Malevolent arms reached out to meet the fleet, coming up through the mists of hyperspace. Byss was an intregal part of a system soaked in the Darkside. Leia closed her ears to it, to its insistent murmurings, its lost but powerful voices, its eye-catching, flashing brilliance, just beyond the range of sight. She willed away the hopelessness that laughed through the Force and came to stand in the forward gun turret, all the better to be alone for a few moments.
From below she heard Kyp's voice, followed by something sarcastic from Mara. Leia's smile was reflexive as she turned to give the last of hyperspace her full attention. Quieting her mind to the darkside tumult, she reached out, pushing through the Force, searching always for one, for the familiar sense, the warm affection. But no, she reminded herself, he was cut off from her now, soaked in Callie's evil, in his own weaknesses. Sighing, quiet moments vanishing before the eye of battle, she pulled herself into the gunner's seat. Listlessly, she let a toe drop to the deck.
She was fast approaching middle age, but her frame was as lithe as ever, although she ached more now than before. The doctors told her it was the strain, three children and constant tension. They were always advising a vacation, a rest, a walk on the beach. She gazed seriously out the 360 degree transparasteel panels. Yes, she needed rest, but a walk on the beach wasn't going to do it. but, maybe, a change would.
She gazed down at her hands, now bare, gloves held casually in the left. Dainty still, but no longer the pampered digits of a princess. Instead the hardworking joints and wrists ached even now from constant work on data pads, on computers with input devices, from the innumerable control boards in her office, in her quarters, on her ship, on the *Falcon.*
Slowly, she wrapped a small palm around one of the controls for the laser and smiled. It had been a long time, so long since Luke and Han first collaborated, driving off the Imperials against all odds. She remembered Han's youthful cockiness and Luke's whoop of joy as that fighter disappeared, sparking into the void, all instantaneous fire and then gone. Times had been grim, but even then there was profound joy in their presence.
These rivals for her affections, these indispensable people in her life, these people who were now her family, they mattered. At the beginning, she had not realized it. There was so much that remained unimaginable back then, so much that was unseen. Now, finally, she had the maturity to see it all quite well.
She gazed back out into the void, the wrinkles soft, like old cloth. Oddly transparent, she could almost see the eternity they had covered, the incredible distance and time traversed to bring them to yet another pinpoint of light within the galaxy. This family...... she vowed to keep it together. Han was hers and now Luke needed the support that only blood can give. A swift thought took in Callista. In a short flash of regret, she thought perhaps she had been too harsh there. But no, Callie was the catalyst, the ghost nodding silently toward the future, the precursor of the end time. Optimism whispered through. Perhaps, Callie had a use after all.
She stood, sliding out of the seat, an old pro. The faded upholstery was frayed and she realized that Han had not had it replaced since that long ago fight with the Imperials. She rubbed her hand along the seat back, all the better to gather the resonances of a person who was now held in willing captivity, his free will taken in darkness and shadow.
She gave the little area one last look.
"Leia, are you in there?" It was Han's voice, worried and rather irritated.
A note of affection threatened hers, but she held it steady. "Coming!" she replied and gracefully climbed out.
Hyperspace disappeared in an instant. Mara felt her stomach tense and then relax again as they fell into the Byss system. Immediately an alarm went off.
Chewbacca whined and then barked, a warning. Mara chimed in. "Company, Solo! Two recon...... nine o'clock, low!"
Han gave his sensor readout a good look and frowned, a characteristic expression. "No kidding, sister. So much for surprise!"
"It's the fourth planet," Mara put in helpfully, if unnecessarily, although her attention was divided between the viewport and Chewie's board. Chewie gave her an irritated glance. She was tempted to step back a pace, but remembering herself, remained still.
The New Republic's little fleet branched out into a distended pattern, flower like in the reaches of the bright system. After a constantly changing pattern meant to look like nothing more than high-flying meandering, they came back at each other again, providing a moving target and a way to trap unwary recon ships and fighters. Carefully choreographed, the maneuvers practiced to the point where the pilots could sleepwalk though them, the ships were a study in purposeful illusion.
Chewbacca barked, angry. Something was wrong.
"He says you screwed up the board!" Han interpreted for Mara, momentarily oblivious to the strategy outside and standing to throw a bank of switches.
Mara was unapologetic, not even angry. "Hey, listen, I only know what worked for me. Take it or leave it, Solo."
Han sat down again, not looking at her. "Look's like we've got no choice." Something made him give Mara a second look. Her face had changed. But he had no time to think further. In the vacuum outside, an explosion of laser fire began to flash, moving closer. The system defenses had been engaged.
As if on cue, Mara closed her eyes and pulled at a breath and let it out slowly, as if she were feeling every molecule of oxygen pass into her bloodstream. Han gave Chewie a shrugging look. Chewie made a comment that was but an undercurrent of disbelief and caution. Another startled bank of white fire broke through the stars, nearer. A starfighter traced by, racing through bent light as it flashed away.
"X Zelny! You've got one on your tail, pull out!" The control officer on the *Dagobah* was certainly adamant, if irritating. Han let a swift irritation rise to tighten in his throat. Tactical, along with an upstart Department of Military Doctrine had just recently changed its strategy regarding recon and fighters. Now they were controlled by the lead ship, in this case the cruiser. Han shook his head. Luke would've never been able to destroy the first Death Star if this policy had been in place during the Rebellion.
Reservations about the new generation aside, he pulled up and the fighter whizzed by, its lasers firing into empty space. "Z Red, engage those fighters!" The voice from the mother ship was somehow grating. Han winced.
"Z Gold, forward, port side! See if you can avoid incoming fire!"
"Incoming, all sides!" one of the pilot managed squawk before the his fighter peeled off, heading out into a graceful ellipse. Han watched, sharp and apprehensive as the it headed in the opposite direction of the current fighting. It flew back and forth, a couple of the little TIE fighters tailing it, looping and curling behind it. "You think this is gonna work?" he asked, a general question..
Chewbacca registered his negative opinion and, not for the first time, Han found himself in agreement with his friend. Still, his wife was pretty good at making things happen..... "When we get back, Chewie," he said softly, his alertness a delicate string along the faded control boards, "I'm gonna have a lot to say about this. Whose idea was this, anyway?"
"Perhaps, Antilles....," Mara began, breaking her spelled silence.
Han shook his head. "Not a chance. Besides, this is Tactical stuff. Probably one of Ackbar's ideas. Trouble is, it doesn't work too well without one of those new Calamari cruisers.... They're equipped with those superfast comm systems....." They all watched in silence as a fighter engaged a TIE. It faded and feinted, its pilot trained to fight, expertely and with great skill, for his government and his life. The TIE pilot, whose survival instincts were just as keen, got off a lucky, if well aimed, shot and a deep well of sorrow deepened within each heart as a flaming ball of what once had been a brand new Z Alpha Starfighter brightened and then faded in their gimlet eyes.
A spasm of emotion contorted Han's face. A pilot dead, another innocent bystander hurt because Coruscant's ruling family couldn't keep itself in line. "So, where is he?" he demanded impatiently, turning to Mara. "We're losing time!"
Mara scowled, as if she had found something distasteful on her dinner plate and wanted to spit it out. "Far side of the planet, Solo," she said after an uncomfortable pause. It lasted just long enough for Han Solo, erstwhile smuggler and escape artist, to think a shade too long about his vulnerabilities. "My ship's there," she continued. "I bet he's somewhere close by."
"If Callista hasn't killed him by now," Han replied.
She missed nary a beat, although her heart was racing. "I can't sense him anywhere. But, I ..... I think they have ysalamiri." She opened her eyes but then closed them again, as if to wipe the mental slate clean. "They leave a distinctive trail, a scent." She nodded at the fast approaching planet. "Feels like they've got quite a few of them down there."
Another TIE fighter, a relic from a different time, screamed by. The Falcon shuddered under an angled attack and the canon instantly swung around. The freighter, unwieldy and not in the least slick or graceful, performed an impossible loop and came around on the tail of the little fighter. The fighter seemed to pause and then, losing the initiative, began evasive maneuvers.
But, its inherent clumsiness was greater than the Falcon's surprising grace. The cannon fired and laser light washed over its target as the Falcon veered off. The fighter pulled up short into a looping overhead circle and then exploded into a shower of hot/cold sparks. Instantly, the resulting flame burnt out in fast motion, the vacuum of space acting like a fire-retardant blanket. Only drifting bits of metal and carbonized parts remained along with the hazy scent of ozone, filtering through the Falcon's weapon systems and finally into the reconditioners. Mara was expressionless, a good soldier. Leia, who had moved quietly into the cockpit, was now sitting in a back seat, hands still, face hard.
"That means they've got Jedi," Han put in, ignoring the doomed fighter once it exploded. He leaned across the comm board. "Cruiser Dagobah, do you read?"
A measured voice answered. "Copy, Falcon. Reading two recon ships, now out of range. More fighters headed this way...."
"Pattern Sem-dva Red! Repeat Pattern Sem-dva Red!" Han said, his voice rising to command mode.
"Copy, Captain," Lepnatos replied, his old military training taking over. Instantly, the cruiser pulled out and away, circling the planet in high orbit. Han gave the viewport a cautious look and made as if to follow, but the Falcon, after a brief start, only hung onto the fringes of the battlegroup. Towards the front, the cruiser, highly visible, bright and an irresistible target, a small battle ensued as Byss Systems defense sent out its first, real defensive fighters.
Han gazed at the viewport for a moment, studying the situation. Hope filled his heart, along with a kind of fierce joy. The Imperials must have been hard up. Systems defense consisted of nothing more than a few recon vessels and made over TIE fighters, their inherent clumsiness and age made worse by embargo and the fall of the Empire. He eyed a dog fight, but this time the fighter didn't have a chance. The smaller, Z Alpha models bested them, out shooting, out distancing the boxy, flyers. He chuckled and felt righted, awake, alive, alert, all regrets momentarily forgotten. Well, at least Ackbar would get a good field study for his new baby.
Leia glanced over at Mara, who was sitting quietly, eyes now closed. The look on her face was one of intense concentration, along with something else, something hard to identify but disturbing. Leia scowled.
Han noticed. "I wouldn't......" he said, answering Leia's unspoken thought. "She's been this way since we started toward the night side."
Leia glanced at Han, made a decision and spoke up. "Mara?" she asked, her voice suddenly gentle. "Mara? Are you alright?"
Mara's eyes remained tightly shut, but her voice was the same as ever. "I'm fine, or I would be if you two would stop talking about me as if I weren't here."
Leia smiled, but no light touched her eyes. "Do you sense him?"
Mara's face was dead, expressionless, only her mouth moved. "No. All I can find is the ship. It's on Docking Level C, near the old diplomatic area." A grimace brushed across her face. Usually so plain, it shone with a kind of momentary brilliance. Mara opened her eyes and Leia saw that they had become a deep emerald; a great, clear sea.
Han, noting the presence of that private ocean again, pulled his eyes away. Despite the assurance in her voice, he thought Mara seemed a little uncertain.
"You have to come with us ...... Leia whispered to herself as people do in moments of revelation or just simple agitation. A fleeting picture of Mara's place here, of her sense of belonging, of the old feelings that bound her inextricably to this dangerous place pushed into her mind and then vanished. A sudden regret faded through the Princess' straightforward heart. But it was too late now.
A low explosion sounded as laser fire began to dance around the Falcon. "Evasive, Chewie!" Han said quickly, betraying no outward sign of tension or even agitation. The phrase was reflexive, since Chewbacca had been flying evasive maneuvers since they had entered the system. Chewbacca growled an insult. The freighter began its opening maneuver.
Mara blinked at Leia and her expression returned to normal. "No, I'm staying with the Falcon, remember?" she said, perfectly centered. All trace of the past was suddenly gone and Leia wondered if she what she had witnessed had only been an illusion. "We decided it was too......"
"That might not be such a good idea.....," Leia interrupted quickly, realizing that she was treading on quicksand. Suddenly, inexplicably, she wished not to know what the other woman's progress from this shadowy place had been, and part of her felt the same way about Luke. He was here for the second time, attracted to, even as he was repelled by the Darkside, an insect drawn to a lethal, flickering light. But Mara's face remained dispassionate and Leia wondered if it was just the trader's control or if she had really banished her past. But no, now she knew better. No one ever truly banishes their past.
The Falcon had successfully skirted the battle, and outside of the vanquished fighter, no others had followed. "Dropping out of high orbit," Han said. Chewie acknowledged in an almost inaudible whine.
"How long until docking?" Leia asked, all business.
"10 minutes. After that the diversionary pattern dissolves."
She nodded, accepting the constraints of their present situation. "Did you even consider using the one man units?"
He gave her a long look. "That's highly experimental, Princess," he said, his voice as cold as her title. "Even Wedge isn't too sure about those things."
She bowed her head, taking it in. "True, but if there's a chance to retrieve him without docking ...."
Another warning sounded and Mara spoke up, surprising them both. "Solo, you've got one on your tail," she said, her dispassion disquieting. Chewie instantly hit the rear cannon.
The Falcon darted away, as Han switched mental gears. His instincts honed through years of self-reliant combat, he made short work of the lone fighter. He scowled. "You can bet he wasn't by himself, ladies," he said, his voice low and smooth. "Time to get moving!"
Leia's face tightened and her thoughts raced. "I have never sensed he was dead," she muttered.
"Besides," Mara continued for her, "if we find my ship, he can't be far away. Assuming he wasn't killed when he attempted to dock...."
Mara was pushed back into silence as well as her seat as another blast of fire came nearer. The Falcon looped away and around, hitting an unexpected rise and turning its forward guns on the fighter. The TIE pilot, misjudging the bigger ship's maneuvering capability, took a sharp corner, as if rounding an obstacle. But it was too late. The forward cannon hit it square in the engine block and instantaneously, the thing was space dust. Brilliant particles of finely wrought metal and drifting gasses clouded through the viewport and then the velvet sky was empty.
Leia stood and held an unsteady balance as Han looped in a dangerous curve back to his original course. "Chewie, keep your eyes peeled! We've been found out!" he said, his eyes flickering from control panel to viewport. "I figure we haven't engaged this part of the defense system.
"Do you think Wedge'll make to the planetary control?" This was Leia, thinking out loud.
Han shook his head. "No telling, Princess," he replied quickly.
Leia grimaced but let the title go. "If he doesn't we've gotta take out the palace area ourselves," Mara put in, her voice laced with shadows. "We don't have a lot of time. The planet will be slipping into phase soon and the fighters will be in limbo."
"How did the Imperials used to handle it?" Leia sounded worried.
"They were trained to time the phases in their heads," Mara said, her voice ratecheting little as she became more agitated. "You can't depend on the chron. And," here she grinned, "it helps if you're not force- sensitive. Then you're not so affected by it."
Just then, as if tagging the heels of her words, a wave of something disorienting, a great dark barrier seemed to cloud Leia's being and Mara closed her eyes, her face registering sudden pain. Leia's was blanched of all color, pale as death. Han, who was pushing the ship through another set of twisting maneuvers, punched up a sensor reading and glanced back but did not have time to act on his alarm.
Kyp clattered into the cockpit, barely able to walk. His dark eyes were tortured and his voice was low. "Leia!" he said, steadying himself on the threshold. "It's early....."
"You mean it's phasing already?" Han's voice held irritation and rising excitement. It was times like this when he wondered why he just didn't retire somewhere quiet and peaceful. Maybe run a casino somewhere..... Chewbacca put in a comment, terse and, for a Wookie, understated.
"Yeah, I couldda predicted that, partner," Han replied. Mara's ad hoc repairs, not suited for the Falcon were not holding up well. A spark flew from the sensor board as Chewie shut it down. The board went ominously dark.
"Sorry, Solo!" Mara whispered, through gritted teeth.
"That's the sensor array. Unless, somebody wants to......" Han was interrupted by a rumble and the ship shook alarmingly. A direct hit registered off what was left of the sensor array, taking it out completely. Han cursed the competence of the planetary defense system and angled the Falcon on a knife point up out of range.
Mara swallowed. "We'll have to fly blind," she said her words disjointed, tensing as the phase began to intensify. "I'll tell you where."
Han was skeptical. "Oh good, more Jedi stuff," he rejoined, his remark an oblique challenge. "We've got three minutes to pattern dissolution. If we haven't docked....." The sentence hung unfinished in answering silence. Chewbacca growled in alarm.
"Nothing, huh? DarksidemotherofSith......!"
"Han," this was Mara. Han glanced over at her and her expression brought him up short. Her face was calm, but a blazing joy making it seem almost unreal. Her eyes were open, but unseeing, as if she were possessed. He was tempted to follow the direction of her gaze but another rumble shook the ship. There was a popping sound from underneath and Chewbacca hit the fire button.
"Course change," Mara said, her face never changing. "New heading, 291. It will take you away from the lower battery."
"Whatever you say, Mara," he replied, punched up the coordinates. The ship lurched uneasily away from the deserted country he was riding above and a sudden quiet fell through as the weaponry silenced.
Leia pulled a small glance over at Mara and was then, herself, held shock still. Byss now was in its darkside phase. Voices, restless and disturbing, ringed Leia's soul. Kyp, stronger and more sensitive to the Force, groaned from his place at the hatch. They pressed, howling, cajoling, calling. There was no place to hide, no place to sleep, no place for the blessed aloneness of self. Instead, it was crowded and noisy, where past and future collided and meshed, where truth and lies were the same, where good and evil made no difference.
She turned to Mara, whose expression of joy was profoundly disturbing. Suddenly, in a cold flash of distrust, Leia realized how little she actually knew about the red-haired woman at her side.
"Defense battery to starboard," Mara said, seeming oblivious to Leia's regard. "Change course to 284."
Han, having no other choice, punched the numbers into the computer. The Falcon make a sharp turn and again straightened. No guns.
"So far's fine...." Han muttered, falling into a childhood incantation.
Mara was immobile. "Diplomatic dock in one minute," she said, as if she were sitting in her own quarters somewhere, watching from a great distance.
"Nearby batteries?" Han's voice was quiet, tense.
"One, but it's disabled."
"You sure about that?"
Mara did not smile nor did her expression change in any way. "No energy," she said, her mouth moving deliberately, eyes blinking in slow enjoyment. "Power sources gone."
Kyp breathed quickly and added, his lips suddenly beginning to smile. "She's right, Han. The ship's there."
A sharp intake of breath rocked Mara as she stood. "My ship," she whispered, as Han began to the docking maneuver. No fighters in sight and the defense batteries, sitting just above the docking hatchway, were completely dark.
Leia clutched the chair as a floating ring of pure pleasure seem to drop from another dimension into her soul. It was tossing, compelling, hard to find, but dark and thrilling, menacing. Like a child dared to attempt its first carnival ride, she wanted to follow it, to explore its hidden paths, to see its forbidden hallways and corridors. Languid lights beckoned, mysterious, luminous.
"Don't follow," Kyp whispered, seeing her vision. "It's a Force maze....... a trap."
"I know...." Leia murmured, eyes open but unfocused. Han, truly alarmed, wanted to turn and slap his wife back into consciousness. But if he did that, the Falcon would crash through fast approaching magnetic doors.
"Doors opening, Solo," Mara said. And even as she spoke the pit- like hatchway began its opening sequence, the old fashioned docking mechanics somehow elegant and measured in a way that the new, superfast procedures never were. Grandly, one dowager to another, the Falcon accepted the invitation.
Expertly, breathing hard, Han settled his beloved ship onto the deserted deck. The only illumination was dim starlight, seen softly through the magnetic field. There was no welcoming committee. The only other ship there was Jade's Fire.
Han glanced at Mara, who had come out of her trance. The glint in her eye had reappeared and the dreamy pleasure of only a moment ago had completely vanished. "She looks good," Mara said, her eyes only for her ship.
Han hit shutdown procedures and gave the blank sensor board a dirty look. Kyp raised his head. "I didn't realize that would.....
"Feel so good," Mara put in, all business again. "I had forgotten." She put a small hand on her lightsaber and if irony was present, she made no indication. "Vader used to love to come here during the phases. He always said it renewed him somehow."
Leia lurched to her feet, more than a little ashamed. "Do you think the fleet got away?"
Han shrugged. "No telling," he said carelessly, as the ship settled into a hibernation state. "They did a good job getting rid of the defenses on this side. But they're gonna have a sith of a time when they return. The defenses will be ready for 'em...."
Out in the corridor everyone gathered and Leia gave them all a glinting look. "There's been a change of plan," she said quietly. "Kam and Chewie will stay with the ship. Mara's accompanying us. She's the only who knows the configuration of this place." She turned to the other woman. Han noticed they were of a height, but one was subdued, controlled, openly purehearted. The other seethed, black water under ice, goodness hidden under a sardonic mask.
"Mara are you sure about this?" Leia asked carefully, resisting a sudden urge to take the other woman's gloved hands in hers.
Mara's face was set. "Yes," she replied. Kyp nodded, Kam and Chewie turned and disappeared into the cockpit. Out of habit, Han gestured, showing the way.
They trooped down the familiar ramp. The deck echoed under their feet and Leia, putting out a mental probe, had no sense of any other organic presence. Kyp stood alone, apart, searching with his powerful link to the Force, his masculine sense more aggressive than that of the women. Han merely relied on good eyesight and experience. After a moment, his attention was drawn by Mara who gestured with a gloved hand.
They moved slowly, experimentally, deliberately, blasters ready, lightsabers primed minds reaching, searching through the tumultuous Force. The Falcon faded into gray shadow as they made their way across the empty hanger. Their forms shrank to inconsequential in the cavernous room as the exaggerated, elongated shadow of Jade's Fire swallowed them. Undeterred by the monstrous fields of darkness, they disappeared into the dim lift area, walking calmly into the maze of Byss phased into the Darkside and, perhaps, reunion at last.
Diplomatic Hangar, Byss
At first there was perfect silence. Everything was crystallized, under a spell. Leia shivered under her dark jacket. Mara, eyes suddenly feral and sharp in the low light, was ahead, hesitating only occasionally as she made her way through the maze-like corridors. Kyp brought up the rear, but Leia could sense his restless, roving thoughts. In a flash, she realized how young and inexperienced he was despite all that had happened in his life. Han was cautious. They moved as one, eerie, quicksilver in the spellbound silence.
Mara came to an intersection and halted. Three other directions beckoned, right, left or straight ahead. Leia gave the shadowed, silent corridors a quick look and glanced at Mara.
But it was Han who spoke. "Where to now, Mara?" His voice was low but there was something in it that held an easy authority, even from the depths of a Darkside planet at the apogee of its phase.
Mara's eyes were bladed in the gloom. "Depends, Solo," she replied, her voice as controlled as ever. But Leia sensed something in her, a muted eagerness. She knew that memories were moving fast, flickering through the other woman's mind, holding images not seen in years, the small stories of a lifetime ago. Again a nagging distrust moved through Leia's heart, but she banished it. It was too late for that now.
"On what?" Han replied instantly.
"Oh where you think they are."
He gave Mara a scowl. "You're a Jedi, or so Luke keeps telling you. You tell me."
Mara gave the corridors a careful, calculating look and Leia realized how exposed the other woman felt. "I can't sense him anywhere, Solo."
Han made to reply but Kyp jumped in. The phasing effect was not nearly so strong on the planet itself and he felt almost normal. "Who can you sense? I feel only a weak presence, up there...." he pointed to the left, "somewhere."
Mara nodded. "A Force-sensitive, but not obviously not Luke."
"Besides, if Luke's turned, certainly we'd be able to sense him now," Leia put in remaining neutral. "Or him us."
"Unless," Mara said, her eyes never stopping in their study of their surroundings, "he's hiding in the Darkside. It is possible to do that here."
Leia sighed. It was as she feared. She wondered, for the dozenth time, if they would end up killing Luke. That is, if any of them could actually do it. But, after looking at Mara's tense face, she began to realize that that's exactly what the other woman was preparing herself to do. A wave of apprehension swept through her and she shifted, studying shadowed corners, eyes roving, searching, hoping for the best.
"He's not up there," Mara said, gesturing to the left. "He's not straight ahead, unless they've cooped him up in the old throne room." Various remarks regarding the appropriateness of that were conceived and then let go without utterance. She gathered the others with her faintly sinister eyes and gestured to the left. "He has to be down here."
"What's down there?" Han's voice was now only a whisper.
"Detention, amongst other things," Mara replied quickly.
Leia nodded, grasping at straws. If he was in Detention, that meant, by definition, that he hadn't turned. She lifted her head. "Let's go," she said.
Mara merely nodded and the group continued on its way, perfectly visible as it moved swiftly through the corridor. The silence pooled against their light foot falls, tailing them like a curious predator. They moved on through the dimness, ever more cautious and jumpy. So far they had met no one. They hadn't even encountered any droids. Han's heart began to tighten as he sized up the situation. The word "trap" was written all over it, but Han, the nominal leader of the expedition, realized they had gone too far to turn back. Besides, if they turned back, it would mean the end of any hope for Luke's rescue. He doubted they could get this far again.
The silence was blanketed, stale, but simmering as if there was something happening underneath it, or better yet, about to happen. A new sound caused Han to halt abruptly. The others, behind him stopped immediately. Mara only halted when she sensed the others further away. Another small noise, a muffled 'pop,' echoed through the strangely deserted corridors.
Mara cursed, and Leia as amused by the woman's precise vocabulary. "You think they've caught on, yet?" This was Han.
Mara had no time to answer as another 'pop' was followed by a boom, distant thunder on a cloudy, summer night. Mara was motionless, silent, feeling out with her mind. But moments passed and no clicking boots and blaster fire rounded the half seen corner. A klaxon sounded but was shut off, mid wail, only to be followed by another, further away.
"Lepnatos must have returned," Han said, admiring the old solider's precision.
"Seems that way, Solo, He's a little early, though," Mara replied, distracted. "Here we are," she said leading them round a corner and halting before a smoke filled corridor. "Detention's this way." She made a casual gesture, a forwarding motion. But, at that precise moment, Mara, along with all the other Force-sensitives, almost collapsed onto the floor. Leia turned pale and breathless, Mara fell against the wall and Kyp stood rooted and still, staring. Han, still not accustomed to the full scale of various Force phenomenons, repressed a feeling of panic. Quickly, he paced back and took his wife's hand, steadying her.
He gave her a quick up and down and said, "Don't tell me it's another planet...."
She grimaced. "No, not nearly that strong," she said, her breath becoming more normal.
"It was a single person, a Jedi," Mara said from in front of them. Han looked up in time to see her push away from the wall and move forward.
"That's what happens when one Jedi is killed by another....." Kyp said, his voice breaking with emotion.
Leia turned to face Mara. "You don't think.....?"
Han grasped his wife's suddenly trembling hand even harder. "Don't jump to conclusions, Princess," he said, his voice low as he fought to control his emotions. "There are supposed to be several Jedi on this planet...."
Leia grimaced again, a sudden, sneaking feeling of nearness and familiarity closing in upon her, much as a closet closes in on a child playing a game of hide and seek. "Mara!" she hissed in warning.
There was an explosion, this time clearly much nearer. Small tendrils of smoke wafted through, whispering of poison and death. A cadaverous scent descended, flew past and was gone, causing them all, even Han, to duck reflexively. He put his hand on his blaster in a defensive gesture and squinted into the suddenly looming cross corridor. It appeared deserted, but the smoke seemed instantly thicker, denser, almost solid and there was an urgent, unexplainable feeling of uncertainty.
Mara, in a show of bravado, based more on foolhardiness than courage, pushed herself back into the shadowed smoke of the opposite corridor, signaling the others to follow. And just as they had all disappeared into the undefined, there was the eerie sound of running feet, clattering sure footed and purposeful. Leia bowed her head, for the presence she had sensed was clear now, its evil resounding and unmistakable. And the other could only be....
"Callista!" she whispered, before she realized she had spoken.
The shadows thickened as the pair stopped. Irek followed tall and dangerous while Callista paced ahead, graceful and cunning. Their shadows, lit from behind, made them seem like only auras in the blackness. Leia held her breath, praying that they were in too much of a hurry to stop for longer than a few seconds.
"Did you hear that?" It was Irek's voice, full of rage, fear and dregs of something unfathomable. Leia shifted her weight and strove to blend with the shadows. But no, now there were tenuous, seductive voices calling to her, telling her to take her revenge, to finally best an old enemy.
But no, it was the evil of the place and she knew if she answered its call it would betray her. She would only expose herself. But still, the voices gathered and a primed, warm feeling tugged at her stomach, promising fullness, richness and peace. The more it called the more she retreated. She turned from it, seeking silence and hiddeness. An explosion sounded again, crackling, rippling through the deck above. Decompressed atmosphere roared through a hatch somewhere and an alarm went off. Decompression, breech, these were the common nightmares of all who traveled in space. It was time to leave.
She shifted her weight, adrenaline gathering, heart pounding in near panic when Mara's voice came into her mind. "Don't," it said, strangely at home in this evil place. "It is a trick. He will discover you. Do you want to fight him here?"
Leia never wanted to fight Irek again. She swallowed and willed control, strove for control, thought of nothing but control. And gradually, her heart began to calm. She breathed easy, lost in the shadows, safely hidden.
But Mara had opened the door and the evil of her upbringing, of her half-forgotten childhood flooded in. Leia grew concerned as she saw Mara in her mind, her litheness now only an outline within a shadow. Her eyes were glowing and green against the licking fire. But there was no fire here, only temptation wrapped in impenetrable silence......
"Mara!" Leia said through the Force. "Mara, don't! It's a trap."
The figure stopped, as if halted by a friendly hand. Leia could feel the other woman struggle in her grip, she could feel the longing there, the striving for all that childhood had promised. To be on Byss again, at the heart of the Darkside, was paradise, the end of a long journey. She could bond with the place and haunt the corridors in an eternity of peace and belonging.
But no, the woman beside her knew the truth. The bright, ordinary truth. Byss was a lie. The Darkside was a lie. There was no peace here. Only burning passion in a trackless desert, an everlasting searching for more power, for more completeness that retreated forever into the depths of eternity. A company of spirits haunted the place, all held captive to the Darkside, all calling to her to accompany them. They were demons released from their bodies, dead but still touching the living. And then Mara's mind turned a corner, and a shadow beckoned, willing her forward. Its trembling hand reached for her, the fingers long, the ancient nails yellowed with age and the decay that comes only from long experience with evil.......
There was direct hit right above them just as Leia reached for Mara, reached to pull her back from the Emperor's embrace. And her voice, in warning, was clear and cutting. Irek lifted his head, as did Callista, their penetrating gazes at one with the smoked shadows. But the fumes and smoke interfered with their concentration, even as Leia's eyes watered, her breathing turning hard and naeausous. Every breath was filled with more poison.
"Irek!" Khaali called, her voice a command. "It is time! We must go!"
He gazed around one last time in a temper of dark uncertainty and then followed her figure as it pushed through the barrier of fog and on into the labryrinth of corridors that led from Detention back up towards the hanger. Mara, following them with her mind, knew where they were going. "My ship!" she thought, cursing, the longing to hunt down this unholy couple all but unbearable. But, she knew why she had come and, right now, he was more important than her ship.
Han appeared, coughing, barely able to talk. "You....... you..... alright?"
Mara nodded, her eyes flickering and aware again. Leia coughed and drew deep breaths from her air filter. "We've got to get him out of here, soon!" she said, her voice slightly filtered.
Han was skeptical, his filter now firmly in place. "You think he's still alive in all this?"
Leia nodded and spoke the dreaded words. "I can feel it."
Resigned, Han nodded. Well, at least he would die fighting. Still, he would have liked to see his children again, just once. And maybe Chewie, just to say goodbye....
An explosion made him duck, the motion reflexive, and shadow the wall. A battery of defensive lasers began to rumble directly above their heads. They must be automatic, Han thought with perfect clarity. The upper decks had to be almost gone by now. The black smoke swirled, swallowing the dim corridors as the lights blinked and flickered. And it was then, as if the corridor was nothing but a mythological beast forced to retch up its prey, that Luke stumbled into the intersection and collapsed, coughing and rasping, onto the floor.
A smoke surrounded him, lethal and killing, a gift from Khaali. Mara, reaching instinctively through the Force, pushed it away and the poison mist vanished like an grasping but powerless ghost.
Luke put out a blind hand and Leia rushed forward to take it. The shock of her touch caused him to yell reflexively, the sound echoing off the walls. And, as he gazed frantically into his sister's face, thinking her for a moment only a vision, he began to talk, the voice of someone talking to the dead.
"Sith!" A sudden, cruel hope was crushed as it exploded through his being, pulling the Force through him as if he were but a funnel. "Leia," he whispered, his lips barely moving, "it wasn't your time! I hoped....... thought......you were alive! Please.......please..... forgive...."
Han, blurry eyed and slightly dizzy, worked to pull himself together in between deep coughing fits. He felt no surprise. Nothing could surprise him anymore. Instantly, he realized what Khaali had told him and something in his earthbound heart cursed her soul, cursed her very existence. "She's not dead, kid," he said, his voice echoing but still almost inaudible in the growing maelstrom.
"Han!" Luke exclaimed scales falling from his eyes. His watered and burning gaze went from confused and hopeless to astonished and overjoyed. "How'd.....?"
Han waved a weak hand. "Long story, kid."
Luke gazed around in shock and saw Kyp's weary, determined face. But there was someone else, here. He could see her face, the plain, persuing spirit of his dreams, a face etched with truth and the lifegiving pain that truth brings with it. He pulled to his feet, eager and unsteady. Simultaneously, Han moved to see that his wife was alright, pulling her clutching hand away from Luke's. He let her lean, holding her small weight as the hot flames and foul smelling smoke crept ever closer, a stalking, fire breathing monster out of a children's folk tale.
A series of explosions flew through the cross corridor, momentarily lighting it like the gates of Aznaith, giving the barely living a fleeting view of the damned. Kyp, choking, stepped up next to Han.
"Mara?" Luke said into the shadows, not sensing her so much as hoping for her. She seemed to shift away from him, her presence merely an echo in the gathered smoke. Han cleared his throat. "We've got to get out of here, kid," he rasped, his voice almost gone, his wife now almost unconscious in his arms.
Luke nodded but made no forward motion, only pivoted on his feet, seeking, searching. "Mara!" he shouted, summoning the Force, looking through the gloom. And at that moment, just as he had begun to pull her barriers away, she appeared behind him.
Han and Kyp watched in fascination as Mara put a hand to Luke's shoulder. He whirled around, a look of joy on his face. If she saw it, she made no sign. Instead of extending a hand or even smiling at him, she merely glared straight into his clouded gaze. Then, moving with precision and a dancer's controlled grace, she landed a neat right cross, hardened fist directly across his jaw. He went down like a sack of heavy vegetables, out cold.
The corridor lifted and rocked under their feet and the suspicious hissing of decompression grew ever louder. Han's shout of dismay was tinged with irritation. An explosion followed it, resounding directly from inside the detention corridor. "Mara!" he yelled over the now plentiful flames. Sweat poured off his face and his hands were restless as he held tight to Leia. "What'd ya do that for?! Now, somebody's gonna have to carry him!"
Mara merely stood over the unconscious Jedi Master, rubbing her small fist and grinning like a madwoman. "Durron, are you up to it?"
Kyp moved over to Luke's prone figure, returning her grin. "Yep. I guess we can swing it, Jade."
Mara leaned down to grab Luke by one arm and her voice was so soft that Kyp, reaching for the other, could barely catch the words. "That, Skywalker," she whispered, as one making good on a promise, "was for breaking my collarbone."
The Millennium Falcon
Han slammed down the data pad on the small, chipped, gaming table. The inoffensive but incredibly hard shell bounced away. The lacquered game board was already pitted with evidence of countless disagreements. Kyp, gazing down at it for a distracting moment, figured one more wouldn't hurt.
Leia leaned forward, her small hands clenched together. Suddenly it was like old times again, sister and brother walled off and uncommunicative. Kyp was slumped in a seat by the wall. Chewbacca merely groaned in a wookie version of deja vu and Mara was fiery, but restrained, in the corner. The reclusive Kam, seeing what was coming, had already headed for the cockpit.
"You can't mean this, Luke," Leia said, her control only just reaching past her strained voice. "You can't mean this."
Luke, slumped in an inside-out pose of defiance, was adamant. "I have to," he said, a phrase he had already repeated three times.
Leia came back at him. "Why?"
Luke gave her a look that was equal parts agony and eagerness. "I had a vision." he said, rising. His hands slapped softly against the old table as he pushed away from his small chair. He gazed around the familiar common room. Chewbacca merely looked at him, unmoved. Kyp was unenthusiastic and Han was glaring from the other side of the room, his arms crossed. Luke recoiled. He had never seen Han so angry before.
A feeling of hurting the people he loved, who truly loved him for what he was, not for his powers, or his knighthood or his celebrity sat in his stomach, coiled like a snake. These were his inner circle, his own. Something within quailed as he realized that he might lose these souls if he continued on his quest. But Master Djinn's command was not to be denied.
"I don't have much choice......" he began, seeking to break the dangerous quiet.
"Yes you do! You can come back with us! We'll figure out a way, you'll see...." This was the old Leia again, adamant, dragging possibility out of impossibility, dogged, never giving up.
He smiled at her, seeing the past and present all rolled into one flashing instant. "Under any other circumstances, I'd say yes," he replied softly, his eyes glinting in a rare, unembarrassed affection. "But, this time I can't. I've been charged. Besides," he turned to face them all, his weakened powers no match for the purity of his sister's soul, "if we leave now, it'll just happen all over again."
Leia scowled. "How can you say that? How do you know? Now that you know what to fight, what to look for...."
"She's with Irek Ismaren now. Roganda is dead," Luke interrupted quietly. Han glared at the kid's face and suddenly wondered at the maturity there. It was almost as if the Jedi were a different person, or that he had gone through some sort of trial by fire, something that had affected him right down to the bones.
"Good riddance," Han put in, his voice smooth as he began to calm down. "But, I don't get it. So, she's with Irek. So what?"
Luke was patient. "Irek is very powerful, powerful enough to be a real danger to the New Republic. Before it was just Khaali, but now, the both of them together......" He lifted his eyes into their united opposition. "We have to deal with them now, before things get worse."
"It's already worse," Han said, pushing himself away from his place along the wall. Chewbacca whined, a soft warning. "I know, Chewie, but somebody's gotta say it. This is no time for politeness."
Leia threw her hands up in a gesture of 'not again!" and closed her eyes. Han pretended not to notice her. "I understand that you feel responsible for Callie.....uh.... Khaali, but don't you think we could send another Jedi? Say Kyp here, or Kam, somebody who's not so involved with her...."
Luke smiled and the expression held a banked fierceness that made even the experienced smuggler step back. "This is personal, Han. It always has been. The old Master is right." Here he sighed grimacing at his public confession. "It was my desire for her that led her to this. Besides," he continued, feeling suddenly uncomfortable, "she's not the same person she was anyway....."
"Yeah, she's gone to the Darkside," Han put in, feeling the need to state the obvious.
"Luke," Leia was pleading, seeing the whole operation running fruitlessly down the drain like so much hoarded water escaping into a desert. "You can't lay this burden on yourself. What if...... if.....?"
"I die?" Luke almost laughed but stopped at the behest of something deep inside. This was not the time for bravado. "That's occurred to me, more than once," he said. "In fact, for a while there, that's all I wanted to do. I was almost successful, too. If it hadn't been for Pellaeon and...... Irek, I would be dead."
"Pellaeon is finished," Leia said, quietly moving away from the uncomfortable subject. "Roganda was his link to Irek and that has been broken. Although she turned out to be a wink link......."
Luke smiled but it was a humorless expression, almost a grimace. "You could say that," he said, trying not to shudder. He knew he needed cleansing, a deep meditating time, solitude and quiet. He need to go back to the Academy and retreat for a while. Roganda's images still floated in his mind, coming to the foreground, making him long for things he never knew or imagined. But, while Khaali lived, there was no escaping. She had to turn or....."
"You're going to try and save her, aren't you?" This was Mara, who had, until that moment, maintained a blank silence. Startled, Han glanced over at her.
Luke put his weight on both feet, almost a battle stance. If he had his lightsaber ...... but no, Khaali had it, or Irek. His heart moved within him, a sickening, turning feeling. "She has to turn back," he replied with all the certitude he could muster.
Leia shook her head. "Why does it have to be you?" she asked, her words passing from desperate to merely weary. A flickering thought left an impression that, perhaps, her brother would have been better off dead.
"I am responsible for her, I am the reason she did not die an honorable death," Luke began again, paraphrasing Djinn's words.
"No, you're not!" Leia cried, her control finally gone at last. "She was the one who made the decision to go into the **Eye,** she was the one who changed bodies with.... with Cray, she was the one who left Yavin two years ago! You did not choose any of these things for her...."
Luke cast his gaze at the worn deck. It was metallic and hard, worn spots showing nothing but flat, unpolished metal. He suddenly thought of all who had walked here, sat here, laughed and talked here, trained here.....
Unbidden, a picture of Ben entered his mind, Ben's voice echoing through an old helmet, helping him to see despite the blast shield. Telling him the truncated tale of his own history, giving an unpolished farmboy the hard essentials for a lifetime of striving, tools with which to answer an idealism that, even then, was so strong it defied definition. And that unbearable idealism had led him here, at the end, on a mission to correct his own mistakes, to make the galaxy whole again. He was beaten, he had fallen once, maybe twice, he had made horrible mistakes. But still, he was here. He had to try. He smiled at the memory of a short lifetime and knew that, at last, he had finally become like his old teacher.
He raised his eyes and gazed directly into his sister's. "I have no choice, Leia," he said, becoming very formal. Instead of a beloved sister, for a moment he saw only a haughty princess, distant and unobtainable. "She is linked to me somehow. I can't leave her to condemnation."
Han's anger rose again, and uttering a disgusted word, he turned on his heel making for the hatch. Chewie merely stood for a reproachful moment before following. Kyp nodded curtly, drew breath and retreated into one of the little sleeping areas. Artoo beeped a cheerful greeting from the corridor as he registered Chewie. Leia, rising to stand defiantly before her errant brother, merely let her eyes speak for her.
Gazing deep into them, Luke was amazed at the change there. The haunted woman of only weeks ago was now light, optimistic, weightless. She had taken a journey, and in the taking, had been cleansed. She was pure now, all that had been done to her, all that had sullied her, was put away as if it had never been. A gentle but powerful light shone through her gaze, as powerful as Djinn's, or even Ben's. The fulfillment of a lifetime was there. He had known, even years ago before it all started, that she was better than him, that she was stronger than him. That of the two of them, she was the most worthy. And now he had come face to face with it again.
"You're sure about this," she said, her voice now completely serene.
"I have to do it," he replied, feeling suddenly corrupt.
She lifted her head in a formal manner and dipped it, her upbringing as royalty standing her in good stead. "Then, we will go. But I warn you, if you turn......"
"If I turn, I will die," he rejoined simply, his words chilling.
She nodded curtly and retreated into one of the sleeping bays, all the better to think. And so the room was held in the palm of absolute silence as he gazed around and found himself alone, at last, with Mara.
Mara's eyes were unblinking, her stance against the wall unmoving. She studied him, as if he were but a specimen in zoo, or a representation of something from long ago and far away. Dispassionate, she remained motionless. He gazed back at her, resisting the temptation to rub his jaw. It still hurt.
"I suppose I deserved it," he said after a time. There was a comforting clicking as the hyperdrive engines adjusted to some minuscule course change.
"That's not the way I would put it, Skywalker," she replied. Her words were hard but her voice was surprisingly low, almost intimate.
He tried to smile. "You didn't have to hit me so hard....."
"No, you only broke my collarbone. Clean through. Cilghal thinks it may never heal properly."
His brow furrowed. "Why?"
She turned her back to him, studying one of the innumerable panels that lined the walls. The lights showed blue and ready. "Does it matter?" she said after a time, her arms still crossed.
He noticed how slender she was, all intensity and emotion but very little flesh. She was pinched, the skin abnormally pale, and he realized that care and burdens were all she had ever known. Even her customary fire was muted. He resisted the urge reach out and run a concerned finger along her hairline, to trace her injured shoulder. But guilt raged in his heart and he merely gazed at the back of her head, studying the careless bun. No aristocratic braids for Mara. Still, he could not resist taking a small step forward. "It does," he replied, his voice softening.
He saw her shoulders move, as if she were laughing. "Now that Callie's gone..." she began.
He fell right into the trap. His heart pounded unreasonably fast and he felt unexpectedly lightheaded. "Now that Callie's gone," he echoed, almost joyous, "we can..."
In an instant she turned, a blue bladed lightsaber held easily against him. Instinctively he backed away, his feet crossing one another as he began to circle. "She looked plenty alive to me, Skywalker. And here you are, still chasing after her! What are your intentions, Master Luke?" she demanded, her tone hissed and shadowed.
He grimaced at the sound of his own first name. "Don't call me that," he said, now motionless, palms down, eyes glittering.
"I'll call you what I wish," she maintained, stepping back into a ready position. The saber was still activated, its buzzing now loud in the artificial silence of the Falcon. And then a question, a searching question. "Why did you come back, Luke?"
His blue eyes cascaded all around her. "I had to... to see..."
"It wasn't for all Leia, was it?" Mara interrupted as he stumbled back into silence. She deactivated the saber and placed it on her belt.
Luke dropped his gaze and, in a fit of shame, shook his head. Suddenly he noticed how the light played over her pale features, how her hair was pushed away from her surprisingly delicate face, how her eyes glimmered, deep and compelling, in the cold shadow of the ship.
A small laugh emanated from her. Her eyes were like jewels. "We haven't been treating each other too well lately, have we Luke?" she remarked, her voice held in the detached boundaries of rhetoric. "I can't trust you anymore. And you don't trust me..."
This was too direct, even for him. "I trust you," he said, his voice husky with emotion. "But, while Khaali lives, I can't trust myself."
Mara laughed again, but it was a bitter sound, like desert sand grinding along worn walls. Things were clear now, too clear. "Ah, yes, now we come to it. Callie...." she said speculatively. He glanced up to see her lips float around the name. "Or should I say, Khaali?"
Luke shifted and thought about making for the chair. But no, there was a barrier there, holding him in place. "She goes by that now," he replied simply. The words hung between them, ominous.
Mara realized, all in one flashing second, that everything she had been had thought or felt about him had been misplaced. Unwilling. reluctant, her disciplined, compartmentalized mind glimpsed a faint murmur of light on the edge of shadow she had never known was there. She realized, with dismay, that something was changing. A spark of unaccustomed feeling escaped her control and snaked around her, making her feel caged. Instinct took over as she struggled to free herself.
Luke's voice was soft, suddenly a little too knowing. "What are you fighting, Mara?"
She did not answer, only moved away. Again, she turned her back to him. Only ship's noises intruded for a time and then her voice broke its own, self-imposed silence. "Do you think you'll be able to turn her?" she asked, reaching for and attaining stillness.
He admired her control for a fleeting second and then responded with a confession, "She almost turned me."
He saw her stiffen and his heart wrenched in a paroxysm of pain and regret. Shamed, he knew she had been there, had seen everything. He glanced down at his hands and it was if Khaali's blood was still there, stained with corruption and death. She had felt his repulsion, then his attraction, then the witch's face palmed in his rough hands and finally, his utter despair. How could he face her after that? How could he look her in the eye? Mara, head down, remained closed off from him, the personification of an unmoving, profound and embarrassed silence. The engines clicked again.
Somewhere, away back toward the cockpit, Chewbacca's growl was lit by Han's irritated voice. Anger fell through the corridors, piercing the bulkheads, settling under the indicator lights. All on the ship was on the cusp of change; Han was angry, Kyp and Kam uncertain and distrustful, Leia, her purity restored, watching carefully from within. A peculiar sense of time moving combined with complete, cosmic motionlessness served to make him lightheaded. He pushed the feelings away.
"I wanted it..." he said. They were ripped from him, small, simple, explanatory words, an inarticulate apology of great suffering and utter defeat. He felt a sinking in his soul and wondered how he could ever possibly explain it all to her. The Force, for all its gifts, had never lent him eloquence. Once again, despair took him and he sank back toward the far wall, pushed away from her presence by an overwhelming sense of his own unworthiness, his own foolishness. "I wanted her, I would have gone with her... been her Emperor..."
A sudden gloaming of cynical anger emanated from Mara, glittering through his soul like a phantasmic sword, pushed mercilessly into his being. The pain was like a fired brand pressed into tender skin. Something inside snapped and he sank to the deck, his legs numbed and useless. She whirled back on him, her face was a cold mask.
"You're a lie, Skywalker!" she said, her tone dripping with contempt. "You play at purity, but always you come back to this, following in your father's footsteps! You went with her, you forget, I was there! I saw her face, I heard her voice, I know... know what you felt, what you knew. And still, you went with her!!" She took breath and held it, her shoulders shaking with rage. "Maybe you would be better off dead..." Her hand moved to the saber.
All of his life he had leaned toward the light, all his life his purity of soul had saved him from evil. All his life... but now, now was different. Now he knew she was right. He had given his soul to the damned, willingly, eagerly. He was not a Jedi, he was not even a person. He was a pitiful being, one who deserved to die, to become a new spirit taking its place with the wandering undead, the evil demons that haunted people in their dreams, that spoke to the frightened animals in the forests, that crawled through the vacuum of space, deleterious and evil. Byss was full of them. And suddenly, their voices called again, called him by name...
Completely miserable, he willed her to use his father's saber, to end his experiment in the ways of the Force once and for all. He knew she was right, and felt a blackening, spreading shame, oozing hopelessness, death and decay.
And then, in the tortured recesses of his mind, in the throes of self-pity, a familiar sound crept into his heart. She was laughing. "Mara... please..." he pleaded through dry, dead lips. "You're the only one who can do it. You can save me, save me from myself..."
The laughter became audible. "Not so fast, Jedi Master," she intoned, striding away from her own distaste and fastening like a leech onto his guilt. "You're on a mission, remember? You're supposed to save Miss Callista."
Luke made a weak gesture of contempt. "It was wrong, Mara. Callista is dead." I never realized... she died with the Eye. Khaali... Khaali is only a demon, a dark spirit possessing Callie's soul..."
"So now we're back to the 'noble Callie' business," she put in sarcastically, cutting him off. She came to stand over him, shadow looming, eyes cutting. "Don't feed me that, Skywalker! Callie's still here, somewhere!" Uncertainty overtook her here, but she shook it off. "And, we both know she's definitely not noble. She tried to turn you and when she couldn't, she tried to kill you." There was a soft pause. And the next words were realizing, an epiphany. "That really surprised you, didn't it?"
He stared at her boots. "I... I loved her, I thought she loved me..." he said, his stubborn voice breaking over an unforgiving riverbed of sorrow.
"Has it ever occurred to you, Luke," she said, very deliberate, "that you never loved anyone? That you only fell in love with a fantasy, a version of yourself?"
He shut his eyes hard and at last a driving light bit into his mind. For the sake of protecting the last of his precious illusions, he gave her a hard Force shove. "No!" he shouted. Mara stumbled back, unprepared for his violent reaction. A startled Kyp appeared at the door of one sleeping bays and Leia at another. Mara heard Chewbacca address Han, but the smuggler did not appear. R2 whistled.
Mara regained her balance and turned to glare the other two back into their respective rooms. Then she turned back to Luke. He was a pitiful sight. He was still in a mangled imperial flight suit, old and ill fitting. It was stained with blood, grime, smoke and death. Sunk onto the floor, he was pushed up against the wall, his head turned toward it, his face tight like that of a child expecting a long feared punishment.
A sudden, uncharacteristic pity laid hold of her for a moment and before she knew what she was doing, she came down to his level. She could feel his agitation, his racing heart. Concerned, but more than a little detached, she folded her hands one into the other and, keeping them to herself, gave him a long, meditative look.
"Luke," she said finally, her voice now completely neutral. "She will never turn. You know that, don't you?"
Only agitated breathing answered her, racing through the room. Unnoticed, Kyp again came to stand, still as stone, at his darkened threshold, He let his being become one with the stillness of the Force and listened, fascinated.
Luke nodded, unable to speak. But, somehow, the hot, molding emotion of his hurt, pain and grief, made him long for her, for her common sense and strength, for her hard won soul. All restraint gone, his hand reached out, begging forgiveness for the unpardonable, reaching with trembling fingertips to her folded ones. Seeing them, studying them as if for the first time, he was soaked in sudden wonder. They were small, with short, stubby nails and delicate joints. He saw substance stains there, leftover from a recent repair job. Still, they were the purest hands had ever seen, almost angelic in the flat light, holding within their very essence the gift of absolution. His pleading hand shook as it neared hers, reaching out in regret and uncertainty. But her right hand came up, stopping him instantly.
"Don't." she commanded.
Rebuked, his hand fell away, and he turned back to the wall. To keep it from trembling, he pressed it against the cold deck, flat and unfeeling, its singed mechanics blackened and just visible. She straightened, a sudden clarity rushing through her mind, tearing apart old confusion. She gave him a long studied moment as her mind raced. Here he was, pitiful, childish, pleading for forgiveness. Why, she asked herself, had she done this? Why was she here? Why had she gone to so much trouble? It was clear he only loved Callie, that he had to save Callie, that the partially resurrected Jedi was his life.
She was astonished when his voice appeared in her mind, low and murmuring. "Don't think that, Mara," it said. "I need you. I can't go on without..."
"I don't believe you, Skywalker," she interrupted out loud. He shuddered, but his face was still held away. "But," she sighed heavily, thinking through the breath. "Let's just say you owe me one," she said, a kind of accursedness in her tone, as if she were taking a vow.
He nodded. "Then... you understand," he rasped.
She crossed her arms and her stance widened. "Not really, Skywalker," she said her tone perfectly normal. "All I know is you're still running after Callie. Only this time you've got a dead master on your side."
He remained motionless, the tension pooling between them. "I must follow... It's my duty..." he began, after an earsplitting silence.
"Then you are right, we must go to Rasclann," she whispered giving in.
There was silence from the floor, the suffocating sound of noiseless breathing held in check, as if he were concentrating, pulling himself back from the brink of oblivion.
"You'll have to kill her, Luke," she said finally, her words a death sentence, the culmination of years of unconscious searching meeting realization only to become a hope crushed.
He opened his eyes and his next words shocked her. "What if I can't do it?" There was real fear there, real uncertainty.
She took a step backward and swallowed, his fear flooding her mind. And some selfless part of her, some part answered unthinkingly from the heart, to that need, to the fear. "Then I will," she replied, simply.
A strange, reluctant gratitude shone in his face and he closed his eyes again as she turned and strode away, making for the hatchway. But, moments into the small journey, she slowed and her footfalls stopped. The offer had been returned, the vow made and now, at least while Khaali lived, they were tied together.
He started when her heard her voice in his ear, her breath on his face. His eyes opened slowly, lost in a fog of exhaustion and self- condemnation. "You are tired," she said with her usual briskness. A small, fleeting vulnerability came and went. "Come," she said, extending her arms to him.
To his own pounding astonishment, Mara helped him stumble to his feet and taking him by the arm, led him in clicking silence to Kyp, who stood, still, at the door of the sleeping bay. And then, at Mara's silent, almost ceremonial signal, Kyp stepped forward to aid of a broken man.
Mara's arms slid away as Kyp took the Jedi's weight. She faded like a comforting, fleeting spirit into soft shadows as Luke made one last reaching gesture, all the better to forestall a rising tide of emptiness. Kyp's surety, barely noticed, embraced the Jedi and stayed him. Kyp smiled, weary but somehow knowing and a curtain of affection seemed to grace his callow features, the illuminating, forbearing affection of a son for an ailing father.
No word was spoken, no thought given, nor was any returned. At the end, the stage was only empty. Leia regarded it unseen from her own darkened bay and knew, in a heart renewed by terrible trial and now unassailed by corruption, that the time had come.