When you don't know what you've lost, can you miss it?
He thought of her at the oddest times.
Sometimes it was mere memory - the scent of a green-laden wind could bring back memories strong enough to stop him in his tracks, while the occasional anonymous passerby's perfume could trigger a mental itch that would distract him for hours before he made the connection. Other times he could taste the unmistakable tang of the Force in his mind, and knew that the flood of sudden awareness was a memory of what might have been - should have been? - rather than what had been. There rarely seemed to be any pattern or logic to the thoughts and memories, but they never fully left.
At first, the memories and self-recriminations had been nearly constant. He knew that Leia and Han felt similarly; if not for Mara, the twins would almost certainly have fallen into Imperial hands and lost any chance for a normal life. Karrde also felt the burden of failure. He took his responsibility to his people seriously, and Mara's loss affected him deeply. Luke understood Leia and Han's regret, and Karrde's pain. He shared both.
But more than that, Luke could never forget his last exchange with Mara before they'd entered Mount Tantiss, when Mara had asked him to kill her rather than let her join C'baoth. You won't have to face him alone, Luke had reassured her. I'll be there to help you.
Some help he'd proven to be.
He didn't remember much of the funeral, not even whatever he'd said when it was his turn to speak. Something about her selflessness and determination to avoid a new round of Clone Wars for the galaxy, likely. It didn't matter. All he could think of was Mara dropping to her knees before C'baoth, her lightsaber's vicious stab, the explosion of blue fire, his own failure to pull Mara back fast enough. Drop, stab, explosion, drop, stab, explosion, drop...
The burns had been horrific. Mara had made it to the Wild Karrde, but just barely; and their medical facilities simply weren't up to the task.
Drop, stab, explosion...
I'll be there to help you.
Once more, with feeling, Skywalker, he thought, not bitterly, but with a dull ache that refused to fade. Maybe this time it'll mean something.
The ache did fade eventually. Such pain always did. The memories faded too. He might not think of her for a day, then not for several days. After a while, he'd even go months without thinking of her, or his own inability to save her. It only made sense. You couldn't bring back the dead, and they hadn't exactly been close. They hadn't been assassin and target at the end, either, but whatever it was they'd been, he couldn't honestly say it was friends. No longer enemies, more than acquaintances, less than friends.
There were so many others who'd meant more to him: Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, who'd raised and loved him as their own; Biggs, who'd shared all the dreams and realities of childhood and adolescence and young adulthood; Dack, whose friendship had been forged in the heat and closeness and bloodiness of war. So many . . . So why should he mourn the loss of someone whose relationship to him he couldn't even define?
But he couldn't completely forget her, either.
On the twins' first birthday, after Jacen and Jaina had finally been coaxed to sleep and Threepio had begun carefully cleaning smears of cake from the carpet and wall paneling, Leia had quietly offered a toast to Mara. Han, Chewie, Winter, Lando, and Luke had joined in, paying tribute to Mara's contribution to the children's well-being. In the moment of silence that followed, Luke remembered, not Coruscant or Wayland or that awful moment of failure that had cost Mara her life, but his first glimpse of her on Myrkr. Don't tell me; let me guess. You're Mara Jade.
So much unfulfilled potential. But for the first time, he found comfort in the thought that she'd died protecting others. It seemed fitting for the person that he somehow knew she would have become, given the chance.
With support from Leia, Luke began an academy for Jedi hopefuls. Despite some rather spectacular failures, it was an overall success. He followed Yoda's mandate to pass on what he had learned, and found others willing to help resurrect the Jedi Order. And on a personal level, he found teaching surprisingly satisfying. There was a joy in helping others to grow, and Luke loved to see the pleased expressions on his students' faces when they finally grasped a concept or skill that had been eluding them. For a long time he'd felt his obligation to teach was just that: an obligation. He'd felt both trepidation and resignation at the prospect; what he hadn't expected was that he'd love every minute of it.
As he taught what he knew of the Force amid the humid jungles of Yavin IV, occasionally he remembered another vine-tangled forest, and intense, hard green eyes, and regret would wash over him.
She would have made a magnificent Jedi, he thought, and was startled by a half-vision of Mara, determined, her eyes reflecting an inward peace he'd never seen her possess, wielding a lightsaber against an unseen enemy. The vision collapsed on itself as quickly as it had come, and Luke wondered how much the galaxy might have lost, unawares, when she fell.
Years later, running his fingers absently through Callista's silky hair as she leaned over him, he began to smile up at her -
- her long red hair brushed his shoulder as she leaned on one elbow beside him, her laughter carefree as he turned a caress into a tickle, then pulled her close -
- and broke away, gasping. He managed to mutter some excuse as he turned away from Callista's hurt expression, but never did find any explanation sound enough to satisfy either her or himself.
He was heartbroken when Callista left, but couldn't find it in himself to blame her. Blaming himself, on the other hand . . . Strange, how easy that always was. He shrugged off Leia and Han's concern, burying himself in his teaching, keeping busy enough that thinking was unnecessary, at least for a while. He found comfort in routine, and in his students' progress, and in his own deepening studies of the Force.
He also began to feel more like a true Jedi than he ever had. It wasn't the life he'd imagined as a wistful boy on Tatooine, but it felt right in every way. As his heart and mind settled more deeply into that identity, Luke was content.
A civil war threatened when it was discovered that Bothan agents had helped Palpatine destroy Caamas and Thrawn supposedly reappeared. Luke, Leia, and Han wound up tangled in the middle of it, as always. Despite the dread and hostility that began to permeate the New Republic, Luke admitted to himself that there was a certain thrill in seeing action again. But mixed in with that thrill crept a sense of loss. He didn't know where it came from or why, but he couldn't shake it.
The false Thrawn was eventually unmasked and war averted, but even with victory Luke couldn't stop the hollow feeling that had begun to haunt him. Meditation provided no answers, only the increasing conviction that something was missing.
When the peace accords between the Empire and the New Republic were signed onboard the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera, Luke was introduced to a new associate of Karrde's, Shada D'ukal, and had to tamp down a sudden, confusing wave of resentment that Shada was here, a vital part of Karrde's organization and of life itself, and Mara wasn't.
Mara? He couldn't remember the last time he'd thought of her. Why should he remember her so strongly now? Escaping from the ceremonies, Luke gazed out a viewport at the stars. The Force flickered, and he caught a glimpse of Mara standing beside him, smiling at him over a steaming mug. In the vision, she?d aged as he had, as though time hadn't been destined to forever stand still for her. The image faded from his mind, leaving Luke feeling emptier than before.
He didn't know what part Mara had been meant to play in his life, but for the first time in years Luke was certain that she should have been there.
I'll be there to help you.
He'd thought that his failure and her loss had been painful at the time. Still without understanding why, he now realized that he hadn't known the half of it.
Although Luke continued with life as he always had, the empty feeling only increased throughout the coming years. He fought the Yuuzhan Vong invasion, feeling more and more that he was incomplete. He sheltered the Jedi children and wondered why he occasionally saw the glimmer of a tiny redheaded boy who wasn't there in his peripheral vision. He defeated Shimrra, and during his recovery from the poisoned amphistaff, missed the comfort of someone who wasn't there.
The family slowly recovered from the loss of Anakin. Jacen and Jaina grew into Jedi to be proud of, and the Order began to recover from its wartime losses. Luke did his duty, all the while remembering Mara more and more often. Trivial mannerisms, like the way she had often swept her hair back behind one ear, replayed themselves in his mind until they were intimately familiar. He imagined a Mara who'd recovered from the Emperor's twisting lies, a stubborn, fiery, elegant Mara who had an inner calm and a dry sense of humor, who could be both aggravating and playful by turns, and missed her ever more deeply.
He'd lost track of his age by the time his turn to join the Force inevitably neared. The galaxy enjoyed relative peace, the Jedi flourished, and Jaina and Jacen and their families hovered helpfully around him, sniffling when they thought he wasn't looking and offering small comforts like a mug of hot chocolate or a fresh pillow when they knew he was. Luke was inwardly amused, though he tried not to let on. His one everlasting regret had begun to fade softly into wonder. What was the other side like? Would Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru be there? Leia, Han, Biggs, Wedge?
His vision grew dim, then bright again. A swell of overwhelming joy rose within him as smiling green eyes shimmered into focus before him, and the voice that had stayed with him all those years gave the answer.
I'm here to help you.