small, vague feeling that she was still there, and not panicked, not pleading for his help. 

            Mara?  Mara?!  I'll find you.  If she had been here, she would have mocked his boyish bravado.  But she wasn't here and his words of comfort reflected back at him, easing the ache in his chest slightly.

                                                                                                                                                                        ****************

            Luke wandered the aft cabin of the Jade's Fire, his fingers trailing and idling along the consoles and shelves that made up Mara's rather austere quarters.  Talon Karrde leaned in the doorway, in a pose that Luke assumed was meant to project an air of casual confidence but was spoiled by the palpable air of tension bleeding off him. 

            "Those are your messages," Karrde informed him, nodding toward a small stack of holo-chips. 

            "Thank you."  Luke's voice was distant, distracted.

            "Are you . . . sensing anything?" Karrde asked.  Luke merely shook his head, reaching out to finger a small statue.  It was an intricately carved series of interlocking wooden rings.  

            Luke placed the statuette down and scanned the room.  He wondered . . .

            "She was wearing it." 

            "Excuse me?"  Luke asked.

            The corner of Karrde's mouth quirked coolly. "Her lightsaber.  It's not here.  She must have been wearing it."  He hesitated, then stared Luke in the eye.  "She always wears it." 

            "If you don't mind," Luke began, growing increasingly uncomfortable with Karrde's passive hostility. "I'd like to start listening to Mara's messages." 

            For a moment, Luke wondered if Karrde would obey the sub textual dismissal or insist upon staying and listening along. 

            "I'll need to know any pertinent information, of course," Karrde stated and, with a curt nod, strode out of Mara's quarters. 

            Luke remained still, listening until he heard the faint hiss of hatch opening and closing.  The Jade's Fire was in dry-dock beside the Wild Karrde and, although he could sense Karrde's hundreds of employees at all times, he wanted to be alone inside Mara's ship.  Alone inside Mara's space, as if her spirit was hiding somewhere inside and would come out when he beckoned.

            Once again, futilely, he stretched out for Mara, listening for any whisper of her.  When he found none, he sat at her message console and fingered her messages chips. 

            Why had Mara been recording messages to him?  Karrde said the messages stretched out over years, since the first few days after she'd left the Smuggler's Alliance and Coruscant, over three years ago. 

            Swallowing, he pushed the first chip into her message consul.  The image flickered for a moment, before crystallizing. 

            Her face, smiling and breezy, took his breath away.  She was seated cross-legged at her console; her long hair running down her shoulders and back. 

            "Hi Luke."  Mara's voice was a laughing call from beyond the grave.  No, Luke told he sharply.  There is no evidence that she's dead.  Except I can't sense her. 

            Mara smiled and hugged her knees. "I thought I'd record you a couple of messages and send them instead of comm-ing you.  I'm trying to start a business here, you know, I can't be wasting my money on expensive calls to officious Jedi.  I've started going through the exercises you left me with . . ."

            Luke closed his eyes, vaguely pained by her sassy good humor.  How long had it been since they'd spoken to each other?  Since before Callista left, he was certain of that.  They were both so busy lately. . .

            " . . . Anyway, I'm thinking of investing in my own ship soon, so I can stop mooching off of Karrde.  I've heard a lot about the new line of Zelda Gambit cruisers coming out of Corellia.  Supposedly, their design is based on early Imperial drop-wings.  I did some work on them back before I ran into Karrde.  I wonder if . . . "

                                                                                                                                                            *****************

            Luke straightened up and rolled his shoulders, tossing a glance at his chrono.  He had been listening to Mara's messages for nearly five hours.  So far, they had been nothing more galaxy-shaking than detailed accounts of her daily trading ventures, occasional discussions of her blossoming Jedi skills and one-sided debates on the merits of various spacecraft. 

            No clues to her present whereabouts, but then, Luke hadn't really expected any.  The messages seemed to be no more than relics of a past time in their relationship.  When they had both been living on Coruscant, during Mara's time with the Smuggler's Alliance, they had talked, meditated and practiced daily, spending virtually all of their free time together. 

            After the Smuggler's Alliance disbanded in favor of legitimate contracts with the Republic and Mara had left to start a trading business of her own under Karrde's supervision, the habit of discussing day-to-day events with Mara had been a hard one to break.  Apparently, these rambling holo-recordings were Mara's answer to the withdrawal of Luke's company.  It was touching but Luke wondered why she had never sent the messages, and, if she had no intention of sending them, why had she kept them? 

            Those answers would not be forthcoming tonight, Luke realized ruefully.  He had been worrying since the night of Leia's dinner party, with only light meditation instead of sleep.  His eyes burned and he found his attention drifting during her last few messages. 

            He touched the screen and her frozen image with his fingertips, swallowing a sharp fragment of fear.  Worry had become a living creature in his chest, squirming and twisting.  Where was she?  Was she hurt?  Frightened?  Cold?  Was she wondering why he hadn't come for her yet?

            Luke snorted, snapping off that line of thought.  Mara could take care of herself or go straight to the grave trying.  She wasn't relying on him coming to her rescue.  She had her blaster, her own extensive training in self-defense, and her lightsaber—a thought that brought Luke no small measure of comfort, as though, through that ancient weapon, Mara would have a piece of Luke at her side.

            And, beyond any strength she had within herself, Karrde had sent out fleets of ship on every vector, starting with the point where the Fire had been found drifting, as well as posting rewards for information on hundreds of planets and space stations, using every centimeter of the incredible network of information he had at his disposal.  There was little for Luke to do, little he could do, considering he couldn't even sense her presence. 

            So why was he fighting the urge to strap a blaster to his thigh, hop back in his X-Wing and scour the galaxy, star by star, until he found her? 

            Luke stood up and sat on the edge of Mara's bunk.  He should meditate on the matter, fill himself with the Force until the proper path became clear.  Closing his eyes, he leaned backwards, letting his head fall onto her pillows.  They smelled of her, something sweet and spicy.  He pulled one into his arms and drifted to sleep.

                                                                                                                                                                        *************

            Endor, he thought, given the dense forests, or maybe Wayland.  The path before him was worn, the knotted lattice of roots that occasionally peeked out from the dirt had had their bark rubbed down to a shine.  Luke followed it dutifully, noting the peculiar silence of the woods. 

            The path ended in sand, spreading out to a wide, clear lake.  Free from the forest's foliage, he could see the sky, a merry, childish blue spotted with cottony clouds. 

            "So, you're going to meditate on the matter, huh?"

            Luke jumped, spinning to the sound of the voice.  Mara Jade sat on a white, dried-out piece of driftwood at the edge of the lake.

            She sneered, stretching cat-like to touch her toes.  "Sounds like something you would do."

            "I don't know what else to do, Mara.  I don't know how to find you."  He stepped over to her, his stride awkward in the deep sand.  "Scoot over." 

            Mara slid over and Luke sat beside her, shoulder-to-shoulder, the very picture of camaraderie. 

            "You've spent too much time rotting on that Jedi rock of yours, Skywalker."

            "And what would you know about Yavin, Mara?  Learn much in the half-day you spent there?"  He snapped.

            "I don't waste my time, Fly-boy.  It's too valuable."  Her eyes were flashing sulfur fire. 

            "Yeah, Mara, you have everything of value.  Your time, your ship, your fancy trinkets from across the galaxy and a whole pile of messages you never sent to share all that happiness with."

            "Oh, you're one to talk, Skywalker."  She spoke his name as a bitter curse.  "You have a family you never see, a girlfriend who wouldn't even dump you in person and an entire planet of sycophants to stroke your ego when you get bored of your rollicking social life." 

            "At least I know what love is, Mara," he shot back.

            She jerked as if his words had been a knife's blade.  "I know what love is," she hissed.  They glared at one another poisonously, then turned away.

            Luke stared into the glassy surface of the water lapping at the toes of his boots.  He studied his reflection next to Mara's. 

            "Do you remember the day you left Coruscant?" he asked suddenly.  He touched the water with one finger and when the rings of ripples faded, he saw the picture of that day in the surface of the water.  

            . . . . "So long, Skywalke," Mara murmured with a smile.  The lambda class shuttle she would be taking to Karrde's ship was primed and ready to fly.  "It's been fun." 

            Her teasing tone and the jaunty hand she stretched out to him couldn't really mask the undercurrent of trepidation and sadness he felt inside her. 

            He swatted her hand away and held out his arms.  "Friends don't shake hands."

            She hesitated before stepping into his embrace.  She was stiff as a plate of ferrecrete for a moment before melting and locking her arms around his neck. 

            "Don't look so sullen, Farmer.  You'll find another comely she-Jedi to keep you company until I get back." 

            "Yeah, but will she have your sparkling wit and personality?" Luke asked, smiling against a mouthful of curls.

            "Well, no, that's a once-in-a-galaxy occurrence.  But maybe she'll put out." 

            Luke laughed and hugged her tighter.  "You'll come back soon?"

            She nodded against his shoulder.

            "And you'll comm, so I don't worry about you?  And keep up your practice?"

            Mara pulled back slightly, grinning at him.  "Skywalker—Luke—relax, will you?  I'll only be gone intermittently.  I'm still getting my feet wet with this whole trader thing.  I'll be back.  This won't change anything.  I'll still be your reluctant would-be student, got it?"

            "Got it."  He pulled her back against his chest.  "I'll miss you."

            "Yeah," she whispered.  "I know. . ."

            The image faded and Luke turned back to Mara.  'You left," he reminded her, unwilling to let the fight go.

            "And after that, you disappointed me.  Over and over."  Mara's voice was more weary than bitter, but there was more than enough of each.

            "I'll still find you," he promised, curling his fingers around hers.  They were cold. 

            "Maybe it's not a matter of you finding me but of me coming back to you.  Maybe I don't need a rescue to return, Skywalker, but a reason." 

            Her touch glimmered away and Luke was alone in his dreams.