NOTHING STAYS THE SAME
Leia Organa Solo smiled at the Bothan diplomat as he greeted her. Han stood next to her, in his freshly pressed uniform, complete with Corellian bloodstripes. See-Threepio had been programming himself to take on more domestic tasks, sewing among them. No matter how many technological advances were made in the galaxy, little could beat a simple needle and thread. She knew how much her husband detested the receptions he was forced to attend because Leia's position. She noted with a practiced eye that he was still sore from the crash. He stood straighter than usual.
She tried to ignore the itch that began in her lower back and glanced discretely around the large room. This trade reception had been planned weeks in advance, to close the biannual trade summit on Coruscant. She'd been asked to make an appearance, to show the support of the New Republic to this effort by the ten trade leading worlds. Leia decided to stay when she heard that Mara Jade was planning to attend as well, along with her brother. Wanting to tap her foot impatiently, she quelled the urge and held her hand out to the Ithorian ambassador.
Luke and Mara, as well as the others, had arrived on Coruscant the afternoon before. The Errant Venture had stayed in orbit for only a couple of hours before disappearing again. After welcoming Luke back, and thanking the others, she immediately brought her husband to the MedCenter that was attached to the Imperial Palace. She'd tried to find Luke and Mara after Han checked out clean, but her brother could not be found. She suspected that they hadn't wanted to be found.
She'd barely gotten to hug her brother before he and Mara vanished. Not that there was much she could say. I'm glad you're not dead? Or, of course, I thought your fiancée murdered you, but I didn't know she was your fiancée yet, since you never bothered to tell me. And, then, everything Corran had told her. I always thought you enjoyed teaching, because, well, you have to. You can't change your mind now, though. Sorry.
Leia smiled at Iella Wessiri Antilles. "Please, we're friends. You don't need to be formal."
"Of course, Leia. I guess you've heard Luke is to be here, huh?"
"Yes. I barely got to see him yesterday."
Iella had announced to the reporters that she had helped Mara leave when her field agents realized that Skywalker was still alive. The charges had been dropped as soon as Luke touched the skyhook on Coruscant. There was no case against Mara Jade. Iella knew she would have complaints, especially from Cardinal Ling'ah, whose brief bout in the sunlight had ended, but Leia had already decided to support the Intelligence Director. Iella was a good woman.
Leia could see Mirax and Corran Horn talking with Talon Karrde and a Duro she didn't recognize. It didn't cease to amaze her that all who had gone to rescue Luke all came back. When Shak'rra the Noghri announced that the Retaliator was insystem, Leia tried to prepare herself in case the entire mission was a failure. When Han arrived after spending five days in a bacta tank, she realized how close it had come to being a failure. His blood chemistry had been off, and it had taken nearly an entire day to fix that. As for Talon, he'd spent his time in the tank, and now there was just the barest hint of a limp. He was back to his normal self, and, it seemed, already bargaining with the Duro. Also standing with Talon was the lawyer, Rendel Alino. His reputation had taken a dive when it was discovered that he had lied to the press, but Iella had stood up for him, declaring that he had known the entire time and he was protecting his client by cooperating with New Republic Intelligence. Rendel would not remain on Coruscant for long. It was rumored he already had another job, representing a former Bothan spy. He would only remain at the party long enough to speak with his former client.
Han stifled a yawn. These boring social affairs always lasted too long. Five minutes was long enough for the Corellian. Although he denied it, he was still sore from the ship crash. There were some ailments not even bacta could heal, and muscle soreness from the lack of use was one of those things.
Why was he here? Why was Leia? It was a damned trade reception. According to himself, all it had going for it was free drinks and tolerable music from a Bith orchestra that reminded him vaguely of the jizz groups he used to listen to at various low-level cantinas. It wasn't like he or Leia were traders or anything.
But that wasn't the actual problem. Han knew that something had happened on Caratos. Something important, but he wasn't sure what. Chewie hadn't said anything about it, and Han knew that if the tall Wookiee had known anything, than he would tell his best friend. Talon seemed to be in the dark about it as well, from what the Master Trader had said in the Venture's MedBay. So that left the Jedi. Luke had come to see him several times in the MedBay, and one time Han had woken to find Mara asleep in the repulsor chair next to his bed. She and the others had taken turns staying with him and Talon.
And then his overreacting wife took him to be checked out with the same doctor and 2-1B meddroid who usually checked out his brother-in-law whenever Luke was in need of repairing. By that time, Luke and Mara had disappeared, and Corran and Talon had already left the Venture's shuttle. Apparently he had been the most injured of the group. Chewie was missing fur in a few patches, but they would grow back in time. And seeing his children—he could barely imagine missing them more. It hadn't really dawned on the scruffy ex-smuggler how close he had come to biting the dust until he saw his children. He'd almost lost them, and his beloved wife. And Chewie, and Luke, and the Falcon… It was almost too much to think about. Too depressing. Once this Sith-forsaken receiving line dissipated, then he would definitely help himself to some of those free drinks, and the depressing thoughts would be suppressed until tomorrow. Tomorrow he would stay home with the kids, relaxing, maybe fixing some of the connections inside the Falcon. After Luke's supposed death, he'd neglected his adored ship to stay with his wife, but that was over. Through some trick of the Force that Luke and the others believed, the farmboy from Tatooine had survived yet again, not that the Corellian was upset. Any day that the Jedi Master survived was a fairly good day.
He knew that although his job was done, the New Republic was just beginning. About all he knew was that the weapons had been found, as well as the locations of new Imperial sympathizers. The ring of arms thieves had been found and would soon be closed down.
Han glanced at the long line of beings. Damn, this was going to take forever.
Luke usually entered through the main doors of the Hall, but this time he bypassed the large crowds and walked in by one of the smaller entrances, Leia noticed. Instead of his customary Jedi blacks, or his sandy robe, he wore a stylishly cut navy blue suit that she didn't even realize he owned. He seemed relaxed, at ease with his surroundings, with an arm around Mara's waist. She was dressed in a long emerald dress that just skimmed just below her shoulders and nearly touched the marbled floor. Her hair was left to trail down her back, loosely pulled away from her face with a single comb. Leia caught his eye almost immediately, but her brother didn't walk towards her, and walked towards Talon and the group.
He knew from the buzz of emotions he felt from the people as soon as he arrived that few approved of his arrival with Mara Jade.
He didn't care.
Almost immediately Luke felt his sister's presence, the questions in her mind. She doubted him. She questioned his choice in Mara. She didn't believe that he was the same man he had been before. And with all the negative emotions he picked up on from the Humans and other species he didn't want to be near his own family's questions. Sad, but true.
Mara picked up on his momentary sorrow. Are you all right? she asked him.
Yeah. How long do you need to stay?
Not very long. I just need to check with a couple of my associates, and it was easier to just attend this reception than to try and arrange a meeting. She glanced sideways at him. I told you that you didn't have to come with me. I know how much you despise these things.
I wouldn't say it that strongly, Mara. Han's introduced me to one of the better aspects of these receptions.
The free Corellian whiskey? Just don't drink too much. You and liquor don't mix very well.
Fine, he pouted, grinning.
"What are you smirking about?" Talon asked when Luke and Mara reached them.
"Nothing. How's the leg?" Mara answered for the Jedi.
"Better." The Trader could barely hide his smile. "You two disappeared in a rush yesterday."
"I had business to attend to," she responded with a haughty tone. She knew that her employer was aware of exactly what that business included. She turned to the others. "Mirax, I see you managed to drag the X-wing jockey with you. What did you do, bribe him?"
"Of course. Corran wouldn't have come here of his own free will, even with the free drinks."
"It would seem all the men have alcohol on their brains tonight."
"Don't they always?" Mirax asked. "Well, when they don't have women on their minds."
Hey, Corran, I think it would be tactful for you to close your mouth now, Luke told his friend. I doubt your wife likes you to gape at my fiancée.
Corran immediately closed his mouth and color rose on his neck. He hugged his wife from the back.
I was not gaping, he retorted. I have a cold, and I can't breathe through my nose very well.
Sure. Aloud, Skywalker said, "Oh, by the way, Corran, Artoo's picked up some bad habits from Whistler."
"What's Whistler done? They've only met a few times." And those few times are erased from Artoo's memory, Corran thought to himself. Luke and Artoo's friendship was as close as his and Whistler's. Corran wouldn't know what to do if Whistler suddenly couldn't remember him. On the Errant Venture, Luke had searched for someone who could bring back Artoo's memory, but the mind wipe had been complete. The droid Luke knew was gone, even though Luke had brought the astromech with him, for sentimental value.
"As soon as Artoo plugged into the main computer at our apartment, he ran across an odd file and opened it." Luke laughed. "He'd downloaded his memory into the computer."
"You mean he remembers everything?" Mirax asked. It didn't seem odd to her or the others to refer to Artoo as a real person. As far as they were concerned, Artoo was a real person.
"Everything up to about three months ago. He'd gotten into a regular habit of doing that every two months. Something about a conversation with Threepio about their mortality."
"Everything Goldenrod says eventually turns around to 'We're doomed' or something about mortality."
"Han," Luke said, turning towards his brother-in-law. "True, but at least Threepio did something right this time. Artoo's fine."
"That's great to hear, kid." Han looked around to look for his wife. "It seems that my wife got caught up with the Kuati ambassador. She's already told me that she wants the first dance with you," he added.
"Well, I've promised Mara—"
"No, it's fine, Skywalker." You need to talk to your sister, Luke.
Leia can wait.
I can wait. Talk to Leia. I don't want this to get any more awkward.
Don't argue with me. Here she is. Get out of here.
Luke spun to face his sister. "Leia, you look great." She was dressed in a conservative crimson dress, her mahogany hair piled up on her head in one of the elaborate hairstyles she usually wore.
"Thank you." She embraced her brother. When she broke away, she offered her hand to Mara. It was difficult for her to react to Mara as her future sister-in-law. Less than a month before, she'd been convinced that Mara was a murderer. The former assassin shook her hand firmly.
"It's good to see everyone here," the Princess said. The orchestra began a slow waltz that reminded Luke of one his Aunt Beru used to hum when he was a little boy still dreaming of the stars. He saw his sister open her mouth to say something, but he beat her to it.
"Han told me you wanted the first dance," he said, holding out his arm, like he'd been taught to. After his sister clasped his hand he led her to the floor where several other couples had gathered.
"What were you talking about?" Han asked Mara, watching as Luke led his sister through the steps.
"None of your business, Solo."
"You think there's going to be a fire out there? Leia's been on the verge of a bad mood all day."
"She's mad at Luke?"
"I think that's the first time you've referred to him by his first name in my presence. When are you going to start calling me 'Han'? We've known each other as long as you've known Luke."
"But she's not marrying you, Han," Corran interrupted.
"Thank the gods. I'd always be afraid she would shoot me if I argued with her. I don't know how Luke is going to be able to relax."
"He won't." Corran smiled.
"What did you want to talk to me about?" Luke asked quietly.
"Where did you learn to dance? You were never this good." She could remember vividly the times her brother had stepped on her feet during his attempts at dancing. That hadn't even been a half-year before.
"I've had an excellent teacher." He was leading her in a mild version of the dance. Leia had no idea how good he really was. He could keep up with Mara in the lightsaber ring, and he was a quick learner on the dance floor. "I have a feeling you wanted to talk about more than just my dancing."
Leia was silent for what seemed to Luke to last forever.
"I don't know where to start, Luke. I've learned more about you in the past month from your friends than I think you've told me in a year." When in doubt, blunt always prevailed.
"In other words, why didn't I tell you about Mara, right?"
Her muscles tensed. "Yes, partly."
"I didn't want to."
She stared at him in surprise. "You didn't want to tell your sister you were getting married?"
"No, I didn't want anyone to tell me I was making a mistake in marrying the woman I loved."
"You think I would have told you that?"
"Isn't that was this is about? You don't know whether you can trust me or not because I never told you that."
"It's not just that, Luke."
"Then what is it, Leia?" he asked tiredly. "Usually you just complain that I went after a group of Imps by myself. Regular Skywalker suicide."
"I figured that your fiancée would bitch at you about that without my intervention. After all, I guess it's her prerogative now."
"Don't drag Mara down with this. This is between you and me, Leia."
"I have to bring Mara in. She's as much a part of you as you are of her. Corran told me, but I didn't believe it. I do now. When I touched your presence, when you walked in her, I felt her as well. There is no longer any such thing as just you."
She's jealous. Dear gods, I never believed I would see the day.
"Why did everything have to change, Luke?" As soon as the words left her mouth, she realized how selfish she sounded.
"Leia, you know as well as everyone else that nothing stays the same. You're afraid that I'll leave you behind. Dear sister, you've always been there for me. I'll never forget that. I can't."
A small tear formed in Leia's large brown eyes. She opened her mouth, but Luke quieted her.
"I know, Leia, I know. I'm not leaving you behind. I'll still be here, I'll just have Mara with me." He laughed softly. "If you need me for anything, you now have another person to trust."
Leia watched her brother later that evening. If she thought he had been a good dancer with her, he was more than experienced with Mara. Or perhaps it was the former assassin's skills that covered her brother's faults. Or he had merely been playing with her, easily swaying to the music. Whichever reason it was, he and his future wife were the perfect couple on the floor. Mara was radiant, smiling, with eyes only for her fiancé. Luke knew the dances by heart, no effort into gliding across the floor, twirling Mara around, stepping lightly.
She felt her husband walk up behind her. "Well, your Highnessness, are you ready to call it a night?"
She had no idea how long the night had been. Luke usually left before she did. But not tonight. Luke was his own man. However, in her opinion, like all men, he had needed a woman to watch over him. Before now it had been Leia. Now the task had been given to Mara.
Mara seemed to know that Leia was staring at her. Just one glance of those emerald green eyes, and a glimpse of the flame ring on the thin chain around her neck, and Leia turned to her husband.
"Come on, Han. Let's go home."
Luke noticed that his sister left before he did. There was a first time for everything. He held onto Mara as they moved on the dance floor. He knew that although the Press droids were technically not allowed in the Hall, pictures and holos would appear of him and Mara by the next morning. He knew that he had to expect people he never knew to give him advice on his love life. It had happened to Leia. The Princess marrying the Smuggler had carried the headlines of the news services for weeks. What would the headlines read for him and Mara?
The Jedi and the Assassin? The Rebel and the Imperial? Mara asked. She had obviously picked up on his thoughts, with ease. Does it matter all that much what they think?
No. When he had first allowed himself to fall for Mara, he'd wondered what they would say. How they would not agree with his choice. How they would try to sabotage his life, like they'd tried for his sister. He no longer cared what they thought. He'd lived so long for the New Republic, now it was time to live for himself.
Tionne and Kam Solusar were adept teachers, and Jedi were improving and learning every day. They didn't need him there, to try and split his concentration between teaching and doing what he loved—being the adventurer he'd always dreamed to be. And what more, they loved to teach. He realized that in every move they made, every smile when a student gained experience.
Mara, however, would never want to be tied down to one planet. She was like him. She'd never be content unless she could do what she wanted to do. He knew her past, more than anyone else. He accepted her, and forgave her for what she could not forgive herself. He knew what she would do, although she could still surprise him. He'd allowed her to remain behind when he and Mirax took the Pulsar Skate to rescue Han and the others, even though he knew she would erase her past. No bodies were found when the ship arrived back there. The Kaiburr crystal, however wonderful it was, was destroyed. He'd agreed with her for that. That crystal held too much power, and it wouldn't be much for another person like Tawnie to seek it out, and the next time he and Mara might not be there. Would the others fight as hard as they did?
He closed his eyes briefly. "Mara, you ready to turn in for the night?"
"Yeah. Let's go."
Although they both left for their separate apartments in the Imperial Palace, they also knew that they would find each other on the roof in less than an hour, to continue their dance.