CHAPTER 10
UP ON THE ROOF AND EPILOUGE


In which Luke and Mara finally close the deal and talk about ships.

"The calming technique, you moron, the damned Jedi meditation you launched into. We were off to what, to my mind at least, was a very promising beginning, and you decide to get in touch with inner peace?"


WARNINGS FOR DUBIOUS CONSENT IN THIS CHAPTER

I wrote this chapter almost 20 years ago. If I were to write this today, there are many things I would do differently. By and large I have resisted the urge to tinker with the story, its floating point of view, its long digressions, its problematic grammar. It is what it is, with all its bumpy warts and imperfections and the whole point of this exercise was not to change the original but to make sure that Stuff was posted somewhere as a little bit of the fandom history of Luke and Mara that it represents. Though the origins are long since lost in the Internet ether, Stuff was a mechanism by which a lot of people found each other. Today, I count many of those people among my closest and dearest friends.

But…

Those of you who have read the story before, you know what it is coming. For those of you who have not, the scene with Luke and Mara on Coruscant. where they attempt to "close the deal" is really troubling. It is abusive, it is not consensual and reading it today, I find it deeply uncomfortable. As written, Mara could kick Luke's ass from one of the Imperial Palace to another. However, his intrusion is not physical but mental and emotional and for Mara, who has suffered such terrible abuse already, it makes Luke's actions even worse. She permits it, yes, but Luke manipulates her consent and pushes her buttons in such a way that he knows that Mara will not back down from the challenge. Mara gets it back, yes, but balancing the wrongs doesn't make his first intrusion right.

So, I was faced with a decision of either changing it, or leaving it and warning for it. I have chosen the latter. If you want to avoid it, skip from the part where Luke chases Mara from the roof and goes to her door until the scene break.

And whoa... I used to write really, really long chapters.


One of the kitchen staff opening the restaurant back door to heave a bag of trash into the dumpster interrupted the moment that billions of fans had awaited. Still fastened on Mara's truly wonderful mouth, Luke was thankful for his own split concentration ability, halting the shower of garbage before it pelted them. Typical, just typical.

Speaking between the burning kisses, Mara muttered, "Wasn't there something else we were supposed to be doing?"

She had to repeat the question because Luke had been fingering the place where her dress fastened in the back and contemplating the miracle of gravity.

He finally responded, "Uhhh, going back to the hotel and breaking some laws?"

Mara nibbled at an ear. "No, something else I think, about the space port."

Thinking the clasp would likely defeat him, Luke opted for other alternatives, gratified with both the reaction, and the discovery of some more buttons. "Maybe it was going back to the ship and renegotiating a contract."

Mara tore herself away. "Ship is right, but I think it had something to do with two fools named Borkin and Kyle."

"Who?" Drawing her closer, Luke set out to make Mara forget about them as well.

Sufficiently inspired, she began exacting a little revenge for his explorations in the restaurant, able to check off the list a few more things that it could now be said that they had done. Her list, however, was a long one, and the possibilities so enthralling, Luke suggested, "How about we just call up the ship, blast out of here, and spend the rest of the trip back to Coruscant working on negotiation skills?" Even as he said it, he sighed heavily, and not in response to Mara's delicious talent. He pushed back long red strands that had broken free from their knotted restraint. "First things first right?"

Mara answered with a non sequitur, trailing her fingers up, down and around, searching for some of those elusive scars. "I just realized I have been wanting to do that for some time." She sighed as well. "Guess we could never end a date the way everyone else does. Gotta save the galaxy instead. But ..." Mara pulled his head down to her own, savoring another lingering kiss.

She broke off laughing when she heard, "Forget the galaxy, we've got a contract to settle."

But the needs of the galaxy won out. They untangled themselves, straightened things that had become askew, and picking their way out of the dumpster, headed back in the direction of the hotel. Dalliances along the way proved that groping explorations in semi-public places were not reserved exclusively for the young. Under a tree in the park Luke traced Mara's knife scar to its beginning; in the darkened alcove of a shuttered office, Mara found several of his scars; in an alley near the Spot, Luke confirmed that the safety was still engaged on the blaster in Mara's leg holster; and in the hotel lift on the way up to their rooms, some vigorous activity set off an alarm by mistake. Fumbling with key cards to the rooms proved to be another giggling, taxing task.

In spite of Luke's repeated, persistent efforts, Mara finally got the door open. Bumbling into the room, she swiftly interposed a chair between herself and her pursuer.

"Now, no more of that," she scolded. "We have to save the galaxy first."

"I remember when you used to be fun, Mara."

"I am fun," she primly reprimanded. "I just have my priorities."

"And I just want to rearrange them," Luke replied reasonably.

Mara rolled her eyes, awarding Luke a disdainful snort. She was disheveled, the formerly neat twist of hair bedraggled, and she smelled faintly of garbage. Luke had several ideas, all involving water, that would exalt this already compelling allure to a whole new plane.

Catching his thoughts, she stomped her foot impatiently. "Stop that, it's very distracting. We have to change ..."

"Fine," Luke offered magnanimously. "That's a prerequisite to what I had in mind."

Mara waved imperiously at the unlocked adjoining door. "Go!" Luke went but not before provoked an "ouch" and a mild curse in response to his Force prod.

When Luke ventured back across the unlocked divide a few minutes later, he had already changed, packed up the few remaining things and reviewed the party kit. Mara was seated at the terminal, clad in a boring flight suit. He approached from behind, placing a kiss on the back of her neck.

"I liked the dress better."

"Sorry, it would be a fashion mistake to wear it to the warehouse."

Fondling her collar, he asked, "Copying and erasing the files," thinking there was not much fun in that.

Mara tilted her head back. "How about approaching this as a challenge for you and another split concentration exercise for me. Let's see how long I can keep deleting files."

Mara made it through five whole directories before succumbing to Luke's notions of "fun." With a groan of capitulation, she swiveled the chair back around to face him, and in an ungentle movement, wrestled a willing Luke to the floor.

Luke eventually offered, "You know, I'm sure we'd be more comfortable somewhere else."

He had one proposal, which to her sincere regret, Mara felt compelled to reject. "Oh sure, we'd never get to the warehouse then."

"Remind me again, why are we going there?" Mara directed to him the first thought that came to mind, prompting his laugh, "And that is supposed to make me want to go to the warehouse?"

Mara tossed her head impudently. "You were distracting me again."

"Guess we'd better work on more split concentration exercises then."

She said tartly, "Only if we work on your negotiation skills."

"Always glad to learn what a Master Trader has to teach." He then had to ask, "What are you doing?" What she had been doing was indescribable.

Mischief was the predominate emotion she exuded, but there were others as well. "Are you familiar with the scientific method?"

"Enlighten me."

Mara demonstrated. "You see, it involves an action like ahh, this, causing an effect."

Luke obliged with an appropriate response.

She continued, "Then using hopefully only short term recall, I record the cause and effect, for the purpose of repeating the experiment later."

"I see, it not being scientific unless the cause and effect can be verified by repetition."

Mara nodded solemnly. "Often frequent repetition. Being methodical and very, very thorough are traits desirable not only in trading and negotiations."

For a change, Mara had been propped up over a prone Luke. Her experimentation had brought her to his face, and she paused there. Placing a hand over his lips, she silenced what he was about to say with a quick shake of her head. The power cloaked and revealed, the deadly scarred competence, the latent danger, these were at the heart of her attraction to Luke. Mara knew she held the same fascination for him.

Somewhere in their intricate dance, the shifting power had balanced. It had taken ten years of tense circling to end up on the floor of a cheap hotel in a second rate city on a third rate planet. Ten years. Had it been long enough, Mara wondered. Had it been too long? With one test remaining, she hesitated, doubting whether the Master really was back on Yavin.

Leaning over, finding his lips gently, she then withdrew. "That's only half of it you know." She bent into him again, for the first time since crossing this line, also seeking their Force bond. This, she whispered, this is the other half. Tentatively, she searched for Luke's familiar sense, slowly trickling into his awareness. Expecting to find his customary wall of cool control, she found instead a welcoming, eager warmth that rose to greet her, unfolding like an iron fist or tightly closed flower. The trickle became a flood as she poured into him, flinging open her own barriers to receive the awareness that surged over her, the hard, fervent kiss mirroring the deepening of their union through the Force.

Dimly, Mara wondered, had she ever felt this before, this coupling of mind and body? Had he? She didn't think so.

The pulsing tempo beating faster, Mara pulled away slowly, and very, very reluctantly, allowing the rising heat to cool. Aloud, she finally said, "Sometimes it's worth the wait, isn't it?"

It was almost a physical pang as Mara receded from the void within him that she filled so well. "More like why we didn't try this a lot sooner. I ..."

An uncertain knock at the door interrupted his intended admission. They both simultaneously sought the presence, and both simultaneously came to the same startling conclusion, "Kyle?"

"Mara?" A nervous voice whispered loudly from behind the door. "It's Dazern. Are you there?"

Mara arched an eyebrow, encompassing in the expression, the difficulty of explaining their current arrangement and state. "Yes, Dazern, I'll be right there." They scrambled to their feet, scanning the other for any telltale signs.

Luke observed as Mara headed to the door, "Very convenient. It sure saves us some trouble."

Dazern burst in, excited, slightly weepy, lugging a heavy bag, "I'm so glad I found you." She hesitated, taking in Luke, Mara and the room with an observant glance. "I'm not interrupting anything am I?"

Mara shook her head, "Of course not. We were actually getting ready to come and find you."

"Really?" Girlish relief and anxiety rushed from her. "Then you know about Witten?"

"What happened?" Luke asked sharply.

Dazern collapsed into a chair, struggling mightily to keep her composure. "I overheard Daddy talking with Mummy. He said that they were taking Witten away." She blinked back tears in stunned amazement. "I heard him say that it was because you were here, Mara. I came as soon as they were asleep."

Luke went to the computer to complete the file deletions, leaving Mara to explain to Dazern, "We heard the same thing tonight. Borkin's being held at the Bacchanalia warehouse. We were coming to get you, then we get him out, then we blast out of here and head back to Coruscant." She placed a hand on Dazern's shoulder. "Are you up for this? Are you ready to leave?"

Dazern wrung her little, perfectly manicured hands. "I couldn't believe they had known all along." Her voice broke, but persevering, continued, "I could never stay now. I brought a few things," she gestured to her bulky bag, "but we can leave even that if we need to."

Mara registered Dazern's unusual appearance, the outfit was definitely not of designer quality, and asked softly, "Dazern, you look like you're wearing something that belongs to a brother."

"It is," she said, wistful and sad. "I didn't know what we would have to do. I didn't have anything very practical." She seemed to understand that with her brother's mechanic's suit, she had just severed all ties with her family.

Mara gave her a quick squeeze; maybe the dingy girl was not beyond redemption. "How did you get here?" The giggle made Mara instantly reconsider that assessment, until she recognized Dazern's deliberate irony.

"I borrowed Daddy's speeder."

She turned back to Luke. "You about done?" He answered by switching off the computer. Mara was already stowing the few belongings she still had in the room. With a trace of regret she carefully folded the dress, feeling the very different scrutiny of both Luke and Dazern.

Ever the eye for fashion, Dazern observed, "Ohh Mara, that's a Brovonri isn't it? I don't wear his designs well, but I'm sure that you do."

Mara said nothing, but felt Luke's rueful humph. As minor compensation, Mara reached for her holster, and made a silent request. Grinning, he approached her intently as she rolled up her sleeve, and offered her forearm. Luke carefully, deliberately strapped on the sheath, then ran a finger lightly along her arm. They could both sense Dazern's confused observation. Mara slipped her blaster into the holster with a rough, "Thanks."

"Anytime."

The comlaser remote in her pocket, and "I think that's about it. So what's our plan?"

Luke began emptying the party kit onto the desk, picking up the extra blaster and making an unspoken query to Mara.

"Dazern," Mara asked, "have you ever fired a blaster before?"

Dazern's vacant stare answered that question. Luke tossed her a comm link, which she promptly dropped, "Put that on."

"Do you think we go to the port first, try to take out whoever's watching my ship?"

"We don't really need to," Luke countered, "if we can bring the ship to us at the warehouse."

"Yeah," Mara argued, "but if the ship suddenly takes off by itself, whoever is there will let the welcoming committee know upstairs."

Dazern squeaked, "Welcoming committee?"

Luke said coolly, "We're expecting to run into some hardware once we boost."

Dazern looked vacant again. Luke explained with more patience then he felt, "Some of the Imperials here have put a guard on Mara's ship. That won't stop us because we can fly her to wherever we are by remote control. The question is what we do about that guard. We also know that once we take off, we are likely to encounter some heavy armed resistance, probably once we clear the net and the belt."

Mara added with a glint, "They think they're going to shoot us out of the sky. You sure you still want in?"

Dazern's eyes widened, never in her short, sheltered life hearing such talk. She was starting to wonder if maybe Luke really was Master Skywalker. And no vid had ever prepared her for someone like Mara. She responded stiffly, "If Witten comes, I do too."

Returning to their plotting, Luke offered a cautious alternative, "Let's go to the port first, see how many are there. If we can take care of them without much fuss, let's do that. Otherwise, leave them and head to the warehouse."

Mara agreed, suddenly thinking of something, "Dazern, have you been to the Bacchanalia warehouse before?"

"Several times." Dazern filled them in as best as she was able, their plan beginning to take shape.

ooOOoo

Daddy's speeder was comfortable, new, and blissfully quiet. Luke pulled off the road within 500 meters of the space port, easing behind a copse of trees. The white moon hung low on a black horizon, only the still sounds of the night heard. Mara lightly placed her hand on top of Luke's on the console.

Dazern intruded from the back seat, "What are you doing?" To her it had seemed that Luke and Mara had inexplicably stopped the speeder on a moonlit night to hold hands with her as chaperon.

"Shhh!" Mara ordered, "we're trying to concentrate." Out of deference to her however, Mara did say aloud, "I got three, how about you?"

"Three as well, plus ..." His voice trailed off.

They both felt the other presence at the same time, "Yur's there." Mara whistled with relief. "He knows we're coming."

"Three what? And who's Yur?"

"There are three guards watching the ship," Luke said impatiently. "Yur is the tech manning the net; he's going to let it down so we can get out of here." To Mara he said, "I think we take them."

Mara was already climbing out of the speeder. Turning to Dazern, she warned, "This is real, it's not a holovid. It's not too late. Once we take care of those guards, there may be no going back for you."

"I'm staying." Dazern would have been more credible if her voice had not cracked a full octave and a half.

Luke sighed, with resignation and little patience. He said shortly, "Then, Dazern, this is what you do. Stay quiet, stay close, stay out of the way. Got it?" Luke fished comm links out of the kit, pitching one to Mara and affixing one to his own collar. He handed the kit to Dazern. "Hold on to that and don't drop or lose it. And don't fiddle with anything in it, it could be the last thing you ever do."

Mara was leaning back against the front of the speeder, bathed in the lovely white light of the moon, checking her blaster power pack. In a ritual ingrained through the years, she then withdrew a tie from her pocket and methodically pulled her hair into a knot, away and out of her face. Recognizing the gesture for the ceremony it was for her, Luke approached as she finished tying her hair back. "Looks like you've done this before."

Mara shrugged, "A few times."

Luke picked up her blaster resting on the speeder, inspecting it, and then adjusted it to a stun setting. The Master asked, "You know why I did that?"

"I should cut your other hand off for messing with my equipment."

"Do you know why," he repeated.

"I really hate that about you," Mara muttered. She raised her voice slightly, "Dazern, there's some rope in the kit, get it out, we'll need it. We can tie 'em up, gag 'em, leave them in the storage warehouse." Nothing further left to do, they grabbed the gear, and made their stealthy way to the darkened port.

Their first catch was keeping a watchful guard at the gate. Luke gently distracted the man, directing his attention everywhere except to Mara, moving quickly behind him, blaster drawn. One minute the guard was alert for sounds in the distance ahead, the next, Mara had her blaster pressed into his back. They relieved him of his comm and blaster, bound him, and left the unfortunate man mute in the shadows of the administration building, Dazern apologizing profusely for their rude behavior.

They made Dazern wait with her new friend, and hugging the dark building, slunk toward the ship.

The remaining two guards were patrolling the Jade's Fire in an alert, circular pattern. Mara heard silently, "Have to bring both down at the same time," and knew what Luke meant. If one saw his companion fall, his reaction might be to notify command. Her eyes flickered to a stack of crates in the corner of the yard, beyond the ship. Luke nodded, and the crates came tumbling down.

The two guards sped toward the disturbance. Luke and Mara followed them, Luke keeping the men's attention fixed on locating the perceived threat in front of them, never anticipating the threat from behind. It was over before it began, both men collapsing from the stun blasts they never even saw coming.

Mara left to fetch the first guard and Dazern, while Luke bound the other two, and lugged the bodies into the warehouse. He very much appreciated the irony of placing the guards among Mara's own now sold cargo stored there.

Mara reappeared with Dazern, dragging the guard between them. "I thought it would be better if he were stunned too," she explained. They deposited the man next to his companions.

As Mara turned, heading out to the ship, Luke prepared to follow her, but Dazern remained rooted, standing in the dark warehouse, staring at him, at Mara, at the unconscious guards.

"Are they dead?" she quavered.

Luke thought of pointing out that one does not usually bind and gag dead people, but instead felt a stab of sympathy for someone so clearly in over her head. "No, the blasters have stun settings. They will be out for an hour or two, wake up with a bad headache, nothing more."

"It happened so fast."

Luke glanced through the door, seeing Mara already at the ship's hatch, apparently working the lock sequence on the Fire. "Dazern, please try to hold it together a little longer. We still have to get Borkin out." He took her hand, and guided her toward the ship.

She followed docilely, asking, "You and Mara have done this before?"

"Every mission is different, but yes, we've been working together for a long time."

Holding his hand like a child she in some ways still was, Dazern whispered, with terrified awe, "Have you killed people before?"

"Yes."

"Has Mara?"

"Yes."

Luke was paying only half attention to the distraught Dazern, trying with the other half to comprehend why Mara was crouched on the ramp of the ship laughing. "What is it?"

Mara shook her head, still chuckling, and gestured to a crate Luke had not seen before, carefully set at the entrance to the ship. She handed him a note printed on worn paper. In Basic it said "Droom Boon Inta." Inside the crate, carefully nestled in packing material were dozens of wine bottles, all with Alderaani labels.

Luke joined her laughter. "Where do you suppose he got them?"

Mara shrugged, mouthing a silent thank you to the generous, fearless mind in the building, "Who knows? But I certainly won't refuse the gift."

She and Luke dragged the crate through the hatch, deposited the extra gear in the cabin and checked in with Artoo who assured them that apart from the men who had patrolled the ship, all had remained undisturbed. They ventured back out into the night to the Bacchanalia warehouse.

They decided to enter the compound where they had before, near the loading docks and warehouse. Like the previous night, all activity was centered in the administration building, and not at this remote, darkened end of the compound. It took Dazern several tries to climb up the tree, and even longer to travel across its limb. Mara was already on the other side urging her down, and Luke waiting in the branch. Promising that she would not fall, that they would not let her hurt herself, Dazern finally slid, scrambled and tumbled to the ground, cushioned by Luke and Mara's joint Force catch which Dazern did not seem to notice.

All on the other side, in her reconnoiter, Mara saw something that had not been there the night before. "Hey Skywalker, look over there."

Numerous crates stacked at the dock indicated Irek had probably not yet returned and that he intended to take cargo when he left. Luke, however, was distracted from investigating further by the feeling of Dazern's shock and incredulity.

"Mara just called you Skywalker," she stammered.

"She has problems with my first name a lot."

"You really are Luke Skywalker?" Dazern whispered.

Luke shrugged, "Jedi don't lie as a rule."

Mara interrupted, quickly, hoping to forestall the total breakdown Dazern seemed on the verge of having. "Dazern, trust me, I've known him a long time. I guarantee by the time we make it back to Coruscant you'll think Skywalker's the most boring person imaginable."

Squatting in the shadows of the storehouse and patting the ground, Mara gestured for Dazern to join her, "So, let's go over again what you know about Bacchanalia."

Luke was already beginning his survey. He quickly found Borkin, and then reached deeper and further to find the building's other occupants and their level of readiness.

Mara stated what his sweep had just confirmed, "There are guard stations at either entrance."

"And Borkin in the middle," Luke added.

"How do you want to get in?"

"There're windows in the middle too."

"Just can't get enough of that breaking and entering can you?" Mara quipped.

The three of them edged along the fence, alert for, but sensing no special scrutiny. Reaching the wall, Mara moved down the side, gingerly trying the darkened windows of the first floor. "Looks like you'll finally get to cut a whole in something, Skywalker."

He ignited his lightsaber. "I've heard there are easier ways to get an office job." With a few swift, but very loud swipes, Luke enlarged a window in the flimsy, prefabricated wall. It seemed, that with this demonstration, Dazern, finally, believed.

"You know, this holovid stuff isn't so bad," Dazern observed as the scrambled through the opening.

Mara curtly ordered her to be silent. Moving through the dark office, Dazern immediately stumbled over a trash can. The metal clanking reverberating in the office, echoing into the deserted hallway.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" Dazern wailed.

Mara heard Luke mutter a curse she was certain had not been in his vocabulary prior to this trip. What he lacked in accurate pronunciation, he more than compensated for in delivery. He would, no doubt, improve with practice. "Dazern," Mara said in the low voice she reserved for instilling fear and obedience. "Don't be sorry, be quiet."

The girl nodded mutely, trembling.

Mara joined Luke in his scan.

"Up?" he asked, more for confirmation.

Mara nodded, gesturing, overhead and left, "That way I think." She paused, "Did you get that..."

"Yeah," Luke muttered grimly. "There are patrols too."

"Patrols?" Dazern squeaked. She had observed only that Luke and Mara had been standing at a closed office door, apparently listening for sounds that she, at least, could not hear. "What are you talking about? Up and left where?"

Luke whirled around, saber handle clutched in his fist. "This may seem like a vid to you, but it's not. People are likely to die, us included, if we aren't careful, and quiet."

Mara gestured the girl forward. "There's no one in the hall, Dazern. I want you to look out there, and see if you know where we are, and the quickest way to get," she pointed up and over, "to that corner of the building."

"There are lifts at the end of the hallway..." Dazern murmured, after peeping out into the institutionally white tiled passage. "And halfway down, on the right, I think there's a stairway..." She was able to lead them through a maze of interior offices and hallways to an enclosed stairwell.

Up two flights, Luke tasted the nearby sense of fear, pain, and helplessness he had come to associate with Borkin. At the third floor landing, he stopped. "Here, few meters down on the left and ... stang it all to hell, they've got a guard at the door."

In spite of the tension, Mara poked the swearing Jedi. "Watch your language farm boy, or I'll tell the Master."

"It's the company I've been keeping."

"Dazern," Mara ordered. "Stay low, and go back down that stairway."

The tall girl stood, blinking and frightened, in her ridiculously oversized coveralls. "You aren't leaving me..."

"No, of course not," Mara said abruptly, brushing off Luke's silent whine, "oh pleaaaase, can we?" "There may be some blaster fire, and we don't want you getting hit." Dazern shrank back into the shadows.

Mara whispered, "How do you want to do this?"

He shrugged. "Slam the door."

They stood as sentries, on either side. With a nudge of the Force, the door opened, then quickly shut. Mara felt the guard on the other side of the wall cautiously leave his post, then quicken his pace as he no doubt heard the low, nearby hum of two lightsabers. The door opened. With a snatch of the Force, Mara tried to yank the blaster from the hand that appeared. A lesser grip would have saved his life; as the guard wrestled with the blaster, training it on Mara, Luke swung his blade down.

Hearing the snap, slash and sound of gurgling death, Dazern bolted back up the stairs. Even in the dimness, Mara could see, and certainly feel, Dazern's sickened, stunned revulsion. Mara eased out into the deserted hallway, taking in a chair and a food tray sitting in front of a door. She turned back. "Come on Dazern, it's all right."

Dazern was fixed on Luke, on the cloven body Luke was dragging across the floor, into the deeper recesses of the stairwell. A smear of blood followed.

"He's dead, isn't he? You killed him?"

"Yes, I'm sorry. Can you move?" Mara asked with increasing urgency. "We need to get Witt."

She looked into the hallway. "Witt is there?"

It was the only impetus that could have moved the frightened girl. Dazern stumbled forward, passed Mara, racing to the cell. She slid to a stop at the locked door, beating her palms softly on it, entreating, hopeful "Witten, are you there?"

A muffled voice answered, "Dazern?"

She was teary, finally beginning to accede to the shocks of a real live vid, "Witten, it's me." Fumbling at the lock, wild with hope, she threw the door open, and fell into the elusive Mr. Borkin. "Witten!"

A tall, pale, doughy faced man blinked in the blazing light. His arms wrapped around the clinging Dazern, he took in with a confused start, Luke and Mara's approach. "Who...?"

Dazern interrupted excitedly, "It's Luke Skywalker, he's here to rescue you."

Now why, Luke wondered, did that sound familiar?

Mara intruded on the joyous, tearful reunion with a reality check, "You mobile?"

Borkin nodded, saying slowly, "It's, he's, it's been in my mind."

With a worried glance at Luke, Mara put an arm on Dazern's shoulder, gently disengaging her from Borkin. "Dazern, Luke needs to see if Witt's all right."

"But, but, he looks fine," she protested.

"Just let Luke check."

Borkin was staring at them, glazed and stunned, not unlike, Luke saw with a shudder of anger, the men Irek had twisted on Belsavis.

"Master Skywalker?"

The question encompassed volumes. "It's all right, just relax. We know what might have been done to you." Borkin flinched as Luke touched his temple. Luke saw immediately the beginning of the disorienting warping that was Irek's unique trademark. He was able to open and straighten the path, then withdrew, relieved when he felt Borkin's confusion ebb and more clarity return. "That should help. We'll do more once we're out of here."

Luke started, feeling, at the same time as Mara, the leaping alertness around them. Mara yanked the kit from Dazern's shoulder, digging out a blaster for Borkin. "You clear enough to know who the good guys are?"

Borkin nodded, his silent uncertain question so loud, even Dazern understood. "That's Captain Mara Jade." Even if Dazern did not know who and what Mara was, Borkin did, he registering the same surprise that had so mystified Pellaeon. Borkin knew he did not merit a rescue by Jedi Master Skywalker and Captain Jade.

"I think someone found the hole we opened in the wall," Luke said. He could feel the pressure of the pursuit bearing in on either side of them. "They're massing at either end of the building, and going to sweep through it."

The four pelted back to the stairwell. Hurtling down the stairs to the first floor, Luke and Mara stopped so suddenly, Dazern nearly ran into them. They both had that focused quiet look again Dazern didn't understand.

She whispered to Borkin, "They're doing it again."

Borkin whispered back, "They're Jedi. They're using the Force."

"Ohhhhhh."

Borkin said what Luke and Mara had just discerned, "The most direct way out is that way, to the right. But we'll have to get passed the guard station to do it."

They all spun around, hearing shouts and movement echoing behind them.

"Guess we go right then," Luke said. "Can you get us out of this maze?"

Borkin nodded with more confidence than Luke felt.

Mara was already affixing one of their charges to the wall. "It's on a thirty second delay. It'll keep some of 'em from coming at us from behind."

They sprinted down the corridor, Dazern squealing as the building rocked with the explosion. She and Borkin were nevertheless good guides, leading them rapidly through the labyrinth of offices and corridors, ever closer, Mara and Luke felt, toward a massing of tense energy. Borkin was moving so quickly, he whipped around a sharp right corner before Luke could get out his warning. Blaster bolts whizzing overhead, Borkin spun back around, and with Luke and Mara, threw himself to the floor. Dazern screeched again and Mara grabbed her by the collar, roughly shoving her against the wall.

"Quiet, stay low." To Luke she asked, "About twenty or so right?"

"Yeah. Borkin, the door's just past them, isn't it?"

"About twenty meters or more of corridor, big foyer, the guard station and the exit."

Seeing Mara pull a concussion grenade out, Luke grabbed her arm. "No. Use the gas."

"I..."

"Don't make me explain, you know why."

She jerked free of him. "I was GOING to, Jedi." She slapped the gas canister into his hand, then turned away abruptly to hand out the masks to Borkin and Dazern.

Luke lobbed the bomb gently into the corridor. As the canister began spewing its noxious contents, he used the Force to roll it down the corridor and into the foyer. They could hear the coughing, sputtering curses. Luke going first, lightsaber drawn, they moved cautiously into the open corridor. It was littered with the gasping bodies of darkly uniformed, heavily armed men. Grabbing Kyle by the hand, Borkin followed Luke, running toward the door, Mara right behind them.

At the building entrance, Mara withdrew her comlaser remote. Concentrating on the controls, she muttered to Luke, "Better try to seal them in there, we might still get company from the other side before the ship gets here."

Luke plastered a charge to the door jam with a minute delay and herded Borkin and Kyle outside into the compound. The four of them clustered under the marginal cover offered by a stack of shipping crates and a loader. With a boom, the charge went off, collapsing the entry way of the building in a pile of smoking prefabricated metal and glass.

"How long Mara?" It was time to get the hell out of there.

"Ship's already fired up." She gave him a brief distracted smile, "Looks like Artoo's been showing initiative again."

They could already see the snub nosed craft gracefully lumbering toward them, and none too soon. From the far end of the building, the other half of the guard contingent began pouring out. "Bring the ship down between us and them if you can," Luke shouted over the din.

Mara nodded absently, moving the tiny control. As difficult as this was, it would be a whole lot harder if Artoo were not interfacing with the guidance system. She owed the little droid a nice tune up.

The guards on the other side were turning their attention to the ship now looming overhead, with a roar of the repulsors, beginning to set down in the yard. One man, on the far side, leveled a volley at the ship. Only smoky char remained after the Fire's automatic return system shot back. Mara glanced up at Luke and Borkin, "Lesson, don't shoot unless you know you're not gonna hit the ship."

The Fire touched down, close, but still over 100 meters of open space separating them from the opening side hatch. On the far side, twenty or more of the Bacchanalia guards had taken cover under whatever the port had to offer and began systematically raining a torrent of blaster fire on them. Luke shouted to Borkin, "We'll cover, you two get to the ship."

He and Mara emerged first, lightsabers drawn, deflecting bolts, shielding Dazern and Borkin as they sped to the opened hatch. Borkin, unwisely, was trying to run, cover Dazern, aim and fire his blaster at the same time.

They all felt the icy shock at the same moment. Still closing the open, dangerous distance to the safety of the ship, Luke felt Borkin's gasp of fear and Mara cringe as a cold malevolence settled on them from above. Irek had returned. Beating back the furious fire, Luke snapped a mental barrier into place, sensed Mara do the same, and then tried to extend his mental defense to encompass the vulnerable Borkin. Too late, he felt Irek's malice turn on Borkin, battering him with a physical blow. Sinking to his knees, and almost bringing Dazern down with him, Borkin's blaster shot went wild, hitting Mara in the leg. Mara dropped with a roll and a shower of curses.

Through the haze and smoke, Artoo thundered down the ramp, claw extended, speeding toward Borkin. Dazern was on her feet, and with Artoo, they dragged the inert, hapless man into the ship. Still covering, Luke ran to Mara, reassured only that someone seriously injured would not be swearing so profoundly. He grabbed Mara by the collar, she already stumbling to her feet. They both sprang back instinctively, Mara landing hard on her injured leg as the ground exploded in front of them. Under a shower of fire, they ran up the ramp. Luke slapped the control, and the hatch snapped shut.

Mara was already limping forward, trailing blood in her wake, "I'm gettin us outta here, check on Borkin, then get to the top gun."

In a wretchedly disorienting moment, Luke suddenly remembered from his earlier vision, the smell of burnt flesh, never imagining it could have been Mara's. Dazern was weeping on the deck, Borkin, unconscious, in her arms.

Luke stumbled over to them, as Dazern wailed, "Is he dead, oh Luke, can you save him?"

As the ship lifted, Luke knelt beside the still, pale form. Borkin was alive, but . . . Luke reached gently into the buffeted, stunned mind, easing the swelling and trauma. He felt a sigh escape Borkin. "He's sleeping now. Come on, help me get him into a med bay." Together they carried Borkin to the bay, and strapped him in.

He then hauled Dazern forward. "You're going to sit up in the cockpit with Mara okay? But we're in for a rough ride, and she'll need to concentrate, promise me you won't say anything, or bother her?"

Dazern snuffled, wiping tears away with the back of her hand, "We still have to fly through the belt don't we?"

"I'll do everything I can for Witt; but we have to get into clear space first, O.K.?"

As they rushed into the cockpit, Mara was having a heated discussion with Yur, "Repeat Tirgu Control, this is Jade's Fire, lower shield at my mark 00..."

Luke heard Yur's very convincing voice cut in. "Negative Jade's Fire. You do not have clearance, return immediately for questioning."

Dazern belted herself in as Mara made the persistent request to Yur again, gesturing Luke to her detection screen. There, a blue blip, a few kilometers ahead, was Irek, running as fast as his light ship would take him.

Luke looked down and saw Mara's oozing right leg; she had torn a piece from her flight suit and wrapped it tightly around her leg, just above the knee. With a jerk of her thumb up, he heard, even as she made another request to Yur, "Shields' powered, guns' fired up, I'll get us through, you take care of him."

Luke rested a hand on her shoulder, giving her light squeeze, then turned and ran to the top gun.

On his way up, he heard Mara say grimly, "This could get real interesting. Even if Yur lowers the shield for us, if Irek raises it before we're through, we'd never know what we hit."

The atmosphere rapidly faded to the black of space, and the shield ahead. Settling into the gun and the Force, Luke reached out, finding that gibbering, twisted mind only a short distance away. "Irek," he reasoned, "we can help you." Luke heard only mocking laughter, and felt Irek again try to bear down into his own mind. It was the weak, unskilled malicious attempt of a child that Luke blocked easily.

Mara, in addition to piloting and carrying on a convincing argument with Yur, was attuned to his connection with Irek. He felt her accelerate, moving closer to that speck fast approaching the net that could ensnare them both. Irek turned on her, but even with her other preoccupations, Mara brushed Irek aside, almost as an insect. She jeered, "Sorry little one, you'll have to do better than that."

They both felt the gush of fear and loathing. Never before feeling such putrid spite, Luke wondered if maybe Mara was right; maybe some were too vile to ever find the light. Unlike his own father, Irek had never known anything but the quick and seductive path. Even Palpatine probably did not begin his life as evil. Still ... "Irek, there is another way."

In the visual tracker, Luke saw Mara pull closer. "How close do you think I need to be to get through same time he does?" she asked.

Luke responded tightly, "On top of him." The forces shoved him further into the seat as Mara pushed even closer. She was less than 1,000 meters from Irek, and the net, not much further than that from him, was still up.

"You've gottta be ready to get him," Mara whispered. "I'm showing a whole lot of hardware, just outside the belt. They're waiting for us."

Suddenly Luke felt it, as much as saw the change on his instrumentation read. The net was down. Mara surged forward, the ship responding like a running hunter, chasing after the craft growing larger in Luke's sights. And beyond the net, an expanse of spinning rock. As they hurtled past the barrier, Luke heard softly a voice he knew must be Yur's, "Droom boon Luke, no cazut i shtea."

Irek and Mara both reached for the same thread to guide them out of the belt. Concentrating on Irek's own ship, and how to disable without destroying it, Luke was only able to offer half his concentration to Mara. As before, they found the thread, and with the power Luke lent Mara's vision, the path opened up, wild and complex, but very clear. Before, they had followed the signal to Tirgu; this time they followed the warped, darting mind of Irek.

Twice, so close, even amid the field, Luke felt he could have reached, and possibly disabled Irek. The belt however, left too many variables. A damaged ship would be pulverized.

Mara was arrowing through the field not with the thrill and daring of their first trip, but with grim, unrelenting determination. Luke dared not disturb her intense focus. Time seemed suspended as she impossibly spun and plunged, finally thrusting through to the trap that awaited them on other side. Luke heard Mara's impetuous cry, in his head, "Get him, get him before he jumps, we'll lose him."

Luke was ready even as she said it, taking a deep breath, searching through the Force. He again found the starboard engine of Irek's light freighter, envisioning the gun blasting that engine, disabling the ship, "I'm sorry Irek, but we can help you." Luke gently squeezed the controls, only to see the bolts whiz harmlessly past as Mara threw the Fire into an astonishingly wild upwards spin. He heard another string of profound swearing, and looking at his own detector display in the turret, saw why.

He spotted five short range fighters already screaming toward them, and then felt Mara's visceral reaction. "There's the Interdictor, two Star Destroyers, 'nother capital ship."

Pellaeon had been right. Their fleet was not wasting any time with fancy maneuvers and began pounding the Fire mercilessly. The ship jolted, taking powerful hits to the fore shields. "Mara ..." Luke warned. Luke never even finished the sentence, Irek's hysterical laughter abruptly died as the view before him dissolved into the lines of hyperspace. Knowing when to fight and when you are hopelessly outgunned, Mara had jumped.

He tore back down to the cockpit. Dazern had, true to her word, remained mute. "Get back to the med bay," he ordered. "You need to be with Witt."

With a look at Mara, slumped and glazed in her pilot's chair, Dazern nodded and fled aft.

"Come on Captain, let's get you cleaned up."

As they limped back to her cabin, Mara remarked through gritted teeth, "So Skywalker, if every date with you ends like this, it's no wonder you can't keep a girlfriend."

With a nudge, Mara's cabin door slid open, and Luke eased her onto her bunk, "Lemme go get a med pac, I'll be right back."

By the time he returned, Mara had already stripped off her makeshift bandage and her flight suit, and was wrapped in a blanket. Sure, Luke thought absently, very provocative, but for the gouging wound in her thigh. "This'll hurt like hell," he warned before applying the burn antiseptic.

Mara nodded, clenching her jaw, "I know."

Luke cleaned the wound. It was shallow, but a full eight centimeters of singed flesh. He affixed a synflesh patch, a pain blocker and, for good measure, an anti-infective.

"Better?"

She nodded, reaching to squeeze his sticky medicinal hand, "Thanks. Guess it's just one more scar. How's Borkin?"

"Hard to say, sleeping now. I'll check in on him once you and the ship are settled."

"You didn't get Irek did you?"

Luke grimaced, with a shake of head, "Shot went wide when you went into the roll."

"I'm not sure what we could have done with him, anyway. You saw what we were up against." She yawned, the narcotic already beginning its work.

"It was worth a try. We did the best we could."

"You shuddna ordered me like that, ya know," she mumbled, still sharp.

"I know. Sorry. You were right, Mara."

A faint drugged smile pulled across her face and she dropped into her pillow. With some regret and wistfulness, Luke stroked her cheek lightly, "Couldn't end a date like everyone else could we?" He carefully loosened the tie that contained her unruly hair, running his fingers through the silky mass.

Through a sigh and another yawn, before nodding off, Mara murmured, "We've waited this long, we can wait few more days. Better lay in for Coruscant."

He covered her with another blanket, and dimmed the light.

Dazern was waiting anxiously in the corridor, "Is she all right?"

"Yes, took a burn to the leg. She's on a pain patch now, and sleeping. She'll be out for a while, then we'll see if we can Force heal the wound." Luke glanced at the chron running down in the cabin. They would be dropping out of hyperspace in a few minutes. "Let's go forward, we need to do a course correction, check in with Coruscant. Then I'll see Witten." Feeling exhaustion begin to set in, Luke was thinking this was the longest, most eventful dinner date of his entire life.

Mara had obviously made the run from Verrat to Coruscant before, for the navicomputer spewed a course that was as quick as it was obscure. It estimated ten plus standard days to Coruscant.

As Luke set in the course, Dazern sat quietly, just watching, finally asking, "Where did you learn all this stuff?"

"Growing up, I was able to fly some, then the Rebellion. I've done a lot of flying."

Before jumping into hyperspace again, Luke dialed up Coruscant Control, giving them his own, now usually unused recognition clearance code, and delivering the innocuously brief message that all was well and their eta. Never having had the opportunity before, he did inspect Mara's communications array more closely and wondered just how many top secret military procurement licenses had been forged for her to get what she had. After a moment's thought, he added what he last remembered was the code for communications likely to be monitored. Dazern was absolutely starry eyed by the time they made the jump.

Luke swiveled to stand. Now he thought wearily, to check on Borkin. Dazern was still looking ahead with wonder at the star lines. She said quietly, "I thought we were going to die. I felt so helpless." He sighed, recognizing the need for some healing here as well, and sunk back down. "Mara and I have been doing this for a long time. And it's what Witten has been trained to do."

She sniffed softly, "I don't know how to do any of the things you and Mara do."

He paused before responding, thinking of what Tirgu had taught him. "Don't try to compare yourself to us. Most people don't know how to pilot ships, or use lightsabers. They go their entire lives never firing a blaster or blowing up a building. You did as well as your experience and training permitted, better even. If you want to learn more, so you feel less helpless next time," not that he thought there would be a next time for Dazern, "Mara or I could teach you some basic things. I'm sure Witten could work with you as well."

"Really?" She was so young, this child in her brother's clothing.

"Really." Luke stood. "Let's go see how Witt's doing."

Witt was sleeping, not unconscious, Luke was gratified to see. Gently probing, he eased the pressure he felt, softened the blunt blows Irek had inflicted. As he receded from the healing trance, Borkin awoke, confused, dazed. Motioning Dazern to take his place, he then quietly withdrew, not wanting to be the interloper.

Luke heard, felt, and envied their emotional, happy, seemingly very sincere reunion. Seeking to avoid it, he wearily wandered into the main cabin, flopping down on the sofa. With two injured crew and one incompetent, he didn't think he should be napping on the watch. Vowing to get up and start some tea, he figured he would do that in just a few minutes.

Luke woke with a start, surprised to see Borkin standing over him.

"I'm sorry Master Skywalker, I did not mean to disturb you." Borkin was stiffly formal and deferential, a seemingly inappropriate response given that he was standing and Luke lying flat on the couch.

Luke struggled to sit up, half his mind still in the land of deep and pleasant dreams. "Please, skip the honorary titles. How are you doing?"

"I'm much better thank you. Dazern said that you healed me. I owe you and Captain Jade something I could never repay."

Luke waved a hand irritably; he was not in the mood for fawning adoration. "It's just something Mara and I do."

Borkin asked hesitantly, "How is Captain Jade?"

"I'll check on her now," Luke said, standing. "And then I'll probably get some rest. Can you pilot?"

Borkin shrugged. "I did very well in the NRI pilot training program."

Luke hoped he concealed his snort of disgust. "Wake me or Mara if anything comes up." Assuming that admonition would not prevent the youngster from trying to foolishly redeem himself in the unlikely event of an emergency, and certain that Borkin was at least familiar with Mara's reputation, he added, "This is Mara's ship. If anything happens to it, she'll kill us both. I'm not joking here, if anything comes up, get one of us."

Luke headed aft, easing into Mara's room. Groggy, but feeling his approach, she reached out to draw him in. Mara had at some point donned a sleeping shift, and Luke carefully lifted it away to inspect the wound on her leg. It seemed clean, without any discharge, heat or swelling. In fact, it looked remarkably better. Mara's mumbling confirmed his suspicion, "Tried Force healing."

As he got up to leave, she murmured again, "No, stay," and sliding over, made room for him on the bunk. Luke's last thought before drifting into utter, blissful unconsciousness was whether even married people slept together this often.

Apart from the close quarters, the trip was mercifully uneventful. Dazern and Borkin spent most of the time together, watching vids, reading from Mara's book tape collection, or sequestered in the cabin they shared. To the extent they were able in the confines of a ship, Luke and Mara gave the young lovers the space and privacy they so clearly wanted.

For their part, Luke and Mara spent most of the trip together in the cleared out cargo hold. Lightsaber practices, dancing, and drinking games kept them occupied. They made a considerable dent in Yur's parting gift to them. By mutual, albeit occasionally strained consensus, they agreed to wait on contract negotiations and deal closings until Coruscant. Even if the younger pair had no such inhibitions, their presence only a few meters away made any other resolution hopelessly awkward and uncomfortable for the older, unacknowledged pair.

To the embarrassment of both Luke and Mara, Borkin began instructing Dazern in the true recent history of the galaxy, pouring through Mara's book tape collection and then comparing the Rebellion, Thrawn and other histories to the Tales of the Jedi holovids. Although fun to chortle over when it was just the two of them, watching those episodes with others was simply too mortifying for Luke and Mara. Whenever they heard the familiar theme music, Luke and Mara would beat a retreat to the hold, remaining there until it was safe to venture out again.

Dazern also persisted in her desire to be more helpful and less helpless. First Borkin, and then Mara began taking her through the ship's principal systems. Thumps and crashes reverberating from the common area down to the hold became a signal that Dazern was receiving instruction in hand to hand combat. Luke found Mara's interest in the girl intriguing and amusing, suspecting that Mara was doing everything possible to inculcate awe. It all seemed harmless enough until one morning when he wandered into the cabin and found Mara instructing Dazern in the care and firing of pocket blasters. Seeing Dazern with even an unloaded blaster was chilling.

More disturbing was the following morning when Luke found Dazern providing instruction to Mara. Entering the cabin he was assaulted by a foul, alcohol smell. "What is that?" His mind told him that he could not possibly be seeing what his eyes perceived.

Mara looked up from her painstaking task, "Dazern's showing me how to trim my cuticles, file my nails and put finger nail polish on." She extended her pinkish tinted nails toward him, asking in a tone Luke could not readily classify as ironic, "What do you think?"

"Uhhhhh, that's interesting Mara." Luke fled to the hold. There were some things he was definitely happier not knowing about people in general, and women in particular. He vowed to extricate Mara from Dazern's unwholesome influence as soon as possible.

They broke orbit around Coruscant as scheduled, and on the orders of the Chief of State herself, were immediately cleared. They descended slowly through the crowded Coruscant airspace, finally settling lightly on the pad of the Palace security port.

Through the view, Luke could see Han, Leia, the kids, and a small cluster of what he usually classified as "Coruscrats."

Mara observed, "Looks like they've spared us the worst of the NRI types until later."

It was mid-afternoon Palace time, and, if the past was any indication, it would be a longer day still. They both knew that mind numbing briefings, debriefings, and rebriefings were to follow. Mara called into the comm to their passengers in the main cabin, "We're down. Welcoming committee is waiting."

Mara swiveled to Luke, placed her hands on his knees, then slid forward, "We still planning on renegotiating?"

Over a week of enforced self-denial had taken a toll on them both. He gripped her shoulders, pulling her closer, planting a hot, breathless kiss on her neck, "I think we've had enough groundwork Captain."

Mara tore free with a glance at his approaching family. "Let's get this over with. The sooner we get the briefing done, the sooner we close the deal."

They headed aft, Luke helping Dazern and Witten, while Mara released the hatch. The ramp had barely touched the tarmac before Jacen and Jaina were bouncing up it. Mara stooped down to give Jaina a hug, and then stood, thinking Jacen would prefer a more grownup welcome.

She held out her hand. "Hello Jacen," then squinted slightly, "I think you've got the benefit of another centimeter or five haven't you?"

Jacen puffed himself out proudly and shook her hand, nodding. He was always a bit tongue-tied around Captain Jade.

As his parents approached, Jacen glanced around Mara. "Where's Uncle Luke?"

"In the cabin, you can go on in." With a smirk at his sister, Jacen bolted into the cabin. Jacen had evidently either outgrown the crush or had even more pressing business with his Uncle.

Mara made her way down, limping slightly, with Jaina trailing. Leia stepped forward to greet Mara formally, taking in the limp with a sweep, "Welcome back Mara. We once again are in your debt. Do you need meds?"

"No, thanks. I took a slight burn in the leg, courtesy of our NRI agent. Nothing serious." She nodded to Han as Luke, Artoo and Jacen appeared, Borkin and Dazern behind them.

Han took in the solicitous Kyle. "Who's that?"

"She was the NRI agent runner."

Han and Leia both raked over the girl with a perceiving look, Leia sighing, "There have already been several resignations in NRI Covert over this debacle. I imagine after what you and Luke have to say, I'll be calling for a few more."

Luke joined them, with a warm hug for Leia, and a rough arm clasp for Han. Mara overheard Leia's silent inquiry to Luke, "Everything okay?"

Luke laughed, hugging her again, answering aloud, "Fine, Leia. It's good to be back."

Luke made the necessary introductions, and then before Kyle and Borkin could become completely overawed with the stature of their welcoming committee, the Coruscrats, evidently some lower level NRI functionaries, whisked them away.

During the kids' demand and receipt of a greeting from their Uncle, Leia had been observing her eldest children dubiously. Jaina was hovering around Mara, and Jacen orbiting Luke. The twins had been acting oddly over the last three weeks, and had become even stranger, and more secretive when they learned that Mara and Luke were coming to Coruscant. Han, at first attributing the unusual behavior to their worship of Mara, had tried questioning them, but it was clear that a conspiracy of silence was at work. Leia glanced at Han, knowing he was seeing the same; he shrugged at his wife, whatever was eating the kids, the parents would find out soon enough.

Mara said to Luke, "Why don't you all go in. I can gather the gear, close down." She turned to Leia, "We'll be tied up with NRI the rest of the day?"

Leia was apologetic. "I know you all must be tired, but if we could prevail on you just a bit longer."

"It's all right Leia, we were expecting it," Luke answered.

Han and Jaina volunteered to stay, Jacen and Anakin following their mother and uncle into the Palace.

Once in the ship, Jaina set off to explore the cabin and hold. As soon as his daughter was out of audio range, Han asked in a quiet aside to Mara, "How's Luke doing?"

Her fierce and completely unexpected glare pined Han to the bulkhead. "He's fine, Solo," she finally said curtly. "You can ask him yourself."

"What about Callista? Did he tell you what happened?"

"Callista's married. She's living on Chad, has a daughter."

Jaina rejoined them, forcing Han to abandon his questioning. It was clear to him that there was a whole lot more that Mara was not saying, and he found this reticence an intriguing departure from her normal bluntness. "So what all have you and Luke been up to?"

His not-so-innocent query yielded a flush and a jump he would have never expected from the ever composed Mara Jade. This, Han thought, was getting more and more interesting.

Mara turned away, with a gesture he recognized immediately as a stalling retreat. Is she losing it Han thought, or was he just getting better at reading her? She began rummaging through a small crate, pulled out a bottle and tossed it to him. "Here you go Solo, a gift from me."

Han fumbled with the bottle, and then, reading the label, exclaimed, "Mara, I could have dropped this. You know what this is worth?"

"Wouldn't have mattered if you had," Mara said very casually. "I've got a whole crate of the stuff. I had more, but we drank a lot of it during the jump."

Han looked again at the label, and then comprehension dawned. "A whole crate?" He started chuckling, "So what's the scam?" For someone who had been out of it a long time, settling down in the suburbs with a wife, three kids and an office job, he could still recognize a fraud when he saw one.

"Tirgu Imps are bottling the wine, slapping Alderaani labels on it and selling it. They've been at it about four months, maybe more."

Han whistled admiringly, "That's inventive. Bet they've made millions, but that's no doubt what you and Luke will tell us about in excruciating detail. I'm sorry I never thought of something like this before."

He caught Mara's serious expression, "What are they doing with all the credits?"

Mara paused for effect, "Empire building. Daala and Pellaeon are buying a navy for Irek."

"Solving two problems at once are they?"

Jaina, having thoroughly explored the cabin came up to Mara and tugged on her sleeve. Mara bent down, asking very seriously, "Yes, Jaina?"

"Dad said that you had my picture in the cockpit. Can I see it?"

"You sure can, honey. You know where it is."

Jaina gave a sideways glance at her father that neither he nor Mara missed. Han instantly deduced the warning signals and asked with all the weight of parental authority, "Jaina, what is it?"

Jaina gulped, "Dad, there's something I want to ask Mara," she whispered, "in private."

Mara cocked her head at Han, awaiting the parental arbitration. Maybe this is what all the secrets have been about, Han thought. "Ok, but if Mara thinks it's important, you're going to have to tell me too."

Mara took Jaina's hand, and they headed to the cabin. Jaina was thrilled, climbing into the copilot's seat and in a game they had played after Selonia, she identified and then "helped" Mara shut down the systems and controls. "So, Jaina, what's the secret?"

The little girl was fingering the hyperdrive control with a stubby hand. "Well, I..."

Mara tried gently to encourage the disclosure. "Yes?"

Jaina began again, "I, well, Jacen and me wanted to know if you and Uncle Luke have decided whether you are right for each other."

Mara stared gape-mouthed at the serious little girl, finally blurting, "What?!"

"On Tales of the Jedi..." Jaina began.

"Solo!"

Han pelted into the cockpit, and faced an abashed Jaina and a pale Mara. "Jaina, would you please tell your father what you just asked me?"

Jaina began quietly, very nervous. "I asked Mara whether she and Uncle Luke had decided if they were right for each other."

Mara's stern demeanor stifled Han's bark of laughter. "It's something you saw on the Tales of the Jedi holovid right Jaina?"

As Jaina nodded, a wide amused grin spread across her father's face. Mara chided reprovingly, "I don't think that series is appropriate for youngsters."

Han gave his daughter a shrewd stare. "Lando's been letting you watch them, hasn't he?"

"Yes, Dad."

Han directed to Mara, "You know the episode she's referring to?"

"It's the one about Centerpoint, right?" Han nodded in confirmation as Mara continued grimly, "I'd forgotten all about it. But we saw it during the jump on the way to Verrat."

It was now Han's turn for amazement. "You mean Luke knows about these?"

Mara's mouth twitched with suppressed amusement. "He almost had a heart attack."

Han laughed, "I'll bet. How'd you keep out of them until now?"

"I paid the producer off, but he breached our contract. I'm planning to haul his ... to sue him before the Trader Tribunal."

Han began slowly, barely concealing his intense enjoyment in the revelation, "I was going to tell you and Luke, the odds are running about 5 to 2 right now in favor."

Even Han Solo quailed at the steel he heard in Mara Jade's voice, "Odds?"

"Whether or not Captain Mara Jade and Master Luke Skywalker will, ahhh," Solo paused with a significant look at his attentive daughter, "rather, what, their 'destiny' will be." Han lightly accented the word.

Jaina interjected enthusiastically, "Lando wanted me and Jacen to try to find out from you and Uncle Luke what your destiny is."

"He did, did he?" The tone made clear that Mara would be exacting a heavy price from Lando.

"Lando's operating one of the biggest betting pools here in the City. He's got a lot of credits tied up in the outcome of that episode. It runs here tomorrow night."

Jaina added excitedly, "And Dad, Jacen and I and all our friends have been helping too."

Now Han was worried, "What have you been doing?"

"There's a number you can call, and help decide whether Uncle Luke and Mara are right for each other, so we've been calling on the holonet in the Communications Center after school."

This time Mara stifled a laugh. "It's a 900 number Solo. And it's not cheap."

Han ran a hand across his face. He had been wondering what the twins and their friends had been doing the last three weeks in the Comm Center. "How many calls have you made Jaina?"

"Ahhh," Jaina thought carefully. "Jacen and I made at least one each a day, and our friends have called too."

Han reached for his comm link. He could just imagine what next month's bill was going to cost. "I'd better tell Mom right away, and make sure none of your friends get back into the Center."

He noticed the vacant, out of focus look, surprised only that it came from Mara. "She knows, I think Jacen has just asked the same questions to Uncle Luke." Curiouser and curiouser Han thought. Although used to those sometimes disconcerting silent conversations between Luke and Leia, he had never thought Mara to be on that same wave length.

He said sternly to his daughter, "No more holonet access for you or your brother, or your friends, young lady until Mom and I decide what to do about this. Why have you been calling so much? Wasn't once enough?"

Jaina peeped up at Mara before continuing. "The show had said that Uncle Luke and Mara's destinies depended on us. But Jacen and I had different ideas on that. So each time Jacen called, I had to call too, to make sure I canceled out his vote."

"Jaina," Mara asked very, very carefully. "Do you understand what they meant by destiny?"

"We weren't exactly sure. But we asked Threepeio." She communicated clearly her opinion of the nattering droid and his no doubt long winded explanation. "So we asked Lando, and he explained."

Mara said sourly, "I bet he did."

Enjoying Mara's chagrin, and beginning to think that life was imitating art here, Han asked his daughter conversationally, "Jaina, what destinies were you and Jacen voting for?"

"I wanted Uncle Luke and Mara to get married..."

Han didn't need to look at Mara to know what her reaction would be.

Even with the perceptions of a ten year old, her askance shy looks suggested that Jaina comprehended as well that Mara did not welcome this news. "I figured then I'd get to see you more Mara," she offered by way of support.

"But Jacen," Jaina emitted a disdainful, superior snort that Han recognized as a mannerism common to both Leia and Mara. "Jacen didn't want that. He thought Uncle Luke would be mean to you Mara. Jacen's just jealous, that's all."

Han thought Mara was not looking well. Oh, he was relishing this.

Mara spoke to her small admirer, "Jaina, you know the holovid isn't true, don't you? You and your brothers were on Corellia, and you weren't even in the vid. And your Uncle Luke wasn't there, and I was."

Jaina nodded, "I know, but... since" she trailed off, not really having a better explanation than that of the enthusiasm of a little girl.

Feeling a little evil, Han pointed out, "Jaina, just because it's on a vid, doesn't make it so, right Mara?"

Mara concurred with a glare and a firmness Han thought very illuminating, "Absolutely."

Sure Mara, he thought, you just keep telling yourself that.

They gathered the gear and joined the others. Mara had indeed sensed Luke's own shock at the similar, but even more determined questioning by his nephew. Under persistent interrogation, Jacen was able to extort a truthful promise from the Jedi Master not to be mean to Mara. Luke had every intention of doing plenty of things to Mara later; being mean to her was not on the list.

Leia was mortified upon learning of her children's activities, and was anticipating a very awkward interview about the holonet bill with a numbers-crunching Palace internal auditor. She had known about the series of course, and once overcoming her horror at the depictions of her husband and brother, had become a secret fan. She and Han had taken to watching the recordings late at night over a bottle of wine, allowing the wine, the mood and the preposterous hilarity of the episodes to inspire them. They were seldom able to watch an entire show to its inevitable pyrotechnic conclusion. Through appropriate middlemen she and Han had also placed small discrete bets in Lando's pool. She had banked, for very cynical reasons having to do with the morality of the vid producer, on the assumption that the characters' destinies would not take the intimate turn her husband and millions of others had bet upon.

After a brief reunion in the family quarters, the grownups departed reluctantly for what promised to be a long and boring evening.

ooOOoo

The meeting wore on and on. NRI operatives, Leia, Han, Borkin, the entire upper echelons of the New Republic intelligence apparatus quizzing them in exhaustive, excruciating detail. Who did they see, what happened, why, how do you know, where did you get it. Then an even longer discussion followed of Irek, Roganda, Daala, Pellaeon, and their acquisitions. Apparently not satisfied, the brass insisted on convening the next afternoon to grill them again after the analysts had an opportunity to review the data.

If Mara was as irritated as he was, she gave no sign. Calmly answering, explaining, she comported herself with far more poise than Luke could muster. The warmth, the humor, even the tension that bound them seemed to have evaporated. He knew this Mara Jade very well; the trader, the commando, the smuggler. They had been sitting across tables just like this one for the last ten years. The details and bad guys changed, but their script in these interminable briefings did not.

He wondered for the thousandth time if Leia had a hand in their room assignments. It was uncharitable, but given Leia's dubious views of Mara, not unthinkable. Luke had returned to his old apartment; it may have just been a coincidence that Mara's rooms were at the opposite end of the Palace. Luke did not think it was an exaggeration that a full kilometer of winding corridor separated them. They still had a deal to close, and Luke was rapidly losing patience with the delays.

He had tried as cautiously as possible to reach Mara silently, but Leia seemed too attuned to permit that private exchange. Her solicitude was wearing thin. Mara made no attempt, indeed hardly looked at him, everything wrapped tightly in her competent calm.

This was ridiculous, he was behaving like an adolescent. Mara caught his eye briefly, nodding imperceptibly, evidently agreeing with his self-diagnosis. He didn't even need to hear her reproach to "Act like a grownup."

He ran through a calming exercise and with the peace it brought him immediately felt impatience ebb. All the Force control he could summon would not, however, alleviate his boredom. Luke was concentrating on dismembering a writing stylus between his fingers when a firm hand on his shoulder started him out of his reverie.

"Hey Luke, meeting's over."

He was profoundly glad it was Han, Leia might very well have picked up a random thought or two he preferred not to share with his sister.

"You okay?"

"Yeah Han, fine, just been a long trip."

Han looked up, seeing on whom his brother-in-law had fixed his gaze. Mara was engaged in a discussion with the NRI chief fraud officer. A knowing grin crossed his old friend's face, "Sure Luke, whatever you say."

Leia's smiling approach interrupted Luke's sour reprimand that Han mind his own business. With her hug, some of his irritation melted.

Leia tucked her arm into his. "Let's go back to your rooms and get caught up."

"Sure, Leia," Luke responded without much enthusiasm

Leia called Mara over, "Mara I just wanted to thank you again, personally for all you've done."

Mara was as nonchalant about the praise, as seemingly about everything else. She accepted the gratitude with a shrug, "I don't know that I'll offer to do it again. You all have obviously not heard the last of that crew, and have got to do something about the NRI's major screw ups. I made a lot of money, settled some old business, renegotiated a contract or two. It was fun."

Luke knew to whom her last two comments were directed. He interjected, "Leia wanted to get together for a while, over in my rooms, you're welcome to join us."

Gods was Mara cool. "Thanks no. I'll turn in, we were really burning the drive to get here. Good night." And with a pivot, she headed down the corridor, without a look back.

Leia had already turned her brother in the opposite direction. Han followed, with a glance at the back of the retreating redhead, chuckling at Luke's obvious predicament. All the Force in the galaxy wasn't going to help a man wedged between two such women.

Han had decided at some point that he really liked Mara a great deal. The lone exception to his now otherwise unqualifiedly high opinion of her was the dalliance with Lando. That relationship, Han thought, had been a bad idea for all concerned, and very uncharacteristic of Mara. He was able to forgive even that lapse in judgment however, thinking he understood both why it had begun, and why it had ended.

Han had weathered Leia's storm when he told her about sending Mara to find Luke. But then Skywalkers in general seemed to have no instinct for what was really good for them, and in the name of stubborn pride had a deplorable habit of studiously ignoring what fortune threw in their paths. And even now, Han was not above tossing a detonator into an ammunition depot just to see what would happen.

It was several hours before Leia and Han finally left. They rehashed everything that happened since he left Yavin, Luke managing to keep his surliness at bay. He filled in some of the details, such as their acquisition of the Bacchanalia data and credit records, the run-ins with Pellaeon, Daala and Irek, the hardware in the belt, and the purloined wine bottles. Luke had the uncomfortable feeling that Han was completing on his own, and with a fair amount of accuracy, his omitted details. He told them about Callista. In hearing but not sharing in Leia's own outrage, came to a better understanding of the place that closed chapter now belonged in his life. It was when Leia began recounting where the kids were off to for the evening that Han's patience ran out.

"Come on, sweetheart. It's already tomorrow, and I at least want some sleep."

Luke almost whistled his relief, but Leia was fully prepared to argue the point, until she yawned in the middle of her objection. She laughed, "I think we have worn you out Luke, too old to be up this late, right?"

Luke thought that this was about the time he and Mara usually began plotting criminal activity, but only nodded his agreement.

Leia gave him a kiss on the cheek, "I'm sure you'll feel better tomorrow. We've missed you."

As Han wound an arm about his wife, he turned, and to Luke's dismay, winked and drawled, "'See ya Luke, have a good night."

As he sensed Han and Leia move down the corridor, Luke surrendered to the internal battles, appalled that his distraction had been so evident even to Han and Leia. He threw himself on the bed, and thoroughly disgusted with his ridiculous, immature behavior, went through a full calming regimen and meditation. The frantic pace with Mara had meant no time or opportunity for the solitude he normally enjoyed and relied upon for his stability, for the serenity of mind and purpose appropriate for a Jedi Master.

Alone, really for the first time in weeks, he indulged in the quiet, the focus, the peace of the Force, finding his center of control. The recklessness, his impatience, the rash impulsiveness that had come to dominate him receded. As the dominion over mind and body returned, he began to feel more like the Master of the New Republic Jedi that he knew himself to be.

Firmly in control, he then felt ready to find Mara. He wondered if she was even still awake, the taunt in his head answering that question.

"It's about time, farm boy, did your chaperons finally leave?"

"Where are you?"

"Can't you guess?"

"Where?"

"I'm on the roof, you remember where that is don't you?"

Luke laughed, "What are you doing up there?"

"Seeing the sights, care to join me?" Luke was already out the door, following her sense through the maze of the Palace, as they had followed the signal to Tirgu. "Better hurry," he heard a laugh in his head, "looks like rain."

As Luke moved through the darkened passageways, lifts and stairwells, he felt with every step, mounting excitement and anticipation. By the time he ascended the steps to the door to the roof, he was no longer certain if the emotion was his own, or Mara's. He paused at the door, reaching for and again finding his composure. Even as he did so, the emotion on the other side cooled.

He opened the door and spied Mara sitting on a ledge, in her night shift, bare feet swaying back and forth, hair blown, a small white figure stark against a darkened sky. If he had expected her to greet him with open arms, he was disappointed.

"So what kept you?"

Luke walked over, stopping in front of her. "You know, family business."

"I'll bet. Leia figured that if she kept you up late enough you wouldn't get into any trouble with me."

He did not argue with her, knowing she might be right. "Do you always wander about dressed like this?"

Mara swung her legs, rapping her toes lightly on his knees and shins. "Depends."

"On what?"

Her answer was sly. "Depends on whether I know I won't be disturbed, or if I hope I will be."

He reached up to finger the flimsy fabric at her shoulder. "So which is it tonight?"

"Well, you're here, aren't you?"

The self-control he thought he had found threatened to slip away again; with a deep breath he regained a measure of the tranquility.

Mara scowled, looking down at her swinging feet. Wondering at her change, Luke abandoned the strap, looking out over the city before them, recalling their conversation so many years ago.

Picking up his thought, she asked, "Remember the last time we were up here?"

"Sure. It was right after Wayland, you decided to become the liaison to Karrde's alliance. I gave you Vader's lightsaber." He was certain he felt a mental flinch. "What is it?"

"Just something Vader said, that in ten years I've never understood why a Jedi would give someone his father's lightsaber."

"I told you before I don't really know why. I'd nearly been killed with it, I had one of my own, and despite your protestations to the contrary, you had done a lot for me, really for the entire NR. You'd earned the right to wear one."

Her swinging feet bumped against the ledge, the image so deceptively fragile. He tapped her temple, "What's going on in there?"

She laughed lightly. "I dunno. I suppose it's being back up here with you after all this time. I keep trying to remember what I thought then, what I thought of you. I know that even then I thought there was something between us. If you don't mind me paraphrasing a confidence you made to me, I think then, I may have misunderstood the nature of the connection. But ten years later, I'm not any wiser as to what it is."

"I'm afraid I can't enlighten you as to what it is either. I think there was a connection then, I think there always has been. It may just be a function of your own gift in the Force, but I think we will probably always be bound to some extent."

Another frown crossed her face. "Vader again?" She nodded. "He really got to you didn't he?"

Mara's curt "yes," was hostile, and it seemed to Luke, far out of proportion to what he understood had passed between her and his father.

"Why all this introspection?" he asked. "It's very unlike you."

"It is, isn't it?"

Luke brought his hands to her face, staring into those unfathomable eyes, maybe the window to the soul of some, but certainly not to Mara's. She was such a mystery to him.

Hearing the unspoken thought, she asked, "Really? After all this time?"

"Oh yes. More than ever in some ways. I understand some things better now, but there's always something new." With a light touch, he traced from temple to shoulder. "Secretive, elusive, controlled," he paused, smiling slightly at the memory. "Unpredictable." His fingers slipped further down. "Did I include sensual?"

"Uhmmmm, no I don't think you've mentioned that one before."

His hand returned to her shoulder, and began casually touring her bare arm, stopping to fondle the place where her blaster normally rested, "I should mention dangerous as well." Cool fingers slid from her arm to her leg, finding the healing blaster burn to caress the sensitive skin. "All in all, a very appealing combination."

His grazing touch had its intended effect; he was definitely learning that for Mara, proper groundwork was essential to a successful negotiation.

Mara raised her feet, and locking them behind his knees, drew him forward, wrapping her arms around his waist. "Use some of that long term recall Jedi, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but I think we have a deal to close."

The skies took that unprepossessing moment to shed ominous, heavy drops. Luke did not mind, Mara sleek with rain was even more intriguing than Mara dry.

Mara had other ideas. "Sorry, wet may be your idea of a fantasy, but not mine." She slid off the ledge and into his arms. It was when they reached the door that they realized their error.

This time it was Luke's turn to kick some doors. "It's locked? Well, looks like we stay outside, on the roof, in the rain. Beats the other places we've been."

As the locksmith of the team, Mara began working on the door, leaving Luke to work on Mara. She kept elbowing him as eager hands began a less impeded exploration. Finally exasperated, she delivered a bruising blow to his ribs. "Would you cut it out? I'm trying to concentrate, and unless you ever want to walk again, don't say anything about split concentration exercises."

Luke tried to be useful. "Do you have a credit transfer card?"

Mara pivoted to face him, straight arms outstretched, the beginning of the rain, Luke noting, creating a truly marvelous effect. "Do you see one anywhere?" She returned to the lock.

"We could nudge one of the palace guards, get him to come up here," Luke offered unhelpfully.

"Oh sure, and then wipe his mind clean of the experience with a Force brainwash? Just give me a minute, it's another sequence lock." With a click, the door slid open and they tumbled into the dark stairwell.

Mara fumbled for the light, but Luke stopped her. "No leave it," catching her, damp and warm against the railing.

Through a laugh, in the dark, she sought his mouth, relishing at last the feel of the man who had been intruding into her thoughts for days, ah, who was she kidding, weeks, months, maybe years. A stairwell had not been part of those dreams, but neither had the front seat of a speeder, the deck of her ship, a deserted office, a dusty warehouse, the middle of a crowded restaurant, and a trash dumpster.

That was an element of their connection too and she directed the thought to him: that he had been right; that out of sheer arrogance and bravura each would drive the other to do and to say what would never even be contemplated with another. It was their secret Mara promised. Succumbing to her invitation, he knotted his fingers in her hair, tilting her back against the rail to finally taste what had for so long eluded him.

Mara reached for him, searching with hands and mouth, and then through the Force, aching for him, for the power that became even more potent when linked with her own. Delving to the core of their bond, she cajoled silently, "You have only to think it Jedi."

"You can't say my name even now?"

"A name is power." She heard a fervent committed pledge as his lips traveled across her. Laced in the awareness of the other, stray thoughts and fleeting whims were captured and made real, through the Force that knit them together, unspoken words and hidden desires becoming manifest in flesh.

Luke could feel the control of earlier melting in her warmth. In the war between sensation and restraint something in him finally gave way, sweeping over them, overwhelming him, encompassing Mara. For an intoxicating moment, he would have abandoned everything, duty, responsibility, honor, control, especially control, everything for her. He knew her every nuance, every mood, every turn in that sharp mind. It was no longer enough. He wanted to plunge through her body as he had through her mind, wanted to drive her to the limits of the passion he knew her capable of, and most of all, wanted her to release in him what had been buried for so long it had almost ceased to be.

With the part of his awareness still rooted and free of her, Luke edged away from that abyss, finding the control he needed to avoid losing himself completely in the raw, seductive power of their psychic and physical bond. As he regained that thread of peace, Mara abruptly tensed, breaking away from him, a storm of fury suddenly unleashed. The word "Jedi" tore out of her mouth like a curse. Rocking back, she delivered a smacking blow across his face.

Luke staggered, bewildered, furious. Cutting off his exclamations, she spat out, "I knew it!" and fled down the stairwell. Luke gave chase, having no idea where he was going, but following the swath of emotion she cut through the Palace not difficult.

He became confused at the different levels, finally coming out into the branching corridors on what he thought was the seventh floor, and in his disorientation, plowed right into one of the palace guards. Great, just great.

"Excuse me sir, can I help you?"

Luke tried to gather whatever dignity a wet, exceedingly distracted Jedi Master could. He hoped the slap mark didn't show on his face. "No, I don't believe so, thank you."

He cast about, trying to sense where in the maze Mara had gone.

"Of course sir, but if I may make a suggestion? If you are looking for Master Trader Jade sir, she just ran through here a few moments ago." The guard pointed down the right corridor. "Her rooms are one floor down, fourth door on the left, can I escort you there, sir?"

"No thank you." Luke could hear it now in the Guard Corps, Jedi Master, brother to the Chief of State, chasing an almost naked, sopping wet Master Trader Jade, former Emperor's Hand, through the halls of Coruscant Palace in the middle of the night. He was sorely tempted to rip the entire scene from the man's memory, but instead made off for the seventh floor. What this would do to the odds on the Tales of the Jedi, wagering he could only imagine.

More focused, he had no difficulty locating Mara. Any Force sensitive within the Palace would be feeling her rage. He knocked softly, and heard a bellow in his head "GET LOST."

"Mara,"

"I said get outta here, I'm blasting outta here at first light."

"Mara, I'm not leaving until you give me an explanation."

"No way you are coming in here."

"Do you want me to have to try explaining this to another Palace guard?" That did it, the door flew open.

Mara was wrapped in a blanket, toweling herself off, pacing, quivering with wrath. Rivulets trailed her on the carpet. She had been working her hair and the rubbing had induced an entirely new element of wildness to her already disheveled appearance. Whatever he had done, Luke was certain this topped it, he had never seen her so angry.

"Can I borrow a towel please?" She flung the one she was using at him with a snarl. "Are you going to tell me what this is all about?"

Mara spun around, stunned. "Did you think I wouldn't notice? Or that even if I did notice, that I wouldn't care?" He just stood there, all tousled and innocent confusion, before shaking his head; the fool really did not have a clue. "You don't know, you have no idea?"

Luke shook his head again. "No, I . . ."

She interrupted. "Prijgin unbelievable. Well, then allow me to explain. That little stunt in the stairwell . . . ."

"What stunt?"

"The calming technique you moron, the damned Jedi meditation you launched into. We were off to what, to my mind at least, was a very promising beginning, and you decide to get in touch with inner peace?"

"Oh. That." Luke slumped down into the couch, leaving Mara to continue stalking about the room.

"Yes," she ranted. "'That' as you so eloquently described it. What I can't believe is that I actually thought this would be different, that you would be different. Deep down, I knew, oh I knew that you wouldn't be able to go through with it. Now, the only person I want to really hurt more than you, is myself, for being such an idiot to believe a word you say."

"Mara, would you please let me explain."

"Trust me, Skywalker, there is nothing you can say. The only favor you can do me is to get out, get out of my room, get out of my life, out my mind. So help me, if I have to kill you to be free of you I will."

He knew that if he could explain that she would understand. "Mara, you of all people know the balance we have to find."

She shook her head in disbelief. "Balance?" Her voice edged up in shrill fury. "You're talking about balance at a time like this?"

He spoke more firmly, the Master had to make her see this. "Yes, the struggle we have to maintain peace, to control the power that we have. We both fight the same thing every moment of our lives. I can't surrender that, even when..." He paused, embarrassed, but plunged ahead. "Well, especially with you. Surely you can see that."

Mara was dumbfounded. "You mean that a Jedi can never find a release from control, that you have to be," her voice bit with bitter sarcasm, "serene even during..."

Luke interrupted her, wishing she were not quite so blunt. "Yes, especially then."

"Why?" she demanded.

It seemed absurd to try to explain this at all, and particularly to Mara who so understood the hazards of power and the importance of control. "A Jedi should always be at peace." Luke hesitated, then finally spoke the harsh reality, reluctantly acknowledging the burden of mastery in the Force. "A Jedi should feel no passion."

He had expected sympathy or understanding, not a harangue. Incredulous, Mara belted out, "What? That's the most absurd excuse I've ever heard. I can't wait to hear your justification for this one."

Unprepared to mount this defense, even to his own ears, Luke thought the explanation sounded lame. "If I felt those kinds of emotions, I'd be vulnerable, someone could exploit me, manipulate me."

He was so seriously earnest, Mara burst out laughing. "Funny you never mentioned this to me during my training; strange it never came up on Verrat."

"It, it, should have, I just realized here that ..." He could not complete the incoherent thought, ending with a mumbled, "It's just different now."

"Of course," she mocked. "The rules are always different for the Master. So, how did you come to labor under this incredible, egotistical delusion of the nature of Jedi intimacy?"

Luke took a tight rein on the anger her derision incited. "What do you mean?"

"I mean how do you know this, is this something Kenobi told you?"

"Of course not." Luke was blushing at the very idea of it.

"Or the Master who instructed you?"

"No, don't be ridiculous."

"I'm not being ridiculous, I'm trying to ascertain where this bizarre rationalization comes from. Maybe you had a father to son chat with Vader on the subject of making love to the women in your lives?"

Luke lost patience at that blow. "Mara, I realize that you are such an expert on this subject, but has this ever come up with you?"

She laughed again. "Don't divert me. You know very well it hasn't."

"How would I? For all I know every one of your copilots is just a junior Jedi training. Or maybe Lando harbored some latent skill."

If she had been angry before, the mention of Lando threw her into a truly righteous fury. "I knew we'd get around to that sooner or later."

"Well why shouldn't we? He is one of my best friends." Luke knew that at the root was not friendship and disloyalty, but simple envy.

Mara gave him no reprieve. "You know Skywalker, I think maybe you should go out and find yourself a nice, respectable woman with no Force skill. She'll never be the wiser that you're not doing anything but giving your all to her."

"That's really cruel, Mara."

"Is it? For all your moralizing on the importance of Jedi control in intimate relationships, the issue has never arisen for you either."

"Callista was . . ."

Mara exploded. "Callista wasn't all there, she either didn't have a body, or didn't have a soul, either way, it doesn't count. It's been damn convenient for you, this habit of falling only for women who can't give you both." Her words hung in the air, spoken in heat, they scorched, burning away the pretense to expose an unacknowledged truth.

The remote, hunched figure on the couch muttered caustically, "And you with all your wisdom and experience are just the solution to all my failings aren't you?"

"That's not it. You're wrong, I know you're wrong." Her anger spent, Mara sank wearily onto the couch next to the Master. "You're the one who taught me that the Force binds life together. I can't imagine anything more affirming of it than what two people would share. To say that you have to control even that is like saying Jedi have to control the seasons. The balance of the Force doesn't rest with denying yourself the most elemental things of nature."

"Don't frame this as a question of Jedi philosophy," he countered with quiet rigidity. "This is about power. You're just trying to dictate terms to me again, and I won't play along."

Mara's sigh was more disgusted, than angry. "On this, yes I am. I'm sorry Luke, but this is nonnegotiable for me. I don't understand your decision, but for me, it's very straightforward. If you won't open yourself to me, then this is over before it even began. I've been the student to another Emperor before, I won't do it again."

"Weren't you the one who told me nothing is worth the Dark Side? Can't you see, that's what could be at stake for me?"

Mara stared at him. As the import of his statement sunk in, seething, blind wrath and profound hurt swept through her. Luke sprang back at the torrent of ferocious outrage.

Mara was absolutely white, aghast. "So that's what this is all about," she whispered. "You don't trust me."

Luke stammered, "No, I..."

"I can't believe it. After all we've been through, after all these years, and . . ." She simply could not even find the words, choking, gasping with the betrayal of his mistrust.

Luke saw, felt that he had delivered a devastating blow, but finally said, "No, I guess I don't, not completely."

Mara staggered to her feet, "It's getting late, I think you'd better..."

Luke was not about to be dismissed so summarily. Seizing her wrist, he jerked her back to the couch; it was not going to end like this with him as the villain. "I'm not going anywhere yet. You accuse me of not trusting you, but what kind of confirmation do I have other than your word? You seem to forget that you were the one who stalked me for years, you were the disciple of someone who wanted me quite dead, or worse."

Mara struggled to stand. "That was a long time ago."

He gripped her arms, yanking her down. "Is it? You're the one with all the secrets, the neat files, the divisions and lines, the life segregated into so many pieces who knows what's in the different parts, to say nothing of whether there is even an integrated whole."

Mara stopped fighting against him, shocked at the charge he had leveled. Luke had pinned her hard and was not in a mood to be trifled with. Dragging her closer, he bent over her, whispering, "I'm calling your bluff Mara. You say that I won't open to you?" He clutched her face in his hand, "Open to me, really, and then we'll see who has the secrets."

If he had phrased it in any way other than a challenge, she would have certainly refused. But he knew her so well, knew exactly the button to push, and knowing even that he was manipulating her, she could not but rise to his dare.

Locked in a strangling embrace, her nails bit into his wrist. "Go ahead, you'll find nothing here, but I'll never call you Master."

He dove into her, not with the gentle sharing that had come to define their link, but to scour every crevice of her mind and memory. She did not flinch, did not resist, did not lead or guide, but allowed him in to ransack her consciousness. Even if it meant repeating Palpatine's ravages, Luke had to know the truth of her elusiveness; they had come too far to turn back.

He found her earliest memories of the Emperor, of a young, brutalized girl, clinging to the only anchor she had ever known. He felt the brutality and cruelty he had always known she had suffered, but until now, had only dimly imagined. He saw Jabba's Palace as she did, the day that he began the systematic destruction of her entire world. He felt her despair after Endor, the yawning chasm that had opened in her psyche with the death of her Master. The emptiness should have swallowed her and would have killed a lesser person. He heard the lie Palpatine had planted and the voices driving her to murder. Unfolding like a strange holovid, he saw himself, their days and weeks together on Myrkr, Coruscant, and Wayland. He saw an image of a tiny impotent Palpatine, in a cage with his mouth taped shut, and he heard Mara say, "He is silent to me now."

Her years with the Alliance flashed by. He saw the day she left Yavin with Han and Lando to chase Kyp, and astonishingly felt her disappointment. "You mean you might have stayed if I had asked?"

Her answer was wrenching. "Maybe, but I'd already been a student, you didn't give me any other reason to stay."

Even that revelation did not fully prepare him for the pang when he saw through her eyes, his own exultant reunion with Callista. He suddenly understood why Mara's relationship with Lando had ended. "It seemed so shallow by comparison," was her quiet explanation.

Still, he marched on. He found her craving for security and comfort, her strength, her competence, her impervious self-sufficiency, her extreme solitude, her calculated subtlety, the grudging admiration and distrust others had for her, the tightly leashed anger, and the passion, bestowed on far fewer than she had led him to believe. As he had long known, he saw anew her loyalty and a willingness to sacrifice self-interest for principle. In a deep, dark place he found her rage, her distrust of others, the loneliness, and heard her say, "I know this place."

It was only as he sought her secrets since leaving Yavin that she began fighting. Mara threw up a wall, he realized attempting to conceal her conversation with his father. He had known all along that there was something she had hidden from him, and this time would learn of it. Battering up against her barricade, he taunted, "You said you had no secrets." Feeling her falter at the challenge, he mocked, "What are you afraid of that I'll learn what his Champion told his Hand?"

Stung, furious, she opened a chink in the wall, and Luke lunged through it, laying bare the memory, watching as the dialogue played back in her mind. He could feel her panic grow, her anger explode with Vader's final admonishment to her to "Love my son well."

Luke was stunned, that she had gone to such efforts to hide something so inconsequential and that in his fear of what she had secreted away, that he would go to such lengths to rip it from her. He released her, and shrank from her mind, thoroughly ashamed, ashamed of what he had done, at how he had so compromised her. He bent over sickened, immersed in self-loathing.

Mara crawled into the corner of the couch. Wrapping herself in the blanket, she swore into the cushion, "Just get out of here."

But Luke could not, not without first atoning; his guilt-racked voice pierced through her haze of misery, "I can't believe I did that to you. Mara, I'm sorry."

"Fine, apology accepted, now get out."

"After what I did and..."

She swung back blazing, "Listen, isn't it enough that you know, or do you plan to humiliate me more?"

To Luke, the crime was not the secret, but how he had stripped her of it. He suddenly realized that for Mara, the agony lay in his knowing of Vader's instruction.

Nothing could compensate for what he had done, but he could at least relieve her needless anxiety about this. "It doesn't matter what Vader said. You could have told me."

She sneered, "Right."

"No, really, you could have."

Her response was harshly sarcastic, "I can just imagine that conversation. You're ready to slit your wrists over Callista and I pipe up with, guess what, forget her because your father thinks I'm the perfect match." Seething with frustration, Mara burrowed her head again into the cushions.

Luke laid a soft hand on her shoulder only to have her jerk away from him. "Mara, I don't care what he said."

"You don't get it do you?" She clenched a pillow, wringing it in her hands, "I know what you felt for Callista. Remember? I felt it half way across the galaxy. I know you don't feel that for me." She spit out the words. "It's degrading, revolting, that you would think that I felt that way, that even assuming I could, that I would, when I damned well know it'd be a one way romance."

Placing his hands about her shoulders and head, Luke brought her to him, "Look at me please."

She turned slowly, reluctantly toward him, eyes, downcast.

"I can't make this any plainer. I know what you feel," he paused significantly, wanting her to understand this, "and I know what you don't. My father's meddling doesn't make me question your feelings, or change how I feel about you."

She looked up, staring intently into him, searching for any falsity or hesitancy in his assurance. Luke ventured, "The only thing I don't understand is why you have suddenly started paying attention to anything a long dead Dark Lord of the Sith said."

Mara continued studying him, finally smirking with a quiet, ironic humph. "Good question."

As her relief flooded over them, he dropped his head on her shoulder, whispering, "I'm so sorry, I should have never, ever done that to you." Luke stammered in a strangled admission, "I was just so afraid of what you might have hidden."

Mara slid her arms around him, easing into a forgiving embrace, her hands warming his cold as the protective blanket fell away. "What you did was wrong only if you won't let me in now." Her Force sense brushed the first of his barriers impenetrable to her gentle touch. "We want this so much, are you still going to shut me out?"

What she asked was the one thing Luke had believed he could never give. Sensing his hesitation, Mara's hands encircled his face, raising his eyes to her own, bearing into him, forcing him to confront the enormity of what he had done, and the only way he could repent of it. Her words were soft; the ultimatum was not. "Are you going to withhold the same thing you took from me?"

He wavered, wondering with anguish if Mara had ever truly asked anything of him before.

Leaning in to kiss him lightly, she again stroked the barricade that kept her away. "Let me in, please."

With a surrendering moan, Luke opened himself to her. Silently, with immense effort, the deconstruction began, brick by brick. With each layer in his impervious armor, Mara's awareness would flow into him only to be halted by another wall. Murmuring, softly caressing with hands, and lips and mind, she would coax it down, layer by layer, peeling away the years of invulnerability, pain, deprivation and disappointment.

She saw with him all the simple pains of a lonely boy in a harsh desert, the ambition and romantic dreams. To have those dreams fulfilled, to become a hero, and then a reluctant one as every victory was seemingly bought at tremendous cost: escaping from a bored, limited life only with the murder of his family; destroying the Death Star only through the sacrifice of friends; losing a love to gain a sister; realizing a father was not dead, but a monster; regaining a father, only to lose him again.

And then after the Rebellion, a warrior without a battle to fight. Every gain in mastery Luke had paid for with another credit of his basic humanity. Mara saw that the things he wanted most were the things that most consistently eluded him. The yearning for excitement, conflict, intimacy, romance, always at war with his resolute conviction that he must never seek them. The guilt of the craving, the frustration of never giving into it, never satisfying the demands of either extreme, trying to find a balance, his very nature demanded its opposite.

In a terrifying moment, she fell into his pit of despair, an aching, lonely void she had felt within him before, but from which she had always recoiled. This was where she found detachment and isolation as his seeming only panacea for the death of hopes and loves. Allowing himself to care so rarely, for so few, every loss took on a greater, more poignant magnitude. "Would you share even this with me?" he asked. Mara answered with a deepening kiss and a blossoming light.

The further she delved, the faster the walls began to fall, the mental ones, the emotional ones, the psychic ones, the mere physical ones that separated them, flung and scattered on the floor. As she plummeted to the depths of their connection, heat, breath, dark, damp and pulse rose in a throbbing crescendo.

And then, as when they had traversed the belt together, she burst through the last of the barriers, warm and vibrant, slick with the sweat of their effort to tear down his walls, in his arms, on his lips, under his hands, and poised above a place within him buried so deeply he had forgotten he ever knew of it. Luke heard her wonder, "Where are we?" and incongruously he remembered, Yoda, telling him in a quick hesitant lesson, "If you ever come here again, it shall only be with another Jedi."

And, suddenly, he understood. Stroking her sleek body, he told her, "You were right, you've been right all along. You have this too."

"I do?"

As Mara opened to him, Luke swirled into her strong, sweet awareness, finding the same hidden place within her. For a heartbeat they hung suspended, and then in a burning moment of fierce joining, plunged together into that inmost place.

Mind to mind, soul to soul, one heart, one body. If the Force exacts a price from Jedi for a lifetime of ascetic denial, it also gives them a unique reward. There is no purpose to control, if there is nothing to control. And there, in that place, each found in the other all that had ever been restrained and denied, a wellspring of passion and desires that had needed only another Jedi to unleash them.

In the breathless moment before their union in that secret place swept away all reason, thought, and control, one mind sighed to the other, "It's about time."

ooOOoo

As he dragged himself into consciousness, Luke wondered how long it had been since he had woken with a sure sense of where he was. The bright light streaming into the unfamiliar room told him it was quite late, memory and comprehension returning a split second later when, in reaching out to the surroundings, his Force sense seemed reluctant to make the sweep, as if bruised. No, not as if bruised, everything, Force sense included, was bruised.

So it was without the benefit of the Force, that Luke rolled over to confront, like any other mere and unsure man, the uncertain consequences of the night's activities. One arm and the ever present mat of hair were all that were visible, the rest buried. Well, no fun in that. Luke slipped out of the tangled bed, feeling that starting the morning, correct that, afternoon tea, would at least help. Too bad the temporary quarters did not have a stock of brandy; he felt in sore need of something to fortify him.

He thought seriously of gathering up his scattered belongings and just creeping out altogether, but the move did not seem quite, honorable. Besides, and for the first time, he permitted himself a grin, he doubted he could find everything in the shambles. The room looked as if a gale Force wind had blown through it, which, in a way, it had.

He was deliberately and quietly making his way back to the bed when Mara awoke. Her head emerged from under the pillow, and in a moment of blinking shock, she took in who was standing in the middle of her room. Mara groaned and buried her head again. Luke cursed his carelessness. After a moment's consideration, he realized there really wasn't anywhere else to go, and slipped back into the bed, keeping a careful distance.

Bashful embarrassment might have seemed a strange reaction after everything they had been through, and particularly after the evening's events had left so few things on the list undone. Sometimes, however, even age, experience and a long, long friendship cannot lessen the awkwardness of a morning after.

Luke finally offered a tentative, "You okay?"

Another groan. "Just give me a minute to adjust to this."

He felt her try to reach out with the Force, only to experience the same stinging reaction. Her "ouch" was muffled. "Do you feel this way too?"

"Like you're sunburned or something? Yes."

Head still under a pillow, she mumbled, "What'd you think caused it?"

"I suspect sustained and novel applications of the Force. I also imagine that the place we tapped into carries certain after effects." He humphed thoughtfully, "Probably to keep Jedi from plundering through there more often."

The observation was of sufficient interest for Mara to venture out of her hiding place. "You mean you don't know?" Luke was not quite sure what she meant, and his confusion must have shown. She tried again. "How did you know about it?"

He thought he understood now, and dared to turn and face her. "The Master who taught me had shown me where it was once, but I'd forgotten I even knew about it."

A hand emerged with her head, tracing lines in his hair and neck. "I caught an image of some really small, weird looking guy in a robe, that was your Master?"

He nodded, amused at her description of Yoda. "I remember thinking even at the time that he was rather smug about that lesson, but all he said was that I would only be able to find that place within me again with another Jedi. I only understood what that meant last night."

"So you didn't know what was there, you didn't know what would happen when we went there?"

"No." Mara digested the implications of that flat statement. He hesitated, but then asked, "You didn't know either, did you?"

Her answer was slow, and bore a trace of hardness. "No copilot of mine has ever shown a shred of Force ability."

In spite of the wincing pain, he reached out to her, trying to touch that bitterness, first with hands and through the Force, then aloud, "I'm so sorry."

Turning away, but without anger, Mara sighed. "It's like what you said before. No one could say and do what we manage to say and do to each other. Sometimes that's not a good thing."

"And sometimes it's a very good thing too." He deliberately called to mind an example from the previous evening, and felt her quiet chuckle as she picked up the thought.

Clasping her more closely, Luke knew what her reaction would be to his question. "Why didn't you tell me before about Vader?"

Mara stiffened, but he held her fast. She groaned again, "How could I have said anything without you getting the wrong idea? It was so humiliating, so infuriating to be ordered around like that."

He whispered into her ear, "You have nothing to worry about." With her tension ebbing slightly, Luke relaxed his hold.

Mara shifted away, finally muttering incoherently into the pillow, "I don't, I mean, about what he said, I don't, well you know."

"I know."

Lying side by side, a pillow apart, she eventually asked what needed to be said, "You don't either, do you?"

"No." There was no hesitation in Luke's answer.

With that simple understanding accomplished, both seemed better able to acknowledge what had passed between them. For whatever reason of misplaced decorum and modesty, each struggled to maintain a shy space as they edged and thrashed about in coordinated tandem to survey, from the vantage of the bed, the ruin that had once been a guest suite. From their perch, Mara rested her chin in her hands, kicking both feet in the air. "Sith," she exclaimed, "what a wreck," referring to the room. Glancing over at Luke, Mara then did a double take as she really noticed him for the first time that morning. "You look like something the rancor dragged in."

"You finally have the appearance to match the temperament, witch."

They returned to their casual contemplation of the room. Mara muttered with a certain amount of awe, "How do you suppose that happened?"

"You're asking me?" Luke protested, wondering himself and as uncomfortable as she. "I was concentrating on other things at the time."

"HA!" Her bony elbow contacted a scrap of his exposed side. "I'll be sure to have Palace maintenance send a droid crew. Any sentient seeing this mess would know we had quite a party last night."

"The entire Guard Corps probably knows already."

Having identified a body of research which would benefit from careful investigation, and deeming his retaliatory poke in her ribs a sufficient invitation, Mara moved closer and began another round with the scientific method. After a time she again located the synapses responsible for speech, murmuring, "Guard Corps?"

His mind having similarly disengaged from cognitive functions, Luke was not much more articulate, "Uhmmm, on the way down from the roof, I ran into a guard. He'd seen you running by, offered to escort me here."

Mara laughed, "Poor Jedi. Imagine what this will do to your clean living reputation."

"Well what about yours?"

She laughed again, "I don't have one to lose."

"Uh huh. Liar." Sensing a grumbling complaint, Luke quickly relented. "If the truth ever gets out, you can hunt me down and uhhhh, use me as a test subject."

Mara sighed happily and returned to the only activities her pleasure-drugged mind permitted. Her high expectations had not been disappointed, even apart from their astonishing and truly mesmerizing discovery of, well whatever it was. She was eventually able to observe what the state of the room made obvious, "Apart from the Guard Corps, anyone with a lick of Force sensitivity in the Palace probably knows what happened too."

"We were broadcasting on a pretty broad band. Maybe we ..." Luke stopped, realizing he was going to say something about "next time," and knowing that was a discussion they were not prepared to have.

With his hesitation, Mara thrashed through the bedcovers, sitting up to soak in the lush yellow light pouring through the blinds, luxuriating in a snapping stretch. There had been other mornings that had so illuminated, but never with quite this effect. In a shuddering moment he recognized as virtually reflexive, Luke struggled for a measure of control.

Mara immediately sensed the tension and the effort to calm it. Glaring at him, she scolded playfully, but with a hint of very real threat, "Cut that out."

Luke shut his eyes to the searing image, burrowing shyly away, embarrassed, this all so fundamentally at odds with the austere, severe existence he had forced upon himself for so long. He felt her light touch and soft words, "What's wrong?"

"I just feel foolish, all this time ... and now ..." An aggravated sigh escaped him, "What a waste, to finally find out that there were some sacrifices I never had to make."

How someone so strong could also be so gentle was amazing to him, "There was no way you could have known."

Flinching slightly at her smooth caress, Luke mumbled, "Well, you knew better."

Mara gloated with satisfaction, "I am NOT going to permit this self-pity. I believe the correct statement is, 'you were right Mara.'"

He laughed and again opened to the smug tempest of a Jedi. "You were right Mara," he repeated.

"Very good. That humble recognition is deserving of an appropriate reward. But, ahhhhh, what?" Luke had several suggestions, Mara rejecting all of them with a shake of her wild hair, "been there, done that." As she contemplated rewards, Luke realized that at almost 40 years of age, he was learning only now that there were some heretofore unknown compensations to mastery in the Force besides, as Mara had said, the ability to levitate really big rocks.

Mara interrupted these reflections with a triumphant "aha!" She leaned down, placing a delicate kiss on his chin and then moving on.

"What have you decided?"

Speaking in between seemingly random provocative kisses, she murmured, "Looking for scars, I'm connecting the dots."

She was addictive, doing nothing to wean him of the compulsion, and in the present instance, so thorough, he actually rued not getting injured more often, eventually saying with regret, "Too bad I don't have more scars."

In a not unsubtle hint, Mara offered, "I do." Luke applied himself accordingly, finding that through exercise and use, the after effects of the previous night were wearing off.

Mara giggling was, however, neither the reaction he had expected, nor something to which he had yet become accustomed; Luke did not think he had yet found that button. "What's so funny?"

Mara said mischievously, "I was just thinking about at least one Force sensitive in the Palace who probably had a big shock last night. It's a helluva way for your sister to find out what we've been up to."

Thinking what his own reaction would be under the circumstances, Luke observed, "I can't imagine Han would have any objections. And by the way," with a shove he pushed her back, and propped up, surveyed the landscape beneath him as it were, "I expect your full, not split, concentration right now."

Mara stared back, saying in a hushed, dangerous voice, "Is that an order?"

Under his probing, trailing fingers, he felt anew her firm restraint; the flood of everything else locked tightly behind it spiced an already heady, potent brew. "Not an order Captain, it's a dare." He returned to the task at hand with renewed efforts, the thrill of seeing her exquisite control give way a powerful incentive.

ooOOoo

On the other side of the Palace, the Chief of State and her husband were getting a similarly late start on the day. And as had been speculated in other quarters, the Chief of State had indeed woken in the middle of the night to some remarkable feelings that, although a surprise to her husband of over eleven years, were certainly never unwelcome. Leia felt no small amount of embarrassment herself as she struggled to explain to an amused Han that she had really had no idea what had come over her, "I was very tired, I was sound asleep, I can't think what happened."

"Sweetie, you can wake me up for that any time." Han wrapped his diminutive wife in an all-encompassing embrace. He had no intention of letting affairs of galactic importance mar what had been for him, an unexpectedly terrific evening and morning.

A husband's frank gusto for his wife's foibles could be disconcerting even after years together. Leia stammered, "It was like something in the Force that just pulled me along."

Han shook his confused wife gently, "I've got no complaints at all."

Leia nestled more deeply next to her husband; so many things to do, so little motivation to do anything except remain right where she was. She said tentatively, "Maybe I should try asking Luke about it, but," she trailed off, loath to raise such a subject with her brother.

Han burst out laughing, "I don't think you'd get much of an explanation out of him. Luke was probably the cause of it."

Leia pushed the maniac next to her away with an angry shove, "What are you talking about?"

Han sighed. Jedi. His life was full of them, and for all their wisdom and oneness with the universe, he sometimes felt he was the only one with any grasp on reality. "What you were probably feeling my dear Jedi wife, was Luke and Mara, if you take my meaning."

Leia turned a deep shade of pink, Han continuing to chuckle at her discomfiture, "All I can say is sweetheart, I'd be glad to vacation with them any time."

"Mara?" Leia's tone indicated just how unlikely she thought that to be. "What do you know about this?" she accused.

Han protested his innocence, "I don't know anything, except that Luke was in knots about her last night, and although she hid it better than he did, she was completely over the edge for him too."

Leia sat up, disgusted with her husband's farfetched delusions. "Even if you're right, I don't see how ..." Blushing again, she shook her head adamantly, her mind refusing to acknowledge such an uncomfortable scenario. "I think I should at least try to contact Luke, see if he's all right. It might have affected him too . . .."

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," but Leia, ignoring Han's admonition briefly sought her brother's familiar presence in the Force. She gasped, turning once again a pink, and then even deeper shade of red, throwing herself back onto the bed in mortification.

Han laughed again, "I told you not to do that."

The chagrin eventually passing, Leia was able to giggle, "I just got the Force equivalent of a 'Do not Disturb' sign." Returning to her nest, she mused, "I wonder how long this has been going on?"

Han yawned and stretched, wondering how he could finesse a repeat of the last eight hours or so, "Not long I think, but who knows? They've been circling each other for years."

Leia mused, "I had thought that Callista really bothered her, and Lando might have even bothered him."

Han shrugged, more interested in indulging in a favorite pastime of combing Leia's hair across the sheets. "Could be, they'd both deny it."

Absorbed in one of her own favorite pastimes involving fingers and toes, she observed as an aside, "General Sveltner said NRI Covert wants to use them more often. He wanted me to ask them if they would consider working for NRI on a job basis."

Han snorted, "I don't imagine Mara would be too keen on being an NRI spook."

"Maybe, but she's done a lot for the NR in the past, albeit reluctantly at times."

"I suppose. Sveltner's right to want them though, they are a good team, better than anyone else NRI could field. And there is a real strong connection there too."

Her question was suspicious, "Connection?"

Han knew that warning tone oh so well, "Yeah. Watch them closely, there's something there. Mara let something slip that makes me think they are almost telepathic."

Leia was lofty, "I'll grant you, Luke did seem distracted yesterday, but I didn't get any sense that he had that kind of a link with Mara."

Han decided it was time to remind his wife of something important, drawing her back to him, all fire and ice, and what melts in between. He whispered softly to the woman he loved more than the air he breathed, "Sometimes you don't need the Force to see or to sense what is between two people."

Leia dissolved into his arms with a mumbled, "nerf."

ooOOoo

The NRI staff and General Sveltner, the recently appointed acting NRI Covert chief, waited impatiently for the 1400 hour meeting to begin. Given the demands upon her time, it was understandable that the Chief of State might be late. He did not understand, however, what pressing affairs could possibly detain Master Skywalker, Master Trader Jade, or General Solo. A neat, punctual, precise man, General Sveltner did not tolerate the absence of these qualities in others.

Skywalker and Jade strolled in a few minutes apart and a full twenty minutes late. Sveltner noted that Jade made a point of sitting as far from Skywalker as possible while still being in the same room with him. He had, by this, time, fairly memorized the extensive files NRI maintained on both of them, and was not surprised. He wondered only at how two such volatile personalities could still run circles around every adversary circumstance had thrown at them, and despaired that the two best people available to him were as likely to kill each other as the enemy.

Sveltner had, of course, already heard about the episode involving the Palace Guard. The incident would be duly recorded in Skywalker's file under the subheading "Jade Speculation," and in Jade's file, under a similarly named "Skywalker Speculation." These highly classified portions of the files had entertained and titillated the analysts for years, the betting almost rivaling that now raging on the Tales of the Jedi episode airing that night. In fact, one reason Sveltner and his staff were so anxious for this meeting to begin and end promptly was so that they would all be able to get home in time to see the concluding episode of Showdown at Centerpoint Station.

When they entered a few minutes later, Luke could not help but notice Han's subtle overtones toward his wife. Catching Han's half grin and wink, he immediately slumped further in his seat, becoming engrossed in his data pad, abashed at the message of thanks from his brother-in-law so clear, he might as well have shouted it across the room. Couldn't be helped he supposed, but it still was damned uncomfortable. Leia's interruption had been bad enough.

Luke had no interest in fighting Mara for the dubious privilege of conducting this part of the briefing. The staff was most interested in the financial data and Luke had seen enough of it over the trip to last a while. Might as well let Mara display why she was a Master Trader, and he only the Jedi Master.

He noticed a curious expectancy in the room, and was occupied for most of the meeting with trying to puzzle it out. In overhearing a blip, he comprehended with amusement, that the assembled staff was wondering whether he and Master Trader Jade were "right" for one another, and finding it difficult to wait until that night's vid to learn the truth.

It was for that reason, that the meeting proceeded with a clarity and conciseness unheard of in any other NRI briefing Luke had ever attended. Yet another unanticipated benefit of that wretched melodramatic space trash. He heard Leia's voice intruding into his thoughts, "Sveltner wants to speak with you and Mara after the meeting. It won't be long."

Luke responded silently, "I know. Everyone wants to get home and find out what my destiny is." He passed the message onto Mara.

The meeting ended shortly thereafter. Han and Leia joined Luke, and after a moment's hesitation, Mara moved from her remote seat to a closer one. Addressing Luke and Mara, Sveltner began, "I wanted to thank you both for assisting us in this matter. Your work has underscored how lacking NRI is in people with the unique combination of skills and experience the two of you have. I had hoped that I might be able to call upon you both in the future, should the need arise."

Mara spoke first, cool, but not irate, "General, I appreciate the vote of confidence, but I do have my own business to run."

"Of course you do, Captain."

The little man continued with more assurance and less tact. "That is one reason why your assistance is so valuable. It is precisely because you are a trader, and known so widely as a trader, that makes you so useful an asset to the NR."

They could all sense Mara's irritation at being so cataloged, but she said nothing.

Luke injected, "I resigned my commission years ago General, I'm not sure that NRI activities are necessarily appropriate for a Jedi Master."

"Well, again, Master Skywalker, we are sorely in need of those qualities. I certainly understand the concerns you both have, some sacrifice would be necessary. But this matter on Verrat emphasizes once again that it is the combination of skills both of you bring to the team that compels me to make this request."

Both Luke and Mara had alighted upon the same word, "Team?"

Sveltner stammered slightly before again locating his poise, "Did I not explain that? NRI is specifically interested in the two of you as a team, to be available to us for special missions, and for field training operatives."

They were both momentarily stunned, Mara becoming tensely mute. The five of them sat in silence until Luke finally said, "I know I will need to consider this further General." Mara only nodded.

Good byes made, Sveltner headed hurriedly out the door, eager to make the long commute home and be on time for the episode airing in a few hours. He had participated in the NRI office pool, and wanted to find out if he was going to be able to take his wife out for that nice dinner on the proceeds.

Luke turned to Leia, "Well that was interesting."

Leia shrugged slightly, "Be flattered, both of you. Sveltner doesn't normally ask such things, certainly not of two pseudo-civilians. He was very impressed with what you accomplished. He's right, not many people could have acquired and deciphered the financial data, recognized the scam, recognized the players, traced the credits, and finessed the rescue."

Mara injected sourly, "It's a hell of a thank you. We saved their hide with this fiasco, and this is just Sveltner's way of assuring everyone else that we're always on call to clean up his messes."

A slightly awkward silence followed, before Han finally spoke up. "Don't suppose either of you would be interested in joining the most significant cultural event of the galaxy in decades and watching the Showdown episode with us tonight?"

Even if he had not necessarily considered what response his half-sarcastic query would elicit, Han did not expect Mara to visibly smirk and apparently make some silent comment to Luke, who responded with a stifled, choking laugh. Han noticed further that Leia evidently overheard the exchange, first giggling then schooling her expression into one of polite interest. This was bad enough with his wife, children and brother-in-law. And now Mara too. Han scowled, "Now that you all have had a laugh, want to let me in on it."

Luke apologized, "Sorry, Han. It might be fun, but it really depends on how much brandy you have."

Mara piped in, "I doubt we could get through that show without at least two bottles of Corellia's finest Solo."

Han guffawed, "Two bottles, are you kidding?"

Luke thought about it further, then said, "You're right, I think we might need three bottles and some wine." He stood, "Come on, let's check out your liquor cabinet." As Luke and Han headed out the door, Luke put a companionable arm over his friend's shoulder, "So, are you familiar with the rules of the Tales of the Jedi drinking game?"

Fun? Drinking games? Leia could not remember when she had last felt that light hearted quality in her brother and turned to Mara with expressive wonderment. Mara pushed away from the table, communicating clearly that she was running from any heart to heart with Leia. She was not, however, able to move fast enough toward the door before Leia was able to cut off the obvious retreat.

"Mara..." Leia's salvo forced Mara to stop abruptly. Pivoting, she had to content herself with pacing the room. "I really can't thank you enough for what you've done."

Mara shrugged, digging her hands into her suit. "Well, we just sort of fell into the Tirgu thing. I should have known, if Skywalker got involved that it wasn't going to be a normal run."

Leia knew Mara deliberately misunderstood her, "Of course we all appreciate what you did there, but I'm especially grateful for what you've done for Luke."

Mara stayed stonily silent. Leia continued, "I have no interest in prying. We all know that Luke has not been himself for a long time, and I just wanted you to know that I attribute the obvious improvement to you." Leia stood, knowing that Mara would reveal nothing, and was even relieved that she would not; the link with her brother already brought Leia closer to the situation than she wanted to be.

Which reminded her that there was one thing she would rather raise now with Mara, then with her brother, later. With a slim smile Leia quickly trained into a bland expression, she said obliquely, "I apologize for any intrusion. It won't happen again."

Leia was startled to see the aloof, collected Mara actually redden, and further amazed to sense a warm, uncertain shyness. If she had not felt a sense of fun in Luke for years, she had never felt warmth or uncertainty from Mara. Leia understood something of the conflict, and wished she could convey an empathy Mara probably would not welcome. Not so very long ago, Leia herself had bitten back the fears and misgivings to cross the chasm that separated a friend from a lover. Embracing that vulnerability had been nearly insurmountable for Leia; she could only imagine what an obstacle it had been, and still was, for Mara.

Mara's mumbling cut off anything Leia might have said, "Well, sorry about any, uh intrusions last night."

It was then that Leia noticed that Mara was nervously fingering a lightsaber handle clipped to her belt. She stared at it. "You're a Jedi?"

Mara straightened, the customary prickliness returning, "Who says?"

Leia suddenly realized the handle was familiar to her. She fleetingly wished Mara had not been able to so easily perceive her own shock. "How long have you had it?"

Mara looked down at the handle, still defensive, "Over ten years, since right after Wayland."

Leia's astonishment slowly faded. "It's ironic certainly." She paused, then asked, "Why did he give you our father's lightsaber?" Leia did not ask judgmentally, but only out of curiosity.

The admission came hard to Mara. "I don't know." She looked up, meeting Leia's gaze. "And your brother doesn't know either." Mara's eyes briefly went out of focus, with a wispy smile, evidently sharing some private exchange with Luke to which Leia, to her further surprise, was not privy.

In that moment, Leia suddenly saw what Han had meant by the connection between Luke and Mara, and marveled that she had not seen it before. There was a bond, a deep one, nothing like her link with Luke, and after sensing the tenor of the unseen current, Leia realized it was also very unlike her own love for Han. It was that personal experience as a reference, a reference she felt neither Luke nor Mara had, that permitted Leia, in a flash of insight to comprehend that what existed between the two of them was something unique, transcending simple emotions or explanation, common only to Jedi and no others. She wondered if Luke and Mara knew of it, and swiftly concluded that they probably did not. She felt a stab of pity, for what strength in the Force had demanded of them, denied them, and hopefully, also given them as recompense.

Turning toward the door, Leia asked, "So, tell me about this drinking game."

ooOOoo

Necessary arrangements made, and after exchanging some brief words of understanding with Han, Luke retreated, needing to sort through the emotions coursing through him. He sought the solitude of the roof, sitting on the ledge, admiring the huge lowering sun tinting the sky shades of pink and orange. He was not really surprised when, some time later, he sensed Mara's approach, she, no doubt seeking the same refuge. "No," he said, "it's all right, come on up." As he felt her ascend the stairs, he thought this was not so much a repeat of the previous night, as it was of their meeting over ten years ago.

As Mara emerged from the stairwell and slowly crossed the roof, Luke wondered if he would ever have the same view of stairwells, or at least of the Coruscant roof stairwell again. She sat next to him, saying nothing, keeping her distance, as each tried to give the other the mental privacy so much needed. There was so much to say, and no easy way to begin it.

As the sun dipped, Mara began with a relatively neutral question, "Have you decided what to do about Sveltner's offer?"

"Well that depends on you, too. He wanted both of us."

"How does a Jedi Master feel about being an NRI commando?"

Luke banged his dangling feet against the ledge. "Not necessarily a commando. Teacher too. And I probably feel about it the same way a Master Trader does on learning NRI thinks her trading is just a good cover."

"That does annoy me. He was awfully cavalier about my livelihood. And yours. Still," she paused for dramatic effect and a sly sideways glance, "it might be fun."

That, Luke thought, was the most reassuring thing he had yet heard. He said only, "It certainly could be."

Even if relieved, Mara instinctively shied from the hopefulness that had trickled out and attempted to shift the emotional timbre of their discussion, "We could always use it as an opportunity to keep looking for respectable prospects for you."

With what he deemed her phenomenally callous statement, Luke erupted, "How can you say such a thing? Especially after . . ." He slid off the ledge, struggling to control the wounded feeling she had inflicted, and angry at himself for feeling it. "It cheapens what we have."

"What do you mean, what we have?" Mara blasted in frustration. "What we have is ten years and one night."

He recognized the defense, and responded not to it, but to what it protected, saying gently, "It's more than that."

"Can you honestly say that whatever you feel for me is remotely like what you felt for Callista?" It was a demand that she would have never made if she had not already been certain of the answer.

"It's totally different. You know that."

"Exactly, so..."

He interrupted, delivering the unwelcome news, "But just because it's different doesn't make it any less important to me. And it's not just my feelings that matter on this, I want to know where you stand."

"Where I always have." Although her too swift response belied other emotions, Luke had to look at her for a long, uncomfortable moment, before Mara finally retreated. "No, I..., well you know how I feel."

Luke moved to stand in front of her, and clasped the lapels of her suit. "We share so much in thought. Sometimes it's like my name. Sometimes I just want to hear it from you."

"I'm getting better about your name," Mara protested.

Luke moved a finger along her collar, agreeing. "Yes, you said it quite a few times last night." Mara ducked her head, blushing furiously. What a novel sight.

He tilted her face up, making her meet his gaze. "Tell me," he demanded. The tension and reluctance oozed from her. Kissing her lightly, he entreated, "Tell me ... please."

Mara trembled with the strain, "I... I like being around you sometimes."

Luke made a soft persistent appeal, tugging her suit front again. "Can't you do better than that?"

The stress made her incoherent. "You're in my mind, I ... I'm used to that. Sometimes it drives me nuts."

"And?" Still resisting, still avoiding, still vacillating, he held her firmly about the waist, blocking the retreat, repeating more assertively, "And?"

As something being torn out of her, with a tremendous act of will, Mara bit out her confession, "You fill a place I never even knew was empty. I'd miss it if you weren't there."

"Now, that wasn't so hard was it?"

She struggled free of him, slipping off the ledge to demand angrily, "So what? I said it, but where does that leave us?"

Luke shrugged and smiled at her, "I don't know, I just wanted to hear that sometimes you'd rather be around me than not."

"And what does that mean, that I drop everything and follow you to Yavin?"

"No, but ..." Now Luke retreated, dropping his eyes to the pebbly ground.

She cut in, smacking the edge for emphasis, irritated with his head hung demeanor. "I hate you there. If I went to Yavin, I really would kill you."

Luke looked up to point out the obvious, "I can't say that Yavin brings out your better qualities either. Or at least the ones that I find the most compelling. But I..." He paused, reluctant to raise it, "I never knew how you felt the first time you came to Yavin. If I had been ..."

"Don't make more of that than there was," she broke in hurriedly. "It wasn't a big deal then, it certainly isn't now. Too much has happened to both of us since then to make anything of it."

He did not know if she truly believed that, and he was unsure if he wanted to hear the answer she had given or another. Luke remained silent, Mara finally awarding him a hard look, and a sharp question, "This morning, you almost said something about 'next time,' and then didn't."

In response to his quiet, "I guess I wasn't sure if there would be," Mara sent an impish thought, meriting a chuckle in reply. Aloud he said, "True, but I was thinking more into the future."

"Have you tried projecting ahead?"

Luke was startled, realizing as she said it that he had thought about looking down that road. "No, of course not, why would I do something like that?"

"I don't know," Mara bristled. "But you can do it and I can't, and maybe you've seen something and don't want to tell me."

"It's hard to project into the future on something like this. We could try to do it together, but I don't think we would see much. And I don't think it's likely to be a very good guide. Besides," Mara caught his passing recollection of what Dona had said.

She began questioning, "If we think we know the future?"

"We abdicate the responsibility for making it."

A heavy silence hung between them. Mara staring at her feet, at last ventured, "So I guess with some things we just have to muddle through it like everybody else." She muttered with irritation, "Billions of people work through it every day, why the hell can't we?"

She began stalking about, movement at least giving them the illusion of headway through the conundrum. She finally spun around to confront him, "So do you want a next time?"

Luke was not going to let her off that easily, "Do you?"

Evasive, stalling, waiting for him to say or do something that he never did, Mara finally made the opening gambit, "Maybe."

"Maybe what?"

"Maybe..." Mara drew out the words, hoping that Luke would finish for her. When he did not, she continued, "Maybe this doesn't have to end with the trading run."

"We could think of it as a beginning," Luke suggested carefully.

"But," came Mara's soft challenge, "to what?"

Now Luke banged his back up against the ledge, staring at the ground, unable to ascertain what kind of beginning he even wanted. They were flying blind, into uncharted territory. Every decision was fraught with unknowns, real and imagined pitfalls, and ephemeral, unquantifiable payoffs. Even Mara's instinct for self-preservation was not likely to be of much use taking this risk.

He finally made a shy proposal. "Maybe you could visit Yavin more often, you still have to show me the nightlife."

Catching the real intent, Mara snorted, "We do at the Academy what we did last night, and your trainees will riot."

Luke laughed at the prospect. "I have to think about whether our discovery should be incorporated into the Jedi curriculum."

"I would think," Mara offered brightly, "that a thorough, methodical review of the subject would be necessary before undertaking so important a revision."

He snared her as she paced by, wanting her near. Caressing her upturned face, Luke promised, "I'm sure we can work something out in that regard."

Accepting the offered kiss, Mara then posed another alternative. "Maybe you could fly with me more often. I can always use a co-pilot during my runs, and..." she paused with a glitter, "we can work on split concentration exercises during those long, boring hyperspace jumps."

"Now why would I ever want to go on a jump with you?"

Mara brought his head down to her own, murmuring, "There might be some appropriate compensations."

He finally expressed what had nagged him, "What about when I can't co-pilot, what will you do then?" The question was anything but idle - he was asking obliquely if there would be some token commitment to accompany their link.

Mara sighed, shutting her eyes to the hope she saw in his, saying slowly, "I could probably work something out there, too." Wanting to avoid his wistful "really?" even if she had been gladdened to hear it, Mara gently pulled away from the embrace, and approaching the ledge, noticed for the first time a small box resting there, "What's that?"

Luke shrugged noncommittally, "Something I picked up for you."

She was instantly suspicious, "What is it?"

"Open it and see."

Mara gingerly took the box, feeling its disproportionate weight for its size, and pried the lid off. Inside rested a blaster, and a single, blue coneflower.

Luke explained quietly, "It's your old blaster, I found it in the weapons closet during the jump when I was stowing the gear. This afternoon I had the tech department clean it up, replace the trigger and sight." Mara made no sound, simply staring at the box.

With no reaction from her, Luke hesitated, trying to feel his way through this unknown terrain. "I was worried you'd be mad I messed with your equipment, but ..."

"No, no, I've been meaning to do it for a long time," she whispered softly. "And the flower ..."

As her voice trailed off, he realized with surprise that he had managed to touch some small part of her. "I uhhh just thought you probably didn't get flowers very often. I sort of regretted that I didn't give you that one I took out of Dona's bouquet, but uhhh I guess, I was worried you'd just laugh or ..." He was unable to fathom her reaction, half fearful that she would snicker at the uncharacteristic sentiment.

Mara was very, very still, holding the box in her hands; he noticed that she pointedly avoided looking at him. When she spoke, her voice was full and halting, "I don't know what to say. It's very thoughtful. I, I don't get many gifts, but I don't have anything for you, I ..." She did not finish, ending unsure and hesitant.

A sarcastic response would have at least seemed more natural to him than the intense emotion welling within her and the corresponding embarrassment it elicited from him. After an awkward silence, he finally said, "I'm sure you'll make it up to me one way or another. In so many ways, you already have." They had just edged closer to a line neither would venture over, both simultaneously seeing that there remained many more things still on the list, things neither of them had any experience with, and that some of those things might never be crossed off.

Cradling the precious gift in her hands, Mara backed away from the divide first, to look out over the city stretching before her. She watched as one of the new model X Wings slowly made its lumbering way to dock, eventually observing, "I think we found a better solution to the lateral control problem than R&D did." Her statement was a retreat they both welcomed.

Luke came up next to her. "Too bad we had to leave the tablecloth behind." He hesitated, then slipped an arm around her waist, feeling her first stiffen slightly, then lean into him as they tested the unaccustomed sensation. They watched the ship maneuver and after a time he added, "That's really the question, isn't it?"

Mara already knew what Luke meant, but asked anyway, knowing that, sometimes, things were not real until said. "What?"

"What kind of ship."

In the dimming day, the landing lights shone brighter than all but a few of the emerging stars. "Acquaintance?" Mara suggested.

"Beyond that I think. Friend at least."

Emboldened, Mara tentatively brushed against a razor's line, using the "r" word softly, "Relation?"

"Something in between," Luke mused aloud, "or beyond?"

"I guess we have to design our own, don't we?"

ooOOoo

EPILOGUE

The explosive conclusion to the "Showdown at Centerpoint Station" episode of Tales of the Jedi duly aired, first on Coruscant and then throughout the remainder of the galaxy. To the shock of billions of fans, "Duke" and "Tara" decided their destiny, and leatherwear notwithstanding, opted to maintain a platonic friendship. Loyal fans might have accepted this disappointing fate but for an important twist of divine justice.

In the subsequent action before the Trader Tribunal, Jade vs. KJ Bant Lusson and Jedi Productions, it was revealed during the discovery phase of the proceeding that the producer, KJ Bant Lusson had never in fact intended for Duke and Tara's relationship to become more intimate. Indeed, numerous memoranda subsequently leaked to system wide bulletin boards and nets detailed a complex marketing scheme designed, not for the long term happiness of Duke and Tara, but to assure a steady lucrative credit stream to the producer. In a calculated business decision, it had been determined that fans would be more likely to tune in if they were continually led to believe that the next episode would truly be the one in which Duke and Tara decided their appropriate destiny. Moreover, whether for reasons of lucre or sentiment, it was also revealed that KJ Bant Lusson did not wish such connubial bliss on his superhero, believing that although not celibate, neither should Duke find true, enduring, reciprocated love.

Outrage over the behavior of Jedi Productions and KJ Bant Lusson was intense. Disgruntled fans on dozens of worlds stormed their local vid broadcasting studios. A sit-in at the Jedi Production headquarters persisted for six months, before the protesters became tired of the cafeteria food and departed.

In a further blow to Jedi Productions, it was also discovered that the 900 holonet number scheme had been intended not to garner fan views, but was simply another method by which "Showdown at Centerpoint Station" became the most watched and profitable holovid in the history of the galaxy. Profits from product tie-ins and novel serializations paled in comparison to the billions raked in from trusting fans who had sincerely believed that their views were instrumental to deciding the destiny of Duke and Tara. The furor increased when it was learned that over 50% of the calls had been initiated by children under the age of twelve, resulting in unexpected holonet bills conservatively estimated in the trillion credit range.

The fraud led to a call, championed by the Chief of State, for tighter regulation of the 900 number industry. Although some responded that this was merely another example of an overreaching government once again getting on the backs of private businesses, the fervent belief that children, and more importantly, their voting parents' purses, had been injured by the false, deceptive and unfair trade practice silenced most critics.

Luke and Mara joined Han and Leia to watch the "Showdown at Centerpoint Station" episode. The children had been trundled off to an evening of alternative, more appropriate entertainment, promised that they would be able to watch the episode the following day, but only after their parents had availed themselves of the V and S chip option on the vid. The Jedi introduced the Chief of State and General Solo to the Tales of the Jedi drinking game.

Lando Calrissian made out fairly well on the episode wagering, having hedged his bets in both directions and guaranteed a tidy return regardless of the outcome. With Mara's assistance, Han sold a bottle of rare Alderaani cavernol to Calrissian for the bargain price of 10,535 credits. The proceeds barely covered the Solos' holonet bill.

Mara ultimately prevailed in her suit against the producer, KJ Bant Lusson. She donated the entire proceeds to the Tirgu Muresh Enterprise Fund, an organization she founded with the Remschi family to encourage the development of the local Verratan economy. The Verratans are still talking eloquently about what they will do with all that money.

Knowledge of the fraud perpetrated by the Verratan Imperials and the Bacchanalia Trading Company SRL eventually percolated throughout the ranks of that closed society. The would-be Emperor, his commanders, and their extensive hardware dissolved into the vastness of the galaxy, their setback, no one doubted, only temporary.

Witten Borkin and Dazern Kyle married. Borkin remained ensconced at the NRI, moving slowly up the promotional ladder in its civil service ranks. His career became a testament to the principle that a person is inevitably promoted to the level at which he can no longer competently perform a task. Dazern became a successful designer of women's evening wear - her creations were unique and very popular, designed specifically to allow for concealed weaponry. Mara Jade was only one of her more notable and loyal customers.

Luke returned to Yavin IV and with some of the proceeds of his trading in Tirgu Muresh, installed a wine cellar in one of the unused temples. He became noted and respected wine critic, and his occasional "Skywalker Recommends" columns in the galactic press were always much anticipated and well received among experts.

At first Mara did make regular visits to Yavin. Two events, however, mandated a change in the routine after several months. Master Skywalker learned just how eagerly the Yavin community awaited Mara's arrival and that the Jedi would invariably make a discrete rush to the infirmary for appropriate precautionary supplies whenever the Jade's Fire dropped out of hyperspace. Luke might have tolerated this breach of discipline, but for the events of one evening, when, as a result of certain intense movements within the Force, a herd of normally placid grazing ruminants stampeded through the Massassi Temple. To the regret of the Yavin IV denizens, thereafter, Mara and the Jade's Fire remained in orbit.

Many years later, a sociologist at the Coruscant University, studying the rituals of human dating behavior, began cataloging the origins and vernacular of cantina pick-up lines. To the researcher's amazement, the popular line "Hey baby, let's go into orbit," appeared to have originated at the Jedi Academy on Yavin IV. None of the Jedi interviewed were willing or able to offer an explanation for the phrase.

Because Mara professes every intention of collecting her 22.5% commission and Luke avers an interest in respectability, they venture out of orbit periodically on longer sojourns, whether to search for respectable women, or on trading runs or for secretive NRI business. They haggle constantly about the rates, terms, and options of the finder's fee arrangement. To the very observant, the entire argument has appeared rather academic - it may seem that perhaps, Mara has not been looking all that hard, and that when she occasionally finds some respectable, invariably not all that attractive of a prospect, Luke has always been too busy to meet her. And they keep meaning to post that lonely heart advertisement, but somehow, never seem able to agree on the appropriate wording.

THE END


ENDNOTES

Old notes from 1997: No, they aren't in love. No, that box on the roof was never intended to contain an engagement ring. I've actually made several revisions over the years to make that really clear. They are too damaged for love at this stage. In my personal universe, they never marry either. Mara is not pregnant. Thanks to Jeff, Dunc, and everyone else. Immense gratitude and a bottomless bottle always to my co-conspirators.

New notes from 2013: Thanks to old readers who rediscovered the fic and new readers who found it for the first time. I hope you'll read and review and I so appreciate the follows, reviews, and favs. My other work is under the name rthstewart, both here and on AO3. Thank you again.