The dream began as it did every night. Mara sat at the controls of the Jade Dream, looking out the cockpit ahead of her at the most glorious scene she had ever witnessed - the Vong in full retreat. Mon Cal Cruisers, Republic Star Destroyers, and Assault Frigates closed in from all sides, as total victory seemed assured. Besides the numerous capital ships, Republic snub fighters beyond count swarmed in and out of the suddenly haphazard enemy formations as the Vong attempted to withdraw and regroup. At the lead of the pack of fighters was Rogue Squadron, decimating every rearguard action the Vong threw at them. It was a sight so breathtaking, it nearly brought tears to Mara's eyes.
Mara held her emotions in check, however. Her assignment was to hold back from the main thrust of the Republic Navy to assist any fighter that became outmatched. So far she had been anything but busy. Mara was glad of her leisure since it allowed her to focus on one particular X-Wing, which on this day flew once again in the ranks of Rogue Squadron - the X-Wing of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker.
Mara watched not only with her eyes, but through the Force as well. She could feel her husband's relaxed, yet unbelievably strong connection to the Force. It was this connection to the life energy of the galaxy, along with Luke's innate flying abilities, that kept him in the lead of the Republic advance and made him the scourge of the Vong fleet.
Everyone had come to realize that nothing short of a total victory would suffice and though it pained him to admit it, Luke knew that peace was impossible. The Vong presence in this galaxy had to be wiped out for there to be any hope for the future. Realizing what needed to be done, Luke had once again donned the flight suit of a warrior and joined his comrades in the largest fleet battle the galaxy had ever seen, one that even eclipsed the mammoth battle against the Empire in the skies above Endor.
Mara knew what was about to happen next. This was the part where the dream turned into a nightmare. Identifying the chief cause of their torment, the Vong decided to not bow out without a final parting shot. A cluster of Vong ships suddenly broke formation and attempted to trap Luke's ship in a standard englobement maneuver. Immediately a group of Rogues led by Luke's longtime friend Wedge Antilles raced to Luke's aid, blasting their way through all opposition in a furious attempt to assist the man who had once been their commander.
However, a Jedi Master, once cornered, becomes even more dangerous to his enemy. With a stunning display of acrobatic moves and pinpoint shooting, Luke blasted a hole through the Vong curtain descending upon him and broke free. Mara hoped beyond hope that this time the dream would turn out differently, but it always ended the same way as the actual battle had over two years earlier. Luke broke free of the trap set for him, but was now even further away from any assistance his friends could muster. Sensing his peril, Luke plunged his ship into the nebula that the Republic had used as a screen to trap the Vong.
Inside the nebula, visual and instrumental navigation was impossible due to the high levels of radiation and intensely thick dust clouds. For Luke this posed no problem. Jedi flew by instinct and intuition, not by scanners and reference points. The Vong had no such abilities, but dove into the nebula anyway, refusing to let their enemy elude them before they could extract their one final bit of revenge. Mara's last vision of Luke's ship had been the contrails raised as the dust particles of the nebula flowed over his wings and were scattered by the drives of his ship.
Dozens of Vong ships diverted from their protective formation to follow in the pursuit of the man who had broken the back of the Vong advance. Unable to see her husband any longer, Mara used her connection to him as both wife and fellow Jedi to monitor him and make sure he was still safe. For nearly fifteen minutes she rode along with Luke as he swooped and rolled through the nebula, nimbly dodging the blindly aimed shots of the Vong as they sought to herd Luke out of the nebula where they would have a better chance of defeating him. Luke, realizing that he held the advantage inside the nebula, doubled his focus and rolled back on his attackers, wiping out line after line of ships. No longer was the Jedi Master calm and relaxed; he was now the epitome of grim determination and steely nerve. Then, during Luke's second attack run against the Vong ships that had followed him into the nebula, the unthinkable happened.
Mara sensed it as Luke did - the warning blare of danger screaming at him before a shot from one of the Vong ships tore a hole through both starboard wings. Luke's ship was tossed roughly from its intended path, and limped along directly in front of a new line of ships randomly firing as they passed through the nebula. Mara shared the sensation of her husband's ship shuddering as several more blasts buffeted the X-Wing. Then Mara sensed something from Luke she thought she never would - panic mixed with fear. Crippled by the latest barrage of fire, Luke's X-Wing was now just an unguided missile plowing a straight line through the nebula.
Just when Mara convinced herself that Luke might make it back out of the nebula to a position where his friends could help him, her prayers were dashed as she felt a final shot rock Luke's small fighter. Then she felt nothing.
It wasn't just her own body that had gone numb; the reassuring presence of her husband that had always been there was gone as well. Snuffed out as if it were a candle left outside in a windstorm.
This was where the dream always ended and Mara woke up crying for the man - the husband -who had been ruthlessly taken from her that victorious day. The Republic had been saved, but at the cost of its greatest hero. Even now Mara sat alone in her bed, hugging her knees to her chest, quietly sobbing for the love that was stolen that terrible, terrible day.
"Good morning Mara," Leia said, looking up from the datapad she had been studying. "I didn't expect you this early."
Years before, when her children had been a daily presence in her life, Leia adopted the habit of rising early to catch up on the work she usually missed while raising three potential Jedi. Now that she and Han finally had their lives entirely to themselves, Leia still found it advantageous to use the early morning hours to get a head start on her work. She found it preferable to listening to a Corellian snore.
"I couldn't sleep," Mara claimed as she took a seat, her voice barely above a whisper. "I figured I might as well get some work done."
That admission gave Leia pause, and she put the datapad down to take a closer look at her sister-in-law. Not sleeping well was one thing, but when combined with a pair of red eyes and a steaming mug of hot chocolate, the cause of Mara's insomnia was easy to identify.
"I know this past year hasn't been easy for you Mara," Leia said. "Almost as soon as the Vong were destroyed, it seemed like all the old problems cropped up again, and it hasn't been easy dealing with everything lately. If there's anything I can do for you, if you need somebody to talk to..."
"I'd really rather not," Mara interrupted quietly as she lowered her gaze to the mug of hot chocolate she was subconsciously caressing. "I've talked and talked about and it still hasn't helped. Besides, I've gotten used to getting only a few hours sleep every night."
"A change of pace might do you some good," Leia proposed, anxious to do something to raise Mara's spirits. "Maybe you should take some time off and just get away for a few days to clear your thoughts. What we're working on can wait for a while."
Looking deeply into the mug she was cradling in her hands, Mara managed a brief smile at Leia's offer. This wasn't the first time that Leia had made such a suggestion, and while Mara knew that Leia's heart was in the right place, she also knew that taking a leave of absence would do nothing to solve her problems. Mara carried her pain deep within her soul, and it would follow her wherever she went.
"Thanks Leia, I truly mean that. I just don't think a vacation is going to solve anything. Tionne suggested the possibility that I'm subconsciously afraid of forgetting about Luke, so when I'm dreaming my mind calls up my last, most vivid memory of him. If I had a choice, I'd rather remember any other moment we shared."
"I know what you mean," Leia commiserated. "When I think of Luke, I remember the look on his face when he told me Vader was his father, our father. Out of the thousands of images I have of him, that's the one I see when I close my eyes."
An uneasy quiet settled over Leia's office, as neither woman knew where to take the conversation. In truth, both wished to drop the subject but didn't know how. Mara turned her head to stare out the window at the sun as it rose through the cracks between the buildings of Coruscant. Leia, in turn, watched as Mara stubbornly struggled to hold back the tears that were always near the surface.
"So, what did you need the Jedi to do for you?" Mara asked when she fully regained control of her emotions. After Luke's death, without a strong authority figure to lead them, the Jedi had gotten together and agreed to reform the Jedi Council. Mara had been one of the obvious choices to become a Council member. However, to eliminate herself from the possibility of being asked to lead the Council, Mara had volunteered to be the liaison between the Jedi Council and the New Republic government. This was what had brought her to Leia's office.
"I've told you before about an emerging threat to the stability of the Republic," Leia began, wanting to be sure they were on familiar ground. "Since the elimination of the Vong, the government now seems intent on pulling itself apart from the inside. Three groups have emerged in the struggle for supremacy. For lack of official designations, I've categorized them as the Loyalists, the Imperialists, and the Separatists."
"This is really nothing new, Leia," Mara interrupted. Aside from her responsibility to keep the Council cognizant of what was going on in the Republic government, it was also Mara's duty to keep that same government from dragging the Jedi into its internal conflicts. "There have been splinter groups inside governments since the Old Republic was founded."
"I know, but this time it's different," Leia pressed, realizing that she was going to have to overcome not only Mara's dislike of politics, but also the firm reluctance of the Jedi Council to insert itself into the political arena. "Since the fall of the Empire and the rise of the New Republic, there has been constant dissention between the Loyalists and the Imperialists. Of course those loyal to the new government have always vastly outnumbered those advocating a return to the Imperial system. What has changed is the Separatists. They've always been a fringe group. Their own isolationist tendencies kept them from forming a cohesive movement. Consequently, they've been largely ignored."
"And that balance has somehow changed," Mara surmised, seeing where this was obviously heading.
"The Separatists have found a leader, someone who is rallying support for their belief that each world should go its own way. The movement is growing at an incredible rate, not only among the populace, but also among leaders of planetary governments. I've even had Senators come in here and spout off this new ideology to me."
"You still haven't told me how you want us to help you," Mara pointed out. As far as Mara was concerned, the only constant in any government was the nonstop ebb and flow of political ideas. The fact that a few Senators were swaying with the popular opinion was hardly alarming.
"The government would like the Council's assistance in identifying this new Separatist leader," Leia stated, finally getting to the point of the meeting. "Our best intelligence efforts have given us nothing solid to go on. If there is a new power emerging, we'd at least like to know who it is."
"You mean you've found nothing so far?" Mara asked incredulously.
"Exactly the opposite," Leia informed her. "We've been inundated with reports, but no two can agree on anything about this person. This leader has been positively identified as both male and female; species has ranged from Wookiee to Mon Calamari. All we're asking is for some help sorting this out."
"I'll mention it to the Council," Mara conceded. "No promises beyond that."
"That's all we ask," Leia said, grateful that she'd achieved at least that much. "How's the new Council leader doing by the way?"
"Kyp? You'd be amazed, I know I am," Mara confessed. "He's shown a maturity that no one knew was there. It was about time though. That reckless enthusiasm of his was getting to be a bit annoying."
It was during the convocation of the Jedi that twelve were chosen to form the re-emergent Council, and one was chosen from among the twelve to lead. Among that first dozen were several illustrious names: Mara Jade Skywalker, Kyp Durron, Kam Solusar, and Tionne, as well as a few Jedi who, although they lacked public recognition, were no less deserving of the elevation to leadership. What surprised everyone was the choice of leader, the former hermit Streen. The man who had become a Jedi only to quiet the voices that invaded his thoughts was chosen by his peers to lead them into the future.
In retrospect however, it had been the wrong choice. Streen had been the safe choice, the comfortable choice, and the one person everyone could get along with. The once bewildered old man had been transformed over the years into a respected Jedi. Known for his infinite patience and gentle strength, Streen was well liked - if not loved - by all. Unfortunately these same qualities, while they made Streen a good friend and teacher, also made him a poor leader. When conflicts arose, and in those first few weeks there had been conflicts aplenty, a strong, decisive leader was needed to settle the flood of problems. Streen was not that man. Realizing that his limitations were harming the newly formed Council, Streen stepped down as leader, and as a Council member entirely, to return to Yavin Four to head the Academy and oversee the training of the next generation of Jedi.
Kam Solusar was elected to fill the void left by Streen's departure. Firm, decisive, sure of himself, Kam was everything that Streen was not. Yet at the same time, Streen was everything that Kam was not. In his effort to be the strong leader that his predecessor hadn't been, Kam was soon criticized by his peers for his overreaching power and his numerous unilateral decisions. It soon became obvious to everyone that the second Council leader had taken his authority to the opposite extreme as the first leader. Kam, to his credit, realized the hard feeling he had created, and after two months he too stepped down as the head of the Council, though he retained his seat as a member.
Worry soon pervaded the ranks of Jedi as they wondered if they could ever find someone who could unite the Jedi and also effectively lead them as Master Skywalker had somehow managed to do. It was in that time of transition that a new member emerged to try his hand at leading the Council, Kyp Durron. It was an easy vote. No one else wanted the job.
It was a choice that shocked many, and startled more than a few members of the New Republic government. Kyp was known to most as the powerful young man who had once idolized Luke Skywalker, and then nearly destroyed him. During his own battle with the Dark Side, Kyp had been responsible for the deaths of millions, yet in the years that followed Kyp had become an effective, if unremarkable teacher. Yet despite his status as a Jedi Master, Kyp retained the impetuous nature he'd had since his deliverance from the spice mines of Kessel.
It wasn't until the months following the death of Luke Skywalker that Kyp really came into his own. With the death of their Master and leader, each and every Jedi was forced to take a closer look at themselves to find the strength to go on. Kyp found the maturity that had for so long eluded him.
"I'm glad to hear Kyp's working out as the head of the Council. The instability among the Jedi leadership was causing some people in the government to wonder if it was a good idea to allow the Council's reformation," Leia confessed.
"Some adjustments just take a bit more time," Mara explained, slightly bothered by the admission that the government saw the Jedi as an extension of its own authority rather than the independent body that Luke had intended it to be. She would have to mention this to her fellow Council members. It would be best to set a hard definition of the Jedi's independence now rather than later. "Before I go, is there anything you can tell me about this new Separatist that isn't contradicted by other sources?"
"Just that despite the numerous incarnations of this new leader, he or she is always referred to in the same way. No name is given, but the leader of the Separatist movement is always referred to as the Speaker."
"So all they want us to do is identify this 'Speaker'?" Tionne asked.
"That's what Leia said," Mara clarified. "She believes that, though I don't doubt there are others in the government who already have plans ready to deal with this person once we've identified whoever it is."
"We don't make decisions based upon suppositions, Mara," Kyp gently reminded his fellow Council member. "Let's remember to keep our discussion based upon facts."
As the head of the Council, it was Kyp's responsibility to steer the course of discussion. Though his vote counted no more than the vote of anyone else in the room, he wielded his power as leader through the parliamentary procedures that were his to control. The topics to be debated and the length to discuss each matter were his decisions. Not that these powers were absolute; like his predecessors Kyp would only retain his position so long as he had the support of his fellow Jedi. Being an effective leader required knowing when to lead with either a light or firm hand. So far this once reckless young Jedi had met with remarkable success.
"I think a discussion about what might be done with whatever information we uncover warrants a bit of our time," Mara returned. "We all know the government isn't nearly so altruistic as it would like everyone to believe. If we agree to do this, we risk turning one of these schisms loose on another."
"Yet turning down a request by the duly elected representatives of the New Republic could make it appear that we are already taking sides," interjected Kam Solusar. The former head of the Jedi Council saw where this was heading and hoped to forestall another argument between Mara and Kyp. The two of them had an unbroken record of taking the opposite side in every argument. In one respect, that was a good thing as it allowed every matter to receive thorough attention. However much of the time, like today, it only created unnecessary tension.
"No, we'd just be refusing to get involved in something that doesn't concern us," Mara argued.
"The stability of the New Republic is our first concern," Kyp said forcefully, effectively ending the discussion. "If no one other than Mara disagrees I propose we agree to Leia's request and send someone to investigate."
Five seconds of silence stood for agreement and Kyp, considering the matter settled, moved on to other business. That silence was hardly empty, as several of Mara's colleagues couldn't help but wonder what had made her so argumentative this morning. They all knew that she had never fully gotten over her husband's death and that she still woke up nightly from nightmares. Judging by her combative attitude, they knew that the previous night had been worse than most.
"Now we need to decide who to send on this mission," Kyp declared, beginning a new line of discussion.
"I doubt there'll be volunteers," Corran Horn surmised wryly. "Tracking down the identity of some obscure political leader isn't the sort of thing to get a Knight's heart pumping."
"Then we'll refer to the List," Kyp said. "Whose name is up?"
"Anakin Solo," Tionne volunteered.
The List, as it was unofficially called by the Council, was a throwback to the Academy days when students were assigned unwanted duties based upon their position on a list kept by the Jedi instructors. Those on the List, of course, had had their own, less flattering name for it. A student's position on the List could be affected by several factors; one moved up the List for punishment or down the List for reward. That's not to say that the List was an entirely punitive measure, it was merely the means to assign the daily, but unwelcome, chores that came with running a self-sufficient Academy for young Force users. If the Jedi who normally occupied the top of the List were to select a leader, Anakin Solo would be their king.
In a world where patience was truly a virtue and self-reflection was a must, Anakin Solo not only didn't clear the bar, he didn't even make the jump. Leia Organa Solo more than once compared her youngest son's streak of recklessness to that of her brother when she first knew him. Though extraordinarily gifted in the use of his talents, Anakin retained that youthful exuberance and lack of self-doubt that more often than not only served to get him into jams that only his incredible power could save him from. Consequently, in an effort to curb his propensity for finding trouble, Anakin was assigned more than his share of dull, dreary assignments such as this one. Maybe this time he'd actually stay out of trouble.
"Anakin," Kyp Durron mused. "Sounds perfect for him."
It was a nervous Soscha Korrel whose feet echoed on the deck plates as she made her way from the cockpit of her starship, an old clunker of a Corellian Corvette she'd re-christened the Thrain, to the passenger's lounge. For Soscha it was a much different experience transporting passengers rather than cargo. It wasn't so much the trouble, as these Separatists seemed eager to prove they could take care of themselves; rather it was the sense of foreboding she'd had ever since they'd hired her to ferry them from system to system so their leader, the man known to her only as 'Speaker', could meet in the most unusual places with other officials as mysterious as he was. Nobody would go to such levels of secrecy if they weren't up to some sort of trouble.
Yet as elusive as the Separatists were, their leader was doubly so. Soscha had only seen the man on rare occasions, and as she thought about him, she realized that she couldn't picture him in her mind or even recall his real name - if in fact she had ever known it. She was fairly certain he had a beard, but she certainly wouldn't bet her ship on that. The only physical descriptions she could come up with didn't add much to the picture. He was of average height and average build, and whenever she was around he just seemed to fade into the background. As she thought about it, Soscha came to the conclusion that there just wasn't anything about the Speaker that attracted her attention.
But that doesn't make any sense, Soscha thought to herself. She knew that political leaders - especially those who led fringe groups - were usually described as being extremely charismatic and having magnetic personalities that forced others to pay attention to them. The Speaker was the antithesis of that. If anything, there was something about the man that cried out, "Look away."
For possibly the thousandth time, Soscha wondered if she had done the right thing in agreeing to transport this circle of Separatist leaders. There were too many unanswered questions for her taste, and the mystery of the Speaker topped the list. She'd decided on several past occasions that she and her passengers would part ways after the next stop, but she always ended up changing her mind. Soscha blamed her damnable curiosity for not allowing her to rid herself of the odd group that had booked passage on her ship.
And now she had to bring this group a report of bad news. Just before entering hyperspace on their way out of the Bpfassh system, Soscha received a report from one of the Speaker's informants that she was now on her way to deliver. She feared it wouldn't be well received. Stopping before the door to the lounge, Soscha took a deep breath to gather herself before keying the door and facing the group inside.
"Sir," Soscha began with a respectful nod to the man comfortably seated on the padded bench that lined one wall of the room. To Soscha's surprise, the rest of the Speaker's inner circle didn't even look up from the conference table where they were huddled in conversation on topics of apparent importance to the Separatist movement. Soscha doubted she'd be ignored for much longer.
Soscha herself didn't have anything against the Separatists who now inhabited her ship. They kept to themselves, paid her well, and as far as Soscha could tell, weren't doing anything blatantly illegal. If it wasn't for their secretive natures, Soscha thought she might even have liked them. Though she didn't know much about their cause, she knew that they advocated the independence of each system to make its own rules rather than have a looming bureaucracy trying, and more often than not failing, to control everything. Tariffs were bad enough for Soscha Korrel without the New Republic dipping their hands into the pot for their share.
"What can I do for you Captain Korrel?" the Speaker asked graciously.
"Sir, I just received a transmission from a man on Coruscant who claimed to be an informant of yours. As per your orders I didn't respond; rather I just recorded the message and checked the transmission code against the list you gave me."
"That's very good of you Captain, what did Tylan have to say?"
"He wanted to warn you that the Jedi are now involved in the search to uncover your identity."
That got their attention, Soscha thought as she noticed the startled looks on the faces of the Speaker's advisors. Usually her passengers ignored her presence, and Soscha tried to repay them in kind. Now, somewhat to her discomfort, Soscha found herself to be the focus of a roomful of looks ranging from shock to downright fear. Not an entire roomful, Soscha corrected herself. The Speaker had a satisfied smile on his face like he'd just heard the news he'd been waiting a lifetime for.
"Sir, what does this mean?" the Bothan from the end of the table asked warily.
"It means we are proceeding on schedule," the Speaker answered.
"But a Jedi?" the pale-skinned Zabrak woman chimed in. "We aren't prepared for that eventuality."
"Of course we are," the Speaker claimed. "I've been waiting for this for some time now. Captain, did Tylan mention the name of this Jedi?"
"He said the Jedi's name is Anakin Solo."
Though deep into the familiar dream that haunted her every night, Mara knew something was wrong. This time it was different. The image of the Vong fleet following her husband into the nebula was slowly fading away; maybe this time she wouldn't have to relive the moment that Luke was lost to her.
Then, the scene suddenly shifted and Mara found herself standing alone on a darkened street, a heavy rain plastering her normally flowing red hair tight against her head and back. Cautiously Mara proceeded forward, unhooking her lightsaber from her belt and holding it ready before her. For a moment Mara wondered if this was more than a dream, as she sensed someone was waiting for her up ahead.
As she rounded the corner between two massive buildings whose tops were lost among the clouds, Mara caught a glimpse of someone disappearing from view around the next corner. Running to close the distance between them, Mara still barely managed to round the next corner in time to see whoever it was she was after disappear once again around yet another corner. Doubling her speed, Mara reached the next corner with the same result, only catching a fleeting glance before her quarry was gone from sight. What made it all so infuriating was that her prey never seemed to hurry, always seeming to move at a leisurely stroll.
Realizing that speed wasn't going to help her catch up, Mara slowed to a moderate pace and continued her pursuit. She was about to give up this pointless chase when she was stopped in her tracks. This time when the mysterious figure turned the corner, Mara saw another, one whose hooded robe hid any features, waiting for her at the end of the dark alley.
Mara approached with measured steps until the hidden figure stiffened, signifying a desire that she should approach no closer. While she was searching for something to say, the hooded stranger gestured with a nod at the lightsaber Mara held. Feeling foolish that she would draw her weapon in what she knew to be a dream, Mara reattached her weapon to her belt before addressing the stranger in front of her.
"Who are you? What is this place?" Mara asked, wiping the rain and wet hair from her eyes.
If she was expecting an answer, Mara was disappointed when the only response was an open hand extended in her direction. Warily, Mara held her ground and interrogated the mysterious figure again.
"Are you doing this?"
Again Mara received no reply, and she now noticed that the intensity of the dream seemed to be dissipating. The walls of the buildings around her were fading to gray, and the hand once extended toward her was now withdrawn. Unwilling to give up before it was all gone, Mara fired off one more question.
"Why am I here?"
The dream then faded entirely and Mara thought her question would go unanswered, when a voice echoed in the back of her mind.
"Because soon we will meet again."
"Good morning Mara," Leia greeted her as Mara took a seat in front of Leia's desk. "You're looking well today."
"I wish I could say the same about you," Mara returned with a look of concern. "Is everything all right?"
It was a departure from the norm; Mara looking refreshed and alert while Leia seemed only half-awake, looking at the world through red eyes and drooping eyelids. It wasn't unusual for Leia to be weary from her busy schedule, but she always managed to retain the image of a vibrant woman. This morning she looked twice her age.
"I'm fine," Leia commented. "I've just had this headache for the past couple of days and haven't been sleeping well. I must be reading too much fine print."
"Maybe you should take a break. Grab that husband of yours and spend a few days with no reason to get up in the morning."
"I'd like that, believe me," Leia said sincerely, "but now is not the time. Jaina and Jacen are both back on Coruscant and I'm only one child away from having them all under the same roof. I wanted to know if you have any news on Anakin."
"Nothing in the last week," Mara reported. "Last we heard from him he was hot on the trail of the Separatist leader and was optimistic about uncovering something soon."
"It's about time," Leia remarked. "Two months just to track down the identity of one man? I have a bad feeling about this Speaker, Mara. At the rate this movement is growing, we could be in for some serious trouble before too much longer."
"Aren't you being a bit dramatic Leia?" Mara asked. "The vast majority of Republic citizens are still loyal to the ideals of the New Republic. It'll be a long time before that changes."
"Not as long as you think," Leia informed her sister-in-law. "The Separatist agenda keeps growing faster and faster. In a few decades the picture could be quite different; they might even have the majority."
"Now don't go borrowing trouble Leia," Mara advised her. "We'll have more to go on once Anakin completes his mission."
Suddenly the doors to Leia's office slid open to let Jacen and Jaina Solo enter. Mara rose to greet her niece and nephew, and when she saw them she instantly knew that something was wrong. Both of the twins had a look of stark panic on their faces, and Jacen looked to be nearly in tears.
"Mother?" Jaina implored, not appearing to even notice that Mara was in the room.
Mara turned to see that Leia had risen from her desk in surprise that her children had intruded on her meeting. Then Leia's eyes and mouth flew open in shock, and she began to swoon. Leaping over the desk, Mara managed to catch Leia before she hit the floor. Immediately the twins were at their mother's side, each taking one of her hands.
Desperate to know what was going on, Mara grabbed Jacen by the shoulders and shook him until he looked her in the eyes. Once she had his attention, Mara could see that Jacen was stunned when he finally noticed she was there.
"What is it Jacen? What's happening?" Mara demanded.
"It's Anakin, we can't feel him anymore. It's like he just disappeared."
"Hurry you two, help her inside," Mara ordered. Following Leia's collapse, Mara thought it best to get her back to her apartment so she could be with her husband. Mara had briefly considered taking Leia to the nearest medcenter, but had decided against it once she'd realized that there wasn't anything physically wrong with Leia. There was nothing any medical droid could do to alter the effects of Force induced shock.
Only minutes before, Han had been preparing to leave to meet with Lando and had been laughing to himself about his friend's latest scheme to strike it rich. Seeing his wife carried into the room in their children's arms and mumbling incoherently, Han rushed over to the sofa where they had placed Leia and took her hands in his own. Han's face was now etched with panic as a dozen terrifying possibilities came to mind one after another.
"What's wrong with her," Han demanded roughly, somehow managing to not let the fear in his heart show in his voice.
"It's not her, Dad, it's Anakin," Jaina spoke up, her trembling voice letting Han know that the situation might be worse than he thought.
"What about Anakin? Is he here?" Han asked in confusion as he looked around. Just that morning at breakfast he and Leia had been discussing how nice it would have been if all their children could have been on Coruscant at the same time. Hearing Anakin's name mentioned as the cause if his wife's collapse didn't make any sense.
"No Han," Mara soothed, wondering how she was going to explain this to him.
"Then where is he? What is this all about?" Han barked before returning his eyes off Leia's pale face.
"We can't feel him anymore," Jaina explained as she moved closer to her twin for support. "The connection the three of us have always shared, it's gone. Jacen and I were on our way to see Mara and mother when we felt it."
"Felt what," Han demanded when Jaina failed to continue.
"A tremor in the Force," Jacen said, picking up where his sister had left off. "It was centered around Anakin. When it was over we couldn't feel him anymore. He's gone, Dad."
"No, there's got to be another explanation," Han exclaimed in a whisper, looking hopefully to Mara. There were so many questions he wanted to ask that they piled up on one another and each fought to be asked first. The result was that Han could do little more than stare at Mara with a dumbfounded look on his face.
"Han, we'll find out what we can. You need to stay here with Leia. She's still in shock after what she felt. The twins and I must see the Council immediately to see what we can find out about this. As soon as we know more I'll let you know. I promise."
"But what about Leia?" Han asked as he returned his full attention to his wife.
"I'll have a Jedi Healer sent over here right away," Mara promised. When Han didn't respond, Mara knew that she would have to get his attention as well as dissipate his fears about his wife.
"Han, look at me," Mara ordered. "Leia is going to be fine. She hasn't been injured in any way. It will just take some time for her to recover from the shock, that's all. I need you to be strong for her in case she regains consciousness before we get back from the Council meeting. Now I have to go, time may be of the essence here."
Before Mara could gather the twins and leave, Han suddenly reached out and grasped her by the wrist. Mara resisted her initial urge to break free when she saw the pain in Han's eyes. Pausing for a moment, Mara waited for the man to ask the question she didn't want to answer.
"Level with me Mara. Is there any chance that you're wrong about this, that Anakin isn't dead."
"There's always a chance," Mara offered with a half-smile and a hope she didn't really feel.
"You say you could feel him one moment, and the next moment he was gone?" Kyp Durron asked, hoping to uncover some sliver of information that could lead them to understanding more clearly what had happened to Anakin Solo.
"Yes Master," Jacen and Jaina responded in unison.
"This is very troubling," Kam Solusar reflected from his seat opposite the Council Leader. "Anakin was a very powerful and capable Jedi Knight. Who or what could catch him unaware?"
"Don't talk about my nephew in the past tense yet, Kam," Mara warned from where she stood. In a meeting of the full Council, protocol dictated that each member should be seated so that matters could be discussed peacefully and with due consideration. However in her current state of mind, sitting still would have been impossible for Mara. Agitated and fearful at the thought of losing a member of her extended family, Mara paced the Council chamber to give vent to her emotions.
"I apologize, Mara," Kam said contritely. "I only meant to raise the question of who might be behind this."
"I think it's obvious," Mara declared. "Anakin was searching for the true identity of the leader of the Separatists. I would guess he got too close to the answer."
"Where was Anakin's last known location?" Kyp asked, hoping to bring a modicum of control back to the discussion. Mara seemed to have already made up her mind. As Council Leader, it was Kyp's responsibility to explore every possibility.
"He filed his last report after leaving Kashyyyk," Mara announced. "Anakin claimed he had uncovered some useful information on the Wookiee home planet. He didn't say where he was going."
"Then we must look to the Force for guidance before embarking on any quest," Kyp proclaimed.
"Master, how can we stand by and do nothing?" Jaina interjected, unmindful of how disrespectful her remark was.
"Just where would you begin looking, young Knight?" Kyp asked innocently, though there was nothing innocent about his question. In truth it was an unfair question, but one that made Kyp Durron's point perfectly clear. "I know it's not easy, but we can't just go charging off without knowing more. We will reconvene the Council when we know more."
"How is our guest doing?" the Speaker asked one of his deputies.
"He's still suffering from a bit of shock, but he's better. He's asked to see you again."
"In due course," the Speaker reflected. "He'll need some time to adjust to his new circumstances."
"Are you sure about this?" the deputy asked. "Bringing in outsiders could be dangerous to our cause."
"The entire purpose of all this is to bring outsiders to our cause. Don't worry about the young one, he'll be a great asset to us."
"I'm sorry, Speaker, I just don't see what one more person can do for us. We've already done extremely well on our own."
"This one is crucial. Through him, others will be brought to us who are essential to our cause. One in particular will find us, one whose arrival I've anticipated for too long now," the Speaker declared with a hopeful, yet somehow sorrowful smile.
Mara tossed and turned for several hours in her unsuccessful attempt to find sleep. There were just too many thoughts racing through her mind to allow her to relax for even a moment, let alone slip into the comfortable embrace of slumber. It annoyed Mara that Kyp had declared no action be taken until more information was uncovered and it galled her to no end that deep down she knew he was right. It was just frustrating for her to lie in her bed and do nothing. Under normal circumstances Mara would welcome a bout of insomnia, as it would be a reprieve from her nightly horrors. These were hardly normal circumstances though, and Mara was eager to confront whoever or whatever had invaded her dream the previous night.
It was somewhere in the solemn hours preceding sunrise that fatigue finally overtook Mara and she was able to fall asleep. Normally it would take several hours for Mara to enter the deeper levels of sleep conducive for dreaming, but tonight the transition was instantaneous. She immediately found herself once again on the same rain-slicked street as the night before, and as before a hidden figure waited for her, only to disappear from view. Calmly, without the sense of dire urgency that had marked the previous dream, Mara followed her guide, never attempting to close the distance between them. Then, at the same junction of dark alleys, her guide disappeared and Mara was once again alone with the other hidden figure.
"You again? What's this all about?" Mara asked impertinently.
"You came to me. What do you wish to know?"
"Are you controlling this dream?"
"Are you responsible for what happened to Anakin?"
"It was necessary."
"Then I swear here and now that you are my enemy," Mara declared vehemently, not bothering to keep the anger and hatred from her voice. How dare this stranger calmly confirm everything to her as if Anakin's fate was of no importance. "I vow to track you down and see that you harm no others."
"If that is your destiny."
"Don't just stand there and smugly spout platitudes at me. Start counting your days," Mara warned.
For the next few minutes, an awkward silence permeated the dream. A part of Mara had hoped that her vow of vengeance would at least provoke a visible response in her adversary and was disappointed at the lack of results. The mysterious stranger still stood placidly before her, arms folded within large sleeves, while a large hood hid any hint of an identity. Uncomfortable with the silence, Mara spoke again.
"Is there something else you wish to know?"
"Are you the one known as 'Speaker'?"
"Who are you really?"
"Look in your heart. You will find me there."
Before Mara could ask what that meant she found herself back on Coruscant, alone in her bed. Determined to uncover the secrets of the being that tormented her dreams and answered her demands only in riddles, Mara sprang from her bed and grabbed a traveling case from the closet. As she gathered her clothes, Mara tried to convince herself of the necessity of not informing the Council of what she had just learned. More than likely they would try to impede her chances of fulfilling her oath. Besides that, Jacen and Jaina would insist on tagging along. Whatever might happen to her, Mara was not willing to bear the responsibility of what could happen to them. Leia had lost too much already; she didn't need the twins stubbornly marching off into danger. Packing everything she might need into the small case, Mara locked up her apartment and headed for the hangar where the Jade Dream sat parked, unused since that final battle against the Vong.
"Great thinking Mara. Fly halfway across the Rim on a fool's errand when you don't even know where to go or what to look for," Mara sarcastically recriminated herself as her ship reached the upper limits of Kashyyyk's atmosphere on her way out of the system. Kashyyyk was a dead end. Mara had been unable to find anyone there who seemed to know what Anakin had discovered while he was on planet or where that information had led him. All she did find out was that the youngest Solo had been to Malastare immediately before arriving at the Wookiee home planet. Mara was now debating whether to return home to Coruscant or to continue on to Malastare in the faint hope of finding something there.
But Malastare lay in the wrong direction. Backtracking Anakin's path wouldn't lead her any closer to any answers or to the mysterious Speaker who had now interrupted her dreams twice. Perhaps she should return home, though Mara didn't relish the thought of explaining her actions to the rest of the Council. Visions were to be shared so they could be better understood. Every Jedi, especially a Master who sat on the Council, was expected to follow that rule.
Mara was just about to lay in the return course to Coruscant when the comm light flashed. It wasn't the first time they had tried to reach her, and while Mara was tempted to go on ignoring the Council's transmissions, she decided that to do so would be childish. Muttering a few silent imprecations against the limits enforced by maturity, Mara opened the link with the most cheerful voice she could muster.
"Mara here. What can I do for you?"
"You've decided to answer, how gracious of you," Kyp Durron's voice crackled over the ship's speaker. Mara wondered if she had missed the sarcasm in Kyp's voice or if the line just didn't transmit all the inflections in his voice properly. Whatever the cause, Mara was somewhat surprised that the only emotion she noticed in Kyp's voice was a sense of relief.
"I've been busy," Mara answered.
"How's Kashyyyk?" Kyp asked.
"The Wookiees are tall and the trees are taller. What can I do for you?" Mara asked again, much less cheerful this time.
"Republic Intelligence has just located Anakin's ship. It's in the Duranis System. You're closer than the rest of us, so we're asking you to check it out."
"Thanks, Kyp, I'll lay in a course immediately," Mara said wholeheartedly before pausing. She knew what she wanted to say next, she just didn't want it to sound like an accusation. "I was certain you were going to order me home."
"What good would that have done me?" Kyp joked, the dry humor in his voice coming across crystal clear. "Besides, all that the Council has been able to determine is that you are somehow wrapped up in all this. It must be the will of the Force that you solve this mystery for us. Back here it's about all we can do to keep the twins from sneaking off to join you. I don't know who they get such a healthy disrespect from."
"I'd say they got a double dose of stubbornness from each parent," Mara surmised. "That's why I left the way I did Kyp. I didn't do it to openly defy you, I just couldn't risk letting them come with me."
"I know, Mara," Kyp said simply.
"How's Leia doing?" Mara asked with concern. When Mara had last seen her the afternoon before she'd left Coruscant, Leia had regained consciousness, but was still shaken by what she'd felt. Mara felt a twinge of guilt that she wasn't there to help her sister-in-law through her crisis.
"She's better," Kyp replied. "She mentioned yesterday that she wanted to get back to work on a limited schedule, but Han won't allow it. I think he plans on keeping her on enforced bed rest until you come back and tell him otherwise."
"I wouldn't worry about that. When Leia's ready she'll get out of bed and there won't be anything Han can do to stop her short of chaining her down," Mara said with a wry smile as she imagined Han trying to accomplish just that. "Tell Han that I said it'll do Leia good to get back to work. Believe me, she can use the distraction."
"I'll relay your message. Good luck, Mara."
"Thanks, Kyp. Mara out," she said as she closed the link and swiveled in her chair to face the navicomputer. A few moments later starlines flared outside the cockpit window as the Jade Dream leapt to hyperspace.
"Let the hunt begin," Mara beamed with anticipation before setting the autopilot and retiring to the makeshift cot that had become her bed.
Mara lost no time making contact with the commanding officer of the New Republic Intelligence office once she entered the Duranis system. Receiving the coordinates, Mara piloted her ship toward the large coastal city situated roughly on the equator of the massive single continent. Though not the only landmass on the planet, it was the only one of sufficient size to warrant the title of continent. Everything else was just labeled an island.
Duranis IV, simply called Duranis by those who lived there since it was the only habitable world in the system, was a temperate world with a largely agrarian economy. The entire system was mineral poor, which had restricted industrial development in the early days of the planet's history. Consequently Duranis didn't experience a technical explosion until it was discovered by scout ships of the Old Republic looking for new worlds to colonize.
In the centuries following its discovery, Duranis became a full-fledged Member of the Old Republic, though its impact on galactic affairs remained minimal at most. There was nothing about the system that attracted anyone else to pull up stakes and settle there. Similarly the citizens of Duranis saw no impelling reason to leave their tranquil lives to quest outward to the stars. Of course there were a few exceptions to this, as there was to every rule, but for the most part life on Duranis remained as it always had been.
Mara was met at the landing pad by a lone figure whose uniform identified him as a Lieutenant Commander in the New Republic Intelligence. As she exited the Jade Dream, Mara was handed an umbrella to fend off the deluge that poured down from above.
"I hope it's not always like this," Mara declared as she followed the Intelligence officer toward the small shelter ahead.
"Just during the rainy season," the Lt. Commander shouted to be heard above the noise of the rain. "They tell me it should stop in another two months."
"Great. Hopefully I'll get out of here before I'm covered with mold," Mara remarked. "Where's Anakin's ship?"
"I've had it placed in a sheltered hangar," the Lt. Commander answered. "The orders came directly from the Chief of State to quarantine that ship until you arrived."
Nice to see Leia's still got some influence with the higher ups, Mara thought to herself. She had no doubt that Leia had thrown her weight around and bullied the Chief of State into giving her what she wanted rather than attempt to cajole the old boy with sweet words and promises of political favors. That was more her style. It also explained why Mara was met by a Lieutenant Commander rather than some anonymous young staffer.
"Were you the one who found it?" Mara asked.
"No, this is my first visit to Duranis. I'm the commanding officer for this whole sector of space. The Durani alerted us that they had a ship matching our description parked on one of their landing fields so I came to personally take a look. We all have to jump when the order comes from up above." the Intelligence officer joked.
"I wouldn't know," Mara replied flatly. "Usually, I am the voice from up above."
Once inside, Mara followed her guide past a series of guarded doors to the lift that led to the underground hangars. It seemed pretty pointless to her for the two of them to ride a platform large enough for freighters since there were undoubtedly smaller lifts or even stairs nearby. It didn't matter to Mara though. If they were going to treat her with such deference, she'd let them.
"There it is," the Lt. Commander indicated just in case Mara didn't have a firm grasp on the obvious. Anakin's ship was the only one in the shelter.
"Has anyone been aboard it?"
"Just me when I piloted it in. The access codes were transmitted along with my orders. I left the hatch unlocked. No one without a security badge is allowed in this structure and no one aside from us has even been down here."
"Well thank you for your help," Mara said absently, dismissing her guide. This was a very personal matter for Mara and she didn't want anyone, whatever his rank and position may be, looking over her shoulder. The Intelligence officer caught Mara's polite dismissal and remained behind as she approached the ship.
Mara had an eerie feeling as she stood alongside Anakin's ship. Though she didn't want to think it, this lone ship in such a cavernous vault didn't feel right. Without the presence of other ships being safely tucked away from the aboveground weather, the shelter took on the feeling of a tomb.
Shaking such thoughts out of her mind, Mara reached for the access button to Anakin's ship. A light touch was all it took to lower the ramp, one more door opened on her way to solving this mystery. Mara had just stepped onto the ramp when the Lt. Commander's voice halted her progress.
"I forgot to mention that I noticed a flashing light on the control board when I brought the ship down. I think someone might have left a message behind."
In the darkness of the unlit cockpit, the tiny flashing red light shone like a beacon. Activating the main lights, Mara tracked down the switch the light belonged to. It was indeed a message as she had been told. With a twinge of apprehension, Mara flipped the switch. There was no holo on the board, just the sound of a familiar voice filling the cockpit.
"Hello, Aunt Mara. I was told you'd be the one to find this. Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. In fact I'm closer than you think, though I know you can't sense me. I finally tracked down the Speaker and learned the truth of his cause. He's anxious to see you. I'm leaving directions to where you can find us. We'll be waiting."
Finally daring to draw a breath, Mara wiped a tear off each cheek. Thank the Maker her nephew was alive and safe. In the beginning this trip had had two purposes: to confirm Anakin's death as well as seek her vengeance on the one known as 'Speaker'. Now, beyond all hope, she might be taking Han and Leia's youngest child home to be with his family once again.
"Good news I take it?" the Intelligence officer asked Mara as she descended the ramp. Not that it took a veteran of New Republic Intelligence to decipher Mara's mood; her face beamed with joy at the news she had received.
"Very," Mara answered. "I'd like to thank you for your assistance Commander... Excuse me, I don't think I ever asked your name."
"Rubierro De La Montoya."
"You have my deepest gratitude, Commander De La Montoya. I wonder if you'd do me the kindness of one more favor."
"Get me a map of this water logged city, I have a meeting tonight and I wouldn't like to get lost."
The directions Anakin left for Mara were very specific. She was to meet Anakin and the Speaker just off the central square of the northwest market district at sundown. Unfortunately for her, Duranis had an abnormally slow planetary rotation and though it was now midday, sundown was still another fourteen hours away. Of course Mara would have to trust the local clocks to determine that, as no one in this forsaken city had seen the sun in weeks.
To pass the time, Mara checked herself in to a small hostel to catch up on her sleep. Over fifty-six standard hours had passed since she had blasted off Coruscant on her quest to find Anakin; fifty-six hours with her brain working in overdrive and not a wink of sleep. It was mental, not physical exhaustion that caught up with Mara as she entered the small room she had rented for only a few credits. Not even bothering to disrobe, she sank onto the too thin mattress that under the current circumstances felt more comfortable than sleeping in zero-g.
Yet even in sleep, Mara's mind wouldn't let her alone. No sooner had she closed her eyes than she found herself once again in the dream, alone on a darkened, rain soaked street. The only difference was that this time she needn't follow the shadowy figure through the alleys. In this vision both figures emerged from the alley to approach, the taller one flanking the shorter one who stood directly before her.
"We've got to stop meeting like this, people might begin to talk," Mara remarked flippantly.
"Then stop coming here," the short one who had identified himself as Speaker in her last dream answered.
"Is that him behind you? Is that Anakin?"
"Why doesn't he show himself?"
"It is necessary that he remain hidden for the time being. When you join us, you will understand."
"Join you? I don't think so," Mara stated defiantly. "I'm here to take him away from you and return him to his family."
"And if he doesn't wish to leave with you, will you force him?" In response to the Speaker's words, the figure of Anakin crossed his arms over his chest and, though he didn't move, gave the impression of anchoring his feet to the cobblestone pavement.
"I don't believe you," Mara uttered. "First you tell me Anakin died; now you tell me he's alive but I can't have him."
"I never said he was dead," the Speaker corrected her. "You asked if I was responsible for what happened to Anakin. What I told you was true."
"Oh, and I suppose you're the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi here to tell me that the truth depends on our point of view."
"I can assure you that I'm not a ghost, and I'm most definitely not Ben Kenobi. Good-bye for now, Mara. We'll meet again soon enough."
Back in her room, Mara bolted out of her bed, wide-awake and irritated. Why did this Speaker keep intruding on her dreams, and why did each encounter leave her with more questions than answers? Determined to get at least some sleep before her impending encounter, Mara settled back onto the bed only to catch a glimpse of the cheap wall clock out of the corner of her eye; it was nearly sundown. The dream had felt like it encompassed only a few minutes, yet somehow in that brief meeting nearly fourteen hours had elapsed. Jumping back up from the bed, Mara hastened out of the room and down to the streets, where only a few blocks ahead Anakin and the Speaker would be waiting for her.
Mara reached the narrow streets of the marketplace just as the sun was setting over the Great Western Ocean. Had Mara arrived on Duranis during the growing season, she would have seen the giant red sun of the Duranis System kiss the water and give the appearance of setting it on fire. At any other time of year, the sunsets here were glorious enough to make even those who lived their entire lives witnessing the sight reason to stop and look again. On clearer days, as the sun sank beneath the horizon, crimsons and golds dominated the skyline while higher up in the clouds, pinks and lavenders hailed the descending curtain of night. Tonight however, the western sky was merely a lighter shade of gray than the rest of the miserable heavens.
Mara arrived at the marketplace to find it deserted, no doubt due to the inclement weather and the approach of night. By now the constant rain had drenched Mara's clothes and given her a slight chill. Despite this, Mara swept her hood back and used her hands to restrain her damp hair so that it wouldn't obstruct her vision. The scene before her was too much like her dream, unsettling her more than she thought possible. Recognizing the entrance to the alley where her guide had always appeared, Mara squinted to get a better look through the downpour and spotted a cloaked figure standing just in the shadows.
Even though she could see someone standing there, Mara was unable to use the Force to find out anything about who it was. She couldn't even sense that she was being blocked. It was as if the person didn't exist.
Yet he did exist, as became apparent when he walked forward from the shadows and removed his own hood. Mara was at once gratified and troubled to see the familiar young face of her nephew only a few feet from her; gratified to see he was safe, yet troubled by the knowledge that something was going on of which she had no understanding.
"I'm glad to see you Aunt Mara. He's been waiting for you for a long time," Anakin said calmly.
"You mean the Speaker. What's this all about, Anakin? Why have you put your family through this?"
"Just come with me. All your questions will be answered."
Without waiting for an answer, Anakin raised his hood and led the way into the shadows of the alley. At first Mara held her ground defiantly, but then hurried after her nephew when she realized Anakin wasn't going to stop. With an incredible feeling of déjà vu, Mara followed him through the twists and turns of the back alleys until they reached a dead end occupied by a lone figure.
Using her senses to their fullest, Mara tried in vain to uncover something about this secretive man known as Speaker. Like Anakin, this man was a blank slate. Just as she was about to halt her probe however, Mara felt a slip from her adversary. It wasn't much, just a twinge that could only be described as nervousness.
"Well here we are, face to face at last," Mara observed aloud to end the silence. She noticed that Anakin had retreated somewhat to allow her and the Speaker to be alone. Mara was surprised to feel her heart beating so heavily within her chest. What was it about this mystery man that he could do this to her? Mara was always in control of herself and didn't like the shivers that were creeping up her spine.
"Yes, at last. It's been far too long," the Speaker replied.
That voice! That's not the voice I heard in my dreams, Mara thought. A dark suspicion entered Mara's mind, one that only served to increase the amount of adrenaline coursing through her veins. Then, just as the realization of the truth seemed obvious, the Speaker withdrew his hood and confirmed what Mara had dared not believe.
At the first glimpse of his sandy brown hair and intense blue eyes, Mara's heart demanded that she run to him and hold him in her arms once more. Pride however halted her progress after a single step. This couldn't be the man she had once loved more than life itself. That man wouldn't have done this to her, wouldn't have remained hidden while his loved ones and the entire galaxy believed him to be dead. This has got to be some mistake, Mara thought. Maybe I'm back in the dream again.
"I can assure you that this is no dream and that I'm real enough," Luke Skywalker declared. Despite the intensity of emotion swirling through the dark alleyway, Luke hadn't stirred one inch from where he stood when Mara first approached. Openly, honestly, with his hands at his side, he awaited Mara's reaction, apparently willing to accept whatever consequences his subterfuge demanded.
"Why?" Mara sobbed from beneath the hand now covering her mouth. "How could you do this to me?"
"Because I had to. Because everything we've struggled to build is falling apart. Because I was the only one who could," Luke stated simply.
Luke still had yet to move, and Mara didn't make another motion to close the remaining distance between them. Separated by a gulf wider than the few meters of cobblestone paving, husband and wife could only stand and stare at one another.
"What does that mean?" Mara asked incredulously, though she didn't really want to hear the answer. Finding out what her husband had deemed more important than his commitment to her might be more than Mara could bear.
"The New Republic. It's falling apart Mara. I've seen what's coming and it isn't pretty. There's only one path that can avoid bloodshed. We have to see that the New Republic disintegrates under its own weight before a civil war begins."
It was too much to hear at once; the return of her dead husband mixed with the announcement of the impending doom of the New Republic. Hurt and confused, Mara had to seek some distance so she could sort out the turbulent whirlwind of her conflicting emotions. Turning her back on Luke, she fled back the way she had come, rainwater mixing freely with the tears that flowed from her eyes. Had she looked back, Mara would have seen Luke take a tentative step forward to follow her before stopping as tears of his own flowed over his hardened features.
The rain had only intensified by the time Mara found her way back to her small room in the hostel. Removing her drenched robe, Mara sat on the edge of the cot and buried her face in her hands. It was too much at once; Luke back and plotting the downfall of the Republic. It was a sensory overload. It was wrong, it didn't make sense.
Surprisingly though, Mara found she had no tears left to cry. Her initial confusion and hurt was now replaced by a steady resolve tinged with anger. How dare he. How dare he do this to her when she had shared everything with him; opened her heart and soul to him like she had never done before for anyone else. The Luke she thought she knew would never be so cruel.
Mara's thoughts drifted to what she would do next. How could she explain this to the Council? Oh by the way, Luke's still alive and plotting the downfall of the Republic with Anakin. And once her fellow Jedi knew, what then? Was there any one of them who would dare stand against their former Master? More than likely Luke would sway others to his cause as he did Anakin. Then what, a battle to determine the future of the New Republic with the Jedi taking both sides?
It infuriated Mara that she had been put in this position, yet another trap in Luke's machinations. From where she sat she could see no path that would lead to the safety and stability of the Republic. If she remained silent about what she now knew, the Republic would likely fall in half a century. If she reported what she knew, it could fall in less than a decade. The worst part about it all was that Luke had done a tremendous job in laying the groundwork for this Separatist agenda. By keeping his friends and family in the dark he had been free to remain behind the scenes and pull the strings which orchestrated this whole turn of affairs. In that respect he had proven himself to be as nimble a political leader as his sister Leia.
Leia. What would her reaction be when she learned that her twin was alive and in the process of destroying everything she had struggled her whole life to create? Briefly Mara laughed at the thought of Luke and Leia alone in the same room while Luke attempted to explain himself. Though he may be the Jedi Master in the family, Mara wouldn't put it past Leia to rip her brother to shreds with her bare hands. This brief moment of levity died however when Mara projected the thought of that sibling feud being carried out across the galaxy as brothers, sisters, families, worlds, and races were torn apart in the struggle to determine which path they would all follow.
"Shouldn't you go after her?" Anakin asked tentatively as he shifted his gaze back and forth from his uncle and the empty alley where Mara had stood just moments before.
"Not just yet," Luke answered. "She'll need some time to sort this out. Pressing her now would only serve to drive her away from us and what we hope to accomplish. Think back to how you felt when I first revealed myself to you."
"I was relieved to see you alive and back among us," Anakin stated.
"Yes, but there was also a part of you that felt betrayed that I kept myself hidden for all this time. Mara is my wife, imagine the betrayal she must be feeling."
"You knew it would happen like this?" Anakin guessed aloud.
"I suspected," Luke confirmed. "Your aunt is a very proud woman, it's part of the reason why I love her so much. My actions have injured that pride and I must be careful to not nurse that injury and cause it to grow into something more. We'll need to give her a bit more time before confronting her with what we know."
"I hope you're right," Anakin declared. "We're playing a game with some high stakes. Mistakes now could doom us all."
Still sitting on the edge of her small bed, Mara neither knew nor cared what time it was. To her it seemed like an eternity since her encounter with Luke. Now physically tired and emotionally exhausted, Mara could only sit there numbly, unsure whether to move forward or to return to the alleys and face Luke again. Now that she'd had time to think, a hundred new questions fought for supremacy.
In the silence of the moment, Mara heard whispered footsteps approach. Though she couldn't sense him, Mara knew who it was. This wasn't how she wanted their second meeting to go. When she returned to Luke to demand the answers that only he held she wanted it to be on her terms, not his. When a gentle hand eased the door open and a questioning face peeked from behind the edge of the door, Mara reacted without a backward glance. With only a thought, Mara hurled Luke into the corridor and slammed the door defiantly.
"Go away Skywalker," Mara said quietly, knowing that he would hear her anyway. "I don't want to see you yet."
Expecting a mild rebuttal, Mara was disappointed when silence was Luke's only answer. Silence meant that he wasn't leaving, and that he was going to insist on being insufferably noble about this. Let him sit there, Mara thought. Nothing he can say will make up for what he has done.
Hoping to repay Luke for some of the misery he had caused her, Mara left him waiting there in the hallway as the minutes, and then hours ticked by. The situation slowly degenerated into a battle of wills; Luke refusing to give up while Mara refused to give in. In the end it took the arrival of Anakin to end the stalemate. With less of a personal stake in the standoff, Anakin forced the issue, along with the door to Mara's room, and brought his aunt and uncle face to face.
"We don't have time for this," Anakin explained, though to whom was a mystery. "Our ship leaves in the morning and we need to be on it. All of us."
"Since when did he get all grown up?" Mara asked with a sidelong glance at Luke. Mara couldn't help but blush slightly at the knowledge that she was being chastened by her nephew. As she looked at Luke, she was oddly gratified to see that his cheeks were reddened as well.
"I wish I knew," Luke responded sadly. Luke had been shocked at the difference between the Anakin Solo of his memory and the Anakin Solo he had recently met again. Perhaps it's a failing of everyone to hold a static picture of their loved ones in their mind while they themselves grow. Whatever the cause of this was, it appeared even a Jedi Master wasn't immune.
"Before I begin, let me first say something I neglected to earlier," Luke said as he grabbed a small stool from the corner of the room and seated himself near his wife. "I'm sorry Mara. I'm sorry for the lie and I'm sorry for the pain I've caused you and everyone else. I hope you'll understand my reasons and maybe forgive me in time, but for now I need you to listen to what I have to tell you."
Mara's pride urged her to refuse to listen to whatever reasons Luke had for his deception, but her curiosity overrode that desire. Instead, she offered no comment and gave no indication of her acceptance other than making herself more comfortable as she prepared to hear Luke out. When she was ready, she merely met Luke with a blank gaze.
Willing to accept this small concession on Mara's part, Luke continued.
"I suppose I should start my story at the battle with the Vong," Luke said after releasing a deep breath. "As you know, I was alone in the nebula struggling to control my damaged ship. The Vong had given up any chance of an effective retreat and dispatched their forces to carry out one vengeful act, my destruction. Alone, with no visual references to guide me, I trusted the Force and my connection with you to guide me to safety, but the odds against me were too great. Several more shots raked my ship, leaving me with collapsed shields and no guidance controls. Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, another line of Vong ships entered the nebula on an intercept course, firing blindly as they came. I realized that I had only one recourse. Using the Force to create a protective bubble around me and my ship, I executed an emergency hyperspace jump just as my path intersected another wave of Vong fighters."
"I regained consciousness hours later. Thankfully Artoo had detected that I was incapacitated and brought my crippled ship out of hyperspace before I traveled halfway across the galactic rim. Confused, beaten, and strapped into a ship that was slowly falling apart, I tried to reconstruct the last clear moments in my memory while simultaneously coming up with a plan to save myself before my X-Wing's dwindling oxygen supplied settled the matter for me. What bothered me most was that I wasn't able to use the Force clearly. I don't know how to explain it except to say that everything seemed muted and fuzzy. It was as if I was trying to see while my face was covered with a coarse blanket. I tried to call out for help but was unable. Since then I've come to understand what prevented me from fully accessing the Force, but I admit that at the time, fear of dying alone in the darkness of space crept up my spine."
"My X-Wing was nearly useless. The only things that functioned on the ship were Artoo, a few navigational thrusters, the hyperdrive, and me. The biggest problem was that without the navicomputer or the Force, any hyperspace jump I made would have as good a chance of killing me as saving me. However, left without any other options, I had Artoo take a rough star reading to estimate our position, pointed the nose of my ship toward what we hoped was the nearest occupied system, and prayed."
"It took four jumps before I finally entered the outer fringes of the sparsely populated system. My situation was much improved, but still nothing to get excited about. Dying while in sight of the finish line is no different than dying out in the middle of nowhere. Somehow Artoo and I managed to reconfigure enough power to the subspace antenna to transmit a distress call. Now all we needed was for a ship to pass within two light-hours of our position and answer the call before I suffocated. With Artoo on watch, I slipped into a hibernation trance unsure of whether I'd ever awaken again. My last thoughts before going under were of you and how you'd been the one to find me before under similar circumstances. Crossing my fingers and hoping that history could repeat itself, I closed my eyes and began the process of slowing down my bodily functions to the point where I was more dead than alive."
"It took nearly three standard days before a pair of freighters answered the distress beacon. Awakened by Artoo I fought down waves of nausea as I choked on the foul tasting air in my X-Wing's cockpit and answered the hail from the other ships. The two ships were owned by a local gang lord and I think they were a bit disappointed to find me still alive. Even shot to hell my little fighter had more salvage value to them than I did. We finally struck a bargain. In return for relinquishing all claims on my ship they agreed to drop me off at the nearest spaceport. I quickly understood the reason for their generosity, as the crew of the larger freighter tore into my X-Wing as soon as it was securely in the cargo hold in an attempt to retrieve any proton torpedoes I might still be carrying. I was relieved that I had used all my torpedoes against the Vong and wouldn't have to live with the knowledge that I had supplied a group of criminals with advanced weapons. I suppose I shouldn't speak too ill of my rescuers since, despite their disappointment, they held to their part of our deal and deposited me at the nearest spaceport they felt safe landing at. On my own and finally safe, I used a few of my limited credits to buy myself a hot meal while I contemplated my next move."
"But I don't understand Luke," Mara interrupted with a look that was a mixture of anger and frustration. "Why didn't you call to let us know you were alive?"
"Because those three days I spent in hibernation weren't just three days of empty sleep," Luke explained. "I was visited by a pair of old friends who showed me visions of what the future held for the New Republic. With the knowledge of what was destined to happen, I took some time before I made the most difficult decision of my life."
"During that time," Luke continued, "the spirits of my two former teachers showed me the possible futures for the New Republic. In some of these futures, the New Republic gradually withers and dies, taking with it in its death throes any hopes that a galaxy wide government would eventually reform."
"Many of the futures aren't even this bright. There's a better than even chance that there is another war coming. A war so terrible because this time there will be no alliances as every system will fight against its neighbors for independence and preeminence."
"But can't this be stopped?" Mara asked, wanting to deny the outrageousness of Luke's claims. Her heart trembled, though, as the possibility of his words sank in. "Surely with strong leaders like you sister the government can be held together."
"I'm afraid not," Luke answered calmly. "The damage has already been done. The harder the government struggles to hold itself together the harder the individual systems will fight against it. The fall of the New Republic is already fated to happen Mara, all we're trying to do is ensure the outcome of this collapse doesn't result in a galaxy wide bloodbath."
"Why? Why must this happen?" Mara implored, unaware that she'd already begun to accept Luke's words as truth.
"It will happen because of the Empire. An entire generation - my generation - was born under the yoke of Imperial domination. Things like initiative, self-reliance, responsibility, and tolerance were suppressed for the greater glory of the Empire. Different races were pitted against each other; hatred and bigotry became virtues. These prejudices were ingrained into us from birth. With the establishment of the New Republic these vices were suddenly out of favor, but the feelings lurk just under the surface of more people than you might think. The smallest trigger is all that's needed to turn these prejudices into actions. Once it begins, the reprisals will be endless. The galaxy will be plunged into an age of darkness from which it may never return."
"But if your plan succeeds, then what?" Mara demanded. She prayed that Luke wouldn't have put her through such pain if there weren't some hope for the future.
"Then we wait. In a century or two the galaxy will be ready to try again. The races with longer life spans will still be here to show us the way, along with the Jedi. When the time is right, the Jedi will bring the galaxy together once more to form a society that will live in peace and glory for eons to come. That is our hope, that is why we do what we do."
"It just feels wrong," Mara argued. "How can we just give up when so many of our friends have fought and died to establish the New Republic? Do their deaths mean nothing to you?"
No sooner had the words passed her lips than Mara futilely wished she could call them back. No one knew better than she did the lifetime of pain and loss Luke had endured. Now with a few casual words she had thrown all that pain back at him like a slap across the face. What made it worse was the obvious impact her words had on Luke. He appeared to almost to deflate before her. Hollow, burned out eyes replaced the diamond blue eyes that were always so full of life. Then, with a little of his old strength seeming to return, Luke struggled to his feet.
"I...I shouldn't have said that," Mara stammered as she rose to her feet too. Tentatively reaching out to steady Luke, Mara searched for the words to take back what she had already said. "I didn't mean it to sound that way. Luke, please don't leave now."
"It's all right," Luke said hoarsely as he balanced himself against the doorframe. "You didn't say anything I haven't already said to myself. You have a decision to make, I'll leave you to it."
Saying no more, Luke left Anakin and Mara alone. For a moment all either of them could do was stand and listen as his hollow footsteps announced his departure. But rather than the confident strides of a born leader, the echoes revealed the unsure steps of a broken man.
"The Thrain leaves orbit in the morning," Anakin said softly. "It's an old Corvette he's hired to transport himself and some of the other Separatist leaders around so they could spread the word. Please be on it."
"I will," Mara declared while wiping the tears off her cheeks. "Go now. He shouldn't be alone Anakin, not after what I just did to him."
"It'll be all right," Anakin said consolingly. "He's the strongest person I know."
"I'm sorry Anakin," Mara said as her nephew reached the door, her strained voice barely above a whisper. "I'm so sorry for what I said."
"I know, and so does he."
Alone in her room once again, Mara couldn't help but despise how cruel Fate could be. In the days following the final battle with the Vong, when she still held out hope that her husband was somehow alive, Mara had imagined how her reunion with Luke would go. In her imaginings she'd covered him with kisses and held on to him so tightly than neither of them could draw breath. For a long time it had been a lingering, but fading hope. Yet even in her worst nightmares, Mara couldn't envision a reunion going more wrong than this.
It was the only thing I ever prayed for, that he and I might someday be together again. Now, beyond all hope, that day has miraculously come and I drive another wedge between us, Mara accused herself bitterly. Why did I say such a thing to him?
In her heart though, Mara knew the reason why. The belief that her husband was dead had been the deepest pain in her life, until it was eclipsed by the knowledge that he had survived his ordeal but had not returned to her. The truth had compounded the pain of the lie, and a small part of Mara had wanted to hurt him back; pain for pain, hurt for hurt.
Only now that the act was done, Mara felt empty inside. There was no satisfaction in hurting the man she loved, and Mara didn't doubt for a moment that she still loved Luke. If she didn't still love him, the wound wouldn't have cut so deep. But was love enough?
"I must be the biggest fool in the galaxy," Mara said to no one but herself. "Who else would throw away a second chance like this without a moment's thought?"
"If you're going to hand out awards for the galaxy's biggest fool, perhaps I should receive the prize," a gentle but powerful voice spoke from nowhere, yet everywhere at the same time. Searching for the source of the words that had interrupted her self-reproach, Mara's attention was caught by a glowing apparition from the corner of the room.
"Let me guess, you must be Obi-Wan Kenobi."
"Guilty as charged, and guilty of more things that you may ever know," the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi said with startling honesty.
"I guessed from Luke's reference to 'two old friends' that you had your hands in this, so to speak."
"Yes, I helped to show Luke what the future might hold," Obi-Wan admitted. "It is Luke's unfortunate burden to set right the mistakes of the past. That burden has cost him terribly, and now it has cost you as well."
"That's it?" Mara asked incredulously. "You screw up training Vader so now Luke and I have to suffer?"
"Yes," Obi-Wan answered evenly.
For a second Mara was taken back by Kenobi's honesty. She had expected the ghostly image to attempt to evade his responsibility, to shift the blame elsewhere. Obi-Wan Kenobi did no such thing. Facing Mara with a dignity that must have been awe inspiring in life, Obi-Wan had the unflinching gaze of a man who knew exactly who he was, who accepted his faults as well as his merits, for he knew that a man was as much a product of his failings as he was of his virtues.
"So you've got Luke to do your dirty work," Mara accused her visitor. "Why do I have to be dragged into this now? Why wasn't I good enough to help him from the start?"
"Because Luke loves you too much; because he couldn't have done what was necessary with you by his side. These past few years have been exhausting for him, and the work of spreading the Separatist movement required his full attention. Had you been with him, Luke would have been constantly torn between your happiness and the future of the galaxy. Faced with that decision, Luke would have chosen you."
"So why now?" Mara asked, much of the bitterness gone from her voice.
"Luke's work is nearly done. The wheels he has set in motion will soon be able to go on without him. If he succeeds, his life's work will be done. The New Republic will fall peacefully so that it may one day rise again. When that happens, the errors of the past will be wiped away and a new slate will be written. Although Luke won't live to see that day, the boy still has many years ahead of him and he shouldn't face them alone. Luke's suffered enough, and only you can ease the guilt and pain he feels. The question is, will you let go of your own pain and give Luke one last chance at happiness?"
"This is the Jade Dream requesting permission to dock," Mara spoke into the intercom a little louder than necessary.
"This is the Thrain; permission granted. We've been expecting you Jade Dream," an unknown voice responded.
Too large to fit in the modified Corvette's tiny hangar, Mara's ship maneuvered toward the ventral docking clamp just forward of the larger ships massive engines. The shudder of contact followed by the reverberating thunk of the clamps locking in place was better than any gauges at informing Mara of the successful docking, although those same gauges reported the completion of the docking maneuver anyway. Shutting down everything but the most basic functions of the Jade Dream, Mara made her way to the dorsal hatch of her own ship. Following a quick cycle of air through the lock, both hatches were opened and Mara climbed the ladder into the Thrain.
"Welcome to the Thrain. I'm Captain Soscha Korrel," the tall, raven-haired woman said in greeting, though she didn't extend her hand to Mara.
Mara had expected Luke to be there to greet her, since she had agreed to travel with him for a time to learn more about what he was attempting to do. Though she didn't want to admit it, her heart had beat just a little faster when she'd caught a glimpse of Jedi robes as she'd made her way up the ladder and had been disappointed when she realized it was only Anakin.
"Thank you Captain, my name is Mara."
"If the Captain doesn't mind, I'll show you to your quarters myself," Anakin volunteered, obviously attempting to excuse himself and Mara from the Captain so they could speak privately.
"Not a problem," Soscha indicated, secretly relieved to get back to the bridge of her ship. There were too many passengers lately for her liking, and now she had another ship latched onto hers. When the one known as the Speaker had informed her that there'd be another ship coming and that it'd have to dock alongside, Soscha had immediately doubled her fee. When the Speaker paid without argument, she kicked herself for not demanding triple. "I've got to set a plot for those new coordinates you gave me."
"So what now?" Mara asked once she and Anakin were alone.
"I'll help you get settled. Our destination is Chandrila. There we'll meet with a group of people who share our cause. You'll be allowed to observe, though Uncle Luke does ask that you don't wear your Jedi robes or lightsaber to the meeting. Jedi tend to make these Separatists a tad skittish. Believe me I know." Anakin finished with a laugh.
"Do the people on this ship know who I am?" Mara wondered aloud.
"Yes, and they've been told that you're here to dissuade me from this foolish choice I've made."
"And who exactly are 'they'?"
"The inner circle of the Separatist movement. They know who you and I are, but they don't know the true identity of the Speaker, though a few are beginning to suspect the truth. Uncle Luke's meeting with them right now to calm them down about your being here. If they only knew, huh?"
"Your uncle seems to be good at keeping secrets," Mara remarked with equal measures of respect and bitterness. "Let me get my travel bag and you can escort me to my quarters. Will I be allowed to meet with this 'inner circle' while I'm on board?"
"Not yet," Anakin declared. "We thought it'd be better if they come to trust you a little first. After that, you'll be free to speak with whomever you like. If you tried to talk to them now they'd just ignore you anyway."
"That's fine by me. I doubt we'd have much to talk about," Mara stated before disappearing back into her ship to fetch a few of her belongings.
"Don't be so sure," Anakin said quietly to the now empty room.
The next five days were a blur as the Thrain crisscrossed the galaxy. Mara got to see first hand the breadth and scope of what the Separatists were attempting to accomplish. Contrary to the fears Leia had expressed to her only a week before, these beings did not advocate a violent overthrow of the New Republic. They simply didn't want a single set of laws governing the entire galaxy. To them every system should be sovereign and able to set its own rules.
At her side through all of this was Anakin. Though at first she suspected that her nephew was assigned to keep an eye on her, Mara soon came to the conclusion that Anakin was there solely to provide companionship for her. The 'inner circle' continued to ignore her even though they'd dropped much of their distrust for her. Captain Korrel and her small crew were too busy trying to keep up with the frenetic pace of the campaign for anything more than a polite word in passing. Of Luke, Mara saw very little.
In fact, if one excluded shuttle trips and the closed-door meetings with the planetary Separatist groups, Mara really didn't see him at all. Luke seemed to be entirely at the disposal of his advisors and spent every spare moment either in counsel with them or in his private quarters. Once Mara did see him in the ship's crowded mess hall, but even then he'd been surrounded by his advisors, listening to them drone on while he chased his meal around the plate.
Finally Mara decided she'd had enough. Other than Anakin, everyone seemed intent on avoiding her, and even he seemed distracted of late. Determined to find the reason for these bizarre circumstances, Mara cornered her nephew in his room at the end of the ship's day.
"What's going on?" she demanded in her Jedi Master voice, the voice guaranteed to brook no evasions.
"What do you mean?" Anakin asked, trying to appear casual.
Despite the fact that she couldn't sense his emotions, Mara was woman enough to know that something was going on that Anakin didn't like. Lately he never looked her in the eyes and spoke to her only when necessary. Even now he looked around the room, fumbling for something to do other than talk to his aunt.
"Don't give me that Anakin," Mara warned. "I'm not blind, I can see what's going on. You invite me on this crusade of yours so that I can see the necessity of it, but I'm treated like an outcast while I'm here. Back on Duranis, the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi appears, urging me to forgive Luke so we can have another chance at happiness, but your uncle appears to be doing everything he can to avoid me. I could be ignored just as well back on Coruscant as out here. I've kept my part of the bargain and ignored the calls of the Jedi Council. I think I deserve some answers. So I'll ask you again, what's going on?"
"I don't know," Anakin admitted as he slumped into a corner chair. "When I finally tracked Uncle Luke down, he explained to me how I must stay with him because it meant that you would follow. Even though I couldn't sense his thoughts, I could tell that he was eager to see you again. You should have seen him when we reached Duranis, he looked like Jacen did before his first date. Something's changed in him since then. Have you seen him lately?"
"Just briefly in the corridor this morning," Mara said as she also took a seat. "I wasn't watching where I was going and I bumped into him rounding a corner. He mumbled an apology and took off. About all I saw of him was his back as he walked away. Why?"
"I fear our mission is taking too much out of him. He seems to have lost weight recently and he lacks his usual energy. I don't think he's eaten or slept since you came on board."
"So you think I'm the cause of this?" Mara asked. The unwanted memory of her last meeting with Luke on Duranis flashed through her mind. She could recall in exquisite detail the look on his face when she accused him of dishonoring the memory of their fallen friends. Was this the cause of the change in Luke? Were her words responsible for his change in character?
"I don't believe so," Anakin stated, answering Mara's unasked questions.
"I wish you'd stop that," Mara said. "It's not only rude, but it's frustrating as hell to have somebody read your thoughts when you can't read theirs."
"I'm sorry," Anakin apologized. "It's just that that's not the feeling I get. When we returned here that night, he seemed like his old self. He made the arrangements with Captain Korrel for you to dock your ship as well as giving you a room somewhat apart from the rest of us so you could have your privacy if you wished it. It's only since we left Duranis that I began to notice a change in him."
"So you think it's my presence on this ship that's troubling him?"
"Yes, but not for the reasons you might think. The other day I was with him in the corridor discussing the arrangements for the meeting on Malastare when suddenly he stopped. You were approaching Mara, but before you could reach us, we changed direction and took an alternate route to the meeting room. If I had to guess, I'd say he's afraid of you, though I can't imagine why."
If it hadn't been for the seriousness of the situation, Mara would have laughed at the insinuation that Luke was afraid of her. Luke was never scared of anything; that was the one constant in his life. How else could one explain a callow youth piloting his snubfighter at full speed down the trench of the Empire's ultimate weapon? Could a person who knew fear have rushed to Cloud City to face Darth Vader in a daring attempt to save his friends. And in possibly the greatest act of bravery ever, who else would have surrendered his weapon and his life on the possibility that a tiny fragment of the good man who was Anakin Skywalker still lived somewhere inside Darth Vader? No. It wasn't possible, Mara thought. Luke Skywalker had shown more times than anyone could count that nothing could frighten him. It was patently absurd to think that she could.
"Where is he now?" Mara demanded as she rose to her feet.
"He retired to his quarters an hour ago," Anakin answered. "He said he didn't want to be disturbed."
"Well that's too bad," Mara said as she purposely strode toward the door. "It's time to put an end to this. This ship is too small for us to keep dancing around each other. One way or another, we're going to settle this issue tonight."
Fortunately, the corridors of the Thrain were empty as Mara made her way to Luke's quarters; the last thing she needed at the moment was to be distracted. As it was, the resolve which had been so high when she left Anakin's quarters was withering with each step. What was she going to do, barge into Luke's room and demand answers? If he didn't want to see her, would she force the issue? It was just as well that it was such a short walk. If this had been a Cruiser she might have lost her nerve.
Bracing herself for whatever was about to come, Mara released the breath she didn't even know she had been holding and knocked on the door to Luke's suite. When no response was forthcoming Mara knocked again, much less politely.
"I know you're in there so you might as well open the door," Mara barked, her words echoing loudly in the hallway. The way Mara saw it, she had two courses of action. If Luke didn't want to open the door, she could use the Force to activate the door switch from the other side. If that failed there was always the lightsaber back in her quarters.
The quiet hum of the opening door removed the necessity for those more extreme measures and Mara entered an empty, half-lit room. Standing in the rectangle of light that spilled in from the corridor, Mara gazed about the room, searching for her husband. When the door closed behind her and her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, Mara was able to make out the Luke's shadowed form as he sat with his back to her in the entrance to the adjoining room, his body half hidden by the frame of the doorway.
"You shouldn't have come," Luke said flatly, not moving an inch from where he sat.
"Anakin's worried about you," Mara responded, glad that Luke had spoken first. Despite her determination to settle the issue, she had had absolutely no idea what she would say. "He feels you're giving too much of yourself to this crusade. I wanted to ask if you were okay."
"I meant you shouldn't have come to Duranis."
"How can you say that?" Mara exclaimed. Much to her own surprise, Mara found that rather than being hurt by this remark, she was angered. Unwilling to just walk away, Mara stormed into the other room to confront him. If Luke was going to push her away, he could at least look her in the face when he did it.
Mara had a stinging retort waiting to be delivered, when she turned to face Luke and immediately forgot everything she was going to say. Anakin had told her of his suspicions that his uncle was neither eating nor sleeping since she had come on board, but that didn't prepare her for what she saw. The Luke sitting before looked like a gross caricature of the man she knew. This man's cheekbones stood out much too prominently and were contrasted by his sunken eyes and temples. In the darkened light, loose skin appeared to hang from his jaw line.
"Oh my... What's happened to you?" Mara barely managed to ask, so great was her shock. Immediately she wondered how she could not have noticed this change coming over Luke. She had been on the same ship with him for Decency's sake. Kneeling before him and taking his cold hands in her own, Mara looked at him more closely, and only then noticed the quiet trail of tears running down his face.
"I can't do this. It's too hard," Luke's voice cracked.
"Can't do what, Luke? Lead the Separatist movement?"
"No, I can't be on the same ship with you," Luke whispered, the tears threatening to overcome him. "It was hard enough when we were apart and I could feel you reach out to me every night in your dreams but couldn't reach back to comfort you without compromising the work I had chosen to do. Now, with you here, I'm reminded every minute of every day of the hurt I've done to you. You deserve better than what I've put you through. You deserve better than me."
"Don't say that," Mara consoled him, choking back tears of her own. "In all my life, you're the best man I've ever met. You're good and you're decent. I couldn't imagine a better man than you."
Unable, or perhaps unwilling to accept Mara's words, Luke lowered his head and stared at the floor. What he couldn't keep from her though was the wellspring of emotions threatening to break through his carefully constructed walls. Suddenly Mara was able to sense Luke's thoughts and feelings as they briefly overpowered the barriers he had placed between himself and the outside world. Regret, sadness, and despair all came through, along with a keen sense of self-hatred overriding it all.
"Oh Luke," Mara whispered tenderly. "What have they done to you?" At that moment Mara would have given anything for Obi-Wan Kenobi to show his face again. Though it would be impossible to harm him physically, Mara could think of a few words that would surely burn the old ghost's ears.
"Luke, I want you to show me what you've seen," Mara said as she lifted his face so he looked at her once again. "I need to see what it is that you're fighting against."
Placing a hand on each side of Mara's face, Luke opened his mind to hers and showed her the vision of that future in which the galaxy tore itself apart in a seemingly endless river of blood. The inevitable attempts of the New Republic military to put down the flood of secession and hold the government together sparked bitter reprisals as system after system pulled away.
In the crumbling Senate, back room alliance were made and broken daily as officials sought to use the turmoil to elevate their worlds to prominence. Public trust in the institutions of government quickly eroded and attention to the brewing crisis faded as the general populace turned away from what was going on elsewhere in the galaxy. Without public support, even the greatest leaders of the New Republic were unable to stem the tide of war and disintegration. When it was over, countless billions were consumed by the death throes of the New Republic.
"It's even more horrible than you said it was," Mara said as much to herself as to Luke. There was no longer any doubt in her mind that Luke was doing the right thing. If he could prevent that grisly future from happening, that was more important than any hurt feelings on her part. Helping Luke to his feet, Mara reached out to hold him, to comfort him, to let him know it was all right. For a moment Luke accepted Mara's support before frantically pushing her away and retreating to the corner.
"Leave, Mara. Please leave," Luke sobbed as he slowly sank to the floor. Though his barriers were still up, they could do nothing to contain the flood of emotions Luke had kept bottled up for too long. So great and varied was this torrent that even a Jedi Master of Mara's skill could do nothing to sort through it. She knew that all she could do was be there for Luke until he worked it through for himself. Despite his pleas for her to leave him, Mara approached Luke slowly, making it clear that she wasn't going anywhere.
"It's all going to end because of me," Luke cried out. "I didn't...you can't..." Whatever else Luke Skywalker wanted to say was lost to the tears which overcame him once more. By now Mara was kneeling before him, and Luke allowed her to take his hands and draw him closer to her. Placing his head on her shoulder, Mara held her husband tightly while he sobbed uncontrollably.
"Shhh," Mara whispered as she stroked the back of his head. "It'll be all right Luke. You did the right thing."
Mara could feel Luke's arms as they slid around her and gripped her tightly, almost as if he was trying to physically draw strength from her. For the eternity of a minute they remained like that. Alone together on the floor of a spaceship, they rocked back and forth, Luke pouring out his grief while Mara was the anchor which held him firm. When he was finally able to speak again, Luke's words touched Mara more deeply than she ever thought possible."
"I'm sorry Mara," he cried into her shoulder. "I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to do it."
Mara awoke some time later. Confused at first by the unfamiliar surroundings, she relaxed as her memories of only a few hours before reasserted themselves. Images of the great Jedi Master breaking down under the weight of the guilt he had carried with him for nearly two years came first, followed by the vision Luke had shared with her of the near apocalyptic future he was still ceaselessly working to avoid. In his grief and self-loathing at knowing that he was secretly tearing down what so many had fought and died to build, Luke had tried to push her away. Mara, however, was not one to be pushed away or told what to do. Inborn stubbornness had its advantages.
When his crisis of conscience was over, Mara had helped Luke into the bed in which, according to Anakin's suspicions, he hadn't slept in for more than five days. As she had tried to leave, Luke's hand had grabbed her own and in a small voice he had asked her stay with him. So Mara had laid down beside him as he drifted asleep, succumbing to his self-imposed exhaustion. Now that she was awake again, Mara noticed that their hands were still tightly clutched together and she wondered which one of them had refused to let go while they slept.
Looking at the face of the man who despite it all was still her husband, Mara noticed the change in him from the previous evening. Though his countenance could not portray a sense of innocence - Luke Skywalker had lost any vestiges of innocence long before Mara Jade had entered his life - she could detect an aura of peace emanating from him. Luke had known what he was getting himself into when he agreed to this quest, and now it seemed that he was coming to terms with the upcoming results of his actions. Mara prayed that as others learned of what he had done, they would understand as she now did.
Sliding quietly from atop the bed, Mara rubbed her eyes to help her fully awaken and smoothed the clothes that had become rumpled while she slept. Snuggling herself down into the chair which Luke had occupied when she first arrived, Mara paused to reflect on the whirlpool of events surrounding the past day and week.
There was no doubt she'd had better days. A husband returning from the dead and leading a movement intended to cause the downfall of the galaxy wide government sounded like a plot from a bad holovid. Nevertheless, her unlikely position was real enough and she needed to decide where to go from there. As she saw it, there were only two paths: one with Luke, the other without.
Luke had tried to make the decision for her last night when he demanded that she leave him. Using standard male logic, Luke had tried to keep his suffering to himself rather than let another shoulder some of his burden. What is it about men that makes them do this? Mara wondered. Is asking for a woman's help so difficult that they would rather hang on to the pain instead?
Luke's actions reminded Mara of the aftermath of Chewbacca's death in the early days of the Vong War. That loss had nearly destroyed Han and Leia's marriage when Han shoved away everyone who loved him as he struggled to come to terms with the loss of his co-pilot and best friend. Time and a patient wife had solved the problem for Han. Mara laughed at herself as she wondered whether Luke had either of those luxuries. The past six days had demonstrated how much of Luke's time was wrapped up in this crusade, and Mara didn't exactly have the best track record when it came to patience.
Mara was tempted to make a martyr of her injured pride by refusing Luke and launching the fight to hold the New Republic together despite the dire predictions of Luke and his ghostly companions. Emperor Palpatine had believed in such things as fate and destiny; the last time Mara checked he was nothing more than a few random particles orbiting a forest moon. Your destiny was what you made it.
Yet despite her misgivings about Luke's task, Mara was honest enough with herself to admit that she would rather face a future with him than without him. He was the only man she had ever loved, her husband through good times and bad. Granted the bad column had vastly outweighed the good lately, but she had survived all that and it would be a shame to bail out now. When things can't get any worse, they can only get better, or at least that was Mara's hope.
Along with the realization that she had already made her decision came a feeling of completeness. During her days as the Emperor's Hand if anyone had told her that she would become the wife of Darth Vader's son, that person would have been answered with either a laugh or a strategically placed knife. Now, Mara couldn't help but smile as she gazed upon the features of her sleeping husband. She had had enough of the pain of living without him. At that moment, nothing existed outside that room.
Nothing, however, refused to be ignored. With a touch of annoyance, Mara got up from her chair and prepared to head off her approaching nephew. It wasn't until she reached the door that the implication of it hit her. She had sensed Anakin's approach. Bewildered, Mara could manage nothing more than a wide-eyed stare when the door opened.
"Is he awake?" Anakin asked as he tried to edge around Mara to enter Luke's quarters. Although puzzled, Mara was still alert enough block his entry. Placing a hand on his chest, Mara pushed Anakin out into the hallway. He wasn't going anywhere near Luke until she got some answers.
"What's going on now?" Mara demanded once the doors had closed behind her and she could speak without fear of waking Luke.
"What? Oh this," Anakin said. "It turns out I don't need to hide myself anymore."
"Really?" Mara asked with just a touch of sarcasm "Decided that for yourself did you?"
"Not entirely," Anakin admitted. "You and Uncle Luke aren't the only ones who can receive 'visitors' you know."
The obvious allusion to Obi-Wan Kenobi immediately sparked Mara's interest. She had been looking forward to another meeting with the old Jedi. Now it appeared that he was going to route his messages through Anakin.
"What does he want?"
"He said Luke's work is done. We're going home to Coruscant."
Mara returned to the bridge of the Thrain just in time to see the starlines revert to pinpoints of light. For the last hour Mara had been busy moving her things back into her own ship, which was still docked underneath the Corellian Corvette, and warming up the engines of the Jade Dream. The Separatist Inner Circle was understandably reticent about remaining too long in the capital system of the New Republic, so as soon as Mara's ship detached, Captain Korrel would immediately return to hyperspace. Besides that, they had no business on Coruscant; this was to be a family reunion.
Mara garnered more than a few second looks from Soscha Korrel and her crew when she strode in wearing her Jedi robes, a lightsaber dangling from her belt. She ignored them and came up behind Anakin, who appeared to be lost in a dream. Now that he was no longer concealing his presence, Anakin was once again free to join in the rapport he shared with his brother and sister. For a moment, Mara was tempted to reach out to catch a glimpse of the bond these young Jedi shared, but quickly decided against such an intrusive act. Not that she really needed to, the look on Anakin's face said it all.
"Ready whenever you are," Captain Korrel informed Mara as she continued to eye the other woman's clothes and weapon.
"Thank you Captain," Mara returned as she took Anakin by the arm. "Just let me grab this one and we'll be out of your hair."
"I'm going to miss the bonus pay of dragging your ship along," Soscha lied. Mara smiled and accepted the polite deception. No captain who took even the slightest amount of pride in her ship liked to have it altered in any way, and there was nothing more intrusive than having another ship stuck alongside your own.
Mara and Anakin were nearly to the door that sealed off the bridge when it opened and Luke Skywalker entered. It was the first time Mara had seen Luke since she left his quarters that morning, and she was surprised to find that she was a bit uncomfortable to be near him. Perhaps it was the way his soul had been laid bare the night before, or maybe it was the thrilling anticipation that they were closer to once again being husband and wife. Whatever it was, Mara could do nothing to rid her face of the nervous smile which threatened to grow wider. Instead, she lowered her gaze and pulled Anakin towards the door.
"I'm ready whenever you are," Mara called back to Luke over her shoulder before leaving for her ship.
"Why do I get the feeling there's a lot more going on here than I know?" Soscha Korrel asked as Luke approached her.
"Maybe you're too suspicious. Maybe you're looking for something that isn't there," Luke suggested.
"Maybe I'm right," Soscha argued. "Whatever the case, I'm sorry to see you go. You always paid on time."
"Did Anakin give you the coordinates for the rendezvous?"
"Bespin. Two standard weeks."
"Then I'll be on my way," Luke said. "Good-bye Captain, and thanks."
The rest of the Solo family waited impatiently atop the Jedi Temple as the Jade Dream slowly settled to a landing. Anakin didn't make them wait any longer than necessary. Mara watched from the cockpit as Leia ran to meet her youngest child as soon as he was clear of the ramp. It soon became a group hug when Jaina and Jacen joined in, and though Han stood back for the moment, his joy was obvious behind his normally stoic face.
So much for the good news, Mara thought as she completed engine shut down and headed aft. In the area designated as the ship's Commons, because it was too small to be considered a lounge, Mara found Luke waiting. Like Mara, he didn't appear anxious to spoil the happy mood of their family and friends.
"Come on," Mara said before taking Luke by the hand. "We need to get out there and rescue Anakin from your sister."
"And who's going to rescue me when Leia finds out what I've already done, and what Anakin has yet to do?"
"Since when does the great Jedi Master need someone to save him?" Mara teased. "No more stalling, let's get this over with."
They were halfway down the ramp when Mara overheard Jacen ask his brother about the sudden breaking of their sibling bond and its equally unexpected return. Rather than answer, Anakin gestured to the ramp of the Jade Dream as Mara came into view, with her husband in tow.
Mara had thought she was prepared for any reaction on the part of the Solo family and the Jedi Council to Luke's return from the dead, but she found the total silence unnerving to say the least. Mara remembered that it had only taken her a few seconds before she had begun demanding answers of Luke. So far, nobody here could say a word. All they offered were looks of doubt and suspicion.
"We should discuss this inside," Luke said quietly to Mara as he squeezed her hand affectionately. At this prompting, Mara led the way past Han and Leia and through the assembled Jedi Council as it parted for them to pass. Once inside the Council Chamber, Luke and Mara stood together in the center of the circle of seats and waited for their peers to file in. The last to enter was Kyp Durron, who cast a few tentative looks at his former Master and the seat designating the head of the Jedi Council, as if he was wondering if he had the right to claim that seat in Master Skywalker's presence. Luke, for his part, made no gesture and eventually Kyp took his seat.
"Look who I found," Mara said lightly, hoping to break the mood that was nearly suffocating the room.
"No offense, Mara," Kam Solusar began, "but are you sure that man is who he appears to be? I can detect nothing from him. It's as if he's a blank slate. I want so badly to believe that Master Skywalker is once again standing before me, but I must have absolutely no doubt."
"That can be remedied," Luke proclaimed. With that, Luke closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. Standing next to him, Mara could almost physically feel the Force cocoon that enveloped her husband unravel and fade away. When it was gone, the Jedi Master stood before the group in all his brilliance, his full power radiating from every pore until it seemed to fill the room. The barriers now gone, Mara could once again sense the man she loved; his remorse, his pain, and his enduring resolve to persevere despite the cost to himself.
"Forgive me, Master," Kam formally apologized. "We had to be certain."
"How did you do that?" Kyp Durron asked, finally breaking his silence.
"By accident," Luke explained. "During that final battle against the Vong, when death seemed imminent, I constructed a protective bubble around myself and my ship. In my panic, I overshot the mark and instead re-wove the fabric of the Force around me, effectively cutting myself off from the rest of the universe. It was some time before I learned what I had done and I don't recommend it. Despite the advantages of becoming invisible to other Force adepts, the only power I seemed to retain was the ability to see visions."
"So the effect is roughly comparable to being surrounded by ysalimiri?" Tionne asked, intrigued by the possibility of what she was hearing.
"Basically, but with one exception. When I needed to, I could open a small window into the world outside me."
"But why was it necessary to stay hidden from us?" Leia asked. "Do you know what you've put your family through? And then, when some of us are still struggling to come to terms with your death, Anakin disappears on his quest to uncover the identity of the Separatist leader..."
Mara thought she could almost see the sparks as Leia's mind made the connections for her. The odds of Anakin and Luke just happening to cross paths were so remote it was laughable - unless Luke was the man Anakin had been searching for all along.
"You? You're the one behind this?" Leia accused as she finally approached Luke. Anyone who didn't know better would have thought Luke and Leia were bitter enemies rather than brother and sister. Leia's jaw hung halfway open in stunned amazement while anger danced in her eyes. Luke, for his part, stood his ground despite the threatening finger leveled at him.
"Yes," Luke answered. "Leia, you know as well as I do that the Republic won't hold itself together for much longer. Internal dissension is building and will someday tear the galaxy apart. I've seen the future and the New Republic is in danger."
"Yes, there are some problems," Leia admitted reluctantly, "but we've come through worse. I don't see the sudden need to pitch the whole system just because of a few troublemakers."
"It's more than that and you know it," Luke countered. "Tell me that the government hasn't already noticed the beginnings of dissension between the different races. Tell me that you haven't already noticed the government itself fracturing along those same lines."
"Well if you know so much about the future, then tell me how this Separatist movement is going to save the New Republic?" Leia demanded, somehow managing to sound mocking, imperious, and even a bit pleading at the same time. It wasn't lost on Mara that Leia had dodged Luke's question, and she was certain that she wasn't the only one that noticed.
"It won't," Luke stated simply.
"What do you mean 'it won't'? What's the point of spreading this agenda if it isn't to save the Republic?" Leia stammered, incredulous at what she was hearing. In her anger and confusion, Leia lost her usually tight control over her emotions. As a result, she began to unintentional broadcast her feelings. Along with the emotions that were already clearly etched on Leia's face, Mara and the rest of the Council were also privy to Leia's bewilderment at how Luke had come to know so much about the growing internal tensions among the worlds of the New Republic.
"The Republic can't be saved, Leia," Luke said quietly, though his voice somehow seemed to echo loudly in the Council chamber. "We can, however, control its dissolution."
Mara was surprised to see Leia stagger backwards a few steps. She had been prepared for the other woman to respond angrily, perhaps even lashing out at her brother. Instead Leia's presence, which was always grossly out of proportion to her actual physical size, seemed to shrink away until Leia almost appeared deflated.
Mara then surveyed the room in an attempt to gauge the reactions of her fellow Jedi Masters. She could sense that a few Council members implicitly believed Luke's claims without a shred of doubt. The rest seemed to want to believe the words of the man who had showed them the ways of the Force and in whom they had more faith than could be measured. Mara knew that they would all have to see the truth for themselves before they would fully commit the Jedi Order to going along with Luke's plan, but she believed that once they saw the necessity of it, they would lend their assistance toward controlling the unavoidable downfall of the New Republic.
"Master, are you certain?" Kyp asked.
"Yes. I have seen several possible futures, and I believe that this is the best path to avoid bloodshed. If the Republic dissolves of its own volition, the possibility remains for future generations, ones which won't carry the taint of the Empire, to rebuild. If and when that time comes, the longer-lived races can show the way. As will the Jedi."
"We will need to change as well. The Council will become more necessary than ever, as it will be the only link to hold the Jedi together. While the Council will remain here on Coruscant, the rest of our Order will scatter into the galaxy to find new potentials, teach new Knights, and maintain our ways in preparation for that future day. While the Council will have less direct control over matters, it will become the only focus that will hold us to our task. Without the Jedi Council acting as a figurehead, the individual Knights, Masters, and Padawans will be our only representatives among the peoples of the galaxy. The Jedi were nearly forgotten once, that can't happen again."
The mood that permeated the room could only be described as solemn. Since the re-founding of the Jedi Order, its members had always remained close to each other to draw strength and understanding from others who shared their gifts and burdens. Now, with only a few words, the man who had brought them together was casting them to the winds. More than a few of the Masters assembled wondered if the Jedi Order would be able to retain its identity, or if it would follow the proposed course of the galaxy and splinter into factions too numerous to count. Besides that, everyone was thinking of dear friends who, in a few years, they would say good-bye to and possibly never see again. Master Skywalker's promise of a better day to come gave them reason to hope, but the dim future approaching chilled the hearts of people known as heroes to the rest of the galaxy.
"Is this why you've come back to us now, Master?" Tionne asked. "Will you lead us through the days to come?"
"No. My work is done, the future is in your hands," Luke said, gesturing to all the Council members. Then, slowly, he directed a loving look at the woman by his side. "My only duty now is to be a good husband, since Mara seems willing to take me back."
"We'll need to know more about your vision of this horrible future so we'll know what to watch for," Kyp announced. If Master Skywalker was going to leave the future in the hands of the Jedi Council, its leader was determined to not fail in this task.
"Anakin can tell you what you need to know," Luke answered, though his attention was still on Mara. "He knows everything I know. Keeping the Separatist movement on track is now up to him."
The mention of her youngest child guiding the Separatists was enough to snap Leia out of her daze. Luke's proclamation about the imminent death of her life's work had stunned her, but the knowledge that he was going to use her son to accomplish this was too much. She could not let this happen, someone had to fight for the life of the New Republic.
"No!" Leia shouted. "I won't let it end like this. I won't let you walk back into our lives and calmly announce the imminent demise of the government I've worked my entire life to restore and defend."
When Luke refused to comment, Leia directed her tirade to the assembled Jedi. "I thought the Jedi were here to defend the Republic. Are you all so willing to just give up without a fight? If that's the case, I know others who are willing to fight for what they believe in."
"And just who are you going to fight against?" a lone voice echoed in the vaulted chamber.
Every head in the Council chamber turned as Anakin Solo stepped forward. Even Mara, who knew beforehand what Anakin's role was going to be in all this, was surprised to see him step forward to confront his mother. No one however appeared more surprised than Han, who remained just inside the chamber's closed doors with Jacen and Jaina.
"The Separatist movement is merely a political movement expressing the free will of the people of the New Republic. What would you do mother, have the military launch a pre-emptive strike against Separatist strongholds?"
"I was thinking more of a political war," Leia answered coldly. "Those of us in elected office don't just follow whatever political mood happens to be popular at the moment. We have been known to lead our people from time to time."
"And when you announce this crusade of yours and your followers ask how you've come to know these things, what will you tell them?" Anakin asked innocently.
Leia, however, was a skilled enough politician to realize the trap she was in. Her brother was the most respected man in the galaxy. If she revealed how she'd come to learn of the true purpose of the Separatists, many might flock to its banner based solely on Luke's tacit endorsement. Worse yet, if she kept quiet, she could easily be neutralized by being labeled as proof of the New Republic's intolerance towards differing views, which would also serve the Separatist's cause. Once again Leia was silenced while she sought a way out of her predicament. Before she could gather her thoughts, Anakin approached her and took her by both hands.
"You don't understand, Mother. Let me show you."
Mara felt a twinge of sympathy for Leia as she recalled her own feelings when Luke had shared with her the vision of that terrible future. A knot formed in Mara's stomach at the remembrance of those graphic images. Obviously Leia was having an even stronger reaction, as her knees failed her and she sank to the floor. Anakin eased her fall, but before he could help his mother to her feet, Han shouldered him aside and took his wife in his arms.
"What did you do to her?" Han demanded.
"He showed her the future, the possible future we're hoping to avoid. She'll be all right Han, I think you should take her home now," Luke suggested.
Even though I wasn't born here, Coruscant is the only place I've ever called home. Where will I go now that my home no longer holds anything for me, Mara thought as she watched the sun set through the cracks between the mile high skyscrapers along the western horizon. It had been a long day. Mara had officially stepped down as a member of the Jedi Council so she and Luke could truly be together. At the moment he was still inside with Anakin and the Council, answering their questions and setting up the structure the Jedi Order would need for the difficult times ahead.
A moment before the doors slid open behind her, Mara sensed her husband's approach. She was glad that Luke had finally dropped his barriers. It was so comforting to once again feel his presence. Not only that, it made him easier to keep track of. Mara didn't intend to lose him again.
"Are you finally done?" Mara asked as Luke strode up from behind and wrapped his arms around her waist.
"I think so," Luke said with a chuckle. "I kept telling them that my involvement was finished and that the future was up to them and Anakin, but they kept insisting on getting my approval for everything."
"How'd you get them to knock it off?"
"I quit answering. I just re-directed their questions to Anakin. I should have thought of that years ago."
"You know you couldn't have done that," Mara teased as she turned to face Luke, simultaneously threading her arms around his back. "You're one of those insufferably noble types who insists on doing everything himself."
"Not anymore. I'm officially retired," Luke said with mock solemnity.
"So now that we're no longer needed, where are we going to spend the rest of our lives? We have to live somewhere. And don't you dare say Tatooine. I don't have the right complexion for twin suns."
"Who says we have to live in one place," Luke returned. "I've always wanted to tour the galaxy, not just fly around to wherever the latest battle happens to be taking place."
"Sounds good to me," Mara agreed, sealing the deal with a kiss. "It would be nice to have a few months alone together, no diplomatic assignments, no battles against invading aliens, just us. Who knows, without all the usual excitement in our lives, I may discover you're too boring for me."
"You don't know how appealing a boring life sounds to me," Luke claimed with a laugh. "It may not be for everybody, but I'd like to give it a try."
"What about Leia, do you think she can adjust?" Mara asked, and immediately regretted it. The mere mention of Leia's name cast a cloud over the happiness she and Luke were looking forward too. Luke seemed particularly troubled about being reminded of the situation he had placed his sister in. Not only was he undoing her life's work, he was using her children to do it.
"She'll have to," Luke answered. "Before we leave I'll speak privately with Han, convince him to take her away from Coruscant. When the time comes for the Jedi to scatter, Jacen and Jaina will no doubt choose to serve on or near Corellia. It would be nice if Han and Leia could make a home there. Leia deserves that, after being forced to witness the destruction of the only place she ever called home."
"I hope you're right, Luke. I like having a family, even yours. I don't suppose you've had a vision revealing how long it'll be before you and your sister can put this behind you?"
"I wouldn't dare try to predict what Leia will do," Luke answered with half-feigned seriousness, bringing back a bit of the lighthearted feeling to their conversation. "Strong am I with the Force, but not that strong."
"It's just a shame that if this does all work out like you've foreseen and the Republic is someday reborn, we'll never know," Mara said soberly.
"Of course we'll know," Luke answered cheerfully. "When we become one with the Force, all blinders will be removed and who knows what we'll be capable of experiencing. Although it would be nice to be here to see it with our own eyes, at least our grandchildren, or maybe our great-grandchildren will be able to see it for us."
"Whoa. Hold on there, Luke. Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself?" Mara asked with raised eyebrows as she leaned back to look her husband in the eyes. "The last time I checked, you and I hadn't added a single number to the population of the universe. Or is this just your way of revealing another one of your visions?"
"No more visions for me," Luke laughed. "Just a sincere desire and a hope."
"Good. That's the kind of news a woman likes to surprise her husband with. I refuse to let you rob me of that." Although Mara said this with a smile, there was no doubt in Luke's mind that she was absolutely serious, and to be honest this was one of many things he didn't want any foreknowledge of. As nice as a boring life might be, there should be at least a few shocks along the way.
For a few endless moments, Luke and Mara stood just as they were, completely lost in each other's eyes. While it is amazing how much can be conveyed with a look, there are some things that have to be said, and Luke knew he was way overdue.
"By the way, how long has it been since I told you I love you?"
"Too long. You've got a lot of lost time to make up for," Mara said reprovingly.
"Then let's go inside so I can get started. The sun has set, it's starting to get chilly."
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