Kyp Durron sat up, almost bumping his head on the bunk above. Grinding pain in his arm slowed him, warned him to move carefully. Gingerly he swung his legs over the side of the narrow bed, feet sliding along the floor. The sliding feet, tentative in the throes of first consciousness, brought him to the door.
Kam, sitting carelessly at the only table, turning a stripped damper shield component over and over his large hands, glanced up. A genuine smile fought its way to the light. "Good, you're conscious. We were starting to worry...."
"Where are we?" Kyp asked, looking confused. His face was haggard, still a little gray from fighting the burn. A makeshift sling was supposed to hold his wounded arm motionless, but every little balancing movement jiggled it, sending painful needles up through his shoulder. He winced.
"Hyperspace," Kam said, equably, not at all put off by the other's pain. "We got away."
"I don't remember ever reaching the ship..." Kyp said, his brow furrowing.
"That's because you're such a genius when it comes to getting hit by blaster fire. You took a glancing blow."
Kyp pulled himself away from the metal threshold and made his way, like an elderly man, to the table. There he sat down, awkward and rather too quickly, in a small chair. "Feels like I took a direct hit," he muttered, grimacing. Kam nodded as his voice grew stronger. "All I remember is the Master carrying me along a corridor, after that..."
Kam's face was very quiet. "You're fine, Kyp. The Master's here, along with Mara, of course."
Kyp turned slowly, favoring his arm, lest he hit the edge of the table. A palatable expression of relief settled on his face. "Good, then we made it through the outer defenses."
Kam's face darkened at that. "Well, not exactly. We got nicked by laser fire just as we jumped. It's okay right now, but eventually it's gonna eat up the hyperdrive."
Kyp gave his friend and fellow Jedi a hard look. "You mean we're going to have to stop somewhere for repairs."
Kam smiled, a mirthless expression. "That's the size of it. Unless," he put in, the smile flashing a little, "you've got another hyperdrive assemblage sitting around here somewhere?"
Kyp made a disgusted face. "That's not funny, Kam."
Kam stood, his movements swift with repressed feeling, shadowed in the room's bright light. His voice echoed off the durasteel walls, falling flat. "You're right, Kyp, it's not funny." Worry fell over the large Jedi's face as he moved away from the table. A small blue light pulsated on the replicator, signaling a state of readiness. The engines clicked, failing in slow motion. Kam spoke again. "Come to think of it, things hasn't been too good for quite a while now...."
Kyp, preoccupied with pain, glanced up to see Kam had paced to the far side of the little common room, and was now facing him, complete seriousness on his broad features. "What do you mean by that?" he asked, as a wave of dizziness temporarily curtained his consciousness. He swayed slightly.
Kam did not hesitate. "I've had time to think, Kyp." A defensive note here. "I've been thinking about Tionne."
Kyp fought to keep the room still, his eyes narrowing. This was unexpected. "What about her?"
Kam held silent for a moment, a play of indecision on his face. Kyp let the silence go, knowing his friend would speak only when he was ready. Kam made a decision, took a breath and plunged in. "She's been using you... all of us.
Kyp smiled, patronizing in disbelief. "That's ridiculous, Kam. How could she? She's not a Force adept, remember? Besides, she's very loyal to the Master.
Kam, becoming agitated, approached swiftly. "Kyp, she intercepted a message from Callie almost six months ago, don't you remember?"
Kyp's eyes flicked away as fear fell into his heart. "No," he managed. A small hesitation, unusual for him, crept into his voice. "I didn't know, at the time, that Callie sent a message," he said, his words hanging uncertain and ragged in the middle of the room. Fighting, somehow, to ground them, he took a breath. "Besides, if Tia had received some kind of message-"
Kam interrupted. "I didn't say 'received,' Kyp, I said 'intercepted.' Why won't you admit you never knew about that message?"
Kyp, having no choice but to retreat, decided on another tack. "But you did," he said, raising his eyes.
Kam returned to the table and sat again, slumping in the chair. "I was there when it came in, at the comm on Yavin. It wasn't even encoded." He closed his eyes. "Callie's on the Rim somewhere."
Kyp looked thoughtful. "Is that where we're going? Maybe that's the problem. Maybe Callie's in trouble...."
"No, you don't understand," Kam said, exasperated with Kyp's willful obstinacy. "Tionne never delivered the message, at least," he swallowed, giving Kyp a hard look, "Not until the night the Master tried to murder her."
Kyp's face paled. "He did not! He couldn't... she was dreaming..." The stammered words were defensive, fighting the shade that seemed to fall over his eyes. "It was a misunderstanding, something else, something in the Force. She... she just got in the way..."
"Maybe, maybe not," a tired voice put in, startling them. Both sets of eyes flashed as they looked up to see Luke, standing at the hatchway to the cockpit, dressed in a stained flight suit. He gave his graduates a long, assessing look, an expression that was as much introspective as observing. He closed and opened his eyes slowly, as if awakening from a drugged sleep. When he spoke again, the sound of his own voice sounded foreign, as if filtered through a recording device and played back. A small gesture of resignation fought its way through to his right hand. "I felt something for her, Kyp," he said. "She felt something for me. And we both knew it wasn't right."
Kyp Durron, caught completely off balance by this simple admission, attempted to stand. In the process, he knocked his injured arm against the table. The resulting wave of pain made him sit back down. "What are you talking about?" he mouthed, his voice soft with gaping astonishment, and perhaps, a creeping anger.
Luke smiled, his face, still worn and pale, holding regret, and maybe, sorrow. He put his weight on both feet and approached. With deliberation, as if each motion was a set of movements to be precisely followed, he sat. Hands folded against the cool, hard surface of the table, he dropped his gaze into workstained fingers. "She's hard to ignore, Kyp. You know that," he said, quietly, as if he had thought the words a thousand times over, so that they had attained reality despite remaining unsaid. "She's beautiful, talented, smart, loyal and she was in love with me. Or at least, she thought she was. That's hard to resist."
Kyp made no reply, only stared wide eyed, holding to a stalling speechlessness as the Master merely sat there, gazing into his fingers. Luke finally glanced up and smiled wryly at Kyp's expression but then allowed his face to fade into a look of resignation.
"I tried to kill her, Kyp." He put up a hand at the other's attempted protest, shaking his head. "No, let me continue," he said, his voice taking on a commanding tone. Immediately, the others held quiet, chastised children caught talking out of turn. "She'd already come to me once, even told me what Callie's message was, although I didn't realize it at the time." He gave his best student a meaningful look. "I know you're in love with her, I remember what you said." The hands clenched as the words turned brutal. "But still, it wasn't just because of you that I kept her around...."
Kyp's eyes began to flicker. He blinked like someone who has been called to consciousness after a dreaming sleep. He stood. The pain in his arm faded into nothingness as a new darkness rushed in, black water over surefooted, dry land. A question formed in his mind. Unthinking, off guard, he voiced it. "What are you saying?"
"She offered herself to me," Luke replied steadily, looking away, unable to bear the betrayal on Kyp's face. "I almost took her up on it."
Kam was rigid in his seat, held straight in amazement. Kyp had the beginnings of a surprised jealousy on his face, mixed with a mighty effort to remember who was addressing him. Plundering silence followed, raking through the air between them.
He stumbled backward, his boots sliding ungracefully as he jolted away from the table. "But... but..." he began, stuttering in anger, finally abandoning all effort at control. "She loved me, even you said..." Turning, he stumbled slightly, momentarily wanting only to be away from the hunched, isolated figure held in the crystal stillness of regret. A swift, raging light passed through his body, almost physically throwing him back. Kam grimaced as he too felt it. Luke knew, but only pained eyes betrayed the knowledge.
Kyp, retracing Kam's footsteps, stopped at the replicator console on the far wall and stared uncomprehendingly at the blue readiness light, but only a small part of his mind registered it. The engines clicked again, a warning. "I trusted you!" he whispered, the words hissed and venomous. His voice strengthened as it fell into the Force, his anger suddenly alive, a hard reality held within the common room. The words were embittered. "I trusted the Master to help me, to help Tionne see that I was the one for her. That together we could have force-strong children... She never thought so, but I knew, I knew we could..."
Kam dropped his head into his hands as Kyp spoke, knowing that the pitiful confession had escaped straight from the heart. Ugly, vulnerable and pale, the words flew free of their locked prison, away from the secret place where unspoken desires and wishes are hidden. Luke bowed his head, but otherwise did not move.
A choking speechlessness overtook Kyp, causing him to breathe hard, dizzy again. Too agitated to worry about passing out he stood straight and gave the master a cutting gaze. "How do I know," he began, his voice now ferocious with undiluted anger, "how do I know that you're not lying to me now?" He hesitated, but his mood was a hurricane, gigantic and overwhelming. "How do I know that you and she didn't..." His voice stopped, just on the verge of more hurting words, as if pulled from his chest, a hunter garroting a rabbit. Something stopped him and he struggled to speak. Mouth open, breath drawn, his voice cut out as he choked and in a startled gesture, like someone who is dumb, he drew his uninjured hand up to his throat.
Kam, hearing Kyp's voice cut off, looked up to see Luke holding a hand toward Kyp in a defensive gesture, a stony expression on his face. A wave of panic blinded him as he fought for words, for breath. "Master!" he whispered, horrified.
Luke did not look at him nor make any change in his position. "Don't interfere, Kam..." he said, too evenly, a low, mean note lacing his voice like poison laces innocent water.
Kam stood quickly, his heart racing, his chair clattering as it fell backwards onto the shiny deck. "Master, please!" he pleaded, looking for something, anything to cut the dark Force that held Kyp motionless and dying. "Don't hurt him, he didn't know, none of us did..." Kam's voice faded, his face strained with weariness and heartbreak. He tried to move toward the deadly space between Luke and Kyp, but something held him rooted where he stood, awkward and unsure beside a worn, metal table.
A stretched moment passed, all three perfectly still. Kyp, his hand on his throat, his face contorted with rage, betrayal and a pulsing will to live. Luke, cold, emotionless, his hand outstretched, eyes now full blue and piercing. And Kam, a silent, helpless witness, watching two friends destroy each other.
"You have a Force War on my ship and I'll be extremely upset," a clear, cold voice intoned from the hatchway to the cockpit. All three glanced over to see Mara standing, arms crossed, her head held high, green eyes snapping in anger. "I'm the captain, here, " she continued, not at all concerned that the three Jedi could conceivably overpower her. "And one of the rules is no one dies without a fair trial."
Suddenly, as if an invisible rope were unloosed, Kyp collapsed, took a horrible, rasped breath and began to cough. Luke's hand fell to the table. The cold expression was replaced by a fleeting bewilderment and then something like fear. He slumped in the chair.
Kam suddenly freed from a dark dream, turned and smiled in relief. "Mara!" he said brightly.
She gave him a mean look. "Don't try to soft-talk me, Jedi Salusar," she said quickly, coming to stand over the table, her movements feline, graceful and dangerous.
Kam, rebuked, righted his chair and sat. Kyp, on his knees, retched miserably and pulled himself to unsteady feet. Slowly, with no offer of help, he made his way back to the chair, right next to the man who, only moments before, had tried to kill him. Luke, once again calm and benign, leaned forward and folded his hands.
"Sorry, Mara." This, surprisingly, was Luke.
"Sorry's not gonna feed the gondark," she said tightly, her temper just barely in check. "We're limping through space with a pasted together hyperdrive, we've got a warrant on our heads, with very good holos, sent to every jurisdiction between here and Wild Space, and we're being attacked by something we can't figure out." A chagrined silence followed this statement. "I think we need to start working together and not get involved," here her voice fell, positively dripping with contempt, "in a fight over a woman."
Luke, as the one who had the most to atone for, spoke first. "You're right, Mara," he said, his voice still low, although now his tone was almost normal. "We've got to stop fighting among ourselves." Kam nodded, Kyp merely rubbed his throat with his free hand, swallowing.
Mara gave each of them a tight look and then cast her gaze over their heads. "We've not been ourselves lately, boys," she said, her words light but the tone serious. "Besides," she continued to the general silence, "I think we're going about this in the wrong way."
"How so?" Kam's face was puzzled.
"Well, first of all, you," here she spat a nasty glance at all three, "have to disabuse yourselves of the convenient notion that you're in charge here." Her eyes held a fleeting glimpse at a privately held contempt and she struggled for self- control. "That hasn't been true for a while now. It's time to figure out what's really going on."
Kyp stopped rubbing his throat and gave her a sly, sideways glance. "I don't think Tionne's the real problem, anyway," he said, his voice still rough but hopeful.
Mara could feel her fingers reach involuntarily for something to strangle him with. "Tionne's never been the problem," she retorted, her anger again manifest. "It was you from the beginning, Kyp," she said, biting off the ends of the words as if they were poisonous snake heads. She leaned forward. "Some, Jedi you are!" she hissed. "You and the Master," she gave Luke a quick, spiteful glance, "took it upon yourselves to manipulate Tionne into falling in love with whomever you thought was suitable." She leaned back, in something like triumph, but her face was lined with exasperation. "If she used you, you certainly deserved it. Maybe the 'net's right, after all. Maybe it's just a big holo-opera on Yavin these days."
Kyp flashed the woman a daggered look but she refused to back down.
"Don't blame Mara for speaking the truth," Luke said quickly, before Kyp could retort. "She's right, we're not asking the right questions. As for blame," he returned Mara's spiteful glance with a flickering one of his own, "we don't have time for that right now. What I want to know is, how Tionne managed to hide all this."
Kyp's brow furrowed. "Hide what?"
Luke's face began to rebuild its habitual serenity. His voice took on a projected quality as he ignored Kyp. "She was even able to make you forget, Kam, that you were there when the message came through."
It was Kam's turn to be puzzled. "I guess that's true..."
Mara, felt her pulse fade as her anger began to quiet. "I know that Tionne has little or no Force talent," she said with a kind of clinical preciseness. "I don't think, however," here she gave Luke a penetrating look, "that this made her any less. She's a good administrator and, most of the time, a good friend."
Luke nodded, in full agreement. She wasn't sure, but she thought she saw a reluctance fade through his eyes, and maybe acceptance.
Mara smiled tightly, seeing retribution in her next words. "But suddenly she develops the talent to hide thoughts, feelings and events from everyone at the Academy, including the Master, with whom she works closely, very closely, according to rumor..."
Luke, caught off guard, reacted. "Now, wait a minute! I only said I was tempted..."
Mara smiled, a vicious expression. "Yeah, but you enjoyed it," she interrupted with the careless brutality born of long acquaintanceship. "This has been going on for a while, hasn't it?"
Kyp was staring steadily at Luke, as if he hadn't really seen his teacher in a long time. A slow realization, mixed with anger, and perhaps, disappointment, began to spread across his features. An averted, embarrassed silence followed tailed by an unmistakable wafting air of shame.
"We did the wrong thing, Kyp," Luke said finally, the words an epitaph. A computer buzzer pinged, went off and the engine noise, soft and humming almost below the range of hearing, shifted into a higher range.
In the blink of an eye something snapped and Kyp bowed his head, contrite. "I know," he said, admitting, ever so slightly, to his compulsion. "It's just that I love her so much.... I couldn't bear the thought that she'd leave, maybe never come back. Or maybe she'd find somebody else...."
Mara gave Kyp a hard look. "It's better to talk about these things, Jedi," she said, now only sardonic, "than manipulate your way through them. You should have made your feelings known." She shifted her gaze away from the young man to meet Luke's eyes. "Of course," she said, directly to him, "the fact that you had the Master's approval didn't help any."
Luke sighed and took charge. "We're all guilty, including, I think," here he hesitated, "Tionne." He lifted his gaze again, giving Mara an accusing glance. "But what's really strange about this is that she shouldn't have been able to do this sort of thing in the first place. She took the intermediate exam almost every year, remember?" he continued, giving Kyp a meaningful look. "She never came near to passing it. Even when you helped."
Kyp ducked his head, sensing the first genuine smile of the conversation. "I never...." he began but thought the better of it and gave up. "Okay, I helped her once," he admitted, not at all repentant. "She didn't speak to me for a month."
"Well, at least somebody has some integrity on Yavin," Mara said, lifting her head and pulling a dirty hand through her hair. Kam's eyes flashed and Kyp winced but Luke remained quiet and serious. Mara gave him another unforgiving glance. "Skywalker's right, folks. Tionne never should've been able to pull this off. This has been going on for six months."
Something triggered in Kyp's memory. A flash of Han's worried face surrounded by a quiet kitchen and a warmed, pottery cup. He shifted in his seat and came very near to jostling his arm again. He spoke up, his voice stronger. "Han told me Leia's been attacked through the Force several times in the past six months or so. Until the same happened to you," he continued, inclining his head toward Luke, "they suspected you....."
Mara grinned, her voice portending only just deserts. "Good family relations, the hallmark of the Jedi," she said.
Luke shook his head. "I didn't know, but it doesn't surprise me. It explains a great deal about how she's been treating me lately..."
Mara sighed and sneaking despair wandered into her heart as she wondered why no one could get to the point. "I didn't know either," she put in swiftly, pulling them all back to the subject at hand. "But that makes me even more concerned. There's something out there, something very powerful, powerful enough to attack Leia through the Force, powerful enough to give Tionne Force skills she'd never had before, powerful enough to...."
A fleeting vision of color and pain washed through Luke's mind as he held up a hand, stopping her. "Then, we've got to track it down," he said, his face momentarily unforgiving and imperious.
She sighed and stumbled back to the practical. "That takes us back to the hyperdrive...."
Kyp looked up. "Where're we stopping?"
Mara gave him a straight look. "Kraseevits Resort and Casino, in the Krasny system."
Much to Luke's surprise, Kyp smiled, a fleeting but good natured expression. "Oh, you mean the honeymoon place." An outright grin was followed by swift, sure words. "We'll fit in much better there if you pretend to be married to one of us."
Mara couldn't help the rejoinder, suddenly thankful for the lighter mood. "Or all of you, as the case may be."
Kam, in mock despair, groaned. Luke closed his eyes. Kyp smiled wickedly. "Some humanoid cultures do that, but..." he gave his table companions a sly look. "I don't think we could pull it off... Maybe rich newlyweds with a couple of retainers."
Mara gave the young Jedi a mocking look. "On a honeymoon voyage?! No wonder rich people have such a hard time conceiving children!"
Luke spoke up. "Mara..." he began, his tone slightly pleading.
She snorted, superior, tiring of the game. "Alright, alright, I think I've upset some sensibilities, here." She gave the assembly a studied glance. "As if the little scene I walked in on wasn't bad enough." The flashing anger returned but was banished in the space of time it takes to blink. "I didn't realize Jedi were so proper," she continued, giving the table a calculating glance, her gaze moving from one suddenly contrite, even bashful, face to another.
"So, which one of you is it gonna be?" she asked, a gradual smile vanquishing any resistance.
Kraseevits Casino and Resort was a planetary experiment, set up after the demise of Grand Admiral Thrawn, as a way to pump money into a local system which had been depleted, first by the Empire and then by the war of attrition afterwards. The Krasny system, named for a hard-luck explorer who had done nothing but lend his name to the place before inevitably moving on, had a climate friendly to humanoids along with a great deal of the climactic variety favored by them. There was very little native population to speak of and most of them had expired during the Clone Wars. The population had been primitive, without any real industry, so the planetary environment was almost pristine.
At first, noting the lack of population, New Republic Industries, a conglomerate formed during the first fragile years after Endor, made noises about acquiring the planet and establishing a series of factories there, manufacturing everything from burlap Jedi robes to plastasteel plating for landspeeder helmets. But a nascent environmentalist movement caught wind of the project and successfully lobbied the New Republic Senate to declare the place off-limits to heavy industrialization. This was over the protests of the local population, by now no longer primitives, who were left with no means of improving their lot.
And that's where Laurin Kraseevits came in. An inveterate gambler, unlike most, he seemed to know when to stop. Besides, it was clear that the real thrills were not at the gaming table so much as in the buying and selling of real estate on a planetary scale. He already held, or had held, title to almost everything on Coruscant at one time or another. But life on civilized shores became dull. Especially once the Imperial threat had retreated into the Core Systems. Kraseevits called in some old debts, a few favors, and the resort was born, on the sixth planet in the Krasny Nine system, holding a slightly elliptical orbit around a large sun, with three small satellites. There was no dangerous wildlife, at least in the temporal regions. No one had yet bothered to explore the equatorial or polar regions.
What was left of the locals were given a share in the profits and, with the assurance of fair and equitable distribution any profit and/or risk, business began. It was here that Jade's Fire limped into spacedock almost exactly one day and a half after escaping Coruscant. Kam, playing co-pilot as part of his role as a loyal retainer for a slightly off-center, newlywedded mistress, could not help but admire the spacedock facilities. Mara was right. The facilities, unscarred by battle or even much wear, gleamed like a durasteel oasis in a black desert. The planet floated blue and beautiful below it. For a daft moment, Kam wished somebody really had gotten married. Then they'd be able to enjoy the place.
"Unidentified ship," a pleasant, female voice intoned through the small speakers, "please transmit identification code."
Luke turned in the captain's chair and transmitted the fake code Mara had constructed during their time in hyperspace. A short wait ensued.
"You are clear, Starlight 159," the computer generated voice said, seeming to smile through the miracle of recording technology. "Please await further instructions. Please do not attempt docking without the aid of Dock Control. Welcome to Krasny Nine/Six."
The voice faded. Luke flicked a toggle over his head, reaching for it. Kam ran a sensor scan.
"Anything?" It was Luke, a little tense but business-like.
Kam shook his head. "Nothing. I don't even see a safety patrol. Pretty slick place, huh?"
Luke gave the view below something akin to the evil eye. "Yeah, yeah, just don't get too distracted. We've got to get outta here as soon as possible."
"What and miss all the fun?" Mara's voice took them both by surprise. She grinned, taking in their startled expressions. "You people need to work on your skills if you want to graduate to the next level," she said good naturedly, grinning over crossed arms.
Kam smiled back, but Luke frowned. "Mara, this is no time for jokes. We're running a risk here...."
"They probably won't shoot us down, if that's what you're worried about, Jedi," she said, not letting him finish. A flash of irritation came and went. "Usually, if there's trouble, they just get your registry number and report you to the local NRI office, after banging up your credit record a little. Lighten up."
Kam suppressed another smile. Luke only grimaced.
Kyp stepped into the cockpit. Turning she gave him a once over. He returned it with a concerned look. "I still think I'm too young for you," he said, frowning.
She grinned. "Listen, if I'm as rich as I'm gonna make myself out to be, we'll fit right in. Besides, you look pretty good. You really should wear more color, Kyp." This earned her a glare which gradually became a grin.
She straightened, in charge. "Now, we all know what to do. Kyp, you're the husband, Kam you're the retainer, and Skywalker here's the family pilot."
Everyone nodded as a male voice, deferent but efficient, sounded over the speaker. "Starlight 159, please come to 95 Mark 9.
"Roger, Dock Control," Luke replied immediately, sounding to their surprise callow, almost young again. "Informing that we need repairs on aft engine."
The response was immediate. "What's the problem, Starlight 159?"
"Not sure, Control," Luke replied. "Had an explosion a couple of days back. Just barely made it."
"Starlight 159 pull up to 135 Mark 7. We'll put you at the repair facility."
"Roger," Luke replied, "Starlight 159 out."
A general sigh escaped them all as he leaned back in seat. Mara gave the planet a look. "Well, I'm off to finish jury rigging my accounts, so I pass credit muster. Kyp, come with me, you should at least appear to know a little about this."
"Does that mean I get an allowance?" Kyp asked, recovering some of his mischeviousness.
Mara gave him another up and down look. "And just how are you going to earn it, Jedi Durron?"
Kyp actually laughed, a rough, barking sound, but a laugh nonetheless. Kam shook his head as the two headed back to the common area.
Luke, busy with the new docking sequence, shook his head. "I don't know about this....." he muttered.
Unlike Coruscant, there was no suspicion at all. The repair people were clean and well dressed, the facility was spotless, littered with the space toys of the rich and well-off, each ship cosseted in it's own, private stall, like old-fashioned racing animals, long-limbed and temperamental. The aft engine was dutifully given a once over.
"Well, you're hyperdrive's about gone, sir," the chief technician said, grinning in anticipation of a fat profit.
Luke nodded gravely, as the knowing family pilot. Mara and Kyp stood off to one side, Mara visibly agitated that she could not take an active role in the negotiation. Kam, bags in his hands, brought up the rear. Luke sent Mara a warning glance, but, fortunately, the tech took the expression on the small woman's face for the jitters of ignorance.
"It'll be alright, Ma'am," he said, pitching his voice over Luke's shoulder. "Nothin' to worry about."
Mara resisted the urge call the whole thing off, right then and there. Kyp jabbed her in the ribs with a sharp elbow and she schooled her face. "Don't look so worried," he whispered, leaning into her. She resisted the urge to step back, instead regaining some sense of control and followed his lead.
The tech smiled. Love was such a beautiful thing. Luke allowed a wry grin to cross his face. "Just married, three days ago," he said carelessly. "Father's a little upset....."
"Which one?" the tech asked, his grin giving away the fact that this was not an unusual conversation.
Luke's grin became wider. "His," he replied simply.
A snort of derision followed this. " Happens all the time," the tech replied, his eyes now disinterested. "Anyway, looks like we're gonna have to replace the entire aft section of the hyperdrive system. That's gonna take at least five days. How long was she planning to stay?"
Luke shook his head. "Maybe three. Wait here, I'll go tell her the bad news."
And so it was settled. A credit line was established for the repair shop and they were registered under the name of Lars, which irritated Luke no end, much to Mara's satisfaction. An obsequious protocol droid showed them their suite.
She and Kyp stepped into a place that was the lap of luxury. Every bell and whistle imaginable was there, along with a few that Kyp had never heard of before. Mara smiled at him. "Makes you wanna get married, huh?"
He gave her a caustic look and went back to studying the room. "Is this first class?" he asked, quizzical.
"Nope, it's in the mid-price range. I can't afford first class."
"Where'd they put Luke and Kam?"
"Over in the servant's wing. I think there's a pilot's wing too."
"Uhmm," he replied, thinking. "I guess it wouldn't look good for us to all stay together, would it?"
She grinned at him, liking the fact that she made him uncomfortable. "Don't worry, I won't hurt you, Kyp. Besides," she gave the room a quick glance and yawned, "I'm hungry. Let's go get the others. And then find someplace quiet to eat."
Luke had to give Mara credit. Kraseevits actually lived up to its billing. At least, once you got away from the stifling environs of the casino and resort. It was situated right next to a breeze tossed, waving field of grass interspersed with charming, if rather mysterious, copses of trees. It was as wild and unfettered as the resort area was crowded.
Mara had sent Kyp over to the infirmary. She had had to give him a detailed description of a slightly illegal game common among the more well-to- do involving blasters and certain honeymoon practices. He was embarrassed, but it was better than the truth. She tried to reassure him that the resort meds saw injuries like this all the time, and, due to the illegality of possession of blasters under certain circumstances, did not ask any penetrating questions. Besides, these were paying customers and discretion was one of the things they were paying for.
Kam was off exploring, enjoying the time to himself. The transport dropped Mara and Luke off at the end of the line. One other couple, practically entwined in each other, stepped lightly off the proffered stairs. Mara and Luke followed, a fair distance apart, more sedate. Much to their relief, the couple disappeared.
Mara gave the sun drenched field a glance, shading her eyes. "Which way do you want to go?" she asked, not really caring where they went. It had been decided that none of them should put in too many appearances within the resort area itself, for fear of being recognized.
Luke stepped up beside her, the nearest he had come to her since his time in Coruscant Detention. "What about that far grove? I could use the exercise."
She fought a stab of irritation. "You would pick the furthest one."
He smiled. "Perhaps we should've rented a couple of those speeder bikes," he said, giving her a relaxed glance. "But I keep forgetting that you're the one who's afraid of being recognized."
She trained her gaze on the trees. "I'm not so willing to use that famous Jedi mind trick as you are. I figure the fewer unexplainable incidents around here, the better. We've got to look normal, if that's possible."
He nodded, seeing the logic in her reasoning. "I know, Mara. And I appreciate it."
"Funny way to show it," she muttered. A silence ensued as they made their way down what turned out to be a very clear trail. The waving grass held a strange, almost turquoise quality and the sky was slightly yellow. No clouds graced the sky, but this didn't surprise Mara, since the breeze had picked up, blowing them all out. A herd of cattle-like quadrupeds trotted off over the horizon, glowing white in the sunlight. Bird song drifted over the breeze, lace embroidery on a borders of a perfect day.
Unhurried, they entered the trees, which were rather tall to be so isolated on a grassy plain. Leaves rustled high over their heads, undercurrent to the breeze. Despite the seeming wildness of the place a pair of simple stone benches were placed, rather artistically, just where the sunlight pooled on clear days. They stopped under the brownish gloom allowing their eyes to become accustomed the low light. Mara sat, breathing a little hard.
"You're out of shape," he said quietly, as if they had been talking about that very thing just moments before, instead of walking in silence.
"No thanks to you, Jedi," she retorted. I've spent the past three weeks dealing with your problems. Who has time to work out?"
He nodded, his face serious. "Sorry," he said, his voice soft. "It hasn't been easy, has it?"
Her breath calmed and she glanced up at him. "On any of us," she said.
He took a turn around the small grove. Jeweled, woodland colors of topaz and tiger-eye filtered around him, reminding him, fleetingly, of Endor. This impression was strengthened by the sound of a modified, civilian speederbike buzzing off in the distance. He paced back to find her watching him.
"What are you looking at?" he asked, smiling
She smiled back, her expression a little sheepish. "Sorry." The green eyes flicked away as if caught looking at something they weren't supposed to see. "It's just that you've become so thin..." she replied, quiet, but with a note in her voice he'd never heard before.
He glanced down at himself. "Haven't been too hungry lately. Jail food is even worse than the military rations and well, on the ship..."
She looked away in quick anger, the ugly words still between them. He averted his eyes in shame. A silence passed.
"You never apologized," she said, finally, her words low and hard in the high music of breeze and birdsong.
"For what?" he asked, shifting his position and defensively crossing his arms.
Another anger greeted him there, a shoving motion in his head. He stepped back.
"You mean you really don't know?"
He looked mystified.
She stood. "For everything. For what you did to Tionne, for what you've done to Kyp, for what you've done to..." The words choked off, sliced through the middle, an arrow through the unsuspecting heart.
He paced again, his right hand clenching and unclenching. She knew he missed his lightsaber, but after the confrontation between him and Kyp on the ship, she had banned them. They remained safely in a locker on board ship, carefully wrapped in the darkness, lying in wait.
"But, I didn't do anything to Tionne," he began, exasperated. "I thought you were on my side, Mara."
"I am," she replied simply, "that's why I think you should apologize."
He faced her, his expression puzzled. "For what?" he said, exasperation once again getting the better of him. "She's the one that started it, remember? We've already been through this."
Her face flushed. "We haven't even begun, farmboy. You yourself told Leia you wanted to kill Tionne, not to mention what you said on the ship yesterday...."
It was his turn to redden. "Thanks, Mara." His words were sarcastic. "I admitted it was a mistake. I admit I.,. I was enjoying myself. I admit that Kyp didn't realize." He stepped back, pulling his thoughts back with him. "But, like I said, Tionne's got something to answer for too."
She strained through the silence as he finished, thinking that he should continue, that there had to be something else. A moment passed as she realized there wasn't. "You're right, as usual, Master," she hissed, wanting, not for the first time, to belt him. "It's always someone else's fault, someone else's lack of control, Tionne's, Kyp's, mine even...... but never you, you don't have any faults...."
He came close to her again, his hand suddenly clutching her forearm. "Mara!" he said his voice holding both warning and comfort, "don't."
She looked down at her arm. "Get your hands off me, Jedi," she said, her voice holding unmistakable danger.
Something in his face changed and he stepped closer. "You seemed to enjoy it the last time..."
She shrugged him off. "I was just trying to get you out of there. Leia was going to let you sit there, rotting until the investigation proved what you knew all along, that you really did try to kill Tionne....."
A dark emotion passed over his face but he pulled away, dropping her arm. She lifted it, rubbing where his fingers had been, clenching and unclenching her fist. He stood unmoving as a pool of sunlight ran, simultaneously gathering and retreating, along the feet of the benches. Heeding something unidentifiable in her mind, she sat. She was not surprised when he did the same.
"I don't know what to think anymore, Mara," he said finally, shoulders slumped. "I tried to kill Tionne, it's true. I was attracted to her, I wanted her, I guess," he continued, too absorbed in introspection to blush at the words. "Maybe it was just missing Callie, but she knew all about Callie... before I did. Then there's Kyp..." A small hesitation occurred here as he collected his thoughts. He looked up to face her. "The last time I spoke to Leia, she told me I was becoming more like Father. I didn't believe her at the time, but now..."
Mara moved away from him, momentarily taking in that frightening statement. It didn't take a lot of thought to see that the former princess was on the right track. She pulled her eyes away and swung her feet idly, like children do when they pass time on hot afternoons. Her mind drifted. Leaning back on straight arms, head tilted up to catch the sunlight, she finally spoke. "She's right, Luke," she said, unusually informal. "If I had to describe this whole thing that's the first thing I'd think." She straightened as if caught by something. "But, let's think about what Kyp said when he talked to Han. How long's this thing with you and Tionne been going on?"
He was too far gone to be embarrassed. "About six months, I guess... maybe less. It wasn't obvious when it started..."
"Kyp and Kam have, mostly, been gone from the Academy about that length of time," she put in, her voice now strong and clear. "And don't forget that Leia's been attacked several times, all within this six month time frame."
He gazed directly into her eyes. "And Callie's message arrived about six months ago. Do you think there's a connection?"
Directly on the heels of the question, as if jolted by an electrical current, he stood, sudden realization in his eyes. Plant life rustled and crunched under his feet as he walked over to a large tree and put a hand on it as if to steady himself. She thought for a moment that he had spotted something on the horizon and half rose to look, but then realized that he was only gazing off into a middle distance, unseeing. Following the direction of his gaze, through a break in the trees, Mara could see the white herd begin a return journey, retreating from the horizon. The breeze was gone, abandoning them to a hot, sticky stillness under the arching trees.
"It's Callie," he said, so softly that she lifted her head, thinking to catch the breeze that had begun again.
He turned, his face very pale. "It's Callie. That's what's in all the visions. Don't you remember?" He came close to her, sitting down. His hand trembled slightly as he took hers, forcing her to shift her weight forward. "The computer, the words on the screen, that's the way we talked on the Eye."
Her brow furrowed, puckering the top of her nose. "What about Tatooine?"
He smiled to himself. "That's one of my pleasantest memories. I had passed out on the Eye and she came to me...."
Mara fought an inclination to pull her hand away, but it was held tight, as if she were Callie and not Mara. "We were riding in my old landspeeder, through the desert, talking, laughing," a smile graced his face here, genuine, good natured and flashing. She recoiled from it as if it were an offensive weapon, not wanting to know.
"Luke..." she began, giving the hand an experimental pull.
He only clutched it tighter. "And then we were on Chad, together in the ocean, with the salt and the wind... I never knew the ocean could be so beautiful."
His words, describing a moment that never happened years ago, pulled him to her. Something in her was alarmed, but it was muted and somewhere a peace fell upon her restless heart, bringing a feeling of belonging. Her hand relaxed in his and she allowed him to come nearer. The other hand rose to caress her face and she sat still, unmoving, as if she were held in stasis, doing nothing to stop him. He lifted his mouth to hers and kissed her simply, like people do when they have been away from each other a long time; with gentle, familiar passion. She remained still, not thinking, drowning in a pool of warmth that spilled through her, warm sunlight on dry ground, a soft blanket in winter, a friendly hand in the midst of cold difficulty.
He pulled his lips away just for a moment, eyes closed, mouth moving, words whispered. "Callie," he said, "Callie, I've missed you..."
Her reaction was instantaneous. The slap resounded through the grove, echoing off a banked breeze that reached between them, pulling them apart. Furious she pushed him away, her hands trembling on the verge of a killing anger. Standing now, she reached out a hand toward the figure on the bench, and a dark tendril laced it's way through the air between them. Unprepared, he had no time to mount a defense. Instead, he sat, his mechanical hand suddenly pulling at something invisible at his throat.
"I should have known better, Skywalker!" she spat, her shaking vulnerability attacking and retreating all at the same time. "Maybe the Princess is right. Maybe you are just like Vader! This little stunt....."
His face began to redden as he fought her. She felt the sudden, haunting strength of his presence in the Force as he resisted, white tinged unmistakably with ashen gloom. "Mara...!" he gasped, his voice only a hangman's whisper, "Mara... please... I didn't...."
Too angry to stand in one place, she let him go, flicking her fingers in an unmistakable gesture of contempt. He collapsed to the ground, his knees falling into the hard dust. She did not see, but had already turned back toward the rustling fields and the big sky beyond the latticed trees. Running fast and sure, without looking back, she made for the trail and the transport area.
He tried to go after her, but the strength of her grip had almost most knocked him unconscious. He could only stumble to the grove's edge, to where revealing sunlight met gloaming shadow. Breathless and coughing, he watched helplessly as she vanished, her figure gradually disappearing into the grass.
The breeze came up strong, and a tree swayed. The leaves rioted, their small, woodwind voices humming below thought, laughing, accusing. He glanced around, as if he could hear something but was not too sure what it was. Fleeting moments later it had vanished, just like Mara, leaving nothing but birds, leaves and waving grass. Resigned, rubbing his neck, he began the long walk back.
Night settled over the house in the forest. A close stillness hunted about, creeping into corners, lurking in doorways, filtering through curtains. A rodent stirred rustling and, in immediate response, a bird of prey signaled as it glided. Ominous silence followed, close, penetrating.
She turned her head, awake, the pillow now crushed under her hair, a dark river spread in stop motion over the bedclothes. Glancing carefully at the young man next to her, she felt out through the Force, sensing another presence. She watched, at peace, as it stumbled away and then back again, shadowed, highlighted in a gloaming light. The man next to her turned in his sleep, muttering and she put out a restful hand, as if she were but a simple witch, casting a sleeping spell. Immediately, he quieted. She withdrew her hand and lay still, flat on her back, gazing up into midnight darkness.
Open windows yawned and a drop sweat dribbled down her back, soaking through to the bedclothes. Turning inward, she watched through the Force. She could see his face clearly now, a face she hadn't seen in years. He looked older, more lined but the eyes were the blue of Irek's. She saw his bewilderment, the confusion that rested there, nesting between his thoughts like a hidden parasite. His presence was crystalline and light, still pure, but around the edges a burning darkness had appeared.
She felt his desire from lightyears away and smiled. The boy next to her stirred and mumbled something, reacting to her dark visions. Immediately, glancing over, she fed him more dreams, as a mother feeds her young, sending him back off to seek out, even in sleep, the all powerful darkness that was truly the Force.
This was the end, the culmination of her search, of her arduous journey from Chad to Djinn's school; from the hibernated, ghost-like existence on the Eye of Palpatine, to corporeal life. Power now pulsated within her, growing even as she shunted some of it toward the adept, lying in restless sleep.
The other, the Master, who held Anakin's eyes and his powerful sense, was approaching, circling ever nearer. Corruption guided him, a hungry carnivore snapping bones in the trembling darkness, devouring his soul. If Irek was the son of intrigue and strategy, Luke was the son freely given, the true heir to the darkside. The Emperor had tried to turn him once, as had Anakin, but they had been too tied to each other, too impatient. They had almost succeeded, but it was his sister who saved him. Now the sister was out of reach and her brother was unresisting, giving himself of his own free will.
She smiled the secret smile of women when they have bested the men around them, bending them, all unknowing, to a passionate will. Her smoky eyes played out through the darkness. Luke had vanished, his sense now only a raindrop within the knowing fields of the Force. But she had seen his face, had heard his voice, had felt his lips. A sigh escaped her, a moment of victory.
He was hers.
Han Solo arrived on Krasny Nine/Six a week later. He put the Falcon into Spacedock and, with an old hand's appreciation for the finer things in life, filed away the Kraseevits facility as a place worth revisiting, preferably with Leia and without the children. He took a room and was gratified when no one recognized him. Major Knezar, his passenger along with Artoo, also settled in.
They had dinner in an out-of-the-way place filled with shadows and courting couples. Knezar ate with impatience. "Are you sure this is where they were spotted?" he asked, remembering, like a good spy, to keep his voice down.
Han smiled, that slow, crooked smile of one who can wait. "We checked out all arrivals in a two-day, 360 radius from Coruscant. Remember, we're looking for a light freighter with three men and one woman. This is the only lead that checks out."
Knezar took a bite of the meat on his plate. The holoed lights, shimmering barely under the human range of sight, rose to just noticeable and than sank again, leaving the room in a peaceful glow. Han shifted visibly in his chair and gave the room a glance. "I just wish they hadn't selected such an emotional place," he muttered.
"Do you think they're masquerading as newlyweds?" Knezar's voice, though low, was still jarring.
Han gave the Major a keen look and smiled. "Who? Luke and Mara? That'd be the day..." He took a bite himself, although he really wasn't hungry, his eyes never leaving off their intense study of the people surrounding them. "Still, it'd be a good strategic move. Luke and Mara are about the right age for each other, but, well, considering a few things, I think they'll play it that Kam or Kyp's with her. Maybe Luke's a servant or something. He's real good at not being seen when he wants."
Knezar nodded, having come to respect the Chief of State's husband over the last couple of days. "Then we should look for the woman first," he said, taking a sip of what had turned out to be very good wine.
"Don't drink too much of that," Han cautioned more out of habit than necessity. "I want to go over to the repair facility and have a look. And, perhaps, the infirmary."
"How badly do you think Jedi Durron was wounded?"
"He was unconscious by the time they got to the ship. I figure he took a pretty bad burn."
"Uhmm," Knezar answered, pushing his plate back, finished. "Perhaps, we should go to the repair facility first. It should be quiet over there this time of day."
Han shook his head, following Knezar's lead. "You never know, this place seems pretty busy. We also need to contact the local NRI office, but," here he smiled at Knezar, "I think I'll let you take care of that. Why don't you go see if you can disturb the local operative's dinner while I check out the repair facility?
"I'll meet you in a couple hours, near the sabacc tables in the main lobby."
Knezar grinned. "Not planning on gambling, are you?"
Han resisted the urge to laugh out loud. "No, just observing, seeing who's there. Gotta remain inconspicuous."
Han laid credits on the table and they headed out to the night air. The street was full, crowded with beings in various numbers, mostly in pairs, but Han noted some triplets, even quadruplets. Evidently Kraseevits appealed to some of the more cultural fringe elements among humanoids. They came to a corner.
Quietly, like an old pro, Knezar let an air of palatable carelessness wash over him as he vanished into the crowd. Han stood for a moment, and then he too vanished. The evening air settled like a soft sheet, full of laughter and the falling, restless, vibrations of disembodied music.
Kam appeared moments later, seeming to emerge from nowhere. He saw Han's familiar figure fade down the street and wondered, momentarily, how a person with no Force sense at all could vanish so thoroughly. Respect snaked through his agitation as he turned back down a side street.
He entered the hotel through a side entrance, schooling his face. Knocking on Luke's door, he was surprised when it swung open of its own volition, since they had all agreed not to use the Force any more than necessary. Startled, he glanced back down the fortunately deserted hall, then pushed through and closed the door in one easy motion.
"Master?" he asked into a general, stifling darkness.
"Here," a low voice replied. A light came on. Luke was lying on the bed, fully dressed, eyes closed.
Kam pulled up a chair, scraping it across the utilitarian floor. "Master, I've got news. I saw Han Solo on the street just now, about two blocks from here."
Luke's eyes flicked open. "Just now?" he echoed. Something in him started as if from a stray electrical current, making his heart race.
"I don't think they followed us, but they must have been checking arrival manifests...."
Luke sat up, pulling his legs over the side of the bed. "We've been here almost four days. They were bound to catch on."
"How long until the ship's ready?"
Luke sighed. "Another day, but I think the tech's just stalling, trying to get another thousand our so out of Mara's account."
"Perhaps we should leave now...." Kam began.
Luke stopped him. "Let me talk to Mara and Kyp. I think you're right -- it's time to get away from here. If Han's here that means that NRI won't be too far behind." Luke stood, making his decision. "I'll go talk to Mara, you get packed. I'll meet you back here in half an hour."
Kam nodded and reached for a small bag in the corner.
The corridor was deserted. Luke found himself motionless before the unobtrusive door, thinking. It had been two days of blank silence since their visit to the Khonarian Fields. He felt her anger, roiling but banked. He admired her control even as he felt a sneaking disappointment snake through her soul. And, at the bottom of the disappointment was a new feeling, struggling but still mute. A deep breath later, he knocked. He wasn't really surprised when there was no answer. His force sense told him they were both there, although one of them was asleep. Kyp, he decided. He knocked again.
This produced a slow opening of the door. The light fell upon her, giving him a fleeting glimpse of a deceptively simple woman, pale faced and slender, her light hand on the gleaming handle. A searing guilt fell through him as he saw the haunted expression in her dull, green eyes. A dark thought, a flash of self-hatred appeared, but he pushed it aside. She stepped out of the way, cold, suddenly very controlled. He closed the door behind him.
"How fast can you be ready to leave?" he asked, sounding a little breathless.
Her brow furrowed as she switched gears, but her heart of winter remained, shadowing forced words. "Why?"
"Kam saw Han, on the street, about 15 minutes ago. We've gotta get out of here."
She frowned and then her face brightened with a cold light, active but still forbidding. "He'll be headed for repairs first, since NRI must have figured we got nicked during our escape. I wondered if the pilot saw anything." She shook her head, looked away and crossed her arms. "I'm ready now. Kyp's asleep, but that's nothing. Kam ready?"
"Yep, I told I'd meet him back at our rooms. You gonna check out?"
"Have to," she replied quickly. "They impound your ship if you try to walk the bill. They're very efficient."
"We might not have time, going by what Kam saw."
Ten minutes later, Kyp and Mara appeared at the servants' wing, Kam and Luke were waiting, leaning against the outside wall in the stillness of the Force, completely unnoticed. Mara almost missed them.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," she exclaimed in a breathless mutter, exasperated. Kam shrugged. Luke made no sign at all.
Without a word they began walking. A light fell across their expressions as they moved like ghosts through the evening crowds, striding unnoticed. The evening light shimmered around them, long twilight stretching down the charming roads and into exquisite shops. Cautious, they boarded a transport for the spacedock, moving silently past an alert attendant, who noticed them not at all.
It was almost dusk now and streetlights were flashing to life, winking like newborn stars in the cozy shadows. The transport held only people preparing for their shift at the port. Kam and Kyp sat together, motionless. Luke was by himself, in the front. Her gaze paused unwilling as she saw him glance back at her.
The eyes were sharp and blue, even in the low light and his face was ready, calculating and defensive. He made no move, sent no thought or reassuring feeling. A quick sorrow shadowed her heart, as if someone had walked over a grave in the sunshine. She banished it, as old habits reestablished themselves, readying for battle.
The transport arrived at the spacedock and they filed off, unnoticed. Glancing around to get their bearings, they followed Luke, who found the ship. With a sinking feeling they gazed over at the freighter and knew they were too late.
For there, standing with the now familiar tech, was Han, gesticulating in an easy conversation, smiling in his charming, careless way. Han shifted on his booted feet, like someone who is considering the purchase of a used spacecraft and is about the kick the landing gear, glancing in their direction. But, evidently, he saw nothing because the dark eyes moved through them and away.
Luke, seeing the expression on his brother-in-law's face, knew that Han was being anything but careless. He realized that Han had, by now, scouted the entire hangar, noting where the exits were, noting everyone and everything that had used one since he arrived. Luke turned into a shadowed side room, pulling everyone aside with him.
"What do you think he's telling the tech?" Mara whispered to Luke.
Luke shrugged. "Probably pumping the guy for info. By now he knows it's us. I just don't know if he's going to sic NRI on us right away or if he'll just wait around and see if anybody shows up to claim the ship."
She made a contemptuous sound. "Well, that really ties it. I was hoping we'd managed to lose them...... how do you think they knew?"
Luke shook his head, but Kyp spoke up. "I think it's Leia. She's been right about everything so far, so somehow she must have figured out where we were going....."
Mara felt a quick, unavoidable numbness overtake her. "Uh oh," she muttered.
"What?" Luke said, giving her a critical glance.
"I think she knows we're going to Rasclann."
Luke gave her a full half second of gazed silence. "What makes you think that?"
"Because I was the one that brought the message from Otdjel in the first place. And I told her they contacted me on Rasclann...."
Kyp almost swore. "That means we'll never get there!!! They'll have the place blockaded......."
"Not unless we go somewhere else." Luke's eyes suddenly took on an almost violet hue as some emotion flared within.
"We gotta get my ship back first," Mara said, now irritated.
Luke, momentarily forgetting about Han, turned to face Mara. "Why do we have to go to Rasclann?" he asked, his eyes deep. "Can't we just go to .......," he paused, searching for the name.
"Otdjel?" she put in for him. "Because Otdjel is on Byss and I don't think you really want to go back there," she said, some of her normal sarcasm returning.
He was silent for a thinking moment. "Mara, if that's the only way to find out what's going on, I'll do it."
Kyp made a face at that. "But, Master, you'll be walking into the hands of the Empire....... And they won't be fooled by a few mind tricks."
Luke shrugged. "Looks like I don't have any choice," he said, his mind already made up. "But first," he said, drawing a quick, deciding breath, "I can't ask you to accompany me there." For a moment the Master returned, gathering them all with his eyes. The silence was gripping, unwavering and focused. "You could turn yourselves in, saying I tricked you," he continued to resounding, resonating silence. "That way they'd only come after me."
Mara willed the floor to stop moving as her heart began to pound. A tendril of fear pulled through and remained, entangling her soul. She sent Luke a slitted glance.
Kam gave Kyp an alarmed look. "We can't do that Master," Kyp said, his words swift and garbled . "We're the ones who broke you out in the first place....."
But something in Luke changed, as ocean currents turn on the spot, as the wind shifts within angled corners, as light illumes unexpected shadow. For a moment he felt a salt breeze and the nearness of a vast ocean. His eyes became hard, plastasteel gray and penetrating.
He turned to Mara. Kam and Kyp faded to an irrelevant background as her presence seemed to fill the empty room. There was no time for the luxury of privacy. "Especially you, Mara," he said taking her gently by the shoulders. Startled, she glanced down at his right hand as it gripped her flight suit. "I know I've hurt you and I deserve......" a harsh, mechanical breath cut him off here. "I can't let you risk your life in the Core Systems for me. I have to find this shadow, this entity," he paused here, his mouth searching for the words. Finally he knew there was no other way to say it. "I have to find Callie, Mara." He closed his eyes, willing his thoughts straight. "She's there somewhere, calling me, even now......" he choked a little, his face flushing, his breath coming hard.
Kam and Kyp, silent speechless astonishment shading their faces with the palest of colors, made no noise nor motion only looked back at Mara to see what her reaction would be.
"She's gone to the Darkside, Luke," Mara said, her gaze still on his hand, her face in full profile to him as if recoiling. But then she faced him and her eyes lanced out, green and alive with knowledge and passion. "You can't save her."
Black silence, closed eyes and an almost crazed but averted face greeted this. His hands began to bear down on her shoulders, painfully crushing the delicate collar bones. She heard a heard rather than felt cracking but her mind, overloaded, made only passing note of it. "How do you know?" he asked, his voice rags and ashes.
"I know," she replied simply, facing him again, seeing his beloved face now held firmly in thrall to another. A fever boiled up through her sense and she realized that she had dissuade him from this, before he finally broke through the last of his carefully constructed barriers.
The man standing before her refused to give up. "I can save her, Mara, I know I can......" he began, fleetingly resembling an overly idealistic, sunburned farmboy, gazing off into the stars.
She shut her eyes, fighting an unloosed control. A hard certainty edged her voice. "She wants you, Luke. She's going to turn you." She lowered her voice so that it was almost inaudible. "Do you remember what you promised me once?"
Instant understanding flooded his face. She winced as he redoubled his grip on her wounded shoulders. "You didn't turn...." he began but the voice cut off, choked in a bramble of passion. He bowed his head, persistence riding his labored words. "I can turn her back, Mara." And even though she was prepared, even though she sensed what he was going to say before he said it, the next sentence was as a physical blow, sending her reeling. "That way we can finally be together......"
A roaring blackness began to descend over her as she pulled her eyes open, willing the light to appear normal, willing the world to stop shaking, willing the painful, bright colors pleasant and soft. Wearily, she made one more attempt. "I'll kill you, Luke, before I see you turn. I swear it." she whispered, pulling at her blaster. But it was shoved out of her hand before it had even cleared the holster.
He dropped his hands and straightened, the weapon now firmly in his right hand. His next words assailed at her very consciousness, for with them she knew he had lost his soul. "I don't care anymore, Mara. I love her. I can't live without her."
Kyp finally found his voice and stepped forward. "Master, I can't let you go. I can't let you be killed by that....."
And, without warning, as if a blinding curtain had fallen, all light was obliterated. Dead silence fell as Luke remained standing while the rest, now fallen out of their disguise, lay unconscious on the floor. By now Han and the tech had moved away from the ship and Luke strode quickly, like an unseen ghost, up the ramp and into it.
A trembling intensity seized him as he guided a carefully wrapped bundle back down the hatch onto a small worktable near the tech's office. He watched as it floated in a bubble of strange, peaceful invisibility and then stilled. Sitting in the captain's chair, he pulled at a switch and Jade's Fire lit up, all in one easy motion. An alarm began to sound as a pre-flight sequence simply appeared within the flight computer.
The tech, now standing in his office, turned to gaze open-mouthed out his window as the engines revved up. The repulsors roared to life and the docking portal began to push open as if it were being forced, it's well-modulated hinges and gears whistling, scraping and clanking in protest.
Jade's Fire lifted, and with astonishing speed, crashed through what was left of the half-opened ceiling hatch, throwing an explosion of dust and debris into the immaculate holding area. Han, now running, exited the office, just in the time to see the ship lift off. Stopping dangerously near the repulsor trails he reached a hand toward the disappearing ship. "Luke! No! ......... Luke!" he yelled, but his voice was lost in the killing heat and roaring engines.
The floor trembled, a toolrack rattled and crashed somewhere as the ship pulled away, fighting the planet's sluggish gravity well. Han, standing helplessly on the hangar deck, could only watch as the little freighter pulsed away, out of sight.
Stunned, he stood motionless for a moment as people began running and someone yelled in alarm and pain. The klaxon was joined by others, bursting into a cacophony of emergency. The tech, in haste and perhaps a heightened sensibility, noticed a strange bundle on his worktable. He moved to pick it up. But Han, playing a hunch and moving fast, got there first.
Swift hands unwrapped the soft cloth. Inside his fingers fell unwilling upon three lightsabers, dull and menacing in the cold work light. Knowing with weighted heart he was too late, that things had moved beyond his or anyone's control, Han gazed up at the ragged, smoking hole in the ceiling and said a prayer. He let his hands fell in despair, the lightsabers cold in his fingers. He gazed upward for a moment, now unaware of the chaos erupting all around him, caught within knowing stillness.
"I'm sorry, kid," he said softly. And then a benediction. "May the Force be with you."
Coruscant, Med Center
She blinked in the lights. A diagnostic panel framed the bed, noting the increase in her heart rate and respiration. Panic made her sit up too fast. Instantly she regretted the motion as a massive grinding feeling in her right shoulder threw her back down again. Arms limp at her sides, she gazed around the room, at first noting only quiet machinery..... but no there was a being there, someone familiar.
"How are you, Mara?" It was Cilghal.
A world of information flooded into Mara's mind all in the space of time it takes to blink. "Oh no," she groaned, her voice a drugged whisper, "Coruscant."
Cilghal gave her what passed for a kindly look. "Yes. You've been unconscious for over 48 hours." The voice became muffled as the Mon Calamari turned toward her panel. "I'm just going to run some diagnostics, to make sure everything is alright."
Mara, struggling with her emotions, nodded. "How are the others?"
The reply was matter-of-fact. "Kyp was the hardest hit. He had the blaster burn. He's spent the past several hours in a bacta tank. Kam is already in Detention."
Mara merely nodded. "I knew it," she muttered.
"Knew what?" To Mara's surprise, it was Tionne. A swish of feminine skirt and carefully done hair entered the room, oblique and unreadable.
"Uh...." Mara stammered, thoroughly surprised to see Luke's assistant. "They've put up a ysalamiri screen, haven't they?" she said, her voice flat.
Tionne merely nodded. "Yes, it was set up when you were brought in. Although," here she gestured at Cilghal, "you were temporarily removed from their field for healing purposes."
Mara nodded, swallowing. "I see." A deciding silence. "Are we under arrest then?"
Tionne's face acquired a puzzled expression, as if she wondered why Mara would have to voice such an obvious question. "I would say so, yes. They have very good holos."
Mara turned her head away as a lancing thought ran through her mind, sudden and powerful. Her field of vision was suddenly obscured by a stinging mist. "Where's Luke?" she whispered, her words garbled.
Tionne cocked her head, still puzzled. "We were hoping you'd be able to tell us that," she replied, her voice inappropriately light and musical. "They found you right after he blasted out of the spacedock at Krasny Nine/Six."
Cilghal interrupted her voice pleasing and soft. "Please don't move, Mara. I want to see how the healing progresses."
A moment of silence took hold as the diagnostic computer ran a complex series of sequences. Seconds later a whistle sounded. Cilghal approached the bed. "Your collarbone has been broken," she said, quite serious. "I have knitted the bones together, although I would prefer you undergo more therapy." She gave Tionne a significant glance. "However, that will have to wait. There are people who wish to ask you questions first."
Mara nodded and Tionne helped her sit up, being careful not to pull on her arms. A repulsor chair appeared at the door. Mara glanced at it, stung out of her apathy. "I don't really think I......"
"Orders," Cilghal replied, interrupting. "When you have finished you will go into the electro calsifier," she said. She gave Tionne a signal and the repulsor chair moved.
It took them a good fifteen minutes to make their way to the Chief of State's conference room. Mara, weak from the Force blow and a broken collarbone, merely sat, uncharacteristically quiet. There was no conversation.
The door slid open. The Chief of State stood, expectant. Mara lifted her head and gazed around. Han was there, concerned and quiet, along with Chewbacca. Kyp was slumped in a corner chair, although the expression on his face when he saw Tionne was instantaneous and indescribable. Kam was stoic, almost embarrassed. Ackbar was there, along with Knezar.
"How do you feel, Mara?" Leia asked, allowing the tension to dissipate.
Mara did not smile. "Not well," she answered, the truth.
"Are you in pain?" Leia asked, her brows knitting a little in concern. Mara took refuge in a lie. "No," she said.
Leia's expression noted a doubt but she let it pass. Tionne pushed the chair to a stopping place near the table and then moved to take her own chair.
Leia folded her face into a formal, remote expression and began. "You are all duly notified that you are officially being held on charges of aiding and abetting escape from Detention -- a serious matter. However," here she looked at Han, " you have also been brought here for purely informational purposes. My husband," she drew her eyes away from Han's face, "seems to feel that all of you know where my brother is going."
Kyp sighed but said nothing. Kam sat silent. Ackbar shifted in his chair, and Knezar leaned forward.
"He's going to Byss," Mara said, her voice low, still weak from the drugs.
This earned her a flashed look from Kyp. Tionne's brow furrowed. "Why Byss?" she asked at once, her voice childlike but her sense pouncing, feline and curious.
"Because Callie's there," Mara said, resignation falling through every syllable of the short sentence.
Tionne's face momentarily contorted as she absorbed this information. Kyp straightened. "We're still not too sure about that, Mara. Maybe she's still on Rasclann."
Mara shook her head, careful not to shift her body. "No, I felt it," she said in a tone that brooked no argument. "She's going to Byss and Luke's following."
Leia made a sharp, hopeless motion. Han shook his head. "Why?" she asked, as if she had changed her words mid-thought.
Mara lifted her head and gave each person in the room a hard look, as if they were a group of interrogative strangers she had never seen before. They all gazed back at her, with much the same expression. She licked dry lips, even in weakness carefully selecting the information she wished to impart. "Callie's fallen to the dark side. He's gone to turn her." These two simple sentences dropped like flat stones onto the grand table.
Leia became very pale. Her hands came up to clutch uselessly at the beautiful table, her fingerprints leaving a temporary impression before she rubbed her hands over them. "It's been Callie all along, hasn't it?" she said, voice low with realization. A spasm of guilt played across the pale features, shaking loose from a tight control.
Tionne was confused. "What do you mean?" she asked, crossing her arms and looking directly at Mara.
Mara slumped within the chair, not caring anymore, wanting only sleep. "Everything, your vision, the force attacks, everything. It's all been Callie."
"But..... she.... I took...." Tionne stuttered, looking in amazement from one to the other. "How could she....?"
"She's very powerful, Tionne. We were afraid this might happen." This was Han, touching Tionne's forearm in a gesture of warning and comfort. Mara, looking away, saw Kyp give Tionne an agonized look, but she was unaware of him. Evidently, all her force strength had vanished.
"Then you think she's got something to do with Otdjel," Knezar put in, his voice flat.
"Yes," Mara said, "I do. They're up to something, Major."
"Why should we believe you?" the Major rejoined impatiently, startling everyone.
Mara merely glared at him, unable to speak. It was Kyp who spoke. "Because, as of this moment, you know as much as we do, Major," he said, his voice beginning to resonate with powerful irritation.
Leia closed her eyes. "Do you think Luke will be able to save her, Mara?"
Mara shook her head, her features calm but still unable to hide a sneaking sliver of fear. "No. I don't think he's strong enough to turn her. He'll have to kill her."
Tionne gasped, Kyp and Kam held serious, controlled faces, Han frowned and Ackbar was unreadable. Knezar merely pursed his lips.
Leia opened her eyes again finally understanding it all at last, as one who searches through a dark forest for the clear, simple light of truth. "And, if he doesn't kill her?"
Mara looked the former princess directly in the eye and refused to mince words. "I believe Callista has become as powerful as Vader in his prime. That gives Luke two choices: she kills him, or" something made her hesitate here, struggle with the words, "he too falls to the Darkside."
Han showed up in Detention a day later. All three were in separate cells. These were public holding areas with no doors, only subtle, humming force fields. The walls were clean but institutional and the floors echoed. Kam was reading, Kyp staring into the ysalamir laced space and Mara was lying down on her bunk. The calsifier, although still interfering with her muscle tone, had taken away most of the pain. Still, the blow Luke had used to strike them unconscious, along with the drugs administered on Krasny Nine/Six, had taken their toll. She felt like an old rag, washed out and wet. She dozed, drifting in and out of jumbled, half waking dreams.
She had no idea he was there until the guard keyed off the force field. Gingerly pulling herself up to a sitting position, she watched him come in. Polite in surrender, she motioned for him to sit. He pulled up a chair, turned it around the wrong way and sat down. Like a charming child, he leaned his head on the back of it and gave her a studied look.
She blinked back. "To what do I owe the honor of this visit?" she asked, with a glimmering of her characteristic sarcasm.
"Why'd you give up so easy?" he asked, his voice clear as daylight and grounded securely in common sense.
She frowned at him. "What do you mean?"
"You haven't made a move to get out of here or even talk to the Jedi twins over there," he said quickly. "What's the deal?"
She turned her face away. "Have you been spying on the holonet?" she asked, too weak to push him away.
He smiled. "That's only in the cells with doors. Besides," he gestured quietly, "this is maximum security. Prisoners aren't allowed holonet access here."
She nodded, studying her shoes. "Then how do you know?"
Han grinned. "I asked the guard."
This produced a small smile. "Good, Solo, very good. You always were too smart for your own good."
He dipped his head, making a disjointed bowing gesture. "So, what's really going on Mara? No one has to tell me you're not yourself. And Kyp's downright morose. What's with you guys?"
She sighed. "You wouldn't understand."
He reached over to touch her arm. "Try me," he said, his eyes shadowed.
For a long moment she only looked at him, noting that his handsome face had fallen a little and the clothes, though ordinary, were new. She looked away intending to stonewall, but something within her surrendered to his quiet concern.
"It was a tough trip, Han," she began, startling him by using his given name. "Luke almost killed Kyp during the jump..."
She shook her head. "Ostensibly over Tionne. That's when we began to figure out that Tionne wasn't the problem." A vision flashed before her eyes, a dark figure cloaked in power and mystery and a struggling adept, facing invisible death.
"That's when you figured out it was Callie..." he prompted after she fell into a silence.
"Not really," she replied, blinking and raising her eyes to gaze over his head. "We knew it was something, we just didn't know what. It wasn't until we got to Kraseevits that we began to put it together."
Han gave her a critical glance. "Did Kam and Kyp figure this out too, or was it just you and Luke?"
Her head whipped around and, to his infinite surprise, she blushed hard. "What are you getting at, Solo?" The words were suddenly hard edged, defensive.
Han held up his hands, palms up, in a gesture of surrender. "Nothing. I just wanted to know how you figured it out, that's all."
She sighed and mentally kicked herself for being easily provoked. "I'm sorry. I'm just a little ....... upset, that's all." She lifted her head again and attempted a careless look, but he thought her green eyes flashed sorrowful. "We were talking...... and he finally put it together. All the visions come from his time on the Eye and after that it all fell into place."
"But when did he decide to follow her to Byss?"
Her brow furrowed. "I'm not too sure. We had a ....... disagreement and we really weren't speaking, at least not when we didn't have to."
Han smiled mirthlessly to himself and gave the small, bleak room a quick look. "Uhmmm, I see," he said, as if he really did.
She surprised him by continuing. "Although, I think it wasn't until he saw you that he made up his mind," she said. She closed her eyes and it was as if the words ran away from her, uncontrolled and frenzied. "It was as if he was possessed, shadowed, almost blind. I've never seen him act this way before."
Han gave her a serious look. "I have, or I should say, Leia has" he put in serious, stopping her as neatly as if he had dropped a net over her. "When he came to Bespin to rescue us from Vader." He shuddered a little, startling for such a strong man. "He couldn't resist his father......"
Her eyes lit up. "That's it, exactly!"
"Kyp said he wouldn't let you go with him," Han began experimentally.
Her face fell. "That's why he knocked us out, because we insisted. I tried to tell him that she wants to turn him, I tried to stop him......." She hesitated as some emotion flashed through, instantaneously gone. He saw the pale face redden with what he thought at first was sadness. But, then in shock he saw through her sightless eyes and knew it was anger; fiery, boiling and dark, a large Delortorinian terraleopard, feline eyes ready for the kill. She set her lips, clenching her teeth together. Suddenly aware of his regard, she jerked away and he was astonished to see her eyes glisten under the bland lights. Knowing this observation would be humiliating to her, he looked away.
"Are you sure?" he asked, shifting on the hard chair.
She held her shielded face in the shadows. A silence reigned so long that he began to think she had fallen asleep while sitting straight up. "Mara?" he asked, his voice filled with worry.
She lowered her head, a sudden motion. "He wouldn't let me go with him, Han..." she whispered on the verge of confession. "After all we've done for each other, he cast me aside, like he didn't need me anymore......." Her right hand clenched itself into a small, killing fist.
Han seeing a great many things he knew he shouldn't see, put another resting hand on her forearm. "You need to sleep now, Mara," he said.
Wordless, gaze blinded, she remained silent and lay back on the bed. Her eyes closed. With astonishing simplicity, like a wounded child, she closed her eyes and fell asleep.
Slowly, as if under a great burden, Han stood. Turning he signaled the guard. As the force field opened for him, he toggled the lights down low, to sleeping levels. "Good night, Mara," he muttered as the force field flew back into place.
Wryly Han saw his harassed wife to the port. Her ship was there waiting and ready. She gave it a critical look as it seemed to settle in the hanger like a large, captive bird, metal feathers held mechanical and motionless. "You gonna be alright?" he asked softly as the escort moved away.
She turned her head. "Yes, I think so, anyway. These negotiations have to proceed, Han. I can't just go running off after Luke...."
He put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "No matter how much you want to," he finished for her, hearing her thought as if it were his own, in his mind.
She smiled, a sad expression. "You know, flyboy, for such a force empty person you seem to read minds real well....."
He put his lips next to her ear, simultaneously kissing and replying. "Compliments will get you everywhere, Princess."
She grinned. "You'll be alright here?" she asked, her eyes encompassing the room and all that was outside it.
"No," he replied, his words low and catching in the echoing room. "But I'll be waiting for your return. You can make up for it then."
This earned him a laugh, a bitter one, but a laugh nonetheless. He smiled. "Shall I see you in?"
She shook her head. "No, Knezar's already there, along with the page and Threepio. Ackbar's got a few reminders, of course. They're all waiting."
"Then I'll kiss you here." And he did, as the techs and mechanics watched, amused.
"It's just like you to make a spectacle out of yourself," she said as he pulled away.
He grinned, his eyes flashing and she realized once again, as if she needed reminding, why she loved him. "May the Force be with you."
She grinned back, only lurking sorrow dogging her eyes to show the burden she bore. "You too, flyboy." And with that she turned for the ship.
Two days after his first visit, Han turned up again at Detention and casually held the guard rapt. A low conversation ensued, after an amazed exclamation, along with much switching between data cards and various authorities, flashing lights and sequences entered and approved in wary but proper succession. A data pad was handed back to him, his hand carelessly taking it from the careful young man who held the maximum security post. Then they headed for the cellblocks.
Kyp glanced up startled. "Han, what are you doing here? Any word from Luke?"
Han merely smiled and signaled to the guard. The force field disappeared. Kyp's face held questions but Han's manner motioned for the Jedi's silence. The same was done for Kam. Finally it was Mara's turn.
She stood at the edge of the force field, ready. Her shoulder still ached but the pain was bearable. A calmness settled over her face, as if she had made a decision.
Han escorted the Jedi straight from detention to his private hanger. The Millennium Falcon sat grounded and awkward, a misshapen hulk of worn metal and mechanical improbabilities. The hanger was deserted. Mara stopped, taking in the readied ship, the echoing hanger, the wordless Han.
"What's the deal?" she asked quickly, not standing on ceremony.
He looked at her. "I sprung you. You have to admit, it went much better than the last time."
The earned him a sarcastic look. "Why?" she asked, crossing her arms.
He gave his beloved ship a glance and then turned to look her straight in the eye. "Because somebody's gotta save Luke and it sure as Kaznaith isn't going to be me. I'm force empty, remember?"
"Han...." Kyp began, blinking as the Force overloaded his mental processes. The room was light, white and brilliant, blinding.
Han grinned. "Believe me, I don't envy you Jedi ....... never did." He glanced around the room. "We're ready to leave now. Chewie's already aboard. Everything you need is there."
Mara slitted her green eyes at him. "How'd you do it?"
"Pulled a few strings, called in a few favors," he said carelessly, but she knew he was anything but careless. "Nothing's ever gonna get done with all of you sitting in Detention. Besides, if you survive," he returned Mara's look and then some, "you can explain later."
She grinned at that. "What makes you think we're gonna survive?"
He shrugged. "I didn't say you would. But for this we need Jedi," he said he gaze encompassing them all. "And you're the best we've got. Somebody's gotta fight Callie."
Kyp smiled, a genuine, flashing expression full of unexpressed regard. Han recoiled a little. "Don't thank me yet, Kyp," he replied to the unspoken emotion. "You might not make it..."
Kam stepped up. "Then we die honorably," he said.
And with that the four filed toward the ragged ship. Han's eyes glittered with something Mara hadn't seen there in years. Kyp was unreasonably happy and Kam merely content. She felt herself being pulled along, her head held high. They caught sight of Chewbacca, standing sentinel at the opened hatch. With familiar steps, they clattered aboard, each finding a place within the familiar confines of the ancient freighter.
She found herself really seeing the ship for the first time in a very long time. The common area was worn, the small playing/eating table chipped where Chewie had protested innumerable chess games with Artoo. The controls, antiquated but efficient, flashed around her, ready. It breathed of life, history, a past shrouded not in shadow but light. It spoke of a famous quest so long discussed, portrayed and read about that no one realized anymore just how remarkable it had actually been.
Mara noted with a glimmering of uncharacteristic patience that even the small Artoo unit was there, chirping cheerily away in binary, as always quite unintelligible.
Han entered, a component of something mechanical and disorganized in his hand. He smiled at Mara. "You settled in?" he asked, sitting for a moment and switching the gadget from one hand to another.
She gazed at him, the green eyes suddenly intense. "It's been a long time, hasn't it?"
He nodded, his eyes flickering in something like nostalgia. "Yeah, I guess it has," he said, leaning back and giving the cramped, disorganized room an affectionate glance. He tapped a knuckle against a console on the wall. "I remember running off to rescue Luke a few times in this old bucket. I even shot Vader off him once, but I suppose you know all about that...." he continued, giving Mara a sideways look.
She allowed a small grin. "I do remember something about that, Captain Solo," she replied, her voice light. "Or is it still 'General Solo?'"
He shook his head. "In title only. Mostly to keep my security classification." He leaned forward. "Truth to tell," he whispered conspiratorially, "I prefer 'Captain.'"
She put a hand on the hard seat next to hers. The cold metal shaped itself to her palm, friendly and reassuring. "'Captain'" it is, then," she replied crisply. "And as Captain, I suppose you'll forgive me for reminding you that we have a tradition to uphold here."
Once again he glanced at the ship, as if it were alive, the flashing readiness lights a sure sign of heart and soul. "A tradition of rescuing people, of pulling Luke and a crazy hermit off Tatooine, of pulling a certain Princess off a certain Death Star, of pulling out of Hoth with stormtroopers in plain sight. Is that what you're talking about, Mara?"
She let the grin become a genuine smile. He, knowing how rare and disturbing sincere smiles were for her, felt only partially reassured. "Precisely. Once again, somebody needs rescuing."
He gave her a penetrating look. "It's always the same, isn't it?"
She gazed straight back, her flashing green to his shadowed hazel. "Once more for old time's sake, Captain," she said.