Luke collapsed into the chair across from Wedge's desk with a weary sigh.
Wedge looked up, secretly glad to have an excuse to avoid the expense reports. He raised an eyebrow. "Aren't you supposed to be packing?"
"I finished," Luke said morosely. He leaned against Wedge's desk, folding his arms and resting his chin on top of them with a sulky sigh. He looked up at Wedge morosely through his long blond eyelashes. "And now I don't have any excuse not to go."
Wedge felt a rush of affection for Luke. He was so serious these days, spending so much energy running a Jedi Academy in a way that honored the best of the old traditions while avoiding the worst of the corruption. He so rarely let himself get petulant. Wedge couldn't help but feel a certain possessive joy that Luke let himself be a little less mature around Wedge. "You could cancel," he offered.
"No," Luke sighed, turning so his forehead was resting on his arms, his words becoming muffled as he pointed them toward the desk. "I know it's important. But…" Luke lifted his head again, wrinkling his nose. "I'm going to be in tunnels. Stooped over and half blind for weeks."
"You could invite the matriarchs here?" Wedge gestured around the office.
Luke snorted. "Yeah, that'd be real politic. An underground civilization that's managed to hide out for centuries decides to make contact with a willingness to share their totally unstudied Force traditions and I make them come to me?"
"Well then," Wedge said solemnly, "I guess you're going to need to learn to enjoy tunnels."
"Ugh. I'll do my best," said Luke, standing from the chair and giving Wedge a fond smile. He made a small 'up' gesture with his hands. "Come on, I'll be out of comm range for at least a month. I demand a hug."
Wedge stood up and circled around the desk. Luke folded himself into Wedge's arms easily. Wedge closed his eyes and leaned his cheek against Luke's, enjoying having another body close. Not that this was a particularly rare occurrence. Once he knew you were alright with touch, Luke was definitely a huggy sort.
Wedge wondered if this was why he had never really dated, after he had broken up with Luke.
After their parting, both of them had been hurting and content to stay clear of each other. That lasted a few weeks, before Luke hunted Wedge down with the frustrated question of why?
Wedge could barely put it into words, but Luke was patient, and gradually they had found the truth. Luke vanishing during the Echo Base evacuation had been heartrending, and learning he had decided to stay away felt like a betrayal. Luke was choosing being a Jedi over the cause of the Rebellion, and that was a path Wedge couldn't follow as a lover. Maybe, though, it was one he could support as a friend. Luke had thrown himself into rebuilding their friendship, Wedge had followed his lead, and with it returned the casual affection.
That was probably a piece of it. A larger portion was probably the fact that, despite his best hopes, he had never really fallen out of love with Luke Skywalker. No room for anyone else.
Wedge pulled back, squeezing Luke's shoulders. "Learn everything you can. It's a good opportunity."
"I know," Luke sighed.
"And mind your forehead," Wedge reached up and rapped his knuckles against Luke's skull.
Luke laughed, snorting as he ducked away from Wedge's hands. He sighed, and straightened, falling back into the old Jedi Master dignity—shoulders back, chin up, a sort of gentle sadness on his face. Wedge had never liked that particular transformation.
"Take care of things here?" Luke asked.
"Always." Wedge waited until Luke left, then sighed and went back to his budget balancing.
A figured darkened the doorway to Wedge's office. It cleared its throat, and with a reluctant sigh, he looked up. Normally he was happy to have an excuse to escape the scrolling rows of numbers. But right now, the only emotion he managed to summon was annoyance.
"Luke's not here," Wedge said briskly, then turned back to his datapad.
A moment later, a hand reached over the top and covered the screen. Graceful long fingers drummed short blunted nails against the datapad. With an internal sigh, Wedge traced the line of that hand up along the arm (slim-fitting jacket sleeve hiding the muscle Wedge knew was underneath), to the grim face of Mara Jade.
"I know," Mara said bluntly. "I also know where he is—and it's not on Zepxa Under."
Wedge stiffened. Luke's visit to Zepxa’s hidden tunnel-dwelling civilization wasn't supposed to be particularly dangerous, but it was extremely secret. Luke had been comms-silent since he left, two weeks ago.
Wedge set down his datapad and gave Mara a wary look. "What do you know?"
"Karrde was in-system, delivering some navigation route information to Zepxan merchants—the aboveground ones. We found Luke's ship. Massive hole in the side of it. Open to the black."
Wedge felt suddenly lightheaded, could feel his heart pounding as he forced out the words, "And Luke is…?"
She wouldn't have lead him on like this if Luke were dead. Even she wasn't that cruel.
"He wasn't anywhere on board. We were able to pull the ship’s sensor data. And...here." Mara cleared some of the ever-present detritus of administration off of Wedge's desk and revealed the desk's built-in holoprojector. She fiddled, plugging in a small datastick, and a holorecording showing three fuzzy ships sprang up.
Wedge tilted his head, examining the image, forcing himself to not spend useless time panicking. Work the problem. That was the way forward. "I don't recognize the make. If we run it against an ID database…"
"No need," Mara said brusquely, and Wedge had to fight down an irrational surge of irritation when she flicked away from that feed, rolling through the input streams until the internal cameras were showing. "Look familiar?"
"No," Wedge huffed in disbelief, staring at the stylized black masks in irritation. "I mean, yes, but...no! The Order of the True Chosen? Really?"
Mara shrugged one shoulder. "Looks like. If it makes you feel better, we didn't realize they had this sort of firepower either."
Wedge rubbed the back of his head. "We figured they were strange, Vader-obsessed fanatics. Annoying, popular with the conspiracy-theorist section of the holonet, not…"
"Well, it looks like about two dozen of those fanatics banded together and managed to kidnap Lord Vader's son."
"How would they have even known?" Wedge asked, glaring at the paused images of the fanatics. Then he blinked, looking over at Mara. "How do you know?"
"Luke told me."
"Of course he did," Wedge couldn't help but say. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I don't think he told them."
"No. But looking at the founding members…I know some of those names. Vader's inner circle, as much as the man had one. It's reasonable that they'd know."
"Wonderful." Wedge looked at the timestamp. "Almost two weeks. He's been gone—" Wedge took a slow steady breath, keeping his emotions in check. Going into a panic wouldn't help anyone right now. "Any news?"
"We traced the hyperspace signatures. Pretty sure we've found their homebase. There hasn't been any chatter in or out. He might—" Mara cut herself off. To Wedge's surprise, something pained flashing over her features before she continued, "I don't know what state he's in now."
Wedge gave a nod. "Thank you for bringing this to me. I'll get a team together."
Mara made a negating gesture, back to business, that quick flash of emotion buried again. "I'm going. I could use a pilot. But there are some…unique terrain features. No way we're getting a team in there. Not in time to do any good."
Wedge sighed. Mara had a nasty habit of keeping information to herself, only doling it out when it benefited her. Strategic, he supposed, but it made conversations a nightmare. That was part of the reason he always let Luke handle her whenever she was around.
The other part had to do with the way Luke looked at her, and the miserable, twisted-up way that made Wedge's gut feel.
But that wasn't relevant at the moment. Ever. He shoved that down and forced himself to focus, asking, "And those features are?"
"The Order of the True Chosen decided to sink their base right in the middle of the most nightmarish approach known to man."
"Other side of the Kessel Run?" Wedge asked, half-hoping for an excuse to take a crack at the thing.
"Worse," Mara said, her lip curling up in disgust. "Caiia Three."
Wedge stared down at the planet. It was a writhing mass of sickly brown-green clouds, churning and swirling in the high winds that cloaked the sphere. It was barely habitable, a handful of mostly-stable hurricane-eyes the only landing sites on the planet. And the Order's base didn't even have the decency to be attached to one of those.
If it had, Wedge could have taken a light freighter in with an entire squadron. He could have dove between the deadly clouds fast enough that no one would see him coming, landed troops and had Luke out in a matter of hours. But no, the base was hidden in a biodome well away from any landing sites, which meant that a more roundabout approach was needed.
"Here we go," Wedge muttered.
"This is the easy part," Mara retorted.
Wedge threw the ship into a dive. It was a graceful little shuttle and it was easy to avoid the sides of the churning storm. Still, there was still something profoundly disturbing about diving straight down into a wind-tunnel, death waiting if he drifted too far to one side. The force of the wind at this speed would likely sheer any shuttle's wings straight off, sucking them into the tumbling storm.
They flew down, down, and by the time Wedge reached the edge of the sealed permaglass biodome below the storm, he couldn't help but feel like the walls were closing in on him. The clouds felt choking, the stars were too far away.
"Save your stress," Mara said, giving him a sideways look. "That was the easy part."
Wedge rolled his shoulders, trying to shake the creeping dread. "I know. It was hard enough flying next to the storm. Trust that I'm not looking forward to flying through it."
That was the problem with where the Order's base was. The only reasonable approach was through the planet's gravtube network, an underground network of high-speed travel that linked the large port biodomes with those not fortunate enough to be connected to a storm exit.
Karrde's team of agents had successfully tracked the Order up until the trail lead to a gravtube that dead-ended in a remote biodome, listed on the map as a small farming operation. It would have been suicide for the team to go further. The Order would see them coming, and one therma-sanitation cycle later, any infiltration team would have been nothing more than very clean ash.
Unfortunately, the same problem held for Wedge and Mara. "Are you sure you can't just Force influence the gravtube operators?" Wedge asked wistfully.
"Not quite in my skillset." Mara said, a certain black humor in her voice as she added, "Now, killing them, that's in my skillset."
"Good to know your strengths," Wedge joked back without thinking.
She snorted next to him, and he felt oddly pleased to have made her laugh. Or as close as she got to a laugh, anyway. "Even if I could, the gravpods are covered in cameras and controlled from the base. Driving in is our best shot."
Wedge knew that. Of course he knew it. He just rather liked, well, living. And taking a speeder overland on Caiia 3 was a fast way to stop doing exactly that. But the Order of the True Chosen were well hidden, and no matter how many times Wedge and Mara had gone over it, there really wasn't any other way to get onto the base. "Let’s go rent this hovertank, then."
"It's not really a tank," Mara protested. "It wouldn't take more than a high-powered blaster rifle to pierce the armor."
"Not if you're driving it into a battlefield."
Wedge nodded, acknowledging the point.
Karrde, of course, knew the best place to rent an overland vehicle that had half a chance of surviving on Caiia 3. Still, Wedge did his own slow walk-around of the apparently-not-a-tank, trusting his own judgement better than anyone else’s. A squat square-shaped vehicle, totally enclosed in thick walls and riddled with stabilizers, it'd have the pickup and turning radius of a drunk dunetortise. But it did look strong enough to withstand the winds, and slow and unwieldy was better than dead.
As he went and authorized the payment, he couldn't help but ask Mara, "Why is Karrde helping?"
Mara didn't answer, and Wedge figured she either didn't know or wasn't inclined to answer. But after they got in the vehicle, sealed away from any listening ears, Mara said, "He ran the numbers, decided having Luke around and in one piece was good for business. Luke's good for galactic security, despite being a trusting, idealistic idiot with absolutely no ability to think strategically."
Wedge scowled. He had had the same thought himself, more than once, but he didn't like hearing it from Mara. Wedge had spent the last decade of his life working alongside Luke, trying to help his school succeed. He was allowed to judge.
"Sorry," Mara drawled, her insouciant tone letting Wedge know her words were designed to needle him. "Am I not allowed to criticize the golden boy?"
"Oh, no," Wedge shot back, his tone icy, "I agree with your assessment. I just happen to think that his biggest bit of trusting, idealistic idiocy is...you."
Mara went silent for a long moment, before she said in a flat tone, "I can't really argue with that."
The speeder was silent the rest of the way to the biodome's edge. As the neared the exit, Mara broke the silence. "Do you trust that I want to save him?" There was a brittle sharpness edging her words, as she continued, "There's no point going further if you don't."
Wedge sighed, his spine unbending. "I do. If you didn't want him saved…you could have just done nothing." Wedge paused, before continuing, "I'm sorry, I shouldn—"
"Don't apologize for the truth," Mara said sharply. "I don't need you to like me. I just need to work with you."
Wedge bit down on his tongue, regretting his impulse to kindness. "Common goal. We'll work together fine."
Mara gave a brisk nod, and that seemed to be the end of that.
They reached the edge of the biodome, and bored-looking guards accepted their fake scandocs (representing them as a married pair of survivalists with a moderately-successful holoshow called 'How to Live Through Absolutely Anything'—another of Karrde's contributions) and real credits, and opened a small hole in the semi-permeable barrier.
The thing about driving on Caiia 3 was that it was impossible. While the winds were calmer close to the ground than in the upper atmosphere, that was like saying that a plasmatorch was colder than a star. Technically true, functionally useless when it came to human survivability. Everyone lived in established biodomes, and everyone moved from dome to dome by gravtube.
Only a reckless maniac with more guts than sense would dare to drive overland.
"Here we go," Wedge muttered, and gripped the control column, as he guided the armored speeder into the wind.
The problem wasn't that the wind was strong. Strong winds were easily enough controlled for. The problem was, this wind was chaotic. A tailwind would pick up and Wedge would have to fight to keep the speeder from going too fast, then it would shift, and the speeder would do its best to jump sideways into the nearest boulder.
Wedge had to fight every second to keep it under control, to try to anticipate the sheer chaos of the wind around them. He couldn't focus on anything other than the steering column and the way the speeder felt, ready to compensate for every lurch and leap. Decades of flight experience were his friend, here, instinct taking the fight from impossible down to extremely difficult.
Pain bloomed under his shoulder, started to creep its way down his arm and up his neck and back. He may have instinct on his side, but Wedge hadn't flown regularly in a long time, and he had certainly never flown like this, a constant, full on sensory attack. He could feel his muscles start to knot, and after three hours of flying, he reluctantly asked Mara to find them a safe place to pause for a rest.
"Already?" she asked, censure clear in her voice. "If we can push, we could make it in a day and a half."
"I can't keep flying," Wedge said bluntly. "We'll crash."
With a few unsavory mutterings that Wedge tried not to hear, Mara punched in a new navigation course. The route shifted, steering to a small clearing next to a high cliff-face to serve as a windbreak. Wedge reached to trigger the speeder's landing anchors (durasteel harpoons that launched straight into the ground, the winds couldn't do much more than jerk the speeder around on its tether). His whole arm gave up, then, a violent tremor shaking his fingers, and it took him three fumbling tries to set the anchors.
"Sorry," he said, the words coming out tight as pain arced down his right arm. He reached over with his left, trying to massage some feeling back into it. "I'll try to push for longer. We can still probably make it in two days if—"
"You've shown such good sense, don't be an idiot now," Mara said, a note of concern taking the bite out of the words. "I didn't realize you were…we won't get there if we crash. We probably should have stopped sooner."
Wedge shook his head. "Maybe. I don't—" the words choked off as he braced himself against a fresh cramp.
Mara reached across and put her hand on his shoulder. He jumped a little at the touch. Mara had never touched him. Even their first introduction, with Luke cheerfully introducing Wedge to, "Mara, you remember her, I've told you about her," had featured Mara inclining her head with a wary nod, while Wedge swallowed down shock that Luke had invited the woman whose heart's desire had been to murder him back to their Academy.
But now her fingers were digging into his back, right where the worst of the knot of muscle was. Wedge hissed, but leaned into her touch, desperate for some sort of relief. Mara grunted in concentration, and something made its way out of her fingers. Soothing warmth raced up his spine and neck, down his arm. Wherever it touched, relaxed.
Wedge shot Mara a shocked look. She wasn't looking back, instead hunched over in concentration, her hand still on his shoulder. Wedge watched, fascinated by the almost pained look on her face as she focused, every tense of her jaw corresponding to another loosening muscle in his back. Finally, when his body felt almost entirely healed, she pulled her hand back and looked up.
Vivid green eyes caught Wedge's gaze and held it. He felt his mouth go dry and words utterly failed to come. Whatever had just happened felt unspeakably intimate, and Wedge didn't understand it at all.
"Are you good to drive again?" she asked, bringing her hands together and clenching them in her lap.
"You know how to heal?" Wedge asked dumbly. Luke still struggled to heal anyone other than himself. One of the Cathar students, Fanya, had a bit of a knack for it, but she and Luke still hadn't figured out how she was managing it.
If Mara had known this whole time…
But something pained flashed in her eyes before Mara looked away, shaking her head. "No," she said finally, holding up her right hand. It trembled, in a way that made Wedge's teeth grit in sympathy.
Sympathy was probably exactly the word for it, come to think of it.
"Pain transfer, basically," Mara affirmed, before tucking her hand away again. "It's dangerous if you do it for extended periods. Easy to tear up muscle if you don't feel pain to stop you. But three days shouldn't cause any permanent harm."
"Not feeling great about that 'shouldn't,'" Wedge said, giving her a look.
"I'll put you in a trance when we stop to sleep. Speed up your muscle healing."
Wedge nodded slowly. "Are…are you okay?"
Mara scoffed. "Of course. It's hardly the first time."
Wedge paused, giving her a considering look. He had all the Force-sensitivity of a scrapmouse, but hanging around Luke and his cadre of developing Jedi had given him some insight. The skill that Mara had just used didn't feel particularly…light. Didn't feel dark, either, but considering what Wedge knew of Mara's past teachers…
The Emperor surely would have been happy to have a trainee who could take pain away.
Wedge decided not to press the question further. "I think I'm good to get going again."
"Good." Mara straightened, her right hand still trembling. "We'll stop every two hours and repeat. Let me know when the pain starts building up faster. We'll need to stop for the night, then."
Wedge nodded, not finding any flaw with her plan.
They made it three more fly/rest cycles before Wedge had to admit he was done for the day. It was difficult, tense flying the entire time, the winds not letting up for a second. Visibility was scrapped, too, and Wedge had to fly almost entirely by instrument. He could do it, and Mara was a good navigator, but it wasn't easy.
By the time Wedge set the anchors again, he was utterly exhausted, slumping back against the seat with a sigh. "Are we…" he glanced around. "I didn't think to ask about the sleeping situation."
"The inside transforms. The people stupid enough to go outside the biodomes on their own"—Mara made a significant gesture between the two of them—"try to leave their speeders as little as possible. Chairs will fold back into a bed, give us some space to stretch. There's no good solution to the 'fresher problem—we'll have to go outside. Speeder provides some shelter, and we shouldn't freeze if we move fast enough."
"Lovely," Wedge said dryly. "One of these days I'll go on a rescue mission that takes place on a solar yacht. Or a pleasure planet. I'm looking forward to that day."
Mara chuckled. "Invite me along. Sun and surf sounds lovely at the moment."
"The wind almost sounds like waves," Wedge said, and on cue, an awful burst of wind howled around the speeder, tugging it against its anchor lines.
"Nightmare waves," Mara decided, and her little genuine smile warmed Wedge's heart. She was so serious, all the time.
She smiled at Luke, though. And he smiled back. For the first time the thought of those shared smiles didn't bury a knife of jealousy in his gut. He understood a little better, now, why Luke would be so pleased to bring Mara some happiness.
"Alright," Mara said, the smile falling off her face as she considered the speeder's door. "I'm going to go use the...facilities."
"Good luck with that," Wedge offered in return.
Mara returned to the speeder looking faintly traumatized, trying to finger-comb her hair back into submission. Wedge took a deep breath before popping the door open himself.
It wasn't freezing outside, but it was miserable. The wind was blowing so hard it was actually difficult to breathe, and it knifed through the layers of clothing Wedge was wearing. He returned to the speeder shivering and irritated, all the more so when he discovered that the little interior pod of the speeder itself had lost just about all its heat, between his and Mara's trips outside of it.
Mara was in the process of shifting their stuff around so that the speeder's seats could lay flat, better for sleeping. Wedge helped her, hoping it would warm him up. It did, a bit, but his aching, cramping muscles (only made more painful by the wind and the cold) weren't happy with the work, and by the time they had finished his arms were trembling.
Mara reached for his shoulder again, but Wedge waved her off. "Let’s sleep tonight, then see how I'm doing."
Mara paused, then nodded. She gave him a look, then back to the seats-turned-bed. The seats had actually merged together as they shifted flat, creating one bed, wide enough to fit two.
Wedge huffed an irritated sigh. He clearly should have paid better attention to the interior specs. Surely, at least one of the excursion vehicles had individual beds. Could have avoided this bit of awkwardness. "Are individual blanket rolls going to be enough privacy for you, or would you prefer to sleep head-to-feet?"
Mara ran her fingers through her hair. "Was actually debating whether or not to to ask if you wouldn't mind sleeping doubled. It's going to get colder in here." She shrugged. "I'm going to put you in a trance, it's not like I have to worry about you getting handsy."
"Do I need to worry?" Wedge retorted with a smile, before belatedly realizing that sounded a bit like flirting, and Mara was a terrible person to flirt with. Very...murder-y, even apart from Luke's probable feeling towards her.
Fortunately for Wedge's continued vitality, Mara laughed. "No, Antilles, your virtue's safe with me. I wouldn't dare put the moves on you. Your boyfriend might come looking for me, and he's one of the few people in the universe that could actually put up a decent fight."
Wedge forced a small laugh, shaking his head. Boyfriend. Husband. It was a running joke, and it made sense. After all, Wedge had quit his commission to help Luke found his Jedi Academy. He had spent a decade helping Luke manage his accounting books, hire staff, stock supplies, negotiate location purchasing and ties to local government. All the mundane things that had to get done to keep a place going. Wedge had poured his life into Luke's vision, and he didn't regret a second of it.
It still stung, though, the jokes about the two of them. Because even though Wedge had been the one to break things off, he still cared. Cared too much. He'd realized he'd always come second to Luke's Jedi calling, and that wasn't good for his heart. Luke needed someone who understood the Force. And no matter how much affection there was between them, that wasn't Wedge.
"Don't tell me you two broke up," Mara said.
Wedge realized he was probably showing more on his face than he'd intended. He shook his head as the words filtered through. "No. I mean...yes? But, before he ever met you."
Mara's eyebrows climbed. "You're kidding. I thought for sure the two of you..." She trailed off, shrugging in an overly-casual gesture. "I thought it was jealousy. The reason you don't like me. "
Wedge flinched to hear it so plainly said. Then he sighed, and admitted, "I'm not sure you're wrong. Part of the reason we didn't work is because Luke needed someone who understood what the Force meant to him. And even though I didn't want to believe it, some part of me realized that's you."
"I don't know about that. You seem...." Mara trailed off, looking frustrated. "Why stick with him? With the school? Why do you care?"
Wedge flattened his lips. "Overlaps a bit with Karrde's thinking, probably. Galaxy would be a better place if Luke's Academy thrived. I could help it do that."
"I don't think I could do that. Spent too much time being a part of someone else's purpose."
Mara wrapped her arms around herself and looked away. Wedge realized, that defensive gesture aside, she was trusting him with some very personal thoughts. He was struck by the urge to offer the same in return. "I wonder if I had the opposite reaction. War's over, need to scramble for a new cause." Wedge shrugged, keeping his posture open. "I think it's probably simpler than that, though. My friend needed me."
Mara gave a sad-looking smile. "He's lucky to have you."
They fell silent, and the silence was rapidly turning awkward as Wedge looked at the bed, then back to Mara. Hoping he wasn't pushing their fragile truce too far, he tried for some humor, "Tomorrow night, let's plan to do the emotional confessions after we're already snuggled. This part seems really awkward now."
Mara barked a laugh, relaxing slightly as she started laying down, arranging the blanket. "Come on, Antilles, we're professionals, we can handle this."
"Temperature regulation," Wedge agreed with a serious nod.
They settled in for their very professional cuddling session with a minimum of fuss. Mara nudged him until he wound up on his side, facing her. She put one hand in the center of his forehead. "Relax, and count backwards from ten."
Wedge remembered ten, then nine, then making a good start on eight and then...he was awake again. He opened his eyes to find Mara looking at him from inches away.
"Back with me?" she asked.
Wedge nodded, rolling his shoulder then blinking in surprise. The pain wasn't gone, but it had faded. It felt like he had spent at least three days resting it. "How long was I..."
"Eight hours. How's it feeling?"
"Amazing," Wedge said honestly. "I've seen Luke go into a trance but I didn't realize they were so..."
Mara nodded. "He taught me how. It's a useful tool."
"That's an understatement. I feel like I could fight a bantha."
"How about another ten hours or so of flying?" Mara asked, wry humor mixed with an honest question.
"I think I'd rather take my chances with the bantha. But yes, I'm as ready as I'll get."
It wasn't any easier the second day.
The healing had helped, but the exhaustion still built on yesterday's wear. He held on as long as he could, wanting to press through, wanting to fly longer. Mara kept him grounded though. Since the first time Wedge had needed to stop, she had tuned into him. The last few times Mara had started navigating them to a stop before Wedge even opened his mouth to explain that he needed it.
He hated how much he had grown to love the feeling of Mara's hand on his shoulder. It meant that he got to rest, it meant that pain was ending. But every time she reached for him she hurt herself, and Wedge felt the unfairness of it.
"You don't need to," he said impulsively, at their fourth break of the day. He was so tired his vision was starting to blur, and his back was so tight his spine felt bracketed by iron bars. "I think I'll be good to fly with just a quick rest."
Mara didn't even hesitate, gripping his shoulder as she said, "Glad to see Luke's sense of noble sacrifice has worn off on somebody." Her grip tightened, and the pain leached out of him. He groaned at the relaxation left in its wake.
Wedge looked over at Mara, saw the way she stiffened in her chair, the way her left hand pressed into the fingers of right forearm, right where Wedge's arm had been cramping from the effort of keeping the speeder steady. "I'm sorry," he said, trying to assuage that terrible unfairness.
"I couldn't fly in this wind," she said shortly. "Taking care of you is the best thing I can do."
"Thank you," Wedge tried again.
Mara sighed. "You're welcome. And don't worry. Pain doesn't hold as well when it’s not your own."
Wedge nodded, and went back to flying.
He flew through the howling, sick, green clouds until his stomach churned and his eyes blurred. When Mara finally stopped them for the evening, Wedge blankly collapsed backward, slumping in his seat and staring out the window, watching the hated green swirl around the transparisteel window. "I miss the sun," he said distantly. The words weren't directed at anyone, they just slipped out.
He was surprised when Mara answered with a vehement, "Yes. I don't see how anybody kriffing lives here."
Wedge shook his head and looked over at Mara. "Sorry, I should move, I just—"
"No, I'll take first fresher trip. Rest a little longer."
Mara grit her teeth before popping open the side of the 'speeder. Wedge shivered from the cold that iced over him, until Mara sealed the cockpit back up. The 'speeder did a decent job of keeping them warm while the engine was running, but parked and anchored like this, it was going to get cold fast.
Wedge hoped he had made a decent warm body while he was in the trance. It would have been cold, otherwise.
Sometime between wondering if they could justify running the fuel cell periodically during their "night" (it was impossible to tell anything on this planet, night and day were irrelevant compared to the pressing clouds) and wondering if orbital bombardment would really have been so terrible of a plan, Wedge realized Mara hadn't come back into the speeder.
His heart suddenly racing, Wedge popped open the side of the 'speeder and slid. He gave a choked yell when he saw a sprawled figure on the ground just feet from the 'speeder's anchor line. He braced his shoulder against the wind and dashed for her, nearly caught off his feet when the wind abruptly stalled and then blasted him from another side. He stumbled and tripped next to her, shouting as loud as he could. His voice was stolen by the wind, and Mara didn't stir.
Bracing a hand under her shoulder, Wedge rolled her, and found a blue-purple lump on the side of her head. The wind must have picked up some debris and sent it hurling straight into her.
"Mara," Wedge yelled again, fighting down panic as her head lolled, and she remained unresponsive. Wedge braced an arm under her shoulder, the other under her knees, and with a pained grunt, managed to hoist her up, walking her step by stumbling step back to the 'speeder.
There was a lot of awkward fumbling after that, but finally Wedge managed to get Mara in the speeder with the chairs transformed into the small bed he could lay her out on. He fumbled off his gloves and his fingers shook as he tried to find her pulse. For long seconds he wasn't sure if he was finding her heartbeat or his own thrumming fear, but then he shifted his fingers and her pulse thudded against his fingers, strong and slow.
Wedge huffed a sigh of relief and nearly collapsed, leaning over until his forehead brushed against her shoulder. He had been so scared...
Wedge shook his head and pulled himself back together, fumbling for the tiny medkit tucked into the side well of the door. It was too lightly packed to touch the muscle pain and exhaustion he'd been dealing with, but it had a thermapack, which he set to 'chill' and pressed against her head.
He watched her breathe, slowly, in and out, the steady pace soothing him, reassuring him she was alright. Aside from the Force powers, aside from the fact that her navigation was critical, he didn't want to be be left alone on this planet. He didn't want to lose her.
He swallowed, looking at the way she sprawled—she could have been sleeping if he hadn't have known better. Something about the intimacy opened up an ache in his chest. It was one he knew well. It was the same one that lurked every time Luke hugged him, the same one that bloomed when he watched Luke with the kids, the one that opened a chasm in his ribs on those nights when Luke fell asleep on Wedge's shoulder. It was the feeling that he was claiming something he had no right to.
Wedge wasn't Luke's beloved. And Mara never would have chosen to make herself so vulnerable around him if she had had a choice in the matter.
Wedge winced. Luke and Mara. His feelings for them were getting all tied up with each other. Forced to work so closely with her, he had to admit, she was smart and practical and compassionate in her own way. She was good company. Wedge liked her.
Wedge sighed, and let the last of his objections to her and Luke getting together go. Oh, certainly, there was still his own poor heart and how it would manage, but that didn't really matter. He could see now that she'd take care of Luke, and he could see too how Luke could speak to her defensive, brittle places. They'd be good for each other, and Wedge would be happy about it.
They just had to get Luke to safety first.
Mara stirred, and Wedge pulled back the thermapack, waiting for her reaction. Her eyes fluttered open, fixed on the pack, and she snatched it out of his hands, pressing it once again to her own temple. She let out a long groan. "Shit. Rock came out of nowhere. I nearly—"
A full body shudder wracked her, and Wedge laid a hand on her shoulder without even thinking of it. He was shocked when she curled into the touch, her forehead brushing his knee. She shuddered again, and Wedge squeezed her shoulder as he felt her breathing pick up into a couple of shocked hitches, before she tensed and Wedge could feel her force her breathing under control again. Wedge slid his hand down her back and rubbed between her shoulder blades, trying for soothing.
Mara relaxed further, and Wedge figured he was doing alright.
Eventually, she unfolded again, and a long moment later she looked up and met Wedge's eyes. "Sorry," she muttered. "I'm alright now."
"You don't need to be," Wedge offered his hand out again, palm-up.
Mara shook her head, then winced, and placed the thermapack more firmly against her temple. "I was—I…didn't black out right away. I was yelling for help."
Wedge winced. "Oh, no, Mara, I—"
"Don't you dare apologize. You couldn't have heard. It's just—waking up in here was...a relief." Mara nodded, and Wedge watched her eyes go bright, before she blinked, reaching a hand up to wipe the tears away. She fixed him with a fierce gaze, looking furious that he had seen her vulnerability.
Not sure what else to do, Wedge offered up his own weak point. "I was so terrified you were dead. I spent some time screaming too. I don't...I don't think I'm making it off this planet again without you."
Mara closed her eyes, her body tightening again. "Don't leave me here," she said, a tremble in her tone. "When I was...the thought that I might die in these rotting clouds..."
"I promise," Wedge said quickly. "The only way you don't leave is if I'm dead next to you."
Mara breathed out a harsh, noisy gust. "Thank you." She opened her eyes again, her old determination finally making a reappearance. "I'll do the same for you. And we're getting Luke out too. One way or another."
"Right," Wedge said, giving her a sharp nod in return. "We will."
They decided to split the trance between them that evening, Mara taking the first half to stave off any ill effects from the knock on her head, and Wedge taking the second, to keep him fit for flying the next day.
Well, it wasn't so much them deciding as Wedge deciding. Mara had tried to insist she'd be fine despite the tiny amount of possible brain trauma she had received, and Wedge was pleased to find that his 'talk the stubborn Jedi into taking care of themselves' skills were transferable. Mara conceded the point, but still looked uncomfortable as they settled in for the evening.
"We're not going over this again," Wedge said, gently but firmly. "I need my navigator functioning."
Mara made a face that was so similar to Luke's occasional sulk that Wedge had to believe she had stolen it directly from him. "I know," she responded, shifting under the blankets. "I've...I've never done this with someone else around. It's not exactly safe for me."
"Do you trust me?" Wedge asked, echoing back Mara's question to him.
"I do," Mara said, and Wedge knew how much those words meant.
Wedge reached down and hesitantly laid his palm against her shoulder again. She didn't seem to mind the touch. "I normally hate flying with a navigator," he admitted. "Nobody tells me where I go but me. But I can't do this one alone. I'm flying better because you're around."
Mara gave him a thin smile. "I see the parallel. And the sense of it. So please, spare me further moralizing."
Wedge gave a wry smile. "How about this? I'll look after you. And then I'll trust you to do the same for me."
Mara's smile grew a little stronger, and she reached her hand up to cover his. "What happened to me being Luke's greatest bit of idealistic idiocy?"
Wedge swallowed, fighting down a shiver. The skin where Mara's fingers touched felt like it had been branded. "I was wrong. It's been known to happen."
Mara hummed, before admitting, "I didn't understand why Luke would trust some fighter jock with the inner workings of his Jedi Academy. Thought that was an awful decision." Mara squeezed his hand. "I was wrong too. And I don't admit that often, so cherish those words, Antilles."
"Cherishing," Wedge said solemnly, his faked seriousness masking the real delight he felt at the praise. Mara's opinion mattered to him, apparently.
Mara ran her thumb along the side of his hand, before gently pulling it off of her shoulder. "Alright, I'm going to put myself under. Feel free to cuddle up once I do, I'd rather have the heat."
Wedge watched as she folded her hands across her chest, the gesture the same as he'd seen on Luke. Her breathing slowed, then slowed, until Wedge had to watch those folded hands for ten seconds before he saw them move. Wedge gingerly slid in next to her, then tucked the blanket around them both. He wondered what the most respectful way was to cuddle what was essentially an unconscious person. He decided on sort of a half-spoon, tucking his cheek against her shoulder and his arm across her waist.
She fit in his arms better than he had expected.
Wedge had thought that after all the excitement sleep would be slow in coming, but he was warm, and comfortable, and out before he knew it.
The next days drive should take them the rest of the way to Luke. They'd park a little ways outside the cultist's biodome, spend one last night storing their strength, and make a march on the dome in the morning.
"Shouldn't we just go in and get Luke as soon as we're there?" Wedge asked.
"We could. But you're shattered after every day's drive so far, and we have no idea what their forces are like. Our chances aren't great if we go in exhausted." Mara's jaw clenched. "I mean...I could try to go in solo, I might be able to grab Luke and get back to you..."
Wedge shook his head. "We're a team. Luke's already been gone two weeks. Eight hours won't make much of a difference to him, probably, but it might make all the difference to us."
Mara nodded. "If it makes you feel better, I don't like the idea any more than you do."
"Well, let’s get flying. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can get Luke out."
Wedge felt, perversely, that it should be easier by now. He'd spent two full days flying in this hurricane of churning clouds, he should know the patterns, should know how it went. He shouldn't have to fight so damn hard to keep the 'speeder straight, shouldn't have the tension creep up his arms and down his back and through his neck and jaw, until everything ached and his head pounded.
"Right," Mara said dryly, when Wedge was stupid enough to mention it to her on one of their stops. "Because three days is plenty of time to develop muscle memory."
Wedge shook his head. "I know, I know. But still..."
"No one else could have flown this better than you," Mara said, surprising Wedge. "Nobody flies overland on this planet. Nobody is trained in this."
"Luke probably could have," Wedge said wryly. "Really feel like the Force would have given me an edge."
"Alright, fair, I'll give you that one," Mara said, with a slight smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "But Luke was the one who got himself kidnapped in the first place, so we're just going to have to make do."
Wedge rolled his shoulder, the ache that had sunk deep in his muscles gone, the new tightness evidenced in the way Mara sat. "We're doing alright, I think."
Mara shot him a smile that was almost affectionate. "Don't push it."
When they finally stopped for the evening, Wedge desperately wanted to say that he was fine, that he could press through and go get Luke. It hurt, to know that Luke was less than a hour's flight away. But there was no way he could power through the way his hands felt as if they were made of thick clay, every motion taking conscious effort to control it. Wedge groaned, shaking his head.
"We'll get him tomorrow," Mara said decisively.
Wedge rubbed at his eyes, fighting down the sense of nausea that threatened the energy rations he had managed to stomach a few hours ago. "I could get the rest of the way there tonight...you could take him and leave on the gravtube, I could make my own way back out..."
"No," Mara said, a strange note in her voice. "We promised. Nobody gets left behind on this atrocity masquerading as a planet."
As they settled down for the night, they went easily into each other's arms. Wedge knew he held a little too tight, desperate for some sort of grounding human connection through his exhaustion. Mara seemed to be struck by the same impulse, clinging to him just as tightly.
"You know," she said, making no move to put him in the healing trance, "if you had made that offer two days ago I would have taken it. Left you, told myself you knew what you were doing, and that we both wanted Luke safe more."
"Two days ago I don't think I would have trusted you enough to offer," Wedge replied. "I do now. I know you care about him."
Mara shifted, an uncomfortable little movement.
"Hide it all you want, I know you like him." Wedge said, fondly amused at her avoidance. "You wouldn't keep coming around otherwise."
Mara was quiet for long enough that Wedge started to worry he had offended her somehow. Or that she had just fallen asleep. He started debating whether he should let her rest or if he should wake her up, when she said, "I don't know why."
"Why I keep coming. He drives me crazy. He's so..." Mara's hand clenched, bunching Wedge's shirt beneath her fingers. "Bright. Unbroken. I don't know..."
"He's what you could have been. If the universe had just treated you a little more kindly," Wedge said, understanding what she was saying instinctively. "You see in him this idealized echo, and you hate it, even as you can't help but love him."
"That's a little strong. But the right idea, I think." Mara paused, before saying with surprising gentleness, "So...you too?"
Wedge tried to laugh, it came out a little choked. "I guess so. Not the Jedi stuff, obviously. Flying. I was a pilot. Pretty good one. But..."
"But." Mara's voice was full of understanding, and no small amount of bitterness. "It's an impossible thing to try to live up to."
"He doesn't want you to. I asked Luke, once, why in the nine hells he let you keep coming around." Wedge paused, squeezing Mara's shoulder. "This was back in my highly suspicious days."
"So, at least two days ago," Mara said with amusement.
"At least," Wedge agreed. "But the important thing is what Luke said in response. He told me he valued your different point of view. 'The point of view of someone who tried to murder you?' was my response."
"Bringing the much-needed pragmatism," Mara said, without hurt.
"Luke wasn't having it, though. He just told me that it was hard, being a Jedi alone. That as much as he tried, he knew he was prone to getting things wrong, and never realizing it. He has to trust himself when it comes to this stuff because, well, who else does he have? But he needs someone to call him out when he's getting it wrong, and that's you."
Mara was quiet, after that.
"I didn't like that answer," Wedge admitted. "But I didn't like it because I heard the truth in it. You're someone he needs. He'd never want to change you into a clone of himself."
"I've met Luke's clone. He was awful," Mara said, an arrested chuckle in her throat.
Wedge paused. "Poor choice in words," he finally said. "My point stands. You're important to him, exactly as you are."
"I'm amazed you can say that with a straight face, Antilles," Mara shot back. "You've spent years and years handling all the business for the Academy that Luke can't manage. You think Luke wants you to change?"
"Yeah. He likes us both. Because he's like that. Doesn't change the fact that it's a burden, sometimes, having his standard hanging over you." Mara turned her head into Wedge's chest.
The gesture wasn't quite a nuzzle, but it was undeniably comfort seeking, and Wedge felt something light up in his chest at the vulnerability in it. He pressed his palm a little firmer between her shoulder blades, wanting her to feel safe.
"I don't know what condition he's going to be in," Mara said, her voice tight. "If he was fine...why hasn't he broken free already?"
Wedge's breath caught in his throat, the uneasy idea lurking on the edge's of his awareness given form. "I keep telling myself he's gotten through worse. He's probably trying to talk them around or something."
"He would." Mara tried to chuckle. It came out shaky. "But everyone's luck runs out sooner or later. I don't know what I'm going to do if he's not okay."
That last sentence was delivered so quietly Wedge would have missed it if he wasn't right next to her. "Me either," he responded. It was the only true thing he could say. After a moment, he thought of another, "But you'll be welcome at the Academy. Even if Luke...as long as I'm there, you'll be welcome."
Mara turned and buried her face in Wedge's chest. "This is pointless. I don't know why we're even having this conversation."
Wedge didn't say anything, just reached up a hand up to cup the back of her head.
Mara shook her head, pushing back slightly to give Wedge a glare. "When we get him out, and I send him safely back to his Academy, I'm coming back to check on him."
"And if you think I'm going to let you get away with hiding in your office again, you've got another thing coming. Your days of peace are done."
Wedge gave her a helpless smile. "I'm holding you to that. If you don't come to visit, I'll hunt you down. Show up outside your ship and hang around until Karrde lets me in."
Mara finally laughed, and it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. She shook her head, taking a breath. "Alright, we should sleep. My head's doing fine, I'm going to knock you out for the whole eight hours."
Wedge nodded, before closing his eyes and starting to count.
Wedge tugged his jacket tighter around himself as he and Mara trudged through the howling wind to reach the edge of the biodome inhabited by the Order of the True Chosen. The dome's force field flickered a faint blue wherever it was struck by dust or rain, making it a sparkling ghost of a wall between the two of them and Luke.
"Do we have a plan to get through?" Wedge shouted, to be heard over the gale.
In response, Mara raised one eyebrow and pulled out her lightsaber.
Wedge gave a sheepish nod. Obvious. Really should have seen that coming.
Mara jerked her head, and Wedge followed her, a slow trudge along the force field until they reached a section with some obvious mechanical workings underneath. Mara stood there, head tilted, carefully examining the instrumentation. After a minute, she ignited her lightsaber, revealing a long purple blade. One precise knick either, and a section of the forcefield next to them flickered and shut down.
"Purple?" Wedge asked as they ducked through the barrier.
"You have a problem with purple?" Mara asked, raising an eyebrow.
Wedge held up his hands. "No problem. It's a great color. Very...distinct."
"It's sounding like you have a problem with purple," Mara said, amusement crinkling in the corners of her eyes.
"No, no, just...grabs attention, you know?"
"It's a colored glowing plasma sword. Of course it's going to—" Mara paused, cocking her head. After a moment, she turned, eyes fixed on an unseen target. "Luke. He's alive. Over there."
Wedge sighed in relief. "Is he okay?"
Mara shook her head, her furrowed brow turning it into a gesture of confusion. "I don't—there's something strange. I think we need to get closer."
They were able to slip through the compound with ease. It was eerily empty, the hallways feeling cavernous in their silence. They crept through, Mara taking the lead. She seemed to know where she was going. At one point she raised her hand, and then briskly ushered them both down a side corridor. It was only long seconds later that Wedge heard distant voices.
Having a Force user made infiltration so much easier, Wedge decided. Before he knew it, Mara was halting in front of a door, one hand up as she whispered, "Luke's through here. He's the only one in there, but...I'm still not sure how we'll find him."
Wedge nodded. His eyes went down to the door keypad. "It's unlocked," he said as unease ran down his spine.
Mara gave a grim nod. She took a deep breath, and triggered the door release.
The door slid open smoothly, no alarms, no sirens. Inside was a long corridor, done up in what Wedge had come to call Evil Overlord Finest. Heavy on the blacks and reds, lots of creepy lighting. This one featured red candles, stuck in ornate black candelabras. The long red carpet lead up to a throne. There wasn't any other word for a chair that grand, up on a platform that overlooked the room.
And sitting sprawled in that throne was Luke, decked out in his own version of Evil Overlord Finest. A high-necked cowl wrapped around his throat, his black robes hung with subtle red ornamentation, and atop his head was a crown, glittering with blood-red gems set in dark burnished metal.
Luke's eyes went wide when they walked in. He gave an overly enthusiastic wave utterly at odds with his outfit. "Wedge! Mara! It's so great you're here!"
"What are you doing here? What are you…wearing?" Mara asked, her face a study in affronted bafflement.
Luke stood up and hopped off of the throne's platform, trotting over to them. "Some clothes my new friends gave me! Aren't they great! It's really great."
Mara's gaze slid over to Wedge, and she raised an eyebrow. Looking back at Luke, she asked, "Do you remember how you came to be here?"
Luke gave her a dopey smile. "Is it important?"
"Yes, Luke, it's very important," Mara said.
Luke's face became a mask of studied concentration. "I…was on a ship. I was…feeling not-happy. Then my new friends came, and after a minute, I was happy! They said they just wanted to make sure I was safe and that I should come with them. I did. And it was great! And now you're here too!"
"Drugged?" Wedge asked.
"No kidding," Mara said, flatly. "My guess is Dimalium-6 mixed with…some spice?" Mara shook her head. "Not sure, but Imperial Intelligence was experimenting with something along those lines. If I'm right, this is one of the kinder versions. He's very happy, and will continue to be very happy as long as he follows any suggestions of the people around him."
"That's kind?" Wedge asked, looking at Luke with growing horror.
"As compared to the ones that chewed up people's brains and left them with all the neuron function of an ambitious bith bean, yes."
Wedge winced. "Fair."
"Alright, let’s see, if I'm right…" Mara gave Luke a creepily bright smile. "Hey, Luke, would you spin in circles for me?"
"Yes!" Luke said cheerfully, and began twirling. The hem of his elegant black robe flared out as he spun.
"No!" Wedge said, horrified. "Stop!"
Luke didn't stop.
"Say it again," Mara said, "More cheerfully."
"Cheerful—" Wedge shot her a furious glare, before trying again, spreading on a large fake smile before saying, "Luke, buddy, how about we stop?"
"Okay!" Luke said, and stopped, staggering a few steps to the side.
Mara gave a grim nod. "Yep. Okay, good news, bad news. Good news. He'll do pretty much anything we tell him to as long as we're calm and cheerful. Bad news—"
"He'll do anything anyone tells him to do, as long as they're calm and cheerful. Including slice us open with the lightsaber I can't help but notice he's been allowed to keep."
"Yep," Mara said, her lips a flat thin line. With a grimace, she managed to smile again, before saying, "Hey, Luke, would you give Wedge your lightsaber?"
"Of course!" Luke trotted over and deposited it in Wedge's open hand. Wedge sighed in relief, hooking it on his belt, away from Luke.
"Luke!" Mara said, her sickly sweet voice sending shivers down Wedge's spine. "We're going to play a game, okay?" She went over to one of the candelabras and blew out the flickering flames, pulling the candle out and tipping it over into her hand, where wax puddled in her palm.
"Mara, where are you going with this?" Wedge muttered warily.
"Trust me," she hissed back. Raising her voice back to the saccharine octave, she said, "We're going to play a game where you stay with Wedge, okay? You're going to stay behind Wedge, and stay very quiet. If you see anyone else that's not me or Wedge, you hide!"
"That sounds like a fun game!" Luke agreed.
"Great!" Mara's fake smile should be classified as a war-crime, Wedge decided. "And in order to play the game right, you have to put this wax in your ears, okay?"
"Okay!" Luke said, taking the wax out of her palm. As soon as he started mushing it into his ears, the false cheer fell off of Mara's face.
"You kriffin' genius," Wedge murmured.
One corner of Mara's mouth quirked back up into a much more genuine pleasure, and she inclined her head.
"Hey, Luke!" Wedge called once Luke had the earwax in his ears. "Go sit in that chair!"
Luke didn't move, just stared at Wedge with a dopey smile.
Wedge looked over at Mara. "I think that's as good as we're getting."
"Okay. If we can find and wreck their control room, we can take a gravpod out. All the power is in the launch—they could have fried us coming in, but they won't be able to recall it once we've left."
"Let's go." Wedge threw a look over at Luke, standing, per Mara's instructions, right behind Wedge, with a blank, happy look on his face. "The sooner the better."
"Yeah," Mara said grimly. She looked over at Wedge, then Wedge watched her gaze flick past him, to Luke. She shook her head. "The sooner we get out of here, the sooner we can make sure he never lives this down."
Wedge laughed, some of the tension easing. "Sounds like a plan."
The trip to the control room stayed uneventful for the next five minutes or so. Then, an alarm started ringing, an alert singing through the compound.
"Hurry," Mara said tightly, then broke into a run. Wedge chased after her, twisting to make sure that Luke was following. He startled when he found Luke right behind him. Luke waved at Wedge, and Wedge forced a cheery grin and gave Luke a big thumbs up. He turned forward and kept running.
They ran a dizzying path—down a corridor, ducking into a room with another exit out the side, darting down the next corridor. Wedge hoped Mara knew where she was going, because Wedge had no idea. He trusted her, though. Her navigation hadn't failed them so far.
Two minutes later they found their first opposition. A pair of soldiers proudly wearing the Order's signature ornate black masks saw them, shouted, and started firing. Wedge ducked behind a corner, glad to see that Luke followed him. Mara stood in the hallway, the snap-hiss of her lightsaber expanding. Two blaster shots, two looping hums, and the hallway was silent again. Wedge lead Luke back out from behind the cover, wondering what would happen when Luke saw the bodies of his "new friends."
Luke didn't even notice, just stayed happily looking at them. Wedge and Mara exchanged a grim look. Creepy. Very creepy.
"If they manage to hit me with that stuff you have my full permission to order me to kill the lot of them," Mara muttered, looking back at Luke.
"Agreed," Wedge said. "Though, please stop me before I kill any actual innocents."
Mara nodded. "Deal."
They made it through a few more hallways before they came across another group, an entire squad of five this time. Caught less off-guard, this group moved to try to surround them. Mara kept three busy with her lightsaber, and that left Wedge to deal with the other two.
Wedge scrambled to keep himself (and his cheerful shadow) under cover, returning fire wildly with his blaster. Rounding a corner, he was able to take the time to line up a shot on one of them, dropping him to the ground.
As he did that, the second black-masked figure caught sight of Luke. With a dramatic point, the cultist demanded, "Lord Vader's Heir! Smite this nonbeliever!"
Wedge whirled to face Luke, who looked from Wedge to the cultist with a blank smile.
Realizing the plan wasn't working, the cultist charged Wedge instead. Wedge tried to turn back and get his blaster up to bear, but before he could, the cultist locked his grip on Wedge's blaster arm and shoved it away. With a motion borne out of years of sparring, Wedge shoulder-checked the cultist, bringing his free hand up to his waist, and with a smooth arcing motion, igniting Luke's 'saber, and cutting the cultist in half.
Wedge threw Luke a glance to see how he was handling the fight. Luke was standing behind a pole in a valiant attempt to hide, diligently if ineffectually following Mara's instructions. Confirming there was no one coming up behind Luke, Wedge turned his attention back to Mara, who had cleared her three, but another two were racing towards them. Mara took the right so Wedge darted for the left, thrusting Luke's 'saber through the attacker.
Mara arched an eyebrow at Wedge and the lightsaber. "You've been holding out on me," she said, sounding impressed.
Wedge twirled the blade in a move that was useless for anything except impressing new trainees. And hopefully Mara. "You think I was able to live on a Jedi compound for five years without picking up a few skills?"
Luke came trotting up behind them. "That was great! You guys are so great! Wedge, you're the best, and Mara, you're the best too. Wedge is the green best. Mara is the purple best."
Wedge gave Mara a serious nod. "Purple best."
"Shut up, green best," Mara muttered.
"I'm just so happy the two of you are getting along!"
"Come on, control room is this way." Mara jerked her thumb down the hallway.
"It's interesting," Wedge said in a low monotone as they walked, "Luke's happy that we get along, but has no problem with us killing his 'new friends.'"
"I was just thinking that." Mara cast a glance over at Luke, who was still diligently shadowing Wedge. "Guess he's still in there, somewhere."
The control room was empty, and Mara stationed herself by the door while Wedge went in to perform some "tactical modifications." Also known as ramming Luke's lightsaber through every working machine in the place as fast as possible.
"We're clear," Wedge said, ducking back out of the room. "Let's go."
They made it nearly all the way to the gravtube launch point, before a swarm of the black-masked idiots flooded the hallway in front of them. Wedge and Mara fell into a natural fighting position, Mara in the front with a lightsaber, Wedge crouched behind her with a blaster. Wedge let her handle the defense, and she gave him the offense. They had seven down before anyone even got close.
It was messier once the cultists realized none of their shots were getting through the lightsaber defense. They regrouped, pulled out forearm-length red plasma knives (which, Wedge had to admit, really fit in with the Evil Overlord Aesthetic), and charged. Wedge tried to keep steady, fired on as many as he could as they flooded closer. But it was like shooting a wave that was just starting to crest, maybe two or three fell, but the wave crashed away, cultists flowing over them.
Mara was brilliant, a deadly cyclone scything down the cultists. Wedge backed up out of her range, and kept firing, trying to keep any from breaking through their defense. But as he was shooting to Mara's right, one broke through low on her left, trying to race past Wedge. Wedge leapt desperately and managed to tackle that one to the ground, but his moment of triumph was erased as another cultist broke through, sprinted for Luke—half-hiding behind a crate near Wedge—and ripped the wax from his ear.
"No," Wedge cried, trying to fight his way to his feet again, needing to block Luke's ears or something before—
"My Lord! The heretics are trying to take you away from us! Smite them!"
The whole chaos of battle stopped, everything going silent, everything fixed on Luke. Luke blinked, and turned his blank cheer towards Wedge.
"Please, Luke," Wedge tried, knowing he was failing, knowing he wouldn't be able to break through the drug's hold. "It's me."
"Fuck," Mara muttered. "Wedge, I might be able to—"
"Those aren't heretics!" Luke said brightly. "They're my friends."
"Your friends are trying to take you away, kill them!" the cultist snarled.
Luke dismissed him, turning to Wedge. "Do you want to die?"
Calm and cheerful, Wedge reminded himself, fighting back the horror. "No, Luke, I don't. I want these folks to leave us alone and let us get on a gravpod with you."
Luke nodded. He turned, facing back to the assembled crowd of black-masked figures. "Leave us alone," he said, and even crippled mentally, his voice still shone with the full power of the Force. It wasn't pointed at Wedge, but it still brought him to his knees. The cultists just collapsed.
"Alright, we can go to the gravtube now!" Some of the cheer was starting to die down from Luke's voice. "I don't think they were very nice."
"They're sleeping now," Mara said quickly, stepping up to Luke's other side. "Maybe when they wake up they'll feel better."
"Okay," Luke said distantly.
Wedge noted, as he and Mara guided Luke through the bodies, that Mara was telling the truth. Luke had knocked them out. They all slept with slow, steady breaths. The path stayed clear all the way to the gravpod. Wedge made sure Mara and Luke got on, then entered himself, closing the door behind him.
The door barely sealed before Mara hit launch, staggering Wedge up against the door as the pod rocketed off. Mara let out a heavy breath, slumping against the seat. "Clear," she said weakly.
"That was too close." Wedge shakily got to his feet and stumbled over to one of the chairs ringing the inside of the pod. He turned to look at Luke, who was blinking slowly and shifting in the chair Mara had shoved him into. Wedge cleared his throat, making his tone cheery. "How are you doing, Luke?"
Luke's brow furrowed. "My head hurts. A lot."
Mara was up out of her chair quickly, crouching and looking at Luke's pupils. "You okay if I try something?" she asked him.
"Of course!" Luke said.
"That would be more convincing if you weren't drugged, farmboy," Mara said, almost absently, as she pressed her fingers against his temple.
"Don't take his pain," Wedge said, suddenly realizing what might be happening. "The drugged-ness might come too."
"Relax, Wedge, it doesn't work like that," Mara splayed her fingers. "And I'm not, I'm just...scanning. Trying to see if I can—"
Mara made a triumphant noise, and Luke slumped over.
"Is he okay?" Wedge asked, alarmed.
"He will be. He started to get some bad neurofeedback. Turns out an order to kill you was dissonant enough to knock him out of compliance mode. Fighting the drug was doing a number on his mind."
"That doesn't sound okay!"
"I healing tranced him. He'll be fine. We'll just have to haul him unconscious through the city."
Wedge sighed, feeling mollified. "Wouldn't be the first time, I guess."
"There's a story," Mara said as she came over and nudged Wedge. She maneuvered him into the chair next to Luke, then reached over and took Luke's head, tipping it onto Wedge. "Hold that, would you."
Wedge snorted, wrapping his arms around Luke's shoulders. He leaned his cheek against the top of Luke's head. Mara sat down across from them, and Wedge caught a wistful smile cross her face. "There's room over here," he said, gesturing to Luke's other side.
Mara shook her head, looking away.
Wedge looked back down at Luke, and then over at Mara. "I see what you're doing. Don't run."
Mara shook her head sadly. "I'm still not the sort of person who stays. You are. That's why he needs you."
"I think that's banthashit," Wedge said, their familiarity breeding frankness. "But also I meant on a much more practical level. I don't know how to undo this trance."
"Don't worry, I won't vanish until I know he's fine."
"And you'll come back," Wedge ordered, more than asked.
Mara gave him a long look, then inclined her head. "I'll come back."
It was amazing the difference between the ride in and the ride back out again. Less than an hour later, the gravpod was caught by the inertia net at the city station, and with Luke braced between them, they shuffled back out into city life.
They attracted some stares as they made their way back to the shuttle. Wedge and Mara gave each other a glance, then easily fell into a conversation about a wild party the night before, and Luke's utter inability to hold his liquor. That was enough to make the stares fall right off of them again.
"Alright, you strap into the hold with Luke, I'll launch us out," Wedge ordered, his fingers itching to get the thrusters firing and get off the damn planet.
"I can handle the exit through the hurricane eye. You should stay with Luke."
"Nope," Wedge said firmly. "I have been battling this planet the whole time, I'm not going to rest until I see the end of it."
Wedge didn't breathe easy until the ship finally cleared the last cloud. Wedge pulled up the hyperspace coordinates and punched them in with quick, vengeful little jerks, his arm carrying some of the ache from his days of rough flight.
There was a hand on his shoulder, and Wedge half expected the pain to vanish again. But Mara just squeezed his shoulder and slipped into the co-pilots seat. "Can I?" she asked, gesturing at the hyperspace bar.
"Be my guest," Wedge gave her a short bow.
With a little flourish of her fingers, Mara reached for the bar and pulled it, slipping them between the stars.
"Good riddance," Wedge said, making a rude gesture in the direction of the planet.
"I'm never going back there," Mara declared.
"I'm going back. With a New Republic fleet. Wipe that damn cultist biodome off the map."
Mara gave an approving hum. "Let me know. I'm willing to rethink my stance for that party." As she spoke, she reached over and unbuckled Wedge's harness. "Luke's coming out of his trance, now. He should have you there."
Wedge sighed, and gave Mara a look.
Mara waved him off. "Between the two of us, which one of us do you think is better at comfort? I'll make sure nothing crashes into us, you go reassure Luke."
Wedge shook his head, but went back to check on Luke anyway.
True to Mara's estimate, Luke was stirring, and Wedge crouched down next to him. "Luke?"
Luke's eyes slowly cracked open, and he winced, bringing a hand up to shield himself from the shuttle's interior light.
"How’re you feeling?" Wedge asked carefully.
"Horrible," Luke spat out, and Wedge couldn't help but smile at the complete lack of false cheer. Luke glared at him. "You don't need to be so happy about my suffering." Luke gave a petulant little huff, leaning into the brat that he really only let himself be around Wedge.
Wedge kept smiling. Luke sounded like himself. A grumpy, groggy version of himself. "Just glad to have you back."
Luke let his hand fall to his temples and rubbed. "Glad to be here. I—" Luke froze as his fingers brushed the edge of the crown. He slowly grabbed it, taking it off his head as he looked down at himself. "What am I wearing?"
Wedge couldn't help the choked chuckles that came out of him. Luke kicked his foot out, catching Wedge's shin. Wedge pressed the backs of his knuckles against his mouth until he got himself under control. "What…do you remember?"
Some of the levity fell off at that statement. For all the humor in Luke's cheerful drugged state, he had been alone with the cultists for two weeks. Anything could have happened during that time.
Luke shook his head slowly, setting the crown down on the seat next to him with a small shudder. "They...had me on something. It's not…really clear. But they didn't…I don't think they asked me to do anything dangerous. They wanted me to...tell stories about Vader? And...rule them?" Luke looked up and shook his head. "I don't know, it was confusing."
"Apparently they had very definite ideas about ceremonial garb, too." Wedge gestured.
"It really is the height of Sith Impersonator fashion, isn't it? Thank the Force no reporters were with you. I wouldn't want to figure out how to spin this picture. You know what's awful?" Luke asked, a sheepish hint to his voice. "I'm pretty sure that at the time I really loved it."
Wedge shook his head. "No accounting for taste when you're high."
Luke gave a short laugh, which choked, and turned into a hiccuping shudder. "Sorry, I…even though nothing really terrible happened, it's still horrifying…" He clenched his hands into fists, before spitting out, "They took my mind away from me."
"Hey, hey, Luke." Wedge reached up, gathering both Luke's hands between his own and squeezing. "When they wanted you to hurt us, you refused. We're here. You got us out."
Luke took a shaky breath and nodded. "You're right." He tilted his head. "Mara too, right? I wasn't imagining that?"
"You weren't. She's the one that tipped me off you were captured. I thought you were off drinking tea in tunnels." Wedge smiled in soft amusement. "Just as well she needed a pilot for the infiltration plan, otherwise I probably wouldn't have known you went missing until you strolled back into the Academy with her in tow."
Luke narrowed his eyes. "Yes. If my...admittedly spotty memory serves, you two were getting along pretty well. I think that's the first time I've seen you do something other than glare at her and tell me I was making a terrible decision."
Wedge ducked his head, releasing Luke's hands and shifting so he was sitting next to Luke. "We had three days together trapped in a little speeder. It's hard to hate someone after that."
Luke wrinkled his nose. "I think it would be really easy to hate someone after that."
"Well," Wedge shrugged, not sure what to say. "Not for me and Mara. I think I get what you see in her, Luke. She's really amazing."
"I'd've sworn the twin suns would freeze over before I ever heard you say something like that," Luke said, raising an eyebrow.
Wedge felt some heat along his cheeks. "Well, I guess things are about to get really cold on Tatooine, then."
Luke gave a bright laugh, and poked Wedge's cheek. "This is amazing. Almost worth being kidnapped."
Wedge batted his hand away. "Let’s shoot for less traumatic emotional growth next time. I was really worried about you." He paused. 'We both were."
"Aw." Luke gave a little sigh. "I'd promise not to do it again, but…"
Wedge shrugged. "Perils of the job." He hesitated a moment, not sure if he should say the thought that had jumped into his mind. Feeling a little impulsive, he forged ahead. "Mara's a good person to have at your back in that."
Luke nodded. "I am glad I'll be getting less grief about inviting her along to things."
"No grief at all. I'll issue the invitation. And…" Wedge trailed off, trying to find the shape of the words. "Look, I've gotten the feeling that you and she might be...headed somewhere. Relationship-wise. I just want you to know that I'll support that too."
Luke got a complicated look on his face. "That's going a bit beyond post-mission goodwill."
Wedge gave a rueful smile. "I knew the two of you were heading somewhere long before the mission. Or could be, at least. She's the one person in the universe who can understand what you're going through with the Force who isn't trained by you or currently trying to kill you. I'm not trying to play matchmaker, I'm just saying that if things turn out that way, you'll have my full support."
Luke didn't seem as happy with this proclamation as Wedge had hoped he would be. Luke's brow furrowed, and he said, "Thanks," a little distantly. After another moment, Luke said, "I'm going to go check in with Mara. Could you...see if there's anything else I can wear on this shuttle?"
Wedge nodded. "Sure thing."
Wedge rummaged around the back of the shuttle, hoping to find some crew gear that would fit Luke. As he pried open cubbies and looked in tubs, he was plagued by a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. He had hoped that Luke would feel relieved to get Wedge's approval. Maybe it didn't actually matter that much to him. Luke had always done what he wanted, he had never needed someone else to justify his decisions.
Wedge managed to find some maintenance coveralls that looked like they'd only be slightly big on Luke's slim frame. He bundled them up under his arm and walked back to the cockpit. He hesitated just out of sight, not wanting to interrupt anything important.
"Seriously, Luke," Mara said, sounding exasperated. "I figured you two were married this whole time."
"No," Luke's voice was uncomfortable, low and a little pained. "It's not like that for us."
"Why not? The man adores you. How many years does someone have to hang around and do your kriffing taxes before you notice them! You're lucky to have him—now move before you lose him."
"Did you two talk?" Luke finally said, after a long silence. "Plan out this little two-pronged attack?"
"Two-pronged...ah, so, Wedge let you know he's interested." Mara sounded conflicted, even as she said, "Good, it's about time."
Well, Wedge could take a hint. Enough eavesdropping.
"I didn't, as a matter of fact." Wedge shouldered his way into the cockpit, offering Luke the coveralls. "I did my best to throw him at you."
Mara gave a rueful laugh. "No wonder he just looked pissed. Indecision the other way."
"Did it occur to either of you that I might have my own reasons for not pursuing anything?" Luke snapped.
Wedge gave Mara an uneasy glance, before they both turned back to Luke. Luke took a slow breath, straightened, and turned to Mara.
"Mara, you are amazing. You're smart, you're strong, and I can count on you to consistently call me on my banthashit."
Wedge nodded along, understanding Luke's assessment.
"And you leave," Luke continued bluntly. "You're amazing, and you're not ready to commit to anything. Maybe you never will be. And that's okay, but unfortunately, I don't really want a relationship where my partner just comes to visit every now and again."
Mara nodded emphatically. "That's exactly why I said that you and Wedge—"
"Wedge broke my heart." Luke cut her off with a solemn finality, before turning to Wedge. "And I understand it. I really do. I was caught up in this thing you didn't understand, and I put it ahead of the things you felt were really important. And it's still true. Making a place and a future for Force-sensitive people still feels like what I'm called to do."
Wedge gave Luke a sad smile. "I've tried to support you, but you're right, I really don't understand it. You deserve someone who does."
Luke sighed. "It's not really about the understanding. I messed up when we were...an us. I broke it. I get that. I haven't managed to break our friendship. Going after you again seems like the fastest way to manage to destroy that, too."
Wedge couldn't deny the truth in Luke's words. It was his own concerns, echoed back. Luke needed a real partner who understood the Force. He didn't need some former flyboy nagging him about safety.
Luke sighed. "But, honestly, the real reason I haven't said anything to either one of you is that it'd be really rude, considering I'm also madly in love with the other."
Wedge stiffened, glancing at Mara out of the corner of his eye. Mara was looking back at him, a mirrored expression of shock on her face. Wedge quirked a rueful smile over at her. She blinked and inclined her head in return. She relaxed a little, something amused in the turn of her lip.
"So, while I'm enjoying this newfound mutual respect party you've got going on, it doesn't change things. Please," Luke said, and Wedge turned back to find Luke watching both of them, a sort of gentle sorrow on his face. Wedge had always hated that expression. Luke only got it when he really felt alone. "Stop trying to push each other at me. I have no interest in choosing."
Wedge clenched his hands. He wanted to reach for Luke. Cross the distance and hold Luke for himself or grab him by his ridiculous black robes and shove him at Mara. Luke was so full of love. He deserved better than this life lived alone he seemed to be carving out for himself.
But he couldn't. For two simple reasons: he couldn't take Luke into his arms without knowing that he was denying him a chance with Mara and he couldn't watch Luke be with Mara without feeling left out himself.
"Is that all?" Mara asked.
"All?" Luke made a face. "I think that's it, yeah, but isn't that enough?"
Mara shook her head, giving Luke an affectionate glance. "I'm the one that calls you on your banthashit, Skywalker. And right now you're full of it."
Luke frostily raised an eyebrow.
Mara smiled, stood up, and grabbed Wedge's shoulder, turning Wedge towards her. "Hey, flyboy."
Wedge was hyperware of the audience, he couldn't help but be captured by Mara's gaze, focused fully on him.
"Luke doesn't want to choose. And I'm not really interested in making him." Mara reached forward with her other hand, cradling Wedge's jaw. "It also solves another problem that just started cropping up for me in the last couple days."
"And what's that?" Wedge asked, wincing at the way his voice cracked.
"I don't want to choose either," Mara said, before leaning in and kissing him.
For a long second, Wedge froze, not sure what to do with his hands, with himself. Mara was kissing him, and he was letting her, and Luke was in the room watching and...
While Wedge's mind ran in frantic circles, Wedge's body figured out exactly what it wanted to be doing. One hand slipped to Mara's back, the other went up in the back of her hair. He held her close, clung to her with the same firmness that had kept them anchored on that howling planet. And she gave him passion in return, breathing life into his lips and fire into his veins. They fit naturally, perfectly, and when they pulled apart, Wedge knew exactly what he needed to say.
"Not interested in choosing either," he said, smiling down at her.
Mara turned in his arms, leaning back against his chest as she looked over at Luke. "You want in on this, farmboy?" She tipped her head up, nuzzling slightly against Wedge's chin. "I think I can keep Wedge from breaking your heart again."
"I..." Luke looked from one to the other, the gentle sadness gone, replaced by something disbelieving.
Wedge could read Luke, though, and there was hope in the posture, too. "And who knows? Maybe with both of us at the Academy, Mara might come around a bit more."
"Wedge, Mara, I—I don't know what...it's—"
Wedge could feel Mara sigh in frustration against him, but he just smiled. Luke, unable to give up his view of what the universe should look like to see it as it actually was. That determination made him a visionary, but sometimes, a pragmatist was needed. Wedge had gotten pretty good at nudging Luke out of his sacrificial stupidity over the years.
"Take your time figuring it out, Luke," Wedge said, sliding his hand so it splayed against Mara's belly, hitching her closer to him. "Consider it an open invitation. Unless…" Wedge paused, ducking so he could look at Mara, "Are you only interested in a package deal?"
Mara caught the glint in his eye, and smiled as she slowly shook her head. "You're a catch. Not interested in letting you slip away."
Mara pressed up on her toes, kissing him again. Wedge made it showy, groaning softly against her mouth, tracing his hand along the outside of her shoulder. Mara seemed to catch the mood, reaching her hand up to tangle in Wedge's hair. A delicious ache bloomed where she gripped, and he groaned into the kiss even more.
Luke made an indignant noise. "You're just...right in front of me?"
Wedge pulled back and looked over at Luke, arching an eyebrow. "Feeling left out?"
"You're awful," Luke said, crossing the two steps needed to take Wedge's jaw, and pull him into a kiss.
It was like the last kiss Wedge had given Luke, easy and full of affection in the icy wasteland of Hoth. No, it was even more than that, it was like they had been kissing for all the intervening years. All the late nights with hot chocolate and caf, all the debates about books, all the time spent training, it was like they had all been kisses, in their own way. The connection between them was stronger than ever. The only question was why they had waited so long.
Mara laughed from where she was half-sandwiched between them. "I can't believe that worked."
"He wanted it. He just needed something to break through his shell of self-sacrifice. Indignation works really well."
"I'll have to remember that."
"I am right here, you know. I can hear everything you—"
Mara reached forward and wrapped her arms around Luke's neck, pulling him down for a kiss. It was a good kiss, considering the way Luke melted into it, his hands gently coming up to frame Mara's face, his thumbs stroking along the ridges of her cheeks. They looked right together.
"That's how I do it," Mara said, slightly breathlessly as Luke pulled away again.
"I'll keep that in mind," Wedge said.
"You're both awful," Luke informed them mock-seriously. Gone was that gentle sadness, entirely replaced by joy.
"You love us," Wedge responded, looping his arm around Mara again and kissing the side of her temple.
"I do," Luke said, reaching forward and taking both of their hands. Wedge felt Luke's gentle squeeze as Luke looked from one of them to the other. "I really do."