Chapter 27

A week later...

"So... Lunch at Dex's?" Johnny suggested, as he and Luke exited the Jedi Temple.

"Sure," Luke nodded cheerfully. "Sounds good." Obi-Wan and Anakin had introduced them to Dex's Diner a few days ago; it was just a humble establishment in CoCo Town, but Dex was an old friend of Obi-Wan's, and made the best Bantha burgers in the galaxy.

They headed down the street toward the public transit stop; but suddenly they both hesitated, turning around as they sensed someone following them. "Kalana," Johnny exclaimed, grinning in surprise; he embraced her happily, and they shared a quick kiss. "You're just in time; we're on our way to Dex's for lunch."

"Oh! Great," Kalana said, joining them. "I mean - if I'm not interrupting anything?" she added, giving Luke an apologetic look.

"No, of course not," Luke assured her. Although now I feel like I am, he confessed. Ahh, they probably want to be alone... "Actually, you two go ahead," he suggested. "I got - stuff to do," he explained vaguely, not wanting to be a third wheel.

But Johnny saw through his excuse. "You will come with us," he informed Luke playfully, waving his fingers; Obi-Wan had been instructing them all in the art of Jedi mind tricks, and Johnny and Leia were both making admirable progress.

"Ha," Luke laughed, shaking his head. "Nice try."

"Damn it," Johnny sighed, as Kalana giggled in amusement. "Come on, Luke," he pleaded again. "I promise - we won't talk about wedding dresses, or flower arrangements, or anything like that," he assured him. "Right?" he asked Kalana, cringing in apology; they were planning to get married in just three weeks' time, before Raq came to his senses and changed his mind about the whole thing.

"That's right," Kalana agreed, her eyes twinkling. "No girly talk, I promise."

"Eh, it isn't that," Luke assured them. "I just - need to pick up some power converters," he insisted calmly, with a subtle gesture; Luke had been using mind tricks far longer than Johnny or Leia, and was even better at it now, thanks to proper Jedi training.

Johnny's brows furrowed momentarily, but then he nodded, accepting it. "Oh," he said, shrugging. "Okay."

"Power converters?" Kalana repeated, curious. "Hey, you should stop by my dad's shop," she offered helpfully. "He's got tons of them."

"Yeah?" Luke asked. "Has he got anything that'll work on an old Jedi Starfighter?" Luke, Johnny, and Anakin were hoping to restore the remainder of the original fleet - which had been sitting idle in the Jedi Temple's hangar for the past two decades - but there hadn't been time to deal with it yet.

"Oh," Kalana sighed. "That, he doesn't have," she admitted. "But you might try Super Mega Spaceship Warehouse," she suggested. "They have everything," she added, valiantly attempting to hide her disappointment.

"Okay; I'll check them out," Luke said, nodding appreciatively. "Thanks." Gah, I have to come up with a better excuse to get away, he sighed, as Johnny and Kalana continued on toward Dex's Diner. Everyone thinks I'm obsessed with power converters, Luke laughed ruefully, obediently heading off in the general direction of Super Mega Spaceship Warehouse. But the truth is, sometimes I just need to be alone.

And that's my whole problem, Luke confessed, feeling a twinge of unhappiness. It had not been lost on him - amidst the joyful celebrations of this past week - that everyone else seemed to be together, whereas Luke, in contrast, was always alone. Han had Leia; Johnny had Kalana; Ekul was married and had a kid already, and even Aiel had a boyfriend, back on Kalydon. But Luke had never had a girlfriend, in his entire life.

He'd come close, once. He'd kissed a girl, and she had been beautiful, and wonderful, and Luke had truly loved her. And he had pretended to enjoy their kiss; but in truth, it had felt completely wrong to him - and the experience had confused him so deeply that he had pointedly avoided females ever since. Not that he liked males either; but the unsettling sensation he'd felt after just one kiss - with a beautiful girl - had definitely given him cause for concern.

But that was of course before he realized that Leia was his own sister; and in retrospect, his feelings made a lot more sense. Maybe I'm not such a freak after all, Luke thought optimistically, trying to push the disturbing memory from his mind. Maybe there's still hope for me.

His thoughts turned once again to the mysterious girl from Jabba's palace; the young exotic dancer with the incredible green eyes. Who is she? he wondered again, surprised by his feelings for this strange girl. She's beautiful... Of course, the last time he'd felt this way about a girl, she'd turned out to be his own twin sister, and Luke was determined not to repeat that mistake again.

She IS from Tatooine, Luke reminded himself, with a worried sigh. Anakin had sworn up and down that he hadn't fathered any other children, but still... She could be my cousin or something, Luke admitted; after all, the identity of his paternal grandfather was still somewhat of a mystery. And if the events of this past week had taught him anything, it was that people whose genealogy wasn't completely rock-solid generally ended up being related to him, one way or another.

That's probably it, Luke realized; it would explain the strange look she'd given him back at Jabba's palace, and why she had followed him here to Coruscant. She's my cousin, and needs my help; but she's afraid to talk to me, for some reason. He'd spotted her several times over the past week, and sensed that she was in trouble, and frightened; but every time he had tried to follow her, she had quickly disappeared around a corner, or vanished amidst the crowd.

Speaking of which - that's not a bad idea, Luke admitted, casting a wary glance at the crowded street up ahead. The newly-reinstated Jedi Order had been all over the news lately, and by this point the entire galaxy recognized Luke's face. And Ekul's, and Aiel's, and Johnny's, he realized with a wry smile; the cloning fiasco had shocked the galaxy, of course, but thanks to the loyal support of politicians from every planet in the former Republic, the people had been surprisingly quick to accept it, and were grateful to have the Jedi back in power, despite the somewhat bizarre circumstances of their survival.

Still, Luke felt a bit overwhelmed by all the attention, and pulled his hood up over his head now, masking his presence as he disappeared into the crowded city streets. It was another Jedi talent which he had recently perfected, and he was surprised by its effectiveness. Here I am, walking through the middle of Coruscant, in broad daylight - wearing traditional Jedi robes, Luke realized, casting a baffled glance at his ivory tunic and brown-hooded cloak. And yet, nobody sees me.

Ekul's a good teacher, he confessed, with a proud smile. Luke was officially Ekul's padawan now, just as Leia was Aiel's, and Johnny was Anakin's; Master Yoda had suggested this arrangement, hoping that it would help them all to feel more comfortable with each other. Luke had found it surprisingly easy to learn from his own clone; he and Ekul had the same instincts, and his new Master had a way of explaining things that made far more sense than Dagobah-Yoda's backwards adages, or poor old Ben's confused ramblings. Luke had learned much more in just this past week, than he had over the past three years combined.

Well, I suppose I should go pick up those power converters, Luke decided, enjoying his newfound anonymity as he continued on toward Super Mega Spaceship Warehouse. But soon he became aware that his presence wasn't completely unnoticed, as he sensed someone following him.

It's HER, Luke realized once again; he could sense her fear, and uncertainty, and estimated she was about a block behind him. But if I look back she'll run away from me, he admitted ruefully. He continued along the street for another block, pretending not to notice her; but then he slipped quietly into a narrow alleyway, hiding amidst the shadows and masking his presence even further as he waited for her to approach.

Sure enough, a few moments later a black-cloaked figure entered the alleyway, and Luke stepped out from his hiding place, pulling down his hood and confronting his mysterious pursuer with a look of quiet curiosity.

The strange girl stopped in her tracks, her emerald eyes flashing momentarily in surprise and alarm. Luke feared she might try to run again; but finally she just shrugged, shaking her head in defeat. "Gah," she sighed, giving Luke a look of resentment, and annoyance. "What do you want?"

Luke blinked, admittedly confused by her reaction. "You were following me," he pointed out cautiously. "I remember you," he added, with a questioning look. "From Jabba's palace." At this, the girl rolled her eyes; Luke sensed her embarrassment, and shame. She looks different, he realized. He'd been dazzled by her skimpy dancer's outfit and glittery makeup before, but somehow she was even more beautiful without all that. And she's actually a redhead? Cool... A lovely, shiny strawberry curl escaped from her black hood now, and Luke suddenly felt a strange tingling warmth, deep down inside his heart. No; it was lower than that, he realized with a disturbed frown, trying to quell the unbidden sensation. Come on; focus, he berated himself. "Are you all right?" he asked, trying to conduct himself like a Jedi.

"Fine," the girl replied, scowling in annoyance; but Luke could sense her obvious bitterness and despair.

"What's your name?" he asked gently.

The girl looked away, shrugging unhappily at the question. "Arica."

Arica? Luke's heart fluttered. That's a pretty name... Gah! No, he reminded himself, once again disturbed by his feelings. "And your last name?" Luke inquired cautiously. Because if it's Skywalker, or Lars, or Naberrie, or - The Force... I might need therapy.

The girl looked sullenly at the ground. "I don't have one."

Luke sighed. Of course you don't. After all, she had been a dancer at Jabba's palace, and was probably a slave. "Are you in trouble?" he asked, concerned.

Arica shook her head in weary defeat. "More than you know."

"What's wrong?" Luke asked, trying to understand. "I can help."

But Arica just laughed bitterly. "No, you really can't," she said, her tone a mixture of amusement and condescension.

"Yes I can," Luke promised her. I'm Luke Skywalker. I'm here to rescue you. And then if by some miracle we aren't related, we can get married, and live happily ever after. "I'm a Jedi," he pointed out, glancing at his traditional ivory-and-brown outfit. "It's what I do."

Arica rolled her eyes, unimpressed. "Yeah, well, that's the whole problem," she muttered.

"Huh?" Luke asked, not following. "What's wrong?" he pressed her again gently. "Are you in trouble with the Hutts?" It was true that the Jedi had no legal jurisdiction over the Hutts, but there had to be something they could do.

"No," Arica replied, scowling disdainfully at the thought.

"Who, then?" Luke asked, baffled by this strange girl, and her even stranger attitude.

Arica sighed in exasperation. "You," she told him, with an annoyed glare.

"Me?" Luke blinked innocently. "What? No, I - " Suddenly he found himself staring at her black cloak, as the truth slowly dawned upon him. "You're - you're Mara Jade," he stammered, astonished by the realization. She's not my cousin; she's a Sith assassin, Luke sighed unhappily. I swear, I have no luck at all.

The girl shrugged, maintaining an air of stubborn indifference. "So what are you going to do with me?" she asked, trying to hide her bitterness and fear.

Good question... Luke had been hoping to rescue her from danger, sweep her off her feet, fall madly in love and live happily ever after; but now it looked as though he would have to arrest her instead. "I - um... I should bring you in to the Temple," he confessed apologetically.

Mara rolled her eyes. "Fine," she agreed sullenly, holding her wrists out so he could handcuff her.

"Uh - I don't have any binders on me," Luke admitted, feeling woefully unprepared for this scenario; it was his first official arrest as a Jedi padawan, and he tried to remember what Ekul had taught him. Oh! Right... "But I will have to confiscate your weapons," he informed her.

Mara sighed, reaching inside her black cloak and unclipping the lightsaber hilt from her belt. "Here," she said, pressing it into his hand. "And you'd better take this too," she grumbled, pulling out her blaster pistol. "And this," she sighed, unstrapping a concealed vibroblade from her ankle and handing it over to him, holster and all.

"All right; thanks," Luke replied awkwardly, clutching the small arsenal of weapons in his hands. "Um... That's everything?" he asked hesitantly; technically he was supposed to pat her down, to check for other weapons hidden beneath her clothing, but he feared what might happen within his own pants if he tried that.

"Yeah, that's everything," Mara insisted resentfully. "What, you want to strip search me now?"

"Yes... I mean - no," Luke stammered, quickly correcting himself. Gah... "No," he assured her, trying to maintain his dignity.

"Good," Mara retorted, with an annoyed glare; but Luke felt a momentary flicker of amusement in her presence, and caught the hint of a barely-concealed smirk as she turned away from him, marching briskly back toward the Jedi Temple. "Come on," she said, impatient to get on with her arrest. "Let's go."

Luke chased after her, hurriedly clipping her lightsaber, blaster, and vibroblade onto his utility belt. I seriously don't get this girl... "That's it?" he asked, baffled by her willingness to cooperate. "You're not going to try to run?"

Mara gave him a reproachful look. "If I was, would I tell you?"

Luke sighed. "No," he admitted glumly.

But his captor just shrugged, continuing toward the Temple. "Where would I go, even if I wanted to?" she muttered in frustration. "Besides, I need to talk to the Jedi anyway," she admitted grudgingly. "I have... information."

"Information?" Luke repeated, curious. "About what?"

"Heh... All sorts of things," Mara replied, a devious glimmer in her green eyes. But then she sighed, shaking her head. "There's another Grand Admiral still out there," she told Luke quietly, her expression serious.

Luke blinked. "There is?"

"Yeah," Mara said, looking down uncomfortably. "Thrawn. He's officially retired, but Palpatine sent him on a secret assignment, out in the Unknown Regions," she told Luke. "I'm not sure exactly what he's up to, but - " she gave Luke a guarded look. "My guess is he's still loyal to the Emperor."

Luke nodded in concern, though he was admittedly surprised by her warning. "And you're not?" he asked gently.

At this, Mara scowled, her eyes flashing with anger. "I hated him, you know," she told Luke, casting a contemptuous glance back toward the Imperial Palace. "I never asked to be his stupid Apprentice. He took me in when I was three; it's not like I ever had a choice in the matter," she grumbled bitterly. "Anyway, I'm glad he's dead," she insisted. "I just wish... I could have helped you with that," she admitted, giving him a wary look.

Luke nodded, sobered by her confession. "Well - maybe you still can," he suggested hesitantly. "Help us, I mean," he clarified, glancing toward the Jedi Temple. "Although it's not really up to me," he admitted; after all, he was supposed to be arresting her. "It would have to be Master Yoda's decision," Luke apologized. "But - there are only nine of us at the moment, Mara," he pointed out. "We could use your help."

Mara looked at him uncertainly, and for a moment the guarded contempt in her green eyes was replaced by a flicker of hope, and trust. But then she blinked, looking away again. "Sure," she agreed indifferently, marching onward to the Jedi Temple. "Whatever. I don't care."

"I care," Luke called after her, dismayed by her fatalistic attitude. "Mara," he said, catching up with her and putting a hand on her shoulder. She bristled at his touch, and her eyes flickered with momentary anger, but she tried to quell her emotions, biting her lip unhappily. "I care," Luke insisted again, looking into her eyes.

Mara scowled, fighting tears. "You're weird," she grumbled, staring resolutely at the ground.

Luke grinned. "Yeah, I know," he agreed. "Look, I'm sorry about what happened to you," he apologized gently. "What Palpatine did to you... That wasn't your fault," he insisted, as Mara looked away, stubbornly avoiding his gaze. "But we've been dealing with this sort of thing all week," Luke told her. "Palpatine was evil, and the Empire was corrupt; but the people who worked for him were just trying to survive, the only way they could," he admitted. "The Jedi Order, and the Senate - we want to give everyone a chance to work with us, rather than against us," Luke assured her. "And over the past week, some of the Empire's highest-ranking officials have turned out to be invaluable supporters of the New Republic."

But Mara remained unconvinced. "And how many of them were trained Sith assassins?" she asked, a hint of bitterness in her voice.

"None, so far," Luke confessed, smiling gently. "But even trained Sith assassins have their uses," he assured her. "Like I said, it's not entirely up to me," Luke apologized once again. "But - my guess is that the Jedi would welcome your help," he told her sincerely.

Mara sighed. "I don't know," she said, frowning doubtfully. "I mean - I was the Emperor's Hand," she pointed out.

"And my father was a Sith Lord; by his own choice," Luke countered quietly. "But the Jedi took him back," he told her, with a reassuring smile. "I'd say you have a chance, Mara."

Mara's green eyes flickered uncertainly, with something that resembled hope, and trust, and gratitude, though she guarded her feelings cautiously. "Okay," she said, nodding in quiet acceptance as they continued on toward the Jedi Temple. "Let's go."

A few days later...

"Excellent work, Mara," Obi-Wan praised his new padawan, admiring the kavi tree sapling she had just planted inside the Room of a Thousand Fountains. "You've added fertilizer to the soil, and given it water?"

"Yes, Master," Mara nodded respectfully. "So... I'm done with this one?" she asked, uncertain.

"Not quite," Obi-Wan replied, his eyes twinkling with affection. "Now, close your eyes," he instructed her, as Mara obeyed, though she frowned doubtfully. "And send it feelings of love, and nurture, and encouragement," he coached her.

Mara opened her eyes again, blinking in confusion. "Why?" she asked, baffled. "It's a tree."

"All life is connected, through the Force," Obi-Wan explained patiently. "A lesson that you will need to learn, if you are to become a Jedi," he reminded her. "My very young padawan," he added, with a look of reproach. "Now; try it again."

"Gah," Mara sighed wearily. "Okay," she grumbled, closing her eyes again. "I'll love the tree."

"There you go," Obi-Wan said, patting her gently on the shoulder. "That's much better."

Poor Obi-Wan, Johnny laughed, suppressing a rueful smile as he returned to his own task of repairing the fountain room's irrigation system. As if training Anakin hadn't been hard enough, Obi-Wan was now saddled with the daunting task of teaching Mara Jade, arguably the galaxy's Second-Worst Padawan Ever. He has more patience than I would, Johnny admitted, pulling apart a rusty water pipe and examining the damage.

Yoda and Tika had made far more progress with their own gardening efforts today, and were finishing up their seventh planter bed, while Aiel and Leia worked nearby, just starting on their fourth - which they were filling with delicate ferns and a variety of colorful flowers they had gathered on Kalydon, and Naboo. This place is starting to look really nice, Johnny confessed, sharing a cheerful smile with Leia as she caught his gaze.

Now if only we can get the fountains working again, Johnny sighed. He and Anakin had been assigned the task of repairing the irrigation system, but so far they'd been mired in technical problems. We'll figure it out, though, he felt confident. We're good at fixing things. And Johnny truly enjoyed working with Master Anakin; in some ways, it reminded him of the fun times he and Vader had shared, building model spaceships together, or brainstorming how to fix the latest technical disaster aboard the Death Star.

Though that was typically much easier than this, Johnny confessed. Then again, two-thirds of the elusive malfunctions aboard the Death Star had been caused either by Johnny, or Vader himself. And the other third was Anakin's fault, Johnny laughed, amused by the absurdity of that whole situation. But this isn't sabotage, Johnny sighed, trying to locate the leak in the irrigation system. This is... I don't KNOW what, he confessed, baffled.

But then an idea occurred to him. Luke knows about this stuff, Johnny realized, going over to consult with him. He grew up on a moisture farm... "Hey Luke," he said, finding him on the other side of the atrium, where he and Ekul were repairing a large stone statue. "We're having trouble finding a leak in the system," Johnny told him. "Anakin went to get a moisture detector, to hook up to Artoo," he explained. "But I was wondering if you had any other ideas?"

"Oh," Luke said, blinking worriedly. "No, that's not going to work," he told Johnny, as Ekul frowned in agreement. "You need special vaporator repair units for that sort of thing," he confessed. "And I doubt any place on Coruscant carries those," he added, with a regretful look.

"Yeah, that's what we figured," Johnny sighed. "So you don't think there's any way we can program Artoo and Threepio to do it?" he asked; it was the best plan he and Anakin had been able to come up with so far.

"Uh... You can try," Luke said doubtfully, glancing across the room, where the little astrodroid was valiantly attempting to locate the source of the problem, under Threepio's supervision. "But basically..." They shared a knowing look, and Luke cringed in apology.

"Yeah, yeah," Johnny laughed ruefully, returning to his work. These aren't the droids I'm looking for.

But Artoo held a far more optimistic view of the situation, and was busy drilling yet another hole in the fountain room's irrigation system, in a random but stubbornly persistent attempt to find the leaky pipe. Gah, don't do that, Johnny sighed wearily. You're making a mess...

"Artoo, just you wait for Master Anakin to return," Threepio was scolding him now.

"Yeah, Artoo - just hang on," Johnny agreed worriedly; but suddenly he looked up, hearing a frustrated Wookiee roar overhead.

"Raaaauuuggghh," Chewbacca moaned, straining to pull against a heavy rope as he attempted to maneuver a large stone fountainhead into position, along with Han and Lando. "Arrrghhhh Rrrruff Grrfff Rrraaarrrrggghhhh!"

"Take it easy," Han chided him, straining against his own rope. "Don't throw a temper tantrum." But clearly it wasn't working, and he sighed, looking around for help. "Hey down there," he called out to Johnny. "Can you give us a hand with this?"

"Yeah - sure," Johnny agreed, climbing up to join them on the ledge.

"Okay, on three," Han said, as Johnny took hold of one of the ropes. "One, two - ugh..." The three of them pulled with all their strength; but the fountainhead kept getting caught on an outcropping above them, and refused to slide into place.

"Higher," Lando instructed Johnny, from his vantage point on the ledge above. "Just a little higher..."

"Ugh... I can't," Johnny apologized, grunting. He was already pulling with his entire body weight; he'd lost his foothold on the ledge beneath him, and was now dangling awkwardly in mid-air, clinging to the rope. "Maybe if we get Chewie on this side...?"

"Waaaaauuuuggghh," Chewie moaned in frustration.

But then he heard a familiar - though somewhat confused - voice below him. "You know, there's an easier way to do that," Anakin said, staring at their elaborate rope-and-pulley system with bewilderment. Crap, I never sense when he sneaks up on me.

Johnny followed Anakin's gaze to the other side of the fountain room, where Luke and Ekul were effortlessly levitating their own statue into position. Oops... "Right," Johnny said sheepishly, as they carefully lowered the fountainhead again. "I mean - yes, Master," he corrected himself, hopping down from the ledge.

But then he caught Obi-Wan's look of disapproval, and suppressed a mischievous grin. Oh, right... I'm supposed to give Anakin a hard time, Johnny remembered; he had promised Obi-Wan he'd make his Master's job as difficult as possible, as payback for Anakin's own wayward padawan days. Especially now that Obi-Wan's stuck training Mara, Johnny commiserated, giving him a subtle nod. It's really the least I can do. Besides, messing with Anakin was fun.

"You can do this," Anakin encouraged him now. "I'll back you up if you need help."

"No need," Johnny replied with cocky self-assurance, lifting a hand toward the heavy fountainhead. "I got it." Though if I drop this thing I'm going to look like a complete ass, he admitted. Damn it... But suddenly another idea occurred to him. An amazingly, astoundingly stupid idea, he confessed; one that he would never actually go through with - and that Kalana would kill him for, if he ever tried. But Anakin doesn't need to know that, he decided mischievously.

"Actually," Johnny said, lowering his hand again. "You're right; there is an easier way," he informed his Master, heading abruptly out to the hallway. Silly me, working my butt off here, when obviously there's a much better solution to all this...

But Anakin gave him a confused look. "Where are you going?" he asked, baffled.

"Be right back," Johnny promised with an impish grin, heading for the Temple's exit. "I'm gonna go make me a clone."

The End