Title: Excedo Inferi

Author(s): vader_incarnate

Timeframe: post-RotJ

Characters: Luke, Mara

Genre: angst, romance (?), drama, vignette

Summary: When the time had come, he'd killed her, as he'd always known he would. She hadn't left him alone since.

Notes: The working title for this was "Ghost!Mara + Dark!Luke". ;) The current title should mean something like "beyond death" if I can trust babelfish. This story is about five years old -- I posted it around Halloween in 2005 on , but never here.

Sometimes he would see her from the corner of his eye. A flicker of red hair, perhaps, or a hint of lightly tanned skin, or a shimmer from a silken dress that wasn't really there. He'd turn his head, needing to see her full on, but no matter how quick his reflexes she always managed to be a hair faster. She eluded him with a dancer's grace and a warrior's ease, slipping out of his sight before he had really seen her at all. But he always heard the tinkling of laughter, and he knew she was mocking him.

She was still wearing the same clothes in which he'd killed her.

He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, a gesture he had found himself repeating over and over since that night, twenty-nine days, twenty-three hours, and forty-seven minutes ago. He could still feel the silken-smooth texture of her skin beneath his thumb as he'd caressed her, looking into those bright green eyes. She had known he was going to kill her, but she hadn't begged for her life, and she had striven to hide away the fear he could sense coursing through her veins. He had enjoyed that, her courage; it had made killing her all the sweeter.

He sat alone in his apartments, a crystal cup full of the finest Alderaani red wine clutched in his hand as he thought and wondered and remembered. He had dimmed the lights, as they had been on that night, and the rooms were stuffy from the lack of circulation, the air heavy with the sickly sweet smell of sex, both recent and older. Not that, of course, he smelled any of it with her scent lingering so enticingly in his nostrils. The scents of citrus and lightning.

Tonight was the thirtieth. In twelve minutes, it would be a standard month since he'd killed her. Some internal clock kept a precise count of each passing second since her death, when he had broken her neck with the dull crack of bone that even now echoed in his ears.

What he was doing here was a mystery, even to him. Why he was remembering all this, why he was even thinking about her so long after the fact. He had no regrets, after all, unless it was the regret that he'd ended it so quickly instead of choking her to death as he had meant to do in the first place. But when she'd looked at him with such sadness in her eyes ... he couldn't stop himself. He hadn't wanted her pity, and the sad understanding he saw in her bright green eyes had angered him more deeply than he could have ever expected.

He had given her life, and he had taken it away. She had been empty, wandering aimless and uncertain until he had shown her what she had been missing: life and death, joy and misery, pleasure and pain. She had fallen in love with him, then, though she should have known not to, though she should have known it was a just game.

And when the time had come, he'd killed her, as he'd always known he would.

She hadn't left him alone since.

He took another sip from the crystal cup, continued staring into the wall. It was easier to see her when he was drinking. Not that she would ever let him catch her, of course. Even stone cold sober he could never escape the tantalizing tease of her presence, but he seemed to be able to hold onto the vision for a few seconds longer if he was drinking. For some reason, he wanted to do that tonight.

And what was she? A restless spirit, an alcohol-induced illusion? A soul so strong that not even death could bind her, or merely a dream birthed by too much strong liquor? He didn't know, and he found that he didn't really care either way.

But Force -- she had been beautiful even in death, her fall as gentle as a rose petal drifting to the earth upon the summer breeze. Her body hadn't disappeared in the Jedi fashion, but the Jedi were gone, old men banished to somewhere far beyond the grave. She had been neither Jedi nor Sith, just a pawn caught in the middle of a game far beyond her knowledge or her comprehension. Just another piece in the great game of light and dark, to be picked up and used and then thrown aside.

The Jedi were dead and gone now, and the last of the Sith was an Emperor who had once been a farmboy.

He wondered, sometimes, about Leia's children. Wondered if it would fall to them to depose their fallen uncle and to regain a broken galaxy decades into the future. Wondered if they would be left to rebuild an obsolete Order on the ashes of a future that should have been.

His sister and her husband were still out there, despite his best efforts. And though he hated to admit it, some part of him preferred it that way, knowing that there would be someone left to save the galaxy if ever he went too far.

The night after he'd killed Mara Jade, he had had another woman in the bed. Blonde, with dark eyes and a sensual pout. And it had been just as he had leaned in to kiss that pout from her painted lips that a flicker of movement caught his eye. Distracted, he had turned to it and had been left only with a flicker of light, an echo of laughter -- drowned by the courtesan's sudden screech.

He'd thrown the girl out of his apartments, nakedness and all. And though he had made a point to pick up a few others during the weeks that followed, he knew that the court was whispering about his sudden loss of sexual appetite. Whispering that, perhaps, it had had something to do with the redhead he had previously been entertaining.

Things deteriorated rapidly after that. She teased, lingering at the periphery of his sight for just a fraction of a second longer than it took to get his attention. Just long enough for him to be sure that it was really, truly her. And once he was assured that it was, he found himself less interested in the day-to-day rule of the Empire, less tolerant of the twisted intricacies of the Imperial court, less indulgent of their adolescent theatrics.

He hated it. She made him weak, even in death, all but forgotten remorse digging away at his soul and his heart for a murder he had always known was coming. It hurt, far more than it had any right to hurt, for he who had long forsaken those illusions he had once called love. And it stung, that she should arouse such feelings in him, such feelings that he thought he had successfully banished so very long ago.

He wasn't supposed to feel these things, these fears, these regrets. This pain, damn it all. The Dark was about anger, about hatred, about sheer and unadulterated passions that—

The crystal goblet shattered in his hand, and the wine splattered his skin and clothes, a deep red like old blood.

He snarled in disgust, hurling the remnants against the far wall where it shattered on impact, leaving a starburst of red upon the wall. The crystal shards were imbedded in the flesh of his false hand, and the wine had ruined the silk of his clothes. The red liquid lingered on his hands, an illusion of spilled blood not his own, and he shook it off with distaste.

You can't just shake it off, Luke, a phantom voice whispered in his ear, and for a moment he imagined he could feel the warmth of her breath on his cheek.

He whirled around to face it and saw nothing.

Blood never washes off, Luke, the voice murmured again, soft and sibilant and faintly accusatory, and in it he could hear the voices of all those he'd disappointed, all those he'd killed, all those innocents whose blood stained his hands –

He took to his feet with a snarl, igniting his lightsaber with less than a thought though he knew, rationally, that this foe could not be slain so easily. "Show yourself!" he raged at the shadows. "Come out where I can see you!"

She didn't, of course. Not that he'd expected her to show her face, but she was here, a phantom lingering at the edge of his sight, just beyond the corner of his eye. He sensed her, something more than sight or sound or scent. Something more intimate than the Force itself.

Four minutes, he thought absently, on his feet and warily circling the room with his lightsaber held high, ready to attack or defend. In four minutes it would be a standard month and, maybe, he'd find his answers. Four minutes and twenty-three seconds.

This time, when he turned around to see her more clearly, she didn't dodge out of his sight.

She was still wearing her red dress, the shimmersilk gleaming faintly in the darkness, the gems sprinkled across her bodice sparkling in the dim lighting. But it was the glitter in her eyes, lively even in death, that spurred him to shut off his lightsaber to simply stand and watch.

She was dancing.

How could anyone firmly in the thrall of death dance in such a way that spoke so fully of life? It wasn't a fast dance, or energetic. It was the opposite: slow and langorous and tempting, her body moving in seductive rhythms that spoke of illimitable time and pleasures that need not be rushed. She moved in time to the inaudible music, the sinuous fluidity of a born dancer, the grace and power of a born warrior.

Two minutes and sixteen seconds, he thought vaguely before stepping out to meet her.

To his surprise, she held out her arms in mute acceptance, a welcoming gesture that needed no words. He took her in his arms and, as before, drank in her beauty, her innocence, the pure and unadulterated glory of her very existence.

They danced together with less than a thought separating them, each one in inexplicable synch with the other to music that neither of them heard. She rested her head on his shoulder and somehow even that was graceful, and he took the opportunity to reacquaint himself with the scent of her hair. Somehow even that seemed like it has no business belonging to a ghostly woman who didn't really have any right to exist, much less be dancing with him; her scent was citrus and lightning, tangy and sweet and so damned alive. He was going insane and he found that he didn't mind it at all.

One minute and two seconds left, and he realized something odd. The woman in his arms, the arms around his neck weren't insubstantial but utterly and totally there; she was real, and getting more so by the second. Not ghostly anymore but almost completely substantial. Her flesh didn't have the chill and ashen touch of the grave but was warm, alive.

What the hell are you?

And as if she could hear his thought, she broke the long silence, smiling wistfully. "Don't you know what I am, Luke?" she asked softly, with no touch of bitterness or blame. "You gave me my life. What less can I offer you?"

With fifty-four seconds remaining to him, he understood.

It wasn't her unfinished business that kept her anchored to this world but his own. His last regrets, his last chance at salvation, all embodied in the ghostly vixen that even now became just that much more substantial in his arms. Because even as he reigns in this hell of his own creation, even with the blood of so many innocents staining his soul, he still craved the light, as much as a condemned man would crave his last taste of the sun.

And somehow, embodied in the image of this woman he might have loved in another life, it had led to this: with thirty-three seconds left, dancing with the ghost of a woman he could have loved and being offered, again, the last shreds of his humanity and his last hope for redemption.

With twenty-eight seconds, Mara's kiss shocked him to the core. Temporarily blinded white, Luke reached forward to steady himself, shaken by her strength, by her preternatural heat, and almost stumbled before his hands connected with living flesh. He had expected her to be cold, a kiss from a ghost and a memory, not really there at all. But she was warm, passionate, hot -- fingers twining in his hair, taking his lower lip between her teeth and increasing the pressure of the bite until he protested in pain. His cry resonated in their mouths, and only when he relaxed his jaw did she let go of his lip, kissing him full on and sliding her tongue over the bite, already swollen and slightly numb. Refusing to stand in place and allow her to orchestrate the kiss, Luke tightened his grip on her arms and parted his lips. The edges of her teeth were uneven under his tongue. And as they kissed, he lost his sense of awareness, of time, of everything; warmth spread through him, moving through his heart to his arms and legs, loosening the joints in his fingers. Frictionless, their tongues curled against each other like a pair of snakes, and he drank in the honey-sweet taste of her lips, never wanting to let go.

But because even the most precious things must come to an end, she broke away and took a step backwards, holding out her hands in silent question. She offered him another chance, another go at redemption, at salvation, at fixing everything that he had brought to ruin. The accusations in a thousand eyes, the fear and terror he brought to a galaxy -- in her green eyes, there was something akin to forgiveness, and as time ran out, he took it.

The end. Or, perhaps, the beginning.