Title: Father Before Me
Author: JediMara77
Timeframe: during The Last Command
Characters: Luke, Mara
Genre: Drama, Friendship
Thanks: To my entertainment gods, GL and TZ.
Summary: After their fateful duel with Joruus C'baoth on Wayland, Mara Jade confronts Luke Skywalker about his parentage.
Author's Note: This is a follow-up to my Mara/Vader vignette entitled "Son of Vader."

Suddenly, finally, after all these years, the last elusive piece had fallen into place. The Emperor didn't want her to kill Skywalker for his own sake. It was, instead, one final act of vengeance against his father.
YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER.
And in the space of a few heartbeats everything Mara had believed about herself—her hatred, her mission, her entire life—had turned from certainty to confusion.
-The Last Command, Timothy Zahn

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The small room was quiet except for the rhythmic beeping of medical equipment. Luke Skywalker crept inside, not wanting to disturb the woman sleeping on the cot, but she opened her eyes as soon as he entered the room, as if she had felt his presence.

Mara Jade had seen better days, but she looked much healthier than she had mere days ago, when she was first admitted to the medical ward in the Imperial Palace. Luke had visited her every day since they returned to Coruscant, and he could sense through the Force that she was steadily improving. The doctors said it wouldn't be long until she was released.

Luke was more than pleased that she was recovering so quickly…but for some reason, part of him dreaded the day of her discharge, for fear that she'd disappear and he'd never see her again.

Especially after he presented her with the New Republic's—and his—propositions.

"Well are you just gonna stand there?" she asked, smiling weakly as she sat up. Luke grinned and crossed to the chair next to her bed, helping her adjust her pillow behind her back.

"How're you feeling today?" he asked, squeezing her shoulder.

"Better," she replied. "Although I really can't wait to get out of here."

"I can imagine. I doubt Mara Jade is very used to sitting around, doing nothing but watching bad holodramas for entertainment," he teased, a small smile coming to his lips as he thought of how irritated she had to be.

"Not without any liquor to ease the pain, that's for sure."

"You should have told me, I would have smuggled some in for you."

Mara's eyes widened in surprise. "Really?"

"Of course not."

She slapped him lightly on the arm. "Tease."

"The doctors say you should be released any day now," he added, trying to comfort her.

"Yeah, they told me. I'll believe it when I see it."

"So…what are your plans when that happens?" he asked, perhaps a little too casually.

She gave him a sharp look. "Continue working for Karrde, of course. Why?"

"No reason."

"Please," she retorted. "You're up to something. And besides, why do you care where I go after this? You should be glad that your own personal assassin is finally getting on with her life."

Luke shifted in his seat, uncomfortable. At one time he might have felt that way, but not after what they went through on Wayland. It bothered him that she thought that of him.

"I do care, Mara. How could I not?"

"Maybe because I've been threatening to kill you since the day we met?"

"But you didn't," he pointed out. "You saved my life."

They locked gazes for several long moments, then she abruptly turned away, grabbing a glass of water on her bedside table. While she was distracted, Luke reached into his tunic to pull out a datapad. He held it out to her when she faced him again.

Mara raised her eyebrows, staring at the object in his hand. "You brought me reading material? I hope it's not some long and boring history of the Jedi Order. That's not the best way to recruit me to your side," she drawled, reverting back to her old defensive patterns.

Luke chuckled. "No, not at all. It's from Karrde, actually. And Leia."

"Karrde and Leia?" Mara couldn't keep the tone of surprise out of her voice. "I don't like the sound of those two working together. This datapad isn't going to explode once I turn it on, is it?"

"Just take it," he retorted. "Although you do have a point."

She gave him a curious look as she turned on the datapad. He studied her face, waiting for a reaction while she read the proposal.

Her jaw dropped suddenly, closing just as quickly as she struggled to keep her emotions in check. "What is this?"

"It's what it looks like—a job offer."

"From the New Republic?" she replied dubiously.

"And Karrde."

"I already work for Karrde," she pointed out.

"Exactly, which is why you were the first person he recommended when Leia suggested that his Smuggler's Alliance have a liaison with the New Republic."

Mara sighed heavily. "I don't know how many times I've told Karrde that this whole 'Smuggler's Alliance' deal is not going to work out, and now he wants me to be their liaison with the government? Maybe he's the one who should have gotten checked into a medical ward."

"He really wants you to do this, Mara. And Leia agreed—you're the best one for the job."

She rolled her eyes. "Somehow I'm not jumping at the idea of working for the New Republic when you all had me under house arrest just days ago."

"Ahh, but that's the beauty of the situation—you won't be working for the New Republic. You'll get all of the perks with none of the hassles."

"I'll still have to listen to boring speeches by government officials such as Borsk Fey'lya. I think I'll still get the short end of the stick, there."

Luke laughed and patted her arm. "Look, just study that while you're stuck in here. We don't need your answer right away." At that, he rose from his chair and kissed her softly on her forehead. "Feel better, okay? Oh, and don't go running off when you get discharged without saying good-bye," he teased. She nodded, smiling timidly at him, and he squeezed her hand before turning away. Once again he had chickened out on the other thing he wanted to talk to her about—her Jedi training—but he knew he could do that later. It was unavoidable.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Her question struck Luke like a thunderbolt, and for a moment, time seemed to stand still. Very slowly, he turned back to face Mara, who was now sitting up very straight in the bed, peering at him through intense eyes.

"What?" he whispered, when he finally regained the ability to speak.

"Why didn't you tell me?" she repeated. "About Vader," she continued, her voice whisper-soft.

The words sent him back in time—bruised, beaten, and battered, hanging from a Cloud City weather vane as his world was turned upside down, questioning his entire life, and his entire existence, up until that very moment. He squeezed his eyes shut against the flashbacks that threatened to overtake him, focusing instead on the woman in front of him.

He collapsed back into the chair. "I thought you knew."

"Well I didn't," she retorted. "I didn't know anything, apparently."

"How'd you find out?" he asked.

"One of the Noghri told me, right before we got to Mount Tantiss, when I asked him about the 'Son of Vader'." She gave him a pained look, one that hurt him deeply. "You could have told me, Luke."

"What was there to tell? I thought that you knew." He shrugged, not understanding why his parentage bothered her so much. "Anyway, does it really matter? Does it make that big of a difference to you, knowing that Vader was my father?"

"Yes it makes a difference!" she practically screamed, seemingly not even caring if anyone in the surrounding rooms heard her. "It makes a hell of a lot of difference, knowing why he wanted me to kill you!"

As she quieted down, Luke had to recoil away from her, not because she was angry—no, he had seen Mara Jade angry enough times since the day they'd met and was used to feeling that emotion from her. This was different, a pure, profound pain and betrayal unlike anything he'd ever before felt…except for that one day, as he hung from a weather vane on Cloud City.

"Do you know what it's like," she hissed, "to have everything you thought you knew turned upside down in one single second? Do you know what that's like?"

He swallowed a lump in his throat. "Yes," he whispered. "I do."

"How could you know what that's like, farm boy?" she spat, just as venomously as before. "You had a happy childhood. You had a family. You had friends. I had—I have—nothing. Nothing!"

Luke wanted to respond, but knew that it would be futile, so instead he reached out to clasp her hand, wanting to give her comfort during her rampage. To his surprise, she didn't swat him away, but instead gripped his hand hard, as if squeezing it could make all her pain go away. He didn't mind.

"I can't stop thinking about the things I did…what I was. I believed everything he ever told me, Luke. I thought he wanted me to kill you for his own sake, but he just wanted revenge against your father. And now I'm questioning everything I ever knew, and all that I ever was…and I don't even know what is real anymore. How could you possibly know that's like?"

Her green eyes were flashing daggers at him again, and now Luke was the one to swat her away, his blue eyes blazing back at her. For once, he did not try to cover up his true emotions, as a good Jedi should. He was too incensed, too angry at her presumptions; he wanted her to see just how much they had in common, and that he was perhaps the only person in the galaxy who could possibly understand.

She looked at him curiously, the expression in her eyes softening just slightly, as she began to comprehend the emotion inside of him, something she'd never before felt from the Jedi she always perceived to be in perfect control.

"You think I don't know, Mara?" She opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off. "You think I don't know what that's like?" Subconsciously, his right hand started to twitch, and Mara glanced at it before he could grab it and keep it still. "How do you think I felt when I found out about Vader?"

She paused a moment before answering, her voice shaking. "You…you didn't know all along?"

"No, I didn't," he growled, anger still rolling off him in waves as he remembered that day…the worst day of his life. He had whispered Mara's same words over and over, and had silently cursed Obi-Wan and Master Yoda for deceiving him. Through the years, he had grown to understand why they had withheld the truth and would never think ill of them for doing so.

But that didn't make the memories sting any less, and Luke knew that the pain of that day would never truly go away.

"How did you find out?" she asked quietly.

He almost didn't answer, but for some reason, he found no reason to withhold the truth from her. "Vader told me. On Bespin."

Mara's mouth dropped, not even trying to hide her shock. Her eyes traveled back to his right hand. "Before or after?"

"After. About a minute after, to be precise." Again his hand began twitching, but he didn't try to stop it this time.

Mara reached out to place her hand in his. The twitching immediately stopped. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

Luke took a deep breath, letting his anger dissipate away. It would do him no good to stay angry. He had made his point. They locked gazes again, staring at each other in silence for a long, long time, and Luke could sense that Mara Jade was finally beginning to realize that she didn't have to be alone in the universe. That he was the one person who could possibly understand exactly what she was going through.

They were finally interrupted when a nurse appeared in the doorway, announcing that it was time to take some vital signs. Luke took that opportunity to leave and rose from the chair, patting Mara's shoulder again. "Read the datapad. I think you will find the proposal interesting, at the very least."

She nodded. "Okay."

They exchanged timid smiles before Luke turned to leave. As he approached the doorway, he heard Mara call out to him.

"Luke?"

He didn't answer, but he turned around, waiting for her to speak again.

"He was proud of you, you know."

Luke's body grew deadly still, and he didn't trust himself to speak. The nurse, realizing that something serious was going on, stepped back into the hallway, closing the door to allow them privacy.

"I know," he managed to choke out. "I got to speak with him on the Death Star, after he became Anakin—my father—again. I could see that he was proud."

Mara shook her head. "No, Luke. I mean…he was proud before then."

He set his jaw as his chin began to tremble, tears threatening to fall down his face. "He told you that?"

"He didn't have to," she replied, still looking into his eyes even as he avoided hers. "I could sense it, although I didn't understand why at the time.

"He was very proud of you."

Luke felt his chest tighten as her words resonated throughout him. He wanted to ask more about his father, but he couldn't find the words to speak. Instead he remained perfectly still, staring intently at a spot above Mara's head.

"I don't know if that means anything to you, but I thought you should know."

Luke took a deep breath, forcing himself to look back at her. Their eyes met, and hers seemed much softer now, much gentler, and full of understanding. "Thank you," he whispered.

"Thank you," she whispered back, before giving him a brilliant smile. "For everything."