Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker walked arm in arm along the shore of Chandrila's Silver Sea, and Mara thought that of all the strange turns her life might have taken, this surely was among the strangest.
They'd only been back from Nirauan for a handful of days, and despite their retrieval of the Caamas Document, they'd mostly been ignored, forgotten in the mad swirl of preparation for the peace treaty between the New Republic and the Empire. Leia had pounced on them both, of course, asking after their welfare with a sister's blunt familiarity when addressing Luke and with a diplomat's probing tact when addressing Mara. Considering that she and Luke were together at the time, Mara had found the rapid-fire switches in manner quite amusing. Han had casually slapped both Luke and Mara on the back and said that it was a miracle either was still alive, considering how often they seemed to find trouble. Karrde's manner was all polished smoothness - though Mara saw plainly enough the depth of his relief over their safety - but his intent, observant eyes belied his composure even more than Han's had. They all knew that something had changed between Luke and Mara, and they all wanted to know what.
As far as Mara was concerned, they could just go right on wondering, at least for a while. There were other, far larger happenings in the galaxy right now, and to admit their engagement would only split the attention of some of the key players in those happenings. Besides, it would mean formally resigning from Karrde's organization and dealing with his reaction, and finding a way to politely handle Leia's potential plans for her only brother's wedding, and facing Han's knowing looks; and Mara didn't want to deal with any of that yet. There was something warm and safe in keeping their new relationship quiet, cocooned from prying eyes. And so they calmly dodged the subtle questions and the pointed ones, and those who asked the most questions were soon distracted by other things and gave up trying to press matters. Luke and Mara were largely left alone to do whatever they wished, which suited both of them just fine.
Chandrila was just another stop to gather diplomats and whatever formal frills the diplomats deemed necessary for the treaty signing ceremony, and neither Luke nor Mara were needed. Early on the second morning there, Luke left a note for Leia and they slipped away to watch the sun rise over the ocean, and to privately bask in their still-secret joy.
It was all very strange, but wonderful at the same time, and Mara loved every minute. Something inside her thrilled to the constant whoosh-slap of the waves against the shore, and the sharply clean scent of the salty air, and the utter freedom of the vast expanse of water shimmering with new sunlight. She leaned slightly against Luke as they walked, trusting him to guide her steps as she watched the blue-on-blue horizon of ocean and sky, lost in its unexpectedly hypnotic depths.
"It's very clear, isn't it?" Luke murmured into her ear. "The water, I mean."
"I wonder what the visibility is below the surface," Mara mused. She glanced at Luke, mentally made the unavoidable comparison between the blue of his eyes and the blue of the ocean and sky, and chided herself for sentimentality. "Think there's time for a diving excursion before we leave?"
"If there is, you'll be going on that excursion alone," he said.
Mara stopped, her arm linked with his forcing him to stop too. "Luke Skywalker. Are you really going to tell me that you're afraid of a little water?"
The corner of his mouth twitched with tamped-down amusement. "I didn't say anything about being afraid. I'm just not going diving, is all."
"Uh-huh." Mara folded her arms skeptically.
"Mara, perhaps you remember that little flood that nearly killed us both a few days ago?" Luke asked, planting his feet as firmly as if he intended to grow roots to tie him to that spot. "Or maybe you hit your head harder than you thought when you first landed on Nirauan."
Mara narrowed her eyes at him. His hair seemed almost to shimmer in the glint of the early morning sun, and he looked quite appallingly attractive, if stubborn. "You could at least take your boots off."
"No, thank you," Luke said firmly. "Do you know how quickly you could become dehydrated going shoeless on Tatooine?"
Mara felt a smile quirk her lips and spoil her stern expression. "Oh, come on." She waved an arm, gesturing widely at the sea. "Does this look like Tatooine?" She left his side to dance several steps closer to the gentle surf. The sand was damply firm and smooth beneath her bare feet, filling her with a primal sense of freedom. The steady waves continued rolling in, unimpressed by her intrusion and splashing her legs with cool water up to mid-shin before slapping the shore. Luke stood just beyond the water's reach, watching her with a sort of amused fondness. She raised an eyebrow at him, then spread her arms wide and twirled. Her hair snapped lightly in the breeze before following the rest of her through her spin and fanning across her face and throat. Mara spun a few more times for the sheer childish joy of it, then stopped - not dizzy, not quite, but having to brace herself against the incoming waves just a little more strongly than before. She lifted one hand to push her hair back from her eyes and extended the other hand to Luke. "Don't tell me that you're not tempted even a little."
His answering smile was slow and intimate, the sort of smile that she'd never seen from him until a few days ago, and her breath caught in her throat in a way that had nothing to do with the slight chill of the water. "Tempted by you," he said, "quite a lot. Tempted by the water, not at all."
"Spoilsport," Mara teased, turning her foot to the side so as to catch the maximum amount of water as she kicked at the foamy crest of a low wave.
Luke made a startled little half-hop to the side, somehow managing to make even that look graceful, but it wasn't enough for him to avoid the sparkling arc of water. "Mara! That's cold!"
"It is not." Mara began to wade out of the surf, pausing to try to kick away a rubbery strand of purple seaweed that had twined around her left ankle. It clung stubbornly, its clamminess making her shiver. She lifted her left leg, balancing delicately on one foot as she bent over to untangle it. A flash of appreciation reached her through the Force, and Mara held the pose for a moment longer than necessary before lowering her foot and winking at Luke, who just grinned at her.
Her self-awareness heightened by Luke's regard, Mara chose her final steps out of the sea with conscious grace. As she drew close, Luke reached out a hand to catch her around the waist and gently pulled her even nearer, until their bodies pressed lightly against each other, the warmth of the almost-embrace overriding the slight chill of the breeze. He lifted his other hand to stroke back the strands of hair that still clung damply to her cheek. His fingers were warm and slightly rough against her skin, and he was smiling that smile again.
Resting a hand on his shoulder, Mara rose to her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. His skin tasted faintly of salt, and she rather liked the wildness of it. "You're not on Tatooine any more, farmboy."
Looking away from her to cast a sardonic eye over the Silver Sea, Luke snorted. "Obviously."
Mara lowered herself, making sure her body slid against his as she did so and noticing with satisfaction how quickly his gaze came back from the horizon to focus on her. "By normal standards instead of Tatooine standards, the water's not cold, and you aren't risking dehydration if you take off your boots. So lighten up."
"There's still the risk of picking up an infection," Luke pointed out.
Drawing back indignantly, Mara thumped his chest. "If you're worried about that, why aren't you trying to convince me to put my boots back on? It's all right for me to pick up an infection, but not you?"
Luke showed her an innocent look that would have been much more convincing if she hadn't known him so well. "Why do you think I'm keeping mine on, my love? Someone has to nurse you back to health."
Caught by surprise, Mara laughed. Luke smiled back, his eyes softening, and Mara opened her mouth to say -
"Uncle Luke! Mara!" Jaina Solo bounded up alongside them. How had she crept up on them unawares like that? Were they really that oblivious to everything but each other? How embarrassing.
Mara looked in the direction from which Jaina had appeared, and saw the rest of the Solos farther back, perhaps half a kilometer. Jacen and Anakin had stopped to examine a tidepool; Leia was supervising while Han watched Jaina's progress down the beach toward herself and Luke. He lifted a hand to wave lazily at them, his entire posture bleeding smugness. How much had he seen? The open beach suddenly seemed to close in on Mara, nearly choking her.
"What's so funny, Mara?" The small hand that was tugging at her was sand-covered and left the hem of her tunic smudged and damp, with sand clinging to the tonal embroidery. It took Mara a moment of deliberate concentration to keep from visibly wincing. But as she lifted her eyes from her once-pristine ivory tunic and caught Jaina's own deep brown eyes, so like Leia's, she paused. There was something so beguiling about the girl's innocent curiosity. Had Mara herself ever been that innocent, that trusting? She didn't think so.
What was she doing, anyway? Marrying Luke meant inheriting his family as well, and while Mara felt sure that she could handle Han and Leia, the children were something else entirely. Mara didn't know anything about children. She was going to make a terrible aunt, she was certain.
And yet, Jaina's features so perfectly blended those of her parents, along with something entirely her own, that Mara suddenly wondered what a child of hers and Luke's would look like. Mara reflexively glanced up at Luke and found him smiling far too knowingly for her taste. Mara mentally stuck her tongue out at him, hoping that the essence of the expression would carry across their bond.
"Nothing much," Mara told Jaina, lifting a hand to push back tendrils of hair that the too-cool ocean breeze had blown across her eyes and around her throat. "Just something your Uncle Luke said."
"What did he say that was funny?" Jaina asked absently, stooping to pick up a shell that poked from the sand.
"Oh, just teasing your Aunt Mara about something," Luke said airily.
Mara froze, then turned to stare at him. Luke raised an eyebrow at her, and nodded fractionally toward Jaina. Mara turned back in time to see Jaina clasp her hands together at her chest in a gesture that even Mara recognized as pure little girl delight, the shell falling forgotten from her grasp.
"Aunt Mara?" Jaina breathed, her eyes large and shining. "Mara, you're going to be my aunt?"
"Um," Mara hedged, intimidated somehow by the sudden intensity of the joy that Jaina was radiating, yet obscurely reassured by it at the same time. Uncharacteristic confusion bound her tongue, but Jaina hardly seemed to notice as she swiveled back toward Luke.
"Uncle Luke, you're marrying Mara?"
"Yup," Luke said, grinning at his niece. "I was thinking we needed a little more balance in the family. You and your brothers have an uncle, but no aunt. I thought that Mara might be pretty good at the job, so I asked her. What do you think?"
"Oh, yes! Thank you, Uncle Luke!" Jaina threw herself into Luke's arms, and it looked so natural for him to hold her in return. Mara found herself enthralled by the picture they presented. All the excitement she'd had in her life, both good and bad, everything she'd experienced, from the common to the exotic, but had anything ever had the appeal of the simple shared happiness before her?
A heartbeat later, she was pulled into the scene as Jaina squirmed out of Luke's embrace and hurled herself at Mara, who almost didn't realize the girl's intention in time. At the last moment, she opened her arms and was nearly knocked over as Jaina's full weight hit her. Mara staggered slightly, but Jaina was undaunted, clinging tightly to her.
"Thank you, Mara!" Jaina said, her voice muffled and her breath warm against Mara's skin as it penetrated the loose weave of her tunic. Jaina pulled out of Mara's arms, then caught one of Mara's hands tightly in both of hers. "I'll be a good niece, I promise. You won't regret it. Well -" She scrunched up her face in an expression of disgust. "You might, a little. Jacen and Anakin can be pests. Mom has to yell at them a lot." Jaina leaned toward Mara again, her whole attitude so plainly conspiratorial that Mara unconsciously leaned down toward her as well until their heads were almost touching. "There are too many boys in this family, Mara. Jacen and Anakin and Dad and Chewie and Uncle Luke - sorry, Uncle Luke -"
Luke laughed. "No problem."
" - and even Threepio and Artoo! The only girls are Mom and me. I asked Mom if I could have a baby sister, but she said not a chance in the galaxy." Jaina finally paused for breath, making another face as she did so.
"Oh." Mara blinked. Was there a proper response to that outburst?
Luke slid his hand into her free one, intertwining their fingers comfortingly, and casually combed Jaina's windblown hair back with his other hand. "Well, now you have an aunt. And maybe someday you'll have some girl cousins to help even the score, too." Mara glowered at him, but he only winked at her.
Jaina bounced once on her toes. "Girl cousins would be great! I could teach them all sorts of things. Boy cousins would be okay too, I guess, but girls would be more fair."
Mara opened her mouth, couldn't think of anything to say, and closed it. She swallowed, and tried again. "Um, maybe. We'll see." Jaina grinned hugely, and Mara felt herself obligated to add, "Maybe. Your uncle and I haven't decided that yet. But if you do have cousins, it won't be right away."
Jaina sighed heavily. "Oh, all right. Just don't say "maybe" and mean "no" like most grown-ups." She looked up at Mara, and her eyes still shone despite the disappointing lack of instant cousins. "Can I call you Aunt Mara now?"
Taken aback - did Jaina boss everyone around like this? - Mara looked from those shining deep brown eyes to Luke's blue ones, brimming with laughter at her expense. She hesitated, then gave in to the inevitable. "Oh, what the he-" She caught herself hastily. "I mean, sure. Of course you can."
Luke grinned at her, then turned back to his - their - niece. "You know what else, Jaina?"
"What?" Jaina eyed him almost suspiciously.
"No one else knows yet," Luke said, with a solemnity that rather impressed Mara. "You're the first one we've told."
Jaina held very still, her eyes going all wide again. "I am?" She looked back at Mara. "Really?"
"Really," Mara confirmed. She glanced further down the open beach toward the rest of the family. Anakin was in the lead, skipping cheerfully. Jacen tagged behind, casting longing looks at the tidepool over his shoulder. Han and Leia followed at a more sedate pace, obviously talking to each other; but their eyes were fixed on Luke, Mara, and Jaina. Mara would swear that Leia was smiling and Han was smirking.
Well, there was little point to secrecy now. Might as well get it over and done with. Tilting her head toward the others, she asked Jaina, "How'd you like to be the one to tell your parents and brothers?"
Jaina didn't pause to answer. She simply dashed off, yelling, "Mom! Dad! Guess what?"
Mara watched her go and sighed. "So much for peace and quiet." Luke squeezed her hand and leaned in to nuzzle her throat, just under her ear. "Luke!" Mara protested.
"What? They're going to know in all of ten seconds anyway." He pulled back, his light brown hair shining with occasional glints of gold as the sun rose further, and grinned at her. "They'd already seen us, and they've been suspecting ever since we got back. At least this way we don't actually have to spell it out for them. Jaina will do it for us, and be thrilled by it."
Mara shook her head. "Ulterior motives. Who'd have thought you were really that sneaky underneath the innocent exterior?"
"You," he said, leaning in again to kiss her temple. He began to walk toward the rest of the family, holding Mara's hand firmly and tugging her along with him. "Come on, Aunt Mara. Time to face the music."
"Don't call me that," Mara said, wrinkling her nose. "It sounds way too weird coming from you. Besides, what about Karrde? How do we tell him?"
Luke disengaged his hand from hers and wrapped her arm around his waist while simultaneously slipping his arm around her shoulders. She automatically reached her hand up to meet his, and he caught her fingertips against her shoulder and pressed his elbow against her hand at his waist, thus wisely incapacitating her before murmuring in her ear, "That's your problem, dear. I took care of telling my side of the family; you take care of telling your side."
Mara thought about disentangling herself and shoving him into the surf, but the children were watching, and it wasn't the sort of good example that an aunt was probably expected to set. There was plenty of time to punish him when they were alone again.
Luke snorted softly, and his breath was warm on her ear. "I look forward to it."
"I'll just bet you do," she murmured back, and then the family was upon them, full of questions and hugs and congratulations. Mara took a deep breath of the clean, untamed sea air and mentally summed them up: A husband, a sister, a brother, a niece, and two nephews. And maybe - just maybe - sons and daughters of her own someday. Not a bad deal, really.
The sunshine was as warm against her skin as the love was against her soul, and Mara was content.
Original cover by obaona. HTML formatting copyright 2007 TheForce.Net LLC.