Author's Note: Chalk this one up to, "Varg reads one too many let's-all-hate-Callista stories and finally snaps." You don't have to like Callista, but I think she's a little more complicated than the one-dimensional bitch we see in some fanfic. KJA's utterly pointless Mara-Callista meeting in Darksaber is ripe for new treatments from fan writers; I personally just haven't been satisfied with any of the ones I've read so far. Too many seem to exist for the sole purpose of Mara telling off Callista. I think a meeting between two such complex and intelligent (but troubled) characters would have a little more going on, subtext-wise, and I don't think everything would be resolved neatly in the end. I'm not entirely satisfied with this story myself, but if it helps one person see things from a new point of view, it's not a total loss. :)
Fire and Ice
Feelings like I want to deck you...
- the Offspring, "Feelings"
Sometimes they forget and call me Cray. I don't get annoyed; it's an understandable mistake, and hardly the biggest one surrounding this whole mess.
No, the biggest mistake is that I took Cray's body in the first place. I won't trivialize it by saying it seemed like a good idea at the time. When Cray's spirit left her body--when she said "Go to Luke," and I suddenly understood what she was offering--with fractions of a second to make my decision, it was the only possible course of action. A drowning man grabs for any hand that will pull him to safety; he doesn't stop to ask whose hand it is, or what waits for him in the boat.
I don't need the Force to tell me there's resentment brewing here at the Academy. I'm living among Cray's friends and fellow students; they're outwardly polite, but their eyes say, "You don't belong here." It might be easier to take if I agreed with them. But I do belong here. I do love Luke, even though if he chirps "We'll get your powers back yet" one more time, I'll have to smash something.
What's more, I can be useful here. Palpatine came close to destroying all the Jedi lore in the galaxy, but I could be a link between the lost knowledge and the new Jedi. Last night when we gathered for songs and stories in the common room, and I started talking about midi-chlorians, even Luke looked at me like I'd sprouted wings. Neither he nor any of the other students had ever heard of midi-chlorians. Or Padawan braids, or the living Force versus the unifying Force, or the practice of taking children before their first year, or any of the other things I take for granted. I'm not as good as Tionne when it comes to spinning a tale or singing a ballad, but last night, Luke and the students soaked up my words like thirsty ground soaks up summer rain. Last night, for the first time, I felt those barriers start to crack. Last night the students talked to me, asked me questions, and for the first time there was interest in their eyes rather than distance. I was grateful. And I wanted to say, "See? I have my story to tell, too."
Last night, when Luke spooned up behind me in bed and put his arm around my waist, like he usually does when he's almost asleep, the gesture seemed like that of a friend and companion. The acceptance of an equal. I thought yes!--I can finally belong...
But today things are back to normal. Another day of uselessness, another day pottering around by myself--wishing I could help, wanting to help, offering to help with something, anything. Getting turned down every time. And I'm alone at dinner again.
I scrape my fork around the plate, making childish abstract designs in the gravy. The food really isn't that bad. I should eat.
"Hi. This seat taken?"
She has to repeat the question before I realize it's directed at me.
She stands opposite me, tray in hand, eyebrows arched. The proper smartass response would be to examine the chair carefully before saying, "Looks like it's still here," but this woman hasn't done anything to me yet.
She sits gracefully and makes herself comfortable. She's young, fit, and stacked, with hair like a Bespin sunrise. I know I've seen her before. Looks like hers, you don't forget. She pushes her gorgeous mane back from her face, and I hunch down and study my plate again. With my two-tone bristle job just starting to grow out, I must look like a freak next to her.
She fusses with the tray, arranging her plate and water glass just so, examining her fork and scratching at it with a thumbnail when it doesn't meet her standards of cleanliness. She takes a few bites of food, mumbles something cynical, and toys with a crust of bread. I make more designs in the gravy. Obviously she wants something. You don't go sit by a lone stranger unless you want something from said stranger. Well, she's going to have to be a little more direct about getting it. I'm not a mind reader anymore.
"So you're Skywalker's new girl."
I look up at the flame-haired woman; her face is neutral and her eyes hold mild interest, as if I'm a harmless-looking bug she's never seen before. If I had a fraction of my old Force senses back, I could feel her true intentions. All I can do now is try to sound her out.
"Callista," I correct her. I have a name, and it's not "Skywalker's new girl."
"Yeah, I know. We've met. I picked you and Skywalker up after that business in the Moonflower Nebula."
That triggers the memory--waking up in the pod, feeling strangely weighted down. Realizing the weight is bone and muscle and skin...seeing Luke, and suddenly feeling lighter than air...seeing this woman's confused face behind Luke, and not caring at all, not caring about anything except the feel of this man in my arms, and the joy of having arms again.
"I remember you. Mara...?"
"Mara Jade." Her chin lifts slightly, and I hear a new tone in her voice. Pride? From what Luke's told me, she has a right to be proud. Proud of her skills, her resourcefulness, of the way she fought back after losing everything. I envy the way she says her name. She is Mara Jade. She is herself, and that's all she needs to be.
Luke has never asked for my last name. I never thought to give it, and he never thought to ask. Will he ever ask? Or is "Callista" all he cares to know?
I push the questions aside for another time. Right now I have Mara Jade trying to stare me down with her glittering green eyes. And believe me, I've heard all about Mara Jade.
It's true, she does have admirable qualities. Luke certainly trusts her...but Luke gives his trust too easily. I don't trust her at all. She was Palpatine's creature. I don't care if she freed herself of his last command; he got to her her at a young age, and one is never truly free of one's upbringing. Especially if one was "brought up" by a man as cunning and evil as Palpatine. You could never take anything from him at face value; he had plots within plots, lies within truths within lies. I saw too many Jedi make the mistake of wasting their time trying to comprehend the full depth of his schemes, the way you can waste time peeling away the layers of a ball-puzzle, not knowing if you'll find a trinket or an empty core.
"Are you here to finish your training?" I ask.
She wrinkles her nose. "Nah. Just stopped by to give Skywalker a message."
"Luke thinks highly of you."
"Yes, he says you have a lot of potential."
"Huh. Sounds like Skywalker, all right. He keeps bugging me to come back, but I've got enough on my plate without taking up Jedi Boot Camp again." Mention of a plate seems to remind her that there's still food on hers, so she takes a mouthful of stew.
How will she react to a little baiting? "I've heard talk that you were interested in him yourself at one time."
She's been trained in the Jedi disciplines, but she's no Jedi. She inhales sharply at the wrong moment and takes some stew down her windpipe. Not a lot, but just enough to send her coughing and spluttering for her water glass.
"What the hell gave you that idea?"
"Just idle talk. You know people go on."
She takes another gulp of water, as if that will cool her down. "Interested in Skywalker? What a load of...listen, only thing I was interested in was killing him. Even before I met him. And it seemed like an even better idea after I met him." She stabs her fork into a chunk of meat. "Still seems like a good idea, sometimes." She shoves the meat in her mouth and chews furiously.
She's annoyed, but the mask is still in place. I need to get her angry. Angry people let things slip.
"Guess Luke's not your type, then. I hear you're too busy being Lando Calrissian's new girl, anyway." Never mind the suggestion of intimacy between her and her business partner--something tells me Mara Jade won't appreciate being called "somebody's girl" any more than I do.
She regards me with a steady gaze and doesn't stop chewing her food, but now there's a dangerous flicker in her eye. She swallows and delicately wipes her mouth with a napkin. "So. Who told you that? Idle Talk and his brother, People Go On?"
"I hear things, that's all."
"And you don't have a discriminating ear. Calrissian and I have a business arrangement, nothing more."
"Okay," I shrug, doing my best to sound doubtful. Then I nudge a few vegetables around with a piece of bread, pretending to completely withdraw from the conversation. Master Djinn used to infuriate me with this trick.
Silence from the opposite side of the table. It goes on for so long, I have to really fight not to look up. Finally I hear a drawn-out sigh.
"Let's get something straight."
I look up and raise my eyebrows.
She leans forward, elbows on the table, fingers steepled together. "I don't like you. I don't know what Skywalker sees in you. You stole Cray's body. You have no right to be alive now. Luke loves you, but you can't be happy with that, you have to get your powers back." She says it with a sneer. "He's running here and yon, trying to talk to dead Jedi in the hope that they'll give him a magic antidote to Force-blindness, while there's a hundred things in the galaxy--some of them sitting in this room with us right now--that need his attention more than you do."
The rest of the room has gone silent and I know the trainees are all watching us, but Mara isn't finished yet. "You're a controlling, power-hungry whiner, and Luke's just enough of a sap that he can't see through your game. Now, I don't know what you think you're doing, trying to bait me, but your insecurity is showing bad, real bad. I'll give you this one piece of advice, dollface. You--DO NOT--want to mess with me. People who do end up dead."
Oh, I've no doubt the Emperor trained you well, Mara Jade. Although if I had all my powers back, I could give you an unpleasant surprise. But that's not my goal.
"I've already died," I remind her. "It's not so scary, once you actually do it." As long as I return heat with cold, she'll get angrier and angrier, and finally we'll see just how well Luke can trust the Emperor's Hand. "As far as insecurity goes...why should I be insecure? I'm the one here with Luke...and you're the one with the 'business arrangement' with Lando Calrissian."
Rewarded by three perfect round O's of shock--her two eyes and her mouth--I give her my best diabetes-inducing smile and leave the table.
My heart hammers in my chest, saying hurry, you have maybe five seconds before she blows. Instead I walk in measured, lazy steps--swaying my hips a little, too, trying to look unconcerned and maybe a bit smug. I don't look at the trainees. But I end up hurrying the last few steps to the door anyway.
That's what they think of you--body thief--power-hungry--controlling--whiny--insecure--
I tell that part of my mind to shut up. Then I'm out the door and walking down the hall, and I let out a long shaky breath. My hands are clenched, white-knuckled. I want to slug her so her mouth caves in--
Relax. I breathe again, and force my hands to unravel. The palms are sweaty and I wipe them on my jumpsuit. Relax. The moment you return anger with anger, you've lost.
Insecure? I want to scream at her. Hell yes, I'm insecure! Gouge out your eyes, blow out your eardrums, rip out your tongue, cut off your arms and legs, put yourself into an isolation chamber so you're completely cut off from all sensory information, and then tell me it's no big deal to be cut off from the Force. Then you can tell me I should just be happy to have Luke.
At the end of the hall, I hear the soft swish of the door behind me.
I hear bootheels clomping, echoing in the hall, getting louder, faster, closer. She's not interested in stealth at this point.
Took her awhile to get moving, I observe in some quiet, ridiculously distant part of my mind. She must not be used to having women tell her off.
Now she's running at me. I wince at the last moment--strap in, it's going to be a bumpy ride.
Even though I'm expecting it, the speed and strength of her attack take me by surprise. She spins me around by one shoulder and right into a backhanded blow across the face. One side of my jaw explodes in pain, and as the room tilts, she throws me up against the wall.
"I'll give you a perfect ten for balls," she says amiably, her nose centimeters from mine. "But a minus twenty-five for stupid." Her voice is calm and reasonable, but the green hate in her eyes reminds me of Palpatine's gaze. She grabs a double handful of my jumpsuit and slams me against the wall again, even harder. My head whips back and cracks against the stone. White fire lances through my skull.
"It's for Skywalker's sake, and his sake only, that you're not in tiny pieces right now. You got that?" Her voice takes on a disgusted tone. "And another thing. Don't go around feeling too proud of yourself, because if I wanted Skywalker, you wouldn't be here."
I taste salt as I smile; I must be bleeding. "You're absolutely right," I say. "If Luke wanted you, you would've been here long before I came along."
It's hard to focus--the room is still spinning, and my face is throbbing--but I think she retreats a little bit as she mulls that one over. Then she backs away from me, laughing and shaking her head.
"Not that I would waste my time on him, but I could make him change his mind. It's not a matter of what he wants. If I wanted him, I could have him, and by morning he wouldn't even remember your name." With a toss of her firery hair, she turns away.
Beautiful hair, exquisite face, a dancer's form and grace...it's easy to see why Palpatine chose her, even though that was before her prime. But it would've been prime enough for Palpatine. He always did have an eye for raw material.
"Yes, I'm sure Palpatine taught you well."
She spins around and suddenly her lightsaber is in hand, igniting with a snap-hiss that triggers muscle memory, the speed-draw response of a trained Jedi. As the blue flame slashes down, I bring my saber up and the two blades crash together, locking, neither one giving a centimeter. In the topaz glow of my blade, I see Mara blink, and something like fear ghosts across her face. So. This is the button I need to press. I don't like doing this to her--but if the Emperor's Hand is going to snap, I want it to be now, here, with me, rather than with Luke or Leia or Leia's children.
Not that I want to die, but at least I've got experience in such matters.
I raise my voice just enough to carry over the crackle of our blades. "No, I can't read you," I tell her, answering the unasked question. "It was only an educated guess, going by what I knew of him. But thanks for confirming it anyway."
Her lips skin back from her clenched teeth, and with a grunt, she breaks our lock. She backs and holds her blade in a defensive position, waiting for me to move. For the first time, I feel an uncertain twitch in my gut. I'd thought her next move would've been an all-out attack. Sithspawn--if only I could feel her through the Force and get a sense of....
Mara is strong in the Force. She has a Jedi's reflexes. She can strike like a viper. Whether she was actually trying to kill me, or just trying to scare me, I shouldn't have been able to parry. She should've been able to sense my move before I made it, and shift the angle of her attack before I could bring up a defense.
I look at her across the humming energy blades and see her bite her lower lip. Her stance is controlled, defensive. Through the loose hair hanging in her face, her eyes are bright and furious--but not insane.
The twitch in the pit of my stomach tightens into a cold ball of apprehension, and I feel the chill spread up my spine to the back of my neck. What I'm about to do goes against every logic circuit in my borrowed brain. Not borrowed for too much longer, if I'm guessing wrong.
Locking my gaze with hers, I deactivate my lightsaber. As the golden beam sucks back into the handle, she blinks again, her lips part slightly, and I release a breath I didn't know I was holding. The cold knot in my stomach uncoils.
"You can't feel me through the Force, can you." It's not a question. "I'm not just blinded to it--I'm a blind spot to everyone around me."
She lowers her head a little bit, glaring at me from under a suspicious frown. I hook my lightsaber back to my belt, and after a long moment, she deactivates hers and does the same. She still stands in a fighter's posture, ready to spring at any moment, but at least we've put the sharp pointy objects away.
No wonder I make everyone here uncomfortable...it's not just resentment over my taking Cray's body. I can just imagine what goes through their minds when they walk into a room and take stock of those present: Let's see, we got Jedi, Jedi, Jedi, big fucking black hole, Jedi....
It also explains her reaction to me. And I didn't help matters by baiting her.
"When I said I didn't know what Luke saw in you, I wasn't kidding," she says. "I don't know how he can stand to be around you. It's...disconcerting...looking at you and knowing you're there, but...." She shakes her head. "It's like you're a ghost. I'm seeing something where I feel there should be nothing."
The irony of it--I'm alive again, but still a ghost. "We're at an impasse, then," I say, raising my chin and fighting to hold on to the last of my dignity. "You don't trust me, I don't trust you, and ordinarily we'd use the Force to feel each other out, but--"
"Wait, wait." She raises her hand. "You...don't trust...me?"
"Of course not."
I've taken her up short a few times this evening, but this really catches her by surprise. She huffs and puffs and in the end she can't get out anything more complicated than "Why?"
"You're the Emperor's Hand."
Her hands clench, and that spark comes back to her eyes. "Was. Was the Emperor's Hand. And I don't need to prove myself to you, dollface. If there's anyone around here needs to prove herself, it's you."
I feel my back straighten and my own hands clench. "Really? How's that?"
"Oh, well," she says airily, "maybe it's just, I don't know, you strike me as one of the most selfish human beings alive."
I almost pounce on that word, selfish, but now's not the time to debate my personality flaws. "And why should you care?"
"I care," she says, enunciating precisely, "because Skywalker's a good guy. A genuinely good guy. You don't find many of those around these days. He's a good guy and a friend and he doesn't know he's hooked a shark."
Now it's my turn to huff and puff. The woman doesn't even know me--this is only the second time we've met--but she's appointed herself my judge and jury! "I've done nothing--and would never do anything--to hurt him," I tell her.
"Who are you kidding? I've seen your type before...the ice queen who takes, takes, takes, and gives nothing back. I've still got friends here. They tell me how Luke worships the ground you walk on, but you're about as warm as a Wampa's ass. They tell me you do nothing all day except a little this and that with the archives, when Tionne gets a break from actually working. Not a bad gig, huh? New life, new body, free room and board, and you get to boff Luke Skywalker." She pauses. "Okay, maybe that last one's not all that incredible, I wouldn't know. But the point is--"
"The point is," I interrupt, my voice low and feral, "that you are making assumptions based on secondhand information, or rather misinformation. Tionne's the only person here besides Luke who's spoken to me long enough to form any sort of educated opinion about me--and yet here you are, judging me on the basis of two encounters and a few mischaracterizations from people who don't know what they're talking about." I force my voice down lower--if I don't control it, I'll scream. "If you're going to hate me, then at least do the courtesy of knowing me first."
"I could say the same to you," she snaps.
I close my eyes and breathe deeply, reining myself back. With an exhale, I release the tension in my shoulders. It doesn't do much good, but at least I don't feel like I'm ready to grab her and give her a good shake.
"You were Palpatine's tool."
"Exactly. A tool. And then one day the tool became a woman, with a mind of her own. I was under a compulsion to kill Skywalker. Instead, I saved his life."
"So have I."
She barks a short laugh. "So you get to be his honey? Listen, if we could cram everyone who ever saved Skywalker's life into his bed, it would be one hell of a gang bang, I tell you that."
"Mara..." I begin slowly, choosing my words with care, "I have a good reason not to trust you. I was a Padawan learner when Senator Palpatine became president of the Senate. The day after I made Jedi Knight, I woke up, turned on the holonews, and saw the lead story that Palpatine had declared himself Emperor. This kindly old man, who looked like he could have been a child's favorite uncle, the sort of man who reads bedtime stories and carries sweets around in his pocket--the man who took office promising to bring justice to all in the galaxy--one day he appeared before the Senate, wearing the robes of a Sith."
My voice starts shaking and I close my eyes, so she won't see what's going on behind them. "I remember the day my Master told me that we'd been betrayed by one of our own--Anakin Skywalker. I'd never met him but knew him by reputation. He was a hero like something out of a legend--people described him as a golden god. He was the one who sold us out. Palpatine had brought Anakin Skywalker, of all people, to the Dark Side."
I'm speaking faster now, and my breathing is uneven--I'm losing it, but I don't care, because the memories are more painful than the shame of breaking down in front of Mara Jade.
"I remember the Purges. I remember trying to help hide some children whose parents had been murdered. One of them was just a baby, four months old. Another little boy kept crying for his puppy that got left behind in the confusion when they fled. All of them were too young to fully understand what was going on. They just knew their parents were gone forever, and they were running from bad men. They never did understand why the bad men hated them.
"We hid in a secret cargo bay on a smuggler's ship. The collected terror and grief of all these children was so strong, it would make you vomit. The baby kept crying no matter how I tried to soothe him...and one of the smugglers kept coming down to the hold, telling me 'shut the kid up--if we get boarded, you'd better shut that kid up, or I'll shut it up for you.' And then he pulled out a vibroblade, just to make sure I understood.
"And then there was the Eye. Don't even get me started on the Eye of Palpatine." I feel two hot tears etching a wet trail down my cheeks. I brush them away with a quick scrub of my hand and then look at Mara, expecting to see contempt or mockery in her face. But she just looks very quiet and serious.
I clear my voice and draw in a long breath, steadying myself. "Palpatine's duplicity, cunning, and perversion knew no bounds. Nothing was beneath him. He was the enemy in our midst, silently biding his time until he was ready to strike. I have very clear memories of what happened to Jedi--and others--who underestimated him." For a moment those memories threaten to overwhelm me with their ruined eyes and torn faces, but I force them back down into my subconscious, where they will give me nightmares later. "If you have indeed freed yourself of your upbringing, congratulations. However, forgive me if I have my lingering doubts."
Even as I say the words, I want to believe her. I want her to be free of whatever Palpatine did to twist her mind. Nobody deserves that. And I want Luke to have a friend of such fierce loyalty.
She's quiet for a long time, thinking it over. "You're right," she says, without a trace of sarcasm. "We're at an impasse. Sounds like you'll trust me with his life the day I trust you with his heart."
You aren't his keeper, Mara. And if anyone's going to get hurt in this relationship, more than likely it will be me. "Give me one logical reason why I'd be playing games with him."
Surprised her again. "Because..." After a moment, she frowns and puts her hands on her hips, taking an aggressive stance. "Listen, I don't owe you explanations--"
"You owe yourself, at least. I've never wronged Luke, and all I've done to you is pass a few rude remarks. If you're going to feel this degree of suspicion and hatred towards me, you ought to understand why."
I turn away and head towards the other end of the hall. My jaw throbs in time with my heartbeat, and I feel something tickling my chin; I brush my wrist gently over my mouth and it comes away smeared with blood. I want to go back to my room, lock the door, pull the covers over my head, and pretend to be asleep when Luke finally shows up. I don't owe this woman another minute of my time.
Yet it doesn't feel right to just walk out and let it end like this.
I turn again and face her; again, my move takes her by surprise. I catch her in an unguarded moment, watching me without that defensive mask of arrogance. Instead, she looks curious and a little perplexed.
"Can you swear you'll never hurt him?" she demands.
If only. "No. All I can do is swear that I don't want to hurt him." And I wonder why the question is so important to her.
She crosses her arms. "Not good enough."
"It's not for you to judge." I'm sick of trying to prove things--to myself, to Luke, to the students, and most especially to her. "There's nothing you or I can say that will make us trust one another. That's going to come from time and experience, if at all." I start to turn away again, but pause and make one last point. "Come back to Yavin more often. Come back and stay awhile, next time."
She blinks a couple of times and then nods slowly. I turn away and leave her to whatever errand brought her back in the first place.
There. That, at least, is a better note for us to end on, this first meeting. I can't trust her, but I can't hate her, either. I can't even be jealous of Mara, despite her radiant hair, despite the perfection of her body. I think her heart has a long way to heal.
That much, I understand too well.