I, Mara Jade by JediMara77 Category: Star Wars Genre: Romance, Drama Characters: Mara Jade, Luke S. Status: Completed Published: 2010-11-22 Updated: 2011-01-30 Packaged: 2012-01-19 22:05:59 Rating: T Chapters: 26 Words: 90,932 Publisher: www.fanfiction.net Summary: Mara Jade faces the hardest struggle of her life as she trains to be a Jedi while trying to come to terms with her past as the Emperor's Hand. She didn't count on a blue-eyed Jedi Master with issues of his own becoming the biggest challenge of all. Table of Contents 1. Introduction 2. Chapter 1 3. Chapter 2 4. Chapter 3 5. Chapter 4 6. Chapter 5 7. Chapter 6 8. Chapter 7 9. Chapter 8 10. Chapter 9 11. Chapter 10 12. Chapter 11 13. Chapter 12 14. Chapter 13 15. Chapter 14 16. Chapter 15 17. Chapter 16 18. Chapter 17 19. Chapter 18 20. Chapter 19 21. Chapter 20 22. Chapter 21 23. Chapter 22 24. Chapter 23 25. Chapter 24 26. Chapter 25 1. Introduction Title: I, Mara Jade Author: JediMara77 Timeframe: post-TTT Characters: Mara Jade, Luke Skywalker, apprentices at the Jedi Academy, and others Genre: romance, drama, angst Summary: Mara Jade faces the hardest struggle of her life as she trains at the Jedi Academy while trying to come to terms with her past as the Emperor's Hand. She didn't count on a blue-eyed Jedi Master with issues of his own becoming the biggest challenge of all. Acknowledgements: Thanks go to George Lucas, Timothy Zahn, Michael Stackpole, and Kevin J. Anderson for allowing me, and other fanfiction writers, to borrow their characters and ideas. I promise to return them in mint condition. Thanks to Jade_eyes for being my cheerleader and beta, and to kataja for letting me "borrow" the fabulous word bicce. Author's Note:This AU was inspired by the novel I, Jedi by Michael Stackpole, and covers some of the events of the Jedi Academy Trilogy by Kevin J. Anderson and the Hand of Thrawn Duology by Timothy Zahn. Author's Note 2: I wrote this story for National Novel Writing Month 2010. Author's Note 3: While writing this story, I made a "soundtrack" that I listened to for inspiration. Below are the track listings, and as I post chapters I will note songs that accompany them. Try – Nelly Furtado Anything but Ordinary – Avril Lavigne Everything – Alanis Morissette The Kiss – Trevor Jones, The Last of the Mohicans soundtrack Aquarium – Camille Saint-Saëns, The Carnival of the Animals Reflections of Passion – Yanni Cursum Perficio – Enya Breathing Space – X-Ray Dog Storms in Africa – Enya Can't Help Falling in Love – Elvis Presley Full of Grace – Sarah McLachlan The Winner Takes it All – ABBA White Flag – Dido Sandstorm – Darude Your Congratulations – Alanis Morissette Nearer My God to Thee – Eileen Ivers Now We Are Free – Lisa Gerrard and Hans Zimmer, Gladiator soundtrack Utopia – Alanis Morissette 2. Chapter 1 A/N: Song for this chapter: Try, Nelly Furtado A/N: Lines and dialogue have been borrowed from The Last Command by Timothy Zahn CHAPTER 1 It is twilight, the Coruscant air turning cool against my exposed skin. Standing by myself on the roof of the Imperial Palace, I shrug on my jacket, staring intently at the skyline before me. For some reason I can't really figure out, I find myself drawn to this place. It doesn't hold any sort of special significance for me, either good or bad, but after the craziness of the past several months, I find it incredibly peaceful here, staring at the traffic and people bustling about below me, carrying out their lives without any sense of concern for what is going on in the larger universe. Even as I try to find my own peace in the city below, I hear the door to the roof open about twenty meters behind me. I immediately sense who is there, and sure enough, I hear his voice call out to me. "Mara?" "Over here," I call back, suppressing a grimace. I know that he has come to finally have the talk that I have been putting off for days. So much for trying to find inner peace. Luke walks slowly towards me, taking the spot by my side, leaning against the railing of the roof. Our elbows graze each other, and for the first time since I have known him, I do not flinch away at his touch. "Quite a view, isn't it?" Luke comments, gazing at the city below. "Must bring back a lot of memories for you." I roll my eyes and throw him a patient look. "You mean to say, just how am I feeling about being back in the Palace this time? You know, Skywalker—just between us—you really don't have what it takes to be devious. If I were you, I'd work with my talents and stick with that straight-out farm boy honesty." He has the decency to look sheepish, even though I can tell that he is amused by my analysis of him. "Sorry," he apologizes. "Too much time spent around Han, I guess." "And Karrde and me, I suppose?" "You want a straight-out farm boy honest answer to that?" he teases. I smile at him. It's nice to hear him banter this way. It makes him seem more human, and surprisingly, it feels incredibly natural. "I'm sorry I even brought it up," I reply, laughing. Luke smiles back, then turns serious again. "So, how are you feeling?" I look back out at the city below me. "I don't know," I admit. "It's sort of like coming home…only it isn't. When I lived here, I never really took the time to look at the city like this. The only times I ever came up here to the roof were to watch for a certain airspeeder to arrive or to keep an eye on some particular building or something like that, you know—business for the Emperor." Speaking about my old life doesn't come as easily as it used to. I remember the balls, the appearances in court, and the endless missions. I remember hearing Palpatine's call from anywhere in the galaxy. I remember the pride I felt whenever I accomplished one of his tasks. I remember wanting nothing more than to serve the Empire that I so utterly believed in. But now that the Emperor's last command has finally been fulfilled, and I no longer live in his shadow, I feel something completely different—guilt for my past life, and the things I did as his Hand. Logically, I know that it's pointless to feel this way—the past is the past, and I can't change what I was—but I still can't shake the guilty feelings from my mind. I wonder if I will ever be able to do so. Looking back out at the skyline, I continue. "I don't think he ever saw Coruscant as people and lights—to him it was just power and opportunities." "That's probably how he saw everything," Luke agrees, with a hint of resentment and sadness in his voice. I can tell he is thinking about his father…and maybe even about me. "And speaking of opportunities…" Luke trails off. I grimace. I was right; he's come here to have the talk. I can tell that he's not going to leave until he argues his point enough so that I finally relent, and I just don't feel like fighting anymore. Isn't that just the perfect metaphor for these past few months? "Yeah," I reply, "I figured that's why you were here." He's quiet for a few moments, as if he is trying to figure out the best way to make his argument. I don't attempt to fill the space with idle talk. For once in my life, I feel comfortable with the silence. It is a nice change after five years of hearing that voice inside my head. And surprisingly, even knowing what Luke has come to talk about, I feel comfortable with him standing by my side. "I was wondering if you've considered formal Jedi training at all," he finally says quietly. "With me." I glance at him, not at all surprised. All during our trek across Wayland he kept trying to train me and help me learn to control my power over the Force. Before then, I never realized just how much there was to learn about the Force. And while part of me wants to learn everything that I can and become a Jedi Knight, the other part is scared to fail. Scared that I won't live up to Luke's expectations. But Luke believes that I will. He's believed in me since the first time he laid eyes on me, when I was pointing a blaster at his face. I wonder if I will ever understand why he feels the way he does. Why he is so willing to forgive. He looks at me expectantly. I shake my head. "The whole thing's ridiculous," I say. "You know it, and I know it." "No, it's not. What makes you think so?" "Please—the Emperor's Hand training as a Jedi with the man she'd sworn to kill for five years? You can't be so naïve as to think that other people won't have a problem with that. The New Republic might not be actively trying to arrest me anymore, but I highly doubt they'll appreciate you teaching me all of your tricks." "But you're not the Emperor's Hand anymore, Mara. You haven't been for a long time. And why do you care so much about what other people think?" "I don't, but you should," I argue. "It doesn't matter, anyway. It's a stupid idea." "Karrde doesn't think so," Luke argues, trying to use my respect for Karrde as leverage. "Karrde's an even worse idealist than you are sometimes," I shoot back. "Seriously, Luke, what do you think the rest of the galaxy is going to say if you train me as a Jedi?" "What they say or think doesn't matter. Why do you insist on avoiding something that you're so obviously meant to be?" "And just how exactly do you know that I'm meant to be a Jedi?" I snap. "I was trained to be an assassin. I learned how to use weapons and connect my mind with the Emperor's and use as much of the Force as I needed to succeed in my missions. But that's it. If I have so much potential in the Force, why did Palpatine never train me more than he did?" "Do you wish he had trained you further?" Luke inquires. "No," I answer quickly. I am grateful that I never had the chance to become another Vader. "But part of me still questions why he didn't. I just always assumed it was because I wasn't good enough." Luke meets my eye. I see a new emotion in his expression— empathy, maybe. Pity. Or maybe just sadness for a friend. Outside of professional obligations, I have never before been someone's friend. "He didn't train you because of your potential, Mara," he explains quietly. "He knew that he could control Vader. He could control most people. But you…I don't think he would have been able to control you." I look at him, mouth agape. "Do you forget what I was, Skywalker? He controlled me implicitly, even after his death. And even after I really knew you, after I learned that everything Palpatine had taught me was a lie, I still couldn't shake his control." "Only because you weren't trained. Do you think that if you knew the full power of the Force, he could have still held that sway over you?" "Yes," I reply. "Unequivocally, yes. You don't know what Palpatine was like, Luke." "Yes, I do. I resisted him." "You weren't raised by him." "My father broke free," he argues. "Only after years of service and then seeing you near death. Trust me, Luke. I couldn't have broken free of his control even if I wanted to. I wasn't—I'm not—powerful enough to do that. After he died, it took me so long to move on and become my own person, and even then, at the end, I still gave in." I know that Luke disagrees with me, and once again wants to argue that I only gave in to the Emperor's last command in order to save our lives, but he doesn't fight any further. "Either way, I still think you should be trained," he says. "The galaxy is changing, and it needs more Jedi." He touches my hand softly. I glance at him, momentarily taken aback by the earnestness of his expression. "I've decided to start a school for Jedi—a Jedi Academy, of sorts," he explains. "I've been considering doing so for a while, but was either too busy trying to help stabilize the New Republic or was too scared to take on the responsibility of restarting the Jedi Order. But now, after facing C'baoth, I know that I have to do this. It's my responsibility. I can only imagine how many more people like you are out there, unaware of their potential in the Force. Imagine what would happen if someone like Thrawn, or Force forbid another Palpatine, came into power again and there were no Jedi to stand against them?" "I don't really want to." Luke stares out at the city below. "Me, neither. So I'm going to do something about it. Obi-Wan Kenobi told me that I wasn't the last of the old Jedi, but rather the first of the new. Until he said that, I don't think that I really had faith in my ability to teach others the ways of the Force. But if Obi-Wan thought that I could, then that's good enough for me. So," he continues, looking back at me and holding my hand in his, "will you come to the school? Will you train with me?" Vaguely, I'm aware of how warm his hand feels against mine. Again, it is an odd feeling. Nobody has ever held my hand like this before—out of friendship. I still can't get my head around the idea that Luke Skywalker thinks of me as a friend. And I consider him a friend, too. Funny, how the universe works. Finally, I nod slowly into the setting sun. "I'll think about it," I reply. He nods back. "I can't ask for anything more." He's silent again, but I can tell he has more to say. "Was there something else?" I press, throwing a sideways look at him. He smiles. "See? You're getting good at that." "And just imagine how good I'll get if I do decide to train. So come on, let's have it." "Here." Reaching into his tunic, he pulls out a lightsaber. It looks vaguely familiar, but I can't place it. "What's this?" I ask, frowning. He places the hilt in my hand. "It's my old lightsaber," Luke tells me quietly. "The one I lost at Cloud City, and nearly got killed with at Wayland." He holds my gaze for a long moment. "I want you to have it." I stare back at him, momentarily unable to speak. Finally, I sputter, "Me? Why?" He shrugs self-consciously. It seems like such a "Luke" gesture that I feel like laughing despite the gravity of the situation. "For lots of reasons," he explains. "Because you've earned it. Because I want you to train with me as a Jedi and you'll need it. Mostly, though, because I just want you to have it." I stare at the lightsaber for a long time. This wasn't just Luke's lightsaber; it was his father's, before he became Vader. Even though Luke later built his own weapon, this is still such an important family heirloom. He should be keeping it. It has to be the only thing of his late father's that he ever owned. And he's giving it to me, the Emperor's Hand. The woman who swore to kill him for so many years. Slowly, almost reluctantly, I close my hand around the weapon. It fits perfectly in my grasp. "Thank you," I say quietly. "You're welcome." He smiles at me again. "I can't make you become a Jedi, Mara, but I hope that you can at least start to realize the potential you have." I nod, considering his words, wondering what the future might hold if I agree to train with him. Thinking about all the wrongs that I can make right. Maybe then, the guilt will finally start to go away. "When you've made up your mind, you'll know where to find me." At that, Luke squeezes my hand, and turns and walks away across the Palace roof. I gaze out at the lights of the city again, the cool metal of the lightsaber pressed against my hand. This is probably one of his last links to the past…and he is giving it away. To me, the person who can't run away from hers fast enough. At that moment, I make my decision. The past is the past. I might as well make the best of the future. Behind me, I hear the door open. "Hang on a minute," I call after him. He turns around and smiles at me—a smile that holds all the promises of hope for the future. "I'll come with you." 3. Chapter 2 CHAPTER 2 For the past three months, I've been running around like a crazy person, trying to settle all my affairs with Karrde's organization before committing myself to my Jedi training. Even though I've only worked for Karrde for less than a year, I've become his second-incommand in everything but name, and my responsibilities and accounts are not those that can be easily cast off. I'm lucky, though, as Karrde has been extremely supportive of my training—I even suspect that he and Luke collaborated against me in order to convince me to agree to go to the Academy—but I know that he is still disappointed to lose me as an employee. And even though I'm eager to begin a new phase of my life, I'm sad to leave as well. I will always be grateful to Karrde for offering me a job and giving me my first semblance of peace after four and a half years on the run. The time that I spent in his organization has been educational and, dare I say, even fun. As Karrde hugs me good-bye and sees me off in my headhunter, I feel like I am not only leaving an employer, but also a friend. Karrde, the consummate professional, never betrays his true emotions, but reaching out into the Force, I get the sense that he feels the same way. Luke invited me to meet him on Coruscant and then travel together to the Jedi Academy but I declined, wanting to take some time to myself to consider the path my life is taking. As my ship travels through hyperspace, I do just that, unable to sleep thanks to the thoughts running through my head. I never could have imagined that one day I would agree to formally train as a Jedi. I always thought I knew enough of the ways of the Force, but my time spent with Luke on Wayland made me realize just how much more there was for me to learn. I can't help but be excited for the possibilities that lie in front of me. But I'm also nervous, because I still have the nagging feeling that I'm going to end up disappointing everyone, especially myself. I wonder if I really have as much potential in the Force as Luke believes. During the short time I've known him, I've learned that Luke is a hopeless optimist and does his best to see the good in everyone. I wonder if his desire to rebuild the Jedi Order is making him overestimate my power in the Force. It figures; I've always been supremely confident in my abilities, and yet my few encounters with Skywalker have been enough to shatter my belief in myself…and yet at the same time, his belief in me makes me want to try as hard as I can to live up to his expectations. If nothing else during my time at the Jedi Academy, I promise myself that I will do this. I will do my best to prove to Luke Skywalker that he is right about me. And I will prove to myself that I can be a Jedi. The Jedi Academy is located on Yavin IV, in the old Rebel Alliance base. I know why Luke picked this place, and it is a perfect location—far away from the distractions of the Core but still close enough to Coruscant, where Luke can set up headquarters for the Jedi Order to interact with the leaders of the New Republic. All the business for the Order will be conducted on Yavin IV while Luke is still busy growing the Academy, but he eventually intends to have some Knights stationed on Coruscant to liaise with the government. And even above all the practical reasons, Yavin IV is a beautiful, if overly muggy, place, perfect for inspiring us to connect with the Force. Still, I note the irony of Luke Skywalker fully welcoming me here, when only ten years ago he would have tried to shoot me out of the sky had I attempted to infiltrate the secret Rebel base. I try to ignore my nerves as I maneuver my headhunter into the Academy's hangar bay. There are several other ships in the hangar, including three X-wings, and I wonder which one is Luke's. I kick myself for not yet being able to recognize his particular ship. Luke greets me when I arrive and points me in the direction of my room before going off to greet the other students. To my surprise, our quarters are small but adequate, and feel very much like home. Even though I spent so many years living in the opulence of the Imperial Palace, I've grown to feel comfortable in military-like quarters, thanks to my time on the run and then working for Karrde. After settling in, washing up, and changing into some clean clothes, I head to my first official meeting as a Jedi apprentice. Luke doesn't want to begin our time at the Academy with a formal class, worried about overwhelming us, so instead we meet for introductions in a small meditation garden outside the Great Temple. The main areas of the Academy are all located inside the Great Temple. The top floor contains a large auditorium, which will be used for Knighting ceremonies and other public events. The bottom floor consists of the hangar and several large rooms for lightsaber and other weapons training. The middle floors are where the living quarters, classrooms, smaller training rooms, and indoor meditation areas are located. A small group of students is already gathered in the garden when I arrive. I'm know who they are but haven't officially met any of them yet, so I sit by myself a bit away from the group. The woman, Tyria Sarkin, turns to me and offers an encouraging smile. On instinct, all my old barriers begin to rise, but I push them aside, forcing myself to smile back. One of the men sitting near her— Corran Horn, a former Corellian Security officer and member of Rogue Squadron—raises an eyebrow in my direction. I return the gesture, and a thin smile crosses his lips as he turns back to the others sitting around him. I make a mental note of Horn's reaction; I've been expecting some animosity because of my past, especially from the students with military backgrounds, which, as fate would have it, are where most of the apprentices from this group come. I know that's only coincidental, as Luke has close ties to the military and mostly everyone he knows once served in the Rebel Alliance, and he doesn't feel that he should teach students he doesn't already know until he's gotten some experience. Still, it's a little unsettling to know that I once fought so willingly against my fellow apprentices, and now I'm forced to trust them with my life. I know that the Rebellion and New Republic accepted many Imperial defectors with open arms, so I try not to feel too unsettled…but then again, all of those people defected willingly. I didn't have much of a choice when the second Death Star exploded over Endor. Over the next few minutes, the other students make their ways into the garden, and soon we're all sitting on the stone benches, waiting patiently for Luke to arrive. There are ten of us who make up the first class at the Jedi Academy. Tyria and Corran are both pilots, as is Keyan Farlander. Kenth Hamner, Kam Solusar, and Kyle Katarn are veterans of the New Republic army. Cilghal Tarlia, a Mon Calamari female, is an advisor in the New Republic Senate, where she first made Luke's acquaintance through his sister's introduction. Kirana Ti Mar is the only woman from Dathomir who responded to Luke's invitation to train. Rounding out the group is Tionne Dannik, the only apprentice who did not know Luke previously; while she doesn't seem to be very strong in the Force, she is one of the most knowledgeable historians of the old Jedi Order. Leia Organa Solo would be here as well, finishing up the training she already started with her brother, but her newborn twins are taking up all of her time. But she is, as Luke put it, an honorary member of the Jedi Academy. Just as I'm starting to believe that waiting for Luke is actually our first lesson in patience, I sense his presence and turn around to see him entering the garden. He keeps his gaze focused in front of him until he takes a seat on the stone bench facing the rest of us. Only then does he meet eyes with each of us in turn. By coincidence, I am on the furthest right of the group, so he looks at me last…and for just a little bit longer than all of the others, I note. The faintest hint of a smile crosses his lips as he looks away, and I smile, too. Luke is dressed in dark Jedi robes. Most of us are wearing utilitarian clothing of some kind—flight suits, tunics and baggy pants, and jumpsuits. I wonder how I'll look and feel wearing the official clothing of a Jedi. For some reason, I secretly hope that Luke decides not to keep that old tradition. Luke crosses his legs casually as he begins to speak. Although he must be feeling somewhat nervous, it doesn't show on his face. Outwardly, at least, he appears to be the consummate Jedi Master. Master…I've never thought of him that way before. He is my master now. Master Skywalker…will I have to call him that? I force myself not to laugh out loud at the thought. Luke smiles openly as he begins to speak. "Thank you all for coming. I imagine this all seems just as odd for you as it does for me, so we'll keep this first meeting as informal as possible." Everyone chuckles at his statement, including me, mainly out of disbelief that I'm actually here. "You obviously all know who I am, so I'll let you introduce yourselves before discussing my plans for the Academy." At that, he nods at Tionne, who sits on the far left of the garden, and she stands, beginning the round of introductions. I focus on everyone's statements, knowing that what everyone says about themselves will give me a great deal of insight into who they really are. Even after so many years, I still cannot stop thinking like a spy. After Tyria, the closest student to me, sits down, I stand to introduce myself. Everyone turns purposely towards me, their expressions full of rapt attention, and I refuse to let any irritation or annoyance show on my face. I know that Luke has been discrete about my background, but my past is basically an open secret in the New Republic. I hope that the other students will at least try to get to know me a bit before judging me, and I make a mental note to do my best not to scare them off. Except for Horn…something tells me that I'll have to confront him directly. I meet his eyes before I begin to speak. "I'm Mara Jade," I announce. "I met Master Skywalker during the campaign against Grand Admiral Thrawn. I've received some training in the Force throughout my life, but nothing as serious as this. I'm very grateful for Master Skywalker's invitation to help me realize my potential and become a Jedi." My introduction is short, but adequate. I sit back down and stare straight ahead at Luke, instead of the other nine students, who are still focused intently on me. Luke ignores them as well, seemingly pleased with my introduction, and also extremely amused at hearing me call him Master Skywalker. I'm glad that amuses somebody, because I never would have guessed that one day I'd be addressing Luke Skywalker as my master. "Thank you all," Luke says. "I hope you will all take time at dinner tonight to get to know each other further. Since you're such a small group of students, I want to take advantage of the opportunity to train together, as well as in pairs and trios. Of course, I'll be working with all of you individually to focus on your own strengths and weaknesses. "My goal here is simple: to rebuild the Jedi Order. It will take a long time, but I know that once the first group of Jedi Knights is trained, the Order will continue to grow exponentially. I know that some of you might not feel comfortable teaching students in the future, and you are of course welcome to serve the Order in any way that you see fit, but any Jedi will always be welcome either here at the Academy or at the Coruscant headquarters. "We're all adults, so I'm not going to try to force you to follow a set of arbitrary rules during your stay here. To be honest, the Order is very much a living, breathing entity, and I intend for it to change as we learn more about the history of the Jedi. But the main tenets will always be the same: follow the light, listen to the Force around you, and respect all sentient beings. "All of you are here because I've felt strong potential in the Force within each of you, and believe that you will be very beneficial in rebuilding the Jedi Order. Again, I thank you for accepting my invitation to train. "Now, I invite you to join me inside for dinner. We have a standard military mess, and you are welcome to eat at your leisure, but I hope that in time you'll feel comfortable eating with each other as a family." Luke stands, motioning for all of us to head back inside the temple. I hang back, allowing the others to walk in front of me, and share another look with Horn before he walks away with Tyria, who again smiles at me encouragingly. I fall into step beside Luke as we follow the others at a distance. "That was a very inspiring speech, Master Skywalker," I murmur with a straight face. I steal a glance at Luke and see his eyes twinkle with amusement. "That sounds so odd," he replies, shaking his head. "Well, you're the one who wanted to start a Jedi Academy. You better get used to people calling you Master." "Yeah, I guess I have to," he agrees, laughing softly. "Don't tell anyone I said that, by the way." "Who, me?" I ask, feigning innocence. He gently shoves my shoulder. "Yes, you. I know how difficult you like to make things for me." "I do, I really do," I admit, smiling wickedly. "But seriously," I continue, "I would never do anything to undermine your authority here. I'm sincere about my training. If I have to call you Master, I will." He laughs again at my earnestness. "Thanks, Mara. I guess it's only prudent that you call me that during training…but when we're alone, please, just call me Luke, okay?" "Okay," I agree. Then I grin mischievously again. "What about Skywalker, can I still call you that?" "That works, too." "What about Farmboy?" "Don't push it." During dinner, I converse mainly with Luke, who sits across from me at the end of the table, and Kam and Tionne, who next to him. To my surprise, I get along very well with Tionne, and Kam seems to be a dependable enough guy. Tyria sits to my left, and she makes a few attempts at small talk, but other than that, she spends her time talking with the other pilots, who boast loudly about their adventures in the New Republic military. Tyria and I leave the mess at the same time and make our way back to our quarters, which happen to be across the hall from each other. Forcing myself to be friendlier than usual, I offer her my hand as we wait for the lift. "Mara. Nice to meet you." She seems relieved as she shakes my hand. "I'm Tyria." "You're from Rogue Squadron?" I ask, trying to remember what I read about her in the files Luke transmitted to our datapads before we arrived. "Wraith," she corrects. "That's right. One of Wedge Antilles' brilliant creations." "Yup," she smiles proudly. "How long were you in the military?" I ask. "A few years. Technically I'm still in the military, but they gave me a leave of absence to come train. They're all very supportive of it, especially General Antilles, but I guess that's to be expected when he's such close friends with Master Skywalker." I laugh. "Yeah, that seems to be how things work with him." "What about you?" she asks as we enter the lift. She palms the button for our floor. "Oh, I'm not from the military…well, not really," I reply, trying not to get flustered. "I, um, worked for Talon Karrde's organization for awhile. I met Luke—I mean, Master Skywalker—a few months ago and he thought that I had the potential to be a Jedi, so here I am." Tyria meets my gaze as the lift travels upward. "Were you really the Emperor's Hand?" she asks. Yes—definitely a Wraith, I think; nobody else would be bold enough to ask me that right off the bat…except for maybe a Rogue. I remind myself not to get into a lift alone with Corran Horn any time soon. "I'm sorry," she apologizes quickly. "That was inappropriate for me to ask." "No, it's alright," I reassure her. "Yeah, it's true. But that was a long time ago. My future is here, with the Jedi Order." Tyria smiles at me. "I'm glad to hear that." We ride the rest of the way in silence. After we arrive at our floor, we walk the short distance to our quarters before pausing awkwardly outside our doors. "Well, it was nice talking to you, Tyria," I say. "Thanks for not treating me like a pariah," I add, trying to lighten the mood. "No problem," she replies, shaking my hand again. "Us girls gotta stick together, you know? Oh, and by the way…" she continues, smiling mischievously. "What?" I ask, my barriers flying back up. "Don't let Horn get to you. He can be a bit of an arrogant jerk at times, but overall he's a good guy." I sigh inwardly; what had I expected her to say? "Thanks for the advice." "No problem," she says. "Have a good night." "You too," I reply. Then I enter my quarters and begin to laugh hysterically, the reality of my new life finally sinking in— There's a folded pile of Jedi robes at the foot of my bed, and a cloak draped over my chair. 4. Chapter 3 A/N: Song for this chapter: Anything But Ordinary, Avril Lavigne CHAPTER 3 Our second day at the Academy starts with palpable excitement in the air. This is the day when our training really begins. During the morning we have what I call "mental" training— learning about the history of the Jedi, the workings of the Force, and how to use it to the best of our abilities. There is a lot of meditating, a lot of reaching out with our minds. To me, this is by far the most difficult part of becoming a Jedi Knight. I never trained this way under the Emperor, and now, under Luke's tutelage, I'm glad that I never did. I have no prior judgments of what using the Force should be like, and I'm able to dedicate myself fully to Luke's teachings. But, even though Luke consistently tells me I have what it takes to be a great Jedi, I still find it very difficult to connect with the Force as much as I feel that I should. The more physical classes are held in the afternoon, and I look forward to those the most, as that is where I can truly shine. Since most of the other apprentices have never used a lightsaber before, Luke plans to dedicate a lot of time to lightsaber training. While I know how to handle the weapon better than anyone else here, I still have a lot to learn until I'm able to hold my own with Luke. When the afternoon comes, we all make ourselves at home on the benches in one of the larger training rooms, waiting with anticipation for our first lightsaber session. Luke arrives shortly after the last student, carrying a large satchel over his shoulder. He walks down the rows, distributing something to each apprentice, but skipping over Corran Horn and me. As I look at what everyone else holds in their hands, I realize why the two of us were skipped over—Luke was handing out training lightsabers. Of course, I already have one. Corran comes from a Jedi family, so it makes sense that he already has one as well. After Luke finishes passing out the hilts, he stands in front of us. "I know that all of you are looking forward to these classes," he says, his expression betraying the fact that he's looking forward to them as much as we are. "As you'll soon find out, learning to use a lightsaber can be a very difficult task. Not only do you need to learn to handle the weapon physically, but you also have to learn to control it mentally. There's no point in becoming proficient with a lightsaber if you're not using your full potential in the Force while wielding it." Even though I know he's not addressing me specifically, I can't help but feel a tiny bit of shame at his words. Sure, I'm good with a lightsaber, but I've never come anywhere close to my full potential in the Force while using one. "For the most part, you'll start out using training remotes, learning to trust your instincts to block the laser bolts. Later, I'll be showing you different styles of lightsaber combat, and you'll find that you may prefer certain forms to others. And of course, you'll eventually want to spar with your fellow apprentices—I just ask that you do so only when you feel absolutely comfortable handling a lightsaber. I don't want anyone losing a hand in one of my classes." I immediately clasp my hand to my mouth and cough, disguising the laugh that threatens to escape. Luke darts his eyes to mine for a split second and gives me the faintest of smiles, pleased that I found his joke amusing. But I force myself to look away and focus, because I don't want people thinking that I'm an idiot or something for laughing at the great Master Skywalker during our first lightsaber session. It becomes very easy to stop laughing as he removes his cloak, unhooks his lightsaber from his belt, and ignites it in front of him. Several training remotes levitate in front of him as he backs up into the middle of the room. "I know that many of you have never even seen a lightsaber in person before," he says. "You'll be starting with the basics, of course, but first…I wanted to show you what you can really do with a lightsaber." Without another word, the training remotes start firing bolts at him, slow at first, and then faster and faster. Luke blocks each of them with ease, his actions a blur and not even seeming to exert himself. My mouth drops open in awe as I watch him move. I thought I had seen on Wayland what Luke Skywalker could do with a lightsaber, but this…this is different. Much different. And suddenly, in the back of my mind, I'm aware of a very new feeling emerging—admiration. Attraction. I push it away as soon as I feel it. What the hell is wrong with me? It is absolutely, positively ridiculous. He's my master now, for Sith's sake! I tell myself that I only feel this way because I'm in awe of Luke's control over the Force. I want to learn to do what he can. The little voice inside my head calls me a liar. I tell her to shut up and pay attention. The remotes finally stop shooting and, after a split second of silence, the room erupts into applause. Luke finally seems to take notice of us watching him and blushes a deep shade of crimson before immediately composing himself, the consummate Jedi Master. "Thank you," he says, raising his hand at us. "I know that doing something of that nature seems very far off right now, but I fully expect each of you to be able to use a lightsaber that well when you have finished your training. "Now, as I said, you'll start off using remotes, but fighting against living beings, especially Force users, is very different. You have to predict their movements as well as ensure that they cannot predict your own. But once you become more attuned to the Force, it sometimes becomes even easier to fight against the living." His eyes twinkle ever so slightly, and he suddenly looks incredibly young, like a boy again. "And with that, I'd like to ask for a volunteer to join me for a little practice." The room turns silent as we realize that Luke is asking for someone to spar with him. Everyone looks unconvinced; asking a group of new Jedi apprentices to spar with Luke Skywalker is like asking them to walk into the nexu's den. I spare a glance at Corran, also holding his own lightsaber, but he seems no more willing to get his butt kicked by Luke than anyone else in the room. Not wanting my friend to get frustrated by a lack of enthusiasm on his first day of lessons, I take a deep breath and stand. "I'll do it," I volunteer. Everyone looks at me in shock, but I ignore the others as I remove my cloak and walk to the center of the room. Luke grins at me, as if he was hoping that I would be the one to volunteer. We face each other and bow, which he explains is the proper etiquette for sparring. Then he whispers, only loud enough for me to hear, "Your goal is to disarm me. Do it in any way you deem necessary—without removing any limbs, of course." I nod and ignite my lightsaber, suddenly feeling nervous, and he follows suit. "Oh, and Mara?" he adds. A hint of a mischievous smile crosses his lips. "Don't hold back." I don't feel nervous anymore. "If you insist," I reply, returning his smile tenfold. And then I strike. There is no way that I could ever hold a candle to Luke in a regular duel, but to my amazement, I find it very easy to spar with him. He is holding back, despite his warning for me not to, but that doesn't bother me. I concentrate only disarming him. I am able to predict his moves and block each of his blows with ease, but every time I figure out ways to get an advantage on him, he manages to stop me. Instead of growing frustrated, as I would have only months ago, I reach out into the Force and let it guide the weapon in my hands, and it is amazing just how right it feels to be fighting this way. I've always been an excellent fighter, and have always been able to predict the moves of an opponent using logic and instinct, but this is different. It's like I was born to do this. After several long minutes, it is clear that I am never going to be able to disarm Luke using any of my previous strategies, but then I remember his words: Do it in any way you deem necessary. He knows that I'm an expert in hand-to-hand combat. And he told me not to hold back. If he insists… In an instant, I stick my leg out between his and make a wide sweeping motion. Luke stumbles before catching himself, but that one faltering moment is all I need. In a short second I body check him and then, using all of my strength, I knock his head back and force the lightsaber out of his hands with my elbow. I stand there in silence, breathing heavily, staring at Luke's now-empty hand in utter disbelief. Slowly I look back up at his face, almost scared to do so, but instead of being angry or upset at losing, he is grinning at me with such overwhelming pride. And then a very distinct shiver goes down my spine, and as a look of attraction flashes across his eyes, I realize that he has felt the same thing. Swallowing, I bow to him before turning and hurrying back to the other apprentices, who are now staring at me in awe. I ignore them, trying hard not to concentrate on the unmistakable feeling that is welling up inside me, that will not let me push it away. I sigh, kicking myself internally, knowing that my Jedi training has just gotten a lot more complicated. The first week of classes flies by so fast that I can hardly believe when our first official day off arrives. Our schedule has us training for six full days, then one day off, and then the cycle starts all over again. Frankly, I'm glad that we have so little time to ourselves, because there's nothing else to do on Yavin IV except get to know everyone else…and try not to dwell about what happened during the first lightsaber class, and the inappropriate thoughts that keep popping into my head at the most inopportune moments, such as when Luke is guiding me through very important meditation sessions. To keep my mind occupied on other matters, I do my best to get to know my fellow students. Ordinarily, I'm not the most sociable of people, but since I'm not in a normal situation anymore, I might as well try to change my ways. And it goes well, thanks to Tyria, who introduces me to the military guys, and Luke, who, despite all his best efforts not to let it show, definitely favors me over the other apprentices. I guess everyone thinks that if he likes me so much, I can't be that bad of a person. But despite my efforts to be overly friendly, I still haven't had the chance to talk to Corran Horn one-on-one, so when I enter the mess just after sunrise on our first day off and find him eating by himself, I grimace. He's already noticed me so I can't leave, and it would be petty of me to sit at another table. So instead I suck it up and walk over to him after picking up some food. "Mind if I join you?" I ask, unwrapping a ration bar. Eventually, when more apprentices arrive, the Academy will have a cook on staff, but for now we're stuck fending for ourselves—and since we all have so little time, we only make the effort to prepare real meals for dinner. Corran looks up from his unappetizing meal of instant hot cereal. "Go ahead," he replies in a blank voice, gesturing to the seat across from him. I sit down and take a bite out of my ration bar. We eat in silence for a minute, the awkwardness growing between us. "You should eat this," Corran says, breaking the ice. I take a pointed look at his meal and crinkle my nose. "No, thanks. I'll stick to these," I reply, holding up my ration bar. "This stuff has more nutrients," he answers between bites. "It does?" I ask curiously. I enjoy nice meals like everyone else, but I've lived in these kinds of conditions so often that I know the importance of thinking about food not in terms of taste, but as fuel. It's nice to hear that other people think the same way. Corran nods. "Yeah. It tastes like crap, but so do those. And with the way Master Skywalker's been kicking my butt, I need all the help I can get." I crack the faintest of smiles at his joke. While his tone is light, Corran is definitely not the type of person who enjoys being beaten, even by a Jedi Master. During our training classes, I could sense Corran's frustrations grow whenever Luke got the best of him, which just so happened to be every time. All of us are getting our butts kicked, including me, and I wouldn't expect anything less from Luke. It's the only way for us to learn. But obviously Corran Horn isn't used to losing. "Those classes are tough," I admit, grateful that Corran hasn't shown any animosity towards me…yet. Maybe I misjudged him after all. "Are you kidding? I thought CorSec training was bad, but this is a hundred times worse. Of course, you're the best in the class so you probably can't relate…not that that's surprising or anything, considering your background." He meets my gaze at his last remark, and I feel my expression cool, all my old defenses at the ready. I narrow my eyes at him, but force myself to remain civil. "Oh?" I reply. To his credit, Corran doesn't back down from his assertion. "I'm sure the Emperor taught you a lot of this stuff already." I look down at my ration bar and start picking at it angrily. I hate the fact that everyone presumes to know everything about my past. I know that I can't hide where I come from. It's a part of who I am, as much as I hate it. But having people assume what I do or don't know is bothersome, especially if they think that Palpatine taught me everything himself—they probably think I was some sort of Sith, which couldn't be further from the truth. After a few moments, I meet Corran's eye again. If I'm going to be a Jedi, I have to learn to be honest. "Actually, he didn't really teach me much about the Force," I explain. "I learned mostly physical stuff. So I guess you're right, those classes don't trouble me much, although I definitely have a lot to learn. It's all the mental training that really gets to me." To my surprise, it doesn't feel weird to confide in Corran, someone I barely know and who obviously holds no affection for me. "You seem to be doing well in those classes," I add. He shrugs proudly. "I have my strengths, and that's one of them." "One of many?" I joke. He finally smiles at my jab at him. "I see that my reputation precedes me." "Well, you are a Rogue. You guys are pretty easy to stereotype." He laughs and nods in agreement. "All except for the guy who started the squadron." "Yeah, Luke—I mean, Master Skywalker—could definitely do some good in taking lessons in arrogance from the rest of you." "Ah, but then he wouldn't be the Master Skywalker that we all know and love." "That's true," I agree, trying not to dwell on his last word. We fall into silence again to finish our breakfasts. Once Corran puts down his spoon, he reaches his hand across the table. I stare at it for a moment, and then hesitantly reach out to accept his handshake. "Sorry for being a jerk," he says. "Master Skywalker invited you here, and I trust his judgment." "Not a problem," I reply. I note that he's not apologizing for thinking badly about me, only for acting on it. But I guess that's good enough for now. After all, it's still hard for me to come to terms with what I was—why should it be easy for others? As the weeks go on, the physical training classes become easier and easier, while my mental exercises become more and more difficult. I'm definitely gaining a keener sense of the Force, and can perform all the major skills with ease—including telekinesis, which I rub in Corran's face as much as possible. But I don't feel a true connection with the Force the way I feel that I should. Something's holding me back, and it's frustrating. Luke knows that I feel this way, but I haven't felt comfortable bringing it up during our private lessons. Instead, I always request to spar with him, because I know that's what I'm good at, and keeping my mind active is the best way to forget that damn shiver that keeps going down my spine whenever he smiles at me. I keep telling myself that I only have these feelings because I admire him as a Jedi—maybe a physical attraction at best. I've never had a problem ignoring my feelings in the past, so that's what I do…or at least, that's what I try to do. After that first sparring session, I kept using my hand-to-hand combat skills as an advantage, but Luke quickly learned how to use my own tricks against me. For today's session, Luke finally asked if we could forget the lightsabers altogether and fight completely unarmed. I balked at first, wanting to get as much lightsaber training with him as possible…but then the thought of flooring Luke Skywalker came to my mind and there was no way that I could possibly say no. We're in one of the smaller training rooms, fighting hard, never inflicting any serious injuries, but doing enough damage to make it hurt. To my surprise, Luke is very skilled at this type of combat. I expected flooring him to be easy, but either he's been practicing in his nonexistent spare time or the Force really is by his side. Instead of growing frustrated, I reach out with my senses as much as possible, blocking Luke's moves and trying to keep him from predicting mine, just as if we were using lightsabers. My confusing feelings for him never surface while we are fighting. All my old assassin instincts come out in full force, and I concentrate only on flooring him, something I swore to do as soon as we bowed to each other. But suddenly, out of nowhere, he sweeps my legs out from under me and dumps me unceremoniously on my back. Before I can jump back up he's on top of me, pinning my arms above my head, keeping me from moving even an inch. I scowl at him, angry with myself for letting him best me at my own game…and then, staring into his eyes, motionless beneath him, that damn shiver again goes down my spine and I have to force my eyes shut against it. Luke grows tense on top of me, but doesn't move. After long seconds I open my eyes again, and he's still staring intently at me. Not knowing what else to do, I do what I do best. "So. You want to get off me, or were you just getting comfortable?" I know that my wisecrack is dripping with double entendre, but it serves its purpose; Luke smiles sheepishly and quickly pushes himself off me. He extends his hand to help me up but I'm already on my feet. "Nice moves," I compliment him. "You been taking lessons in your spare time?" He has the courtesy to blush a bit. "No, just lucky." I raise my eyebrows. "I thought there was no such thing as luck?" "Touché," he offers. "Care for another round?" "No, thanks," I answer, rubbing my back, feigning pain. I'm more than able to stand a few more hours sparring with him, but all I want right now is to get far away from him—and my stupid, confusing emotions—as quickly as possible. I extend my hand and he accepts it. "Good-bye, Master Skywalker," I say formally. "Good-bye, Mara," he replies softly, almost lovingly…and then, before I can move away, his thumb moves infinitesimally against the side of my hand, just enough for me to really take notice of the feel of his skin against mine. I look back into his eyes, and suddenly I know, with complete and utter clarity, that this is way more than just innocent admiration or even a simple physical attraction. This is a problem. I hurry away, cursing myself all the way back to my quarters, wondering how in the galaxy I ever got to a place where I'd be training as a Jedi apprentice…and at the same time falling head over heels for the man I'd once sworn to kill…who is now my master. 5. Chapter 4 A/N: Song for this chapter: Everything, Alanis Morissette CHAPTER 4 Thanks to Tionne's painstaking work over the past two months, the Academy has compiled a pretty decent history of the old Jedi Order. Palpatine, of course, destroyed all readily available information, but since the Academy opened, many citizens of the New Republic have come forward with information about the Jedi. And even though the Jedi Temple was ransacked at the end of the Clone Wars, Luke has somehow been able to find some old Jedi textbooks and journals, which offer even more insight into how to rebuild the Order. As he stated on our first day at the Academy, Luke believes that we should all have an equal say in the new Jedi Order. A Jedi Council of twelve members governed the old Order, and even though Luke doesn't want to reinstate that old tradition until there are many Jedi Knights in our ranks, he still wants us to discuss as a group any decisions that will affect the Academy and the Order as a whole. From what we've discovered during our research, the old Jedi Order had many rules and restrictions. Children were brought to the Jedi Temple at an early age, and the Jedi were not allowed to form attachments. However, there were some sects of Jedi that didn't follow the rules set by the Jedi Council on Coruscant— Corellian Jedi being one of them. Once Tionne began compiling her library, Luke began to devote many classes to reading through the history and asking for our opinions. Today, Luke is reading a passage from an ancient Jedi textbook that he found right before he started the Academy— he won't say exactly where he got his hands on it—that he's just began to study. The subject of the passage in question is the attachment code; specifically, why forming attachments can be very dangerous for a Jedi. I follow the passage with great interest, and as Luke finishes, he closes the book, leaning back in his seat. "Any opinions?" he asks, glancing to each of us. During these discussions he has us sit in a circle like the old Jedi Council, as he says that he doesn't deem his opinion to be any better than the rest of ours. Corran, of course, is the first one to speak. "If you'll excuse my language, Master Skywalker, I think it's a bunch of crap." Luke nods at him, smiling slightly. "I expected you'd think as much. Continue, please." "Obviously my family didn't follow the same rules—they were openly married, and nothing bad came out of it." "You did," Tyria teases, and everyone laughs, even Luke. Corran gives her a rude gesture before continuing. "Expecting the Jedi to not have attachments…it's not realistic. We're not gods. We're normal beings with flaws. And if you'll excuse the overly sappy statement and promise never to tell any of the other Rogues that I said this—love is the best thing in the universe. My wife is what keeps me grounded. To expect us not to experience that is unrealistic." I nod my head along with the other students, who are obviously all in agreement with Corran. It's a silly idea anyway; we're all adults, and it would be impossible to ask us to suddenly change our ways of thinking. Corran is married, Tyria and others are in relationships with people outside the Order, and everyone knows that Kam and Tionne have started to grow fond of each other. And there's no need to mention my troublesome feelings for Luke that just refuse to go away. As much as I hate those feelings, I'm also glad for them, because they're a part of what makes me human. Luke raises his hand before anyone else can begin to protest. "First, I want to say that I am in no way considering this as a rule for the Order. Mainly, I'm interested in why the Jedi Council instilled this rule. They obviously thought it was important. During my training, Master Yoda instructed me not to let feelings for my friends get in the way of my becoming a Jedi. I didn't listen to him, and rushed into a trap that nearly cost me my life. I often wonder what would have happened if I had listened to him." "They'd be dead," I announce without even thinking. Luke turns to me, as do all the others. I meet his gaze, unflinching, and I sense that he is wondering exactly how involved I was in that trap on Bespin. Fortunately, for both of us, that was all Vader's doing, and I knew nothing of it. "Vader would have killed them," I continue. "Possibly," Luke says. "No, not possibly," I argue. "He would have killed them. You did the right thing by going there." Luke obviously disagrees with me, but he doesn't continue to argue in front of the others. Instead he turns to them and asks, "Anyone else care to share an opinion?" Tyria raises her hand. "I have to agree with Corran and Mara, Master Skywalker. I view my attachments as a Jedi the same way I do my attachments as a starfighter pilot. I was allowed to enter into a relationship with a squadron mate, but I would never put his life in front of the well being of the squadron as a whole. I would have sacrificed him if it meant that we'd be able to accomplish a mission, and I'd feel the same way while serving as a Jedi Knight." I nod in agreement, as does everyone else in the room, including Luke himself. "That's very well put, Tyria. Most of us come from a military background, so it's easy for us to understand this mindset. But I wonder how well the civilian students will accept it when they arrive." "They'll just have to learn that if they want to become a Jedi, that's the way things work," Corran says. "Personally, I think that mindset is a lot easier to accept than telling people they can't have any attachments at all, and certainly much better than taking children away from their parents when they are very young." As Corran finishes speaking, Luke glances in my direction. Corran has hit a sore spot; the Emperor took me from my parents when I was a very young girl. I don't even remember my family. I hate to think that the old Jedi Order worked that way. After a few moments, Luke begins speaking again. "I agree, Corran. Thank you all for discussing this with me. You're free to go." At that, everyone gets up to leave and I follow them blindly, walking with Corran and Tyria and thinking about Luke's words. In front of us, he agreed with Corran's argument, and I know that Luke would never dare to instill a rule saying that the new Jedi Knights could not have attachments. But even so, I have a very distinct feeling that Luke does not share the same opinion for himself; that this new information has greatly changed how he thinks about his position as the Jedi Master. He feels that he has to live up to higher standards. He doesn't think he should dedicate himself to anything other than being the leader of the Jedi Order. And that thought, despite all my reservations about us ever being anything other than master and apprentice, makes my heart sink. I spend our next free evening in the meditation garden where we had our first meeting as students of the Jedi Academy. It has become my favorite retreat. It is quiet and rarely used, the other students preferring to stay inside and avoid the humidity, and the stars shine brilliantly overhead. I lie on the ground, feeling the Force flow over me. Within nature, I feel much more in tune with the Force, but I know that I still haven't reached my full potential. My physical skills are superior, and I can perform every Force power Luke has taught us with great ease, but there's still something holding me back. And, like the stupid woman that I am, I refuse to broach the topic with Luke, because I have enough problems with him at the moment. Despite all my internal struggles, my feelings for him refuse to go away. They've gotten even worse since the discussion on attachments several days ago. I know that I need to push my feelings for him aside, because even if Luke did feel the same way about me, he holds himself up to a higher standard and won't allow himself to form attachments. Maybe that's a good thing, I think. If he won't allow himself to care, then whatever's going on inside my head won't become an issue after all. It's a moot point. I'm free to continue on my path to becoming a Jedi with Luke as my master, and he's free to continue to rebuild the Jedi Order and once again be the savior of the galaxy. But I still can't help but feel sad, knowing that what I feel for him is so real. It's something I've never experienced before in my life. Why does it have to be him? As if my thoughts will him into existence, I feel his presence at the entrance to the garden. He stops as he senses me, and he slowly walks around the stone benches until he spots me lying on the ground. Wordlessly, without invitation, he lies down next to me. "So you like it out here, too," he says after long moments. I nod my head into the darkness. "It's peaceful out here." "I think so, too. Reminds me of back home on Tatooine." I give him a funny look. "Tatooine couldn't be more different than Yavin IV." "Not in feelings," he says. "It feels the same. It feels like home." "What's that like?" I ask. It's a silly question, but I've never known the answer. "Home?" I nod again. He doesn't want to make me yearn for what I never had, but he answers anyway: "It's nice." He doesn't have to clarify his statement. I know exactly what he means. We're quiet for several minutes, content to watch the stars in silence, but I know that he has searched me out for a reason. Eventually, he speaks again. "I know you're upset." I glance at him and smile thinly. "And here I thought I was doing a good job at shielding my emotions." "You are; I'm just better at reading them." I turn away, feeling shy, realizing that all my feelings for him are an open book. The idea makes me extremely embarrassed…but then again, knowing exactly how I feel about him, he is still here right now, lying next to me. And he is not laughing. In fact, when I reach into the Force and allow myself to sense the emotions whirling around him, it is completely obvious that he feels exactly the same way about me. Which, of course, I somehow knew all along…for isn't that the reason I'm so upset about his beliefs on the attachment code— because I realize what might have been? I wonder if I should be honest or continue to hide my feelings, like I so often do. I opt for honesty. "I just don't think that you should have to hold yourself up to some unrealistic standard, that's all." He sighs deeply. "I know you don't understand, but this is something I've struggled with for a long time, since I first began my training and Master Yoda told me that a Jedi shouldn't have attachments. Seeing it written down on paper has made me realize that there must have been a very good reason for the Order to have that rule." "Good enough for you, but not good enough for the rest of us?" "It's different with me." "Why, because you're in charge?" "Yes," he replies, looking uncomfortable. "Everyone is watching me—all of you; all of the New Republic; even the Empire. Everyone is talking about what I do here, and how I'm going to rebuild the Jedi Order that my father helped destroy. It's a burden nobody should ever have to carry, but I will gladly hold onto it if it means that the Jedi Order will thrive again someday." I pause for a moment, thinking of how to best respond to him. Again, I opt for honesty. "Even at the extent of your own happiness?" He turns to me with sadness in his eyes, as if he finally realizes exactly what he is asking himself to miss out on. I look away before he can say anything. "Your parents fell in love," I point out, staring across the vast distances into the stars. "They weren't supposed to," he counters. "From the information I've gathered, they kept it a secret from everybody until my sister and I were born, and even then only a few people knew about their relationship. By that time he'd already turned to the dark side. And I have a pretty good idea as to why that happened." I stare back at him through the darkness, unable to believe what I am hearing—that he believes Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side because of love. "You can't be serious." "I am," he answers quietly. "I found out some information— don't ask me how, I don't want to talk about it. But I learned things…I learned why my father turned. He wanted to save my mother from dying. And I have a pretty good guess as to who offered to help him do that." Bile rises up in my throat, and I can't bring myself to say his name. "Anyway, learning all that made me remember when I left Dagobah to save Han and Leia on Cloud City. Yoda and Obi-Wan were adamant that I stay and complete my training. I didn't listen to them and I almost got killed—or worse. I know what you'll say—that I did the right thing and they would have died if I hadn't tried to save them—but nobody knows that for sure. "The point is, I never really understood why they were so panicked about me leaving in order to save people I cared about —people I loved. I couldn't understand how such a sense of compassion could ever be a bad thing. Now, I realize that they saw in me exactly what they saw in my father, and that is what scared them the most. They were worried that Palpatine would use my compassion against me as well, and I'd become just like Vader." I sense the truth in his words, his absolute conviction that he feels that he is right. But I still do not agree, and I try my best to make him see that he is wrong. "It's ridiculous, Luke. You're not your father. Regardless of his reasons for turning to the dark side, he had a lust for power that you could never have. Trust me, I knew him, and I know you. You are nothing like him." Even through the black of night, I see the doubt in his eyes. "They all said that I am." "Maybe superficially, but deep inside? I don't think so." "I don't know…" "Do you honestly believe that you'll follow in your father's footsteps if you allow yourself to have attachments? What about Han and Leia? You care for them and you're doing fine as a Jedi Master. And wasn't his love for you what ultimately brought Vader back to the light side?" "I know," he whispers, sounding unconvinced. "You're not your father, Luke," I repeat, willing him to see the truth in my words. "You beat the dark side years ago. Why do you insist on making it a constant struggle for yourself?" He doesn't respond, so I sigh, shifting my arm to push myself up, but before I can, he reaches out to stop me. "Please stay." Against my better judgment I relent, lying back down on the ground, but his hand remains on my arm. After a few moments, his thumb starts to move softly against my skin, and despite everything that has just passed between us, that damn shiver once again goes down my spine. It's quiet for a long time. Finally, he says so softly that I can hardly hear him, "I'm sorry." It's such a simple statement, but it holds so much meaning, which I can sense through the Force: His feelings for me are as strong as mine are for him, but he feels that he cannot allow himself to care, because he is the leader of the Jedi Order. Before I can respond, he asks me a question: "Will you ever be able to forgive yourself, Mara?" I open my mouth to answer…but then I realize that he didn't ask if I could forgive him. He asked if I would ever be able to forgive myself. And I suddenly understand exactly what he's asking—if I will ever be able to conquer my guilt, and forgive myself for my past as the Emperor's Hand, and truly become the Jedi that I'm meant to be. And in that moment, I wonder if Luke Skywalker can see more of me than I ever will. 6. Chapter 5 A/N: Song for this chapter: The Kiss, Trevor Jones, The Last of the Mohicans soundtrack CHAPTER 5 The first three months of Jedi training have been the most enlightening, exhilarating, and confusing months of my life. I have gained so much knowledge about the workings of the Force that I cannot even comprehend how I was able to live beforehand. Every day, I learn something new; have an epiphany that brings me one step closer to becoming a Jedi. Using a lightsaber comes easier than I could have ever imagined, and the weapon has almost become an extension of myself. Even if the Jedi weren't supposed to wear the weapon as a part of their everyday attire, I would anyway; I can't imagine being without it anymore. The other physical aspects of training also come naturally to me. I've become the de facto instructor for handto-hand combat, and my favorite weekly classes are stealth training with Tyria and weapons training with Kirana Ti. But even with all my newfound knowledge of the Force, its full power continues to lie just beyond my grasp. No matter how much I try, I am unable to realize my full potential in the Force. And, thanks to Luke's question that one night in the meditation garden, I am finally able to recognize what is holding me back. I truly don't forgive myself for being the Emperor's Hand. But despite my unease at what I once was, the Emperor's Hand is still a major part of my personality, so while I know that I will never be able to realize my full potential until I can learn to forgive myself, I continue to avoid facing my past, and instead dive headfirst into my Jedi training. Of course, that would be a lot easier said than done, if it wasn't for a certain pair of blue eyes that continue to make me weak whenever they stare straight into my soul, seeing every single part of me. And even though I can't get over my guilt for being the Emperor's Hand, I can't help but desperately wish that the girl who never let herself be betrayed by her emotions was still around. I wake up slowly, vaguely aware in the back of my mind that today is somehow different, but not able to figure out why. Frowning, I mentally run through the week's schedule, wondering what I have forgotten. The first group of new apprentices is coming to the Academy later in the week, but I'm not scheduled to help prep for their arrival until tomorrow. The feeling continues to plague me as I get dressed, but it's not until I look at the schedule on my datapad that I realize why. According to Imperial records, today is my twenty-seventh birthday. I can never be certain if today is my actual birthday or just a date that was marked down as a placeholder on my file to keep track of my age. It was never important; I certainly never celebrated my birthday while in service to the Empire. Somehow, I don't think that the Emperor would have been too keen on holding a traditional children's birthday party with cake and presents and party games deep within the Imperial Palace, and after he was dead I never had anyone to celebrate with even if I had wanted to. I didn't have a birthday during the time I worked for Karrde, so I never had the chance to celebrate with his group. I haven't told anyone at the Academy what today is, and I don't plan to. None of the other apprentices have had a birthday yet, so I don't even know if this is something that would be celebrated or not. Either way, I prefer not to make a big deal out of it, so I keep my mouth shut. This day also happens to be one of my days for a private lesson with Luke. Lately, he's been forcing me to focus on mental training, since that is the area where I'm most lacking. I grudgingly follow his teachings, because he knows best, but it's so frustrating whenever he takes my hand and a surge of electricity goes through my body; it's not the best way to remain a calm and serene Jedi apprentice. And even more frustrating is the knowledge that I'm not reaching my full potential, and his constant insistence that I face my past. Our training session is the last scheduled class of the day. I arrive at our designated room well beforehand, as always, and wait for him outside on one of the benches. Luke arrives shortly after I do and opens the door, gesturing for me to go inside ahead of him. I take a seat on one of the circular couches. The rooms here were modeled after the meditation rooms in the old Jedi Temple. They are very soothing—but of course, that is the point. "Is there anything specific you'd like to work on, Mara?" Luke asks, as he always starts our meditation sessions. And as always, I shake my head in reply. "Nothing at all?" It's the same dance every time—him pushing, me closing myself off. I'm surprised he hasn't snapped yet and lectured me that my attitude is not appropriate for a Jedi. But of course he doesn't, because he is the consummate Jedi Master, always in control of his emotions. "Okay, then," Luke finally relents, settling into a cross-legged position on the couch across from me and taking my hands. For the next hour I fall into a deep trance, focusing on the Force, its energy flowing into my body, and my connection to the universe around me. I can sense Luke inside my mind, guiding my thoughts, and while I always snapped at him before to get out of my head, I can't deny that his presence helps me achieve a feeling of inner calm. Still, a wall exists at the back of my mind, and no matter how often Luke tries to guide me towards it and knock it down, I refuse and pull away, heading in other directions. Time passes quickly and soon, before I even realize it, Luke's chrono beeps, signaling the end of our session. He pulls me out of the trance slowly, and my breathing quickens as I force myself back into the present. I open my eyes and find him staring intently at me. "How do you feel?" he asks. "Really good," I admit, pulling my hands away from him, and I almost imagine a look of disappointment on his face at our lost contact. He nods. "That was a very good session, Mara. You're growing stronger in the Force every day." I'm grateful for his praise, but he is obviously holding something back—I should know. "But?" "But what?" "Come on, Master. I warned you that if I trained as a Jedi, I'd get even better at that. So come on, spill it." Sighing, he answers, "Unless you face the issues that are bothering you, you'll never realize your full potential in the Force." "And just what issues are those?" I ask, my voice clipped, refusing to admit that I know exactly what he is talking about. A look of disappointment passes over his eyes. "You're the only person who can answer that question." I grow annoyed at his prodding; just seconds ago I'd been feeling wonderful, satisfied because this had been my best meditation session yet, and now I feel like poodoo because Luke says I have issues. It's irrelevant that he's correct; I'm mad that he keeps pushing me to face my past when I don't feel ready. I push myself up quickly and shake his hand. "Thank you, Master Skywalker," I say curtly. "I'll be heading to dinner now." I turn on my heel and leave the room before he can utter a word of protest, very glad that I have plans to eat with Corran and Tyria, because I desperately need a distraction. As I enter the hallway I hear Luke whisper something into his comlink about me being on my way, but I ignore it, too annoyed to think. I huff my way towards the mess, mad at Luke for pulling me out of my good mood, and mad at myself for letting him get to me. I should know better than to let my temper flare, especially here. I'm so irritated that, when I enter the mess, it takes me a few seconds to notice the new decorations. A cake sits on the large round table in the middle of the room. Smaller tables full of food and party games are set up near the kitchen. Balloons and a sign reading "Happy Birthday, Mara!" are tacked up on the wall. I stop dead in my tracks, unable to comprehend what I am seeing, and then everyone jumps out from the kitchen and yells, "Surprise!" I jump, clutching my hand to my heart, and then…I laugh. The other nine apprentices are wearing party hats and beads around their necks. Corran holds a sash that reads "Birthday Girl!" and Tyria clutches a sparkly tiara. Their smiles are ridiculous. "Happy Birthday!" Tyria yells, rushing over to me and placing the tiara on my head. She takes out my ponytail and lets my hair flow freely, and Corran drapes the sash over my shoulders. I look down, trying to see how silly I look, but not caring one bit. Then I sense Luke coming in the mess behind me. I turn around, my trademark glare plastered across my face, and he shrugs sheepishly at me. "Hope you're not mad," he says, smiling despite his very real fear that I will lash out at him for spilling my secret. But there's no way that I can be angry with him for this. This…is more than anyone has ever done for me in my entire life. After a few moments of shocked silence, I ask, "How'd you know?" "I do have your file," he points out. "You just so happen to have the first birthday of the group, and with the new apprentices coming in a few days, I thought it appropriate that we all get together and celebrate. And…well…I thought you could use a party." Translation: You never had one of these as a kid, and you deserve one. It's like he can read my mind. Abruptly, I lunge towards him and pull him into a warm, sincere hug. He tenses at first, obviously surprised by my reaction, but then I feel him start to melt against me. "Thank you," I whisper into his ear, the words unable to explain exactly how grateful I feel at this moment. Before we can linger too long, Tyria pulls me away. "We have food, Mara—real food! And Kenth, Kyle, and Keyan made you a cake!" I burst out laughing at the thought of the three macho military veterans slaving over a cake. Kyle feigns offense, but I slap him playfully. "This had better be a good cake! I haven't had cake in ages!" "Oh, don't worry, it'll be good!" he promises. "And of course we have booze!" Tyria adds, gesturing to the supply of Whyren's Reserve. "Hope you like Whyren's!" she exclaims, and I can tell she's already had a shot or two of the stuff herself. I shrug as I take a seat at the table. "Hey, I could go for any kind of liquor right now," I joke, and Luke makes a guilty face as he sits down next to me. "Is my training that hard?" he asks, acting hurt. "Yes!" we all exclaim in unison, and then someone throws a hat at him. "It's a party, Master Skywalker, you gotta wear the hat," Corran instructs, obviously getting way too much pleasure out of this. "Fine, I'll wear the hat," Luke agrees as he puts it on, gaining laughs from everyone, "but only if you call me Luke tonight. Luke wears party hats; Master Skywalker does not." "My, that's a rather fetching look for you, Luke," I tease, as someone hands me my first glass of Whyren's, that I down in one gulp. "Easy, Birthday Girl!" Corran yells, pulling the glass from my grip. "You can't get drunk until after we give you your present." "You got me a present?" I gasp. Nobody has ever gotten me a present that didn't involve work or a mission. "It wouldn't be a party without a present," Tyria says as she hands over a box. "This is from all of us." Slowly, I tear off the paper, savoring every moment. Tears threaten to sting my eyes as I think about all the wasted years of my life, but I push those thoughts aside, focusing instead on my gift and the people who truly care about me, no matter what my past may be. My breath catches in my throat as I finish opening the gift. Inside the box is a holdout blaster. It is a newer model than the one I currently own, and much nicer and more expensive. I know; I've been drooling over it for months. My eyes widen as I remove it from its case. "Oh my," I murmur, unable to keep the awe out of my voice. "This is amazing." "We thought you'd like it," Corran says. "We heard that you like to carry one, and that you might be looking for an upgrade, so we all chipped in. Just promise us you'll never shoot us with it, no matter how mad at us you may get." I laugh, turning the blaster over and over in my hands, unable to believe that they would do this for me. Suddenly, I am very aware of where the others got the idea for this gift. I turn to Luke ever so slightly, and he is looking at me with an odd expression on his face. Under the table, away from the prying eyes of the others, I give his hand a squeeze. "Thank you all," I tell them. "This is absolutely perfect." At that moment, Luke drags his thumb across my hand and smiles at me—a loving, genuine smile. I hold his gaze for long seconds, trying to send to him through the Force exactly how much this means to me, and he nods just enough for me to notice. Then, jerking away, I motion for someone to pour me another glass of Whyren's. "Alright, where's this food?" I yell. "I'm starving!" The party lasts well into the night. To my surprise, considering how much I have to drink, I manage not to get completely intoxicated, and wonder if that's just one more benefit to all this Force training. Not everyone else is so lucky, however, and after all the food has been eaten and the tables are pushed to the side, I get to witness the wonder that is Corran Horn dancing while completely and utterly smashed. Tyria—my savior—records it all, and I make a mental note to send the recording to Mirax Terrik Horn as soon as I can get to the HoloNet station. All the men treat me to a dance, including Luke, who, to my surprise, stays for the entire length of the party. I expected him to leave early, as he might think it odd to fraternize with his apprentices, but true to his word, he is Luke tonight, and Master Skywalker is nowhere to be found. Despite the number of shots he takes, he also manages not to get completely drunk, but he's buzzed enough to eventually join the rest of the boys out on the dance floor, that stupid party hat still perched precariously on his head. And then there are the party games—there's one involving pinning a tail on a nexu, and another that involves smashing a large, candy-filled paper animal while blindfolded. Tyria wins the first game, but Corran gets so frustrated with the second that he finally ignites his lightsaber and cuts through the poor wampa, while Luke mutters in the background that he's having flashbacks to Hoth. Once it passes midnight, it's clear that everyone has hit the proverbial wall, especially after our long day of training. Thankfully, Luke grants us a reprieve and reminds us that tomorrow is another off day and we can sleep in; we have two this week so we can prepare for the arrival of the new apprentices. As I leave, I thank everyone again for the incredible evening. I know that I won't be able to fall asleep just yet, so I make my way to the meditation garden for some peace and quiet. I stand outside for a long time, my legs spread shoulder-length apart, hands clasped behind my back, content to inhale the sweet scent of the air and feel the Force around me. Smiling, I finger the holdout blaster holstered on my arm, thinking about Luke and how happy he has made me, without even having to try. It's as if he really knows me…as if he can truly read my mind. Then, almost confirming my suspicion that he actually can read my mind, I feel his presence at the back of the garden. He walks slowly towards me, taking the spot by my side. "I was hoping I'd find you here." I glance over at him and burst out laughing. He's still wearing the hat. I've taken off my party paraphernalia; the items are strewn on the ground around me. I stifle my laughter to ask, "Didn't you just get enough of me?" He smiles at me, looking bashful, but also bold. "I could never get enough of you." I roll my eyes at his overly sappy compliment, but even still that damn shiver runs down my spine again. I shake my head against my thoughts, and we stand in silence for a few seconds before I speak again, suddenly compelled to apologize for my earlier behavior in our lesson. "Look, Luke, I'm really sorry about how I acted before—" He cuts me off with a finger to my lips before I can say anything further. "Don't. There's no need to apologize." "But—" "Remember?" he points at the hat. "I'm Luke tonight, not Master Skywalker." I nod, suddenly very intrigued by the fact that he thinks of them as two completely different people, but I don't press the issue. "You really should take off that hat," I tell him instead, chuckling. "It looks ridiculous. And besides, it's not my birthday anymore." "I know, but I like it. It makes me feel like a kid again." He immediately stiffens, regretting his words, because I never knew what it was like to be a kid. Not wanting him to feel bad, I reach out and touch him gently on the arm. "Don't worry about it, Luke." He scrunches up his mouth, and it is a completely endearing gesture. "Sorry." I shrug, then pick up the tiara and place it back on my head. "I should keep wearing this, then. Maybe it'll give me back the childhood I never had." "For some reason, I think you'll need a hell of a lot of tiaras." I raise my eyebrows at his quip. "Then get to a jeweler." "Okay," he replies, pulling a box from his tunic. My mouth drops open as I stare at the black velvet box in his hand. Slowly, my eyes travel back up to his. "What's this?" "Your present." "But you already got me a present. Are you telling me that a holdout blaster was not your idea for a gift?" "It was, but that wasn't my present. It was their present. This is mine," he clarifies, holding out the box to me. I take it tentatively, reveling in the feel of his fingers against mine, wondering if I really have had too much to drink, because suddenly all I can think about is how luscious Luke's lips look at this moment. I roll my eyes at myself, trying my best to concentrate on the box in my hands. "I found it at a market on Coruscant," Luke explains. "It's nothing special. Han said you wouldn't care for this type of gift, but I couldn't resist when I saw it. You'll see. Open it!" I'm almost tempted to tell him that it's bad etiquette to downplay a present before the recipient can open it, because that's just begging for compliments, but as I open the box, I suddenly lose the ability to speak. Inside is a simple green pendant hanging from a plain-looking silver chain. It is, as Luke said, nothing special—a common crystal found on nearly every planet in the Core—but I know exactly why Luke bought it for me. He says it before I can. "The color reminded me of your eyes." He takes back the box so he can hold it up to my face, and breaks into a wide grin. "I was right! It matches perfectly." As he hands the box back to me, I can't do anything else but stare incredulously at Luke's gift. As the Emperor's Hand, I wore my fair share of fine jewelry, some worth more than my annual salary while working for Karrde, but none of them could ever compare to the beauty of the necklace that I now hold in my hands. Both of us are silent for a long moment, until Luke gently lifts the necklace out of the box. "May I?" he asks, and I nod, still speechless. He unclasps the chain and leans forward to hook it around my neck. I try not to focus on how close he is to me, instead staring at the stone that is now nestled between my breasts. I touch it, marveling at the feel of it beneath my fingers. Then, wondering at something Luke said, I once again am able to speak. "You bought this on Coruscant?" "Yes," he replies. "But…you haven't been on Coruscant since before the Academy opened." He doesn't answer. I finally take my eyes off the stone and look back at him. His eyes are intently locked on mine. "You bought this then, before even knowing about my birthday?" He nods. "And you kept it all this time?" Again, he nods. "I was going to give it to you right away, but then I saw that your birthday was only a few months away, so I decided to save it." I look back down at the stone, marveling at this revelation. This wasn't just a spur of the moment purchase from the HoloNet because he felt like he should get me a gift for my birthday. This was a gift purchased months in advance, for no reason other than he wanted me to have it. The kind of thing you'd only do for someone you truly care about. "Thank you," I whisper, and again the words do not do justice to how I truly feel at this moment. As if he senses my thoughts, Luke steps towards me and takes my hand in his. The box falls to the ground, rolling to a rest beside my sash. Time slows down and I avoid his gaze, knowing that very bad things are about to happen, but he lifts up my chin and I find myself staring into his eyes again. I never before noticed how incredibly beautiful they are. "I just can't stop thinking about you, Mara," he says breathlessly, almost apologetically, as our fingers begin to intertwine together. Part of me, the old Mara Jade—Emperor's Hand, assassin, and smuggler—is screaming at me to break away and run back to my quarters before anything can happen. I know that this is wrong. I know that nothing can ever come of our feelings. Even disregarding our past history, and Luke's issues with attachment, we're master and apprentice now. It's ridiculous to even think about us ever being together. But the new Mara Jade—Jedi, and friend—will not let me move. She has been pushed aside for far too long, and she is screaming out to finally be released—to experience real happiness, something I have never before felt. Every old instinct melts away as I focus on the blue eyes in front of me, and the full, soft lips that I suddenly want to taste more than anything in the galaxy. But still, old habits die hard. "We shouldn't be doing this," I protest softly, as his thumb starts to intimately caress my hand, once again sending shivers down my spine. "No, we shouldn't," he replies, his voice shaking, but his hand doesn't move from mine. Instead he shifts closer to me, and I can feel his breath on my face. His body is as tense as mine. "You're my master…this is wrong," I whisper, but I still do not try to pull away. Every trace of objection has left my voice. Every instinct to run away from my feelings has been destroyed. All my shields have finally come down. "It is," Luke agrees, moving even closer. I can sense him so clearly through the Force, and I wonder if this is why the old Jedi Order forbade attachments—because being this close to him is enough to set my soul on fire. As that thought enters my mind, I say it out loud, because even though I don't agree with the attachment code, I'm willing to say anything right now to convince myself to walk away before we can make a huge mistake. "You said you shouldn't let yourself do this…" I trail off, finding my resolve weakening as my arm involuntarily reaches up, removing the hat from his head and running my fingers through his sandy hair, then trailing down to caress his face. "I know," he sighs, leaning his cheek into my palm, pressing his lips against it, "but I don't care anymore." Emphasizing his words, his hand slowly slides up the side of my body, eliciting shivers that almost bring me to my knees. As he gently pulls the tiara from my hair, dropping it to the ground, I can do nothing else but stare deep into his eyes. He closes them against his emotions as he cups his hand behind my neck, tangling his fingers into my hair; his body begins to tremble as he closes the final distance between us, his other hand still moving suggestively on mine, and I can feel his resolve crumbling. He rests his forehead on mine, our lips mere inches apart. My body is screaming out in agony, for I want nothing more than to feel it pressed against his, and to feel his lips devouring mine. I push every objection out of my mind; shove aside every argument that is so very wrong, instead focusing only on the man in front of me. I can sense his desire, and his feelings for me that he has been trying to deny, struggling to break free. Even still, he tries in vain to maintain the exterior of a calm, serene Jedi Master, but I can see the mask dissolving before my eyes. Tonight he is Luke Skywalker, just a regular man, and he will go against his every Jedi instinct to finally get what he wants. Slowly, he lowers his hand to fondle my necklace. "So beautiful," he murmurs, looking deep into my eyes, which so perfectly match the stone around my neck—a stone that he so lovingly chose, because it reminded him of me. I swallow a lump in my throat and then, before either of us can utter another word of protest, his arms envelop me in an embrace and his lips are on mine. And even though I know with every fiber of my being that this is completely wrong, it suddenly feels so very right. It's just a kiss, I tell myself, even as I open my mouth to his. It won't ever happen again—it can't. It just can't. But as our kiss deepens, and I feel his mind brush against mine, I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that it most certainly will. 7. Chapter 6 CHAPTER 6 I jump up abruptly in bed, gasping for breath, thanks to a loud pounding at my door. Without thinking, I reach blindly for my lightsaber on the bedside table, knocking off the tiara and sash that somehow made it back with me to my quarters last night, but I quickly relax as I realize that the person outside my door is friendly. Annoying, but friendly. I glance at my chrono to check the time and curse—I'm late. This afternoon I'm scheduled to help Corran set up quarters for the new apprentices, and I've already slept well past the time we said we'd meet for lunch. I check my comlink to make sure it's working and remember that I switched it off when I finally stumbled into bed this morning. No wonder Corran is banging at my door. "Hold on!" I yell as I throw back the covers, trying to find something to cover up with. Of course, most of my clothes happen to be dirty. Finally settling on the cloak thrown over my chair, I pull it around me and open the door slightly, peeking outside. Corran is leaning against the wall, dressed in his civilian clothes. He flashes me a mischievous smile as he takes in my haggard appearance and state of undress. "Late night?" he teases, winking at me. I instinctively put up every mental shield, not that I think Corran would pry, but because I'm afraid of blabbing something that I shouldn't, especially after getting so little sleep. I give him my best angry stare. "Ha-ha, very funny," I reply dryly, opening the door wide enough so he can get a good look at my very empty bunk. Corran almost looks disappointed that he's not catching me in the middle of a scandal. Wanting to turn the accusations around on him, I say, "I'm surprised you woke up on time. You gave quite a show on the dance floor last night, CorSec." He rubs his head. "Don't remind me. I'm gonna need to get that recording from Tyria." Taking note of how good Corran looks for someone who was completely drunk only a few hours ago, I ask, "So, did you use a Force trance to keep from getting a hangover?" He puts his finger to his lips. "Shhhh! I'll never hear the end of it if she finds out!" he whispers, pointing his thumb at Tyria's door. I throw my head back and laugh. "Typical! We're here to gain a greater understanding of our connection to the Force, and you use your training to keep from throwing up." "Hey, what Master Skywalker doesn't know won't hurt him, right?" I roll my eyes. "Whatever. Now, can you wait one second while I get dressed, please?" "Sure," he replies, his eyes twinkling. "But I'm making you do more work since you forgot about our assignment." "I didn't forget," I bite back. "It's not my fault you guys threw me a party and made me get so little sleep." Corran smirks at me. "We left the party at the same time, Mara. Why'd you stay up so late afterwards?" I glare at him, but he does not back down. Instead, he looks even more amused, and I realize that, somehow, he suspects that something happened between Luke and me. Kriffing CorSec training! Drawing myself up to my full height, I growl, "Corran Horn, I don't know what you're thinking, but you better wipe that blasted smirk off your face or I'm gonna rip you a new one." "Don't worry, Mara," he says, no longer looking amused, but concerned. "Your business is your business. Just…" "Just what?" I demand. "Just…try not to get hurt," he answers, sounding exactly like a good friend. "Don't get excited, okay?" I lie, taking another pointed look at my empty bunk. Corran follows my gaze, understanding my implication that his suspicions are completely wrong, and I hope he cannot tell that I'm lying. He holds his hands up in surrender, and then I quickly close the door and go about getting dressed. Even though I eventually made my way back to my quarters alone, that doesn't make last night's—or rather, this morning's— events any less troublesome. It's even worse than if Luke and I had ended up in the same bed, 'cause it would be easy to just blame that on all the Whyren's. No, Luke and I stayed in the garden for hours, just kissing—and then talking about how we shouldn't be kissing, and then kissing some more, both fully aware that what we were doing was completely wrong. But oh, it felt so right. We finally stopped when the sun began to rise. It was as if with the dawn of the new day, we finally realized the implications of what we were doing. As we walked inside the temple together hand in hand, we made a silent pact that, for both of our sakes, we can't let it happen again. But deep down, I know that we can never go back. We crossed a line, and I won't ever be able to stop thinking about him, or his lips, or the feel of his lips pressed against mine. As much as I know that it should never happen again, I also know that not even the Force can stop this. It is a problem. Several days later, every inch of the Academy has been scrubbed and polished. New quarters have been made up. New schedules have been sent to our datapads. Everything is ready for the arrival of six new Jedi apprentices. Despite all the preparations, everyone is nervous about the new arrivals. We've become a close-knit group over our first three months of training and our routine is a well-oiled machine. We all know that things are about to become very different. But Luke is so excited about the new arrivals that it's hard not to catch his enthusiasm. Originally, he wasn't sure how long it would take for him to feel comfortable accepting new apprentices. But apparently he's very satisfied with our progress, because he can't seem to wait to get his feet wet with new students. I'm glad for him, I really am—this is everything he wanted for the Jedi Academy. I am more than happy for my friend. But the part of me that I keep trying to ignore—the resentful little girl who can't stop thinking about what it felt like to kiss him— is worried that, with six new apprentices to train, Luke will find himself too busy for me, and with the added responsibilities, he'll go right back to his old mindset about not being able to let himself form attachments. I really, really want to punch that girl in the face. The ten of us original apprentices are waiting patiently in the meditation garden for the new group of students to arrive. Luke met them on the landing platform and is bringing them here to make introductions after they get settled in. The new group will train separately at first—they have a lot of catching up to do to match our progress—but Luke has said that he eventually plans to have the original class assist in their training. After several minutes of waiting, Luke enters the garden with the new apprentices in tow. I meet his gaze, trying not to think about what happened the last time we were in this place together. By the look on his face, I can tell that he is struggling to do the same thing. Finally peeling my eyes away from him, I take in the new apprentices. Luke already transmitted their basic statistics and some background information to our datapads, and I have no trouble remembering their names: Kyp Durron, Jes Gantoris, Nichos Marr, Cray Mingla, Saba Sebatyne, and Rikk Streen. All of them, with the exception of Durron, approached New Republic officials on their home planets, requesting permission to train at the Jedi Academy. I smile at each of them, doing my best to make them feel welcome, remembering how nervous I was on my first day here—but then again, I had a very good reason to feel that way. I straighten up in my seat when I reach Durron. He's the youngest student, by far, and the only one who didn't go through the proper channels to come to the Academy. All we've been told about him is that he is an orphan, and that Han Solo met him somewhere on Coruscant and was somehow convinced that Durron was strong in the Force. I can tell that much is true just by looking at the boy. But he also projects something that makes me feel very uneasy —something that makes me think that I need to keep my eye on him. I glance at Corran, who is sitting next to me, and he nods his head ever so slightly. He senses it, too. Luke motions for the new apprentices to sit on the benches facing us, and then he asks them to go through a round of introductions, just as he did with us on our first day here. Luke then goes through his speech about what he hopes to accomplish at the Academy, and how training with the group of new apprentices will be different than what we've already experienced. He's already had this talk with us, so I find my mind wandering, focusing instead on Kyp Durron, who is sitting directly across from me. He notices me watching him and returns my gaze with a hard look. I don't like that look at all. As Luke dismisses us all for dinner, I hang back with Corran and we walk inside the Great Temple behind the others. "I don't like that kid," he whispers. Despite my own reservations about Durron, I smile teasingly at Corran. "You thought the same thing about me, remember?" Corran smiles back. "Who says I've changed my mind? Ow!" he exclaims as I slap him upside the head. "Seriously, though. I don't like him." "Me, neither," I admit, also turning serious. "What are you two whispering about?" Corran and I jump and whirl around to see Tyria skulking around behind us. "I told you not to do that anymore, Tyria!" Corran growls. She shrugs innocently. "It's not my fault you're not taking my stealth training seriously! Anyway, spill it. What are you two yapping about?" Corran and I share a glance. "We're talking about Kyp Durron," he explains, speaking softly so those in front of us don't overhear our conversation. "You mean the green-eyed kid who kept giving Mara the stinkeye?" Corran chuckles. "That's the one—but don't worry, Mara was glowering right back at him." "I'm sure she was. So was there a reason for this impromptu staring contest, or was Mara just being her usually charming self?" I scowl at her. "Hey, I've come a long way!" Both Corran and Tyria stop in their tracks and give me a look. "Well, I have," I insist, holding my ground and continuing inside the temple towards the mess. "But anyway, yeah, there was a reason. He gives me the willies." Tyria raises her eyebrows. "Is that what we're calling that bad feeling in the Force now, the willies?" "Shut up," I crack, playfully shoving her on the arm. "Fine, he gives me a very bad feeling in the Force, is that better?" "And you feel it, too?" she asks Corran. He nods. "Oh yeah—big time." "I don't sense anything," Tyria shrugs. Corran and I share another glance. Tyria is strong in the Force in her own ways, but her danger sense is nowhere near as honed as Corran's or mine. "Are you absolutely sure?" she asks, seeing our wariness. "Yes," we reply in unison. "I don't know why, but I just don't like him," I add. "I have a really bad feeling about him." Tyria shrugs again. "If you insist. But you should really tell Master Skywalker that you feel this way. He should know." I sigh, watching Luke walk next to Durron a few meters in front of us, his arm draped casually across the boy's shoulders, like an older brother. I hate having to do this to him, but Tyria is right. "I'll talk to him," I tell them, and I will…eventually. Talking to Luke will be easier said than done considering the recent events that transpired between us, and, of course, that's exactly the reason why I was trying so hard not to let those things happen in the first place. To my pleasant surprise, Han Solo, who brought Durron to the Academy, stays on Yavin IV for dinner. He invites me to join him and Luke, and catches me up with what's been going on in the smuggling world. "Karrde's crazy," he's saying. "He keeps acquiring more and more shipping companies. I don't know how he's able to run such a huge organization, but everyone seems to love working for him." "That's great!" I say, happy for my old friend. I haven't talked to Karrde much since arriving at the Academy, and I suddenly feel very guilty for not being more vigilant in keeping up our communications. "Yeah, and the best part is that he takes every opportunity to bad-mouth you for leaving him." "He does not!" I reply indignantly. "He was more than supportive when I came here to train." "Sure, but only if you go back and work for him after you finish your training. He's been warning everyone that he's gonna have a Jedi second-in-command to sniff out all the liars." Luke snickers from his seat next to me, and I shoot him a glare. "Think that's funny, huh?" I threaten, but I can't keep the smile off my face. He shrugs innocently. "I'm just getting the mental picture of a Jedi Knight working for a smuggler." "Information broker," I clarify. This time, Han is the one who snorts. "You really have been spending too much time with Luke if you're remembering Karrde through rose-colored glasses." "Oh, you have no idea," I say dryly, causing Luke to cough into his hand before grabbing his glass and taking a long sip of his drink. Han's eyes dart from me to Luke, and then back to me again. "Did I miss something?" he asks, his tone suggesting that he's ready to pounce on this newfound revelation. "Ew, no!" I reply quickly, kicking myself for that innuendo. I hear Luke's amused protest in my mind—Ew? That's not what you said the other night…—but I ignore him and force myself not to laugh. Han knows Luke even better than I do, and he'd be sure to pick up on anything going on between us. According to Luke, Han even had suspicions that something was going on between us back on Wayland. "Just commenting on the slave driver that is your brotherin-law," I continue, trying to cover for my slip up. Han sits back in his chair and crosses his arms behind his head, seemingly buying my explanation. "Well, you agreed to come here, Jade," he smiles. "I could have told you that it wouldn't be a cakewalk." "As wonderful as hearing you guys talk about me is," Luke stands and pushes himself up from the table, "I need to go acquaint myself with the new arrivals. See you both later." He shakes Han's hand and then mine…and once again, looking deep into my eyes, his thumb moves ever so slightly against the side of my hand. I look away before my body can react. Damn him. "Bye, Master Skywalker!" I catcall as he walks away, wanting to get him back, which elicits loud guffaws from Han. I sense Luke's amusement through the Force as he sits down at a table with Durron and some of the other new apprentices. My good mood quickly disappears as I watch Luke interact with Durron. He is clearly very intrigued by the boy. It is obvious that Durron is very strong in the Force, but no matter how much I tell myself that he hasn't done anything to warrant my suspicions, that strange feeling continues to hover around him. Knowing that Han is the one who brought the boy to the Academy, I decide to broach the subject with him. "So, how'd you find Durron?" "Ran into him on Coruscant," he answers, launching into the story. "He was getting into trouble on the lower levels. I helped him out of a scrape, and we got to talking. He reminded me a lot of myself when I was his age, and he doesn't have any family, so I guess I felt responsible to make sure he kept out of trouble. Once he realized who I was, he confided in me that he thought he could use the Force. I saw some of what he could do, and figured Luke'd want him at the Academy." I glance over at Durron again. "He's very strong in the Force." Han follows my gaze. "Yeah?" I nod my head. "Very," I repeat. "He'll be a powerful Jedi, if…" "If what?" My mouth crinkles with worry. "You think he's a good kid?" I ask hesitantly. "What are you saying?" "I'm not saying anything—" "He's a good kid, Mara," Han says firmly. "He's just been dealt a bad hand in life. You of all people should be able to relate to that." His tone is more than a little accusatory. I can't deny that he's right. Durron hasn't done anything to compromise my trust, and yet I can't help but look at him as if he's going to become the next Vader; whereas I actually have a checkered past and everyone at the Academy has accepted me with open arms. But even so, Han isn't Force sensitive, and there is no way that he could ever understand the very bad feeling that I'm getting from Kyp Durron. 8. Chapter 7 CHAPTER 7 Because of how busy he is with the new apprentices, I don't get to have my regular private lesson with Luke that week. Normally, I'd be annoyed with him for neglecting the original group in favor of his new students, not to mention the fact that he hasn't yet let us start helping him with their training as he originally intended, but as I've been dreading being alone with him for the first time since we kissed, I refuse to press the issue. Deep inside, I wonder if he's avoiding it, too, especially after everyone else has their private lessons scheduled before I do. But eventually Luke—or rather, Master Skywalker—caves and I receive a message on my datapad informing me of our next session. My years of training under the Emperor have had one positive effect on my life—even though that night continues to haunt me, I'm able to act as if nothing has changed. Nobody can tell how I'm really feeling, except for Luke, who of course can see right through my charade. I can tell by the way he looks at me that he is facing the same struggle, but he is a Jedi Master and, thankfully, nobody but me is the wiser. Around the other students, we interact exactly as we did before —he pushes my buttons, I take his bait; I tease him, he bites back; he is the master, I am the apprentice. But all alone with Luke, I don't know if I'll be able to go without kissing him, and I hate myself for it, because I know that doing so would just be asking for more trouble than we already have. I have to abide by our unspoken pact, for both his sake and for mine. When it comes time for my lesson, I wait for him outside the usual meditation room. He's several minutes late, which is strange for him. As soon as I start to tap my foot impatiently, I see him round the corner with a smirk on his face. I raise my eyebrows at him. "Something funny, Master?" He hovers over me, still smirking. "You didn't check your datapad." "No, why?" "Check it." Sighing, I pull it out of my tunic. Sure enough, there's a message from Luke: "Lesson moved to the private training room. Meet me there." I roll my eyes; of course, the one day I don't check my schedule is the day he has to change our plans. I push myself up from my seat, ignoring Luke's hand, and shove the datapad back into my robes. We walk to the turbolift in silence. While waiting for it to arrive, I ask, "Why'd you change our lesson?" "You don't want private lightsaber training?" he replies, raising his eyebrows at me. "Oh, I always do, until I finally learn enough to kick your butt," I tease. He laughs, and then we fall into silence again, waiting for the lift to arrive. I shift nervously beside him, suddenly very aware of how alone we are. I force myself to stare straight ahead and ignore every indecent thought running through my head. I'm victorious in the former, but the latter is a futile fight. Thankfully, the turbolift arrives before things can get too awkward, and as we enter the lift, Luke begins speaking again, pulling me out of my thoughts. "I know you've been frustrated with your progress lately, and thought that some sparring practice would do you a lot of good. I've cleared the rest of the afternoon." "An entire afternoon alone with my lightsaber and Master Skywalker? Wow, you must really think I need a lot of help." I cannot keep the sarcasm out of my voice, and he shakes his head, leaning across me to press the button for the training room floor. "You know that's not true. And you don't have to call me that. There's nobody else around," he says softly as the lift doors close in front of us. "Yes, I do," I insist. I need to keep the lines drawn or I'll just get myself into trouble again. "We're having a lesson, so therefore you are Master Skywalker." The lift slowly begins to descend. "No, right now we're alone in a turbolift, so I'm just Luke." His tone is teasing, almost flirtatious. For someone who's so conflicted about whether or not he can afford to have attachments, he sure does seem to have a death wish. Emboldened by his statement, I turn to face him, keenly aware of the butterflies in my stomach, but unable to stop myself from taking his bait. "You really should reconsider whether you want me to think of myself as being alone in a lift with 'just Luke' right now," I warn, my voice low. He turns to me, mirroring my bold posture. "Well, you are," he reminds me, his voice now definitely flirtatious, and daring. His hand reaches up to gently stroke my cheek, and I stare back at him, unable to resist his challenge. Unable to resist him. My lips curl into a wicked smile as I slowly walk towards him, forcing him against the wall of the lift. I arch my back towards him and place my hands on his chest, giving him my best seductive stare. "I guess I am, Luke," I practically purr, biting my lip as I hold his gaze. He stares at me dumbfounded as my fingers travel lazily down his sides and begin to tuck into his belt, gently pulling out his tunic and connecting with his bare skin underneath. Luke tenses and inhales sharply, but he does not back down. His eyes are smoldering, the Jedi Master mask forgotten once again. Without hesitation he reaches out to grab my waist, pulling me firmly against him. Shivers go down my spine and I feel my knees begin to weaken as he places his hand on the back of my neck and slowly lowers his lips down to mine… And then the lift abruptly stops and the doors open with a loud bang, indicating the arrival at our floor. "Blast!" he curses, slamming his hand into the wall behind him. Sighing with both relief and frustration, I use the distraction to duck out of his hold and hurry out of the lift before he can even try to pull me back. I stomp down the hallway, angry with myself for not being able to last a mere two minutes alone with him without succumbing to my desires. Some Jedi I am. We arrive at the training room without saying another word. I shrug off my cloak and practically throw my datapad to the floor. I pace around for a few moments, trying to expel my nervous energy, until I see that Luke is ready to begin. I face him and throw my finger in his face. "Do not hold back, Master Skywalker," I hiss. I am in the mood to fight, and I will have one. He doesn't flinch; the mask is back in place. He takes my finger and I immediately feel a sense of calm washing over me. I realize what he is doing and pull away, but go through my calming exercises anyway. I relax quickly, and he looks pleased. "You can't fight when you're angry," he preaches. "You will feel the Force when you are calm, at peace." I take a deep breath. "Then stop making me angry," I growl. He chuckles. "Sorry Mara, but I think that's our default position." I want to be mad at him, I really do, but I laugh despite myself. Shaking my head, I take my lightsaber off my belt and ignite it in front of me. He follows suit. Before he can strike, I say again, "I mean it, Luke. Don't hold back this time." I can tell that he is wary, but he nods anyway, and then launches himself towards me. For the next several hours, I cannot allow myself to dwell for even one second on the almost-kiss in the turbolift. Luke's blows come fast and furious, and I know that I am finally seeing the full range of the Jedi Master in action. I have to open up every bit of my being to the Force to even have a chance of holding my own against him. But Luke is also giving his all. Unlike our other practices, he actually has to exert himself to keep the upper hand. He's panting heavily and sweat is dripping off him, but he still manages to exude an aura of calm. This is what being a Jedi is all about, I think—calling on the Force during a fight and still keeping a sense of inner peace. Just watching him like this is more enlightening than all of our meditation sessions put together. Luke continuously disarms me, but I refuse to give up. I don't get mad; being beaten only emboldens me to try harder. I want to impress him. I want to impress myself. The next time he disarms me, I don't stop fighting. Instead, I throw myself at him with all my strength and knock him to the floor; his lightsaber falls out of his grasp and we roll over each other. I sense his surprise through the Force but he automatically starts fighting back. Eventually he gets me on my back and pins my arms over my head and I relax, stopping my struggle, but he scolds me. "No, we're not done. Don't give up just because your lightsaber is gone or you're pinned to the ground. Don't ever give up. With your skills, you're not beaten until you're dead." I nod, and start to fight back again. "Mara," he says, in a tone that causes me to stop and focus on his face. "Get your lightsaber." "What?" "Get your lightsaber," he repeats. I try to break his hold so I can get up to retrieve my weapon, but he won't let me move an inch. "No, not like that. Get your lightsaber." Finally understanding, I use the Force to augment my strength and rip my arm from his hold, calling the weapon to my hand. Luke's lightsaber jumps to his own and the two weapons ignite at the same moment, clashing against each other. I kick my legs out to push him off me; standing again, we move around in a circle, both looking for an advantage. We keep fighting, dancing around each other, and as time goes on I feel my mind opening up to his in a way I've never before experienced, not even during our meditation sessions. It's no longer like we are fighting against each other, but with each other. We are both unstoppable, and it's apparent that this fight will never end. And then, as we fall to the floor again, I get a flash of insight into Luke's mind so intense that I have to stop what I'm doing and squeeze my eyes shut against it. I see all his worry about being the leader of the Jedi Order; his apprehension for one day having to teach his niece and nephew the ways of the Force; his insecurity at training the apprentices currently under his tutelage; he deep and profound fear that his compassion for me will be his undoing. As we roll to a stop with him on top of me, I see in Luke's eyes that he has had the same experience. He has seen inside my mind and reached the wall I refuse to break down, and he has scaled it, seeing all the fears and doubts that lay on the other side. Gasping for breath, I shove him off me and jump up, clipping my lightsaber back on my belt. Hurrying over to my belongings, I pull my cloak over my shoulders and shove the datapad back into my robes. Before I can rush out of the room, I feel Luke's hand on my arm, pulling me around to face him. He looks as disturbed as I do. "Don't go," he pleads. "We need to talk about this." "No," I refuse, slapping away his hand. "Mara—" "I said no!" I don't know why I am so angry. It is an exhilarating feeling, understanding so well how someone else feels. But at the same time, it is petrifying, for I know that Luke has just seen all my secrets, and all the issues thwarting me on my journey to becoming a Jedi. I do not want to confront those issues, but now that he has seen them, they will be impossible to ignore. We stand there, staring at each other, breathing heavily, both unwilling to speak. His expression does not betray any of his personal feelings for me; he is the Jedi Master again, and I am only his apprentice. He takes a deep breath. "Sit down," he says, and it is an order, not a request. Surprising myself, I oblige him, taking a seat on one of the benches. He sits next to me, and I am grateful for that, because at least I don't have to look him in the eye. "Why won't you talk about this?" he asks softly. I ponder his question for a long time, but I cannot find the answer. I know what I once was. I know I'm no longer that person. But I just can't find it in me to forgive myself, no matter how hard I try, so I do the only thing I know how—I ignore all my issues, hoping that they'll go away on their own during my struggle to become a Jedi. Sensing my thoughts, Luke speaks again. "You know that you will never be able to realize your full potential in the Force until you learn to forgive yourself, Mara." I shake my head. "I can't, Luke," I whisper. "I just can't." "Why not?" "I just can't," I repeat, almost near tears. He nods, unsatisfied with my answer, but not willing to push any further. He knows that it's futile to try. The old Mara Jade is back, and she will not give in. Patting me on the shoulder, he rises and leaves the training room, leaving me alone with my thoughts, that I can't run away from fast enough. I am fully prepared to avoid Luke for the rest of the evening, but as it turns out, I don't have to—he's nowhere to be found when I arrive at the mess for dinner. Resentfully, I assume he's playing with the new apprentices, most likely his new golden boy, Kyp Durron, with whom he seems to be spending all his extra time. No matter how much I tell myself not to prejudge, I cannot get the bad feeling about the boy out of my mind. I know that I have to talk to Luke about it, but after today's session, I can't bring myself to be alone with him anytime soon. Corran is just sitting down when I arrive, so I quickly grab some food and join him. I need to get my mind off what just happened with Luke, so I let him chew my ear off with stories about Rogue Squadron and Mirax and even CorSec. I pick at my food, not having much of an appetite even after working out so hard. Corran, naturally, senses my bad mood and has to pry. "Master Skywalker get to you again?" he asks, a knowing look in his eye. I roll my eyes. "Shut up, Corran." "Oooh, it must have been good." "Shut up, Corran!" "Shutting up, ma'am." I laugh despite myself. "Fine," I admit. "It was an…interesting lesson, to say the least." "Why, did you smooch him?" "Corran!" I exclaim, glancing around to make sure nobody heard him. "Oh calm down Mara, nobody's listening to us." "You ever hear of Force-enhanced hearing, idiot?" He throws a napkin at my face. I throw it back at him. "Must've been a good kiss." I glare at him. "I don't even know why I'm telling you this, but for your information, there was no 'smooching,' okay?" "Oh, so that's the problem." I sigh and let my head fall into my hands. I hear a chair push back from the table, and after a moment Corran settles down next to me, placing his hand on my back. "I told you not to let yourself get hurt." I lift my head and look him in the eye. "No, it's not that at all, Corran." "Then what is it?" "It's hard to explain." "I'm a good listener." "You're not gonna back down, are you?" "Nope." "Are all you Rogue Squadron vets alike?" "Yup." I shake my head in disbelief and rest it on his shoulder. What the hell, I think—I might as well confide in somebody. He gently strokes my hair as I begin to speak. "We were sparring, and then all of a sudden, I could see inside his mind. It was amazing, and exhilarating, and unlike anything I've ever felt before. But it was also petrifying, because I knew that he could see inside mine, too. And he could see all the issues that I'm trying so hard to hide from." "Which are?" Corran asks. "Isn't it obvious?" He's quiet for a few moments, and he reaches out into the Force to sense my emotions. A confused look passes over his face as he realizes what I mean. "That was a long time ago, Mara. You shouldn't let yourself get hung up on your past." "But I am hung up on it, Corran! And I can't face it. I can't face all the horrible things I did in service to the Empire." "We've all done horrible things in our lives." "Yeah, but not like this." "You didn't have a choice, Mara." I look away, staring into nothingness, trying to remember what it was like to be the Emperor's Hand…and all I can remember is a girl who wanted nothing more than to earn her master's congratulations; a girl who would gladly accomplish any mission to do so—even one that ended in the death of Luke Skywalker. Maybe I didn't know any better, but I certainly was willing. As always, I avoid confronting my feelings, changing the subject to one I know will appeal to Corran much more. "Okay, I lied," I admit. He looks at me curiously. "There was smooching." His eyes light up, and he leans towards me. "I knew it!" "Yes, now stop gloating or I'm going to stop talking." Corran immediately shuts up and motions for me to continue. "It just happened once—on my birthday." Corran looks victorious as he realizes that his suspicions from the morning after my party were correct. "And we almost kissed again today, but we were interrupted before anything could happen. It's so frustrating, Corran—" "Yeah, I can imagine," he teases. "No, I don't mean like that." "Then how?" "Well, besides the obvious fact that it would be highly inappropriate for a master and apprentice to enter into a relationship?" I sigh. "Corran, your family didn't abide by the attachment code, right?" "Right," he answers, obviously confused at my change of subject. "Do you know why Corellian Jedi were allowed to marry, but not the Jedi on Coruscant?" He shrugs. "I never really thought about it. I always assumed that all the old Jedi were allowed to marry until I started training here. It never made sense that they wouldn't be allowed. I mean, if Force sensitivity can be passed down genetically, wouldn't it make sense for Jedi to marry and have children?" I nod. "Yeah, which is probably one of the reasons why Luke doesn't want to reinstate that rule—we need to increase our numbers." Corran laughs and grins mischievously. "So is that what you two are gonna do?" I groan and throw another napkin at his face. "That's the issue. He still thinks that he needs to abide by that rule." "Oh." Corran pauses for a moment, and then my statement really sinks in. "Oh…" "And now you see the problem." "It doesn't make sense, Mara. Why would he think he has to abide by that rule, but not the rest of us?" "Because he feels he needs to live up to a higher standard. He's the son of Darth Vader. He lives in that shadow every day of his life, and it scares him to death." "So, what, he thinks that if he gets some action with you that he's gonna turn Sith or something?" "Stang, Corran, way to be sensitive about the issue!" I admonish, shoving him with my shoulder. "Hey, sometimes it takes someone giving it to you straight to realize just how dumb you're being." "Yeah, well, don't tell me, tell him." "I will if you want me to." "Force, no!" I yell. "Don't you dare say a word to him!" "Of course I won't, Mara, don't be ridiculous." "Horn," I growl, pointing at his face, "promise me that you won't say a word." He takes my hand, holding my gaze. "Your secret is safe with me." I nod gratefully, and start picking at my food again. "But Mara," he continues, and I look back at him. He squeezes my hand and looks at me like a protective older brother, and I suddenly feel a rush of affection for him. "Try not to get hurt." I pick at my food some more, and think to myself that his advice is too little, too late. 9. Chapter 8 A/N: Song for this chapter: Aquarium, Camille Saint-Saëns, Carnival of the Animals CHAPTER 8 The oppressive humidity of Yavin IV hangs over me as I travel through the overgrown jungle with Corran, Tyria, Kam, and Tionne. After over four months on the moon, we're finally beginning to explore some of the other temples around the Academy. Poor Tionne has been campaigning to investigate the ruins ever since we arrived, but Luke always put it off, saying there were more important things to accomplish in our training. But now, with our ever-increasing free time after the arrival of the new apprentices, Luke he has no choice but to placate Tionne and allow us to begin our explorations. The five of us are heading towards what we believe is the largest temple around the Academy. It is several kilometers away so we're travelling via the Academy's sole landspeeder. Corran's driving, of course—flyboy won't let anyone else near the controls— and Tyria and I remain on the lookout for anything unusual. Not that there should be, as Yavin IV is supposedly uninhabited except for those of us at the Jedi Academy, but there's no telling what kind of wildlife exists in these jungles. After one too many sharp turns, the speeder finally begins to slow, indicating our arrival. We all jump out, Tyria taking point, me bringing up the rear. I ignite my lightsaber, suddenly feeling the need to protect myself. It's almost as if I know that this temple is not empty at all. Of course, there's nothing unusual when we get inside. It is bare except for a tomb on an altar and several alcoves filled with shadowed artifacts. Tionne makes a beeline for the altar, but I walk around the side of the temple, gently touching the walls, entranced by the designs and glyphs inscribed upon them. Corran follows closely behind me as I examine the glyphs. They seem so familiar to me, but I cannot figure out why. I continue on, marking down notes on my datapad as I see fit. As we reach one of the alcoves, I stop in front of it, staring at the statues inside. Corran approaches me and moves to go inside, but my arm swiftly darts out on its own accord, holding him back. "Don't," I warn. He looks me curiously. Hesitantly, I step forward towards the opening of the alcove, remaining safely outside. I peer at the statues inside and then, picturing them so clearly in my mind, I close my eyes and reach out into the Force. I find myself travelling back in time to a place I've long tried to forget. But now, I have no choice but to remember. I remember a private, fortified room deep inside the Imperial Palace, a room nobody ever dared go near unless commanded by Emperor Palpatine. I remember walking inside, mesmerized by the ancient artifacts that buzzed with an aura of power. I remember running my hand over similar statues, and the cold that penetrated my lungs upon touching them. I remember kneeling down to examine them further, and the cackling laughter as the Emperor appeared behind me, my skin turning to ice as he touched my arm, holding me back. I remember the oppressiveness inside my mind as he made contact like he so often did—a contact I both desired and reviled. Most of all, I remember his words: "Don't touch, child. You might find more than you are looking for." Suddenly I gasp, and I feel Corran's arms on me, pulling me back into the present. I am hyperventilating and covered with sweat, but I'm still standing upright—Corran must have caught me before I could collapse. I back away quickly from the statues, pulling him with me. "What is it, Mara?" Corran asks, his voice wrought with concern. "What did you see?" "Palpatine," I whisper so softly that he can't make out my word. "What?" "Sith," I say, louder this time. Corran's eyes go wide. "Are you sure?" I meet his gaze, and he flinches, the look of terror in my eyes clearly evident. "Don't touch anything!" Corran yells, and I hear Tyria yell back from across the temple. "What's going on?" Corran leaves me standing in front of the alcove for several moments before returning with the others. They stand behind me, mesmerized by my findings. "Tell them," Corran whispers to me. I take a deep breath. "Those are Sith statues." Tionne's eyes go wide; I can feel her desire to touch them, to study them up close, but she heeds my warning. "Are you sure?" I nod my head emphatically. "I've seen similar statues before, in a private storeroom in the Imperial Palace. They are Sith warriors. I am certain of it." They obviously want to ask me more questions, but they keep quiet, aware of how much seeing these statues again has affected me. And even if they did press further, I wouldn't be able to tell them anything else. After that day, I never once went back into that room, and I never once set out to investigate the artifacts within. I wanted to stay far away from anything that involved the Sith. Except for my master, who I was bound to eternally. Kam asks the question we're all afraid to speak: "Why are there Sith statues in this temple?" Everyone is quiet. Nobody wants to answer that question, either. "What did you find on the altar, Tionne?" Corran asks, breaking the silence. "There's a tomb," she replies. "It's sealed shut. The same glyphs that are on the wall are inscribed upon it." "Were you able to translate anything?" "Some. It's a prophecy of some sort. And there's a name on the tomb—Exar Kun. He was a Sith Lord." That name once again sends me backwards in time; I feel Corran's arms on me as I receive another vision. It was right after the Rebels abandoned their base on Yavin IV. For some reason, the Emperor was extremely interested in that base, even after the Rebellion moved on. To my surprise, he didn't order that base be ransacked and then demolished like the others —he wanted this one to remain intact. It was where the Death Star had been destroyed, he said—where a new hero had been born. It was as if he foresaw that, one day, that same hero would return to this place to rebuild the Jedi Order that had been destroyed, and that hero and his new apprentices would set out to explore the abandoned temples around them. And when they did so, they would discover the tomb of Exar Kun, whose spirit lay in wait, and reawaken the Sith. "I read about him in my studies," Tionne explains as I shake myself out of the vision. "His spirit was imprisoned four thousand years ago. It seems that this temple is where he was imprisoned." Tyria sighs. "And Master Skywalker just happened to set up the Jedi Academy mere kilometers away. This is bad." Narrowing my eyes, I stare straight ahead, ignoring everyone else and focusing deep inside the alcove. Slowly, going against my prior warning, I make my way inside. Corran tries to hold me back, but I pull out of his grip. I kneel down in front of the statues, just as I did on that day in Palpatine's private storeroom so many years ago. I still heed the Emperor's warning, and do not touch, but I find what I'm looking for anyway. I reach out and gently pick up the objects that rest at the statues' feet…two objects that I've only seen before in that private storeroom. Tionne leans over my shoulder, and I hear her sharp intake of breath. "Those are holocrons!" I nod, even more curious as to why the Emperor never investigated this place further, as he desired to collect as much information as possible about both the Jedi and the Sith. I hand them to Tionne, who holds them reverently. "We need to study these," she insists. I nod, but then I reach out, pointing to the one she holds in her right hand, and shake my head. "Not that one." She gives me a questioning look. "That one's Sith." "How do you know?" she asks, almost as if she is afraid of the answer. Corran answers for me: "Trust me, she knows." I stare at the Sith holocron, knowing that the information inside is capable of warping a good, kindhearted soul to do unspeakable evil. I feel an overwhelming desire to destroy it, to take it in my hand and crush it beyond all recognition, but I don't. I refuse to let myself give in to the anger that has destroyed so many. Taking a deep breath, I turn from the alcove and walk towards the tomb. As I study it, I am certain that nobody can come back here ever again. This temple feels completely wrong. Just being inside it long enough could make anyone—especially young, impressionable minds, with a lust for power and revenge—crave the darkness. "We need to warn Luke," I tell them; I am so disturbed by our findings that I don't even think to correct myself at calling him by his first name. "We need to stay away from this place. It is far too dangerous." Without argument, Tyria, Kam, and Tionne begin to quickly file out of the temple. I follow them, Corran walking my side. "You're thinking of Kyp Durron," he whispers, not even having to ask. I nod and glance at him as we exit the temple. "I have a bad feeling about this." "Yeah, me too," Corran agrees, and, for once in my life, I desperately hope that I am wrong. When we arrive back at the Academy, the five of us immediately seek out Luke and tell him of our findings. As I expected, he wants to go there himself and see what we have found. And even though I promised Tyria and Corran that I'd talk to him about my misgivings regarding Kyp Durron, I still can't bring myself to be alone with Luke again just yet. But several days later, I can no longer ignore my bad feelings, and know that I need to put aside my anxiety and speak with Luke. I can't find him in any of the usual spots around the Academy, so I begrudgingly make my way towards his quarters for the first time. His room is further away from the others—a privilege of being in charge—even though it's no secret where it's located. I take a deep breath as I exit the lift and slowly make my way down the hallway, all too aware of the very bad things that could happen once we are alone inside his quarters. But I know that my misgivings are much more important than my stupid feelings, so I rely on all my old instincts and push my feelings aside, focusing on the task at hand. I reach Luke's door and lift my hand, but stop myself just before I knock. Luke is inside, but to my surprise, I sense that he is not alone. Reaching out with the Force, I realize who is with him, and my body tenses in something akin to anger, but also resentment. Knowing that what I'm about to do is so incredibly wrong, I lean up against the doorway to eavesdrop. Kyp Durron is speaking loudly, but Luke is so soft-spoken that I can't hear a word of what he's saying. Taking a deep breath, I push myself further against the wall and reach out with the Force. What I'm doing goes against every tenet of the Jedi code, but I cannot stop myself. I have to know what they are talking about. "I'm concerned for your well-being, Kyp," Luke is saying. "You're becoming obsessed with going to this temple." "I'm not obsessed, Master Skywalker," Durron argues. "You know that I can help. I've always been good at reading emotions. I'd be able to sense the aura of the temple better than anyone. Why won't you let me help?" "Nobody is allowed to go to the temple just yet, Kyp, not even Tionne. I don't even want to go there, but I have to. Until we know what we're up against, I cannot allow any of you to be susceptible to Exar Kun's spirit." "I understand, but you could still let me help study the holocrons. I want to help, Master Skywalker! I don't understand why you refuse to let me." "Tionne does not need your help, Kyp. Her training and skills are different than yours, and she can study the holocrons on her own. You, on the other hand, need to learn how to control the power inside of you. You're extremely strong in the Force, Kyp. If you can learn control, you will become one of the most powerful students here." "Not as powerful as her," Durron replies resentfully. There is a pause, and I sense Luke's umbrage at Durron's comment. "Excuse me?" "Nothing," Durron tries to cover himself, but Luke is having none of it. "Just who are you referring to, Kyp?" Luke asks, his voice clipped. "I'm speaking of Mara Jade, Master Skywalker," Durron admits. I tense, biting my lip to keep from cursing out loud at him. There is a pause, and then Luke speaks again, his tone much darker. "What about Mara Jade?" "She is resentful of the attention you're giving me. She doesn't think I should be here." "You don't know that, Kyp." "I can sense it. She doesn't like me." I grimace, reminding myself to shield my emotions whenever I'm around Durron from now on. As if there really needed to be another reason for me to feel wary of him. "Whether or not she likes you is irrelevant to this conversation. Why are you bringing her up?" "She found the holocrons." "Yes, and?" "Have you spoken to her about how she found them?" "Briefly, when they all returned from the temple. Why are you asking me this?" "Did you ever consider how she knew where to find them, or how she knew what they were?" There is another pause, and I have to suppress the urge to slice through the wall and throttle that insolent little twerp for talking about me this way. "She was with four other students when she found them," Luke replies, the calmness of his voice a stark contrast to the anger he's projecting through the Force. "They all told the same story. If you are inferring that there is any wrongdoing on her part, you are gravely mistaken. And you'll do well not to speak negatively of her again in front of me, or there will be a problem. Do you understand?" Even though I'm trying desperately to ignore my emotions, my heart flutters at hearing Luke defend me this way. "I…I apologize, Master Skywalker," Durron says, not quite sincerely. I hear movement inside the room, and I imagine they are sitting down next to each other, with Luke putting his hand on the boy's shoulder. "I'm worried for you, Kyp. I know how it feels to lose your family. I know the desire for revenge can threaten to overtake you. But you need to learn to push that aside if you want to become a Jedi." "You don't understand, Master Skywalker—" "Yes, I do, Kyp," Luke argues. "My aunt and uncle were killed by the Empire and after that I had no choice but to leave my home and join the Rebellion. My sister was forced to watch Alderaan be destroyed in front of her eyes. Nearly every person who joined the Rebel Alliance and later the New Republic has a reason to hate the Empire and want revenge. But we are Jedi, and we cannot let that anger overtake us. I understand that it is difficult to accept the past, but if you want to move forward as a Jedi, you're going to have to try, Kyp." There is silence, and I feel ashamed just listening to Luke's words. It's as if he knows I am standing right outside his door; as if he's speaking to me as well as to Durron. The boy apologizes again, and then there's more movement, and my old, reliable danger sense starts to go off like a klaxon alarm. I push myself away from the wall and run down the hallway as quickly and quietly as I can. I press the lift button repeatedly, but the door to Luke's quarters opens before it can arrive. Turning around, I act as if I just got off the lift and face Luke's quarters, trying to think of an excuse as to why I should be here, but thankfully, only Durron comes out into the hallway. I eye Durron as he approaches me, remembering to shield my emotions from him. He glances at me warily, but looks away as he waits for the lift to arrive. Standing my ground, I glare at him with my arms crossed over my chest. Finally he meets my gaze, and he looks much older than his eighteen years. He looks scary. I keep myself from recoiling at him, and in my best intimidating voice, I ask, "Is there a problem, Durron?" He draws himself up to his full height and pulls back his cloak so I can see his lightsaber. I pull mine back as well, and finger the holdout blaster under my robes. "No problem at all, Jade," he replies in a cold voice. "Going to see Master Skywalker?" he asks, glancing ever so slightly at the necklace peeking out from underneath my robes. I shove the chain back into its rightful place, safely hidden from prying eyes, as it always is. "Possibly," I snarl. "Not that it's any of your business." "Of course not." Before we can goad each other further, the turbolift arrives. Durron enters and presses the button for his floor, then leans against the doorway. "Coming?" he asks with a gleam in his eye. A shiver runs down my spine, one much different from the ones that Luke inspires in me. Those shivers are made of desire and attraction. This shiver is brought about from fear. For just one short second, the gleam in Durron's eye turns to a sickly yellow. Before I can shudder at horrible memories of yellow eyes staring straight into my soul, Durron's eyes return to their normal green, and he's again just a normal boy in a turbolift. In that moment, I am no longer scared of Durron; I am afraid for him. I shake myself out of my reverie and move closer to him, gripping his shoulder. He tries to pull away but I hold firm. With as much conviction as I can muster, I stare him down and issue an old warning: "Watch yourself, Durron. You might find more than you are looking for." He glares down at my hand, a disgusted look on his face as he removes it from his shoulder like he would an insect. He steps back into the lift as he meets my gaze again, and his lips curl into a thin smile. "That's right. If anyone was to know all about the Sith, it would be you." The door slams shut between us before I can reach out and punch him hard in the face. Incensed, I breathe deeply, calling on the Force to calm myself down, knowing that being angry is not the Jedi way… And then I glance to my side and see Luke watching me from his doorway. We stare at each other across the hallway, neither of us moving an inch. Even with the distance between us, I can see right into his deep blue eyes. I get another flash of insight into his mind, and I hear the Force telling me to go to him. But I ignore it, turning away and rushing towards the stairwell. As I open the door and begin my descent, I hear Luke's voice in my mind, as clearly as if he were whispering into my ear: You can't run away forever, Mara. I know that he's right, but I'll run for as long as I can. 10. Chapter 9 CHAPTER 9 True to Luke's words, I cannot run away forever, and the next day I find myself waiting for him outside the usual meditation room. However, this time I am actually anticipating being alone with him. I need to confide in him my feelings about Kyp Durron, just like I promised Tyria and Corran I would when the boy first arrived. Luke trusts my judgment, so I can only hope that he takes what I have to say very seriously. But most of all, I just want to talk to him, because above all he is my friend, and I can tell that he really needs one right now. Luke turns the corner almost hesitantly, and even though he looks glad to see me, I know that he's also worrying about what problems this latest lesson will bring about between us. But he hides all that with a bright smile as he approaches me, and I smile back, rising from the bench to walk into the room in front of him. I take my seat on the usual couch and he sits across from me, waiting for me to get settled. Once I'm ready, I look at Luke and, for the first time since I've been at the Academy, I see neither the Jedi Master nor the man who makes shivers run down my spine. I see the person who held my hand through the hardest struggle of my life on Wayland. I see the person who trusted me from the very beginning, when he had absolutely no reason to do so. I see my friend, who carries a burden that nobody should ever have to carry, all on his own. And I worry for him, because he is Luke Skywalker, and he will try to carry that burden by himself for as long as he can. Unaware of my thoughts, or perhaps just ignoring them, Luke asks the same question he always does: "Is there anything specific you'd like to work on today, Mara?" "Yes," I reply. Luke stares at me for a moment, blinking his eyes in disbelief, but quickly turning pleased. "Great! What would you like to work on?" I take a deep breath. "I want to talk." He gives me an odd look. "You can talk to me whenever you want." "I know, but I want to talk now." "Okay," Luke says hesitantly. "Go on." "I want to talk about Kyp Durron." Luke tenses and I instantly regret bringing up this topic, but I know that I must do this. "Go on," he repeats. "I have a really bad feeling about him, Luke." He looks at me, confused that I didn't go through our normal song and dance routine about me calling him "Master Skywalker" during a lesson. I can't be bothered with that right now. He doesn't say anything, so I continue. "I have nothing at all to prove it, but I hope you know me well enough to know that I don't make up stuff like this. I tried to ignore it, but after last night—" "When you were listening outside my door." "Yeah…uh…sorry about that." "I guess I don't need to go into a lecture about how using the Force to eavesdrop on your master is unbecoming?" I roll my eyes at him and he laughs, and I am grateful for it. I smile back at him before continuing. "I'm really sorry, Luke, but I've been feeling this since he got here and I just can't ignore it anymore. You know how good my danger sense is, and whenever I'm around him, it spikes like crazy. And last night when I spoke to him…" I trail off, regretting I even started this train of thought. "What?" he presses. "Has he been to Exar Kun's temple?" I ask. "You heard him last night, begging to be allowed to go there." "Yes, I know, but do you think that would stop him from going there if he was really determined?" Luke sits up straighter now, looking concerned. "What are you saying? Do you think he's already been there?" "It would explain why he gave me a very Sith-like vibe while speaking to him last night." "That's ridiculous, Mara. He's not a Sith." "I'm not saying that he is," I explain. "I know you've been spending a lot of time with him, and I know that your hopes for him as a Jedi are high, but you said it yourself, Luke—he's obsessed with revenge. He's begging to learn things that he's not ready to learn. You need to find out if he's been to that temple already, and you need to make sure that he never has the chance to get near those holocrons." Luke nods and rubs his hands over his face, and I feel horrible for telling him this and burdening him even more, but I know that him feeling badly now is much better than him feeling badly if something bad were to happen to Durron or anyone else. "I will. Thank you for telling me," he sighs. I reach across the space between us to take his hand, and he meets my gaze and gives me a small smile. Then, abruptly, the mask falls back into place. "Now, should we get back to the lesson?" Slowly, tentatively, I shake my head and hold his gaze. "How are you, Luke?" I ask, squeezing his hand. "What are you talking about?" he replies, already sounding closed off. "I want to know how you are doing," I state plainly. He sits silently for a moment, breaking our gaze, staring at the wall, thoughts swirling through his mind. He shuts himself off to me in the Force, and I wonder if he will even answer my question, or if he will try to keep everything to himself, as he always does—the sole person who can carry his burden. But I don't say anything; I will wait as long as it takes for him to speak again. "It's hard," he finally admits, sounding almost like a child. "I'm sorry." He immediately composes himself, the consummate master. "There's nothing to be sorry for. I chose this path. It's my burden." "It shouldn't have to be a burden," I argue. "And it will get better." "What do you mean?" "Well, you have ten of us who have been training with you for months now. Didn't you say that after we're Knighted, we'll start helping you train new apprentices?" Luke looks uncertain. "I don't know, Mara…" "Why not? Because it's your burden? Didn't you say when we first got here that we'd all be responsible for the growth of the Jedi Order?" "Yes, but—" "So what's changed?" I demand. "I dunno. I guess I finally realize how big of a responsibility training people really is." "A responsibility we can all help you with, Luke." "I know, but…I'm the first of the new," he whispers. "The first," I emphasize. "You train us. We train others. Then we're all equals." "But no matter what, I'm still the first. What I do will affect the Jedi Order for ages. I just can't ignore that." "I can't pretend to know how you feel, Luke. But you need to know that we all care about you as much more than just the leader of the Jedi Order. We care about you as a friend. And I…I especially care for you, Luke. I want you to be happy." He looks at me again, and I cannot comprehend the expression in his eyes. Not knowing what else to say, I get up from my couch and sit next to him, wrapping my arms around his neck. I hold on to him until he places his arms around me, and after several moments I feel his body begin to relax against me. We stay like that for a long time, holding each other in silence, until Luke looks at his chrono and sighs. "I'm taking up all of your time, Mara," he says regretfully. "I don't care," I reply, and he pulls back to smile at me. As our eyes meet, I feel that unmistakable shiver go down my spine again, and this time, I can't stop myself; I lean forward and press my lips firmly against his. We stay there, unmoving for several long seconds, locked in a chaste kiss that we both know contains so much more meaning…and then I realize what I'm doing and abruptly push away, launching myself off the couch and across the room. "Oh, shavit!" I curse, unable to look at him. I pace back and forth and eventually end up staring at the wall. I run my fingers through my hair and scream at myself for being such a complete and utter idiot. Finally gaining the strength to face him again, I turn around. He hasn't moved; he's sitting in the same position with his hand to his mouth. "I'm so sorry," I whisper. Coming to, Luke shakes his head vigorously. "No. No. Don't be sorry." I let out a frustrated yell and bang my first against the wall. "I wasn't supposed to do that!" "Yeah, I can relate," Luke says…and even though I know that I just broke our unspoken promise, and that this is deadly serious, I can't stop myself from laughing. Our eyes lock and he starts to laugh too, and after a minute I am laughing so hard that I can no longer control myself. I collapse back onto the couch and hold my sides, trying to catch my breath. Luke rolls off his couch to kneel down next to me, his face inches from mine. He is beet red and he starts coughing. In between breaths and laughs, I gasp out, "Where's the…Jedi training…for this…Master?" "Sorry," he chokes out. "Master Yoda never…kissed me in the…middle of a…lesson and then…made me laugh… uncontrollably." Again I can't contain myself, and I turn over on my back, bellowing out laughter to the high heavens. Aimlessly I punch at him, but it's futile and he ducks away. Then I get a mental image that makes me laugh so hard that I find it hard to breathe, but no matter how much I try, I cannot stop laughing. This whole situation is just too damn ridiculous. "What are…you laughing…at now?" Luke chokes. "Trust me…if you want…to ever be…able to…stop laughing… you don't…want to…know!" "Oh that's…not fair…now I…have…to know!" I'm hiccupping now, but I respond anyway: "I just thought… about what…Palpatine…would say if…he saw us…together… right now!" For a moment Luke looks horrified, and I regret my words…but then his laughter becomes even louder. "Oh…my…stars…you'd be…in sooooo…much trouble!" "Stop! Don't make…me pee…my pants…Luke! These are… the only…clean robes…I have!" "So…I shouldn't…try to…tickle you…then?" "Don't…even da—AH!" I start screaming as Luke reaches up and grabs me by my waist, pulling me down next to him on the floor. He starts tickling me and even though I didn't think it was possible, my laughs grow harder. I tickle him back of course, and he starts crying, which makes me laugh even more. He finally stops tickling me when I start to choke and it becomes very obvious that I am not getting the air I need to breathe. "Okay, calming exercises!" Luke calls out. He takes my hand and I feel his Force sense washing over me, calming me down, and making me feel absolutely at peace. After several minutes, we are both completely still, lying motionless against each other. We are still holding hands. "Thanks, Mara," Luke whispers, staring at the ceiling. "I needed that." "Yeah. Best lesson ever. Just promise me one thing." "What's that?" "Promise me you don't do this with any of the other apprentices." "What, Corran never told you about our tickle fights?" I snort and playfully slap him on the arm. He grins back at me and his thumb starts to caress my hand…and this time, I don't feel a shiver run down my spine. I am just grateful to be here, with my friend. As if he's reading my mind, Luke squeezes my hand. "Thanks for being my friend, Mara. No matter what, I want you to know that I cherish that." Turning on my side, I roll my eyes at him. "Don't get all emotional on me, Farmboy." "Farmboy?" "Oh, sorry—Master Farmboy." Luke chuckles again, but after a few moments he grows serious, studying my face. "What are we doing?" he asks, gently cupping my cheek with his palm. I know exactly what he's asking, and there are so many answers I can think of. But as always, I can't face the truth of the matter just yet. "We're waiting for you to get this lesson back on track again." He looks at me, and for just a moment, I see a look of disappointment in his eyes. Then he nods and pushes himself up, helping me to my feet. We settle down on our opposite couches, and he takes my hands and begins to pull me into the Force. Feeling emboldened by this new connection between us, I open myself up to him more than ever before. I can feel him heading towards the wall in the back of my mind, but this time I don't put up my shields. I sense his surprise and his eagerness to scale the wall with me and help me see what lies behind it…but before we can do so, I am thrust back into old memories I've tried so hard to forget. They swirl around me like dust in the wind, and I have to keep reminding myself of where I am right now—in the Jedi Academy on Yavin IV, with Luke Skywalker, my master. But my mind keeps focusing on one particular group of memories. I am on Tatooine, sand swirling around me, heading towards Jabba's Palace. I am dressing as a dancer, waiting for my prey to arrive. I am standing in the shadows, watching the boy who I've been sent to kill, wondering just who he is, and how he can possibly be so strong. I am standing in front of Jabba the Hutt, begging him to let me go with the execution party, but no matter how much I plead, he refuses. I am sitting alone, with my master invading my mind, saying words that crush me—I've failed and disappointed him. I have thought about that day so many times over the past six years, but never once since coming to the Academy. It is the one part of my past that I want to forget more than anything—I was meant to kill the person with who I now train. The person I trust with my life. The person I am proud to call my friend, and laugh with. The person I care about more than any other. Sensing my turmoil, Luke gently pulls me away from those memories, surrounding me with a calming light, and I bury myself in it, allowing him to give me strength. I do not know how long this lasts…but suddenly Luke jerks away from me and falls backwards over his couch, landing with a loud thud on the floor. I am ripped out of the trance; I feel sick and have to suppress the urge to vomit, and I fall back on all of Luke's healing techniques, because I can sense that he is in desperate need of help. Then I finally compose myself and run to him, Luke is staring straight up at the ceiling, his eyes wide with alarm, gasping for breath, almost convulsing. He does not take notice of me, and I shake him, trying to get him to focus on reality. "Luke! Luke!" Finally he looks at me, and I hold my breath upon seeing the fear in his eyes. And then, no longer focused solely on Luke's well being, I sense it, too. "Something terrible has happened," he whispers. "I need to get to Exar Kun's temple, now." I nod and pull him to his feet. "Come on," I say, dragging him out of the room behind me. "I can go by myself." I give him a sharp look. "No way, Skywalker. I'm going with you." "Mara—" "I'm going with you," I repeat with finality. Luke knows it's futile to argue, and we quickly make our way to the landspeeder. To my surprise, Corran is already at the driver's seat, Tyria sitting beside him, both looking concerned. "Going somewhere?" Corran asks, and I realize that he has sensed it, too. Luke is too worried to protest, so we jump in the back without question. Corran slams on the accelerator before our bottoms even touch the seats. None of us speak a word on our way to the temple. When we finally arrive, Luke leaps out of the speeder before it can even come to a stop. I wait for Corran to park, and then exit the vehicle with him and Tyria. The three of us glance at each other and then slowly make our way to the entrance, as if we are all hesitant to see what waits inside. "Did you sense it?" Corran asks. I nod. "I was with Luke," I reply, again too preoccupied to correct myself. "He felt it first. He almost went into convulsions…" I trail off, my worry getting the best of me. "It'll be okay, Mara," Tyria reassures me. But as we enter Exar Kun's temple, I immediately see that Tyria is wrong. Luke is kneeling in the middle of the temple, his head clutched in his hands. I recoil away from him, overwhelmed by the complete and utter despair radiating from his soul. Tyria rushes to his side but Corran keeps moving forward, to the body I only now notice, lying on top of the altar. The dead body. It is Jes Gantoris, who has become one of Kyp Durron's closest friends and mentors at the Academy. After collecting myself, I follow Corran to the altar, and we go about examining the body. My old training kicks in and I do not allow myself to feel any sort of emotion towards the person lying there, lifeless. "There's no sign of any wound," I remark, running my fingers over the body. "No, there's not…what could have done this?" I take a deep breath. "I think we know." "Exar Kun?" "That's what I'm thinking." He pauses. "You know what else I'm thinking?" "You mean that bad feeling we had before?" "Yeah, that's the one." "You think Kyp Durron was here when this happened, don't you?" Corran nods. "Yeah. I do." I reach out into the Force, and upon considering the possibility that Durron was somehow responsible for Gantoris's death, my danger sense starts spiking like crazy. It is nowhere near absolute proof, but somehow, I know that the boy was involved. I sigh and close my eyes. "Now I have a really bad feeling about this." "That makes two of us." We finally leave the altar and walk back to the others. Luke is still sitting in the same place, being comforted by Tyria, but he takes no notice of her. He stares straight ahead at the dead body, no trace of emotion in his eyes. But then he glances just slightly in my direction, and I sense it—I know that he has heard every word that Corran and I have said. But I do not back down, and in the part of my mind that is now connected with his, I can tell that he is finally starting to believe me. 11. Chapter 10 A/N: Song for this chapter: Reflections of Passion, Yanni CHAPTER 10 The next several days fly by swiftly, and we all can't stop speculating about what really happened to Jes Gantoris. Cilghal, who has been studying Jedi healing techniques, isn't able to determine a cause of death. From her examinations, it seems as if Gantoris dropped dead of his own accord, but we all know better —that Exar Kun's spirit most certainly had something to do with the man's death. Corran and I keep our suspicions about Kyp Durron to ourselves, but make it a point to keep an eye on him as much as possible. Corran takes to practically trailing him everywhere, which is fine by me. To Durron's credit, he seems genuinely distraught over Gantoris's death and, when Luke questions him, doesn't appear to have been involved. I know that Luke would be able to tell if Durron was lying directly to his face, but I still believe that there is more to the story than the boy is telling. Luke doesn't press the issue, but he does grow even more attentive to his golden-boy student, as if he believes that the extra attention will keep Durron on a straight and narrow path. I know that Luke feels responsible for what has transpired, so he will therefore try to ensure that nothing bad happens again on his watch; and to do that, he will take even more control over his Academy, much to my dismay. Thankfully, Luke's spirits are brightened by the arrival of Han Solo and Chewbacca, who've offered to bring some much-needed supplies to the Academy; no doubt Leia Organa Solo had some influence in convincing Han to make the out of the way trip, and I can't help but wonder just how much of Luke's mood she can sense from all the way on Coruscant. When I head out to the landing platform to help unload the supplies, Luke is already there, talking and laughing with his old friends. Han flashes me a roguish smile when he sees me. "Why hello there, Jedi Jade," he greets. I roll my eyes. "Please, don't call me that. It sounds ridiculous." "Now you know how I feel," Luke interjects. "Don't you worry, there's no way in hell that I'm ever calling you 'Master Skywalker,'" Han teases, and Chewbacca growls in agreement. "Do you actually call him that, Mara?" I shrug. "I have to. He makes me." Luke's mouth drops open in protest. "I do not!" "Oh yes, he does!" I tease, my voice dripping with sarcasm. "He just loves it when I call him 'Master.'" "Yeah, I'll bet he does," Han mumbles under his breath, causing Chewbacca to guffaw loudly. Luke turns bright red and keeps unloading the supply crates, avoiding the rest of us, but I turn to Han with my hands on my hips. "Excuse me?" I ask indignantly. Han smiles, looking proud of himself. "What?" I narrow my eyes at him. "You just watch yourself," I hiss, pointing my finger in his direction. "I'd tell you to do the same, but I think Luke does enough staring for the both of you." My eyes widen in shock, and I drop the crate in my hands and stalk forward until I'm right in Han's face—as much as I can be at my height. He continues to smile, refusing to back down. My icy exterior hardens as I begin to wonder what exactly Luke has told Han about our "relationship." Han is his best friend, and more than anyone Luke would turn to him for advice. Or maybe Han is just way more perceptive than anyone believes. I roll my eyes and turn away before making a bigger deal of the situation than it needs to be. "You just watch it, Solo, or I'm gonna comm your wife and tell her about that extra crate of ale you brought and say you intend to corrupt her brother." "Hey! I'm sorry, okay? Leia doesn't need to know anything about that! Mara? Mara!" That night I eat dinner with Corran and Tyria, wanting to give Luke privacy with his old friends. They sit in the corner of the mess, talking and laughing loudly. Luke does a good job of seeming engaged in the conversation, but it's obvious through the Force that he is distant. His mind is elsewhere, as it has been since Gantoris was found dead in Exar Kun's temple. If Han realizes this, he doesn't say a word, but instead keeps giving Luke reports from the mopping up action against the Imperial Remnant. From what I am able to overhear, the Remnant has been pushed back into a small corner of the galaxy centered on Bastion, their capital. A few leftover warlords and admirals continue to squabble with each other over territory, making the New Republic's job of recruiting new worlds that much easier. I can't even imagine what the situation in the galaxy would be like if Grand Admiral Thrawn had been victorious, and am eternally grateful that never came to pass. Thrawn was brilliant, to be sure, but just like so many others, he had been too twisted by Palpatine to be trusted. Luke eventually leaves Han and Chewbacca alone, heading off to do Force-knows-what, and not long after that Corran and Tyria leave to get in some sparring practice, but I tell them to go without me, hoping that I can talk to Han about Luke. I make my way over to their table and plop myself down in Luke's now-empty seat. "Got any extra ale?" I ask. Han cracks open a bottle and passes it to me across the table. "You supposed to be drinking, Jade? Is 'Master Skywalker' okay with that?" he smirks. "Oh, shove it," I reply before downing a large gulp from the bottle. "I'm done for the day, as a matter of fact." "I thought a Jedi's work is never done." I sigh and prop my chin on my hands. "Some people would have you believe that," I say pointedly. Chewbacca growls in agreement. "Yeah, the kid never lets himself rest, does he?" "Nope," I agree. "I'm worried about him." "Yeah?" Han raises his eyebrows. "And just why is that?" My mouth twists into an ironic smile. "Oh, wouldn't you like to know." "Who says I already don't?" Han replies, grinning wickedly. I grimace, but to my surprise, I am not mad that he knows about Luke and me; instead, I feel relieved not having to hide it anymore. I take a deep breath. "So he told you what's been going on, huh?" "He didn't have to, but thanks for the confirmation," Han gloats, leaning back and threading his fingers behind his head. I throw my bottle cap at him, kicking myself for falling for his trap. "I knew something was gonna happen between you two after you were shot down during the Katana fleet battle." I laugh despite my annoyance with him. "Really, that far back? I'm impressed. Luke thought you only started to suspect something on Wayland." He shrugs. "I could tell by the way he acted around you. He didn't wanna leave your side. And then all that stuff with C'baoth happened and he gave you his old lightsaber, and, well, you'd have to be an idiot not to figure it out after that." "Well according to you, a lot of people here are idiots." Han raises an eyebrow. "Including him, you mean?" "No, he's figured it out," I sigh. "He just won't let himself do anything about it. He thinks he can't form attachments because of his position in the Jedi Order." Han's quiet for a moment, and Chewbacca growls something softly. "Yeah, he's always held himself to a higher standard than everyone else," Han agrees. "Ain't that the truth." "So, Jade," Han continues, kicking his feet onto the table, "what are you gonna do about it?" "Me?" "You're part of this equation too, aren't ya?" I lower my head and bang it against the table. "If only it were that easy," I mumble. "I think it runs in the family. They have to make their lives incredibly difficult." "Yeah, well, I wish he'd realize that he doesn't have to go through all this on his own." "He'll figure it out." "Possibly. But even if he does, I'm not even sure that anything should be going on between us." "Why not? You don't feel the same way about him?" "Of course I do, and don't you dare repeat that to anyone, Solo! But I'm his apprentice. It would be wrong of us to be together. We kind of made an unspoken pact not to let anything else happen between us." "Oh, well, I'm sure that unspoken pact will be upheld to the highest of standards the next time you two get alone and he makes you call him 'Master.'" "I hate you." "Besides, Mara, you're not gonna be his apprentice forever." "No…but he is going to be 'Master Skywalker, founder of the New Jedi Order' forever. And he'll continue to carry all his unrealistic expectations that come along with the job," I sigh. Han gives me a sympathetic look. "He blames himself for Gantoris's death, doesn't he?" I nod; Han definitely is way more perceptive than most people think. "Yeah, which just makes this whole situation even worse. At first he was adamant about all of us being equal here at the Academy, but he's starting to try to control everything 'cause he's so afraid of something bad happening again. Who knows if he'll ever relax and let himself be a normal person again?" "With you, you mean?" I look up, and the roguish grin is back on Han's face. I down the rest of my ale in one gulp, and then reach over the table. "Gimme another bottle," I demand, and Han chuckles. "She's drinking heavily, Chewie, you know what that means— it's serious…Ow! That hurt, Mara!" Later that night, after saying good-bye to Han and Chewbacca and pacing around the meditation garden for several hours, I find myself back in my quarters, unable to sleep. I toss and turn for another hour before giving up and pushing myself out of bed. I put on my robes and clip on my lightsaber, intending to get in some remote practice, what I normally do when I can't sleep, because I've never been able to master the art of a Force trance. But once in the lift, before I can stop myself, my hand presses the button for Luke's floor on its own accord. I immediately flinch and move to press the correct button, but can't bring myself to do so. Sighing, I wrap my arms around myself and settle in for whatever is about to happen. Before I can even bring up my hand to knock on his door, it slides open by itself. Hesitantly, I look inside, but Luke isn't anywhere to be found. "In here," I hear him call from his bedroom. He is the only one at the Academy with more than one room— another perk of being in charge. I slowly walk into the other room, pausing just beyond the doorway, all too aware that this is the first time I have been inside Luke's quarters, and I am already in his bedroom. Those thoughts quickly go away as I see Luke sitting on the bed, facing the window with his back to me, his shoulders slumped over. I have to suppress the urge to run to him and wrap my arms around his shoulders and make everything okay. Instead, I stand there motionless, waiting for him to acknowledge my presence. Almost unnoticeably, he pats the bed next to him, and I oblige. "Is it appropriate for me to be here?" I ask lightly. Through the darkness, I see a smile creep onto his face. "Has our relationship ever been appropriate?" "I guess at some point I wasn't compelled to kill you." "Or have vowed to make my life so difficult." "Is that what I do? Make your life difficult?" He doesn't mince words. "Difficult? Yes. Completely worth it?" He finally looks at me. He gently touches my hair and smiles. "Oh, yes," he sighs. I roll my eyes. "Getting all emotional on me again, Skywalker?" "Can't help it around you, Jade." "Oh, shut up," I say, shoving him lightly with my shoulder. He shoves me back, and then we sit there, motionless again, staring out the window into the jungle beyond. I can see the top of Exar Kun's temple in the distance. Sighing, I lay my head on his shoulder, wanting to comfort him. "It's not your fault, Luke." "That's what everyone says." "Well, it's true," I insist. "You told us not to go there. You can't blame yourself for what happened to Gantoris." "I know," he whispers. "But you'll do so anyway?" "You don't understand, Mara." "Make me," I demand. He shakes his head. "You're blaming the wrong person, Luke." "And who should I be blaming?" "I think you know." "Kyp doesn't know anything. I questioned him myself." "I know, but that temple is wrong, Luke," I argue. "You've been there yourself. You know how it feels. The darkness inside—it can make people do terrible things. Kyp Durron is the most powerful student here—yes, even more powerful than me," I add before Luke can interject. "But he's untrained and has no control, and worse, he wants revenge on the Empire. He is a bad combination of anger and power and he worries me." Luke sighs against me, considering my words but unwilling to do anything concrete about them without proof. "I can't kick him out just because you have bad feelings about him. Those are all the reasons why he needs to stay here, so I can watch him and help him." "Not if he was involved in this, Luke." "No, especially if he was involved in this." "Luke—" "Don't argue with me, Mara! You do not understand." I lift my head and glare at him. "Make me." He doesn't respond. I turn his chin around to face me, so that my next words can really sink in. "You can't do everything by yourself, Luke. You're going to break if you keep this up." "No, I won't." I sigh and shake my head in aggravation. "And you say I make things difficult." Luke's lips curl into another smile. "I learned from the best." After a few seconds, he wraps his arm around me, allowing me to lay my head on his shoulder again. "I'm sorry for getting angry." "Don't be. It's refreshing, actually. It makes you seem more human. Sometimes I think you need to remind yourself that you're only human." Luke's eyes lose focus, as if he is remembering a moment from a time long past. "Much anger in him, like his father," he whispers. "What?" I feel his fingers start to play with my hair. "Master Yoda said that about me, when I arrived on Dagobah." "Vader let his anger control him, Luke. You don't. That's the difference between you two." "You don't understand, Mara. You didn't know him." "Excuse me?" I ask in disbelief, pulling away from him and sitting up completely straight. He instantly cringes, realizing his mistake. "I think you're forgetting something pretty damn important, Luke." He's quiet for a moment, trying to get up the courage to pose a question he's always wanted to ask me. "Go ahead," I prompt him. Luke bites his lip in hesitation. "What was he like?" "You know what he was like," is all that I feel comfortable replying. "Please." I sigh, remembering all my interactions with Vader; all the times he exploded at me, coming entirely too close to snuffing out my life. If I'd only known then that one day I'd be sitting here with his son, training to be a Jedi, and in possession of his old lightsaber. "I didn't like him," I reply. "He definitely didn't like me. It was understood between us. We worked together when necessary. That was it." Again, Luke stares at Exar Kun's temple, tall in the darkness, all his fears and worries echoed in the lines of his face. "You are nothing like him, Luke." "He wasn't always Darth Vader." "No, he wasn't. But that doesn't mean you're going to follow the same path he did. You're too strong, Luke—if you were able to stand up to Palpatine, then nothing can turn you. Trust me." "I still worry. I don't know if I'll ever be able to stop." I feel badly bringing up the subject, but I can't help myself. I have to. "Even at the expense of your own happiness?" He looks at me again, sadness and guilt reflected in his eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispers. "Me, too," I reply. "I wish I could turn off my feelings for you." "Me, too." "But I can't." I sigh. "So what do we do now?" "I don't know." I laugh, unable to control myself. "Force, this is so messed up." "No, don't say that," Luke replies, looking disturbed by my comment. "You're not messed up." "Oh, please. I have more issues than a holozine stand." "You'll get over them," he promises. "Just like you'll get over yours? You know better than that, Luke." He shrugs. "I guess I do." Not knowing what else to say, I stand up to leave, but Luke holds me back. "Please stay," he whispers, and I'm reminded of that night in the garden, lying on our backs, looking at the stars. Again, I give in to him, and reach out my hand to touch his face. He takes it and kisses it gently. "So what do we do now?" I ask again. "I don't know," he repeats, rising from the bed. I force myself not to look into his eyes, because I suddenly feel the urge to slap him…or to cry. Either one would do at this moment. Sensing my thoughts, Luke opens his arms and, against my better judgment, I press myself against him, sighing into his embrace. Through the Force, I feel the turmoil that rages inside of him—his desire for happiness battling with his very real fear of following in his father's footsteps. Slowly, I feel him relax against me, and I know which side has won the battle. His hand begins to move up and down my back, but I tense and pull away before anything else can happen. He may have decided to let his desires win out this time, but I cannot afford myself that luxury. I cannot let my heart rule my head. I throw up all my shields as I remember Corran's words of advice to me: Try not to get hurt. "Don't do this if you can't follow through, Skywalker," I growl, my eyes shooting daggers at him. "Don't put me through that." "I know," he whispers. "I'm sorry. You deserve better." You deserve better, I think, but I do not say it aloud. He deserves to be happy. He deserves much more than the burden he has placed upon himself. "But I just can't push this issue aside, Mara," he continues, once again reading my mind. "I wish that I could. You have no idea how much it's killing me not to just say 'kriff it' and let myself be with you." "But even if you did, you're still my master," I sigh, bringing myself back to reality, and all of my own reasons as to why we cannot be together. "And you're my apprentice. Everyone is my apprentice. I just can't ignore the feeling that if I let myself be with you, something horrible is going to happen." "Dammit, Luke!" I explode, balling my fists and pushing him away from me, no longer able to contain my frustration. "You're a regular human being with feelings and desires just like everyone else! Acting on them isn't going to ruin the galaxy! You're being so stupid—I mean, do you seriously think that love is going to make you turn to the dark side?" Love. I regret the word as soon as it leaves my mouth. For long moments we stand still, staring at each other, the word thick in the air that separates us, like smoke. The word echoes inside my mind, taunting me, reminding me of what I can never have— because Luke will not allow himself to care—and of what I never knew I so desperately wanted. Love. Incensed with myself, I turn on my heel to leave. I am no longer the old Mara Jade, who was once the Emperor's Hand. I have not been that woman since Wayland, and I do not want to be her ever again. But now, with that word finally admitted aloud, I once again envy the girl who was always able to ignore her feelings and focus on the task at hand. She would never have so innocently uttered that word. Love. Before I can leave, Luke's hand is on my arm, pulling me back to him. His touch is firm but gentle, warm and tender. His eyes are filled with passion and desire. He stares at me for a long second. And then we are kissing again. In that moment, it is unspoken between us. I will never let myself say it out loud, but I know that, for better or for worse, that's what this is… Love. 12. Chapter 11 CHAPTER 11 Light streams in through the window, falling on my face and pulling me from a deep sleep. I blink my eyes open to an unfamiliar ceiling and furrow my brow, trying to figure out where I am. Suddenly it comes to me. I am in Luke's bed. I sit up with a start, but before I can gasp out loud, I look down and see that I am lying safely on top of the covers and still fully clothed. I place my hand to my chest and force myself to breath regularly. "Oh, thank the Maker," I murmur as I lie back down. "Tell me, should I feel terribly insulted that you're so relieved we still have all our clothes on?" Luke's voice comes from beside me. Grimacing, I glance over at him. He's lying on his side, looking at me with shining blue eyes and a dashing smile on his face. I briefly wonder how long he has been watching me sleep. Sighing, I rub my face with my hands and groan. I thought things were bad before. This is much worse. But, as always, I'm unable to resist him, so I roll over on my side to face him. Hesitantly, as if he's worried that I'll slap him away, he leans forward and kisses me gently on the lips. Even though my head is screaming at me to stop, I kiss him back. I wish I could taste him like this every morning. A string of Huttese curses comes out of my mouth as I pull away from him, realizing just how much trouble I've gotten myself into. Luke raises his eyebrows at me, that huge grin still plastered across his face. "My breath stink that bad?" I take the pillow from beneath my head and hit him with it, hard. "Only you could make light of this situation, Skywalker!" "Hey, you're the one who said that this is messed up, not me." "Yeah, well, you're doing a very good job of proving me right, you know." "Just how is this messed up, Mara?" "Well, let's see, there's the fact that you think you need to be a Jedi monk, the fact that not too long ago I was your sworn enemy, the fact that now we're master and apprentice and us screwing around might be just a tiny little violation of the Jedi code…need I go on?" Luke doesn't stop grinning at me. Instead of refuting all my claims, he swiftly grabs my waist and pulls me on top of him. Before I can protest he kisses me fiercely, and against all my better judgment, I let him. Our kiss deepens and he runs his fingers through my hair. His lips move up my jaw line to my ear, and I involuntarily let out a whimper as he starts to do things with his tongue that are definitely against the Jedi code. I feel his hands move under my robes and I am now intensely aware that if I don't stop this right now, things are going to get much, much worse. Squeezing my eyes shut, I abruptly push away, leaving him breathless beside me. "I have to go," I mumble, trying to get up from the bed, but he doesn't break his hold on my arm. "Please stay," he says. This time, I won't give in. "No. I have to go. I'll be late." "Mara," he chides me. "You have lightsaber training with me first thing this morning." "Oh. Right." His smile turns wicked. "So I grant you an excuse for being late," he says, pulling me back to him. "Oh no, you don't!" I cry, finally breaking his hold and leaping up from the bed. "We are not showing up late together. I don't need all that gossip flying around." "Yeah, I think it's too late for that. Your comlink has been buzzing all morning long." I grimace. I was supposed to meet Corran for breakfast. He's probably pounding on my door as we speak. "Oh, kriff." I hear Luke chuckle as I make my way to his fresher. "That offer's still on the table if you wa—" The fresher door hisses shut behind me before he can finish his sentence. Leaning up against the wall, I run my hands over my face and look at myself in the mirror. Oh, this is bad, I think. I spent the night in Luke Skywalker's bedroom. In Luke Skywalker's bed—with him in it! It doesn't matter that we were both still fully clothed by morning. I might as well have slept with him; at least then I could try to pretend that this is just about sex, and not my stupid feelings. What the hell am I going to do? I can't bring myself to think about the larger issues right now. Instead I'll just wash up as best I can, comb and pull back my hair so it looks presentable, and head to the mess like nothing unusual has happened. If Corran asks about my whereabouts, I'll say I was meditating all night long. And if he hounds me about it, I'll sic Mirax on him. Clearing my thoughts as best as possible, I go about washing up, and a few minutes later deem that I no longer look like I spent the night in someone else's bed, making out like some lovesick teenager. I step out of the fresher, and when I look up, I stop dead in my tracks. Luke is facing the window, completely naked, changing into clean robes. My mouth drops open and I am unable to take my eyes off of him. A million indecent thoughts run through my mind, and I am torn as to whether I want him to turn around so I can see the rest of him, or whether I want to him to stay right where he is so I can stare at his naked backside for the rest of eternity. After a few moments of shocked silence, Luke grows still as he realizes that I am watching him. Before he can turn around to face me, I knock some sense into myself and curse again, running back into the fresher and locking the door behind me. I hear Luke stumble and fall to the floor as he loses his balance, and sense his embarrassment radiating through the Force. I lean up against the wall, closing my eyes against the memory of him, and will myself with every fiber of my being to think about lightsaber techniques, or the history of the Jedi Order, or even old missions for the Empire—anything to take my mind off of Luke Skywalker's glorious naked backside. Just as I start to calm down, I hear Luke knock on the fresher door. "It's safe to come out now, Mara." I take a few deep breaths to calm myself even further, and then open the door and walk briskly past him like I didn't just see him naked. Luke follows me to the door but I can't bring myself to look at him. I am blushing the deepest shade of crimson in the galaxy. At least he seems just as embarrassed as I am. Before I can open the door, he grabs my hand to stop me. I still cannot bring myself to look at him. He steps closer to me and begins to caress my hand, making shivers go down my spine again. Despite his embarrassment, he seems emboldened by our night spent together. His mask has disappeared. "Can I see you tonight?" he whispers in my ear. I shouldn't even be considering this. I need to walk away and say no. I need to put an end to this before I end up in his bed again, this time not safely clothed come morning. I need to stop this before I get hurt again. All I say in response is, "Okay." I remain completely still as Luke leans forward and kisses me, but I do not push him away. I close my eyes, and after a few moments I finally give in, wrapping my arms around him and running my hands through his hair. We stand there for a long time, kissing silently and slowly, and in the part of my mind that is still able to think, I realize that something very fundamental has changed. As he pulls away, I open my eyes, and he smiles at me. I have not seen him smile like this since before we arrived on Yavin IV. It is a smile of pure contentment, one that contains no burdens, no fears, no self-doubts. He has not seemed so carefree since before he took on the burden of rebuilding the Jedi Order. He looks just like the Luke Skywalker I met on Myrkr—the optimistic farm boy who trusted me even as I pointed a blaster at his face; the confident Jedi who took down a squadron of stormtroopers without even being able to use the Force. Seeing his smile, and feeling his happiness shine through the Force, I wonder…has he finally learned? I can only hope. Corran doesn't buy my excuse for being late to breakfast for a second, and once in class, with Tyria as an accomplice, the two become merciless. While sparring, I manage to get Luke's arm into a firm hold behind his back, which prompts snickers from Tyria and a sarcastic comment from Corran about 'Master Skywalker' liking it rough. Luke turns to him with a smirk and raised eyebrows, and the forward, straight-talking CorSec and Rogue Squadron veteran actually flinches away, flustered by the Jedi Master's boldness, and I have to stifle my laughter. Later on, as we head to the mess for lunch, Corran asks me in an awed tone, "What the hell did you do to him?" I just look at him and smile. Luke is waiting for me near the entrance to the mess when we arrive. "May I speak with you for a minute, Mara?" he asks with a very Jedi Master-like expression on his face. I nod, looking like a dutiful apprentice, and he takes me by the arm and leads me to an empty classroom nearby, leaving Corran to gape at us as we walk away. Once the closes behind us, I spin around and pull him into a passionate kiss before he can utter a word. He responds in kind, wrapping his arms around me and pressing me closer to him. After a minute we both break away, breathless, and I bite my lip as I stare up at him. "You wanted to see me, Master?" I ask innocently, playing with his robes. "Oh, you are bad." He pulls me towards him again and starts nipping at my ear. "You're the one who asked to see me, Master," I remind him. "Huh," Luke comments as he moves to my other ear. "What?" I ask, as I start to tremble under his ministrations. "Just remembering something." I close my eyes and reach out with the Force. "Oh my, Master. Those are some very naughty thoughts you're having." He holds me at a distance and stares deep into my eyes. "Well it's all your fault." I grin and sigh with pleasure as his lips press against my throat. "So you do like it when I call you 'Master.'" He groans and grows more insistent in his exploration of my neck. "Careful, Master," I breathe. "You've got classes to teach in a few minutes." "Then stop calling me that," he growls. "I don't know what you're talking about, Master." Unable to restrain himself any longer, Luke throws me up against the wall and kisses me so hard that I have the wind knocked out of me. But I don't care. I kiss him back just as hard. We stay that way for a long, long time. The only thing that makes us break apart is the chrono on Luke's wrist that starts beeping incessantly. He tries to take it off and throw it against the wall, but I place my hand on his wrist, stopping him. "You have students to attend to, Master Skywalker," I whisper. "I thought that's what I'm doing right now," he whispers back. Slowly I pull away from him, smoothing out his robes and hair with my hands. "No. I told you I'd see you tonight, and I will. Remember, Master…patience is a virtue." Luke sighs and closes his eyes. "Did I ever tell you that patience is one of my weakest characteristics as a Jedi?" "Well, then perhaps we all have something to learn here, don't we?" I kiss him lightly on the cheek and lead him out of the room. Once in the hallway, I shake his hand; this time, I am the one to rub my thumb gently against the side of his palm, and I see his eyes twinkle in amusement. "Thank you for that very enlightening discussion, Master. I will see you later this evening." And with that, I turn on my heel and head back towards the mess, where a very curious-looking Corran Horn is waiting for me. After lunch, during which Corran ribs me non-stop, I head to one of the training rooms with Tyria for some hand-to-hand combat practice. Tyria is one of the only people here who can actually floor me, so naturally I love sparring with her. "So," she says as we start to fight, "Corran says you weren't in your room this morning, and that Master Skywalker had some urgent matters to discuss with you before lunch." I roll my eyes and block her blow, twisting her arm around, but she escapes my grasp. "Yeah, so?" She kicks my legs out from under me, but I pull her down as I fall, forcing her onto her back. Shaking hands, I pull her back up and we start again. "So are you gonna tell me what's going on?" Her eyes twinkle with amusement as she blocks my quick blows. "None of your business," I grunt as she tries to get in a roundhouse kick, "and tell Corran to shut his big mouth." Tyria laughs and uses the distraction to knock me to the ground. I scowl at her, but then shake her hand as she pulls me to my feet. "Come on, Mara, you can trust me. Remember, us girls gotta stick together! Besides, it's completely obvious to those of us with eyes…or the Force." "Well if it's so obvious then you don't need me to tell you anything." We fall to the floor in unison, rolling over each other, and I manage to yank her arms over her head again. "Dammit Mara, that hurt!" Tyria says, rubbing her shoulder as I jump to my feet. "Sorry, Sarkin, you gotta be quicker than that." "Sheesh, I hope you're not this rough with Master Skywalker." "You want me to yank your arm out again?" "Aren't people supposed to be happier after they get some action?" Her words stop me in my tracks and I stare at her. She holds my gaze, smiling. "Oh, is that the problem, you haven't gotten any?" The old Mara Jade would be furious at people talking about her this way, but to my surprise, the new Mara Jade doesn't care. Because Tyria's right…I am happy. I'm happy because of Luke. And I don't care who knows. Let them talk. I shrug sheepishly. "Not yet," I reply, a blush creeping across my face as I think about my upcoming evening with Luke. Tyria grins at me. "Damn, girl! You and the Jedi Master? That's a volatile combination." I sigh. "You have no idea." Tyria bursts out laughing and gives me a squeeze before we begin fighting again. After she floors me, Kyp Durron enters the room armed with his lightsaber. I narrow my eyes at him but he ignores us, igniting his weapon and focusing intently on the training remotes around him, as if we're not even there. He starts to practice and Tyria watches him in awe. "Wow, he's really good," she whispers. I nod at her. "Yeah, he's good," I admit begrudgingly. But not better than me, I think, a thought that reassures me for reasons I cannot understand. Tyria and I continue our workout, Durron still taking no notice of us. After a few more rounds, Tyria leaves for her private lesson with Luke, promising that she won't try to steal him away from me. I give her a swift kick on her bottom, eliciting loud laughter as she skips away from the room. After she leaves, I decide to stay in the training room, both to get in some lightsaber practice of my own and to keep my eye on Durron. I briefly wonder where Corran is, as he's taken to trailing the boy since Gantoris was found dead. "Wanna spar, Jade?" Durron calls as I ignite my lightsaber. I jump, startled; I didn't think he realized I was in the room with him. I levitate my remote in front of me, regarding him casually. "No, thanks," I reply, turning my attention to the remote. "Oh, come on," he says, goading me. "You think you're so much better than me? Prove it." I turn and narrow my eyes at him, once again wondering how he was able to sense my thoughts. "I don't think that's a very good idea, Durron." "Why not? You worried I'll win and Master Skywalker will start to favor me over you?" My anger starts to rise, and I reach out into the Force for serenity. "I really don't think I need to worry about that." "No, you wouldn't, huh?" he sneers, looking at my chest, where my necklace rests safely under my robes. I bite my lip, wondering how in the galaxy he even found out about the necklace in the first place, when I've never shown it to anybody, and what exactly he knows about Luke and me. He said he was good at reading emotions, but this is just creepy. "It's none of your business, Durron. Go back to your remotes if you know what's best for you." "What's the matter, Emperor's Hand? Scared?" he spits out, stalking over to me, and I immediately bring my lightsaber up to guard, still desperately trying to push down my anger. I want to reach out and break every bone in his body, but I force myself to go through the calming exercise that Luke has taught me. But Durron doesn't back down, and he stops directly in front of me, his own lightsaber ignited but held casually at his side. Yes, I am scared, and I suddenly feel the urge to leave, now. I turn towards the door but Durron reaches out and stabs down with his lightsaber before I can move. Years of instinct take over as I block his blow and yank his arm backwards. He gasps in pain but is able to pull himself out of my hold before I can flip him over onto the floor. "Think twice before you do anything else, Durron," I warn. "You want to face off against the Emperor's Hand? You can have her. I won't hold back." Our two sets of green eyes lock on to with each other, and then, just like that night in front of the turbolift, I see a sickly gleam in Durron's eyes. A sickly, yellow gleam. He grins wickedly and lunges at me. I thank the Force for all my hours of private lightsaber training with Luke, because Durron is frighteningly good, much better than anyone of his age and skill should be. My skills with a lightsaber are better than any of the other students here, but Durron is making me work hard to fight him off. His blows are hard and furious, and fueled by pure rage…just like a Sith. I know that Durron is not a Sith. As much as I dislike him, there is no way that can be possible. But even so, something horrible has happened to him. I sense the dark side in him, and he is embracing it, fully. I urgently try to disarm him, knowing that, even if I do, I cannot put an end to this. Luke needs to face him, and figure out what has happened. Luke… In that part of my mind that is connected to his, I reach out with the Force and call to Luke. Using all of my strength, I kick Durron back and he goes flying away from me, and I take that second to send Luke a vision of what is happening. "No!" Durron yells. He calls the Force to him and shoves his hands outward, pushing me back with all of his power. I fly through the air and brace myself for the pain before I slam against the wall. It still hurts, badly. Cursing, I use the Force to suppress the pain running down my spine and push myself up give chase. Durron runs down the stairwells, bypassing the turbolifts, and I try to catch up with him, but he has gotten too much of a head start. I reach out to Luke again to show him where Durron is headed. I finally catch sight of the boy again as I burst onto the landing platform, heading towards the speeder bikes. With nobody around to stop him, he jumps onto a bike and zooms away into the jungle. I rush to another bike, but at that moment Luke comes running up behind me, grabbing my arms and pulling me away. I yell out in frustration but he holds onto me, forcing me to calm down so I can tell him what happened. I feel his Force sense flowing around me, but I'm too distressed to fully relax. He turns me around to face him and holds my face in his hands, his eyes deep with concern. "Are you okay?" he asks, kissing my forehead. My breath is short and shallow, but I answer as best I can. "He attacked me, Luke! He came at me like an animal!" "What happened? What did he say?" "Nothing! It came out of nowhere! Tyria had just left the room, and he asked to spar, but I said no, and then he attacked me! And his eyes…" Luke straightens up, and when he speaks, his voice is more serious than I've ever before heard. "What about them?" It hurts deeply to tell him this, knowing what it will do to him, but I have no choice. He has to know. "They were yellow, Luke. Just like Palpatine's. Just like a Sith." Luke backs away. "No…that's not possible," he whispers. "I don't know how, Luke, but he is possessed. He isn't himself. We have to go find him before something awful happens!" "No," Luke says emphatically. "You stay here." "Like hell I will!" "I need to do this on my own, Mara." "Luke, this is not the time to have that same old argument—" "Then let's not have it!" he shouts, grabbing me and glaring down at my face. "Please, Mara, try to understand this one time. Please." I glare right back at him. "I will never understand." He shakes his head and releases me. "I'm going to find him. Stay here," he orders. I gaze into his clear blue eyes, seeing the torment inside of them. Just a few hours ago, I had hoped that Luke had finally learned to let himself be a normal human being. I had hoped that we had finally overcome all the obstacles standing the way of us being together. Now I fear that can never be the case, and it makes me want to hurt Kyp Durron even more than I already do. I know that Luke will not back down, so I stop arguing and place my hand on his cheek. "Be careful," I whisper. He nods and kisses me softly. "Please, watch over everyone for me. I trust you." Then he jumps onto a speeder bike and flies into the distance. I wait a good thirty seconds, then jump onto another bike and follow him. 13. Chapter 12 A/N: Song for this chapter: Cursum Perficio, Enya CHAPTER 12 It is difficult, but I don't press the throttle too much as I follow in Luke's wake. I keep a safe distance, not wanting to catch up with him, but not wanting to let him get too far ahead of me, either. Even as the day turns in to night, I have no trouble making my way through the jungle. It's as if Luke's light is guiding my path. When I arrive at Exar Kun's temple, I see two speeder bikes parked outside. I park mine further away so that Durron cannot hear me approach. I know that, even if Luke does not hear me arrive, he will most certainly feel my presence, so it's futile to try to hide from him. But somehow I know that letting Durron realize I am there would be disastrous. I put up all my mental shields, both to hide my presence from Durron and not distract Luke. Using every memory and every instinct of my training as a spy and assassin, I creep towards the temple's entrance, able to see clearly even through the oncoming darkness. Pressing myself up against the walls, I slowly make my way inside, creeping across the ground so that I cannot be seen, and hide in a corner. Luke is standing in the middle of the temple, his lightsaber already ignited by his side, the light from his green blade throwing shadows on his face. Kyp Durron stands on the altar, his back to the both of us. "You shouldn't have come here, Skywalker," Durron hisses, and his voice is not his own. It is the voice of a Sith. He turns around, and even from my place on the opposite side of the temple, I can feel the evil that has taken over him. He ignites his own lightsaber and holds it menacingly in front of him. Luke does not back away. He does not show fear for his life or his safety, but I can sense his deep fear for the life, and the soul, of the boy standing in front of him. "Don't do this, Kyp," he whispers. Durron laughs, taunting Luke. "No Kyp Durron here, Skywalker. You're too late. Poor boy, he's already gone. And it was so easy to convince him to join me, especially with you as his teacher." "No," Luke shakes his head. He takes a step forward towards the altar. "I know Kyp is still in there. I can feel him. You can't win, Kun." "Fool!" Durron cries. "I have won already! Do you forget your dead Jedi student? I killed him, Master, just as I will kill all of them…except for her. "Oh yes, you know exactly who I mean. Having her as my apprentice would be most fitting. It will be so pleasurable to break her…but the most satisfying thing of all will be watching you fall apart as she is twisted to do my bidding, just as she once was before. "And then I will kill you, slowly, and your precious Jedi Order will be dead forever, and the Sith will rule again." It takes all of my willpower not to run further into the temple and slice Durron in half upon hearing his threats, but something—or someone—is compelling me to stay out of sight where I am. I have a pretty good idea of who that is, and this time, I will listen to him. Luke, of course, does not take Exar Kun's bait. He has faced this temptation before, and he is far too strong to be goaded by such words. Instead he sighs, a deep and heavy sigh, and I know that he is dreading any action he will be forced to take against the boy standing in front of him. He will give Durron every chance in the universe to rid himself of Exar Kun's grasp before being forced to harm him. Slowly, Luke closes the distance between them. As if from a distant memory, I remember an old legend from the Clone Wars —the hero with no fear. Of course Anakin Skywalker's offspring would show the same tenacity on the battlefield. And that's exactly what this is—a battlefield on which light and dark will fight to the death. "Don't do this, Kyp," Luke says again, still pleading to the boy trapped inside the Sith Lord's thrall. With a yell, Durron rushes forward and slams his lightsaber down on Luke's, but Luke is prepared. Even as furious as Durron is, Luke holds him back with ease, and the calm he radiates is a distinct contrast to the turmoil that rages inside of him. Luke will make himself be calm, because for a Jedi, there is no passion, only serenity. The two lightsabers clash together, Luke exerting the aura of a powerful, serene Jedi Master, while Durron rages against him, angered by Luke's calm and easy defenses. Against anyone else, even me, Durron would be victorious; but even empowered by a Sith Lord, he cannot hold a candle against my Luke. As Luke blocks another of his blows, he glares down at Durron's face, trying as hard as he can to reach out to some part of the boy's soul that still exists inside of him. "Please, Kyp!" he begs. "Don't let him do this to you. Don't let him possess you. You can push him out. I know you can!" "No Kyp here," Durron grinds out, kicking Luke back and attacking once again. Luke blocks his blow and they circle around each other. Durron keeps striking out like a caged animal, but he cannot break past Luke's defenses. Luke keeps his lightsaber in a guard position, but slowly allows his body to take a gentler stance, and tries even harder to reach out to Durron. "I know it hurts, Kyp," Luke says, his voice loud and strong and compelling. "I know how easy it is to just give in and let the darkness take you. I know how good it feels. But you can fight it, Kyp! I know that you can! You are strong!" "No!" Durron yells, and this time, I can hear a sliver of the boy trapped inside, struggling to break free. "Yes!" Luke shouts. Durron shakes his head, now seething in rage. "How would you know any of that, Master Jedi? You don't know power of the Sith! You don't understand!" "I understand all too well, Kyp. I have felt the darkness inside of me. I fight it every day. I know how compelling it is to just give in and make all the pain go away; to make everything right, and the way you want it to be. But you are better than that, Kyp. You can fight him!" "No!" Durron rushes forward to attack, but this time Luke lashes out with all his power and disarms Durron before the boy can strike. He continues to rush forward, but Luke stretches out his arm and Force-pushes Durron across the temple. He lands on his back, stunned. Rushing over to the boy, Luke grabs Durron's neck and hauls him back up to a standing position. Luke stares into the boy's eyes, as if he is trying to will him back to life. "Fight him, Kyp. Fight him!" Durron's scream is immeasurable as his lightsaber flies back into his hand. He ignites it and the two weapons meet again, but Luke keeps pushing him back, their clashes loud and furious, until they are both standing on the altar. The darkness swirls around them; I can sense Exar Kun's spirit raging, the Force boiling in the air. Once on the altar, Durron collapses to the ground, crying out in agony. Luke hovers over him, ready to strike, but then I hear the boy's voice again, loud and strong: "Get OUT!" In an instant, a wave of furious dark energy flies outward from Durron. Luke holds on to the altar, preventing himself from being blown across the temple, and I duck and cover, bracing myself from being thrown into the temple wall. When the air finally calms, Luke kneels down next to the boy. Durron falls on his back and starts convulsing, before settling into a disturbing stillness. Through this, Luke stays by Durron's side. His eyes close and he murmurs soft words. After a few moments, the boy's eyes blink open again, and somehow I know, even from my place across the temple, that they are an intense, clear green, every trace of the Sith Lord's influence gone. Durron gasps for breath and then immediately begins to cry, and they are loud, keening wails that settle into the depths of my soul, disturbing me to no end. Without a second thought Luke pulls the boy into a hug, and Durron sobs against his shoulder. "What have I done?" Durron whispers. "What have I done?" "It's okay, Kyp," Luke reassures him in soothing tones. "Kun is gone. You pushed him out. You beat him." "I let him get inside of me," Durron cries. "He told me he could help me get revenge on the Empire for killing my family…for sending me to Kessel…for everything! And I believed him…I let him inside my head and I fought against my friend and I killed him! I would have killed you and everyone else at the Academy…I would have let him take over! What have I done?" Luke doesn't say anything. He doesn't have to. He just gently strokes the boy's hair, holding him close, like he would a son or a younger brother. And through the Force, I realize that Luke does not blame Kyp Durron at all for what has happened. He doesn't blame Durron for anything! They stay on the altar for a long time, Durron sobbing into Luke's arms, and Luke comforting him as much as possible. Watching them, I sense Luke's forgiveness, and it makes my heart turn to ice. Before they can leave and find me watching them, I drag myself away from the scene in front of me and crawl back outside. It is completely dark now, but that doesn't matter. Slowly, trying to push the immense feeling of dread out of my mind, I creep back to my speeder bike and start up the engine. Before I fly away, I reach out with the Force and touch Luke's mind, and in doing so, I am certain. Kyp Durron—the boy who trusted a Sith Lord and killed a fellow student in the process—will be forgiven. He will be welcomed back into the Jedi Order with open arms. I can think of nothing else as I head back to the Academy. Later that night, after the rest of the Academy has taken refuge under the veil of sleep, after Kyp Durron has been ushered back into his quarters with nary a word to the other apprentices about what just transpired inside Exar Kun's temple, I find myself once again standing outside Luke Skywalker's door. I promised Luke that I would see him tonight, and I will keep my promise, even though this is not at all how I expected our encounter to proceed. Luke opens the door before I can knock. Without saying a word, he pulls me to him and presses his lips to mine, both of us unable to resist each other even though we both know that I am here for very different reasons. We slowly make our way across the living room, our hands moving all over each other. I feel my resolve weakening as our kisses grow more intense, and I fall back onto the couch, pulling Luke down on top of me. His weight feels so good and I want nothing more than for this to never stop, but after several minutes I remember why I am here and force myself to pull away, knowing that this cannot happen. Not now. Not like this. We stare at each other for a moment, and then I sit up, gently pushing him off me. The perfect gentleman, he obliges and settles down next to me, our legs lightly touching, his hand resting softly on my knee. He knows why I am here. He knows that I do not approve of what he has decided to do about Kyp Durron. Taking a deep breath, I glance at his worried face. "I guess you know that I followed you." The barest hint of a smile touches his lips. "I guess I should have known that you would never have listened to me." "Do I ever?" I ask sardonically. I hear his reply in my mind: I only wish that you would. It seems like a lifetime passes as we sit silently on the couch, both of us unsure of what to say next, both of us unwilling to hurt the other by giving voice to our feelings. It is obvious that Luke believes he is to blame for what happened to Kyp Durron. I reach my hand out to touch his face, wanting to console him and make him see that he is wrong. He presses his cheek into my palm, sighing heavily, as if he is trying to expel every worry and burden from his soul, only to find that they will not go away. For Luke Skywalker, the worries and burdens will never go away. "It's all my fault," he whispers, like a child who has been caught doing something wrong and knows that he will undeniably face the harshest of punishments. I remember that feeling all too well, when I was a little girl being raised in the confines of the Imperial Palace. "I should have seen it coming. I wasn't paying enough attention—" "No, Luke. Don't think that way," I argue. "It's not your fault. You didn't send Kyp Durron into Exar Kun's temple. He went there on his own volition, even after you warned us all of the possible consequences. If you want to blame anyone for what happened, blame Kyp Durron himself." Luke shakes his head vehemently. "I can't do that, Mara." "So you'll blame yourself instead? You'll kill yourself with guilt over this?" Luke's eyes droop with sorrow and regret. In that moment I want nothing more than to throw my arms around him and drag him into the bedroom and make him forget everything bad that has happened…but I can't. I can't ignore what he plans to do. It goes against everything that I believe is right. "Are you really going to let Durron back into the Jedi Order?" I ask, unable to keep the disgusted tone out of my voice. He nods, looking more mature and more burdened than Luke Skywalker should ever be. All the innocence that I admire so much about him has been hidden deeply away, yet he still clings to his steadfast desire to forgive, and to see the best in everyone. "I have to," he replies. "I have to forgive him." "Are you sure that's wise?" I ask, and I am once again the skeptical, untrusting Emperor's Hand. Luke doesn't answer. "What about the rest of us?" I continue. "What do you mean?" "What happened to the rest of us having a say in how the Jedi Order is run? Are you even going to consider our opinions on this matter?" "I care about everyone's opinions, Mara—" "Could've fooled me." "Would you let me finish? I do care about everyone's opinions, especially yours. But this matter isn't up for debate. This is about something I believe is fundamental to the Jedi Order—redemption and forgiveness. I'm not going to put it to a vote as to whether or not we should forgive Kyp Durron, and that's all there is to it." "But he embraced the dark side, Luke," I argue. "That should be unforgivable." "No. It shouldn't. I forgave my father. I can forgive Kyp." I sigh at him. "That is so incredibly different and you know it—" "No, it's not!" He finally turns to me, and I see the hurt in his eyes, and the tremendous guilt he feels for what has happened under his leadership. Because he blames himself, he will therefore do everything in his power to make things right, and the only way he knows how to do that is to make sure that Kyp Durron redeems himself and becomes a Jedi Knight—exactly as he would have done with Anakin Skywalker had he survived the Battle of Endor. But even though Durron is just a boy; even though he has experienced immense trauma in his life and acted under the influence of a darkness that I understand all too well; I still cannot find it in myself to forgive him. Part of me knows that if Luke is able to accept Durron back into the Jedi Order, then I should be able to do so as well. But no matter what I do, the thought of fighting alongside someone who would so willingly embrace the dark side sickens me. "Mara," Luke says so softly that I have to strain to hear his voice, "just because you can't forgive yourself for your past, doesn't mean that you shouldn't forgive Kyp for his." For a moment, all I can do is sit completely still and gape as his audacity. When I finally regain control of my actions, I quickly push myself off the couch, offended beyond belief by his violation of my very private thoughts. I glare at him with hard eyes; he meets my gaze, standing by his words even though he knows just how much they have wounded me. And then, not able to spend another second looking at him, I turn around and leave his quarters in a rush. I cannot get out of there fast enough. I cannot get far enough away from him. For the first time since I arrived at the Jedi Academy, for the first time since I have known him, I cannot bear to be in Luke Skywalker's presence. 14. Chapter 13 A/N: The word "bicce" was borrowed from the fic Quagmire by kataja. Thanks! CHAPTER 13 Just like our first day the Jedi Academy, the ten of us original students sit in the meditation garden for a meeting with Luke. But unlike our first meeting, none of us are in good spirits. We all know why Luke has called us here. He wants to discuss what happened with Kyp Durron. We sit silently, waiting for Luke to begin speaking. Before he does, he looks all of us straight in the eye. When he gets to me, I glare daggers at him. He blinks and looks away. "Thank you all for coming," Luke says. "I know that you have questions about recent events, and you deserve to hear from me first hand exactly what transpired." Luke takes a deep breath before launching into the story. "Yesterday, Kyp Durron attacked a fellow student. This student was able to hold him off and reach out to me to let me know what was happening. Kyp escaped, but I followed him to Exar Kun's temple, where he had fled. Once there, I found that he was no longer himself. He had been possessed by Exar Kun's spirit. "Thankfully, I was able to reach out to the part of Kyp that was still trapped inside. After a fight, he pushed Exar Kun's spirit out of his body, and expressed extreme remorse for what he had done. While possessed, Kyp could not recall his actions, but afterwards, he remembered everything he had done while under Kun's influence, including killing his friend, who had been trying to save him. And knowing what he had done almost destroyed him." Luke pauses for a moment, and I can sense his apprehension about what he is about to say, even though he has the utmost conviction that he is right. "I want to explain to you my reasoning for accepting Kyp back at the Academy. First, Kyp is extremely strong in the Force, but he does not know how to harness or control that power. If he is expelled from the Academy and left to learn on his own, it can be almost guaranteed that he will slip back under the influence of the dark side. I'm sure you all can agree that is not a desirable situation. Even I can admit he has a point there. "But most of all, I forgive Kyp because it is the Jedi way. If any of you take the time to speak with him, you will find that he hates himself more right now than anyone else possibly could. He has shown repentance, and being who I am, I have to accept that. Luke stares at me directly when he says his next words. "I know that some of you may not understand this, and even disagree outright. I urge you to please talk to me if you have any misgivings. I truly value all of your opinions, and want you to all feel comfortable in your place in the Jedi Order." I look away from his gaze, suddenly no longer certain in my beliefs about Kyp Durron. Corran shifts beside me and I glance at him. His expression is as hard as durasteel. Tyria raises her hand. "Master Skywalker, what about Exar Kun? Has he been defeated permanently?" Luke shakes his head. "I don't know, Tyria. I sense that the dark side is still strong inside the temple. For now, it will remain off limits." Nobody else speaks, so Luke dismisses us all. Corran, Tyria, and I walk inside together. "You don't approve," I say to Corran. "Do you?" he shoots back. "Not really." He gives me a sympathetic look. "Must be difficult for you." "You could say that. What about you, Tyria?" She shrugs. "I dunno. If Kyp really does feel remorse, and Master Skywalker thinks he should be forgiven, who are we to say otherwise?" "He killed someone, Tyria!" Corran hisses. "I know that! I didn't say we should just forget about it. But he wasn't himself. It could have been any one of us who did those things." Corran shakes his head. "No. Durron was weak and susceptible. A Jedi should be stronger than that." His words sting me to no end, especially considering Luke's accusation from the previous night. "You forgave me, Corran," I say softly. He stiffens, surprised by my tone. "That's different." "Is it?" "I thought you said you didn't approve?" "I didn't. I don't…I don't know. I guess…I guess after hearing Luke's explanation, it's not as black and white as I originally thought." "Is that you talking, or is that your boyfriend's influence?" "He's not my boyfriend, Corran, and don't make me hit you." Tyria punches him, hard. "Ow! What was that for, Tyria?" "Because that was a stupid thing to say." "Sorry. Anyway, I still don't agree." "You should talk to Master Skywalker about it," Tyria advises. "I know. But I'm tempted to just leave." "And quit your training? Mirax would kill you!" I tell him. "Yeah, she probably would," he agrees. "I've been here long enough already. I guess I should finish what I've started. But I'm still not happy. What about you, Mara?" I sigh. "You know I'm staying. But I'm not happy, either." We walk the rest of the way in silence. Part of me knows that Luke is right…but the other part of me just cannot learn to forgive. Several hours later, after the Academy has grown quiet, after darkness has taken over the jungle moon, I feel Luke's presence burning through the Force like a beacon, calling me to him. No matter what I do, no matter how angry with him I may be, I cannot shy away from him. I check everywhere in the Academy, but he is nowhere to be found. His X-wing is still parked inside the hangar, so there is only one other place on the moon where he could be. It is the reason why his spirit is burning so brightly in agony. Even though it's off limits, I have no choice but to go there. I have to talk to him. When I arrive, I find Luke standing in the middle of Exar Kun's temple. He holds his lightsaber firmly in his grip, but it's not ignited. He is motionless, seemingly not even breathing, as if he is in a far away place. I approach him slowly, not wanting to startle him. He seems so distant. I know that he has not sensed my presence. "Luke?" He blinks once at my whisper. I reach my hand up to touch his face. He stiffens, but he does not pull away. He continues to stare straight ahead at the altar, standing alone, oblivious to everything else around him, including me. It is such a fitting testament to his current place in the galaxy. "Luke?" I whisper again. He finally turns and stares right through me with his bright blue eyes, as if he doesn't even see me. "What's wrong? Are you okay?" They are such stupid questions, but they are all I can think of at this moment. He looks back at the altar. "Can I help you?" He shakes his head. "Please, let me help you." He doesn't respond, so I lift up on my toes to place a soft kiss on his cheek. He murmurs a soft "No," and his lightsaber drops to the floor with a loud clang as his hands ball into fists. I feel him gather the Force around him, ready to push me away at a moment's notice, and I brace myself, preparing myself for the onslaught… Instead, Luke whips around and pulls me to him in a searing kiss. For a moment I remain completely still, but his lips feel so hot against mine as they urge my mouth open and I just cannot find the strength to resist him. His fingers tear into my hair and it hurts, but I embrace the pain and kiss him back with fervor, hoisting myself up on his shoulders and squeezing my legs around his hips. His hands travel down my body and he tears his lips from my mouth, raking kisses down my throat, down my chest, and I arch my back against him in ecstasy, his name falling from my lips in hoarse, throaty whispers. Our mouths connect together once again and our tongues dance against each other and I see stars. But even through such intense passion, something deep inside tells me to stop, that this cannot happen this way, that this is very wrong; but I refuse, entranced by the feel of Luke's body against mine… Then I am flying through the air as he shoves me off him, the "No!" that he utters this time much louder on his lips. I stare at him, dumbfounded, from my place on the floor. He paces frantically, muttering to himself. "Control, control, you must learn control!" As I push myself up, he turns around to face me. His nostrils flare with passion and regret and intense self-loathing. "We can't do this," he states, his voice emotionless. For a moment, I cannot even think. Then my jaw sets in disbelief, once again remembering Corran's words of advice: Try not to get hurt. If only it were that easy. Furious, I stalk towards him until we are standing face to face. "I told you not to do this if you couldn't follow through, Skywalker," I snarl, pointing at his face. He tries to turn away but I grab him before he can move. "I don't believe you!" I cry, tugging his robes so hard that I might as well be strangling him. "After all we've been through, after all that we feel, you're still hung up on this damn attachment issue, aren't you?" Luke glares back at me with unblinking eyes…and then he says something I never thought I'd ever hear him admit, even though I know that he has thought it so many times: "It would just be so much easier if you weren't here." I release my hold on him and back away slowly, trying to ignore the scorching pain in my heart upon hearing his words. Tears well up in my eyes but I blink them away, refusing to let him see me so vulnerable, willing myself to focus on my anger rather than my pain. "Really?" my voice comes out, choked. "Is that what you really think?" I can tell that, even now, Luke is deeply upset at hurting me, but he doesn't say no. I draw myself up to my full height and think back to all my training under Palpatine from so many years ago. I shield my thoughts from Luke, not wanting him to know just how much his words have hurt me…just how much I really care. "All right, Skywalker," I say, jutting my chin forward. "If that's the case, you just say the word, and I'm gone. You can go on training everyone without me being a complication, and I'll go back to working for Karrde and not having my heart ripped out every time I look at you and know that I can't have you. Problem solved." Of course, he can't make it easy for himself, or for me. He sighs and runs his fingers through his hair. "I can't ask you to do that, Mara." "Why not?" I press. "…Because I—" "Don't you dare say it!" I exclaim. "Not now, not like this." He looks away from me. "You deserve to be here. I can't ask you to give up being a Jedi just because I can't control myself." "Oh, so you think this is so easy for me, huh?" I demand, my voice becoming shrill, so unlike the Emperor's Hand that everyone thinks they know. "You think it'll be so easy for me to finish my training with you just barely out of reach, finally get Knighted, and then—what? Stay here at the Academy and watch you slowly take control of everything? Watch you deny yourself everything that makes you human? Get sent off on missions that could possibly end my life, all for a person who won't even allow himself to care for me?" "I allowed myself to care and look what happened!" he screams. "A man is dead and another let himself be possessed by darkness, all because of me!" "It's not because of you!" I yell, resisting the urge to shake him and make him realize how stupid he is being. "Why can't you see that?" "Why can't you see that I'm right about this? You heard what Kun said! I let myself become so infatuated with you that I couldn't even see what was going on right in front of me! How can I possibly lead the Jedi Order when I let myself act like that?" "Like what, like a normal human being?" Unable to control myself, I lash out at him, my fists pounding hard against his chest, forcing him to stumble backwards. "You can be such a stupid idiot, you know that? A stupid, kriffing idiot!" He grabs my wrists and holds them together with one hand. "And you can be such a heartless bicce, so I guess that makes us even." A lone tear threatens to fall down my cheek upon hearing his insult, but my anger is far too intense to let me cry. I wipe the tear from my face so hard that my cheek burns. "I just don't get you, Luke. You'll forgive him but you won't forgive yourself for being happy?" I ask incredulously. Now he is the one to lash out, and I have to brace myself from the anger that pushes out from him in waves. "Oh, you should talk, Mara!" I didn't think it possible, but my expression hardens even more. "Don't even go there, Luke!" I warn. "What, you want to deny it? You've been here almost five months and I keep telling that you have to face your past, yet you refuse to do so! Why, Mara? Why can't you forgive yourself for what you once were?" "Just because you throw out forgiveness like it's a door prize doesn't mean it's as easy for me to do the same!" "But this is your life, Mara—your forgiveness! You can't go on living this way, not forgiving yourself for what Palpatine did to you!" I rush forward and attack him again, punching him hard with my fists, infuriated beyond belief that he would say such a thing. "You have no idea, Skywalker, so don't you even try to understand!" Luke blocks my blows with ease and pins my arms against my sides. He glares down at me with cloudy, intense eyes. "Make me." Even though I know that he could never even come close to understanding what I've been through, I can't stop myself from responding, from finally releasing every pent up fear and regret that I've kept inside for so many years. "You just don't get it, Luke—you beat him! You stood in front of him, after he had done everything that he could to turn you to the dark side, and you said no. You threw down your lightsaber, and you said no. He tortured you, and you still said no! That's what you said happened, right?" I tear myself away from him, but now that the words are out, I can't stop. "But me? Palpatine plucked me from my happy little home and bent me entirely to his will. I was his experiment," I say the word like a curse. "That's all I was to the entire galaxy—a sick, twisted man's experiment! And I spent my entire life wanting nothing more than to serve him—wanting to be the best little assassin I could be. "After he died, I was broken, and I struggled so hard to build a new life for myself. I thought I had succeeded, but even five long years after the Emperor's death, when I was finally starting to gain a sense of independence, I still found myself compelled to do his bidding. Even though you helped me learn that everything he ever told me was a complete and utter lie, Palpatine's hold over me was so strong that, when it all came to a head, I still did it. I did exactly what he ordered me to do." I pause, allowing myself to breathe again, once again brushing the tears away from my eyes, refusing to let myself cry in front of him. "What are you talking about, Mara?" Luke whispers. "You will kill Luke Skywalker!" I explode. "I heard that voice every day inside my head after Endor, and when I finally found you, I wanted nothing more than to give in and kill you for ruining my life, and make the voice stop! But then I was faced with the truth—that nothing was what it was supposed to be—and I knew right then and there that I could never kill you. Even more than that, I realized that, despite everything I said at the time, I no longer wanted to. I was already starting to care. "But in the end…I still gave in." "I'm right here, Mara," Luke says, his voice a stark contrast to what it was mere seconds ago. He closes the distance between us, reaching out to take my hand, but I pull away before he can touch me. "You didn't kill me." "But I still gave in!" I cry. "I didn't kill your clone to save your life, or even to save my own life. I killed your clone because Palpatine told me to! It was his last command, and I had to follow it. And when I killed the clone, and the voice finally stopped, I was elated! I was finally free! "But then the realization set in—that even after so many years, after building a new life for myself, after knowing that everything he ever taught me had been a lie…I still couldn't say no to him. "But you could, Luke—you did! You have no idea the strength it took for you to be able to do that! And yet here you are, still killing yourself with worry and doubt about whether or not you'll be able to resist the dark side, and it sickens me, because I envy you so much for being able to stand up to the Emperor and beat him, and you can't even begin to understand!" I finally stop shouting. The temple grows deathly quiet. I stare at the side of Luke's face, panting heavily, waiting for him to say something. But he doesn't speak; he doesn't even have the decency to look at me after I've confessed my most secret thoughts. Suddenly I can't take it anymore. Before I can stop myself, I say something so horrible that it almost makes me physically ill to hear coming out of my mouth: "You have no idea how much I hate you right now, Skywalker." He doesn't respond. He doesn't even flinch at my declaration. Angered to the point of seeing red, I reach up and yank his head around to face me. "Say the word and I'm gone," I hiss, my voice cold as ice, and I desperately pray that now, after all that I have said, he will grant me my wish. But he doesn't. He doesn't even say it back to me—that he hates me, too—because he is Luke Skywalker, and he does not know how to hate. And that makes me envy him even more, because for so many years, hate was all that that fueled me. Hate was all that I knew. "I hate you so much," I whisper, trying so hard to convince myself of that fact, when it couldn't be farther from the truth. He still says nothing. Finally I turn around and run away into the darkness, knowing that the only person I hate right now is myself. I do not go to my lessons the following morning. My comlink starts buzzing early, but I do not answer. I shut it off and throw it violently against the wall, shattering it to pieces. My old soldier's instinct begins to kick in and I feel the urge to go to the mess and eat, but the urge to ignore the galaxy wins out and I pull the covers back over my head, drowning out the rising sunlight. I don't care if I miss Luke's lessons, or my private training with him later on today. There is absolutely no way I can look him in the eye after what happened between us the previous night. I can barely even look at myself after what I said to him. I drift back to sleep for several minutes, but then there is a loud pounding at my door that I can't ignore. I reach out with the Force and sense Corran on the other side. "Go away!" I yell. I am not in the mood for more Rogue Squadron biting sarcasm about another late night with "Master Skywalker." He doesn't back down. "Open up, Mara." "Go away!" "Open up or I'm gonna unlock the door myself!" he threatens. "You suck at telekinesis, Horn!" "I'll use my lightsaber if I have to!" "Leave me alone!" "Mara, this is important! Stop being a stubborn idiot and open the kriffing door!" Sighing, I reach out with the Force and unlock the door. Corran appears a second later in the doorway. "Get up," he orders. I pull the covers back over me and shake my head against my pillow. Corran crosses to the bed and rips off the covers, throwing them to the floor. He tosses me some clean clothes and orders me to get dressed before turning away. "What the hell is your problem?" I demand, finally sitting up and pulling on a tunic, but refusing to move otherwise. "Why do you care so much if I'm missing lessons?" Corran turns back around and stares at me. "Where is Luke?" he asks. I blink at his use of Luke's first name. "What?" "You don't know where he is?" he questions, with a suspicious look on his face. "Well yeah, he's in lessons with you." Corran shakes his head. "No, he's not. He's nowhere to be found. And I know you were with him last night, so just tell me where he is, okay, so we can all stop worrying." "What are you talking about?" I ask, feigning ignorance. "Mara, I came by your room late last night, because I felt that you were upset and thought you could use someone to talk to. I know you weren't here." I don't even try to deny it. I can only think of one thing—Luke never came back to the Academy last night. My hand flies to my mouth. "I was with him, but…" I trail off, blinking back tears, unable to explain what happened between us. "Where were you? He's not in his quarters." I shake my head. "No, we weren't in his quarters, we were…at Exar Kun's temple." Corran looks at me incredulously. "Why in blazes were you there? That place is still off limits!" "I know, but I couldn't find him anywhere last night!" I explain. "I could sense that was where he was and I just had to talk to him, so I went to see him…" "Okay, so where'd he go when you came back?" I cringe, remembering the horrible things we said to each other. "That's the thing…we didn't come back together. I…I left him there." Corran gapes at me. "And why would you do such a stupid thing?" "We…we had an argument," I try to explain, but the words sound so stupid coming out of my mouth. "I couldn't bear to be near him anymore, so I left him there." "…It must have been one hell of a fight." "You have no idea," I whisper. Corran rubs his face with his palms. "Okay, well now I have just one more question." "What?" "What are we still doing here? Hurry up and finish getting dressed!" The two of us arrive at Kun's temple in record time. Corran parks the landspeeder next to Luke's speeder bike. All of a sudden my stomach drops out from underneath me, and an intense feeling of dread washes over my soul. I can sense Luke inside the temple… only he's not. I run inside as fast I can, and cry out before I even realize that my mouth has opened. Luke is lying on the altar, completely still…as if in death. Without thinking, I rush to him and shake his shoulders, yelling his name over and over, but he doesn't respond. I put my head to his chest and feel him breathing, but it doesn't matter…it's as if he's not there. Corran rushes into the temple behind me and I hear him gasp, but I do not acknowledge him. Because I suddenly remember with utter clarity the taunting words of Exar Kun, as they were spoken from the mouth of young Kyp Durron: "I have won already…I will kill you, slowly…" I collapse on the ground next to Luke and hug him close to my chest, rocking back and forth, willing him to wake up, but he does not. Corran kneels down next to me and places his hand on my shoulder. "It'll be okay, Mara," he soothes. "He's alive. It'll be okay." I don't respond. All I can do is whisper over and over, "I'm sorry…I'm so sorry…" But Luke still does not come back to me. He is gone. 15. Chapter 14 A/N: Song for this chapter: Breathing Space, X-Ray Dog CHAPTER 14 Somehow, Corran manages to drag me away from Luke and pull me into a hug. I throw my arms around him, ready to bury my face in his shoulder and let out all my grief. But then I stop myself. This isn't me. I'm a fighter. And I need to fight for him. In one fluid movement, I rip Corran's comlink from his belt and jump up from my place on the floor. "Cilghal, this is Mara. Meet us outside the temple; it's an emergency. Master Skywalker has been hurt." Just as quickly I toss the comlink back to him and reach down to grab Luke's arm. Corran gapes at me, unmoving. "Well are you gonna help me carry him, or do I need to levitate him out to the speeder?" Corran blinks, then jumps up, grabbing Luke's other arm and hoisting him to a standing position. We hobble outside the temple with Luke slumped in between us, and I do my best not to look at his lifeless face. On the ride back I sit with Luke in the back of the landspeeder, holding his hand, trying to reach out to his Force presence that seems just barely out of reach. When we arrive back at the Academy, Cilghal rushes Luke into the small medical room. She examines him thoroughly, but cannot find anything physically wrong with him. His vital signs are completely normal, and he responds to outside stimulus, but he will not wake up. I stay by his side while Cilghal performs her monotonous examinations, but after she is finished I make myself leave to get something to eat. I'm not going to be any help to him if I starve to death. I head to the mess and settle down at a small table with Tionne, Kam, Corran, and Tyria. I notice Kyp Durron sitting by himself, looking distraught. He rushes out of the mess as soon as he sees me arrive. "How are you doing?" Corran asks me, his voice deep with concern. "Fine," I reply, forcing myself to believe that statement, because I cannot afford to be anything other than fine right now. I have to be strong for Luke. "Were you able to find anything?" I ask Tionne, who is surrounded by pieces of flimsiplast, several datapads, and the two holocrons. The blonde woman shakes her head. "Nothing concrete. I've found information about Exar Kun's history, but nothing about how his spirit came to be in that temple, or how we can possibly defeat him. And now, with him in Master Skywalker's body…" she trails off, uncertain of her next words. "What?" I demand. "I believe that Exar Kun's spirit is trying to possess Master Skywalker, just as he did with Kyp Durron," Tionne explains. "But Master Skywalker is too powerful to let him take over. I think…I think they're dueling inside his mind, for control of his body." "So Luke can eventually win out?" I ask hopefully. Tionne shrugs. "My understanding of the Force just isn't strong enough yet to comprehend what is happening. With enough power, we might be able to reach out to Master Skywalker's spirit and bring him back, but I fear he's too far out of reach for us." "So you're saying there's nothing we can do?" Corran demands. Tionne looks down at the table, looking forlorn, and Kam squeezes her hand. "She's doing the best she can," Kam says, his voice getting an edge to it. Corran sighs. "I know. I'm sorry. We're all frustrated and worried right now." "Is there anything we can do to help?" Tyria asks. Tionne hands her a datapad. "This is all the information I've been able to compile about the fight against Exar Kun thousands of years ago. Studying the history further can't hurt us." Tyria nods and turns on the datapad, settling in to read. Suddenly I sigh, realizing that we have forgotten something very important. "Um…has anyone contacted Leia Organa Solo and told her what's happened?" Corran groans. "Damn, I knew I was forgetting something. I'll go comm them." "I'll go with you," I say, wanting the distraction. When we arrive in the Academy's main office, Corran quickly establishes a connection with the Solo residence. Instead of Han or Leia, however, the comm is answered by a golden protocol droid. "Hello, I am See-Threepio, human-cyborg relations. Thank you for contacting the Solo residence. How may I be of service?" I roll my eyes; all we need right now is a prissy answering machine. Thankfully, Corran answers for the both of us. "This is Corran Horn and Mara Jade from the Jedi Academy. We have an urgent need to speak with Princess Leia." "Oh, I'm terribly sorry sir," Threepio apologizes. "I'm afraid Mistress Leia is not present." "Can we speak to Captain Solo, then?" "I'm terribly sorry sir, but Master Han is not present, either." "Where are they? We need to speak with them immediately about Master Skywalker," Corran demands. "I'm terribly sorry sir, but I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to divulge that information to anyone but Master Luke." I lean forward into the camera and glare at the protocol droid as much as I can through the HoloNet connection. "Listen, you shiny piece of—" Before I can finish, a loud twittering noise interrupts the conversation. Luke's astromech comes rolling forward from his place in the office, obviously aware that I am about to go off on his counterpart. "Artoo Deetoo!" Threepio exclaims. "It is so good to see you! I hope that you are faring well at the Jedi Academy. I'm afraid that taking care of the two young Solo children is entirely too much for my circuits—" Artoo makes another twiddling noise, cutting off Threepio before I can slam my hand through the computer terminal. "What did you say? Master Luke is in trouble? Oh my! You must do something, Artoo!" "Threepio," Corran interjects with as much patience as possible, "we appreciate your concern, but could you please tell us where Han and Leia are so we can let them know what's happened?" "Why sir, they are onboard the Millennium Falcon right now, on their way to Yavin IV." I slam my hand down on the desk. "Dammit, Threepio, why didn't you say so before?" I yell as I cut the HoloNet connection, while Artoo blows raspberries at me. When Han and Leia arrive at the Academy, they immediately head to the medical room to see Luke. Leia doesn't even look at me, and the thought of Luke's sister being upset with me hurts me greatly. Leia was one of the first people in the New Republic to accept me, and now I feel as if she blames me for what has happened to her brother. I stand outside the medical room, leaning against the wall, as she goes inside to sit with Luke. Han stays outside with me, wanting to give Leia some privacy. After a few moments, Han reaches out and grabs my hand. "How're you holding up, kid?" he asks, his voice laced with concern. I shrug. "I'm fine," I lie, but Han is not easily fooled. He raises his eyebrows at me. I ignore him and slide down the wall, sitting sit cross-legged on the floor. Han joins me on the ground, cringing as his joints crack. "You know, this is just what Luke was like, when you were unconscious." "Really?" "Actually, I think he was worse. But don't you worry your pretty little head off," he continues. "I've seen the kid get out of much worse scrapes than this." "You mean like on Myrkr?" I ask with a smirk on my face. Han chuckles. "Yeah. Trust me, he'll be fine." I sigh. "I hope so." "Look, I won't pretend to understand what's going on, but can't you all reach out to him through the Force?" "We've tried, but none of us are strong enough," I explain. "It's like he's just out of reach." Han gives me a knowing look. "Even for you?" I look down at my hands, suddenly embarrassed. "Well, what's this? Mara Jade, blushing? Now I've seen it all," Han teases me. I smile despite my unease, and he puts his arm around me. "Come on, Mara. If anyone should be in there right now, it should be you." I shake my head. He doesn't understand…he doesn't know what we said to each other…that I left him there…that this is all my fault. Suddenly, I can't help but laugh. "What's so funny?" Han asks. "Nothing," I lie, stifling my laughter, but unable to push the irony out of my mind. Because now I finally understand just how Jedi Master Luke Skywalker feels every day of his life, as he takes on the responsibility for everything that happens around him, even when, deep down, he knows he is not to blame. And it completely and utterly sucks. Luke! I wake with a start, his name shouting through my mind. I glance to my side…but my bed is empty. It always is. And I cannot sense his presence anywhere. But I just had, so intensely. How that is even possible, I don't understand. Then there is a knock at my door, and I hold my breath in anticipation, considering what I just felt, and praying that Luke is outside my door, coming back to me… But the wind is knocked out of me as I realize that, on the other side of the door, stands not Luke Skywalker, but Leia Organa Solo. Briefly, I consider ignoring her, but it would be pointless. "Mara," she begins without preamble after I open the door. "May I come in?" I nod, not trusting myself to speak just yet. I gesture for her to sit on my bunk, and take a seat in my much less comfortable chair. We sit facing each other for several moments. In the silence, I think back to Wayland, and how Leia came to my assistance during my duel with Joruus C'baoth. She was one of the first people in the New Republic to trust me, even as I stood in front of her and told her that I was going to kill her brother. Not just her brother…her twin. Finally gaining the courage to look into her eyes, I am almost startled at how much she reminds me of Luke. Not in looks, of course—the two of them do not resemble each other one iota—but when facing her, it is impossible not to sense Luke's essence inside of her. I shake my head in disbelief, incredulous that they could have gone so many years without realizing their connection in the Force. Ever the politician, Leia gets straight to the point. "I know about you and my brother." "Oh?" It is the only way I can think to respond. "He didn't tell me anything, if you're wondering. But he didn't have to." "Your husband said the same thing." "Well, we've known Luke for a long time." I glance down at my hands, hearing her unspoken implication —that they knew him long before I came along. I grimace, preparing for her onslaught. "Don't let him be an idiot, Mara." I look up at her again. "…Excuse me?" "I know how strong you are. If anyone can stand up to my stubborn, thick-skulled brother, it's you. And if you really want what's best for him, you need to do that." I stare at her, vaguely aware that my mouth is hanging open in disbelief. "You…you want me to be with your brother?" "Does that surprise you?" "Frankly, considering my background, it does." "I admit, I was wary of you at first. I had the displeasure of meeting the Emperor, and the fact that you were so close to him was unsettling. But after speaking with you just once, and then your assistance with Jaina and Jacen, I knew that you could be trusted; that whatever you may have been at one time, you were no longer that person. But most of all, I saw the way my brother acted around you. I knew that anyone who made him so incredibly happy deserved all my trust." My mouth begins to tremble. "I make him happy?" It's such a dumb question; I know that I do—he has told me as much. But he has also told me that I make things difficult, and that his life would be easier without me, and he consistently fights against his feelings for me. And I told him that I hate him. Leia smiles at me sympathetically. "You don't see it?" "I guess, but…" She shakes her head. "You have no idea, Mara. No idea at all." "What do you mean?" "Luke mentioned that you've taken to calling him 'Farmboy,'" Leia says. I blush, for some reason embarrassed that she knows my nickname for her brother, even as innocent as it is. "It's funny that you picked up on that right away, when you didn't even know him back then." "Back when?" I ask. Leia takes a deep breath before continuing, as if she's preparing to give a political speech and try to recruit me to her side. "You know, the first time I saw Luke was when he burst into my cell onboard the Death Star, ripped off his stolen stormtrooper helmet, and exclaimed, 'I'm Luke Skywalker, I'm here to rescue you!' I'm sure you know the story. If I hadn't been in such a dire situation, I might have laughed in his face—and honestly, I almost did laugh at him. He was such a stark contrast to everyone I knew in political circles on Alderaan. You know what I mean." I nod, understanding completely, remembering all the times I was forced to attend Imperial Court and the extravagant balls, and wondering how people could possibly deal with all of that pomp and circumstance on a daily basis. "But Luke was an entirely different breed. He seemed so much younger than me, and so innocent. Even after destroying the Death Star and becoming the best pilot in the Alliance, he still remained that innocent farm boy from Tatooine. It was what we all loved most about him. "But then Bespin happened. We fell into a trap and Luke came to save us, even though I prayed that he wouldn't, but he couldn't leave us to die there. After we rescued him, and I saw him standing there onboard the Falcon, it was like I was looking at a completely different person. Sure, he seemed like the same man, and most people were none the wiser—he still had the same steadfast desire to see the good in everyone, the same optimism, the same positivity that everyone fed off. But his innocence died on that day he fought Vader. I didn't know why at first, but later, when he finally told me, it made perfect sense. When Vader said that he was his father, everything in his life was shattered." I bite my lip in anger, remembering a similar moment of my own on Wayland, when I learned that Luke was Vader's son and I realized that the Emperor's last command was just one final act of vengeance towards his treacherous apprentice. Like Luke, everything in my life fell apart in that one moment, when I finally understood that everything I thought I knew was a lie. "He picked up the pieces well enough," Leia continues, unaware of my musings, "and found some peace after Endor, but since then, he's continued to take on more and more burdens and become less and less of that farm boy, especially after opening the Academy. "But with you, Mara…all anyone has to do is mention your name, and his eyes light up, and I see that same farm boy who burst into my cell on the Death Star. Most people don't notice it, but I do. I see it in his eyes, and I feel it in the Force, even as much as he tries to hide it from me. And the times I've seen him with you…it's so hard for me not to burst into tears, seeing how happy you make him. It's so rare to see him like that nowadays, and he deserves it so much, more than anybody else in the galaxy. And in the short time I've known you, I've seen that Luke has changed you as well. Your edge has gotten just a little bit softer…you smile a lot more…you're the same Mara Jade, only happier. "You two bring out the best in each other. Don't deny yourselves that. Make him realize that he can't do this without you, because you know how he is…he will take on all the responsibilities in the galaxy to atone for our father's sins, and he will do it all by himself. Don't let him do that, because it will break him." My words…exactly. "I can't convince him, Mara. I've tried, and so has Han. You're the only person who can get through to him. He needs you. And you need him. "So when he wakes up—not if, but when—promise me you'll do whatever it takes to make him understand that the galaxy doesn't need him to be a fearless Jedi who stands alone, with no one there to pick him up when he falls. The galaxy had thousands of such heroes, and look what happened to them. No, that's not what the galaxy needs—the galaxy needs Luke Skywalker, a farm boy from Tatooine, to lead us into the light. "And you're the only person who can make him realize that." 16. Chapter 15 A/N: Song for this chapter: Storms in Africa, Enya CHAPTER 15 I stand silently in the doorway, hesitant to move inside the medical room, but unable to walk away. I stare at Luke, lying lifeless on the cot, forcing myself to remain strong, and not break down upon seeing him in such a state. I only move from that position when Cilghal greets me. I shake myself and turn to her. "Hi, Cilghal. Um…is it alright if I sit with him?" "Of course. I'll just step out for a few minutes; I have some things to take care of." I nod and step into the room, hesitating until Cilghal exits into the hallway and shuts the door behind her. Slowly, I take a seat next to the bed. "Hey, Skywalker. How's it going?" I chuckle as I take in his lifeless face. "Yeah, dumb question, I know. You'll have to forgive me; I've never talked to a comatose person before, so I'm not really sure what to do here. "Anyway, Cilghal said we should talk to you normally, that it might stimulate your mind or something. I guess it can't hurt. And I have to admit that your inability to make smart-mouth retorts is very appealing. So here goes." I take out my datapad and begin to read some headlines from the HoloNet. "Slingball championships are going on next week on Kuat. The Corellian Bashers are favored to win, and of course Corran is insufferable about it. I still think the Coruscant Stars will beat them, though. We made a bet on it. Winner has to do the other's laundry for a month. I better win, 'cause I hate doing laundry." I pause for a moment, waiting for his silent laughter to end. Then I continue my rambling. "Incom is putting out a new X-wing prototype. Corran and Tyria can't stop talking about it. Apparently Rogue Squadron is going to test it out. So you better get out of this coma or whatever it is soon, because they'd probably kill to have Luke Skywalker test out their new prototype. And I know you'd give your right hand to do so. Haha, that was a good one, don't you think?" Again I pause, imagining him rolling his eyes at my bad joke. "I guess you'd probably like to know some serious stuff, being the great Jedi Master and all. There've been some more battles near the Remnant. There's some new admiral, Daala, who has been skulking around the Maw Installation. Ackbar and Pellaeon have had some more skirmishes. It's been rumored that Pellaeon is starting to think about signing a treaty. Can you imagine what that would mean if that came to pass? None of us are getting our hopes up, but it would be amazing, wouldn't it? I never thought it would happen in my lifetime—peace between the Republic and the Empire. It makes you wonder what Palpatine would say about all this, huh?" I pause once more for his unspoken retort. "Oh, I almost forgot—your friend Wedge Antilles is getting married. Corran and Tyria found out the other day and told me to tell you. Corran says you're needed at the bachelor party, so you better wake up soon. Wes Janson is planning it, so it should be quite the event. And they want you to be in the wedding, so if you need a date, well, I guess I'd be willing to go with you." His breathing quickens for a moment, then settles back into its regular pace. "So, yeah, about that. Since I have your captive audience, I'm gonna get some things off my chest, and there's nothing you can do about it." I reach out and take his hand before saying my next words. "I want you to know that you were right. You should mark this occasion down, because I rarely say that." His hand twitches in mine. "I should have listened to you. I should have let you help me confront my past. If I were stronger now, I might be able to save you. But I'll still try as hard as I can to get you back. I promise." His breathing quickens again. "You know, your sister came to see me the other night. She told me to knock some sense into you, and make you see that you can't do everything by yourself. That you'll break if you try. If this doesn't convince you, I don't know what will." His lip curls. "She also said…that we should be together. She's smart, so I'm tempted to agree with her. Then again, she did marry Han Solo, so I have to question her judgment a bit." His eyes flinch. "I mean, I don't know if you even want to be my friend anymore after what happened between us. I hope that you do. Honestly, I can't imagine you not being in my life in some way. Isn't that ridiculous? I can't believe I just admitted that. And you better not tell anyone I said that, or I'll really kill you this time." A soft moan escapes his lips. "Anyway, no matter what happens…I'll always be here for you. I just hope that now you realize that you can't keep pushing everyone away…that you can't keep pushing me away…because even I have my limits, Skywalker. I don't know if I can get hurt again. But, if you still want me…I'll always be here to catch you when you fall." I squeeze his hand, willing him with every fiber of my being to wake up, but he does not. I feel tears come to my eyes as I reach up to push a lock of hair from his face. "I'm so sorry for what I said to you," I whisper as my hand trails down his cheek. "You know that I didn't mean it. It's exactly the opposite." I take a deep breath. "I—" I pause, unable to finish my words. Even after all that has happened between us, I still cannot bring myself to say them aloud. But then again, with him, I don't have to. I love you. Unable to look at him anymore, I rise from my seat to leave the room, but something stops me before I can turn away. Just barely, I feel slight a slight tugging on my arm. I do need your help, Mara… Breathlessly, I look down, and see Luke's thumb gently caressing my hand. All of your help… For several moments, I cannot move. Then, my breath catches in my throat, and then I am flying out of the room, barreling down the hallway towards Tionne's quarters. I know how to get him back. A group of Jedi apprentices, a former smuggler, and a Princess stare at me expectantly. I stand in front of them, looking down at my datapad at the speech I have prepared. I have lived with the apprentices for several months, and have grown to call Han and Leia my friends. I shouldn't feel so apprehensive about speaking in front of them. But suddenly I feel terrified. How does Luke do this? I laugh at myself, again appreciating the irony of being thrust into taking on Luke Skywalker's burdens and truly understanding how he feels every day. I take a deep breath and begin to speak. "So, I'm sure you're wondering why I asked you all here. I'll cut right to the chase. I know how to get Master Skywalker back." As expected, everyone sits up a bit straighter in anticipation. Their excitement bubbles through the Force. Leia gives me a knowing smile, and Han winks at me. I roll my eyes and don't even think about looking at Corran and Tyria right now. "As Tionne said, Master Skywalker's spirit seems to be just out of reach. Whenever we try to reach out to him through the Force, we're unable to bridge that gap. But we've been going about it with the wrong strategy. We need to work together to reach out to him. Tionne?" She steps forward. "In some of our lessons, Master Skywalker spoke about how Jedi of the past were able to join together in battle meditation. It was very difficult to do this, but as Master Skywalker always reiterated, a group of Jedi working together is always greater than the sum of its parts. Mara and I believe that if we all join together and fight back Exar Kun with the light, we can defeat him." For a moment, nobody speaks. I know what they are thinking. We are merely fifteen Jedi apprentices. Sure, many of us are very strong in the Force, but we have never done something like this before. It was extremely difficult, even for Jedi Knights in the Old Republic. "It will be difficult," I say, "but we have no other choice if we want to get Master Skywalker back. He has taught us everything he knows. I know that we can do this." As I finish speaking, Tyria meets my eye and offers an encouraging smile. I smile back at her before continuing. "The battle meld will require a coordinator—someone who is very strong with the mental aspects of the Force." I turn to Corran, who sits next to Tyria. "Can you do it?" His eyes widen. "Me?" I nod. "We think you're the best for the job." Of course, CorSec is never one to step down from a challenge. "I can do it." "Good. Durron?" His head snaps up. "Me?" "We need someone to lead the fight against Exar Kun," Tionne explains. "You've already defeated him." His fear is obvious. "But I…I don't think I can. I don't think I'm strong enough…I already let him inside me—" "But you beat him," I interrupt. "You did it once. You can fight him again." "You don't understand—" "Master Skywalker accepted you back into the Order for a reason. Do you want to prove him right, or do you want to make us all question why you're here?" I know that my tone is harsh, but it is necessary. He stares at me for a moment, unable to speak. "Come on, Kyp," I challenge. "Prove me wrong." In that moment, something shifts inside him. His green eyes flash with confidence and self-acceptance. His shoulders straighten, and his jaw sets in determination. "Okay," he says. I tilt my head at him. "Lastly, we need someone to reach out to Luke's spirit, and bring him back while we're fighting against Kun," Tionne continues. "Obviously, Leia, we think you should be the one to do that. You're the closest to him." Luke's sister nods at Tionne. I sense her hesitation, but she does not protest. "Okay, then," I say. "Everyone get a good night's rest. We leave for Exar Kun's temple at sunrise." Everyone stands, but Leia approaches me before I can leave the mess. "You should do it." I look at her curiously. "Do what?" "You should be the one to reach out to Luke." "Me? No, you're his sister. You have the strongest bond with him." "She's right, Mara," Han chimes in from over her shoulder. "You're the only one who can bring him back." "No, absolutely not," I refuse. I know that they believe that I can get through to Luke, but Leia is his sister—his twin. There is no way that what Luke and I have could ever compare to that. "You're wrong," Leia counters, her brown eyes locking with mine. I take a deep breath, realizing that she has just sensed my thoughts. She clasps my hand. "You need to do this, Mara. I told you, you're the only one who can get through to him." "But—" "No buts, Mara! You should be the one to do it. Trust me." I sigh, running my fingers through my hair. "You Skywalkers really are stubborn." She gives me a smile fit for a Princess. "I know. And that's why you belong." He sits alone at the edge of the abyss, his light slowly fading away into darkness. Black sand sinks under my feet as I approach him. He does not look at me as I sit down next to him. I reach out my hand, but he does not accept it. "I was hoping you'd come," he says. "I almost didn't," I admit. "I know." A dark wave crashes at our feet. He inhales deeply, breathing in the cloudy, salty air. "You never used to have such a hard time believing in yourself. What changed?" I lean back to stare at the black stars above us. "Everything." Again I reach out my hand to him, but he continues to ignore it. The air grows thicker between us, and I wonder if I shouldn't have been the one to come. "Why won't you believe in yourself?" he asks against my unspoken doubts. I don't answer. Instead, I set my jaw, and stick my hand in front of him again. He looks down at it hesitantly. "We're waiting for you," I tell him. He continues to stare at my hand. "Your sister told me to come get you. I'm not leaving without you." In the distance, a storm cloud forms. Rain begins to travel towards us. His light fades even more. "I'm not leaving without you." "It's so peaceful here," he whispers. "No burdens. No expectations. No doubts. And now, you're here. It's perfect." "No, it's not, Luke. This isn't what you want." "And here I thought you've been trying to convince me to just be a normal person." "I have, but I realize now that you will never be a normal person. It's not what you're meant to be. It's not what you want to be. You're a fighter, like I am. And no matter what, you will always fight for the galaxy. "Do you know why your father gave up, Luke? It's because he had nothing left. He had no wife, no children, no master, no apprentice, no friends. He had nothing left but the dark side. "But you have fourteen apprentices fighting for you right now. You have a sister and a brother who love you. You have a niece and a nephew who are waiting to learn from you. You have friends who care as much for you as they do family. "And you have me." Finally, he turns his head. We lock gazes, and again I push my hand towards his chest, urging him to take it. "I don't know what the future holds for us, Luke. All I know is that I want you in it. Please. Let me help you. "Take my hand." He does. The abyss collapses in on itself, and for a moment, there is nothing. Then the universe explodes in a light so blindingly brilliant that I cannot see. I blink my eyes against the light, and I feel his hand in mine, guiding me forward. The light subsides, and we fall to the ground behind a circle of light. A large, dark figure looms in the center. A lone man stands in front of him, the light from his soul forcing the dark man back. I step forward to join the others in their fight, reaching for the lightsaber on my belt, but Luke's hand stops me. Not like that. I nod in understanding and pull back my hand. He takes it again, and we join Leia and the other apprentices in the circle. Slowly, our light begins to expand, melding with the others, until we are surrounded in brilliance. The dark man rushes forward, throwing out his arm to push aside the man in front of him and get to Luke, but Kyp stands firm. "No," he says. "You go through me." They fight, sabers clashing violently, as the light grows even more intense, filling my spirit with love. The light pushes forward and slowly begins to seep into the dark man. He screams and pushes forward, but the light holds him back. It begins to suffocate him, to crush him, to destroy him. He looks up, and his yellow eyes connect with Luke's. They stare at each other, two unmovable objects locked in fierce combat. Kyp steps in between them. "I said you go through me," he growls. Then the light explodes. There is a scream. And then Exar Kun is no more. The wind is knocked out of me as my spirit collapses back into my physical body. The world spins around but I hold on to Corran's hand, forcing myself to stay upright. I feel nauseous and incredibly weak, but I force my eyes open. Everyone else looks as sick as I do, and Han clutches Leia's arm, holding her upright, his eyes deep with concern. Then, we all notice it at the same time: a faint glow around Luke's body. It grows stronger and brighter by the second. Clasping hands again, we reach out into the Force, calling Luke's spirit back into his body. I can feel his essence again through the Force, and I reach out to him, urging him back to me. I squeeze his hand… And then his back arches against the tomb as he opens his mouth to gasp for breath. The relief in the air is palpable, and everyone begins speaking to him, welcoming him back home. Turning to his right, he faces his sister, who has tears streaming down her face. She reaches down to hug him, and Han pats him on the arm, grinning like a fool. The twins murmur soft words to each other, but I cannot make out what they are saying. I watch them for a few seconds, and then Corran puts his arm around me and I lay my head on his shoulder. He smiles and begins to guide me away from the altar. I grudgingly turn away, but before I can leave, I feel a gentle tugging on my arm, forcing me to stop. Luke is still wrapped in his sister's embrace, but his other hand holds on to mine. Through the Force, he sends out just how much he wants to hold me and tell me that everything will be okay, but for now, this is enough. I stare down at our hands joined together, and then, as I watch, his thumb begins to move slowly against my fingers, and I hear his voice so clearly inside my mind: Thank you. 17. Chapter 16 A/N: Song for this chapter: Can't Help Falling in Love, Elvis Presley A/N: Song for this chapter: Full of Grace, Sarah McLachlan CHAPTER 16 From my usual spot on the ground of the garden, I watch the Millennium Falcon disappear into the Yavin IV sky. Just barely, Leia's Force sense reaches out to me, and I smile, sending mine own back to her in good-bye. After several minutes, I feel Luke's presence at the back of the garden. He stands there for a long time, both hesitant to enter but unable to walk away, as conflicted as I am. I sigh, knowing that we can't avoid this any longer. "Well, don't just stand there," I call out, breaking the ice. I hear him chuckle as he walks over and joins me on the ground. "So. Does this feel like home yet?" he asks. "Yeah," I admit. "I guess it does." I rub my hands over my arms as the air grows chilly, and he takes his cloak off and drapes it over me. I look at him gratefully. "How do you feel?" I question. "Fine. Tired, but fine. And really glad to be back." "We all are." He smiles and takes my hand. It's quiet for a long time. I close my eyes, imagining that Luke and I are two normal people on a faraway planet, with no other cares or obligations in the universe, content to hold each other's hands and enjoy each other's company on a quiet, serene evening. Luke shifts next to me, and I know that he has sensed my thoughts. He wishes it were true, as well. The moment is broken, and we both speak at the same time: "Mara—" "Luke—" We glance at each other. "Ladies first," he offers. "Age before beauty." He gives me a small smile and nods, anxiety rolling off him in waves. "I guess we need to talk." My lip twitches. "Yeah." Even through the darkness of night I can see the weariness in his expression. "You know that I have to take him back." "Yeah," I acquiesce. "But…I guess I still just don't understand how you can forgive so easily." "It's who I am. I've forgiven people for much worse." "Vader was your father. It's completely different." "No, it's not. You witnessed first hand the atrocities Vader committed. You know what he did to me, and to Leia, and to Han. And yet, I still forgave him. So if I don't accept someone back into the Order for just one mistake, what does that say about me?" I know that Luke is right. I know that Kyp has proven himself, and that he belongs. But no matter how much Luke argues, no matter how hard he tries to get me to understand, I will never believe that everyone deserves to be forgiven. One thing my life has taught me is that not all people deserve redemption. "What about Palpatine?" I ask. "What?" He gives me a curious look. My voice quivers as I explain, afraid of his reaction. "If Palpatine had renounced the dark side at the Battle of Endor, would you have forgiven him?" He sputters, indignant at my question. "That's…that's a totally different situation and you know it!" "Why? Because he was the master, and not the apprentice?" "No—" "Because there wasn't any good inside of him?" "No—yes! It's a ridiculous question! It would never have crossed his mind! He was beyond redemption." And there it is—recognition that I am right; that some people cannot be forgiven. But I keep pushing him. "Why?" Luke is angry now, I can tell, but he struggles to keep his emotions in check, just as a Jedi Master should. "Oh, let's see, do you want the long list, or the short one?" I look him straight in the eye. "I am the long list," I reply, my voice laced with regret. As soon as I finish my sentence, Luke's entire expression changes. He regards me with such deep sympathy that I am forced to look away. I try to focus on the stars above us, but Luke's hand reaches over and forces me to look at him. "I could never forgive Palpatine because of what he did to you," he tells me. "It's as simple as that." Part of me—the old Mara Jade—wants to slap him for thinking this way. I'm a big girl, and I can take care of myself. I don't need Luke to protect me, especially when he's been trying so hard to protect himself from his own feelings and hurting me in the process. But the other part of me—the new Mara Jade, who sprung to life inside the Mount Tantiss throne room, and blossomed when Luke gave me his old lightsaber and asked me to train as a Jedi —cannot help but rejoice at his statement. Unable to reconcile my thoughts, I remain quiet, pulling away from his touch to look back at the stars, pretending that they are much more interesting than the man lying beside me. But his other hand still holds on to mine. Then, just barely, his thumb starts to move against my hand. Even though I know that I should pull away, my hand starts to move against his as well…and after several long moments, our fingers are intertwining together, like two lovers. Through this, I get a flash of one of Luke's memories—of him lying unconscious in the medical ward, and me sitting by his side, holding his hand, saying that I could never hate him. "I know you didn't mean it," he whispers. He did hear me that night. He heard everything—every single word. Even the ones I didn't speak out loud. And that thought suddenly terrifies me. "I don't know why I said it," I say, trying so hard not to let him sense my apprehension about the other things he heard that night. "You were angry." "So were you. It doesn't matter. It was a horrible thing to say, and I feel awful about it." "It's okay. You know I didn't mean what I said either, right?" "Which part?" I don't intend to sound as sardonic as I do, and Luke winces beside me. "About you being here." "Yes, you did. You've said it before. I make your life difficult." "Maybe," he sighs, as he breaks contact with my hand to reach up and touch my hair, "but you are completely worth it." I roll my eyes, still unable to accept his compliments even after all this time. After a few moments, Luke begins speaking again. His voice is strong but hesitant, as if he is determined to speak his mind, even though he is petrified that I will now be the one to pull away. "There's something I need to tell you, Mara. You were what kept me alive—knowing that you were waiting for me. Knowing that you were fighting for me. You were what brought me back from the abyss. And when I woke up, I realized something…" Luke's caresses move further up my arm, and I suddenly can't stop thinking about what Leia asked of me—to convince her brother to give up all his burdens and be the farm boy again. I know that I should do what she asked. I know that she is right. I know that I'm the only person who can get through to Luke, and that we need each other. But I also remember Corran's words of advice—try not to get hurt. No matter how strongly I feel about Luke, I can't ignore that warning. I can't give in to my feelings only to get hurt again when Luke again decides that, for the good of the galaxy, he cannot allow himself to care. And most of all, I just cannot let go of the last remnant of the Emperor's Hand that burns inside of me—the girl who is still so reluctant to let her heart rule her head. Every time I have allowed that to happen, I have been crushed. For my own self-preservation, I can't go through that again. Sensing my thoughts, Luke rolls over on his side and turns my chin towards him again. I look into his eyes, keeping my stare as blank as possible, refusing to listen to my heart. Slowly, Luke puts his hand on my chest and lifts my necklace from underneath my robes. He smiles as he runs his fingers over the crystal, and I think back to the night he gave it to me, when everything changed. As if he is also remembering that moment—which he most certainly is—he leans over me, his mouth so unbearably close to mine, but he does not close the final distance between us. Instead, he opens his mind to me through the Force. Tears of joy sting my eyes as he sends out all of his desires, all of his thoughts, all of his emotions… Just how much he loves me… And something deep inside me snaps. I can't do this anymore. As the realization bursts through my heart like a supernova, Luke takes a deep breath. His next words echo my very thoughts —our thoughts—and form a soft whisper against my face: "…I realized I can't deny how much I've completely and utterly fallen for you, Mara Ja—" Before he can even finish his words, I reach up and pull him down on top of me, pressing my lips firmly against his; for once in my life, allowing my heart to win the battle, and it rejoices in victory. Luke kisses me back eagerly; I taste the smile on his lips, and he is once again that farm boy from Tatooine, his own heart finally free of all his unrealistic expectations and burdens. His arms wrap around me, bringing me even closer to him. I feel like I am suffocating in his embrace, and it is the most wonderful feeling in the galaxy. Every doubt, and every fear, melts away as I concentrate on nothing else but the man holding me in his arms. I don't know how long we remain exactly like that, kissing passionately on the ground of the garden, but eventually he lifts me up and carries me back into the Great Temple under the starlight. Hours later, I rest my head on Luke's chest, grinning like a fool, listening to his heart pound underneath me in ecstasy. I am glistening with sweat and my hair is tousled, but I have never felt more beautiful. I've dreamt about this moment since the first time he kissed me. I've wondered how he would feel. I've wondered how he would taste. I've wondered what it would be like to fall asleep in his arms. Every time I allowed myself to fleetingly think about this moment coming to pass, I found myself overcome with a bittersweet longing, because I truly never thought it would happen; and even if it did, I believed there was no way that it could ever live up to my expectations. But now I know that I was wrong, because it is so much greater than I could have ever imagined. Beside me, his body warm and strong, his mind calm and serene, I feel Luke drifting off to sleep. He strokes my hair absentmindedly, finally free of all his burdens, just as I am free of mine. I turn my head and stare up at his peaceful, sated face. After a moment, he senses me looking at him. His eyelids flutter open and he gives me a tired smile. "Quit staring at me and go to sleep," he murmurs. I shake my head against him, my long red hair tickling his naked torso. "No." "Yes, Padawan." "No, Master." Luke shakes his head and laughs. "Arguing even in bed," he muses. "Is this what I have to look forward to?" I bat my eyes at him. "If you're lucky." His eyes slowly move up and down my body, pressed up against his, and he moistens his lips. "Oh, trust me; I know that I'm lucky." Nothing can stop the huge grin from spreading across my face, and I lean over to kiss him again. He stifles a yawn as soon as I pull away. "Yawning already, Skywalker?" I pout, poking him in the stomach. "What if I'm not done with you yet?" "Sorry, Jade," he replies, grasping my hand and running his lips over my fingers, "but we've both got long days tomorrow, and I think it's safe to say that you've completely worn me out." "Well, what can I say? You bring out the best in me, Master," I reply, giving him a wicked smile. "The feeling is mutual," Luke laughs before yawning again. "So, are you gonna go to sleep or not?" Again I shake my head, and settle into the crook of his arm. "No. I just want to stay awake and memorize this moment." "Don't worry, if I have my way, there'll be plenty more of these moments." I didn't think it possible, but my smile grows even bigger. "I know," I say, "but I want to memorize this one." "Funny, I never imagined that the cool and tough Mara Jade would be such a hopeless romantic." "Well I never thought that I'd one day end up in bed with the great Jedi Master Luke Skywalker." "Touché," he laughs, kissing my forehead before wrapping me up even further in his arms. I watch him as his eyes start to close. He sighs contentedly, and a smile graces his lips as he drifts off to sleep. Ever the gentleman, he has one last thing to say before that happens. "Night, Mara," he says. Now it is my turn to sigh contentedly. "Night, Luke." We grow quiet. From outside Luke's window, I can hear the faint sounds of the jungle. I'm not tired, but there is no way in hell that I'm moving from this position any time soon. This moment has been too long coming, in so many ways. I just lie there and stare at the ceiling, listening to his heartbeat. Just as I think Luke has fallen asleep, I hear his voice again. "...Mara?" "Hmm?" He doesn't answer right away. I remain silent, patiently waiting for his words. After a few moments, before he finally succumbs to oblivion, I hear a soft whisper escape his lips. "I love you." My heart stops for long moments. It should be a triumph. It should be a moment of pure joy, to hear Luke say those words to me without any trace of fear or reluctance or worry. But instead, upon hearing him say the words that I hadn't even known I so desperately wanted to hear, my heart begins to break in two. In that instant, Luke's words from earlier in the evening begin to echo over and over in my mind—his claim that he could never forgive Palpatine because of what the Emperor did to me. At first, it seemed like such a loving, innocent comment. But now, it haunts me, and I can't push it out of my head. Luke would argue that I had been brainwashed. I know he's right; while serving the Emperor, I was led to believe that things were much different than they really were. I believed that the Empire was noble and worth fighting for. I believed that my master was honest and just. I believed that Luke Skywalker and the rest of the Rebellion were traitors and scum who deserved to be destroyed. So I served the Emperor willingly, and I fulfilled his orders without ever considering if they came from good or evil. I never once had a crisis of conscience, because I never allowed myself to stop and think about what I was doing. I believed in the Empire, and I believed in myself as the Emperor's Hand, and that was all that mattered. Because of that, my devotion to Palpatine knew no bounds. And even long years after his death, when I finally learned exactly what he was, I still couldn't break free of his will. I still obeyed his last command—to kill the man who I now love so much that it hurts. Since coming to the Jedi Academy months ago, I have refused to confront my past as the Emperor's Hand and learn to forgive myself. Instead of facing what I was, I have been trying to make up to the galaxy by becoming a Jedi—a being of light—just as Luke vows to ensure that Kyp Durron redeems himself for his transgressions in the dark side. Even as I have been trying to gain everyone else's forgiveness —Luke's, the New Republic's, even Karrde's—I have never stopped to consider the consequences of my actions on the one person who truly matters: myself. Luke said it a long time ago—I have to learn how to forgive myself if I want to realize my full potential in the Force. But I could never find it in me to forgive myself, and now, after hearing Luke say that he loves me, I finally understand why. When Luke said he was going to accept Durron back into the Jedi Order, I was sickened by the idea of fighting alongside someone who would so easily embrace the dark side. Even though I knew that everything Durron did was under the thrall of Exar Kun's spirit, I still couldn't understand how Luke could forgive him so easily for what he'd done. But me—I spent my entire life in willing service to those who embodied the dark side: Palpatine, my master, who I served loyally and blindly; and Vader, his apprentice, who I served begrudgingly, only because it pleased my master. I wanted nothing more than to do my master's bidding, so I served the dark side if not in spirit, but in action. If I couldn't forgive Kyp Durron for his one dalliance, his one mistake…how can I ever believe that I—Mara Jade, the Emperor's Hand—deserve to be forgiven for a lifetime of them? I can't. I don't. And that is why I will never be able to realize my full potential in the Force. Why I will never become the Jedi that Luke believes I should be. Why I will never be able to forgive myself. Because deep down, when I am truly honest with myself…I don't believe that I deserve forgiveness. I don't believe that I deserve any of this. Now, as I lie in Luke's arms, the realizations striking me like cruel, harsh blows, I understand that I have to leave the Jedi Academy—the only home I have ever known. I cannot stay. I don't belong here. I never have. Because I don't deserve to be a Jedi. And I will never, ever deserve to be loved by Luke Skywalker. Thinking all this, I curse Palpatine with all of my being, hating him more than I've ever hated anything in my entire life. Even from beyond the grave, he continues to destroy my life and deny me every bit of happiness I've ever known. I almost wish he were still alive so I could have the chance to kill him myself. Unable to fall asleep, still listening to Luke's steady, happy heartbeat underneath me, I can do nothing else but wipe away the tears of grief that sting my eyes, for I know that this is the end. 18. Chapter 17 CHAPTER 17 Unlike the last time I found myself in Luke's bed, he is still asleep when I wake up. Briefly, I consider the idea of leaving Yavin IV without saying good-bye to him, but I can't bring myself to do that to him. He deserves better. But I can't bring myself to tell him just yet that I'm leaving. He looks so peaceful, so happy, so unencumbered by his burdens. He has already done so much in his short life, and it truly pains me that he still feels that he has so much more to do. Closing my eyes again, I think back to that girl who was able to perform any task with logic and reason. The girl who never once considered her feelings or emotions. The girl who never let her heart rule her head. It would be so easy to be her again right now. But I'm not, and I never will be. Setting my jaw in determination, I push myself up from the bed and start to get dressed. I try to be as quiet as possible, but Luke hears me and stirs. "Where are you going?" he asks sleepily, rolling over and reaching his arm out to try to grab me. He looks so happy and his eyes are twinkling and I just want to jump back into bed and stay there forever with him. But I can't. I'd be fooling myself. I don't belong. I give him a fake smile and make up an excuse. "I promised Corran I'd spar with him this morning." Luke pulls a face. "Leaving me for another man already?" His statement stops me in my tracks. "Never." He tilts his head at me, then smiles. "Comm him and tell him that Master Skywalker is requesting you for some private lessons." Even though I feel like the most horrible person in the galaxy, he still manages to make me smile. "I can't, Luke, I promised. I'm sorry." "Bah!" he replies. He rises from the bed and pulls on a pair of shorts, then comes to kiss me good-bye. I savor it, knowing that this is the end. When he pulls away, he stares deep into my eyes. "Tonight?" he asks, nuzzling against my neck suggestively. I nod. Yes, I will see him tonight. And I will break his heart, along with mine. I spend the rest of the day going through my normal routine as best I can, acting like the dutiful apprentice when I'm around Luke, and he is too busy to try to corner me in empty classrooms. When I'm back in my quarters at the end of the day, I quickly pack up my scant belongings and take one last look around my home on Yavin IV. I contemplate telling Corran and Tyria in person that I'm leaving, but I don't think I'll be able to handle it. I feel awful enough just thinking about what I'm about to do. When I arrive, Luke opens his door with a grin, but it is wiped from his face as soon as he sees the satchel on my shoulder. He stares at it for a second, a look of realization crossing his face, before looking back at me. "Moving in already?" he jokes, trying to convince himself that I am not actually leaving. I shield my thoughts from him as best as I can. I know that he deserves a good-bye in person, but I can't let him know exactly why I'm leaving. He would never understand. Nobody would. I don't speak, and then he opens the door further, inviting me inside. We stand facing each other in silence for long moments. "Why?" he finally asks. I swallow, forcing my shields to stay in place. "I just don't feel like I can do this. I'm not advancing the way I should. I don't think that I'm meant to be a Jedi. I'm sorry." Luke bites his lip, and I can tell that he is conflicted between acting as my lover, or as my master. He opts for the latter. "You're the strongest one here. You're getting better every day. You just need more time." I shake my head. "No. Time isn't going to fix anything. It's just not going to work." Silence falls between us, and he reaches out to take my hand. "I think you're wrong." "I know you do. I hate to disappoint you, but I can't stay here knowing that I'll never live up to my full potential. I've tried, but I've failed." It is such a blatant lie and I feel awful telling it, but I can't give him the true reason—that I've figured it out, and I don't believe I deserve any of this. Or him. His Jedi Master mask falls off once again, and now all I see in front of me is Luke Skywalker, a normal man, desperately trying to get me to stay with him, so he can be happy. He tries one last time: "Please stay." I shake my head and force myself to be a heartless bicce, even though it hurts so much. "I can't." He looks away, his jaw beginning to tremble as he fights off his own tears, trying to be strong, just like I am. "Why now?" He doesn't have to say the rest: After last night. I look away, hating myself so much for what I'm doing to him. "It has nothing to do with you—with us." "Are you sure?" "Yes. You know I've been struggling with this for a long time. This has nothing to do with my feelings for you." Again, it is such a blatant lie, but I cannot tell him the truth—that it has everything to do with my feelings for him, because I do not deserve him. "But you're leaving anyway." I can't respond. "Where will you go?" His question makes me hate myself all the more, because even as I'm breaking his heart, all he cares about is my well-being. "Karrde," I reply. "I guess I should be glad he never replaced me, huh?" I add, trying to relieve the tension. Luke cracks a smile, but it's empty. "When are you leaving?" he asks, his voice trembling, afraid of my answer. "Now." It is the answer he didn't want to hear. But I can't give myself one more night with him, or I know that I will never be able to pull myself away. Luke nods. He wants to argue, to fight with all his being to make me stay with him, but he doesn't. He knows better. He knows that nothing can change my mind. I'm the old Mara Jade all over again. Even still, I wish that he would. Instead, he pulls me to him, wrapping his arms around me as tight as he can, and kisses me softly on the cheek. Before his kiss can move to my lips, I tear myself away and turn towards the door, forcing myself to be strong—to once again be the emotionless Emperor's Hand. As my hand hits the activation panel, he places his hand on my shoulder. I stop before walking through the door, but I don't look back at him. "Will you ever come back?" he whispers. I don't reply. It is the only answer he needs to hear. Slowly, his hand slips away. Before my tears can start to fall, I pass through the door and leave his quarters for the last time. Luke has already seen so much of me. I will not let him see me cry. As my headhunter whines with the sounds of the engines starting up, I pull out my datapad and transmit three messages. One is a general good-bye to all the students at the Academy, explaining my false reasons for leaving and thanking them for all the friendship and camaraderie they've given me. I finger my holdout blaster that I received on my birthday, knowing that I've never before experienced such a sense of belonging as I did at the Academy, and wondering if I'll ever find that again. I send the next message to Tyria, thanking her for being my friend when everybody else was too wary to approach me. I never thought I could be friends with someone like her. I will miss her dearly. The last message is for Corran, the brother I never had, who has come to mean more to me than I ever thought possible. My message to him is short, but it will tell him all that he needs to know: I didn't take your advice. CorSec'll be able to figure out the rest. With a heavy sigh, I put down the datapad and begin the launch sequence. Then something compels me to look up. Luke is standing at the entrance to the hangar, hood up and cloak wrapped tightly around him. Through the darkness I see his face, and my eyes lock with his. I put up my shields as quickly as possible, but I know that he has sensed it. He knows there's something more to my leaving. But, ever the Jedi Master, he doesn't pry into my thoughts. He doesn't rail against me, or try to convince me to stay. He merely lifts one hand in good-bye. I raise one back at him. Then I maneuver the ship out of the hangar and blast off into the sky, leaving Yavin IV, and my life as a Jedi, behind. Luke's face is still burned into my mind when I pull the hyperdrive lever a few minutes later. I collapse back into the couch and close my eyes against the mottled lines of hyperspace, and then, thinking of all that I've lost, I finally allow myself to cry. . . . . . . I wake with a start, trying to figure out where I am. Looking around, I realize that I'm in my bunk, and I lay back down, taking deep breaths to calm myself. It was only a dream...only a nightmare. I try to close my eyes again, but it's no use. Even though it's nowhere near time for me to wake up, I know that I won't be able to get any more sleep, so I get dressed and make my way out of my quarters. After a few minutes I reach my destination. There's only one other person awake right now, and I take a seat in the empty chair next to him. Without saying a word, he hands over a mug of caf, and I accept it gratefully, pressing it to my lips. We sit quietly for a while, both sipping our drinks, watching the bustling space traffic out the viewport. Talon Karrde doesn't need to ask why I'm awake. We've had the same routine every night for the past year, ever since I returned from Yavin IV. As Coruscant spins beneath us, Karrde hands me a datapad. "Final guest list," he offers. I nod, but set the datapad aside. "I read it earlier." He pushes back his long, graying hair and glances at me out of the corner of his eye. "Are you familiar with any of the Imperial guests?" "Yes," I say. "I think they'll be willing to negotiate with you." "Good," Karrde replies. He clears his throat before continuing. "Did you happen to read the updated guest list for the New Republic?" I nod again and take another sip of caf, still not meeting his eye. "Are you sure you're still okay with attending?" I sigh. I really don't need Karrde treating me with kid gloves right now. "I'll be fine," I snap. "I already agreed to go, so that's that." "I didn't realize he'd be there when I asked you," he says apologetically. "He hardly ever leaves Yavin IV, after all." "I'll be fine, Talon," I repeat, my voice icy. "We can't skip this event. It's far too important, and besides, you already drove into my head how much business we'll get if these peace talks end up working out." Karrde places a hand on my arm. "Yes, it's important, but if you don't want to go, just say the word. Someone else can go with me." "Please," I laugh. "Who else do you have in your organization who knows the Empire as well as I do?" "You have a point." He peers at me skeptically, as if he's trying to find a reason for me not to have to go to the ball. "Do you think they'll be willing to speak with you even after you trained as a Jedi?" he asks. "Well I'm not a Jedi, and you've seen how they act around me. They all love to clamor for the attention of the former Emperor's Hand." Karrde nods in acquiescence, and we once again fall into a comfortable silence. He's become fiercely protective of me since I returned to his employ, but he never has once confronted me about what really happened to force me to abandon my training. Most of the time, I'm grateful for his concern, but with the ball marking the beginning of peace talks between the New Republic and the Imperial Remnant coming up tomorrow, I just want him to get off my back and let me do my job. It's the only way to keep my mind off the fact that I'll have to see Luke Skywalker again for the first time since I left the Jedi Academy. We've corresponded a lot via HoloNet messages. At first, it was completely innocent. He asked me how I was, and I did the same, and then we delved into small talk about Karrde's business and the Jedi Order, and then he told me about the twin's latest trouble, and I told him the latest "Ghent's in love with me" story. Then he asked me to return to the Academy. I refused politely, and then we went back to the same old small talk. Then he asked again, and I didn't respond. Then the cycle started again, and eventually, he asked me to meet him on Coruscant while he was on-planet doing some work for the new Jedi headquarters and visiting his family. Again, I said no, because I knew that, even though I didn't mind corresponding with him, I could never let myself come face to face with him again. And then the cycle started again. But now he and I will both be at the ball, and I will have no choice but to see him, and my stomach flutters whenever I think about looking into those clear blue eyes again. Even so, I know that the Luke I'll see tomorrow is not the same Master Skywalker I trained with at the Jedi Academy. Since I left, he's taken even more control of the Jedi Order, caring less and less about the opinions of the other Jedi. There are many more apprentices in attendance now, and he makes it a point to lead the training for all of them by himself, completely contrary to the original plans he shared with us. I know exactly why he's done this —he still blames himself for what happened with Jes Gantoris and Kyp Durron. And even though the rest of the original nine apprentices were recently Knighted, only Kam, Tionne, and Cilghal have remained at the Academy. The others went back to military service, knowing that they'd have better opportunities there than in the Jedi Order. As frustrated as Luke's actions have made me, I can't help but wonder if my leaving the Academy is the reason he's thrown himself headfirst into leading the Order…exactly same way I've dedicated myself fully to working for Karrde since abandoning my training. Sighing, I sit back in my chair and sip my caf some more, as Karrde starts rattling off about all the dignitaries he wants to speak with at the ball. I play the dutiful lieutenant and take notes on my datapad, forcing myself to focus on my job and forget about the butterflies in my stomach. But then, at the back of my mind, I sense a presence I haven't felt since the night I left Yavin IV. Since the last time I saw Luke's face, staring up at me in disappointment and heartache, as he held up a hand in good-bye. I close my eyes and reach out with the Force, and then I am certain. Luke is down there now, on Coruscant. I feel his presence brush up against mine, and even after all this time, after all that happened between us, as nervous as I am about seeing him tomorrow…it is still enough to make me smile. 19. Chapter 18 A/N: Song for this chapter: The Winner Takes It All, ABBA CHAPTER 18 The ball, as expected, is a magnificent affair. Karrde and I stand to the side of an elegant ballroom deep inside the Imperial Palace. When we first arrived, it felt so odd to be here again. I had spent so much of my life in this place, at fancy balls designed to appease the Royal Houses, acting as both a dancer and member of the Imperial court. As Luke once inferred, being here again is almost like coming home…but not. And now, with such an event happening on New Republic turf, it is even more surreal. For the dinner reception, Karrde and I were seated at one of the outer tables. Karrde was his usual charming self while I played the role of dutiful assistant, mentally keeping track of everything that was said as well as taking note of the dignitaries to whom we really wanted to speak. And even though Karrde is probably the only one who noticed, I couldn't help but search the tables for Luke. I caught sight of him, just briefly, as he was seated at one of the head tables. To my utter relief, he did not have an escort. As soon as dinner was over, Karrde and I made our way into the ballroom, circling the room like predators scoping out our next meal. True to my word, the Imperials sought me out immediately, while the New Republic officials tended to gravitate towards Karrde. I couldn't help but smirk at the situation; even after helping defeat Grand Admiral Thrawn and training as a Jedi, the Imperials still clamor for my attention, just as they have done since it got out on the HoloNet that I was once the Emperor's Hand. I stand in a casual position, nursing my glass of ambrostine, not wanting to appear unsociable but not wanting to get too impaired to do my job. I hold up the glass, hiding the smile on my face at Karrde's obvious discomfort. A rather amorous-looking, but very annoying, senator from Commenor has cornered him, wanting to discuss potential "business opportunities." He keeps trying to catch my eye over the woman's shoulder, but I pretend not to notice and continue scanning the room for more potential business partners. Finally I take pity on him and reach around the senator to tap Karrde's shoulder. "Excuse me, Captain, but I'm afraid there's an urgent matter that needs attending." Karrde nods gratefully and kisses the woman's hand. "Thank you for speaking with me, Senator. I'll be sure to keep in touch." Before the woman can respond, Karrde steps around her and takes my arm, and we make our way to the other side of the ballroom. "Took you long enough," he mutters under his breath. "I don't know what you're talking about," I say, taking another sip of my drink to hide my smile. "Really? Then what's this urgent matter that needs attending?" I shrug. "I was bored listening to her talk." Karrde throws his head back and laughs. I grin at him. "Seriously, Karrde," I say, tightening my grip on his arm, "you shouldn't let yourself look so dashing or you'll have even more women fawning over you." He looks down at his extremely expensive designer suit, a stark contrast to what he normally wears while onboard the Wild Karrde. "What, this old thing?" he asks innocently. "Isn't that supposed to be my line?" "I don't think anyone would believe you if you tried to say that, Mara," he replies, glancing at my long, elegant green dress. "Speaking of which, would it be terribly wrong of me to tell you that you look stunning tonight?" "Only if you don't want me telling Shada you said that." "What?" he sputters. "Oh, nothing," I smirk. He gives me a pointed look, but I ignore him, turning my attention back to looking for potential clients. "So, who's next?" I ask Karrde. He takes out his datapad to check his list. All of a sudden, my danger sense spikes. I immediately tense up and glance around, trying to look casual. I have to remind myself not to reach for my weapon, as I doubt that the New Republic security forces would appreciate the former Emperor's Hand going on the offensive in the middle of an Imperial Palace ballroom. Plus, it's not that kind of warning, just an annoying feeling that something—no, someone—is out of place. "What is it?" Karrde asks, taking note of my suspicious mood. "Something's wrong," I tell him. He nods but doesn't press me; he's used to these Force hunches and they always end up being beneficial to him. I look over my shoulder, and then I see him. I narrow my eyes, mentally running over the guest list, and sure enough, this person is very out of place. "Was the guest list updated since yesterday?" I ask. Karrde shakes his head and pulls up the guest list. "No, why?" I take the datapad from his hand and scan through the document; sure enough, it's as I expected. I sigh. "Someone's here who shouldn't be." "Who?" "Sate Pestage." Karrde's jaw drops. "You're not serious." "I'm very serious." I tilt my head slightly in Pestage's direction. "See him?" "That doesn't look like him." "It is, trust me. He's disguised." "Alright, I believe you, but…isn't he supposed to be dead?" "Now you understand why he's so out of place." Sate Pestage, one of Palpatine's closest advisors and the former Grand Vizier of the Galactic Empire, was reportedly killed several years ago under the orders of Ysanne Isard. Even though Pestage attempted to aid the New Republic in the retaking of Coruscant, many people still view him as one of the biggest war criminals from the Empire. Not only that, but the Imperials consider him a defector. There must be a very important reason for him to be here right now, because if anyone realized that he were in attendance, he'd be under arrest faster than the Millennium Falcon could make the Kessel run. And the fact that Talon Karrde, information broker extraordinaire, did not know that Pestage was both alive and planning to attend this ball, is not a good thing at all. "Why in blazes would he come here?" Karrde asks. "That's a rather stupid thing to do." "I don't think he's been here all night. I just got the feeling a few moments ago. I think he came here for one very specific purpose." "And what purpose would that be?" I don't respond. Karrde stares at me for a moment, then raises one eyebrow in incredulity. "Wait a minute—you?" "That's the feeling I'm getting. I think he wants to speak with me about something. Something very important." "Well, why wouldn't he just speak with you over the HoloNet instead of taking this risk?" "I don't know!" I exclaim. "I'm sorry, but the Force isn't always so damn specific, you know. Next time I'll ask its secretary to take more copious notes." Karrde chuckles at my outburst, but quickly sobers. "Well, it looks like you'll be able to ask him yourself. He's making his way over here." "Oh, great," I sigh. I turn around and smile thinly at Pestage, who bows to me. I was never formally introduced to him during my time as the Emperor's Hand, but we are more than familiar with each other. "Mara Jade," he says. "It's a pleasure to see you again." "Likewise," I reply, shaking his hand and trying to keep my face as neutral as possible. Gesturing to Karrde, I say, "My I introduce my employer, Talon Karrde?" Pestage nods and shakes Karrde's hand. "Pleasure to meet you…" "Captain," Karrde supplies. "Captain Karrde," Pestage finishes. He turns to me again. "I apologize, Miss Jade, but you'll have to remind me of your current title." "Captain Jade will suffice. And what of you?" "Oh, you already know my title." I am suddenly extremely grateful of all my Jedi training, because it takes every ounce of self-control not to show my surprise at his statement. "Really?" I respond. "I wasn't aware that you had allied yourself with the Imperial Remnant, especially after they supposedly assassinated you." "That's because I'm not a member of the Imperial Remnant at all, Captain Jade." "Really?" I repeat, still doing my best to keep the shock out of my voice. Pestage nods. "I have found a much more…promising opportunity. In fact, I would very much like to speak with you about it soon." "Is that so?" "Yes," he replies. "If you don't mind, I'll have a message sent to you in a few days time with encrypted coordinates. I assure you, you will find it very beneficial to speak with us." "Why don't we just speak right now?" I ask, suddenly suspicious. Pestage looks around the room. "Oh, you never know who might be watching…or listening." I force myself to smile at him again. "Well, then, I look forward to hearing from you." "Until we meet again, Captain Jade," he says, kissing my hand in farewell. I wait until he leaves the room before I shudder. "What was that about?" Karrde mutters. "You know as much as I do," I reply dryly. Slowly, we begin to make our way around the ballroom again. "What do you think he really wants?" I shrug. "I guess we'll find out in a few days." Karrde glances at me. "Are you going to agree to meet with him?" "I don't know. It depends on what he has to say." "You should find out how he's not dead." "Oh, I'm sure you'll start your research as soon as we get back onboard the Wild Karrde, if you haven't already commed Ghent to request that he start an investigation." Karrde laughs and takes my arm again. "You know me too well, Mara." We arrive near one of the refreshment tables and watch the dance floor in silence. After a few moments, Karrde glances over my shoulder and breaks into an enormous grin. "Well Mara," he begins, removing the glass of ambrostine from my hands and taking a sip, "I think I'll go find some more potential clients to woo. Why don't you take a much-deserved break on the dance floor?" "Hey, I was drinking that!" I protest…but then I grow quiet as he looks over my shoulder again, his expression turning very serious, and nods at someone standing behind me. As Karrde walks away, I sense a very familiar presence in the back of my mind, once that I hadn't even noticed, as I was too busy concentrating on my talk with Pestage. "Hello, Mara." I slowly turn around, my heart beginning to beat rapidly, and confirm what the Force was already telling me. He stands in front of me, looking so amazingly handsome that it takes my breath away. He wears a simple but immaculate black suit, accessorized with a crisp white shirt and a bright blue tie that makes his eyes look even more captivating. His sandy hair, obviously recently cut, perfectly frames his face, making him seem both incredibly boyish and wise beyond his years. I glance down at his shiny black leather boots; they and the silver lightsaber that hangs prominently from his belt are the only indications that he is a Jedi. I swallow a lump in my throat upon seeing him again. "Hey, Skywalker," I breathe. Luke stares back at me for a moment, unable to speak. He takes in my decidedly non smuggler-like dress, not even trying to hide his attraction. The shimmersilk material hugs my curves in all the right places, but true to my nature it is not an impractical garment, as the flowing material allows me ease of movement should any trouble arise. Free of its usual braid, my long red hair falls in waves down my back, shining brightly in the dim light. Luke absentmindedly reaches up to touch it, before he realizes what he is doing and stops himself. Trying to cover, he steps forward and takes my hand, pressing it to his lips, like a true gentleman. "You look absolutely beautiful, Mara," he says, his eyes locked intently on mine. "Thanks." Trying to ease the tension, I look him up and down, and quip, "You don't look so bad yourself. We really should get dressed up like this more often." He laughs. Oh, how I missed that sound. "May I?" he asks, holding his hand out to me. I nod slowly, and he pulls me to him, placing his hand on my hip, and we begin to sway in time to the music. I don't say a word as his other hand reaches out to touch my necklace, which is for once prominently displayed above my gown's plunging neckline. "I don't think this goes very well with the dress you're wearing." I look down to see Luke's fingers on the stone that he gave to me for my twenty-seventh birthday. "On the contrary," I reply, "it matches perfectly." "I meant that your dress is far too lovely. You should be wearing something much more elegant." I look back up and meet his eyes. "No. It goes perfectly," I repeat. I don't admit that I haven't taken off the necklace since the day I left Yavin IV. He finally releases the necklace and places his hand on my shoulder, his fingers gently caressing my bare skin. "I missed your last birthday," he says regretfully. "I told you that I got your message," I reassure him. It was only a few weeks ago, and I had indeed woken up to a HoloNet message from Luke. "Yes, but it's not the same." "Still, it was nice that you remembered." I hadn't expected him to remember the birthday of his failed apprentice and one-time lover. "I could never forget." I smile and feel a shiver go down my spine, like no time at all has passed. I am suddenly very grateful that I was able to get over my pride and send him a message on his birthday, or I would feel like complete and utter poodoo. Slowly, the hand on my waist moves to the side and begins to push back the outer layers of my dress. I stiffen slightly and snap my hand to block him on instinct, but I relax as I realize what he's doing. His hand comes to rest on the lightsaber that's clipped to the waist of my dress, hidden safely underneath the layers of flowing fabric. We meet eyes, his smile bittersweet. "You still carry it," he remarks softly. I nod. "I don't feel comfortable without it anymore." It is the truth; I'm used to its weight and feel naked without it. Even more, I still feel more comfortable using it than I do blasters. "Even at an event like this?" "Come on, Skywalker," I admonish him. "You know that I don't go anywhere without packing at least two different types of weapons." "So where's the other one?" he teases. "Wouldn't you like to know?" I retort, but the twinkle in my eye gives away my amusement. He chuckles, but his smile slowly disappears as his hand leaves the lightsaber. I know that Luke hopes that this is a sign that I'll still become a Jedi one day, but he is fooling himself. It's just a weapon, nothing more. We dance in silence for a while, slowly moving towards the center of the dance floor, and I do my best to ignore the couples staring at us. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Han Solo dancing with his very pregnant wife. Leia gives me a cold look as she notices me dancing with her brother, most likely worried that I'll end up hurting him again, but I ignore her. Barely, Han winks at me, and I roll my eyes back at him. "I was wrong, you know," Luke comments as we sway to the music. "About what?" "It's much more difficult with you not there." I glance down at my feet, uncomfortable with his declaration. I hadn't even considered what he would be feeling upon seeing me again. "Why wouldn't you ever come back?" he asks suddenly. I shrug. "I told you, it just never felt right. I'd have been fooling myself to try to complete my training." "Why won't you let me try to help you? You know that I can," he persists. "Look, just knock it off, Skywalker, okay?" I snap. "I've told you, I'm working for Karrde again. I'm not going back to train." I don't mean to sound so curt, but I can't have Luke try to pressure me now that we're face to face. It's become easy to turn him down over HoloNet messages, but in person it's a completely different story. "Sorry," he spits out, his voice getting a twinge of anger that he hardly ever shows, and I sigh. I had been hoping that we could at least be civil with each other. But, unable to stop myself, I goad him even more. "Do you think you have enough time to take on another apprentice now, anyways?" Luke glares down at me. "What's that supposed to mean?" "Nothing," I reply, a little too quickly. "No, let's hear it." I figure I might as well be honest with him. "It just seems that you have more apprentices than you can handle right now." "And who told you that?" "I have my sources." "Rogue Squadron sources?" I feel badly throwing Corran Horn under the proverbial speeder, but again, I don't lie. "Yes." "He doesn't know what he's talking about." "Oh, really? Then why is he not helping you with the Jedi Order at all, but instead flying full-time with Rogue Squadron again?" "Corran's an excellent pilot," Luke argues. "He decided that he could serve the galaxy best that way." "That's Sithspit and you know it. Corran would do both if you'd let him. He should be at the Academy helping you train the new apprentices. But he's not. Why?" "Why do you care, anyway?" Luke snaps, even angrier than before. "You're not there. You left." "Yeah, I did," I sigh. "That doesn't mean that I don't care about what you're doing with the Jedi Order." "Could have fooled me," Luke says, and I have to keep myself from cringing at him. I bite my lip and look around at the dancing couples surrounding us, trying to keep from getting upset. Just then the music changes and I move to pull away, but he refuses to let go of my hand. Even despite everything just said between us, I smile at him mischievously. "You know this song?" I ask. It is a High Alderaanian dance, often played at balls like this. I danced to it many times during my days in the Palace, before the Death Star destroyed Alderaan and they were declared traitors. Of course Leia would choose to include this song as a reminder to the Imperial Remnant of the Empire's transgressions, and that they should be grateful that the New Republic would consider a peace treaty instead blasting them into annihilation. Luke nods proudly. "I learned it just for the occasion, as a matter of fact." He holds out his other hand and I take it, unable to resist the idea of seeing the great Jedi Master try to perform a dance like this. 'You sure you know what you're doing, Skywalker?" I tease. "Hey, I can fend off dozens of blaster bolts with my eyes closed. I think I can handle a simple dance." "Well, if you need me to lead, just let me know." "Ha! You're Mara Jade. You always lead." I smile, and the music starts off slowly, and he pulls me close, allowing me to breathe in his scent and remember what it was like to be in his arms. But after a minute, the music changes to a faster pace, with intricate moves that require us to dance around each other and switch partners several times. As promised, Luke performs the dance with ease, and as we move apart I sense him watching me closely, awed and intrigued by the grace of my moves, something that was ingrained into me during my years as an Imperial Palace dancer. As we come back to face each other, Luke gives me an ironic smile. "You know, I once laughed at the idea of a Jedi Knight serving as Karrde's second-in-command, but now, seeing you again…it's not so funny after all." "Well, I'm not exactly a Jedi Knight, now am I?" I counter. Luke looks me straight in the eye. "That's the part that isn't funny." We circle around each other again, and I find it hard to break his gaze. I feel his presence in the Force as strongly as ever, and I know that all he wants is for me to return to Yavin IV with him and earn my place as a Jedi. But even if I agree, what will I do after finishing my training? I can't stay at the Academy after what he's done to the Order. I don't believe what he's doing is right. And even if I did…I still don't believe that I deserve it. "So what do you think I should be doing?" Luke inquires, bringing me out of my reverie, always able to read my mind. I look away from him, grateful that we are forced to change partners again, but as we return to face each other, he gives me a look that indicates he's not going to let me ignore his question. "You should be doing exactly what you originally planned," I tell him. "The Knights you've trained should help you train the new apprentices. Every Jedi should take responsibility for growing the Order, not just you. How is the Order supposed to grow if you insist on taking control the way you are?" I don't mean to say as much as I have, but I can't help myself—it just spills out. Luke sets his jaw and the mask falls into place as he struggles to defend what he's doing. But all he says is, "You just don't understand." I nod my head. "No, I don't, and I never will." Just like he will never understand why I can't ever become a Jedi. I know that we can argue like this all night long, but as the music builds to a crescendo, I just don't feel up to it anymore. I don't have the strength to fight with him, or to force myself not to cry when one of his barbs hits too close to home, or to feel guilty when one of mine crushes him. I'm over it all. I just want to remember what it was like to be in his arms, without a care in the galaxy. I wish we could go back to that time…but even if we could, I know that it would be futile, because we were never really in that place at all. We circle around each other once more, our eyes locked intently on each other. Luke opens his mouth to speak, but I press my finger against his lips. "Please, Luke," I whisper. The song is about to turn slow again, and I just want to lose myself in his embrace one last time. "I don't want to argue with you anymore." He nods, a look of profound sadness appearing in his eyes, and pulls me even closer to him. I lay my head on his shoulder as the music slows, and he places his hand on the back of my neck, running his fingers through my hair. We sway together, our hearts pounding against one another, as I listen to the words that so wonderfully sum up my current place in the universe: I don't wanna talk if it makes you feel sad And I understand you've come to shake my hand I apologize if it makes you feel bad Seeing me so tense, no self-confidence But you see, the winner takes it all The winner takes it all… The song speeds up again, and we fall into step, changing partners as required, until finally the music fades, and we once again go our separate ways. 20. Chapter 19 A/N: I'd like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read this story, especially those of you who have left reviews. I really appreciate it and hope you enjoy the rest of the story! After this, only six more chapters to go! CHAPTER 19 True to his word, I hear from Sate Pestage exactly one week later. His message comes in the form of a HoloNet recording that Faughn retrieves while I'm in a meeting with Karrde. As I enter the bridge of the Wild Karrde afterwards, the communications officer glances up at me from her console. "Message for you, Mara, on your personal frequency," she says. Despite Karrde's outside professionalism, there are hardly any formalities onboard the Wild Karrde. I walk to the comm station, furrowing my brow as I try to determine just who would be contacting me on my personal channel. The only people who send me messages on a regular basis are Corran and Tyria, and they're both supposed to be on missions right now. It could be Luke, but I doubt he'd be brave enough to contact me so soon after our encounter at the ball, when I almost snapped his head off for his innocent comments. Then I remember the other conversation I had that night, with none other than Sate Pestage, former Grand Vizier of the Galactic Empire, and my hand freezes before I can press the message retrieval button. I straighten and look back at Faughn. "I'll take it in my quarters." She nods, and patches the message through. I pass Karrde as I exit the bridge. I almost expect him to follow me, but he merely catches my eye as I walk by him, his expression making it quite clear that he expects to hear a full report when I'm done. Once in my quarters, I lock the door and stretch out with the Force to make sure that nobody is sneaking around in the hallway. Then I settle in front of the computer terminal and press the blinking red message indicator. Sate Pestage's wrinkled face appears in hologram form on my desk. He glances up at me, as if he can see me through the HoloNet. It is entirely unsettling. "Greetings, Captain Jade. I hope this message finds you well. "I am very pleased that I was able to speak with you at the ball last week. After my time in isolation, it was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, given your…past history…with the Empire. "As I mentioned, I am not allied with the Imperial Remnant. They are a pale shadow of what the Empire once was. But even so, I can assure you that the future of the Empire is indeed very bright, and I hope to discuss that with you very soon." His words give me pause; it was not too long ago when I told Luke Skywalker that all I wanted was the old Empire back. I knew that the Empire of old could never return, of course, because an Empire without an Emperor was, and still is, a ridiculous notion. Even mere days after the Emperor's death, I rejected Isard and all the other Moffs and Warlords who were clamoring for power, knowing that the Empire was destined for destruction. And even if the old Empire did still exist, I'd want nothing to do with it. Not after all that has happened. Not after learning all that I have. "I hope that I can persuade you to meet with me in a week's time," Pestage continues. "I'm transmitting coordinates along with this message. Please come alone. I would imagine that someone of your stature would be wary of meeting me in an unknown location, but I can assure you that no harm will be attempted upon your life. I am well aware of Captain Karrde's vast resources, but most of all I know very well that the Emperor's Hand can take care of herself." I sit up straight in my chair as I listen to his farewell, then call up the coordinates attached to the message. It's somewhere in Wild Space, close to Chiss territory—a planet I've never heard of before, called Nirauan. I perform a cursory search to find any available information on the planet, but I find little other than basic data, which indicates the mysterious nature of the planet. If Karrde doesn't have more detailed formation in his database, then nobody does. My mind is already made up as I disable the HoloNet connection. I have to find out what Pestage is up to. I make my way back to the bridge, where Karrde waits for me. He glances in my direction as I take my place beside him. "Anything interesting?" I nod. "Very. I need a short leave of absence." He crosses his arms in front of his chest, not at all pleased with my decision. "You're going to meet him," he states. "Yes." "By yourself?" "Yes." Karrde shakes his head. "Do I need to tell you how stupid that is?" "I'm pretty well aware of that fact, thank you." "Just because you've had Jedi training doesn't mean you should go rushing off to some unknown location by yourself," Karrde says protectively. "Oh, please. If he wanted to kill me he'd have tried to do so long ago. No, Pestage is up to something, and I want to know what that is." "And what happens when you tell him that you're not interested in his plan and he has his goons pull blasters on you?" Karrde asks with a raised eyebrow. I shrug nonchalantly. "I'll make that jump when I get to it." He sighs, blowing a stray strand of hair off his face. "You're impossible, you know that?" I smile at him. "I learned from the best." "There are so many ways to interpret that statement that I'm just going to keep quiet." "Good idea." I spend the next few days catching up with my work before leaving for Nirauan. Karrde tries to give me additional jobs in hopes that I'll relent and stay onboard the Wild Karrde, but I stay awake for long hours to finish all my tasks before taking my leave. He eventually gives up trying to persuade me not to go, but makes it quite clear on every occasion that he thinks I'm being stupid. On the morning I'm scheduled to leave for Nirauan, I wake up with an odd feeling in the back of my mind…like something is coming. Something…but I don't know what. I can't put my finger on the feeling. As I get dressed and pack, preparing for my trip, I do my best to ignore it, but the feeling keeps getting stronger and stronger. Annoyed and agitated, I step on to the bridge, where Karrde is waiting for me. "Your ship is being prepped," he says. "Though I really wish you'd take one of mine, one with more firepower." "No," I reply. We've had this argument many times over the past several days. "I'm not taking anyone's ship but my own." "And what if they fire on you?" "Well that would be pretty stupid of them, considering you know where I'm going. Besides, I do recall my employer arranging for some extra modifications to be made to my ship's weapons systems." Karrde makes a face. "You don't have to be so logical, you know." "Oh, so going to meet Sate Pestage on an unknown planet is logical, now?" Karrde shakes his head. "You're impossible," he mutters. I don't respond, because the feeling in the back of my mind suddenly grows much, much stronger, and I can't ignore it anymore… "Stang," I mutter, as I suddenly realize what it is. At that moment, Faughn turns around from her controls. "There's a ship on our scopes, X-wing class. It's hailing us." A wide, poodoo-eating grin spreads across Karrde's face. I look at him and sigh, all the confirmation he needs. "Patch it through," he orders. Faughn does so and indicates that the frequency is open. "Greetings, Master Skywalker. Do you require assistance?" Karrde asks, and I smile, knowing that he is thinking of the last time we came across Luke's X-wing in empty space. Luke's voice comes through loud and clear over the comm. "Hello, Karrde. It's nice to speak with you again. Could you tell me, is Mara available?" My eyes roll into the back of my head as every single person on the bridge turns to stare at me. I can only imagine Luke's face right now, grinning like an idiot as he knows that he just embarrassed the hell out of me in front of Karrde. But then, the tone of Luke's voice registers in my mind. He sounds concerned —very concerned—so much so that he has ventured halfway across the galaxy to speak with me. Sighing, I motion to Karrde to answer. "She's right here, as a matter of fact," he replies. There's a pause; I imagine Luke picturing me standing next to Karrde on the bridge, wearing much more smuggler-like attire compared to our last meeting. "I need to speak with her," he says. "Permission to come onboard?" Karrde glances at me. I wave my hand at him; this is his ship, and he can let anybody onboard that he wants. Besides, I know that there is absolutely no way that he would ever refuse a chance to make me face Luke Skywalker again. Sometimes, I have a sneaking suspicion that, beneath his tough, smuggler façade, Karrde is just a hopeless romantic. Either that, or he really enjoys making me squirm. "Of course, Master Skywalker," Karrde replies. "We look forward to seeing you." "Likewise." Then, silence, as the transmission is cut. I give Karrde an annoyed look. "We?" He shrugs innocently. Oh, no—he definitely just enjoys making me squirm. I wait at the entrance to the Wild Karrde's docking bay with my arms crossed over my chest, trying not to look too annoyed. Luke jumps down from his X-wing and gives me a tight-lipped smile as he approaches. "Hello, Mara," he says, stopping a few meters in front me. He seems hesitant to come closer after what happened during our last meeting. "Oh, don't be stupid," I say, pulling him into a hug. He smells like someone who just spent hours or even days inside of a cramped starfighter cockpit, but I don't care. Luke chuckles against me. "That must be a new record for the shortest amount of time it's taken you to insult me." "Well, I'm just stating the truth." I pull back to look at him. "So. What's the big problem that you had to come all the way out here to talk to me about in person?" I ask, getting down to business. He seems hesitant to discuss this out in the open. "Can we speak in your quarters?" Flashbacks hit me as I remember all the times I met with Luke alone in his quarters at the Academy. I shut my eyes against them. "Sure," I answer shortly. We walk through the hallways of the Wild Karrde in silence and I sense Luke's worry permeating through the Force. It bothers me. It's not good when Luke is worried. We enter my quarters and I shut the door behind me, and I have to restrain myself from lunging towards him and kissing him fiercely. But of course I compose myself, the epitome of professionalism; a heartless bicce, as Luke once referred to me. "So?" I ask, crossing my arms over my chest. Luke takes a deep breath and runs his hand over his face. "I need you to be honest with me, Mara. Are you planning on going somewhere alone?" I raise an eyebrow at him. I can tell there's no use lying to him. "As a matter of fact, I am. Why?" He looks down and takes a deep breath. "I need to go with you." My eyes widen at his words. "…Sorry?" "I need to go with you," he repeats. "Please, don't ask me why. I just get the feeling that I need to be with you right now." "This is ridiculous, Luke," I say, throwing up my hands in exasperation. "Us spending all that time together is not a good idea. And besides, you don't even know where I'm going." "It doesn't matter. Please just listen to me on this one, Mara," he insists. "This is a Force thing, isn't it?" I ask, rolling my eyes. "What do you think?" he replies. "Don't you think I'd be able to tell if something was wrong, Luke?" He doesn't answer, but I know his response anyway: Maybe if you had completed your training. I don't deny that he's right. I'm nowhere near as strong in the Force as he is. But my danger sense has never failed me before, and even though I know that meeting Pestage on my own is not the most logical thing to do, I don't sense anything inherently dangerous about my impending mission. Luke doesn't answer, so I keep talking. "I don't think that the person I'm supposed to meet with would appreciate you coming along with me." "Oh really? And just who might that be?" he asks. "Nice try, Skywalker, but I'm still not telling you," I snort. He shrugs. "You know that Karrde will tell me if you don't, and then I'll follow you wherever you're going." I sigh, remembering a moment from not so long ago at the Jedi Academy: "I guess you know that I followed you." "I guess I should have known that you would never have listened to me." "Fine, whatever, come along if you want," I relent, sighing heavily. "But don't get in the way," I continue, pointing at him. "I know what I'm doing." "No problem. You're in charge." I throw him a mischievous grin. "Does that make me your master?" He smiles back at me. "Only if you want to be." I narrow my eyes. Oh, he still knows how to make that shiver go down my spine. I grab my pack and leave the room in a huff. He follows me closely. "We'll be leaving shortly," I tell him. "My ship is being prepped right now." "You've got your own ship? That's very impressive." "Yeah, well, I'm doing well for myself, and Karrde wanted to give me a token of appreciation for all my hard work. So I got myself a ship." "What's her name?" "The Jade's Fire." Luke glances at me, his expression turning wistful. He reaches out to touch my hair, but stops himself. "The perfect name," he murmurs. "Tell Karrde, he picked it." "Tell Karrde what?" my boss asks as we make our way onto the bridge. He steps forward to shake Luke's hand. "Oh, I was just commenting on the appropriateness of the name of Mara's ship," Luke replies. "Yes, I was rather proud of that one myself," Karrde smiles. They begin to delve into small talk while I stand behind them, rolling my eyes. "As lovely as this little reunion is," I cut in, "we have more important things to do right now. Is the Fire almost prepped?" I ask Karrde. "Yes, just about. Why don't you head down and get ready, and I'll be there to see you off once I take care of some pressing details?" "Will do," I reply, turning to Luke expectantly. Before Luke can follow me, Karrde reaches out to stop him. "Would you mind staying here and catching up?" he asks Luke. "There are some things I'd like to discuss with you." I glare at Karrde, knowing that he suddenly has very bad ideas, but he gives me a pointed look. "Don't you have things to take care of?" he asks me. "Yeah, just…" I turn to Karrde, then to Luke, then back to Karrde again. "…Don't have too much fun," I warn them as I exit the bridge. I can almost see Luke hesitate speaking to Karrde until the bridge door hisses shut behind me, and I am suddenly very curious as to what exactly compelled Luke Skywalker to leave behind his precious Jedi Academy and accompany me on a completely illogical mission to an unknown planet called Nirauan. 21. Chapter 20 A/N: Song for this chapter: White Flag, Dido CHAPTER 20 Karrde sees us off, doing his best to act like an overprotective father as he says good-bye. As always, I'm tempted to remind him that he's not much older than me, but it never makes a difference —Karrde's protectiveness knows no bounds. I can't complain that much, considering I never had a father figure before him. Well, not one I'd like to remember, anyway. Luke does his best to stay out of my way in the cockpit as we undock and set a course for Nirauan, even though he's practically drooling as he examines the controls while he thinks I'm not watching. Once we enter hyperspace, I lean back in the captain's chair and eye him thoughtfully. "Like what you see, Skywalker?" He looks at me for a moment with a shocked expression, then lets out his breath as he realizes that I'm talking about the ship. "It's fantastic, Mara," he says. "I'd love a chance to fly her sometime." "Over my dead body," I retort, only half-joking. I expect him to laugh, but instead his lip twitches and he stares straight ahead out the viewport, suddenly looking very worried. "Luke?" He doesn't respond, so I poke him on the arm. "Hey, Jedi Master. Wake up." "What?" he responds, shaking himself back into focus. "Oh. Sorry. I, uh, got distracted there." "Yeah, sure." I roll my eyes. "So, are you gonna tell me why you insisted on taking this little jaunt with me to Wild Space, or what?" "What do you think?" he teases. I smile. There's the Luke Skywalker that I know so well. He changes the subject before I can prod him some more. "So, are you going to tell me just where we're going? I assume it's somewhere in Wild Space, since you just let that slip." I mentally slap myself. "Sure, why not," I sigh. "You'll find out eventually. It's a planet called Nirauan." "Never heard of it. What's there?" I regard him, waiting for his reaction. "Sate Pestage." It takes a second for Luke to recognize the name. As he does, his eyes go wide. "You're kidding, right?" "Unfortunately, I'm not." "You mean…former Imperial Grand Vizier Sate Pestage?" "That's the one." "The man who tried to turn over Coruscant to the New Republic and was then reportedly killed on orders of Ysanne Isard?" I shake my head at how ridiculous that explanation sounds. "Yeah. It's the same guy, all right." "Oh. When the hell did this happen?" I burst out laughing at Luke's bewilderment, even though the situation isn't funny at all. "I spoke with him at the ball," I reply. "That was quite the night for you, then." "Yeah," I chuckle. "Then a few days ago I got a message from him asking me to meet him on Nirauan to discuss 'the future of the Empire.'" "Why would he want to talk to you about that?" Luke asks, looking disturbed. "Isn't it obvious? I was the Emperor's Hand, after all." "Was," he points out. "Doesn't matter. Ever since it became public what I once was, all those old Imperials have been clamoring to get in my good graces. They see me as a connection to Palpatine, and therefore the old Empire, no matter what I might have done since then." Luke considers this for a moment. "Do you think it's really him, or a clone?" "It was definitely the same man. And he's got big plans." "On Nirauan?" "Apparently." "But why wouldn't he just join the Remnant? What do you think he's trying to do?" I shrug. "I really don't know. He doesn't trust the Remnant, but he doesn't seem to want to join the New Republic, either. He's planning something, but I don't know what. That's why I'm—well, we're—going there." Luke shakes his head and laughs. "Um…perhaps you were right…he won't like me being there." "No, you don't say?" I bite out. Luke rubs his face with his palms. "So…what do we tell them about me being there?" "How good are you at Force projections?" I ask. "Are you serious?" "Very." Luke chews his lip, then shakes his head. "I don't know if I'll be able to keep a Force projection in place that long. And I'm too well known, so if it falters, they'll pick up on it right away. Do you have anything onboard that could be useful as a disguise?" "Oh, sure, I always keep dress-up clothes in my ship," I reply sarcastically. "You've found my weakness, Skywalker—costumes." "You don't have to be so snippy, it was worth asking." "It's too bad we don't have any more of those plants we found on Myrkr, eh?" "Thank the Force, those things hurt like a rancor." "Well, they didn't seem to slow you down at all—the plants or the rancor," I offer, and Luke smiles in return. "I guess we'll have to be forthcoming about your presence," I continue. "Which brings us back to my earlier question—how exactly do we explain why I'm there?" I prop my chin in my hands, and then it hits me. I snap my fingers and point at him, then back to me. "We're a couple." "…Excuse me?" "We'll act like we're together. Then it will make sense for you to be with me," I explain. "Um…don't you think they would know if that were true or not?" Luke asks, sounding very uncomfortable with the idea. "It'd be all over the HoloNet in a second if we were a couple." "What, relationships can't be secretive? Besides, people did see us together at the ball last week." "Yeah—arguing," Luke points out. "And couples don't argue? Aren't you related to Han and Leia Solo?" Luke sighs. "You're not gonna give up this, are you, Mara?" "Why, you have a better idea?" "Fine," Luke relents, sighing heavily. "I'll be your devoted manservant. Happy now?" I glance at him. He senses me watching him, and gazes back at me. Our eyes lock for long seconds. Then we both look away. Luke and I spend the next few days acting unusually civil towards each other. I show him around the Fire, he cooks for me, we discuss Pestage's intentions, we play sabacc. We do everything but discuss why I'm no longer at the Academy, and why Luke has taken complete control of the Jedi Order since I left. By the end of the last day of our voyage, it is obvious that we are ready to explode at each other. It all starts innocently enough. "So do you still work out with your lightsaber?" Luke asks over another round of sabacc. I raise an eyebrow at him over the hand splayed out in front of my face. "I don't really have much of an opportunity to do so anymore. There aren't many people skilled with a lightsaber onboard the Wild Karrde," I reply with a smirk. "Oh." He lays down a card. "I can give you a remote if you'd like," he offers. My annoyance grows at his persistent insistence that I continue my training, but I push it down. "Sure, thanks." We continue to play in silence, slapping down cards with increasing intensity. As Luke reaches close to me to pick up another card, just barely brushing my hand, he tries again. "We can always spar now if you're bored with sabacc." I know that I should refuse. Sparring with Luke leads to very bad things. I meet his eyes, and they twinkle, issuing me a challenge I cannot refuse. "Fine," I answer. We're out of our seats in seconds. We make our way to an open area of the ship, and he ignites his lightsaber. I follow suit, bouncing on my toes in anticipation. After a moment he charges, and I parry. Even after so long, sparring with Luke comes so incredibly natural that I can't even begin to comprehend it. We dance around each other, ducking each other's blows and thwarting every oncoming strike. Once again, I feel as if I'm fighting with him, instead of against him. Our minds start to open up to one another and I sense all his self-doubt about leading the Jedi Order, all his grief about me leaving him, and his profound desire for me to earn my place as a Jedi. Through all of this, I try to shield my thoughts from him, but I know that it is futile. I grimace, trying to cover up my true feelings now that I am standing in front of him again. The fight goes on for a long time without either of us getting disarmed. Eventually, as expected, Luke gets the best of me and knocks my lightsaber out of my hand. The air grows silent as the hilt finishes clanging against the ground. I stare up at him. He glares down at me. We stand face to face, our lips mere centimeters apart, both panting heavily. He reaches out to caress my cheek. That damn shiver goes down my spine again. I abruptly turn away and call my lightsaber back to my hand. I hear Luke sigh behind me. "You're still so amazing, Mara." I whip around and glare at him. "Don't start," I grind out. He doesn't back down. "Why not? We've got nothing better to do." "I can't do this right now, Luke." "Then when can you?" I brush past him and stalk back to the living quarters. He follows me. I whirl around on him as he attempts to enter the room behind me. "What do you want?" I snarl. He doesn't mince words. "I want you to come back to Yavin IV and finish your training." "No." "Why not?" he presses. I flop down on the bottom bunk. "Because nothing has changed. And yet everything has." He hesitantly sits down next to me and gives me a curious look. "I'm never going to be able to reach my full potential." "You would if you'd just face your past, Mara," he says. "That won't change anything," I argue. "How do you know?" "Because I just know, okay! Maybe I have faced my past, and I don't like what I see at all, did you ever think of that?" "So, what, you're never going to forgive yourself for being the Emperor's Hand? Even though you know that everything that you did, everything that you were, was because of the Emperor, and not your own choice?" I lean back on the wall, placing my head in my hands. "It's not that easy, Luke. I can't just decide to forgive myself, and be done with it." Hesitantly, Luke slides closer to me and places his arm around my shoulder. "I wish you'd let me help you." I stare straight at the wall through my hands, and he moves even closer to me. "I know that you feel guilty," he whispers against my face. His fingers brush through the ends of my braid. "I know it's hard to come to terms with what you've done. But you can't live your life like this. You can't keep running away." I turn my head back to him, green eyes blazing. "Just forget it, Skywalker," I growl. He stares back at me, his blue eyes flashing at my stubbornness. "Fine," Luke says, removing his arm and pushing away. "If you want to make this so difficult for yourself, go ahead. It's what you're best at." I don't know how to respond to him, so I change the subject. "Why won't you tell me why you demanded to come along with me?" Now Luke looks away, avoiding my gaze. "I just wanted to make sure that everything was okay." "So you decided to fly all the way out to the Wild Karrde instead of sending me a message? And once you found out I was okay, you felt the urge to tag along with me, and leave behind your precious Academy?" He doesn't take my bait. "I told you, I just wanted to make sure everything was okay," he repeats. "You care to be more specific?" "No. Please don't ask me anything more about it." "Oh, so now you're the one who's going to be stubborn?" "I learned from the best." I give him an ironic smile. "Fine. Since you won't talk about that, why don't you tell me why you've taken complete control of the Jedi Order since I left the Academy?" "How about I don't." "Oh come on, Luke. I told you mine, you tell me yours." He glares at me. "What else was I supposed to do?" "Oh, I don't know, maybe let people help you?" "You don't understand, Mara." "Make me," I challenge. He sighs. He looks so helpless, and so defeated. I want nothing more than to put my arms around him and hug him and make everything better, or to wrap my hands around his neck and strangle him. Instead I give him an icy stare. Every single annoyance I've had towards him over the past year for what he's done to the Jedi Order comes bubbling to the surface, and I can't contain it anymore. "You're gonna kill the Order if you keep doing this, Luke. I thought you learned this long ago. You can't do it all by yourself." He gives me an incredulous look. "Oh, that's rich. Now you consider the Order." "And just what is that supposed to mean?" "You left, Mara! What the hell was I supposed to do?" he repeats. "What does me leaving the Academy have to do with how you decide to run the Jedi Order?" "Everything!" he exclaims, reaching his arms out to shake me, and I flinch at the intensity of his voice. "Don't you get it? Don't you think that I began to plan things around you being there? I envisioned you helping me shape the Order. I envisioned you training apprentices alongside of me. You would have been amazing, Mara. And later, after everything that happened between us, I even began to imagine sharing a life with you, if only you'd do me the honor of having me. "But then you left, as soon as I finally got my head on straight and told you exactly how I felt, because you're too damn stubborn to let me help you. I knew the reason you gave me for leaving was a bunch of poodoo, but I didn't press you, thinking that you needed some time to yourself and once you got that all figured out, you'd return to finish your training and we could be together again. But then you never came back, and I didn't know what else to do, so I did the only thing I could think of—I dove headfirst into the Order. I took control. The Order is the only thing that I can control." I am speechless by all his revelations, and have to blink rapidly to keep myself from tearing up out of sadness and anger and bitterness. But I make myself respond, fighting on like the soldier that I am. "You can't control it all on your own. It's going to kill you if you keep doing this, Luke." "Oh, now all of a sudden you care about me." I take a deep breath to keep from yelling at him. "You know that my leaving had nothing to do with what happened between us—" "That's what you say." "You know that it's true, Luke!" "Yes, of course I know!" he explodes, launching himself from the bunk and pacing around rapidly. "I know exactly what that night meant to both of us! I was so happy, Mara, thinking that we could finally be together, and I know that you were, too. I felt it. I saw it in your eyes. It was…something I'd never before experienced. It was the happiest moment of my life." He turns back to me with tremendous pain and anger in his eyes. "And then you left. The fact that your leaving had nothing to do with what happened between us makes it even worse, don't you understand? Because despite everything that we shared… despite how deeply I know that you cared for me…you still left. What I have to offer you wasn't enough. It'll never be enough, will it?" "I had no choice, Luke," I whisper. "Oh, I am so sick of this! What's it going to take for you to finally be able to forgive yourself?" Luke exclaims. I bite my lip. "I don't know," I reply. I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive myself for what I did as the Emperor's Hand. I don't know if I will ever feel that I deserve to be a Jedi, or that I deserve to be with Luke. I wish I could just wave my hand and make it all go away. But I can't change the past—I can only move forward. I stare down at my hands, unable to look at him, and then, before I know what's happening, years of bitterness and anger erupt to the surface, and I'm throwing another barb at him: "When are you finally going to stop taking responsibility for everything else in the galaxy but your own damn happiness?" I regret the words as soon as they leave my mouth. They are so incredibly hypocritical that I want to slap myself for saying them. Luke's expression changes to one of pure anger, but then the mask falls into place once again. He nods curtly, and turns on his heel to exit the quarters. Before he leaves, without even looking back, he launches one more volley at me: "At least I don't keep running away." Then, he is gone. This round goes to Luke Skywalker. Later that night, after I've already settled in to my bunk, I hear the door to the living quarters slide open. Luke steps in quietly, and for a few seconds, he stands over me, the sounds of his breathing mixing in with the whir of the hyperdrive. It is unexpectedly calming. Before he can climb to the top bunk, I slide over, making room for him next to me. He hesitates for a moment, then wordlessly accepts my invitation, pulling the covers over him. At first we just lie there, barely touching, but then he breathes a heavy sigh and turns on his side, wrapping his arms around me. Without opening my eyes, I collapse into his embrace and bury my head in his chest, unable to look at him after yet another argument between us. Then, once again listening to his heartbeat, I can't hold it in any longer. I begin to cry silently against him, letting out all my frustration and anguish at the path my life has taken. Even though I have hurt him deeply, Luke consoles me as only he can, stroking my hair and sending out calming waves through the Force. I don't have to tell him that I'm sorry. He already knows. We lay there for a long time, wrapped up in each other's arms, until my tears finally begin to subside. Then Luke cups my face in his hands, forcing me to look at him as his thumbs gently brush away my remaining tears. He gives me a timid smile. "I never stopped loving you," he whispers. "No matter what happens, I want you to know that. I'll never stop." A lump forms in my throat, and I cannot say the words back to him…but then again, with him, I don't have to. I just pull him to me and press my lips to his, grateful to once again be in his arms, if only for just one more night. 22. Chapter 21 CHAPTER 21 When I wake up several hours later, Luke is curled around my back, his arm draped over my side, hand resting on my hip. "What's that noise?" he mumbles into my shoulder. "Reversion alert," I tell him as I gently disentangle myself from his embrace. "I'll take care of it." "No, you stay in bed, I'll do it." I climb over him and fumble around the bunk, trying to pull on my jumpsuit without falling over in the dark. "Nice try, but I'm still not letting you fly my ship." "You know, I am a pretty good pilot," he boasts as he stretches, readjusting the thin blanket around his waist. I throw him a patient look. "You fly starfighters. This is a yacht." "Han lets me fly the Falcon." "He's a Corellian, he's used to taking risks. Give it up, it's not going to happen." "Fine, you win," he sighs. "I'll be there shortly." "Take your time, we've still got fifteen minutes." "Mara?" his voice stops me just as I'm about to go through the door. "Yes?" I reply, not looking back at him. "…I missed you." I squeeze my eyes shut. "You always miss me, Skywalker." "You're right," he chuckles. "I do." Several minutes later he slides into the co-pilot's seat. I glance over at him and smirk; I'm still not used to seeing him wear civilian clothes. "Everything all right?" he asks. "Just peachy," I reply. "You sure?" "Why wouldn't it be?" "Well…you know…" I sigh, running my hands over the controls. "Don't worry, I'm fine." "Good," he says, looking not entirely convinced. I busy myself in the cockpit, going through all the checklists that I now know by heart, trying to concentrate on anything else but what happened last night. But Luke won't let me avoid it. "Mara?" "What?" "You know that couple thing we're about to do?" I pause before answering. "Yeah, what about it?" He takes a deep breath. "It doesn't have to be a lie, you know." I stare straight ahead at the mottled lines of hyperspace, forcing myself not to betray my emotions. "I know." He reaches over to take my hand. "I really missed you, Mara." I clear my throat and continue to avoid his gaze. "I missed you, too." "So what's stopping this?" he asks, as his thumb starts to move against my skin. "Lots of things," I shrug, trying to ignore his caresses. "I want you. You want me. What else is there?" "It's not that simple." "It can be if you'd just let it." "We've had this argument how many times now, Luke?" "Lots. But you know me. I'm stubborn." I snort. "That's the understatement of the year." "No, that would be me saying that you're stubborn." I finally turn to him and throw him a huge smile. "Touché." He gives me a mock bow, and I laugh before growing serious again. "I can't do this right now, Luke. I'm not avoiding it," I continue before he can protest. "I just have a lot of stuff on my mind and need to get through this thing with Pestage first. It wouldn't be fair to you to discuss it right now. But afterwards, I'll come to Yavin IV with you and we'll talk. We'll really talk. I promise." Luke nods, but doesn't look pleased with my promise, as I'd expected he would be. Instead, he looks skeptical and very worried. I squeeze his hand in reassurance. "I mean it, Luke." He nods again. "I know you do." But his expression does not change. The reversion countdown hits zero and I pull the ship out of hyperspace. We approach Nirauan in silence, and I transmit the codes that Pestage provided. As we enter the atmosphere, I steal a glance at Luke and see the same worried expression on his face. Wanting to keep him from brooding, I sigh and flip over control of the Fire to the co-pilot's station. "You're on, flyboy." "Huh?" "You wanted to fly the ship. Fly her." Luke gives me an incredulous look. "You're serious?" "You better take control or my ship's gonna crash and then I'm really going to have to kill you." "As you wish," Luke grins, taking the controls with what can only be described as absolute glee. I always forget that Luke was a pilot first, and a Jedi second. And he is a marvelous pilot, flying the Fire with all the care of its owner combined with all the daring of a starfighter pilot. I almost think it unfair just how many things Luke Skywalker is good at. As Luke guides the ship to the coordinates given to us, we see a large fortress looming in the distance. "Whatever's going on, I don't think this is a tiny operation," Luke says. "I think you're right," I agree. Luke lands the Fire gently on the landing platform, and as I go through all the post-flight checks, he heads to the back to grab our two small packs. I meet him at the ramp and almost jump when I see Artoo Deetoo rolling towards us; I had forgotten that Luke brought his astromech along. In the back of my mind, I wonder what the droid was doing on the journey that kept him so quiet— hopefully not messing around with my ship's computer. "Think they'll mind if I bring him?" Luke asks. I tilt my head and purse my lips in thought. "No more than they'll mind you being here, I guess," I answer. Luke nods. "Okay. I don't think Pestage will appreciate us bringing these along, though," he adds, holding up his lightsaber. "Are you suggesting we leave them on the ship? 'Cause if you are, I'm gonna have to ask who stole your brain." "Absolutely not," Luke laughs. "Artoo, come here. You know the drill." The little droid rolls over to Luke, and an empty trapezoidal compartment pops open on his dome. I nod in understanding, remembering back to our trek across the Myrkr forest, and how we hid Luke's lightsaber inside Artoo before entering Hyllyard City. "Ahh. I guess I should have remembered that." Luke gives me an ironic smile and holds out his hand. I hand him my lightsaber, and he pops it inside Artoo, with his following suit. Thankfully, both hilts fit nicely inside. "What about our other weapons?" I ask, nodding to the blaster on his belt. "We should probably leave them in the ship, just so we don't seem threatening," he replies, holding his out to me. With a heavy sigh, I take the blaster and place it, along with my own, into a hidden compartment. Before I can head down the ramp, Luke holds his arm out to stop me. He raises his eyebrows. "What?" I ask innocently. "I know you have more weapons on you." "You do. But they don't," I grin. I head down the ramp and hear Luke huff behind me, reminding me all too much of Talon Karrde. Around the middle of the ramp, Luke stops dead in his tracks. I glance at him, curious, and he gestures towards the man standing at the entrance to the hangar. I regard the man for a few seconds, trying to determine why he looks so familiar, and it hits me just as Luke speaks. "That's Baron Fel, isn't it?" he whispers. "Yeah," I reply incredulously. Baron Soontir Fel was, after Darth Vader, the greatest Imperial starfighter pilot and the commander of the 181st Imperial Fighter Wing, the Empire's answer to Rogue Squadron. He defected to the New Republic after the death of Palpatine, but disappeared shortly afterwards. "I guess now we know where he's been all this time, huh?" "Wedge'll be ecstatic to find out," Luke murmurs. "Shouldn't he be upset to know that Baron Fel, Ace of the Empire, is still alive and possibly involved with 'the future of the Empire'?" Luke hesitates and leans in conspiratorially, placing his hand on my shoulder. "You have to keep this quiet…but he's married to Wedge's sister." My mouth drops open and I have to remind myself to keep my voice down. "Wynssa Starflare is Wedge's sister?" Wynssa Starflare was one of the most popular holodrama actresses in the Empire. Their wedding was straight out of royalty. "Yes. Not many people know. Wedge hasn't seen her since she ran away from home." "Wow." "Shhh, here he comes." We grow quiet as we continue across the hangar, meeting Fel halfway to the entrance. He wears a tight smile upon seeing Luke standing next to me, but does not otherwise betray his surprise. "Welcome to Nirauan, Mara Jade. Allow my to introduce myself —I'm Baron Fel, leader of this facility. I trust your trip was well?" I allow him to take my hand. "There's no need to introduce yourself, Baron, and yes, everything was fine. Thank you." His eyes dart to Luke. "I apologize, Captain Jade, but I was under the impression that you would be traveling alone." "I hope it's not a problem that my partner accompanied me?" Again, Fel does an excellent job at hiding his surprise. "Not at all, of course. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, General Skywalker." Luke shakes his hand. "Yours as well, Baron. But it's just Skywalker now; I resigned my general's commission years ago." "A pity. You were always a formidable opponent." Luke gives him a thin smile. Fel returns the gesture before turning back to me. "If you'll follow me, I'll direct you to your quarters." I nod gratefully and Luke and I fall into step behind him. The fortress is massive, but thankfully we seem to be confined to one of the smaller wings, and I mentally keep track of the path from the hangar to our quarters. After about five minutes, Fel leads us into a hallway lined with identical-looking doors and stops in front of one of them. "I hope you'll excuse us," he begins, looking uncomfortable, "but as we believed you'd be traveling alone, we only have one room prepared." "That's not a problem," I say, giving him a pointed look. Fel raises one eyebrow at my implication. "I see," he glances at my arm, draped over Luke's. "Well, then. If you don't mind, Captain Jade, the Vizier has been expecting you and would like to speak with you right away." "No, that's not a problem at all." He glances at Luke. "I hope you understand that the Vizier wishes to speak to Captain Jade alone?" I can tell that Luke does not like this at all, but he does not protest. "Of course." "Very well then. Captain Jade, if you please?" I nod at him before turning around to say good-bye to Luke, but before I can open my mouth to speak, he pulls me into a crushing hug. At first I just stand there, dumbfounded, but I slowly return the embrace and think it very fitting that we are posing as a couple, because we're certainly playing our parts very well right now. I wink at Luke as I pull away. Trying to get in the couple mood, Skywalker? He doesn't smile back; instead, his expression turns deadly serious. Be careful in there, I hear him whisper as I follow Fel further into the fortress. We make small talk, and again I pay close attention to our path, making note of the intermittent blast doors and seemingly random exits. At the end of another long hallway, we enter a large dining room, where Sate Pestage sits at the head of a grand table, looking all too much like the Grand Vizier he once was. I grimace as I push aside all the old memories of life in the Imperial Palace and the suffocations of court. Pestage rises as I enter, and I'm led to a chair next to him. We are the only ones in the large room, other than Fel, who stands guard by the door. I stretch out with the Force to try to get a reading on Pestage. I sense no duplicity from him, or hostility. In fact, he seems eager to have me join him and become an invaluable ally. "Captain Jade," he begins, his smarmy tones making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. "Thank you for joining me. I trust you had a good trip to Nirauan?" "Yes, thank you." He gestures for me to sit. "If you are hungry, I can arrange for some refreshment, but I was hoping that you would join me for a formal dinner later on." "That would be fine," I reply. "We hope that your companion will join us as well?" "Of course." "I'm sorry that he could not join us now, but you can understand that I prefer to discuss our plans in private." I put on a fake smile. "Of course. You have been very secretive about these plans of yours. I'm interested in hearing just what they entail." "I'm sure that you are curious, and I assure you, all will be revealed to you in time. For now, Captain Jade, let me tell you about this facility. Are you aware that this operation was started by Grand Admiral Thrawn?" "Really?" I ask, not having to fake the curiosity in my voice. "Right around the Battle of Endor, Grand Admiral Thrawn began to build up a massive power base in the Outer Rim and Wild Space. This was his base of operations—the Hand of Thrawn fortress. He amassed his own Empire here, even before he tried to conquer the territory that the Rebels had won back. It was his fallback, you see—the Empire of the Hand." My eyes narrow at him. "Interesting name," I remark coolly. "You'll understand why I immediately thought of you, Mara Jade, Emperor's Hand, when I found my way here after Ysanne Isard's deception." "I am no longer the Emperor's Hand," I growl, perhaps a bit too forcefully. "But you were. You were a loyal servant to the Emperor, and nobody, not even a Jedi, would be able to squeeze those ideals out of you." Pestage and I glare at each other for long moments, my jaw clenching at his assumptions. Before I can respond, he glances over my shoulder at Fel. "Would you leave us, please? I will take care of Captain Jade from here." Once alone with Pestage, my danger sense spikes dramatically, and I immediately tense and prepare for a fight. Pestage smiles and leans back in his chair. "Now that we are alone, let us discuss the future of the Empire, and your role in it." "I thought you chose not to ally yourself with the Imperial Remnant?" "You are correct. I said that we should discuss the Empire, not the pale shadow of its former glory that calls itself the Imperial Remnant." I do not want to discuss this at all, but I keep quiet, allowing him to continue. "Captain Jade, tell me…why did you never return to the Empire after Palpatine's death?" I give him the truth. "There was nothing left for me there. Nobody knew who I was. I had no more power or influence." "I'm surprised that you felt that way. Ysanne Isard certainly wanted your cooperation. I'm sure that many Warlords and Moffs would have given anything to have the Emperor's Hand as their ally. And, of course, there was Grand Admiral Thrawn, the best opportunity for the Empire to return to its former glory, and he certainly knew what you were. I've always wondered why the Emperor's Hand never joined forces with him, especially considering your…feelings towards certain members of the New Republic." I take a deep breath, keeping my expression blank. "Grand Admiral Thrawn was brilliant, yes," I admit, "but by the time he came in to power, it was too late. I had moved on." "Nobody ever truly leaves the Empire, Captain Jade. In fact, I believe that the ideals of the Empire still reside deep within you." "You're wrong." "If that is so, then why are you not a member of the New Republic?" "I work for Talon Karrde, who chooses to remain neutral." "Yes…and yet you are here with Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, and once trained with him as a Jedi. Given his involvement in the downfall of the Empire, surely that is a small conflict of interest?" "My personal affairs are just that—personal." "Of course. I do find it interesting, however, that you chose to abandon your Jedi training. Why was that?" "It was a personal issue." "So then, as the former Emperor's Hand, you did not feel a conflict of interest and realize that you had to leave the Jedi Order?" "Just what are you insinuating, Vizier?" I snarl. "That perhaps the reason you left the Jedi Order is because you knew that you didn't belong there at all—but that you belonged with the Empire." In that moment, I am incredibly grateful for all my Jedi training, because all I want to do is leap towards Pestage and throttle him. What makes it worse is that he's partially right—I left the Academy because I didn't belong in the Jedi Order. But I do not belong in the Empire. Not anymore. "Captain Jade," Pestage continues, "you asserted that you did not want to serve a pale imitation of the old Empire. But, what if you could serve the Empire, the true Empire, once more?" I straighten up in my seat and grip the arms of my chair, going through all my old Jedi calming techniques. "You know that is not possible. The Empire of old will never again exist, and even if it did, I am not interested. That part of my life is long past." "Is it really?" "Yes, and besides, this discussion is pointless. Palpatine's Empire will never again exist, even if another military mind like Thrawn's comes in to power, no matter how ambitious of a leader you may be." Pestage gives me a thin smile. "Oh, I would persuade you not to disregard my proposal so quickly. In fact, you may find that we have exactly what you've been looking for." Again, I have to force myself to stay composed as I rise from my chair. "I apologize for wasting your time, Vizier, but I think this conversation has ended." I make it halfway to the door before I hear a noise at my back. "No, it is I who must be the one to apologize. You know that I cannot let you leave." I turn around slowly and glare at the blaster pointed my chest. "You're making a very stupid mistake, Pestage." He glances at my unarmed utility belt and smiles. "Oh, I don't think it is I who made the mistakes today, Emperor's Hand." Before he can pull the trigger, I drop to the ground and somersault under the table, moving so fast that Pestage cannot track my movement. He whips his blaster around as quickly as he can, but it is to no use; he falls limp on the table before he can even pull the trigger. I pant heavily as I push myself to my feet. "The Emperor's Hand doesn't make mistakes, Pestage, but in this case, you were right," I grin, clutching my precious holdout blaster to my chest. "I had it set for stun." 23. Chapter 22 A/N: Song for this chapter: Sandstorm, Darude CHAPTER 22 Somehow, I manage to sprint back to the room without running into Fel or any stormtroopers, or getting another blaster pointed at me. Luke is running towards me with his lightsaber ignited when I arrive, and he sweeps me into his arms before I can say a word. "Are you okay?" he whispers, his voice full of concern. "Yeah," I assure him. "I managed to get off a stun bolt." We sway in each other's embrace for a while, and then he leads me into the room. "So?" he asks, shutting the door behind us. I take a deep breath. "He's planning something. Something big. I think…I think they're gonna attack, and try to take over the New Republic again." "What did he want from you?" "To join him. He seems to believe that I think I belong with the glorious Empire of old." Luke shifts nervously as he thinks of what to say next. "Are you going to?" "What?" I cannot restrain myself from smacking him. "Are you insane?" He shrugs sheepishly. "Sorry. I had to ask." "No, of course I'm not joining him," I spit out, smacking him again, "especially not after he pulled a blaster on me! Whatever he has planned, Luke, it is not good. Thrawn started this whole operation—he called it the Empire of the Hand. The way Pestage was talking, it was like he somehow knew that they'd be able to restore the Empire to its former glory, and he seemed so certain that I'd want to be involved, even though I trained as a Jedi and helped take down Thrawn. I told him I wasn't interested, and then he tried to shoot me. So I shot him instead." "If you think they're planning some sort of attack, we need to warn the New Republic before anything can happen," Luke says, striding purposefully towards Artoo, who is happily linked to the room's computer terminal. "Not that we know they're out here, they probably won't waste any time launching an attack." "That's true. What are you doing?" "Trying to send a message to Leia," he responds. After a few moments, he curses. "Blast, they must have figured us out. We're being jammed." "I think we need to get out of here, now." "For once I am not going to argue with—" Before he can finish, Artoo starts beeping madly, cutting him off. "What's wrong with him?" I ask. Luke peers curiously at the datapad. "He's found something." "What is that? Building schematic?" I ask, looking over his shoulder at the datapad. "Yeah. I guess Artoo's been keeping himself busy and getting to know the fortress's computer. Can you project those schematics, Artoo?" The droid beeps an affirmative. The schematics show a circular staircase running alongside the fortress, leading into a series of caves that dead end in a large cavern. "What's that room?" I ask. Artoo beeps in response, but before I can read his response on the datapad, Luke almost drops it to the floor. "Oh my," Luke murmurs, his eyes widening in dread. "What is it?" "Look right there," he responds, pointing to a spot in the cavern. Artoo zooms in on the schematic. My jaw drops. "Is that…is that a Spaarti cloning cylinder?" Luke nods gravely. "That's what it is, alright. What in the galaxy are they doing with a cloning cylinder? I thought you said this was Thrawn's operation; Thrawn created his clones on Wayland." "Yeah…but Pestage said that this was Thrawn's fallback, in case he failed. Thrawn was a genius, Luke, of course he'd prepare for every possible outcome, such as the destruction of Mount Tantiss." "Okay, but then why is there only one cloning cylinder in the cavern?" "Because they only need one," I sigh. Luke gapes at me as he picks up my insinuation. "You think that Pestage is planning to bring back Thrawn, don't you?" "As much as I hate to admit it, yes. Think about it—Thrawn kept this operation nice and quiet, even when he was waging war against the New Republic. This fortress would be the perfect place to protect a clone if his attacks failed, wouldn't it?" "So that's it, then," Luke says. "Pestage found his way out here, was impressed with Thrawn's operation, and now believes that he can restore the old Empire with him as Emperor and Thrawn once again leading the fleet." "Thrawn and Pestage working together…that's a scary thought for the New Republic." "Yeah." He shoves the datapad into his pack. "Let's get out of here." "You don't have to tell me twice," I agree. As we head out the door, Luke takes my lightsaber from his belt and places it in my hand. I hold it reverently and almost kiss it, so glad am I to have it once again in my grasp. Once we get into the hallway, Luke turns to his droid. "Artoo, go find the entrance to the caves, okay? Send out a homing signal when you get there, and then stay out of sight." The droid bleeps in response, then rolls down the hallway. Before we can follow, Luke ignites his lightsaber. "I think we're about to get company," he sighs. I reach out with the Force, and sure enough, I sense several beings approaching our direction. "I guess they found Pestage slumped over the table," I laugh. Luke grins at me, and we jog down the hallway in Artoo's direction. We come to a corner and Luke moves to follow the droid, but I hold him back, pointing in the direction of the hangar. "I remember seeing blast doors in this direction. We should head this way and knock out as many as we can, to throw them off and make them think we're trying to get to the ship. We can hold up near the hangar and take them out there, then double back and throw them off our trail." "Right," Luke agrees, and for a moment I'm shocked that he didn't voice any protest against my plan, and I start to wonder if maybe things really have changed between us in the past few days. But I don't have time to think about that for long; after we make it around a few more corners, blaster bolts start zooming by us. I drop to the ground on instinct while Luke turns around and blocks their shots with ease, running backwards the entire time without stumbling once. I bound back to my feet and run ahead of him, searching for our target, and then I see it. "Blast doors coming up!" I yell. I feel his mental affirmation, and quickly we rush past the first set of doors. I slam the door shut against the oncoming troopers and shoot out the control panel, trapping them on the other side. Before they can start bringing up the door, we continue further down the hallway, shooting out the rest of the blast doors on our way to the hangar. I sense more stormtroopers approaching us, and sure enough, as we come to another intersection, we both drop to the ground as blaster bolts come flying from a different direction. We're back on our feet in seconds, blocking their shots with ease. "This way!" Luke yells, pulling me down another hallway. We run in tandem, Luke turning around to block the bolts, then leading the way while I bring my lightsaber up to guard. We pass several more blast doors before Luke's comlink beeps. Luke stops for a moment to check the datapad. "Okay, there should be a hallway coming up that will take us back into the fortress," he says. I reach out into the Force, realizing that this is not good news at all. "Of course…that's where all the stormtroopers are," I sigh. "And when is anything simple for us?" he laughs. "Alright, let's stick to your plan—hold up here and let them come to us, to make them think we're on our way to the ship. Then we'll double back." "Sounds good to me." For a minute, the only sound comes from the humming of our lightsabers. I sense the stormtroopers coming from in front of us and to the right, and my feet start to shift in anticipation, preparing for a fight. Then I hear them, their shouts getting closer and the noise of blaster fire getting louder and louder. Luke tenses at my back and brings his lightsaber up. The two blast doors begin to open at the same time. I bring my lightsaber up in a reflection of Luke's, ready to defend myself. They begin shooting before I can even see their helmets, but I drop to the ground and block their shots with ease. My lightsaber moves as if on automatic pilot, and my eyes begin to close as I feel the Force flowing around me, guiding my movements. Once again, I am amazed at how right it feels to be fighting this way. I've gotten into several scuffles while in Karrde's employ, but nothing like what I trained for at the Jedi Academy. Even as I'm blocking and dodging blaster fire from a squadron of stormtroopers, I begin to wonder if I was wrong—if I do belong in the Jedi Order, after all. Suddenly Luke is standing by my side, and I realize that all the stormtroopers from his direction have been taken down. I hear Luke's voice in my mind: I block, you shoot! I send him back an affirmative, and whip out my holdout blaster. I get off several quick shots, downing more of troopers, while Luke deflects back their blaster bolts. As one of them flies dangerously close to my head, Luke steps forward and raises his right arm. In an instant, the remaining stormtroopers fly backwards through the air, landing in a heap several meters back. Run! Luke yells. I'm way ahead of him, barreling down the hallway, following his mental directions. As we come to another blast door, I see more stormtroopers heading towards us. But we don't hesistate; we stand our ground, deflecting their shots with ease. And Luke and I fight side by side, I feel exactly as I have during all of our sparring sessions. It's not only as if I'm meant to fight as a Jedi, but also that I'm meant to fight this way with him. After I shoot down the remaining stormtroopers, I stretch out into the Force and sense that we're now clear to get back to Artoo. "We should be safe," Luke says, echoing my thoughts. I glance at him; he's not even breathing heavily. "This way." He grabs my arm and we take off down the hallway, changing direction several times until coming to a long corridor that leads to a seemingly dead end. The door opens to reveal a circular staircase and a twittering Artoo Deetoo. Luke levitates the droid as we head down the staircase, and after several minutes of walking, we arrive at the underground caves. "They didn't put up much of a fight," I comment as we head through the tunnels, not wanting to jinx ourselves, but unable to resist making the observation. "Not for two Jedi, at least." "No," he agrees, "they didn't. I wonder…" "What?" He glances at me. "Maybe they wanted us to come down here." I continue moving forward despite the trepidation his words cause me. At a cross in the caves, Artoo turns left, and we follow. "I wonder what the Remnant will say about all this," I murmur. "Or the New Republic," Luke mutters back. I give a heavy sigh. "So much for those peace talks working out, huh?" "Yeah," Luke agrees. "Do you think that the Empire of the Hand will join Bastion?" "Join them? No. I think Pestage and Thrawn will take control of the Remnant, using the more radical Imperials to their advantage, and then set out to destroy the New Republic." We walk further into the caves, bringing out our glowrods to light our path. I glance up and see several large avian-like creatures hanging from the cave ceiling, seemingly watching us. I elbow Luke and point to them. "What are they?" I ask. "No clue. But they're ignoring us, so that's good enough for me right now." We continue in silence, and my mind starts to wander back to my conversation with Pestage, and his assertion that nobody ever truly leaves the Empire. Not that long ago, I agreed with him. I would have done anything to have the Empire return to its former glory. I wanted nothing more than to go back to my old life—one that I believed was full of power and prestige and respect. Even after I gained some stability while working for Karrde, I'd sometimes wonder what my life would be like if the old Empire still existed. Would I still be that same naïve girl, carrying out the Emperor's bidding and feeling a false sense of pride every time I accomplished one of his tasks? Would I have gained more power in the Empire's leadership, or would I still be stuck in the shadows, known to only the most elite members of the Emperor's inner circle? Would I have ever found any sense of personal happiness, or would I still be merely a pawn in the galactic conflict of light versus dark? Now, as I am faced with the possibility of a resurgent Empire once again taking over the galaxy, I know in my heart that I would never be able to go back to my old life. I don't want the false sense of order and stability that I felt while serving the Empire. I want to rush headfirst into a new life and tread along an unknown path. I want to be my own person, and live only for my own happiness. And as I glance at the man standing beside me, I realize that, no matter what happens, I want him to be standing by my side. Luke glances at me curiously, as if he realizes that something has shifted inside me, but he doesn't question me—not yet. There's time for that later. He merely gives me a reassuring smile. Then, Artoo begins to beep rapidly, and I see a bend in the cave up ahead. "It's coming up," Luke says. I hold out my arm to stop him. "What are we going to do about this clone?" I know that Luke does not want to have to kill the clone. It is still an innocent being. But if this clone really does have all of Thrawn's memories and tactical genius, it could spell disaster for the first real chance at galactic peace in almost three decades. Luke doesn't answer, and that is all the response I need. I stick close behind him as we come to the entrance of the large cavern. Before we can enter, Luke stops dead in his tracks and I slam into him, grabbing his waist to keep from toppling over. Before I can ask what is wrong, I hear his sharp intake of breath. "That's…that's not Thrawn," he whispers. I peer around him to get a good look at the cloning cylinder. Sure enough, the body being grown inside is human, not Chiss. "This doesn't make sense," Luke continues, his voice growing fraught with worry and confusion. "Pestage said this was Thrawn's operation. Who would he be trying to bring back, if not him?" As if in answer, Pestage's voice echoes inside my mind: You may find that we have exactly what you've been looking for. And then a memory stirs, just as it had inside Exar Kun's temple, when I was confronted with the presence of a Sith: You might find more than you are looking for. Stepping forward, as if I'm once again being called to do his bidding, my eyes widen with dread and my heart skips a beat. "No," I whimper, my blood turning cold at the realization. "No…it can't be…he's insane…" I bring my hands to my face in disbelief as my voice trails off, no longer able to speak. Suddenly everything makes sense—why Pestage is involved in this operation. Why the more moderate Imperial Remnant isn't. Why Pestage was absolutely certain that I would join him. Because for so many years, I was the Emperor's Hand, and given the chance to serve him again, Pestage believed I would jump at the opportunity. After all, isn't that what I had once said to Luke—that all I wanted was to have the old Empire back? And that was impossible…because the Emperor was dead. "What is it?" Luke looks at me, concerned. Before I can answer, he looks back to the cloning cylinder, and then I see in his eyes that he has realized it, too. He straightens up, standing perfectly still except for his hand, which reaches out to grasp mine. The body inside the cloning cylinder is much younger than I remember, but the feeling I have in the Force is unmistakable. I'm looking at a fully mature clone of Emperor Palpatine, ready to be reborn into the galaxy, and steal away my life once more. 24. Chapter 23 A/N: Song for this chapter: Your Congratulations, Alanis Morissette. (This song, more than any other, was my inspiration for Mara's characterization in this fic. You should listen to it!) A/N: Mara's backstory is an original creation based on references in canon. A/N: Inspiration for the next several chapters was taken from Vision of the Future by Timothy Zahn. CHAPTER 23 The universe spins around me, without care for up or down, left or right, backwards or forewords. The air suffocates me; I cannot draw breath. My soul is ripped from my body, torn away through vast spaces and time long past. I fall in a heap on the floor of a long-forgotten place, besotted with lush and exotic decorations, filled with promises of freedom and self-determination, and bursting with false pride. False pride for the Hand who has succeeded in so many of his biddings. False pride for the Hand who lives her life with only one purpose—to do as he pleases; to earn his approval, and his congratulations. The universe need not exist anymore; how can it when I am no longer that girl? Again the universe spins around me, and I am small, barely a child, sitting on a familiar woman's lap. I hold her red gold hair in my tiny fingers, squealing in delight because even so young, I know that my hair is starting to look like hers, and that makes me happy, because I want to be just like her. A man with green eyes sits next to us. He reads from a datapad, telling tales of ancient warriors who can wield power like magic and who brandish glowing swords, a testament to all who watch them that they are their protectors until death. He turns to me with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes, which reflect my own. I watch them, and I am happy, because they are the people who gave me life. They are the people who love me and cherish me and promise to protect me from the monster who vows to snatch me away in the night. But even so, their promises are made in vain, and even at such a young age, I know they cannot protect me against him. Suddenly a loud blast penetrates our home and my father rushes towards the door, brandishing a laser gun, but I know that it will do no good. He yells for my mother to take me and hide, and we run through hidden corridors into a small room, barely more than a closet, where we hide. My mother stands in front of me and brandishes her own glowing sword of protection. The room is soundproof, but I can hear the shouts in my head. He is coming. The man who I have seen in my dreams. The hooded man with a walking stick, feigning weakness for all who watch him from afar and aspire to overthrow his reign. He desires confrontation; he wants to draw out those weary warriors whose spirits were broken on the battlefield for so many years. He wants to draw out the smart ones who hid—those who have spawned new a generation of knights that will one day return to kill him, if they are not first bent to his will. I have seen him many times in my dreams; he promises me power, protection, and a home. He scares me, but I do not tell anyone of my dreams, for fear that they would think me evil, as he is. I cannot bear the thought of the ones who love me so much being so disappointed in me. But now he is coming, and there is nothing that can stop him. I hear shouts and laser blasts, and through the hooded man's eyes, I see my father fall to the floor in death. I scream, which calls the hooded man to me even more, but it does not matter, for he knows that I am here, and he will not leave until I am his. My mother jumps in front of me, holding me back, whispering prayers of protection and calling on the Force for guidance, but even the Force is no match for him. The door opens…but it is not the hooded figure I have seen in my dreams. It is a dark, helmeted figure, full of conflict but just as evil as the other. My mother pushes me back, letting out a war cry, but the helmeted figure does not falter. He tilts his head and brings out his own glowing red sword, and my mother begins to weep. "Please, Anakin…don't do this…" she whispers, and the helmeted man roars in anger, incensed by her presumption to call him by that name. I stare in shock and awe as the one called Anakin cuts down my mother in a single stroke, all of her skill and protection gone in a short second under the power of this dark man. I stay hidden in the shadows, unable to speak or move, but still he comes after me. He has been sent for this one purpose and he will not disappoint his master. He can never disappoint his master, for nobody ever says no to him and survives. The helmeted man—if he even is a man—takes me by the arm and carries me through my home—my former home. I do not scream or protest, for I know that it is futile, and I know I can no longer afford to appear weak. He puts me down, and stares at me through his helmeted eyes. "You are coming with me, child," his loud bass voice rumbles out, and all I can do is nod. I know that I am going with him to meet the hooded man from my dreams. My eyes close, blocking out the galaxy and the harsh new reality that I am forced to accept if I want to survive. And then he is in front of me, the hooded man from my dreams, staring at me with yellow eyes in something akin to awe or glee or fear, but most of all desire—desire to possess me, to mold me in his vision, to make me his own. To take away every bit of my humanity and break what makes me who I am, and remake me into his own little experiment. It will be easy, for a mere child has no chance of standing up to him, even though I desperately want to refuse…but nobody ever says no to him. "Welcome, Mara Jade." His voice is soft but cruel. It contains all the false promises of what I can be in life. I want to scream and run away from him, but it is useless. I know that, no matter what I do, I am now his. I can hear him in my mind, telling me who I am, and what I will become—his Hand. "Are you happy to be here, child?" he asks. I know that he can see through my lies, but it does not matter. He cares nothing about what is in my heart. He will change that later. Now, he is only concerned about my mind. When he wins that, he will own me. "Yes, Master," I whisper…and in that moment, I know that my life has ended. I close my eyes and wake up to a scorching hot heat, a brightness that encompasses all the glory of the planet's twin suns. I know that today is the day when he will come, when I will fulfill my master's wishes once more. I will kill the man who threatens to destroy my master and, therefore, threatens to destroy my life. I stand hidden as he enters the palace. He wears a cloak and a hood, reminding me so much of the master that I so dutifully serve —but then again, he is nothing like him at all. I remain silent, not wanting to give myself away, shielding my mind as my master has taught me. I watch with bated breath as this man—no, this boy, not so much older than myself—cheats death and brings down the wrath of the Hutt upon him. I listen to his warnings of death and destruction, awestruck that this boy—this nobody—could do what he has done. And in the small part of Mara Jade's mind that still exists, I begin to wonder if this boy is much more than what my master has told me. Then I am sent away, a failure. I close my eyes, and through time and space, I see my master standing over me, his face inches from mine, laced with a sneer that is filled with disappointment and promises of punishment if I do not succeed in my next task. So I fight on, striving to earn his approval once again…but suddenly my master is gone, taken from me by the boy I failed to kill, and for the second time, I know that my life has ended. For many years I wander aimlessly, searching for the boy who destroyed my life, so that I may fulfill my master's last command. When I finally find him, his perfect crystal blue eyes stare back at me, trying to understand what I am looking for. My blaster shakes in my grip as I threaten his life, because he has stolen mine, but still his eyes show no fear. Instead, they show compassion and warmth and—even though I cannot recognize it at the time—love. I have searched high and low for this boy—no, this man—for many years, wanting nothing more than to kill him and earn the congratulations of my master once again. But, now, as I stare into his eyes, the newfound woman—the Mara Jade who was destroyed by her master, only to come back to life out of necessity after his death—begins to wonder if this man is in fact exactly what I have been looking for. The universe spins around me again, and then the blue eyes are there once more…only not. I am fighting against the man I struggled for so long to find and kill…only not. In that last moment, I finally give in to my old master…and even as I thrust the blade forward, I realize how wonderful a thought that is—my old master. His last command is fulfilled, and I am free… But soon the chains fall upon me again, and I realize that I will never, ever be able to break free, for I have killed with free will and an eager heart; I have served the darkness and stood by its side as it flourished across the galaxy; I am no more worthy than my master or his apprentice to wear the title of Jedi. Still I press on, refusing to succumb to despair, knowing that, if I can survive, I may one day finally get the chance to beat him… And then the blue eyes find me again, and they shake me, willing me to wake up, to do penance for my sins, and to finally realize that I carry inside of me exactly what I've been looking for all these dark, lonely years… Forgiveness. . . . . . . Time stops and I fall through an abyss, but before I can collapse, I am held in place by a warm hand on my arm. I look up and see Luke staring at me intently, his clear blue eyes filled with concern. I can't recall how long we stand there, clutching each other in disbelief, but suddenly I stand up straight. I have been given a second chance, and I will take it. I march forward, my face set with determination and purpose, hiding my true feelings inside. But as soon as I take a few steps into the cavern, I stop in my tracks. The Force is gone. I can hear Luke. I can see him. I can touch him. But I cannot feel him. We glance at each other at the same time. "Ysalamiri," he whispers. "Why?" I whisper back. He nods in the direction of the cloning cylinder. "You think Pestage thought he could control Palpatine with ysalamiri?" I cry. "He's more insane than I thought!" Still clutching onto each other, we walk further into the cavern, and I have to force myself not to stare at the body inside of the cloning cylinder. Once, as the Emperor's Hand, I had more confidence than anyone in the galaxy. Under Palpatine's tutelage, I believed myself to be infallible, unstoppable, invincible. The Empire was where I belonged, and I would give anything to defend it. But now, faced with the man who broke me and shaped me into his own, my confidence shatters, and the only thing there to help me pick it up is the man standing by my side. We stop in front of the transparisteel barrier that separates the cloning cylinder from the rest of the cavern. "We have to end this," I declare. Luke shakes his head. "That's a Braxxon-Fipps 590 fusion generator. We can't just destroy it." "We don't have to destroy it," I smile. Ironically, it is Palpatine's training that will enable me to finally beat him. I remember back to a mission that involved disabling the same type of generator, and Palpatine's insistence that my task be completed quietly, inferring what would happen if I failed—I needn't worry about punishment, because the blast would most certainly kill me. "I take it you know how to disable this thing?" "Yeah, I think I can remember how." It's an understatement; as much as I want to forget about my former life as the Emperor's Hand, my memory of all my old missions is nearly flawless. "Why am I not surprised?" he murmurs. I throw him a look as I ignite my lightsaber, but Luke holds out his arm to stop me. "Don't be rash. We need to get out of here and call for help. We can't do this on our own." I give him an incredulous look. "What was that? Did Luke Skywalker just admit out loud that he needs help? Artoo, I hope you were recording that." "Haha, very funny. I'm being serious, Mara." "So am I," I hiss. "This needs to end. I need to do this." "Mara—" "Luke, please. I need to do this." After a moment, he nods in understanding and releases my arm. I block my face as I jam my lightsaber through the barrier; it shatters instantly, and Luke instinctively throws me to the ground to block me from the flying glass. I grimace as a stray shard slashes through my leg, and feel Luke tense on top of me as pieces smash into his back. "Are you okay?" he whispers in my ear, still flush on top of me. "Yeah," I grunt. I twist my head to stare up at him. "You want to get off—?" "Or am I just getting comfortable, I know, I know," Luke says slyly as he slips off me. "Here," he hands me a multitool from his belt. I step through the destroyed barrier and immediately get to work, stripping wires and mumbling to myself the old memories of colors and patterns and seconds. Luke stands behind me, watching me work, not uttering a word, knowing that to do so would be to break the spell. It is almost done, my victory so close at hand, when I hear them. I work faster, but it is to no avail—there they are, six sentinel droids, as if manifested from thin air, blocking our exit back into the cave. They immediately begin firing on us, their blaster bolts coming dangerously close to the generator. Luke and I share a worried glance, and without having to say a word we dive back towards the middle of the chamber. We bring up our lightsabers and are victorious in deflecting the droids' blaster bolts, but are useless in destroying them. "They're shielded!" Luke screams. We block their blasts for several more minutes, but it's still of no use, and without the Force to call upon, I find myself tiring. "This isn't going to work!" "We have to keep fighting, don't give up! Do you think you can you jump up to the balcony?" he yells, tilting his head behind us. I glance up at the circular balcony overhead, which provides a much needed line of sight block from the sentinel droids. With the Force to assist me, it wouldn't be a problem, but I don't think I can manage it by myself. Still, I know it is our only chance, and I know that Luke will be able to jump up with no problem. "I can with your help!" I tell him. Luke looks at me for a moment, his expression unreadable, but then nods. "Cover me!" he yells, and then, so fast I can barely make out his move, he jumps up to the balcony, grasping the edge with his hands and pulling himself up. "Your turn!" he yells, holding his hand out to me. With a grunt, I bend my knees and jump with all my might. Luke grabs my hand and swiftly pulls me up the rest of the way before the sentinel droids can shoot at me. They keep firing in our direction, but shut down their blasters once they realize that, now lying down on the balcony, we are out of sight from their blasts. "Now what do we do?" I ask breathlessly. "I don't know—we'll think of something." "I guess we were wrong, huh?" "About what?" "The ysalamiri weren't for him," I reply, gesturing towards the cloning cylinder. "They were for us—for anyone who came in here trying to destroy the clone." We lie there for several minutes, not speaking, not looking at each other. The only sound in the cavern is the whir of the droids. Slowly, Luke reaches out his hand to grasp mine. As our fingers intertwine together, still unable to feel him through the Force, it finally hits me—there's no getting out of here alive. I've damned him to death. I've killed him. "I'm sorry," I whisper. "What?" "You said we should go back and get help, but I wouldn't listen to you. I never listen. This is all my fault." "No, Mara," Luke says, clutching my hand even tighter. "Don't talk that way. We'll figure something out." But even now, I still refuse to listen to him. I finally meet his gaze, and seeing the love in his eyes, I feel like the most awful person in the galaxy. "I'm sorry, Luke. I'm sorry for not opening up to you…I'm sorry for leaving…I'm sorry for everything..." "Stop it!" he yells, shaking my shoulders. "What the hell is wrong with you? This isn't the Mara Jade I fell in love with!" I wish I could rejoice in his declaration, but with the realization of what I've done hanging over me like a fog, I cannot feel any joy, only heartache. "It's too bad, you know," I say, brushing a lock of hair from his face. "We did make a good couple, after all." "We do make a good couple. Listen to me, Mara," he cups my face in his hands. "You promised me that we'd talk after leaving Nirauan, remember, and I'm holding you to that promise! You're not getting out if it that easily, you got that?" I can't respond; instead, I spare another glance at the cloning cylinder—at Palpatine, the man who stole my life. If only I'd been able to resist him, I could have ended things. I could have killed him in his sleep. I could be free now. But then, as my eyes lock on to the generator…I realize that I can end this, after all. Instead of killing Luke, I will save him. I will defy the last command. I give Luke a bittersweet smile as I turn back to face his perfect crystal blue eyes. No matter what, he always had hope. He always had faith in me, even when I had none. Now, it is my turn to repay the favor. This is my moment of reckoning. "You're right about one thing," I tell him softly, taking his hair in my fingers again. "You will get through this." "…What—?" Cutting off his question, I stroke his cheek and pull him into one last kiss. "See you later, Farmboy," I whisper against his lips. "What…what are you doing? Mara? NO, MARA, STOP! MARA, NO!" Before he can pull me back, I dive off the balcony and hit the ground in a roll. The sentinels start firing as soon as I get to my feet, but I ignore them, not even bothering to block their shots, and sprint towards the cloning cylinder as fast as I can. I ignore the pain that courses through me as their blaster bolts pierce my nowdefenseless body, focusing only on getting to the cloning cylinder in front of me. Breathlessly, I drop into another roll, and then, as if from a memory long past, I find myself kneeling in front of my old master. Unable to move, unable to even think, I stare up at the thing that stole my life, and I struggle to stay upright as I hear his voice inside my head, just as I had for so long… YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER! I cringe and shut my eyes against his last command, refusing to allow myself to succumb to it, remembering the little girl who was stolen away from her home and molded into someone completely new and completely wrong… YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER! Remembering five long years of hopelessness and despair as that girl grew up and became a woman, all while seeking a revenge that was never deserved… YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER! Remembering how that woman created a new life as a Jedi but was forced to leave it behind, because she had been broken and did not know how to fix herself… YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER! Gathering every last bit of strength, I scream, shutting out everything else in the universe, ignoring Luke's shouts of protest, concentrating only on the lightsaber in my hand and my desire to end all this forever. My bright blue blade slams against the generator, and in the peaceful second that follows, a smile tugs at my lips, and I finally whisper the word I never thought I'd ever be able to say to my former master: "No." 25. Chapter 24 The penultimate chapter... . A/N: Song for this chapter: Nearer My God to Thee, Eileen Ivers, Back to Titanic soundtrack A/N: Song for this chapter: Now We Are Free, Lisa Gerrard and Hans Zimmer, Gladiator soundtrack . CHAPTER 24 . The cloning cylinder explodes in a violent rage, the ensuing shock wave ripping apart every droid in its path. Shards of glass tear through my body, and that pain is enough to make me scream out in agony, but my voice catches in my throat as the blast throws me clear across the room. I hit the cavern wall with a loud thud and hear my ribs crack. My head slams backwards against the hard rock and I feel blood begin to drip down my face. Breathing becomes labored and I fear that my lungs have been punctured. As I slide down the wall, another blast radiates from the clone itself. This shock wave hits my very soul, and I realize that not only did the first explosion destroy the sentinels, but also the ysalamiri hidden around the cavern. I can feel the Force again, and with it the waves of dark energy emanating from the clone that was just destroyed, exactly as it did when the original was thrown down a reactor shaft on the second Death Star. I collapse to the floor in a heap and hear Luke scream my name from across the cavern. I look up through fluttering eyes to see him running towards me, and smile in relief; he was shielded from the blast enough to escape life-threatening injuries. He will be fine. I am not sure if I will be. I black out, and the next thing I know, Luke is kneeling over me, calling my name over and over, shaking my shoulders, pushing my hair back from my face, his hands covered with blood. His voice is full of panic and tears glisten in his eyes. But I don't pay attention to sight or sound. I can feel him in my mind again. This time, it is very different. I sense Luke's every thought; feel his every emotion. I see myself through his eyes; hear the buzzing left over from the explosion in his ears; taste the salty tears on his lips; smell the scent of burnt metal that wafts into his nose. It is, in one way, a logical extension of the bond that was created while I trained at the Jedi Academy—a bond that was cultivated during all of our time sparring, during all our meditation sessions, and the one night we spent together, when he held me in his arms and we blocked out the rest of the galaxy, seeing only each other and our love. But in another way, it is completely new. With Palpatine, I could hear his call from anywhere in the galaxy. I believed what I felt with him to be the ultimate power of the Force. But this…this is much more powerful. I thought I knew Luke Skywalker before. I thought I loved him more than I could ever love anyone. I was wrong. This is what it should be like. This is how we should feel…forever. As I lie there, dying in his arms, I know that he is feeling the same thing. Even if I couldn't sense it through the Force, I can see it in his eyes. There is more love there than I could have ever imagined someone having for me, even after seeing all my failures, all my fears, all my weaknesses, and my deep and profound regret for what I once was. This time, I do not run away from the openness. I do not hide from the man in front of me. I allow him to see me—to really see me, deeply and truly, and along with that, the depths of my love for him. But suddenly, even as I have this epiphany about Luke, I realize that something is missing from the back of my mind. For the first time since Wayland, I no longer feel guilt for what I did as the Emperor's Hand. I no longer wish I could go back and fix everything. I no longer believe that I am incapable of redemption. Thinking all of this, I smile. I don't care if this is the end. It is the happiest moment of my life. And I get to have it lying in Luke's arms. As if he can sense this—which he most assuredly can—he squeezes my hand. "It's going to be okay, Mara," he chokes out, tears falling unabashedly down his face. "The ysalamiri are gone. I can put you in a healing trance. Just stay with me, okay? Please stay with me…" I meet his gaze, unable to speak. I hear the earnestness in his voice, the absolute conviction that I will make it. I know that Luke is powerful, and I hope that he is right. But even if he is not able to heal me, I realize that I am not afraid of dying—not anymore. Luke shakes his head against my thoughts. "You'll get through this. We'll get through it together. I promise. You just need to fight for me, okay?" But I'm no longer concentrating on him, because suddenly, as if from a far off place, I see a man and woman standing over me. The man's green eyes twinkle with happiness. The woman's red gold hair whips around her face, framing the smile that graces her lips. I sense that they want nothing more than to be with me again, but they gesture for me to stay where I am. They say it's not my time yet. I sense something else, too. "They're proud of me," I whisper. "Don't talk, Mara," Luke pleads. His expression is calm, hiding the fear and panic I feel deep inside of him. "Just close your eyes, okay? You need to go to sleep. Then everything will be alright." He places his hands on my forehead, pulling me into a healing trance. I start to drift away, but I force my eyes to stay open for just a few more moments. I have to tell him this in case the trance does not work. "You wanted to know what it would take for me to finally forgive myself," I croak, almost unable to get out my words. He leans down to hear me, his hands warm on the sides of my face, and I pull him to me in a kiss. I do not kiss him because I love him. I do not kiss him because I am grateful for his ever-present belief in me. I do not kiss him because I want to give him one last kiss before I die. I kiss him because, for the first time since I have known him, being with him feels absolutely right. Everything feels right. As I pull away, I find myself staring into his eyes again. I can feel his breath on my face, as if he is trying to put life back into my body. He searches me, trying to find the answer to his question. I recognize the expression all too well, because I have been looking at myself in the mirror the same way for many years. Gathering up my last bit of strength, I smile and tell him what he has so desperately wanted to hear, because he deserves to know: "I beat him, Luke. I finally beat him. "And now I can forgive myself." Those are the last words I speak before the blackness takes me. . . . . . . My eyes open slowly. I blink rapidly, trying to push away the last remnants of sleep. For a moment, I do not know where I am. I do not even know if I am alive. Then, like the bright sunlight shining on the very core of my being, I sense Luke's presence, and I realize that everything is going to be okay. He sits next to me, staring down at me with a relieved expression on his face. "Hi," he whispers. He helps me sit up and I look around, trying to figure out where I am. It is dark, and I realize that we are still in the caves that led us into the cloning chamber on Nirauan. Above us are the same avian-like creatures watching us, as if they are on guard. "Hi," I whisper back. Luke smiles at me and takes my hand in his. "You made it." I smile back at him, reaching out into the Force to sense the universe around me. "Yeah," I sigh happily. "I guess I did." "Don't you ever do that to me again," he growls, but his eyes twinkle with happiness, betraying his true emotions. "I won't," I squeeze his hand. "I promise." He moves even closer to me and brings my hand to his lips. "How do you feel?" I look down at myself. All my injuries are gone. I touch my head, but no blood comes off on my hands. Luke must have washed me off while I was in the healing trance. I feel brand new…like I've just been born again. "I feel wonderful," I tell him, and I do, in so many ways. His smile grows even bigger. I hear his next thought, one that he does not say out loud: Now we can be together…forever… For once, I do not flinch away at being so connected to him. I do not shy away from the openness. I hold his gaze, taking in the man I tried to find for so many years, only to run away from when I finally found exactly what I was looking for. "Yes," I murmur. "Forever." Luke gently caresses my face and leans his lips down to mine. But, ever the practical one, I pull away before he can taste his victory. "Wait! How long have I been out?" I ask. His expression shifts from one of bewilderment to one of amusement. "Four days," he replies, gently pushing the stray locks hair from my face. "Oh." I cannot get my head around that fact. Without even having to ask, I know that he has stayed with me the entire time. "What's happening?" I gesture above us. He takes my other hand in his as he answers. "Once I got you out of the cavern, I was able to link up Artoo to the Jade's Fire and use the ship's comm system to send a message to Leia. From what the Qom Jha have informed me, the New Republic showed up earlier this morning to clean up this mess. But apparently there wasn't much of a fight." "The Qom Jha?" I question. "Indigenous creatures to Nirauan, along with the Qom Qae," Luke explains, pointing to the avians above us. "I discovered I could speak to them through the Force. They have been most helpful." "Oh." I try to reconcile everything he's told me. Something doesn't add up. "The fleet got here this morning, you said?" "From as much as I can tell. I haven't heard anything from them yet, but then again, I haven't bothered to check Artoo for any messages." I stare at him incredulously, realizing what is out of place. "But…but why aren't you up there with them, helping to put an end to it?" I ask. "Why are you still down here?" Luke stares at me. "Because this is where you are," he replies, as if it is the most obvious answer in the universe. "Oh." "Apparently spending four days unconscious does wonders for your powers of eloquence," Luke quips, running his fingers down my face. "Are you…are you teasing me, Skywalker? No less then five minutes after me waking up from healing trance that saved me from certain death?" Luke's eyes twinkle in amusement. "You have a problem with that?" I grin at him. "No—I'm impressed, actually." He chuckles, and then we fall into a comfortable silence, listening to the fluttering of wings above us. I know that he is trying to think of what to say to me. I do not press him; I am content to merely sit peacefully beside him. But then I remember something, a question to which I need to know the answer. "Luke…why did you insist on coming with me?" He stares straight ahead, lost in thought. For a moment, I think that he might act like the old Luke Skywalker, and avoid confiding in me, holding on to his burdens alone, but things are different now. He wants to tell me. He wants to share everything with me. That's why he's here, after all. He speaks slowly, hesitantly. "One night, right after the ball, I…I had a vision." "Of?" I ask, even though I already know. "Of you…lying on the floor of a large cavern. And you looked…" "Dead?" I suggest. He nods. I watch him closely; his face is gripped with the fear that he felt when he thought he was going to see his vision come true. I place my hand on his arm, wanting to reassure him that his vision has been passed, and he turns to face me. "I hadn't even gone back to Yavin IV yet, but I couldn't get the vision out of my head. It was exactly like when I saw Han and Leia in danger on Bespin. I knew that I should go back to the Academy; that I was needed there. And I knew that you could take care of yourself. But I just couldn't let it go. "I could hear Master Yoda's voice, exactly like it was on Dagobah, telling me to do my duty. Telling me to be a good, perfect Jedi. But just like on Dagobah, I couldn't listen to him, and I realized that I didn't want to. He was right about so many things, but not this. My compassion for others isn't wrong. I need it to keep me sane. "Leia said I was crazy to go running after you, that I should send you a message warning you of the possible danger and get on with my life. She was afraid I'd get hurt again. But Han told me to go. He said I'd be crazy not to." "Wait a minute…Han Solo told you to act on a Force vision?" Luke grins. "It makes sense, once you get to know him. Despite all his talk, he's a big softie. And he likes you." "Oh." I have to remember to buy Han a very big drink the next time I see him…after I set things right with Leia. Luke takes my hand again and begins to trace the lines on my palm with his finger. "Once I got to the Wild Karrde and saw that you were okay, I was relieved, but I still couldn't get the vision out of my head. When you said you were going somewhere, I just couldn't let you go alone. I knew something bad was going to happen. I had to go with you." "So you left all your responsibilities with the Jedi Order to follow me halfway across the galaxy, just to make sure that I was okay? Me, the woman who couldn't stop running away from everything?" "Ironic, isn't it?" "No," I reply, shaking my head, fighting back tears. "Not at all." Luke takes a deep breath before he next speaks. "When I had that vision, Mara, I realized how stupid I was not to go running after you in the first place. Because I don't need to be a perfect Jedi…I don't need to do everything by myself…but I do need to be with you." I smile at his words and lean in for a kiss, but this time, he is the one to pull away. "Did you really mean what you said about forgiving yourself?" I nod, thinking of what I told him back in the cavern, when I thought I was going to die. "Yes." "What was holding you back all that time?" he asks quietly. I sit thoughtfully for a moment, remembering the night I realized that I had to leave the Academy. I have never once confided in anyone the true reason I left, but I no longer feel afraid to do so. Not now. Not with him. I reach up and stroke his cheek as I finally open up to him. "I just didn't believe that I deserved forgiveness for all the things I'd done. Once I realized that, I couldn't stay with you, feeling that way. I had no choice but to leave." As I finish my words, his expression turns to one of pure love and affection. I never thought that anyone could ever look at me this way. I never thought I could accept this kind of love. "And now?" he asks, even though he already knows the answer. "Now…now I know that I deserve it. Now I finally feel free." Luke smiles at me, tears in his eyes, and leans in to press his forehead against mine. "I love you, Mara," he whispers, and this time, it is a triumph to hear those words. I laugh against him, unable to believe that we have finally gotten to a place where we can let ourselves be together without any fear or apprehension of the consequences. Sending out all my love for him through the Force, I wrap my arms around him, reveling in the feel of his body against mine. I never want to let go, but I force myself to pull away so I can gaze into his perfect crystal blue eyes, and finally say the words I once swore I'd never speak aloud: "I love you, Luke." It is my hard-earned victory. And then, on the ground of a dark Nirauan cave, with the fate of the galaxy being decided far, far away, Luke Skywalker once again takes me in his arms, and we are both exactly where we belong in the universe. 26. Chapter 25 A/N: Song for this chapter: Marchin' On, One Republic A/N: Song for this chapter: Utopia, Alanis Morissette . CHAPTER 25 . "Dammit, Ganner!" The loud voice screeches across the training room, making me press my hand to my ear in protest. "Sorry, Wurth. Guess you're just not fast enough for me," Ganner Rhysode goads his friend, smirking as he twirls around his lightsaber in victory. "Enough, children!" I admonish them, preemptively silencing their eternal protests that they're teenagers, not children. "Did you see that, Jedi Jade?" Ganner asks a little too eagerly. I sigh and rub my face with my hands; the boy is extremely talented, there's no doubt about that, but he has an ego the size of Coruscant and I hate to feed it any more than necessary. "Mmm-hmm," I murmur, and of course Ganner takes that to mean that I'm giving him all the praise in the galaxy. "Ha, see, she thinks I'm awesome!" he exclaims. I ignore Ganner and instead clap my hand on Wurth Skidder's shoulder. "You're improving every day, Wurth. That was a very good effort," I tell him. The boy refuses to meet my eyes. "Not good enough," he sulks. Ganner literally struts by, still twirling his lightsaber. I whirl on him and he stops dead in his tracks. Under my glare, his blade immediately retracts back into its hilt. "Sorry, Jedi Jade," he gulps. "What have I told you about your overconfidence, Ganner?" I sigh. "It is my biggest weakness," he recites. "And yet you still insist on prancing around like a Twi'lek dancing girl whenever you win a duel." "I'm sorry," he mumbles. I sigh again; Ganner is a good kid, but that's exactly it—he's a kid. "Don't apologize, Ganner, just do better next time, okay? Remember, the moment you think that you're going to win is the moment an opponent can swoop in and beat you. "And you," I turn to Wurth, "you let him see that you thought you'd been beaten. How do you expect to win a duel if you have no confidence that you can beat him?" "I know, Jedi Jade. I'll do better." "Good, now let's see you try again." I take a seat on one of the benches as the two boys continue their sparring practice. They start out calmly enough, but soon their hormones get the best of them and they start trying to outdo each other, both vying for the attention of Octa Ramis, who sits across from me, watching their duel with interest. Of course, the boys don't take any notice of the way she favors their friend, Miko Reglia, and sits closer and closer to him every day. "Dammit, Ganner!" Wurth yells again, as his lightsaber goes flying out of his hand, and Ganner once again begins to strut around the room. Placing my head in my hands, I'm suddenly extremely grateful that Luke and I are leaving soon for Coruscant. The boys start yelling at each other again, this time bringing Miko into the fray, leaving Octa to sit alone watching the chaos. She meets my gaze and rolls her eyes. I smile back at her, and then before I can jump up and throttle the boys, I hear a throat clear from behind me. "Tough class?" I turn around to see Kyp Durron leaning against the entrance to the training room, his long hair pulled back from his face and a smirk on his lips. "You know how they are," I say, pointing my thumb at the three rowdy teenage boys. Kyp chuckles and walks over to me. Since my return to Yavin IV, we have reached somewhat of an understanding. We are not the greatest of friends, and I doubt that we ever will be, but at least now I'm able to admit that he is a valuable asset to the Jedi Order. And to his credit, he always comes to my assistance whenever my students get too out of control, and treats me with a level of respect equal to what he shows Luke. "Yeah, they remind me of myself at that age. Don't worry, you can go now—I'll handle them," he tells me, his green eyes twinkling mischievously. "Thanks, Kyp," I reply gratefully, rising to my feet to say goodbye to my students, and feeling giddy with the anticipation of crushing their hopes and dreams for their next several classes. "I'm so sorry to interrupt this very lively conversation," I cut in, my voice rising above their shouts and catcalls, "but I'm afraid I have to leave now for my trip to Coruscant. Jedi Durron will be overseeing your training classes while I'm away." Their audible groans are music to my ears as I turn away and pass by Kyp, giving him a high five on my way out the door. An hour later, Luke and I are sitting in the cockpit of the Jade's Fire, on our way to Coruscant for the celebration of the signing of the peace treaty between the New Republic and the Imperial Remnant. After Luke and I returned from Nirauan, we learned that Fel had no idea what Pestage had been up to, and was very eager to keep the Empire of the Hand isolationist for the time being. The peace talks stalled a bit while Bastion tried to change Fel's mind, but he continuously refused, and eventually Grand Admiral Pellaeon convinced the Moffs to go ahead with the treaty. How he was ever able to do it, I'll never understand. Perhaps it was something he learned during all that time he served Thrawn. Once we enter hyperspace, Luke leans back in his chair, stretching and opening his arms to me. Wordlessly I rise from my chair to sit on his lap, laying my head on his shoulder. Through the Force, I sense his growing amusement. "Hey, I never asked you before. How was class?" I glare at him. He looks down at me, smiling innocently. "How did you ever convince me to take on those three?" I ask, narrowing my eyes at him. "You're the only one who could handle them, Mara," he chuckles. "Corran could." "Nah, he's just as arrogant as they are. He'd probably end up punching them." I burst out laughing at the thought. "I don't think that would be such a bad thing!" "Perhaps. Speaking of Corran, will he be at the ball?" "Yes, then he has some leave and wants to come to the Academy to help with some of the newer students. Tyria, too." Luke nods, pleased by my news. My gaze lingers on him for a moment, still in awe of how far he's come in letting people help him; of how much the Academy has flourished under his leadership, as opposed to his control. "I still can't believe that we're signing a peace treaty with the Empire," Luke murmurs. "I know," I admit. "At the back of my mind, I always expected that a new threat would emerge from somewhere, and that the galaxy would be thrust back into another conflict. But I guess the peace is real now." Luke is quiet for a moment. "Yes," he murmurs. "It's nice. Just you and me." I throw him a look. "And an entire Academy full of Jedi apprentices." "Yeah, them too." We grow quiet again, and suddenly I'm aware of anxiety building up within Luke. He avoids my gaze, his arm inside his robes, moving slightly, as if he is holding something in his hand. "All right, what is it?" I ask, leaning back to examine him. "What?" he replies innocently. "Please. Something's been bothering you since we got on the ship. Now spill it." He grimaces. "You did warn me that you'd get really good at that if you became a Jedi, didn't you?" "Yeah, and that was even before all that Force-bond stuff happened, so now you're really screwed, Skywalker. Spill it." He takes a deep breath. "Here," he says, removing his hand and handing me a black velvet box, one that looks all too similar to the box that held the necklace I still wear every day. "I got this for your birthday." I stare at the box. "But my birthday isn't for weeks, and I told you not to get me anything!" "I know, but I couldn't stop thinking of the last ball, when the only jewelry you had was that necklace, and I wanted you to have something nicer to wear this time around." I begin to protest, because I don't need any other jewelry; my necklace is more special than anything else he could ever buy me. But then I open the box, and I once again lose the ability to speak. Sitting inside the box is a ring that perfectly matches my necklace. But this piece of jewelry is most definitely not from a Coruscanti market. I gently remove the ring from its slot and turn it over in my hand. The band is silver-toned, just like the chain around my neck, but I know that this metal is far more precious than plain silver— perennium, I think. The stone itself is identical in both cut and color to the one around my neck, but I can tell just by looking at it that this stone is not at all commonly found. "I found it on Ilum," Luke tells me, once again reading my mind. I stare at him in disbelief. "Ilum?" I gasp. He nods. I remember his trip off planet several months ago, when he went to gather Adegan crystals for some much-needed training lightsabers, and I stayed behind on Yavin IV to watch over the Academy with Kam and Tionne Solusar. "I was hurrying about, trying to gather as many crystals as I could find before the weather turned really bad, and then I stopped in my tracks," he explains, as he takes the ring and places it on my finger. "This one crystal caught my eye—it seemed different from the others, a slightly different shade of green—and it was just like when I saw your necklace back in the market on Coruscant. All I could see were your eyes staring back at me." "And you had it made into a ring?" I ask in disbelief, still unable to process the enormity of this gesture. "Yes," he replies, as I stare at it, entranced. Time stops as his thumb begins to gently caress the side of my hand. I watch his ministrations, but then he forces my chin up to stare into his eyes. "Marry me?" My eyes widen at his request. I break into a huge grin and glance back down at the ring on my finger. "So…this is an engagement ring?" I ask, forcing myself not to laugh. Luke nods, shifting nervously underneath me. A very naughty idea runs through my mind, and, of course, I cannot resist. "That's very devious of you, getting me to put it on before even asking the question." "Mara—" "You've definitely been hanging around me too long, pulling tricks like that." "Mara—" "I mean, it's like you just assumed I'd say yes or something…" "Mara—" "…And you know what they say about people who assume—" This time, he is the one to cut me off, with an amorous kiss on the mouth. Even through his kiss, I still pretend to protest. It's just too damn fun to tease him. Slowly, he pulls away, grimacing at me. "You're not going to make this easy for me, are you?" he growls. I gently place my hand on his cheek. "Master Skywalker, when have I ever made anything easy for you?" He shakes his head in exasperation, and then removes the ring from my finger. Slowly, he shifts my weight so he can get up from the chair. Then he kneels down in front of me and takes my hand in his, before looking me straight in the eye. "Mara, will you marry me?" I stare at the ring in his hand, my expression turning serious. Normally, I would never give up teasing him so quickly. I would consider myself honor-bound to make him sweat some more. I would try my best to make his life difficult. But suddenly, all of that seems pointless. Luke has seen inside my very soul. He knew my answer before he could even ask the question. He knew my answer back in a cave on Nirauan. I allow him to place the ring on my finger again, and laugh at myself as a tear comes to my eye. "Yes," I tell him. "I will." . . . . . . . . . . I stand on the roof of the Imperial Palace, regarding the bustling traffic below, once again smiling at the thought of those beings going about their lives without any sense of regard for the larger universe. At one time, I longed to be one of those people— just a normal woman going through my daily life with no complications. Now, everything is different. Now, I am Mara Jade Skywalker, someone's wife—Luke's wife. No, I definitely do not want to be anyone else at this moment. Yet, here I am, once again shying away from the crowd and the obligations of my life. I do not know why this place has called to me again; I am happier than I have ever been. Maybe I am here because I realize that things have come full circle. Maybe I am here because it was in this place that my new life began. Maybe I am here because I have finally learned to appreciate peace and quiet more than anything else in the galaxy. With my Luke. I hear the door open behind me, and then he is there, as he always is. I don't look back at him as he approaches. I do not need to. He stands close to me and reaches out to take my hand, which now displays two beautiful pieces of jewelry, indicating that I am his, forever. We stare out at the skyline together, breathing in the cool Coruscant air. After several moments, he breaks the silence. "I thought I'd find you here." "Am I that obvious?" "You are to me." I give him a sly smile, then turn back to look at the darkening sky. "What's wrong?" he asks. "Nothing," I reply. "I'm just thinking." "Lots to think about?" "You could say that again." I meet his gaze. "I don't have any regrets, if that's what you're worried about. It's just…sometimes it's crazy to think of all that's happened." "I know what you mean." "But I know that it's right." "Me, too. So, why are you here?" "I just wanted some peace and quiet, I guess. Your sister sure does know how to throw a party," I laugh, thinking of the very drunk and rowdy Rogues making fools of themselves in the ballroom right now. "That she does," he agrees. "Are you sure you're not out here because you're avoiding your promised slow dances with every member of Rogue Squadron?" "Very funny. If you remember, I didn't make that promise, it was CorSec, and I'm still going to kill him for it." "I'm sure you are," he chuckles, leaning in to gently kiss my cheek, "but you'll have to beat me to it." I smile and lean against him, closing my eyes and slipping my arms around his waist. "I love you, Mrs. Skywalker," he murmurs into my hair. "Jade Skywalker," I correct him. "I love you, Mrs. Jade Skywalker." I let out a soft sigh. "I love you too, Luke." We stand there for long moments, swaying in the soft breeze. In the distance, a large holoscreen flashes through news headlines. I let out a cackle as a holo of Luke and I comes on the screen. "Oh Force…they've already got holos from the wedding! What in the galaxy did I get myself into?" "I ask myself the same thing every day." I slap him hard on the stomach. "Nice. Come on, we should get back inside." "Wait," he stops me, holding on to my arm. I give him a curious look. "What, do you have another lightsaber to give me or something?" "Not quite," he grins. "Huh?" He pulls a green stone from inside his jacket in response. I glance at it, my eyes narrowing. "What's this?" He runs his fingers over my engagement ring. "I wanted to give you something on our wedding day," he explains. "The stone in your ring came from this crystal. I…I thought you should have it." I stare at it, still transfixed. I don't need this; I already have a lightsaber—the one that Luke gave me, here, several years ago. "But…why?" I sputter. "Because you deserve to make your own," he replies. "You've earned it. You should have done so as soon as you became a Jedi Knight." For a moment I stand completely still, almost unable to breathe. I open my mouth to protest again, but I close it before I can speak. Hesitantly, I accept his gift, closing my hand over his. I stare at the crystal for a second, realizing what this means. "You know, I never thanked you," I murmur, still mesmerized by the crystal. "For never giving up on me," I continue, answering his unspoken question. "Yes," he runs his finger over my ring again, "you did." Then he lifts up my chin and places his lips on mine. After a few moments, he pulls away and smiles at me conspiratorially. " Now we should get back inside. Everyone probably thinks we've run off to some cleaning closet or something." I raise my eyebrows at him. "Don't give me any ideas, Master." "That's for later," he laughs, running his fingers down my neck suggestively. He pushes back a stray lock of hair and turns to go back inside the Palace, but I remain in place. "You coming?" he asks. I shake my head and lean on the edge of the roof. "You head inside. I'll be there in a bit." He nods and kisses my forehead. "Don't keep me waiting too long." As he walks away, I glance back down at the object in my hand —my very own lightsaber crystal. While I have been a Jedi Knight for over a year now, I never once felt the desire to go through the trial of constructing a new lightsaber. Sometimes, in the dead of night with nothing but my thoughts for company, I wondered if my hesitance to do so was one last vestige of my old feelings that I didn't deserve to be a Jedi. Since I never went through that last trial, I never had to confront those old fears and doubts, and see if they still existed. But now, staring at the crystal in my hands, I realize that those fears and doubts are indeed long gone, conquered forever in a cavern on Nirauan. So I will do it. I will construct a new lightsaber, and truly live up to the promise I made when Luke gave me his first weapon, and I swore to both him and myself that I would one day become a Jedi. It is only fitting, for I am now his wife—a promise I never thought I would ever want to make, or would ever feel deserving to make, if Luke was finally able to conquer his fears and ask me to be with him forever. I smile as I think back on his words to me: Don't keep me waiting too long. Even when I did, he never gave up on me. He always had hope. He always does. Behind me, I hear the door to the Palace open once again. "Hang on a minute," I call after him. Luke turns around and smiles at me—a smile that holds all the promises of hope for our future. I take a deep breath. "I'll come with you." . . . FIN . . . Well, that's it, folks—happily ever after! :) I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read and comment on this fic. If you've enjoyed it, I'd love to hear from you! It has been an absolute pleasure to write this fic. The Luke/Mara relationship holds a very special place in my heart and I hope that I have done it justice. I also hope that I have done justice to the wonderful, amazing character of Mara Jade, without whom I would not be a Star Wars fan today. Thanks again for reading, and may the Force be with you, always!
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I, Mara Jade - JediMara77

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I, Mara Jade by JediMara77 Category: Star Wars Genre: Romance, Drama Characters: Mara Jade, Luke S. Status: Completed Published: 2010-11-22 Updated: 2011-01-30 Packaged: 2012-01-19 22:05:59 Rating: T Chapters: 26 Words: 90,932 Publisher: www.fanfiction.net Summary: Mara Jade faces the hardest struggle of her life as she trains to be a Jedi while trying to come to terms with her past as the Emperor's Hand. She didn't count on a blue-eyed Jedi Master with issues of his own becoming the biggest challenge of all. Table of Contents 1. Introduction 2. Chapter 1 3. Chapter 2 4. Chapter 3 5. Chapter 4 6. Chapter 5 7. Chapter 6 8. Chapter 7 9. Chapter 8 10. Chapter 9 11. Chapter 10 12. Chapter 11 13. Chapter 12 14. Chapter 13 15. Chapter 14 16. Chapter 15 17. Chapter 16 18. Chapter 17 19. Chapter 18 20. Chapter 19 21. Chapter 20 22. Chapter 21 23. Chapter 22 24. Chapter 23 25. Chapter 24 26. Chapter 25 1. Introduction Title: I, Mara Jade Author: JediMara77 Timeframe: post-TTT Characters: Mara Jade, Luke Skywalker, apprentices at the Jedi Academy, and others Genre: romance, drama, angst Summary: Mara Jade faces the hardest struggle of her life as she trains at the Jedi Academy while trying to come to terms with her past as the Emperor's Hand. She didn't count on a blue-eyed Jedi Master with issues of his own becoming the biggest challenge of all. Acknowledgements: Thanks go to George Lucas, Timothy Zahn, Michael Stackpole, and Kevin J. Anderson for allowing me, and other fanfiction writers, to borrow their characters and ideas. I promise to return them in mint condition. Thanks to Jade_eyes for being my cheerleader and beta, and to kataja for letting me "borrow" the fabulous word bicce. Author's Note:This AU was inspired by the novel I, Jedi by Michael Stackpole, and covers some of the events of the Jedi Academy Trilogy by Kevin J. Anderson and the Hand of Thrawn Duology by Timothy Zahn. Author's Note 2: I wrote this story for National Novel Writing Month 2010. Author's Note 3: While writing this story, I made a "soundtrack" that I listened to for inspiration. Below are the track listings, and as I post chapters I will note songs that accompany them. Try – Nelly Furtado Anything but Ordinary – Avril Lavigne Everything – Alanis Morissette The Kiss – Trevor Jones, The Last of the Mohicans soundtrack Aquarium – Camille Saint-Saëns, The Carnival of the Animals Reflections of Passion – Yanni Cursum Perficio – Enya Breathing Space – X-Ray Dog Storms in Africa – Enya Can't Help Falling in Love – Elvis Presley Full of Grace – Sarah McLachlan The Winner Takes it All – ABBA White Flag – Dido Sandstorm – Darude Your Congratulations – Alanis Morissette Nearer My God to Thee – Eileen Ivers Now We Are Free – Lisa Gerrard and Hans Zimmer, Gladiator soundtrack Utopia – Alanis Morissette 2. Chapter 1 A/N: Song for this chapter: Try, Nelly Furtado A/N: Lines and dialogue have been borrowed from The Last Command by Timothy Zahn CHAPTER 1 It is twilight, the Coruscant air turning cool against my exposed skin. Standing by myself on the roof of the Imperial Palace, I shrug on my jacket, staring intently at the skyline before me. For some reason I can't really figure out, I find myself drawn to this place. It doesn't hold any sort of special significance for me, either good or bad, but after the craziness of the past several months, I find it incredibly peaceful here, staring at the traffic and people bustling about below me, carrying out their lives without any sense of concern for what is going on in the larger universe. Even as I try to find my own peace in the city below, I hear the door to the roof open about twenty meters behind me. I immediately sense who is there, and sure enough, I hear his voice call out to me. "Mara?" "Over here," I call back, suppressing a grimace. I know that he has come to finally have the talk that I have been putting off for days. So much for trying to find inner peace. Luke walks slowly towards me, taking the spot by my side, leaning against the railing of the roof. Our elbows graze each other, and for the first time since I have known him, I do not flinch away at his touch. "Quite a view, isn't it?" Luke comments, gazing at the city below. "Must bring back a lot of memories for you." I roll my eyes and throw him a patient look. "You mean to say, just how am I feeling about being back in the Palace this time? You know, Skywalker—just between us—you really don't have what it takes to be devious. If I were you, I'd work with my talents and stick with that straight-out farm boy honesty." He has the decency to look sheepish, even though I can tell that he is amused by my analysis of him. "Sorry," he apologizes. "Too much time spent around Han, I guess." "And Karrde and me, I suppose?" "You want a straight-out farm boy honest answer to that?" he teases. I smile at him. It's nice to hear him banter this way. It makes him seem more human, and surprisingly, it feels incredibly natural. "I'm sorry I even brought it up," I reply, laughing. Luke smiles back, then turns serious again. "So, how are you feeling?" I look back out at the city below me. "I don't know," I admit. "It's sort of like coming home…only it isn't. When I lived here, I never really took the time to look at the city like this. The only times I ever came up here to the roof were to watch for a certain airspeeder to arrive or to keep an eye on some particular building or something like that, you know—business for the Emperor." Speaking about my old life doesn't come as easily as it used to. I remember the balls, the appearances in court, and the endless missions. I remember hearing Palpatine's call from anywhere in the galaxy. I remember the pride I felt whenever I accomplished one of his tasks. I remember wanting nothing more than to serve the Empire that I so utterly believed in. But now that the Emperor's last command has finally been fulfilled, and I no longer live in his shadow, I feel something completely different—guilt for my past life, and the things I did as his Hand. Logically, I know that it's pointless to feel this way—the past is the past, and I can't change what I was—but I still can't shake the guilty feelings from my mind. I wonder if I will ever be able to do so. Looking back out at the skyline, I continue. "I don't think he ever saw Coruscant as people and lights—to him it was just power and opportunities." "That's probably how he saw everything," Luke agrees, with a hint of resentment and sadness in his voice. I can tell he is thinking about his father…and maybe even about me. "And speaking of opportunities…" Luke trails off. I grimace. I was right; he's come here to have the talk. I can tell that he's not going to leave until he argues his point enough so that I finally relent, and I just don't feel like fighting anymore. Isn't that just the perfect metaphor for these past few months? "Yeah," I reply, "I figured that's why you were here." He's quiet for a few moments, as if he is trying to figure out the best way to make his argument. I don't attempt to fill the space with idle talk. For once in my life, I feel comfortable with the silence. It is a nice change after five years of hearing that voice inside my head. And surprisingly, even knowing what Luke has come to talk about, I feel comfortable with him standing by my side. "I was wondering if you've considered formal Jedi training at all," he finally says quietly. "With me." I glance at him, not at all surprised. All during our trek across Wayland he kept trying to train me and help me learn to control my power over the Force. Before then, I never realized just how much there was to learn about the Force. And while part of me wants to learn everything that I can and become a Jedi Knight, the other part is scared to fail. Scared that I won't live up to Luke's expectations. But Luke believes that I will. He's believed in me since the first time he laid eyes on me, when I was pointing a blaster at his face. I wonder if I will ever understand why he feels the way he does. Why he is so willing to forgive. He looks at me expectantly. I shake my head. "The whole thing's ridiculous," I say. "You know it, and I know it." "No, it's not. What makes you think so?" "Please—the Emperor's Hand training as a Jedi with the man she'd sworn to kill for five years? You can't be so naïve as to think that other people won't have a problem with that. The New Republic might not be actively trying to arrest me anymore, but I highly doubt they'll appreciate you teaching me all of your tricks." "But you're not the Emperor's Hand anymore, Mara. You haven't been for a long time. And why do you care so much about what other people think?" "I don't, but you should," I argue. "It doesn't matter, anyway. It's a stupid idea." "Karrde doesn't think so," Luke argues, trying to use my respect for Karrde as leverage. "Karrde's an even worse idealist than you are sometimes," I shoot back. "Seriously, Luke, what do you think the rest of the galaxy is going to say if you train me as a Jedi?" "What they say or think doesn't matter. Why do you insist on avoiding something that you're so obviously meant to be?" "And just how exactly do you know that I'm meant to be a Jedi?" I snap. "I was trained to be an assassin. I learned how to use weapons and connect my mind with the Emperor's and use as much of the Force as I needed to succeed in my missions. But that's it. If I have so much potential in the Force, why did Palpatine never train me more than he did?" "Do you wish he had trained you further?" Luke inquires. "No," I answer quickly. I am grateful that I never had the chance to become another Vader. "But part of me still questions why he didn't. I just always assumed it was because I wasn't good enough." Luke meets my eye. I see a new emotion in his expression— empathy, maybe. Pity. Or maybe just sadness for a friend. Outside of professional obligations, I have never before been someone's friend. "He didn't train you because of your potential, Mara," he explains quietly. "He knew that he could control Vader. He could control most people. But you…I don't think he would have been able to control you." I look at him, mouth agape. "Do you forget what I was, Skywalker? He controlled me implicitly, even after his death. And even after I really knew you, after I learned that everything Palpatine had taught me was a lie, I still couldn't shake his control." "Only because you weren't trained. Do you think that if you knew the full power of the Force, he could have still held that sway over you?" "Yes," I reply. "Unequivocally, yes. You don't know what Palpatine was like, Luke." "Yes, I do. I resisted him." "You weren't raised by him." "My father broke free," he argues. "Only after years of service and then seeing you near death. Trust me, Luke. I couldn't have broken free of his control even if I wanted to. I wasn't—I'm not—powerful enough to do that. After he died, it took me so long to move on and become my own person, and even then, at the end, I still gave in." I know that Luke disagrees with me, and once again wants to argue that I only gave in to the Emperor's last command in order to save our lives, but he doesn't fight any further. "Either way, I still think you should be trained," he says. "The galaxy is changing, and it needs more Jedi." He touches my hand softly. I glance at him, momentarily taken aback by the earnestness of his expression. "I've decided to start a school for Jedi—a Jedi Academy, of sorts," he explains. "I've been considering doing so for a while, but was either too busy trying to help stabilize the New Republic or was too scared to take on the responsibility of restarting the Jedi Order. But now, after facing C'baoth, I know that I have to do this. It's my responsibility. I can only imagine how many more people like you are out there, unaware of their potential in the Force. Imagine what would happen if someone like Thrawn, or Force forbid another Palpatine, came into power again and there were no Jedi to stand against them?" "I don't really want to." Luke stares out at the city below. "Me, neither. So I'm going to do something about it. Obi-Wan Kenobi told me that I wasn't the last of the old Jedi, but rather the first of the new. Until he said that, I don't think that I really had faith in my ability to teach others the ways of the Force. But if Obi-Wan thought that I could, then that's good enough for me. So," he continues, looking back at me and holding my hand in his, "will you come to the school? Will you train with me?" Vaguely, I'm aware of how warm his hand feels against mine. Again, it is an odd feeling. Nobody has ever held my hand like this before—out of friendship. I still can't get my head around the idea that Luke Skywalker thinks of me as a friend. And I consider him a friend, too. Funny, how the universe works. Finally, I nod slowly into the setting sun. "I'll think about it," I reply. He nods back. "I can't ask for anything more." He's silent again, but I can tell he has more to say. "Was there something else?" I press, throwing a sideways look at him. He smiles. "See? You're getting good at that." "And just imagine how good I'll get if I do decide to train. So come on, let's have it." "Here." Reaching into his tunic, he pulls out a lightsaber. It looks vaguely familiar, but I can't place it. "What's this?" I ask, frowning. He places the hilt in my hand. "It's my old lightsaber," Luke tells me quietly. "The one I lost at Cloud City, and nearly got killed with at Wayland." He holds my gaze for a long moment. "I want you to have it." I stare back at him, momentarily unable to speak. Finally, I sputter, "Me? Why?" He shrugs self-consciously. It seems like such a "Luke" gesture that I feel like laughing despite the gravity of the situation. "For lots of reasons," he explains. "Because you've earned it. Because I want you to train with me as a Jedi and you'll need it. Mostly, though, because I just want you to have it." I stare at the lightsaber for a long time. This wasn't just Luke's lightsaber; it was his father's, before he became Vader. Even though Luke later built his own weapon, this is still such an important family heirloom. He should be keeping it. It has to be the only thing of his late father's that he ever owned. And he's giving it to me, the Emperor's Hand. The woman who swore to kill him for so many years. Slowly, almost reluctantly, I close my hand around the weapon. It fits perfectly in my grasp. "Thank you," I say quietly. "You're welcome." He smiles at me again. "I can't make you become a Jedi, Mara, but I hope that you can at least start to realize the potential you have." I nod, considering his words, wondering what the future might hold if I agree to train with him. Thinking about all the wrongs that I can make right. Maybe then, the guilt will finally start to go away. "When you've made up your mind, you'll know where to find me." At that, Luke squeezes my hand, and turns and walks away across the Palace roof. I gaze out at the lights of the city again, the cool metal of the lightsaber pressed against my hand. This is probably one of his last links to the past…and he is giving it away. To me, the person who can't run away from hers fast enough. At that moment, I make my decision. The past is the past. I might as well make the best of the future. Behind me, I hear the door open. "Hang on a minute," I call after him. He turns around and smiles at me—a smile that holds all the promises of hope for the future. "I'll come with you." 3. Chapter 2 CHAPTER 2 For the past three months, I've been running around like a crazy person, trying to settle all my affairs with Karrde's organization before committing myself to my Jedi training. Even though I've only worked for Karrde for less than a year, I've become his second-incommand in everything but name, and my responsibilities and accounts are not those that can be easily cast off. I'm lucky, though, as Karrde has been extremely supportive of my training—I even suspect that he and Luke collaborated against me in order to convince me to agree to go to the Academy—but I know that he is still disappointed to lose me as an employee. And even though I'm eager to begin a new phase of my life, I'm sad to leave as well. I will always be grateful to Karrde for offering me a job and giving me my first semblance of peace after four and a half years on the run. The time that I spent in his organization has been educational and, dare I say, even fun. As Karrde hugs me good-bye and sees me off in my headhunter, I feel like I am not only leaving an employer, but also a friend. Karrde, the consummate professional, never betrays his true emotions, but reaching out into the Force, I get the sense that he feels the same way. Luke invited me to meet him on Coruscant and then travel together to the Jedi Academy but I declined, wanting to take some time to myself to consider the path my life is taking. As my ship travels through hyperspace, I do just that, unable to sleep thanks to the thoughts running through my head. I never could have imagined that one day I would agree to formally train as a Jedi. I always thought I knew enough of the ways of the Force, but my time spent with Luke on Wayland made me realize just how much more there was for me to learn. I can't help but be excited for the possibilities that lie in front of me. But I'm also nervous, because I still have the nagging feeling that I'm going to end up disappointing everyone, especially myself. I wonder if I really have as much potential in the Force as Luke believes. During the short time I've known him, I've learned that Luke is a hopeless optimist and does his best to see the good in everyone. I wonder if his desire to rebuild the Jedi Order is making him overestimate my power in the Force. It figures; I've always been supremely confident in my abilities, and yet my few encounters with Skywalker have been enough to shatter my belief in myself…and yet at the same time, his belief in me makes me want to try as hard as I can to live up to his expectations. If nothing else during my time at the Jedi Academy, I promise myself that I will do this. I will do my best to prove to Luke Skywalker that he is right about me. And I will prove to myself that I can be a Jedi. The Jedi Academy is located on Yavin IV, in the old Rebel Alliance base. I know why Luke picked this place, and it is a perfect location—far away from the distractions of the Core but still close enough to Coruscant, where Luke can set up headquarters for the Jedi Order to interact with the leaders of the New Republic. All the business for the Order will be conducted on Yavin IV while Luke is still busy growing the Academy, but he eventually intends to have some Knights stationed on Coruscant to liaise with the government. And even above all the practical reasons, Yavin IV is a beautiful, if overly muggy, place, perfect for inspiring us to connect with the Force. Still, I note the irony of Luke Skywalker fully welcoming me here, when only ten years ago he would have tried to shoot me out of the sky had I attempted to infiltrate the secret Rebel base. I try to ignore my nerves as I maneuver my headhunter into the Academy's hangar bay. There are several other ships in the hangar, including three X-wings, and I wonder which one is Luke's. I kick myself for not yet being able to recognize his particular ship. Luke greets me when I arrive and points me in the direction of my room before going off to greet the other students. To my surprise, our quarters are small but adequate, and feel very much like home. Even though I spent so many years living in the opulence of the Imperial Palace, I've grown to feel comfortable in military-like quarters, thanks to my time on the run and then working for Karrde. After settling in, washing up, and changing into some clean clothes, I head to my first official meeting as a Jedi apprentice. Luke doesn't want to begin our time at the Academy with a formal class, worried about overwhelming us, so instead we meet for introductions in a small meditation garden outside the Great Temple. The main areas of the Academy are all located inside the Great Temple. The top floor contains a large auditorium, which will be used for Knighting ceremonies and other public events. The bottom floor consists of the hangar and several large rooms for lightsaber and other weapons training. The middle floors are where the living quarters, classrooms, smaller training rooms, and indoor meditation areas are located. A small group of students is already gathered in the garden when I arrive. I'm know who they are but haven't officially met any of them yet, so I sit by myself a bit away from the group. The woman, Tyria Sarkin, turns to me and offers an encouraging smile. On instinct, all my old barriers begin to rise, but I push them aside, forcing myself to smile back. One of the men sitting near her— Corran Horn, a former Corellian Security officer and member of Rogue Squadron—raises an eyebrow in my direction. I return the gesture, and a thin smile crosses his lips as he turns back to the others sitting around him. I make a mental note of Horn's reaction; I've been expecting some animosity because of my past, especially from the students with military backgrounds, which, as fate would have it, are where most of the apprentices from this group come. I know that's only coincidental, as Luke has close ties to the military and mostly everyone he knows once served in the Rebel Alliance, and he doesn't feel that he should teach students he doesn't already know until he's gotten some experience. Still, it's a little unsettling to know that I once fought so willingly against my fellow apprentices, and now I'm forced to trust them with my life. I know that the Rebellion and New Republic accepted many Imperial defectors with open arms, so I try not to feel too unsettled…but then again, all of those people defected willingly. I didn't have much of a choice when the second Death Star exploded over Endor. Over the next few minutes, the other students make their ways into the garden, and soon we're all sitting on the stone benches, waiting patiently for Luke to arrive. There are ten of us who make up the first class at the Jedi Academy. Tyria and Corran are both pilots, as is Keyan Farlander. Kenth Hamner, Kam Solusar, and Kyle Katarn are veterans of the New Republic army. Cilghal Tarlia, a Mon Calamari female, is an advisor in the New Republic Senate, where she first made Luke's acquaintance through his sister's introduction. Kirana Ti Mar is the only woman from Dathomir who responded to Luke's invitation to train. Rounding out the group is Tionne Dannik, the only apprentice who did not know Luke previously; while she doesn't seem to be very strong in the Force, she is one of the most knowledgeable historians of the old Jedi Order. Leia Organa Solo would be here as well, finishing up the training she already started with her brother, but her newborn twins are taking up all of her time. But she is, as Luke put it, an honorary member of the Jedi Academy. Just as I'm starting to believe that waiting for Luke is actually our first lesson in patience, I sense his presence and turn around to see him entering the garden. He keeps his gaze focused in front of him until he takes a seat on the stone bench facing the rest of us. Only then does he meet eyes with each of us in turn. By coincidence, I am on the furthest right of the group, so he looks at me last…and for just a little bit longer than all of the others, I note. The faintest hint of a smile crosses his lips as he looks away, and I smile, too. Luke is dressed in dark Jedi robes. Most of us are wearing utilitarian clothing of some kind—flight suits, tunics and baggy pants, and jumpsuits. I wonder how I'll look and feel wearing the official clothing of a Jedi. For some reason, I secretly hope that Luke decides not to keep that old tradition. Luke crosses his legs casually as he begins to speak. Although he must be feeling somewhat nervous, it doesn't show on his face. Outwardly, at least, he appears to be the consummate Jedi Master. Master…I've never thought of him that way before. He is my master now. Master Skywalker…will I have to call him that? I force myself not to laugh out loud at the thought. Luke smiles openly as he begins to speak. "Thank you all for coming. I imagine this all seems just as odd for you as it does for me, so we'll keep this first meeting as informal as possible." Everyone chuckles at his statement, including me, mainly out of disbelief that I'm actually here. "You obviously all know who I am, so I'll let you introduce yourselves before discussing my plans for the Academy." At that, he nods at Tionne, who sits on the far left of the garden, and she stands, beginning the round of introductions. I focus on everyone's statements, knowing that what everyone says about themselves will give me a great deal of insight into who they really are. Even after so many years, I still cannot stop thinking like a spy. After Tyria, the closest student to me, sits down, I stand to introduce myself. Everyone turns purposely towards me, their expressions full of rapt attention, and I refuse to let any irritation or annoyance show on my face. I know that Luke has been discrete about my background, but my past is basically an open secret in the New Republic. I hope that the other students will at least try to get to know me a bit before judging me, and I make a mental note to do my best not to scare them off. Except for Horn…something tells me that I'll have to confront him directly. I meet his eyes before I begin to speak. "I'm Mara Jade," I announce. "I met Master Skywalker during the campaign against Grand Admiral Thrawn. I've received some training in the Force throughout my life, but nothing as serious as this. I'm very grateful for Master Skywalker's invitation to help me realize my potential and become a Jedi." My introduction is short, but adequate. I sit back down and stare straight ahead at Luke, instead of the other nine students, who are still focused intently on me. Luke ignores them as well, seemingly pleased with my introduction, and also extremely amused at hearing me call him Master Skywalker. I'm glad that amuses somebody, because I never would have guessed that one day I'd be addressing Luke Skywalker as my master. "Thank you all," Luke says. "I hope you will all take time at dinner tonight to get to know each other further. Since you're such a small group of students, I want to take advantage of the opportunity to train together, as well as in pairs and trios. Of course, I'll be working with all of you individually to focus on your own strengths and weaknesses. "My goal here is simple: to rebuild the Jedi Order. It will take a long time, but I know that once the first group of Jedi Knights is trained, the Order will continue to grow exponentially. I know that some of you might not feel comfortable teaching students in the future, and you are of course welcome to serve the Order in any way that you see fit, but any Jedi will always be welcome either here at the Academy or at the Coruscant headquarters. "We're all adults, so I'm not going to try to force you to follow a set of arbitrary rules during your stay here. To be honest, the Order is very much a living, breathing entity, and I intend for it to change as we learn more about the history of the Jedi. But the main tenets will always be the same: follow the light, listen to the Force around you, and respect all sentient beings. "All of you are here because I've felt strong potential in the Force within each of you, and believe that you will be very beneficial in rebuilding the Jedi Order. Again, I thank you for accepting my invitation to train. "Now, I invite you to join me inside for dinner. We have a standard military mess, and you are welcome to eat at your leisure, but I hope that in time you'll feel comfortable eating with each other as a family." Luke stands, motioning for all of us to head back inside the temple. I hang back, allowing the others to walk in front of me, and share another look with Horn before he walks away with Tyria, who again smiles at me encouragingly. I fall into step beside Luke as we follow the others at a distance. "That was a very inspiring speech, Master Skywalker," I murmur with a straight face. I steal a glance at Luke and see his eyes twinkle with amusement. "That sounds so odd," he replies, shaking his head. "Well, you're the one who wanted to start a Jedi Academy. You better get used to people calling you Master." "Yeah, I guess I have to," he agrees, laughing softly. "Don't tell anyone I said that, by the way." "Who, me?" I ask, feigning innocence. He gently shoves my shoulder. "Yes, you. I know how difficult you like to make things for me." "I do, I really do," I admit, smiling wickedly. "But seriously," I continue, "I would never do anything to undermine your authority here. I'm sincere about my training. If I have to call you Master, I will." He laughs again at my earnestness. "Thanks, Mara. I guess it's only prudent that you call me that during training…but when we're alone, please, just call me Luke, okay?" "Okay," I agree. Then I grin mischievously again. "What about Skywalker, can I still call you that?" "That works, too." "What about Farmboy?" "Don't push it." During dinner, I converse mainly with Luke, who sits across from me at the end of the table, and Kam and Tionne, who next to him. To my surprise, I get along very well with Tionne, and Kam seems to be a dependable enough guy. Tyria sits to my left, and she makes a few attempts at small talk, but other than that, she spends her time talking with the other pilots, who boast loudly about their adventures in the New Republic military. Tyria and I leave the mess at the same time and make our way back to our quarters, which happen to be across the hall from each other. Forcing myself to be friendlier than usual, I offer her my hand as we wait for the lift. "Mara. Nice to meet you." She seems relieved as she shakes my hand. "I'm Tyria." "You're from Rogue Squadron?" I ask, trying to remember what I read about her in the files Luke transmitted to our datapads before we arrived. "Wraith," she corrects. "That's right. One of Wedge Antilles' brilliant creations." "Yup," she smiles proudly. "How long were you in the military?" I ask. "A few years. Technically I'm still in the military, but they gave me a leave of absence to come train. They're all very supportive of it, especially General Antilles, but I guess that's to be expected when he's such close friends with Master Skywalker." I laugh. "Yeah, that seems to be how things work with him." "What about you?" she asks as we enter the lift. She palms the button for our floor. "Oh, I'm not from the military…well, not really," I reply, trying not to get flustered. "I, um, worked for Talon Karrde's organization for awhile. I met Luke—I mean, Master Skywalker—a few months ago and he thought that I had the potential to be a Jedi, so here I am." Tyria meets my gaze as the lift travels upward. "Were you really the Emperor's Hand?" she asks. Yes—definitely a Wraith, I think; nobody else would be bold enough to ask me that right off the bat…except for maybe a Rogue. I remind myself not to get into a lift alone with Corran Horn any time soon. "I'm sorry," she apologizes quickly. "That was inappropriate for me to ask." "No, it's alright," I reassure her. "Yeah, it's true. But that was a long time ago. My future is here, with the Jedi Order." Tyria smiles at me. "I'm glad to hear that." We ride the rest of the way in silence. After we arrive at our floor, we walk the short distance to our quarters before pausing awkwardly outside our doors. "Well, it was nice talking to you, Tyria," I say. "Thanks for not treating me like a pariah," I add, trying to lighten the mood. "No problem," she replies, shaking my hand again. "Us girls gotta stick together, you know? Oh, and by the way…" she continues, smiling mischievously. "What?" I ask, my barriers flying back up. "Don't let Horn get to you. He can be a bit of an arrogant jerk at times, but overall he's a good guy." I sigh inwardly; what had I expected her to say? "Thanks for the advice." "No problem," she says. "Have a good night." "You too," I reply. Then I enter my quarters and begin to laugh hysterically, the reality of my new life finally sinking in— There's a folded pile of Jedi robes at the foot of my bed, and a cloak draped over my chair. 4. Chapter 3 A/N: Song for this chapter: Anything But Ordinary, Avril Lavigne CHAPTER 3 Our second day at the Academy starts with palpable excitement in the air. This is the day when our training really begins. During the morning we have what I call "mental" training— learning about the history of the Jedi, the workings of the Force, and how to use it to the best of our abilities. There is a lot of meditating, a lot of reaching out with our minds. To me, this is by far the most difficult part of becoming a Jedi Knight. I never trained this way under the Emperor, and now, under Luke's tutelage, I'm glad that I never did. I have no prior judgments of what using the Force should be like, and I'm able to dedicate myself fully to Luke's teachings. But, even though Luke consistently tells me I have what it takes to be a great Jedi, I still find it very difficult to connect with the Force as much as I feel that I should. The more physical classes are held in the afternoon, and I look forward to those the most, as that is where I can truly shine. Since most of the other apprentices have never used a lightsaber before, Luke plans to dedicate a lot of time to lightsaber training. While I know how to handle the weapon better than anyone else here, I still have a lot to learn until I'm able to hold my own with Luke. When the afternoon comes, we all make ourselves at home on the benches in one of the larger training rooms, waiting with anticipation for our first lightsaber session. Luke arrives shortly after the last student, carrying a large satchel over his shoulder. He walks down the rows, distributing something to each apprentice, but skipping over Corran Horn and me. As I look at what everyone else holds in their hands, I realize why the two of us were skipped over—Luke was handing out training lightsabers. Of course, I already have one. Corran comes from a Jedi family, so it makes sense that he already has one as well. After Luke finishes passing out the hilts, he stands in front of us. "I know that all of you are looking forward to these classes," he says, his expression betraying the fact that he's looking forward to them as much as we are. "As you'll soon find out, learning to use a lightsaber can be a very difficult task. Not only do you need to learn to handle the weapon physically, but you also have to learn to control it mentally. There's no point in becoming proficient with a lightsaber if you're not using your full potential in the Force while wielding it." Even though I know he's not addressing me specifically, I can't help but feel a tiny bit of shame at his words. Sure, I'm good with a lightsaber, but I've never come anywhere close to my full potential in the Force while using one. "For the most part, you'll start out using training remotes, learning to trust your instincts to block the laser bolts. Later, I'll be showing you different styles of lightsaber combat, and you'll find that you may prefer certain forms to others. And of course, you'll eventually want to spar with your fellow apprentices—I just ask that you do so only when you feel absolutely comfortable handling a lightsaber. I don't want anyone losing a hand in one of my classes." I immediately clasp my hand to my mouth and cough, disguising the laugh that threatens to escape. Luke darts his eyes to mine for a split second and gives me the faintest of smiles, pleased that I found his joke amusing. But I force myself to look away and focus, because I don't want people thinking that I'm an idiot or something for laughing at the great Master Skywalker during our first lightsaber session. It becomes very easy to stop laughing as he removes his cloak, unhooks his lightsaber from his belt, and ignites it in front of him. Several training remotes levitate in front of him as he backs up into the middle of the room. "I know that many of you have never even seen a lightsaber in person before," he says. "You'll be starting with the basics, of course, but first…I wanted to show you what you can really do with a lightsaber." Without another word, the training remotes start firing bolts at him, slow at first, and then faster and faster. Luke blocks each of them with ease, his actions a blur and not even seeming to exert himself. My mouth drops open in awe as I watch him move. I thought I had seen on Wayland what Luke Skywalker could do with a lightsaber, but this…this is different. Much different. And suddenly, in the back of my mind, I'm aware of a very new feeling emerging—admiration. Attraction. I push it away as soon as I feel it. What the hell is wrong with me? It is absolutely, positively ridiculous. He's my master now, for Sith's sake! I tell myself that I only feel this way because I'm in awe of Luke's control over the Force. I want to learn to do what he can. The little voice inside my head calls me a liar. I tell her to shut up and pay attention. The remotes finally stop shooting and, after a split second of silence, the room erupts into applause. Luke finally seems to take notice of us watching him and blushes a deep shade of crimson before immediately composing himself, the consummate Jedi Master. "Thank you," he says, raising his hand at us. "I know that doing something of that nature seems very far off right now, but I fully expect each of you to be able to use a lightsaber that well when you have finished your training. "Now, as I said, you'll start off using remotes, but fighting against living beings, especially Force users, is very different. You have to predict their movements as well as ensure that they cannot predict your own. But once you become more attuned to the Force, it sometimes becomes even easier to fight against the living." His eyes twinkle ever so slightly, and he suddenly looks incredibly young, like a boy again. "And with that, I'd like to ask for a volunteer to join me for a little practice." The room turns silent as we realize that Luke is asking for someone to spar with him. Everyone looks unconvinced; asking a group of new Jedi apprentices to spar with Luke Skywalker is like asking them to walk into the nexu's den. I spare a glance at Corran, also holding his own lightsaber, but he seems no more willing to get his butt kicked by Luke than anyone else in the room. Not wanting my friend to get frustrated by a lack of enthusiasm on his first day of lessons, I take a deep breath and stand. "I'll do it," I volunteer. Everyone looks at me in shock, but I ignore the others as I remove my cloak and walk to the center of the room. Luke grins at me, as if he was hoping that I would be the one to volunteer. We face each other and bow, which he explains is the proper etiquette for sparring. Then he whispers, only loud enough for me to hear, "Your goal is to disarm me. Do it in any way you deem necessary—without removing any limbs, of course." I nod and ignite my lightsaber, suddenly feeling nervous, and he follows suit. "Oh, and Mara?" he adds. A hint of a mischievous smile crosses his lips. "Don't hold back." I don't feel nervous anymore. "If you insist," I reply, returning his smile tenfold. And then I strike. There is no way that I could ever hold a candle to Luke in a regular duel, but to my amazement, I find it very easy to spar with him. He is holding back, despite his warning for me not to, but that doesn't bother me. I concentrate only disarming him. I am able to predict his moves and block each of his blows with ease, but every time I figure out ways to get an advantage on him, he manages to stop me. Instead of growing frustrated, as I would have only months ago, I reach out into the Force and let it guide the weapon in my hands, and it is amazing just how right it feels to be fighting this way. I've always been an excellent fighter, and have always been able to predict the moves of an opponent using logic and instinct, but this is different. It's like I was born to do this. After several long minutes, it is clear that I am never going to be able to disarm Luke using any of my previous strategies, but then I remember his words: Do it in any way you deem necessary. He knows that I'm an expert in hand-to-hand combat. And he told me not to hold back. If he insists… In an instant, I stick my leg out between his and make a wide sweeping motion. Luke stumbles before catching himself, but that one faltering moment is all I need. In a short second I body check him and then, using all of my strength, I knock his head back and force the lightsaber out of his hands with my elbow. I stand there in silence, breathing heavily, staring at Luke's now-empty hand in utter disbelief. Slowly I look back up at his face, almost scared to do so, but instead of being angry or upset at losing, he is grinning at me with such overwhelming pride. And then a very distinct shiver goes down my spine, and as a look of attraction flashes across his eyes, I realize that he has felt the same thing. Swallowing, I bow to him before turning and hurrying back to the other apprentices, who are now staring at me in awe. I ignore them, trying hard not to concentrate on the unmistakable feeling that is welling up inside me, that will not let me push it away. I sigh, kicking myself internally, knowing that my Jedi training has just gotten a lot more complicated. The first week of classes flies by so fast that I can hardly believe when our first official day off arrives. Our schedule has us training for six full days, then one day off, and then the cycle starts all over again. Frankly, I'm glad that we have so little time to ourselves, because there's nothing else to do on Yavin IV except get to know everyone else…and try not to dwell about what happened during the first lightsaber class, and the inappropriate thoughts that keep popping into my head at the most inopportune moments, such as when Luke is guiding me through very important meditation sessions. To keep my mind occupied on other matters, I do my best to get to know my fellow students. Ordinarily, I'm not the most sociable of people, but since I'm not in a normal situation anymore, I might as well try to change my ways. And it goes well, thanks to Tyria, who introduces me to the military guys, and Luke, who, despite all his best efforts not to let it show, definitely favors me over the other apprentices. I guess everyone thinks that if he likes me so much, I can't be that bad of a person. But despite my efforts to be overly friendly, I still haven't had the chance to talk to Corran Horn one-on-one, so when I enter the mess just after sunrise on our first day off and find him eating by himself, I grimace. He's already noticed me so I can't leave, and it would be petty of me to sit at another table. So instead I suck it up and walk over to him after picking up some food. "Mind if I join you?" I ask, unwrapping a ration bar. Eventually, when more apprentices arrive, the Academy will have a cook on staff, but for now we're stuck fending for ourselves—and since we all have so little time, we only make the effort to prepare real meals for dinner. Corran looks up from his unappetizing meal of instant hot cereal. "Go ahead," he replies in a blank voice, gesturing to the seat across from him. I sit down and take a bite out of my ration bar. We eat in silence for a minute, the awkwardness growing between us. "You should eat this," Corran says, breaking the ice. I take a pointed look at his meal and crinkle my nose. "No, thanks. I'll stick to these," I reply, holding up my ration bar. "This stuff has more nutrients," he answers between bites. "It does?" I ask curiously. I enjoy nice meals like everyone else, but I've lived in these kinds of conditions so often that I know the importance of thinking about food not in terms of taste, but as fuel. It's nice to hear that other people think the same way. Corran nods. "Yeah. It tastes like crap, but so do those. And with the way Master Skywalker's been kicking my butt, I need all the help I can get." I crack the faintest of smiles at his joke. While his tone is light, Corran is definitely not the type of person who enjoys being beaten, even by a Jedi Master. During our training classes, I could sense Corran's frustrations grow whenever Luke got the best of him, which just so happened to be every time. All of us are getting our butts kicked, including me, and I wouldn't expect anything less from Luke. It's the only way for us to learn. But obviously Corran Horn isn't used to losing. "Those classes are tough," I admit, grateful that Corran hasn't shown any animosity towards me…yet. Maybe I misjudged him after all. "Are you kidding? I thought CorSec training was bad, but this is a hundred times worse. Of course, you're the best in the class so you probably can't relate…not that that's surprising or anything, considering your background." He meets my gaze at his last remark, and I feel my expression cool, all my old defenses at the ready. I narrow my eyes at him, but force myself to remain civil. "Oh?" I reply. To his credit, Corran doesn't back down from his assertion. "I'm sure the Emperor taught you a lot of this stuff already." I look down at my ration bar and start picking at it angrily. I hate the fact that everyone presumes to know everything about my past. I know that I can't hide where I come from. It's a part of who I am, as much as I hate it. But having people assume what I do or don't know is bothersome, especially if they think that Palpatine taught me everything himself—they probably think I was some sort of Sith, which couldn't be further from the truth. After a few moments, I meet Corran's eye again. If I'm going to be a Jedi, I have to learn to be honest. "Actually, he didn't really teach me much about the Force," I explain. "I learned mostly physical stuff. So I guess you're right, those classes don't trouble me much, although I definitely have a lot to learn. It's all the mental training that really gets to me." To my surprise, it doesn't feel weird to confide in Corran, someone I barely know and who obviously holds no affection for me. "You seem to be doing well in those classes," I add. He shrugs proudly. "I have my strengths, and that's one of them." "One of many?" I joke. He finally smiles at my jab at him. "I see that my reputation precedes me." "Well, you are a Rogue. You guys are pretty easy to stereotype." He laughs and nods in agreement. "All except for the guy who started the squadron." "Yeah, Luke—I mean, Master Skywalker—could definitely do some good in taking lessons in arrogance from the rest of you." "Ah, but then he wouldn't be the Master Skywalker that we all know and love." "That's true," I agree, trying not to dwell on his last word. We fall into silence again to finish our breakfasts. Once Corran puts down his spoon, he reaches his hand across the table. I stare at it for a moment, and then hesitantly reach out to accept his handshake. "Sorry for being a jerk," he says. "Master Skywalker invited you here, and I trust his judgment." "Not a problem," I reply. I note that he's not apologizing for thinking badly about me, only for acting on it. But I guess that's good enough for now. After all, it's still hard for me to come to terms with what I was—why should it be easy for others? As the weeks go on, the physical training classes become easier and easier, while my mental exercises become more and more difficult. I'm definitely gaining a keener sense of the Force, and can perform all the major skills with ease—including telekinesis, which I rub in Corran's face as much as possible. But I don't feel a true connection with the Force the way I feel that I should. Something's holding me back, and it's frustrating. Luke knows that I feel this way, but I haven't felt comfortable bringing it up during our private lessons. Instead, I always request to spar with him, because I know that's what I'm good at, and keeping my mind active is the best way to forget that damn shiver that keeps going down my spine whenever he smiles at me. I keep telling myself that I only have these feelings because I admire him as a Jedi—maybe a physical attraction at best. I've never had a problem ignoring my feelings in the past, so that's what I do…or at least, that's what I try to do. After that first sparring session, I kept using my hand-to-hand combat skills as an advantage, but Luke quickly learned how to use my own tricks against me. For today's session, Luke finally asked if we could forget the lightsabers altogether and fight completely unarmed. I balked at first, wanting to get as much lightsaber training with him as possible…but then the thought of flooring Luke Skywalker came to my mind and there was no way that I could possibly say no. We're in one of the smaller training rooms, fighting hard, never inflicting any serious injuries, but doing enough damage to make it hurt. To my surprise, Luke is very skilled at this type of combat. I expected flooring him to be easy, but either he's been practicing in his nonexistent spare time or the Force really is by his side. Instead of growing frustrated, I reach out with my senses as much as possible, blocking Luke's moves and trying to keep him from predicting mine, just as if we were using lightsabers. My confusing feelings for him never surface while we are fighting. All my old assassin instincts come out in full force, and I concentrate only on flooring him, something I swore to do as soon as we bowed to each other. But suddenly, out of nowhere, he sweeps my legs out from under me and dumps me unceremoniously on my back. Before I can jump back up he's on top of me, pinning my arms above my head, keeping me from moving even an inch. I scowl at him, angry with myself for letting him best me at my own game…and then, staring into his eyes, motionless beneath him, that damn shiver again goes down my spine and I have to force my eyes shut against it. Luke grows tense on top of me, but doesn't move. After long seconds I open my eyes again, and he's still staring intently at me. Not knowing what else to do, I do what I do best. "So. You want to get off me, or were you just getting comfortable?" I know that my wisecrack is dripping with double entendre, but it serves its purpose; Luke smiles sheepishly and quickly pushes himself off me. He extends his hand to help me up but I'm already on my feet. "Nice moves," I compliment him. "You been taking lessons in your spare time?" He has the courtesy to blush a bit. "No, just lucky." I raise my eyebrows. "I thought there was no such thing as luck?" "Touché," he offers. "Care for another round?" "No, thanks," I answer, rubbing my back, feigning pain. I'm more than able to stand a few more hours sparring with him, but all I want right now is to get far away from him—and my stupid, confusing emotions—as quickly as possible. I extend my hand and he accepts it. "Good-bye, Master Skywalker," I say formally. "Good-bye, Mara," he replies softly, almost lovingly…and then, before I can move away, his thumb moves infinitesimally against the side of my hand, just enough for me to really take notice of the feel of his skin against mine. I look back into his eyes, and suddenly I know, with complete and utter clarity, that this is way more than just innocent admiration or even a simple physical attraction. This is a problem. I hurry away, cursing myself all the way back to my quarters, wondering how in the galaxy I ever got to a place where I'd be training as a Jedi apprentice…and at the same time falling head over heels for the man I'd once sworn to kill…who is now my master. 5. Chapter 4 A/N: Song for this chapter: Everything, Alanis Morissette CHAPTER 4 Thanks to Tionne's painstaking work over the past two months, the Academy has compiled a pretty decent history of the old Jedi Order. Palpatine, of course, destroyed all readily available information, but since the Academy opened, many citizens of the New Republic have come forward with information about the Jedi. And even though the Jedi Temple was ransacked at the end of the Clone Wars, Luke has somehow been able to find some old Jedi textbooks and journals, which offer even more insight into how to rebuild the Order. As he stated on our first day at the Academy, Luke believes that we should all have an equal say in the new Jedi Order. A Jedi Council of twelve members governed the old Order, and even though Luke doesn't want to reinstate that old tradition until there are many Jedi Knights in our ranks, he still wants us to discuss as a group any decisions that will affect the Academy and the Order as a whole. From what we've discovered during our research, the old Jedi Order had many rules and restrictions. Children were brought to the Jedi Temple at an early age, and the Jedi were not allowed to form attachments. However, there were some sects of Jedi that didn't follow the rules set by the Jedi Council on Coruscant— Corellian Jedi being one of them. Once Tionne began compiling her library, Luke began to devote many classes to reading through the history and asking for our opinions. Today, Luke is reading a passage from an ancient Jedi textbook that he found right before he started the Academy— he won't say exactly where he got his hands on it—that he's just began to study. The subject of the passage in question is the attachment code; specifically, why forming attachments can be very dangerous for a Jedi. I follow the passage with great interest, and as Luke finishes, he closes the book, leaning back in his seat. "Any opinions?" he asks, glancing to each of us. During these discussions he has us sit in a circle like the old Jedi Council, as he says that he doesn't deem his opinion to be any better than the rest of ours. Corran, of course, is the first one to speak. "If you'll excuse my language, Master Skywalker, I think it's a bunch of crap." Luke nods at him, smiling slightly. "I expected you'd think as much. Continue, please." "Obviously my family didn't follow the same rules—they were openly married, and nothing bad came out of it." "You did," Tyria teases, and everyone laughs, even Luke. Corran gives her a rude gesture before continuing. "Expecting the Jedi to not have attachments…it's not realistic. We're not gods. We're normal beings with flaws. And if you'll excuse the overly sappy statement and promise never to tell any of the other Rogues that I said this—love is the best thing in the universe. My wife is what keeps me grounded. To expect us not to experience that is unrealistic." I nod my head along with the other students, who are obviously all in agreement with Corran. It's a silly idea anyway; we're all adults, and it would be impossible to ask us to suddenly change our ways of thinking. Corran is married, Tyria and others are in relationships with people outside the Order, and everyone knows that Kam and Tionne have started to grow fond of each other. And there's no need to mention my troublesome feelings for Luke that just refuse to go away. As much as I hate those feelings, I'm also glad for them, because they're a part of what makes me human. Luke raises his hand before anyone else can begin to protest. "First, I want to say that I am in no way considering this as a rule for the Order. Mainly, I'm interested in why the Jedi Council instilled this rule. They obviously thought it was important. During my training, Master Yoda instructed me not to let feelings for my friends get in the way of my becoming a Jedi. I didn't listen to him, and rushed into a trap that nearly cost me my life. I often wonder what would have happened if I had listened to him." "They'd be dead," I announce without even thinking. Luke turns to me, as do all the others. I meet his gaze, unflinching, and I sense that he is wondering exactly how involved I was in that trap on Bespin. Fortunately, for both of us, that was all Vader's doing, and I knew nothing of it. "Vader would have killed them," I continue. "Possibly," Luke says. "No, not possibly," I argue. "He would have killed them. You did the right thing by going there." Luke obviously disagrees with me, but he doesn't continue to argue in front of the others. Instead he turns to them and asks, "Anyone else care to share an opinion?" Tyria raises her hand. "I have to agree with Corran and Mara, Master Skywalker. I view my attachments as a Jedi the same way I do my attachments as a starfighter pilot. I was allowed to enter into a relationship with a squadron mate, but I would never put his life in front of the well being of the squadron as a whole. I would have sacrificed him if it meant that we'd be able to accomplish a mission, and I'd feel the same way while serving as a Jedi Knight." I nod in agreement, as does everyone else in the room, including Luke himself. "That's very well put, Tyria. Most of us come from a military background, so it's easy for us to understand this mindset. But I wonder how well the civilian students will accept it when they arrive." "They'll just have to learn that if they want to become a Jedi, that's the way things work," Corran says. "Personally, I think that mindset is a lot easier to accept than telling people they can't have any attachments at all, and certainly much better than taking children away from their parents when they are very young." As Corran finishes speaking, Luke glances in my direction. Corran has hit a sore spot; the Emperor took me from my parents when I was a very young girl. I don't even remember my family. I hate to think that the old Jedi Order worked that way. After a few moments, Luke begins speaking again. "I agree, Corran. Thank you all for discussing this with me. You're free to go." At that, everyone gets up to leave and I follow them blindly, walking with Corran and Tyria and thinking about Luke's words. In front of us, he agreed with Corran's argument, and I know that Luke would never dare to instill a rule saying that the new Jedi Knights could not have attachments. But even so, I have a very distinct feeling that Luke does not share the same opinion for himself; that this new information has greatly changed how he thinks about his position as the Jedi Master. He feels that he has to live up to higher standards. He doesn't think he should dedicate himself to anything other than being the leader of the Jedi Order. And that thought, despite all my reservations about us ever being anything other than master and apprentice, makes my heart sink. I spend our next free evening in the meditation garden where we had our first meeting as students of the Jedi Academy. It has become my favorite retreat. It is quiet and rarely used, the other students preferring to stay inside and avoid the humidity, and the stars shine brilliantly overhead. I lie on the ground, feeling the Force flow over me. Within nature, I feel much more in tune with the Force, but I know that I still haven't reached my full potential. My physical skills are superior, and I can perform every Force power Luke has taught us with great ease, but there's still something holding me back. And, like the stupid woman that I am, I refuse to broach the topic with Luke, because I have enough problems with him at the moment. Despite all my internal struggles, my feelings for him refuse to go away. They've gotten even worse since the discussion on attachments several days ago. I know that I need to push my feelings for him aside, because even if Luke did feel the same way about me, he holds himself up to a higher standard and won't allow himself to form attachments. Maybe that's a good thing, I think. If he won't allow himself to care, then whatever's going on inside my head won't become an issue after all. It's a moot point. I'm free to continue on my path to becoming a Jedi with Luke as my master, and he's free to continue to rebuild the Jedi Order and once again be the savior of the galaxy. But I still can't help but feel sad, knowing that what I feel for him is so real. It's something I've never experienced before in my life. Why does it have to be him? As if my thoughts will him into existence, I feel his presence at the entrance to the garden. He stops as he senses me, and he slowly walks around the stone benches until he spots me lying on the ground. Wordlessly, without invitation, he lies down next to me. "So you like it out here, too," he says after long moments. I nod my head into the darkness. "It's peaceful out here." "I think so, too. Reminds me of back home on Tatooine." I give him a funny look. "Tatooine couldn't be more different than Yavin IV." "Not in feelings," he says. "It feels the same. It feels like home." "What's that like?" I ask. It's a silly question, but I've never known the answer. "Home?" I nod again. He doesn't want to make me yearn for what I never had, but he answers anyway: "It's nice." He doesn't have to clarify his statement. I know exactly what he means. We're quiet for several minutes, content to watch the stars in silence, but I know that he has searched me out for a reason. Eventually, he speaks again. "I know you're upset." I glance at him and smile thinly. "And here I thought I was doing a good job at shielding my emotions." "You are; I'm just better at reading them." I turn away, feeling shy, realizing that all my feelings for him are an open book. The idea makes me extremely embarrassed…but then again, knowing exactly how I feel about him, he is still here right now, lying next to me. And he is not laughing. In fact, when I reach into the Force and allow myself to sense the emotions whirling around him, it is completely obvious that he feels exactly the same way about me. Which, of course, I somehow knew all along…for isn't that the reason I'm so upset about his beliefs on the attachment code— because I realize what might have been? I wonder if I should be honest or continue to hide my feelings, like I so often do. I opt for honesty. "I just don't think that you should have to hold yourself up to some unrealistic standard, that's all." He sighs deeply. "I know you don't understand, but this is something I've struggled with for a long time, since I first began my training and Master Yoda told me that a Jedi shouldn't have attachments. Seeing it written down on paper has made me realize that there must have been a very good reason for the Order to have that rule." "Good enough for you, but not good enough for the rest of us?" "It's different with me." "Why, because you're in charge?" "Yes," he replies, looking uncomfortable. "Everyone is watching me—all of you; all of the New Republic; even the Empire. Everyone is talking about what I do here, and how I'm going to rebuild the Jedi Order that my father helped destroy. It's a burden nobody should ever have to carry, but I will gladly hold onto it if it means that the Jedi Order will thrive again someday." I pause for a moment, thinking of how to best respond to him. Again, I opt for honesty. "Even at the extent of your own happiness?" He turns to me with sadness in his eyes, as if he finally realizes exactly what he is asking himself to miss out on. I look away before he can say anything. "Your parents fell in love," I point out, staring across the vast distances into the stars. "They weren't supposed to," he counters. "From the information I've gathered, they kept it a secret from everybody until my sister and I were born, and even then only a few people knew about their relationship. By that time he'd already turned to the dark side. And I have a pretty good idea as to why that happened." I stare back at him through the darkness, unable to believe what I am hearing—that he believes Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side because of love. "You can't be serious." "I am," he answers quietly. "I found out some information— don't ask me how, I don't want to talk about it. But I learned things…I learned why my father turned. He wanted to save my mother from dying. And I have a pretty good guess as to who offered to help him do that." Bile rises up in my throat, and I can't bring myself to say his name. "Anyway, learning all that made me remember when I left Dagobah to save Han and Leia on Cloud City. Yoda and Obi-Wan were adamant that I stay and complete my training. I didn't listen to them and I almost got killed—or worse. I know what you'll say—that I did the right thing and they would have died if I hadn't tried to save them—but nobody knows that for sure. "The point is, I never really understood why they were so panicked about me leaving in order to save people I cared about —people I loved. I couldn't understand how such a sense of compassion could ever be a bad thing. Now, I realize that they saw in me exactly what they saw in my father, and that is what scared them the most. They were worried that Palpatine would use my compassion against me as well, and I'd become just like Vader." I sense the truth in his words, his absolute conviction that he feels that he is right. But I still do not agree, and I try my best to make him see that he is wrong. "It's ridiculous, Luke. You're not your father. Regardless of his reasons for turning to the dark side, he had a lust for power that you could never have. Trust me, I knew him, and I know you. You are nothing like him." Even through the black of night, I see the doubt in his eyes. "They all said that I am." "Maybe superficially, but deep inside? I don't think so." "I don't know…" "Do you honestly believe that you'll follow in your father's footsteps if you allow yourself to have attachments? What about Han and Leia? You care for them and you're doing fine as a Jedi Master. And wasn't his love for you what ultimately brought Vader back to the light side?" "I know," he whispers, sounding unconvinced. "You're not your father, Luke," I repeat, willing him to see the truth in my words. "You beat the dark side years ago. Why do you insist on making it a constant struggle for yourself?" He doesn't respond, so I sigh, shifting my arm to push myself up, but before I can, he reaches out to stop me. "Please stay." Against my better judgment I relent, lying back down on the ground, but his hand remains on my arm. After a few moments, his thumb starts to move softly against my skin, and despite everything that has just passed between us, that damn shiver once again goes down my spine. It's quiet for a long time. Finally, he says so softly that I can hardly hear him, "I'm sorry." It's such a simple statement, but it holds so much meaning, which I can sense through the Force: His feelings for me are as strong as mine are for him, but he feels that he cannot allow himself to care, because he is the leader of the Jedi Order. Before I can respond, he asks me a question: "Will you ever be able to forgive yourself, Mara?" I open my mouth to answer…but then I realize that he didn't ask if I could forgive him. He asked if I would ever be able to forgive myself. And I suddenly understand exactly what he's asking—if I will ever be able to conquer my guilt, and forgive myself for my past as the Emperor's Hand, and truly become the Jedi that I'm meant to be. And in that moment, I wonder if Luke Skywalker can see more of me than I ever will. 6. Chapter 5 A/N: Song for this chapter: The Kiss, Trevor Jones, The Last of the Mohicans soundtrack CHAPTER 5 The first three months of Jedi training have been the most enlightening, exhilarating, and confusing months of my life. I have gained so much knowledge about the workings of the Force that I cannot even comprehend how I was able to live beforehand. Every day, I learn something new; have an epiphany that brings me one step closer to becoming a Jedi. Using a lightsaber comes easier than I could have ever imagined, and the weapon has almost become an extension of myself. Even if the Jedi weren't supposed to wear the weapon as a part of their everyday attire, I would anyway; I can't imagine being without it anymore. The other physical aspects of training also come naturally to me. I've become the de facto instructor for handto-hand combat, and my favorite weekly classes are stealth training with Tyria and weapons training with Kirana Ti. But even with all my newfound knowledge of the Force, its full power continues to lie just beyond my grasp. No matter how much I try, I am unable to realize my full potential in the Force. And, thanks to Luke's question that one night in the meditation garden, I am finally able to recognize what is holding me back. I truly don't forgive myself for being the Emperor's Hand. But despite my unease at what I once was, the Emperor's Hand is still a major part of my personality, so while I know that I will never be able to realize my full potential until I can learn to forgive myself, I continue to avoid facing my past, and instead dive headfirst into my Jedi training. Of course, that would be a lot easier said than done, if it wasn't for a certain pair of blue eyes that continue to make me weak whenever they stare straight into my soul, seeing every single part of me. And even though I can't get over my guilt for being the Emperor's Hand, I can't help but desperately wish that the girl who never let herself be betrayed by her emotions was still around. I wake up slowly, vaguely aware in the back of my mind that today is somehow different, but not able to figure out why. Frowning, I mentally run through the week's schedule, wondering what I have forgotten. The first group of new apprentices is coming to the Academy later in the week, but I'm not scheduled to help prep for their arrival until tomorrow. The feeling continues to plague me as I get dressed, but it's not until I look at the schedule on my datapad that I realize why. According to Imperial records, today is my twenty-seventh birthday. I can never be certain if today is my actual birthday or just a date that was marked down as a placeholder on my file to keep track of my age. It was never important; I certainly never celebrated my birthday while in service to the Empire. Somehow, I don't think that the Emperor would have been too keen on holding a traditional children's birthday party with cake and presents and party games deep within the Imperial Palace, and after he was dead I never had anyone to celebrate with even if I had wanted to. I didn't have a birthday during the time I worked for Karrde, so I never had the chance to celebrate with his group. I haven't told anyone at the Academy what today is, and I don't plan to. None of the other apprentices have had a birthday yet, so I don't even know if this is something that would be celebrated or not. Either way, I prefer not to make a big deal out of it, so I keep my mouth shut. This day also happens to be one of my days for a private lesson with Luke. Lately, he's been forcing me to focus on mental training, since that is the area where I'm most lacking. I grudgingly follow his teachings, because he knows best, but it's so frustrating whenever he takes my hand and a surge of electricity goes through my body; it's not the best way to remain a calm and serene Jedi apprentice. And even more frustrating is the knowledge that I'm not reaching my full potential, and his constant insistence that I face my past. Our training session is the last scheduled class of the day. I arrive at our designated room well beforehand, as always, and wait for him outside on one of the benches. Luke arrives shortly after I do and opens the door, gesturing for me to go inside ahead of him. I take a seat on one of the circular couches. The rooms here were modeled after the meditation rooms in the old Jedi Temple. They are very soothing—but of course, that is the point. "Is there anything specific you'd like to work on, Mara?" Luke asks, as he always starts our meditation sessions. And as always, I shake my head in reply. "Nothing at all?" It's the same dance every time—him pushing, me closing myself off. I'm surprised he hasn't snapped yet and lectured me that my attitude is not appropriate for a Jedi. But of course he doesn't, because he is the consummate Jedi Master, always in control of his emotions. "Okay, then," Luke finally relents, settling into a cross-legged position on the couch across from me and taking my hands. For the next hour I fall into a deep trance, focusing on the Force, its energy flowing into my body, and my connection to the universe around me. I can sense Luke inside my mind, guiding my thoughts, and while I always snapped at him before to get out of my head, I can't deny that his presence helps me achieve a feeling of inner calm. Still, a wall exists at the back of my mind, and no matter how often Luke tries to guide me towards it and knock it down, I refuse and pull away, heading in other directions. Time passes quickly and soon, before I even realize it, Luke's chrono beeps, signaling the end of our session. He pulls me out of the trance slowly, and my breathing quickens as I force myself back into the present. I open my eyes and find him staring intently at me. "How do you feel?" he asks. "Really good," I admit, pulling my hands away from him, and I almost imagine a look of disappointment on his face at our lost contact. He nods. "That was a very good session, Mara. You're growing stronger in the Force every day." I'm grateful for his praise, but he is obviously holding something back—I should know. "But?" "But what?" "Come on, Master. I warned you that if I trained as a Jedi, I'd get even better at that. So come on, spill it." Sighing, he answers, "Unless you face the issues that are bothering you, you'll never realize your full potential in the Force." "And just what issues are those?" I ask, my voice clipped, refusing to admit that I know exactly what he is talking about. A look of disappointment passes over his eyes. "You're the only person who can answer that question." I grow annoyed at his prodding; just seconds ago I'd been feeling wonderful, satisfied because this had been my best meditation session yet, and now I feel like poodoo because Luke says I have issues. It's irrelevant that he's correct; I'm mad that he keeps pushing me to face my past when I don't feel ready. I push myself up quickly and shake his hand. "Thank you, Master Skywalker," I say curtly. "I'll be heading to dinner now." I turn on my heel and leave the room before he can utter a word of protest, very glad that I have plans to eat with Corran and Tyria, because I desperately need a distraction. As I enter the hallway I hear Luke whisper something into his comlink about me being on my way, but I ignore it, too annoyed to think. I huff my way towards the mess, mad at Luke for pulling me out of my good mood, and mad at myself for letting him get to me. I should know better than to let my temper flare, especially here. I'm so irritated that, when I enter the mess, it takes me a few seconds to notice the new decorations. A cake sits on the large round table in the middle of the room. Smaller tables full of food and party games are set up near the kitchen. Balloons and a sign reading "Happy Birthday, Mara!" are tacked up on the wall. I stop dead in my tracks, unable to comprehend what I am seeing, and then everyone jumps out from the kitchen and yells, "Surprise!" I jump, clutching my hand to my heart, and then…I laugh. The other nine apprentices are wearing party hats and beads around their necks. Corran holds a sash that reads "Birthday Girl!" and Tyria clutches a sparkly tiara. Their smiles are ridiculous. "Happy Birthday!" Tyria yells, rushing over to me and placing the tiara on my head. She takes out my ponytail and lets my hair flow freely, and Corran drapes the sash over my shoulders. I look down, trying to see how silly I look, but not caring one bit. Then I sense Luke coming in the mess behind me. I turn around, my trademark glare plastered across my face, and he shrugs sheepishly at me. "Hope you're not mad," he says, smiling despite his very real fear that I will lash out at him for spilling my secret. But there's no way that I can be angry with him for this. This…is more than anyone has ever done for me in my entire life. After a few moments of shocked silence, I ask, "How'd you know?" "I do have your file," he points out. "You just so happen to have the first birthday of the group, and with the new apprentices coming in a few days, I thought it appropriate that we all get together and celebrate. And…well…I thought you could use a party." Translation: You never had one of these as a kid, and you deserve one. It's like he can read my mind. Abruptly, I lunge towards him and pull him into a warm, sincere hug. He tenses at first, obviously surprised by my reaction, but then I feel him start to melt against me. "Thank you," I whisper into his ear, the words unable to explain exactly how grateful I feel at this moment. Before we can linger too long, Tyria pulls me away. "We have food, Mara—real food! And Kenth, Kyle, and Keyan made you a cake!" I burst out laughing at the thought of the three macho military veterans slaving over a cake. Kyle feigns offense, but I slap him playfully. "This had better be a good cake! I haven't had cake in ages!" "Oh, don't worry, it'll be good!" he promises. "And of course we have booze!" Tyria adds, gesturing to the supply of Whyren's Reserve. "Hope you like Whyren's!" she exclaims, and I can tell she's already had a shot or two of the stuff herself. I shrug as I take a seat at the table. "Hey, I could go for any kind of liquor right now," I joke, and Luke makes a guilty face as he sits down next to me. "Is my training that hard?" he asks, acting hurt. "Yes!" we all exclaim in unison, and then someone throws a hat at him. "It's a party, Master Skywalker, you gotta wear the hat," Corran instructs, obviously getting way too much pleasure out of this. "Fine, I'll wear the hat," Luke agrees as he puts it on, gaining laughs from everyone, "but only if you call me Luke tonight. Luke wears party hats; Master Skywalker does not." "My, that's a rather fetching look for you, Luke," I tease, as someone hands me my first glass of Whyren's, that I down in one gulp. "Easy, Birthday Girl!" Corran yells, pulling the glass from my grip. "You can't get drunk until after we give you your present." "You got me a present?" I gasp. Nobody has ever gotten me a present that didn't involve work or a mission. "It wouldn't be a party without a present," Tyria says as she hands over a box. "This is from all of us." Slowly, I tear off the paper, savoring every moment. Tears threaten to sting my eyes as I think about all the wasted years of my life, but I push those thoughts aside, focusing instead on my gift and the people who truly care about me, no matter what my past may be. My breath catches in my throat as I finish opening the gift. Inside the box is a holdout blaster. It is a newer model than the one I currently own, and much nicer and more expensive. I know; I've been drooling over it for months. My eyes widen as I remove it from its case. "Oh my," I murmur, unable to keep the awe out of my voice. "This is amazing." "We thought you'd like it," Corran says. "We heard that you like to carry one, and that you might be looking for an upgrade, so we all chipped in. Just promise us you'll never shoot us with it, no matter how mad at us you may get." I laugh, turning the blaster over and over in my hands, unable to believe that they would do this for me. Suddenly, I am very aware of where the others got the idea for this gift. I turn to Luke ever so slightly, and he is looking at me with an odd expression on his face. Under the table, away from the prying eyes of the others, I give his hand a squeeze. "Thank you all," I tell them. "This is absolutely perfect." At that moment, Luke drags his thumb across my hand and smiles at me—a loving, genuine smile. I hold his gaze for long seconds, trying to send to him through the Force exactly how much this means to me, and he nods just enough for me to notice. Then, jerking away, I motion for someone to pour me another glass of Whyren's. "Alright, where's this food?" I yell. "I'm starving!" The party lasts well into the night. To my surprise, considering how much I have to drink, I manage not to get completely intoxicated, and wonder if that's just one more benefit to all this Force training. Not everyone else is so lucky, however, and after all the food has been eaten and the tables are pushed to the side, I get to witness the wonder that is Corran Horn dancing while completely and utterly smashed. Tyria—my savior—records it all, and I make a mental note to send the recording to Mirax Terrik Horn as soon as I can get to the HoloNet station. All the men treat me to a dance, including Luke, who, to my surprise, stays for the entire length of the party. I expected him to leave early, as he might think it odd to fraternize with his apprentices, but true to his word, he is Luke tonight, and Master Skywalker is nowhere to be found. Despite the number of shots he takes, he also manages not to get completely drunk, but he's buzzed enough to eventually join the rest of the boys out on the dance floor, that stupid party hat still perched precariously on his head. And then there are the party games—there's one involving pinning a tail on a nexu, and another that involves smashing a large, candy-filled paper animal while blindfolded. Tyria wins the first game, but Corran gets so frustrated with the second that he finally ignites his lightsaber and cuts through the poor wampa, while Luke mutters in the background that he's having flashbacks to Hoth. Once it passes midnight, it's clear that everyone has hit the proverbial wall, especially after our long day of training. Thankfully, Luke grants us a reprieve and reminds us that tomorrow is another off day and we can sleep in; we have two this week so we can prepare for the arrival of the new apprentices. As I leave, I thank everyone again for the incredible evening. I know that I won't be able to fall asleep just yet, so I make my way to the meditation garden for some peace and quiet. I stand outside for a long time, my legs spread shoulder-length apart, hands clasped behind my back, content to inhale the sweet scent of the air and feel the Force around me. Smiling, I finger the holdout blaster holstered on my arm, thinking about Luke and how happy he has made me, without even having to try. It's as if he really knows me…as if he can truly read my mind. Then, almost confirming my suspicion that he actually can read my mind, I feel his presence at the back of the garden. He walks slowly towards me, taking the spot by my side. "I was hoping I'd find you here." I glance over at him and burst out laughing. He's still wearing the hat. I've taken off my party paraphernalia; the items are strewn on the ground around me. I stifle my laughter to ask, "Didn't you just get enough of me?" He smiles at me, looking bashful, but also bold. "I could never get enough of you." I roll my eyes at his overly sappy compliment, but even still that damn shiver runs down my spine again. I shake my head against my thoughts, and we stand in silence for a few seconds before I speak again, suddenly compelled to apologize for my earlier behavior in our lesson. "Look, Luke, I'm really sorry about how I acted before—" He cuts me off with a finger to my lips before I can say anything further. "Don't. There's no need to apologize." "But—" "Remember?" he points at the hat. "I'm Luke tonight, not Master Skywalker." I nod, suddenly very intrigued by the fact that he thinks of them as two completely different people, but I don't press the issue. "You really should take off that hat," I tell him instead, chuckling. "It looks ridiculous. And besides, it's not my birthday anymore." "I know, but I like it. It makes me feel like a kid again." He immediately stiffens, regretting his words, because I never knew what it was like to be a kid. Not wanting him to feel bad, I reach out and touch him gently on the arm. "Don't worry about it, Luke." He scrunches up his mouth, and it is a completely endearing gesture. "Sorry." I shrug, then pick up the tiara and place it back on my head. "I should keep wearing this, then. Maybe it'll give me back the childhood I never had." "For some reason, I think you'll need a hell of a lot of tiaras." I raise my eyebrows at his quip. "Then get to a jeweler." "Okay," he replies, pulling a box from his tunic. My mouth drops open as I stare at the black velvet box in his hand. Slowly, my eyes travel back up to his. "What's this?" "Your present." "But you already got me a present. Are you telling me that a holdout blaster was not your idea for a gift?" "It was, but that wasn't my present. It was their present. This is mine," he clarifies, holding out the box to me. I take it tentatively, reveling in the feel of his fingers against mine, wondering if I really have had too much to drink, because suddenly all I can think about is how luscious Luke's lips look at this moment. I roll my eyes at myself, trying my best to concentrate on the box in my hands. "I found it at a market on Coruscant," Luke explains. "It's nothing special. Han said you wouldn't care for this type of gift, but I couldn't resist when I saw it. You'll see. Open it!" I'm almost tempted to tell him that it's bad etiquette to downplay a present before the recipient can open it, because that's just begging for compliments, but as I open the box, I suddenly lose the ability to speak. Inside is a simple green pendant hanging from a plain-looking silver chain. It is, as Luke said, nothing special—a common crystal found on nearly every planet in the Core—but I know exactly why Luke bought it for me. He says it before I can. "The color reminded me of your eyes." He takes back the box so he can hold it up to my face, and breaks into a wide grin. "I was right! It matches perfectly." As he hands the box back to me, I can't do anything else but stare incredulously at Luke's gift. As the Emperor's Hand, I wore my fair share of fine jewelry, some worth more than my annual salary while working for Karrde, but none of them could ever compare to the beauty of the necklace that I now hold in my hands. Both of us are silent for a long moment, until Luke gently lifts the necklace out of the box. "May I?" he asks, and I nod, still speechless. He unclasps the chain and leans forward to hook it around my neck. I try not to focus on how close he is to me, instead staring at the stone that is now nestled between my breasts. I touch it, marveling at the feel of it beneath my fingers. Then, wondering at something Luke said, I once again am able to speak. "You bought this on Coruscant?" "Yes," he replies. "But…you haven't been on Coruscant since before the Academy opened." He doesn't answer. I finally take my eyes off the stone and look back at him. His eyes are intently locked on mine. "You bought this then, before even knowing about my birthday?" He nods. "And you kept it all this time?" Again, he nods. "I was going to give it to you right away, but then I saw that your birthday was only a few months away, so I decided to save it." I look back down at the stone, marveling at this revelation. This wasn't just a spur of the moment purchase from the HoloNet because he felt like he should get me a gift for my birthday. This was a gift purchased months in advance, for no reason other than he wanted me to have it. The kind of thing you'd only do for someone you truly care about. "Thank you," I whisper, and again the words do not do justice to how I truly feel at this moment. As if he senses my thoughts, Luke steps towards me and takes my hand in his. The box falls to the ground, rolling to a rest beside my sash. Time slows down and I avoid his gaze, knowing that very bad things are about to happen, but he lifts up my chin and I find myself staring into his eyes again. I never before noticed how incredibly beautiful they are. "I just can't stop thinking about you, Mara," he says breathlessly, almost apologetically, as our fingers begin to intertwine together. Part of me, the old Mara Jade—Emperor's Hand, assassin, and smuggler—is screaming at me to break away and run back to my quarters before anything can happen. I know that this is wrong. I know that nothing can ever come of our feelings. Even disregarding our past history, and Luke's issues with attachment, we're master and apprentice now. It's ridiculous to even think about us ever being together. But the new Mara Jade—Jedi, and friend—will not let me move. She has been pushed aside for far too long, and she is screaming out to finally be released—to experience real happiness, something I have never before felt. Every old instinct melts away as I focus on the blue eyes in front of me, and the full, soft lips that I suddenly want to taste more than anything in the galaxy. But still, old habits die hard. "We shouldn't be doing this," I protest softly, as his thumb starts to intimately caress my hand, once again sending shivers down my spine. "No, we shouldn't," he replies, his voice shaking, but his hand doesn't move from mine. Instead he shifts closer to me, and I can feel his breath on my face. His body is as tense as mine. "You're my master…this is wrong," I whisper, but I still do not try to pull away. Every trace of objection has left my voice. Every instinct to run away from my feelings has been destroyed. All my shields have finally come down. "It is," Luke agrees, moving even closer. I can sense him so clearly through the Force, and I wonder if this is why the old Jedi Order forbade attachments—because being this close to him is enough to set my soul on fire. As that thought enters my mind, I say it out loud, because even though I don't agree with the attachment code, I'm willing to say anything right now to convince myself to walk away before we can make a huge mistake. "You said you shouldn't let yourself do this…" I trail off, finding my resolve weakening as my arm involuntarily reaches up, removing the hat from his head and running my fingers through his sandy hair, then trailing down to caress his face. "I know," he sighs, leaning his cheek into my palm, pressing his lips against it, "but I don't care anymore." Emphasizing his words, his hand slowly slides up the side of my body, eliciting shivers that almost bring me to my knees. As he gently pulls the tiara from my hair, dropping it to the ground, I can do nothing else but stare deep into his eyes. He closes them against his emotions as he cups his hand behind my neck, tangling his fingers into my hair; his body begins to tremble as he closes the final distance between us, his other hand still moving suggestively on mine, and I can feel his resolve crumbling. He rests his forehead on mine, our lips mere inches apart. My body is screaming out in agony, for I want nothing more than to feel it pressed against his, and to feel his lips devouring mine. I push every objection out of my mind; shove aside every argument that is so very wrong, instead focusing only on the man in front of me. I can sense his desire, and his feelings for me that he has been trying to deny, struggling to break free. Even still, he tries in vain to maintain the exterior of a calm, serene Jedi Master, but I can see the mask dissolving before my eyes. Tonight he is Luke Skywalker, just a regular man, and he will go against his every Jedi instinct to finally get what he wants. Slowly, he lowers his hand to fondle my necklace. "So beautiful," he murmurs, looking deep into my eyes, which so perfectly match the stone around my neck—a stone that he so lovingly chose, because it reminded him of me. I swallow a lump in my throat and then, before either of us can utter another word of protest, his arms envelop me in an embrace and his lips are on mine. And even though I know with every fiber of my being that this is completely wrong, it suddenly feels so very right. It's just a kiss, I tell myself, even as I open my mouth to his. It won't ever happen again—it can't. It just can't. But as our kiss deepens, and I feel his mind brush against mine, I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that it most certainly will. 7. Chapter 6 CHAPTER 6 I jump up abruptly in bed, gasping for breath, thanks to a loud pounding at my door. Without thinking, I reach blindly for my lightsaber on the bedside table, knocking off the tiara and sash that somehow made it back with me to my quarters last night, but I quickly relax as I realize that the person outside my door is friendly. Annoying, but friendly. I glance at my chrono to check the time and curse—I'm late. This afternoon I'm scheduled to help Corran set up quarters for the new apprentices, and I've already slept well past the time we said we'd meet for lunch. I check my comlink to make sure it's working and remember that I switched it off when I finally stumbled into bed this morning. No wonder Corran is banging at my door. "Hold on!" I yell as I throw back the covers, trying to find something to cover up with. Of course, most of my clothes happen to be dirty. Finally settling on the cloak thrown over my chair, I pull it around me and open the door slightly, peeking outside. Corran is leaning against the wall, dressed in his civilian clothes. He flashes me a mischievous smile as he takes in my haggard appearance and state of undress. "Late night?" he teases, winking at me. I instinctively put up every mental shield, not that I think Corran would pry, but because I'm afraid of blabbing something that I shouldn't, especially after getting so little sleep. I give him my best angry stare. "Ha-ha, very funny," I reply dryly, opening the door wide enough so he can get a good look at my very empty bunk. Corran almost looks disappointed that he's not catching me in the middle of a scandal. Wanting to turn the accusations around on him, I say, "I'm surprised you woke up on time. You gave quite a show on the dance floor last night, CorSec." He rubs his head. "Don't remind me. I'm gonna need to get that recording from Tyria." Taking note of how good Corran looks for someone who was completely drunk only a few hours ago, I ask, "So, did you use a Force trance to keep from getting a hangover?" He puts his finger to his lips. "Shhhh! I'll never hear the end of it if she finds out!" he whispers, pointing his thumb at Tyria's door. I throw my head back and laugh. "Typical! We're here to gain a greater understanding of our connection to the Force, and you use your training to keep from throwing up." "Hey, what Master Skywalker doesn't know won't hurt him, right?" I roll my eyes. "Whatever. Now, can you wait one second while I get dressed, please?" "Sure," he replies, his eyes twinkling. "But I'm making you do more work since you forgot about our assignment." "I didn't forget," I bite back. "It's not my fault you guys threw me a party and made me get so little sleep." Corran smirks at me. "We left the party at the same time, Mara. Why'd you stay up so late afterwards?" I glare at him, but he does not back down. Instead, he looks even more amused, and I realize that, somehow, he suspects that something happened between Luke and me. Kriffing CorSec training! Drawing myself up to my full height, I growl, "Corran Horn, I don't know what you're thinking, but you better wipe that blasted smirk off your face or I'm gonna rip you a new one." "Don't worry, Mara," he says, no longer looking amused, but concerned. "Your business is your business. Just…" "Just what?" I demand. "Just…try not to get hurt," he answers, sounding exactly like a good friend. "Don't get excited, okay?" I lie, taking another pointed look at my empty bunk. Corran follows my gaze, understanding my implication that his suspicions are completely wrong, and I hope he cannot tell that I'm lying. He holds his hands up in surrender, and then I quickly close the door and go about getting dressed. Even though I eventually made my way back to my quarters alone, that doesn't make last night's—or rather, this morning's— events any less troublesome. It's even worse than if Luke and I had ended up in the same bed, 'cause it would be easy to just blame that on all the Whyren's. No, Luke and I stayed in the garden for hours, just kissing—and then talking about how we shouldn't be kissing, and then kissing some more, both fully aware that what we were doing was completely wrong. But oh, it felt so right. We finally stopped when the sun began to rise. It was as if with the dawn of the new day, we finally realized the implications of what we were doing. As we walked inside the temple together hand in hand, we made a silent pact that, for both of our sakes, we can't let it happen again. But deep down, I know that we can never go back. We crossed a line, and I won't ever be able to stop thinking about him, or his lips, or the feel of his lips pressed against mine. As much as I know that it should never happen again, I also know that not even the Force can stop this. It is a problem. Several days later, every inch of the Academy has been scrubbed and polished. New quarters have been made up. New schedules have been sent to our datapads. Everything is ready for the arrival of six new Jedi apprentices. Despite all the preparations, everyone is nervous about the new arrivals. We've become a close-knit group over our first three months of training and our routine is a well-oiled machine. We all know that things are about to become very different. But Luke is so excited about the new arrivals that it's hard not to catch his enthusiasm. Originally, he wasn't sure how long it would take for him to feel comfortable accepting new apprentices. But apparently he's very satisfied with our progress, because he can't seem to wait to get his feet wet with new students. I'm glad for him, I really am—this is everything he wanted for the Jedi Academy. I am more than happy for my friend. But the part of me that I keep trying to ignore—the resentful little girl who can't stop thinking about what it felt like to kiss him— is worried that, with six new apprentices to train, Luke will find himself too busy for me, and with the added responsibilities, he'll go right back to his old mindset about not being able to let himself form attachments. I really, really want to punch that girl in the face. The ten of us original apprentices are waiting patiently in the meditation garden for the new group of students to arrive. Luke met them on the landing platform and is bringing them here to make introductions after they get settled in. The new group will train separately at first—they have a lot of catching up to do to match our progress—but Luke has said that he eventually plans to have the original class assist in their training. After several minutes of waiting, Luke enters the garden with the new apprentices in tow. I meet his gaze, trying not to think about what happened the last time we were in this place together. By the look on his face, I can tell that he is struggling to do the same thing. Finally peeling my eyes away from him, I take in the new apprentices. Luke already transmitted their basic statistics and some background information to our datapads, and I have no trouble remembering their names: Kyp Durron, Jes Gantoris, Nichos Marr, Cray Mingla, Saba Sebatyne, and Rikk Streen. All of them, with the exception of Durron, approached New Republic officials on their home planets, requesting permission to train at the Jedi Academy. I smile at each of them, doing my best to make them feel welcome, remembering how nervous I was on my first day here—but then again, I had a very good reason to feel that way. I straighten up in my seat when I reach Durron. He's the youngest student, by far, and the only one who didn't go through the proper channels to come to the Academy. All we've been told about him is that he is an orphan, and that Han Solo met him somewhere on Coruscant and was somehow convinced that Durron was strong in the Force. I can tell that much is true just by looking at the boy. But he also projects something that makes me feel very uneasy —something that makes me think that I need to keep my eye on him. I glance at Corran, who is sitting next to me, and he nods his head ever so slightly. He senses it, too. Luke motions for the new apprentices to sit on the benches facing us, and then he asks them to go through a round of introductions, just as he did with us on our first day here. Luke then goes through his speech about what he hopes to accomplish at the Academy, and how training with the group of new apprentices will be different than what we've already experienced. He's already had this talk with us, so I find my mind wandering, focusing instead on Kyp Durron, who is sitting directly across from me. He notices me watching him and returns my gaze with a hard look. I don't like that look at all. As Luke dismisses us all for dinner, I hang back with Corran and we walk inside the Great Temple behind the others. "I don't like that kid," he whispers. Despite my own reservations about Durron, I smile teasingly at Corran. "You thought the same thing about me, remember?" Corran smiles back. "Who says I've changed my mind? Ow!" he exclaims as I slap him upside the head. "Seriously, though. I don't like him." "Me, neither," I admit, also turning serious. "What are you two whispering about?" Corran and I jump and whirl around to see Tyria skulking around behind us. "I told you not to do that anymore, Tyria!" Corran growls. She shrugs innocently. "It's not my fault you're not taking my stealth training seriously! Anyway, spill it. What are you two yapping about?" Corran and I share a glance. "We're talking about Kyp Durron," he explains, speaking softly so those in front of us don't overhear our conversation. "You mean the green-eyed kid who kept giving Mara the stinkeye?" Corran chuckles. "That's the one—but don't worry, Mara was glowering right back at him." "I'm sure she was. So was there a reason for this impromptu staring contest, or was Mara just being her usually charming self?" I scowl at her. "Hey, I've come a long way!" Both Corran and Tyria stop in their tracks and give me a look. "Well, I have," I insist, holding my ground and continuing inside the temple towards the mess. "But anyway, yeah, there was a reason. He gives me the willies." Tyria raises her eyebrows. "Is that what we're calling that bad feeling in the Force now, the willies?" "Shut up," I crack, playfully shoving her on the arm. "Fine, he gives me a very bad feeling in the Force, is that better?" "And you feel it, too?" she asks Corran. He nods. "Oh yeah—big time." "I don't sense anything," Tyria shrugs. Corran and I share another glance. Tyria is strong in the Force in her own ways, but her danger sense is nowhere near as honed as Corran's or mine. "Are you absolutely sure?" she asks, seeing our wariness. "Yes," we reply in unison. "I don't know why, but I just don't like him," I add. "I have a really bad feeling about him." Tyria shrugs again. "If you insist. But you should really tell Master Skywalker that you feel this way. He should know." I sigh, watching Luke walk next to Durron a few meters in front of us, his arm draped casually across the boy's shoulders, like an older brother. I hate having to do this to him, but Tyria is right. "I'll talk to him," I tell them, and I will…eventually. Talking to Luke will be easier said than done considering the recent events that transpired between us, and, of course, that's exactly the reason why I was trying so hard not to let those things happen in the first place. To my pleasant surprise, Han Solo, who brought Durron to the Academy, stays on Yavin IV for dinner. He invites me to join him and Luke, and catches me up with what's been going on in the smuggling world. "Karrde's crazy," he's saying. "He keeps acquiring more and more shipping companies. I don't know how he's able to run such a huge organization, but everyone seems to love working for him." "That's great!" I say, happy for my old friend. I haven't talked to Karrde much since arriving at the Academy, and I suddenly feel very guilty for not being more vigilant in keeping up our communications. "Yeah, and the best part is that he takes every opportunity to bad-mouth you for leaving him." "He does not!" I reply indignantly. "He was more than supportive when I came here to train." "Sure, but only if you go back and work for him after you finish your training. He's been warning everyone that he's gonna have a Jedi second-in-command to sniff out all the liars." Luke snickers from his seat next to me, and I shoot him a glare. "Think that's funny, huh?" I threaten, but I can't keep the smile off my face. He shrugs innocently. "I'm just getting the mental picture of a Jedi Knight working for a smuggler." "Information broker," I clarify. This time, Han is the one who snorts. "You really have been spending too much time with Luke if you're remembering Karrde through rose-colored glasses." "Oh, you have no idea," I say dryly, causing Luke to cough into his hand before grabbing his glass and taking a long sip of his drink. Han's eyes dart from me to Luke, and then back to me again. "Did I miss something?" he asks, his tone suggesting that he's ready to pounce on this newfound revelation. "Ew, no!" I reply quickly, kicking myself for that innuendo. I hear Luke's amused protest in my mind—Ew? That's not what you said the other night…—but I ignore him and force myself not to laugh. Han knows Luke even better than I do, and he'd be sure to pick up on anything going on between us. According to Luke, Han even had suspicions that something was going on between us back on Wayland. "Just commenting on the slave driver that is your brotherin-law," I continue, trying to cover for my slip up. Han sits back in his chair and crosses his arms behind his head, seemingly buying my explanation. "Well, you agreed to come here, Jade," he smiles. "I could have told you that it wouldn't be a cakewalk." "As wonderful as hearing you guys talk about me is," Luke stands and pushes himself up from the table, "I need to go acquaint myself with the new arrivals. See you both later." He shakes Han's hand and then mine…and once again, looking deep into my eyes, his thumb moves ever so slightly against the side of my hand. I look away before my body can react. Damn him. "Bye, Master Skywalker!" I catcall as he walks away, wanting to get him back, which elicits loud guffaws from Han. I sense Luke's amusement through the Force as he sits down at a table with Durron and some of the other new apprentices. My good mood quickly disappears as I watch Luke interact with Durron. He is clearly very intrigued by the boy. It is obvious that Durron is very strong in the Force, but no matter how much I tell myself that he hasn't done anything to warrant my suspicions, that strange feeling continues to hover around him. Knowing that Han is the one who brought the boy to the Academy, I decide to broach the subject with him. "So, how'd you find Durron?" "Ran into him on Coruscant," he answers, launching into the story. "He was getting into trouble on the lower levels. I helped him out of a scrape, and we got to talking. He reminded me a lot of myself when I was his age, and he doesn't have any family, so I guess I felt responsible to make sure he kept out of trouble. Once he realized who I was, he confided in me that he thought he could use the Force. I saw some of what he could do, and figured Luke'd want him at the Academy." I glance over at Durron again. "He's very strong in the Force." Han follows my gaze. "Yeah?" I nod my head. "Very," I repeat. "He'll be a powerful Jedi, if…" "If what?" My mouth crinkles with worry. "You think he's a good kid?" I ask hesitantly. "What are you saying?" "I'm not saying anything—" "He's a good kid, Mara," Han says firmly. "He's just been dealt a bad hand in life. You of all people should be able to relate to that." His tone is more than a little accusatory. I can't deny that he's right. Durron hasn't done anything to compromise my trust, and yet I can't help but look at him as if he's going to become the next Vader; whereas I actually have a checkered past and everyone at the Academy has accepted me with open arms. But even so, Han isn't Force sensitive, and there is no way that he could ever understand the very bad feeling that I'm getting from Kyp Durron. 8. Chapter 7 CHAPTER 7 Because of how busy he is with the new apprentices, I don't get to have my regular private lesson with Luke that week. Normally, I'd be annoyed with him for neglecting the original group in favor of his new students, not to mention the fact that he hasn't yet let us start helping him with their training as he originally intended, but as I've been dreading being alone with him for the first time since we kissed, I refuse to press the issue. Deep inside, I wonder if he's avoiding it, too, especially after everyone else has their private lessons scheduled before I do. But eventually Luke—or rather, Master Skywalker—caves and I receive a message on my datapad informing me of our next session. My years of training under the Emperor have had one positive effect on my life—even though that night continues to haunt me, I'm able to act as if nothing has changed. Nobody can tell how I'm really feeling, except for Luke, who of course can see right through my charade. I can tell by the way he looks at me that he is facing the same struggle, but he is a Jedi Master and, thankfully, nobody but me is the wiser. Around the other students, we interact exactly as we did before —he pushes my buttons, I take his bait; I tease him, he bites back; he is the master, I am the apprentice. But all alone with Luke, I don't know if I'll be able to go without kissing him, and I hate myself for it, because I know that doing so would just be asking for more trouble than we already have. I have to abide by our unspoken pact, for both his sake and for mine. When it comes time for my lesson, I wait for him outside the usual meditation room. He's several minutes late, which is strange for him. As soon as I start to tap my foot impatiently, I see him round the corner with a smirk on his face. I raise my eyebrows at him. "Something funny, Master?" He hovers over me, still smirking. "You didn't check your datapad." "No, why?" "Check it." Sighing, I pull it out of my tunic. Sure enough, there's a message from Luke: "Lesson moved to the private training room. Meet me there." I roll my eyes; of course, the one day I don't check my schedule is the day he has to change our plans. I push myself up from my seat, ignoring Luke's hand, and shove the datapad back into my robes. We walk to the turbolift in silence. While waiting for it to arrive, I ask, "Why'd you change our lesson?" "You don't want private lightsaber training?" he replies, raising his eyebrows at me. "Oh, I always do, until I finally learn enough to kick your butt," I tease. He laughs, and then we fall into silence again, waiting for the lift to arrive. I shift nervously beside him, suddenly very aware of how alone we are. I force myself to stare straight ahead and ignore every indecent thought running through my head. I'm victorious in the former, but the latter is a futile fight. Thankfully, the turbolift arrives before things can get too awkward, and as we enter the lift, Luke begins speaking again, pulling me out of my thoughts. "I know you've been frustrated with your progress lately, and thought that some sparring practice would do you a lot of good. I've cleared the rest of the afternoon." "An entire afternoon alone with my lightsaber and Master Skywalker? Wow, you must really think I need a lot of help." I cannot keep the sarcasm out of my voice, and he shakes his head, leaning across me to press the button for the training room floor. "You know that's not true. And you don't have to call me that. There's nobody else around," he says softly as the lift doors close in front of us. "Yes, I do," I insist. I need to keep the lines drawn or I'll just get myself into trouble again. "We're having a lesson, so therefore you are Master Skywalker." The lift slowly begins to descend. "No, right now we're alone in a turbolift, so I'm just Luke." His tone is teasing, almost flirtatious. For someone who's so conflicted about whether or not he can afford to have attachments, he sure does seem to have a death wish. Emboldened by his statement, I turn to face him, keenly aware of the butterflies in my stomach, but unable to stop myself from taking his bait. "You really should reconsider whether you want me to think of myself as being alone in a lift with 'just Luke' right now," I warn, my voice low. He turns to me, mirroring my bold posture. "Well, you are," he reminds me, his voice now definitely flirtatious, and daring. His hand reaches up to gently stroke my cheek, and I stare back at him, unable to resist his challenge. Unable to resist him. My lips curl into a wicked smile as I slowly walk towards him, forcing him against the wall of the lift. I arch my back towards him and place my hands on his chest, giving him my best seductive stare. "I guess I am, Luke," I practically purr, biting my lip as I hold his gaze. He stares at me dumbfounded as my fingers travel lazily down his sides and begin to tuck into his belt, gently pulling out his tunic and connecting with his bare skin underneath. Luke tenses and inhales sharply, but he does not back down. His eyes are smoldering, the Jedi Master mask forgotten once again. Without hesitation he reaches out to grab my waist, pulling me firmly against him. Shivers go down my spine and I feel my knees begin to weaken as he places his hand on the back of my neck and slowly lowers his lips down to mine… And then the lift abruptly stops and the doors open with a loud bang, indicating the arrival at our floor. "Blast!" he curses, slamming his hand into the wall behind him. Sighing with both relief and frustration, I use the distraction to duck out of his hold and hurry out of the lift before he can even try to pull me back. I stomp down the hallway, angry with myself for not being able to last a mere two minutes alone with him without succumbing to my desires. Some Jedi I am. We arrive at the training room without saying another word. I shrug off my cloak and practically throw my datapad to the floor. I pace around for a few moments, trying to expel my nervous energy, until I see that Luke is ready to begin. I face him and throw my finger in his face. "Do not hold back, Master Skywalker," I hiss. I am in the mood to fight, and I will have one. He doesn't flinch; the mask is back in place. He takes my finger and I immediately feel a sense of calm washing over me. I realize what he is doing and pull away, but go through my calming exercises anyway. I relax quickly, and he looks pleased. "You can't fight when you're angry," he preaches. "You will feel the Force when you are calm, at peace." I take a deep breath. "Then stop making me angry," I growl. He chuckles. "Sorry Mara, but I think that's our default position." I want to be mad at him, I really do, but I laugh despite myself. Shaking my head, I take my lightsaber off my belt and ignite it in front of me. He follows suit. Before he can strike, I say again, "I mean it, Luke. Don't hold back this time." I can tell that he is wary, but he nods anyway, and then launches himself towards me. For the next several hours, I cannot allow myself to dwell for even one second on the almost-kiss in the turbolift. Luke's blows come fast and furious, and I know that I am finally seeing the full range of the Jedi Master in action. I have to open up every bit of my being to the Force to even have a chance of holding my own against him. But Luke is also giving his all. Unlike our other practices, he actually has to exert himself to keep the upper hand. He's panting heavily and sweat is dripping off him, but he still manages to exude an aura of calm. This is what being a Jedi is all about, I think—calling on the Force during a fight and still keeping a sense of inner peace. Just watching him like this is more enlightening than all of our meditation sessions put together. Luke continuously disarms me, but I refuse to give up. I don't get mad; being beaten only emboldens me to try harder. I want to impress him. I want to impress myself. The next time he disarms me, I don't stop fighting. Instead, I throw myself at him with all my strength and knock him to the floor; his lightsaber falls out of his grasp and we roll over each other. I sense his surprise through the Force but he automatically starts fighting back. Eventually he gets me on my back and pins my arms over my head and I relax, stopping my struggle, but he scolds me. "No, we're not done. Don't give up just because your lightsaber is gone or you're pinned to the ground. Don't ever give up. With your skills, you're not beaten until you're dead." I nod, and start to fight back again. "Mara," he says, in a tone that causes me to stop and focus on his face. "Get your lightsaber." "What?" "Get your lightsaber," he repeats. I try to break his hold so I can get up to retrieve my weapon, but he won't let me move an inch. "No, not like that. Get your lightsaber." Finally understanding, I use the Force to augment my strength and rip my arm from his hold, calling the weapon to my hand. Luke's lightsaber jumps to his own and the two weapons ignite at the same moment, clashing against each other. I kick my legs out to push him off me; standing again, we move around in a circle, both looking for an advantage. We keep fighting, dancing around each other, and as time goes on I feel my mind opening up to his in a way I've never before experienced, not even during our meditation sessions. It's no longer like we are fighting against each other, but with each other. We are both unstoppable, and it's apparent that this fight will never end. And then, as we fall to the floor again, I get a flash of insight into Luke's mind so intense that I have to stop what I'm doing and squeeze my eyes shut against it. I see all his worry about being the leader of the Jedi Order; his apprehension for one day having to teach his niece and nephew the ways of the Force; his insecurity at training the apprentices currently under his tutelage; he deep and profound fear that his compassion for me will be his undoing. As we roll to a stop with him on top of me, I see in Luke's eyes that he has had the same experience. He has seen inside my mind and reached the wall I refuse to break down, and he has scaled it, seeing all the fears and doubts that lay on the other side. Gasping for breath, I shove him off me and jump up, clipping my lightsaber back on my belt. Hurrying over to my belongings, I pull my cloak over my shoulders and shove the datapad back into my robes. Before I can rush out of the room, I feel Luke's hand on my arm, pulling me around to face him. He looks as disturbed as I do. "Don't go," he pleads. "We need to talk about this." "No," I refuse, slapping away his hand. "Mara—" "I said no!" I don't know why I am so angry. It is an exhilarating feeling, understanding so well how someone else feels. But at the same time, it is petrifying, for I know that Luke has just seen all my secrets, and all the issues thwarting me on my journey to becoming a Jedi. I do not want to confront those issues, but now that he has seen them, they will be impossible to ignore. We stand there, staring at each other, breathing heavily, both unwilling to speak. His expression does not betray any of his personal feelings for me; he is the Jedi Master again, and I am only his apprentice. He takes a deep breath. "Sit down," he says, and it is an order, not a request. Surprising myself, I oblige him, taking a seat on one of the benches. He sits next to me, and I am grateful for that, because at least I don't have to look him in the eye. "Why won't you talk about this?" he asks softly. I ponder his question for a long time, but I cannot find the answer. I know what I once was. I know I'm no longer that person. But I just can't find it in me to forgive myself, no matter how hard I try, so I do the only thing I know how—I ignore all my issues, hoping that they'll go away on their own during my struggle to become a Jedi. Sensing my thoughts, Luke speaks again. "You know that you will never be able to realize your full potential in the Force until you learn to forgive yourself, Mara." I shake my head. "I can't, Luke," I whisper. "I just can't." "Why not?" "I just can't," I repeat, almost near tears. He nods, unsatisfied with my answer, but not willing to push any further. He knows that it's futile to try. The old Mara Jade is back, and she will not give in. Patting me on the shoulder, he rises and leaves the training room, leaving me alone with my thoughts, that I can't run away from fast enough. I am fully prepared to avoid Luke for the rest of the evening, but as it turns out, I don't have to—he's nowhere to be found when I arrive at the mess for dinner. Resentfully, I assume he's playing with the new apprentices, most likely his new golden boy, Kyp Durron, with whom he seems to be spending all his extra time. No matter how much I tell myself not to prejudge, I cannot get the bad feeling about the boy out of my mind. I know that I have to talk to Luke about it, but after today's session, I can't bring myself to be alone with him anytime soon. Corran is just sitting down when I arrive, so I quickly grab some food and join him. I need to get my mind off what just happened with Luke, so I let him chew my ear off with stories about Rogue Squadron and Mirax and even CorSec. I pick at my food, not having much of an appetite even after working out so hard. Corran, naturally, senses my bad mood and has to pry. "Master Skywalker get to you again?" he asks, a knowing look in his eye. I roll my eyes. "Shut up, Corran." "Oooh, it must have been good." "Shut up, Corran!" "Shutting up, ma'am." I laugh despite myself. "Fine," I admit. "It was an…interesting lesson, to say the least." "Why, did you smooch him?" "Corran!" I exclaim, glancing around to make sure nobody heard him. "Oh calm down Mara, nobody's listening to us." "You ever hear of Force-enhanced hearing, idiot?" He throws a napkin at my face. I throw it back at him. "Must've been a good kiss." I glare at him. "I don't even know why I'm telling you this, but for your information, there was no 'smooching,' okay?" "Oh, so that's the problem." I sigh and let my head fall into my hands. I hear a chair push back from the table, and after a moment Corran settles down next to me, placing his hand on my back. "I told you not to let yourself get hurt." I lift my head and look him in the eye. "No, it's not that at all, Corran." "Then what is it?" "It's hard to explain." "I'm a good listener." "You're not gonna back down, are you?" "Nope." "Are all you Rogue Squadron vets alike?" "Yup." I shake my head in disbelief and rest it on his shoulder. What the hell, I think—I might as well confide in somebody. He gently strokes my hair as I begin to speak. "We were sparring, and then all of a sudden, I could see inside his mind. It was amazing, and exhilarating, and unlike anything I've ever felt before. But it was also petrifying, because I knew that he could see inside mine, too. And he could see all the issues that I'm trying so hard to hide from." "Which are?" Corran asks. "Isn't it obvious?" He's quiet for a few moments, and he reaches out into the Force to sense my emotions. A confused look passes over his face as he realizes what I mean. "That was a long time ago, Mara. You shouldn't let yourself get hung up on your past." "But I am hung up on it, Corran! And I can't face it. I can't face all the horrible things I did in service to the Empire." "We've all done horrible things in our lives." "Yeah, but not like this." "You didn't have a choice, Mara." I look away, staring into nothingness, trying to remember what it was like to be the Emperor's Hand…and all I can remember is a girl who wanted nothing more than to earn her master's congratulations; a girl who would gladly accomplish any mission to do so—even one that ended in the death of Luke Skywalker. Maybe I didn't know any better, but I certainly was willing. As always, I avoid confronting my feelings, changing the subject to one I know will appeal to Corran much more. "Okay, I lied," I admit. He looks at me curiously. "There was smooching." His eyes light up, and he leans towards me. "I knew it!" "Yes, now stop gloating or I'm going to stop talking." Corran immediately shuts up and motions for me to continue. "It just happened once—on my birthday." Corran looks victorious as he realizes that his suspicions from the morning after my party were correct. "And we almost kissed again today, but we were interrupted before anything could happen. It's so frustrating, Corran—" "Yeah, I can imagine," he teases. "No, I don't mean like that." "Then how?" "Well, besides the obvious fact that it would be highly inappropriate for a master and apprentice to enter into a relationship?" I sigh. "Corran, your family didn't abide by the attachment code, right?" "Right," he answers, obviously confused at my change of subject. "Do you know why Corellian Jedi were allowed to marry, but not the Jedi on Coruscant?" He shrugs. "I never really thought about it. I always assumed that all the old Jedi were allowed to marry until I started training here. It never made sense that they wouldn't be allowed. I mean, if Force sensitivity can be passed down genetically, wouldn't it make sense for Jedi to marry and have children?" I nod. "Yeah, which is probably one of the reasons why Luke doesn't want to reinstate that rule—we need to increase our numbers." Corran laughs and grins mischievously. "So is that what you two are gonna do?" I groan and throw another napkin at his face. "That's the issue. He still thinks that he needs to abide by that rule." "Oh." Corran pauses for a moment, and then my statement really sinks in. "Oh…" "And now you see the problem." "It doesn't make sense, Mara. Why would he think he has to abide by that rule, but not the rest of us?" "Because he feels he needs to live up to a higher standard. He's the son of Darth Vader. He lives in that shadow every day of his life, and it scares him to death." "So, what, he thinks that if he gets some action with you that he's gonna turn Sith or something?" "Stang, Corran, way to be sensitive about the issue!" I admonish, shoving him with my shoulder. "Hey, sometimes it takes someone giving it to you straight to realize just how dumb you're being." "Yeah, well, don't tell me, tell him." "I will if you want me to." "Force, no!" I yell. "Don't you dare say a word to him!" "Of course I won't, Mara, don't be ridiculous." "Horn," I growl, pointing at his face, "promise me that you won't say a word." He takes my hand, holding my gaze. "Your secret is safe with me." I nod gratefully, and start picking at my food again. "But Mara," he continues, and I look back at him. He squeezes my hand and looks at me like a protective older brother, and I suddenly feel a rush of affection for him. "Try not to get hurt." I pick at my food some more, and think to myself that his advice is too little, too late. 9. Chapter 8 A/N: Song for this chapter: Aquarium, Camille Saint-Saëns, Carnival of the Animals CHAPTER 8 The oppressive humidity of Yavin IV hangs over me as I travel through the overgrown jungle with Corran, Tyria, Kam, and Tionne. After over four months on the moon, we're finally beginning to explore some of the other temples around the Academy. Poor Tionne has been campaigning to investigate the ruins ever since we arrived, but Luke always put it off, saying there were more important things to accomplish in our training. But now, with our ever-increasing free time after the arrival of the new apprentices, Luke he has no choice but to placate Tionne and allow us to begin our explorations. The five of us are heading towards what we believe is the largest temple around the Academy. It is several kilometers away so we're travelling via the Academy's sole landspeeder. Corran's driving, of course—flyboy won't let anyone else near the controls— and Tyria and I remain on the lookout for anything unusual. Not that there should be, as Yavin IV is supposedly uninhabited except for those of us at the Jedi Academy, but there's no telling what kind of wildlife exists in these jungles. After one too many sharp turns, the speeder finally begins to slow, indicating our arrival. We all jump out, Tyria taking point, me bringing up the rear. I ignite my lightsaber, suddenly feeling the need to protect myself. It's almost as if I know that this temple is not empty at all. Of course, there's nothing unusual when we get inside. It is bare except for a tomb on an altar and several alcoves filled with shadowed artifacts. Tionne makes a beeline for the altar, but I walk around the side of the temple, gently touching the walls, entranced by the designs and glyphs inscribed upon them. Corran follows closely behind me as I examine the glyphs. They seem so familiar to me, but I cannot figure out why. I continue on, marking down notes on my datapad as I see fit. As we reach one of the alcoves, I stop in front of it, staring at the statues inside. Corran approaches me and moves to go inside, but my arm swiftly darts out on its own accord, holding him back. "Don't," I warn. He looks me curiously. Hesitantly, I step forward towards the opening of the alcove, remaining safely outside. I peer at the statues inside and then, picturing them so clearly in my mind, I close my eyes and reach out into the Force. I find myself travelling back in time to a place I've long tried to forget. But now, I have no choice but to remember. I remember a private, fortified room deep inside the Imperial Palace, a room nobody ever dared go near unless commanded by Emperor Palpatine. I remember walking inside, mesmerized by the ancient artifacts that buzzed with an aura of power. I remember running my hand over similar statues, and the cold that penetrated my lungs upon touching them. I remember kneeling down to examine them further, and the cackling laughter as the Emperor appeared behind me, my skin turning to ice as he touched my arm, holding me back. I remember the oppressiveness inside my mind as he made contact like he so often did—a contact I both desired and reviled. Most of all, I remember his words: "Don't touch, child. You might find more than you are looking for." Suddenly I gasp, and I feel Corran's arms on me, pulling me back into the present. I am hyperventilating and covered with sweat, but I'm still standing upright—Corran must have caught me before I could collapse. I back away quickly from the statues, pulling him with me. "What is it, Mara?" Corran asks, his voice wrought with concern. "What did you see?" "Palpatine," I whisper so softly that he can't make out my word. "What?" "Sith," I say, louder this time. Corran's eyes go wide. "Are you sure?" I meet his gaze, and he flinches, the look of terror in my eyes clearly evident. "Don't touch anything!" Corran yells, and I hear Tyria yell back from across the temple. "What's going on?" Corran leaves me standing in front of the alcove for several moments before returning with the others. They stand behind me, mesmerized by my findings. "Tell them," Corran whispers to me. I take a deep breath. "Those are Sith statues." Tionne's eyes go wide; I can feel her desire to touch them, to study them up close, but she heeds my warning. "Are you sure?" I nod my head emphatically. "I've seen similar statues before, in a private storeroom in the Imperial Palace. They are Sith warriors. I am certain of it." They obviously want to ask me more questions, but they keep quiet, aware of how much seeing these statues again has affected me. And even if they did press further, I wouldn't be able to tell them anything else. After that day, I never once went back into that room, and I never once set out to investigate the artifacts within. I wanted to stay far away from anything that involved the Sith. Except for my master, who I was bound to eternally. Kam asks the question we're all afraid to speak: "Why are there Sith statues in this temple?" Everyone is quiet. Nobody wants to answer that question, either. "What did you find on the altar, Tionne?" Corran asks, breaking the silence. "There's a tomb," she replies. "It's sealed shut. The same glyphs that are on the wall are inscribed upon it." "Were you able to translate anything?" "Some. It's a prophecy of some sort. And there's a name on the tomb—Exar Kun. He was a Sith Lord." That name once again sends me backwards in time; I feel Corran's arms on me as I receive another vision. It was right after the Rebels abandoned their base on Yavin IV. For some reason, the Emperor was extremely interested in that base, even after the Rebellion moved on. To my surprise, he didn't order that base be ransacked and then demolished like the others —he wanted this one to remain intact. It was where the Death Star had been destroyed, he said—where a new hero had been born. It was as if he foresaw that, one day, that same hero would return to this place to rebuild the Jedi Order that had been destroyed, and that hero and his new apprentices would set out to explore the abandoned temples around them. And when they did so, they would discover the tomb of Exar Kun, whose spirit lay in wait, and reawaken the Sith. "I read about him in my studies," Tionne explains as I shake myself out of the vision. "His spirit was imprisoned four thousand years ago. It seems that this temple is where he was imprisoned." Tyria sighs. "And Master Skywalker just happened to set up the Jedi Academy mere kilometers away. This is bad." Narrowing my eyes, I stare straight ahead, ignoring everyone else and focusing deep inside the alcove. Slowly, going against my prior warning, I make my way inside. Corran tries to hold me back, but I pull out of his grip. I kneel down in front of the statues, just as I did on that day in Palpatine's private storeroom so many years ago. I still heed the Emperor's warning, and do not touch, but I find what I'm looking for anyway. I reach out and gently pick up the objects that rest at the statues' feet…two objects that I've only seen before in that private storeroom. Tionne leans over my shoulder, and I hear her sharp intake of breath. "Those are holocrons!" I nod, even more curious as to why the Emperor never investigated this place further, as he desired to collect as much information as possible about both the Jedi and the Sith. I hand them to Tionne, who holds them reverently. "We need to study these," she insists. I nod, but then I reach out, pointing to the one she holds in her right hand, and shake my head. "Not that one." She gives me a questioning look. "That one's Sith." "How do you know?" she asks, almost as if she is afraid of the answer. Corran answers for me: "Trust me, she knows." I stare at the Sith holocron, knowing that the information inside is capable of warping a good, kindhearted soul to do unspeakable evil. I feel an overwhelming desire to destroy it, to take it in my hand and crush it beyond all recognition, but I don't. I refuse to let myself give in to the anger that has destroyed so many. Taking a deep breath, I turn from the alcove and walk towards the tomb. As I study it, I am certain that nobody can come back here ever again. This temple feels completely wrong. Just being inside it long enough could make anyone—especially young, impressionable minds, with a lust for power and revenge—crave the darkness. "We need to warn Luke," I tell them; I am so disturbed by our findings that I don't even think to correct myself at calling him by his first name. "We need to stay away from this place. It is far too dangerous." Without argument, Tyria, Kam, and Tionne begin to quickly file out of the temple. I follow them, Corran walking my side. "You're thinking of Kyp Durron," he whispers, not even having to ask. I nod and glance at him as we exit the temple. "I have a bad feeling about this." "Yeah, me too," Corran agrees, and, for once in my life, I desperately hope that I am wrong. When we arrive back at the Academy, the five of us immediately seek out Luke and tell him of our findings. As I expected, he wants to go there himself and see what we have found. And even though I promised Tyria and Corran that I'd talk to him about my misgivings regarding Kyp Durron, I still can't bring myself to be alone with Luke again just yet. But several days later, I can no longer ignore my bad feelings, and know that I need to put aside my anxiety and speak with Luke. I can't find him in any of the usual spots around the Academy, so I begrudgingly make my way towards his quarters for the first time. His room is further away from the others—a privilege of being in charge—even though it's no secret where it's located. I take a deep breath as I exit the lift and slowly make my way down the hallway, all too aware of the very bad things that could happen once we are alone inside his quarters. But I know that my misgivings are much more important than my stupid feelings, so I rely on all my old instincts and push my feelings aside, focusing on the task at hand. I reach Luke's door and lift my hand, but stop myself just before I knock. Luke is inside, but to my surprise, I sense that he is not alone. Reaching out with the Force, I realize who is with him, and my body tenses in something akin to anger, but also resentment. Knowing that what I'm about to do is so incredibly wrong, I lean up against the doorway to eavesdrop. Kyp Durron is speaking loudly, but Luke is so soft-spoken that I can't hear a word of what he's saying. Taking a deep breath, I push myself further against the wall and reach out with the Force. What I'm doing goes against every tenet of the Jedi code, but I cannot stop myself. I have to know what they are talking about. "I'm concerned for your well-being, Kyp," Luke is saying. "You're becoming obsessed with going to this temple." "I'm not obsessed, Master Skywalker," Durron argues. "You know that I can help. I've always been good at reading emotions. I'd be able to sense the aura of the temple better than anyone. Why won't you let me help?" "Nobody is allowed to go to the temple just yet, Kyp, not even Tionne. I don't even want to go there, but I have to. Until we know what we're up against, I cannot allow any of you to be susceptible to Exar Kun's spirit." "I understand, but you could still let me help study the holocrons. I want to help, Master Skywalker! I don't understand why you refuse to let me." "Tionne does not need your help, Kyp. Her training and skills are different than yours, and she can study the holocrons on her own. You, on the other hand, need to learn how to control the power inside of you. You're extremely strong in the Force, Kyp. If you can learn control, you will become one of the most powerful students here." "Not as powerful as her," Durron replies resentfully. There is a pause, and I sense Luke's umbrage at Durron's comment. "Excuse me?" "Nothing," Durron tries to cover himself, but Luke is having none of it. "Just who are you referring to, Kyp?" Luke asks, his voice clipped. "I'm speaking of Mara Jade, Master Skywalker," Durron admits. I tense, biting my lip to keep from cursing out loud at him. There is a pause, and then Luke speaks again, his tone much darker. "What about Mara Jade?" "She is resentful of the attention you're giving me. She doesn't think I should be here." "You don't know that, Kyp." "I can sense it. She doesn't like me." I grimace, reminding myself to shield my emotions whenever I'm around Durron from now on. As if there really needed to be another reason for me to feel wary of him. "Whether or not she likes you is irrelevant to this conversation. Why are you bringing her up?" "She found the holocrons." "Yes, and?" "Have you spoken to her about how she found them?" "Briefly, when they all returned from the temple. Why are you asking me this?" "Did you ever consider how she knew where to find them, or how she knew what they were?" There is another pause, and I have to suppress the urge to slice through the wall and throttle that insolent little twerp for talking about me this way. "She was with four other students when she found them," Luke replies, the calmness of his voice a stark contrast to the anger he's projecting through the Force. "They all told the same story. If you are inferring that there is any wrongdoing on her part, you are gravely mistaken. And you'll do well not to speak negatively of her again in front of me, or there will be a problem. Do you understand?" Even though I'm trying desperately to ignore my emotions, my heart flutters at hearing Luke defend me this way. "I…I apologize, Master Skywalker," Durron says, not quite sincerely. I hear movement inside the room, and I imagine they are sitting down next to each other, with Luke putting his hand on the boy's shoulder. "I'm worried for you, Kyp. I know how it feels to lose your family. I know the desire for revenge can threaten to overtake you. But you need to learn to push that aside if you want to become a Jedi." "You don't understand, Master Skywalker—" "Yes, I do, Kyp," Luke argues. "My aunt and uncle were killed by the Empire and after that I had no choice but to leave my home and join the Rebellion. My sister was forced to watch Alderaan be destroyed in front of her eyes. Nearly every person who joined the Rebel Alliance and later the New Republic has a reason to hate the Empire and want revenge. But we are Jedi, and we cannot let that anger overtake us. I understand that it is difficult to accept the past, but if you want to move forward as a Jedi, you're going to have to try, Kyp." There is silence, and I feel ashamed just listening to Luke's words. It's as if he knows I am standing right outside his door; as if he's speaking to me as well as to Durron. The boy apologizes again, and then there's more movement, and my old, reliable danger sense starts to go off like a klaxon alarm. I push myself away from the wall and run down the hallway as quickly and quietly as I can. I press the lift button repeatedly, but the door to Luke's quarters opens before it can arrive. Turning around, I act as if I just got off the lift and face Luke's quarters, trying to think of an excuse as to why I should be here, but thankfully, only Durron comes out into the hallway. I eye Durron as he approaches me, remembering to shield my emotions from him. He glances at me warily, but looks away as he waits for the lift to arrive. Standing my ground, I glare at him with my arms crossed over my chest. Finally he meets my gaze, and he looks much older than his eighteen years. He looks scary. I keep myself from recoiling at him, and in my best intimidating voice, I ask, "Is there a problem, Durron?" He draws himself up to his full height and pulls back his cloak so I can see his lightsaber. I pull mine back as well, and finger the holdout blaster under my robes. "No problem at all, Jade," he replies in a cold voice. "Going to see Master Skywalker?" he asks, glancing ever so slightly at the necklace peeking out from underneath my robes. I shove the chain back into its rightful place, safely hidden from prying eyes, as it always is. "Possibly," I snarl. "Not that it's any of your business." "Of course not." Before we can goad each other further, the turbolift arrives. Durron enters and presses the button for his floor, then leans against the doorway. "Coming?" he asks with a gleam in his eye. A shiver runs down my spine, one much different from the ones that Luke inspires in me. Those shivers are made of desire and attraction. This shiver is brought about from fear. For just one short second, the gleam in Durron's eye turns to a sickly yellow. Before I can shudder at horrible memories of yellow eyes staring straight into my soul, Durron's eyes return to their normal green, and he's again just a normal boy in a turbolift. In that moment, I am no longer scared of Durron; I am afraid for him. I shake myself out of my reverie and move closer to him, gripping his shoulder. He tries to pull away but I hold firm. With as much conviction as I can muster, I stare him down and issue an old warning: "Watch yourself, Durron. You might find more than you are looking for." He glares down at my hand, a disgusted look on his face as he removes it from his shoulder like he would an insect. He steps back into the lift as he meets my gaze again, and his lips curl into a thin smile. "That's right. If anyone was to know all about the Sith, it would be you." The door slams shut between us before I can reach out and punch him hard in the face. Incensed, I breathe deeply, calling on the Force to calm myself down, knowing that being angry is not the Jedi way… And then I glance to my side and see Luke watching me from his doorway. We stare at each other across the hallway, neither of us moving an inch. Even with the distance between us, I can see right into his deep blue eyes. I get another flash of insight into his mind, and I hear the Force telling me to go to him. But I ignore it, turning away and rushing towards the stairwell. As I open the door and begin my descent, I hear Luke's voice in my mind, as clearly as if he were whispering into my ear: You can't run away forever, Mara. I know that he's right, but I'll run for as long as I can. 10. Chapter 9 CHAPTER 9 True to Luke's words, I cannot run away forever, and the next day I find myself waiting for him outside the usual meditation room. However, this time I am actually anticipating being alone with him. I need to confide in him my feelings about Kyp Durron, just like I promised Tyria and Corran I would when the boy first arrived. Luke trusts my judgment, so I can only hope that he takes what I have to say very seriously. But most of all, I just want to talk to him, because above all he is my friend, and I can tell that he really needs one right now. Luke turns the corner almost hesitantly, and even though he looks glad to see me, I know that he's also worrying about what problems this latest lesson will bring about between us. But he hides all that with a bright smile as he approaches me, and I smile back, rising from the bench to walk into the room in front of him. I take my seat on the usual couch and he sits across from me, waiting for me to get settled. Once I'm ready, I look at Luke and, for the first time since I've been at the Academy, I see neither the Jedi Master nor the man who makes shivers run down my spine. I see the person who held my hand through the hardest struggle of my life on Wayland. I see the person who trusted me from the very beginning, when he had absolutely no reason to do so. I see my friend, who carries a burden that nobody should ever have to carry, all on his own. And I worry for him, because he is Luke Skywalker, and he will try to carry that burden by himself for as long as he can. Unaware of my thoughts, or perhaps just ignoring them, Luke asks the same question he always does: "Is there anything specific you'd like to work on today, Mara?" "Yes," I reply. Luke stares at me for a moment, blinking his eyes in disbelief, but quickly turning pleased. "Great! What would you like to work on?" I take a deep breath. "I want to talk." He gives me an odd look. "You can talk to me whenever you want." "I know, but I want to talk now." "Okay," Luke says hesitantly. "Go on." "I want to talk about Kyp Durron." Luke tenses and I instantly regret bringing up this topic, but I know that I must do this. "Go on," he repeats. "I have a really bad feeling about him, Luke." He looks at me, confused that I didn't go through our normal song and dance routine about me calling him "Master Skywalker" during a lesson. I can't be bothered with that right now. He doesn't say anything, so I continue. "I have nothing at all to prove it, but I hope you know me well enough to know that I don't make up stuff like this. I tried to ignore it, but after last night—" "When you were listening outside my door." "Yeah…uh…sorry about that." "I guess I don't need to go into a lecture about how using the Force to eavesdrop on your master is unbecoming?" I roll my eyes at him and he laughs, and I am grateful for it. I smile back at him before continuing. "I'm really sorry, Luke, but I've been feeling this since he got here and I just can't ignore it anymore. You know how good my danger sense is, and whenever I'm around him, it spikes like crazy. And last night when I spoke to him…" I trail off, regretting I even started this train of thought. "What?" he presses. "Has he been to Exar Kun's temple?" I ask. "You heard him last night, begging to be allowed to go there." "Yes, I know, but do you think that would stop him from going there if he was really determined?" Luke sits up straighter now, looking concerned. "What are you saying? Do you think he's already been there?" "It would explain why he gave me a very Sith-like vibe while speaking to him last night." "That's ridiculous, Mara. He's not a Sith." "I'm not saying that he is," I explain. "I know you've been spending a lot of time with him, and I know that your hopes for him as a Jedi are high, but you said it yourself, Luke—he's obsessed with revenge. He's begging to learn things that he's not ready to learn. You need to find out if he's been to that temple already, and you need to make sure that he never has the chance to get near those holocrons." Luke nods and rubs his hands over his face, and I feel horrible for telling him this and burdening him even more, but I know that him feeling badly now is much better than him feeling badly if something bad were to happen to Durron or anyone else. "I will. Thank you for telling me," he sighs. I reach across the space between us to take his hand, and he meets my gaze and gives me a small smile. Then, abruptly, the mask falls back into place. "Now, should we get back to the lesson?" Slowly, tentatively, I shake my head and hold his gaze. "How are you, Luke?" I ask, squeezing his hand. "What are you talking about?" he replies, already sounding closed off. "I want to know how you are doing," I state plainly. He sits silently for a moment, breaking our gaze, staring at the wall, thoughts swirling through his mind. He shuts himself off to me in the Force, and I wonder if he will even answer my question, or if he will try to keep everything to himself, as he always does—the sole person who can carry his burden. But I don't say anything; I will wait as long as it takes for him to speak again. "It's hard," he finally admits, sounding almost like a child. "I'm sorry." He immediately composes himself, the consummate master. "There's nothing to be sorry for. I chose this path. It's my burden." "It shouldn't have to be a burden," I argue. "And it will get better." "What do you mean?" "Well, you have ten of us who have been training with you for months now. Didn't you say that after we're Knighted, we'll start helping you train new apprentices?" Luke looks uncertain. "I don't know, Mara…" "Why not? Because it's your burden? Didn't you say when we first got here that we'd all be responsible for the growth of the Jedi Order?" "Yes, but—" "So what's changed?" I demand. "I dunno. I guess I finally realize how big of a responsibility training people really is." "A responsibility we can all help you with, Luke." "I know, but…I'm the first of the new," he whispers. "The first," I emphasize. "You train us. We train others. Then we're all equals." "But no matter what, I'm still the first. What I do will affect the Jedi Order for ages. I just can't ignore that." "I can't pretend to know how you feel, Luke. But you need to know that we all care about you as much more than just the leader of the Jedi Order. We care about you as a friend. And I…I especially care for you, Luke. I want you to be happy." He looks at me again, and I cannot comprehend the expression in his eyes. Not knowing what else to say, I get up from my couch and sit next to him, wrapping my arms around his neck. I hold on to him until he places his arms around me, and after several moments I feel his body begin to relax against me. We stay like that for a long time, holding each other in silence, until Luke looks at his chrono and sighs. "I'm taking up all of your time, Mara," he says regretfully. "I don't care," I reply, and he pulls back to smile at me. As our eyes meet, I feel that unmistakable shiver go down my spine again, and this time, I can't stop myself; I lean forward and press my lips firmly against his. We stay there, unmoving for several long seconds, locked in a chaste kiss that we both know contains so much more meaning…and then I realize what I'm doing and abruptly push away, launching myself off the couch and across the room. "Oh, shavit!" I curse, unable to look at him. I pace back and forth and eventually end up staring at the wall. I run my fingers through my hair and scream at myself for being such a complete and utter idiot. Finally gaining the strength to face him again, I turn around. He hasn't moved; he's sitting in the same position with his hand to his mouth. "I'm so sorry," I whisper. Coming to, Luke shakes his head vigorously. "No. No. Don't be sorry." I let out a frustrated yell and bang my first against the wall. "I wasn't supposed to do that!" "Yeah, I can relate," Luke says…and even though I know that I just broke our unspoken promise, and that this is deadly serious, I can't stop myself from laughing. Our eyes lock and he starts to laugh too, and after a minute I am laughing so hard that I can no longer control myself. I collapse back onto the couch and hold my sides, trying to catch my breath. Luke rolls off his couch to kneel down next to me, his face inches from mine. He is beet red and he starts coughing. In between breaths and laughs, I gasp out, "Where's the…Jedi training…for this…Master?" "Sorry," he chokes out. "Master Yoda never…kissed me in the…middle of a…lesson and then…made me laugh… uncontrollably." Again I can't contain myself, and I turn over on my back, bellowing out laughter to the high heavens. Aimlessly I punch at him, but it's futile and he ducks away. Then I get a mental image that makes me laugh so hard that I find it hard to breathe, but no matter how much I try, I cannot stop laughing. This whole situation is just too damn ridiculous. "What are…you laughing…at now?" Luke chokes. "Trust me…if you want…to ever be…able to…stop laughing… you don't…want to…know!" "Oh that's…not fair…now I…have…to know!" I'm hiccupping now, but I respond anyway: "I just thought… about what…Palpatine…would say if…he saw us…together… right now!" For a moment Luke looks horrified, and I regret my words…but then his laughter becomes even louder. "Oh…my…stars…you'd be…in sooooo…much trouble!" "Stop! Don't make…me pee…my pants…Luke! These are… the only…clean robes…I have!" "So…I shouldn't…try to…tickle you…then?" "Don't…even da—AH!" I start screaming as Luke reaches up and grabs me by my waist, pulling me down next to him on the floor. He starts tickling me and even though I didn't think it was possible, my laughs grow harder. I tickle him back of course, and he starts crying, which makes me laugh even more. He finally stops tickling me when I start to choke and it becomes very obvious that I am not getting the air I need to breathe. "Okay, calming exercises!" Luke calls out. He takes my hand and I feel his Force sense washing over me, calming me down, and making me feel absolutely at peace. After several minutes, we are both completely still, lying motionless against each other. We are still holding hands. "Thanks, Mara," Luke whispers, staring at the ceiling. "I needed that." "Yeah. Best lesson ever. Just promise me one thing." "What's that?" "Promise me you don't do this with any of the other apprentices." "What, Corran never told you about our tickle fights?" I snort and playfully slap him on the arm. He grins back at me and his thumb starts to caress my hand…and this time, I don't feel a shiver run down my spine. I am just grateful to be here, with my friend. As if he's reading my mind, Luke squeezes my hand. "Thanks for being my friend, Mara. No matter what, I want you to know that I cherish that." Turning on my side, I roll my eyes at him. "Don't get all emotional on me, Farmboy." "Farmboy?" "Oh, sorry—Master Farmboy." Luke chuckles again, but after a few moments he grows serious, studying my face. "What are we doing?" he asks, gently cupping my cheek with his palm. I know exactly what he's asking, and there are so many answers I can think of. But as always, I can't face the truth of the matter just yet. "We're waiting for you to get this lesson back on track again." He looks at me, and for just a moment, I see a look of disappointment in his eyes. Then he nods and pushes himself up, helping me to my feet. We settle down on our opposite couches, and he takes my hands and begins to pull me into the Force. Feeling emboldened by this new connection between us, I open myself up to him more than ever before. I can feel him heading towards the wall in the back of my mind, but this time I don't put up my shields. I sense his surprise and his eagerness to scale the wall with me and help me see what lies behind it…but before we can do so, I am thrust back into old memories I've tried so hard to forget. They swirl around me like dust in the wind, and I have to keep reminding myself of where I am right now—in the Jedi Academy on Yavin IV, with Luke Skywalker, my master. But my mind keeps focusing on one particular group of memories. I am on Tatooine, sand swirling around me, heading towards Jabba's Palace. I am dressing as a dancer, waiting for my prey to arrive. I am standing in the shadows, watching the boy who I've been sent to kill, wondering just who he is, and how he can possibly be so strong. I am standing in front of Jabba the Hutt, begging him to let me go with the execution party, but no matter how much I plead, he refuses. I am sitting alone, with my master invading my mind, saying words that crush me—I've failed and disappointed him. I have thought about that day so many times over the past six years, but never once since coming to the Academy. It is the one part of my past that I want to forget more than anything—I was meant to kill the person with who I now train. The person I trust with my life. The person I am proud to call my friend, and laugh with. The person I care about more than any other. Sensing my turmoil, Luke gently pulls me away from those memories, surrounding me with a calming light, and I bury myself in it, allowing him to give me strength. I do not know how long this lasts…but suddenly Luke jerks away from me and falls backwards over his couch, landing with a loud thud on the floor. I am ripped out of the trance; I feel sick and have to suppress the urge to vomit, and I fall back on all of Luke's healing techniques, because I can sense that he is in desperate need of help. Then I finally compose myself and run to him, Luke is staring straight up at the ceiling, his eyes wide with alarm, gasping for breath, almost convulsing. He does not take notice of me, and I shake him, trying to get him to focus on reality. "Luke! Luke!" Finally he looks at me, and I hold my breath upon seeing the fear in his eyes. And then, no longer focused solely on Luke's well being, I sense it, too. "Something terrible has happened," he whispers. "I need to get to Exar Kun's temple, now." I nod and pull him to his feet. "Come on," I say, dragging him out of the room behind me. "I can go by myself." I give him a sharp look. "No way, Skywalker. I'm going with you." "Mara—" "I'm going with you," I repeat with finality. Luke knows it's futile to argue, and we quickly make our way to the landspeeder. To my surprise, Corran is already at the driver's seat, Tyria sitting beside him, both looking concerned. "Going somewhere?" Corran asks, and I realize that he has sensed it, too. Luke is too worried to protest, so we jump in the back without question. Corran slams on the accelerator before our bottoms even touch the seats. None of us speak a word on our way to the temple. When we finally arrive, Luke leaps out of the speeder before it can even come to a stop. I wait for Corran to park, and then exit the vehicle with him and Tyria. The three of us glance at each other and then slowly make our way to the entrance, as if we are all hesitant to see what waits inside. "Did you sense it?" Corran asks. I nod. "I was with Luke," I reply, again too preoccupied to correct myself. "He felt it first. He almost went into convulsions…" I trail off, my worry getting the best of me. "It'll be okay, Mara," Tyria reassures me. But as we enter Exar Kun's temple, I immediately see that Tyria is wrong. Luke is kneeling in the middle of the temple, his head clutched in his hands. I recoil away from him, overwhelmed by the complete and utter despair radiating from his soul. Tyria rushes to his side but Corran keeps moving forward, to the body I only now notice, lying on top of the altar. The dead body. It is Jes Gantoris, who has become one of Kyp Durron's closest friends and mentors at the Academy. After collecting myself, I follow Corran to the altar, and we go about examining the body. My old training kicks in and I do not allow myself to feel any sort of emotion towards the person lying there, lifeless. "There's no sign of any wound," I remark, running my fingers over the body. "No, there's not…what could have done this?" I take a deep breath. "I think we know." "Exar Kun?" "That's what I'm thinking." He pauses. "You know what else I'm thinking?" "You mean that bad feeling we had before?" "Yeah, that's the one." "You think Kyp Durron was here when this happened, don't you?" Corran nods. "Yeah. I do." I reach out into the Force, and upon considering the possibility that Durron was somehow responsible for Gantoris's death, my danger sense starts spiking like crazy. It is nowhere near absolute proof, but somehow, I know that the boy was involved. I sigh and close my eyes. "Now I have a really bad feeling about this." "That makes two of us." We finally leave the altar and walk back to the others. Luke is still sitting in the same place, being comforted by Tyria, but he takes no notice of her. He stares straight ahead at the dead body, no trace of emotion in his eyes. But then he glances just slightly in my direction, and I sense it—I know that he has heard every word that Corran and I have said. But I do not back down, and in the part of my mind that is now connected with his, I can tell that he is finally starting to believe me. 11. Chapter 10 A/N: Song for this chapter: Reflections of Passion, Yanni CHAPTER 10 The next several days fly by swiftly, and we all can't stop speculating about what really happened to Jes Gantoris. Cilghal, who has been studying Jedi healing techniques, isn't able to determine a cause of death. From her examinations, it seems as if Gantoris dropped dead of his own accord, but we all know better —that Exar Kun's spirit most certainly had something to do with the man's death. Corran and I keep our suspicions about Kyp Durron to ourselves, but make it a point to keep an eye on him as much as possible. Corran takes to practically trailing him everywhere, which is fine by me. To Durron's credit, he seems genuinely distraught over Gantoris's death and, when Luke questions him, doesn't appear to have been involved. I know that Luke would be able to tell if Durron was lying directly to his face, but I still believe that there is more to the story than the boy is telling. Luke doesn't press the issue, but he does grow even more attentive to his golden-boy student, as if he believes that the extra attention will keep Durron on a straight and narrow path. I know that Luke feels responsible for what has transpired, so he will therefore try to ensure that nothing bad happens again on his watch; and to do that, he will take even more control over his Academy, much to my dismay. Thankfully, Luke's spirits are brightened by the arrival of Han Solo and Chewbacca, who've offered to bring some much-needed supplies to the Academy; no doubt Leia Organa Solo had some influence in convincing Han to make the out of the way trip, and I can't help but wonder just how much of Luke's mood she can sense from all the way on Coruscant. When I head out to the landing platform to help unload the supplies, Luke is already there, talking and laughing with his old friends. Han flashes me a roguish smile when he sees me. "Why hello there, Jedi Jade," he greets. I roll my eyes. "Please, don't call me that. It sounds ridiculous." "Now you know how I feel," Luke interjects. "Don't you worry, there's no way in hell that I'm ever calling you 'Master Skywalker,'" Han teases, and Chewbacca growls in agreement. "Do you actually call him that, Mara?" I shrug. "I have to. He makes me." Luke's mouth drops open in protest. "I do not!" "Oh yes, he does!" I tease, my voice dripping with sarcasm. "He just loves it when I call him 'Master.'" "Yeah, I'll bet he does," Han mumbles under his breath, causing Chewbacca to guffaw loudly. Luke turns bright red and keeps unloading the supply crates, avoiding the rest of us, but I turn to Han with my hands on my hips. "Excuse me?" I ask indignantly. Han smiles, looking proud of himself. "What?" I narrow my eyes at him. "You just watch yourself," I hiss, pointing my finger in his direction. "I'd tell you to do the same, but I think Luke does enough staring for the both of you." My eyes widen in shock, and I drop the crate in my hands and stalk forward until I'm right in Han's face—as much as I can be at my height. He continues to smile, refusing to back down. My icy exterior hardens as I begin to wonder what exactly Luke has told Han about our "relationship." Han is his best friend, and more than anyone Luke would turn to him for advice. Or maybe Han is just way more perceptive than anyone believes. I roll my eyes and turn away before making a bigger deal of the situation than it needs to be. "You just watch it, Solo, or I'm gonna comm your wife and tell her about that extra crate of ale you brought and say you intend to corrupt her brother." "Hey! I'm sorry, okay? Leia doesn't need to know anything about that! Mara? Mara!" That night I eat dinner with Corran and Tyria, wanting to give Luke privacy with his old friends. They sit in the corner of the mess, talking and laughing loudly. Luke does a good job of seeming engaged in the conversation, but it's obvious through the Force that he is distant. His mind is elsewhere, as it has been since Gantoris was found dead in Exar Kun's temple. If Han realizes this, he doesn't say a word, but instead keeps giving Luke reports from the mopping up action against the Imperial Remnant. From what I am able to overhear, the Remnant has been pushed back into a small corner of the galaxy centered on Bastion, their capital. A few leftover warlords and admirals continue to squabble with each other over territory, making the New Republic's job of recruiting new worlds that much easier. I can't even imagine what the situation in the galaxy would be like if Grand Admiral Thrawn had been victorious, and am eternally grateful that never came to pass. Thrawn was brilliant, to be sure, but just like so many others, he had been too twisted by Palpatine to be trusted. Luke eventually leaves Han and Chewbacca alone, heading off to do Force-knows-what, and not long after that Corran and Tyria leave to get in some sparring practice, but I tell them to go without me, hoping that I can talk to Han about Luke. I make my way over to their table and plop myself down in Luke's now-empty seat. "Got any extra ale?" I ask. Han cracks open a bottle and passes it to me across the table. "You supposed to be drinking, Jade? Is 'Master Skywalker' okay with that?" he smirks. "Oh, shove it," I reply before downing a large gulp from the bottle. "I'm done for the day, as a matter of fact." "I thought a Jedi's work is never done." I sigh and prop my chin on my hands. "Some people would have you believe that," I say pointedly. Chewbacca growls in agreement. "Yeah, the kid never lets himself rest, does he?" "Nope," I agree. "I'm worried about him." "Yeah?" Han raises his eyebrows. "And just why is that?" My mouth twists into an ironic smile. "Oh, wouldn't you like to know." "Who says I already don't?" Han replies, grinning wickedly. I grimace, but to my surprise, I am not mad that he knows about Luke and me; instead, I feel relieved not having to hide it anymore. I take a deep breath. "So he told you what's been going on, huh?" "He didn't have to, but thanks for the confirmation," Han gloats, leaning back and threading his fingers behind his head. I throw my bottle cap at him, kicking myself for falling for his trap. "I knew something was gonna happen between you two after you were shot down during the Katana fleet battle." I laugh despite my annoyance with him. "Really, that far back? I'm impressed. Luke thought you only started to suspect something on Wayland." He shrugs. "I could tell by the way he acted around you. He didn't wanna leave your side. And then all that stuff with C'baoth happened and he gave you his old lightsaber, and, well, you'd have to be an idiot not to figure it out after that." "Well according to you, a lot of people here are idiots." Han raises an eyebrow. "Including him, you mean?" "No, he's figured it out," I sigh. "He just won't let himself do anything about it. He thinks he can't form attachments because of his position in the Jedi Order." Han's quiet for a moment, and Chewbacca growls something softly. "Yeah, he's always held himself to a higher standard than everyone else," Han agrees. "Ain't that the truth." "So, Jade," Han continues, kicking his feet onto the table, "what are you gonna do about it?" "Me?" "You're part of this equation too, aren't ya?" I lower my head and bang it against the table. "If only it were that easy," I mumble. "I think it runs in the family. They have to make their lives incredibly difficult." "Yeah, well, I wish he'd realize that he doesn't have to go through all this on his own." "He'll figure it out." "Possibly. But even if he does, I'm not even sure that anything should be going on between us." "Why not? You don't feel the same way about him?" "Of course I do, and don't you dare repeat that to anyone, Solo! But I'm his apprentice. It would be wrong of us to be together. We kind of made an unspoken pact not to let anything else happen between us." "Oh, well, I'm sure that unspoken pact will be upheld to the highest of standards the next time you two get alone and he makes you call him 'Master.'" "I hate you." "Besides, Mara, you're not gonna be his apprentice forever." "No…but he is going to be 'Master Skywalker, founder of the New Jedi Order' forever. And he'll continue to carry all his unrealistic expectations that come along with the job," I sigh. Han gives me a sympathetic look. "He blames himself for Gantoris's death, doesn't he?" I nod; Han definitely is way more perceptive than most people think. "Yeah, which just makes this whole situation even worse. At first he was adamant about all of us being equal here at the Academy, but he's starting to try to control everything 'cause he's so afraid of something bad happening again. Who knows if he'll ever relax and let himself be a normal person again?" "With you, you mean?" I look up, and the roguish grin is back on Han's face. I down the rest of my ale in one gulp, and then reach over the table. "Gimme another bottle," I demand, and Han chuckles. "She's drinking heavily, Chewie, you know what that means— it's serious…Ow! That hurt, Mara!" Later that night, after saying good-bye to Han and Chewbacca and pacing around the meditation garden for several hours, I find myself back in my quarters, unable to sleep. I toss and turn for another hour before giving up and pushing myself out of bed. I put on my robes and clip on my lightsaber, intending to get in some remote practice, what I normally do when I can't sleep, because I've never been able to master the art of a Force trance. But once in the lift, before I can stop myself, my hand presses the button for Luke's floor on its own accord. I immediately flinch and move to press the correct button, but can't bring myself to do so. Sighing, I wrap my arms around myself and settle in for whatever is about to happen. Before I can even bring up my hand to knock on his door, it slides open by itself. Hesitantly, I look inside, but Luke isn't anywhere to be found. "In here," I hear him call from his bedroom. He is the only one at the Academy with more than one room— another perk of being in charge. I slowly walk into the other room, pausing just beyond the doorway, all too aware that this is the first time I have been inside Luke's quarters, and I am already in his bedroom. Those thoughts quickly go away as I see Luke sitting on the bed, facing the window with his back to me, his shoulders slumped over. I have to suppress the urge to run to him and wrap my arms around his shoulders and make everything okay. Instead, I stand there motionless, waiting for him to acknowledge my presence. Almost unnoticeably, he pats the bed next to him, and I oblige. "Is it appropriate for me to be here?" I ask lightly. Through the darkness, I see a smile creep onto his face. "Has our relationship ever been appropriate?" "I guess at some point I wasn't compelled to kill you." "Or have vowed to make my life so difficult." "Is that what I do? Make your life difficult?" He doesn't mince words. "Difficult? Yes. Completely worth it?" He finally looks at me. He gently touches my hair and smiles. "Oh, yes," he sighs. I roll my eyes. "Getting all emotional on me again, Skywalker?" "Can't help it around you, Jade." "Oh, shut up," I say, shoving him lightly with my shoulder. He shoves me back, and then we sit there, motionless again, staring out the window into the jungle beyond. I can see the top of Exar Kun's temple in the distance. Sighing, I lay my head on his shoulder, wanting to comfort him. "It's not your fault, Luke." "That's what everyone says." "Well, it's true," I insist. "You told us not to go there. You can't blame yourself for what happened to Gantoris." "I know," he whispers. "But you'll do so anyway?" "You don't understand, Mara." "Make me," I demand. He shakes his head. "You're blaming the wrong person, Luke." "And who should I be blaming?" "I think you know." "Kyp doesn't know anything. I questioned him myself." "I know, but that temple is wrong, Luke," I argue. "You've been there yourself. You know how it feels. The darkness inside—it can make people do terrible things. Kyp Durron is the most powerful student here—yes, even more powerful than me," I add before Luke can interject. "But he's untrained and has no control, and worse, he wants revenge on the Empire. He is a bad combination of anger and power and he worries me." Luke sighs against me, considering my words but unwilling to do anything concrete about them without proof. "I can't kick him out just because you have bad feelings about him. Those are all the reasons why he needs to stay here, so I can watch him and help him." "Not if he was involved in this, Luke." "No, especially if he was involved in this." "Luke—" "Don't argue with me, Mara! You do not understand." I lift my head and glare at him. "Make me." He doesn't respond. I turn his chin around to face me, so that my next words can really sink in. "You can't do everything by yourself, Luke. You're going to break if you keep this up." "No, I won't." I sigh and shake my head in aggravation. "And you say I make things difficult." Luke's lips curl into another smile. "I learned from the best." After a few seconds, he wraps his arm around me, allowing me to lay my head on his shoulder again. "I'm sorry for getting angry." "Don't be. It's refreshing, actually. It makes you seem more human. Sometimes I think you need to remind yourself that you're only human." Luke's eyes lose focus, as if he is remembering a moment from a time long past. "Much anger in him, like his father," he whispers. "What?" I feel his fingers start to play with my hair. "Master Yoda said that about me, when I arrived on Dagobah." "Vader let his anger control him, Luke. You don't. That's the difference between you two." "You don't understand, Mara. You didn't know him." "Excuse me?" I ask in disbelief, pulling away from him and sitting up completely straight. He instantly cringes, realizing his mistake. "I think you're forgetting something pretty damn important, Luke." He's quiet for a moment, trying to get up the courage to pose a question he's always wanted to ask me. "Go ahead," I prompt him. Luke bites his lip in hesitation. "What was he like?" "You know what he was like," is all that I feel comfortable replying. "Please." I sigh, remembering all my interactions with Vader; all the times he exploded at me, coming entirely too close to snuffing out my life. If I'd only known then that one day I'd be sitting here with his son, training to be a Jedi, and in possession of his old lightsaber. "I didn't like him," I reply. "He definitely didn't like me. It was understood between us. We worked together when necessary. That was it." Again, Luke stares at Exar Kun's temple, tall in the darkness, all his fears and worries echoed in the lines of his face. "You are nothing like him, Luke." "He wasn't always Darth Vader." "No, he wasn't. But that doesn't mean you're going to follow the same path he did. You're too strong, Luke—if you were able to stand up to Palpatine, then nothing can turn you. Trust me." "I still worry. I don't know if I'll ever be able to stop." I feel badly bringing up the subject, but I can't help myself. I have to. "Even at the expense of your own happiness?" He looks at me again, sadness and guilt reflected in his eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispers. "Me, too," I reply. "I wish I could turn off my feelings for you." "Me, too." "But I can't." I sigh. "So what do we do now?" "I don't know." I laugh, unable to control myself. "Force, this is so messed up." "No, don't say that," Luke replies, looking disturbed by my comment. "You're not messed up." "Oh, please. I have more issues than a holozine stand." "You'll get over them," he promises. "Just like you'll get over yours? You know better than that, Luke." He shrugs. "I guess I do." Not knowing what else to say, I stand up to leave, but Luke holds me back. "Please stay," he whispers, and I'm reminded of that night in the garden, lying on our backs, looking at the stars. Again, I give in to him, and reach out my hand to touch his face. He takes it and kisses it gently. "So what do we do now?" I ask again. "I don't know," he repeats, rising from the bed. I force myself not to look into his eyes, because I suddenly feel the urge to slap him…or to cry. Either one would do at this moment. Sensing my thoughts, Luke opens his arms and, against my better judgment, I press myself against him, sighing into his embrace. Through the Force, I feel the turmoil that rages inside of him—his desire for happiness battling with his very real fear of following in his father's footsteps. Slowly, I feel him relax against me, and I know which side has won the battle. His hand begins to move up and down my back, but I tense and pull away before anything else can happen. He may have decided to let his desires win out this time, but I cannot afford myself that luxury. I cannot let my heart rule my head. I throw up all my shields as I remember Corran's words of advice to me: Try not to get hurt. "Don't do this if you can't follow through, Skywalker," I growl, my eyes shooting daggers at him. "Don't put me through that." "I know," he whispers. "I'm sorry. You deserve better." You deserve better, I think, but I do not say it aloud. He deserves to be happy. He deserves much more than the burden he has placed upon himself. "But I just can't push this issue aside, Mara," he continues, once again reading my mind. "I wish that I could. You have no idea how much it's killing me not to just say 'kriff it' and let myself be with you." "But even if you did, you're still my master," I sigh, bringing myself back to reality, and all of my own reasons as to why we cannot be together. "And you're my apprentice. Everyone is my apprentice. I just can't ignore the feeling that if I let myself be with you, something horrible is going to happen." "Dammit, Luke!" I explode, balling my fists and pushing him away from me, no longer able to contain my frustration. "You're a regular human being with feelings and desires just like everyone else! Acting on them isn't going to ruin the galaxy! You're being so stupid—I mean, do you seriously think that love is going to make you turn to the dark side?" Love. I regret the word as soon as it leaves my mouth. For long moments we stand still, staring at each other, the word thick in the air that separates us, like smoke. The word echoes inside my mind, taunting me, reminding me of what I can never have— because Luke will not allow himself to care—and of what I never knew I so desperately wanted. Love. Incensed with myself, I turn on my heel to leave. I am no longer the old Mara Jade, who was once the Emperor's Hand. I have not been that woman since Wayland, and I do not want to be her ever again. But now, with that word finally admitted aloud, I once again envy the girl who was always able to ignore her feelings and focus on the task at hand. She would never have so innocently uttered that word. Love. Before I can leave, Luke's hand is on my arm, pulling me back to him. His touch is firm but gentle, warm and tender. His eyes are filled with passion and desire. He stares at me for a long second. And then we are kissing again. In that moment, it is unspoken between us. I will never let myself say it out loud, but I know that, for better or for worse, that's what this is… Love. 12. Chapter 11 CHAPTER 11 Light streams in through the window, falling on my face and pulling me from a deep sleep. I blink my eyes open to an unfamiliar ceiling and furrow my brow, trying to figure out where I am. Suddenly it comes to me. I am in Luke's bed. I sit up with a start, but before I can gasp out loud, I look down and see that I am lying safely on top of the covers and still fully clothed. I place my hand to my chest and force myself to breath regularly. "Oh, thank the Maker," I murmur as I lie back down. "Tell me, should I feel terribly insulted that you're so relieved we still have all our clothes on?" Luke's voice comes from beside me. Grimacing, I glance over at him. He's lying on his side, looking at me with shining blue eyes and a dashing smile on his face. I briefly wonder how long he has been watching me sleep. Sighing, I rub my face with my hands and groan. I thought things were bad before. This is much worse. But, as always, I'm unable to resist him, so I roll over on my side to face him. Hesitantly, as if he's worried that I'll slap him away, he leans forward and kisses me gently on the lips. Even though my head is screaming at me to stop, I kiss him back. I wish I could taste him like this every morning. A string of Huttese curses comes out of my mouth as I pull away from him, realizing just how much trouble I've gotten myself into. Luke raises his eyebrows at me, that huge grin still plastered across his face. "My breath stink that bad?" I take the pillow from beneath my head and hit him with it, hard. "Only you could make light of this situation, Skywalker!" "Hey, you're the one who said that this is messed up, not me." "Yeah, well, you're doing a very good job of proving me right, you know." "Just how is this messed up, Mara?" "Well, let's see, there's the fact that you think you need to be a Jedi monk, the fact that not too long ago I was your sworn enemy, the fact that now we're master and apprentice and us screwing around might be just a tiny little violation of the Jedi code…need I go on?" Luke doesn't stop grinning at me. Instead of refuting all my claims, he swiftly grabs my waist and pulls me on top of him. Before I can protest he kisses me fiercely, and against all my better judgment, I let him. Our kiss deepens and he runs his fingers through my hair. His lips move up my jaw line to my ear, and I involuntarily let out a whimper as he starts to do things with his tongue that are definitely against the Jedi code. I feel his hands move under my robes and I am now intensely aware that if I don't stop this right now, things are going to get much, much worse. Squeezing my eyes shut, I abruptly push away, leaving him breathless beside me. "I have to go," I mumble, trying to get up from the bed, but he doesn't break his hold on my arm. "Please stay," he says. This time, I won't give in. "No. I have to go. I'll be late." "Mara," he chides me. "You have lightsaber training with me first thing this morning." "Oh. Right." His smile turns wicked. "So I grant you an excuse for being late," he says, pulling me back to him. "Oh no, you don't!" I cry, finally breaking his hold and leaping up from the bed. "We are not showing up late together. I don't need all that gossip flying around." "Yeah, I think it's too late for that. Your comlink has been buzzing all morning long." I grimace. I was supposed to meet Corran for breakfast. He's probably pounding on my door as we speak. "Oh, kriff." I hear Luke chuckle as I make my way to his fresher. "That offer's still on the table if you wa—" The fresher door hisses shut behind me before he can finish his sentence. Leaning up against the wall, I run my hands over my face and look at myself in the mirror. Oh, this is bad, I think. I spent the night in Luke Skywalker's bedroom. In Luke Skywalker's bed—with him in it! It doesn't matter that we were both still fully clothed by morning. I might as well have slept with him; at least then I could try to pretend that this is just about sex, and not my stupid feelings. What the hell am I going to do? I can't bring myself to think about the larger issues right now. Instead I'll just wash up as best I can, comb and pull back my hair so it looks presentable, and head to the mess like nothing unusual has happened. If Corran asks about my whereabouts, I'll say I was meditating all night long. And if he hounds me about it, I'll sic Mirax on him. Clearing my thoughts as best as possible, I go about washing up, and a few minutes later deem that I no longer look like I spent the night in someone else's bed, making out like some lovesick teenager. I step out of the fresher, and when I look up, I stop dead in my tracks. Luke is facing the window, completely naked, changing into clean robes. My mouth drops open and I am unable to take my eyes off of him. A million indecent thoughts run through my mind, and I am torn as to whether I want him to turn around so I can see the rest of him, or whether I want to him to stay right where he is so I can stare at his naked backside for the rest of eternity. After a few moments of shocked silence, Luke grows still as he realizes that I am watching him. Before he can turn around to face me, I knock some sense into myself and curse again, running back into the fresher and locking the door behind me. I hear Luke stumble and fall to the floor as he loses his balance, and sense his embarrassment radiating through the Force. I lean up against the wall, closing my eyes against the memory of him, and will myself with every fiber of my being to think about lightsaber techniques, or the history of the Jedi Order, or even old missions for the Empire—anything to take my mind off of Luke Skywalker's glorious naked backside. Just as I start to calm down, I hear Luke knock on the fresher door. "It's safe to come out now, Mara." I take a few deep breaths to calm myself even further, and then open the door and walk briskly past him like I didn't just see him naked. Luke follows me to the door but I can't bring myself to look at him. I am blushing the deepest shade of crimson in the galaxy. At least he seems just as embarrassed as I am. Before I can open the door, he grabs my hand to stop me. I still cannot bring myself to look at him. He steps closer to me and begins to caress my hand, making shivers go down my spine again. Despite his embarrassment, he seems emboldened by our night spent together. His mask has disappeared. "Can I see you tonight?" he whispers in my ear. I shouldn't even be considering this. I need to walk away and say no. I need to put an end to this before I end up in his bed again, this time not safely clothed come morning. I need to stop this before I get hurt again. All I say in response is, "Okay." I remain completely still as Luke leans forward and kisses me, but I do not push him away. I close my eyes, and after a few moments I finally give in, wrapping my arms around him and running my hands through his hair. We stand there for a long time, kissing silently and slowly, and in the part of my mind that is still able to think, I realize that something very fundamental has changed. As he pulls away, I open my eyes, and he smiles at me. I have not seen him smile like this since before we arrived on Yavin IV. It is a smile of pure contentment, one that contains no burdens, no fears, no self-doubts. He has not seemed so carefree since before he took on the burden of rebuilding the Jedi Order. He looks just like the Luke Skywalker I met on Myrkr—the optimistic farm boy who trusted me even as I pointed a blaster at his face; the confident Jedi who took down a squadron of stormtroopers without even being able to use the Force. Seeing his smile, and feeling his happiness shine through the Force, I wonder…has he finally learned? I can only hope. Corran doesn't buy my excuse for being late to breakfast for a second, and once in class, with Tyria as an accomplice, the two become merciless. While sparring, I manage to get Luke's arm into a firm hold behind his back, which prompts snickers from Tyria and a sarcastic comment from Corran about 'Master Skywalker' liking it rough. Luke turns to him with a smirk and raised eyebrows, and the forward, straight-talking CorSec and Rogue Squadron veteran actually flinches away, flustered by the Jedi Master's boldness, and I have to stifle my laughter. Later on, as we head to the mess for lunch, Corran asks me in an awed tone, "What the hell did you do to him?" I just look at him and smile. Luke is waiting for me near the entrance to the mess when we arrive. "May I speak with you for a minute, Mara?" he asks with a very Jedi Master-like expression on his face. I nod, looking like a dutiful apprentice, and he takes me by the arm and leads me to an empty classroom nearby, leaving Corran to gape at us as we walk away. Once the closes behind us, I spin around and pull him into a passionate kiss before he can utter a word. He responds in kind, wrapping his arms around me and pressing me closer to him. After a minute we both break away, breathless, and I bite my lip as I stare up at him. "You wanted to see me, Master?" I ask innocently, playing with his robes. "Oh, you are bad." He pulls me towards him again and starts nipping at my ear. "You're the one who asked to see me, Master," I remind him. "Huh," Luke comments as he moves to my other ear. "What?" I ask, as I start to tremble under his ministrations. "Just remembering something." I close my eyes and reach out with the Force. "Oh my, Master. Those are some very naughty thoughts you're having." He holds me at a distance and stares deep into my eyes. "Well it's all your fault." I grin and sigh with pleasure as his lips press against my throat. "So you do like it when I call you 'Master.'" He groans and grows more insistent in his exploration of my neck. "Careful, Master," I breathe. "You've got classes to teach in a few minutes." "Then stop calling me that," he growls. "I don't know what you're talking about, Master." Unable to restrain himself any longer, Luke throws me up against the wall and kisses me so hard that I have the wind knocked out of me. But I don't care. I kiss him back just as hard. We stay that way for a long, long time. The only thing that makes us break apart is the chrono on Luke's wrist that starts beeping incessantly. He tries to take it off and throw it against the wall, but I place my hand on his wrist, stopping him. "You have students to attend to, Master Skywalker," I whisper. "I thought that's what I'm doing right now," he whispers back. Slowly I pull away from him, smoothing out his robes and hair with my hands. "No. I told you I'd see you tonight, and I will. Remember, Master…patience is a virtue." Luke sighs and closes his eyes. "Did I ever tell you that patience is one of my weakest characteristics as a Jedi?" "Well, then perhaps we all have something to learn here, don't we?" I kiss him lightly on the cheek and lead him out of the room. Once in the hallway, I shake his hand; this time, I am the one to rub my thumb gently against the side of his palm, and I see his eyes twinkle in amusement. "Thank you for that very enlightening discussion, Master. I will see you later this evening." And with that, I turn on my heel and head back towards the mess, where a very curious-looking Corran Horn is waiting for me. After lunch, during which Corran ribs me non-stop, I head to one of the training rooms with Tyria for some hand-to-hand combat practice. Tyria is one of the only people here who can actually floor me, so naturally I love sparring with her. "So," she says as we start to fight, "Corran says you weren't in your room this morning, and that Master Skywalker had some urgent matters to discuss with you before lunch." I roll my eyes and block her blow, twisting her arm around, but she escapes my grasp. "Yeah, so?" She kicks my legs out from under me, but I pull her down as I fall, forcing her onto her back. Shaking hands, I pull her back up and we start again. "So are you gonna tell me what's going on?" Her eyes twinkle with amusement as she blocks my quick blows. "None of your business," I grunt as she tries to get in a roundhouse kick, "and tell Corran to shut his big mouth." Tyria laughs and uses the distraction to knock me to the ground. I scowl at her, but then shake her hand as she pulls me to my feet. "Come on, Mara, you can trust me. Remember, us girls gotta stick together! Besides, it's completely obvious to those of us with eyes…or the Force." "Well if it's so obvious then you don't need me to tell you anything." We fall to the floor in unison, rolling over each other, and I manage to yank her arms over her head again. "Dammit Mara, that hurt!" Tyria says, rubbing her shoulder as I jump to my feet. "Sorry, Sarkin, you gotta be quicker than that." "Sheesh, I hope you're not this rough with Master Skywalker." "You want me to yank your arm out again?" "Aren't people supposed to be happier after they get some action?" Her words stop me in my tracks and I stare at her. She holds my gaze, smiling. "Oh, is that the problem, you haven't gotten any?" The old Mara Jade would be furious at people talking about her this way, but to my surprise, the new Mara Jade doesn't care. Because Tyria's right…I am happy. I'm happy because of Luke. And I don't care who knows. Let them talk. I shrug sheepishly. "Not yet," I reply, a blush creeping across my face as I think about my upcoming evening with Luke. Tyria grins at me. "Damn, girl! You and the Jedi Master? That's a volatile combination." I sigh. "You have no idea." Tyria bursts out laughing and gives me a squeeze before we begin fighting again. After she floors me, Kyp Durron enters the room armed with his lightsaber. I narrow my eyes at him but he ignores us, igniting his weapon and focusing intently on the training remotes around him, as if we're not even there. He starts to practice and Tyria watches him in awe. "Wow, he's really good," she whispers. I nod at her. "Yeah, he's good," I admit begrudgingly. But not better than me, I think, a thought that reassures me for reasons I cannot understand. Tyria and I continue our workout, Durron still taking no notice of us. After a few more rounds, Tyria leaves for her private lesson with Luke, promising that she won't try to steal him away from me. I give her a swift kick on her bottom, eliciting loud laughter as she skips away from the room. After she leaves, I decide to stay in the training room, both to get in some lightsaber practice of my own and to keep my eye on Durron. I briefly wonder where Corran is, as he's taken to trailing the boy since Gantoris was found dead. "Wanna spar, Jade?" Durron calls as I ignite my lightsaber. I jump, startled; I didn't think he realized I was in the room with him. I levitate my remote in front of me, regarding him casually. "No, thanks," I reply, turning my attention to the remote. "Oh, come on," he says, goading me. "You think you're so much better than me? Prove it." I turn and narrow my eyes at him, once again wondering how he was able to sense my thoughts. "I don't think that's a very good idea, Durron." "Why not? You worried I'll win and Master Skywalker will start to favor me over you?" My anger starts to rise, and I reach out into the Force for serenity. "I really don't think I need to worry about that." "No, you wouldn't, huh?" he sneers, looking at my chest, where my necklace rests safely under my robes. I bite my lip, wondering how in the galaxy he even found out about the necklace in the first place, when I've never shown it to anybody, and what exactly he knows about Luke and me. He said he was good at reading emotions, but this is just creepy. "It's none of your business, Durron. Go back to your remotes if you know what's best for you." "What's the matter, Emperor's Hand? Scared?" he spits out, stalking over to me, and I immediately bring my lightsaber up to guard, still desperately trying to push down my anger. I want to reach out and break every bone in his body, but I force myself to go through the calming exercise that Luke has taught me. But Durron doesn't back down, and he stops directly in front of me, his own lightsaber ignited but held casually at his side. Yes, I am scared, and I suddenly feel the urge to leave, now. I turn towards the door but Durron reaches out and stabs down with his lightsaber before I can move. Years of instinct take over as I block his blow and yank his arm backwards. He gasps in pain but is able to pull himself out of my hold before I can flip him over onto the floor. "Think twice before you do anything else, Durron," I warn. "You want to face off against the Emperor's Hand? You can have her. I won't hold back." Our two sets of green eyes lock on to with each other, and then, just like that night in front of the turbolift, I see a sickly gleam in Durron's eyes. A sickly, yellow gleam. He grins wickedly and lunges at me. I thank the Force for all my hours of private lightsaber training with Luke, because Durron is frighteningly good, much better than anyone of his age and skill should be. My skills with a lightsaber are better than any of the other students here, but Durron is making me work hard to fight him off. His blows are hard and furious, and fueled by pure rage…just like a Sith. I know that Durron is not a Sith. As much as I dislike him, there is no way that can be possible. But even so, something horrible has happened to him. I sense the dark side in him, and he is embracing it, fully. I urgently try to disarm him, knowing that, even if I do, I cannot put an end to this. Luke needs to face him, and figure out what has happened. Luke… In that part of my mind that is connected to his, I reach out with the Force and call to Luke. Using all of my strength, I kick Durron back and he goes flying away from me, and I take that second to send Luke a vision of what is happening. "No!" Durron yells. He calls the Force to him and shoves his hands outward, pushing me back with all of his power. I fly through the air and brace myself for the pain before I slam against the wall. It still hurts, badly. Cursing, I use the Force to suppress the pain running down my spine and push myself up give chase. Durron runs down the stairwells, bypassing the turbolifts, and I try to catch up with him, but he has gotten too much of a head start. I reach out to Luke again to show him where Durron is headed. I finally catch sight of the boy again as I burst onto the landing platform, heading towards the speeder bikes. With nobody around to stop him, he jumps onto a bike and zooms away into the jungle. I rush to another bike, but at that moment Luke comes running up behind me, grabbing my arms and pulling me away. I yell out in frustration but he holds onto me, forcing me to calm down so I can tell him what happened. I feel his Force sense flowing around me, but I'm too distressed to fully relax. He turns me around to face him and holds my face in his hands, his eyes deep with concern. "Are you okay?" he asks, kissing my forehead. My breath is short and shallow, but I answer as best I can. "He attacked me, Luke! He came at me like an animal!" "What happened? What did he say?" "Nothing! It came out of nowhere! Tyria had just left the room, and he asked to spar, but I said no, and then he attacked me! And his eyes…" Luke straightens up, and when he speaks, his voice is more serious than I've ever before heard. "What about them?" It hurts deeply to tell him this, knowing what it will do to him, but I have no choice. He has to know. "They were yellow, Luke. Just like Palpatine's. Just like a Sith." Luke backs away. "No…that's not possible," he whispers. "I don't know how, Luke, but he is possessed. He isn't himself. We have to go find him before something awful happens!" "No," Luke says emphatically. "You stay here." "Like hell I will!" "I need to do this on my own, Mara." "Luke, this is not the time to have that same old argument—" "Then let's not have it!" he shouts, grabbing me and glaring down at my face. "Please, Mara, try to understand this one time. Please." I glare right back at him. "I will never understand." He shakes his head and releases me. "I'm going to find him. Stay here," he orders. I gaze into his clear blue eyes, seeing the torment inside of them. Just a few hours ago, I had hoped that Luke had finally learned to let himself be a normal human being. I had hoped that we had finally overcome all the obstacles standing the way of us being together. Now I fear that can never be the case, and it makes me want to hurt Kyp Durron even more than I already do. I know that Luke will not back down, so I stop arguing and place my hand on his cheek. "Be careful," I whisper. He nods and kisses me softly. "Please, watch over everyone for me. I trust you." Then he jumps onto a speeder bike and flies into the distance. I wait a good thirty seconds, then jump onto another bike and follow him. 13. Chapter 12 A/N: Song for this chapter: Cursum Perficio, Enya CHAPTER 12 It is difficult, but I don't press the throttle too much as I follow in Luke's wake. I keep a safe distance, not wanting to catch up with him, but not wanting to let him get too far ahead of me, either. Even as the day turns in to night, I have no trouble making my way through the jungle. It's as if Luke's light is guiding my path. When I arrive at Exar Kun's temple, I see two speeder bikes parked outside. I park mine further away so that Durron cannot hear me approach. I know that, even if Luke does not hear me arrive, he will most certainly feel my presence, so it's futile to try to hide from him. But somehow I know that letting Durron realize I am there would be disastrous. I put up all my mental shields, both to hide my presence from Durron and not distract Luke. Using every memory and every instinct of my training as a spy and assassin, I creep towards the temple's entrance, able to see clearly even through the oncoming darkness. Pressing myself up against the walls, I slowly make my way inside, creeping across the ground so that I cannot be seen, and hide in a corner. Luke is standing in the middle of the temple, his lightsaber already ignited by his side, the light from his green blade throwing shadows on his face. Kyp Durron stands on the altar, his back to the both of us. "You shouldn't have come here, Skywalker," Durron hisses, and his voice is not his own. It is the voice of a Sith. He turns around, and even from my place on the opposite side of the temple, I can feel the evil that has taken over him. He ignites his own lightsaber and holds it menacingly in front of him. Luke does not back away. He does not show fear for his life or his safety, but I can sense his deep fear for the life, and the soul, of the boy standing in front of him. "Don't do this, Kyp," he whispers. Durron laughs, taunting Luke. "No Kyp Durron here, Skywalker. You're too late. Poor boy, he's already gone. And it was so easy to convince him to join me, especially with you as his teacher." "No," Luke shakes his head. He takes a step forward towards the altar. "I know Kyp is still in there. I can feel him. You can't win, Kun." "Fool!" Durron cries. "I have won already! Do you forget your dead Jedi student? I killed him, Master, just as I will kill all of them…except for her. "Oh yes, you know exactly who I mean. Having her as my apprentice would be most fitting. It will be so pleasurable to break her…but the most satisfying thing of all will be watching you fall apart as she is twisted to do my bidding, just as she once was before. "And then I will kill you, slowly, and your precious Jedi Order will be dead forever, and the Sith will rule again." It takes all of my willpower not to run further into the temple and slice Durron in half upon hearing his threats, but something—or someone—is compelling me to stay out of sight where I am. I have a pretty good idea of who that is, and this time, I will listen to him. Luke, of course, does not take Exar Kun's bait. He has faced this temptation before, and he is far too strong to be goaded by such words. Instead he sighs, a deep and heavy sigh, and I know that he is dreading any action he will be forced to take against the boy standing in front of him. He will give Durron every chance in the universe to rid himself of Exar Kun's grasp before being forced to harm him. Slowly, Luke closes the distance between them. As if from a distant memory, I remember an old legend from the Clone Wars —the hero with no fear. Of course Anakin Skywalker's offspring would show the same tenacity on the battlefield. And that's exactly what this is—a battlefield on which light and dark will fight to the death. "Don't do this, Kyp," Luke says again, still pleading to the boy trapped inside the Sith Lord's thrall. With a yell, Durron rushes forward and slams his lightsaber down on Luke's, but Luke is prepared. Even as furious as Durron is, Luke holds him back with ease, and the calm he radiates is a distinct contrast to the turmoil that rages inside of him. Luke will make himself be calm, because for a Jedi, there is no passion, only serenity. The two lightsabers clash together, Luke exerting the aura of a powerful, serene Jedi Master, while Durron rages against him, angered by Luke's calm and easy defenses. Against anyone else, even me, Durron would be victorious; but even empowered by a Sith Lord, he cannot hold a candle against my Luke. As Luke blocks another of his blows, he glares down at Durron's face, trying as hard as he can to reach out to some part of the boy's soul that still exists inside of him. "Please, Kyp!" he begs. "Don't let him do this to you. Don't let him possess you. You can push him out. I know you can!" "No Kyp here," Durron grinds out, kicking Luke back and attacking once again. Luke blocks his blow and they circle around each other. Durron keeps striking out like a caged animal, but he cannot break past Luke's defenses. Luke keeps his lightsaber in a guard position, but slowly allows his body to take a gentler stance, and tries even harder to reach out to Durron. "I know it hurts, Kyp," Luke says, his voice loud and strong and compelling. "I know how easy it is to just give in and let the darkness take you. I know how good it feels. But you can fight it, Kyp! I know that you can! You are strong!" "No!" Durron yells, and this time, I can hear a sliver of the boy trapped inside, struggling to break free. "Yes!" Luke shouts. Durron shakes his head, now seething in rage. "How would you know any of that, Master Jedi? You don't know power of the Sith! You don't understand!" "I understand all too well, Kyp. I have felt the darkness inside of me. I fight it every day. I know how compelling it is to just give in and make all the pain go away; to make everything right, and the way you want it to be. But you are better than that, Kyp. You can fight him!" "No!" Durron rushes forward to attack, but this time Luke lashes out with all his power and disarms Durron before the boy can strike. He continues to rush forward, but Luke stretches out his arm and Force-pushes Durron across the temple. He lands on his back, stunned. Rushing over to the boy, Luke grabs Durron's neck and hauls him back up to a standing position. Luke stares into the boy's eyes, as if he is trying to will him back to life. "Fight him, Kyp. Fight him!" Durron's scream is immeasurable as his lightsaber flies back into his hand. He ignites it and the two weapons meet again, but Luke keeps pushing him back, their clashes loud and furious, until they are both standing on the altar. The darkness swirls around them; I can sense Exar Kun's spirit raging, the Force boiling in the air. Once on the altar, Durron collapses to the ground, crying out in agony. Luke hovers over him, ready to strike, but then I hear the boy's voice again, loud and strong: "Get OUT!" In an instant, a wave of furious dark energy flies outward from Durron. Luke holds on to the altar, preventing himself from being blown across the temple, and I duck and cover, bracing myself from being thrown into the temple wall. When the air finally calms, Luke kneels down next to the boy. Durron falls on his back and starts convulsing, before settling into a disturbing stillness. Through this, Luke stays by Durron's side. His eyes close and he murmurs soft words. After a few moments, the boy's eyes blink open again, and somehow I know, even from my place across the temple, that they are an intense, clear green, every trace of the Sith Lord's influence gone. Durron gasps for breath and then immediately begins to cry, and they are loud, keening wails that settle into the depths of my soul, disturbing me to no end. Without a second thought Luke pulls the boy into a hug, and Durron sobs against his shoulder. "What have I done?" Durron whispers. "What have I done?" "It's okay, Kyp," Luke reassures him in soothing tones. "Kun is gone. You pushed him out. You beat him." "I let him get inside of me," Durron cries. "He told me he could help me get revenge on the Empire for killing my family…for sending me to Kessel…for everything! And I believed him…I let him inside my head and I fought against my friend and I killed him! I would have killed you and everyone else at the Academy…I would have let him take over! What have I done?" Luke doesn't say anything. He doesn't have to. He just gently strokes the boy's hair, holding him close, like he would a son or a younger brother. And through the Force, I realize that Luke does not blame Kyp Durron at all for what has happened. He doesn't blame Durron for anything! They stay on the altar for a long time, Durron sobbing into Luke's arms, and Luke comforting him as much as possible. Watching them, I sense Luke's forgiveness, and it makes my heart turn to ice. Before they can leave and find me watching them, I drag myself away from the scene in front of me and crawl back outside. It is completely dark now, but that doesn't matter. Slowly, trying to push the immense feeling of dread out of my mind, I creep back to my speeder bike and start up the engine. Before I fly away, I reach out with the Force and touch Luke's mind, and in doing so, I am certain. Kyp Durron—the boy who trusted a Sith Lord and killed a fellow student in the process—will be forgiven. He will be welcomed back into the Jedi Order with open arms. I can think of nothing else as I head back to the Academy. Later that night, after the rest of the Academy has taken refuge under the veil of sleep, after Kyp Durron has been ushered back into his quarters with nary a word to the other apprentices about what just transpired inside Exar Kun's temple, I find myself once again standing outside Luke Skywalker's door. I promised Luke that I would see him tonight, and I will keep my promise, even though this is not at all how I expected our encounter to proceed. Luke opens the door before I can knock. Without saying a word, he pulls me to him and presses his lips to mine, both of us unable to resist each other even though we both know that I am here for very different reasons. We slowly make our way across the living room, our hands moving all over each other. I feel my resolve weakening as our kisses grow more intense, and I fall back onto the couch, pulling Luke down on top of me. His weight feels so good and I want nothing more than for this to never stop, but after several minutes I remember why I am here and force myself to pull away, knowing that this cannot happen. Not now. Not like this. We stare at each other for a moment, and then I sit up, gently pushing him off me. The perfect gentleman, he obliges and settles down next to me, our legs lightly touching, his hand resting softly on my knee. He knows why I am here. He knows that I do not approve of what he has decided to do about Kyp Durron. Taking a deep breath, I glance at his worried face. "I guess you know that I followed you." The barest hint of a smile touches his lips. "I guess I should have known that you would never have listened to me." "Do I ever?" I ask sardonically. I hear his reply in my mind: I only wish that you would. It seems like a lifetime passes as we sit silently on the couch, both of us unsure of what to say next, both of us unwilling to hurt the other by giving voice to our feelings. It is obvious that Luke believes he is to blame for what happened to Kyp Durron. I reach my hand out to touch his face, wanting to console him and make him see that he is wrong. He presses his cheek into my palm, sighing heavily, as if he is trying to expel every worry and burden from his soul, only to find that they will not go away. For Luke Skywalker, the worries and burdens will never go away. "It's all my fault," he whispers, like a child who has been caught doing something wrong and knows that he will undeniably face the harshest of punishments. I remember that feeling all too well, when I was a little girl being raised in the confines of the Imperial Palace. "I should have seen it coming. I wasn't paying enough attention—" "No, Luke. Don't think that way," I argue. "It's not your fault. You didn't send Kyp Durron into Exar Kun's temple. He went there on his own volition, even after you warned us all of the possible consequences. If you want to blame anyone for what happened, blame Kyp Durron himself." Luke shakes his head vehemently. "I can't do that, Mara." "So you'll blame yourself instead? You'll kill yourself with guilt over this?" Luke's eyes droop with sorrow and regret. In that moment I want nothing more than to throw my arms around him and drag him into the bedroom and make him forget everything bad that has happened…but I can't. I can't ignore what he plans to do. It goes against everything that I believe is right. "Are you really going to let Durron back into the Jedi Order?" I ask, unable to keep the disgusted tone out of my voice. He nods, looking more mature and more burdened than Luke Skywalker should ever be. All the innocence that I admire so much about him has been hidden deeply away, yet he still clings to his steadfast desire to forgive, and to see the best in everyone. "I have to," he replies. "I have to forgive him." "Are you sure that's wise?" I ask, and I am once again the skeptical, untrusting Emperor's Hand. Luke doesn't answer. "What about the rest of us?" I continue. "What do you mean?" "What happened to the rest of us having a say in how the Jedi Order is run? Are you even going to consider our opinions on this matter?" "I care about everyone's opinions, Mara—" "Could've fooled me." "Would you let me finish? I do care about everyone's opinions, especially yours. But this matter isn't up for debate. This is about something I believe is fundamental to the Jedi Order—redemption and forgiveness. I'm not going to put it to a vote as to whether or not we should forgive Kyp Durron, and that's all there is to it." "But he embraced the dark side, Luke," I argue. "That should be unforgivable." "No. It shouldn't. I forgave my father. I can forgive Kyp." I sigh at him. "That is so incredibly different and you know it—" "No, it's not!" He finally turns to me, and I see the hurt in his eyes, and the tremendous guilt he feels for what has happened under his leadership. Because he blames himself, he will therefore do everything in his power to make things right, and the only way he knows how to do that is to make sure that Kyp Durron redeems himself and becomes a Jedi Knight—exactly as he would have done with Anakin Skywalker had he survived the Battle of Endor. But even though Durron is just a boy; even though he has experienced immense trauma in his life and acted under the influence of a darkness that I understand all too well; I still cannot find it in myself to forgive him. Part of me knows that if Luke is able to accept Durron back into the Jedi Order, then I should be able to do so as well. But no matter what I do, the thought of fighting alongside someone who would so willingly embrace the dark side sickens me. "Mara," Luke says so softly that I have to strain to hear his voice, "just because you can't forgive yourself for your past, doesn't mean that you shouldn't forgive Kyp for his." For a moment, all I can do is sit completely still and gape as his audacity. When I finally regain control of my actions, I quickly push myself off the couch, offended beyond belief by his violation of my very private thoughts. I glare at him with hard eyes; he meets my gaze, standing by his words even though he knows just how much they have wounded me. And then, not able to spend another second looking at him, I turn around and leave his quarters in a rush. I cannot get out of there fast enough. I cannot get far enough away from him. For the first time since I arrived at the Jedi Academy, for the first time since I have known him, I cannot bear to be in Luke Skywalker's presence. 14. Chapter 13 A/N: The word "bicce" was borrowed from the fic Quagmire by kataja. Thanks! CHAPTER 13 Just like our first day the Jedi Academy, the ten of us original students sit in the meditation garden for a meeting with Luke. But unlike our first meeting, none of us are in good spirits. We all know why Luke has called us here. He wants to discuss what happened with Kyp Durron. We sit silently, waiting for Luke to begin speaking. Before he does, he looks all of us straight in the eye. When he gets to me, I glare daggers at him. He blinks and looks away. "Thank you all for coming," Luke says. "I know that you have questions about recent events, and you deserve to hear from me first hand exactly what transpired." Luke takes a deep breath before launching into the story. "Yesterday, Kyp Durron attacked a fellow student. This student was able to hold him off and reach out to me to let me know what was happening. Kyp escaped, but I followed him to Exar Kun's temple, where he had fled. Once there, I found that he was no longer himself. He had been possessed by Exar Kun's spirit. "Thankfully, I was able to reach out to the part of Kyp that was still trapped inside. After a fight, he pushed Exar Kun's spirit out of his body, and expressed extreme remorse for what he had done. While possessed, Kyp could not recall his actions, but afterwards, he remembered everything he had done while under Kun's influence, including killing his friend, who had been trying to save him. And knowing what he had done almost destroyed him." Luke pauses for a moment, and I can sense his apprehension about what he is about to say, even though he has the utmost conviction that he is right. "I want to explain to you my reasoning for accepting Kyp back at the Academy. First, Kyp is extremely strong in the Force, but he does not know how to harness or control that power. If he is expelled from the Academy and left to learn on his own, it can be almost guaranteed that he will slip back under the influence of the dark side. I'm sure you all can agree that is not a desirable situation. Even I can admit he has a point there. "But most of all, I forgive Kyp because it is the Jedi way. If any of you take the time to speak with him, you will find that he hates himself more right now than anyone else possibly could. He has shown repentance, and being who I am, I have to accept that. Luke stares at me directly when he says his next words. "I know that some of you may not understand this, and even disagree outright. I urge you to please talk to me if you have any misgivings. I truly value all of your opinions, and want you to all feel comfortable in your place in the Jedi Order." I look away from his gaze, suddenly no longer certain in my beliefs about Kyp Durron. Corran shifts beside me and I glance at him. His expression is as hard as durasteel. Tyria raises her hand. "Master Skywalker, what about Exar Kun? Has he been defeated permanently?" Luke shakes his head. "I don't know, Tyria. I sense that the dark side is still strong inside the temple. For now, it will remain off limits." Nobody else speaks, so Luke dismisses us all. Corran, Tyria, and I walk inside together. "You don't approve," I say to Corran. "Do you?" he shoots back. "Not really." He gives me a sympathetic look. "Must be difficult for you." "You could say that. What about you, Tyria?" She shrugs. "I dunno. If Kyp really does feel remorse, and Master Skywalker thinks he should be forgiven, who are we to say otherwise?" "He killed someone, Tyria!" Corran hisses. "I know that! I didn't say we should just forget about it. But he wasn't himself. It could have been any one of us who did those things." Corran shakes his head. "No. Durron was weak and susceptible. A Jedi should be stronger than that." His words sting me to no end, especially considering Luke's accusation from the previous night. "You forgave me, Corran," I say softly. He stiffens, surprised by my tone. "That's different." "Is it?" "I thought you said you didn't approve?" "I didn't. I don't…I don't know. I guess…I guess after hearing Luke's explanation, it's not as black and white as I originally thought." "Is that you talking, or is that your boyfriend's influence?" "He's not my boyfriend, Corran, and don't make me hit you." Tyria punches him, hard. "Ow! What was that for, Tyria?" "Because that was a stupid thing to say." "Sorry. Anyway, I still don't agree." "You should talk to Master Skywalker about it," Tyria advises. "I know. But I'm tempted to just leave." "And quit your training? Mirax would kill you!" I tell him. "Yeah, she probably would," he agrees. "I've been here long enough already. I guess I should finish what I've started. But I'm still not happy. What about you, Mara?" I sigh. "You know I'm staying. But I'm not happy, either." We walk the rest of the way in silence. Part of me knows that Luke is right…but the other part of me just cannot learn to forgive. Several hours later, after the Academy has grown quiet, after darkness has taken over the jungle moon, I feel Luke's presence burning through the Force like a beacon, calling me to him. No matter what I do, no matter how angry with him I may be, I cannot shy away from him. I check everywhere in the Academy, but he is nowhere to be found. His X-wing is still parked inside the hangar, so there is only one other place on the moon where he could be. It is the reason why his spirit is burning so brightly in agony. Even though it's off limits, I have no choice but to go there. I have to talk to him. When I arrive, I find Luke standing in the middle of Exar Kun's temple. He holds his lightsaber firmly in his grip, but it's not ignited. He is motionless, seemingly not even breathing, as if he is in a far away place. I approach him slowly, not wanting to startle him. He seems so distant. I know that he has not sensed my presence. "Luke?" He blinks once at my whisper. I reach my hand up to touch his face. He stiffens, but he does not pull away. He continues to stare straight ahead at the altar, standing alone, oblivious to everything else around him, including me. It is such a fitting testament to his current place in the galaxy. "Luke?" I whisper again. He finally turns and stares right through me with his bright blue eyes, as if he doesn't even see me. "What's wrong? Are you okay?" They are such stupid questions, but they are all I can think of at this moment. He looks back at the altar. "Can I help you?" He shakes his head. "Please, let me help you." He doesn't respond, so I lift up on my toes to place a soft kiss on his cheek. He murmurs a soft "No," and his lightsaber drops to the floor with a loud clang as his hands ball into fists. I feel him gather the Force around him, ready to push me away at a moment's notice, and I brace myself, preparing myself for the onslaught… Instead, Luke whips around and pulls me to him in a searing kiss. For a moment I remain completely still, but his lips feel so hot against mine as they urge my mouth open and I just cannot find the strength to resist him. His fingers tear into my hair and it hurts, but I embrace the pain and kiss him back with fervor, hoisting myself up on his shoulders and squeezing my legs around his hips. His hands travel down my body and he tears his lips from my mouth, raking kisses down my throat, down my chest, and I arch my back against him in ecstasy, his name falling from my lips in hoarse, throaty whispers. Our mouths connect together once again and our tongues dance against each other and I see stars. But even through such intense passion, something deep inside tells me to stop, that this cannot happen this way, that this is very wrong; but I refuse, entranced by the feel of Luke's body against mine… Then I am flying through the air as he shoves me off him, the "No!" that he utters this time much louder on his lips. I stare at him, dumbfounded, from my place on the floor. He paces frantically, muttering to himself. "Control, control, you must learn control!" As I push myself up, he turns around to face me. His nostrils flare with passion and regret and intense self-loathing. "We can't do this," he states, his voice emotionless. For a moment, I cannot even think. Then my jaw sets in disbelief, once again remembering Corran's words of advice: Try not to get hurt. If only it were that easy. Furious, I stalk towards him until we are standing face to face. "I told you not to do this if you couldn't follow through, Skywalker," I snarl, pointing at his face. He tries to turn away but I grab him before he can move. "I don't believe you!" I cry, tugging his robes so hard that I might as well be strangling him. "After all we've been through, after all that we feel, you're still hung up on this damn attachment issue, aren't you?" Luke glares back at me with unblinking eyes…and then he says something I never thought I'd ever hear him admit, even though I know that he has thought it so many times: "It would just be so much easier if you weren't here." I release my hold on him and back away slowly, trying to ignore the scorching pain in my heart upon hearing his words. Tears well up in my eyes but I blink them away, refusing to let him see me so vulnerable, willing myself to focus on my anger rather than my pain. "Really?" my voice comes out, choked. "Is that what you really think?" I can tell that, even now, Luke is deeply upset at hurting me, but he doesn't say no. I draw myself up to my full height and think back to all my training under Palpatine from so many years ago. I shield my thoughts from Luke, not wanting him to know just how much his words have hurt me…just how much I really care. "All right, Skywalker," I say, jutting my chin forward. "If that's the case, you just say the word, and I'm gone. You can go on training everyone without me being a complication, and I'll go back to working for Karrde and not having my heart ripped out every time I look at you and know that I can't have you. Problem solved." Of course, he can't make it easy for himself, or for me. He sighs and runs his fingers through his hair. "I can't ask you to do that, Mara." "Why not?" I press. "…Because I—" "Don't you dare say it!" I exclaim. "Not now, not like this." He looks away from me. "You deserve to be here. I can't ask you to give up being a Jedi just because I can't control myself." "Oh, so you think this is so easy for me, huh?" I demand, my voice becoming shrill, so unlike the Emperor's Hand that everyone thinks they know. "You think it'll be so easy for me to finish my training with you just barely out of reach, finally get Knighted, and then—what? Stay here at the Academy and watch you slowly take control of everything? Watch you deny yourself everything that makes you human? Get sent off on missions that could possibly end my life, all for a person who won't even allow himself to care for me?" "I allowed myself to care and look what happened!" he screams. "A man is dead and another let himself be possessed by darkness, all because of me!" "It's not because of you!" I yell, resisting the urge to shake him and make him realize how stupid he is being. "Why can't you see that?" "Why can't you see that I'm right about this? You heard what Kun said! I let myself become so infatuated with you that I couldn't even see what was going on right in front of me! How can I possibly lead the Jedi Order when I let myself act like that?" "Like what, like a normal human being?" Unable to control myself, I lash out at him, my fists pounding hard against his chest, forcing him to stumble backwards. "You can be such a stupid idiot, you know that? A stupid, kriffing idiot!" He grabs my wrists and holds them together with one hand. "And you can be such a heartless bicce, so I guess that makes us even." A lone tear threatens to fall down my cheek upon hearing his insult, but my anger is far too intense to let me cry. I wipe the tear from my face so hard that my cheek burns. "I just don't get you, Luke. You'll forgive him but you won't forgive yourself for being happy?" I ask incredulously. Now he is the one to lash out, and I have to brace myself from the anger that pushes out from him in waves. "Oh, you should talk, Mara!" I didn't think it possible, but my expression hardens even more. "Don't even go there, Luke!" I warn. "What, you want to deny it? You've been here almost five months and I keep telling that you have to face your past, yet you refuse to do so! Why, Mara? Why can't you forgive yourself for what you once were?" "Just because you throw out forgiveness like it's a door prize doesn't mean it's as easy for me to do the same!" "But this is your life, Mara—your forgiveness! You can't go on living this way, not forgiving yourself for what Palpatine did to you!" I rush forward and attack him again, punching him hard with my fists, infuriated beyond belief that he would say such a thing. "You have no idea, Skywalker, so don't you even try to understand!" Luke blocks my blows with ease and pins my arms against my sides. He glares down at me with cloudy, intense eyes. "Make me." Even though I know that he could never even come close to understanding what I've been through, I can't stop myself from responding, from finally releasing every pent up fear and regret that I've kept inside for so many years. "You just don't get it, Luke—you beat him! You stood in front of him, after he had done everything that he could to turn you to the dark side, and you said no. You threw down your lightsaber, and you said no. He tortured you, and you still said no! That's what you said happened, right?" I tear myself away from him, but now that the words are out, I can't stop. "But me? Palpatine plucked me from my happy little home and bent me entirely to his will. I was his experiment," I say the word like a curse. "That's all I was to the entire galaxy—a sick, twisted man's experiment! And I spent my entire life wanting nothing more than to serve him—wanting to be the best little assassin I could be. "After he died, I was broken, and I struggled so hard to build a new life for myself. I thought I had succeeded, but even five long years after the Emperor's death, when I was finally starting to gain a sense of independence, I still found myself compelled to do his bidding. Even though you helped me learn that everything he ever told me was a complete and utter lie, Palpatine's hold over me was so strong that, when it all came to a head, I still did it. I did exactly what he ordered me to do." I pause, allowing myself to breathe again, once again brushing the tears away from my eyes, refusing to let myself cry in front of him. "What are you talking about, Mara?" Luke whispers. "You will kill Luke Skywalker!" I explode. "I heard that voice every day inside my head after Endor, and when I finally found you, I wanted nothing more than to give in and kill you for ruining my life, and make the voice stop! But then I was faced with the truth—that nothing was what it was supposed to be—and I knew right then and there that I could never kill you. Even more than that, I realized that, despite everything I said at the time, I no longer wanted to. I was already starting to care. "But in the end…I still gave in." "I'm right here, Mara," Luke says, his voice a stark contrast to what it was mere seconds ago. He closes the distance between us, reaching out to take my hand, but I pull away before he can touch me. "You didn't kill me." "But I still gave in!" I cry. "I didn't kill your clone to save your life, or even to save my own life. I killed your clone because Palpatine told me to! It was his last command, and I had to follow it. And when I killed the clone, and the voice finally stopped, I was elated! I was finally free! "But then the realization set in—that even after so many years, after building a new life for myself, after knowing that everything he ever taught me had been a lie…I still couldn't say no to him. "But you could, Luke—you did! You have no idea the strength it took for you to be able to do that! And yet here you are, still killing yourself with worry and doubt about whether or not you'll be able to resist the dark side, and it sickens me, because I envy you so much for being able to stand up to the Emperor and beat him, and you can't even begin to understand!" I finally stop shouting. The temple grows deathly quiet. I stare at the side of Luke's face, panting heavily, waiting for him to say something. But he doesn't speak; he doesn't even have the decency to look at me after I've confessed my most secret thoughts. Suddenly I can't take it anymore. Before I can stop myself, I say something so horrible that it almost makes me physically ill to hear coming out of my mouth: "You have no idea how much I hate you right now, Skywalker." He doesn't respond. He doesn't even flinch at my declaration. Angered to the point of seeing red, I reach up and yank his head around to face me. "Say the word and I'm gone," I hiss, my voice cold as ice, and I desperately pray that now, after all that I have said, he will grant me my wish. But he doesn't. He doesn't even say it back to me—that he hates me, too—because he is Luke Skywalker, and he does not know how to hate. And that makes me envy him even more, because for so many years, hate was all that that fueled me. Hate was all that I knew. "I hate you so much," I whisper, trying so hard to convince myself of that fact, when it couldn't be farther from the truth. He still says nothing. Finally I turn around and run away into the darkness, knowing that the only person I hate right now is myself. I do not go to my lessons the following morning. My comlink starts buzzing early, but I do not answer. I shut it off and throw it violently against the wall, shattering it to pieces. My old soldier's instinct begins to kick in and I feel the urge to go to the mess and eat, but the urge to ignore the galaxy wins out and I pull the covers back over my head, drowning out the rising sunlight. I don't care if I miss Luke's lessons, or my private training with him later on today. There is absolutely no way I can look him in the eye after what happened between us the previous night. I can barely even look at myself after what I said to him. I drift back to sleep for several minutes, but then there is a loud pounding at my door that I can't ignore. I reach out with the Force and sense Corran on the other side. "Go away!" I yell. I am not in the mood for more Rogue Squadron biting sarcasm about another late night with "Master Skywalker." He doesn't back down. "Open up, Mara." "Go away!" "Open up or I'm gonna unlock the door myself!" he threatens. "You suck at telekinesis, Horn!" "I'll use my lightsaber if I have to!" "Leave me alone!" "Mara, this is important! Stop being a stubborn idiot and open the kriffing door!" Sighing, I reach out with the Force and unlock the door. Corran appears a second later in the doorway. "Get up," he orders. I pull the covers back over me and shake my head against my pillow. Corran crosses to the bed and rips off the covers, throwing them to the floor. He tosses me some clean clothes and orders me to get dressed before turning away. "What the hell is your problem?" I demand, finally sitting up and pulling on a tunic, but refusing to move otherwise. "Why do you care so much if I'm missing lessons?" Corran turns back around and stares at me. "Where is Luke?" he asks. I blink at his use of Luke's first name. "What?" "You don't know where he is?" he questions, with a suspicious look on his face. "Well yeah, he's in lessons with you." Corran shakes his head. "No, he's not. He's nowhere to be found. And I know you were with him last night, so just tell me where he is, okay, so we can all stop worrying." "What are you talking about?" I ask, feigning ignorance. "Mara, I came by your room late last night, because I felt that you were upset and thought you could use someone to talk to. I know you weren't here." I don't even try to deny it. I can only think of one thing—Luke never came back to the Academy last night. My hand flies to my mouth. "I was with him, but…" I trail off, blinking back tears, unable to explain what happened between us. "Where were you? He's not in his quarters." I shake my head. "No, we weren't in his quarters, we were…at Exar Kun's temple." Corran looks at me incredulously. "Why in blazes were you there? That place is still off limits!" "I know, but I couldn't find him anywhere last night!" I explain. "I could sense that was where he was and I just had to talk to him, so I went to see him…" "Okay, so where'd he go when you came back?" I cringe, remembering the horrible things we said to each other. "That's the thing…we didn't come back together. I…I left him there." Corran gapes at me. "And why would you do such a stupid thing?" "We…we had an argument," I try to explain, but the words sound so stupid coming out of my mouth. "I couldn't bear to be near him anymore, so I left him there." "…It must have been one hell of a fight." "You have no idea," I whisper. Corran rubs his face with his palms. "Okay, well now I have just one more question." "What?" "What are we still doing here? Hurry up and finish getting dressed!" The two of us arrive at Kun's temple in record time. Corran parks the landspeeder next to Luke's speeder bike. All of a sudden my stomach drops out from underneath me, and an intense feeling of dread washes over my soul. I can sense Luke inside the temple… only he's not. I run inside as fast I can, and cry out before I even realize that my mouth has opened. Luke is lying on the altar, completely still…as if in death. Without thinking, I rush to him and shake his shoulders, yelling his name over and over, but he doesn't respond. I put my head to his chest and feel him breathing, but it doesn't matter…it's as if he's not there. Corran rushes into the temple behind me and I hear him gasp, but I do not acknowledge him. Because I suddenly remember with utter clarity the taunting words of Exar Kun, as they were spoken from the mouth of young Kyp Durron: "I have won already…I will kill you, slowly…" I collapse on the ground next to Luke and hug him close to my chest, rocking back and forth, willing him to wake up, but he does not. Corran kneels down next to me and places his hand on my shoulder. "It'll be okay, Mara," he soothes. "He's alive. It'll be okay." I don't respond. All I can do is whisper over and over, "I'm sorry…I'm so sorry…" But Luke still does not come back to me. He is gone. 15. Chapter 14 A/N: Song for this chapter: Breathing Space, X-Ray Dog CHAPTER 14 Somehow, Corran manages to drag me away from Luke and pull me into a hug. I throw my arms around him, ready to bury my face in his shoulder and let out all my grief. But then I stop myself. This isn't me. I'm a fighter. And I need to fight for him. In one fluid movement, I rip Corran's comlink from his belt and jump up from my place on the floor. "Cilghal, this is Mara. Meet us outside the temple; it's an emergency. Master Skywalker has been hurt." Just as quickly I toss the comlink back to him and reach down to grab Luke's arm. Corran gapes at me, unmoving. "Well are you gonna help me carry him, or do I need to levitate him out to the speeder?" Corran blinks, then jumps up, grabbing Luke's other arm and hoisting him to a standing position. We hobble outside the temple with Luke slumped in between us, and I do my best not to look at his lifeless face. On the ride back I sit with Luke in the back of the landspeeder, holding his hand, trying to reach out to his Force presence that seems just barely out of reach. When we arrive back at the Academy, Cilghal rushes Luke into the small medical room. She examines him thoroughly, but cannot find anything physically wrong with him. His vital signs are completely normal, and he responds to outside stimulus, but he will not wake up. I stay by his side while Cilghal performs her monotonous examinations, but after she is finished I make myself leave to get something to eat. I'm not going to be any help to him if I starve to death. I head to the mess and settle down at a small table with Tionne, Kam, Corran, and Tyria. I notice Kyp Durron sitting by himself, looking distraught. He rushes out of the mess as soon as he sees me arrive. "How are you doing?" Corran asks me, his voice deep with concern. "Fine," I reply, forcing myself to believe that statement, because I cannot afford to be anything other than fine right now. I have to be strong for Luke. "Were you able to find anything?" I ask Tionne, who is surrounded by pieces of flimsiplast, several datapads, and the two holocrons. The blonde woman shakes her head. "Nothing concrete. I've found information about Exar Kun's history, but nothing about how his spirit came to be in that temple, or how we can possibly defeat him. And now, with him in Master Skywalker's body…" she trails off, uncertain of her next words. "What?" I demand. "I believe that Exar Kun's spirit is trying to possess Master Skywalker, just as he did with Kyp Durron," Tionne explains. "But Master Skywalker is too powerful to let him take over. I think…I think they're dueling inside his mind, for control of his body." "So Luke can eventually win out?" I ask hopefully. Tionne shrugs. "My understanding of the Force just isn't strong enough yet to comprehend what is happening. With enough power, we might be able to reach out to Master Skywalker's spirit and bring him back, but I fear he's too far out of reach for us." "So you're saying there's nothing we can do?" Corran demands. Tionne looks down at the table, looking forlorn, and Kam squeezes her hand. "She's doing the best she can," Kam says, his voice getting an edge to it. Corran sighs. "I know. I'm sorry. We're all frustrated and worried right now." "Is there anything we can do to help?" Tyria asks. Tionne hands her a datapad. "This is all the information I've been able to compile about the fight against Exar Kun thousands of years ago. Studying the history further can't hurt us." Tyria nods and turns on the datapad, settling in to read. Suddenly I sigh, realizing that we have forgotten something very important. "Um…has anyone contacted Leia Organa Solo and told her what's happened?" Corran groans. "Damn, I knew I was forgetting something. I'll go comm them." "I'll go with you," I say, wanting the distraction. When we arrive in the Academy's main office, Corran quickly establishes a connection with the Solo residence. Instead of Han or Leia, however, the comm is answered by a golden protocol droid. "Hello, I am See-Threepio, human-cyborg relations. Thank you for contacting the Solo residence. How may I be of service?" I roll my eyes; all we need right now is a prissy answering machine. Thankfully, Corran answers for the both of us. "This is Corran Horn and Mara Jade from the Jedi Academy. We have an urgent need to speak with Princess Leia." "Oh, I'm terribly sorry sir," Threepio apologizes. "I'm afraid Mistress Leia is not present." "Can we speak to Captain Solo, then?" "I'm terribly sorry sir, but Master Han is not present, either." "Where are they? We need to speak with them immediately about Master Skywalker," Corran demands. "I'm terribly sorry sir, but I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to divulge that information to anyone but Master Luke." I lean forward into the camera and glare at the protocol droid as much as I can through the HoloNet connection. "Listen, you shiny piece of—" Before I can finish, a loud twittering noise interrupts the conversation. Luke's astromech comes rolling forward from his place in the office, obviously aware that I am about to go off on his counterpart. "Artoo Deetoo!" Threepio exclaims. "It is so good to see you! I hope that you are faring well at the Jedi Academy. I'm afraid that taking care of the two young Solo children is entirely too much for my circuits—" Artoo makes another twiddling noise, cutting off Threepio before I can slam my hand through the computer terminal. "What did you say? Master Luke is in trouble? Oh my! You must do something, Artoo!" "Threepio," Corran interjects with as much patience as possible, "we appreciate your concern, but could you please tell us where Han and Leia are so we can let them know what's happened?" "Why sir, they are onboard the Millennium Falcon right now, on their way to Yavin IV." I slam my hand down on the desk. "Dammit, Threepio, why didn't you say so before?" I yell as I cut the HoloNet connection, while Artoo blows raspberries at me. When Han and Leia arrive at the Academy, they immediately head to the medical room to see Luke. Leia doesn't even look at me, and the thought of Luke's sister being upset with me hurts me greatly. Leia was one of the first people in the New Republic to accept me, and now I feel as if she blames me for what has happened to her brother. I stand outside the medical room, leaning against the wall, as she goes inside to sit with Luke. Han stays outside with me, wanting to give Leia some privacy. After a few moments, Han reaches out and grabs my hand. "How're you holding up, kid?" he asks, his voice laced with concern. I shrug. "I'm fine," I lie, but Han is not easily fooled. He raises his eyebrows at me. I ignore him and slide down the wall, sitting sit cross-legged on the floor. Han joins me on the ground, cringing as his joints crack. "You know, this is just what Luke was like, when you were unconscious." "Really?" "Actually, I think he was worse. But don't you worry your pretty little head off," he continues. "I've seen the kid get out of much worse scrapes than this." "You mean like on Myrkr?" I ask with a smirk on my face. Han chuckles. "Yeah. Trust me, he'll be fine." I sigh. "I hope so." "Look, I won't pretend to understand what's going on, but can't you all reach out to him through the Force?" "We've tried, but none of us are strong enough," I explain. "It's like he's just out of reach." Han gives me a knowing look. "Even for you?" I look down at my hands, suddenly embarrassed. "Well, what's this? Mara Jade, blushing? Now I've seen it all," Han teases me. I smile despite my unease, and he puts his arm around me. "Come on, Mara. If anyone should be in there right now, it should be you." I shake my head. He doesn't understand…he doesn't know what we said to each other…that I left him there…that this is all my fault. Suddenly, I can't help but laugh. "What's so funny?" Han asks. "Nothing," I lie, stifling my laughter, but unable to push the irony out of my mind. Because now I finally understand just how Jedi Master Luke Skywalker feels every day of his life, as he takes on the responsibility for everything that happens around him, even when, deep down, he knows he is not to blame. And it completely and utterly sucks. Luke! I wake with a start, his name shouting through my mind. I glance to my side…but my bed is empty. It always is. And I cannot sense his presence anywhere. But I just had, so intensely. How that is even possible, I don't understand. Then there is a knock at my door, and I hold my breath in anticipation, considering what I just felt, and praying that Luke is outside my door, coming back to me… But the wind is knocked out of me as I realize that, on the other side of the door, stands not Luke Skywalker, but Leia Organa Solo. Briefly, I consider ignoring her, but it would be pointless. "Mara," she begins without preamble after I open the door. "May I come in?" I nod, not trusting myself to speak just yet. I gesture for her to sit on my bunk, and take a seat in my much less comfortable chair. We sit facing each other for several moments. In the silence, I think back to Wayland, and how Leia came to my assistance during my duel with Joruus C'baoth. She was one of the first people in the New Republic to trust me, even as I stood in front of her and told her that I was going to kill her brother. Not just her brother…her twin. Finally gaining the courage to look into her eyes, I am almost startled at how much she reminds me of Luke. Not in looks, of course—the two of them do not resemble each other one iota—but when facing her, it is impossible not to sense Luke's essence inside of her. I shake my head in disbelief, incredulous that they could have gone so many years without realizing their connection in the Force. Ever the politician, Leia gets straight to the point. "I know about you and my brother." "Oh?" It is the only way I can think to respond. "He didn't tell me anything, if you're wondering. But he didn't have to." "Your husband said the same thing." "Well, we've known Luke for a long time." I glance down at my hands, hearing her unspoken implication —that they knew him long before I came along. I grimace, preparing for her onslaught. "Don't let him be an idiot, Mara." I look up at her again. "…Excuse me?" "I know how strong you are. If anyone can stand up to my stubborn, thick-skulled brother, it's you. And if you really want what's best for him, you need to do that." I stare at her, vaguely aware that my mouth is hanging open in disbelief. "You…you want me to be with your brother?" "Does that surprise you?" "Frankly, considering my background, it does." "I admit, I was wary of you at first. I had the displeasure of meeting the Emperor, and the fact that you were so close to him was unsettling. But after speaking with you just once, and then your assistance with Jaina and Jacen, I knew that you could be trusted; that whatever you may have been at one time, you were no longer that person. But most of all, I saw the way my brother acted around you. I knew that anyone who made him so incredibly happy deserved all my trust." My mouth begins to tremble. "I make him happy?" It's such a dumb question; I know that I do—he has told me as much. But he has also told me that I make things difficult, and that his life would be easier without me, and he consistently fights against his feelings for me. And I told him that I hate him. Leia smiles at me sympathetically. "You don't see it?" "I guess, but…" She shakes her head. "You have no idea, Mara. No idea at all." "What do you mean?" "Luke mentioned that you've taken to calling him 'Farmboy,'" Leia says. I blush, for some reason embarrassed that she knows my nickname for her brother, even as innocent as it is. "It's funny that you picked up on that right away, when you didn't even know him back then." "Back when?" I ask. Leia takes a deep breath before continuing, as if she's preparing to give a political speech and try to recruit me to her side. "You know, the first time I saw Luke was when he burst into my cell onboard the Death Star, ripped off his stolen stormtrooper helmet, and exclaimed, 'I'm Luke Skywalker, I'm here to rescue you!' I'm sure you know the story. If I hadn't been in such a dire situation, I might have laughed in his face—and honestly, I almost did laugh at him. He was such a stark contrast to everyone I knew in political circles on Alderaan. You know what I mean." I nod, understanding completely, remembering all the times I was forced to attend Imperial Court and the extravagant balls, and wondering how people could possibly deal with all of that pomp and circumstance on a daily basis. "But Luke was an entirely different breed. He seemed so much younger than me, and so innocent. Even after destroying the Death Star and becoming the best pilot in the Alliance, he still remained that innocent farm boy from Tatooine. It was what we all loved most about him. "But then Bespin happened. We fell into a trap and Luke came to save us, even though I prayed that he wouldn't, but he couldn't leave us to die there. After we rescued him, and I saw him standing there onboard the Falcon, it was like I was looking at a completely different person. Sure, he seemed like the same man, and most people were none the wiser—he still had the same steadfast desire to see the good in everyone, the same optimism, the same positivity that everyone fed off. But his innocence died on that day he fought Vader. I didn't know why at first, but later, when he finally told me, it made perfect sense. When Vader said that he was his father, everything in his life was shattered." I bite my lip in anger, remembering a similar moment of my own on Wayland, when I learned that Luke was Vader's son and I realized that the Emperor's last command was just one final act of vengeance towards his treacherous apprentice. Like Luke, everything in my life fell apart in that one moment, when I finally understood that everything I thought I knew was a lie. "He picked up the pieces well enough," Leia continues, unaware of my musings, "and found some peace after Endor, but since then, he's continued to take on more and more burdens and become less and less of that farm boy, especially after opening the Academy. "But with you, Mara…all anyone has to do is mention your name, and his eyes light up, and I see that same farm boy who burst into my cell on the Death Star. Most people don't notice it, but I do. I see it in his eyes, and I feel it in the Force, even as much as he tries to hide it from me. And the times I've seen him with you…it's so hard for me not to burst into tears, seeing how happy you make him. It's so rare to see him like that nowadays, and he deserves it so much, more than anybody else in the galaxy. And in the short time I've known you, I've seen that Luke has changed you as well. Your edge has gotten just a little bit softer…you smile a lot more…you're the same Mara Jade, only happier. "You two bring out the best in each other. Don't deny yourselves that. Make him realize that he can't do this without you, because you know how he is…he will take on all the responsibilities in the galaxy to atone for our father's sins, and he will do it all by himself. Don't let him do that, because it will break him." My words…exactly. "I can't convince him, Mara. I've tried, and so has Han. You're the only person who can get through to him. He needs you. And you need him. "So when he wakes up—not if, but when—promise me you'll do whatever it takes to make him understand that the galaxy doesn't need him to be a fearless Jedi who stands alone, with no one there to pick him up when he falls. The galaxy had thousands of such heroes, and look what happened to them. No, that's not what the galaxy needs—the galaxy needs Luke Skywalker, a farm boy from Tatooine, to lead us into the light. "And you're the only person who can make him realize that." 16. Chapter 15 A/N: Song for this chapter: Storms in Africa, Enya CHAPTER 15 I stand silently in the doorway, hesitant to move inside the medical room, but unable to walk away. I stare at Luke, lying lifeless on the cot, forcing myself to remain strong, and not break down upon seeing him in such a state. I only move from that position when Cilghal greets me. I shake myself and turn to her. "Hi, Cilghal. Um…is it alright if I sit with him?" "Of course. I'll just step out for a few minutes; I have some things to take care of." I nod and step into the room, hesitating until Cilghal exits into the hallway and shuts the door behind her. Slowly, I take a seat next to the bed. "Hey, Skywalker. How's it going?" I chuckle as I take in his lifeless face. "Yeah, dumb question, I know. You'll have to forgive me; I've never talked to a comatose person before, so I'm not really sure what to do here. "Anyway, Cilghal said we should talk to you normally, that it might stimulate your mind or something. I guess it can't hurt. And I have to admit that your inability to make smart-mouth retorts is very appealing. So here goes." I take out my datapad and begin to read some headlines from the HoloNet. "Slingball championships are going on next week on Kuat. The Corellian Bashers are favored to win, and of course Corran is insufferable about it. I still think the Coruscant Stars will beat them, though. We made a bet on it. Winner has to do the other's laundry for a month. I better win, 'cause I hate doing laundry." I pause for a moment, waiting for his silent laughter to end. Then I continue my rambling. "Incom is putting out a new X-wing prototype. Corran and Tyria can't stop talking about it. Apparently Rogue Squadron is going to test it out. So you better get out of this coma or whatever it is soon, because they'd probably kill to have Luke Skywalker test out their new prototype. And I know you'd give your right hand to do so. Haha, that was a good one, don't you think?" Again I pause, imagining him rolling his eyes at my bad joke. "I guess you'd probably like to know some serious stuff, being the great Jedi Master and all. There've been some more battles near the Remnant. There's some new admiral, Daala, who has been skulking around the Maw Installation. Ackbar and Pellaeon have had some more skirmishes. It's been rumored that Pellaeon is starting to think about signing a treaty. Can you imagine what that would mean if that came to pass? None of us are getting our hopes up, but it would be amazing, wouldn't it? I never thought it would happen in my lifetime—peace between the Republic and the Empire. It makes you wonder what Palpatine would say about all this, huh?" I pause once more for his unspoken retort. "Oh, I almost forgot—your friend Wedge Antilles is getting married. Corran and Tyria found out the other day and told me to tell you. Corran says you're needed at the bachelor party, so you better wake up soon. Wes Janson is planning it, so it should be quite the event. And they want you to be in the wedding, so if you need a date, well, I guess I'd be willing to go with you." His breathing quickens for a moment, then settles back into its regular pace. "So, yeah, about that. Since I have your captive audience, I'm gonna get some things off my chest, and there's nothing you can do about it." I reach out and take his hand before saying my next words. "I want you to know that you were right. You should mark this occasion down, because I rarely say that." His hand twitches in mine. "I should have listened to you. I should have let you help me confront my past. If I were stronger now, I might be able to save you. But I'll still try as hard as I can to get you back. I promise." His breathing quickens again. "You know, your sister came to see me the other night. She told me to knock some sense into you, and make you see that you can't do everything by yourself. That you'll break if you try. If this doesn't convince you, I don't know what will." His lip curls. "She also said…that we should be together. She's smart, so I'm tempted to agree with her. Then again, she did marry Han Solo, so I have to question her judgment a bit." His eyes flinch. "I mean, I don't know if you even want to be my friend anymore after what happened between us. I hope that you do. Honestly, I can't imagine you not being in my life in some way. Isn't that ridiculous? I can't believe I just admitted that. And you better not tell anyone I said that, or I'll really kill you this time." A soft moan escapes his lips. "Anyway, no matter what happens…I'll always be here for you. I just hope that now you realize that you can't keep pushing everyone away…that you can't keep pushing me away…because even I have my limits, Skywalker. I don't know if I can get hurt again. But, if you still want me…I'll always be here to catch you when you fall." I squeeze his hand, willing him with every fiber of my being to wake up, but he does not. I feel tears come to my eyes as I reach up to push a lock of hair from his face. "I'm so sorry for what I said to you," I whisper as my hand trails down his cheek. "You know that I didn't mean it. It's exactly the opposite." I take a deep breath. "I—" I pause, unable to finish my words. Even after all that has happened between us, I still cannot bring myself to say them aloud. But then again, with him, I don't have to. I love you. Unable to look at him anymore, I rise from my seat to leave the room, but something stops me before I can turn away. Just barely, I feel slight a slight tugging on my arm. I do need your help, Mara… Breathlessly, I look down, and see Luke's thumb gently caressing my hand. All of your help… For several moments, I cannot move. Then, my breath catches in my throat, and then I am flying out of the room, barreling down the hallway towards Tionne's quarters. I know how to get him back. A group of Jedi apprentices, a former smuggler, and a Princess stare at me expectantly. I stand in front of them, looking down at my datapad at the speech I have prepared. I have lived with the apprentices for several months, and have grown to call Han and Leia my friends. I shouldn't feel so apprehensive about speaking in front of them. But suddenly I feel terrified. How does Luke do this? I laugh at myself, again appreciating the irony of being thrust into taking on Luke Skywalker's burdens and truly understanding how he feels every day. I take a deep breath and begin to speak. "So, I'm sure you're wondering why I asked you all here. I'll cut right to the chase. I know how to get Master Skywalker back." As expected, everyone sits up a bit straighter in anticipation. Their excitement bubbles through the Force. Leia gives me a knowing smile, and Han winks at me. I roll my eyes and don't even think about looking at Corran and Tyria right now. "As Tionne said, Master Skywalker's spirit seems to be just out of reach. Whenever we try to reach out to him through the Force, we're unable to bridge that gap. But we've been going about it with the wrong strategy. We need to work together to reach out to him. Tionne?" She steps forward. "In some of our lessons, Master Skywalker spoke about how Jedi of the past were able to join together in battle meditation. It was very difficult to do this, but as Master Skywalker always reiterated, a group of Jedi working together is always greater than the sum of its parts. Mara and I believe that if we all join together and fight back Exar Kun with the light, we can defeat him." For a moment, nobody speaks. I know what they are thinking. We are merely fifteen Jedi apprentices. Sure, many of us are very strong in the Force, but we have never done something like this before. It was extremely difficult, even for Jedi Knights in the Old Republic. "It will be difficult," I say, "but we have no other choice if we want to get Master Skywalker back. He has taught us everything he knows. I know that we can do this." As I finish speaking, Tyria meets my eye and offers an encouraging smile. I smile back at her before continuing. "The battle meld will require a coordinator—someone who is very strong with the mental aspects of the Force." I turn to Corran, who sits next to Tyria. "Can you do it?" His eyes widen. "Me?" I nod. "We think you're the best for the job." Of course, CorSec is never one to step down from a challenge. "I can do it." "Good. Durron?" His head snaps up. "Me?" "We need someone to lead the fight against Exar Kun," Tionne explains. "You've already defeated him." His fear is obvious. "But I…I don't think I can. I don't think I'm strong enough…I already let him inside me—" "But you beat him," I interrupt. "You did it once. You can fight him again." "You don't understand—" "Master Skywalker accepted you back into the Order for a reason. Do you want to prove him right, or do you want to make us all question why you're here?" I know that my tone is harsh, but it is necessary. He stares at me for a moment, unable to speak. "Come on, Kyp," I challenge. "Prove me wrong." In that moment, something shifts inside him. His green eyes flash with confidence and self-acceptance. His shoulders straighten, and his jaw sets in determination. "Okay," he says. I tilt my head at him. "Lastly, we need someone to reach out to Luke's spirit, and bring him back while we're fighting against Kun," Tionne continues. "Obviously, Leia, we think you should be the one to do that. You're the closest to him." Luke's sister nods at Tionne. I sense her hesitation, but she does not protest. "Okay, then," I say. "Everyone get a good night's rest. We leave for Exar Kun's temple at sunrise." Everyone stands, but Leia approaches me before I can leave the mess. "You should do it." I look at her curiously. "Do what?" "You should be the one to reach out to Luke." "Me? No, you're his sister. You have the strongest bond with him." "She's right, Mara," Han chimes in from over her shoulder. "You're the only one who can bring him back." "No, absolutely not," I refuse. I know that they believe that I can get through to Luke, but Leia is his sister—his twin. There is no way that what Luke and I have could ever compare to that. "You're wrong," Leia counters, her brown eyes locking with mine. I take a deep breath, realizing that she has just sensed my thoughts. She clasps my hand. "You need to do this, Mara. I told you, you're the only one who can get through to him." "But—" "No buts, Mara! You should be the one to do it. Trust me." I sigh, running my fingers through my hair. "You Skywalkers really are stubborn." She gives me a smile fit for a Princess. "I know. And that's why you belong." He sits alone at the edge of the abyss, his light slowly fading away into darkness. Black sand sinks under my feet as I approach him. He does not look at me as I sit down next to him. I reach out my hand, but he does not accept it. "I was hoping you'd come," he says. "I almost didn't," I admit. "I know." A dark wave crashes at our feet. He inhales deeply, breathing in the cloudy, salty air. "You never used to have such a hard time believing in yourself. What changed?" I lean back to stare at the black stars above us. "Everything." Again I reach out my hand to him, but he continues to ignore it. The air grows thicker between us, and I wonder if I shouldn't have been the one to come. "Why won't you believe in yourself?" he asks against my unspoken doubts. I don't answer. Instead, I set my jaw, and stick my hand in front of him again. He looks down at it hesitantly. "We're waiting for you," I tell him. He continues to stare at my hand. "Your sister told me to come get you. I'm not leaving without you." In the distance, a storm cloud forms. Rain begins to travel towards us. His light fades even more. "I'm not leaving without you." "It's so peaceful here," he whispers. "No burdens. No expectations. No doubts. And now, you're here. It's perfect." "No, it's not, Luke. This isn't what you want." "And here I thought you've been trying to convince me to just be a normal person." "I have, but I realize now that you will never be a normal person. It's not what you're meant to be. It's not what you want to be. You're a fighter, like I am. And no matter what, you will always fight for the galaxy. "Do you know why your father gave up, Luke? It's because he had nothing left. He had no wife, no children, no master, no apprentice, no friends. He had nothing left but the dark side. "But you have fourteen apprentices fighting for you right now. You have a sister and a brother who love you. You have a niece and a nephew who are waiting to learn from you. You have friends who care as much for you as they do family. "And you have me." Finally, he turns his head. We lock gazes, and again I push my hand towards his chest, urging him to take it. "I don't know what the future holds for us, Luke. All I know is that I want you in it. Please. Let me help you. "Take my hand." He does. The abyss collapses in on itself, and for a moment, there is nothing. Then the universe explodes in a light so blindingly brilliant that I cannot see. I blink my eyes against the light, and I feel his hand in mine, guiding me forward. The light subsides, and we fall to the ground behind a circle of light. A large, dark figure looms in the center. A lone man stands in front of him, the light from his soul forcing the dark man back. I step forward to join the others in their fight, reaching for the lightsaber on my belt, but Luke's hand stops me. Not like that. I nod in understanding and pull back my hand. He takes it again, and we join Leia and the other apprentices in the circle. Slowly, our light begins to expand, melding with the others, until we are surrounded in brilliance. The dark man rushes forward, throwing out his arm to push aside the man in front of him and get to Luke, but Kyp stands firm. "No," he says. "You go through me." They fight, sabers clashing violently, as the light grows even more intense, filling my spirit with love. The light pushes forward and slowly begins to seep into the dark man. He screams and pushes forward, but the light holds him back. It begins to suffocate him, to crush him, to destroy him. He looks up, and his yellow eyes connect with Luke's. They stare at each other, two unmovable objects locked in fierce combat. Kyp steps in between them. "I said you go through me," he growls. Then the light explodes. There is a scream. And then Exar Kun is no more. The wind is knocked out of me as my spirit collapses back into my physical body. The world spins around but I hold on to Corran's hand, forcing myself to stay upright. I feel nauseous and incredibly weak, but I force my eyes open. Everyone else looks as sick as I do, and Han clutches Leia's arm, holding her upright, his eyes deep with concern. Then, we all notice it at the same time: a faint glow around Luke's body. It grows stronger and brighter by the second. Clasping hands again, we reach out into the Force, calling Luke's spirit back into his body. I can feel his essence again through the Force, and I reach out to him, urging him back to me. I squeeze his hand… And then his back arches against the tomb as he opens his mouth to gasp for breath. The relief in the air is palpable, and everyone begins speaking to him, welcoming him back home. Turning to his right, he faces his sister, who has tears streaming down her face. She reaches down to hug him, and Han pats him on the arm, grinning like a fool. The twins murmur soft words to each other, but I cannot make out what they are saying. I watch them for a few seconds, and then Corran puts his arm around me and I lay my head on his shoulder. He smiles and begins to guide me away from the altar. I grudgingly turn away, but before I can leave, I feel a gentle tugging on my arm, forcing me to stop. Luke is still wrapped in his sister's embrace, but his other hand holds on to mine. Through the Force, he sends out just how much he wants to hold me and tell me that everything will be okay, but for now, this is enough. I stare down at our hands joined together, and then, as I watch, his thumb begins to move slowly against my fingers, and I hear his voice so clearly inside my mind: Thank you. 17. Chapter 16 A/N: Song for this chapter: Can't Help Falling in Love, Elvis Presley A/N: Song for this chapter: Full of Grace, Sarah McLachlan CHAPTER 16 From my usual spot on the ground of the garden, I watch the Millennium Falcon disappear into the Yavin IV sky. Just barely, Leia's Force sense reaches out to me, and I smile, sending mine own back to her in good-bye. After several minutes, I feel Luke's presence at the back of the garden. He stands there for a long time, both hesitant to enter but unable to walk away, as conflicted as I am. I sigh, knowing that we can't avoid this any longer. "Well, don't just stand there," I call out, breaking the ice. I hear him chuckle as he walks over and joins me on the ground. "So. Does this feel like home yet?" he asks. "Yeah," I admit. "I guess it does." I rub my hands over my arms as the air grows chilly, and he takes his cloak off and drapes it over me. I look at him gratefully. "How do you feel?" I question. "Fine. Tired, but fine. And really glad to be back." "We all are." He smiles and takes my hand. It's quiet for a long time. I close my eyes, imagining that Luke and I are two normal people on a faraway planet, with no other cares or obligations in the universe, content to hold each other's hands and enjoy each other's company on a quiet, serene evening. Luke shifts next to me, and I know that he has sensed my thoughts. He wishes it were true, as well. The moment is broken, and we both speak at the same time: "Mara—" "Luke—" We glance at each other. "Ladies first," he offers. "Age before beauty." He gives me a small smile and nods, anxiety rolling off him in waves. "I guess we need to talk." My lip twitches. "Yeah." Even through the darkness of night I can see the weariness in his expression. "You know that I have to take him back." "Yeah," I acquiesce. "But…I guess I still just don't understand how you can forgive so easily." "It's who I am. I've forgiven people for much worse." "Vader was your father. It's completely different." "No, it's not. You witnessed first hand the atrocities Vader committed. You know what he did to me, and to Leia, and to Han. And yet, I still forgave him. So if I don't accept someone back into the Order for just one mistake, what does that say about me?" I know that Luke is right. I know that Kyp has proven himself, and that he belongs. But no matter how much Luke argues, no matter how hard he tries to get me to understand, I will never believe that everyone deserves to be forgiven. One thing my life has taught me is that not all people deserve redemption. "What about Palpatine?" I ask. "What?" He gives me a curious look. My voice quivers as I explain, afraid of his reaction. "If Palpatine had renounced the dark side at the Battle of Endor, would you have forgiven him?" He sputters, indignant at my question. "That's…that's a totally different situation and you know it!" "Why? Because he was the master, and not the apprentice?" "No—" "Because there wasn't any good inside of him?" "No—yes! It's a ridiculous question! It would never have crossed his mind! He was beyond redemption." And there it is—recognition that I am right; that some people cannot be forgiven. But I keep pushing him. "Why?" Luke is angry now, I can tell, but he struggles to keep his emotions in check, just as a Jedi Master should. "Oh, let's see, do you want the long list, or the short one?" I look him straight in the eye. "I am the long list," I reply, my voice laced with regret. As soon as I finish my sentence, Luke's entire expression changes. He regards me with such deep sympathy that I am forced to look away. I try to focus on the stars above us, but Luke's hand reaches over and forces me to look at him. "I could never forgive Palpatine because of what he did to you," he tells me. "It's as simple as that." Part of me—the old Mara Jade—wants to slap him for thinking this way. I'm a big girl, and I can take care of myself. I don't need Luke to protect me, especially when he's been trying so hard to protect himself from his own feelings and hurting me in the process. But the other part of me—the new Mara Jade, who sprung to life inside the Mount Tantiss throne room, and blossomed when Luke gave me his old lightsaber and asked me to train as a Jedi —cannot help but rejoice at his statement. Unable to reconcile my thoughts, I remain quiet, pulling away from his touch to look back at the stars, pretending that they are much more interesting than the man lying beside me. But his other hand still holds on to mine. Then, just barely, his thumb starts to move against my hand. Even though I know that I should pull away, my hand starts to move against his as well…and after several long moments, our fingers are intertwining together, like two lovers. Through this, I get a flash of one of Luke's memories—of him lying unconscious in the medical ward, and me sitting by his side, holding his hand, saying that I could never hate him. "I know you didn't mean it," he whispers. He did hear me that night. He heard everything—every single word. Even the ones I didn't speak out loud. And that thought suddenly terrifies me. "I don't know why I said it," I say, trying so hard not to let him sense my apprehension about the other things he heard that night. "You were angry." "So were you. It doesn't matter. It was a horrible thing to say, and I feel awful about it." "It's okay. You know I didn't mean what I said either, right?" "Which part?" I don't intend to sound as sardonic as I do, and Luke winces beside me. "About you being here." "Yes, you did. You've said it before. I make your life difficult." "Maybe," he sighs, as he breaks contact with my hand to reach up and touch my hair, "but you are completely worth it." I roll my eyes, still unable to accept his compliments even after all this time. After a few moments, Luke begins speaking again. His voice is strong but hesitant, as if he is determined to speak his mind, even though he is petrified that I will now be the one to pull away. "There's something I need to tell you, Mara. You were what kept me alive—knowing that you were waiting for me. Knowing that you were fighting for me. You were what brought me back from the abyss. And when I woke up, I realized something…" Luke's caresses move further up my arm, and I suddenly can't stop thinking about what Leia asked of me—to convince her brother to give up all his burdens and be the farm boy again. I know that I should do what she asked. I know that she is right. I know that I'm the only person who can get through to Luke, and that we need each other. But I also remember Corran's words of advice—try not to get hurt. No matter how strongly I feel about Luke, I can't ignore that warning. I can't give in to my feelings only to get hurt again when Luke again decides that, for the good of the galaxy, he cannot allow himself to care. And most of all, I just cannot let go of the last remnant of the Emperor's Hand that burns inside of me—the girl who is still so reluctant to let her heart rule her head. Every time I have allowed that to happen, I have been crushed. For my own self-preservation, I can't go through that again. Sensing my thoughts, Luke rolls over on his side and turns my chin towards him again. I look into his eyes, keeping my stare as blank as possible, refusing to listen to my heart. Slowly, Luke puts his hand on my chest and lifts my necklace from underneath my robes. He smiles as he runs his fingers over the crystal, and I think back to the night he gave it to me, when everything changed. As if he is also remembering that moment—which he most certainly is—he leans over me, his mouth so unbearably close to mine, but he does not close the final distance between us. Instead, he opens his mind to me through the Force. Tears of joy sting my eyes as he sends out all of his desires, all of his thoughts, all of his emotions… Just how much he loves me… And something deep inside me snaps. I can't do this anymore. As the realization bursts through my heart like a supernova, Luke takes a deep breath. His next words echo my very thoughts —our thoughts—and form a soft whisper against my face: "…I realized I can't deny how much I've completely and utterly fallen for you, Mara Ja—" Before he can even finish his words, I reach up and pull him down on top of me, pressing my lips firmly against his; for once in my life, allowing my heart to win the battle, and it rejoices in victory. Luke kisses me back eagerly; I taste the smile on his lips, and he is once again that farm boy from Tatooine, his own heart finally free of all his unrealistic expectations and burdens. His arms wrap around me, bringing me even closer to him. I feel like I am suffocating in his embrace, and it is the most wonderful feeling in the galaxy. Every doubt, and every fear, melts away as I concentrate on nothing else but the man holding me in his arms. I don't know how long we remain exactly like that, kissing passionately on the ground of the garden, but eventually he lifts me up and carries me back into the Great Temple under the starlight. Hours later, I rest my head on Luke's chest, grinning like a fool, listening to his heart pound underneath me in ecstasy. I am glistening with sweat and my hair is tousled, but I have never felt more beautiful. I've dreamt about this moment since the first time he kissed me. I've wondered how he would feel. I've wondered how he would taste. I've wondered what it would be like to fall asleep in his arms. Every time I allowed myself to fleetingly think about this moment coming to pass, I found myself overcome with a bittersweet longing, because I truly never thought it would happen; and even if it did, I believed there was no way that it could ever live up to my expectations. But now I know that I was wrong, because it is so much greater than I could have ever imagined. Beside me, his body warm and strong, his mind calm and serene, I feel Luke drifting off to sleep. He strokes my hair absentmindedly, finally free of all his burdens, just as I am free of mine. I turn my head and stare up at his peaceful, sated face. After a moment, he senses me looking at him. His eyelids flutter open and he gives me a tired smile. "Quit staring at me and go to sleep," he murmurs. I shake my head against him, my long red hair tickling his naked torso. "No." "Yes, Padawan." "No, Master." Luke shakes his head and laughs. "Arguing even in bed," he muses. "Is this what I have to look forward to?" I bat my eyes at him. "If you're lucky." His eyes slowly move up and down my body, pressed up against his, and he moistens his lips. "Oh, trust me; I know that I'm lucky." Nothing can stop the huge grin from spreading across my face, and I lean over to kiss him again. He stifles a yawn as soon as I pull away. "Yawning already, Skywalker?" I pout, poking him in the stomach. "What if I'm not done with you yet?" "Sorry, Jade," he replies, grasping my hand and running his lips over my fingers, "but we've both got long days tomorrow, and I think it's safe to say that you've completely worn me out." "Well, what can I say? You bring out the best in me, Master," I reply, giving him a wicked smile. "The feeling is mutual," Luke laughs before yawning again. "So, are you gonna go to sleep or not?" Again I shake my head, and settle into the crook of his arm. "No. I just want to stay awake and memorize this moment." "Don't worry, if I have my way, there'll be plenty more of these moments." I didn't think it possible, but my smile grows even bigger. "I know," I say, "but I want to memorize this one." "Funny, I never imagined that the cool and tough Mara Jade would be such a hopeless romantic." "Well I never thought that I'd one day end up in bed with the great Jedi Master Luke Skywalker." "Touché," he laughs, kissing my forehead before wrapping me up even further in his arms. I watch him as his eyes start to close. He sighs contentedly, and a smile graces his lips as he drifts off to sleep. Ever the gentleman, he has one last thing to say before that happens. "Night, Mara," he says. Now it is my turn to sigh contentedly. "Night, Luke." We grow quiet. From outside Luke's window, I can hear the faint sounds of the jungle. I'm not tired, but there is no way in hell that I'm moving from this position any time soon. This moment has been too long coming, in so many ways. I just lie there and stare at the ceiling, listening to his heartbeat. Just as I think Luke has fallen asleep, I hear his voice again. "...Mara?" "Hmm?" He doesn't answer right away. I remain silent, patiently waiting for his words. After a few moments, before he finally succumbs to oblivion, I hear a soft whisper escape his lips. "I love you." My heart stops for long moments. It should be a triumph. It should be a moment of pure joy, to hear Luke say those words to me without any trace of fear or reluctance or worry. But instead, upon hearing him say the words that I hadn't even known I so desperately wanted to hear, my heart begins to break in two. In that instant, Luke's words from earlier in the evening begin to echo over and over in my mind—his claim that he could never forgive Palpatine because of what the Emperor did to me. At first, it seemed like such a loving, innocent comment. But now, it haunts me, and I can't push it out of my head. Luke would argue that I had been brainwashed. I know he's right; while serving the Emperor, I was led to believe that things were much different than they really were. I believed that the Empire was noble and worth fighting for. I believed that my master was honest and just. I believed that Luke Skywalker and the rest of the Rebellion were traitors and scum who deserved to be destroyed. So I served the Emperor willingly, and I fulfilled his orders without ever considering if they came from good or evil. I never once had a crisis of conscience, because I never allowed myself to stop and think about what I was doing. I believed in the Empire, and I believed in myself as the Emperor's Hand, and that was all that mattered. Because of that, my devotion to Palpatine knew no bounds. And even long years after his death, when I finally learned exactly what he was, I still couldn't break free of his will. I still obeyed his last command—to kill the man who I now love so much that it hurts. Since coming to the Jedi Academy months ago, I have refused to confront my past as the Emperor's Hand and learn to forgive myself. Instead of facing what I was, I have been trying to make up to the galaxy by becoming a Jedi—a being of light—just as Luke vows to ensure that Kyp Durron redeems himself for his transgressions in the dark side. Even as I have been trying to gain everyone else's forgiveness —Luke's, the New Republic's, even Karrde's—I have never stopped to consider the consequences of my actions on the one person who truly matters: myself. Luke said it a long time ago—I have to learn how to forgive myself if I want to realize my full potential in the Force. But I could never find it in me to forgive myself, and now, after hearing Luke say that he loves me, I finally understand why. When Luke said he was going to accept Durron back into the Jedi Order, I was sickened by the idea of fighting alongside someone who would so easily embrace the dark side. Even though I knew that everything Durron did was under the thrall of Exar Kun's spirit, I still couldn't understand how Luke could forgive him so easily for what he'd done. But me—I spent my entire life in willing service to those who embodied the dark side: Palpatine, my master, who I served loyally and blindly; and Vader, his apprentice, who I served begrudgingly, only because it pleased my master. I wanted nothing more than to do my master's bidding, so I served the dark side if not in spirit, but in action. If I couldn't forgive Kyp Durron for his one dalliance, his one mistake…how can I ever believe that I—Mara Jade, the Emperor's Hand—deserve to be forgiven for a lifetime of them? I can't. I don't. And that is why I will never be able to realize my full potential in the Force. Why I will never become the Jedi that Luke believes I should be. Why I will never be able to forgive myself. Because deep down, when I am truly honest with myself…I don't believe that I deserve forgiveness. I don't believe that I deserve any of this. Now, as I lie in Luke's arms, the realizations striking me like cruel, harsh blows, I understand that I have to leave the Jedi Academy—the only home I have ever known. I cannot stay. I don't belong here. I never have. Because I don't deserve to be a Jedi. And I will never, ever deserve to be loved by Luke Skywalker. Thinking all this, I curse Palpatine with all of my being, hating him more than I've ever hated anything in my entire life. Even from beyond the grave, he continues to destroy my life and deny me every bit of happiness I've ever known. I almost wish he were still alive so I could have the chance to kill him myself. Unable to fall asleep, still listening to Luke's steady, happy heartbeat underneath me, I can do nothing else but wipe away the tears of grief that sting my eyes, for I know that this is the end. 18. Chapter 17 CHAPTER 17 Unlike the last time I found myself in Luke's bed, he is still asleep when I wake up. Briefly, I consider the idea of leaving Yavin IV without saying good-bye to him, but I can't bring myself to do that to him. He deserves better. But I can't bring myself to tell him just yet that I'm leaving. He looks so peaceful, so happy, so unencumbered by his burdens. He has already done so much in his short life, and it truly pains me that he still feels that he has so much more to do. Closing my eyes again, I think back to that girl who was able to perform any task with logic and reason. The girl who never once considered her feelings or emotions. The girl who never let her heart rule her head. It would be so easy to be her again right now. But I'm not, and I never will be. Setting my jaw in determination, I push myself up from the bed and start to get dressed. I try to be as quiet as possible, but Luke hears me and stirs. "Where are you going?" he asks sleepily, rolling over and reaching his arm out to try to grab me. He looks so happy and his eyes are twinkling and I just want to jump back into bed and stay there forever with him. But I can't. I'd be fooling myself. I don't belong. I give him a fake smile and make up an excuse. "I promised Corran I'd spar with him this morning." Luke pulls a face. "Leaving me for another man already?" His statement stops me in my tracks. "Never." He tilts his head at me, then smiles. "Comm him and tell him that Master Skywalker is requesting you for some private lessons." Even though I feel like the most horrible person in the galaxy, he still manages to make me smile. "I can't, Luke, I promised. I'm sorry." "Bah!" he replies. He rises from the bed and pulls on a pair of shorts, then comes to kiss me good-bye. I savor it, knowing that this is the end. When he pulls away, he stares deep into my eyes. "Tonight?" he asks, nuzzling against my neck suggestively. I nod. Yes, I will see him tonight. And I will break his heart, along with mine. I spend the rest of the day going through my normal routine as best I can, acting like the dutiful apprentice when I'm around Luke, and he is too busy to try to corner me in empty classrooms. When I'm back in my quarters at the end of the day, I quickly pack up my scant belongings and take one last look around my home on Yavin IV. I contemplate telling Corran and Tyria in person that I'm leaving, but I don't think I'll be able to handle it. I feel awful enough just thinking about what I'm about to do. When I arrive, Luke opens his door with a grin, but it is wiped from his face as soon as he sees the satchel on my shoulder. He stares at it for a second, a look of realization crossing his face, before looking back at me. "Moving in already?" he jokes, trying to convince himself that I am not actually leaving. I shield my thoughts from him as best as I can. I know that he deserves a good-bye in person, but I can't let him know exactly why I'm leaving. He would never understand. Nobody would. I don't speak, and then he opens the door further, inviting me inside. We stand facing each other in silence for long moments. "Why?" he finally asks. I swallow, forcing my shields to stay in place. "I just don't feel like I can do this. I'm not advancing the way I should. I don't think that I'm meant to be a Jedi. I'm sorry." Luke bites his lip, and I can tell that he is conflicted between acting as my lover, or as my master. He opts for the latter. "You're the strongest one here. You're getting better every day. You just need more time." I shake my head. "No. Time isn't going to fix anything. It's just not going to work." Silence falls between us, and he reaches out to take my hand. "I think you're wrong." "I know you do. I hate to disappoint you, but I can't stay here knowing that I'll never live up to my full potential. I've tried, but I've failed." It is such a blatant lie and I feel awful telling it, but I can't give him the true reason—that I've figured it out, and I don't believe I deserve any of this. Or him. His Jedi Master mask falls off once again, and now all I see in front of me is Luke Skywalker, a normal man, desperately trying to get me to stay with him, so he can be happy. He tries one last time: "Please stay." I shake my head and force myself to be a heartless bicce, even though it hurts so much. "I can't." He looks away, his jaw beginning to tremble as he fights off his own tears, trying to be strong, just like I am. "Why now?" He doesn't have to say the rest: After last night. I look away, hating myself so much for what I'm doing to him. "It has nothing to do with you—with us." "Are you sure?" "Yes. You know I've been struggling with this for a long time. This has nothing to do with my feelings for you." Again, it is such a blatant lie, but I cannot tell him the truth—that it has everything to do with my feelings for him, because I do not deserve him. "But you're leaving anyway." I can't respond. "Where will you go?" His question makes me hate myself all the more, because even as I'm breaking his heart, all he cares about is my well-being. "Karrde," I reply. "I guess I should be glad he never replaced me, huh?" I add, trying to relieve the tension. Luke cracks a smile, but it's empty. "When are you leaving?" he asks, his voice trembling, afraid of my answer. "Now." It is the answer he didn't want to hear. But I can't give myself one more night with him, or I know that I will never be able to pull myself away. Luke nods. He wants to argue, to fight with all his being to make me stay with him, but he doesn't. He knows better. He knows that nothing can change my mind. I'm the old Mara Jade all over again. Even still, I wish that he would. Instead, he pulls me to him, wrapping his arms around me as tight as he can, and kisses me softly on the cheek. Before his kiss can move to my lips, I tear myself away and turn towards the door, forcing myself to be strong—to once again be the emotionless Emperor's Hand. As my hand hits the activation panel, he places his hand on my shoulder. I stop before walking through the door, but I don't look back at him. "Will you ever come back?" he whispers. I don't reply. It is the only answer he needs to hear. Slowly, his hand slips away. Before my tears can start to fall, I pass through the door and leave his quarters for the last time. Luke has already seen so much of me. I will not let him see me cry. As my headhunter whines with the sounds of the engines starting up, I pull out my datapad and transmit three messages. One is a general good-bye to all the students at the Academy, explaining my false reasons for leaving and thanking them for all the friendship and camaraderie they've given me. I finger my holdout blaster that I received on my birthday, knowing that I've never before experienced such a sense of belonging as I did at the Academy, and wondering if I'll ever find that again. I send the next message to Tyria, thanking her for being my friend when everybody else was too wary to approach me. I never thought I could be friends with someone like her. I will miss her dearly. The last message is for Corran, the brother I never had, who has come to mean more to me than I ever thought possible. My message to him is short, but it will tell him all that he needs to know: I didn't take your advice. CorSec'll be able to figure out the rest. With a heavy sigh, I put down the datapad and begin the launch sequence. Then something compels me to look up. Luke is standing at the entrance to the hangar, hood up and cloak wrapped tightly around him. Through the darkness I see his face, and my eyes lock with his. I put up my shields as quickly as possible, but I know that he has sensed it. He knows there's something more to my leaving. But, ever the Jedi Master, he doesn't pry into my thoughts. He doesn't rail against me, or try to convince me to stay. He merely lifts one hand in good-bye. I raise one back at him. Then I maneuver the ship out of the hangar and blast off into the sky, leaving Yavin IV, and my life as a Jedi, behind. Luke's face is still burned into my mind when I pull the hyperdrive lever a few minutes later. I collapse back into the couch and close my eyes against the mottled lines of hyperspace, and then, thinking of all that I've lost, I finally allow myself to cry. . . . . . . I wake with a start, trying to figure out where I am. Looking around, I realize that I'm in my bunk, and I lay back down, taking deep breaths to calm myself. It was only a dream...only a nightmare. I try to close my eyes again, but it's no use. Even though it's nowhere near time for me to wake up, I know that I won't be able to get any more sleep, so I get dressed and make my way out of my quarters. After a few minutes I reach my destination. There's only one other person awake right now, and I take a seat in the empty chair next to him. Without saying a word, he hands over a mug of caf, and I accept it gratefully, pressing it to my lips. We sit quietly for a while, both sipping our drinks, watching the bustling space traffic out the viewport. Talon Karrde doesn't need to ask why I'm awake. We've had the same routine every night for the past year, ever since I returned from Yavin IV. As Coruscant spins beneath us, Karrde hands me a datapad. "Final guest list," he offers. I nod, but set the datapad aside. "I read it earlier." He pushes back his long, graying hair and glances at me out of the corner of his eye. "Are you familiar with any of the Imperial guests?" "Yes," I say. "I think they'll be willing to negotiate with you." "Good," Karrde replies. He clears his throat before continuing. "Did you happen to read the updated guest list for the New Republic?" I nod again and take another sip of caf, still not meeting his eye. "Are you sure you're still okay with attending?" I sigh. I really don't need Karrde treating me with kid gloves right now. "I'll be fine," I snap. "I already agreed to go, so that's that." "I didn't realize he'd be there when I asked you," he says apologetically. "He hardly ever leaves Yavin IV, after all." "I'll be fine, Talon," I repeat, my voice icy. "We can't skip this event. It's far too important, and besides, you already drove into my head how much business we'll get if these peace talks end up working out." Karrde places a hand on my arm. "Yes, it's important, but if you don't want to go, just say the word. Someone else can go with me." "Please," I laugh. "Who else do you have in your organization who knows the Empire as well as I do?" "You have a point." He peers at me skeptically, as if he's trying to find a reason for me not to have to go to the ball. "Do you think they'll be willing to speak with you even after you trained as a Jedi?" he asks. "Well I'm not a Jedi, and you've seen how they act around me. They all love to clamor for the attention of the former Emperor's Hand." Karrde nods in acquiescence, and we once again fall into a comfortable silence. He's become fiercely protective of me since I returned to his employ, but he never has once confronted me about what really happened to force me to abandon my training. Most of the time, I'm grateful for his concern, but with the ball marking the beginning of peace talks between the New Republic and the Imperial Remnant coming up tomorrow, I just want him to get off my back and let me do my job. It's the only way to keep my mind off the fact that I'll have to see Luke Skywalker again for the first time since I left the Jedi Academy. We've corresponded a lot via HoloNet messages. At first, it was completely innocent. He asked me how I was, and I did the same, and then we delved into small talk about Karrde's business and the Jedi Order, and then he told me about the twin's latest trouble, and I told him the latest "Ghent's in love with me" story. Then he asked me to return to the Academy. I refused politely, and then we went back to the same old small talk. Then he asked again, and I didn't respond. Then the cycle started again, and eventually, he asked me to meet him on Coruscant while he was on-planet doing some work for the new Jedi headquarters and visiting his family. Again, I said no, because I knew that, even though I didn't mind corresponding with him, I could never let myself come face to face with him again. And then the cycle started again. But now he and I will both be at the ball, and I will have no choice but to see him, and my stomach flutters whenever I think about looking into those clear blue eyes again. Even so, I know that the Luke I'll see tomorrow is not the same Master Skywalker I trained with at the Jedi Academy. Since I left, he's taken even more control of the Jedi Order, caring less and less about the opinions of the other Jedi. There are many more apprentices in attendance now, and he makes it a point to lead the training for all of them by himself, completely contrary to the original plans he shared with us. I know exactly why he's done this —he still blames himself for what happened with Jes Gantoris and Kyp Durron. And even though the rest of the original nine apprentices were recently Knighted, only Kam, Tionne, and Cilghal have remained at the Academy. The others went back to military service, knowing that they'd have better opportunities there than in the Jedi Order. As frustrated as Luke's actions have made me, I can't help but wonder if my leaving the Academy is the reason he's thrown himself headfirst into leading the Order…exactly same way I've dedicated myself fully to working for Karrde since abandoning my training. Sighing, I sit back in my chair and sip my caf some more, as Karrde starts rattling off about all the dignitaries he wants to speak with at the ball. I play the dutiful lieutenant and take notes on my datapad, forcing myself to focus on my job and forget about the butterflies in my stomach. But then, at the back of my mind, I sense a presence I haven't felt since the night I left Yavin IV. Since the last time I saw Luke's face, staring up at me in disappointment and heartache, as he held up a hand in good-bye. I close my eyes and reach out with the Force, and then I am certain. Luke is down there now, on Coruscant. I feel his presence brush up against mine, and even after all this time, after all that happened between us, as nervous as I am about seeing him tomorrow…it is still enough to make me smile. 19. Chapter 18 A/N: Song for this chapter: The Winner Takes It All, ABBA CHAPTER 18 The ball, as expected, is a magnificent affair. Karrde and I stand to the side of an elegant ballroom deep inside the Imperial Palace. When we first arrived, it felt so odd to be here again. I had spent so much of my life in this place, at fancy balls designed to appease the Royal Houses, acting as both a dancer and member of the Imperial court. As Luke once inferred, being here again is almost like coming home…but not. And now, with such an event happening on New Republic turf, it is even more surreal. For the dinner reception, Karrde and I were seated at one of the outer tables. Karrde was his usual charming self while I played the role of dutiful assistant, mentally keeping track of everything that was said as well as taking note of the dignitaries to whom we really wanted to speak. And even though Karrde is probably the only one who noticed, I couldn't help but search the tables for Luke. I caught sight of him, just briefly, as he was seated at one of the head tables. To my utter relief, he did not have an escort. As soon as dinner was over, Karrde and I made our way into the ballroom, circling the room like predators scoping out our next meal. True to my word, the Imperials sought me out immediately, while the New Republic officials tended to gravitate towards Karrde. I couldn't help but smirk at the situation; even after helping defeat Grand Admiral Thrawn and training as a Jedi, the Imperials still clamor for my attention, just as they have done since it got out on the HoloNet that I was once the Emperor's Hand. I stand in a casual position, nursing my glass of ambrostine, not wanting to appear unsociable but not wanting to get too impaired to do my job. I hold up the glass, hiding the smile on my face at Karrde's obvious discomfort. A rather amorous-looking, but very annoying, senator from Commenor has cornered him, wanting to discuss potential "business opportunities." He keeps trying to catch my eye over the woman's shoulder, but I pretend not to notice and continue scanning the room for more potential business partners. Finally I take pity on him and reach around the senator to tap Karrde's shoulder. "Excuse me, Captain, but I'm afraid there's an urgent matter that needs attending." Karrde nods gratefully and kisses the woman's hand. "Thank you for speaking with me, Senator. I'll be sure to keep in touch." Before the woman can respond, Karrde steps around her and takes my arm, and we make our way to the other side of the ballroom. "Took you long enough," he mutters under his breath. "I don't know what you're talking about," I say, taking another sip of my drink to hide my smile. "Really? Then what's this urgent matter that needs attending?" I shrug. "I was bored listening to her talk." Karrde throws his head back and laughs. I grin at him. "Seriously, Karrde," I say, tightening my grip on his arm, "you shouldn't let yourself look so dashing or you'll have even more women fawning over you." He looks down at his extremely expensive designer suit, a stark contrast to what he normally wears while onboard the Wild Karrde. "What, this old thing?" he asks innocently. "Isn't that supposed to be my line?" "I don't think anyone would believe you if you tried to say that, Mara," he replies, glancing at my long, elegant green dress. "Speaking of which, would it be terribly wrong of me to tell you that you look stunning tonight?" "Only if you don't want me telling Shada you said that." "What?" he sputters. "Oh, nothing," I smirk. He gives me a pointed look, but I ignore him, turning my attention back to looking for potential clients. "So, who's next?" I ask Karrde. He takes out his datapad to check his list. All of a sudden, my danger sense spikes. I immediately tense up and glance around, trying to look casual. I have to remind myself not to reach for my weapon, as I doubt that the New Republic security forces would appreciate the former Emperor's Hand going on the offensive in the middle of an Imperial Palace ballroom. Plus, it's not that kind of warning, just an annoying feeling that something—no, someone—is out of place. "What is it?" Karrde asks, taking note of my suspicious mood. "Something's wrong," I tell him. He nods but doesn't press me; he's used to these Force hunches and they always end up being beneficial to him. I look over my shoulder, and then I see him. I narrow my eyes, mentally running over the guest list, and sure enough, this person is very out of place. "Was the guest list updated since yesterday?" I ask. Karrde shakes his head and pulls up the guest list. "No, why?" I take the datapad from his hand and scan through the document; sure enough, it's as I expected. I sigh. "Someone's here who shouldn't be." "Who?" "Sate Pestage." Karrde's jaw drops. "You're not serious." "I'm very serious." I tilt my head slightly in Pestage's direction. "See him?" "That doesn't look like him." "It is, trust me. He's disguised." "Alright, I believe you, but…isn't he supposed to be dead?" "Now you understand why he's so out of place." Sate Pestage, one of Palpatine's closest advisors and the former Grand Vizier of the Galactic Empire, was reportedly killed several years ago under the orders of Ysanne Isard. Even though Pestage attempted to aid the New Republic in the retaking of Coruscant, many people still view him as one of the biggest war criminals from the Empire. Not only that, but the Imperials consider him a defector. There must be a very important reason for him to be here right now, because if anyone realized that he were in attendance, he'd be under arrest faster than the Millennium Falcon could make the Kessel run. And the fact that Talon Karrde, information broker extraordinaire, did not know that Pestage was both alive and planning to attend this ball, is not a good thing at all. "Why in blazes would he come here?" Karrde asks. "That's a rather stupid thing to do." "I don't think he's been here all night. I just got the feeling a few moments ago. I think he came here for one very specific purpose." "And what purpose would that be?" I don't respond. Karrde stares at me for a moment, then raises one eyebrow in incredulity. "Wait a minute—you?" "That's the feeling I'm getting. I think he wants to speak with me about something. Something very important." "Well, why wouldn't he just speak with you over the HoloNet instead of taking this risk?" "I don't know!" I exclaim. "I'm sorry, but the Force isn't always so damn specific, you know. Next time I'll ask its secretary to take more copious notes." Karrde chuckles at my outburst, but quickly sobers. "Well, it looks like you'll be able to ask him yourself. He's making his way over here." "Oh, great," I sigh. I turn around and smile thinly at Pestage, who bows to me. I was never formally introduced to him during my time as the Emperor's Hand, but we are more than familiar with each other. "Mara Jade," he says. "It's a pleasure to see you again." "Likewise," I reply, shaking his hand and trying to keep my face as neutral as possible. Gesturing to Karrde, I say, "My I introduce my employer, Talon Karrde?" Pestage nods and shakes Karrde's hand. "Pleasure to meet you…" "Captain," Karrde supplies. "Captain Karrde," Pestage finishes. He turns to me again. "I apologize, Miss Jade, but you'll have to remind me of your current title." "Captain Jade will suffice. And what of you?" "Oh, you already know my title." I am suddenly extremely grateful of all my Jedi training, because it takes every ounce of self-control not to show my surprise at his statement. "Really?" I respond. "I wasn't aware that you had allied yourself with the Imperial Remnant, especially after they supposedly assassinated you." "That's because I'm not a member of the Imperial Remnant at all, Captain Jade." "Really?" I repeat, still doing my best to keep the shock out of my voice. Pestage nods. "I have found a much more…promising opportunity. In fact, I would very much like to speak with you about it soon." "Is that so?" "Yes," he replies. "If you don't mind, I'll have a message sent to you in a few days time with encrypted coordinates. I assure you, you will find it very beneficial to speak with us." "Why don't we just speak right now?" I ask, suddenly suspicious. Pestage looks around the room. "Oh, you never know who might be watching…or listening." I force myself to smile at him again. "Well, then, I look forward to hearing from you." "Until we meet again, Captain Jade," he says, kissing my hand in farewell. I wait until he leaves the room before I shudder. "What was that about?" Karrde mutters. "You know as much as I do," I reply dryly. Slowly, we begin to make our way around the ballroom again. "What do you think he really wants?" I shrug. "I guess we'll find out in a few days." Karrde glances at me. "Are you going to agree to meet with him?" "I don't know. It depends on what he has to say." "You should find out how he's not dead." "Oh, I'm sure you'll start your research as soon as we get back onboard the Wild Karrde, if you haven't already commed Ghent to request that he start an investigation." Karrde laughs and takes my arm again. "You know me too well, Mara." We arrive near one of the refreshment tables and watch the dance floor in silence. After a few moments, Karrde glances over my shoulder and breaks into an enormous grin. "Well Mara," he begins, removing the glass of ambrostine from my hands and taking a sip, "I think I'll go find some more potential clients to woo. Why don't you take a much-deserved break on the dance floor?" "Hey, I was drinking that!" I protest…but then I grow quiet as he looks over my shoulder again, his expression turning very serious, and nods at someone standing behind me. As Karrde walks away, I sense a very familiar presence in the back of my mind, once that I hadn't even noticed, as I was too busy concentrating on my talk with Pestage. "Hello, Mara." I slowly turn around, my heart beginning to beat rapidly, and confirm what the Force was already telling me. He stands in front of me, looking so amazingly handsome that it takes my breath away. He wears a simple but immaculate black suit, accessorized with a crisp white shirt and a bright blue tie that makes his eyes look even more captivating. His sandy hair, obviously recently cut, perfectly frames his face, making him seem both incredibly boyish and wise beyond his years. I glance down at his shiny black leather boots; they and the silver lightsaber that hangs prominently from his belt are the only indications that he is a Jedi. I swallow a lump in my throat upon seeing him again. "Hey, Skywalker," I breathe. Luke stares back at me for a moment, unable to speak. He takes in my decidedly non smuggler-like dress, not even trying to hide his attraction. The shimmersilk material hugs my curves in all the right places, but true to my nature it is not an impractical garment, as the flowing material allows me ease of movement should any trouble arise. Free of its usual braid, my long red hair falls in waves down my back, shining brightly in the dim light. Luke absentmindedly reaches up to touch it, before he realizes what he is doing and stops himself. Trying to cover, he steps forward and takes my hand, pressing it to his lips, like a true gentleman. "You look absolutely beautiful, Mara," he says, his eyes locked intently on mine. "Thanks." Trying to ease the tension, I look him up and down, and quip, "You don't look so bad yourself. We really should get dressed up like this more often." He laughs. Oh, how I missed that sound. "May I?" he asks, holding his hand out to me. I nod slowly, and he pulls me to him, placing his hand on my hip, and we begin to sway in time to the music. I don't say a word as his other hand reaches out to touch my necklace, which is for once prominently displayed above my gown's plunging neckline. "I don't think this goes very well with the dress you're wearing." I look down to see Luke's fingers on the stone that he gave to me for my twenty-seventh birthday. "On the contrary," I reply, "it matches perfectly." "I meant that your dress is far too lovely. You should be wearing something much more elegant." I look back up and meet his eyes. "No. It goes perfectly," I repeat. I don't admit that I haven't taken off the necklace since the day I left Yavin IV. He finally releases the necklace and places his hand on my shoulder, his fingers gently caressing my bare skin. "I missed your last birthday," he says regretfully. "I told you that I got your message," I reassure him. It was only a few weeks ago, and I had indeed woken up to a HoloNet message from Luke. "Yes, but it's not the same." "Still, it was nice that you remembered." I hadn't expected him to remember the birthday of his failed apprentice and one-time lover. "I could never forget." I smile and feel a shiver go down my spine, like no time at all has passed. I am suddenly very grateful that I was able to get over my pride and send him a message on his birthday, or I would feel like complete and utter poodoo. Slowly, the hand on my waist moves to the side and begins to push back the outer layers of my dress. I stiffen slightly and snap my hand to block him on instinct, but I relax as I realize what he's doing. His hand comes to rest on the lightsaber that's clipped to the waist of my dress, hidden safely underneath the layers of flowing fabric. We meet eyes, his smile bittersweet. "You still carry it," he remarks softly. I nod. "I don't feel comfortable without it anymore." It is the truth; I'm used to its weight and feel naked without it. Even more, I still feel more comfortable using it than I do blasters. "Even at an event like this?" "Come on, Skywalker," I admonish him. "You know that I don't go anywhere without packing at least two different types of weapons." "So where's the other one?" he teases. "Wouldn't you like to know?" I retort, but the twinkle in my eye gives away my amusement. He chuckles, but his smile slowly disappears as his hand leaves the lightsaber. I know that Luke hopes that this is a sign that I'll still become a Jedi one day, but he is fooling himself. It's just a weapon, nothing more. We dance in silence for a while, slowly moving towards the center of the dance floor, and I do my best to ignore the couples staring at us. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Han Solo dancing with his very pregnant wife. Leia gives me a cold look as she notices me dancing with her brother, most likely worried that I'll end up hurting him again, but I ignore her. Barely, Han winks at me, and I roll my eyes back at him. "I was wrong, you know," Luke comments as we sway to the music. "About what?" "It's much more difficult with you not there." I glance down at my feet, uncomfortable with his declaration. I hadn't even considered what he would be feeling upon seeing me again. "Why wouldn't you ever come back?" he asks suddenly. I shrug. "I told you, it just never felt right. I'd have been fooling myself to try to complete my training." "Why won't you let me try to help you? You know that I can," he persists. "Look, just knock it off, Skywalker, okay?" I snap. "I've told you, I'm working for Karrde again. I'm not going back to train." I don't mean to sound so curt, but I can't have Luke try to pressure me now that we're face to face. It's become easy to turn him down over HoloNet messages, but in person it's a completely different story. "Sorry," he spits out, his voice getting a twinge of anger that he hardly ever shows, and I sigh. I had been hoping that we could at least be civil with each other. But, unable to stop myself, I goad him even more. "Do you think you have enough time to take on another apprentice now, anyways?" Luke glares down at me. "What's that supposed to mean?" "Nothing," I reply, a little too quickly. "No, let's hear it." I figure I might as well be honest with him. "It just seems that you have more apprentices than you can handle right now." "And who told you that?" "I have my sources." "Rogue Squadron sources?" I feel badly throwing Corran Horn under the proverbial speeder, but again, I don't lie. "Yes." "He doesn't know what he's talking about." "Oh, really? Then why is he not helping you with the Jedi Order at all, but instead flying full-time with Rogue Squadron again?" "Corran's an excellent pilot," Luke argues. "He decided that he could serve the galaxy best that way." "That's Sithspit and you know it. Corran would do both if you'd let him. He should be at the Academy helping you train the new apprentices. But he's not. Why?" "Why do you care, anyway?" Luke snaps, even angrier than before. "You're not there. You left." "Yeah, I did," I sigh. "That doesn't mean that I don't care about what you're doing with the Jedi Order." "Could have fooled me," Luke says, and I have to keep myself from cringing at him. I bite my lip and look around at the dancing couples surrounding us, trying to keep from getting upset. Just then the music changes and I move to pull away, but he refuses to let go of my hand. Even despite everything just said between us, I smile at him mischievously. "You know this song?" I ask. It is a High Alderaanian dance, often played at balls like this. I danced to it many times during my days in the Palace, before the Death Star destroyed Alderaan and they were declared traitors. Of course Leia would choose to include this song as a reminder to the Imperial Remnant of the Empire's transgressions, and that they should be grateful that the New Republic would consider a peace treaty instead blasting them into annihilation. Luke nods proudly. "I learned it just for the occasion, as a matter of fact." He holds out his other hand and I take it, unable to resist the idea of seeing the great Jedi Master try to perform a dance like this. 'You sure you know what you're doing, Skywalker?" I tease. "Hey, I can fend off dozens of blaster bolts with my eyes closed. I think I can handle a simple dance." "Well, if you need me to lead, just let me know." "Ha! You're Mara Jade. You always lead." I smile, and the music starts off slowly, and he pulls me close, allowing me to breathe in his scent and remember what it was like to be in his arms. But after a minute, the music changes to a faster pace, with intricate moves that require us to dance around each other and switch partners several times. As promised, Luke performs the dance with ease, and as we move apart I sense him watching me closely, awed and intrigued by the grace of my moves, something that was ingrained into me during my years as an Imperial Palace dancer. As we come back to face each other, Luke gives me an ironic smile. "You know, I once laughed at the idea of a Jedi Knight serving as Karrde's second-in-command, but now, seeing you again…it's not so funny after all." "Well, I'm not exactly a Jedi Knight, now am I?" I counter. Luke looks me straight in the eye. "That's the part that isn't funny." We circle around each other again, and I find it hard to break his gaze. I feel his presence in the Force as strongly as ever, and I know that all he wants is for me to return to Yavin IV with him and earn my place as a Jedi. But even if I agree, what will I do after finishing my training? I can't stay at the Academy after what he's done to the Order. I don't believe what he's doing is right. And even if I did…I still don't believe that I deserve it. "So what do you think I should be doing?" Luke inquires, bringing me out of my reverie, always able to read my mind. I look away from him, grateful that we are forced to change partners again, but as we return to face each other, he gives me a look that indicates he's not going to let me ignore his question. "You should be doing exactly what you originally planned," I tell him. "The Knights you've trained should help you train the new apprentices. Every Jedi should take responsibility for growing the Order, not just you. How is the Order supposed to grow if you insist on taking control the way you are?" I don't mean to say as much as I have, but I can't help myself—it just spills out. Luke sets his jaw and the mask falls into place as he struggles to defend what he's doing. But all he says is, "You just don't understand." I nod my head. "No, I don't, and I never will." Just like he will never understand why I can't ever become a Jedi. I know that we can argue like this all night long, but as the music builds to a crescendo, I just don't feel up to it anymore. I don't have the strength to fight with him, or to force myself not to cry when one of his barbs hits too close to home, or to feel guilty when one of mine crushes him. I'm over it all. I just want to remember what it was like to be in his arms, without a care in the galaxy. I wish we could go back to that time…but even if we could, I know that it would be futile, because we were never really in that place at all. We circle around each other once more, our eyes locked intently on each other. Luke opens his mouth to speak, but I press my finger against his lips. "Please, Luke," I whisper. The song is about to turn slow again, and I just want to lose myself in his embrace one last time. "I don't want to argue with you anymore." He nods, a look of profound sadness appearing in his eyes, and pulls me even closer to him. I lay my head on his shoulder as the music slows, and he places his hand on the back of my neck, running his fingers through my hair. We sway together, our hearts pounding against one another, as I listen to the words that so wonderfully sum up my current place in the universe: I don't wanna talk if it makes you feel sad And I understand you've come to shake my hand I apologize if it makes you feel bad Seeing me so tense, no self-confidence But you see, the winner takes it all The winner takes it all… The song speeds up again, and we fall into step, changing partners as required, until finally the music fades, and we once again go our separate ways. 20. Chapter 19 A/N: I'd like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read this story, especially those of you who have left reviews. I really appreciate it and hope you enjoy the rest of the story! After this, only six more chapters to go! CHAPTER 19 True to his word, I hear from Sate Pestage exactly one week later. His message comes in the form of a HoloNet recording that Faughn retrieves while I'm in a meeting with Karrde. As I enter the bridge of the Wild Karrde afterwards, the communications officer glances up at me from her console. "Message for you, Mara, on your personal frequency," she says. Despite Karrde's outside professionalism, there are hardly any formalities onboard the Wild Karrde. I walk to the comm station, furrowing my brow as I try to determine just who would be contacting me on my personal channel. The only people who send me messages on a regular basis are Corran and Tyria, and they're both supposed to be on missions right now. It could be Luke, but I doubt he'd be brave enough to contact me so soon after our encounter at the ball, when I almost snapped his head off for his innocent comments. Then I remember the other conversation I had that night, with none other than Sate Pestage, former Grand Vizier of the Galactic Empire, and my hand freezes before I can press the message retrieval button. I straighten and look back at Faughn. "I'll take it in my quarters." She nods, and patches the message through. I pass Karrde as I exit the bridge. I almost expect him to follow me, but he merely catches my eye as I walk by him, his expression making it quite clear that he expects to hear a full report when I'm done. Once in my quarters, I lock the door and stretch out with the Force to make sure that nobody is sneaking around in the hallway. Then I settle in front of the computer terminal and press the blinking red message indicator. Sate Pestage's wrinkled face appears in hologram form on my desk. He glances up at me, as if he can see me through the HoloNet. It is entirely unsettling. "Greetings, Captain Jade. I hope this message finds you well. "I am very pleased that I was able to speak with you at the ball last week. After my time in isolation, it was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, given your…past history…with the Empire. "As I mentioned, I am not allied with the Imperial Remnant. They are a pale shadow of what the Empire once was. But even so, I can assure you that the future of the Empire is indeed very bright, and I hope to discuss that with you very soon." His words give me pause; it was not too long ago when I told Luke Skywalker that all I wanted was the old Empire back. I knew that the Empire of old could never return, of course, because an Empire without an Emperor was, and still is, a ridiculous notion. Even mere days after the Emperor's death, I rejected Isard and all the other Moffs and Warlords who were clamoring for power, knowing that the Empire was destined for destruction. And even if the old Empire did still exist, I'd want nothing to do with it. Not after all that has happened. Not after learning all that I have. "I hope that I can persuade you to meet with me in a week's time," Pestage continues. "I'm transmitting coordinates along with this message. Please come alone. I would imagine that someone of your stature would be wary of meeting me in an unknown location, but I can assure you that no harm will be attempted upon your life. I am well aware of Captain Karrde's vast resources, but most of all I know very well that the Emperor's Hand can take care of herself." I sit up straight in my chair as I listen to his farewell, then call up the coordinates attached to the message. It's somewhere in Wild Space, close to Chiss territory—a planet I've never heard of before, called Nirauan. I perform a cursory search to find any available information on the planet, but I find little other than basic data, which indicates the mysterious nature of the planet. If Karrde doesn't have more detailed formation in his database, then nobody does. My mind is already made up as I disable the HoloNet connection. I have to find out what Pestage is up to. I make my way back to the bridge, where Karrde waits for me. He glances in my direction as I take my place beside him. "Anything interesting?" I nod. "Very. I need a short leave of absence." He crosses his arms in front of his chest, not at all pleased with my decision. "You're going to meet him," he states. "Yes." "By yourself?" "Yes." Karrde shakes his head. "Do I need to tell you how stupid that is?" "I'm pretty well aware of that fact, thank you." "Just because you've had Jedi training doesn't mean you should go rushing off to some unknown location by yourself," Karrde says protectively. "Oh, please. If he wanted to kill me he'd have tried to do so long ago. No, Pestage is up to something, and I want to know what that is." "And what happens when you tell him that you're not interested in his plan and he has his goons pull blasters on you?" Karrde asks with a raised eyebrow. I shrug nonchalantly. "I'll make that jump when I get to it." He sighs, blowing a stray strand of hair off his face. "You're impossible, you know that?" I smile at him. "I learned from the best." "There are so many ways to interpret that statement that I'm just going to keep quiet." "Good idea." I spend the next few days catching up with my work before leaving for Nirauan. Karrde tries to give me additional jobs in hopes that I'll relent and stay onboard the Wild Karrde, but I stay awake for long hours to finish all my tasks before taking my leave. He eventually gives up trying to persuade me not to go, but makes it quite clear on every occasion that he thinks I'm being stupid. On the morning I'm scheduled to leave for Nirauan, I wake up with an odd feeling in the back of my mind…like something is coming. Something…but I don't know what. I can't put my finger on the feeling. As I get dressed and pack, preparing for my trip, I do my best to ignore it, but the feeling keeps getting stronger and stronger. Annoyed and agitated, I step on to the bridge, where Karrde is waiting for me. "Your ship is being prepped," he says. "Though I really wish you'd take one of mine, one with more firepower." "No," I reply. We've had this argument many times over the past several days. "I'm not taking anyone's ship but my own." "And what if they fire on you?" "Well that would be pretty stupid of them, considering you know where I'm going. Besides, I do recall my employer arranging for some extra modifications to be made to my ship's weapons systems." Karrde makes a face. "You don't have to be so logical, you know." "Oh, so going to meet Sate Pestage on an unknown planet is logical, now?" Karrde shakes his head. "You're impossible," he mutters. I don't respond, because the feeling in the back of my mind suddenly grows much, much stronger, and I can't ignore it anymore… "Stang," I mutter, as I suddenly realize what it is. At that moment, Faughn turns around from her controls. "There's a ship on our scopes, X-wing class. It's hailing us." A wide, poodoo-eating grin spreads across Karrde's face. I look at him and sigh, all the confirmation he needs. "Patch it through," he orders. Faughn does so and indicates that the frequency is open. "Greetings, Master Skywalker. Do you require assistance?" Karrde asks, and I smile, knowing that he is thinking of the last time we came across Luke's X-wing in empty space. Luke's voice comes through loud and clear over the comm. "Hello, Karrde. It's nice to speak with you again. Could you tell me, is Mara available?" My eyes roll into the back of my head as every single person on the bridge turns to stare at me. I can only imagine Luke's face right now, grinning like an idiot as he knows that he just embarrassed the hell out of me in front of Karrde. But then, the tone of Luke's voice registers in my mind. He sounds concerned —very concerned—so much so that he has ventured halfway across the galaxy to speak with me. Sighing, I motion to Karrde to answer. "She's right here, as a matter of fact," he replies. There's a pause; I imagine Luke picturing me standing next to Karrde on the bridge, wearing much more smuggler-like attire compared to our last meeting. "I need to speak with her," he says. "Permission to come onboard?" Karrde glances at me. I wave my hand at him; this is his ship, and he can let anybody onboard that he wants. Besides, I know that there is absolutely no way that he would ever refuse a chance to make me face Luke Skywalker again. Sometimes, I have a sneaking suspicion that, beneath his tough, smuggler façade, Karrde is just a hopeless romantic. Either that, or he really enjoys making me squirm. "Of course, Master Skywalker," Karrde replies. "We look forward to seeing you." "Likewise." Then, silence, as the transmission is cut. I give Karrde an annoyed look. "We?" He shrugs innocently. Oh, no—he definitely just enjoys making me squirm. I wait at the entrance to the Wild Karrde's docking bay with my arms crossed over my chest, trying not to look too annoyed. Luke jumps down from his X-wing and gives me a tight-lipped smile as he approaches. "Hello, Mara," he says, stopping a few meters in front me. He seems hesitant to come closer after what happened during our last meeting. "Oh, don't be stupid," I say, pulling him into a hug. He smells like someone who just spent hours or even days inside of a cramped starfighter cockpit, but I don't care. Luke chuckles against me. "That must be a new record for the shortest amount of time it's taken you to insult me." "Well, I'm just stating the truth." I pull back to look at him. "So. What's the big problem that you had to come all the way out here to talk to me about in person?" I ask, getting down to business. He seems hesitant to discuss this out in the open. "Can we speak in your quarters?" Flashbacks hit me as I remember all the times I met with Luke alone in his quarters at the Academy. I shut my eyes against them. "Sure," I answer shortly. We walk through the hallways of the Wild Karrde in silence and I sense Luke's worry permeating through the Force. It bothers me. It's not good when Luke is worried. We enter my quarters and I shut the door behind me, and I have to restrain myself from lunging towards him and kissing him fiercely. But of course I compose myself, the epitome of professionalism; a heartless bicce, as Luke once referred to me. "So?" I ask, crossing my arms over my chest. Luke takes a deep breath and runs his hand over his face. "I need you to be honest with me, Mara. Are you planning on going somewhere alone?" I raise an eyebrow at him. I can tell there's no use lying to him. "As a matter of fact, I am. Why?" He looks down and takes a deep breath. "I need to go with you." My eyes widen at his words. "…Sorry?" "I need to go with you," he repeats. "Please, don't ask me why. I just get the feeling that I need to be with you right now." "This is ridiculous, Luke," I say, throwing up my hands in exasperation. "Us spending all that time together is not a good idea. And besides, you don't even know where I'm going." "It doesn't matter. Please just listen to me on this one, Mara," he insists. "This is a Force thing, isn't it?" I ask, rolling my eyes. "What do you think?" he replies. "Don't you think I'd be able to tell if something was wrong, Luke?" He doesn't answer, but I know his response anyway: Maybe if you had completed your training. I don't deny that he's right. I'm nowhere near as strong in the Force as he is. But my danger sense has never failed me before, and even though I know that meeting Pestage on my own is not the most logical thing to do, I don't sense anything inherently dangerous about my impending mission. Luke doesn't answer, so I keep talking. "I don't think that the person I'm supposed to meet with would appreciate you coming along with me." "Oh really? And just who might that be?" he asks. "Nice try, Skywalker, but I'm still not telling you," I snort. He shrugs. "You know that Karrde will tell me if you don't, and then I'll follow you wherever you're going." I sigh, remembering a moment from not so long ago at the Jedi Academy: "I guess you know that I followed you." "I guess I should have known that you would never have listened to me." "Fine, whatever, come along if you want," I relent, sighing heavily. "But don't get in the way," I continue, pointing at him. "I know what I'm doing." "No problem. You're in charge." I throw him a mischievous grin. "Does that make me your master?" He smiles back at me. "Only if you want to be." I narrow my eyes. Oh, he still knows how to make that shiver go down my spine. I grab my pack and leave the room in a huff. He follows me closely. "We'll be leaving shortly," I tell him. "My ship is being prepped right now." "You've got your own ship? That's very impressive." "Yeah, well, I'm doing well for myself, and Karrde wanted to give me a token of appreciation for all my hard work. So I got myself a ship." "What's her name?" "The Jade's Fire." Luke glances at me, his expression turning wistful. He reaches out to touch my hair, but stops himself. "The perfect name," he murmurs. "Tell Karrde, he picked it." "Tell Karrde what?" my boss asks as we make our way onto the bridge. He steps forward to shake Luke's hand. "Oh, I was just commenting on the appropriateness of the name of Mara's ship," Luke replies. "Yes, I was rather proud of that one myself," Karrde smiles. They begin to delve into small talk while I stand behind them, rolling my eyes. "As lovely as this little reunion is," I cut in, "we have more important things to do right now. Is the Fire almost prepped?" I ask Karrde. "Yes, just about. Why don't you head down and get ready, and I'll be there to see you off once I take care of some pressing details?" "Will do," I reply, turning to Luke expectantly. Before Luke can follow me, Karrde reaches out to stop him. "Would you mind staying here and catching up?" he asks Luke. "There are some things I'd like to discuss with you." I glare at Karrde, knowing that he suddenly has very bad ideas, but he gives me a pointed look. "Don't you have things to take care of?" he asks me. "Yeah, just…" I turn to Karrde, then to Luke, then back to Karrde again. "…Don't have too much fun," I warn them as I exit the bridge. I can almost see Luke hesitate speaking to Karrde until the bridge door hisses shut behind me, and I am suddenly very curious as to what exactly compelled Luke Skywalker to leave behind his precious Jedi Academy and accompany me on a completely illogical mission to an unknown planet called Nirauan. 21. Chapter 20 A/N: Song for this chapter: White Flag, Dido CHAPTER 20 Karrde sees us off, doing his best to act like an overprotective father as he says good-bye. As always, I'm tempted to remind him that he's not much older than me, but it never makes a difference —Karrde's protectiveness knows no bounds. I can't complain that much, considering I never had a father figure before him. Well, not one I'd like to remember, anyway. Luke does his best to stay out of my way in the cockpit as we undock and set a course for Nirauan, even though he's practically drooling as he examines the controls while he thinks I'm not watching. Once we enter hyperspace, I lean back in the captain's chair and eye him thoughtfully. "Like what you see, Skywalker?" He looks at me for a moment with a shocked expression, then lets out his breath as he realizes that I'm talking about the ship. "It's fantastic, Mara," he says. "I'd love a chance to fly her sometime." "Over my dead body," I retort, only half-joking. I expect him to laugh, but instead his lip twitches and he stares straight ahead out the viewport, suddenly looking very worried. "Luke?" He doesn't respond, so I poke him on the arm. "Hey, Jedi Master. Wake up." "What?" he responds, shaking himself back into focus. "Oh. Sorry. I, uh, got distracted there." "Yeah, sure." I roll my eyes. "So, are you gonna tell me why you insisted on taking this little jaunt with me to Wild Space, or what?" "What do you think?" he teases. I smile. There's the Luke Skywalker that I know so well. He changes the subject before I can prod him some more. "So, are you going to tell me just where we're going? I assume it's somewhere in Wild Space, since you just let that slip." I mentally slap myself. "Sure, why not," I sigh. "You'll find out eventually. It's a planet called Nirauan." "Never heard of it. What's there?" I regard him, waiting for his reaction. "Sate Pestage." It takes a second for Luke to recognize the name. As he does, his eyes go wide. "You're kidding, right?" "Unfortunately, I'm not." "You mean…former Imperial Grand Vizier Sate Pestage?" "That's the one." "The man who tried to turn over Coruscant to the New Republic and was then reportedly killed on orders of Ysanne Isard?" I shake my head at how ridiculous that explanation sounds. "Yeah. It's the same guy, all right." "Oh. When the hell did this happen?" I burst out laughing at Luke's bewilderment, even though the situation isn't funny at all. "I spoke with him at the ball," I reply. "That was quite the night for you, then." "Yeah," I chuckle. "Then a few days ago I got a message from him asking me to meet him on Nirauan to discuss 'the future of the Empire.'" "Why would he want to talk to you about that?" Luke asks, looking disturbed. "Isn't it obvious? I was the Emperor's Hand, after all." "Was," he points out. "Doesn't matter. Ever since it became public what I once was, all those old Imperials have been clamoring to get in my good graces. They see me as a connection to Palpatine, and therefore the old Empire, no matter what I might have done since then." Luke considers this for a moment. "Do you think it's really him, or a clone?" "It was definitely the same man. And he's got big plans." "On Nirauan?" "Apparently." "But why wouldn't he just join the Remnant? What do you think he's trying to do?" I shrug. "I really don't know. He doesn't trust the Remnant, but he doesn't seem to want to join the New Republic, either. He's planning something, but I don't know what. That's why I'm—well, we're—going there." Luke shakes his head and laughs. "Um…perhaps you were right…he won't like me being there." "No, you don't say?" I bite out. Luke rubs his face with his palms. "So…what do we tell them about me being there?" "How good are you at Force projections?" I ask. "Are you serious?" "Very." Luke chews his lip, then shakes his head. "I don't know if I'll be able to keep a Force projection in place that long. And I'm too well known, so if it falters, they'll pick up on it right away. Do you have anything onboard that could be useful as a disguise?" "Oh, sure, I always keep dress-up clothes in my ship," I reply sarcastically. "You've found my weakness, Skywalker—costumes." "You don't have to be so snippy, it was worth asking." "It's too bad we don't have any more of those plants we found on Myrkr, eh?" "Thank the Force, those things hurt like a rancor." "Well, they didn't seem to slow you down at all—the plants or the rancor," I offer, and Luke smiles in return. "I guess we'll have to be forthcoming about your presence," I continue. "Which brings us back to my earlier question—how exactly do we explain why I'm there?" I prop my chin in my hands, and then it hits me. I snap my fingers and point at him, then back to me. "We're a couple." "…Excuse me?" "We'll act like we're together. Then it will make sense for you to be with me," I explain. "Um…don't you think they would know if that were true or not?" Luke asks, sounding very uncomfortable with the idea. "It'd be all over the HoloNet in a second if we were a couple." "What, relationships can't be secretive? Besides, people did see us together at the ball last week." "Yeah—arguing," Luke points out. "And couples don't argue? Aren't you related to Han and Leia Solo?" Luke sighs. "You're not gonna give up this, are you, Mara?" "Why, you have a better idea?" "Fine," Luke relents, sighing heavily. "I'll be your devoted manservant. Happy now?" I glance at him. He senses me watching him, and gazes back at me. Our eyes lock for long seconds. Then we both look away. Luke and I spend the next few days acting unusually civil towards each other. I show him around the Fire, he cooks for me, we discuss Pestage's intentions, we play sabacc. We do everything but discuss why I'm no longer at the Academy, and why Luke has taken complete control of the Jedi Order since I left. By the end of the last day of our voyage, it is obvious that we are ready to explode at each other. It all starts innocently enough. "So do you still work out with your lightsaber?" Luke asks over another round of sabacc. I raise an eyebrow at him over the hand splayed out in front of my face. "I don't really have much of an opportunity to do so anymore. There aren't many people skilled with a lightsaber onboard the Wild Karrde," I reply with a smirk. "Oh." He lays down a card. "I can give you a remote if you'd like," he offers. My annoyance grows at his persistent insistence that I continue my training, but I push it down. "Sure, thanks." We continue to play in silence, slapping down cards with increasing intensity. As Luke reaches close to me to pick up another card, just barely brushing my hand, he tries again. "We can always spar now if you're bored with sabacc." I know that I should refuse. Sparring with Luke leads to very bad things. I meet his eyes, and they twinkle, issuing me a challenge I cannot refuse. "Fine," I answer. We're out of our seats in seconds. We make our way to an open area of the ship, and he ignites his lightsaber. I follow suit, bouncing on my toes in anticipation. After a moment he charges, and I parry. Even after so long, sparring with Luke comes so incredibly natural that I can't even begin to comprehend it. We dance around each other, ducking each other's blows and thwarting every oncoming strike. Once again, I feel as if I'm fighting with him, instead of against him. Our minds start to open up to one another and I sense all his self-doubt about leading the Jedi Order, all his grief about me leaving him, and his profound desire for me to earn my place as a Jedi. Through all of this, I try to shield my thoughts from him, but I know that it is futile. I grimace, trying to cover up my true feelings now that I am standing in front of him again. The fight goes on for a long time without either of us getting disarmed. Eventually, as expected, Luke gets the best of me and knocks my lightsaber out of my hand. The air grows silent as the hilt finishes clanging against the ground. I stare up at him. He glares down at me. We stand face to face, our lips mere centimeters apart, both panting heavily. He reaches out to caress my cheek. That damn shiver goes down my spine again. I abruptly turn away and call my lightsaber back to my hand. I hear Luke sigh behind me. "You're still so amazing, Mara." I whip around and glare at him. "Don't start," I grind out. He doesn't back down. "Why not? We've got nothing better to do." "I can't do this right now, Luke." "Then when can you?" I brush past him and stalk back to the living quarters. He follows me. I whirl around on him as he attempts to enter the room behind me. "What do you want?" I snarl. He doesn't mince words. "I want you to come back to Yavin IV and finish your training." "No." "Why not?" he presses. I flop down on the bottom bunk. "Because nothing has changed. And yet everything has." He hesitantly sits down next to me and gives me a curious look. "I'm never going to be able to reach my full potential." "You would if you'd just face your past, Mara," he says. "That won't change anything," I argue. "How do you know?" "Because I just know, okay! Maybe I have faced my past, and I don't like what I see at all, did you ever think of that?" "So, what, you're never going to forgive yourself for being the Emperor's Hand? Even though you know that everything that you did, everything that you were, was because of the Emperor, and not your own choice?" I lean back on the wall, placing my head in my hands. "It's not that easy, Luke. I can't just decide to forgive myself, and be done with it." Hesitantly, Luke slides closer to me and places his arm around my shoulder. "I wish you'd let me help you." I stare straight at the wall through my hands, and he moves even closer to me. "I know that you feel guilty," he whispers against my face. His fingers brush through the ends of my braid. "I know it's hard to come to terms with what you've done. But you can't live your life like this. You can't keep running away." I turn my head back to him, green eyes blazing. "Just forget it, Skywalker," I growl. He stares back at me, his blue eyes flashing at my stubbornness. "Fine," Luke says, removing his arm and pushing away. "If you want to make this so difficult for yourself, go ahead. It's what you're best at." I don't know how to respond to him, so I change the subject. "Why won't you tell me why you demanded to come along with me?" Now Luke looks away, avoiding my gaze. "I just wanted to make sure that everything was okay." "So you decided to fly all the way out to the Wild Karrde instead of sending me a message? And once you found out I was okay, you felt the urge to tag along with me, and leave behind your precious Academy?" He doesn't take my bait. "I told you, I just wanted to make sure everything was okay," he repeats. "You care to be more specific?" "No. Please don't ask me anything more about it." "Oh, so now you're the one who's going to be stubborn?" "I learned from the best." I give him an ironic smile. "Fine. Since you won't talk about that, why don't you tell me why you've taken complete control of the Jedi Order since I left the Academy?" "How about I don't." "Oh come on, Luke. I told you mine, you tell me yours." He glares at me. "What else was I supposed to do?" "Oh, I don't know, maybe let people help you?" "You don't understand, Mara." "Make me," I challenge. He sighs. He looks so helpless, and so defeated. I want nothing more than to put my arms around him and hug him and make everything better, or to wrap my hands around his neck and strangle him. Instead I give him an icy stare. Every single annoyance I've had towards him over the past year for what he's done to the Jedi Order comes bubbling to the surface, and I can't contain it anymore. "You're gonna kill the Order if you keep doing this, Luke. I thought you learned this long ago. You can't do it all by yourself." He gives me an incredulous look. "Oh, that's rich. Now you consider the Order." "And just what is that supposed to mean?" "You left, Mara! What the hell was I supposed to do?" he repeats. "What does me leaving the Academy have to do with how you decide to run the Jedi Order?" "Everything!" he exclaims, reaching his arms out to shake me, and I flinch at the intensity of his voice. "Don't you get it? Don't you think that I began to plan things around you being there? I envisioned you helping me shape the Order. I envisioned you training apprentices alongside of me. You would have been amazing, Mara. And later, after everything that happened between us, I even began to imagine sharing a life with you, if only you'd do me the honor of having me. "But then you left, as soon as I finally got my head on straight and told you exactly how I felt, because you're too damn stubborn to let me help you. I knew the reason you gave me for leaving was a bunch of poodoo, but I didn't press you, thinking that you needed some time to yourself and once you got that all figured out, you'd return to finish your training and we could be together again. But then you never came back, and I didn't know what else to do, so I did the only thing I could think of—I dove headfirst into the Order. I took control. The Order is the only thing that I can control." I am speechless by all his revelations, and have to blink rapidly to keep myself from tearing up out of sadness and anger and bitterness. But I make myself respond, fighting on like the soldier that I am. "You can't control it all on your own. It's going to kill you if you keep doing this, Luke." "Oh, now all of a sudden you care about me." I take a deep breath to keep from yelling at him. "You know that my leaving had nothing to do with what happened between us—" "That's what you say." "You know that it's true, Luke!" "Yes, of course I know!" he explodes, launching himself from the bunk and pacing around rapidly. "I know exactly what that night meant to both of us! I was so happy, Mara, thinking that we could finally be together, and I know that you were, too. I felt it. I saw it in your eyes. It was…something I'd never before experienced. It was the happiest moment of my life." He turns back to me with tremendous pain and anger in his eyes. "And then you left. The fact that your leaving had nothing to do with what happened between us makes it even worse, don't you understand? Because despite everything that we shared… despite how deeply I know that you cared for me…you still left. What I have to offer you wasn't enough. It'll never be enough, will it?" "I had no choice, Luke," I whisper. "Oh, I am so sick of this! What's it going to take for you to finally be able to forgive yourself?" Luke exclaims. I bite my lip. "I don't know," I reply. I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive myself for what I did as the Emperor's Hand. I don't know if I will ever feel that I deserve to be a Jedi, or that I deserve to be with Luke. I wish I could just wave my hand and make it all go away. But I can't change the past—I can only move forward. I stare down at my hands, unable to look at him, and then, before I know what's happening, years of bitterness and anger erupt to the surface, and I'm throwing another barb at him: "When are you finally going to stop taking responsibility for everything else in the galaxy but your own damn happiness?" I regret the words as soon as they leave my mouth. They are so incredibly hypocritical that I want to slap myself for saying them. Luke's expression changes to one of pure anger, but then the mask falls into place once again. He nods curtly, and turns on his heel to exit the quarters. Before he leaves, without even looking back, he launches one more volley at me: "At least I don't keep running away." Then, he is gone. This round goes to Luke Skywalker. Later that night, after I've already settled in to my bunk, I hear the door to the living quarters slide open. Luke steps in quietly, and for a few seconds, he stands over me, the sounds of his breathing mixing in with the whir of the hyperdrive. It is unexpectedly calming. Before he can climb to the top bunk, I slide over, making room for him next to me. He hesitates for a moment, then wordlessly accepts my invitation, pulling the covers over him. At first we just lie there, barely touching, but then he breathes a heavy sigh and turns on his side, wrapping his arms around me. Without opening my eyes, I collapse into his embrace and bury my head in his chest, unable to look at him after yet another argument between us. Then, once again listening to his heartbeat, I can't hold it in any longer. I begin to cry silently against him, letting out all my frustration and anguish at the path my life has taken. Even though I have hurt him deeply, Luke consoles me as only he can, stroking my hair and sending out calming waves through the Force. I don't have to tell him that I'm sorry. He already knows. We lay there for a long time, wrapped up in each other's arms, until my tears finally begin to subside. Then Luke cups my face in his hands, forcing me to look at him as his thumbs gently brush away my remaining tears. He gives me a timid smile. "I never stopped loving you," he whispers. "No matter what happens, I want you to know that. I'll never stop." A lump forms in my throat, and I cannot say the words back to him…but then again, with him, I don't have to. I just pull him to me and press my lips to his, grateful to once again be in his arms, if only for just one more night. 22. Chapter 21 CHAPTER 21 When I wake up several hours later, Luke is curled around my back, his arm draped over my side, hand resting on my hip. "What's that noise?" he mumbles into my shoulder. "Reversion alert," I tell him as I gently disentangle myself from his embrace. "I'll take care of it." "No, you stay in bed, I'll do it." I climb over him and fumble around the bunk, trying to pull on my jumpsuit without falling over in the dark. "Nice try, but I'm still not letting you fly my ship." "You know, I am a pretty good pilot," he boasts as he stretches, readjusting the thin blanket around his waist. I throw him a patient look. "You fly starfighters. This is a yacht." "Han lets me fly the Falcon." "He's a Corellian, he's used to taking risks. Give it up, it's not going to happen." "Fine, you win," he sighs. "I'll be there shortly." "Take your time, we've still got fifteen minutes." "Mara?" his voice stops me just as I'm about to go through the door. "Yes?" I reply, not looking back at him. "…I missed you." I squeeze my eyes shut. "You always miss me, Skywalker." "You're right," he chuckles. "I do." Several minutes later he slides into the co-pilot's seat. I glance over at him and smirk; I'm still not used to seeing him wear civilian clothes. "Everything all right?" he asks. "Just peachy," I reply. "You sure?" "Why wouldn't it be?" "Well…you know…" I sigh, running my hands over the controls. "Don't worry, I'm fine." "Good," he says, looking not entirely convinced. I busy myself in the cockpit, going through all the checklists that I now know by heart, trying to concentrate on anything else but what happened last night. But Luke won't let me avoid it. "Mara?" "What?" "You know that couple thing we're about to do?" I pause before answering. "Yeah, what about it?" He takes a deep breath. "It doesn't have to be a lie, you know." I stare straight ahead at the mottled lines of hyperspace, forcing myself not to betray my emotions. "I know." He reaches over to take my hand. "I really missed you, Mara." I clear my throat and continue to avoid his gaze. "I missed you, too." "So what's stopping this?" he asks, as his thumb starts to move against my skin. "Lots of things," I shrug, trying to ignore his caresses. "I want you. You want me. What else is there?" "It's not that simple." "It can be if you'd just let it." "We've had this argument how many times now, Luke?" "Lots. But you know me. I'm stubborn." I snort. "That's the understatement of the year." "No, that would be me saying that you're stubborn." I finally turn to him and throw him a huge smile. "Touché." He gives me a mock bow, and I laugh before growing serious again. "I can't do this right now, Luke. I'm not avoiding it," I continue before he can protest. "I just have a lot of stuff on my mind and need to get through this thing with Pestage first. It wouldn't be fair to you to discuss it right now. But afterwards, I'll come to Yavin IV with you and we'll talk. We'll really talk. I promise." Luke nods, but doesn't look pleased with my promise, as I'd expected he would be. Instead, he looks skeptical and very worried. I squeeze his hand in reassurance. "I mean it, Luke." He nods again. "I know you do." But his expression does not change. The reversion countdown hits zero and I pull the ship out of hyperspace. We approach Nirauan in silence, and I transmit the codes that Pestage provided. As we enter the atmosphere, I steal a glance at Luke and see the same worried expression on his face. Wanting to keep him from brooding, I sigh and flip over control of the Fire to the co-pilot's station. "You're on, flyboy." "Huh?" "You wanted to fly the ship. Fly her." Luke gives me an incredulous look. "You're serious?" "You better take control or my ship's gonna crash and then I'm really going to have to kill you." "As you wish," Luke grins, taking the controls with what can only be described as absolute glee. I always forget that Luke was a pilot first, and a Jedi second. And he is a marvelous pilot, flying the Fire with all the care of its owner combined with all the daring of a starfighter pilot. I almost think it unfair just how many things Luke Skywalker is good at. As Luke guides the ship to the coordinates given to us, we see a large fortress looming in the distance. "Whatever's going on, I don't think this is a tiny operation," Luke says. "I think you're right," I agree. Luke lands the Fire gently on the landing platform, and as I go through all the post-flight checks, he heads to the back to grab our two small packs. I meet him at the ramp and almost jump when I see Artoo Deetoo rolling towards us; I had forgotten that Luke brought his astromech along. In the back of my mind, I wonder what the droid was doing on the journey that kept him so quiet— hopefully not messing around with my ship's computer. "Think they'll mind if I bring him?" Luke asks. I tilt my head and purse my lips in thought. "No more than they'll mind you being here, I guess," I answer. Luke nods. "Okay. I don't think Pestage will appreciate us bringing these along, though," he adds, holding up his lightsaber. "Are you suggesting we leave them on the ship? 'Cause if you are, I'm gonna have to ask who stole your brain." "Absolutely not," Luke laughs. "Artoo, come here. You know the drill." The little droid rolls over to Luke, and an empty trapezoidal compartment pops open on his dome. I nod in understanding, remembering back to our trek across the Myrkr forest, and how we hid Luke's lightsaber inside Artoo before entering Hyllyard City. "Ahh. I guess I should have remembered that." Luke gives me an ironic smile and holds out his hand. I hand him my lightsaber, and he pops it inside Artoo, with his following suit. Thankfully, both hilts fit nicely inside. "What about our other weapons?" I ask, nodding to the blaster on his belt. "We should probably leave them in the ship, just so we don't seem threatening," he replies, holding his out to me. With a heavy sigh, I take the blaster and place it, along with my own, into a hidden compartment. Before I can head down the ramp, Luke holds his arm out to stop me. He raises his eyebrows. "What?" I ask innocently. "I know you have more weapons on you." "You do. But they don't," I grin. I head down the ramp and hear Luke huff behind me, reminding me all too much of Talon Karrde. Around the middle of the ramp, Luke stops dead in his tracks. I glance at him, curious, and he gestures towards the man standing at the entrance to the hangar. I regard the man for a few seconds, trying to determine why he looks so familiar, and it hits me just as Luke speaks. "That's Baron Fel, isn't it?" he whispers. "Yeah," I reply incredulously. Baron Soontir Fel was, after Darth Vader, the greatest Imperial starfighter pilot and the commander of the 181st Imperial Fighter Wing, the Empire's answer to Rogue Squadron. He defected to the New Republic after the death of Palpatine, but disappeared shortly afterwards. "I guess now we know where he's been all this time, huh?" "Wedge'll be ecstatic to find out," Luke murmurs. "Shouldn't he be upset to know that Baron Fel, Ace of the Empire, is still alive and possibly involved with 'the future of the Empire'?" Luke hesitates and leans in conspiratorially, placing his hand on my shoulder. "You have to keep this quiet…but he's married to Wedge's sister." My mouth drops open and I have to remind myself to keep my voice down. "Wynssa Starflare is Wedge's sister?" Wynssa Starflare was one of the most popular holodrama actresses in the Empire. Their wedding was straight out of royalty. "Yes. Not many people know. Wedge hasn't seen her since she ran away from home." "Wow." "Shhh, here he comes." We grow quiet as we continue across the hangar, meeting Fel halfway to the entrance. He wears a tight smile upon seeing Luke standing next to me, but does not otherwise betray his surprise. "Welcome to Nirauan, Mara Jade. Allow my to introduce myself —I'm Baron Fel, leader of this facility. I trust your trip was well?" I allow him to take my hand. "There's no need to introduce yourself, Baron, and yes, everything was fine. Thank you." His eyes dart to Luke. "I apologize, Captain Jade, but I was under the impression that you would be traveling alone." "I hope it's not a problem that my partner accompanied me?" Again, Fel does an excellent job at hiding his surprise. "Not at all, of course. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, General Skywalker." Luke shakes his hand. "Yours as well, Baron. But it's just Skywalker now; I resigned my general's commission years ago." "A pity. You were always a formidable opponent." Luke gives him a thin smile. Fel returns the gesture before turning back to me. "If you'll follow me, I'll direct you to your quarters." I nod gratefully and Luke and I fall into step behind him. The fortress is massive, but thankfully we seem to be confined to one of the smaller wings, and I mentally keep track of the path from the hangar to our quarters. After about five minutes, Fel leads us into a hallway lined with identical-looking doors and stops in front of one of them. "I hope you'll excuse us," he begins, looking uncomfortable, "but as we believed you'd be traveling alone, we only have one room prepared." "That's not a problem," I say, giving him a pointed look. Fel raises one eyebrow at my implication. "I see," he glances at my arm, draped over Luke's. "Well, then. If you don't mind, Captain Jade, the Vizier has been expecting you and would like to speak with you right away." "No, that's not a problem at all." He glances at Luke. "I hope you understand that the Vizier wishes to speak to Captain Jade alone?" I can tell that Luke does not like this at all, but he does not protest. "Of course." "Very well then. Captain Jade, if you please?" I nod at him before turning around to say good-bye to Luke, but before I can open my mouth to speak, he pulls me into a crushing hug. At first I just stand there, dumbfounded, but I slowly return the embrace and think it very fitting that we are posing as a couple, because we're certainly playing our parts very well right now. I wink at Luke as I pull away. Trying to get in the couple mood, Skywalker? He doesn't smile back; instead, his expression turns deadly serious. Be careful in there, I hear him whisper as I follow Fel further into the fortress. We make small talk, and again I pay close attention to our path, making note of the intermittent blast doors and seemingly random exits. At the end of another long hallway, we enter a large dining room, where Sate Pestage sits at the head of a grand table, looking all too much like the Grand Vizier he once was. I grimace as I push aside all the old memories of life in the Imperial Palace and the suffocations of court. Pestage rises as I enter, and I'm led to a chair next to him. We are the only ones in the large room, other than Fel, who stands guard by the door. I stretch out with the Force to try to get a reading on Pestage. I sense no duplicity from him, or hostility. In fact, he seems eager to have me join him and become an invaluable ally. "Captain Jade," he begins, his smarmy tones making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. "Thank you for joining me. I trust you had a good trip to Nirauan?" "Yes, thank you." He gestures for me to sit. "If you are hungry, I can arrange for some refreshment, but I was hoping that you would join me for a formal dinner later on." "That would be fine," I reply. "We hope that your companion will join us as well?" "Of course." "I'm sorry that he could not join us now, but you can understand that I prefer to discuss our plans in private." I put on a fake smile. "Of course. You have been very secretive about these plans of yours. I'm interested in hearing just what they entail." "I'm sure that you are curious, and I assure you, all will be revealed to you in time. For now, Captain Jade, let me tell you about this facility. Are you aware that this operation was started by Grand Admiral Thrawn?" "Really?" I ask, not having to fake the curiosity in my voice. "Right around the Battle of Endor, Grand Admiral Thrawn began to build up a massive power base in the Outer Rim and Wild Space. This was his base of operations—the Hand of Thrawn fortress. He amassed his own Empire here, even before he tried to conquer the territory that the Rebels had won back. It was his fallback, you see—the Empire of the Hand." My eyes narrow at him. "Interesting name," I remark coolly. "You'll understand why I immediately thought of you, Mara Jade, Emperor's Hand, when I found my way here after Ysanne Isard's deception." "I am no longer the Emperor's Hand," I growl, perhaps a bit too forcefully. "But you were. You were a loyal servant to the Emperor, and nobody, not even a Jedi, would be able to squeeze those ideals out of you." Pestage and I glare at each other for long moments, my jaw clenching at his assumptions. Before I can respond, he glances over my shoulder at Fel. "Would you leave us, please? I will take care of Captain Jade from here." Once alone with Pestage, my danger sense spikes dramatically, and I immediately tense and prepare for a fight. Pestage smiles and leans back in his chair. "Now that we are alone, let us discuss the future of the Empire, and your role in it." "I thought you chose not to ally yourself with the Imperial Remnant?" "You are correct. I said that we should discuss the Empire, not the pale shadow of its former glory that calls itself the Imperial Remnant." I do not want to discuss this at all, but I keep quiet, allowing him to continue. "Captain Jade, tell me…why did you never return to the Empire after Palpatine's death?" I give him the truth. "There was nothing left for me there. Nobody knew who I was. I had no more power or influence." "I'm surprised that you felt that way. Ysanne Isard certainly wanted your cooperation. I'm sure that many Warlords and Moffs would have given anything to have the Emperor's Hand as their ally. And, of course, there was Grand Admiral Thrawn, the best opportunity for the Empire to return to its former glory, and he certainly knew what you were. I've always wondered why the Emperor's Hand never joined forces with him, especially considering your…feelings towards certain members of the New Republic." I take a deep breath, keeping my expression blank. "Grand Admiral Thrawn was brilliant, yes," I admit, "but by the time he came in to power, it was too late. I had moved on." "Nobody ever truly leaves the Empire, Captain Jade. In fact, I believe that the ideals of the Empire still reside deep within you." "You're wrong." "If that is so, then why are you not a member of the New Republic?" "I work for Talon Karrde, who chooses to remain neutral." "Yes…and yet you are here with Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, and once trained with him as a Jedi. Given his involvement in the downfall of the Empire, surely that is a small conflict of interest?" "My personal affairs are just that—personal." "Of course. I do find it interesting, however, that you chose to abandon your Jedi training. Why was that?" "It was a personal issue." "So then, as the former Emperor's Hand, you did not feel a conflict of interest and realize that you had to leave the Jedi Order?" "Just what are you insinuating, Vizier?" I snarl. "That perhaps the reason you left the Jedi Order is because you knew that you didn't belong there at all—but that you belonged with the Empire." In that moment, I am incredibly grateful for all my Jedi training, because all I want to do is leap towards Pestage and throttle him. What makes it worse is that he's partially right—I left the Academy because I didn't belong in the Jedi Order. But I do not belong in the Empire. Not anymore. "Captain Jade," Pestage continues, "you asserted that you did not want to serve a pale imitation of the old Empire. But, what if you could serve the Empire, the true Empire, once more?" I straighten up in my seat and grip the arms of my chair, going through all my old Jedi calming techniques. "You know that is not possible. The Empire of old will never again exist, and even if it did, I am not interested. That part of my life is long past." "Is it really?" "Yes, and besides, this discussion is pointless. Palpatine's Empire will never again exist, even if another military mind like Thrawn's comes in to power, no matter how ambitious of a leader you may be." Pestage gives me a thin smile. "Oh, I would persuade you not to disregard my proposal so quickly. In fact, you may find that we have exactly what you've been looking for." Again, I have to force myself to stay composed as I rise from my chair. "I apologize for wasting your time, Vizier, but I think this conversation has ended." I make it halfway to the door before I hear a noise at my back. "No, it is I who must be the one to apologize. You know that I cannot let you leave." I turn around slowly and glare at the blaster pointed my chest. "You're making a very stupid mistake, Pestage." He glances at my unarmed utility belt and smiles. "Oh, I don't think it is I who made the mistakes today, Emperor's Hand." Before he can pull the trigger, I drop to the ground and somersault under the table, moving so fast that Pestage cannot track my movement. He whips his blaster around as quickly as he can, but it is to no use; he falls limp on the table before he can even pull the trigger. I pant heavily as I push myself to my feet. "The Emperor's Hand doesn't make mistakes, Pestage, but in this case, you were right," I grin, clutching my precious holdout blaster to my chest. "I had it set for stun." 23. Chapter 22 A/N: Song for this chapter: Sandstorm, Darude CHAPTER 22 Somehow, I manage to sprint back to the room without running into Fel or any stormtroopers, or getting another blaster pointed at me. Luke is running towards me with his lightsaber ignited when I arrive, and he sweeps me into his arms before I can say a word. "Are you okay?" he whispers, his voice full of concern. "Yeah," I assure him. "I managed to get off a stun bolt." We sway in each other's embrace for a while, and then he leads me into the room. "So?" he asks, shutting the door behind us. I take a deep breath. "He's planning something. Something big. I think…I think they're gonna attack, and try to take over the New Republic again." "What did he want from you?" "To join him. He seems to believe that I think I belong with the glorious Empire of old." Luke shifts nervously as he thinks of what to say next. "Are you going to?" "What?" I cannot restrain myself from smacking him. "Are you insane?" He shrugs sheepishly. "Sorry. I had to ask." "No, of course I'm not joining him," I spit out, smacking him again, "especially not after he pulled a blaster on me! Whatever he has planned, Luke, it is not good. Thrawn started this whole operation—he called it the Empire of the Hand. The way Pestage was talking, it was like he somehow knew that they'd be able to restore the Empire to its former glory, and he seemed so certain that I'd want to be involved, even though I trained as a Jedi and helped take down Thrawn. I told him I wasn't interested, and then he tried to shoot me. So I shot him instead." "If you think they're planning some sort of attack, we need to warn the New Republic before anything can happen," Luke says, striding purposefully towards Artoo, who is happily linked to the room's computer terminal. "Not that we know they're out here, they probably won't waste any time launching an attack." "That's true. What are you doing?" "Trying to send a message to Leia," he responds. After a few moments, he curses. "Blast, they must have figured us out. We're being jammed." "I think we need to get out of here, now." "For once I am not going to argue with—" Before he can finish, Artoo starts beeping madly, cutting him off. "What's wrong with him?" I ask. Luke peers curiously at the datapad. "He's found something." "What is that? Building schematic?" I ask, looking over his shoulder at the datapad. "Yeah. I guess Artoo's been keeping himself busy and getting to know the fortress's computer. Can you project those schematics, Artoo?" The droid beeps an affirmative. The schematics show a circular staircase running alongside the fortress, leading into a series of caves that dead end in a large cavern. "What's that room?" I ask. Artoo beeps in response, but before I can read his response on the datapad, Luke almost drops it to the floor. "Oh my," Luke murmurs, his eyes widening in dread. "What is it?" "Look right there," he responds, pointing to a spot in the cavern. Artoo zooms in on the schematic. My jaw drops. "Is that…is that a Spaarti cloning cylinder?" Luke nods gravely. "That's what it is, alright. What in the galaxy are they doing with a cloning cylinder? I thought you said this was Thrawn's operation; Thrawn created his clones on Wayland." "Yeah…but Pestage said that this was Thrawn's fallback, in case he failed. Thrawn was a genius, Luke, of course he'd prepare for every possible outcome, such as the destruction of Mount Tantiss." "Okay, but then why is there only one cloning cylinder in the cavern?" "Because they only need one," I sigh. Luke gapes at me as he picks up my insinuation. "You think that Pestage is planning to bring back Thrawn, don't you?" "As much as I hate to admit it, yes. Think about it—Thrawn kept this operation nice and quiet, even when he was waging war against the New Republic. This fortress would be the perfect place to protect a clone if his attacks failed, wouldn't it?" "So that's it, then," Luke says. "Pestage found his way out here, was impressed with Thrawn's operation, and now believes that he can restore the old Empire with him as Emperor and Thrawn once again leading the fleet." "Thrawn and Pestage working together…that's a scary thought for the New Republic." "Yeah." He shoves the datapad into his pack. "Let's get out of here." "You don't have to tell me twice," I agree. As we head out the door, Luke takes my lightsaber from his belt and places it in my hand. I hold it reverently and almost kiss it, so glad am I to have it once again in my grasp. Once we get into the hallway, Luke turns to his droid. "Artoo, go find the entrance to the caves, okay? Send out a homing signal when you get there, and then stay out of sight." The droid bleeps in response, then rolls down the hallway. Before we can follow, Luke ignites his lightsaber. "I think we're about to get company," he sighs. I reach out with the Force, and sure enough, I sense several beings approaching our direction. "I guess they found Pestage slumped over the table," I laugh. Luke grins at me, and we jog down the hallway in Artoo's direction. We come to a corner and Luke moves to follow the droid, but I hold him back, pointing in the direction of the hangar. "I remember seeing blast doors in this direction. We should head this way and knock out as many as we can, to throw them off and make them think we're trying to get to the ship. We can hold up near the hangar and take them out there, then double back and throw them off our trail." "Right," Luke agrees, and for a moment I'm shocked that he didn't voice any protest against my plan, and I start to wonder if maybe things really have changed between us in the past few days. But I don't have time to think about that for long; after we make it around a few more corners, blaster bolts start zooming by us. I drop to the ground on instinct while Luke turns around and blocks their shots with ease, running backwards the entire time without stumbling once. I bound back to my feet and run ahead of him, searching for our target, and then I see it. "Blast doors coming up!" I yell. I feel his mental affirmation, and quickly we rush past the first set of doors. I slam the door shut against the oncoming troopers and shoot out the control panel, trapping them on the other side. Before they can start bringing up the door, we continue further down the hallway, shooting out the rest of the blast doors on our way to the hangar. I sense more stormtroopers approaching us, and sure enough, as we come to another intersection, we both drop to the ground as blaster bolts come flying from a different direction. We're back on our feet in seconds, blocking their shots with ease. "This way!" Luke yells, pulling me down another hallway. We run in tandem, Luke turning around to block the bolts, then leading the way while I bring my lightsaber up to guard. We pass several more blast doors before Luke's comlink beeps. Luke stops for a moment to check the datapad. "Okay, there should be a hallway coming up that will take us back into the fortress," he says. I reach out into the Force, realizing that this is not good news at all. "Of course…that's where all the stormtroopers are," I sigh. "And when is anything simple for us?" he laughs. "Alright, let's stick to your plan—hold up here and let them come to us, to make them think we're on our way to the ship. Then we'll double back." "Sounds good to me." For a minute, the only sound comes from the humming of our lightsabers. I sense the stormtroopers coming from in front of us and to the right, and my feet start to shift in anticipation, preparing for a fight. Then I hear them, their shouts getting closer and the noise of blaster fire getting louder and louder. Luke tenses at my back and brings his lightsaber up. The two blast doors begin to open at the same time. I bring my lightsaber up in a reflection of Luke's, ready to defend myself. They begin shooting before I can even see their helmets, but I drop to the ground and block their shots with ease. My lightsaber moves as if on automatic pilot, and my eyes begin to close as I feel the Force flowing around me, guiding my movements. Once again, I am amazed at how right it feels to be fighting this way. I've gotten into several scuffles while in Karrde's employ, but nothing like what I trained for at the Jedi Academy. Even as I'm blocking and dodging blaster fire from a squadron of stormtroopers, I begin to wonder if I was wrong—if I do belong in the Jedi Order, after all. Suddenly Luke is standing by my side, and I realize that all the stormtroopers from his direction have been taken down. I hear Luke's voice in my mind: I block, you shoot! I send him back an affirmative, and whip out my holdout blaster. I get off several quick shots, downing more of troopers, while Luke deflects back their blaster bolts. As one of them flies dangerously close to my head, Luke steps forward and raises his right arm. In an instant, the remaining stormtroopers fly backwards through the air, landing in a heap several meters back. Run! Luke yells. I'm way ahead of him, barreling down the hallway, following his mental directions. As we come to another blast door, I see more stormtroopers heading towards us. But we don't hesistate; we stand our ground, deflecting their shots with ease. And Luke and I fight side by side, I feel exactly as I have during all of our sparring sessions. It's not only as if I'm meant to fight as a Jedi, but also that I'm meant to fight this way with him. After I shoot down the remaining stormtroopers, I stretch out into the Force and sense that we're now clear to get back to Artoo. "We should be safe," Luke says, echoing my thoughts. I glance at him; he's not even breathing heavily. "This way." He grabs my arm and we take off down the hallway, changing direction several times until coming to a long corridor that leads to a seemingly dead end. The door opens to reveal a circular staircase and a twittering Artoo Deetoo. Luke levitates the droid as we head down the staircase, and after several minutes of walking, we arrive at the underground caves. "They didn't put up much of a fight," I comment as we head through the tunnels, not wanting to jinx ourselves, but unable to resist making the observation. "Not for two Jedi, at least." "No," he agrees, "they didn't. I wonder…" "What?" He glances at me. "Maybe they wanted us to come down here." I continue moving forward despite the trepidation his words cause me. At a cross in the caves, Artoo turns left, and we follow. "I wonder what the Remnant will say about all this," I murmur. "Or the New Republic," Luke mutters back. I give a heavy sigh. "So much for those peace talks working out, huh?" "Yeah," Luke agrees. "Do you think that the Empire of the Hand will join Bastion?" "Join them? No. I think Pestage and Thrawn will take control of the Remnant, using the more radical Imperials to their advantage, and then set out to destroy the New Republic." We walk further into the caves, bringing out our glowrods to light our path. I glance up and see several large avian-like creatures hanging from the cave ceiling, seemingly watching us. I elbow Luke and point to them. "What are they?" I ask. "No clue. But they're ignoring us, so that's good enough for me right now." We continue in silence, and my mind starts to wander back to my conversation with Pestage, and his assertion that nobody ever truly leaves the Empire. Not that long ago, I agreed with him. I would have done anything to have the Empire return to its former glory. I wanted nothing more than to go back to my old life—one that I believed was full of power and prestige and respect. Even after I gained some stability while working for Karrde, I'd sometimes wonder what my life would be like if the old Empire still existed. Would I still be that same naïve girl, carrying out the Emperor's bidding and feeling a false sense of pride every time I accomplished one of his tasks? Would I have gained more power in the Empire's leadership, or would I still be stuck in the shadows, known to only the most elite members of the Emperor's inner circle? Would I have ever found any sense of personal happiness, or would I still be merely a pawn in the galactic conflict of light versus dark? Now, as I am faced with the possibility of a resurgent Empire once again taking over the galaxy, I know in my heart that I would never be able to go back to my old life. I don't want the false sense of order and stability that I felt while serving the Empire. I want to rush headfirst into a new life and tread along an unknown path. I want to be my own person, and live only for my own happiness. And as I glance at the man standing beside me, I realize that, no matter what happens, I want him to be standing by my side. Luke glances at me curiously, as if he realizes that something has shifted inside me, but he doesn't question me—not yet. There's time for that later. He merely gives me a reassuring smile. Then, Artoo begins to beep rapidly, and I see a bend in the cave up ahead. "It's coming up," Luke says. I hold out my arm to stop him. "What are we going to do about this clone?" I know that Luke does not want to have to kill the clone. It is still an innocent being. But if this clone really does have all of Thrawn's memories and tactical genius, it could spell disaster for the first real chance at galactic peace in almost three decades. Luke doesn't answer, and that is all the response I need. I stick close behind him as we come to the entrance of the large cavern. Before we can enter, Luke stops dead in his tracks and I slam into him, grabbing his waist to keep from toppling over. Before I can ask what is wrong, I hear his sharp intake of breath. "That's…that's not Thrawn," he whispers. I peer around him to get a good look at the cloning cylinder. Sure enough, the body being grown inside is human, not Chiss. "This doesn't make sense," Luke continues, his voice growing fraught with worry and confusion. "Pestage said this was Thrawn's operation. Who would he be trying to bring back, if not him?" As if in answer, Pestage's voice echoes inside my mind: You may find that we have exactly what you've been looking for. And then a memory stirs, just as it had inside Exar Kun's temple, when I was confronted with the presence of a Sith: You might find more than you are looking for. Stepping forward, as if I'm once again being called to do his bidding, my eyes widen with dread and my heart skips a beat. "No," I whimper, my blood turning cold at the realization. "No…it can't be…he's insane…" I bring my hands to my face in disbelief as my voice trails off, no longer able to speak. Suddenly everything makes sense—why Pestage is involved in this operation. Why the more moderate Imperial Remnant isn't. Why Pestage was absolutely certain that I would join him. Because for so many years, I was the Emperor's Hand, and given the chance to serve him again, Pestage believed I would jump at the opportunity. After all, isn't that what I had once said to Luke—that all I wanted was to have the old Empire back? And that was impossible…because the Emperor was dead. "What is it?" Luke looks at me, concerned. Before I can answer, he looks back to the cloning cylinder, and then I see in his eyes that he has realized it, too. He straightens up, standing perfectly still except for his hand, which reaches out to grasp mine. The body inside the cloning cylinder is much younger than I remember, but the feeling I have in the Force is unmistakable. I'm looking at a fully mature clone of Emperor Palpatine, ready to be reborn into the galaxy, and steal away my life once more. 24. Chapter 23 A/N: Song for this chapter: Your Congratulations, Alanis Morissette. (This song, more than any other, was my inspiration for Mara's characterization in this fic. You should listen to it!) A/N: Mara's backstory is an original creation based on references in canon. A/N: Inspiration for the next several chapters was taken from Vision of the Future by Timothy Zahn. CHAPTER 23 The universe spins around me, without care for up or down, left or right, backwards or forewords. The air suffocates me; I cannot draw breath. My soul is ripped from my body, torn away through vast spaces and time long past. I fall in a heap on the floor of a long-forgotten place, besotted with lush and exotic decorations, filled with promises of freedom and self-determination, and bursting with false pride. False pride for the Hand who has succeeded in so many of his biddings. False pride for the Hand who lives her life with only one purpose—to do as he pleases; to earn his approval, and his congratulations. The universe need not exist anymore; how can it when I am no longer that girl? Again the universe spins around me, and I am small, barely a child, sitting on a familiar woman's lap. I hold her red gold hair in my tiny fingers, squealing in delight because even so young, I know that my hair is starting to look like hers, and that makes me happy, because I want to be just like her. A man with green eyes sits next to us. He reads from a datapad, telling tales of ancient warriors who can wield power like magic and who brandish glowing swords, a testament to all who watch them that they are their protectors until death. He turns to me with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes, which reflect my own. I watch them, and I am happy, because they are the people who gave me life. They are the people who love me and cherish me and promise to protect me from the monster who vows to snatch me away in the night. But even so, their promises are made in vain, and even at such a young age, I know they cannot protect me against him. Suddenly a loud blast penetrates our home and my father rushes towards the door, brandishing a laser gun, but I know that it will do no good. He yells for my mother to take me and hide, and we run through hidden corridors into a small room, barely more than a closet, where we hide. My mother stands in front of me and brandishes her own glowing sword of protection. The room is soundproof, but I can hear the shouts in my head. He is coming. The man who I have seen in my dreams. The hooded man with a walking stick, feigning weakness for all who watch him from afar and aspire to overthrow his reign. He desires confrontation; he wants to draw out those weary warriors whose spirits were broken on the battlefield for so many years. He wants to draw out the smart ones who hid—those who have spawned new a generation of knights that will one day return to kill him, if they are not first bent to his will. I have seen him many times in my dreams; he promises me power, protection, and a home. He scares me, but I do not tell anyone of my dreams, for fear that they would think me evil, as he is. I cannot bear the thought of the ones who love me so much being so disappointed in me. But now he is coming, and there is nothing that can stop him. I hear shouts and laser blasts, and through the hooded man's eyes, I see my father fall to the floor in death. I scream, which calls the hooded man to me even more, but it does not matter, for he knows that I am here, and he will not leave until I am his. My mother jumps in front of me, holding me back, whispering prayers of protection and calling on the Force for guidance, but even the Force is no match for him. The door opens…but it is not the hooded figure I have seen in my dreams. It is a dark, helmeted figure, full of conflict but just as evil as the other. My mother pushes me back, letting out a war cry, but the helmeted figure does not falter. He tilts his head and brings out his own glowing red sword, and my mother begins to weep. "Please, Anakin…don't do this…" she whispers, and the helmeted man roars in anger, incensed by her presumption to call him by that name. I stare in shock and awe as the one called Anakin cuts down my mother in a single stroke, all of her skill and protection gone in a short second under the power of this dark man. I stay hidden in the shadows, unable to speak or move, but still he comes after me. He has been sent for this one purpose and he will not disappoint his master. He can never disappoint his master, for nobody ever says no to him and survives. The helmeted man—if he even is a man—takes me by the arm and carries me through my home—my former home. I do not scream or protest, for I know that it is futile, and I know I can no longer afford to appear weak. He puts me down, and stares at me through his helmeted eyes. "You are coming with me, child," his loud bass voice rumbles out, and all I can do is nod. I know that I am going with him to meet the hooded man from my dreams. My eyes close, blocking out the galaxy and the harsh new reality that I am forced to accept if I want to survive. And then he is in front of me, the hooded man from my dreams, staring at me with yellow eyes in something akin to awe or glee or fear, but most of all desire—desire to possess me, to mold me in his vision, to make me his own. To take away every bit of my humanity and break what makes me who I am, and remake me into his own little experiment. It will be easy, for a mere child has no chance of standing up to him, even though I desperately want to refuse…but nobody ever says no to him. "Welcome, Mara Jade." His voice is soft but cruel. It contains all the false promises of what I can be in life. I want to scream and run away from him, but it is useless. I know that, no matter what I do, I am now his. I can hear him in my mind, telling me who I am, and what I will become—his Hand. "Are you happy to be here, child?" he asks. I know that he can see through my lies, but it does not matter. He cares nothing about what is in my heart. He will change that later. Now, he is only concerned about my mind. When he wins that, he will own me. "Yes, Master," I whisper…and in that moment, I know that my life has ended. I close my eyes and wake up to a scorching hot heat, a brightness that encompasses all the glory of the planet's twin suns. I know that today is the day when he will come, when I will fulfill my master's wishes once more. I will kill the man who threatens to destroy my master and, therefore, threatens to destroy my life. I stand hidden as he enters the palace. He wears a cloak and a hood, reminding me so much of the master that I so dutifully serve —but then again, he is nothing like him at all. I remain silent, not wanting to give myself away, shielding my mind as my master has taught me. I watch with bated breath as this man—no, this boy, not so much older than myself—cheats death and brings down the wrath of the Hutt upon him. I listen to his warnings of death and destruction, awestruck that this boy—this nobody—could do what he has done. And in the small part of Mara Jade's mind that still exists, I begin to wonder if this boy is much more than what my master has told me. Then I am sent away, a failure. I close my eyes, and through time and space, I see my master standing over me, his face inches from mine, laced with a sneer that is filled with disappointment and promises of punishment if I do not succeed in my next task. So I fight on, striving to earn his approval once again…but suddenly my master is gone, taken from me by the boy I failed to kill, and for the second time, I know that my life has ended. For many years I wander aimlessly, searching for the boy who destroyed my life, so that I may fulfill my master's last command. When I finally find him, his perfect crystal blue eyes stare back at me, trying to understand what I am looking for. My blaster shakes in my grip as I threaten his life, because he has stolen mine, but still his eyes show no fear. Instead, they show compassion and warmth and—even though I cannot recognize it at the time—love. I have searched high and low for this boy—no, this man—for many years, wanting nothing more than to kill him and earn the congratulations of my master once again. But, now, as I stare into his eyes, the newfound woman—the Mara Jade who was destroyed by her master, only to come back to life out of necessity after his death—begins to wonder if this man is in fact exactly what I have been looking for. The universe spins around me again, and then the blue eyes are there once more…only not. I am fighting against the man I struggled for so long to find and kill…only not. In that last moment, I finally give in to my old master…and even as I thrust the blade forward, I realize how wonderful a thought that is—my old master. His last command is fulfilled, and I am free… But soon the chains fall upon me again, and I realize that I will never, ever be able to break free, for I have killed with free will and an eager heart; I have served the darkness and stood by its side as it flourished across the galaxy; I am no more worthy than my master or his apprentice to wear the title of Jedi. Still I press on, refusing to succumb to despair, knowing that, if I can survive, I may one day finally get the chance to beat him… And then the blue eyes find me again, and they shake me, willing me to wake up, to do penance for my sins, and to finally realize that I carry inside of me exactly what I've been looking for all these dark, lonely years… Forgiveness. . . . . . . Time stops and I fall through an abyss, but before I can collapse, I am held in place by a warm hand on my arm. I look up and see Luke staring at me intently, his clear blue eyes filled with concern. I can't recall how long we stand there, clutching each other in disbelief, but suddenly I stand up straight. I have been given a second chance, and I will take it. I march forward, my face set with determination and purpose, hiding my true feelings inside. But as soon as I take a few steps into the cavern, I stop in my tracks. The Force is gone. I can hear Luke. I can see him. I can touch him. But I cannot feel him. We glance at each other at the same time. "Ysalamiri," he whispers. "Why?" I whisper back. He nods in the direction of the cloning cylinder. "You think Pestage thought he could control Palpatine with ysalamiri?" I cry. "He's more insane than I thought!" Still clutching onto each other, we walk further into the cavern, and I have to force myself not to stare at the body inside of the cloning cylinder. Once, as the Emperor's Hand, I had more confidence than anyone in the galaxy. Under Palpatine's tutelage, I believed myself to be infallible, unstoppable, invincible. The Empire was where I belonged, and I would give anything to defend it. But now, faced with the man who broke me and shaped me into his own, my confidence shatters, and the only thing there to help me pick it up is the man standing by my side. We stop in front of the transparisteel barrier that separates the cloning cylinder from the rest of the cavern. "We have to end this," I declare. Luke shakes his head. "That's a Braxxon-Fipps 590 fusion generator. We can't just destroy it." "We don't have to destroy it," I smile. Ironically, it is Palpatine's training that will enable me to finally beat him. I remember back to a mission that involved disabling the same type of generator, and Palpatine's insistence that my task be completed quietly, inferring what would happen if I failed—I needn't worry about punishment, because the blast would most certainly kill me. "I take it you know how to disable this thing?" "Yeah, I think I can remember how." It's an understatement; as much as I want to forget about my former life as the Emperor's Hand, my memory of all my old missions is nearly flawless. "Why am I not surprised?" he murmurs. I throw him a look as I ignite my lightsaber, but Luke holds out his arm to stop me. "Don't be rash. We need to get out of here and call for help. We can't do this on our own." I give him an incredulous look. "What was that? Did Luke Skywalker just admit out loud that he needs help? Artoo, I hope you were recording that." "Haha, very funny. I'm being serious, Mara." "So am I," I hiss. "This needs to end. I need to do this." "Mara—" "Luke, please. I need to do this." After a moment, he nods in understanding and releases my arm. I block my face as I jam my lightsaber through the barrier; it shatters instantly, and Luke instinctively throws me to the ground to block me from the flying glass. I grimace as a stray shard slashes through my leg, and feel Luke tense on top of me as pieces smash into his back. "Are you okay?" he whispers in my ear, still flush on top of me. "Yeah," I grunt. I twist my head to stare up at him. "You want to get off—?" "Or am I just getting comfortable, I know, I know," Luke says slyly as he slips off me. "Here," he hands me a multitool from his belt. I step through the destroyed barrier and immediately get to work, stripping wires and mumbling to myself the old memories of colors and patterns and seconds. Luke stands behind me, watching me work, not uttering a word, knowing that to do so would be to break the spell. It is almost done, my victory so close at hand, when I hear them. I work faster, but it is to no avail—there they are, six sentinel droids, as if manifested from thin air, blocking our exit back into the cave. They immediately begin firing on us, their blaster bolts coming dangerously close to the generator. Luke and I share a worried glance, and without having to say a word we dive back towards the middle of the chamber. We bring up our lightsabers and are victorious in deflecting the droids' blaster bolts, but are useless in destroying them. "They're shielded!" Luke screams. We block their blasts for several more minutes, but it's still of no use, and without the Force to call upon, I find myself tiring. "This isn't going to work!" "We have to keep fighting, don't give up! Do you think you can you jump up to the balcony?" he yells, tilting his head behind us. I glance up at the circular balcony overhead, which provides a much needed line of sight block from the sentinel droids. With the Force to assist me, it wouldn't be a problem, but I don't think I can manage it by myself. Still, I know it is our only chance, and I know that Luke will be able to jump up with no problem. "I can with your help!" I tell him. Luke looks at me for a moment, his expression unreadable, but then nods. "Cover me!" he yells, and then, so fast I can barely make out his move, he jumps up to the balcony, grasping the edge with his hands and pulling himself up. "Your turn!" he yells, holding his hand out to me. With a grunt, I bend my knees and jump with all my might. Luke grabs my hand and swiftly pulls me up the rest of the way before the sentinel droids can shoot at me. They keep firing in our direction, but shut down their blasters once they realize that, now lying down on the balcony, we are out of sight from their blasts. "Now what do we do?" I ask breathlessly. "I don't know—we'll think of something." "I guess we were wrong, huh?" "About what?" "The ysalamiri weren't for him," I reply, gesturing towards the cloning cylinder. "They were for us—for anyone who came in here trying to destroy the clone." We lie there for several minutes, not speaking, not looking at each other. The only sound in the cavern is the whir of the droids. Slowly, Luke reaches out his hand to grasp mine. As our fingers intertwine together, still unable to feel him through the Force, it finally hits me—there's no getting out of here alive. I've damned him to death. I've killed him. "I'm sorry," I whisper. "What?" "You said we should go back and get help, but I wouldn't listen to you. I never listen. This is all my fault." "No, Mara," Luke says, clutching my hand even tighter. "Don't talk that way. We'll figure something out." But even now, I still refuse to listen to him. I finally meet his gaze, and seeing the love in his eyes, I feel like the most awful person in the galaxy. "I'm sorry, Luke. I'm sorry for not opening up to you…I'm sorry for leaving…I'm sorry for everything..." "Stop it!" he yells, shaking my shoulders. "What the hell is wrong with you? This isn't the Mara Jade I fell in love with!" I wish I could rejoice in his declaration, but with the realization of what I've done hanging over me like a fog, I cannot feel any joy, only heartache. "It's too bad, you know," I say, brushing a lock of hair from his face. "We did make a good couple, after all." "We do make a good couple. Listen to me, Mara," he cups my face in his hands. "You promised me that we'd talk after leaving Nirauan, remember, and I'm holding you to that promise! You're not getting out if it that easily, you got that?" I can't respond; instead, I spare another glance at the cloning cylinder—at Palpatine, the man who stole my life. If only I'd been able to resist him, I could have ended things. I could have killed him in his sleep. I could be free now. But then, as my eyes lock on to the generator…I realize that I can end this, after all. Instead of killing Luke, I will save him. I will defy the last command. I give Luke a bittersweet smile as I turn back to face his perfect crystal blue eyes. No matter what, he always had hope. He always had faith in me, even when I had none. Now, it is my turn to repay the favor. This is my moment of reckoning. "You're right about one thing," I tell him softly, taking his hair in my fingers again. "You will get through this." "…What—?" Cutting off his question, I stroke his cheek and pull him into one last kiss. "See you later, Farmboy," I whisper against his lips. "What…what are you doing? Mara? NO, MARA, STOP! MARA, NO!" Before he can pull me back, I dive off the balcony and hit the ground in a roll. The sentinels start firing as soon as I get to my feet, but I ignore them, not even bothering to block their shots, and sprint towards the cloning cylinder as fast as I can. I ignore the pain that courses through me as their blaster bolts pierce my nowdefenseless body, focusing only on getting to the cloning cylinder in front of me. Breathlessly, I drop into another roll, and then, as if from a memory long past, I find myself kneeling in front of my old master. Unable to move, unable to even think, I stare up at the thing that stole my life, and I struggle to stay upright as I hear his voice inside my head, just as I had for so long… YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER! I cringe and shut my eyes against his last command, refusing to allow myself to succumb to it, remembering the little girl who was stolen away from her home and molded into someone completely new and completely wrong… YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER! Remembering five long years of hopelessness and despair as that girl grew up and became a woman, all while seeking a revenge that was never deserved… YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER! Remembering how that woman created a new life as a Jedi but was forced to leave it behind, because she had been broken and did not know how to fix herself… YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER! Gathering every last bit of strength, I scream, shutting out everything else in the universe, ignoring Luke's shouts of protest, concentrating only on the lightsaber in my hand and my desire to end all this forever. My bright blue blade slams against the generator, and in the peaceful second that follows, a smile tugs at my lips, and I finally whisper the word I never thought I'd ever be able to say to my former master: "No." 25. Chapter 24 The penultimate chapter... . A/N: Song for this chapter: Nearer My God to Thee, Eileen Ivers, Back to Titanic soundtrack A/N: Song for this chapter: Now We Are Free, Lisa Gerrard and Hans Zimmer, Gladiator soundtrack . CHAPTER 24 . The cloning cylinder explodes in a violent rage, the ensuing shock wave ripping apart every droid in its path. Shards of glass tear through my body, and that pain is enough to make me scream out in agony, but my voice catches in my throat as the blast throws me clear across the room. I hit the cavern wall with a loud thud and hear my ribs crack. My head slams backwards against the hard rock and I feel blood begin to drip down my face. Breathing becomes labored and I fear that my lungs have been punctured. As I slide down the wall, another blast radiates from the clone itself. This shock wave hits my very soul, and I realize that not only did the first explosion destroy the sentinels, but also the ysalamiri hidden around the cavern. I can feel the Force again, and with it the waves of dark energy emanating from the clone that was just destroyed, exactly as it did when the original was thrown down a reactor shaft on the second Death Star. I collapse to the floor in a heap and hear Luke scream my name from across the cavern. I look up through fluttering eyes to see him running towards me, and smile in relief; he was shielded from the blast enough to escape life-threatening injuries. He will be fine. I am not sure if I will be. I black out, and the next thing I know, Luke is kneeling over me, calling my name over and over, shaking my shoulders, pushing my hair back from my face, his hands covered with blood. His voice is full of panic and tears glisten in his eyes. But I don't pay attention to sight or sound. I can feel him in my mind again. This time, it is very different. I sense Luke's every thought; feel his every emotion. I see myself through his eyes; hear the buzzing left over from the explosion in his ears; taste the salty tears on his lips; smell the scent of burnt metal that wafts into his nose. It is, in one way, a logical extension of the bond that was created while I trained at the Jedi Academy—a bond that was cultivated during all of our time sparring, during all our meditation sessions, and the one night we spent together, when he held me in his arms and we blocked out the rest of the galaxy, seeing only each other and our love. But in another way, it is completely new. With Palpatine, I could hear his call from anywhere in the galaxy. I believed what I felt with him to be the ultimate power of the Force. But this…this is much more powerful. I thought I knew Luke Skywalker before. I thought I loved him more than I could ever love anyone. I was wrong. This is what it should be like. This is how we should feel…forever. As I lie there, dying in his arms, I know that he is feeling the same thing. Even if I couldn't sense it through the Force, I can see it in his eyes. There is more love there than I could have ever imagined someone having for me, even after seeing all my failures, all my fears, all my weaknesses, and my deep and profound regret for what I once was. This time, I do not run away from the openness. I do not hide from the man in front of me. I allow him to see me—to really see me, deeply and truly, and along with that, the depths of my love for him. But suddenly, even as I have this epiphany about Luke, I realize that something is missing from the back of my mind. For the first time since Wayland, I no longer feel guilt for what I did as the Emperor's Hand. I no longer wish I could go back and fix everything. I no longer believe that I am incapable of redemption. Thinking all of this, I smile. I don't care if this is the end. It is the happiest moment of my life. And I get to have it lying in Luke's arms. As if he can sense this—which he most assuredly can—he squeezes my hand. "It's going to be okay, Mara," he chokes out, tears falling unabashedly down his face. "The ysalamiri are gone. I can put you in a healing trance. Just stay with me, okay? Please stay with me…" I meet his gaze, unable to speak. I hear the earnestness in his voice, the absolute conviction that I will make it. I know that Luke is powerful, and I hope that he is right. But even if he is not able to heal me, I realize that I am not afraid of dying—not anymore. Luke shakes his head against my thoughts. "You'll get through this. We'll get through it together. I promise. You just need to fight for me, okay?" But I'm no longer concentrating on him, because suddenly, as if from a far off place, I see a man and woman standing over me. The man's green eyes twinkle with happiness. The woman's red gold hair whips around her face, framing the smile that graces her lips. I sense that they want nothing more than to be with me again, but they gesture for me to stay where I am. They say it's not my time yet. I sense something else, too. "They're proud of me," I whisper. "Don't talk, Mara," Luke pleads. His expression is calm, hiding the fear and panic I feel deep inside of him. "Just close your eyes, okay? You need to go to sleep. Then everything will be alright." He places his hands on my forehead, pulling me into a healing trance. I start to drift away, but I force my eyes to stay open for just a few more moments. I have to tell him this in case the trance does not work. "You wanted to know what it would take for me to finally forgive myself," I croak, almost unable to get out my words. He leans down to hear me, his hands warm on the sides of my face, and I pull him to me in a kiss. I do not kiss him because I love him. I do not kiss him because I am grateful for his ever-present belief in me. I do not kiss him because I want to give him one last kiss before I die. I kiss him because, for the first time since I have known him, being with him feels absolutely right. Everything feels right. As I pull away, I find myself staring into his eyes again. I can feel his breath on my face, as if he is trying to put life back into my body. He searches me, trying to find the answer to his question. I recognize the expression all too well, because I have been looking at myself in the mirror the same way for many years. Gathering up my last bit of strength, I smile and tell him what he has so desperately wanted to hear, because he deserves to know: "I beat him, Luke. I finally beat him. "And now I can forgive myself." Those are the last words I speak before the blackness takes me. . . . . . . My eyes open slowly. I blink rapidly, trying to push away the last remnants of sleep. For a moment, I do not know where I am. I do not even know if I am alive. Then, like the bright sunlight shining on the very core of my being, I sense Luke's presence, and I realize that everything is going to be okay. He sits next to me, staring down at me with a relieved expression on his face. "Hi," he whispers. He helps me sit up and I look around, trying to figure out where I am. It is dark, and I realize that we are still in the caves that led us into the cloning chamber on Nirauan. Above us are the same avian-like creatures watching us, as if they are on guard. "Hi," I whisper back. Luke smiles at me and takes my hand in his. "You made it." I smile back at him, reaching out into the Force to sense the universe around me. "Yeah," I sigh happily. "I guess I did." "Don't you ever do that to me again," he growls, but his eyes twinkle with happiness, betraying his true emotions. "I won't," I squeeze his hand. "I promise." He moves even closer to me and brings my hand to his lips. "How do you feel?" I look down at myself. All my injuries are gone. I touch my head, but no blood comes off on my hands. Luke must have washed me off while I was in the healing trance. I feel brand new…like I've just been born again. "I feel wonderful," I tell him, and I do, in so many ways. His smile grows even bigger. I hear his next thought, one that he does not say out loud: Now we can be together…forever… For once, I do not flinch away at being so connected to him. I do not shy away from the openness. I hold his gaze, taking in the man I tried to find for so many years, only to run away from when I finally found exactly what I was looking for. "Yes," I murmur. "Forever." Luke gently caresses my face and leans his lips down to mine. But, ever the practical one, I pull away before he can taste his victory. "Wait! How long have I been out?" I ask. His expression shifts from one of bewilderment to one of amusement. "Four days," he replies, gently pushing the stray locks hair from my face. "Oh." I cannot get my head around that fact. Without even having to ask, I know that he has stayed with me the entire time. "What's happening?" I gesture above us. He takes my other hand in his as he answers. "Once I got you out of the cavern, I was able to link up Artoo to the Jade's Fire and use the ship's comm system to send a message to Leia. From what the Qom Jha have informed me, the New Republic showed up earlier this morning to clean up this mess. But apparently there wasn't much of a fight." "The Qom Jha?" I question. "Indigenous creatures to Nirauan, along with the Qom Qae," Luke explains, pointing to the avians above us. "I discovered I could speak to them through the Force. They have been most helpful." "Oh." I try to reconcile everything he's told me. Something doesn't add up. "The fleet got here this morning, you said?" "From as much as I can tell. I haven't heard anything from them yet, but then again, I haven't bothered to check Artoo for any messages." I stare at him incredulously, realizing what is out of place. "But…but why aren't you up there with them, helping to put an end to it?" I ask. "Why are you still down here?" Luke stares at me. "Because this is where you are," he replies, as if it is the most obvious answer in the universe. "Oh." "Apparently spending four days unconscious does wonders for your powers of eloquence," Luke quips, running his fingers down my face. "Are you…are you teasing me, Skywalker? No less then five minutes after me waking up from healing trance that saved me from certain death?" Luke's eyes twinkle in amusement. "You have a problem with that?" I grin at him. "No—I'm impressed, actually." He chuckles, and then we fall into a comfortable silence, listening to the fluttering of wings above us. I know that he is trying to think of what to say to me. I do not press him; I am content to merely sit peacefully beside him. But then I remember something, a question to which I need to know the answer. "Luke…why did you insist on coming with me?" He stares straight ahead, lost in thought. For a moment, I think that he might act like the old Luke Skywalker, and avoid confiding in me, holding on to his burdens alone, but things are different now. He wants to tell me. He wants to share everything with me. That's why he's here, after all. He speaks slowly, hesitantly. "One night, right after the ball, I…I had a vision." "Of?" I ask, even though I already know. "Of you…lying on the floor of a large cavern. And you looked…" "Dead?" I suggest. He nods. I watch him closely; his face is gripped with the fear that he felt when he thought he was going to see his vision come true. I place my hand on his arm, wanting to reassure him that his vision has been passed, and he turns to face me. "I hadn't even gone back to Yavin IV yet, but I couldn't get the vision out of my head. It was exactly like when I saw Han and Leia in danger on Bespin. I knew that I should go back to the Academy; that I was needed there. And I knew that you could take care of yourself. But I just couldn't let it go. "I could hear Master Yoda's voice, exactly like it was on Dagobah, telling me to do my duty. Telling me to be a good, perfect Jedi. But just like on Dagobah, I couldn't listen to him, and I realized that I didn't want to. He was right about so many things, but not this. My compassion for others isn't wrong. I need it to keep me sane. "Leia said I was crazy to go running after you, that I should send you a message warning you of the possible danger and get on with my life. She was afraid I'd get hurt again. But Han told me to go. He said I'd be crazy not to." "Wait a minute…Han Solo told you to act on a Force vision?" Luke grins. "It makes sense, once you get to know him. Despite all his talk, he's a big softie. And he likes you." "Oh." I have to remember to buy Han a very big drink the next time I see him…after I set things right with Leia. Luke takes my hand again and begins to trace the lines on my palm with his finger. "Once I got to the Wild Karrde and saw that you were okay, I was relieved, but I still couldn't get the vision out of my head. When you said you were going somewhere, I just couldn't let you go alone. I knew something bad was going to happen. I had to go with you." "So you left all your responsibilities with the Jedi Order to follow me halfway across the galaxy, just to make sure that I was okay? Me, the woman who couldn't stop running away from everything?" "Ironic, isn't it?" "No," I reply, shaking my head, fighting back tears. "Not at all." Luke takes a deep breath before he next speaks. "When I had that vision, Mara, I realized how stupid I was not to go running after you in the first place. Because I don't need to be a perfect Jedi…I don't need to do everything by myself…but I do need to be with you." I smile at his words and lean in for a kiss, but this time, he is the one to pull away. "Did you really mean what you said about forgiving yourself?" I nod, thinking of what I told him back in the cavern, when I thought I was going to die. "Yes." "What was holding you back all that time?" he asks quietly. I sit thoughtfully for a moment, remembering the night I realized that I had to leave the Academy. I have never once confided in anyone the true reason I left, but I no longer feel afraid to do so. Not now. Not with him. I reach up and stroke his cheek as I finally open up to him. "I just didn't believe that I deserved forgiveness for all the things I'd done. Once I realized that, I couldn't stay with you, feeling that way. I had no choice but to leave." As I finish my words, his expression turns to one of pure love and affection. I never thought that anyone could ever look at me this way. I never thought I could accept this kind of love. "And now?" he asks, even though he already knows the answer. "Now…now I know that I deserve it. Now I finally feel free." Luke smiles at me, tears in his eyes, and leans in to press his forehead against mine. "I love you, Mara," he whispers, and this time, it is a triumph to hear those words. I laugh against him, unable to believe that we have finally gotten to a place where we can let ourselves be together without any fear or apprehension of the consequences. Sending out all my love for him through the Force, I wrap my arms around him, reveling in the feel of his body against mine. I never want to let go, but I force myself to pull away so I can gaze into his perfect crystal blue eyes, and finally say the words I once swore I'd never speak aloud: "I love you, Luke." It is my hard-earned victory. And then, on the ground of a dark Nirauan cave, with the fate of the galaxy being decided far, far away, Luke Skywalker once again takes me in his arms, and we are both exactly where we belong in the universe. 26. Chapter 25 A/N: Song for this chapter: Marchin' On, One Republic A/N: Song for this chapter: Utopia, Alanis Morissette . CHAPTER 25 . "Dammit, Ganner!" The loud voice screeches across the training room, making me press my hand to my ear in protest. "Sorry, Wurth. Guess you're just not fast enough for me," Ganner Rhysode goads his friend, smirking as he twirls around his lightsaber in victory. "Enough, children!" I admonish them, preemptively silencing their eternal protests that they're teenagers, not children. "Did you see that, Jedi Jade?" Ganner asks a little too eagerly. I sigh and rub my face with my hands; the boy is extremely talented, there's no doubt about that, but he has an ego the size of Coruscant and I hate to feed it any more than necessary. "Mmm-hmm," I murmur, and of course Ganner takes that to mean that I'm giving him all the praise in the galaxy. "Ha, see, she thinks I'm awesome!" he exclaims. I ignore Ganner and instead clap my hand on Wurth Skidder's shoulder. "You're improving every day, Wurth. That was a very good effort," I tell him. The boy refuses to meet my eyes. "Not good enough," he sulks. Ganner literally struts by, still twirling his lightsaber. I whirl on him and he stops dead in his tracks. Under my glare, his blade immediately retracts back into its hilt. "Sorry, Jedi Jade," he gulps. "What have I told you about your overconfidence, Ganner?" I sigh. "It is my biggest weakness," he recites. "And yet you still insist on prancing around like a Twi'lek dancing girl whenever you win a duel." "I'm sorry," he mumbles. I sigh again; Ganner is a good kid, but that's exactly it—he's a kid. "Don't apologize, Ganner, just do better next time, okay? Remember, the moment you think that you're going to win is the moment an opponent can swoop in and beat you. "And you," I turn to Wurth, "you let him see that you thought you'd been beaten. How do you expect to win a duel if you have no confidence that you can beat him?" "I know, Jedi Jade. I'll do better." "Good, now let's see you try again." I take a seat on one of the benches as the two boys continue their sparring practice. They start out calmly enough, but soon their hormones get the best of them and they start trying to outdo each other, both vying for the attention of Octa Ramis, who sits across from me, watching their duel with interest. Of course, the boys don't take any notice of the way she favors their friend, Miko Reglia, and sits closer and closer to him every day. "Dammit, Ganner!" Wurth yells again, as his lightsaber goes flying out of his hand, and Ganner once again begins to strut around the room. Placing my head in my hands, I'm suddenly extremely grateful that Luke and I are leaving soon for Coruscant. The boys start yelling at each other again, this time bringing Miko into the fray, leaving Octa to sit alone watching the chaos. She meets my gaze and rolls her eyes. I smile back at her, and then before I can jump up and throttle the boys, I hear a throat clear from behind me. "Tough class?" I turn around to see Kyp Durron leaning against the entrance to the training room, his long hair pulled back from his face and a smirk on his lips. "You know how they are," I say, pointing my thumb at the three rowdy teenage boys. Kyp chuckles and walks over to me. Since my return to Yavin IV, we have reached somewhat of an understanding. We are not the greatest of friends, and I doubt that we ever will be, but at least now I'm able to admit that he is a valuable asset to the Jedi Order. And to his credit, he always comes to my assistance whenever my students get too out of control, and treats me with a level of respect equal to what he shows Luke. "Yeah, they remind me of myself at that age. Don't worry, you can go now—I'll handle them," he tells me, his green eyes twinkling mischievously. "Thanks, Kyp," I reply gratefully, rising to my feet to say goodbye to my students, and feeling giddy with the anticipation of crushing their hopes and dreams for their next several classes. "I'm so sorry to interrupt this very lively conversation," I cut in, my voice rising above their shouts and catcalls, "but I'm afraid I have to leave now for my trip to Coruscant. Jedi Durron will be overseeing your training classes while I'm away." Their audible groans are music to my ears as I turn away and pass by Kyp, giving him a high five on my way out the door. An hour later, Luke and I are sitting in the cockpit of the Jade's Fire, on our way to Coruscant for the celebration of the signing of the peace treaty between the New Republic and the Imperial Remnant. After Luke and I returned from Nirauan, we learned that Fel had no idea what Pestage had been up to, and was very eager to keep the Empire of the Hand isolationist for the time being. The peace talks stalled a bit while Bastion tried to change Fel's mind, but he continuously refused, and eventually Grand Admiral Pellaeon convinced the Moffs to go ahead with the treaty. How he was ever able to do it, I'll never understand. Perhaps it was something he learned during all that time he served Thrawn. Once we enter hyperspace, Luke leans back in his chair, stretching and opening his arms to me. Wordlessly I rise from my chair to sit on his lap, laying my head on his shoulder. Through the Force, I sense his growing amusement. "Hey, I never asked you before. How was class?" I glare at him. He looks down at me, smiling innocently. "How did you ever convince me to take on those three?" I ask, narrowing my eyes at him. "You're the only one who could handle them, Mara," he chuckles. "Corran could." "Nah, he's just as arrogant as they are. He'd probably end up punching them." I burst out laughing at the thought. "I don't think that would be such a bad thing!" "Perhaps. Speaking of Corran, will he be at the ball?" "Yes, then he has some leave and wants to come to the Academy to help with some of the newer students. Tyria, too." Luke nods, pleased by my news. My gaze lingers on him for a moment, still in awe of how far he's come in letting people help him; of how much the Academy has flourished under his leadership, as opposed to his control. "I still can't believe that we're signing a peace treaty with the Empire," Luke murmurs. "I know," I admit. "At the back of my mind, I always expected that a new threat would emerge from somewhere, and that the galaxy would be thrust back into another conflict. But I guess the peace is real now." Luke is quiet for a moment. "Yes," he murmurs. "It's nice. Just you and me." I throw him a look. "And an entire Academy full of Jedi apprentices." "Yeah, them too." We grow quiet again, and suddenly I'm aware of anxiety building up within Luke. He avoids my gaze, his arm inside his robes, moving slightly, as if he is holding something in his hand. "All right, what is it?" I ask, leaning back to examine him. "What?" he replies innocently. "Please. Something's been bothering you since we got on the ship. Now spill it." He grimaces. "You did warn me that you'd get really good at that if you became a Jedi, didn't you?" "Yeah, and that was even before all that Force-bond stuff happened, so now you're really screwed, Skywalker. Spill it." He takes a deep breath. "Here," he says, removing his hand and handing me a black velvet box, one that looks all too similar to the box that held the necklace I still wear every day. "I got this for your birthday." I stare at the box. "But my birthday isn't for weeks, and I told you not to get me anything!" "I know, but I couldn't stop thinking of the last ball, when the only jewelry you had was that necklace, and I wanted you to have something nicer to wear this time around." I begin to protest, because I don't need any other jewelry; my necklace is more special than anything else he could ever buy me. But then I open the box, and I once again lose the ability to speak. Sitting inside the box is a ring that perfectly matches my necklace. But this piece of jewelry is most definitely not from a Coruscanti market. I gently remove the ring from its slot and turn it over in my hand. The band is silver-toned, just like the chain around my neck, but I know that this metal is far more precious than plain silver— perennium, I think. The stone itself is identical in both cut and color to the one around my neck, but I can tell just by looking at it that this stone is not at all commonly found. "I found it on Ilum," Luke tells me, once again reading my mind. I stare at him in disbelief. "Ilum?" I gasp. He nods. I remember his trip off planet several months ago, when he went to gather Adegan crystals for some much-needed training lightsabers, and I stayed behind on Yavin IV to watch over the Academy with Kam and Tionne Solusar. "I was hurrying about, trying to gather as many crystals as I could find before the weather turned really bad, and then I stopped in my tracks," he explains, as he takes the ring and places it on my finger. "This one crystal caught my eye—it seemed different from the others, a slightly different shade of green—and it was just like when I saw your necklace back in the market on Coruscant. All I could see were your eyes staring back at me." "And you had it made into a ring?" I ask in disbelief, still unable to process the enormity of this gesture. "Yes," he replies, as I stare at it, entranced. Time stops as his thumb begins to gently caress the side of my hand. I watch his ministrations, but then he forces my chin up to stare into his eyes. "Marry me?" My eyes widen at his request. I break into a huge grin and glance back down at the ring on my finger. "So…this is an engagement ring?" I ask, forcing myself not to laugh. Luke nods, shifting nervously underneath me. A very naughty idea runs through my mind, and, of course, I cannot resist. "That's very devious of you, getting me to put it on before even asking the question." "Mara—" "You've definitely been hanging around me too long, pulling tricks like that." "Mara—" "I mean, it's like you just assumed I'd say yes or something…" "Mara—" "…And you know what they say about people who assume—" This time, he is the one to cut me off, with an amorous kiss on the mouth. Even through his kiss, I still pretend to protest. It's just too damn fun to tease him. Slowly, he pulls away, grimacing at me. "You're not going to make this easy for me, are you?" he growls. I gently place my hand on his cheek. "Master Skywalker, when have I ever made anything easy for you?" He shakes his head in exasperation, and then removes the ring from my finger. Slowly, he shifts my weight so he can get up from the chair. Then he kneels down in front of me and takes my hand in his, before looking me straight in the eye. "Mara, will you marry me?" I stare at the ring in his hand, my expression turning serious. Normally, I would never give up teasing him so quickly. I would consider myself honor-bound to make him sweat some more. I would try my best to make his life difficult. But suddenly, all of that seems pointless. Luke has seen inside my very soul. He knew my answer before he could even ask the question. He knew my answer back in a cave on Nirauan. I allow him to place the ring on my finger again, and laugh at myself as a tear comes to my eye. "Yes," I tell him. "I will." . . . . . . . . . . I stand on the roof of the Imperial Palace, regarding the bustling traffic below, once again smiling at the thought of those beings going about their lives without any sense of regard for the larger universe. At one time, I longed to be one of those people— just a normal woman going through my daily life with no complications. Now, everything is different. Now, I am Mara Jade Skywalker, someone's wife—Luke's wife. No, I definitely do not want to be anyone else at this moment. Yet, here I am, once again shying away from the crowd and the obligations of my life. I do not know why this place has called to me again; I am happier than I have ever been. Maybe I am here because I realize that things have come full circle. Maybe I am here because it was in this place that my new life began. Maybe I am here because I have finally learned to appreciate peace and quiet more than anything else in the galaxy. With my Luke. I hear the door open behind me, and then he is there, as he always is. I don't look back at him as he approaches. I do not need to. He stands close to me and reaches out to take my hand, which now displays two beautiful pieces of jewelry, indicating that I am his, forever. We stare out at the skyline together, breathing in the cool Coruscant air. After several moments, he breaks the silence. "I thought I'd find you here." "Am I that obvious?" "You are to me." I give him a sly smile, then turn back to look at the darkening sky. "What's wrong?" he asks. "Nothing," I reply. "I'm just thinking." "Lots to think about?" "You could say that again." I meet his gaze. "I don't have any regrets, if that's what you're worried about. It's just…sometimes it's crazy to think of all that's happened." "I know what you mean." "But I know that it's right." "Me, too. So, why are you here?" "I just wanted some peace and quiet, I guess. Your sister sure does know how to throw a party," I laugh, thinking of the very drunk and rowdy Rogues making fools of themselves in the ballroom right now. "That she does," he agrees. "Are you sure you're not out here because you're avoiding your promised slow dances with every member of Rogue Squadron?" "Very funny. If you remember, I didn't make that promise, it was CorSec, and I'm still going to kill him for it." "I'm sure you are," he chuckles, leaning in to gently kiss my cheek, "but you'll have to beat me to it." I smile and lean against him, closing my eyes and slipping my arms around his waist. "I love you, Mrs. Skywalker," he murmurs into my hair. "Jade Skywalker," I correct him. "I love you, Mrs. Jade Skywalker." I let out a soft sigh. "I love you too, Luke." We stand there for long moments, swaying in the soft breeze. In the distance, a large holoscreen flashes through news headlines. I let out a cackle as a holo of Luke and I comes on the screen. "Oh Force…they've already got holos from the wedding! What in the galaxy did I get myself into?" "I ask myself the same thing every day." I slap him hard on the stomach. "Nice. Come on, we should get back inside." "Wait," he stops me, holding on to my arm. I give him a curious look. "What, do you have another lightsaber to give me or something?" "Not quite," he grins. "Huh?" He pulls a green stone from inside his jacket in response. I glance at it, my eyes narrowing. "What's this?" He runs his fingers over my engagement ring. "I wanted to give you something on our wedding day," he explains. "The stone in your ring came from this crystal. I…I thought you should have it." I stare at it, still transfixed. I don't need this; I already have a lightsaber—the one that Luke gave me, here, several years ago. "But…why?" I sputter. "Because you deserve to make your own," he replies. "You've earned it. You should have done so as soon as you became a Jedi Knight." For a moment I stand completely still, almost unable to breathe. I open my mouth to protest again, but I close it before I can speak. Hesitantly, I accept his gift, closing my hand over his. I stare at the crystal for a second, realizing what this means. "You know, I never thanked you," I murmur, still mesmerized by the crystal. "For never giving up on me," I continue, answering his unspoken question. "Yes," he runs his finger over my ring again, "you did." Then he lifts up my chin and places his lips on mine. After a few moments, he pulls away and smiles at me conspiratorially. " Now we should get back inside. Everyone probably thinks we've run off to some cleaning closet or something." I raise my eyebrows at him. "Don't give me any ideas, Master." "That's for later," he laughs, running his fingers down my neck suggestively. He pushes back a stray lock of hair and turns to go back inside the Palace, but I remain in place. "You coming?" he asks. I shake my head and lean on the edge of the roof. "You head inside. I'll be there in a bit." He nods and kisses my forehead. "Don't keep me waiting too long." As he walks away, I glance back down at the object in my hand —my very own lightsaber crystal. While I have been a Jedi Knight for over a year now, I never once felt the desire to go through the trial of constructing a new lightsaber. Sometimes, in the dead of night with nothing but my thoughts for company, I wondered if my hesitance to do so was one last vestige of my old feelings that I didn't deserve to be a Jedi. Since I never went through that last trial, I never had to confront those old fears and doubts, and see if they still existed. But now, staring at the crystal in my hands, I realize that those fears and doubts are indeed long gone, conquered forever in a cavern on Nirauan. So I will do it. I will construct a new lightsaber, and truly live up to the promise I made when Luke gave me his first weapon, and I swore to both him and myself that I would one day become a Jedi. It is only fitting, for I am now his wife—a promise I never thought I would ever want to make, or would ever feel deserving to make, if Luke was finally able to conquer his fears and ask me to be with him forever. I smile as I think back on his words to me: Don't keep me waiting too long. Even when I did, he never gave up on me. He always had hope. He always does. Behind me, I hear the door to the Palace open once again. "Hang on a minute," I call after him. Luke turns around and smiles at me—a smile that holds all the promises of hope for our future. I take a deep breath. "I'll come with you." . . . FIN . . . Well, that's it, folks—happily ever after! :) I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read and comment on this fic. If you've enjoyed it, I'd love to hear from you! It has been an absolute pleasure to write this fic. The Luke/Mara relationship holds a very special place in my heart and I hope that I have done it justice. I also hope that I have done justice to the wonderful, amazing character of Mara Jade, without whom I would not be a Star Wars fan today. Thanks again for reading, and may the Force be with you, always!
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