It was sundown on this side of Yavin 4 as Mara Jade piloted her personal ship, the Jade?s Fire, toward the ancient temple that housed Luke Skywalker?s Jedi Praxeum. She was flying away from the light, her vessel casting a long shadow across the old stones. Amid the trees at the edge of the immense structure was a landing pad lit up for her arrival.
Of all the vacation spots I could have chosen, she thought to herself as the Jade?s Fire descended. It probably wasn?t the place Karrde had in mind when he?d insisted that she take a vacation, but it was the only one that made any sense, the only place where she could actually accomplish something with her time off.
Maybe one of these days I?ll take a real vacation, she mused. Right now I have too much to learn.
What was it that Palpatine used to tell her?
?You may rest when you are dead, Mara. Now get up, and do it again.?
Mara shook her head and blew out a short breath as she powered down the ship. She wouldn?t wait that long. Even a former assassin had her limits. Thankfully she was nowhere close to reaching them.
She grabbed her lightsaber and flipped off the lights. Sitting by the ship?s hatch was a simple cloth sack containing some clothes and the rest of her weapons. She hoisted the bag over one shoulder and walked down the ramp, wondering which Jedi trainee the Praxeum had sent to greet her.
The light was fast disappearing beyond the vast jungle, and Mara had trouble seeing her escort in the darkness. She sensed him before she actually saw his face: that bright, wide-eyed face that she had grown slightly more accustomed to over the last few years. He was grinning like an idiot, of course. But whenever she told him that, he had the awful habit of blushing and then telling her how glad he was to see her. Despite the years of cautious friendship between them, nothing made her feel more awkward than Luke Skywalker?s silly grin.
His features became much clearer as he stepped within arms reach of her. She recognized the inquisitive blue eyes, the dark blonde hair that always managed to look wind-tossed. He was wearing a light tan, sleeveless shirt and mud brown pants. The shine in his eyes suggested that he?d run there, though Mara could detect no trace of fatigue, no hardness of breathing.
?Mara!? he said brightly, reaching his arm out in a gesture somewhere between a hug and a handshake. Before he could get too close, Mara stuck out her hand and grabbed his.
?Good to see you, Skywalker.? She examined his outfit once more. ?I hope I?m not interrupting something.?
Luke looked down at his attire and laughed. ?I was on my way to do a little saber practice when security told me you?d arrived.? He released her hand and a look of concern flashed across his face. ?We weren?t expecting you until tomorrow. Is everything okay??
Mara smirked and turned to close the hatch. ?I?m fine. Karrde wanted me to go early. He thought if I waited too long I?d change my mind.? She turned back to face Luke and shrugged her shoulders. ?Do you want me to leave and come back tomorrow??
His dismay was obvious. ?Of course not! I told you before, you?re always welcome here.?
Mara smiled for the first time since landing. She didn?t think she could ever make the Praxeum her home, but it warmed a part of her to hear those words.
Luke gestured for her to follow him inside. As they walked, he stole a few glances at her; after the third one, she came to a halt.
?What?s wrong, Skywalker?? she asked abruptly. Maybe a little too abruptly, judging by his hurt expression.
He pointed at the lightsaber on her belt. ?I was wondering how your lightsaber was working for you.?
?My lightsaber?? Surprised, Mara reached down and touched her hand to the silver hilt. Of all the questions?
The eagerness on his face faded just a little. ?Yes. I mean, does it feel right? I was wondering.?
She took the weapon off her belt and held it up between them. Why was he curious now? He?d presented it to her four years ago, after the defeat of Grand Admiral Thrawn. At the time, she?d doubted whether she had the right to accept his gift. It had, after all, been Luke?s first lightsaber, built by his father in a time when the Jedi Knights were many. Sometimes she wondered whether she should have turned him down.
Mara met Luke?s eyes, still holding the lightsaber up like an offering. ?It works very well,? she replied. Not true. It worked perfectly. ?If you?d like, I can demonstrate.?
He grinned again, and for once the urge to criticize him was overwhelmed by a feeling of peace that she hadn?t experienced in a long time. She even thought she might like that smile of his.
?Would you care to join me for some saber practice?? Luke asked. He looked exactly like she?d always imagined a farm boy from Tatooine would: fresh-faced and excited, with a spring in his step that hinted at restlessness and invincibility and a desire for grand adventures. When they first met, she?d hated that about him. Now she found it? refreshing.
All else aside, she?d been hoping to get some good lightsaber sparring in. She nodded at him enthusiastically. ?I hope you?ve been practicing, Skywalker.? She hooked her saber onto her belt. ?It?s probably been a while since you faced a worthy opponent.?
?Hey, you?d be surprised, Mara. These kids have really come far.?
He started to walk again, and she strode beside him as they passed through one of the old ruin?s many entrances. They took a series of winding paths before coming to a turbolift. As Luke reached for the control panel, his comlink beeped urgently. His cheeks reddened as he grabbed it from his pocket.
?Master Skywalker, you asked to be informed if we heard any news of Jedi Callista.? The tinny voice coming through the comlink?s little microphone sounded young, female, and Coruscanti. Mara wondered if the speaker was one the newer trainees.
Luke closed his eyes and took a deep breath. ?Yes, thank you. I?d like to hear it in person; I?ll be there shortly.? He closed the link and looked at Mara apologetically. ?I?m sorry. I?ll have to meet up with you.? He pointed at the turbolift. ?There?ve been a few changes since you were away. Level five, third door on the left. If you want something to eat, we keep a kitchen in the room directly across the hall.
Mara raised one eyebrow. ?For light snacks??
A shadow of the grin returned, and he managed a hint of humor. ?You never know when hunger will strike.? He pressed a button on the control panel, and the lift door opened. ?I?ll be back as soon as I can. If you need anything, there?s a comm unit in the training room.?
Still smiling, he turned away and jogged down the corridor, disappearing around a corner. Mara watched him go, then stepped into the turbolift.
As promised, the training room was the third one on the left, level five. A pale blue mat covered the entire floor, and a series of five circles were painted in the middle, with the smallest one lying at the heart of the bigger ones. Mara walked to the center of the room, dropped her bag, and lowered herself to the mat. She crossed her legs and pulled out her lightsaber, letting it rest in her open palm.
Of course she knew Luke was searching for Callista. As part of the Smuggler?s Alliance, it was her job to know as much as she could. Not too long ago, she?d met the former Jedi, a woman who?d been stripped of her body, then of the Force itself. That she had survived in the computer of a superweapon was hard enough to believe. That she?d entered the body of a dead Jedi student was even harder, but there it was. For some reason, at the only time the two women had met, this Callista woman had asked Mara if she was interested in Luke.
?Who told you I was ever interested in Luke Skywalker? When I first met him, the thing I wanted most in the universe was to kill him.?
Mara wondered if Callista had ever brought their conversation up with Luke. What would he have thought?
She scowled and banished the idea from her mind, returning her focus to the weapon in her hand. She closed her eyes and curled her fingers over the lightsaber hilt.
He had told her that she earned it. He told her that, as a Jedi, she would need it. But the reason that stuck in Mara?s mind clearest, that drew her back to that calm evening on the roof of the Imperial Palace, was that he wanted her to have it. His father?s lightsaber. The weapon he?d lost along with part of his arm, that he?d eventually recovered from his insane clone. She remembered thinking that he was giving it to her to tell her she must break with her past and start anew. It had not occurred to her until later, when she was alone once more, that he might have meant something else.
She wouldn?t have admitted it to him then ? even if she had understood his true meaning ? that he was the best friend she?d had in her whole life. He might have known it already, but telling him, actually saying it just wasn?t possible. Everything had changed so fast; she?d defeated a crazed Dark Jedi, helped foil an Imperial plot, agreed to play liaison for the smugglers, and started working with the New Republic, with the people she?d spent most of her life fighting against. It definitely wasn?t the time to make her confused relationship with Luke Skywalker any more confusing.
It wasn?t love, not like the kind Luke and Callista seemed to have for each other. She doubted she would ever love like that, let alone love Luke like that. It wasn?t the kind of love he and his sister shared either. She couldn?t place it, couldn?t pin it down with words, but she was happy enough with it, happy to think that she could count on the great Jedi Master to come through for her if ever she needed it. All she wanted from him right now was someone who listened, who could teach her more about the Force, who she could banter with. And it made her feel more connected to the galaxy when she came here and talked to him. He left her feeling peaceful.
The lightsaber seemed to stare up at her, its hilt shining under the bright lights. She thought back to Luke?s inquiry about her lightsaber, then to the distracted look on his face when he learned there was news of Callista. Did Luke ever regret giving her his father?s lightsaber? Did he wish he could have given it to Callista instead, as a token of his love or to help her recover her lost abilities? Mara tried not to be overly sentimental about her possessions; she knew anything could be taken away in a heartbeat. But try as she might to avoid it, she had grown? attached to this lightsaber, in a way rivaled only by her attachment to her own freedom.
At first it hadn?t seemed very special, at least not of its own accord. It was a gift from Luke and therefore of value, but beyond that, she didn?t see its uniqueness. The awareness came slowly, over the course of weeks and months. She began to examine it closely, noticing its superior craftsmanship. Its balance was a thing of beauty; the handle seemed molded to her grip, to her particular style.
She found it strange that she now wielded a weapon that had belonged to Darth Vader, the Sith she?d once viewed as a rival. In her adolescence, when she?d been the Emperor?s Hand, she had detected a weakness in Vader, and she?d hoped to exploit it. She was woman enough to admit that her powers had made her somewhat arrogant, and in her arrogance she had assumed that Vader would ultimately be no match for her cunning. After accepting the weapon that had once been Vader?s, after wielding it and practicing with it every day, she realized that there was far more to the Sith Lord than had met her young eye.
The lightsaber certainly didn?t offer up holos of Vader?s life, but when she sat in deep meditation and held the weapon in her hand, she began to sense what its creator had imbued it with. Beyond Luke?s bravery and compassion, beyond his love and acceptance and forgiveness, she sensed something else. Something older, something desperate but at the same time confidant and strong. Something devoted and so full of emotion it could hardly be contained. She sensed that the man who?d built this lightsaber had truly made it an extension of himself. According to Luke, the lightsaber belonged to his father when the man was still the Jedi Knight and hero of the Clone War, Anakin Skywalker. Mara didn?t know anything about that man, but she wondered what it would have been like to fight beside him while he held this saber.
Yes, she would have underestimated Vader greatly, had she ever tried to topple him. That much she could see now. Fortunately she?d never had the chance.
Over the months, as Mara grew to appreciate the design of the saber and the care it had been given by its previous owners, she began to see a new connection. Unlikely as it would have once seemed, she felt closer to Darth Vader, to Anakin Skywalker, than she had ever been when he lived. She understood how he could have been manipulated and used by Palpatine, as she was. She saw that he must have loved and been loved in return, to be able to produce two offspring such as Luke and Leia. She realized why Luke had felt he could save him, and it might have been the same reason he didn?t give up on her even when she wanted to kill him.
Because of Anakin Skywalker?s son, she was free now. Luke had saved her life. Carrying the saber would mean so many things to Mara. It would represent her new life and her friendship with Luke. It would also serve as a reminder of the perils of the dark side and of the kind of strength needed to stand against it.
Mara wondered, with a wry grin, if Callista would have been able to divine as much meaning from Luke?s first lightsaber.
She decided it didn?t matter what Luke thought now. If she ever proved unworthy of the weapon, she?d return it and build her own. Until then, she would do her best to be worthy of its legacy.
The door opened, and Luke stepped through, trying to mask his emotions in the Force and succeeding pretty well. Mara caught only a hint of resignation, and then it was gone. She opened her eyes and tightened her grip on the lightsaber. ?Ready for our little match, Skywalker?? she asked, a smile tugging at her lips as she stood slowly.
Luke cocked his head to one side and examined her. She wasn?t sure what she saw in his eyes, but it filled her with anticipation. She?d been itching for a good duel ever since she quit training at the Praxeum.
?You know, Mara,? Luke said at last, scratching his chin as he continued to look at her. ?Believe it or not, I have been practicing.?
She sprung forward, her cerulean blade igniting midair as she vaulted across the room. Luke?s emerald saber came to life with a snap-hiss that seemed to echo forever. They came together fiercely, with a crackle of electricity. Faces only inches apart, they stared at each other across the blades.
Mara sighed with relief. ?You have no idea how long I?ve been waiting to do this.?
Luke grinned. ?Oh, I think I have some idea.? He parried her next attack effortlessly and spun his lightsaber in a pinwheel of energy.
?By the way, Skywalker.? Her blade intercepted Luke?s a hair?s breadth from her chin; she bent over backward and planted her free hand on the floor, swinging her right leg out to connect hard with his left side. ?Your father?s lightsaber suits me just fine. Thanks again.?
Luke winced as he jumped out of reach. ?Don?t mention it.? He angled his weapon for the next strike.
The currents of the Force filled Mara?s senses, rushing through her body with an intensity she would never have known possible before meeting this man. As she hurtled forward, more alive now than she?d been when she touched down on this planet, she couldn?t help thinking this was the best vacation she?d ever had.
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