Rasclann was shrouded in twilight, its forests and meadows shivering under the effects of the fourth season. The Millennium Falcon had landed quiet like, near enough, but not too near several isolated structures. The sensor array, functioning only intermittently, gave indications of living presences within the structures, but information was spotty. It could be birds, or a concentration of wild animals nearby, or simply vibrations along a roof or a tree branch. Still, it as good a place to start as any.
"Easy, Chewie," Han said, as he ran through the shutdown procedure.
Chewbacca whined, tired and more than a little tense.
"Yeah, well looking for dark jedi is not my idea of a good time either, pal," Han replied, preoccupied.
Leia made her way into the cockpit. "Everything alright?"
Han gave his wife a crooked smile but she knew it was from tension rather than the pleasure of her presence. "As alright as it's gonna be for a while." He gestured at the viewport, now full of a brown and black landscape, trees almost bare, birds scudding through the dusk-colored sky. "Looks like a real tourist spot," he said casually, breaking a silence.
"This makes up for Krasny," she put in, her smile wry.
"That reminds me, love of my life.... that's one place you might actually like..."
She gave him an amused look out of tilted eyes. "When, Han?" she asked, her voice a challenge. "In between the meetings, the arguments, putting out fires that always flare up again, the senatorial functions.....?"
He put a finger to her mouth, a tender, familiar gesture. "Has it ever occurred to you that they'll impeach you after we return, if they haven't already?"
Her face was worried. "Every minute," she replied, becoming subdued. "I'm worried about the kids."
Han sighed. "Me too. Winter'll look after 'em, along with Ackbar. He may not like what we did, but he's not gonna take it out on the kids."
She nodded, but her face was puckered with worry. "What if they do?" she asked, thinking out loud.
He turned his back to her for a moment, deftly closed down a system and answered, throwing his voice over his shoulder. "Do what?"
He shrugged and turned back to her, unable to resist. "You could use a good impeachment...." he began, grinning.
She grimaced but her words were agitated. "Han! You know what I mean...."
He took her by her shoulders, his long, graceful fingers curling comfortingly. His face became serious. "Has it ever occurred to you, Princess, that impeachment might be just what the doctor ordered? Maybe now's the time, maybe your public life is an at end...... maybe you need to slow down a little and decide what you want to do with the rest of your life."
"But, the government needs me...."
"No," he said quickly. "Mon Mothma needs you. Ackbar needs you. In a way, you're still their errand boy, their page, their junior senator. It was only with this last initiative, this thing with the Imperials...." he gestured slightly, taking in the ship and its deserted surroundings, "that you really went against them."
She frowned and he could see the familiar lines of worry tighten around her eyes. "There's probably a dozen 'I-told-you-so' messages in my mail already."
He chuckled. "So, your secretary will get a good laugh. He keeps count of those things, doesn't he?"
Leia smiled, albeit a little reluctantly. "Somebody's got to get a laugh out of it." She sighed, the mantle of government suddenly filled with lead as it shrouded her small shoulders. "You don't know how bad it's been. Lately, they've been on my back about everything, from the Kashyyyki senator and his strange parties all the way to an arrangement that will have me hosting every welcoming reception for every system that applies for membership."
Chewbacca whined again, urfing a little. "We don't want to know, Chewie," Han replied, his crooked smile slight. Then it disappeared altogether. "You don't have enough time to sleep, eat or anything else for that matter, as it is!" He pulled up quiet. This was the beginnings of an old argument. And a pointless one. He changed the subject. "That's how you met that page of yours, isn't it?"
She sat in one of the seats. "Oh, you mean T'anonma? Yeah, sort of. Although, the first time I ever spoke to her was during one of my visits to the roof gardens." Leia smiled here. "She said it reminded her of home."
His hazel eyes held an amused gleam. She seemed so animated for an instant, even in the gloom of a dilapidated freighter on a cold, deserted planet. His heart warmed. "She's a good kid, real feisty, reminds me of somebody I used to know...." He paused, waiting for her to take the bait.
"Who?" she asked, really curious.
He burst out laughing. "Some Jedi you are! She's a lot like you were about the time we first met."
Leia smiled a little sheepishly, the tension momentarily gone. "Maybe," she replied, suddenly feeling shy. "If I hadn't gotten caught on the Tantive, or been ..... taken.... to the first Death Star, or watched as...."
He leaned over her, his arms protectively straight on the back of the seat. "That wasn't your fault, Leia," he said, his expression serious again.
She gazed up at him, loving him even more than she had at the beginning. "I know," she said.
He gave her a quizzical look, momentarily intrigued. He could see it -- her eyes were different, her face was different, perhaps even her soul was different. He straightened, all trace of raillery washed away. A long silence played out to a haunting, whistling wind. But, suddenly, the world didn't seem so forbidding anymore. "I think you're right, Princess," he said, his voice full of wonder.
She merely gazed at him. The cold wind hurled its wounded voice against the transparasteel and a bird flew by, unalarmed by the strangers in its midst as the pale sun went down. Night stretched cold and dark along the sky. Moved by something he did not bother to analyze, Han bent and embraced his wife, kissing her and felt her new soul stir beneath weariness and all-consuming ache. A warmth settled over him, hopeful, optimistic and completely out of place. He whispered something and together they faded into the gloom of the corridor, taking warmth with them. The ship, its fragile metal hulls and constructions odd and ugly, seemed to sigh as it huddled into the intermittent shadowplay of a night covered meadow. It was time for sleep.
Luke lay in the darkened bunk and listened to the sad voice of the wind as it moaned and complained around the ship. For the first time in what seemed like years, he had nothing to do, no students to teach, no problems to solve, nothing to make or repair. They wouldn't even let him help with the sensor array. His companions simply, specifically left him alone. They did not shun him so much as they did not speak to him. Meals came and went in silence, Kyp and Kam slept in shifts, leaving and returning to their berths in a preoccupied quiet that would have driven all but the most resilient crazy.
But, somehow, rather than being off-putting or offensive, the quiet was therapeutic. Luke looked back on the last six months and realized how wrong it had all been. He remembered how he had secretly watched Tionne, a constant, twisting coil of tension at the pit of his stomach, eating at his soul. He remembered how a young student had read his mind too well, all in a flash, and the embarrassing aftermath. He remembered how his bones ached after he returned to consciousness on Coruscant and Leia's hard expression as he tried to explain himself. He had thought her unrelenting search for the truth unfair at the time but now realized it had been entirely proper, dictated by her integrity and her position. Even Callie's message, so shocking at the time, was now only a faint memory, a play acted scene, a ruse.
There was a hard gust and he shivered as he listened to it. It held the dead voice of his past, of the ghosts that had haunted him for years. He heard the voice of Ben, his father, the cackle of the Emperor. He remembered pleading with Ben's spirit not to leave him, in the middle of the night, on Coruscant. He was so young then, so ignorant. And then Mara had appeared on the fading heels of his mentor, washed up on the last tide of empire before it sank forever into a deep and merciless void.
He had even, in a fit of insanity, tried to change the Force from inside out. That experiment had failed miserably, requiring once more, that Han and Leia save him. And despite it all, deluded into thinking he was a master and feeling the he had no real choice, he petitioned for permission to use Yavin as a school. The Senate, riding high on his successes had not even given the matter serious discussion. If that's what the illustrious Luke Skywalker wanted, then that's what he would get.
But still, failure stalked him. For after that there was Gantoris, Kyp, the discovery of Exar Kun and then Callie. It was the first time he had ever, recognizably, fallen in love. This euphoria was experienced in the bowels of a ship rotting from the inside out as he rushed to fight an implacable computer set on destruction. But, the heady incident at Belsavis was soon followed by the truncated Hutt intrigue and the death of another of his students.
His was a history of despair, of painful and prolonged suffering. It seemed as if he had lived his life many times over, had lived the life of a mythological hero and had, in a strange way, never lived his life at all. For now, everything seemed to play on a stage, in a storybook, illustrated by elaborate holos. Everything seemed unreal, as if he could be snuffed out by a sleepy voice and a shut light. He felt completely pulled out of himself, completely detached. 'Perhaps,' he thought, in a calm way, 'perhaps I'm dead....' But no, he was in too much pain to be dead.
His thoughts were interrupted by Kam, who had returned from the outside of the ship. A slivered finger of coldness followed his former student as he removed his gloves. A sudden look, a brush with eye contact, flew through the darkened room and Kam stilled. There was a strained silence, as if Kam were listening for something and then words, the first words addressed to Luke in days.
There was a moment of acceptance and deep regret. "I'm sorry, Kam," Luke said, pulling himself to a sitting position.
Kam's movements resumed. The gloves fell, together, onto a berth. "I know, Master," was his only reply.
Mara was pacing, distracting herself as she stared out of the cockpit viewport. The planet, a little primitive scrap of a place, was headed into its fourth season, the season of dormancy and death. She shivered but it was not from the stealthy wind. The cold inside her heart was arctic even as it burned through her soul and she ached to release it somehow, to bury it, to find some place to hide it.
For weeks she had thought of nothing but Luke. Her former life faded into a sketched background, a half told story. Even her years with the Emperor, life forming and unforgettable, now seemed only a listening story, a way to pass time while doing something else. Restlessness seized her and suddenly she wanted out, she wanted to go anywhere, to do anything but sit here and gape into the blackness of a fourth season night. Winter sat upon her soul, a winter of desolation and suffering. Surely, she thought, surely she did not deserve this. She had atoned for her sins, for the sins committed under influence, for the times past, for the rage that had driven her into the arms of the Emperor and back again. All that was over, gone, done.
She sat and smiled distractedly to herself. Even the press had noticed. Some serious issue monger, hoping to score political points and perhaps carve an intellectual career for himself, had had the temerity to suggest, in public, that the revolutionaries who had fought the Empire so brilliantly, had laid down their lives, given their futures in order that Palpatine's horror might be overcome, must now leave the stage. Public opinion, heartily sick of the standard "Evil Empire" remembrances, had enthusiastically agreed.
It was a sea change, a yearning to be free of the driven people who had won their glory on the battlefield or in long dismantled but never forgotten torture chambers. There had even been calls for a new government, one not populated by so many relatives of the royalty of the Old Republic, nor so many revolutionaries from the time of empire. And, she knew as did everyone else, that fingers were pointed, more and more openly, at the Skywalkers.
Skywalker; the very name held billions spellbound. Luke and Leia, as the only remaining bearers of that magical collection of vowels and consonants, were a presence that caused shivers down the backs of people who, eerily, could no longer remember precisely what they had done. Generally, it was only remembered that these two diminutive people were somehow powerful and mysterious.
Mara smiled. That hard edged Princess, that consort to a smuggler, that woman was where she was because she was raised as royalty and for all anyone knew, she was royalty. She was there because she had been brought up during a time when the Emperor was dreaded and feared and she had the courage, or the foolishness, to rebel against him, only to be caught on her very first mission. So, really, Mara reasoned, tired and just a little exasperated, Leia was the Chief of State because Crown Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan had been an incompetent revolutionary. It was a huge irony. For very rarely is incompetence so unjustly rewarded.
Still, Mara thought in a turnabout of decision, the Princess had certainly paid for it. Mara shifted in the pilot's seat and gave the pit like darkness another long look, the low lights of the cockpit completely hidden from the chill world outside. Now, there was something in the air, something undefined but so strong that it had swept them all to this rustic world, had made them the questioning, if faithful, servants of an errant Jedi, had given them a hopeless mission.
And that brought her right back to her original problem. Mara knew very well that he would have to kill Callista. She had to die. But, did he have to die? Was there a way out for him? And, no matter who killed Callista, the guilt, shame and anger would be with him, should he live through it, for a long time. She stared at an indicator light, small and glowing, embedded within the velvet night like a cast off jewel. Did she, she asked herself, her own voice clear in her mind, did she wish to be associated with such a wounded person?
The orange light merely glowed amber and organic as the wind picked up. It had to be right around midnight, she decided, not really wanting to know. Lately, sleep was a mirage, a blessed state only reached at the point of utter exhaustion. She felt her eyes closing, her head nodding. Perhaps now, the berth would allow her to nod off, to forget, if only for a few hours.
She stood and headed out of the cockpit, back into the living areas. Kyp smiled at her, working on something at the small table. Otherwise the place was deserted. She merely nodded in reply and slipped into the proper bay. Immediately her eyes closed and she slept, held in the arms of uneasy dreams as the night rounded in on itself in an eternal, primordial circle, until day dawned again.
Kyp awoke with a start, a searing presence on the edge of his consciousness. He jerked upright in the small bunk and turned to the see the Master's shadowed eyes upon him. Luke held up a hand, the right hand, still in need of repair. He wore a single glove over it, the contrast odd with that of his bare left hand.
"Master?" Kyp asked, wondering at the sound of the word.
"They're here," Luke replied with certainty, his voice fractured in the quiet. "I know where they are.
Kyp stood. "Are you sure? We were only able to pick up slight indications, but Chewie thinks it's only an animal's den, or...."
"No, it's them, alright," Luke replied, his voice fading to a whisper. He turned to give his student a hard look. "Irek will destroy the ship if he learns of its presence. Have the repairs been completed?"
Kyp swallowed. "As much as we could do. We don't have the right equipment...."
To Kyp's surprise, Luke smiled. "Good, that will throw him off the scent for a while. Or at least, it will buy us a little time."
Kyp smiled back, but it was a tentative expression. "Are you sure about this, Master?"
Luke's face became serious. "I'm sorry I've dragged you into this Kyp," he said quietly. "But I have to do this. They have to be stopped."
Kam stuck his head in the door. "They're awake and searching," he said, his voice suddenly loud in the muffled gloom.
Kyp and Luke merely nodded and stepped through the hatchway. In the common area, the entire crew was there, Mara, Leia, Kam, Han and Chewbacca. Mara, Leia and Han were already dressed in cold weather gear. Kam was drawing an old rebellion issue white coat out of a complaining locker. He threw it to Kyp and reached for another. This one was for Luke.
Luke grimaced. "These are from Hoth," he said, fingering the worn material.
"When you don't waste, you don't want, as my mother used to say," Han put in, grinning. "The military wanted to throw them away. I got 'em for next to nothing."
Leia rolled her eyes. "It was the bargain of the decade," she put in, a trifle sarcastic. Luke knew her nerves were on edge. "We've heard the story before, Han."
"Well, it just goes to show that the Procurement Department is wasting tax revenues....."
A sharp voice cut him short, Mara's voice. "If we have a committee meeting about it, Irek and Khaali will be sitting in the throne room on Coruscant by the time we get back. It's time, people."
Luke nodded at her, finally meeting her level gaze for the first time in days. It was he that gave the signal. "Let's go" he said quietly and they all made for the main hatch, the ramp and a desolate winterscape, buffeted by slicing breezes.
They hiked for a couple of hours, silent. Murmurings of conversation flew, an undercurrent, whenever the land rose high enough to be studied. It was unexpectedly rugged and the trackless forests were tangled with fallen trees and rustling, dead undergrowth. The cold shivered through their cold weather gear, although after a time, Mara found she was sweating. Luke, although physically the weakest of them all, had pulled ahead, pressing on through an ever more malevolent fog of despair. She knew his brain was thinking, planning, remembering, trying to forget the pain. He has been through weeks of hell, of torture, of fighting. His mind needed peace and rest. And if he lived, that's what he would get.
Han halted again at a low rise, a meadow of brownish plant life spreading away, fallow and soft. Their breath drew deep, white veils over their faces as they blinked away stray moisture. Mara's eyelashes were misted with it as she gazed around. Luke stepped forward to stand by Han, studying the situation.
"Over there," Luke said, gesturing slightly with a heavily gloved hand. "They're in the large structure we noted earlier."
Han squinted into the cloudy day. A small bird flitted through the trees, shooting over the disused meadow like a tiny, brown arrow. "There's two structures," he said, his voice hoarse with cold. "The smaller one's here," he pointed south. "There's a larger one north of it, about five kilometers, I'd say."
"Head north," Luke said, his voice firm with knowledge and foreboding. "The southern one is empty."
"You sure about that?" Han asked, eyeing his brother-in-law diffidently.
Luke smiled, a humorless expression. "Positive," he replied.
It took them another several hours of bad country and difficult hiking just to come within a good day's travel of the larger structure. They had seen no evidence of wildlife except for small, sparrow like birds and foreboding black crows. These were unsettling, their flinty eyes gleaming and intelligent, but as neither Irek nor Khaali was known to have the ability to change shapes, they were resolutely ignored. After all, that was an ancient art, lost long ago. Still, the birds seemed alert, making Luke think of the Dathomir witches. It occurred to him, in passing, that they would be right at home on Rasclann.
At the end of the first day out, they rested on the borders of a tangled forest, edging yet another deserted meadow. The forest rustled as the breeze explored it, testing it. There was a small, almost lightless fire, built by Mara who had very good survivalist skills.
Luke, back from a final reconnoiter, sat down next to her. "Good job," he began, nodding toward the fire.
Her face remained hard, like flame washed stone. "I had good teachers," she replied, her words simple and declarative.
He grinned. "Sorry. I'd forgotten...."
She looked away. "About a lot of things," she said, her voice tight.
His grin faded. There was a silence as they both contemplated not saying anything at all. Luke spoke first. "It's been a long time, hasn't it?"
"Not long enough, Skywalker," she replied, making to rise.
He stopped her, putting a gloved hand on her arm. "Don't," he said quickly, making an instant decision.
"Skywalker...." she began, her voice pitted in warning.
"No, I mean it, Mara. We can't keep ignoring each other. We have unfinished business."
She sighed and gave in, temporarily. "This isn't the time, Luke," she said quietly. A bird rustled in the darkness just beyond the firelight and a larger, more ominous rustle betrayed the presence of a larger lifeform. Mara gave the shadowed perimeter a sudden, hard look.
"Looking for vronskers?" This was Luke, suddenly, inappropriately, playful.
She snorted in contempt and Kyp looked up, startled. She gave the young man a gleaming look and he retreated. "I wish. I'd know what to do then," she said, leaning back a little.
"Uhmmmm," he said, thinking. "Speaking of which, I think I have a duty to fulfill."
She faced him, her gaze direct and unwavering. "What are you talking about now, Skywalker?"
"I believe I owe you an apology," he said, pulling his hand away, safely clasping it in the other. "I have hurt you."
She let the words hang in the frozen air for a while. "It's a little late, Skywalker," she said finally, her words carefully chosen. He could feel her pulse rate rise.
He shrugged. "No matter. An apology is an apology. And also I think I owe you a debt of gratitude."
Her brow puckered and she resisted another urge to rise. "How's that?"
He sighed and spoke words that had been in his heart for a long time. "I've been taking you for granted lately. You broke me out of Detention on Coruscant...." he began.
She cast a look over her shoulder, Leia's way, her manner suddenly furtive. "Shhh. I'm still in deep for that one."
He smiled. "So is Leia, now."
She cocked her head at him. "That's true. I never thought of that before. What do you think they'll do?"
He smiled, a genuine expression, weary. "They've been threatening to impeach her for over a year now. They've just never had the consensus. This may be the straw that breaks the vronsker's back."
She studied him. "Vronskers never carry straw, Skywalker...."
His smile became wider. "Well, the bantha's back then. But, come to think of it, they don't usually carry straw either....." He shrugged his aching shoulders and closed his eyes as he stretched his neck. "All the same, even after I left you on Kransy...."
"You owe me," she interrupted instantly.
"I'm trying to thank you, Mara, if you would just stop interrupting!" he snapped, his voice was suddenly loud in the evening air. Leia straightened questioningly. Mara smiled tightly, made an easy gesture and his sister's dark glance turned away, amused.
"Sorry, Skywalker, I'm not used to people thanking me."
"What do they usually do?" he asked, exasperated.
"They pay me, Skywalker, usually very well."
He spread his hands slightly, indicating himself. "I have only myself," he said quietly.
There was a moment as the night deepened and the stars flickered to life, one by one, distant reminders of home. The air seemed to drop into a frozen stillness as the rustlings in the underbrush faded into silence. Birds, small brown balls of fluffy down, huddled on their branches, seeking protection from the dangerous night. Luke's hands dropped in weariness. "I'm just trying to thank you, Mara," he began again, his voice lowering in surrender.
She affected a nonchalant air. "Then I accept your apology, Skywalker. But it doesn't make up for everything."
He sighed. "It's a start."
She studied him for a long moment. His breath came in short, white gasps, his face was pale, eyes lost in shadow. "Apology accepted... but only on my terms."
He raised his hands and latched the thumbs into his belt. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that this isn't over yet, Skywalker, in case you haven't noticed. We have a lot between us, but we've still got Khaali and Irek and to deal with. They're waiting for us."
He glanced in the direction of the darkened meadow. "They know we're here," he said.
She followed his glance. "You could be wrong, Master," she said, uttering the formality with a straight face. "Maybe they're just hiding from Pellaeon and Otdjel."
He shook his head. "You forget, Mara, until she dies I have a link with her. I know they're waiting for us."
This last statement almost made Mara slug him again. As it was she stood up, her passion freezing as it hit the damp, clinging air. "You still love her, don't you?"
The words took him by surprise. He shifted, tension draining out of his weakened body. "I don't know, Mara," he replied, completely honest. "I don't know how I feel. I'm beginning to think I don't know what love is anyway, that in all my life I've never experienced it." He paused, thinking, completely unselfconscious. "I didn't think it would be so elusive...... maybe if Gaeriel had given me more time...."
A little dumbfounded that he was comfortable enough to mention the Bakuran girl, she sat beside him again, held there by a sort of morbid fascination. "You miss her, don't you?"
He smiled, but it was a wan, faded expression. "Leia hoped that we would....... but so much seemed to happen all at once. There was no time...."
"Yes there was," she said, her words surprisingly strong, her voice challenging. "There's always time. You just have to find it. You should have gone back for her, let her know how you felt, given her a chance."
His brow puckered as he considered. Then words flew through small breaths of puffed, white aspiration. "She made it clear, Mara. She would never have me. We lost touch...... She's a lot like Leia," he smiled here. "Maybe that's why Leia liked her so much. I could never see her making over a bunch of students on an out of the way planet...."
"Did you ever think that that Academy of yours was a mistake, Skywalker?"
He lifted his head at the unexpected question. "All the time, Mara. And lately, I've been thinking of disbanding it."
"Mmm," she replied, thinking. This was new. Perhaps he had more sense than she gave him credit for. "That's not really fair, though," she continued, surprising them both.
He gave her a sharp glance. "How so?"
She shifted her position on the uneven log and stamped a foot threatening to go numb. "You've got a whole school now, with how many students?"
"At last count, 200," he replied quietly.
She nodded. "Sounds about right. And they've all left home and come, some at great expense and hardship, to train with you and your companions here. You extended the invitation. Seems to me you can't send them home empty-handed."
He considered her profile, touched by dim fireshadow. "I never really thought of it that way, Mara," he replied after a stretched silence. "But I don't know if I should teach anymore....."
She smiled but did not face him. "That's not what I said. I said the Academy should remain, since it is already established. But you don't necessarily have to be there...."
He nodded. "True, Kam, Kyp or even Streen could run the course work, along with Tia...... Tionne pulling the administration work."
"You owe her an apology too, Luke."
He closed his eyes. "I know," he said.
Kam's boots crunched over the frosty ground. "Dinner's ready," he said, gesturing into the general darkness. Silent, hearts full of contemplation crystallizing within a cold night, they followed.
Leia sat down beside Han. He gave her heated rations a quick look and made a face.
"Hungry?" she asked, although she already knew the answer.
"Not right now," he replied, shifting his weight. The ground was merciless and hard, the dirt plastered into the crunchy patina of wintertime. He gazed at the perimeter of the dully lit campsite but stopped as his gaze took in Luke and Mara, sitting together on an uncomfortable log.
Leia followed his glance. "They've been there for an hour."
Han studied the two for a moment. Then he found himself studying his wife's face, the familiar contours uncertain in the flickering light. "Funny you should notice," he muttered.
"What's that supposed to mean?" There was irritation in her voice.
For a moment Han was motionless, his face down. The dull firelight darkened over his strong jawline and the bridge of his nose. "It's his life, Leia," he said after a thinking silence.
She drew breath, making to speak.
He felt it coming and interrupted. "No, he has to pull away from you. You can't have both of us."
She scowled. "What?!"
He smiled grimly. "You've had both of us since day one. Before he knew who he was, who you were, even while we were still rivals."
She shook her head. "Han! I can't believe it..... after all this time, after all that's happened!"
He lifted his face and looked her straight in the eye, pinning her to the wall. "Jealousy has nothing to do with it and you know it. And you can't deny that he's lived his life under your wing, especially his personal life."
"That's not true," she sputtered, taken aback.
"Yes it is. Remember how you had high hopes for him and Gaeriel Captison a while back? Remember how disappointed you were when she refused to have much to do with him?"
"Han......," she began, flustered.
"No, let me finish," Han replied, firmly. "I'll admit I didn't really understand her objections to the Force," here he stopped to grin, letting irony melt through her frozen expression, "but she was an excellent match for Luke. Intelligent, independent, well-intentioned, idealistic." This last word was uttered in a sound bubble of breathtaking sarcasm.
"She's made her position clear," Leia said, giving him a puzzled look.
"A pity, Princess," he said, leaning forward and up to nuzzle her neck. "She'd have made a pretty good Jedi in my book."
Leia stared down at him, thinking. Suddenly the rations felt lumpy, cold and very unappetizing. She set them on the ground. "Are you saying I drive people away from him?"
She could hear Han's grin. "I'd say that's part of the problem. He and... Mara should have gotten together years ago......"
"She tried to kill him!"
"That's all in the past. Sure, she's flawed, but so is he and lately it's been showing." He paused. "You've got to admit, they'd be pretty good together."
"If they didn't kill each other first," she muttered.
His boots shuffled on the slippery dirt. "What was that?"
She didn't move. "You heard me," she replied briskly, her words tangible as visible aspiration issued from her mouth. "There's been rumors ........"
"I know, I hear them before you do. And, I bet you haven't heard some of the more juicy ones....."
"Han..." There was a warning in her voice.
He backed off. "Okay, we both know they're not true, but they haven't hurt his reputation any, or hers for that matter....." His voice changed as he let his gaze follow Leia's. "Haven't you noticed how alike they are? They're both so alone, never socializing with anybody..... they've got no friends, no normal life."
"I thought she was with Karrde, or Lando." A grimace followed this statement.
He laughed. "Okay, maybe Karrde. But he's too sophisticated to take a woman like Mara lightly. I figure he's got feelings for her, though. As for Lando," he sighed and worked to stifle a snort, "she'd sooner kiss a wookie."
Leia smiled at that. "I know, I know, you could arrange it, or something like that." She turned to face him. "Why do we keep saying the same things over and over to each other?"
He smiled at her, loving her more now than at the beginning. "Because, they still work," he replied, and raising her hands, kissed them lightly as he hoisted himself up off the frozen dirt. "We should turn in," he said casually. "We're not gonna get much sleep and something tells me it'll be a rough day tomorrow."
Dawn was pristine, beautiful and completely frozen. Mara awoke as Rasclann's sun lined its way over the treed horizon. There was the feel of something heavy around her waist, a comforting warmth. Her back was unexpectedly warm and she pushed herself into it, still drowsy, her feet shuffling comfortably. Her head was pillowed on something soft, but exhaustion spoke with a compelling voice, asking for a few more minutes of drowsy motionlessness. She closed her eyes and let the metallic color of the iced sun play across her face. For a fleeting moment, as she dipped in and out of drugged sleep, all seemed right with the world.
Crunching sounds interrupted her reverie. Reluctantly, she opened one eye and then the other. She found herself staring at a familiar pair of scuffed boots. Her gaze rose to take in the tallish, rather elongated figure of Han Solo who seemed be repressing an impish grin. "Ahem," he said, clearing his throat in a clearly artificial manner. "Rise and shine, young ones," a parody of his morning ritual with the children.
To her astonishment, a male voice answered from the vicinity of her ear. "Already?" Luke sounded exhausted. "Seems like I just closed my eyes....."
Further elucidation was interrupted as Mara stumbled to her feet. A bedraggled anger enveloped her as she whirled to turn a lethal gaze onto Skywalker's upturned face. "What the.....?!" she exclaimed, startled embarrassment spiking her anger.
Han merely smiled, grimly, and walked away. Luke gave her a bewildered look. "What?" he asked, his voice scratchy.
She gazed at him a moment, anger lending her an unusual speechlessness. She took in his face, now pinched with exhaustion, both physical and emotional. A sudden thought came through, a premonition. His eyes were bloodshot and there were lines around his mouth. His square jaw, usually so clean, was now shadowed and bent, the skin pasty and raw. His lips were dry, cracking even as he moved them, even as he spoke. "Are you alright, Mara?"
She stared at him for another long moment, then she righted her sense and her face was masked once more. "The last man who did that lived to regret it," she said, her eyes gleaming in the red dawn.
He smiled, his lips moving painfully. "I'd take bets on him not living at all," he replied, pushing himself to his feet. "Ahhh! I'm getting to old for this," he said, putting a hand to the small of his back and moving away stiffly, toward Kyp and Kam. Chewbacca whined in greeting and extended a hot drink.
She merely looked after him, seeing a vision of his face, eyes closed, a final peace reigning over the old scars, gloamed shadow spreading shroud-like over the pale skin. Darkness moved around it, full of ill intent, malevolent and evil. A black flicker caught her eye and she noticed a large crow, sitting on a branch just above where they had lain only minutes before. Its silky feathers shone greenish in the brightening light and its beady, searching eyes were impenetrable and somehow, terrible. She shivered and, on impulse, stooped, picked up a stray stick and threw it at the bird.
It cawed once and flapped its large wings, lifting off heavily into the morning light. She turned to watch as it flew into the northern sky, a black spec of portent that vanished into a wild dawn above intractable forests. She shivered again and turned to study the sun.
The structure turned out to be large, very large. It was made of old, fitted stone, pieces of which lay strewn, the result of a gigantic, petrified avalanche, around what appeared to be a heavily incongruous entrance, gleaming bronze and forbidding as they studied it from the safe cover of a strategic thicket.
Chewbacca barked softly and gave the binocs to Han. Han squinted in thought, e his gloved hands suddenly cold. "No wonder we picked it up, Chewie. Looks like some sort of old Imperial outpost."
Chewbacca growled. "Or prison, yeah, I guess you're right...."
Chewie replied with some vehemence. "I guess we should get a team out here, somebody to help dig up the grounds." He bit his lip. "That would explain why there's no population in these parts...."
Chewie's voice was agitated, pained. "You're right, pal. If they killed them all off it would be one of the worst camps of the whole era. No wonder this place stinks...."
Chewbacca's emphatic agreement was caught by Luke, rounding a small animal path that served as a trail and stopping beside his brother- in-law. "See anything?"
Han moved a pace away. He was still angry with his sister's twin. Angry and bewildered. Luke was headed into a trap and taking them all with him. "Here, you look," he said curtly.
Luke fumbled with the binocs but made no effort to look Han directly in the eye. Chewie whined again, a punctuating sound. Luke's finger moved with precision around the visual controls. Han knew he was checking everything, the different light spectrums, the distance, the time of day...... Han moved away, coming to stand next to Chewie for a meditative moment.
Luke dropped the machine from his eyes and merely gazed at the strange structure for a long moment, as if he were using his mental abilities, sensing, probing, feeling...... The breeze picked up and a host of chill seemed to fall upon them.
"Irek...." Luke muttered, his lips barely moving. Then he glanced up, startled out of whatever was holding him. "Irek's there. That means Khaali.... Khaali's gotta be around somewhere."
"Maybe he killed her," Han said, his voice flat.
Luke made no reaction to the strong statement. His voice was normal, as normal as it could be in a sea of exhausted cold. "No, I'd know," he said quietly. He glanced up at Han and there was knowledge embedded in his blue eyes. "Perhaps you should take Leia and the others and go," he said, his expression suddenly brittle.
Han scowled. "What are you afraid of, Luke?"
Luke held his words. The face of the smuggler had vanished long ago. Now there was only stilted concern, along with anger for the unreasonable danger combined with fear for his wife. Luke sighed. Han's heart was in the right place. Leia was in danger.
"I'm afraid for Leia and......" He paused and bit the words back. "And of turning. It was a close thing...."
"Don't tell me, I don't want to know...." Han said, interrupting the confession. His heart thumped as the words washed over him. "Maybe we should just go back to Coruscant. That way we could come up with a plan, a better plan...."
"No," Luke replied, his tone unwavering. "It's too late. They know I'm here. It would look like we're running. And then, Otdjel would have time to negotiate with them, take them back. We can't risk it, Han."
Han looked away. "Maybe Otdjel sent them here, in the first place. Besides, Otdjel didn't look so hot before, when we got to Byss. We got through their defense systems with no trouble."
"But, a pilot died, right?"
Han nodded, feeling a rush of sorrow. "True," he said quickly.
Luke took a step forward, his face pleading. "I can't let any more die because of me. I'm responsible for this, I'm responsible for Khaali, at least for now. This could become war."
Han nodded. "Point taken," he replied shortly. "What are you going to do?"
Luke turned to study the structure again. It was tall and blackened with wear where the winter winds had rushed over it. A plume of smoke issued lazily from a vent on the roof, signaling habitation, issuing an invitation. Luke paced forward to the edge of the thicket. "That's her...." he whispered wonderingly, his heart leaping.
Han made a disgusted noise. "Not so fast, kid. Wait."
There was a sudden agitation, almost panic, as if Luke were seeing something invisible to the others. "But you can't, Han, Irek will kill you and....."
Han let his gaze travel from his brother-in-law to the fort and back again. He had never seen Luke so divided, even during the old days when Vader was still alive. Now it was as if there were two people there, one yearning for Callie, the other..... He cut off the thought. There was no sense in going into that now. "He didn't kill her before," Han put in, squinting into the clouded morning light. "She has to face him too. After all if he's your... brother, well then he's her brother too."
Luke scowled, hesitating. "I hadn't thought..... "
Han turned to Chewie. "Get the others, Chewie. We'll wait."
And together they both turned to study the forbidding structure in front of them. Clouds moved through the sky and a flock of crows pushed off from a high turret. Noisy and signaling, they called as they moved across the woods and fields. An answering sound came from the forest they had just passed through. The day pulled toward a cold noon.
Chewbacca moved silently through the brush. Following, laboring up the last rise, Leia wondered how he managed to move so gracefully, so silently. Wookies were generally accounted as being awkward. She realized, once again, that Chewie was anything but awkward.
Clouds mottled the sky. Another cold breeze ravaged their faces and each fought it, from Leia, Kyp and Kam in the front, all the way to Mara bringing up the rear. Noses were red and running, hands uncomfortable and stiff, feet unfeeling. For a moment it as if they were back on Hoth, back in the frozen wastes again. But no, Hoth was over, gone. The Rebellion was over, gone. It was time to think of new things, new places, new mental landscapes. The past was dead.
Luke's face loomed up into their sight as he waited by a turn in the trail. Like theirs, his nose was red, his skin washed of all color but his lips were dark, almost scarlet. His eyes were a deep blue. He did not smile and grimness was etched into his gestures as he took over the lead from Chewie. Minutes later, breathing hard (except for Chewie) they were standing at the entrance to the thickets, unseen in a convenient shadow. There was only empty, brownish space between them and an inviting, brass colored door.
Han went to stand by his wife. She glanced up at him, concern in her eyes. He returned the expression with a pursing of lips and she knew he was still angry. She really couldn't blame him. But there was no going back now.
"What now?" This was Kyp, impatient, youthful and more than a little dangerous.
"Han glanced back at the kid, the other kid. Come to think of it, the only kid. "Don't be so eager to die, kid," he said.
Kyp smiled as Luke looked back to answer. He was surprised when he found Han looking at Kyp rather than himself. He let his eyes slide right past and fastened his gaze on Kam.
"We'll need to split up," he said, as the mournful breeze died for a moment. "They'll be looking for me..."
Han moved forward, determined that his sister's brother should not be a martyr. "You'll need someone to go with you."
Luke glanced at the assembled company. There was a deciding, choosing moment. "Mara?" he asked. Instantly she stepped forward. "You'll come with me. Leia, Kyp and Kam, you take the left. Han and Chewie, the right."
Han gave the place a hard look. "And where are we meeting?"
Luke locked gazes with the smuggler. "If there's a throne room, that's where they'll be," he said.
Han drew breath to laugh but the look on Luke's face silenced him. Forward they went into the old, Imperial outpost. The golden door opened for them, ghostlike and silent. One by one they filed through. And then it closed and there was nothing left of their presence except a few scattered footprints and birds settling back into winter's long sleep.
The first noise was Chewbacca; he barked, then growled and a long, penetrating whine escaped him as he ducked through the old style doorways. Han signaled quiet. The closeness of the place bothered him too, the evil smells and small workings of feral animals made him want to run. A small, creeping claustrophobia snaked through his consciousness. There was a barrier there, a feeling.....But, taking possession of himself, he glanced back at Chewie. The wookie seemed calmer under the dispassionate handling, although a wild look haunted the hairy face, making his companion seem more beast than intelligent being.
They halted at a stairway. It led upwards, into a cavernous and unknown darkness. Painfully cautious, Han gave the place a good once over. Water dripped somewhere off to the side, the sound plunking and solidly ominous. A listening moment passed. Han signaled and they began to climb, carefully, swiftly, not wanting to be caught in the winding, blind staircase. The stones were slippery and wet, the going treacherous.
There was a landing, then another and after what seemed like an eternal climb, Han and Chewie found themselves at the entrance of a spacious room. One end was equipped with a large bed, the sort that only people of wealth possessed. Han took it in, the bedclothes rumpled and in disarray, the litter of clothes on the floor, the misplaced foot rugs. There was an old fashioned wash basin, half filled with water, eloquently bespeaking the plumbing conditions. Next to it, incongruous, was a beautiful, state-of-the-art comm center. Its message light was blinking.
Knowing better than to speak, Chewie moved toward it, studying it before he pressed the message button. Han opened his mouth to protest, but he knew it was useless, reminding himself that Chewie was perfectly capable of hacking into a simple comm system and out again, unnoticed. A few moments later, Han positioned himself, blaster drawn, by another door. This was half open, as if the residents did not expect the place to be disturbed. A relief washed through him. They had come alone, not even bothering to bring a bodyguard.
He let his shoulders relax. Curious, his gaze traveled around the room. To his sudden distaste, Han realized that the workings of an old interrogator droid was imbedded into the far wall, just underneath an uncomfortably lit window. And, just the right distance from it, was a table. The straps were still there, the tilting apparatus now broken and useless. A dusty set of vials and needles glimmered, as if waiting for the lead interrogator to return and resume his horrible manipulation of the victim. Han shuddered. Only extremely disturbed people would take up residence in an old interrogation chamber.
He let his gaze wander again. A feeling grew, racing through his heart and lungs, a fast panic. He closed his eyes and swallowed. Something within, some shrewdness told him he was being manipulated. Whatever this was, no matter what it was, he would not give in to it. He strove with himself, fighting the rushed feelings rising all about him. "Chewie?!" There as agony in the question.
Chewbacca whined in reply. The comm board betrayed nothing, either they knew they had been infiltrated or they really were on the run. This was something Han found that hard to believe. Otdjel, Pellaeon, one or both had to be involved somewhere, somehow. The plan couldn't have fallen apart so fast. They could have held Luke hostage for a long as it took. They had even attempted to turn the Jedi, or at least Callista had.
A thought brought him up short. Maybe they didn't want to turn Luke at all. Realization reached all the way down to his bones. Maybe it was just Callista. Mentally, he kicked himself. That meant they were dealing with renegades, not paid messengers, not soon- to-be heirs. That meant the couple was hiding out, in which case, a questioning Imperial force should put in an appearance soon. And blow the Falcon out of the half hidden meadow.
"Chewie?!" Han's voice was lowered. "We gotta go ......."
Chewie approached fast, agitation in his stride, holding a familiar object in his blanketing hands. It felt cold and more than a little familiar as the wookie laid it carefully into Han's unwilling palm. "Where'd you find this?" Han asked.
Chewbacca indicated the bed area. Han shook his head in disbelief. "I wondered what happened to this. I noticed he hasn't been wearing it, but then I figure it was because his confidence was shaken....."
Chewbacca interrupted. "What? Okay, listen.... through the door here, we shouldn't be seen........"
The room emptied fast as Han and Chewie exited. Just bare moments later, Irek, stepped through the far door, followed wearily by Khaali.
"Wait!" Irek hissed, a sense of something amiss threatening his already precarious serenity.
She gave him an annoyed look. She was cold, and tired. A hot bath would be nice. As if there was any hot water on this ball of ice. "What now?" she demanded quickly.
He paced through the room, studying the bed, then the comm system. "Somebody's been here," he said. "I sensed somebody before, maybe Skywalker....."
She sighed and sent a tendril of calmness to him. "It's probably just those rodents again, Irek. I told you, leave them alone. We're not going to be on this rock too much longer."
Irek fastened his greedy eyes upon her. Cray's face looked twice its age. Suddenly that beautiful jedi he had taken in, that mysterious, falcon-like warrior, was only ragged and old. "What's the matter with you? Are you hiding something from me?"
Khaali was exasperated, tired and somehow sorrowful. To her dismay, even as she spoke to Irek, Luke's face was there, in the background, his lips scarlet with cold, his eyes a searching blue. Something in her heart longed to find him. But when she spoke, her words were as cold as the stone around her. "We have other, more pressing problems, Irek. You destroyed the hyperdrive on the woman's ship. Now we can't leave. How long do you think it will be before Otdjel figures out we're here?"
He laughed, growing more confident within the echoing sound. "I can maim their ships, explode them on contact. You forget, I can destroy machinery through the Force."
She closed her eyes and moved toward the bed, in a fit of exhaustion. "I know," she replied, through shut eyes, her expression tight. Luke's face was there again. And if she just stopped talking, stopped moving, maybe she could hear his voice. "I just need to sleep...."
Sensing her distance, he moved toward her and grabbed her before she could step away. "Tired of me, already?" he demanded, his voice hiking, dangerous in pitch and tone.
She gave him a gimlet look and decided to place the blame on someone who wasn't there. "If I'm tired it's because the Admiral" her sarcasm was exquisite, "saw fit to put me in Detention. With Skywalker......"
"The Admiral wanted you dead," Irek interrupted smiling, delighting in his own maliciousness.
She pulled away from him, hating him again. Sometimes he was just too damn smug. "Why?"
"You know why," Irek said, his voice hateful. "You knew the plan. And you've got to admit, you came close..."
She turned her back and, in a fit of defensive preoccupation, studied the living area. Something in her mind changed, something was alerted. "Not close enough," she replied, a subdued, preoccupied confession. His grip tightened painfully but she pulled away, suddenly afraid. He felt her heart begin to pound and cold air roared in her ears. She swallowed and raised her voice. "Irek, are you sure there's no one else here?"
His manner became uncharacteristically cautious and his voice changed. "No one," he replied with certainty.
"It's gone," she said, her long legs eating up the distance to the bed. "I'm sure of it, I put it here....."
He said nothing, only came close, standing behind her.
She shrugged his hand away from her shoulder. "You didn't take it, did you?"
He laughed again. "Why? I have one of my own, much better suited to me. Why would I take one of your momentos?"
She shook him off, her rising impatience a real, grasping thing. "It's gone....." she whispered, a sudden realization.
He came around her to stare directly into a suddenly blanched face. "What are you afraid of?" he asked, his heart beginning to race.
"They're here," she said, recoiling at his faint touch. "They're searching for us....."
He took her face in his hands. "Of course they are, beloved. You said yourself...."
Her eyes snapped "No, you don't understand. They followed us, they know we're here."
"Skywalker," she replied simply.
"That cursed do-gooder!" he fumed pulling his hands roughly away. His long fingernails opened a small scratch on her cheek. "Is he alone?"
She shook her head, trying to clear it. "Hard to say," she replied after a time. "Feels like he's masking something."
"Probably just Skywalker," Irek said smoothly. "I can't see his sister coming to meet me."
She gazed up at him, uncertainty returning. Once again, Luke's voice resonated within, distracting her train of thought. "They are powerful, Irek. Aren't you afraid?" she whispered, her lips suddenly passionate as her blood rose. The warning spell, the fail-safe through the Force had turned about, and now all was fair play.
He smiled and a surprising gentleness issued from him, disarming her. "If he has come then the part of you that still belongs to him will die this day," he said. "And, evidently," there was scornful laughter here, "he will die with his lightsaber."
Her hand clutched involunartily. She wanted to believe with her new lover's certainty, wanted his confidence. "How can you be so sure?" she asked.
"It is his destiny to die and it is your destiny to kill him."
Her face became even paler, her lips a fresh bloodstain. "What if I can't?"
He took her by the shoulders and shook her roughly. "You must. It is your penance for betraying me! Then we shall rule in peace."
"There are other Jedi......" she began, groping through the thought.
"Not like my brother....." Irek said, becoming contemplative. "He is the strongest, but still no match for me."
She gazed into his face, willing herself to believe him. And, despite all reservations, despite all deeply held intuitions, despite Luke's whispering words, she let herself be swept into an affirmation. "I know," she said.
Luke and Mara entered a darkened corridor. With shuddering distaste, Mara glaned into the disused rooms. A prison it was. A very large prison. There was an afterfeeling there, one of haunted shadows too agitated to lie down in the graveyard. There was an overarching feeling of things not alive peering through corners and from above. A reflexive glance revealed nothing. But her sense told her otherwise.
"What a horrible place," she said to Luke, as they paused at an intersection. Death, coldness and suffering....... "How could they inhabit such a place?"
He smiled, but his expression was almost skull-like. If she hadn't been so uncomfortable with the loose spirits, she would have paced away from him. As it was, she stopped, motionless. "They are of the Darkside." he said quietly. "This place calls to them."
She nodded not really willing to pursue the strange conversation further. "Which way?" This was a practical question, one asked out of need to retain bearings, to push away the abstract and unseen.
"This way," he replied.
They emerged from the close corridor into what at one time had been the main audience chamber. A motley collection of ancient tables was pushed off to one side of the huge room, covered with filth. Scurrying rodents skittered away on small, spine-tingling feet, startled out of a mid- winter hush. Crows congregated in the rafters, cawing, drifting in and out through shattered skylights. Water dripped liberally down the cold, bare walls as if the stones were weeping. The floor was pitted with small holes and dirt was piled everywhere. The wind moaned, desolate and ghostly.
Luke pushed forward, wishing once more for his lightsaber. He felt naked, mortal and very vulnerable. His sense told him that she was here, she and her ill-begotten lover, an unholy consummation. And that she was irredeemably evil, as evil and as haunted as the old prison itself. He gazed around the room, his eyes alive and glistening.
Mara, trailing him, lightsaber in her hand, resisted an overwhelming urge to strike him down. For a moment it seemed as if the shadow of the place almost absorbed him, consuming him bit by bit, until he faded into the surrounding darkness and death. A rush of foreboding almost lifted her off her feet and a feeling of wrongness splayed its ugly hand over her heart. He was resisting only by fingernail widths. He had almost succumbed before; she knew he was not far from it now.
There was a sudden sound in a far corridor, a clamor of booted feet on worn stone. Both of them whirled to see Irek run out first, followed by a powerful Khaali. Instantly, an aura of blackness stretched from her, a willed fog.
Irek made off to one side, toward what had once served as a dais, a raised platform. The old stone had deteriorated badly there, the cut up rock glinting like shattered glass as his boots crunched over it. Khaali slowed in the midst of the immense room, coming to a graceful halt. Her figure seemed suddenly tall, even commanding and she made an elegant, greeting gesture, her regal hand outstretched, her neck rising out of her beautiful shoulders like the stem of a graceful flower. Her face was beautiful despite the terrible scar on her forehead. "You have come," she said simply.
Mara shuddered. It was not the noble gesture or the affected airs, rather it was the disturbing grace with which the witch carried it off. Khaali seemed to draw strength from the very air around her, from the stones, the spirits, the light-footed rodents. Momentarily seeing into another world, Mara could make out the strengthening spirits lined up behind her, an incorporeal army. Panic rose as the ghosts stared blankly into her earthbound soul, but she swallowed it, in a mammoth, controlling effort and paced forward to stand solidly at Luke's flank.
Luke approached the apparition that was Khaali. But now, he was no longer lost or vanishing. A faint light seemed to emanate from his person and Mara noted that though his figure was diminutive, there was something else there, something hidden, curtained. Wonder fell through her hardened heart as she watched him go forward into his fate, and then the discipline of a lifetime took hold. This was no time for visions.
His voice broke the silence, unrecognizable and foreign. "This is your last chance, Khaali," he said completely, sublimely formal.
Khaali lifted her head and laughed in the manner of a monarch called upon to execute an unrepentant malcontent. "We've been through this, Skywalker," she said disimissively, the words rolling ponderous and ceremonial through the room. "This is your last chance to come with me." She gestured to the room and the spirits behind her began to groan in an unearthly dirge. The wind picked up. "All of this I offer to you, the wind, the air, the spirits of Aznaith!"
Luke remained still but his bearing changed, becoming military, commanding and judgmental. Mara saw him handing for his captured saber. The unearthly, immortal sound of the gathered spirits grew, poisoning the very molecules of the place.
"I cannot .......... I will not, Khaali!" he shouted, his suddenly powerful voice illuminating dark corners. This was followed by a small, feathered violation and Mara's lightsaber flew into his hand. Involuntarily, Mara drew breath, rising fury sparked as her hand moved too late to her belt, grasping at empty air.
Irek, in his turn, activated his saber and turned toward Mara as she backed away, suddenly defenseless. "At last we meet!" he said, eager and dangerous. She glanced around, wily and cautious, searching for a weapon.
"Mara, here!" Luke shouted, his father's lightsaber bright blue in the gloaming as he positioned himself between Khaali and Irek, protecting her.
Irek lifted his red blade, the light twisting in the gray haze of ghosts and sordid fog of the afterlife. "You shall die, Skywalker!"
He pushed forward and the two blades smashed together, the noise booming, deafening. Mara grimaced at the thunderous noise but kept circling, eventually finding herself by the door. Standing ready, she nearly knocked out an agitated Han as he ran through it, searching and quick. His shrewd glance gave him all the information he needed and, unexpectedly, he shouted something unintelligible and threw a lightsaber to Mara. Suddenly, darkly gleeful, she grinned at her benefactor and activated it. Luke's green blade, the symbol of the new world, of a transitory present fading into an unknown future, was vibrant in the dim, shadowed light.
Khaali, seeing her opportunity, advanced. "I know what you want, Mara Jade!" she said as her form seemed to grow. Suddenly, there was a searing whirlwind and a torrent of smoldering, stinging wood chips pelted into Mara's face and hands, driving her back. Luke, distracted from an unexpectedly steady Irek by Mara's sudden pain, glanced away from his own battle and at that small lapse, a powerful swing from Irek nearly decapitated him. He turned back to his opponent and concentrated, linking with the Force, driving his brother back up onto the dais.
Mara, fighting but somehow calm, caught sight of a strange light, one that seemed illuminate the room as it shone upon Luke. But Irek remained always in darkness, filtered and unseeable. As if drawing a cloak over himself, the young man faded into the shield of malevolence around him until Luke seemed only to be fighting a ghost, empty air. The Master's swordplay became diffident and cautious as he struggled to see his opponent.
Mara slashed and pulled at the green saber, Khaali's topaz blade greeting it feint for feint, blow for blow. The two women, each strong in a different way, fought though the cold air, through forbidding stone, through the ghosts that jeered and catcalled from towering, shadowed gates. Their voices sent shivers down Mara's spine and she resisted the urge to strike out at them with the unfamiliar saber.
For a time, evenly matched, each powerful and quick, there was no movement, only exchanged blows and silence. But little by little, Mara's defenses began to tell a tale of unfinished training and the improvisation implicit in the use of another's weapon. Despite her strength, her ability to link with and use the Force, the swordplay began to lay upon her weary shoulders, making her long for stillness and silence. Khaali, eyes blazing in the realization of triumph over a worthy opponent, pressed her case with ever strengthening vigor.
Smoldering bits of wood, some microscopic in size, once again rose up in a burning, choking whirlwind, thrown at the erstwhile servant of the Emperor, as she sought doggedly to conquer her past, her wounds, her compulsions. Her carefully constructed streak of goodness, her dim thread of repugnance for what had come before, began to fade, to lose itself within a maze of pain and weariness. Mara's blows now trembled with human weakness and the Force seemed to sing a distant song, lost for whole moments in the storm that surrounded her.
Khaali advanced inexorable and powerful upon an opponent whose weakening defenses made deflecting the rippling, smoldering wood with her borrowed saber a chancy affair. Mara's haphazard training, now only a trail of sudden regret, was a heavy burden but still she made the saber sing, green and powerful. She struggled mightily, refusing weakness and defeat and let the Force funnel through her in a mighty effort, let it roam in her soul. And as it did, as she once again opened the door, she heard Khaali's voice. And the empty place the Emperor had carved into her mind, into her soul, responded just as it had to *him* years ago.
Khaali was compelling, almost irresistible. Shades of the past danced before Mara's eyes, invaded her mind, held her hostage. "Come with me, Mara Jade, Emperor's Hand! Come with me and your destiny will be fulfilled!"
The sudden pleasure of the vision expanded within her, shaping itself to her inner contours, to her fragmented mind. A thrill rose all way from the pit of her stomach to the top of her head, almost making her hair stand on end. A completeness, a fulfillment, a deep, enticing passion ...
"No!" she screamed, pushing back Khaali with the sound of her voice alone. The topaz saber danced before her eyes. Khaali's gray eyes were hellish and her gaze was red-rimmed with hatred and new strength. The army of spirits sang in outworldly voices, a humming, damning, bone chilling sound.
Han, forced against the saturated walls, staggered in pain and made for his blaster. But before he could set it the thing it flew from his hand and burst into shattered pieces. Chewie's bowcaster, partially unholstered, suddenly became nothing more than bent metal alloy. A roaring, thundering noise threw them against the stinking stones, obliterating all coherence as it rose to an unbearable crescendo.
There was a pause, a breath of time, and a small, following light fell about the darkening place as Leia, followed by Kyp and Kam, ran frantically into the room from the black mouth of yet another tributary corridor, stoppping dead in their tracks. Leia gazed in blank horror at the scene in front of her. For the sight that filled her vision was Luke fighting for his life. Irek had him pinned against the wall, the saber scoring it deeply as Luke ducked from side to side.
A long yell issued from her mouth, masterful and Force- enhanced, as her saber came up, activated and strong. Momentarily startled, Irek glanced over and Luke, taking advantage of the inattentive moment, ducked away, breathing hard, sweat pouring off his pinched face. Immediately, Irek grinned and, taking advantage of his opportunities, made straight for his half sister.
She rose to the occasion, her valiant heart uncorrupted and pure. Her saber met his, biting into it, the Force giving her a strength she had never known. But instead of Irek, she found herself fighting her father, his black cloak swinging and terrible in the weak, winter light. A booming voice issued from the apparition, the words cruel, horribly familiar and paralyzing.
"Ahhh, daughter, you were one with me once, in the torture chamber..." The figure paced her, despite its size stalking and quick. "You will come with me again and we will finish your conversion to the Darkside!"
"Never!" Leia yelled over the din. "I will die first.....!"
The figure never lost a beat, never stopped moving, the saber never let up. "So be it!" it replied, its rasping voice cutting, clear and condemning.
With powerful, hammer blows, Irek beat against Leia's half trained defenses. Her goodness, its light suddenly shadowed under her brother's overwhelming evil, seemed now only partial and motley. Step by agonizing step, she was pushed against the wall. She pressed her palms against it, forced into its coldness, her blade falling and felt something damp and sticky against her searching fingers. She pulled up her palm and saw that it was covered in a gelatinous red, an evil disease drowning even the small finger joints and lines. Something in her recognized it and, unthinking, she screamed.
But just as the figure of Vader prepared for the killing blow, just as Han made an impossible leap to within an arm's reach of his wife, just as Chewie followed after only to be struck down by the Force, Luke's saber came forward, Darth Vader's very sword, cleaving the air between his half brother and his twin sister. Leia was knocked sideways and dragged along the pitted floor, her hands running with a combination of her own blood and that which now coursed down the old stone walls. The ancient blade, the symbol of a failed generation, trembled but held its own, protecting her.
Irek turned back to Luke, the vision of Vader flicking away and as the red blade cut into Vader's blue one. Luke parried and Irek raised his saber for another blow. But, here a shattering shout, reverberating, commanding and irresistible, stopped everything.
The room hummed with sounds both real and unreal, with the voices of the dead and the undead, the buzzing lightsabers, the words exchanged in desperation and domination -- curses for an eternity. Leia looked up from her place on the floor her face bleeding from small lacerations. Kam was knocked out cold at the side of the room. Kyp was crawling pitifully on all fours, fighting with trembling hands to get to Leia's side. Han was balanced against the wall, his eyes glazed as he fought unconsciousness. Chewbacca was a crumpled heap nearby and Irek twisted and then remained shock still, like an ancient monument, exhuding a palpatable, formed evil.
Their gazes were riveted upon the dais As the weak light was lost behind a deathly cloud, a triumphant, topaz blade shining with bright, lethal malevolence was held squarely at the throat of Mara Jade. Her singed face was calm, a beautiful death mask. The sunlight faded into twilight and even as the comforting daylight was sloughed away by darkness, Luke's heart burned. In the space of an instant, all the feelings, all the words, all the advice, the remarks, the kisses, the scent of her pulsed through his being. Everything gloamed together to make one, overwhelming, unified feeling. Unthinking, uncontrolled, his actions finally at one with his emotions, he pushed forward.
"Maaaaraaaa!" he yelled, all his desperation and despair poured into that one word, his soul filled suddenly with the light born of realized love, with the crystal clarity that only death brings. Vader's sword buzzed as he raised it, a powerful, primitive threat. "Let her go, Khaali!" he shouted, his Force-strong voice echoing off the cadaverous walls. "She is innocent!"
"She is a traitor!" Khaali shouted back, her voice harsh, her eyes shining with an evil, moonlit glow. "She will pay the price!" The blade moved again, almost slicing its target as Mara struggled. Khaali, her inhuman strength pulled from the encircling, glowering Darkside, was unmoved.
Luke drew breath from the burning air and collected himself. The room sank into soundlessness of an open grave. "What do you want?" he demanded, dangerous and searching.
Khaali smiled, her perfect teeth like small, evil pinpricks of light. "You," she replied simply.
The reply startled Irek and unthinkingly he paced away from Leia. "Whatthe.....?!" he muttered, his voice a whispered realization of betrayal.
Luke lowered his saber as desire took him, a half hidden passion, a barely recognizable tide that now coursed freely through his being. He wanted her, he needed her, even knowing what he knew. The passion was separate from the rest of his soul, dictating, deciding. He gazed desperately at Mara's impassive face, seeking guidance. It was pure and lit as if from within, suffused with the awful power of angels.
He jerked back to Khaali. "If I do this, you will spare her life?" he asked. No shouting, no screaming, no demands, no bargaining. Just words. Simple, killing, irreversible words.
Mara struggled in the witch's grip. Her voice was choked. "No, Skywalker... don't!"
A long moment seemed to pass although in reality it was only an instant. And, in that moment revelation broke through along with an overriding hopelessness and guilt. How could he have missed it? His wondering soul, wounded but still striving toward an innate purity, lurched within him. Her or his own life? Suddenly, he knew that something good had to come out of this whole sorry thing. And that something was Mara's life. His expression hardened.
"Too many people have died, Mara," Luke said, his saber now pointed to the ground. Then he spoke damning words. "I have failed."
Khaali glowed with triumph. "You agree to this, of your own free will?" she inquired, eagerness edged liberally with suspicion, the formal words holding the shadowed outlines of an unredeemed death.
The world halted. The stars stopped in their paths. The very air hung breathless, motionless and expectant. There was devastating quiet, the soundlessness of a snowbound cemetery, the paced silence of a mausoleum, old stones hopeless with silent doom. He was cornered, no longer a free agent. Khaali knew well that she was tearing out his soul, bit by bit. And yet, cruel and selfish, she was still willing to do it.
The silence enveloped them like a heavy curtain, iced and brutal. But just as he opened his mouth to speak, just as he drew breath to say the irredeemable words, an agonized yell broke the quiet. "No! You will not! She is mine!"
And, once again, Irek Ismaren was Khaali's undoing.
Irek's blade came down between the lovers, severing the surrendering bond. Involuntarily, Khaali stepped backward, startled, and Mara raised Luke's saber into Khaali's suddenly inattentive one. Green clashed with topaz sending topaz and a clutched hand clattering horribly to the stone floor, bloody, steaming and useless. Khaali's scream was an evil thing, alive and flying. It scored the stones, releasing a storm of flying rock, that slivered and sheared through the room, a knife's edge. Disbelievingly, Khaali raised her handless arm to her face as Mara ducked and rolled, throwing herself off the dais and ending up behind Luke, who advanced.
Luke turned on his brother, his emotions now too high to be controlled. Such was the strength of Luke's passion that with one raw stroke Irek's saber was extinguished. Irek retreated in speechless shock, scuttling away like a rat to its fetid nest. And without thought, without consideration, without reservation, Luke turned his back on his brother and advanced until he stood victorious, bloodstained, gazing down at the witch. The unmistakable, gagging odor of burning flesh penetrated the room as Khaali fell to her knees, her fair neck and shoulders cut and bleeding where the slivered stone had scored them. Her face was an open wound, her mouth scarlet with blood, her eyes frantic and searching.
Luke's expression was blank, like an ancient representation of an avenging angel and his voice was that of the graveyard. "You are defeated, Khaali."
Holding her right stump underneath her left armpit in a painfully familiar, defending gesture, she scooted along the floor away from him, moving straight backwards, as if on a narrow beam over an unspeakable abyss. His presence, mighty and unmistakable within the Force, extended a hand, his artificial hand. "Come and you will be healed," he said.
She did not look at him, only continued to move, continued to search, the demon within wily and strong. A wind came up, shavings of rock pelting and painful. He ignored them, the Force deflecting the lethal shrapnel like a ship's shield protects against meteorites. She stopped, trembling, back to the wall, caught like squirming prey between the air and the ground.
Then there was a massive, swooping feeling and a spirit said something in a whispering, shivering voice, the language outworldly and unfamiliar. Another answered and a great power seemed to pace through the room. Darkness visited, hovered and pulled something unspeakable and screaming from the wounded woman. Then it rushed away in a chorus of breathing voices, toward the ruined roof and eternity. Luke closed his eyes, knowing at the last moment that he was forbidden to look.
When he opened them again, there was nothing there but following silence. Blinking in realization, he knew that Death had roared through the soiled and torrid air and after it, following on its forbidding heels like an insolent, padding dog, came life. Cold shivered through, then clouds, then an unnatural warmth and suddenly glaring sunlight.
Han stirred, pushed away from the moist wall and came to bend over his wife, who only nodded at him. His white coat was soaked in blood and his face was filthy as he reached down to her, pulling her to stumbling feet. She, in her turn, bent to help Kyp and, huddled together, they all turned to the unfolding tableau in the middle of the room. Irek was dumbstruck, his breath rasping and frantic, as with trembling hands he wiped at the blood that ran into his eyes from small wounds caused by the rocks and debris.
Khaali was immobile. No sound issued from her opened mouth and then, as if something within were being born, her face changed. Her eyes lightened to a cheery smoky color, her skin was suddenly pure and whole, her hair fell shiny and full down her back. A shocked, realizing moment passed as the crows scattered and the chittering rodents scurried away.
A warmth touched Leia's cheek as she leaned into her husband's suddenly solid embrace. Her tears glistened in the unmistakable, unseasonable warmth, and Han knew, although he did not know how, that they were the wellspring, the source, the very essence of bittersweet joy.
"You..... you are Luke." Khaali's voice was completely different, the timbre low and foreign, the clipped inflection of Chad pronounced. Khaali's mouth moved but the words seemed divorced from it, so that the human shell around the blossoming spirit seemed only an unformed child, mouthing a silent, internal song.
Luke stood perfectly still. His expression was pinched but uplifted and flooded with the same joy as his sister. Tears streaked through encrusted dirt, blood and sweat, marring the filthy mask his face had become. "I am Luke Skywalker," he said slowly, feeling his way into a bright epiphany. Kyp scowled and stumbled, weak and wondering.
"You have saved me, Luke Skywalker," the woman said, the gray eyes now holding dusky joy. "So long have I waited...... so long has this evil used me."
Luke, striving for control, clenched his fingers and withdrew his hand, deactivating Vader's saber. "Khaali is dead," he said, an affirming statement.
"Khaali is dead...." the woman replied, as if it were difficult to speak, the small words suddenly a barrier.
She gazed up at him and the moment became simple, like the words that had prompted it, words of truth and light. She too began to cry, a renewed spirit. But they were tears of joy, of release, of a final happiness. They washed over her now pure face, glistening with the clarity of an immortal tide. And through them, as the light became diamond like and the smoke of battle was banished, he could see what she saw.
Fields of radiance opened up before him, beckoning him and he saw what she had finally been allowed to enter. A compelling voice urged him to turn his saber on himself and die with her, to be together with her in the radiant halls of eternity, to never know hunger, sorrow or loniliness ever again.
But, with shuddering breath, he turned away from the vision. No one had to tell him what he already knew. It was not his time and she was not his destiny.
Instead, he moved to convince her to stay. "You can come with us, Callista," Luke whispered, his mouth trembling. Suddenly he was afraid, afraid of this complete stranger, afraid of the vision, afraid of her answer.
The ghost woman straightened, so that despite her maiming, she seemed curiously whole, bloody but cleansed, dead but alive. She merely shook her head in a deliberate, knowing motion. "You must kill me. It is my time." There was no trace of self pity in the foreign inflection. "I died with the ship and my spirit has wandered these many years. I have done great evil."
But still, Luke resisted. So long he had wandered, so long he had hoped. And the perseverance, the habit of seeking her, prompted a last, clutching attempt to realize the old dream.
He fell to his knees before her, gazing straight into her eyes. "But you are redeemed. You have been forgiven. We can tend your wounds...."
"No," the spirit said, returning his gaze, moment for moment. "I am a Jedi. I must die an honorable death. You must kill me." And here, as if preparing herself, she reached up with her good hand and, with a noticeable tremor, pulled the perfect hair away from her neck.
Luke looked down at his hands, at the gloved, artificial one, so still and calm. At the organic one, trembling uncontrollably. His tears were now hot and protesting as they washed down his face and onto his fated hands. The handle of the lightsaber was cold and, somehow, his hands felt disembodied, as if moving of their own accord. "Callista," he began, "I cannot kill you, just as I could not kill....."
A berserker scream interrupted him, interrupted his confession of weakness, his subjugation to simple, human love. He twisted to see Irek standing directly behind him, red saber renewed and rising like a blood tide over his head. In a flurry of instinct combined with years of hard training, he activated Vader's weapon and coming to his feet in a flowing, swinging motion, brought it around.
But Luke was too late. Irek had the advantage. The red blade came down, nearly slicing his left arm from his shoulder. A sudden, unbearable pain stabbed through his chest and he fell back, into the quickly collapsing spirit of Callista. His left hand trembled into immobility and then stilled, dead. Drawing painful breath, heart pounding in a frenzy of self-preservation, he pushed himself to his feet, a superhuman effort. There was blood everywhere, on his clothes, spattered over his face, on his hands. Their blood, his and Callista's, intermingled in death. Finding the wall, he steadied himself, preparing to kill Irek before dying along with his doomed lover.
Irek swung the saber hard, his eyes full of the cursedness of the executioner, the personification of Death. But, to Luke's complete, shuddering astonishment, his brother stopped mid motion, the red saber let loose and sailing through the moldy air like a noxious, polluted sword of fate. The boy's face was staring, uncomprehending and what Luke thought at first was laughter became a death throttle, deep in the back of the aristocratic throat. Blood spurted from his nose and mouth and he lunged for his enemy in one more horrible but futile threat. Then his hands trembled forward and he fell to the scored floor in slow motion, as if he were only a heavy blanket, discarded and soiled. He crumpled into the sharp stones, face down and arms useless over his head. His thrown saber rolled along the uneven stones, masterless, clattering and fruitless.
Relief and loss of blood pulled intermittent blackness over vision as Luke fought unconsciousness. But he knew could not surrender to the warmth now. Callie needed him....
Unable to move, he gazed up to see Mara, who was breathing hard, his activated lightsaber a beacon of goodness in her right hand. A mouthful of awful curses were whispered, half remembered words of protection against the dead incarnation of evil before her. Then, the whispered words vanished into the sultry air, the green light was gone and she stepped over the body of the late Irek Ismaren, coming to stand by a collapsing Luke.
"You're hurt," she said simply, her eyes suddenly, alarmingly near. There was an ocean there, a great green ocean, an ocean of passion..... He closed his eyes. Sudden, bursting knowledge dogged him, biting at his heels.
"I can't stop..... now...." he replied, between thirsty breaths. "Callie.... "
"Callista is dying, Luke," she said quietly. She gazed at him, her hand unfelt on his injured arm. There was a moment, a fleeting, realizing light followed by the first, hesitant steps of acceptance. He thought he could hear the sound of a wall crumbling. But no, he told himself, it was only the wind through the broken roof.
Imploring Luke pulled at her arm. "Help me...." he whispered.
To her own surprise, she did as he asked. She pushed his weight into her own, and unsteadily they made their way quietly, almost ceremoniously to the shrinking apparition that was the only mortal remnant of the Jedi Knight Callista, handless, kneeling in the fresh blood of the body it had appropriated.
Callista gave her lover one last imploring look and again lowered her gaze. The room stilled into a breathing silence, masked, odorless, soundless. Her stem-like neck whispered of peace and resolution and the pale skin shimmered like moonlit pools in a nighttime garden. He had no memory of Mara leaving his side or of gaining the sure, easy strength to raise his saber. Everything seemed to move as if it were carefully choreographed, as if he were but a symbol, an avenger of good, the fleshly instrument of a final judgment.
The blade came down, floating and graceful. There was the sound of flesh meeting stone and then an incredible warmth gripped him, cradling his soul in sudden comfort. A gentle sigh escaped the decapitated body, one of relief and fulfillment. Now, he knew he could sleep in the arms of the Force forever. Her journey was ended. She was whole again.
"Luke!" This was Leia, her voice low and filled with concern and love. He opened his eyes, blinked and, trembling in cognizance and repugnance, threw the blue saber across the convulsed floor. The harsh clanging sound of it rolling amongst the debris and smashed rock held repudiation, repudiation of all that he had become, a final and complete revulsion for his strayed path.
Gazing helplessly at the result of his duplicity, an immense, unexpected freedom fell upon him, along with a blank darkness he had never before known or imagined. The fog in his heart lifted and everything burned with clarity for the first time in weeks.
Cray Mingla's head was separated from her body, fallen neatly to one side, her neck cut clean through. The expression on the bodiless head was of a soul transported, of one seeing paradise after a long, dark journey. The body was quiet and neat, laying sideways along the graveled stones, handless arm falling in limp, graceful surrender.
A pulsing, throbbing sorrow erupted through the Master's soul. "No!" Luke shouted into the breezeless air. One last moment of rebellion pulsed through him, flared and vanished into the eternity of past, into the vagaries of history, into the void. And then the sacred silence was broken as the walls seemed to liquefy, revealing a host of delicate, brown birds flowing directly out of the smooth stones. Their winter feathers fluttered between the clean, dry walls as they coalesced into a great silent cloud, flowing ever upward, as if transporting the found soul through a last mortal domain into soaring freedom, and finally, the afterlife.
Then there was muffled silence, supernatural and still, as Luke fell to his knees, his shoulders shuddering in a fit of pent up emotion. His tears washed the ground, diluting the blanket of blood as all mortal trace of Callista vanished. A breeze drifted through the ruined skylights, a bird sang somewhere and memory was immutably directed to fill in the blanks with a beguiling, summer day.
They stood vigil, pain and weariness forgotten, as Cray's body vanished, preyed upon by the carrion eaters of the undead, disappearing only in small pieces. Kyp, weakened, finally collapsed on the floor again, his wounds pulling him into unconsciousness. Han bent to tend him but Leia remained upright, watching with Luke and Mara, all three unmoving, as if Jedi from the distant past had come to life only long enough to send one of their own off into a forgiving forever. And so, the mangled body of Cray Mingla was finally released, devoured by the light.
Luke waited until nothing remained but dead rock. Even her blood had vanished. The gentle, spring breeze was nothing but a memory and winter was again triumphant. Leia found she could only watch as Luke turned to leave but, attempting to rise, he only collapsed onto the floor. Immediately, Mara was at his side. Carefully, almost tenderly, she put her arms around him, supporting his weight. No word passed between them as they made their way slowly out of the room, his great quest was finally done.
Momentarily, Leia was motionless, held in a crystalline borderland between the present and the future. She gazed at the crumbling prison, now only dilapidated and worn, the pervasive evil vanquished. Her gaze touched Irek's rigid body on the floor and she shivered, knowing that this coldness would rest in her bones a long while before it vanished into the careless warmth of everyday life. The wind came up again, cold and awakening. Then, stepping with gladness over an irreversible boundary, followed her brother and his chosen through the fetid corridors, out through the ruined door and back into the ordinary world.
Han was already there, Kyp and Kam with him, both bleary and blank faced. Even Chewbacca had been roused and was seated on large tree stump, his great furry head in his hands. Feeling the wookie's need for comfort, Leia let herself stop there and gently, tenderly, rested her small hand on his shoulder. One of his large palms engulfed it and they waited there for a time, immobilized in grief, shock and growing relief, preparing, at last, for the journey home.
The birds, now only woodland creatures seeking warmth in the wintertime, sang thinly in the pallid air. It was dusk and a golden sunset streaked underneath the mottled clouds. Its brilliance momentarily illuminated the old prison, turning the ruined masonry and fallen towers into the perfection of an enchanted castle. It was as if the place floated, pure and unobtainable, over the dormant landscape. But there was no one there to see it. The sojourners had abandoned the timeless place. Only the birds remained, twittering to themselves, fluffed into irritable, complaining balls of brown feathers. Night fell, the wind laced long, searching fingers through loose stones and dry, rustling leaves as stars gradually sprinkled the darkening sky, an afterthought.
Forgetfulness became a deep, rich blanket and sleep was no longer an abstraction. It rolled over the land, compelling all to stillness. Only the wind remained awake, its haunted voice filled with remembering, regret and an aching melancholy. The great wheel of the sky bowled above the depopulated meadows, the distant past glimmering on the edge of sight, searing suns reduced to cold flecks of bitter light.
After midnight the wind died and the countryside was quiet. The Darkside was banished but spring was still months away.
The Millennium Falcon was allowed to dock, without incident, at the Solos' private hangar. Han and Leia made their way down the ramp as steam rose from the engines and a vent or two finally gave way under the strain of yet another battle with Coruscant's gravity well. Chewbacca whined to himself, a pensive sound, as he put the venerable lady through familiar shutdown procedures. An hour later, Leia returned. Luke lay in the small medical berth, stabilized but unconscious. Kyp was sitting with Kam at the table. Mara was pacing.
"Well?" This was Mara. Leia didn't look so good.
Leia sighed and resisted the habit of diplomacy. "They're going to arrest you all." She spread her hands. "There's nothing I can do....."
Mara merely nodded in acceptance at the little woman. Judicial proceedings were the least of her problems now.
Leia spoke again. "First, you're all going to the med center, especially," her glance took in the medical berth, "Luke." Leia gave Mara a speculative glance. "Do you want to stay with him?"
Mara made no reply, only turned and sat down on a stool next to the berth. Leia nodded and turned away. Kyp and Kam moved past, their dark eyes filled with acceptance. As they passed Mara, they each clasped her hand in a gesture of support. Chewbacca departed soon after and, for a short time, as the Falcon's engines settled into a well- deserved rest, Mara was alone with Luke.
The ship settled into a peculiar quiet, a technological waiting. But instead of dead time, Mara found herself busy following her thoughts as they moved, floating on ribbons of quicksilver, in her mind. She gazed down at the unconscious Luke, studying his hands. Of his left, only the fingertips were discernible. Everything else was covered by a metal casting that protected his entire arm. The right was flaccid, the glove lost somewhere in the fight. There was a blackened area at the wrist and the synthetic skin had peeled back. Momentarily transfixed, she studied the sophisticated circuitry.
And then, all revulsion gone, she gently put her hand over it, protecting the exposed microcircuits and bio-connections. He shifted slightly, as if in response. But after an unintelligible word, he settled back into oblivion, his breathing sighing into peaceful sleep.
The scandal was tremendous but Leia, with the aid of Ackbar and Mon Mothma, had managed to quell the shouting to a bearable level. The movement to impeach was thrown off track for a time by clever manipulation of parliamentary procedure, but no one could guarantee just how long Leia would remain Chief of State. She knew she would have to resign eventually, but there were a few things she was determined to accomplish before she stepped down.
Artoo whistled as he registered his erstwhile companion, C- Threepio. "Artoo!" Threepio said with his customary condescension. "You look well for having infiltrated the Core Systems!" This was followed by a definite conspiratorial note. "You really must be more careful, Artoo. All this wandering will surely cause your circuits to overload!"
A plunking whistle signaled an irritated reply to the old, and useless, admonition. Threepio, of course, was unamused. "Callista! But she is rumored to have disappeared over two years ago, Artoo! How....?"
He was interrupted by a furious explanation. "I'm not too sure I understand, Artoo...." Threepio said, interrupting again. "Well, yes, but Master Luke...... But, Artoo, how could she be a dark jedi?....... Master Luke did what?"
Artoo's binary faded to a droid whisper. Threepio did his best to look astonished. "I see," he replied, although he did not see at all. A sudden feeling of pity, if droids can be said to have pity, seemed to enter his joints. Bless the Maker he was a droid and not organic! These biological organisms seemed to go through so much pain in their short lifetimes.
Perhaps, he decided in his relentlessly cheery way, it would be best to change the subject. "Well, it's more exciting than what's been going on around here, Artoo. Although," he began, warming to his subject and his familiar audience, "Anakin got away again the other day and we found him in......"
Moving down the corridor he continued to elucidate, giving his feisty counterpart a blow by blow account. The two venerable droids passed the Medical Center, its security field firmly in place, only to be easily pierced by Threepio's annoying sincerity. Luke, sitting on a bed within, winced as he heard the familiar voice. He gave Cilghal a tight smile.
"Hold your arm like this, Master," Cilghal ordered.
Luke, biting his tongue, did as he was told.
Without warning she pushed a blunt instrument into his left forearm. "Can you feel that?"
Luke winced again. "Ouch! That hurts.....!"
Cilghal was expressionless, but then most Mon Calamari usually were. "Good. I don't think we'll have to replace your arm."
Luke's smile became genuine. "That's good news," he said as he pushed himself forward and let his feet hit the floor. Gingerly, he began to move about.
Cilghal retreated to her diagnostic board. "You should be careful for a while, sir," she said, her voice exquisitely formal. "You've been through a bad time and you're not entirely healed."
Luke approached her and took one of her hands. "Thanks, Cilghal," he said, letting the Force flow through.
He felt her smile in return. "Take care Master Skywalker," she replied in her stilted way and disappeared through a door.
Mara entered. "Clean bill of health?" she asked briskly.
He nodded, his smile fading. "It's time to face the music," he said, himself making for the same door Cilghal had used.
"Not so fast, Skywalker," Mara said, her words bringing him up short. "What do you think they'll do with you?"
He quelled exasperation. "What I'd do if I were them. Lock me up and throw away the key."
She smiled, a bleak expression. "That's what they say they're going to do, but I doubt if they will." Her green eyes were easy and her voice downright light. "They have good memories of you, Skywalker. They can't just ignore your past."
He shrugged. "Why not?," he replied. "I can."
"Not everyone is as strong as you are, Luke."
The prompted a wry laugh and he searched for her customary sarcasm. "What are you getting at Mara?" he said, approaching her.
She resisted the urge to move away. "For one thing," she began, handing at something on her belt. "What about this?" His green saber sprang whole and strong, alive, shimmering, almost conscious in the small room.
He gazed at the object in her hand, familiar and at the same time terrible. "I thought I'd lost that," he said, quickly, although he made no move to take it. "They'll confiscate it, I suppose."
"Not if you give it to someone else first," she replied meaningfully. She deactivated it and let it sit in her open palm.
"Well, maybe Leia..." he began, a little flustered. Something about the way she held it brought back an old memory; of a quiet roof, a vanquished enemy and a promise fulfilled. Ben's voice washed through but the only thing he could see was Mara's face as it had been then, stilted, taken aback but accepting.
"Leia can't take it and you know it. If it became known it would put her in a worse position than she's in now. They've already accused her of being partial to you. I can't say her critics are wrong, of course......"
He closed his eyes, suddenly weary of it all; the sparring, the veiled sarcasm, the words that held double or even triple meanings. The memory vanished and he sighed. "You take it," he said shortly.
She lifted her eyebrows. "Are you sure, Skywalker?" she asked, the precious thing still held loosely in her palm. Then she added experimentally, "What if they arrest me?"
He turned away, his voice distant, suddenly impatient. "Then it goes to the War Museum, -- 'The Lightsaber that Struck Down Darth Vader' -- or something silly like that...."
Her voice was hard and searching. "You can't mean that."
Quickly, he paced back to her and resisted a sudden urge to reach out, to put his hands on her shoulders, fingers curling around the delicate collarbones. As it was, he merely clenched them together behind his back. "They're coming for me soon, Mara. You too...."
"No," she said, her voice now very clear and distinct, "they've decided we were all unduly influenced by your superior skills." She grinned and momentarily, the old Mara returned. "They're letting the rest of us off with heavy fines."
He laughed outright, not at all put off by her small deception. "Great! Now you'll be able to...." His words stopped short as if they had run into a durasteel wall.
"...... leave," she finished for him, reading his thought.
He seemed to sway a little, still unsteady on his feet. She made no move but her very posture was a challenge. His eyes were suddenly desolate and she saw, without any effort, his heartbreaking loneliness. The silence was edged by something from the corridor, the unmistakable sound of a group of people marching in unison.
In a moment of bare truth, he drew nearer and looked down at her. Her eyes were limitless. "Keep it for me," he said softly, meaning plying his words as a farmer plys fertile fields. "It will be safest with you."
She nodded, eyes glittering. And between them, for a small, nourishing moment there was the sound of rushing water, a great ocean of warmth and familiarity. The waves were gentle, the sunlight comforting, compelling, calling them both to its pleasured shores. Luke drew ragged breath, but Mara remained immobile, like a statue.
And just before the guards entered, Luke came forward in a strangely familiar motion, bent his face to hers and kissed her lightly. For a blessed moment, their lips molded together and the ocean between them pooled into a settled, waiting stillness, small waves muttering barely felt promises.
He pulled away. She let him go, watching as took him, restraining his hands, ysalamiri pushing away the Force. And then he was gone and she was alone, his lightsaber clutched tightly in her hand.
It had been six months since the death of Callista. At first Luke was imprisoned on Coruscant, but this time he went willingly. An preliminary investigation was initiated, but stalled due to the impossibility of any impartiality on the part of resident Force users, all of whom had, at one time or another, trained at the Jedi Academy. However, since the vaunted Jedi Master was now an alleged criminal with some pretty serious charges pending, it was decided that the Academy, flawed though it was, would be run by Jedi Streen for the time being. Its 200 or so students returned to Yavin IV and many worthy Jedi began their training at this time.
The New Republic, irritated by the constant problem of dark jedi, especially half-trained jedi students becoming dark, put its collective head together and came up with stringent rules regarding eligibility for entrance into the Academy along with even more stringent requirements for graduation. This elongated the educational process, giving the instructors more time to weed out unsuitable or unstable students. These last were treated with compassion, their latent talents held in check while they were rehabilitated on another moon of Endor. This served to separate the prone from the not-so-prone and things at the school began to run much more smoothly.
Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight, Hero of the Rebellion, twice awarded the Medal of Valor, was sentenced to a prison term of two years, mostly for breaking out of confinement. All charges brought against him by Tionne and Mara Jade were dropped, over his own protests. It was then decided, upon careful study, that the New Republic would be better served by his community service than confinement to a penal planet. Therefore, he was assigned to return to his home planet of Tatooine, where he was to serve his time dealing with the displaced unfortunates of Mos Eisley's gentrification program. And so it was that, under strict supervision, Luke Skywalker came home at last.
The twin suns rode high in the sky, smoldering over scrub country. Luke, who was usually accompanied by someone from the hospital, found himself alone. He was after a runaway, a boy of about 15 or so. This child's parents had abandoned him at the age of 10 and he had become a hardened street urchin. When Mos Eisley began to clean itself up, people like Lan were shipped into institutions such as this, where they sat out their teen years only to be released at the age of 18, thence to begin a life of crime. Luke had been working with Lan for several weeks now. The only thing he had been able to get out of the sullen youngster was a high sense of hostility.
He gave his old binocs another try. A 360 degree search turned up nothing. Luke lifted his face and studied the positions of the suns. It was late. Another hour and they would drop behind the horizon like falling meteorites. A sense of worry overrode his reason and he headed for the landspeeder. He was forbidden, as a condition of his community service, to venture out alone into the wilderness. But Lan was out there, he could feel it.
The landspeeder's ancient comm coughed and filled the small cockpit with static. "Larsevitch, are you there?"
Immediately, Luke hit the comm button. "Read you loud and clear, Nightsinger. I've lost Lan."
A staticed silence indicated indecision and, perhaps, curses. "I figured," Nightsinger replied. "I know he wanted out. Any ideas where he's off to?"
Luke gave the desiccated landscape around him an annoyed look, all preoccupation. "The nearest landmark is Jabba's Palace. But, it's been deserted for a long time." Luke's stomach roiled at the thought of the place.
More silence. Nightsinger, as head dispatcher, was not privy to Luke's identity. One of the conditions of this whole set up was strict anonymity. Luke's surname was never to be revealed. For the time being he was Matt Larsevitch, a malcontent from Coruscant. After a short period of discomfort, he found the new identity curiously comforting. It pointed up the burden of living up to a famous, and infamous, name.
"Larsevitch, come back in. You're under restriction. We'll mount a search and rescue."
"It'll be dark by that time," Luke replied quickly, his bedrock impatience suddenly thrust to the fore. "He'll be dead."
The reply was instantaneous. "You're under orders, Larsey! If you haven't returned by the half hour, you'll be placed in confinement."
Luke swallowed. The dry air was prickling along his spine. He wiped his face on the dirty sleeve of his coveralls. "I'm not going anywhere, Nightsinger. I just want to see Lan safe...."
There was a short snort of laughter. "If I know my delinquents, that one'll be alright, at least 'til we catch him. This isn't the first time he's been out in the bush past curfew."
"What about the Raiders we saw this morning?" For a moment the old Luke was back, his voice that of an impatient 18-year-old, arrogant, fiery and restless. Always looking away, up into the limitless sky, studying the mysterious horizon, never paying any attention to what he was doing, never paying attention to *now.* Yoda's figure swam up before his eyes and he took a long breath. It was time to learn from his mistakes.
"They're probably kilometers away by now, Larsey," Nightsinger said, amusement cutting through the static. "Don't worry about the kid. We'll find 'em."
Not exactly reassured, but holding to a plan higher, more far seeing than his own, he gunned the speeder. It's sand damaged engine turned over under protest and a cloud of dust rose and fell as he turned it back toward the fortified, hospital grounds.
Ten minutes later he watched with no small envy, combined with a strange relief, as the rescue crew dressed for their mission. He stood in the abrupt shade of a doorway, suddenly feeling old, as they made their way out to the speeders and tore out of the protected compound. A small R5 unit rolled to the threshold. Luke smiled down at it, thinking of something else. "You think they'll find him, Arfive?"
It whistled in reply, in startling imitation of someone Luke knew quite well, then turned and was gone. Arfive units were not known for their social skills.
Feeling more than just a little put off, Luke sighed and headed back into the building. He had a class to teach, a literacy class. His reading and writing skills were not the best, but he had a solid, if unspectacular education. He could teach elementary reading and writing well enough. He glanced at his worn chron. He was late, as usual.
Seeking a moment of refreshment, no matter how brief, he went to throw some cool water on his face. In the refresher a moisture evaporation tank clanked noisily, giving warning of imminent breakdown. Luke gave it a hard look and then began tinkering with the controls. A bell rang.
Someone knocked on the door, a short, clipped set of sounds and then a head peered around. "It's time, Larsey. I thought I told you to stop messing with the machinery!"
Luke scowled. "I used to....." he began, but, thinking the better of it, he closed his mouth and he swallowed ready words.
"We'll get one of the locals to fix that," the woman said. Luke turned to face her. She was slight, almost elfin in the way of Tatooine, except that she was the fairest blue-eyed blonde he had ever seen. Her pale eyes, like delicate sandflowers in the first flush of flash flood, smirked at him. "You city people are all the same. Always trying to fix things you don't understand." She smiled at him again, even though this odd man from the depths of Coruscant was mostly an annoyance. "Your class is waiting. Better get in there before they destroy something."
"Is K'aaatania back?" he asked, moving toward her. She held the door for him.
"Yep. Fit as a bantha, as they say around here, and ready to play. You should be able to handle him, I think."
Luke smirked, suddenly liking the little, no nonsense woman. "Not well, but he's never gotten away from me."
She stopped to inspect a crack in the wall as they moved down the corridor. "Yeah, although there's been a couple of times....."
"That was when I first got here," Luke countered.
She refused to look at him, although she did tap the wall next to the crack, as if telling herself to remember it. "We still don't know how you calmed him down. You've done good, Larsey."
He smiled broadly at such high praise. And there was a pause, a hint at something strong and deep. "Thanks, Lightsider."
It was her turn to smile. "Call me Naurenna," she said, looking at him a little quizzically. Larsey could do that to you. One moment he'd be plain as day, the next a complete mystery. She had given up trying to make sense of it.
He hesitated. He had been rather standoffish and this was for good reason. Lately he hadn't done well on the human relationship end of things. "Uh..... sure Naurenna," he replied, trying not to sound too familiar.
She smiled again but it was an impersonal expression. "But, only in private, Larsey," she said, giving him a pat on the back as she walked away.
Luke ate a smattering of dinner and studied the evening report from HNN. It had been a long day but he had only been threatened once with assault and K'aaatania had actually seemed happy to see him. Evidently, confinement had done the boy some good. Lan was back, in solitary. Luke was due to visit after dinner. But, for now, he could sit in the half-finished adults lounge and absorb the news.
His sister's face flashed onto the holoreceiver, an official portrait. And then there was footage of her walking quickly down one of the large, public corridors of the Imperial Palace. Luke was startled to see Han following. Something must be up.
Luke stood. "Can I turn this up?"
Two men sitting sullenly at the end of the table gave him gaped mouthed looks and then nodded. "Sure. No problem."
The sound was scratchy, as if from far away. Luke made a mental note to look at the vid speakers in the near future. Preferably when Lightsider wasn't looking.
"..... shock in the Senate today as Leia Organa Solo resigned her position as Chief of State."
Finally, the other shoe had fallen. Luke felt his face pale. "Resigned?" he repeated to no one in particular.
This prompted a small reaction from the two men at the end of the table, but when they saw his attention was focused completely on the vid they turned away again.
".....after it was disclosed that Han Solo, her husband, had assisted in the escape of several Jedi caught up in the Tionnegate scandal at the Jedi Academy. General Solo, also a Hero of the Rebellion but known to associate with his former Smugglers Alliance colleagues from time to time, had no comment." Here there was jerky footage of Han being jostled by a horde of press and shouting in an agitated manner, "No comment!"
The camera switched back to the narrator. A vid of Luke flashed up. Luke's cheeks flushed and the two men at the table held silent for a moment, their attention temporarily snagged. "This scandal began almost seven months ago when Jedi Master Skywalker was accused of attempting to rape and then murder his Administrative Assistant, Tionne." Luke groaned inwardly as a vid of Tionne flashed before his eyes. "He was never tried due to the fact that the charges were withdrawn. The Senate, however, established an investigatory committee. Its preliminary report was released today. In it, Chief of State, Leia Organa Solo, along with her husband, is formally accused of aiding and abetting Master Skywalker, who is also her twin brother. Combined with growing accusations and suspicions that the Skywalkers are laying the groundwork to become a dynasty, much in the same way that the Organa family dominated old Alderaan, impeachment seemed imminent. But, today all procedures are officially canceled due to the fact that Organa Solo has announced her resignation."
There was truncated footage of Leia's face, talking earnestly, but tiredly at a news conference. "Her speech will be played in its entirety at the end of this broadcast. Please stay with us...." the vid announcer said. And then a commercial for a new brand of Corellian brandy appeared, slick, sophisticated and extremely annoying.
One of the men at the end of the table snorted in something like bored contempt. "It's about time! Those Skywalkers are up to their necks in it! And with all that royal upbringing, it's no wonder....."
Luke merely sat, stupefied.
"Hey buddy," one of the men asked, "not that it matters much out here in the boonies, but who do you think's gonna take over?"
"Uh..... probably Mon Mothma...." he stuttered, forgetting himself as his brain moved from one busy point to another.
"That old bag!" The contempt was now unmistakable. "SonofSith, we gotta get some new blood in the government! No wonder the Republic's such a wreck! Who'd you vote for in the last election?" This question was thrown at Luke, as if he were one of them. Evidently, he didn't look much like his old holographs anymore.
"Uh.... I can't remember....." Luke began, miming forgetfulness. His brow creased as he stalled for time. "Organa Solo, I guess."
"Not me! I can't stand the woman. All she does is protect that no account brother of hers..... I'm surprised more of his students aren't here, so many of them seem to go bad... "
Luke smiled but his humor was banked. "I hear they put the Force-strong ones on a colony near Endor...." he began, in a rationalizing tone.
This earned another snort. "Yeah, I betcha that would be fun. Working with a bunch of Darth Vaders -- yessir, Mr. Territorial Prosecutor, that's how I wanna serve my time! It's enough to make you give up Corellian!" This ridiculous statement earned him the appreciative laughter of the other.
"How long ya got, buddy?" This was directed at Luke again.
Luke's voice was calm, even as he eyed the holovid. "A year and a half," he replied.
Lan was extremely unhappy. He had pushed himself into a corner and then tried to roll himself up in a ball, or so it appeared. Only his eyes moved as Luke entered the solitary block. A piece of metal fell upon stone somewhere down the way, clanking and loud and an irritated voice swore in very specific language. Luke smiled involuntarily, thinking suddenly of someone else. Only that someone else seemed to be from a different lifetime.
His eyes took in the bleak little cell, the hard bed, the boring walls. Footsteps echoed coldly. It certainly wasn't Coruscant Detention. He let himself lean against the old fashioned bars. No high technology for Tatooine.
"You alright, Lan?" The question was a familiar one, asked many times over the past several weeks.
The scrunched ball of youthful humanity chose not to answer.
"I was kinda disappointed in you, running off like that."
This produced a reaction. The hazel eyes shifted.
"Where were you headed?" Silence. "Jabba's Palace?"
A cramped voice issued from the ball of legs and feet. "How did you know?"
Luke allowed a small smile to play across his face. "I used to live here, ya know."
Lan grimaced as he pulled his legs away from his chest and lifted his head. He was a lanky kid, with dark hair and hazel eyes. Luke was struck by his resemblance to someone he knew, he just couldn't put his finger on it.
"You never told me that," Lan said, his voice tired. "Are they making you sleep here now 'cause I ran off?"
Luke let a hint of amusement cross his voice. "No, that would have happened only if I had tried to go after you. I almost did."
"You mean you risked solitary for me?"
Luke could not help grinning. "I said almost. I came back to the compound. The S & R team got you, remember?"
Lan gave Luke a sharp look. "Yeah, after you told them where to look. How did you know?"
Luke sighed and wondered how much he should say. How much would he ever really affect this youngster, who had never been given a chance? Lan was sharp all right, all angles, the product of a lifetime of poverty and self-reliance. Nothing got past the kid. "I lived out here as a child, on a moisture farm," Luke said, hoping that would be boring enough to send the conversation somewhere else.
"They don't do that much anymore," Lan replied instantly, his hazel gaze becoming speculative.
"So I hear," Luke replied, suddenly tired.
Lan was now quite authoritative. "Turned out, nobody could make a living doing that. Now they do it in cooperatives. Mos Eisley runs one of the more profitable guilds."
Luke's brow puckered. "How do you know that?"
Lan looked proud. "We used to sleep in their offices all the time. They were easy to get into. Plus, their food replicators were pretty good." He ducked his head. "That's how I got caught, ya know."
Luke actually laughed. The sound was completely foreign to his ears. "In other words, you got soft," he said quickly, seeing it all too clearly.
The kid scowled. "You could say that. We just outstayed our welcome, that's all."
Luke shifted his weight, tiredness more of a burden than in the old days. There was a shift, a change of atmosphere. "What are you going to do with your life, Lan?"
Lan was suddenly angry. "Is that why you're here? Is this why you're standing out there when you could be in bed? Why don't you just go tell old lady Lightsider...."
Luke put up a hand and Lan stopped instantly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "This is your last chance, Lan," Luke said, his voice suddenly compelling in an undefined way. "They'll throw you in a penal colony if you're caught again. And that's the last place the government's gonna throw resources, so you'd have no chance there. You'd probably die before your thirtieth birthday. Is that what you really want?"
Lan gave the older man a shocked, but assessing look. "Why would you care?" This was the defiance of a deprived youth. And, Luke knew, the point. No one had ever cared.
Luke, unexpectedly, smiled and his expression was as pure and attractive as a sunny day beside a clear stream. Lan blinked. "Because I do. I don't want anything from you, Lan. I'm not after your money...... or your.... services." The hesitation was only slight. "I only want you to have a chance at life. I hate to see you throw it away just because your parents were spice addicts and the city of Mos Eisley failed you." He clutched the bars for a moment, suddenly passionate. "It failed me once, too. Don't rely on the outside for your direction, kid! It's the inside, that's what's going to make it work."
Lan was puzzled. It was unlike Larsey to be so openly emotional about things. Although, there were times when he could swear he heard Larsey's voice in his head, or felt moved in a simple way to do what Larsey had suggested. But he had to face up to it. Larsey was right. He had never tried to get Lan to do any work for him, nor had he laid a finger on him. The kid's face was tight. "You really believe that, don't you?"
Luke gave the young man before him, all hurt feelings and the fiery arrogance that accompanies it, a long, contemplative look. "With all my heart," he said, finally and then, as if on noiseless ghost feet, pulled away from the cell, and disappeared down the corridor.
After his mentor left, Lan was stuck with the blank wall outside his cell for scenery. He lay down and closed his eyes. He needed time to think.
Weeks passed. Luke's work became a grind, although every once in a while a small success would give him hope. He did hear from his probation officer once in a while, but all communications were routine.
It was late afternoon. Naurenna came into the classroom. The class was working its unruly way through the composition of a short story. Luke had already had to shoot down some of the more riske suggestions. The boys thought the story was too tame and waaay boring. Luke was beginning to wonder if he could show it to Naurenna at all. Even in its present, toned down state, even just submitting it to her for the record could very nearly be considered an indecent proposition.
He rose from his bent position, the reluctant boy he was assisting scowling in unaccustomed concentration, and groaned a little as the small of his back protested. Even with his slight statue, he towered over her. She lifted her pale eyes to his bluer ones and smiled. "You have a call, Larsey. Someone from Probation Control." Someone in the room hissed "Shutup, Sarrlacbreath!" in a loud stage whisper and there was a sudden cessation of the usual raucous conversation. He ignored them. Naurenna allowed a pause to collect here. "Anything you haven't told me?"
His brow furrowed but his Force sense told him nothing. "Not that I'm aware of," he replied.
The nonsense words made her smile. "Well, that makes me feel better. Anyway, you'd better go to the Probation Con Area. They told me it's confidential."
His whole face furrowed. "How can that be? You're supposed to be privy to all my communications. That was the agreement when I got community service."
She winced and her eyes flashed uncertainty. "Sometimes, they change the rules on us," she said, with a clear-eyed, assessing look, surprised for his touching, almost boyish, obedience.
He did not like the expression on her face. "I'll go," he said quietly, curious and more than a little disturbed. It had occurred to him, in the wee hours of the night, as insomnia drifted through a barred window and Callie's face was displaced by Mara's, that in some ways, this was one of the best times of his life. No spaceship battles, no dark jedi to chase, no fawning students to teach, no politics to address. Just simple, straightforward living; eat, drink, sleep and take care of his charges. That was it. It was a sand blasted paradise.
He was distant and preoccupied as he made his way into the Probation Area. A startled staff worker, seeing something on Larsey's face he had never before noticed, gathered his data pads and fled. Luke waited until he heard the door slide shut. Alone, he hit the comm button.
Instantly, almost life size and quite life-like, Mara was there. She looked none the worse for wear, although her smile did not seem quite as sardonic as it had formerly.
He glanced around the room, suddenly feeling furtive. "Mara! You look well! How did you.....?"
"I have my sources, Skywalker, or should I say Larsevitch?"
"That's supposed to be a dead secret, Mara..." he began.
The woman grimaced, a very familiar expression. "No kidding, Sky....uh Larsevitch. What's your first name?"
"Uh, Lu..... Matt," he replied, stuttering a little.
She smiled, all sarcasm. "You sure about that?"
He resisted the urge to walk away from her image. "What's the point, Mara?"
"Well, Matt," she began, exaggerating his new name a little. He cringed. "I was talking to the former Chief of State a couple of weeks ago and she let me know she got a little paperwork done before she resigned."
Luke began to feel bored. He already knew that Leia was in seclusion, on New Alderaan, reportedly. He wasn't surprised that he hadn't heard from her. He wasn't supposed to have unsupervised visits and no one knew she was a relative. Besides, currently, life on Tatooine was better than being jerked around by Coruscant intrigue. "Well, hurry up, Mara!" he said, his voice rising.
"Not so fast, Jedi," she replied instantly.
He stopped but his face became impassive, intimidating and a flash of coldness faded through it. The Master had returned.
The image cocked her head. "They didn't beat it all out of you, I see, Larsevitch." She cleared her throat. "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted...." He ground his teeth but said nothing. "The former Princess of Alderaan and now citizen of New Alderaan, being perfectly sound in body and mind, has magnanimously decided to commute your sentence."
She lifted her chin and let a silence fall through the eternity between Tatooine and Coruscant. "You're free, Skywalker."
He gaped at the image. "If this is some idea of a joke ......." he began with a great deal more vehemence than he had first intended.
"No joke," she said, quite serious. "You're free. I have the documents here, in my hand. I thought I'd tell you first. You know, it's one of those common courtesy things."
Luke, shocked, sat swiftly in one of the old, metal chairs. The image gave him a hard look. "It's rude to move out of range, Skywalker. Don't tell me you're having second thoughts about leaving?"
Luke shook his head. "No, not at all, it's just that...."
The figure of Mara crossed its arms. "And please don't tell me there's another woman in your life."
He stood and approached the two way comm. "The Maker Forbid!" he said, with just the right emphasis.
Mara smiled. "Good. We don't need more woman trouble," she said, seemingly oblivious to the irony. "I'll be arriving in three days. That should give you enough time to pack."
He straightened, too surprised to protest. "And just where are we going?" he asked, more curious than taken aback.
"First, we're going to say good-bye to a few places, after that, we'll see." And then the image was gone, winked out in a second. He knew, taking into account the time lag, that she had actually left her comm booth more than ten seconds ago. Just long enough to say the words and terminate the transmission. He shook his head.
It was time for leave-taking.
Confirmation came through that afternoon. Naurenna was shocked. That oddball Larsevitch had turned out to be Jedi Master Luke Skywalker was almost too much of a stretch. But, she had had very little experience with Force-sensitives herself and so she chalked it up to experience.
Then her fundamental common sense then took over. She called him into her office, all the better to formalize his new status. But to her surprise, he wanted few changes. No he did not want another room, no he did not want to go into town and no he didn't want to call anybody. But he did have one special, last request.
"It's not as if you're going to your death, Larsey.... uh, I mean...."
"Call me Luke," he said quickly.
"Uh.... Luke," she replied, as if trying the word on for size.
I promise to return in a couple of days. I have to. That's when Master Trader Jade is due to arrive."
This prompted a thinking nod. "Of course, anything you say, uh...."
"Luke," he said for her.
This time she got it right. "Luke," she echoed.
He grinned and made for the garage.
The speeder was ready, packed with enough rations for a week, a small blaster and some extra clothing. He hopped into it and soon the hospital was far behind, a speck in the wilderness, vanishing over a blazing horizon.
He rode in circles at first, deciding. And then, as if of its own volition, the speeder made for the old Lars moisture farm. The painful things would come first.
It was further than he remembered. It seems that, in memory, you can easily fly through the journeys of your childhood when in actuality these journeys were quite arderous. Of course, he and Biggs did not usually come out this far. Too young, not allowed, too many chores; then it had been prison and now it all seemed like paradise. He skirted Anchorhead and gunning the little engine, found himself back on the main drag. A small knot in his stomach made him avoid Beggar's Canyon and then he was there.
Only it was completely different. There were pickets set up. Small, brightly colored strips of duraplastic marked the ground here and there. But these were slightly off to one side. The thing he had come to see wasn't there and part of him really wasn't surprised.
The speeder calmed obediently. Out of habit he gave the wild place a quick, searching glance and then hopped out. His clothing, already grimy, whipped against his body as he made his way against the wind to the entrance of his old home. Disoriented, he had to look for it. Shuffling through the debris strewn area, mixed with old stone, scrub and the depressing trash of civilization, he found it.
The desert had reclaimed his old home, all of it; the compound, the garages, the work rooms, the living areas. A broken threshold, pitted from ever-present winds and large temperature changes, was all that remained. He had half expected to see smoldering flames rising from it, but no, that was how it had been before. He squatted for a moment, fingering the suddenly fine sand and squinted speculatively into the distance. It looked as if the dunes were beginning to encroach into this area.
He rose again, not sure what he was feeling, and made his way to the area where he had managed to memorialize the only parents he had ever known. His original markers were long gone, of course. There were several cheap replacement markers on the ground, and in the sand he could see bits and pieces of still other markers. Two stands remained, but they were again empty. A shock went through him as he gazed at the suddenly familiar venue. He began to realize that these were the markers he had seen shadowing Leia's face during Khaali's attempted seduction. Moving quickly, he stooped to pick up a broken fragment. Yes, the metal was the right shape and color. Leia had been here.
He grasped the tinny thing and gave the area all around a searching look. He wondered what she had seen. Something had communicated with her here. A leap in his heart hoped it was Ben, but Ben was gone. Come to think of it, Ben had been gone for most of this adventure in the first place. A sudden petulance took his heart and he threw the metal fragment in hard reaction. It slapped, vain and futile, against worn stone. The day was falling into night and he knew there were no answers for him here. He would stay in Anchorhead and then he would go.
But instead of turning toward the still familiar streets of Anchorhead, the speeder headed out into the wilderness, into the Dune Sea. A resolve took him, along with something else, something that felt right and compelling. It had been so long since he had had that feeling, so long since he had felt whole, so long since he could not think of himself with loathing. He shrugged his shoulders. If the animals got him, then that would be an appropriate end. He grinned as a Kryat Dragon howled, nearly startling him out of his seat. Maybe, after all these years, Uncle Owen would be proved right.
He arrived at Ben's house at twilight. Taking a glance at what was left of the light, he stayed the engine and prepared everything. And then, for the first time in months, he allowed himself to link with the Force. As he settled himself into the speeder for a short sleep, he and it disappeared into the craggy rock. A large, misshapen shadow paced through, hungry and panting. It paused, but after a suspicious sniff, it went about its rascally business. Luke was already sound asleep, held within the comforting arms of the Force.
It was daylight, the sunshine full and bursting. Ben's house was surprisingly well preserved. Even the windows were in their places, sturdy, if worn. He remembered the last time he was here, kneeling amongst the ruins, searching for answers, searching for the Force for his beloved Callista. Now his questions were answered and she was gone. Nevertheless, he had returned, alone once again.
He studied the place for a thinking moment, studied the burrowed and pitted outer walls, studied the light that prismed off the panes and knew, in a flash, that he was not awake. He was still asleep in the middle of a dangerous, night shrouded desert, his landspeeder safely out of sight, as long as nothing became too curious. He stilled, waiting.
A small noise issued from the vicinity of the doorway. Taking that as an invitation, he strode quietly across the open space and pushed his way through. He found the clean, wooden table set for dinner. There was a small cooking fire in the kitchen area and the cozy scent of stim wafted through the room, its spiced fingers inviting and warm. Not really knowing what was coming, he sat down on one of the chairs. A part of him wanted to nose around idly, to see if Ben had left the old trunk. But something else, something stronger, held him motionless.
She came from the kitchen. She was dressed as anyone living in the midst of a ferocious desert would dress. Her worn tunic and leggings were the beginnings of an easy nut color. The boots were large soled and scuffed. But her eyes shone with a luminous gray light and her hair was neat, loosely braided. Still, something about her was a mystery as this unfamiliar ghost of a woman set a cup of comforting stim in front of him, and then retreated in noiseless boots to the chair across the table. His heart leapt in longing and confused loneliness. He reached out to her.
"Do not attempt to touch me," she said, smiling even as she spoke prohibitive words. "I have gone onto another life."
He smiled at her and pulled his hand away. "Callista."
She nodded. "Finally, we meet," she said quietly. "I knew you for a short time, on the Eye and then at my death." She sighed and the day washed around her, heightening her sundrenched unreality. "I was but a leftover ghost in the ship and by the time of my death I was nothing more than a demon. As you can see," here she indicated her comfortable surroundings, her intact person, "I have been redeemed."
He studied her face. It was beautiful, intelligent and radiant but somehow foreign, nothing like Cray's at all. A sudden shyness took hold as he realized once again, down to his toes, just how wrong the whole thing had been. Humbled, he lowered his gaze.
This was not the time, however, for pleasant subterfuge. "I was in love with you once," he said, his voice barely audible over the crackling cooking fire.
She smiled, a caring expression. "Do not be ashamed of your nobility, Luke," she said, her voice that of the woman he had first seen in his vision with Master Djinn. "Your purity is precious. You must seek always to retain it."
That reminded him. "And Master Djinn?" he asked grinning sheepishly, unable to resist.
"He is with us, Luke," she said, grinning back. "I am very grateful to him. He helped you to help me. I was of the Darkside. He knew that only you could redeem me."
There was a silence. The fire danced in its place, speaking of a domestic peace he had never known. His heart blackened with impatience and discontent.
"But it has changed me," he said, his burdens suddenly becoming unbearable. His eyes closed and he let the scents of the unreal place settle into his lungs, into his bloodstream. "They're letting me go soon....... but I don't know where to go. I don't know what to do. " There was uncertainty there, almost desperation. "I had thought, after a time, I would know what to do but now all I know is that I can't go back to the Academy...."
She leaned forward and, opening his eyes, he caught a small, trailing whiff of her slightly wooded scent as it mixed with the stim. "Don't Luke! Do not torture yourself!" Her voice was maternal, comforting. A picture of Beru sprang into his mind and he pushed it away, wearying of the poignancy that was always assailed him when he thought of his childhood life. To quell the sudden emotions, he concentrated on her compelling but unfamiliar voice. "There are those willing to help," she said. "You have paid the price, you have kept your soul and you have not turned. You are a powerful, worthy Jedi."
His face was agonized and he felt his flattened emotions spike, the beginnings of the impulsiveness and impatience that had so marked his life. A shaft of light fell directly upon him, illuminating his place. The stim's spiced aroma seemed to overwhelm him; it was everywhere, soothing, comforting, twisting his desire into contentment, his pain into love. Her voice was now within him, speaking low, defining words. "You love one already," she said. "You have loved her a long time. This may be your last chance."
He replied nothing, a man so accustomed to waking visions that he no longer held any fear of ghosts. But now he was afraid, more afraid than he had ever been. Trembling, he felt a sudden recoiling repulsion, a superstitious shiver. "For what?" he whispered finally, the words forced out of him.
Her smile was now only slight. He looked into her ancient but beautiful face and felt nothing more than an odd curiosity. "For life," she replied. "Jedi must live as well as die, Jedi Skywalker. It is time to live. Death defeats all, even the most powerful of us. Do not waste the time given to you!"
She smiled again, a parting message of gratitude expressed in her limitless gray eyes and a small breeze lifted the ends of her hair. And then, as if swept away by an approaching sandstorm, the vision separated into colors and abstract forms, faded into the approaching dawn and was gone, lost in a small pinprick of thin sunlight. He awoke.
Dawn had began to pierce the awful darkness. The speeder was cold to the touch. Luke sat perfectly still in his uncomfortable seat and watched the suns play tag with each other as the planet circled into another day cycle. And once the suns had risen completely, the spell was broken. Moving slowly, he stretched, shook his head and reached for the ignition.
The speeder belched and started up, quick and clean. A startled animal made slightly reptilian sounds of alarm as it tore away, frightened by the mechanical apparition that seemed to appear out of nowhere. And, without even glancing toward the pile of disused rock that was Ben's old place, he nosed the speeder away, back over the Dune Sea, skirting his old home, Beggar's Canyon, the sleepy outpost of Anchorhead and back to the isolated hospital. He would never go there again.
Luke Skywalker left Tatooine for good exactly one day later. Mara Jade, true to her word, picked him up right on time, her freighter, Hunter's Luck in fine shape. It was said that as he boarded he could be seen kissing her. But, perhaps that is only wishful thinking from those who prefer happy endings.
The ghosts of Obi-wan, Yoda, Anakin Skywalker, Djinn and Callista were never seen again by any of that generation. Although, it was sometimes said that, at certain times of the year, if you ventured out into the tattered wastes beyond the Dune Sea, a trick of light and shadow would show you a tableau of old Jedi, drinking stim in the pleasant afternoon sun and talking quietly with one another. But then, legends grow easily in the wastes and are just as hard to dispel.
Upon visiting Yavin IV, Luke was reportedly gratified to find that his seemingly ill-fated school was running very well. The parade of novices turning into dark jedi had faded. People were no longer so jumpy regarding the Force and, as there were actually few Force-sensitives in the galaxy to begin with, there was a growing feeling of security.
Kyp Durron's mission in the Dalinga system was successful. He had managed to rescue Jedi Waterling from a horrible six months in an antiquated, rat-infested dungeon. As it turned out, Jedi Waterling had a phobia regarding rats. After a time, this became a source of endless amusement at the school. The New Republic, unable to afford losing such a useful servant, kept Kyp busy thereafter. And the more successes he had, the more his legend grew.
Soon after Luke's sentence was commuted, Kyp asked for Tionne's hand, but uncertain as to her feelings, she did not consent. Upon their meeting, for the first time since the ill-fated evening almost a year before, she and Luke forgave each other, willingly, truly, completely. It was said that both had tears on their faces as they hugged. A few words were exchanged along with the gift of understanding and friendship.
Tionne left the Academy soon after. First she went to Obroa-skai, eventually becoming Assistant Administrator of the venerable library there. It was said that she met someone, married and quietly disappeared into the limitless galaxy, just as she had appeared years before. Kyp never saw her again.
Kam remained at the Academy, a faithful assistant to old Streen, who took to the Administrator's job as if he had been born to it. The students accorded them both great respect and they had the opportunity to train and influence the entire new Jedi movement. Master Streen died almost twenty years later, fading away with an air of incomparable contentment. His shrine became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites on Yavin.
There was word, as the year turned toward the First Cycle, that Admiral Pellaeon committed ritual suicide. This intelligence, however, was uncertain. But, as the years wore on and no Pellaeon ever appeared or was again mentioned, the story came to be regarded as truth.
The former Admiral Daala vanished into obscurity. She was never again mentioned in any official record. However, on the planet of Rasclann IV, there was said to be an offworld woman of great dignity assisting the remaining native population, decimated by the Empire, into health. This woman, known only by the name of Jelila, died there after a long and humble life, revered and honored. Her shrine is meticulously maintained.
Ksing left Marron Barron's administration and found work on Coruscant. It was there that he renewed his friendship with the page T'anonma. So it was that 15 years later, when T'anonma was counted as a fast-track, young Senator in a sea of youthful replacements, he found himself assistant and consort to an influential office. At the time, it was rumored that the little, dark haired woman was being groomed by the current government for the Chief of State's position.
Mon Mothma died at about the same time as Master Streen. She was eulogized both by enemies and friends and came to be regarded with more respect than she had ever commanded in life. Her monument, at first a major attraction, fell into disrepair however, and become a meeting place for young lovers of all species. Admiral Ackbar, outraged at such sacrilege, set about raising funds for decorative, if forbidding, fencing. But still, the trysts continue.
Admiral Ackbar became too elderly for further service to the New Republic. He moved back to his home planet, where he whiled away his days, writing his memoirs and participating in many scientific studies and experiments. He died many years later with honor and dignity.
Major Knezar, despite his involvement in the scandal, was eventually promoted. He became a Brigadier General at NRI and had a long and varied career.
Lan, the juvenile delinquent of Tatooine, found truth in Larsevitch's words. After several setbacks, he entered the Fleet Academy as a probationary student and graduated, six years later, at the top of his class. His uncanny resemblance to the young Han Solo made him an attractive date and he had many girlfriends. Not the least of which was Jaina Solo, who was slightly younger. Han Solo, head of the Smugglers Alliance, was said to be unhappy about this. Leia Organa Solo, however, was said to be amused.
Naurenna Lightsider married Link Nightsinger. They had several children. Together they ran the most successful youth rehabilitation home on the Rim. Many of their studies and reports are still used as guides and models by systems with serious social problems.
Leia Organa Solo spent several years in obscurity on New Alderaan, where she refused to run for office. She spent time working on her Jedi skills and tending to her children. She became very adept at sword play and related physical stunts. She was no match for her brother, however, when it came to strength and communication. And she never developed the gift of prophecy. Her pronounced diplomatic and administrative gifts were enhanced by her Force training and eventually, as memories faded, she was appointed Ambassador at Large for the New Republic.
Han Solo's position as Head of the Smugglers Alliance took him all over the galaxy. He seemed to relish the work, often bringing his wife along for companionship. Together, they forged the Alliance into a powerful trading coalition, so that it belied its own venerated, and outdated, name.
Chewbacca was released from his life-debt soon after the events related in this story. He returned to Kashyyyk, where he became head of the Ruling Council. But, on occasion, he could be seen in the company of Han Solo, in the cockpit of the ancient *Millennium Falcon.* His children grew up strong and honorable and presented him with many grandchildren.
The Jedi children, Jaina, Jacen and Anakin were eventually sent to the Academy on Yavin IV. Anakin was the most talented and in later years, as he grew into an uncanny resemblance of his uncle, was often mistaken for the legendary Luke Skywalker himself. This was usually by elderly people who had forgotten that Skywalker was of their own generation. To them it was as if, for a brief instant, the past had come back to life. Anakin learned to appreciate the attention and was gracious enough to accept his uncle's glory with dignity.
Luke's name faded from everyday life, becoming the stuff of legend. He seemed to relish the anonymity this afforded him and could be seen only rarely at official functions. The next generation, tiring of the overtold stories of the now legendary Rebel Alliance, generally ignored all references to him. He became a symbol of his time and, therefore, dated. With no small relief, he found he had finally gone out of style.
Mara Jade held her title as Master Trader within the Alliance for many years and in the process became a very wealthy woman. Luke Skywalker was seen with her from time to time, that is, when he was recognized. It is said that they traveled often together and it was thought by some that they actually married. This rumor, however, was never substantiated and family members always denied it.
As for their adventures together that, my friends, is another story.