This, Mara Jade thought as she trudged disgruntledly up the stairs toward Luke's apartment, was not what she had signed up for.
It had been a week since the signing of the peace treaty between the New Republic and the Empire, and of that week, Mara estimated that she and Luke had spent a grand total of ten hours together. Yes, Luke was an important figure in the New Republic. Yes, he had major responsibilities to the Jedi order and the Academy. Yes, she was integral to Karrde's organization. Yes, she had an outrageously long list of things to do and Shada to train besides. But they'd just gotten engaged, for stars' sake, and that after years wasted being distant and wary. It was positively indecent that the galaxy couldn't leave them alone even for a week.
She reached Luke's floor, exited the stairwell, and stalked down the hallway. She'd always rather liked the layout and decor of this apartment building; it was spacious without being grandiose and elegant without being pretentious. But today she barely bothered to glance at the intricately tiled mosaic floors or the minimalist Chandrilan paintings scattered tastefully along the walls, her energy instead focused on the irritation that Luke's apartment would have to be the farthest one from the emergency stairwell.
Coming at last to the familiar door at the end of the hall, Mara punched in the access code with swift efficiency. The door took mere seconds to respond, but in her current state of mind it seemed a deliberate opponent, doing its best to keep her separate from her intended husband that much longer. She waited impatiently, slipping through and into the apartment before the door had finished opening. It slid shut behind her, and Mara cast it a dirty look for good measure as she reset the lock code.
"Hi," Luke's voice called from further inside. Mara took off her jacket, shook the final raindrops off of it, tossed it on the entry hall table, and went in search of the man attached to the voice.
She found him in the living area, seated on the couch and frowning at a datapad. He looked up as she entered. "Hey."
"Hey," she said with a sigh. "The fifteenth level turbolift is out again."
"Again?" Small lines appeared between Luke's eyebrows as he frowned anew. "Third straight time. I'd almost say it knows when you're coming."
"And has it in for me, just like everyone else." Mara plopped down very ungracefully beside him and put her feet up on the low table before the couch with an audible thonk of boot heels.
Luke set his datapad down and slid an arm around her shoulders. "Bad day?"
"Busy day," she answered, resting her head on his shoulder. Funny, how quickly she'd become accustomed to small affectionate gestures like that. "Same as always. You?"
"Same," he said, sighing. He stroked her hair almost casually, and Mara let her eyes drift shut. She breathed in slowly and deeply, feeling tense muscles begin to relax. "Your hair's damp," he murmured. "Raining?"
"Barely," she murmured back. Luke stroked her hair a few more times, then tightened his arm around her and leaned his own head against hers. There was a long moment of comfortable silence. Mara thought drowsily that she could easily fall asleep right here, like this - but their time together was still too new and too precious to waste sleeping.
She sighed, then sat up straight again, pulling away from Luke slightly and taking her feet off the table. Luke rested his arm across the back of the couch and watched her wordlessly, his Force sense as lazily peaceful as she herself felt. Outside this apartment, the galaxy waited for them both to dive back into the fray, but when they were alone together like this, all concerns seemed to fall effortlessly away. Mara still wasn't quite sure how that worked, but it wasn't something she felt inclined to question.
She leaned down to unlace her boots and draw them off. Setting the discarded boots off to the side, she tucked her feet underneath her and leaned back into Luke's embrace. "I wish it could be like this all the time," she said softly.
Mara felt the smile she didn't see. "Actually, it would drive you crazy," Luke said. "But it would be nice if it could be like this a little more often." He sighed. "It'll settle down eventually, Mara."
"Before or after we grow too old to appreciate it?" She tilted her head up to receive a kiss, and drew her fingertips softly down his cheek. "We're still on for tonight, right?"
"Short of Coruscant's sun going supernova."
"Not bad odds, then." Mara shook her head. "Get engaged, then go on a first date. More proof, just in case any was needed, that we couldn't be normal if we tried."
"Normal is overrated," Luke said. "So I'll pick you up for dinner later?"
"Sounds good," Mara replied. "Dancing afterward, right?"
"Right," Luke said, making a face.
Mara shoved his shoulder lightly. "You like dancing even if you don't want to admit it. I've talked to Leia, you know. And after that, the night's entirely ours?"
"My first appointment is just after noon tomorrow," Luke said, grinning at her.
"That'll do," Mara said, and drew him close.
Mara finished dressing a quarter hour early, and checked her appearance in the mirror. Her dress was an older one, but still stylish and she was fond of it. Significantly, she also knew that Luke liked it. They'd attended the same social function a few months ago, and she'd seen his expression when he first caught sight of her. She had to admit that the snug-fitting bodice and flared knee-length skirt did highlight her slim figure, while the deep blue-green color complemented her complexion and eyes. Her shoes were silvery and strappy, with higher heels than she normally wore. Ordinarily she preferred more practical options, but if she was only going to be sitting at a restaurant and then going dancing, she might as well go all out.
She'd left her hair loose and fairly wild, the way Luke had said he liked it best, with only a comb for decoration. She particularly liked the comb because with just a few twists, it could be converted to a makeshift blade. She would have to remember to ask Shada where she'd gotten those lacquered zenji needles she often wore; they'd be marvelous for more formal occasions.
Mara smoothed her skirt and fluffed her hair, then made a face at herself. She had always paid careful attention to her appearance, and there had been many times where she'd dressed specifically to attract or distract. But this was different, vastly so. This time her appearance mattered because she genuinely cared what another person thought of her. She was on uncertain ground here, and she didn't like that at all.
Yesterday afternoon flashed to mind, as well as Luke's promises for tonight, and Mara caught herself smiling. Uncertain ground, yes, but there were compensations.
Ah, well. She hadn't expected things to stay the same after accepting Luke's proposal anyway, had she? She'd just have to get used to it. She'd handled everything else life had thrown at her; she could handle this, too.
Mara smiled once more at her reflection, then sat down in front of her computer and flicked it on. There were still ten minutes before Luke would be arriving, and she might as well get some work done.
Half an hour and two completed reports later, Mara was still at the computer, switching between files ever more irritably. She checked the chrono for the fifth time in as many minutes, and was just about to head for the comm unit when she sensed a familiar presence. Mara sighed and remained where she was. A few moments later, her door clicked softly and slid open.
"Sorry I'm late," Luke said a little breathlessly, striding to her side and leaning down to kiss her cheek. "Tionne commed me with some reports she wanted my approval on. I didn't think it would take that long."
Mara took a breath, ready with a peevish retort - and then she caught Luke's gaze and saw the anxiety there. Biting her tongue at the last moment, she turned her eyes back to her computer and began closing files to buy time as she considered a proper response. Tonight was supposed to have been set in permacrete; it was their time and their time alone, no interruptions.
But . . .
Flipping the computer's power switch, she glanced up at Luke again. He stood waiting patiently, calm to all outward appearances, but she could feel in the Force how he wanted to fidget, and she reproached herself for nearly adding to his worry. He was trying, the same as she was. Of course there would be missteps along the way. That was all right; they'd get the hang of this relationship thing eventually.
"It's okay," she said, and found that she meant it.
Luke smiled at her with obvious relief, and Mara took a moment to assess his appearance. He was dressed very nicely indeed, even stylishly. She rose from the chair and reached up to land a kiss on his cheek in return. "Not bad at all, farmboy. Didn't know you had it in you."
"Thanks a lot," Luke said, wrinkling his nose at her.
"Well, you never wore anything like this on Yavin," Mara said. She kissed him again, softly, to take the sting out of her words. He responded immediately, sliding his arms around her waist, pulling her close. Mara slipped her arms around his neck and pulled him closer yet. The kiss drew to a slow, tender end, and Luke nuzzled her throat briefly before pulling back enough to meet her eyes again.
"Never had a good reason to dress up on Yavin," he murmured. He smiled at her, and Mara smiled back before she realized it, warmth spreading through her. "You ready to go? Or do you just want to stay here tonight? I'm sure we could find a way to occupy ourselves."
Mara grinned. "Oh, I'm sure. But you're not getting off that easy. You promised me dinner and dancing, remember?"
His arms tightened around her, just perceptibly. "That's what delivery services are for. And you have plenty of floor space here if you want to dance."
"Later," Mara said, twisting sinuously out of his grip. "We have to go be normal. We can't get married without going on a real date first. What would everyone think?"
Luke snorted, then managed to recapture her waist, though more loosely than before. "They'd think it was perfectly in character. I'm not sure even Han and Leia and Talon are convinced we understand what we're doing yet."
"So let's go convince them." Mara brushed nonexistent dust off the shoulder of his jacket and readjusted the lapels, surprised by the intimate sense of possessiveness that washed over her. He was hers, this man that she'd never expected to love, and she was his, and for reasons she couldn't begin to explain, Mara rather liked the idea of showing off this new turn of events. She reached behind her back to capture his hands in her own, gently pulling them away from her to reposition his arms at his sides, and grinned at the face he made. "Let me get my bag and -"
The beeping of the comm unit stopped her mid-stride, and she leaned over to see the incoming number. "Leia?"
"Leia?" Luke echoed. "Did the two of you have something planned? I'm sure I told her we were going out tonight."
"No, nothing planned," Mara said, frowning. She had a bad feeling about this. Stepping in front of the comm's camera, she reluctantly tapped the "accept" switch and forced a smile. "Hello, Leia. How can I help you?"
Onscreen, Leia was turned more than halfway away from her own comm's camera angle. "Anakin Solo, put those tools down right now! Threepio does not need a diagnostic!"
Mara's bad feeling deepened. "Leia?" she repeated.
Leia turned toward more fully toward the comm, donning a smile that few would have seen through. "Mara! Have you seen Luke? I tried his apartment, then his personal comlink -"
Luke stepped into view, raising an eyebrow at the image of his sister. "I'm right here, Leia. I turned my personal comlink off. Nothing short of a full-stop emergency, remember?"
Brown eyes widened remorsefully. "Oh, your date! That's right. Well -" She glanced off screen, then back at Luke and Mara. "I was hoping you'd be able to watch the children for a few hours. Something's come up, and Gavrisom asked if I could join an impromptu Senate meeting, and with Han and Chewie away -"
"Ask Winter," Luke said firmly.
"I did," Leia said, then broke off again. "Jacen, I've told you, the lizards stay in the cages. Put them back right now!" She turned back to face Mara and Luke. "Winter's unavailable. I suppose I could leave them with Threepio . . ."
"He's watched them plenty of times before," Mara reminded her. "And with the Noghri helping, he should be fine."
"True," Leia said, frowning slightly. "Though lately - well. That's not your problem. I'm sure they'll be fine." She smiled at them again, and it was genuine, if distracted. "I'm sorry to have interrupted. You two have fun."
Luke eyed Mara sideways, his gaze suggestive. "Oh, we will."
Leia groaned. "I told you not to do that in front of me, Luke. Do I do that to you?"
"You have," Luke said with a grin, sliding an arm around Mara's waist.
Mara rolled her eyes and shrugged helplessly at Leia, who sighed, her eyes meeting Mara's to exasperatedly say, Men, as clearly as the spoken word would have. Mara grinned back at her. This having a sister-in-law business was kind of fun. She hadn't quite realized until now what an ally it gave her.
"Have not," Leia said, returning her attention to Luke and making a face at him. "And if you say 'have so', Luke Skywalker, you're in trouble." She made shooing motions at the comm. "Off, you two. I'll see you later." She blew a kiss toward Luke and smiled at Mara, then killed the transmission.
"Not a nice thing to do to your sister," Mara pointed out, crossing her arms and turning away from the comm unit to look at Luke sternly. "Just because women already know that all men have one-course minds doesn't mean that she wants to think about her brother that way."
"She'll get over it," Luke said, leaning close to kiss Mara's temple lingeringly. "I had to deal with more innuendo than that when she and Han first got married. And for years before, too. And years after, come to think of it. Turnabout is fair play." He released her waist with tangible reluctance, then curled a lock of her hair around his finger and watched it unwind itself. "Come on, let's get out of here before someone else decides they need our attention."
"Good point," Mara admitted. She retrieved her evening bag, then took Luke's proffered arm. "Ready when you are, farmboy."
Luke smiled at her, his eyes soft and proud, then led her gallantly from her apartment. Almost unconsciously, Mara fell back into the long-ago habit of walking like a courtier, to match his formality. One-course mind he might well have, but Mara knew that this night meant as much to Luke as it did to her, and if he wanted to offer courtly gestures, she could certainly do the same for him.
It's going to be a lovely night, Mara thought to herself, and tried to ignore her misgivings over the way it had begun.
She almost succeeded.
Luke's speeder was sleek and well-maintained, and he drove it like the fighter pilot he was. The evening was warmer than usual for early summer, and even with Luke driving faster than he really should, the wind that whipped Mara's hair left no chill. Watching the orange and red streaks of sunset spread over the sky, Mara gave herself over to the joy of sheer speed and precision, while resolving to outdo him the next time they should take her speeder.
Luke pulled into a parking slot outside the restaurant just a little too fast to be considered safe, and shut the engine down smoothly. Mara raised an eyebrow at him as she ran a hand over her disheveled hair. He grinned in return, exiting the speeder and circling around to open her door. Mara stepped out with deliberate grace, brushing against him slightly as she did so.
"Not nice to tease, Mara," he murmured into her ear as he leaned past her to shut the door.
"Who's teasing?" Mara asked, widening her eyes innocently.
He merely rolled his own eyes back at her, then took her hand. Mara tightened her fingers around his briefly, smiling as he brushed back a few stray tendrils of her hair with his other hand, the look in his eyes soft and warm and amused.
The long walkway that led to the Ithorian restaurant they'd chosen was lushly landscaped, a definite rarity on Coruscant. Slender trees draped graceful branches over the path, while vines dotted with tiny purple flowers twined around their trunks and dripped over the branches, mingling with the gray-green leaves. Smaller white and gold-flowered bushes nearly covered the ground along the sides of the walkway and even reached into the walkway itself, and the pale, rich scent of blooming greenery hung heavy in the air.
The entire atmosphere was one of quiet contentment, and Mara found herself relaxing more than she had in months. She was absently trailing her free hand through the leaves within her reach when something small and thin rolled beneath her shoe. Luke's hand caught her upper arm, steadying her, but not before she'd nearly fallen. "What the -"
"There," Luke said, pointing. Half a meter in front of them, a small lizard with pale blue scales reared up and hissed, then fell back onto all six legs and dashed into the undergrowth on the path's other side.
"Well, how stupid is that thing to step right in front -" Taking a step forward, Mara stumbled again and looked down to find the lizard's detached tail lying where she'd been standing, along with the heel of one of her shoes. "Oh, shavit." She bent down to pick up the heel, eyeing the still-twitching tail as she did so. "That's really disgusting."
"But useful. To the lizard, anyway," Luke said. "Are you going to be able to walk, though?"
Holding the snapped-off heel in one hand, Mara took an experimental step. The intact shoe's heel clicked daintily on the permacrete, followed by a less ladylike clomp from the broken one. Mara planted her fists on her hips as she looked down at her feet and scowled. "Walk, yes. I'll just look like an idiot, that's all. And I sure can't dance like this."
"You don't look like an idiot," Luke said soothingly. "You look beautiful, and once we're sitting down, no one will see your shoes. We'll stop back at your place before we go dancing so you can change shoes, or fix those."
Mara sighed, but the alternative was to go directly back to her apartment for new shoes, which would mean missing their reservation. Luke's expression was far too hopeful for her to do that to him. "All right."
She took Luke's hand again and tried to maintain her earlier feeling of contentment as she click-clomped the rest of the way to the restaurant's door, but Mara had been trained from earliest memory to move with conscious grace and her inevitable limp bothered her more than she'd admit. Luke said nothing, but sympathy was prominent within his Force sense. Mara sent a sense of gratitude toward him and concentrated on not losing her balance again.
The maitre'd greeted them with a sweeping bow. "Good evening, gentles. How may I help you?"
Even though Mara had spoken with Ithorians a number of times, the stereo effect of their multiple throats still had her furrowing her brow for a moment before she understood his words. Luke beat her to the interpretation. "We have reservations," he said. "Two for Skywalker."
"If you'll allow me to check the list," the maitre'd said, "I'll be right with you."
Mara watched him for a moment, then allowed her attention to wander over the restaurant itself. Most of the tables were surrounded by greenery draped over silver lattices, creating a feeling of seclusion. Much of the plant life seemed to be the same as outdoors, and the scent of the flowers mixed with the organic, unprocessed scent of Ithorian food. The result was different, but not unpleasant. Mara decided that they had chosen well, although she hoped the six-legged lizards stayed in the plants outside rather than in.
The maitre'd was speaking again, but Mara let Luke handle it as she continued to observe their surroundings. He was better at understanding him anyway -
"That can't be right," Luke protested, bringing Mara's attention back with a jerk.
"What can't be right?" she demanded.
The maitre'd spoke again. Mara only caught a few words, and looked sharply to Luke for a translation.
"They seem to have lost our reservation," Luke said, slight tension creeping into his voice.
"Oh, wrong answer," Mara said, glaring at the maitre'd. "Wrong, wrong answer."
She click-clomped forward, only to be restrained by Luke's hand on her arm. "Don't."
Mara turned her glare on him. "Don't what?"
"Whatever it is you're thinking," he said, pinning her with a glare of his own. "I don't need a Force-bond to read that expression, you know. We're here -" he took a deep breath "- to relax. Not maim people or destroy property. Let me take care of this."
She folded her arms across her chest and eyed him, then waved an open hand toward the maitre'd's station. "Be my guest, farmboy."
"Thank you." Luke glared at her one last time, then headed toward the maitre'd.
Mara refolded her arms and watched, tapping the toe of her broken shoe. Luke spoke quietly to the maitre'd, and was answered by that oddly stereophonic voice. Luke's voice again, polite but insistent. The maitre'd gestured at him placatingly, but Luke only spoke again, lowly. Mara sighed and turned her attention back to their surroundings.
In only a few minutes, Luke rejoined her. "You can stop tapping now."
Mara raised her eyebrow at him and tapped her foot twice more with slow deliberation before stopping. "Oh?"
Luke shook his head at her, his attitude a mixture of affection and exasperation. "Yes, dear. I took care of it. We'll have a table in a few minutes."
"Well done, dear," Mara said with wide-eyed and fawning admiration. "However did you manage it?"
"Oh, stop that," Luke said, rolling his eyes.
Mara linked her arm with his and slid her other hand up to his shoulder. "No, seriously. How much did it take?"
The corners of Luke's mouth twitched. "I didn't bribe him."
Mara widened her eyes again, as theatrically as she knew how. "Not the mind trick!"
"Do you always have to be so difficult?" Luke asked wryly.
Mara paused for a moment's thought, then nodded. "All part of the deluxe package. Sure you don't want to retract your offer?"
"You're not getting off that easily," Luke said with a grin. He slipped his arm around her waist and guided her to the plushly upholstered couches in the waiting alcove. "You haven't told me much about how work is going this week. How's Shada's training coming along?"
And that was a subject that Mara could get behind, because she unexpectedly liked this replacement of hers - liked her quite a lot, in fact. Shada was quietly intense and fiercely competent, a good listener and a quick learner, and far more. In the week they'd been working together, Mara had also learned that Shada had a wicked sense of humor, excellent aim with a blaster, and shared Mara's own fondness for watching smashball tournaments. Beyond all that, Mara also suspected that Shada was more than a little attracted to Talon, and he to her, but neither was willing to admit it. Mara's conscience told her that she had no right to tease another about being slow in that aspect of life, while another part of her wanted very much to tease them both mercilessly. She had so far resisted, but it wasn't easy.
She'd found considerably more than a trainee in Shada. She'd found a friend, potentially a very good one.
So caught up in the subject was she that it was fifteen minutes later before Mara realized that they were still firmly seated in the waiting area and not at a table.
"I know," Luke said when she pointed that out. "I was going to go check on that when you were done with your story."
"I'm done enough," Mara said, frowning toward the maitre'd, who in turn spared them not a glance. "I can tell you the rest once we get a table. I don't like this."
"All right," Luke said, standing and absently tugging his jacket back in place. "Wish me luck."
Unable to resist, Mara began, "There is no luck, only the -"
"Oh, shut up." Luke headed back to the maitre'd, who at first, Mara could tell from her vantage point, tried to politely brush him off. Luke persisted, but the Ithorian's body language radiated unconcern. Luke eventually managed to engage him in conversation, but despite the Ithorian's placating gestures, Mara could tell that he was in no hurry to accede.
She sighed and waited, resignedly assessing the decor once again, as she brushed a stray bug off her arm. On second thought, there might indeed be too many plants in here.
It was several minutes before Luke returned, holding his arm out to her. "They have a table. Let's grab it before they change their minds."
"You're kidding," Mara said, raising an eyebrow as she stood and took his arm. "What finally got him moving?"
Luke sighed. "I bribed him."
Click-clomping as discreetly as she could manage, Mara followed Luke, who followed the maitre'd. They wound through the restaurant at a dignified pace, passing tables nearly hidden by clever architecture, artfully arranged greenery, and the occasional green-tinted curtain, their existence hinted at mostly by the low murmur of conversation from within - and, of course, the aroma of the food. Mara found herself mentally identifying each scent as she caught it: shaak steak with crushed spices, warm bread - that dark crusty kind she particularly liked, with a type of cheese spread on it, she was sure - tangy asper root, the dry scent of Chandrilan green wine. She had skipped lunch earlier, and now despite her irritation over the lost reservation and ensuing wait, Mara decided that she would happily forgive all if dinner tasted as good as it smelled.
After a longer walk than Mara would have believed possible in the compact-looking restaurant, they reached a table surrounded on three sides by greenery-draped lattices. It wasn't quite as elegantly hidden as many other tables they'd passed, nor as quiet - subdued though the sounds were, she was certain by the occasional clank of metal on metal that they were near the preparation area. Still, the abundance of plants muffled the sound well. Surely it wouldn't be a problem. In all other aspects, the table looked lovely. It was made of a type of glass that sparkled rather than shimmered, the edges were etched with an elaborate scrolled design, and it was sized for two, lending it an air of coziness.
Luke looked at her with cautious hope in his eyes. "Looks promising."
"It does," Mara agreed, almost cheerful again. Maybe this night would turn out all right after all. Smoothing her skirt gracefully, Mara slid into one of the polished blackwood chairs, Luke making a belated attempt to hold it out for her as she did so. Mara shook her head at him, amused. "I'm not that fragile, Luke."
"I'm trying to be romantic," he pointed out. "You could cooperate a little."
"I'll cooperate later," Mara said, sending a wave of promise across their bond. "Sit down yourself so we can place our drink orders."
He did so, but as he turned back toward the maitre'd, they found that he'd already disappeared. Mara frowned. "So far, the service here stinks."
"It'll get better," Luke said with an air of grim determination better suited to the battlefield than a high end restaurant. He didn't need to say, It had better.
Mara reached across the table to pat his hand. "It's okay. The company's still good."
Luke smiled at her, some of the tension in his shoulders bleeding away. "True. Finish telling me about work. What were you saying about Shada and Shirlee?"
"Oh, right," Mara said, brightening. "Well, several of the ships were in port at one of the outposts, and Aves had this brilliant idea of pitting the men against the women in a sabacc game."
"Strip sabacc?" Luke interrupted, waggling his eyebrows lecherously. Mara slapped his arm.
"Get your mind out of the gutter. Even Aves wouldn't be foolhardy enough to suggest that one. And you'd better not be thinking about Shada or Shirlee or anyone else on the losing end of a strip sabacc game."
"I'm not," Luke protested.
"Mmm," Mara said suspiciously. "Anyway, what Aves didn't realize was that Shirlee used to make a living as a sabacc hustler. So she and Shada and H'sishi all lost just enough rounds to make Aves and his cohorts drop their guard, then she dropped the heavy end of the hammer on them. Cleaned them out. The men wound up hand-detailing the Starry Ice's hull. Shirlee and Shada and H'sishi are still going around looking smug."
Luke laughed. "I knew I liked Shirlee Faughn. Aves should know better than that. You'd think all his time working with you would teach him not to underestimate the potential sneakiness of a woman."
"Flatterer," Mara said with a grin. "What about you? How goes the academy?"
"Not bad," he said. "Tionne has a new idea for teaching the youngest students . . ."
Luke finished that story and another, and Mara told him of Karrde's plans to overhaul half of the ships in his fleet. Luke pointed out that the Kuat driveyards had a new modification available for the type of cruiser Karrde often employed, and Mara promised to pass the information on; then the conversation trailed into a slightly uncomfortable silence as each of them looked at the other and around their table.
"Um," Luke said. "Am I going crazy, or have we been here kind of a long time?"
"We've been here kind of a long time," Mara said, sighing. "Suppose anyone even knows this table exists?"
"Someone must," Luke said, looking grim again.
Just then a slightly tarnished serving droid whirred up to their table. A few dents glimmered darkly in the low light, and a prolonged squeak preceded its words. "G'evening, gentles. Drinks tonight?"
Mara felt her eyebrow rise. She glanced at Luke, who visibly sighed and gestured vaguely toward her. "Gannesa juice, please," Mara told the droid.
"V'good," the droid wheezed. "Sir?"
"Same," Luke said.
The droid made a noncommittal clanking sound and whirred off again. Luke looked at Mara, and she patted his hand comfortingly again. "It's okay, Luke."
"This place had such good reviews," Luke said apologetically.
"Well, the atmosphere is lovely," Mara said, determined to find something more positive to focus on. Luke was looking decidedly less cheerful than he had when they had first arrived, and for all his show of grumbling about going out, she knew he'd actually put a lot of effort into arranging this evening for them. It wasn't his fault that the local lizards didn't stay out of the walking path, or that the restaurant didn't live up to its reputation. She glanced at the vines that wove their way through the trellis that separated their table from the rest of the dining area. "What sort of plants are these?"
"I don't know," Luke said, glancing at the vines in his turn. "Nothing I'm familiar with. Pretty, though."
Mara fingered the leaves behind her, noticing that the stems and lower leaves were beginning to gray. "What do you suppose is wrong with these--what--" Mara yanked her hand back, but the tingling sensation followed. She looked at it more closely, and found several tiny arachnids scrambling madly around on her flesh. She shook her hand violently, shaking the arachnids off, and stood to examine the plants behind her more closely.
"What is it?" Luke stood, concerned, and came to look with her, then jerked back at the multitude of tiny arachnids that were now swarming from the base of the vines. "Stang! How many of those things are there?"
"A lot," Mara said, eyeing them. She poked a prominent vine stalk carefully, then shook more arachnids off her hand and took a step back. "Well, I guess now we know why this plant is withering."
"Well, we're not going to sit here with them," Luke said, a slight shiver running through his shoulders. "Are you sure there aren't any more on you?"
"Pretty sure," Mara said, tamping down the smile that threatened. Luke's dislike of bugs still amused her somewhat, understandable though it was, but she wasn't any more anxious to share the table with the arachnids than he was. "Getting another table seems unlikely, though. Look how long it took us to get this one."
"They'd--ow!" Luke jumped.
Mara spun, hand reaching instinctively for the blaster that wasn't there, then jumped herself as two glasses' worth of gannesa juice splashed her as well as Luke. "What the--"
The serving droid tilted its head at them in a nearly human gesture. "P'rdon, gentles," it said, and extended an arm to retrieve the glasses from the floor and set them back on the serving tray it carried in the other hand. The glasses promptly fell off again, the tray being held at an alarming slant due to what appeared to be a snapped stabilizer in its carrying arm. "P'rdon, gentles," the droid wheezed again, and repeated the performance. Mara and Luke watched silently, arms held out from their sides as the gannesa juice dripped slowly off them. Mara blinked juice out of her eyes and looked at Luke, who stood as still as a statue, watching the droid.
"Mara," Luke said very calmly, "how much would you say two gannesa juices cost? Eight credits? Ten?"
"Something like that," Mara said, watching him warily.
"My bribe covers it, then. And then some." Still dripping, Luke stepped around the droid, carefully picked up Mara's bag, shook a few stray arachnids off, handed it to her, and took her other hand. "Remind me to leave my own detailed review of this place on the HoloNet after we get cleaned up."
"P'rdon, gentles," the serving droid whirred, dropping the glasses yet again.
"Shut up," Luke said, and led Mara out of the restaurant.
Outside, Mara was grateful for the lack of a chill in the air. Still, even though she knew it to be an illusion, the warm air also served to make her feel even more sticky. The walk back to the speeder was a silent one, save for the uneven rhythm of her mismatched shoes. They reached the speeder without running into any more lizards and with only a few passersby stopping to stare as they sloshed past, and Luke opened the passenger side door for her, still eerily calm. Mara hesitated.
"Your upholstery, Luke--"
"It'll clean," he said. "Besides, I don't happen to have any towels in the storage area."
Regretfully, Mara seated herself, wincing as juice dripped steadily off of her and onto the speeder's leather seat. Luke closed her door and came around to the driver's side, climbing into the speeder without seeming to notice the rivulets of juice that dropped off him.
"Your apartment, then mine," Luke said as he started the speeder. "Any other ideas for dinner?"
"Not yet," Mara said, gathering her hair behind her head so the wet strands wouldn't slap against her face in the wind. "But it'll be your apartment, then mine. Yours is closer."
Luke looked over at her, a slight crack appearing in his composure. "No," he said. "You shouldn't spend more time in wet clothes than you have to."
Mara took a breath, suppressing the instinctive urge to snap that she didn't need protecting. Protecting people was just what Luke did, and he'd already had a bad night. "And you should?" she asked, hoping she sounded reasonable. "Besides, I can change out of the wet clothes at your place. You have an extra tunic and pants I could borrow until we get to my place, don't you? Better that than you trying to fit into one of my other dresses if we went to my place first."
Luke snorted, and Mara took another breath, this time in relief. The calmness that had settled over him in the restaurant was too akin to the tension of a tightly coiled spring; it made her worry about what would happen if it was suddenly released. "Okay, my place," Luke relented. He looked over at her again. "I'm sorry, Mara. I really thought that place would be better than that."
Mara sighed. "You know, it probably is when we're not there." She smiled wryly at Luke. "We don't seem to have very good luck at this being normal thing."
"We don't, do we?" Luke shook his head and returned his attention to his piloting, smoothly shifting into another lane of traffic to avoid a driver going even faster than him. Mara hoped no traffic officers happened across their path; she doubted that a speeding citation would improve Luke's mood.
She leaned over to kiss Luke's cheek. "As a wise man once told me, normal is overrated."
Luke glanced sideways at her and smiled. Mara slid a little closer to him on the seat and rested her head on his shoulder - although she continued to keep an eye out for stray traffic officers, just in case.
For a wonder, the fifteenth level turbolift was functioning properly tonight. They reached Luke's level without incident, though the cleaning droid would undoubtedly be miffed at the sticky trail they left in the hallway. Luke took her hand as they walked toward his door. "You still have your heart set on dancing? Because I'd be happy to share my shower if you wanted."
"Aren't you thoughtful," Mara said, amused. Still, the idea had more than a little appeal. This night was hardly going as planned; perhaps it would be best to cut their losses and spend the rest of the evening away from everyone else, normal be damned.
She opened her mouth to say so just as Luke's apartment door slid open, but her words turned into a strangled yelp. On the other side of the door stood a short, gray-skinned, needle-toothed alien.
"Barkhimkh," Luke half greeted, half inquired, the tightening of his hand on Mara's the only outward sign of his surprise. Through their bond, though, Mara could feel that he had been startled as well, which made her feel slightly better about her own momentary lapse. Slightly. "What are you doing here?"
"Master Skywalker," Barkhimkh said, with that grave air all Noghri seemed to have. "Mistress Jade. You have met with some accident?" he added, suddenly uncertain. "Do you need medical attention?"
Luke glanced wryly down at himself, and his jacket covered with splotchy dark red stains. "No, thank you. It's juice. Don't ask."
Barkhimkh inclined his head solemnly. "I shall not, then." He stood aside to let them enter, then continued. "The secondsons and seconddaughter of Vader require your presence."
Luke sighed, his eyes drifting shut resignedly. "This is a joke, right?" Mara demanded. "Did someone put you up to this?'
Reading Noghri expressions was tricky, but Mara thought that Barkhimkh looked faintly puzzled. "It is no joke," he answered. "The Mal'ary'ush is unavailable, and her translating droid is - perhaps not the best choice of guardian."
"Are they hurt?" Luke asked, eyes still closed.
"No," Barkhimkh said consideringly, "but I believe the Mal'ary'ush would not be pleased to see the results of their actions."
"They're eleven and ten years old," Mara said, turning to Luke disbelievingly. "How much trouble could they possibly get in?"
Luke opened his eyes at that, turning an expression on her that was simultaneously exasperated and amused. "Sweetheart, most children don't grow up with the incredible level of self-discipline that you did. I routinely got into a tremendous amount of trouble at that age. So did Leia. If Barkhimkh thinks we should make an appearance, I think we'd better listen to him."
Mara crossed an arm over her chest, the elbow of her other arm resting on it as she leaned her forehead against the heel of her hand. "All right," she said with a sigh. "Let's go baby-sit."
Luke gathered a change of clothes for them both as Mara ducked into the refresher to take off her soaked gown. Forgoing the shower, she scrubbed at the sticky residue for a few minutes until she felt moderately clean again, then stuck her head out of the refresher. "Clothes?"
Sitting on the edge of the bed, his jacket thrown over the back of a chair, Luke was busy taking off his boots. He paused long enough to toss a small bundle at her, which she caught smoothly. "Thanks," she said, and ducked back in to pull them on. Luke wasn't a particularly large man, having the shorter, more compact physique of many fighter pilots, but he was still larger than she was. Even belted tightly, the pants were baggy on her, and the tunic hung to mid-thigh. Mara evaluated her reflection for a moment, then shrugged. Fashion forward it was not, but then, she wasn't especially interested in impressing the Solo kids, Threepio, or the Noghri, either.
She exited the refresher, passing Luke, who was now shirtless and holding his own bundle of clothes. "Looks good on you," he said. He winked, then disappeared into the refresher himself. Mara rolled her eyes fondly, then went to rummage in his closet.
By the time Luke emerged from the refresher, Mara had decided that, unlike the clothes, none of his boots or shoes would do. They were much too large; she'd never be able to move properly. "Can you grab my shoes?" she asked before Luke was more than a few steps beyond the refresher door. He turned back automatically, but frowned as he handed them to her.
"You're going to put those on again?" he asked. "Surely that can't be comfortable."
"More comfortable than trying to fit in anything sized for you, dear," Mara said grimly, strapping them back on. Now she really was a picture, Luke's clothes draping voluminously on her and paired with broken high-heeled dress shoes. She stood - lopsidedly - and held her arms wide. "Still look good on me?"
"You'd make anything look good," Luke answered with quick gallantry, but his eyes were doubtful.
Mara grinned. "Good answer. Let's go, before Barkhimkh works himself into whatever passes for a state with Noghri. Maybe I'll borrow some shoes out of Leia's closet. It's the least she's going to owe me for this."
"Still a cold-hearted business woman," Luke said, taking her hand. His palm was warm against hers, if still slightly sticky. "One of the many reasons I love you."
Mara squeezed his hand in return. "You do have strange preferences, Skywalker." She thought wistfully of their missed dinner, and added, "You don't suppose there's anything to eat at Leia's place, do you?"
"We'll find something," Luke promised. He snagged a towel from the refresher - "Upholstery," he explained in response to her quizzical look - and they headed back to the speeder, Barkhimkh in tow.
They found something, all right, Mara thought, blinking as they entered Leia's apartment. I think the technical term is "disaster area."
Machine parts were strewn over most of the floor and furniture, along with some hand spanners, datapads, and some scattered pellets that Mara thought might be animal food - or perhaps an animal's leavings. The gray shimmersilk drapes were askew, one pulled part of the way off its rod, and there were footprints on the pale blue sofa. Beyond the hallway, she could hear the children arguing loudly, along with some rather suspicious banging noises. Having seen Leia's apartment at times when it hadn't been under siege, she could well imagine that the Mal'ary'ush would indeed be displeased to see the results of her children's actions.
Beside her, Luke was muttering under his breath and looking not at all surprised. "Oh, for the love of -"
Anakin dashed into the living area and picked up one of the scattered hand spanners, then noticed the new arrivals. "Uncle Luke! Hi! Hi, Mara." The cheeriness of his tone did little to mask the guilty look on his face, and he sent a dirty look toward Barkhimkh, who was standing to the side and eyeing the living area grimly. "I didn't know you were here."
"Obviously," Luke said drily.
"Master Anakin, you really mustn't -" Threepio entered the living area well behind Anakin, clanking slightly as he walked. He saw Luke and Mara, and threw his arms up stiffly in an unmistakable expression of droid relief. "Master Luke! Mistress Mara! Thank the Maker! The children are being most trying this evening."
"I can see that, Threepio," Luke said, pinning Anakin in place with a glare. Luke took a breath, then bellowed, "Jaina! Jacen! Get out here right now!"
Silence fell abruptly. A head of tangled brown hair peeked around the corner. "Hi, Uncle Luke," Jaina said meekly. "When did you get here?"
"Never mind that. Get your brother and get out here." Jaina disappeared behind the corner, and Luke turned his glare on Barkhimkh. "None of you noticed this?"
Barkhimkh inclined his head apologetically. "We were patrolling the perimeter, Master Skywalker. Our primary responsibility was security. The Mal'ary'ush told us that her translator droid would care for the children within the apartment." He glared at Threepio out of the corner of his eye.
Threepio sputtered in indignation. "I offered the children a wide range of stories to choose from, but they simply refused to sit still. I'd like to see you do better, you gray-skinned oaf."
"Be quiet, both of you," Luke said, rubbing his forehead wearily. Mara linked her arm with his, unsure whether she was moved more by a desire to offer comfort or receive it. This was normal family life? She could expect this sort of scene if she and Luke had children? She wondered if she could talk Luke into adopting a stray rancor instead.
Jaina and Jacen reentered the living area, looking slightly wary. "Hi, Uncle Luke," Jacen said, as meekly as Jaina before him. "Hi, Mara."
Luke gestured to the mess. "Explanations?" The children all traded glances, but remained silent. Luke sighed. "Never mind. Just get it cleaned up. If this place isn't presentable before your mother gets home, you're in trouble with me as well as her."
There were more quietly exchanged glances, then, subdued, the children began gathering the debris.
Something brushed against Mara's ankle. She glanced down, but saw nothing - well, almost nothing. The hem of one of her pant legs swayed slightly. Suspicious, Mara lifted that pant leg and discovered a very familiar looking blue lizard clinging to her ankle. It looked up at her and flicked its tongue.
"That's it," Mara said. "It's official. The entire galaxy is against us tonight."
Luke glanced down and did a double take. "Is that the same -"
"No," Mara said, bending down to gently pry the lizard off her ankle. "It has a tail. But it's definitely the same kind."
"You found him!" Jacen dashed over, hands held out. "Thanks, Mara!" Bemused, Mara handed the lizard over.
"Is this the same lizard your mother said had to stay in its cage?" Luke asked sternly.
"No, Uncle Luke," Jacen said earnestly. "This is a different one."
Mara winced. "There are more of those wandering around here?"
"No," Jacen said. "I don't think so."
Mara looked pleadingly at Luke, who took Jacen's shoulders, turned him toward the hallway, and gave him a slight push. "Go check. If any are missing, start looking for them. If they're all accounted for, get back here and help Jaina and Anakin with the cleaning." He retook Mara's arm and tugged her gently toward the kitchen. "Let's see what there is to eat, shall we?"
The answer, Mara soon found, was nothing.
Luke was muttering under his breath again as he searched through the cupboards. "How long has Han been gone, anyway?"
Mara leaned against a green-veined marble counter, looking glumly at a box of biscuit mix. The biscuits sounded reasonably good, and she was getting hungry enough that a baking attempt was no longer out of the question, but the Solos' kitchen lacked the other ingredients that the recipe needed. Most of the things the kitchen contained were along the same lines, with key ingredients missing. There were some ready-to-eat items, but mostly the heavy, greasy Corellian type Han favored, and she wasn't that hungry yet. "Does he do all the ordering, then?"
"Mostly," Luke answered, his voice slightly muffled by yet another cupboard door. He emerged empty-handed and looking as exasperated as Mara felt. "Which is a good thing. Han's a good cook. Leia is not. But usually she's better than this about keeping the basics stocked when he's not here. I guess she's been busier than normal lately."
"Understandable," Mara said. "Still . . ."
"I know." Luke sighed. "There are a few restaurants on this block. Trouble is -"
"- we'd be taking the kids," Mara finished. "Not my first choice, especially tonight, but desperate times call for desperate measures."
"True." Luke ran a hand through his hair. "I guess I'll go see how the cleaning is going."
Mara pushed herself away from the counter. "I'm going to go check Leia's shoe collection. But Luke - no Threepio."
"Definitely not," Luke said in a tone of convincing horror, then added, "I doubt we'll be able to shake the Noghri, though."
Mara sighed. "Can't have everything."
They parted, Mara making her way to Han and Leia's bedroom, which had escaped the ravages of bored children. Exploring the closet, she found that Leia had an impressive collection of boots and shoes. She also found that Leia wore at least a full size smaller than she herself did.
And to think, Mara mused, that when this evening had started, she had almost been upset over Luke being slightly late. After the broken shoe, lost reservations, spiders, inadvertent juice bath, lack of a proper shower, Luke's clothes, the Noghri, Threepio, messy children, lizards, and missed dinner, the idea seemed laughable.
Resigned, Mara returned to the living area and found that the Solo children's frightening energy levels could be channeled toward productive pursuits as well as destructive. Most of the scattered belongings were no longer to be seen, the sofa was nearly clean again, and Jaina had fixed the housekeeping droid that Anakin had been trying to dismantle and set it to vacuuming up the mysterious pellets.
Luke was eyeing the drapery. He caught Mara's eye and said, "I think this is more than I feel like tackling tonight. Leia can deal with it. Wouldn't want to erase all the evidence anyway, now, would we?"
"Definitely not," Mara said, coming to his side and looking at the torn drapery tabs. "She's going to owe us big for this one."
"To put it mildly," Luke said. He surveyed the nearly clean room, then looked back at her. "Hey, you didn't change shoes."
"Leia has impossibly tiny feet. I'd have to cut off my toes or something to fit into those shoes."
"Well, I'm glad you didn't do that. Do you want to go back to your place and get a new pair, then?"
"You said there were restaurants on this block?" Luke nodded, and Mara shrugged. "Hardly seems worth it, then. Do you know what time Leia will be back?"
"I called her while you were in back. I only got an assistant, but he said the meeting would probably last another two hours or so."
"Mmm." Mara looked at Jacen, who was halfheartedly trying to scrub the faded footprints off the sofa, and Jaina and Anakin, who were gathering the last bits of debris with only a little bickering to punctuate their actions. "Dinner with the kids it is, then." She looked back at Luke. "But when Leia gets back, we disappear. Your place, my place - I don't care, but the rest of the night is ours."
Luke took her hand. "Promise." Then he made a face. "Not that my other promises for tonight have worked out so well."
"This one will," Mara said, "because I will take my blaster to the first person who tries to disturb us after Leia takes the kids off our hands. And I will not have it set to stun."
Luke grinned. "Sounds good. Jacen," he said, turning back to the room, "leave that. The housekeeping droid can finish it. We're going out to dinner. Where do you guys want to go?"
"Blasteroids!" Anakin dropped his armful of tools in his excitement. Luke groaned.
"Blasteroids?" Mara asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Please?" Anakin begged, seconded by Jaina and Jacen.
"It's an interactive place for kids," Luke explained to Mara. "Noisy. Kind of obnoxious."
"Fun!" Jaina interrupted indignantly. "They have simulator rides of different starships, Mara! You can pretend you're flying an A-wing or a TIE fighter!"
"Or an X-wing," Luke suggested. Jaina made a face.
"Well, yeah - but Uncle Luke, A-wings and TIEs are faster."
Luke looked genuinely appalled. "Those are about the only two ships faster than an X-wing, Jaina. And speed isn't everything. The X-wing is way more durable than A-wings and TIEs. You're going to want that sturdiness when you're in battle. All the speed in the galaxy won't serve you as well if an enemy pilot gets a lucky shot."
"It will if you can outrun them in the first place," Jaina said, almost disdainfully.
Luke opened his mouth - surely to argue the folly of his niece's wayward reasoning, Mara thought with great amusement - but Jacen beat him to it. "There aren't only ship rides, Jaina." He turned to Mara, her obvious ignorance of the appeal of Blasteroids making her a primary target of its praises. "There are holographic animals, Mara. And games to play - if you win, you get Blasteroids credits, and you can buy prizes with them."
"Good prizes," Anakin interjected. "Not the stupid animal toys Jacen always gets."
"They're not stupid! And they're not toys!"
"Not as stupid as all your toy droids!"
"They're not toys!"
"That's enough, all of you," Mara interrupted. "Fine, we'll go to Blasteroids. If your uncle says so, that is."
All three children immediately turned on Luke; obviously familiar with the pleading about to follow, he held up a hand and spoke first. "Fine, Blasteroids. Go get your jackets. And tell Threepio I'll take care of you, and he can power down for the night."
Cheers erupted, and three pairs of feet pounded down the hallway. Luke looked at Mara regretfully. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Mara said, for at least the dozenth time that night. "It's only for a couple of hours. They have food there, right? Not just games and sims?"
"Ye-es," Luke said doubtfully. "A kind of food, anyway. But like I said, Mara, it's a kids' place. All the food is aimed at kids. No shaak steak or karkan ribenes or anything especially good." He paused, thoughtful. "Although they do have ale. Probably because that's the only way the parents can get through a visit there."
Mara laughed. "You can buy me an ale, then. We'll point the kids toward the games and the sims, we'll find the least obnoxious thing on the menu, and we'll talk. Pretty much the same thing we were planning for dinner anyway, just with a lesser quality of food and more noise. We'll manage."
Luke smiled and took her in his arms. "I really do love you, you know."
"Damn right you do," Mara said, and kissed him.
"Ewww," Jaina said, reentering the living area with jacket in hand and a thoroughly disgusted look on her face.
"Want to stay home with Threepio, Jaina?" Luke asked mildly, his arms still around Mara. "I'm sure he'd love the company."
Jaina hastily pressed her lips into a thin line. Jacen and Anakin appeared from around the corner, both carrying their jackets, and Luke turned to Barkhimkh, who'd been standing silent watch by the front door since their initial entrance. "Do we need to collect any others?"
"That is not necessary," Barkhimkh said, his stern gaze still on the children. "I will serve as the protector of your group."
"All right, then," Luke said. "Everybody out. My speeder's in the usual place."
"Last one there's a Kowakian monkey-lizard!" Anakin dashed out the door with Jaina and Jacen close on his heels. Barkhimkh followed, somehow nearly matching their speed without seeming to hurry. Mara shook her head and click-clomped after them, Luke's arm in hers.
Half an hour later, Mara was sitting in a rather greasy booth dubiously eyeing a bowl of blasteroids. Whether the food was named after the restaurant or the restaurant after the food, Mara didn't know, but she thought they matched each other well. She dipped her blasteroid - some sort of deep-fried chili dumpling - in the accompanying purple sauce and nibbled at it.
"Well?" Luke asked, pitching his voice to carry above the sounds of shrieking children, holographic animal calls, simulated starship fire, and the various bells and alarms that accompanied the many games that surrounded them.
Mara chewed thoughtfully for a minute before answering. "Interesting. I could see Aves and Chin and Dankin having these during a sabacc game or something. Karrde wouldn't touch them, though. And I don't think I want to know what's in the sauce."
"Probably a good idea," Luke agreed, biting into his own blasteroid. He chewed and swallowed, then added, "These would have been a hit back in Anchorhead. I wonder when I got too sophisticated to appreciate this sort of food the way I would have when I was younger."
"I hate to break it to you, but you're not sophisticated," Mara told him. "You still like those dustcrepe things."
"Those," Luke said with superb dignity, "are a delicacy."
Mara snorted. "The Imperial court would have disagreed with you."
"So you're telling me I'm marrying a high maintenance woman who's going to drain our financial accounts buying expensive wine and such?" Luke took another blasteroid, hesitated over the sauce, then decided against it and ate the blasteroid by itself.
"If I say yes, does that mean we won't be coming back here?" Mara asked, waving back at Jaina as the girl dashed from the TIE simulator to the A-wing one.
"Well, not until we have our own kids," Luke said. "I was thinking that we could have about half a dozen. Or if you were willing to put just a little more effort into it, if we had ten, we could form a Skywalker-only squadron. Doesn't that sound like fun, Mara?"
Mara couldn't quite suppress the shudder that ran through her, and narrowed her eyes at Luke's resulting grin. "And maybe we could relocate to Nal Hutta, too."
"And open our very own franchise of Blasteroids while we're at it," Luke said, still grinning.
"One more word and I will force feed you this mystery sauce," Mara threatened.
Luke laughed. "I think we'll need some time to get used to this marriage thing before we seriously consider having children, don't you?"
"Sounds reasonable," Mara agreed. "Especially since I'm getting the sinking feeling that this is normal family life."
"It kind of is, yeah," Luke said, looking around the noisy restaurant ruefully.
"Then I need a primer course," Mara said firmly. "Normal for a couple first. When I'm used to that, then we can think about adding kids and getting used to this version of normal."
"Fair enough." Luke moved closer to her in the booth, sliding his arm around her waist and surreptitiously stroking her side with his fingertips. "How much longer until we can get back to that couple thing, by the way?"
Mara elbowed him. "Not for more than an hour yet. Behave yourself."
Luke made a face at her, but obediently released her and returned a measure of his attention to the almost-meal before them.
Mara, meanwhile, watched Anakin and Jacen playing some sort of holographic target game together. It was interesting, how each of the Solo children somehow resembled both parents, even Luke in some respects, yet looked so entirely individual. She wondered if she herself looked more like her mother or her father. Were there hints of an aunt or uncle in her, the way Anakin had Luke's cleft chin and blue eyes? How would her own children combine her features and Luke's? What strange things to suddenly be contemplating, she thought.
"Do you think just one or two children would be easier to handle than three?" she asked thoughtfully.
Luke shrugged and took a sip of his ale. "Probably, but I suspect that it depends on the child. Any child of ours is likely to be a handful, you know."
"Frighteningly true." Mara took a larger sip of her own ale.
"Hey," Luke said softly. "I was going to ask you something tonight, before everything, well -"
"Got shot straight to hell?" Mara asked, hiding a smile.
"Yeah." Luke looked rueful, then shook his head. "All the more reason to ask you, actually. When I was talking with Tionne before I picked you up, I managed to arrange some time off."
"You did?" Mara asked, surprised. "How much time off?"
"Several weeks, starting a week from today."
Mara dropped the blasteroid she was holding. It rolled off the table and into her lap, but Mara barely noticed. "Weeks? Are you serious?"
"Completely," Luke said, looking hopeful. "I was thinking that maybe you could talk Karrde into giving you some time off, too. I'd understand if it couldn't be weeks, but at least something -"
"Transmit those dates to my schedule as soon as we get back to your place," Mara interrupted him. "I'll get those days off even if it means sabotaging the Wild Karrde with my lightsaber."
"What about Shada's training?" Luke asked, a shade of wariness edging the hope. "Are you sure you can get all that time off? It would be all right if you couldn't, you know."
"It would not be all right," Mara said firmly. "We've both given the galaxy enough. The galaxy can give us a few weeks. Shada can spend the time shadowing Chin or Dankin or working on one of the other ships." Mara paused, then felt a wicked grin spreading across her face as a sudden thought occurred to her. "Or she can follow Talon around for a while. In fact, if I add that suggestion to my request for time off, I'll bet he won't say a single word in protest. He'll actually be glad to get rid of me."
Luke's grinned back, wariness gone. "It might be a good idea to get away from Coruscant entirely. Maybe someplace without much real technology, so no one can get ahold of us."
Mara retrieved the fallen blasteroid, whose grease was beginning to soak through her pants and burn her leg. She set it back on the table and propped her chin in her hand, enchanted. "Outer Rim."
"A nature preserve of some sort. maybe?" Luke suggested.
"I hear good things about Garqi," Mara said, surprised to find herself smiling. "Weeks, you said."
"Yeah," Luke said, sliding his arm around her waist again. The man was impossibly stubborn - but Mara found she didn't mind a bit. "We have some lost years to make up for. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Definitely," Mara said. She turned slightly in the booth and slipped her arms around his neck. "You, Luke Skywalker, are a smart man."
"I have to be, to keep up with my promised wife," Luke said.
"You just like saying that word," Mara accused.
"What, 'wife'? I do like saying it. I plan on saying it many more times in my life." He leaned his forehead against hers, his blue eyes very deep. He was close enough that Mara could feel his breath on her face. It smelled of cheap ale and blasteroids, but then, hers probably did too. And she'd tried the secret sauce, so he had more to forgive than she did.
Then his lips met hers, and Mara forgot all about such things. Well, almost, anyway.
A small hand tugging at Mara's sleeve interrupted them, followed by a plaintive voice. "Not again!"
Luke made an exasperated noise as he pulled back. "Jaina, do you do this to your parents, too?"
"Yes," Jaina said, making a face at him. "Kissing is gross. Mara, I set a new record on the A-wing sim! My name is on the high score list now!"
"That's great," Mara said, looking at Luke out of the corner of her eye. "I'll bet your father will be just as happy as your uncle to hear that you're flying A-wings instead of X-wings or a YT-1300, too."
"Oh, I'll fly the Falcon when I get older," Jaina said seriously. "Dad said I could. The Falcon is cool."
Luke released Mara to lean his elbow on the greasy tabletop and cover his eyes with one hand. Mara grinned. "Jaina, why don't you go get your brothers? Your uncle and I need some help to finish these blasteroids."
"Okay," Jaina said, snagging a blasteroid and dunking it thoroughly in the mysterious purple sauce before running off. Luke watched her go through slightly parted fingers.
"The only one of the three of them really interested in flying, and I can't get her to touch an X-wing," he said ruefully. "Where did I go wrong?"
Mara laughed. "She thinks kissing is gross, too. Give her time."
"Hmm," Luke said, the expression in his eyes softening as he lowered his hand. "So. Normal enough night for you?"
Mara looked around them. The restaurant was filled with children, some yelling with glee, some with disappointment; a few tables down, a child of maybe three standard years began an ear-piercing wail. Across the room, Jaina reached her brothers and smacked Jacen's shoulder, gesturing back toward Luke and Mara when he turned irritatedly on her. A variety of scents wafted on the recirculated air, none of them especially pleasant. The ale was slightly flat, and Mara fully expected a case of indigestion from the blasteroids.
And sitting next to her was Luke, his fingers entwined with hers, his eyes affectionate, his presence in the Force brushing gently against her awareness.
"Yes," Mara said, and smiled at him. "Absolutely perfect."
Original cover by rhonderoo. HTML formatting copyright 2008 TheForce.Net LLC.