It had been more than two weeks since the great victory at Ebaq 9 - weeks filled with celebrations, meetings, reunions, and more meetings. The High Council of the new administration once again had all members present for roll-call, and the tableau of topics on its agenda seemed neverending. It was from one such assemblage that Luke wearily returned home to the small apartment he and Mara shared on Mon Calamari.
"That you, Luke?" Mara called from the kitchen area as Luke sank onto their couch.
The Jedi Master smiled to himself. As if she had to ask. He'd felt Mara reach out to stroke his presence as soon as he entered the building. This was merely a little game they played on occasion - pretending to be a 'normal' family, where the husband comes home from a long day at work and is greeted by his dutiful wife as she prepares the evening meal. Though if their family were normal, Luke reflected with a touch of sadness, Ben would be toddling out to meet him.
"Yes, dear," he called, putting a teasing tone to his voice. "What's for dinner? I'm starved."
Mara slipped noiselessly into the common room, settling herself onto her husband's lap. "Seaweed salad with toasted plankton, followed by saut?ed seaweed, roast sea fronds, stewed sea orls, and jellied ebfish eggs for dessert."
Luke let his head loll back in only partially feigned resignation. "I hope you're kidding."
Leaning forward to give him a welcoming kiss, Mara chuckled lightly. "Why? Getting picky in your old age?"
"Only when I finally got around to picking out a wife." He grinned lazily at her.
"Good answer." She rose smoothly and tugged him toward the eating nook. "But to answer your question, I managed to appropriate some freeze-dried military fare off the Guardian."
"Thank the Force." Luke poked experimentally at the grayish lump of unidentifiable meat on his plate. "I think."
Mara couldn't hold back the burst of laughter at the expression on Luke's face. "We still have a few cans of baby cereal, if you get desperate. I'm sure Ben would be happy to share."
"Ben would probably enjoy the stewed seaweed every night." As soon as the comment passed his lips, another wave of melancholy passed through Luke. He laid down his fork and gave Mara a doleful grimace. "Wish he were here to try it."
"Me, too." Mara reached across the small table and grasped Luke's hand tightly. "I miss him more than ever. Now that there's a lull in the war, I can't stop thinking about him. Those latest holos from Kam and Tionne made it that much worse."
Luke pressed his lips into a straight line, remembering his son's giggle in one of the holos as he waved a chubby hand at his absent parents. "Let's go see him," he blurted out suddenly.
Mara's eyes widened warily. "Are you serious?"
"A short visit." Luke scooted his chair closer to his wife. "As you just pointed out, there's a break in the action right now. The galaxy can do without us for a week or so."
A hundred reasons flew through Mara's mind why such a sojourn wouldn't be possible - followed by a thousand reasons why she desperately wanted to hop in the Jade Shadow and take off immediately. She expelled a rueful breath.
"Luke, we can't."
"Yes, we can." His voice had the persuasive earnestness reminiscent of a young Tatooine farmboy.
"You have a full slate of meetings with both the High Council and the Advisory Council."
"That's why they invented proxies."
"Nylykerka is expecting me to do some more sweeps with the mouse droids, just to make sure we have all the infiltrators."
"He has a entire staff of people who could handle that."
Mara dared to meet Luke's pleading gaze. "When do we leave?" she whispered.
Mara skirted the edge of the cluster of black holes with an almost reckless abandon before delving into the Maw's enormous gravity wells.
"Uh..." Luke shot her a cautious, sideways glance. "Trying to break Han's Kessel Run record?"
"Making you nervous, Skywalker?" she said with a smirk. It felt good to be piloting again, especially since this time she was headed to see her precious son. She flipped a control to send more power to the Shadow's already impressive shields. "I'm using the safe route. What more do you want?"
"I want us to get there in one piece."
"We will." Mara decreased her speed only fractionally, letting the Force guide her through the perilous twists and turns. "You're enjoying this; don't try to deny it. You're wearing the same expression that you had when I came to visit the academy one time and took you for a ride."
Luke gave her a quizzical look.
"You know, when what's-her-name was there."
"Ah, yes." Luke grinned knowingly. "That was when you admitted that you came by because you missed me."
"I was there to deliver a message."
"If you say so." With a lingering smile, Luke shrugged and looked out the darkened viewport, dimmed to protect their eyes. Even then, riotous colors splayed out in a dizzying array of swirls and shadows inside the cockpit.
"You know Leia was probably right about why this trip isn't a good idea," Mara commented.
"I know." Luke nodded, absentmindedly pulling at his crash webbing as the ship was buffeted by the turbulence of hot gases. "We won't want to leave him."
Cilghal had agreed to be Luke's proxy on the High Council, and had graciously refrained from offering any opinion of her master's sudden 'vacation.' Leia was not so reserved. She pointed out that Yuuzhan Vong operatives could follow their flight path. Mara declared that no one was going to be able to follow her. Luke stated he'd personally check the Shadow for tracking devices. Leia then changed tactics, saying that the fragile new administration needed Luke's guidance. He pointed out he wouldn't be gone any longer than when he'd sought Bel Iblis's cooperation for the latest battle. She finally admitted the real reason for her reluctance to see them leave - she remembered how hard it had been on her and Han to return home from a visit when their own babies had been in hiding.
"Weren't you the one who talked her and Han into hiding her kids?" Mara continued. "I thought she'd consider this your payback."
"Leia's not like that."
"Oh, no? Who was it that said she owed you a punch for putting Han in charge of the smugglers' squadron?"
Luke smiled to himself at the recent memory. "Point taken." He relaxed back in his co-pilot seat, allowing himself the luxury of anticipation of seeing his son, holding his son, watching him walk, hearing him talk...
"Do you think he'll remember us?"
Luke's head jerked up at Mara's unexpected question.
"Of course he'll remember us. It's only been a little over three months."
"That's nearly a fourth of his life, Luke," Mara reminded him, her outward concentration totally focused on her piloting. "We even missed his first birthday."
He reached over and squeezed her shoulder. "All the more reason to make the most of every moment of this visit."
Mara smiled to herself. By the Force, she loved this man, and she loved their son. The gods help the Vong or anyone else who would stand in the way of their happiness as a family.
At last they burst into the gravitational oasis that harbored Shelter, a motley collection of cargo modules, space station segments, and hollow planetoids that, ironically, once housed an Imperial research installation. Shelter was the haven specifically riveted together to be a safe house for Jedi, and now being utilized as a sanctuary for the younger children of the Jedi Academy.
Mara signaled ahead to Tionne and Kam Solusar, current guardians of the future generation of Knights. Luke had participated in the initial set-up of the station, but this was his and Mara's first trip since it had become home to the Jedi students, including their only son, Ben.
Swooping into the domelike module that served as a landing pad, the Jade Shadow settled onto its assigned berth with barely a sound. When Luke and Mara anxiously looked out the cockpit window, they could see all the children standing at attention, lined up in a row with Tionne at one end and Kam - holding Ben - at the other.
"Looks like a dress review out there," Mara commented as she rushed through the shutdown sequence. "Don't they know we're only here to see one person?"
"Mara," Luke chastised lightly. "We have an obligation to check on all the students."
"You can obligate all you want," she returned, rising out of her seat. "I'm going."
Before Luke could reply, the landing ramp was lowering and Mara was halfway down it.
Kam set Ben down, and the child immediately began trotting to his mother as fast as his chubby legs could carry him.
And promptly tripped and fell down.
Her heart in her throat, Mara bolted for him, barely pausing when Tionne's voice called to her.
"Wait, Mara. He can get up by himself."
Mara bit back a retort, reaching Ben just as he rose shakily to his feet. Falling to her knees, she swept the toddler into a tight hug and blanketed him with kisses. How wonderful it felt to hold her precious little boy!
Eventually Mara realized Ben was jabbering. Swelling with maternal pride, she pulled back slightly and listened, eager for the first real words she'd hear him speak in person, the first time he would call her-
Ben wriggled one arm free of Mara's embrace and extended it to his father, now crouching at Mara's shoulder. Luke could sense Mara fighting down a spasm of disappointment.
"No, Ben," he soothed, grasping the flailing fist. "Say 'ma-ma.'"
"Nah-nah," Ben mimicked, still holding Luke's gaze.
"Ma-ma," Luke repeated, enunciating carefully.
"Nah-nah," came the return burble.
"He has trouble pronouncing m's," Tionne put in, offering an apologetic smile.
Ben swiveled his attention back to Mara. "Da-da!"
"I think he's confused."
Luke and Mara both recognized the last voice as belonging to Valin Horn. They looked around to find their family surrounded by all the Jedi children, plus the Antilles girls.
"He doesn't know who's who," Valin went on, snickering.
Mara gave the adolescent boy a barely restrained glower. "He does, too."
Clutching Mara's elbow, Luke the peacemaker tugged her upright as she continued to clutch Ben. "Of course he does." He looked to Kam and Tionne as the other children pressed closer. "Maybe we should all go inside and sit down."
Everyone began stirring into motion, and Luke held out his arms hopefully. "I can carry him, if you'd like."
Mara shot him her best If you think I'm giving him up already you're crazy glare. "I've got him. You get the luggage."
"I'll help you," Kam offered. The two men retrieved an assortment of satchels from the ship, then trailed behind the staggered conglomerate of beings filing into Shelter's common area.
"How are the students doing?" Luke asked distractedly, his gaze fixated on the two red-gold heads in the middle of the pack. "In general, that is. I can get a full update from you later."
"In general, they're doing fine," Kam replied. "They all seem to be adjusting well to the new surroundings. Though I'm not sure life here can compare to the hustle bustle of living on a star destroyer."
"No, guess not," Luke murmured as they entered the comfortable lounge. He dropped to a seat next to Mara and acknowledged each youngster in turn, promising them all he would appraise their progress while he was there.
"How long are you planning to stay?" Tionne asked as she passed out refreshments.
"About a week, hopefully, if we're not called back." Luke smiled. "We figure the galaxy can survive without us that long."
"Oh." Tionne cast a concerned glance at her husband. "I see."
"Something wrong with a week?" Mara asked, picking up on the sensation of apprehension that passed between the Solusars.
Tionne faced her without blinking. "It's just that when other parents come, such as Mirax or Iella, they stay no more than two days. It seems best for the children that way."
"But Ben is only a baby," Mara objected.
"Exactly. The other children are all older. They understand that it's necessary for their parents to be away now." Tionne gazed somberly at the circle of Jedi students. "Sadly, some of their parents haven't survived the Yuuzhan Vong invasion." She extended a delicate hand for Ben to grasp. "But Ben is too young to understand that this is only a visit. You'll be here just long enough for him to get used to having you back, and then you'll leave."
Leaving you and Kam to deal with the backlash.
The thought echoed between Luke and Mara's minds. Neither had a reply, however, for their friends. They both were looking forward to spending as much time as possible with their son.
Tionne lightly touched Mara's arm in a conciliatory gesture. "Ben is such a special child, though, that I'm sure he will be able to cope."
"I imagine you're tired from your trip, and ready to spend some time alone with Ben," Kam put in, attempting to diffuse the tension in the air. "Let me show you to your quarters."
"Thanks, Kam." Luke watched as Mara rose from her seat and hoisted Ben onto her hip. "Are you sure you don't want me to carry him?"
"Quite sure." So quit asking, she added through the Force, causing Luke to shake his head in resignation.
Once again Kam and Luke shouldered the luggage, and Kam led them to a moderate-sized chamber with a bed, a glider chair, storage compartments, and a small adjoining refresher.
"I'm sorry we don't have a regular suite here," he apologized. "The larger rooms are being used as training areas and classrooms."
"No, this is fine," Luke assured him, setting his bags down.
Mara surveyed the room critically. "Of course, we'll need his crib in here."
"Oh, yes," Kam answered hesitantly. "I'll speak to Tionne about it." He gave them a wan smile, then retreated down the hallway.
"I'll lay odds Tionne won't like that either," Mara grated out. "She may as well have just come out and said 'Please leave in two days.'"
"She had a point." Luke pulled off his outer robe and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Mara gave him a sharp glare, then jerked as Ben yanked a handful of her hair. "Ow!" She extricated the red-gold strands from Ben's fist, then held him out to her husband. "Here, now you can hold him."
Luke eagerly hugged Ben close to him on his lap. "How 'bout it, Ben? Would you cause trouble for Tionne and Kam after we left?"
"Ti ...ti ...," the child gurgled happily.
"You're asking his opinion?"
"I was just- Ow!" Luke's head dipped to one side suddenly as Ben found his earlobe. "Ben, no." Luke narrowed his eyes at his wife. "You told him to do that, didn't you?"
Mara laughingly shook her head, her mood lightening. "We're staying the whole week," she stated emphatically. "We'll send holos more often after we leave, and just hope he adjusts."
Luke paused to make a funny face at Ben before answering. "It's a bit of a dilemma, isn't it? Do we want him to miss us terribly when we're not here, or not miss us at all?"
Mara shrugged, not having an easy answer. Kam returned just then, pushing a toddler-sized bed with clear plastique sides.
"Here you go," he said. "But keep in mind that he's used to sleeping in the same room with the younger children. I think they connect to each other through the Force, and all fall asleep about the same time."
"We can connect with him," Mara countered. Her patience had disappeared upon touchdown at what she perceived to be a constant stream of objections from Ben's caregivers.
"I know." Kam smiled and gave the Skywalker family a wink as he headed for the door. "But remember, his bedtime is twenty-hundred, plus he takes a nap in the afternoon."
After Kam left, Luke began bouncing his son on his knee, much to Ben's squealing delight. "Well, Ben, you and mommy can go to bed at twenty-hundred. That's a little early for me."
"Nah-nee," was the garbled response.
"Mah-mee," Luke said carefully.
"Nah-nee," Ben repeated.
"Give it up, daddy," Mara interjected. "I don't care if he calls me mommy or nonny or nah-nah. I'm just thrilled to be here with him."
"You and me both."
Both parents watched happily as Ben squirmed off Luke's lap and began toddling about the room. He spied their travel bags and immediately began investigating.
"You want to help mommy unpack, Ben?" Mara slid to her knees and pulled open a lower drawer from the wall's built-in storage compartment, then laid two articles of clothing inside the space in a neat stack. Handing Ben a folded tunic, the boy clasped the material and haphazardly dropped it into the drawer. "Very good, Ben," Mara praised.
The hand-off continued more or less smoothly for a half dozen pieces of clothing. Mara turned and rummaged in the bottom of the satchel for her next choice to put away. She stopped and twisted back around as soon as Luke's peals of laughter reached her. Ben was systematically plucking every piece of clothing out of the drawer and letting them fall to the floor in a heap.
"Oh, Ben." Mare sat back on her haunches, stifling her own amused laughter. She gave Luke a mock-stern look. "You're only encouraging him."
"And I intend to keep doing so." Luke knelt next to Ben. "Okay, Ben, now we go in reverse." He picked up a sock and placed it back in the drawer, then pointed to the remaining pile. "Your turn."
Ben clutched at a pair of Mara's underpants and pulled it on top of his head. "Nah-nee."
Neither parent could hold back this time. Luke was nearly rolling on the floor, cackling in amusement.
"Very becoming, son," he managed to spit out. "But that looks better on your mommy."
Mara floated the undergarment off Ben and dropped it onto Luke's head. "Oh, I don't know." She pulled Ben onto her lap. "What do you think, Ben? Daddy looks pretty cute, too."
Ben squealed shrilly as Luke comically repositioned the garment so that he was peering out through the leg holes. Mara was laughing so hard that tears were glistening in her eyes.
"Da-da-da," Ben jabbered, clapping his hands loudly.
"Da-da funny," Mara choked out, swiping at her eyes.
Luke continued his animation, wiggling his fingers out from the sides of his face like writhing tentacles.
"You ... you look like Pwoe," Mara remarked in a high-pitched voice, referring to the stuffy Quarren who was a thorn in the Jedi Order's side.
"I agree," a velvety voice added from the open doorway.
Luke jerked the garment off his head with lightening speed, and his face began turning a bright shade of red.
"We ... we were just ...," he stammered.
"You were being a family." Tionne favored all of them with a gentle smile, her large mother-of-pearl eyes shimmering with geniality. "As it should be."
"You didn't see that, Tionne," Luke instructed, unsuccessfully trying to put a touch of sternness in his voice.
"See what? I only came to tell you dinner will be ready in a half hour." Just before exiting, Tionne paused and turned back. "Where's Kam with his holorecorder when I need him?" Laughing lightly, the graceful Jedi swept out into the corridor.
With a loud sigh, Luke fell back onto the carpet. "I am never going to live this down."
"Oh, I don't know." Mara snorted with her own brand of affectionate sarcasm. "Seemed like typical Jedi Master behavior to me." She turned loose of her wiggling son, and he zoomed to pounce on his prone father.
"You gonna hit me when I'm down, too, Ben?" Luke whined in mock despair. He grasped the tot around the waist and lifted him as high as he could reach.
"Nee! Nee!" Ben shrieked happily as Luke maneuvered his outstretched arms through the air to simulate flying. "Da-da nee!"
"Have you figured out what 'knee' means?" Mara asked as she finished putting their clothes into the drawers. "He's been saying that on the last two or three holos Kam sent."
"Nope, not a clue."
Luke started making starfighter engine noises as he effortlessly rose from the floor, still whisking Ben aloft through the air. Finished with her task, Mara sat back and grinned as she watched her two 'boys' at play.
"Much as I hate to break up the new formation of Midget Squadron," Mara finally spoke up, "we need to be leaving for dinner."
Luke reluctantly set Ben down on the floor, then sat once again on the edge of the bed. His sparkling blue eyes held Mara's shining emerald ones in their gaze. "This parenting thing is getting more fun all the time," he commented happily. "We should have done this years ago."
Mara chuckled, then she and Luke both glanced down at their darling son.
"Ben, no!" they screamed simultaneously.
Mara lunged, but Luke was faster, yanking his dangling lightsaber out of Ben's exploring hands.
"How could you be so careless!" Mara screeched, scooping her child into the safety of her arms.
"I ... I ..." Luke stammered, his face drained of color.
Mara was trembling, and Ben was wailing at the top of his lungs. "He could've killed himself!"
"He's never bothered it before." Luke wasn't trying to make excuses; he was frantically reviewing in his mind all the times he'd worn his lightsaber around Ben in the past.
"He's never done lots of things before that he's doing now." Mara began swaying Ben in a vain effort to hush his sobs. "You've scared him to death."
"He's crying because he feels your fear." Luke slowly approached his wife and son, and Ben held out his arms. "It's all right, Ben," he soothed. "We're not upset at you. It's all right."
Mara looked warily at Luke, then reluctantly relinquished Ben to his grasp. She knew Luke was correct about one thing - she needed to calm down if Ben were ever going to be pacified.
"At least put that thing away where he can't get to it," she muttered.
"Mara, that won't solve the problem. You're wearing yours. Mine just happened to be the one he got to first."
Ben's crying had diminished to a lingering whimper, and his blue-gray gaze alternated between his parents.
Luke narrowed his eyes in thought. "At the temple, one of the first things the children were taught when they arrived was to respect lightsabers. Kam and Tionne were both wearing theirs just now. I just assumed..."
"Never assume anything where Ben is concerned," Mara bit out, having somewhat regained her composure. "He's too precious to us. If anything happened to him, I don't ... don't know if I..."
"Me, either," Luke admitted quietly. By now Ben was squirming in his arms, wanting to get down. He set the toddler back on his feet, and he and Mara both kept a close watch on him. "But the fact remains, he's a Jedi child and he's going to be constantly exposed to dangers such as lightsabers and blasters and even the occasional vibroblade, which a certain Jedi I know still tucks in her left boot. So he has to be trained to not touch those types of things."
"I didn't think we should let him cut teeth chewing on your saber," Mara said, her familiar wisecracking slowly returning. "And your suggestion on how to accomplish this feat is?"
"Ask Kam and Tionne, of course." Luke grinned. Taking one of Ben's hands, he gestured toward the doorway. "By the time I remember from the schematics where the dining hall is, I believe dinner should be ready."
"Just follow your nose, farmboy," she said, shaking her head. She reached down and took Ben's other hand as the trio went through the doorway. "Ready to eat, Ben?"
"Eat!" Ben said happily. "Eat nee."
"Guess we're having knees for dinner," Luke joked. "At least now we'll know what they look like."
The family easily found the dining hall by following the increasing din of noise. As they entered, Tionne immediately approached them with an anxious expression on her face. "Is everything all right? We sensed distress coming from all three of you."
"Oh, simply your typical Skywalker calamity," Mara replied. "Ben decided he wanted an up close and personal look at Luke's lightsaber."
"Oh, my." Tionne looked apologetic. "We forgot to tell you what a fascination he's developed for anything that looks remotely mechanical."
"Well, he gets it honestly," Mara admitted.
"From both of us," Luke added. "But, Tionne, we've never had any serious problems with the trainees toying with lightsabers, and I fully realize that I have you and Kam to thank for that. Now, however, I regret not paying more attention to how you were able to cultivate such discipline."
Tionne let an amused chuckle escape. "Ah, so now I get to be the teacher, Master? Come get a tray, and I'll try to explain over dinner."
"Try not, Tionne," Mara put in. "We need you to do."
The group got into the serving line, where Syal Antilles and Kam were dishing out portions of the evening meal to the queue of hungry students. Ben pulled out of Mara's grasp and followed Jysella Horn to a nearby table. Keeping a careful eye on her son, Mara accepted the tray of food from Kam.
"What's this?" she asked the older Jedi, pointing to a bowl of dark red vegetables. "Why is no one else getting this?"
"That's Ben's dish," he replied with a chuckle. "Neebo beans - one of the few things lately that he'll eat well."
"Ah, so that's why everything is labeled 'knee,'" Luke said.
"Probably. His vocabulary seems to center on whatever his favorite food is at the moment."
When Luke and Mara reached the dining table, the Melodie student Sannah had already strapped Ben into a step-up seat. The young teen was settling into what appeared to be her customary seat to Ben's right. Jysella was perched on the other side of Sannah, delighting Ben with her repertoire of silly faces.
Mara claimed the chair to the left of Ben, and Luke and Tionne took places next to her. Ben was already reaching for the bowl of beans as Mara set it in front of him.
"Nee! Nee!" Ben said, delving into the dish with his fingers.
"Ben, spoon," Tionne called, passing a small utensil to Mara.
Ben adamantly shook his head. "No. No spoo."
Tionne cast a glance at Mara that clearly indicated she would leave the matter to the stubborn boy's mother. Mara wasn't about to pass up this opportunity to practice her mothering skills.
"Here, Ben. Use your spoon."
"No." The toddler plucked a slippery red bean out of the bowl and crammed it into his mouth.
"Look, Ben, see how I'm doing it." Mara scooped up a single bean with the spoon and popped it into her own mouth. She struggled not to make a face at the vegetable's bland flavor.
"They taste like fiberboard," Tionne whispered to Luke, giving him a surreptitious smile. "But Ben loves them, and they are rather nutritious."
Mara pressed the utensil into her son's hand, then smirked over her shoulder at her adult companions as Ben balanced a pair of beans in the spoon and shoveled them into his mouth. Apparently this was as far as he was willing to go in appeasing his mother, as he promptly dropped the spoon to the floor with a clatter while simultaneously grabbing a fistful of his dinner with his other hand.
Sannah extended an open palm toward the spoon, and it flew into her webbed fingers. "He's just playing, Master. I can help feed him, if you like."
Mara looked into the lively yellow eyes of the petite girl, sensing her eagerness to assist. "I suppose that would be all right," she replied, her reluctance somewhat tempered by the smeared red stain now covering Ben's face.
Just as Mara turned toward her husband, Tionne was nodding in the young Melodie's direction. "Sannah has been a tremendous help with the younger children," Tionne said, "as has Syal. The two have become fast friends, which is a relief to me. I know Sannah misses having Tahiri around."
"So Syal and Myri have been able to fit in with the others?" Luke asked. He was glad that the academy was able to provide a temporary safe haven for Wedge and Iella's daughters, but was concerned over how the two girls would acclimate to being surrounded by Force-users.
"Oh, yes," Tionne assured him. "They consider it their duty to demonstrate to the trainees how to be normal."
"Sounds like Han's philosophy," Mara remarked, and Luke agreed with a laugh. Mara glanced behind her to see Sannah handing Ben his spillproof cup, then turned her attention to Tionne. "Now, you were going to share with us your approach to keeping Ben away from sabers," she brought up as she finally took a bite of her own dinner.
Tionne laid her fork down. "Children Ben's age are very inquisitive," she began, "especially when they're finally able to walk around and get into things on their own."
"Yes, we know that," Mara said, drawing a silent plea for patience from Luke.
"They're also easily distracted," Tionne continued. "We've found the key is to be firm when telling them 'No, you can't touch that,' while at the same time giving them something else that's more interesting to play with." She gave a small smile. "And of course, don't draw attention to your saber by sitting so it dangles right at their eye level."
Mara gave Luke a pointed glare at that advice.
"Also, when letting them loose to play, don't point out that they can play with anything in the room except the lightsaber lying on the table. They probably wouldn't have even noticed it if you hadn't mentioned it specifically."
"Therefore inadvertently prompting them to go directly for the saber," Luke reasoned.
"So if Ben knows to leave your and Kam's lightsabers alone, why did he reach for Luke's?"
"His looks slightly different than ours," Tionne said with a small shrug, then cast a warm glance at Mara. "As does yours. He doesn't realize they're really all the same thing, and that the same warning applies."
Tionne picked up her fork and speared a piece of nerf steak. "Oh, and we've been careful not to let Ben watch us or the older children practice dueling. It might look like too much fun to him."
Guilty expressions suddenly crossed the faces of both Luke and Mara. "We used to strap him in his baby seat to watch when we sparred," Luke muttered.
"Ahh..." The silver-haired Jedi wore a humorous smirk. "Perhaps Ben wanted to spar with you, Mara, just like his daddy does."
Kam soon joined the group of adults, and the conversation turned to a mixture of academy news, political news, and war news. By the time their meals were finished, most of the children had already put up their trays and were engaged in various games on the cleared tabletops.
Luke looked around and spotted Ben watching in fascination as a pair of young female students-a Wookiee and a Bothan-carefully stacked blocks in a slightly askance tower using the Force. He got up and made his way in their direction after depositing his own tray in the kitchen cleaning unit.
"Very good, girls," he complimented, and the youngsters beamed at his praise. "But I need to steal Ben away now. His mother and I want to spend some time with him." He held out one hand encouragingly, and Ben extended his fingers into Luke's grasp.
"You'd better hurry," Luke called to Mara. "He's raring to go."
As soon as the family entered the open corridor, Ben broke free and darted ahead of his parents. Scampering around a corner, he paused until he was sure they were following, then took flight once more.
"Ben, wait for us," Luke called.
Ben eyed his father with an air of speculative consideration. "Da-da, no," he prattled before resuming his pace.
"Ben!" Mara made her own futile attempt at stalling their tottering runaway. "Why doesn't he obey us?" she groused under her breath as she and Luke quickened their pace to keep Ben in sight.
"He wants to be independent," Luke reasoned. "He wants to make his own decisions. They just don't always coincide with our decisions."
Mara reached over and squeezed Luke's hand. He was probably right, but that didn't make her feel any better. Her son was no longer a helpless infant, and she found herself constantly second-guessing how to straddle the fine line between indulging him and disciplining him.
"I don't know what to do," Mara grated out when the Skywalkers finally made it back to their room. "How can we have been surrounded by children all those years at the academy, and still be the galaxy's worst parents?"
"We are not," Luke countered. "He's just developed a lot since we last saw him."
"Tionne and Kam don't even have children of their own," Mara continued, ignoring Luke's protests, "and they know more about child-rearing than we do."
"We've only had that one incident with the lightsaber, Mara, and nothing bad resulted. We would've figured out how to keep him away from sabers on our own, without asking them."
"Maybe," she conceded, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "I can just imagine the holoreporters' headlines, though - 'The Jedi Masters Skywalker, in an effort to keep their son safe from Yuuzhan Vong, Peace Brigaders, and the Calamarian flu, have hidden the child in an undisclosed location. However, following in the Skywalker tradition, they allowed him to cut off his right hand with a lightsaber.'"
"Mara, that is not a bit funny."
"Nah-nee," Ben put in, tugging on his mother's pants leg.
"Ben, your mother is just plain scary sometimes. Any rumors you hear to that effect are true."
Ben looked at Luke with curiosity in his eyes, then looked up at his mother. "Nah-nee," he said, raising his arms. "Up."
"Yes, you're a brave little Jedi," Mara cooed, lifting up the boy onto her lap.
Sitting down next to Mara, Luke began stroking the top of Ben's head. "Yuck!" he exclaimed, picking at a gooey substance in the child's hair. "What is this, mashed neebo beans?"
"Uck, nee," Ben jabbered, poking his own fingers in his hair and then sticking them in his mouth. "Nee ... nee ..."
Mara took a closer survey of the rest of her son. "He's a mess all over." She touched the tip of Ben's nose with her fingertip. "Somebody needs a bath."
"Yeee ...!" was the chattered reply. "Baa ..."
Luke wrinkled his nose. "And quickly. He smells worse than the inside of a tauntaun."
Mara gazed coolly at her husband over the top of Ben's head. "You strip. I'll gather."
Luke pulled the child onto his own lap and began removing his soft padded boots. Mara rummaged through the supplies that Kam had left in the crib and pulled out a diaper and a nightshirt. Freed from the constrictions of his miniature Jedi tunic and leggings, Ben slipped to the floor and darted around the room that much faster - running, climbing, examining everything.
"You know, this sink isn't very big," Mara called from the refresher. "He's barely going to fit into it."
Picking up his squirming boy, Luke peered over her shoulder. "We'll make do," he said. Laying Ben on a towel spread out on the floor, he hurriedly removed the soiled diaper. "Whew!" he exclaimed. "I think those beans went straight through. The least Tionne could have done is 'fresher train him before we got here."
Filling the basin with tepid water, Mara stood back smirking as Luke finished the disposal duties. "Aren't fathers supposed to train boy babies?"
"I always thought you just find someone like Winter, and let her take care of it."
"Well, no matter how much of an undertaking it is, I hope we're with him full time when he's ready," Mara replied wistfully, stepping aside so Luke could lower the kicking boy into the water. The kicking, unfortunately, didn't end when Ben's feet hit the water. He loved splashing water everywhere; it soon became obvious that by the end of the bath nothing in the refresher would remain dry, including his two parents.
"Whoa, kiddo! Mommy and I didn't need a bath. Hold him a second, Mara," Luke said, as he slipped off his tunic. "Now then, let's get you clean, boy."
"Da-da-da. Baa-baa," Ben jabbered continuously.
With Luke's help, Mara first lathered and rinsed the wriggling body, then rubbed cleanser into Ben's sticky hair. "You hold him out over the basin while I rinse his hair," she directed her husband.
Luke wrapped Ben in a towel, then held him out as instructed. "Gee, I nearly forgot how this can be a two-person operation."
They finally got him clean, dried, and into a new diaper and sleepshirt.
"Now, if we can just get him to go to sleep." Mara rested her hands on her hips, not anticipating their next chore. "It's nearly his usual bedtime."
"No!" Ben squealed, running to the corner of the room farthest from his bed.
Luke bit his lip in thought as Ben danced in little circles. "Uh, I need to go talk to Kam and Tionne about administrative business." He slipped his partially wet tunic back on then edged toward the door, raising his eyebrows imploringly at his grimacing wife. "So ..."
"Coward," Mara snapped.
"It'll probably be easier to get him asleep without me here anyway. Less temptation to play with daddy."
With a sigh, Mara waved him toward the door and turned her attention to her cavorting son.
After Luke was gone, Mara let Ben play awhile, then dimmed the lights and did her best to get him to go to sleep. She sat in the gliding chair, rocking him back and forth; she put him in the crib and rubbed his back; she sent him relaxing feelings through the Force, hoping to duplicate what he had grown accustomed to from his nighttime roommates.
By the time Luke returned, Ben had finally dropped off from sheer exhaustion, and Mara was sitting up in a chair, ready to do the same. "I almost gave up and put him in a sleeping trance," she murmured quietly. "I never saw so much energy in one little person."
"Did you really expect a child of ours to be lacking in energy?" Luke said wryly.
"I guess not."
As Luke pulled off his clothes for the night, he paused, rolling his lightsaber in his hand and glancing around the room. Even though Ben was asleep in his crib, Luke still didn't feel comfortable leaving their weapons lying out in the open while he and Mara slept. Making his decision, he pulled out one of their travel bags that had a lock and placed the saber into the bottom. Looking up, he found Mara watching him curiously.
"I don't want to take any chances," he mumbled with a shrug.
Wordlessly, Mara handed him her own lightsaber, then reached down and did the same with the vibroblade that Luke had correctly deduced was in her boot. Snapping the bag shut and locking it securely, he stuffed it into the top drawer of the storage compartment.
"The station has sensors," he said. "If trouble arrives, we can get them in time."
"You don't have to explain." Mara patted him on the arm. "I was contemplating doing the same thing." She began putting on her nightgown. "We can undertake conditioning him on our next visit."
Luke wasn't sure he liked the term 'conditioning'-Ben was not a housepet to be trained to avoid a certain object-but he didn't object to delaying the inevitable lesson. This trip was meant to be a relaxing reunion for his small family, not a nerve-wracking training week.
Mara and Luke wearily got into bed, and soon they were sound asleep. It wasn't long, however, before Luke was jerked awake by the feel of something crawling on him. He waved a glowlamp on with the Force, and blinked at the sight of a wide-awake Ben endeavoring to squeeze between his parents, chattering to himself softly. Luke silently thanked the Force that he hadn't talked himself out of hiding the lightsabers.
"Mara, wake up," Luke said, rubbing his eyes.
"What's he doing here?" Mara muttered, squinting in the soft light. "How did he get out of his crib? It's a meter off the floor."
"Where there's a will, there's a way." Luke climbed out of bed, picking up the fidgety toddler. "Ben, you have to sleep in your own bed. You can't sleep with us."
"No!" Ben tried to squirm out of Luke's grasp and back into the inviting bed of his parents. "Da-da. Nah-nee."
"No, Ben, in your bed."
"No, no, no."
"Yes, yes, yes," Luke returned, ignoring Mara's chuckling.
Luke sighed and put Ben into his crib. Ben resisted all the way, grabbing onto the sides of the crib and immediately hiking one leg over the side. "No! No! Seep nah-nee."
"Sleeping with mommy is my job. You sleep with Wicky." Luke waved a stuffed Ewok in Ben's line of sight, but the boy would have none of it.
"I think you're going to have to get him asleep before you put him in the crib," Mara advised, "or he's just going to climb back out again."
"I suppose we could let him in with us, just till he's asleep." Luke yawned, trying to stifle his own overwhelming desire to crawl back into the warm bed.
"No, we went through this when he was younger." Mara's voice was adamant. "Then he'll want to be with us every night, and we don't want to get that started, especially with our leaving in a week."
"So what should we do? Swallow our pride and admit we should have let him sleep with the other children?"
"I'm not ready to admit defeat." She rolled over, snuggling deeper under the covers. "But I am ready to let you take your turn putting him to bed. He's bound to be sleepy - you should have an easier time of it than I did."
"His eyes are tired," Luke conceded, "but he's fighting sleep. Maybe he's afraid we won't be here when he wakes up."
Luke felt Mara's silent agreement, though she didn't speak aloud. The end of their visit would come soon enough, bringing with it mornings in which they wouldn't be present to greet their son.
Waving off the glowlamp, Luke clutched Ben to his bare chest and settled into the gliding chair. Ben seemed to accept this position as an acceptable alternative to actually being in his parents' bed, and his earlier agitation diminished. The pair rocked back and forth for some time, and a stillness settled on the family as Ben listened to his father's strong heartbeat, just as he had many times as an infant.
Although Luke sensed that the child was not yet asleep, he took a chance and rose, heading toward the crib. Ben sent up a wail immediately, his cries of 'No, no' permeating the room. Relenting, Luke returned to the chair and once more began gliding to and fro. Humming quietly, he eventually put words to the melody -
Hush my little Jedi Knight
Now it's time to say goodnight
And dream of princesses to save
And other noble deeds so brave
"Are you making that up as you go along?" Mara mumbled in a low voice from her nest among the covers. She had heard him singing to Ben in the past, when he thought no one was around, but it had always been some familiar tune.
"Every word," Luke declared. "Don't interrupt, I'm on a roll here. I think he's starting to get sleepy.
If you save a great big Wookiee
Your reward will be a cookie
"Oh, brother!" Mara lifted her head to peer at her husband through the semi-darkness. "It's a good thing you didn't go into the entertainment business."
Hush, my beautiful Jedi wife
Though you are the love of my life
If you undo the progress I've made
Instead of Skywalker, you'll be back to Jade
Mara buried her head in her pillow, trying to stifle her laughter. Her husband may be the personification of a serene, dignified Jedi Master to strangers, but he could clown around in private better than anyone she had ever met.
Luke's impromptu lullaby slowly dissolved back into gentle humming, and soon Ben was deep in the throes of slumber. Laying the boy in his crib and covering him with a blanket, Luke slipped in next to his wife and hugged her tightly.
"He really is amazing," Luke whispered. "Bright in mind and spirit." He kissed Mara softly. "Just like his mother."
"Inquisitive and daring." Mara returned his kiss. "Like his father."
"He glows with the Force. He's going to be a powerful Force-user."
"Of course he will," she replied, rolling onto her other side. "He's a Skywalker."
Luke fell silent, and Mara could feel a twinge of misgiving run through him.
"You're not actually worried about what Vergere said, are you - about a dynasty of your family upsetting the balance of the Force?"
"No," Luke replied, "but I can see where others may view us in that light, and may fear our power."
"Palpatine feared you," Mara muttered, her thoughts drifting back more than two decades.
"I doubt that." Luke snuggled closer behind his wife, wrapping his arms around her. "He easily overpowered me on the Death Star."
"But he couldn't overcome the power of your family." She turned her head slightly. "Family is a strength, not a weakness. Don't waste good brain cells worrying about what others think."
Luke leaned over and kissed his wife's cheek. "I love you, Mara."
"And I love you, farmboy. Forever and always."
Mara bolted upright and looked around the still-darkened room. She couldn't tell where the sound had come from, but-
"What in blazes...?!" Was the station under attack? She didn't feel any danger. Luke sat up beside her, and she could sense first his surprise, then his recognition.
"No, it can't be yet," he muttered.
"Can't be what?" Mara gave him a sideways shove to get his attention. "What is that racket?"
"Morning alarm." He crawled out of bed with a groan and manually turned on one of the room's glowlamps. "Time to get up."
Mara squinted in the light and reached for her chrono lying nearby. It was later in the morning than her body felt it should be. "Does that thing go off all over the station?"
"Yeah." Still bleary-eyed, Luke walked over to where Ben was stirring in his crib. "They told me about it last night, but I forgot to warn you."
"Just because everyone else is getting up doesn't mean we have to," Mara countered. "We're on vacation."
"Mara, we can't lay in bed while all the students are beginning the day's training. It wouldn't look good. Besides, they'd probably send someone down here if we didn't show up for breakfast."
Mara just shook her head. Leave it to Luke to turn this around to an issue of duty. She laid back down as he shuffled into the refresher, glad for the few minutes reprieve that his occupying that room gave her. Even Ben quieted down, as if hoping it was time to go back to sleep. All too soon Luke emerged and automatically began pulling on his clothes.
"Okay, you two lazybones. Time to get up." He reached into the crib and picked up his fretful son, then threatened to bodily drag Mara out as well. It was not without a great deal of grumpy complaining that all three Skywalkers finally made it out the door. During this trip, Ben was content to let his father carry him instead of running along on his own.
As all were finishing their morning meal, Luke and Mara relayed to the students a summary of the latest happenings in the galaxy - the election of a new Chief of State, the formation of a council of Jedi, and the battle at Ebaq 9.
"I don't see why some of us can't go help fight the Vong," Valin Horn complained, his hazel eyes flashing.
"Valin, you're only thirteen," Luke rationalized patiently.
"Tahiri's only fifteen, and you said she was a squadron commander," the boy returned. "I'm bigger than her. I could do things. I could go around Mon Calamari with mouse droids lookin' for spies." He shot an accusatory look in Mara's direction.
"So could I," added Ri'zer, a young Twi'lek boy of about twelve.
"It's not that we don't think that you're capable," Luke replied, "but we need you here, to finish your training."
"Why can't we go out and be apprenticed to a Knight, and finish our training that way?" Valin argued. "I could go with my dad. He could teach me everything I needed to know."
"I'm sure he could, but circumstances right now just don't allow-"
"Sannah and Ri'zer and I, we're old enough to be doin' something with the rest of the Jedi," Valin interrupted. "You only want us here to be babysitters."
"Valin, you know better than to talk like that to Master Skywalker," Kam reprimanded.
Luke held up a hand in a conciliatory gesture. "It's all right, Master Solusar." He glanced around the room at the sea of youthful, anxious faces. "Can we go to one of the training halls? I'd like to sit down and talk to the students."
"Of course," Kam answered. He stood and addressed the group. "Let's all put our trays away and quietly walk down to the exercise room."
When everyone had entered the assigned chamber, Luke settled into a cross-legged position on the padded floor and invited the children to gather around him. Mara sat to one side, holding a fussy Ben in her lap, and Kam and Tionne sat together at the rear of the group.
"I want to explain the hopes and expectations that I have for every one of you," Luke began in a quiet voice. "I know you feel like you're just hiding out here, being useless, but that isn't the case at all." He smiled warmly at his attentive audience. "To better relate what I mean, let me begin with a story.
"All of you have learned in your history classes about how Emperor Palpatine took control of the galaxy long before any of you were born." Luke shot Mara a quick Boy, does this make me feel old wink. "You know of the great war against his reign, in which nearly all of the Jedi in the galaxy were killed," he continued. "My sister and I were born at the beginning of that war, and we were hidden away, to keep us safe. It was so dangerous that the Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, though he watched over me, couldn't take the chance of training me until I was nearly an adult.
"As I was growing up, I was eager to go out and fight in the war, just like you are, even though I had no idea that I had the potential to be a Jedi. I, too, was frustrated at being told that I was too young, that I was needed to stay where I was and help out at home."
Luke took a deep breath, then continued his recitation. "Eventually I got the chance to join the fighting, when I was older than any of you are, and I found out how hard it is to go into battle, to face enemies that are older and much better trained, and ... to lose friends. As I learned to be a Jedi, I had the audacity to tell my own master that I was wasting my time, that I should be out fighting, and I abandoned his guidance because I thought I knew better than he did. When the war was finally over, and the Emperor was defeated, I realized how right the adults in my life had been, to want to keep me safe while I trained. I was the only Jedi left, and it was up to me, all by myself, to begin the rebuilding of the Jedi Order." Luke nodded and smiled at the Solusars. "As Kam and Tionne can testify, it was a difficult task, for my own teachers were gone. There wasn't a single moment that I didn't regret not completing my training with Master Yoda.
"You children are so lucky to have Kam and Tionne, and the other teachers that you had on Yavin IV, to train you the right way to be Jedi Knights - not in the rushed, haphazard way that I learned. And the Jedi Order is privileged to have all of you. You are our hope for the future. So many Knights have been killed in this terrible war with the Yuuzhan Vong, but knowing that there is an entire class here, ready to take up the banner as the next generation of Jedi, is a wonderful relief."
Luke directed his attention at Valin and his comrades. "When you older students are asked to help with the younger ones, you become teachers yourselves, not glorified babysitters. Everything you do here is critical to the survival of the Jedi Order. I wish I had had the opportunity growing up to attend an academy like this. And I'm sure that Kam and Tionne have times when they wish they could be out in the thick of things, but I thank the Force everyday that they have agreed to stay here and undertake the training of all of you. Keeping this academy going, no matter where it is located, is much more important than having two more knights fighting in the front lines.
"So I don't want any of you thinking that you're being cowardly by staying here. I would give anything if Tahiri and Lowie and Jaina and Jacen and ... Anakin ..." Luke paused, swallowing the lump in his throat, "could have remained at the academy to finish their training, but it didn't work out that way." He looked around the room, meeting the gaze of every student. "I hope now you understand your importance both to the Jedi Order and to the entire galaxy."
Valin was the first to speak up as Luke fell silent. "We understand now, Master Luke," he said in a contrite voice. "And I'm sorry about how I acted."
"That's all right, Valin," Luke replied. "As I said, I can sympathize with your position and realize why you felt the way you did. It was my oversight not to talk to you about this earlier."
As Mara sat near the rear of the room, she once again marveled at how easily Luke could converse with nearly anyone, adult or child, friend or stranger. Even during his terse interview with Fyor Rodan on Mon Calamari, the Jedi Master was able to remain calm and composed. She probably would have been wringing the exasperating politician's neck.
Mara glanced down at the precious, now slumbering toddler reclining on her lap. Who would Ben take after? - the gentle optimistic father or the volatile pessimistic mother? She ran her fingers through the boy's silky red-gold locks. Perhaps a combination of both. Only time would tell.
"I see my speech certainly had a profound impact on one of the trainees," Luke said, as he knelt next to his wife and sleeping son. He reached out and smoothed back an errant lock of Ben's hair. "We need to do better on handling bedtime tonight."
"Is that what the problem is?" Tionne put in as she approached. "He's usually wide awake and full of energy all morning."
"Yes, his middle-aged, doting parents are wreaking havoc with his sleep cycle," Mara confessed. "Don't gloat, Tionne."
The silver-haired Jedi laughed merrily. "There are nights that I have to sing ballads to the children to lull them to sleep."
"So that's why he fell asleep so quickly after ..." Mara trailed off. Even mild-mannered Luke was not above seeking retribution if he felt Mara had deliberately embarrassed him. Having Tionne witness his Quarren impersonation was humiliating enough.
"You sang him to sleep?" Tionne asked Mara innocently.
"It worked quite well," she answered, deftly avoiding giving a definitive answer. A sensation of gratitude permeated her entire being from the man whose hand lightly squeezed her shoulder. "I just wished I'd thought of trying it hours sooner."
"Perhaps you should take him back to our room," Luke suggested, "and put him back to bed."
"Perhaps all three of you should go catch up on your rest." At Luke's beginning of a protest, she held up one hand. "You came here to be together as a family. Don't pass up any opportunity to do so. Mornings here consist of classroom instruction only; you won't be missing anything that Ben normally participates in." She pulled a datapad out of the folds of her robe. "I forgot to tell you, Luke, this transmission was received during the night. It's from Cilghal, and wasn't marked 'Urgent,' so I-"
"Quite all right," he interrupted with a smile, taking the pad from her. "Just a briefing of yesterday's council meetings, no doubt."
"If it's as soporific as the few governmental sessions I've been exposed to, it could probably be marketed as a sleep-aid."
"I doubt it's that bad, Tionne." Luke wrapped an arm around Mara as she rose to her feet. "Though for a being from a waterworld, Cilghal's communiqu?s tend to be rather dry."
Mara and Tionne groaned in unison at Luke's attempt at a joke.
"Pathetic, Luke," Mara said, shaking her head. "You do need more sleep. Come, let's not hold up Tionne any longer from her teaching."
The group parted company, and Luke steered his family toward their quarters to make up for the sleep they'd missed the night before.
Hands clasped behind his back, Luke stood unobtrusively watching as Ben batted at holographic flitterflies dancing in the air. It was afternoon at Shelter, when the students delighted in hands-on Jedi training, and the youngest Skywalker was no exception.
Myri Antilles was the master controller at the toy holoprojector that Admiral Ackbar had sent Ben as a gift. She adjusted a bright red knob, changing the pattern in which the tiny insects appeared. Ben's eyes darted back and forth as he instinctively anticipated where the next flitterfly would pop up. When his hand connected with a hologram during its one-second life span, a bell chimed inside the projector.
Ben liked bells.
Luke stoically fought the smile that threatened to appear on his face as Ben successfully targeted a series of five of the multi-colored apparitions. He glanced to the side as Mara approached and laid her head against his shoulder.
"You're not going to succumb to the dark side for demonstrating pride in your son," she whispered.
Luke sighed in response. "I shouldn't show favoritism during training sessions."
"What favoritism? You've never shied away from telling any of your other students that you're proud of them."
"Ben isn't just any other student."
"No, he's OUR student." Mara raised her head and looked her husband in the eye. "Luke, parents are allowed to take pleasure in their children's accomplishments." She cocked an eyebrow and tilted her head encouragingly, then moved to crouch on the floor next to Ben.
"Are you catching lots of pretties, Ben?"
"Purty ... nah-nee ..." Ben reached up and slapped at a flitterfly that materialized right in front of Mara's face. "Yeee...!"
Luke couldn't hold back a chuckle this time - it was a good thing Mara had quick reflexes, or Ben would have bopped her in the nose. Finally giving in, and not wanting to be left out of the fun, Luke knelt down and enveloped both Ben and Mara in a warm hug. "You're doing great, Ben," he praised, kissing the child's forehead softly. "I'm so proud of you."
"Da-da-da," Ben jabbered, his eyes lighting up as he tracked a new flitterfly within his reach. Luke impulsively raised his hand and tapped one of the insects overhead, eliciting a round of happy squealing from his son.
"Hey, who said you could flick flitterflies?" Mara pouted.
"Ben did." Luke pretended to reach for one of the holograms as it popped up near Ben, letting the youngster just barely beat him to it. "And I want to hear you say that three times fast," he said, shooting Mara a wink.
Luke pulled the toddler closer and whispered in his ear.
"Chaw-wenge ... nah-nee," the boy stuttered.
"I believe Ben just laid down a challenge," Luke translated. "Us against you. Whoever taps the most flitterflies in a certain amount of time wins."
"Both of you, against only me?" Mara narrowed her eyes, considering. Ben would more than likely slow Luke down, giving her the advantage - a fact that Luke wouldn't have overlooked. She squinted at her smug-looking husband through the field of fluttering illusions surrounding them. He was being patronizing again, blast him.
"Doesn't sound like fair odds to me," she muttered. "I need a partner, too."
"Well, all right." Luke frowned. Why would she want someone getting in her way? Unless she realized- Of course she realized... That's what he got for trying to be nice.
"You hafta get a girl," Myri piped up. "Girls against boys."
"Hmm ... Let's see." Mara's gaze wandered around the group of students, most of whom were now directing their attention to figuring out what their usually absent masters were up to. "I pick ... Jysella," she said, naming the youngest female student she could spot.
The little girl whooped in excitement and skipped over to Mara's side.
It was at that moment that Kam appeared, towering over the circle of young spectators. "What's going on here?" He then zeroed in on what everyone was looking at. "Disrupting our class, Masters?" he asked, crossing his arms and trying to sound stern.
Luke gave the older Jedi a sheepish grin. "Apparently. We may need you to referee."
Kam hid a grin behind one hand. He'd refereed more than one sparring match between Luke and Mara in the past. Luke had learned long ago not to treat Mara as anything but an equal opponent, and their contests sometimes evolved into grueling grudge matches. Witnessing how they would handle their competitive natures in a children's game could prove interesting indeed. "By all means," he agreed.
"Myri, are you ready to crank that thing up full speed?" Mara asked, and the blonde youth nodded vigorously. It was just too bad, Mara thought, that 'full speed' on the toy was agonizingly slow to an adult.
"Ladies first," Luke pronounced, starting to scoot back with Ben.
Mara narrowed her emerald eyes once more. Caving in to gender partiality was not to her liking, especially when her opponent would then know what score he had to beat.
"On one condition."
Luke shook his head, but managed to refrain from rolling his eyes. Only his dear wife would put 'conditions' on a simple courtesy.
"Scores are not revealed until the contest is completed, and no keeping count in your head."
"Fine." Luke gestured to Myri to angle the projector to focus on Mara and Jysella, then once again whispered to Ben.
"Go ... nah-nee!" Ben cried, clapping his hands. He listened to another instruction from his father, then continued, "Go ... Jys-sa!"
"Benny, you're not supposed to cheer for us," Jysella huffed.
A sharp look from Luke restrained Mara from reminding her partner that she did not care for the nickname 'Benny.' "It's all right, Jysella," Mara said instead. "He's simply acknowledging the best team. Are you ready?"
"Ready," the girl replied.
"Very well. Let's give them a run for their credits."
Valin Horn took that as an opening to ask Kam, as serious as could be, "Can we bet on who wins?"
With a grand flourish, Myri began the holoprojector. Mara's hands leapt into action, immediately swatting at the flickering insects. Jysella was a bit slower getting started, but she valiantly surged ahead, focusing her emerging Force senses into predicting the appearances of all flitterflies within her reach.
Luke suddenly realized that they had not predetermined a set time limit for each team's turn. Hopefully that was what Kam was speaking to Myri about. Luke's attention returned to the action just in time to drag Ben back from aiding, or interrupting, the opposition.
"No, Ben, we'll get our turn just about ..."
A buzzer sounded, and the flitterflies blinked out of existence.
"Now," Luke finished.
Kam glanced over Myri's shoulder to check the accumulated count, then shared a knowing nod with the girl. He then helped Myri adjust the holoprojector to center on his master and youngest student.
"Ready?" Kam asked.
Still kneeling, Luke shrugged off his outer robe. Carefully considering his strategy, he stood Ben on his feet facing him. Ignoring Mara's looks of exasperation, Luke backed up to leave a half-meter of space between him and his son.
"Ready," he answered, flexing his fingers and giving Ben a wink. The toddler sensed his father's contagious enthusiasm and grinned in response, then squealed in surprised excitement when the air in front of him was suddenly filled with blinking flitterflies.
"Go, Ben!" Ri'zer shouted.
"Go, Master Luke!" Valin added.
Luke rapidly and systematically tapped every flickering insect that surrounded him, careful to leave the ones in front of Ben for the little boy to swat.
As she watched, Mara noted the similar expressions of concentration on her husband and son's faces. Ben was channeling the Force with an eager determination that mirrored Luke's precision and intensity, though the toddler was too young to grasp what he was doing. Most likely, Mara reflected, Luke had used the Force in the same manner growing up without realizing it.
Myri watched the timer count down to zero, and let out a yelp as the buzzer sounded, putting an end to the contest. She and Kam silently compared the two scores.
"Don't keep us in suspense, Master Solusar," Mara said, casually tucking a strand of red-gold hair behind her ear. "Just announce our winning score, and you can return your training center to its orderly setup."
Jysella abandoned Mara's side to try to peer at the scores, and Ben hurriedly scrambled into his mother's now vacated lap.
"It doesn't really matter who won," Luke said. "We were just having fun."
"In that case, Master, you won't mind that-" Kam began.
"Girls won! Girls won!" Myri shouted, her expression as happy as if she'd been competing herself. A celebratory cheer rose from the female contingent of students.
"By one point," Kam confirmed, sending an apologetic shrug to Luke.
"Well then, Master Solusar, for the honor of the male population of this academy, I guess you'll have to work a little harder sharpening Ben's reflexes," Luke said, reversing his nonchalant attitude with a grin. "We have to be ready for a rematch during our next visit."
"Sharpening Ben's reflexes?" Mara approached the men with a triumphant smirk. "I think poor Ben's partner is the one who needs practice." She sent a teasing laugh in Luke's direction. "Maybe I should ask Ackbar where he got that holoprojector, so I can get one for Luke to train with at home."
"Keeping up with you keeps me sharp enough," Luke retorted.
Mara's laughter trailed after her as Ben pulled her toward a new activity.
"Luke," Kam said, clapping him on the back, "you two will never grow old."
"We never intend to," Luke replied with a smile, watching his wife and son playing together across the room. "Never."
The rest of the week passed much too swiftly, in Mara and Luke's opinion. Before they knew it, the morning of their departure had arrived. Luke sat on the floor with Ben, playing with the toy A-wing they'd brought him as a present, while Mara listlessly began packing their clothes into their satchels.
"This is even harder than I thought it would be," she said, pausing in her task and listening to Ben's jabbering. "He could be saying complete sentences by the time we see him again."
"Kam and Tionne promised to send holos more often," Luke responded.
"It's not the same," Mara murmured.
"I know." Luke gazed at his wife's downcast expression, feeling and sharing the sorrow that filled her heart. "Mara, if you want to stay here with him, I'll understand," he offered. "I could return to Mon Cal by myself."
Mara shut her eyes briefly, composing herself. "No. I told you on Borleias, if my actions can in any way shorten this war by even a few days, then that is the best thing I can do for Ben. When I decided to become a Jedi, it was to put the needs of others before my own selfish desires. Tionne and Kam are capable of taking excellent care of him. Being jealous of the time they spend with him is not very Jedi-like." She rose and resettled herself next to Luke. "Besides," she said, kissing him softly on the cheek, "who better to watch your back? You need me with you."
"I do," he agreed, returning her kiss, this time on the lips.
"Da-da," Ben interrupted, pushing his way into his parents' welcome embrace. "Nah-nee."
"We all need each other. Isn't that right, Ben?" Luke grinned brightly at his son.
Mara listened to Ben's string of babbling. "I do believe he's agreeing with you, Skywalker. Though he doesn't think we need to be wasting valuable time kissing when he wants to play."
"You wouldn't be here, fella," Luke said with a laugh, "if mommy and daddy didn't waste time with kissing and such."
Ben gave both his parents a comical, curious stare, then easily drew them both into his world of carefree play.
The parting scene on the Jade Shadow's landing pad proved as heartrending as expected. Kam and Tionne had wisely left the other students inside, Luke and Mara having said their good-byes to them earlier. Kam stowed the luggage inside the ship, then returned just as Mara reluctantly handed Ben into Tionne's open arms.
"Farewell, sweetheart," Mara whispered, leaning in for one final kiss. "I love you." She slowly backed away, grateful for Luke's strong hands on her shoulders. She could sense Ben's confusion, and knew the child could feel her anguish.
"Mah-mee," Ben cried out, extending his small hand to his mother.
It was more than Mara could bear, hearing her son finally able to pronounce 'mommy.' Tears running down her cheeks, she broke free of Luke's embrace and fled into the ship.
Luke watched his wife's retreating form for a moment, then turned back to Ben's whimpering figure, straining to escape Tionne's grasp and follow his mother. His own heart ached to take Ben into his arms one more time, but he couldn't put his son through a second separation from a parent's embrace. Doing his best to send warm feelings of comfort to Ben, he stroked the boy's hair and kissed him softly on the forehead.
"Be a good boy, Ben," he said soothingly. "We'll come back to see you as soon as we can, but now mommy and I have to go."
Ben blinked forlornly. "Da-da ... go?"
"Yes, Ben, we have to go," he repeated, kissing Ben's outstretched fingers before backing away. "We love you." Luke glanced up at Tionne, who was fighting tears of her own. "Thank you," he said softly, then turned to shake Kam's hand. "Thank you both."
As Luke retreated toward the ship's ramp, he faced the group and raised one hand in farewell. "May the Force be with all of you."
Tionne murmured quietly to Ben, then encouraged her charge to wave good-bye. Luke silently returned the wave, forcing a smile on his face, then disappeared into the ship.
When Luke entered the cockpit, he was startled to find Mara in the co-pilot's seat.
"You can pilot," she murmured, her red-rimmed eyes looking away. "I don't feel like it."
Luke knew better than to interrogate her. He was feeling the same pangs of despair that she was. He simply squeezed her shoulder lightly, then slid into the pilot's chair. Running through the start-up sequence, he looked out the viewport to see that the trio outside had retreated to the doorway of the building. Luke waved once more before lifting off, and was relieved when Mara copied his motion.
It was a silent entry into the maelstrom of buffeting gases of the Maw, both parents lost in their own inconsolable thoughts. Midway through the journey, Mara was the first to speak up.
"Luke," she said, then waited for him to acknowledge her. "I want to have another baby."
"Right now?" He risked a wry glance her way. "We need to clear the Maw before I can put the ship on autopilot."
His wisecracking brought a smile to her face. "As soon as this war is over, farmboy."
Luke was silent a moment. "Are you sure, Mara?"
"You don't want another child?"
"I do. Of course I do." He glanced down at his instruments as the ship approached the outer edge of the Maw. "But-"
"I'm not getting any younger," Mara bluntly pointed out.
"I know that, but-"
Mara leaned forward, regarding him in astonishment.
"That's not what I meant," he backpedaled, suddenly realizing how uncomplimentary his answer sounded. "Hold on." He reached out and made the final course adjustment necessary before exiting the maze of gravity wells. Split concentration was all well and good, but this was a subject to which he intended to devote his full attention.
"Mara, I don't want Ben to be an only child either, but ..." He let out a breath as he formulated the rest of his reply. "The day Ben was born was the happiest day of my life. It was also the worst day of my life. I thought I was going to lose you." He stole a fleeting look at her impassive expression, then plunged ahead. "Ever since then, I've tried not to think about having another child. It would be selfish of me, thinking of children when you nearly died giving birth to Ben. I couldn't face putting you through that risk again."
Mara listened to both his words and the sincerity in his voice. She knew he had felt much the same way before Ben's conception, and yet ... Mara frowned, recalling the day they'd discovered her pregnancy. "Just a second there, mister. Where's the man who told me that life is risk, that having a child was the right risk to take?" She extended a hand toward him, laying it lightly on his forearm. "Luke, I'm healthier now than I've been in years. The disease is gone; it's not coming back."
She paused a moment, allowing him a necessary check of the cockpit readings. "I've been considering this for awhile, and seeing Ben interact with the other children this week made up my mind. This is what I want." She gently squeezed his arm. "And this is what you want. Ben is too young to have a vote, and what anyone else may think is irrelevant."
Luke's cautious expression dissolved into joyful exultation. "You talked me into it," he declared, beaming in surrender. "Despite the fact that I recall you once telling me if I ever got you pregnant again, you'd vape me where I stood."
"Must've been one of my morning sickness days," she replied with a snort. "And some people doubt your bravery."
"All joking aside," he continued, "if we're going to do this, I don't think we should have a big gap between Ben and a younger sibling."
"Go on." She crossed her arms expectantly. "And this better not be because you don't think a newborn should have a fifty-year-old mother."
"No!" He shook his head emphatically. "It's about your suggestion of waiting until the war is over. I don't think our family planning should be dependent on the actions of the Yuuzhan Vong. We don't know how much longer the war will last, sweetheart. It could be six months or six years."
"So you're saying ...?"
"I'm not saying we have to be fanatical about trying for a baby. I just think we could go ahead and discontinue taking precautions against it."
"Fair enough." Mara nodded in agreement. She sent a Force caress to brush lightly against him. "So ..."
"So, I'm ready when you are, which translates into now." He gave her a cocky grin, then held up a finger when she smirked in reply. "On one condition."
"If you do get pregnant before the war is over, I want you to stay at Shelter, with Ben.
"I'm sure you could manage without me for a few months at a time. You went for ten years not wanting to be anywhere near me."
"No, I didn't," she muttered under her breath. She leaned back in her seat, reaching out once more to squeeze his hand fondly. "This war had better end quickly; I would miss you too much. I already miss Ben."
"Me, too." Luke sighed, already wondering when they could make another visit, or perhaps even have Ben come to Mon Calamari for a short time.
"Maybe Leia was right, in a way, about this trip being a mistake," Mara said, a pang of bittersweet lamentation filling her.
"No, she wasn't," he disagreed at once. "We had a wonderful time with Ben, lightsabers notwithstanding. Would another week on Mon Calamari, missing him, have been better than the joy we experienced being a family together?"
"Not at all," she conceded, smiling. "You're right. Do you think it will be hard on him, though, with us gone?"
"He's not even a year-and-a-half old. By the time our ship was out of sight, the other children probably had him wrapped up in a game of peek-and-seek or something." As Mara started to answer, Luke continued, "But that doesn't mean he's forgotten us already."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because you, Mara Jade Skywalker, are unforgettable."
Mara's lilting laughter was a balm to Luke's ears. They held hands for a long time, fingers tightly intertwined.
"I love you, Luke," she finally murmured into the stillness.
"And I love you, Mara," he returned. "Forever and always."
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