Nomad City, Nkllon 9 ABY
Darkness rippled outside Nomad City in layers of creeping shadow. Luke’s thoughts mirrored the gloom’s mercurial restlessness. Fragments of recent memory, Intelligence reports, and intuition ghosted through his mind, refusing to coalesce into anything useful.
Steps rang on the deck plates behind him. “I know you’re not up here for the view,” Han said gruffly, stopping beside him. He folded his arms across his chest, eyes flickering over Luke’s reflection in the thick, cloudy transparisteel of the converted Dreadnaught’s small viewports.
“I can’t go with her.” Luke sighed, raising a hand to his eyes. He rubbed with his middle finger and thumb, trying to ease their tired sting. “I know you want me to. I know she wants me to. I want to. But I can’t.”
“Chewie will take care of her,” Han replied with bravado neither of them felt. “Once he gets her to Kashyyyk, the whole damn population will protect her.”
Luke accepted that for the form of forgiveness it was. “I know.”
“Where will you go?” He turned his head this time, examining Luke directly.
“Where?” Han frowned, his brow furrowing.
“According to Wedge, it’s where all the rumors put the mysterious Jedi Master everyone’s suddenly talking about.” Luke dropped his hand and finally met his friend’s gaze. “It’s not a coincidence, Han. The attacks on you, me, and Leia. The Empire suddenly rallying this year, regaining ground. Rumors of an old Master appearing from nowhere.” He gestured, a short, sharp jerk of his hand. “It’s connected – I know it is, I just don’t know how. Jomark is the only lead I have to figure it out.”
“Sure you should go chasin’ that down alone?” Han rubbed his chin. “Lando and I can —.”
“You have your own responsibilities,” Luke interrupted, shaking his head firmly. “Finding that smuggler has to be your top priority.” He’d never heard of Talon Karrde before but both Han and Lando believed he could be the NR’s ticket to getting the cargo runners it needed so badly. Luke trusted their judgment. “Besides, Jomark might end up being nothing more than a wild bantha chase.” He forced a smile. “I’ll be all right.”
“Yeah.” Han didn’t sound convinced. His lips pursed. “The Force isn’t helpin’ you any more than it is Leia, huh?” He rolled a hand in a circular motion. “As far as seein’ what’s comin’, I mean.”
Luke snorted, managing to keep the sound just the wry side of bitter. “Fey’lya’s been running his mouth again, I take it.”
Han grunted. “He is pretty stuck on his idea of you as a visionary, these days. I know it doesn’t work that way,” he groused. “I do. Hell, half the war would have gone different if it did. I just —,” he spread his hands in frustration. “You’re doin’ everything right. So’s Leia, and now there’s the twins…” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Just doesn’t seem right that the Force is so damn quiet when it's supposed to be an ally.”
“We’re all servants of the Force,” Luke lifted one shoulder and dropped it in a resigned shrug. “It could be worse.” He gave Han a half-smile. “We’ll have lots of bedtime stories to tell the twins when they’re older.”
“Only if you live to tell them,” Han said pointedly, narrowing his eyes. “So don’t do anything stupid, Kid.”
“Hey,” Han’s mouth quirked into a crooked grin. “It’s me.”
Talon Karrde’s Estate, Iloh
Mara came back to her senses slowly, the world taking shape around her in disjointed bits. Scents registered first, as they always inexplicably did. Her scattered mind translated the citrus-salt breeze and thick amber aroma of expensive floor polish to safety and welcome back.
Touch was more sluggish to return but eventually she parsed the cool body-wood floor beneath her cheek and a warm, dearly loved weight on her left shoulder blade.
A soft click near her head made her scrape open gritty eyes. The golden light of the planet’s binary suns was gone, the diffuse artificial lighting of the studio gentle on her raw senses. Her sight resolved on a crystal goblet half full of naiana, just settling on the floor before her. The rich, ruby-hued wine rippled slightly as long, elegant fingers released their hold on the glass.
Mara wriggled her fingers, testing her bodily control, then inched a leaden arm out. “How long?” The words scratched out of her sore throat.
“Sixteen hours,” Karrde answered, stepping out of her limited line of sight.
Mara scrunched her nose in disgust when her hand came into view. It was streaked in chalk and charcoal. All the usual suspects were accounted for - inky black, firebird red, Imperial blue. There were traces of white near her wrist, at least. That was promising.
“Our Informant was quite effusive.”
Something in her chest tightened. “You didn’t -?”
“The fugue broke naturally.”
Relief hit her like the crest of a wave, leaving her lightheaded and dizzy. He hadn’t intervened. She hadn’t failed. Her fingertips connected with the cold, faceted base of the goblet, re-centering her, but she knew better than to try to move the glass yet.
A large, strong hand touched the back of her head - rested just an instant on her sweat-matted hair. “You did very well, Mara.”
Her insides went liquid, the hot rush of approval rightfully earned better than any drug. The feeling lingered as Karrde removed his hand, the rustle of fabric and the steady cadence of his steps marking his departure from the room. Mara let herself lay still, soaking in the high of it until the weight on her back shifted. Small pricks moved up her back as Minion walked from her left shoulder blade to the nape of her neck, his claws poking through the thin weave of her adesote tunic. His small snout prodded behind her right ear and he huffed expectantly, his breath tickling the delicate skin. Mara’s lips curved up.
“Impatient, iom unu?”
The little orange lizard wiggled and butted his head against her affectionately, a delighted cackle-purr starting in his belly at the sound of her voice.
Sixteen hours. He was probably starving. Withdrawing her fingers from the goblet, Mara cautiously pushed her weary body upright until she could fold her stiff legs beneath her.
Minion adjusted with her, scuttling over to nestle happily in his customary spot on her left shoulder. She curled her left hand up to scratch the bony ridges that flared at the back of his head as she carefully picked up and tipped back the dram of wine with her right. It had a sharp, invigorating bite that spread down her chest as she swallowed, making her feel brighter, more alert.
With that alertness, habit kicked in. Setting the goblet back down - one of the cleaning droids would come for it - she skimmed her gaze over the clari-crystalline walls and partitions scattered throughout the airy, high-ceilinged room. Wildly sketched diagrams and sprawling, uneven Aurebesh letters and numbers were plastered across every available surface. Karrde hadn’t been exaggerating about the Force’s effusiveness.
An old combination of curiosity, dread and hope shot through her, jitteriness blossoming under her skin like she’d downed too many stim pills. Reggie would be cleaning up the recordings already. Waiting for her with files and questions. There were patterns to find, research to do. The thought kicked any remaining sluggishness out of her body faster than an entire pot of high-test caf.
“Come on,” she said to Minion, pushing determinedly to her feet. “Time to work.”
The Force sets our heroes on a collision course.
Meditating in an X-wing had its benefits and its drawbacks. On the plus side, it was quiet. There were no comms. No one unexpectedly appearing at his door, demanding that he drop everything and attend to the latest crisis or Council summons. In fact, it sometimes felt like hyperspace was the only place he got that kind of quiet these days.
On the downside, he still hadn’t managed to stay planet-side on Coruscant long enough for Wedge to steal the ship for long-overdue upgrades and the pneudraulic capillary system in his seat was now thoroughly worn out. The ever-shifting landscape of unpleasantly hard lumps this created against his legs, rear, and back was relatively easy to ignore while actively flying when his mind was full of other things. It became a much more serious inconvenience when trying to settle into meditation.
You sat in the mud on Dagobah, Luke reminded himself, stoically, pressing his lips together and determinedly closing his eyes. A lumpy, uncomfortable ship seat is practically a luxury.
The remonstrance did to little help either his mind or body settle, but it almost didn’t matter. Even when he did sink deeply enough into his awareness of the Force to properly meditate, he found its currents as dark and choppy as his thoughts. Here and there concentrated disturbances cut through the flow like rough-scaled fish skidding along his skin in a churning river. Quick flashes, glints of light and shadow, abrasive against his senses for a split second before they vanished out of reach.
He wondered irritably if it was his internal disquiet that made his meditation dark and indistinct, or if it was the unrest pulsating through the Force that had made his mind so disorderly of late. His teachers had left him before he’d had the chance to ask such finely attuned questions. He shouldn’t hold that against them.
An electronic shriek split his thoughts and Luke jumped, his body jerking painfully against his safety harness. Rattled, he reached to rub his gummy eyes and aching jaw - had he been clenching it? His gloved hand bumped his helmet and reality rushed in. The X-wing’s instrument panel was a sea of yellow and orange, warning and error lights lit up from one end to the other. Artoo burbled frantically and Luke glanced up from his dash, trying to orient himself. Adrenaline shot down his spine and straight out to his extremities, his fingers and toes tingling with the jolt.
The starlines had collapsed back into single points, their light dim in the backwash of flames shooting out of a crippled ship dead ahead. His mind kicked straight into battle mode and Luke keyed the X-wing back to manual control as he rapidly assessed the starscape.
The blazing ship - some kind of light freighter - was boiling atmosphere into the vacuum through a gaping hole in its side. There was no doubt about what had vaporized its hull plating - an Imperial Star Destroyer loomed behind it, its angular nose positioned so its Command Deck would have a clear view of the carnage. To the left of the battlefield, an Interdictor Cruiser held position, pinning the dying ship in place.
That answered the question of what had pulled him out of hyperspace - the blue cone of the interdiction field filled his instrument screen. With effort, Luke swallowed a swell of fear. This wasn’t a trap for him. Consumed with their actual prey, the Imperials might not even have noticed their accidental catch. He could just leave - carefully - and they’d never have to know he’d been there.
“Find me the nearest edge of that interdiction cone,” he called to Artoo, swinging the ship around hard and revving the engines. “We’re getting out of here.”
The etheric rudder protested his rough handling and Artoo trilled his affirmative loudly over the noise.
“Unidentified starfighter,” a crisp, harsh voice cut through his speakers. “This is the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera. Transmit your identification code and state your business.”
Of course it had been too much to hope they hadn’t noticed him. On impulse, Luke reached into the Force, concentrating his attention for just a moment on the burning freighter. There was no life on board. Whoever had crewed it, they were already dead or captured and beyond his aid - which meant he could use the crippled ship to his advantage without guilt.
Not bothering to acknowledge the comm, he threw the X-wing into a stomach-churning drop. The acceleration compensator whined and he grimaced - if he made it out of this, he was getting the ship in for upgrades as soon as he got back to Coruscant. No more delays.
“Unidentified starfighter.” The voice on the comm had gone from haughty to incensed. Imperials resented being ignored. “I repeat, transmit your identification code or prepare to be detained!”
“I really need to let Han install one of those false ID code generators. Artoo, where’s that estimate?”
The astromech whistled and a diagram popped up on the scope. Luke winced. “That far, huh? Well, this’ll be fun. Hang on.”
“Unidentified starfighter -.”
Whatever berating the Chimaera intended to blister his ears with was lost in the roar of the drives as Luke shoved the ship to full power. Artoo squealed and Luke shouted over the din.
“No! Leave the deflector shields down! We need everything we’ve got in speed.”
At this range, deflector shields wouldn’t help them much anyway if the Star Destroyer decided it really wanted to vaporize them. For better or worse, though, the Imperials didn’t seem inclined to eliminate him just yet - though the thought that they wanted to take him alive wasn’t particularly comforting.
A warning chime sent his eyes darting to his scopes - the Imperials were moving, trying to angle around the freighter for a clean line of sight with which their tractor beams could ensnare him. Luke did the math, fast. They would gain their position before he got clear of the interdiction zone. He needed to buy himself time.
“Artoo,” he yelled over the screaming drives and laid on the switches, trying to eke out a little more power from the straining fighter. “Reprogram one of the proton torpedoes. I want to drop it at zero delta-v, then have it turn and head straight aft - cold. No sensors or homing codes, okay?”
The droid sang an affirmative.
“Great. As soon as it’s done, give me a warning and then let it go.” Keeping one eye on the rest of his controls, Luke glued the other to his rear scope and pushed a little deeper into the Force - he’d have to guide the torpedo himself to make sure it hit its mark.
Artoo beeped and the roaring X-wing shivered slightly as the torpedo dropped. Luke ghosted a Force touch across it and then it hit the freighter, igniting a chain reaction of detonations that engulfed the vessel in an enormous ball of fire. A few seconds - he just needed a few more seconds.
Artoo’s high-pitched shriek seemed to split his skull in the same instant that pain exploded in the back of his head as the Imp Star’s tractor beam found its mark and locked them down with a brutally jarring impact. For a second, the scopes blurred in his vision. Then they crystalized again to show the X-wing swinging out of its straight-line drive for the edge of the interdiction field in a seamless arc. In a few more seconds, Luke knew, a second beam would latch on, securing the ship in an inescapable spiral directly into the gaping maw of the Star Destroyer’s hangar bay.
“Unidentified starfighter.” The voice on the comm was intolerably smug this time. “You have no chance of escape. Further efforts will merely damage your vessel. You are ordered to power down and prepare to dock.”
Luke gritted his teeth. Time to do something stupid. “Artoo, on my signal, I want you to reverse-trigger the acceleration compensator. Full power - bypass whatever you have to.”
The droid wailed its disapproval of the insanely risky plan but complied. Luke eyed his scopes, watching hawkishly as the X-wing’s curving arc brought it nearly to the edge of the interdiction cone.
With a horrific screech of stressed electronics, the X-wing came to a dead stop then slingshotted forward abruptly free of the tractor beam’s hold. Luke jammed his thumbs into the firing buttons, loosing a pair of proton torpedos behind him. Pushing the drives for all that they had, he rocketed the ship forward, holding his breath until the scopes showed the grasping tractor beams locking onto the decoy torpedoes, finally giving him the precious out he needed.
“Find us light speed coordinates! Anywhere that’s not here!”
Truly furious now and unable to compensate quickly enough with its tractor beams, the Star Destroyer opened up its banks of laser cannons. Luke let the Force take over completely, jinking and juking the fighter through the barrage on pure instinct. A single shot got through, taking out his dorsal laser cannon in a cloud of superheated plasma. Luke’s gut twisted as a second shot scored a black trail into the canopy a few inches above his head.
Artoo warbled and hope surged. “Go! Go!”
The noise that followed was indescribable and drilled into Luke’s brain like a burning spike. The stars stretched into the hypnotic white lines of hyperspace that had always meant freedom. Then everything went black.
The first rays of Iloh’s twin suns kissed Mara’s freckled shoulder and spilled across the wide balcony, turning its temperature-controlled glimmer stone surface into a sea of glittering light. On her other shoulder, Minion snored softly and Mara spared him a glance, the corners of her mouth twitching up as his purple tongue flicked out idly against her skin in his sleep.
She didn’t usually feel the ticklish sensation - it was only safe to wear the loose, lower-necked tops she preferred here in her sanctuary. The only other person ever here was Karrde and he already knew about the marks etched beneath her left collarbone.
Reggie appeared at the doorway to the villa, floating smoothly between the gauzy white curtains that fluttered in the early morning sea-salt breeze. Two of his slender mechanical arms braced a large tray laden with china and wafting delicious aromas.
“Have you reached the lascivious bits yet?” The droid asked, heading directly for the table that dominated the left corner of the balcony overlooking the turquoise sea. “I must say, the Force seems quite convinced about Jedi Skywalker’s sexual prowess.”
Mara rolled her eyes and dropped her right hand to her side, conveniently hiding her quick thumbing off of the screen showing the chiaroscuro she’d made during her fugue of Skywalker’s well-muscled, thoroughly naked body stretched out over hers.
“Really,” Reggie twisted his domed head to look at her.
Although he could see perfectly well out of any of his eight visual sensor nodes, he preferred to “look” at beings through his two primary nodes, which Aves had outfitted with violet lenses. It gave him a startlingly anthropomorphic appearance that could be slightly discomfiting when, as now, he continued with tasks like setting the table in perfect High Society formation using four arms and without spilling a drop, all while “not looking.”
“If it’s even remotely accurate,” he continued, “the man should skip asking the New Republic Council for money and just fund his New Order by making holo-porn.”
“I believe the Force frowns on that sort of thing.” Emerging from between curtains as Reggie had, Karrde sounded amused. Clean and pressed, he was casually debonair in his white shirt and fawn-colored trousers, his dark hair pulled back in a tail at the nape of his neck.
His eyes flicked over her and Mara's insides warmed at the approval in his gaze when he found her barefoot and wearing her favorite top. He considered it an accomplishment to make her feel safe, she thought. That or he liked being privy to things no one else was. Probably both.
“That’s quite a matter of dispute, you know,” Reggie countered, slyly. “Jedi precepts about physical intercourse are —.”
“Not something I want to talk about over breakfast,” Mara interrupted, firmly. She lifted the datapad and wiggled it. “Breakfast is for financials - save the salacious gossip for dinner.”
Reggie feigned a deeply disappointed sigh - a truly entertaining sound that Mara had yet to figure out how he managed. But he floated back from the table, waving them to sit. “Financials.” He rotated his domed head a few degrees in either direction in his best impression of a regretful head shake. “It’s a miracle you don’t give yourself indigestion every day. Oh, my! I’ve forgotten the scones!” Swiveling, he zipped off back into the house.
Karrde settled into the chair waiting for him on the table’s inside edge. “I don’t suppose you slept.”
“I can sleep on the ship.” Mara padded forward and sank onto the plush bench opposite him. Setting her datapad to the side and tucking one foot beneath her, she reached for tall, fluted teapot decorated in black and gold filigree that Reggie had set out while Karrde snapped a napkin open on his lap. “Did you see that the price of Ebla grain stabilized? We should route someone to collect some - hold it in the warehouse at Hijarna until our contacts on Abregado-Rae are ready for their next order. It’s a minor inconvenience but it could double our profit.”
Karrde waited, silently respectful while Mara measured out loose tea leaves, then added water heated to exactly the right temperature in a ceremonial swirl, murmuring the traditional blessings through the aromatic steam as she capped the pot and then swathed it in a thermal lace wrapper.
“A worthwhile suggestion,” he picked up smoothly when she’d finished and reached for the flower-petal shaped bowl of dried fruit and crisped grain. He poured himself a steaming cup of thick caf and doctored it with heavy cream. “Pass it along to Aves.”
“You want me to go find out what happened to that sensor array in the Athega System,” she guessed, spooning cultured cream over her cereal and mixing it neatly.
“Yes.” Karrde began lifting domed plate covers and served himself a respectable portion of creamy herbed eggs, nuna sausage, and gravelwheat toast. “As you recall, we placed that beacon in response to a prompting from your last set of visions. There’s always a possibility it’s simply been struck by space debris, but I have a hunch its going offline is related to something more. I’ve asked Faughn to meet us this afternoon.”
“She’ll take you and I will get the Sudden Demise,” Mara deduced, taking a bite of her breakfast.
“And Ghent.” Karrde chewed a moment, then added, “Reggie will go with you, of course.”
Mara stifled a snort and reached for the teapot. “Faughn banned him from her ship again?”
“Banned might be a strong word,” Karrde said, diplomatically.
“She’s entirely unreasonable!” Reggie reappeared, a plate of herb-speckled scones in one gripper. “I was merely trying to educate her on —.”
“We still have work to do,” Mara cut him off, sharing a bemused glance with Karrde. “I expect to spend the whole trip going over the latest information from Our Informant.” The title was really too polite for an entity as mannerless as the Force, but Karrde had chosen the euphemism and Mara respected his decisions.
“Well,” Reggie preened, setting the plate down and floating back a little. “I am essential to the process.”
“We also need to review last quarter’s financials,” Mara reminded him, stirring precise amounts of cream and honey power into her tea. “And finish the projections for the Feast investment project.” She was also itching to spend a few quiet hours with the latest pirated Intel reports from both the NR and the Imperial Remnant, but work came before pleasure. Always.
“I’ve already updated the records to show that I owe you additional rest days,” Karrde said, dabbing at his mouth with his napkin. “We’re leaving a day and a half early this time and I’ve credited it to your tally.”
“Keep going like this,” Reggie interjected disapprovingly, “and she’ll own this place for a year when she decides to actually use any of her saved time.”
“She already owns half of it,” Karrde returned, unperturbed. “I prefer the Hijarna estate, myself, of course. Much more impressive for guests.”
Mara snorted into her tea. Guests. As if Karrde ever invited anyone but Mazzic’s Mistryl bodyguard to his bed. The sound was a step too far and Minion roused, giving a little disgruntled grumble at waking. He butted her jaw with his head crankily. Mara cooed at him - there was no one but Talon and Reggie around to see - and plucked one of the freshly baked scones off the tray. Breaking off a small piece, she offered it to him. The little lizard huffed.
“I’m not buttering it for you,” she informed him dryly.
Karrde pretended to be scandalized by the mere suggestion and Mara pointedly ignored him. She knew exactly how much he spent every month spoiling his vornskyrs on raw brualki, the pushover. Minion huffed again for show but snatched the bread from her fingers, his eyes slitting and his tiny clawed feet beginning to knead her shoulder in contentment as he chewed.
“If you’re done feeding that creature’s delusions of grandeur,” Karrde said, the twitching corners of his mouth belying his dour tone, “we should discuss your to-do list en route to the Athega system. I have a few things to add.”
1. Luke's encounter with the Chimaera is a modified version of how the same battle occurs in TTT. Sentences and phrases have been borrowed from that book for this scene; all credits for them are due to the Great Zahn.
2. The Sudden Demise's make and model are not listed in canon and I have taken creative liberties with it.
3. Luke's status is somewhat ambiguous during this period of canon; for the purposes of this story, I have operated on the understanding that he is a mostly independent agent. While he is ostensibly working on a plan to re-start the Order, that work is routinely interrupted by deployments on behalf the High Council for governmental and diplomatic purposes. To that end, the NR military maintains his X-wing to the same standards are Rogue Squadron's. (Or attempts to, around his constant travels.)
4. In my head, Reggie has a faint Coruscanti (i.e. posh British) accent.
5. In case it isn't already obvious from my previous body of work and this chapter, I have a not-so-minor food obsession. It will continue to make appearances. I offer no apologies.
Consciousness slammed back with the bruising jerk of the safety harness across his chest and a deafening ringing in his ears. Years of pilot’s drills and combat experience had Luke’s hands automatically flexing away from the controls, away from the possibility of accidentally accelerating or firing or activating anything that might make the situation worse. He blinked, trying to clear the smear of red from his vision and grimaced at the taste of copper on his tongue.
“Artoo.” The word came out in a gurgle and Luke breathed through the urge to gag as he swallowed the blood in his mouth. Clearing his throat he tried again. “Artoo? What happened?”
Luke pulled on the Force. Clarity rushed in, fresh and bracing. His vision resolved and the pounding of his heart leveled off enough for the ringing in his ears to fade. The X-wing’s dashboard was a mottled disaster of blackened scopes and screens streaming endless red like a body bleeding out. Above it, through the cockpit’s cracked canopy, he found an endless stretch of empty space lit only by the faintest sheen of cold, distant starlight. A pit opened in his gut.
Luke started to twist, then stopped when pain lanced up his spine. Unlatching his harness he tried again, moving more carefully. Turning his whole body as best he could, he peered back toward the droid port. The pit is his gut widened to a chasm. Artoo sat motionless in his slot, his domed shell dark and streaked with carbon scoring.
Something glinted behind the droid and Luke ignored the fire that shot through his back this time, twisting his body in the tight space to see around the astromech. Hope surged bright and fierce.
A sensor relay hung in the empty space behind the drifting X-wing. An old Imperial model if he had to guess. It was badly dented, one of its long, spindly arms reduced to a crumpled ball of twisted metal. He’d probably hit it upon reversion, he realized with a flash of irony. It had to be the only thing in a few dozen light-years and he’d come out literally on top of it.
The only question now was who it belonged to. If it belonged to the Imperials he’d just escaped, they’d no doubt make an appearance soon. But repurposing old military tech was a common practice and there was a fair chance it might belong to someone else. Someone who would help him… if they could be bothered to come along any time soon to check on their wayward array. If they weren’t in a hurry the Imperials still might find him first.
“Better not wait around to find out,” he decided out loud, turning back around to face his dashboard. “All right, triage.”
Checking life support and mobility had to come first. Once he knew his limits, he could tackle the biggest problems first - maybe scavenge some parts from the array for patchwork repairs, enough to limp away if he had to.
“Hang in there, Artoo,” he told the silent droid as he started the emergency diagnostic process. “I’ll have us out of this in no time.”
The Sudden Demise had started life as a Clone Wars-era Separatist troop transport. It’s exterior looked much the same as it had when Karrde had won it in a game of hintaro on Obroa-skai - scarred, dented, and scuffed. The same could not be said of its interior.
“It’s a test.” Mara dusted off her hands and eyed the nutrient frames critically. “To see if the Imperials are actually onto something or just blowing exhaust out their ports.”
“You don’t really think there’s profit in this, do you?” Faughn asked, dubiously. “What would anyone want with fat, lazy lizards that are hard to keep alive?
“Hope that you never find out,” Mara replied, seriously.
Faughn’s expression darkened, concern and wariness flitting over her face before she shook her head. “Well, good luck with them - and the rest of your company. I don’t know how you manage Ghent and Reggie in the same confined space for days at a time.”
“The trick is to keep them busy,” Mara flashed her a quick smile. “Where’s Karrde?”
“Already transferred.” Faughn picked up the tool case she’d brought to help get the ysalamiri frames moved over onto the Demise and secured. Heading for the docking tube, she paused. “Stay sharp, Jade. Milk run or not, the Imps catch you with this,” she gestured to the frames, “and it’ll get ugly.”
If the Imperials ever caught her long enough to figure out who she was, stealing their nutrient frame design would be the least of her worries. But that information, like the value of the ysalamiri, was carefully guarded for everyone’s protection.
Mara kept her response to a curt nod. “Get Karrde back to Central. He has work to do, too.”
Faughn took her leave. Mara checked on both Ghent and Reggie, then climbed the narrow ladder to the elevated cockpit. They had an array to investigate.
Luke’s arms ached as he hauled himself back into the X-wing’s cockpit. His muscles burned with fatigue as he manually cranked the battered transparisteel canopy shut. He used the Force to anchor himself to the seat long enough to fumble the safety harness closed across his chest, then rolled his stiff neck as best he could in his helmet. For just a moment, he let his eyes slide closed and tipped his head back against the seat.
When he stopped moving, silence engulfed him. Fathomless and absolute it seemed to sink through his skin, settling into his bones alongside the cold that had taken up residence in his limbs. He remembered this feeling from Hoth - the fear that he’d never be warm again. That if he didn’t keep moving, keep generating his own heat, he’d freeze where he stood and be lost forever.
It was dangerously alluring to think of drifting away, now. Away from the pain and the cold and the suffocating mountain of headaches that would await him if he got back to civilization. Away from the grasping clutches of the Imperials who were no doubt still hunting him.
His initial hopes of using the sensor array to get help had crumbled quickly. A collision - with the X-wing, or earlier from unknown space debris, it was impossible to tell - had left it badly damaged and non-operational. He’d dismantled it scrounging for parts but there wasn’t enough left working between the ship and the array to conjure so much as a blip of comm width or a hiccup from the fragged drives.
He had no idea how long he’d been awake, struggling in zero-g with his ship’s tiny emergency tool kit, removing panels, digging around in the charred mechanical innards, scrabbling for a chance - any chance - to survive. His stomach cramped with hunger and he tried not to think about how long it had been since he’d eaten.
And yet… as he sat unmoving in the silence, an unmistakable sense of anticipation lurked around the edges of his bleary awareness. As if there was something coming. Something important, just over the horizon. Was that what death felt like, when you weren’t in the middle of a battle, your senses clouded by everyone else’s pain, death, and dark intentions?
No, he told himself, his weary mind groping for confidence he didn’t feel. The Force isn’t done with you yet. There’s still hope. Just… be patient. Trust.
The mental pep talk did nothing to reassure him, but it was enough to prompt him to take the right steps - the ones a Jedi should take - in spite of his discouragement. Taking a deep breath, he reached out and wrapped the Force around and through himself, folding his consciousness into the deep quiet of a hibernation trance to wait for a miracle.
Reggie’s dome rotated, then returned to its previous position, his violet-lensed visual sensors fixing on Mara. “Slips would like me to inform you that we are four minutes from reversion.”
“Good.” Mara saved the screen she’d been modifying and gathered her sprawl of datapads into a neat stack on the galley counter. “Let’s grab Ghent and make this quick.”
“I have tagged where we left off,” Reggie informed her, helpfully, floating along behind her as she stalked toward the tiny tech alcove where Ghent had taken up residence.
The slicer didn’t look up when she appeared behind him, wholly engrossed in the stream of data dominating his screen. Light from half a dozen screens reflected off his tousled electric blue hair and Mara made a mental note to re-braid the mop for him later into something more presentable. Tearing him away from his screens was always a challenge, but he enjoyed other beings’ attention once he got over the separation anxiety. For now, however, there were other priorities.
“Ghent.” Mara folded her arms. “Ghent. GHENT.” When he remained oblivious, Mara kicked the base of his chair.
The boy jumped, ripping off his headset and spinning around wide-eyed. “Mara!” Chagrin colored his cheeks, making his facial tattoos stand out more than usual. “How long have you been there?”
“Don’t worry, I’m not interested in your code-cracking porn.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Close it up and get to the cargo bay. We revert in a minute and I want to make this as short and sweet as possible.”
“Oh,” he said cheerfully. “Sure.”
“Stay with him,” Mara muttered to Reggie as she walked back out. “Make sure he actually gets there, please.”
“I don’t know why I always end up on Ghent duty,” the droid groused.
Ignoring the griping, Mara headed back down the hall at a brisk pace. Years of practice allowed her to scale the ladder to the command deck without waking Minion where he dozed on her shoulder. A nav droid permanently occupied the primary pilot’s seat of the ship and Mara slid easily into the co-pilot’s spot beside him.
“Status?” She asked, her eyes already skimming the control surfaces.
“We are reverting in five-four-three-two-one,” Slips counted down. There was a faint judder as the ship exited hyperspace - and then the shrill of an alarm rent the air. Slips’ mechanical voice shot up two octaves. “Unexpected vessel at target coordinates. Taking evasive action.”
“Shavit.” Mara’s fingers flew over the console. Technical specs lit up on the scope and her stomach plummeted. Oh, no. No, no, no, no - that can’t be.
“The vessel appears to be an X-wing starfighter,” Slips reported as if she couldn’t read the Force-damned display herself. “It is not transmitting any ID codes, but —.”
Mara’s heart pounded, blood rushing in her ears. “Get the shields up! All of them.”
“Shields are activated.” Slips hummed as he maneuvered them a short distance away from the other vessel and swung the ship around to face it. “Captain, there does not appear to be cause for concern. The ship seems to be disabled.”
Mara wasn’t listening, her eyes sweeping over the ship, looking for the nose art Rebels painted on their fighters. It didn’t have to be him. There were thousands of X-wings in the galaxy. Thousands of them.
“I say, did we hit something?” Reggie lofted into the bridge to hover in the cramped space behind Slips.
“We hit something?” Ghent’s head popped through the hatch, his eyes bright with curiosity.
“There was a vessel —,” Slips began calmly.
There. Partially covered by a smear of carbon scoring on the X-wing’s nose was an artistic rendering of a Krayt dragon in Rebel crimson beside a Death Star emblem. The air left Mara’s lungs in a rush. “It’s Skywalker.”
“Really?” Ghent’s voice rose in pitch, then fell in confusion. “Wait, what?”
“We are receiving an urgent comm,” Slips interrupted, raising his voice over the others. “From Central. Pre-recorded. Playback begins now.”
A holo blossomed into existence over the control surface, Karrde’s grim face washed blue by the projector. “Mara, expect possible unfriendly contacts in your vicinity. The Chimaera just sent out a demand for all private organizations in the Athega and connecting sectors to drop what they’re doing and search for one Luke Skywalker. Apparently,” his tone went dry, “they’ve managed to lose him, but are quite sure he’ll be there somewhere, possibly incapacitated. They’ve promised 30,000 credits for his return. Leave the array if you need to. Be careful.”
The Chimaera. Mara’s blood ran cold. Kriffing hell. The Force had thrown her to directly - and literally - into Skywalker and, in so doing, into Thrawn’s path.
It’s over, she thought, wildly. Karrde and Minion and Iloh. Everything is over. They’ll find you —.
Minion startled awake with an agitated squawk, his claws digging into her skin through the high-collared tunic she wore as all his spine scales flared. Just like that, calm descended, like dropping out of an atmospheric storm into a clear, bright day. Automatically, she reached up with her left hand, stroking her fingers along Minion’s head soothingly.
“Slips,” she ordered, her voice controlled. “Hail the fighter. Ghent, get down to the cargo bay. Reggie, go with him and make sure everything is locked down. We’re either going to be taking on company or jumping and either way it needs to be fast.”
“Astral!” Ghent popped out of sight.
“Well, this will make for quite the ‘how we met’ story.” Reggie began, delighted.
“Shut up and get moving.”
“Yes, of course,” he said, gleefully. “We mustn’t keep him waiting. First impressions count, you know.”
Before she could bite out a response, he dove through the hatch in pursuit of Ghent.
“No response from the other vessel,” Slips reported. “Life scans suggest the occupant is unlikely to be conscious."
“Keep an eye on that,” she commanded. “He could be faking.”
If Skywalker was awake over there, they were already in trouble. He’d feel the ship as a void in the Force and know something was wrong. Then again, if he’d felt them as a void he’d probably be talking. Her extensive research on the Jedi suggested he was prone to recklessness when curious - and a ship that he could see but not feel was a damn good reason to be curious.
“Start calculating our hyperspace jump.” Mara rose. “I’m hauling that entire mess on board and I want us out of here the instant the doors are resealed, understood?”
“Beginning hyperspace calculations now.”
Grasping the handrails, Mara pressed her booted feet to the outside edge of the ladder and slid down. At the bottom, with no one around to see, she curled a hand around Minion’s tiny head and twisted to drop a fervent kiss between his ears. “When this is over, I’ll give you a whole chunk of bread,” she promised, jogging the short distance to the cargo bay in the ship’s blunt nose.
“Do you think,” Reggie asked the second she got within hearing range, “that Skywalker would autograph my casing?”
“Does he do that?” Ghent squinted at him in puzzlement.
“Don’t even think about it.” Mara positioned herself behind the control console. The buttons were cold under her fingertips as she keyed up the tractor beam. “Ghent,” she gestured shortly. “Get back - all the way against the wall. We need the space. We’re taking all of it. The sensor array, the ship, everything.”
“What about the replacement array?” Ghent asked, obediently retreating.
“We don’t need it.”
They’d obviously found exactly what the Force had intended. Well, the Force could go kriff itself. She wasn’t getting caught by Thrawn in this forsaken backwater sector and she wasn’t letting him have Skywalker, either. She’d get them out of here - all of them. They could worry about the rest when they were safely back in hyperspace.
A persistent beeping dragged Luke out of his dreamless sleep.
“Coming,” he mumbled groggily. His eyes seemed to be glued together and his skull felt like it was made of lead when he tried to lift his head. He lifted one hand, pressed it against his helmet and shook his head, trying to clear it. Beeping. Something was beeping. He had to check.
It took four tries before he managed to crack his eyes open under their crust of sweat, grime, and exhaustion. Instinctively, he squinted at the computer scope first, thinking to get his bearings.
The screen was dark. All the instruments were. His chest tightened as he remembered – they were dead in deep space, alone and on the run.
Wincing, he glanced up and jolted. Just above the lifeless instrument panel a blinding rectangle of light surrounded by heavy, dark hull plating filled the view from the X-wing’s canopy. Adrenaline arced through him, vaporizing every shred of bleariness. He immediately began slapping the X-wing’s power switches, summoning everything to life. It wouldn’t do any good but he had to try. His comm speakers crackled.
“X-wing, this is the Sudden Demise,” a woman’s sharp voice cut across the comm. “Did you wake up on us?”
Luke skimmed the few panels on the X-wing’s dash that had actually lit up when he hit the power. The other ship wasn’t broadcasting any ID tags or transponder codes but, at a glance, he didn’t recognize the ship’s shape as anything standard to Imperials.
Out of nowhere, a flash of silver touched his sense like a ray of moonlight breaking through a cloud. Without thinking, he reached for it. It vanished as instantly as it had appeared, leaving him floundering. Was he hallucinating?
“Repeat: X-wing, are you alive over there?”
Luke dragged his mind back to the voice on the comm. The chances of genuine help finding him were impossibly low, but it didn’t really matter if the ship was friendly or not. He’d stand a better chance of surviving a ship full of hostile beings than he would sitting in the broken shell of his own ship much longer. He flipped the comm switch with clumsy fingers.
“Copy, Demise,” he croaked hoarsely. “I’m here.”
“We’ve got you in tractor,” the voice was crisp and matter-of-fact. Inexplicably, the measured surety of it eased his fears. “You can cooperate and we can discuss your situation like reasonable beings when you’re on board, or we can do this the hard way. Your choice.”
The hard way. That could be any number of unpleasant things. Most likely they’d send a shock down the tractor beam, frying anything left in working condition and knocking him out cold.
“That won’t be necessary.” Luke reversed his actions, hitting switches to shut down everything he’d keyed up except sensors. “Sorry. Just a little startled there for a second.”
“I’m sure you were. Just sit tight. We’ll have you in out of the cold in a minute.”
“That sounds great. Thanks.”
As soon as the comm light flicked off, Luke started scrambling. His body was so thoroughly numb that he barely felt anything as he stashed his lightsaber and personal comm unit into a hidden pocket of his flight suit. After that, he gave up trying to prepare, leaning instead into the Force, trusting it to aid him where his broken ship and droid could not.
But what he found only increased his disorientation. There was nothing there. He could see the ship clearly, but when he reached for where it ought to be there was… emptiness. If his few working scopes hadn’t clearly indicated he was moving he’d think it was a mirage. A hallucination, like the flash of silver.
Luke squeezed his eyes shut and made himself breathe. There was no way to know how long he’d been hibernating. It could have been days. He might have had a concussion from the collision with the array, too. Dehydration, he thought. Low-level hypoxia? It was impossible to know. But if he could get help… he tensed when the X-wing bumped gently to the floor of the hangar, then took a deep breath and made himself let it out slowly.
Relax. If they wanted to kill you they could have already. Unless, of course, they wanted him alive, as the mysterious aliens on Bimisaari had. Being paranoid won’t help. The fact that he felt like he’d been rancor rolled wasn’t his rescuers’ fault and projecting his discomfort and unsteadiness into this new situation would only put him at a disadvantage.
Gripping the emergency lever, he clenched his tired muscles through the arc of yanking it back, popping the broken canopy open overhead. It hissed as it settled and Luke used the moment he had to wait to tug his helmet off. He tried not to think what he must look like.
Setting the helmet on the dash was far more difficult than it should have been. So was standing, his legs trembling with the effort and the return to gravity after so long in zero-g. Unsteadily, he looked out over the ship’s nose, his eyes catching on a shock of blue hair and the wide, alarmed eyes of a slender, pale-skinned human boy.
The sizzle registered in his awareness a split-second before his muscles seized. Luke gasped, his nerves singing with old pain for one horrible second as a hard shock seared through him. His chest seized with the impact of the stun blast. Then, blessedly, the world bled white and there was nothing at all.
1. Rebel nose art is, so far as I know, strictly fanon. I could find no reference to it on Wook, but it has been a tradition since man first mastered flight and I can't imagine that it doesn't carry over into space travel - particularly when you're talking fighter pilots. For the purposes of this fic, Wedge, Luke and the few others who survived a Death Star battle have an emblem to that effect on their ships. Additionally, many pilots (Luke obviously included) have symbols of their homeworlds or families on their fighters as well.
2. In case it isn't clear, the "mysterious aliens on Bimisaari" is a reference to Thrawn's Noghri attempting to kidnap Luke and Leia during a diplomatic mission in canon shortly before the story opens.
3. Also, yes... Mara totally just shot him.
Ghent yelped. Reggie shrieked. The Jedi dropped bonelessly back into the fighter.
Mara shoved her blaster back into her thigh holster and punched the comm button, her heart pounding in her chest. “Slips, tell me we have jump coordinates.”
“You shot him!” Reggie darted to the X-wing and bobbed above the limp Jedi, wringing his graspers. “Oh, this is going to be terrible to explain.”
Mara ignored him, focusing instead on Slips’ mechanical voice coming out of the speaker. “Coordinates are ready. Sensors show that all debris is removed and the ship is secure. Would you like to jump?”
“Yes. Get us in hyperspace - now.” Every second they stayed here was asking for someone to find them. The deck shivered under her feet as she stalked toward the far wall.
“Is he dead?” Ghent asked, his eyes round and his cheeks flushed with a sort of morbid curiosity.
“Of course not.”
Skywalker was the Force’s golden child. Nothing but Stalbringion damnation waited for any idiot who intentionally murdered him.
Unsnapping a series of fasteners, Mara pulled a portable repulsorlift cart off the wall. Unfolding it, she stepped on and fired it up, gliding across the room and up alongside the X-wing until she was level with the open cockpit.
“Really,” Reggie fretted, “what were you thinking?”
“I was thinking,” Mara snapped, “that we couldn’t afford to still be there, negotiating with the Jedi or trying to keep him from commandeering our ship when the Chimaera or one of its shanghaied Fringe pets showed up. I promised we’d discuss the situation like reasonable beings and reasonable beings don’t underestimate a Jedi. Or Thrawn. Now if you’re done with the dramatics, start locking everything down. I want the X-wing magclamped to the floor and all control for the Demise except what Slips has locked to my voiceprint and authorization codes only. Seal off the command deck - same protocols.”
“Full combat mode?” Reggie drew back, one grasper arm going to his round torso in shock.
“What combination of Skywalker and Thrawn do you not understand?” Mara demanded, her pulse still hammering.
Reggie rotated his head to look at the Jedi, then back at her. Then he adjusted his hovering in a move Mara recognized as his version of squaring one’s shoulders. “Right.” Then he was zipping away toward the nearest scomp link, leaving her alone with the unconscious Jedi.
Taking a deep breath, Mara turned to properly examine her captive for the first time. Sprawled sideways across his seat, Skywalker looked ragged and worn. His hair stood up in wild tufts and a scruff of beard covered his chin. His expression was twisted from the stun blast and Mara’s chest tightened. This wasn’t how she would have chosen for them to meet. Damn the Force.
Minion leaned far over, his claws digging into Mara’s shoulder for balance, and burbled curiously at the Jedi. He must look fascinating to a creature who could see the Force, Mara imagined.
“Don’t get any ideas,” she murmured to the lizard, brushing a quick kiss across his head. “He won’t have you.”
Taking a deep breath, Mara bent over the side of the X-wing and hauled Skywalker’s limp body up. His head lolled against her shoulder as she hooked her arms under his and wrestled his dead weight over the side of the ship. He smelled like sweat, ozone, and stress, but the weight of him made Mara’s heart clench. She could feel the solidness of him even through his suit and gear. What would it feel like to have that weight on her of his own accord? To have him push her into her bed, holding her down while his mouth explored her skin as it did in her visions?
It doesn’t matter, she told herself sternly, lowering him as carefully as she could onto the repulsor cart beside her. He won’t ever touch you now. Not after this.
Leaving the Jedi on the lift, Mara levered herself up and again leaned over the edge of the ship. It dug into her stomach but she ignored the discomfort, her whole attention on verifying that everything was off. Below her, she could hear Reggie muttering deprecations about the Force and the heavy metallic clunks as he mag-locked the X-wing in place.
Mara reversed herself out of the cockpit, careful not to step on the Jedi at her feet. Then she grabbed the controls and maneuvered the cart along the ship’s side until she was level with the astromech; Skywalker called it Artoo Detoo, her memory supplied. It was thoroughly fried. Not a threat, then, at least not at the moment. Once he got it running again, it would no doubt go back to being an unholy terror. That was a problem for later.
“How bad is it?”
Mara craned her neck to see around the edge of the cart. Ghent stared at up at her, guileless eagerness writ large across his youthful face.
“Can I try to fix it?” He asked. “It might know lots of fun stuff.”
“We’re not doing anything with it until it gets a restraining bolt.” Or maybe two. “Grab a ladder and get in the cockpit first,” she instructed. “Dump the files - see what you can find. I’m going to secure our guest.”
“Okay.” Ghent made a beeline for the door to grab his slicing gear.
Reggie floated into view. “Everything is secured as per your orders,” he informed her. “Shall we make our guest comfortable?”
It was late, ship time, when Mara finally made good on her promise to reward Minion with an entire chunk of bread. Given that the test ysalamiri they were transporting remained alive and in good condition, she risked letting the little orange lizard sit on the counter to eat his prize.
She used the time to mix another batch of aitha. As unappetizing as she found the fluorescent green protein drink herself, it was Ghent’s favorite. Since he clearly had no intention of sleeping - decrypting the info dump from Skywalker’s X-wing was far too intriguing a project to interrupt for something as mundane as rest - fuel and hydration were necessary.
Pouring the drink into an oversized bulb, she sealed it and delivered it to the tech alcove. Ghent didn’t notice her arrival or her departure, but Reggie was there assisting and Mara trusted he’d bring it to the boy’s attention when the opportunity arose. Swinging by the galley, she collected Minion who cackle-purred happily in her ear all the way down the short corridor to crew quarters.
Inside, she checked the Jedi. The medical sensor she’d pressed to his forehead indicated that the antishock she’d administered for his concussion had worked and that the bacta she’d applied to his various other injuries was also taking effect as expected. The readout suggested that he was shifting from unconsciousness to something closer to sleep. Mara disconnected the IV feed and sensor and packed everything away before he transitioned enough that the movement was likely to wake him.
Then she sank onto the lower bunk opposite the one in which he lay, her eyes drifting over him. With his chest rising and falling in slow, even breaths, his expression smoothed to something more at ease, he looked impossibly human in his sleep.
It was a dangerous illusion.
The mere glimpse she’d caught of him earlier in the Force had left her blinded and gasping. His modest shell was a guise, a clever and deadly mask. Luke Skywalker was a supernova of power.
It had been dangerously, absurdly stupid to expose herself to the Force, even for the bare second she’d allowed it. Stepping into the tiny corner of the cargo bay where the ysalamiri’s Force blanket did not reach and setting Minion down, she’d justified the risk to herself with the reasoning that if he had ill intentions, it was far better to know before his ship got powered up or inside the Demise.
Now, rubbing her face with her hands, Mara admitted that she’d simply been desperate to know what he felt like. If all of the dreams and visions and research had over-glorified the man whose existence had been one of the dominating forces in her life since she was sixteen.
If anything, they’d been a pale shadow of the reality. It was no wonder, now, that he was going to be the one who burned her life to the ground.
The door opened and Mara jerked to her feet, refusing to be caught slouching and morose.
Reggie drifted in. The droid didn’t ask about Skywalker’s weapons. He’d been there earlier, watching with fascination, when she dismantled the lightsaber hilt to remove its crystal then put it carefully back together. He knew the hilt was taped to the small of her back, now, hidden by her structured tunic, and that its crystal heart hung between her breasts on a borrowed chain. Instead, he asked, “still out, is he?”
“Yes. But healing,” Mara said, trying for a brisk, businesslike tone. “Ghent?”
“Found the aitha,” Reggie’s tone was warm. “And enjoying himself thoroughly with his information sifting, no surprise. He’s got everything set up for a quick dredge of our taps on both the New Republic and Imperial intelligence systems when we drop out into real space next.”
Reggie floated closer to Skywalker. “Do you think,” he mused, “that we could convince him to defect?”
Mara snorted. “He’s the NR’s poster boy - they’d probably kill him before they let him go.”
“Quite possibly,” the droid agreed. “Given the schedule they keep him on they can’t afford to replace him, even without the PR nightmare. It’s just… well,” he rotated his head to look at her. “I’d like to think he isn’t quite like them. That he wouldn’t… you know.”
“He might like it less than everyone else,” Mara said, tiredly. “But you have the Mindor files. You know how far he’s willing to go to keep dangerous Force users from running around loose in his sister’s New Republic.”
Reggie made a sympathetic noise and Mara leaned back against the edge of the bunk to wait. If he kept talking, Skywalker was sure to wake up sooner rather than later.
“Still,” Reggie said, wistfully, floating down to hover near the Jedi’s feet. “It might be an adventure to try.”
Consciousness came back like a blow to the head. Luke twitched, then groaned, the sound scraping painfully out of his parched throat. For a moment, he had the groggy thought that he was back on Endor, tied to a very long tree branch, Ewoks singing around him as they prepared to roast him alive.
Then his head cleared a little and the singing resolved into a dull ringing in his ears - common after hard stun blasts. His murky vision sharpened from imagined cooking fire smoke to the unmistakable grey sheet metal of a ship’s bunk. Oddly, his hands were still over his head and he automatically moved to pull them down - only to grunt when they jerked to a hard stop. The dig at his wrists said cuffs even before he tilted his head back to look and the pull in his shoulders reminded him that he’d been immobile - first sitting in his X-wing and then unconscious - for an unreasonably long time. A bacta strip had been wound around his left thumb and his wrists were latched in the thickest set of binders Luke had ever seen.
“I don’t recommend tampering with them.”
Luke’s head snapped sideways so fast something in his neck pinched. He hadn’t felt anyone else present, but there was a woman leaning against the ladder of the bunks fixed to the wall opposite him, arms crossed over her chest.
She nodded toward the binders. “They’re custom and shock equipped.”
Disconcerted, Luke reached for the Force - and found nothing. A hollow terror opened in his chest, robbing him of breath. How could he be cut off from the Force?
“I imagine you’d like some water.”
His captor’s voice was steady and he abruptly recognized it from the comm. Like before, he used its stability to find his own. Pushing past his fear and the dull throb that seemed to consume his whole body, he nodded. “Yes, please.”
“Reggie.” The woman’s eyes - the clear, vivid green of a Lothalian daisy - flicked sideways. “Open the bulb where he can see you, please.”
Luke’s mind raced. He’d seen that kind of courtesy extended to Leia on rare occasions in cultures where poisoning attempts were du rigueur, but he’d never been on the receiving end himself. Was she treating him like a diplomat? Or was that simply what hospitality on her homeworld dictated?
Wryly, he imagined the woman sitting with a tutor like the ones Leia had described having as a child learning about the proper protocols for entertaining handcuffed diplomats.
“Of course, Captain.”
There was movement at the edge of his vision and Luke pulled his gaze off his captor - the Captain, apparently - and then felt his eyes go wide. Was that - where on Hoth had his captor found a half-sized probe droid? A half-sized probe droid with purple eyes that could speak. Aware that he was gaping, Luke couldn’t quite muster the control to stop as, with the showmanship of a Coruscanti sommelier, the droid displayed a fresh, sealed water bulb in two of its graspers, tilting the container so Luke could see all sides.
It then did the same with a sealed metal straw. Using a fourth grasping arm, it uncapped the bulb with a flourish, then proceeded to unwrap the straw and insert it neatly into the bulb.
“At your leisure, Jedi Skywalker,” it said politely, swooping down so that the straw was right by his lips.
They knew who he was. Luke’s entire body tightened in apprehension, his abused muscles twinging with the movement. How —?
The droid inched forward, apparently thinking it hadn’t properly placed the straw and Luke clamped down on his concern. He needed to stay calm, think through this.
Leaning forward fractionally, he caught the straw between his dry lips and sucked. He could feel the woman’s eyes on him while he drank and tried to ignore the inherent discomfort of being scrutinized. He focused instead on the water. It was blessedly cool and soothing on his throat and had the faintly mineral taste common to the high-end waters served at most NR events. Perversely, the realization made him all the more aware of how grimy and disheveled the rest of him was.
Emptying the bulb, Luke released the straw and licked his lips. “Thank you.”
“It’s a pleasure to serve.” The droid actually sounded like he meant it and bobbed slightly before gliding out of his line of sight.
Luke returned his gaze to his captor, paying more attention this time to the total picture she presented, rather than just her striking eyes. She was pale-skinned, but there was a touch of bronze on her cheeks as though she’d been planet-side somewhere nice recently. Her hair, he decided, was most likely a body modification of some kind - he’d never seen natural human hair that looked as if it were spun from garnets and gold. The style was familiar, though; Leia had worn similar coronet braids throughout the war.
Her clothes were good quality and well-fitted, but otherwise told him little - their style was ubiquitous among smugglers and independent spacers. Unlike any other spacer he’d ever seen, however, she had a small, soft-spiked lizard perched on her shoulder. It watched him with dark, intelligent eyes and made a light cheeping noise when it recognized his attention.
Curiosity roused inside him, supplanting the fear. Adjusting his arms slightly so that he could look at her more comfortably, he said, “I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. I’m Luke Skywalker.”
One corner of the woman’s mouth tilted up. “Yes, I’m aware.”
Luke waited, but she didn’t offer her own name. All right. Straight to business, then. He tipped his head back to look pointedly at his cuffed hands, then back at her. “Are you intending to turn me over to the Imperials?”
“No.” The look of disgust that crossed her face at the mention of Imperials was encouraging, but then the woman’s eyes narrowed. “But I’m familiar with your work. You have a penchant for trouble, Jedi, and I run a tight ship.”
Luke licked his lips. “I’m not sure what you’ve heard,” he said, carefully. Force knew most of the rumors about his exploits were hyper-inflated and had a tendency to evolve in the most bizarre ways with every retelling. “But I have no intention of causing you any trouble.”
The blatant skepticism on her face might have been amusing if he weren’t so thoroughly at her mercy. “I’m sure.”
“I was in the military,” he hazarded, trying to guess what tack of reasoning she’d respond to. “I’m perfectly capable of following ships’ rules.”
Her grossly unconvinced tone made him think of Wedge. He wondered if she’d somehow seen his service records.
The woman pushed off the ladder and walked over to squat in front of him so that their faces were level, those intriguing eyes darkening as her expression settled into a grave glare. “There’s a 30,000 credit bounty on your head,” she informed him, every word slow and distinct. “And I can’t afford to run into the Imperials or any of their lackeys right now.”
Luke frowned. “You think I want to?”
“I think you’re reckless,” she said, her mouth flattening into a hard line. “I’m willing to give you safe passage to my destination system, where we can look at getting you back to your Republic without putting my crew at risk. But you will follow my rules to the letter because this ship, its crew, and the people we are rendezvousing with are my responsibility and I will kill you before I let you put them in the Empire’s hands, do you understand?”
The ferocity of her tone and the way the skin at the corners of her eyes tightened as she spoke made Luke’s heart ache. He knew what it was to hold the line, to be the bulwark between everything you held precious and a very real threat.
“I do,” he said solemnly, willing her to hear his sincerity. “Lay down your rules and I’ll follow them. I won’t bring your people to harm.”
She weighed that for a long moment, some almost wistful emotion he couldn’t place flickering across her eyes. Then she stood, sharply.
“You’ll stay away from the control deck and the comms,” she said crisply, stepping toward his feet. “We’re flying dark until we get home - anything else is too risky. Your weapons will remain in secure storage until we’re planetside.” She leaned over him, blocking his view with her body as she unfastened the binders at his feet. Pins and needles shot from his toes to his knees as he rotated his newly-freed ankles and he swallowed a groan.
He politely turned his head toward the wall when she moved up and leaned over him to release the binders on his wrists. Her movements were deft and precise, and he inhaled the scent of something tannic and rounded, like a blossom tea. It was ephemerally light and he wondered idly if it was her shampoo or perfume of some kind.
Luke suppressed a smile when the lizard on her shoulder stretched out its snout, sniffing at him curiously and making its hopeful cheeping noise again. She clucked at it in what Luke guessed was a negative or a warning because it huffed and hunkered back against the delicate curve where her neck and shoulder met as she pulled away. He sat up carefully, both because his body protested the movement and because it seemed prudent not to startle his host until he’d done a more sufficient job of earning her trust.
“There’s a ‘fresher through there.” She pointed toward a narrow door set in the wall to her right. “I can have Reggie bring your clothes if you’d like a sonic.”
“Yes, please.” A shower sounded heavenly.
“It’s nearly dinner, ship-time. I imagine it’s been a while since you’ve eaten. Do you have dietary restrictions?”
That was an interesting question - not one he got very often. “No.” He smiled, self-deprecatingly. “I’m a desert farm boy. We’ll eat pretty much anything that isn’t toxic.”
She looked askance at that but said only, “Reggie will show you to the galley when you’re done cleaning up.”
The droid was to be his chaperone, then. That was fine. If it meant freedom to move around and a chance to prove he wouldn’t put them in harm’s way, he’d take it. “Thank you.”
She turned toward the door – but didn’t quite fully turn her back on him, he noticed. What had she heard that made her so skittish about him?
She paused, glanced back, eyebrows lifting.
“You haven’t told me your name.”
She hesitated, as if the question was far weightier than a simple request for her proper form of address. “Mara.”
The softness of her voice roused something in him, a disconcerting desire that he couldn’t quite articulate. Hastily, he smothered it, summoning a safe, formally respectful expression instead. “Thank you, Mara.”
1. Scomp links are standard on astromechs, but Reggie has a scomp link attachment built into his casing that he can use to connect directly with Karrde's computers, both ship-side and planet-side, when necessary.
2. There is a nifty rerouting technique that can allow astromechs to get around restraining bolts, but canonically Artoo doesn't have it.
3. Details on aitha are slim, so I've taken some liberties with it here. Drink bulbs and bottles seem to be interchangeable in canon, so I've mostly used bulbs here.
4. Finding Lothalian daisies in Wook made me unreasonably happy on multiple levels.
Mara struggles with her feelings and fears while Luke works to earn her trust.
In the sonic, Luke rested his forehead against the wall and savored the feeling of sweat and grime flaking off of him and being whisked away by the filtration system. Nothing compared to the decadence of a water shower, but after days of sitting and sweating in his grimy flight suit, even the functional minimalism of a sonic felt divine.
He tried not to be embarrassed by the knowledge that he’d been fully stripped at some point. It had obviously been for medical purposes - there were serious scrapes and burns healing under the bacta patches he’d found on his ribs and thigh, and the stickiness of the bacta gel on his chest perfectly matched the bruises forming where the safety harness had dug in at his shoulders and sternum. Even with all the emergency medical care he’d gotten over the years, he’d never quite managed to shake the discomfort of knowing he’d been handled while having no memory of it.
His flight suit and weapons were missing, but he assumed they were in whatever secure storage Mara had mentioned when she’d implied he could have them back planet side. Far more unsettling was his continuing inability to reach the Force. It couldn’t be merely lingering disorientation from hibernation at this point and he’d taken far worse hits than a stun blast without losing his connection. He didn’t know of any drugs that could cut a being off from the Force. It seemed unlikely that his hosts would be drugging him anyway, considering they’d allowed him to wake and taken such pains to show that the water was safe. All of which just led to more questions and precious few answers.
Patience, Luke schooled himself. It might yet come back on its own. Or his hosts might let slip something at dinner that could provide him with clues. Right now, the important things were to ease Mara’s anxiety about him, find out what had happened to Artoo, and make it safely planet side where he could negotiate his way back to Coruscant.
He heard the door slide open and then close again while he was scrubbing himself down in the sonic, and found a fresh set of his own clothes waiting when he emerged. The toiletry kit he kept in his travel bag was there, too, so he took the time for a quick shave. Then he headed back into the crew quarters to find his chaperone and, hopefully, the promised dinner.
After making sure that Reggie had Skywalker’s things, Mara headed to the Demise’s galley. She tried not to think about the Jedi’s naked body a few doors down the hall, or the way he’d turned his face away from her when she’d leaned over him. Her stomach knotted.
What did you expect? You’re no one to him. She had to stay no one to him, too, if she was to have any hope of this misadventure not ending in her own destruction.
Mara yanked the chiller open with more force than necessary. Minion squawked, then snuffled at her ear hopefully.
“It has to cook first.” Her tone came out tart but she softened it by sparing a second to scratch the favored spot on the top of his head with one hand. She riffled through the oversized meal packs in the chiller with the other. The Jedi wasn’t picky but that didn’t mean he was above influence. There - bantha stew. Comfort food for an Outer Rim farm boy.
Plucking out two packs of the stew and a loaf of crusty tikit bread, she stuffed them into the reheater. Punching in the correct settings, she left them to cook and started gathering up utensils, bowls, glasses, and napkins.
The Demise’s dining area was small and Faughn had painted its walls with an abstract mural in rich shades of ochre in return for Mara’s sourcing a hard-to-procure upgrade for the Wild Karrde two years before. It gave the square table and deep-seated booth that dominated the space an unexpectedly cozy feel, and Mara felt the tension in her shoulders ease a little as she made short work of arranging place settings.
She purposely staggered them so that each diner would each have his own side of the table, Skywalker on the side furthest from the door. Seating arrangements among smugglers, Mara had learned, were different from the Imperial rules she’d studied as a child but only slightly less complex.
Finished, she hesitated. It was foolish to give a potential threat a weapon, but she was giving Skywalker a knife to butter his bread with. A candle couldn’t be that much worse and the table wouldn’t feel complete without it. Irritated with herself, she set her jaw and retrieved a fat candle nestled deep in old mercury-glass cup and set it on the table, as well. “Doaba bey che ten tavlo,” she murmured, lighting it. Peace be at this table.
Pulling a bottle of sparkling fruit water from the conserv, she carried that to the table, too. She eyed the end result critically, then snorted at herself. Ghent considered the niceties of dining beneath notice and Skywalker came from the Outer Rim. There was a snowball’s chance on Tatooine either of them would notice her efforts at all, let alone know anything about proper table settings. Turning on her heel, she went off in search of her favorite slicer.
He was, as she’d expected, in the hold, up to his elbows in Skywalker’s droid. “Mara!” he said cheerfully when she approached. “You should see the inside of this! It’s ancient – there’s just layers of stuff.”
That hadn’t shown up in any of her research and she filed it away to look into later. “I expect you to tell me all about it - later. Right now, dinner.”
He tipped his head back, his nose scrunching. “Already?”
His unruly blue hair and the streak of grease smeared across his cheek gave him an adorably mussed, puzzled appearance and Mara worked not to show her amusement. The boy either ate like a famished wildling or inadvertently starved himself - there was never any in between.
“Yes. Did you get the restraining bolt installed?”
“Oh, yes, that was easy.” Ghent waved that off, then frowned. “He’s been bolted before. Lots of times, looks like. I wonder why he doesn’t have the rerouting function. It’s not very hard.”
“Let’s not mention that to the Jedi,” Mara suggested, dryly. She crooked a finger. “Up. Wash your hands. Dinner.”
“But it would make a lot of sense,” Ghent said, following her obediently, wiping his hands absently on his pants. “If he just rerouted —.”
“No.” Mara cut him off, her tone firm but not harsh. “Not a word until after we get planet-side and figure out what we’re going to do with him.” They entered the galley and Mara nudged him toward the sink as she checked the reheater.
“What?” Ghent dutifully moved to wash his hands. “Oh, are we having stew?”
“Bantha,” Mara confirmed, counting on the fact that if she didn’t answer his prior query he’d forget it. Trying to explain the complicated politics of the situation would be pointless.
“Right this way, Jedi Skywalker.” Reggie glided into the room, his mechanical arms spread like a footman ushering in an honored guest. “May I call you Jedi Skywalker? I’m afraid Jedi titular protocols aren’t in my programming.”
“Luke is fine.” Skywalker appeared in the doorway, clean shaven and smiling. “Something smells great.”
“Have a seat.” Mara gestured toward the table. “Ghent, you’re on the inside. Skywalker, over there.”
“You can call me Luke, too,” he offered, taking his place easily.
Luke. Mara ignored the flutter of anxiety in her stomach and kept her eyes fixed on her hands as she transferred the stew to an antique tureen, stuck a ladle in it, and carried it through to the dining area.
“Bantha stew,” she said, before turning back to grab the bread. “I can get a tester if you’d like.”
He gave her an odd look. “I’m sure it’s fine.”
Reckless, she thought. She’d known that he was - she’d read all the files. This wasn’t a surprise, it was just… different, to have him here in the flesh. To see it for herself, first hand. “Help yourself, then.”
Mara stole furtive glances at the Jedi as she cut the bread and piled the warm slices into a serving bowl. Skywalker moved a bit stiffly but otherwise seemed remarkably at ease, chatting with Reggie about banthas and the best ways to make stew as if he were perfectly comfortable in her ship. Her anxiety ratcheted up a notch. Minion grumbled and butted behind her ear.
“Shush,” she tsked. Carrying the bread to the table and slipping into her seat she compulsively re-checked the table for anything she might have missed. Hot sauce. Shavit - front line troops put hot sauce on everything. Or was that only Imperials? “We’ve got a dozen kinds of hot sauce, if you need some.”
Reggie’s violet lenses twitched in her direction and Mara bit back a wince, her eyes darting to the Jedi. Her breath caught as the corners of his eyes crinkled when he smiled. That hadn’t been in any of her holos.
“That stuff might as well be standard issue for hyperspace travel,” he said, amiably, pausing over a bite. “It’s the only way to eat ration-pack meat lump.”
Rebellion meat-lump must be better than the Imperial stuff then. She’d never been able to choke down a bite of that, even with mouth-scorching sauces layered on top. The inanity of the thought flustered her. Reaching for the water, she struggled to shut down the self-consciousness skittering wildly along her nerves as she poured. This wasn’t her - she couldn’t be flaking apart like cheap ship’s paint simply because she had a dinner guest.
“I’ve heard,” Reggie interjected, busily, interposing himself between them and presumptuously ladling stew into Mara’s bowl, “that in unsavory sorts of places they use all manner of dubious meats in lump.”
“It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess,” Skywalker said, cheerfully. “I’ve known guys who thought mini Joopa worms were a delicacy but I’d take womp rat over one of those slugs any day.”
Mara had a fleeting memory of a nobleman from Garel turning up his nose at the tiny, sweet-salt scallops served in delicate pink half-shells during a Court dinner. Her stomach turned at the memory of the price he’d paid for the insult.
Reggie twitched his sensors at her again - reading her vitals, no doubt - and settled into a hover near her elbow.
Mara watched the Jedi take another generous bite of his meal, his blue eyes sliding toward Ghent who was inhaling his own with gusto. Minion snuffled pointedly in her ear and Mara dropped her eyes to the serving bowl, retrieving a slice of bread and breaking off a tiny piece to offer him. The lizard’s purple tongue darted out and snatched it up, his snuffling turning to a cackle-purr as he chewed it. Looking back up, Mara froze, her skin going hot and tight. Skywalker was watching her intently.
He opened his mouth to say something but Ghent, oblivious, swallowed a slurp of stew and blurted out, “Your droid is really old.”
“Ghent!” Reggie gasped. “You mustn’t be rude. Jedi Skywalker is our guest!”
“Please, just call me Luke.”
The Jedi dunked a piece of bread in his stew, but his calm of a moment ago was gone. He was concerned, now. About his droid? About what he thought they might have found in it? Mara’s discomfort evaporated, wholly replaced by intrigue at this new turn.
“And yes, he is. Older than me, anyway. His name is Artoo.” Skywalker cocked his head at Ghent, his tone turning openly uncertain. “Were you able to get him activated? He took a pretty hard hit.”
“Oh, I didn’t try to turn him on yet.” Ghent shook his head energetically. “He’s got lots of weird bits.”
Reggie heaved a sigh and rolled his visual sensors. He’d never quite gotten the hang of doing it correctly, the violet lenses circling in their eyestalks like marbles around a drain. It somewhat detracted from the intended effect but Skywalker didn’t notice, still fixed on Ghent.
“He’s survived two wars,” the Jedi explained. “A lot of on-the-go maintenance, I guess. But he’s still the best little droid in the galaxy.” He glanced at Mara. “I’d like to see if I can bring him around, if that’s all right.”
“We don’t have a lot for droid repair on ship. But tomorrow morning you can give him a look-over. We’ll have proper supplies where we’re headed and you should be able to get him restored there.”
“Good.” He gestured toward the door. “I promise he won’t bother your lizards. He’s very well behaved.”
She had read enough about Skywalker’s exploits to know that was a lie but demurred to say so.
“Reggie said they’re a biological research project of some kind?” He peered at her, his eyes bright and interested but Mara’s gaze caught on his long fingers as they tore off a chunk of bread with easy grace.
Heat pooled unbidden in her gut. How many hours had she spent staring at holos of those hands, or at the wild sketches she drew in her fugues, dreaming of what those fingers would feel like on her skin? Wondering if those eyes would warm and darken if he found something he approved of, the way Talon’s eyes softened when she’d done well.
“Yes,” she made herself say, pushing the word out through a suddenly tight throat. “They’re an understudied species and we believe they may have unique value in several underserved markets.” That was technically true, as far as it went.
“Well, if you need investors, you should talk to my friend Lando. Lando Calrissian. He’s got a good eye for that kind of project.” Skywalker nodded toward Minion. “Is he a biological research project, too? I’ve never seen a spacer with a lizard before.”
“No.” Mara intended to shut that line of questioning down immediately, but Minion, realizing he was once again the center of attention, cheeped and leaned far over toward Skywalker. He cooed hopefully, his little body twitching in excitement.
“He wants your bread,” Ghent supplied helpfully around a mouthful of his own.
“Minion,” Mara admonished, her skin heating again. “Manners.”
“His name is Minion?” Skywalker’s eyes sparkled with mirth. He pulled off a chunk of his bread. “May I?”
“He’s not starving,” she said, defensively.
“I’m sure,” Skywalker reassured. “But if he likes it… do you mind?”
Minion cheeped pitifully and there wasn’t a good reason to say no, so Mara bit back her inexplicable panic and tried for a dismissive shrug. “I suppose.”
Skywalker leaned across the table, the muscles of his shoulders visible against the fabric of his tunic and the scent of his soap brushing her nose as he held the treat within the lizard’s reach. Minion trilled triumphantly and snatched it, his little cheeks puffing as he stuffed the piece in his small mouth whole.
“Do you have pets, Jedi Sky - Luke?” Reggie piped up. Fierfek, her vitals must be all over if he was attempting to come to her rescue.
“No. Well,” he amended, going back to his meal. “I had an anooba for a while, as a kid. He was technically a guard animal, but I pretended he was a pet, like rich families had. Now I spend so much time traveling I can’t keep a house plant alive.” He gave a half-smile. “But Artoo travels with me, so I’m not alone, really.”
“How come you don’t have his propulsion rocket boosters hooked up?” Ghent asked.
“Boosters,” the slicer repeated, around a mouthful of stew. “On his legs, in the back.”
Mara slowly let out her breath as the two men proceeded to forget she was present, dropping into a complicated discussion of droid mechanics that she made no attempt to follow. With their attention elsewhere, she was able to eat, something inside her quietly twisting slowly tighter as she watched them converse, innocent and excited.
When she slipped away from the table, Reggie trailed her. “That went well,” he said, giving a smug, satisfied little twirl. “Handle things right and defection is a real possibility, I think.”
Mara’s chest ached as she placed her dishes in the cleaning unit. “He can’t,” she said, tightly. “Even if he wanted to. The NR owns him. It doesn’t matter what the Force thinks, he won’t -.”
Skywalker’s startled voice had Mara’s head snapping around, Minion rumbling in her ear as her heart rate spiked.
“Your boss’s name is Karrde?” The Jedi leaned over the table to be able to see her clearly where she stood in the galley. “It’s not Talon Karrde, is it?”
Mara’s stomach clenched but she forced her voice and expression to stay cool. “You’ve heard of him?”
“Yeah.” Skywalker’s face screwed up a moment. “My brother-in-law was actually just looking for him with a business proposition.” Then his expression slid into a wry half-smile that made heat pool beneath her skin again. “The Force works in mysterious ways, I guess.”
The Demise was disconcertingly quiet in its night cycle, empty of the sighs and clanks and low, perpetual rattles that the Falcon made in the dark. Devoid, too, of the sounds of other beings going about their duties that inevitably leaked through aging Republic cruisers. Alone in his bunk, Luke heard only the whisper of the environmental system circulating air and Ghent’s snoring. The boy was sacked out on the top bunk in the set opposite Luke’s, one arm dangling over the side of the bed, covers pulled all the way over his head. Reggie hovered in the corner, not quite completely powered down, a polite and unobtrusive chaperone.
Mara hadn’t bunked down yet. Luke supposed she was seeing to her research - logging whatever it was she was exploring with the strange, furry four-eyed lizards she had draped about the ship on queerly shaped frames. It was odd, though. He’d met a few scientists over the years and Mara didn’t strike him at all as the scientist type. More, he wouldn’t have imagined a smuggler like Karrde to be invested in animal research. Something about it didn’t fit. Then again, Lando had had his fingers in more pies than Luke could keep track of so perhaps hedging one’s bets - diversified investments Lando liked to call it - was more common on the Fringe than he’d realized.
Luke wiggled in his bunk, trying to get comfortable, but knew even as he did that the bunk wasn’t the problem. Since the long, grey, swampy days on Dagobah he had followed Master Yoda’s admonition to reach for the Force before giving himself to sleep. Trained to that expectation, his body and mind fretted at the emptiness gaping inside him where the Force should have been. He hadn’t realized how much he relied on the Force as reassurance until he’d woken up without it. It felt like misplacing a talisman or being a youngling whose security blanket was in the wash - he knew the Force would return, but while it was out of his grasp the world seemed a darker, more dangerous place.
Somewhere beyond the Demise’s bulkheads unknown parties still roamed, plotting to kidnap him and Leia to unknown ends. While he lay alone in the dark, helpless, the Imperial Remnant was clawing its way back toward galactic dominance. Every hour he spent here was ground he lost and would doubtless have to make up in sweat and blood. There was no one to ask for help. No one to share his terror, and he was so, so tired of being alone.
1. I am fascinated by the idea of sonic showers, but details on how they work are scarce. Accordingly, I have improvised in my description of them here.
2. SW is notoriously non-specific about kitchen equipment for the most part, so I have borrowed terms like "reheater" here that I've seen other fanfic authors use for lack of better options. Also, while I still headcanon that Mara cannot cook, she is plenty capable of popping the equivalent of microwave dinners in the cooker. : )
3. Fun random fact: the ochre walls in the Demise's dining area are based on a color that Panera Bread used to use for the walls in its bakery-cafes. It was such a popular color that customers used to routinely call and ask what it was so they could buy it for their own homes.
4. Because I am not aware of any GFFA language translation programs for the Naboo language, Mara uses Olys Corellisi or Sith any time she speaks something other than Basic in this fic. Olys Corellisi is common among smugglers and Sith functions as a secret code between her and Karrde as it is almost unknown in the galaxy.
5. The anti-restraining bolt rerouting function mentioned is something that canonically Whistler, Corran Horn's astromech had.
6. Canonically, Luke had a dog, which I have changed to an anooba here because I feel like it fits Tatooine and the universe better.
7. In-universe it has never made any sense to me that Luke never figured out Artoo had thrusters and/or never fixed them. Artoo deserves better (and will get it, here).
Luke gets to know Ghent and Reggie and has a fight with Mara.
Luke didn’t realize he’d fallen asleep until he jolted awake. His pulse throbbed in his ears and his breath was loud and ragged in the darkness. There was pressure on his chest - a hand, steady and strong. He concentrated on that, orienting himself.
“You were dreaming.” It was Mara’s voice, low and even. She was beside him, little more than a darker outline among the deep shadows.
“Sorry.” Luke dragged a hand over his face, embarrassment making him feel small and awkward. Force, he hoped he hadn’t been crying out. The things he might have said...
“War sickness isn’t a weakness.” Her hand disappeared. “Do you need to get up?”
War sickness. It clone troopers’ name for PTSD - he’d seen references in the histories he’d scoured looking for information on his father. An unexpected surge of gratitude washed through him. She understood.
A small, handheld luma lamp clicked on - low, by her hip, her body shielding it away from where Ghent still slumbered in oblivion. Luke untangled himself from the covers he’d half kicked off and slid out of bed, padding behind her in his sock feet.
Outside crew quarters the corridor was dim. No doubt it was simply pre-programmed night lighting due to the hour, but Luke was appreciative. Too much light too soon inevitably triggered a headache and without the Force it would take him hours to shake one if it started. As it was, there was nothing he could do about the discomfort that skittered under his skin, an after-effect of the nightmare he couldn’t remember.
Mara led him to the galley with silent, sylph-like grace. She clearly hadn’t even attempted to sleep, still impeccably dressed in the same clothes from earlier. Luke’s eyes caught on Minion, asleep on her shoulder, and he wondered idly at the bond between them. It was rare for even the most beloved pets to cling to their owners the way the small creature stuck to her.
Stepping to the counter, Mara flipped the switch on a kettle. “There’s Whyren’s and Starshine,” she said, opening a cupboard of glassware and looking over her shoulder at him. “Rotgut of every kind, too, if you’d rather.”
Generous, to risk letting him get drunk when she seemed so wary of him. Who in her life had struggled with war sickness, that she responded to it this way?
Luke shook his head. “I don’t suppose you have hot chocolate?”
“No.” Her brows knit. “I might be able to improvise something.”
“It’s not important. Whatever you’re having is fine.”
Mara closed the cupboard she had open and moved to another, never quite fully turning her back on him as she began to pull items down. Luke leaned against the opposite counter, giving her room. It occurred to him that her wariness might have nothing to do with him at all. She might not trust anyone. The Fringe was a rough place, after all - one didn’t earn and keep a rank like ship captain by being careless.
Luke’s eye caught on a glint, stalling his erratic thoughts. Mara had lifted a long-spouted pot in the stout, rounded shape of a gourd from the cabinet and set it on a plain wooden tray. Her shoulders softened as she dipped a decorative silver scoop into a wooden canister, adding ebony leaves to a narrow glass cylinder in slow, measured movements. She moved through the steps as though they were a dance or a rite. There was something inexplicably soothing about watching her, and the first knots in his back unexpectedly began to loosen.
The kettle switched off with a soft click, and Mara fitted the cylinder into the pot and then poured the bubbling water over top. She circled the kettle, adding the water in a motion that seemed both ritual and science. Luke realized her lips were moving, though he couldn’t hear the words. Finally, she capped the pot and swathed the it’s rich, blue-green enamel exterior in a towel. Curiosity chased the rest of Luke’s distraction away.
Still intent on her task, Mara arranged the rest of the tray: two small, matching dishes of a golden powder and cream; two deep, heavy mugs of the same blue-green pottery; and a small cup of sleek silver spoons. Every movement was measured, each item placed where it would bring balance to the whole. The scattered feeling under Luke’s skin dissipated.
Picking up the tray, Mara carried it out of the galley purposefully. Luke automatically trailed in her wake. He felt a flicker of surprise as she walked toward the ladder to the command deck. Just to its left, she balanced the tray deftly on one hand and pulled down a folding bench from the wall. Setting the tray on the bench, she nodded to her right.
“There are more benches there, if you want to sit.”
Luke glanced where she’d indicated and realized that there was a narrow hallway of sorts between the base of the column on which the command deck sat and the hull. The entrance was set back, almost hiding it from some angles of view. Intrigued, he moved toward it.
“Oh, wow.” Starlines stretched away before broad viewports that ran from knee-height almost to the ceiling. The space was an observation walk, empty of anything but fold-down benches, blank gunmetal walls and a stunning view of the stars. It curved away around the column on the other end, creating an enclosed and intimate atmosphere that deftly avoided the subtle anxiety of a dead-end corridor. Stepping inside, Luke let the feeling sink into his bones. Again, he felt small but this time it felt… good. Right. Safe.
A spoon clinked against a cup, and then Mara was beside him. Luke accepted the steaming cup she proffered, both hands curling around its weight and warmth. He had a flash of memory - his small shaky hands wrapping around a thick, coarse mug of thin soup. Aunt Beru’s work-worn hands cupping his own, helping him lift it, the broth easing the stinging in his throat during a bout of fever. “Thank you.”
Mara nodded, turning to face the viewports and lifting her own cup to her lips. The tea was thick on his tongue when Luke took his first cautious sip, heavy with cream and just the faintest touch of sweetness rounding out its rich, nutty flavor. A sigh welled up from somewhere deep in his chest as he swallowed and the warmth seeped through him, the nutty aroma soaking into his senses, imprinting his mind with quiet and comfort.
Luke’s eyes drifted to Mara and the curiosity roused again. “I’ve never seen a ship like this.”
“It was a Separatist ship in the Clone Wars. A troop transport.” Her gaze slid toward his. “We did some remodeling.”
“I like it.” Luke weighed his next words carefully, reluctant to risk breaking the calm. “You seem to work for an interesting organization.”
“We maintain a diverse portfolio of business interests,” she allowed. Her mouth dipped at the corners - not quite a frown, but something decidedly unimpressed. “We’ve heard about Solo’s proposal, you know.”
“You’ve spoken to him?” Alarm fluttered in Luke’s chest. Had he been lost in deep space long enough for Han to finish his mission already? “Do you know the date?”
Mara looked at him oddly but supplied it. Luke winced. “A week,” he mumbled in explanation. “I lost a week, between transit and the Imperials.” He waved it away, not wanting to dwell there. “Did Han catch up with your employer?”
“No.” Mara shook her head. “It doesn’t matter anyway. We know what he wants and we’re not interested.” Her expression twisted derisively. “The Mon Calamari in your government can go set up someone else. We’re not falling for the ploy.”
Resentment welled - he didn’t want to talk politics. Not right now, and never like this, put on the spot - again - over the behavior of a Council that he wasn’t particularly happy with himself, at the moment. Guilt and duty forced him to reluctantly reply anyway.
“It’s not like that. We really do need transporters, cargo carriers. Most of the big companies in the Core were Imperial-owned, and they pulled out when the Empire fell. We need people with ships and experience to keep stuff moving while new companies build up enough to handle the demand.”
Mara lifted a shoulder dismissively. “You can take that up with Talon and Aves when we get planetside. Cargo running isn’t my department.”
“Scientific research, right.” Luke started to take another sip of his tea and blinked to find his mug already empty. “Do you mind telling me where we’re headed?”
“Myrkr.” Mara held a hand out and Luke happily passed her his mug. Turning away, she stepped out of the observation deck back to the bench and poured them both more tea.
“I’ve never heard of it.” Luke watched with interest as she added tiny, precise amounts of what he guessed was honey powder to each cup, then added tea and cream.
She didn’t answer him until she’d finished and returned to hand him his cup. “Most haven’t.” She was quiet a moment, then added grudgingly, “It’s become of interest to the Empire of late.”
“It has resources they want for the war effort?” He guessed.
“Something like that.” She turned fierce eyes on him. “You can’t do anything stupid when we get planetside. If they find out we have you -.”
“I know,” he interrupted grimly. “I’m quite familiar with the lengths the Empire will go to for a chance at capturing a Jedi.” He rubbed his forehead with his fingers, weariness and dread invading the peace. “And they’re pushing again. There have been several kidnapping attempts on my sister and me.” He shouldn’t be telling her this. It was classified, all of it. “They’re different - like nothing we’ve seen before. Whoever’s taken the reigns of the Remnant is changing the game in ways we can’t predict. It isn’t good.”
“You really don’t know.” Mara sounded incredulous, her voice faint.
Luke turned his head, taking in her suddenly pale cheeks, the tautness in the lines of her body. “What?”
Mara chewed her lip, her eyes distant.
For a moment, Luke forgot his own weariness and frustration, his attention consumed by the conflict etched on her expressive face. “Mara, what is it?”
“Thrawn,” she said, softly. The word sounded pried loose, unbridled hatred twisting her lovely features. “The being at the head of the Remnant is Grand Admiral Thrawn.”
“There aren’t any more Grand Admirals,” Luke said, automatically. “We hunted them all down - it was its own campaign. I was there —.”
“Well you kriffing missed one!” Mara snapped, her eyes flashing. “Not that that’s any surprise. New Republic Intel leaks like a bugged droid. Force only knows how many Imperial double-agents you’re employing on top of Delta Source.”
“You know about Delta Source?” Luke’s brain caught up a moment too late, realizing only after he’d blurted the words out that she might be guessing - fishing for information.
She snorted. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“No, actually.” Irritation bled in.“The Delta Source problem is highly classified.”
“Is it?” Mara challenged. Without warning, she snatched his cup. The tray jangled as she slammed both cups down on it, then she was back, her hand darting out and closing around his tunic, dragging him back toward the main corridor.
“What are you doing?” He demanded, not quite planting his feet, but pulling back, slowing her down.
“Shut up,” she hissed. On her shoulder Minion roused, a deep grumble starting in his belly. That couldn’t be good.
“You don’t have to pull.” Luke closed his hand around Mara’s wrist thinking to pause her, to deescalate. It backfired, badly.
Mara gasped and twisted. Luke's attention snagged on the unexpected wildness in her eyes, but his mind tracked the way Minion hunched, screeching in alarm, and the sound of a door snicking open behind him. He moved more on instinct than actual thought, angling his body and throwing his weight back. His hand clamped tighter around Mara’s wrist as he fell, her other fist connecting with his jaw in a blow that would have been brutally effective if he’d moved a half-second later.
The pain lanced through him and then his breath was knocked away with a grunt as they hit the ground. He heard Mara curse as they rolled, Luke trying to pin her beneath him. Mara twisted again, her lean body impossibly flexible, and then there was a boot on his chest and he was flying backward. He hit the wall with a smack and then there was a pop and a short, stabbing pain in his left shoulder. Looking down, he found a tiny silver dart casing embedded in the muscle of his bicep.
“What the -?” Luke tried to reach for it, to pluck it out, but his body didn’t respond. As if wires had suddenly been cut, he slid another inch down the wall, his muscles giving out. Panic set in and Luke focused on his breathing, trying to fill his lungs with air in case that, too, was stolen from him. Unable to even move his head, Luke flicked his eyes up.
Reggie stared down at him, two of his smaller grasper arms drifting sideways in a conciliatory gesture. “There’s no cause for alarm, Jedi Skywalker. It is merely a temporary paralytic. I do apologize for the inconvenience, but you cannot be allowed to injure Captain Jade.”
Captain Jade. Mara. Luke’s eyes - the only part of him that seemed to obey, darted sideways, looking for her. She crouched against the opposite wall, her left hand cradled against her stomach, a frantic Minion on her knee pawing at it and squawking. Her skin was flushed, her mouth a hard line, her eyes tight with pain. Shavit. Luke’s stomach tightened. He hadn’t meant to hurt her - hadn’t imagined she’d react to his touch that way.
Mara scooped Minion onto her shoulder with her right hand, then braced herself on the wall to push upright.
“Are you all right?” Reggie asked, solicitously.
“Fine. Keep him here.” Still cradling her arm to her body, Mara stalked out of his line of vision.
Reggie floated down and plucked the dart from Luke’s arm, putting it away somewhere in the back of his casing where Luke couldn’t see. “I must say,” he hummed regretfully, “I had hoped to wake up to the two of you on top of one another, but this was not at all what I had in mind.”
Luke stared at him, aghast. Surely he wasn’t implying…
Mara reappeared, crouching in his line of sight. She held up a datapad directly in front of his face. “This is what I was going to show you,” she said, harshly, contorting her thumb around the edge to flick through the screens. Luke’s blood ran cold as he realized what he was seeing.
Portions of High Command schedules.
The minutes from high-level meetings.
Upcoming Fleet movements.
Horror welled up inside him and he struggled against his unresponsive body. His eyes locked on Mara.
“This is what your government is broadcasting.” She lowered the datapad. “Every kriffing day, because they can’t get their shavit together. So go ahead. Tell me again how you’re sure you got all the Grand Admirals. Explain to me how your Council is doing a bang-up job of running the galaxy and we should all trust them.” Her lips pressed together so hard they turned white and she held his gaze a long moment, anger and turmoil behind them that took his breath away. Then she shoved to her feet, turning her face toward Reggie. “Let him cool his heels while I use the medkit and then give him the counteragent. I’ll be on the Command Deck.”
Luke watched her walk away, the conflict in his chest a palpable ache. He’d known the Republic’s position was parlous, but this beyond anything he’d imagined. Everyone he loved was in peril and he was slumped on the floor of a smuggling ship, alone, helpless, cut off from the Force and now at odds with the only person who might be able to help him.
In the co-pilot’s chair on the Command Deck Mara pressed the knuckles of her spray-splinted left hand into her thigh. She dragged them along the line of a thin white scar hidden beneath the thick fabric of her trousers, her fingers flexing, desperate for the cool hilt of her fiber-alloy blade.
“Pain is a gift, Oracle. It gives us concentration, focus, and control, and these are what separate us from the weak and those who fail our Master.”
Mara moved her knuckles a finger-width down her leg and traced the next scar, digging hard into the skin.
“Not while you’re with me, Mara.” Karrde’s firm voice supplanted Thrawn’s in her memory. “You must promise me you won’t do this to yourself again while you’re in my organization.”
Damn the Jedi. It had been a year, at least, since she’d wanted so badly to reopen her old scars, to bleed her body and mind empty, until there was nothing but quiet.
“You promised,” she said aloud.
“I beg your pardon, Captain?” Slips asked.
“Nothing.” Mara squeezed her eyes shut against the headache building behind her eyes.
It was her own damn fault, all of it. All she’d had to do was keep her mouth shut and keep her distance for another handful of hours until she could deliver Skywalker to Karrde. What did she do instead? Made him tea. Snapped at him. Grabbed him.
Mara shuddered at the memory of his hand closing over her wrist. The strength of his grip, the feel of his warm, rough skin against hers. She’d wanted him to hurt her, to prove he was a threat. To push her up against the wall and kiss her breathless and prove he wasn’t.
Fierfek. She dug her fingertips into her closed eyes, trying to rub out the ache. In doing so, she leaned forward and her back twinged viciously. A spark of hope ignited, and she dropped her right hand to press into the small of her back. A bruise was already forming where she’d landed on the hilt taped there during the tussle. Touching it now sent pain arcing out, sizzling down her nerves and she let out a shaky breath, leaning into it.
Pain is a gift. It gives us concentration, focus, and control.
She could do better. She would. Digging her fingers in deeper, she sank a little further into the pain, letting it scour away her tumultuous thoughts. Minion warbled in her ear - he had never liked the way she smelled when she was in pain.
“I know,” she mumbled, turning her head to nuzzle him. “It’ll be all right. Just a little longer.”
As soon as the anti-paralytic kicked in, Luke staggered to his feet. Leaning heavily on the wall, he prodded his leaden, half-numb feet into motion toward the open space near the ladder to the Command Deck.
“You know the Command Deck is locked,” Reggie pointed out, floating along after him.
“Yeah,” Luke grunted. He hadn’t, technically, but it wasn’t a surprise. “I just need to move.”
The tea things were still on their bench and he turned away from them, facing the corner away from the observation deck and the ladder. The first few rounds of jerky, stumbling movement looked nothing like the katas he was trying to work through. By the fourth repetition, however, he regained his control and they took on their proper forms. It wasn’t the same without the Force - nothing was - but there was a quiet, abiding reassurance in the familiarity of the repeated pattern.
His body warmed with the exercise and his mind eased, working through the churning dismay and fear and anger until it, too, flowed more smoothly. Little by little, he worked himself toward calm, pushing himself harder and longer until his muscles began to burn. Only when his body had begun to tremble with exertion did his thoughts truly settle into a sort of grave certainty: he was not here by accident.
Though its methods were not of his choosing, there was no denying that the Force had brought him to this ship with intention and in alignment with larger schemes beyond his understanding. Karrde’s people had something far more precious than cargo ships and trained crews. They had information. The kind the NR desperately needed. The kind he needed to protect Leia and Han and their soon-to-be-born twins.
And Mara… there was an energy about her he couldn’t explain, but it pulled at him like a gravity well. He didn’t think that was random chance, either.
Resolve trickled through him, sharp and bright. He was still on the path the Force had set for him, even if the feel of it remained just beyond his grasp.
Ghent roused while Luke was in the sonic. Reggie prepared them a light breakfast. Mara didn’t reappear, but Luke got the impression the droid was keeping tabs on her remotely. He swiveled his head occasionally, as like a human cocking an ear toward a sound. It made him feel oddly better to think that Mara was protected, in spite of her self-isolation.
After breakfast, the trio set themselves up in the cargo bay. True to Mara’s assertion, there wasn’t much in the way of material for droid repair, and Luke had to content himself with cleaning his mechanical friend and taking full stock of necessary repairs. Ghent commandeered one of the only pieces it was possible to repair - a scorched programming chip - and cheerfully plopped down on the floor nearby to see what he could do.
Reggie fussed at him to at least put on safety goggles, and Luke hid a smile at the way they seemed to accentuate both the boy’s youth and his enthusiasm as he bent over his project. Not wanting to interrupt his concentration, Luke directed conversation at Reggie.
“So, what about you?” Luke asked, scrubbing at Artoo’s side with a firm-bristled brush. “How did you come to be in Karrde’s service?”
“We made him,” Ghent piped up.
“Really, now, the question was clearly addressed to me,” Reggie protested, tilting his body indignantly. “But yes, I am a SPARC, designed to Captain Jade’s specifications.”
“A SPARC?” Luke asked, searching his memory and coming up blank.
“He’s from the Rebellion,” Ghent reminded the droid.
New Republic, Luke thought but didn’t say.
“Ah, yes.” Reggie’s tone went dour. “They who believe you can run the whole of the galaxy on astromechs and protocol droids. On the Fringe,” he sniffed, sliding into a lecturing tone, “talented individuals appreciate the value of having SPARCs - Specialized Personal Assistants in Repurposed Casings. Captain Aves and Ghent created me from the shell of an urban-deployment probe droid to meet Captain Jade’s need for a capable registrar.”
“A registrar?” That explained the name, at least.
“Mara gets all the complicated stuff,” Ghent explained, his tongue sticking out one side of his mouth as he fiddled with a tiny tool. “And sometimes her brain doesn’t work right, so Reggie helps her track and recall stuff. He’s super good at it.”
Sometimes her brain doesn’t work right. An old injury, perhaps? Or merely Ghent’s perception of a brain that didn’t work like his own? Something to explore, either way - but not now. Now, he needed to keep the conversation meandering, easy. Not suspicious.
“You programmed him to cook, too. That’s handy.”
“I am entirely qualified to do whatever is needed to keep the Demise running in top order,” Reggie said proudly. “I get upgrades at least every quarter.”
The ensuing conversation on New Republic droid update protocols left Luke alternately cringing and laughing. He got the feeling, as the conversation wandered through his plans for a New Jedi Order before turning in other directions, that he was being coaxed out of as much information as he received. They were talented, Karrde’s people, he’d give them that. He just hoped he could convince them to use those talents to help the New Republic because the alternative - having them wielded on behalf of the Imperial Remnant - was too grim to contemplate.
1. So far as I know, war sickness is a term I made up and not actually used in canon (by which I mean Legends/CW).
2. I rather enjoy the idea of Karrde's people making their own moonshine. I like to imagine that they have different recipes they tinker with and coming up with the best new blends is a running, friendly challenge between his various bases.
3. The description of the observation deck is a little dicey here. Essentially, I imagine wide pillar on which the command deck sits. To the right of the pillar is a big, proper hallway leading to the forward docking areas. To the left is the narrow hall-like space of the observation area, which is entirely lined with giant viewing windows. My apologies if it's hard to envision, but I couldn't find any images or better ways to explain what I wanted.
4. The tea they are drinking is based on an absolutely delicious RL tea. (Also, since I subscribe to the "culinary school of crisis management" I 100% believe that a good pot of caf/tea goes a long way towards fixing almost anything.)
5. Mara's Mon Cal comment is based on the canon belief among smugglers at this point in the timeline that Han's request for smugglers to work with the NR was a ploy by Mon Cal representatives in the NR gov't to draw out smugglers so they could be arrested and imprisoned. (Turns out Mon Cals really hate smugglers.)
6. In case it isn't clear, Thrawn taught Mara to employ cutting as an emotional control tool. When she got to Karrde and he found out, he forbade her to ever do it again.
7. I made up SPARCs, because I think they should be A Thing.
8. Why yes, SpaceDad!Talon *has* built a fabulous and highly customized safety net around Mara in the form of Reggie and Minion (among other things). He's had her for five years in this version of things, and it shows.
Luke meets the mysterious Talon Karrde and gets a surprise (or three).
Unwilling to back down from a possible confrontation, Mara steeled herself and then climbed down the ladder from the Command Deck. She found the others gathered in the cargo bay, packing up cleaning supplies and one of Ghent’s gear bags.
“We’re reverting in five,” she announced. “Ghent, you and Reggie will follow the usual procedure. I’ll take Skywalker to Karrde as soon as we land and meet you later.”
“And our science project?” Reggie asked.
“I’ll have Chin see to it.”
“Of course.” He bobbed an acknowledgment then glided off after Ghent, well practiced in the need to ensure the slicer’s gear was properly secured before he got distracted.
Skywalker moved toward her and Mara dug in her feet, holding her ground.
“I’m sorry about earlier.” He sounded genuinely sincere, and his mouth twisted in what she took to be distaste. “The idea that we could have missed a Grand Admiral threw me and I didn’t respond well.”
She didn’t know what to do with an apology. “It’s fine.”
“It’s not,” he countered, his hand reaching out then pausing. “May I?”
Mara stopped breathing but managed a wary nod.
Skywalker lifted her splinted wrist gently and turned it over, examining it as if he knew his way around field dressings. “Is it cracked?”
He had beautiful hands. Long, slender fingers, permanently tanned from sun and work. Mara’s body clenched with want.
“You wouldn’t have splinted if it was less than a hairline fracture,” he rebuffed softly, his lips turning down as his eyes flicked back to hers.
He was going to kill her and he was worried about a minor fracture. Mara wasn’t sure whether the idea made her want to laugh or cry. Deliberately, she extracted her hand from his, her body wailing at the emptiness in the wake of his fingers as they slid over her palm, off her fingertips, away. She had to change the subject - distract him. Distract herself. Anything —.
“You’re worried about your people,” she blurted. “Because of Thrawn.”
“Yes.” The Jedi dropped his hands. “But that’s not an excuse for my overreacting.” He held her gaze, his eyes every bit as bright and intense as the Force had promised her they would be. “I’d like to start over, if you’ll let me. Prove you can trust me. Not just as a — a guest, but a friend.”
Abomination, a long-dead voice hissed in her head. Will he remain your friend when he discovers what you are, my Oracle? Mara’s lungs burned as if the Jedi had thrust a poisoned blade in her chest. Pain is a gift.
Minion squawked. Mara inhaled, forced her lips and tone to flatten with just the right hint of edge. “I won’t give you free information just for being nice, Skywalker.”
He smiled, something mischievous appearing in his eyes that made her knees weaken. “I don’t expect you to.” He shrugged, easily. “But you might make me tea again.” He shot her a sly glance. “And let me fatten up Minion a bit.”
Minion recognized his name and burbled happily. Mara’s breath went back to regulating itself correctly and her brain caught up again. “He’s fat enough.” She turned away from those eyes, made herself focus on putting one foot in front of the other. “Get cleaned up. I’m not presenting you to Karrde covered in droid grease.”
The Demise’s reversion to real space was so smooth that Luke might not have noticed it if he hadn’t been at the observation windows to see the starlines collapse back into individual fixed points of light.
They came out unusually close to the planet and began descending immediately. Mara - or her nav droid - was a confident pilot, dropping them easily through the dense layers of clouds enfolding the yellow-orange planet. They emerged on the underside to an expanse of thick green forest. A moment later they were ducking and rotating - hiding the ship, he realized. Tucking it as far into the trees as possible.
The hatch overhead popped and Mara slid down the ladder, Minion snug against her neck. “Come on.”
The instant the outer door opened, heat, sunlight, and the lush smell of green flooded inside. Luke breathed deep as he stepped out into the landing yard, the heavy, aroma-laden breeze reminding him vividly of Yavin. Unexpected emotion gripped him.
There was so much life here. It assaulted his senses in ways he’d long grown accustomed to sublimating to whatever impressions he gathered from the Force. The sensation inexplicably felt like an awakening, the restoration of something he hadn’t realized he’d lost. The smell of hot metal and freshly applied mechanic’s grease mixed with the feel of the hard-packed dirt beneath his boots and the dappling of sun and shade on his face as Mara led him between other docked ships.
He counted more than a dozen, including at least two bulk cruisers and several smaller craft, before the landing area gave way to a grassy clearing crisscrossed with well-maintained paths. What he guessed were barracks stood on either side. A handful of other buildings scattered beyond them, including one that was clearly a servicing hangar. Mara stalked purposefully straight down the center toward a large, high-roofed building that dominated the compound. It wasn’t fancy or particularly imposing, but there was a pragmatic sort of solidity to it, Luke thought.
He didn’t expect the airiness of the light-filled hallway they stepped into, nor the surprisingly comfortable flow of the dining, recreation and work rooms that branched off on either side. He didn’t believe the tall, broad door awaiting them at the far end. Adrenaline rushed through him as they got closer - it looked like something out of the fairy tales Aunt Beru had told him as a child. A portal into the realm of ancient legend.
Squaring his shoulders against the apprehension and wonder that skittered under his skin, Luke kept close on Mara’s heels, focused on matching her quick, even pace. The surreality of his perceptions was reinforced by the way tension smoothed from Mara’s expression and her steps eased as soon as she stepped over the threshold, as if she, too, felt she had crossed through a portal and all the rules had changed.
Irrationally, Luke held his breath as he stepped in after her. His feet landed on silvery flagstone, and dark walls of intricate, open-work mesh backlit by faint blue light rose around him to a soaring, translucent domed ceiling knit from a web of carved rafters. Conversation circles were artistically arrayed around the room, small artifacts and art pieces hinting at expensive taste registering on the periphery on Luke’s awareness.
It was the tree that captured his attention, however. More than a meter thick at its base, it grew from the center of the floor, out through an opening in the roof, its thick branches spreading across the room, dappling the sunlight and embracing the whole of the space like a benevolent god.
“Ah, Skywalker. Come and join me.”
The sound of his name dragged Luke from his awe. Past Mara at the base of the tree a man lounged in a heavy, densely carved chair. Even sitting, was he clearly long and lean, his clothing fine in a subtle, tasteful way, his bright eyes a sharp contrast to his coppery skin and dark hair. Long-legged quadrupeds Luke didn’t recognize crouched at either side of his chair, their muzzles turned attentively toward the newcomers.
Swallowing, Luke started toward him, struggling to re-find his equilibrium.
“Welcome. I’m Talon Karrde.” The words were clear, articulate, and laced with the undefinable accent of a spacer who has traveled too long and too far to retain the inflections of his native world. He gestured to the chair across from him. “Please sit down.”
“Thank you.” Luke started toward the indicated seat, but stopped abruptly as one of the animals rose up slightly on its haunches, a strange, choked purr issuing from its throat.
“Easy, Sturm,” Karrde admonished, looking down at the beast. “This man is our guest.”
The sleek, thickly-muscled creature ignored him, its dark eyes fixated on Luke. “I don’t think it believes you,” Luke suggested carefully, glancing at the second beast. Its head was swiveling between him and Mara with a puzzled expression.
“Perhaps not.” Karrde looked past him. “Mara, if you don’t mind?”
Mara gave a command and both animals’ ears shot up, swiveling in her direction. “Nun,” she added, sternly.
This second demand Luke recognized - “now” in Olys Corellisi. The creatures obviously recognized it, too, because they promptly lumbered to their feet and loped to her side. Luke watched them bump their large heads against her knees, looking for approval. She spoke to them in a low voice, then clicked her tongue and led them out.
Turning back, he found Karrde’s eyes on him. “My apologies, Skywalker. Please sit down.” He leaned over and uncorked a crystal decanter resting on a low table at his side, pouring reddish liquid into a pair of squat, square glasses.
Luke took the seat and accepted the cup offered him with a nod.
“It’s a mild stimulant. Local custom upon receiving guests,” Karrde explained. “I can have it tested if you’d like.” As if to prove his sincerity, he raised his glass to his lips and took the first swallow.
“That won’t be necessary, thank you.” Luke took a small sip of his own, intrigued that Karrde shared Mara’s assumption that he would be wary of poisoning and drugging. Either those were notably more common in smuggling circles than Han and Lando had let on, or they were under the impression that they were a persistent concern for him, personally. He’d have to ask, at some point. At the moment, however, he was more struck by the drink’s pleasant flavor — light, tart, and refreshing — and by the wry realization that the provisions Karrde’s people had provided him with were far better than anything he’d had in months with the exception of his brief visit to Nkllon.
“You present me with quite the quandary, Skywalker.” Karrde set down his cup and leaned back in his seat, steepling his fingers. “The Empire is most adamant that you be found, despite the significant odds against your having survived their most recent attempt on your life.”
That wasn’t good news. Tension hummed beneath Luke’s skin. “If you’re considering turning me over to them, I should tell you the New Republic will more than match whatever bounty they’re offering.”
“I’ve no interest in handing you to the Imperials,” Karrde waved the idea away, his mouth tipping down in dark amusement. “The long term projections for that course of action promise unpleasant results, even if it didn’t incite my crews to riot.”
Luke’s confusion must have shown on his face because Karrde continued.
“I have a great many beings in my employ who formerly did business, voluntarily or otherwise, with the Desilijics.” Karrde cocked his head, eyes the color of Ankarres sapphires fixed on Luke intently. “No small number of them are convinced that they would remain enslaved if you hadn’t leveled Jabba’s empire. Their gratitude wasn’t quite enough to drive them into the arms of the Rebellion, but it might well lead to violence if I were to deliver you to your enemies.” His tone changed, his mouth flattening.“Unfortunately, however, I cannot simply let you go, either.”
“You wouldn’t be uncompensated,” Luke tried again.“I’m sure the New Republic will offer double the Empire’s bounty.”
“You’re very generous with other people’s credits,” Karrde said dryly. “Regrettably, it isn’t a problem of credits. You see, our operations extend rather deeply into both Imperial and Republic space. If I let you go, the Empire will find out, and then I will be forced to abandon my Imperial space holdings for my people’s safety.”
Movement out of the corner of his eye caught Luke’s attention. Mara circled silently into view, approaching the tree against which Karrde sat from his right. Reaching its base, she lifted Minion from her shoulder and held her hand near the tree. The little lizard leaped onto the trunk then scurried up into the arching limbs.
Luke turned to gaze back to Karrde. “You can’t exactly keep me.”
“I can, actually.” There was no gloating in the boast, only blunt fact. “However experienced a fighter you are, without the Force, you’re simply a man and I am more than capable of holding you.”
The hit blindsided him. Luke reeled, fear gripping his chest. A cold sweat broke out across his skin. “How did you know?”
Karrde smiled, cagey and intent. “Secrets of that magnitude are worth a great deal. I don’t suppose you have any secrets of equal value to trade?”
“Probably not.” Luke bit his tongue against the desire to offer credits again. Karrde had made it clear they would do him no good. But what else did he have?
Karrde picked up his drink again, eyeing Luke shrewdly over the rim of his cup. Beside him, Mara was motionless, her face inscrutable as she watched the exchange.
“I will make you a deal,” the smuggler said, finally, emptying his glass and returning it to the table. “You tell me what you’ve done of late that has the Empire suddenly so interested in you, and I will tell you why your Jedi powers aren’t working.”
Irritation lanced through him and Luke retorted without thinking, “why don’t you ask the Imperials directly?”
Karrde smiled. “Thank you, but no. It would be exceedingly unwise to show interest in you after I pleaded prior commitments when the request came down for us to assist in the search for you. But if you can give me something of value,” he prompted again, “I might be able to find some way we can let you go while still giving the Imperials what they want.”
“I really don’t know what the Empire wants with me,” Luke said, unable to stop his frustration from bleeding through. He opened his mouth to point out that with all the intel Karrde was somehow skimming from both sides he almost certainly knew more than Luke did.
His eyes caught on Mara, though, and the words faltered in his throat. Tension shimmered off of her and it plunged him back into the gravity well. She needed something from this and he couldn’t resist the call to answer that, even if he didn’t understand what she was seeking.
Luke threw all his cards on the table. “I don’t know what they want,” he repeated, forcing his gaze off Mara and back to Karrde. “But I know it isn’t just me. There have been two kidnapping attempts on me and my sister and whoever is behind it is pulling out all the stops.” Briefly, he outlined the attacks they’d survived on Bimmissaari and Nkllon, and then his encounter with the Imperials that had left him stranded.
“Interesting,” Karrde murmured when he’d finished, his eyes unfocusing slightly. “Leia Organa Solo. Who is in training to be a Jedi like her brother and carrying children likely to be Jedi as well. That could explain…” he glanced sideways at Mara, “…certain recent Imperial actions.”
Trying to train, Luke corrected Karrde’s statement in his head, unable to quell the bitterness that rose every time the Council’s purported “regret” over not being able to spare Leia for training came up. She’d sacrificed years of her life to the cause, and the Council couldn’t find its way to giving her even a tiny break to rest, to equip herself for her own protection, for the protection of her children.
Luke reigned in his thoughts. Leia’s situation was out of his hands, for now, and there was little enough he could do for anyone until he restored his connection to the Force. “You spoke of a compromise.”
Karrde’s expression cleared. “Yes, I did,” he agreed. “It had occurred to me that your privileged position in the NR might be what the Empire was interested in – that they wanted information on the inner workings of the Provisional Council. Had that been the case, we might have been able to work out a deal whereby you went free while your R2 droid went to the Imperials for debriefing.”
Luke felt his stomach tighten. “It wouldn’t do them any good. Artoo has never been to any of the Council meetings.”
“It’s irrelevant now, of course. The fact that the focus is exclusively on the New Republic’s Jedi and potential Jedi means they’re not simply after information.” Karrde’s expression darkened and jaw set. “I need to look into a few things before I can decide how to proceed,” he said, abruptly. “For everyone’s safety, including yours.”
Cautious hope trickled in. “Don’t hurry on my account. This seems a pleasant enough world to spend a few days on and your people have been generous hosts.”
“I’m sure,” Karrde said smoothly. “But I must advise you not to do anything rash. So long as you cooperate you are under my protection. Should you think to ‘improve’ your situation by leaving, you will find that my two pet vornskrs have a large number of relatives in the forest who have not had the benefits of modern domestication.”
He glanced at Mara, who gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“As to your Jedi skills, they will remain unavailable to you for so long as you remain on planet. Ysalamiri are, after all, everywhere on Myrkr.”
Karrde pointed a single elegant finger over his head.
Luke followed his gesture. In the branches overhead, long claws embedded in the tree limb directly over Karrde’s head, was a slender, furry grey-brown creature with four eyes. The lizards Mara was researching.
“Ysalamiri,” Karrde said, “seem to have the unusual ability to push back the Force. To create bubbles, so to speak, where the Force simply doesn’t exist.”
Nausea curled in Luke’s gut. “I’ve never heard of them.”
“Not very many have. But we specialize in knowing things others don’t.”
It was almost certainly bait but the suggestion was too tantalizing to let go. “Do you have other information on the Force, and the Old Order?” Luke drew himself up, grasped for the shreds of his composure. “I’d make it worth your while to share it with me if you do.”
“Yes, I’m sure you would.” Something Luke couldn’t identify crossed Karrde’s expression. Then it cleared. “We may be able to work out an exchange to that end — if you don’t try anything foolish while I determine how to get you back to your Republic without sacrificing my people in the process.”
“I’m happy to wait on your convenience,” Luke assured him. Then he lifted his chin. “But I’d like my lightsaber back, as a gesture of trust. It’s more than just a weapon,” he added, quickly. “And you have my word I will only use it in self-defense.”
Again, Karrde’s gaze flicked to Mara. Not a researcher, Luke thought, his earlier doubts solidifying into certainty. Mara might have been handling Karrde’s lizard experiment but whatever position she held in his organization, it was far greater than she’d let on.
“I believe we have a sufficient understanding for that,” Karrde said.
Mara stepped forward, reaching a hand behind her and tucking it under her tunic. Disbelief struck as Luke watched as the hilt of his lightsaber slid out from under the fabric. She efficiently plucked strips of medical tape off of it as she closed the distance between them. Then she reversed the hilt and held it out to him, her chin raised defiantly.
The metal was warm from her skin when he wrapped his fingers around it, and his brain short-circuited at the thought that she’d taken it off his unconscious body and been carrying it on her own this whole time.
“This is Aves.”
Luke realized, belatedly, that Karrde was speaking to him and hauled his gaze off Mara. A broad-shouldered man with blond hair and an easy, roguish air had appeared, throwing Luke further off balance.
“He will get you settled now. We’ll speak again soon.”
“Thank you.” The response was automatic, as was hooking his saber to his belt. Luke’s brain remained stuck in a mass of static as he snatched one more glance at Mara, standing still and taut a single arm’s length from him, then turned on his heel and followed Aves out of the room.
Mara waited until Aves and the Jedi disappeared down the hallway before sinking into the chair Skywalker had vacated. Her hands clenched around the tape she’d peeled off the saber hilt, balling it up as she pressed her fists together in her lap.
“I failed you.” She kept her chin and eyes up, determined to bear the reprimand she deserved with dignity. “I should have known. I should have guessed —.”
“You are an Oracle, Mara,” Karrde interrupted, his tone firm. “Not a deity.”
Mara’s insides snarled as they always did when he failed to chastise her. Relief warred with guilt and, for just a moment, her hands itched for her blade again. Then it passed, her body settling with the knowledge that she would deny herself that release and, in doing so, act out the penance she deserved but he refused to mete.
Karrde sighed and stood, his hand rubbing at his chin as he stared across the room, his eyes distant. “We’re lucky it’s taken this long for your paths to cross,” he said, his aristocratic mouth twisting in chagrin. “Our Informant has made no secret of its intention that you meet.”
Only Talon could refer to the Force-induced chiaroscuros of Skywalker kriffing and killing her with such tact. “This raises the risk to everyone.”
“Kiu Uhl dio Larel morhi jun,” Karrde murmured.
Affection and exasperation welled in her in equal measure. “Save the poetry for Sturm and Drang,” she demanded. “Talk to me about logistics.”
Karrde turned back to her, shaking his head. “How you received a classical education without any appreciation of basic poetry remains one of the galaxy’s great mysteries,” he chided, his eyes twinkling.
Mara narrowed her eyes at him and pursed her lips. “Just because you like archaic drivel —.”
“That ‘drivel’ has been supremely helpful on more than one occasion,” he interjected in mock reproof. Then his tone sobered. “But I doubt it will be helpful now. We’ll need to pull people back from the deepest parts of Imperial space in case a swift withdrawal is necessary — but it will need to be managed so that it appears natural and temporary. We don’t want to draw attention.”
“Fall back to Hijarna?” Mara suggested, already running lists in her head. “Or Rishi?”
“Rishi first. Let’s hold Hijarna in reserve.”
Mara worked her fingers around the ball of sticky tape still in her palm, the need to be moving building up in her bones.“And Skywalker?”
“We find a way to return him,” Karrde said, simply. “Preferably after discretely finding out what he knows about the Jedi and the current state of the Imperial remnant and adjusting his education in our favor.”
“Nothing,” she said, her words sharp with anger. “He doesn’t know anything. He didn’t even know there was a Grand Admiral.”
Karrde’s lips curled in shared disgust for the New Republic’s ineptitude at intelligence work. “We’ll have our work cut out for us, then.” He shook his head. “Leave the question of how we will return him to his Republic to me. In the meantime, do what you can to discover what else he doesn’t know and correct it — without looking like you’re giving him free information, of course.” He smiled slightly. “We can’t afford a reputation for that.”
“You don’t have to cater to me,” Mara pressed her lips together. “Or Our Informant. You can assign Aves or Faughn. Someone who thinks he got them out of Jabba’s. Someone…” she gestured vaguely, “social.”
“I have never catered to you, Mara, and I certainly have no intention of abetting the Force in its absurdities. This is a tactical decision.”
She stared at him, trying to work out how he figured that.
He met her stare and then his face softened. “You didn’t notice.” He sounded amused, and only the open affection in his eyes kept Mara from bristling. “He is drawn to you, even without the Force to guide him. Drawn, too, to the promise of knowledge about the Jedi and the threats his family faces.”
Her mind latched onto that last bit — she knew what to do with that, could work with it. “Information we have.”
“Yes. He will listen to you.”
Mara nodded and stood. She needed to find Reggie, get her lists out of her head and somewhere more secure before she lost them and had to start over. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Mara,” Karrde’s tone had gone entirely businesslike, his face smoothing into even neutrality. “If the opportunity presents itself to indulge your own curiosity about our guest, remember that this is not Court. You are free to do as you please.”
For a moment, she gaped at him, speechless. Then, unable to find words, she nodded silently and took her leave.
1. I'm rather interested in the idea that one experiences the world differently with and without the Force and that while the Force is a tremendous and wonderful gift to have, it does not come without a cost. Some fundamentally physical realizations/experiences are lost in the 'noise' of the Force, as Luke is reminded here.
2. Most basic information on the Myrkr Base were taken from TTT, but I have taken the liberty of filling in missing details with my ideas.
3. In case you didn't know, Talon Karrde is canonically hot.
4. I headcanon that both Olys Corellisi and Huttese are common languages among smugglers across the galaxy (in addition to Basic, of course).
5. Sadly, canon does not specify what lovely stimulant drink Karrde provides here.
6. It's nice to think that Luke has fans across the galaxy who love him because they were collateral beneficiaries of his exploits. It somewhat balances out all the beings who hate him from a distance because they suffered from collateral damage.
7. Someone please write me the fic where Karrde takes over the remains of Jabba's empire post-RotJ and becomes the Smuggler King.
8. Minion likes to hang out in the giant tree when they are on Myrkr. I headcanon that he crawls around cheerfully annoying the full-blooded ysalamiri like over-enthusiastic puppies/kittens clamoring on adult dogs/cats that would really just like to nap, thankyouverymuch. He comes down only to beg for bread at meals.
9. While Aves and Mara are not a Thing here, everyone should go read No Strings Attached by JediDryad if you like him as a character.
10. Kiu Uhl dio Larel morhi jun: Whom the gods love die young
11. Yes, that last bit *was* Karrde tactfully telling Mara that it's really okay if she kriffs Skywalker while he's around. I unreasonably enjoy the vast awkwardness Mara's sex visions create for everyone in this fic. : p
Luke is roped into telling stories at dinner while Mara deals with logistics and Feelings. (Also UST and smuggler antics.)
Mara frowned at the giant holo-map illuminated over the chart table before her. “Is Bastion the one the with the Twi’lek masseuse or the Togruta accountant?”
The droid’s words blurred, the world distorting. The edge of the table dug into Mara’s palm as she grabbed for it, bracing as she wavered on her feet. A stretch of stars glittered in her mind’s eye, one end anchored in the Hydian Way. The shriek of threat shot adrenaline through her, prickling cold breaking out across her skin.
Everything vanished as quickly as it had come, leaving her bent over the table, her lungs screaming for air. Mara gulped a breath, shivering as the world righted itself.
“Are you with me, Captain Jade?” Reggie hovered close, prepared to catch her if she fell.
“Braxant sector,” Mara managed, her head dropping forward under a wash of dizziness. She waited it out, then forced her body to straighten. “Search the fugue files for Braxant or the Hydian Way. Cross-reference with threats.”
The droid drifted back a little as she proved she could keep her feet, his violet lenses spinning as he processed. “Braxant,” he said, a moment later. “Three sessions ago, Our Informant suggested an adverse incident along Braxant Run, near the Hydian Way. Subsequent research revealed a garrisoned Imperial Outpost several light-years from the indicated location.” The lenses twitched. “I believe we can consider the likelihood of an Imperial attack at or near that point very high.”
“Agreed.” Mara pointed to the map, making an effort to keep her hand from shaking. She might loathe the after-effects but occasionally half-memories could be remarkably helpful. “Priority comm Ellor. Tell him to finish the drop and head for…” she scanned the options. “Ord Mantell, via the Celanon Spur. That’s NR territory now. Pull the list of ship parts we needed for the Hart and Seoul’s overhaul and bump anything they’re likely to find on Ord Mantell to urgent status.”
“Ship parts.” Reggie snorted. “They’ll love that.”
Uwanna Buyer was a luxury ship, its crew primarily employed to show off for gullible buyers and wheedle information out of over-indulged loose-lipped beings too dazzled to realize they were being played. They wouldn’t be impressed by an assignment to ferry raw parts. Mara didn’t give a shavit if it saved their lives.
“Updating now.” Reggie’s head swiveled. “Company approaching.”
Mara blanked out the map and turned.
“Whatever you’re doing, pack it up, Jade.” Aves announced, appearing at the door with Skywalker in tow. “Time for dinner.”
“Take Ghent,” she said, automatically. “I have work to do.”
“Dinner is not an either-or affair,” Aves propped one hand on his hip. “Besides,” he wiggled his thick blond eyebrows suggestively, “our guest is going to tell us about his adventure at Jabba’s.”
Mara folded her arms across her chest and summoned her best unimpressed look. “I’ve already seen the spoiler reports. There was lots of sand and the slug bites it at the end.” Behind Aves, Skywalker’s lips twitched. Mara’s heart fluttered and she immediately clamped down on the unnerving reaction.
“Core brat,” Aves grumbled, his eyes twinkling. “Fine, I’ll play dirty. I was going to let it be a surprise, but Faughn got those disgusting blue noodles you like and you know they don’t reheat.” He grinned at her smugly. “So pack it the hell up and let’s go.”
If I find you have ventured out for such… ‘street food’ again, I will have the soles of your feet whipped so thoroughly that you cannot walk for a week, is that clear?
The scars on the soles of her feet stung at the memory. Defiance streaked hot through her chest. Thrawn could go kriff himself. She didn’t belong to him anymore. She’d eat whatever she wanted, when she wanted… and blue noodles really didn't reheat. It would be shameful to let them go to waste.
“I suppose I can’t leave Karrde without some kind of civilized dinner company while I’m on planet,” she huffed, half-swiveling to sweep her datapads into a neat pile. “Reggie, monitor the comms. Let me know if we get any pings. It seems I’ll be at dinner.”
Luke twirled long strands of spicy cerulean noodles around his food sticks and stuck them in his mouth before Faughn and Aves could finish arguing over the specific chemistry of sarlaccs’ digestion and ply him with another question.
His body buzzed with tired-wired energy and his brain had long since given up trying to sort out the surreality of it all. He hadn’t participated in a dinner this lively since he’d snuck out of a state event to go drinking with the entirety of Rogue Squadron. That had been, what? More than a year ago. He didn’t know if he’d ever talked so much about Tatooine in one sitting since he’d left it, the homestead burning at his back.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Mara slipping back into her seat. That made twice she’d excused herself, comm device in hand. Luke assumed it was Reggie with updates on whatever calls she’d been waiting for. Like Leia, Mara seemed unable to completely step away from her work, even briefly.
“May I ask what happened at Endor?”
Karrde’s voice startled Luke slightly and he looked up quickly. Aves and Faugh stopped talking.
“Everyone is aware that you killed the Emperor, of course,” the smuggler continued, leaning back in his chair, a glass of wine in hand. His tone was casual but his eyes were sharp. “But I’ve never run across an explanation of why the Alliance risked its sole Jedi on a solo mission to the battle station it was actively attempting to destroy.”
The correct answer, of course, was that’s classified. But Mara had gone completely still, her eyes darting to Karrde. The restless, cautious energy that had hung over her through the meal doubled.
“I wasn’t supposed to be on the second Death Star.” The table fell silent. Ostensibly keeping his gaze on Karrde, Luke watched Mara. “I was supposed to be on Endor, with the strike team taking down the shield generator.”
“You didn’t get captured.” Aves’ expression was rapt with horror.
Luke smiled slightly. “I surrendered, actually. To Vader.”
Mara’s eyes widened.
“It’s a long story.” He glanced down, twirling his food sticks in another nest of noodles. “The short version is that Vader took me before the Emperor. They wanted me to turn to the dark side. I said no.” Luke glanced up through his lashes. Mara had gone ashen. He had the inexplicable impulse to reassure her, somehow, though about what, exactly, he wasn’t sure. “The Emperor tried to kill me and Vader saved me. He killed Palpatine, sacrificing himself for me.”
For a moment, there was absolute silence. Then Aves’ palm smacked flat on the tabletop with a loud crack.“That has all the makings of a made-for-holonet epic.” He leaned forward, eagerly. “Sell us the rights to it - we’ll do a great job, I swear. We’ll get that guy - what’s his name?” He glanced at Faughn for help. “The big blond beefcake Teela likes, to headline it.”
“You idiot —,” Faughn started.
“Oh, yeah!” Ghent blurted at the same time, his eyes lighting up. “I’ll do the edits again!”
Unable to help himself, Luke started laughing. “You guys do holofilms?”
“Usually only the blue kind,” Aves said, the mirth in his eyes directly at odds with his serious expression, “but we can make an exception this time.”
Faughn proceeded to lambaste him for suggesting that the Christior Faraday would ever stoop to such nonsense. Ghent’s head bounced side to side between them as they argued, as if it were a delightful sports match.
Karrde’s eyes were on Mara. Confusion and concern slid down Luke’s spine at the expression on her face when he, too, slanted his gaze back to her. Her eyes had unfocused, and her swollen pupils reduced the daisy-green of her irises to the merest slivers of color. She was still ashen and Luke’s back locked reflexively as she unexpectedly wavered where she sat. Karrde’s hand slid across the table, his fingertips brushing hers.
Mara started, her fingers sneaking up to grasp the table edge until they turned white. Color flooded back to her face and her eyes righted themselves with dizzying speed. Her gaze darted to Karrde for just a second and then she was out of her chair and out of the room on unsteady feet, silent as a ghost.
Damn Vader for waiting too long to make his move. Damn the Emperor for breaking her brain and never finishing his refiguring job. Damn Skywalker for those kriffing eyes that made her want things. Dangerous, stupid things.
Mara trailed one hand along the walls of the barracks building waiting for her balance to come back, then stalked blindly to her suite. Snatching running clothes from the closet she peeled out of her standard clothing and shoved herself into her workout things. She didn’t remember the walk one floor down and across the building.
Sturm and Drang lifted their massive heads from the floor when she let herself into Karrde’s apartment, their ears perking up hopefully.
“Let’s go for a run.”
Luke patted Artoo’s domed head and bit back a groan as he stood, his body stiff from too much time in one position. The droid, finally revived, gave a low whistle of concern.
“Don’ worry,” Lachton, Karrde’s droid tech, crooned at the astromech in some kind of interesting brogue Luke had yet to place. “Your rocketjock’ll be fine. Aves’ll get him some rest and we’ll get you in an oil bath and you’ll both be regular sharpies by mornin’.”
“He’s right,” Luke reassured, rolling his head from side to side to stretch out his neck. “I’ll pick you up after breakfast, all right?”
Artoo warbled. Luke smiled. “No, I won’t get into any trouble. I’m just going to get some sleep.” The response he got was dubious, and Luke just shook his head. “It’ll be fine. Honest.”
Thanking Lachton again, Luke fell into step beside Aves as they exited the hangar. It had fallen dark while they were there, the temperature dropping so that the air now felt pleasantly cool on his skin. Small lights embedded in the edges of the walkway had come on, illuminating their path toward the barracks.
“Do I need to wait for someone to come for me in the morning?” Luke asked. “Or is it all right if I find a spot on the lawn to meditate?”
“Knock yourself out,” Aves shrugged. He started to say something else when a cackling rumble in the dark brought both their heads around.
Karrde’s two vornskyrs bounded out of the shadows, their shaggy, muscle-bound bodies like miniature tanks. A sharp voice cut them off mid-stride and they all but skidded to a halt a few feet from him, their sides heaving. The sound subsided to a low rumble but didn’t stop and neither of them took their eyes off the Jedi. Luke stood still and risked a look past them to find Mara jogging toward them. She was soaked in sweat, her clothes clinging to her lithe form, her damp hair curling free of its braid around her face. A crimson scratch stood out against fair skin on her right cheek.
“Manners,” she chided the animals, reaching them and dropping a restraining hand on each creature’s head.
“Living dangerously again, I see,” Aves remarked. “One of these days you’re going lose your head out there, you know.”
“Not all of us are bad shots,” Mara retorted without heat, her eyes on Luke.
He met her gaze, slightly alarmed by the idea that she’d jaunted off into the forest alone in the dark. Still, her eyes and expression were clearer than they’d been earlier. The memory of losing himself a few weeks ago in a battle with his training remote, all its settings maxed out, came back to him. He felt a wash of empathy - burning oneself out physically wasn’t necessarily the healthiest coping mechanism, but it was effective.
Luke became vaguely aware that Aves was protesting Mara’s jibe, but forgot about the man again when Mara spoke.
“Going back to your room?”
“Yes.” Unless you give me a reason not to. It was a ridiculous thought, he knew that. He wasn’t even sure what he was hoping for.
“I’ve got a few questions. About what kind of information we might be able to provide you.”
Ebullience rippled through him and Luke hastened to keep it off his expression. “Of course.”
“I’ll be over after I’ve cleaned up.”
Mara nodded at him, then tilted her head in acknowledgment at Aves. “Come by,” she ordered the canines. They obediently fell into step as she jogged away, their gleaming dark eyes stealing peeks over their shoulders at Luke as they retreated.
Luke resumed walking in the other direction, anticipation tingling along every nerve.
Freshly showered, Mara stared at herself in the mirror for a long moment before she reached for her brush. She pulled the soft bristles through her hair methodically until it gleamed, focusing on the task to avoid thinking about the nervousness balling up in her stomach.
Myrkr is safe. The Force couldn’t touch her here, couldn’t rip her from herself at the worst possible moment. She wouldn’t get a better chance.
Assiduously, she began twisting her hair up, weaving the twists with fine braids and pinning each section up carefully. It was a softer look than the pragmatic coronet braids she usually relied on, and it had been a long time since she’d attempted its like. Still, her fingers found their way around it with respectable confidence.
He won’t say no. Karrde said Skywalker was drawn to her, and he was rarely wrong about people.
Pulling clean clothes from the closet, she donned black trousers and boots and a grey, Imperial-collared sleeveless tunic. Her hold-out didn’t fit correctly over the splint still on her left wrist but she slipped vibro-shivs into her boots and strapped a blaster to her thigh. She wouldn’t need them, not here, but their weight was comforting.
Slipping her comm unit in her pocket and grabbing a datapad, she headed toward Skywalker’s suite. She composed a short questionnaire on the pad as she walked - she couldn’t trust anything this important to her memory. Especially not after two half-memories in a day.
She double-checked the formatting and presentation as she entered the low-slung barracks building Skywalker was being housed in. Striding down the hall, she ignored the flutters that had spread from her stomach up her spine and hit the annunciator on Skywalker’s door.
It slid open almost immediately and she found herself staring at the muscled expanse of Skywalker's bare chest. Heat washed through her, so sudden and stark that she nearly dropped her datapad.
“You did come!”
Hazily, Mara registered that Skywalker sounded pleased. The thought sent a trickle of shy pleasure through her, but it was fuzzy compared to her sharp awareness of faint bruising at his sculpted shoulders, the scars flecking his torso, and the way his waist narrowed to a distinct vee just above the waist of his loose sleep pants.
“Mara?” The hesitance in his voice snapped her back to herself and mortification soaked her. Reflexively, she shoved the datapad at him. “Here. Questions.”
He accepted it politely. “Do you want to come in?” He asked, stepping back so she could enter and heading for the room’s chair where clothing was draped. “I can put a shirt on if you’re not comfortable —.”
He paused and looked at her, his brow furrowing.
Fierfek. “Yes, I’ll come in,” Mara spit out, stepping across the threshold so the door could hiss shut behind her. “No shirt.”
“Okay.” The fine skin beside his eyes crinkled as he turned away, sauntering over to the desk to lean against it as he read.
Force help her. The sleep pants clung as his Jedi blacks did not, leaving no doubt about the lean muscle of his backside and thighs. Mara’s mouth went dry.
“Did you just have this sitting around somewhere?” He asked, poking at the screen. “It’s too well organized to have been just thrown together.”
What? Mara replayed what he’d said in her head. “It didn’t take that long.”
“Hmph.” Skywalker tapped at the screen again, his sandy hair falling over his forehead, the lighter strands catching the light and making it look golden. “Well, if you ever want to explore other career opportunities, I’ll personally introduce you to Iella Wessiri-Antilles and Airen Cracken. They’d snap you up in a heart-beat.”
“No.” Fear drove into her chest like a spike. Skywalker’s head snapped up, no doubt at the vehemence in her tone. “They can’t know about me. At all. Ever. You can’t —.”
He held up his free hand quickly. “I won’t! I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…” he floundered a second. “I only meant it as a compliment.”
Of course he had. Mara resisted the urge to scrub her face with her hands. She was better than this. All of this.
“Anyway,” Skywalker’s tone was careful. “I finished all the questions here and made some extra notes. Did you want to talk about any of it now? Or…”
She really didn’t. “Do you want a nightcap? With me.”
Skywalker blinked, then a slow smile spread across his face. The butterflies in Mara’s body rioted.
“Do you have a flask on you? Because I didn’t pack anything.”
Mara’s brows knit. “I don’t drink.”
The Jedi cocked his head, confusion evident. “You just asked —.”
Mara’s lips pursed in frustration. “A kriff,” she spelled out, exasperated. “I’d like —,” gods the words felt clumsy on her tongue, “to have — to fellate you.”
Skywalker stared at her, gobsmacked. Then his face creased darkly. “If this is part of Karrde’s ‘hospitality,’” he said, his voice low with warning, “he should know better.”
Irritation bubbled up. “He doesn’t — that’s not —.” She blew out a frustrated breath. “I want to kriff you.” She enunciated each word with emphasis, anxiety racing through her like stinging nettles beneath her skin. “I can make it good,” she added, hurriedly.
She could. She was woefully out of practice but she’d been a diligent student, mastering every lesson the Court concubines could provide back when she’d thought Vader would bring his son into the Empire. To her.
Skywalker set the datapad on the desk and pushed off of it, walking toward her slowly. Her heart pounded, conflicting signals screaming through her brain. Yes! Good! Danger danger danger. His eyes were so bright. They roved her face and something in her clenched in the terror that this close he wouldn’t like what he saw. That he’d turn his face from her again, as he had on the Demise.
“It’s been a long time,” the Jedi said softly, stopping a hands-width from her. “Since I’ve had such a tempting offer.” A grimace twisted his lips. “But I’m not protected.”
Incredulity, impatience, and the agony of precariously hanging in the balance, waiting for the blow of rejection fired the words off her tongue before she thought them through, her tone blistering. “Do you not understand reproduction or fellatio?”
Horror set in a split second later when she realized she’d just shattered her already fragile chance of success. Her mind raced to compose an exit plan then careened to a messy halt when Skywalker inexplicably laughed and slid his arms around her waist.
“People generally don’t propose an appetizer without expecting a whole meal to follow.” He drew her against him, the proof of his interest well defined against her hip.
It was like igniting hydrogen. Everything in Mara’s head flashburned away in the blinding rush of triumph. She watched smugly as the Jedi’s eyes widened at the way her lips curved up, felt the heat from his skin sink into her palms as she placed them flat on his chest.
“Clearly you’ve never had this done right.”
She pushed and he yielded, licking his lips, his eyes locked on her face as she walked him backward. The backs of his legs hit the bed and Mara dropped to a crouch. Holding his gaze, she hooked her fingers in the waistband of his pants and drew the soft fabric down his thighs very, very slowly. The Jedi let out a low, strangled sound as the material slid off the tip of his suddenly much harder cock.
Mara watched those incredibly blue eyes dilate as her mouth tipped up into a hungry smile. “Sit down, Skywalker, and let me make a meal out of you.”
1. Canonically, Ellor worked for Billey. I've moved him into Karrde's employ for the purposes of this story.
2. Mara's half-memory 'episodes' will be explained in a later chapter. For now, it's enough to know that they are part of her "brain not working right" as Ghent put it, and part of the reason she has Reggie.
3. Canonically, Hart and Seoul was a fake named used for the Uwanna Buyer during undercover missions. I have reused the name here to represent a separate ship.
4. Once again, I have borrowed Christior Faraday's character from Jadelotusflower's A Year in the Life series.
5. In case it isn't obvious, Sturm and Drang have figured out that Mara qualifies as Talon's "pup" and consider her one of their "pack".
6. I am deeply disappointed that modern fashion has still not come around to making thigh holsters and in-boot knives standard daily wear. I grew up on science fiction and, frankly, I was promised better.
7. I feel like I put Luke in "loose sleep pants" consistently, but he's got the body for them and I have my kinks, so *shrug*.
8. I am fairly certain that Iella and Cracken are not actually running the NRI at this point in the timeline, but they are the names that always come to mind for those positions (and the people I know/like the most for them) so I have used them here.
9. Luke's though that Karrde might be offering Mara as 'hospitality' is based on my assumptions about unpleasant practices in place on Tatooine under Hutt rule.
10. Flashburning is a fascinating Force thing. While I used it here as a metaphor rather than an exact thing, it's worth checking out!
Luke and Mara come together and everything falls apart.
Luke stepped out of the pants pooled at his ankles, hyperaware of the night air kissing exposed skin and the heat of desire in Mara’s eyes as they skated over his naked form.
“Do you —?” Her hand cupped the back of his calf and slid up. A sharp pang of need knotted his core and the question dissolved on his tongue.
His knees gave. The mattress bounced just a little beneath him and his fingers wrapped around the soft edge of it, clenching with a precipitous spike of anxiety when Mara rose to her feet and walked away. The panic ebbed when she passed over the door release to dim the lights, then keyed in what must have been an override code, the resulting mechanical whir telling him the door had locked.
Anticipation swelled, tightening his lungs as she took measured, graceful steps back to him. Her gaze roamed him openly in the low light, unabashed approval and hunger writ large on her face. Something unfurled deep under his ribs, his breath hitching at the overwhelming sensation of being seen and wholly accepted.
Mara sank to her knees between his legs, her shadowed eyes on his. Deft hands settled lightly on the tops of his thighs and Luke’s cock strained toward his stomach, already swollen and eager.
“There’s no one else on this end of the building.”
You don’t have to be quiet, his brain translated. When was the last time that luxury had been on offer? He was still trying to track far enough back to remember when Mara dipped forward over her bent knees.
Her right hand curved around his left calf again, her left lingering atop his thigh. The delicate whisper of her lips across the top of his left foot sent the air whooshing from Luke’s lungs. His head dropped forward, eyes falling shut as her mouth pressed lightly against his ankle. The soft skin of her cheek brushed his leg as she eased her way up the hard muscle of his leg. Each languid kiss sent a frisson sweet fire through his unprepared body.
Foreplay was vanishingly rare in Luke’s experience, given that most of his encounters had necessarily been hurried and undertaken with an eye to the need for discretion in close quarters. He knew the value of teasing kisses in building arousal, but this …this was something entirely different. There was no teasing in Mara’s touch at all. Only rich layers of intention and sensual promise that simultaneously set him further adrift and anchored him more deeply in his trembling body.
Her fingers stroked up as she mouthed a kiss to the inside of his knee and shocks of pleasure rippled out, every nerve in his body tingling. The next kiss was to a magically sensitive spot on his inner thigh; Luke fisted the edge of the mattress until his hands throbbed. Distantly, he was aware of precum already beading at the tip of his cock, sticky against his stomach, but he couldn’t summon the presence of mind for self-consciousness.
Not when Mara made a soft sound of pleasure as she leaned in, darting the tip of her tongue across the crease of his thigh, her breath warm against the base of his cock for a fleeting moment. Luke’s entire body went taut - and then she was gone.
He hung for a moment, gasping and disoriented. Then warm lips touched the top of his right foot and he shuddered violently, his need searing. Forcing a shaky breath into his lungs, he dragged his eyes open.
The strands of gold in Mara’s garnet hair glittered in the moonlight that spilled through the high transom windows as she nuzzled just above his knee. Her eyes were closed, an almost reverent pleasure on her face as she mouthed at him again. Uncurling stiff fingers from the mattress edge, Luke tentatively brought an unsteady hand to her head. There was no pressure in it, no intent to hurry or direct, he just - he just wanted to touch her.
Her hair was silken against his calloused palm when she glanced up at him, her eyes liquid and dark. She shifted, her eyes locked on his as the heels of her hands pressed his legs open. A groan ripped out of Luke’s chest as Mara leaned forward, slowly, never breaking their shared gaze as she drew the flat of her tongue over his seeping tip, lapping up the sticky evidence of his arousal.
Unbidden, Luke’s hand slid down, his fingers curving around the back of Mara’s neck. Her lips tipped up in satisfaction and then his eyes were slamming shut again as her tongue darted out the stroke the underside of his straining erection. Fireworks went off inside his head and his back arched, a gasp echoing obscenely in the quiet. Mara closed her mouth over him and his hips thrust up mindlessly, mind and body undone by the intensity of it.
Some distant part of his mind shouted warning - he was not modestly endowed, and she was already suckling a generous portion of his length. Her fingers wrapped around the rest, her mouth pulling off his tip then smoothly engulfing him again, his head spinning with the leisurely lust of it. He couldn’t afford to thrust, to —. Mara relaxed her throat and swallowed him whole.
Luke thought he made a sound - unintelligible and base - and then there was nothing, white heat consuming everything but the slurp of her mouth, sweet pressure of her tongue on his pulsing cock, the coiled tension at the base of his spine. Every muscle trembled like the loose rudder of a sandskimmer flying at maximum speed. He was so close, hovering on the very edge of a precipice.
“Mara,” he gasped, his hand flexing against her nape. “Mara.”
She hummed, a low, satisfied sound that seemed to grip his very bones. Then she swallowed, the contraction flinging him over the edge, his release spurting down her throat as the world washed hot and glittering and bright. He drifted back to himself slowly, his body warm and sluggishly heavy, his mind loose and blissfully quiet.
Reality crept back in at the edges of his awareness when Mara eased him out of her mouth. He blinked, slowly, reluctant to leave the delicious haze in which he hovered. Mara’s hands fluttered back to resting on his thighs and there was something tentative in the touch out of sync with her earlier confidence. He blinked again, muzzily. Mara’s cheeks were flushed and her eyes glinted in the dim light, fixed on his face, searching and uncertain.
The unexpected vulnerability of it slid between his ribs and snared his heart like the barbed tip of a dew claw. The need to answer it was primal and he leaned into her without hesitation, the hand still behind her head pulling her up to meet him. His mouth found hers in a fierce kiss.
Mara’s fingers dug into his thighs and the muscle under his hand knotted in shock, her lips parting in a startled gulp for air. Luke took full advantage, his left hand darting along her side to curve around her back as he licked into her mouth, sucking the taste of himself off her tongue.
Mara dissolved in his arms, sagging abruptly as if her bones had melted out. Fresh desire rocketed through him and Luke grinned against the kiss. He nipped at her tongue and heard her whimper, and then he had both arms around her, hauling her up into his lap. They squirmed a moment, his hands everywhere as he scooted back on the bed and tugged her closer, until she straddled him, her arms around his neck, clinging as she returned the kiss with an almost desperate hunger.
Locking one arm across her back, Luke kneaded a breast with the other hand, delighted by the plaintive mewl Mara made against his demanding mouth at the touch. She’d said there wasn’t any need to be quiet, and his cock twitched with fresh interest at the idea of pushing her back on his bed and —.
The shrill of a comm lanced through them both like a blaster bolt. Luke felt a loss as Mara jerked back, his heart pounding. For a split second, they stared at each other, hanging on the cusp on something, and then she was scrambling off his lap, shoving her hand deep in a pocket. She fumbled with the device, her hands shaking, and turned away from him to answer roughly, “Jade.”
“We’ve something of a situation in the comm room. Whatever you’re doing, kindly drop it and join us?” The tension in Reggie’s tone sent a new round of adrenaline shooting across Luke’s nerves.
“Coming.” Mara switched the comm off, her head dipping forward a moment, her hand fisting around the device.
She was as frustrated by the interruption as he was, Luke realized. Calm settled over him. Mara stuffed the comm in a pocket and squared her shoulders, then glanced over her shoulder at him.
He probably made a ridiculous holo, sitting naked and tousled in the moonlight, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Not when she looked at him like that. “Come back,” he said, simply, “if you can.”
She hesitated for just a second, then nodded once, crisply. Then she was gone, stalking out the door to deal with whatever new crisis threatened Karrde’s organization. Luke stared at the door for a long moment after it whisked shut, lust and adrenaline leaching back out of his veins in the silence. With effort, he retrieved his pants from the end of the bed, dragged them on, crawled under the covers, and gave in to sleep.
Mara strode across the grounds, her erratic breaths and pounding pulse loud in her ears. Here and there, the twin moons broke through the sky’s deep cloud cover, their light dappling her path in abstract patterns that added to the surreality of the night.
Skywalker had kissed her.
Her stomach felt as if it were full of writhing slitherettes and her skin still tingled where his strong hands had touched her, mapping his desire over her body, writing promises that lingered her bones. Something inside her ached. All the visions, all the dreams - she’d thought she was prepared.
The door to the building loomed ahead. Hastily, Mara smoothed a hand down her clothes, over her hair as she crossed the threshold and hurried down the hallway. Focus. Reggie wouldn’t have summoned her if it wasn’t important. She could think about Skywalker later. Could return to him later. He’d invited —.
She wrested her attention back, forcing her breathing into a four-beat loop. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold. She had to concentrate. It was time to work.
Keying in the access code, she stepped through the door the instant it snicked open, her gaze skimming the room, assessing. Karrde stood at the central holo table, one arm folded across his chest, a hand stroking his dark beard, the illuminated map between them throwing a wash of blue over his grim features. Reggie hovered to the left of the table, wringing all of his grasper hands.
Red dots picked out on the map drew Mara to the projector table. “What happened?”
Mara searched her memory, relieved when the information surfaced quickly. “He was delivering grain to the separatist religious group.” He’d been doing that route for more than a year, now. It was practically a blue milk run.
“Yes. It seems the authorities were feeling overzealous this time. They raided and impounded the Etherway.”
Irritation spiked. Torve wasn’t an idiot, and the organization had safeguards in place for exactly this sort of occurrence. The authorities would find nothing to trace back to Karrde or illegal activity, but getting the ship out of impound would be a headache.
“Is Torve in custody?” That would entail a whole different set of complications.
“No.” Karrde’s mouth turned down at the corners, and his eyes returned to her. “He’s on his way here. It seems that in the middle of eluding Abregado-rae Sec he ran into some of Skywalker’s friends. Generals Solo and Calrissian, aboard the Millennium Falcon, to be precise. They agreed to get him safely off-planet in return for a meeting with me.”
Mara’s heart plummeted. She folded her arms tightly across her chest against the chasm threatening to open inside it and contorted her expression into something neutral and professional. “You want to send Skywalker with them?”
“I’d like to have kept him a while longer. Ended his visit on our terms. But it doesn’t seem we’ll have that chance.” He cocked his head, a calculating look crossing his face. “Have Lachton put a tracker in his droid and another in his ship. We’ll release him to his friends, but I want to be able to find him again later. Leave ourselves the option of resuming our conversations about the Jedi and New Republic Intel at our convenience.”
Mara nodded and Karrde’s expression darkened. “When that’s done, gather everything relevant to your projects and start loading the Sudden Demise. I’m sending you and Aves to Rishi to take command of all the crews we pulled out of Imperial space.”
Mara’s blood turned to ice. “You think the Imperials will follow Solo here.”
Karrde lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “It’s a possibility we have to be prepared for.”
Heat surged back through her. “You can’t stay here alone —.”
Karrde lifted a staying hand. “I won’t be far behind you.” The weight of the galaxy rested in his eyes when they settled on hers. “But under no circumstances can they be allowed to find you.”
Mara’s protests died on her lips, strangled by self-loathing. Of course. Sending her first was the smart tactical decision. After all, she was the weak point. She squared her shoulders. “I’ll be airborne in four hours.”
He nodded, a few of the worry lines beside his eyes disappearing at her acquiescence. His approval eased the ugly bite of her self-recrimination and resolve coalesced in her chest as she turned to Reggie.
“Pull the master evac lists. We’ll start with my suite and get Aves moving on the Ops building.”
“I already took the liberty.” The droid swooped toward her, his head spinning so that one of his modified secondary eyes faced her. It illuminated, a holo screen popping up a few inches in front of him. “I suggest we start here.”
Luke wrenched out of a dead sleep, the cool air a shock to his skin as he rolled sideways and upright. Instinct and habit brought him fully awake instantly in response to the sound of alarm.
“Get up, we have to move.” Aves was across the room already, yanking open the room’s closet. “You didn’t unpack. Good. Got stuff in the ‘fresher?” He was disappearing through the ensuite’s door before he even finished the question.
Luke’s muscles protested the sharp awakening as he headed for his boots and began stuffing his feet into them. “What’s going on?”
Aves reappeared, sealing Luke’s toiletries kit. “We’ve got company coming, and not the fun kind.” He tossed the kit in Luke’s carryall.
“Imperials?” Luke straightened, his pulse kicking up another notch and caught the carryall when Aves tossed it to him.
“Yeah. Come on.”
Luke fell in beside him, his thoughts clearing and narrowing in preparation for battle. “I can fight —.”
“The kriff you will!” The smuggler shot him a warning look.
They exited the barracks and broke into a jog toward the central building. Someone had activated scores of floodlights embedded in the landscape and the sides of buildings, and Luke squinted against the glare in the foggy pre-dawn twilight. With no breeze, the air was soupy and thick, distorting the familiar sounds of spooling ship engines and rushing beings that came from all sides.
“You and Jade are going in the cabinet until these bastards leave,” Aves continued, sternly. “Keep still and quiet and they won’t find you - it’s shielded to an inch of your life.”
“I don’t need a supervisor,” Luke assured him. “I will stay put on my own if that’s what you want.”
Aves ignored that. “Your friends are here, too - Solo and Calrissian. Just hit the far side of the planet from the Imps. They’re stayin’ out of sight until it’s clear to pick you up. We’ll have your ship and your droid ready to go by the time they land.”
Luke bit his tongue, frustration rolling through him. Having a ride off planet was welcome, but he wasn’t ready to leave yet. Karrde had information he needed and Mara —.
She appeared from the mist as if his thoughts had conjured her, silent and stone-faced.
“Where’s Reggie?” Aves asked immediately.
“With Ghent and Minion on the Demise.” Mara’s words were clipped. “Everything’s loaded and Slips is setting up jump coordinates, but the shuttle’s already in descent and we can’t take the risk.”
“Right.” They hit the central building and Aves held out a hand. “Gimme your bag,” he commanded. “I’ll stash it somewhere safe. Follow Jade.”
Luke complied wordlessly, his eyes on Mara’s back as they passed through the archway into the great room. Every muscle was coiled tight, and there was no easing of tension this time as they crossed the threshold. Resentment flared in Luke’s chest at the Imperials for coming here, robbing Mara of the sense of safety this sanctuary had held for her only a day ago.
They skirted the giant tree, heading for the room’s left-most wall. A third of the way along, behind one of the cozy seating circles, Mara pressed her palm to the wall and felt along the paneling. A split-second later, it popped open and she jerked her head for him to get in.
He went without hesitation and realized two steps in that the space was not at all intended for two people. He turned around just as Mara stepped back into him, the concealed door swinging shut behind her, closing them together in near-total darkness. He swallowed the questions on his tongue as Mara shifted her weight, the back of her head touching his left shoulder and her body pressing back against his from shoulder to hip.
She hadn’t come back to his room, for now-obvious reasons. That left him on perilously uncertain ground as to how much permission he had to touch her. The brace still on her left wrist poked into his thigh, reminding him of just how badly she reacted to unwelcome touch. He had no desire to repeat the debacle on the Demise.
Cautiously, Luke curled the fingers of his right hand into a loose fist and brushed his knuckles against Mara’s hip. His stomach clenched when her spine locked, but then she carefully and intentionally leaned back into his chest and relief washed through him. No surprises, he thought, sliding his left hand up and flattening his right so that his palms rested open on her hips. She didn’t like touch when it was unexpected. That was fair. He could work with that.
There was movement in the great room and Luke strained to hear. The darkness was distracting and he closed his eyes, intensely aware of the sound of his own breathing. With his eyes shut, his other senses bloomed. The heat of Mara’s body and the scent of her hair seemed to fill the space, which did nothing to quiet the sound of his own pulse thrumming in his head.
“Gentlemen.” Talon Karrde’s voice carried clearly. “What brings you back to Myrkr?”
“We come with a message from the Grand Admiral.” This voice, too, was loud, annoyance making its nasally Coruscanti accent pronounced.
“Surely he hasn’t lost my comm code.” Karrde sounded amused. Luke thought of Lando. He, too, had the ability to sound pleasantly bemused in adversarial circumstances.
“Perhaps,” the Imperial officer said tartly, “he was unimpressed by your continuing failure to join the search for Skywalker.”
Karrde affected surprise impressively well. “The search is still ongoing?” His tone shifted to curious and Luke imagined him leaning forward in his throne-like chair, his dark eyes glinting with interest. “I was given to understand you had a fairly good idea where he was. With so many operations mobilized surely you must have him already.”
“We do not.”
“I see.” Karrde paused. “Well, you must forgive my assumptions then. If I’d realized —.”
“The Empire is not required to forgive anything,” the officer cut him off, impatiently. “Certainly not Fringe scum like you.” He sniffed, pulling his tone back to crisp formality. “However, the Admiral has seen fit to extend you an opportunity to compensate for your failings.”
Karrde’s voice was flat. “Do tell.”
More movement. Then, “you will find this being and deliver her to the Admiral with haste. She is to be taken alive at all costs.”
Mara stopped breathing. Concern threaded through him and Luke pressed his hands tighter against her hips. Who did she guess they were looking for?
“My people have no experience as bounty hunters,” Karrde said, dismissively. “If it is information on her you want —.”
“Do not play coy, Captain. Your men got a clear view of the ysalamiri frames our engineers were testing when last we were on this miserable planet. You know exactly how to replicate them and how to harvest the lizards.”
Ice formed in Luke’s gut. How many of those Force-blocking lizards did the Imperials have? How would he protect Leia and her babies if their existence became public knowledge? What good would his being a Jedi even be for the galaxy?
“You think these lizards you’re investigating will prove useful in taking this woman?” Karrde asked, his tone clearly suggesting he found the idea imbecilic.
It had the intended effect; the Imperial hedged. “Possibly.” Then he rallied, regaining his commanding tone. “Use whatever means you see fit to find and take her, but I advise you to take this opportunity with the utmost seriousness. The Grand Admiral will not be forgiving if you fail him again. Mara Jade is property of the Empire and he wishes her returned to his custody immediately.”
Shock hit, bright and cold. Mara jerked in his hands, her body strung tight as a tripwire. Instinctively, Luke slid his left arm forward around her waist, bracing her against him as his right hand fell to the saber at his hip. His elbow smacked painfully against the corner of the closet, but he ignored it, his mind racing. They thought Mara had the Force? That she was property of the Empire?
“I appreciate the Admiral’s faith in my organization’s abilities,” Karrde said, his voice level and hard. “But we’re not the right people for the job.”
“Your associate Clyngunn assured us otherwise.”
Mara hissed, the almost inaudible sound vicious with rage. Luke ducked his head, pressing his cheek to hers, willing her to be still, to stay quiet. Her fingers wrapped around his left wrist, clutching painfully tight. She was vibrating, her entire body straining with the effort of keeping still when everything in her was screaming to fight or flee.
“Unless you would like to join him in Imperial custody,” the officer suggested, crisply, “I suggest you make yourselves the right people, Captain.”
Karrde was silent. The moment stretched, long and thin. Luke played through a dozen possibilities in his head, what he’d do if they were betrayed. If the Imperials were stalling, scanning the space. If they tried to rip her from his arms.
“What should we do with your missing property, should we find it?”
“When you have the girl in custody, contact the Chimaera directly. The Grand Admiral will come for her himself.” The space of a breath. “If I were you, Captain, I’d see she’s well kept. The Admiral is unlikely to take kindly to any undue damage inflicted upon his property in transit, if you follow my meaning.”
“I do.” The words were icy. “Allow my associate to see you out, Gentlemen.”
Luke waited through the sounds of the Imperials taking their leave, straining to catch every sound, barely daring to breathe. Mara’s head dipped, and he caught the faint rasp of her breathing, fiercely controlled. Tactical breathing, he thought, remembering the old Alliance lessons. He matched his breath to hers, felt his heart rate slow just a little as the silence stretched on, torturously.
Finally, finally footsteps hurried in their direction. Mara’s head came up and she tugged at his wrist urgently. Luke let her dislodge his grip just as the concealed door whisked open to reveal a solemn-faced Talon Karrde.
“It’s time for you both to leave.”
Mara pushed her way out of the hiding space and Luke followed as if they were connected by an invisible string. He purposely positioned himself to her left, opposite Karrde as they hurried toward the door. Mara’s jaw was set, her cheeks flushed. Her hands fisted at her sides.
“Our guests have just exited the atmosphere,” Karrde informed them, briskly. “And the Falcon is landing as we speak. Lastri’s Ort is lifting off momentarily - they’ll be positioned in orbit waiting to see you both safely into hyperspace.
“Talon —.” Mara’s strained tone pulled at Luke’s heart.
“I’m going to strip and lock down the base and I’ll be right behind you,” Karrde promised. He didn’t touch her, but there was a subtle softening of his tone that struck Luke as a verbal caress. “Ter sed Ihn Pla ai eshrato, Monhelo ni al Uhl chielo.”
Mara smacked his arm with the back of her hand as they exited the building and struck out across the courtyard under a sky painted indigo and violet with the burgeoning dawn. “Stop that.”
Ahead, the landing field teemed with light and movement. They were close enough now to see the Falcon’s ramp was down. Han stood at its base, hands on his hips. Lando stood beside him, both of them engaged in terse conversation with Faughn. Luke’s carryall was at her feet, and a few feet away Lachton was removing the restraining bolt from a rocking, whistling Artoo.
He couldn’t leave now. Not like this. “Captain —,” he started.
“I regret that we weren’t able to finish our planned discussions,” Karrde cut him off, firmly. “But if we have anything to offer you, we’ll be in touch.”
“Luke!” Han called out as they approached. Luke could feel his brother-in-law’s eyes roaming over him, looking for damage, signals of danger or treachery. He bit back his frustration.
“Hey, Han.” He lifted a hand in greeting, an all clear but his own gaze went not to Han, but to the woman beside him as she abruptly stopped walking. Karrde continued past to join Faughn and the others.
“What you heard is not open for discussion.” Her eyes were shadowed in the glare coming off the landing pad and the Falcon’s running lights. “Forget you heard it.”
Luke’s fingers flexed at his sides, the urge to touch her nearly overwhelming. Frustration threatened to choke him. “But if you’re —.”
“I’m not.” The words were low and heavy with finality. “And if you want any of the information we can give you on Delta Source or the Old Order, you’ll keep everything that happened here to yourself. You have to.”
She tilted her head back on the last, and the desperation in her eyes stabbed through him like a Force pike. The impact rippled out, his frustration and rising anger seeming to drain out through his toes. Grief mingled with an odd acceptance. Luke let go of all the things he wanted to ask. To say.
“You’ll contact me,” he said instead, his voice low and steady. “When you’re safe. About… everything.” The relief in her eyes was worth the price he paid for it.
He made himself nod. “Clear skies, Mara.”
Her eyes glittered. As he watched, she reached inside her tunic and lifted a delicate chain over her head. Reaching out, she took his right hand in hers. Lifting it, she turned it over, her fingers stroking over his as she settled something in his palm, then curled his fingers closed over it. “May the Force be with you.”
Luke caught his breath at the sound of the traditional Jedi parting on her lips, unexpectedly floundering at the sense of loss that assaulted him when her fingertips slid off his skin. Everything in him screamed not to let her go, but he was frozen in place and she was already gone, disappearing into the swirl of beings and ships like a wraith.
1. I am officially entering this chapter toward the "Luke Skywalker Deserves All The Blow Jobs in 2020" challenge.
2. Fun fact: I never realized before that the Etherway is the same design as the Wild Karrde. Also, the whole Fynn Torve-Han Solo-Abregado thing was obviously taken directly from TTT, which is why I didn't feel obligated to go into a lot of detail about it here. We all know what happened, at least as far as we need to.
3. I firmly believe that Karrde has "cabinets" and other hidey-holes in all his ships and bases.
4. Ter sed Ihn Pla ai eshrato, Monhelo ni al Uhl chielo: Earth is but a player's stage; Mount we unto the sky. From the poem Litany in Time of Plague by Thomas Nashe. (In case you haven't noticed, Karrde likes poetry almost as much as he enjoys annoying Mara with it.)
One month post Myrkr.
The seats in the Abregado system’s public transport shuttles were clean but faded, the utilitarian cushions lumpy. Mara sat wedged into the furthest back corner facing out at an angle that enabled her to see all approaches clearly and tried to ignore the smell of industrial cleaner that lingered in the cabin. She’d purposely chosen an odd hour, and the shuttle was sparsely populated, none of the seating near her occupied. Beneath her cloak, Minion clung to her chest where he could peep out between the folds of fabric, observing the unfamiliar space with an oscillating mix of unhappiness and nosy interest.
Lounging in the lax posture any passerby would expect of a traveler on this routine commuter shuttle, Mara took stock. She’d slept nearly the entire way from Rishi to Abregado-fus, her body greedy to make up for lost time. In the month since they’d had to abandon Myrkr, she’d been lucky to get six hours of sleep a night. The Rishi property wasn’t a full base, like Myrkr had been. Rather it was a safehouse in the center of one of Rishi’s most populous cities. While that was convenient enough for having crews come and go without drawing attention, many components of the organization’s operations had been necessarily outsourced to other locations across the planet, necessitating constant travel. Closing out or suspending some contracts while expanding others to keep crews safely in New Republic space had been no picnic, either.
In and around the chaos of reorganization, Mara had distracted herself from her anger and grief at losing Myrkr’s sunlit halls and ethereal beauty - to say nothing of her complicated feelings about her encounter with Skywalker - by working on the Etherway problem. When Torve had been forced to abandon it on Abregado-rae thanks to impoundment by the authorities, he’d apparently wheedled a promise from General Solo to see what could be done about getting the ship freed. Karrde had repeated the request when he’d spoken briefly to Solo on Myrkr before the Falcon had taken off again, this time with the New Republic’s Jedi on board and his battered X-wing in tow.
For weeks, they’d heard nothing. Then, just when things had started to come together and flow smoothly again, word arrived via a secure channel that Solo had come through. The New Republic was sending an operative to Abregago-rae to get the ship out of impound. All they had to do was send someone to meet him and provide the right confirmation codes.
Just thinking about the codes made Mara’s eyes roll hard toward the back of her head. Bad timing and ludicrous codes. It was like the NR was managed by children. But the Etherway was a valuable ship and minor inconveniences couldn’t be allowed to interfere with its retrieval. With no crews available, Mara had volunteered to go herself. No one had been happy about that but there hadn’t been any alternatives. So she’d claimed a berth on the Lastri’s Ort and slept. Aves had swung the ship by the system’s fourth moon six hours ago en route to his next delivery and she’d slipped onto a public shuttle for the in-system transfer. If anyone was looking for one of Karrde’s people, they should be watching the ship arrivals, not public transit.
When the announcement came that they would be landing, Mara clicked her tongue softly at Minion and adjusted her cloak so he could skitter to his customary spot on her left shoulder. Checking her weapons and comm, she stood and made her way toward the exit doors. She was careful to insinuate herself in the center of the modest cluster of disembarking passengers, keeping her head down, every sense on alert.
Just outside the gate, she turned right, grateful the relatively cool weather gave her an excuse to remain burrowed within her grey armorweave cloak, shielded from prying eyes. Abregado-rae’s white-washed walls gleamed in the late afternoon sun. Holo-ads displaying the names of cantinas and business offices were tucked among the spaceport’s curving corridors while hovering neon signs pointed the unfamiliar toward various wings of docking bays. At every other intersection or so, a bridge stretched over the spaceport’s network of canals. Narrow lanes at the side of each bridge cut down to the canal-side strip where droid-guided dinghies waited to zip interested parties across the spaceport via the watery “short cuts.”
Mara kept to the far side of the bridge as she passed, wary of the blind spot at the head of the lane where it met the bridge. Her skin crawled as she passed an information desk manned by a bored-looking Dressellian in the uniform of local law enforcement. She flexed her left wrist, long since healed from her tussle with the Jedi. The weight of her holdout there as a comfort, but it did nothing to ease the brittle feeling that made the back of her neck itch. Abregado-rae’s respectability was a carefully cultivated veneer, a thin layer of fresh plaster over a cracked and fetid mausoleum. Decades of Imperial rule and strategic neglect had left local corruption to flourish just far enough under the surface to be easily ignored.
Minion shifted his weight uneasily on her shoulder. He didn’t like the coarse texture of armorweave across his back, or the inability to see their surroundings. Mara cooed soothingly at him under her breath as she took a wide left at an intersection, wrinkling her nose at the vent in the wall as she passed. It should have been emitting a tiny, endless trickle of synthetic fragrance spray, contributing to the spaceport’s illusion of fastidiousness. Instead, there was a faintly musky smell as she passed that set her teeth on edge.
She needed to find her contact, get the ship, and get the hell back to Rishi.
Two more streets over, she found a narrow, windowless facade with an antiquated wooden plank hanging off the front. The blunt script read LoBue. Giving Minion one last soothing coo, Mara ducked down the sunken steps into the LoBue Cantina.
Inside, the space expanded immediately, stretching far longer and deeper than it appeared from the outside. Small, conversation-oriented tables clustered just inside the door overlooking an empty dance floor. Tinny Jatz music that hadn’t been popular even on the Outer Rim in at least a decade played overhead, loud enough to be annoying but not so deafeningly that the patrons scattered in twos and threes at the tables couldn’t hear each other talk. Mara swept her gaze over them and found nothing unexpected. A few Gados, a Weequay, three Rodians, and a handful of humans, all with the worn garb and openly displayed weapons of average spacers. No one she couldn’t take if she had to.
Past the tables to the right, a row of darkened private booths stood on the opposite side of the dance floor. To the left, up a shallow flight of steps and beyond an etched transparisteel wall were the gaudy lights of the cantina’s gambling lounge and bar. Mara moved right, skirting the dance floor and keeping close to the exterior wall.
The itch at the back of her neck got worse. With Minion on her shoulder, it wasn’t a warning from the Force, just her unhappy subconscious counting the myriad things she didn’t like about the situation. Only two of the booths were occupied when she passed - one with what looked like businessmen drinking a late lunch, the other with three Devaronians entangled in a sloppily passionate menage-a-tois atop the fiberplast table. No one looked at her as she passed. At the end of the row she flexed her wrist again, her holdout ready to deploy, then slid into the last booth.
A dark-haired man with boyish features sat up from where he’d been loafing against the fraying seat-back opposite her. “You the one I was told was looking to hire a ship?” He asked, his eyes bright with interest and his mouth sliding into a smile.
Kriffing hell. Mara bit back the urge to throw up her hands and scream. No wonder New Republic Intel was a Force-damned mess. They’d sent Wedge Antilles to be her contact. Even if she hadn’t seen his holo enough in her years of cyber-stalking Skywalker and following news of the war to recognize exactly who he was, his military posture and closely cut hair would have given him away as a plant in a heartbeat. Shavit.
“No,” she growled, reluctantly pushing her hood back and spitting out the asinine confirmation phrases she’d been provided. “I’m in more of a buying mood myself. I heard you had a flying hatbox you were looking to unload.”
“It’s not a hatbox!” His ridiculous attempt at feigned indignation might have been amusing in other circumstances. “It’s a Harkners-Balix Nine-Oh-Three!”
Before she could answer, the holo of an attractive Twi’lek rose from the center of the table, the blue of the holo rendering her green skin a somewhat disturbing shade of puce. “Good day, gentle,” she said, pleasantly. “How may I serve?”
“Try the Lum,” Antilles suggested, lifting his own bottle in salute before bringing it to his lips.
Mara would sooner guzzle water straight from the city’s canals than trust a drop of anything served here, but refusing would draw unwanted attention. “Lum will be fine.”
“Thank you, gentle.” The holo disappeared. A second later, a hatch in the center of the table opened and a platform slid up, delivering a chilled bottle of foaming Lum.
Mara’s stomach rolled at the smell and she wondered fleetingly if Skywalker drank such swill when he and Antilles went out drinking. She quashed the thought, intentionally bringing the bottle to her lips and miming taking a long pull. “You don’t happen to have access to a Nine-Seventeen, do you?” she asked, setting the bottle down. “Or even a Nine-Twenty-Two?”
Antilles shook his head and leaned forward, enthusiastically. “Trust me, Nine-Oh-Threes are the way to go! Once you see it -.”
“All right.” She interrupted, unwilling to watch the man continue embarrassing himself.“Let’s go.”
He blinked, surprise crossing his face. “You sure you don’t want to drink your beer?”
“Positive.” She lifted her chin, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. “Unless you’re waiting for someone else?”
He frowned and fished in the pockets of his scruffy jumpsuit. Producing a scrambler, he held it up for her to see. Mara resisted the urge to growl and shook her head. It might have a built-in recorder and she wasn’t going to take the time to examine it now. Pulling out her comm unit, she twisted the bottom two full clicks left, then half a click right, triggering the jammer Ghent had built into it for her.
“What?” she demanded.
Antilles eyed the device with interest but flicked his gaze back to her. “I didn’t mean to make you nervous. I just thought you might want to pass info for Luke while we’re here.”
Mara’s stomach plunged straight for her toes. “Why would you think that?”
He arched an eyebrow. “Because I talked to him for ten minutes after he got off your base and he couldn’t shut up about how capable and well-informed and mysterious you were - and then swore me to absolute silence.” He took another swig of his Lum, knowing eyes on her the whole time. “Usually when Luke finds someone who catches his interest like that it’s more than reciprocated.”
Humiliation made the tips of Mara’s ears burn. You’re not special, Antilles’ matter-of-fact gaze said. I’ve seen it before, I’ll see it again. Go ahead and ramble like all the other Skywalker groupies.
Minion sensed the shift in her mood and scuttled up her shoulder, his tiny claws digging through her tunic and pricking flesh. He attempted to butt her jaw with his ridged head only to get caught by the seam where the hood joined to the cloak. He thrashed and squawked, and Mara cursed under her breath as Antilles startled. Tugging the fastener on the front of her cloak loose, she freed Minion. He promptly scrambled to her other shoulder atop the cloak, then butted her angrily for good measure.
“Minmin cnous,” she murmured at him, slanting her gaze to give him a warning look. The lizard stuck his tongue out insolently but then hunkered down without any more acting out.
“You travel with a lizard?” Antilles sounded intrigued.
“That’s not open for discussion,” Mara snapped, stuffing down her rising anxiety. “Neither is Skywalker. I want my ship and I want off this planet. Now.”
Disappointment crossed his face but he raised his palms in surrender. “Whatever you want. Come on.”
Mara tossed a cred chip on the table for the Lum, coaxed Minion back inside her cloak and pulled the hood up. She didn’t refasten the cloak, hoping the extra wiggle room would make him less antsy. Only when she was done did Antilles rise and lead the way out of the cantina. The way he kept stealing glances over his shoulder made her think he was afraid she’d slip away and disappear.
“Ship’s in docking bay 63,” he said, keeping his voice low as they maneuvered the clean-swept streets. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and slanted his eyes at her. “I didn’t mean any offense, earlier - about our mutual friend.”
Mara didn’t answer, sweeping her eyes side to side across the bridge ahead. The information desk on the other side was empty - it shouldn’t be empty.
“Just - he’s hard to get a hold of these days,” Antilles continued, cajoling now. “I’m happy to pass information or a message or something off the record. I know he’s hoping to -.”
The scent of musk wafted under Mara’s nose and her body shrieked danger. The world slowed, white walls smearing in her vision as she spun, her hold-out slapping into her palm. Inside her cloak Minion squalled at the spike of adrenaline in her veins. Beside her, Antilles swiveled, too, a weapon appearing in his hand with the smooth grace of a practiced fighter.
It was already too late. The first concussive blast slammed into her chest like a battering ram, launching her backward. She landed on her left shoulder just as the second blast hit. Pain tore through her chest and her vision went splotchy. For a terrifying second, the Force surged around her, its needle-like fingers digging into her - and then she blacked out.
Luke braced his forearms on the pebbled edge of the castle’s crenelated wall and turned his lightsaber hilt over in his hands, his thoughts as restless as the creatures prowling in the dark outside the fortress’s walls. The night breeze ruffled his hair and carried the haunting songs of nocturnal birds to his ears. It shouldn’t have reminded him of Myrkr, but everything seemed to of late.
Shifting the casing to his left hand, he turned his right over and stared idly at his palm, his fingers tingling with the memory of Mara’s hand fleetingly curled around his own. May the Force be with you. He hadn’t looked at what she’d pressed into his hand until the Falcon was accelerating into hyperspace, far too late to ask the fresh questions that bubbled to his lips.
She’d taken the crystal out of his lightsaber. She had been wearing it on a chain inside her tunic - must have been since before he’d first awoken bound to a bunk in the Demise - and he hadn’t known.
How had she gotten it out? How had she known to do so in the first place? Those questions simply led him back to the ones she’d refused to answer when they’d parted.
You’ll contact me when you’re safe?
Luke’s lips twitched, a hint of lightness touching his mood. He’d found the tracker in his X-wing his first week on Jomark. It had been cleverly placed; the techs who’d done the repairs on Sluis Van in the brief stop between Myrkr and Jomark had missed it entirely. He’d left it exactly where it was, buoyed by the knowledge that Mara could find him and her promise that she would.
That had been four standard weeks ago. A fresh wave of weariness washed over him and Luke closed his eyes, his head dipping. Four weeks, and he was no closer to figuring out what to do about C’baoth than he’d been when he landed.
The old Jedi was insane - that had been clear enough right from the get-go. He was also powerful, stubborn, and obstinately in denial about his own condition. Left to his own devices, he’d continue to terrorize Jomark. Luke’s conscience wouldn’t let him turn a blind eye to that. But removing him was hardly a viable option, either. There were no surviving records of what the Order did to secure Jedi who went mad, and Luke couldn’t imagine having access to the kinds of resources necessary to contain the old Master. Taking him back to the Core uncontained wasn’t something he was even remotely willing to consider. But to kill him for a condition beyond his control would be cruel and perilously close to Darkness.
Luke hooked his saber back to his belt and scrubbed his face with his hands. Pushing off the crumbling wall he began to pace, careful of the chipped stone and uneven footing. The Republic was in turmoil, the Imperial Remnant was surging, Leia was already in the third trimester of her pregnancy. He couldn’t stay here, and he couldn’t leave and every plea for wisdom or guidance was answered by resounding silence in the Force.
Right about now, he’d give just about anything for a good, clean vision of the future to set him on the right course.
The breeze stopped, then kissed his cheek from the other side. Luke turned, loose stone crunching under his boots. The distinctive hum of a ship engine reached his ears at the same moment the Force rippled in anticipation. Stepping quickly to the wall, he leaned over the battlements. A freighter was descending into the courtyard beside his X-wing. It was impossible to see clearly between the glare of running lights and upwash of the High Castle’s floodlighting, but he caught the distinctive silhouette of a YT series and immediately stretched out with his senses. Master C’baoth was moving within the depths of the Castle, but the ship was devoid of life. Except - except there was a bubble in which he could feel nothing at all.
“Oh, I have a bad feeling about this.” Shoving off the wall, Luke took off across the battlement for the door into the castle proper. Dread curdled in his gut as he hurried down the carved stone staircase, fear mounting. When the stairs spilled out onto the hallway of the second floor where it overlooked the first, Luke ignored the stairs, simply vaulting the banister and using the Force to cushion his landing on the wide flagstones below.
Eye-searing flashes of blue light lit up the tall, narrow leaded glass windows along the front of the edifice as he bolted through the palatial entry hall and his heart slammed into his ribs. He shoved with the Force as he cleared the distance, throwing the heavy carved-wood doors open ahead of him. A mass of boiling light and the reek of ozone assaulted him.
For a split second, all the air whooshed out of his lungs in as old memories hammered at his consciousness. Father, help me, please!
A blaster bolt cut off the storm and Luke gulped for breath, the strange scene rushing into his awareness in a disordered jumble.
Talon Karrde stood unflinching, his expression implacable and cold as a Hoth midnight, his blaster raised level with C’baoth’s head. The old Jedi shouted and flung out both hands, a fresh barrage of lightning crackling off his fingers. The air around the smuggler fizzed and popped with static discharge but not a single bolt made it through, the fire and fury dissolving harmlessly a foot from the Karrde’s body.
But there was no nutrient frame strapped over his long, billowing coat. No ysalamiri draped over his broad shoulders. What the hell?
The lightning ceased abruptly, the old Master turning furious eyes on Luke. “I told you to retire,” he snapped.
“I did.” Luke circled forward slowly, positioning himself between the other two men “I sensed we had a visitor.”
“This vagrant is no concern of yours,” C’baoth huffed. “He is leaving.”
“No,” Karrde countered, frostily. “I am not. Not without Skywalker.”
The dread in Luke’s chest consolidated into a horrible certainty. He made himself ask anyway. “What’s happened?”
“The Imperials have taken Mara, and if you have any care at all for the future of your Republic you’ll help me get her back.”
No. Oh no.
“Nonsense.” C’baoth scoffed. “If the Grand Admiral had taken the Oracle, he would have delivered her to me. That was our arrangement.”
The world went crystalline. Luke felt the vein in his temple begin to throb. “You have an arrangement with the Imperials.”
“They are a tool,” the old man waved it away. “To fetch me those I must collect to begin my new dynasty.” The look he gave Luke bordered on a leer. “Not all of them will come to me so willingly as you, my young apprentice.”
Deathly calm sank into Luke’s bones.
Karrde’s growl would have sent any sane man scrambling for cover. “Mara is not yours to have.”
“She is a tool of the Force and I am its master.” C’baoth’s face split in a rapturous grin and Luke’s hand dropped to his saber hilt before he realized what he was doing. “She will kneel at my feet and —.”
The sound of the blaster bolt reached Luke’s ears at the same moment the flesh between the old Jedi’s eyes scorched black into a thick, acrid hole. His ornate robes flapped as he toppled to the ground, his face still stretched in a maniacal smile.
Luke stared at the fallen Jedi, his path unfurling before him as unambiguous as he could ever have hoped for. “Do you know where they’re holding her?”
Luke turned his back to the body on the ground. “Then let’s get moving.”
1. I personally find Mara's impatience with Wedge as an undercover operative *hilarious*. I also find the idea of mundane interplanetary public transit unreasonably fascinating, too.
2. Minmin Cnous: I know.
3. Karrde *really* doesn't like it when people threaten anyone he considers *his*. (Yes, I have massive protection kinks. You're welcome.)
Mara wakes up in Thrawn's clutches. Luke gets some answers from Karrde.
YT-2400s had the same control plates as the Falcon, and Luke whacked the one just inside the hatch with the side of his fist as soon as his boots hit the decking. He made it two steps before the familiar vibration under his feet told him the ship was lifting off. Karrde must have been monitoring the ramp. Good.
Luke followed the curving hallway left. Unless the ship’s layout had been radically altered, it should lead to the cockpit. Halfway down the corridor opened into a communal living space. It was spartan, the walls and floor bare. A single dejarik table sat against the far wall, just before the corridor picked up again for the last leg before the cockpit. Karrde’s long coat was slung across the tabletop and Luke strode toward it, intending to drop his carryall there and continue to the cockpit to see if there was any other crew assigned to this mission. A squawk stopped him.
Karrde’s coat was wiggling. Or rather, something in one of the oversized pockets was wriggling, the heavy fabric jerking sporadically with its struggle. The unmistakably angry noise came again and then a familiar orange head popped into view.
The creature made a low, plaintive sound somewhere between a whine and a howl. Luke felt a pang of compassion for the unhappy lizard.
“What are you doing in there?” Crossing the short distance between them, Luke reached into the pocket and scooped his hand under the creature’s soft, dry belly to lift him free. The instant he made contact the Force winked out.
Luke sucked in a breath, his head spinning as he set the lizard down on the table beside the coat and drew his hand away. The Force rushed back.
That’s how Karrde survived the lightning, he thought, stunned. But that meant —.
The lizard’s head snapped sideways and, looking past him it repeated the whine-howl, its tail flicking from side to side in agitation.
“You’ll have to forgive his manners. He’s not taking his separation from Mara well.”
Luke pivoted. Karrde stood in the mouth of the corridor to the cockpit, frowning.
“He’s an ysalamiri.”
“He is a hybrid,” the smuggler corrected. “But this is not a conversation we need to have here. Come. The nav droid will have us in hyperspace momentarily.” Folding his jacket over one arm, Karrde held his free hand out to Minion. The lizard glowered at him but climbed up his arm to ride begrudgingly on his shoulder.
Pursing his lips, Luke grabbed his bag and followed as the smuggler headed back down the corridor the way Luke had come.
“I trust you convinced your droid to return your ship to Coruscant?”
“I did.” He didn’t care about that now. Didn’t care about proper places for having conversations or anything else. They passed the hatch where he’d entered. “Tell me about Minion.”
“The base is ysalamiri,” Karrde relented. “Enough that, as you’ve seen, he creates an individual-sized Force-less bubble. “Other species were spliced into his DNA to make him more portable and pleasant than a true ysalamiri. Mostly lizard variants, though there’s a touch of vornskyr and a few other unusual bits.” He led the way through a doorway on the right into what was clearly a combination galley and dining area. “Please, sit. Do you drink, Jedi Skywalker?”
“Today?” Luke dropped his carryall and slid into the nearest seat. The refectory-style table was long, it’s surface smooth under his hands from hard wear. “Yes.”
Karrde tossed his coat over the back of the chair opposite Luke’s and deposited Minion on the table. The lizard hunkered down in the middle, his tail still twitching. Walking into the galley section, Karrde opened cupboards, retrieving a square, cut-crystal decanter and two squat glasses. Returning to the table, he set the glasses down and neatly poured four fingers of the amber-colored liquor into each.
“Severeen’s,” he said, pushing one toward Luke and picking up the other as he sat down across from him.
Luke lifted his glass, inhaling the aroma of toffee wafting off the expensive brandy. He swallowed a mouthful, feeling it coat his tongue and throat. Heat spread through his chest and limbs as it went down, a sharp contrast to the ice pooling in his gut. He watched Karrde stare into his own drink for a long moment, his brow furrowed darkly. Eventually, his expression cleared, then hardened into resolve.
“Whatever nefarious purposes you are ascribing to Minion’s creation,” he said, a faint twist of wryness touching his eyes as they raised to meet Luke’s, “they’re unfounded. He is, to my knowledge, the only ysalamiri hybrid in existence and I had him created as a service animal of sorts for Mara. Nothing else. As a matter of fact, only she and I - and now you - know what he is.”
“But why an ysalamiri?” Luke demanded, leaning forward. Proximity to Minion made the Force go staticky around him and he quickly leaned back, frustration threatening to overwhelm him. “Why would Mara want to be cut off from the Force?”
Karrde set his glass down and reached out to scratch the top of Minion’s head lightly with two fingers, his gaze solemn and weighted. “You understand,” he said slowly, “that Mara’s story is hers to tell. I am only at liberty to share what I believe to be necessary for the purposes of freeing her from captivity.”
Luke considered that, swirling the woody sweetness of another mouthful of liquor over his tongue as old resentments and his need for answers warred with begrudging respect for Karrde’s unwillingness to betray Mara’s trust. Finally, he made his peace and swallowed. “I understand.”
Karrde let out a long breath and steepled his fingers in front of his chin. “Mara Jade is an Oracle.”
A steady beeping seeped ominously into Mara’s awareness. Floating in darkness, she thought muzzily that she should know what it was. She leaned toward the sound, drifting sluggishly toward consciousness.
“The patient is waking.”
The words plunged Mara back into her body, the world rushing up to meet her in a dizzying whorl of cold, fury, and horror. Antiseptic-soaked air burned her nose and the unmistakable mechanical whir of a DD-13 medical droid rotating on its tripod legs scraped her raw eardrums. Her stomach rolled and goosebumps broke out from the soles of her scarred feet to her scalp.
“She is cold.” The soft, sibilant tones slithered down Mara’s spine and her stiff hands flexed spastically against the sani-pyle conform cushions on which she lay. “Correct it.”
No. No, she didn’t want anything from him. The cushions were slick under her fingers when her hands fisted; the feeling was weirdly distant, dissociative. Drugs, she realized, groggily. Heat and weight settled over her from hips to toes, pressing the sheets against her bare skin and making her aware of how little she wore. Shavit. Mara struggled to drag open eyelids that felt smeared with lead and grit grease.
The first thing to coalesce in her grainy vision was the sheen of the plastifoil blanket draped over her legs. She blinked again and an ysalamiri frame swam into view just beyond her feet. Its furry occupant blinked at her and Mara felt it like a sucker punch to the stomach. Minion.
He’d been on her shoulder. But if Thrawn knew what he was, how important he was, he’d have been here, locked up in a pretty little cage as a hostage. Leverage. Gratitude that he wasn’t warred with grief and terror for her little companion combined with drugs they were pumping into her to form a dull roar that filled her head.
“Ah, there you are, Oracle.” Thrawn’s pleased voice cut through the noise.
It came from her left and Mara flicked her eyes in that direction, the stab of pain in her head from the too-quick movement making her wince.
The Grand Admiral folded his hands behind his back, formally. “I regret the roughness of your extraction, but it was necessary under the circumstances.”
“Liar.” Her voice came out coarse and dry, wispy with disuse. “You’ve never given a shavit about my rough use.”
Thrawn’s thin, dark brows drew together and his pale lips flattened into a disapproving line. “I seem to recall keeping you in quite some luxury.”
The words scraped over her, tearing open old wounds. Hate poured through her veins like Calian battle madness and the noise in her head began to fade. Her vision sharpened and she narrowed her eyes, words hissing caustically out of her mouth before she’d realized she was saying them. “You left me. Everyone left me and Isard —.”
“Isard’s actions were unauthorized and she was disciplined for them,” Thrawn interrupted, smoothly. “The incident was unfortunate, but hardly justification for your breaking of our arrangement.”
Arrangement. Mara tasted sourness on the back of her tongue and dug the heel of a half-numb hand into the bed, trying to lever herself upright. Something tugged and she slid her fingers sideways, the IV tube cool and thick under her touch.
“I arrived to collect you less than two standard days after you disappeared, you know.”
She hadn’t. Or maybe she had and she simply couldn’t remember. That portion of her memory was blank save for a single fragment of sensation: her cheek against the cool linen of Karrde’s shirt, his strong arms under her, and the murmur of reassuring words she couldn’t make out. Mara’s hand fisted around the tubing.
“I was quite disappointed when you failed to return to your proper place at my feet.”
Mara said nothing. At her side, hidden by the blanket, she rolled her hand, wrapping the tubing around it. Once. Twice.
“I suppose we can blame Captain Karrde for that,” Thrawn’s disgust set Mara’s teeth on edge. “Isard’s records suggest you may have suffered neurological damage when the Emperor died. Doubtless, your would-be smuggler king took advantage of your vulnerable state to fill your head with nonsense.”
When the Emperor died. Mara had a fleeting impression of tasting blood, of straps against her wrists and the algid metal touch of worker droids on fevered skin.
“In light of such… extenuating circumstances,” he continued, almost airily now, “I am willing to excuse your absence and return you to your former status within the Empire. I will have to retrain you, of course.” Mara felt her jaw tighten mutinously, the world slowing down as the Grand Admiral leaned in, one hand reaching to cup her chin. "Tools always need recalibrating after they’ve been used by —.”
His fingertips grazed her face and Mara lunged, flinging her hand out. It wasn’t going to work, she knew that, but seeing his red eyes bulge as the tubing looped around his throat and the whole of her body weight yanked it taut, garroting him, was worth the pain that lanced through her ankle and slammed the back of her skull as they crashed to the floor.
She rolled, still clutching the tubing fiercely, feeling it catch and tangle around her bare legs as Thrawn choked and the DD-13 shrieked alarm. “I’m not an Imperial any more, you egg-sucking son of slime devil.” The insult - a favorite of Aves’ - was cheap and bittersweet on her tongue. It might be the last thing she voluntarily uttered for a very long time.
As she’d known he would, Thawn twisted with the practice of a skilled combatant and drove his elbow toward her head. Pinned against the base of the bed, her legs caught in tubing and the sheets that had come off the bed with her, Mara had nowhere to go. Her last thoughts before the blow connected with her temple were of Talon and Minion.
I’m sorry I failed you.
The blunt impact snapped her head back with a crack, and her world went black.
“An Oracle,” Luke repeated, dumbfounded. “You mean a Seer? She has the ability to see the future, through the Force?”
“Possible futures,” Karrde clarified, cautiously.
Possible futures. Luke’s mind staggered. He wasn’t alone anymore. His thoughts spun out, his heart leaping. If she could see the future, Mara was exactly what he needed - what the Provisional Council would have given half the treasury to find. She could tell him what he needed to protect Leia and the babies, help them beat back the Remnant for good!
Unease trickled in, confusion and misgivings swirling over his brilliant joy like storm clouds over a spring festival. His expression fell, his brows furrowing. “Why would a Seer want to hide to from the Force?”
Karrde’s jaw tightened as he weighed his response before answering. “Mara does not ‘use the Force’ as I believe Jedi are accustomed to.” He paused, and Luke clearly felt the resentment and protectiveness he carefully modulated out of his tone. “She is used by it, on its terms and in its timing.”
Luke’s stomach sank like he’d swallowed a block of duracrete. “She can’t control her visions? At all?”
“No.” Karrde stared at him, levelly. “Not without Minion, or the ysalamiri cover of Myrkr to protect her.”
Revulsion twisted inside him. The Force was an ally, not a slaver. Minion howled mournfully and a chill went down Luke’s spine, drawing his attention back to the more immediate threat.
“She doesn’t have him now.” If the Force saw fit to use her, there was no telling what vital secrets might spill into the Imperials’ laps.
“No.” Karrde’s eyes turned to chiseled flint. “So far as I have been able to piece together, the Grand Admiral sent a team of elite commandos - a rare species called Noghri - to apprehend her on Abregado-rae. Apparently, word of the New Republic’s intent to obtain a release for the Etherway found its way into Delta Source.”
Anger clawed at Luke’s throat. Force-damned Delta Source! NRI still didn’t have the slightest idea who or what it was or how to cut it off, and now they’d compromised Mara. He’d been explicit about the need to keep Karrde’s people out of the official reports - he hadn’t even dared breathe Mara’s name to anyone but Wedge. Shavit.
“Wedge?” He blurted, unable to fully form the question.
“Safely returned to Coruscant,” Karrde lifted a hand and stroked Minion’s scales. “He was with Mara when she was taken, but apparently the attackers deemed him of no interest. He survived the attack with only minor injuries, found Minion nearby and immediately began efforts to reach me.”
Swamped with relief and gratitude, Luke made a mental note to buy Wedge an expensive bottle of Whyren’s. Not only to celebrate surviving another close call, but because he had no doubt that by saving Minion and promptly contacting Karrde, Wedge had single-handedly prevented the smuggler from declaring a personal and devastating war on the New Republic for indirectly delivering Mara into the hands of her enemies.
“And then you came for me.” Luke couldn’t quite keep his puzzlement out of his voice. “Why?”
Karrde sighed and the weight of it pressed into Luke’s soul. He knew what it was to be that weary. “Do you believe in any gods, Jedi Skywalker?”
Taken by surprise, Luke hesitated. “I believe in the Force,” he finally said honestly. “Though in my experience, it works in mysterious ways not all that different than those of most gods I’ve heard of.” He tipped his head, intrigued. “Do you? Believe in gods, Captain Karrde?”
“ Fho chiu Hyon hav Bey don mulha, mulha devas Bey poshulo.”
From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be demanded. Luke recognized the proverb immediately. It appeared in various forms in the religious doctrines of a hundred worlds.
“I believe Mara was entrusted to me,” Karrde continued, gravely. “And it is a privilege I have done my best to worthy of.” His mouth twisted dourly. “However, the Force has been rather explicit about its intention that you play a defining role in her life, as well.”
The truth of that rang in the Force, clean and pure as a freshly struck tuning fork. Luke gaped, stunned.
“To be blunt, I don’t approve. Your loyalties are divided and fraught, and I don’t believe you’re prepared to grapple with the choices that associating with her will require.”
Offended, Luke opened his mouth to retort but Karrde cut him off, dark amusement coloring his face. “Tell me you genuinely believe your Provisional Council will let an Oracle walk free,” he challenged.
“As opposed to what?” He shot back, defensively. “Locking her up? She hasn’t done anything wrong.”
It occurred to him even as he said it that he didn’t know that. He had no idea what kind of dangerous intel the Force could have given Mara - and by proxy Karrde - or to what ends it might have been used. He would never know, unless she was monitored constantly. Or contained. Fierfek.
“She’s an asset and a potential liability.” Karrde spelled out Luke’s grim thoughts as if reading them off a datapad. “If the Council discovers what she is, they will be compelled to cage her as a matter of galactic security. Letting her roam free would be political suicide.”
“They won’t lock her up just for being a Force user,” Luke said, stubbornly. “It isn’t legal, and Leia and Mon wouldn’t stand for it.”
“What of the others?” Karrde demanded mercilessly. His expression was almost vicious, now. “Do you honestly believe Drayven would allow a potential military asset like an Oracle to roam freely? That Fey’lya wouldn’t make a case for ‘quarantining’ her or ‘studying’ her under the argument that she’s a public safety threat? He’s already turned on Akbar, and he’s a hero of the Rebellion just like yourself. Mara would be nothing to him, except a public relations coup.”
Anger and frustration bit hard and Luke slapped his palms on the table hard enough to make Minion jump and skitter away, off the table and out of sight. Dammit.
“The Force should never be a weapon.” Unable to be still, he shoved out of his chair and stalked a few paces away, his blood simmering under his skin. “It’s not meant to harm, and Mara —.”
He cut off, his throat closing as her face rose in his mind’s eye, vulnerable and open as it had been when she’d knelt at his feet, licking his spend from her lips. He thought of the way she’d felt under his hands in the shielded closet on Myrkr when the officer declared her Imperial property.
“There.” Karrde’s tone was unexpectedly low and Luke pivoted to frown at him.
“You feel something for her.”
Luke swallowed, the lump in his throat painful as it sank into his chest. “I do.” He gestured, the surfeit of riotous, conflicting feelings making it sharp, accusing. “I - is that why you came for me? Because you thought you had to? Because of whatever the Force has been telling Mara? Or…” He couldn’t finish the thought. It was too monumental, too fragile a hope to risk putting into words.
Karrde watched him for a long moment, steepling his fingers in front of his chest again. “Shall I tell you a secret, Jedi Skywalker? I rarely give them out for free, but this once I’ll make an exception.”
Luke waited, silently.
“You are here because I am a gambling man. I am wagering everything on my belief that by including you in this endeavor, I can shape you into a shield for Mara rather than the shackles that bind her.”
“I don’t want to bind her,” he said, flinging out a hand. “I just want —.” To not be alone anymore. To know what to do. To stop losing people I love. He let the sentence fall off and shook his head. “I’m not particularly shapable, anyway. Plenty of beings have tried.”
“Amateurs,” Karrde dismissed, leaning back in his seat with studied casualness.
“Really?” Luke asked, bemusement creeping in. “How would you do it then, Captain?”
Karrde smiled, the turn of his lips so sly and calculatingly ruthless that the Jedi actually felt his breath catch. “I intend to make you an offer you can’t refuse, of course.” His eyes glinted. “Tell me, Jedi Skywalker. What do you know of the Katana Fleet?”
1. I can't find the link now but Seveeren's is a kind of brandy.
2. Isard taking Mara post-Endor is canon.
3. Canonically, DNA splicing is a thing you can do. We don't see it used in animal applications, so far as I know, and I've taken some liberties with it here in assuming Karrde can hire a black market specialist to make him Minion. In fact, I headcanon that he has an arrangement with a brilliant and often bored scientist who likes money and a challenge and is happy to ask no questions in return for Karrde occasionally dropping both in her lap.
4. Incidentally, the reason Minion can make such a wide range of noises is that he has so many different genes all mixed together. They create a unique physical and neurological structure which give him a lot of talents. : )
Luke and Karrde prepare a rescue mission. Mara tries to survive.
Luke sprawled fully dressed across the sizable bed in the cabin Karrde had shown him to, his head spinning. His body whined for sleep, exhausted by the strain of his month on Jomark and the weight of Karrde’s revelations, but his brain refused to shut off.
Somewhere, in the depths of untraveled space, more than 200 star destroyers slept in near-pristine condition. If the New Republic could claim those ships and fill even a fraction of them with crews, they’d finally have the resources to force the Remnant into negotiating a true, lasting peace.
But there was an unspeakable possibility that the Imperial Remnant might get to them first, because Thrawn had taken possession of the galaxy’s only known Oracle and there was no way to know what the Force might show her - and through her, Thrawn - in her captivity.
The revulsion was back, writhing inside him like an angry brine-eel. If Karrde’s assessment of Mara’s condition was accurate then something horribly, grotesquely wrong had been done to her. Luke shut his mind to the dark questions that bubbled up - he wouldn’t get any answers to them until they had Mara back, and dwelling on them in the meantime would only be dangerously distracting.
Thoughts of what would happen when they did get her back, however, were no less fraught. Luke pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, the pressure no relief against the ache building behind them. He wished desperately that there was someone - anyone - to whom he could pour out his questions. Someone who could give him answers.
Unbidden, his memory summoned the feel of Mara in his arms, the way she’d come apart under his kiss then clung while his hands and mouth laid claim to her. His body shifted in unwelcome arousal, restless to have her lean form in his hands again. To finish what they’d started on Myrkr.
You will be a shield for Mara or the shackles that bind her. Was taking her into his life - into his bed - shielding or shackling? Would she even still want his hands on her after his government’s indiscretion landed her in Thrawn’s clutches?
A scratching noise interrupted his tumultuous thoughts and he frowned, pushing himself into a seated position. It came again at the door. Curious, Luke reached out with the Force and triggered the door controls. The portal opened with a snick, revealing nothing but a shock of orange on the floor.
The creature made a mournful sound then scampered inside, the door auto-closing behind it. It scurried toward him and stopped at his feet, craning its neck up and giving a hopeful, pitiful cheep. Compassion softened Luke’s heart.
“Not used to sleeping alone, are you?” He guessed. The lizard meeped. Luke smiled slightly and leaned over to pull his boots off.
Minion darted sideways, hovering just out of reach.
“It’s all right.” Remembering how Minion had picked up on Mara’s upsets, Luke tried to make his sense as soothing as his tone as he set his boots beside the bed. “I’m not going to hurt you.” Stripping, he tossed his clothes over the end of the bed and crawled between the surprisingly soft sheets. Settling himself, he peered over the side of the bed at the still-hesitating lizard. “Come on. I’m sure I’m not as comfortable as Mara but I don’t bite.”
Minion considered him for a moment, then scrambled up the blankets and approached cautiously. The Force winked out but, having expected it this time, Luke found it less jarring than before.
“There you go,” he encouraged.
To his surprise, Minion crawled directly onto his chest. He was light, his tiny clawed feet almost ticklish as he turned in a few circles indecisively. Then he flopped onto Luke’s sternum with a heavy sigh and curled up into a ball, tucking his head into his side and curving his tail around his nose. Luke found the creature’s warm weight and the blank silence of the Force oddly comforting.
With Minion present, it occurred to Luke that he couldn’t wave the lights off. He hadn’t realized he’d how accustomed he’d become to using the Force for such a small thing. Uncertain how much Minion would tolerate, Luke carefully cupped a hand around the lizard and rolled sideways, stretching to reach the control unit beside the bed. Minion grumbled and Luke smiled as he tapped the room into darkness. Rolling onto his back again, he risked rubbing the lizard’s head as he had seen Karrde do and was rewarded with a cackling purr that seemed far too loud and deep for the creature’s small form.
Chuckling, Luke closed his eyes, his momentary contentment fading as his thoughts returned to Mara. Did she know Minion had survived the attack on Abregado-rae? That he was safe? His heart ached at the thought of her alone in an Imperial cell, trying to steal what sleep she could, unmoored by the loss of her constant companion.
We’re coming, he thought, as sleep rose up to swallow him. Hold on, Mara. We’re coming.
Immobilized within the shimmering blue barrier of a Gordarl containment field, Mara watched one of the DD-13s close a grasper arm over a fat syringe. The swelling around her right eye impaired her vision, but she thought the droid closed a second grasper over some kind of modified hypospray. They’d take the field down soon. She needed to be prepared. Reviewing the mental inventory she’d started taking of her injuries, she evaluated her options.
She was fairly certain she had a minor concussion, and the swelling around her eye was serious enough the cheekbone might be cracked. Something was wrong with her left shoulder - dislocation or muscle damage, she couldn’t tell. In either case, it was her best bet. She returned her attention to the droid, following it as far as her limited vision allowed when it circled her.
Taking a breath, Mara braced herself. Two seconds later, the hum and shimmer around her evaporated as the containment field dropped. Mara wrenched against the heavy cuffs pinning her wrists and ankles in place. The mag clamps didn’t give and the jolt sent pain knifing through her body. She gasped but leaned into it, weaving it into a shield and an anchor. The Force surged, stabbing in from all sides. It hit her shield and warped away, leaving her panting and covered in a sheen of sweat.
“Attempts to escape are unwise,” the DD-13 announced behind her.
Mara swallowed the urge to snarl at it - she would need every ounce of her strength to fend off the Force’s next attack. The blunt edge of a grasper arm traced up the goosebumped skin of her naked back, and then something bit into the strained muscle beneath her right shoulder blade, wresting a grunt from her.
“You are being implanted with a transmitter chip,” the droid said matter-of-factly. “Due to your re-classification as a Class A Code Red Imperial Asset, transmitter range is currently set to the dimensions of this room. Attempts to pass set boundaries will result in a loss of consciousness.”
She’d been upgraded. How gratifying.
“Administer the paralytic and bring the ysalamiri closer,” Thrawn ordered.
Relief and dread corkscrewed through her in tandem and Mara’s gut clenched as she felt the pinch of another needle being inserted just off her spine. She watched the ysalamiri frame move into the edge of her field of vision and breathed out as the Force vanished. Almost at the same moment, panic swelled as ice rushed through her back. It spread in all directions, freezing everything in its wake.
“That will be all,” Thrawn dismissed the droid and turned baleful crimson eyes on her. “Living among Fringe scum has made you feral.”
Mara didn’t answer - the paralyzing agent had reached her lungs and it felt as though a speeder had landed on her chest. Every shallow breath had become a battle.
“It’s a pity, really.” The Admiral began unbuttoning his uniform jacket as the droids tidied the cell, folding every tool and medical device back into their hover cart. “You were just beginning to reach your true potential when that cssucackeb bervzet Karrde stole you away. Now we must start over.”
Vaguely, Mara was aware of clanking - almost certainly the droids exiting the cell with their hovercart - but she couldn’t tear her eyes from Thrawn’s hands. They were exactly as she remembered, deft and precise as he slipped the last button through its hole. He shed the jacket with smooth, animalistic grace, baring hard-muscled arms and thick blue skin encased in a snug black undershirt.
A half memory invaded, making her head swim. Blue fingers gripped the underside of her thigh. Her dress was rucked up and she clutched it, white-knuckled, where it bunched above the bloody lines slashed open in her pale skin. Thrawn raised the knife again, drew it across the next scar in the row. Fresh pain bloomed, crowding out the hysteria that threatened. Mara breathed in, a muddy mix of hate and gratitude clouding her mind, then held her breath, waiting for the next cut to bleed those out, too.
The pressure of fingers against her chest jerked her back. She blinked and gulped a ragged breath, her good eye tracking down. Thrawn rubbed a sterile wipe in neat circular motions just above her heart. Mara’s mind blanked, understanding abruptly what was coming and refusing to contemplate it.
“I was prepared to forgive you, you know.” His tone was conversational as he turned away, tossing the swab aside and reaching for medical gloves. “I prepared a suite for you. Set an appointment with a clothier. Even procured some of that unpleasant tea of which you’re so fond.” He made a disapproving sound in the back of his throat as he tugged the gloves into place. “All you had to do was submit to my authority.”
The need to move - to fight - screamed along dead muscle, crawling inside Mara’s skin like a swarm of Bizikian hornets. She hung, helpless, unable even to twitch her face away as Thrawn lifted a breathing mask from the tray and positioned it over her mouth and nose. The thin straps bit into the skin above her ears and along her jaw as he cinched it in place.
“It’s rare that I get to perform my own artwork. It would be unfortunate if you were to lose consciousness and miss the experience.”
The air pushing through the mask tasted sharp on her tongue and stung her nose. Drugs. Mara gagged as it was forced into her stiff, reluctant lungs and cursed the gaps in her brain. She knew this smell or at least she had, once. Now the name was lost in the wreckage of her head. If she had Reggie…
Thrawn twisted, then turned back and lifted a heavily customized stylus in front of her face. “You recognize this, I trust?”
Hate and terror spilled through her like acid, eating away everything else.
“I’d hoped to do this with more ceremony,” Thawn continued, tracing gloved fingers over the prominent ridge of her left collarbone, then dipping them just below it. “But shortly it won’t matter.” He probed the skin like an artist feeling out his canvas. “I have long waited to etch the crest of House Mitth onto its most prized asset.” He paused, his crimson eyes flicking up to hers. “Feel free to scream, if you can.”
A high-pitched whirring filled the cell as he activated the device and the moment stretched as Thrawn leaned in, close enough that his hot breath whispered over her shoulder. Then pain erupted as the needle-point nib broke the skin, pushing its caustic ink deep. Mara keened wordlessly as the stylus dug in again, the venom scorching flesh and muscle.
Pain radiated out in vicious arcs. Thrawn’s intent face blurred and distorted, and Mara’s body seemed to discorporate save for the place where the stylus bit into her chest over and over. The world contorted and time suspended; only agony remained.
“Can you tell me about the food testing thing?” Luke asked at breakfast, watching Karrde reseal the canister of caf after testing it and starting a pot. The aroma of nausage and flatcakes wafted out of the cooker built into the galley’s wall. “Mara does it, too, but I’ve never seen that kind of concern in other smuggling circles.”
“You make a habit of slumming with the galaxy’s smuggling rings, Jedi Skywalker?”
Luke couldn’t see the other man’s expression - he was still facing the counter, cutting a sweet bun into small pieces on a plate - but his amusement was clear enough.
“I should,” he replied, amiably. “You stock better caf than the New Republic does.”
“I suspect that isn’t hard, given the beings in charge of your supply systems,” Karrde remarked dourly.
Luke suppressed a smile. Two days into their trip he was starting to have a very clear holo of how little the Fringe respected the New Republic’s Provisional Council and its governing. Intriguingly, politics seemed to have almost nothing to do with the sentiment. Rather, it was their perceived lack of business acumen that rankled. While most of it seemed far outside his wheelhouse, Luke was nonetheless amassing quite the file of mental notes to discuss with Leia if they ever got a chance to sit and have a quiet drink again.
Karrde walked to the dining table, which they continued to use, despite its being far too big for just the two of them, and slid the plate of sweet bun in front of Minion. The lizard nosed at the pieces, then whined. “Yes, I know,” the smuggler sighed. “But if you don’t eat, you won’t be any good to Mara when we find her.”
The creature whined again but put a half-hearted effort into consuming one of the sticky bits.
“Does he understand you?” Luke asked, curiously. “Really, I mean?”
“It’s not a precise science,” Karrde moved back to the counter and pulled two fat tin mugs off hooks on the wall. “But we estimate he properly understands just over one thousand words - approximately the same comprehension as my vornskyrs.” He returned and extended one of the now-steaming mugs.
“Thank you,” Luke said, accepting it and inhaling the rich, dark-roasted aroma. He eyed the other man as he took his seat across the table, then prompted again, “you were going to tell me about the testing?”
Karrde favored him with a bemused expression and took a leisurely sip of his drink but eventually answered, “Mara and I have both had sufficiently unpleasant experiences with poisons to make us cautious about what we consume.” He paused, evaluating Luke with a shrewd look the Jedi was quickly becoming accustomed to. “You and your sister might consider taking up the same habit.” He took another sip, his tone deceptively light. “Under current practices, I could eliminate the Provisional Council for the price of a few drops of synox any time I wished.
“There are precautions,” Luke protested, frowning. “Dedicated serving droids —.”
“Yes, of course.” The smuggler’s dubiousness and impatience felt like an insult, though his polite expression never wavered. “Still, Saldalith makes very nice jewelry pieces with built-in toxin detectors if Counselor Organa-Solo is ever in the market.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
Sipping his caf with forced nonchalance, Luke could have sworn he felt the rasp of an invisible file along the edges of his mind. Shaping the shield, he thought. It was… different this time than what he’d experienced before. For the first time, he and his would-be mentor wanted the same thing and there was no subterfuge or half-truths involved. Bizarre as it was to admit, he felt oddly safe in Karrde’s hands. Then again, he hadn’t realized how unsafe he was in Ben and Yoda’s hands until it was too late.
“While we’re on the subject of the Provisional Council,” Karrde, now stroking Minion’s ridged head with a single long finger, interrupted his thoughts. “Tell me where they stand on your plans to restore the Jedi Order.”
Luke chuckled mirthlessly. “Are you sure you want to discuss that over breakfast? It’s not exactly a pretty subject.”
The autochef dinged and Karrde rose to retrieve the food. “Government rarely is,” he observed, dryly. “I’m sure I’ll survive.”
“We’ll need more caf,” Luke pointed out, feigning doubt.
“Hmm.” Karrde hit the button to brew another round, then carried the food back to the table.
Unable to completely stifle a smile, Luke thanked him and picked up his fork. “Shall I start from the top down, or from the most annoying to least?”
“Top down, I believe,” Karrde said, draping a napkin over his lap with impeccable manners. “And don’t spare the details.”
Consciousness came back in layers. The pounding in her head. The pulsing stab of her shoulder. The knotted mass at the base of her spine. The bone-deep ache that permeated her muscles. Static crackling against her skin. Too-bright light scalding her eyelids, then searing as she blinked.
Mara pressed her lips together, biting back a grimace at the tang of copper on her tongue. She’d bitten it, she remembered now, fighting off the Force. Refusing to fugue for the infuriated Grand Admiral. Her eyes felt like they might peel away in desiccated layers when she blinked again.
The Force rolled like a fog just outside the staticky edge of the containment field, curling around and through Thrawn’s oblivious form, creeping along the walls and ceiling and floor, stretching tendrils toward her that never quite reached.
He had not yet pieced together that the containment field blocked her from the Force, but Mara knew that luck was overdue to run out.
Thrawn stepped in front of her, his white uniform perfectly pressed, not a single oiled black hair out of place. Loathing rose like bile in her throat. If she could use the Force like any of the other Hands she’d have throttled him - wrapped invisible fingers around his throat and squeezed every ounce of air from his lungs with glee.
“How ironic,” his pale lips flattened into a thin smile, “that you think you can use the skills I taught you to deny me what is my right.” He turned his head and ordered the droid, “lower the containment field.”
Shavit. Mara gulped air and braced. The in-rushing Force hit her like a wall of ice water and she shuddered violently against the restraints. A sliver of her mind screamed failure - surely he’d seen, he’d put the pieces together now - but it was lost in the massive pressure wave slamming against her fragile shields. Mara leaned into the pain wracking her body, funneled it into her besieged mental barriers.
“I took the liberty of applying another dose of Skirtopanol, more for artistic purposes than any necessity.” He walked around her, one long-fingered hand sliding up the nearly-numb skin of her bare arm. She no longer had the energy to writhe. “You’ve always been… deliciously pliable, when the right pressures are applied.”
His fingers slid up the side of her throat and Mara’s shields slipped. The Force lunged and she scrambled frantically, just barely blocking the assault.
“I don’t… do that anymore.” The lie came out in a whisper that scoured her raw throat.
“No?” Thrawn’s amusement slid over her, slick and sour, and his hand dug upward into her hair. “I don’t believe you.”
Mara’s breath caught when he wrenched his hand backward, her head jerking as pins scattered, tinkling to the floor. Her barriers cracked and the Force pried at the fissures.
It doesn’t matter. Mara stared unseeingly at the ceiling and tried to will herself unconscious. It doesn’t matter.
Fingers worked one of her braids loose. The tug at the end as Thrawn unwound the tie reached all the way to her core.
“You will fugue for me, Oracle.” Another tug, as Thrawn’s fingers pulled apart the long, plaited strands.
No. Karrde’s blue eyes hovered in Mara’s mind’s eye. She fugued for him, now - only for him. She wouldn’t —.
Thrawn dropped the handful of hair he’d been holding and grasped another section of braid. Soft strands of loose hair whispered against Mara’s naked back. Her shields flexed and her scalp prickled as his fingers pulled languidly through the long strands.
“Tell me, Oracle. Were you saving this intimacy for Skywalker? Did you imagine his filthy Rebel hands —.”
Everything broke. The Force thrust in, seizing her body and Mara was lost.
1. Gordarl containment fields are *fascinating* and awful. I didn't appreciate them until I saw them in CW.
2. Cssucackeb bervzet is Cheunh for presumptuous biscuit. I'm using it as a Chiss insult that doesn't translate well, because it amuses me to do so. : p
3. Minion understands roughly the same number of words as a border collie or a three- or four-year-old human child.
4. In case it isn't clear, Mara adheres to cultural rules in which letting someone see you with your hair down (much less letting them touch it) is a carefully guarded intimacy.
5. The jewelry that tests for poisons, etc. is an in-universe thing... and I don't know why Mon Mothma et all weren't required to have some.
Luke and Karrde sneak aboard the Chimaera to steal Mara back.
Luke joined Karrde in the cockpit for the reversion from hyperspace. He wasn’t accustomed to flying in ships with nav droids and his palms itched to take the controls as they dropped out into the Fath sector. It was early morning ship time, but Luke suspected Karrde had gotten no more sleep than he had. Clad in cargo pants, a loose white shirt and a long black jacket with deep pockets, the smuggler had little to say and exuded a foreboding determination.
Seated in the shadows on a thinly padded jump seat at a backup station, Luke’s body seemed to thrum with anticipation and resolve. Soon, his heart seemed to thump with every beat. Soon.
Karrde made short work of downloading a raft of comm messages from a system that Luke suspected was at least military-grade, if not better, then put through a comm. There was a flash of surprise in the Force when a fierce, dark-haired woman snapped into view on the holo display.
“Talon,” she said, immediately, folding her arms across her chest. “Right on schedule. Good.”
“Shada.” The name held both greeting and cautious question.
Luke’s interest piqued when Karrde’s sense flinched at the stream of tart words the woman loosed in a language he didn’t recognize. When he caught Mara’s name and the word Jedi it wasn’t hard to guess that Karrde was being read a riot act of some kind. The smuggler held his own, however, until he glanced back at Luke and intentionally shifted the conversation to Basic.
“Everything is in place, then?”
“Yes.” The woman’s tone was clipped. “We’ve commandeered a supply shuttle and Aves is waiting with it and Ghent’s contribution on Wistril.” Her hand moved out of sight and a string of coordinates flashed across the bottom of the holo. The nav droid immediately began punching them into the ship's computer. “Ellor and the Uwanna Buyer are headed to Ord Cantrell now, fully stocked.” Her eyes flashed. “You will get in and get out, Talon. I’ll be waiting for you on Coruscant.”
“Of course. Clear skies, mia retin.”
“And to you, mia Khoehng.”
Endearments, Luke realized with interest. The woman was likely the object of his affections, then. Luke added the information to his mental file, unsure what he’d do with it, but certain it would be of use.
Karrde shut off the comm and swiveled in his seat. “Do you need to make any comms?”
The offer was unexpected but welcome. Luke said quickly, “yes, thanks.”
Karrde nodded and stood. “The system is encrypted,” he said, heading for the door. “You will show up as an untraceable code to whomever you’re calling.” He paused at the exit. “In the interests of full disclosure, I should warn you that all comms from this vessel are recorded.”
Luke nodded. “I understand.”
“When you’re finished, pack what you need for the Chimaera on your person. We’ll send everything else ahead to the Uwanna Buyer. If this goes badly, I intend to leave as little as possible of benefit to the Grand Admiral within his reach.”
When the hatch closed behind Karrde’s retreating figure, Luke punched in Han’s private comm code. The computer told him it was 2200 on Coruscant but he wasn’t even sure that was where Han was. He’d been off-planet almost as much as Luke of late.
“Who’s this?” Han picked up the comm almost instantly in audio-only mode, his suspicion carrying across the line as starkly as if he was standing right there in the cockpit. Music and the chatter of scores of voices filled in the background, suggesting he was somewhere public.
“Han - it’s Luke.”
“Kid!” Relief poured through the ex-smuggler’s voice. “Where are you? Artoo brought your ship back but even Threepio can’t a word out of him edgewise about you. He says you swore him to silence.”
“I did. Did the X-wing get to Wedge for upgrades?”
“Yeah.” Han sounded amused. “He said it’s about damn time. This doesn’t have anything to do with —?”
“Don’t,” Luke cut him off. “Listen, I can’t talk now but I wanted you to know I’ll be on my way back to Coruscant soon. I’ll need you and Leia and Wedge to be there to meet me.” Out of the corner of his eye, Luke saw the indicator light beside the nav droid turn green. They could jump as soon as he got off the comm. “It’s important,” he stressed. “I’ll comm you again tomorrow or the next day with more details, all right? I have to go.”
“Yeah, all right.” Han didn’t sound pleased, but this sort of thing was hardly outside their wheelhouse. “I’ll have ‘em both ready and keep it all quiet.”
“You just make sure you get back here in one piece,” Han warned, his tone turned to that of a scolding older brother. “Leia’s patience ain’t all that great these days, you know.”
Luke felt a pang. Leia was so close to the end of her pregnancy and he’d missed so much of it. “I will. Take care of yourself, Han - Leia, too.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Han mock-grumbled. “May the Force be with you.”
In spite of himself, Luke grinned and cut the line. “I’m all done,” he told the droid. It immediately reached for the hyperspace lever. Luke watched the stars stretch into lines, then headed for his cabin, the anticipation winding a notch tighter inside him.
We’re coming Mara. Soon. Soon.
The Force receded. Mara hung, disoriented, aware that something was terribly wrong but unsure what it was. Her groggy mind groped for her body, searching for the aroma of sea-salt air and floor polish. It found recirculated air spiked with aerosol cleaners instead and fumbled, unable to bridge the divide between expectation and reality.
Awareness of her body came back with the feel of a hand skidding up her side, a scorching contrast to the chill air of the cell. Fingers cupped her nape, then gripped a fistful of loose, sweat-damp hair.
Mara wretched, her empty stomach revolting in violent dry heaves, the world spinning as she grasped where she was. What she’d done.
“Ah, there you are, Oracle. I was starting to think you wouldn’t come back into your skin at all.” Thrawn let go of her hair, trailing his fingers over her shoulder and down across the symbol etched under her left collarbone, the impact as effective as if he’d rubbed salt into the fresh wound.
Dissociation beckoned and Mara made no effort to stop it, her mind shedding her overloaded body like a too-small snakeskin.
“Take her down.” The words echoed distantly, as if they came from some other galaxy far away. “Sedate her and insert a nutrient drip. When her vitals return to safe levels, put her back in the containment field and notify me. We’ve a great deal of lost time to make up for.”
The transfer on Ord Cantrell went like chronowork. Seconds after dropping out of hyperspace, the nav droid requested and received permission to set the YT-2400 down in a private, heavily secured hangar bay. A Togarian and a Rodian were waiting at the base of the ramp when Luke and Karrde disembarked, and they were up the ramp to take control of the vessel almost before the Jedi’s boots cleared the ramp.
With Minion on his shoulder, Karrde strode to an armored door in the hangar’s left wall. Entering a long code, he opened the door, letting them through to the adjoining bay where an Imperial supply shuttle waited, its engines already hot.
From his post beside the ship, Aves nodded a wordless greeting to Luke as they approached, then passed Karrde a datapad when they reached him. “Ghent said everything you need is there and you’d know how to use it. We’ve got everything on your list ready for transfer to the Uwanna Buyer, plus a few extras per Shada. Ellor’s offloaded to a skeleton crew and he’ll be here shortly. If you run into trouble, send the signal and he’ll come to you.”
“Well done.” Karrde handed his bag to Aves and gestured for Luke to do the same. “Who commed Shada?”
Ave’s mouth twitched up. “Reggie, believe it or not. Mara had some kind of emergency protocol in place. We didn’t know until she showed up.” He opened his mouth to say something else but glanced at Luke and clearly changed his mind. “Clear skies, Boss.”
“And to you.” Karrde clasped forearms with his lieutenant, then he was striding up the ramp, Luke on his heels.
“I can fly,” Luke volunteered as they reached the cockpit. “I’m actually qualified on this model, believe it or not.”
Karrde waved him at the pilot’s seat. “By all means. The flight map should already be there with our clearance codes. The sooner we get in the air, the better. We go to Wistril first, to join the supply lineup.”
Luke nodded, his hands already settled over the controls, mentally working through the minimum pre-flight checklist. His pulse kicked up as they lifted off, Ord Cantrell falling away below them. The jump to Wistril was short. If luck held and the Imperial supply line moved even half as efficiently as Karrde’s crews, they could be aboard the Chimaera by lunchtime.
Hunger gnawed at Mara’s stomach. Her bones ached with cold. Every muscle felt hard and leaden and no amount of blinking corrected her murky vision. Distantly, she was aware that she was being moved again. Removed from containment and laid on the rough floor plates. Mechanical graspers moved over her body with cleansing cloths, then twisted her limbs to accommodate the prick and slide of fresh needles into her arms. Muzzily, she traced the movements in her head - how she’d take the DD-13s apart, the items in the room she could have used as weapons in her escape.
Except that her cuffs were mag clamped to the floor, her ankles and wrists locked down within seconds of being removed from the upright position of the containment field. Thrawn would not be careless enough to lose her as Isard had been.
The Force brushed her mind and Mara flinched away, then faltered. It had felt almost… soft. Gentle. Since when did the Force touch her without the intent to violate? The soothing caress came again and with it a muddle of confusion that she was too exhausted to process.
Something thick pushed through the I.V. in her hand and the world went black again.
In the queue for the Chimaera’s hangar, Luke cautiously stretched out with the Force. The Star Destroyer was a teeming mass of life, the life force of thousands of beings illuminating it in his senses. He closed his eyes, searching for a hint of silver - a trace of Mara’s Force-strong presence. He felt a pull in the Force and followed it deep inside the ship. There.
For just a second he caught her - a flicker of silvery light, weak and thready with pain. Carefully, aware that she wouldn’t be expecting the contact, Luke brushed a touch just along the edges of her sense. His jaw clenched when she flinched away and he tried again, attempting to trickle reassurance through the touch. He caught a wash of uncertainty and exhaustion and then something swept between them and he lost his tentative hold on her.
Frustration flared. How many anti-Force controls did Thrawn have?
“Shuttle 37 down,” Karrde announced into the comm beside him.“Awaiting further orders.”
“Shuttle 37 acknowledged,” the bored voice of the controller came over the speaker. “Shut down all systems and prepare for unloading.”
“Copy.” Karrde flipped the switch to close the channel, then started shutting down the shuttle. “We have two hours,” he said briskly as he finished. “Perhaps two-and-a-half at the outside. Did you locate her?”
“Yes - and then I lost her.” Karrde’s eyes darted to his and Luke realized the anger heating his blood had leached into his tone. “She’s hurt,” he explained, curtly. “And under some kind of Force suppression. Not ysalamiri - something else. Or maybe unconscious.” He gestured irritably. “I don’t know. Until now there haven’t been any other Force users to learn with.”
The muscles in Karrde’s jaw twitched but all he said was, “I can find her.” He glanced around, ensuring he’d left nothing behind, then stalked toward to the back of the shuttle.
Luke was right behind him.
“Minion,” Karrde called. “Do you want to go get Mara?”
A blur of orange shot out of the stacks of crates that crowded the cargo area. The lizard took a flying leap, his claws sinking into Karrde’s coat, and scrambled up to the smuggler’s shoulder. “Be quiet and stay,” Karrde admonished him. Then he stepped aside, giving Luke what little room there was to work with.
They’d discussed the logistics of this part thoroughly en route and Luke pulled out his lightsaber without hesitation. He cut the first hole through the shuttle’s floor. He sliced the second through the hangar’s deck plating below the shuttle. Returning his lightsaber to his belt, he used the Force to set the carved-out sections aside underneath the shuttle where they wouldn’t be noticed.
“Time to go.” Crossing his arms over his chest, Luke stepped forward and dropped feet-first straight down through both holes.
It was further than it looked to the floor of the deck below, but a pull on the Force softened the three-point landing and Luke was pushing up and into motion immediately. As the plans Karrde had shown him had promised, he was in a pristinely-maintained service supply area. Stretching out with his senses for any indication of threat, Luke headed for where the maintenance turbolift should be.
Karrde was only a second behind him. Despite not having the Force to aid him he, too, was upright and moving almost as soon as his boots hit decking. Ten meters down they found the unguarded turbolift and ducked inside. As the doors whooshed shut, Karrde produced a nasty-looking switch-blade from one of his deep pockets and pried off the access panel beside the door. Minion crawled back and forth from one of Karrde’s shoulders to the other, his tail swishing side to side anxiously.
Luke watched, intrigued, as the smuggler used both hands to key a short but complex code into the system. There was a chime and a click as the lift locked, its tiny display flashing OVERRIDE. OVERRIDE. OVERRIDE.
Still keeping half an eye on the Force for warnings of alarm or suspicion, Luke kept the other trained on Karrde as he pulled a datapad from an inner pocket and plugged it into a port in the lift’s panel. A few fast commands later, the entire wall panel lit up. It winked back out just as suddenly, except for a single light indicating two destination decks.
“She’s in the detention block.” Karrde swiftly disconnected and stowed his datapad. “I’ve keyed us for a nonstop.”
“How are you doing that?” Luke gestured to the hacked control panel as Karrde replaced the cover. “It’s a handy trick.”
“I have better informants than the NR.”
Luke rolled his eyes, then dropped his hand to the hilt of his lightsaber as the lift bumped to a stop and the doors whisked open. Somehow Karrde’s fancy hacking had managed to get the lift wedged directly between two decks. At their feet, Luke could see the top of the still-closed doors to the deck below them. At the upper edge of the door, the bottom plate of the next level up was visible. In between, from waist-height to about the tops of their heads, was the opening to a between-decks crawlspace.
The NR, Luke decided instantly, absolutely had to find a way to get Karrde’s organization on the payroll, at any cost.
Scooping Minion off his shoulder, Karrde deposited him in the tunnel. “Go,” he commanded, shooing the lizard ahead of him. Minion bounded forward a few meters before pausing and looking back at them dubiously. “We’re coming,” the smuggler assured him, boosting himself up with unexpected deftness and starting forward confidently.
Intended primarily for maintenance droids and mass gas exchange in the event of an emergency, the tunnels were clean and big enough to move in, but far from comfortable. The plating that lined them was coarse, grainy, and cold. Luke’s knees complained about the hard surface and its texture scuffed his hands, but he was distracted by the indistinct sense that he was getting close to Mara’s muffled silver presence. It made his heart pound, the blood pulsing in his ears loud against the tunnel’s quiet.
About eight meters in it occurred to him that the occasional ribbed depressions in the deck plates must be the dividing walls between cells. Quick calculations suggested they were over the far end of the detention block. They kept going.
The tense silence was shattered by a frantic meep. Karrde stopped moving and Luke heard a frenetic scraping.
“What is it?” he kept his voice low and craned his neck, trying to see.
Karrde did a half-roll sideways, pushing his back against the tunnel’s right wall so the Jedi could glimpse Minion, his nose shoved to the floor, his small claws scrabbling ineffectually at a deck plate.
“I believe we’ve found Mara.”
The static around Mara’s sense made it impossible for Luke to get an accurate read on her position but he trusted Minion’s instincts. “All right. I’ll make us a door.”
Glancing behind him and then ahead, Luke gauged the dimensions of the cell below. “Move up,” he instructed. “I need to be just past where you are, I think.”
Minion squawked furiously as Karrde grabbed him and shuffled forward. Luke positioned himself over where the shelf that passed for a bunk should be and pressed his lightsaber hilt almost vertically against the floor plate in front of him. Sparing a moment to check that there were no clear signs of other sentients in the space below, he thumbed the ignition. The plating was thin and it took only a moment to cut out a square big enough for a man to climb through. Beveling was a bit of a challenge in the tight quarters but he managed. Grasping the cut-out section with the Force, he angled it downward into the room.
Leaning over the hole, he could see the empty shelf. The only sound from the cell below was an odd electrical hum that set his teeth on edge. Carefully, Luke settled the section of ceiling onto the floor. Then he shut off his lightsaber, tucked himself into a ball and somersaulted through the hole. He unfolded as he cleared the opening, landing in a crouch on the shelf, ready to attack or defend.
Rage exploded through him before he properly registered what he was seeing and he lunged off the bench.
He’d never encountered a Gordarl containment unit in person before, but the massive base plate and the proprietary rippling pattern of the shimmering containment web were impossible to mistake for anything else. Above the base, pinned like a butterfly under museum glass, hung Mara. She was nude, save for a pair of barely-there basics, her long garnet-and-gold hair floating around her in a static halo.
Luke stalked two steps and ignited his saber. He dropped to one knee and raised his blade, prepared to eviscerate the machine but was interrupted by a thunk behind him, accompanied by an angry animal shriek and a low, dark “fierfek.” Then, “wait.”
Luke froze, his muscles quivering with the effort of being still when everything in him screamed get her out.
“I need to disable the alarms, or we’ll have the whole ship down on us.” Karrde appeared in Luke’s peripheral vision, fingers flying over his datapad. Minion darted forward and clawed at the containment field, squalling his displeasure. Luke let his eyes slide up, taking in the long lines of Mara’s bare legs. Impossibly heavy manacles clamped around her slender ankles and bruises mottled her fair skin, the unbruised portions tinted blue from the cell’s seeping cold.
At the base of her spine, a lurid stain spread like the wings of some dark creature embedded under her skin.
Rage iced over into implacable resolve.
“Done,” Karrde announced, shoving the datapad away. He snatched Minion out of the way. “Now.”
The instant they were clear Luke plunged his blade into the field generator’s base and raked it sideways. The metal shrieked and a shower of sparks rained across the floor. With a single flicker, the containment field shorted out, the wash of blue and its jarring hum evaporating.
Luke was on his feet almost without thought, thumbing his lightsaber off and dropping the hilt in a single move, his arms raised to catch Mara as her body crumpled bonelessly into his embrace.
1. Did you know that canonically Earth is the Fath Sector?
2. Various sources say that when adventuring in space you should always have a towel and a banana (kudos if you get the references) but I disagree. POCKETS. Pockets are where it's at. Pockets and utility belts. Obviously, Space!Dad has the pockets thing covered here. *wink*
3. In this AU, as in canon, Shada is technically employed as Maddoc's bodyguard. She took a leave of absence to answer Reggie's emergency call. (If you like Talon/Shada, go look up VickyOcean's stories here on AO3. You will not be disappointed!!)
4. Per Wook, the NR allowed Luke to keep his X-wing for personal use after he resigned his commission and he was "able to avail himself of New Republic repair and maintenance resources."
5. This kind of dropping through holes down entire decks into heroic three-point landings is why all Jedis have bad knees.
6. Karrde's hacking ability is compliments of Ghent's genius and Mara's extensive knowledge and Imperial passwords.
7. It is a rule in every universe that ventilation shafts must be big enough to crawl through.
8. I don't know exactly how much Gordarl containment units cost, but Thrawn is going to be pissed. There aren't a lot of them around by this point in the timeline, and I'm sure it was expensive. (And, you, Karrde is stealing his Oracle, the presumptuous biscuit! *wink*)
For an instant as she fell, Mara’s quicksilver essence slid along Luke’s awareness. It was thick and murky with pain and drugs, and there was a tumble of bewilderment and terror when his arms closed around her that squeezed his heart like a vise.
“It’s all right,” he promised, catching her against him and immediately lowering her to the ground. “It’s all right, you’re safe.”
Minion squirmed free of Karrde’s hold and darted for Mara, scuttling up her body as Luke eased her onto her back on the ground. Her eyes were barely slitted open, the garish yellow and green of the huge fading bruise that engulfed her right eye and cheek a sick contrast to the deep purple ring beneath her left. She had freckles, Luke realized, his gaze sliding down over her frightfully pale skin looking for other wounds. Just a handful, scattered across her chest and shoulders. His sense of her winked out just as his eyes dipped beneath them to three symbols carved into her chest — two faded burgundy with time, one still livid crimson and black. He didn’t have to recognize all of them to know what they meant. Thrawn had marked her as property.
Luke’s hand fell to his hip where his lightsaber should have been, the urge to stalk to the bridge and slaughter the Grand Admiral bringing him to his feet before he realized he’d moved.
Karrde dropping to his knees on Mara’s opposite side brought him back and Luke blinked, wrestling for control. Minion ignored them both, pressing his head to Mara’s jaw and crooning as if he could coax her to wakefulness.
“See if you can find her clothes,” Karrde demanded, his face dark with rage as he pulled a hand-held scanner from a pocket and ran it along Mara’s body.
Setting his jaw, Luke stepped back. Outside Minion’s range of effect, the Force rushed back and he called his lightsaber to his palm and swept the area. Finding everything still quiet, he scoured the cell. It took only a handful of seconds — aside from the wreck of the containment unit, there was nothing.
Unwilling to let Mara remain freezing and exposed, Luke tugged at the fasteners of his tunic as he circled back around the ruined base to where Karrde knelt over Mara. The smuggler had secreted the scanner away somewhere and was cursing, low and vulgar, as he fitted ampules into a hypospray chamber.
Luke dragged his tunic off and crouched. “What is it?”
“Skirtopanol and sedatives,” Karrde bit out. “I can give her stims to counter the sedatives, but there’s no guarantee how long she’ll last. I can’t risk lotiramine at the same time as stims.”
Skirtopanol. Luke was distastefully familiar with the Imperial favorite. Half truth serum and half nerve sensitizer, it would make their escape that much harder on Mara’s already abused body but it couldn’t be helped. Between them, they could carry her out if they had to.
“We need to get her hair up, first,” Karrde said, setting the hypospray aside. “She shouldn’t wake up to it down.”
Luke’s brow furrowed, but he reached for Mara without question as Karrde produced a hair clip from one of the deep pockets of his pants. Carefully, he pulled her up, resting her shoulder against his chest so that Karrde could move behind her. She made a low, pained sound at the same time he felt the grind of bone against his hand.
“Her shoulder’s out,” he told Karrde tightly as the smuggler scooped Mara’s long locks into his hands and twisted them up into a messy pile atop her head. “We should put it back in before you give her the stims.”
“Agreed.” Karrde secured the hair clip. “Give me that,” he jerked his chin toward Luke’s tunic, “and we’ll get that on now, as well. Spare her what we can.”
They moved quickly and carefully, passing her between them as they slipped the tunic over her chilled skin and fastened it. Then they laid her back on the floor and, with experience hard-won in too many ugly Alliance missions, Luke snapped her shoulder back into place. A cry caught in her throat and he winced. Lifting a hand to cup her cheek, he stroked a thumb over her temple soothingly.
Opposite him, Karrde positioned the hypospray at Mara’s throat. Luke heard the hiss as the drugs discharged, and then Minion cheeped as Mara gave a ragged gasp. The lizard head-butted her again, meeping insistently.
“Iom unu.” The words were papery and slurred but Mara’s fingers twitched and Luke felt a wave of relief.
“Mara.” Karrde shoved the hypospray away. “Mara, open your eyes.”
She complied, her glassy gaze roaming sightlessly. Minion whined and Mara blinked. Luke could see the stims fully kick in as her hands came up in jerky, uncoordinated movements to cup around the delighted lizard. “Minion.” Mara angled her head awkwardly, nuzzling his small head, a riot of emotions crossing her battered face. “You found him.”
“Ihn pli bon donac ol ros jet Ohna gloveho chupo.”
Mara’s mouth flattened and she squinted at her boss. “No poetry,” she hissed.
Karrde smiled and braced a hand under Mara’s arm. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “You stand up so we can get out of here and I’ll refrain from subjecting you to any more distinguished literary references until we’re safely away.”
“Yes. No.” Mara’s face twisted and the anguish in her whisper-thin voice cut through Luke’s chest like a blade. “Thrawn.”
“I know.” Karrde’s grip on Mara’s arm tightened. “But we need to go, Mara. We can address everything else later.”
“I’m sorry.” Her eyes fixed on his face and she shuddered violently. “I’m sorry. I —.”
Luke’s heart clenched as Karrde leaned in close to her, his face set firmly. “This is not your fault.”
“Don’t know,” Mara mumbled. “He took —.”
“Mara,” Karrde interrupted again. “Later.” He held her gaze, unyielding.
“Yes.” Mara blinked. “Chip.”
“What?” Karrde frowned.
“What?” Mara repeated. Her brain buzzed like she’d downed a whole round of Reactor Cores, and trying to think was nearly impossible. What had she said? “Chip. Can’t — can’t go.”
“He put a slave chip in you?”
The unexpected words were soaked with wrath and alarm shot through her. Mara twisted, swearing as her overwrought body nearly pitched over in her haste. Skywalker loomed over her, his expression murderous. The muscles of his bare arms flexed as his hands fisted at his sides and Mara’s vision tunneled.
Angry. He’s angry. You failed and this is why he kills you. He must have seen, he must know…
Minion yowled and something warm touched her cheek. Skywalker was suddenly in front of her somehow, on one knee. Eyes the color of a summer sky filled her vision, the fine skin at the edges tight with worry. Her head spun. Had he moved that quickly? Had she hallucinated him before? Was she hallucinating him now? Oh, Force if she was hallucinating…
“Mara?” The backs of Skywalker’s fingers glided across her undamaged cheekbone.
The touch was so light, so careful that her lungs seized, the sudden desire to sob compressing them until she couldn’t breathe. If he was here, he’d know what she’d done, what Thrawn had taken. What she was.
“Chip,” she croaked, incoherently.
“It’s okay.” He tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear, his fingertips impossibly light over the delicate skin. “I can break it.” He glanced up, past her. “I’ll need to use the Force.”
“No.” Mara’s hands shook. “I can’t.” Her voice was like grit-paper to her own ears, but she kept going — he didn’t understand. She had no shields left — nothing. “Not again. Not yet.”
“I won’t let it touch you,” Skywalker promised. “I need you to trust me, Mara.”
Mara shut her eyes, struggling to concentrate. They had to get out. “Yes.”
Skywalker’s breath was warm on her cheek. “Thank you.”
His hand slid down, his knuckles grazing her ribs before he turned his hand and flattened his palm against her. A mortifying whimper escaped.
“Whatever you’re going to do,” Karrde said, “you need to do swiftly. The longer she’s exposed to the Force, the greater the risk.”
“I understand. Mara, do you know where they put the chip?”
“Mmm.” Focusing took inhuman effort. “Under… under my shoulder. Right — right side.”
“Good girl.” The unexpected praise hit like a dose of spice, warming her from her core outward and leaving her head floaty and light. “I’m going to sit behind you, all right?”
Anything. He could do anything he wanted if he would stay pleased with her.
“I’m going to touch you,” he warned. “Just my hand.”
Mara nodded, desire swamping her as his fingertips skated from the nape of her neck to her shoulder blade over the fabric of his tunic. It was a nice tunic. It smelled like him. She wondered if she could steal it when this was over.
Behind her, the Jedi chuckled. “You can keep it. No stealing necessary.”
Had… had she said that out loud?
Skywalker’s fingers stopped in the center of her shoulder muscle. “Take Minion.”
The lizard snarled when Karrde reached for him and dug his claws in. The shock of pain drew Mara’s focus like a laser sight and she cooed reassuringly, gently disentangling him from the tunic herself, then handed him over.
The instant she let go, however, the loss slashed into her. She hunched, gasping, and snapping her eyes closed against the blast of the Force exploding around her. Too much, too fast — Skywalker’s presence unfurled at her back, golden and hot. It swelled like an ocean breaker and then crashed through her, colliding with the inrushing Force and thrusting it away from her. A cry ripped from her throat as an enclision grid of golden energy sieved through her, scalding and bright.
Mara stared, dazed and raw, at the Force, swirling and glittering behind an invisible shield a few centimeters from her face. There were voices, then a pressure at her back, localized this time. Something slid into her, a single precise stab that made her muscles go weak and dragged a moan from her lips. There was a dart of pain and then it was gone. Mara was left with the absurd idea that she might faint.
Luke fell backward, reeling.
“What happened?” Karrde demanded. Mara folded bonelessly and the smuggler caught her, rolling her onto her back and grabbing for the cuffs that still hung heavy on her wrists.
“I — I don’t know.” Luke sucked in a breath and pulled on the Force for balance. His head righted itself. “The Force — I’ve never seen it move like that. I —,” he licked his lips. “I made a shield.”
At least that was the only thing he’d done intentionally. But the way his heart slammed against his rib cage and his whole body tingled suggested there had been… something else, too. Luke took a deep breath and stored the awareness of what he felt for later, when there was time and space to examine it. What mattered right now was getting out.
Rolling forward back into a crouch, he reached for the cuffs at Mara’s ankles, digging his thumb into the latches to snap them off. They clanked heavily to the floor and Luke cupped her ankles in his hands, fresh fury stirring at the deep gouges in her soft skin.
Karrde murmured something and he looked up. Mara was sitting up, Minion back on her shoulder, Karrde’s arm braced around her back. Her pupils were huge, only a sliver of green ringing the edges, and her expression was eerily glazed. Minion looked from her to him and then back, wearing a strangely appalled expression.
Luke released his hold and Karrde pulled Mara to her feet. “Time to go.”
They put Mara between them, Karrde leading the crawl back through the access tunnel, Luke bringing up the rear. He chose to stare at the lattice of scars covering the soles of her feet rather than well-defined muscles of her legs as she lurched through the effort of keeping moving ahead of him. Occasionally, in the quiet, he caught Minion making small worried noises at her.
He kept his senses pressed outward, watching for signs of alarm, and tried very hard not to think about how it had felt to have Mara within his personal shields or the disconcerting way the Force had lunged at her.
From ahead there came a bumping sound as Karrde climbed out of the tunnel. Mara shuffled forward and then slid. Luke caught a glimpse of the smuggler’s arms wrapped around her torso, pulling her free. Crawling the last of the distance himself, Luke pulled himself out into the turbolift. He immediately stepped back and Karrde, positioned at the control panel, closed the doors. The lift started to drop and Luke glanced at Mara. She was propped against the back wall, shivering, staring at nothing.
“Where… are we going?”
The question surprised him and Luke glanced at Karrde.
“Coruscant,” the smuggler answered, splitting his attention between Mara and the panel.
The smile that split her face was stunning. “Skydome.”
Luke racked his brain, trying to remember if he’d been to the Skydome. He found a hazy memory of a formal event Leia had forced him to attend. Hiding from over-eager debutantes in an alcove created by soaring rose bushes. “Gardens, right?” He asked, watching her with interest. “On the roof?”
Mara nodded, then pressed a palm against the wall for balance. “Cactus.”
Karrde’s lips twitched. Luke raised an eyebrow. “You like cacti, Mara?”
She nodded again, her eyes still glazed and unfocused, her smile going dark and wicked. “Going to — to…”
“Ras li supre Thrawn ai recha?” Karrde suggested in Olys Corellisi.
Luke translated shove it clearly enough and lifted a hand to cover his smile as he inferred the rest.
“My dear,” Karrde said, warm and bemused. “I must remind you that you are drugged and there is more coming out of your mouth than you realize.”
“Do you…” Mara’s face fell and her head swiveled toward Luke. Her eyes strained, the pupils dilating and contracting as she tried to focus. “Not…permitted?” She stumbled over the words and Minion warbled in concern at her distress. “He…” One hand pressed against her ribs as if they suddenly ached.
If he hadn’t known what she was under the influence of, the abrupt change in demeanor would have alarmed him. As it was, it simply fed into his resentment of the Grand Admiral.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said, firmly. “In fact, if you pick the perfect one, I’ll cut it for you with my lightsaber, all right?”
Her tension dropped away instantly. “I know —.”
The lift screeched to a halt, throwing her sideways. Luke darted forward, planting himself between her and the wall and caught her as she slammed into his chest. She hissed in pain and pressed her face into the thin fabric of his under-tunic as an alarm wailed through the overhead speakers. Instinctively, Luke tilted her head so that her left ear rested against his chest and cupped his palm around her right ear, blocking the noise from her over-sensitized system.
“Drill?” He already knew it wasn’t.
“No.” Karrde answered at once, already prying the panel back off the wall and plugging his datapad back in. “Imperieshro ai nilra ost. They shut down the main computer. Not just put it in standby — turned it completely off.”
Shut it down? Luke had never heard of a ship’s computer being shut off anywhere but space dock, and then only for deep repairs. The command deck would be crippled — blind and deaf. The only reason they’d shut it down was if Thrawn had figured out they were there.
“He knows.” Mara mumbled. Luke wrapped his free arm around her as she shuddered. “Lifts… track bodies. Flagged.”
“Agreed,” Karrde said, reassembling the lift panel to hide the evidence of his tampering. “We need to get out before they check this lift and demand ID chips.”
“I can take care of that.” Gently, Luke eased Mara against the wall. Loathe to let her go, he made himself turn away and reach for his saber. “But getting back to the shuttle is going to be a problem.”
“We should be just above the aft hangar bays,” Karrde said, pulling a blaster as he watched the Jedi carve an opening in the doors.
Luke kicked the carved chunk out and found himself face to face with two startled crewers. Two blaster shots from over his shoulder took them out, their bodies toppling to the floor with heavy thuds.
“Vehicle deep storage is unlikely to be guarded and it’s not far,” Karrde said brusquely, stepping around him and lifting the men’s blasters and a comm unit. “We’ll go there instead.”
Shutting down his saber, Luke pivoted. Mara wavered on her feet in the center of the lift. Keeping his hilt grasped firmly in his right hand, he took two steps back to her and slid his left arm around her back, careful to keep his grip above the stain that winged up from the base of her spine.
“Lead the way.”
Mara staggered through the door on numb feet, her eyes burning in the after-image of the flash from her blaster’s muzzle. Her teeth chattered, the sound rattling and loud in her echo-y, spinning head. Pain had begun to seep in around the buzzing high of her stimmed nerves — not a good sign. She had no idea how long they’d been moving, how far across the ship they’d traversed, but if it was long enough for the stims to start wearing off it was longer than it had seemed. She’d been losing time — never a welcome realization.
They stopped moving and the world tilted on its axis. It was darker here — wherever here was — and a small sigh escaped her at the relief to her stinging eyes. Her head seemed to be turning to duracrete, too heavy to keep upright. Skywalker adjusted his hold, pulling her closer to his solid warmth, and Mara had the irrational desire to press her lips to his throat. To find out if he’d wrap himself around her the way he did in her dreams.
A warm hand cupped the back of her head and she realized there was fabric under her cheek. Something brushed the top of her hair, and she thought there were words, soft ones, beside her ear.
She startled when Skywalker jerked, his body going rigid. Then they were moving again — not far, but enough to make her grasp for awareness.
“…found abandoned at Endor,” Karrde said. “…being transferred to storage… the lift…”
“We’re taking it.”
Hands tried to pry her fingers from her blaster. Reflexively, she tightened her grip.
“I’m just going to borrow it — I’ll give it back.” Skywalker’s voice was warm, coaxing. Her grip loosened. “That’s it — just like that.” The approval in his voice sluiced through her and Mara let go entirely.
She blinked as he disappeared, aware suddenly that her vision had deteriorated to patches of light and dark. “Talon?”
“I’m right here.” His hand touched her arm.
“I can’t — I can’t see. Splotches.”
“Your Jedi is acquiring our ride as we speak. Ah — there we are.”
The world blurred, light and noise hammering at her and making her empty stomach roll with nausea. At some point she realized that she wasn’t on her feet anymore, but there was shouting and the world juddered around her and she could do nothing but try to brace herself against unseen walls and fight to stay conscious.
Then there were warm, gentle hands easing her away from the wall. Strong arms lifted her, and she succumbed to unconsciousness.
1. Turns out Skywalkers respond badly to slave marks and slave chips...
2. Karrde's pockets are like a Bag of Holding. Also, I headcanon that most smugglers have a decent grasp on drugs in general and that because he has Mara and has had to help her deal with her history, Karrde has a better-than-average grasp of Imperial interrogation procedures and drugs as well.
3. I also headcanon that Luke has a fair amount of medical training. Let's face it, Tattooine is not a friendly place and medical help is not exactly readily available. The Lars probably did most of their own medical care. Rebels, of course, also get into a lot of scrapes and need to do plenty of first aid before they get access to med droids or medics. Plus, there was lots of time to kill on Hoth and our boy likes to learn, so I think he put that time to good use and learned a lot more about field medicine.
4. Iom unu = little one
5. Ihn pli bon donac ol ros jet Ohna gloveho chupo. = a better gift than roses thrown on marble stairs. Inferred to have been taken from a famous GFFA poem
6. Ras li supre Thrawn ai recha = shove it up Thrawn's rectum
7. Imperieshro ai nilra ost = Emperor's black bones (a common GFFA curse... if you haven't checked it out, Wook's slang page is amazing.)
8. In case it's not clear, Mara was handed a blaster taken off one of the Imperials they killed fighting their way out.
9. The escape here follows pretty much the same way it does in the profics - they head for deep storage, find the Falcon, and boost it. I figured that since we've all probably got a decent idea how that went down, it was better to show it here from Mara's murky POV than to rehash the same old one more time.
Luke touches base with his family and meets Karrde's med droid. Mara wakes up and begins to grapple with the mess that awaits her.
Unwilling to spend the week to Coruscant alone in the Falcon, Luke hot-wired the ship’s long-defunct slave circuit and slaved the freighter to the Uwanna Buyer when they rendezvoused with the sumptuous ship at Ord Cantrell. With the help of Teela, the Buyer’s pilot, he had the connection made in record time.
“There’s nothing to worry about, Jedi Skywalker,” the woman said confidently as she led him back into the Buyer. “The rigging is sound and it’s hardly our first time with something in tow. We’ll get her to Coruscant without a scratch.”
“Thank you.” Greasy from crawling around in the Falcon’s innards, Luke was grateful that she’d led him in through a crew entrance where there were only practical durasteel walls and floors that he didn’t have to worry about soiling with an accidental touch. “Can you take me to Mara?”
The woman raised an eyebrow at his use of Mara’s given name but Luke obdurately refused to wince. He had every intention of becoming a fixture in Mara’s life if she’d allow it — they may as well all start getting used to it now.
“Not like that,” the pilot said, her electrum-hued eyes dropping to his feet and sliding back up in frank assessment. “Gee-H Seven would have my head. He’d very particular about his med suite.”
“Jedi Skywalker.” A Duros in a smart olive-green uniform appeared. “I am Captain Ellor. Captain Karrde instructed that you be offered an opportunity to use the comms before we depart.” He looked at Teela. “The freighter is secured?”
“Good. Get us off this over-commercialized tourist trap and prepare for the jump to hyperspace. We’ll go as soon as Jedi Skywalker is finished with his comms.” He turned his attention to Luke. “If you wish to make some?”
“Yes, thank you.”
The Duros inclined his large, bulbous head in polite professionalism. “This way, if you please.”
Luke fell into step beside him.
Ellor clasped his hands behind his back as they passed through narrow service corridors. “When you are finished, I will show you to your suite. Captain Karrde has authorized you to access the whole of the ship, save the engine compartment and other maintenance areas. You will find a menu of the available amenities in your suite, as well as a holo-assistant who can answer any questions you may have. As you have asked about visiting Captain Jade, however, I should advise you that admittance to the medical suite is restricted and governed solely by Gee-H Seven.” He paused. “He’s rather protective of his patients and, if you will forgive my boldness, rather fond of Captain Jade in particular, though the gods only know why. I would suggest not aggravating him or you may well be denied any access to her until she disembarks.”
Luke thought of Reggie, Artoo, and Threepio. He knew a thing or two about protective droids; he was sure he could get in to see Mara once he was clean. “Thank you.”
“After a few initial jumps to ensure that we lose anyone who may be pursuing you, we will be maximizing our speed and trajectory,” Ellor continued, taking them through a door into a suddenly ornate section of the ship. “Barring unforeseen complications, we will arrive at Coruscant in five standard days.” He stopped at another door. A gold plate beside it read Communications. Ellor pressed the button and the door whisked open to a large white-on-white communications room fit to rival those of the NRI. “Will you be needing anything else?”
“Hand wipes, maybe,” Luke eyed the room, mentally cringing at the thought of touching anything in his current state.
“Dirty fingers are of no concern,” Ellor waved the worry off. “Our droids are accustomed to cleaning substances of far more… indiscreet natures off every imaginable surface. If you would be so kind as to keep your conversations brief, however, I’d be grateful. The sooner we get into hyperspace, the sooner we are all safe.”
That was fine by Luke. The sooner he was done, the sooner he could get clean and petition for access to Mara. “I won’t be long.”
Ellor departed, and Luke pushed past his discomfort to activate the encrypted comms system. He punched in Han’s number again, his finger leaving oily smudges on the formerly spotless controls.
“Solo,” Han answered gruffly, again on audio-only. “Who’s this?”
“Were you going to tell me you lost the Falcon?” Luke said by way of reply. “Or just let it be a surprise?”
“Luke! Stay right there!”
The holo-comm froze and the display showed it being forwarded to a number Luke recognized as the Solo apartment’s in-house comm unit. A second later it snapped into visual mode, Han leaning into the recording unit. He was casually dressed, the neck of his shirt gapping open and his hair was mussed. Luke realized he had no idea what time it was on Coruscant.
“Where are you?” Han demanded. “An’ where did you hear about the Falcon?”
“I didn’t hear about it, I found it,” Luke folded his arms over his chest. “If you get me clearance to land two ships in your hangar bay, I’ll even deliver it to you in person.”
“Done,” Han said immediately. “When? And where the hell are you? Where did you find the ship?”
“I don’t have time for the long version right now,” Luke said, eyeing the time counter in the bottom right corner of the display. “The short version is that the Grand Admiral had it.”
Han’s eyes went round. “What the hell —,” he began, irately.
“Han?” Leia’s voice cut in, and then she was there, crowding her husband out of the frame. “Luke!” She wore only a nightgown, a robe hastily wrapped over it, her long braid draped over her shoulder. She pressed a hand to her swollen belly and leaned into the recorder. “Where are you? Are you all right?”
The time tracker clicked over another minute and Luke felt pressure building. “I’m fine. Listen to me, both of you — I don’t have a lot of time. You’ve heard of the Katana Fleet?”
They gaped at him. “Of course,” Leia pressed her lips together, her eyes narrowing. “What about it?”
“I know where it is.”
“I made a trade with Talon Karrde,” Luke rushed on. “I helped him recover something precious and in return he’s giving us the Katana Fleet. We’ll be on Coruscant in five days, and we need to be ready to move on this when we get there. Get Wedge. Tell him we need the Rogues and maybe some extra techs. But it has to stay off the books. We can’t risk Delta Source getting wind of it.” He glanced at the timer again. “I have to go. I’ll explain everything when I get there but we have to be ready to move.”
“We’ll be ready,” Leia said, her face taking on a stern, regal expression. “But you’d better be, too.” She poked a finger at the cam. “You will not be leaving my sight until I have answers, Little Brother — and I mean all of them.”
Luke smiled. “We don’t know you’re older,” he replied, appreciating the customary exchange.
“Tell him about the Noghri,” Han broke in. “It’s better if that ain’t a surprise when he gets here.”
“Noghri? Did they attack you again?” Luke’s pulse kicked up. Leia could protect herself, he knew that, but…
“No, and they won’t,” Leia said firmly, tugging her robe into a more comfortable position. “It’s a long story, but the short version is they’re on our side now. A contingent of them has taken it upon themselves to protect me — and probably you, when you get here.”
“I don’t need protecting.”
The look his sister slanted him told him exactly what she thought of that assertion, but all she said was, “we can discuss it when you arrive.”
“You’re sure they answer only to you?” Luke clarified. “Because I’m going to have company on the Imperial Most Wanted list — people already targeted by Thrawn’s commandos.”
Leia’s eyebrows went up. “I’m sure. And I look forward to meeting your company.”
Luke couldn’t help the hope that surged inside him. In his periphery, the time counter ticked over again. “I’m sorry,” he said, grimacing, “I’ve got to go. We need to get into hyperspace.”
“I understand.” Leia nodded. “Be safe, Luke.”
“You, too.” He signed off. Exiting the comm room, he found Karrde himself waiting.
“I have a suite for you, if you’re ready,” the smuggler said.
“Yes, please.” The smuggler moved right down the hall and Luke kept pace beside him. “How is Mara?”
“In good hands.” The certainty in Karrde’s sense matched his tone, and Luke relaxed fractionally. “GH-7 handles the majority of Mara’s care. There’s no one better equipped to see to her now.”
Karrde paused tactfully as they stepped into a turbolift. “I am aware that you travel a great deal, Skywalker,” he said after a moment, his tone entirely businesslike. “If you should find yourself need of medical care of any kind, the med suite is open to you.”
Surprised, Luke side-eyed the man. His expression was neutral, and his sense felt… circumspect, but not deceitful or calculating. “Thank you,” he answered, finally. “I may.”
It was beyond tactless to ask Karrde’s med droid for repress meds, but Luke did it anyway. At this point, he rationalized, it was probably the most discreet of his options, all things considered. At the rate information was leaking out of the NR, any medical attention he got through official channels on Coruscant was nearly certain to leak. He wouldn’t be able to so much as look at a female of any biologically compatible species without it turning into a sludge news headline.
It felt presumptuous, thinking about sex while Mara floated unconscious in a bacta tank two rooms over, freshly brutalized by the Imperials. But memories of Myrkr lingered, too bright and sharp in his mind to dismiss.
Besides, he found he unexpectedly liked GH-7. The droid had an irreverent but fastidious personality and handled every question he asked with brisk professionalism.
More than anything else, though, he was driven by the persistent awareness that there was something in his chest that hadn’t been there before. Something had changed on the Chimaera, when he’d shielded Mara from the Force. Luke prodded at it again as he refastened his tunic. Whatever it was, it was subtle. Muted, or dormant maybe. A lump in his sense of himself that he couldn’t identify. Examining it again he almost got the impression of a grappling hook embedded in his chest. But the analogy made no sense because there was no line attached.
Or maybe there was and he simply couldn’t see it right now.
“May I assist you with anything else, Jedi Skywalker?” GH-7 rotated the top half of his body away from the console he’d been punching things into. His bottom half didn’t move and Luke couldn’t decide if the result was entertaining or creepy.
“I’d like to see Mara, please.” He stuck his foot in a boot.
“I’m afraid Captain Jade is even less company than usual at the moment,” the droid rotated back around and ejected a data chip from the console. “She is sedated in bacta.”
Luke’s lips quirked and he stuffed his other foot in its boot. “I’d like to sit with her anyway, if I may. I won’t get in the way.”
GH-7 grasped the chip and, floating to him, extended it. “This is a record of today’s visit, for your regular caregiver.”
Luke looked at it. “I don’t actually have one,” he confessed. “I’m not sure who I would give it to.”
The droid clucked chidingly and retracted the offered chip. “I will retain it, then. It will be available should you care to request it in the future.”
“Thank you. Mara?”
GH-7 twitched. “You are familiar with bacta, are you not?”
Luke barely suppressed a snort. “I am, yes.”
“Then you understand that Captain Jade will be unclothed in the tank.”
Ah. “You don’t use privacy filters?”
“We do,” the droid sniffed impatiently, “but humans can be…” it waved a small mechanical hand, “delicate.” The droid peered at him. “I won’t be scraping you off the floor every two minutes because she’s bobbed and shown a bit skin and sent you tachycardic.”
Luke slid a hand up to cover his grin and coughed to mask his laugh. “I think I can keep my composure.”
“Very well,” Seven said, exasperated. “If you must. This way, please.”
Mara woke to Minion snoring in her ear. Her lips curved and she turned her head to nuzzle him. She was reclining somewhere blessedly warm and the air was perfumed with the tang of sea salt and floor polish. Safe.
The temptation to go back to sleep was immense. Her stomach rumbled loud enough to wake the dead, however, and she realized she was ravenous. Carefully, she opened her eyes. Relief washed through her to find the room pleasantly dim and her eyes no longer chafing as though freshly sand-blasted. It took a minute to place where she was and her confusion increased rather than abated when she figured it out.
A sound came from her left and Mara startled, whipping her head toward it. Beside her, Minion snorted awake.
“Captain Jade,” the medical droid didn’t move from the threshold, its almost melodic mechanical voice cool and soothing. It lifted both small three-fingered hands to show her they were empty. “May I enter?”
“Seven.” Mara let out a breath and reached up to stroke Minion when he butted her chin with a rumble. “Yes.”
“How are you feeling?” GH-7 glided toward her, his topaz cat-eyes intent.
“Confused.” Mara fumbled for the controls to the repulsar bed, angling herself to a more upright position. Sensing the change, Minion hopped onto her shoulder, refusing to be left behind if she moved. “Why am I on the Buyer?”
“You required medical attention and that bucket you prefer was unsuited to the task.”
Mara’s heart fluttered as a jumble of memories rushed back and her hand flew to her chest, her fingers feathering over the new mark she bore. Mirth cut through the sick shame, however, when she finished processing the droid’s words.
“The Demise isn’t a bucket.” The argument was an old one and it slipped around her like a favorite tunic, fuzzy and soft with long wear.
“It may as well be,” GH-7 sniffed, fussing with the blankets over her legs. “It doesn’t even have an emergency bacta tank. Which you required, I will have you know.” He propped his finely articulated hands on his repulsar base. “You have been sedated or asleep for two standard days — completely abysmal company. How Reggie puts up with you full time and doesn’t blow his circuits, I’ll never know.”
Reggie. Mara felt a pang and a sense of urgency bubbled in her gut. “Is he here? I’m going to need him. There’s work —.” She started to push the blankets aside.
“Oh, no.” GH-7 zipped up to block her and shoved his face in hers. “You are not going anywhere without a full discharge report.”
Mara rolled her eyes and shifted her hips a little as the motion of pushing the blankets aside made her muscles twinge. “Seven, there isn’t time. I’m fine.” Despite the irritation in her tone, she made no effort to push past him as she’d abruptly gone lightheaded.
“‘Fine’ is not a valid medical state!” GH-7 backed off slightly and projected a holo screen with her medical readout. “And there’s no need to rush. Captain Karrde and Jedi Skywalker won’t be taking lunch for another forty-two minutes.”
Heat flushed through her, a discomfiting mix of elation and trepidation. “Skywalker is here?”
The droid harrumphed. “Yes, he’s been making a nuisance of himself sitting in here and staring at you for hours. He was most annoyed that I wouldn’t report on your condition to someone without clearance.” He highlighted a section of the holo-projection. “Now, as I was saying, you’re hardly fine. While all significant non-permanent damage has been repaired, there are lingering effects. Despite a full system flush, there is a high statistical probability the Skirtopanol will produce some continuing soreness and sensitivity, and you will need to consume a higher number of calories than usual over the next several days to compensate for inadequate nutrition.”
Her stomach rumbled again and Minion whined in sympathetic hunger. Mara raised a hand to scratch his head, guessing he had done little eating of his own without her.
GH-7 shut down the projection. “I will clear you to leave this suite but you are prohibited from undertaking rigorous physical activity until further notice and must submit to re-examination before any such authorization will be made. I am also prescribing one massage a day until you leave the ship to promote full restoration of circulation and to compensate for the skeletal and muscular strain induced in captivity.”
Mara’s right hand unconsciously drifted to touch her left wrist, remembering the heavy cuffs. “Right,” she managed, roughly, clearing her throat and pushing the thought away. “Do I have a room?”
“Clothing and toiletries are available in the ‘fresher here,” GH-7 pointed. “And Suite 12 has been reserved for your use. Jedi Skywalker and Captain Karrde will be taking lunch in the Sunset Lounge. I suggest you join them when you’re decent.”
Mara glanced down and realized she was naked. Bacta dip, she reminded herself. A thought occurred. “Was I wearing something? Before?”
“A tunic.” GH-7 said over its shoulder, drifting toward the door. “It has been laundered and placed in Suite 12. Jedi Skywalker insisted you be allowed to keep it.” He sighed, as if the foibles of humans were an unreasonable burden.
Satisfaction and uncertainty writhed like slitherettes in her chest. Mara tried to ignore them, focusing instead on not face-planting into the floor when she got unsteadily to her feet. Her body had an odd spongy feel that only ever happened after bacta and the sensation was enhanced by the springiness of the thermal floor tiles under her bare soles as she padded to the ‘fresher.
She refused to glance in the mirror as she passed, beelining for the Sani-steam instead. Like all the showers on the Buyer it was outrageously over-outfitted with dozens of shower-heads at all angles and digital controls that allowed the user to customize it to a ridiculous degree. Mara took full advantage. When it was set exactly to her liking, she stepped in and pressed her palms to the wall, dipping her head and letting the hot water cascade over her raw skin in a tingling deluge. At her feet, Minion made happy trilling noises, cavorted and splashing in the water. His delight made her smile — the derbit genes in his DNA were worth every bit of inconvenience they’d been to obtain and integrate.
Eventually, when the spongy feeling had worn off and the heat of the water had seeped into her bones and loosened her muscles, Mara reached for cleanser. She scrubbed herself mechanically and swallowed the prickly nausea that swept over her when she let her hair down and felt the ghost of Thrawn’s hand in her tangled locks. She scoured the feeling away ruthlessly, then drenched her hair in conditioner and rinsed that out, too.
Fear knotted inside her as she shut the water off and stepped out under the air-dryer, Minion clinging to her calf. Karrde and Skywalker would understand. They would. Seven had said that Skywalker sat with her, stared at her. He wouldn’t have wasted his time if she thought she was… her mind shied away from the words, and her hands shook slightly as she brushed her hair and braided it into a neat, soft crown around her head. He’d let her make up for it. He would.
Someone — undoubtedly Karrde — had chosen a comfortable, high-necked tunic in hunter green and pair of loose black cargo pants from her go-bag, along with basics, a chest wrap, thick socks, and boots. Mara donned them all, quickly, and checked her appearance one last time in the full-length mirror. Her skin was still pink from heat and scrubbing and, to her critical eye, her bones seemed more prominent than usual underneath. But her eyes were clear and the tunic concealed the slave marks and the blue-tinged shadow the Skirtopanol had left in the small of her back. She looked… fine.
Her appearance didn’t matter anyway. She couldn’t deploy anywhere, now. Karrde might not even let her go back to Rishi. He might insist that she hide away on Hijarna and do her catching up from there. That alone could take months. Mara realized she didn’t even know how long she’d been captive. Fierfek. On her right shoulder, Minion cheeped inquiringly.
Huffing at herself in frustration, Mara bumped his little head with her nose to assure him she wasn’t about to have some sort of meltdown over her lackluster appearance like a vape-headed court debutante and stalked out of the fresher.
1. Canonically, either the Falcon doesn't have a slave circuit or it doesn't work, because per TTT Han isn't letting anyone tow *his* ship. I've chosen to have it present just not operational most of the time for my convenience.
2. I made Teela up and stole her name from the character in He-Man. (Yes, I'm old. I know.)
3. The medical droids in ESB are horrifying. Karrde has wisely chosen the much cuter, friendlier-looking, and personality-laden GH-7 model, instead. (Seriously, if you're not familiar, look them up on youtube. SO CUTE.)
4. In case I haven't stated it already in this fic, I headcanon that repress meds are available for all genders and species in the GFFA and that they go into effect immediately. Also, I continue to delight in the awkwardness that ensues from Karrde being extremely aware that the Force fully expects Luke to kriff Mara six ways from Sunday. : p
5. I'm sure that IRL lizards can't snore. Dogs, however, do, so we're going with the idea that Minion can/does because he has some vornskyr in him.
6. Scent is one of our most powerful senses. It lights up the brain in unique ways and I adore the fact that Karrde uses that to his advantage throughout this fic to make Mara feel safe. (Sea salt and floor polish being a combination that she inherently associates with their sanctuary estate on Iloh.)
7. Apparently, I have a thing for fancy showers (even though I don't own one) as they keep showing up in my writing. shrug
8. Did you know baby Jedi were allowed to have pets?! (Check out the derbit link.)
Luke finally gets Mara's backstory. He doesn't like it.
Three steps out of the suite she nearly collided with Skywalker as he rounded the corner.
“You’re awake!” For just a second, he looked shocked and then his face was awash in relief and something that almost looked like joy.
Of course. Understanding slid in like poison. He knew what she was now — Karrde must have told him, to get him to help retrieve her. He was afraid he’d lose the Oracle before he got a chance to use it.
The grief that curled beneath her ribs must have touched her expression because he frowned and reached for her, his hands jerking to a stop halfway. “May I touch you?”
Bafflement and shame set in; her temples started to pulse in the forerunning of what promised to be a massive headache. “What?”
“I’d like to touch you,” he said, seriously. “I understand if you’d rather I didn’t, given… your recent treatment.”
Mara’s fingers snuck up to her heart, where the marks were hidden under her tunic. Uncertainty and longing crawled inside her skin. Why would he want to touch her now? Surely after her body and her secrets had been laid bare to him…
The Jedi’s eyes went dark, a shade of molten cobalt that made Mara’s core clench in desire and fear. “Please,” he said, his voice low and somehow commanding for all that it was framed as a request. “Let me touch you, Mara.”
Wordlessly, she nodded. Gently, he slid his fingers over the back of her left hand. His touch was warm and sure and her knees threatened to give out. Kriffing hell — when Seven had said she’d still be sensitive, she hadn’t thought he’d meant like this.
Skywalker laced his calloused fingers through hers and lifted her hand. Turning it over, he held her gaze as he raised it to his lips and pressed his mouth to her palm. Electricity arced straight to the base of Mara’s spine and she just barely swallowed the moan that rose in her throat.
“Did you know,” he brushed his cheek against her palm, sending new frissons of heat to her core. “That I was the first free-born Skywalker in my family line?”
The pulsing in her head got louder. Minion rumbled. Skywalker glanced at him.
“Vader…” Coherent speech was aggravatingly out of reach.
“Was born a slave,” Skywalker’s gaze switched back to her, the fine skin around his eyes tightening. “And lived as a slave to the Emperor. But he died free.” His thumb stroked the delicate skin on the inside of her wrist. “The things inflicted on you — they’re not who you are, Mara. I know that — I hope you know it.”
Nausea rolled through her. He didn’t understand.
“I’d like — I’m sorry that I saw your hair down without your consent. Karrde told me you follow ancient Naboo hair traditions and I looked them up. It was wrong, that I saw it the way I did. I know this is a terrible time to say it, but I’d like to earn the privilege of seeing it again, if you’ll let me.”
Mara gaped, speechless.
“I’d like to think you’d have stayed,” he continued, his eyes darting over her face. “On Myrkr, if we hadn’t been interrupted. That you’d have come back, if the Imperials hadn’t arrived. I know it’s complicated now, but I still --” He squeezed her wrist, his thumb gliding over her pulse point, his earnest face so close.
The half-memory hit like a bomb blast and Mara staggered. Skywalker’s hands gripped her wrists, his weight pushing them deep into the softness of the bed as he thrust again, burying himself roughly inside her. Her body bowed and he dipped his head to scrape his teeth across her throat.
The alarm in Skywalker’s voice brought her back and she gulped for air. Minion was chittering furiously and only the wall suddenly somehow at her back kept her upright. She blinked rapidly, trying to clear her fuzzy sight.
Skywalker’s blue eyes filled her vision when it cleared, brimming with concern. One of his hands braced her shoulder, steadying her; the other cupped her cheek. It was almost too much.
“Mara? Are you all right?” He glanced at the door to her right. “Do you need GH-7?”
“No,” she croaked. If she went back into medical this soon Seven would never let her out again. Gods, she was tired. How could she be tired? She’d slept for days. Shaking herself mentally, she gathered her will and raised her head. She focused on Skywalker and the hallway slowly stopped spinning. “We need,” she said, slowly, the words heavy on her tongue. “To go to lunch. To talk.”
Complicated didn’t even begin to cover it.
The Sunset Lounge, named for it’s richly patterned brick-hued flex carpet and ombre walls that transitioned from the faintest buttercup yellow to dark ochre, held a handful of small round tables fitted with comfortable chairs. It had proven the ideal place to take meals, since he and Karrde had been dining alone. Whatever little crew there seemed to be running the ship had made themselves scarce, though whether by preference or order Luke wasn’t sure.
Walking in now with Mara’s hand tucked in the crook of his elbow — he’d be damned if he let go of her until she was sitting down after whatever had just happened in the corridor — Luke found Karrde waiting beside a table set for three. No doubt he’d been informed the instant Mara woke up, Luke thought, unsure whether to be impressed or irritated over the smuggler’s consummate control over his world. Steaming bowls were set in a row down the center of the table and a bottle of sparkling juice sat at a jaunty angle in an ice bucket. On a hovercart nearby sat an independent kettle already nearly at a boil, an ornate bone-china tea service and a fat candle in a low glass globe.
“Mara.” Karrde’s eyes moved between them, then grazed a still grumbling Minion.
He held his hand out and Luke reluctantly released Mara as the gesture drew her like ocean tides following the moon. They exchanged words in a language Luke didn’t recognize, Karrde’s expression tightening at whatever Mara said.
“See to the candle and the tea,” he said in Basic. “And then we’ll lay our cards on the table. Jedi Skywalker.” He waved Luke to a seat, then added to Mara, “I’ve tested everything myself just now.”
She nodded and Luke watched her as he took his seat. She prepared the tea with the same purposeful, ritualistic movements as she had on the Demise. He saw her settle as she did it, and noted that Minion fell silent as she calmed. When the teapot was wrapped and seeping, she lit the candle and carried it to the table, murmuring an incantation of some kind as she set it down. She must have felt his eyes because she looked up and met them as she sank into her seat.
“It’s a blessing,” she explained as Karrde reached for the dish of Kondari rice and served himself. “It translates to ‘peace be at this table.’” Karrde passed her the rice and Mara piled some on her plate and more in a small bowl beside her place setting. Then she handed it to him. “It’s an ancient Naboo tradition.”
Luke accepted the bowl, inhaling its fragrant aroma as he took some himself. “Are you from Naboo?”
“I don’t know.” Mara spooned roasted fregeni over her rice, then served some into what Luke realized now was Minion’s bowl. “I was taken by the Emperor when I was young. I have no memory of my birthplace or people.” She said it calmly, and Luke could find no distress in her face as she passed the dish to him, only determination. “I was mostly raised by droids and tutors.”
Setting her left hand on the table beside her plate, she clicked her tongue at Minion. He gamely scampered down and sniffed at the bowl. Then, still keeping his back feet on her hand, he shoved his snout in the rice and started licking it into his mouth with a long, purple tongue.
Mara glanced at Karrde, then picked up her food sticks with her right hand. “When I reached adolescence, my Master decided I was… difficult.” Her expression pinched. “He assigned me a — I supposed governess is the closest word. Her name was Nina, and she was from one of the Old Houses on Naboo. She taught me to use ritual to survive.” She stopped talking to take a bite, chewing slowly.
Luke pushed food around on his plate as he turned that information over in his head, simultaneously humbled by her trust and aghast.
“We’ve been over what records remain,” Karrde took up the story, giving Mara time to eat. “Wherever the Emperor stole her from, he left nothing behind to trace. We’ve no way of knowing whether she was identified for her unique Force gifting or whether she was merely collected with all the other Force-sensitive children the Emperor stole and her talents were discovered after the fact.” The smuggler sat forward to lift the bottle of juice, pouring for each of them as he continued. “Skywalker has expressed concern that your relationship with the Force is disordered, my dear. I believe the phrase he used was “the Force should be an ally.”
Swallowing, Mara laughed darkly.
Karrde returned the bottle to its bucket and rose. “Tea, Skywalker?”
“Yes, please,” he answered absently, never taking his eyes off Mara. To her, he said, “I saw the Force lunge at you, on the Chimaera. It — I’ve never seen anything like that before. You should have to pull it, to choose. There aren’t a lot of records, of course, but the few references I’ve seen to Seers don’t suggest they used the Force any differently than anyone else.”
“I’m not a Seer,” Mara said, flatly. On her hand, Minion raised his snout from his dish and gave a low rumble. “Shush.” She softened the reproof by lifting one of the fingers trapped beneath him and rubbing his belly. “Seers are independent beings. Oracles are tools for use by someone else.” She glanced up as Karrde set a delicate cup of tea beside her plate, his fingers brushing hers as he did.
There was gratitude in her face that tugged at Luke’s heart and reassurance in the way Karrde touched her shoulder as he turned back to the cart. The silent exchange knotted in Luke’s chest as understanding of what she’d said turned his gut to lead. He put his food sticks down, the rich scent of the food suddenly making him queasy.
“Did you ever control your connection to the Force?” He asked as Karrde set a cup of tea at his elbow.
Mara’s shadowed emerald eyes regarded him levelly. “My Master began shaping my connection to the Force when I was six. He didn’t bother to explain to me what he was doing,” she lifted her tea, the movement precisely controlled, “but the best I’ve been able to come up with is that he disabled my natural shields. All of them.”
Luke tried to imagine what that must have involved, the sheer violence of defacing a child’s innate self. It would have been like skinning her alive. A child. Fury rolled through him, black and gritty as a midnight sandwhirl. Minion’s head snapped in his direction and he rumbled again.
“He replaced them with what I think now was a mind link,” Mara continued, implacably. “You were at the Death Star, the second one?” She asked, rhetorically. “You remember the shield generator they used? It was… like that. He provided my shields. Or didn’t, when he wanted to use me.”
Trapped, Luke thought viciously, his mind going to the Hutts. Many, like Jabba, had built their fortresses in the middle of the desert, surrounded on all sides for days by sarlaccs, krayts, womp rats and endless stretches of lethal, sun-baked sand. Without ships, their slaves had no escape — the walls that imprisoned them were their only protection from ugly deaths. A hideous catch-22.
Karrde resumed his seat beside Mara as she lifted her shoulder in a shrug. “It was a functional system until he made the final jump and broke my head.”
“Broke…” The words stuck in his throat, the memory of her vacant eyes and bloodless cheeks in the hallway consuming his vision.
“I can answer that,” Karrde interjected. “Eat, my dear. There’s still Cambylictus berries and cream on the menu.” He gave her a mock-stern paternal look. “But only if you finish your rice.”
Mara rolled her eyes but her lips twitched and she retrieving her food sticks for another bite.
They were so calm. Objectively, some part of him understood. He treated the loss of his hand the same way. Hearing Mara’s trauma now, for the first time, however, he had no such distance.
“We believe,” Karrde said, snagging his attention, “that the Emperor’s control over Mara had both Force-related and physical ramifications on her brain structure. When he died at Endor, Mara was stripped of her protection from the Force and her brain suffered documentable neurological damage. Given that Director Isard took her into custody for a brief period immediately after the Emperor’s death it is possible, of course, that some of the damage was inflicted later, but expert medical assessment suggests most of it was caused by the loss of the mind link.”
Isard. It wasn’t enough that Mara had been enslaved to the Emperor himself - she’d been an unwilling “guest” of Isard, as well. Luke’s jaw clenched. Tycho and Corran had been the Directors “guests,” too; he had a damn good idea of what it entailed.
Mara didn’t look up but continued determinedly eating the last of her rice. Karrde steepled his fingers in front of his chest. “In any event, the result was that Mara’s brain has…” he paused, then said tactfully, “glitches. It sometimes fails to retrieve information or to record memories correctly. Nothing insurmountable with the correct assistance — you’ve met Reggie, of course — but an occasionally problematic inconvenience.”
Mara set her food sticks down across her empty bowl. “You may as well be blunt,” she told Karrde. “I had a half-memory in the hall and he saw.” Turning her gaze to Luke, she explained, “Things come back, sometimes. On their own. Memories or bits of visions. I’m not in my body when the visions come — they go through me, but I’m not really here. But sometimes pieces…” she gestured irritably, “stick. Lodge in bits of my brain I can’t access. They come back on their own, out of nowhere when something triggers them. They hijack everything, and I… get lost again, until they pass. Reggie helps fill the gaps, and Minion can bring me back out if there’s no one else to do it.” A visible ripple of agitation passed over her and she lifted her chin, challengingly. “Not exactly the shining resource you’d hoped to gift to your Republic, am I?”
“You’re not a thing to be given,” he snapped, heat flushing his skin. Unable to be still, he shoved his chair back and stalked a few paces away. “Just because Thrawn —” the words choked him, then shunted his angry thoughts in a new direction. “Where does he fit into this anyway?”
Mara’s eyes shuttered. “Thrawn negotiated partial possession of me in return for complying with the Emperor’s plan to ‘exile’ him to the Unknown Regions for a time.” Her fingers rubbed the base of her fluted juice glass fretfully. “The Emperor had Nina murdered - poisoned. He thought I wouldn’t know it was him but I did. He used it as an excuse to reassign my custody to Thrawn.”
Minion rumbled and Mara lifted him back to her shoulder, scratching his head. The serving droid rolled in and began unobtrusively swapping their plates for bowls of bright pink berries topped with thick aerated blue cream. It paused over Luke’s untouched meal, then scooped it up without question when Karrde gestured.
“When the Emperor died, he thought he got full possession of you,” Luke followed the implications, his voice harsh.
Mara nodded. “I was confined to the Palace, waiting for the Emperor to come back from Endor and do more shaping of my gift.” She held his gaze. “But he didn’t come back. Isard saw her chance to find out who I was and why the Emperor and Thrawn were so interested, and she snatched me up.” Her mouth turned down and her eyes glittered. “I found a way out, and then Talon found me. By the time Thrawn got back to Imperial Center to collect me, I was in the wind.”
Hiding, Luke thought. She’d been hiding on the Fringe, scraping together a life and healing until the New Republic’s faulty security had dropped her back into Thrawn’s clutches. Because even after all the damage she was an unrivaled asset to whoever controlled her.
The vein in Luke’s temple throbbed. His brain felt full, his body aching with the ugly revelations. There was more that needed to be said, he knew that — the Force was dark and choppy around him, the air starting to crackle against his skin. He didn’t want to hear any more. Didn’t want to think about the fact that by rights he had a responsibility to make the NRI aware of Mara’s history. Force sensitivity aside, the information she must have on the highest levels of the Imperial hierarchy and the Palace… the codes Karrde had must surely have come from her. It would be a betrayal of the New Republic to keep this new knowledge to himself. Keeping his mouth shut might cost Republic lives — the lives of people he knew and cared about. But sharing Mara’s secrets…
He needed air. Control. Space. Something. Without a word, he turned on his heel and walked out.
Mara watched Skywalker’s retreating back, a galling sense of loss assaulting her. Minion squawked and snuggled under her chin, upset. She stroked his back distractedly, trying to swallow down the rejection and fear clawing at her lungs.
“That went less badly than it could have,” Karrde opined beside her, lifting his teacup to his lips.
“What did you promise him?” Mara hated the undercurrent in her voice. It hinted at all the jumbled things she felt but was trying desperately not to show. “How did you get him to come?”
“I told him you’d been taken.”
Mara turned in her chair to face him, incredulity and a cruel hope engulfing her. “What?”
Karrde met her gaze, all confidence and certainty. “Skywalker got on my ship to come recover you with nothing more than my word that you’d been taken by Thrawn.” He reached into a pocket and produced a datapad. “Off the record, you should know that the Force appears to have gotten its claws in our Jedi where you are concerned. He’s become noticeably… attached.”
The words filtered through her like Namana nectar, sweet and fiery and intoxicating. “He sat with me. Seven said.”
“He did,” Karrde agreed, activating the datapad and punching up a program. “He also questioned me rather extensively about Naboo hair traditions and the Chiss, and read everything he could find on either subject in the shipboard library.” His tone softened. “He cares, my dear.”
Mara’s eyes burned as shame swallowed the bright warmth inside her. “He shouldn’t.” Her hand snuck up to press against the fresh brand hidden beneath her tunic. “Not after what I did — what I let Thrawn take.”
“You didn’t let that bastard do anything,” Karrde correctly sternly.
“I don’t know what he took.” Shame welled up, saturating her, swelling under her skin until it felt tight and hot. Her hands clenching and unclenched fretfully, itching for a blade — for the slice of a sharp edge over flesh, bleeding out the awful feeling. No. A flash of memory — blood on stone in the dark, Talon’s hand pressing a cloth to her thigh, his voice rough as he made her promise she’d never perform that ritual again. But… “I could have given him anything — I could have killed us all and not even know it yet. ”
“What happened was not your fault, Mara.”
He was so sure. It did nothing to stem the tide of grief threatening to drown her. Unable to bear it, Mara slid out of her chair to her knees at Karrde’s feet. “Please.” Her head dropped forward until her forehead rested on his knees. “Please,” she rasped again, unable to voice what she needed.
“No.” His large hand was gentle on the top of her head. “Not today. Your body hasn’t recovered enough.”
Pain and hope snarled inside her. “Soon?” She mumbled hopefully, her hands fisting in her lap. “I need to…”
“Tomorrow,” he promised, soothingly. “If you do everything that Seven has instructed, you can fugue for me tomorrow.” He paused, his thumb stroking over her hair. “This session will be outside our contract, and I will consider it full compensation for this entire ordeal if you will. Do we have an agreement?”
Drugging relief eddied through her, and Mara felt her taut muscles slacken. He was going to let her fix it. Make up for her failure. Tomorrow. She could wait until tomorrow — it would be part of her penance, the waiting.
“Yes.” Pressing a palm into the floor and ignoring the leaden weight of her tired body, Mara pushed herself up and retook her seat, straightening her shoulders and lifting her chin.
“Good. In the meantime,” Karrde set the datapad on the table between them and Mara could see he’d opened a dictation program. “I believe a full debrief is in order. Since your memory is less secure than mine, why don’t you begin?” He nodded toward the dish of berries in front of her. “And eat that while you do. I won’t have you starving to death because Thrawn can’t calculate nutrient ratios.”
The irritation in his tone made Mara smile and she settled a little further, reaching for her spoon. Minion sniffed noisily, hinting that he, too, liked cream and Karrde’s finger stopped just above the datapad. “You don’t need any more sweets,” he told the lizard, flatly.
Minion huffed and Mara stifled a chuckle as she dug her spoon into her bowl. The debrief would be long and painful for them both, but she could do this.
“Whenever you’re ready, my dear.” Karrde tapped the recording button.
Mara let out a breath. “I landed on Abregado-rae…”
1. So, in case you didn't catch it in the comments on an earlier chapter, Mara subscribes to a tradition (that I totally made up) from the Old Houses of Naboo. As the story goes, noblewomen were often required to marry for money or power. To save some part of themselves for the person they truly loved, they would always wear their hair up. Only close family, trusted female friends, or their beloved was ever to see it down or touch it. It was a coping mechanism and form of socially acceptable rebellion against all the things they couldn't control about their bodies and lives. Mara uses it the same way. Her body was always a tool to be used at the whim of the Emperor or Thrawn; wearing her hair up was a coping mechanism that let her preserve some tiny semblance of control. Hence why it is always braided and why Luke (now that he knows) is chagrined about having seen it down during the rescue.
2. Mara taught Karrde Sith. It's a very convenient language to converse in if you don't want anyone to know what you're saying. (And if someone *can* eavesdrop in Sith, you probably have bigger problems. *ahem*)
3. Just to be clear, Karrde agreeing to let Mara fugue and that bit about it being outside their contract, etc. is not him taking advantage of her. It's him having a very clear understanding of the disaster that Palpatine and Thrawn left of Mara's head and the ways she copes. She has a lot of issues still, and he's doing the best he can around them.
Sweat dripped down Luke’s forehead and stung his eyes. His muscles burned with exertion and his hands were starting to cramp from so long clenched around his saber hilt. Sympathetic response, the med droids had called it - when his brain registered his right hand as cramping because his left did, even though it shouldn’t be possible.
Just like oracles shouldn’t be possible. Like his own mind running in the same “certain point of view” circles he’d so despised from Yoda and Obi-Wan shouldn’t be possible.
Yet here he was, stripped down to his under-tunic and loose pants, his bare feet dug into the padded floor of the Buyer’s obscenely well-appointed gym, working his body to the bone. As if he could physically burn out the conflicting guilts and desires competing for dominance inside him.
The blade sang as it cut through the empty air, its hum long since synchronized with his nerves. Blade, body, and mind buzzed in unison until his tumbling thoughts became as short, swift and tight as his viciously controlled movements.
Mara is an oracle. Slash. Created by the Emperor. Pivot.
She is a person and a weapon. Kick. The Force told her I was to be part of her life. Jab.
I want her. Luke shut down his saber and stood panting, his soaked clothing sticking to his skin. Rivulets of sweat streamed down his back, his chest — everywhere.
“I want her,” he said out loud. The sound of his own voice in the echoing space knocked his feet out from under him; he dropped onto his backside on the cool springy tiles, then sprawled on his back. Clarity sank in slowly as his breathing started to level off.
His responsibilities to the New Republic and the ambiguity surrounding his authority to bargain with Karrde on the government’s behalf were real but incidental. Realistically, he’d been making reckless decisions on dubious authority for the Alliance for nearly a decade. There was no reason to stop now.
No. It was simply that somewhere along the way he’d stopped believing that the Force, the New Republic, and the Order he was tasked with rebuilding would ever allow him to have a companion of his own. He’d kept moving, burying himself in work and responsibility to avoid facing the loss of that dream… but here it was again. Unexpected, stark and gleaming with nearly-forgotten joy.
He could have Mara — have her in his arms, pliant and eager as she had been on Myrkr. He could learn to make her tea. He could sneak Minion spice buns and introduce Reggie to Artoo and watch them get into outrageous mischief together. He could forge a proper friendship with the man she looked to as guardian and family. She would take the risk and let him in.
The Force had already made its intent clear but Luke understood, instinctively, that the causes he’d given a decade of his life to would not have his back if he walked through that door.
He thought of Mara, half-dead on her bare feet as they escaped the Chimaera. The rubbed-raw skin on her wrist as she lifted the heavy blaster and fired, the black-red lines of Thrawn’s slave mark on her chest in the ship’s merciless lighting. The way she’d curled into his embrace in the Deep Storage bay, and the feel of her soft hair against his lips when he’d coaxed her to hold on for him, just a little longer.
Luke peeled himself off the floor and headed for the door.
The thought of trying to get back into her clothes made Mara seriously consider just staggering back to her room naked. It wasn’t as if there’d be anyone wandering the halls at this hour to see her and care. The thought of one of Ellor’s crewers slipping past on a maintenance task and seeing the brands etched in her skin pushed her to extend a leaden arm and drag the ridiculously oversized robe off its hook on the wall. Minion seemed to share her exhaustion; he didn’t bother to move as the thick, fluffy fabric draped over his head when she shrugged her sore shoulders into the wide sleeves.
Fumbling the belt into a knot, she stumbled through gathering up her clothes and datapad and left the spa suite. The muscles in her back pulled when she pressed the button for the turbolift and she grimaced. The masseuse droid was top of the line like everything on the Buyer. Its touch had done its job, breaking up the knots in her muscles and pushing circulation and leaving her body to ache with the aftereffects. Good ache, bad ache, she could no longer differentiate. She just… hurt.
The lift doors whisked open and she shuffled inside. She stabbed the number for her floor with a finger and tipped her head against the wall wearily, her mind drifting in unwelcome directions.
Skywalker hadn’t come to dinner. He’d gone to the gym, Ellor told them, and stayed there. Anger crested inside her. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She was to have been formally introduced, her companionship bestowed on him as an illustrious favor from the Emperor himself. She was to have been a comfort and a delight, not a burden.
But that was an old dream. Back when she’d believed Vader would find his lost son and bring him to Court to be the Emperor’s next apprentice. Before the Force had delivered her to Karrde and blessed her with Minion and Reggie and the Demise.
But if she’d traded one blessing for others, why did the Force keep showing her the two of them together as if it were still a possible future?
Mara scrubbed a hand over her face and shivered, the cool air of the ship’s night cycle chilling her bare feet. She felt like she hadn’t been warm since Iloh. From what Karrde had said over dinner, it might be a long time before she was anywhere comfortable again.
They were going to Coruscant. He was taking Skywalker to the Katana Fleet to spite Thrawn. And, since there was no way of knowing what the Grand Admiral had taken from her while she fugued, to keep the Fleet out of Imperial hands. Objectively, Mara understood that with the Emperor gone the planet would not feel the same, but she couldn’t shake the chill that gnawed at her bones just thinking about it.
She wasn’t going after the Fleet, of course. Skywalker may have been certain that his government wouldn’t detain her but Karrde had yet to be convinced. Besides, she had work to do. Piles of it, and she couldn’t do more than scratch the surface until she got Reggie back. Even that was contingent on getting Seven to clear her for duty. Mara shivered, then scowled. She was going to crank the heat in her room to Mustafarian levels.
Although… on impulse, she mashed a thumb into the button for the floor below hers. Almost immediately the lift drifted to a stop.
Determinedly, Mara put one foot in front of the other until she made it out of the lift and down the hall to the soaking pool. Bypassing the pool itself, she dropped her armful of clothes in the vestibule outside the sauna and leaned one shoulder against the wall as she keyed in settings. Counting to ten while the initial blast of hot air passed, Mara stepped out of the robe. On her shoulder, Minion snuffled vaguely awake and she hummed at him. Tendrils of aromatic steam reached out to curl around her in welcome when she pressed the door release and Mara stepped inside with a sigh.
It was exactly as she remembered. Deep orowood benches lined the outside walls and a bed of soft lume rock glowed faintly on the floor. Mara left the lights off — the floor gave illumination enough — and drifted to one of the broad conform loungers positioned to the side of the main aisle. Crawling onto it took more effort than it should have and the small of her back twinged as she stretched out on her stomach and pillowed her head on her arms. Minion plodded up to lay on her left shoulder blade and within seconds Mara heard his soft snoring. She stifled a wet laugh and squeezed her eyes shut, refusing to think how close she’d come to losing him on Abregado-rae. She focused instead on the way the heat pressed in from all sides and seeped into her bones until all the aches bled away and there was no focus at all.
Something touched her cheek and Mara jerked awake with a gasp.
“It’s just me.”
Mara slitted her eyes open. Skywalker’s face was level with hers, his gaze as warm and blue as the Chandrilan ocean. Mara’s eyes slipped shut again and a low groan escaped her as the backs of his fingers traced up her cheekbone. “Skywalker.”
“I really think you should call me Luke.” There was a rustle of fabric as he stood.
Luke. Mara’s sluggish mind turned that over. For all that he had been a pivotal piece of her world for more than a decade, she’d never wasted a moment’s serious consideration to calling him by his given name.
His fingers were by her temple, now, brushing back damp strands of hair. “You shouldn’t sleep in here, especially like this.”
Like this? “Naked?” She mumbled groggily.
He laughed, a soft chuckle that turned her insides to mush. Or were they already mush from the heat and she was only just noticing?
“No.” His thumb stroked down her jaw and she had the wanton urge to turn her head and suck the tip of it into her mouth. “Exhausted and barely healed.” He drew his hand away and Mara shivered at the loss, despite the heat. “What room are you in?”
“Twelve.” The word slurred and Mara grimaced. “Should’ve hydrated.”
“Yes,” Skywalker agreed. “Come on, let me help.” He tucked a hand under her left arm and clucked his tongue at Minion. “Up.”
Mara squinted at the Jedi as Minion grumbled but relocated himself to the top of her right shoulder. “Where —?” She lost the rest of the question as the world tilted around her.
“Whoa. Okay. I’m going to pick you up, all right?” Without waiting for an answer, Skywalker scooped her into his arms.
Unthinkingly, Mara turned her face into his chest, breathing him in. He smelled like japor and amber; the Force had never shared that in her visions.
“Karrde taught me some signals for him between Jomark and the Chimaera.” Skywalker adjusted his hold and then they were moving. “He slept with me.”
That… couldn’t be right. “Talon?”
“No.” Skywalker’s chest rumbled beneath her ear in a deeper laugh. “Minion.”
There was a burst of cold air and Mara yelped, her muscles seizing. “I know, hang on…” She was being shifted, something fuzzy and soft swathing her. Then, “There. Better?”
Mara shivered again and shut her eyes against the bright light beating against her eyelids. “I hate Skirtopanol,” she gritted. “Takes… days.”
His grip on her tightened. “I won’t let him hurt you again.”
She’d meant to laugh but it came out a rough bark. “Your Republic… instead.”
“No.” There was the sound of doors opening then shutting, then Skywalker’s face was suddenly so close she could feel his breath on her cheeks. “Mara.” He sounded reluctant, hesitant.
“Spit it out,” she mumbled, one hand grasping his tunic. “Skywalker.”
“Luke.” There were doors again and more movement. “Is there a code for your door?”
Her toes brushed the wall as he maneuvered to hit the release button. The slide of another door and then blessed darkness. Skywalker carried her across the room. The deep mattress gave as he laid her in her turned-down bed. “I’m going to turn up the heat.”
Mara fumbled for the blankets, trying to pull them up, but her legs moved as if they were made of lead and tangled, stymieing her efforts. A hand closed over hers.
“Drink this before you sleep,” he guided her hands to a water bulb, his fingers cupping around hers. “Or you’ll feel awful when you wake up.”
“Feel like shavit now,” she grumbled but dragged herself through the motion of drinking. The water was fresh and cool on her throat and she drank it all in spite of herself.
“I know.” Skywalker’s tone had gone soft. He waited, sitting on the edge of the bed beside her until she finished, then lifted the bulb away. “Mara…” he caught her hand in his, gently. “Look at me.”
She blinked, raising bleary eyes to his.
“You’re safe. With me. I won’t share your secrets or let anyone take you away from Talon.” His mouth turned up into a self-deprecating smile. “That was what I came to tell you, in the sauna. I’d like to…”
His lips parted in surprise, his eyes going round.
“Sleep?” Gods she had the vocabulary of a drunken Jawa. “Please.” There, at least she was politer than one.
“You’re sure?” He asked, slowly.
“Yes.” The word was thick on her tongue, but it was enough. “Want to.”
Skywalker rose and Mara’s head spun a little as she watched him strip off his boots, belt, and tunic. Then he was sliding into bed with her, the cushiony surface rippling as it adjusted to their weight and conformed around them. Mara barely registered Skywalker’s arm slipping around her, cuddling her to his chest, his hard muscle a sweet contrast to the softness of the blankets and mattress. Everything was warm and safe, and she slept.
Luke gasped awake to Mara spasming in his arms. She gave a small cry and seized again, the heel of her hand digging into his side painfully as she tried to lever herself away from him.
Luke tried to scoot back to give her space and she rolled onto her side, fisting the sheets. The robe he’d wrapped around her gaped open, but it wasn’t the expanse of creamy skin beneath that made his heart beat faster. It was her eyes. They were wide with horror, the pupils huge in the darkness as she stared at something only she could see.
As Luke attempted to decide if touching her would make the situation better or worse, Minion screeched loudly and darted up from where he’d been laying beside her hip. The lizard was a flash of orange against the side of Mara’s head and then she jerked, her chin tucking to her chest and her breath going ragged. The lizard scuttled around and cuddled against her throat, crooning.
“Mara?” Luke reached for her carefully, running the backs of his fingers down her bare arm.
She rasped something into the sheets; the only word he caught was Thrawn, and his heart clenched. Minion chittered and Mara fumbled a hand to cup his head.
“Guld knavo,” she whispered, lifting her head. Her cheeks were flushed and Luke thought her eyes focused on him properly this time. “Did I… hurt you?”
The tightness in his lungs melted away to compassion. “No.” He inched toward her, laying down and tucking one arm under his head so he could lay even with her. “Nightmare?”
Mara nodded and the hand petting Minion slipped down to press against the exposed marks along her collarbone. “The venom pen.” Her face screwed up. “I woke you.”
“There’s no shame in war sickness.” Luke repeated her words from the Demise back to her, firmly. He filed the words “venom pen” away to ask about later. “Do you need to get up?”
She stared at him incredulously a moment, then shook her head. “I need to try to sleep. Talon promised I could fugue if I recovered. I need to.”
Luke’s brow furrowed. “Are you sure? I thought that was… stressful for you. We have all the intel we need to find the Katana Fleet.”
“It’s not that.” Mara’s mouth moued as she tried to formulate an explanation. “I…” her eyes flicked over his face, uncertainly.
Luke slid his hand across the short space between them and twined his fingers with hers. “We all cope how we need to,” he said, quietly. “I just want to understand.”
“Penance.” The words poured out of her in a rush. “I didn’t stop him, I couldn’t. I was — weak. I failed. He took — he made me…” her fingers tightened around his. “I need to make it right. I have to.”
“All right.” It wasn’t, but Luke was no stranger to trauma and the things it did to one’s brain. Rational arguments would be pointless right now. “How can I help?”
She was silent a few moments. “Talk to me?” The words came out quietly, a question, as if she thought it was an appalling imposition. Then, apologetically, “usually I have Reggie…”
Luke felt a fresh surge of appreciation for the supportive network Karrde had woven around Mara with Minion and Reggie. At a surface glance it was subtle, dismissible. But it was as sensitive as a spine spider’s web and ran deep. She didn’t need him, but Luke felt a trickle of gratitude that there was still room for him in her world. Sitting up, he tugged the covers loose from where they’d tangled around her and re-draped them over her, pulling them right up to Minion’s tiny clawed feet. He gave the lizard a quick head scratch, then smoothed the wisps of hair escaping from Mara’s braids back with a slow caress. Her eyes closed at his touch, an almost pained look flashing across her face. What could he say that would help her, now?
“When I was fourteen,” Luke lay back down on his side facing her and snuck his hand under the covers to find hers again. “My friend Biggs and I convinced his step-mother to take us to town with her when she went to Mos Espa for a big market day.” Mara’s fingers curled around his hand and Luke stroked his thumb over her skin, slow and soft. “As soon as we got there, though, we snuck off…”
They slept through breakfast. On any other day, Mara would have horrified at the indulgence. But when she presented herself in the med suite after a shower and fresh clothes, Seven reluctantly cleared her to fugue. She was too relieved by that to care about anything else.
She found Karrde in the Lounge, where he seemed to have all but taken up residence. He looked up as she came in, his expression cautious.
“Seven cleared me,” she announced without preamble. “Ellor says the secondary cargo bay is empty and there’s paint sticks. They're the maintenance kind, but they’ll work.”
Karrde nodded, one hand brushing an imaginary speck of lint from his wine-colored tunic. Then he patted the seat beside his. Mara went, old habits making her press her knees together when she sat as if there were still lengths of skirting to ensure fell perfectly on the first try.
“Did you invite the Jedi stay with you last night, Mara?”
“I did.” Mara met Karrde’s eyes. “He didn’t kriff me.” She didn’t know how to explain what she’d seen in the Jedi’s eyes. What she’d felt when he’d touched her. “He wants to be a shield, like you wanted.”
“I see.” Karrde drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “You understand that if he hurts you I’m going to be honor-bound to feed him to Sturm and Drang in bite-sized pieces?”
Mara snorted, but a precious feeling bubbled in her chest. Love, she thought, forcing herself to name it, to acknowledge it. Even now it was difficult; as if daring to think it directly would cause someone to rip it away from her.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she scoffed, aloud. “I have it on good authority that Jedi cause indigestion.”
“Well, that’s certainly been my experience,” Karrde grumbled. Then he huffed. “As it stands, however, everyone’s been warned so I suppose that’s all there is to do for it. Now, help me pick something for lunch. You’ll need to be properly fed before you fugue.”
1. Bacta is great, but it doesn't make everything good as new. I am a firm believer that healing (both physical and otherwise) takes time and wanted to reflect that in this fic.
2. I want a sauna with glow-in-the-dark rock lighting like I gave the Buyer.
3. Minion is a multi-purpose emotional support salad lizard! He keeps the Force away, alerts Mara when she's at the start of a panic attack, can snap her out of half-memories, and even wakes her up from nightmares! He deserves all the bread.
4. Guld knavo = good boy