JUST AMONG FRIENDS
With the toast, Luke cautiously sipped the wine, tasting it carefully for any indication that it was worth more than he had ever had or earned in his life, and hoping to apply some of Mara's instruction. "This is very dry, it seems herbal, rather fruity, does that make sense?"
"Very good Jedi. Mine I think is lighter than yours is, fruitier as you say, probably younger. There are some hints of spice in the bouquet, it's not bad; better than most of what we have had, but nothing like that bottle we had the last night on the ship."
Luke shook his head in wonder. "I guess I have a hard time believing that anyone could be this stupid."
"Actually, that's the part that surprises me the least. You'd be amazed at the scams out there: forged art work of great masters, risk free investments promising returns thousands of times over going rates, lake front properties on desert worlds. All you need is a slick package and a good story."
"I suppose the buyers think they are getting this rare find, scrounging around for a bottle, maybe even a case." Luke gestured at the crates about them. "They haven't seen all of this."
Mara decided she actually quite liked the bottle she was drinking. "That's part of it. There is a combination of factors at work here. It's a very probable story: the Emperor stashing all this rebel wine in a place where his loyal retainers could enjoy it. And who remembers what Alderaani wine really tasted like at this point, to say nothing of actually finding a genuine bottle to make a true comparison. There would be no way to confirm what you had actually bought." She paused, grinning. "And if you did find a bottle to make the comparison, it might very well be just another bottle of Verratan wine."
Recalling something from the previous evening, Luke offered, "Rodica had said that the Empire had brought vines here from all over the galaxy. They may even be using Alderaani vines. And I suppose they are also playing off a very old scam; if you pay that much for something, it must be good."
The last observation was greeted with Mara's snort of disgust. "People like that should lose every credit they have."
He had to agree. "If it tasted off, I suppose someone would prefer to think it's just a problem with the bottle, age or something, rather than that they had just been cheated. I have this image of a couple of Verratan Imps smacking their lips with one of their sucker customers, extolling the virtues of a bottle that everyone thinks should be good because it has an Alderaani label, and because they paid this huge sum for it, rather than actually asking themselves if it is good."
"If it wasn't for the fact that the Verratans are using the profits to arm themselves, I'd say, just leave them to it. These people deserve what they get." Something bothered her though. "Don't you think it's a bad idea to be cheating the same people who you want supporting your new Empire?"
"We don't really know the intricacies involved here. The sucker customers really don't understand the magnitude of the fraud. Everyone no doubt wants to keep it all very quiet-- you of course don't want to end up in a bidding war with someone for a rare bottle of Alderaani wine."
"The Imps here are probably also cheating people in the Core they've known for years. I wouldn't think this scam will last very long; eventually the customers will want to start sharing their supposed rare wine finds, and will discover that all of their friends have the same bottle. That's a party I'd love to be at."
As another even more twisted scheme occurred to Luke, he realized that all this time with Mara was definitely having an effect. "Or maybe the Verratans will be the ones to uncover the scam, set someone up like Vitz to take the fall, claim righteous indignation, bemoan the losses with their friends, and that will be the end of it."
Mara again nodded in approval. "Your devious mind is being wasted on Jedi philosophy. If that's the plan, it might explain why the Verratans are keeping all their extra credits here rather than taking them off world; if they started throwing all this new found wealth around, their sucker friends might get suspicious."
Luke was tracing patterns in the dusty floor. "There is something else we don't know, as well. Did you recognize any military names among the Bacchanalia owners?"
"Neither did I. So whose leading the troops, making the purchasing decisions?"
Mara ran through the disquieting list in her head, there were quite a few possibilities. "We haven't heard from some of our old friends for several years. It could be any of them."
"You know Mara, our old friends have never been very sociable, I bet that they would be very unhappy if we crashed their party, don't you think?" Luke looked up at her with a barely reckless crooked grin.
Mara was assaulted with a surge of conflicting emotion; if he was doing this deliberately, she'd kill him. She responded tightly, "They know me, know my ship."
Luke added, "And know it was no coincidence that you had a copilot named Luke."
She brutally smothered the wave. "I don't think we should dawdle here then, do you?"
Luke shrugged, a nonchalant gesture at odds with the lightly suppressed excitement she felt and heard. Damn him, Mara thought they had resolved this, that she had resolved this.
He continued, seemingly not noticing Mara's quiet little battle, "We need to be alert, but I wasn't thinking that we'd call up the ship quite yet. If someone was really concerned, we would have found out almost as soon as we landed." He took another pull on the bottle. "Another day or two won't matter. Sure it's riskier, but we need to try to find Borkin, and we might find out who is buying for Bacchanalia, who is in charge of all that nice new hardware. We can't get that information from Coruscant, not with what NRI has done here."
Mara relaxed slightly, "I did come here for business, I have to sell the rest of my cargo tomorrow."
"Sure, and we still have to go on our date."
Mara almost dropped her bottle. "I thought we had an agreement."
"We do. But the date has nothing to do with the agreement. The purpose, as I recall, was to prove to you that I'm fun, so the next time you drop into Yavin, you'll show me the nightlife." The grin that accompanied the statement indicated just how much he was enjoying trapping her this time.
Mara tried squirming her way out of it, she was not prepared to cope with a "date" with Luke. "I've got a better idea. How about on those lonely hearts ads you post, I just add a testimonial: Master Trader Jade hereby attests that Jedi Master Skywalker is fun. That would do it, wouldn't it?"
Luke was adamant. "Nope."
"A recommendation then. I'll let your would be girlfriends contact me, I'll even pay for the holo call, and I can tell them in person that you're not boring all the time, and occasionally, might even be tolerable."
"And this is supposed to make me change my mind?"
"I'll be nice."
Every Jedi Master should have a Mara to bait. "Sure, I've seen your behavior today around respectable women. I don't want you anywhere near my prospects."
She stuck a lip out. "I told you before I don't like respectable women. And the ones we've seen today only reaffirms that opinion; they are so 'respectable' they make even you seem exciting."
"That settles it. We are going out tomorrow night, or well I guess tonight, and we will have fun. Besides, we have to make some use of all that dancing practice."
"I can hardly wait." Mara's voice was flat with dread.
Luke began rummaging for the corks. "Although it is risky to stick around a few more days, I don't see why we should be inviting trouble by dawdling here."
Mara was already on her feet. They cleared the evidence of their explorations, carefully repacking and sealing the crates. Searching the warehouse, they could not find a computer terminal that might help them determine if Borkin was in permanent residence.
They squatted down in the dim, dusty warehouse anteroom and plotted. Luke had decided that they would probably have to risk a Force probe and Mara reluctantly agreed. "But we aren't going to try to get him out now if he's here, are we?"
Luke took inventory of the party kit, before shaking his head. "I don't think so, we'd have to be prepared to leave, we'd have to get the ship, Artoo, Kyle."
"And net clearance."
Just another complication. "So where do you want to try this, outside, where we were before?"
Mara tried wiping the grime off her hands, succeeding only in leaving streaks on her flight suit. "If we can't reach anything from there, we can always climb another tree."
Luke went first, Mara remaining in the shadows of the building. He brought the rope down, climbed up, and then slid across the branch back to the other side. Mara was impressed in spite of herself. She would have never thought a Jedi Master to be so adept in a tree. She heard his soft, smug voice in her head, "You should have seen where I did my training." Damn him again.
Mara followed quickly, tossing the kit over the fence, Luke catching it in a Force grasp. She shinnied up the rope, thinking that such activity wrecked not only finger nails, but hands as well. What color polish went with hemp, dirt, bruises, scrapes and grass stains, she wondered?
Pulling herself onto the branch, she caught a glint in the dark on the far end of the landing pad. "Hey Skywalker, see that?"
Mara projected into his mind what she saw from the vantage of the tree limb and heard him say after a moment, "It's a ship of some kind, too small to be a freighter, all locked down though."
Mara retrieved the rope and traversed the branch, finally falling to the ground next to him. "Let's get closer to that big building," Luke said. "That's where I felt most of the people before."
They circled back to where they had started, Luke briefly seeking out the speeder's sleeping occupants. Dran and Mihella remained blissfully unconscious.
They hunkered down on a rise not far from the tall, partially lit building and considered the options. "What do you think the odds are that anyone in there is Force sensitive?" Luke asked.
Trying to divine the building's occupants without the Force was impossible. "If this were a typical Verratan establishment, I'd say pretty good. But as Yur said, if Borkin's a prisoner, they'd be really careful to keep any natives away."
"If someone is a Force user, they'll recognize a probe."
Mara could not come up with any particularly helpful alternative. "Well, then we'd better be really careful. Why don't you try to reach them, I'll see what I can do to boost your sensitivity?"
Luke shut his eyes and cautiously, surreptitiously reach out to the others in the near building. Lying next to him on the grass, Mara rested a hand on his shoulder, as before flowing into, then with him, out in a sweep of the area. More accustomed to the heightened awareness between them, he thought dimly that the connection between them had become, at least for him, both easier to maintain, and stronger with practice. He heard a mocking voice say, "Knock, knock, Mr. Borkin? Is anyone home?" Ever the comedian.
Luke immediately found three women and nine men all awake, in the building and seemingly calm, preoccupied and ignorant of their gentle search.
Mara said "The night shift," and he thought she was right. Reaching further and more assertively, they found three sleeping minds, Luke thought one woman and two men.
"What do you think," Luke asked. "Which one?"
Thought to thought they conferred, deciding on one man for no reason other than that the Force seemed to guide them there. Luke gently reached that mind, finding restless, light sleep, fear, pain. He was so deeply in a rapport with that other mind he was certain was Borkin, he felt the spasmodic clutch biting into his shoulder before comprehending the reason for Mara's intense reflexive reaction.
She hissed, "Pull out, get out, something's not right."
They impact hit them at the same moment, a faint unpleasant odor in the air, a cold, clammy wind that cut through clothing to the bone, hungry for their warmth in the Force. Something fearful, clawing and mean was searching for them.
Mara's Force sense snapped back as if she had been stung, he slamming a barrier down to ward off the cold hunter. Thinking as one mind, they swiftly and silently retreated to the speeder, alert for the alarm that never came. Having just overstayed their welcome, it was time to go; any future rescue of Borkin could become far more complicated if his keepers knew that two trained Force users had just made a thorough reconnaissance of the facility.
They did not speak until nearly within the city proper, Luke coaxing the speeder to a jarring stop. Mara finally released the bone rattling shudder she had held. "What was that?"
Luke was still gripping the controls, knuckles white with tense control, "I have no idea. I've never felt it before, you haven't either?"
"No. One of those men was Borkin, but he wasn't responsible for that, was he?"
Luke forced himself to replay the feeling. "It wasn't Borkin. I thought it was a strong Dark Side power. Now, I'm not so sure. You seemed more sensitive to it than I was."
"I think I am." Mara was pale and bloodless, as close to frightened as a nerveless person ever could be. She finished with certainty, "That cold feeling, it was the same as in your vision, I'm sure of that."
They said little more until after they dropped the speeder at the Spot. Leaving Dran and Mihella still happily comatose in the back, they returned to the hotel. It had been another long day and still longer night.
At the entrance to the hotel, Luke reflected on their luck. "Running into that presence was bad enough, I'm glad there wasn't anything else going on there tonight."
"Given all the shipments, I'm surprised there wasn't more activity. Maybe one of the ships had problems in the belt."
His response was partially cut off by the revolving door, "Mihella told me that all the pilots here just sit around hoping that a Bacchanalia ship goes down so that maybe they would hire local talent."
They started walking into the empty lobby, Mara saying through a yawn, "It does happen."
"Not so far."
She stopped so suddenly Luke ran into her. "What?"
"Uhh, sorry, why did you . . ."
"What did Mihella tell you?"
Luke was confused, "That Dran and others sit around hoping..."
"No," she interrupted impatiently, "I mean about the Bacchanalia ships."
"She said that no Bacchanalia ship had gone down. What is it?"
Seizing his arm, she repeated, "She told you no Bacchanalia ship had bitten it?"
Luke pried her fingers from his elbow, "Yes. What's wrong?"
Mara began cursing, "Come on, we've gotta get upstairs." She cursed at the slowness of the lift in coming down, cursed again at the slowness of the lift door opening, cursed again at the slowness of the lift door closing, and pushed the buttons so many times going up, Luke was profoundly grateful the same power source which ran the room's computer was not also responsible for the lift operations.
She pelted out of the lift and was already fumbling with the lock to her room when he caught up. Luke snagged the key card from her before she began kicking the door.
"Are you going to tell me what this is all about?"
She snapped, "We've got to get the manifests."
"The Tirgu Customs manifests of course. It's all there." Mara snarled, lunging for the key card.
"Nothing, other than my stupidity in not seeing this earlier. Open the prijgin door. It's important."
"Has anyone ever told you, you swear like a stormtrooper?"
"I've taught them the best they ever knew. Now let me in, you mald'n rube, or I'll teach you a thing or two about pain you'll wish you never learned."
Sufficiently warned, Luke inserted the key card and she barged past him into the room. He found Mara on her hands and knees, scurrying through the neatly stacked printouts, still swearing. "Will you tell me at least what you are looking for?"
"I told you," she spit out. "The Tirgu manifest, the one we looked at yesterday."
"Oh," Luke said causally, picking up a printout from the desk, "this one?"
She threw herself at the printout, but Luke held it out of reach. "No Mara, sit down, and I'll sit next to you, and we will look at this together and you will tell me what this is all about."
She swore again, but settled back on the floor, leaning against the desk. As Luke sat next to her, Mara snatched the printout from him, and began scanning the Bacchanalia entries.
"Stang!! I can't believe I didn't see this before. Bacchanalia has paid full customs taxes for every outgoing shipment."
She dropped the printout, leaped to her feet, and began pacing, anxious, running dirty fingers through matted hair. "Under Tirgu Customs regulations, you pay the full tax only if your cargo and your ship actually make it through the belt undamaged. If either are, you can deduct the expense from the customs tax owed. In a fit of benevolence, they decided that it would be even more a disincentive to trade if you had to pay full customs taxes even when your ship or the goods were damaged during transit through the belt."
Luke still did not see the significance, "And?"
"Look at the taxes paid column, they've paid the full amount on every single shipment."
"Well you said yesterday that they'd been busy."
"Not just busy Luke, they've been lucky, impossibly lucky. It's what Mihella said that got me thinking." She paused to smack the bedpost in frustration, then resumed wearing a track through the carpet, "Bacchanalia has been shipping several times a week for over four months. According to that printout, not a single shipment has been damaged and every ship has made it through. I only do the run a few times a year, and even I've been banged a few times. And you can bet I'm a better pilot than the people they are hiring. I'm telling you, what they've done is impossible."
Luke had stayed seated, watching her pace, studying the manifest. Something began tugging at his awareness, a gnawing nagging sense of recognition, a picture forming of the only possible explanation.
Mara, feverish and frantic, stilled her restless stalking and knelt next to him, placing a hand at his shoulder to steady herself. "What do you need to build an Empire?"
Luke shook his head, "We've been over this..."
"No, tell me."
"It's what we said, you need a navy, you need a commander, you need credits."
"No," her eyes were bright, wild with excitement. "No" she repeated hoarsely. "To build an Empire, first, you need an Emperor. Who's their Emperor Luke? Think about what we know. We know the kind of people who are here; we know there have been two unexplained failures of the net; we know Bacchanalia has been shipping several times a week for months; we know they haven't lost or even damaged a ship or cargo in all that time; we've done the belt together, we know what it would take to get through it unscathed, week after week; we know someone is trying to arm an Empire; and Luke, we know what we felt at that warehouse tonight."
Luke knew only one person fit those facts, "Irek Ismaren."
Mara flung herself against the desk, exhausted from the effort and nodded.
Luke continued for her, in a grim voice. "It has to be Irek. He's using the Force to get the ships through. He brought the net down to get their attention, prove he could do it, for the same reasons he caused all those problems on Belsavis."
"Selfish, immature thug."
Dirty, tired, drained from the rollicking emotions and discoveries of the day, both felt ill equipped for this unwelcome, but really not entirely unexpected, wrinkle. Luke finally offered, "Even with Thrawn, I always felt that a true Imperial military was meant to serve someone. They need a force, a personality to unite behind. Amazing that the Verratans have managed to solve the two problems of the post Endor Empire: financing and an Emperor. "
Mara said bitterly, "Well they got more than they bargained for in Irek. I'm amazed he could muster any support after Belsavis."
"The Verratan Imps may not know about Belsavis any more than the Core Imps know about the wine, neither would be very eager to share the story," Luke mused. "It's rather clever, don't you think?"
"Oh yes, very, that sithspawn, sckaggy ..." Mara trailed off into a string of muted invective.
"That woman we sensed sleeping, do you think you recognize her now, do you think it might have been Roganda Ismaren?" Luke asked the question cautiously, measuring Mara's intense, angry burst at the mention of Irek's mother, the purported other hand of the Emperor and mother of his son and heir.
The anger ebbed, and after a long pause Mara said slowly, "Might be. I didn't recognize her, but if it's her, I probably would have if she had been awake."
If they were right, it was not only her past that she and Luke would be forced to confront before this trip was over. Mara probed Luke tentatively, "Do you think they might be trying for a more conventional approach, having had so little success with a superweapon?"
"After what Callista and I did, it wouldn't surprise me," was Luke's bleak response. "And they're doing it by exploiting Alderaan. This will be very hard for Leia."
"And for you."
A melancholy sigh escaped. "Yes."
Mara banged her head against the desk several times, finally verbalizing what was so striking to both of them. "There's a certain irony to all of this wouldn't you say?"
Luke pulled his legs up, resting his head on his knees. "At so many levels I wouldn't even know where to begin. All these different lives crossing here, in the backwater, a place no one has ever heard of, over bottles of wine."
Mara gave his back a playful slap, trying to lighten the creeping despondency. "I like the idea that we found it. Maybe it's an opportunity for exacting a little Jedi justice."
"It certainly makes our stay here a bit more dangerous. I was just starting to get bored." His humor was forced.
With a tremor, Mara deliberately recalled the feeling they shared outside the warehouse, both of them dispassionately dissecting it. "What do you think? Could that be him?"
Luke spoke into his knees, "I don't know. Neither of us has been in his presence before. So it makes sense that we wouldn't recognize him."
They both knew that was only part of the problem. "Do you think he recognized us?"
Luke pushed hair back that he was now certain would be greyer before they blasted out of here. "He wouldn't know us specifically. He may have thought he was dreaming, but he may have also identified two strong, trained presences in the Force, and realized they weren't of the Dark Side."
"I wonder why he didn't pursue us?"
His voice was bleak and weary. "That's one reason I think it is Irek. From what Leia had said, Irek's Force sense is strong, but very untrained and undisciplined. He's a coward. He may not have wanted to come after us, and may not have even known how."
"I think we would be able to take him down," she said tensely.
"I think we probably could, if we needed to, especially together, I hope we don't have to."
Mara voice was as a knife's edge, "You saw what he did to those people on Belsavis. He's worse than a murderer. He's thoroughly corrupt, evil."
Luke replied listlessly, "Ben said the same thing about Vader."
"Yes," she retorted sharply, "and I told you the same thing about C'Baoth."
"Mara," he began in a detestable patient tone.
She interrupted him, beginning in the same patronizing voice, "Luke, some of those people were my friends, he twisted them, destroyed their minds, he . . ."
He cut in severely, "Do I need to remind you what he did to me, to people I love?" Again, Luke displayed a problem with verb tense. "But Vader was no different. If someone can be turned away from the Dark Side, it's our duty to try."
"Speak for yourself Skywalker, I don't live by the same pacifist, idealistic code you do."
Mara was dirty, defiant, even now denying the inevitable, final commitment. Luke glanced at her side, where her lightsaber hung. Until now, he had never known her to wear it openly. He made a swift decision; it was time she acknowledged the consequences. He reached over, and unclipped the light saber from her belt, holding it out, speaking slowly, with an austere ritual intensity, "You've had this blade for ten years, have you ever dishonored it?"
Resentment flared. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Luke was uncompromising. "You know exactly what a lightsaber symbolizes, the principles it protects, I'm asking you, since you've borne this blade, have you ever done a dishonorable thing?"
Still she resisted, "I don't know what that means."
"Fine, since you're being so stubborn, I'll break it down for you, have you ever used your light saber in fear?" She glared at him, not wanting to answer, but refusing to yield to his unswerving interrogation. "Answer the question Mara Jade, or are you suddenly going to become afraid now?"
"No!" she bit out. "I've never used it out of fear."
He persisted relentlessly. "Even with all that anger you carry around, against all the people who have hurt you, have you ever used it in anger, or to harm another?"
"Have you ever used your gifts to the disadvantage of another?"
"What gifts? I . . ."
He gripped her shoulder, brandishing the handle with the other hand, "Stop evading, and answer, have you ever used the Force to the disadvantage of another?"
She was rebellious, almost shouting, "No."
The storm passed, the commanding grip at her shoulder becoming a soft squeeze. Luke gently opened her hand and set the light saber there, saying quietly, "You're proud of your other accomplishments, Mara Jade, be proud of this one."
Luke stood, wondering absurdly if a night with Mara would ever end earlier than the few hours before dawn. She was still sitting on the floor, staring at the blade. He offered a hand to help her rise, but Mara remained rooted. She finally spoke in an echo of their earlier confrontation, "I never wanted it, any of it, least of all this."
Luke continued holding his hand out to her. "You may not want it, you may hide it from the rest of the world as just another secret in your life, but I know the truth."
She looked up, her eyes dark and damp, "Why? Why now?"
Why did she always make things so difficult? He sighed and knelt next to her, placed his hands over hers around the blade handle. "Because there are some things you can't run from. Because you have taken enormous risks for people and principles that have never given you a thing in return. Because," staring into her fierce, strong face, Luke felt his own voice tighten with the emotion of the moment. "Because we have come so far. Because, I'm proud of you."
He felt again panic welling within her as she recognized that he had once more ensnared her in a trap she had so long sought to avoid. He released her and stood again, she could flee if she wanted, but they both knew there was nowhere to go. "It's like our link through the Force, it's too late to change. If you didn't want this, you should have left me to die in deep space, or killed me on Myrkr."
The panic dissipated, leaving only resignation and futile inevitability. "I wonder why I didn't do it then, or since, there have been so many opportunities."
"I don't know." And he really didn't, but answering her fatalism, Luke responded, "The Force may guide us, but it doesn't predetermine our fate. Dona reminded me of that, you said much the same thing yourself on the ship. I'll ask the same questions you asked me, why have you done any of the things you have, rescue Karrde, rescue me, rescue Leia, lead us to Wayland, fight the Triad battle, fight the Dreadnaught battle, Belsavis. Whatever your reasons, the choices have been yours all along."
Mara gazed up at the man who had destroyed her life, saved it, invaded it, and helped her rebuild it, finally taking his offered hand to rise. "You've always known that about me haven't you?"
"That you were never the detached, disinterested person you purported to be?" She was so extraordinary, disavowing it all even now, with the grime of another selfless escapade still on her face, "Yes, I've always known."
"Stang, I thought I had fooled everybody." As Mara set the lightsaber on the desk, Luke thought that people did not usually swear on learning that they were Jedi.
Thrusting her hands deep into the pockets of her filthy suit, Mara hung her head, with his recognition of her secret, grinding a foot into the faded carpet. "I'd rather have people think I'm the mercenary."
"There are fewer expectations to disappoint."
Her heel left a dark smudge in the carpet that they both studied. Finally Mara said, "I suppose I should thank you, but I don't really feel much gratitude. I don't embrace that ethic the way you do, I don't think I want to or ever will."
She still did not see. "That's the irony of it. You say you don't, and yet I've never known you to do a thing inconsistent with it."
Mara straggled to the foot of the bed, tipping like a tree down its length. "We'll see if you still say that the first time I see Irek." She held up both feet, a silent request for him to remove her shoes. Luke did so, and then collapsed next to her.
Through an ear splitting yawn, Mara finally asked, "So what do we do now?"
He outlined the obstacles, "Borkin, Kyle, Irek, selling your cargo, date."
Mara edged up the length of the bed in search of a pillow, removing her utility belt along the way. "Not necessarily in that order." With ebbing strength she grabbed him by the shirt, "Can't talk if you're all the way down there." She groused a complaint when his lightsaber rapped her leg, so the belt and his own shoes came off too, the lightsaber remaining within his easy reach.
"If both Borkin and Irek are at the warehouse . . ." Luke trailed off. He tried resting on her shoulder, but found it too bony for comfort.
She grumbled "too bad" then, "How can we confirm Irek's here, and if we do, do we confront him, or sneak back to Yavin, get a whole bunch a Jedi and surprise him?"
"And if we face him here, can we be certain of getting Borkin and Kyle out and getting back to Coruscant?" Rolling onto his side, propped up on an elbow, Luke tried rubbing the dirt off her forehead, adding, "You're a mess."
Even with only one eye open, Mara was capable of a menacing glare, "You aren't much to look at either Jedi. If you don't like the sight, then leave."
He fought the mounting inertia, and lost, saying neutrally, "I think I'd rather stay."
He caught a slight smile and a wisp of, was it relief, or satisfaction? Nudging his supporting elbow so that he fell back, she said, "Well, then shut your eyes or turn off the light." As Luke did both, she continued, as if without the interruption, "And someone's going to have to let the security net down for us to leave."
Mara was drifting off when she heard her name, not sure if it was in her ears, or mind, "Hmmm?"
"What side of the bed do you normally sleep on?"
Good question. "Ahh, left. Got a problem with that?"
"No. Just convenient."
"You normally on the right?"
This time he definitely spoke. "Yeah, guess that's one less thing to fight over."
The discussion brought home the oddity of the situation. Voicing it, Mara said, "No one else would probably understand this would they?"
A warm hand covered her own, toying with her roughened fingers and the tip of a chipped nail, "I'm not sure I do."
"What's so hard to understand? We're friends, we have an agreement."
Luke's fingers moved up her arm, finding the wrist sheath and blaster she still wore. He worked the holster on her arm, locating and loosening the gussets in the dark. "The agreement is part of what makes it so strange."
The sheath joined the belts and shoes on the floor. By force of long habit, Mara set the blaster on the night stand near her head, as Luke finished, "Friends with an agreement don't normally share thoughts and a bed."
Over his protests, she made Luke rearrange his legs so the blanket was on top, instead of under them. "Skywalker?"
"What?" came a grumpy protest. "Are you going to make the bed before we sleep in it or something?"
She pulled the blanket up, and settled back down, "Do you suppose this is what old married people are like?"
"No. I imagine they normally use each other's first names."
He heard a light guffaw next to him, and said "'Nother way it's different."
There was a long pause, then, "All right, I'll take the bait, how else?"
"With a marriage I could at least petition for dissolution." His side still ached with the well-deserved jab when he fell asleep.
* * *
Mara felt it first, an icy talon tearing into her mind. Still sleeping, it had stolen in unawares before she could shut it out. "You didn't know who his real hand was did you? He never trusted a miserable failure of a slut like you. That man next to you murdered the only things you'll ever have." Struggling for air, drowning in venomous hatred, she did not know if it was her own battle against the pure malevolence of the assault, or Luke's own thrashing that wrested her from sleep.
She felt the malice turn on Luke, gloating, "I should have killed your bitch of a sister when I had the chance. The only woman you ever had was in a borrowed body, and you couldn't even keep that thing."
Gasping at the cruelty, Mara threw up a barricade, shielding them from the warped molestation. Distantly, she felt a yelp of pain and frustration as her barrier smashed into that depraved mind. With a violent start, Luke woke. And as suddenly as the attack began, the ill will abruptly disappeared, as if yanked from the very air.
Outrage and confusion washed over them, finally giving way to a forced, controlled calm. Mara touched the rough cheek next to hers, "You okay?"
Luke winced at the contact, then slowly turned to face his defender. "Yes, thanks. I guess that settled any questions I had."
"What a horrible person. What happened?"
Luke's voice was tight with anger that had not yet passed. "I was half asleep and even I felt his surprise when he met your barricade. That was probably his first encounter with a trained awareness in the Force. I don't feel any echo of him now, do you?"
"No. It's like he just vanished."
"He may have just boosted out of here. Remember that ship we saw? It would be typical for Irek: taunt us and then run away."
Mara tugged lightly on Luke's collar, trying to soften the harshness. "Not exactly my preferred wake up call. If he's gone, it could make our job here a lot easier."
"Only if he didn't take Borkin with him," Luke said, pushing away the long stringy strands of hair that had fallen over her eyes. Those who might consider the whole peculiar situation romantic had never woken up next to Mara. Mornings, never a good time for her anyway, were not improved when she still wore the suit and grime from the night before. He continued, "And if he's gone, things are a lot more complicated in the long run."
"He still has to come back here if they want to get the ships through." Responding to his unspoken observation, she quipped, "And seeing you right now doesn't exactly make me want to leap into bed with you either."
"I regret to inform you, but you already are in bed with me."
Blood shot green eyes widened in amazement, "I am? Damn. If I were feeling more energetic I'd shove you out." That did produce a slight smile.
Mara rolled over onto her back, staring at the faded canopy. She supposed that years of exposure to the harsh light now streaming in had long since reduced the formerly vivid colors and pattern to their present dusty, gauzy shade. Just another thing Mara thought, that would be considered romantic if you were twenty years younger. The cold bright morning pouring through the windows permitted few such illusions or delusions.
Luke interrupted her musings. "Will you help me sweep the area? See if we can detect him again?"
She sighed, supposing that a Jedi could never let such things lie. "Sure, go ahead." Luke began searching for that sneering mind, as Mara placed a hand over his, once again boosting his perception. They found, however, no trace of that dark presence.
After several silent minutes, Luke finally asked, "Did you hear what he said to me?" Mara did not want to respond to the pain and anger she heard, but Luke repeated the question, "Did you?"
She finally answered, "Yes."
"Do you think there's any truth to it?"
Mara tried shutting her eyes and mind to the misery. She could think of nothing to say that did not reek of trite platitudes. "No, of course not."
"You're a rotten liar."
"Actually, I'm quite a good liar."
"Except around me." Mara did not respond.
Through a clenched jaw, Luke finally admitted, "It's as if someone shouted to all the world the most loathsome things you think about yourself, the kinds of things you only admit to in your blackest, darkest moments, what I've berated myself over for five years. And Irek . . . " Luke could not finish, biting back the words with bitter fury.
"Luke, he's a thug, an evil, warped, perverted child."
She knew with anguish what he would say. "But what if that evil, warped, perverted child was right? That's what I'm afraid of Mara."
To the similar pleas Luke had made to her before, she had always responded with humor, sarcasm, and occasionally compassion, anything to jolt him from the brooding depression. But with this confession was a glimpse into a tormented and despairing soul. Mara had thought she wanted to see more of the person behind the austere control, and suddenly, now, was not so sure. She squeezed his hand, not daring to look at him, wanting to give him at least that small measure of dignity.
"Just remember Luke, that's not what Vader said."
"That all seems really unlikely to me right now."
"Well, who are you going to believe, your father, or the self-proclaimed bastard adolescent offspring of Palpatine?"
"You mean my father, the long dead Dark Lord of the Sith?"
Hearing his caustic edge dull slightly, Mara offered, "Well, if you are looking to either of them for dating advice, it's no wonder you're having problems. Stick with me, Skywalker, we've taken down clones, Grand Admirals, dark Jedi, destroyers of stars and planets and a whole bunch of superweapons. We can find you a girlfriend."
Mara was relieved when the mocking tone returned. "I'm having a crisis, and all you can think about is your twenty-two and a half percent commission? You unfeeling pirate." And with a well placed hand at her hip, Luke shoved her off the bed and onto the floor. Mara landed with a hard, painful thud and another curse.
Stretching up, she grabbed a protruding ankle and hand, and with a practiced yank, was pleased to have her tormentor flip onto the floor next to her with a resounding crash. "You deserved that," she accused.
Luke tackled her from behind, wrapping an arm about her shoulders and neck lightly, and then more tightly as he drew from her strength and comfort of a friend, "Thanks old buddy."
Mara felt a lump form in her throat, at the gratitude she heard in him, and at the malevolence which had prompted it. She bent over the arm slung about her and returned the squeeze with the same rough affection, "I'm sorry I wasn't quicker with the barricade. I'm sorry you had to hear that."
Luke nestled his chin in her matted hair. "Hey, no apologies." The remainder was unspoken, both of them knowing some things were better left unsaid, "I couldn't have stood it if anybody else had heard."
Mara permitted the friendly embrace for a second longer, than scrambled to her feet. "Day's a wast'in. Time to make some money."
As Luke stood, she saw that he really did look terrible, still blood shot, grubby, severely rumpled. Definitely no romance here, Mara realized: work, sweat, pain, danger, years as a tempered team long ago obliterated any chance of that. It was the bargain they had struck. She thought, with some regrets, that she could live with the compromise.
* * *
"Mara, are you sure about this?"
They were standing outside the Tirgu Muresh Commodities Exchange, a grandiose name for a bunch of men and women sitting in a room trading. Mara had decided that Luke would be responsible for selling her wine and liquor stores. Luke was not really worried that he would be unable to sell the goods; it was what would happen if Mara deemed his sales prices too low. He did not relish the loss of another limb, or death in the vacuum of space.
"I don't want you eavesdropping. I'm nervous enough about this as it is. And you hovering over a haggle will just make it worse."
"The Jedi Master nervous? Over a dicker?" Mara laughed. "How do you get by in the real world?"
"You know perfectly well how," Luke replied with much dignity. "I never go out into it. Besides," he added, "it's not the bargaining the concerns me; it's what you will do to me if I don't squeeze every last credit out of the Imps."
Mara actually took pity on the poor Jedi Master. "Listen. You know for memory what I paid for all those goods, and you know what my costs were, right?" Luke nodded. "So, if you get fifteen percent on top of that, I'll be happy, any more than that, I'll be ecstatic. Fair enough?"
"Really?" Luke's voice hiked a full octave in relief.
"Really. And," Mara considered, and the businesswoman announced her decision. "I'll give you an incentive. You can keep any percentage over thirty percent."
Suspecting that Mara doubted he could do any better than that paltry sum, and with pride tweaked, Luke pushed for a better percentage, "Twenty."
"Twenty? You greedy . . ., all right, twenty-eight."
"Twenty-one. Caught you -- you were hoping I'd go up faster than you would come down, like when we negotiated my girlfriend commission."
She humphed, confirming his suspicions. "Very good. You are definitely learning. How about twenty-five percent?"
"Why don't we make it another twenty-two and one half, then we only have one number to remember?"
They shook on it, and then each armed with a data pad, sauntered into the Commodity Exchange.
Luke had feared that he would have to approach people individually, convincing them to do business. Instead, the buyers swarmed over them as soon as they walked in, Mara shouting to them that her copilot had the wine and spirits, and she, everything else. Luke was jostled into the corner by over twenty sweaty, beady, beefy men, already arguing over the right to buy from him.
Determined not to use the Force, he found that he did not even need it. The demand for Mara's product was very high, and having accurate cost information going in meant he knew where to start. Selling by the case, he became the auctioneer to a score of eager buyers.
He was doing so well, he became concerned that Mara would think she had been fleeced by agreeing to roll over to him anything above 22.5%. Those pangs of guilt lasted all of thirty seconds, dissipating when Luke felt he prematurely cut off bargaining on a case of very fined aged spirits. After that, and bolstered by a certainty that Mara would have no such misgivings were the roles reversed, Luke showed no remorse, driving as hard a bargain as she would. Mara was going to owe him a substantial sum and he was looking forward to exacting it from her.
He sold the last bottle of wine and sat calculating his haul, starting to think big. Maybe a few more runs with Mara and he could finally upgrade the drive on the X wing . . . .
Mara interrupted his daydreaming. "Hey wake up farm boy." She was gloating, suffused with immense self-satisfaction, glowing, and obviously, if his own take was any indication, much richer. "How'd ya do?"
Luke said nothing, handing her the data pad. He wished he had a holo of the shocked, admiring, and irritated looks that crossed her face.
"The margins on some of the sparkling wines are smaller. You should think about getting more of the cavernol reds next time; it is evidently the trendy wine here right now. And the 25 year Corellian Reserva went fast as well, I probably should have held out for a higher price ...." Luke paused in his narration, trying to read the strong, undefinable emotions passing through her.
"That's interesting about the cavernol," Mara finally said. "It's always difficult to plan six months ahead for what the demand will be. Last time, demand was high for the norr reds."
"Those went well too. My sense though was that they were looking for a lighter, more versatile wine, particularly with the warmer season approaching. With the holidays over, I think that was why the sparkling wines didn't do as well either."
Mara was struck dumb, staring at him for a long silent moment, as if really seeing Luke for the first time. Then she held out her hand. "Well done, Trader Skywalker, very well done. If you have any other ideas on how to better gauge demand here for future runs, I'd be interested in hearing them."
Luke returned the firm shake, realizing it was the gesture of an equal.
* * *
Trading completed, they picked up Artoo and ran over to the space port. The ship had not been disturbed, still tightly locked down. Although Yur was not working until the late, third shift, they learned that the net had been dropped that morning for the departure of a Bacchanalia ship, resolving in their minds that Irek had indeed fled; no residue of his malicious presence lingered.
After much arguing about the advisability of such an action, they circled the Bacchanalia warehouse, venturing a probe into the facility to divine if Borkin was still in residence. Having found him once before, and knowing this time what to look for, Luke was able to focus the search and quickly found that frightened, pained mind. Borkin was still there, and Irek was not.
They sat for some time in the grass, under a tree, observing the site, identifying entrances, measuring distances. Luke commented at one point that all they needed was a picnic to make the afternoon complete. Mara sourly replied that picnics did not usually involve surveillance activity.
There seem to be no good solution. Go in now, get Borkin, get out, and maybe miss Irek. Wait, maybe lose Borkin, maybe get Irek, and then maybe not get out. Ultimately, the uncertainty of waiting in the hope of Irek's return decided the issue. They would wait, but not long, and would be prepared to leave on very short notice. Every day they waited increased the possibility that Borkin would just disappear.
Mara remained concerned most about net clearance, reasoning that if they caused a ruckus at Bacchanalia extracting Borkin, the port authority would be unlikely to drop the net for them to leave, no matter how nicely she asked. It would be a short and explosive trip. She was reluctant to prevail upon Yur, but they saw no other alternative. Any escape would depend on Yur, and assuming he would take that risk for them, when he could be counted on to be at the port. Kyle introduced another variable in the already complicated equation.
With Artoo's diagnostic help, the prep and systems checks on the ship only took a few hours. Luke was concerned that Mara had not laid in sufficient supplies of wine to survive a jump from Verrat to Coruscant; if both Borkin and Kyle joined them, Luke figured that his own consumption would probably increase two or three fold at a minimum. The thought of sitting through a Tales episode with Kyle was enough to warrant at least trying to convince Mara to leave the girl in Tirgu.
All that remained then was Yur. They were both dreading that confrontation. Luke verbalized his misgivings, "I really would prefer not seeing Dona again."
"I really would prefer not asking Yur to jeopardize his livelihood for us. I think we should both be there to explain." To that, Luke had no rejoinder.
On the other side of the barrier, the Remschi house at the end of the row, in daylight, seemed proudly shabby, its carefully manicured appearance serving only to underscore how poor it truly was. Some of the children were playing in the dirt in the front and upon seeing Mara, ran toward her. Dona was already at the door, gesturing them up the steps and shooing the children away with promises of treats later.
Luke was surprised. Dona's greeting to him was reserved, but kind, "Yur had said we might see you today."
Mara kissed Dona. "He's here, isn't he?"
A booming, "No cazut i shtea, of course I am little one," answered that question. Yur's bulk was settled carefully in his favorite arm chair in the next room. "And Luke too. Come in, come in. We will have wine and talk."
As they sat, Yur raked over them thoughtfully. "So, was your evening a pleasant one?"
Mara responded seriously to the jocular inquiry. "I think Yur, 'productive' might be a more accurate assessment."
Dona bustled in with glasses and a bottle, and as she poured, began with a question that was more of a statement. "You have found your missing friends."
Luke was not really surprised at her perceptiveness, even if Mara was. "Yes. Dazern Kyle was at the Exchange. And we know that Borkin, at least last night and this morning, was at the Bacchanalia warehouse."
Mara added carefully. "We hope that he will still be there for the next day or two." As she finished, she caught and held Yur's gaze.
They were all very still for a moment, shouts of playing children the only sounds. Even as Yur returned Mara's stare, Luke felt the current flowing between Dona and her husband. Decades together had honed their communication to something transcending even the mental link that he shared with Mara or his sister; Dona and Yur were speaking on a wholly private channel.
Mara said softly, "Yur, we wouldn't ask this of you, but we really do not have any other options."
It was Dona however, who answered, very quietly, "You should not ask this of us."
"We know that," Luke said to the stern woman. "We also know what caused the failure of the net. And if we can't leave here, the consequences could be very serious."
"Serious for whom?" Dona challenged. For you and Mara? For the fools you are helping? Or for a power so far away it has forgotten we even exist?"
Yur attempted to placate the steel of his wife, but Dona persisted, "No Yur, if they ask this of you, they owe us this much."
Luke began, but Mara interrupted him. "Let me explain. Dona, it is a fair question. Neither of you owes us or anyone else a thing. It takes everything you have just to survive. You have nothing left to give. But we know that there is a man here, in Tirgu who can control the net. He brought it down the first two times, he can do it again."
Skepticism imbued Yur's simple, "How?"
"He can bring it down, or up at will, through the ...." Mara stopped at Dona's icy glare, which forbade even mention of the word. "He can do this with his mind."
Dona immediately recognized the implications, asking in a hushed voice, "How can someone do this? To something that is an object? A machine?"
Although Mara had offered the explanation, Dona directed the question to Luke. He wished he could offer a coherent answer. "It's difficult to explain. As you and I can feel and understand the workings of living things, he has been trained to visualize the inner workings of machines, their schematics. He is able to manipulate them and cause them to malfunction."
Mara ventured, "The good news is that by periodically modulating the frequency of the net, or otherwise reprogramming it, he will probably not be able to bring it down. You will have control over it again."
Yur sat in silence for some time before finally observing, "I told you the other night Luke, that trouble seems to follow you and Inta."
Dona replied stiffly, "And they have brought trouble to us."
Yur stopped Mara's intended defense with a wave. "No Dona, do not be so harsh. Luke and Mara have not brought the trouble. I think they have merely discovered trouble that was already here." He continued, "I suspected earlier, and now I see I was indeed correct, that the two of you also have many unusual friends."
Luke offered soberly, "Not a friend."
Yur was studying the red wine Dona had poured him, swirling the drink in the glass, and perceiving another risk that Luke and Mara had brought. "You know my friends that even without hiring us at the warehouse, Bacchanalia has brought much work in the vineyards, that it has brought us a sliver of prosperity?"
"I know," Mara said sadly. "And all I can tell you Yur is that I would not rely upon that stream too much. Regardless of what happens when Luke and I leave here, what Bacchanalia is really doing is not sustainable, and is likely to dry up soon."
They sat in silence longer. Luke felt the connection flowing between Dona and Yur. He wanted to help, but was reluctant to do so. She was for what the consequences might be, but far more wary of a power that could level the barrier that protected their very world.
Without a word, they reached a decision together, Yur finally saying heavily. "It seems you have given me two valuable pieces of information. I think, Dona, we must help them as I can." He looked at his wife, but Dona said nothing, any misgivings entirely shrouded. "I work the third shift tonight and tomorrow night, and the second shift the day after. Perhaps all I need do, is blame the same mysterious," he paused with a twinkle to his wife, "forces that seemingly operated before. Such an account offered to explain your abrupt departure may even be accepted."
They stood to leave, all finding the goodbye uncertain and painful. A wave of sadness and regret washed by as Dona perceived the light saber handle at Mara's side. The tiny dark woman laid a gentle hand on Mara's arm. "Ah, Inta, you too?"
Mara swallowed convulsively, unable to make such a commitment aloud, relieved that Dona did not seem to actually expect an answer.
Dona turned to Luke, "And I assume Luke that should I be unable to dissuade others within my family, that you will also show them this path?"
The question was not sarcastic, but sincere, and Luke answered in kind, "I'll try."
"I believe Luke that in your creed, there is no trying, only doing, am I right?"
What a Master she would have made, he thought. "You're right. Of course, I will train any that you send me." Risking Mara's wrath, Luke offered, "And Dona, it would be my special privilege to work with you."
Yur laughed uproariously at his offer, "You are very bold Luke to suggest such a thing to my wife."
Mara kissed them both. "Yur, we may see you at the port, and we may not."
"I will wait for you Inta."
Luke did not feel that the episode with Rodica could go unacknowledged. "Please tell Rodica that," he paused, and out of deference, altered what he had intended to say, "that we will be thinking of her."
Dona nodded. "We will Luke. She and Sorin are very grateful to you." That Dona did not share their gratitude was clear. Yet as they were turning to leave Luke heard so softly in his mind he may have imagined it, "May you find happiness in the Force as well."
* * *
The day was not over yet. They were pushing down the crowded street, dodging the peddlers and yesh, when Mara espied a shop window. She stopped dead, transfixed by the display. "I've got to have it."
Luke was baffled. "What?"
She tugged his arm and pointed. "That."
"What is it?"
Now Mara was baffled. "What do you mean, what is it? It's a dress."
Luke could imagine few things more horrifying that what Mara was contemplating. "I am not going in there with you."
"Oh come on. I'll need a second, male opinion." Mara began pulling on his sleeve. "Oh please."
"Mara Jade, impulse shopper?"
"I have to have it. Besides," she administered a wicked smirk, "the date is your idea, not mine. I need something to wear."
Luke dragged his feet up the steps. He would rather break into another cloning facility or a Star Destroyer with her than enter that shop; maybe even the date was not worth this agony.
Luke eased his way as inconspicuously as possible into a corner, terrified of upending a display case, and sat glumly on some dainty thing covered in a soft light fabric. He was surrounded by women's stuff; things he had never seen before, delicate things of an unidentified and frilly nature, and a few things he had seen before, but that had always been worn by another, that appeared like magic, only to be discarded a short while later. He never, ever wanted to know from where they came. He stared at the floor, wishing he was anywhere else and afraid he might see something of which he was much happier remaining ignorant.
The clerks all looked, dressed and talked like Dazern Kyle. Mara began ordering them around, talking about sizes, colors, hems, and haws and .... Luke shut his mind, launching into a meditation. He snapped out of it when he felt a foot kicking him.
"So which one?"
"Uhhh, which one what?" Mara was holding two black things on hangers. They had a lot of straps and hanging stuff and did not seem very substantial or practical.
"They're Brovonri originals."
"He's a designer." It was a linguistic problem again; her statement did not add measurably to Luke's understanding. "I lost the ones I had on Corellia," she offered by way of explanation. "Which one do you like better?"
"Uh, are these dresses again?"
"Yes, of course."
"Well, which one costs less?" Luke inspected the dangling tags and thought that it was a mistake, that he was suffering double vision, or that maybe some decimal points or commas were misplaced. He was outraged. "Where's the rest of them?"
Mara furrowed her head in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"That's all you get for that price? The credits themselves will cover more square area than those things will."
"They're great, aren't they? The less there is, the more they cost. Maybe I'll take both."
Skies, she was a Jedi, albeit an unacknowledged one. He wondered if he could talk her into wearing a robe over it. "You can't go out in something like that."
Mara pivoted on her heel. "Carrying concealed weapons is always a problem with Brovonris, but I'm sure I can solve that. I had no idea you were such a prude."
Mara returned to whatever it was she was doing, appearing a short while later, looking immensely pleased and bearing several packages. She tossed him a parcel.
"It's for you. I'll take the cost out of what I owe you. They're so you won't look like you're wearing an older brother's hand-me-downs."
"Huh?" Luke peeked inside, at what seemed to be, well, new clothes. "How do you know, uhh, sizes and things?" He was so articulate. "I mean, I don't even know that stuff."
Mara could be so smug. "A woman just knows these things."
* * *
Luke was ready, had been ready for a while, and was just sitting waiting. The new duds were stiff at the neck and clearly needed to be dragged through the mud of the Yavin jungle and washed a few hundred times before approximating the comfort of his other belongings. He could feel the irritation and rushed preparations next door, and simply did not understand what the issue was. Even if it was a date, which they both knew candidly, it really was not, he did not think Mara would deem him as worth the trouble. And truly, how was it even possible to go on a date with someone you had known for a decade?
He finally caught a gush of satisfaction, and heard, "You ready yet?" Very funny. Luke headed through the unlocked door, and for one disorienting moment, thought he had blundered into the wrong room.
Mara, at least he assumed it was Mara, was standing in the middle of the room, and frowned at his confused entry. That settled it, the strange woman in a black dress that revealed more skin than it covered must be Mara.
Luke whistled appreciatively, reconsidering his former objections. He motioned her with a finger to turn around. There were many new features to consider. She had legs, the slit running three quarters way up the dress confirmed that. She also had a back and arms, visible since nothing covered them. There was also a line of neck exposed because her unruly hair was pulled up into some kind of knot.
Two things mystified him. "How does it stay up?"
She rolled her eyes and turned to permit an inspection. "See? It fastens in the back, at the neck."
"Oh." He scanned her, but unable to answer the second question, finally blurted out, "Where's your blaster?"
She pulled back the skirt slit, baring a long leg and a holster firmly affixed to it. "And no, I don't need any help with it."
He noticed something else. "A lightsaber doesn't really go with that does it?"
Mara fingered the handle clipped at her side, "No, but I figure if anyone asks, I'll tell them it's just a really large tube of Clineek lipstick."
"Never mind Skywalker, it's joke you would never understand."
It was his turn for inspection, Mara circling around him. "Much better. We might even be able to find you a girlfriend sometime."
She reached for her over tunic, but Luke interrupted the gesture. "No, I think I'm supposed to do that." Helping her into it, Luke added, "You still expect a twenty-two and a half percent commission after the killing you made today?"
"You obviously don't know that fundamental rule of trading. What's the only thing better than a lot of money?"
"Very good, for a Jedi."
* * *
Never one to miss the opportunity, at the restaurant, over dinner, Mara began further instruction in dating etiquette, agreeing to do so for free only because Luke had acquitted himself so well during the trading. "Now if this were a real date, we would be sticking to safe, introductory, getting to know you topics, like favorite colors and sports teams."
"Well I don't know any of those things about you, and we've known each for ten years. So what's your favorite color?"
"Nighttime, daytime, bedtime?"
Luke took the provocation in the spirit it was intended. "All three."
"Black, green, white. What about you? Not that Jedi Masters have much to offer in fashion."
Luke shrugged. "Blue I guess. Brown? I don't really know. I bet the Imperials are your favorite smashball team."
"And yours is probably the Alliance. Favorite place?"
"Yavin, I suppose. It's as much a home as any place I've ever had. Coruscant is special of course, because that's where my family is."
Mara shied from the wistfulness that had crept into his voice and what it portended and plunged ahead. "I liked Karrde's compound on Myrkr a lot. It was very pretty there."
"You couldn't reach the Force though."
"Well, at the time, that was part of the attraction. It kept the nightmares away. Favorite book?"
"Ahh, any of the poetry by Sinda Shreverna."
"I heard death's rattle at my door?" she quoted.
"Right. I like some of her romantic things better."
"Why am I not surprised? 'My love comes to me in light shrouded,'" she began.
"Bird wings whispering softly..."
"In the night darkened," Mara finished.
"From the sublime to the ridiculous, what's your favorite holovid?"
"The question is which episode is my favorite," Mara began with malicious glee. "I think I like the one best where you take out the Super Death Star 24 with the never-needs-recharging, law of physics-defying, super ray gun."
The enthusiasm was ghoulish. "You like the ones with high body counts, don't you?"
"Well you probably like the ones with a high babe count."
"Babe?" he hooted. "In the Tales, the 'babe' count is usually reduced to 'body' count in short order. You're going to have to find me a girlfriend with a longer projected life span. In fact, I'm going to insist we put a new clause in the contract to that effect."
Mara was indignant. "I'm not renegotiating. If you can't keep her alive after the second date, that's your problem."
He waggled a piece of silverware at her. "What about a graduated commission scale based upon longevity, the longer she lives, the higher your commission?"
Mara tapped a finger on the table considering. "Maybe, but that means I'd want a bigger cut at the high end."
Luke hardened his features in the perfect semblance of a tough bargainer. "But then you'd have to settle for a lower cut earlier on, say only five percent if she doesn't live the month."
"But 35% if she lasts a year?"
He was getting really good at this, shrugging noncommittedly. "Maybe."
Mara fired back, "Favorite food?"
Luke picked up the wine to refill their glasses. "Anything in a bottle with a high alcohol content."
Mara rested a chin in her hands, starting to see the man across from her in a slightly different light, maybe he could be fun. Still pouring, Luke was not even looking at her, but responded promptly, "I heard that."
She struck his cheek lightly. "Stop eavesdropping."
Luke affected astonishment. "Eavesdropping? Me? As if I would ever need to resort to so low a tactic; everyone in the restaurant heard what you didn't say."
"Ha, ha. Favorite animal?"
"Krayt dragon, of course."
"Why of course?"
"It was the first thing that popped into my head. They're huge, mean and live forever, what's not to like?" Luke waved another piece of silverware at her accusingly. "Now you're going to admit it, I can tell, you like something soft, cute and cuddly."
"I do not," was her prim response. "To the extent I have a favorite animal, it would be a terrarius."
"Terrarius. Four legged domesticated carnivores, about 40 centimeters high, 10 kilos or so. They go down holes to chase vermin, tenacious, they tend to snap first and ask questions later. I suppose they are cute, if you can call anything with sharp teeth and a high pitched yelp cute."
"Why Mara, but for the dimensions, you've just described yourself."
Mara opened her mouth, and then quickly shut it in irritated amazement. Luke thought he was hilarious. "As a rule Skywalker, it's bad form to make fun of your date."
"I'm not making fun of you," Luke quickly contradicted. "I'm teasing you."
"It's a distinction without a difference," she humphed. "People who do either to me usually don't live to see the next day."
"But I'm not like other people." Mara could certainly concur with that egotistical self-assessment.
"And," Luke added sagely, "neither are you."
"What are you rambling about?"
"Just that you are not like other people either. You may have an easier time of it in the real world than I do, but it's hard for you too."
Belying her reflections on that very topic only the day before, Mara awarded him a scornful snort. "You sound like a self-help program Skywalker, favorite season?"
Without hesitation, "Winter."
"Winter? How can you say such a thing?"
"Easy, you know what the summers are like at the Academy. You can imagine what they were like on Tatooine. I like weather, rain, snow."
"Of course," Mara waved a hand in annoyance. "How could I forget your attraction to things snowy and wet? I think I like Spring, pretty much anywhere, new year, new life, new beginnings, and best of all, a new trading season."
"And night is your favorite time of day?"
Mara was quite emphatic. "Nothing can be done during the day that can't be done better in the dark. And some things can only be done in the dead of night. But you wouldn't know that being one of those beastly morning people."
Luke made a point of taking a deep sip of the wine. "I think you might have converted me. Breaking laws is definitely one activity best left to the time when all sensible people are long since in bed."
"This is really about more than simple bedtimes, isn't it?" she demanded.
He started at the challenge. "What do you mean?"
"You've been enjoying this, enjoying what we're doing, what we have been doing: breaking into places; looking for bad guys, drinking wine in a warehouse when what we should be doing is sneaking out as quickly as possible; sticking around in the hope of finding some really dangerous people who would be thrilled to blast us if they could get a clean shot."
Mara had no appreciation of the gravity of her observation. "Is it that obvious?"
"It is to me."
Luke said slowly, carefully, "The Master who taught me after Ben died almost wouldn't take me on because he thought I was too reckless. 'Adventure, excitement, a Jedi craves not these things.'"
"But," she protested, "that's ridiculous. Those things make life worth living."
Luke fingered the etchings on his wine glass. "Maybe, but that's what he would tell me." He traced the rim of the glass. "The problem is, I do crave those things, I always have. Twenty years later, I still do."
Putting an elbow on the table, she offered, "I can't really answer the broader philosophical issues of the wisdom of Jedi passivity. You know my opinions on the subject. But, I can tell you this." She grabbed his wrist and gave it a little shake. "I think this trip has been good for you and I intend to take full credit for it when we get back to Coruscant."
He laughed at the intense satisfaction in her voice.
"Really, I'm serious. It's not just that you've been so morose I've wanted to slap you around and put you on antidepressants."
"Actually you have slapped me around some."
She objected, "Only once and you deserved it," then continued. "It's just that some of your confidence, your willingness to take risks is back. And I think that's a good thing. Those are your more attractive traits. If they are inconsistent with the Jedi Master, than I'm glad you left him back on Yavin."
He was stunned, and responded in a mocking tone. "Why that's probably the nicest the thing you've ever said to me."
Mara took a sip from her glass, gesturing to the bottle, "Blame it on the wine. I call 'em as I see 'em."
"So my best qualities are the ones most antithetical to a Jedi?"
She shook her head. "I don't think those things are necessarily inconsistent with the Jedi Code. Certainly, to some extent your Master was right, but I would qualify it by saying that a Jedi should not act recklessly by seeking out unnecessary or foolish risks. Many risks are worth taking."
"Do you think the key is having the experience to know which ones to take?"
"I hadn't thought of it that way but, yes, that makes sense. Being a Jedi Master must count for something besides the ability to levitate really big rocks." She rested her chin in a rough, cupped hand to gaze at him thoughtfully. "It's like our discussion about going through the belt. It may be one reason why we work well together. Since I," the arch tone of superiority was unmistakable, "have a very well-developed survival instinct, you don't have to stop at just craving danger and adventure..."
Luke interrupted her. "Don't forget excitement, I like that one too."
She grinned and nodded into her hand. "Excitement, whatever. Go ahead, push the limit, walk the edge, take the risk. You've nothing to worry about around me. I won't let you needlessly risk your neck, if it means endangering mine."
With her last statement Luke had leaned in over the table, and now ran a finger up her raised arm to her face, thinking she would not shrug him off, if only to prove that she could withstand the touch. "Do you think we've been taking needless risks here?"
She would not yield, continuing to meet his stare without betraying an iota of what she felt, of what he was certain raged beneath, "No." Then she added in a dangerous whisper, "Not yet."
The arrival of dinner interrupted the standoff, Mara broaching a new topic, "We've done some favorites, how about firsts."
"Well we know first drunks already."
Mara, eyeing the vegetables she had skewered with a fork, came up with one, "Who was your first kill?"
"Stormtrooper, first Death Star." Luke paused to cut the mystery meat on his plate, "You?"
"Assassination of a Senator. It was my graduation test." After swallowing a mouthful of salad, she added, "I got to keep the blaster."
"Really? All I got for graduation was a new pair of macrobinoculars. What kind of blaster?"
"Small hold out of course. I've still got it. The sight's gone, trigger's almost worn off, but it was a great blaster."
Luke had to blow lightly on the scalding, starchy grain that came with dinner, "I lost my favorite blaster on Bespin. And haven't really used one much since. Spent most of the rest of the war in the X Wing or using the light saber."
"When was your first kill with the light saber?"
Luke said between bites, "On Jabba's barge. You really didn't use one much until Wayland did you?"
"No, but I did pretty well for a beginner."
He laughed at her flip, proud remark. "What was your first air fight?"
"I was the gunner on a highly modified freighter. Part of an operation to infiltrate a rebel cell on Nar Shaddaa." She stopped to thoughtfully chew her entree before continuing. "Bad luck really, we bumped into a Rebellion convoy, small squad escorting a transport. Took them all out. What about you?"
Luke moved the food around on his plate, it was nice to have something not from a ship galley. "First Death Star again. Gunner on the Falcon, blew up some TIE's. Did you ever fly those old TIE's?"
She nodded, "Oh sure. Did you?"
"Once. After Bakura. Felt like I was hurtling through space in just an enviro suit."
"That's what made them so great," Mara injected enthusiastically. "But since you only flew those things with shields and oxygen, you wouldn't know that."
"The only prerequisite training a TIE pilot needed was a death wish. I never saw one that could have handled a ..."
Through the remainder of the meal they launched into an animated and hyper technical discussion of the design specifications of old TIE's and X, Y, A and B Wings, agreeing with much complaining that the next generation X Wings had seemingly retained none of the good qualities of the older craft and all of the bad, and disagreeing vociferously as to the relative merits of the Sienar, Incom, Kuat and Corellian ship designers.
After the meal was cleared they began redesigning an X Wing on the table cloth, making the waiter very nervous that the bold strokes of ink used were likely indelible. The restaurant staff began swinging by surreptitiously to listen in on the bizarre couple at table 10 who were either speaking some strange form of Basic never heard in Tirgu before, or were completely insane.
They both had never enjoyed a date more. Mara wanted the waiter to fold up the table cloth so she could take it with them. "Seriously Skywalker, if trading doesn't work out, we could go into ship design. I'd make a fortune, and I'd even give you a cut."
"Aren't we getting greedy for an ascetic? It depends on how much capital I would have to put in up front."
"All right, I have to ask, just how much are you worth?"
Mara snorted, "I'm not telling you that."
"Oh come on," he cajoled, "I won't tell anybody, Jedi honor."
"I thought the Jedi Master was back on Yavin," she observed suspiciously.
"I could get him back here."
"No!" Mara almost upset her wine glass in amused horror. "Leave him there. Only fun people allowed here."
Luke pounced. "Ah ha! You admit it. I am fun."
Mara buried her head on her arm. "Damn, damn, damn. Trapped again," then raised her eyes, brightening. "Does this mean we can leave now?"
"No. The evening is still young for us nocturnal creatures. So how much did you make last year?"
Mara guffawed at the impudent persistence. "There are a lot of things I'd tell you Skywalker, before I'd tell you something like that."
Luke mulled the possibilities. "First love?" Mara groaned. "Either that, or how much you made last year."
She groaned again. "All right, but you go first."
Luke replied smartly, "I didn't make anything last year, I'm a ward of the New Republic treasury."
Mara picked up a knife and waved it menacingly. "The other one you addle brained..."
"No sense of humor at all Mara. But just to prove I'm honorable, even if the Master is still meditating on a log in the jungle, I'll answer the other first too. First love?" Luke pretended a dreamy sigh, "I was nine years old, and madly in love with my teacher. She was gorgeous. And I'll just bet your first crush was some older military type in the court, or maybe a pilot."
"You'd be wrong."
"Who then?" Luke queried, sincerely intrigued, then catching her drift, affected mock horror. "NO!!! Really? Mara, I'm shocked."
"Scandalous, isn't it?"
"It's like I told you before. Cute, dumb, real uncomplicated. And a girl just can't say no to a man in armor."
"I bet it was the possibility of qualifying with a stormtrooper rifle."
"You'd be right. I was barely eighteen. Met him on a mission..." Abruptly she halted, the smile fading to a creased, pained frown.
Luke caught a breath of the bittersweetness of the memory for her. He said quietly into the lull that hung, "Palpatine spoiled it for you didn't he?"
"Let's just say it didn't end happily," she said sullenly. Abandoning the dinner fork she had begun to grind into the table, Mara signaled a return to safer ground with an abrupt about face. "How about first kiss?"
Feeling somewhat chastened for his unwitting blunder into Mara's personal minefield, he opted to obey her warning to proceed no further and let the rare moment pass. "At age ten I stole a kiss from Jenin Mur." Luke sported another vacant, faraway look. "She was gorgeous too."
"At the tender age of eleven, the very handsome Captain Whartil kissed me right here." Mara tapped the middle of her forehead. "I almost swooned, right in the Emperor's audience chamber."
"We probably know what the worst moments of our lives were, what about the happiest?" Luke asked.
The pause that followed indicated merely careful thought this time. "The first time I took the Jade's Fire, my very own ship into hyperspace, that was great," Mara gushed. "The first deal I closed as a Master Trader. Those rank up there."
These strange priorities no longer mystified him; Luke now understood that such things were important to Mara because a hard life had left her so little.
"What about you?"
Luke would never forget it. "When I found Callista in the escape pod."
"I thought that's probably what you would say," Mara said quietly. "I..." she trailed off, the silence jolting Luke out of his reverie, "What?"
Mara bit her lip, then reached over, placing a hand over his, "I've never told you, but Luke, I am sorry. About Callista I mean. I didn't like her, I still don't. But, she made you happy, and I'm sorry it didn't work out." She withdrew her hand, suddenly awkward. For Mara, it was an extraordinary speech.
"It's probably bad form for me to reminisce about old girlfriends on a date."
"Others might not understand," Mara agreed. She looked around at the other tables, at the couples who still believed in sentiment and futures together bright with promise and romance. They both caught wisps of the tender feelings wafting through the room.
Luke said softly, silently to her, "But we're not like the others are we?"
She hesitated, apparently loath to make such a concession, but then said aloud, "No, I guess we're not."
In thinking of the people they had met the last two days, Luke understood that it was not only the Force that separated him and Mara from others. Speaking the thought, he said, "We both have paid heavy prices for what we are today."
Mara nodded, but then gestured to the table cloth with the ship design. "It has its rewards too."
Luke jumped slightly as the lights abruptly dimmed. "They're not kicking us out already are they?"
Mara laughed at his naivete. "No, music's starting. It's just recordings tonight." She pointed to the darkened staging area.
"That means dancing out there then, right?"
"Well actually we usually start on the tables, and take it from there."
Luke protested. "Don't make fun of me, I'm new to this sort of thing."
Mara gave him a tart and deserved rejoinder, "I'm not making fun of you, I'm teasing you."
As couples began crowding onto the floor, she stood. "Now's your chance to skip out."
"Nope. I'll just try not to injure you." Luke rose as well, hesitating, slightly disconcerted. "Uhh, one thing, where am I supposed to put ahh..." He lightly pressed her bare back and then withdrew his hand again.
She snickered at his discomfiture. "Where you always have. What, afraid you can't handle it?"
"We Gamorreans just want to ask first, that's all."
Luke was astonished that he actually recognized the 4/4 time for a vulpen trot. He was further amazed that he managed to make it across the floor once without treading on Mara or the other patrons.
Mara smiled encouragingly. "Remarkable what latent skills a Jedi farm boy harbors."
In making their first turn, Mara shifted and he alighted on something he had not noticed before. He moved his hand slightly down her right side. "What's that?"
"Vibro knife scar. Got it in a bar fight."
As another couple jostled into them, Luke commented critically, "They're not keeping their zone."
With a glance at the exuberant pair, Mara observed, "I suspect they have no interest in maintaining their distance."
Luke led her through a smooth turn, bringing Mara to certain obvious and wanting comparisons, "I guess I didn't tell you. Dran tried a line I hadn't heard before, he wanted to show me his knife scar. I thought showing him mine would shut him up."
Luke was actually very pleased that he was able to talk and not be constantly repeating to himself, side step glide. "Did it?"
"Never showed him, I got distracted."
"By what? His scintillating conversation?"
Another glide, and then a turn. "No. I started wondering where your scars were."
"Now that's really degenerate."
"It is, isn't it? I've always maintained scars tell you a lot about where a person's been, what he's done."
With another step at the downbeat, Luke was both wondering where they were headed, and encouraged with the direction. "Well I certainly have my share."
"I'm burning with curiosity."
"Face, legs and back are the worse ones."
"Where'd you get them?"
"Hoth, Bakura, the Eye and Pydyr. Few training scars, oh and apart from losing the arm, I got banged up pretty badly on Bespin."
Mara said sympathetically as they turned back to traverse the diagonal, "Well jumping off a platform down an exhaust shaft will do that to a body."
"Oh and on Dathomir, I took a hit to the face again."
Mara moved slightly closer to examine his face, edging into his "zone" for as good an inspection as the dim lighting and proper dancing form permitted. "Why do I get the feeling that some people just don't like your looks?"
"I almost died there, too."
"Tell me more."
Brushing too close to the stage, Luke guided her back into the center. "One of the witches blasted me. I ended up in a gully with major head injuries."
"What about with Palpatine?"
"This is really a macabre fantasy of yours isn't it?"
"This coming from a man who likes women in reptile skins or sopping wet and covered with feathers?"
Luke migrated slightly into Mara's zone. "I'm reconsidering. I've decided that a woman in black or covered with dirt and grass stains has a lot of appeal too."
Mara returned them to proper style with a "Ha! We'll be sure to add that to your lonely heart ad then. So what did Palpatine do?"
They were buffeted by another couple, possessing of greater youthful ardor and less skill. "No physical scars, but he did almost electrocute me, and caused massive calcification of my skeletal structure."
Mara ogled with gusto, "I love it when you talk about mangled body parts."
Thinking this was the oddest titillation he had ever encountered, Luke racked his brain further. "And someone tried to kill me on Bakura with a parasite that almost ate my heart and lungs."
"Now that's disgusting."
Sufficiently encouraged, Luke decided to take Mara's earlier advice about pushing a limit, and on the turn, slid his hand back to her scar. "So how far down does this one go?"
The mocking reprimand died in her throat. For a moment he thought he had caused Mara's abrupt tensing, but the anxiety flowing through her was far out of proportion to their not-so-casual, highly charged banter. "What is it?"
She brought a deceptively languid arm around his neck, bringing his head down to whisper, "Move toward the back, we've got company." They danced into the darker recesses of the floor, Mara subtlety turning them so that her back was to the audience and restaurant. "Keep your head low," she muttered. "They'll recognize you too. Over my right shoulder, couple just seated, two tables from ours, see them?"
Luke, feigning an interest in Mara's neck and ear, cautiously raised his eyes. In the dimness he saw seated at a table, a stern older man and a woman with a harsh face. Although in civilian clothing, both he realized, had a distinctive military carriage. It was the hair though that told him all he needed to know. He buried his head again at Mara's ear. "Admiral Daala, who's the man?"
"She's not an Admiral anymore. The man is Admiral Pellaeon, once Thrawn's second in command. She relinquished her command to him after the assault on Yavin five years ago."
Now it was Luke's turn to tense at the memory of what that attack had cost him personally. He felt a sympathetic swell from Mara, and muttered in a hard voice, "Just another bit of irony. Next time, we let NRI do their own work, and save ourselves the trouble of all these chance encounters with old friends."
Mara grimaced slightly. "Unless this is a terrific coincidence, I'd say we just discovered who is making Irek's purchasing decisions. You sure know how to show a woman a good time Skywalker. I may have to reconsider my opinion of you."
They moved closer together in the dim confines behind the stage, a false vision of intimacy, and conferred on strategy. "What's the chance they recognize you Mara?"
"I've never met Daala. But Pellaeon and Thrawn had the nerve to put a bounty on me. I'm still annoyed about it. And unlike others here, they know the actor from the genuine article. I'd say they have a real personal grudge against you."
Luke opened carefully to the Force, sensing some strong emotions among the couples in the dark restaurant, but nothing of a suspicious air. "They haven't recognized us yet. Can you hear what they are saying?"
He felt her carefully focus on the table across the room, wary as he was of using the Force and possibly alerting others. She shook her head fractionally. "They're too far, if I rely too much on the Force . . ."
"No that's right, there may be other sensitives here, and Irek could still be around. I'd lay odds though, they're up to their eyes in this." An idea took shape in Luke's mind. "If we were back at our table, do you think you could eavesdrop without attracting too much attention?"
Mara narrowed her eyes. "Sure, but it'd be crazy to get that close to them."
"Not necessarily. If you concentrate on what they're saying, I could alter us just enough that we wouldn't be recognized."
"Is it worth the risk? If you draw that heavily on the Force, someone's going to notice."
He shook his head, again sensing the temper of the room. "I don't think it will take that much. Look around, you can feel what's going on in here."
She hesitated, then nodded.
"I'll just tap into that emotion, channel it, extend it to create an illusion that includes us. I've done it before. It's so dark in here, I won't even need to make us that different, I'll just blur us enough so that we blend in with everything else."
Mara was skeptical on several fronts. "Irek might still show up. Even a Force sensitive Verratan could make this real uncomfortable real quick. Do you think you can do it without anyone noticing?"
"I think so, but be sure to scope out the exits if we have to leave in a hurry."
"That's not very reassuring. And . . ."
It took Luke a moment to recognize the emotion stemming from Mara; embarrassment was so rare for her. "What?"
"Not to get too personal, but you do recognize the predominate feelings in here, don't you? You sure you know what you're doing?"
He said patiently, and slightly amused, "Yes Mara, I do. You take care of listening into them, I can handle the rest."
Their plotting had lasted through almost a complete set. With the completion of the dance, they began moving out of the shadows, heads down and together, returning slowly to their table. Luke let Mara guide, concentrating instead on letting the emotional tide of the room wash over them, creating a blurred tableau indistinguishable from that of the other couples in the darkened, close restaurant. Force sensitivity was not necessary to divine what all but a very few people in the room were thinking and feeling, and it was these feelings Luke manipulated to craft the illusion encompassing the two of them. It was easier even then physically altering their appearance, relying instead on the rudimentary trick magic so often is of simply creating an image of what was expected and assumed.
They returned to their table without so much as a glance from the nearby Imperials. Mara muttered "So far so good," as Luke brought his chair next to hers.
They sat, knee to knee, hunched over the table, as if in a quiet conference, Mara leaning forward and Luke snaking an arm around the back of her chair. Head bent, Mara directed a narrow sliver of the Force two tables away, and began a running, whispered commentary into his ear. "They're trying to decide what to order, and their using their first names. He's having wine, and she's haaaaving, uh can't decide. No, she's having tolinka."
"Well, she can't be all bad then can she?"
"They're talking about the menu. They're not eating, just drinking."
"I like them more already."
"Sounds like they haven't seen each other in a day or so. She wants to know where His Highness went and that oh, a very unladylike description of Roganda."
"I hope the rough language doesn't offend you," Luke quipped.
Mara seemed gleeful. "We are so smart Skywalker, Pellaeon sounds really sick of them, but just said you can't have an Empire without an Emperor. He's a little worried about Roganda, and Irek is becoming more unpredictable because of his drug use." A question mark punctuated her last sentence.
Luke muttered affirmatively, "Leia said as much. So we have a Dark Side, untrained, immature, spoiled, Force user who is also an addict."
"Funny," she whispered, "Pellaeon said almost the same thing." He caught a glimmer of mischief. "Maybe we should just join them, since we all think so much alike?"
"Keep talking Mara."
"Blah, blah, blah, something about Force users. Until they find something better, Irek will have to do. Pellaeon is such a reflective man, just said that they are meant to lead and serve, not to rule."
"She's interrupting his philosophical ruminations, asks again, where'd Irek go. He says Irek left this morning to bring another ship in." Luke felt her anxious start. "He also says he wanted Irek out of here because I'm here." Mara glanced up, furtive and worried, "He's the one who went to check out my cargo. Says I'm a legitimate trader but probably also an NRI spy?"
"Your reputation is ruined."
Mara bent her ear again. "Skywalker this is hilarious, she just asked whether they've figured out if you are really with me. Maybe we suggest they just look two tables over?" She was such a character.
"Daala has some very unflattering things to say about you. Such a mouth. I don't think Pellaeon likes her very much."
"Neither do I."
"Pellaeon's really quite intelligent. He thinks that you are here." Mara sobered, abruptly serious. "I don't like this at all. Their intelligence is very good. They intercepted part of the message I got from Solo, and know that I promised to go to Yavin. He thinks that means you must be here, even if everyone thinks Luke Skywalker looks like that actor on the holovid. Pellaeon knows better."
"I had no idea that vid would be so useful."
"They are confused about why we're here. Arguing." Luke could feel a slight rise in the emotional temper from that table. "He says it doesn't make sense. If NRI suspected something was going on here and sent it's most dangerous team.... This is great, he's talking about us!! I'm so flattered. Are you flattered?"
"Very." She grinned briefly before turning her ear back to the conversation.
"Blah, blah, blah, oh, hear we go again, he thinks we must have been sent to rescue Borkin."
"Well that's an astute guess."
"But that's why Pellaeon's so confused. He thinks we must know what is going on because otherwise NRI wouldn't waste us to extract a third rate agent like Borkin. But if that's the case, if it's so serious, he wants to know why we aren't going undercover. He's not sure what to make of it."
"He's thinking too hard."
"That's what Daala just said. I know you two really have a lot in common. She thinks he's being very obtuse. Everyone knows..." She ceased the commentary with a curse.
"What, what did she say?"
Mara glanced up, biting a lip with apprehension, locking eyes with him. "She says your being here is more a coincidence than an NRI plan. She says NRI wouldn't have deliberately sent Skywalker because everyone knows he lost his nerve after that Jedi woman left him."
First Irek, and now this. The knot of anger tightly balled within him roiled momentarily before Luke quelled it. What they were doing was too important to jeopardize with misplaced ego. Putting a hand over hers, Luke gave Mara a squeeze and a wink. "Looks like they're wrong." She twitched a smile before bending her head again to listen.
Focusing on anything except the insult Daala had leveled, Luke fastened instead on the illusion, on the emotional tide in the room, on Mara, on how a tendril of her wavy hair was wrapped around her dangling left earring. For him, maintaining the blurred confusion of their features was easy. What made the game with the Imperials only two tables away so interesting was tapping into and manipulating the strong emotions around them to create the effect.
It was not anything so juvenile as being swept along in the passions of others. After decades of practice and control it was far easier for such emotion to pass right by him, then to actually indulge in it himself. But, recalling again Mara's words about limits and risks, Luke speculated that maybe it was time to risk testing those limits.
Mara continued her monologue. "Oh, this is amusing."
He leaned closer to her and idly began fingering the earring, whispering, "What is?"
"They're arguing about whether we are lovers."
"Seems their intelligence sources have given them conflicting reports."
"I can imagine." Luke was examining the line of her neck from ear to collar bone. Her skin was lightly freckled and looked very inviting.
Unaware of the scrutiny, Mara continued, "She says no," then swore again in his defense. "Daala says that you've been pining for that Jedi."
Pining away? Lost his nerve? Luke didn't think so, certainly right now Callista was the last thing on his mind. At the moment, Luke was not really thinking of much else except the illusion of intimacy between himself and the very compelling woman next to him, and that maybe it was not such an illusion after all.
"Pellaeon's not sure, thinks that," Mara flinched, cutting off her narration with a hissed, "What are you doing?" as Luke dropped his hand to stroke her bare back.
He bent over her slim shoulder, grazing it with a kiss before finding her ear, "Adding some verisimilitude, we'll blend in better."
She tried pulling away slightly, but it only offered a more appealing expanse of neck to cover. "Can't you do this with a little less realism? I'm trying to concentrate."
He began nuzzling her ear. "Think of it as a split concentration exercise. What are they saying?" Luke asked, before beginning to travel along her neck.
Mara bent her head again, muttering angrily, "I've lost the thread of it . . . Ahh, okay, Daala's mad that they didn't kill Borkin and Kyle right away. Would mean less risk now that we're here, and Borkin has been too stupid and stubborn to be of any use."
Luke brought his hand to the nape of her neck, caressing each tense muscle and vertebrae on the way down. He could feel her skin prickle with the touch.
"This sounds like an old argument between them. Pellaeon says they couldn't kill Kyle because they needed the family's cooperation with the Exchange."
Luke sought Mara's ear again, whispering, "That makes sense, I'd wondered why they hadn't gone after her." Having traversed down, his hand moved over to her right side, finding the beginning of her scar, and thinking he'd like to locate its end later. With her barely suppressed a tremor, he knew Mara had also heard his thought.
"Pellaeon says Borkin has been useful for Irek. Calls Borkin another toy for his Highness. He hasn't let Irek completely lose on him yet, but is reconsidering, thinks with us showing up, Daala may be right and it's too dangerous to keep Borkin around."
Luke's voice was harsh even if the fingers counting each rib up Mara's side were gentle. "Then we've got to get him out of there."
Inclining her head in a nod provided another opportunity for a kiss at the base of her neck. Under his lips and fingers he could feel the tension. She was at once both resisting and leaning into him. She was such a clever liar, but just wasn't very good at lying to him.
"Pellaeon said Irek will be returning in a few hours with another shipment. Irek's going to take Borkin and head back out until we're gone."
"We'll have to break him out tonight then. Keep listening, we need to find out what they have in mind for us. I can't believe they are just going to let us walk out of here." Under the flat of his hand he felt a shudder of -- anger? Certainly. What else was aroused made the continuation of his roaming explorations worth the hazards of her temper.
"Daala is talking about their recent purchases. Wondering whether they have enough for another Interdictor." She asked almost absently, "I don't even remember seeing an Interdictor."
"I don't either." Having surveyed her back and side, Luke traced a forefinger down the underside of her arm. The action merited a hostile glare on the one hand and a sensitive quiver on the other that was a far more reliable indicator than the glare. He realized Mara had needed this face saving demonstration of token resistance. He had given her an excuse to say yes, and a means of saying no. If she had been truly unwilling, she would have resorted to the tableware. They craved the same things and Mara was savoring the thrill as much as he was. He shrugged, whispering back, "Gotta make this realistic."
"She says she doesn't think the scam's going to be able to continue much longer, and with us here, they may pull it up altogether. She wants to put a tail on us."
"That's a really dumb idea."
"Pellaeon thinks so too."
Glancing up from another kiss he had planted on her shoulder, Luke caught the interest and confusion of an observing Verratan waiter in the restaurant. The man was looking first at him and at Mara, and then at Daala and Pellaeon two tables away. He found Mara's ear again. "We are starting to attract some attention, we may not have much more time."
"Pellaeon thinks we're getting ready to boost. Ahh, he's put a prijgin watch on the ship," she swore. "Daala wants to know if they can use some of their new hardware."
Stroking along the delicate line where the edge of her dress met warming skin, Luke felt her shudder under his touch as she relayed, "Pellaeon agrees. He doesn't want anything suspicious to happen planetside. He says we'll be easier targets once we're up."
Mara turned her head to face him, and raising an arm, wrapped her fingers hard about the back of his neck. "He says we're going to make a fatal navigational error in the belt." Twined with him, Mara paused, closing her eyes, quieting breathing that had become shallow and quick.
The heady experience was having a dizzying effect on him as well. For a shattering split second, Luke considered wildly the advisability of violating public decency laws in the middle of a crowded restaurant. A measure of controlled intensity returning, he sensed again the renewed interest of the waiter and the man's tentative Force probe. Time was running out. Cupping Mara's face in both hands, he kissed her temple, the tops of lidded eyes, asking softly, "What are they talking about now?"
Through a shivering sigh, she murmured, "He hopes we try to rescue Borkin and take Kyle with us. Pellaeon says they might even get lucky and hit us at the port; but that it won't matter. Nothing fancy this time, just blow us out of the sky."
Luke tilted her head down, whispering, "We need to go, have to find Kyle, get Borkin out, and I'm getting worried about the waiter.
Opening her eyes, Mara took in the waiter with a glance and nodded toward an exit behind the stage. "Back door?"
They left credits on the table, and arm in arm, eased their way slowly across the dance floor, Mara continuing a quiet monologue about armaments and hardware. Once behind the stage, Luke dropped the illusion, and they slipped out the door.
The back door led directly into the opened end of the kitchen's large, odorous trash dumpster parked in the darkened alley behind the restaurant. Littered with slippery squished food stuffs, bursting trash bags, and broken bottles, it was, to Luke's mind, the absolutely fitting conclusion to their bizarre dance. Stumbling behind Mara into the dumpster, Luke snagged her about the arms, bringing her around, determined to resolve, at last, what it had taken them ten years to reach.
Mara, however, had a different agenda. She flew at him, letting lose the rage she had dared not betray before, slamming him into the rough hewn side of the dumpster. As she pinned his shoulder to the wall, Luke caught her at the waist, holding her at bay.
"What the hell were you trying to pull?" Her voice was low, intense. "Split concentration exercises?" Mara delivered another rough jab. "Adding verisimilitude?" She smacked him against the side of the dumpster again. "What kind of an idiot are you? I never would have thought you to be the sort to play it so close to the edge Skywalker."
"You thought you were the only who likes it dangerously? You just bring it out in me."
She nodded, receiving some anticipated confirmation in his answer. "I thought there were certain lines we weren't going to cross." Mara leveled another aggressive shove, driving him back. "I thought," she growled through clenched teeth, "we had an agreement."
He tried drawing her closer, "I decided to alter the contract."
Mara halted the advance, locking her right arm at his shoulder, then tightening her hand to a bloodletting grip. "As a rule, I don't reopen bargaining on a finished contract. What's happened to that Jedi Master constancy?"
Even if he had not expected tender capitulation, he had not necessarily expected to lose his other arm either. "You got what you wanted Mara. The Master's back on Yavin. It's your call. Play it safe with him, or take the risk with whatever is left."
"Clever of you to blame me."
Again Luke sought to narrow the distance between them but Mara held him back, snapping, "Don't rush me."
He contented himself with sliding his hands up her taut sides, sensing her subtle quickening to even that simple gesture. He knew that the line between anger and passion would be a very fine one; Luke was relieved he had finally found the right buttons; the wrong ones had very painful consequences.
Mara bent her arm slightly, leaning in to study his face. "If we're going to renegotiate, I want to get it right. Despite what you thought on the ship, there are still a few things we haven't done."
"There are? Like what?"
He should have known better than to try to disconcert her. Mara planted a breathtaking image in his mind; it was swiftly followed by an equally outrageous one directed into hers.
Mara shook her head with annoyance. "Cut it out, we're getting ahead ourselves here." Her right arm still rigid, she bent it further, allowing him to narrow the magnetic space that separated them. With her free left hand Mara began tracing his profile, saying softly, "You should have learned this by now Skywalker. Like so many other things, you have to lay the right groundwork, master the basics, before moving to more advanced things."
Luke brought his palms up, flat against her supple back, feeling her muscles tense as he leaned her forward. "We've had a decade of groundwork. Are you planning to wait another ten years?"
She stared into him with a fierce, possessive gaze, resisting to the last, still holding the slick, electric distance between them. "I'm not going to start something I'm not prepared to finish." Her free hand began traveling, exploring with a light, sure touch, then moving on, her eyes never leaving his, and not apparently finding the answer she had sought there.
She hesitated, suspended, frowning.
"What is it Master Trader?" He took a secure hold of her, his fingers skimming the light fabric of her dress over creamy skin, knowing to the heartbeat what she was feeling. "Going to try to convince me you don't want to renegotiate?"
Her eyes narrowed with a dangerous gleam. "Do you think that's what makes me hesitate, Jedi? That's not it at all." Mara deliberately administered a searing caress, smiling slightly at the sighing reaction she provoked. "See?"
Her eyes closed, breath fluttering with his retaliatory response. "I will renegotiate," she shifted slightly under his hands to enhance the sensation, "when I can get a better bargain." She opened her eyes to burrow into his own. "No, Jedi, I am just wondering if you're really going to be able to close the deal."
She edged closer, only the tension that attracted and repelled separating them. "You know the only thing I like better than a good contract?"
Mara abruptly dropped her arm's length barrier. She fell forward, into his arms, tilting her head to accept his challenge and the triumphant kiss that sealed the bargain.