STUFF was written in late 1995 and early 1996 after the release of DARKSABER and the CORELLIAN TRILOGY. I pulled the story from the web in 1997. It returned to the Club Jade website in 2001 and has been there ever since. The webmistress to CJ, Dunc, has cleaned STUFF up a few times over the years and has graciously hosted it for a very long time. It recently came to my attention that despite its, and its author's, advanced age, STUFF continues to circulate in the Star Wars fandom. With so many stories lost forever, disappearing when private archives go down, when Geocities disappeared, and in hard drive crashes, and corrupted floppy disks, I concede that should probably not happen to STUFF and so have decided to post it elsewhere.
The shame and then pride of authorship have been replaced with a sort of numb acceptance. As Luke would say, STUFF is wretched, melodramatic space trash, to which Mara would counter that we all need a little trash in our lives
With grateful acknowledgement to Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox, and Timothy Zahn. I claim no ownership interest whatsoever in any content. Any original content in the story is entirely in the public domain and may be used without notice or attribution to me.
There are errors. This thing has been through numerous beta testing rounds with many readers. While it embarrasses me now, those imperfections are part of what made it what it is - though I think Rogue is now spelled properly. Its misspelling as Rouge led to an ongoing parody involving cross-dressing X-Wing pilots and Attack Pattern Clinique. There is wandering point of view. The characters and the story they inhabit are flawed.
At the time of its release, I thought STUFF was about PG-13 or even R. Now, I doubt it even merits that rating.
When I wrote it, the single greatest complaint was the amount of hard liquor Luke and Mara consumed. Luke gets drunk. So does Mara. If you are bothered by this fact, it's going to be a difficult read.
I also am now shocked to realize how long these individual chapters are. I will divide some of them up if they seem too long.
UNINVITED GUESTS, Part 1
In which Mara has an uninvited guest, then Luke has an uninvited guest, and Luke and Mara play a drinking game
Zipping along at hyper speed toward her unusual destination, the light blinking on her holo receiver was a surprise to Mara Jade. Such messages were rare, expensive, usually serious, and invariably important. Prepared for the worst, she was all the more surprised when the display identified the sender as from Coruscant Palace.
A visual of Han Solo flickered onto her screen. Momentarily stunned, she managed to blurt out a greeting. He looked like he had been dragged from bed by wild animals. A check at the chronometer and some quick calculations confirmed that her initial impression was not far off - it was indeed the dead of night at Coruscant Palace. All normal mortals were long since in bed; the wild animals she was not so sure of.
"Solo, what in the skies do you want?"
His mumbled answer was as coherent as his appearance suggested. "Uh, hi, Mara. Sorry to just barge in like this. How are you?"
"I'm fiiine," she drawled, trying to coax some logical explanation for a holo call from the Chief of State's husband in the middle of the Coruscant night. "What's wrong, Solo? What's got you calling me at this hour?"
More incoherent hems and hahs followed. He was obviously uncomfortable and probably regretting now that he had dialed her up. "Uh, well, I need to ask a favor."
Mara waited through yet another long pause. "Yeesss, so what's the favor?"
Evidently Solo resolved whatever momentary indecision had robbed him of comprehensible speech, for he stumbled on. "You probably haven't heard about Luke. Well, I mean about Callista. I mean, Lu..."
Mara made a quick decision and interrupted Solo, sparing him the ordeal of telling that tale. "I've heard the news, Solo," she curtly interjected.
He was instantly alert. "How did you..," but Mara interrupted him again.
Trying to keep the irritation out of her voice, she explained patiently, as to someone who has been too long out of the game to know how it is played, "Geez, I'm a trader. Of course I knew. I probably found out the same time you did." This was not quite true, but close enough for these purposes. "Besides, I keep pretty close tabs on your family members, given their penchant for getting into trouble."
Solo was quiet, no doubt digesting the implications of Mara Jade, the former Emperor's Hand, following the personal lives of his family generally and his brother-in-law in particular. But having gone this far, he plunged ahead. "Well, you may not know that Luke is taking it really badly. We haven't heard from him in weeks. Tionne called me up yesterday saying she was very worried. She wanted me and Leia to come to Yavin, but she can't 'cause she's off planet on some diplomatic thing."
"It's a trade show and negotiation on Chandrila."
Solo grinned at her, evidently savoring the humor in Mara Jade thinking she knew as much about his family as he did. "Yeah, Chandrila. Anyway, Leia can't go."
Mara could see where this "favor" was leading. "I don't see what this has to do with me. Why don't you go, take the kids to visit their Uncle - that might get his mind off things?"
Han gave her a long inscrutable stare, and then shrugged. "Because I have a feeling that seeing the kids, and maybe even me would just make him worse. I thought maybe you could go and see him instead."
Ahh. Mara leaned back, mulling his little confession. "I'm not exactly in the neighborhood, I've got a hold full of goods and I'm bound for Verrat."
"You do the Verrat run? Hold on a minute." She saw him turn away, rummage around on the desk and then pull out a data pad. He thumbed the pad and then looked up. "NRI reports some unusual activity there."
This was far too convenient. Of course Solo knew she did the Verrat run; he probably knew she was headed there when he called. Was this supposed to be a quid pro quo to pique her interest? On the other hand, any time New Republic Intelligence reported 'unusual activity,' it was certain to be entertaining, lucrative or simply dangerous. She took the bait he dangled. "All right, what does that mean?"
Solo looked exceedingly smug, even over a grainy transmission. "I dunno," he offered ever so helpfully, casually perusing the data pad. "It says here there may be some smuggling going on, although NRI doesn't know what."
"No? Really? Smuggling? I'm shocked. You have to do better than that to get me to change my plans and go to Yavin first."
He pretended to consult the pad again, as if this really were some last minute inspiration. "NRI says there's been a lot of credits changing hands, for unknown reasons." Mara pointedly stifled a yawn for his benefit. "Oh, this is interesting . . . " He paused again and looked at her.
She waited, and he finally continued. "NRI says that whatever they have for a government has been having some unidentified, mysterious problems with their aerial security defense net. Say, you wouldn't know anything about this now would you?"
She gritted her teeth. "No. Solo, I don't. I've done the run for years, and unless you've forgotten everything about trading you ever knew, which is highly likely in your present, cushy office job, you should recall that profits are very high there if you can get through the asteroid belt without being pulverized. "
He feigned a hurt expression, "Oh, Mara" and then swung back with a deadpan return. "Lots of ex-Imperials on Verrat aren't there?"
She had better things to do then engage in a holo match of wits with Han Solo. "Yes," she said wearily. If your NRI agents are any good at all, they'll also tell you I lived there once too. She continued aloud. "Plenty of current Imperials too, who pay top credit for luxury items they can't get in exile."
Solo was silent again, before pushing on. "So will you go and see Luke?" Then came the big sell, "Mara I wouldn't ask this of you if I didn't think it was important. Tionne was very concerned. Luke won't talk to any of us, won't see anyone, and he's not answering messages. Nothing. Leia can't reach him and she's frantic. Could you just check up on him, see how he's doing?" He took a deep breath. "I'd really owe you one."
A thought struck Mara. "You owe me or you and your wife owe me?"
"Well, I haven't told Leia yet."
Mara grinned at that one. "Hiding secrets from a Force-trained spouse is never a good idea Solo."
"Yeah, well I can handle that."
"I bet you can."
"Just swing by Yavin, Mara. Try to get Luke to go with you to Verrat. You can sell your cargo, the two of you can check out the NRI report, see if you can find their missing agent..."
"Oh did I forget to mention that?" He looked oh so innocent. "NRI seems to have misplaced an agent on Verrat."
"How very careless of them." But Mara realized he had played her well. This was too interesting to pass up, which was no doubt what Solo had intended all along. All the innocent questioning; doing the Verrat run indeed, he probably knew her entire manifest, down to the last wine bottle.
"You'll go though, won't you Mara," he continued, somewhat more contritely. "And take Luke with you? Please."
Mara wondered whether in all the years she had known Han Solo, if she had ever heard him say "please." He could be quite charming, in an aw shucks sort of way. She still wasn't buying it, but ... "If you're going to be so nice about it . . ." She paused, considering. "Sure, I'll stop by. No promises though."
"Just give it a try. I'll transmit the entire NRI report, such as it is, to Yavin by diplomatic encrypt."
"Good idea. It's probably worthless, but more information on the situation there would help. I don't like trading blind. And, before I forget, tell Jaina thanks for the picture and the story. Her picture's hanging in my cockpit. But where did she get that particularly lurid color of red for my hair?"
His grin and relief were genuine this time. "I'm glad you like it Mara. I'll tell her. She worked really hard on it. Did you know that she wants to grow up to a Master Trader and fighter pilot just like Mara Jade?"
She laughed, thinking how much Mara Jade as a role model for her daughter might distress Jaina's mother. "Tell her to aim higher."
"She could do a lot worse."
Mara laughed again. "How's Jacen doing?"
Han affected a heavy sigh, but his delight in his children's foibles was palpable, even over a holo transmission. "Better. He only mentions your name three or four times a day now." After the Corellia insurrection, young Jacen Solo had developed an intense crush on Mara. If anyone saw a particular irony in the situation, they were too polite to comment.
"Give them both a hug from me Solo."
"I will. And thanks again, Mara."
As he turned to disconnect, Mara interrupted him. "One thing, Why me? What makes you think Luke'd see me if he's not seeing anybody else?"
Han stared at her again. She tried to read something in his sabacc straight face, but got nothing. He just shrugged. "I dunno, he may not, but my guess is you'll find a way. It's just a hunch."
"Yeah. Besides, if you think about it, there really isn't anyone else who could go except you." He sighed, and suddenly looked very tired.
"Go back to bed, Solo, before you change your mind. I'll see what I can do."
Han switched off, leaving Mara staring at the star lines from her cockpit's view screen. She glanced at the chron; she'd drop out of hyperspace in about an hour, right into orbit around Yavin IV. She had been planning to go there all along, but had decided not to mention that to Solo. It never hurt if the Chief of State's husband felt he owed you a big favor.
The more she considered their conversation, the more extraordinary his request seemed. He was genuinely worried about Luke, that was clear, and probably did not want Leia to worry about her brother. Mara knew Leia had her hands full with the Chandrila conference. But that Solo would call her, in the middle of the night, without Leia knowing, and try to convince her to go and see Luke, well that was something else entirely.
He had clearly been reluctant to do so. Calling at this hour meant that it was probably an impulse that Solo thought he might regret if he had slept on it. On the other hand, he had taken the trouble to learn both her destination and something to pique her interest, no doubt figuring that she might need a lure to get Luke off Yavin for a while.
His and Leia's persistent mistrust of her continued to grate. What did they expect? She had not actually killed Luke, or even really made a serious effort to do so. Sure, she had her own Imperial past to contend with, but, in the years since she had come to know them she had done a lot for them personally, and for the New Republic. She had rescued Luke from the jungles of Myrkr, had fought and nearly been killed in the Dreadnaught battle, led them to Thrawn's cloning facility, and almost been killed there too for her trouble. More recently, she'd been injured again, at Almania, had helped Leia escape from Corellia, and had fought with them in their subsequent air battle against the Triad. Solo probably couldn't decide if she would sit and hold Luke's hand or just stab him with a vibro knife.
Han and Leia's mistrust was comical in comparison to their own children's adoration of her. After Corellia, she had taken Jacen and Jaina on a few jaunts around the system in the Jade's Fire. She had let Jaina sit in the co-pilot's chair when they made the jump to hyperspace and it evidently made a big impression on the young girl. Jacen's schoolboy crush had subjected him to much ridicule by his twin, but he had persevered. Mara liked both Jacen and Jaina a lot, in part because of and in spite of their parents' misgivings.
She thought again about Han's call. His concern, no, that was not it, fear, for Luke had been so great, he had sought her out of all people. Why? Was there truly no one else to go to Luke?
Soberly, Mara realized that maybe there wasn't. Luke had become increasingly detached and emotionally distant in the wake of Callista's abrupt and to Mara's mind, callous, flight. Although she had forcefully argued the point with him many times, he felt responsible for Gaeriel Capistan's pointless death at Centerpoint. His isolation had deepened after the Corellian insurrection. He had withdrawn to Yavin to be with his students and had remained there, in seclusion, to wallow in guilt and depression. Mara had not seen him in months.
And now this. Although Mara had known about Callista and had, even, expected it, she had no intention of imparting that particular story to Han. It was, she thought, not his business, nor hers. Mara had not wanted to be involved in the subsequent fallout. Luke, however, had changed her planned aloofness. She had not expected to feel his jolt of pain half way across the galaxy and shuddered, remembering again that night almost three weeks ago.
It had happened at yet another retirement party for her old boss, Talon Karrde. She had suddenly been overwhelmed with grief, awash in waves of despair and rage. She had, incredibly, burst into tears, and fled the party, utterly desolate, spending the night inconsolable and alone, curled on her bunk in her ship. The next day, she had been able to pinpoint Luke, light years away, as the source of her anguish. It was several more days before she was able to regain her composure sufficiently to stammer an apology to Karrde.
The realization that she had been so attuned to Luke through the Force had shocked her. They had been on more or less good terms for years, building a firm friendship based on trust, respect, and some slight mutual attraction amid the seemingly endless political upheavals and military crises of the NR.
There had always been some indefinable connection between them, a linking through the Force that had made their collaborations so successful. Luke had once simply explained that they worked well together and she had never been able to divine a better explanation. But nevertheless highly suspicious of the situation, Mara had sometimes deliberately ignored him for months. She sensed that his own feelings for her were as complicated and ambivalent. Perhaps recognizing that their delicate equilibrium could rapidly careen in unpredictable and unsatisfactory directions, they had both studiously avoided looking at the situation too closely.
Yet somehow, despite all the obstacles, their relationship continued to deepen as forces, or as Mara now recognized, the Force continually propelled him into her orbit, and she into his. Her powers in the Force had grown since knowing him. When she was with Luke, he acted as a catalyst for her own strengths and tempered her weaknesses.
Mara's Force sensitivity had cost her dearly, enslaving her for years to the Emperor's voice. In a final act of spite, Palpatine had implanted a nightmarish vision of his death at the hands of Luke and Vader. She learned it had all been a lie, the dying Emperor's last vengeance on Vader and his son. With Luke's help, she had been able to exorcize that demon from her mind and soul.
The experience, though, had not been without its repercussions. Mara had not been anxious to repeat that mind to mind link with anyone ever again. She had shielded herself from such contact, unable to open her mind fully to him and others through the Force. And then she had felt Luke reach out across the stars that night. His anguish was as fresh in her mind as if she had been in the same room with him.
For the thousandth time she pondered what that cry had meant. Like the Emperor's death, had it been so strong that others sensitive to the Force had felt it as well? Or had he knowingly or unconsciously directed it to her specifically, a plea summoning her to Yavin? And if so, for what end?
As the days had gone by, she considered what to do, whether to approach him, what to say if she did. None of the answers she devised seemed satisfactory. His call had badly shaken her, and Mara was exceedingly uncomfortable with the thought that, by whatever whim of the Force, she was now more linked to Luke than she had ever wanted or intended to be. Her first instinct had been to ignore it, to run as far from that cry as she could, to block the searing pain and loneliness. Calling upon some of the same calming and shielding he had taught her, she was able to restore her more customary veneer of competence and control. But his dull, gnawing ache remained in her mind. It was then that Mara had realized that she could not in justice use those same techniques he had shown her to keep him away. So, on an impulse, she set off for Yavin.
Although Solo had not given her any particular information she had not already surmised, he had provided a new perspective on a matter that she had been fretting over for weeks. Mara reflected that sometimes Han was more sensitive then he let on. As difficult as it may have been to stay on Coruscant and not immediately go to Luke, he was probably right in concluding that his presence, or that of his family could do more harm than good. If Luke was already despondent, seeing his happily married sister and brother in law and their children would probably only draw him into further gloom. She wondered idly if the Force had prodded Solo as well.
For whatever reason, and by whatever means, Mara had been summoned to Yavin. And so to Yavin she would go.
The navicomputer beeped, announcing the imminent drop from hyperspace. Mara strapped in, prepared and ready as the seconds ticked down.
Mara felt it immediately, almost as soon as she dropped out of hyperspace, and into orbit around Yavin IV. There was a heaviness, a brooding anger that was new to Yavin. She also felt a brief touch on her mind, a momentary lingering that others not as attuned might have missed altogether. "Just ringing the doorbell" she said to the air.
She easily found the beacon and adjusted the Jade's Fire navigation to its frequency. The ship responded smoothly to her touch, and descended gently into the atmosphere toward the Jedi Training Center landing pad. Mara loved flying, she loved her ship, loved skimming just a little too close over the heavy jungles of Yavin, feeling the forces push her ever so slightly back into her chair. It was always a disappointment to land. The Jade's Fire touched down lightly, with the ease of much practice.
Standing at the hatch, she felt a sudden stab of doubt. It was terribly wrong for her to come here. Who was she to interfere with Luke's grief, even if his lack of control was invading her life as well? Why not just turn around and head back out? If Luke did not wish to see his own family, why would he see her, much less follow her on some wild hunt to a mostly Imperial held backwater like Verrat?
Surprised at this compulsion, Mara directed her attention inward, probing for the source of these unexpected feelings. She recognized something external, from without, that was prompting this self doubt. Something wanted her leave, something weak, malicious, petty. This abrupt identification of an insidious variation on the Dark Side was disquieting.
Mara paused. If the Dark Side was operating so strongly in the Jedi Training facility, she began to understand Tionne's concerns. She quickly brushed these fleeting misgivings aside; Mara had faced down the worst of the Dark Side a long time ago, and it would take more than niggardly doubts to rattle her self-confidence. Yanking the hatch release, she stepped out into the humid Yavin atmosphere.
It was deserted; none of the instructors, the Jedi or the students were about. She walked toward the Temple and living quarters, increasingly disturbed at the change in the facility. The place reeked of mold and decay. A vague, unpleasant odor hung in the air. Yavin teemed with life; touching that breathing, living richness was an important part of training here. Usually one could hear the squawks of exotic birds, and the calls of animals deep in the forest. Instead, it seemed silent, watchful, ominous. It was as if the very life of the forest was suspended, tense, waiting for a calamitous outburst or an electrical storm.
What had happened? She tested the air. The same hostility she had felt in orbit hung heavily, but seemed here, more intense and directed, more personal. Although the midmorning sun should have begun warming the air and burning off the early mists, a cold, clamminess permeated.
Becoming frustrated at the lack of any welcoming at all, Mara reached out through the Force and simultaneously heard and felt Tionne running down the path from the dormitories. Tionne rounded a corner and careened into Mara. "I'm so glad you came." To Mara's surprise and embarrassment, Tionne threw her harms around her, clinging to her Mara's shoulders. Tionne's face was red and wet from crying. "Did Han come? Where's Leia?" she gasped.
Mara gently disengaged from the grasp. She knew that Tionne was not very strong in the Force, but had devoted herself to Jedi lore. She was an excellent teacher and had been a tremendous aide to Luke.
Mara was aghast at the change in her. The normally serene woman was distraught and haggard, her clothes were filthy, her hair matted, and deep circles rimmed her blood shot eyes. "They couldn't come, Tionne. Han asked if would. What's happened? Where is everyone?"
"Oh Mara, I didn't know what to do. It's been so horrible." She sobbed. "We all knew something happened when the Master got the message cube, but we had no idea. He just erupted, I've never seen him so angry. Even I could feel it. He's locked himself in his room, and won't come out, and, and ..."
Tionne burst into a fresh bout of tears. Mara was torn, with concern for what had so reduced Tionne, concern for the students exposed to such an intense and destructive influence, and profoundly irritated with both Luke and Callista for perpetrating this nonsense in the first instance. She grabbed the woman by the shoulders. "Tionne, where are the students? What's happened to them? I don't sense them anywhere."
Tionne abruptly seemed to remember that Mara too was trained in the Force. "After a few days, I knew something was terribly wrong. The students were fighting, having nightmares. They were somehow being affected by the Master. I told Kyp Durron and the other instructors to take the students off planet. They've been gone for over two weeks but I told Kyp to wait until I contacted them before they tried to return."
"I'm sure that was the right thing to do. Your priority was to the students, Tionne."
Tionne smiled wanly and then tears began welling in her eyes again. "Mara, I didn't know what to do. I couldn't do anything, I'm so weak, and I.."
Mara had to arrest these feelings of inadequacy. She firmly grabbed the woman's hand. "You know that this is the Dark Side working, don't you?"
Tionne's eyes widened, and Mara felt a gush of fear from her, "I knew there was something wrong, but I've been all alone after Kyp left, and I was so afraid, it's so dark and cold here ..."
As Tionne choked back another sob, Mara reached and squeezed her hand again. "Don't doubt yourself, Tionne. Sometimes the Dark Side isn't always evil, dead Dark Jedi. Sometimes it can be something much more personal and hurtful. You have done everything you could do, and more. You knew you had to get the students away." Mara stopped and looked toward the dormitories, reaching for, and through the Force, finding Luke "Luke has been through things worse than this before. He's a fighter, he'll survive." He had better, or I'll kill him myself.
Tionne snuffled back her tears and wiped her face on a grimy sleeve. Mara felt Tionne attempt a calming technique and gently reinforced the feeling of peace. Even as she did so, the stifling dampness around them seemed to dissipate.
"It has been so frightening Mara. The Master always seems so controlled, so powerful, I can't believe the change in him, or in this place he has worked so hard to build."
"Even Jedi Masters have their weaknesses, and Luke has had a terrible shock. Han asked me if I would try to talk to him and get him to come with me off planet for a few weeks, to give him something new to do and keep him away from here."
Tionne bent toward Mara and whispered. "We don't even know what caused it. Was it ... something from Callista?"
"Yes" Mara said, and her voice was cold.
The two women began walking toward the dormitories. "I should be getting a diplomatic encrypt from Solo on Coruscant. Could you check and see if you can downlink and encode it while I find Luke?"
Tionne nodded, some of her purposefulness returning. "If I can't read it with our encryption equipment, I'll ask Artoo to try it." They stopped at the entrance to the building. "Do you want me to go with you? It's very dark and..." She bit back the rest of her sentence, seeing now what had been the Dark Side's influence upon her, feeding her fears and insecurities.
Mara shook her head. "There's nothing in there you or I can't handle by ourselves." As it was intended, her bravura cheered Tionne. The other woman left her at the door, and turned toward the communications center.
Mara pressed the door and it swung quietly opened. She ventured into its dimness, thinking that the dormitory was normally filled with the voices of young, exuberant trainees, not this cold and brooding silence. Their light seemed to be a dim echo; she heard only her own footfalls reverberating in the damp stone.
A fresh wave of disgust passed over her. This was ridiculous, other people had suffered more grievous losses than the precious master, without imperiling the balance of the Force. What made him think he was so special?
She had felt before that this particular manifestation of the Dark Side was not one of evil, but a weak willed malice. She slowly walked the dusky corridor testing the feeling. There was a will here, but rather than strong, it seemed indecisive, lonely, irritable. It did not want her to go further, but also would not exert itself to stop her. Mara wondered whether Luke was the source of this childishness, or whether, without his active Force presence, the Dark Side was merely trying to reassert itself, and keep her from seeing him. Either way, he or it, or whatever it was, was in for a disappointment. Settling herself firmly into the Force, she could feel that pathetic will slink away like a frightened, gibbering animal into the darkness.
She had no difficulty identifying Luke's room at the end of the hall and strode to it. She pounded at the heavy door.
A muffled and petulant "Who's there? Go away," came through the door.
Mara almost laughed in surprise. "You know perfectly well who it is, Skywalker. You've known since I broke orbit over this wildlife sanctuary you call home. Open the door."
"Why are you here?" came the reply.
Mara thought this was very diverting and answered in kind. "I'm here for a holiday and wanted your suggestions for local night life. No, that's not it, your Force power compels me to tell the truth. I'm here because the late Admiral Thrawn has invaded my mind. He keeps telling me to sell everything I own, donate it to a charity and live in a hut on Kessel. Satisfied, Skywalker? Now open the door."
The gloom lifted marginally. She could sense his amusement at her sarcasm in spite of himself. There was a brief touch of the Force, and the door opened inward; no one stood at the entrance. She peered into the darkened room, allowing her eyes to adjust to its dimness before trying to enter. "Ohhh, you did that without hands, I don't suppose you could find a light too?"
Hearing no response, she walked in and promptly stumbled on something on the floor. Very graceful she thought, and quickly righting herself, fumbled for a switch on the wall to illuminate the gray. The sudden brightness momentarily blinded her and she fiercely blinked her eyes to correct her vision.
"I prefer the lights off." came Luke's voice from somewhere further into the room on the left. The lights abruptly dimmed again.
"And I prefer them on," she responded tartly, and reached the glow pad through the Force and clicked it back on.
Able to see, Mara looked around the tiny room. It was a sty. Debris, clothing, bottles and paper were strewn across the floor and every surface. She identified the offending item she had tripped over, a discarded bottle, picked it up and sniffed it experimentally. "Uhmm, fermented grains from," she studied the label, "Corellia. A fine vintage. This will pack a wallop."
Looking up, she finally saw Luke curled on his bed in the corner wrapped in his brown Jedi robe, and quickly had to still the shock of his reduced condition. She waited a moment, expectantly. When he did not acknowledge her, she moved across the room to the only chair, and swept the clutter from it. "Since you offered, thank you, I will sit down."
He glanced up that time, and cracked a thin, smile. Luke had aged. He was pale, thin and very grim. His eyes were deeply stained with red and stared out of a white, drawn face. A week's or more growth of beard hung around his face. He and the room smelled of old spirits, sweat and malaise. It was appalling.
"I love what you've done with the place Skywalker. It's very welcoming, and so tidy."
"I'll tell my decorator and housekeeping droid you like it. Now that you've had your way and got me to open the door, tell me what you want so then you can go, and leave me alone. I assume that Admiral Thrawn was just a pretext."
"Hey, it worked, didn't it," she retorted brightly, her mind whirling. She had played this conversation over and over in her mind the last three weeks, and the real thing was beginning as badly as she had feared. "Actually, I need a favor." When he did not respond, she continued. "I've got a hold full of cargo that is burning a hole in my wallet. I'm due in Verrat in sixteen standard days and need a copilot. I had to leave the last one on Rishi."
This part was at least true. She could feel his fleeting amusement at her predicament. Mara's problems with her copilots were well known, and he had heaped a lot of good natured abuse on her over the years about the subject.
"Lost another one Mara?" Mara's 'copilots' were invariably young, good looking, fighter jocks with lots of experience in the cockpit, and maybe not much else. The episodes were usually brief and a disappointment for both, neither getting out of the arrangement what they had hoped, and ending with Mara depositing them unceremoniously on a planet much like the dump they had come from after a few trading runs with Captain Jade.
"Ha ha. Anyway, for this trip, I need a pilot who can actually fly, and I thought of you."
She sensed him study her, testing for some falsehood. "Why can't you fly it by yourself? You're good enough to handle a solo without somebody in the co- pilot seat."
Mara snorted. "You evidently don't know the Verrat run."
In spite of the gloom and apathy, Mara could not entirely suppress her excitement and knew that he felt it as well. "Verrat is out on the rim. A nice, quiet place, with a lovely, temperate climate, practically no industry, lots of agriculture, a small, sparsely populated planet with the population concentrated in only a few cities. The trading there is very lucrative."
"Why is a small agrarian paradise interesting to you?"
She ignored the jibe, and answered him seriously. "Two reasons, first, and this is where you come in." She picked up another bottle from the floor and righted it to demonstrate. "Think of the top here as the planet. In orbit, around Verrat, is a nasty little asteroid belt." She circled the top of the bottle with her finger. "Nothing too serious but between that and the distance, it's a pretty effective barrier to most space traffic."
"How can people live there?"
"There's an aerial defense net surrounding the populated areas."
"So why do you need me?"
"Oh, didn't I explain?" she affected innocently. "The only way to get there is to fly through the belt. I won't do it unless I've got a competent copilot."
Luke had been leaning forward to catch her explanation, and suddenly rocked back onto the bed, stunned horror on his face.
"I'm not crazy!" she slapped back, before realizing that she was responding to a strongly voiced censure that Luke had only thought, and not actually said.
She continued, "I've done the run many times, and never damaged more than a sensor array. Do you think I would do this if I would damage my ship, or get annihilated by an asteroid?" Her sense of priorities was revealing: ship first, life second.
"You said there were two reasons the trip is 'lucrative.'"
"It's all related to Verrat's inaccessibility. It's always been a popular hide away for those anxious to avoid attention: Jedi at one time, the Rebellion had a base there once, and now lots of rich ex-Imperials. If you can get through the belt with the kinds of luxury goods they miss from the Core Worlds, wine, silks, foods, whatever, they will pay top credit. Not many people do the run, and the demand there is very high. My profit margins from a Verrat trip pay my expenses for an entire year."
She paused, and responding to her hesitation, Luke asked suspiciously, "What else?"
Mara frowned at him. "NRI has reported some problems on Verrat. Nothing too serious, but Solo told me that they have lost contact with an agent. He asked me to check it out while I was there."
Luke did not bother controlling the flash of anger that struck out at Mara.
She glared at him, but stood her ground. "Hey, don't blame me."
"Why'd he contact you?" Luke asked sullenly.
"I think he knew I was headed there anyway. His calling me like that was a little too coincidental, don't you think?" Luke did not reply, still fuming. "Anyway, Solo was going to transmit the NRI report here. I asked Tionne to run it through your encrypt equipment. Solo hoped that you would go with me."
"He still could have asked me," Luke repeated petulantly, clearly irritated at her presumption.
"Maybe he tried," she said softly and after a long pause. "But since you have not been returning messages..."
He jerked as she finished her sentence in his mind, without words. "Let's just pretend, shall we, try to preserve some dignity. You know why I really came, don't make me say it."
Luke slumped back down onto his bed and said nothing, the depression and futility threatening to engulf him again.
Mara interrupted the self flagellation. "Will you come? I really need the help. It could be fun." Yeah, right she thought. C-3P0 would be more fun than the disheveled lump now before her on the bed. She could feel the apathy willing him to stay here, curl up, and let the darkness take him. She fought against it.
For a moment, apathy seemed to win. "I don't know. I have so much to do here. It's hard to leave right now."
Mara took the sarcastic approach. "Oh yes, students everywhere clamoring for attention from the Master. Important events to preside over." She looked over his slovenly cell. "And then of course you can always clean your room." She felt a fresh spurt of anger and was encouraged. Anger might motivate him to do something that sitting here and hoping the world would end would not accomplish.
"Since you asked so nicely, how could I possibly refuse?"
She smiled. "Great. I'll let you pack a few things and wait outside. It's about fourteen standards there, the same back, and plan on about three there. And Skywalker, thanks a lot. I owe you one." She stood up in a fluid movement. "I'll see you at the pad." and picking her way through the trash, headed out the door.
After Mara left, Luke sat for some time. At first, he had been suspicious of her, thinking that she and Han had plotted something between themselves. It seemed more that Han had orchestrated this trip. He agreed with Mara, it was too convenient that Han had just happened to know something about, where was it, Verrat. Han knew she was going there, and somehow convinced her to try to talk him into going too. Just what he needed. A long trip cooped up on a little ship with Mara was likely to be as peaceful and contemplative as an Imperial invasion.
He surveyed the cubicle that had been his refuge and prison for more than three weeks. No, it has been longer than that, he thought. Years. I've spent years here, perfecting the skills that have robbed me of any hope of a normal, adult life. I can open doors and switch on glow pads without ever leaving my bed. He idly pushed a bottle along the floor with the Force, wondering how hard he could press the fragile glass before it shattered. He could do that too, and then probably heal most of the self inflicted wounds. He was, why practically omnipotent.
And, he thought, a miserable failure. I have none of the other things that truly matter to the average man: a permanent home, a wife, a family. Every fool in the galaxy has what I want. He bitterly realized that Mara was right, there was no reason to stay, and every reason to go: without any commitments, he could leave in a moment. Without anyone to return to, he could stay away indefinitely.
The room seemed to contract and grow darker, even with the light. Luke felt a mind seeking his, and recognized his sister reaching out to him from wherever she was today. He shut off the contact, imagining a door slamming between himself and Leia. He did not want to speak with her, feel her presence, or suffer the humiliation of her concern and pity.
Clutching the message cube, he felt anew the betrayal and waste since he had heard Callista's words. "Please try to understand, I will always be your friend." Friend, what an asinine statement. Sustained by the belief that the visions of the Dathomir witch, and his own on Bakura had not been wrong, he had waited for her. He would have gone on waiting, until she either regained her powers or become reconciled to their loss. He didn't care, and had loved her, waiting for what he had fantasized would be their ultimate, and joyous reunion. Well, Callista had not waited, and what a fantasy.
The visions had been lies. Yoda had warned him that the future was always in motion, and his certainly had been. It had careened right off a cliff. Every woman he had loved was dead to him, or might as well be. Dying with Callista on the Eye of Palpatine would have been preferable to this.
He rolled over and stood up, feeling slightly light headed and wobbly. Luke had not actually left his room for a long time. The empty bottles of wine and distilled spirits he had liberated from the dining facility littered the floor. He wondered what Mara thought of that, and then decided he did not care. She was not in any position to adjudge him.
But why had she come? Although Han undoubtedly thought he had maneuvered her into coming to Yavin, he knew that Mara generally did not acquiesce to such manipulation unless it otherwise suited her ends. So, what did she want? It was flattering that she trusted him to co-pilot, but Luke wasn't fooled. Mara was always able to find some mostly competent, decorative male to help her pilot.
At least she was consistent. Mara's taste in co-pilots ran toward the young and brash; he had once told her only a cloning facility could account for the sameness of those exuberant boys who always made the mistake of telling Mara how to fly. They usually ended up walking home.
She obviously knew a great deal more about Verrat then she had told him. However, the prospect of a whole world of Imperials in exile was tantalizing. All that white armor could make for some excellent blaster practice. Pulling a bag from under the cot, he began carelessly tossing things into it. It didn't matter how long he would be gone. He thought about slipping back into the dining area, but figured Mara of all people would have a well stocked selection of distilled drinks on her ship.
Although she had not said anything explicitly, Luke had heard Mara in his mind; she knew about Callista. He was not surprised at the exchange. Simple communication between them had always been good, better even than between Leia and himself. Although he doubted she could breach the many barricades he had constructed between himself and the rest of the world, Mara had been able to penetrate his basic shielding easily, understanding things not even said. Three weeks ago, drunk and raging against Callista and the mess of his life, he had thought he had reached Mara somewhere in the reaches of space. The memory was faint and murky to him now. But, if Mara had felt him through the Force, she had not said so, and she certainly took her time getting to Yavin.
He sat again on the bed, thinking perversely that maybe he would not go with her. Pushing the bottle again, this time, like a mere mortal, with his foot, he watched it list across the floor. She had said going to Verrat might be 'fun.' Fun. He wondered how long it had been since he had had fun.
He and Callista had enjoyed themselves, but then he thought miserably, she hadn't really been all there. On the Eye of Palpatine they had found each other in some inexplicable, noncorporeal way. And afterwards, the Force had been closed to her, and he to her.
When he and Mara had broken Karrde out of Thrawn's Star Destroyer, when he had first met Han and they had recklessly rescued Leia and wandered the first Death Star, those times had been dangerous, terrifying, fun in a way. But really enjoyable?
When was the last time he had been really happy? Tatooine, blasting wamp rats? Before the Force, before his father, before his sister, before the War, before the responsibilities of being a Commander, a Jedi Master, before the wreck of his life. He could hear Yoda's admonishments: "Adventure, excitement, a Jedi craves not these things." Well, denying himself those things in the name of some Jedi ascetic had not brought him peace or love either.
He pulled on a flight suit, tossed his lightsaber and long unused blaster into the bag and closed it. Nothing was ever quiet when Mara was around. Yoda may not approve, but he was a Jedi Master too. It was time to get off this jungle rock.
When Mara emerged from the dormitory, Tionne was waiting outside with Artoo. Handing her a cube, Mara noted that some of Tionne's assertiveness had returned.
"There was a message waiting for you from General Solo." She paused. "Is the Master going with you?"
Mara nodded. "We're leaving right away." They stood silently as Mara looked around sensing the place. The chill seemed to have returned to the air.
Responding to her unspoken thoughts, Tionne interjected, "I've already spoken to Kyp. He and some of the others will return tomorrow. I told him that I believe we need to cleanse this place before the students return."
"I think you're right. There is a feeling here of malice and ill will. I don't think it's particularly evil, just mean spirited." She smiled. "Nothing like what you all faced with Exar Kuun. You'll have those students back to work in no time."
They were chatting in earnest when Luke finally joined them. He felt a pang of remorse when he saw Tionne. Although he had been annoyed with her rueful concern for him and perpetual weeping, he was genuinely sorry to see the toll the past three weeks had taken on her. As he approached, he could feel Tionne's own uncertainty and insecurity, and a fierce protectiveness emanating from Mara. Mara's warning was clear: behave, she is better than you deserve. Although he had no intention of doing anything solely to please Mara, he was blasting out of here, and feeling more magnanimous. He forced a smile and reached out to Tionne.
Tionne gushed. "Master, it is so good to see you again." If he winced at the word "Master," only Mara noticed. "We have all been so worried."
He nodded and then said stiffly, "Thank you Tionne. I appreciate your concern." He looked around. "You sent the others with Kyp." It was a statement, rather than a question.
"Yes, Master. I have already contacted him. Kyp will return tomorrow with Kirana Ti and Cihgal. Streen will bring the students back the day after."
"I don't know when I will return, Tionne. It will be several weeks at least. You and Kyp can handle the students." Again, his question was more of a command.
"Of course," was her subdued reply.
He saw that Mara held a message cube. "Is that the NRI report?"
Mara nodded. "We can read it on the ship. Let's get going." She turned and gave Tionne a quick squeeze and a wink. "Keep those trainees in line."
Luke reached to sling his bag over his shoulder and caught Mara's eye. "Artoo's coming." He felt a quick, and then suppressed flash from her.
"I don't have a problem with that," she said evenly, implying that it was her choice and not his order that was responsible for the droid joining them.
With that, the two of them trooped toward the Fire, Artoo trailing behind. Luke turned to wave to Tionne, and watched as she moved briskly toward the Temple. As he followed Mara up the ramp, she could not resist a swipe. "Now that wasn't so bad, was it?" If this was any indication of her temperament, it was going to a long trip.
At the hatch, Mara hesitated. "You haven't been aboard The Fire before have you?" Luke shook his head. "Weellll, let me give you the three credit tour." She grabbed his hand and whisked him into the interior. The central cabin was snug, but well apportioned, a table with a built in for seating hugged one side. The central cabin included a small galley and in the corner, a couch cluster facing a blank view screen and audio equipment. She showed him the compartment near the hatch with emergency equipment, extinguisher, environmental suits, torches, and a medpac kit. Rungs built into the wall reached to the top hatch.
The sleeping quarters were aft. Mara beckoned him to the left. "Captain's quarters are back there," she pointed. "And copilot's are here." He pushed passed her, into the cabin and dropped his bag to the floor. "The necessary's in the back," she said, with a toss of her head and the slightest suggestion that he should avail himself of the shower there.
At the aft of the ship, a metal staircase spiraled down. He scrambled down after her. "Cargo hold?"
"Yep, the manifest's in the ship's computer under inventory. You will probably want to get familiar with what we've got at some point."
A door stood at the bottom of the steps, and she pushed the pressure plate. The hold automatically became illuminated, revealing neatly secured and color coded cartons stacked deck to ceiling. Mara gazed at the ordered sight adoringly and sighed.
She was suffused with pride for her ship, her cargo, her trading run. Even his dark mood did little to suppress her high spirits. Mara bounded back up the steps and he followed more sedately. By the time he joined her in the central cabin she was already pulling up the metal plating from the deck to show off all of the ship's principal systems: life support, propulsion, sensors, shields, hyperdrive, operating computer, hydraulics, defenses, and everything else. She would have insisted on dragging him down beneath the deck to inspect the power couplings and coolant connections, but then thought the better of it.
She grinned apologetically. "Sorry, I get carried away."
They replaced the floor plates and he looked around. "Do you keep this area so clear for maintenance?"
"Partly, but I also need the space," Mara said mischievously.
Luke was mystified. "What for?"
She grinned. "Lightsaber practice and dancing."
Of course, how obvious. To that, he had no response, and they headed to the fore of the ship.
The cockpit was compact and very well designed. She took what was her accustomed place, and gestured to his. The front screen commanded a wide view. They both busied with the instrumentation. Mara was running a preflight sequence, and he accustomed himself to the layout of the controls. It was all accessible, clean, well marked. She ticked off the systems, as he found them. Everything was distressingly normal and within spec. As Mara fired the engines, he eased the ship off her repulsors. They gently rose, clearing first the dense tree line of Yavin IV, and then its atmosphere.
Luke had already punched in Verrat and was waiting for the navicomp. With a hum, it spewed the coordinates, flight path and... "Thirty-five standard days! Mara you are crazy. You said it was only going to be fourteen!"
An amused humph greeted his wail. "Think about it Skywalker. Would I want to be on a ship with you for that long either?"
He chuckled, in spite of himself. "Short cut, right?"
"If I had to rely on the normal hyperspace lanes to get to Verrat, I could never afford to trade there. Lay in for Rekweg."
"Rekweg? I've never heard of it." He returned to the navicomp. "Just how close will we be coming to massive gravity wells, supernovas, black holes, Maws and other hazards?"
"You know me better than that," she responded smugly. "As if I'd risk The Fire or my cargo."
Luke punched in the Rekweg coordinates. "Now what?"
Mara swiveled in her chair, giving him an apprising look. "I guess I don't need to worry about you stealing my route."
He realized, amused rather than stung, that she was serious. "Trade secret?"
With a grin, she turned away, and with rapid movements, her fingers flying across the console, entered another series of coordinates. "Ready?"
"Let's blow out of here."
She laughed. "Why don't you do the honors," suggesting he could take the captain's prerogative. Luke reached for the hyperspace levers, and the stars of Yavin IV dissolved into lines.
They both sighed audibly and sat in silence. "No matter how many times that happens, it's still a thrill," Mara said reverently.
"It's easy to take for granted."
He unstraped his chair belt, and as he stood, hit his head on a picture hanging from above. It was done in a childish hand in bright colors and showed ostensibly a silver ship and a figure in black with streams of blazing red hair. The perspective was a little peculiar: the figure was many times larger than the ship. The background of the picture was also littered with things falling from the sky, including what appeared to be fiery remnants of ships and carefully drawn black stick figures with tiny parachutes.
"Oh Mara, you're an artist."
"Don't snicker at your own niece's art work Skywalker," she chided. "That's Jaina's gift to me, and I won't hear you criticize it."
He studied it again. "I especially love the hair."
"I've been trying to find that color in a bottle for weeks now," she said with a laugh.
"Any more love letters from Jacen?"
She chuckled again and shook her head. "No, and Solo said he doesn't mention my name more than a few times a day so don't be mean. Unrequited love is very hard at that age." Mara made the jest without thinking and them immediately regretted it.
Luke's features faded into a scowl, and he stalked out of the cockpit. "I'll be in my cabin if you need anything."
Mara cursed herself, and him, as he went.
Luke could feel Mara's solicitude as he stomped aft, which only added to his ill temper. He would have slammed the door to his cabin, but its smooth little slide prohibited even that simple expression of anger. He threw himself on his bunk and contented himself with struggling out of his boots and hurling them at the wall.
Callista. How could she have done this? Why did she wait so long? The message had been so short, so devastating. "I've met someone who can love me as I am. I'm sorry and hope you can forgive me. Please try to understand, I will always be your friend."
After having thoroughly rehearsed the arguments and recriminations for three weeks, he was not certain if he was more angry at the fact she had found someone else, that she had waited who knows how many months or even years to tell him, that she somehow thought she could be his 'friend,' or that believing her promise to return, he had placed his life in a dismal holding pattern.
He knew that Mara's slip had not been intentional but it still aggravated him. She could be so insensitive sometimes.
He pulled out a holo of himself and Callista and pressed it between his fingers, trying to will away the sense of betrayal. The familiar darkness enveloped him. It seemed so comforting in comparison to this harsh reality of failure. He finally slept.
The pounding in his head became louder and more insistent: a voice screeching and laughing, and a lightsaber crashing down on him. With a start, Luke bolted upright, his hazy, disturbing dream mingling with the sounds of Mara beating on his door.
"Hey Skywalker, you've slept long enough, now wake up."
"I'm up, I'm up," he repeated irritably, anything to get her to cease that banging. He tried to rise, and fumbling for a light, tripped over his bag still in a heap on the floor. Swearing, Luke limped over to the door. Mara was still rapping on it when he depressed the pad. He was pleased to see that the door opened so quickly she nearly fell into the room.
Tantalizing smells of food wafted in. "Uh, sorry for waking you, but you've been asleep for hours. I was fixing something for myself and thought you might be hungry."
Still groggy from the sleep, and grumpy from being awakened, Luke blinked at her in the brightly lit corridor, any retort dying on his lips at the audible sound of his stomach growling. Abashed, he looked down. "I guess I am, thanks. Let me wash up, and I'll join you."
Mara was already heading back down the corridor, calling over her shoulder, "Okay, but don't be too long."
Finding the light switch, he was able to navigate unimpeded and headed to find a sink to splash the last of sleep away. The image that stared back at him from the mirror was depressing. He rubbed the stubble on his chin, thinking that although three weeks of beard on some might be appealing, on him it was mostly pathetic. Where has my self respect gone, and then immediately knew the answer. It fled when Callista did. Well, it was just Mara.
She was already sitting at the table with a steaming plate of something in front of her, and another waiting for him. He eased his way into the booth, across from her. "What's this?"
"Dinner," came the unhelpful reply.
"Thank you for clarifying that Mara, I have a much better understanding of the subject now." She smirked. He began toying with the colorful mound with a fork and tentatively tried a bite. It wasn't bad.
Mara was actually apologetic. "I don't waste space with much in the way of food stuffs and the ship's culinary capabilities are limited. You'll have to wait until Verrat for fine dining. But in answer to your concededly fair question, it's a mixture of legumes and grains, some vegetables and nuts."
He wondered how long it had been since he had eaten proper food and began attacking the plate. "No meat?"
She wrinkled her nose. "On a hyperspace jump?" as if the answer were obvious. "Or are you one of those people who doesn't think it's a meal unless something dead is served?"
"Of course not," he retorted. "I was just trying to make conversation."
"Oh." She then said more contritely, "The drinks are in the shelf behind your seat. Why don't you grab something?"
He slid back a panel and beheld a dazzling array of spirits, wines, ales and other mysterious looking bottles. "I knew you'd be well stocked." He began pulling bottles out and setting them on the table. "Let's save the Corellian for later, shall we?"
She nodded. "Definitely not with food. How about that one?" She pointed several tall bottles with some type of amber brew. "Those are good, it's a Wallchilian ale, distilled from grain."
"I'm not picky."
As Luke poured out two glassfuls and slid one over to her, she commented, "I didn't know you drank much."
He shrugged. "I didn't until about three weeks ago. One of the consequences to being a Jedi Master; it takes a lot before you feel the effect." He quickly downed his glass and helped himself to another, taller one.
"Wouldn't you be able to neutralize the alcohol in your body anyway?"
He shrugged again. "Sure, but then what would be the fun of that?"
"Fun? You have fun? I didn't know that."
"Yes, well, now you do, it's the new me." He slammed down another drink.
Mara eyed him speculatively and then downed hers and gestured for more. "I don't think I'll be able to match you better than two to one. We'll see who's standing at the end of the night." They ate in silence and, once finished, Mara cleared and stowed the plates. Luke had replenished their drinks by the time she sat again.
Mara peered at her glass, and then spoke aloud. "We need some evening entertainment. Do you know any drinking games?"
He thought a moment. "You mean like up the river, down the river or credit bounce?"
Mara rummaged in her pockets for a couple of credit chips and set them on the table. She arched an eyebrow. "Since I used to work in bars, that's how I learned them, but I bet drinking games aren't part of the Jedi curriculum."
"Nope, but they are on Tatooine." He massaged a chip between his fingers and then abruptly bounced it off the table and with a gentle nudge of the Force, arced the chip into her glass.
"I am not going to drink that glass, you cheat. You used the Force."
"I did not."
She stuck her lip out at him. "You did too. I could feel it. If we're going to play, you have to promise not to use the Force." And with that, she expertly bounced a chip into his glass. "Drink up farm boy."
"Just what I get for playing credit bounce with a cocktail waitress." He drained his glass and fished the chip out of the bottom. Mara gulped down her ale, and then caught the chip in her teeth.
Credit chips, aided and unaided by the Force were soon bouncing off the walls of the cabin. Luke, trying to match Mara's oral dexterity with credit chips, swallowed one. Mara was laughing so hard, she swallowed hers as well.
Having gone through several bottles of amber whatever it was, Luke began perusing the cabinet for more. "I figure that once we finish your liquor cabinet, we can break into the hold and drink your wine too." Mara sputtered her drink at him in outrage. "That's the problem with you Mara, no sense of humor."
She was ready to fling a stinging retort when she saw him stiffen and slowly draw out a cut glass bottle filled with syrupy orange liquor.
He was studying the label. "Is this what I think it is?"
She swallowed hard and nodded, "Bakuran namana spice nectar. I'm sorry, I.." she stammered. "I forgot it was there."
Luke uncorked the bottle and swirled the nectar into their glasses. "Although Gaeriel was quite a distraction at the time, I recall that this is wonderful." He sighed and seemed to retreat into himself.
Mara raised her glass and caught his eye. "To Gaeriel." He lifted his glass in tribute and their glasses clinked. Mara added, "May we all go down fighting." He nodded and they both drained their glasses and he refilled them.
"I didn't really know her. You met right after Endor didn't you?"
And so he told her the story, of Bakura, the Ssiruuk, the entrenchment process that would murder and enslave humans to the aliens' battle droids, Dev, the young man who had been his first student, the treachery of the Governor, the almost comical attempts to cooperate with an Imperial world, his reflexive reaction to stormtrooper armor, the then budding romance between Han and Leia. As they continued to sip the fiery liquid, Mara listened, and eventually, he told her of Gaeriel, of her religion, her commitment to her people, her decision to stay, her husband, her daughter.
They sat in silence, and he shook his head trying to clear it. Luke steadied himself, and then asked the question to which he thought he already knew the answer. "How did you know about Callista?" As Mara hesitated, he could feel conflicting emotions welling from her: reluctance, apprehension, compassion. He tried prompting her again. "You were already on the way to Yavin, weren't you." She nodded stiffly, not speaking. "So you already knew before Han contacted you."
She nodded again, frozen to her seat, and then finally whispered, "I felt it. When you heard from her, I knew."
He leaned back, absorbing the fact that they had linked, knowing why this would be so traumatic for her. "I'm sorry Mara. I didn't mean to do that, to you of all people." He tried to lighten the mood. "I'm amazed you didn't just plot a course for the point furthest from Yavin."
She responded in kind, forcing a thin smile. "I tried. I was with Karrde and some of his people. They thought I was having a nervous breakdown."
He grinned at that and gestured to the namana liquor. "If we keep drinking this stuff, we'll end up addicted to it." He turned back to the cabinet. "Since we're drinking to my old loves, I don't suppose you have anything from Chad."
Unbidden, the response formed in her mind, unsaid, "I have to tell him..."
She might as well have spoken aloud. Luke whipped around and stared at her. "Tell me what?" His tone was icy, threatening.
Mara shrank back, but he lunged across the table and seized her wrist. "Tell me what?" She tried to snatch her hand away, but he held it in a vise. "Tell me," and suddenly plunged into her mind, trying to rip the memory from her.
Without any conscious effort or thought, in an instant, her mental barrier slammed into him with a power that sent them both reeling. Mara shook free of him and hissed, "Don't you ever do that to me again."
The air was thick with an electric tension between them, the Force crackling with potent friction. Both were momentarily stunned from the Dark Side that had unexpectedly surged. The anger was palpable, straining against a wall that threatened to burst out, and cut a swath of destruction. Luke struggled to find a calm place within himself, and felt Mara fighting for the same control. Both were breathing hard from the exertion and concentration it took to avert what had been a dangerously close brush with violence.
Mara recovered sufficiently to speak in a measured tone. "I did not mean to hide this from you. If you want to know, I'll tell you, but you have to ask."
He exhaled deeply, responding to her implicit apology. "I'm sorry too. Please, can you tell me what happened."
She took a deep breath. "I've been trading on Chad for several years now," she began. "There are some good sea based products, fish eggs, fertilizers with high iodine and nitrogen content, some interesting medicinals." She hesitated. "I won't try to deny it, I guess. I did think that if Callista was around she might show up there. I never actually looked for her, but, I knew you would want to know what she was doing, where she was, so I just kept my eyes open. I never really examined my motives too closely." She glared a challenge at him, threatening that he had better not scrutinize her motivations too closely either.
Perhaps not liking the hanging implication, she added, "Don't get any wrong ideas. I thought she had been a callous bitch leaving like that, and then continuing to dangle you along. To the extent I thought about it at all, I guess I figured that if you knew what she was doing, then maybe you could get on with your life."
He thought Mara's characterization of Callista was a little strong, but stayed silent.
When he did not respond, she continued. "I went to Chad a few months ago on a buying run to prepare for this trip. I had landed on one of these weird floating cities they have, and contacted my usual broker. We were just gossiping about routes and prices when he mentioned that there had been some changes with one of our suppliers, a family I had been trading with for a while. He said that a woman from the family had returned after years away and had not aged a day. He said she had left Chad, had been a Jedi, had been terribly wounded in a fight with the Emperor, and even Mr. Luke Skywalker himself couldn't save her powers."
"Well, it had to be Callista and I asked my broker to arrange a meeting. It turns out, she had heard I was there too, and was looking for me. So, we met." Mara stopped. "I think I need some of the Corellian stuff now."
He picked the brandy bottle out of the debris on the table and sloshed some into glasses for both of them. "So what happened then, how did she look?"
Mara drained her glass in a gulp and gestured for more. "She looked good. Happy. She..." Mara gave him a warning look, and he tried to steel himself for the next revelation. "She brought her husband, and their baby daughter."
He groaned, and sunk his head, realizing that it wasn't only that Callista had met 'someone.' She had already married and had a child, while he had rotted on Yavin waiting for her. He took a deep draught of the brandy, waited for Mara, and then refilled their glasses again. "Callista said they had been on Chad for less than a year, that they had met on Marffren, in a library at the capital city there."
"What was she doing there?"
"I asked the same thing. She said that she had been following a lead Tionne had given her. Some Jedi who dabbled in the Dark Side, and lost his powers."
Luke nodded. "Jedi lore teaches that a man named Ulic Qel Droma turned to the Dark Side to fight in the Sith War. He ultimately betrayed Exar Kuun and helped to defeat him. But even in turning away from evil, Qel Droma was blinded to the Force."
"Oh. Well she explained that both she and her now husband had gone there for the same reason. They had both lost their contact with the Force and were trying to regain it. She had thought that if they examined Qel Droma's library on his home planet, they might find something to help them."
"But they didn't find anything."
Mara shook her head. "Callista said that they did learn that although the Force is not corporeal, it does emanate from life. When a person's body undergoes a severe, near death trauma, she thought the Force may move onto the next plane, and leave the body behind. It was all speculation, but the best explanation they found. So they stayed on Marffren for over a year, researching and then trying to reach the Force, together. Only the Dark Side was open to them. So they gave up and returned to Chad. Her parents were dead, but her brothers and sisters, and their children were still there. They remembered her and welcomed them back."
"And somewhere along the way, she fell in love with this person." Luke tried, but did not wholly succeed in keeping the bitterness out of his voice.
"Callista said that each of them was only a half of their former selves, and together they made a whole."
They downed more brandy. Luke knew he was rapidly approaching some severe state of intoxication, and the way Mara was listing to the side, she wasn't much better. "What was his story, how did he lose the Force?"
He saw Mara shiver, with the memory of it. "Callista didn't say at first, except that there had been a terrible accident. But as soon as I saw him, I thought I knew."
"Do you remember during the Dreadnaught battle and again on Wayland, that sort of buzzing in your mind?"
A wave of revulsion passed through him, echoed from Mara. "He's a clone?"
"Callista said that his parents, well, I mean his host's parents had been Jedi. They had tried to train him in secret, somewhere in the Outer Rim. But Vader found his parents and murdered them. He managed to escape, and eventually became a trader, and with the Force, apparently a very skilled pilot. He stayed out of the Rebellion, and would have probably gone on living a quiet life in obscurity except that Thrawn found him. He was conscripted into the Imperial navy, strapped into a fighter, and performed too well. You can guess what happened then."
He surprised himself by feeling pity. "It's horrible. We don't really think about what happened to all those people Thrawn cloned."
Mara shrugged. "I suppose he behaved as honorably as he could. His host was so horrified at what he had become a part of, he killed himself, piloting a Howlrunner into a Star Destroyer. The clone, or at least this one, found that he had lost the Force, remembering it, but unable to contact it."
"So cloning destroyed his Force sense. That idea of trauma to the body may explain why the ability is so rare in clones."
"Could be. Anyway, he deserted the Imperials and wandered a while before, like Callista, ending up on Marffren."
Both Mara and Luke simultaneously reached for the brandy and a refill. Mara looked at him closely, apparently trying to gauge his reaction, or maybe wishing, in her state, that he didn't have two heads staring into two glasses. "I couldn't think of a way to bring up the subject. I thought drinking might loosen my tongue. I guess it did."
"Was she ever going to tell me? Or was she just going to, how did you say it, dangle me along for a few more years?"
Mara squinted slightly. "I don't know. I came down on her pretty hard. I told her that she had to tell you, that you still loved her and had been waiting for her. That surprised her. She said that she'd been certain that in the end, you would've realized that she couldn't give you what you really needed, and would move on. I didn't believe her. Maybe she was afraid to tell you, maybe she didn't want to hurt you, and thought you would take it, well, like you did."
"What did she expect?" he swore. "Of course I'd be hurt, but that still doesn't excuse leaving me hanging for so long."
Mara flared back at him. "Hey it's not my fault. This kind of paternalism drives me wild." Her voice became shrill, in a high pitched mimicking whine. "'I was just trying to protect him, it was for his own good.' I don't know about you, but I want the bad news, and if I don't like what I hear, well that's my problem. She actually suggested that I tell you. I almost ripped her head off. But before I left, I got her to promise that she would contact you. You know the rest."
He hunched over, feeling an increasingly familiar black rage creeping inside him, the desire to do harm, to take revenge.
Mara interrupted his brooding suddenly, reaching across the table and delivering a stinging slap, furious. "You can cut that out right now. I won't tolerate that kind of garbage around me or on my ship. If you keep it up, you'll be floating home."
He gaped at her in open mouthed amazement. "Geez Mara, thanks for retracting your claws first." He rubbed his cheek, then said more soberly, "I didn't mean. . ."
"Yes you did," she snapped, but then softened as she felt him battle against the anger he had aimed at her, at Callista. Even in his now thoroughly bleary state, he could feel her reinforcing his struggle for control, trying to create an aura of calm in his wild desperation.
They continued swilling the brandy in silence, each fighting a battle with consciousness and comprehension. Mara finally blurted, "Listen, Skywalker, all I can say is, she isn't worth it. Nothing is worth the Dark Side. You want revenge, fine. But don't give her the satisfaction of thinking she had the power over you to wreck your life. The best revenge is to live well."
"So I'm getting advice from Mara Jade on how to be happy?" He did not think he meant the statement as a jibe, and she evidently did not take it as such.
"If you're looking to me for suggestions on satisfying personal relationships, then you deserve everything you get." She waved her hand for emphasis and almost rocked out of her seat. "But seriously, this moaning poet thing is just not you. You're a fighter, so start acting like one. It's time to get on with your life." She giggled at the self importance of her pronouncements. "I know I've had too much Corellian when I start dishing out advice."
That time he laughed too. She pounded the table. "I have an idea. Let's see if we can find you a new girlfriend on Verrat."
He objected, "Verrat's too far."
She considered that a moment. "See, problem is, you're always wait'n in the wilds for them to come to you. You hafda to go where the women are. We gotta develop a ... a marketing plan for you. We'll plot out where you can go and find a girlfriend, like what Calrissian did. He did pretty well."
Luke cringed slightly at the memory, but then brightened, catching her enthusiasm. "We could go on some trading runs together, and scope out the local eligibles."
"Hey, if you come with me, I get a commission if you find a good one."
"Yeah, I want, uhhh, twenty five percent of gross, not net, gross."
"That's outrageous, sixteen and a half, tops."
"Hey, it's my ship, and my idea, twenty four."
"Twenty two and a half, and that's my final offer, or you'll have to find a girlfriend without my help."
Luke protested, but if he could get a girlfriend out of it, it might be worth this exorbitant sum. He tried to focus on Mara and wondered whether he or she was the one leaning to the left. "Except, we still gotta find one before you get your commission. And how are we gonna do that, when you'd scare them all away."
"I would not."
"You would too. No respectable woman would come near you, Mara."
"That's not very nice, even it is true. I don't like respectable women, they're boring. Why do you want one?"
"I dunno. But do you know any?"
"Uhhhh, what were we talking about?" Mara had lost the thread of the rambling conversation.
"Do you know any?"
"I think so."
"So will you introduce me to them?"
She stuck out her chin stubbornly. "I'm not going to introduce you to any respectable women unless you can find me a better supplier of copilots."
He could solve that problem. "I know lots of pilots."
"Are they cute?"
"How would I know that?"
"Would I like them?"
"I dunno. You'd have to meet them."
"I like `em cute, dumb and real uncomplicated." They both started giggling.
Mara resumed, with great earnestness. "But farm boy, I don't know many respectable women. What if you don't like them? Where are we going to find you a girlfriend?" Pondering this profundity required further fortification.
A light suddenly shown through the haze of Luke's rapidly ebbing coherence. "I know! I could put an ad on some of the system wide boards or mags, '30 something standard year single, male, humanoid Jedi Master seeks single, female humanoid for relationship, possible long term commitment."
Mara added, "Some Force proficiency preferred, but not necessary. Must like jungle worlds and Corellian brandy."
She reached for the bottle and chugged several swallows. Luke was in awe; Mara was so talented, he didn't know if he ever recalled seeing a woman do that before. She handed the bottle back to him, and not to be outdone, he drained the rest.
They both looked mournfully at the now empty bottle. "Mara, it's all gone." He had an inspiration. "Let's go down to the cargo hold, and find some more." He lurched to his feet and she staggered after him.
"Wait," she grabbed him by the collar. "The hold is this way."
The force of his change in direction sent him sprawling into her. He slung an arm over her shoulder for support. "Does your ship always spin this much?" She nodded sagely.
They reeled along the corridor, Mara almost pitching down the stairs into the hold. This time, he grabbed her collar and leaned her up against the door to his room. She looked at the spiraling stairs. "Oh damn . . stairs. Farm boy, I don't think I can do stairs."
He had to agree, it looked awfully far.
"Maybe if we rest a moment."
Mara was very amenable. "Okay, where? The deck looks comfortable . . ." She started to slide down the wall.
"No, wait, we'll rest in my room."
It took them a few moments of fumbling to find the control pad. When by virtue of luck and repetition, he and Mara managed to get the door open, he fell into the dark room, and promptly tripped over the bag he still had not cleared from the floor. He grabbed Mara for support, and they both tumbled onto the bunk, laughing hysterically.
They lay there until Mara tried to extricate herself. He tugged her arm and she slipped, almost to the floor. He complained, "Stop making the bed spin, I'm trying to rest."
She lay back down. "Which way are you spinning?
"I'm going left."
"No wonder we can't navigate." More giggling, thoroughly at odds with the images of a Jedi Master and Master Trader.
Mara offered a helpful suggestion. "You know, I've always found that if you put a hand on the floor, you won't get the spins."
Mara tried to demonstrate, and almost fell out of the bed again. Luke latched onto her and pulled her back up. Wanting to test her theory, he tried to put his hand on the floor, but found something softer and more yielding instead.
"That's not the floor."
"What is it?"
"I think it's my breast, but I'm not sure."
"Oh," he pulled his hand back. "Sorry."
She flopped over onto her stomach. "I'm going to rest. Wake me when you want to go to the hold." He was already asleep.
Uninvited Guests, Part 2, continued
In which there is a morning after, Mara has the shock of her life, and Luke has the shock of his life.
Also, the introduction of Duke and Tara.