The widow stood mutely alongside the girl, as the few scraggly imperial stormtroopers performed their obligatory salute to the fallen.
Retired Lt. Kevander Wixten, dead only three days, would soon be ashes orbiting his home planet. Such a pitiful tribute, really, for one of his power and importance,his wife mused as she studied them. They were all too young, just boys in fact. No doubt they were relatively fresh conscripts. After all, the Empire needed its more seasoned troops for fighting its losing war against the New Republic. And if this was not much of a funeral, with not much of the requisite military honors, well, Wixten was not much of an officer. Where were all his comrades? Of course.He didn't have any.
Traitors rarely kept friends. Callista Wixten was quite sure that the night her husband drew his last breaths, a lot of his friends slept easier.
The music swelled, and the girl wept loudly and openly, keening for her father, clinging to her mother's arm. The mother herself was oblivious. Her mind was elsewhere. No time for mourning her not -so- lamented husband, this was the time for making plans. She was a very, very wealthy woman now. Just how would she spend her newfound credits?
Days later, while searching through her husband's effects, she would find her answer.
He punched the coordinates into the ship's computer, and leaned back in the chair to survey the view outside the ship. The sight of a nondescript blue green ball, much like a dozen others throughout the galaxy, stirred no feelings of attachment. A quick glimpse was all he spared the planet of his birth, his childhood home. Young men are always in such a hurry, and he was only sixteen.
"Bye, Mom. Sorry about your ship." Grinning involuntarily he imagined what her face would look like when she found out he was gone. Outsmarted by her only son, that was going to sting. She thought the command codes for the Fire were well nigh impenetrable, and she wasn't usually wrong.
The shipment of Corellian brandy and a hold full of who- knows- what were on board as well. He was really sorry about that. He hated stealing from her this way, but he simply couldn't afford to wait until she finished this run. If he stuck around, he'd surely get his head beat in, and his friends sent to the spice mines on Kessel, or some other hidey-hole in hell. His mother would see to it, personally. But now, it would look to the entire world as though he were a coward.
He winced at that thought. But there was nothing else to be done. Mother had an abysmal record at dealing well with his mischief making, and she was powerful enough to make it dangerous to have an altercation with her son. The last fistfight he'd been in had resulted in the "other guy" going to Atracken, a frozen dustball that just barely merited planetary status. He had often longed for a more traditional, ordinary upbringing. Mara Jade just didn't have `ordinary' in her anywhere.
As he approached Tattoine, he fretted about the next step in his little adventure. With no money, no references, and no friends, his prospects were dim.
He would no doubt lose a fortune on this stuff. Liquidation of the ship's cargo, and disposal of the vehicle itself, were central to his ability to get about freely without leaving a trail. He'd pay Mom back eventually, every credit that she could have earned on the cargo. He vowed he would do this, for his own sake.
But he was not so noble as to be impractical. Credits make the galaxy spin. Perhaps he would find some of Karrde's allies in town. It would help to have an agent handle the obtaining of customers. Besides, someone loyal to Karrde might not reveal his location to anyone else but him.
Mos Eisley Spaceport awaited him on the surface. He tried desperately to recall any information his mother might have provided over the years, but could remember very little.
Mainly what stuck was the description she had provided, that which had brought him here in the first place. She had called it, `"a good hole to disappear into," and that was exactly what he meant to do.
"What in Sith do you mean, we shouldn't go after him?"
Talon Karrde took a deep breath, relaxing, then began composing his sentence. "Lucas is a big boy, Mara. It's time that he made his own mistakes and learned from their consequences. We can't just hide him here forever. I know I want more for him than what this planet has to offer, don't you? Given a little time and space he'll come back on his own, and no doubt better for the experience. His talents will be wasted here." There were equal amounts concern and censure in his carefully measured words. He understood this woman, knew exactly how to speak to her. Only he knew the hurt and desolation behind the grim, expressionless face in front of him. He loved her for it.
" What I think is that he's a naÜve little fool who's apt to get himself killed. That stunt last month was bad enough. I am still paying that off. And the brandy sales were supposed to help me do that. I have people waiting for it on three worlds. Some of them have already paid for it." A severe scowl marred a face otherwise unmarked by age or imperfection.
" He didn't run off just to put a kink in you orderly day."
She sighed, and put her fingers to her temples. "I am sure he didn't. In fact, I am quite sure he never gave much thought at all to what this would do to me. He just used circumstances to his advantage." She pushed a lock of hair out of her eyes as she continued, " He's wanted out of here for a long time. With what's going on, he knew my attention was elsewhere, so he made good use of the opportunity."
" If you knew he was determined to leave, why didn't you just send him to Yavin IV like you've promised? It is long past time." Kaarde's tone was even, with no hint of the anger he felt so keenly. The boy was a son to him, as much as if he'd been his own. For years he had watched as Mara laid the groundwork for the situation that confronted them now. Shielded from the outside world, loved and protected too well, her fine son had developed quite a rebellious streak. It was hard to be the son of such a powerful woman. Too many times Kaarde had consoled a boy humiliated by the mother he adored. Many times he had warned her this day was coming. It was not always pleasant to be right.
" You know that is out of the question. Skywalker would fill his head with nonsense. He's too young. No. He's not ready to be a Jedi yet." Her voice dropped, and a look of love caressed her features. "When he's more mature, when he can think for himself and make his own decisions, then we will go there together."
"He obviously made his own decision to leave us." And with an air of disgust he turned his back on her and walked out of the room.
Mara Jade sat down at her desk. It was clean, spartan, and utilitarian. All relevant datapads were in their assigned location, no trash or as yet undealtwith documents cluttered the surface. There was also a complete absence of the personal objects, the mementos that differentiate one person's desk from another, the galaxy over.
Bringing up the holovid, she put a call through to the palace on Coruscant. As she waited, she ran the various scenarios for this conversation in her mind. Would they help her? Would it be worse if they did?
Summoned from her reverie, she found herself looking into the face of Chief of State Princess Leia Organa Solo.
" Mara, what a surprise." She said, smiling expectantly. The voice was warm, if not welcoming, but Mara didn't fail to notice that the word `pleasant' was absent her greeting.
"Hello, Leia." She supposed she could take some time. The look of startled puzzlement on the Chief of State's face was to be savored. It had been some years since they had seen each other, but Mara felt certain that Leia could be relied upon for assistance. The entire family owed her, more than once.
"I need a favor, Leia. My ship's been stolen, and I need help getting it back."
Lucas Jade sat at a dirty table in a badly lit bar in Mos Eisley, waiting for Karrde's trade contact. His buyer, he hoped. He occupied his time by feigning interest in a somewhat bland concoction of fermented grains and rancid fruit. He was wrapped in a dingy beige robe of some age, having been swapped for the expensive outergarment he wore earlier. Just because you ARE a rich-kid wet-behind-the-ears runaway doesn't mean you should advertise the fact.
Geordi Hans slipped into the seat directly opposite. He ran one of the semi-legitimate operations here. His small dark eyes took in the room, the table, and the hideous drink before sliding upwards to meet Jade's face. It was apparent he liked what he saw there, for he relaxed visibly, even slumping somewhat in his chair, and mumbled something incoherent that was probably a greeting. He beckoned a waitress, ordered something, then said only slightly more comprehensibly than before,
"Glad to meet you." He then seemed to study him.
He frowned, then shook his head.
"What is it?"
"You're not Karrde's son, are you?"
The boy grimaced. "No, I'm not." Lucas' voice had an edge to it; How many times now had he answered this question? It was getting old.
"I just assumed"-
"Yeah, well, he's not my father." His voice was steely and cool.
The lull in conversation seemed loud and awkward. Seeking to fill it, Hans said abruptly, " Oh. Well here's the stuff you asked for." He produced a datapad and punched something into it.
"How much will this cost me?"
"We can talk terms later when I see your shipment. Price depends on quality. These are top quality codes and identicards. Cost me quite a few credits,especially on such short notice." The implications were clear enough- The price had just gone up, Significantly.
As if reading his mind, Hans cliched right on cue, "Hey, you get what you pay for."
Jade fervently hoped that was true.
In another part of the room, a fight had broken out between a devaronian and a very well armed wookiee.
As if a wookie really needed a lot of weapons.
Lucas, having heard of wookiees but never really having seen one, was staring rather rudely.
Apparently, the wookiee noticed this singular lapse in civility.
It glared at Lucas Jade and roared. Abashed, he turned his head back to the table.
And caught Hans looking at him again.
"What is it now?" he asked impatiently.
His companion shrugged. "You just look familiar, I guess. I can't place the resemblance."
"Yeah, well, I guess I've got one of those faces." He said wryly.
"I guess you do."
Changing the subject seemed like a good idea at this point in the conversation. "I may have a ship to sell as well."
"Do you now?" In truth Hans seemed a little less excited at the prospect than Jade had been hoping.
" I need to get rid of it fast. If you could help me unload it at a decent price, I'll cut you a 15% commission on it."
"What kind of a ship are we talking about here?"
"I think you're familiar with it. The Jade's Fire?"
His companion's brow wrinkled, not so much as if in thinking, more as if in giving the appearance of thinking. "That's a pretty well known ship. Might be hard to sell. " He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Mara Jade has quite a reputation. Many potential buyers might be put off by that." He looked pointedly at Lucas Jade as he continued. "Besides, I get the feeling she would come after what belongs to her."
" Are you saying that I should find somebody else to sell my ship for me?"
The fellow backtracked. " I'm just saying it could be a hard sell, alright? I didn't say I didn't want the job. I just want 30%. "
Jade could tell what he really expected to make off the deal, but he joined the dance anyway. It was expected.
"20%. And that's Huttese robbery."
" 25%. And I won't tell your mother you sold her beloved antique."
" That a threat?" Jade bristled.
" Call it what you like." the little man shrugged his thin shoulders. " Your mother would be an even more valuable ally than Karrde. And I'm sure wondering where you are is breaking her heart. .. You know, `A mother's love', and all that."
This little nerf-herder thought he could blackmail him! Karrde was too trusting of his contacts. This guy would drain the life out of you slowly. He thought a moment of his mother. She couldn't abide people like this. She'd made a substantial dent in their numbers throughout the galaxy.
Finding his courage, (and his hold -out blaster), he aimed carefully under the table at Geordi Hans' left foot.
"That sounds like you're trying to intimidate me." Smiling over the table at him, Hans said, "I prefer to think of it as friendly persuasion.."
"I sometimes find unfriendly persuasion can be even more effective." With that, Jade made a medium sized hole above the first joint on his would-be blackmailer's big toe.
Across the table, the look on Hans' face was comical. His features had a frozen look of puzzlement; his mouth was a tiny `O'. Then as the sensation of pain traveled up his spinal cord to reach his brain, the mask unfroze and the `O' permitted the issuance of a scream, that sounded more like a squeak.
Jade lunged over the table, knocking over the drink in his haste. He grabbed Hans by the neck of his outergarment, and glared into his eyes maniacally.
"If you tell her you saw me, I will know it, I will feel it, and I will TRACK YOU DOWN AND DISPATCH YOU TO THE NEXT WORLD."
Hans was shaking uncontrollably and burbling, "Oh I won't I WOULDN'T Oh please don't hurt me!"
It really was funny, he thought. If only this guy knew how little force acuity he actually possessed.
He sat back calmly in his seat, all business and control again. Slightly damp, as the drink was splattered across his midsection, but that wasn't important right now. He had to remain focused, or this man would see right through him.
" I'll meet you at docking bay 16 in an hour. You can look at the Fire and catalogue my cargo there. In the meantime, see a medic about that." He gestured toward the injured foot with disdain and slight disgust, then got up and walked away.
As he went, he considered the advisability of what he'd just done. He decided his actions were the right ones, and that he just might have to get used to pulling such stunts. As Karrde had said so often,
"If the other guy is holding all the cards, BLUFF."
Anakin Solo watched the boy at the other table, studying the way he played the game. At first he had thought him a novice to the ancient art of sabacc playing, but careful observation indicated otherwise. It seemed the boy knew his game well, and was actually clearing some money. The overeager look he wore now struck Solo as practiced, the result of a good deal of time bluffing cards. He wondered momentarily who his teacher had been..
Then his earlier appraisal of the youngster was born out. Apparently he was unfamiliar with the adage, "Quit while you're ahead". In truth a better saying might be, "Quit while you HAVE a head." It looked like the large wookiee he was beating at cards was about to tear his off.
Unsure of why he was even doing it, Solo stood up from the table where he'd been enjoying what purported to be Alderaani wine. It was no doubt more local in origin, and its strength may have addled his wits. For whatever reason, he joined the fray.
Lucas Jade found himself on the receiving end of an unpleasant throttling just as he recalled one of the more important `Rules to Gamble By'. That being, to Always Let the Wookiee Win.
The night had gone supremely well. He had taken money from a series of unsavory characters, each one more lucrative than the last. He'd been thinking about heading back to the hotel when the wookiee joined the game, and his curiosity got the better of him.
Studying the wookiee from up THIS close was never on the agenda, he decided, as black unconciousness consumed him.
Solo pulled out his lightsaber and tried to decide which of the wookies in front of him was really there. In some place near the back if his mind he was pretty sure that neither of them were, and this was all some weird dream summoned by alcohol consumption. He knew there were techniques a Jedi could implement to rid his body of toxins, and made a mental note to study them when he got back to the Academy. He resolved his dilemma by closing his eyes and using the Force to find the location of the hands around the boy's neck. If he did this right the lightsaber would be unnecessary.
Gathering his concentration, he pushed against the hands with all his might.The grip was lost, and as he opened his eyes he saw the boy slipping downwards. In the confusion the wookie didn't notice when a slim young man scooped the boy up off the floor and dragged him out of the cantina.
In the alley to the back of the cantina, Solo gave his new acquisition the once over. " Breathing's okay, pulse is thready but stabilizing." He tried to visualize the boy's brain the way he could visualize the innards of machinery. It was a unique talent he possessed, but it was more effective on droids. That was not much of a disadvantage right at this moment, because the boy began stuttering and coughing, and opened his eyes. Not wanting him to get frightened, Solo tried to keep the boy's thoughts busy in a useful direction.
"Quickly, where is someplace safe I can take you? They'll be out here as soon as they realize you're gone."
Jade was confused. The last thing he remembered was the huge hands as they closed on his windpipe.
The boy in his arms began to struggle. " Now how will I get him away undetected?" Solo was beginning to think leaving him on the street to face his fate would be a kindness to the gene pool, when the boy relaxed enough to say something.
"What?" Solo had missed what he said.
Jade croaked out, "I have a room at the Spaceport hotel."
Solo wrinkled his nose, and considered taking him back to his own small ship. Deciding against unnecessary risk, he headed for the hotel, half carrying his burden. Jade was trying to walk on his own two feet, but one of the other cardplayers had taken advantage of the wookiee's hold on him, to kick his shin. It seems the kick was misdirected, because most of it had gotten his right knee, which was swelling up nicely.
They wound through the dull rust colored alleyways, each of which looked much like the others. Solo relied on his force senses to help him reach his destination.. Finally they arrived in front of an ugly, dilapidated building. It's only real appeal to customers was its absolute discretion. No questions asked, period.
Briefly Solo wondered what his new friend was doing in a place like this. Maybe he was an imperial agent, maybe he was a criminal.
Maybe he couldn't afford rooms anywhere else. Dragging Jade up the rickety staircase, (any decent hotel should have a turbolift, he thought,) he again wondered at his own actions. This heroic rescue stuff was more his brother's, or his uncle's style. He usually was one to mind his own business.
Well, this kid now WAS his business. Jade indicated a particular room with his hand, and Solo shoved him into it, then followed.
The coarse fabric of the seat cushion irritated her, and she found herself almost fidgeting. Fighting the unfamiliar urge to squirm about, she reminded herself that much depended on her success here today. She had hundreds of people counting on her to resolve this situation before it escalated. If her ships were down, her entire consumer base was threatened. She could lose millions.
The representative for the Trade Pilots and Independent Importers' Syndicate, or The Syndicate, as it was more commonly known, sat calmly in the roughclad chair across from Mara Jade. Ah, the requisite union thug was not what she had expected, this time. Surprisingly, they had sent a woman to the negotiating table. Mara suppressed a smile. Was this supposed to make her feel more comfortable? Or did they think she'd be gentler to a fellow female?
" My name is Laela Wixten. I suppose you are wondering right now how the boys at The Syndicate came to choose me to act as liaison."
Mara felt her, sensing, oddly enough, no disingenuousness."It would be silly to send anyone else, actually. Anyone that might would think they could lie to you, or that would try to."
She smiled at Mara then, a smile that was completely open and trusting. This creature just positively radiated goodness, like a saint. Even her appearance was beatific. She had large blue eyes, full red lips, and was possessed of the most glorious blonde hair Mara had ever seen. Her flawless skin had a pale blue cast that gave the impression she was standing in candlelight. She was at once striking and beautiful. A tinkling laugh like the sound of good imperial crystal interrupted Mara's frank appraisal of the enemy.
" I can see your confusion. Let me help you; so we can be more comfortable with each other. I am an imperial experiment gone awry, Ms. Jade. You see, I am a human woman with a great deal of Falleen genetic material."
That explained it...Stars, she certainly did smell good. Mara wondered if those Falleen pheromones were extractable, they certainly would sell well..
The experiment herself sat primly, looking somewhat amused. "You appear startled. That is not an unusual response to my little disclosure. I'm afraid that our former employers had their hands in a great many avenues of scientific `inquiry'", This was said with a slight sneer, but otherwise her countenance maintained a look of cheerful optimism. Mara was quickly beginning to wonder if Wixten ever flagged.
" You are wrong, I am not surprised by your statement in the least." Mara placidly stated, sensing the being across from her. What an odd creature, she mused....
The creature smiled broadly, showing perfectly even white teeth; "Well that IS refreshing! Maybe we can get into negotiations, then. I just feel it best to be open and upfront beforehand. That way, no one can claim undue influence down the road."
Ooh, so she was a lawyer too. The enemy had actually done a little work to prepare for this meeting. Mara felt a little twinge that all their planning had been for naught.
"Let's get down to business then."
Leia paused over the holovid. Something was definitely off about this entire incident. Mara just didn't usually ask for favors. In truth, it had been several years since she had even heard from her. Oh, Han saw her occasionally, on business, and at one time she and Luke had been good friends. They didn't see that much of each other anymore, but there was no animosity there, only distance. It certainly would have made more sense for her to contact one of them.
It wasn't as though she objected to looking for the boy, it certainly caused no hardship to have New Republic Intelligence keep one eye open for him. But Leia had spent her whole life studying politics, and learning to read people in various situations. Either she was reading this one wrong, a possibility that disturbed her greatly, or Mara Jade was not being completely forthcoming. That was nearly as improbable as Leia Organa Solo being wrong. In the past, Mara had been unerringly truthful. About her imperial history, her early hatred of Luke, in short, about a lot of things that made her look very bad . Despite the liability her past had become, she had worked diligently and had proven her loyalty time and time again. Leia may not like her a great deal, but she respected Mara immensely. So this uneasiness was doubly bothersome.
She studied the face on the holovid. She was unable to make out what the boy was saying, but she had several very clear views of his face to pass along to NRI. He was a handsome one, all strawberry blonde hair and big green eyes. He had an innocence about him that put her in mind of her brother, when he was still young and trusting.
Privately she speculated on the boy. What was his relationship with Mara Jade? He was rather young, but then most of Mara's men were. Obviously he was special. Mara wanted him brought back with the ship, and she was definite that she wanted them both unharmed. The penalty for stealing The Jade's Fire should have been the unfortunate thief's head, instead it seemed likely there would be none.
Or else she intended to make her own justice. If that were the case, it was incumbent upon Leia to ensure that the boy received a fair hearing. Oh, these "free traders", (former smugglers), liked to pretend that they were a law unto themselves. But owing to her personal involvement, she determined she would hear his explanation herself, before turning him over to Mara. If and when NRI located him.
She made preparations to transmit the holovid to the head of New Republic Intelligence.
Wixten had left, and Mara actually felt the light go out of the room with her. She had to give the Syndicate credit; they had chosen her well. Mara found her spirits waning, and sat down to review her notes. She was beginning to experience the prelude to a crushing headache.
A human male, roughly 20 or 25, entered the room quietly, and walked to the front of the desk. He then waited patiently for her attention. Moments later she acknowledged him, with a quick glance from beneath her brows. " What is it? I'm busy."
"Ms. Jade, I've some reports for you from our liaisons in the Corellian sector. "
"Leave the datapad on my desk, I `ll see to it momentarily."
When he left the room she scooped up the item and studied it warily. As she expected, she had been underbid. Again. Whoever was doing this couldn't possibly be making any money right now. With bids that low, they could barely afford to pay their pilots. It was confusing.
Six hours after Laela's meeting with Mara Jade, her employer deigned to meet with her. Jade's surprise at the choice of a female negotiator was well founded; The men in charge had not wanted Wixten for the job. Luckily, the woman paying their salaries had no such compunction.
As the recep droid buzzed her in, she lost a little of her bounce. The woman in the tastefully appointed office always made her ill at ease. Callista Wixten was unique. Alone in the universe, She experienced no emotional pull toward Laela's unusual attraction. More interestingly so, in that she was her mother.
"Yes, Laela? How did it go?" Callista's eyebrow raised slightly, and she observed the girl with something akin to distaste, as though she smelled something unpleasant in the room.
"Mother, please, let me sit down a moment!"
Laela's poise fell away and revealed her for a mere girl. Then she flopped into the chair before the massive desk,cringing inwardly at the picture she knew she presented. But long ago she'd given up trying to please this woman. So she would soon have her posture critiqued, big deal?if it wasn't her posture Callista found wanting, it would be something else. Maybe something more personal, and that would be much harder to shrug off."She is willing to deal, but she's playing hard. I don' t think she will negotiate with her pilots, she will offer us something to make us go away, and then deal with the traitors herself later."
"Laela, do sit up, will you? That will ruin your spine".
Laela scooted off the chair, and walked over to the desk, close to her mother. Callista stepped lightly to the side, and Laela counted a victory.
" She is not the type to let them go unpunished, Mother. If we don't take down her alliance completely, they aren't going to have jobs anyway". She shot her mother a look full of meaning. "They will then of course, be ripe for the picking."
She gave the older woman a penetrating look as she continued, " We can have them cheaper if we don't ruin her completely, you understand that, don't you?"
Callista Wixten knew full well the import of her daughter's words, but shook her head. " No, Lee, we do this my way. I know what is best here. We take her out completely, then absorb the remains of her business. I don't want to compete with her, girl. I want her out of commission entirely."
The boy on the bed was snoring quite loudly. Solo debated staying until he awoke, or getting, while the getting was good. He had a feeling that the kid was in some kind of trouble, and a strong suspicion he was about to be drawn into it.
Perhaps he already was. His curiosity overwhelmed him. Where was he from? It was obvious he wasn't local, he had a pallor unknown to the occupants of sun-baked Tattoine. It was also very apparent he'd never seen a Wookie before, by the way he'd gawked during the game. He seemed to be well dressed, under the worn and smelly outergarment, and his hair had been recently trimmed, by a professional. In a galaxy of dirty ragtag travelers, the boy seemed clean and impeccably groomed. Yet he slept in a hovel most honest people couldn't find.. He played sabacc like a professional sharp. Yet he knew nothing of gaming table etiquette.
None of it made sense. Curse his honorable nature that told him it was not polite to pick other people's brains. The room offered no helpful clues; Solo couldn't even find anything of a remotely personal nature in it. Most people travel with some clothes, maybe a holovid of the latest serial. Everyone carries a comb. This kid had nothing. No bags, no papers, nothing at all. If he died, there was not one shred of evidence he'd ever been in this room.
Solo thought that rather scary. Perhaps he was overreacting. Maybe he just lost his luggage. Maybe somebody swiped his stuff.
Yeah, that was very likely.
A kid that green was begging to get ripped off, he had SUCKER written on his forehead in indelible ink visible only to crooks and swindlers. He realized the object of his musings was awake, and eyeing him warily.
"Hi, I'm Anakin, we met briefly in the alley before you passed out." He extended his hand. "May The Force be with you." He wasn't entirely sure why he added that last part, but it came out anyway.
It must have been the right thing to say, because the boy's eyes unclouded and he reached out and offered a firm handshake. "Hi, I'm Jaid."
Lucas decided in that instant to reinvent himself, and seized upon his surname for a prenombre.
Why publicize his identity in the galaxy? It could only alert his mother and her enemies, who would no doubt love to get such a valuable bargaining chip. He would be Jaid Nightbringer, of Tattoine.
"Jaid Nightbringer, glad to meet you, and thanks for the timely rescue."
Solo raised his eyebrows at the name.. So he was wrong, Jaid was a local boy. That explains why he had nothing in the room. Maybe he was planning to go home later, and was using the room for some unknown reason during the day. "Why the pallor", his mind argued. "Mayhap he is ailing, doesn't get out much", it countered.
"No problem. I hate to see anybody get their head and arms pulled off."
Jade sat up briefly, and if possible turned an even more sickly hue. Anakin came over to him, just in time to be in the line of fire as he threw up. "SONS OF SITH!!!!" he cried, jumping back and looking down. He was covered in whatever the kid had been drinking. By the smell, it had been pretty rank even before he had imbibed it.
Jade looked horrified, and turned away to vomit into a pillowcase.
Solo went out into the hallway to look for the public facilities, frightening off several gammoreans with his stench.. He came back cleaner, but unshirted, with some semi-clean towels for Jade. As he entered the room, he noticed the blaster trained on him.
Jade relaxed, and lowered the firearm. "Oh, its you." He sagged back against the headboard. " I figured you went home in disgust. Here you pull me out of that mess in the bar, and I reward you by puking all over you. You must be fairly sick of me, pardon the pun."
The boy seemed honestly afraid, and embarrassed. His pale skin was blushing like a Coruscant sunrise.
"Well I admit it's not the best way to make friends, but I'll give you points for originality. Here," he tossed the towels toward the chair where Jade now sat. "Thought you might need these. Sorry, but they were the best I could get at this fine establishment."
Jade used them to tidy himself up; the bed he wrote off as beyond repair. "Thanks."
"So. You've never played a Wookiee before have you?"
Jade thought a minute before answering. "Not in a very long time. I haven't played the game in a while either, I was a little rusty."
Solo grinned. "Else you'd have taken them for more money?" Jade mumbled, "Something like that." He rummaged through the folds of the outergarment that Solo had earlier removed, and produced a sheaf of papers Solo had missed.
"So much for my career with New Republic Intelligence", Solo thought to himself.
"Let me buy you dinner to say thank you for pulling me out of there earlier, and to apologize for my unorthodox introduction.. Eaten anything yet?" The boy looked up at him hopefully.
He thought a moment, then decided why not? He had time, no immediate obligations, and besides, the kid intrigued him.
"Sure. Where can we get something only partially likely to send us to an infirmary?"
Luke Skywalker let out a sigh. He felt pretty good right now, despite his mood. He was breathing fresh air and the wind was whipping through his dark blonde hair. It was a good day to be alive. But he was dwelling on the past and what had come of it. Despite all his hard work, there was a bleak emptiness pervading him. What had he to leave as a legacy? If he were gone, what would he leave behind?
A lovely public monument, and historical reports. Sheaves of Classified files on Coruscant. The Academy on Yavin. An intergalactic day of mourning, with only five people to cry at his passing. There was an almost amazing amount of nothing. Everything was ethereal, and he longed for something more permanent.
And yet, he could remember a time when he was filled with the desire to be into something, anything, so long as it was exciting. His mind drifted back to Tattooine. How he had hated that place. With what passion he had burned to escape that life, the simple, ordinary life of a moisture farmer. But at least that life would have provided him a family. Children. That was what he truly wanted. His own family.
Was he sublimating that urge with the thrills inherent in his line of work? He heard again in his mind the words of Yoda.
"Excitement, adventure..a Jedi craves not these things."
With daily practice, it was even sometimes possible to believe it.
But what if in his carefully chosen life he was in fact seeking those things?
He seemed to find adventure; or rather it found him, in spite of his asceticism.
Just then a message came over the holovid, dragging him from his reflections.
"Luke, its Leia." the petite lady said.
"Hello, how is everyone? Is everything alright?"
"Everything's fine, no crisis, no government takeovers, no arguing senators, no deathstars..."
He smiled at her too- accurate list of their family curses.
"So you are getting bored, eh? " He shook his head, affecting concern and worry, "Leia's just not happy unless she's meddling in affairs of state."
Leia smiled, "Well, we're a family who like to keep busy...You have the children with you. How are they?"
"Just fine. Anakin went to Tatooine, ostensibly to see where I grew up, but it's really just a vacation. He needs one. He spends too much time around here. Jaina and Jacen are around somewhere, shall I get them for you?"
"No, that's not necessary, I just wanted to speak with you."
Luke frowned a little, "What for? Not that I don't love to talk, but you seem a little disturbed."
"I got a message from Mara Jade."
All of Luke's attention went to the holovid.
"Really? What did she have to say?"
Leia knitted up her brow, and Luke recognized her ` Working -a- Holocrossgram' frown. This must be some sort of a puzzler! "Someone stole her ship. She wants my help to find it, and bring it back unharmed."
"What's so unusual about that?" Luke questioned.
"She wants the thief alive and well, along with the ship."
Luke's brow creased. Mara had her own very distinct ideas about justice. He wouldn't want to be the thief when she got to him.
"Okay, so she's called in a favor. We certainly owe it to her."
"I don't dispute that. I just wanted to alert you, in case you should see anything. Just keep an eye out for the Fire and some kid. I don't really expect you to see it, but in case the Fire shows up, you should know its not under its usual command."
He thought for a moment about how long it had been since Mara had been on Yavin IV, and considered the likelihood anyone would try to use her ship to come here, for whatever reason. Leia was really reaching, he decided.
"Yeah, you know how many people just drop by here, especially in stolen ships." Luke said mildly. She smiled wanly, and he guessed that she had really just wanted to see his face again for a minute.
"Okay, well, I miss you, kiss the kids for me."
" I will. Bye Leia, miss you too, and I will see you soon." The holovid turned off.
Luke felt pity for that boy, who would return to face Mara Jade's wrath. She knew at least one thousand and one ways to cause pain, and had been heard to say, "There are worse things than death." He hadn't seen her in so very long. Oh, he kept abreast of the rumours and the news, and she called him occasionally to trade gossip. But it had been some ten years since he last laid eyes on her in the flesh. He then realized his eyes were wet, and wondered momentarily where she was. A brief spark of anger ignited, then burned out as quickly. Mara was Mara.
Whatever reasons she had, he was not privy to them. The distance between them, that was a misery of his own making. He had crossed that line that she clung to so tightly, and nothing had ever been the same between them since. He sighed, remembering. Once he had known her like he knew himself. Now she was some stranger he made up out of rumours and twice told tales.
"How was your breakfast?" Jade asked.
"It was pretty good, not the best I've ever had, but, hey, the price was right," Anakin smiled, and asked, "So, where do you live, I'll take you home."
He was very curious about this stranger he had met. His suspicions centered on those cautious, rather naive gestures and expressions. Even the way he walked...You could tell he was not local, but his knowledge of the customs and idioms of Tatooine were nearly faultless. Only once or twice had he given away his offworlder origins by his behavior. Solo found this most intriguing.
Jade was taken aback by the question. He had to think of way to get out of this. What new lie could he tell? (The Force knows it got harder to keep them all straight!) What would his new friend think of him, if he knew the truth? A burgeoning hope was born within him, the voice of a very weary boy who just wants to confess. Could he perhaps trust Solo with the real story? A part of him felt drawn to Anakin, felt that he was worthy of true friendship. Maybe it was because the boy had rescued him, maybe it was because he had called on The Force.
Maybe it was because Jade felt so terribly lonely.
For whatever reason, his heart made up his mind for him, and he found his mouth open, and the words pouring out ahead of him.
"Ummm. Anakin, if I tell you something, you promise not to Sith out?"
Solo didn't much care for the earnest expression Jade's face wore right now. He had a bad feeling about this. "Uh, sure, okay. What is it?"
"See, I'm a"- the word runaway just didn't pack the charge he wanted it to. He chose another word, one more suited to his needs, "a, a- Fugitive!" He beamed as the inspired notion came to him, "I can't go home, there's a price on my head. In truth I want to get off this sorry excuse for a planet. I need to get out of here."
The kid was definitely a runaway, Anakin decided. It showed his pluck that he'd gotten this far, but what would he do with him now? He felt very uncomfortable about all this, but to leave the boy here was impossible. He felt much like he had as a child, when he fed a stray animal lurking in the palace gardens, only to have it come back begging the next day. Having picked him up, he felt responsible for his welfare. Some vacation this was turning out to be. "Well I'm on my way offplanet, if you're interested in tagging along. You any good with a ship?"
"Sure." This was a perfect way for Jade to get off the planet unnoticed. He'd collect his credits from the trade contact, and supply him false information about his destination. He'd unload the Fire someplace else, on another dealer. He didn't trust that man, with good reason. So, they spent much of the night discussing ships and their experiences aboard them.
By the evening's end, Anakin felt pretty good about taking the kid along. The boy was hiding something, of course, but he felt reasonably sure that eventually Jaid would open up to him and talk about it. He seemed a decent sort. Besides, the trip out here had been lonely. Anakin decided it would be good to have a friend.
"Mrs. Wixten, as your husband's solicitor, I strenuously advise against this course of action." The droid wore as prissy and irked an expression as his shiny grey face would allow. His emotions were better conveyed by the high-pitched whine he issued as he launched into a litany of reasons why she was in the wrong, beginning with her none too astute grasp of economics and working his way through a host of complaints before settling upon the idea that grief had unhinged her tenuous grasp on reality. She patently ignored him, as she pondered the penalty for dismantling inherited property still tied up in probate court. Regretfully she decided that to destroy her litigator would inevitably slow the proceedings. Thusly she deigned to address his concerns.
"I am doing what I can to fulfill my husband's last, dying wish. If the acquisition was so important to him, It is my obligation to do what I can to see it carried out. Can't you understand that?"
He bobbed his shiny head in mock understanding of a curious human sentiment he could never possess. "Of course, madam, I am well aware of Lt. Wixten's attempts to annex the Jade holdings. And a laudable acquisition that would be! But your husband's outline called for a three year plan, with a more conservative"-
She cut him off with a wave of her hand.
"Kevander was a darling, really, and a whiz with business matters. But he was, as you said, conservative in his approach to business. That's great, if you have the time to waste. But I don't. I want this over as quickly as possible. I want to put his death behind me and move on. But I can't, until I've completed his work." Her mind ignored the emotionally satisfying aspects of the project, as she concentrated on her portrayal as the bereaved widow.
Despite Anakin's hopes to the contrary, Jade got to know Anakin quite well while aboard ship, without ever revealing much about himself to his mentor.
But theirs was not an unequal partnership. Jade was good for the older boy's ego. Upon learning that Anakin was a Jedi in training, under the tutelage of the well renowned hero, Luke Skywalker, the young boy developed a severe case of hero worship. It was all fascinating to the ears of an adventurous boy who had admired, nay, worshipped, the Jedi Master, every since his mother had begun telling him the war stories. Essentially, he had grown up with tales of the Great Skywalker, and immensely envied the other's good fortune. Anakin made no attempt to cloud his starry-eyed view. He was enjoying his friend's admiration. Their journey ultimately ended at some wretched rock ball, and Jade found himself once again, the perennial tourist.
"What are we doing here?" Jade asked Anakin as they were heading into a dilapidated building. "Thought we might do a bit of gentlemanly gaming." Anakin grinned slyly at his friend.
That set the pace for their trip. A few days onplanet, rake in some credits, then off to the next world. Anakin was enjoying his `vacation' more than he had expected to, but then fate intervened. Two weeks after their trek began, Jade was able to repay the kindness of his new friend. Despite Solo's noble intentions toward the boy, it seemed that Jade would definitely be pulling his own weight in the partnership. On Teyr, they were robbed. Everything Solo owned was stolen, and his ship stripped for parts. Coming back to the docking bay, they were greeted with an ugly sight, and a lesson. It was just gone: nothing remained but an unsaleable hulk, a shell. Upon reviewing the document they had signed, Anakin got an unpleasant reminder why you should ALWAYS read the fine print.
"Bay 17 is not responsible for any losses incurred due to theft, natural disaster," and so on. Jade then generously dipped into his funds, left from the sale on Tattoine, and got them transport out of the system. . Several systems and multiple planets later, they found themselves in the Corellian system, in this particular wreck. It was turning out to be a most educational trip.
This evening they were aboard a small freighter, a second (or third) hand winning from two nights previous. There was a stale odor in the air, a tang of old sweat and engine lube. Solo wrinkled his nose in distaste at their latest acquisition.
"Jaid, when will you use that phenomenal card- playing ability to get us something decent, like maybe some new clothes or a decent meal. We couldn't trade a ship like this one for a bad ale in that bar in Mos Eisley."
"Picky picky. You make the money then, pal. You and that Jedi code of honor you prize can go earn me a fine synthsteak on Coruscant. Of course, being so noble and honest, it may take you a while." For two weeks they had been living on Jade's winnings, and he was getting a little miffed at Anakin's superiority.
"Well, `Anakin Solo, Jedi-For-Hire" does have a certain ring to it."
Anakin smiled at his friend, and ducked the faux punch that came at him. Jade anticipated his move, and countered it, landing his quarry with a headlock.
"SAY IT!" The hold became tighter, and actually began to be uncomfortable.
"Jade Nightbringer is the best pilot on four worlds."
"And can always get girls."
The pressure released, and as they stepped apart,
Solo added, "For large credit sums."
Jade shot him a glare, and said,
"You're just jealous because you sith at sabacc. You could never hope to win a ship of such fine caliber!"
That was too much, and he doubled over in a fit of laughter at this inaccurate description. Shortly Anakin too got the giggles.
They scoured the ship's interior, looking for anything that might prove salable. Neither really expected to get offplanet in this rustbucket. At that exact moment, as they picked through the contents, the ship's former owner was making complaint with the local authorities. It seems he felt hoodwinked by "them narsty Jedi brain readers"...
Jade was astounded at this place. There were scads of lowlifes in the place. Sabbac was not the only game in the room, and many others looked even less savory. Jade quietly wondered at the wisdom of being here, there was a profound sense of wrongness to this place; one need not be Jedi to sense it.
Anakin joined a game in progress, and again Jade wondered why he omitted the use of force senses to play. `Or if he is using any, he has even less than I do", he thought.
Jade came and joined his friend at the table. This was really the first game they had played together. Usually Jade played while Anakin scouted for marks...other "suckers" ready to be bilked. In all their time together, Anakin had never noticed Jade using The Force to win at cards. He had assumed him an ordinary cheat. But this close to him, he was suddenly aware of the method to the win.
Anakin looked over Jade, his dark eyes narrowed on him. "Jaid, I think you should leave."
Jade realized Anakin knew he what he was up to, and didn't appreciate the "help". Jade nodded his head, and walked over to get a drink. He stayed there watching the rest of the "establishment's" attractions. One was a comely human female that didn't look old enough to sell the wares she was hawking. He observed the child and her customers, saddened by the flesh peddling all about him. He was meditating on the sort of male that would purchase prepubescent company when he overheard two male Twi'lek discussing his mother in very unflattering terms. Jade whirled, unthinking, and merely angry at the slur to Mara's good name. He punched the Twi-lek on the left, who fell unconscious to the dirty floor. The other stood up, and suddenly Lucas found himself embroiled in a group fight.
"Where did they all come from?" He thought, as he went down in a haze, caused by a broken flask of ale that made harsh contact with his head.
Anakin turned his shoulder to see at least a dozen aliens of various sorts teaming up against the boy. " "What the Sarlaac has he gotten into NOW?" He thought frantically, as he convinced the throng mentally that he was an enormous wookiee, and slid easily into the fray. Grabbing him, he dragged him out into the street.
"What is wrong with you?" Anakin asked. He felt like finishing the job the others weren't able to. He counted mentally, as he began a calming exercise, and looked over at the boy he had taken under his wing.
"Nothing is wrong with me." Jade answered.
"Why did you start that fight?" Anakin asked very calmly.
"It wasn't my fault," he whined plaintively, " they were saying ugly things about my mother.."
Anakin interrupted, "You're from Tatooine, remember? How would they even know your mother's name?"
Jade looked down at the garbage-strewn street beneath his feet. He began moving a bit of plasicised foam stuff with his toe. Sith. He had given himself away pretty bad this time.
"Umm, Anakin, I'm not exactly from Tatooine, and my name isn't exactly Jaid Nightbringer." Jade said humbly.
Anakin grabbed him and pinned him to the wall. He was getting quite thoroughly sick of him. "You tell me who you really are, right now!"
The boy opposite him crumpled, visibly defeated.
"I'm Lucas Jade. My mother is Master Trader Mara Jade, head of the Trade Pilots and Independent Importers Syndicate."
Anakin slid him to the ground. So that was why he was force sensitive. He knew of Mara Jade, and had even met her once or twice,as a boy on Coruscant with his parents. He knew that she was the powerful head of the Freetraders Coalition. He had not known she had any children.
The moment of shock was broken as an officer came done the alley with a handful of people who were in the club. Anakin grabbed Jade and they ran towards the docking bay.
They ran through the city, barely steps ahead of the mob. Anakin tried to use the force to cloud the minds of the pursuers, but he could not maintain his concentration. Anakin went aboard first, as Jade turned around with a blaster and shot wildly above the mob. He boarded, as Anakin tried to sound convincing, telling the ground crews that he had clearance to actually take off in this wreck.
"Yes, I transmitted clearance codes twenty minutes ago, and I would like to leave NOW." He lied smoothly, praying that the ship's hull would withstand whatever came next, be it the rigors of takeoff, or the hazards of angry gamesters.
He continued his charade with the Authorities, as he wondered where the local law enforcement had come from, and why. After several minutes of argument, he had them actually thinking that someone had inadvertently deleted his transmission.
Apologies were issued, along with new clearance codes, and the pair of them took off.
"That was fun." Jade said, trying to ease the awkward silence.
Anakin turned to Jade and scowled at him for awhile.
"Lucas, that was not fun. That was dangerous. You could have gotten yourself killed. Do you understand that? And then your mother would have killed me. Sheesh, what a narrow escape." He plunged his hands through his hair, wondering again how he had gotten into this jam. He paused a moment, trying to think of what to say next. "We should send Mara Jade a message, let her know you're alive, and okay. Then I think I should take you back home to her."
"NO! No, Look, you can't do that. If I go back"- Anakin put a period to the rising tide of hysteria in the young boys' voice, shooting a pointed look at Lucas."
"You obviously need someone to look after you, and keep you out of trouble. Besides, you need training, to learn when NOT to use your Force abilities."
Jade looked confused. "What do you mean?" He studied his friend carefully. In the last month he had seen Jade lie with a consummate skill, he'd seen him bluff like a professional gamester. Was he telling the truth? How could he not know how wrong it was to use your abilities like that, the way he had in the game?
"Didn't your mother explain it to you?"
Jade shook his head woefully. "My mother doesn't discuss anything with me, especially not about that." He raised his face to Anakin. His green eyes were full of hurt and disappointment. "She says I am not strong enough to be trained, that I am not suited to be a Jedi." He laughed hollowly. "All my life, she has told me stories of the Jedi. They were my bedtime stories at night, my history lessons in the day. She told me stories about your Jedi Master Skywalker, and promised me I could go to Yavin IV to train some day." The look in his eyes became bleak and hard, the green pools darkening to an almost black, inklike tint. "Last year, she finally came clean and admitted that I'm not good enough. Skywalker doesn't need a magician, only able to do card tricks." With that, Lucas turned away, slump-shouldered, and sat down hard.
"Why would his mother lie to him like that?" Anakin silently wondered. Even to his own untrained senses, the boy was strong. Look what he had accomplished without any training. And it certainly sounded like there wasn't any by his mother. Why would she deprive him of his birthright? And why regale him with Jedi lore, only to tell him he can never be a part of that history? It was all too perplexing a puzzle to deal with right now. Anakin decided to drop the subject. They were in hyperspace now, and he could rest or train. He went to the rec area, sat down and closed his eyes.
"What are you doing?" Jade asked as he followed.
"I'm going into a meditative trance." Anakin responded.
"How?" Jade asked.
Anakin finally opened his eyes, "Never mind about it."
Anakin though for a minute to think of a way he could do this and still keep his pal from interrupting him.
"Do you know how to work a lightsaber?"
Anakin smiled a little and took out his lightsaber and a remote and commenced the kid's first lesson in lightsaber wielding.
After the first two hours Jade sat down, incredibly tired.
"That hurt," he said, panting slightly.
"If you visualized the movement of the remote instead of just guessing at it, you would not have gotten stung so much." Said Solo from behind closed lids.
Jade scoffed at Anakin's comment. "Oh that's easy for you to say, you train with a Master Jedi."
Anakin slowly opened his eyes, a decision reached. Then he hopped up, and headed for the cockpit, then went towards the hyperdrive navigation area.
"What are you doing?" Jade asked.
The trip to Yavin was interesting but uneventful. Lucas spent his time learning to wield the lightsaber. Anakin didn't feel comfortable trying to teach anything else to his friend. He wondered how his Uncle would feel about his bringing an unannounced student. There was a bit of bad blood between Skywalker and Mara Jade, how would that affect his ability to instruct her son? Would he want to send Lucas home, if he knew Mara didn't want him trained?
These thoughts plagued him , and as he approached the planet, it was decided. They would keep Jade's identity to themselves. "Jaid Nightbringer" would do well enough to begin with. Anakin hoped that, once his uncle saw the potential in his newest student, he wouldn't care whose boy he was.
It was obvious Lucas was very excited about the idea of training. Though he tried to contain it, he was nervous and fidgety. Anakin smiled at the boy's excitement. He had grown up expecting to train under Skywalker, knowing he would one day take his place among the Jedi. How would he feel, he wondered, if he had not had such plans made for him, if his vocation were a wish fulfilled. Would he too be so joyous? He simply didn't know. Lucas seemed to be a natural optimist, whereas he himself, was more of a realist. A pessimist, his uncle on occasion had called him. But then Skywalker was more idealistic himself.
The ship was met by Anakin's older brother and sister, Jacen and Jaina Solo. Jaina greeted her little brother with an affectionate hug, and tears in her eyes. "Every time you leave, I worry you aren't coming back," she admitted, as she wiped her eyes the sleeve of her jumpsuit. No robes today, it seemed they had come during preparations for the twins to leave.
" Uncle has something he wants us to go check out." Jacen shrugged, and looked unconcerned, "We should be back in a week. Don't run off again before we get back, okay? I've really been looking forward to some catching up time-Jaina too. We don't see very much of you lately." There was just a hint of disapprobation to his tone.
"I'll do my best to hang around awhile this time, okay?"
As Anakin said this, Jade descended from the ship directly behind him.
The twins studied the interloper briefly, then turned to their brother for explanation.
"Jacen, Jaina, this is Jaid Nightbringer, a friend of mine. I've brought him here to see if Uncle thinks he can be trained."
Jaina looked him over. Reddish blonde hair, he was small, compactly built. He had the most enormous green eyes she had ever seen. His skin was pale, but not unhealthily so. He had a very innocent appeal about him, and she wished momentarily that she wasn't leaving so soon.
Her twin's reaction to the introduction was less enthusiastic. He sensed something wrong here, a great deal of deceit. He didn't need his force abilities to smell a wamp-rat - he was quite sure this boy was trouble, and equally sure Anakin was in it up to his eyeteeth.
He too wished he wasn't leaving just yet.
Jade grinned charmingly at them both, extending his hand in friendship.
The necessary pleasantries were performed, and then the bunch set off to greet the others on Yavin.
"What did you just say?" Mara Jade was angry.
Her eyes blazed in such a way that Karrde knew she had overheard a significant portion of his dialogue with Geordi Hans on Tattooine. His brain raced as he tried to find a way to minimize the damage?there was none. He had held back a very vital piece of information about Lucas' whereabouts, and there would be Holl to pay. The Imperial Hand never looked so grim as Mara Jade did right now. He took a long, slow breath, before addressing the enemy.
"That was a trade contact on Tatooine. When the boy went missing, I set up several "sting" operations to help us locate him. I assumed that he would go to one of my men, wherever he went, to try to unload the ship. I left orders that the ship be bought at a good price, not so much credit as to arouse his suspicion, but enough to make travel possible in a halfway decent ship."
Mara cut in at this point, enraged at the liberties he had taken in this situation. "Lucas is MY son, Karrde. I can't believe you have the audacity to go behind my back like this. Great Force! What were you thinking of, giving him the means to go anywhere he wanted? Don't you realize how much more difficult he will be to find now?"
He thought personally that he had given the whole issue much more thought than she had, and his concerns were more for the boy's safety than just his retrieval. Why could she never see the long view where Lucas is concerned? He wondered. Didn't she ever just lie awake at night, worrying if her son was hungry? Or even alive? By attempting to put money in his hands, Karrde hoped to keep him safe until he was ready to come home. It was all he could do.
"Mara, What did you expect me to do, see him starve? Unless I arranged credit for him, he'd never get enough out of that cargo to feed himself, let alone get off that sarlaac pit of a planet. Why he went there, I will never understand. Maybe your inane stories about "the Great Jedi Skywalker" finally got to him." It was all he could do to maintain his temper. This was certainly no time to argue, what in the name of Palpatine did she think she was doing? Her words seethed with disdain. "Oh, yes, Karrde..That's a great way to get him home. Finance his trip, with my money. With enough help from you, he might never come back."
"Well, the whole debate is academic at this point. Hans was supposed to get him to buy a ship I hand selected, with a transmitter beacon aboard." He tried not to smile in front of Mara, as he continued, "Unfortunately I underestimated our quarry. He slipped away from Hans , and possibly off the planet. No record of him purchasing a ship could be located, but that's not surprising." He glanced up at Mara. "He's had good role models for maintaining a low profile, he knows how it's done."
She began to drum her fingers on the palm of her hand, just barely noticeably. She was thinking. "I think a trip to Tatooine is in order. We might find someone who saw Lucas with a particular dealer."
He was stunned. She wanted to go looking for the boy, right now, with the trouble they were having with the Syndicate and the Unions? This was very strange. She must be getting scared for him.
"I'll make the arrangements right now. Its not," he added meaningfully, "like there's something we can do here right now anyway." He hoped that would relieve her conscience enough to let her concentrate on the matter at hand. He didn't care what happened with the business right now, he was much more worried about Lucas. If he did in fact leave the planet, how? And more importantly, for where?
"Concentrate, Jaid. See the logs in your mind's eye.Touch them, know their texture. Now, sense their weight and mass ..feel the Force, coming from the trees, the rocks, around you. Direct it towards the logs, make it push them upward. See them lifting"-
Jaid opened his eyes, just in time to see the haphazardly stacked deadwood rumbling down upon itself, a landslide in miniature. But he had DONE it- they had risen, if only for a few seconds. The proof was right before his eyes.
Kyp looked angry for a brief moment, then shook his head and smiled. Had not he too wanted to look, in the early days of training? Not trusting his senses, wanting to view his handiwork with the implements he had relied upon all his life?
The boy was off to a promising start, he would learn to believe in his ability as time wore on.
Jade stood up, enjoying the tingly pain of blood re-entering his lower extremities. He was tired, but excited. The work here was grueling, the schedule strict, but he had never been happier. After three weeks on Yavin, he was starting to feel like he belonged. And today, he had made some real progress. For the first week, he had only listened and spoke. He heard many stories, and much talking, but no real instruction. The second week, he had begun working with a lightsaber again. Only three days ago, Master Skywalker had given his training over to Kyp, and the real work had started.
"I think that's enough for right now, Jaid. Let's head back and get some lunch. I think it's getting late."
As they re-entered the Academy proper, they saw a commotion in progress. Jaid sensed Anakin, and then deduced the center of the throng of students must be the Solo twins, returned from their expedition. Not wanting to intrude on such a private family moment, he slipped quietly away to his quarters. Surprisingly, Master Skywalker arrived soon after. He had had little contact with the Jedi Master himself since his arrival, usually training under older students. He was suddenly aware that his room wasn't very tidy, and began picking up clothes and stuffing them into a basket.
Skywalker smiled. He could tell how embarrassed his student was, and recalled his Aunt Beru's constant admonitions to clean up his room back on Tattooine. Kids don't change very much over time, he concluded.
"It's really not so messy, Jaid. My own room was as bad at your age." Lucas couldn't imagine Master Skywalker was ever his age.
"Uh, Welcome, Master Skywalker. What can I do for you?"
Despite the very small amount of direct instruction Jaid had received, Luke was keenly aware of the new student's progress. Jaid fascinated him. There was a definite pull he felt toward the boy. He had tried to distance himself from him in order to figure out the mystery. Ultimately baffled, he had come to quiz him personally.
"Well, Jaid, I haven't really talked with you very much, and It occurs to me I don't know much about you. " He shrugged. "When Anakin brought you to me, I could sense your abilities, and decided to train you for that reason alone." His brow furrowed, and he went on. "But I can sense that there are things you are hiding from me, you and Anakin both. I had hoped that in time, you would come to trust us here, and maybe share the burden of whatever it is that bothers you."
Jade was worried. What should he do? Anakin had thought it best to keep his identity to himself, and he trusted his friend. If Anakin didn't think that Skywalker would want to train Mara Jade's son, then he was probably right- He knew his uncle.
"Master Skywalker, I have enjoyed my time here tremendously. I have learned much, and I want nothing more than to stay on and train with you to one day be a Jedi. But I can't talk to you about what you want me to. I can't. " His thin shoulders sagged slightly, as he continued, "If that is a problem, I can leave. Right now."
Luke didn't like this. The boy obviously was hiding something of significance. Who was he really? He didn't think for a minute that Jaid was really Tattooinian, he had caught too many discrepancies in his behavior. Despite not participating in Jaid's training, he was very aware of what went on in his life. He kept tabs on him well. "I can't let him leave untrained, and he's so young, where would he go?" Luke thought to himself. He remembered what Anakin had told him, of how he had found Jaid living on gambling winnings on Tattooine. How he had been using The Force to cheat at cards. Without guidance, Jaid could become a rogue Jedi, using his abilities without restraint. He would be without any defense against the dark side of the Force. No, He would not drive away this promising boy.
"That is unnecessary, Jaid. You may stay as long as you like, this is your home." He looked him straight in the eyes, and said, "I just want you to know, that whatever is troubling you, you can come to me, and tell me. It may help you to share it. And if there is anything I can do to help you, in any way, I will. Okay?"
Jade could sense the concern , the worry, behind his teacher's words. Who else had ever made him feel so valued? Only his mother, and of course Karrde. But if Skywalker didn't like Mara, could that animosity transfer to her son? He decided he cared too much for the Master's good opinion to risk it.
" Okay. When I'm ready, I will talk to you." That was all he could hope for, he reassured himself. The boy had heard him out, and might come to him in time. With the task accomplished, Luke Skywalker headed back out, to resume his duties.
Her mind hurt, and her arms ached. It had been years since they cradled an infant child, but tonight she could almost feel his tiny form, smell his sweet baby scent. How tiny and helpless a newborn could seem.
There had been no plan to hide him, or his identity, from his father. The ruse had grown up alone, unaided. "I cannot leave my child to the care of someone else, like Leia Organa Solo had to. I will not be separated from him, like I was from my family, as a girl. I cannot risk having him stolen from me, again and again." If the children of Organa Solo were such a valuable commodity, what then of the son of Skywalker? How many people would love that particular wedge to use against such a powerful enemy? How many credits would his son fetch on the open market?
The option of quiet retirement to some unknown planet she had treasured for awhile, but it was never a reality. It was more of a pleasant dream, to be cherished whenever she felt weary or threatened.
For only brief moments had she considered going to Luke. That idea was another of her pleasant fantasies. She could see it in her mind's eye. How she would proudly present Skywalker with their child. He would be delighted, and completely understanding. The boy's safety was paramount, no, of course he was not bitter. Of course he was not angry. And in the fantasy, over the years, the child had grown up. Originally, she had brought an infant. Then a toddler. Then a young boy. That fantasy, in its latest incarnation, involved taking a nearly grown young man to his father for Jedi training. It was a foolish dream, one in which Luke would see Lucas and simply Know Who He Was, no explanations required.
Well, it was now blatantly obvious that such dreams were impossible. And, she had to admit, downright silliness, like some claptrap out of a cheap holonovel with partially clad people decorating the panels. Even the most levelheaded woman can be a romantic at heart, she guessed. It had all begun quite the way it does in a holonovel. With death at their very door, they had found each other. Unfortunately, holos never show you the clumsy detaching that inevitably occurs after such a fierce coupling.
"We're going to die." Luke had said in his not - normally- pessimistic voice.
"And?" She had said.
What a profoundly fateful way to die. She had spent years planning his end, now she would meet it alongside him. It seemed appropriate, and it was good to be together in this moment, as they each had no one else anyway. The irony was that the force was finally giving her what she'd always wanted. She finally WOULD kill Skywalker, albeit inadvertently. It was her fault he was here.
Sensing the trail of her mental meanderings
Luke thought briefly `I have my family'.
She replied verbally "Leia's Family. You have the Solo's Family. They may care for you, they may love you, but they are not your own. You are alone, Skywalker, you have always been alone."
`As have I,' she mentally realized.
"I am not alone, I have the love of my friends and my family!" His voice was defensive.
"Of course". There was a note of unbelief in her tone.
"What about you? How would you know what I have in my life? You cut yourself off from everyone anyway". He turned accusatory." I have what you deny yourself, closeness with the people I care about, who care about me."
"Like what you shared with Callista?" She said, blandly, with no emotion to her voice.
His face blanched, and she knew she'd struck a hard blow. She found herself enjoying this, this cruelty to the panicked Skywalker. He looked weary; beaten and afraid. She was learning how little he really believed the sith he fed other people. "So now, Master Skywalker, you're going to die, and what have you left to show for your life? An academy that turns out darksiders as readily as light, and your sister's children. Pray tell, oh powerful one, what does your legacy say about You?"
He spoke at some length, but she quickly quit paying attention.
Then he turned the tables on her, wanting to watch her squirm. "It is your own fault, you know."
"What is?" She was growing bored with his side of the conversation, and wanted to get back round to her turn. She had a few nice zingers she'd been saving up to lambaste him with for just such an occasion. He was no match for her verbally. She wasn't exactly sure what he was talking about now anyway.
"Not being close to anyone, having no connections. I know you have no family, but you have done everything you can to keep people from becoming your friends. You alienate people, Mara, you push them away for no reason. You are an exceptional woman, you could have had anything you wanted." His voice softened, he looked at her with wonderment and confusion. "You could be living in a nice home on a nice planet with two point five children and some droids with a nice husband. What ever happened to Talon Karrde, or Lando? You have had the hearts of many men, Mara, and yet you never felt ANYTHING for any of them. The strongest emotion you have ever experienced was the hatred you carried around all those years for me." He said this last with a look of utter amazement and confusion. He seemed to genuinely feel sorry for her, and that was more than she could bear. She lashed out like a caged bantha.
"Oh, like the kind of wonderful, life-affirming emotions that YOU have experienced? Lets talk about the women in your life, the loves that you've lost. You sure do know how to pick `em, Skywalker." She laughed at him, threw her head back and actually roared. He regarded her with suspicion, and a little bit of uneasiness. Just where was she going with this?
" What do you fight for every day, farmboy? The love of a woman who was better off dead? That sith spawned animated corpse you made love to for so long?" Her eyes glittered at him darkly, like spice from the deepest mines on Kessel. "Or is it worse than that, Jedi? Bit of an unholy affection driving you? Your love for a woman who had the bad taste to be your own sister?"
His eyes narrowed and he said to her angrily,
"Perhaps you should have killed me when you had the chance. Mara. Back on Myrkyr, in the jungle. Before I had a chance to figure you out."
She looked at him calmly,"Why, am I supposed to be frightened of you now? I have unmanned you with your darkest secrets , now you will do me in?" Her voice was breathy in a melodramatic tone, her eyes theatrically wide. She laughed at the very notion.
He relaxed, then laughed at her,
"No, Mara, I would never hurt you. I just think you should have killed me when you had the chance. Before your feelings about me changed. I'm sure it's been very difficult for you, after your long association with the Emperor, and after everything that has happened."
He sounded sweetly concerned for her welfare. This had her back up, and was making her mistrustful.
"What in the Force are you talking about?"
"It's very obvious what you're doing." He grinned, "Its even flattering."
"Um, Skywalker, you aren't making much sense. Are you feeling okay? Is the air getting thinner already?" She looked at the gauges. "Maybe they are malfunctioning"-
"You are jealous. "
"Of what, might I ask, oh Great One?" She scoffed.
He shrugged his slim shoulders.
"Oh, of lots of things, and lots of people. I may have finally figured it out. "
He seemed momentarily astonished at his blindness.
"It's very obvious that you're in love with me." Now it was her turn to laugh. "Your conceit knows no bounds! Or did that all powerful Jedi omniscience reveal to you the state of my heart?" She mocked him.
"You are afraid of me, aren't you? Afraid you just might like me, just a little bit?" He advanced on her, still smiling, and ridiculously, she felt the urge to run.
"I'm not afraid of anybody, Skywalker, least of all you."
She met his eyes boldly with her own, and saw his heart there.
"You're afraid of letting people in, you're afraid that someone might like you, or even love you. You're frightened that they might actually know you." He grinned at her, a slightly smarmy, cockeyed grin that made her insides melt.
"Well I know you, Mara Jade. I know everything about you. I know your favorite color, I know your favorite weapon. I know your deepest fear and I know your most secret wish." He drew up close to her, leaving her nowhere to escape.
Then he held her face gently and kissed her with a passion that had simmered for years.
She had not resisted. There was no thought to the process, only feeling. She had ridden a tide of Force strong emotion that bounded on euphoria; Swept along with him, her fears quelled until they came back to themselves.
"If only we had died," Mara thought, as she realized where and when she was.
The memory was too hard to bear, yet she returned to it over and over, for years. She was looking for an `out'..... that maybe he had used mind control. Or that there had been liquor on his breath. Or hers. Something other than those sharply vibrant feelings they had shared, for that brief span of time.If only Karrde's ship hadn't come for them an hour later.
Quite a loyal friend, Karrde was. She was thankful for Talon Karrde. How would she cope without him? For the past seventeen years he had been there she needed him, again and again. She smiled at herself and wondered what outsiders thought of their partnership. Their bond went back many years, and went very deep. But it was a widely misunderstood pairing. Among their associates, they were thought to be lovers, or to have been at some time in the past. It was commonly assumed among their closer associates that Lucas was their son.
She smiled at that. She couldn't have concocted a better plan to hide the boy from Skywalker if she'd tried. Somehow, the ruse grew up on its own, unaided. Perhaps it was due to the very special relationship Lucas and Karrde shared. For whatever reason, the unadvertised assumption had protected him well.
If she could have chosen a father for her son, she could have picked no one better. From the instant she became aware of Lucas, he had had a `father'. She remembered how Karrde had refused her difficult and dangerous assignments, owing to her delicate "condition".
How angry she had been!
And the day of Lucas' birth, Karrde had paced in the hallway outside. She could still recall the sounds; the deliberate tread, broken only when she screamed. She recalled the way he had encouraged, instructed, and disciplined her son through the long years of his youth. No father could have been more devoted, or more proud.
She could not help but to contrast Karrde and Skywalker. Karrde was no less moral, no less just, no less noble. But he could see the "big picture", he was a realist, and stronger for it.
Skywalker was naive. He was a little bit ignorant, at least of the galaxy around him. He lived in a little world of his own devising, in which he was the Great Jedi Master, a living sacrifice to the Power and Glory of The Force. He wanted to save the galaxy, and honestly felt he could do it all alone if he had to. All knowing, all- powerful Jedi. In her heart, she questioned his place as First of the New Generation of Jedi Knights. Was his temperament really suited to it? It seemed that he was too easily swayed by the mystique of the role. And his tendency to find trouble where it hid was at odds with the demeanor of a staid Jedi hermit...Which one was the real Skywalker?
To her mind, Luke was really as reckless as Lucas. He merely used his position to put a veneer of `respectability' on his antics. Of course, any one who WASN'T a Jedi, who entered into the sort of situations Skywalker so often did, would have been considered a thrill seeker. No doubt, without The Force to guide his life, without Ben to put his feet on the path of a Jedi, he would have found employment with Rogue Squadron. It was all the same. Her lifestyle was no different than his own; she just refused to play at heroics.
Apparently he gloried in the role. And like Lucas, he gave no thought to the consequences of his actions. It had been many years, but she kept pretty close tabs on her `Old friend', and it looked like little had changed. He was less openly reckless now, but no less dangerous.
Lucas would be less reckless AND less dangerous. She would see to it, once she found him. She would truss him up like an ewok ready for a Feastday and drag his rump home.
The trip here to Tattooine had left her entirely too much time to think. Work had been her solace, but this was no business trip. This time all she had to occupy her thoughts was her own very vivid imaginings. Lucas hurt, Lucas hungry. Lucas dead. Why had she let this happen? He should have been sent to military school. Drat that all the best ones were in Imperial territory.
They were staying in a fairly decent hotel, at least for Tattooine. She had forgotten what a refuse pit this planet was. Karrde was interviewing witnesses to an incident in a bar. It seems the participants in the fight couldn't be located, but many witnesses were willing to talk about the occurrence, for a small fee. The bartender had identified Lucas from the holovid Leia's men had shown him. Now Karrde was out scouting, and Mara was waiting for word .
She began pacing. "This is just too much. I can't just SIT here, I'll go mad!" She threw on a grey outerwrap, and headed out the door.
"Anakin, I don't think that your uncle buys my story."
Anakin Solo looked up from his reading. He was enjoying some downtime, as he was due to report for (ugh!) cleanup duty in the mess in fifteen minutes. Sometimes, the life of a Jedi in training was none too glamorous. Regretfully, he put aside the adventures of Twillian the Harem girl and turned to tackle Jade's problem.
" How come? Has he said something?" he queried.
Lucas' brow creased with unease as he told the details of his conversation with Master Skywalker yesterday morning. It was plain to see that he felt bad about having to deceive his teacher,and wanted to make a clean breast of it.
Anakin, however, thought differently. In truth, he was surprised and disappointed that his Uncle was onto them. At the first meeting of Teacher and prospective pupil, Uncle Luke had seemed rather distant and distracted, and paid little attention to their well-rehearsed lines. Anakin had then begun to cherish the hope that they could pull this off without Luke EVER having to know exactly who Lucas was.
On that subject, Anakin was drawing a new inference, one he didn't even want to run by the subject of his pondering. Somewhere at the back of his mind, he had vague recollections. Children overhear things, gossip as much as any other topic. The boy's name had been the tip off. Of course, that itself wasn't enough, after all, hadn't the names Luke and Leia, and all the variants thereof, been at the top of the list of popular baby names for the first five years after Endor?
But it led him to dredge up hints of remembered snippets of conversation. Something about Uncle Luke, and about Mara. ..yes, Anakin was reaching a conclusion all by himself, and wondering why nobody else saw the resemblance.
Now that he thought about it, it was so obvious.
No, it would not do for his Uncle to uncover the truth of Jade's identity. It would hurt him too much.
"Look Lucas, I think you are making too big a deal out of one little conversation. Be grateful it was only a fishing expedition, when it could have been an Imperial Interrogation." That was code for getting called on the rug by Master Skywalker , or one of his top-level teachers. Anakin had enjoyed the benefits of many such dressings down.
" I just can't stand lying to him. " Jade's normally boisterous voice became a plaintive, (and annoying) whine, and he continued, "he was so kind to me, Anakin, and there I was, just lying through my teeth like the biggest storyteller this side of the Correllian system. I felt like a heel. I felt like a Hutt."
Anakin smiled roguishly. " My Dad would tell you that prevarication is a fine art; You're just out of practice."
Jade looked even more uncertain, and a little bit peeved. He had come here for commiseration, and he wasn't finding any.
Solo had to find a way to get his buddy's mind off thoughts that would do no one any good. " Look, I have to go get to work, but I know what will cheer you up. Come with me, help me out, and we'll play sabacc in the mess hall afterwards. I still have the cards in my vest somewhere." He felt around on his clothes, hunting up the familiar feeling bulge. " Ah HA! There you go, the trick to cure what ails ya! " He stood up, and gently guided his friend towards the dining hall. " I bet we can arouse the interest of a few of the younger kids, if you don't run them off too quick. We do this right, neither of us will have mess hall duty again for a month!"
They headed off to the left, exchanging boasts and brags, along with the occasional insult, as good friends are wont to do.
The room was full of damp smoke and the sour smell of Devaronian sweat. Mara wrinkled her nose in distaste. It had been some years since she had graced similar scenery. Now she preferred to do business in well- lit hotel rooms and fine restaurants. Sitting alone in the tawdry Mos Eisley Cantina, she felt a little bit afraid for herself.
And a Lot disgusted. The good life had let her grow soft. Her reflexes weren't quite what they should be. It had been years since she handled a lightsaber. It would be a colossal joke, if the Emperor's Hand ended up dead in an alley because some thug wanted her purse. It would prove her longstanding contention that the Force had a wicked sense of humor.
Then and there, she made a silent vow to regain her edge as soon as this was all over. She needed combat refreshing, badly, and she would have it.
And if she could find her lightsaber, she'd regain that skill too. "That's if," she thought, "Lucas didn't take it with him." Odds were he had. Oh well, she needed to learn to make one anyway. It was long overdue.
At length, she was joined by a Twi'lek. An ear to the ground had told her of a pair of Twi'lek men involved in an altercation on Corellia were here spreading word about being assaulted by a pair of young boys. They were claiming one of them had a lightsaber. Could this be Lucas? She wondered. If it was, then whom had he fallen into company with?
The Twi'lek , it turned out, had the story second or third hand, making it untraceable and virtually worthless. Luckily, he wasn't hunting a payoff, he was merely hoping to establish a good rapport with a powerful trader in this sector. He told her his tale. Then he thanked her for her time, and wished her luck finding the boy in the vid she had shown him.
She tossed back several refreshers and listened to the noise of the bar. Voices surrounded her, and she picked up snips of dialogue here and there. Suddenly Karrde emerged from the throng of drinkers near the bar.
He spotted her immediately and wound her way.
"Come on, we're going home."
She stared up at him in confusion, "Whatever for? We just got here-"
"He's been offplanet since long before we got here, Mara. He spent only three days on Tattooine, and left aboard somebody else's ship."
"Wha- whose ship?"
Karrde grimaced. " It looks like he was in the company of a Jedi."
It felt good to be back home, but there was an uncomfortable undercurrent of something about to happen here, that had assailed her even as they left the tarmac. It hadn't left her in the intervening hours between going back to the house , and heading here into the office. Something was on the horizon, a looming potentiality that came to the attention of her finely honed sense of impending danger.
While she speculated on the appropriate punitive measures for a wayward son, commotion was heard outside her offices. A bad feeling came over her, as she picked up the holovid. More ships had gone down, she was sure of it. She cursed quietly.
A man spoke up, "Someone knocked out the comm on our trading circuits. Of the few pilots who withstood the takeover attempts, most are jumping ship about now. There has been a bombing in one of the docking bays, bay twenty-six I think"
"There are similar threats that came in before we lost commlink, from other locations. I think our Competitors are taking negotiations to a different level."
That was putting it mildly, she thought. How nicely he prettied up sabotage. Karrde had warned her that her past would come back to haunt her if she didn't admit it publicly. As usual, he was proved correct in the end. The wide dissemination of propaganda relating to her imperial background had not hurt her here, but the leaking of false information about her ties to Skywalker and the Coruscant Regime had weakened the confidence of her own people. Karrde was right again, but she could be sure he took no comfort in it. The enemy had her but good: The New Republic didn't trust her for her Imperial ties, the remaining Imps didn't trust her for her NR ties, and her people no longer trusted her for her Jedi gifts. Some days it didn't pay to get out of bed.
" We have ship saved for you Ms. Jade. You must leave now, or never."
Obviously negotiations with the strikers were a bust. Terrorist action had been undertaken, now she had open war. The hostiles were taking control of the base, and with the minimal staff she had right now, there was little chance of holding it. She was unsure how it had happened , but she had missed a crucial link somewhere. She would uncover the traitors in her midst, but first she had to get word to Karrde on Coruscscant.
" You don't understand, she suspects nothing! She hasn't a clue to your involvement!" The young blonde woman pleaded with her entire body. Hands outstretched, palms uplifted, she was a striking contrast to the poised and confident creature that had come from meeting their nemesis some weeks earlier. " To risk exposing yourself at this stage, for nothing more substantial than revenge, is foolhardy. You mustn't endanger the plans!"
The long legged brunette ignored her. Her late husband, Kevander Wixten, had found the girl when she was eleven years old, in an orphanage on the edge of Imperial space. Wixten had been sent to evacuate the offspring of Imperial deceased, before the planet could fall to the New Republic. He had been a low level Officer serving his second tour of duty when he married the enigmatic Callista, and only four months into her honeymoon would She encounter her rival for his affections. This cheerful, attractive, blonde -haired child with no records. No, it wouldn't do to listen too closely to the girl, or to make her too powerful. She was powerful enough by nature. It owed only to some shred of maternal feeling that she'd involved her at all. It would serve multiple purposes, but the primary goal could not be forgotten in the rush to earn credits. She was going to make them all rich beyond their wildest dreams, once justice was served. The investors , the instigators, andthe racketeers, were all going to grow fat on the decaying corpse of the Freetrader's Coalition. Kevander's last takeover would go through. But it didn't certainly didn't hurt that an old wrong would be avenged. This would destroy Mara Jade, as surely as her own life had been ruined.
Almost twenty years had passed since she had met the woman who would one day become the bane of her existence. She remembered the day clearly. Mara had been an infrequent presence in Skywalker's life, but an inescapable one nonetheless. Cool and calculating, Mara had bided her time, certain of eventual success. Callista could still recall Mara, reveling in her force abilities, gloating in her face. As if her puny powers were anything at all to the ones Callista had lost.
Laela gave in, her arguments were lost on this woman's ears. If Mother wanted to harass small freighters, and pay people to blow up things that she expected to be BUYING soon, there was absolutely nothing she could do about it but seethe. A long time ago, something had happened to her mother to make her so hard, Laela was sure of it. But she was not party to the particulars of the events.
She didn't know how, shamed and humbled by her loss of the Force, and filled with guilt over the death of Cray Mingla, Callista had grown insecure, and afraid. Only Callista Wixten and her Psychiatrist knew the whys and wherefores of the condition of mind that plagued her. She feared death, something she never expected. Without the force, she was as a naked child. Who could protect her? And so, in this desolation, she had once clung to her lover. And had hated herself for it.
Over time, she had grown to resent Skywalker's powers. Why should he be so blessed and she, excluded? Was she unworthy of her new life? Was that why she had been punished? And what if Luke found out? He could have abandoned her, and she would have been left alone, and unprotected, in his dangerous world. Then the dreams had begun. Every night for weeks, the same dream. Luke had never picked up on them. That alone should have told her something.
She was always asleep in his arms, when the dreams started. She would hear his voice, soothing, and she at first thought he addressed her. Until she heard him say,"Mara". And then the soft words gave way to telepathic communication, that they weren't aware she could hear. In the dreams it became plain that he and Mara Jade shared a link , of mind and soul. That they were parties to a closeness she could never again enjoy. She knew then that Luke felt only obligation and gratitude for herself.
The dream was unlike other dreams, in that it retained all its lucidity on awakening. She would come to herself with the desolate knowledge and the desperate dread; she did not belong here. Every day she passed, re- wrote a cosmic plan. She was excluded from the lifeforce that binds all things together, because she was not truly alive. This was her penance for defying natural death.
It was ultimately that sense of displacement that drove her off Yavin IV.She did not really expect to ever regain her lost force abilities. She had only hoped to rectify the damage done by her rebirth. She had married her powerful businessman, and made a new life for herself, proud of her noble sacrifice.
The hatred of Mara grew much, much, later. Only when she realized she had given Luke up for a woman who would spurn him, and that he had grown old alone. Only when she discovered what other powers she had lost when she came into this body. Then her heart began to frost over.
They had just dropped out of hyperspace to make a course correction when it happened. One minute they were arguing over trajectory, the next, they had fire on the portside of that rotting freighter hulk they were calling home right now.
Anakin ran to see what was firing on them, as Jade checked their weapons systems to see if they could get off a shot or two on their attackers.
Anakin cursed. "Sith! Pridgin' PIRATES."
Lucas wasn't really paying attention to Anakin; he was too busy rerouting power to the necessary guns. "Um, I think they prefer the term, "Freetraders" he mused absently.
"Yeah, well they look more like freeLOADERS to me." Said Anakin tersely.
Having done what he could at the helm, Jade vaulted over the seats and headed for the gunport. He hollered back behind him, "Stang it, you'd think they'd know better than to grab a ship like this one. Sith, we haven't got anything but cheap liquor and old ration pacs!"
He took his seat and took his aim.
Minutes later it was all but over. Most of their systems were out or malfunctioning, and they had fire in what was left of their cargo bay. Life support would go out in six minutes. Anakin was surprised to feel how time had slowed. He could think so clearly, with only six minutes left on his chrono. He thought of his mother and dad with a pang of regret. They might never know what happened here.
He tried sending out to his mother through the power of the Force, but as usual, was unable to do it when he most needed to. He cursed his nerves, and felt a moment of regret that he would now never get to work on those split concentration exercises he obviously needed. He pondered on why they were being harassed.
It wasn't as if they had anything on board that was valuable. And their poverty was well established by the condition of the vehicle being fired on. He appreciated fully the irony of the situation; two of the wealthiest young men in the galaxy, dying broke and alone, out in dead space at the hands of pirates who wouldn't clear five hundred credits off their demise. He then recalled what was left of Jade's haul from the Verratan system, three hundred creds and some ladies' jewelry. He decided at that sec that they would not have it, a pitiful sum though it might be. The murdering banthas would get nothing off this ship but their bodies.
He ran over to the safe, behind the card table, under the counter where they kept some racy holomags, and above the cooler where they housed the cheap verratan ale they'd so recently acquired. "Not a bad place for a safe" he thought to himself, surprised at the mad starts his mind was having. Maybe the air was going bad already.
He spaced the whole mess of it, all they owned between them. "Have fun playing fifty-two-pick-up, Ya thieves," he said quietly to himself, watching it all float away. Then he went back up front to go die like a Jedi. As he leaned his head over to the gunport, he saw a crackly flash of light, and had just enough time to see the flash blaze blue up onto Lucas' hand. The last thing he heard before everything went black was his best friend screaming.
Mara woke in her Coruscant hotel room with a blur of emotion.
Her son was in trouble. She could feel it in the marrow of her bones. She had seen it in the darkness of sleep, an urgent sending that could not be ignored.
Lucas was scared. Lucas might be dying. And a voice familiar to herself, and unknown to her boy, had infiltrated the message. She knew now who had him, andit turned her blood cold. She turned to the holovid, and made the decision to enlist the aid of Skywalker. He would save her son. He had to.
His face was changed, she noticed, as he appeared on the holovid before her. He was older, his boyishness almost eradicated. There was a heaviness to his features, and his hair was thinner. Nonetheless, he looked every bit the Jedi Master, very respectable and powerful.
Maybe she just hoped he was powerful.
He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, and for a brief moment in time, the boy was back. He looked like her son, awoken with a bad dream.
Luke Skywalker dredged himself from sleep. A feeling of loss, coupled with fear and confusion, hung over him like a blanket. Something was wrong, Something bad had happened.
"Mara?" his voice sounded small and unsure, a marked contrast to his appearance.
"Yes, it is me." She paused, uncertain how to continue. She took a short breath, then spit it out. " I have a favor to ask of you. Your nephew Anakin is with my son and they are in trouble. Their ship was captured by pirates, under the direction of the heads of a rival trade organization." Her eyes lowered, it grew harder to look at him as she spoke. "The only reason they want them is the presence of my son aboard that ship. He is nothing but leverage to them, a bargaining chip."
She forced herself to meet his eyes, and licked her lips softly as she continued. "I need the help of a Jedi."
She thought a minute, then played upon his weakness. "I need the help of a good friend."
He still thought this might be a dream. Too long had it been since he set eyes on that face, heard that silky voice, knew those delicate hands that shook ever so slightly as she addressed him. She seemed unchanged, unmarred by time. If he was not dreaming, she was miraculously prettier than when last he had seen her like this, all warm, and soft, and yielding. He then noticed the tilt of her shoulders, and the slight shadows under her eyes that he had missed originally. Then he realized she was in her nightclothes, her hair still down, loosed for sleeping. Something terrible must have happened to cause this. Mara would never allow herself to be seen in this state of undress, under normal circumstances. Finally, her words permeated that thick fog of sleepiness that had enveloped his thoughts.
Anakin. Anakin had been kidnapped. Jaid would be with him. JAID!
Suddenly he recognized Jaid for who he was; he was Mara's child. Of course. He had not even known she had children. Nevertheless, he should have recognized him anyway. Those eyes, he had seen them a thousand times before, off Yavin. He cursed his blindness. It all made a weird sort of sense now, Jaid's secretiveness, his lies about his background. He was hiding from his mother's enemies. Only why hadn't she trusted him with the knowledge? Sending Jaid to Yavin was a brilliant method of hiding him in plain sight. But He, Luke Skywalker, felt surprisingly hurt that he'd been left out of the plan. Surely, she knew he would do anything to protect her son.
"I will be there in a couple of hours, as soon as I tell Leia about this."
Leia knew her son was in danger. She felt it through the force. She had no real details, just an overwhelming feeling of despair. It made her frantic with worry. Han too was disturbed, though he struggled manfully not too show it. He just watched her pace back and forth, wearing out the rug. C3PO entered the room, bearing a cup of warm bantha milk for Leia and a shot of Corellian for Han.
"Mistress Leia, I have been advised that this will help calm you." He said, as he placed it in her hands.
She accepted it gratefully. but made no move to drink it.
"Winter did a very thorough job preparing Threepio for her absence." Han thought to himself, downing the shot. She even left instructions for his favorite fortifier. Too bad Leia had forgotten hers.
"Sweetheart, You aren't doing yourself, or Anakin, any good with this. Relax, and try again." He made careful effort to keep the panic out of his own voice. Leia had been trying to reach their son through the force for the last half-hour. She could not feel his presence. It scared them both.
She had felt Luke trying to contact her for a while now, but she was shutting him out, feeling for her son. Finally, she accepted his attempt, letting him through, and into her thoughts.
Several minutes later she turned to her husband.
"We'll be having company soon. Luke is on his way here, with Mara Jade." She said the words with a little wonderment.
Han was equally taken aback,
"What is going on? What does she know about our boy?" His mind raced with possibilities. Mara was a powerful woman, a dangerous woman. What did she have to do with the danger his son was in? What part did she play in all this? He had heard about her Union problems, and it was no secret she was being underbid by a newer Organization, bent on taking her client base. Had Anakin somehow fallen into trouble with some Union Thugs? Or Maybe some of Mara's own thugs?
What was Mara doing on Coruscant? Before his creative brain could offer up more possibilities, each one more frightening than the last, Leia intruded on his musings, quietly.
"Anakin is with Mara Jade's son, and they've both been kidnapped."
He awoke slowly from the depths of his nightmare. His hand. His hand, the gun had blown up, and had taken his -
He looked down at it, sensing that it was somehow different. Then he noticed that he was not alone in the medlab. The woman was obviously mature, but she glanced at him shyly like a green girl. Despite her years, (she was probably as old as his mother was), she was still possessed of a youthful prettiness. A cloud of dark hair hid much of her features, as if she were bashful. He observed that she wore a long, loose fitting garment that was sheer enough to make out her frame.
The teenaged boy then noted that her frame was quite adequate, and her legs were the sort of "stems" that Karrde would have approved of. Heartily.
Apparently, she did have a voice, as she now began to speak. "How are you? Have you pain?"Her voice was pleasant, and she sounded genuinely concerned.
"My Hand?what happened to my-"
She moved in to pacify him. "Hush, don't talk now. You must rest. The new hand is only hours old; you weren't expected to wake yet." Her hand glided gently down the side of his face. It was the softest caress. She murmured words of comfort. The tone in her voice was almost motherly. He struggled to recall the events that led him here?The ship, the gun.
He sat bolt upright. "ANAKIN!!! What happened to Anakin? Where is he?"
She drew back, affrighted. He should be sleeping, she knew that. How had he thrown off the effects of the sedative so quickly? " Your friend is unharmed. He is confined to quarters, as per the orders of the Master of this ship."
He became angry, and wary of her kindness.
"Who are you? Why have you attacked us?"
"Hush now, it is all part of a misunderstanding. You need your rest, and before that, you need food. "
She hopped up, lithe and graceful, and silently retrieved a dish from a nearby table. She brought it to him, and met his green eyes with her grey ones.
He hesitated, alert now to having been drugged, and wary of the event recurring.
Understanding his concern, she supplied more reassurances. " It is not poisoned, it will not harm you." She then took a bite, and smiled at him. "Other than being a little spicy, it is fine. Here, try it."
It did smell good. His stomach rumbled in response to the aroma. He tried to take it from her hands.
`No, here, I will do it. Rest the hand, as I said, its not very old, and you weren't expected to awaken so soon. I am no medic, but it may be best not to do too much with it yet. The powerpacks need time to charge."
She leaned over him, delicately spooning the rich meatlike substance into his mouth. It was an unsettling feeling, being fed by a woman, one he hadn't had before. She was very attractive, and he found himself enjoying the strange discomfiture she aroused in him. She offered little else in conversation, but he spent the meal studying the stormclouds that danced in those exquisite eyes. Who was she, he pondered, and would she return when she left?
If he saw enough of her, he might could enjoy captivity. Maybe he could win her to his side, maybe she would take a message to Anakin if he played her the right way. ..
Maybe he was getting ahead of himself.
He was sleeping again. And it was a good thing that he was. Her palms were sweating; absentmindedly, she wiped them on her sleeves.
He had her rattled, all right. She had been counting on using Mara's child for leverage. The whole purpose of the exercise had been to get a hostage to force Jade down in the trade talks. If she would release the remaining pilots from their contracts, and cede victory to the Coalition in the trade war, then she could have her son back.
It had all been so very beautifully simple.
Taking on Luke's nephew was not part of the bargain, and neither was causing injury to his son. And she knew, without any doubt, that was who was in the room right behind her.
Luke's son. A beautiful boy. He affected her pulse like his father did. Her heart was thrumming with the intensity of a datastream into an R2 unit. She could practically hear its whistling frenzy. She wanted nothing more than to go back into that room and watch him sleeping. At the same time, she wanted to be anywhere but on this ship. His very presence compelled her to seek him out. She would be back before he awakened, she was sure of it. She couldn't stop herself.
His eyes opened enough to see that he was in a cell. He quickly closed them. No use drawing attention to himself, if he was going to plot, better to do it `sleeping'. So, the `pirates' had staged a rescue mission. That seemed out of character. "Did I have my identicards on me?"
Anakin tried to remember if the papers in his pockets identified his real name, or one of Jade's many aliases. If he had his real cards on him, though, they might be planning a ransom. Hope unfurled like a tiny seedling inside of him. Then it hit him ; "They must have known who we are all along." What other reason cold there be for hitting a poorly armed vessel with few provisions? He didn't think any of the enemies that he and Jade had acquired had the means to pay a bounty for them. So whoever had them had figured out their true identities and followed them here, carefully taking out all their systems so they would be unconscious, and easily transported. Where then was Jade? Had they taken him to treat his missing hand?
Imprecations ran through his head as he thought of that gun. Not the other ship's fire, but the shoddy piece of ewok offal that THEY owned, was responsible for that injury, he was sure of it. He had noticed a bad conduit on that gun when he last examined it, and had intended to fix it when he got round to it. He hadn't got round to it in time, he now knew. "A little repair and maintenance might have kept Lucas' in one piece, you lazy hutt," he told himself. He had thought that by taking the boy with him on this trip back to Coruscant, he would keep him out of trouble. `But who suggested that little stopover in the Verratan system, eh, Anakin? Who didn't get the guns all fixed before we left Yavin? Who turned down Kyp's offer of a decent ship, You prideful, overgrown, son of a Dathomirian?" Anakin knew all too well where to lay blame for the unholy mess they were in now. He did not shirk his responsibility, he embraced it, and the guilt that went with it. It would, he decided, help him figure out the best way to get them both out of this alive.
"What a talkative group we have, Han." Said Leia, looking behind herself. "We have one passenger that will shoot you if you make conversation. We have another who hides in his bunk and sulks like a child. " She frowned, and continued, " This ship isn't big enough for the two of them to avoid each other like this. And it is too quiet in here by half. I almost wish we'd brought Threepio."
She paused momentarily and felt for her son. Nothing. Suddenly she too felt hesitant to speak.
Han recoilled in only half-mocking horror, "Shh..someone might hear you!" He shook his head. "Threepio? Leia, I don't think anyone has been THAT bad! I know "I" haven't. There is no need for hard tactics just yet!" He sidled up to her and embraced her affectionately. As hard as this whole situation was for everyone, observing the toll it was taking on his wife was the most difficult thing of all. He wanted so much to protect her, and their kids, but time and again, he was unable to. The kidnappings, the diplomatic incidents, dangers like C'baoth and others. Some days it was dangerous to be a Skywalker. Most days, actually. Even by any other name. And that danger spilled over into the lives of everyone they loved. But as rough as it was being MARRIED to Leia, being separated from her was completely unimaginable. She was part of his soul. Being without her would be like living, without breathing.
Han caught himself in a moment of poetic romanticism, and nipped it quickly in the bud. He pinched her playfully and joked, "Well, Your highness, next time just bring your committee along with you, That should keep things nice `n' busy. Not to mention LOUD."
Han had played off the tension between Luke and Mara, to comfort his wife. She had enough to worry about. But even someone not attuned to the force could sense their discomfort with each other. There was a palpable electricity to the air, a sense of destiny approaching. Encroaching. Unstoppable. Privately, Han wondered at it. He half expected Luke or Mara to kill each other on this trip. And it worried him no end, that he had no idea WHY.
Leia felt for her brother, and detected a loneliness and dejection that she flinched from. It hurt her physically.
"I think I'll go check on Luke", she said, almost willing Han to challenge her on it.
He just shrugged. "Okay, Sweetheart, but I don't think he's in the mood for a chat."
"Sith with him, anyway," She muttered to herself in the doorway of the bulkhead. Twice now, she had come to talk with him, and lost her nerve. Mara distinctly disliked losing her nerve, it betokened weakness, and in the back of her head, a tiny voice much like the late, not-so- lamented Emperor's called her coward.
There was just no easy way to admit that you had concealed from an old friend the fact that you bore him a son. But that famous Skywalker thick-headedness would wear off soon, and Lucas' parentage would be known. Even if Luke never did figure it out, his smarter half would piece it all together by herself. Leia Organa Solo was not Leader of the Free Galaxy for nothing. Her lanky lug of a consort wasn't too dim either, so it was only a matter of time before the bits all fell into place for at least one of them.
She didn't want him to learn of her treachery from his sister or his brother in law. No, she reasoned, she owed him the truth, and if she didn't say something now, she might lose her chance. So, she reached out to him, through the force, and found him asleep. "Not my fault, I tried" she told herself, turning back to the corridor. And running smack-dab into the more sophisticated Skywalker twin.
"Oh, I see you've decided to mend fences with my brother".
Mara screwed up her brow and tried to look nonchalant at the same time. It didn't work . She knew she was the very picture of discomfiture. "He's asleep, so my offer to play sabbac with him fell on deaf ears." She shrugged. "Maybe I can interest your husband. "
Leia studied her friend's countenance. Something was very wrong here. Great Maker, Mara Jade was sweating. Her green eyes darted furtively around the corridor, avoiding Leia, lighting here and there but never settling for more than the briefest second before moving on. Had she known her well enough to notice her hands, she'd have noted that they were shaking ever so slightly.
" So if you will excuse me, I will be headed back ." Mara gestured at the passageway directly behind Leia, so that Leia had to turn sideways to permit her to leave.
"Of course," she said, still puzzling over the strangeness of it all. But instead of heading out to find Han, Mara threaded her way back to her bunk. Afforded privacy now, an idea occurred to her.
The bag, where was it? She always carried it in the bag. Dropping to her knees, and fumbling behind the bed, she located her purse, or what passed for one, in the busy life of a woman with heavy responsibilities. No simple clutch containing lipstick and credits, this was a womanly purse, it said to the galaxy, "I am a woman with Massive amounts of Baggage". It dared you to guess what she might have in it?Holovids? Datapads? How about illegal spice, or contraband weaponry? In truth, there were a few anachronistic relics of a more violent age; there were two small hold out blasters, a vibroblade, and even a thermal detonator. All compartmentalized in a large executive-type databag, with multiple flaps and pouches for chips, chrons, and vids. In one of the small, inner compartments was a palm sized holocron, one rare concession to sentimentality.
It was a collection of pictures of her son, from birth up until two weeks before he left. How he had struggled to avoid that last picture sitting! She smiled wanly in remembrance, and felt the glimmer of tears rising. She cut them off, a lump in her throat. In recent years, he had become, like most boys, less than enamoured of having his picture taken. She activated the cron, and thumbed herself through his life.
A squirming red infant. A wet, angry sixth month old in a bathtub, with a Nannydroid holding a squeaky ewok, while Lucas chewed a fuzzy wampa doll. That had been the Last Nannydroid, since Lucas had xpressed an early aversion to the hired help, and more specifically the droid kind. He once dismantled a protocol droid she used as an interpreter, because he disliked the pitch of its voice. A picture of Kaarde, asleep, with the toddler on his chest, in the copilot's chair on the Fire.The three our four formal event pictures, featuring various lovely girls as he escorted them. The music lessons, and pictures from the recitals. She actually had crons of all the recitals, even the ones she had been unable to attend. She missed a lot of those events in his life, she was always so busy with work. But she had her pictures, she had pictures of absolutely EVERYTHING.
The last picture in the cron, was of herself and Lucas, on his sixteenth birthday. The day before she found out about the fight he had been in, and shortly before he ran away. She looked it over, trying to visualize what it would say about them, as a family, to an outsider. Her dress was a vivid blue, and there were pearls at her neck, a gift the last feastday from an admirer. Her hair was styled, but down long, rather than braided in the utilitarian fashion she daily favored. Her nails were even polished. Lucas wore a jade green shirt, of a fine natural fabric that was dear even for one as prosperous as herself. His birthday gift from Kaarde had been a utility belt, to replace his worn out old one. Stubbornly, he had insisted on donning it for the picture. It was incongruous with the overall look of his attire. "His hair wasn't even combed.", she reflected, as she looked at him. He rebelled even against the clothes she bought him, the hairstyles she suggested for him.
Great shades of Skywalker, he looked like his father. It didn't please her. "Luke would clean up well, too. Unfortunately, neither one of them appreciate my fashion sense."
She stood up slowly, feeling the fatigue in her bones, hefting the weight of the holocron in her hand. It had been weeks since she slept well. Anymore, she relied on pills to sleep at all. "Better do this now, Mara. Before someone else does it for you." She strolled out to take her gift to Skywalker.
Outside his door again, she felt for him, and found him dreaming. She insinuated herself into his thoughts, trying to rouse the sleeping mind without alarming him. Moments later, he greeted her, and she pushed the door open and went inside.
"Rise and shine, farmboy. I come bearing gifts." Her voice was harder than she had intended, and slightly shrill.
Luke had been dreaming of Yavin, of his niece and nephews and students. It had been a pleasant dream, but he couldn't remember it. Jaid had been there, something about Jaid was important, if only he could remember what it was?..
He finally noticed her awkwardness, and it was startling enough to get his mind off the dream. She looked like she didn't want to be here, like she might take flight at any minute. But he could feel a weightiness, and trepidation, in her heart. It chained her down and would hold her here until their business was finished.
Crawling from the bed, and rising to his feet, he said, "Would you rather go someplace else?" Clearly his sleeping quarters were making her uncomfortable.
She looked down and shook her head. "No, this is fine. I just need to show you something, it is important." She looked up, meeting his eyes for the first time since they boarded the ship. "And I would rather do this in here than out there in front of your family."
She reached her hand out to him, and he saw the holocron in it. He actually recognized it, his sister had one similar. Smiling ruefully, he thought to himself, "I never imagined Mara Jade carrying around baby pictures." He took the book in his hand, and wondered why she thought he needed this. Jaid was his student, he already felt close to him. Dragging in his baby pictures wasn't going to make him any more committed to bringing her son home. But maybe this would reassure her. He hoped so. She was literally being haunted by this whole turn of events, he could see how it was eating her up inside. Anything he could do to put down those demons behind her eyes was fine by him.
He sat on the bunk, and noticed as she sank gracefully to the floor, her legs crossed up in her lap. Mentally he offered to make room on the bunk, and she refused.
As he flipped to the first image, he noted its caption. "Lucas, one day old, in blue blanket that Aves' bought him." So that was Jaid's real name. He felt honored that she had named the boy after him. Then he noted the date, and an unsettled feeling crept into his stomach. He flipped to the next image. "Lucas, sleeping, two days old." And the next. And the next. He was inundated with minutiae about this boy. "Lucas, with Kaarde." "Lucas, with Mommy" "Lucas, with miniature Dewback in the backyard." "Lucas, with first prize in the science fair for his experiment in quantum mechanics." Great Force, this woman was as organized with her keepsakes as she was every other aspect of her life. "Lucas, as Jedi with toy lightsaber, and friend Alme as Imperial Stormtrooper with blaster rifle".
No. His brain strove to wrap itself around the obvious, as denial raged within his heart. It wasn't possible. She wouldn't have done this to him, she couldn't have. No enemy would have been this cruel, and she was supposed to be his friend. Mara was aware of his thoughts at all times while he looked through the cron, and knew exactly at which moment that reason overcame emotion, and the truth was made plain. The wash of pain and confusion was impossible to ignore. He was too hurt to cry, and as yet still too hurt to be angry. In pure reflex she tried to put her hand on his, but he drew away as if he had been struck.
Wordlessly: I'm so sorry, Luke, I am so sorry.
And his silent response, Go away, leave me alone.
So she did.
Sitting next to her husband as he piloted his Other Woman across the galaxy, Leia Organa Solo was just nearing a nap when the sudden rush of unpleasantness coming from her brother made her sit bolt upright in her chair.
Hurt. Loss. Betrayal. Confusion.
With a heady undertone of self- loathing.
She rose quickly from her seat, and went to him, afraid for him. In the hall, she barely noticed Mara as she sped past. Later, her mind would process that image, but right now, she had one driving goal. She must hold her brother, and comfort him.
Minutes later, he was in her arms and quietly weeping. She cradled him like one of her children. Crooning gently into his hair, she asked him without words what she could do to stop his pain. Delicately she probed his thoughts, and found there a jumble of bewilderment and treachery. Mara Jade had done this, had done to her brother something so terrible that Leia found herself fearing for Luke's sanity.
Somehow, Mara had delivered to him a blow that might prove mortal; already, she could feel his grip on reality as it began sliding out from under him.
Going deeper, she found herself right in the heart of the turmoil. The truth was suddenly upon her, and took her breath away.
"She stole my son, my only son."
Having loved him only to abandon him, she had further compounded her treason with this, the cruelest cut of all. The theft of the boy Lucas, his only heir.
"Oh, she is a cold one." Leia said to herself. Her soft mouth pulled up into an ugly sneer that made a mockery of her delicate features. Painfully, she fought to control the white- hot rage that was growing in her breast.
"Anger, fear, aggression, these are the way of the Dark Side, Leia. Don't give in to the hate." Luke could feel the anger burgeoning in her breast, an anger that was righteous and intense. A part of him, the part that had devoted his life to the Light, recoiled from it. And at the same time, he recognized it growing in himself as well, like a loathsome cancer on the face of his soul. Not even Callista's deceit had been so acute. He had no frame of reference for this level of disloyalty.
That a woman he so respected, admired, loved could have so misused him filled him with a sick and hollow misery. He buried his head in the hollow of his sister's neck, and wept.
By his own accounting, he had been here seven days now. That is, if he could consider three meals the equivalent of one whole day. The meals seemed to come regularly, as he had yet to go hungry. However, if they were drugging him, his conclusions might be skewed by overlong periods of sleep.
He tossed restlessly on the bed. He had already explored the room, and knew that the door was locked, and would likely stay so until the quiet lady returned to feed him again. There were 462 individual tiles to the ceiling, and 52 specs on each floor tile. There were 48 floor tiles, making a grand total of-
Just then the door swung silently open, and the woman entered. Her hair was severely drawn back today, and her dress more matronly. He decided that it suited her badly, she required feminine attire, this getup was all practicality with no style. Was she trying to look ugly for him? He wondered.
"My, you do seem to be improving." She sat daintily alongside of him, and took the lid off of the tray. "Hmm. Roast wokling with brandysauce and new potatoes." Lifting the smaller dish, she smiled slightly. "I see that someone thinks you're up to dessert. Nothing too fancy, though, I am afraid."
He looked. Space pops. They were trying to kill him. "Thanks, but you can have mine. I'm not big on sweets." She looked surprised, then shrugged.
He settled in to using the new hand. Overall, it seemed to work as well as his real one, maybe even better. Still, something about having batteries in his arm just unsettled him. "I guess I have long enough to get used to it, though. It'll be here for a long time." He thought.
"I have been wondering when I can see Anakin," he mumbled, through bites of tender meat, " I think I feel well enough now, and I really need to know how he is." He didn't mention that he had been sensing for him for the last twelve hours and knew quite well that he wasn't here.
"I don't think that will be a problem. Let me ask your doctor and his own, first, alright?" She was conversational, but he knew she was hiding something from him.
Although his first impression of the lady had been favorable, he'd had seven days of her hospitality in which to grow suspicious. He still had no good explanation for the attack, he had no idea who she was, where he was, or what they had done to Anakin. All of this was making him just a wee bit anxious. For a long time now, he'd been used to feeling Anakin's presence right beside him. Without it, he was experiencing his first real wave of homesickness. And if he were honest with himself, he'd admit that he was getting scared. He relied on his friend to get him out of these kinds of jams. But after a few days of non contact, not sensing his lifeforce, he was beginning to think his friend might be dead. A crushing loneliness had descended upon him, and he could not lift it.
He pointedly ignored her through the rest of the meal, and was relieved when she finally left. He slid the fork from his sleeve, and hoped no one would notice when it didn't return to the kitchen with the rest of the dishes.
After a few minutes of careful metal manipulations, he had fashioned a reasonable facsimile of a decent lockpick. Thank the Maker that this medlab was only a converted storage bay. No one had bothered to replace the antique doorlocks with more modern ones with a keypad. There was no doubt a guard posted to the other side, but he would handle that when he got out there. In the meantime, at least he'd have something to do.
Han was alone now, in the bunk he and his wife shared on these little excursions. She had sent him there, his wife, the little termagant, roughly half an hour ago.
"Need to rest..Hmmph!" He thought to himself, as he rolled uncomfortably onto one side. Sith, these beds were so much more comfortable with Leia in them. How was he to sleep, he wondered? His youngest son was out there, in the hands of ruthless enemies, and he had only the vaguest notion where he was going. Mara said they were in the vicinity of Chad. But where was that, exactly, and what if they had left by now?
He had that sinking feeling, in the pit of his stomach, the one that appeared whenever his wife and kids were in trouble. That feeling which told him, quite logically, that today might be the day their fabulous luck ran out. The med droid had informed him awhile back that he was nursing an ulcer..was it any wonder? The strain of their lifestyle should have killed him ten years ago.
Maybe, when it was all over this time, they would settle down. Yes, that was a good idea. Just pack up the family and go find some backwater planet where they could be alone. How peaceful, how calm. How stupid. Leia wouldn't resign, no matter how he might want her to. And he would be bored to death inside of a month. But still, the idea was comforting, however briefly it had lasted.
She slipped into the room, and everything was suddenly right with the universe.
"We're still a ways from coming out of hyperspace, so I thought I'd come get some sleep too. Scoot over, will you?"
He rolled against the wall, making room. The bunk really was only designed for one, but they'd long since worked out the best ways to share. She snuggled up into his side, burying her head against him. He always felt so strong, she thought, and made her feel so safe, even when she wasn't. He gently stroked her head, and quietly asked her if she could feel Anakin yet. She shook her head, no, she couldn't. He sighed, and wrapped her in his arms, as she wrapped him in hers.
They twined together like one being, and drifted slowly towards sleep.
He followed the beauty as she slipped past him down the hall. He'd seen her before, he vaguely recalled her from somewhere. It was merely a hunch, but he thought he'd seen her before their ship was taken, maybe before he left home. So he followed her. And she and the fates led him straight to Anakin.
Lucas watched her as she entered the make-do detention cell, and bided his time. Anakin was sitting with his captors playing cards. Syndicate pilots and support crew, were, he decided, not bad guys on the whole. Since "waking", they had fed him and given him fresh apparel. In the days since, they had been pleasant enough, for jailers. They were now busy losing money to him, and he half way expected them to let him keep it when they finished.
A vision of loveliness swept into the room, silencing the male vulgarities with her mere presence. She looked at the men, annoyed, and said, "Somehow I don't think that gambling falls under the purview of guardianship."
"Oooh, more big words, your worship. You'll have to talk down to these ruffians if you want to make yourself understood." Anakin winked at her. She'd been in to see him thrice since he got up and about, and he had discovered that she hated him on principle. So he'd taken to baiting her for fun. There was little else to do, in the week that he'd been held.
He had tried using his force senses in order to affect an escape, to no advantage. Whoever their captors were, they had come prepared. Although he had yet to lay eyes on them, there were Ysalamiri aboard, he was sure of it. That, or his force abilities had abandoned him when they were most needed.
The beauty rolled her eyes at him and said to her men, "You two. Get outside, stand guard. No one comes in here without my approval, and that `no one' applies equally to the lot of you." She then daintily pulled up one of their chairs and sat down across the table from him.
He found himself lost in those luminous orbs. She started talking, but he wasn't listening. He was busy thinking to himself about the way the blue flashed purple when she was angry. Would they be purple in passion as well? " so I agreed to let him see you, if"-
That caught his attention, barely. "Jade is okay, he's well enough to receive visitors?"
She wrinkled her very kissable nose at him as the corner of her mouth turned down. That wasn't good. He'd discovered she did that when he displeased her. Yesterday her mouth had turned down, and he'd been served a meal of dehydrated fish from Chad. She had taken great pains to describe her own personal loathing for the foul dish, and he had not found her description of its unpalatable taste wanting. In what way would she express her displeasure today? Traditional Mon Calamari fare? His stomach roiled at the possibilities.
"IF you had listened to a word I've said, you would have heard that ten minutes ago."
"You weren't here ten minutes ago," he mused, studying the contour of her lips.
"Okay, ten secs. Anyway, IF, you'd been paying attention, I wouldn't have to keep repeating myself."
He quit looking at her, it was distracting. Eyeing a power conduit in the room, he quizzed her. "So he's okay, and you're bringing him here. Why? What'll it cost me, and What's in it for you?"
She carefully avoided his questions, explaining again that they meant no real harm to either of them, that it had all been an unfortunate accident, blah, blah, blah, yub, yub. He knew better. Despite a week's worth of protestations of their innocence, he was still under armed guard, and there were ysalamiri aboard. She might think him a fool, and he might not discourage the assumption, but he knew an enemy when he saw one. If it walked like a nerf and squawked like a nerf and looked like a nerf, odds were it was one.
She shifted her gaze, avoiding him. He wasn't looking at her to see it. She berated herself mentally; she could see that he didn't believe anything she had said. "But mother insists that the Other One be brought in here to see him, I can't prevent it!" she thought to herself frantically. Laela was a smart girl, and she knew that her prisoner was planning an escape. She just wasn't privy to its details. Once he knew where his friend was, he would not be afraid to try. "Holl! I should have arranged to have them put onto separate ships in the first place. Mother isn't being logical about any of this." This one hadn't even been demoralized by losing the Force. He didn't even seem to have noticed. She decided then to move the ysalamiri to the room where the other boy was, and then transfer them back here later along with him. Maybe he was the bigger threat. She wanted to unnerve him, before his little reunion. Surely they couldn't do anything without being able to touch the Force, could they?
While she considered her lap, and the rings on her fingers, from across the table, Anakin looked up at her again. Such a pretty thing, she was. And she seemed very young to be involved in something like this. On a whim, and out of boredom, he asked her point blank, "So, has a ransom been arrived at yet?"
Taken aback, she began reiterating the party line on the subject. "Oh, well," he thought, "at least I got her to look worried for a sec." He ignored her speech, and lifted her right hand from her lap, turning it over , palm side up.
Instantly she was alert , and wary, "What are you doing? I have guards right outside the door"-
"Relax, Madam, I am merely going to tell your future." He'd seen a fortune teller do this once before, in an open air market back on Coruscant. He'd read a few books on the subject. At the tender age of eight, it had seemed an easier manner of soothsaying than a jedi trance. He hoped there really was some truth to it; both he and Jade had very long lifelines.
He tsked at her quietly, and skeptically she queried, "What is it that you see, in there? Do I die today?"
"No, it's far worse than that. See here?" He touched deftly along her lifeline. "It is strong, and clear, and goes on forever." He traced over her loveline, "And here, this means you'll marry, oh, at least twice. Some kids, too. Three or four." She scoffed. Then he poked a short scar by her thumb. " But this, this is your truth line. It's only teeny thing, but it clearly shows you're a bad liar. See how transparent the skin is? That's how easily I see through every word out of your pretty little mouth."
She yanked her hand away, and stood up haughtily. " I don't give a wamprat's tail what you believe or don't . Your little boyfriend will be along shortly to verify that you're still above room temperature. Why he cares, I really couldn't say." With that, she swept out as grandly as she had swept in, and he settled back to see what happened next.
As she exited the room, she motioned for one of the guards to escort her. That left one on the door. She curtly informed him that she would send replacements shortly.
"Your fraternization with the prisoner is unacceptable. He is not to be talked to, gambled with, or otherwise engaged, is that understood?" She sneered.
The men were entranced by her. Even angry, she was breathtakingly beautiful. She had them bobbing their heads, and the fellow she had selected for escort looked like an overeager pet waiting to go for a walk. As she berated her men, their attention was centered entirely on her. And as she departed, the remaining guard moved slightly away from the door. It was still ajar, having not slid shut yet. The opportunity was too good to be wasted; he moved again (so as to better watch the lady as she retreated), and Jade slipped through the shadows until he was right up on the door. Dropping to a low crouch, he rolled under it, and into the shadows to the left. The door finally slid shut, and he stood. He stepped out of the shadows, and into the full view of Anakin Solo, who looked none the worse for his ordeal. Stang it, couldn't he at least look a little relieved to see him?
Anakin raised his eyebrow, and cocked a smarmy grin. " So, what took you so long?"
Luke found her in the nearly empty hangar bay, dodging the fire from a remote with her lightsaber. He could see how awfully out of practice she was.
Without announcing himself or his attentions, he switched his own on, and sliced neatly through the remote, before cutting a strike out towards Mara.
She had felt him enter the room, and made careful note of his emotions. There was pain present, so much pain that it invaded her own heart and made her want to weep. But there was no more anger. That he had seemingly released, and she sighed in gratitude. The danger had passed. He would not be driven to the Dark Side by what he had learned. The Force be praised. His heart held no anger, towards herself or anyone else. He was calm, and at peace. The Force flowed with him, through him, and around him. It permeated his thoughts, and his feelings.
She was awed at and baffled by his control. When and from where had he learned it?
She blocked his strike, and took her own. Thrust, and parry. Dodge, strike again. Her hands were guided by the Force, as she challenged him to be her teacher, once again. To guide her, to aid her to find her own hands, as it were, in the combat. He compensated for her crudeness with careful application. She marked his style, and imitated it, feeling relief as her reflexes began to respond to the training she'd had so many years ago. It was good to know it was not all gone with age and disuse.
They wore each other down, and fought together for over an hour. Once he singed her hair, once she nearly made contact with his clothes. Through it all, he watched her face, intently. For much of the time, she dared not blink. Finally, exhaustion overtook her. Sweating, and defeated, she shut her saber off and collapsed onto the floor, unable to continue to meet his gaze. His eyes were searching, probing, even as she felt him at the edges of her mind. She'd not keep him out of her head, but it was more than she could bear to look into those eyes.
His questions beat at her defenses. With every fiber of his soul, he demanded to know WHY? And her heart answered for her.
I had to protect him, I had to keep him safe.
He dug deeper, finding her deepest fears and secret horrors. He saw, through Mara's eyes, the numerous attempts on his family members in the years she had known him. He felt her fear for him, every time he left her sight. He was suddenly aware of her fear of his own death. That was unexpected. He rifled through her memory banks, and finally knew why she pulled away from him, after he gave her the lightsaber, why she fled him on Yavin, why she cut him out of her life so completely after the accident. She was mortally terrified of him dying, of him getting himself killed. So she ran from him, to distance herself from the hurt, when the inevitable eventually happened. Stunned, he realized that this woman was desperately in love with him. She had in fact ALWAYS loved him. He saw, from her viewpoint, the abduction of the Solo children , and the attempts by C'baoth the Mad Jedi to steal Leia's unborn twins. He felt her terror, her numbing, powerless terror. At the bottom of her brain, he found vague memories of her own kidnapping, and knew the choice she had faced. To raise a Skywalker, taking all the chances that came with the name, or to run from him, and hide his child from him. The choice was all the more poignant when he knew that she loved him then, and still did now. He too, sank to the ground, alongside her, his strength waning beneath the emotional toll his ravages took. He felt shame, for his actions. It was unconscionable, to plunder her thoughts that way, even with her consent, which he knew he had. He had been needlessly brutal, in his own frantic hunt for her reasons.
She was hiding her face from him, shocked and appalled, that he knew her secrets, that he knew how she loved him. Of everything, that was the hardest thing for her to allow him to understand. She had kept him out of her thoughts so well, for so long, that she had hoped he was out of her heart. It embarrassed her that he was not. She knew that he was aware of it, and that made it even worse, what she had done. Better he should think her merely selfish, than to know that she felt for him so strongly. It made her weak, it made her subordinate. NO! His thoughts answered. It does NOT make you less in my eyes, that you love me.
For so long, he had loved her as well. But with each rejection, he had grown more callused. Time and time again he had opened his heart to her, only to have her close him out of her own. As time and relationships passed him by, he had felt a part of his soul dry up, and had been afraid the condition was irreversible. It was so good to know that it wasn't.
He felt vindicated, he felt more alive than he had in years. This wonderful, powerful, vibrant woman actually loved him, and had loved him for over a quarter of a century. She had raised his child, lavishing upon him the affection she couldn't bring herself to give to Luke himself.
While his heart cried out at the years he had lost with his family, HIS OWN FAMILY, he could not fault her logic. Could he have kept Lucas safe? He wanted to say yes, but hard experience told him no. At the very least, there would have been attempts made on the Son of Skywalker, attempts to abduct or even to kill him, and who is to say that the Great Jedi Master could have prevented them all from succeeding? This woman, had kept the boy safe and sound for the last sixteen years. Only since coming into his own sphere of influence had the boy encountered danger. Humbly, he wondered if there was a curse on him.
He pulled the weeping woman towards him quietly. He rested his head upon hers, breathing in the scent of her hair, letting his lips make the briefest contact with the top of her head. He wrapped his arms around her, soothingly, comfortingly, as tears slid silently down his cheeks. She raised her face to his, and saw the warmth in his eyes. There was pain to be found there, but no more accusations. I forgive you, Mara. I always have, and I always will. I love you too well not to...
She put her lips to his, telling him the same thing mutely. Their mouths met, and passion rekindled a small smoldering ash that had once lit them both. His hands tangled her hair, her fingers traced his jawline. He bruised her lips. In that moment, she wanted more than anything to know him totally, to unite with him on a physical level as well as a spiritual one. But he pulled back from her, overwhelmed by the feeling between them. It was all too much, he was in sensory overload. But he couldn't stop touching her. His arms snaked around her of their own accord, and he rocked her in his lap, like a child.
Laela was sitting in her father's chair, in her father's office, on her father's fastest ship. And she was steaming mad. In the last hour, she had been going over some information left on her desk. She was still digesting it, and trying to fathom the depth of her mother's betrayal. The gift had been signed, "In honor of your father, who loved you well. From a friend."
It was a datacron detailing the monies spent in the last year and a half, from The Company's discretionary fund. It was unbelievable. Mother was spending more to acquire the trade routes from the Freetrader's Syndicate, than their routes would possibly bring in for several seasons. It made no sense. It was bad business, Daddy would not have approved. Kevander Wixton had amassed a hefty fortune over his long imperial career, selling secrets and supplies to the highest bidder. While his ethics might seem lax to the uninitiated, they were very clear to his only child. Wixten worshipped the almighty Credit, and his highest devotion was to economy and profit.
His lovely wife had squandered nearly half of that fortune in this unfortunate venture. Doubtless his remains were spinning out of orbit round his homeworld. She sighed, and ran a hand through the hair escaping down onto her forehead. She had to think. Something was desperately wrong with her mother's good sense. She wasn't acting rationally!
Something had to be done. Someone had to stop Callista, before she ruined them both. Kidnapping was bad enough, but this went beyond that...This was downright uneconomical.
And that someone had to be her. No one else onboard had the clout. But first, what was she going to do about those boys?
Mara studied the viewscreen as they entered orbit around Chad. For some ridiculous reason, she felt like she should be able to see signs that he was out there, among the multitude of ships orbiting the planet. It was silly, but she found herself staring intently outward nonetheless.
She had been able to sense Lucas until yesterday evening, when suddenly she lost him. Inexplicably, like losing a commlink, that sense of him alive out there had vanished. She had been demoralized enough by the experience to turn to Skywalker for help, and despite hours of trying, they couldn't sense him at all.
But on a more positive note, now they could sense Anakin. So Luke had offered a theory, that raised everyone's spirits.. It was his opinion that the captors controlled one or two ysalamiri, and were perhaps alternating them between prisoners.
Luke's presence intruded on her contemplation, but was not unwelcomed. She felt him as he came into the cockpit of the ship, as he slid up behind her, and she asked him, "Have you ever been here before?"
His eyes narrowed, as cautiously he questioned her , "Why?"
She contemplated whether to share her suspicions with him. If she were wrong- But she was pretty well certain she wasn't. So if she were right, what then? Did she have the right to malign the great love of his life, even then?
Stang it, the woman had kidnapped her child. She could go hang.
"I think we'll be running into an old friend of yours, once we locate the boys."
He knew at once to whom she was referring.
Maybe he'd known it all along, and merely wanted to avoid looking at the idea square in the face. He'd had a feeling that this was a fateful journey, and in more ways than one. It seemed all the myriad threads of his life were trying to tie themselves up here all at once.
And Chad was the homeworld of one of the most tangled knots he'd ever encountered. Callista awaited him out there, somewhere, precipitating an ending to their chapter of his story.
He turned his attention to the ships coming in to port. Sensing them, feeling for the familiar presence aboard them- Then he had it.
"The boys are on that ship..I know it."
Luke's face was hard. Mentally, he was already preparing for battle. Here, suspended in the stratosphere above Chad, amid the traffic of ships, he was gazing at a medium-sized pleasure vehicle innocously orbiting just ahead of them. It had only just become apparent to him that this ship was the prison of his nephew and his son.
His son. That was an idea that still felt foreign to him. His thoughts went back to discussing the prospect of children with Callista. From there, they strayed to the sad day that Malinka, Gaeriel's lovely daughter, became his ward. He saw, in his mind's eye, all the children that had passed through his hands on Yavin, calling him teacher.
Would no one ever call him Father? His heart had yet to rejoice at Mara's revelation. Overall, the feelings within him now were more akin to the heavy heart that came with gaining Malinka, than any of the joys other children had brought into his life. He supposed the joy of newfound Fatherhood would come later, when he'd gotten the boys safely out of this mess.
Han altered their course slightly, and made chitchat with the offending ship.
Said Mara, "We've got to find a way to get aboard that ship."
Luke turned to her just briefly and gave her a smile that was part wry grimace. "So, do we wait for an invitation? Or just head over unannounced?"
" What the- HEY! WHAT KIND OF A PLACE ARE YOU GUYS RUNNING???"
Anakin's voice was filled with disgust, and indignation, as he clambered up the table. Across the room, Lucas overturned some chairs, and then slid quickly behind the door.
The guard entering the room was suspicious, and rightly so. But the look of sheer repugnance worn by the prisoner piqued his interest. He stepped inside.
"What's all the ruckus"? said the man, lazily.
Anakin pointed away from the door, towards the overset furniture. His hand was jittery, and his eyes wide.
"You've got a pridgin' WAMP Rat onboard!! Either it's a wamp rat, or some kind of cousin. At any rate, this ship is crawling with VERMIN".
The guard relaxed..So, the big bad Jedi Knight was afraid of a little ole rat? Wait til he told this to the guys down below...They'd get a kick out of it.
"Hold your vornskrs, Boy, I'll see if it's still here." He smirked at him, and Anakin fought momentarily to stay in character . He also felt a lightness to the room, and was aware that the Ysalamiri outside had been removed. Why had they done that? Jade leapt upon the opportunity. Behind the door, he concentrated on a canister sitting on a shelf in the slightly opened closet , directly in front of one of the downed chairs. He saw it, in his mind, lift up, and come off of the shelf. As he felt the power moving out of him, he heard the noise of metal on tile. It had worked!
"IN THE CLOSET!!! GET IT!!!!! I SAW IT! IT'S IN THE BACK OF THE CLOSET!!!!!! Oh, Hurry UP and KILL it, will you?!"
Atop the table, Anakin was shrieking like a girl, jumping up and down, and hissing at the hapless guard, who had his weapon out now, pointing into the darkened closet.
At that minute, Lucas crept out of the shadows, in time to be right behind the guard as he went into the cabinet. He then shut him up in it, and together, the boys moved the heavy table and bench into place in front of its lock. Within, they heard blaster fire and cursing, very low.
"Nicely soundproof, Anakin, glad you thought of that!" grinned Lucas appreciatively. "
Anakin shook his head, wonderingly. " I sure hope that idiot doesn't shoot himself. I mean, after our inspired decision not to hurt him, it'd be an awful waste. He plays good sabaac. .How long do you think it'll take him to realize the fire is ricocheting in there?"
"Dunno. But Let's not stick around to find out."
"You're sure he's my only guard? There were a bunch, earlier." Anakin sounded dubious.
Jade nodded. " I'm sure. Lady Lovelilocks took the rest away with her. But she's sending backup, so let's not be here when they arrive."
With that, he moved for the door, looking about cautiously. Anakin followed.
Mara Jade entered the strange pleasurecraft under armed guard, accompanied only by her black- robed bodyguard. The pretty blonde girl waiting for her was recognizable as the liaison for the strikers. Mara noted that incongruous fact, while she also pondered the mistakes being made by her adversary. No one had as yet bothered to relieve them of their weapons. Why?
Luke observed the youthful countenances of their guards, and their complacency seemed oddly out of sorts. Two of them were actually bantering, about some unimportant topic, while they led them towards the negotiating table.
Obviously, they were new to the arena of Escorting Prisoners.
Which, Luke feared, was all they were destined to be. How likely was it that whoever had abducted the boys merely wanted to talk a little business, then let them go on their way? Stang it, he should have come up with a plan. He still couldn't believe how they got here.
Mara had just calmly hailed the other ship, and announced her arrival to discuss trade agreements. As if she were expected! And surprisingly enough, the other ship sent an escort to retrieve them, and was leading them demurely along, towards the confrontation that awaited them.
Like ewoks to the slaughter, he thought grimly to himself. The eternal optimist had just taken a decidedly cynical turn.
They were led into a well lighted receiving room, and just beyond, they could make out a table laid out for a formal meal. It all seemed quite proper and above board.
It was also nerve-wracking. This looked like the kind of place Lando would feel quite cozy.not the sort of place he wanted to meet kidnappers in.
It all felt wrong. In Luke's vast experience, the Bad Guys typically acted like Bad Guys, and comported themselves accordingly. They didn't decorate tastefully appointed ships, or employ personable, attractive muscle. They certainly didn't greet their enemies like honored guests.
Those who didn't fit this mold( Karrde and Thrawn came immediately to mind) were infinitely more worrisome.
Mara's keen brain was noting all the same things Skywalker's was, the delicate wallpaper, the expensive linens, the well-mannered "escorts" that called her `Madam'. But she was also taking in other, less obvious clues about the people they were up against. There was an unmistakably feminine influence on the dācor. That led her to think that the mastermind was not male, as she'd previously assumed, but female.
The thought that Callista might be, not only involved in their troubles, but in fact the architect of them, entered her mind for the first time. It came as a surprise.
"Who knew the old girl had it in her?" She mused quietly.
The boys stole quietly along the corridor, keeping to the shadows to avoid notice. It wasn't hard to do, as yet, no one was looking for them. And theship itself seemed terminally understaffed.
"Okay, we've got to find the cargo hold where they put our ship."
Jade's voice was a scratchy whisper at the back of Anakin's head."You've got to be kidding. There's no way they tried to salvage that piece of bantha dung, it's at least a hundred parsecs from us, if they didn't blow it up already."
Which was, he thought, the only right thing to do, aesthetically speaking.
"Look, maybe they've got something worth taking stored down there, even if our own ship is space debris by now."
Anakin responded cynically, "Well, I sure hope you're right about that. Because I don't think our chances would be all that good at highjacking our highjackers."
They must have made several circles, and multiple wrong turns, before they lucked into a commissary pantry.
"Serendipity," said Lucas.
"Fate," corrected Anakin, as they began loading up their pockets with pastries and dried fruits. With his lips around a mouthful of parched meat, Anakin groaned a sigh of contentment. "This..They had food like this, and they fed me THAT STUFF?" Munch, crunch, crackle. " I thought their were rules of war that forbade that sort of treatment these days." Slurp, gurgle.
Jade couldn't really answer him, he was halfway through some luscious exotic fruit, and much too busy to be bothered. After all that gruel and softened meats, it was good to have something you could put teeth into.
They were so busy making like stealthy little urchins that they never saw the Rescue Party being led down the opposite hall.
Luke felt Mara's anger, before he saw the source of it. He was several steps to the rear of her as she entered the dining area, and made eye contact with her nemesis.
"Well, well, well. You look downright prosperous, Callista."
He marvelled at how she could turn a compliment into a slur with the tone of her voice.
"Yes, well, you haven't done too badly for yourself, Ms. Jade."
Callista smiled at her opponent, wearily. There had been much work done to arrive at this point, and now that it was here, she was surprisingly unmoved. The whole scene felt disappointingly anticlimactic.
Mara swept to the side, and pulled off her cloak, casting the garment across the back of a chair before she gracefully sank into it. Luke turned his face to the side, and blended himself into the shadows. He enjoyed the pleasant feel of his lightsaber clinking at his hip, and was reassured by it's presence.
Callista eyed him warily, and Mara smiled blandly across the table. "My bodyguard. A girl can't be too careful these days."
"Of course. With so many attempts on your life and your livelihood recently, I completely understand." Callista's tone was syrupy sweet, and deceptively concerned- sounding.
Mara was dismissive. "Oh, that? Nothing, really." She sighed. "Part and parcel of being a successful businesswoman, really. I'm sure you know what that's like, as successful as you yourself must be. Always the little people, trying to take what's yours. Irksome, really, an annoyance. But nothing serious, nothing we can't handle, eh?" Mara's own voice was equally warm and friendly,with subtle undertones of amusement.
Luke began to wonder if they were both mad. When would they finally GET to the POINT? He wanted to collect the boys, and to get off this ship. In lieu of that right now, he'd be quite willing to settle for an honest fight. What was with all this phony friendliness and posturing?
Callista smiled a sisterly smile, and moved to lean in closer across the table, whispering conspiratorially, "Oh, yes, Mara, I understand all about people who want to take what belongs to you, whether they deserve it or not."
A look of sly contempt in her eyes, but with honey in her voice, Mara replied, "Oh, Callie, I am certain you do." Conversationally then, she went on, "Do you know, I have a blaster trained on your midsection as we speak, right beneath this very table?"
Callista smirked, and said, in an equally pleasant tone, "Do you know, I have three armed guards trained on your boy, right now?"
Mara looked about her in mock surprise. "Oh. I guess that explains the lack of guards in here. Really, Callie, you should be more careful. I mean, letting a Jedi in here, without anyone around to protect you."
She then lifted a cover on the serving tray before her, and wrinkled up her nose at the prepared dish.
"Oh, I see. You were planning to kill me with the cooking!" With a sympathetic look, she inquired, "Really, dear, Is good help so hard to get?"
With a sneer, Wixten spat, "I don't think I'll need protection from you, Jade. Not so long as I hold your baby boy at my mercy."
A look of hate passed across her countenance and was abruptly gone. The smooth mask of unconcern was back in place, her composure with it.
"But enough ugliness and threats. You're here to bargain with me for the return of the boy. It is a simple trade agreement, and I'm sure you know a little about that."
Luke stepped forward, and drew back his hood.
"Callista, where are the children? This is no business arrangement. This is kidnapping. And the boys are members of my own family.How could you DO that to me?" His heart was in his eyes, the pain there so vivid it softened Callista's rage a little. He was right, she had hurt him again. It seemed that all she ever did was hurt him. She sighed, and tried to form some way to explain it all.
In the little closet across the hall from the dining room, two boys were feeling vaguely nauseated.
"Ugh. I don't think we should have eaten those last coupla space pops, Jade. I think that, on top of the buttered nutmeats, it was a bad idea."
The answering rejoinder was a muffled moan. Suddenly from behind them, an amused feminine voice piped up.
"My, this is an interesting way to commit an escape!" Her tone was vaguely mirthful. Her dancing eyes met Solo's embarrassed gaze. "Tell me, were you hoping to literally eat us out of house and home?"
"Look, sister, After the meals we've gotten here, we'd be glad to leave your hospitality. But a cabinet full of REAL food? That was too much of a temptation." He rose to his feet. "What, no guards, no ysalamiri? How do you plan to take us back to our rooms?" He grinned licentiously. "Unless, you had Other Plans for us? Maybe your rooms?"
Laela colored deeply, and became annoyed. " Look here, you. I could report your escape right now, I could have ten guards here in a second"-
"Why don't you?" Jade's voice was challenging. Anakin stood mute, amusement in his gaze.
"I could do that. I really should." An idea came to her mind. The best way to get rid of the problem they presented, might be to just let them leave. After all, she was no soldier. It wasn't her responsibility to keep them prisoner. No one would hold her responsible. And no one need know she saw them, either. If they were gone, maybe mother would lose leverage, and that might end this whole fiasco a lot faster. She looked from one boy to the other, and her mind was made up.
"I could call for guards. I should call for guards. But right now, I think I should go change clothes. Mother's entertaining some influential guests in the dining room, Jedi I think. I haven't time to deal with the likes of you now. See if you can find your way back to your rooms?" With that, she turned and walked up the corridor, away from them.
The boys watched, wary, wondering where the catch was. She had just literally let them go. It was an unparalleled opportunity, and it seemed too good to be true. Not trusting, they just stood there for several minutes. She turned, about fifteen feet away, and her expression grew dark.
"What are you, stupid? Go! Get out of here! Get off this ship if you can! Do you get me?" Still confused, they finallly collected enough sense to get a running start down the other end of the hallway.
Several hundred yards away, they stopped momentarily to get their bearings.
"Do you believe her," wheezed Jade. He was still not completely back to normal, and the short period of confinement without exercise had made him wear out more quickly. More training would help with his endurance, he thought to himself. If they ever got out of here, he was going straight back to Master Skywalker to pick up those skills.
Anakin looked dubious, skepticism in his mind.
"I don't know. Maybe it's all some sort of elaborate joke.
But did you catch that about the Jedi?" Jade nodded. "Uh huh. I don't know. It could be our Rescue, or, it could be a trick."
"Still, I think we have to check it out. What if Uncle Luke came for us? These people have ysalamiri aboard, they could hurt him."
Jade had to agree. They located a computer terminal, and Jade stood watch, while Anakin tried to access a schematic of the ship.
After only a few minutes, Anakin gave a hushed whoop of joy, and Jade knew they had it. The location of the formal dining room, roughly eight feet the other way of the pantry closet on this level.
Jade felt stupid. Of course, the pantry would be close to the kitchen. And the kitchen, close to the dining room. Anakin said, "Back that way." But Jade was already walking.
"Look, you lived your life, died your death, and got to live somebody else's life as well.Isn't that enough? Pray tell me, Callie, what more do you think you're entitled to?" Mara was no longer angry, she was genuinely confused. What WAS the creature moaning about? For the last fifteen minutes she had expounded at length upon why she was determined to have Mara's operation, indeed, why she was ENTITLED to have it. She offered excuses for what she'd done to the boys, rationalizations for the extremes she'd taken. But the woman made no sense! She seemed lucid enough, but her arguments lacked clarity. Was her mind broken?
"Isn't it enough?! You ask! Isn't it enough?!" Her eyes went wild, her hatred like a wave of roiling heat before them, distorting her image. "Isn't it enough? MY GOD, you don't even know what it is that I am!!!!" She threw back her head in deranged laughter and for the briefest moment, she was not Callista but Cray, mad with loss and longing.
She came at Mara with a leap, seizing her unexpectedly with a grip strengthened by madness. "This body, this body I took ONLY for him, to be with him, did you know that?" She was nearly casual about this statement, and seemed suddenly composed. "He is so intriguing, is he not? I mean, even YOU were taken with him, and you were his assassin. You were ordered specifically to kill him." She wiped her face with the other hand, the one holding the blasterpistol. An abrupt look of yearning crossed her face, warring with the hate writ large upon her countenance. She continued then, nearly pleading. "I mean, Isn't it understandable, that I would want him?" Her eyes were distant. "I was so lonely, I had been alone for so long. Then, there he was. Warm, human, loving, and oh so ALIVE. It was enough to tempt a saint."
Or a sinner, thought Mara. Then she lost consciousness as Callista hit her across the head with the pistol.
She shoved the limp body at Luke, and pointed the pistol at him.
She turned her face to him, and he saw a look there that was totally devoid of all reason.
"But the body, there was something wrong with the body."
He interrupted her, his voice soft and soothing, as he laid Mara gently on the ground. " Darling, most people aren't force sensitives, they still lead happy"-
Her laughter was cutting, cruel. She was shaking her head, and waving the pistol. "No No NO, you ignorant FOOL of a man! Do you think that is all that matters in this life? The Force? I can no longer touch either aspect of it, but that is not what I meant." She advanced on him, sneering as she walked. "The body was damaged, Luke. It is not merely that I am powerless, but that something so simple, so basic, yet so important, was denied me."
"The Body Is Barren, Luke! It cannot conceive children. The body I took to be with you, and be your wife, could not perform that function."
She regarded Mara's inert form coldly, then rolled her aside with a foot.
"I could not bear children for you, and I could not bear children for my husband. I was a failure for both of you. Because of you, I have lived with this torment." She backed up into the corner, wiping her wet eyes and struggling to regain some composure. As she did so, Luke reached out to Mara with the force, willing her to awaken. Callista's hatred for her knew no bounds, and it terrified him. He had been shocked how quickly she had put her out of commission.
Unconscious, he had no idea what Callista was capable of doing to her. Her hatred was lethal, regardless of her lost force ability. Mara HAD to wake up, to protect herself, to help him protect her.
And what of Callista? How did he feel about her now? For many years, he had waited for this woman, promised himself she'd return to him.
Suddenly, his love seemed rather questionable. If he had loved her, shouldn't he have gone after her? He recalled the months after his encounter with Mara, when he couldn't find her, his desperate attempts to make contact. If he truly had loved Callista, why had none of those attempts been directed at her? He realized that his feelings for Callista had many qualities of fantasy, of fairy tale. Maybe, in his heart, he preferred to long for a missing paragon, than to seek out the damaged woman who claimed to have loved him.
Maybe he knew all along that his feelings for her weren't genuine. He recalled a glimmer of repugnance when she first assumed the body of Cray. How quickly he had quashed that emotion! After all, it didn't seem very loyal, to profess your undying love for a woman, and then question that decision once she'd made the sacrifice. And such a sacrifice she had made! To be with him, she had literally sold her soul. Neither of them ever really believed for a moment that the action she had taken was anything of the light side of the Force. No, it reeked of the Dark Side, an issue they had danced carefully around for the duration of their doomed relationship.
She hated Mara for the simple, petty, ludicrous reason that she could have children. She hated her for bearing Lucas, the son she was unable to have. And she hated Luke, for tempting her into the body that had betrayed her, left her childless.
And now, she had lost all reason from her hating. Was there nothing he could do for her? He was Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master. He brought Dark Jedi back to the Force. He banished evils centuries old. He survived mayhem and catastrophe and rescued whole planets. Was he to be undone by simple mortal madness? At the edges of his mind, he became aware of Mara. She was waking up. He moved quickly to shield her from Callista's view, to have her pistol jammed into his breastbone. He willed his own blaster pistol to hand, as soldiers carrying two ysalamiri on nutrient frames entered the room at a run.
"Ms.Wixten, they've escaped. They're not in Solo's room, and we found his guard locked in the closet." Then, taking in the scene before them, they began pulling out weapons, and all Sith broke loose.
Aboard the Falcon, Han Solo paced the hallway in front of the gun turret, uttering expletives intermittently. Seated before the viewscreen, impotently watching the silent pleasurecraft before them, was his wife. Worry lines were etched deeply in her face. She'd done this scene so many times, she wondered, would it play out alright again? Kidnapping of the Solo child, Take six, or was it seven?
She desperately wanted to be over there, aboard that great and soundless vessel, with Luke and Mara, finding the boys. She was uncomfortable relying upon their collective diplomatic skills to get them out of this mess. But the enemy's insistence on Mara was tacit. They had only barely been able to get Luke aboard as the "bodyguard".
Han came in, and collapsed beside her into the seat. Gently, reassuringly, she reached over and squeezed his hand. He responded with a gentle pinch that said, "I'm here, and I'm scared to death. You too?"
Not everyone requires the Force make themselves heard. Han Solo was eloquent in his silences, his wife observed.
The boys crept quietly in upon a standoff.
Luke had his blaster to Callista, she had her blaster to Mara, Mara had drawn a lightsaber and was preparing to hack into someone as soon as she made her mind up who that someone might be. The soldiers, obviously unused to such scenes, were still pointing their weapons at the `guests', but as yet had not fired. There were two of them, and as Jade looked at Anakin the implication was clear. One for you, one for me.
They leapt upon the backs of the two soldiers in tandem, causing one to drop his nutrient frame, unsettling his fragile ysalamiri. Already in its sessile state, damage to its wooden trunk proved too much, and the poor thing abruptly and unexpectedly expired.
Meanwhile Jade was hanging from the back of one soldier, feet kicking, nails digging into his adversary's collarbone. Unable to see where he was firing at (since he was aiming for the squirming boy on his back,) the soldier accidentally fired into the doorframe, narrowly missing his prey.
Anakin, noticing the lessening influence of the ysalamiri, tried detaching and levitating his uncle's lightsaber. He succeeded in removing it from his belt, but missed swinging it over into his hand, since the fellow he was currently attached to decided to move to the left at the last moment. The weapon clattered to the floor somewhere behind him, and he forgot it for the moment in his haste to avoid being strangled. He and his rival were locked in mutual strangleholds, it was now down to raw stamina and luck who would black out first.
Callista was firing at Mara, who had dodged but still managed to catch the edge of the discharge, it being such close quarters. She rolled to the floor, away from her nemesis. She crept up on the soldier closest to her, catching his ankle, breaking his knee, inadvertently thwarting his aim so that he mistakenly hit her in the shoulder, rather than hitting Skywalker in the back. As he fell, she clipped him in the shoulder hard enough to cause him to release the boy on his back, and Anakin Solo fell to the floor, nearly unconscious and gasping for breath.
She dragged him toward the sideboard, leaning him against its far side, out of the line of fire. Skywalker was holding tightly to the struggling Callista, attempting to reason with her, to make her call her men off. She was firing wildly around the room, as he grappled with her hand trying to dislodge the firearm.
Suddenly Jade was knocked off the soldier and onto the floor, and the soldier began firing upon the Jedi Master Skywalker, who turned, using his body to try to shield his captive.
Meanwhile, having heard the fire, Laela Wixten was literally racing down the corridor, calling out for backup, running for the dining room. Coming around the corner, she tripped over something cylindrical and went sprawling. She pulled it into her grip instinctively, noting that it was in fact an antique lightsaber, the sort her mother favored. She had little idea how to use one, but she knew how to turn it on.
Which she did, nearly searing off a section of her hair. Holding it at a more respectful distance from her own head, she entered the room, extending it before her like a standard.
Taking in the situation at once, she gave an order to the men to cease fighting, and pointing the lightsaber at Luke Skywalker, she spoke aloud, her voice tremulous.
"You, you there.Skywalker. Let go of my mother."
Having finally succeeded in disarming the woman, he released her, and threw the pistol out the door, behind the girl. He spoke to her, gently.
"We've no wish to hurt her, or anyone else. We came for the boys, we only want to take them and leave." In the corner, Mara Jade was ministering to a battered, bruised Anakin Solo, feeling him for broken bones, assessing his various contusions.
Farther from the remaining ysalamiri than the rest of the party, she began a little judicious Force-healing on her patient. But it was strenuous and taxing, with her own injuries so distracting.
Laela studied the man before her. His eyes were so blue, and soft. He seemed anything in the world except threatening. His hands were extended, open and face up, almost supplicant. On an impulse, she turned off the blade and extended it towards him. Beside him, her mother sobbed, face in her hands. She could expect no guidance from her now.
She addressed them. "Take your people, then, and get off of my ship." She walked forward, and took the weeping woman in her arms, soothing her quietly with her softer tones.
Behind her, Luke Skywalker offered, "I could try to help her, use the Force to"-
She cut him off curtly. " No. The Force abandoned her, it is what did this to her. I somehow don't think that she'd welcome it's intervention now. Just go, all of you, and quickly. I will take care of my mother."
Skywalker gathered up his people. Anakin was slightly injured, Mara more severely so. Only he and the boy Lucas seemed to be unharmed, although young master Jade had a swelling eye that would blacken later if left alone. The boy collected his friend, and helped him out of the room. Luke lifted up Mara, as she began protesting that she was fine, thanks, and could walk to the pridgin' ship without assistance, put me down, you loathsome ewok, etc. ..He merely ignored her, carrying her out over her loudly voiced objections.
Behind them, they could hear the incoherent sobs of the madwoman, and the weary daughter as she summoned her men to fetch the psychiatrist. They left without escort, unmolested, and returned to the Falcon, without difficulty.
They were met at the lock by both Solos, who went to work without question or complaint. There would be time for the explanations later, right now all that mattered was tending to their wounded. Han accepted Mara from Luke, and carried her toward the medbay. Anakin was embarrassed as his mother clucked over him. Lucas followed his own mother at a gallop, frightened for her. He couldn't recall her ever having been sick or hurt before, and he was more than a little bit scared by it.
Luke turned to his son, seeing him truly for the first time. He marveled at the combination that nature had wrought. Those fine green eyes, so like Mara's, and that chin that looked like his own. His own hair, with a touch of Mara's hair colour, his own build, with his sister's hands. When he heard the boy speak, he heard tones of Anakin Skywalker. How had he missed these things before?
"Master, I am so sorry- I didn't mean-"
He smiled at the boy reassuringly. Great Maker, he wanted to hug him. Would that be too forward? Was he too old for that sort of thing? He didn't know.
"It's alright, Lucas. I understand, your mother has explained things to me. I don't hold any of it against you." He tried to calm him, to set his mind at ease.
"Is she- is she here to make me go home?" He swallowed hard, fearing to hope.
"No," Master Skywalker grinned at the boy, reassuringly. "No, she's not here to take you back with her. She seems very pleased with your progress." His gaze upon the boy was almost an embrace, it was so warm. " We both are. What you've just been through, that was an ordeal, I know. It must have been difficult. But you behaved as befits a Jedi, and you have made us all very proud of you."
The boy relaxed, visibly. He'd been so afraid that he'd be sent from Yavin, never allowed to complete his training. He'd been worrying about it every since he first saw Mother in that room with Master Skywalker, fighting the woman who'd held him hostage.
Mara's voice preceded her into the room.
"Luke, have you seen Lucas? I can't find him anywhere, and Anakin said"-
She stopped short, having located her target.
"Oh, I see you've found him."
She eyed Skywalker warily, as she asked, "So, am I interrupting anything?"
Luke whirled around, grimacing. "Mara, I put you to bed for a reason. You've been severely blaster- burned, you need rest. No, you need bacta. But until we can get you to a medcenter, you should at least being lying down." Lucas noted that the Master was genuinely perturbed, and Mother looked surprisingly contrite.
She limped over next to him, pain flashing across her countenance with every step. "It's alright, Skywalker, I feel okay. I took some stims and some painkillers"-
"Mara, you can't run around on stims. I won't let you. If you won't rest for your own sake, will you do it for MINE? You're a liability when you get overtired. I don't need to be watching your back, when you could be watching your own. Remember the vornskr on Myrkyr? Well, we're still in hostile space, and you aren't exactly the most popular woman in the galaxy right now."
"My, but you know how to warm a girl's heart." She sat down on his bunk, drawing the injured leg up into her lap. Luke sank down next to her, and began examing the wound dressing. While he worked, her analytical mind went to work, devising questions for the boy.
"You seem to have not really needed much of our help back there. Tell me, since you had escaped your prisons, and were amuck on the ship, exactly what were your plans when we found you?"
Humph. When THEY found HIM? To Lucas' memory, he and Anakin had done all the finding. Oh well..
" We were hunting for a way off, hoping that they still had our ship aboard." Or a better one. That wouldn't have been hard to accomplish, just about everything in the cargo bay had been more spaceworthy than their ship.
" I see. And what would you boys have done if they hadn't, or if we hadn't been there to give you a lift?"
He shrugged. Why did she always manage to make him feel six years old, and like he just dropped a space pop on the livingroom rug?
He mumbled. "Dunno."
She sighed, and all at once she was the poor, put upon mother of a wayward son again. Luke decided that had to stop, and interjected,
" I think they did pretty well, Mara. At least as well as you and I did when we were that age." He wasn't paying attention, and his hand grazed a burn. Her breath drew inward, and she recoiled in pain. Lucas watched as Master Skywalker flinched with her, sharing it. He was aware of communication between them silently, an exchange of apology and acquittal. For the first time, he felt an outsider here, in his mother's presence. It was an odd sensation.
"Oh, I'm sure they did. I just would prefer that Lucas try to avoid these situations, rather than leaping into them feet first." She sat up a little straighter, and addressed him seriously.
"You know, the safest thing to do back there, would have been to stay in your room and wait for us to rescue you."
By Palpatine, she was serious!!!! Both males regarded her with something akin to horror.
"You can't mean-"
"Mara, they couldn't just-'"
She waved them away, paying no mind to their justifications, and continued, "Lucas, those men actually SHOT at you. Do you know what a blaster can do? I mean really. Have you ever been shot?"
He looked down at his feet, shamefaced, and shook his head no. None of his injuries thus far could he chalk up to violence. Rather, they were the result of carelessness and clumsiness. Despite several firefights, he'd yet to be shot. He'd been very lucky so far.
"This wasn't some kind of game. Those men didn't care about you, Lucas. They were ordered to keep you under lock and key, and once you got out, they were free to kill you if need be. Do you understand that?" She spoke to him sharply. " Well, DO you?"
He nodded, a lump rising in his throat.
"Come here, boy. " She drew back the edge of the wound dressing, and motioned him to look at it. He did as she bid, and his stomach turned over. It stank. There was putrescence to the wound, infection in it. It was fevered, and raw. Her voice was then gentle, as she went on.
"This is just from the edge of some blaster fire. It could have been a lot worse." She turned to Luke , and ordered him, "Take off your shirt."
The boy was appalled. His mother, was giving orders to the Master? He was understandably shocked, and even moreso, when Master Skywalker complied.
Luke saw where she was headed with this. Despite all the boy had been through, she didn't feel he had a proper appreciation of the danger of battle. After all, he lacked the experiences that had helped keep his parents alive in this kind of situation. This was all still a game to him. Lucas Jade had never come home to find his home in ruins, and his family dead. He had never been ordered to take a life, or to risk his own. Life to him was a giant game of sabaac. Mara was going to show him how high the stakes REALLY were.
Master Skywalker stood before them, naked to the waist. Lucas found himself averting his eyes..It didn't seem right, to look upon him, in this vulnerable state. But the Master spoke to him then, his voice commanding.
"This scar is from a blaster rifle." He drew his hand along a section of flesh the consistency of bread dough. "This is from the tail of a vornskr." It was a jagged slim line above his hip.
He continued on in this vein, showing all the badges well-won on the field of honor. With each simple description, the boy looked increasingly ill. Finally, Mara touched Luke on the shoulder, and quietly said, "Your hand." Without argument, he removed his artificial hand.
Lucas' eyes widened, and darkened. In a moment then, he could almost feel the future.He had a sense of his own destiny, and it was an awesome thing. He felt again that strange pull towards Skywalker, some sense of kinship, and something in his soul recognized the cosmic irony of their situation. He silently removed his own hand.
Then all Holl broke loose.
Mara screamed, and fell backwards onto the
bed, cursing at Callista and Skywalker and everyone else
around her. Master Skywalker drew Lucas suddenly and
forcefully into an embrace, and began to weep brokenly.
He could feel dismay and despair emanating from them
both, and was intermingled in the connection between
them. He could catch pieces of their thoughts, both the
ones directed at each other, and the ones they tried to keep
hidden, like fragments of three conversations.
-(damaged) he's not whole anymore, my baby-
-"Rule the galaxy, side by side, as father and son"-
-(Images of a man, all dark, as he cut off the hand of young Skywalker-)
-"You will join me, or die."
- a curse on the SKYWALKERS?
Then he recieved some impression of
what these two people felt for each other,
< images of a cityscape, far below him, and he saw Skywalker's eyes, as he handed Mara Jade his lightsaber>
THE LIGHTSABER SHE STILL POSSESSED..and the one wielded by Skywalker against the man in black, against his own FATHER.
Lucas Jade had an epiphany. With blinding clarity he was aware of his identity, of his paternity. And he suddenly felt like a fool. He drew back, and ran out, leaving his parents behind to console each other.
He was hiding in a cargo hold, munching on stale rationpacs and toying with his lightsaber. His grandfather's lightsaber, he now knew. She'd had it all these years, and never let him hold it. It was odd. She had done so much to wrong him, and here he was, being bitter about her lightsaber. Her lightsaber, for Sith's sake. He supposed it was easier to resent the injustice of the lightsaber, than to begin dealing with the lie about his heritage. It would be a good long while before he was able to come to terms with THAT.
He remembered so much wanting to be allowed to touch it. She kept it in a glass case, alongside a tattered, battle-weary miniature hold out blaster. "My relics," she called them. But in Mara's house, there were many items forbidden a child. Her lightsaber topped the list. Now he resented her years of ownership. "She never had a right to it, it should have always been mine!" he thought dismally.
Learning that Anakin was his cousin was wonderful. And he respected Master Skywalker tremendously; he had always felt drawn to him. But having a "Family" thrust on him so suddenly was an experience both gratifying and terrible at the same time. And they were `such' a family.Practically New Republic Royalty. And here he was, expected to play the long lost prince royal. It was daunting for someone so accustomed to, well, Mara's way of life. He had no experience with politics. And he wanted to be A Jedi.Not "the Master's Son." But the desire to be accepted by them all was nearly overwhelming. For a boy who grew up envying other people's fathers, and other people's siblings, Life as a Skywalker was a Huge temptation. But he had taken in Mara's cynicism along with her milk, and was beset by doubts. How much would it cost him to be that boy, to be the Son of Skywalker? Anything worth having was always costly; he feared the price of that level of fame, and of that family's kind of power. In his fantasies, his father had always been a regular guy. Somebody who liked kids, maybe an honest businessman or trader. Just a "Dad" kind of guy.
Like anyone in his situation, he had asked questions. But Mara always ignored them, or chose to regard them as attacks. "I have been good to you, Lucas. I love you more than anything. You have the best clothes, you have the best tutors. Just exactly WHERE do you think I am failing you?" She never could understand that she was failing him by not giving him his FATHER. Karrde had never let him think the obvious for a second, he loved him too much to do that. But he also loved HER; He kept her secrets. His continual exhortations to "Talk to your mother about this one," had never answered anything.
But learning the truth, finally, had not given him peace, it had only raised new turmoil.
And now, he couldn't go back out there. Not just yet, anyway. It was all too complicated. He wasn't ready to look in her eyes yet, wasn't ready for the wounded look that would come once he confronted her. Nor was he ready to remind Master Skywalker of what had been done to him, to them both. He had sensed what passed between his mother and father, before they came to rescue him. He hesitated to dredge up old ugliness.
Somehow, they had worked through the lies, and seemed to have found each other again. If he showed them how unsettled he really was by all of this, would it drive them apart? His mother had been an unhappy woman his entire life. He realized that now. And he could even understand the reasons she had for what she had done. He honestly wanted her to be happy. Master Skywalker MADE her happy. So his heart told him to do what he could to preserve that happiness which was so dearly bought. But it would be difficult. In his confusion, he alternated between giddiness and despair. In the wake of realization, he had attained a new maturity that Mara could have been proud of, had he been willing to share it with her. But he was not. Where once he had desired her closeness, he now took refuge in her formality. The emotions were too raw, too private, to be shared.
His solitude was uncomfortably interrupted, when Han Solo lifted up the tarp he was hiding under.
"Well, what have we here?"
Annoyed by the sudden intrusion of this man upon solitude deliberately sought, Lucas Jade scowled and turned away from him.
"Oh, so This is why my son has spent the last few months following you around." Han climbed uninvited under the tarp and into Lucas' private space. He seemed somehow massive, making everything seem smaller to the boy, including the boy himself. Han settled himself with a little difficulty. Age had made him less limber, and it was with some difficulty he got his legs crossed and his feet up into his lap, thereby making it possible to pull down the corner of the tarp to cover them.
" I guess Anakin has developed a little of his mother's meddling nature. And he must be more like his sister than I had thought." He smiled slyly and went on, "Jaina was always one for bringing in little hurt animals. Couldn't see anything neglected, or in pain. I guess that's why Anakin stuck by you so long. Must have realized right away that you couldn't look after yourself."
The boy bristled, and opened his mouth to elaborate about all the things he'd done for Anakin, how he'd kept them fed for weeks at a time on nothing more than sabaac winnings. Or how he'd gotten him out of that room on Wixten's ship. But he stopped himself, reading the good natured ribbing in the older man's eyes. No, Anakin wasn't ALL like his mother, he had his fair share of that Han Solo arrogance, in spades.
"Look, I don't really want company right now. And if they sent you for me, tell them I'm okay, I just want to be alone right now."
Han's face softened, and he studied the boy with a look of compassion. It had to be hard, he thought, to take on this kind of a shock. In a way, it would be worse for him, than for Leia and Luke. Their father was dead, and neither knew the truth for long, or could have hoped for a normal relationship with the man. This boy had idolized Luke Skywalker, from what he was told by Anakin. What must that be like, to realize your hero and your long lost absent Dad were one and the same? And could the boy ever hope to have some semblance of a normal relationship with him at this late date? Furthermore, Luke and Leia had both been raised by men who loved them as their own. " What of this boy?" he wondered. Had he known the love of a father?
He reached an arm around him. He didn't have to know how to read minds, sense feelings, or touch the force. The kid was hurting, and Han had some experience with hurt boys. Didn't he have two of his own?
"Listen, no one will make you come out until you're ready. This whole thing stinks, and it's a whole lot to take in all at once." He patted him affectionately on the back, and continued. "Hey, really, we're not all that bad. Why as family members go, we could be pretty handy. We've long experience putting down imperial insurrections, blowing up superweapons, mediating political disputes, locating kidnap victims.Heck, we've even saved an imperiled star system or two. We can all pilot, most of us can use a lightsaber, and I can shoot faster and straighter than anyone you'd ever meet. Sometimes, we can even be fun to have around." Somewhere in that diatribe he realized the boy was crying, not sobbing, but the quiet, wet crying that causes hiccups if it goes on for awhile. He felt momentarily embarrassed for him, then his long experience as a Dad kicked in.
"Ssh..It's okay. Cry if you need to. It might make you feel better." He patted his back, until the shaking subsided, and he knew his nephew was back in control. Then he released him, and pulled his face around so he could look him in the eye.
"Listen, Kid. It's a holl of a legacy, this whole thing. And nobody would blame you for running away from it, least of all that kind old man out there that you've been worshipping as The Great Jedi Master. But let me tell you something about him. He's my best friend. He and I, we've saved each other's butt so many times we quit keeping score. He's not omnipotent, he's not all-powerful. He's just another regular guy, but he's got this great gift."
Han's eyes clouded up and he looked lost in thought, very far away, as he went on. "But that gift came at a big price. He's lost a lot. Some of it he gave up willingly, but much of it was taken from him. He lost his mother, his sister, then his aunt and uncle. He lost his teacher. He found his father only to lose him again. Helost the woman he thought he loved. He lost friends, students, and for a time he even lost himself." His gaze sharpened and he met Lucas' blank stare with pain in his heart. "He is one of the finest men I know, my buddy Luke Skywalker. And he'd have made you a damn fine father, if he'd been given the chance." The look in his eyes turned warmly pleading, and he said softly to the boy, "He still can, if you'll let him."
With that, he scooted over to the edge of the tarp, and eased himself into a standing position. "When you're ready, we'll be in the rec area. Anakin is looking for you, I think he wants to play that holographic game thing he likes so well." He turned back towards Lucas, and the grin was back. "Oh, and by the way? If you're going to pig out to feel better, for Sith's sake, kid, have something worth eating. Those rationpacs will kill you. And would you really want to die with THAT in your stomach?"
Han Solo headed back out, humming under his breath, with his hands in his pockets. He was, thought Lucas, an excellent imitation of a man without a care in the Galaxy.
"Mara, I want to talk to you."
Mara Jade had felt the other woman's desire to speak every since she walked into the room. She was surprised, actually. Several minutes ago she had decided Leia was going to take the easy way out and ride home pretending that she and Lucas didn't exist. Calmly, coolly, swung her glance up at Leia. Formally she addressed her.
It was in her whole attitude. Polite, restrained, servility. Momentarily Leia expected to hear, "How may I be of service?" She shook it off. There were words to be said between them as women, and too much formality would make this exchange even more uncomfortable.
"Please, sit down. I'm afraid this is going to be an awkward conversation, thus we should take our comforts where we can." Leia gave her a tight smile,motioning with her hand to one of the chairs on deck.
"We will not be disturbed."
Gracefully, Mara took a seat opposite her. Then, she thought better of it, and moved into the seat beside Leia's own. "Well, madam President? COS?" She shook her head. "I never have figured out what title you're supposed to have. Tell me, are you still a Princess, or is that merely an honorific now?"
Pain quickly colored Leia's face white. "It's merely honorific, and I prefer the use of my own name."
Mara felt a stab of shame. That was a cheap shot, she told herself, throwing Alderaan into her face. Beneath you, Mara. " I'm sorry, that was not very diplomatic of me, was it?" She glanced down, at her hands in her lap, then looked back up at Leia, her face more readable. "What I was heading into, before I made that unfortunate remark, was a question. But I'm not entirely sure just what the question was." She shrugged. "I guess I want to know what it is you want, what is the purpose of this little tete a tete."
Leia was accustomed to dealing with awkward situations full of opportunity for misstep. She was a diplomat, for Sith's sake! But her own emotions were running hard and high, it was all she could do not to simply dump all of her anger out onto Mara. But that would defeat the purpose. She was here for a reason, she was here at the request of her brother. "Make your peace with her, Leia." He had commanded. So here she was.
She rid herself of her usual mien, shedding the proper princess she so carefully cultivated like an ill- seasoned skin. If this was to work, she would have to be open with Mara, so that Mara could be open with her.
"I am here at Luke's behest." There, she'd said that much. Good to get that out of the way initially. "He wants us to bury the blaster, so to speak. So I think we need to get it all out into the open, how we feel about each other, and move past it."
Mara's voice and expressions were baby bland, but her words had a caustic ring nonetheless. " Oh, so it's to be a little group therapy, then some female bonding. Lovely."
Leia's own expression twisted, and colored. "I want to accept your place in my brother's life, and the role of your son in it. I want to, and I will. But you have to meet me halfway, Mara." Again, her features contorted as she strained to express herself. "It's hard for me, you understand. I cannot seem to get past how you kept this from him. I know that he forgives you, but I -"
Mara brought her up short. "But you can't. You think he's a fool, or that I've done something, cast some spell on him. You think he should be furious, outraged, just like you are. And you don't understand why he's not." She looked at Leia without rancor. "Am I right?" Leia nodded.
"You'd like to throw me out of his life, wouldn't you?"
And in her head she heard Leia's whole soul answer "Yes."
"Well, I won't go. Not you, not he, not even I, can exclude me now. Too much has happened. I turned my back on him years ago, and have regretted that decision on more than one occasion." She shrugged, then went on. "But now, it's not my decision. My son is in his life, and where Lucas is, I will be. I have found that my son is the most important person in my life, and I will not lose him again."
"What about my Brother?" Leia spit the question at her. "Where exactly does he figure in on your list of priorities? So you think I will just stand by, and let you wreck his"- She stopped herself, and put her head into her hands.
Luke loved his sister, and Mara knew that he wanted them to be at odds no more. For him, she could do this, she could make this sacrifice.Softly, she begged entrance to Leia's mind. She gave her images, and feelings.
It was a bizarre sensation, offering her thoughts to this other woman. It seemed crude, it lacked the finesse and delicacy of her exchanges with Luke. But she knew the source of Leia's fear.Leia had been the only woman in her brother's life, and somewhere she cherished the notion that she was the only true LOVE in his life. That this filial devotion was the only sort of union which could not besmirch the purity of the great Jedi Master.No other woman had ever really challenged her place in his life before.
Mara not only rivaled her for his heart. Leia feared also that she would have some unpleasant effects in his character. As they exchanged their feelings, mind to mind, Mara became aware that Leia feared her very carnality. And that emotion was all mixed up with her distaste for the Empire, and even with her discomfort with the idea of Luke as a sexual creature. No, in Leia's mind, Luke was chaste and virtuous, Mara was a temptress and a siren.
For her part, Mara shared with Leia her attachment for Luke. She gave her images of the struggle she felt within her even as she was being compelled to kill him. She shared her sadness raising the child she bore alone. She shared her hurt and disappointment at being distrusted by the New Republic Government, time and time again, in spite of her contributions. She even gave her memories of her upbringing and training in the imperial palace, horridly personal memories of the Emperor.
For hours, they explored each other's pasts, in words, as well as emotions and thoughts. And if they ended their sojourn not as friends, then at least they were no longer enemies.
The night broke for each woman with a better understanding of who the other was, and why Luke loved her. It was an enlightening experience.
They would never be close. The best they could hope for was to maintain a very formal and distant respect for each other. But it would be enough.
They were coming in on the planet of Coruscant. One could barely make out the land masses through the heavy layer of industrial fog. But Lucas was at the viewscreen, entranced. He'd never been to the Capitol before. It wasn't quite as he had envisioned it, but then what was?
As they lowered through the cloud layers, he began to make out wonderful examples of architectural styles he vaguely recalled from his tutors and his classes. Beautiful slopes and arches, fine lines and sharp mathematical angles danced for him. They had never seemed to be so impressive in a holotext, he realized.
His father came to stand next to him. That idea was beginning to sink in, that he had a father. That he had a family. It was growing on him.
Luke took in the view. He often found himself breathless, looking on that horizon. He put a hand on the boy's shoulder, tentatively. The possessive gesture felt good, but still new and unsure. He made his voice steady, and he spoke. " When we get settled into my rooms in the palace, Your mother and I will want to take you somewhere. The best view to be had in all of Coruscant proper." He grinned, and his mind was somewhere else for a minute. Then he thought for a moment, and called out to his sister. "Leia, eh, when exactly was the last time I was on Coruscant? Before all this?"
She came in behind them, smiling. "Oh, it's been quite a few years. But don't worry, we keep your suite up." Smiling invitingly at the boy, she continued. "And I've sent word ahead to have the rest of that wing vacated and prepped for arrival. I don't want your family to be cramped."
She said the sentence quite well, really, even though she tripped a little on the word family. She didn't berate herself for it, though. She was getting much better.
Lucas studied his aunt. She was trying to be welcoming, but right now, it was mostly acting, on both their parts. He assumed that would ease in time. He did wonder, however, how his relationship with the twins might be changed. Jacen Solo didn't really like him, and he didn't get the feeling that sudden kinship was going to change that much.
In the pilot's seat, Han Solo was busy exchanging pertinent clearances with ground control, and making slight adjustments to his flight pattern. Then a transmission came over, and he was greeted by the sight of a pleasantly familiar face and the sound of a strong, welcoming voice.
" Han Solo, You Old Pirate! Karrde and I were just mounting an expedition to go looking for you! Everything all right, Leia and the kids okay?"
Han Solo grinned ear to ear. "Yeah, Lando, everybody's fine, we got the boys back, and we're all okay." The gladness in his voice was genuine, his smile reached all the way up into a twinkle in his eyes. " Say, what're you doing with Talon Karrde, anyway?"
In light of recent events, this lethargy was understandable, she thought to herself, as she stretched out on the empty bed. The irony of it being SKYWALKER's bed did not escape her. Seventeen years ago, there had been no bed. Only an empty cargo hold in a damaged ship, and a magical moment with the only man she could ever love.It was a damn shame that, a good portion of the time, she couldn't tolerate his company.
Mara rose from the bed, and walked down a short hallway. She entered the living room of Skywalker's Coruscant apartment with a knot in the pit of her stomach. Kaarde needed to know. She wasn't coming back with him, and that was going to be hard to explain. How to make him understand ? She MUST remain.
Lucas wasn't going home . He was going to be a Jedi, like his father, like his mother. And a long neglected part of her soul cried out to be a part of that. For so very long, she had denied herself the simple joy of being his mother. A distance had grown up between them. Maybe the great Jedi master was right, for once. She had never permitted herself closeness with anyone, not even their son.
Talon Karrde was going over the data transmitted while he was gone. Wixtencorp had taken full advantage of the confusion, and he wasn't sure how many clients they had lost. Several of their best pilots had defected, some taking very highly modified ships with them. Karrde was really going to miss those ships. You could probably train a replacement pilot a lot faster than you could replace some of those old "retired" (restricted) replacement parts. If their business survived this whole debacle, he would regard it as Force ordained. He himself wasn't too worried, as a retired senior partner, but he feared what this would do to Mara. . She had constructed this business herself, almost from the ground up. It was her name out there, and her reputation that suffered. Oh, her personal finances would be alright. Mara was a smart girl, and she covered every contingency. But losing her life's work was going to be a devastating blow to her personal pride.
He hadn't noticed her come on board his ship. She was watching him silently from the doorway, taking in each detail of his face. She had a premonition then, that she would never see this man again. And it hurt her to the core.
" I need to talk a minute, Karrde."
She looked lovely. For the first time in all the years he had known her, she really looked happy. Maybe Skywalker really did make her happy.
She had the look of a much younger woman, truly, the look of a girl. The look of a girl in first love. He wondered if she knew it herself yet, and decided probably not. Despite her honesty with other people, Mara had a bad habit of lying to herself. In a moment of sudden clarity he decided . If she would not leave the nest on her own, he would shove her out. This little birdie would fly, he laughed to himself, because she was far too tidy to go "splat".
"Before you start, I want to fill you in on these figures. We're broke, darling. Or at least the business is."
Her luminous green eyes widened, and with a deceptively calm voice she responded,
" How much have we lost?"
He shuffled the papers, affecting impotent confusion.
" I don't really know. All I can tell you is that we lost the entire Corellian sector, and they wiped out some of the more lucrative rimroutes too. Jaxlar has appropriated the Mon Calamari trades, and it looks like 75 % of our pilots walked off the job. All in all, I would say we are in a fine mess."
Mara shook her head. She wished that Sith spawned wretch had never crawled out of the afterlife. All her work, destroyed. All Karrde's money, gone.
And Callista had even fixed it so she couldn't stay here right now. There was no way she could unload her responsibilities on someone else with things the way they stood. Karrde had been too good to her. She wouldn't let this bankrupt him.
" I'll get to work immediately. Maybe we can sway the the Mon Calamari with a better counter offer." She reached for the stack of printouts and the datapad in front of him, but he stopped her.
" No, Mara. I don't think that is a very good idea." His voice was soft and soothing, but when she looked at him he could read the confusion in her eyes.
" Karrde, I-"
" No, Mara, I think we are just going to give up gracefully." He smiled up at her, paternal and affectionate.
"I am an old man, Mara. I think its time that I find a nice planet somewhere full of lovely young women, fine wines, and colorful sunsets. I haven't the money nor the energy to start over again. I want to relax a little," He grinned lecherously," I think that I've earned it."
" But how can you afford-"
He cut her off sharply.
"I have numerous diversified investments." He waved his hand as if to wave away her concern, " It is always sound advice not to put all your contraband in one hold. Although the Syndicate has lost money, my other investments, while small, have managed steady rates of return. They are also impervious to jealous rivals, union problems, and competing smuggling rings." He said the last with a phony air of smugness intended to make her laugh.