Standard Disclaimer: These characters belong to George Lucas and the Great Timothy Zahn. You made 'em, I just love 'em.

Author's Note: This story takes place immediately after the end of The Last Command. Please enjoy and thank you for your time!

After the Dance

A hush fell over the crowd first, then flared up into rapid whispers and the eye-searing flash of holo-cameras. Leia paused her address mid-sentence when she felt the ripple of shock run through the crowd. It only took a moment of visual and Force scanning to catch sight of her brother and Mara Jade standing in the entrance to the Grand Ballroom. Under her unconsciously regal eye, Leia noted that they were both slightly underdressed in boots, flight-style jackets and belts. Belts with identical lightsabers dangling from them. Her mind flooded with a thousand questions and accusations, but to her credit, only a single, thin line creased her forehead. Luke and Mara hovered inside the doorway in self-conscious silence before Mara began walking sharply away from the crowd.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," Leia picked up, only missing the slightest beat. "I would like to introduce to you the two individuals most responsible for the location and destruction of the Spaarti cloning bank on Wayland. Jedi Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade."

The crowd burst into a flurry of applause, forcing Mara and Luke to grudgingly take the stage. From his position leaning against the ballroom wall, Han Solo hid a grin at the kids' discomfort. Smugglers, Han knew, were programmed to avoid any situation where their pictures could be taken and pilots were really only interested in impressing other pilots, not politicians and dignitaries. His grin faded when he noticed what was hanging from Mara's belt. A lightsaber. And not just any lightsaber, from the look of it. If Han wasn't mistaken, it was Luke's old one, the one he lost during the war. His father's lightsaber, and the only trace he had left of birth family, aside from his sister, of course. And he gave it to Mara Jade. Interesting.

Han remembered on the trail up to Wayland how the kid would spend hours upon hours teaching her to levitate rocks and call birds to her hand and the like. Han had spent most of the time on Luke's tail about it like stink on a tauntaun. Luke certainly had never been known for his practicality, but training your own assassin how to manipulate the Force was beyond even Luke's usual level of idealistic stupidity. Finally, the kid lost his temper and snapped that he was teaching her because he wanted to teach her, for sith's sake, and was that too much to ask? Those were his exact words, which Han mulled over for days after that. Finally it occurred to him that Luke was basically just a lonely young man with no one but his sister and a pair of infants to understand what it was like to see things the way he did, to have power he didn't always understand. And then Mara Jade came along. So maybe she wanted to kill him, maybe she hated him, but at the most basic level, that really didn't matter because she understood. Of course, it didn't hurt that she was pretty, young and probably wasn't a close blood relative, Han thought, his wry grin returning to his face.

After their stage introduction, Luke didn't see Mara again until the dancing began. She marched off the stage and straight to the smugglers for the rest of the formal ceremony. But he could feel her, her irritation, her eagerness for the night to be over, her lingering wonder and confusion over his unexpected gift to her. They circled each other through out half the dance, watching each other over their partners' shoulders before finally succumbing to the temptation to be nearer to each other.

"How often do you have to do this?" She asked softly as Luke took her hand and slipped an arm around her waist. She was a nice, warm armful, Luke decided quickly, forcing his mind back to her words.

"Oh, about once a month, or so."

"You'd think with all the work your new government has to accomplish, they would spent more time in the board room and less time in the ball room." Mara observed with less sharpness than one might expect.

"I couldn't agree more, I hate these things. I'm not . . . good at this sort of thing." Luke finished awkwardly, waving their joined hands at the rest of the ball room.

They danced in silence for two long sets of music, keeping their thoughts closely guarded, although the essential texture of emotion was shared. Mara allowed her eyes to drift closed, swayed and soothed by the simplicity and familiarity of dance.

"When I was a child," Mara began, her eyes still closed, "I had dance lessons every single day. In this ballroom."

Luke was startled by her sudden openness, but he didn't dare react, for fear that she would realize what she was doing and seal herself back up again.

"I would practice here early in the morning, when the sun was just rising." Her brilliant eyes opened, but they were dilated and distant, as if she could see herself, a thin, sparse child dwarfed in the immense ballroom, drifting in and out white slats of light.

"This place would be filled with light coming through those huge windows," she nodded her head to the floor-to-ceiling picture windows along the perimeter of the Grand Ballroom. "Sometimes, I would get so lost in the music that I would think I could just spin right out the window and fly away."

Luke swallowed a lump in his throat and pulled her hand against his chest. "I felt like that, too," he whispered. "Flying my skyhopper over the sand. I'd stare out at the horizon and think I could just up the throttle a few degrees and sail up and out to the stars."

There was a soft, gentle silence between them for a moment before Mara stiffened and edged slightly away.

"People are staring at us." She muttered, glancing over her shoulder.

"Yes, they are." He answered with a sigh. For the fragile length of that conversation, he had truly felt alone with her in time and place.

"Let's leave." Mara said suddenly, her eyes sparkling just a little. "There's something I want to show you."

They sneaked out the back exit of the ballroom, weaving their way through caterers and waitstaff. On their way past a counter empty of employees, Mara snagged a small flask of Corellian brandy.

"Mara!" Luke scolded, catching her wrist.

"Oh, come on, Farmer," she teased with a smile, twisting her wrist so that she could grasp his hand. "We've earned this much, at least. We'll return the bottle later."

Her eyes and her hand entwined in his was persuasion enough. Without another word, she quickly tugged him out of the room. Pressed again a wall outside the entrance, Mara took a swig and passed it to Luke, who responded in kind. He propped his arm rigid against the wall behind Mara, grinning down at her.

"You're lucky Han and I do this at nearly every one of these functions, or I'd be scandalized."

Mara's eyes widened for a moment before scowling and whacking his arm. "I knew that whole affronted Jedi bit was just an act."

They passed the flask twice more, before Mara pushed herself off the wall. "Come on, it's this way."

Mara lead the way through a twisting labyrinth of darkened hallways and stairwells before stopping abruptly enough to send Luke careening into her back.

"Here," she said, pointing to what, to Luke, was nothing more than another overly ornately carved wall panel. But looks, Luke had long since learned, were deceiving. With two swift sure twists of her wrist against one of the carvings, the panel fell open, revealing a narrow crawlspace.

"What is this?" He asked, bending at the waist to peer into the tunnel. Mara just flashed him an enigmatic smile, dropped to her knees and began crawling inside. Luke was disappointed that the darkness of the narrow tunnel prevented him from seeing what was surely an enticing view as Mara crawled about directly in front of him.

At the end of the narrow tunnel was a tiny room, one whole wall taken up by a huge glass window.

"What is this. . . ?" Luke started to ask as he crawled over to the window. With a gasp, he realized they were in a crow's nest above the ballroom. He could see the entire room, he could make out the small shape of his sister and brother-in-law dancing, he could see Karrde and the smugglers, Chewbacca and Lando.

"It's one of the mirrors along the top rim of the room." Mara answered. "Whoever is up here can watch the entire room and all they see is just another mirror." The room was too small to stand up in, so they arranged themselves with their backs against opposite walls, their knees and feet pressed uncomfortably together. With their shoulders' resting on the window glass they could alternately face each other to talk and stare out at the reception.

"When I was too young to be passed off as one of the dancers, it was my job to stay up here and watch a certain politician or court monger."

Luke glanced about the tiny, dark room. "Must have been lonely." He murmured.

That was a mistake, he realized immediately. Mara's face hardened and her lips narrowed together.

"Yes, well. We all weren't lucky enough to spend our childhood dusting crops on some sandball, Skywalker." She snapped, pulling the flask from his hand and glaring sourly out the window.

"I'm sorry." Luke apologized. This time the silence was hard and cold. Luke finally broke it by nudging her knee with his.

"What did Karrde say earlier that bothered you so much?" He asked, running his eyes over her shadowed silhouette.

"You heard that?" Her voice was neither surprised nor accusatory. Luke nodded.

"He told me he doesn't expect me to return to his people with him."

Luke caught a wisp of . . . sorrow? Hurt? "Wasn't that more or less what you expected? You'll have to stay on Courscant for the Alliance, of course."

"That wasn't what he meant."

"I'm afraid I don't follow, Mara."

Mara's eyes flashed up at him and Luke noticed the eerie gleam of tears there. But her voice was clear.

"He meant he doesn't expect a Jedi to spend her time smuggling spice along the Rim." The word "Jedi" was so laced with scorn and contempt, Luke felt the word like a jagged knife to his heart. "Don't you hate it, Skywalker? Being a . . . a freak?"

Luke was quick to reach out and catch her chin, turning her face to his. "We are not freaks, Mara. We're not." He put Jedi firmness into every syllable but Mara made a noise of derision regardless, tossing her head free of his grasp.

"I'll tell you this, Skywalker- I'd give a thousand Empires to have born without this Force curse."

Luke could feel frustration welling in his mind and he forced himself to remain calm, to look at the situation from Mara's point of view. Her Force sensitivity had cost her family as a small child, had allowed the Emperor to use her ruthlessly her entire childhood, had robbed her of peace, sleep and security in all the years between his death and a few scant days ago.

"Like it or not, Mara, it's a part of us and there's nothing we can do about it, save accept it and grow with it. But I'll promise you this, no one is going to use your gifts against you again, I swear it on my own life."

"Well, that's very bravely said and all that," she snapped quickly, but there was a previously unheard unsteadiness in her voice and Luke knew that his passion had touched her. "But that doesn't change the fact that I don't want this. I want to be able to go back with Karrde and just be a smuggler. But now, he knows what I am and I've just been shuffled out of this job like all the rest." She turned her eyes away from his and stared back down at the twirling crowds below.

"Mara, Talon Karrde would do anything for you and you know that. If you truly wanted to return to his organization, he would take you without question. But I think . . . I think he knows as well as I know, as well as you know, that your destiny lies along a different path. I need you here with me, Mara, the galaxy needs you."

She snorted delicately at that. "Don't push your delusions of grandeur on me, buddy boy."

"I'm being serious, Mara." There was an intensity in his voice that Mara couldn't fight against. He reached over and took both of her hands tightly in his. "I need you help me restore the Jedi, Mara."

"I thought that's what your sister and her children were for." Mara pointed out, trying to distance herself from the look in his eyes and the implications of his words.

Luke shook his head rapidly. "No. No, all they know of the Force is what I've taught them. But you, you Mara, have been using the Force since you were a small child, you were trained in the ways of the Jedi. You know things I never had the chance to learn and I can fill in the holes left from the Emperor's training."

"I don't need another master." She warned narrowly.

"I don't want to control you, Mara. I need your help and, like it or not, you need mine."

It was now or never, Mara thought. She could shut the lid on this whole Jedi concept and make sure it was never brought up again. But. . . but Luke was right. She could bitterly hate it, but this was her destiny. Taking a deep breath, she nodded.


Luke's eyes brightened and his hands squeezed hers tightly. Funny, she had forgotten that they were there. He twisted his body around awkwardly so that they were sitting side-by-side. Steeling himself, he stretched one arm lightly around her shoulder. Mara briefly stiffened and considered handing that arm back to him, but ultimately decided that she didn't mind it there. Encouraged, Luke tightened his arm and drew her closer. Mara kept her eyes averted to the window, watching Luke's sister and her husband dancing.

"People aren't going to like this." She said at last.

"Like what?" Luke asked softly, his breath brushing through her hair.

"Like you training me, after the things I said. And the things I did. Some of those people out there, I killed their friends, families. . ."

"They have to learn to accept it. Like you learned to accept the New Republic and me." He swayed lightly side to side, rocking them. Mara closed her eyes and let his gentle presence wash over her. Unlike the Emperor or C'baoth, his awareness in her mind was soft, sharing and warm. Her head fit snugly in the curve of his shoulder and she rested it there.

They stayed like that for a long time, listening to the faint echoes of the music floating up from the dance floor, until Luke turned his head and whispered against her temple:

"Are your legs starting to cramp up, too?"

Mara smiled. "Yes, but let's stay here for a while longer, anyway. I don't really want to go back to the dance."

"Sure," Luke agreed quickly, dropping his head gently against hers. "A Jedi knows no pain after all."

"That's not what you thought when C'baoth was pelting you with rocks." Mara pointed out.

"Hardly ever know pain, then." Luke amended, entwining his fingers in hers, wondering how far she would let this tactile affection go.

If the elbow that found it's way to his ribs was any indication, probably not much further, Luke realized with a rueful grin. His smile drifted away when the seriousness of Mara's mood suffused into his.

"Things are going to be okay, Mara." He murmured against the soft skin of her temple. "Between the two of us, there isn't much the galaxy can do to throw us."

Mara didn't say that it was the two of them that scared her more than any hidden dangers in the endless universe. Although, perhaps, he could sense that particular truth anyway.

The Emperor was dead. And she was free. Perhaps Luke was right after all, stranger things had happened. Perhaps, indeed, between the two of them, things would be okay. Only time would tell.

For now, she firmly closed her eyes and determinedly relaxed under his warm arm and felt a sliver of peace, combined with the promise of more to come, like the dawnbreak of some far horizon.