With their relationship already distant at the time of Mara's death, can Luke and Ben overcome the pain of her loss?
"What about Luke?" a woman's voice asked.
Luke himself hadn't been meant to hear, of course. As he passed through the crowded room, smiling at friends and strangers alike even as he tried to ignore their curious gazes, the words hung whisper-soft in the stifled air, imperceptible to everyone else. To Luke, though, they were as clear as a homing beacon in wild space.
Pretending unconcern, Luke made his way to a table filled with extravagant hors d'oeuvres. A helpful serving girl promptly pressed several upon him; preoccupied with his need to remain unobserved, he absently took them. The serving girl smiled at him--or at least, her mouth did. Luke avoided meeting people's eyes these days. The habit had developed months ago, when the pity he found there became too much to take, and he saw little reason to change it now.
The serving girl left his side to smilingly help others, leaving Luke standing alone in the crowd, his eyes searching.
"He's so withdrawn these days," someone murmured, and Luke knew that voice too.
"In more ways than one," Leia answered Talon Karrde, and this time Luke saw them standing together about ten meters away, with Shada D'ukal--the first speaker--at Talon's side. Reflexively, Luke ducked behind a nearby pillar. Some part of his mind silently chastised him both for childishness and for eavesdropping, but Luke was well versed in ignoring his subconscious by now and remained where he was.
They must not have seen him, nor Leia sensed his nearness; the quiet conversation continued unabated. "They were so close," Talon said, "and Mara's description of that Force bond of theirs made it sound like they were mentally entwined. I admit, when Mara--"Talon paused, then continued, his smoothly modulated voice suddenly gruff--"when she died, my first thought was that Luke might follow, just from the sheer loss. He hasn't, of course--but he's not the same as he was. I suppose that's natural..."
"Yes," Leia murmured. "But not like this."
"What about Ben? I haven't seen much of him since the funeral."
Neither have I. The thought still cut and bled. Luke let his eyes drift shut.
"--fine," Leia was saying. "But I doubt he's as fine as he seems. He's good with his shields, but he forgets that an aunt doesn't need to rely on the Force to read her nephew. I think he's mostly being stoic. His parents' influence, no doubt." Leia's voice and sense both radiated exasperation. "Luke and Mara raised him well, but they both had the damned habit of hiding pain or vulnerability as though their lives depended on it, and Ben's inherited that."
"There must be something we can do," Shada said. "Mara wouldn't want either of them to go on like this."
"Mara's more than welcome to make some sort of appearance and bang their heads together, then," Leia said. "That, they might pay attention to." She sighed. "We've tried. They both just retreat. I don't like seeing them this way either, but I don't think either of them is ready to listen to any of us. This is probably something they're going to have to work out themselves. If they'd reach out to each other instead of pulling away--"
Luke's eyes snapped open. Before him stood Kyp Durron, his expression faintly puzzled, but his eyes holding an all too familiar compassion.
Luke jerked himself from leaning against the pillar to near-parade attention, and pulled his eyes away from Kyp's. It didn't help; he'd been adept at reading body language even before Mara's tutoring on the subject, and Kyp's was broadcasting the same sympathy that his eyes held. "Yes?"
Kyp paused, considering his potential choice of words. How Luke hated that moment of silence that had become the customary preface for everyone who spoke to him. Kyp came to a decision, settling on a fairly unobtrusive, "You okay?"
"Fine," Luke said shortly. He looked down at the plate he still held; the hors d'oeuvres sat upon a paper doily, ridiculous in their miniature yet overblown elegance. He thrust the plate at Kyp. "Here, take this."
Kyp automatically took the plate, but his other hand reached out just as quickly to take Luke's shoulder, stopping him in his tracks as he turned away. "Luke--"
Luke shook him off. "I'm fine, Kyp. Really." He flashed a reassuring smile toward Kyp, hoping that it didn't look as hollow as it felt. "Just tired lately. Feeling my age, I guess."
There was another hateful, pitying pause, then Kyp said softly, "If you're sure."
Luke pulled his shields around himself as tightly as a cloak against a sandstorm. "I'm sure," he said, and strode away, focusing inward, reaching for the appearance of calm. He was usually better at maintaining that appearance than this. His failure irritated him almost as much as the rest of the evening had.
He managed to escape the gathering without having to stop to speak to anyone else; almost everyone was busily occupied discussing the government or the Jedi, or more superficially, making business deals or flirting. Luke envied them.
He hailed an airtaxi--he rarely bothered to drive himself, these days. Within half an hour, he was at their--his--apartment door. He punched in the access code, then slipped in as the door opened. It closed smoothly behind him, and he was finally safe, safe from prying eyes and words, safe from chafing commiseration, safe from the draining effort of keeping up appearances.
Luke walked through the main room and dining area without sparing them a glance. There was nothing for him there. He'd long since stripped the apartment bare of any hint of her presence.
There was no hint of Ben's presence, either.
He and Ben had begun drifting apart even before Mara's death, and the sudden loss had only worsened the situation. Luke knew he hadn't been the father Ben needed then. Lost in his own pain and grief, he'd been unable to comfort Ben as he needed, unable to even contemplate doing so.
Meanwhile, Jaina had become Ben's confidant, as had Corran, who was now Ben's Master. Luke tried to be pleased for Ben. He knew that he should be; Corran was good for Ben, and Jaina and Ben had found some measure of solace together, sharing much the same grief over Jacen's betrayal and Mara's loss. As well, Corran and Jaina had been close to Mara, and would share their memories of her, and impart some measure of her wisdom and talent to Ben. That was good, as Mara would have wished it. As Luke did wish it.
Ben was his son. Not Corran's. Not Jaina's. Luke should be the one Ben came to, the one who shared memories of Mara, the one who shared Ben's life.
But Ben, older than his years and far more weary than he should be, was often busy and preoccupied, and kept whatever grief he still harbored locked tightly inside of him. Somewhere along the line, he seemed to have forgotten how to connect with Luke as thoroughly as Luke had forgotten how to connect with him.
So Ben, who now spent most of his time in the Temple, or with Corran or Jaina, would come occasionally for dinner--once in a while he'd even spend the night. Luke used to hug him in greeting, until the awareness that Ben merely stood stiffly in response, uncomfortable in his father's embrace, intruded upon his consciousness. Then the hugs became shoulder-clasps, and the shoulder-clasps became mere nods. Their shared meals were mostly silent and awkward now, punctuated with the guilty sense of relief both felt when they were ended. He wondered, sometimes, whether Ben blamed him for Mara's death, or whether they truly just had that little in common.
Leia had been right that their estrangement was something that only they could fix. Luke wished he had some idea of where to begin, or whether that healing was even possible now.
He ran a hand wearily through his hair and paused at the threshold of the bedroom. The room was dim, lit only by the passing speeder traffic outside. Luke didn't mind. Carefully not looking around him, he walked to the window and slowly reached the fingertips of one hand to its cool surface, then spread the hand until his palm lay flat against the smoothness, his fingers spread. After a moment, he leaned further forward, letting his forehead rest against the transparisteel as well, and closed his eyes.
After several long moments, he gathered the strength to push himself away from the window. Taking a deep breath, he looked toward the bed. He wanted to hesitate, but something deep inside propelled him, and would not let him shy away.
Half a dozen steps brought him to the large bed--his side of it--and he slowly knelt. Reaching far into the dark depths beneath the bed, his fingers brushed against a silky hardness. He felt along the perimeter of the hardness until he found the smooth loop at the end. Grasping the handle, he pulled the small trunk from beneath the bed and into the faint light of the room, then sat back on his heels and looked at it. It was a fairly expensive trunk, being made of elaborately polished and shining Fijisi wood with masterfully etched filigree work along the seams. Normally he would have been satisfied with something far more simple, but then, this had never been for him. It had been his anniversary present to Mara some years ago; she'd always liked Fijisi wood, and for all her overriding practicality, she had the eye of an artist and appreciated such quality work. It was fitting that it should now hold what it did.
Luke sank into a more comfortable position, and after another deep breath, he opened the trunk's latch and lifted the lid; within lay memories shining and painful, and it took all the control he could muster to lift them carefully, one by one, his fingers brushing their surface lovingly, with the barely-there touch of a wraith.
Mara's favorite dark green bantha-hide jacket, still smelling of fine aged leather, and more faintly, of Mara herself. A hairbrush, with strands of red and gold and gray twining through the bristles. Her beloved old sleeve blaster. A half empty container of lip color. A stack of flimsi - all the letters he'd written her during their separations, both the old-fashioned ones he'd originally handwritten on the flimsi and the ones that had been electronically transmitted, then printed out and tucked away by Mara. He hadn't realized she'd done that, until he'd come across the stash after her death. All the letters she'd written him, that he'd also kept. Had she known that he did so? He couldn't remember ever mentioning it.
Those memories, and so many more; all speaking of the life he'd once had, when facing pain and danger and loss had been vastly less daunting, because it had all been faced with Mara at his side, strong, practical, sarcastic, fierce, gentle, deeply loving, with tender and loyal depths that no one else ever fully saw. He laid them reverently on the floor, one by one, until the trunk was empty. Sitting there alone in the dark, with the cherished debris of his life before him, Luke exhaled, trapped between a lost past and a bleak future.
Light unexpectedly flooded the room, causing Luke to blink, then a tentative voice. "Dad?"
Luke looked toward the door, blinking again at what he saw there. "Ben?"
Ben hesitated, half-glancing over his shoulder before stopping himself, looking as trapped as Luke felt. "I thought you were out. You know, that party thing and all..."
"I left early," Luke said reflexively, fighting confusion. What was Ben doing here? He so rarely came these days. "Why would you come over if you thought no one was here?"
Ben averted his eyes, looking down at his feet, somehow giving the impression of a fidgeting child despite his height and the stillness of his long limbs. "I--I always do," he muttered.
"You--" Luke began, then stopped. Something about the way Ben held himself... "Come here, son," he said, more gently.
Blue eyes flickered up at him, then back to the floor. Still-slender shoulders squared themselves, and Ben came, his underlying hesitance nearly hidden by his sureness of step. Reaching Luke, he glanced around--at the floor, the bed, the small padded bench against the wall. Luke caught his eye, then patted the floor beside him. Slowly, almost warily, Ben sank down.
"I'm not angry," Luke said. "I just don't understand. Why would you come here when no one else is here?"
Ben pulled his gaze off the items spread before them, though Luke could feel his curiosity. "Because," he said, meeting Luke's eyes, then glancing away.
"Because--?" Luke prodded.
Ben dragged a single finger along the floor, eyeing the grained wood as though it was a cooperative oracle. He'll need to shave before long, Luke thought irrelevantly, and was startled by the thought. When had his sparkling little boy turned into this reserved young man?
"For Mom," Ben muttered.
The words brought Luke's wandering thoughts up short. "What?"
"For Mom," Ben said louder, almost defiantly. "To remember her. Because I miss her. Even if you don't think I do."
Luke's breath caught in his chest; his hand instinctively reached out to touch his son's shoulder. "Ben," he breathed. "I know you miss her. I wouldn't think you'd forgotten her."
Ben shook the hand away. "You do. You do think that. You never talk to me about her; you hardly even mention her. And you took all her stuff away--" His eyes lingered on the contents of the chest even as he spoke, then rose to meet Luke's, almost accusingly.
Luke stilled, a stillness that went to the bone. "Because it hurt too much to talk about her and see her things everywhere, knowing that I would never see her again. I didn't think you'd forgotten her, Ben. I haven't forgotten her, either. I couldn't." He reached again for Ben's shoulder, tentatively, waiting for Ben to pull away. When he didn't, Luke touched him softly, then grasped his shoulder more firmly. "I did think that--that maybe you didn't need me any longer, Ben." Ben's eyes met Luke's sharply, and Luke had to concentrate on not wincing from the expression he saw there. "You handled--everything--so maturely, you were always so composed, and you didn't seem to want to be here, or with me..."
Ben didn't pull away, but his eyes blazed. "You barely talked to me, Dad! You hardly even looked at me some days! And when you did talk to me, you weren't like yourself at all." The burst of anger flickered and then waned, like a dying fire. "I thought--maybe--that you blamed me, or something. Because Mom was trying to protect me, and all..."
"Never," Luke breathed, shocked, hurt, ashamed. His carelessness had made Ben think that? "I would never, never blame you, Ben. You had nothing to do with any of it. Of course your mother tried to protect you; I would do the same. If there was ever a cause that both of us would have felt was worth dying for, it would be that." Ben had looked away again, pain evident in his stance, and Luke gently cupped his chin and turned him back so that they faced each other. "I'm so, so sorry if I ever made you feel otherwise, Ben. I never meant to."
Ben blinked furiously, forcing back the unshed tears that Luke could see shimmering there. "Then why didn't you talk to me? Why did you hide her things?"
"I told you," Luke said with the gentleness he remembered from rocking Ben to sleep late at night while Mara half-dozed beside him. "Because it hurt. Because I loved your mother more than anything, and losing her hurt more than I ever imagined it could." He blinked back tears of his own, then whispered, "It still does. But maybe it would hurt a little less if we confided in each other more, you and I. No one else can miss her quite the way we do."
"Maybe," Ben whispered. He blinked some more, then looked away from Luke again, back to the small collection of Mara's belongings. He touched a small, soft folded square of cloth, then hesitantly picked it up. "I remember this."
Luke surprised himself by smiling. "You should; I don't think you let it out of your grasp until you were five."
Ben shot him a look that Luke suspected was meant to be dirty, but wasn't quite there. "Well, it was my favorite."
"I know," Luke said softly. "It was a present from your Aunt Iella, you know. Your mother used to wrap you up in it for naps when you were a baby. She used to get so exasperated, later, when you wouldn't let go long enough for her to wash it."
Ben laughed--a shaky sound, but a laugh nevertheless. "I remember that."
"For all that, she almost cried the day you said you didn't need it any more," Luke murmured, caressing the tiny blanket. "Said her baby was growing up entirely too fast, and tried to sound irritated, but she didn't fool me a bit. Most of your other baby things were given away eventually, but she never even suggested getting rid of that one." He had to actually brush away the tears then, instead of merely blinking them back, but found that he didn't care. "You can have it, if you want."
Ben sniffled, his eyes fixed on the blanket. "Thanks." He scrubbed at his own eyes briefly, then looked back at the other things before them. "What's all the rest of it? I didn't know you still had all of this."
Luke reached over and brushed back a stray lock of hair that had fallen over Ben's face, and smiled at him, then picked up the small blaster. "You remember the story of how your mom and I first met? This was the blaster she threatened me with."
"The same one?" Ben asked, taking it and turning it over to inspect it.
"The same one," Luke confirmed. "She used it for years--couldn't bear to get rid of it when it finally couldn't be fixed any more. It was always her favorite."
There was an interesting half-smile on Ben's face. "Mom was cool."
"Very," Luke agreed.
Ben set the blaster down gently, his fingers seeming reluctant to let it go. Hesitating briefly over the collection of items, he picked up the hairbrush and looked at it carefully, blinking furiously again. "She had pretty hair, too."
"Beautiful," Luke said, forcing the word out through a suddenly closed throat as he eyed the shimmering strands. "It was the first thing I noticed about her, when we met. That and her eyes."
"Not the blaster?"
Ben's voice was skeptical even as kept his eyes on the brush. Luke grinned. "Even before the blaster, yes. Can you blame me?"
Ben looked at him out of the corners of his eyes. It was the same look he used to turn on Luke and Mara when he was younger and saw them kissing, just before he'd beg them to stop. Luke almost laughed at the memory, half expecting Ben to chastise him now, too. Instead, Ben reluctantly allowed, "I guess not."
Luke grinned again, then the grin faded, and he held a hand out to Ben, who surrendered the hairbrush, burying his hands in the small blanket in his lap. Luke held the hairbrush reverently, tracing its lines with one finger.
"I miss Mom," Ben whispered.
"Me too," Luke said, eyes on the brush. He glanced up at his son, whose hair was so like the precious strands still entwined in the brush. This was the first time they'd talked like this in--Luke couldn't even remember. Months. Since before Mara's passing.
They couldn't go on like this. It wasn't right. He'd spent so much of his youth yearning for an unreachable father. He didn't want Ben to feel that way, or to bookend his own life by spending his old age yearning for an unreachable son.
If they'd reach out to each other instead of pulling away...
Luke gathered his courage--how sad, some part of his mind thought, to have to gather courage to speak to his own son--and spoke before he could think of how much it would hurt if Ben turned away. "I miss you, too, Ben."
Ben's eyes flicked up to meet Luke's, startled. He hesitated, then said awkwardly, "I'm right here, Dad."
"Not often enough," Luke whispered. "And a lot of that's probably my fault." He reached out a hand to touch Ben's shoulder. "Look, Ben--you're a young man now, not a child. I know that. And I'm very proud of you. But as grown-up as you've become, I'd still like to be part of your life. I know that things aren't the same without Mom, but we're still a family."
Ben was looking at his old blanket again, twisting it in his hands. "Yeah." He blinked furiously for a moment, then his hands stilled. "Maybe--can I maybe stay over tonight?"
Self-reproach warred with sudden hope. "This is still your home, Ben. You can stay any time you like."
Ben lifted his chin, a gesture so reminiscent of Mara that Luke caught his breath. "Then I'll stay."
Luke smiled before he realized it. "I could make hot chocolate."
Ben smiled back, slowly. "Okay. Can we--I mean--" Ben floundered, then regained his footing. "Does it hurt you to talk about Mom?"
Luke thought about that. "Yes," he admitted. "But not as much as not talking about her hurts."
"Yeah," Ben said softly.
"Yeah," Luke echoed, just as softly. He set the hairbrush down carefully, then stood. Ben followed suit, still holding his blanket and looking both wary and hopeful. Luke put an arm around his shoulders. "Did I ever tell you about the time your mother and Aunt Shada changed the Wild Karrde's transponder ID to read 'the Dancing Ewok?'"
Ben's eyebrows lifted. "No."
Luke grinned. "Your Uncle Talon should have known better than to annoy both of them at the same time." He steered Ben toward the kitchen. "It was back before you were born . . ."
Ben listened carefully, taking everything in much as Mara always had, and something inside Luke eased. He didn't think that a night of hot chocolate and conversation would fix everything between them, but it was a beginning.
And maybe that was all they really needed after all.