Luke stepped quietly through the door that led to the roof of the Imperial Palace, and glanced at the panoramic view that presented itself. The brilliant reds and golds of sunset had begun to fade into darkness, but then, the Coruscant night was never truly dark. The swiftly moving clouds - still tinted with the faint pink of twilight - shone sporadically with the reflections of countless artificial lights from the city below. The roof had become his haven ever since the New Republic had set up the seat of government within the old Imperial Palace. The view was spectacular; and since few ever ventured so far, it was often the perfect place to find solitude, as well. Only recently had another person begun to frequent the roof; but Luke had to admit that her presence only enhanced the location's appeal.
Luke found her in their usual spot, and went to lean on the chest-high wrought-stone railing beside her. "Hi, Mara."
Mara glanced at him, and he would have sworn there was faint amusement in those usually hard eyes. "Hi, yourself. Were you actually looking for me this time?"
Luke smiled at the reminder of the several previous times they had found each other in this very spot, simply by chance. Could it be just chance? "Not actually looking for you - but I was thinking about you."
Mara snorted. "Like you don't have anything better to think au,Skywalker?"
"Not often," Luke replied cheerfully.
Mara snorted again, then the silence stretched out companionably between them. Characteristically, Mara was the first to break it.
"So spill, Skywalker."
"What were you thinking about me for?"
A simple question from anyone else, but Luke knew Mara Jade well enough to recognize the inherent danger. Any overly personal answer here and she'd most likely stalk off - and he at least needed her to hear him out first. He decided to play it safe.
"Just in a general sense, Mara. I haven't seen you for a few days."
"Been busy," Mara said.
"I figured," Luke said. He hesitated, and then decided to take the risk. He bumped her elbow gently with his own. "But I missed you." He held his breath as she looked at him sideways, then sighed inwardly in relief as she seemed inclined to allow the gesture.
"No one to swing your lightsaber at, Jedi? Why didn't you ask your sister to come out and play?"
Luke grinned and turned to look out over the city's never ending traffic jams. "Leia isn't quite as good with a saber as you are."
"Damn right," Mara agreed.
"Do me a favor and don't put it that way to Leia herself," Luke said, amused.
"That's reasonable," Mara said magnanimously.
Another silence fell, wherein they both watched the buzzing Coruscant cityscape and contemplated their next conversational strategies.
"So, how's work?" Luke finally ventured.
Mara sighed. "Slow. Whatever else I may be, I'm not a diplomat."
"You are more than you believe, Mara. You always have been." Luke said softly.
"And you are, and always have been, foolishly optimistic, Skywalker."
Luke chuckled, pleased to have found her in this rare, playful - well, for Mara - mood. "Can't argue with that. In fact, speaking of foolishly optimistic," he added, ignoring the sudden wary look Mara sent his way, "you've heard of the celebration at the end of the week?"
Luke took a deep breath. "Would you like to go with me?"
Her eyes widened. "Have you lost your mind?"
He touched her hand, ready to duck quickly if necessary. "Please, Mara? We're friends. I'd like to go with you. And besides, if I show up alone, Leia will steer me toward every eligible woman in the room."
For all his preparation, Mara's ultimate reaction still took him completely by surprise. She stared at him for another moment, and then laughed. Luke was taken aback, wondering abruptly if he'd ever heard her laugh before. He didn't think so. And she has a beautiful laugh, too, he thought irrelevantly.
"Going to let me in on the joke?" he asked. Mara's laughter tapered off into residual giggles, which Luke found unexpectedly enchanting. He'd never heard her sound so - well, normal before. Was this a glimpse of the young woman she might have been if the Emperor hadn't found her?
Oblivious to Luke's new line of thought, Mara choked the giggles down. "You blew up the Death Star and faced Vader, the Emperor, and C'baoth - not to even mention me - and you're afraid of being set up on a date by your sister?"
"Hey!" Luke said indignantly. "You haven't seen the women she likes to pick out. If you were in my place, you'd be scared too."
Mara giggled again. "What, are they Gamorreans or something?"
Luke shuddered. "Worse. Gamorreans I could handle. Leia likes to find the most elegant, refined, genteel woman in the whole place, introduce the two of us, then wander off. What am I supposed to talk about with someone like that?"
"Skywalker, you're one of the New Republic's most revered war heroes, the only living Jedi Knight, and even a mostly okay guy in my book - and I have tough standards, let me tell you. Do you really mean to say you think you're not good enough for them?"
Surprised, Luke paused. That was the most comprehensive compliment he'd ever heard Mara give anyone. Exasperated with his silence - or perhaps regretting her previous niceties - Mara jabbed him painfully with her elbow. That more familiar exchange caused Luke to hurry into speech before her prior good mood fled.
"I was just a moisture farmer on Tatooine before I was any of those, Mara, and that's still what I feel like every time Leia throws one of those aristocrats at me." He paused again. "But since I'm a mostly okay guy..." he began hopefully.
Mara cut him off unapologetically. "I don't know, farmboy. Seems to me it'd be a lot more fun to go on my own and watch the show."
"Or I could suggest that Leia extend the favor to you," Luke countered. "I'd like to see how you'd do under similar circumstances."
"I wasn't raised in the middle of nowhere on some Rim world, Skywalker," Mara said. "I'd knock 'em dead."
"Yeah, but with your dazzling charm or a vibroblade?" Luke muttered.
Mara merely smiled smugly. "Better be nice to me, Jedi. I think you were trying to ask me a favor."
Luke took another deep breath. Why did he always have to do that around her? "Your superior social skills are only one of the many reasons I'd like you to accompany me, Mara. I always enjoy your company, and I really do need your help."
"Good," Mara conceded. "But not good enough. What's in it for me?"
"Umm...it'd annoy Lando?" Luke suggested, remembering how much Lando's repeated amorous overtures had irritated her.
Mara's eyes narrowed dangerously. "The only way it would annoy Calrissian is if he really thought we were in a relationship - and if you think I'm going there, you need a lobotomy. I'd be happy to give you one with my lightsaber."
"How about you just tell me what you want in return?" Luke asked wearily.
"Offhand, I can't think of anything that would be as much fun as watching you squirm."
Luke groaned loudly, letting his head sink to the cold stone railing between his arms. "Please, Mara?" he pleaded, his voice somewhat muffled. "I'll owe you big."
"No," came Mara's voice, ever-so-sweetly. "You won't owe me at all."
Luke's danger sense tingled unmistakably at that, and he peered up over one arm. Mara wore the most saccharine smile he'd ever seen on anyone, and there was a truly wicked glint in her eyes. He raised his head to eye her cautiously. "And why wouldn't I?"
"Because," she said in the same syrupy sweet tone, "you'll already have done something for me."
Luke resisted the urge to take a step backward. "Such as?" he prompted warily.
"There'll be dancing that night, won't there?"
"There usually is."
"Do you even know how to dance, Skywalker?"
"More or less," Luke answered truthfully. "Leia showed me some, but I really don't dance much."
"I, on the other hand," Mara continued, with that uniquely frightening combination of girlish innocence and malicious glee, "could easily pass for a professional. In fact, I have done so on a number of occasions, as you well know."
"Yes," Luke agreed, hoping against hope that his sudden suspicion of her motives was wrong.
Mara raised an eyebrow at him. "Surely you can see my position here. I have a reputation to consider, not to mention my pride. I'm not going to any formal occasion with a man who can't at least keep up appearances."
"We don't have to dance," Luke pointed out, reflecting regretfully that Mara was far too strong-willed for him to try a Jedi mind trick on her.
"But I like to dance." Mara grinned at him. "Almost as much as I like watching annoying Jedi squirm. So here's the deal, Skywalker. You report to my suite for dancing lessons first thing tomorrow morning. If, within the next couple of days, I decide you're good enough not to embarrass me out on that floor, I'll go with you. We're even and you owe me nothing. If you're not a quick student, though, not only do I not go with you, but I suggest a few girlfriend candidates to Leia."
"You're just plain mean-spirited sometimes, Mara," Luke said with a sigh.
"Tell me something I don't know, farmboy. Do we have a deal?"
She held out her hand to him. Luke eyed her once more, then gave in.
Mara flipped idly through her selection of music disks, wondering if she should scare the daylights out of Skywalker by starting out with something fast-paced and exotic. The more she thought about that option, the more tempting it sounded - but she had to admit that as annoying as Skywalker could be, he had been unrelentingly kind to her since the moment they'd met. Even when she'd held a blaster to his head and threatened to pull the trigger, she'd never heard a sharp word from him. And he'd been extremely patient while teaching her the finer points of handling a lightsaber. Mara sighed and pulled out a disk of slow music, well suited to teaching a beginner.
She sensed Skywalker's presence well before he was at the door - someone as strong in the Force as Luke Skywalker was was ridiculously easy to pick up. As he reached her apartment, Mara was waiting for him, leaning on the jamb of the open door with arms crossed and expression expectant.
"Good morning, Mara," Skywalker said calmly.
"That remains to be seen," Mara answered, waving him inside. "How fast do you think you can pick this up?"
"Don't know," he replied. "How good a teacher do you think you are?"
"Good enough," Mara said sharply, trying to ignore the amusement she actually felt.
That irritating calm didn't even waver. "I don't doubt it."
"Fine, then. Let's get to it."
"You know," Skywalker started, his voice laced with a sudden earnest hopefulness, "If you went with me and wanted to dance, I wouldn't mind if you danced with someone else. You don't have to go through all of this."
"That'd kind of defeat your purpose, don't you think?" Mara asked. She slid a chair to the perimeter of the room, enlarging her already cleared dancing space. "If I were Leia, I'd see that as a golden opportunity."
"Think of how it would look, though." Skywalker perched himself on the arm of her small sofa. "She can't really try to set me up when my d- .....um, escort is in the same room."
Mara glared at him just on principle, so he'd know she hadn't missed that slip. "Can't she? 'Her? Oh, yes, she did come with him, but they're just friends, really. Of course I'm sure! He is my brother, after all. No, don't be silly. Mara won't mind a bit. I told you, they're just friends. Would she be dancing with another man if they weren't? Now come with me, I know Luke would love to meet you.'"
"You should have been an actress, Mara, not a smuggler," Skywalker said with a grin. "Your skills are just being wasted in your current line of work."
"Nonsense. Comes in very handy for undercover work. Always did as an assassin, too."
Skywalker shook his head at her, but she sensed no real disapproval from him, only vast amusement. "I thought we weren't going to pretend we were in a relationship."
"Don't even go there, Jedi. All this is about is not giving your sister a chance to spring all those scary aristocrats on you."
He held his hands up in a gesture of surrender, the amusement still rolling off him. "If you say so."
"Stop laughing at me inside your head," Mara demanded.
He laughed aloud at that. "I wouldn't dare, Mara."
"You're such a lousy liar."
"Not that bad. I did a little undercover work myself during the war, you know."
"It's a wonder you're still alive."
Skywalker looked at her sharply. "Leia said that exact thing to Han when they first met."
There was something thoughtful about his gaze that made her uneasy, though she couldn't have said what it was to save her life. "That doesn't surprise me. It's a wonder Solo's still alive, too."
Skywalker's Force sense gave her the distinct impression of someone shaking himself. "The same could probably be said for all of us. You and Leia and Chewie have all been through a lot, too."
He considered her part of that group? To be classed with his closest friends and family? An unbidden flash of memory struck her: Skywalker in Mount Tantiss, willingly offering his life in exchange for those of his family -- and in exchange for Mara's.
In unconscious imitation of the man before her, Mara shook herself. This day was turning out to be way too weird, and it had hardly started. "You want to know what I think?" she asked conspiratorially.
Skywalker raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"I think you're stalling. On your feet, already."
He tossed her a wry grin and stood. "You're a pushy person, you know that?"
She shrugged and headed toward the entertainment center. "It's served me well. Don't knock it." She turned on the music and turned back to Skywalker, noticing the sigh that escaped him as she did. "What?"
"Nothing. I guess I just have visions of taking a week's worth of dancing lessons and failing miserably, and then having you and Leia both after me."
She raised an eyebrow curiously. "What is it about this that worries you? It's not that hard."
"I'm pretty sure that with you teaching me I can learn the steps, Mara, but I don't think I'll ever be able to dance half so well as you." He smiled somewhat ruefully at her. "Hence the worry that you'll make good on your threat."
"Skywalker, you've never even seen me dance," she pointed out.
He shook his head again. "I don't have to have seen you dance. I've seen the way you fight, the way you handle a lightsaber, the way you move in everyday life. You have...an almost eerie grace I've never seen with anyone else. If you move half as gracefully dancing as you do when we're dueling, I'll never be able to keep up."
She couldn't remember the last time she'd been truly speechless, Mara reflected distantly. She knew herself to be both an excellent dancer and a beautiful woman, but she'd received few compliments in her life that hadn't been a thinly veiled attempt to seduce her. This, though.... Skywalker was utterly sincere, with no ulterior motives that she could sense. With a tinge of amusement, she decided that he probably didn't realize it was a compliment, let alone the nicest she'd ever gotten. He was simply stating a fact.
"I might remind you," she said with an attempted sarcasm she couldn't quite pull off, "that I haven't actually won a match yet. Though I have come close," her pride impelled her to add. "If my dancing ability shows through in my lightsaber practice, then logically it should work the other way for you."
"I hope so," he said. "Leia's all I can deal with on this front. If you were to join her, I might as well give up."
"Don't worry about it, Skywalker. You'd have to be even worse than Calrissian for me to throw you to the stormtroopers that way."
His eyes met hers. Horrified realization abruptly swept over her. What had she said? Mara hastened to smooth over the mistake before his attunement to her in the Force allowed him to see the odd flicker of emotion that had prompted those words. "I mean, it seems a sisterly sort of aggravation to inflict. Not my place."
There was a brief moment of silence while those piercing blue eyes regarded her steadily; seeing, Mara suspected, far more than she wanted them to.
"You are usually more straightforward than that," he finally said. "If I really annoyed you, I think I'd worry more about being pushed off the palace roof."
A very unwilling grin escaped Mara at that image. "Well, now you've gone and done it. I'll have to think up a whole other backup plan now."
Skywalker grinned right back at her. "I have great faith in you."
Mara laughed. "You're stalling again. Shut up and let's dance."
Walking back to his own apartment later that afternoon, Luke pondered the day's events. It had been much more successful than he'd imagined possible. Somewhat to his surprise, Mara had turned out to be a very good teacher. She knew the subject matter thoroughly (he'd mentioned that to her, and she'd snorted scornfully at him. "I had the best training there was to offer, farmboy. Of course I know my stuff.") and was remarkably patient with him, explaining the different types of music and demonstrating basic steps. Even more surprising than that, though, was the fact that he'd honestly had fun, and he thought that Mara had too.
Preoccupied in this way, it took several beeps of the comlink to rouse him. When the sound finally registered, he thumbed it on and answered absently, "Skywalker."
Luke smiled to himself. When they were both old and gray, watching their great-grandchildren play together, he had no doubts that Han would still be calling him 'kid'. It was reassuring, in an odd way.
"Hey, Han. What's up?"
"Ah, we just got the kids to sleep, and Leia thought it would be nice to have a family dinner, just the three of us."
"Three? Where're Winter and Chewie?"
"Winter's off with some friends, and Chewie decided to do some work on the Falcon."
"He must really trust the Noghri, to be leaving you guys alone like that," Luke observed, coming up to the door of his apartment. He keyed the entry code and went in, flicking on lights as he did so. "It sounds like a great chance to have dinner for two to me. You sure you want me around?"
"Sure we do. Anyway, you know how Leia is. She worries about her baby brother."
Luke snorted, then wondered where along the line he'd picked up that mannerism from Mara. "Just because Jaina was born before Jacen, now Leia thinks she's older too, is that it?"
Han chuckled. "Something like that."
"One of these days we'll find out who really is older, and I plan on really rubbing her nose in it."
"You know, I'd have hated to see what it would have been like if you two had actually grown up together."
Luke had to laugh. "It's a scary prospect, isn't it? Okay, you win. How could I pass up the chance to see my favorite little sister? When do you want me there?"
"Half an hour good?"
"I'll be there."
"Great, kid. And just 'cause I like you, I won't tell Leia what you've been saying about her behind her back."
"All right," Luke said agreeably. "It'd be more fun to tell her to her face anyway."
"Can't wait," Han said with an exaggerated groan. "See you then."
Luke tossed the comlink onto a side table and headed to the 'fresher to make sure he was presentable. Belatedly, he wondered what Mara was doing tonight. They hadn't really discussed it. They'd danced most of the day, with a quick break for an ordered-in lunch - which had almost disintegrated into a food fight over an already forgotten disagreement - and when Mara had decided they'd done enough, she'd tossed him out without ceremony, declaring that she was sick of him and he wasn't to show his face until tomorrow. Fairly typical day with Mara.
He stifled a sudden impulse to call her and invite her along. It wasn't his invitation to extend, and Han had specifically said a family dinner. Still, he had a family to have dinner with. Who did Mara have? The only people he thought she might call 'friend' were on the Wild Karrde, which was far from Coruscant. True, Mara was for the most part a loner, and true, they'd been spending a pretty fair amount of time together in the past three months so she wasn't completely alone; but it suddenly struck Luke that aside from business, he really hadn't seen Mara with anyone but him and his family since Karrde's departure. And he wasn't even sure if she considered them friends, or just an occasional alternative to solitude.
And what exactly did he consider her? He thought about that for several minutes. They had a definite bond in the Force. A remnant of Mara's intense focus on him, courtesy of Palpatine's last command? Perhaps. It was intriguing, how easily they could pick up on each other's emotional states. Force ability aside, though, he genuinely liked Mara. He liked her intensity, her loyalty, her dry sense of humor, her refusal to be intimidated by anyone or anything. He enjoyed being with her, and he always looked forward to the next time he saw her. If that wasn't friendship, what was? Funny way to feel about your intended assassin, but there it was. Then again, Han had once only been a disreputable smuggler hired for a one-time job, and look what he'd become: Luke's best friend, brother-in-law, and father of his niece and nephew.
One thing he was certain of: here and now, he and Mara belonged together. Suddenly and unexpectedly, he thought of the battle with the Katana fleet, where he'd found Mara's inert ejector seat amidst the battle debris. Where even though he couldn't explain why, finding Mara had been imbued with an importance even beyond that of saving her life. It was the same now, somehow. He didn't know yet what part Mara would play in his life, or he in hers; but the fact that there would be a part to play was incontrovertible. Something on which to meditate. And in the meantime, there were the dancing lessons to look forward to.
Maybe he'd talk to Leia about having Mara over to dinner sometime, too.
Sometime after midnight, Mara gave up the hope of sleep and eased reluctantly out of bed. Wrapping a blanket around herself, she curled up in a corner of her sofa and stared out the picture window at the traffic lines. Even at this hour, Coruscant was as busy as it ever was. The trailing glow of the speeder lights reminded her of the afterimage left by a sweeping lightsaber.
Damn him, anyway. Five years of her life she'd spent obsessed with Skywalker. All those nights when she couldn't sleep for the heart-stopping nightmares of him cutting the Emperor down as Palpatine ordered her with his last breath to kill Skywalker. All the days wasted in fantasies of doing just that. And finally, finally, after learning the truth of the matter and putting an end to the whole sordid saga, she still couldn't sleep because Skywalker was still in her head.
She folded her arms over the arm of the sofa and laid her head down on top of them, continuing to stare at the cityscape without really seeing it. This time, it was a far stranger prospect to be preoccupied with Skywalker. Before, she'd just wanted to kill him. Okay, so not everyone would see that as normal - but it was for her. She was an assassin, after all. A professional killer. Mara shivered. That fact had never bothered her before. Why did she now recall the faces of her victims, and ache inside?
She shoved that thought to the very back of her mind. Too many issues to resolve in her life now. Too many things irrevocably changed. If she tackled them all at once, she'd go insane.
Skywalker. Since that was the issue currently keeping her from sleep, that was the one she'd address first. Why couldn't she decide how she felt about him? She swayed from emotion to emotion regarding that man, never able to settle firmly on one - any one - for longer than a moment. The uncertainty made her profoundly uneasy. She'd never experienced anything like this before. Always before, she'd known where she stood. Maybe she didn't like it, occasionally she wasn't able to control it, but at least she'd always known.
Did she hate him? She used to, with a passion. She knew now that it had been in large part the Emperor's hatred, but it had defined her life nonetheless. A new realization whispered through her: at Jabba's, she had not hated him. Mara sat upright, absurdly startled by the notion. She combed through her memories of that time. No, no hate. Cold, calculating contempt. He was a target, she would have killed him without hesitation...but that job had been as impersonal as all the others had been. He had not meant enough to her to hate.
No, the hatred that had consumed her for five years had not come from her. She had never contained the spark that would have given it life. Palpatine had implanted it in her as one might reprogram a droid, with no regard as to how that hatred might affect her. His loyal and devoted servant for her entire life, and she hadn't mattered to him even at the end.
Mara blinked fiercely, unwilling even to acknowledge the tears that threatened to fall. Unimportant, she snapped silently at herself. And you knew it already.
Very well, then, if she didn't hate him, what did she feel? She laid her head back down and considered. On Myrkr, when all she'd wanted to do was slit his throat, he'd saved her life. How that had confused her. He'd risked his life for the woman who'd openly sworn to kill him. As he had on the Chimaera, rescuing Karrde. As he had on Wayland. Why? Why had he cared? Why had he trusted her like that? She thought she knew the answer to the first question. Skywalker cared about everyone. She'd seen that time and again by now. Mara laughed softly. It was almost a sickness with that one. If Luke stopped caring for others, he'd probably stop breathing, too. It was too integral a part of his personality.
Mara caught her breath suddenly, shocked. Luke? He was Luke, now? Just a slip, she thought reflexively, backing away from the frightening thought. She'd been in the Palace too long, been near Luke - Skywalker, damn it! - around his family and friends too often. Her subconscious mind had simply picked up on what she'd heard for three months. It didn't mean a thing.
It took several minutes for Mara to regain some measure of equilibrium, and with each minute that passed she grew more disgusted with herself. She, the Emperor's Hand, afraid of a name? She who had given orders to everyone from stormtroopers to Grand Moffs, she who had killed time without number without a twinge of fear, she who had never been afraid of the one man the entire galaxy had feared -she was now shaken to the core by the idea of calling someone by his given name? The idea was laughable. Maybe the Empire and Emperor had not been what she'd believed, but she'd still survived more things in their service than most people could ever dream of, and she had her pride. Mara Jade did not run. She would not run now.
What was there to run from, anyhow? Luke - she thought the name very deliberately this time - was a kind and compassionate man; the kindest, in fact, that she had ever known. If she were to take the chance of letting herself feel genuine friendship for someone, he was the obvious candidate. She honestly didn't think he was even capable of deliberately hurting someone, and she'd seen how careful he was to avoid even inadvertently hurting people. She'd already established that she didn't hate him. And he - he had gone far out of his way to be her friend. Had put far more effort into that endeavor than she deserved, actually. The least she could do in recompense was to return that friendship; especially, she thought, with her eyelids finally beginning to grow heavy, since she really did like him anyway.
At the very edge of sleep, Mara recalled the brief surge of emotion that had earlier prompted her to assure Skywalker that she wouldn't join Organa Solo in matchmaking, and wondered at it; but some realizations were still too frightening to contemplate, and introspection too new to her to dare to delve so deeply. Thoroughly exhausted at last, Mara slipped peacefully into slumber.
The next morning, it took longer than usual for Mara to respond to Luke's knock, and she was rubbing her neck when she eventually appeared.
"Didn't you say there were Jedi techniques for pain relief?" she asked without preamble.
"I may have mentioned that, yes." Luke eyed her. "Are you all right?"
"Aside from my apparent lack of common sense, just fine."
Luke glanced around the apartment. "It doesn't look like you've been practicing with your lightsaber in here."
Mara sank into the nearest chair and closed her eyes. "Nothing so productive. Fell asleep on the couch like an idiot. Stiff neck."
"Oh. You don't need the Force for that one." He came to stand behind her. "Lift your hair."
She jerked forward and looked at him warily. "What are you doing?"
"You know perfectly well," he said, amused. "I'm an X-wing pilot, Mara. You think I don't know about stiff necks?"
Mara relaxed only marginally. "I guess hyperspace jumps in a snubfighter would do that to a person."
"You got it." He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Would you sit back, already?" The caution returned to her eyes and he sighed. "Look, we both know you're better at hand-to-hand combat than I am. If I were to try anything, you could take me out easily."
A slightly crooked smile appeared on her face, bringing a smile to Luke's own in response. He really loved being able to make Mara smile.
"It's not that," she said, raising a hand to her shoulder to rest momentarily on his. "I know you wouldn't try anything - and I know I could take you down if you did. But it's not like you not to leap at giving a lesson on the Force."
"Lesson number one: For some things, the old-fashioned way is still best." Luke put his other hand on her other shoulder and pulled her gently back. "Come on, Mara, trust me. It'll only take a minute."
She hesitated another moment, and then sighed deeply, gathering her hair together and pulling it over her shoulder in front of her. Luke smiled at the sigh as he began to massage the knots out of her neck and shoulders. Maybe she'd picked up a habit or two from him, as well. Then he realized that she had in fact had to gather her hair together. She hadn't worn it in her customary braid today. She'd left it down. He thought that he liked it better this way.
"Anyway," he said, mostly to distract himself, "I get the feeling that we shouldn't use the Force too often for trivial matters. Ben and Yoda never did."
"Hmm," Mara replied absently, eyes closed. "We'll see how trivial it is when it's your stiff neck."
Luke gave a brief snort of laughter. "Then you can return the favor." Mara started to turn and glare at him, but he caught her head in both hands and turned her forward again. "You're only prolonging the whole process, you know. But you're right. I should start showing you some of the pain suppression techniques. Remind me." He gave her shoulders a final squeeze. "Better?"
Mara sighed again, and then tilted her head back to look at him. "You're good, Skywalker, I'll give you that."
He grinned at her, fighting the urge to lean over and kiss her forehead. She'd really kill him. "You're welcome."
Reluctantly, Mara rose. "Well, let's get moving. Oh, before I forget, I have business meetings all day tomorrow. We'll have to skip the lessons for that day."
"All right," Luke said, despite the flash of disappointment her words caused. "But speaking of tomorrow, Leia and I were thinking that the four of us could go out to dinner tomorrow night. Would you be up for that?"
"Four of us?" Mara asked suspiciously, even though Luke was certain she knew who would comprise the four.
"You, me, Han, Leia." Luke paused teasingly. "Of course, if you'd rather have dinner for two, I'm game."
"Four is just fine, thank you," Mara snapped, and then hesitated. "Why am I included in that group?"
"It's not the first time the four of us have done something together."
"I know," she said, softly now. "But if this is still about my helping to save the babies, please tell them not to bother. I don't need to live off anyone's gratitude or charity."
Luke's heart suddenly ached with the unexpressed loneliness behind those words. "Mara, that's not it at all." He caught her hands, and miracle of miracles, she didn't pull away. "My family owes you a debt we can never repay for what you did then. If it wasn't for you, Jaina and Jacen probably would have been in Imperial hands that night, and Leia too. But we want you to come because we like your company. We like you, as a person."
Mara refused to meet his eyes. "Don't make me laugh, Skywalker. Solo still expects me to slide a knife between your ribs when he's not looking."
Luke smiled despite the seriousness of the moment. "No, he doesn't. He's just cautious. Comes from being a smuggler - you should know that." She still wouldn't look at him. "Mara, do you trust me?" She glanced up at that. There was a moment's hesitation, and then she nodded once, sharply. "Do you honestly believe that gratitude or charity are why I've spent time with you since you've been on Coruscant?"
Her voice was little more than a strangled whisper. "No."
"Then please trust me when I say it's not Han's and Leia's reason either."
Mara pulled her hands away. "Maybe."
"Will you come? To keep me company if nothing else, Mara."
She snorted, a reassuringly familiar sound. "I'm doing you enough favors as is, Skywalker."
"I know," he nodded. "Will you do this one, too?"
There was a flash of emerald as she glanced up at him again, and he could see the internal struggle going on behind those mesmerizing eyes. "Okay," she finally conceded.
Luke smiled at her. "Thank you."
"Don't worry about it," she whispered, and then visibly shook herself. "Especially since if you don't do better today than yesterday, I'll take it all back."
"I'll try harder, then."
"There is no try, only do," Mara retorted.
Luke laughed. "I wonder if Yoda ever had his teachings thrown back in his face by cocky apprentices."
"If he was as transparent as you, it probably happened all the time," she rejoined, but Luke noticed she didn't dispute the 'apprentice' bit, and his heart lifted. "Prepare yourself. I'm not going to be so easy on you today."
Mara looked at herself in the mirror while smoothing her clothes. Cream colored tunic over black pants, with black boots. Hair in its usual thick braid hanging down her back. Yes, she'd do. And why in all the worlds did she care? It was only Skywalker and his family. Well, she would be out in public, and she was Liaison to the Smuggler's Alliance. She had a reputation to maintain. Hmm. It sounded good, anyway. And Luke didn't have to know that she cared how he saw her.
She caught a familiar presence drawing near. Speak of the Hutt....
Mara opened the door before Skywalker had a chance to knock. He smiled at her, calm as ever. "Evening, Mara. You look very nice."
"Thanks," she said just as calmly, double-checking her mental barriers so he wouldn't know how pleased she was at the simple compliment. She didn't know how to explain that one to him yet. Sith, she didn't know how to explain it to herself yet.
"You ready to go?" he asked.
"Of course," she said as she shut the door behind her. "You don't think I got to be a successful assassin and smuggler by being less than punctual, do you?"
Skywalker smiled. "That's how I got to be a successful pilot and Jedi Knight. Reasonably successful, anyway," he amended.
Mara raised an eyebrow as they headed to the speeder bay. "I thought you were a commanding officer in the Rebellion."
"Okay, so I got a little better about punctuality when I was in command of Rogue Squadron. It's still never been one of my strong suits."
"You have a strong suit?" Mara asked, unable to resist.
Skywalker rolled his eyes. "I'm wounded, really."
Mara glanced away to hide her smile, knowing perfectly well that he'd be able to pick up her amusement anyway.
When they reached the bay, Skywalker unexpectedly led her to a sleek silver speeder. Mara whistled appreciatively. "This is yours?"
Skywalker grinned and nodded. "That's right; I forgot you hadn't seen it before. You like it?"
Mara circled the speeder. Not one of the newer models, and not flashy at all, but it caught the eye nonetheless. Definitely quality. "It's not an X-wing, but I don't mind being seen in it, I'll tell you that much." She looked up to return the grin. "Skywalker, I didn't know you had it in you."
"Thanks, I think." He held the passenger door open for her and Mara slid in gracefully, trying to ignore the feeling of d?j? vu that swept over her. The last time anyone had held a door for her, she had been posing as a highborn lady of the Imperial court... "Did your meetings go well?"
With a slight effort, Mara yanked her thoughts back to the present and her eyes back to her companion, now in the pilot's seat and starting the speeder. "As well as can be expected. No one spit on me."
Skywalker laughed. "I doubt it's all that bad."
"I told you from the beginning that this wouldn't be a fun job," Mara pointed out. She noticed that he was quite skillful navigating through Coruscant's hair-raising traffic.
"So you did," he agreed, dodging a careening speeder full of kids, none of whom looked old enough to be at the controls.
"Nice move," she complimented.
"Well, I have flown once or twice before," he said dryly.
"Getting cocky there, Skywalker."
"Bad association'll do that to you." He pulled abruptly out of the flow of traffic and into the speeder bay of a rather high-end restaurant. Mara looked up in surprise.
"You didn't tell me we were coming to a place like this! Skywalker, if your sister is in some formal gown and I'm dressed like this -"
"You'll kill me?" he interjected smoothly.
Mara reached over and smacked him in the back of the head. Skywalker retaliated by slapping her arm with the back of his hand. Mara's eyes narrowed dangerously, but he caught her wrist before she could connect a second time. "Do you think we could wait until later to start taking potshots at each other? Please?"
"I'm not joking here!"
"Mara, you look great, you really do. I know most women don't believe that men know anything about fashion, but I think I'd know to tell you if it was a formal occasion. For the record, the celebration tomorrow night is formal. Wear a dress."
"One more crack like that and you'll be otherwise occupied tomorrow night. In a bacta tank."
"Anyone ever tell you that you're beautiful when you're angry?" Skywalker must have felt the wrist he was still holding twitch, because he backtracked hastily before Mara could swing at him again. "Okay, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Can we please call a truce and go have dinner?"
Mara yanked her wrist out of his grasp and glared at him. "Sometimes I don't know why I put up with you."
"Because I put up with you putting up with me, which is sometimes quite a chore," Skywalker said, already out of the speeder and coming around to open her door. She beat him to it, opening the door and standing swiftly. For a split second, she considered slamming it shut, but she just couldn't bring herself to risk damaging the speeder. Instead, she closed it quietly and with a great deal of dignity. Skywalker extended his arm to her with equal dignity, his blue eyes now dancing and daring her as clearly as words ever could. Again recalling the vanished elegance of the Imperial court within which she'd moved with such ease, Mara raised a disdainful eyebrow and took his arm with practiced grace. Skywalker grinned irrepressibly at her, and they entered the restaurant arm in arm.
Luke caught sight of the other two well before he and Mara reached their table. He saw first Leia, then Han glance their way, and caught their surprise - presumably at the arm-in-arm posture he and Mara still affected. Mara caught it too, if her unspoken flash of defiance was any indication. He stifled a chuckle. Leia was his sister and Han his best friend, but when he was around them with Mara, he always felt as though the two of them were co-conspirators. Mara apparently picked up on his amusement as well, for her hand squeezed his arm briefly as if in agreement. He could sense her back straightening yet further even as his own did, and they approached the table regally.
As usual, Khabarakh appeared from seemingly nowhere to bow before Luke just before the two of them were close enough to speak to the table's occupants. "I greet you, son of Vader," Khabarakh said from his kneeling, splayed-hand position. "And you as well, Mara clan Jade. I offer my protection while you are in the company of the Lady Vader."
"We are honored by your service, Khabarakh clan Kihm'bar," Luke said, as Mara inclined her head as a queen might to a loyal guard. Khabarakh slipped off silently to an inconspicuous spot to stand guard while Luke held out an empty chair for Mara. Up to this time, he had only seen occasional glimmers of her Imperial court-trained manners, and he was enjoying the performance.
Mara didn't disappoint. She seated herself with a royal bearing that rivaled Leia herself, and nodded serenely at the table's other two occupants. Leia matched the gesture, giving Mara the calm smile Luke had seen a thousand times before at countless diplomatic functions - but there was real warmth behind it for all that.
"Mara," Leia greeted her pleasantly. "I'm so glad you could join us tonight. I hope your business today went well?"
"Quite well, thank you, Councilor," Mara responded politely, lifting the water goblet that rested by her plate.
"Mara!" Leia frowned with mock reproach. "We've had this conversation before. It's Leia."
Out of the corner of his eye, Luke saw Mara's almost imperceptible wince, hidden from Han and Leia's gaze by her raised goblet. "Of course, Leia. I appreciate your including me tonight."
"Any time, Mara clan Jade," Han drawled.
"Shut up, Han clan Solo," Mara answered unhesitatingly.
Luke laughed, and then composed himself as both Han and Mara turned to stare at him. "What?"
Leia shook her head benignly over them all. "Let's all try to act like grownups tonight, shall we?"
"You and I might possibly achieve that, Leia," Mara said acidly, "but I don't know about these two."
"I've been saying something similar for years," Leia said with a smile. "But they have their moments."
"Usually inspired by one or both of you," Luke said. Mara raised an eyebrow at him, but he ignored it. Let her make of it what she would. Their server approached the table, and the conversation paused while orders were placed. The rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough, and Luke could sense Mara relaxing somewhat throughout.
That is, until dessert.
Luke glanced up at his sister a split second before she actually cleared her throat, his attention drawn by her sudden surge of anticipation. "There was something specific I wanted to discuss with you two tonight," she addressed Luke and Mara.
Mara focused her gaze sharply on Leia, instantly radiating apprehension and wary alertness.
The question of whether that ability to click immediately into combat mode came from Mara's sensitivity to the Force or her latent assassin's instincts fascinated Luke. She did have an incredibly potent danger sense, stronger than his own, in fact - which begged the secondary question of what exactly was triggering that danger sense now. Curious and wary, Luke focused intently on Leia as well.
"And that would be?" Mara prompted cautiously.
"A subject has come up among certain council members lately," Leia replied. "A subject that directly concerns you, Mara."
To any non-Force sensitive, Mara appeared utterly unmoved by those words, her gaze impassive. To Luke, though, the nervous dread that had just slammed into her was readily apparent....dread that was permeated with recognition. Luke extended a tendril of calm to her through the Force, and the fact that she didn't flick it away impatiently showed him just how far she was from her own center of calm.
"We're waiting, Leia," Luke said, with an edge in his voice that had very rarely been directed at his twin.
Han looked startled at his tone, and even Leia's expression was touched with surprise, though she had to have felt at least some of his and Mara's emotions.
"It has been suggested," Leia continued, glancing again at Luke while Mara remained frozen in her chair, "that Mara should be prosecuted for war crimes she may have committed during her time as Emperor's Hand -"
Luke cut her off abruptly. "What? Who would dare - if Fey'lya is behind this, I'll -"
Mara suddenly came out of her deep freeze to lay a small but strong hand on his arm and shake her head sharply at him. "Don't, Luke. It isn't worth it."
"Isn't worth it?" Luke all but spat. "I was military for years, Mara. I know the penalty for a war crimes charge. If you think I'm going to let them do that to you -"
"Luke," Leia interposed forcefully, even as Mara's grip tightened. "Hear me out. Please. That suggestion has been raised, and dealt with. I merely wanted you both to be aware of the situation."
Mara raised her eyes to the other woman. "Dealt with how?"
Leia pulled a datapad from her bag and handed it to Mara. "Your official pardon, Mara. In exchange for your information and aid leading to the destruction of Thrawn's cloning facilities on Wayland. I thought you would want a copy."
Mara mechanically took the datapad and simply stared at it. Luke recovered from the surprise first. At his wordless Force nudge, Mara glanced over at him, and then turned on the datapad so they could study it together. Mara scrolled carefully to the final word on the document, glanced again at Luke, and then silently set down the datapad.
Luke broke the ensuing silence first. "This is genuine, Leia?" he asked, tapping the datapad. "Approved by Mon Mothma? It can't be challenged?"
"Yes, yes, and no," his sister replied. "As long as the New Republic stands - which will hopefully be far, far longer than any of us could hope to live - it can't be challenged." She smiled suddenly. "I've been immersed in politics since before I could walk. I know the ins and outs, and this is as airtight as I could make it."
"I hope so," Mara said very, very softly. "Because if they have evidence of half the things I've done, I'd be sentenced to death before the week was out."
Luke's anger bubbled up again at her words, and he didn't think to stop it. "You were kidnapped and brainwashed from childhood. Palpatine's orders were all you'd ever known - not to even mention that you're Force-sensitive and he was an incredibly powerful Sith lord. How were you even supposed to know that what he told you was wrong, let alone defy him? You were as much a victim as anyone he ordered you to kill, and I would have testified to that."
Mara smiled at him with shockingly open affection, her cynical facade all but vanished. She patted his arm. "Thanks, Skywalker, but I'm just as happy not to need that sort of help. And by the way, you keep telling me that I need to control my anger. I think you could use a dose of your own medicine."
Luke took a deep breath, ashamed to realize that she was right. "Sorry."
Mara nodded with satisfaction as he let his anger drain away. "That's a good Jedi Knight. 'There is no emotion, there is peace.'"
Luke gave her a dirty look. "You're a very troublesome student."
"You couldn't have guessed that beforehand?" Mara laughed at him, and then sobered and turned again to the woman sitting across from her. "Thank you, Leia. You probably did save my life with this."
"No more than you saved the lives of my children, or my brother, or Han and me," Leia replied quietly. "The very least you deserve is a chance to live your own life in peace, without your past haunting you."
"Oh, I don't know," Mara muttered. "The past has a way of doing that no matter what. But I'm glad that I probably won't have to die over it."
"So am I," Luke agreed with an underlying fervor that surprised even him.
A somewhat somber mood fell over the group after Leia's announcement, and the party broke up quickly. No one really finished their interrupted desserts, and when Han halfheartedly suggested a round of after dinner drinks, Luke and Mara looked at each other and simultaneously shook their heads, politely excusing themselves. Mara uncomfortably thanked Leia again, and Luke uncomfortably apologized to Leia for snapping at her. They both wished the Solos a good night, nodded at Khabarakh's bow, and made their escape.
They were out of the restaurant and halfway to the speeder bay before Luke spoke quietly. "You knew what Leia was going to say before she mentioned the whole Emperor's Hand thing, didn't you?"
"Of course I did," Mara hissed, her eyes fixed firmly on the pavement. "What I can't understand is my idiocy in not thinking of it earlier." She viciously kicked a stray pebble from her path. "How stupid can a shadow agent and smuggler be?" They reached Luke's speeder, and Mara leaned momentarily against it only to turn and slam her hand down hard against the hood. "I grew up in Palpatine's court, for Sith's sake! I saw this sort of political ploy every day! How could I not see this coming?"
"It's been taken care of, though," Luke offered, still quietly.
"I should never have let myself be in that position in the first place!" Mara snapped. Suddenly her anger fled, leaving her unaccountably weary. She planted both hands on the hood and leaned into them, letting her eyes close and her head hang. "Blast it, Skywalker, I don't like being indebted to people."
"Oh, Mara," Luke sighed. He turned his back to the speeder and leaned against it next to her, laying his hand over hers. "I know how you feel, but truly, you're not indebted to anyone. If anything, Leia's repaying you."
Mara looked up at him with something approaching gallows humor. "And you said she only invited me here because she likes me."
Luke winced. "She does, Mara, she really does. That's part of why she did this."
Mara turned to lean her back against the speeder as well. "Whatever. I don't suppose it really matters anyway." She rubbed a hand across her suddenly aching forehead. "Can we go home now, please?"
Luke reached over to brush a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "I think, more than you let on, that what Leia and others think of you matters to you. And I want you to know that whatever has happened in the past or whatever will happen in the future, I genuinely care about you, Mara. I always will."
Mara's heart leapt into her throat. After a compact eternity, she managed to whisper, "I know you do, Luke."
"And that's the second time you've called me Luke," he said softly, with just a hint of repressed humor. "I could get used to the sound of that." Some of Mara's sudden panic must have shown in her eyes, because Luke added, "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone."
Mara swallowed hard, trying to force some moisture into her dry mouth. "See that you don't." Definitely not her most witty comeback, but all she could manage right now.
Luke smiled understandingly at her, then - thank the Force! - took his eyes from her to look at the ground. "You're right," he said after a moment. "We should go. If Han and Leia came out now, they'd be pretty curious as to why we're still here." He glanced up at her again. "You want to drive?"
"What?" Mara asked, surprised.
"Well, if there was ever anyone I'd trust to pilot it..." Luke put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed, then shook her lightly. "Come on, let's get going." He opened the pilot's side door and waited. Mara hesitated, but he only raised his eyebrows at her. The thought of having to explain the situation if Leia came out hastened her decision, and she slipped into the pilot's seat.
Neither spoke again until they reached the door of Mara's apartment within the Imperial Palace. Mara opened her door, and then turned back to Luke, completely at a loss as to how she should end this evening. Luke's eyes were already on her, leaving her speechless again. Nothing even remotely like this had ever happened to her before.
Luke's gentle words interrupted her confusion. "Are you all right?"
"Fine." Mara yanked her eyes away.
He touched his fingertips to her cheek and tried to catch her gaze again, but Mara was resolute. "You sure?"
His hand dropped. "Should I come by tomorrow, or do you need some time to yourself?"
She looked up at that and tried to smile. "No, you'd better come. It's our last day to bring your dancing up to speed." Not to mention how his presence always comforted her, but she wasn't about to say that.
Luke smiled back. "Bet you haven't worked this hard in a while."
"You're not that bad," Mara admitted.
"Glad to hear it. I'll see you tomorrow then." He leaned over and kissed her cheek, nearly causing Mara to choke on her own breath in surprise. "Good night, Mara."
"Good night," she managed, sidling quickly into the haven of her own quarters. Luke grinned one last time at her, and then headed off in the direction of his own apartment, several floors above hers.
Mara shut the door behind her and leaned against it for several minutes, trying to regain her equilibrium. The whole night had shaken her far more than she wanted to admit. Luke's fervent defense of her, then his concerned efforts at comfort, had taken her thoroughly by surprise. Most unnerving of all, though, was how naturally it seemed to come to him - and how pleased she was to receive it. Mara shoved herself away from the door and changed into her night shift in a daze. She would think about it tomorrow. She was too tired right now to consider all of the night's implications. She slid absentmindedly into bed and fell asleep thinking of the look in Luke's eyes after he'd kissed her.
Luke made his way steadily through the swirling confusion, alternating from piloting his X-wing at Yavin to the snowspeeder on Hoth to the Imperial speeder bike on Endor. Disparate elements from the war melded together like determined eddies of a savage river, then shattered into thousands of sparkling fragments like those same eddies dissipating into foam as they slammed into an unexpected rock; like the infinite glittering grains of sand that made up the ferocity of a Tatooine sandstorm.
A flowing black cape separated itself from the melee, the figure within igniting a red lightsaber as it came, and Luke's mind reeled in desperate protest. How many times could a person be required to battle his own father? Vader's blade swung toward Luke's head, only just barely blocked by Luke's own, and it was as it had been on the Death Star. Luke was distracted by the Emperor's cackling - a fatal error, except that Vader didn't press his advantage. Instead he extinguished his blade and returned to his master's side. Luke stood rooted to the deck, unable to follow, unable to stop what he somehow knew was coming. A small, almost dainty figure stepped from the shadows surrounding the Emperor's throne, her brilliant hair shimmering uncannily in the dim lighting, her deceptively fragile stature tense with the hatred that shone through her emerald eyes: a reflection of the hatred which sustained her master. A blue lightsaber sprang to life in her hands, and Luke's previous despair intensified. No, not Mara! Anyone but Mara, please - Vader a thousand times, but not Mara.
Her sapphire blade carved a sweeping arc through the air only to collide with his own emerald one, their locked blades hissing and sparking. Mara glared at him through the glow of their weapons and swung again, a solid blow that Luke nonetheless parried easily, phantom words from another time echoing through his head. 'I might remind you,' whispered the familiar voice, 'that I haven't actually won a match yet...'
She struck again, and this time he didn't merely block the blow but disarmed her with an easy twist of his wrist, the blue blade cartwheeling across the room. Mara's fiery hair gleamed enticingly as it lashed from one shoulder to the other even as her head snapped to the side to watch her salvation spin away, then back at the man who now held her life in his hands. Her eyes never left his as the green lightsaber flashed toward her again, their expression changing in a heartbeat from hatred to surprise to pleading to anguish. She reached out a hand to him even as his blade struck her down and Luke's heart died within him....
Luke sat bolt upright in his bed, panting, soaked with sweat, eyes wide and unseeing. Mara.... Awareness returned gradually. His breath and heart rate began to slow as he looked around. This was his own room, his own bed. His lightsaber rested peacefully on the bedside table. The faint light coming through the window spoke of the hour before dawn.
He lay slowly back down, pulling the blankets to his chin as though he was a child all over again, and contemplated. He hadn't had such a disturbing dream in years. Luke reached for Mara's now familiar presence and found only turmoil. Was she...? He focused even harder. No, she was still asleep. Asleep, and dreaming. If his own dream was the result of picking up on her disturbance, he really hated to think of what her dreams contained. Should he go to her? Maybe not. She was quieting. Still...Yoda or Ben would probably have told him to trust his feelings, but his feelings were about as steady as a drunken tauntaun right now. In fact, the only really strong feeling he had at the moment was the feeling that he absolutely needed to see Mara, so if he was to trust his feelings, then he should go to her.... By the time his reasoning had reached this point, Luke was sitting up again, ready to reach for his clothes and leave. A sudden burst of terror from Mara stopped him cold. He quickly stretched out to her with the Force. Could he tap into her dream, draw some of the fear away? Her sense abruptly leapt to full, frightened awareness - she'd been jerked from sleep as he had. That settled it. He fumbled for his comlink and tapped into Mara's frequency.
"Mara?" Silence. "Mara, I know you're awake. Pick up."
Another moment's silence, then a breathless, "Luke?"
He didn't bother to answer what she already knew. Instead, he immediately addressed his primary concern. "Are you all right?"
The sound of someone swallowing hard could be heard over the comlink. "I - I don't know."
For Mara to admit such a thing, she had to be extremely upset. "Hang on. I'll be right there," Luke said.
A faint sigh. "Luke, do you know what that's going to look like if anyone sees you at this hour?"
"I really don't care, Mara. Let them think what they want. They will no matter what we do." And half the Palace thinks we are already, whether you realize it or not. "Give me five minutes."
Another tiny sigh. "Fine."
Luke thumbed off the comlink and dressed as quickly as he ever had in response to any battle alert. He attached his lightsaber and comlink to his utility belt and left the apartment, pausing only to reassure a nervous Artoo that his unorthodox behavior was nothing to worry about.
Mara opened the door almost before he knocked and he quickly stepped in, waiting for her to close the door again before he swept her into a tight embrace. She didn't fight him, only slid her arms around his waist and rested her head heavily on his shoulder.
Luke heaved a sigh of his own and leaned his cheek against the top of her head, reveling in the softness of her hair against his skin, the solidity of her body in his arms. He tried hard to concentrate on the reality of holding her, and to forget the indescribable pain of her loss in his dream.
Mara's arms tightened around him momentarily, and then she shrugged against the circle of his arms. "Would you let me go, already?"
He did, but kept his hands on her shoulders and looked her over. She hadn't bothered to dress, but had merely donned a long robe over her nightgown. Her hair was in the same braid as she had worn had been last night, though it was considerably more rumpled, and her eyes were troubled.
"Why are you awake at this hour?" she asked distractedly.
"Nightmares," Luke answered, still searching her eyes. "Then when I woke up, I sensed you."
"Oh," Mara said, and pulled away from him to go sit on the sofa. Luke followed her, taking his usual perch on the sofa's arm. With a good deal of effort, he resisted the urge to stroke her hair. "If your dreams were half as bad as mine, they must have been pretty nasty," he offered hesitantly.
Mara closed her eyes and leaned her head back, hugging her knees to her chest. "That's one way to put it." He waited patiently, and eventually she continued. "Mine probably affected yours, didn't they?"
"That's what I suspect."
"I'm sorry," she said quietly.
"Don't worry about it." Luke eyed her motionless form. "Mara - was it the old dreams again? Did you hear the Emperor?"
Mara was silent for so long, Luke began to think he'd strayed too far into personal territory and she was going to ignore him. He was trying to think what else he could possibly say when she finally opened her eyes. "I'm going to regret this later, I know." She patted the seat next to her. Luke thought he'd kept his face neutral, but Mara's glare told him he hadn't shielded his surprise well enough. "Don't argue, Skywalker. I'm having a bad enough morning as it is."
Luke slid quickly down beside her. He'd seen Mara's take on mornings before, and those were the good ones. Mara eyed him for another moment, and then sighed to herself. She lifted his arm and draped it around her shoulders, snuggling close to him and resting her head on his shoulder. His arms closed instinctively around her, but he knew there wasn't even a chance he'd properly shielded his shock this time.
Mara's voice only sounded tired as she responded to his nonverbal reaction. "Please, Luke. I don't want to feel alone right now. Just hold me for a while."
Luke adjusted his hold on her, drawing her even closer. "As long as you promise not to dismember me later."
She actually chuckled at that. "I promise. What was your dream about?"
"A lot of things," he replied cautiously. "Mostly images from the war, all blended together."
Mara yawned. "Sometimes I forget you were actually a soldier, and saw front-line action."
Luke glanced down at her curiously. Mara probably knew the details of his military career as well as he did. "Not to sound conceited, Mara, but I was fairly prominent for several years. In case you haven't noticed, half the military personnel here still call me 'Commander.'"
"I know. You just don't behave like any other soldier I've known, and I've known a lot. Go on. What else?"
"I fought Vader again."
"Unpleasant - but you're holding out on me, farmboy."
"What do you mean?"
Mara was quietly insistent. "As strange as it seems, Luke, I do know you better than that. You're more uneasy than even fighting Vader would make you. Are you going to tell me what else happened?"
Luke lightly kissed the top of her head, thinking incongruously how much he enjoyed holding her like this and trying to figure out a way to avoid telling her the rest. Seeing none, he continued reluctantly. "We dueled, you and I, on the Death Star. With the Emperor watching."
Mara's voice was very soft. "Who won?"
Luke shivered involuntarily. "I did. I disarmed you, and...and..."
"Killed me," Mara finished. Luke nodded into her hair, unable to speak. "That's not some sort of...latent desire, is it?" she whispered. "I don't think I could blame you if it was, but -"
"I'd kill myself first, Mara, without a second's hesitation."
Mara took a shuddering breath, squeezing his arm tightly to her. "Don't do that, either. I'd miss you."
Luke's heart suddenly soared. Mara would miss him. He kissed her hair again. "Well, all right, but only for your sake."
Mara elbowed him slightly. "You're not that funny, you know."
"That's what they tell me." He paused, wondering if and how he should continue. "What about you?"
"Am I funny?" Mara asked. "A lot more than you are, Jedi."
She was quiet for a very long moment. "I guess it was all the talk of the pardon, and what I did when I was Emperor's Hand. I relived a lot of assassinations." Quiet again. "I was very good at what I did, you know. You were the only assassination I ever failed at."
"Thanks for that, by the way."
Mara snorted. "No problem." Another long pause. "Luke, I wasn't joking when I said that the New Republic would sentence me to death for what I've done. They could, without this pardon, and I'd deserve it."
"No, you wouldn't," Luke insisted fiercely. "Mara, were you even listening to me earlier? You were a child. You didn't know. You had no way of knowing. The Emperor used you as a weapon - a very effective weapon, I know, but none of it was your doing. Did you ever kill someone you weren't assigned to? Because you wanted to, or even because you thought they deserved it?"
"No," Mara answered in a very small voice.
Luke gave in to his earlier temptation and stroked her hair. "Don't you think that's an important point?"
"Maybe," she admitted. "But it doesn't change the fact that I killed a lot of people, many of whom didn't deserve to die. And," she added frustratedly, "why after all these years am I thinking like this? I never did before, not even once. Why do I feel guilty now?"
"Because," Luke answered softly, "for the first time since he found you, you're truly free of the Emperor's influence. You're finally getting a chance to be Mara Jade, not the Emperor's Hand. And Mara Jade is not a cold-blooded killer. A fighter, a warrior, yes. But not an assassin. That's only what Palpatine made you."
"There's a lot of the assassin left in me, though." She gave a strangled laugh. "And the hell of it is, not all of it's bad. That training has kept me alive many times, even after the Emperor died."
Luke, resting his cheek against her head, noticed the path of sunlight beginning to creep through Mara's window and across her floor. Dawn had broken. He nearly laughed aloud at the symbolism. "It'll probably always be a part of you, the same way part of me will always be a farm kid who would have given anything to fly among the stars. We don't have to reject everything from our past. Even the worst of situations has something good in it."
"Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight and guidance counselor," Mara retorted, but she remained nestled in his arms.
"What, you think the Force is only good for swinging glowing swords around?" Luke said, amused, then hesitated as he considered his next words.
"Out with it, farmboy," Mara murmured.
"Don't pretend you weren't going to say something. I can tell otherwise."
Luke took a deep breath. "I was going to say that you were holding out on me, too."
Mara stiffened ever so slightly. "What do you mean?"
"Mara, do you think I can't read you as well as you can read me?"
She sighed, and when she spoke, her voice was so soft that he had to strain to hear the word. "Tatooine."
A chill entered him as he realized the implications of the non sequitur. "The sail barge?"
She nodded against his shoulder. "This time, Jabba did let me on the sail barge, and..." Her already quiet voice trailed off entirely.
"You killed me, didn't you?" Luke asked softly.
"Yes," came the choked whisper. "Only - only at first, I felt the way I had then, but when I took your lightsaber, everything changed. I felt the way I do now. I knew you were my friend - maybe my only friend - but I couldn't stop myself. I killed you anyway, and...oh, the look on your face, Luke. And all I could see was that look, and all I could hear was the Emperor laughing..."
"Was that when you woke up?" Luke asked gently. Another silent nod. "Pretty much the way it happened for me, too. I'll tell you what: I won't kill you in any more dreams if you don't kill me."
"I can handle that." Mara sat up, signaling an end to the discussion as she brushed back a strand of hair that had fallen forward. "It's daylight."
"So it is," Luke agreed.
Mara gave him the ghost of a smile. "You're early for your lesson."
Luke smiled right back. "I am at that. Maybe we should go grab some breakfast first."
Mara put her head in her hands and groaned. "That'll look worse than you coming here in the first place. The two of us leaving my apartment this early?"
"Mara, I do think that people around here have gotten rather used to seeing us together over the past couple of months," Luke said mildly, even as some small part of his brain pointed out that he wouldn't at all mind having done what Mara was afraid of others suspecting. The thought startled him, and Mara looked up curiously as she sensed his brief surprise. Luke swiftly decided that no matter how close they'd become in the last few days, his health would be in serious jeopardy if Mara realized what was behind that surprise. He sought to distract her, and succeeded admirably with his next words. "Of course, if we go out with you dressed like that..."
Mara's eyes suddenly glistened with a martial light. "Why, you -"
"Easy, Jade," Luke interrupted. Okay, so maybe his distraction wasn't all that smart either. "You wouldn't want me to think you'd lost your sense of humor, would you?"
"I don't care what you think," Mara snapped.
Luke sighed. Would he ever learn how to handle her? "Mara, I apologize. I didn't mean it like that, really." The edges of her sense softened slightly in his perception as her anger began - almost unwillingly - to dissipate. This time, he wisely remained silent. She glared at him a moment longer.
"I suppose," she said coldly, "that I should change then. If you don't feel the need to make any more inappropriate comments."
"Not at all," Luke said repentantly. "I promise to behave." He paused for a split second, then recklessly gave in to his possibly suicidal urge to push her just a millimeter further. Holding his hand up solemnly, he added, "Jedi honor."
Both Mara's lips and sense twitched tellingly, but she only replied sarcastically, "And we all know what that's worth." She stalked off in the direction of her bedroom. At the corner of the hall, however, she paused. Curious, Luke was just about to probe her gently with the Force when she turned back to him.
"Thank you for coming when you sensed me." With those reluctant words, Mara swiftly disappeared.
Luke leaned back against the couch, more surprised than ever. Well. A slight smile touched his lips. Maybe Mara Jade was mellowing just a little after all. The smile broadened. Maybe a very little. That certainly had its advantages - being able to hold a conversation like the one they'd just had was one of them. As long as she didn't mellow too much. He kind of liked her dangerous.
Later that afternoon, Mara found herself once again spending more time than usual in front of the mirror for Skywalker's benefit. She shook her head over the strangeness of life. She had to admit, she did enjoy his company. It was very sweet of him to insist on coming to check on her this morning over some nightmares. Overprotective, yes, but sweet. She smiled grimly to herself. And since when had Mara Jade valued sweet? Well, the only constant in life was change. You changed with it or you got left behind - and she was nothing if not adaptable. Good thing, too, because this thing with Skywalker seemed to be changing hourly. Only a few days ago she'd finally admitted to herself that yes, she actually did like him and was willing to be friends with him. And now...
And now what? Mara dared herself. This morning she had told Skywalker to his face that he was her friend, probably her only friend. In fact, unsettled by her dreams, she'd said a good deal more than that. She should by all rights be terribly uncomfortable with him now. The Force knew, in her previous life she would have expended any and all effort to avoid someone to whom she had so exposed herself. Instead, in Luke's arms - in his arms, for Sith's sake! - she'd felt safe and accepted, no matter how she babbled. Even his comment just before she'd gone to change clothes hadn't marred their rapport. That sparkle in his eyes as he'd tossed in that last bit about 'Jedi honor'... He was the only person she could remember who'd ever dared to tease her.
Mara placed a final sparkling pin in her hair and glanced at the wall chronometer. Fifteen more minutes before Luke would arrive to escort her. She walked back to the common room of her suite, the heels of her dress shoes clicking rhythmically against the inlaid wood floor. Choosing a chair in front of the picture window, Mara sank down and gazed at the city lights, letting her thoughts drift to the man who would shortly arrive. Well, wasn't he the one who was always encouraging her to take time for meditation? Bet he hadn't thought she'd be meditating about him.
Luke. Not Skywalker anymore, not really. Luke. Until recently, she hadn't realized how much his companionship over the last three months meant to her. She was well established now as Liaison to the Smuggler's Alliance and for the most part was successful in her duties as such. However, Mara didn't bother trying to convince herself that she enjoyed the job. She didn't. It was boring and aggravating. And despite Luke's assurances that she was someone both sides were willing to trust, she had already discovered just how far that trust went. Her lightsaber blade had a farther reach.
Then there was the problem of living in the Imperial Palace once more. It wasn't that she still wanted the Empire back again, it was just that there were so many memories. How many times a day did she stop, midstep, as a disorienting flashback overtook her? This suite was where the ambassador she was assigned to spy on had stayed; that corridor, if followed to its end, led to the room where she'd practiced hand-to-hand combat. Vader had once escorted her to the meeting room just around the corner in order to deliver the Emperor's instructions for yet another mission, and that corner had once been inundated with decorative plants that she'd crouched behind once as a child, when she'd been annoyed with her languages tutor and had hidden. The list went on and on - yet another thing she daren't tell anyone, for fear of her admittedly fledgling loyalty to the New Republic being questioned. The only person she had mentioned this to was Luke.
And there was the crux of the matter: it always came back to him. He'd been the one to encourage her to take the post of Liaison in the first place. It could have been someone else - his sister, for one. She was the politician of the family, and had as much reason to be personally grateful to Mara as her brother had. But Organa Solo hadn't come; it had been Skywalker who had sought her out. He was the only person to whom Mara felt safe mentioning her memories, and every now and then, her insecurities, and he was invariably interested and sympathetic. Gently persistent, he'd managed to convince her to further her Jedi training (although she had so far refused to promise that she would complete it), and patiently taught her to harness her Force abilities, sharing her delight over each new accomplishment. Instead of avoiding the man she'd spent five years planning to kill, she found herself seeking him out as her only confidant. In short, he was the one bright spot in her new life on Coruscant, and the one consideration that always stopped her when she thought about tossing it all away and returning to the Wild Karrde.
It had taken her the entire three months to come to grips with this startling realization. Now that she had, the situation was changing again as her feelings for Luke snowballed. Did she feel more for him than friendship? As frightening as that idea was, she was beginning to think so - but how was she supposed to know? It was hardly the sort of thing one learned about as Emperor's Hand. Theoretically, Mara supposed this was the sort of thing she would normally discuss with another woman, but she had no mother or sisters to share such things with, and the only woman she was on reasonably friendly terms with in the Palace was Organa Solo. She could just imagine that conversation. 'Yes, Leia, you remember when I told you that your brother ruined my life and I was going to murder him for it? Well, I've changed my mind and think I might be falling in love with him instead. Any advice?' Mara giggled involuntarily at the thought. Maybe she should do that, just for the fun of seeing Leia pass out cold. Once Leia was revived, Mara could always deny everything and act extremely concerned about the inexplicable hallucinations Leia had suffered from just before her fainting spell.
Nah, not really worth it. She'd just enjoy the mental image. But what to do about the feeling? It wasn't so much that she thought Luke was terrifically handsome or anything - he was good looking in his own way, but hardly holostar gorgeous. It was that he was kind and honest and open and gentle, and she was beginning to think that he might care for her too.
Mara sighed heavily. Or maybe she was misinterpreting the whole thing. Interpersonal relationships were most emphatically not her area of expertise.
A sound tugged at her consciousness. With a slightly chagrined start, Mara realized it was her door chime, and that this was not its first peal. She reached out instinctively with the Force even as she rose and felt Luke's distinctive presence. She touched the control pad, and the door slid open to reveal a very nicely dressed Jedi Knight. If she'd thought at all about how Luke would dress this evening, it was only to assume that he would be as casual as he always was, so the more formal black jacket and trousers complemented by a cream colored tunic and deep blue crossover vest came as quite a pleasant surprise.
"Mara," he greeted her. "I was starting to think you'd changed your mind."
"Sorry," Mara said, grimacing inwardly over her own uncharacteristic absentmindedness. "I was preoccupied."
"That's okay." He looked her up and down. "Never mind avoiding anyone fixing me up, Mara - I'm going to spend the whole night trying to keep other men away from you. You look beautiful."
"Thanks," she muttered, hoping fervently that she wasn't blushing.
Luke eyed her more seriously then, as if a thought had just occurred to him. "Of course, that assumes that you would want me to. I wouldn't get in the way if there was someone you wanted to meet."
"No," Mara replied - too quickly, she was sure. "We had a deal. I stay near so Leia can't spring any potential dates on you."
Luke nodded once, slowly, and surprised her by saying, "Good."
Any reply Mara might have made was cut off as the familiar figure of Luke's astromech droid trundled up behind him, beeping an electronic greeting at her. Mara blinked, momentarily speechless. "Artoo?" She raised an eyebrow at Luke. "Interesting choice of chaperone there, Skywalker."
Her 'date', as she was now thinking of him, to her mild discomfort, raised one right back. "He's easy to outrun. What more can you ask of a chaperone?"
Mara's eyes widened both at his words and the wicked grin he sent her, but Artoo's indignant squeal preempted her response once more. Luke reached down to pat the little droid's dome. "No, I was just joking, Artoo." Luke directed his attention to Mara again. "Actually, I was going to drop him off at Han and Leia's so he could talk to Threepio while I was gone. Sometimes he gets bored," he added with an affectionate glance for the astromech. "I didn't think you'd mind."
Mara shook her head as a semblance of coherence returned to her. "You pamper that droid more than most people do their children."
Luke shrugged. "We've been through a lot together. Are you ready?"
"Of course," Mara returned as she turned off the lights and shut the door. "You're the one with the punctuality problem."
"How did I know I'd regret mentioning that?" Luke asked the unresponsive air.
"Is it my fault you're so trusting?" Mara shrugged as they started down the corridor. "So are we going to run into your sister when we drop off Junior here?"
Luke managed to keep a straight face even as he elbowed her. "Can't imagine that we will. Leia's always early for everything."
"Unlike, say, her brother."
"Would you let it drop, already?" Luke asked amiably.
"Shouldn't have brought it up in the first place, farmboy."
"Oh, I think my deep, dark secrets are pretty safe with you, Mara."
Mara glanced at him. "Do you, now?"
"Uh-huh." Luke took her closer hand in his and squeezed it. "You might torture me over them, but you wouldn't tell anyone else."
"Maybe not," Mara replied, fighting to control her suddenly increased heart rate. Did he realize his touch had this effect on her? "But just to be on the safe side, you'd better not make me mad."
He squeezed her hand again. "Always one of my goals."
To Mara's surprise (and secret delight), Luke didn't relinquish her hand until after they'd dropped off Artoo, escaped Threepio's chatter, and were one turn away from the Grand Corridor. Even then he didn't truly let go, but only shifted her hand to his arm.
"I'm getting kind of attached to this grand entrance bit," he confided to her.
"Didn't get the chance to do this much on Tatooine, huh?" Mara asked, smoothing an imaginary wrinkle from her gown with the other hand.
Luke smiled. "Hardly. Someday I'll show you the area where I grew up. You didn't get the chance to see Anchorhead when you were there, did you?"
Mara nodded to a passing business associate, defiantly relishing the look of surprise in his eyes at seeing her on Luke Skywalker's arm. "I was kind of busy at the time. Had to skip the day tour."
"Thought so. Tatooine is a beautiful place though, in its own way."
Mara looked at him curiously. "Do you ever get homesick for it?"
"Not too often, but sometimes. More than that, I miss my aunt and uncle." Luke smiled at her again. "They'd have liked you. You know what I'd really like to do - I'd like to see how you'd do in Beggar's Canyon."
Mara raised an eyebrow. "I beg your pardon?"
"We used to race speeders through it," he explained, nodding to an acquaintance of his own. Mara recognized her as one of Leia's fellow councilors. The other woman also looked surprised to see the two of them together. Mara began to be annoyed. Luke had been correct earlier when he said people should be used to seeing them together by now. They'd spent most of the past three months in each other's company. Why the surprise now? Was she not considered worthy of more than a casual friendship with the famous hero of the Rebellion?
With an effort, she stifled her irritation. Luke didn't think that way. That was all that really mattered, when you came right down to it. "If that's a challenge, I can fly any ship just as well as you can," she retorted.
"You think so?" Luke asked, mischief shining bright in his blue eyes.
"Try me," Mara answered. "I wasn't the one who crashed a Skipray blastboat, of all things."
"You're never going to let me forget that, are you? I had a long record of competent flying before that incident, you know."
"Never said you didn't," Mara returned coolly. "Only that I did too."
"And I never denied that."
"Not in so many words," Mara allowed. She noticed one of the security guards lining the Grand Corridor looking contemptuously at her as she and Luke passed. Mara remembered this particular guard well - he'd made no secret of his pleasure at having a former Imperial in custody and just as obviously resented her now favorable standing - and glared right back at him, putting all the weight of her assassin's training into it. Visibly, he didn't flinch, but his sense in the Force quailed slightly.
"Mara?" Luke asked, and she turned back in time to see the flash of concern pass over his face. "What's wrong?"
"They don't like seeing me with you," Mara muttered, raking the corridor with a suspicious glance. Her ire increased as she saw several heads turn quickly away.
Luke was frowning down at her. "Who doesn't?"
"All of them," Mara growled. "Come on, Skywalker - if I can pick it up, I know you can too."
She could feel him stretching out with the Force, observing, feeling - then abruptly, he snapped up mental barriers between the two of them and the others around them, taking the brunt of the surrounding emotions. It felt almost as though he'd erected a fence around the two of them, keeping everyone else out.
"Ignore them," Luke said, his voice quiet but with a hard edge beneath. Mara had no trouble whatsoever sensing the glimmers of irritation around him.
"I don't need you to protect me, Luke," Mara said, a slight edge in her own voice.
"I know you don't."
"Then stop doing it."
"Mara," he said, exasperated again, "I know you can take care of yourself. That doesn't excuse their attitude, and it doesn't mean I can't care about you. I just don't want you to be upset over others' ignorance."
Mara sighed and squeezed his arm slightly in apology. "I know."
He patted her hand. "Besides, the men are jealous."
This time she swatted his shoulder with her free hand. "Yeah, sure."
"You don't sense that?" Luke asked, all innocent surprise. "We obviously have some more training to do."
"Skywalker," Mara growled warningly.
"Seriously, Mara, at least half of them are and the rest should be. You're intelligent, intriguing, and easily the most beautiful woman in the Palace."
"Cut it out, Luke," Mara said uncomfortably, certain this time that she was blushing.
"Well, you are, whether you like it or not." He grinned at her. "Wait until they see you dance. They'll all be turning green with envy." He mock-frowned as if in deep thought. "Except the ones who are already green. I don't know what color they'll turn."
Mara couldn't help it; she laughed. "Reason number fifty-four for me not to complete Jedi training: it obviously gives you a warped sense of humor."
The crowd around them had thickened as they approached the Grand Ballroom. A few meters from the entrance, Mara took a deep breath, drawing herself up to stand straight and proud at Luke's side. No one would sense any weakness in her. If they didn't think she belonged with him, they could think again. Both her pride and feelings had been touched by their disdain, and now she was out to prove them wrong. Luke smiled encouragingly at her. "You ready to knock 'em dead?"
Mara lifted her chin and fixed him with a cool gaze. "With my dazzling charm or a vibroblade?"
His smile became a grin. Ignoring the stares of those around them, they strolled arm in arm into the celebration.
Luke couldn't remember the last time he'd actually enjoyed himself at one of the state occasions. The Force knew he had to attend them often enough, given his status with the Alliance and now the Republic, but he still felt awkward about it. A state party was a far cry from the pilots' parties he was more accustomed to attending. Leia thrived on them - but then, she'd grown up in an atmosphere like this. The pilots invited to these occasions were few and far between these days, so Luke rarely had any close friends present. Mostly he smiled, mingled, tried to avoid Leia's attempts to set him up, and generally wished for the whole thing to be over.
Now though, with Mara at his side, he was learning that it might be possible to have fun at a state occasion. Mara had a keen sense of humor that only a privileged few ever saw, and Luke loved watching her expressive eyes laugh in his direction over the absurdities inherent in such an event. They danced often enough to make Luke suspect that she missed dancing more than she'd admitted, and all eyes followed them when they did. Luke decided (almost objectively) that Mara was by far the best dancer in attendance, and was profoundly grateful for the tutoring that made it possible for him to partner her without feeling irredeemably foolish. He also decided that mingling was much easier when you had someone beside you to keep the conversation going when your own inventiveness faltered. Yet another latent talent Mara harbored.
Threading his way through the crowd, he caught sight of her again. She was in an almost secluded alcove positioned decoratively near one of the corners of the massive room, talking with Leia and Winter. He reached out intangibly to read them with the Force, smiling to himself as he did so. Ten years ago, he hadn't even heard of the Force. Now he was a full-fledged Jedi Knight who used it instinctively, almost unconsciously. Amazing, the unexpected twists and opportunities life could offer. And if Mara was one of those unexpected opportunities, as he was beginning to suspect, she was one he was determined not to let slip away.
All three women looked up at him as he joined them, handing Mara the drink he'd procured for her. "Why are you all lurking in the corner over here?" he asked curiously.
Mara shook her head at him. "You're such a diplomat, Luke."
Winter's silvery eyebrows lifted slightly at Mara's use of Luke's given name, and she traded a surprised glance with Leia.
Fortunately for Mara's peace of mind - and the rest of his evening, Luke thought - Mara missed the furtive exchange. "Import limit. One diplomat per family. Why are you all hiding?"
Leia grimaced. "Trying to avoid Fey'lya. He and I had another polite 'disagreement' the other day, and he's still trying to convince me of the correctness of his viewpoint."
"It's a real shame I've retired from the assassination business," Mara said speculatively. "I could have taken care of him for you."
Luke grinned at her, noticing that Leia looked genuinely shocked while Winter appeared to be muffling a laugh. Funny, he'd have expected the reverse.
"I hardly think that'll be necessary, Mara," Leia said, brown eyes still a little wide.
"That's good, because I wouldn't do it anyway," Mara said, very mildly indeed for her. "Gave up that line of work years ago."
"Not to mention that such an easy target would probably wound the professional pride of any assassin," Luke added, somewhat annoyed with his sister for not catching Mara's joke.
Mara's green eyes sparkled up at him. "Exactly." She took a sip of her drink, and then regarded her glass thoughtfully. "The catering staff seems to have discovered originality at last. This is much better than that imitation brandy they tried to pass off last time."
"I thought so, too," Luke agreed, sipping at his own spiced punch. He let his gaze wander over the three women. Leia looked even more lovely than usual, with a sparkling red gown and her brown hair braided and coiled intricately around her head; while Winter, clad in an elegant silver sheath with her upswept hair restrained by a silver comb, made Luke think of the gleaming icicles he remembered from Hoth. Mara, though - Mara was exquisite. Her fiery hair flowed freely to the middle of her back, its only decoration a handful of glittering pins scattered throughout, and her sleeveless, floor-length gown was of an emerald green silk that matched her eyes to perfection, with a subtle pattern of abstract swirls embroidered upon it in golden thread. He couldn't imagine a more beautiful sight. "So, we've established why Leia's hiding. What about the two of you?"
Winter's familiar serene smile reappeared. "Moral support."
Luke took another sip. "And Mara?"
Mara made a face. "Nothing so noble. I'm avoiding more people than Leia. Fey'lya, Mon Mothma, Ackbar, all the security people..." A movement at the edge of the crowd caught her eye, and what she saw made her groan slightly. "...Calrissian..."
Luke followed her glance. Lando was fast approaching them, with his ever-present cape billowing dramatically behind him and with Han at his side. "Well, you knew it couldn't last, Mara."
"I can dream, can't I?"
"Ladies!" Lando spread his arms wide as he reached them. "I would never have dreamed so much loveliness could be contained in one room."
Behind Lando, Han rolled his eyes elaborately. Luke felt Leia's tiny mental sigh as she greeted their friend. "Lando, it's good to see you. Don't you ever get tired of being gallant all the time?"
"With such inspiration before me?" Lando responded smoothly. "Never. Winter - elegant as always, I see." He turned toward Luke and Mara and jerked backward slightly, feigning shock. "Mara, you are truly breathtaking, I must say."
A nearly inaudible, strangled sound of disgust escaped Mara. Luke reached out to rest his hand daringly low on her waist, so that the tips of his fingers just brushed the enticing curve of her hip. She might very well take offense at such a possessive gesture; but he consoled himself with the thought that if her indignation took the form of trying to break his fingers, at least that was his artificial hand. Instead, she surprised him by leaning into the loose embrace just enough to be noticeable.
"Isn't she, though?" Luke agreed casually. "How are things, Lando?"
Lando's eyes drifted almost imperceptibly to the placement of Luke's hand before coming back to rest on his face. Luke knew that the others' eyes had taken the same path, and knew that Mara was just as aware of the fact. She still leaned slightly against him, sipping her drink with perfect unconcern, gazing at the others as though she hadn't a care in the world.
"Not too bad," Lando said slowly. "I've got a few ideas for a profitable endeavor to replace Nomad City."
"And we thought Nkllon was farfetched," Han snorted.
"You're just jealous of my phenomenal business savvy," Lando replied distractedly. "How about you, Luke? Mara?"
Luke took another nonchalant sip. "Couldn't be better."
Mara tilted her head fractionally to look up at him in a way that made Luke's heart skip a beat. "I would have to agree with that assessment."
The stunned silence that followed was broken a few moments later by Winter, her characteristic calm unimpaired. "I believe Admiral Ackbar is coming this way."
Mara wrinkled her nose distastefully at Luke. Ackbar's intense dislike of smugglers had so far extended to Mara, despite her contributions, and he'd been little more than icily civil to her. Luke could hardly blame her for preferring to avoid another such confrontation. He set his drink down on an adjacent table. "I think perhaps they're missing us on the dance floor, Mara."
"You could be right," she replied, setting her drink beside his. "Better not keep them waiting."
"My thoughts exactly." Luke nodded politely to the little group and led Mara away before anyone could comment. When they were a safe distance away, he leaned in close to whisper in her ear. "Didn't we just do something we said we wouldn't?"
"You started it, Jedi," she answered as they reached the dance floor and assumed the proper position. "And you're continuing it, too. You know they're still watching us."
"Very curiously, too," Luke added, extremely pleased that he was able to converse without falling out of step in the dance. "But I don't see you putting a stop to it, Jade."
Mara executed a beautiful spin that sent her full skirt swirling and brought the attention of all those near back to bear on them. She twirled back into Luke's arms and declared, "You aren't going to see me doing that, either. I've decided it's fun."
"Does this mean I'm not a candidate for any saber-induced lobotomies?"
Mara smiled sweetly. "Definitely saving that one for Calrissian."
Luke only laughed.
He was a better than average dancer, Mara mused, especially for a beginner. The fact pleased her. It had been so long since she'd really danced, let alone with a competent partner. With a little more training, he had the potential to be an excellent dancer - training she would be happy to provide.
The implications of that thought caught her up. How strange it all was, to care so much for Luke Skywalker. To care for him at all. She'd hated him for so very long...but ever since fulfilling the Emperor's last command by killing Luke's clone during the battle at Wayland, she'd seen Luke himself in a different light. Finally seeing through eyes that were objective and not blinded by hatred, she was able to realize what sort of person he truly was. More quickly than she'd admitted to anyone, she came to respect and admire him. He had so many qualities that she herself wished to possess. Could she ever attain the level of peace he radiated? Could she ever demonstrate such patience? Would she ever be able to look upon the galaxy with the warmth and openness he obviously did?
Could he possibly care for her in return?
Mara came back to the dance floor with a jarring mental thump as Luke gently tugged at her hand. Unbeknownst to her, the music had ended and Luke was leading them off the floor, and in the direction opposite from where they'd been previously. Thoughtful of him. She really didn't want to rejoin the others. They drifted over toward Ghent, who was clinging to the perimeter of the room, looking aimless.
"How did they manage to drag him away from the computers?" Luke asked softly.
Mara shrugged, trying to ignore the not unpleasant shiver that ran through her as his warm breath brushed her ear. "Maybe he was bored and sliced himself an invitation."
They reached Ghent just as Mon Mothma took the podium at the far end of the room to deliver some carefully prepared diplomatic speech. Mara valiantly smothered her yawns. She might have grown up around politics, but she much preferred action. The speech eventually drew to a close, but even as Mara was starting to think there might still be a little fun left in the evening, they were blindsided by Admiral Drayson. She didn't especially like Drayson; and she knew full well that the feeling was mutual. Luke, however, was greeted almost jovially by the admiral. Of course, Mara thought cynically. Luke was retired military, and an officer at that. Naturally he'd be in an admiral's good graces. Her impatience grew swiftly as Drayson droned on to her companion. As far as she could tell, the man had nothing important or interesting to say. He nodded once or twice to Ghent, but very condescendingly. Ghent was far too lost in his own world to notice the slight, but Mara's anger was kindled on his behalf. Just where would the admiral's precious New Republic be right now without Ghent's talents? Her, Drayson ignored completely. Mara amused herself for a few moments by trying to decide whether to be insulted or relieved. Luke was a model of courtesy as he listened to Drayson, but if the waves of wordless reassurance he was sending her were any indication, he'd picked up on her emotions.
After what seemed an eternity, Luke extricated them from the one-sided conversation. This time Mara took the lead in the retreat, snatching Luke's hand and nearly dragging him away. She'd have felt worse about leaving Ghent to the admiral's tender mercies if she thought for a moment either that the younger man had noticed the other's attitude or that Drayson considered the slicer worth harassing any further.
"Of all the overbearing, obnoxious, pompous..."
"Now, Mara," Luke began placatingly, then squeezed her hand warningly. Mara abruptly swallowed her further mutterings as Mon Mothma herself appeared before them. The appearance of the Oh-So-Exalted Chief of State brought Mara near despair, but the conversation was mercifully brief - just more of the polite, meaningless drivel that was an inescapable hallmark of such occasions.
When Mon Mothma left them - heading toward Leia, if Mara wasn't mistaken - Mara grabbed Luke's elbow roughly. "That's it. We're out of here."
He sighed, glancing at the elaborate wall chrono on the ballroom's far wall. "You do realize that the party will keep going for several more hours."
"Yes, I do. I also realize that we've already been here for several hours, even though neither of us was needed in the first place. As far as I'm concerned, we've paid our dues, and I'm done smiling at these people. Let's go." She tugged emphatically at his elbow.
"Can't really argue with that." Luke looked around, obviously searching for someone. "Let me just tell Leia we're going."
"You're a big boy, Skywalker," Mara replied dryly. "Do you really need a keeper?"
"The soul of tact, as always, Mara," he answered calmly. Calmly, but with an undercurrent of amusement. What was it with him? Mara knew her talent for irritating people was considerable. She'd cultivated it carefully; it could be as useful a weapon as a blaster or vibroblade if properly used. But it had never worked on Luke. He either ignored it or laughed it off. Was he just imperturbable, or did he truly see through her that easily?
"Okay, I told her," Luke's words interrupted her thoughts. "We can go."
"The Force does come in handy sometimes," Mara commented, knowing perfectly well how he'd communicated their intent to his sister.
"That's a cavalier view of things."
"Realistic," she corrected. "I'm not surprised you don't recognize it, as small a part as realism has played in your life."
"You're a cruel woman, Jade," Luke replied with a grin. He placed his hand casually at the small of her back and guided her out of the ballroom, away from the crowd.
Luke was having difficulties with his usual meditation this morning. He'd get about two thoughts into any sort of serious meditating before his train of thought was totally derailed by a stray memory of the previous evening.
Mara, elegant and feminine in green and gold, looking every bit as regal as he'd ever seen Leia or Winter. Her beautiful green eyes sparkling with pleasure as they danced. The shimmer of that incomparable red hair. The way she hadn't shrugged off his tentatively affectionate gestures. What charms had meditation to offer when compared with such reflections as those?
She'd invited him into her apartment after they'd slipped out of the party, where they'd shared an excellent bottle of wine and simply talked for a long time. Eventually Luke remembered that he needed to retrieve Artoo before Han and Leia came home and went to bed, and had left, but not before extracting a promise from Mara to see her the next day. They had an afternoon appointment for saber practice. As rewarding an opponent as she was, Luke would have preferred something on a more personal level; but he didn't want to risk his fragile new rapport with her by rushing things, either. No, he'd be patient, take things one slow step at a time if that's what it took. Mara was worth the wait.
Luke realized that once again he'd left any pretense of meditation far behind and gave it up in mild disgust. He'd just decided to head for the gym instead when he heard the door chime and was pleasantly surprised to discover Mara on the other side. Hoping he'd guarded his earlier thoughts effectively, he opened the door. She ignored his cheerful 'good morning' and brushed past him into the apartment before turning to truly look at him.
"We need to talk."
"We do?" Luke fought a sudden feeling of foreboding as he closed the door. Mara's next words justified that feeling.
"Karrde called me an hour ago. He thinks I've established the post of Liaison sufficiently to let someone else take it over. He wants me back on the Wild Karrde."
For a long moment, Luke could only stare at her. Recognizing the expression of growing impatience on Mara's face, he finally managed to form a coherent thought. "I thought it would take longer than that."
"So did I."
The silence stretched tautly between them once more. After a few moments, Mara turned from him to go throw herself heavily on the couch. Luke followed, hesitantly sitting down beside her.
"Mara..." He paused, not knowing what he wanted to say, or should say, or how to say it. "Mara, are you going to go?"
She paused even longer than he had. "That's what we need to talk about."
Luke dared to touch her hand. "I won't try to talk you out of it if that's what you want to do - but I'd miss you so much, Mara."
Mara met his eyes. "And I'd miss you."
"Then stay," Luke offered gently.
"For what, Luke?" Mara asked, emerald eyes snapping with intensity. "I'm second in command of the galaxy's preeminent smuggling group. It took me five years of struggling to get where I am. I have respect with Karrde's group, and authority. Here, I'm just another petty government official. Worse, I'm one in an inherently unstable position. The Smuggler's Alliance could fall apart tomorrow, and then what happens to the Liaison?"
"Anything could fall apart at any time, no matter how stable it seems," Luke said, trying hard to remain objective despite the terrible sinking feeling in his middle. "That's hardly exclusive to your current post."
Mara laughed strangely. "I know that. What do you think happened to the Emperor's Hand once the Emperor died? That's exactly what I'm telling you. I've already had my whole world shatter around me. I'm not eager to experience it again."
"You can't tell me this posting means anywhere near that much to you. I know you don't feel that way about it."
"No, I don't," Mara conceded. She wrapped her arms around herself, hugging tightly. "But if I stay, it won't be for the sake of the post of Liaison." She turned still-intense green eyes on Luke, and her gaze seemed to pierce any and all barriers, reaching deep within him to touch his inmost soul. "So tell me, Luke: what reason do I have to stay?"
Luke leaned forward, elbows on knees, matching her intensity. "Stay for me, Mara. For us. For the friendship we've developed."
Mara was unrelenting. "Friendship? Or something more?"
Luke grinned tightly at the floor. "Couldn't do this like everyone else, could we?" He looked up at her again, at the beauty and danger and complexity that was Mara Jade. "I think you already know that I'd like more, if you'll allow it."
Mara leaned back against the couch, letting her breath out softly. "That scares the hell out of me, Luke."
"And yet you're here," Luke pointed out.
"I don't run," Mara almost growled, eyes hardening to green steel. "Fear does not dictate my life."
Luke smiled at her. "I always admired that determination, even when I was worried you might use it against me."
"Complacent, aren't we?" Mara muttered. "What makes you so sure I won't use it against you now?"
"Oh, I don't know." Luke leaned back as well. "The fact that you're here, in my apartment, not telling me that you've gotten the call you've waited three months for and you'll be gone next week, but actually discussing the possibility of defying Karrde and staying."
"Not defying, not yet. Negotiating." Mara's gaze seemed to turn inward. "I think I can convince him to let me stay."
"Then you do want to stay," Luke said softly.
She looked at him for a long time. "I'd miss you," she finally admitted. "You're the only real friend I've ever had. I've never felt so comfortable with anyone before. I don't want to lose that."
"You won't, no matter what happens," he reassured her. "Your friendship means too much to me to simply let it go."
"And the more?"
Mara's voice was very soft. Luke reached out to trail a single finger down her arm. "You know my feelings on the subject. I suppose it's up to you."
She trembled, just visibly. "I've faced a lot of frightening things in my time, but this has got to be the scariest."
"I'm scarier than C'baoth?" Luke teased gently. "Is that a compliment or an insult?"
She almost smiled. "You couldn't scare an Ewok, Skywalker. It's just that I've never been in that sort of relationship before. Serving the Emperor was my entire life. There wasn't room for anything else."
"But after he died?"
"Too obsessed with killing you."
Luke grinned at her. Mara returned the grin briefly before looking away and hugging herself again.
"Don't worry about it, Mara. I haven't been in all that many relationships myself, and obviously, none of them worked out." Luke sighed, then took her hand and squeezed it. "We'd just have to figure it out together."
"I'd..." Mara looked at him again. "I do care about you, Luke. I'd like to see where that path would take us."
"Then we will," Luke assured her, trying to hide at least some of the joy swelling within him and knowing the effort was pointless. Mara smiled somewhat wryly in return, and didn't resist as Luke tugged gently at her hand. She inched closer to him, and sighing, rested her head on his shoulder.
"I've lost my mind, you know," she murmured. "It's the only explanation."
Luke thought about pointing out that he was the one willingly walking into a relationship with someone who'd literally wanted to kill him, but decided that that particular form of humor wouldn't exactly help his cause. "We could be good together, Mara," he said instead. "I think you know that as well as I do. We've made a good team since the very beginning. Remember Myrkr?"
"Mmm. So we're both crazy. Not the best recipe for success I've ever heard." She lifted her head to eye him. "Don't go running off to shout this to your sister, either. I don't need to be the subject of any more New Republic news conferences. The one after Wayland was bad enough."
"I wasn't going to," he protested. "Leia doesn't know everything about me."
He'd seldom seen as much skepticism as Mara's eyes contained then, but she let it pass. "But what about when it does get out, Luke? This isn't exactly the smartest thing you could do. The galaxy's only Jedi Knight and hero of the Rebel Alliance involved with a former Imperial assassin? Think of how that will look. Think about what people will say..."
Luke moved quickly, tipping her chin up and covering her mouth with his own. Mara was effectively silenced as she leaned into the kiss, sliding her hands around his neck. When they parted a long moment later, Mara's eyes shone with ironic humor. "I know I'm new at this, Luke, but I don't think kissing me to shut me up is really all that romantic."
"No? I thought it was. How about this?"
He kissed her again, softly. Mara returned the kiss, and then smiled at him. "Maybe a little better."
Luke put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, pressing yet another kiss to her forehead. "Don't go looking for trouble, Mara. It finds both of us without any encouragement. And right off the top of my head, I can't recall any instance where it's beaten either of us." He leaned back again, taking Mara with him, held firmly against his shoulder. "So what are you going to tell Karrde?"
"I'll think of something," she said, drawing his arms even closer around her.
"What did you tell him earlier?" he asked, happy to oblige her with a tighter hug.
"That I had to think about it."
"I imagine he was surprised."
"Somewhat." Mara's voice was edged with humor again. "But very understated, of course. Bad form to show too much emotion to someone under your command."
"I remember that principle," Luke said, thinking back to the days of leading Rogue Squadron. "Don't think I ever pulled it off as well as Karrde."
He chuckled suddenly, and Mara looked suspiciously up at him. "What?"
"I was thinking, just before you came, of different ways I might get you to agree to a relationship like this. I was expecting it to take a while. Romantic dinners, or something traditional like that. I should have known better."
Mara backhanded him in the ribs. "Don't be a creep, Jedi. It doesn't suit you." She was grinning, though. "I should go call Karrde back." She patted his knee and rose. "We still on for saber practice later?"
"Sure, why should we start being traditional now?" Luke rose as well and caught her around the waist. "But can I interest you in a romantic dinner after?"
"Would that be a 'traditional' romantic dinner?" Mara pretended distaste. "I have to think about it."
"I bet you say that to all the -" Luke was cut off as Mara reached up to kiss him soundly. His arms tightened instinctively around her, then she pulled back and shrugged mischievously in answer to his questioning look.
"Turnabout is fair play, I've heard." She kissed his chin lightly and disengaged herself from his arms. "I'll see you later."
She turned and left without a backward glance, leaving Luke alone once more, grinning to himself.
"What's going on with you and Mara?"
Luke slowly and carefully lowered Jacen, who he had been jiggling above his head, and turned to his sister. "Excuse me?"
"You. Mara Jade. What?"
"Friendship. Jedi training. Lots of arguments. No killing. Happy?" Luke replied in kind, jouncing his cooing nephew. He didn't know what had prompted Leia's question - he'd thought he and Mara had been quite circumspect since they'd admitted they felt more than friendship for each other a week ago. He did know that Mara would be extremely displeased if Leia discovered their new development so soon. Luke gave a mental sigh and subtly strengthened his barriers. Time for the old 'certain point of view' defense.
"You know me," Leia said, not even bothering to look at her brother as she pinned a plait of hair neatly in place. "I'm always happy."
"Sure you are. So why the debriefing?"
"Well, you have been spending a lot of time with her lately," Leia shrugged.
Luke rolled his eyes. "Friendship. Jedi training. Remember?"
"Did you know that Lando's been pestering Han about when you two became an item, after what he saw at the party last week?" Leia asked casually.
Luke made a face, and not entirely because of Lando's interference. He held Jacen out to Leia. "Here, sister of mine. Be 'happy' while you change your son. And you know that Lando's only concerned because he had an eye on Mara himself."
Leia made a face of her own as she took Jacen. "Isn't this sort of thing included in the duties of an uncle?"
"I haven't reconciled myself to that yet. You'll have to handle it."
"Thanks a lot. And Lando's interested precisely because he had an eye on Mara. Because of your behavior, he now thinks she's unavailable."
"Mara will be delighted to hear it," Luke retorted. "You know how she feels about Lando. If you don't mind my quoting you, she'd just as soon kiss a Wookiee."
"Or a Jedi?"
Luke sighed. "Leia, because you're my sister and I love you, I'm going to give you a very important piece of advice. Don't mention such a thing to Mara unless you genuinely want to end up in the medcenter."
"If you say so, brother dear."
Luke didn't respond, distracted by an approaching presence. He recognized it quickly, and swallowed another sigh. Not the most auspicious moment for Mara to show up. He sent Mara a mental grimace through the Force, and her pace faltered slightly. In return, he sent a wave of reassurance and warning to her suddenly questioning sense. Her flash of understanding came, and he waited patiently for the inevitable.
"Luke, can you get the door?" Leia asked as the chime pealed. "Or is that something else you haven't reconciled yourself to?"
"No," Luke answered, already heading in that direction, "this I think I can handle." He opened the door. "Hi, Mara."
Mara nodded coolly at him. "Skywalker," she acknowledged absently as she stepped past him into the spacious room.
"Mara!" Leia greeted her cheerfully from where she was finishing up with Jacen, casting her brother a meaningful look as she did so. "We were just talking about you."
"Why?" Mara demanded suspiciously.
"Oh, just because," Leia said airily, then thrust Jacen into Luke's arms again as Jaina woke up and began to wail. Picking up her daughter, Leia turned back to Mara. "Would you like to hold her?" she asked sweetly.
Luke shook his head subtly at Mara. She looked confused, but as Leia came closer, comprehension dawned. Mara wrinkled her nose, looked sharply at Jaina, and took a hasty step back. "Oh, no. No way, Leia."
"Spoilsport." Leia sighed and headed back to the changing table.
"As soon as one finishes, the other starts," Luke commented wryly.
"Luke, really!" Leia objected.
"Sounds like fun," Mara said unconvincingly. "Didn't know you were so domestic, Skywalker."
"He's not," Leia said emphatically. "To what do we owe the pleasure of your company, Mara?"
"I stopped by the encrypt center to talk to Ghent," Mara said, still eyeing Leia and Jaina warily, "and he said he'd finished something you'd asked for. Wanted me to drop it off so he could keep working on whatever it is that has him in thrall now." She produced a datapad, then hesitated, realizing that both Leia and Luke had their hands full with the children.
"You can set it down on the desk," Luke offered helpfully. "Leia, the datapad is on your desk."
"Desk. Got it." Leia didn't look up.
Mara put the datapad on the desk as directed, then looked at the other two. Luke smiled at her, and she returned the smile - after verifying that Leia was still looking the other way, which amused Luke no end. "Well, that was really it, so I'll get out of your hair now."
Leia finally turned around with a much cleaner and happier Jaina in her arms. "Don't go so soon, Mara. Can I get you a drink? Juice? Mineral water?"
"No, really," Mara insisted. "I have a lot of work to do this morning."
Luke had caught the fascinated glance she'd turned on Jaina, though, and apparently Leia had as well. "Just hold her for a moment," Leia coaxed.
Mara's brilliant eyes widened. "I don't think so."
"Not scared, are you, Jade?" Luke teased, watching her over his nephew's head.
"Have you ever held a baby before?" Leia asked before Mara could formulate a stinging enough reply.
"Um, no," Mara answered, with an uncharacteristic glimmer of nervousness in her voice. "Not the sort of thing that's generally included in an assassin's training."
Luke was pretty sure she'd only phrased it that way to scare Leia off, but his sister hadn't helped lead the Rebellion and build the New Republic by frightening easily.
"Then it's time you learned," Leia said briskly. "Hold out your arms."
Mara began to back away. "I don't want to interrupt a family moment."
"You saved their lives," Luke reminded her, enjoying her unusual discomfort. "Chewie would say that makes you part of their honor family."
She shot him a venomous glare. "I'm not a Wookiee, Skywalker."
"Nevertheless," Leia said, and unceremoniously deposited Jaina in Mara's arms. Astonished, Mara stood unprotesting as Leia rearranged her arms to support the infant. A most extraordinary look had dawned in Mara's eyes. Leia stood back and smiled at her. "Not so hard, is it?"
Mara remained silent, her expression unreadable as she gazed at the gurgling baby in her reluctant embrace. Luke took pity on her.
"If it makes you feel any better, I'd never held a baby either before they were born." He stepped closer to her, holding Jacen so that he could see Jaina. Mara looked up, meeting Luke's eyes, and for a long moment the babies were forgotten.
They both jerked slightly as Leia cleared her throat. Stepping back from Mara, Luke had no problems reading the amusement in his sister's sense. Mara hastily handed the baby she held back to Leia. "I have to go. It was nice seeing you again, Leia."
"Wasn't it nice to see Luke again, too?" Leia asked pointedly, her chocolate eyes shining with mischief.
A brief spark of panic flared in Mara's own emerald eyes, and then was quickly smothered. "Of course," she said smoothly. "Practice later, Skywalker?"
"The usual time," he confirmed, bouncing Jacen to cover his own discomfiture.
"See you then," Mara said calmly. She turned to go, then paused just long enough to lightly caress Jaina's downy head. "Bye, Jaina." And with a swirl of red-gold hair, she was gone.
Leia brushed past Luke on her way to answer the suddenly beeping holocom, and the look of smugness she wore was truly insufferable.
Mara watched the complex web of lights that was Coruscant after sunfall, only peripherally aware of what her eyes were telling her. Luke would be here soon, and she had to project calm. No, more than that. She had to feel calm. He would know if she was merely acting. Easier said than done, though.
The door off to the side opened, and Mara tried to ignore the thrill of pleased expectation that shot through her at Luke's arrival. Calm. Yeah, right. So calm, you didn't even sense him coming.
"We always seem to wind up on the roof, don't we?" Luke asked as he joined her at the railing.
"The psychologists would probably have a field day," Mara answered flippantly. "'Latent desire for supremacy', or some such nonsense."
She couldn't see his smile in the dim lighting, but she knew it was there just the same. "Maybe we're both just antisocial." He fell silent. "You canceled practice."
"I had a last minute meeting."
"No, you didn't."
It was a simple statement. Not a shred of accusation could be found in his voice. So why did guilt spring to life at his words? "We have more to talk about than can be discussed over crossed sabers."
"We didn't have anything so pressing to discuss last night, or this morning. And if something had come up, we could have foregone practice and talked then. You weren't ready to face me."
"So what if I wasn't?" she snapped. If he dared to bring up that 'anger is of the dark side' maxim again...
He took her hand, his manner gentler than ever. "Mara, is all of this just because Leia suspects something?"
Mara's anger vaporized before it was even fully formed. She could never stay angry with him when he became gentle and concerned like this, no matter how hard she tried. It would be like kicking a whisperkit. Blast him, how did he always know how to disarm her? "She knows, Luke."
"She suspects," he corrected softly. "She doesn't know until one of us confirms it."
"Or until she walks in on us in a liplock, I suppose," Mara tossed back in a halfhearted attempt at mockery.
Luke's voice was tinted with unspoken laughter. "We'd know if she was coming."
"Aren't you just the embodiment of reassurance."
"Mara, what does it matter if she suspects? We didn't intend to keep our relationship a secret forever."
"There shouldn't even be a relationship between us," Mara said sharply, before her resolve faltered.
"You don't mean that," Luke said, utterly calm.
"Yes, I do!"
"Open yourself to the Force, and then tell me we aren't meant to be together. I'll walk away and never bother you again."
"Does it ever occur to you that other people figure these things out without the Force?" Mara snapped.
"Of course." He grinned irrepressibly at her. "Isn't it nice that sometimes we get hints?"
Mara almost laughed; it came out sounding more like a sob, and she hated herself for showing any weakness. "It was a mistake."
"No, it wasn't."
"Blast it, Luke! Why can't you see what's right in front of your face?"
He caught both her hands as she tried to spin away from him, holding her fast. "I do see what's right in front of my face, and I'm not letting her go."
She tried to pull her hands away - without success; he had a serious grip on her. "You're a Jedi, a hero of the Rebellion - I served the Empire! The Emperor, personally! Do you know how many people I've killed?"
Luke sighed, his exasperation evident. "How many times do we have to go through this? That's in the past, and as far as I'm concerned you can't be held responsible for it anyway. And just for the record, I've killed more people than you ever have, or ever will. You probably know the numbers better than I do. How many people were aboard the first Death Star?"
All the air seemed to go out of Mara. She felt small, insignificant, like a little girl being scolded by her father or older brother. "It's not the same."
"Why not? I fired the torpedo that destroyed the Death Star. Those deaths are on my hands, and my conscience. It was years before I could go a single day without thinking about them." His voice gentled again. "It was wartime, Mara. There's not a single person on either side who didn't do something he regrets. You did what you believed to be right at the time."
This time Mara succeeded in yanking her hands away. She turned to face outward once more, her back to him. "The difference is, you actually were right. I wasn't."
"You weren't quite so forceful with this viewpoint a week ago."
Mara blinked fiercely before the tears could form. She would not cry. "I wasn't thinking a week ago."
"What you mean is that a week ago it was just you and me, and you felt safe. Now you think someone else knows. Suddenly it's real, and you're scared." His arms slid around her waist before she noticed, pulling her to him. "You told me fear didn't rule your life. Don't give in to fear now, Mara. Not when we have so much to gain by defying it."
Mara closed her eyes and leaned against him, resting the back of her head on his shoulder and pulling his arms closer around her.
"You know I'm right," he whispered in her ear.
"Oh, shut up, Luke," Mara said tiredly.
"As my lady wishes," Luke answered, and kissed the top of her head. They stood together in silence for a long time.
"I wish it could be just you and me, forever," Mara finally whispered. "I know what people are going to say when they find out, and I don't want to hear it."
Luke hugged her tighter. "Not everyone will be displeased. Those who are....well, they have a right to their opinion, but these are our lives, not theirs."
Mara thought about fighting the sense of security she felt in his arms, but it just didn't seem worth it. "What did Leia say, really?"
"Not a thing after you left. But before you came, she was hinting that there was something between us. And Mara, she wasn't unhappy about the prospect at all. You saw her. She was practically throwing us at each other."
"I thought she'd be mad," Mara murmured.
Luke turned her around in his arms until she faced him. "You don't want to walk away from this any more than I do, do you?"
"You know I don't, blast you. It'd be a lot easier to fight with you if you weren't always so damned understanding."
Luke chuckled, not at all intimidated by her wrath. "So answer me this," he said, grinning at her. "Are we in this together?"
Mara sighed. "Do you really want us to be? Even knowing the backlash we'll get?"
"Yes," he replied without hesitation. "You are vastly more important to me. As you already know."
A tiny smile tugged at her lips. She was important to him. She'd only ever been important to the Emperor before, and only then because of her efficiency in serving him. She was important to Luke because he cared about her. Her. Mara. It made for a nice change.
A part of Mara's mind wanted desperately to pull away. A large part, actually: the part that had been molded by Palpatine, the part that decried the emotional baggage that inevitably accompanied the deeper feelings beginning to worm their way into her heart, the part that had been alone so long that the concept of companionship was frightening. But another tiny facet of her personality - so long dormant that even its existence had nearly been forgotten - had begun to make its presence felt. It shone unobtrusively but steadily brighter, whispering that perhaps there was more to life than she'd known. Perhaps friendship, family, love, the things so many others craved and she had so long scorned, might truly have their place. Maybe they were even to be desired.
No, her old instincts cried, that way lies danger. To allow yourself to care is to be vulnerable. And yet, perhaps that was the definition of love: to allow another to see your vulnerabilities and trust that one to see beyond them. To trust him to guard those vulnerabilities as if they were his own.
Mara didn't even know if she was capable of such a thing - but suddenly she wanted very much to find out.
She slowly became aware of Luke's concerned eyes still fixed upon her. "Fine, then," she answered with a show of reluctance. "You win. We're in this together."
He grinned again. "You're cute when you pretend you don't care."
Mara thumped his chest, hiding her own grin. "Get to the point, already."
Luke's arms, still firmly wrapped around her waist - an example of the legendary Skywalker stubbornness, no doubt - tightened perceptibly. "The only point worth making is that you mean far too much to me to let this end over a triviality." He hesitated, then added, "And I'd like to think that I mean more than that to you, too."
"You do," she reassured him, surprising herself with how quickly that answer came.
His resulting smile could have eclipsed a nova in brilliance. He kissed her forehead, and with a tiny sigh, Mara decided to stand her ground and accept this rare and precious gift that had inexplicably been given her. She looped her arms around his neck and leaned into his embrace, laying her head once more on his shoulder. The gesture felt as natural as if such had been ordained from the beginning of time. Mara winced reflexively as those last thoughts caught up with her. Force, she was going soft!
"I don't think you're going soft," Luke murmured quietly. "Still as scary as ever, believe me."
"Stay out of my mind, Skywalker," Mara growled without lifting her head.
"Can't," he replied, and she heard in his words the grin she couldn't see. "I like it there."
Mara did raise her head at that. "You're a sap, Luke."
"So are you. You just hide it better."
Mara bit her lip, but couldn't keep the corners of her mouth from twitching upward. "I'm not sure I like being so transparent."
Luke shrugged dismissively. "It's only fair. You see right through me."
"Not difficult with a farmboy like you," Mara informed him.
"Do you always have to get the last word in?"
Mara's breath quickened ever so slightly as Luke leaned his forehead against hers and gazed into her eyes. "Always."
"I think I know a cure for that," he murmured, eyes never leaving hers.
"You do n-" Mara's whispered reply vanished like mist before a wind as Luke bent his head to kiss her. The intrusive lights and sounds of Coruscant's night life receded into nothingness, and for that blessed moment there was only the two of them. Delaying tactic, her inescapably analytical mind pointed out, but a stronger thought - hers or Luke's, she couldn't tell - simply answered, Who cares?
Mara gave in to the latter. Rebel and Imperial, Jedi and assassin, Tatooine farmboy and Coruscant city girl - none of the inherent ironies mattered anymore. This was simply right. No matter how she tried to deny this new reality, they both knew it.
"You know," Mara managed to say some time later, "we'll never have a serious conversation if you keep using that move."
"We've had too many serious discussions lately, anyway," Luke answered. "Not nearly enough of this." Smiling, he tilted his head down again to whisper in her ear. "Buy you a drink, Mistress Jade? The night's young, and there's a good bar not far from here."
Mara laughed, feeling more carefree than she ever had. "I won't even ask how you knew that, O saintly Jedi Knight."
"Who's saintly?" Luke gave a beautiful impression of righteous indignation.
Mara just rolled her eyes. "Better make it a double."
Luke grinned and released her, only to once more offer his arm formally. Mara shook her head at him, but couldn't disguise the genuine smile that spread across her face. Arm in arm, they turned to the roof door and stepped into a new world of infinite possibilities.
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