It had rained the night before, but aside from the increased humidity, I'd never be able to tell. The dawn is splendid, with gold-rimmed clouds scattered across a vivid aquamarine sky. Rays of warm sunlight wash over the rough, moss covered walls of the main temple on Yavin IV, where the Jedi Academy is located. The day promises to be as beautiful as anyone could hope for, a beautiful day to be married.
I'd spoken to Luke earlier. He was radiant, just as I'd expected. How could he be anything else? I had been so glad to see him, so grateful for our brief moment alone, but even more grateful when he left. My self-control is stretched taut today, nearly to the point of snapping, and I don't know how much duress it can take before collapsing beneath the weight of my feelings - feelings that I'd die rather than reveal. Luke will see me smile at his wedding no matter how dearly the effort costs me. I owe him that much, at least.
A soft touch on my arm distracts me from my musings, and I turn to see Leia's brilliant smile. "It's time," she tells me, eyes shining. Master politician she may be, but Leia is utterly incapable of disguising her love for her family. With great effort, I manage to smile back and turn to fall in step with her.
The temple's ancient grandeur awes even me on most occasions, but now I barely notice it. It's all I can do to return the smiles of those Leia and I walk past - and of course, that's the entire guest list, for at Luke's insistence I sit with his family this day. If I close my eyes, I can still see his face as he asks me. 'Please?' he'd asked, expression cajoling. 'We both want you to come. It wouldn't be the same without you there.' His hands had reached out to catch my fingertips as he spoke, and the feel of his hands holding mine had started a whirlwind of emotions within me, delight warring with grief, comfort blending with dismay, all of it coalescing into the most profound sense of loss I'd ever experienced.
All of which I'd kept carefully hidden. Ordinarily Luke would have sensed my prevarication; he'd always been quick to notice my changes of mood, and had rarely failed to coax me out of my occasional melancholy. Now, though, he was preoccupied, and the thought of what undoubtedly dominated his thoughts only served to heighten my roiling bitterness.
Well. I had been a fool, then, that's all there was to it. That didn't mean that I would be so selfish as to poison his joy. I had swallowed hard and assured Luke that of course I'd come, wouldn't dream of missing it.
And now here I was, walking beside Luke's sister to the family seats at the front of the Massassi Temple, ready to watch him marry another woman.
I sit quietly beside Leia, holding tightly to my emotions. Jaina and Jacen, Luke's niece and nephew, glance at me with shy smiles before burrowing their faces against their parents' sides. Anakin, the youngest, is still asleep in Han's arms. We're hardly seated before the happy couple enters the temple. Next to me, Leia turns to watch Luke escort his bride up the aisle to where General Antilles is waiting. It's a relatively small wedding, officiated by one of Luke's oldest friends, and I feel frighteningly out of place. Luke turns his head a fraction to smile at Han and Leia as he passes us, then aims a smile directly at me. My heart leaps into my throat, and I swallow it brutally. Too late, too late to think like that.
Wedge begins the ceremony, and I watch, unseeing, as my thoughts drift defiantly. Luke had been my best friend, my anchor in an uncertain galaxy. He'd come to mean so much to me that I'd never even imagined this eventuality, never dreamed that someone else would become more dear to him. As far away as my mind is, my eyes cannot tear themselves from the scene that seems to rip my heart out, and I see the rightness of it. How could I ever have been so blind? She is his match in every way, able to share aspects of his life that I never could. Her eyes meet his adoringly, and I close my own against the surge of pain. He's chosen well. He will have every happiness I could have wished for him; that will have to be enough.
Moments stretch into lifetimes as the brief ceremony concludes. Leia, of course, is the first to her feet, at the head of a crowd of well-wishers.
I'm grateful for the time to collect myself, to compose my emotions and expression, but all too soon Luke's eyes search for me. I see them light up as he catches sight of me. Almost done, I tell myself as I smile back at him. Just a little while longer and I can make my escape and return to the solitude that I knew once and will know again.
All rational thought stops as Luke's arms envelop me. "I'm so glad you came," he says softly.
If there's any mercy left in the galaxy, he won't notice my suddenly increased heart rate. "I told you I would," I answer, pulling back. "Now stop that before your wife gets jealous."
He laughs, his blue eyes shining with a happiness that I have never known nor given. "She knows better."
"That doesn't mean you need to test her before the marriage is ten minutes old," I point out.
"She's right," a teasing voice adds.
I turn to face my rival - no, not rival. I had never truly been a contender. "Callista," I greet her. Who'd ever have thought that the mental barriers Palpatine had taught me so long ago would continue to be so useful, and for such a purpose?
"Mara," Callista answers, leaning forward to hug me gently. For a split second, I tense, then swiftly come to my senses and return the embrace. "We're both glad to see you here."
"I'd never miss it," I say as Callista releases me to take Luke's arm. Miss watching the death of my dreams and my future? I think, far behind my barriers. No, never. "It was a lovely ceremony."
"It was," Callista replies, her voice serene yet replete with happiness. "We're going to Chad for the honeymoon; did Luke tell you?"
I viciously shove thoughts of Luke's honeymoon deep down. "No, he didn't mention that."
"We'll be back in a month or so," Luke says, slipping an arm around Callista's waist. "Maybe you'll be at the next level of your training by then."
I shake my head, fighting for a calm beyond the surface. Luke can sense my emotions even if Callista can't, and wedding day or not, he just might. He's always been eerily good at picking up on my thoughts. "Karrde contacted me a few days ago. He has some jobs for me. They may take a while."
A sheen of disappointment is suddenly visible in Luke's eyes. "But you will be back," he says, as much a question as a statement. I'd never embraced my Jedi training as he'd thought I should. Probably another mistake on my part, and another beyond rectifying at this point. Staying here with Luke and his wife is an impossible option.
"Of course," I lie.
He smiles at me, too preoccupied to dig deeply enough to see the falsehood. "Soon, Mara. We'll miss you while you're gone."
I twitch a smile at him, the tears in my eyes easily blamed on the emotion of the occasion. My throat closes momentarily, and I throw my arms around him one last time. His arm tightens around me, and for one instant I can imagine that the situation was otherwise. Then reality settles coldly around me once more, and I pull away. "May the Force be with you both."
Luke smiles at me, the smile I know better than my own. "And with you, Mara." Callista's glowing smile joins Luke's, without a hint of anything less than joy within her to mar this day.
"Your other guests are waiting," I remind them. I've been successful so far; I can't stumble now. Luke reaches over to kiss my cheek before he turns away, and I stand frozen for a long moment, watching him walk away, out of my life; then I turn and walk out of his. I can be at my ship and in orbit before anyone notices. Luke will be disappointed when he finds me gone, but the feeling will be fleeting, soon forgotten, and it's better this way.
Some things just aren't meant to be.
For all the time that I had been away, as soon as I pulled the Jade's Fire out of hyperspace, it felt as though I'd never left. I gazed at the familiar hazy orange disk of Yavin filling the viewport, wondering, as I always did, about the life I might have had. Once I'd assumed that the wistfulness would eventually fade away into nothingness. Fifteen years later, I knew better.
A small arm reached over my shoulder to point at the gas giant as it loomed ever closer. "Is that it?"
"You know it is," I told my daughter calmly. My daughter. After all these years, the words still felt slightly strange to me. "Don't point, and strap yourself back in until we land. You know better."
A motion from the co-pilot seat caught my eye. "She's just excited, Mara," Talon told me. "Yes, sweetheart, that's it."
I sighed softly, keeping my exasperation private. I think Talon spoils her, but that is his prerogative, after all. And I know that he thinks I'm too strict, but knowing as intimately as I do both the advantages and the dangers of growing up Force-sensitive, giving our daughter a sense of self-discipline is a high priority for me. Our parenting styles probably balance each other fairly well, anyway.
"What will it be like there, Papa?" Ellian asked, and Talon again launched into his (somewhat dramatic, I thought cynically) narrative of the adventures Ellian would have at the Jedi Academy. Ellian listened raptly, fascinated as always by her father's stories, leaving me blessedly alone with my musings.
Yavin IV. It had been several years since I'd set foot on the moon I'd once called home, and roughly thirteen years since I'd spent any significant amount of time there - not since I'd gotten married. I glanced sidelong at my husband. He looked as distinguished as always, but with the added sparkle in his eyes that Ellian always inspired. Sometimes I still wonder why he proposed in the first place. Had he truly loved me? Did he believe that I loved him? That I would eventually grow to love him? Did the offer spring from a sense of habit, that he'd simply grown used to having me around on a nearly constant basis? Or was it as much a business proposition as his original job offer had been? I'd never asked those questions, nor did I ever plan to. There were some things I was more comfortable not knowing. Besides, if I asked his reasons for proposing, I'd likely have to explain my reasons for accepting, and I wasn't about to do that. I did still have my pride, and the truth would only hurt Talon.
The truth was that Talon's proposal, unexpected though it was, had simply been convenient at the time. Luke and Callista had been married for two years, and it hadn't grown any easier for me to be around the two of them. In fact, it had become a good deal harder. Their first son, Ben, was just turning a year old, and he was the absolute image of his father, all unruly blond hair and blue-eyed earnestness. I was never able to look at him without feeling heartsick. I knew that no matter what I felt for Luke, he hadn't returned those feelings, and when I looked at Ben I couldn't help but see my lost dreams of a life with his father. Watching Luke and Callista together, so obviously in love, was just as painful. Luke, though, was still unaware that I'd ever felt more than friendship for him and kept pressing me to stay on Yavin IV to finish my Jedi training. I'd managed to avoid any prolonged visits, but it was getting harder and harder to put him off. Marriage - let alone to someone as perpetually busy as Talon Karrde - would give me an airtight excuse.
And deep down where I hardly admitted it even to myself, I knew there was another attraction in Talon's offer. I was lonely. I, who'd spent my entire life more alone than otherwise, now found the solitude oppressive. I felt no soul-deep connection with Talon as I had - still did - with Luke, but I was genuinely fond of him. Marrying him would mean companionship at least; and maybe my feelings of friendship could become something more.
So I accepted Talon's proposal and never looked back - until the wedding day.
It was to take place in the reception room of one of Coruscant's finer hotels, and although it was relatively small, it was still larger than I'd wanted. I'd attempted to get even for Talon's winning that argument by declaring that if he wanted to make a grand affair of it, he could arrange the details himself. My revenge wasn't as effective as I'd hoped (turned out that Talon liked arranging details - I should have known), but it did get me out of the tedium of planning the whole thing. I didn't even bother to pick my own dress. Fortunately, Talon had excellent taste, and though I'd never been one to worry about fashion, I found that I adored the gown he chose. Made of the finest dark green silk with a silver embroidered overlay, it was the most beautiful dress I'd owned since the fall of the Empire. As I finished dressing for the ceremony, I smiled at myself in the mirror, allowing myself a moment of feminine delight over my own appearance even as I refused to dwell upon why it was that I was dressed this way. I'd just twirled childishly in front of the mirror to watch my skirt swirl around my ankles when Luke found me.
It had taken some serious effort on my part, but I'd managed to keep from speaking with him personally since I'd become engaged. I didn't want to see him, didn't want to talk to him, didn't want to think about what I had once lost without so much as putting up a fight. I'd sent a message to the Academy announcing my upcoming wedding, but had afterward avoided answering any holocalls from the Academy itself, instead resorting to such tactics as returning Luke and Callista's calls when I knew it to be the middle of Yavin's night. Seeing Luke standing before me now rattled my composure somewhat, but not nearly so much as his words did. With a gentle kindness that cut to the bone, he asked me if I was certain of what I was doing, and pointed out that there was still time for me to cancel the wedding if I wanted. When I only stared at him, speechless, he fired the killing shot.
"You don't love him, Mara," he'd told me. "I know he's your friend, but there has to be something more than that for a marriage to work. I'd always hoped that you would find the sort of happiness that Callista and I have, and I don't think that this match will give you that. And," he added with a frighteningly discerning look, "I think you know that perfectly well."
I'd stared for a half second longer, and then found myself awash in a sudden cold fury. How dared he. How dare he be so blindly oblivious to my feelings back when there'd still been some chance for the happiness I'd truly wanted, then become aware of them just in time to shatter my peace of mind as I finally turned away from those old hopes. How dared he. "Who the hell are you to tell me what to do with my life?" I'd hissed with a vehemence that seemed to take him aback. "Why don't you just keep your sanctimonious, Sith-spawned opinions to yourself?"
"Mara -" he began.
"Don't 'Mara' me, farmboy!" I spat venomously. "You just take care of your own marriage and leave me to take care of mine!" Luke stepped quickly out of my way as I stormed past him, and within the currents of the Force I could feel his surprise at my outburst.
Ten minutes later, as I walked up the aisle, Luke's gaze was almost a tangible thing. I risked a glance in his direction and saw his own concern and sorrow mirrored in Callista's gray eyes as she sat beside him. He'd told her of our encounter - or more likely, she'd known from the beginning that he'd meant to speak to me. It was rare that either of those two kept a secret from the other, and I doubted that I merited that sort of privilege. My anger flared anew. Mara Jade accepted pity from no one, least of all from Luke and Callista Skywalker. My back straightened even as my resolve firmed. No one - no one - would feel sorry for me. I went through the rest of the ceremony and following reception with a determined smile on my face, laughing when I ought and guarding myself fiercely through the Force.
I successfully avoided being alone with either Luke or Callista until almost the end of the evening, when Luke claimed my hand for a dance. The two of us danced in stony silence until the dance was nearly over, when Luke said quietly, "Callista and I wish you both every happiness, Mara. You know that."
"Of course," I answered coolly, and no more was said on the subject.
But late that night, when I was sure Talon was sleeping soundly, I crept to the refresher, buried my face in a towel, and wept. Luke was right. Damn him to all possible hells, but Luke was right. I didn't love Talon, likely never would. I would be no happier with him than I had been alone. That knowledge brought me no comfort at all. I'd made my vows, and I despised people who broke oaths. It wasn't even as though I could fool myself that I would be happy if I did annul the marriage. The only man I'd ever felt anything for was very happily married, with one child and another on the way; and if I walked away from this marriage I would never be able to continue working for Talon's organization. I would be right back to where I had been when the Emperor died, utterly lost and alone. No, I'd put myself into this situation and now I would have to deal with it. It was fitting, somehow. Everything else in my life had been a mistake. Why not my marriage?
It was over a week before I felt at all like myself again. Before long, though, I found myself falling into a routine. I still enjoyed my job. While I wasn't in love with my husband, I did like him, and he earned my undying affection by finding all sorts of extra features for my beloved Jade's Fire. Our comfortable working relationship remained intact. Due to the demands of our respective jobs, Talon and I were apart often enough for me to feel independent, but when we were together, I had to admit that it was nice to have someone to come home to, so to speak. Luke and Callista had another son, whom they named Bail after Leia's adoptive father. Talon and I went to visit, of course. Bail was a calm, quiet baby who'd inherited his mother's gray eyes, while Ben constantly ran around with toy starships and lightsabers. I was 'Aunt Mara' to him, and for the first time I found that I could look at him, hug him, play with him without bitterness.
Han, Leia, and their children were there as well, and Callista and Leia delighted in teasing me about one day having children of my own. After nearly choking on my drink the first time Leia mentioned the subject, I thought I'd kept my equilibrium fairly well - I certainly didn't blush, no matter what Callista said. Most surprising of all was the fact that I no longer resented her, and didn't mind her teasing. Not much, anyway. It was somewhat harder to deal with Luke. It was the first time since my wedding that I'd been around Luke and Talon both, and I found my conflicting thoughts and emotions rather disconcerting. Luke and Talon both tended to be very observant, and while the visit lasted I lived in fear of letting some hint of my inner struggles slip. It was far easier to spend time with the children. They were young enough still to accept people at face value, and I had something of a second - first, more like it - childhood myself while amusing them. More than once, I saw an odd look in Talon's eyes as he watched me - but I told myself that was irrelevant. I didn't want children. Talon had known that when we married. He could live with the situation as it was.
And then Ellian came. Born three years into my marriage, she was completely unplanned and completely adored. I'd spent most of the pregnancy terribly confused by my own feelings, but when I held her for the first time, all my doubts vanished. Talon doted on her from the first, and I found his pride in her amusing. The crew of the Wild Karrde naturally agreed with all of his exaggerated sentiments. When your employer waves his firstborn child in front of your face and demands to know how beautiful you think she is, how many would dare to disagree? With my sensitivity to the Force, however, I could tell that most were reasonably sincere in their compliments, and I felt my own surge of maternal pride. Of course she was beautiful, wonderful, clever - all that Talon declared her to be and more. She was our daughter, wasn't she? When Ellian was three months old, Luke and Callista sent us an invitation to a family reunion on Yavin. Not for the first time, I was touched that Luke and Leia considered me to be part of their family and welcomed my presence at such affairs, but this was the first time in years that I wholeheartedly looked forward to being with them all. My past regrets were forgotten, brushed aside by my newfound happiness. We went to Yavin, of course, and showed off our small daughter with undiluted pride. It was halfway through the visit when the realization struck.
I didn't wish that I could trade places with Callista.
Shameful as such a desire was, it had been my constant companion for over five years. Its absence felt strange - so much so that I actually spent the rest of the visit privately trying to rekindle it. I watched Luke furtively, noting all the qualities I'd loved about him, only to find myself realizing that Talon had many of the same qualities. I told myself firmly how handsome Luke was - then found my eyes turning toward Talon instead. I admired Luke's sons and imagined what they might have looked like with a hint of red in their hair, but distracted by Ellian's cry, I turned away to smooth her fuzzy auburn tufts and thought her nothing short of perfection. Puzzled, I wondered exactly when my feelings had changed. Had it only been since Ellian's birth? Or had I been changing gradually all this time and only now noticed it? Ultimately, I decided it didn't really matter. Somehow, somewhere along the line, Luke had become a dear friend rather than a lost love, and in the meantime, I'd fallen in love with my husband. Trust me to find the most convoluted way possible to happiness.
But I was happy, and once I'd woken up enough to realize it, I only grew more content with my situation as the years passed. Instead of dwelling on lost pasts, I began to appreciate nuances of my life that had until then been taken for granted. I found that while I'd been busy mourning what never was, the Force had given me more than I'd hoped for. I had a loving husband, a beautiful daughter, a challenging job, and more friends than I deserved. I was determined that this, at least, I wouldn't mess up. I did my very best to be the wife and mother that Talon and Ellian deserved. I trained Ellian as Luke had trained me, and promised Luke that she would come to his academy when she was older.
I hadn't realized how quickly 'older' would come.
The Fire settled smoothly on the Academy landing pad, and Ellian bounced up the instant the ship was still, leaning around my chair to peer out the forward viewport. "Uncle Luke is there," she proclaimed happily. "And Aunt Callista, and Ben and Bail. Can I go on ahead?"
"May I," I corrected absently, finishing the shutdown procedures.
"May I," Ellian echoed with an impatient toss of her head. I smiled in spite of myself, then raised my eyebrows at Talon.
"You may," Talon acquiesced. "Tell them we'll be right there, please."
Ellian let out a wordless shriek of joy and dashed from the cockpit, hair streaming behind her. Talon chuckled, and I shook my head amusedly at him. He rose and extended his hand to me. I glanced once more out the viewport. Ellian had reached the waiting Skywalkers and was being hugged by Callista, while the boys looked on with an impatience similar to Ellian's own. Luke stood nearby, watching the whole scene with tolerant amusement. He glanced up toward the cockpit, and our eyes met. He smiled, the same smile that could once cause my heart to skip a beat, and the old wistfulness rose within me - but it was fleeting, and wistfulness was not desire. I smiled back at him, then turned away to take my husband's hand.
After all, some things were meant to be.
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