Luke's good humor persisted into the next morning. He was up, about, banging around in the cabin and into his second cup before Mara emerged, still yawning. She was able only to grunt a greeting. He handed her a hot cup. Mara held the cup to her forehead, eyes closed, absorbing the warmth and aroma. Just to annoy her, Luke injected as much cheer and vigor into his greeting as he could.

Mara's response was another grunt, and "I am not a morning person."

Luke thought he had discovered a new hobby, which he had privately dubbed Mara baiting. "Well I'm enjoying a little revenge at your expense. The day's wasting away. By the way, did Palpatine wake you? He was just here..."

Mara almost dropped her cup before comprehending it was his twisted idea of a malicious joke. "Two heart attacks two mornings in a row," she mumbled. "Don't tempt me Skywalker, I can still dump you somewhere."

In the interests of self preservation, Luke decided to leave the grouch alone for a few minutes and went to check on Artoo. The droid had secreted himself in a corner, next to one of the Fire's access terminals. Luke figured Artoo had probably established a really good "relationship" with the ship's computer by now. Artoo called up the ship's inventory on a terminal, scrolling on the screen that the computer was nothing like the one aboard the Millennium Falcon: the Jade's Fire computer was intelligible, efficient, well organized and very polite.

Luke spent a few minutes studying the detailed list of fish eggs, sparkling wines, spirits, preserved and fermented fruits and sweets, jewelry, furniture, embroidered and besequined cloth, and other strange items familiar only to the very rich. The computer helpfully offered extensive cross references for each item: acquisition cost, date of acquisition, method of payment, supplier, overhead costs to carry and ship, identification of carton and location in hold, historical pricing on Verrat, past buyers, potential buyers, estimated seasonal demand, historical profit margins, and information on any advance sales. Luke was amused and impressed, seeing really for the first time, evidence of Mara Jade Master Trader.

The computer interrupted his perusal with a persistent beeping, heralding the approach of 0900.

"Are you among the living, conscious and polite yet? We're ready to drop out of hyperspace for that course correction."

Mara was already up, and headed forward. "Let's go."

He joined her in the cockpit. Mara began a systems check; in the highly unlikely event anything was out here, they did not want to be stuck with inoperable shields or cannons that would not fire.


She paused and looked over the readouts. "Everything looks okay."

As the chron on the navicomputer ran down, Luke disengaged the hyperdrive control, and the lines faded to stars in front of them. "Rekweg on schedule." Mara was checking the long range sensors, while Luke ran a quick check on the hyperdrive and programmed the navicomputer to confirm their coordinates.


Mara shook her head. "Nope. No ships, no supernovas, no uncharted comets, wormholes, black holes or any other kinda holes." She yawned. "Nice and boring."

He consulted the nav readings "We are smack where we should be. Rekweg, the middle of nowhere."

They both looked up and out through the view screen, as the ship slowly drifted through the nothingness.

Mara spoke first. "When you can go so quickly from one place to another, you forget how big it really is out here."

"If you got stuck, you might never get back."

They were both silent, each absorbed in private thoughts. Mara eventually broke the stillness. "That's where I found you."

He swung to look at her, trying to follow her nonsequitur. She was staring vacantly into the glittering darkness. "Oh, you mean that first time, when I was out here with the cracked hyperdrive."

Mara continued to gaze ahead. "Uh huh. I was piloting the Wild Karrde. In those days, every time I left Myrkr, the Force would start coming back to me, in flashes; an insight, a premonition, a conversation or a thought I wasn't supposed to hear, and then the nightmares would start. We were headed back to Myrkr, and something just came to me, stop here. Nothing scheduled, nothing planned, just stop. As soon as we dropped out of hyperspace, all our proximity alarms went off. But I saw that X-wing floating there, and I knew." She shook off the image, embarrassed to have been caught in such an absent minded reverie.

Luke confessed slowly, "I had a vision of you once. Right before you found me."

This time Mara started in surprise. "Really? But you didn't recognize me on Myrkr?"

"I didn't connect you and the vision until you told me about waiting to kill me at Jabba's. The image was just of a woman on Jabba's sail barge, someone who was able to direct the Force, and keep me from reaching my lightsaber." He paused, then soberly, chose to finish the tale. "If you'd been there, we would have all died."

They continued to stare ahead into the stars of Rekweg. The subject prompted Luke to ask something he had wondered about in the last day or two. "Any regrets, Mara?"

" 'Bout what?"

"You know what I mean. Tatooine, not being on Jabba's barge."

"Aren't we one for small talk?"

"I was just curious. You said yesterday I'd been messing up your life for years. Ever still wish you'd just gotten the job done back then, or on Myrkr?"

"Depends on my mood. Another aside, like the one this morning about Palpatine, and yeah, I could still kill you without any regrets."

"Seriously, though?"

"I was serious."

"It's a straightforward question."

She sighed, exasperated with him. "I dunno. I haven't thought about it in a long time. Probably not."

"Probably? Maybe I should still be watching my back around you." He was only half joking.

Mara seemed almost repentant at that ill choice of words. "That isn't what I meant," she protested. "It's more just, comparing how my life was then to how it is now. I was important, powerful, I had influence, a secret knowledge. And those who knew who and what I was were afraid of me. Now...." her voice trailed off. He waited for her to finish.

"Now, I think I'm happier. I love trading, I love the money, the freedom." He thought again, Mara and her strange priorities. She continued. "And I know now that Palpatine manipulated me; I didn't know that then."

"What do you mean?"

He could feel her puzzlement at his question. "I'd always thought that Palpatine wanted me to kill you because he had foreseen that you and Vader could bring him down. He thought he could cheat fate if you were dead. But I didn't know that Vader was your father until we were on Wayland."

Luke was really surprised by that. "You didn't? It wasn't exactly a secret."

"It wasn't exactly publicized either: two of the New Republic's greatest heroes offspring of the Rebellion's greatest enemy?"

"I suppose."

"But it was on Wayland, on top of everything else from that trip, that I realized Palpatine had been using me to punish Vader. If I was going to kill you, it had to be for my reasons, not his. I still didn't like you much, but that didn't seem to be a good enough reason to kill you."

Although he was relieved with her use of the past tense, it was still disconcerting how causally she spoke of his death. Mara was gently pushing her chair back and forth, fingering the hyperdrive control, deliberately avoiding eye contact. He could feel a curiosity, an unasked question.


"Well, I'd always wondered, how did you find out about Vader, I mean that you were his son? You don't have to say, but..." she faltered, and the question died away.

It had been so long, the pain of those ghastly realizations had faded, but remained strong for Luke. "No, I don't mind talking about it," was his mostly truthful response. "Vader told me, on Bespin." He stared at his artificial limb. "Right after he had sliced off my right hand."

Mara's face contorted in wordless horror.

"It was the worst moment of my entire life. And, the closest I had ever come to turning to the Dark Side." He paused, realizing that the memories were not buried as deeply as he had thought. "Ben Kenobi had told me that Vader had murdered my father. So it wasn't just the shock that I was his son, it was also that Ben had lied about it."

He could feel Mara tingling with anger, "Why didn't he tell you the truth?"

Even after all this time, Luke wasn't sure that he accepted the explanation Yoda and Ben had given him. "He thought that I wouldn't be able to bear the burden, that I would go running after Vader, and end up falling to the Dark Side." He sighed. "But that's almost what happened anyway. Vader offered me a choice, join him or die. I opted to throw myself down the core shaft of the Bespin mine. I was hanging on the rungs below the city. Leia found me. If she hadn't gotten me out of there, I think I might have turned."

They sat in silence. Luke sensed Mara knew what the revelations were costing him. Unfortunately, in trying to steer to a safer subject, she unwittingly touched another nerve. "I can see why you and your sister have always been so close."

Mara was certainly hitting the low, albeit distant points of his life. "We didn't even know we were related. You knew we had been separated when we were born, to hide us from Vader?"

She nodded.

"Ben took me to Tatooine to hide me, and Bail Organa adopted Leia. It all started when Bail sent Leia to Tatooine to bring Ben to Alderaan. We figure it was their understanding that Ben would bring me too, introduce me to my long lost sister, begin my training. But of course, Leia got the Death Star plans, loaded them into Artoo and programmed him to find Ben. Ben gets this holo message from Leia, she's been captured by her own father, I'm sitting there, playing with our father's lightsaber, and Ben is the only one who recognizes the paradoxes."

Mara's eyes were wide. "Ben didn't tell you then?"

"No, just one more fact he omitted. I'm sure he meant to, or Bail would've told Leia. But," and his voice was bleak. "They both died so suddenly. And anyone with any memory of the truth died on Alderaan."

"So all the farm boy from Tatooine knows is that there's a royal Alderaani princess begging for help," Mara said softly. "It must have been a confusing time."

He glanced at Mara, wondering at her perceptive choice of words, and if she guessed just how confusing it had been.

"It was, I..." his voice trailed off, embarrassed at the recollection of these very awkward memories. "Well, there's always been a connection between us, uhh, ..."

Mara turned away, the implication was dreadful enough. She hastily attempted to block the looming confession, to prevent what had been unsaid from becoming manifest, but he plunged ahead. "Uh, at the time, I may have misunderstood the nature of that connection."

There was a very still, uncomfortable silence between them. From Mara he could feel sympathy mingled with distaste and quickly attempted to correct her misapprehension.

"Really, it wasn't that big a deal. Ben appeared to me before Endor, and told me that Leia was my sister. I told her the whole story; when I did, she said, that somehow, she had known all along that I was her brother."

"I'm sorry," she stammered. "I, well if I had known I would've never said anything."

He had been prepared to congratulate her for so successfully raising the most wretched moments in his life, but her seemingly genuine remorse and discomfort stayed his retort. He offered quietly, "I've lived with all of this for a long time. It's not as if I dwell on it, or even think about it anymore, but I've never really told anyone before."

Although he had intended this consolation to assuage her, it had precisely the opposite effect. Mara pretended to adjust controls on the panel before her, struggling to quell her rising agitation. "There are some things I'm happier not knowing about people," she finally muttered.

Luke looked at Mara for a long moment. If his admission to her had come at a personal price to himself, the toll it exacted from her was far greater. She was mistaken if she thought she could maintain her emotional distance by selectively ignoring in the lives of others what was awkward or uncomfortable for her. Thinking of her ordered computer and hold, Luke thought that maybe Mara needed to learn that unlike other parts of her life, she could not always dictate the terms of her friendship with him. Her sudden jerk told him that she had indeed heard this gentle, but warranted remonstrance.

He glanced away, bracing for the retort that never came. The controlled Mara swiftly returned. "Nav's already got the coordinates." She entered the commands for another obscure system. "Next stop, Tazakil," she said, reaching for the levers, with a sideways smirk. "This time, I'll do the honors, unless you wanna fight over 'em."

He laughed. "Whoever wins the next round, gets to make the next jump." And the ship jumped.

* * *

They fell into a routine the remaining days and nights, such as they are on a hyperspace jump. Luke would always awaken first, start the tea, and wait for Mara to emerge. After one particularly irrational and raucous morning, he learned to give her a wide berth.

Surly did not begin to describe Mara before she had a least one cup. Raving bitch lunatic was a more apt description. In the interest of self preservation, he stopped even Mara baiting until she had been properly fortified.

The morning hours would be devoted to her training. The afternoon, intense and bruising lightsaber duels. The evenings they spent with the bad vid recordings, slightly better wine and dancing lessons. Her training and their duels were, on the whole, more successful than his dancing. It was not that he was that bad, she was just that good.

Their frustration with Palpatine's ravages upon her mind persisted. What Palpatine had altered versus what he had left intact was illuminating. Any ability at prophecy, to reach other planes, or even to simply project ahead into various future paths was lost and seemed irretrievable. Luke was able to show her how to tap into her short and long term recall; they could not even find the stimulus for summoning deep memory. It was as if Palpatine erased every recollection of who she had been and from where she had come: only a dim emotional residue remained of her family, her home.

It also became clear to them that Palpatine had modified her innate abilities in very utilitarian ways. Her survival skills were formidable. In self diagnosis, trances to slow her metabolic processes, breathing, heart rate, temperature, she equaled his own abilities. And in long range communications, telepathy, even simple eavesdropping, she had much to teach him.

Their twelfth day out of Yavin started with the drop into the Tazakil system. As they set their final course for Verrat, Mara had the privilege of making the jump, having beaten him the day before. Her remote tuned reflexes had long since disappeared. In that match, she had been able to use his greater reach to her advantage; rather than allowing him to drive her back, she stood her ground, and began a counter, forcing him into an awkward defense. He had to choose between damaging the walls of the cabin, or yielding. His shoulder still ached from the wrenching when she trapped his blade and sent it flying.

They had also devoted many hours in split concentration exercises. The instruction had led to some hilarious results. Mara likened it to learning to talk and walk at the same time. She first began with simply levitating two credit chips in front of her, and then gradually, moving them further and further apart, until she had one behind her, and one in front. The exercise taught her to use her awareness of other objects in the Force as both a cone and as an orbit. Then, while she tossed balls with one hand, he would direct small light objects at her from the rear. After many peltings, to his regret, Mara's proficiency improved and she was able to catch them, and lob them back. She had graduated to using her lightsaber against a remote on a low setting, and simultaneously slicing through the ration packs and balls he leveled at her.

It was during this exercise that Mara abruptly stopped and closed down her saber. He had been aiming a pillow at her back, and she reacted just quickly enough to whirl and grab it. She held up a warning hand, her face furrowed in concentration.


"It's..." he could feel her tense with concentration. "It's your sister, she's trying to reach you."

Luke was astounded. He hadn't even noticed the light sensation tugging at his awareness, but as he focused more deeply into the Force, found very faintly, Leia's unique searching imprint.

"I can barely feel her."

Mara's eyes were glazed with concentration. "She's worried, and wants to know if you're all right."

"Can you tell her where I am?"

Mara shook her head. "She's not looking for my presence, I don't think she would recognize it." Mara blinked and focused her eyes on him. "I'm sure I could boost your awareness with her though, if you let me."

He was suddenly wary, realizing that although he and Mara had thoroughly explored her Force awareness, the rapport that had grown between them had not required much openness on his part. Their link permitted a sharing of some thought and strong emotional reactions; he had carefully and deliberately walled off exposing anything deeper or more personal. He could feel her growing irritated with his obvious reluctance and tried futilely to avert the inevitable explosion. "I don't know if I should do that....."

Her reaction was predictably biting. "Fine, go ahead, try and reach her on your own if you can't trust me that far."

"That's not it, it's nothing personal, Mara......"

She snapped. "Oh it isn't? What is it then, afraid I'll overhear a conversation with your sister?" A thousand, more hurtful things flashed between them, but Mara stopped. Her more measured response thoroughly ashamed him. "Who's the one dictating terms now?"

Stung by her just pique, Luke made a quick decision. He crossed the cabin to their customary perch for mental work and gestured for her to sit next to him on the couch.

"You're right. It's not fair, and I'm being irrational."

Still quivering with anger, Mara was not prepared for this sudden assent. She stared at him, then queried slowly, "Are you sure?" He nodded.

She walked over, and sat, facing him. In the past few days, Mara would then incline her head slightly, and he would touch her temples, the slight physical contact supporting their mental link. This time, though, their roles reversed. As he ducked his head, he could feel her hesitation and realized that Mara was as unsure as he was. This was new for her as well.

Her feathery touch was like a burn. As her awareness began swirling into him, he reflexively, shut it out. In his mind, he heard her more clearly than if she had spoken. "So, I'm not the only one with barriers." He could feel her Force presence move within him, first hesitantly, and then with more confidence as she explored the unfamiliar terrain. Her Force sense shifted slightly, and poised at a particular place in his awareness, like a bird fluttering before coming to rest. "Here," she said in his mind. "This is how we can find your sister, but you have to let me in." She waited, and slowly, he parted the curtain.

"Now, try to find Leia." As he sought his sister in the Force, he could feel Mara amplify and reinforce his call, making it clearer and stronger.

Suddenly, he heard her, "Luke!! Where are you? Are you all right?"

He heard Mara's amused, private reaction. "Better not tell her you're with me She'll send Rogue Squad after us."

He tried to keep from laughing. "I'm fine, Leia."

"I haven't been able to hear you. We've been so worried. Luke, I'm very sorry..." Leia's words, thoughts and emotions were jumbled, coming out in a rush.

He tried to soothe her. "Really, I'm fine. Han told you, didn't he? I'm with Mara, we're heading to Verrat to check out that NRI report."

Knowing Mara was attuned to their discussion, he was embarrassed at Leia's cool response. "He shouldn't have gotten her involved. He should have asked me first."

"Really Leia, it's fine. We'll be gone for a couple weeks, and then I'll come to Coruscant and see you. I'm sorry I've been shutting you off, I just needed some time by myself."

He could feel Leia's indecision, resignation and then suspicious curiosity. "I've never heard you this clearly before, what's going on?"

On this, he thought Mara was right. It was better if he did not try to explain. "It's something new I've learned."

As he knew she would be, Leia was amused. "Oh, so the Master has become a student?"

"Something like that. Take care Leia, give my love to the kids. Tell Han thanks."

As his sister's warm presence slowly faded, Mara withdrew, and suddenly he was alone again. The simultaneous loss of both was a sharp pang; something within him leaped out, desperately trying to ward off that awful void.

Mara started and jerked her hands back. "I, uhh," She hurriedly stumbled to her feet, fleeing. "I haven't done that in a long time, since Palpatine, I'd forgotten how intense it can be."

Still reeling himself, he quickly lowered his own Force awareness to bring the heightened sensitivity between them under control. "I haven't had that kind of rapport for a while either."

Mara began pacing again, restless, suddenly shy. "It worked though, didn't it?"

He rubbed his eyes, thinking it might relieve the tension in his mind. "You shouldn't be surprised. You're very gifted in this area; Palpatine wouldn't have used you if you hadn't been. And with the work, our link is definitely stronger."

That, he thought is a wild understatement; the ease and power of their connection through the Force was as strong as almost anything he had ever experienced before.

Mara continued pacing. "I guess what surprises me is that the ability didn't die with Palpatine."

It was an interesting insight. "Maybe your skill lies in reaching and amplifying a connection with other Force users, and that skill survived him." He paused, and then asked slowly, afraid of her answer, "Is the connection at least different now?"

Mara stopped pacing, and gazed at him levelly. "If it wasn't, I'd kill you without compunction." Her matter of fact tone betrayed no humor or sarcasm. She broke off the tableau, lowering her eyes to concentrate on grinding her foot into the deck. "Thanks, I mean for letting me in like that. I didn't think you would."

He tried to be nonchalant about it. "Well, you were right. We've been going through your awareness the last couple days, I didn't really have a good reason to say no."

She shrugged. "If you say so," then looked up. "I had just thought that the bigger problem would be control; that you'd be afraid that you might lose that control if you let down some of those barriers."

Mara's keen gaze made him fidget. He cursed himself silently, was he really that transparent to her? "Well, I couldn't have reached Leia otherwise. Thanks for helping."

Luke had not responded to her implicit question, but Mara had made her point. She grinned at him. "I told you not to tell her you were with me. She'll be more worried now than she was before."

He protested this characterization of his sister. "Aw Mara, she's not like that."

"Oh yeah, well, you can be the one to convince Antilles that I don't have a blaster to your head when he and the Rogues drop out of hyperspace around Verrat."

The image was a comical one, but not entirely out of the question. "That's true. No one would go on a hyperspace jump to the Outer Rim with you unless he was kidnaped."

"Or well paid."

"Back to copilots again, are we?"

"I don't have to pay them," she winked for his benefit. "They usually find other compensations."

"Well, then Mara, I demand in kind payment."

"Ha!! Keep dreaming Skywalker. If your sister thought there was even a remote possibility of that going on, she'd send the entire New Republic Navy after me."

He had to laugh at that absurdity. "Oh sure, NRI commandos boarding your ship to rescue me from Mara Jade. I'd love to hear the briefing for that mission. 'Troops, we expect to acquire target chained to Captain Jade's bed.' "

She gave a mock shudder and a "Blechhh."

"Seriously, she knew I was with you, Han told her."

"Solo hadn't told her when he dialed me up, and asked me to swing by Yavin."

Luke was confused. "But you were already on your way there."

"Yeah, so?"

"So, you didn't tell Han you were going there anyway?"

She snorted at his obtuseness. "Of course not."

Luke had to laugh at her self satisfaction "So now Han thinks he owes you a big favor."

She grinned, thoroughly pleased with herself, "And maybe the Chief of State too, if I deliver you to Coruscant happy, healthy and with a girlfriend in tow."

He stared at that slim, smug figure before him. Her audacity was outrageous, assured competence and control constantly at war with unpredictability. She awakened a sense of fun in him. The urge to bring a little chaos to her ordered existence was a compelling one, to do something to dishevel her tidy form. Half the game was figuring out what the buttons were, the other half was pushing them to see what would happen. He was startled to recognize a sliver of another emotion within himself, one that he had not felt for Mara before. He stifled it abruptly, and as cover, quickly aimed a pillow at her. Even as it hit her full in the face, she sent one sailing back at him.

The play degenerated rapidly; Force directed objects were very accurate missiles. After hurling and ducking at pillows and cushions, Mara retreated behind the table, broke into the supply closet and began firing its lighter contents at him, ration bars, a sabbac deck, inactivated remotes, and several rubber balls. When she flung another cushion, he ignited his lightsaber, split the cushion in two, and then directed the shower of burnt, fluffy filling behind the table. Upon hearing sputtering curses as the white cloud enveloped her, he dropped his saber, leaped over the table, and tackled her before she could reload from her weapons cache.

Mara's look of utter amazement was worth the banged knee as he wrestled her down. For Luke it was very gratifying. He pinned her to the deck with one hand and a foot and then examined his catch, blanketed in bits of pillow filler. "I kinda like you like this Mara, flat on your back and covered with white fuzz. Too bad you're not wet, too."

She struggled briefly, but not all that hard. "That's one weird fantasy, farm boy." She squirmed in a way that was so appealing to him it was not likely to result in her immediate release. "Let me go."

"Not if you keep doing that."

Abashed, she stopped moving, and repeated, "Let me go."

"Why?" He touched her face to brush aside burnt lint and hair.

"Do that again and I'll break your arm," she muttered.


"Try me."

"I don't believe you."

He could feel a Force movement as she searched in the closet for something else to lob at him. He reached out to halt an advancing med pac aimed at his head.It stopped in mid air, hanging ludicrously. "I can split my attention too." Luke concentrated on pushing silky red hair back from her eyes and keeping the med pac at bay. "Okay, I'll let you go, if you promise not to fling any more pillows, balls, remotes or med pacs at me."

Even as she nodded slowly in acquiescence, he felt a gas mask begin to snake its way out of the closet. He tightened his grasp on her slightly, and gently blew fluff out of her hair.

Green eyes glared a challenge at him. "You didn't say anything about masks."

"Well, them too." As he felt her hold on the med pac and mask loosen, he released her.

When Mara rolled to her feet, Luke burst out laughing. "You look like you've been feathered in an avian ritual and left in a snow bank." She afforded him a venomous scowl, but offered a hand to pull him to his feet.

He should have gotten up unaided. She spun him in front of her, whipped his hand behind his back, and snapped him into a vicious arm lock. "See," she whispered in his ear, "I told you I could break your arm."

He winced slightly; Mara had a rigid grip. "I never said you couldn't," he replied affably. "Just that you wouldn't. Besides," he whispered, "that's my artificial arm."

She flung his arm down in disgust, "Jedi." For some reason, Mara just didn't look very threatening covered with white, burned down. She pulled her hair back, and surveyed the snowy mess in the cabin. He could feel her use a quick calming regimen. Now which particular emotions had triggered her perceived need for that response was intriguing.

"Since this is your doing, you can clean it up. I'm going to try to clean up."

As she turned to walk primly down the corridor to her cabin, he could not resist another swipe. "Hey, why don't you clean up the cabin; then I'll clean you up."

She did not so much as glance at him, but then he didn't really expect her to. Thinking that perhaps he had taken Mara baiting a little too far, and feeling slightly repentant for the escapade, Luke was more than willing to both clean up the lint and start dinner.

* * *

Mara was thoroughly disgusted. At him, at herself, and especially at the white stuff in her hair and clothes. She stalked around her cabin, pulling off her flight suit, found a comb and began yanking the fluff out of her hair.

She was a veteran of enough hyperspace jumps with randy young men to recognize these symptoms. With the confinement and close quarters, episodes like this one were not uncommon. Sometimes she welcomed the attentions, and the sex was usually pretty good. Problem was, she had not expected to have to contend with it on this trip. With other co-pilots, she'd always just dumped them off somewhere when it inevitably didn't work out. If she pulled the same stunt, and deposited Skywalker on some icy block of rock to cool his engines, the Chief of State really would call out the troops to chase her across the galaxy. And that would be very bad for business.

Mara had an easier time dealing with Skywalker when he was depressed or when he was pulling that mighty Jedi Master, I am above the fray crap. They both knew the rules under those circumstances; she was the loyal, understanding, pitying friend in the first instance, and treated him with contempt and sarcasm when he recovered and lapsed again into the latter role with his detestable passivity.

But the person she had come to know on this jump was more unfamiliar to her, more impulsive, more fun, less contained, and infinitely more dangerous. More like the reckless teen who could blow up a Death Star with a prayer and some luck, fall in love with his own sister, and who, in his rush to challenge Darth Vader, was fortunate to escape with only a missing hand. It had been many years since she had seen the man she had once grudgingly admired: the one who took down a troop carrier with just a lightsaber and who without a second thought, broke into a Star Destroyer to help her free Karrde.

Mara had long assumed that regardless of the role he played, she had control of the relationship. Even when he was in "master" mode, she had always exercised her option to disappoint his expectations. She realized now that her assessment had not been accurate. Except in the last three weeks since Callista, he had chosen which of his feelings and thoughts to reveal to her, the remainder shrouded in that damnable Jedi impenetrability.

He had been at her for years to drop her barriers, and open herself more fully to the Force. If he had thought that when she did so he would stay in the Master role, it was a gamble he had lost. It was ironic; her refusal to be the student to his Master, had in the end, merely perpetuated him in that role. In lowering her guard, she had forced him to peel away his own formidable defenses and expose the person beneath.

She thought again about 'dictating terms' and concluded that was what this was really all about. It wasn't about sex or love, or that great divide between the two, it was about control and power -- who would wield it, who would yield, and the price the loser would pay for showing any vulnerability. And Mara knew how to play that game.

Sufficiently delinted, Mara pulled on a clean flight suit. She heard him query, "Snow Queen, are you ready for dinner or do I need to come and pluck more of your feathers?"

She afforded him a tremendous mental "HA!!"

"What do you want to drink?" came a more courteous question.

"Something strong if I'm gonna make it to Verrat without sending you out with the garbage." Mara headed forward.

* * *

When she entered the cabin, Skywalker had already set the food out in front of the vid and poured out two glasses of some murky wine. He was grinning like a madman.

"What?" She was instantly suspicious, "Have you slipped a trank into my food?"

His brief calming made her even more wary. "You're a lousy liar, Skywalker, what's going on?"

He affected an oh so innocent blue gaze that she didn't buy for a minute. "Nothing. I didn't drug your food, although I should have thought of that sooner. Anything to improve your temperament."

They sank into the couch, a respectful distance, the vid remote and a bottle between them. She stirred her food a little wearily. What had been pretty good twelve days ago was starting to get tedious. "I'll be glad to get off ship's rations and eat some fresh food."

"Good thing we didn't run into a real emergency with all the ration packs you've been slicing apart."

She swirled the pinkish wine in her glass before taking a sip. "I'll need to replenish both the packs and my liquor cabinet. The Verratan wine is cheap, and pretty good."

"I've had some time to look over your inventory, and some of your data on the products. I'd like to talk with you about it before we land, and get more background on the place."

Mara nodded, slightly impressed that he would exert himself that far. "We also need to go over that NRI report. And we need to plot out how were going to negotiate the asteroid belt.Should we do that tonight?"

"We could, although we have all day tomorrow, we won't drop out into Verratan space, until what, morning, day after tomorrow? At least in our time."

"We're headed to Tirgu Muresh. It's the biggest city and the seat of the planetary authority, such as it is there. I haven't done a chron compare but we'll probably get in about mid-morning local time. That shouldn't be too bad. I hate those hyperspace lags when you come in in the middle of your night or their's. I'm always wide awake or fast asleep the first day." Mara knew he was plotting something, "So..?"

"So what?"

"So what have you been planning in that beady brain of yours?"

"Nothing. Mara, would I hide anything from you?"

"In a second, if you could." His attempt to appear casual was comical; he was eagerly anticipating something he knew she wasn't going to like.

"It's just that I found another of the 'Jedi' tapes, one we haven't seen yet. It's about Corelllia, something like 'Showdown at Centerpoint Station.' If we had time, I wanted to see it."

"I picked it up right before I left for Yavin." Skywalker must be recovering if he was prepared to watch a vid that might depict Gaeriel. She sent that thought over to him, but he shook his head, serious for a moment. "I don't think the Barkurans are even in it." Then the mischief was back. "Really, Mara, I think you'll love it."

Uh oh. That did not sound promising. "You want to see another episode of that space opera? You last referred to it as 'wretched melodramatic trash' as I recall."

"We're all entitled to some trash in our lives."

"Sure. I just never thought it was of much interest to you."

He just kept grinning.

She wondered if maybe she had needed to renew her extortionate contract with the producer, but no, it was not supposed to expire for another year, or an additional five productions, which, ever came first. So what was up?

"Well, let her rip, Skywalker."

The vid began predictably enough, although with some changes. They decided that the producer had opted for discretion rather than sheer entertainment, for the depiction of the Chief of State was modest and the Solo children were absent entirely. Nor was Tendra Rissant present, leading them to conclude that she or Lando had probably paid off the producer as well.

"Hunk" as they had dubbed the Han character was duly kidnaped, first by Thracken, and then by the Selonians, humans dressed in white furry costumes, appearing in such drivel being beneath the dignity of that stately race. The interesting twist was that both "Duke" and Leia were trapped by the Triad or the Human League, it wasn't clear who, in the remnants of Corona House. To their relief, Duke's incarceration did not diminish his ability to find women.

Then the unthinkable. The story moved from Corellia to a spanking, bright red ship. Mara felt her heart turn over in her chest. Skywalker began snickering. To her horror, and his infinite amusement, a tall woman of voluptuous, Dathomiran proportions, with shockingly red hair stalked onto the screen. Skywalker broke into peals of laughter. "Mara, look, they even got your hair right. But I've never seen you in that flight suit before."

He was absolutely hysterical. Mara gave him a shove and he rolled onto the deck, still laughing. She seized the remote and halted the affront.

"That-" and Mara launched into a string of profound expletives. "He broke our contract. I'll ruin him, sue him before the Trader Tribunal for every lousy credit he has ever, or will ever earn, and then I'll kill him."

Skywalker still gasping from his hilarity, picked himself up from off the deck. She afforded him a contemptuous glare. "How'd you know?"

He was still snickering, his face as red as the hair of the "other" Mara. "I looked at the credits while you defeathered yourself."

"Well, you've certainly had fun at my expense today."

"As you said to me, Mara, have some more wine, lighten up, and think of her as an evil twin."

"You were just slandered, Skywalker. I've been cheated."

"So, what bothers you most? That billions think you have such interesting taste in clothing," he pointed to the towering redhead. "That they assume you have to dye your hair to get it that color, or that someone ripped you off?"

Mara tried to steel her expression into one of intense disgust but did not quite succeed; the on screen Mara was such an inviting self parody. The clothing, and the body who bore it were provocative. "Mara" had poured herself into black leather; her black, spiked heel boots came up over her knees. But what was really amazing was how she, the actress, filled out the suit. The neckline plunged almost to the waist, revealing copious amounts of rounded flesh.

Mara took a long drink, eyed the giantess and then peered down the front of her modest flight suit. "Well, now I know where my breasts went. My evil twin got all of them." Her self deprecation sent Luke over the edge again.

Skywalker ogled the vid appropriately. "What I want to know is where you put your blaster."

"It's on my belt, next to the whip."

And so it went. All things considered, Mara didn't mind the portrayal of herself too much. The producer, perhaps fearing her wrath, had equipped her with some really great toys: blasters of all sorts of shapes, sizes and firing power, detonators, armor, bowcasters, walkers, speeders, and everything in between. It was an arms trader's dream. And the "Jade's Blaze" was a terrific ship -- even with her good living, Mara knew she could never afford a craft with that kind of sophisticated weaponry.

She bore with fortitude Skywalker's ongoing commentary on 'Tara's' voracious sexual appetites. At least the producer had been fair minded; Tara bedded almost as many as Duke. And Tara's tastes did not reflect too badly upon her namesake; the men were very good looking and some even survived. Tara, however, was forced to kill several of her suitors, throttling one with her whip, blowing one away with a pocket blaster as small as a comm link, and smashing the skull of another with a wine bottle when they all turned out to be spies of the Triad or Human League.

Ostensibly, Tara was trying to reach Corellia to rescue Duke and Leia. It took a while for her to get there, what with having to have sex with and kill so many men. In honor of the serial's locale, Mara and Luke broke open another bottle of Corellian brandy, and began swigging each time Duke or Tara killed someone or had sex, and two swigs if the partner died.

Tara finally made it to Coronet and the rescue began. In one point of accuracy, Tara did have to repel down the wall of Corona House and swing through a few windows in her search for Duke and Leia. Skywalker's skepticism changed to more appropriate respect after Mara described that she and Leia really had climbed down the Palace walls in a driving rain storm to escape, and jumped onto the hovering ship from a 15th story window.

But as Tara's rescue and her reunion with Duke loomed closer, a sinking pit grew in Mara's gut. She dreaded where the story was going, and Skywalker, judging from his own more subdued reactions, was sharing the same anxiety. What would happen when Duke and Tara met, and were subject to the whims of this crass production? It was one thing to chortle at the exploits of their evil twins, it was entirely another for the two of them to watch their evil twins passionately writhing with each other.

"Uh, maybe one of us should be prepared to shut this thing off," murmured a flustered Luke.

Mara heartily agreed. "Yeah. This could get a little stranger than it already is." She gingerly held the remote at the ready.

Tara swung through another window, cut down a guard and crashed through the door of Duke's cell. Duke almost wiped her out with a metal bar he had pried from the window before recognizing his friend. As they embraced, Mara grabbed the remote prepared to stop the recording, but... nothing happened.

Tara: "Are you all right?"

Duke: "Yes thank you, you are very brave and always look great in leather. There is so much I wish to tell you."

Tara: "I too have much to share. Someday we must choose our destiny."

Duke: "Yes. After we rescue Leia and Han and destroy the evil Triad, and save billions from their dreadful repulsor weapon. Perhaps then we can decide."

Mara was so astounded she froze the recording anyway. "Is that it?"

Luke was similarly amazed. "I don't believe it." Their apprehension of viewing a potentially uncomfortable scenario dissolved into outrage at the fact that it had been denied to them. Mara began forwarding the recording, and at high speed, Duke and Tara slaughtered a dozen or more members of the Human League, rescued Leia, swung through some more windows, and blasted out of Corellia with some Uglies in hot pursuit.

Skywalker took another gulp of the Corellian, suffused with mock indignation. "So, what Mara, wasn't I good enough for you after the last thirty? Or should I have tried to kill you first?"

"What do you mean, you not good enough for me, wasn't I good enough for you, or weren't my breasts big enough?"

"Hey, I'm not responsible for Duke's lack of taste, I'm a leg man." A holo number flashed on the screen, Skywalker grabbed the remote, "Wait, stop the vid, what are they saying?"

"... and so the producers at Jedi Productions want to hear from you, our loyal viewers. The next episode of Showdown at Centerpoint Station will air in three standard weeks. You've followed the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade. Has the Force destined them for each other? We want to know what you think. Call this number 1 900-123-45JEDI and tell us whether Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker are right for each other. Calls are being taken now. 50 credits for the first minute, and 20 credits for each minute thereafter. Use your holo tran calling card. You may also send sublight messages or post on the interstellar JEDI Board. The future of Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker depends on you."

Luke grabbed her arm. "We've got to call."

"To the holo!"

They headed to the cockpit, plunking down in their respective chairs, the Corellian still between them, glasses long since abandoned. They both stared at the transmitter, as Mara said, "So, what are we going to say?"

"I dunno. Problem is, if you sleep with me, you'll probably die. That's what's happened to all the others."

"Yeah, and no offense, Skywalker, but you're not worth it."

He nodded. "Besides, your, I mean her legs aren't all that great."

"So I think the answer is 'no.'"

"So do I." Luke began dialing. "Uh Mara, use that short term recall, what's the number?"


"Better hide the bottle. We don't want them getting the wrong idea about us."

"You mean about you?" Mara stashed the bottle under her seat.

"Jedi don't drink, everybody knows that."

A very friendly looking protocol droid appeared. "Welcome to Jedi Productions. If you are calling to log your views on the Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade survey, please stay on the line. Due to high viewer interest, a brief delay can be expected. But your call is important to us, and to Luke and Mara."

"It's important to me, is it important to you, Mara?"

"Absolutely, my life depends on it."

They waited several minutes, and the protocol droid reappeared. "I can register your comments on the Luke and Mara survey."

Luke cleared his throat. "This is Jedi Master Skywalker and Master Trader Jade. We have contacted you to transmit our opinion on your viewer survey. We have concluded after careful consideration," Mara nodded wisely, "that we, that is the characters who portray us on the popular series 'Tales of the Jedi' should maintain, as we have for almost ten years, a platonic friendship."

"Good choice of words Skywalker," Mara whispered. She said aloud, "Particularly in the interests of my own long term survival, I can assure you that Master Trader Jade would never sacrifice her life for a mere sexual relationship with Jedi Master Skywalker. Do you have anything further to add Jedi Master?"

"No, I do not Master Trader Jade."

Mara continued. "I also wish to remind the producer of Jedi Productions that he can expect to be receiving suit papers from my counsel arising from his breach of our contract."

Skywalker disconnected. They both sighed contentedly.

"That was fun. I'm looking forward to hauling that slime ball into the Trader Tribunal," Mara said.

"As you said to me, I don't think that depiction will hurt your reputation."

"Actually, I don't think it will at all. If people think my ship is that well defended, and that I'm that ruthless they would be more likely to trust me with their cargo." She paused, and then added, "Of course this assumes that Tara continues to exercise sound discernment and stays out of your bed."

"Your customers would certainly have every reason to question your judgment if she doesn't."

They both rocked in their seats, staring at the star lines. Mara put her feet up on the console, stretching her legs. "As the leg man, this is for your benefit Skywalker."

He winked and they both lapsed into silence.

"I've always liked watching the star lines on a jump," Luke eventually commented.

Mara gave a snort of amusement.

"Why's that funny?"

"You don't know?"

"Know what?"

"'Let's go to the cockpit and watch the star lines' is one of the oldest cantina pickup lines around."

"Really?" He thought a moment, puzzled. "I don't get it, is it an invitation to your ship? Or do you take your date on a jump?"

"That's the point, you're in a bar, you can't." She harumphed. "Trust me, use that line on a woman and she'll know exactly what you mean. Geez, how are we going get you a girlfriend? How am I ever going to get that commission?"

They sat longer in companionable quiet.

Jaina's picture was still hanging in the cockpit, just above Luke's line of vision. He studied it, and then asked, "Mara do you ever think about kids?"

She did not even look at him. "Word of advice, don't ever use that as a pick up line."

"It wasn't a line, you're the one with a picture by a ten year old in your cockpit."

Mara looked up. "Oh, yeah."

"So do you?" He could tell Mara was in one of her ornery moods, objecting first, just to be argumentative, before capitulating.


"Do you ever think about kids?"

"If that's an offer, the answer's no."

He laughed at her. "Trust me, it's not an offer. So do you?"

"What is it with you and this cockpit? Can't we ever have a normal conversation, about shielding and maneuverability on TIE's versus X wings or something? Or your favorite sports team? Or the galactic trade in winter wheat?"

"It's a normal enough topic."

She groaned. "All right, you've beaten me down. What about them? Are you talking in general, or hypothetical ones of my own?"


"I like other people's children. Jaina and Jacen are great. They are just old enough to start getting interesting. And I have some friends on Verrat with children, I like them a lot too."

"How'd you come to know the local Verratans? Have you been trading there that long?"

"I lived there for several months, after Endor, before I joined Karrde's group."

"You didn't tell me that."

She shrugged. "I was going to tell you tomorrow, does it make a difference?"

"No, I just didn't know."

"I lived with a family while I was there, got to know them really well. They are wonderful people. You'll probably meet them."

"I'd like to. And you got to know some of their kids?"

"I thought I had chased you away from that subject."

"Not a chance I'd let you off that easily."

"Yes, I know them very well." He was surprised to hear a genuine softness and warmth from her.

"Don't act so shocked."

"I didn't say anything."

"You didn't need to. Anyway, the family is a big, extended one. There were several children when I lived there, and now that some of them are older, they have children of their own. I'm very popular Aunt Mara, and all that. I haven't been there in several months, and am looking forward to seeing them. It's one reason why I continue to do this trip, profits notwithstanding."

"Have you ever thought of having your own?"

"Any other deep personal information you want to know before I answer that question?"

"If I think of any, I'll ask."

"You're impossible."

"It's great, isn't it? Too bad you can't just send me out the airlock."

"Who says I can't?" She paused, but he continued to wait expectantly. "I guess I think about it sometimes. But it's different for women."

That was not the answer he was expecting. "What do you mean?"

"Well you can jump from system to system, and assuming the woman is willing, plant as many children as you want."

Leave it to Mara to put that kind of spin on it. "That's a rather barbaric way of looking at the subject."

"Is it? I'm not so sure. In the end we are biological creatures."

"Well we have also evolved."

"In the area of human procreation, not really. Men still father children and women still bear them. The cost to the man is nominal in comparison to that of the woman. His interest is in assuring the continuation of his line with as many children as possible, and her interest is in keeping just one man around to help her raise the child. And he can keep doing it long after she can't."

Luke objected to her callous analysis. "That's a pretty cynical view of relationships."

The intended explanation sounded mostly argumentative. "We weren't talking about relationships, we were talking about children. Bringing a child into the world is a huge commitment. And it would radically change your life."

"Well you are only looking at it from the question of how it would affect you."

Her tone became more strident. "It would be irresponsible if I didn't think how it would change me."

"But those are good changes, positive ones."

"I don't know that for certain, and I don't see how you can either."

He did not like the implication of her statement. "So you think I'm being naive if I think it would be one of the best things a person could do."

Mara took a deep breath before answering. Her response when it came out was pedantic and irritated. "I didn't say that. All I'm saying is that it is a serious undertaking, that I don't know if I could handle the responsibility alone, and I've never known a man who could make that kind of commitment."

The answer seemed so obvious to him, he wondered at how she could be so blind. "Well, maybe the problem is not all men, but just the ones you meet."

"I get what I want out it." Mara did not wholly succeed in avoiding sounding defensive.

"I guess that's not enough for me."

She pulled her legs off the console, straightened abruptly, his mild reply stinging. He turned, startled to feel her grating hostility. "Keep this up Skywalker, and I will send you out the airlock and take my chances on the asteroid belt."

Luke did cease his interrogation. "I didn't mean to sound judgmental. Given my past successes, I certainly can't criticize you for finding what you think makes you happy."

"Oh, well if you phrase it in such complimentary terms, how could I possibly be offended?" She swiveled her chair, turning her back on him.

He reached over to pivot her chair back, trying to meet her in the eye. "No really, Mara, I'm not criticizing, and I agree with you, raising children, especially ones who may have Force potential, is a serious business." He suddenly remembered something she had said earlier. "Weren't you the one who said that if you don't take the risks you'll never get the payoff? Isn't the key finding someone with whom you want to take those risks?"

When Mara didn't respond, he continued. "I guess I'm a little envious. You seem to have made some compromises that have really worked for you, blending your Force skills with your trading. I didn't think that you had been in a serious relationship with anyone or had children and I wondered if you missed that." He made the last statement carefully, trying to anticipate her reaction, but all he got was stony silence. "I've just been thinking lately that I've had to sacrifice those things to be a Jedi. Do you think to be a Jedi is worth that kind of personal cost?"

"I've never wanted to be a Jedi if it meant retreating from the world. I never understood how you can do that."

Yet another not so subtle reproach. He said nothing at first, thinking glumly that her words reminded him of another. "Right before Corellia, Mon Mothma said something very similar to me."

"That was rather presumptuous of her."

"Maybe. She said that Leia was a better example of a Jedi than I was, precisely because she had made better use of her gifts to become a leader, a wife, a mother, even if it was at the expense of some of the more elevated skills."

"That wasn't just presumptuous, she was rude. She has no right to say things like that to you after everything you've done to bring her to power and help maintain the NR." They were both surprised at her vehement response.

"Well, in not developing her powers completely Leia has been free to do other things, and it's obvious how happy she is with that trade off."

Mara's reply was harsh. "I don't buy your fundamental presumption. I don't think of the Force as some kind of vengeful God that exacts a personal price for every success in our lives."

"But we don't really know, do we? Gaeriel believed that the cosmos had to balance, that the more exalted one person, the more lowly the next."

"That's the best excuse for mediocrity I've ever heard," she snapped.

Her characterization was grossly unfair. "Mara, it's amazing how you can malign a profound and complex religion in a single sentence."

"Skywalker, you have to stop thinking of these things in absolute or irrevocable terms. You'll make yourself nuts." She tried another approach. "Can you honestly say that you would have done anything differently rescue Leia, try to save Vader, help me destroy C'baoth, form the Academy, any of the things you've done, if you knew then that there'd be a price to pay now?"

Her compulsion to drive him to her point of view, to win every round, infuriated him. Reining in his temper, he finally replied reluctantly, "No, I'd do it all again."

"See? Maybe that's the problem. It's what I told you before, about being a fighter. Forget about this passive Jedi mysticism crap. Don't just sit in the jungle waiting for things to happen to you, go and make things happen for yourself."

He'd had enough. "Well Mara," he spit out hotly. "If all I had to do was find a warm body at a pilot's cantina, maybe I'd be as happy as you are."

The slam was out of his mouth before he could stop it. Mara flushed at his cruelty, and then turned icy cold. She stood. "Get some sleep, we have a busy day tomorrow," and strode out of the cockpit.

Luke was seething. Mara was never bothered by doubt or indecision, never perturbed by the self-awareness borne of serious introspection; she was always right, he was wrong. Her contempt for a credo that had guided his life for twenty years was insulting. She couldn't take it as well as she gave it.

When he did not hear her, he cautiously sent a tendril out and found Mara had gone to her cabin. She was still broadcasting her emotions on a broad band, waves of predictable anger, disgust and wrath toward him and the universe emanating from the rear of the ship. He thought, she's probably kicking at some walls. He was absorbed for some time in berating Mara for her perpetual insensitivity. When he felt her anger fade as she mastered her control, Luke tried surreptitiously to eavesdrop.

What he learned shocked him. With a jolt, Luke realized he had just learned the buttons to push that would wound. He had never tried to hurt Mara before, and the knowledge that he could, that she could even be hurt by mere words of his was abruptly sobering. His resentment of her evaporated, and he reached out to fashion an apology, "Mara, I'm sorry."

She did not respond right away. He tried again, "Mara..."

"It's all right, don't worry about it. I sounded like Mon Mothma."

"I still should never have said such things to you. You're practically the only friend I have."

Her response was bone weary. "I said it's okay. You were provoked."

"But you're right. I have to do something, make some change. I just don't know what to do."

"It's late Skywalker. Go to sleep."

He felt her try to shut off the contact, to compose herself, to rest. And he let her go. "Good night old buddy," he whispered softly to her. He felt her smile.

He wandered, bereft to his own cabin. Lying in his bunk, he felt exhausted from the gamut of emotions of that evening, and yet still not able to sleep. What a miserable life. My best friend is a former assassin and my girlfriend leaves me for a clone. His gloomy mood became blacker. I'm now getting excitement trading wine on a rim world. Maybe the airlock wouldn't be a bad option.

Since the first day on the Fire, he let the darkness take him. And the dream returned, the same one that had haunted him for three weeks. He was standing atop the Massassi Temple. Callista was with him, her serious face suffused with love. He embraced her, Callista's loving arms were about him, and then laughing, she challenges him to a mock lightsaber duel. In the duck and play, she raises her lightsaber above her head, and suddenly, her features dissolve into rivulets of blood and gore, and another figure emerges.

Each dream is a different nightmare, sometimes it is Vader, or Palpatine, Exar Kuun, C'baoth, or even his own clone. But the end is always the same. The figure advances, attacking, viciously, and without mercy, hacking at him, driving him down. And in an awful replay of Bespin, the dark Jedi slices off his right hand, and then his left, and then his other limbs, and as he pleads for death, the last image is a bright blade crashing down.

Luke woke to his own screaming, lost in that confused state between nightmare and consciousness, when it seems that the dream world has pursued its victim into this reality as well. But the cries were not his voice. "Mara?" Her screams were penetrating his cabin, her mind reeling in fearful chaos. He bolted out of his room, tore to her darkened cabin, and then stood rooted at her door.

Mara was sitting upright in her bed, her eyes wide open but unseeing, imprisoned in a nightmare. She was thrashing, flailing her arms to ward off unseen blows, screaming. "No, master, don't don't oh please, master I can't." He called out to her, trying to tear her from her dream, but her mind was a turmoil of terror and agony, too far enmeshed in her private horror to hear.

Luke stumbled to her bunk. She was pleading to her invisible tormentor. "My hands, oh master please no, don't."

"Mara, it's me, wake up, it's just a dream." When he touched her, she shrieked, scrambling to be free, but entangled in her bed covers. He grasped her face, cradling it with both hands, turning her toward him. As he touched her mind, he heard a gloating, imperious voice, "You failed me, and now die." He saw as she did, in an echo of his dream, a red blade swing down upon her.

She screamed again, and then lay in his arms, trembling. Sight and sanity seemed to emerge, but when she finally saw him, as if for the first time, she gasped, "Master," and recoiled, clawing for an escape. He realized grimly that in her confusion, she had mistaken him for the dead Emperor.

He tried reaching her again. "Mara, it's me. You've been dreaming, it's just a dream."

Her hands flew up. "My hands, he cut off my . . ."

Luke reached for them, repeating, "No, it's just a dream." Her fingers were slivers of ice.

Slowly the dream receded. When comprehension returned, she was still shaking with cold and fright. "What happened, did I wake you?"

He was shivering himself. "I was dreaming. You picked it up, and starting dreaming it too. I heard you screaming."

Mara shuddered again. "You're freezing, I'm freezing." She pulled a blanket over both of them, and huddled next to him on the bunk. "What was...?"

"It's the after effect of a Dark Side nightmare. It was Palpatine wasn't it?" He could barely see her face in the dimness, but she nodded.

"It was like the dreams I used to have, but worse. He would tell me to kill you. This time, he ..." her voice broke with strain. "He started cutting me to pieces with a lightsaber. Do you have the same dream?"

"The person is always different. Tonight it was Palpatine, sometimes it's others." Luke was still holding her hands in his, trying between the two of them, to find some vestige of warmth. "I'm sorry, I didn't know it could affect you."

She pulled her hands away, drew the blankets closer around them and then wriggled into the protective cocoon. "I'm tired of hearing you apologize. There's blame aplenty to go around. Come on, lie down."

Her proposition seemed ludicrous under the circumstances. "Uh, I...."

She quickly corrected his confusion. "No, I know, I didn't mean that." She gently pulled him down. "It's narrow, but there's room for two."

He rolled over on his side, facing away from her, and she sidled up to his back, throwing one arm over. He drew her hand up, near his chin. They lay there for a long time, not speaking, waiting for warmth to return to chilled, frightened bodies, heart and breath finally finding a normal pace.

Mara seemed almost asleep, but then he felt her Force awareness begin to stir, and move toward him. "I don't want to ever have that nightmare again. Can you show me where it came from?"

Luke said nothing, but held her arm tighter around him, and lifted part of the barrier that kept her away. Her strong sense flowed into him, and together they sank to the dark, cold place from where doubts and fear come. He felt her course through his awareness, and then suddenly, her light blossomed, and ignited his own. Together, they flooded that terrifying place with a warm bright flame. The shadows fled.

For a second time that long day, she slowly withdrew from his mind. He lightly kissed her fingertips, in a silent thanks.

She said quietly into his shoulder blades, "Well, you're finally in my bed Skywalker."

He squeezed her hand. "Hey, if that's all this was about, we would have done it a long time ago."

Mara sighed. "I know. It's just ..."

"Now is not the time to have this conversation. We've done and said enough for one night."

They lay still, until she felt his slight amusement. "What?"

"I was just wondering how I could ever explain this to another woman."

Mara drew closer, and replied with a tartness very much at odds with the kiss she softly planted on his shoulder, "If she doesn't understand, then she's not worthy of you."

"You keep that up, and I'll have a lot more to explain."

"Sorry. Sleep well farm boy."

"You too, old buddy."