Chapter Six - Sore Heartstrings

The Jedi Master had soothed Callista the whole night through and in the early hours he had been relieved that she had fallen asleep in his arms on the sofa. He had held his classes for this morning and was now looking forward to the lunch with his family.

The heat had grown uncomfortable and thunderclouds were gathering at the horizon as he turned towards the hall in the Massassasi temple. On his way there, he saw his niece and nephew exiting the Jade's Fire. Luke smiled when he felt the excitement of the two Jedi children and when he probed them he felt a familiar tendril of the Force.

Smiling, his footsteps lead him closer to his nephew and niece and the trader. He had almost reached them when Callista stepped to them and his danger sense flared up. Probing Mara, he felt her barriers shutting him out as he watched Calisa saying something and then Mara sending the children away.

His two nephews and his niece passed him by, all their Force senses in turmoil. He caught Anakin by his small shoulders.

"What is wrong, Anakin?" Luke asked and the little boy sniffled a sob.

"Mara is not a whore, right?" he asked and Luke frowned. "Callista said she is a whore... she just brought me to bed, and what is wrong with sleeping in a bed with her .."

"Shhhh, Anakin, Mara is not a whore and nothing is wrong with sleeping in a bed with Mara. I was there too, remember?"

The little one nodded then hid his face in his uncle's neck. "She said bad things about you too ... like you only want Mara for ... for ... proc..procasti..."

"Procastination?" Luke asked, trying to keep his anger in check. He kissed Anakin on the cheek when the boy nodded and put him down on his two feet. "Go on, find your mom, I'll talk to Callista and Mara."

Mara stared at the malten haired woman, barely containing her anger. "I think you have said enough already, Callista!"

"Oh I haven't even started, Jade," Callista spat back. "If I ever find you anywhere near Luke you'll regret it!"

Mara Jade couldn't suppress the smirk as she stepped closer, almost nose to nose with the other woman. "Then pray tell me how do you want me regret it? You and who else would want to take me on?"

"You'll see, WHORE!"

Mara snorted and back handed Callista across her face. "You better start changing your tune, Body Snatcher, or I forget that you are Skywalker's woman!"

"MARA!" Luke's voice cut in and both women turned in time to saw a frowning Jedi Master standing nearby.

"What Skywalker?" Mara snapped and put her hands on her hips. "Do you think I let this woman here call me names?"

Grabbing Mara's arm, he almost dragged the trader after him and into his study in the temple.

Mara just stared at the Jedi Master and snorted. The light coming through the windows had visibly darkened and she knew just like the gathering thunderstorm outside, she was about to snap as well.

Seeing that body snatcher Callista fawning all over her Jedi Master Skywalker, as Callista referred to Luke, had made her sick and when Callista had had that little girl's talk with her, Mara's patience had worn down to non-existent.

"Do you really, honestly, think she loves you?" Mara asked and when she saw Luke's face contorted with anger, she briefly considered stepping down ... but this was too important she had to make him see, make him understand what kind of a woman Callista really was.

"Have you never asked yourself how Cray's family feels about this? Have you turned a blind eye on the distress of that family? How would you feel if your daughter, sister or child would be alive but not really your kin? Callista did a very abominable thing, she snatched a body that is not rightfully her own ... and for what?"

"She loves me and I love her," Luke answered through clenched teeth.

"Callista doesn't love you, Farmboy. She doesn't know what love is otherwise she wouldn't have snatched that dead body of Cray's, hurting innumerous people by doing so," Mara growled. "Callista is in love with the image of the great almighty Jedi Master, she doesn't love you. If she really loves you, don't you think she would have let you go? But no, instead she snatched a body, that didn't belong to her and stays with you. She's old enough to be your mother for Sith' sake! Not even the Emperor was that ruthless!"

"MARA!" Skywalker hissed and stepped closer to her. "One more word and I promise you'll regret it."

"What? Are you threatening me, Jedi Master?" Mara snorted. "The truth hurts, Skywalker, and deep down inside yourself you know that I'm right. You know that it was wrong to take Cray's body and that Callista doesn't love you."

"What do you know about love, Mara? Isn't it ironic coming from you? You who doesn't know love?" he taunted and Mara flinched at his words.

Suppressing her anger, she stepped closer to him, their bodies almost touching each other.

"I might not know love, but I can see if people hurt others or not," Mara snarled and her face was only inches away from his. "Count yourself lucky, Skywalker, that I don't want to hurt you. I have easily killed for less!"

"And we both know how hard it is for you to kill me, right, Jade?!"

Afterwards, Luke didn't know what had hit him, though he had a pretty accurate guess that his face had met with Mara's elbow.

"Sith, Jade, you broke my nose!" he whined and watched Jade who was standing above him.

"Be grateful it is only your nose and not your neck, Jedi!" Mara opened the door only to be faced with Han and Leia. When Leia saw her bleeding brother she brushed past Mara and rushed up to Luke. Han's gaze wandered from Mara to Luke and back to Mara and with an raised eyebrow he crossed his arms over his chest.

"You don't want to know, Solo!" Mara replied to his unvoiced question.

Han first watched his wife as she fussed over her brother, then he looked over his shoulder at the silhouette advancing upon the exit of the building. With another look at Leia and Luke, he turned on his heels and dashed after Mara.

Jade heard the sudden footsteps behind her and pushing her barriers up a notch or two, she braced herself. Turning into the room she vacated, she hurriedly packed her carryall. She was totally unprepared though, when a strong hand spun her around and she was faced with a glaring Han Solo.

"What do you think you are doing, Jade?" Han growled and pointed a finger into her face, almost touching her nose. "I want an answer, and don't give me that load of Bantha crap about not wanting to know."

Jade was momentarily phazed, then she rose an eyebrow in scorn.

"Do you have a death wish, Solo, or do you want to have a bleeding nose like your brother in law?"

"Cut the crap, Jade, I'm not here to play one of your silly games!" Han spat back.

Mara suppressed the snort and put her hands to her hips while stepping back a bit, allowing her space in case she had to forcibly get out of the room.

"Though it isn't any of your business, Solo, but I told the almighty Jedi Master some home truths about that blonde hussy who is fawning all over him..." She stopped irritated when she saw Han barely hiding a chuckle. "What's so funny?"

Han sobered instantly at the tone of her voice. You can only push Mara Jade this far, and I guess I have just reached that point, he told himself and let his hand rest on his holster.

"I'm sorry, Jade ..." Han replied quickly, then shook his head. "You know, I really envy you for telling him that. Leia and I have the feeling that .. Callista ... only sees the Jedi Master in him and not the man ... but I guess... we never had the gusto to tell him."

"What, you and your feisty wife are afraid of farmboy?" Mara asked and her wonderment was genuine.

"Well as you said he is the almighty Jedi Master ..." Han answered sheepishly. Mara snorted at that.

"No wonder he always wants to save the galaxy single-handedly if no one cuts him down to size from time to time... what do you do when I'm not around?" Mara asked rhetorically but her head snapped up when Han answered her.

"We call Karrde and ask about your whereabouts, Jade."

Han laughed when he saw Mara's sour expression, then nudged her none too gently. "'Fess up, Jade, you love rescuing Luke ... and clobbering some sense into him."

Mara shook her head and for a moment she squeezed her eyes shut, her face full of uncertainty and evident pain. Han frowned, he was certain that Mara never really showed her real emotions or let others know just how tired or exasperated she was, and yet, here was one of those rare moments.

"Look, Solo, I'm not Skywalker's babysitter. I have my own problems and business to attend to for Karrde, your family really should look for someone else who keeps the Jedi out of trouble." She heaved a sigh and shook her head, some strands from her tight braid flying around her head.

"Mara, he needs you. If you are not around who will keep him grounded? As you said .. he thinks he can save the galaxy single-handedly and you and I are the only ones who see Luke as he is .. a normal human being with certain powers," Han said, beseeching her with his eyes not to turn her back on Luke. "Though I still don't believe in your Jedi mumbo-jumbo."

"It's not my Jedi mumbo-jumbo," Mara snapped, then realizing how shrewdish she sounded, she sighed. "I'm not a Jedi nor am I interested in ever becoming one, you should understand that, if Skywalker can't. From now on, you will just have to keep an eye on him... I won't be there..." She had finished packing and shouldered her pack. She turned towards the corridor but was kept back by Han's hand on her shoulder.

"Mara, please, don't do this."

"Solo, for a smuggler you are far too naive, must be Skywalker rubbing off on you. Even if I'd stay, I have way surpassed my welcome."

"You are always welcome, Jade. Luke needs you," Han replied.

The look with which Mara met Han's serious expression, bored deeply into him. For a moment his breath caught in his throat. The look out of green eyes was that of total dejection and he wondered if Mara Jade, despite all her hostility towards his brother in law on good days and a genuine death wish on others, was harboring deeper feelings for the Farmboy turned Jedi Master.

"Mara ..." he started but Jade shook her head no.

"Skywalker doesn't need me. He has Callista now and I hope she hasn't forgotten all of her Jedi training to keep him alive and out of trouble. I won't be there to haul his butt out of a tight situation."

"Mara, don't do this. You and Luke ... you have a genuine friendship ..." Han started again, increasing his hold on her shoulder. "He trusts you."

Mara Jade sighed and shook her head. "Solo!" she growled, her trademark hostility back in place. "Let it rest!" She caught a glimpse of Callista standing at the other end of the corridor and her facial expression turned sour.

"Give the twins and Anakin a hug from me, and please tell them I was called away on urgent business for Karrde. The twins' birthday presents are on the table there." She gestured towards three parcels on a nearby endtable. Without another word of farewell, Mara shrugged off Solo's hand and left the great Mananassi temple.

Han Solo stared at the door that had closed behind the small slender figure of the trader for a long time and when he heard the repulsors of a starting craft, he turned and made his way towards Luke's set of rooms.

His talk with Jade might have proven fruitful, he thought as he went back slowly. When he looked up, he saw Callista's stricken face as she stood hovering at the open door to Luke's rooms. It seemed to Han as if she was berating herself whether to enter or not and when their eyes met, Han was sure to see a faint blush of irritation on her face.

Blonde hussy ... Han thought and wagged his tongue mentally at himself. Jade, if I didn't know I could trust your perceptiveness I'd think you are way off base.

Callista was seething with anger. The moment she had seen Luke sitting on the floor, his head tilted back while his sister wiped away the blood from his nose and Han running after Jade, she had known that the trader was to blame. She could not hear what was being said between Solo and Jade but the way they stood together it seemed pretty intense and somehow intimate.

Hesitating to step over into Luke's room, she waited till Solo had reached her.

He nodded towards her as he passed her and went over to his wife and brother in law. "Jade's gone, kid," Han said and squatted down beside Leia, patting her shoulder.

Luke's body tensed for a moment, then relaxed and Leia could feel a stab of rejection and anger surging through her twin and she rose her head to face her husband.

"Did she tell you why?" she asked.

"Leia!" Luke's voice sounded sharp in the stillness of his room.

"Don't you Leia me, brother mine," Leia scolded and deftly wiped access blood of his face with so much force Luke flinched.

"Kid, you really have a way with women," Han commented, chuckling to himself and met both twins' glares with his trademark grin. "What have you said to her, Luke? I never have seen Mara so ... so ..."

"Angry?" Leia offered but Han shook his head.

"She looked more defeated to me," Han flashed Callista a glance who was still standing in the door way and which didn't escape his wife's attention. "She was genuinely pissed off."

Luke bit his lip, when he remembered what exactly he had told Jade. He had never lashed out at her like that. Using personal information that she had told him in confidence against her.

Great, just great! he thought. And she didn't tell me anything I already didn't know.

"I need to go after her. I was way out of line," Luke muttered and tried to raise to his feet. Han pushed him down and shook his head.

"She is already gone, Kid," Han replied and looked over at Leia. "And she won't be coming back."

Luke stared at Han then closed his eyes, stretching out to the Force. He did not see the stricken look on his sister's face or Han's Later as he mouthed it to his wife.

All Luke could feel of his friend was a faint flicker in the Force, her barriers so tightly up that he could barely recognize her Force signature. *Jade,* he called out but he already knew she would not answer him. If she was in this kind of mood, nothing would coerce her to come back.

Luke sighed and dropped his head to his chest, only to have it whipped back, the back of his head connecting almost painfully with the wall behind him.

"Sit still, Luke, otherwise the bleeding won't stop," Leia snapped and the twins exchanged a look.

"Leia," Luke began but his twin shook her head.

"I really don't know what got into you, but one thing I know. Jade has many flaws but she never was that angry to actually draw blood," the Princess sighed. "What a mess!"

Han took away the bloodied kerchief Leia was still holding and pulled her to her feet.

"Let's see to the kids, Mara left her presents in the room assigned to her."

With a last look towards Luke, Leia followed her husband outside. She was surprised when Luke followed her and shut the door in Callista's face. Both she and Han looked at each other.

"She is not allowed to go into his room," Leia stated when her brother's girlfriend was out of earshot.

"I figured as much. I wonder why? With Mara he never had such qualms," Han replied and shook his head as if to clear his head.

"Han? What did Mara tell you?" Leia inquired.

"Better ask me what she didn't tell me, hon. She seemed genuinely concerned for Luke and I believe her. But something tells me that her feelings for Luke run much deeper."

Leia stared at her husband. "You mean ...?"

Han shrugged his shoulders. "Only Mara is able to tell, Leia. But she seems genuinely concerned that Luke is going to get hurt." He hugged her close and put a kiss on her nose. "Let's go by Mara's room and get the presents. We have to tell the kids she was called away on urgent business for Karrde."

One and a half years later

He had felt her presence ever since she had entered the Yavin system on the Fire. Now he could feel her, a mixture of gruff annoyance, grief and genuine care, approaching. The Jedi felt her taking two steps at a time while she moved up the stairs, determination making her step light-hearted and yet weary.

Swinging his legs over the edge of the roof, watching the tree tops that barely reached the roof top of the old Mananassi temple where he had established the Jedi Academy, he considered cloaking himself with the Force. If Mara Jade did not find him here, she would go away, and leave him alone.

*Don't even think about it, Farmboy!* He felt her voice in his mind and smirked. He had always wondered if their bond in the Force was two way, as he could always so easily pick up on her thoughts and emotions.

Guess she can just as easily read me as I can read her, Luke thought and rubbed his eyes tiredly. The last time he had seen Mara was when he had awakened in a med center, yet again, and it had been over a year ago. He did not know why she had come just now.

"You know it, Jedi," Her voice was coming right from behind him if not a bit from above. Skywalker suppressed the urge to turn towards her. Closing his eyes, he could conjure up her image, hands on her hips, her slender legs in tight combat trousers and boots firmly grounded on the slightly sloping roof, studded with heavy durasteel caps.

"What do you want, Jade?" he asked, snapping at her impatiently. "I don't seem to recall we are in need of any provisions or spare parts."

"I was in the vicinity," Mara retorted and lowered herself beside him, her legs, like his, dangling precariously over the edge of the roof. "And I thought I could scrounge off a meal or two, even if it is only that abominable stew you and your students are so fond of."

Luke finally lost his battle not looking at her and from the corner of his eyes he eyed her carefully. It seemed as if the twilight of dawn was drawn to her fiery locks that were haphazardly tied into a thick braid. Even in the semi-darkness it was brilliant, but when he looked at her face, he could see she was tired.

"Why are you here?" he asked softly and for the first time, Mara turned towards him and their eyes locked. Dark circles, almost the twins to his own, looked like smudges against her normally ivory skin.

"Any Force sensitive sentient would have felt your pain and desolation, Jedi. I have come here to make it stop!" Mara said with determination, tearing her gaze away from his and watched the far horizon where the small rim of the rising sun was just visible.

Luke snorted at that and followed her gaze. "And what will you do to stop it?" he asked, and his mind conjured up an uncomfortable image, two bodies, locked together in a tight embrace, man to woman, soul to body. He shook his head slightly to shake off the vision or just his sick, twisted imagination.

No, he thought and filed away the image into the far recesses of his mind. Not me and Mara ... she ... would laugh at me .. if she ever found out that I have any feelings for her. And yet she had come, she had followed his silent call of agony.

"Killing you is always an option, Skywalker, but that is only my last resort," Mara said, ignorant of the troubling thoughts the Jedi experienced. "I mean it, Skywalker, either you get a grip on your emotions or tighten up those barriers of yours, but I'm sick of feeling your distress and agony across the whole damn galaxy."

Luke gawked at her. Not even Leia had felt that he was in distress and here Mara sat beside him, telling him she had felt it. He still could not understand the bond they had through the Force. At first he had thought it might be a freak accident, resolving from stress rather than a genuine connection but it had always been there, even if they had not been on missions. He had felt it for the first time on Wayland and ever since then their bond in the Force had strengthened, not lessened. Even when he had been with Callista, his and Mara's link in the Force had flourished and strengthened, mocking his and Callista's fruitless efforts to regain the Ex-Jedi's Force sense.

It was as if the Force wanted to tell me something ... Luke thought.

"... I haven't slept for three months and if you don't snap out of it, Skywalker, I swear by the Emperor's black bones that you will pay dearly," Mara ended her little tirade and looked at Skywalker.

Luke blinked in surprise and swallowed under such close scrutiny.

"Have you listened to anything I said, Jedi?" Mara asked, raising a perfect eyebrow at him.

"," Luke said cautiously. "You'll kill me if I don't stop!" But stop what? he asked himself.

"Exactly," Mara grimaced smugly and watched her legs as they dangled over the edge. "I don't know why we are connected, Skywalker. But with only the Emperor as my first and only experience, it leaves me wary. You have to understand that..."

"I know, Mara, and I'm sorry that I draw you into my own personal problems," he gave a genuine sigh. "I'd thought I had my barriers up but ..." he stopped and watched the gas giant rising over the horizon, hovering just on the brink to come fully into view.

"You have to move on, Luke," Mara's voice was just a whisper, soft, intimate and it sent a shudder down Luke's spine.

"I know, but sometimes ... Callista leaving me just drags me down ... it is as if in order to be the only living Jedi Master, I have to give up so much. It seems as if I'm cursed."

"I know," Mara replied softly and watched him. "But you are not alone in this feeling. We all feel that way, lonely and rejected. But we ignore it and move on. You should too ..." Their gazes locked and after a while of serious contemplation each other's faces, Luke grinned which spread into a laugh.

"I should keep you around more often, Mara. You always seem to know just the right things to say to me."

Mara gave off a little snort but she grinned mischievously. "Someone has to keep the almighty Jedi Master grounded."

"What would I do without you, Jade, huh?" He asked in jest and caught a sense of regret and pain coming from the beautiful trader just before she cloaked her feelings. "Jade?"

Mara shrugged her shoulders. "Nothing, Skywalker," she replied glibly, but the way she tightened her mental barriers against him, he knew something was wrong.

"Mara?" he asked and for a moment he could see her shoulders tensing. "Mara, there is more, right? You just didn't come here only to tell me to stop moping around?"

An uncomfortable silence spread between them slick and thick like durasteel. Luke was tempted to caress the cheek of the woman sitting beside him. Her complete figure was bathed in golden light, her hair catching the first rays of the sun setting her head on fire like a beautiful halo. Mara's eyes were half-closed and Luke wondered how many people had actually seen her like this, completely still and in repose.

"I haven't slept much the last three months, Skywalker, that's all." Mara shrugged her shoulders and her gaze met his. "I ... I never felt so much ... despair, Luke. I'm sorry what I said to you the last time I was here. I .. I feel as if it was a self-fullfilling prophecy ... that I might be the reason why ... "

Her soft words had not shaken him as much as her use of his birth name. Skywalker knew he had over doing it, in fact he had carefully shielded himself from Leia, forgetting that he had an even stronger link with the beautiful smuggler turned trader.

"You are not at fault here, if it is anyone's fault, it is mine ... and Callista's. I wanted too much, while she wanted ... something else," Luke said and looked up to meet her intent gaze. "I should have been more of a friend to you and heed your warning..."

"I'm sorry, Mara," he whispered and giving in to the urge to touch her, gently placed the fingers of his left hand against her cheek. "You know I'd never really hurt you ... ever. But this time I couldn't control myself, I shielded myself from Leia but not from you and I'm sorry."

Mara watched his face and his apologetic words sunk in.

"It's okay, you know. I deserved it in a way, when I told you not to depend on the Force so much ... But listen to me," Mara bent toward him and her face was only inches away from his face. "If it happens again, I might kill you just yet."

Luke was quite taken back at the ferocity she spoke those words, even when he tried to cloak his surprise.

"I thought you had overcome the urge to kill me, Jade," he choked out and gave her a crooked grin.

"Oh I have, Skywalker, but I like to keep you on your toes," Mara retorted. "You are the most annoying man alive this side of the universe, but the galaxy seems to be a saver place since you are there. I don't want to get on the bad side of the New Republic. Won't do me any good with my business."

"Oh thanks, Mara. Now all I am is a business asset?" Luke feigned annoyance, but Mara could pick up that his spirits had lifted considerably since she had arrived.

"Hmm... Skywalker, very bright. I make a business man out of you yet."

"Only if you come here to learn ..." Luke bit his tongue and sighed. The old argument and he had put the boot in his mouth right into it.

"One day ... one day, Skywalker, even you will understand that I'm not Jedi material," Mara replied without her usual briskness.

"Will I?" Luke asked, eyeing her from beneath a fringe of blonde hair. Mara nodded.

"But till then I guess I have to tell that Bantha brain of yours that I don't want to train repeatedly," Mara yawned and rubbed her eyes tiredly.

"Yeah, I guess," Luke replied and they both grinned. Their eyes met and they held their gazes for a long time, oblivious to the fact that the sun had finally risen over the horizon. Soft sunlight bathing the two, as they sat on their perch on the roof.

Mara's head drooped and Luke felt the tiredness that grew within her, so he pulled her away from the roof edge. When he had settled against the air vent station on top of the roof, Mara tiredly rose her head.

"What are you doing?" she asked sleepily while Luke pushed her head down on his lap.

"Sleep, Mara," he said and gently tucked at one of the strands of her hair that had escaped her braid. "I'll make sure you won't be disturbed this time."

Silently, Mara watched him,and the Jedi started fidgeting under her intent gaze.

"Don't shut me out, Luke," she demanded softly. "Whatever it is that is paining you, you know you can talk to me. I won't always agree to what that Bantha brain of yours will come up with, but I'm there!"

Skywalker nodded to that but deep down he knew that she would be raving mad, if she knew why he felt so alone.

"I will Mara, I promise," he answered her softly and that seemed to mollify the trader. Nodding her head, she closed her eyes. A calm coming over her that lulled her into a deep undisturbed sleep.

Luke watched her still face and he wondered how lucky he was. Every time he needed it, Mara was there to either set his head straight or haul him out of trouble. He couldn't be such a failure as a Jedi Master and human being if he had the friendship of this beautiful, skilled woman.

And she'll kill me if I ever tell her that I think she is beautiful, Luke chuckled silently to himself. Ah Mara, what a pair we are ...

He grimaced and caressed her cheek. "What a pair, huh?" he whispered and rested his head against the durasteel wall behind him. Soon, the Jedi Master and his companion were asleep.

The End

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