Mara blinked, realising she'd drifted away from her conversation. If she'd been so lost that it had taken a mental nudge to chide her back… how damn embarrassing. "Sorry, Luke." She focused on her attention back to her friend and mentor.
"She's not dangerous, Mara. She was an Old Republic Jedi. She's fascinating. So full of stories."
"I'd like to hear them," Mara murmured.
Luke half-smiled, half-frowned. He hadn't even caught the sense of sarcasm that he was so used to from her. Nor even suspicion. She was genuinely interested in the young woman who had returned with him from Outbound Flight. Callista's spirit had been trapped in the ship's control system for years, and the body she now inhabited had belonged to one of Luke's apprentices, Cray Mingla, who'd sacrificed herself to save Luke and the others. Luke missed Cray – she'd been a good friend and student. He couldn't stop questioning himself as to whether allowing Callista to come back with him, had been the right thing to do. For the Jedi Order he was throwing all his effort into rebuilding, she was a near-miracle: someone from the Old Republic who could help guide and shape them. And she had known his parents, had given him and Leia clear information about the ambitious and likeable young man their father had once been. On the other hand, she was a rather strange woman, and Luke wasn't even sure if he liked her. Then, every time he thought such things, he had to scold himself, and remember how Callista's own situation must feel to her: back in the real world, but using the body of a suicidal young girl, and in a galaxy so profoundly changed from the one she'd left.
Luke returned his attention to the present, and glanced again at the woman beside him. Despite previously being sworn enemies, and then that awkward stage of being lovers, he and Mara had developed quite a friendship over the past year. And, just recently, he'd caught himself thinking about her quite often. When arriving home at night, he pictured her there waiting for him; while showering, he wished she were under the flow of water with him; while in bed, he imagined her curled beside him, stroking his body… But those thoughts were embarrassing, and ridiculous. Mara would never be interested in him. He got the impression that she didn't notice men much at all in that regard, and even if she did, he could guarantee that he wasn't the type she'd go for. Mara Jade needed action, and Luke had already had enough of that to last a lifetime. Plus there was the issue of her now being one of his apprentices. And, the fact that he was completely inexperienced in sex, relationships, all of that. The only woman he'd ever kissed – or rather, who'd kissed him – was Leia, before they'd found out they were siblings, and they were both just silently grateful that nothing else had ever happened between them. Force, that would have been horrific.
No, confessing his feelings for Mara would ruin one of the strongest companionships either of them had, and would complicate their lives further.
Luke returned his thoughts to the present, hastily wondering if Mara was going to take advantage of his inattention and mock him for his earlier chiding of her, as she usually would. But she wasn't even looking at him. She had returned her intense gaze to Callista, whose grey-blue eyes – those that had once belonged to Cray – looked around the treatment room of the med-centre with forced assurance, as the medi-droid removed the last of the bandages from her arm, where Cray had been injured before her death.
Imagine bleeding someone else's blood. In spite of the many bizarre incidents of his own past, and the resultant tolerance he had for most beings and their circumstances, the thought still made Luke shudder.
"Can she have more than one visitor at a time?"
Luke glanced back at Mara, surprised. The former assassin had never, to his knowledge, extended kindness toward a stranger. "Yes. Would you like to come with me?" For one foolish moment, the idea danced in his mind: could it be that Mara had only offered because she was so keen to spend time with him?
"If that's all right." While she spoke, her eyes did not leave Callista's movements. There goes that pipe dream, Skywalker, he thought, as they headed toward the treatment room to get to know the ghost-woman a bit better.
The grey eyes that looked up at them as they entered the ward, betrayed Callista's feelings of nervousness and desolation. But her Force presence, however lack-lustre, intrigued Mara. The former 'Emperor's Hand', who had truly believed herself incapable of empathy, felt a softening in her own soul as she looked at those eyes, an emotion that somehow both reviled and excited her. The two women held gazes for a heartbeat longer than an introductory glance required, and Mara stiffened as she felt all the blood in her body rush to her most sensitive areas. What the hell was wrong with her? She had to force herself to focus on the present situation, for the second time in five minutes. She was never going to make it as a Jedi Knight at this rate.
"How are you doing, Callista?" Luke asked,
The woman blinked, wet her lips, and managed a polite smile. "I'm all right, Master Skywalker. My arm…" She trailed off, then began again, more confidently. "My arm, it's healing nicely, they said. I thank you for your role in that."
"There's no need to." There was only one chair set out by Callista's cot, and Luke indicated to Mara that she should sit on it. Mara did so, continuing to both try to avoid Callista's gaze and to take in every aspect of her. Her spy training should have made this easy, but for some reason, she was unsettled by the other woman's presence. Well, perhaps 'unsettled' was the wrong word, for it wasn't as unpleasant a feeling as that… was she flustered? Annoyed, Mara forced herself up in the chair, slipping into old habits by making sure her blaster and lightsaber were both exposed, ready for use if need be.
"This is Mara Jade, another of my apprentices. She wished to meet you," Luke was saying.
Callista looked at Mara again, extending her left hand in greeting. Mara paused a few moments, then reached out her right. As their hands met, Mara felt another gentle jolt go through her body, a jolt that ended between her legs and left behind a tingling sensation in her belly. What was this woman, some sort of witch? But when Mara snapped her eyes up to meet Callista's again, she could see that the Jedi looked just as taken aback.
Mara ended the handshake, then glanced up at Luke. His serene expression, as ever, revealed nothing to an observer, but she could sense his puzzlement at the women's reaction to one another. Nevertheless, he remained professional, keeping his attention on the new Jedi.
"Of course, you'll need somewhere to live. The academy I run on Yavin IV is of course the first option I'd give you. We also have headquarters here on Coruscant."
Mara shocked even herself with the words that fell from her mouth, the first she'd spoken in Callista's presence. "I've a spare room in my apartment. You could stay there."
Both Luke and Callista stared at her. Again, Luke's expression gave nothing away, but she could read his surprise through the Force. And… he was pleased? Ah, because she was being a 'nice person'. He had been encouraging her towards such nonsense. But more material to Mara, was the new woman's reaction; Callista's eyes had widened and her pink mouth had formed a very small, very hesitant, but very sweet smile, one that made Mara's heartbeat pick up speed.
A few minutes later, as they waited for Callista to be discharged from the ward, Luke turned to face Mara.
"This is a very kind thing you're doing."
"Oh, shush, Farmboy. It's no big deal."
Luke couldn't help but smile at that retort. "I mean it, Mara. You'd never have offered a stranger any sort of hospitality before. You're… evolving as a person, I guess. It's wonderful to see." And I want to see more, he thought, and immediately dismissed the idea, horrified at himself for being un-gentlemanly enough to even entertain such notions. He hastily cleared his throat. "Or did you offer her a room for another reason?" he asked, his voice lowered.
Panic flooded Mara's brain for a few seconds. What was he implying? "What do you mean by that?"
"Sorry, that sounded ominous. But, well… your reaction to her was rather… powerful. I felt it through the Force, and I saw it on your face. Are you suspicious of her?"
Mara shook her head, taking her mistake in her stride. "No. Just thought I'd take your advice and try being a good sport, Farmboy."
"Good. I sense nothing harmful from her, but I trust your opinion more than I trust my own, sometimes. If there was something, I don't know, amiss with her, I'd hope you'd pick up on it."
"I would. There's nothing to be scared of, that I can sense. Though in fairness, there's not much to sense at all."
"I know. She seems to have lost most of her Force presence, and abilities, after transferring her spirit. I can't imagine how that must feel."
"Me, neither," Mara murmured, thoughtfully. She added, "And I am sorry about Cray Mingla. I didn't ever meet her, but I know you valued her."
Callista appeared from her ward, looking like a lost child waiting to be collected by her parents. The trio headed back to Mara's apartment, one of many in what had once been a grand old hotel on Coruscant, designed by the Emperor for visiting dignitaries. After Luke promised to visit early the next day and bade them goodnight, Mara and Callista had stood together in the hallway, just looking at one another in a silence of embarrassment, though not of discomfort.
"Mara. Please. I don't feel comfortable with that title yet."
"Oh. Mara… I don't have any sleepwear. May I borrow some?"
"Uh, sure. I guess we'll need to go shopping for clothes and toiletries for you." The disgust must have shown in her voice, because Callista smirked a little.
"I'm sorry. You sound so thrilled at the prospect. Not a girlie girl, are you?"
Mara had to laugh, indicating the flightsuit she wore – she'd just flown in on temporary leave from Karrde when Luke had contacted her and asked to meet her. "I only wear dresses and make-up if work forces me into the situation."
"Ah, so what do you do?"
Mara smiled. "Business deals, slicing, information brokering. We were smugglers, before the New Republic was founded. But my employer, Karrde, is a good man, always was."
"How fascinating. I never had a 'job', per se. Jedi were just Jedi, back before…"
"Before the Empire?"
"Yes. Master Skywalker explained the history as best he could to me."
"Well, it was he and his family who made most of the history, in a way. Oh, and just call him 'Luke' around me, honestly. I only call him 'Master' around the young apprentices, or when we're actually in class at the Academy. My fellow apprentices are the same. Most of us were his friends before we became his students."
"Really? How funny. When I was training, your Master was your Master, always. Then again, Master Sk – Luke, well, he's had to build it all from scratch, hasn't he? The poor man."
Mara headed into her kitchen. "Um, I only got back today, so I don't have much. Will caf do for now?"
"Oh, I'm too flustered to even think about food and drink. But… but thank you." Callista touched her fingers to her lips. "Goodness, food. That's something I genuinely haven't had to think about in years and years."
Mara didn't know how to respond to that, so she busied herself with preparing the apartment for her guest: pulling out the sofa-bed, fetching spare night clothes from her single bedroom unit, and showing Callista where everything was kept. As she got ready for bed, she wondered again why she'd bothered offering to baby-sit Luke's latest project; Callista was pleasant, but quite dull.
But sweet. And so, so pretty.
Mara shook that thought from her mind quickly, and got into bed.
To her surprise, as the next three weeks went by, she and Callista became… well… friends. Each day, Luke would come 'round first thing to check on Callista, then he and Mara would train and spar together, then she'd head to a tap-caf to meet Lando and Corran, sometimes with Luke in tow, sometimes not. This was strictly how she liked to spend her time when she was off work – in the company of the few friends she did have, all of whom were male. The only women she really encountered on leave were Luke's sister, Leia Organa Solo, and Corran's wife, Mirax, both of whom she liked but wasn't close to. But coming home in the evenings to find Callista trying to be helpful, by cooking dinner or cleaning, was sort of… comforting. They would talk about Callista's life in the Old Republic; about her traitorous lover, Geith; about how, despite how grateful she was to be back, it felt utterly insane to be in someone else's body, adapting to their movements and habits. Mara confessed her own past as the 'Emperor's Hand', about how it disturbed her that she knew and remembered nothing of her childhood before serving the Empire; about how she still felt that, despite her friendship with Luke and Lando and Corran, she still didn't feel fully accepted by many in the New Republic, who still regarded her as an oddity, a danger. At the end of those three weeks – as Mara's leave was coming to an end –, they were having dinner together when Callista leaned across and pecked Mara on the cheek, stunning the redhead.
"You've been so kind, Mara. How will I ever settle the debt?"
"Um, no debt. Honestly." Mara hoped her face wasn't as aflame as it felt. Thankfully, Callista simply squeezed her hand, then got up to clear away their dishes.
When she arrived home the following evening to hear the shower running, she went into her bedroom to begin packing up her things. As the shower stopped and she heard the bathroom door open, she called softly, "Callista?"
The sound came of petite feet walking to the bedroom threshold. "Hi, Mara."
Mara turned, and felt her eyes widen. Callista, wrapped in a large white bath towel she'd purchased, was still dripping wet, her brown hair clinging down one side of her neck. She met Mara's gaze with her usual melodious smile. "What is it?"
"I – I, uh…" Focus, Jade! Stop looking at her hair! "I… got you your own key. For here. I… I leave to go back to work tomorrow, but I want you to stay. You can be here when I get ba– I mean, until you've found yourself a place. As long as you'd like." She held out the new key in her palm.
Callista simply stared at her. After a few minutes of just hearing her own blood thudding 'round her head, Mara was relieved when the other woman finally murmured, "Thank you. Why…?"
"Well, you've settled in, and you've nowhere else to go, and… I like having you here. I'll be back again in a couple of months. Just look after the place for me, huh? I know I'm hardly ever here, but I like it. Here. This apartment." Jade, stop rambling!
She forced herself to step forward, still holding out the key. Callista reached for it, and that movement, of her delicate fingertips on Mara's palm, weakened the redhead's resolve completely. She pulled the other woman to her and kissed her sweet little mouth. Then, violently pulling herself away, she began cursing, her hands over her face, the key now lying on the floor. "I'm sorry," she muttered, angrily. "Damn, damn, I'm just… I'm sorry…"
"Mara?" Callista's hands came up and took a gentle hold of Mara's wrists, stroking them with her thumbs. "Mara, it's okay."
"No, it's not. You don't… You don't get it, no-one gets it!"
"Mara…" But Mara turned away, her eyes stinging with enraged tears. Now, her secret was out, and everyone would have yet another reason to stare at her and whisper about her.
"Is this what you want?" Callista murmured shyly behind her, and the sound came of the bath towel meeting the floor. Mara turned back to be met with the sight of a warm smile, round little breasts, hands raised in tenderness, and a patch of dark hair between slim legs…
As they lay on the bed, Mara took her time on each area of Callista's body – hair, neck, lips, breasts, stomach, hands and wrists, legs, neck again –, and Callista lay back and enjoyed the attention, and the rapture on Mara's face as she explored each part of her. When she'd looked back up, Callista hadn't known whether to feel amused or moved – the other woman's expression was that of a stupidly aroused schoolgirl, nothing like her usual seriousness.
They stayed in bed for a long time, just touching. Finally, Callista murmured, "Shall we try again at a first kiss?", and a beaming Mara, who'd never felt such exhilaration in her life, leaned in eagerly.