Shackled Past (PG-13)

By : RebelMom

Archived on: Monday, April 14, 2003

This alternate version of Luke and Mara's romance centers around the lasting effects of past love, the emergence of a new enemy and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the former Mrs. Skywalker.

Fifteen years after A New Hope.

Chapter 1

Luke Skywalker stood at the edge of the high precipice, listening to the crash of the waves below. The wind whipped his robe about his wiry body. He gazed down at his booted feet as he inched forward. His head jerked up when he heard a sound from behind. Intent upon his own thoughts, he had failed to sense her approach.

"Luke! Stop!"

He swiveled to face her. The wind blew her luxurious red-gold hair back from her face, revealing her fine features. Her concern was apparent. His barriers raised immediately as he narrowed his blue eyes. The intensity of his gaze caused her to raise her barriers as well. "What in the worlds are you shouting for, Mara? Why are you here?"

"I was out for a walk. I could sense despair radiating from here so I came to check it out. I knew it was you."

Visibly relaxing, Luke closed his eyes, but his barriers remained high. Mara Jade glanced nervously at the edge. As if in response, Luke moved away from it. Then, he opened his eyes. "I?m fine. Please continue your walk. I want to be alone."

Not sure if she could believe him, Mara moved closer. She took his face in her hands and peered into his eyes. He was startled by the gesture but didn?t flinch. The emanation of despair diminished to be replaced by sadness. She released her hold and said, "Be careful. Stay away from the edge. I?ll see you later."

Luke stared at her retreating figure. His heart fluttered slightly and a feeling of hope escaped from deep within his lonely soul.

Talon Karrde sat with Mara at a table in the lounge of the hotel. He was verbally detailing the contracts he had made with a Bith consortium while Mara stared blankly at her caf. Karrde stopped talking, but Mara didn?t notice. Waving his hand in front of her face, he asked, "Mara? Felinx got your tongue?"

She blinked. "I?m sorry, Talon. What were you saying?"

"Mara. What?s going on? Your body came back from your walk, but I think your mind is still out there."

Mara glared at him. She was slightly insulted, but he was right. Her encounter with Skywalker near the cliff was dominating her thoughts. Her feelings were jumbled; she couldn?t determine what to think about him. Luke had appeared ready to step off the cliff. What really bothered her was the fact that she would have been devastated if he had. They had been friends for years, but lately she had been acknowledging her own desire to be more than just friends. She opened her mouth to say something but was cut off by Talon. "Well, look who just came in. Jedi Master Luke Skywalker himself."

Talon stood up and waved Luke over. Luke nodded politely and came over to the table. "Karrde. Mara. Nice to see you. How are you?"

Karrde answered, "Just fine. We?re here for the trade conference of course. And you?"

Luke pulled up a chair and sat down. "A little research. About four months ago, archeologists uncovered some datacards that provided the history of Naboo. One of the rulers?"

"A Queen Amidala had a connection to a certain Jedi named Anakin Skywalker," Karrde interrupted.

Luke shook his blond head. "Karrde, I?m amazed at the depth of your information sources."

Shocked, Mara blurted out, "What! You found something about your mother."

Luke smiled and said, "I found her. At least, I found out who she was. Got some holos. Records indicated her wedding date, but not much more. I?m here to find out I can."

Mara was happy for Luke. Smiling warmly at him, she said, "That?s great. You have roots to your family tree. What a wonderful legacy to pass on."

As soon as the words passed her lips, she knew she had made a mistake. Luke?s face clouded and his barriers shot up again. He firmly stood up and announced, "Sorry, I need to leave. Nice to see you again."

With a brief nod, he turned and strode out of the lounge. Mara slammed her fist into her thigh. "Sith spit. What an idiotic thing to say."

Talon looked at her sympathetically. "Mara, don?t beat yourself up about it. You couldn?t know what his reaction would be."

Mara shook her head in denial. "No, Talon, I should have known. I saw him about an hour ago and I felt his despair."

"It?s understandable. It?s only been a year. That?s still early in the grieving process. He hasn?t gotten over her death. He adored her."

Mara simply acknowledged his statement with a nod. Luke was still grieving, but it was time to move on with life and she was going to be the one to guide him through the process. If he let her.

The next morning found Mara in the hotel?s restaurant. She was reviewing some contracts Talon had given her. Absently, she reached for her caf. All she succeeded in doing was spilling it all over the tablecloth. Jumping up, she reached for a napkin to sop up the spill when she heard a muffled laugh. Continuing her mopping up, she glanced up to see him. She hadn?t sensed him; he was masking his presence. She glared briefly. "Something funny, Skywalker?"

He shook his head, still fighting his grin. "No Mara, nothing. Here, let me help you."

Luke grabbed hold of the tablecloth with his hands and yanked it quickly. The cloth came smoothly off, leaving the dishes untouched. Mara cocked an eyebrow at him. "Nice trick. You booked to perform here?"

His smile was so radiant that Mara felt it pierce her entire being. His barriers had dropped considerably, but not completely. There was still a corner that was closed off to admittance. Perhaps in time, she could gain entrance. "No. But I had thought about joining the Coruscant circus when I was a child. May I join you?"

She gestured with her head to the second chair. "Be my guest."

A waiter approached as they seated themselves. He held out two menus, but was waved off by Luke. "We?ll just have the buffet. Thank you."

The waiter nodded and left. Mara glowered at Luke. "That was presumptuous. What makes you think I wanted the buffet?"

"The buffet is ready and I could sense your hunger. No waiting."

Mara sighed. He was right; she had been concentrating so much on her contracts she hadn?t ordered and was starving. She hated it when he was right, but she accepted it realizing that it could be her opportunity to get him to open up. They walked over to the buffet line, served up some local fare and returned to their table. After taking a few bites, Luke glanced at Mara and asked, "Where?s Karrde?"

Mara swallowed and placed her fork at the edge of her plate. "He?s delivering some signed contracts to the Bith consortium and will then meet with a delegate from the Caamasi Cartel. He wants me to review these documents granting distribution rights for Dornean Brandy."

"He?s going through the alphabet, I see."

Mara snorted. "Yeah, right. It all adds up to paperwork galore. What are you up to today?"

Luke shifted slightly in his chair. "I want to apologize for my abrupt behavior yesterday. I was rude. Forgive me?"

Mara focused her green eyes on Luke?s face. She could see his remorse and something else?She blinked. Could that be what she thought it was?anticipation? "Luke, I should apologize to you. My comment was thoughtless."

Mara glimpsed an eerie shadow of doubt pass over Luke?s face. It passed quickly, replaced by a slight smile. "We should forgive each other then." Luke took hold of her hands, startling her. "I?m sorry, Mara."

She responded quickly. "It?s okay. I?m sorry too."

Quiet hovered over them. Luke?s warm hands felt wonderful; she didn?t want to release them. Luke rubbed his thumbs over her knuckles, causing a tingle to spread over her skin. When he withdrew his hands, she longed for his touch again. He smiled at her once again and said, "I was hoping that we could spend some time together, as old friends, when you are finished."

Mara shuffled the datacards into a stack. "I?m finished. Karrde does such a perfect job with wording contracts that I sometimes fail to see why he needs me to double check them."

"You do a perfect job double checking them." He winked at her. "I?ve heard tell that when one finds something, or someone that is perfect he should stick with it. You are perfect?at your job." He hesitated. "Let?s go for a drive. I?ve got a rental speeder."

Mara knew this could be her chance to really talk with him. "Great idea, Skywalker. I could use some fresh air."

The weather permitted them a gorgeous view of the landscape. Mara enjoyed the incredible beauty of the city of Theed. She switched her attention from the scenery to Luke and studied his profile. His sandy, blond hair flapped in the wind. His handsome, even features were relaxed; no longer taut and tense as they had been. But now, his inner joy of flying was evident. She sensed that if it were possible he would take the speeder into orbit. Though years of battle had scarred him, in more ways than one, he was freer now than he had been in recent years. His innate abilities were apparent as his hands moved with ease over the controls. Mara noticed that he had driven the speeder out of the city. She closed her eyes, lulled by the steady rhythm of the speeder and soaked in the warmth of the sun?s rays. Once again her thoughts turned to the man next to her. In her mind's eye, she envisioned Luke, enshrouded in darkness. She imagined peeling away the layers surrounding him, each time revealing more light. She lightened his burden, gladly taking it upon herself. Yet, even when he was stripped bare, there was still a patch of darkness hampering their happiness. Our happiness? She knew then that she had come to love him as more than a friend. It wasn?t purely erotic, though she did have to push some of those images aside. She knew her physical self yearned for his physical self, but this was something more. It was a deeper, more profound love; she now realized that he was part of her very being. She would make sure that he knew of her love and her desire to help him, above all else.

She was so deep in thought that she hardly realized that the speeder had come to a halt. Opening her eyes, she noticed that they were at the bottom of a magnificent waterfall. Luke shifted in his seat to regard Mara. He smiled excitedly and said, "Come on. Let me show you this place."


They exited the speeder and walked towards the water. Mara saw the cascading currents and felt the sprinkling droplets, which increased to a near torrent as they advanced. Soon, they were drenched. She stopped walking and beheld Luke. His actions encouraged her. He was standing with his face upturned, his mouth open and his arms stretched out. His mouth closed and he shook his head, splashing water in her direction. Luke shouted over the thundering noise. "I?ve never seen so much water. I?ve been here every day since I arrived. It is peaceful here. I feel so?clean and alive."

Mara knew that he wasn?t talking about physical cleanness. She didn?t say a word, but chose to just bask in his vibrant presence. He delved deep in the Force, listening to its echoes. She could feel him draw upon it and joined in exploring it as well. Though not physically touching, their spirits connected, becoming entwined and enveloping each other as one. The experience was exhilarating and frightening at the same time. Mara?s soul was laid bare to Luke and Luke?s to her. She dropped her barriers as he began to do the same. But one wall remained firm. "Luke, let me in," she gently whispered.

The wall wavered but didn?t fall. The moment was broken.

The surging power of the Force was unplugged and all she could feel was water showering her. "Why didn?t you let me in?"

"I couldn?t?"

"Yes, you could. You just wouldn?t," Mara retorted angrily. "If I could, so could you."

Stiffening his posture, Luke turned slowly to face her, and stared at her, his pained eyes boring into her. "You of all people should understand. I?m not ready."

Though he had closed up mentally, Mara could still see the lingering desire, the longing for a soul mate. She was still angry with his refusal, but she knew better than to push the issue. He?d given her time in the past. It was only fair she offered him the same. "Fine," she sighed. "Whenever you are ready, I will be here."

Luke visibly relaxed. "Thank you. I?ll take you back now."

Chapter 2

The following week, Mara spent most of her free time in the company of Luke Skywalker. They toured the city, picnicked in the gardens surrounding the old palace, and raced bongos with adolescent Gungans. Mara even allowed Luke to teach her a few Jedi lessons. Her saber skills improved when honed against a live opponent. They lunched after Mara?s meetings and dined after Luke?s research. The more time they spent together, the stronger their bond became. Mara made considerable progress in her relationship with Luke. Yet, she didn?t have much time left. The end of the week would mark the end of the conference and it came all too quickly. When she woke up on the last official conference day, she knew that she would not be leaving with Karrde. She had other plans for her future.

Mara went shopping that afternoon to find something to wear to the formal Trade Conference Reception to be held that evening. Her wardrobe contained jumpsuits, not evening gowns. She found a gorgeous Vanar creation. As she was fitted, the only thing on her mind was what Luke?s reaction would be. He had mentioned that he would be in attendance with his sister and brother-in-law. The silky form-fitting bodice and skirt were overlaid with a diaphanous jade material. Small gems embedded in the bodice sparkled in the light. There was a side slit up to the middle of her left thigh. There was enough resiliency in the material that she didn?t need to worry about anything ripping. She was more concerned about the dress staying up. The attendant assured her that there was a special material resistant to slipping built into the bodice; it would stay up.

The only flaw Mara could find was that there was no place to hang her lightsaber.

Mara arrived at the Reception hall wearing a black hooded cloak. She stood at the entrance, waiting for Talon Karrde who was going to meet her there. Not far from her stood Luke and the Solos. Han noticed her first. Luke was talking quietly to Leia when he heard an appreciative whistle. He cocked an eyebrow at Han and followed his gaze, which then settle on Mara. She had unhooked her cloak revealing the dress. Leia gasped, "That gown is an original Vanar. It?s beautiful."

Han whispered to Luke, "I?m trying to imagine how that dress is staying up."

Luke didn?t seem to hear him. His eyes roved over her body taking in all her curves. His throat was dry but he managed to mutter, "I can imagine quite a lot."

Han snickered then whispered again, "You?ll get it."

Luke?s mouth dropped open at Han?s comment. Wide-eyed, Leia elbowed Han hard in the ribs. "Han!"

Han shook his head. "Sorry, Leia. Just trying to encourage the kid."

Luke?s eyes darkened a bit. "I?m not a kid, Han."

"Sweetheart, let me talk to Luke alone okay?"

Reluctantly, Leia began walking towards Talon Karrde who had just entered behind Mara. Han put his arm around Luke?s shoulders. "Luke. I?m not blind. I know you have a thing for Mara. I want to encourage you to go for it. She?s just what you need."

Luke sighed. "But what about?"

Han interrupted. "Callista?s dead Luke. You can?t bring her back and you can?t grieve for her forever. You need to move on."

Luke nodded his head in acquiescence. "I?ll try."

Han glared at him and cleared his throat. Luke smiled in spite of himself. "I know. There is no try. I?ll do it."

Han slapped him hard on the back. "Go get her Luke."

Mara saw Leia approaching and smiled in greeting. "Hello, Madame President."

Leia smiled in return. "Please, Mara, call me Leia. How are you?"

"Just fine. You remember Talon Karrde?"

"How could I forget him? Nice to see you again, Talon. I trust you have made some profitable connections this week."

Talon grinned. "As I always do. Well ladies, I must excuse myself. I see a certain Twi'lek I have been trying to meet with all week. Later, Mara, Leia."

Leia moved closer to Mara and put her hand on Mara?s elbow. "Care to join us?"

Grinning, Mara nodded. "Sure. Lead the way."

Leia smiled, feeling Mara?s excitement through the Force. She leaned over and whispered into Mara?s ear. "You should have seen Luke?s reaction when you took off your cloak."

Mara raised her eyebrow. "He was obvious?"

Leia nodded. "He couldn?t take his eyes off you."

"I know." She smiled lustfully despite the fact Leia was there. "I bought this dress with Luke in mind."

Leia laughed at Mara?s comment. She knew that a relationship with the trader would be the best thing for her brother.

Mara and Luke were seated across from Han and Leia. They had finished a delicious marinated dewback steak meal and were now sipping Dornean brandy. Han opted for Whyren?s Reserve, which he downed in one swallow. Whispering obtusely, Han and Leia soon left the table and joined a group of delegates on the dance floor. Mara watched them dancing. Her body shivered involuntarily when she sensed familiar eyes roaming over her anatomy. She returned her attention to Luke who quickly averted his eyes. She decided to be the one to breach the hull. "Luke. What have you discovered during your research?"

He looked back at her, his blue eyes reflecting his excitement. "They hope to have the code broken soon. The Naboo Library was decimated during the purge. These cards, as well as a few others were discovered in Otoh Gunga. They had them hidden from the Empire. Unfortunately, nobody knew how to read them. The Gungans were unsure about releasing them but some of the elders remembered my father, who was apparently a hero during some sort of battle with a Trade Federation. I?m hoping to interview some of the older Gungans to find out more." He paused and smiled brightly. "The holos of my mother are beautiful. Some are of her in regal attire but there are a few candid shots as well. Leia looks a lot like her. The wedding holo is my favorite. Their joy radiates in their faces, giving everyone a glimpse of their love. They look so happy, as if nothing would ever come between them." His face darkened slightly as if he suddenly remembered that something did come between them. He glanced at Mara. "Oh, I?m sorry Mara. I got so involved in my story I never gave you a chance to comment. I didn?t mean to bore you with my ramblings."

Mara smiled and shook her head. "It?s okay Luke. I?m interested in your ancestry. It?s important to me."

Luke cocked his head to the side, puzzled at Mara?s statement. "You are?" he stammered. "It is? Really?"

Mara laughed at his naivet?. She was so glad the farmboy was still beneath those solemn Jedi robes. Ignoring his questions, she laughed. "Let?s dance Skywalker. I want to test the adhesive quality of the dress."

Her statement immediately drew Luke?s attention to her low-cut dress as Mara stood up. He swallowed abruptly. She grabbed his hand and pulled him out onto the dance floor.

Jizz music reverberated throughout the room. Mara did a jizz-jig with Luke that caught the eye of all around them. The Jizz faded out to be followed by a slow melancholy tune. No longer the center of attention, Luke wrapped his arms around Mara?s waist and drew her close. Mara reciprocated by clasping her hands behind his neck. Swaying steadily, they stared into each other?s eyes. The intensity of Luke?s gaze almost overwhelmed her. She felt his emotions joining with hers. There was no doubt in her mind that they were meant for each other. The poignancy of the contact revealed his deep love for her. But it was tarnished by something hidden, something he couldn?t, or wouldn?t share. One barrier remained. Mara disclosed her love for him by dropping all her barriers again as she had done at the waterfall. Luke responded by hugging her tighter. A thank you meandered into her thoughts. Mara closed her eyes and lay her head upon Luke?s shoulder. She could feel the palpitations of his heart. His hands began to move gently caressing her back; she stroked his neck with her fingers. Their emotions hit a crescendo and Mara tilted her head up to receive his kiss. It was a light kiss, but it was also an invitation for more. As he released her lips, he said, "Let?s go outside. It?s a bit stuffy in here."

Mara nodded and followed him off the dance floor.

Luke led her gently down a garden path to a bench set in a nook. A trellis framed the alcove; a fragrant flowering vine was woven into the trellis. Luke sat down slowly; Mara sat next to him. He shifted position to face her. She didn?t say a word. Luke would have to make the first move, so he took a breath and looked down at his hands momentarily before taking her hands into his. He looked up at her and spoke, "Mara. I?ve come to realize how much you mean to me. Our connection through the Force is unbelievable." He paused. "I?ve never had such an experience and I want to experience it everyday for the rest of my life." He paused again. "I love you. Will you marry me?"

His anticipation was exhilarating. She wanted to tease him, to make him sweat, anything to lighten the mood, but she was caught up in his emotions. "Yes."

Luke grinned like a child given an early present. He leaned forward and captured her lips in a passionate kiss. She placed her hands on his chest to steady herself. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, tightening his embrace. Finally, he released the kiss and murmured, "Thank you."

Mara brought her hands up to cup his face. The twinkle in his eye was adorable; she kissed him again. His hands began to caress her back again. He stopped when he reached the top edge of her dress. He ran his finger along the edge causing her to shiver. He started a trail of burning kisses down the side of her neck. Her quivering increased as he reached her shoulder. She grasped his strong shoulders, squeezing tightly. He pulled back, looking at her quizzically. "Mara?"

Mara slowed her labored breathing. Darkness had crept in during their explorations. It was fleeting but it was enough to startle her. To her surprise, Luke hadn?t felt it. Luke reiterated, "Mara?"

"I?m fine."

Luke was about to say something more when Mara put her index finger to his lips. "Shh. Not now. Let?s go find your sister and her scoundrel and tell them the good news."

Luke smiled. "Let?s not only tell them. Let?s find an official as well. I?ve been alone long enough."

"I couldn?t agree more."

Mara stood up and brushed the wrinkles out of her dress. Luke laughed. "We sure tested the adhesive quality of that dress. What?s holding it up? Space Tape?"

Mara snorted. "Not quite. I was told that once the zipper goes down the dress will follow."

Luke regarded her thoughtfully. "Mind if I test that theory?" He reached for her.

She slapped his hand playfully. "After we see the official and if you?re a good boy."

"I?ll be good. Let?s go."

Chapter 3

Luke and Mara found Han in the casino, involved in a high stakes sabacc game. The credit chits piled in front of him were a testament to his skill. They stood back and observed the hand in progress. Han?s two opponents folded, leaving Han with the rather large pot. Luke went directly to Han?s side, slapped him on the back and said, "I got it."

Puzzled, Han looked up from his winnings. He saw Luke?s grin and then saw Mara step to Luke?s side. The statement clicked. Han cracked a grin and told the droid to deposit his winnings to his account. Jumping from his chair, he clasped Luke into a wookiee-like hug. He released Luke and faced Mara. He tentatively held out his hand but Mara said, "It?s okay, Solo. I won?t break."

He gave her a hug too and then asked, "Have you told Leia?"

Luke?s eyes fluttered as he contacted his sister. He smiled. "She?s coming. I want to tell both of you. Let?s go wait for her in the lobby."

They were seated on a couch in the lobby. Mara was leaning on Luke; their arms were resting in Luke?s lap their fingers entwined. Luke kept a tight hold of Mara?s hand the whole time they waited for Leia to arrive. Finally, she flexed her fingers to make sure they could still move. Luke relaxed his hold, but it was as if he feared he would lose her if he ever let go. Straddling a backwards chair, Han quietly observed Luke and Mara. There was something happening besides the beginning of a relationship; Luke's statement told him that much. Luke appeared more at ease than he had been in the year since Callista?s death. He looked less haunted and Han was confident that Mara was the reason. He only hoped that she could eradicate the rest of Luke?s demons. The kid deserved a break. His reverie was halted when Leia surprised him by kissing his cheek. He turned to kiss her but she was already walking towards Luke, who stood at her approach. Han rose also. Leia smiled at her brother and said, "What is it that you wanted to tell us? If it?s about you and Mara, I can assure you that we both approve."

Mara had joined Luke in standing. Luke stated, "I?m glad you do. We need you to be our witnesses."

Leia?s smile drooped. "Witnesses? For what?"

Confused by Leia?s lack of excitement, Luke continued, "Witnesses for our wedding. I thought you approved."

"I do Luke. I just didn?t realize that you wanted to get married already," she said. "You have to admit that it is a bit unexpected."

Luke sighed. "Unexpected? Maybe. But it is right. I?ve known Mara for six years. We have been friends most of the time and we have already bonded through the Force. What could be more natural than bonding as husband and wife?"

Leia considered his words. His assertions were correct; she could feel it. She was just worried about him. Her thoughts were interrupted by Luke?s quiet presence. Leia, I?ll be fine. Mara is the best thing that has happened to me in a long time. Leia relented and reached out to embrace Luke. "Yes, Luke I agree."

Han shook his head. "I wish you two would have a normal conversation. I take it that we have a wedding to attend."

Mara spoke for the first time. "That?s right, Solo. My wedding, so behave yourself."

Han flashed a lopsided grin. "Trust me."

The only official available that evening was an old Gungan on the outskirts of town. Luke and Mara didn?t want any publicity and being united in marriage by an obscure official guaranteed some degree of anonymity. Unfortunately, the Gungan seemed to be operating on half a sabacc deck. The old guy?s eyes widened even larger than the norm when he saw Luke. Then he kept calling Luke by the name Ani.

"No, my name is Luke."

The old Gungan shook his head, causing his ears to flap. "Yous looksa likes mesa friend, Ani."

To make matters worse, he put Leia in the bride?s spot. "No. I?m not marrying her. She?s my sister. I?m marrying Mara."

The Gungan sighed and nodded his head in defeat. "But Ani marries Padme."

Thoroughly frustrated, Luke shouted, "I?m not Ani!"

Amused by Luke?s reaction, Han stated, "Are you sure?"

Luke glared at him for a while before he too started to laugh. "Yes. I?m sure."

Mara snorted. "Enough. Officer Binks, let?s get this ceremony completed before my future husband forgets who he is again."

Officer Binks nodded solemnly. "Yous Mara dere and Ani oopsy?Luke dere."

A short time later, the ceremony was finalized by the words "Yous may kissa bride."

Luke didn?t hesitate and kissed Mara. A scream from Leia interrupted the kiss. All eyes were on Leia. Luke asked, "What?s wrong Leia?"

Leia blushed. "I?m sorry. It startled me. I forgot that Gungans do that."

Everybody was confused. Han questioned, "Do what?"

Leia lifted her hand, gesturing at Officer Binks who had just swallowed something. His eyes were tracking a fly that buzzed above Mara?s head. Luke ?saw? the Gungan?s tongue shoot out and grabbed it mid-stroke. Binks was alarmed and tried to talk. Then, Luke released the tongue and said, "Please don?t do that."

Binks' bulbous eyes blinked a few times. Then he found his voice. "Yous Jedi!"

Exasperated, Luke sighed heavily, "Yes, I?m a Jedi. Now, can we finish the paperwork? We would like to leave."

Officer Binks shuffled papers and obtained signatures. When he read Luke?s full name, he started to babble. "Skywalker? Skywalker! Mesa knowsa yous Ani."

Luke held up his hand. "Please, don?t start that again. My name is Luke Skywalker just like it is written on the paper."

Overexcited, Officer Binks began jumping. "Okeday, but Ani. Yous know Ani."

Luke glared at him. "Enough of Ani. Is the paperwork complete?"

Officer Binks wilted under Luke?s gaze. Absently, he pulled out the official certificate and shakily handed it to Luke. "Dis yous proof of union. Mesa file da other."

Luke smiled at him and shook his hand. "Thank you, Officer Binks. May the Force be with you."

Mara keyed the entry to her suite. She took Luke?s hand and led him inside. He whistled when he saw the size of the room. He removed his robe and hung it on a coat rack. "Not very practical. This place is huge."

"It is practical. I need to get sufficient rest when I?m in negotiations. Besides, Karrde pampers me."

Luke reached for her arm and pulled her into an embrace. He placed several small kisses on her face then whispered, "I think I?ll take over the pampering duties."

Mara returned the kisses and murmured, "Go right ahead."

The intensity of the kisses increased, as did their volume. Gentle caresses lead to exploring touches. Their passion was driven by intense desire. Then Luke opened himself to the Force, beckoning Mara to join him. She could feel his pleasure as well as her own. The experience was extremely erotic and they hadn?t even removed any clothing yet. The ecstasy continued as Mara divested Luke of his clothing. She kept her word and allowed him to unzip the dress. He was rewarded when gravity did its job.

Dawn flooded through the window, chasing away shadows. Dust particles danced in tune to the sunbeams. Luke rolled over in the bed and buried his face into the pillow. His hand landed in Mara?s hair. Annoyed at the disturbance, Mara blindly reached up and extricated his fingers from her red gold tresses. Slowly blinking her eyes, she met the blurry morning. She tilted her head to the right until Luke?s sandy blonde hair entered her field of vision. Propping herself on her side, she reached over to run her fingers through his hair. She hadn?t expected him to propose marriage so quickly. She didn?t regret it but she knew without a doubt that there would be a rocky road ahead. For all their bonding in the Force, a secret was still kept. The barriers were weakening but she would respect the walls until he was ready to share willingly. She suspected it concerned Callista and she wasn?t looking forward to the discovery.

Chapter 4

As soon as Mara entered the anteroom of Karrde?s suite, he beckoned for her to be seated. Prior to sitting down himself, he gave her a snifter of brandy and exclaimed, "A toast to our fine work. The organization has been awarded the distribution rights for this excellent Dornean brandy."

Mara smiled brightly and clinked her glass with Talon?s. Peering at her over the brim of his snifter, Talon decided to confirm his suspicions. He stated, "I saw you leave with Skywalker last night."

"Yes. We went for a walk." She paused to gather her thoughts. She had always been forthright with Karrde and she wasn?t going to be any different now. "We got married last night. I?m here to tender my resignation." She felt a little pang of guilt at being so brusque with him, but she didn?t know any other way to tell him.

Though his face revealed nothing, she felt his shock through the Force. She had to smile at him then said, "It?s not often I provide you with information about which you had no foreknowledge. Surprised about my resignation or my marriage?"

Karrde shook his head. "Actually, a little surprised at both. I suspected something, but I?ve never envisioned you as one to succumb to a whirlwind romance."

"I didn?t succumb to a whirlwind romance. I can continue in my current role in order to give you sufficient time to find and train a replacement. Luke understands my commitment to the organization and loyalty to you."

Karrde smiled tightly. "I?m glad to hear that. Thank you for your offer to help. I think we can work up a schedule to faze you out of the organization."

"Great. I?ll be keeping the suite. You can contact me there."

Before she could leave, Karrde?s comlink beeped. "Karrde here. What is it, Dankin?"

A tinny voice answered. "Wanted to warn you that Lando Calrissian is on his way to see you. He wants to discuss a business proposition."

"Thanks, Dankin. Karrde out."

Mara hissed. "Calrissian. Talk about a droch that gets under my skin. I?m going to leave before he gets here. After that Jorj Car?das search, I have no desire to ever see him again. Except in my blaster sight."

"I don?t think that will happen considering his connection with Solo and Skywalker."

Mara grimaced. "Yeah, don?t remind me. Though I would like to see his reaction when he finds out about my marriage."

Talon laughed. "It might dissuade him. I have a feeling that he will have a different reaction to your news than me."

Mara patted her lightsaber. "I have ways to dissuade him."

Karrde raised his eyebrows. "Not a very Jedi-like response."

Mara stood up and said, "I?m not a Jedi yet. I?ll get back to you later."

Karrde watched as she turned to leave the room. "Mara, remember that you will always be a part of the organization and there will always be a place for you."

His words warmed her and she was touched by his kindness. Pausing, she looked over her shoulder and said, "Thanks Talon. I won?t forget."

Once in the corridor, Mara closed her eyes, reached out and latched on to Luke?s presence. Smiling, she sent him loving thoughts to which he responded in kind. She hurried to join him, anxious to avoid a chance encounter with Calrissian.

Mara found Luke in their suite. The lead archeologist, Sabella Olie, had contacted him with news that the cryptographers had almost cracked the code on the datadiscs. He wanted Mara to accompany him, so together they entered the Naboo Library with great expectations. They waited in a conference room as Sabella set up the data transmitter. "Once they break the code, we can view the data on this screen. Sio assured me that it would be done within the hour."

And Sio was true to his word, for in less than an hour later, data began to appear on the screen. Names, dates, census information, vital statistics and holonet news reports scrolled before them. Mara observed Luke, who was giddy with excitement, as he delved into the information. He began by reading a biography of his mother, Queen Amidala. She was described as prodigiously talented, extremely well trained and wise beyond her years. She was fourteen when she had been elected. Luke was amazed that someone so young could be a ruler. She dressed ornately disguising herself in the trappings of her high station and elaborate makeup. She had proven her mettle during the Trade Federation blockade and invasion. Luke concentrated on that section since his father was connected with it as well. The trade federation had invaded Naboo using battle droids. Two Neimoidians, Nute Gunray and Rune Haako, were in command of the invading forces and had attempted to get the young queen to sign a treaty to legitimatize the occupation of Theed; she adamantly refused. Amidala had become a prisoner, along with her citizens, until two Jedi rescued her. Luke gasped when he saw the Jedi?s names. Whereas, the first one Qui-Gon Jinn meant nothing, the other, Obi-Wan Kenobi, caused Luke to be flooded by a rush of memories.

Obi-Wan - Ben.

In his mind's eye, he saw the old man as they met that fateful day on the Wastes. The gifting of the lightsaber, finding the slaughtered Jawas, the hellish discovery of Owen and Beru. How many times had he played that scene through trying to rewrite the ending? The guilt threatened to return but he pushed the thoughts aside and continued reading. Mara, who was reading along with him, caught his momentary distraction and squeezed his real hand, comforting him.

Luke refocused on the data. After being rescued, The Queen and her entourage boarded a J-type 327 Nubian, which then broke through the blockade, but not without sustaining damage to the hyperdrive. A holo of the ship was included with the text. Though it was an old ship, Mara was impressed by the sleek artistic design. It was the queen?s personal transport, so it was top of the line for its day. She could sense Luke imagine himself piloting it and suppressed a giggle.

You want to add that to your long line of wrecked vehicles?

He grumbled mentally at her and continued perusing. The group ended up on Tatooine where the Jedi met up with a young slave boy named Anakin Skywalker, whose assistance allowed them to repair their ship and proceed on the journey to Coruscant. Slave, his father was a slave. This revelation stunned Luke. His father - a slave? He couldn?t fathom dealing with that. When he was younger, Luke felt like a slave to his uncle, but he wasn?t really. His father was a real slave. He had no freedom. A slave could feel anger at his owners or he could be totally submissive. Was he ashamed of his status? How did his father?s owners treat him? Luke felt sick to his stomach. How could sentients keep slaves? It was degrading and inhumane. Could this be a reason for his father?s fall? But if his father had been a slave as a child, why would he allow himself to become a slave to the Dark Side as an adult? Luke rubbed his temples; this made no sense to him. There were too many variables to consider.

Mara could sense Luke?s confusion. He had no conception of what it was like to be a slave to something. Even when he served the Emperor?s supposed clone, he hadn?t been slave to it. She herself had been a servant to the Emperor. Her servitude had become a sort of slavery with the implanted suggestion that she kill Luke Skywalker, but she was able to overcome it and break free of it with Luke?s help. For that she was eternally grateful. Gently using her hands, she pulled Luke closer to her and whispered into his ear. "Sometimes those who are born into slavery have no idea how to live outside of it. It can be compared to the training a bantha. The trainers start training them young by using a large chain that prevents any freedom of movement outside of the trainer?s commands. The animal learns quickly not to rebel. It cannot get away. Once that task is learned and the bantha?s spirit broken, the trainer replaces the large chain with a small rope. The bantha doesn?t realize that he could be free if he wanted to. Could your father have been like a bantha not realizing that he was truly free or did he submit himself to slavery for some other reason? Maybe he didn?t see it as slavery? You can?t know what went on inside your father's head. Would it really make a difference if you knew? It?s the past and you can?t change it. Accept it and move on."

Luke hadn?t move during her speech. Slowly, she moved away and waited for his response. He finally ran his fingers through his blond hair and then clasped them together behind his neck. He cocked his head in her direction and said, "You?re right. I can?t figure out everything and I really shouldn?t try."

Leaning over, he kissed her softly on the forehead. Standing up, he announced, "Let?s take a short break."

Luke and Mara found a small Corellian restaurant, The Corell Room, across the street from the library. They were seated in a secluded corner of the dining area, their table obscured from view by some local flora. The d?cor of the restaurant flaunted Corellian heritage. Pictures of famous sons hung on the walls including Antilles, Solo, Bel Iblis, Horn and Terrik. Every intoxicating beverage in existence was available including Corellian Whiskey, Reserve, Rum, Brandy, Double Brandy, Spiced Ale and Ale. Flame miniatures were lined up on high shelves in a transparisteel case, a sealed transparent box containing a pair of pants bearing bloodstripes hung over the bar and the latest issues of Corellian Horticultural Digest were stacked near front door. Mara ordered a light fare while Luke ordered a plate of some greasy dish Han had always recommended he try. He allowed Mara to stab a few clams before devouring it quickly. He stole a few kisses before excusing himself to the refresher. A wait droid cleared the dishes. "Will there be anything else, gentlebeing?"

"Two hot chocolates, please."

Mara relaxed and closed her eyes. She started to mentally review the morning when her senses were drawn to a conversation from a nearby table. Not one to engage in causal eavesdropping, this one screamed for her attention. They were talking about her and Luke.

"?I saw the proof of union with my own eyes. Binks brought it in."

"I can?t believe it. Why would he marry her?"

"Well, she is quite a looker."

"She?s a fringe smuggler for sithsakes. He?s a Jedi Master and he needs to be with another Jedi."

"I?ve heard tell that Jade has a lightsaber."

"Doesn?t make her a Jedi. I think Skywalker got lonely and went looking for a warm body."

"Shh. You looking for trouble. Don?t forget he?s in town. He could be listening in to our conversation."

"A little paranoid aren?t we? You really think he?d deign to come here?"


"Anyway, I think Skywalker was missing his late wife and got himself a replacement. Think about it. That Callista was a real Jedi. She was a perfect match for the Jedi Master. Now look at Jade, she is not Jedi material. I don?t think it will last. He just adored Callista. Jade won?t be able to fill her robes."

Their discussion went in another direction and Mara ceased listening. It had taken every ounce of her control to contain her anger. She unclenched her fists and regarded the palms of her hands where her nails had dug into her skin drawing blood. Flexing her hands a couple times, she saw the color returned to her knuckles. She took a few deep breaths, blowing her anger out. Mara had managed to return to normal when the hot chocolate and Luke arrived at the table. Sipping his chocolate, he looked askance, for he had felt a little tremor of her fading anger. "Something wrong?"

She glared at him. "Stop that."

"What? I was just?"

"Stay out of my head, Skywalker," she snapped.

Luke stared at her, shocked at her response. His connection to her automatically drew him to her feelings and he had no intention of invading her thoughts. "I?m sorry. I didn?t mean..."

"I need some privacy," Mara admonished.

It was silent for a moment as Luke thought about her words. His first inclination was to press for more information, but realized that any pushing would get him into more trouble with her. He decided it was best to let it drop. "Okay, I understand." He glanced at the wall chrono. "You ready to go?"

Mara held her chocolate mug tightly; her green eyes focused on Luke. "Yes. I need to visit the refresher first."

She kissed him and walked away. Her anger from the overheard conversation had diminished but the words still stung. Granted, she wasn?t a Jedi yet, but Luke would teach her. She didn?t want to fill Callista?s robes anyway; that wasn?t her goal. She would surpass Callista in every way, shape and form. Mara Jade would not be relegated to being a replacement wife.

She was the Mrs. Skywalker.

Chapter 5

Mara convinced Luke to delay their return to the library. She still felt the need to vent after overhearing that Force-forsaken diatribe. She dragged Luke into Bibble Body Beautiful and reserved the use of a sparring room. Luke observed her thoughtfully as she removed her sleek black jacket. He was tempted to question her but decided against it. Besides, he was hiding something himself and knew that if he started prying into her feelings, she would consider turnabout fair play. Luke knew he should tell her but he dreaded exposing his failures, especially to the woman he loved. With a deep appreciation, he watched her sinewy body as she stretched in preparation for their match. Her gorgeous hair, the color of fiery flames, tumbled out of its clip as she bent forward to touch the ground. She straightened up and tossed her hair back to secure it once again in the clip. A warm smile greeted him, which he returned in kind. Turning to remove his brown robe, he had one arm out of the sleeve when his danger sense flared. He immediately ignited his saber bringing it up to parry her blow. Her blue blade sizzled against his green one. He was able to push her off but not without effort. Her face showed her determination and he could detect little through the Force. She had gotten quite adept at locking her emotions down. Smiling, he thought, This is going to be fun. He was looking forward to the challenge.

They slashed at each other, lightsabers flashing. Neither could gain the upper hand nor trick the other. The sparring had continued for well over an hour before either showed any indication of tiring. Luke had noticed a sheen of perspiration upon Mara?s brow but detected nothing in her emotions. She was an exceptional swordsman on par with Callista. Sith, why am I thinking about her now of all times? His remembrances often occurred at the most inopportune moments. He could see her again staring at him, her eyes full of pain and regret. His inattention to where he was and what he was doing lead to unfortunate consequences. Luke weakly tried to block Mara?s latest parry but was unsuccessful. The forcefulness of her angled blow knocked his saber loose and at the same time her blade sliced through his hand, exposing wires and shocking him, physically and mentally. He shrieked in agony and crumpled to the ground; helpless as his father had been those many years ago.

Mara watched in absolute horror as her blade cut off his mechanical hand. She immediately extinguished her saber, dropping it in the process and knelt by Luke?s side. Breathlessly, she exclaimed, "Luke, oh Luke, I?m so sorry."

Reflexively, he tucked his stump under his armpit. Trying to assess his state, Mara opened up her Force sense and probed his thoughts. She discovered that he was disgusted with his loss of focus. Then she felt him brushing her sense, encouraging her to follow his lead as he showed her how he was shunting his pain and was able to dull his nerve endings. Mara was astonished that he was able to teach her healing techniques when she was the one who caused the injury in the first place. Tears welled up in her eyes. Suddenly, she felt his left hand stroking her cheek. "Mara, its okay. Please don?t cry. It was my fault."

Her right hand came up to cover his left then held it gently. She opened her mouth to speak but was unable to vocalize because Luke?s mouth had covered hers with a kiss. Then she heard his voice, loud and clear. I missed the block. At least I know you don?t want to kill me anymore.

She broke the kiss and said, "You scare me like that again and I may forget that."

"I?ll remember that. Shall we go?" His deep chuckling resounded in the gym.

Mara nodded as Luke stood up. He looked behind him and bent down to pick up something. Collecting her lightsaber, Mara cocked an eyebrow. "That is the most unusual sight. The great Jedi Master retrieving his severed hand, courtesy of his wife."

A dark shadow flashed before Luke as her words brought forth his Bespin memories. It was quick enough that Mara didn?t notice. He had just gotten her over the guilt of the accident and didn?t want her to think she had brought up another unpleasant memory by her words. Luke donned his robe and dropped the severed appendage into his pocket. Mara was back at his side, clipping her saber to her belt. She had also grabbed his saber from the floor and hooked it to his belt. Even thought she was drenched with perspiration from their workout, Luke still put his left arm around her shoulders and hugged her tightly. She wrapped her arms about his waist, offering support he didn?t really need, then said, "Let?s get you to a medic."

He kissed the top of her head. Before he could say anything, a buzzing noise caught his attention. Taking a deep cleansing breath, he walked over to the gym door and pushed the button that was flashing as well as buzzing. "Yes?"

A mechanical voice answered, "Sir, your time reservation has expired. Do you wish to extend the reservation?"

Luke turned his head to glance at Mara who shook her head; she wanted to leave. He pushed the button again and said, "No. We?ll be leaving. Thank you."

Mara touched her lips, which were still burning from his kiss, then walked slowly to join Luke at the door. When she reached his side, she took hold of his arm directly above the right wrist and proceeded to wrap a scarf around his shattered hand. The door slid open just as she finished. The droid, noting the bandaging, remarked, "Is there a problem? Do you require medical assistance?"

Luke glanced nonchalantly at his wrapped wrist and then at the droid. "No, there isn?t a problem."

The droid watched as Luke and Mara walked arm in arm down the corridor. Its processor attempted to figure out what it had just witnessed but only determined that it did not compute.

The 2-1B at the medcenter informed them that it would take several hours to repair Luke?s hand. Luke convinced a reluctant Mara to leave the medcenter. He told her that he would be fine; the procedure wasn?t dangerous, just time consuming. Besides, he wanted Sabella and Sio to be made aware of the delay. "After you tell them why we haven?t returned, why don?t you go shopping? We could use supplies for our trip home."

Home. This was the first time Luke had mentioned anything about going home. "When?"


Before she could press him any further, 2-1B entered the room and announced that they needed to get started with the procedure. Mara kissed Luke goodbye and slowly left the room.

Mara used the time to apprise Sabella Olie of their delay in returning to the library. Sabella calmly assured Mara that they would be welcome at any time to view the data. Sio was even going to make copies for Luke that would be ready for pick up the next day.

Mara wandered around the shopping district in an attempt to keep occupied until Luke?s repairs were done. Luke?s repair she giggled softly as she scanned the shops. Makes him sound like a machine. She found a few decent items for purchase that she had delivered to their suite. Weary of shopping, she searched for another time consuming activity. An ancient structure caught her eye. A closer look revealed that it housed the Theed Museum of Art. A perfect diversion. She strolled the gallery, vaguely appraising the paintings and holos. While Mara was viewing some Rebellion Era sculptures, she abruptly seized up in acute pain and excessive fear. She leaned heavily against an ornate pedestal almost tipping it over. Steadying her shaking body, she gulped for air as her physical and mental bond with Luke assaulted her senses. Images of his father, the Ssi ruuk, the Emperor, the drochs, his murdered aunt and uncle, Kenobi?s death and Callista flashed rapidly blinking in and out with Luke?s emotional turmoil. Her danger sense erupted full bore, causing a slightly panicked Mara to flee the museum.

As the taxi speeder neared the Panaka Memorial MedCenter, her danger sense had subsided only slightly. Once she entered the medcenter, the 2-1B approached her in the corridor. In a monotonous voice, it announced that "Master Skywalker had to be restrained and will need to stay the night for observation."

Mara was not startled at this pronouncement due to the episode she experienced in the Museum. Considering the levels of pain and fear that she felt from Luke, she knew that something had happened. Cautiously, she asked, "Why? What happened after you reattached his prosthesis?"

"The reattachment was successful. A routine intravenous of anesthetic and nutrients had been inserted into Master Skywalker?s arm. A second bag was attached after the surgery was complete. Half of the bag?s contents had been pumped into his systems before he started reacting violently."

Mara paled significantly. She knew what had happened even before the 2-1B could proclaim it; the IV bag had been contaminated with something somehow. Then Luke?s emotions hit her again like a tidal wave beating her down. Fear and sorrow assaulted her, dragging her into the abyss. Mara didn?t wait for the 2-1B to finish; she frantically ran to Luke?s room, the 2-1B following. A terrifying sight met her. Luke Skywalker was strapped to? no had been strapped to the hoverbed. Medical implements, including the IV which was no longer attached to his arm, were scattered about the room. He was curled in a fetal position, bawling hysterically and hoarsely vocalizing. "No, that?s not true. That?s impossible."

Mara was immediately at his side, stroking his sweat drenched forehead attempting to gain his attention. Soothingly and softly, she spoke. "Luke, it?s me, Mara." She knelt down and placed her cheek on his. Taking hold of his hand, she waited as the droid worked on him. "It?s okay, I?m here now."

About an hour later, 2-1B announced, "He?s stable now."

Mara was curled up in a chair gazing at the sunset. A kaleidoscope of color was splashed across the sky reminding her of an abstract work of art she had seen in the Theed museum. The bright red seemed to dominate the horizon, sending a warning signal through Mara?s consciousness. The danger was weak at the moment, but Mara sensed that it would increase. The colors faded suddenly as a cloud floated in, casting a dark shadow over Mara. And Luke. The darkness seemed to be tagging along with them, continually trying to infiltrate their happiness. Just when she thought it was beaten and defeated, it returned with a vengeance. She closed her eyes attempting to focus on the danger and the darkness, but nothing was clear. Sighing deeply, she turned to gaze at the now sleeping Luke. Apparently, someone had injected spice into Luke?s IV. She shuddered as she remembered the images projected by Luke during his drug-induced hallucinations. They all seemed to reflect the dark moments of his life, horrors that were his demons and haunted him continually. He was chained to his past and she needed to free him just as he had freed her. Luke seemed unwilling to be free but that was going to change soon. His secret spot was going to be declassified. After he was physically healed, together they would work on the spiritual healing.

The 2-1B insisted that Luke alone remain for observation of both non-rejection of the reconnected prosthetic hand and to scan for any ill effects from the spice. With a well-trained blaster targeting his main processor, the 2-1B relented to Mara?s demand to remain with Luke in his room. There was no way in Hoth she would leave him alone when someone was trying to kill him. That wasn?t really true though. It was more like someone was trying to scare him. The door to the room slid open and Mara was on her feet at the foot of Luke?s bed, blaster aimed at the entrant. It was the 2-1B, who stopped momentarily at the sight of her, then continued to Luke. Mara watched him closely as he checked Luke and left again. Still holding the blaster, she was watching the door close when she noticed a shift in Luke?s awareness as he woke up. She turned abruptly holstering the blaster and coming to sit on the bed by his side. He smiled at her and said dryly, "I think we should call the manager and change our reservations. I distinctly remember requesting a double."

She laughed at his comment then replied, "I could request a room with a bacta pool."

Shifting himself upward in the bed, he retorted. "No, that?s quite all right. I have no desire to go swimming in that stuff."

"But, Luke dear, you should be an expert by now."

He raised his eyebrows at her comment. He looked at her seriously and said, "I?ve been thinking of investing in Zaltin. I might have a problem with the Securities?"

"?Commission because they might accuse you of insider trading."

Before Luke could say anything else, she kissed him on the lips. He drank in her sweetness, like a thirsty man after a long draught. He held her tightly, not wanting to release her. She attempted to stand up, but he didn?t want to stop kissing her. She finally pulled loose and put her finger to his lips. "You need to rest so we can leave here in the morning. I prefer our accommodations at the hotel. Besides, Sio will have a copy of the data for you tomorrow."

Luke wanted to jump out of bed and leave right then, but the glare Mara gave him altered his decision. He settled back in the bed and snuggled under the covers. "Okay. Can you tell me why I?m still here? I thought the procedure would only be several hours but not require an overnight stay?"

Mara masked her emotions; she was startled that he didn?t remember. Not wanting him to question her, she decided to offer minimal information. "Complications. I?ll tell you about it in the morning. Just get some sleep."

Luke was puzzled by her gruff response, but let it pass. At least she was with him, that?s what was important and that fact comforted him. The rest could wait.

Chapter 6

After Luke entered a healing trance, 2-1B entered the room with another intravenous solution. Mara refused it immediately even though 2-1B assured her it was pure, untainted nutrients. She scanned it and confirmed its purity but still decided to play it safe. The other intravenous had been supposedly pure too and she wasn?t taking any unnecessary risks.

Anxious to do some detective work, Mara quietly left the room. After a few hours of sleuthing, she came up with absolutely nothing. No witnesses, no fingerprints, no clues. It was as if the spice had just spontaneously appeared in the solution bag. All the proper seals were attached and no suspicious beings had been noticed. The lack of information frustrated her to no end. Who knew Luke was being treated? It had been a freak accident. Who had access to medical supplies? Security measures controlled drug disbursement. Medical personnel? They had all undergone background checks. Security monitors revealed nothing according to the head of security, Astrid Fields, who had gone over the vids for the whole center and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Mara asked for copies so she would watch them herself; she was positive something was there.

Feeling tired and weary, she returned to Luke?s room. A repulsor bed had been rolled in for her sleep on. Settling down for the night, Mara did a brief probe on Luke?s physical condition and was relieved to find that he had come out of the healing trance and was sleeping peacefully. She poked around and found no lingering injuries. His system had not rejected the new hand.

She paused briefly before deciding to check on his mental condition as well. A Force prompting led her to a hastily constructed wall. She tested the wall with a slight push. It fell. Behind the crumbling wall, she found some vivid memories of the evening?s events. Apparently, his drug-altered subconscious had hurriedly pushed everything into a corner and fenced it in. Stang, no wonder he doesn?t remember. She pulled out of his mind and immediately found herself staring into his startled baby blues.

"That?s what happened? I was spiced up?"

The next morning, after 2-1B provided for his release, Luke informed Mara that he wanted to go to the library as soon as possible. She convinced him that a visit to the hotel was necessary first; he could use a shower and some clean clothes. He conceded her request

They were in the main lobby when the concierge paged Mara with an urgent message from Karrde. Mara kissed Luke, leaving him in the lobby while she went to the public holo station to contact Karrde. Luke, standing near a massive window, was watching a couple of motts digging their horned snouts into the hotel?s magnificent floral garden. He laughed softly as a silver landscape maintenance droid attempted to shoo the motts away.

The amusing scene was interrupted by the approach of a familiar presence. Luke turned and faced his old friend, Lando Calrissian. Luke embraced the older man in a warm hug. Lando grinned widely, clapped his back and exclaimed loudly, "How you doing, buddy? Good to see you."

Pulling out of the embrace, Luke smiled back and replied, "Doing fine. And yourself?"

"Great. Business is booming. I had a long, productive chat with Talon Karrde yesterday?" Lando?s business mode faded as his wandering eyes landed on the exotic and dangerous form of Mara Jade. His smile increased as he watched her shift positions in front of the holo station. Unbeknownst to Lando, Luke, who was hiding a smirk behind his hand, was well aware of what was distracting his friend. Considering that Lando had once sought Mara?s attentions, Luke knew that his old friend was in for one big surprise. Luke was wondering how best to tell him when Lando tore his gaze from Mara.

Mara noticed Lando talking with Luke and had hoped to avoid him. However, it was soon apparent that wasn?t going to happen. Having completed her business, she took a deep breath, then strolled across the lobby to join the two men. Both smiled at Mara as she approached. Ever the gentleman, Lando took Mara?s hand and placed a formal peck upon it. "Hello, Mara. How have you been? I must say that you look fabulous this morning."

Irritated that Lando neglected to release her hand, yet somehow managing to retain her composure, Mara carefully pried her fingers from his firm grip and smiled smugly. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Calrissian."

Flashing a toothy grin, Lando said, "I can always hope."

Annoyed at Lando?s presumption, Mara decided to wipe that confident grin from his face. Not changing her bland expression, she glanced at Luke. "Hello, Skywalker."

Before Luke could respond, Mara grabbed him abruptly at the shoulders and captured his unresisting lips with her demanding ones. They embraced each other tightly and the kiss deepened in its intensity. Slack jawed at the sight before him, Lando viewed the passionate kiss in utter disbelief. That kiss was NOT the kind exchanged between old friends. What is going on?

Mara was thoroughly enjoying the kiss and the reaction it garnered from Calrissian. She felt his disbelief and confusion and reveled in it. Luke gently reprimanded her. Mara, as much I?m enjoying this, I?d like to tell Lando our good news before he starts jumping to wrong conclusions.

Mara pressed her lips even more fully to Luke?s, and responded, Let him jump. Her hands moved from his shoulder blades, down his well-toned back, coming to rest on his firm rear end. Then she promptly smacked his derriere, eliciting a muffled yipe. She finally pulled her lips from Luke?s and turned to face an astonished Calrissian whose impression of a stuttering Mon Calamari was quite becoming. Mara reached out her hand and snapped his mouth shut. She politely smiled but said nothing. A blushing Luke decided to end Lando?s confusion. "Lando, Mara and I are married."

Lando continued to stare wide-eyed at Mara and Luke. "Lando, did you hear me?"

Luke waved his hand in front of Lando?s face and was relieved when Lando blinked and nodded. Clearing his scratchy throat, Lando acknowledged Luke?s statement. "You and Mara are married?"

Luke laughed and said, "Yes. We?re married." He put his arm around Lando?s shoulders. "Let?s go to the lounge and have a caf. I?ll tell you all about it."

Sabella Olie met Luke and Mara in the conference room of the library. She cheerfully handed Luke the copied datafiles that Sio had given her. "Everything that we have decoded is on here. It?s yours to keep. It?s been an honor to work with you, Master Skywalker."

Luke, giddy with excitement, thanked her and said, "Please, call me Luke. This means so much to me. Thank you again for your efforts."

They settled down once again to view the data. Luke scrolled ahead until he came to the section they had reached the other day; his father, a slave on Tatooine. The Force tingled at the back of Luke?s mind, but he couldn?t place the reason. It was as if something was missing, something important. Not one to ignore a prodding of the Force, he sought confirmation from Mara. She hadn?t received any sending, thus was confused at his hesitation. He filed the feelings away thinking that he would return to them later. Besides, further reading could explain the twinges. Focusing once again on the data, he picked up the thread once again. He began to read.

The group arrived on Coruscant. The Queen?s entourage was received by a Republic contingent, which included Supreme Chancellor Valorum and Senator Palpatine of Naboo.

Luke and Mara both gasped audibly, and Mara paled slightly at the sight of her former master?s name. Luke reeled at the idea that the former Emperor had once been a Senator from Naboo, his mother?s home planet. The man had actually been elected to office, hadn?t he? Luke could almost feel the betrayal that all of Naboo must have felt when Palpatine?s true nature and aspirations were revealed. A shivering Mara caused him to withdraw from his contemplation. Luke held her close, her head on his shoulder. Seeking to comfort her, he stroked her red-gold tresses softly and lightly kissed her clammy forehead. He murmured sweetly, "It?s okay, Mara. He has no hold on you anymore."

As if trying to hide from an Anzati, she nuzzled her beautiful face into his safe, strong chest. Why was she reacting this way? She knew the Emperor had no hold on her, yet as soon as she had read his name, she felt a deep and sudden cold. Stang it! The Dark Side was rearing its ugly head again. The same shadowy darkness that had been crossing their path was back with a vengeance. Something horrible was on the horizon and she was kriffing tired of it. She was irked that she couldn?t contain the problem. Fighting with shadows was not to her liking. Like Solo, she preferred a straight fight. Mara felt another tender kiss upon her head. Her green eyes stared at the data, then she spoke. "I?m okay, Luke. Bad memories but I?m fine, really."

He kissed her softly and joined her in staring at the data. The senate transcripts followed. Luke weeded through the transcripts of the meeting. The Trade Federation objected to his mother?s statement about the invasion. They wanted her to defer to a Senate commission to explore the validity of her accusations? Luke couldn?t believe it. They didn?t act! Was it any wonder that he held so many politicians in disdain? He knew the difficulties Leia faced but she was a cut above ordinary politicians. He could see where she got it from - their mother. Luke could envision his mother?s fierce determination when he read her response to the ruling.

Queen Amidala: I will not defer. I have come before you to resolve this attack on Naboo sovereignty now. I was not elected Queen to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in committee. If the chancellor is not capable of action, I suggest new leadership is needed. I move for a vote of no confidence in the supreme chancellor.

"That doesn?t bode well," murmured Mara.

Luke glanced quizzically at Mara. "What do you mean?"

"Keep reading. We?ll find out soon enough."

Sure enough, Mara?s feelings proved true. Amidala?s no confidence ousting of Valorum led to the election of Senator Palpatine. Luke was devastated. The man responsible for most of the horrors in his - and Mara?s - life was able to attain his position with the help of his own mother. Luke?s enthusiasm for his family legacy and history was decidedly dampened.

"He manipulated her, Luke."

Luke blinked. "What?"

Mara took his hand in hers. "The man was a conniving genius. He had everybody fooled. Don?t take it so hard."

Luke nodded in resignation. He was getting too wrapped up in his research. He knew he needed to stop taking everything so personally. Mara motioned her hand to the next paragraph. "There. They returned to Naboo and your mother was responsible for an alliance of the Naboo and the Gungans. That was the first time they worked together on anything. That?s a feat worthy of praise."

The corners of his mouth turned up at how she had deftly redirected him.

A battle ensued which led to the liberation of Naboo but not without losses among both races as well as one of the Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn. Young Anakin Skywalker, 9 standard years, flew a Naboo starfighter against the Trade Federation battleship control ship.

Like father, like son. He heard Mara say in his mind.

The two final pieces of information were about a funeral and a victory celebration. Obi-Wan?s master, Qui-Gon Jinn, had died during the confrontation and was laid to rest on Naboo. The notice said that many of the Jedi, including council members, attended. A holo showed them before a funeral pyre. Luke recognized Yoda, his mother and father, and a very young Ben. The same tingle he had felt earlier returned, stronger this time. The notice indicated that Qui-Gon was killed during ground fighting, but it rang false to Luke. Something was missing, something important. His gaze landed on Palpatine. The man looked?smug. It was as if everything that occurred was to his? his what?

Searching for enlightenment, Luke moved on to the victory celebration. A parade to celebrate the alliance of the Naboo and Gungan peoples and their hard-fought victory over the Trade Federation. His eyes rested up the figure of his mother presenting the Globe of Peace. Two Gungans, Boss Nass, who received the Globe, and Jar Jar Binks were also in the holo. He almost fell out of his chair as realization hit him like a Star Destroyer. Jar Jar Binks. The official who performed their union ceremony knew Luke?s parents. The old Gungan?s comments made sense now. Luke smacked his head with his hand. "How could I have missed the connection?"

Mara made the connection at the same time and was already at the door. "Come on, Luke. We can call him from the public comm station."

He jumped up and ran after her. Someone was still alive who knew his parents. Not only that, Luke had the feeling that Jar Jar would be able to clear up the niggling sense of something missing from the funeral report. Things were looking up indeed.

Mara was able to reach Jar Jar on the first buzz. He remembered them. His old voice cracked as he spoke, "Mesa remember yous. Mara and Ani?oopsy Luke. Dis grand."

Luke blurted out, "Jar Jar, could you talk to us about Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala? It would be helpful to us."

"Obi-One and Quiggon? Mesa hep. Tis very bombad dat Quiggon dead. Bombad jedi killed Quiggon."

Luke asked, "Bombad Jedi?"

Mara whispered, "Sith."

Finally understanding the niggling feeling, Luke wanted to find out more from Jar Jar. "Can we come over to visit with you? You can tell us all about the bombad Jedi and my parents."

"Tis good. Dey good Ani and Padme. Mesa tell yous everything."

Luke disconnected the call, pleased to finally have first hand evidence. The Sith had begun to rise earlier than he?d known. The Jedi Council had kept it a secret and didn?t tell anyone. As he hurried to the speeder, he felt a rush of relief. Things were looking up and he would get some concrete answers.

Chapter 7

The weather turned nasty during the speeder trip to the outskirts of town, where Jar Jar Binks lived. The rain pelted the speeder with a steady rhythm and the sky darkened as heavier clouds gathered. A bolt of lightning sparked across the horizon. Her danger sense flared and she reached for the dashboard to steady herself, as Luke swerved the speeder to avoid an ikpoi that had stopped in the middle of the road. The neck-less animal shook its antlered head at the speeder then leaped off the road, searching for shelter from the storm. A crash was averted but her danger sense hadn?t ceased. Luke chanced to glance at her and she saw his concerned expression. He too was sensing danger ahead.

The speeder lurched to a stop in front of an ancient dwelling. Mara could see the old Gungan standing outside his door. When he saw them, he waved rapidly, bouncing up and down at the same time. Mara looked at Luke who was still agitated. Something wasn?t right. They scanned the area for danger and located none. The precipitation had decreased and a few rays of sun sliced through the cloud cover. Exiting the speeder, Luke and Mara kept their pace slow so as not to startle Jar Jar. Luke approached him first and held his hand out in greeting. "Hello, Jar Jar. Thank you for agreeing to speak with us."

Jar Jar?s bulbous eyes blinked heavily. "Heydey ho. Welcome."

Luke smiled and said, "Thank you."

As they walked into the staid room, Mara felt her danger sense blare. Stopping briefly at a table and retrieving something out of a box, Jar Jar started talking again. "Mesa thank yous for dis gift."

Luke stiffened at Jar Jar?s statement. "Gift?"

Jar Jar had crossed the room and plopped into a chair. "Maccaneks bring dis box. Dey looken good." He took a bite out of a piece of fruit that he had held in his hand.

Mara lifted the lid and looked inside to see a few pear- shaped fruits resting on indented cushions. One was missing. She recognized them instantly: moonglow. Fear formed in the pit of her stomach and she looked frantically to Luke. They both turned horrified faces to look at Jar Jar and had their worst suspicions confirmed. The old Gungan was slumped in his chair, his head lolled to the left and his rough tongue handing out the side. Luke went up to Jar Jar and placed his hands on the Gungan?s head. Luke hung his head in sorrow; he was too late. The poison had run its course, quickly and painlessly. No life remained in the Gungan; at least he hadn?t suffered.

Regretfully, Mara shook her head. She looked at the box again and noticed a small card on the top. She picked it up and read it.

To Jar Jar. Thank you for your help. Luke and Mara Skywalker.

Theed Security dispatched a coroner who confirmed what Luke and Mara already suspected - Death had resulted instantaneously from the ingestion of an improperly processed moonglow. The detective assigned to the case, Ric Tarpals, insisted that Luke and Mara accompany him to the station for questioning. In light of the fact that the note that had come with the friut bore their names, it was a formality. Though they were more than willing to answer any questions, the antagonism of the Gungan officers present made them uneasy.

The situation didn?t improve at the station. An assimilated Gungan, Tarpals had completed extensive security training with the Naboo and was determined to catch the perpetrator. He separated Luke and Mara, putting each in their own interrogation cell. Mara was irritated but knew they would be exonerated. She opened up her Force sense to touch Luke but found nothing. Ysalamiri. That meant that the security forces not only knew they were Jedi, they had been prepared for them. Shavit.

Mara paced the room in an attempt to cool her rising anger. First, the spice, now moonglow and murder. The darkness was moving in again, tangling them in its web. There was something or someone hiding and causing destruction that was directed to her and Luke. Mara was really beginning to hate Theed. Its beauty ceased to enthrall her anymore.

Several hours later, a scowling Detective Tarpals entered the room and was met by an equally scowling Mara Skywalker. Tarpals? dark-eyed stare was no match for Mara?s blazing green one, but he didn?t flinch. Instead, he pulled a chair over and sat down. The stare-down continued for a few moments before Tarpals? bulbous eyes blinked. He loudly cleared his throat and commenced by saying, "Yous in big trubble. We no like Outlanders dat do murder ta grand warrior."

"We didn?t murder him. We went there to talk to him." Mara retorted.

"Da moonglow dey in da box wit da card from yous and yous husband."

"We never sent him anything."

"Yous fingerprints dey on da box and da card."

Mara sighed. She shouldn?t have opened the box. "He thanked us for a gift that we didn?t send. I looked in the box to see what he was talking about. I saw the card and picked it up to read it."

"Da handwriting tis yous husband. Tis confirmed."

Mara couldn?t get a read on Tarpals. True, the Force was absent but she had always been able to figure out what a sentient was really saying by their expressions and actions. Tarpals was a blank slate. Maybe she couldn?t get a read on the Gungan; she had no experience with his species. She had to admit that she had developed a grudging respect for the officer. He was good. "Obviously, it was a forgery."

"Da chef at da hotel remembers yous. He say yous inquired about da moonglow last night. Dis sunnup, four fruits dey stolen. "

"I didn?t steal them, I never talked to any chef about moonglow."

"Da chef give maxibig description of yous. He say ?she had the brightest red hair? he ever see."

"That?s not possible."

"Mesa see da sketch. Tis yous." He reached his long arm into his coat pocket and pulled out a datapad. He tossed it to Mara, who caught it with ease. She was astonished to find her mirror image on the screen.

"Detective Tarpals, I can prove that I wasn?t at any hotel speaking to any moonglow chef last night. I was at Panaka Memorial MedCenter with my husband, who was recovering from surgery. You can verify with Astrid Fields, the security officer for the medcenter."

"But yous no deny de sketch. Da chef described yous. How could he do dat if he not rilly see yous?"

Mara was puzzled about that. "Maybe he saw me somewhere else."

"But why put yous wit da moonglow?"

"I honestly don?t know."

His eyestalks rigid, he stared at her for a moment then got up and walked to the door. He reached with his thick hand for the release pad then pulled up short. With a sigh, he turned back to face Mara. "Mesa confirmed yous whereabouts wit Ms Fields long time ago."

Mara glared at him in disbelief. "Long time ago? Then what?s with all the questions if you already knew?"

Tarpals interrupted her tirade. "Mesa not know. Mesa received anonymous tip bot da moonglow theft; den mesa received yous call. Mesa wanted to see what yous say. Yousa rilly look like da holo. "

Mara narrowed her eyes even more. "You got my statement. It?s not me. Maybe somebody is impersonating me or thinks they saw me. I don?t know. Now, I ask that you move aside and let me leave."

Tarpals shook his head. "No, mesa think not."

"What? And why not?" Mara was fuming.

Whereas most sentient beings would halt in fear of her, Tarpals confidently approached Mara and ushered her to a chair. Her anger was slowly being replaced by curiosity. Once she was seated, Tarpals leaned on the table in front of her and said, "Sid, no doen de sensors."

Mara was totally confused. She blinked and nearly jumped out of her chair when a voice answered. "All clear Ric."

Tarpals sat down across from Mara. "Dis point. Mesa warning yous. Dey setten yous up for bad fall. Da tipster say bot da moonglow theft. Den he informed us dat Jedi doen murder and dat dey no like da Gungans. We goen ta need ysalamiri."

Mara paled significantly. "That?s ridiculous. Jedi honor all sentient beings. Jar Jar knew Luke?s parents and was the key to his past. There was no reason in Hoth we would want to kill him."

Tarpals regretfully added, "Tis bombad. Tipster goen ta de press."

Mara groaned. If the tipster had told the press that it was a racial?The press would eat them alive when they left the station. She wanted her blaster back. "I know we?re being set up. I assume that the press is out front."

"Yes. Dats why yous no leave. Mesa talk wit yous husband. He sad."

Mara remembered Luke?s despair at the Gungans?s death. So close to the answers for which he had been searching for years. "You believe us, don?t you? Luke told you who his mother was, didn?t he."

Tarpals nodded respectfully. "Me confirmed wit Sabella Olie. Wit her statement and da ones of Astrid and 2-1B, yous alibi is corroborated." He paused briefly. "What scare me is dat yous and yous husband have very bombad enemy. One dat pound yous in murder investigation. Da sketch artist say dat da chef was far away goen through his description. Mesa no release yous without grand warrior."

"That?s nothing new. We can take care of ourselves."

Tarpals wasn?t convinced. "Still, mesa think mebbe would be best?"

"Look, Tarpals, Luke and I have plenty of experience dealing with unknown enemies. Just return our weapons and we?ll be on our way."

Conceding defeat, Tarpals said, "Sid, give da Skywalkers? dey weapons."

"Who?s Sid?"

"Mesa assistant. Oh, don?t look at me like dat. He not know nutten bout our conversation. Remember when me say no doen da sensors. Dat his cue to stop monitoring, you betcha. Sid is security interrogation droid, a maccanek. He no hear. " He walked to the door and palmed the opener. "Comen. Go wit yous husband. Mesa give da press conference exonerating yous, den yous beggone out de back."

Mara followed quickly and abruptly ran into Luke, who embraced her. A matte black humanoid droid handed Mara her blaster and lightsaber. She noticed that Luke was already sporting his lightsaber. Tarpals gestured to a long corridor at the right. "Da speedest way tada public speeder terminal, tis dat way."

Luke shook the man?s hand. Mara didn?t offer hers. "I?d like to say it?s been fun, but it hasn?t."


"Luke, I?m not in a good mood. So, Tarpals, it won?t be a problem for us to leave unnoticed. Just keep the ysalamiri out of our way." With that she dragged Luke behind her as she headed down the hall.

In their hotel suite, Luke leaned on the railing of the balcony, watching the sunrise. It still seemed odd to him that a planet could have only one sun. The red-gold orb crawled out of the pit of darkness, bringing forth warmth and light. He observed the shadows as they ran from the brightness. He breathed in the freshness of the morning air. A peko peko flew by, its leathery wings stretched taut. Luke could see a tag on its leg, identifying it as a domesticated pet. As it fluttered off in the distance, Luke?s attention was drawn to a sound behind him. Twisting his head, he saw that it was Mara.

She had just gotten out of the shower. Her hair was still up in a towel. "Good morning, Luke."

He smiled at her. "Good Morning. Breakfast is on its way up. You?re hungry, I?"

"Can feel it. I know, I know." Mara laughed.

The buzzer rang and the announcing chime sang out room service. Luke got up and said, "I?ll get it."

A few minutes later, they were both seated at the small dinette table, eating a tasty avian egg dish. Mara spoke first. "Luke, can we go home?"


Mara took a breath. "Yes. I?ve been here longer than I ever thought I would be. I know you needed to get the datadiscs and since Sio gave you the copies of everything they had cracked, I thought that maybe we could leave."

Luke looked at her for a moment. He had been so involved in his research, he had neglected to think of Mara?s feelings. He didn?t want to make that kind of mistake again. "Sure. We can leave today."

A smile spread on her radiant face. "Thank you."

She got up from her place and came over to sit on Luke?s lap. "I have one request."

She wrapped her slender arms around his shoulders. He put his hands on her hips and then kissed her lips. "And what is that request?"

"That I get to be the pilot." She grinned and began to nibble on his ear.

He scrunched his head, trying to get her loose from his ear. "Mara, that tickles."

She pulled back and looked into his deep blue eyes. She gave him a devious smile then moved her hands to her hips. "Tickles? I?ll give you tickles."

She immediately set her fingers to work tickling his ribs. He tried to get away but only succeeded in landing on the ground. Mara came down on top of him with a thud. "Oof. Mara, you okay?"

Mara was on her hands and knees above him. The towel had fallen from her head and her gorgeous wet hair cascaded down the sides of her face, framing her beauty. Luke was so mesmerized that he didn?t notice the cold drops that landed on his chest. He reached up to stroke her cheek when he noticed the glint in her eye. Her lips twisted and she said, "I?m okay, but you might not be."

She leaned down and smothered his mouth with hers. Although fervently enjoying the kiss, he was beginning to get dizzy from lack of oxygen. However, he reluctantly let her pull away. Soon, he ran his quivering fingers into her hair and pulled her back down. She kissed him quickly on the lips then went for his ear again. Mara felt triumphant at being able to get the strong, compact Jedi Master to squirm. The buzzer rang again and she heard the announcing chime. Not willing to accept the interruption, she waved her hand at the door, locking it with the Force and setting the codes for "do not disturb". An astonished Luke gaped at her. Before he could make any comment, Mara ensured his silence by taking his unresisting lips into hers.

Chapter 8

While Mara was packing, Astrid Fields stopped by the suite to deliver a copy of the vid from the medcenter?s security monitors. Astrid didn?t think it would be helpful, but provided the copy anyway. Mara sensed that the woman was leery of her and guessed that she?d probably seen Mara level her blaster at 2-1B one too many times. Mara smirked at the thought

Mara quickly ushered Astrid out of the suite and continued her packing. She had put the last article in the bag when the door buzzed and announced the arrival of a Sid. She instinctively reached out in the Force and touched nothing. Then she remembered that Sid was the droid from Theed Security. Stars, what could have happen now? She palmed the door open and said brusquely, "What is it?"

Sid?s coating cast a glare that caused Mara to blink. Silently, he lifted his arm and presented a datapad to her. It read:

All charges against you have been dropped. Received death threat on you. For your own safety, suggest that you leave the planet. May the Force be with you.

Detective Ric Tarpals.

Mara shrugged and rolled her eyes. It wasn?t everyday that she was politely thrown off a planet. She thrust the datapad back into Sid?s glossy hand. "Yeah, we?re going. Thanks."

She moved back to close the door when Sid stepped into the doorframe. "Wait. I?m instructed to give you the codes for leaving the spaceport. It will be necessary since all the authorities haven?t received notification of your clearance to leave." His monotonous mechanical voice droned on, making her wish she was listening to Tarpals. At least his voice was lively.

Sid activated the datapad again and showed her the codes. Pushing a button, he ejected a disc. "Use these codes for clearance. Then, they will not shoot you down."

"Wouldn?t want that to happen," Mara muttered sarcastically.

Unable to understand her sardonic comment, Sid replied, "No. We wouldn?t. The paperwork would be horrendous. Good day, Mrs. Skywalker."

With that, he turned and retreated stiffly down the corridor.

Luke returned to the suite not long after Sid had delivered his message. He had gone to see Sabella Olie regarding the datadiscs that had not yet been decoded. He was hoping to take them to Ghent and have the slicer crack them. Sabella denied his request, at least for the moment. She told him that the library had granted Luke permission to view the discs only because of his ancestry. Other foreigners would not receive the same consideration, but she would keep the option open for a later date. Slightly dejected, he returned to the suite to find that Mara had finished packing. She informed him about Sid?s visit. He sighed heavily and said, "Figures."

Hoping to perk him up, she used her finger to lift his chin and looked into his somber eyes. "Luke, don?t worry about it. At least we have the clearance codes. Usually, we have no advance warning of a possible firefight."

Luke didn?t respond like she had hoped. Drastic measures were needed to snap him out of his gloomy state. Mara placed her hands on her hips, then suddenly swung out her left leg and hooked it around his left leg. She had hoped to bring him down but was surprised when he quickly grabbed her calf, preventing her from continuing her motions. "Tsk, tsk, Mara. Is that a nice thing to do to your husband?"

He was smirking at her! "Why you?Skywalker, you did that on purpose! Let go."

"I don?t think that would be a good idea. I?m safer with you off balance."

That was true enough. She was balanced precariously on one foot. Any movement would send her sprawling. Glaring viciously at him, a sudden feral smile crossed her lips as an idea grew. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on gathering the Force to herself, then sent it spinning at Luke, only to have it dissipate against his firmly erected Force shield. She heard him laugh in her mind. You?ll have to do better than that, Jade.

She took a deep breath to control her temper. He was purposely baiting her. Living dangerously, Skywalker?

He winked at her then said, "Always. I married you, didn?t I?"

Her mouth fell open at that comment. Before Mara could make any retort, Luke released his hold of her leg, letting it flop down. She automatically sought her balance. Immediately, his arms were around her waist, embracing her and his lips kissing hers, so demandingly. Almost as soon as it began, it ended. All too soon. "Mara, it?s check-out time. Let?s go."

He picked up the bags and headed for the door. Dumbfounded, a flushed Mara gaped at him. "Skywalker, what was that?"

He smiled innocently. "A kiss, of course."

He looked ten years younger when he smiled like that and oh, so handsome and rugged. She started to melt but held firm. Placing her hands on her hips, she said, "I know that but why?"

"Why not?"

Her frustration level was in orbit. "Arrrrgh. Don?t do that, Skywalker."

"Do what?"

She Force-threw a pillow at him but he rebuffed it. His smile was totally disarming. "Mara? Do you still want to pilot?"

She blinked in confusion. "Yes."

He palmed the door and said, "Then come on or I?ll change my mind and pilot myself."

Mara threw her hands up in defeat and stomped passed Luke. He grinned as she walked down the corridor. It was so much fun keeping her off balance.

As they entered the docking bay, Mara thought back to the first time she had seen Luke?s ship. He had shown it to her during their first week of dating. First week. It was only last week. Time had flown by so quickly.

He looked so adorable when he escorted her there. His excitement vibrated through the Force thus increasing her excitement level. He actually covered her eyes with his hands. "Just a minute, Mara. We?re almost there"

He adjusted her position and once he was satisfied that she had the best possible view, he uncovered her eyes. She was not disappointed when the ship came into focus. It was a magnificent and awesome starship. A Sorosuub Luxury 3000. Slightly larger than a YT1300, it was much more impressive looking. She ran her hand along the hull, over the truncated nose, the wide fuselage and the elliptical wings. After having completed the circuit, she followed Luke up the ramp to see the interior. The cockpit was quite functional, designed exclusively for one pilot to easily run all systems, if necessary. There were two extremely comfortable chairs for the pilot and co pilot. The weaponry and sensor systems were impressive and bordered on the illegal. That is, if she, Mara Jade, had acquired them. But Luke had kept his military flight certification and had an exemption for extra weaponry and enhanced sensor packages. His status as a war hero was also advantageous. In addition to a laser cannon, it also had three quad turbolasers, a tractor beam projector, an automatic shootback system and a slave circuit control. All switches were in close reach of the pilot. After getting familiar with the cockpit, she decided to tour the rest of the ship. The galley had an elegant top of the line food synthesizer unit and the lounge contained comfortable nerfleather furniture and an extensive holonet system. A small medunit was located next to the droid alcove. There were two sleeping quarters. The visitor?s cabin was staid and functional. Luke avoided the Captain?s cabin but Mara insisted. He opened the door for her and she entered swiftly before he could change his mind. The sight that greeted her amazed her. The cabin was elegant and it contained the finest furnishings available. She stroked the smooth bedcovers and held them to her face, luxuriating in their softness. "Luke, these are gorgeous and so soft. Who decorated?"

Luke, who had been staring at her the whole time, blushed as if he had been caught doing something naughty. "Um, Lando did."

She cocked her eyebrow at him and stated, "Calrissian. That doesn?t surprise me. That man has an eye for creature comforts."

"Mara, let?s go," Luke?s voice interrupted her recollection.

Mara shook her head and blinked her eyes. "Huh? Oh, yeah. After you, Skywalker."

She followed him up the ramp and into the yacht that she would fly away from Naboo and its shroud of darkness. The ramp closed silently behind her. She watched as Luke entered the captain?s cabin to deposit the bags. He was still hiding a part of himself from her and it was time to find it. Once they entered hyperspace, she was going to break down his barriers. Their bond was going to be complete. No secrets, no matter how painful they may be.

Mara completed the flight sequence procedures swiftly and expertly while Luke leaned back in the co-pilot chair and observed her. She was in her element. They were so much alike in their desire to be among the stars. When she was ready, she signaled for him to obtain flight clearance. He keyed the intercom and contacted flight control. "Theed Control, this is Twin Suns requesting clearance for liftoff."

Silence. Luke re-keyed and reiterated. "Theed Control, this is?"

"Twin Suns, request denied. Power down."

Mara retrieved the codes supplied by Tarpals and input them into the system. Luke transmitted the codes and said, "Theed Control, transmitting authorization codes."

Silence. Luke could feel Mara?s impatience. He reached over and placed his hand on her arm, assuring her that it would be fine. She gave him a look that spoke volumes; she didn?t believe it. Static burst forth from the comm. " Twin Suns, you have been cleared. Vector being transmitted now."

"Thank you, Theed Control. Twin Suns out."

Lift off went smoothly. Mara cleared the atmosphere, proceeded out of the system, entered the coordinates and was soon pulling the hyperspace lever. As the starlines blurred outside the cockpit, Mara set the ship on autopilot and swiveled her chair to face Luke. "She handles great. Very smooth."

Luke could feel her glee and something else. "And?"

"Well? I don?t particularly like the name you gave her."

"I hadn?t given it much thought. I haven?t had her long and needed to call her something."

"Don?t worry, I?ll think of something."

Luke laughed. "I?m sure you will."

Mara looked at him seriously. "Luke, we need to talk."

He interlaced his fingers together, pressed his chin on top of them and stared vacantly at the dash. He knew what she wanted to talk about. She deserved to know but he didn?t think he was ready.

"Luke, you are ready. You can?t keep it hidden any longer. I need to know."

He knew he couldn?t keep it locked up any longer. It was devouring him. He wanted so much to get rid of the pain but to share it with Mara?

"Luke, we are two pieces of a whole. We share a soul. We can share pain and memories. It?s only fair."

He squeezed his eyes shut. Would he do it? Better yet, could he do it? Luke had been dreading this moment since he?d started falling for her. He didn?t want to lose her. He opened his eyes again. Sith, it was hot in here. He fumbled with the crash restraints, jumped out of the seat and stumbled to the entry, then froze. He wouldn?t run from her. He loved her. He was startled when her soft, delicate hands wrapped around his waist. She pressed her body against his back and held him tightly.

"Luke, you won?t lose me. I love you, too, but it?s time to talk. It?s time I knew."

Mara snaked her way around his torso so that she stood in front of him. She placed her hands on his cheeks and focused her brilliant green eyes on his sorrowful blue ones. He bit his trembling lip when he saw the pure, unadulterated, unconditional love that radiated from her very being. He knew that he could tell her everything, no matter how horrible it was.

"Luke. Tell me ... Tell me about Callista."

Chapter 9

Luke signaled his agreement with a minute nod of his head, although she could tell that he was still uneasy with the idea. Seeking a more comfortable spot to engage in conversation, Mara led him to the galley. A discussion of this magnitude (at least Mara assumed it would be such) wasn?t for the corridor of the ship. She escorted him to the table, then requested some hot chocolate from the food synthesizer. She returned to the table carrying two steaming mugs of Luke?s favorite beverage. His demeanor had relaxed since they left the cockpit. The discussion was inevitable and he knew it now and accepted it. He had to unlock the past and remove the shackles so he could go on with the future, their future. Luke curled his fingers around a mug of hot chocolate and then glanced at Mara and caught her eye. She was ready whenever he was. It was best to begin at the beginning. With a hushed voice, Luke said, "It all started on Nam Chorios. I had gone to find her?"

Luke opened himself up completely to Mara. Walls were torn down. His soul was finally laid bare for her and she could see his memories through his eyes. He took hold of her hand and led her down memory lane. Mara could see the scene unfolding on Nam Choris.

The Bleak Point gun station was abuzz with activity. It was littered with debris from previous Force storms. My disheveled and bruised sister ran straight for Han, throwing herself into his arms. I limped up to the couple. Together we filled Han in on what had happened on the planet. Soon, the gun station would be back online and we would have to leave.

I couldn?t get on the shuttle. I couldn?t leave without her. Then I saw her. She was wearing a dark crimson coat and gray veils over her malt brown hair. I began to limp towards her but faltered and fell. The next thing I know, she was beside me. "Here, let me help you."

She helped me to stand, unsteadily at first, but I leaned on her for support. "Help me by staying with me."

Her eyes met mine and I could see her mulling it over. Finally, she nodded and then escorted me up the ramp. When we saw the tender reunion of Liegeus and Daala, I knew that we could overcome our obstacles. Surely, our love would be stronger than any problem we would encounter. I embraced her and kissed her fervently. She wilted under the assault of my attentions and I asked her to marry me. She responded yes by returning my kisses.

The captain of the New Republic cruiser, with which the shuttle docked, performed the marriage ceremony. Han and Leia were in attendance, as well as the bridge crew. Thunderous applause greeted us as we sealed our union with a kiss. A steward escorted us to a small VIP cabin where our journey together as husband and wife would begin.

Luke stopped abruptly, letting go of Mara?s hand and she lost view of his memory. She looked to him to see what had happened and noticed that he was blushing. "Luke, why?d you stop?"

"Well, I thought that you might not want to see that next part."

Mara blinked. "The next part? Oh. Yeah."

Mara paused a moment. "Luke are you okay? Will you allow me to continue this journey?"

Luke pondered her request. He thought that he could lead her through his memories and shield her from the painful ones. Then he realized what he was doing. He was trying to protect her; just like he had tried to protect Callista when she lost her Force powers. He couldn?t make that mistake again. He glanced back at Mara and nodded. They would continue the journey together, without an overprotective guide. There was only one spot totally off-limits and he kept it well hidden. Mara clasped hold of Luke?s hands and then reentered Luke?s mind.

The jungles of Yavin IV were a lush green, extremely damp and alive with the Force. The snap-hiss of a lightsaber was heard, then a crackle as it met the broad side of another.

I stood en guard, sizing up my opponent and calculating my options.

Mara saw his opponent. A woman with malt brown hair and gray eyes. Callista. She wore traditional Jedi robes and wielded her sword with mastery matched only by that of her opponent, Luke Skywalker. Several apprentices watched in awe as the couple slashed and parried with utmost ease.

Luke continued his narrative.

We had learned much about training of Jedi from Callista, who had begun to share her knowledge since her return with me six months prior. Having reconciled herself to the fact that there was little chance of finding the Force again, Callista concentrated on educating others on how to use it. She immersed herself in her work, spending hours training, speaking, studying and demonstrating swordsmanship. She was so busy that I hired an aide to assist her. Kirawyn Rochester, a black haired, black-eyed Chad native, had come to the Academy seeking to be a Jedi, but had little ability. Callista, feeling a tad bit homesick, took an instant liking to her. Wanting to help both of them, I hired Kirawyn to assist Callista with all the paperwork and studying she was doing. I had hoped that with an assistant, Callista could free up some time to spend with me. She was constantly in the library studying until the wee hours of the morning. I would wait up for her, but would often fall asleep before she arrived.

It was all for naught. I still went to bed alone at night.

We were speaking to each other less and less each day. Though I wore the serene somber face of the Jedi Master, my insides were churning. No one knew that the Master and his perfect Jedi wife were having major marital difficulties. Neither I nor Callista would admit it or show it. I knew it couldn?t go on. I failed in helping her regain the Force; I could not fail her as a husband. I cornered her one night in the corridor.

"Callista, we need to talk."

She agreed and followed me back to our room. Callista sat on the couch and waited for me to begin. I sat next to her and held her hand. My voice rose barely above a whisper. "I miss you, Callista. You spend more time with Kirawyn than you do with me. I?m tired of sleeping alone. I want to be a good husband to you and I seem to be failing."

She looked at me, oddly not surprised at my words. Squeezing my hand, she said, "I think that it?s a two way star lane, Luke. I haven?t been much of a wife." She stared deep into my pleading eyes. Somehow, I knew that what she was going to say would hurt me. "I don?t think it is our destiny to be together."

Mara watched as Luke?s facial expression tightened, before he continued.

I thought, No, she was wrong. "No, that?s not true. We were made for each other. I can make you happy. Please, just let me try."

She had the good sense not to quote Yoda back to me. "It?s not a matter of you making me happy, Luke. I cannot touch the Force. It?s gone from me. I have accepted it but it still pains me to be around those who have it. You have such power?"

"I don?t care if you don?t have the Force."

Callista shook her head. "I may not have the Force but I can see how my not having it affects you."

Confused by her comment, I asked her to clarify. "Luke, you have such power, you need the Force. It speaks to you in everything you do. You cannot live without it. We have no connection, no bond. We cannot have one at all because I cannot touch the Force. You cannot be complete or fulfilled without a Force bond."

I understood what she was saying but still wouldn?t accept it. We needed to try to establish that connection. We had it before, it could happen again. "I want to keep trying. I want to save our marriage and I think that we can have a better chance away from here. Let?s move to Coruscant. Let?s salvage our life together."

Callista absorbed my words. She didn?t think it would work but did it for my sake. I would do everything in my power to make it work. "Okay, I?ll go."

Intently observing the scene in her mind. Mara saw a radiant smile spread on his face. His whole countenance changed. He brought his lips to hers, deepening the kiss with each passing moment. His hand moved up the silky skin of her arm and she shivered in delight. It had been so long since they had been together. She untied the belt of his robe, and then he did the same with hers. He moved his mouth to her neck, eliciting more rapid breathing from her. As he moved down?

Mara halted her viewing of the memory when she felt Luke flinch. "She was right. Because she couldn?t touch the Force, you could not be complete." Mara stated.

Luke nodded as he spoke. "I honestly thought it would be okay. I needed her. Our connection through the Force?well, I was positive that it would happen again. But I realized that night, that she could be right."

"What made you realize it?"

Luke flushed red and glanced down at the table. "It was after we, um?"

"After you made love." Mara finished his sentence and received an affirmative nod.

Luke loosened his grip on Mara?s hands and wiggled his fingers. "We connected physically but I felt, empty, incomplete in my spirit. I was missing something but I thought that, hey, this is what it is like for the average person."

"But Luke Skywalker is not the average person," Mara declared.

"Much to his chagrin," Luke murmured.

Mara ripped her hands free of his and glared at him. "You are special, Luke. Don?t deny it. You need to be with a Force sensitive to be complete. You cannot be balanced or happy without that Force connection. Callista couldn?t offer that to you. And she was smart enough to know it."

Luke?s anger spiked at her outburst, but it subsided quickly. "I know that, I know that now. But then I just dismissed it. I was failing as a husband. I wasn?t going to fail. I needed to try."

"Skywalker, you are so stubborn?Couldn?t you understand what she was saying?"

"In hindsight, yes. I remembered what Liegeus told me about Daala. ?But she had her own road. I don?t think she ever loved me less, but it was a road that I could not follow. I did try. But sometimes?you have to let them go.? He had sought after her as I had Callista. "

Luke stopped and looked humbly at Mara. "I didn?t listen to his advice. Sith, they had a happy ending, why couldn?t we? I see now that if I had listened to him and to Callista, things would have turned out vastly different."

Mara could sense Luke?s mental exhaustion. Delving deep into his psyche was taking its toll. "Luke, let?s take a break. You?re tired and" she paused a moment. "You?re hungry. I can feel it."

He laughed at her use of his line. Stretching his taut muscles, Luke rose and walked over to the food synthesizer unit. He ordered a Yavin stew for himself and some Coruscant fare for Mara. After practically inhaling his food, he lingered in the galley waiting for Mara to finish her dish. Mara smiled impishly, savoring each bite of food as she watched Luke pace the galley. "Luke, go to bed."

"Not alone." He stated firmly.

Pushing all thoughts of teasing aside, Mara asked, "Why?"

"I don?t want to be alone. Callista stopped sleeping with me not long after we were married. I need to feel you beside me." His words were barely above a whisper.

Mara left her food on the table and walked over to him. He embraced her, enveloping her with the Force, then wrapped his arm around her waist to escort her from the galley. The feeling of completion and unity in the Force was exquisite. They couldn?t deny the draw of the Force. There was no doubt in her mind that he required this Force bond to survive. And at that moment, Mara realized that she needed it also. Their gait was slow at first as they sauntered down the corridor, then it picked up quickly. Though they had increased their pace, the distance to the captain?s cabin seemed to be as far as Yavin was from Naboo. Finally, they reached their destination. The door opened and lights came up automatically, allowing them to enter unimpeded. Luke disrobed and climbed under the soft covers. Mara soon joined him then ordered, "Lights off."

They cuddled, basking in the warmth of their bodies and the reassuring tactile moment. It felt wonderful to just lay there next to him. She knew that there was more to learn about Callista but for now there was just Luke. This was their time, the present. The past could wait.

Chapter 10

Their rest break lasted a few hours but little resting was actually done. Luke smiled impishly as he got up and walked to the refresher. Sure, he had been tired, but not that tired. Mara was coming out of the refresher. She gave him a soft peck on the cheek and hurried out of the cabin. After taking a quick shower, he exited the refresher and sat on the edge of the bed to reflect on the Callista disclosure, for lack of a better word. He had gotten himself so worked up about it that he hadn?t thought clearly and reacted worse. He had his emotions in check now. Mara was doing exceptionally well for a beginner in her viewing of his memories. She kept within the boundaries he had placed and her touch was non-invasive. His expression darkened when he realized that there was more to come and it wouldn?t be any better than what was already revealed. But stang, it was better to get it out than to let it fester inside. He felt Mara?s shining presence outside the door and stood to greet her.

Mara had gone to the cockpit to check their coordinates. She reclined in the chair and thought back on what she had discovered. She had finally gotten her desire; Luke had let down his barriers and allowed her in. There was one small area that was locked away from her, but she left it alone, knowing that he was entitled to some privacy. The emotional turmoil from his memories was so raw she wasn?t sure if her knowledge of them was such a good thing anymore.

Luke and Callista had marital discord. That wasn?t a big deal; it happened to lots of couples in the galaxy. But Luke, being who he is, wasn?t happy unless he was saving something, be it the galaxy or his marriage. No, there was more to it than the fact that the perfect Jedi Master was on the verge of going through a divorce. Callista was dead, killed in a boating accident of some sort, if Mara?s memory served her correctly. Why would Luke be so secretive about her death? It?s not like he had shot a blaster bolt through her, left her on the ship and scuttled it. Mara?s expression reflected her surprise at that sudden thought. Where did that come from? A cold shiver ran down her spine, hinting once again at the darkness that had been shadowing them. There was no way that Luke could have killed his wife in cold blood, could he? Yet? it could mean that maybe someone else had. She left the cockpit hurriedly. She needed to hear the rest of the story.

She entered the captain?s cabin and came face to face with Luke. "You know, Skywalker, it would be nice to actually surprise you sometime."

Luke pulled her into his embrace. "I?m sorry, Mara. But you can?t surprise a Jedi Master." Then he kissed her before she could complain.

After the kiss ended, Mara said, "Fine. Then what did I come here for?"

His eyebrow cocked. "That?s a loaded question." She smacked his arm. "Ow. I know you want to know what happened next."

She nodded softly as she sat down in a chair. Luke?s serious expression indicated that he was ready. He sat in a chair facing her, took her hand and opened up his mind to her.

Coruscant, A planet consisting of an endless, continuous city. The lights of the city shone brightly, blurring the night into the day. From the balcony of my apartment, I watched anonymous speeders zoom by, like so many nerfs in search of pasture. I had brought Callista here, seeking greener pasture. The move was meant to give us time and space to work out our problems but it only succeeded in cementing our differences. We weren?t any closer and were actually further apart. Our problems were mounting. I sighed and went into my bedroom. Her bedroom was upstairs.

The door annunciator buzzed and Artoo rolled to answer it. I already knew who it was, so I put on a happy face, knowing full well that she would see through my deception anyway. I entered the living room at the same time as Leia, who rushed over to me. "Luke!"

She embraced me fully, then focused her brown eyes on me. "Luke, I was worried when you didn?t show up for lunch. What happened?"

"I was waiting for Callista. I thought that she might still arrive in time."

Leia took hold of my hand. "Luke, speaking of Callista. Can we talk?"

I closed my eyes and sighed yet again. I knew what she wanted to talk about. Nodding my head slightly, I led her over to the couch and offered her a seat. She adjusted her dress, then pushed her long brown hair behind her ear. "Luke. I?ve been sensing?Well, I have been getting these feelings?"

She folded her arms determinedly then said kindly, "Tell me the truth. I?ve been sensing a heavy amount of discord and a feeling of failure coming from you. What?s wrong?"

Her face reflected her concern. That was the problem with a Force sensitive twin. I couldn?t hide anything from her without her knowing something was amiss. "Callista and I have been having marital difficulties. I convinced her to move here so we could work it out"

Leia spoke before I could finish. "It didn?t work."

"Not yet. I have to try. I can?t fail her."

Leia said softly, "Luke, you haven?t failed her. But she has her own path to follow. One upon which you cannot tread."

I was startled by her declaration. So close to what Liegeus had told me. And Callista. No, I shouted to my subconscious. It was our destiny to be together. I would continue to deny the opposite. And yet here was my own sister telling me to desert my wife.

"No, Luke. Not desert. Allow your destinies to happen. You need to let her go."

My anger was rising. How could she? "Get out of my mind, Leia," I shouted darkly.

Leia jumped back at the intensity of my words but held firm. "Luke, I love you. You cannot continue on this path. It is destructive to both you and Callista. Please, think about what I?ve said?"

Then, all of a sudden, Leia shivered. I had violently severed our bond. She looked sadly at me and was surprised to find my expression blank. In a steely voice, I said, "Leia. You should go now."

She bit her trembling lip, then whispered, "Luke. Remember that I love you and care for you. Goodbye."

Leia rose quickly, discreetly wiping a tear from her cheek, and rushed out into the corridor. My eyes widened as realization struck. Why, oh why, had I done that to Leia? "Wait. Leia..."

But she hadn?t heard and was already gone. How could I? How could I treat her that way? I rubbed my aching temples. Nothing seemed to be working for me lately. I would apologize to Leia later. I needed to clear my head. Some fresh air and a walk would do me some good I grabbed my brown robe and headed for the gardens.

Luke stopped the memory there. He explained, "I re-established the sibling Force bond with Leia later that day. She was still wary though, afraid that I would cut her off again. She knew that my attempts at reconciliation with Callista were doomed but held her thoughts tightly. She has held her emotions in check since then. That?s basically why she was so reluctant when I announced our marriage, Mara. She was worried about how I would survive in another marital relationship."

Mara nodded. "I guess I can understand her reaction then. I didn?t know any of the underlying problems she had knowledge of."

Luke admitted. "I had never felt so inadequate. I could release my father from the grip of the Dark Side but I couldn?t succeed in improving my marriage."

"Luke, you can?t fight your destiny."

"Yeah, tell me about it."

They re-entered the trance and continued their journey of discovery.

I spent much of my time training my niece and nephews, at least in a few rudimentary Jedi techniques. They were still too young for complete training but their potential was tremendous. They gave me such joy and a feeling of fatherly pride. There was a sharp pang in my heart. I had already given up any thought of having my own children. It couldn?t even happen accidentally because Callista hadn?t slept with me since that night on Yavin. I had made overtures but she had rebuffed them, explaining to me that a marriage is not built solely on sex and she didn?t want to risk bringing a child into an already rocky marriage. I was ready to tell her I would take repress meds but didn?t. Admitting my sexual frustration wouldn?t help matters. Little Anakin drew me out of my musing. "Unca Lukie. Why so sad?"

Squatting down, I smiled, hoping to lighten the mood. "I was just thinking, Little Jedi."

Anakin straightened his posture and focused his intense blue eyes on mine. In a small but firm voice, he stated, "About Aunt Callista."

It wasn?t a question. I was continually amazed by the words that came out of the mouth of my four-year-old nephew. This child was more perceptive than most adults were. "Yes, I was."

Suddenly, Anakin was hugging my neck, his soft chubby cheek rubbing against my rough one. Teetering on my feet, I almost fell over but was able to keep my balance. Anakin started to whisper into my ear. "I sorry, Unca Lukie."

I lifted Anakin up. "About what, Little Jedi?"

Anakin let go of my neck and twisted up his face into an expression that conveyed a ?don?t give me that, you know what I?m talking about? look. "It will be okay. My other aunt will help you."

Confused by that statement, I decided to ignore it. I mussed Anakin?s unruly dark hair after putting him down. "I know it will be okay since I?ve got a wonderful nephew like you to help. I need to go now. I?ll see you again tomorrow."

Luke allowed Mara to lead the way through his memories.

Luke had just reached the corridor leading to his apartment when he sensed high emotions. He flushed red as he realized that the emotions were lustful and sensual. His embarrassment turned to anger when erotic images of his wife assaulted him; it was coming from inside his home. He burst through the door and found Callista in the act of pushing a particularly amorous young man away from her. A feeling of relief passed over her features as she noticed Luke, but it was short lived. Luke had given her a cursory glance and then proceeded to Force-fling the young man against the wall with a deafening thud. The would-be suitor was soon gasping for breath and clutching at his throat. Luke continued to squeeze, any moment the man would be dead. Callista pushed Luke roughly with her arms and shouted at him. "Luke. Stop it. You?re killing him."

Luke blinked and was terrified at the import of her words. The calm Jedi Master, who was trained to keep his emotions under control, had given into his baser instincts and was attacking another human in a fit of jealous rage. He released his hold on the man, then in a deadly voice said, "Leave."

The man didn?t argue as he ran through the open door. Luke took a couple of calming breaths, insensate about his previous actions. Luke looked at Callista and felt the anger start to rise once again. He was hurt; she was cheating on him after all the work he was doing to try to salvage their relationship and marriage. "Callista, how could you do this to me? How long have you been seeing this man?"

Now, it was Callista?s turn to be angry. She spat out, "Do what to you? How could you think that of me? You came in here and jumped immediately to an incorrect conclusion. Garris is on staff at the Chadian embassy. I have been consulting with their economic department. Garris was assigned to assist me. He made those advances with no encouragement from me." Tears welled up in her gray eyes. "I was so relieved when you came in. I thought, ?Good, Luke will get him to stop.? Yet, in the ultimate petty display of machismo, you attacked him. And with the Dark Side."

Regret lined his features. "I?m sorry, Callista. His emotions were so vivid, what he wanted to do with you. It was more than I could bear."

Callista balled her fists. "Don?t you understand now, Luke? This is why it can never be between us. You couldn?t feel my emotions, this would never have happened if you had."

Luke sought to interrupt. "But..."

She held up her hand. "Don?t. Let me finish. I don?t have the Force. The only way it seems available to me is through the Dark Side. That is why I can?t stay with you. You have so much power in the Force, that power is what makes the temptation often more than I can bear. And it also seems that you still have a problem with it as well. I would rather die than turn to the Dark Side."

Luke answered, his voice repentant. "It won?t happen again. I promise."

She looked up at him, her misty eyes full of pain and regret. Softly, she said, "No, it won?t. I want a divorce, Luke. It is the only answer to our problems."

He was shocked by her words. Divorce! He couldn?t get divorced. It would mean that he had failed. "Won?t you reconsider? Don?t leave me." He thought ?again? but didn?t add it.

She shook her head. "It is not our destiny. I know it. Even your sister knows it. Stop denying it."

"Leia knows?."

"Yes, Luke. I have talked to your sister, on Nam Chorios. We both knew that you and I were not meant to be."

Luke hung his head in surrender. "Where will you go?"

"Chad. I have been offered a position in the government there. Kirawyn will continue to be my aide. We leave next week."

Luke glared at her. "You were planning to leave even before this Garris incident. When were you planning to tell me?"

She met his glare with her own. "Soon. But your little display today strengthened my resolve and upped my timing."

Callista approached him and kissed his cheek. "Goodbye, Luke. I will always love you. I?ll send Kirawyn for my things."

Then he watched her walk out of his life once again.

The divorce action had been waiting for Luke?s signature one week before Kirawyn contacted him and requested that the documents be sent back to Chad for Callista to file them. Well, he couldn?t hold it up anymore. He transmitted his signature that day.

Jacen and Jaina had come to visit Luke the following week. It was the first time they had entered his apartment since the first day he had returned from Yavin. The entire Solo family had come that day to welcome Luke and Callista but the reunion was bittersweet. The fact that Callista could not be sensed in the Force had frightened Jacen and Jaina. No amount of cajoling would soothe them. Leia had to take them home early, putting a damper on the atmosphere of the gathering. At least, they were with him now, trying to cheer him up. Jaina squealed, "Uncle Luke, read the Little Lost Bantha Cub. Please."

Luke smiled with delight as he got up to retrieve his copy of the twins? favorite story. Jacen and Jaina were bouncing up and down, totally impatient for their Uncle to start the book. He had just started to read when his comlink buzzed. He gave Jaina the book, saying, "Here. Hold this and don?t lose the page."

She grinned widely. "I can do it, Uncle Luke."

Luke walked to the droid alcove. "Skywalker."

A young voice answered. "Master Skywalker. We have received a diplomatic transmission from Chad. For your eyes only. Could you come down to Signals to receive it?"

Chad? It must have something to do with Callista. A sense of impending doom hit him as that thought occurred. "I?ll be right there. Skywalker out."

Signals personnel allowed Luke solitary access to one of their secure rooms. With increasing dread, Luke viewed the transmission.

"Master Skywalker. I am Teith Muloon, Ambassador from Chad. I had taken leave from Coruscant to assist your wife in starting her new position here on Chad. It is my sad duty to inform you that yesterday, Callista Skywalker was killed in an accident on the Algic Current. Her aide, Kirawyn Rochester, had accompanied her on a research ark studying tsaelke migration. Mrs. Skywalker had taken a smaller vessel out for a closer look at an especially large pod. A high spirited juvenile tsaelke came too close to her vessel and capsized it. Kirawyn attempted to rescue her, but was too late. Unfortunately, her body could not be recovered.

Our sympathies go out to you, Master Skywalker. Kirawyn has volunteered to return some personal items, including your wife?s lightsaber, on her next trip to Coruscant.

If we can be of assistance in any way, please contact me personally.

Teith Muloon, Ambassador from Chad signing off."

Luke continued to stare at the man?s wavy image long after the transmission had ceased. Callista was dead. Only a few weeks previously, she had been a living, breathing human being. She had started on her own path, without him, and was succeeding admirably. He had been angry about her decision to divorce him because he still loved her. His anger brought about disastrous results. It was ironic somehow that Callie died where she had been born, doing what her family had done in the past. Luke remembered that Callista had carved tsaelke images on her lightsaber. Those carvings would forever remind him of her death. She was gone forever now. There would be no more chance of making a life together. He was alone once more.

He crossed his arms on the table before him and laid down his weary head. To know that he had driven her away was tearing at his wounded heart. He closed his eyes against impending tears. He was strong; he would survive, as he always managed to do. Yet, she was gone and he was alone. No one could see him. Then, like he had done at the death of his father, all those years ago on the Death Star, he allowed his emotions to prevail.

He wept.

Chapter 11

Mara came out of the trance carefully. The images and memories she had experienced through Luke had been so vivid, so emotionally charged, that her tears were flowing unabated. Luke used his thumb, then his hand to wipe the tears from her cheek but the volume proved too much. Luke started to pull his arm away but was stopped when Mara grabbed hold of his sleeve and used it to dry her tears. Her action reminded Luke of the many times that Jacen had wiped his runny nose with his shirt tail, and it brought a smile to his somber face. Divulging his ?secret? had dramatically lightened the weight he had been carrying inside him for over a year. Sith, he should have told her much sooner. She had always been his friend and would have understood but yet the timing wasn?t right, until now. Callista may not have been ?was not his destiny, he corrected himself, but Mara most assuredly was. And for once in his life, he accepted his destiny without complaint.

"Skywalker, you tell anybody about this," her voice cracked. "I just might forget myself and renew my vow to kill you." She sniffled, then carelessly tossed his arm aside.

Luke laughed. "Don?t worry."

Though she didn?t want to admit it, Mara was extraordinarily tired. Sifting through Luke?s brain was exhausting. She scrunched her tight shoulders and then rolled them forward in an attempt to loosen them up. She caught a glimpse of Luke. He was extremely stubborn and had a skull thicker than a wroshyr tree, but he had opened up to her. The shackles of the past were finally opened, and they could move on to the future.

"Don?t just sit there, Skywalker. Get over here and get these knots out of my shoulders," she said, her expression mockingly impatient.

Luke grinned as he walked behind her chair and began to knead her tense shoulders. He expertly squeezed, compressed and rolled her supple skin. She moaned in response and sighed a few times. Soon, the tautness was gone and her shoulders visibly relaxed. Luke didn?t want to stop because just touching her electrified him, sending tendrils of pure energy through every nerve in his body. He slowly messaged small circles from the top of her shoulders to the nape of her neck. Gathering her flaming hair in his right hand, he then twisted it up and away, allowing him unimpeded access to her soft pink skin. Luke lightly pressed his lips against her neck and nibbled. She made no response which slightly puzzled Luke. Then he realized that her head was lolling forward farther than it should be, and her body was totally relaxed. Dropping hold of her hair, he pulled her gently back against the chair. A glance at her face confirmed his suspicions; she had fallen asleep. He moved to the front of the chair, positioned himself to pick her up and support her weight so as not to drop her. Lifting her easily and cradling her body close to his, he carried her to the unmade bed. She mumbled, "I can walk." But only snuggled closer to Luke.

Luke placed her on the beige sheets, then covered her with the avian down quilt. He caressed her rosy cheek with the back of his hand. Then, he knelt by the side of the bed and stared at her. She was so beautiful. Her hair had fanned out on the pillow and it looked like flames upon the Dune Sea. With all the research he had completed about his past, Luke had found himself thinking a lot about the only home he ever really knew, Tatooine. Though he no longer lived there, he was still a farm boy at heart. Using his fingers to play with Mara?s fiery tresses, a crooked smile grew on his face as he thought that Mara?s hair was not the only thing fiery about her. He rose and went around the bed to get in on the other side. He said softly, "Dim lights half."

Climbing under the covers, he spooned his body to Mara?s and drifted into a blissful sleep.

Her eyesight was blurred and her hearing was muted. A dark figure approached where she was lying. All she could feel was pain. Her inability to maintain a coherent stream of thought scared her. What was happening? The dark figure loomed over her, laughing maniacally, pleased with her predicament. She couldn't remember. Who was going to help her? Who cared about her? Why couldn?t she remember?

Mara was hyperventilating when she awoke from her dream. She pressed a shaky hand to her perspiration- drenched brow. She never recalled having that type of a reaction to a dream before. Where was she? She then realized that there was someone with her. She could feel a hand touching her? Her eyes flew open. There was a decidedly male hand holding a very intimate part of her chest. Her instincts took over. She elbowed the intruder hard in the stomach and was satisfied to hear a muffled groan of pain. She rolled over swiftly, a full one hundred eighty degrees, and smacked a balled fist into Luke?s eye? Luke?s eye! Her mind had caught up to her reflexes. She bolted upright and said, "Lights up."

Horrified at what she would find, she slowly turned to face her ?handiwork.? Luke was now sitting up, holding the bridge of his nose. He put his hands down in his lap and looked pleadingly at Mara. "What did I do, now?"

In spite of the seriousness of the situation, Mara couldn?t help but burst out in laughter. "Oh, Luke. You didn?t do anything. I?m sorry."

His expression was one of disbelief. "Then, why did you hit me?"

Why indeed? She couldn?t remember much about her dream. "Just reflexes, Luke. I was caught between awake and asleep and forgot where I was and who I was with."

Luke swung his feet out from under the covers and plodded over to the mirror to view the damage. "Great. Look at this."

Mara got off the bed and joined Luke at the mirror, putting her right arm around Luke?s waist. "It doesn?t look so bad?"

"Yeah, right."

"I could get some ice for that." She reached up with her hand to touch his eyebrow.

Luke winced at her touch. "Ouch, Mara."

She teased. "Luke, it will be okay. That little black and blue accents your eyes."

He glared blaster bolts at her. "Very funny." He sighed. "How am I going to explain this?"

Mara suppressed a giggle. "You?re worried about explaining how your wife gave you a black eye? It?s easy. Don?t."

In mild frustration, Luke threw his arms up in the air. He plopped down in a chair and breathed out once. "Mara. Have a little sympathy, will ya?"

Mara shook her head as she walked over to Luke. She smiled seductively as she bent over to see his face. "Luke."

"Yea." He was leaning his head on his hand and didn?t see her.

"Stop whining and kiss me."

Luke jerked his head from his hand and found himself peering into her sparkling green eyes. His twinkling blue eyes roamed over her face. Her smile was so bright. Her soft milky skin was so enticing. He brought his left hand up to touch the angelic vision before him. Mara grasped his hand with hers and beckoned him to rise, which he did willingly. He embraced her, then pressed his hungry lips to hers. She responded in kind, her kiss becoming more demanding. Luke placed both his hands on her head, framing her face. He pulled his lips free for a moment and stared into Mara?s passion enflamed eyes. His heart was racing and his soul engulfed with desire. She murmured huskily, "Don?t stop, Luke."

He wouldn?t deny her. Consumed with unbridled ardor, he enveloped her spirit with his own, pressed his strong body firmly against hers and smothered her quivering lips with his. His rough fingers combed through her hair. Her hands had found his blond tresses and grabbed hold of them, pulling his head closer and crushing his lips deeper into hers. Mara let go of his hair and moved her hands down his neck then her slender fingers made feathery touching motions as they trailed down his well-toned chest. She reached the hem of his top and slid her fingers underneath. Luke?s stomach twitched as she yanked it upwards. His mouth never left hers except for the moment the shirt needed to pass between them. She brought her hands to his broad shoulders and caressed his arms. The next thing she knew she was standing at the edge of the bed. Luke pulled his lips from hers, then kissed her nose. "I love you, Mara."

She smiled wickedly and whispered, "I know."

Then she threw her arms around his neck and pulled him down on top of the bed.

The next morning, Mara practiced her Jedi healing techniques on Luke?s eye. She managed to heal the blood vessels and the bruising disappeared. Luke?s sigh of relief was obvious; Mara?s improved skills meant that he wouldn?t have to tell anybody what had happened. Luke had set up the cargo hold as a practice gym and he would be training Mara for the duration of the flight to Coruscant.

She progressed phenomenally and was about ready to build her own lightsaber. She preferred the one she carried but would build another anyway. It couldn?t hurt and one never knew when a second weapon would be necessary.

Three days later, they were in the cockpit preparing to drop the ship out of hyperspace for the approach to Coruscant. Luke was piloting and was having Mara check the readings. She gave him the all clear and he pulled the lever back for reversion to real space. The transition was smooth as ice as Luke expertly maneuvered the ship amongst the hoards of traffic inhabiting the space lanes of Coruscant?s orbit. Below them, Mara could see the lights of the planet twinkling like so many stars. She was about to switch the comm on to transmit for clearance with Coruscant control, when Luke yanked the throttle back and pulled up hard. Another ship had almost rammed into them. Mara was annoyed, but deep inside felt that it might have been intentional. "Life Day driver. They?ll let any idiot behind the controls of a starship these days. What was that thing anyway?"

Luke had also thought that the near ramming was too coincidental. He toggled a few switches, then responded to her question. "It was a model two-oh-one, Production Group E Verpine Adventurer. No name is coming up but ? oh, nice. It has a smuggler?s kit."

Mara glanced at Luke. "And can we crack it?"

Luke was viewing data flashing from a small screen on the dash. "Don?t know. Lando put an advanced program in here? Ah, here we go. No name but it is registered to Andras Pell of Carratos." Shaking his head, he looked at Mara. "That name means nothing to me."

Mara shook her head as well. "Same here." She cocked an eyebrow at Luke. "I never asked this earlier but I was a bit surprised that you have a smuggler?s kit on this ship. Did Lando install it?"

"He did." Luke smiled enigmatically. "At my request."

Mara?s mind clicked in understanding. "Ah, I see. Prefer to travel incognito nowadays."

"Hey, it beats having a media circus when I land. I don?t like the crowds."

Mara laughed. "Well, farm boy. Shall we get clearance?"

Luke transmitted his request to Coruscant control. Using high level landing codes, he obtained immediate clearance. As he guided the ship towards a high security landing pad, he spoke to Mara again. "I?ve come up with a new name for the ship."

"And what would that be?"

He reached one hand over to Mara who took it in hers. Looking at her lovingly, he said, " Tatooine?s Flame."

Chapter 12

Thankfully, there was no media circus to greet them. Just one lone astromech droid waiting, it appeared, quite impatiently. From the bottom of the ramp, Luke smiled widely as he watched Artoo Detoo roll towards them. Putting down his luggage, he reached out to touch Artoo?s dome and was greeted with a barrage of electronic beeping and whistles. Mara arched her eyebrow. "What was all that about?"

Luke was as puzzled as she was at Artoo?s outburst. "I don?t know."

He bent down in front of the droid and activated the translation pad. "Okay, Artoo. Slow down and tell me what?s wrong?"

Words scrolled by quickly on the small screen. When it finished, Luke said, "No, I didn?t order that, Artoo."

Mara looked to Luke for an explanation, which he dutifully provided. "I had Artoo in for routine maintenance before my trip to Naboo. I was planning to take him with me, but I received a message from the techs that they hadn?t finished with him. I didn?t want to leave him, but I couldn?t delay my trip. Now he tells me that they had scheduled him for a memory wipe."

At that, Artoo let loose with a string of expletives and Luke sternly reprimanded him. "Artoo, watch your language."

A rather apologetic tweet preceded another string of words on the translation pad, which Luke read. "He was only able to avoid the wipe because he managed to contact Threepio who, with Chewie?s help, came to rescue him."

Placing her duffel bag on the ground, Mara aksed, "Why would they want to do a memory wipe? Were there some new techs?"

Luke shook his blond head. "It wouldn?t matter. I have standing orders on file for no memory wipes. I even indicate it on every maintenance request. Someone would have to specifically go into the request and change it."

A twitter beep sounded and Luke reassured the droid. "Yes, Artoo. I?ll check it out, but let?s go home first."

Artoo bleeped cheerfully, then some more words scrolled. Luke read it and happily told the droid. "Yes, Mara?s coming too. We?re married."

Artoo whirled his dome and another series of bleeps were emitted. Luke laughed, "Don?t worry, Artoo. She?s not going to get rid of you."

Mara winked slyly at Luke. "If he continues jabbering incessantly, I may."

Oblivious to Mara?s gesture, Artoo created an exceptionally loud electronic raspberry for her benefit. Luke flashed a smile at her then patted Artoo?s battle-worn dome. "She?s joking, Artoo. Stop complaining and lead the way home."

Luke stood with his arms folded, patiently waiting for Artoo to move. After a moment, Artoo reluctantly swiveled his dome and lifted himself up on his rollers, softly whistling the whole time. When he had started to roll towards the exit, Luke picked up the luggage and gestured with his head for Mara to follow.

Upon entering his enormous apartment in the former Imperial Palace, Luke gleefully said, "Welcome home, Mrs. Skywalker."

Mara deposited her luggage on the floor while her eyes scanned the huge living room. Though sparsely furnished, it was exquisite, yet at the same time both humble and welcoming. A sense of nobility radiated through the Force. Luke may have had a simple upbringing, but it was apparent that he?d subconsciously drawn upon his regal heritage when he?d outfitted his apartment.

Luke gave her a quick run-through of the amenities. "It has two levels, three bedrooms and three and one-half refreshers. The balconies have magnificent views though I tend to find myself gazing up at the stars most of the time." He used his thumb to draw her attention behind him. She watched as Artoo rolled to the droid alcove and plugged into the house computer. "The kitchen is over there. We?ve got a state-of-the-art comcenter here, too."

Mara looked at him quizzically. "Where?"

"?did I get the credits?" he finished her sentence.

Mara flushed, but Luke just smiled. "Don?t worry about it. The New Republic provides the apartment. That?s all I would allow. I bought the furnishings myself with dividends I receive from a prudent investment I made years ago."

"Did you make?" Mara asked.

"? them through Lando? No. I?m not into risky ventures?" He sought to amend his statement when he saw her eye him incredulously. "Let me rephrase that. Lando?s a great friend, but his credit schemes are not exactly secure. Suffice it to say that I have a solid financial portfolio to provide for myself and my wife." He winked at her. "I mean, let?s face it, being a Jedi Master doesn?t exactly make one rich."

Mara hugged him, then said, "At least no one can say that you?"

"?married you for your money." Luke continued to embrace her, swaying gently as he nuzzled his cheek against her neck. Then he began to trail tiny kisses upon her throat, going upwards until he reached her earlobe. He quietly murmured, "Just one look at your beauty," he kissed her red-flushed cheek. "and they?ll think that I?m the luckiest man on the face of the planet."

He covered her mouth with his. Mara stiffened at his words, remembering that horrible overheard conversation on Naboo. "? I think Skywalker got lonely and went looking for a warm body."

Misinterpreting her sudden aloofness, Luke stopped devouring her lips and looked adoringly into her green eyes. "Mara, you are beautiful. Though you are most definitely physically alluring, it?s your internal beauty that attracted me. Your spirit shines brilliantly in the Force. When my soul touched yours, I knew that you were my destiny."

Mara mentally chastised herself for dredging up that old thought and her reaction to it. After their Force-bonding on the flight home, she knew it was not true. He really loved her and she him. But his little speech seemed a bit too scripted. She grinned lasciviously, then whispered. "Not a bad line, from some romantic holodrama I think, but you did forget to add that the sex is great."

It was his turn to stiffen slightly, but he quickly regained his composure. "Actually, a romantic holocomedy. And you?re right, the sex is great."

He sought to divert her attention by consuming her lips once more. She tried to say something else, but he subdued her attempts easily. Their passion was building. He began to maneuver her towards the couch when he was bumped sharply from behind. It was a hard enough push that he lost hold of Mara?s sweet lips. Rubbing the back of his thigh, he grumbled, "What?d you do that for Artoo?"

Artoo bleeped and beeped indignantly. "Yes, I know I told you I?d check it out. But I?m busy."

Artoo whistled a question. Luke blushed, then was surprised to hear Mara laughing. The moment had been broken. She giggled, "When you started to kiss me, I tried to ask you what had happened in the holocomedy?"

Luke tried to remain serious, but Mara?s hilarity was infectious. "Oh, something along the same lines as this."

Twirling his dome to look from Luke to Mara and back again, Artoo beeped. "Okay, Artoo. After I check my messages, we?ll go."

Mara snickered as she watched them head for the communication?s center. She returned her attention to surveying the apartment. She ran her hand along the smooth banister, then announced, "I?m going to check out the upstairs."

Luke didn?t respond so Mara just continued her trek upwards. She entered the first room on the left and was startled to find it totally devoid of furnishings. Her heels clicked as she walked across the uncarpeted floor to the far wall. It wasn?t a solid wall but actually tinted transparisteel that stretched from ceiling to floor with an inset doorway that led to a large balcony outside. To her left were the refresher and a walk-in closet. She exited the bedroom and crossed the hallway to enter the other room. She lifted her right hand to palm the opener when another hand stopped her. She hadn?t noticed his presence. "This was Callista?s room," he said softly.

"The other bedroom is empty. Why?" Mara questioned, tilting her head to the left.

"It?s the master bedroom. I wanted to decorate it with my wife."

Mara almost asked why Callista hadn?t done it, but swallowed the unspoken words. She entwined her fingers with Luke?s, then smiled brightly. "Well, she?ll be glad to decorate with you. When do we start?"

Luke kissed her cheek, then answered, "As soon as I get back from Maintenance. I?m going to check out what happened with Artoo."

He brought her hand to his lips and kissed her slender fingers. "Goodbye, my love. I won?t be long."

The investigation at the maintenance bay only provided Luke with more questions. The head technician insisted that he received a message from Luke that indicated he wouldn?t be able to pick up Artoo as scheduled. It even contained Luke?s personal codes and the request for a memory wipe. Nothing made sense about the whole situation, but Luke decided that he needed to change his codes. Somebody had obtained his supposedly secure codes; he just wished he knew who it was.

One afternoon, two weeks later, Luke stood in their newly refurbished master suite. He was contemplating on whether to join Mara in the shower, when his comlink buzzed. Disappointed with the interruption, he flipped it open and said, "Skywalker."

"Luke. It?s Leia. I need to talk with you right away. Can you come to my office now?"

He could sense Leia?s urgency. "Sure. I?m on my way."

He mentally told Mara he was leaving and would fill her in when he got back. He grabbed his black cloak and fastened it securely around his neck before leaving the apartment. Wanting to avoid attention, he took a surreptitious route to the Senate chamber. Winter greeted him and led him into Leia?s office. She was not alone. A middle-aged man, wearing an expensive designer suit, stood rigidly next to the matching guest chairs.

"Luke. This is Major Terrall Hoover from Coruscant Security. He works in the Organized Crime division."

Tall and lanky, Major Hoover firmly clasped Luke?s hand. "Nice to meet you, Master Skywalker, though I wish it were under better circumstances."

Releasing the Major?s hand, Luke said, "Please, call me Luke. And what circumstances?"

They all sat down, and then Leia spoke. "Major Hoover came to me with information about Black Sun activity."

Luke was surprised. "The Black Sun is active again?"

Major Hoover leaned forward in his chair. "Not only active but prospering."

Trying to reign in her nervousness, Leia shifted in her chair as she glanced at Major Hoover then to Luke. "Luke. The major came here to warn you."

Puzzled, Luke stared at Hoover. "Warn me? Why?"

Hoover tossed Luke a datapad. "Word on the street is that there is a bounty out for you. One of my contacts provided the details. You can see it on the pad."

Luke read the words before him.

500,000 credits for Luke Skywalker, alive but dysfunctional. Contact broker for delivery.

"I?ve had bounties out for me before. Why should this one concern me now?"

Hoover gestured with his gnarled hand to the datapad. "Push the button and look what?s next."

Luke immediately pushed the button and was astonished to see very recent holos of him and Mara outside their apartment, at the Flame?s docking bay, in the Grand Corridor, shopping, dining? He stared directly at Hoover who said, "They know an incredible amount of information about your daily movements. That?s why I felt the need to warn you."

Luke stood up abruptly. "I had better get home and let Mara know about this." He realized he was still holding the datapad. "May I keep this?"

Major Hoover nodded as he rose from his seat. "Yes, of course. I?m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, Master Skywalker. We?ll be continuing our investigation and will do our best to apprehend whoever is behind this."

Luke said, "Thank you, Major."

Leia got up from her chair and walked over to Luke. He embraced her, then kissed her softly on the cheek. He pulled away, but was still clasping her hand. "Goodbye, Leia."

She squeezed his hand, and then said, "Be careful."

He smiled at her, then acknowledged her concern by saying, "I will."

Then he hurried through the door and out into the corridor. He could handle being hunted, kreth, he was used to it. What had concerned him the most was the fact that he never once sensed someone following them and taking holos. He supposed it could have been a droid but the reality was that somebody knew too much about his personal life. And that could be dangerous, very dangerous.

Mara exited the refresher after her shower and put on a loose fitting jumpsuit. She jogged down the stairs to the kitchen to prepare a light supper. She had just reached for the food synthesizer when the annunciator buzzed. Leaving the kitchen, Mara went to the living room and opened the door to reveal an average height woman with black hair and black eyes. Although Mara thought she recognized her, she knew she had never met her before. Then the woman introduced herself. "Hello. You must be the new Mrs. Skywalker. I?m Kirawyn Rochester."

That?s why Mara recognized her. Kirawyn had been Callista?s aide, and Mara had seen her in Luke?s memories. Mara opened her mouth to ask what she wanted when Kirawyn boldly brushed passed her and entered the main living area. Mara followed her, peeved at the woman?s audacity. Mara proclaimed, "Hey! What are you?."

"Same as I remember. I thought for sure you would have remodeled." She removed her outer coat and threw it over a chair back and continued her circuit of the room.

Following close on her heels, an annoyed Mara spat out, "What do you?"

Kirawyn abruptly stopped, causing Mara to almost bump into her. Glancing haughtily at Mara, Kirawyn said, "Excuse me."

Feeling her anger spike, Mara took a couple of calming breaths, then demanded, "What do you want?"

Kirawyn folded her arms and studied Mara for a moment. Her black eyes seemed to pierce straight through to Mara?s heart. Regarding the redhead with slight disdain, she answered, "If you must know, I wish to speak to Master Skywalker about obtaining a letter of recommendation." She mechanically scanned the room. "Where is he?"

Mara firmly planted her hands on her hips as she contemplated her response to this abrasive woman. She stated coldly, "He?s out."

Kirawyn waved her hand in a dismissive fashion. "I?ll just have to come back and speak with him." Her furtive eyes wandered the room, lingering at the top of the stairs, then darted sharply from there to Mara?s rigid face. "Have you done anything to Callista?s room?"

Mara paused briefly before responding to the sudden change of topic. She and Luke were planning to clear the room out tomorrow, but she was not going to inform this busybody about their plans. "None of your business."

Kirawyn wasn?t listening. "I want to go in there, okay?" She tramped up the steps, not waiting for Mara to answer. "It?s been a year since she died."

Mara could not believe the woman?s nerve. Normally, she?d prefer to bodily remove Kirawyn from the premises, but decided to practice a little Jedi patience. Since she was training to be a Jedi, she opted to just follow the vexatious guest. Though extremely irritated, Mara?s well-honed danger sense picked up absolutely no threat.

The next thing she knew they were at the threshold of Callista?s bedroom. This was where Mara halted, pulling up short of entering the room. Mara hadn?t been into the room before. She actually avoided it, though she wasn?t sure why.

Kirawyn was reminiscing while strolling the perimeter of the room. "It?s a lovely room, isn?t it? Everything is the same since the last night she was here."

Keeping a close eye on the woman, Mara stepped further into the room, allowing the door to swish closed behind her. Her senses were on the alert but still there was no danger. It truly was a lovely room, though a bit too feminine for her tastes. Kirawyn slid the closet door along its track and looked inside. She pulled out a tattered brown Jedi robe and examined it closely. In a distant voice, she said, "Luke got this for her. She often wore it hoping that she could reacquire the Force or at least be the Jedi she was trained to be."

She replaced the robe, then opened one of the dresser drawers and fingered a fluttering piece of material. She lifted it up carefully and showed it to Mara. "Callista only accepted the best. Have you ever seen such dainty undergarments? This is pure imported Hapan Web-silk."

Cautiously intrigued by Kirawyn?s strange reminiscing, Mara warily sat down in a chair facing the vanity. Mara gazed at Kirawyn trying to assess her mental state; she appeared to have a strange way of dealing with her grief. Kirawyn, using utmost care, put the garment back into the dresser. "Master Skywalker hired me to assist his wife," she emphasized the last word. "I took great pride in my work. Callista was impressed, too. She would tell me how valuable I was. She would confide in me."

She walked over to where Mara sat, and placed her hands on the back of the chair. "Her job kept her incredibly busy. She?d be so tired. I remember once when we had an exceptionally late meeting. She was exhausted, so I brought her home. She laughed and said, ?I?m so tired that I can?t even brush my own hair.? So," Kirawyn leaned over the top of Mara, reaching for a brush that lay on the vanity. "I brushed her hair for her."

Mara shuddered involuntarily as she watched Kirawyn pantomime brushing Callista?s hair through the reflection in the mirror. Kirawyn stopped and looked behind her. She placed her cold hand on Mara?s shoulder. "It?s hard to believe that she has been dead a year. Sometimes, I can still hear her call for me or her light quick steps along the embassy corridors." She gazed dreamily around the room, and then she stared pointedly into Mara?s steely eyes. "Do you believe that the dead return to observe the living?"

Caught off guard by the question, Mara hesitated before she answered. Could Callista, who was technically a Jedi but untouched by the Force, come back as a translucent shimmering blue specter? She didn?t think so but wasn?t sure. Then Kirawyn added, "I wonder if she, in corporeal form, comes?to watch you and Master Skywalker?together?"

That was the Jawa that broke the bantha?s back; Mara decided she had heard quite enough of Kirawyn?s creepy musings. "I think you should leave now." Then she felt Luke?s reassuring presence enter the apartment. "Master Skywalker is home."

Kirawyn smiled eerily, her mood shifting to a more business-like one. "Certainly."

Treading lightly to the door, Kirawyn slapped the button and exited the room. Relieved by the woman?s departure, Mara lingered a moment, thinking about what had just transpired. Mara had continually scanned the woman. Kirawyn appeared harmless enough, albeit irksome, but something about her? seemed?not balanced. Her actions and words were disturbing to say the least, but she was not a threat. Mara was thankful that once Luke provided Kirawyn with the desired recommendation then she would not have to see her again. Personally, Mara?s recommendation would be for professional counseling. Her last thought as she left the room was that emptying this room of its vestiges of the past would come none too soon. It was a task that she would delight in completing.

Chapter 13

The morning sky was alive with vibrant colors that splashed against the transparisteel jungle reaching up from the unseen surface of Coruscant. A rainbow streamed through the window offering a view of the full spectrum of light, as if it came through a prism. In this case, it was caused by an adegan crystal wind chime. Leaning against the wall, Luke Skywalker, clad only in sleep pants, was enjoying the light show. After all these years, he still had the internal chrono of a farmer. Retrieving his white bathrobe from the foot of the bed, he slipped it over his bare shoulders, not bothering to cinch it closed. He kissed the still sleeping Mara and whispered sweetly, "Rise and shine, dear."

Mara responded by rolling to the left and pulling the covers up over her head. "Go away, I?m sleeping," she mumbled.

Luke yanked the blanket off her head, exposing a tangled mop of red gold hair. "You?re the one who told me to get you up early."

She slowly blinked her eyes, testing the light level. Her Imperial training and her past lifestyle guaranteed that she could awaken instantly, but since there was no immediate danger or any pressing need, she would rather sleep. "Why in the galaxy would I do that?" she called out sleepily.

"I believe that your exact words were ?Get me up at the crack of dawn so I can gut that Force-forsaken bedroom and shred those dainty undergarments.? " Luke answered, imitating her scathing tone.

Mara groaned then removed Luke?s hands from the blanket. "Stang, I did say that, didn?t I?"

Luke nodded, as he put his hands in the robe?s patch pockets. "I?ll go make breakfast while you get dressed."

Luke decided to prepare a light meal. He entered the kitchen but avoided the food synthesizer. He snatched a large imported Garqi casaba melon from the cooling unit and expertly sliced the sweet fruit into quarters. After placing the pieces on an oval platter, he dropped a few slices of vweilu nut bread into the toaster. While he waited for the toast to finish, he thought about what had happened yesterday.

He recalled feeling Mara?s irritation before he had even reached the apartment building. She was safe but concerned about a guest?s mental stability. He was astonished to see Kirawyn come down the stairs and saunter across the living room. Their conversation was brief, and she left with the promise of a written recommendation delivered to her on the morrow. A few moments afterwards, Mara came down and told him about what had occurred in Callista?s room. It reminded them both of some over melodramatic topic usually associated with a Jerjerrod Spaarti holotalk episode. He agreed with her, that, yes, Kirawyn had reacted oddly but surely, it was just her way of dealing with profound grief. Callista was like a sister to Kirawyn and she had taken her death hard.

The toasted bread popped up and Luke spread a thin layer of sweetberry jam over it before placing it on the platter next to the melon. After setting the platter on the table, he returned to the counter and poured a cup of creamy hot chocolate. Mara walked into the kitchen and said, "Good morning."

Luke smiled crookedly as he carried the steaming cocoa to the table and put the cup into Mara?s eager hands. "Good morning to you, too," he said cheerfully, then kissed her cheek.

Mara gulped down some of the hot chocolate, then cleared her throat before speaking. "You are much too cheery for this hour."

Luke shrugged his shoulders. "Old habits die hard. Besides, I thought you?d prefer it to my stoic, somber Jedi Master mode."

She drank a few more sips, then nodded in agreement. "Yeah, but within reason." She began to nibble on the toast. "Thank you for the breakfast."

He nodded. They ate in silence for a while, savoring each other?s company. Then Luke stated, "I put some storage boxes in the room."

Mara replied, "I like my idea better."

Luke sighed heavily. "Slicing everything with a lightsaber is a bit harsh."

"It will make me extremely happy."

"It will make a huge mess. We?ll just pack it up and donate it to charity."

"Fine," she said. Then shot him a teasing look. "Spoilsport."

They had just started to organize the packing when they heard Mara?s comlink buzzing in the master bedroom. Luke ran to get it and returned almost immediately. "It?s Karrde."

Mara brushed the dust off her hands and took the comlink from him. "Hello, Talon."

There was minor distortion bleeding into the transmission. "Good morning, Mara. I?m contacting you to schedule a company meeting for tomorrow morning; I would like to introduce my new second in command. I would appreciate it if you could be there."

Mara remembered that she had promised to help transition her replacement. "Sure, I can be there. Just give me the time and place."

"I?ve booked a conference room at the Solaris. 0900 hours. And Mara?"


"I know its short notice, but could you come by today and go over some things with me? I need to provide you updates on current developments, profits and such."

"Sure. Just give me an hour."

"Great. I appreciate it. Karrde out."

Mara closed the comlink and looked apologetically at Luke. "Sorry, Luke."

Luke waived his mechanical hand dismissively. "It?s okay, Mara."

She came over to him and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. She turned to leave but found that Luke had grabbed hold of her wrist. She gave him a quizzical glance. "Tsk, tsk, Jade. You call that a kiss?"

He yanked her into his embrace, wrapping his strong arms around her waist. He crushed his lips against her surprised mouth. Her lips relented and returned his kiss. His hands began to stroke her back, slowly moving downwards, creating a smoldering trail of fire, then suddenly he stopped and released his hold on her. "Much better. You had better go. Karrde is waiting." Then he returned his attention to packing boxes.

Mara gaped at him, astonished by his actions. What was he trying to do? She extended her Force sense to encompass the entire room. Luke glowed brightly, almost overwhelming her senses. From his emotions, she determined that he had just wanted to kiss her. She snorted, then once again turned to leave the room. She barely avoided the pillow that flew at her head. She looked back to Luke and saw him eyeing her seriously. "Your reflexes are a bit slow. If I had been an enemy, you would be at a disadvantage."

He was testing her. "Luke, I can take care of myself."

Deep down he knew that, but it was more personal now; he didn?t want to lose her. "I know you can. But I want you to use every tool available for your defense."

He was worried; she could feel it. "I know what I?m doing, remember? And, in addition to that, you have trained me very well."

He smiled weakly, glad that he hadn?t angered her with his worries. "I know. Just remember those split concentration exercises and be careful."

She took his hand and patted it gently. "I always am. I?ll see you later." She kissed him again and exited the room.

On route to the conference, Mara encountered no criminal elements, at least any that were a threat to her. Coruscant has its share of illegal activity and that was as it had always been. The two meetings were stretched into many over several days. In the back of her mind, she knew that would happen. She had assumed a lot of responsibility during her tenure with the organization so it would be necessary for her to be involved in the transition. Her loyalty and her word kept her honor bound to her original commitment to Karrde. Everything that could be done on Coruscant was done. It was inevitable that travel would soon be required. She wasn?t happy when that day came, five days after the first meeting.

As she predicted, Luke wasn?t happy about it either; they hadn?t been separated from each other since they were married. She needed to introduce her replacement to the organization?s business contacts, which were off planet, of course. He reluctantly accepted that; he knew of her promise to Karrde. It was the length of time she would be gone that Luke had trouble approving.

"One month!" Luke exclaimed.

She pushed him back down into the chair he had jumped out of. "I know. I?m not happy about it either but it cannot be avoided."

Luke frowned. "Why so long?"

Mara retorted, "Karrde?s organization is one of the largest in the galaxy. He?s got an enormous customer base."

Luke was sulking. "Can?t they come here?"

Mara answered, "I wish. But the organization services the customer, not the other way around. Besides, a quick tour of the contacts will get me free sooner. Talon had suggested shorter trips but those would require a longer commitment here. I?d rather get it over and done with. Don?t worry, it will go by fast."

"Yeah, for you. What about me?"

She rolled her eyes. "Stop whining, Skywalker."

He tried to continue pouting, but he ended up laughing. "Alright. You can go."

"Oh, thanks for the permission," she said sarcastically.

Luke made a mock defensive gesture, then swiftly changed the subject and said, "I?ve got something for you."

She watched intently as he got up and went to his study where he retrieved a box, which he soon placed in her open arms. She looked into the box and inside it, found all the components necessary for building a lightsaber. Luke stated, "This is one of the last tests before you become a full Knight. You have succeeded in everything else and as I told you on the ship, I believe that you are ready to do this."

She hadn?t thought she was ready yet, but was secretly elated that the Jedi Master seemed to think so. She didn?t say anything, just continued to stare at the pieces in the box. Luke smiled at her, his blue eyes twinkling. "I must say that I didn?t think that Mara Jade could ever be rendered speechless."

She snapped at him. "I?m not. I?m just surprised." She paused. "I know we?ve done a lot but I didn?t realize we had completed so much."

Luke grinned, then boasted, "You?re the best student I?ve ever had."

Mara felt her cheeks warm slightly. "Thanks, Luke. I?m sure having a Jedi Master around me continually has helped. Not to mention the private lessons." She smiled at him then added, "Timing is good, too. I can work on it during the flight."

"I know. I figured this would keep you busy."

She closed the lid and asked, "You mentioned that building a lightsaber is one of the last tests. What are the others?"

He didn?t answer right away. He glanced down at his mechanical hand, flexed his fingers and clenched them into a fist. He raised his knowing eyes slowly until he was gazing directly into her searching eyes. "You will have to go through a trial, a sort of sacrifice. The Force will lead you, and you will know."

She nodded in silent acknowledgment.

The next day, Luke remained at the spaceport, watching her ship become a tiny, minute speck as it disappeared into the atmosphere. He continued to hold on to her vivacious presence until the distance became too great.

Luke discovered that the easiest, and least painful, way to get through the month without pining away for Mara was to keep busy. The day she left, he set to work on clearing out the spare bedroom that they hadn?t finished emptying; they ceased calling it Callista?s room once they began packing away all the reminders of her. Kirawyn arrived the next day and requested a few mementos, mostly data files, for the embassy. He consented. Once all the boxes were filled, he contacted a charitable organization, which advised him to bring the boxes to their donation drop-off point. He rented a repulsor-sled and piled the boxes on it. He had enough time before the movers arrived to make the drop-off himself. "Artoo, I?ll be back in a little while."

The nearest donation drop-off point was also their office, which was located on a side street, adjacent to a busy thoroughfare, a few city blocks from the Imperial Palace. He steered the sled gracefully through a multitude of pedestrians. At one point, he got too close to a Gotal, who grabbed his two cones in pain. Luke hurried away from him as quickly as he could, given the density of the crowds. A couple of young Twi?leks, whispering to each other, followed him for awhile, but they were soon collected by their frantic parents. It was rare for Luke to be able to walk the streets in anonymity. Though he avoided doing it often, he found it useful to cast a Force illusion for a little freedom of movement. He stretched out in the Force to get a better read on his surroundings. He felt lots of curiosity and some mischief but no dangers.

He arrived at the charity with little fanfare. A C-3 droid received him and gave him a data pad to fill out concerning the value of the goods donated. He completed the data and placed it on top of the boxes. The droid indicated that he would take the items into the storage room and return with the repulsor sled momentarily. While Luke was waiting, he reached into the Force to get a sense of the surrounding area once more. Immediately, he became concerned, not for what he could read, but for what he couldn?t.

Luke left the office without the repulsor-sled because it would hamper his defense. He rested his right hand lightly on his lightsaber hilt, at the ready. He scanned the area once more, with all his senses. The blank spots had increased and were now encircling him. The crowds had thinned some, but still too many innocent bystanders for Luke?s taste. He decided to draw a potential firefight away from the main corridors. He veered into a back alley that would eventually take him back home, but unfortunately would also allow his pursuers a better shot at him. The empty spots in the Force shifted with him and constricted; he could still sense the Force but if they came any closer?A wet blanket wrapped around him, smothering his senses. He drew his lightsaber, his thumb poised on the switch and stood en guard to meet the enemy.

They came closer and then one of them revealed himself. It was a member of one of the local swoop gangs. The grungy man shouldered a military issue blast rifle and pointed it at Luke. "Well, lookie here barves. Seems our furry friend was right. There was a Jedi out here."

In the corner of his eye, Luke detected movement off to his left. He shifted his eyes and saw the same Gotal that had brushed by him earlier. The Gotal stroked his face fur, then said, "I told you. Now you can see why my head hurt so much."

The original speaker laughed harshly. "Yes. I can see why." He said snidely, then spit on the ground. Focusing on his men, he announced, "See, I told you that stealing the lizards would payoff. We can get that Black Sun bounty, thanks to our newest recruit." He lowered the blast rifle just a little as he glared at Luke. "I don?t think you?ll be needing that oversized glow rod, Skywalker."

There was no doubt in Luke?s mind that this man was the leader. Even without access to the Force, it was still his ally. Luke began assessing his options. He was outnumbered and surrounded. The sidewalk they were on was the middle one of a multi-layered system. He glanced up and saw an upper sidewalk but it was out of his reach and he couldn?t jump that high without the Force. He looked down at the grating, around the circle at the goons with the ysalamiri packs and at the leader. "But I use it to see where I?m going." Then, he activated it, its distinctive snap-hiss humming in the alley.

The leader rolled his beady eyes. "Cute. It didn?t help you see us. Though I must say, I?d love to see that thing in action." He then signaled to a second man who was sporting a tattoo. This second man then pointed a blaster at Luke.

The first man holstered his weapon, then raised his hands, drawing attention to himself. "We?re going to have a little fun, barves. Toady here?s got an itchy trigger finger. He shoots and we watch. Oh, and Skywalker? All other weapons are aimed at you. You hit anyone; you?re out. Got it?"

Luke nodded as his stomach tightened. He had done some saber practicing inside a ysalamiri bubble but this would be the first real trial of his skills. He raised his glowing green blade and waited. The first shot he deflected into the ground with a downward swing of his saber, its tip slicing the grating. The second bounced off the blade and burned into a wall. The third and fourth ricocheted into the ground, followed by his slashing blade. The next one grazed his right biceps, causing him to grimace in pain.

The tattooed shooter, Toady, grinning stupidly, exclaimed, "Hey, I hit him."

Luke was glad the goon wasn?t using a rapid-fire weapon. He?d be in a lot worse shape. The boss signaled for a cease-fire. "That?s enough fun for now. Switch it to stun, so I can collect the reward."

Luke glanced worriedly at Toady. He pointed his saber downward, its tip grazing the grating as he turned to face the leader who grunted, "Drop it, Skywalker."

Luke did as he was told. His blade finished its cut into the grating and the ground fell out beneath him as Luke dropped through the hole he had been carefully cutting during his lightsaber display. It was a long drop but it put him far enough away from the ysalamiri that he could call upon the Force and slow his descent. The swoop gang stood frozen as they watched the prize escape. The leader yelled at them to start shooting which they eventually did. One blue stun bolt managed to hit Luke?s left calf. Luke?s running faltered but he had a far enough lead that he was just out of range. He clutched at his numb leg, while fighting the stun affects. His breath caught in his throat as he pushed back the pain in his arm. He continued limping, quietly thanking Mara for inspiring his escape plan. He ducked into an alley. Keeping to the shadows, he peeked around a corner to determine the level of pursuit. A couple of the lackeys had actually tried to jump down the hole. They were unsuccessful, judging from the fact that they were not moving. Good. He could grab a ?Then he heard the swoops being revved up.

He suddenly became aware of a blank spot near him. Turning to face the enemy, he brought up his saber, ready to fight but was hit by a stun blast from behind. Unable to fight the effects of the highest-level setting of the stun due to the location of the ysalamiri, Luke succumbed to the darkness and fell at the feet of his cloaked assailant.

Chapter 14

Leia Organa Solo returned from a committee meeting and began reviewing her appointment log with her aide, Winter Celchu. The log consisted of several dignitaries, many of whom wanted to meet with the former Princess of Alderaan to petition for aid from or membership in the New Republic. Any Senator or Counselor could accept a petition for aid or admission but they all seemed to request the Chief of State, Leia. She glanced at the first entry.

Derrik Kesitah, Premier of Almania.1100 hours

She said, "Threepio, what can you tell me about Almania?"

In his best professor mode, C-3PO stated, "Certainly, Your Highness. I have extensive data banks on all the planetary systems in our galaxy. Almania is a temperate world and the primary planet of the Almanian System in the Outer Rim. The planet supports two sentient races, the Je'Har and humankind. One of Almania?s three moons, Pydyr, is its major rival. Almania itself has a weak economy, while Pydyr is prosperous."

She turned her attention to Winter, then asked, "Have you met Kesitah?"

Pushing a stray white hair behind her ear, Winter answered, "Yes. He?s a human from Pydyr?"

Winter?s words became garbled and faded. Leia?s brown eyes glazed over as another familiar voice reached out and called to her.

Leia, I could use some help.


I?m surrounded. See where I am?

She caught a glimpse of his location, and quickly recognized it. Fortunately, it was nearby.


Hurry. They have ysala.

The connection was abruptly severed before he could finish his statement.

Leia blinked, then heard Winter ask, "Luke?"

"Yes. He?s in trouble. Again." She jumped up from her chair and retrieved her lightsaber from the corner of her credenza. When she reached the door, she told C3PO, "Threepio, pick up the children from school."

"Yes, Mistress Leia."

Then Winter added, "Also, inform Premier Kesitah that Leia will be unable to meet with him."

To her surprise, Threepio made no comment. Winter followed close on Leia?s footsteps as they left the office. Hurrying through the corridors, Leia fumbled into her pocket and retrieved her comlink to call for some backup.

Wearing a hooded Jedi robe, Leia rushed through the crowded streets. She fought the urge to run, knowing that she couldn?t afford to be recognized and stopped. Winter kept pace with her. They reached the charity office, halting just outside the door. Leia scanned the area, attempting to locate Luke. She found an area devoid of the Force and was about to tell Winter where they should go, when she felt a stinging in her right arm. She touched it with her fingertips, realizing that she was feeling Luke?s pain. The Force was available to him again. Gesturing with her head, she said, "Winter, this way."

She took off running down the alley with Winter following closely. Suddenly, Leia grasped at her left leg and then they heard swoop bikes being revved up. Abruptly, Winter grabbed Leia and pulled her behind some ductwork, just before some swoopers buzzed by. Winter had her blaster charged and at ready. The phantom pain allowed Leia to pinpoint Luke?s location; she just hoped Han was near enough to him. Holding her lightsaber in one hand, she quietly spoke into her comlink, which she held in the other.

The gang leader arrived at the alley where an unconscious Luke was being loaded into a hovercar by another swoop goon. He could also see a black-cloaked figure standing silently, observing the transfer. The leader?s measured approach was noticed but ignored. His eyes flickered fearfully as he came closer to the dark figure. The man stopped warily when he reached the side of the hovercar, then swallowed and said, "Your plan worked. When can I collect the bounty?"

He stood transfixed, sweating profusely as he waited for the reply. He felt ghostly fingers flutter about his throat; he swallowed then the fingers tightened their grip. His beady eyes widened in terror; he fell to his knees. Gasping for breath, he tried to speak but all that came out was wheezing air. Spots appeared before his eyes, dancing and whizzing about, darkness beckoned, and just prior to entering eternal darkness, the fingers granted a reprieve. Inhaling greedily, he looked up, daring to seek his oppressor. In tiny spurts, he panted, "Medeia?I?did?everything as ?you said?"

Silence, Dashet. You failed.

The reprimand lacked normal auditory sense, coming directly into his mind and offering no clues as to the emotions of the speaker. Dashet looked quizzically at Medeia. "But you have Skywalker."

He almost got away.

Dashet swallowed, then wiped the perspiration from his furrowed brow. He had a bad feeling about this.

You?ve cost me time and my time is valuable. Goodbye, Dashet.

Medeia stretched an arm towards Dashet, touching a gloved hand upon the other?s chest and an eerie blue bolt of energy surged from the hand into the chest. Dashet jerked his head backwards, his eyes wide in pain. Medeia pushed with the same hand and Dashet slumped to the ground, no longer among the living. The other swoop goon stood staring at the limp figure on the ground for a moment. Dark cloak swishing, Medeia turned around, then reached a hand out to the goon who was trembling. The hand contained only a data card, which he accepted gratefully and pocketed hurriedly.

Ysalamiri in the hovercar

He answered simply, "Yes."

Good work, Herry. You?ve got company.

With that last mental note, Medeia entered the hovercar and drove down the alley. Herry wondered what Medeia meant by company when he heard the approach of another hovercar from the opposite direction. He pulled his blaster, setting it to kill, then peered down the alley. The vehicle came slowly towards him. He lifted the blaster, taking careful aim. The next thing he heard was a Wookiee growling, then darkness as a hairy arm thrust him hard against the wall.

Han Solo eased up on the throttle, allowing Chewie to exit the hovercar. Chewie watched Han drive to the next alley, before heading down his own alley. Stealthily, he ran, fingering his bowcaster as he neared the end of the alley. He clung to the wall, to avoid being sighted. Looking cautiously around the corner, he noticed Luke slumped in the backseat of a hovercar. He observed a robed individual giving a swoopie a datacard before entering the vehicle and heading northbound. Hearing Han?s hovercar, the remaining swoopie had raised his blaster, inciting Chewie into action. The swoopie was soon unconscious against a wall. Han exited his hovercar and said, "Chewie, you weren?t supposed to knock him out. He might know where Luke is."

Don?t need him. Luke?s in that other hovercar. Chewie barked, waving his large arm in the opposite direction. Then he bent down and retrieved the datacard from the swoopie?s pocket.

"Get in," Han said, waving Chewbacca over.

Han accelerated, following the path of the other hovercar. He flipped his comlink on to speak to Leia as he swerved around a few swoopies who had come from the direction he was heading. Up ahead and one level above him, he saw a flash of light, then an explosion. Frantic, he screamed into his comlink, "Leia? Where are you?"

Leia and Winter thought they had come in behind the swoop gang but there was apparently a rear guard. The women had just reached the hole that Luke used for his escape when Leia heard a blaster charging up. She swung around quickly, activating her lightsaber in the process. Grasping it with both hands, she parried and deflected the shot, returning it from whence it came. Almost. It hit the fuel compartment of the speeder bike the man was sitting upon, exploding instantly into a bright ball of fire and smoke. Deactivating her saber, Leia pulled Winter down to ground and they both covered their heads to protect themselves from the fiery shrapnel. Before the dust had settled, Leia?s comlink was buzzing

"Leia? Where are you?" It was Han.

"Right above you," came her reply, to which he sighed in relief.

He steered up one level to pick her up. Chewie kept his sight on the other hovercar, which was also going up and now veering east. Leia and Winter jumped into Han?s hovercar and he continued shadowing the other vehicle. He asked, "Sweetheart, what happened?"

Leia smiled tightly. "You know how Luke can deflect blaster shots right back at the shooter?"

Han nodded.

"Well, I?m not that good yet."

They?re going faster. Chewie announced.

Han increased his acceleration, keeping far enough back in hopes of not being seen. There had to be a better way to shadow that hovercar. Then he had a thought. "Sweetheart, can you sense Luke?"

Leia?s eyelids fluttered as she reached out for her brother, but to no avail. "No, there is nothing there. I can?t sense anything."

Ysalamiri. Chewie exclaimed.

Han smiled lopsidedly, "That?s them."

Leia nodded in understanding, continuing to follow the Force-empty bubble. Han piloted through the traffic with practiced ease. The other hovercar was easy to follow and that was starting to bother him. Then the other accelerated to maximum speed. Han met the challenge and remained steadily on its tail. I?ve got a bad feeling about this, he thought. Then, he heard Leia gasp. He exclaimed, "What?"

"I just picked up several more empty spots. They?re all converging ahead of us."

"Stang it!" Han screamed, then he pushed the hovercar to its limit.

The hovercar chase was swerving, weaving and bobbing in and out of traffic. Han?s skill kept them close, never losing sight of Luke?s abductor. Suddenly, a couple of speederbikes came from behind and ran directly over their top obscuring their view. Han juked to the left but it was already too late.

Luke was gone.

Medeia slowed the hovercar to a halt on a lower level and was met by two other cloaked individuals, bearing the emblem of the Black Sun. As Medeia got out of the hovercar, the other two retrieved Luke. After placing a similar hooded cloak on Luke, they supported him between them before walking towards a turbolift. Leaving the ysalamiri in the hovercar, Medeia followed in their wake. The turbolift descended to the farthest possible level. When it stopped, they entered a bare, dimly lit, granite tunnel. Here, Medeia took the lead. Several meters into the tunnel they came upon a rusty metal door, which squeaked and scraped when Medeia opened it. Luke was dropped upon a metal cot, then handcuffed with shackles that were welded shut by his two escorts. Those two left the room, and a few minutes later one returned with a black satchel that was delivered to Medeia. Kneeling at Luke?s bedside, the cloaked leader opened the bag and brought out a syringe and a small vial of green liquid. The needle was inserted into the vial, then injected into Luke?s neck.

Hefting the bag, Medeia left Luke alone.

One day later

His eyes fluttered, then opened but he couldn?t see anything at first. He blinked several times to clear his vision. Letting his head roll slightly, he suddenly felt dizzy and nauseous. Forcing his eyes to remain open, he scanned his surroundings. The walls were dark brown stone, with a slimy substance dripping down them. The dim lighting cast a haze in the room. Then, he heard a scrapping noise. When he tried to sit up, he found that his body didn?t respond to his mind?s request. Someone entered the room.

"Finally, awake I see."

He tried to form words but his throat was dry.

"Don?t bother to talk."

He wanted to know where he was and what was happening. Yet, he couldn?t remember?.

"You?ll remember in a few days. For now, you are a guest of the Black Sun."

He furrowed his brow trying to place?

"I gave you an injection that disrupts your thought patterns and nervous system. It will wear off in a few days. So, I really must begin your treatment."

He was confused by the information. He couldn?t process it. The room, which he was able to describe when he first awoke, was now a blur. The speaker was foggy, indistinguishable. He sought oblivion but it ignored him.

The speaker began to prepare the guest. His sleeve was ripped and a vibroblade slashed into his right arm, the blood dripping to the rough dirt floor. The drug worked so well that he didn?t even flinch. But it didn?t matter, in a few days there would be plenty of pain. The speaker then lifted up a small sliding door; it was in the far corner of the room, opposite the metal door. Then a fist-sized rock was placed underneath to keep it propped open.

"Soon the corridor ghouls will smell the blood and come looking for food. They will not stop until they get it. Who do you think will get here first? The ghouls or your sister?"

Medeia flashed a feral smile, unseen by the groggy Luke. Oh yes, revenge was sweet. Death was nothing compared to torment. Physical torment was rewarding but mental torment was much more entertaining.

And mental torment was Medeia?s specialty.

Two days later.

Luke slowly opened his sleep caked eyes, blinking to clear his vision. It didn?t matter much in the dimly lit room. He rolled his head to the side and winced at the soreness in his neck. He began to assess his surroundings. The room was moist and dank; the walls appeared to be covered in slime. Then, he heard a digging noise and some snuffling. Following the sound, his blue eyes searched for the source. He frowned at the sight of some white skinned creature digging in the dirt on the other side of a sliding door. Next, he heard a high-pitched scream, causing him to cover his ears in pain. At least, he tried to cover his ears; the shackles prohibited such a simple task. His nervous system began operating again, bombarding his brain with messages of pain and acute discomfort. His right arm throbbed, reminding him of the blaster bolt that singed him during his encounter with the swoop gang. Grimacing, he noticed that the arm was caked in dry blood. He pushed himself up to a sitting position, his aching muscles complaining the whole time. Examining his arm, he realized that the burnt skin had been cut, most likely with a vibroblade. His eyes widened as he made the connection between the digging creatures and the blood. Sith, he was their prey.

He reached out in the Force to pop open the shackles but the mechanism was melted and unusable. He changed his focus to the creatures. They were determined and hungry. One had dug through. It was a quadruped, standing about knee high, white skinned, big ears, no eyes and very big sharp teeth. Its nose was twitching as it leaped for Luke. He managed to sidestep the first one but soon several were in on the attack. They bit into Luke?s flesh and he screamed in agony. He had to do something; he didn?t want to die this way. Not in a feeding frenzy. He wanted them off. He tried to calm himself, to focus, to pull the power of the Force to himself. When he touched it, he used it to push the creatures away. The creatures flew from his body and smashed into the wall. Prior to passing out from blood loss, he heard a voice call his name.

Two days later

Luke had returned to his apartment after spending a day in the bacta tank. Leia had told him that they had spent three days trying to reach him. She was able to sense him but his location was so remote and the often dead-end passages winding and dangerous that they arrived just as the ghouls had scampered under the door. Fortunately, they didn?t have to return by the same route. They were able to use a turbolift that was accessible from the other side of Luke?s cell to evacuate him. Major Terrall Hoover of Coruscant Security started the investigation into Luke?s detention immediately. A cloak bearing a Black Sun emblem verified that organization?s involvement. It all seemed a bit too convenient to Luke. His thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of Han at his front door.

"Hi, Han. Come in."

Han grasped Luke?s hand firmly, then pulled him in for hug. "You look much better, Kid."

Luke?s eyes twinkled and then he laughed. "Thanks to you and Leia."

"That?s ?how many you owe me now? Don?t worry I stopped counting years ago." His expression turned serious. "I got something to show you."

Luke could tell that Han was worried, but he wasn?t sure why, yet. Han sat down in a chair and motioned for Luke to sit next to him. He pulled out a datapad and inserted a datadisc. "Take a look at this."

Plopping down in a neighboring chair, Luke held the datapad and perused the information, which consisted of planet coordinates and dates. His danger sense tingled. He was looking at Mara?s private itinerary. He paled significantly, stating, "This is Mara?s route for her business trip." He paused, afraid to ask the question for which he somehow knew he didn?t want to hear the answer. "Where?d you get it?"

His jaw tightened with concern, Han stated, "Chewie gave it to me. He took it from a swoop goon who had gotten it from the cloaked creep that drove off with you in a hovercar."

Luke clenched his fist and slammed it on the table.

Chapter 15

Coruscant Security, desiring to maintain a commanding and reassuring presence for the citizens of the planet, occupied an entire city block, its building an imposing edifice of durasteel and transparisteel, not far from the halls of intergalactic government. The police force?s desire to protect and serve was evident the moment one stepped inside the huge sliding doors, and walked directly into a weapons scanner. All arms were confiscated and checked for retrieval by its owner, if the weapon was indeed correctly registered to its possessor.

The main kiosk on the first floor was manned by sentients as well as guard droids, which provided an additional sense of security for those seeking to report a transgression or to attend to other business. Holovid monitors displaying the galaxy?s most wanted lined the walls and included updates on last known planet of residence, sightings, contacts, and arrests. As a further deterrent to criminal activity, surveillance vids were prominently displayed and kept a constant eye on all visitors to pass through or linger in the lobby. Several recessed turbolifts lined the farthest most interior of the foyer, accessible only after passing through security.

Two guard droids kept silent vigil on the kiosk and those that approached it. If any threat was evident, immediate action was taken, the aggressor subdued, safety of the innocents assured. A blond haired gentleman appeared suddenly at the kiosk and then requested, no demanded was more accurate, in a voice that was used to being obeyed, to see Major Terrall Hoover. A dour faced human, dressed in a crisp, dull gray suit, having gone through the procedure countless times, quickly glanced up then briskly offered to the gentleman the datapad used for identification purposes. "Press your thumb on the pressure pad, then sign your name with the stylus. We need to clear your identity before we can process your request."

The task was completed promptly and the pad returned immediately. The clerk?s cheek twitched when she saw the name. She chanced a furtive glance at the figure on the other side of the counter, who registered in her mind without a doubt as the person he claimed to be. But regulations needed to be adhered to, followed for all citizens, including the prominent and famous. She waited for the information to be downloaded and verified, then and only then would Jedi Master Luke Skywalker be admitted to see Major Hoover.

Terrall Hoover?s towering figure loomed over Luke as he greeted him with a firm handshake. "Master Skywalker, its good to see you. Have a seat," he said, waving his hand in the direction of a chair opposite his desk.

"Thank you," Luke said as he sat down.

Terrall sat down as well then folded his callused hands, tapping his index fingers together. "I was going to contact you. We have a lead in your case."

Luke?s attention perked up considerably at the Major?s comment; he could use some more information, especially if it helped him discover the instigator of the threats to him and his beloved. Frankly, he was tired of being targeted and wanted it to stop. Long suppressed anger began to bubble and simmer, threatening to explode into full rage. Stop it, Skywalker, he admonished himself. Don?t think like that; revenge is of the Dark Side, he reasoned as he began dispersing his violent emotions. He needed to be calm and let the police do their jobs. Saving the universe wasn?t a one-man job; neither was catching this threat, this tormentor. For he knew that he was being tormented both mentally and emotionally. He visualized the list of recent events. Artoo?s memory was almost wiped, his personal codes compromised. He?d been harassed by a swoop gang, and eventually captured, only to be found several days later unguarded and being mauled by corridor ghouls. It was easy to conclude that they expected him to live and be rescued; the disc with Mara?s itinerary was in Han?s possession before Luke was even found. They wanted him to know they saw everything and knew more. And he had no clue as to whom or why. It was not a pleasant feeling.

Luke cleared his throat, then said, "Great. I?ve got something for you also."

He reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved the datadisc Han had given him earlier. "This was found on one of the swoop gang members involved in my abduction." Luke watched Hoover put the disc into a datapad. "It?s my wife?s travel plan. Whoever is behind this knows exactly where my wife is and they wanted me to know it."

Terrall scratched his whiskered chin, contemplating what Luke had just told him. He tapped his gnarled fingers on the wooden desk, then popped out the disc and replaced it with another. After adjusting the settings, he handed the pad to Luke and pointed to the display. "This meshes with what the swooper we apprehended told us. A couple of our uniformed officers that had responded to Princess Leia?s com found an unconscious man, bearing the marks of a local criminal outfit, in an alley near the ambush site. He was taken into custody and interrogated. At first, he wouldn?t say anything, but then Rygollalla went in to question him, realized by scent that the man had had a recent encounter with another Wookiee and used that information to her advantage. Herry squealed like a mynock."

Luke perused the transcript of Herry?s interrogation and learned what had happened from the time that he was stunned to just before the hovercar chase already related by Han and Leia. The account of Dashet?s execution caused him to shudder involuntarily, the description of the electricity flow eerily similar to Force Lightning wielded by both the late Emperor and C?baoth. If it was a manifestation of the Dark Side, why hadn?t he felt the Darkness? He wasn?t under the influence of the ysalamiri the whole time; he should have felt something, anything. Could there be a new Sith out there, possessing the ability to cloak his presence with such skill that a Jedi Master was unable to detect him? A chilling thought but entirely possible considering the fact that Palpatine had hid his true colors from a whole legion of Jedi. Weary at the thought of facing yet another Darksider, Luke rubbed his eyes, then blinked and re-found his spot in the report. Herry loaded him into the hovercar. The cloaked figure gave Herry the disc and warned of company, the hovercar left, a speeder arrived, he aimed, and then Wookiee yelling and a hairy arm was the last he remembered. Luke re-read the statement about a telepathic conversation; the Sith didn?t speak and Herry had no clues as to whether it was male or female. But he did reveal a name: Medeia. Luke shivered at the sight of the name, though he had never seen it before today. It felt?evil? and it threatened him and Mara.

Terrall Hoover leaned back in his soft contoured chair to silently observe with keen eyes the Jedi?s reaction to the revelation of the name of his captor. Surely, there would be recognition and realization of who and why when he read it. That moment never came, at least in the way he expected. Luke shuddered, then simply looked at the Major and said, "Who is Medeia?"

Hoover leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desktop. "Our undercover agents just recently confirmed that Medeia is the current head of the Black Sun."

Luke placed the datapad on the desk, continuing to hold it while resting his forearm on the hard wood surface. The Black Sun?s leader must have initiated the bounty, but was it revenge for Xizor or something entirely different? He sighed softly. Why do the answers always come with more questions? He loosened his grip on the datapad, sliding it towards the Major. "I don?t know why this Medeia is after me but I have a feeling I?ll find out soon."

"I assure you, Master Skywalker, that my men are working hard on the case. We?ll catch them."

Luke nodded in agreement and stated, "I know that, Major. But for now, I would like your assistance with Corsec."

Terrall raked his fingers through his graying hair and rubbed his temples. "I figured as much once I saw the itinerary. I?ll do what I can but our relations with Corellia are strained."

Luke spoke calmly, his voice revealing none of the concern he felt, "Alert them to a possible kidnapping attempt on my wife, they may be able to prevent it. I have been trying to contact Mara but communications aren?t getting through to the Wild Karrde. So, I?m going and it will take me a few days to get there."

Hoover locked determined eyes with Luke, then stated officiously, "You realize that because of her association with a known smuggling group, Corsec may be less than willing to assist."

Luke never flinched but acknowledged the statement. "I do." He paused a moment, then added, "But I also have a trump card to toss into the pot. They?ll help." He stood up, offering his hand to the Major. "I need to prep my ship. I appreciate your time and may the Force be with you."

Major Hoover waited for the Master to exit his office before activating his comstation. Time to contact Corsec. He fervently hoped that the Jedi had a really good trump card because his own dealings with Corsec had been less than satisfactory, and he had no illusions that this time would be any different.

Luke approached the Tatooine?s Flame and immediately felt a presence on board that brought an amused smile to his lips. He entered his new codes, brought the ramp down smoothly and jogged up into the interior. Over the top of the pilot?s chair, brown hair could be seen sticking up, a pair of rough hands, fingers laced, and palms down resting on top of it. Standing in the doorway, Luke grinned widely, then loudly cleared his throat. The hands abruptly pulled apart then disappeared from sight. "?Bout time you got here, Kid."

Luke strode forward, coming along side the Captain?s chair and with folded arms, stared at Han Solo. Perplexed as to why Luke was just standing there, Han asked innocently, "Problem?"

Luke nodded at the chair. "You?re sitting in MY seat."

Han pushed himself out of the chair, flashing a lopsided grin. "Sorry. Force of habit."

Luke quickly sat in the chair vacated by Han who moved to the co-pilot?s seat. "What?d Leia say when you told her we?re going to Corellia?"

Han grimaced though his brown eyes flashed at the thought of adventure. "She?s worried. Thinks I?m going to get hauled in by Corsec on some old arrest warrant. Though she?s happy I?m not flying the Falcon. ?Too recognizable? she says."

Luke finished the flight preparations that Han had started while waiting for his arrival. "I?ll make sure you stay out of trouble."

Buckling his crash netting, Han snorted, "Yeah, right. She?s preparing herself in case she has to come haul us both out. She?s been practicing with that lightsaber, deflecting bolts. Almost right on target now."

Luke shared the pride he felt emanating from Han. Smiling, he flipped the transmission switch, buckling his own crash netting while speaking. "Tatooine?s Flame to Coruscant Control. Requesting clearance."

"Coruscant Control to Tatooine?s Flame. Permission for clearance granted. Follow previous relayed vector."

"Acknowledged. Flame out."

As the Flame climbed smoothly through the atmosphere of the city on its course for orbit, Han ventured to ask, "Did you get hold of Corran?"

"I did. He?s already taken care of it. Corsec will listen, because from what Corran tells me, they don?t have much choice."

Han relaxed visibly, then chuckled. "Never thought there?d be a day that Rostek Horn would be on my side."

Luke nodded briefly in response, his attention on piloting through the orbital debris that littered the space lanes. His thoughts turned to Mara; she had been gone a week now and he missed her greatly, even though he had no recollection of several of those days due to his abduction. Her safety was compromised; the enemy knew exactly where she would be and when she would be there. They would make a grab for her, he knew it, and they knew he knew it. Why were they doing this? Why let him know? It just didn?t make sense and it was driving him crazy.

Maybe the enemy was trying to drive him crazy.

The starlines blurred as the ship entered hyperspace hurtling them through the darkness of space. Luke silently urged the ship to faster speeds, encouraging greater velocities. He didn?t know if Mara was presently in danger, but it felt imminent. He wanted to get to Corellia before anything happened to her, to forestall any harm to her. She was the universe to him, his very reason for being and living. He would do everything in his power to protect her precious life.

By the Force, he hoped she was safe.

Her hands clasped loosely behind her back, Mara stood on the bridge of the Wild Karrde, staring thoughtfully out the viewport, watching numerous starships jockey for position in orbit above Kuat. One day out of Coruscant, this was their first port of call, lasting a few days; their other scheduled stops would be just as lengthy. Aves? debut as the new second-in-command was only a fraction of the reason for Karrde?s tour; regular business transactions needed to be conducted as well. She watched as several of the organization?s shuttles flew by on their way to varied meetings.

Mara pondered her reason for being here, instead of home on Coruscant with Luke. Karrde was like a father to her, giving her the start on the new life she had needed so desperately. Her loyalty to him prevented her from just walking away; she wanted to help, to offer assistance as sort of a payback, a type of reward. Thus, she was here training Aves to take over her job, and she wanted him to succeed and prosper. No doubt Karrde could have done it himself but Mara felt that she needed to do it, actually desired to do it. Since Aves had been with Karrde even longer than she had, his training had been quite simple, teaching him to work on his people skills and professional demeanor when meeting with clients. Mara would introduce him to all her contacts and smooth over the transition. The customers were prepared for the change, having been advised prior to the business trip. It was up to Aves to make a favorable impression and he would have his first chance soon since they were due to travel by shuttle to the surface within the next few minutes. A voice came from behind her. "Ready, Mara?"

She glanced over her shoulder, though she already knew who it was. "Yeah, Aves, I?m coming."

That evening curled up in a smooth nerf hide conforming chair and covered in a soft bantha wool blanket, Mara reflected on the day. The meeting with the telbun of their Kuati customer was uneventful and no concerns were voiced about Mara?s replacement by Aves. As a matter of fact, the telbun decreed the change was best for all concerned parties. Considering that their ventures with Karrde bordered on the illegal, she believed that entering into transactions with the wife of a Jedi Master would be bad for business.

So much for keeping a low profile. Seemed the whole galaxy knew Mara Jade had married Luke Skywalker.

She sighed wearily, reaching for a datapad from the small nightstand next to her bed. She activated the screen, hoping to read more of the novel she had bought to fill her free time. Scrolling through the pages of the story about a young abused orphan girl who becomes a governess for a landed gentleman, her thoughts wandered towards Luke once again. His presence was always on the edge of her mind, just out of reach as the distance between them grew. His spiritual being filled her heart and soul continually, occupying its own special corner, but she missed his physical touch, the nearness of the living breathing man. She shifted her position and once again held the datapad erect to attempt reading. The young girl was getting married to the gentleman but the ceremony was interrupted when someone announced that the gentleman?s first wife still lived. That could easily be Mara, Luke and Callista. What? Where?d that come from? It was a ridiculous thought, born of a vivid imagination and a tired mind. Her concentration ruined, Mara thrust the datapad onto her bed in frustration. She squeezed the bridge of her nose, then rubbed her tired eyes. Maybe she should just go to bed. Swinging her stocking feet to the ground, her heels crashed into something, a box it seemed, under her seat. Reaching her hands underneath the chair and grabbing hold of the crate, she pulled it out. She remembered instantly the gift Luke had given her before her departure.

It was the parts for building her own lightsaber; one of the last tests for becoming a Jedi Knight.

Mara smiled fondly as she remembered his confidence in her abilities. She put the box upon the table and felt a vague tug from the Force, prodding her to begin construction soon. Acknowledging and accepting the leading of the Force, she resolved to start first thing in the morning, completion targeted by the time they arrived in Corellia. As she snuggled under the covers, she envisioned herself wielding her gold bladed lightsaber, parrying and slashing with expert grace. Consciousness slipped away as she deflected blaster blots, then Force lightning bolts, subconsciously protecting Luke; she wouldn?t remember it in the morning.

She rolled over in the bed, her left arm landing on top of his body. He murmured in his sleep as she snuggled closer to his warm back. Her fingers searched for his left hand, her fingers entwined into his when she found it. Pressing a kiss on his bare shoulder blade, she began a trail of kisses that went up his neck, and ended at his left ear. His blonde head turned and took her demanding lips into his; she moved slightly to get better access to his mouth. He responded to her demands by rolling onto his back. His right hand reached up to her soft face, lightly caressing her cheek. She broke the kiss for a moment to gaze upon his handsome face. In his deep blue eyes smoldered sparks of hunger and desire, screaming to be fed, and she decided to stoke the fire into a blazing fury. She unlaced her left hand from his and began to lightly caress his unshaven cheek with her knuckles; his hand grabbed hers and brought it to his lips, kissing each knuckle. Freeing her hand, she then ran a slender finger down his nose and traced his lips, before she placed her hand on the side of his head, grasping his hair, capturing his mouth in another devouring kiss. He pressed his lips hard upon hers, savoring her sweet taste, their tongues dueling, while the kiss was growing in intensity. Passion was building, crying for fulfillment and release. One of his fingers slipped under the strap of her gown, caressing her soft skin while sliding it off her shoulder?

"Luke!" Mara woke up in a sweat.

Turning in the bed to search for Luke, she suddenly realized that he wasn?t there. With a frustrated sigh, she flopped back down in the bed. It was a dream. A very vivid dream, one that had occurred each night since she left Coruscant. Her sleep shirt clinging tightly to her body, she disgustedly threw the covers back and swung her feet over the side of the bed. She peered at the chrono; it was almost morning. Her feet landed on the cold steel floor, jarring her completely awake. Yanking her robe off the bed, she padded softly towards the refresher. As she prepared for a shower, she thought that maybe it wasn?t such a good idea to make a month long trip without Luke.

Their arrival at Commenor was as uneventful as the arrival in Kuat, just less traffic.

After a perfect landing, Aves sealed the ship and then he followed Mara to the scheduled meeting place, a small tapcafe on the outskirts of the spaceport. The conference was successful and concluded without a hitch; the gentlemen left in good spirits, happy with the transition.

While preparing to leave the restaurant, Aves signaled to the wait droid who provided the bill, which was credited to Karrde?s business account. Then Mara?s Jedi senses kicked in a danger alert. Aves noticed a subtle change in her demeanor, eyeing her anxiously. She reflexively reached for her saber but came up empty; she had left it on the Wild Karrde. Instead, she slowly retrieved her blaster from its arm sheath. Her movement was barely visible to Aves. She kept her conversational tone and said, "We?ve got trouble."

Aves stood to Mara?s right side, blocking the view of her blaster from the other tapcafe patrons. While nonchalantly walking to the exit, Mara?s senses were actively searching for the danger, locating it quickly; two non-humans, species unknown at the moment.

Once they were away from the restaurant, Aves pulled his blaster out, then swung his arm behind his back and concealing the weapon underneath his coat. They walked for some distance, gauging their followers? intent, but their shadows didn?t make any hostile moves. Aves whispered, "Mara, what?s going on? Are they going to do something?"

Mara shook her head. "I don?t know. They are just following us for now."

She didn?t like being stalked. Time to change the odds. Up ahead, she saw a perfect spot to switch from prey to predator. Picking up the pace, she noticed that the others quickened theirs as well. She ducked into an alley and pulled Aves in with her. They both pressed up against the duracrete walls, keeping in the shadows and blending into their surroundings. Their pursuers rushed into the alley frantically searching for their prey. Mara could identify their species now by the prehensile trunks and large goggled eyes - Kubaz. Mara used their momentary distraction to act and the next thing one of them knew a blaster barrel was jammed rigidly into his neck. Waiting for them to yield, Mara continued to press the blaster deep into his dark green flesh. His companion held out his hands in surrender, showing that he had no weapons. "Aves, search them."

Aves patted them both down, then aimed his blaster at the one Mara wasn?t holding. "They?re clean."

Mara demanded in a menacing voice, "Why are you following us?"

They didn?t say anything. Mara pushed her blaster harder into the first one?s neck. He squealed, then said in broken Basic, "Make delivery."

He moved his hand to reach into his pocket, but Mara stopped him. "I?ll get it."

She reached in and retrieved a datapad. It appeared harmless enough, no danger tingles, just underlying dread. The Kubaz said, "Message for you. We go now."

Mara delved deeper into the Force and felt the Kubaz? increasing fear; they were only hired to deliver the datapad, nothing more. She relaxed her grip on her blaster. "You can go. But if I ever see you again, I will not be so generous."

They made no comment as they scurried up the alley and out of her sight. Aves lowered his blaster, replaced it in its holster and flipped his comlink open. "Chin, keep an eye out for a couple of Kubaz. See where they go."

After a brief acknowledgment, Aves closed the comlink then looked at Mara to ask her a question, and found her deep in thought. "Mara?"

She frowned, then said, "Let?s get back to the shuttle."

On board the Wild Karrde, Aves and Mara sat in Talon?s office, where instead of debriefing on the business meeting, they were discussing the Kubaz encounter. The contents of the datapad appeared to be the current flight plans for the Wild Karrde, startling similar to the detailed itinerary that Mara had given to Luke. Leaning back in his chair, deep in thought, Talon twisted the end of his black mustache, while staring at the datapad. Equally serene, Aves sat adjacent to Karrde. The only ambulatory occupant of the room, Mara, her arms folded under her breasts, was slowly pacing the length of the office, occasionally halting to glance at the "delivery". The stillness of the room, undisturbed for several minutes was ended when Karrde said, "We know that there is leak in our organization. But to whom? To what profit?"

"Our competitors? Industrial espionage?" Aves guessed.

Karrde shook his head. "I don?t think so. They wouldn?t advertise that they had broken our security."

Aves nodded in agreement and sought another train of thought. "Could be a slicer who wanted to make a statement, get recognized."

Leaning forward, Karrde rested his chin on his folded hands, and chewed on his lip as he mulled over Aves? comment. Both men watched the taciturn Mara continue her steady pacing. Talon was about to ask for her input when she stopped suddenly, half-closing her eyes, adopting what he called a "Jedi look" that he had seen on her before. When her green eyes opened, she walked over to the table, leaning on it, then said, "I think it was meant for me. It?s exactly like the copy I gave to Luke."

Aves interjected, "But isn?t this the same as on our system?"

Mara shook her red-gold head "No. I added more details."

Karrde nodded in agreement. "That?s true." He looked seriously at Mara. "I suggest that you contact Skywalker about his copy. In the meantime, we?ll tighten security and see if we can flush out any infiltrators in our ranks. Can?t be too careful."

Intent on contacting her husband, Mara quickly left the office. Aves started to rise and follow her, but was stopped by Karrde?s firm hand on his shoulder. Perplexed, he remained seated and waited for Talon to explain. "I want you to take extra backup on Corellia. If she?s right, and I have a feeling she is, I want her protected. It wouldn?t surprise me that with the bounty on Skywalker, she would be used as bait."

"She?ll be mad."

"I?d rather she?d be safe and mad, than for something to happen and have Skywalker mad at me. I?ve heard about his anger, and it?s something I never wish to experience first hand."

Chapter 16

Mara was unable to contact Luke because long distance communications were temporarily down. Somehow she wasn?t surprised. She asked Ghent to let her know when they were up again, then started walking to her suite, deep in thought about the datapad. It could have come from a business competitor or an inventive slicer, but her gut feeling was that it was aimed at her and it had something to do with the threat to Luke. If it was, was it to let her know that they still had access to her and Luke?s personal codes or was it simply more basic, an attempt to scare her. And why would they think this would frighten her? She shook her head at the absurdity of such an idea. It was after reaching her room and palming the door, when suddenly it dawned on her.

Luke. It was meant to frighten Luke.

If he were given a copy?Taking in a sharp breath, Mara pulled out her comlink and contacted Ghent who informed her once again that communications were still down and he was still working on it. Frustrated with how the fates were dealing with her, she flung the comlink across the room, then stepped inside. If Luke got a copy of this by some similar delivery method, he would be worried and try to contact her, which wasn?t possible at this moment due to technical difficulties. Then, he would come, which would make him susceptible to danger. She had to let him know that everything was okay, nothing was happening and she was safe. If only she could talk to him.

Mara picked up the comlink from the floor, pocketing it while suppressing the urge to buzz Ghent again. He needed time to fix the problem, not spend it telling her he was working on it. There had to be a way to contact Luke. Smacking her palm onto her forehead, she groaned disgustedly. Why didn?t she think of it earlier? There was a way to contact him. Sitting cross-legged on the floor and clearing her mind, the Force energy surged forth over their bond, searching the far reaches of the universe. Luke. Hear me.

Locating the fringes of his consciousness, she attempted to communicate but Luke did not respond. The contact was hazy and disorientated, lacking the clarity of her former abilities. It was disconcerting and quite confusing, considering that her bond with Luke had to be stronger and purer than the one she had had with Palpatine. Perhaps lack of practice, or quite possibly fear, accounted for her inability to make contact. Blowing out her breath, she resolved to attempt the link again later. In the meanwhile, she would occupy her time in a more constructive manner. The need to talk to Luke was still strong, but another desire had pushed its way into the forefront of her consciousness.

She needed to complete her lightsaber.

The Wild Karrde?s arrival at Corellia was delayed a few days because of malfunctions in the hyperdrive. They had to wait while a shuttle went back to Commenor and returned with the proper repair parts. Then, Ghent found the computer virus that had taken down their long distance communications, which remained down for the remainder of the flight. Mara was suspicious and voiced her concerns to Karrde, who had already started a quiet search of the crewmembers. He wasn?t happy to have a saboteur on board and whoever it was would be dealt with severely. Mara and Aves wouldn?t be going to Coronet City without extra security either. The fact that an outside enterprise of unknown origin had access to their travel plans meant that her and the others? safety were compromised.

Mara originally thought the sabotage was directed at Karrde?s organization but the Force was telling her differently. It was all too coincidental that this occurred after the datapad was delivered, when she needed to contact Luke and warn him off. Each telepathic attempt had met with failure, often slamming against a dark impenetrable wall. The darkness was no longer hovering just outside her reach; it appeared to be on the offense. Once they got to Coronet City, she would make a holocom call to him, let him see that she was just fine, he needn?t worry, and especially didn?t need to come for her. Then, she?d tell him that she had almost finished building her lightsaber. She wouldn?t admit that she missed his presence, his touches, and his kisses. Mara sighed. It wouldn?t work; he could read her like a datapad. Force forbid, she was getting soft.

Upon their actual arrival in Corellia, Mara had finally got a line through to Coruscant only to find that Luke wasn?t home and Leia wasn?t available either. Even R2-D2 was gone. No one could give her any information as to Luke?s whereabouts, but she knew deep in her soul that he was coming here and she had no way to prevent it. She was going to contact the Flame, but her connection faltered, disconnected and refused to come up again. The recent, unsuccessful mental contacts had discouraged her from trying again, but she decided nothing ventured, nothing gained. Settling into a relaxed state, she reached out and this time the connection was instantaneous and crystal clear. Luke was coming and none of her vehement protests could sway his resolve, even though she insisted that she was safe and he needn?t worry because she could take care of herself. That man?s stubbornness was going to get him into trouble.

After arriving in Coronet City and checking in at the hotel, Mara took a stroll down Treasure Ship Row, getting a feel for the place and glaring at the passersby, causing many to give her a wide berth. Her mood was far from pleasant after her conversation with her overly protective husband, but she plunged back into her work to keep her mind off of it; she wasn?t as successful as she hoped. Aves cautiously approached her, hoping to quench her anger. "Mara. Can you tell me more about Thelmus?"

Mara stopped walking and pushed away her lingering anger. It wasn?t doing her any good and was sending the wrong message to Aves, and many others in fact. She was almost a Jedi; she needed to at least attempt to act like one. She silently commended Aves for his diversionary tactic, then apologized, "I?m sorry, Aves."

He waved it off, but she could feel his tension melt. As they walked, Mara told him about their contact.

Because of the delay, she and Aves had to reschedule their meeting with the Selonian, Thelmus, who reluctantly agreed. They made it to the predetermined meeting place and quickly located Thelmus. This time, the customer wasn?t happy with the change in Karrde?s organization. Thelmus didn?t like Aves at all. Mara Jade was much honored by her sept and Thelmus didn?t want to have to build a new relationship with an untested liaison. After much negotiation, Mara convinced Thelmus that it was necessary and she pledged that Aves would consider Selonian culture when making deals with them and not defraud them. After Thelmus left, Aves asked, "Mara, what would happen if something went wrong with a Selonian deal?"

Mara answered in a matter of fact tone. "She?d rip your throat out."

Aves eyes widened, and he tentatively reached for his throat. "Um, can we go now?"

Mara hid her smile behind her hand and nodded. They walked back up Treasure Ship Row towards the hotel.

The Coronet City bazaar was a bustling menagerie of species, cultures and colors. A shopper?s delight, the stalls were stocked with all manner of goods and foodstuffs, their proprietors babbling in a myriad of languages, offering a variety of services. Humans mingled with Drall and Selonian, as well as the large contingent of off-worlders from across the galaxy. The various scents from a multitude of different foods, perfumes, candles and sentient beings blended for a unique olfactory experience. The open market was alive with activity; laughing children running cheerfully through the hordes, the elderly reminiscing about days gone by, young lovers walking hand in hand, and shopkeepers bickering about the price of inventory. Hovering on the outskirts, the dark side of the city remained hidden, its sordid underbelly invisible to the casual shopper.

Mara stopped in front of a stall that was hawking websilk robes, her eyes focusing on a blue one that would match Luke?s eyes beautifully. Rubbing the soft material in her fingers, imagining how it would feel on Luke?s skin, the visualization of how it would cling to his torso took her breath away. The diminutive shopkeeper noticed the interest and started a conversation, hoping to barter a good price.

Aves shrugged his shoulders, stuffing his hands into his pants? pockets. Women and shopping, not his idea of a fun time, at least the shopping part. A sweet little blonde, twirling curly blond hair with her pinky took notice of his boredom, and winked flirtatiously at him. Flashing a roguish smile at her, he was rewarded instantly when her cheeks turned bright red. The game had begun and the cocky young man slowly strutted towards the pretty young thing.

While negotiating the final credit price for the robe, Mara?s danger sense began to tingle, but she continued her conversation, glad that she could put her split concentration skills to use. Mara caught a glimpse of movement in her peripheral vision; they were being followed. She began tracking the area trying to determine how many were following them.

Mara politely thanked the shopkeeper, requesting that the purchase be delivered to her hotel. There were at least eight tails; not good odds but they could disappear into the crowds easily. Slyly retrieving her comlink from her belt to buzz Faughn and Chin, she received no response, just static. "Aves," she started, but he wasn?t there. Sithspit! She scanned the noisy crowds hoping to find them.

Then she saw Aves waving from across the street, his other arm around a blonde wearing a two sizes too small outfit. Stang, that man wasn?t thinking with his head. Mara maneuvered her way through the crowd and just reached the other side when she saw Aves and Blondie disappear into an alley. Her danger sense was blaring a full alert as she treaded lightly to the edge of a building. Dropping down to knee level, she carefully looked around the corner. It was dark but she could see Aves being dragged farther and deeper into the alley. She closed her eyes a moment; it was a trap but she just couldn?t leave Aves. Opening her eyes again, she grasped onto her blaster and jumped into the alley, racing for the shadows on the far wall. No shots came in her direction. The eight hunters she had sensed earlier were now converging and coming in from behind her. She crept closer to where she presumed Aves was being held. A glow rod was lit. In its gloom, she saw Aves and Blondie, who was pressing a blaster barrel into the soft flesh under Aves? chin. His teeth were gritted in pain but his eyes showed a fierce determination to do whatever he needed to do to help. Mara also noticed that Blondie had twisted Aves? right arm behind his back. A few more glow rods were lit, illuminating the fact that they were now surrounded.

"Alright, Jade, put down the blaster."

Her green eyes shifted from Aves and Blondie to the speaker, a tall dark skinned man with an aquiline nose. From his attire, she pegged him as a pirate, which gang she wasn?t sure. She averted her eyes back again. Her blaster sights were still on Blondie, she figured she could take out?

"Come on, Jade. You know that if you shoot her, she?ll still kill your friend."

He was right and she knew it. Sith, now what? Mara slowly lowered the blaster and dropped it to the ground. She still had her lightsaber, and was moving her hand towards it, when she heard Aves groan.

"Don?t even try it."

Someone came from behind and confiscated her lightsaber. She was ready to attack him, when a scream came from Aves.

"Here?s the deal, Jade. You surrender peacefully and we?ll let your friend live."

She had no choice, no other options; she raised her hands in surrender. Aves screamed, "No, Mara!"

He started to struggle, was hit hard on the temple by Blondie, and then he crumpled to the ground. Mara made a movement to go to him, but was held back by someone behind her. Her arms were pulled behind her back and cuffed securely while a needle was jabbed into her arm. The original speaker came over and stood in front of her. She could see his tattoo now; it was the symbol for the Nek Maulers gang. "Sorry we have to drug you Mrs. Skywalker, but Jedi are so hard to handle."

He took her lightsaber and placed it on top of Aves? body. He sneered at her. "Just letting your husband know we have you. I think he?ll come for you, don?t you?"

No. Luke, she silently called.

Mara?s vision was blurring and she blinked, hoping to clear it but was unsuccessful. Her body began to sway, then she felt her body being lifted up and flung over a shoulder. She hung limply, still fighting to remain conscious, dizzy from her position and could no longer stay awake. Darkness overtook her.

Mara groaned and winced as she awoke. She was lying on her stomach on a thickly padded bench. Her arms were sore and she attempted to move them but was unable to since they were still cuffed. And from how much they hurt, a lot of time must have passed. She needed to get a reading on her situation so she closed her eyes, and breathed deep, calming herself?Then her eyes flew open. Why does every criminal in the galaxy have ysalamiri? Before she could do anything else, the door slid open and Blondie entered, placed a tray of food on a small metal table, then walked over to Mara. She unsheathed a vibroblade, holding its sharp edge against Mara?s cheek. Abruptly, the cuffs fell off, freeing Mara?s wrists and causing her to grimace in pain as her arms fell down. Moaning softly, she uttered, "Thanks."

Blondie said nothing as she turned and left.

Gingerly, Mara pushed herself off the bench and carefully walked to the table. Her years of training taught her that nourishment was necessary to survival and to take it whenever possible. She pushed some of the food around on the plate, seeing if anything unusual had been added. Recognizing everything, she began taking small bites, hoping that they hadn?t drugged it. She knew they wouldn?t kill her; they?d had plenty of opportunity already. No, they?d keep her alive. In order to catch the biggest and best fish, you needed live bait and she was the bait for Luke. Mara could hope he wouldn?t come, would know it was a trap but she would just be fooling herself. Luke was coming for her and nothing would stop him.

Grinning evilly, the tall dark skinned pirate leader, M?Crik, watched Mara through a small peephole in the door. The plan for catching her had worked exceptionally well. His mole in Karrde?s organization, Kirt, had told him that she would be traveling with them to Corellia, knowing that she would be the perfect bait for the bigger prize, Skywalker. Advising Kirt to slow the Wild Karrde?s arrival, M?Crik set his plan in motion, acquiring needed supplies and setting up the players. Using Aves had worked like a charm, the other security members had been easily distracted and sent in the opposite direction, not realizing that the comlink messages they received were false and Jade?s was jammed. Now, he needed to let Skywalker know they had his wife. Once notified, the Jedi would take a few days to arrive and M?Crik needed to prepare for his arrival. First, they required more ysalamiri but his usual supplier was out of stock. He chuckled to himself as he thought about asking Karrde for some. It would be ironic but Karrde was too smart and would realize immediately what the ysalamiri were for. He continued to laugh as he retreated up the corridor and headed for his office.

The only human being that Mara saw was Blondie, who would bring food to her twice a day. At least, Mara thought, it was twice a day since her windowless cell was not conducive to determining whether it was night or day. Questions to Blondie were answered with silence. That left Mara?s own thoughts as her only company and she spent several hours contemplating her situation. The scene in the market replayed, over and over, imagining what she could have done different. Not much, short of leaving Aves and that wasn?t an option. Even fighting it out in the alley might have gotten her free but at the cost of Aves? life, which was also an unacceptable consequence. Remembering Luke?s little pep talk before the trip caused her to sigh; she had used every tool available and still got captured.

When tired of reviewing her abduction, which was now engraved in her memory, she sought physical release through exercise. The cell was large enough for active movement, though it didn?t allow room to run off tension. Twisting, turning and stretching kept her body from being stiff, letting her maintain the dancer-like agility without help from the Force. Her increasing reliance on the Force was noticeable after the first session resulted in labored breathing and heavy perspiration from a normal routine, a testament to the effect of the ysalamiri. She could still function without the Force but it was uncomfortable after being so connected and totally in tune with its energy. What would it be like to be without it?

Her thoughts drifted to Callista, a Jedi without that source of power. What was it like? Mara couldn?t imagine; her limited contact with the woman offered no clues. She remembered their encounter on Yavin IV, the only time she had reached out and probed her with the force. It was a chilling experience, searching for life and finding absolutely nothing. No light side, no dark side, just a void, empty space. Even though the first Mrs. Skywalker was dead and gone, she continued to haunt the living. Not literally, but every time Mara thought about Callista and her death, she felt a strong foreboding, a harbinger of doom especially for Luke. Having no Force confirmation didn?t prevent her from having a bad feeling about it. Some things just didn?t need the Force to be understood.

The door slid open quietly. Mara didn?t look up, thinking it was Blondie with a food platter. Then she heard footfalls coming in her direction, causing her to stand and glare at the stout, red-haired man coming towards her. He halted, his hungry eyes appreciatively roved over her figure, lingering on her curves, making her feel extremely uncomfortable. "I hope you like your accommodations, Mrs. Skywalker."

"I?ve had better."

He stepped closer to her. "Well, these were made with you in mind. There is no escape. And don?t expect a rescue. We?re ready for him."

She held her ground. "Don?t be so sure."

He was right in front of her now, his hot, odiferous breath steaming on her neck as he leaned to her ear and whispered, "But we are sure. Since we have you in our control, he?ll come. He?ll do whatever we say because he doesn?t want you hurt."

Managing not to flinch, she swallowed at his implicit threat. Continuing to leer, he smiled lasciviously, then said, "In the meantime, I thought you might like the company of a real man."

Continuing to stare menacingly at him, she said with utter disdain, "If you find one, send him in."

Anger flashed over his features, then he responded. "Cute."

He reached his left hand up for her cheek. "I?m going to enjoy this."

Not waiting for his move, Mara sprung into action. She kneed him in the groin and then grabbed his left wrist and flipped him over. He landed with a thud on his back. He curled up in pain then suddenly rolled onto his stomach and prepared to jump up, but Mara was already on him again. She stamped her heel quickly once on his right hand, then used her left foot to press the small of his back down to the ground again. He faltered and fell. She got down on her knees pushing her left knee hard into his spine. Taking hold of his left arm once more, she twisted it behind his back. Then she hissed into his ear, "No. I?m going to enjoy this."

He squirmed some, then growled back, "Why you sithspawn little?"

She twisted harder until she could hear bone snap and the man hiss in pain. "Don?t say anything more. My husband doesn?t like it when someone insults me." She increased the harshness in her tone of voice. "His anger is akin to Darth Vader. We wouldn?t want to get the Master angry, would we?"

It wasn?t a widely disseminated fact that Vader was Luke?s father. She knew this man wouldn?t have access to that sort of information but the jibe worked. Just the thought of having an angry Jedi on his trail, caused the man to stop talking and moving. A few moments passed, then Mara moved away from him. Confused by what had happened to him, he blurted out, "I thought that ysalamiri rendered Jedi helpless?"

"You were misinformed."

The door slid open and Blondie entered with a tray, saw the broken man on the ground and rolled her eyes in disgust. She set the tray down, leaned out the door and soon two guards came in and collected the lump from the floor.

M?Crik came immediately, in response to the guards call that Jeb had been in the cell with the woman. Jeb was sitting on a bench outside the cell, cradling his left arm. M?Crik glowered at the man, then bellowed, "What did you think you were doing?"

Jeb winced, "She looked harmless and with the ysalamiri I thought?"

"You thought wrong. Now, I?m short a pilot and Skywalker?s on his way."

"He is?"

M?Crik nodded. "Yes. I got a transmission from Medeia. Once we have Skywalker secure, the Black Sun will pay us a one million credit bounty. Now, get out of my sight."

Jeb limped down the corridor, going exceptionally fast for a wounded man. M?Crik focused his attention on the two remaining guards. "Don?t let anyone inside. I don?t want anyone else hurt. Skywalker won?t be here for a while but I want vigilance. If we can catch him and keep him, we will all be much richer."

The sound of the door sliding open startled Mara from her slumber. Her eyes still closed, she listened for the tray to be placed on the table but it never was. Instead, a strong, confident, yet teasing voice said, "I?m Luke Skywalker. I?m here to rescue you."

Her eyes flew open as she jumped from the bench. Standing in her cell, clad in brown and green camouflage pants and a beige tunic was Luke. The urge to throttle him for coming was almost as strong as the desire to smother him with kisses. Keeping her distance and choosing a neutral road, she quipped, "I bet you say that to all the women you find in prison cells."

Not bothering to suppress his huge grin, he walked towards her and before he knew what hit him, Mara was clinging to his neck. He gently kissed her, whispering, "I think we need to leave before the pirates decide to check on you."

At the mention of the pirates, the grateful wife froze. Her emotions were unreadable through the Force but the flash of anger in her emerald eyes spoke volumes. "You shouldn?t have come. Stang, it was a trap for you. Why didn?t you listen to me?"

"I wasn?t going to leave you here, Mara. I know you can take care of yourself. I just figured you might need a little help, that?s all." His diplomacy lacked Leia?s refinement but it seemed to suffice because her expression softened just a little. This discussion would have to be postponed. It was time to leave. "Mara, you can yell at me later. Let?s go now."

Smirking at him, she opened the door and said, "Deal."

She saw his handiwork outside, five guards, including Blondie, sleeping peacefully along the corridor. "Nice job, dear."

Running the fingers of his left hand through his tousled blond hair, Luke shrugged humbly. "Had to stun the two by the door. But the rest did as I told them." His right hand reached for his belt. "Thought you might want this."

He unhooked her lightsaber, passing it to her in a smooth, fluid motion. Accepting it gladly, she hooked it to her belt, then took his right hand into her left as they continued jogging up the corridor. Natural light filtered in making their shadows appear wavy against the polished walls. Nearing the tunnel?s mouth, Mara could see a dark figure, features undistinguishable but his cocky presence easily recognizable. Han Solo, his DL244 blaster charged and held steady, waited anxiously. Hearing their footfalls, he looked over his shoulder, flashing his famous grin. "Hello, Mara. Glad you could join us."

Standing directly behind him and against the wall, Mara smiled. "Wouldn?t miss it, Solo."

Still clutching her hand, Luke used his free hand to activate his comlink. "Skywalker to Captain Herm. We?ve got her. Commence operation. Acknowledge"

"Captain Herm to Skywalker. Acknowledged."

Mara opened her mouth to ask what the operation was but Luke spoke into his comlink again. "Skywalker to Karrde. Acknowledge."

"Thanks, Skywalker. Acknowledged." Mara could sense Talon?s relief as he spoke.

Pocketing his comlink, Luke took Mara?s free hand into his free hand and was preparing to tell her the escape plan when he felt the approach of several pirates from the north. Mara sensed them as well and said, "Guess we better go south."

Han shook his brown head. "The transport is north."

"So are the pirates, Han."

Han groaned. "Just like old times. Okay, I guess we go south and come back around."

Their window of opportunity shrinking, they stealthily ran out of the tunnel towards the southern forest, hoping that the pirates were unable to obtain a visual of their escape. Several dozen grounded Uglies offered excellent hiding places, sheltering their presence from view. They were half way across the field by the time the pirate group entered the bunker and raised the alarm. Klaxons blared, alerting the entire base to awareness and action. Fortunately, Luke, Han, and Mara were unnoticed for the moment as they scurried from ship to ship on their way to the safety of the green leafy bushes and tall trees, reaching the lee of a huge boulder when the first pirates swarmed the field. Han peered around the rock and saw pilots prep the Uglies for flight. He hissed to Luke, "Where?s Corsec?"

A staccato barrage of blaster fire and screaming sirens were his answer. Corsec had arrived as planned. Satisfied that everything was under control, Han pushed himself away from the boulder and started to trudge through the undergrowth towards the north. Luke grabbed his shoulder and whispered, "Wait, there?s someone up ahead."

Sure enough, appearing from behind a dead, rotting tree trunk, a lone sentinel, brandishing a broadsword stood defiantly in their path. With strong quick movements, the female pirate expertly slashed and parried, the steel blade mottled in the dull light. Mara could sense that the impressive display of swordmanship was also a challenge to a duel. Swiftly unhooking her saber, Mara stood en guard position when suddenly a blue stun bolt hit the pirate in the chest, sending the challenger to the mossy forest floor. Surprised by the action, she turned gap-mouthed at Han who giving her a slightly puzzled look and replied, "What? We didn?t have time for that."

Forestalling any chance of retort, Luke grabbed Mara?s arm, pulling her northward. "Come on. Let?s go."

The first to exit the underbrush near the speeder transport, Han found that one of the pirates had located their means of escape and was guarding it by aiming a blast rifle in his direction. The red-haired man waved the barrel at Han and shouted, "Drop it!"

Keeping his fingers spread and hands in sight, Han slowly put the blaster on the ground then raised his arms in surrender. The nervous Jeb motioned Han forward, then used the blast rifle barrel to push him to his knees. "Where?s Jade?"

Han didn?t answer. His eyes darting around the clearing as Jeb pressed the weapon hard into Han?s shoulder and repeated, "Where?s Jade?"

"I?m here," Mara responded, stepping out of the bushes and walking slowly towards the anxiety-ridden Jeb.

Eyeing her cautiously, Jeb growled fiercely, "You?re coming with me."

Mara halted and simply said, "No."

Gritting his teeth tightly and pointing the blaster into Han?s chest, he shouted, "I?ll kill him."

"Go ahead."

This thoroughly confused Jeb, distracting him and causing him to loosen his grip on the weapon, which allowed Han to disarm him easily. Jeb glared menacingly at Mara and opened his mouth to yell a few choice obscenities when Mara said, "I wouldn?t do that if I were you. Remember what I told you about my husband?"

Jeb felt a hand tap him on the shoulder. He swallowed as he turned around to come face to face with an angry looking Luke Skywalker. All the blood rushed from his face, his skin becoming very pallid, then Jeb fainted dead way. Shouldering the blast rifle, Han cocked an eyebrow at Mara and asked, "What was that about?"

Pulling camouflage netting from the transport, Mara nonchalantly answered, "I wanted to make sure he learned his lesson."

Luke dragged the pirate across the ground to lean him against a tree and stated, "For kidnapping you."

"No. He made a pass at me."

Luke and Han stared at each other a moment, then Han mumbled under his breath, "Man?s lucky to be alive."

Mara twirled around and said, "I heard that Solo. I taught him not to underestimate women."

Luke came over to Mara and put his arm around her waist. "I learned not to underestimate you years ago."

Mara wrapped her arm around his waist. "Good thing, too."

It felt so wonderful to hold him again, to feel his loving warmth and strength. She hugged him tighter and nuzzled her face into his chest. Luke responded in kind, hugging her, then gently stroking her wind blown hair, occasionally removing a twig from her tresses. His heartbeat pumped steady and strong, its rhythm reassuring and comforting her. Using both hands to comb her hair back behind her ears, he then used them to cup her dirt-streaked face and gazed into her sparkling jade eyes. His seeking mouth brushed her sultry lips, lingering briefly before moving to her nose, cheeks and forehead. He pulled back slightly, saw her eyelids flutter closed and then placed a couple of feathery kisses on her trembling lips. No longer satisfied with the light teasing touches, she captured his lips in a full kiss that he accepted readily.

Leaning against the transport, his arm folded and legs crossed, Han quietly observed the tender reunion for a moment, regretting that he would have to break it up soon. As he began removing the remainder of the netting, he thought about all that had happened to Luke and Mara over the past week and a half; he didn?t want to remind them of the reality of their situation. They deserved to be happy not be deprived of their time together by some demented criminal. He sincerely hoped that Corsec had caught the whole gang. But he knew that it wasn?t over and it wouldn?t be over until this Medeia was apprehended. And he was going to do everything in his power to help.

Han cleared his throat, then said, "We need to be going."

Neither responded to his statement, so intent on each other that nothing else mattered. Rolling his eyes, Han strode over to the lovers and grabbed Luke?s arm, pulling him away from Mara?s embrace. It was hard for him not to laugh at their bewildered expressions, but he managed to keep a straight face. With an elaborate swing of his arm and a slight bend at the waist, he stated elegantly, "I really hate to bother you but we do have a schedule to keep, so if you would kindly get in the transport?"

Chapter 17

The silver transport sped gracefully through the verdant scenery. Scattered sunbeams filtered through the lush forest canopy and flickered merrily on the vehicle?s shiny surface. The speeder burst forth from the woods and into a vast open plain. Fluffy clouds cast dark shadows on the road as the speeder traveled towards the distant outskirts of Coronet City. The bright sun had started to set; the fiery orb caused an excessive glare to flood the windshield of the vehicle.

Han?s retinas hurt as he attempted to squint and shade his eyes from the solar assault. His vision returned as waning daylight reduced the glare and splattered gray across the brilliant colors of the sunset. Taking a quick moment to rub his pained eyes, he grumbled at the universe?s perverse sense of humor in providing him a speeder with a faulty photosensitive adjustment switch, though if that was the only glitch in this day, he?d gladly accept it. Luke?s plan worked like a charm; they rescued Mara without a hitch. Resistance was minimal, Corsec did their job, and here they were driving off into the sunset, just like the ending of some low budget holodrama

The backseat passengers were having similar thoughts and Luke voiced his opinion. "That was too easy."

"I was surprised at the lack of pursuit," Mara added.

"Me too," Luke agreed. "Han and I got in easy enough. Then Corsec offered some distraction? but still, we should have encountered more opposition." He paused. "I have..."

Still facing forward, Han interrupted, "Don?t say it."

"...a bad feeling about this."

Shooting a quick glance over his shoulder and rolling his eyes, Han complained, "You just had to say it, didn?t you?"

Luke shrugged his shoulders. "Either these guys are totally inept..."

"...or they have something else planned," Mara finished.

No one spoke as Han adjusted the velocity downward to take a tight curve. The turn completed, he glanced into the rearview mirror, and noticed the two Jedi suddenly stiffen. Having witnessed this reaction many times previously, he knew this was not a good sign. Luke said ominously, "I guess we get to find out what else they have planned."

Han grumbled, "Great, just when I thought we might get away clean."

"Step on it, Solo. They?re coming in fast."

"I am stepping on it." Then, he jokingly asked, "Really now, in what? Uglies?"

Luke twisted his head around to look out the back window, then answered, "Yes."

Shocked at Luke?s response, Han shouted, "You?ve got to be kidding. Are they nuts?"


A bright red beam of light splashed in the dirt to port, kicking up dust and rock. More shots followed, causing Han to swerve and zigzag across the landscape. Each subsequent shot succeeded in herding them away from the city. Through gritted teeth, Han asked, "Any suggestions?"

"Don?t get hit," Luke offered.

"Oh, really. Ya think?" Han snarled sarcastically, as he swerved to miss a bolt that was much too close for comfort.

Mara said, "I don?t think they?ll hit us. The bounty specifies for Luke to be alive."

The dust and debris from the blasts were obstructing Han?s view, making his maneuvers more difficult. A blast exploded in front of them; the reverberation shook the speeder roughly. "Too close," Han muttered under his breath. "Good thing they want him alive. I?d hate to think what they?d be doing if they wanted him dead."

Luke shouted a warning just as the next shot hit the engine, flaming it out instantly and destroying the steering controls. Han was unable to prevent the inevitable as another blast to their rear quadrant sent the transport rolling over. Settling much more softly than it should have because Luke and Mara cushioned the rollover with the Force, the transport came to a halt at the bottom of a small knoll. Slightly dazed but essentially uninjured, they all climbed out of the wreck, with their weapons drawn. Several Uglies had landed nearby, their pilots already out and shooting. The trashed speeder provided a bulwark; Luke stood at its front end while Mara took the rear, sabers lit immediately. Blue and green flashes of light deflected the shots, returning them in their senders? direction. Han took pot shots from a prone position underneath the vehicle?s carcass.

The shots from the pirates increased in frequency. Mara waved her blade in a steady rhythm, letting the Force flow through her. It was exhausting. Luke touched her mind, refreshing her and encouraging her to continue, to delve deeper. It became easier as she followed his instruction. Then the shots came even faster. One of the pirates had begun using an E-Web heavy blaster.

Han saw the repeating weapon set up and had tried to hit its operator but was unsuccessful. The first rapid shots spit dirt into his eyes, so he started to withdraw underneath his shelter, only to scream in agony as a stray bolt hit his thigh. He grasped his wounded leg with his left hand, wincing at the pain of the burn. Gritting his teeth, the injured man pushed his body away from the battle.

Luke and Mara each felt Han?s pain but were unable to help him. The E-Web was sending shots at maximum speed now, taxing the Jedi to their limits. Though more bolts were coming at Luke than Mara, she was starting to tire and weaken. Luke sensed her weakness and attempted to shift his position to better defend her. His saber strokes blurred as he swatted at the multitude of shots coming at him. Some of the shots had already broken through his defenses; his singed arms bore witness to that fact. The more that hit you, the more that will echoed through his mind. If only he could ? The firing ceased. He blinked in confusion. Why did they stop?

The ground vibrated as a low flying ship screeched overhead and began strafing the Uglies. Firing commenced again but this time the pirates made aerial shots. Luke and Mara shut down their sabers and went to Han who had managed to pull himself out from under the speeder transport. Squatting next to his brother-in-law, Luke placed his hand on the oozing wound to start the healing process. Han winced at the touch but could feel a warm tingle and felt the pain diminish. "Thanks, Luke." Then furrowing his eyebrows, he said in a slightly annoyed tone, "Wonder what took them so long to provide our air cover?"

Luke shook his tired head. The firefight had drained him, not to mention the fact that he had several small burns on his arms. "Don?t know."

Puzzled by their conversation, Mara knelt beside Luke and asked him, "Who was providing air cover?"

Resting on his haunches and rubbing his temples, Luke answered, "Karrde."

An explosion nearby sent shrapnel flying in their direction. It bounced harmlessly off a hastily erected Force shield. Mara announced, "I think we better move."

Grabbing Han?s forearm, Luke helped him stand up and slung Han?s arm over his shoulders, offering extra support. Han reached into his pocket. "I?m going to call Karrde for pickup." A short pause as he fished for his comlink. "Stang, I can?t find it."

Mara scanned the area Han had occupied and located the comlink near the front of the speeder. Another explosion caused them to duck instinctively. After picking up the device, Mara turned to join the men when she came face to face with the pirate leader, or more precisely, the blaster he had pointed at her heart. Angry with herself for misinterpreting her danger tingle for the explosions and not a person, she swore under her breath and glared at the enemy. He sneered at her, then moved behind her, positioning the blaster between her shoulder blades. Luke had noticed the man?s approach too late to act, especially with Han leaning on him. M?Crik shouted over the din, "Here?s the deal, Skywalker. You come with me, and I don?t kill your wife."

Han straightened up, removing his weight from Luke?s side. This pirate was playing with fire, making a demand like that. Though Luke?s expression was bland and calm, Han knew that he was angry because his mechanical hand was clenched tightly into a fist. One thing that Han had learned in the many years that he had known Luke was that you never, ever, threaten someone close to him.

Mara kept her expression calm as well. The pirate leader wouldn?t have any success; she was sure of that and wasn?t worried about his threat. What was worrying her though was the darkness hovering over Luke. There was also a chill coming over their bond, sending shivers through her body. It was frightening and vaguely familiar. It reminded her of the Emperor.

Luke maintained the Jedi Master persona, but inside he was raging. This pirate, this vermin kidnaps his wife, then threatens to kill her. How dare he? Bounty be kesseled, this was personal. He would not lose another wife. Time to eradicate an annoying gnat. His intense blue eyes bore into the pirate?s beady ones.

The blaster grip glowed red, superheating quickly. M?Crik screamed in agony, dropped the blaster and stared at his blistered hand, unsure of what had happened. He started gasping for breath as steely invisible fingers tightened on his throat. Spots danced before his bulging eyes. Life was leaving his body, his lungs deprived of needed oxygen. Darkness beckoned.

When the pirate had dropped his blaster, Han grabbed his own and headed towards the man. The sight of the choking man brought forth unpleasant memories of Darth Vader, who had used the procedure excessively. His recurring nightmares since his son Anakin?s birth were becoming reality. Luke was slipping over the edge again.

Mara cringed at the dark emotions that Luke was emitting. In his twisted reasoning, the man, a common criminal, deserved to die. No one threatened his wife with impunity. She once thought the same way but that was before Luke. Before she came to know the Light Side. This needed to stop. The Dark Side would not claim her husband again. "Luke, stop! We need him. He?s the leader."

The sound of her voice caused him to blink. He loosened his grip on the man?s throat. "What?"

M?Crik inhaled deeply, his lungs greedily taking in the oxygen recently denied them. Fear shone in his eyes but only for a moment. Somehow, he had misread Skywalker. No matter. Perhaps he could broker a deal. "That?s right. I?m M?Crik, leader of the Nek Maulers. I?ll tell you everything I know. For a price."

The man had the audacity to ask for credits, after she had saved his life! Mara thrust her arm out and clenched her hand around his throat. Her grip tightened and he gagged, his face flushed blue. Raising his hands up in surrender, he wheezed, "Okay, I?ll do it for nothing."

Using his faithful DL244, Han tapped M?Crik on the shoulder. "If you know what?s good for you, you better not say anything else. Let?s go."

Nodding, M?Crik noticed that the aerial assault had ended during his confrontation with Skywalker. His fleet was destroyed; his pilots? bodies littered the field. Vision was limited by the onset of dusk. Han directed him towards one of Karrde?s shuttles, which had landed in the aftermath of battle.

Mara watched them leave, but not following, since she was anxious to talk with Luke about what had just transpired, whether he wanted to or not. She found him at the bottom of the hillock, sitting with his arms folded and laying across his upright knees, his forehead resting on his arms. The majority of the dark cloud had been dispersed, scattered to the winds, but the Dark Side still lingered, seeking to inhabit the powerful Jedi once more. Sitting next to him in an identical position, she turned her head so that she could see him and waited. It was short.

"I?m sorry, Mara." He had turned his head to look at her.

"For what? You saved my life."

He sighed. "I went too far. I used the Dark Side. And what?s worse is I enjoyed it."

"You stopped."

"Only after you told me to. Yoda was right. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny and consume you."

Seeking to break his negativity, Mara spoke vehemently. "Luke. The Dark Side is not your destiny. Your father returned to the light. Because of you. He couldn?t do it alone and only a spark of good was needed for him to pull out of it. The sins of the father need not be passed on to the son. So, don?t start taking on chains of darkness that you have already broken. Reject them."

Luke processed her words, then nodded in acquiescence. She was right. Why keep taking back the trash that had already been dumped? It would be an uphill battle, but he would do it. He had to do it, for Mara?s sake, for his own, for his children?s. The Skywalker legacy from this day forth would be the Light.

Mara stood up, brushing dirt from the seat of her pants. "Let?s go."

Luke stretched his legs out flat on the ground and leaned back, resting on his elbows. Smiling up at his wife, he stated, "I love you."

She winked at him. "I know."

In the darkness of the night that had fallen, the shuttle?s landing lights illuminated a pathway for the Jedi to follow. Hand in hand, the Skywalkers walked up the ramp, and were swallowed up in the interior light, disappearing from sight.

M?Crik started to fidget when Luke and Mara entered the cabin in which he had been sequestered. For all his bluster and bravado, the man was intimidated by them now, which should make him more compliant. Subconsciously putting on his ?Hutt with eyebrows? look and folding his arms, Luke said, "You said you?d tell us everything."

"I want protection."

Luke and Mara looked at each other, then Luke said, "I?m not going to hurt you."

M?Crik shook his bald head and laughed. "Not from you. From the Black Sun. I spill and they find out, I?m as good as dead. Might as well have you slice me with your saber. You?d be doing me a favor."

"I can?t do that. Maybe Corsec can?"

Snorting in derision, M?Crik declared, "Oh yeah, Corsec is really gonna help me? They?ve got several warrants on me. I ain?t going to see the sun for a long, long time."

"Maybe you?ll get a cell with windows," Mara stated sardonically.

His look of utter disbelief was priceless. "Look. I need to disappear from the galaxy. And then I might be safe."

Luke pulled up a chair, straddled it, and sat down facing M?Crik. "I don?t think you have much choice. If Black Sun knows we have you, they?re going to assume you talked."

The pirate?s emotions shifted as he realized the truth in Luke?s statement. What did it matter now? "We just wanted the bounty. One million credits are?"

Mara interrupted, "It?s only five hundred thousand."

"It was doubled just before you arrived in system."

"How did you know when I?d be here?"

"Black Sun?s got a man on the inside. He delayed Karrde?s ship and gave us your schedule. I took it from there. I couldn?t reach Skywalker here but I received a transmission that he was coming. If it wasn?t for our lack of ysalamiri and some incompetent lackeys, I would have been successful." He sulked while visualizing one million credits taking flight into a black hole.

Luke asked, "Did you ever talk to Medeia?"

Mara was surprised at her reaction to the name. It felt deadly and dark though she had never heard it before. Tensing momentarily, M?Crik said, "Not exactly. It was a coded transmission." He stared at the floor, then asked, "What do you know about Medeia?"

A chill ran up Luke?s spine. "The head of the Black Sun is known as Medeia."

M?Crik nodded. "From what I hear, Medeia is the most calculating leader since Xizor. Maybe more so."

Mara asked, "Let?s back up a bit. You mentioned that Black Sun has a man?"

Her question was interrupted when Han entered the room. His eyes flashed between Luke and Mara. "Captain Herm is on the com. Wants to talk to you, both of you."

Glaring at M?Crik, Mara warned, "We?re not finished."

"I?m not going anywhere."

It wasn?t a pleasant conversation. Captain Herm insisted that no one interview the prisoner; M?Crik may be a scumbag but he had the right to counsel. He also reported that several pirates had been apprehended, a few others unaccounted for, and several were dead. As for their destination, Corsec?s commanding officer requested that the shuttle land at their compound in Coronet City in order to provide for an orderly transfer of the prisoner. The Captain thanked them for their assistance in breaking the Nek Maulers apart, but his supervisors were rankled that a smuggling group helped do it. If not for the presence of Master Skywalker and the request from Rostek Horn, they never would have agreed to such an endeavor. Though he didn?t agree with it, Captain Herm was required to tell them that once the prisoner was delivered, departure of Karrde?s organization was strongly suggested within forty eight standard hours. Just before signing off, Herm commented conspiratorially that a quiet records search revealed the existence of a few old warrants for a Han Solo. Those records disappeared mysteriously, so as far as Corsec was concerned Han Solo could come and go as he pleased. Thanking the man for his help, Luke signed off.

Mara fumed at not being able to finish her talk with M?Crik. Telling Karrde that he had a mole helped her cool down, a little anyway. It was upsetting to her that after all they had done to locate the pirates, practically handing them over gift-wrapped, Corsec took an arrogant stance by kicking Karrde out. Concerned eyes watched her; she could feel it. Exhaling and releasing her anger in the process, she waited for his approach. Luke took her hand and escorted her to the nearest seats to strap in for the impending landing.

The shuttle set down on Corsec?s campus and M?Crik disembarked amidst a flurry of uniformed officers. The atmosphere in the ship during the transfer was stifling and tense. Karrde?s smugglers feared treachery on the part of Corsec, whose officers were having the same thoughts. Hurriedly escorting the last officer off the shuttle, they took off again and made a short trip to the nearest public spaceport.

It was later that evening when Mara exited the refresher. Earlier, when the shuttle landed in the main spaceport, she had insisted on returning to the hotel. After several days of roughing it, she just wanted to take a long shower and sleep in a soft, warm bed. After a light supper, Luke informed her about his incarceration, wincing when he spoke of the ghouls? attack and the subsequent discussion with Major Hoover. At least Coruscant Security was investigating the matter and making some headway, but it still didn?t ease her concerns about their safety. Two separate abductions in the space of one week were a bit much. In regards to the stolen itinerary, it was exactly as she thought; Luke had received a copy and came after her. His predilection to heroism was obvious to everybody. It made him predictable. Being predictable would get him into trouble. He should have listened to her.

Luke was sitting in a soft, nerf leather chair, reading a datapad with his bare feet propped up on small table. Mara stood just out of his vision, hands on her hips, staring at him. It didn?t take him long to feel her intense gaze. "Something wrong, Mara?"

"You should have listened to me. It was a trap, and you blindly jumped into it."

Groaning inwardly, he stared back at her, surprised that she was opening that discussion again. "I did listen to you. I heard what you said. It?s a moot point. Everything turned out fine."

"You did not listen to me. I told you not to come. But you just had to show up at my cell door."

Opening his mouth to speak, he was cut off when Mara held up her hand in warning. "I?m tired and I?m going to bed."

Luke rose to follow her, when she suddenly spun around and said, "Where do you think you are going?"

Puzzled, he said, "To bed."

"Really?" She rushed to the bed and grabbed a pillow and an extra throw blanket, then thrust them into Luke?s arms. "Here. Goodnight."

Gaping at her as she jumped in the bed and pulled the covers up over her head, Luke was amazed at her mystifying reaction. Why was it that he could master the Force, understanding every nuance it offered, but had yet to even discover the slightest clue as to thought process of a woman? He dropped the blanket and pillow on the small table near the chair. Taking off his over tunic, he settled into the chair and covered up with the blanket. Propping his feet up once more, this time on the pillow, he picked up the datapad he had found earlier and started to read once more.

Peeking out from under the covers, Mara watched Luke strip off his tunic and instantly regretted it. There was no way she could ignore him now. All she wanted to do was teach him to listen to her. They were partners in this marriage, neither eclipsed the other, but he needed to listen to what she had to say and heed her advice. One look at his well-toned pectoral muscles lessened her conviction and reminded her of how much she missed him. A small groan escaped her lips.

"Did you say something, Mara?"

She glanced at him and even though the datapad of her discarded novel blocked her view of his face, she could have sworn he was smirking. "Um? what part are you reading?"

"I?ve just read about the crazed wife in the attic." He removed his feet from the table and put the novel on the pillow. "And for the record, I do listen to you and value your input. In this case, I found it necessary to disregard your advice."

Considering this close enough to an apology, she decided to accept it. "I?ll forgive you this time." Then she queried, "Why don?t you come to bed?"

"I hear and obey."

Smart aleck. "Not funny, Farmboy."

Slipping under the covers, Luke snuggled up to Mara and kissed her cheek. His lips sought hers but were stopped by her hand. "I want to see how well you can listen and follow my instructions."

To her delight, Mara discovered that Luke was quite adept at following her instructions. Quite adept indeed.

Chapter 18

Relaxing against the bulkhead at the back of the bridge, Talon Karrde stealthily eyed the crew as they positioned themselves at their stations. The elusive mole was still on board his ship; not a single member of the organization, save Mara, had failed to return to the Wild Karrde. Things would have been easier if the traitor had run, but he was confident that they?d find and deal with him. Talon watched as Ghent, his eyes focused intently on a datapad, entered the bridge and bumped into Aves. Ghent apologized, noticed Karrde at the bulkhead and scampered in his direction. Straightening his posture, Karrde anxiously waited for Ghent?s arrival. From his excited demeanor, Talon knew that Ghent had made progress in the search for the computer virus? source. Computers and their programs were the only things capable of causing delirium in Ghent. This could be the proof we need to catch the saboteur, he speculated, stroking his black goatee.

Smiling brightly, Ghent stopped next to Karrde, then exclaimed, "This has got to be the best virus I?ve seen in a long time. It was the most challenging thing I?ve done since the Delta Source encrypt."

In a hushed voice, Karrde asked, "You have it cracked, then? Who uploaded it into our systems?"

Realizing that he needed to be more covert, Ghent lowered his voice significantly. "Yes, I got it cracked and it won?t bother us anymore. It caused the communications blackout and the hyperdrive malfunction." Then he admitted reluctantly, "Haven?t a clue who uploaded it."

The last tidbit deflated Karrde?s hopes for a quick conclusion. Sure, it was all well and good to have defeated the virus but victory was hollow without apprehension of the culprit. Karrde asked his next question. "Is it possible to determine who originated it?"

Ghent mulled over the question. "Yes. It will take time but I can figure it out."

The slicer stared at the datapad a moment, then his eyes lit up. Glancing absently at Talon, he snapped his fingers, then said, "Got an idea. See you later."

Once again wrapped up in his own little world, Ghent scurried off the bridge, bumping into at least three other people before reaching the door. Talon was encouraged by his employee?s sudden enlightenment. Perhaps they?d have a name soon, either from Ghent or Corsec.

Drumming his fingers upon the counter, M?Crik slumped back in his chair in a visitor cubicle of Corsec?s secure holding facility. The prisoner was caged in, surrounded by opaque transparisteel walls. A smooth counter was molded directly into the wall; a pedestal chair was bolted securely into the ground. The sparse, cube-shaped room was dimly lit, offering little in visual stimulation. The court had appointed a solicitor since his own counselor was unavailable while serving a five-year sentence for embezzling. The Corellian guard, who had escorted him to the room, informed him that he would be meeting his solicitor. Suddenly, the illumination in the cubicle increased, drawing him out of his musings. An opaque section above the counter became transparent, allowing him to see the hairy occupant of the opposite room. Startled at first, he soon realized that his public defender was a Drall. The short brown, gray streaked fur rippled as the Drall introduced himself, his voice clear over the speaker system. "I?m Public Defender Obrimen. As required by law?"

M?Crik interrupted the legal spiel. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Just take my statement and tell me the odds so I can get back to my sabaac game."

"Very well." Obrimen scratched his flat ear while he set up a data recorder. "Let?s begin."

The question and answer session lasted about forty-five minutes. Once finished, Obrimen hooked up the data recorder to a device that looked sort of like a comlink but a bit larger. Curious, M?Crik leaned forward and asked, "What?s that? What are you doing?"

"I?m sending your statement to my associate for consultation. Please be patient."

It took another half-hour for Obrimen?s associate to return advice. After a few moments, Obrimen said, "My colleague congratulates you on a job well done. As long as you continue to omit the name of our employee within Karrde's organization, the Black Sun will provide credits for your legal defense and create a small retirement fund for your exclusive use when you complete your debt to society."

The Public Defender was in the employ of the Black Sun! Astonished by Obrimen?s speech, M?Crik floundered for words to express his thanks but all the came out was "Why?"

"You executed your plan like a professional and almost succeeded. Since you did not capture the subject, the bounty will not be paid. Our leader was pleased by the events of your last encounter with the Jedi and that is the reason for our most generous offer."

M?Crik was delighted that Medeia was pleased with his performance. It was beneficial to his health to be on the Black Sun?s preferred list. What confused him was the statement about his last encounter with the Jedi. That almost got him killed for Sithsakes! First, Skywalker?s invisible hand strangled him; he shivered every time he thought about it. Then, Jade?s iron grip almost finished him off. He was actually happy to see Solo point a blaster at him; that was a danger he could comprehend. Not one to deny any type of gift, especially one with monetary value, he decided this was the best offer he could hope for in his current situation. Using his most cultured voice, he stated, "Thank you. I accept your offer. So, if I don?t mention the mole?s name, you get me off and I get retirement money for my future needs."

"I do not get you off. I provide for your defense and when you?ve done your time, you get a small retirement fund," Obrimen snuffled.

M?Crik shrugged his shoulders. "It was worth a shot. I think I can handle doing a little time."

Obrimen declared seriously, "Don?t take our offer lightly. Those who fail the Black Sun do not have a future."

With a steaming cup of caf in his hand, Han strutted down the corridor of Tatooine?s Flame towards the cockpit. He caught a glimpse of Luke flipping switches and turning knobs in preparation for take-off. Stopping at the door, he used his free hand to grab the doorframe, then teasingly said, "We come all this way to get your wife and now you?re getting ready to leave without her?"

Not saying a word, Luke pushed the button that closed the ramp as he lowered himself into the Captain?s chair. Settling down in the co-pilot?s chair, Han took a sip of his caf while observing Luke?s tasks. Cocking an eyebrow, he began to wonder if Luke really was going to take off without Mara.

"She?s on board."

Startled by Luke?s sudden words, Han said, "Huh?"

"I said she?s on board," repeated Luke as he finally turned to face Han. "She came up while you were in the galley."

Han mouthed oh, then took another sip of his caf, finishing it. "Let?s go then. I?ve had enough adventure for now."

"You miss Leia." Luke smiled knowingly.

His retort remained unspoken because another voice said, "You?re in my seat."

Assuming Mara wished to sit in the co-pilot?s seat, Han started to rise but stopped mid-way when he heard Luke say, "Not this time. I?m captain this trip."

Mara folded her arms and glared at him. "I haven?t flown for a long time and I would like to do it now."

"Hey, I?m only doing as you asked. You told me that you wanted to finish your lightsaber. Can?t do that if you fly," Luke retorted, holding his ground.

Mara grunted. "So now you listen to me."

Luke grinned mischievously at her. "I listened to you last night, too."

Quietly watching the couple?s exchange, Han could have sworn he saw Mara blush.

"Fine. I?ll be in the cabin working on the saber," she declared, throwing up her hands.

"Attitude is important," Luke warned.

"Yes, I know," she stated as she leaned over and kissed him. "Let?s go home."

"Coronet space control. This is Tatooine?s Flame requesting clearance."

Mara left the confines of the cockpit, and headed for the cabin. Running her hand along the smooth interior wall of the corridor as she walked, she thought about what remained to be done on her lightsaber. The exterior casing was finished to her extreme delight. Miniature flames were etched upon the handle grip, the activation plate was at the base of the largest flame, and small jade stones were inset at both ends of the cylinder, encircling it. The circuitry, focusing crystals, power cell, safety switch, matrix emitter, recharge socket and lens assembly still needed to be built into the case. Her biggest concern had been the crystals; the ones in the box Luke supplied weren?t the color she wanted. That problem had been remedied prior to their departure. A local gem dealer had what she needed and it was easy to pick up on the way to the ship. Mara entered the cabin and sat down in the chair where she would remain until the Flame entered orbit. Holding the jewel tightly with her thumb and finger, she held it aloft, gazing at the faceted surface. When set properly into her lightsaber it would make her blade golden. It was perfect for her and she wondered briefly why Luke hadn?t included the color in her box.

Wearing several layers of synthetic bantha wool, Professor Marlin stood shivering at the railing of the research ark, gazing out at the bobbing ice floes. The tsaelke migration had led them into the arctic regions; reason unknown at the moment but the professor was confident of a breakthrough. The scientific expedition had been postponed after the accident that killed Callista Skywalker had halted funding. Now over a year later, Chad Research had received a large donation to continue its studies, but with a catch. They were asked to test new software developed for use with both echo sounder and global positioning devices, its ostensible purpose for research, but most probably for entrepreneurial endeavors. As head of the research team, the Professor didn?t really care about the hidden agenda. The software produced incredible images of the ocean floor, actually making it possible to map the previously unknown using advanced mathematics. The images were sharp and clear, producing two and three dimensional images, contour lines, relief and profiles. Not only were the seafloor maps continually updated as the ark moved, it could also discriminate between soft and hard ocean floor area and pinpoint underwater objects. It had been a great boon to the expedition in following the herds.

A young ensign approached the diminutive scientist. "Professor, come quickly. We?ve picked up something unusual."

"Okay, Jarius."

The staircase to the wheelhouse was steep; its railings made of easy to grip synthrope. At the landing, Jarius Jook opened the door for her; the whoosh of warm air caressed her cold cheeks. The navigator, Vard Lex, helped her remove the heavy, ice-crusted coat and led her over to the echo sounder monitor to view the unusual image mentioned by Jarius. Her surprise at what the system had rendered was evident by the astonished look on her face. Vard smiled, then explained, "A tsaelke we were trailing led us there. I thought at first it was another animal but the contours didn?t match any marine animals in our database. I?ve been concentrating all of our echo sounder beams on it to get better definition. More details have been added. So there you have it."

The Professor was amazed to see a small vessel just under the ice at the ark?s stern. No markings or letters could be seen but the angles and shape were undeniably that of the style of the speeder boat used by their university. All were accounted for, except for one. "Can we get it out?"

Thinking quietly for a moment, Jarius suggested, "I think I can winch it."

"I can direct you right to it," Vard added

"Do it," Dr. Marlin ordered.

Chapter 19

Nestled among the elegant foreign compounds lining Embassy Row, The Ch?hala Bistro offered the best in vegetarian fare for the health conscious of the New Republic bureaucracy. Ambassadorial staff from many planetary systems often took midday meals in the bistro?s quaint dining room. Amidst a sea of tables and their chattering occupants, one raven-haired woman sat alone, viewing the luncheon selections until the clattering of dishes drew her attention. A Rodian had bumped into a silver plated droid that now stooped to pick up the fallen plates. Muttering a few choice curses, the insolent Rodian roughly pushed the droid aside and made his way to the exit. The young woman?s black eyes returned to her menu, oblivious to the approach of another young woman.

"Hello, Kirawyn," a soft voice spoke to her.

Lifting her head quickly, a smiling Kirawyn Rochester saw a dark eyed woman with long braided hair. "Akanah! I?m so happy to see you. Where have you been?"

The other woman sat down in a chair and leaned forward. "Around. My job keeps me busy. And you?"

"The Embassy finally gave me a promotion. I?m Ambassador Teith Muloon?s Administrative Assistant now," she announced proudly.

Akanah squeezed Kirawyn?s hand. "That?s wonderful."

Kirawyn glanced briefly into the other woman?s eyes, then swallowed. "Akanah? I need to ask you something."

"Sure. What?"

Their conversation was interrupted by a commotion at the main entrance. A young man had run into the restaurant and was pushing his way through the waiting patrons, annoying both the customers and the bistro staff. His hastily uttered apologies did little to quell the management?s ire. The maitre d? comlinked for security. Finally, the frantic young man saw the person for whom he was looking. Relief was evident in his features, but concern still lined his face. Something had happened.

Garris. It was Garris. Kirawyn rose from her chair, shocked at his sudden appearance. His breathing was hard when he reached her table. Without preamble, he declared, "They found her."

Her confusion was unmistakable. "Who found whom? What are you talking about, Garris?"

Short gasps of breath were coming from Garris. He swallowed the lump in his throat and took another deep breath. As calmly as he could manage, he stated succinctly, "Dr. Marlin?s crew was testing some new software and they located a small boat under the arctic icecap. It was the Waverunner."

"Callista!" exclaimed Kirawyn. Memories of that fateful day threatened to overwhelm her with excessive guilt once more. The most painful one was her feeling of helplessness as she watched the ship bob then sink into the murky depths before she could reach it. Over one year lost at sea and it was finally located. Now, there could be closure, if?"Did they find her?"


Chad?s embassy was abuzz with activity. Ambassador Teith Muloon organized a meeting to put a stop to the rumors running amok through the clerical staff. The contents of the Professor?s transmission had not been disclosed except for the fact that Mrs. Skywalker had been found. For this matter alone, Dr. Marlin?s report would offer solace to those who had worked with Callista.

Garris and Kirawyn arrived just as the other employees were filing into the conference room. They seated themselves as close to the front as they could. Though not on the staff, Akanah had gained access to the embassy and slipped unnoticed into the back row. Muloon stood behind a podium, grasping the edges with his hands, clearing his throat. All eyes were on him now as he began his sober reading. "One week ago, Dr. Marlin and her research team happened upon a small vessel under the arctic icecap on Chad. Retrieving the boat took some effort but they succeeded. This vessel was the one piloted by Callista Skywalker at the time of her disappearance. Upon inspection of the boat?s interior, they located the body of woman in her mid thirties. The frigidity of the waters had preserved the body; decay was minimal. The entire crew of the research ark positively identified the body as that of Callista Skywalker. A routine autopsy will be performed on the deceased; the results will be forthcoming. Once the legalities have been completed, her remains will be returned to her next of kin."

A communication?s officer seated in front of Kirawyn was whispering to one of the guards about his theories. Aghast that this man would even think such things, Kirawyn stood up to rebuke him but was held back by Garris. Now was not the time. Surprised whispers were heard throughout the room. How did the ship get there? How did they find it? Was it really Callista? What was the cause of death? Clearing his throat, the Ambassador continued. "I?ve taken the liberty to set a date for a memorial, three days hence. We?ll close the embassy on that day in honor of our fallen comrade. Meeting adjourned."

Most of the employees exited the room, chatting softly among themselves. Garris squeezed Kirawyn?s had in reassurance when he saw Muloon look in their direction. Teith tactfully approached the weeping woman. He spoke softly, "I know this is hard for you, Ms. Rochester but I do have a request to make of you."

Wiping her tears, she replied, "Certainly."

"Excuse us please, Garris?"

Considerate of her state but mindful of the task at hand, Muloon stated his request plainly. "Master Skywalker needs to be notified of this discovery. Since you were close to the family, I believe it would be best if he hears this from a friend. It?s more personal that way. I still regret having to make that transmission to him last year but at the time it was the only way. I?d do it myself but I have meetings all afternoon."

Nodding mechanically, Kirawyn declared, "I?ll do it."

Teith Muloon clasped her hand in thanks, then left her alone, confident in her ability to communicate the news to the Jedi Master.


Mara entered the doorway of Luke?s office and leaned against his antique wood desk. Pushing his chair away from the desk, he swiveled a quarter turn to face her. "Yes?"

"Have you moved the security vid I brought back from Naboo? I can?t find it."

He shook his head. "No, it should still be with my family disks."

"Nope. I found those," she stated, then rubbed her temples. "I?ve looked at every vid in the living room. It?s not there."

Luke thought for a moment. "Did you check the comcenter?"

Shaking her head, she said, "It?s not there either."

"Why don?t you take a break? Then look for it again later," he grinned at her. "Besides," pulling her into his lap, the farmboy caressed her cheek amorously. "I could use a break also."

His lips parted slightly, seeking hers and tasting her sweet mouth. The kiss deepened as she tilted her head. His touches stimulating, his scent intoxicating, Mara allowed him to continue his ministrations, basking in the physical sensations of his love. It ended all too soon when her comlink buzzed. Luke held down her hand, attempting to hinder her but she broke free and answered it. "Skywalker."

A familiar voice answered. "Mara. It?s Leia. You called?"

"Can you and Han come to dinner tonight?" she asked.

A slight delay before the answer came. "Sure. What time?"

"Oh, make it 1700. See you then."

"Okay. 1700 it is. Bye, Mara." The com went dead.

Luke cocked an eyebrow. "Company for dinner? What?s the occasion?"

"Oh, so there has to be a reason to have my in-laws to dinner?" she teased as she got off of his lap.

He shrugged his shoulders. "I guess not, but I sense?"

"Get out of my mind, Skywalker."

He held up his hands in surrender. "Okay. I?ll be good."

"You?d better." Winking at him, Mara turned with a tantalizing swing of her hips. Then, she began rummaging through the cubbies in Luke?s large desk. That vid had to be somewhere and this room hadn?t been searched yet. Dust had settled on the upper cubbies but everywhere else on the desk was clean, all the items arranged neatly. The Master sure was orderly with his documents. No vid in the cubbies. Maybe one of the drawers contained the purloined vid. Luke watched in confusion, then realized what his wife was doing. "Mara, it?s not here. I told you I haven?t seen it."

"You never know. I just want to?" she paused when the drawer wouldn?t open. "It?s locked. Give me the key."

Luke was upset, offended by her insinuating tone. "Mara. I didn?t take it and I certainly wouldn?t lock it away from you."

The hurt in his voice was evident, but the tingling from the Force was stronger, calling to her to open the drawer. Mara reached for his arm to reassure him, but Luke was already standing next to her, pulling the key from his pocket. I feel it, too, his thought told her. The lock clicked, and the drawer slid out easily, its contents visible to the two occupants of the room. Inside were a vid, a datadisk, and a lightsaber. Luke quickly snatched the vid, reading the label on the side. It was the missing security vid. Handing it off to Mara, he grabbed the datadisk from the compartment, turning it over to examine it. No label. The lightsaber remained untouched. He recognized the hilt instantly; the tsaelke carvings were unmistakable, its owner indelibly etched in his memory. Why were these things locked in the desk? How did they get there? Slumping down into the chair, he brought his empty hand to his eyebrows, shading the offending truth from his sight. Did he put the items in there? There was only one key. If so, why couldn?t he remember? A soft hand stroked his, then grasped it away from his face. "Luke," she whispered softly.

"Mara, believe me. I didn?t hide this from you," he avowed, gazing into her understanding eyes.

"I know that Luke," she replied honestly, thinking that he wouldn?t have done it on purpose but with all that had happened lately he?

Angrily, he spat out, "I didn?t accidentally put it in the drawer, Mara. I couldn?t just forget? locking these things up."

His acidic tone was startling harsh, and it served to make her angry as well. She retorted with acerbity, "How else can you explain those things being in your private desk for which only you have the key?"

His mental barriers crashed down in retaliation for her accusation. How could she think such a thing? Toying with severing their bond, he rejected the idea as petty. Cloying Darkness permeated the atmosphere, a miasma of evil. It called to him, beckoning with its siren song. Incredible power available at his fingertips, covering his hurt, offering darkness to hide in. So easy to just slip in and be swallowed up. But a small bright light, a pinpoint actually, kept him from tumbling into the abyss. Then he remembered the silent pledge he had just recently made on Corellia, ten days ago. The Skywalker legacy from this day forth would be the Light. Breathing in and out, he pushed the darkness away, as he had done so many times before. It dissipated, unwillingly, and then the Light flooded the room once more.

Concerned by the aura of darkness surrounding her husband, Mara had anxiously observed his inner struggle, fighting his continual battle with the Dark Side. It hurt when he slammed down the barriers. Even worse, she felt him tug on their bond but it remained intact. Darkness was once again interfering with their happiness. The cold evil felt familiar, yet it didn?t call for her. Inexorable in its targeting of Luke, it ignored her. That indeed was odd. The heaviness lifted as the Master took hold of the Light. All was quiet.

"Mara. I?m sorry," he apologized, his voice barely a whisper, his eyes downcast, focused on the ground.

Mara shook her head. "No. Luke. I?m sorry. I should not have said that to you."

Glancing up, he gazed into her jade eyes. "I lost my temper. Not a good thing to do in my line of work."

His feeble attempt at a joke did lighten the mood enough for Mara to crack a smile. "You didn?t give in."

"True," he agreed, smiling half-heartedly.

The anonymous disk was still in his hand. He grabbed a datapad from his desk and popped the disk in. Mara sat on his lap again, resting her head against his as the contents of the disk were displayed.


Place: Coruscant

In the matter of: Dissolution of marriage

Plaintiff: Callista Skywalker

Defendant: Luke Skywalker

"It?s my divorce decree. I don?t know why it?s here," mumbled Luke.

Mara scanned the whole document, then said, "It?s not complete. Where?s your signature?"

Shrugging his shoulders, he answered, "I signed it and sent it to Kirawyn."

"Did you get the final dissolution?" she asked uneasily. Something wasn?t right.

Luke wrinkled his brow in thought. "Umm, I just got this from Callista. Nothing else."

Mara shifted on his lap. "If this is the only copy you received?You should have gotten a final decree, signed by both of you and a judge. Its not official until its been recorded in the courts."

"So, if I didn?t get another copy, I wasn?t divorced?" a confused Luke asked.

Mara tapped the datapad. "Not necessarily, but you really should get a copy of the recorded decree from the government."

Somehow, this didn?t make her feel any less worried. How could the fact that Luke didn?t have a final divorce decree be a problem? The supposed ex-spouse was dead now; what did it matter?

In hindsight, she would find that it mattered a great deal.

Wonderful spicy scents wafting from the kitchen assaulted Luke?s olfactory nerves, whetting his appetite. The dinner entr?e was baking slowly, over an hour already. The dining table was elegantly set with Alderaanian china dishes, a carafe of Dorean Brandy and matching snifters sat on the buffet. As Luke placed the last fork on the table, he called to Mara, "When can we eat?"

Always thinking about his stomach. Mara laughed at him. "When the company arrives."

Luke asked, "What?s with the fancy dishes, Mara? You?d think somebody important was coming."

"I think the Chief of State qualifies as somebody important," she answered.

"She?s just my sister."

"Well, I wanted to celebrate in style," she exclaimed with a flourish.

"What are we celebrating?" He asked. "I?ve felt excitement coming from you all day."

"You haven?t figured it out?" she retorted, her eyebrows raised at his apparent lack of knowledge.

"Actually, I have but I figured I?d let you have your fun. Can I see it?"

"Sure. Be right back," she exclaimed as she ran up the stairs.

Returning a few moments later, she handed Luke her completed lightsaber. He turned it over in his hand, admiring her craftsmanship and attention to detail. His pride was evident in his smile. Giving it back to her, he said, "Let?s see the blade."

She backed away from him, giving herself room to ignite the blade safely. Depressing the activation switch, Mara listened to the familiar snap-hiss and watched the blazing gold blade shoot out. Waving it in a fan-like motion, it hummed just as it should. Perfect. She pivoted and lunged, then stood en guard, hoping that Luke would engage his blade. Her challenge was ignored. All the color had drained from his face, leaving it a chalky white. His shocked eyes remained locked on the gold blade. "Turn it off," he demanded. Then more sternly, he repeated, "Turn it off."

Mara complied immediately, then looked over her saber thinking there was something was wrong. "Is there a problem? I did everything exactly as directed."

She looked to Luke, utterly confused by his reaction. What was the problem? He brushed past her, heading directly for his office. Perplexed by his response to her blade, she thought about following but stopped when he returned, carrying a lightsaber. Holding it up so she could get a good look at the handle, he proceeded to ignite it. The blade sizzled to life, its color a bright gold. Some type of sea creature was carved on the hilt. It was a beautiful weapon but why was he showing it to her? Who did it?Realization hit hard and fast. The saber from the locked drawer belonged to Callista. Astonished at the revelation, she whispered, "I didn?t know, Luke."

Lowering the blade, Luke glared at her. "How could you not know, Mara? You were in my memories, you saw the practice duels."

She gasped as the scene replayed in her mind. Why hadn?t she noticed it before? It wasn?t significant at the time. Her failure to grasp that little detail had hurt him. No wonder he acted as he did; he was shocked and reminded of something he?d rather forget. She started to apologize. "Luke, I?m sorry. I didn?t mean to hurt you."

"Why didn?t you use the crystals I provided? There were several varieties," he asked in a pained voice.

Why? she thought, then sent her answer. It was a leading of the Force, pure and simple.

He turned off the saber and closed his eyes in understanding. She wasn?t trying to open old wounds; he was in thinking the worst of her actions. Maybe the Force was teaching him something through her. "I understand, Mara. I?m sorry I overreacted. It was like seeing a ghost."

"Stang, Luke. Did you pale like that whenever you saw Kenobi?" she jested.

It drew a weak smile from her husband. "No. Guess I should be used to seeing ghosts."

Mara wrapped an arm around his waist. "Don?t let my blade frighten you. At least, not the color. As for sparring?"

The doorbell chimed. Mara let go of Luke who exclaimed, "Finally, we can eat."

Then he reached out in the Force for his sister but it wasn?t her. Sensing the heaviness and sorrow of the person outside, Luke wasn?t as happy to answer the door. He came face to face with Kirawyn Rochester, her eyes red-rimmed. Just from looking at her and sensing her aura, Luke could tell that what she had to say would not be good. He greeted her amicably. "Hello Kirawyn. Please come in."

She nodded her head, entering quickly. "I?m sorry to bother you. But I won?t take much of your time. It?s important."

"That?s fine," he said softly.

Clearing her throat, she proceeded to tell him about the discovery of Callista Skywalker?s body. He listened intently, displaying no emotion, then thanked her for letting him know. "I appreciate you taking the time to deliver this distressing news to me, Kirawyn. Have the Ambassador contact me when arrangements need to be made."

Mara was at his side as soon as Kirawyn was gone. He shrugged her off. "I?m fine Mara. Just let me be for a moment, okay?"

"Fine," she spat out. "I?m going to get dinner out. They?re here."

Luke felt their approach also but he wasn?t ready to face his twin yet. He walked out to the balcony and gazed out over the endless city. Everything that had been happening lately was beginning to take its toll.

The lightsaber accident and subsequent spice incident, the bounty, his capture and injuries, Mara?s capture and rescue, his more frequent brushes with the Darkside, the locked drawer and its contents, Mara?s choice of blade color and now, the discovery of Callista?s body one year after her death. Why was all of this happening to him? Hadn?t he gone through enough in his life to warrant a little peace and quiet? Did the Force have a twisted sense of humor? Let?s heap more problems on Luke Skywalker, he can handle it. He didn?t want them anymore; it was too much. Leaning heavily on the railing, he rested his head in his folded arms. There was something on the horizon connected with the discovery of Callista, lurking, waiting to spring at him. Would he fight it or give up? Despair was tapping on his shoulder, whispering in his ear. Despair, suffering, the Darkside. No, he wouldn?t give up. Not now. Not when he had so much to live for and fight for.

Chapter 20

The only noise in the kitchen was the clang of dishes as Artoo helped Mara place them in the dishwasher. Mara shook her head in disbelief at the absurdity of an astromech droid doing dishes. That had to be a first.

The Solos had left just a few minutes ago after spending a tense hour and half with the Skywalkers for dinner. The celebration aspect was overshadowed by the news delivered by Kirawyn Rochester. Luke?s mood had improved by the time he had come in from the balcony to greet his family. Leia had picked up on his emotions, and prompted Luke to tell her what had happened. Both Han and Leia were surprised about the discovery; after all this time, Callista?s body was found. His sister remembered how he had reacted to her death.

Hoping to avoid a psychological discussion, Mara had changed the topic, and announced that her lightsaber was finished. When she ignited it for them, Leia had paled slightly, then recovered, telling Mara that it was beautiful. Han had suggested a sparring match between Leia and Mara; a live opponent was better than a droid and it would give the Princess a chance to hone her new skills. Leave it to Solo to move them to a more festive mood. Mara could feel the pride Luke felt in both her and Leia?s accomplishments. The unpleasantness was pushed back, relegated to a corner, but not banished totally. It lingered the remainder of the evening, even after the Solos went home. A twitter bleep cut into her thoughts.

"Thanks, Artoo," Mara said, then rolled her eyes at that. Imagine, thanking a droid, talking to it like it was a sentient being. She?d been picking up too many of Luke?s quirks. The droid had activated the dishwasher, so after she set the food synthesizer unit on the clean cycle, Mara left the kitchen.

Warm water pulsated out of the showerhead, massaging Luke?s tense back muscles. Leaning backwards, he submerged his head under the relentless spray. He could feel the tightness leave his body as the droplets pummeled his skin and coursed down his body. The evening hadn?t gone as he intended. It was supposed to be Mara?s night, a celebration of one more step on her road to Knighthood but it was tarnished, ruined by him and his memories. Turning around, he braced his arms against the shower wall and let his head hang down between them. Memories were fine but his were out of control lately, affecting his marriage. He made a fist with his right hand and slammed it against the wall in frustration. If only he could?he froze. There was someone in the bedroom.

Stepping out of the stream of water, he slid the door open quietly so as not to alert the intruder. Slipping his arms into a blue robe, he sent a quick message to Mara, then sought a weapon. Stang, there was nothing in the bathroom that could even be remotely considered a weapon. He?d just have to call his lightsaber as soon as he opened the door. Concentrating on the intruder, he realized that its sense had disappeared. That somebody was getting away. Abandoning all stealth, he pushed the door button, causing the door to slide open, then ran into the room, calling his lightsaber to his hand. Nobody was in the room. Luke was searching the bedroom when the door opened, allowing Mara to enter. Running towards her, Luke shouted, "Did you see her? Did anybody go by you?"

"Nobody came through this door, Luke," she answered quickly. "There?s nobody here. What?s going on?"

Luke half closed his eyes, trying to get a lock on the intruder?s presence, but it was gone completely, vanished into nothing. Turning off his saber, he said, "When I was in the shower, I felt that somebody was watching me. I found her presence in our bedroom. That?s why I called you."

"I know and I came as you asked. But Luke," she paused, anxious about his reaction to what she was going to say. "I scanned the apartment. The only presence I found was yours."

Luke shook his head in denial. "That can?t be, Mara. The presence was unmistakable, easy to locate."

"Luke, there was nobody here. I couldn?t find anything except?" she bit her lip, not continuing her thought. "Besides, my danger sense never went off."

Flinging his lightsaber into a nearby chair, he stared hard at her. "Except what? Go ahead, tell me."

"All I could sense was darkness."

Raking his fingers through his wet hair, he sighed heavily. Not only had he been unable to reign in his own darkness, he was giving Mara unpleasant reminders of her own dark memories. Mara, his beautiful Mara. What was he doing, what was he thinking when he married her? "I wonder if I did a very selfish thing by marrying you."

Mara glared at him. "How can you say that?"

"What have I offered you? Look at what?s happened since we got married. I almost lost you because you?re my wife. We?ve had so little time together. I?ve been alone so long, I?m difficult to live with."

Her anger flared as he brought up his insecurities. "What have you offered me? You?ve offered me a life, Luke. A chance at happiness. I knew what I was getting into by saying yes. And I?ve never regretted it! So, we haven?t had a lot of time so far. Big deal! We?ve got the rest of our lives," she declared adamantly. "And if you haven?t noticed, I?m not the easiest person to live with either."

Mara could see and feel Luke mull over her affirmations. The truth of her words was evident and he knew it. How could he not? She?d been hitting his stubborn head with it a few times already. A smile formed on his face. "That?s true. Even though there are times that I feel I don?t deserve you."

Her mouth opened to retort but he continued, "I know, I do deserve you. I thank the Force for you. You?re the best thing to ever happen to me."

Folding her arms across her chest, she grinned at him. "No more defeatist attitude. It?s un-Jedi-like."

"Deal," he said, raising both hands in surrender.

Mara placed her hands on her hips and ran an appraising eye over Luke?s physique. He had apparently gotten out of the shower in a hurry because she could still hear the sound of water running. The blue websilk robe clung to his wet torso, offering an almost transparent view of the well-defined muscles underneath. Smirking lustfully, she asked, "Um, Luke. Aren?t you cold?"

"Huh?" he replied, furrowing his brow. It was a bit chilly. Looking down, he realized why. In his rush to catch the intruder, he had thrown the robe on but neglected to cinch it closed. He started to pull the lapels together when he felt Mara?s hands on him. Placing her palms on his chest, she slowly pushed her hands up and under the edges of the robe, stopping when she reached his shoulders. She purred, "Leave it. I?ll warm you up."

The warmth of the Embassy was a welcome change from the arctic expedition from which Dr. Marlin had recently returned. Sitting in the anteroom of Ambassador Muloon?s office, she waited patiently for their meeting. She had traveled to Coruscant at the request of Chad?s government. The autopsy of Callista Skywalker had disclosed some startling revelations and an inquest was required. She would have rather stayed on Chad but most of the involved parties were in residence in the New Republic?s capitol. The results of the autopsy were frightening. To think that something like that had occurred right in front of her eyes was mind-boggling. The authorities had a pretty good lead on the perpetrator but it didn?t alleviate her fears. High profile suspects were often difficult to prosecute: witnesses often disappeared or retracted their evidence, reputations were destroyed. She had seen the evidence first hand, seen the blaster burn, the shocked look on the victim?s frozen face. Dr. Marlin had a pretty good idea who the suspect was and the thought terrified her. A quiet voice interrupted her thoughts. "Are you okay, Doctor?"

"Yes, Kirawyn. I?m just astonished by this whole business about Callista," she said, noticing the assistant?s sorrowful face when she mentioned Callista?s name. "I?m sorry, Kirawyn. I didn?t mean to bring up unpleasant memories."

With a weak smile, Kirawyn replied, "It?s okay, Doctor. I?m doing fine."

"It?s hard to believe that Callista was murdered so brutally."

Kirawyn?s eyes widened and her mouth fell open before she stammered, "Murdered?"

Looking apologetic, the Doctor said, "You didn?t know? I just assumed?Oh, I?ve made a huge blunder."

"It?s okay, Doctor," she managed to say, gathering her composure. Then she asked pointedly, "Do they know who did it?"

Dr. Marlin remained silent, staring at her hands. After shifting in her chair, she glanced at Kirawyn. "I better not?I don?t want to?."

A loud buzz interrupted the awkward conversation. Kirawyn glanced at her terminal. "The Ambassador will see you now, Dr. Marlin."

"Thank you, Kirawyn." She patted the woman?s shoulder after she got up and headed for the office door.

"Was it someone she knew?" Kirawyn blurted out.

Turning around to face the woman, Dr. Marlin answered, "Intimately."

From his office, Major Terrill Hoover shouted, "Hold my calls, Leila."

He was reeling from the call he had received a few minutes ago from Teith Muloon. The accusation the ambassador made about a prominent New Republic citizen was outlandish, it was preposterous, but it couldn?t be ignored. Terrill demanded proper evidence be provided; Muloon supplied it immediately. Surely, it was circumstantial and easily combated, but that didn?t excuse Major Hoover from his duty. Rubbing his weary eyes, he proceeded to enter the appropriate information into the arrest warrant. After sending the warrant through the system, including a gag order to keep it from the press, he comlinked the ready room for a plainclothes officer. It was the least he could do. The man should be spared the humiliation of being arrested by a beat cop. There was no denying that news of the arrest would spread quickly but Hoover hoped to contain it and slow it. For the first time in his entire career, he hated his job.

From now on, he would be known as the man who arrested Luke Skywalker.

"Luke, Luke. They?re coming for you. I?ll be avenged."

A blaster shot burned through her heart, charring her clothing, her face twisted in agony. A green lightsaber flashed before her face, obscuring her body from view. Then water seeped in slowly through the damaged shuttlecocks. The limp body floated in the murky waters. Malt brown hair fanned out, then tangled with incoming seaweed. The cabin angled from horizontal to vertical, seeking to follow the path of gravity. The body was facing forward now, hollow eyes staring accusingly, slightly open mouth filled with water.

"Luke, they?re coming for you. I?ll be avenged."

"Nooo!" Luke screamed as he sat up abruptly in bed.

Mara sat up next to him. "Luke, what?s wrong?"

Wiping his sweaty brow, he calmed his hyperventilating. Mara was rubbing his back, sending calming thoughts, seeking to steady his trembling body. The sheets clung to his body, drenched with perspiration. Softly, she repeated, "Luke, what?s wrong?"

"I saw Callista?s death," he paused, collecting his thoughts. "She was murdered."

Mara gasped, then dug her fingers into his arm. "Did you see who did it?"

"No, it was the murderer?s point of view," he said in a detached voice.

Mara?s danger sense began to tingle. Murderer?s point of view? Why would he see it that way? Something about it felt wrong yet vaguely familiar. On the edge of her senses, Mara caught a fleeting glimpse of an evil presence. The malevolent figure began directing the lurking darkness, feeding it, arming it for attack. Luke was looking at her now, regret in his eyes. His hand reached for her cheek, cupping it gently. "I?m sorry, Mara. Callista?s shadow has come between us again. I can?t escape it. Just know that I?ll always love you."

Shivers ran down her spine at his words. Staring into his vacant eyes, she was almost pulled down into the abyss with him. The darkness knew her, recognized her as one of its own. Its familiarity was frightening yet enthralling. Come home, it beckoned. Remember the power you wielded? Return to your rightful place. It would be so easy to be swallowed up with Luke. Wait. That?s not what she wanted. The dark power offered no hope. She was home; home was with Luke and Luke means Light. Light, she belongs to the Light now.

Blinking and regaining her focus, she wretched herself from the Sith made abyss. Righteous indignation arose, stirring up embers in her soul. Drawing up the Force, she reached deep into the Light, increasing its intensity until it flooded her essence and spread to Luke. Through their bond, he now understood the threat and she felt him join her making it so bright that the darkness fled. Exhausted from the spiritual battle, they lay back on the bed, eyes closed, hands entwined while the Force replenished their energies. The existence of a Sith went a long way to explaining all the things that had been happening to them recently.

Sitting up, Luke had brought his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around his legs. Sighing, he said, "At least now I know that I haven?t been slipping on my own."

"I?m sorry it took me so long to realize what was happening. Palpatine loved using that technique on his enemies," she stated seriously, pulling the sheets to cover her chest as she rose to a sitting position.

Luke sighed, "Not only do I get to deal with the murder of my ex-wife, I get to go Sith hunting. I think I know where to start anyway."

Mara looked at him quizzically. "Where?"

"The Black Sun?s leader, Medeia."

"Sithspawn, Luke!"

Luke cocked an eyebrow at her. Wincing at her poor choice of words, she apologized, "Sorry, Luke. But going after Medeia?" she stopped, her thoughts changing.

"Mara, I don?t have a choice. Medeia is the most likely candidate. I can?t leave a Sith out there."

With a feral smile, she corrected him. "You mean we, don?t you? We?re a team, remember?"

Taking her left hand into his right and bringing it to his face, he brushed his lips lightly across it and then rested it against his cheek. "That?s right, we?re a team. The best team for the job."

After taking a sip of blue milk, Luke glanced again at the datapad. There wasn?t enough information in the public database for him to effectively use in their search for Medeia. They had already decided that working with Coruscant Security would be necessary even though the New Republic was an unlikely partner in matters pertaining to Jedi, Sith, and the Force. Mara had sent a message to Major Hoover a short time ago but he was unavailable. Luke assured her that he was their best bet as an ally.

He took a bite of his toast just as Mara entered the kitchen. Catching a glimpse of her in the corner of his eye, Luke did a double take. Mara was attired in a form fitting black jumpsuit, her new lightsaber hung from her right hip, and her left hip sported a blaster. A black hooded cloak and calf high boots completed the ensemble. She looked absolutely gorgeous and downright dangerous, a volatile combination. Noticing his amazed look, she twirled around, causing the cloak to flutter. "Glad you like it, Farmboy."

Whistling appreciatively, he declared, "Wow."

"Let?s get to work. We?ve got a Sith to catch," she stated firmly, her fingers untying the cloak strings.

Sitting down next to him and laying the cloak on the table, she reviewed the information on the datapad. "Not much to go on. I might be able to?"

The door annunciator buzzed and Artoo rolled by them on his way to the front entry. Mara returned her attention to Luke who said, "It?s Major Hoover. He?s agitated about something."

Mara?s anxiety rose at the mention of Major Hoover. Luke got up and walked towards the front room. Mara followed, though she wanted to send Luke out the back and away from the impending danger that lay outside the door. Luke?s danger sense had also gone off. Taking a deep breath, he said, "Artoo, let him in."

"Master Skywalker. Mrs. Skywalker," Terrill nodded to each, then introduced the man with him. "This is Detective Jerrold Tarskin."

Bowing slightly, Luke greeted them. "Gentlemen. What brings you here?"

Stepping closer to Luke, Mara grasped his hand. From the solemn expressions on the officers? faces, she knew it wasn?t a social visit. The older gentleman reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a datapad. "A very unpleasant duty, Sir. On this datapad you will find a copy of the arrest warrant," he stated as he handed the warrant to Luke. "Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, you are the prime suspect in the murder of Callista Skywalker."

His grip on Mara?s hand tightened but he remained motionless. The Major continued, "I?m sorry, Luke. I have no choice but to arrest you for the murder of Callista Skywalker."

Detective Tarskin came over to Luke and demanded, "For our protection and yours, I need to search you for weapons." Then he reached for the Master but was stopped by a gold blade, its tip burning the soft underside of his chin.

"Touch him and you die," Mara warned through clenched teeth.

Mara, don?t do that, Luke warned silently.

He will not treat you like a common criminal, she thought back.

Detective Tarskin was terrified of this woman. Holding his hands up in surrender, he moved his eyes only, seeking help. Perspiration beaded his brow as he waited, unmoving, for the blade to disappear.

Secretly, Terrill Hoover was enjoying the standoff. Sure, she was obstructing justice but he understood what she was doing. To think that Tarskin was going to frisk a Jedi Master. The academy really needed to include a course on dealing with Jedi. Stalling a bit longer, Terrill decided that Jerrold had sweated enough. "The Detective will not be frisking your husband, Mrs. Skywalker."

The blade was lowered from his chin. Tarskin visibly relaxed, though he was still trembling. Shakily reaching for the binders, he once again felt the sizzling blade at his throat.

"No binders, either," Hoover stated.

The blade was extinguished. Hoover approached Luke, holding out his hand, palm up. "If you would please hand over your weapons, Master, I think we can dispense with the formalities and be on our way."

"I didn?t do it," Luke said, as he handed his lightsaber to Hoover.

"I?m not the one you have to convince," Hoover replied, putting the lightsaber into his pocket.

Embracing Mara, Luke reassured her. "I?ll be fine, Mara."

Silently through the Force, he sent, You?ll have to start looking for the Sith without me.

I will and I?m sure that Medeia is behind this, Mara sent back.

Then Luke whispered in her ear, "Don?t worry. I wasn?t on Chad when she died." Then he let go of her.

"I?ll be lodging an official complaint with the Chief of State," Mara informed the officers. "My husband is innocent."

Detective Tarskin moved to one side of Luke and reached his arm to take Luke?s elbow when the gold blade appeared next to his hand. Yanking it back, he declared, "You don?t give up, do you, Lady?"

Extinguishing her blade, Mara glared at him as she hooked her saber onto her belt. "Never," she replied.

Chapter 21

The lead story on the evening news was the arrest of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker for murder. A holovid showed a non-descript vehicle pull up outside the Coruscant Security Detention Center. It was surrounded by a bevy of holoreporters, waving their recorders and banging on the hovercar?s windows. Zooming in on what appeared to be Luke Skywalker?s head, a voiceover announced that an inquiry would be held in two days. Until then, the Jedi Master would remain incarcerated at the Center. Requests for statements from the Chief of State Leia Organa Solo, the accused?s sister, and Mara Jade Skywalker, his wife, were met with a ?No comment.? Still holos of both women appeared on screen and were then replaced by one of Callista Skywalker. The voice droned on, providing a simple biography of Skywalker?s first wife. The holo dissolved and a new vid of a research vessel appeared. Once again the voice spoke, this time about the recovery of the deceased. A shot of the small ship; then lastly a gruesome vid of the body.

Han Solo turned off the holoterminal in disgust, reminded of why he despised holoreporters. Getting up from his conforming chair, he walked over to the dining table where Leia was sitting, reviewing a datapad on legal proceedings. He grabbed a chair, turned it around and straddled it, plopping down in it. Arms folded on the chair back, he asked his wife, "Find anything to help Luke?"

Shaking her head sadly, she answered, "No. He?s charged with a capital offense and they have done everything according to the book. I can?t get him out before the hearing."

"What about the jurisdiction thing Mara mentioned?"

"That?s legal also. Chad is a member of the New Republic thus can file charges against any New Republic citizen, as long as the charges can be supported," Leia answered despondently. " I even checked to see if the fact that the arresting officer wasn?t with the Homicide Division would offer a loop hole. It didn?t."

Leia set the datapad on the table, and rubbed her eyes. Seeking to ease her tension, Han jumped up and stood behind her, using his hands to massage her temples. The gesture merited a sigh from Leia. "Don?t worry, sweetheart. Luke will be alright," Han promised.

His hands moved down to her shoulders, kneading her taut muscles. "Thank you, Han. That feels great," she murmured. "Something about this whole thing with Luke doesn?t feel right. I?m worried."

Han released his hold and came to her left side, leaning against the table to face her. "Is this one of those Jedi things?"

She nodded, then placed her palms on the table to push herself back. Glancing up at her husband, she said, "I?m going to meditate for a while, then get some rest. I?m meeting Mara for some sparring in the morning before we go to visit Luke."

"Ya know, it?s going to take some time for me to get use to Leia the Jedi," he said, flashing a crooked smile. Turning serious, he asked, "Are you doing okay, hon?"

Leia gave him a weak smile. "Yes, I?m doing okay. Much better than Mara is."

"Mara did seem a little disconcerted, even though she was mad enough to chew durasteel," Han recalled. "I thought she was gonna skewer the guard when he told her visiting hours were over."

"Her bond with Luke is different from mine. They are like two halves to a whole. Their connection is much stronger and deeper than a sibling bond. When one can?t feel the other, it?s like part of them has died. Whereas I feel a dull ache from Luke?s absence, Mara feels a sharp pain," explained Leia, attempting to describe a Force bond.

Han nodded in partial understanding. It seemed odd to him that a bond that had been in existence for only a few months could cause more pain when severed than a bond that had been established for years.

"Mommy?" Jaina called from the top of the stairs.

Leia looked up and answered, "Yes, sweetie."

Jacen spoke next. "Can we have a bedtime story?"

Leia threw a pleading look at Han, who nodded at her unspoken request.

"Daddy will be telling the story tonight, kids. I?ll be up in a minute."

"Thanks, Han."

"Hey, it?s me. What?d you expect?" he said, as he escorted her to the living room couch. "Now be a good little Princess, I mean Jedi, and get to meditating." He paused briefly. "So how long before you can get one of those Jedi outfits like Mara was wearing today?"

Her jaw dropped, then she quickly closed it. "Nerf!"

Mara returned to their apartment exhausted and frustrated from her lack of progress. Visitation was delayed due to a clerical error of all things. Once Leia had gotten it sorted out, it was too late. The prescribed visiting hours were over for the day and they would have to wait until tomorrow to see Luke. Worse yet, ysalamiri prevented her from contacting him mentally, denying her even that small touch.

After spending several hours at Coruscant Security, her request for a copy of the files regarding Medeia and the Black Sun had been denied, though Major Hoover had been apologetic and would have helped her if his superiors hadn?t prohibited the release of confidential materials to a civilian. It would have made her task easier but it didn?t matter. Mara had other ways to get restricted information. Luke would probably lecture her, but he wouldn?t know. Once Luke had been placed in the ysalamiri bubble, their bond had been cut, preventing any mental communication. It hurt not having the bond, not feeling his presence. She missed him deeply.

She never realized how much another being could fill the emptiness in her soul. Fortunately, she would see him in the morning. If she couldn?t feel his presence, she would settle for being in his presence.

Sitting in front of the comcenter, Mara brought up the messages she had received that day. They included a reminder from Leia about their sparring session, offers of assistance from the Horns, Wedge, who was referring an attorney, and Lando, as well as several requests from holoreporters who had somehow obtained their unlisted comnumber, and lastly an encrypted message. Finally, she thought; something is going my way. Using the encryption key that Karrde had supplied to her, Mara quickly decoded the short message.

It read: Ghent arriving in Coruscant tomorrow night and he?s excited about the challenge you offered him.

Mara snickered softly. Trust Ghent to be excited about breaking into Coruscant Security?s database. Deleting that message and the holoreporter ones, Mara sent off quick acknowledgments to the others. A personal call would be nicer but she wasn?t exactly in a sociable mood.

After a quick snack, Mara settled into meditation. There would be a lot to do tomorrow and she needed to be prepared. The Force would lead her, direct her path; she needed to listen.

Luke was depending on her. She wasn?t about to fail him.

The slender, gray furred creature sat rigidly upon its perch. If it weren?t for the null bubbles in the Force, Luke would have thought the thing a statue, not a living, breathing animal. Three others were in his cell, each taking a corner. Their proximity to each other overlapped their null bubbles and effectively cut his connection to the Force, to his sister, to his wife. The Force was his lifeblood; he was so immersed in it, especially lately, that its absence hurt. If it weren?t for the pain of his severed bonds, he would actually be grateful for their presence. The Darkside couldn?t tempt him and Medeia, he was sure Medeia was behind it, couldn?t assault him. Perhaps, he would even have a dreamless night. Sighing, he knew that was too simple. His own memories didn?t need the Force to attack him. Sometimes, he could be his own worse enemy.

Luke returned to his bland meal, moving the food around with his fork. Yoda?s stew was better than this swill. Even ration bars were better. Disgusted, he pushed the plate aside. He wasn?t hungry anyway.

The cell door slid open, startling Luke. A uniformed guard stood in the threshold, then announced, "Your lawyer is here."

Luke rose from his chair, wiping his hands on his pants leg. A Twi?lek came into view, carrying a nerf leather briefcase. Once he stepped into the cell, the door slid closed behind him. Luke thought the attorney vaguely familiar but was unable to identify him. Holding out his hand in greeting, the Twi?lek introduced himself. "Master Skywalker, Nawara Ven at your service."

The mention of the name jogged Luke?s memory. Rogue Squadron?s XO, Nawara Ven, an attorney, had defended Tycho Celchu when the pilot had been accused of murdering Corran Horn. Firmly shaking his hand, Luke replied, "Thank you, Counselor. And please call me Luke."

"If I?ve got to call you Luke, you have to call me Nawara," he said as he limped to the cot.

Nodding, Luke sat next to him. "I can do that." He paused then asked, "Nawara. Don?t get me wrong. I am grateful but I?m curious. Who asked you to defend me? I mean, I didn?t think you were practicing anymore."

Nawara grinned widely, his pointed teeth making the smile seem almost ferocious. "Rogues help their own. Wedge and Corran both asked me to help."

Luke allowed a smile to tug at the corners of his mouth. Trust his former squadron mates to think of that. Force knows he hadn?t. At least now he could get some information on the charges against him, specifically what evidence they had. "I?ll have to thank them. It?s good to know I?ve got an experienced attorney working for me. I remember your efforts on behalf of Tycho." His expression turned serious. "I guess we had better get down to business. I?d like to know what I?m up against."

"You?ve been formally charged with Premeditated Murder," Nawara began. "The government of Chad contends that that you flew to Chad, boarded your wife?s boat, shot her in the chest at point blank range, used a lightsaber to scuttle the boat, and then fled the scene, allowing your wife and all the evidence to sink into oblivion."

Astonished, Luke stared at Ven, then stammered, "That?s preposterous."

"It may be but they have formidable evidence to prove it," Ven responded seriously. "Let me give you the rundown. One, Chad Flight Control has a record of your ship in system the day before she was killed. Two, the murder weapon, an old blaster, registered to you with your fingerprints all over it, was in the cabin with the body. Three, the lightsaber is a tool of the Jedi, you being its most notable member. The last one is weak. You aren?t the only one with a lightsaber."

"Doesn?t that all seem a bit contrived to you? Shooting her with my own blaster and sinking the ship with a lightsaber? Then I?d conveniently, not to mention stupidly, leave damning evidence that literally screams ?Luke Skywalker killed his ex-wife??" Then he realized the implications of what he had said. He?d just admitted that if he were going to kill his spouse, he?d do a much better job. Rubbing his temples, he glanced at Ven, whose close set eyes were twinkling. "What?"

Lekku twitching, Ven patted him on the shoulder. "I agree. You wouldn?t do such sloppy job."

"Somehow, I don?t think proving I would have done a better job murdering Callista will help me."

Ven was serious again. "No. We?ll have to refute the evidence which will not be easy."

"Nothing in my life has ever been easy. What do I need to do?" Luke asked.

Clad in simple jumpsuits, the two women faced each other, en guard position. Attired in gray, Leia?s brunette hair was plaited in one long tail hanging down the middle of her back. Her face was expressionless as she waited for her opponent to strike. Her sister-in-law, dressed in black with her red-gold hair tied loosely back stood rigid. The room was alive, the Force permeating the atmosphere, electrifying the combatants. Igniting her gold blade, Mara swung first, her blow parried by Leia?s azure blade. Each slash was parried; each stroke met with strength. Leia was able to anticipate each of Mara?s moves, visualizing her actions just moments before they occurred. Her connection to the Force had been growing. With her brother?s guidance, she no longer feared it as she had in the past. Leia pushed down the eerie feeling of d?j? vu, of another time when she had sparred with a Jedi wielding a gold blade. The Princess held firm, her confidence increasing with every slash.

The two women moved gracefully around the gym, their battle appearing as if it had been choreographed by some renowned Twi?leki dancer. Though both were technically only trainees, the woman in black had more experience, and therefore assumed the role of teacher to the woman in gray. It was time to push her student to the limit.

The intensity of both the power and speed of Mara?s blows increased. Leia batted at the golden blur, successfully keeping it at bay. Pressing in, feet almost touching, the teacher was close enough to see the student?s jaw clenched in concentration. Their blades crossed, caught at the hilt; blue and gold sparks mixed throwing off a green haze. Breathing hard, Leia pulled her saber loose and moved back, away from Mara. The Princess then relaxed, almost as if she was letting down her guard. Mara ran forward, her blade horizontal, sizzling when it met Leia?s vertical block. Her blade askew, Mara swung back to center, seeking Leia?s blade again. But the target was gone. Leia had somersaulted up and over her sister-in-law.

Swiftly pirouetting, Mara swatted at Leia?s renewed assault. Their lethal dance continued anew. The hum and clash of the sabers were the only sounds in the gym. Noticing a small basket of balls in a corner of the room, Mara decided to test Leia?s ability to split her concentration. One by one the balls rose out of the basket and flew through the air, directly at Leia. Standing back a bit, Mara watched as the Princess began deflecting the balls. Then she slashed at Leia who was barely able to parry in time. The onslaught continued until Mara twisted her golden blade around Leia?s blue one, disarming the Princess. After a few moments, the adrenaline was no longer pumping and the two women collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily. Impressed by the student?s skills, the teacher said, "Not bad, Leia. You?re very good. Luke would be proud."

Wiping her brow with her shirtsleeve, Leia replied, "Thank you. I?ve been practicing a lot, though you?re a much better opponent than a droid."

Mara smirked. "I should hope so." She got up and retrieved her water container, taking a long draught. Leia joined her, drinking from her own water bottle. Quickly glancing at her chrono, Mara exclaimed, "Oh sith, look at the time. It?s almost visiting hours."

"I?m going to shower first. Then we can head over," Leia stated.

Mara nodded. "Me too."

As they walked towards the shower bays, Leia said, "Thanks for working out with me. I have to sneak away from my security detail but it?s worth it. I appreciate it. I know this is a difficult time for you."

"It?s difficult for both of us, Leia," Mara corrected. Leave it to a Skywalker to ignore her own pain. "There?s a Sith out there. I feel that it?s important to keep my fighting edge sharp. I cannot let my guard down." She stopped, then looked into Leia?s brown eyes. "I feel that Luke?s life depends upon it."

Luke quickly learned that variety wasn?t a requirement in the prison kitchen. His breakfast looked suspiciously like the dinner he had been served the night before. His stomach growled, angry at the lack of nourishment. Lifting the spoon, Luke sighed as he scooped the vile porridge into his mouth, swallowing quickly.

Stang, I should have had a bigger breakfast yesterday. Pushing the tray aside, Luke leaned back in the chair and glanced at his roommates. All four remained in the same positions as yesterday. Curious, he?d actually touched one last night. It was furry and warm and it didn?t even flinch at his touch. He thought it needed a name. Sith, I?m going insane. Giving a name to ysalamiri; next thing you know, I?ll be talking to it.

Nawara Ven?s involvement in his case encouraged him. The Counselor had asked Luke to refute the evidence and enter everything on a datapad. Luke spent the evening doing just that. He hoped he?d managed to address every detail. His alibi was iron clad. He couldn?t murder someone if he wasn?t even on the same planet. Artoo?s logs as well as Coruscant?s would prove that he had never left here. The blaster would be a little more difficult. Relying only on his lightsaber since becoming a Jedi, he had stored his old service blaster in his apartment and hadn?t seen it in years. It must have been stolen or Callista had taken it with her. Luke would tell Ven where to start looking and Nawara would take it from there. The attorney would have to talk to Mara to get into the apartment today because the inquiry was taking place tomorrow.

A smile spread on his face when he thought about Mara. She was coming today. Before he left last night, Nawara Ven had told Luke that his family missed visiting hours due to a clerical error; that same error had delayed Ven?s visit. Once the mistake was rectified, Nawara was allowed access. Due process required that the defendant be provided legal council immediately. No such courtesy was given to family. They could not see the prisoner until the next visiting period.

The cell door slid open and an elderly man pushing a small hovercart entered the room. His expression bland, the white haired gentleman looked at Luke, then caught a glimpse of the furry creatures. "Why?d they let you have pets?" he snorted.

"They?re not pets."

"Nobody else has animals in their cells and animals are pets," he declared, shuffling closer to Luke.

"Why are you here?" Luke asked, clearly wishing not to discuss the ysalamiri.

Picking up some datapads from the hovercart, the wrinkled man showed them to Luke. "I?m the prison librarian. I come around once a week. You can check out as many as you?d like. Ain?t much else to do around here."

Relaxing, Luke skimmed the titles, thinking that something to read would certainly fill up his time and keep his mind occupied. He picked up a couple of interesting titles, as well as a few starfighter technical manuals. "Can you tell me what these two are about?"

Pointing his finger, the old man said, "That one is about a man imprisoned many years just for stealing food and the other is about a man thrown into prison but never told why. That second one is very popular."

Frowning, Luke thought, Just what I need, a reminder of where I am. He replaced those two and picked up another. "This one?"

"Woman marries a man who had killed his first wife. He gets away with the murder too."

Color drained from Luke?s face; he gulped, hoping the old man didn?t notice. Scanning the other titles, he came across a familiar one and smiled. "I?ll take this one. My wife and I have been reading it. Hadn?t got a chance to finish it."

His fellow prisoner pushed the hovercart towards the door, then said ominously, "You?ll have plenty of time to finish it here. And then some."

All visitors to the Detention Center were required to pass through a weapon?s scanner. A guard took any weapons collected from the visitors and locked them up. Mara and Leia handed over their lightsabers and Han his blaster before they entered the scanner. The waiting room was crowded, full of others waiting for visiting hours to commence. Seeking to remain inconspicuous, the Solos and Mara sat in hard chairs against the far wall, behind the others in the room. It didn?t work. Several of the room?s occupants recognized the trio and began whispering among themselves. Over the intercom, a dour voice announced the rules and regulations for contact with the prisoners, putting a stop to the murmuring.

Every few minutes, a guard would call out a prisoner?s name and the visitors for that prisoner would come forward and disappear behind a door. Soon, only the trio remained.

"Luke Skywalker," a bored voice intoned.

Slowly rising, Mara walked to the door, her cape fluttering. Han and Leia were directly behind her. The guard at the door prevented them from entering. "I?m sorry, but you will have to wait. For security reasons, Skywalker cannot leave his cell."

"Are you denying him visitation?" Leia asked, her tone icy.

Flinching slightly at her question, the guard shook his head. "No, Madam Chief of State. It merely means that he has to take visitors in his cell. Guards will be here shortly to escort you, one at a time, to his cell."

Removing her hood, Mara said, "That?s fine, Captain. I?ll be going first."

Han and Leia nodded in agreement. It had already been decided before they arrived that Mara would see him first. A couple of burly guards appeared behind the door sentinel. "Come," one said brusquely.

Stepping in behind him, Mara followed, the second guard falling in behind. The walk to Luke?s cell was surprisingly short. Taking up position on either side of the door, the guards waited a moment, then told her that she had half an hour and they would give a five-minute warning prior to the end of her time. Acknowledging the information with an inclination of her head, Mara turned and faced the cell door. One of the guards activated the door and it slid open with a quiet whoosh, allowing Mara to step inside. Then the door shut just as quickly.

Mara saw Luke sitting in a chair across the room. Glancing up, he noticed her and strode over, taking her into his strong embrace. He held her tight, whispering her name several times. Their lips met; the kiss was sweet and tender. Gently releasing her lips, he breathed into her ear, "I?ve missed you."

Cocking her head slightly and smiling, she said, "We?ve got to stop meeting like this."

Luke laughed, pulling her tighter in his embrace. Then his lips captured hers once more.

Chapter 22

The smell of fresh brewed caf floated in from the kitchen. From his seat in front of the comcenter, Ghent shifted his position, looking up from the terminal. A portable computer, slightly larger than a datapad, had been attached to the comcenter, allowing Ghent to use his own software. On his monitor, a comnumber appeared and kept reappearing as the computer continued seeking access. Ghent watched absently as Mara approached and set a cup of caf down on the console. Eagerly, he grasped it and took a swig of the dark, hot liquid. "Thanks, Mara," he said, then took another sip. "Best caf I?ve had in a long time."

Mara pulled up another chair and sat next to him. "You?re welcome. How?s it going?"

"Great. I?ve gotten into their system. Just have to find the right pass code," he announced, then tapped in some instructions. "There. This pass code cracker program should do the trick."

Mara scanned the monitor screen, watching several combinations of numbers and characters fly by quickly. She asked, "How long will it take?"

"Depends. A few minutes, a few hours, a few days," he replied, shrugging his shoulders.

"A few days!" Mara exclaimed in disbelief. "Won?t that be risky? Surely, they?ll realize they?re being sliced sooner than that."

Smiling, Ghent stated, with a hint of pride, "They?ll know soon. But the beauty of this program is that it?s impossible to know who is doing the slicing. Designed it myself. Untraceable." He took another drink of the caf, then asked, "Where?s the refresher?"

Waving her hand in the direction of the refresher, Mara continued to stare at the screen as Ghent got up and disappeared down the hallway in the direction she had pointed. She was beginning to doubt her decision to have Ghent break into Coruscant Security?s system from her apartment. It might have been a better idea to do it at a public terminal. When she?d asked Ghent to do it, he?d said he could do it here without a problem. He did this type of thing everyday; she admired his abilities and trusted his skills. Glancing away from the screen for a moment, she picked up her own cup of caf and took a sip. She hoped the program would be finished soon.

Ghent returned and plopped down into his chair again. Grasping his caf, he gulped the last bit down and focused on the screen. "This shouldn?t take too long, Mara. It?s a good program."

"That?s good," she said. "The sooner, the better."

"Don?t worry. It?s untraceable," he reminded her.

Returning her eyes to the screen, she replied, "I know, but I?m an obvious candidate."

Ghent reassured her, "Mara. Do you realize how many slicers get into this network? It?s a popular target for all the criminal elements out there."

Mara nodded at the reality of his statement. It made complete sense that any criminal with a shred of intelligence would want to know what the police had on them. Once again, she watched the monitor screen as the program attempted to provide the pass code. Out of a sequence of twelve characters, seven continued to change. Rubbing her eyes, she asked, "More caf?"

"Yes, please."

When she returned from the kitchen a few minutes later, the pass code still was not completed. Seeking to pass time, they chatted about the changes in Karrde?s organization. About an hour and a half later, Ghent shouted, "We?re in!"

A large list of files appeared on the screen. Perusing the list, Mara found the ones she wanted and pointed to them. "Download those two and that one."

A few keystrokes later, the files were downloading. Leaning in front of Ghent, Mara started tapping a few things on the keyboard and looked around the network for a bit. After reading a few other files, Mara felt that she had all the pertinent information she could use. "Thanks, Ghent. I appreciate your help. I?ve got what I needed."

"No problem, Mara. Any time," he responded, then disconnected from the server and shut down his software.

After escorting Ghent to the door, Mara returned to view the files. Coruscant Security?s field officers had collected a lot of information about the Black Sun, though none of it concrete enough to bring any charges. One agent had been able to join the organization, but only the fringe element. This agent was the one who had found out the name of the new leader from other members of the Black Sun. The leader, Medeia, was still an enigma. They had been unable to get an agent inside deep enough to gather much useful data on Medeia. The last agent to try for deep cover had been found dead a short time later. Since Mara knew that Medeia was practicing the Sith arts, she suspected that no agent would be able to infiltrate high enough. The short profile on Medeia reported that the leader was always cloaked, never spoke out loud - only through telepathy - and appeared when least expected. No one seemed to know if Medeia was male or female. It was well documented that one did not trifle with Medeia; even the Vigos were rumored to fear their boss.

Reviewing the information several times, Mara formulated her plan. The police were running continuing surveillance on Black Sun?s suspected main headquarters, as well as on a couple of small clubs thought to be fronts for the organization. Locating Medeia?s whereabouts was as important as creating a better profile on Medeia. Observation is the best way to gather information during research. Since the Organized Crime Division had kindly provided the address, Mara knew where to start her observations.

And she knew just the Jedi to help her.

Surreptitiously pushing her way through hordes of bureaucrats, Mara entered the Justice Building, unnoticed by the holoreporters that lined the steps in front of the building. She weaved through the crowds blocking the corridors, occasionally glancing up to read the room numbers posted above the doors. Finally, she reached her destination.

A knot of people blocked her entrance. Two uniformed officers flanked the door and denied entry to the several holoreporters requesting admission. They were told that the judge would not allow any news people into his courtroom until the hearing was about to start. No holovids or microrecorders allowed. Mara wanted to get inside the hearing room without being noticed by the holoreporters. Her green eyes flickered as an idea came to mind. Glancing around the corridor, her gaze landed upon a perfect distraction. About three doors down the hall, another redhead stood waiting. Mara?s lips curled into a smile. That other woman was about to have a brief brush with fame. Half closing her eyes, Mara sent a subtle suggestion to the holoreporters, advising them to look to the left. The first one caught a glimpse of a redheaded woman and broke ranks from his cronies hoping to be the first to interview Skywalker?s wife. The others followed suit, not wanting to miss their chance. Mara quickly approached the now cleared doorway, and showed her identification to one of the guards, who opened the door for her.

She saw Luke sitting at a table inside the bar, his head bent in conversation with Nawara Ven. Walking towards the bar, Mara slipped into a seat directly behind Luke. He sensed her presence, turning his head from Ven to face her. Smiling, he reached for her hand, grasping it and holding it at the railing. Luke leaned back in his chair, pulled her towards him and sought her lips. A guard came in between them. "No contact with the defendant prior to the hearing."

Mara glared at him, but let go of Luke?s hand. She didn?t want to get thrown out of the courtroom. The guard moved away, though not far. She may not be allowed physical contact but at least their bond was reconnected. It felt wonderful to bask in his presence; she reached out, sending him assurance and love. He responded in kind, accepting her offering. The light of the Force glowed between them, its power surging as they rode it. It will be alright, Luke, she sent. I know, I feel it, was his reply. There was no one else, just them. Suddenly, a dark wall crashed between them, bending their hope. Luke jumped to his feet, his intense blue eyes scanning the gallery. The guard returned and told Luke to get back into his chair. "You will remain seated, unless told to stand."

Luke nodded for the guard?s benefit as he took his seat. Tentatively, he reached his senses for Mara, relieved to find her still searching for the cause of the dark wall. Together they looked for the Sith they were sure was there. They found nothing. Before they could communicate again, the court clerk, a female Mon Calamari, announced, "All rise for the honorable Judge Al?seyr."

Everybody stood until the judge took his seat at the bench, then all sat down. The clerk spoke again. "Court is now in session. Case is the Government of Chad versus Luke Skywalker."

Stroking his black fur, Judge Al?seyr looked at both the prosecuting attorneys. "Gentlebeings, please state the charges."

"Your Honor. Charge is murder in the first degree, premeditated."

A gold C3 droid performing the duties of court reporter entered the charge into the official record.

The judge then looked at Ven. "Counselor, how does your client plead?"

"Not guilty," Nawara stated loudly.

The response was duly entered. The judge said, "This session today is to determine the case?s merit, to set a trial date and also to determine bail. Prosecution may make a statement to the court and present evidence."

Pushing back his chair, a tall male human stood up at the prosecutor?s table. Clearing his throat, the man said, "Thank you, Your Honor. We contend that the defendant did brutally attack and murder his wife. We have collected sufficient evidence to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Luke Skywalker stood before Callista Skywalker and shot her in the heart at point blank range then scuttled her boat to cover his heinous crime. We have in our possession the murder weapon, a blaster registered to the defendant, logs from Chad?s spaceport indicating the presence of the defendant on planet at the time of the crime, and reports on the watercraft detailing the lightsaber damage. The government of Chad hereby requests that the trial be placed on the docket immediately and that due to the brutality of the crime, that the defendant be denied bail."

Mara watched the man give his speech. His statement made Luke appear to be a monster, which of course, was what the prosecution wanted to do. They were waging a case against the most recognized and most respected man in the Republic. It was their duty to change the popular opinion of Luke Skywalker from a hero of the rebellion to a man capable of murder. What concerned her the most was Luke?s reaction to it. During the prosecutor?s speech, Mara was connected to Luke through their bond, holding on to his emotions and feelings, sending comforting thoughts. Luke had kept his emotions deep within, not letting them escape. It had hurt him that others thought that he could do such a thing, but he didn?t want to betray his emotions; his feelings were his own and not available for public scrutiny. Though she hadn?t been able to see his face, she knew he had put on his "Jedi Master Face". But when Luke heard the words "denied bail", he stiffened both mentally and physically. Relax, Luke. It?s a request only, she assured him through their bond. You?ll get bail. His turmoil lessened at her unspoken words but she was still worried. He didn?t want to spend any more time muffled and cut off from the Force, his life?s blood. If he was denied bail, he might do something stupid.

"Thank you, Counselor Janason. Your request has been entered into the official record," Judge Al?seyr stated. "Counselor Ven. Your response."

Nawara inclined his head, then stood up, leaning against the chair, favoring his uninjured leg. "Your Honor. Justice needs to be done. The murderer of Callista Skywalker must answer for his or her crimes but her real murderer still roams the galaxy. My client did not commit this cowardly act. We have proof of his innocence and request that the trial be added to the docket three standard weeks from today," Ven paused, then pointed his sharp finger at the plaintiffs. "As for the prosecution?s assertion that Luke Skywalker be denied bail, I say it has no merit. Releasing him on bail offers absolutely no risk. He has been an exemplary citizen for fifteen years, his exploits and honesty heavily documented. He will be at the trial."

Nawara Ven took his seat as the judge was saying, "Thank you, Counselor."

Looking at the court reporter, Judge Al?seyr stated, "Defense?s response has been entered into the official record." Then he looked in the other direction at the Mon Calamari. "I?m calling a short recess."

"All rise," the court clerk shouted before the judge disappeared into his chambers.

Luke leaned towards Ven and whispered, "What are my chances?"

Straightening his shoulders, Ven said, "Pretty good. He won?t deny bail but it will be hefty."

"How so?" asked Luke, turning in his chair.

Ven replied, "The prosecution didn?t want you out even though they really have no proof that you?d skip planet. It?s a capital offense and violent crime cases usually have high bail."

"Skywalker?s hide is always expensive," Mara said, from behind Luke. She had leaned forward to listen in when the judge left the bench.

Luke swiveled so that he could see her but before he could say anything, he felt a familiar presence enter the courtroom. A low murmuring rolled over the gallery as Leia and Han walked up the aisle, then seated themselves next to Mara. "What?s happening?" Leia asked.

Mara answered, "We?re in recess. What happened to you two?"

"Stang holoreporters," Han growled. "They cornered Leia in the hallway."

Leia caught Mara?s subtle smile and asked, "How did you deal with them, Mara?"

"I didn?t. A redhead down the corridor did," Mara replied.

Han grinned. "Ah, the old bait and switch. The Kid?s used that one before."

Rolling his eyes, Luke said, "I?m not a kid."

"I hate to interrupt the family reunion, but I really need to know if any of you are prepared to post bail," Nawara asked, drawing the conversation back to arraignment. "The judge should be returning soon."

"Yes," both Mara and Leia answered.

"All rise for the Honorable Judge Al?seyr," droned the clerk, her bulbous eyes focused on the gallery.

The black-furred Bothan stepped up on his dais and sat at his bench, then nodded to the clerk.

"You may be seated. Defendant remaining standing," she ordered.

Pushing his chair back softly, Luke stood, letting his arms hang at his sides, his hands open and non-threatening. Intent on listening, he kept his eyes focused on the judge. He could feel that every sentient in the room was looking at him. Mara continued to reassure him through their bond.

"Luke Skywalker, you have been charged with the murder of Callista Skywalker for which you will stand trial beginning in two standard weeks. In the meanwhile, bail in the amount of one hundred thousand credits may be posted for you to be released from custody. If this amount cannot be provided, you will remain incarcerated. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Your Honor," Luke replied.

"Will you be posting bail?" he asked.

Luke nodded. "Yes."

"Counselor Ven will instruct you about bail posting and requirements," Judge Al?seyr stated, then he declared, "This hearing is now adjourned."

The formerly quiet atmosphere became noisy as a few holoreporters left the room to report on the hearing results. The remaining holoreporters stayed to watch the family, hoping to follow them out and obtain an interview. Several members of Chad?s ambassadorial staff remained seated, whispering about the proceedings. Law students argued about possible legal strategies.

Its presence hidden from the Jedi, one sentient sat in the back of the room and smiled. Medeia loved it when a plan came together and this one was working perfectly.

Luke?s family leaned forward on the railing waiting for Ven to discuss the bail. Nawara swiveled his chair around to face the party. "Here?s the deal. A credit chip for the amount of bail needs to be presented to the court clerk. Once that is done, Luke is free to leave but is placed under certain restrictions."

"Such as?" Mara asked before Luke could open his mouth.

Nawara grinned. "The worst thing that could ever happen to a pilot. He?s grounded."

"Actually, that might be good. If Luke?s not flying, I should be able to get the insurance company to lower the premium," Mara said straight-faced.

Han added, "Incom will be disappointed. They probably keep a replacement X-Wing ready for delivery at all times."

"What about the Flame?" Leia piped in.

Mara waved her hand. "I?ll just make myself her new Captain."

"What?" Luke exclaimed.

Laughing at his expression of disbelief, Mara teased, "Well, you won?t be flying her for while."

Luke groaned at their teasing. Ignoring them, he asked Ven, "What else?"

"No weapons and no illegal activity. You cannot leave the city. You?ll be under increased scrutiny, so as long as you keep out of trouble, you?ll be free. Break any of the restrictions and they?ll throw you back in the cell until trial," answered Nawara.

Luke nodded in understanding. It was going to be hard not having his lightsaber at hand; he felt bare without it. It was a sacrifice he would make so that he could be out from under the influence of the ysalamiri that he?d been under the past two days. The guard almost brought the ysalamiri with them but the court clerk wouldn?t allow the animals into the court, much to Luke?s delight. "I can do that. Anything to get out of that cell and away from those blasted ysalamiri."

"Oh," Ven exclaimed. "Didn?t I tell you? You have to take those home with you."

Astonished by Nawara?s revelation, Luke?s eyes widened and his mouth gaped. Then he caught a hint of amusement fluttering in the Force. Cocking an eyebrow, Luke said, "You have been spending way too much time with Wes and Hobbie."

Braintails twitching, Ven looked slightly insulted. "Please. Don?t compare me to those amateurs. I couldn?t resist such an opening. I am so glad that Wedge asked me to do this. I enjoy getting a chance to sharpen my wit."

Rolling his eyes, Luke held his hand out to Mara who placed a credit chip in his palm. Luke put the chip on the table in front of Nawara, a little harsher than he intended. "Why don?t you sharpen your legal skills and pay the woman? I?d like to go home."

Realizing that he might have gone a little too far, Ven was all business again. Getting up, he approached the Mon Calamari. After handing her the chip, she gave him a release for Luke to sign. Nawara gave the pad to Luke and instructed, "Sign here. Then you are free to go."

While signing his name, Luke apologized, "I?m sorry I snapped at you, Nawara. I guess I?m a little on edge."

"I did overstep my bounds. I tend to slip into my Rogue persona quite often. I find that a sense of humor helps get me through the day," Ven replied, then picked up his briefcase. "I?ll contact you tomorrow about witnesses, evidence and such."

Luke stood up and shook his hand. "Thanks."

Nawara opened the gate at the railing, holding it open for Luke.

The holoreporters descended upon them the moment they exited the courtroom. Microrecorders were held in front of their faces, lights from holocams blinded their eyes. Questions were volleyed from every direction, bombarding their ears.

"Your Highness"

"When will?"

"Master Skywalker"

"Did you do it?"

"Captain Solo"

"What about?"

"Mrs. Skywalker"

"Is it true?"

"Where did the money?"

"What are your feelings?."

The cacophony continued until Leia could take no more; she may have been used to such holoreporters and interviews, but enough was enough. Wanting to clear the hallway, she focused on the sensors in the ceiling that triggered the sprinkler system.

The questions were replaced by swearing and screaming as the crowd was rained upon. Holocams and recorders were hurriedly put away to prevent damage; no one had thought to bring outdoor equipment.

During the confusion, the Skywalkers and the Solos walked out of the building, unmolested.

Savoring every bite of his first home cooked meal, Luke continued forking in the Corellian Sausage Casserole. It was wonderful after the prison swill. Once the plate was empty, Luke picked up his glass and went over to the refrigeration unit to pour another glass of blue milk. "Mara, you want some more milk?"

She shook her head. "No. I haven?t even finished the first glass."

"Oh. I guess I did eat that pretty fast," Luke said before gulping down his milk.

Mara?s plate was only half eaten. Taking a few more bites, she then put down her fork on the plate. She grabbed both plates and took them over to the dishwasher. Glancing at Luke, she noticed that he was now nibbling on a piece of ryshcate. "Didn?t they feed you?"

Shrugging his shoulders, he replied, "Yes. But I ate better during the war."

She smiled. "That bad, huh?"

Wiping the crumbs from the front of his shirt, he poured another glass of blue milk, then answered, "Yes."

Mara watched as he drank his milk, swallowing it quickly. Luke had relaxed considerably once they got home, away from the holoreporters. He had missed her as much as she missed him. Their bond was connected again, the emptiness gone. Eyeing him lovingly, she came closer as he put his glass down on the counter. Reaching her hand to his face, she brushed away some crumbs from his chin. Noticing a dribble of milk at the corner of his mouth, she used her finger to wipe it away. Lightly, she touched her fingertips to his lips then traced a line along the cleft of his chin, his throat, over his Adam?s apple and over his collar bone, bringing her palms to rest on his chest.

Pulling her closer into his embrace, Luke covered her mouth with his. Her hands snaked up behind his neck as she pressed into the kiss, her tongue tracing his lips. His hands were moving up and down her spine, causing her to shiver in delight. She brought her hands down to his shoulders, then trailed her fingers along his chest, opening the fasteners of his tunic. Pressing her body firmly against his, he moaned in response. Slowing his caresses on her back, he brought his hands down to her hips. First running his fingers along and then under the hem of her tunic, he began to run his fingertips across her skin, causing her to gasp. With one hand, he reached the bottom fastener of her tunic and began undoing them, working his way upwards. When he reached the last fastener, Mara?s hands grabbed hold of his wrists. Breathing heavily, she said huskily, "Let?s move this party upstairs."

"Why?" he breathed, nibbling at her ear. "This is the perfect place for dessert."

Chapter 23

Mara looped the synthrope from her hand to her elbow several times before placing it in her briefcase. Then she walked over to her husband?s office, brushing against him in the process.

"Mara, I still think I should go with you. We?re a team, remember?"

Opening and shutting a few of the antique drawers, Mara finally found the item for which she was looking. "Luke. We already discussed this," she said, her eyes on him. "If you got caught doing this, they?d toss you right back into that cell with your little pets."

Luke sighed. She was right, and he knew it but it didn?t mean he liked it. "Just make sure you keep in contact with me."

"Of course, sweetheart," Mara replied, patting his cheek. "Now, stop worrying about me and help me check this listening device."

Nodding reluctantly, Luke left the office while Mara plugged an earpiece into her right ear. She turned on the device, placed it against the wall, then listened. Soon, Luke?s voice could be heard clearly saying, "Mara, your partner in crime is here." Then, she heard him walking away. Removing the device from the wall as well as pulling it from her ear, Mara exited the office and went out into the living room, tossing the device into the briefcase. Luke came back into the room with her partner.

Corran Horn smiled when he saw Mara, said hello and then looked back to Luke. Holding out his hand, Luke offered him a chair. Then, Mara and Luke sat on the sofa. "Thanks for coming, Corran," Mara said, her expression sincere.

"No problem, Mara." Scratching his chin, Corran asked, "What is it you needed?"

Mara answered, "I need your help with some detective work."

Corran?s green eyes shifted from Mara to Luke. "Detective work? Does this have something to do with the trial?"

"No. A Sith," Luke said emphatically. "There is a Sith Lord. Here on Coruscant."

Astonished by the declaration, Corran responded, "A Sith? Here? What kind of detective work can be done on a Sith Lord?"

"We?re not going up against this Sith yet," Luke replied

Mara continued, "Luke and I have a pretty good idea who the Sith is, but we aren?t totally sure where the Sith is. Because of your Corsec training, I thought that you would be our best bet for staking out and infiltrating the possible enemy base."

Corran shifted in his chair, leaning forward. "That I can do."

"Good. Here is all the information I have on the target," Mara said, placing a datapad on the table in front of Corran "I?ve been collecting data for a couple of days and I?m ready for a closer look."

Perusing the data, Corran started to get a bad feeling about the situation. "The Black Sun? You think that the leader of the Black Sun is the Sith Lord?"

Luke nodded. "It makes the most sense. Medeia instigated the bounty on me." He paused. " I know that Medeia is the Sith Lord," Luke declared with conviction.

Relaxing back in his chair, Corran thought about the request. Luke believed what he was saying; Medeia was a Sith. Corran?s own Force sense was confirming Luke?s admission but there was something missing from the equation.

This would not be a simple task. The Black Sun was not an easy organization to infiltrate. According to the data Mara provided, it was near impossible, but he was a Rogue and Rogues did the impossible. But could he do the impossible as a Jedi? There was only one way to find out. "What?s your plan?"

The artificial lighting blinked on, flooding the graying alley with light. A hawkbat fluttered down from the archway, swooping just above the lone male figure nearing an unsheltered service door. The brown-haired man shooed the creature away from himself, then clicked his communications device twice, signaling to his partner that he was in position. He approached the door and pushed the buzzer. There was no answer but he knew that was because they were checking him out via hidden holo. Eventually, the door slid open and a brown-scaled Trandoshan appeared in the threshold, his beady red eyes staring menacingly at the man.

"Hello. I?m Nej Halyc from Climatize Incorporated to service your heating system," Corran announced, creasing his brow when the trandoshan didn?t respond. "You did call for service, didn?t you?"

The Trandoshan grunted and moved to the side, allowing Nej to enter. "Not me, but the humans are not comfortable. They called."

This is too easy, Corran thought. He shifted his hold on the toolbox and smiled at his escort. "Just show me to the?"

Wide splayed fingers landed on his shoulder, then pushed him against the wall. "Not so fast. Identification."

"Yeah, it?s in my pocket," Corran said, setting the box carefully on the ground and reaching into his jumpsuit. "Here?s my company ID."

The Trandoshan viewed the card carefully, then declared, "Okay, it looks legit. Follow me."

Picking up his tools and following the thug down the extremely hot corridor, Corran thought, It is legit. The president of Climatize was an old friend of Horn?s; he not only supplied the legitimate ID but also provided offsite access to the temperature controls. Most malfunctions were handled offsite but in this case the caller was advised that the problem was at their location and a repairman would be dispatched. This would give Corran his way inside. His friend?s only comment was that he would disavow any knowledge of the scheme if Corran were caught.

All Corran had to do now was delay completion of the actual repair work, as well as being ready for any sudden changes. Mara needed time to put her plan into action. He was responsible for giving her that time and to provide her with backup, if necessary.

A young brunette walked directly into the lobby of Lucazec Limited. Situated in the outskirts of Invisec, the building had seen better days but was still functional and secure. After approaching the security kiosk, she set her briefcase on the floor, then said, "Cassiopeia Torva. I?m from the temporary agency."

The security officer glanced up and looked into the brown eyes of the woman. Smoothing a wrinkle on her gray clerical worker?s suit, she pulled out her identification card and handed it to the man. He took the card and ran it through a scanner. After reviewing instructions on his computer, he said, "Take the turbolift to level Four. Gwenda will show you to your workstation."

With a quick nod, Cassiopeia picked up her briefcase and walked to the open turbolift, letting her enter immediately. Once the doors shut, she spoke. "I?m in Luke."

She heard his reply in her earpiece. "Okay. What about Corran?"

A low male voice whispered, "I?m in the control room fixing the malfunction. My escort Toothy insists on waiting."

"Don?t say anything else, Corran. Mara or I will let you know what to do," Luke advised.

Using her hand to smooth her brown hair back, Mara smiled. Even though Luke couldn?t be with them, he was enjoying his commander role. He was also the only one of them who would be using the Force; Corran and she were cloaking their presence to avoid being detected by Medeia.

The turbolift speaker announced her level. Quickly adjusting her stance and picking up the briefcase, she hurriedly said, "It?s show time."

The doors opened and Mara exited, stepping into a lushly decorated reception area. Exquisite fijisi chairs were arranged in a small semi-circle around a small ebon table. A large semi-circular bar comprised the receptionist?s area. A middle-aged woman looked up from her monitor. Wiping her brow, she said, "You must be Cassiopeia. I?m Gwenda."

Extending her hand in greeting, Mara answered, "Yes, I am. Pleased to meet you, Gwenda? Are you okay?"

Gwenda wiped her brow again. "I?m fine. Just a slight malfunction in the heating system."

"I hope it will be fixed soon. It would be difficult to work in such an environment," Mara complained.

Standing up, Gwenda came out from behind her station. "It is. That?s why you?re here. Hach? couldn?t handle the heat and went home. Thanks for coming so quickly. Follow me."

Mara followed the woman down a corridor, and into a small cubicle framed with transparisteel walls. The sparse area contained a functional desk, comfortable chair and a simple computer system, already booted up and running. Placing her briefcase under the desk, she sat in the chair and looked up at Gwenda, waiting for instructions. "Hach? was doing data entry before she left. It?s pretty straightforward. Just enter these figures," she pointed at a stack of flimsies, "into the corresponding form." She tapped the monitor.

Perusing the data and then nodding in understanding, Mara replied, "I can do that." Picking up a flimsy, she fanned herself. "Can?t anything be done about the heat?"

Frowning, Gwenda answered, "It is being worked on. I?ll check with Matossk."

Tapping a few keys, Mara began entering some of the sales information, continuing to do so until Gwenda left. As soon as the woman was out of sight, Mara said, "Corran. Crank up the heat."

Mara stopped inputting the sales data and began searching the database, looking for and opening other files. Fortunately, the station she occupied was part of the office Intranet, giving her the capability to contact other stations in the building. In her ear, she could hear the distant beep of a comlink; Gwenda had contacted Matossk. The angry Trandoshan snarled at Corran and said something Mara couldn?t understand. Then Corran responded, "Hey, it?s not my fault. You?ve got a faulty circuit. It?ll be fixed when it?s fixed."

Matossk made some threat and thundered out of the room. Corran said, "He?s gone for a while. I?ve pushed the heat to the max."

"Leave the top floor at normal," Luke added. "We don?t want the mynock to fly the coop."

"I?ve downloaded some files," Mara said, her fingers flying on the keyboard. Using a few tricks Ghent had shown her, she had managed to slice into some protected files. "As soon as the heat reaches forty-four degrees, I?m sending the evacuation signal."

The heat build up was oppressive. Mara removed her jacket, attempting to stay cool. Typing quickly, she finished the evacuation notice and sent it to all workstations.

All employees on levels 1 through 5 are to leave the building until repairs can be completed.

Signing out of her user function, Mara put the system into stand-by mode, picked up her briefcase, stuffed her jacket into it and walked out of her cubicle. "Luke, I?m going up to the sixth level."

"I?m not sensing any danger, Mara."

Mara didn?t say anything as several employees rushed past her towards the turbolift. She slipped into a small closet when she saw Gwenda surveying the office for any stragglers. Peeking out the door, she caught another glimpse of the receptionist stepping into the turbolift as the doors slid shut. The digital numbers descended to one and remained there. The second and third turbolifts did the same thing. Mara came over to the turbolifts and pushed a button, waiting for one to return. Momentarily, one arrived and Mara entered it, requesting the sixth level.

From their apartment, Luke had been tracking Mara and Corran?s activities with the Force. In order to minimize chances of detection by Medeia, he had been skirting the senses of the occupants of the building, avoiding direct contact. Delving deep into the Force, he was able to slip into the headquarters and lightly brush the senses of the people without disturbing them. It took precise control to perform such a task and he was excelling in the endeavor. He had yet to encounter the dark presence he knew existed in the office building but he could meet it at any moment. No warnings had been given and everything was going smoothly. Perhaps, this mission would come off without a hitch.

"I?m at six," Mara announced.

Scanning for danger, Luke searched the corridor for sentients. "Hallway is clear. Offices are occupied."

Luke heard the door swish and the rustling of Mara?s clothes. Pushing his senses out further, he abruptly hit a wall of blackness. Pulling back, he did a tentative probe of the area, testing for identity and danger. "Mara. I think our Dark Sider is at the end of the corridor."

"Okay. I?ll check it out," replied Mara.

A little tingle started in the back of his mind. He opened his mouth to warn Mara when his door annunciator buzzed. A quick scan revealed the person of Major Hoover, waiting patiently outside. "Stang. Hoover?s here."

"Disconnect, Luke," Mara ordered.

It was the last thing Luke wanted to do but he had no choice. "Fine. I?m out."

Hurriedly and angrily, Luke yanked the communications device loose. Whereas using the device itself wasn?t a problem, it was the fact that they were involved in breaking and entering that would get him into trouble. He turned off the device and stuffed it into a drawer. Taking a deep breath, Luke went to the door and let the Major inside.

Mara heard the click when Luke disconnected. Returning to the task at hand, she said, "Corran. Heat up Suite 6B."

"As ordered," replied Corran. "Throttle is full out."

Hiding behind a large ch?hala tree, Mara only had to wait a few minutes before the occupant of 6B, carrying his suit jacket, came out and went into the waiting turbolift. Hastily entering the now vacant suite and closing the door, Mara rushed to the wall next to the desk, pulling out the special listening device and adhering it to the wall. She hooked it up to an earpiece and also connected it to a datarecorder. There was a conversation going on in the next suite; it sounded like two women. She sat down and began to listen in earnest.

"?worry too much."

"I know but the chances for acquittal are?"

"It doesn?t matter."

"Seeing Callista after all this time was horrible."

"I know it?s hard, Kirawyn, but don?t fall apart. Skywalker won?t get off easily. I can guarantee it."

"Really, Akanah? What does the Current tell you?"

"It?s just a matter of time before the truth is known."

Mara could hear a chair being moved, scuffing the floor, followed by footfalls towards the wall dividing the two offices. Grimacing at the noise as a hand rubbed heavily against the wall, Mara held her breath against the pain in her ears. The listening device was so sensitive that it had amplified the hand tracing to an unbelievable pitch.

"Will you teach me to read Current scribbling?"

"I might do that and more. The Falla?"

A beeping sound interrupted the conversation. Footsteps were heard going away from the wall. Gritting her teeth, Mara released her breath. A light tapping noise came to her attention.

"What?s wrong?"

"There is a problem with the heating system. They had to evacuate levels one through five."

"Is someone working on it?"

There was a long pause with only the sound of typing. "Matossk reports that a workman is here but hasn?t?Wait. Vigo Jandur is down with Matossk wanting to know why his office is so hot."

"What?s wrong with that, Akanah? If all the?"

"Vigo Jandur is next door."

A chair was rolled back quickly.

Mara abruptly disconnected the listening device. Time to relocate. Stuffing the device into her briefcase, she picked it up and looked around for her best escape route.

"Mara. Get out. They?re on to us," Corran hissed; he had overheard the conversation between Matossk and Jandur. Hurriedly, he looked over the building maintenance diagram posted on the work panel in front of him. It was the first thing he had reviewed when he began his charade. Having already pinpointed Mara?s location, he rechecked it to provide her an escape route. "According to the schematics, there is a ventilation shaft in the Southeast corner of the room."

Rushing to that corner, Mara climbed onto a credenza and quietly yanked the vent aside. Grabbing onto the edge, she lifted her body up and pulled herself into the ductwork and replaced the grill. There was a swish as the office door opened, revealing an empty room. Mara heard murmuring but couldn?t understand what was said. Frozen in place, she waited for the sound of retreating footsteps before shifting her position. "Corran. Where are you?"

There was a horrible growl, then the spitting sound of a blaster set on stun. "I?m still in the control room. Toothy was upset with my progress. He?s calmed down now."

"Meet me outside."

"As ordered."

Medeia thought that Skywalker was bold to attempt an infiltration of the Black Sun. Not that it was surprising; Skywalker had done it years ago when Xizor had gone up against him. Reaching out with the darkness, Medeia scanned for the Jedi but was startled that he wasn?t near; the man was far away in his apartment. Medeia wanted to smash his shields but for a lightsider, he had strong barriers. If Skywalker wasn?t here, then who was? It took only a moment for realization to hit; there was a Skywalker in the building, just not the one that Medeia thought. Grinning maliciously, Medeia was looking forward to meeting the Emperor?s Hand.

Having delivered some trial information, Terrill Hoover had just left the apartment when Luke felt the dark presence touch him. Raising his barriers higher, Luke successfully kept Medeia at bay but managed to feel a moment of surprise from the Sith before the Dark Sider retreated. Pulling the communications device from its hiding place, Luke put it back on to reestablish contact. "Mara. Status."

"Luke? We?re on our way out," exclaimed a startled Mara.

"Medeia knows something?s up," Luke warned.

"I know."

From her hiding place in the ductwork, Mara could hear that an intruder alert had been raised. All of the turbolifts were shut down, trapping her on the sixth level.

"Corran," she hissed. There was no answer.

Stang, she thought. Crawling through the ducts, she headed in the direction of the turbolifts. She reached the end of the line - the turbolift shaft. Using her feet to push out the grill, Mara was able to enter the huge shaft and began climbing down with the synthrope she had packed into the briefcase. Tying it securely to the grillwork, Mara wrapped it behind her waist, then pushed off the wall, bouncing her feet down the smooth walls. She was making excellent progress when suddenly, she heard a loud, rumbling noise. Stopping her descent, she braced herself and looking down, saw the turbolift cable moving. Keeping a tight hold on the rope, she hastily reached the next level down. "Corran. Open Level three door of turbolift two."

"I can?t, Mara. I?m not near a computer."

"Sith," she swore under her breath.

Digging her feet into some footholds on the shaft interior, Mara frantically tried to pry open the doors with her bare hands but without success. Suddenly, a vibration almost knocked her loose. The turbolift car began to move up steadily.

"Luke. A little help please," she asked over the microphone.

The cranking, whirring noise was loud and she wasn?t sure that Luke heard her. "Luke. Open the door!"

Slowly, the door began to open a crack. Mara reached her hands in, forcing them to slide open far enough for her body to get through.

"Mara. You okay?"

She dusted herself off, checking for the briefcase that was tied to her waist. "I?m fine. Thanks, Luke."

It was now time for Mara to find the stairs so she could get out of there. Taking a moment to check her datapad, she pulled up the blueprints of the building and located the nearest stairwell. "I?m walking this time. See you soon."

Taking the steps two at a time, Mara made it to the first level landing when she smacked directly into Kirawyn Rochester. Reverting into her character, she babbled, "I?m so sorry. I got lost. It was so hot, I tried to leave but the turbolifts didn?t work."

Kirawyn?s black eyes stared into Mara?s brown ones, searching for recognition but finding none. Slowly, she pulled out a blaster and aimed it at Mara. "I don?t believe you."

Waving the blaster at Mara, Kirawyn then pointed it down the stairs. Mara took the lead, reaching the bottom landing and pausing. Kirawyn came up next to her, then palmed the door opener. It slid open and Kirawyn gestured for Mara to proceed. Calmly, Mara walked through the door. Kirawyn followed her only to crumple to the ground. Smiling triumphantly, Corran Horn stepped away from the wall, saluting her with one of his workman?s tools. "Just a handy little trick I found useful on Courkrus."

Medeia was able to track Jade and her accomplice once the two had stopped cloaking their presence. It was a surprise to discover that Corran Horn was Jade?s partner. The fact that he was apparently a Jedi was startling but important information that could be useful in future negotiations. Despite this intriguing turn of events, the Emperor?s Hand was Medeia?s main concern. If Jade had somehow gotten enough information to make certain connections, Medeia?s plans could be compromised. With a maleficent idea coming to mind, Medeia decided that a little visit was in order.

It was time to spy once again on the Skywalkers.

After returning to the Skywalker apartment, Mara and Corran sat with Luke to discuss the operation. Removing the brown colored contacts from her eyes, Mara started the conversation. "I?m positive we?re looking in the right direction."

"But we never encountered Medeia," Corran countered.

Mara continued, "Maybe not directly, but listen to the conversation I recorded."

Opening her briefcase, Mara retrieved the listening device and activated the replay function. Luke and Corran listened intently to the two women talking.

"?worry too much."

"I know but the chances for acquittal are?"

From the surprised expression on Luke?s face, Mara knew that he recognized the voice of Kirawyn Rochester. Luke looked at Mara; he also knew about whom they were talking.

"It doesn?t matter."

"Seeing Callista after all this time was horrible."

"I know it?s hard, Kirawyn, but don?t fall apart. Skywalker won?t get off easily. I can guarantee it."

"Does the Black Sun have a reach into the Justice system?" Corran wondered aloud.

Mara depressed the pause button, looking worriedly at Luke. After feeling the Sith at the arraignment, she knew he was thinking the same thing. Mara said, "If Medeia shows up at the trial and tries to influence the jury?We can?t let that happen."

Running his hands through his blond hair, Luke said the words he hoped he wouldn?t have to say. "I?ll have to ask Nawara to request that ysalamiri be placed in the courtroom."

"I agree. I don?t want a Sith practitioner using mind tricks to send you to prison," Mara added as she started to reach for the playback button.

"Actually," Corran interrupted, holding Mara?s hand back. "I was referring to bribery."

Luke groaned. "I hadn?t thought about that."

"Let Nawara know that you?re worried about Black Sun interference. He can take it from there," advised Corran.

Nodding, Mara pushed the replay button again.

"Really, Akanah? What does the Current tell you?"

This time, Luke stopped the playback. "Who?s Akanah?"

"She?s on the directory of employees. Administrative Assistant," Mara said, scanning her datapad until she reached the employee listings. "I looked up both names but only Akanah had a listing."

Glancing at the listing Mara had given him, Luke searched for another name. "Medeia is not listed either."

"Lucazec Limited is a legitimate company. As a known crime boss, Medeia isn?t going to risk having such a connection made," said Corran.

Mara shook her head. "But Lucazec is under surveillance by Coruscant Security."

"Could be for a number of reasons. But to blatantly advertise Black Sun involvement?" started Corran.

"But Xizor had a legitimate company named after him," Luke blurted out.

Holding up his hand, Corran stated, "Different time, different government. Nowadays bad PR, especially a criminal connection, erodes consumer confidence and?"

"Let?s not discuss economics. I?m not concerned about the business. Medeia is still a mystery," Mara said, putting her hand on the playback button. "Shall we continue, please?"

"It?s just a matter of time before the truth is known."

"Will you teach me to read Current scribbling?"

"I might do that and more. The Falla?"

"That?s twice Kirawyn mentioned the Current. What is it?" Luke questioned.

Corran replied, "I haven?t a clue. I?ve never heard the term before. Could it be a code name?"

"Possibly. She says, ?What does the Current tell you?? Maybe an insider, a spy?" guessed Luke.

"That could mean that Current scribbling is how they make contact," said Corran.

While Corran and Luke discussed what or who the Current could be, Mara sat deep in thought. Now that she could fully access the Force, something in the back of her mind began to click. The Current meant something to her; she had heard the term long ago in another life. Unfortunately, it was unclear and vague but she would figure it out. There was one place where she knew she could look for the answers. She was roused from her musings by Luke?s exclamation; "?Maybe it?s Falleen."

"No, it?s Fallanassi," Mara said distantly, her eyes glazed over.

"There is no such thing as?" Luke retorted, then he stopped when he noticed her expression. Lightly nudging her, Luke stated, "Mara, you?ve remembered something?"

Mara blinked a few times, staring at Luke. Rubbing her temples, she said, "It?s a name of a race of people with whom the Emperor was interested in allying. I don?t remember much beyond that."

Gently taking hold of her hand, Luke caressed her palm with his thumb. "It?s a start anyway. I can check the archives."

"It won?t be there," Mara declared, shaking her head.

"Okay," responded Luke. Through their bond, he knew that she was planning to access the Emperor?s private files. Not wanting to press the issue or concern before Corran, he pressed the playback button to continue the recording.

"What?s wrong?"

"There is a problem with the heating system. They had to evacuate levels one through five."

"Is someone working on it?"

"Matossk reports that a workman is here but hasn?t?Wait. Vigo Jandur is down with Matossk wanting to know why his office is so hot."

"What?s wrong with that, Akanah? If all the?"

"Vigo Jandur is next door."

"This was when I had to make my hasty exit," Mara explained when the recording stopped.

"I had to do the same. That?s why I couldn?t help at the turbolift," Corran said apologetically.

Luke assured him. "You came through at the right time, Corran."

"Speaking of time, it?s late and I need to get home," he said, standing up. "Don?t hesitate to contact me if you need more help."

Luke and Mara both stood up and walked him to the door. "Thanks again, Corran. You were the best partner Mara could have had."

"Beside yourself, that is," Corran joked.

Smiling, Luke said, "That goes without saying. Goodnight, Corran."

"Goodnight, Luke, Mara."

Its intensity muted by the overcast skies, the morning sun filtered into the master bedroom. Pulling the covers tightly under her chin, Mara rolled over, away from the sunlight. Luke was already awake and on his back, his arms laying limply outside the covers. Mara moved again, taking more blankets with her, removing them from Luke. Grinning slyly, he grabbed hold of the covers and yanked them back towards him. Mara came with the covers. "Hey, Luke. Don?t do that," she mumbled.

"Stop hogging the covers. You have to share," he teased.

Mara glared at him but he ignored it. Tossing the covers up and over her head, he climbed out of bed. "I?ve got a meeting this morning with Nawara at his office. I should be back around lunch."

Removing the blankets from her face, she watched Luke walk into the refresher before she shouted, "Don?t use all the hot water!"

Yawning, she curled up and fell asleep again. Several minutes later, drowsiness left and she became aware of the sound of Luke rummaging in the closet. "I?ve gotta run, sweetheart," he said as he came out and headed for the bed. Giving her a quick kiss on the lips, he was soon out the door.

Mara watched him leave then threw the covers back, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. She needed to start slicing into the Emperor?s files today. The sooner the meaning of the current and the origins of the Fallanassi were determined the better. Medeia was a threat to Luke, herself and their life together. Whoever this Medeia was, he or she needed to be stopped.

It didn?t take long for Mara to slice into the Imperial network. Getting into the Emperor?s files took a little longer but she was into the coded files within a couple hours. A flood of memories assaulted Mara as she opened the different files. So many secrets from the past she had left behind. Looking at them now, Mara felt strangely detached, like a third party observer. She clicked her way through, allowing the Force to guide her. One file in particular jumped out at her: Current Candidate.

The door annunciator buzzed and Artoo rolled to answer it. He returned quickly, beeping at Mara. Annoyed at the interruption, she snarled at the droid. "What Artoo?"

He responded in kind, making the mechanical equivalent of a raspberry noise. Taking the translation pad from him, she read the message he was trying to tell her.

It was a holoreporter. I gave him a ?No comment.?

"Did you zap him, too?" she said jokingly. "Thanks, Artoo."

Returning to her work, Mara began reading the contents of the Current Candidate file, written by Palpatine himself many years ago.

Today, a representative of the Fallanassi made contact with me. She would not provide her name saying that it was best to protect her sisters since the decision to seek an alliance was not unanimous. I see an alliance as beneficial to my Empire. In their matriarchal society, these women have unique capabilities through a source they refer to as the Current. They possess an innate ability to change names, appearance and habits in order to blend in. Not a particularly important trait but they can also render themselves invisible to the Seeing Eye and not be located in the Force?

Mara drew her breath in, shivering in realization. Medeia had been in their apartment, the day that Luke jumped out of the shower and asked her if she felt the other presence. Mara continued reading.

If we forge an alliance, I want to learn some of these abilities. When I mention my desire, she had the nerve to deny my request but the Force has shown me that she is important to my future plans so I allow her to live. The young woman prefers to train other women, so I suggest my Hand. Once my Hand has trained in these abilities, she shall train me...

I determined today that this woman is also Force sensitive! Such promise. I begin training her in the Sith arts?

My own apprentice seems to be having trouble with his priorities since Hoth. Young Skywalker may not be so easily turned and I must keep my options open?

Death Star completion is fast approaching. My Hand hasn?t begun her training yet but once she returns from her mission she shall train in earnest?

Mara read voraciously, learning about their opponent. The Emperor had wanted her to train with the Fallanassi but her mission to Tatooine and his fateful trip to Endor ended all that. She needed a name for the Fallanassi woman; so far no name had been entered in the records. Scrolling down the screen, she found some more text at the bottom. When she found the name, she recognized it immediately, though it was slightly startling. A loud clang reverberated through the apartment. "Artoo?" she called.

When the droid didn?t reply, Mara went looking for him; he was at his station, powering up. Walking to the bottom of the staircase, she paused and listened, waiting for another noise, hoping to determine from where it came. That is, if it came again. Somehow, she had the feeling it would.

A door swished, whether open or closed was indecipherable but the sound came from upstairs. Grabbing her saber from a small table, she ran up the stairs, alert for danger. It was strangely silent, almost as if her danger sense was non-functional. Why can?t I sense?It must be Medeia, she thought. Stretching out her senses, she sought for darkness or a blank spot in the Force. Nothing. Her eyes darted back and forth, searching for a visible enemy.

There was a muted, indistinguishable sound from the spare bedroom. Carefully, she raised her left palm to open the door, her right hand held her lightsaber, thumb poised on the activator. The door slid open and she entered quickly, seeking cover. There was no one in the room that she could see. But as Luke had told her, her eyes could deceive her; especially in a case where the enemy can render itself invisible. Scanning the room, Mara looked for evidence of Medeia?s presence. In the back of her mind, there was a flash of remembrance ? a fleeting moment of danger. The door to the balcony was open. They never entered this room anymore and certainly wouldn?t leave the slider open. "Reveal yourself!" she demanded.

A low laugh started behind her, circling the room until it seemed to surround her, envelope her. Constantly on the alert, Mara inched closer to the deck. "Stop hiding in the shadows. Come and meet me, woman to woman," she challenged.

The curtains covering the windows fluttered in response. From outside, a cold, bitter wind bellowed, swirling around the room, chilling Mara to the bone. A voice whispered in the wind, floating through the air. "Come to me, Emperor?s Hand."

It came from outside, on the balcony. Holding the saber en guard, Mara took precise steps out onto the deck. Walking every inch of the balcony, Mara met no resistance. She stopped at the railing, glancing over the edge to see if maybe her antagonist had climbed down to the lower level. Her back against the railing, she announced, "I?m here, Medeia. Where are you?"

"Right here," said the cloaked Medeia, materializing before Mara?s shocked eyes.

Taking full advantage of Mara?s astonishment, Medeia used both of her arms to push Mara backward over the railing. Mara?s lightsaber was knocked out of hand as it slammed against the edge. Twisting around, Mara reached for purchase, but failed to grab hold of anything. She fell rapidly, her arms flailing through the air. Unable to cushion her fall, Mara?s body hit the lower balcony with a heavy thud and hard snap, landing on her side, before rolling onto her back. Groaning in pain, Mara?s eyelids fluttered as she tried to remain conscious. She attempted to focus on the dark figure watching from the upper balcony. Then there was nothing as she slipped into unconsciousness.

Medeia laughed.

Chapter 24

The ominous feeling of dread would not leave Luke?s mind. Ever since he had arrived at Ven?s office, he could sense a future danger, but it wasn?t clear or focused. Feeling that the danger was directed at him, he mistakenly assumed it had to do with the trial. Luke pushed the feelings and thoughts to the back of his mind so he could focus his attention on his attorney and the upcoming trial. For the first couple hours, Nawara showed Luke all the evidence to be presented against him and how they would deal with each bit. A couple of hours later, Ven moved onto courtroom etiquette. Clasping his hands together, Luke listened carefully as Nawara explained some legal proceedings to him. Suddenly, through their bond, he felt Mara leap into battle readiness. Mara, what?s wrong? he sent.

A chilly shiver hit him as she answered telepathically. Medeia is here.

In response to her declaration, Luke jumped straight out of his chair, startling Ven. At first, the attorney was confused that his client would react in such a way to his explanations. Then Nawara realized that he wasn?t the reason for Luke?s action. Concerned, he asked, "Is something wrong?"

"Yes. It?s Mara," Luke replied, his eyes half-closed in concentration. "She?s in danger. I need to go."

Ven was alarmed by the information. "Shall I call security?" he asked.

His blue eyes opened fully and Luke nodded, then rushed out of Ven?s office. Luke?s heart beat faster and a lump formed in his throat as he realized that he wasn?t going to get home in time to help his wife. When he reached the turbolift, there was a sharp pain in his back and his left arm throbbed, causing him to wince and draw his breath in sharply. Then nothing, no feeling, no thoughts as Mara?s familiar, warm presence disappeared.

Her malicious laughter had ceased since her victim was no longer aware. Pleased with her work, Medeia stared down at the unconscious body of Mara Skywalker for a few minutes, then moved away from the edge. Her foot kicked something on the floor. Bending over, she picked up Jade?s discarded lightsaber. Fingering it, she thought that it would somehow be poetic justice to slay the Jedi with his wife?s saber. Drawing the dark energy to herself, she sought out and found the frantic presence of Luke Skywalker. He was on his way back to the apartment, acutely aware of his wife?s predicament, knowing that she was in grave danger and unable to do anything in her aid.

In keeping with the details of her plan, Medeia would not confront him yet. The mental torture would continue and be sufficient revenge for the time being. Chuckling, a thought ran through her head; surely the Jedi was worried about becoming a widower again. It was too bad that he couldn?t be blamed for this unfortunate accident.

She would savor his pain and anguish. Rather than confront Skywalker, Medeia would allow his guilt to wear down his defenses. With his wife seriously injured and the stress of what would come out at the trial, he would be thoroughly demoralized. She knew that she couldn?t face him at his best; he was too skilled. Medeia had the advantage of time. Their final violent confrontation would come in due course and Medeia would be the victor. The Current had told her Skywalker would be defeated and the nackhawns would be pecking at his rotting carcass. Her revenge would be complete.

Leaving the balcony, Medeia slid gracefully through the bedroom door and sped down the steps. Stopping briefly at the computer terminal in the comcenter, she ignited the lightsaber and slashed through both the monitor and the hard drive, sending sparks flying through the air.

The noise of the computer?s destruction drew the attention of a droid. The old astromech twitter-beeped as it came towards her, extending a pathetic appendage at her. Medeia briefly considered destroying the amusing annoyance, but she needed the droid functional. Instead of destroying it, she used the Force to shut it down, and at the same time pushed it back into its alcove.

Then she left the apartment and using the Current, vanished into the graying light of the corridor just as Security exited the turbolift.

Security came directly to the Skywalker?s apartment. First, knocking firmly but receiving no response, the officers then made several verbal requests for entrance that went ignored. They tried the override code on the door, but quickly discovered that the residents had apparently changed the code. After several minutes with no success, the head officer contacted Master Skywalker. Flipping his comlink open, he entered Luke?s number and was relieved to receive an immediate but irritated response.


"Master Skywalker. Lt. Giord, N.R. Security. We responded to Nawara Ven?s call but haven?t been able to gain entrance to your apartment. Nobody is answering," he explained.

Luke replied hastily, "Hold on a moment."

A click was heard, followed by a short pause, then another click as Luke came back on, his voice anxious. "My droid?s not answering. I?m in the lobby. I?ll be right there."

Quickly, Luke input the code, and rushed into his home ahead of the security forces. Coming in directly after him, the four officers spread out around the apartment, not sure of what they would find, but alert to any possible danger. One of the officers immediately found a deactivated R2 unit in the droid alcove and a slagged computer in the comcenter. The others thoroughly checked the downstairs rooms, kitchen, office, and closets.

Luke sprinted up the stairs, calling for Mara both aloud and through their bond, receiving no answer to either. His panic increased and fear churned in his stomach. Their bond was so strong and so deep that almost nothing short of death could sever it. He should be receiving some sort of response. Doubt crept in to his mind, claiming that she was dead. His heart fought the doubt, knowing that she was alive. She had to be.

Noticing that Luke had taken to the stairs, two officers followed him and when they reached the upper level, looked around in the master bedroom, refresher and on the balcony. They found nothing.

Having been in contact with Mara earlier, Luke knew she had gone into the spare bedroom. Its door was still open. As soon as he entered the room, he felt the lingering presence of evil. His heart beat swifter, thumping hard; his adrenaline level increased. Reflexively, he reached to his belt for his lightsaber, only to grasp at nothing. His saber was locked up as a condition of his remaining out on bail.

Luke?s throat constricted, his mouth parched from fear. He knew Mara had been here but he couldn?t feel her presence. The curtains were fluttering, snapping at him; the cold breeze bit at him, admonishing him for his delay. His eyes scanned the room, looking for a clue. He saw two officers come from across the hall into the room behind him. They began searching under the furniture and in the closets. Ignoring them, Luke walked towards the open slider door.

Purposefully, he strode out onto the balcony. Inhaling deeply, Luke felt the darkness was heaviest here. The evil was so palpable that he could almost touch it. Closing his eyes, he could feel there had been momentary surprise from Mara, from what he wasn?t sure. His hand went to the railing. Swallowing hard, he leaned over the edge, peering below and his heart began to pound in his chest, beating against his ribs. On the deck one level down, lay Mara. Her eyes closed. Her face was eerily peaceful.

His heart raced, then threatened to burst from anguish. Luke felt someone brush against him; the officers had followed him outside. Luke vaguely heard the officers call back to their cohorts, asking for a medic to go to the large wrap-around balcony on level one. Disregarding all else, Luke placed his hands securely on the railing, swung his body over the edge, and using the Force, lightly dropped onto the lower balcony. Bending his knees, he squatted beside her, his left hand resting on her forehead as he attempted to determine her injuries with a Force probe. "Mara," he whispered. "I?m here. Can you hear me?"

There was no answer, no movement. It would be difficult to put her into a healing trance; she needed to respond first. She looked so fragile, so broken. His anger grew, simmering slowly, ready to boil over. Slamming his free arm backwards into the railing, he clenched hold of a bar with his right hand and bent it with the fury of his anger. It offered only momentary release of his pent up emotions, however. As he pushed the rage back and cleared his mind the questions began. Why did this happen? What could I do for her? Why wasn?t I here to save her? I should have been here. I failed her. A voice broke into his self-deprecating musings. "Excuse me, Master Skywalker. I?m here to help her."

"Huh?" he said, dazed. He was so intent on Mara he hadn?t noticed a young medic approach.

The black-haired medic checked Mara?s vital signs. Gently resting her ivory hand on Luke?s shoulder, she said, "We?re going to take her to the medcenter, Master Skywalker. Let me get her on the repulsor stretcher."

Luke nodded his head, moving to the opposite side of Mara. He stroked his wife?s limp hand, keeping continuous contact with her, as the medic and her assistant lifted Mara onto the stretcher. With a gentle whine of the repulsors, they pushed the stretcher out of the apartment; Luke kept pace with the stretcher while holding Mara?s right hand.

He believed that to let go would be to lose her and he never wanted to lose her.

At the Medcenter, Luke watched the medics begin treatment on Mara?s injuries. Making himself as unobtrusive as possible, Luke remained at Mara?s side. The physicians were skilled and completed each task with practiced ease. Luke knew she was in good hands but he wanted to help her, to heal her, to be responsible for her recovery. Deep down, he felt that it was his fault she was here and he needed to rectify his mistake. But for now, all he could do was stay with Mara until she healed. Time would come when he would deal with her attacker.

The medics finished their preparations and took Mara to the bacta tanks. Luke followed, continuing his vigil. Though he could no longer physically touch her, she never left his sight; he sat in a chair adjacent to the tank. With his palm firmly pressed onto the walls of the tank, he watched her float in the gelatinous goop for several hours. Once her bacta treatment was complete, the medics removed her from the tank and she was placed in a recovery bed.

Later that evening, Mara was assigned to a private room. Once again, Luke stood by her bed, his fingers brushing loose hair out of her face. His left hand lingered on her left cheek, caressing it lightly. Lifting his hand away, he bent over and softly kissed her forehead. "Heal, my love," he whispered, sitting down in a chair, waiting for her to awaken.

Several hours later, the young medic returned. "Excuse me, Master."

"Please, call me Luke." Forcing a weak smile, he said, "You?ve come to give me good news."

"Yes, Master?Luke. We?ve gotten the test results back and she?s on her way to a full recovery. Your wife received a concussion, broke the ulna bone in her left arm, bruised her kidney and cracked a couple of ribs. We were concerned about the baby but it was well cushioned. Everything is healing well and she should only require one more bacta dip."

There was a moment?s delay as Luke processed the information. "Baby?"

Frowning, the medic said, "You didn?t know?"

Luke shook his head. The medic gestured her head towards Mara. "When your wife wakes up, we can go over all the test results. She?ll have to take it easy for a while but she?s healthy and should have no problem carrying to full term. I?ll leave you alone now."

Turning to leave, she stopped when she heard Luke stand and clear his throat. "Thank you?" he stammered. "I?m sorry. I never got your name."

Smiling, she replied, "Aeisha."

"Thank you, Aeisha."

Her hand palmed the door release. "You?re welcome, Master," she said as she exited the room.

Sitting down again, Luke pushed his chair close to the bed, reaching his arm up to rest his hand on Mara?s hand. He caressed it a few times, gently entwining his fingers into hers, then squeezed softly. "Thank you Mara," he whispered quietly.

Mara came to semi-awareness but there was only blackness, then haze, clouding the recesses of her brain. Mundane colors swirled about encapsulating her mind. Her physical body ached but it responded, though sluggishly, to her commands. Slowly, Mara opened her eyes, squinting against the bright light. She blinked a few times, clearing a sticky film off her eyeballs. As her vision came into focus, she noticed a head lying on the bed, startling her until she realized it was still attached to a body. Screwing up her face, she thought hard about the blond head. Then the head moved, twisting to look at her and its mouth smiled. "Hello," he said.

Do I know him?

He looked familiar to her, and he smiled so nicely. She closed her eyes, gathering her thoughts, searching her fractured memory.

"Mara?" he said, concerned.

Then it clicked. His name came to her mind. "Luke," she gasped, her throat dry.

He seemed to know she needed a drink; he poured her a glass of water. She reached for it but he kept it just out of her range as he reached for some buttons on the nightstand, near the bed. Momentarily startled by the upward movement of the bed, she relaxed and drank hungrily from the cup he finally pressed it to her lips. He set the cup on the table. "You had me worried, Mara."

"I?m glad you?re here, Luke," she answered.

Luke smiled warmly, caressing her face lightly with his fingers. Taking hold of her right hand, he sat down on the bed beside her.

His touch was soothing to Mara; she could feel life flow from his fingertips. Her body drank it in, sending it throughout her system. The influx of energy spurred parts of Mara?s memory. A cloaked figure flashed in her mind. Images of a balcony, windy and cold, came unbidden. "The balcony. I was pushed off the balcony," she exclaimed.

Luke?s hand tightened its hold, and his face hardened with barely contained rage. "Medeia."

The cloaked figure must have been Medeia, she thought, then nodded affirmation. Luke?s face grew sterner and angrier, and then it softened, becoming apologetic. "I?m sorry I wasn?t there, Mara," he said with a sigh.

"It wasn?t your fault, Luke. Stop trying to take the blame," she admonished, her thoughts becoming clearer, her memory returning.

"Now, I know you?ll be okay. You?re chastising me," he laughed.

"Somebody?s got to do it," she paused, a new thought coming to mind. "I think Medeia was trained by Palpatine."

Luke looked at her. "You found something."

"I can?t remember what though. It?s still hazy. I remember reading a file, then there was someone at the door."

Luke said, "That must have been Medeia."

"No, it was a holoreporter?I think. I seem to have some gaps in my memory," Mara stated.

"Don?t worry. We?ll get them filled in."

Moving her body, Mara attempted to adjust her position. Sensing her need, Luke fluffed her pillow, helping her sit up straighter. "Thanks, Luke."

"No. Thank you, Mara," he said, a huge grin splitting across his face.

Staring at him quizzically, she wondered why in Hoth he was wearing that silly grin. "Okay, spill it, Skywalker. Why are you looking at me like that?"

He continued to smile at her, appearing to be pleased with himself. Before she could say anything, he took her hand and placed it on her abdomen. His expression turned serious, but joy twinkled in his eyes. In the Jedi Master voice she knew so well, he instructed, "Use your senses and reach out. Tell me what you find."

"Alright," she answered, humoring him.

His request seemed odd to her; the stress must be getting to him, Mara figured. Relaxing into the Force, she reached out and found?another presence. It was minute, primitive and reminded her of Luke yet also of herself. She could feel a rapid beating, a heartbeat twice as fast as her own. It was a Life, a new Life in her. Astonished at the discovery, she yanked her hand away from her womb. She gaped at Luke, then stammered, "I?m pregnant."

No other words were spoken after that. When Luke placed his hand upon her abdomen, Mara put hers there again as well. Together, they listened to the rapid heartbeat of their developing child. Communication wasn?t really possible at the embryonic stage; the child communicated mostly by instinct and emotion. Bonding came naturally and easily between mother, father and child.

Delving deeper into the Force, they could feel the astonishing cell growth, growth that was occurring exponentially. It amazed them that something so tiny could be so intricate, complicated and full of life. They continued their exploration until Mara, still exhausted from her ordeal, began to yawn. Luke settled back into his chair, staring at Mara as she drifted into a healing trance.

Clearing his mind of all worries and concerns, Luke thought of his future. Though he never thought they would, Mother Rell?s words were coming to pass, giving him exceedingly great joy. Luke Skywalker would finally get what had been denied him for years ? a family.

For today, he would reflect only of the good things ? his future, his child, his wife, and his family.

It would be his last chance, for the trial would soon begin, and reality would rear its ugly head.

Chapter 25

"I?m sorry. The courtroom is full," the tall, blonde Corellian guard yelled over the large crowd milling outside the Justice building.

"Please move back," added her shorter, brunette Alderaanian partner.

The guards sighed in frustration when nothing happened. The Corellian was about to repeat her statement, when a loud roar reverberated through the stifling air. Startled by the noise, the crowd parted, rolling back like the waves of a sea. Through the gap came a Wookiee. The Alderaanian recognized him immediately and whispered, "Chewbacca," to his partner.

Directly behind Chewbacca was Han Solo, followed closely by Leia Organa Solo and her Noghri honor guard. As soon as the crowd realized the identity of the group, it surged forward again, threatening to swamp the Chief of State and her entourage. Realizing the possible danger to the Solos, the two Noghri provided rear guard, Chewbacca point. The two human guards moved quickly to help, positioning themselves on the flank to protect the Solos as they came up the steps. A slight movement caught the attention of the male guard; Organa-Solo waved her hand towards the crowd. Suddenly, the small inner ring of the crowd stopped, freezing in place. Taking advantage of brief lull in activity, the human guards activated the building doors, allowing Solo?s group to continue their walk into the Justice Hall, unobstructed.

It was as crowded inside the building as it was outside. Chewbacca, Han and Leia managed to weave through the multitude of sentients filling the Justice Hall corridors. Having a two-meter tall Wookiee leading the way helped immensely. Once they arrived at the huge double doors leading into the Old Imperial Justice Court, the Noghri honor guard remained outside the courtroom, at the request of the Court. Their services were no longer necessary due to the extreme security precautions being taken. Pushing the door open, Han let out a low whistle when he saw the room. "I could park the Falcon in here and there?d still be room left for more ships."

I?m sure Luke would prefer facing Imperial ships to this mob, Chewie stated, waving his hairy arm around the room indicating the masses.

Han nodded. "True. At least a TIE is a known enemy and easier to fight."

"Luke will get out of this," Leia said adamantly. "He told me that precautions have been taken to prevent Medeia from influencing the judge and jury. The truth will come out and he?ll be acquitted."

Leia may have been using optimistic words but she was still worried. Mara and Luke had told her what they had discovered about Medeia, the conversation between Kirawyn and the mysterious Akanah and the possible connection with Palpatine. Combined with the news of Mara?s attack and injuries, it was almost too much for her to process. So many bad things happened to her brother; it wasn?t fair. She wanted to protect him, but she couldn?t. Then, there were the nightmares that assaulted her every night. Always the same, she found them extremely vivid and realistic - Luke calling for help, asking forgiveness, and his Force presence disappearing. With her newly developed Jedi skills, she thought they might be visions, but hoped they were really just dreams.

They slipped into a reserved bench behind the defense table. Han leaned over the banister in preparation to tap Luke on the back when Leia stopped him. Puzzled, he looked at her and saw that she had the "twin thing" going with Luke. Softly, she said, "He knows we?re here."

Luke had sensed his sister?s arrival and appreciated her decision not to intrude in his solitary reflections. He sat quietly at the defense table. Looking up at the high vaulted ceilings, he noticed that they were covered with polished black marble panels streaked with white. It gave him the impression that he was looking directly into space. He continued to stare at them as they blurred into pinpoints of twinkling starlight. Comparing the white streaks to a celestial plane made Luke wish he could be flying among the stars. Piloting a star fighter gave him a feeling of freedom, a release from the requirements and expectations of life downside. He could soar across the heavens with only the transparisteel of the cockpit between him and the vastness of space. As much as he longed to fly away, reality required that he land. He brought his attention down, as Yoda once said, to where he was. No more looking to the stars for him.

The rest of the courtroom seemed much more ominous and dark. The judge?s High Bench was made of black marble; it seemed to swallow up and engulf all the light that came near. The remainder of the room was just as sterile and antiseptic. Its construction was of stainless steel, molded ferrocrete and duraplast castings surrounded by stark gray stone walls. Covered cages, which Luke knew contained ysalamiri, were placed just out of eyesight around the jury box, witness stand and judge?s bench. A quick mental scan determined that the cages were strategically placed and would serve their intended purpose. He received no reading in the Force from the dozen citizens who would hear his case; they were safely within the null bubbles.

Glancing up slightly, he noticed the gallery already teeming with observers. Whether friend or foe, he wasn?t sure. Stretching his senses out, he reached for the emotions of the crowd. There was doubt, disbelief, feelings of betrayal, and hatred. Luke winced inwardly, keeping his face a mask. The people, who had once thought him invincible and a champion, now realized he was fallible and very human. They now looked at him as one who abused his power to get his way. He never claimed to be perfect but for people to think him to be so power hungry as to?He withdrew his probe. It was too painful. Building his mental walls up, he sheltered himself from the emotional storm.

Ven tapped Luke on the shoulder, giving him something different to think about.

"I just found out that the trial will be broadcast," Nawara said.

Luke sighed; he knew there was a possibility of that. "Here on Coruscant?" he asked hopefully.

Nawara didn?t answer immediately.

"I don?t want to hear it, do I?" Luke said.

"It will be live here on Coruscant. Then, the newsgrids are going to uplink it to the holonet and transmit throughout the entire New Republic network."

Closing his eyes, Luke sagged back into his chair. Every sentient in the galaxy would be watching him be tried for murder. He was used to being scrutinized but he had always been able to control his exposure. Now he felt like a bug under a magnifying glass. It wouldn?t bother him so much if it weren?t for the fact that it would affect the Order. All the years he had spent building up the Jedi Order, making it accepted and not feared among the populace would be for naught. Instead of the good he had done with his students, the average citizen would only remember the murder trial. The Jedi would be tarnished.

All of Luke?s old fears now rushed to the surface. The feelings were similar to how he felt when Vader uttered those fatal words : I am your father. He was no longer, Luke Skywalker, hero of the Rebellion, but Luke Skywalker, son of the Dark Lord. It didn?t matter that he had never lived with his father, hadn?t been raised by him or even knew him. He was so worried that he would be guilty by association - like father, like son. It hadn?t been that way with most of the people who knew about his ancestry; he was still accepted for who he was, not who his father was. But those were people who knew him. Most of the galaxy didn?t know him personally. They only knew what they saw or read in the holonews. Nawara had already informed him that the prosecution would be looking for every bit of information about his life that they could find. Their mission was to paint as dark a picture of him as they possibly can. His differences would be scrutinized; his failures displayed before the whole galaxy. People would fear him for being different; they would ignore his accomplishments and expound on his inadequacies. They would only remember the bad things. If he were a common citizen, he wouldn?t be in such a situation; there would be no broadcast. But because he was well known, he would be paraded before the entire galaxy.

He wished he could be swallowed up in anonymity.

"Luke," Ven said. "Only the holocams will be in the courtroom. The holojournalists have to wait outside." He paused before continuing. "Plus, we have the same judge and the jury selection went well. You have a good chance for acquittal."

Luke nodded. "That?s good to hear. This room just seems so ?big. I would have preferred a smaller venue."

"Yes, this room is imposing. It?s the same one Tycho?s trial was held in."

This statement cheered Luke somewhat. "And Tycho was cleared."

Nawara tapped his talon on the table, keeping his eyes downcast. "Tycho was fortunate. The alleged victim walked into the courtroom making the murder trial a moot point." He looked up at Luke. "I don?t think that will happen here."

A bright smile appeared on Luke?s face, confusing Ven. Luke turned around in his chair, his attorney doing the same. When Ven noticed the redheaded woman in Jedi robes coming down the aisle, he twisted back around, smiling to himself.

Luke stood up and walked to the railing, leaning over to grasp Mara in a hug. Then he proceeded to hug his sister and brother-in-law. When he reached for Chewie?s paw to shake it, the Wookiee pulled him into a hug.

"Thanks for coming."

Han said, "Wouldn?t miss it, Junior."

"Everything will be okay, Luke," Leia added.

Mara smiled at Luke. She had felt his mood change the instant she entered the courtroom; he had been obsessing about his situation and her appearance had ended that. Though she?d need to talk to him about that bit of negativity she picked up on, she enjoyed his reaction to her. To be the recipient of such adoration was a new concept to Mara, but she was getting use to it. She came up with a witty comment, but never used it.

The trial was about to begin.

All conversation ceased when the court clerk, a lanky Ho-Din, entered. "All rise for The Honorable Judge Al?seyr."

The entire court stood as the black-furred Bothan entered the courtroom, climbing the steps to the High Bench. Above the judge, light bars set up by holographers illuminated his approach. Once he was seated, everyone else sat down. Looking at the jury, he asked, "Foreman. Is the Jury ready?"

A dull green Rodian rose and answered, Yes, your honor.

His response was translated by a golden protocol droid.

"Counselor Janason. Is your team ready?"

"Yes, Your Honor."

"Counselor Ven?"

"Yes, Your Honor."

Hitting his gavel on the smooth bench surface, Judge Al?seyr announced, "Court is now in session. State of Chad versus Luke Skywalker. Charge is Murder in the First Degree."

The court reporter, a silver protocol droid, entered the information into the court records as the judge spoke. A low murmur could be heard coming from the upper gallery. There was silence when Al?seyr addressed the prosecutors. "Counselor Janason. You may make your opening statement."

The tall human from Chad stood up behind his table. Slowly walking around it, he crossed over towards the jury box. Smoothing his suit, he clasped his hands together and looked up at the judge.

"Your Honor," he said, then turned to the jury. "Esteemed jury. We are here today to fight an injustice, to right a wrong. For too long, a criminal has been free and you will have the duty of putting him away where he can harm no one else."

He paused as he looked at Luke, leaving no doubt as to whom the criminal was.

"Just over a year ago, a vibrant member of our galactic community, Callista Ming Skywalker, was brutally slain. The daughter of farmers and a native of Chad, Miss Ming had served the people of the Republic, as a Jedi Knight, as a member of our ambassadorial staff, and then as contributing member of Chad University?s Research Division. It was while working on the familiar seas of her beloved homeworld that Callista?s life was taken away.

"Not by an accident, not by the merciless seas, but by the very being that should have protected her. In the midst of the choppy seas, her own husband, Luke Skywalker, with cold-hearted calculation, did purposely aim a blaster at her chest and shoot her at point blank range in the heart, killing her instantly. Seeking to hide his heinous crime, the defendant scuttled her ship, allowing her body to disappear into the murky depths."

He stopped a moment, allowing the jurors to envision his description of the murder.

"Many have heard how the sea claims its dead and tells no tales but in this case the seas themselves cried out for justice and gave up her dead. Callista herself calls out from beyond the grave asking that her death be avenged.

"In this trial, we intend to prove that Luke Skywalker did with premeditation, and without remorse, kill his wife."

Janason returned to his table, sitting down next to his partner, a Chadra-fan. The sound of hushed whispers rose from the gallery. From the back of the courtroom, several holographers zoomed in on the defense table, hoping to pick up some reaction from the defendant. Unfortunately, all that could be viewed was the back of his head. The judge would not allow the holocams behind the bench. They wouldn?t be able to see the face of Luke Skywalker except when he turned around or until he took the stand, if he did at all.

Ignoring the whispers, Nawara Ven waited for the judge to acknowledge him. He leaned over to Luke and said, "Don?t worry. It?s his job to make you look bad."

"I know, you told me that. I just wasn?t expecting him to do such a good job," Luke replied, not moving his head; he could feel the holographers? interest in his reactions and there was no way in Hoth he was going to give them one.

"Counselor Ven, you may make your statement," the judge declared.

Pushing his lekku behind his back, Nawara rose from his chair and walked with a barely noticeable limp towards the jury box. He glanced up at Al?seyr. "Thank you, Your Honor." Then looked at the jurors. "Gentlebeings of the jury." And lastly, at the prosecution. "Esteemed colleagues."

Once he was sure he had their complete attention, he began his statement.

"It is true that a life has been prematurely taken. Justice must prevail and a murderer found.

"But justice will not be served by trying my client, for he is not the murderer you seek. He would never commit such a cowardly act as described by my fellow attorneys. Taking the life of any sentient is anathema to the Jedi; it goes against everything they believe. Life is the center of their religion. It is their dogma, the basis of everything they hold true."

Ven gestured towards the table.

"Luke Skywalker is a Jedi Master. He reestablished the Jedi Order and the principles for which it stands. The Jedi are the guardians of peace and justice, supporters of all life. Luke Skywalker is a respecter of life as all Jedi revere life. As Counselor Janason pointed out, Callista Skywalker was also a Jedi Knight. It?s what brought them together and they shared this duty, agreeing with the tenets of the order.

"My client has been known for his honesty and humility since he first entered the Alliance fifteen years ago. As a warrior during the civil war, he had to take lives but it was during battle against armed opponents. A former Commander, Luke Skywalker is continually called upon by the New Republic to assist in different capacities and he has served us well.

"You have heard the prosecution?s claim that my client Luke Skywalker killed his ex-wife. I tell you that this man did not do such a thing. He could not willingly take another life. He did not murder Callista Skywalker. He loved her and would never have harmed her. He gave her nothing but support in her new career. There was pain and sorrow when he heard of her death; he grieved for her and he grieves still."

There was a momentary pause, allowing the jurors to get a good look at Luke.

"I intend to provide evidence that he not only didn?t murder her, but he couldn?t have done it."

Ven?s lekku twitched a bit as he inclined his head at the judge. Then he walked slowly back to his spot next to Luke. Though Nawara was confident that he had reached the jury, there would be many more obstacles to conquer. There was no denying that this trial would be an uphill battle.

"Thank you, Counselor," Al?seyr said. "I?m calling Lunch Recess. We will resume at 1300."

The Ho-Din returned and announced, "All rise."

Noisily, the entire courtroom stood as the Judge descended from his bench and walked to his chambers. Once the judge was out of sight, the jurors were led to the southeast corner of the courtroom. They entered a large rectangular room that served as the Jury Room. The southern wall was transparisteel with a small doorway to allow access to an exterior balcony; there were controls inside that would make the walls opaque for jury sequestering. Their escort operated the controls and soon they had complete privacy from prying eyes.

No such luxury was offered to Luke.

Han, Leia and Mara had gotten up from their seats and Chewy moved to the railing gate, offering himself as lead. Ven lightly took Luke by the arm and ushered him out of the defense area. It was slow going, like going upstream without a power supply. In the midst of the throng, Luke managed to get hold of Mara by the waist, holding her tightly to himself.

As soon as they exited the court, holojournalists surrounded them, hoping to get an interview with him. Several holocams were pointed at them as holoreporters shouted, "Master Skywalker," or "Counselor Ven."

Nawara continued to repeat, "No Comment," but his words were basically ignored.

Suddenly, one of the holojournalists called out Leia?s name, actually her title.

"Madame Chief of State. What is the New Republic?s stance on this trial?"

Leia was confused. "What do you mean?" Then she scolded herself for replying at all.

"Will the New Republic stand by Master Skywalker or will they cast him aside?"

Managing to contain her anger at such a question, Leia controlled her reaction by ignoring the question.

The man continued this time with a different question. "What about the scandal this has caused in the Senate?"

Taking a deep breath, Leia closed her eyes a moment and composed her thoughts, a plan forming. "Why do you always look for scandals?"

"It?s what the public wants."

Leia looked to Han, mentally sending him a picture of what she wanted him to do. A lopsided smile formed on his face as he moved forward and stood next to her. Without another word, Han pulled Leia into a tight embrace. Letting go momentarily and using both his hands, he pulled her face to his and captured her lips in a passionate kiss. Han?s hands moved down to her waist, and caressed her back. She wrapped her arms around his neck and moved into the kiss. Dipping her slightly, he continued kissing her a few minutes before breaking the kiss and swinging her upright. Giving the holocams a lopsided smile, Han Solo turned away from them and escorted his wife down the hall. Leaning his head towards her, he whispered, "I like your distractions."

His mouth still gaping at what had just happened, the holojournalist looked around and realized that Luke and Mara Skywalker had disappeared. "Hey, where?d they go?"

Though she was down the hallway, Leia felt the man?s surprise through the Force. Pleased that her distraction worked, she smiled.

Chapter 26

Luke sent his sister a thought of thanks as he and Mara slipped into the massive crowd. After Mara covered her head with the hood of her robe, it was easier for her to disappear; her trademark red gold hair was no longer pinpointing their location. Making subtle Force suggestions to anyone who took notice of them, they were able to reach a side door and escape into the alley. They reached the lobby of their apartment building unnoticed, keeping to the less traveled walkways. Stopping in front of the turbolift and pushing the call button, Mara put her arms around Luke and pulled him into a tight embrace as they quietly waited for the lift to arrive.

As soon as the turbolift opened up, they entered it holding hands. Just before the doors slid shut, a stealthy, gray skinned creature stepped inside. Alert and prepared, the Noghri remained near the door, his only thoughts on defending the Son of Vader and his consort. Both occupants of the lift knew he was there but chose to ignore him.

Several days before at the medcenter, Luke had told his sister of Mara?s pregnancy. The next day, Leia came back with a Noghri, Khabriek, who she then assigned to keep an eye on her brother and his wife. Even though he wasn?t too happy with her decision, Luke understood why she had done it. Leia was worried and wanted to protect her brother and his family in any way she could.

She had already told him about her dreams. Attempting to rationalize with him, she had explained that Khabriek was there because with all the exposure the trial was receiving, and considering all the enemies Luke had made in the past, he was a tempting target, especially being weaponless. It wouldn?t hurt to have some extra help. Still, he didn?t really think he needed a bodyguard. He was quite capable of defending himself. His biggest concern was for Mara?s safety; she had already been harmed because of him. If a threat did arise, she would have help and be protected, especially since Medeia had taken her new saber. For this reason, he had accepted Khabriek?s presence. Plus, no one would know he had a bodyguard. Khabriek and his clan were quite adept at disappearing into the scenery.

Luke acclimated to Khabriek?s presence easier than Mara; in the past, he had spent a considerable amount of time with the Noghri. Mara, on the other hand, had very little exposure to them; she only endured Khabriek for Luke?s sake. Sensing her annoyance at their loyal shadow, Luke sought to distract her attention. Framing her face with his hands, he softly caressed her cheeks with his thumbs. Then, using his left hand, he pushed her hood from off her head, entwining his fingers in her silky tresses. Trailing his right thumb along her cheek to under her jaw, he tilted her chin upwards and covered her mouth with his.

The turbolift arrived at their level, its door sliding open and allowing Khabriek to exit first. Peeking over Mara?s shoulder and seeing the Noghri leave, Luke released Mara?s lips. They soon followed, senses alert for danger as well. Khabriek remained in the shadows as they made their way down the corridor. Nobody was in the hallway but them. Once they reached their door, Mara entered the new code. After the door had opened, Khabriek went in first, quickly scanning for danger and immediately disappearing into the apartment. After they stepped over the threshold and the door slid shut, Luke pulled Mara into a hug and kissed the top of her head. "Don?t worry about Khabriek. You?ll get used to him."

"Just what I need, another shadow," Mara humphed. "With Medeia?"

Gently placing his hand on her mouth he said, "Shh?. Let?s talk about it during lunch."

Playfully, she pushed away from him. "Yeah, yeah. It?s always food with you."

Shrugging his shoulders, he walked by her, slapping her rear end as he passed. "Come on. I?ll fix lunch."

"Ouch! Luke," she growled teasingly as she chased him into the kitchen.

Luke set a plate of tossed greens, sprinkled with a light vinaigrette sauce in front of Mara, then put a dish of steaming Corellian insta-casserole in his place before sitting down in his chair. Stabbing some noodles with his fork, Luke blew on them then took a bite, chewing quickly. "Did you get back into the Emperor?s files after I left this morning?"

"Yes," Mara said, then took a bite of her greens. "But someone else got in, too. The file?s corrupted."

"Stang," Luke muttered.

Nibbling on some bread, Mara added, "I?ve got a call into Ghent. If anyone can recreate the file, he can."

Before continuing, Mara reached across the table, to take a fork-full of Luke?s casserole. Raising an eyebrow, he chose to ignore her pilfering and asked, "How long do you think it will take Ghent to recreate it?"

Mara shrugged her shoulders, then took another bite of casserole. "I?m not sure. Probably quickly, though. The man?s a whiz." She paused. "Still, I?m hoping to remember more. Since I?ve been out of the medcenter, most of my memories have come back," she paused, "except for what I found on that file."

"There is a Jedi technique for memory enhancement," Luke said, filling his fork with casserole and feeding it to Mara. "We could try it tonight after the trial."

Mara replied, "Okay, I have a feeling that our time is short."

Luke stared at his plate, not looking at Mara. "I get the same feeling."

Dr. Marlin sat quietly in a small nondescript room across the hallway from the main courtroom. The subpoena had stated that she needed to report to the courthouse and be prepared to serve as a witness in Luke Skywalker?s murder trial. She?d never been called as a witness, or even been to a trial before, and she was nervous. It didn?t help that she was also afraid of the Jedi Master. She hoped she wouldn?t have to wait long. She really wanted to get it over with.

"Dr. Marlin?" the guard asked as the door opened with a swish.


"It?s time."

A guard led the doctor to the main courtroom, directing Dr. Marlin to the witness stand.

In a lilting, singsong voice, a Ho?Din bailiff asked, "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?"

"I do," she replied.

The bailiff?s head appendages twitched, and then he gestured to the chair in the witness box. "Please be seated."

The Ho?Din left, allowing Counselor Janason to take his place. He simply requested, "State your full name for the record."

"Professor Jalyn Marlin, Ph.D.," she replied with a bit of trepidation.

Standing calmly beside the box, Janason smiled at the professor, encouraging her to relax. "Dr. Marlin. You were on the team that found Callista Skywalker?s ship?"


"Please describe how her ship was retrieved and what you found inside."

"Vard, Vard Lex, our navigator, noticed an anomaly under the icecap. Special systems onboard our ark identified it as a manmade object, a ship to be precise. Jarius Jook, one of the ensigns, hooked the ship, which was called the Waverunner, and reeled it in, setting it on the deck. I entered the codes and opened the ship?s lock. Callista was lying inside," Jalyn said, her voice cracking during the last sentence.

After getting precise details on the salvage operation, Janason continued his questioning. "I?m going to show you some holos, Doctor."

He returned to his table, retrieving a holocube and then activated the picture rotation. Carrying it over to Dr. Marlin, he held it up in front of her. The first holo was of a sleek speeder boat. A type of modified Nubian Bongo, it was completely enclosed and just large enough for two researchers to stand upright, and allowed storage space for their equipment. Developed especially for oceanographic research, Chad University had four of them. One of these speeders had been used exclusively by Callista Skywalker.

"Is this the ship your team retrieved?" Janason asked, indicating the boat with his finger.

Jalyn nodded.

"Please answer with a yes or no."


The next holo was of the interior of the vessel. Tape marked off where Callista?s body had been found. Holes could be seen in the planking.

"Is this what the interior of the vessel looked like when you opened it?"

Swallowing hard, she nodded and then said in a small voice, "Yes."

"I know this is hard for you, Professor, but I have one more."

Janason held up the last holo ? it was one of Callista. Her face frozen in horror, thin blue lips stretched tight, her gray eyes wide open and glazed over, her malt brown hair snarled and twisted with seaweed; the gaping wound in the chest encrusted with some type of micro-organism. To her credit, Jalyn didn?t turn away, but tears welled up in her eyes.

"Please tell the court who is in this holo."

"It?s Callista," she managed to say in a choked-up voice.

"Thank you, Doctor," the prosecutor turned to Judge Al?seyr. "Your Honor. I?d like to introduce this holocube as evidence and have it entered on the record that Dr. Jalyn Marlin identified the victim?s vessel, the Waverunner, the murder scene, and the victim in the holos."

Reaching out four webbed fingers, the court clerk took the holocube and placed it upon the bench so that Judge Al?seyr could see it. Visually scanning the holocube, the judge declared, "Please enter this holocube into the official record as Exhibit A."

Professor Marlin stood up to leave but stopped when she heard a voice address her. "Doctor. I?m sorry but you haven?t been excused yet," the judge reminded her. "Counselor Janason?"

"I?ve finished my questioning, Your Honor," Janason replied, then faced Ven. "Your witness."

Nawara stood up and walked over to the witness stand. "Hello, Doctor Marlin."

He waited for her to acknowledge his presence before he continued. "You told the court that you entered the codes for Callista?s ship?s lock. Were codes always required to open the vessel?"


"Who coded the ship?"

"The driver, well, Callista."

"How did you obtain Callista?s codes?"

"As the head of the research team, I had access to all the codes. In case of emergency."

"Did anyone else have the codes for Callista?s ship?"

"Not that I?m aware of."

"You don?t know for sure?"

"She might have told Kirawyn, but I really don?t know."

"Did any other crew members have this same type of ship?"

"No. Just the three of us, Callista, Kirawyn and myself. A fourth ship was available but it was still at the university. It wasn?t ready to go. Ours were delivered the day we left port."

"So, the vessels were only just delivered the day you left port. Only three of you received them and you had to encode them that same day. Is that correct?"


"Would it have been possible for somebody outside the research team to have access to the codes?"


"Let?s go back to when you retrieved the sunken vessel. You had no trouble using the codes and opening the ship?"


"Did you see any evidence of the lock having been forced open or damage to the locking mechanism?"

"I, uh, don?t think?" she shook her head, trying to remember.

"Doctor, surely you would remember if the lock had been tampered with," Ven admonished. Then he asked that the holocube be shown to the witness again.

"Now, look at the holo again, Doctor. Is there any evidence of tampering? Take a look at the exterior around the lock."

Jalyn squinted at the holo, trying to see the lock and visualize what it looked like when she opened. "No. I don?t remember any tampering and it was working fine. If it had been tampered with, it wouldn?t have worked."

Ven faced the jury. "Therefore, only three crewmembers had these special ships. You were the only ones who knew the codes required to access them. And Callista?s boat had not been tampered with and the locking mechanism worked fine. Is that correct, Doctor?"


"Could my client have obtained the codes?"

"He must have?"

"Doctor, you just told the court that only the three of you on the ark knew the codes."

"But, Callie could have called him?"

Ven walked to his table and retrieved two datadiscs, holding one up. "According to the ship?s log, no outside transmissions were made from the research vessel until after Callista?s vessel sank."

"He could have read her mind."

"Doctor Marlin, are you now speaking as an expert on Jedi abilities?" Nawara asked.

"Everybody knows that the Jedi can read others? minds," Jalyn said uncomfortably; she had feared being treated roughly by the attorneys.

"From across the galaxy? Not likely," Nawara said. "A Jedi needs to be near the person. Besides, no one could read Callista?s mind."

Scattered whisperings could be heard throughout the courtroom. Holding up the other datadisc, Nawara declared, "On this disc is a deposition from Cilghal, a Jedi Knight and healer. According to her, Callista Skywalker was unable to access the Force, the source of the Jedi?s power. She couldn?t use it. In addition to her inability to use the Force, other Jedi could not use the Force on her. She was a void, basically non-existent to any Force sensitive. She was, for all intents and purposes, invisible to any and all Jedi. It was impossible for my client to pull any information from her mind."

Dr. Marlin stared at Ven, then at Luke. She had never seen Callista exhibit any Force related attributes, but didn?t realize that it was because she couldn?t. Callie always wore her lightsaber, so Jalyn just assumed?If he didn?t get the codes from Callie?She rubbed her temples. It wasn?t as simple as she had thought.

Ven smiled. "Thank you, Doctor. No more questions."

"Your Honor, I would like to submit these datadiscs containing the ship?s log and Cilghal?s deposition as defense Exhibits A and B," Nawara said, handing the discs to the court clerk.

After quickly perusing the datadiscs, Judge Al?seyr accepted the evidence and had them placed on the official record.

The prosecution?s second attorney, Mahalian Roat, a diminutive Chadra Fan, approached the bench. "Your Honor, the prosecution submits two notarized depositions from Vard Lex and Jarius, verifying Dr. Marlin?s testimony regarding the murder scene."

Nawara declared, "Objection! Jarius? claims that the holes in the planking were made by a lightsaber were inconclusive, and just a wild guess."

Mahalian rebutted, "An independent study was conducted and it scientifically verified Jarius? statement."

"Overruled," ruled Al?seyr.

Not one to give up, Ven asked, "Have they determined what type of lightsaber caused the damage?"

Confused, Roat was speechless, stumped by the question. Janason stood up and said, "It makes no difference. Any lightsaber makes the same type of damage."

Nawara countered, "It most certainly does make a different. Every Jedi makes his or her own lightsaber; therefore, each one is unique and different. My client isn?t the only owner of a lightsaber. With the dozen or so lightsabers carried by the new Jedi at the academy, and the thousands of lightsabers still unaccounted for after the war, it could have been anyone of them that was used."

There was quiet in the courtroom as all involved digested Ven?s statement. It was a risky move on Nawara?s part. He knew that all lightsabers caused the same damage; it was impossible to differentiate. His sole aim with his question was to make sure that the jurors were aware that there were many lightsabers, and owners thereof, in the galaxy; Luke Skywalker was not the only Jedi with one.

His ploy worked. Jarius? deposition was still entered as evidence but the judge allowed Nawara?s comments about lightsabers to stay on the official record.

Even though the defense had scored two small victories, this was no time to celebrate.

There were larger battles upcoming.

Chapter 27

The state of Chad calls Dirk Hunsen to the stand, Mahalian Roat declared, her words translated by the silver droid.

Once again, the Ho?Din swore in a witness, this time the coroner. After a few preliminary questions, Roat began her examination by asking Hunsen to detail his autopsy findings.

Sitting ramrod straight, Dirk Hunsen stated, "I received the victim from the ark one day after she was pulled from the sea. The body was well preserved in the frigid waters. Little decay had occurred. I had no problem running all my tests accurately."

Would you please tell the court the cause of death? Mahalian requested.

"Blaster shot to the heart."

From how far away was she shot?

"Not far at all." Picking up a holo of Callista?s body, he pointed to the blackened spot on her chest. "If you notice the charred area here, it is contained. I estimate that the blaster muzzle was only a few centimeters away. Set on the highest setting, it violently pierced her heart, killing her instantly."

She saw her assailant?

"From the angle of the shot and the residue at the entrance of the wound, the murderer was directly in front of her. There is no way she couldn?t have seen."

That would mean she knew the murderer. Most likely someone she knew very well. Why else would she allow him to get close enough for such a brutal attack.

"Objection!" Nawara shouted. "Counsel is drawing conclusions."

"Sustained," Al?seyr said.

Chittering quietly to herself, Mahalian decided to stop her line of questioning. Your Honor, I wish to submit as evidence the autopsy report, she announced to the judge, handing a datadisc to the court clerk.

After the autopsy report was handed to and accepted by Judge Al?seyr, Roat returned to her seat. Then, Counselor Janason stood up and carried a small black case to a table set in front of the bench.

Turning his attention to Dr. Hunsen, he asked, "Have you been able to determined the type of blaster used?"

"The weapons expert on my team reported that it was a Blastech blaster."

Placing a pair of gloves on his hands, Janason opened the case and pulled out a blaster. He held it up at eye level, then rotated his wrist slightly, offering the weapon for viewing to the witness, the jury and the judge.

Janason addressed the Judge. "This gun was found in the same compartment as the victim?s body. Forensic testing verifies this as the murder weapon. We?d like to offer it as evidence, Your Honor."

"Accepted. The court reporter will enter it into the official record," replied Judge Al?seyr.

Janason began to walk back to his table, when he suddenly stopped and turned back to the Judge. "Your Honor. I have two more items of evidence in relation to the blaster." Reaching into his breast pocket, he pulled out two small flimsies. "This flimsy indicates that the murder weapon is legally registered to the defendant. This one contains the fingerprints found on the blaster and the ones of Luke Skywalker." He paused. "They match."

Nawara stood up to challenge the prosecutor?s last statement. "I object. The defense conducted independent forensic testing on that blaster. The results were inconclusive since the imprints were blurred and smudged."


Counselor Janason smiled smugly as he walked towards the no-man?s zone between the defense and prosecution tables. Nawara smiled back, his sharp-toothed grin much more menacing. Shifting his direction to the far side of his table, Janason said, "Your witness."

Ven nodded graciously. "Your Honor. I would like to submit this independent forensic test on the blaster as a defense exhibit. The testing results were inconclusive since the fingerprints were blurred and smudged."

Al?seyr directed the court reporter to add the evidence, then told Ven to begin his cross-examination.

"No questions, Your Honor."

That evening, Luke began to meditate as soon as they arrived home, keeping his promise to help Mara remember the missing file information. He knew as well as she that it was the key to solving the mystery of Medeia. In order to perform the memory enhancing technique properly, Luke needed a clear mind, but after today?s trial he didn?t have one. He took a deep breath and began to relax into meditation. Images of Callista?s battered corpse assaulted his senses. Her lifeless eyes bore into his very soul, so accusingly, so horrified. It was his fault. Then the dream of Callista?s murder replayed in his mind, only this time it was different.

A blaster shot burned through her heart, charring her clothing, her face twisted in agony. A golden lightsaber flashed before her face, obscuring her body from view. Murky waters filled the cabin. Her hollow eyes staring accusingly, her arms lifted and she pointed at him.

"Luke, I?ll be avenged."

Sweat lined Luke?s brow. His heart palpitated and his head throbbed as he thrust the phantasm out of his thoughts and mind. Suddenly, the images vanished and he entered a peaceful state of awareness.

Mara leaned against the refresher door, watching as Luke fought his inner battle. She wondered when, and even if, he would overcome his inner demons. The trial had magnified the turmoil in his spirit and the specter of Callista continued to overshadow their happiness. Mara had no doubt about Luke?s love, but he had been unable to eradicate Callista from his mind; there had been no closure after her death. For him to now be accused of taking her life had opened up the floodgates of despair and guilt, fertile breeding grounds for the Dark Side. If he proved incapable of closing those gates, she would have to do it for him ? if possible.

Luke?s soft blue eyes opened and gazed at her. "Mara. You ready?"

She nodded, then walked over and joined him on their bed, sitting cross-legged and facing him. Pushing a stray lock of hair behind her ear, Mara scooted closer to Luke. He reached out his hands, placing his fingertips on Mara?s temples. Gazing into her jade green eyes, he began to massage her temples, helping her to relax. Her eyelids fluttered, then closed. In a soft calming voice, Luke directed her inwards, into her memories.

Visual images of the day she was pushed off the balcony flashed before her eyes.

Artoo answered the door. I?m looking at the words on the monitor. I can?t see them; maybe if I squint? I?m focusing on the words. Where was the name again? There, at the bottom. It?s supposed to be at the bottom.

The words blurred and Mara began to hyperventilate. Luke gently hushed her, giving her mind a Force caress. "It?s okay, Mara. Relax and you?ll see it."

Heeding his words, she took a deep breath and settled into her task once more.

The file is Current Candidate. A Fallanassi offered to join Palpatine. He took her up on it because he wanted to learn their powers. He began to train her in Sith Arts. He was going to have me trained but his death prevented it. Her name wasn?t given at first. It?s at the bottom. I remember the bottom. I?ve found it!

Her eyes opened as she pulled out of the trance. Her expression hard, she said, "Akanah."

His lips pursed. Luke then said, "Must be the same Akanah as on the tape."

He leaned over to the nightstand and retrieved his comlink. Mara grabbed his hand, preventing him from using it. "Luke, what are you doing?"

Luke gave her a puzzled look. "I was going to call Major Hoover and tell him that Akanah is Medeia."

"And how were you planning on telling him how you came to that conclusion?"

It didn?t take Luke long to understand her meaning. Putting the comlink down, he asked, "So, what do we do with this information? Granted, I don?t expect Hoover to be able to take Medeia down but the information would help him."

Mara stretched her tight muscles. "Oh, he?ll get the information. Just not from you."

"Okay, how were you planning on telling him? Seems to me that breaking and entering would invalidate the information."

"As a former Imperial, I doubt that my access to the Emperor?s files would be considered breaking and entering. As for our fact finding mission, he doesn?t need to know," she stated, emphasizing the last few words.

Still not convinced, Luke asked, "What if he found out?"

"He won?t. Now, stop arguing with me. I?m right and you know it."

Luke sighed and lay back on the bed. "Yeah. But you don?t have a file to give him."

"You of little faith," she said, shaking her head. Clenching her fists, she declared, "Once Ghent is finished, I?ll have a file. Then Akanah R. Pell, Administrative Assistant for Lucazec Limited, will regret that she ever tangled with Mara Jade Skywalker."

Arriving at the courtroom the next morning, Luke took his seat next to Nawara, greeting the lawyer with a subdued smile. Watching the jury file in, he wondered what it must feel like to be the beings responsible for deciding the fate of another sentient. He?d been in their position before. As a fighter pilot and a Jedi, he had to make that decision many times. But this time it was different; he was on the receiving end. The biggest question on his mind was whether they really thought he did it?

Noticing the pensive mood of his client, Ven delayed his briefing and returned his attention to his datapad. He was drawn out of his work when Luke asked, "Who?s on the docket against me today?"

"Air Traffic Controllers from Chad and Coruscant, Garris Fluores from the Chadian Embassy, and an R2-D2 unit."

Luke was shocked. "They?re putting an astromech on the stand!" he exclaimed in astonishment.

Equally confused, Nawara reread his trial notes. "It must be a mistake, an input error. Probably some evidence and not a witness."

Luke?s next comment was cut off by the arrival of the Judge.

The air traffic controller from Chad only answered a few questions from the prosecution before Janason presented his evidence to the judge. "Your Honor," he said, holding up a datapad. "Space port records for Chad indicating the arrival of an X-Wing class ship into its airspace, one day previous to the murder of Callista Skywalker. The starfighter is identified as AA589 and is legally registered to the defendant."

"Your witness," Janason announced to Ven.

Nawara limped to the box and began his cross-examination. "Mr. Capsi. At any time during the arrival of the X-wing in system to its landing on planet, did you have a verbal conversation with the pilot?"

Capsi ponder the question, then answered, "No. Request to land was transmitted by astromech. The ship?s communications system had a short, so the pilot couldn?t speak to us. His R2 sent out the appropriate clearance codes and we sent back the landing coordinates."

"So, you never got a visual of the pilot?"


"Or heard the pilot?s voice?"


"Then, how could the pilot be identified? There could have been a woman in that cockpit and you won?t have known. The cockpit could have been empty for all you know."

Janason shouted, "Objection. He?s badgering the witness."


Lekku twitching, Ven acknowledged the judge and rephrased his question. "How did you identify the pilot?"

"Through the IFF transponder. We ran the numbers through our system. New Republic X-Wing AA589 belongs to Luke Skywalker."

Nawara positioned himself so that he could see the witness and the jury. "That?s not quite right," he began. "New Republic X-Wing AA589 did belong to Luke Skywalker."

A collective gasp was heard in the courtroom. Ven continued, "But, the X-Wing you claim entered Chad?s airspace last year was not AA589 and it was not piloted by Luke Skywalker. According to New Republic military records, X-Wing AA589 was destroyed shortly after the Thrawn crisis. Therefore, my client could not have entered Chad airspace in the aforementioned X-Wing." He paused, turning to the judge. "Your Honor, I submit New Republic records confirming the destruction of X-Wing AA589 several years prior to the erroneous spaceport records from Chad."

As Ven walked back towards his table, he said, "No more questions. And might I suggest, Mr. Capsi, that Chad update its spaceport computer system."

Mara waited for Luke at a small caf? behind the Justice building. She had secured a small, secluded table in the back of the caf?, away from prying eyes.

Unfortunately, someone had followed her.

A young, dark haired man plopped down at her table. "Hello. How is the second Mrs. Skywalker, today?"

She glared at him, then said, "I suggest that you leave. Now."

"Why? Is Luke the jealous type? What am I saying, of course he is and I can?t blame him?" he stopped when Mara pulled out her wrist blaster, set it to kill and placed it on the table, her hand resting on it.

"What do you want, Garris?" demanded Luke as he arrived at the table, sitting down next to Mara.

Unfazed by the Master?s appearance, Garris Fluores said, "Well, hello Luke. Things seem to be going well for you at the trial. I was really worried at first."

Instantly suspicious, Luke knew that Fluores wanted something. The younger man had never liked him and had even been afraid of him; Garris would certainly not be worried for him. And it seemed that Garris had overcome his fear. In a sarcastic tone, Luke said, "I?m really touched by your concern but we would like to have our lunch."

Rubbing his hands together, Garris exclaimed, "Lunch! What a lovely idea."

Mara was extremely irritated by Garris? audacity. Lifting her blaster, she snarled, "You?re not invited."

A slight Force nudge from Luke caused her to put away her blaster.

"Cut the bantha dung, and tell me what you want, Garris," demanded Luke.

"Me? Want something? What could I, a simple, lowly clerk in a provincial embassy, possibly want?"

"Do tell," Mara said.

"I?ve always wondered what it?s like to own a space yacht. It?s really quite a pain having to pay for passage on someone else?s ship. Wouldn?t you agree?"

Luke made no reply; he knew what was coming. Mara knew too. "And you?d like some help obtaining a yacht?" she asked.

"I knew you were a smart woman. Of course, I?d repay you," he stated, leaning forward on his elbows.

Luke jumped in. "And how would you do that, Mr. Lowly Clerk?"

"I?m scheduled to testify this afternoon. Legal proceedings make me nervous and I might not remember everything."

"You?d lie on the witness stand." It was a statement, not a question.

"Lie is such a harsh word, Luke. I prefer selective memory loss," he said smugly.

Angry at Garris? blackmail attempt, Luke growled, "I?d prefer that you leave now and I might just forget to tell the Judge about your offer."

Realizing that he had overstayed his welcome, Garris rose from his chair. "Hey. I just thought you might be interested."

"You took a stupid chance sticking your neck out like that," stated Mara.

Garris? eyes grew wide as he reached protectively for his throat. "Please, lady. Don?t say ?neck? with your husband around."

Luke and Mara watched him turn around and leave hurriedly. Mara wished she had shot him but if any witnesses failed to show up, Luke would be blamed. Their appetites gone, they left the caf? and returned to the courthouse.

It would be an ugly afternoon in the courtroom.

Chapter 28

During their walk back to the courtroom, Luke and Mara discussed what they should do about Garris? proposition, or rather whether they should tell Ven. The carefully worded conversation would make it hard to prove blackmail. Garris had chosen his words carefully. Both Luke and Mara could sense the man?s intent as he spoke; he would leave out crucial information on the stand in exchange for a ship. But they couldn?t accuse him outright, since an explanation of how they knew Fluores? intent would be necessary. Then, the court might want more detailed explanations of Jedi abilities, something neither Skywalker really wanted included in the proceedings. The less the jury knew about mind reading and sensory enhancement the better. On the other hand, Fluores? unedited testimony could hurt Luke?s defense by exposing his violent temper for the jury?s deliberations. Neither choice was pleasant. After considering the possible alternatives, they decided that it would be best if Luke reported the encounter to Ven; Luke would be in worse trouble if the court found out from other sources that he had withheld information.

At an exterior side door to the Justice Building, Mara kissed Luke goodbye, her lips lingering on his. She drew back slowly, not wanting to stop but knowing that time was short. Somehow, even though the trial was slated to last through the next week, Mara could feel that it would be over much sooner. What she hadn?t felt yet was whether the outcome would be favorable. The sabacc cards were stacked against Luke but their fortunes would get better. Unfortunately, it required a lot of work, cutting into their free time. That made these tender moments more precious. Brushing her fingertips across his cheek, she said, "I better let you go. I?ll see you in the courtroom."

Luke gently took hold of her hand, caressing her palm with his thumb, then kissed her hand. He was tired of continually having to separate from his wife and it was wearing on him. For Sithsakes, they?d only been married a few months and had spent very little time together. It was a miracle she had gotten pregnant. It was difficult getting to know each other during a major trial, but they were working on it, though it was slow going. "I?m never letting you go." He ran his fingers through her hair pulling her close for another kiss. "Have I told you I love you?"

"Yes," she answered, playfully covering his mouth with her hand. "Several times. However, I suggest you get inside and talk to Nawara. Unless, you plan on getting thrown in jail for being late."

"Fine," he said, raising his hands in surrender. "I?m going. I?ll see you in the bedroom."

"Courtroom," Mara corrected as she moved away from him and began walking down the alley.

"Yeah, courtroom," he corrected himself. His eyes riveted to her retreating figure, Luke shouted, "I love you."

Her silent reply echoed in his mind, stirring up feelings of warmth and acceptance. Luke truly felt that he was the luckiest man in the galaxy; to be loved by this most exquisite, beautiful and intelligent woman was certainly a blessing from the Force. As Mara disappeared around the corner, he slapped the button that opened the door and reluctantly, but purposefully entered the sterile, austere courtroom.

Ven was already seated at their table, reviewing a datapad, deep in thought. Luke walked to the table, sat down next to his attorney, and made his presence known by placing his hand on Nawara?s wrist. In a soft voice, Luke detailed his luncheon meeting with Garris Fluores.

Startled at the audacity of the next witness pulling such a risky stunt, Nawara immediately sought a private meeting with the prosecution to discuss the incident. The court required notification of unauthorized meetings between defendants and witnesses or jurors; the chances of a mistrial were too high if such events went unchecked. Nawara thought that they might be able to use it to the defense?s advantage. The subtle attempt at blackmail gave him some ammunition he could use to discredit the witness and maybe even get Fluores barred from giving testimony.

The judge extended the recess and brought all the attorneys into his chambers. From his seat, Nawara spoke first. "There?s been a violation of court rules. One of your witnesses approached my client during the recess."

"Oh, really?" said Janason. "Who would that be?"

The man?s sardonic tone put Ven on the alert. "Garris Fluores. He approached the Skywalkers during recess and spoke about his upcoming testimony," he explained.

"Is that right? We seem to have conflicting accounts," Janason replied. "Fluores told us that it was he who was approached."

Taken aback by this declaration, Nawara remained silent. This was an unexpected tactic on Fluores? part, though it did make perfect sense. Garris must have realized that Luke would report the encounter so he sought to cover his bases. The man was obviously smart and conniving, but the defense attorney needed to be smarter, especially if he was going to get Luke off. Maybe a little shaking was in order.

"How can I be sure he?s going to tell the truth? After this lunch meeting, his testimony is suspect," Ven said, then turned to the judge. "Your Honor, I?d like to bar Mr. Fluores from testifying. He?s already violated court orders about non-contact and I fear that he might alter his testimony."

You don?t know that. He said he was the one contacted. Why should he lie about that? Mahalian stated, her words translated by her partner.

Standing up, Nawara looked pointedly at Roat and asked in a tight voice, "Are you insinuating that my client is lying?"

Seeking to lessen the tension, Al?seyr stood up and interrupted, "Counselors. Ven, sit down, please." Once Nawara sat down, Al?seyr continued, " I think we have a clear case of it?s my word against yours. I?m not going to bar Fluores from testifying but I am going to assure myself that he understands the importance of telling the truth in my courtroom."

Luke?s eyes followed Nawara as the attorney returned to the courtroom. Judging from Ven?s emotions and his stride, Luke could tell that the meeting with Garris was successful, at least in Nawara?s eyes. Luke hoped that Fluores would not testify. Once his attorney was seated, Luke leaned over and whispered, "How?d it go?"

"Good. Al?seyr reminded him about the rules of non-contact and then fined him. The little lecture on perjury helped." Nawara paused. "Since Fluores claimed to have been approached by you, the judge decided to fine you as well. He didn?t want to give either side a reason to call for a mistrial."

Disappointed, Luke said, "That?s just great. Do me a favor. You tell Mara about the fine."

"You don?t pay me enough," Ven said deadpan. "Luke, it will be okay. Trust me to do my job."

"I do. It?s just so hard..." Luke didn?t continue his words, his mind wandering. He had hoped that Garris would have been dropped as a witness because he felt the man?s testimony was damaging to his case, not to mention embarrassing. Luke wasn?t looking forward to reliving that night ? the night he made a big mistake and let his temper control his actions. The night that marked the end to his already fragile marriage. If only?

"The Honorable Judge Al?seyr presiding. All rise."

The bailiff?s announcement broke into Luke?s thoughts. He stood mechanically, then sat down again as court was called to order.

Garris Fluores sat relaxed in the witness box. Glaring at Luke whenever his eyes darted in that direction, it was easy to tell that he didn?t like the Master. Any fear that he once harbored of the Jedi Master had since been replaced with anger and hatred. Garris was positive that the high and mighty Skywalker would be convicted and he had the satisfaction of knowing that his testimony would be partly responsible. A huge grin spread on his face as he thought of what was coming. The coup d??tat would be Kirawyn?s testimony; she would seal the Masters? fate. He was looking forward to the day she would take the stand. A chittering noise drew him out of his musings.

Luke could tell that Fluores was angry; the man kept staring and sneering at him between questions. Luke remained passive, not wanting to add fuel to the flames of hatred and anger. Putting up a wall against the dangerous emotions, Luke mentally pulled himself out of the room. Soon, the questions of the prosecution and the answers of the witness didn?t even register in his mind. Luke was reliving the memories. The memories of that evening ? the images of that intrusion into his home slowly came back to him. The imagery. The emotions. The lust. The anger. Immersed in the past, he could vaguely hear Ven speaking. Curious to catch up on what was happening, Luke pulled out of the dark past, focusing his attention on the present.

Nawara exclaimed, "Objection. I fail to see the relevance of this line of questioning."

Your Honor, the relevance will become clear.

"Overruled, but see to it that you establish relevancy quickly."

Luke watched the Chadra-Fan prosecutor nod and review her notes before she resumed her questions. Would you please recount the events of the night that you decided to express your feelings to Callista?

"It was frightening. After an especially rough day? an economic summit I think it was?I was assigned to assist Callista. Anyway, that night I escorted her home. I asked her if we could talk. She agreed and we were sitting on the couch, talking, when all of a sudden, her husband burst in," Garris paused to shudder. "I was grabbed and thrown hard against a wall. I reached out my hands to defend myself but I couldn?t reach anyone. He was across the room. I struggled but couldn?t move. Then I couldn?t even breathe. It was when I couldn?t find any hands around my throat that I realized he was using his Jedi sorcery on me."


"It was terrifying. He stood there, his eyes half-closed, his index finger and thumb coming in closer together. Like this." He demonstrated with his fingers. "He didn?t stop until Callista yelled at him."

What did she say?

"She said, ?Luke, Stop it. You?re killing him.? I thought for sure I was going to die."

Then what?

"He blinked and I fell down limp and gasping. Before I could even catch my breath, he told me to leave."

What about Callista?

"She stayed but I was concerned for her safety. The next day, she accepted a new position on Chad. She filed for divorce and left. I never saw her again."

Your Honor. The prosecution would like to submit the divorce decree between Callista Skywalker and Luke Skywalker.

"I object," Nawara stated. "My client had been divorced from the deceased prior to her death. It has no bearing on this case."

On the contrary, it does have bearing. The divorce was never finalized. The defendant refused to sign the order, the prosecutor replied, her large ears twitching as the protocol droid translated her words.

Mara?s face revealed nothing but her insides were churning. She knew that finding the copy of Luke?s divorce decree was a bad omen. His hesitation at signing it in the first place was coming back to haunt him. A tingling feeling in the Force was telling her that it was going to get worse. She watched as Luke leaned over to Ven, whispering into his ear. Nawara nodded, then said, "My client had wished for a reconciliation. When it became apparent that reconciliation was not likely, he signed the decree and submitted it. Therefore, it has no bearing."

Mahalian continued, Your Honor, the fact that the defendant didn?t sign the decree lends credence to our case and provides a motive. His temper is volatile as displayed when he encountered Mr. Fluores with his wife. We contend that he didn?t want the divorce and when she persisted, he killed her.

Luke clenched his fist as he contained his anger at their twisted view of his divorce. It wasn?t like that. Garris didn?t tell the whole truth either; his testimony neglected the fact that his advances were unwanted and unsolicited by Callista. Gritting his teeth, Luke wanted to jump up and shout at them that Garris was a liar and the prosecutors were wrong! He loved Callista; his actions that night were to protect her. No one could think or do such things to his wife. It was his duty to defend her. He would not fail her; she must not think him a failure?

Luke!, screamed Mara through their mental bond. Snap out of it.

Shunting aside his dark emotions, Luke urged his muscles to relax and pushed the tension away, stopped the descent into despair and self-abasement. If it weren?t for Mara?s continual reminders? Sith, he thought. I?m in for it. Even though he knew he was in trouble with his wife, he was glad that the ysalamiri were far enough away to allow him to access the Force. He needed the silent assurances from both Mara and Leia to survive the usually monotonous proceedings. Rather than dwell on the ?talk? Mara would be having with him that evening, he returned his thoughts to the trial.

Convincing the court that he was telling the truth about the divorce decree would be tough without having the fully executed copy. When Luke first told Ven about the unsigned documents, the attorney had instigated a search for the final signed decree. Luke had hoped it would have been found by now, but it hadn?t so far. They only had Luke?s word that it had been signed and lately his word didn?t seem to carry much weight. Kirawyn was the only one who could substantiate his claim; she was the one he sent it to in the first place. It was unlikely she would do so, since she was a witness for the prosecution.

His best hope to discredit, or at least lessen the impact of Garris? testimony would be for Nawara to show that Fluores had made unwanted advances and that Luke was in his rights to toss the man out of his house. Luke sighed at his own twisted logic. Sure, he could toss the man out but he didn?t have the right to strangle him. The fact that he had used asphyxiation as his weapon of choice was frightening. Luke wondered if he was subconsciously becoming his father. It was a good thing that the average citizen was unaware of Luke?s ancestry. The media would have a feeding frenzy with that piece of information.

To begin the cross-examination, Nawara Ven asked, "Mr. Fluores, you mentioned that you wanted to express your feelings to Callista on the night in question. Did she express similar feelings?"

"She didn?t get the chance. Her husband came home," he remarked snidely.

Thoughtfully, Ven said, "Her husband. Callista was still married when you sought her attentions?"

"So. She wasn?t happy. I wanted to offer her some happiness," Garris replied.

"Where did you take her that evening? Before you took her home."

"A little tap caf? near the Imperial Palace."

"That would be the Red Guardian Inn?"

"Yes. I don?t remember what we ate," he answered sarcastically.

"No problem. I?ve got the bill." Ven pulled a datadisc from his pocket. "Two nerf steaks, marinated. Side of Greens, Tubers Tatooine. You remember now?"

Garris nodded. "Yeah."

"Care to tell us what else you ordered?"

"Wine," he mumbled.

"Not just any wine. It says one bottle of vintage Alderaanian Chablis. The waitress distinctly remembers you standing up and making a toast?"

"Objection. He?s leading the witness."


Nawara glanced at the floor. "Please tell the court why you ordered an expensive bottle of wine."

Garris shifted in his chair. Swallowing, he replied, "To celebrate."

Cocking his head, Ven stated, "It?s perfectly okay to use complete sentences, Mr. Fluores. I?d like to hear the whole story from you instead of calling the waitress to the stand."

Straightening his back, Garris began, "I ordered the wine to celebrate the start of our relationship."

"There, that wasn?t so hard." Ven smiled. "Now, would you tell the court about Callista?s reaction to your announcement."

"She wasn?t excited. She told me she wasn?t interested in me romantically. She even said she was insulted that I would think she would cheat on her husband. But I knew the marriage was on the outs, so I figured I?d take my chances."

"What happened after you took her home?"

Garris shrugged. "I romanced her. I figured I?d show her how I felt, let her know what she was missing and she?d change her mind."

"Let me get this straight. You romanced, actually forced your attentions on a married woman who had already told you she wasn?t interested? And you were surprised that her husband was upset?"

"Yeah, what of it? He didn?t need to choke me."

"No more questions," Ven stated as he walked to his chair.

Mahalian stood and addressed the judge. Your Honor, in light of evidence delivered during Mr. Fluores testimony, the prosecution would like to submit a deposition from a gentlebeing who was recently subjected to the defendant?s ?choking? ability.

Puzzled by this new information, Ven perused his datapad, looking for an entry regarding the new evidence. "I don?t see anything on the logs. Why wasn?t I informed about this deposition? Who is it from?"

We just received the deposition over a secure holonet transmission during the recess and had no time to enter it. Considering it confirms Mr. Fluores description of his assault, we felt that it needed to be submitted now, she replied. The deposition is from M?Crik, an independent small business man from Corellia.

Astonished at the mention of the pirate?s name, Luke glanced back at Mara who had a similar reaction. At first, Mara wondered how the prosecution got M?Crik?s name? But she knew exactly from whom it came. Medeia must have supplied the information as part of her plan to guarantee that Luke would not be acquitted. It became more urgent that she reconstruct the Current Candidate file. Once she got the file to Hoover, Mara was going after the Sith Lord. Medeia?s time was short.

After taking a calming breath, Luke whispered to Nawara the true identity of the supposed small businessman. Nawara?s eyes grew wide as Luke quickly told him about the kidnapping. Standing up, he said, "Objection. M?Crik is the leader of a pirate organization and is currently a felon serving time for kidnapping. The fact that he attempts to legitimize his occupation by mislabeling it makes the whole deposition suspect. I object to its submission."

Both attorneys approached the bench.

M?Crik?s view of his occupation maybe different than ours, but it doesn?t change the fact that during a conversation with the defendant, he was suddenly choked by your client.

"He was holding a blaster to Mara?s heart and threatening to kill her," Luke exclaimed, unable to restrain his voice.

Al?seyr banged his gavel. "Master Skywalker. Your comment is out of order."

Luke nodded his head, then glanced at his attorney who was still standing and looking at the prosecutors.

Nawara refused to back down to the overly zealous attorneys. He asked, "Does M?Crik mention anywhere in his deposition that he was committing a felony at the time?"

No, but we only have the defendant?s word about that. And Skywalker is on trial for committing a felony?

"I?m sure that Mrs. Skywalker sees it differently. Perhaps if we ask her?" Ven interjected angrily.

Suddenly, a new voice was heard over the attorneys. "I was there too. Why don?t you ask me?"

All eyes converged on the new speaker, Han Solo, standing at the railing behind the defense table. "I?ll be glad to come up there and tell you what happened."

"Order! Bailiff, remove that man from the court," Al?seyr demanded, banging his gavel.

Ignoring the judge, Ven continued, "What do you say, Counselor? Shall we have Captain Solo tell us about M?Crik?s conversation with Master Skywalker?"

Waving her arm towards Han, who was being escorted down the aisle towards the exit, Mahalian said, Any testimony of Captain Solo?s would be questionable. He?s related to the defendant.

Dramatically tossing his arms in the air, Ven declared, "Questionable? That?s absurd." Nawara took a deep breath and continued his diatribe. "What?s more absurd is that you tried to submit this questionable evidence from a questionable witness without putting it through the proper channels."

"Enough!" shouted Judge Al?seyr, slamming his gavel hard on the bench. "Order has been called. Counselor Ven, Counselor Roat, you will both stop making a mockery of this court," Al?seyr admonished. "A high profile case does not give you the right to resort to such theatrics in my court. Ven, I?m fining you for contempt of court. Roat, I?m rejecting the submission of that deposition. I?m calling a short recess. Court is adjourned until 1500."

He rapped the gavel one more time, then the court clerk announced, "All rise."

"Luke, we need to talk. Follow me," Nawara said as Judge Al?seyr exited the courtroom.

Luke could tell that Nawara was upset. The attorney continued to pace after Luke had sat down in a small room adjacent to the larger courtroom. Crossing his arms, Luke looked at the Twi?lek and said, "Just say it."

Ven stopped pacing and looked at Luke. Sitting down in a chair opposite the Jedi, he placed his palms on the table. "Alright. You should have told me about this M?Crik character."

"It had nothing to do with the case. I didn?t think it mattered," Luke explained.

"It does matter. I told you they would go in depth to find out everything about you and what you have done. I need to know about every incident to be prepared," Nawara stated firmly. "I was caught off guard and I don?t like the feeling."

"I?m sorry, Nawara," Luke apologized. "I had no idea they would even know about M?Crik, let alone actually get a deposition from him. He?s supposed to be in prison on Corellia. Captain Herm would have contacted me if he wasn?t."

Ven?s talons tapped the table a couple times as he shifted to a more comfortable position. "Luke. I know you have a lot of enemies and you have given me a lot of information but I need to know. Is there anything else you haven?t told me? Anything that they could bring up in court against you?"

Closing his eyes, Luke took a deep breath as he thought about how to divulge his secret. If Ven was going to defend him, the man needed to know. Luke wasn?t worried about Nawara?s reaction to his parentage, other than the fact he hadn?t been advised yet. In a low voice, he began, "There is one thing you need to know. It?s about my father."

"I thought you were an orphan, raised by your aunt and uncle."

"That?s true. I was raised by my aunt and uncle but I found out during the war that my father wasn?t dead."

"At the same time you found out about your sister?"

"Actually, no. I learned that Leia was my sister later. We were separated at birth to protect us from the Emperor," Luke closed his eyes, remembering his reactions to the news of his parentage. "It?s in all the official documents. You?ll even find the name of our father, Anakin Skywalker."

"I remember now. So you found out your father wasn?t dead. What?s the big secret? Was he an imperial or something."

Luke laughed at Nawara?s offhanded comment. Noticing Ven?s annoyed expression, Luke subdued his laughter and explained his response. "Actually, my father was an imperial. My father was once a Jedi who turned to the Dark Side and changed his name... to Darth Vader."

Ven was silent, his lekku twitching. After a few minutes, he finally spoke. "That?s quite a difficult secret to keep. How many know about it?"

"Most of the upper leadership. My close friends, my advanced students. There could possibly be more that we aren?t aware of, but it isn?t a published fact. Neither Leia or I advertise our parentage because most sentients have an adverse reaction to the name."

"I can understand that," Ven said. "Did Callista know?"

"She knew long before we were even married."

Stretching his arms, Ven tapped his talons on the desk surface. "Thanks for telling me, Luke." Following a brief pause, Ven asked a few more questions intended to lift Luke?s spirits. "I don?t want any more surprises. Are there any more family skeletons I need to know? Is Wes Janson your long lost brother? Is the Emperor your father-in-law? Borsk Fey?lya your cousin?"

Luke grinned at Nawara?s jokes to lighten the tension. Shaking his head, he answered, "No. I have no more skeletons."

"Is there anything else I should know?" Nawara stopped tapping, his eyes boring sternly into Luke?s.

"Stang, Nawara. I?ve told you everything."

Shaking his head in denial, Ven?s hard expression changed to one of mirth. "You haven?t told me about Mara?s condition."

"Mara?s condition?" Luke repeated perplexed, then understanding came. "Oh. Mara?s pregnancy. How?d you find out?"

"I have my ways." Nawara grabbed Luke?s hand and briskly shook it. "Congratulations. And don?t worry, we?ll get through this trial before he?s born."

"As long as my first view of him isn?t from a prison cell," Luke replied.

Shaking his head, Ven said, "Have faith. I?ll get you out of this."

"Your Honor. Permission to approach the bench," Janason requested.

Al?seyr replied, "Granted."

Nawara joined the prosecution at the bench. Janason looked like he wanted to say something but couldn't put it into words. Finally, clearing his throat, Janason sheepishly looked at Ven and admitted, "I need your assistance with a bit of hostile evidence."

Nawara cocked his head. "Hostile evidence?"

Janason nodded. "Yes. Hostile evidence. We are looking for some corroborating data on Skywalker?s flight information from his astromech. But it refuses to cooperate."

"What did you do to it?" Ven asked.

"Nothing. It keeps shocking everyone that comes near it. I wanted to put on a restraining device but can?t get close enough. Using an Ionization Gun might erase the information we?re looking for."

"Why didn?t you just ask earlier?"

"We didn?t want to take a chance that someone would erase the droid?s memory."

"Janason, you have to start trusting me to behave ethically. I?m insulted," Ven rebuked. "Your Honor. I?ll get my client to talk to his droid."

Ven walked back to the defense table, leaning over to talk quietly to Luke. Smiling at the prosecutor?s dilemma, Luke stood up and asked, "Where is he?"

Janason pointed to the jury sequestering room. Al?seyr announced that there would be a delay in beginning the trial until a glitch with some evidence could be corrected.

Luke led the way, followed by Nawara, Janason and Roat. As soon as the door was open, a barrage of astromech noise escaped, causing a few sentients in the courtroom to cover their auditory receptors. A prissy voice said, "Artoo. Please behave. You don?t want to be melt?Oh, Master Luke, I?m so glad to see you."

When the entourage entered the side room, Artoo rolled immediately to Luke?s side. Putting his hand on the droid?s blue dome, he said, "Hello Artoo. What?s wrong?"

The droid launched into a series of high pitched notes, beeps and whistles which C3PO began to translate.

"Artoo says that these gentlemen have been trying to get to his memory chip. He?s afraid they are going to try to erase his memory."

Artoo emitted a few more blips and bleeps. Threepio indignantly replied, "I did not conspire with them to trap you. You rusty oversized trash can."

Luke said, "Artoo. Nobody?s going to erase your memory. Just give the gentlemen the information they ask for."

A mournful sigh followed by a twitter beep came from the ancient droid. Threepio started to speak but was cut off when Luke said, "Yes, Artoo I?ll be here."

Astonished by what he had just seen and heard, Janason asked, "Why did your droid react like that? All droids get memory wipes."

Luke leaned against the table, his arms crossed. "Not this droid. He?s never had one as long as I?ve owned him and never will. I have standing orders at maintenance for no memory wipes. The reason he reacted like he did was because the last time he was in the shop somebody did try to erase his memory."

One of the two guards who had tried to put the restraining bolt on Artoo whispered to his partner, "Whoa. That droid?s probably got a lot of interesting stories to tell."

"He?s not going to be telling any stories," Luke declared, irked at the guards. "Just ask for the information you need and no more. He will not give anything more."

Janason signaled to Roat who pulled a datapad out of her pocket and placed it on the table next to Artoo. The second guard walked over to the droid and held out his hand to attach the restraining bolt but stopped when another hand gripped his arm.

"You won?t need that," Luke said, clearly expecting to be obeyed.

Reluctantly, the man backed off. Counselor Roat moved closer and connected the transfer port to Artoo and requested all flight information for the past year and a half. Luke smirked at the though of the prosecutors combing through all that data. He had flown his X-Wing extensively prior to obtaining Tatooine?s Flame. It didn?t take long before Roat was unhooking the connection, having collected the necessary files on her datapad. Thank you, Master Skywalker, Counselor Ven, she said quickly, nodding respectfully. Not waiting for any response, she began reading the datapad as she headed for the door.

"No problem. All you needed to do was ask," Nawara replied to her retreating form.

Clearing seeking a truce, Janason offered his hand to the Twi?lek and said, "Thank you, Ven. As soon as we sort through the data, I?ll send over our findings."

Luke patted Artoo?s dome, which then swiveled in his direction. "You did just fine, Artoo. There?s nothing there that will hurt me."

The droid beeped and whistled.

"Yes, Artoo. You can go. I?ll see you at home."

Janason just shook his head at the sight of the Jedi Master conversing with the astromech as if it were sentient.

Mara opened the door to their apartment and was greeted by a smiling Ghent. Cheerfully, he said, "You?ve got something for me?"

"I?m fine, thank you," she replied. "How are you?"

A slight blush spread on his cheeks. "Sorry."

She slapped him on the arm. "It?s okay, Ghent. By now I know better than to expect polite formalities from you. Come in." She ushered him inside. "And I do have something for you."

He smiled in response. Then Mara continued, "Actually, I?ve got two things for you. A couple of puzzles."

Ghent followed her to the computer center, waving his hand at Luke as he passed the Jedi. Mara retrieved the two datadiscs she?d compiled. She held up the first one labeled Current Candidate and explained, "This one is Imperial encryption. It?s already been cracked but it has also been corrupted and altered. I have no doubt you can reconstruct it."

Ghent smiled as she handed him the disc; he would enjoy working on it.

The next one she had transferred from Artoo after returning for the afternoon session. "This one is standard astronavigation flight records. I?d like you to see if it?s been tampered with."

"Sure. Piece of rhyscate!" He grinned. "I?ll get on it as soon as I get home. Thanks."

Ghent practically ran to the front door, Mara trailing behind.

His feet up on the coffee table, Luke reclined into the cushions, reading a datapad. He glanced up to look at Mara who had just returned from escorting Ghent to the door. Patting the seat next to him, he asked, "Why?d you give him Artoo?s flight records?"

She pursed her lips as she plopped down next to him. Thinking about his question, she answered, "It was a hunch. There?s something in there. Something important."

Nodding in understanding, Luke said nothing more about the data. His reading now forgotten, he put the datapad down on the table and snuggled close to Mara, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. Her red-gold tresses, silky soft, caressed his face. Shifting her position, Mara pulled her knees up, placing her feet on the edge of the table. She leaned over to unzip her boots, getting them both off quickly and wiggling her toes which were now free from their prison.

Luke reached over, taking hold of her legs and pulling them onto his lap. Then he began massaging her feet, gently rubbing the aches out of them.

"Thank you, Luke. That feels wonderful," Mara sighed.

Luke continued for a while until he sensed that Mara was totally relaxed. Changing his position on the couch, he laid down, his head in Mara?s lap. "How?s the baby today?" he asked, pressing his ear against her abdomen.

Resting her fingers lightly on Luke?s forehead, Mara said, "Luke, it?s too early to hear him now."

"Shh. I hear something," he said, smiling brightly. "Sounds like water. Agitated?it?s going whoosh, whoosh."

Mara giggled at his impression of her womb. If only the jury could see the real Luke? Still, she felt sure that Luke would be acquitted soon. Their lives would then return to normal. No more holoreporters, no more holocams, no more public scrutiny.

"Normal, Jade," Luke mumbled, his eyes closed as he continued to reach out to the baby. "Since when were our lives normal?"

"Our normal routine, then. Defending the helpless, fighting renegade Imperials and defeating Sith Lords. "

Mara brushed several errant blond locks away from Luke?s forehead.

One of Luke?s eyelids popped open, and he said, "Yep, that sounds normal for us."

Mara smiled. "I wouldn?t have it any other way."

Chapter 29

Built during the golden age of the Old Republic, the modest housing complex was beginning to show its age. The duracrete crumbled to the touch; the transparisteel was clouded, cracked and splintered. Few sought entrance to the building, believing it to be condemned. Those who did enter uninvited often exited hurriedly, driven by an overwhelming fear. The exterior was but a fa?ade, an effective security system set in place by the owner of the building, Lucazec Limited. The interior lobby continued the deception, but once the first landing was reached, a transformation occurred. Hiding under the ugly shell was a simple but elegant apartment, containing a well-appointed kitchen and comfortably furnished living quarters. The second level housed three lavish bedroom suites. The inhabitants currently occupied the largest one.

Guiding the brush slowly through the ebony tresses on Kirawyn?s head, Akanah finished the final stroke, removing the bristles from the fine hair. Putting the brush down on the bureau, Akanah placed her hands on Kirawyn?s shoulders, then looked at the timid face in the mirror. "All done," she announced.

Kirawyn smiled meekly and replied, "Thank you."

"How are you feeling now?" Akanah asked with concern.

Twisting a strand of her hair, Kirawyn appeared insecure. "I?m still nervous about tomorrow, but I?m ready."

Patting Kirawyn on the back, Akanah assured her. "You?ll be just fine. Your testimony will seal his fate. I know it."

"Will you be there?" Kirawyn asked pleadingly. Her pain and grief still raw, she did not want to be alone in the courtroom.

Akanah nodded. "Of course."

The younger woman stood up. "Thanks," she sighed in relief. "I will be glad when it?s over. He ruined my life and I want him to suffer like I have."

An enigmatic smile stretched on Akanah?s face. "He will suffer. I guarantee it."

Kirawyn Rochester sat confidently in the witness box, her posture erect and her expression calm. Her black eyes darted to Luke Skywalker. On the exterior he exuded serenity, but she knew that was only a fa?ade. Callista had told her everything about him. He was worried, she knew he was, he had to be. If he weren?t now, he would be soon.

Counselor Janason asked, "Miss Rochester, could you tell us about the night Callista came to you and told you she was leaving her husband?"

A small smile appeared on her face briefly, and was then replaced by a solemn expression. At last, she had her chance to hurt Luke Skywalker, to inflict pain and grief on him as he had done to her. Akanah was correct in her assertion that mental torture was more satisfying than physical torture. It was even more fulfilling to know that she would be torturing him with the truth. Clearing her throat, Kirawyn began her revenge. "I remember it well?"

"I had just finished some datawork when I heard the door annunciator buzz. It was Callista. Through the peep screen, I saw her wipe a tear from her eye and I knew she must have been fighting with Luke again. She always cried after they fought. I opened the door and asked her what he had done. She told me he had ?lost his temper.? I ushered her inside and set her down on the couch. Then, I asked her to tell me about it.

Callista told me about how Luke choked Garris. She said she was worried that he was slipping to the Dark Side again. She was afraid he was becoming like his father."

Luke closed his eyes, fervently hoping that it wouldn?t happen, not like this. He knew though that his hopes were futile. Kirawyn was about to reveal his parentage to the entire galaxy and there was nothing he could do to stop her.

"His father?" Janason asked.

Raising her voice significantly, Kirawyn answered, "Luke?s father, Anakin Skywalker, was a Jedi. He betrayed his fellows and turned to the Dark Side of the Force. He changed his name and was known throughout the galaxy as Darth Vader."

Gasps of disbelief and muttered curses were heard throughout the courtroom. Accusing eyes bored into the back of Luke?s head. The onslaught of hatred and disgust he could feel emanating from the gallery was unbearable. Luke kept his chin up and face forward. He would not show concern, but it still cut him that so many sentients would automatically hate him because of his father. Mara slipped into his thoughts, checking on his condition and state of mind. I?m fine, he thought. He regretted not revealing his parentage outside the court so he could detail it, explain it, and lessen its impact. Now, he had no choice but to hold a press conference, his best option to salvage his image. Never before had Luke worried about his image, but he had a school to run and he needed public support to continue running it successfully.

A softly muttered "Stang" pulled him out of his musings. He was about to ask Mara about her curse, but the reason became obvious as he listened to Kirawyn continue.

"Callista knew that Luke could turn. He had done it before. Remember the Reborn Emperor? Luke was in charge of the World Devastators."

Oh, great, he thought. Now she?s got me looking like a traitor. Luke glanced at his attorney. Ven didn?t appear concerned. Rogue Squadron was part of the military action during that battle so he was aware of Luke?s role. The fact that she was divulging top level classified information could work in his favor. Kirawyn may claim that Callista revealed the information, but Luke knew that Callie would never have detailed his role. Sure, she may have mentioned the existence of a dark period in his life, but she knew better than to give up sensitive military secrets. The question now was where Kirawyn got her hands on that information.

Clasping his hands behind his back, Nawara looked at the young woman in the witness box and continued his cross-examination. "Miss Rochester. You?ve indicated that Mrs. Skywalker treated you as a confidant, an intimate acquaintance."

"That?s right. I was her personal assistant. We spent a lot of time together and became close friends," she stated.

"You know a lot about her likes and dislikes, her marital discord, her career. Did she tell you about her life as a Jedi?"

"She preferred not to discuss her inability to continue serving as a Jedi. But she often told me that her training was so ingrained into her psyche that she would always be a Jedi, even if she couldn?t touch the power."

"How did Callista continue to be a Jedi?"

Using her fingers, Kirawyn counted off the examples, "Well, she followed the Jedi Code, meditated, performed good deeds ? she donated part of her income to the Jedi academy ? and she practiced her lightsaber skills daily."

"Really? Everyday?"

"Yes. I had a permanent reservation for her at the gym. She often sparred with droids but occasionally she dueled with Leia Organa Solo, and a few times with her husband," she said.

Ven walked back to the defense table and retrieved a box. Opening it, he pulled out a cylinder and carried it over to Kirawyn. "Do you recognize this?"

Kirawyn eyed the piece, then lovingly rubbed her hands over the tsalke carvings. In an awed voice, she said, "It?s Callista?s lightsaber."

Pulling the saber away from the witness and holding the hilt vertical, Ven angled his eyes towards the judge. "Your Honor. Permission to extend the blade."


Nawara ignited the weapon, the unique snap-hiss preceded the hum of the glowing gold blade. A few onlookers oohed and ahhed, obviously having never seen a real lightsaber up close. Kirawyn just stared at the blade, apparently mesmerized by its existence. Ven depressed the button and the blade disappeared from sight, yet Kirawyn continued to stare. Clearing his throat, Nawara pulled her out of her daze. "Is this the lightsaber Callista used in her daily sparring matches?"

Kirawyn nodded. "Yes."

"How did she handle it? During her matches, how did she fare?"

With pride in her voice, Kirawyn replied, "She was an expert swordswoman. She was modest most of the time, but she once let it slip that her husband was impressed by her skill. It was the one thing her inability to touch the Force didn?t steal. She kept her saber with her at all times."

"How did she carry it?"

Disgusted by Ven?s apparent lack of knowledge, Kirawyn wrinkled her nose at the question. "She carried it like all other Jedi, of course. A loop on her belt."

Nawara went back to the table and replaced the saber into the box. Then, he picked up a holocube and carried it over to Kirawyn. "Miss Rochester. Would you please look at these holos and kindly locate Mrs. Skywalker?s lightsaber in each one?"

Kirawyn scanned the holos, rapidly locating the saber in each one. In a variety of pictures, doing different activities at different times of day and in every season, all had one thing in common ? Callista was wearing her lightsaber.

"For the court?s records please indicate that Miss Rochester has indicated the presence of the deceased?s lightsaber in twenty different holos," Nawara requested. Turning his attention back to the witness, he continued, "Is it safe to say then, Miss Rochester, that Callista always had her lightsaber with her?"

"Yes. She never went anywhere without it."

Ven showed her one last holo. She gasped when it appeared in front of her.

"Could you locate her lightsaber in this picture of the murder scene?" he questioned.

"No. It?s not there," she said, her lips trembling.

"Why wouldn?t it be there? You told the court that she always had it with her. Certainly this day was no different than any other?"

"I don?t know why it?s not there."

"Would you tell us how you came into possession of her lightsaber?"

"What do you mean?" she asked, her brow furrowed.

"According to the message sent by Teith Muloon to Master Skywalker advising him of his ex-wife?s death, you would be bringing the lightsaber to Luke. It was a part of her personal effects," Ven paused, waiting for her to process the information. "That same message also tells us that you made an ill-fated rescue attempt."

"I tried to get to her but I couldn?t," she cried out.

"If you couldn?t get to her, how did you get her lightsaber?"

"I found it in her cabin," she insisted.

"Do you expect the court to believe that?"

Objection, Mahalian shouted.


Changing tactics, Nawara asked, "Why don?t you tell us what happened that day?"

"A tsalke bumped her watership. I jumped into mine and drove out to her. I was too late ? she was sinking," Kirawyn replied sorrowfully.

"Did Callista call for help?"

Kirawyn shook her head. "No."

"No? Wasn?t the team in contact with her?"

"We had been, but she had turned her comm off."

"That doesn?t make sense to me. Why would she do that?"

"I don?t know," she answered.

"Let?s see if we can figure this out then," Ven stated.

Pulling a datapad out of his pocket, Ven leaned back against the railing of the witness box and continued, "This is the official transcript of conversation between Callista?s Waverunner and the Ark Tsalke Searcher. Just prior to the communications cutoff," he stopped talking as he perused the data. Hooking a cable from his datapad to the court?s sound system, he said, "Ah, here we go. I?ll play it for you. Listen."

Callie, any sign of the herd?

Not yet, Jay.


Callie, what was that?

I?m not sure (voice fades) I?ll check it out. (Lightly in the distance) Who?s there? (strongly) I didn?t see anything. (clang)

What was that?

Just my saber.

Callie, we just had a sighting to the east.

Okay. (engines turn over) I?m heading there now. (banging)

Callie, you okay?




"That?s the end of the transmission," Ven announced as he depressed a button on his datapad. "Miss Rochester. Have you heard this recording before?"

"No. I couldn?t listen to it. Too painful," she said, her voice strained.

"I?m going to play it again, just so we can talk better about it."

Kirawyn nodded in resignation. Nawara played the recording again, this time stopping at the clanging noise. Then he backed it up and played that one section.


What was that?

Just my saber.

"Miss Rochester. Could you tell the court what you just heard?"

"I don?t know," she stammered.

Calmly, Ven said, "I?ll play it again."

What was that?

Just my saber.

"Kirawyn, please tell the court what Callista said."

"Just my saber," her voice cracked barely a whisper.

"Miss Rochester. Please repeat that so the rest of the court can hear."

"Just my saber," she repeated more loudly.

"Interesting. Callista was wearing her saber on board the Waverunner just before it sank. But that shouldn?t surprise you or anyone since we have established that Callista always wore her lightsaber. Correct?"


"What confuses me though, Miss Rochester is how the lightsaber ended up in your possession when clearly it should have gone down with its owner."

"I don?t know."

"I thought you would know since according to your own account you attempted to rescue her. Even Teith Muloon in his consolatory message to Luke Skywalker mentioned your valiant attempt. And the fact that you delivered the lightsaber to her ex-husband after her untimely death."

"I found it in her cabin."

"But Callista was wearing it ? she said so herself."

"I found it in her cabin."

"Miss Rochester need I remind you that you are under oath," he admonished. "Please tell us the truth."

"The truth," she said dazed. "The truth is she deserved to be happy. She couldn?t be though, because of him," she said venomously, pointing an accusing finger at Luke. "Whenever she thought of him, she lost the joy. I tried to make her happy, to forget about him, but I couldn?t." Kirawyn leaned forward and whispered into Ven?s ear. "I saw him, you know. I saw him go on her boat." Then she stopped.

"If you did, then why have you never told anybody?"

"I was afraid. I think he saw me." She broke down crying. "I miss her. Why did she die?"

Disconcerted temporarily by the ranting witness? breakdown, Nawara stared at her, then looked up at the judge. "No further questions, Your Honor."

"Thank you, Miss Rochester. You are dismissed."

Kirawyn wiped her tears while nodding to the judge. As she walked by the defense table, she glared at Luke and then smirked at him. She had given her testimony and it was detrimental to him. Surely, he?d be convicted now, she thought.

Judge Al?seyr called recess as soon as the witness exited through the railing.

Sitting in the back of the courtroom and keeping her presence cloaked, Akanah had followed the proceedings with little emotion. It didn?t matter to her whether Skywalker was convicted or not. Kirawyn?s testimony was questionable but the girl had insisted, stating that she needed to do it for her own sanity. Once Medeia made her last appearance and completed her task of destroying the Jedi Master, she?d get Kirawyn the psychiatric help she needed. It was the least she could do for her sister.

Kirawyn?s breakdown on the stand confirmed Mara?s first impression of the girl ? she needed help. Mara reached out to brush the woman?s senses as she cleared the ysalamiri?s influence. Her emotions held a measure of pride, a sense of regret, and an aura of veracity. Kirawyn believed that everything she said in court was the absolute truth. Mara knew that couldn?t be possible because some of the testimony was contradictory. Somewhere deep in the back of her mind, Mara wondered which parts of the testimony were true.

Once most of the courtroom had cleared out, Luke turned in his chair to look at his attorney. "I need to set up a press conference."

Nawara inclined his head. "I agree, but it will have to wait until the trial?s over."

"What? Why?" Luke exclaimed, clearly surprised by his attorney?s statement.

"The rules state that you cannot discuss the trial outside of the court. Plus I don?t want to subject you to the holoreporters until we see if any more proton torpedoes land," Nawara answered. "I?m sorry, Luke, but you?ll have to wait."

"That?s just great. In the meantime, my school suffers. I?m going to be skewered by the holojournalists, all because of the words of a mentally unstable witness. I might be able to control the damage if I could talk about it?" Luke paused. "Wait a minute. If I can?t discuss the trial, why can they?"

Nawara shook his head. "It?s not the same, Luke. You are the one on trial. They?re just observers."

"Counselor, what about me? Could I do it?" a soft voice interrupted.

Nawara turned around and saw Leia leaning on the railing. Gathering his thoughts, Ven responded, "I don?t see why not, Madame Chief of State. You are not a witness or involved in the case in such a way that would break any rules. The only stipulation I can think of would be that Luke cannot participate in any way."

Luke took Leia?s hand. "Are you sure about this?"

"Yes. I?m sure," she answered, patting his hand. "I?ve been practicing my speech regarding Father for years. I?ll let you know when it?s scheduled."

"Thank you," he replied, kissing her on the cheek before watching her leave.

Nawara tapped Luke on the arm. "I?m going to talk to the military about a breach of state secrets."

Having returned from lunch recess, Luke and Nawara sat at the defense table, reviewing information that Ven?s detective had discovered during a legal search of Kirawyn Rochester?s apartment - the fully executed Divorce Decree. Even though Nawara didn?t think it would help much, Luke felt that it would at least prove that he hadn?t lied about it. The detective?s report contain some more mundane, routine items which didn?t mean anything to Ven, but when Luke spied the words "Lucazec Limited" he felt oddly elated. Maybe they could divulge the connection of Lucazec and Black Sun, using it to suggest that Luke was being framed by an illegal organization. If nothing else, it could be used by Coruscant Security for their investigation.

After a detour to the ladies? room, Mara entered the courtroom several minutes after Luke. She saw him deep in discussion with Ven. Then her glance flitted to the prosecution table. It was empty. Mara reached her seat, looking around before she sat. Suddenly, Counselor Roat hustled past her, chittering frantically.

Mara leaned forward at the railing, drawing Luke?s attention. Pointing at the prosecutor, she said, "Check out our favorite Chadra-Fan. Something?s up."

Both Luke and Nawara looked at Mahalian Roat and then each other. Mahalian was definitely unsettled. "I wonder where Janason is?" Ven said.

"All rise for the Honorable Judge Al?seyr," announced the bailiff.

Each being in the room popped up and then down once Al?seyr was seated.

Noticing the missing prosecutor, Al?seyr asked, "Counselor Roat. Will you be conducting the case for the prosecution this afternoon?"

No, your Honor. My colleague will be here momentarily, she stated nervously.

"Shall I extend?"

"Sorry, I?m late, your Honor," interrupted Janason who had just rushed through the door.

Roat sighed in relief at her partner?s appearance. She knew where he had been and was slightly worried.

Al?seyr stroked his fur and nodded in acknowledgment. "Let?s proceed then gentlebeings. Counselors Roat and Janason?"

"Pardon the interruption, Your Honor. Permission to approach the bench," Janason cut in.

Nawara stood and followed both the prosecutors. Once the Counselors reached the bench, Janason began. "The reason I was late was because I was detained by the NRI. I wasn?t aware of it, but Miss Rochester divulged state secrets during her testimony and therefore that part of her testimony is inadmissible in court."

"I knew it," Ven said. "I contacted the NRI but they were already working on it."

Al?seyr said, "I?ll have it stricken from the record."

"There?s more," Janason added. "Our researchers finally finished sorting through the R2 unit?s flight records. Cross-checking it with Space Control?s proper records, they determined that Master Skywalker?s X-Wing was truly on Coruscant at the time of the murder. Further checking discovered that it was in for maintenance."

"But your witness?" Ven started to ask.

"Perjured himself for a large pile of credits," Janason said. "He probably would have gotten away with it but it seems he can?t hold his liquor. A roomful of others, including an off duty detective heard him bragging."

"I see," the judge replied. "His testimony will have to be thrown out as well."

"Your Honor. I think more is required to correct this injustice to my client. I move for an immediate mistrial and a dismissal of charges," demanded Ven, his lekku twitching.

Reluctant to admit defeat, Janason countered, "Your Honor. While I agree that a mistrial maybe in order, I don?t believe that dismissing the charges is prudent. My colleague and I would just need time to re-examine our evidence and restructure our case."

His fur rippling, Al?seyr?s beady eyes focused on Janason. "Considering that one witness committed perjury, another violated court procedure, and your last witness, your star witness, was clearly not mentally fit to testify, I believe the appropriate course of action would be a mistrial."

"Your Honor, I request that the charges be dismissed as well," Ven said.

Mahalian stated, No. There has not been any evidence exonerating the defendant.

"My associate is correct, Your Honor. This murder hasn?t been solved and should remain open," Janason added.

"Granted," Al?seyr stated. "But if you do re-instate the case I expect that you return to this courtroom fully prepared to prosecute and not waste the taxpayers? credits or the court?s time." He paused, glancing from Janason to Roat, waiting for each to respond.

Roat nodded. Yes, Your Honor.

"Of course, Your Honor," Janason said.

"Good," the Judge replied. "Now, please be seated Counselors."

Luke had no idea what the attorneys and the judge were discussing. He really wished the ysalamiri weren?t there. When Ven turned and walked back towards him, Luke tried to read Nawara?s face but to no avail. The Twi?lek didn?t wear his emotions. By the time Ven reached the edge of the null bubble, Luke had decided to just wait for Nawara to tell him. Once the attorney was seated, Luke leaned over and asked, "Well?"

"Just wait," came the reply. "I thought Jedi had patience."

Luke made no retort because Judge Al?seyr began speaking. "Luke Skywalker. Please stand."

Pushing his chair back, Luke stood, trying to look relaxed. He fixed his eyes on Judge Al?seyr.

"Luke Skywalker. Certain testimony and evidence presented against you has been found suspect. In light of this information, your right to a fair trial has been denied. Therefore, I must declare a mistrial. You are free to go. May the Force be with you," declared Al?seyr. Banging his gavel, he said, "Court adjourned."

Free to go. Those words sounded wonderful to Luke. He felt a hand squeezing his biceps.

"Congratulations, Luke," Ven said grinning. "Sorry, it?s not an acquittal but it does end the trial."

"That?s it?" Luke asked, stunned at the revelation. "It?s over?"

"Not exactly. This trial is over, but there is still the possibility that the prosecution could re-file the charges against you, though I doubt they?d do so unless some new evidence magically comes to light," Ven explained. "I?m sorry. I know it isn?t the acquittal you wanted, but it?s the best I can do for now. If they decide to proceed with a second trial, I promise we?ll blow their case to space dust," Ven added as he extended his hand to Luke.

Luke grabbed his attorney?s hand, grasping it firmly. "Thank you," he said. "How can I ever repay you?"

"By paying the outrageously large bill I?m going to send you," Nawara glibly replied.

Luke laughed and pulled the other into a backslapping hug. Releasing the attorney, Luke went to the railing, stepping over it to receive a similar hug from his brother-in-law. Leia threw herself in her brother?s arms, getting twirled in the process. "I knew you?d be cleared," she whispered.

He put her down, kissing her cheek. "Thanks, Leia," he whispered back.

Luke turned to face his wife, but she appeared to be a trance, unaware that he was there. "Mara?"

Mara listened to the judge?s announcement. A mistrial didn?t totally clear him but at least he would be out from under the microscope. They could return to their normal, galaxy saving lives. After the stress of the trial, Mara felt that a vacation was in order; Luke needed to get away. She watched as he hugged Ven and Han. Her husband had not been so relaxed in a long time. It was as Luke reached out to hug his sister that she felt a chill. A shiver ran down Mara?s spine, a feeling of disaster loomed nearer. She felt a searing heat, something was ablaze but what she couldn?t tell what. A distant voice called her name.


Blinking, she saw that Luke was standing before her, his concern evident. "Luke, I?m fine. I think I just had a vision," she said quickly. "We can talk about it later." She embraced him. "I?m so happy this is over."

He wrapped his arms around her, resting his forehead on hers. "So am I," he said, then kissed her lips. "Let?s go home."

Kirawyn stared in disbelief. Mistrial? No! she thought. He can?t be free. She watched Skywalker embrace his attorney and his family. The man looked too happy. She sneered at all of them. They didn?t deserve to be happy. She would destroy their happiness. Kirawyn stood up but felt a hand grab her wrist.

"Don?t worry about the decision. It doesn?t matter," Akanah reminded her. "My plan will take care of him."

The raven-haired woman nodded her head slightly. "I need to get out of here. I can?t handle it anymore."

The older woman didn?t let go. "Meet me later at the spaceport? I could use your help."

"Sure," Kirawyn said. "Now let go please."

Letting go, Akanah said, "I?ll see you later then."

Luke could have gone straight home but he wanted to get his lightsaber first. In order to have it returned, he needed to go to the property desk and fill out a request form. About a half-hour later, he was relieved to feel its familiar weight back on his hip. Taking Mara by the hand, Luke walked out of the room.

The crowds had not subsided by the time Luke had finished getting his saber. The media surrounded them instantly as they exited the property room. After repeating ?No Comment? several times, Luke realized that he needed to actually say something to get them to go away. He wasn?t ready to make any lengthy statement so he graciously said, "Yes. I?m very glad that the trial is over. I don?t have anything else to say at this time, however I?ll be happy to address your questions at a later date. A press conference is being arranged and I will be prepared to make a statement at that time. Thank you."

Ignoring the continuing questions, Luke took Mara?s hand again and escorted her out of the building. Since they?d exited the courtroom, Luke had been receiving a prodding from the Force to get home quickly. They entered their speeder and Luke drove for home. The prodding became a full danger alert as they approached their destination. One block from their apartment, the reason became apparent. The level that housed their apartment was engulfed in flames.

Firefighting crews were already hard at work. Having only recently arrived, they worked on containing the blaze, preventing it from spreading, but the Skywalker residence would be a total loss.

Pulling his speeder to an abrupt halt, Luke jumped out and ran for the building, only to be stopped by a firefighter. "I?m sorry, Sir, but no one is allowed in the building."

"But that?s our home. My droid?"

A beep twitter drew Luke?s attention as a soot-covered droid came towards him.

"Artoo," Luke exclaimed, relieved that the little droid had escaped the inferno. Directing his attention to the lieutenant, he asked, "What happened?"

"We aren?t sure yet. Got the call about ten minutes ago. The blaze was already fully engaged and spread rapidly. All occupants on that level have been evacuated. Sprinkler systems malfunctioned and?" the buzz of a comlink interrupted him. "Excuse me?Manzio," he answered, looking up at the aerial engine.

"Lieutenant. It?s Caulder. We?re ready to apply more extinguisher," the voice sounded eerie, crackling echoed in the background. "Wait! There?s somebody in there!"

Looking up with the others and stepping closer to Luke, Mara declared, "It?s Kirawyn."

Chapter 30

The firefighters made a valiant attempt to rescue Kirawyn, but to no avail. Using a bullhorn so to be heard over the crackling, they tried calling to her, but she refused to move in their direction. It was as if she didn?t want to be saved. The flames were too intense to allow them to enter the suite, even in their fire-retardant uniforms. Kirawyn was too far away and surrounded by a wall of fire. Waves of heat forced the firefighters to pull back while they continued to douse the inferno. Once the blaze was contained, the crew entered, extinguishing the smaller flames as they went farther in. About an hour later, the fire was officially extinguished.

A routine fire department investigation, in addition to unresolved safety issues, kept Luke and Mara from surveying their devastated home. Lt. Manzio wanted to question Artoo about the cause of the blaze, but the droid?s translation pad had been lost during the excitement. Manzio put in a request for a protocol droid. However, even though the fire department was given priority and his request was expedited, it still took about an hour for fulfillment.

The ever-vigilant Khabriek stayed near the Skywalkers but remained an invisible bystander to all others as the Noghri kept an eye on the crowd, watching for danger.

Once the translator arrived, Manzio, Luke and Mara sat down with Artoo and began to question the droid?s knowledge about what had occurred in the Skywalker suite.

"Artoo. How did Kirawyn get in our apartment?" Luke asked his faithful droid.

"He says, ?I let her in.?"

"Why?" Luke asked incredulously.

"She?s on my ?recognize and obey? program."

"Skywalker, why did you put her on that program?" Mara demanded.

"I didn?t," he defended himself. Then an idea came to mind. "Artoo. How long has she been on the list?"

Artoo?s dome swiveled and he rocked back and forth a bit as he processed the question. "?Since you returned from Naboo.?"

Luke?s stomach churned, anger rushed quickly to the surface where it was immediately pushed back down. "Someone did tamper with Artoo?s programming during his maintenance."

"I have a pretty good idea who," Mara said sharply

"Droid," Manzio asked, interrupting the two Jedi. He wasn?t particularly interested in what was wrong with their droid, he had an arson case to solve. "Did you see how the fire started? Was it the woman? Did you see what she used?"

"Kirawyn poured accelerant along the floor and stairs as she went to the empty room. I didn?t follow."

Manzio nodded. "That would explain how the blaze consumed the apartment so quickly."

Luke muttered, "I don?t understand why she would do such a thing?"

Artoo beeped, bleeped and whistled, in response to Luke?s side question.

"She said she couldn?t stand to see you happy."

"I knew she was deranged from the moment I met her," Mara spat out.

"Lieutenant. Do you have any idea yet if anything survived or could be salvaged?" asked Luke.

Manzio looked doubtful. "Unless you had a fireproof safe, I?d guess that very little survived. You might be able to salvage a few things." His comlink beeped. "Excuse me."

Mara could feel Luke?s sense of loss. "Luke?Ouch," she exclaimed when something bumped into her knee.

She looked down to find that Artoo was the culprit. The little droid had extended his grappling claw and rolled into her leg. Noticing Mara?s discomfort, Luke looked at the droid, considering a reprimand but the words never left his mouth. Artoo was holding his family history disks, the ones brought back from Naboo. Rubbing the droid?s head lovingly, Luke smiled. "Thanks, Artoo."

His face solemn, Lt. Manzio returned to the Skywalkers. "It looks like the young lady?"

"Kirawyn Rochester," Luke supplied.

"Yes, Miss Rochester perished in the blaze. The crew found her body in the small upstairs bedroom. The apartment is structurally sound and you?ll be able to enter it in the morning to sort through whatever is left," Manzio paused before continuing. "Do you have a place to stay? I can direct you to a shelter."

Luke shook his head. "No, thank you. We have a place."

The lieutenant shook Luke?s hand. "I?m sorry about your home. Thanks for your help. A full report should be available in the late morning. Good night Master Skywalker, Mrs. Skywalker."

Leia smothered Luke, clutching him the moment he and Mara entered her suite. "Thank the Force you?re not hurt," she said.

Luke hugged his sister tightly, finding her presence comforting. "We?re fine."

"Thanks for letting us stay here," Mara added.

Releasing her hold of her brother, Leia smiled at her sister-in-law. "My home is always open to you." She backed up and took another look at the disheveled pair. "Luke, you look terrible. Go get some rest. We?ll talk in the morning."

Grinning, Luke replied in a teasing tone, "Yes, Mother."

Leia put her hands on her hips and tried to glare menacing at him, but failed. Pointing upstairs, she said, "You know where to go. Now get!"

Luke held up his hands in surrender. "Hey, you?ll get no argument from me. We?re going."

Wrapping his arm around Mara?s waist, they disappeared up the stairs.

Leia watched the couple, her expression clearly reflecting her concern. When would her brother no longer be a target? When could he have some normalcy in his life? She knew her questions could not be answered the way she would like. Because of what he did, who he was and what he could do, Luke would never have the peace that came with anonymity. A small smile grew on her lips. Somehow, she didn?t think he would really want it.

After several hours of combing through the charred remains of their once beautiful home, Luke and Mara came to the same conclusion as Lt. Manzio ? there was nothing to salvage. Since Artoo had carried the most irreplaceable items away from danger, there was little purpose in continuing. Thankful that no one had been harmed by the inferno, other than its creator, Luke and Mara quietly exited the apartment, never to return.

Brushing ash from her jumpsuit, Mara swore, "Shavit. This stuff gets into everything."

"Sure does," Luke said, as he smacked his hands on his thighs, stirring up dust and soot.

Mara glared at him. "Stop making it worse, Skywalker? We?ll have to go shopping. I don?t want to wear Leia?s clothes."

"Hey, at least Leia?s clothes fit you. I?d end up in Han?s," Luke replied. "Let?s clean?"

"Luke, Mara! Wait up!" shouted Ghent who came running down the corridor.

A wicked looking vibroblade appeared in Khabriek?s hand as he made a move, but Luke waved him back.

"We?re not moving, Ghent," Mara said, rolling her eyes.

Ghent pulled to a sudden stop in front of them, never noticing how close he came to the Noghri?s blade. "Sorry about the apartment. It had a great computer system. Glad you?re not hurt," he blurted out conveying his condolences. "Too bad ?bout that girl. What a way to die."

Mara fixed her eyes on him. "You need to talk to us?"

"Oh yeah," he replied. " I finished the reconstruction of Current Candidate."

Terrall Hoover regarded the two Jedi curiously. The information they had brought him was startling. Not only did he now have a strong lead on the identity of Medeia, but also the fact that the data came from the Emperor?s personal files, files that his officers had never been able to crack, intrigued him. Terrall immediately realized if he had access to the full Imperial network, his job would be much easier. Although Terrall knew that Mara Jade had once been an Imperial, he had no clue she had been so highly connected. Maybe, he could recruit?No, he thought. Jedi as undercover agents wouldn?t be feasible; too recognizable, but perhaps in the future.

"Major, we hope this information will be useful in your investigation. Medeia, or Akanah as I believe her real name is, has been menacing us since our return from Naboo," Luke stated, breaking into Hoover?s reverie.

"I?m sure we?ll make good use of it, Master?Luke," he paused. "Might I ask why you think this Akanah Pell is Medeia? This file makes no mention of the name."

"I just know," Mara declared firmly. "Surely you have some records you can check."

Hoover was astute enough to understand that Mara was hinting at something she really shouldn?t know about. "I?ll do that. We have gathered quite a lot of information during our investigation, our surveillance of the Black Sun?s headquarters providing the bulk of our data." He glanced at the two expressionless Jedi. "Our agents are very observant. There was a breach in the Black Sun?s security recently."

"Really? One of your agents got in?" Luke asked calmly.

"Not one of ours, unfortunately," Hoover replied. His suspicions had been aroused originally when Mara Skywalker had been denied access to the files they had requested. The Jedi Master?s steadfast wife did not strike him as someone to accept defeat. Then the database was sliced, very skillfully. When his agents advised him of the activity at Lucazec Limited that evening, he decided to pay Master Skywalker a visit. The absence of Mrs. Skywalker confirmed his suspicions. "I would love to meet the intruders."

"A rival maybe?" Mara stated evenly.

Hoover smiled cryptically. "Most assuredly a deadly rival. I?d hire them in an instant." He stood up. "Thank you for the data. Rest assured, it will be used. Good day to both of you."

The Solo suite was empty when Luke and Mara returned after their visit to Coruscant Security and an impromptu - but necessary - shopping trip. Checking the message center, Luke found a notice from Leia saying that the family had gone to the playground and would be back mid-afternoon. Her note also included a reminder about the press conference scheduled for 1800 that evening. He closed his messages and went to join Mara in the guestroom.

Dropping the packages near the closet, Mara flopped down on the bed. Hoover?s insinuations were eating away at her ego. Somehow, the man had guessed that she was the one who broke into Lucazec. No one should have known, no one should have guessed. Her skills must be stagnating if he had determined her identity. She tossed off her boots, one at a time. Luke walked into the room, ducking to avoid a flying boot. "Don?t worry about it, Mara," he said. "Hoover was impressed."

"I don?t care," Mara snarled as she got up off the bed. "He knew it was me."

"It doesn?t matter," Luke replied, following her into the refresher. "He won?t tell anybody."

"That?s not the point. I?ve lapsed in my infiltration skills," she growled, picking up a brush and taking it to her hair, rather roughly.

Grabbing her arm, Luke pulled her around. "Mara, you need to cool off."

She glared at him. "I do not."

"Yes, you do," he insisted.

Before she could retort, Luke picked her up and carried her screaming to the shower stall. "Skywalker! Put me down!"

Using the Force to turn the water on, Luke set her down in the resulting stream. As the cold water pelted her body, Mara forgot about her anger at Hoover, instead redirecting her thoughts to revenge on a certain farmboy.

Luke could feel Mara?s emotions shift and then realized he might have made a mistake in his attempt to cool her down. Reaching in, he turned the water off and looked at his wife. Her hair was damp, wet on top but not underneath. Water rippled down her face and throat. Her shirt was clinging?she looked beautiful and alluring. He immediately clamped his thoughts. If she caught him thinking like that?

"Too late, Farmboy," she whispered in a sultry tone, crooking her finger to beckon him closer.

Luke moved forward, unsure of her intent. When he was within reach, Mara pulled him into the shower stall and then turned the cold water on him. It drenched the back of his shirt, sending shivers over his body. Meeting her objective, Mara turned the water off and stepped out of the stall - - followed shortly afterwards by her dripping husband.

"I guess I deserved that," he said.

Mara tossed a towel at him. "Yes, you did." She paused. "Now, help me out of these wet clothes."

Grinning, Luke replied, "I thought you?d never ask."

The press conference was held in the Organa Room at the Senate Hall. A magnificent tribute to the memory of Bail Organa and the people of Alderaan, the venue was often used by politicians seeking to reinforce and flaunt their republican ideals and standards. Holoreporters from every media publication and every broadcast company were in attendance, each one speculating about the possible direction the Chief of State would go with her announcement. A side door opened, and Leia Organa Solo strode through the threshold, walking regally to a dais set up nearby. Directly behind her, holding his wife?s hand, Luke Skywalker entered the massive conference room, winding their way nimbly through the assorted technical support crew. The audience hushed as Leia, smiling warmly, stood behind the lectern in the middle of the dais. Luke and Mara Skywalker sat in chairs beside the lectern. Leia rested her hands lightly on the lectern and then declared, "Thank you. I will be making a personal statement regarding certain information recently brought to light during the trial of my brother, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker. After which, I will open up the floor for questions. But before I begin today, I have a question for you."

Leia slipped from behind the lectern and stood beside a large white screen to the left of the dais. Her brown hair was braided tightly in a bun, propped on the top of her head. She wore the traditional white senatorial gown, reminding all in attendance of her Alderaanian background. There was nothing in her appearance or demeanor that alluded to being related to the Dark Lord of the Sith. A cursory glance at the Jedi Master revealed that he too was dressed simply. Clad in his customary black pants and boots, he had forgone the black shirt and cape for a white shirt and a simple brown Jedi robe, reminiscent of the Old Republic Jedi. Mara also wore a similar robe over a green jumpsuit. There was nothing threatening in their attire.

A wedding holo materialized on the large screen. The inscription superimposed below the couple read "Padme and Anakin." The pair radiated happiness and love shone in their eyes.

Leia cleared her throat. "How many of you chose your own parents?"

A holo of the last Royal family of Alderaan which included a sixteen year old Leia replaced the one of Padme and Anakin.

"None of us chose our own parents. Luke and I didn?t choose our parents. In order to protect us from the Emperor, Luke and I were separated at birth to be raised by others. I was raised on Alderaan, a member the royal family of Viceroy Bail Organa. My foster parents nurtured me in a caring environment. I never lacked for love. Bail was the one who taught me right from wrong. Held my hand when I took my first steps, applied bacta salve to my wounds, trained me in politics and shared his dream of a free galaxy. I inherited Bail?s thirst for freedom, and I knew I could make a difference."

A holo of Owen, Beru and Luke now shared the screen with the one of Leia?s adoptive family.

"As you all know, the twin brother I never knew was raised on Tatooine, the nephew of Owen and Beru Lars, hardworking moisture farmers. They instilled in him a healthy work ethic, taught him the importance of values, shaped his character and raised him as their own. In an otherwise inhospitable environment, they created a loving home for the bright, young boy who would one day be responsible for the reestablishment of a noble order."

Leia waited quietly then slowly returned to the lectern. The holos disappeared from sight.

Pushing a stray hair behind her ear, Leia began, "The statement I wish to make today is to publicly affirm that Anakin Skywalker, a Jedi Knight, was indeed Luke?s father, as well as mine. Tragically, our father forsook his Jedi training and turned to evil becoming Darth Vader, the Emperor?s right hand man. The actions of Vader during his service to the Empire are well documented. I do not know, nor could I ever understand, what could drive a sentient to commit such atrocities. But I?m not here to offer any excuses for the past.

"As I mentioned a few moments ago, neither of us was aware of our ancestry. Luke?s foster parents never revealed his true parentage, and they took the secret to their graves, dying to protect Luke from the Empire. General Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke that his father was actually a Jedi Knight, a Jedi Knight that had fought in the Clone Wars and was killed by Darth Vader. Master Kenobi then began to train my brother in the ways of the Force, both for his own protection and to plant the seeds for the re-emergence of the Jedi. For thousands of generations the Jedi were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic and would be again. Luke and I, still unaware of our connection, were drawn together in the battle for the freedom of the galaxy. Both of us fought bravely, committed to the ideals and principles of a new Republic, even though both of us had lost our families and many of our friends.

"It was during a confrontation with Lord Vader that my brother learned the identity of his father from the Sith Lord?s own words. Vader desired to corrupt Luke to the dark side and have him rule the galaxy with him, as Father and son. Luke refused the offer and it nearly cost him his life. Luke escaped, and even after the brutal truth of Vader?s declaration was confirmed by Jedi Master Yoda, Luke found the courage to continue his fight against the Empire, knowing it was his own father he was fighting against.

"He carried this burden alone until the night before the Battle of Endor. In an Ewok village on the surface of Endor, Luke told me what had he learned of his father and of our kinship. Luke was intent on confronting our father again, not to fight him or kill him, but to turn him back to the good side, as he put it. Luke believed that there was a spark of good in him. That our father, Anakin Skywalker, was still in there somewhere, masked by the evil face of Darth Vader. My brother?s compassion for our father was great and Luke felt he had to try to break him free of the darkness in which he was trapped.

"Luke confronted that evil, alone and essentially defenseless, save for his unwavering belief that the innate love a son holds for his father, and a father for his son, would be powerful enough to overcome more than two decades of hate and anger. His faith was shaken but he stood firm. The Emperor, enraged by Luke?s refusal to turn, attacked Luke, nearly killing him.

"It was Luke?s cry for help that reached Anakin Skywalker. Ignoring twenty years of servitude, Anakin Skywalker broke free of Darth Vader and threw Emperor Palpatine into the power core of the Death Star, saving the life of his son.

"Anakin did not survive the battle, but died on the second Death Star in Luke?s arms. Luke assures me that he died in the light side of the Force, fully comprehending and deeply remorseful for the suffering he had brought down upon the peoples of the galaxy, the Jedi order, and his very own children. Luke?s compassionate nature allowed him to forgive his father. My brother has a heart for others, looking first for the good. For who else in the galaxy could have the heart to forgive such deeds of a sincerely penitent, dying father other than Luke Skywalker? I question if I could have summoned such strength, but such is the character of my brother."

Leia had moved to stand behind her brother, placing her hands on his shoulders.

"Is Luke Skywalker the son of Darth Vader? The answer is no. Is Leia Organa Solo the daughter of Darth Vader? Again, the answer is no.

"Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa Solo are the children of Anakin Skywalker, a Jedi who lost his path for some time, but through the love of his son, found his way home again."

After giving Luke a hug, Leia returned to the lectern. "I have some time to take questions."

Several holoreporters stood at once and began shouting out inquiries.

The scene faded into black.

"I?ve had enough of the holoreporters," Han said, tossing the remote to Luke. "Leia did a great job though."

Luke smiled. "That she did. I could never deflect questions like she does."

"It just takes practice," Leia said as she entered the living room, sitting down on Han?s lap. "The children are in bed and asleep."

"Mara?s been asleep for awhile, so I think I?m going to say goodnight myself." Stretching, he stood up and walked over to Leia, taking her hand into his. "Leia, I want to thank you for your help at the press conference. That speech you prepared was wonderful and beautiful. Thank you."

Smiling, she said, "Thank you, Luke."

Then, he leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Goodnight, Leia."

"Hey, what about me?" Han asked, a little perturbed at being ignored.

A grin spread on Luke?s face. Leaning over again, he was stopped by Han?s hand. "That?s not what I meant, Junior."

"Goodnight, Han," Luke laughed.

The following morning, Luke found himself under attack by the Solo Squadron: Jaina, Jacen and Anakin. The assault was initiated by Jaina who jumped on his back like a wild vornskr while he was bending over to pick up Anakin. He quickly dropped to the floor, his niece squealing the whole time. The wrestling had become routine, occurring every time Luke came to visit. It was the highlight of the day for the children - -and for the uncle too.

"Uncle Luke! Uncle Luke! Me next," shouted Jacen as he jumped on his prone uncle.

Luke captured the child in his arms, holding him securely. "It will have to be later, little Jedi. Time for breakfast."

"What are we having?" Jaina asked.

Luke pushed himself up into a sitting position, Jacen still in his lap.

"Food," came the answer from Leia who had just entered the room. "Get off your uncle and go wash up."

The children didn?t move. Luke nudged Jacen off his lap and stood up. "I guess that means more food for me."

The three young Solos looked at each other and then headed for the refresher. Leia shook her head. "You too, little brother."

Luke hooked his arm to hers as they walked down the hallway. "Who says I?m little?"

"I do," Leia answered patting his hand. "Where?s Mara this morning?"

"She?s meeting with Ghent. He finished slicing the second disk she gave him."

"I?m sorry I missed her," Leia said. "See you at breakfast."

"I?ll be down as soon as I?m washed," Luke promised.

Docking bay sixty-six appeared much like any other docking bay, except this one was lacking a ship. One of Karrde?s employees, Kirt, had been looking for a private slip for his own personal ship and had been directed to space sixty-six. Wanting to inspect it more closely, he asked Aves and Ghent to accompany him. Ghent wanted to decline, since he was planning to visit Mara. Kirt pointed out that the docking bay was near the Skywalkers and he may just want to have Mara meet him there. Reluctantly, Ghent agreed. Aves began to look around with Kirt. Ghent remained in the open to await Mara.

She arrived shortly thereafter.

"Mara," Ghent greeted her, "Thank you for coming here. I finished the astromech files for you and?"

"Mara! Ghent! Come look at this," Aves blurted, his shout coming from across the room.

Her senses alert, Mara was already heading in that direction. Although, Aves? voice sounded excited, she could not feel his excitement; she could not even find his presence. Reaching the doorway before Ghent, Mara saw the reason why ? the room Aves had entered was lined with ysalamiri. Mara scrutinized the room, visually scanning its contents. Besides the ysalamiri, it was full of crates. Aves had pried a box open to investigate its contents, eagerly removing the packing material and tossing it on the ground. Mara and Ghent entered the room; the door silently swooshing closed behind them. Neither heard the barely audible click of the lock.

Mara made a circuit of the room, looking for danger. Nothing seemed amiss. Ghent started to move a nutrient frame, but Mara told him not to bother; she?d be fine. Aves let out a high-pitched whistle, immediately drawing Ghent and Mara to his side. Mara glanced over his shoulder, making a mental inventory of the objects within. It was certainly an expensive stash. One of the objects bore a well-recognized symbol.

Rubbing his eyes, Ghent said, "We better let Karrde know."

Aves and Mara both nodded in agreement. "I?ll call Karrde," Aves offered.

Stifling a yawn, Mara leaned a bit heavily against the crate and pulled out her comlink, flipping it on. She needed to call Luke.

Luke finished his last bite of casaba melon and reached for the last piece of sweetbread, eliciting a frown from Anakin. Seeing the child?s reaction, Luke tore the bread in half, passing the larger piece to his young nephew who grinned, pleased to be sharing the last slice.

"Hey, Kid," Han said as he sauntered into the kitchen. "Mara called."

Puzzled, Luke asked, "When?"

Pouring a cup of stimcaf, Han answered, "Just a few minutes ago. She was in a hurry. She wants you to meet her at docking bay sixty-six near the Judicial Building. Seems Karrde?s men found a large stash of stolen goods ? theirs as a matter of fact."

Luke reached out with the Force, finding the docking bay instantly. "I can?t find her ? just a large empty spot?" He frowned.

Han noticed the look and smirked. "Yeah, ysalamiri. Lots of them." He took a sip of his caf. "You better go, and don?t forget your comlink."

Rolling his eyes, Luke replied, "I won?t forget my comlink." He reached into his pocket. "It?s right?" his expression deteriorating into confusion.

"Here," Han added, tossing the comlink to Luke who caught it easily. "Jacen had it."

Luke smiled, shaking his head. "I?ll see you later, Han."

Docking bay sixty-six was oddly quiet. There was only one other person in the vicinity, a young man whom Luke remembered seeing with Karrde?s crew. "Hello, Master Skywalker. How can I help you?" Kirt said.

"Where?s Mara? Where?s Ghent?" Luke asked.

Kirt smiled and answered vaguely, "They?re around here somewhere. Try over there." He waved his hand towards the back of the bay as he headed away from Luke.

Anxious to find Mara, Luke scanned the area, catching sight of a side room. When he reached out with the Force, the reading came back empty. "Mara!"

Mara stepped to the threshold and waved to him, then disappeared again into the room. By the time Luke reached the room, she was already back to digging through several boxes. He stood next to her, leaning over the edge to look inside. "Han told me that you found some of Karrde?s stuff?"

Mara was leaning far into the box. "Yes," came the muffled reply.

He let out a low whistle at the sight of all the high tech instruments inside. "He?ll be glad to get this back."

Mara was rattling several objects, pulling them out of the box and setting them noisily on the floor. One of the pieces she was moving fell, creating a continuous ringing noise when it hit ground. "He will be. Now help me unpack this, will you?"

Luke wondered what Mara was looking for. He was about to ask when another object dropped from her hands and started to roll away. Mara moved to retrieve it, but Luke was quicker. "I?ll get it."

Turned away from Mara, Luke was reaching for the part, when he suddenly felt a prick in his neck. His hand reflexively covered the spot on his neck. Looking at Mara in astonishment, Luke wondered what had happened. Her smirk sent shivers up his spine. Unable to fight off the affects of whatever she drugged him with, Luke quickly succumbed to unconsciousness.

Mara regained consciousness with a groan. Blinking her eyes, she noticed that she was leaning against a wall, apparently having slid her back down it. She could see Aves asleep, his body half hanging from the box he had been sorting through. Ghent was nearby, curled up on top of a crate. Mara rubbed her temples, trying to clear her head of the fatigue. The presence of the ysalamiri prevented any use of the Force but she was able to gather enough strength to stand up. Taking another glance around the room, she noticed nothing amiss other than a second opened box on the other side of the room. She checked on Aves and Ghent. Both were breathing regularly and had no visible wounds. Assured that they were fine, Mara gently shook them awake. Ghent yawned. Blinking and moaning, Aves pushed himself up and began rubbing his sore back.

"What happened?" Aves asked with a groan.

Mara answered, "I don?t know. I think it has something to do with that other box." She turned on her comlink, entering Luke?s number but received no response. She tried another number.


"Han, is Luke there?" Mara asked, as she walked out of the Force-less room. A feeling of dread hit her. She stretched her senses out, searching for Luke, but came up empty.

"Mara? What? He isn?t there yet?" Han bombarded her with questions.

The knot in Mara?s stomach tightened. "What do you mean yet?"

Han?s voice echoed her concern. "He left right after you called, about an hour and a half ago."

"Han, I never called," Mara stated, her danger sense flaring up.

"Where are you?" Han asked. "I?ll be right there."

"No, I?ll come to you," Mara answered.

Luke?s head was pounding when he awoke. Slowly, he opened his eyes and instantly regretted it as a bright light speared through his retinas. The throbbing continued even after he closed his eyes. He brought his hands to his temples and attempted to touch the Force, but he only succeeded in causing agony in the form of a stabbing pain that pulsated through his veins. Suddenly, the slab upon which he was lying disappeared into the wall, dropping him roughly to the floor. Luke gritted his teeth against the pain; a pain made worse by every touch of the Force. His eyes watered, his breathing quickened then he winced ? it hurt to breathe. He began to panic. It had never been painful to touch the Force; it was always with him and the sensation was new and terrifying. His best course of action, until he could figure out why it hurt to do so, was not to use the Force. He relaxed as best he could, though the pain was still there, just duller. Luke?s eyes opened slowly as he attempted to take in his surroundings.

From his spot on the floor, Luke could see that he was in a small two-meter square cell. The smooth walls, floor, and ceiling appeared seamless, making it look as if he had been sealed in. Luke shivered at that thought. The only furnishing had been the hard cot. Pushing himself into a sitting position, wincing again at the pain in his ribs, Luke leaned back against the wall and tried to remember what had happened.

The wall before him suddenly vanished. Startled by the unexpected occurrence, Luke threw his head back and smacked it against the wall. Cradling his head in his hands, he hoped that he didn?t have to think too much to get out of his situation ? his head couldn?t handle anymore.

Clutching his ribs, Luke walked out the opening, looking around for signs of danger. He followed a short corridor that led into a cavernous room containing a large conference table and several chairs. The blinds were drawn; the room was dark. The only light came from the numerous buttons embedded in the surface of the table. Luke ran his hand over the rough textured controls. He pushed one. Red and green lights flashed then a terminal monitor popped up from the table and its screen illuminated.

Only an image of himself sitting at a table looking at a monitor appeared on screen. He knew there were holocams watching him, but for what purpose he wasn?t sure.

The sound of footsteps drew his attention. He spun around at the waist, then wished he hadn?t as his sudden move sent new pain shooting through his chest. Once the pain subsided, he stared at the figure that had entered the room. The Jedi robe was secured loosely, the long legs visible, the malt brown hair was pulled back tightly and the gray eyes bore into him accusingly. Luke backed up, into the table, seeking to escape the phantom before him. Shaking his head in denial, he whispered, "No. No," he repeated. "No, it?s not possible. You?re dead."

Chapter 31

With cat-like grace, Mara Jade Skywalker expertly wove through pedestrians on her trek to the Solo home. Keeping to the main thoroughfares, she pressed forward quickly, urged on by the Force. Han?s words echoed in her mind. Luke left the Solos some time ago and never arrived at his destination ? docking bay sixty-six. Using the Force, she searched for Luke?s presence, but found nothing. She continued walking, circling around a large group of tourists waiting for a hover bus. At every city block, she tried to find his whereabouts. Each attempt ended in failure.

Mara realized that her meeting at the docking bay was undoubtedly a set-up. Ghent mentioned that Kirt had suggested it. If she didn?t know who the mole in Karrde?s organization was before, she did now. Mara opened her comlink, then closed it again. As good as it would feel to give Kirt?s name to Talon, it would be best to call from a more secure location. Crossing the street, she returned her thoughts to Luke?s disappearance.

Quietly reviewing the information received from Han, Mara worked out a possible scenario of her husband?s capture. The ysalamiri in the room offered perfect cover for the kidnapping of a Jedi. Luke wouldn?t have been able to sense her or any danger. She had supposedly called and asked him to come. Even though he would have been aware of the ysalamiri bubble, he was looking for her and would have walked right into that room. The second open box in the room gave credence to that idea. What happened next was unclear. She, Aves and Ghent were in the only room off the docking bay. Even without the Force, Luke should have seen them and the danger unless?the danger was hidden from view.


Mara?s gait increased.

Han greeted Mara as soon as she entered the apartment. "Mara. Talk to me," he said bluntly

"Medeia?s got him," she answered.

Han?s eyes narrowed. "Are you sure?"

"I?m positive," she replied. "I also know who helped her."

Mara walked towards the commcenter. Han followed, removing his blaster from its holster and checking its energy level. Mara sat down in front of the screen and entered Karrde?s private line. Next to her, Han pulled up a chair, straddling it. Talon Karrde appeared on the screen, smiling when he saw the call?s originator. His smile quickly vanished at the sight of her tense expression. "Mara? Is something else wrong? Aves told me about the docking bay."

"Did he tell you about Kirt?" Mara asked.

"Just that Kirt wasn?t in the room?"

"That?s because Kirt set us up. He?s your mole," Mara interrupted, her tone venomous.

Talon fixed his eyes on his former second in command. "You?re sure." It wasn?t a question.

Mara nodded. "I?m positive."

Twisting his moustache with his fingers, Karrde paused thoughtfully for a few moments before continuing. "Why the set up? I got my crew and my goods back."

The previously silent Han leaned into view, adding, "It was a trap for Luke."

Though he was surprised by Solo?s appearance, Karrde didn?t show it. "Did it?" he paused, their faces gave him his answer. "Skywalker?s been taken."

Nodding curtly, Han said, "I want to talk to this Kirt fellow. Where can I meet you?"

"Mara knows. I?ll see you soon, Solo," Talon answered and then vanished from sight.

After Han left, Mara tried to slice into the government?s computer system, to search the spaceport records, anxious to find if any of the recent departures had any connection to the Black Sun. The door swooshed open as a concerned Leia arrived home from a lengthy cabinet meeting. "Han told me what happened. Have you found him?"

Mara shook her head. "I haven?t figured?" her comlink buzzed. "Skywalker."

"Mrs. Skywalker, Major Hoover."

"Yes, Major," Mara replied.

"I wanted to let you know that we have confirmed the connection of Akanah R. Pell to Medeia."

Mara?s danger sense began to tingle. "There?s more."

"Yes. When our officers arrived at her residence, they found it empty. My men are covering her ship ? it?s still docked. I thought it best to warn you and your husband?"

"Luke is missing."

"I?ll get my men on it right away."

"Thank you, Major. Keep me posted. Skywalker out." Mara turned off the comlink, then closed her eyes

Silently, Leia took Han?s seat, not wanting to disturb her sister-in-law?s contemplation. She could sense strong waves of the Force flowing from Mara, seeking knowledge.

Drifting from her trance, Mara remained deep in thought. Though she couldn?t feel him, she knew Luke was still on planet. So, where would Medeia take him? Most definitely not a public place. It would have to be a private property. But where? Even though real estate deeds were of public record, getting copies of those recorded documents took days to obtain. Unless?

"Leia, I need you to pull a few bureaucratic strings to find your brother, " Mara said suddenly.

"Sure, what do you need?"

"I need to know what properties Akanah R. Pell owns."

Dusk on Coruscant is much like any other time of day ? gray. The hazy sky still offered some cover for the two lone travelers walking on the nearly deserted sidewalk. A couple of drunken Rodians swaggered by, singing a raunchy bar tune in an extremely high key. A light breeze blew loose trash off the ground and sent it fluttering into the clumsy, out of tune duet. Surreptitiously avoiding the stumbling pedestrians, two robed, hooded figures quietly arrived at their destination. Pulling their robes close to their bodies, they entered the utilitarian headquarters of Jael Enterprises.

From the security office, Deven occasionally glanced at the bank of security monitors, watching for any signs of movement in the building. It was tedious, but necessary. Most of the building?s tenants had ended their business day already and only a few remained. His partner, Wilfred, was manning the security kiosk in the main lobby, his head bobbing up and down as he listened to the piped-in music. Deven shook his head; only Wilfred could find turbolift music lively. He checked his scanners and was startled by activity in one of the upper level conference rooms. The holocam activated and the image of a blond and vaguely familiar man appeared on his screen. Keying in to Ms. Pell?s frequency, Deven sought to report the intruder but was informed by Akanah that the man was a guest. Deven turned his attention back to the main lobby only to find that Wilfred was no longer bobbing to the music. Zooming his holocam in for a closer look, he noticed that Wilfred was asleep. "Stang it, Wilfred," Deven muttered. "You want to get fired?"

Deven opened the audio channel to the kiosk. "Wilfred! Wake up!"

Still no movement and no response. "Sith!" Deven swore as he pushed back his chair, then out of the corner of his eye he saw his first level monitors go black.

Deven hit the intruder alert button.

The two intruders slipped passed the sleeping security guard. A few well-placed blaster shots eliminated the visual surveillance. Just before the two could enter the turbolift, a roaming security guard opened fire. A blue lightsaber flashed into existence deflecting several bolts, one directly back at the shooter, causing the blaster to explode in his hand. Suddenly, he slumped to the ground unconscious. Throwing back the hood revealing brown hair, the wielder of the blade exclaimed, "I got him!"

"That?s great, Leia. Don?t get cocky," Mara responded, her head still covered. Gesturing towards the open turbolift, she said, "Come on."

Once inside the turbolift, Mara hooked her lightsaber to her belt and removed her hood. Yanking her sleeve up, she checked the wrist blaster, verifying its power level. Leia hooked her lightsaber to her belt and checked her sidearm, a larger blaster. "What level?" Leia asked.

Mara half closed her eyes, her hand hovering over the level buttons. A wave of pain rushed over her, almost incapacitating her. "Luke," she whispered. Mara gritted her teeth, concentrating on smothering the pain. Once it subsided, she selected a button.

Leia noticed Mara?s faltering, uncertain as to its cause. Then, she felt the pain herself, not as strongly as Mara but it was still intense enough to worry her. Turning to her sister-in-law, Leia?s expression darkened. "What?s she done to him?"

"The last thing she?ll ever do," Mara replied in a steely voice.

Both women felt the turbolift come to a halt. Mara stepped to the left of the door, Leia to the right. Raising their lightsabers to a defensive position, their thumbs on the activation switches, they waited for the doors to slide open, then ignited their blades. Leia exited first, swatting at the bolts coming from the two guards in the hallway and sending the deadly fire into the ground. Mara followed, deflecting bolts from two other guards shooting from rooms at the opposite end of the corridor. One of the guards rushed forward, hoping to startle the women but got too close to Leia?s blade and was quickly bisected. The other one backed away from the confrontation but continued to fire. Leia moved forward, and with one final swing deflected the bolt back at him, directly into his chest. She cringed at their deaths, but there was little choice. Leia turned to help Mara.

Mara was deflecting bolts but the two men had good cover. Sending Leia a mental suggestion, Mara continued to bat away at the shots while Leia, aided by Mara, concentrated her Force powers on the men?s weapons that soon melted to slag. One of them screamed. Leia rushed forward, stunning the first guard on the right. The other pulled back into his room, seeking to escape but Mara caught him by the scruff of his neck and clobbered him with the pommel of her lightsaber.

After disposing of the guards, Leia and Mara paused, both searching for Luke?s presence. Leia couldn?t find anything. She looked at Mara who was still concentrating. Suddenly, green eyes were looking back at her, then beyond her. "His presence is weak. Diffuse. Almost as if he isn?t a part of the Force. Very strange," Mara murmured.

Re-focusing, Leia caught a flicker of her brother?s presence but couldn?t pinpoint his location. An approaching menace drew Leia from her trance and she was barely able to block a shot that came from behind. Gritting her teeth, she said, "Mara. I?ll take care of this guy. You go find Luke."

"You sure?" Mara asked.

A feral smile spread on Leia?s face. "Positive."

Mara smiled tightly. She had no doubt that Leia would be just fine.

Luke doubled over, his body trembling. Whatever drug he?d been given was affecting him adversely, making him ill. Seeing Callista again hadn?t helped. He had thought maybe she was a ghost appearing to him from the afterlife but she lacked the translucent blue glow that shimmed around the other dead Jedi he had witnessed.

"What?s the matter, Master?" she snarled. "Surprised to see me?" She laughed, the sound echoing throughout the room.

"What do you want?" he hissed defiantly, forcing himself to ignore the pain.

She came closer, smiling at him. "Oh not much," she whispered. "I just want you to join me." She pulled his hair, yanking his head up to look her in the eye. "What do you say? How would you like to never be able to touch the Force again?"

Luke?s eyes widened in horror, then narrowed to glare at her while he wretched her hand free of his hair.

"What?s wrong, Master? Don?t you want to be free of the pain? One more shot and you?ll never have to deal with that pesky power again."

Luke moved himself along the length of the table, putting distance between them. Bumping into a large chair, he grabbed hold of it, thrusting it towards his tormentor. She blocked it with ease, sending it back at him. It hit him hard in the gut, stealing his breath. His already sore ribs ached even more. Seeking balance, he put his hand on the table, steadying himself and continued to distance himself from the mad woman before him.

"Luke. Stop running from your destiny," his nightmare said, a syringe appearing in her hand.

"He?s never run from his destiny, Akanah," came a shout from behind. "Or should I call you Medeia?"

Medeia didn?t bother to turn around. The visage of Callista faded to be replaced by Akanah. "Impressive, Emperor?s Hand. Most impressive."

"I?m honored," Mara sneered sarcastically, slowly moving closer. "It wasn?t hard. I felt your dark presence. Callista couldn?t be felt in the Force."

"Ah, yes. I wasn?t cloaking my presence." She smiled evilly at Luke. "The Master here didn?t seem to notice."

Attempting to maintain his stony Jedi Master mask, Luke chided himself for failing to see through the fa?ade. He remained impassive to Medeia?s remarks, ignoring them despite their veracity. His inability to use the Force made it easy for Medeia to deceive him. The fact that he had trouble keeping his pain at bay made it worse.

Mara moved closer to her husband. His resolve was strong, but she noticed he had a difficult time controlling the pain he was undoubtedly feeling. Carefully, she probed him, reaching out through their bond, and was relieved when he responded.

Her touch was familiar and comforting. Reflexively, Luke answered the probe, only to scream in pain at his automatic use of the Force. He slumped against the chair, nearly passing out from the overwhelming surge of Force energy. Memories of what had happened in the docking bay flashed before him. Mara was the one who asked him to go there. She drugged him, too. Then Callista appeared to him, not as a phantom but in flesh and blood, only to disappear again. Now, this Akanah/Medeia woman was here. It was all too confusing. Reality eluded him. With as much effort as he could expend, he backed away from both women.

Akanah noticed his movement and smirked. "Oh look, Mara. I think he?s afraid of you." Walking over to Luke, she grabbed hold of his arm, bringing the needle close to his skin. "This will make it all go away, Luke."

Mara didn?t know what was in the syringe but if felt evil and ?empty. Placing a Force grip on it, she wrenched it from Akanah?s hand and sent it flying into a chair across the table.

"Leave him alone, Medeia," Mara said defiantly.

Luke used the distraction to pull away from Medeia. Even though he wasn?t sure why, he moved towards Mara. Her defensive action towards him led him to trust her. Together they backed for the exit.

"Going somewhere?" she asked, then laughed.

The door slammed shut, blocking an easy escape. It didn?t matter to Mara; they never had easy escapes anyway. She pulled her saber, igniting its blue blade. "Yes, we?re leaving."

Instinctively, Luke reached for his own saber but it wasn?t in its usual spot.

"Looking for this?" Medeia asked, holding up his lightsaber. "I?m starting a collection." She hooked the cylinder back onto her belt, right next to Mara?s recently built saber that had been stolen when Mara was pushed off the apartment balcony. "Let?s get down to business. I?m looking for a new apprentice."

"I?m not interested," Luke said.

Medeia snorted, "That?s quite the ego you have, Master." She raised her hands. "At least we are in agreement."

A chill permeated the room as blue sparks ignited her fingertips and the Force lightening surged at Luke.

"Luke!" Mara shouted, as she moved to block the assault.

Catching the bolt, Mara held firm, her blade absorbing the dark lightening. Perspiration beaded her brow. The violence of the energy wore on her muscles, weakening her reserves. Then it stopped. Mara had no time to recoup. Two Force lightning strikes came, one absorbed by her blade, the other absorbed by Luke, hitting him square in the chest and knocking him to the ground.

"Now, where were we? Oh, yes. My offer. But first," Medeia brought her hands together into a tiny clap. "Well done."

Mara glared at the woman but didn?t respond. Keeping her blade lit and her eyes on Medeia, Mara slowly knelt down next to Luke and placed her free hand on his forehead to assess his injuries. A quick probe revealed a couple of bruised ribs and a few other bumps. The lightning was strong enough to knock him out but had caused only minimal damage. The pain she felt radiating from him earlier could not have been the result of his injuries.

Noticing Mara?s confusion, Medeia suggested, "Go ahead, look deeper."

Mara?s stomach tightened at Medeia?s words. Searching deeper in the Force, Mara found a battle raging on a cellular level in Luke?s body. She must have gasped in horror because Medeia said, "It?s a little potion Palpatine had been working on. The serum attacks the midichlorian of a Jedi, damaging them. When a Jedi tries to use the Force, the organisms in the serum feed on the energy, causing pain for the Jedi. I give him a second shot, it will unleash a larger army and totally devour his midichlorian count."

Mara looked quickly for the syringe she had flung earlier. It was lodged in a chair across the table. Concentrating and calling on the Force, she depressed the plunger injecting the vile liquid harmlessly into the nerf hide.

Medeia laughed. "Come on Emperor?s Hand, you think that?ll make a difference. I?ve got other methods at my disposal."

"What do you want?" Mara shouted. "Why are you doing this?"

"You think I?m going to be predictable and blurt out my motives. You think we?re in some holodrama where the villain stupidly divulges the motives behind her actions, giving the heroine time to plot an escape?"

Medeia flicked her wrist in Mara?s direction, knocking Mara?s saber out of her hand and then yanking the blaster out of its holster. "I just want to reiterate my offer." She walked towards Mara, dark Force energy pushing everything aside and sending Mara flying away from Luke.

Mara landed on her feet several meters away from Luke. Medeia smiled. "Due to unfortunate circumstances, I no longer have an apprentice. I?m looking for a new one. Long ago, Palpatine had lauded you as a perfect choice to learn how to manipulate the Current. From what I?ve seen, I agree."

Mara inched her way back towards Luke. Medeia stood between her and her goal. Mara wanted to know more about Akanah?s reasons for targeting Luke. "If you wanted me as an apprentice, why involve Luke? You could have taken me from the docking bay. There is more behind your actions than just desiring a new apprentice?" Mara had a flash of insight. "You?ve been after Luke since I married him. Why?"

Medeia laughed. "Why not?"

Ignoring the laughter, Mara continued, "It?s more than just going after a well known target. You?ve never actually tried to kill him. It?s like you?re toying with him." She moved closer to her destination. "So, Medeia, can you tell me why?"

"No." A zap of lightning splashed at Mara?s feet, sending her away from Luke again. Medeia shook her head. "Stop trying to get answers."

"I?m not trying." Mara shrugged her shoulders. "I?m doing." She held her hand out, recalling her saber and quickly igniting it. "Let me ask you again. Why Luke?"

A slight groan escaped from Luke?s lips, momentarily distracting Mara. Medeia took advantage of the slight hesitation to Force-fling Mara across the room again. Squatting next to the prone Luke, Medeia asked, "So Luke, my little Jedi, would you like to have a normal Force-free life?"

"No," he said weakly, looking her in the eye. Grabbing her tightly by the wrist with his right hand, he reached his left for his saber hanging at her side.

Medeia swiftly kicked him in the chest, an audible crack could be heard before Luke moaned in agony.

He released his hold, slumping back to the ground. Medeia muttered, "No wonder Kirawyn wanted to kill you. You can be such an annoyance."

Brashly Mara rushed forward, swinging her blade at Medeia?s head, her slash was met by a golden blade ? her own recently completed lightsaber. The blades sizzled as the two women pushed and strained under the pressure.

Still holding their sizzling blades firmly in place, the combatants circled slowly. Mara?s muscles flexed and she pushed her enemy away, freeing her blade in the process. Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward, twisting her saber in a twirling motion with Medeia?s. More skilled than her opponent, Mara managed to disarm Medeia, sending her blade sailing across the room. Swinging her blue blade in a downward slashing movement, Mara sought to eviscerate the other woman, but her blade slammed hard against another saber ? Luke?s.

Medeia twisted the green blade against Mara?s, just barely holding it steady. Her own lightsaber skills were weak, actually non-existent, but she wasn?t concerned. She had no plans to actually fight a duel. If the encounter lasted much longer, Medeia knew she would lose and all of her work building up the Black Sun and consolidating her power and position would be for naught. She had accomplished what she had wanted with the Jedi Master. Now it was time to use Jade?s desire for answers to her own advantage. Besides, taunting was what she did best.

"It was Kirawyn?s idea," Medeia blurted out.

"What?" Mara asked, startled by the sudden words.

Mara still stood firm, her lightsaber never moving. Medeia had hoped for a bit more slack, but at least the redheaded dynamo wasn?t pressing harder. "The Jedi Master had ruined her life and Kirawyn wanted him to suffer, so she came to me for help."

"How did Luke ruin her life?" Mara asked, torn between her curiosity and her desire for justice.

Medeia smiled. "He was competition that she couldn?t beat. She was jealous."

"What was Kirawyn jealous about?"

"Callista?s love," Medeia replied.

Mara?s grip loosened a bit, allowing Medeia to pull away. Callista?s love. Kirawyn was jealous of Callista?s love for Luke. Mara thought back to comments made by Kirawyn during their first meeting and during the trial, and it made sense. What still didn?t make sense was the connection between Kirawyn and Akanah. Continuing to keep a close eye on Medeia, who was backing away and moving to the other side of the table, Mara pointed her saber at the woman and asked, "So, what were you to Kirawyn? New lover?"

"Hardly. She?s my sister," Medeia answered.

Surprised, Mara was speechless for a moment and then glared at Medeia. "Kirawyn killed herself. Is that why you are still after Luke?"

"No. Just a means to an end. I knew you wouldn?t join me if he was around," Medeia said. "Plus I really wanted to try out that serum."

Mara?s anger surged to the surface. If Luke had been able to use the Force, he might have warned her about the taint of the Dark Side overriding her emotions, but at that point she wouldn?t have listened. With righteous indignation, she advanced on the creature that had the audacity to use her husband as a lab animal. Somersaulting over the conference table, Mara landed in front of Medeia who held the green bladed saber in a defensive position. Mara swung her saber horizontally as it sliced through the other saber and Medeia easily, much too easily. There was no resistance, causing Mara to stumble into her swing. Bringing her blade back up, a chill ran through Mara as she saw why. Medeia had disappeared. There was absolutely nothing in front of her. Laughter reverberated in the room, coming from all directions. Mara looked around, attempting to locate the source. And there was Medeia, standing opposite her on the other side of the table.

"Coward!" Mara shouted.

Shaking her head, Medeia replied, "I?m a realist."

Mara jumped across the table, her feet aimed at Medeia. Again, she met no resistance as she sailed through the image of Medeia and landed with a smack on the floor. More laughter echoed in the room.

"Show yourself!" Mara demanded.

Two Medeias appeared in the room. "Is this better, Emperor?s Hand?" The voice seemed to come from all corners of the room.

Mara stared at the two women. They were identical and she couldn?t see Luke?s lightsaber on either. One could be the real woman, or maybe neither was. She wasn?t prepared to fight phantoms. A familiar voice drew her attention to the main entry of the room.

"Mara!" Leia shouted as she entered the room, followed by her husband.

The two Medeias spoke. "It?s getting a bit crowded in here. Time to cut my losses." The two began to run, exiting the room by different hidden doors.

Han ran after one, Leia the other. Knowing that her husband needed help, Mara hooked her saber to her belt and ran over to Luke. Carefully, she straightened him out, wanting to check on his newest injury. He smiled at her. "Hi, Mara. What are you doing here?"

He?s delirious, she thought. "Getting you out of trouble, Skywalker."

Remembering Luke?s lessons on healing, Mara placed her hand on his ribs and drew upon the Force to mend them. Luke grimaced at her touch, then his eyes grew wide and he began to move around, breaking Mara?s concentration. "Luke, hold still."

"My saber," he mumbled.

The hairs on the back of Mara?s neck stood up. She reached for her lightsaber, stopping when she felt the heat of another blade near her ear.

"Even though I?m disappointed with your reluctance to accept my offer, I was quite impressed with you," Medeia said almost reverently. "In appreciation, I thought I?d pass on a little piece of information." She leaned closer to Mara and whispered, "I lied about the serum. Only one shot is necessary."

The blade extinguished and dropped to the ground as Medeia disappeared.

Mara sat frozen by the information. Only one shot. That meant that Luke was?His broken rib would have to wait. She needed to counter the Force killing serum. But how? She wasn?t a healer; she wasn?t even a full Knight yet. Flipping on her comlink, she contacted Cilghal, requesting her assistance. Even though the Mon Calamari healer promised to come immediately, Mara felt that time was against her.

Medeia had mentioned that the nano-organisms fed on Force energy. Luke had told her once about his encounter with Trichoids and how he had used the Force to trick the larvae into following it out of his body. She grimaced at the thought. When she first probed the nano-creatures, the sheer numbers overwhelmed her. Placing her hands on Luke again, she probed with the Force, drawing the immediate attention of the Force hungry creatures. There were too many for her to handle. Getting the nano-organisms to follow her Force energy out of Luke seemed to be her best option, her only option at that point. She had no choice.

Despite her misgivings, Mara relaxed, drawing the Force to herself. Focusing the energy, she sent it into Luke and didn?t have to wait long. The nano-organisms answered her siren call. Perspiration beaded her brow and her body began to shake. The pain that had been Luke?s became hers. It was hard to concentrate, but she continued to hold the army at bay. The fringes of her consciousness blurred, darkness threatened. The creatures devoured her Force energy eagerly, slowly beating back her stronghold. Exhausted by her trial, Mara sunk slowly next to her husband, resting her head on his shoulder and closing her eyes in weariness. Using the last of her energy, she said, "I?m sorry, Luke."

Something touched her shoulder.

"I?ll take over, Mara," said Cilghal, immediately putting her flipper on Luke?s forehead.

Weakly nodding her head, Mara whispered, "Thank you."

Giving in to the need for sleep, Mara closed her eyes and fell blissfully unaware.


Yavin IV

Seven months later

A light evening breeze blew through the open window, fluttering the cloth curtains. Woolamanders screeched in the distance while insects buzzed outside and landed on the mesh screen, drawn inexplicably to the dim light within. Several stuffed creatures ? including a Wookiee doll, an Ewok, a Gungan and a Human ? were lined up on the window seat, watching the occupants of the room in silent vigil.

The ancient rocker creaked as it slowly moved back and forth. Mara hummed a simple lullaby as her son continued nursing. The baby was truly a blessing; a blessing that was nearly denied them. They almost lost him after her battle with Medeia when her decision to attempt Luke?s healing had put the baby at risk.

After Mara had passed out from exertion, she had needed to rely on Cilghal?s explanations of what happened next. Although Mara?s initial coaxing had worked to stall the offensive, it had taken Cilghal a couple of hours to rid the nano-creatures out of Luke?s system. It was an arduous task, but ultimately successful. Two days later, Luke could use the Force without pain and none of Cilghal?s subsequent check-ups could find any trace of stragglers. The health of the baby was another matter.

"Does this mean we can leave?" Mara remembered asking Cilghal after receiving Luke?s prognosis.

Shaking her head, Cilghal replied, "Not you. Your adventure stressed the baby. His heart rate was dangerously high. Until I feel confident that he?s out of danger, you will stay on bed rest."

Mara sighed, then rearranged the covers. As much as the forced inactivity bothered her, it was better than losing her ? their - child. "Fine. I?ll stay, but Luke stays too."

"What?" Luke exclaimed. "I?m fine now."

Mara?s eyes bore into him. "Sure you are. I just want you here where I can keep an eye on you. You can?t get into trouble if you?re here."

Luke rolled his eyes. "I won?t get into trouble, Mara."

"Promises, promises. Skywalker, you attract trouble faster than a high powered magnet," Mara said. "Since I can?t come after you, you need to stay here."

"I do not. Right, Cilghal?" Luke asked. "Cilghal?"

Cilghal didn?t answer. Luke?s expression of disbelief was priceless and Mara had to hold back a smile. He was stuck. While the couple had argued, the healer had quietly left the room.

A loud snort drew Mara out of her reverie. Shifting the arm cradling her child slightly to ease the cramped feeling, she used her free hand to stroke his velvety cheek. He stopped feeding, letting go to look up at her. Cooing, he waved his tiny arms, looking very contented. Mara pushed her tunic down and lifted the baby to her shoulder. His fuzzy head bounced a couple times as he tried to look around. Gently rubbing his back, Mara coaxed him to relax. Stuffing his fist in his mouth, he whimpered, then cried. Mara continued to rub his back in a circular motion. The baby squirmed, but finally released the gas bubble discomforting him. Lowering him down, Mara cradled him in the opposite arm. Impatient, he turned his head reflexively, searching for food but found only tunic. He squawked loudly. Mara smiled. "Hush, little one. You Skywalkers are always hungry."

Mara lifted her tunic and he latched on as if he was starving. Resuming the rocking motion that her baby insisted upon, Mara allowed her thoughts to drift again.

When they were finally released from the medcenter, Mara and Luke returned to the Solos? home. Yet, as much as Luke enjoyed being around his family, he wanted to leave Coruscant. Memories of the trial were still fresh in the minds of the populace and the feelings of animosity emanating from the public were intense. Since Callista?s murder hadn?t been solved, many believed that Luke had done it. Mara suggested that they hop into the Tatooine?s Flame and take off for planets unknown, but as much as Luke was tempted by the idea of flight, he wavered on actually leaving. It would look like he was running. The Academy was a viable option, but Luke wasn?t sure. A visit from Major Hoover decided for them.

Taking a sip of his stim tea, Hoover related his department?s findings to Luke and Mara. "Akanah Rochester Pell, alias Medeia, has disappeared from Coruscant. Her ship, a Verpine Adventurer, mysteriously took off from the spaceport yesterday even though several guards insisted that no one had boarded it."

"She was using the Current to hide herself," Mara explained.

Hoover blinked. "The Current?"

"It?s how she hid herself. By manipulating the Current, she could make herself invisible or make very credible illusions."

His look of confusion prompted her to continue. "It?s an energy field similar to the Force, but not connected to it."

Hoover took in the information, not saying a word. Glancing at Luke, then at Mara, he thought for a moment before he continued. "That?s interesting. You?ll have to give me more information about this Current when we?re done."

Clearing his throat, Major Hoover continued to relay the results of his department?s investigation.

"After a thorough search of Jael Enterprises, detectives determined that Medeia had been working hard to solidify her position in organized crime, using Luke as a stepping stone. An informant has told an undercover agent that crime bosses were uncertain about the unknown leader of the Black Sun. Medeia appeared from nowhere, rising to leadership quickly, about a year ago. Profits were up, but she was still a newcomer who had yet to make her mark. When the bounty on Luke was announced, lots of people thought that Black Sun would crumble again. After what had happened to Xizor, no one tried to go head to head with the Jedi. It was suicide in their minds. Her success in capturing and torturing Luke impressed them. The bosses wanted to do business with The Black Sun. Her ascendancy to the top was assured, her status reinforced by her mysterious abilities. Correspondence sent to rival organizations hinted that it was unwise to cross The Black Sun and invited the recipients to take a look at Luke Skywalker?s predicament."

Though his expression was blank, Mara knew Luke was angry at being used as a pawn in some nefarious business plan. "That couldn?t have been her only goal. She was looking for an apprentice. That?s why she came after Mara."

"No, Luke, I think that you were her goal. It makes sense. You?ve been her target since Naboo. I wouldn?t be surprised if she was involved in Jar Jar?s death. During our duel, Medeia told me it was Kirawyn?s idea to go after you. I think that she used that to her advantage. She could do something for her sister, who was also her apprentice and reap the side benefit of using you to also boost her business image. She never approached me even though she had plenty of opportunity. She wasn?t in need of an apprentice until Kirawyn died."

Through their bond, Mara reminded Luke of the conversation between Akanah and Kirawyn in Lucazec Limited. Kirawyn had asked to learn about Current scribbling. Reluctantly, Luke agreed, though he didn?t verbalize it. He didn?t doubt that Hoover still had a few suspicions about the break-in, and he didn?t want to confirm them for him. Hoover left a short time later, promising to keep them informed. A journal had been found in Kirawyn?s apartment and once it was translated, he?d return.

Mara?s rocker creaked loudly, startling the baby momentarily. He lost his suction and began flaying his arms and legs, complaining verbosely. "Shh. Little One. It?s okay."

She guided his food back to him and resumed her rocking. Once she established a steady rhythm and the baby settled into working on draining every last bit of milk out of her, she reminisced on their last day on Coruscant.

"Thank you for seeing me," Major Terrill Hoover said as he sat down on a couch opposite the Skywalkers.

"Over the com you said that Kirawyn?s journal has been translated," Mara said, anxious to find out about its contents.

Major Hoover smiled. "That it has." He paused and looked directly at Luke. "Master Luke Skywalker, it is my privilege to report that you?ve been cleared of all charges in the death of Callista Skywalker."

"How? What happened?" Luke asked, surprised by Hoover?s welcome announcement.

"You?ve found the murderer, haven?t you?" Mara pressed.

"It appears to have been Kirawyn Rochester. She kept a very detailed journal. She planned to confront Callista but something went wrong and Callista ended up dead."

The door to the nursery swished open. Mara looked up to see her husband enter.

"Isn?t he done, yet?" Luke asked pointing to the nursing baby. "It looks like he?s asleep."

Glancing down at her son, Mara noticed that he was indeed asleep, but his mouth was still working on dinner. She used her finger to break the suction. A little whimper escaped but he remained asleep, a thoroughly sated smile flickering on his face.

"He?s smiling," Luke exclaimed proudly.

Pushing her tunic down, Mara shook her head. "It?s not a smile. He?s too young to smile."

"I don?t care what the experts say. I say he smiled."

Not wanting to get into a silly argument, Mara ignored Luke?s comment. "Would you mind taking Maxim and changing him? I need to use the refresher."

Gently picking up Maxim from Mara?s lap, Luke cradled him tightly. "But he?s asleep."

"Then he?ll be easier to change," Mara replied as she entered the refresher.

Luke laid his son on the changing table. Maxim?s eyes opened slightly, regarded his father a moment and then closed them again. Finished with diapering, Luke picked him up again and carried him over to his cradle. Arranging Maxim on his side, Luke then covered him with a Little Lost Bantha Cub blanket. Maxim started to cry. Rubbing his son?s back, Luke soothed, "Shh, my Little Jedi."

When Mara returned, Maxim was sound asleep and Luke was staring out the window. Joining him, she slipped into his embrace. He squeezed her tightly, rubbing his hand up and down her arm. Pressing her head to his chest, she listened to his heartbeat, strong and steady. She felt him place a kiss on her head.

Luke continued to gaze out the window. It was peaceful in the jungle. The Force felt more alive and vibrant here than on Coruscant. The most vibrant thing on the planet was in his arms. She stood by him and supported him through the dark times. Their first few months of marriage were rough. Many women wouldn?t have stayed. But Mara wasn?t like other women. He felt ridiculously lucky.

"Credit for your thoughts?"

Luke cupped her chin, tilting her head so he could look into her beautiful jade eyes. "I was just thinking how lucky I am."

"Luck has nothing to do with it."

He touched his finger to her lips. "Now you remember my lessons."

"I always remember?" her response was muffled when Luke covered her mouth with his.

His tongue danced with hers as he tasted her sweetness. His hands raked through her hair, pulling her closer, deepening the kiss. Several minutes passed before he released her lips. Luke wrapped his arms around her, his senses reveling in her touch, her feel, and her scent. His mind and emotions were open fully.

Mara was so used to the bond they shared, that it was as if they were one, their thoughts intertwined, hers indistinguishable from Luke?s. Their connection was so natural, so familiar, so comfortable that she could not imagine life without it. Luke was her soul mate, her destiny.

Luke sat down in the window seat, pulling Mara onto his lap. Grasping her hand and lacing his fingers in hers, he nuzzled her neck. As their bond had grown deeper over the months, he grew to realize that she would never leave him, no matter what he had done. She remained his constant support through the dark struggles, the trial, the fire, and the final battle. The time had come for him to break the shackles from his past and cleanse the taint on his soul that had kept him from being free. He brushed Mara?s presence and began to lead her into the darkest recesses of his mind. She pulled out before he could reach his goal.

"Luke. You don?t need to show me. I know you hated her for what she did to you."


"It doesn?t matter, Luke. She was your past. I am your future."

The End

Original cover by RebelMom. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.