Chapter Nine

The images of what had happened when Mara left Luke in his apartment could not be stopped, and at the fringe of her Force perception she could feel Luke sharing them with her. Mara had planned on never letting him know about her days back then but she was too weak to sever the bond that was quickly growing stronger.

Mara tried again to shake off the images from her mind but try as she might, she could not. Too deeply ran the damage the Emperor had inflicted on a small child of fifteen standard years, and even after such a long time, the repercussions of her punishment so long ago, were still affecting her. The dream came rushing back, reliving the days ten weeks prior when she had fled so hurriedly from Luke's apartment.

She had always wondered what the Emperor had meant when he had told her that she would never love another man. Now she had first hand knowledge and the pain that it caused almost threatened to overcome her. Steadying herself against one of the marble columns in the entrance of the former Imperial palace, she tried to quench the fear rising in herself.

"Miss Jade, can I help you?" One of the guards asked after he had stepped closer to her. Her head snapped up and unseeing eyes stared at him. Drawing in another breath, she shook her head.

"No, thank you," she managed to drag out of an unresponsive mouth. "I need to get fresh air," she choked and on unsteady legs she sought the exit. Outside the sun of Coruscant blinded her momentarily as she staggered towards the spaceport across the city.

The voices and sounds of the city, that spanned the whole planet, were overly loud in her ears, her mind only registering a cacophony of blaring noises that made her head hurt. She was passing people and craft alike but she could not, would not register anything. Her mind being held by the images that her lovemaking with Skywalker had recalled. Wiping off the sweat on her face she sought out mindlessly the shadows of a dirty looking entrance. For the first time since she had left the former Imperial palace, she took in her surroundings and noticed her headless flight had brought her to a more questionable part of the city.

Mara knew this part as it had not changed much since the New Republic had taken over. When she had still been the Emperor's Hand she had business to attend to in this neighbourhood and the entrance to the building she knew quite well. Wondering if the Force had led her here, she quickly ducked her head and stepped over the soiled threshold and knew exactly where she was heading.

The air was stifling and smelled as much of human refuse as well as cooked food. This part of the city housed the lowest of the lowest. Cutthroats and Ex-Imps who had not found their rightful place in the New Republic's order had found shelter here. The place hadn't changed, the dealers of black market goods still held their small stalls in the deep and darkened recesses of the dilapidated building. Mara picked her way through huddled creatures as well as food stalls and soon found herself lingering in front of a small shop she knew well.

Upon seeing where she was and at which shop she had stopped, Mara was certain that she had been led here by the Force, light or dark side she was not certain. Apart from travelling with Ysalamiri Lizards for the rest of her life to sever the bond that connected her to Skywalker and the Force, she had to acquire Ysalamiri essence and this very shop offered this particular good. Black-market Ysalamiri Essence.

When she had been still with the Empire she had frequented this shop on almost a weekly basis, though back then it wasn't illegal and a lot of Imperials knew about it. Imperial scientists had managed to extract a certain body fluid that the Ysalamiri used to create the bubble with and after long years of research had managed to extract an odor- and colourless essence that severed any bond to the Force if injected in a Jedi or Sith albeit temporarily. The Emperor had used this drug repeatedly on his Jedi prisoners and also Mara had been subjected to it at one time. She knew it would work and now she also knew that it was addictive if used over a longer period of time.

The man behind the counter looked at her and immediately recognized her face. Shivering, he hid himself behind a curtain but Mara had seen him and grabbing the man by the dirty lapel of his tunic, she dragged him out of hiding.

"Good to see you, Joohsan," she snarled and let go of the man, his stench making her gag.

"Emperor's Hand, what ...c-can I do for y-you?" the man stuttered and tried to straighten his crinkled tunic as well as he managed with his shivering hands.

"I need some essence, you traded with it in former times, and I'm sure you still have a stash of it hidden somewhere," Mara said and through the Force she could feel the man's fear.

"Yes, I have," the man muttered, his eyes darting to and fro and always avoiding her direct stare.

"How much?" Mara inquired her voice a deadly ring. Her eyes never left the other man's face as she tried to probe his mind. His fear was genuine but also laced with a portion of curiosity.

After he had told her the price, Mara tried to suppress the shock. The injections would cut a fair share into her credit account but she knew she had to do this. This was the most convenient way to rid herself of the Force without too many people knowing. Even now her barriers were crumbling and she knew she could not keep them up any longer. Once Luke was able to contact her again through the Force, she knew she would give in.

Making sure the transaction could not be traced back to her, she paid for the Ysalamiri essence and walked purposely back towards the exit. She felt her barriers slipping more and more and if she did not use the injector soon, Luke would know where she was and what she was about to do - and he would stop her and most importantly, she would let him.

Groaning, she drew herself into a secluded corner of the building and after having prepared the injector she looked at it for long moments. She could feel the void in the Force the essence created and doubts crossed her mind. But then again she thought about the consequences, weighed the pro and cons and in her jumbled mind, with all the hurt and pain of the only too recently relived events of her past, she quickly reached her decision. It has to be done! she thought and bracing herself she raised the injector to her exposed neck and the small needle pierced her skin, pierced into the muscle that lay beyond and immediately her link to the Force was broken, leaving Mara as if a large part of her had died.

For a short moment the images were distorted and Mara's link to him weakened. Luke's head snapped up and seeing Mara's seizure yelled for the medics. The woman thrashed on the bed, as if her lungs were struggling against the erratic faint beating of her heart to fight for air, fighting to survive. Luke was shocked but the Force urged him onward. Straddling the struggling Mara, he linked immediately with her. Through their link, Luke found the little lump of clotted blood and got rid of it with a flick of the Force. By the time the med droid, accompanied by Cilghal, came into the room, Mara's heartbeat had returned to normal as Luke had massaged her ribcage and with it her heart.

Luke self-consciously climbed off the bed and walked over to the window while the Calamari checked Mara's vital signs. The silence stretched until he could feel the other Jedi's presence standing beside him.

"It was good that you were here, Master Skywalker," Cilghal said and Luke turned to face her.

"Can that happen again?" he asked, toying with the injector he had unconsciously snatched from the bedstead earlier.

"Seizures like this are not uncommon after extensive operations. But I don't think it will happen again," the Calamari said and motioned for them to sit. "Can you tell me what happened?" Her eyes resting on the injector as she posed her question. For the first time, Skywalker noticed it and he quickly laid it upon a small table nearby.

"She was dreaming ..." he started, his shoulders slumping. "She relived the first time, she used the essence, then she convulsed."

Cilghal picked up the injector and upon probing the liquid contained in it, she gasped.

"I've heard about it but I always thought it was folklore ..." she commented and met Luke's bewildered stare. "If you had bothered to read the Jedi data pads on medicine, you'd know too," she said with a crooked grin and Luke smirked at that. Every time he found new data pads with possible Jedi lore on them, he skimmed the contents and then decided what to do with them. Normally he kept the files on Jedi training while everything else was handed over to his pupils at the academy.

"I should have been more thorough," he conceded. "So what do you know about this?"

"As far as I can tell, the essence is distilled from a particular gland of Ysalamiri. The Empire used it to subdue imprisoned Jedi to cut them off the use of the Force," Cilghal said. She looked back towards Mara as the med droid was still busying itself checking the read outs. "I never thought it existed. That the technique hadn't survived the Rebellion, but obviously I was wrong."

Luke nodded to that and shifted his gaze towards Mara. Due to my own ignorance, I almost lost her, he berated himself. I should have picked up on her thoughts but I didn't. I was too hurt by the whole experience, too shocked at what the Emperor had done to her.

Cilghal put a webbed hand on his knee and smiled. "All we can do now is to nurture her back to health and then we can heal her mental wounds, Master Luke," she said gently, displaying quite openly her affection she held for the Ex-Assassin and the Jedi Master. Luke doubted it would be that easy.

Mara needs love and affection but most of all she needs to rid herself of the influence of the late Emperor, he thought. Closing his eyes he felt Cilghal stir in front of him and soon he found himself alone with Mara once more. Straightening himself he slowly made his way over to her bed and watched the sleeping woman in front of him.

Skywalker watched the devices that monitored Mara's status, wondering how his friends always saw him when he had returned from a mission only to be dumped into a bacta tank again. The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming him and he felt the anguish and agony his friends and family must have felt when they had been in the very position innumerous times, taking vigil over him as he now did over Mara.

Resuming his former position on the bed, he felt Mara turn towards him, unconsciously seeking his presence physically when she was in no fit state to seek him out in the Force. Luke smiled contently when he felt her Force signature had strengthened again after her relapse.

All I can do now is wait, he told himself, and, closing his eyes, he let himself once more being engulfed in Mara's dreams.

Leia had felt the disturbance in the Force when Mara's heart had seized up. Tempted to contact her twin, she had soon found out that he had controlled the seizure and she had quickly closed her link to her brother again. She needn't distract him.

The woman listened to the commotion in the kitchen where Han was taking care of their children. Their chatter and good-natured banter soothing her troubled thoughts somewhat. She smiled when she heard Anakin's small voice over the tantrum.

I can count myself lucky, she thought. Having found my true love so early in my life. She was not sure why she had been bestowed with so much happiness whereas her brother had suffered so much. It was not fair! she cried out silently and her head came to rest on the back of the sofa.

Leia tried to suppress the thoughts on her brother but try as she might she could not. She desperately wished for him to be happy and when she had seen his stricken face and the determination he had shown when he had encountered Mara in her office, she knew with certainty that he felt the same. I just wish, Mara will feel the same, she thought, her thoughts invariably drawn to the Ex-Emperor's Hand. There had been a time when Leia would not have trusted Mara Jade with her twin's happiness, let alone his life, but now she really wished that the woman would see reason and take what was offered to her. Not only for the happiness of Mara Jade but her brother's as well.

She tried to contact Luke again and this time she felt his calm presence in the Force. Brushing his mind ever so lightly, she send him reassuring thoughts then broke the link and stood up. It was time to join her family, they were waiting for her and frankly, she was looking forward to be pulled into the commotion coming from the kitchen.

The following days and nights Skywalker never went far from Mara's side. If the public had any doubts as to the extent of the Jedi Master's feelings for the beautiful trader, there weren't any doubts left now. Droids and living personnel alike treated Luke as if he was Mara's life mate, moreover they had provided them with a secluded room with a bigger bed and had fitted it with more comfortable chairs and a larger desk that Luke had ordered.

Together with Cilghal, the Jedi Master had started to put Mara into a healing trance, monitoring her status himself. After another draining trance session Cilghal watched the young man as he sat slumped in a chair beside Mara's bedside. The Calamari Jedi had no doubt that her Master harboured strong feelings for the woman still in the clutches of the drugs she had used and she asked herself for the umpteenth time why Mara Jade was fighting the inevitable.

*Have you ever come across mention of mind melts or permanent Force bonds in your data pads, Cilghal?* She heard Luke's voice in her mind, and the Calamari smiled.

*Yes, I have, Master Luke,* she responded in kind. *In fact I had suspected that you and Mistress Mara had a Force bond and will retrieve the data pads in question from my office.*

"Thank you, Cilghal, I guess I have neglected a lot when I skimmed the data," Luke replied and the Jedi smiled at that.

"Though, Master Luke, you seem to be managing quite well without the data." Luke stared at her almost in shock until he heard her chuckle in the Force. Blushing slightly, he flashed her a crooked grin and watched as the Calamari left the room.

On her way to her office, Cilghal met with Talon Karrde and Han Solo, both ex-smugglers conversing in hushed tones. The Calamari had to smile at the thought that those two big men and hardened warriors actually had more gentler and considerate feelings and tried to keep their voices down. When both men noticed her, they stood up.

"Good morning, Mistress Cilghal," Han Solo said and nodded towards the Calamari.

"General Solo, Master Karrde," Cilghal said and motioned them to sit again while she took a chair in front of them. "What can I do for you?"

"We wanted ... well, Talon here wanted to know how Mara is faring, and I wanted to have a word with Luke, is he up?" Han muttered.

"Mistress Jade is well considering the circumstances, Master Skywalker and I have put her into a healing trance and her progress is satisfying. I can call Master Luke for you, General Solo," Cilghal's voice trailed away when she felt Talon Karrde's hesitation. "Yes, Master Karrde?"

"I would like to know if there will be any lingering effects, I heard Mara took a drug ..." Talon started but clamped his mouth shut again when a med droid passed the three people.

"I think you better discuss this with Master Skywalker," Cilghal said and stood. Silently she led the two men to Mara's infirmary room.

Han and Talon thanked Cilghal and looked around the room. Mara's face was deathly white against the bed sheets and both men were shocked to see the once so vital woman in this state. They heard the shower in the fresher shut off and they moved towards the transparisteel window where a comfortable looking couch and a stuffed chair sat. The hues and russets of the fabric reminded both men of the soft sands of Tatooine and there was no doubt who had brought the comfortable furniture.

Both smugglers were not surprised when they came face to face with the Jedi Master who was towel-drying his hair as he exited the fresher, clad only in his black trousers. He stopped momentarily when he saw Han and Talon, then self-consciously grinned at them.

"Sorry," he murmured and retrieved a tunic from a nearby chair. Diving his arms and head into the garment, he pulled it on and motioned towards the sofa. All three men were aware of the scars that had been clearly evident on Luke's chest and arms, a constant reminder that the Jedi Master had more than once put his life on the balance to keep the New Republic safe.

After the awkward moment had passed, Luke carefully looked over to Talon and Han. Both men were unusually subdued and he caught both of them more than once as their eyes darted towards the bed where Mara lay.

"She is all right," Luke assured both men and Talon nodded.

"She looks so small and vulnerable. It is hard to fit it to the image of the Mara Jade we all know ..." Talon doubted that Luke shared his feelings. Luke is probably the only one of the three of us who knows the real Mara Jade, he thought as he eyed the Jedi Master. After the Briem reception ten weeks earlier he had fully expected to find Mara Jade quitting her job to marry the Jedi Master, but nothing had prepared him for a Mara Jade that had announced she was going on a mission to retrieve some Jedi artefacts - alone.

Sighing, Talon focused his mind back on the Jedi Master who was quietly answering questions directed at him by Han.

"... tell Leia that I will come by as soon as Mara has recovered. She needs guidance in her trances and I can't leave her alone," Luke ended and locked his eyes with that of his friend and brother in law. Han nodded.

"I know Leia will understand, it is just that the kids are asking for you and they know what has happened to Mara and they want to make sure you two are all right," Han paused as if considering what to say next then he continued. "Anakin said you are helping her getting back her equilibrium in the Force, he thinks that she was scared to do what she did."

"Anakin is a smart boy," Luke smiled at that. "But tell him not to worry, Mara will be fine."

Han actually snorted at that. "You know how he is, I mean they are all Force-strong children, Jacen and Jaina are more like Leia in the Force but Anakin ... he is more like you and Mara ..." Han fell silent after that and the men stared unseeing out of the window. Suddenly, Han remembered something and patting his innumerous pockets on his coat, he finally found what he sought.

"Leia thought Mara would need this once she recovers," he said and handed Luke the hilt of Mara's lightsaber. The young Jedi Master took the handle and his thumb caressed the various buttons on it.

"Thanks," he said and put it on the table between them. Talon and Han exchanged a look then in unison rose to their feet.

"We better go now," Talon said and extended his hand towards Luke. "If you or Mara need anything, let me know, okay?"

"We will, Talon, thank you," Luke replied with a small smile. After they had exchanged their final good-byes, Luke took the lightsaber and strolled over to Mara's bed. Carefully placing it on the bedstead beside her, he checked her Force signature, relieved to feel her strengthening. Luke looked down into her face, the depth of his feelings for this woman almost overwhelming him and he gently brushed a few errant strands out of her face.

Later, Cilghal had send him the promised data pads and after having made sure that Mara was still in her healing trance, he sat down to read every single word, not wanting to skip important information this time. What he came to know about Force bonds and mind melts left him in awe but also put a deep fear into him. What Mara and Luke had experienced should have never happened by chance, they had created a life bond with each other only a married couple was bound to seek.

Squeezing his eyes shut, Luke put down the last data pad onto the table and stared off into the distance. Just fitting that the Force or fate throws something like this at us, Luke thought and his lips twitched. Oh Mara, what have we let ourselves into?

It was dark when Mara woke up. She had no recollection where she was or how she had managed to submit herself into a med center once she knew that this place was what she suspected. Moving slightly, she felt someone stirring and turning darkness accustomed eyes towards the movement she could make out Luke Skywalker slumped over in a chair beside her bed.

Her Force sense was almost recovered and she didn't really need to confirm his presence, as she could feel him like a physical part of herself, but nevertheless, she probed him slightly, making sure, that he was asleep. Satisfied that he was indeed deep in slumber, Mara moved the sensors out of her way that were monitoring her and swung her legs over the edge of the bed.

"What are you doing?" Luke's disembodied voice came to her and for a moment Mara stilled her movements. Lights came on and turning around she could see that he had straightened in his seat and was watching her out of darkened blue eyes. for long moments their eyes battled with each other and tiredly Mara was the first to break contact and looked down on her hands. For the first time she took in her surroundings. Even if this was her room in the med center, the furniture breathed of Luke. The soft brown and sandy tones of the sofa and chairs were so much like the colours of Luke's home planet.

I should be mad at him for trying to run my life like this, she thought but try as she might, she could not will herself to feel that way about Luke.

"Getting out of here," Mara answered his earlier question, still not brave enough to face the Jedi Master. She could feel his presence, could feel him in her, a part of her ... like the Emperor once. She shuddered and closed her eyes.

"Why?" she simply asked, conveying all her pain, her doubts and fears into this simple word. Luke looked down on his hands and sighed.

"Why what, Mara? Why did I bring you here? You were sick and almost lost your shoulder and arm ... Why am I here? I care for you ... Why is this all happening? I don't know. Does this answer your question?" Luke asked and looked at the shivering woman in front of him. Nothing reminded him of the self-assured woman he knew and loved. This Mara was haggard and twitchy, every time he tried to reach out to her both physically and through the Force she was flinching and recoiling.

"Why did you ... where is the injector?" Mara asked, ignoring the sarcastic tone of his voice. I never wanted this, she thought as she dared to look at Skywalker. I never wanted to meet him again, to let him see what the drug is doing to me ... I wanted to disappear and we both could move on with our lives.

"Why do you want the injector, Mara? Don't you think you had enough of the essence?" Luke asked sarcastically.

Mara looked at him. He looked worn and older than she remembered. "What would you know, Skywalker? You as the great Jedi Master don't fear anything ..." The last ten weeks had been hell. She had missed him, had missed his familiar presence and she had realized how much she had come to depend on his signature in the Force. Without him, without the Force itself, she had felt incomplete to say the least.

"Mara?" Luke's voice cut through her reverie and for the first time she looked up over her shoulder and into his blue eyes. Immediately, they became connected, one being, one soul, one memory ... one pain. The one thing that Mara had tried to avoid all these weeks and reminded her so agonizingly at what she had experienced while still the Emperor's Hand. With a sob that rose deeply from within her very being, she tore her gaze away, tried to resurrect the barriers but to no avail. As much as she tried, there was no way she could erect barriers against the Jedi Master.

Luke scrambled over the bed and kneeling behind her, he gently placed his arms around her slumped form. "It's okay, Mara," he whispered into her hair and felt the shuddering sobs racking her frail body. "Let go, my love. We can make it together."

I can't! Mara shouted silently, trying to break away from his touch.

*Mara, please, don't do this to me ... to us!* Skywalker pleaded with her through the Force. *Do you really think I'd misuse your trust as the Emperor did?*

Mara gasped and shook her head slightly. *I know you won't, Skywalker, but ... but I cannot bear another connection like this ... what if it will happen again? What if it happens again when we make ... when we ...* She couldn't bring herself to say it. She just couldn't.

"We will find out when we cross that bridge, Mara. If I have found something out about life, it's that it never is easy. And if you are concerned whether the vision will occur again when we make love," he emphasized the word slightly. "... then we will get Ysalamiri ... or I inject myself with the essence ... what ever!"

"Why would you do that?" Mara asked with a shivering voice. She could not believe that the Jedi Master would go to such extremes.

"If it means having you in my life, I would do anything, Mara. Even giving up the force," Luke answered dead-seriously and for a moment Mara's heart stopped beating. No, Makers, no! He cannot love me ... he dare not love me!

Closing her eyes, Mara tried to calm herself but she couldn't. "Of all the stupid things I have heard so far, that is the most selfish thing you ever uttered, Skywalker!"

Luke was taken aback by her reaction. Here I'm telling her that I love her more than my life, more than my status as Jedi and she dismisses it? Just like that?

"I never thought you could be that cold, Mara. I really thought deep down you feel something for me..." Luke said rejectingly and let go of her. Ignoring their bond he laid back on the bed and closed his eyes. Gods, I'm sick of all this love stuff. Every time I think I have found the right woman love has to be thrown right back into my face. I can't stand it anymore.

A long silence stretched between them, both aware that they still could feel each other's boiling emotions. Mara shifted uncomfortably and when she settled back onto the bed she met his glare with uncertainty.

"I don't want you to renounce the Force, Luke," Mara said quietly and Luke had to use his Force enhanced senses to actually hear her. "It would not be the same. You are so one with the Force that you'd find it lacking ... when you ... when we ..." Mara bit her lip. "I know you can't live like this, Skywalker, no one can ... not even I..."

Luke stared at her and was momentarily shocked. He had the feeling as if he knew what was coming next. But this time he was an unwilling participant and whether Mara liked it or not he was prepared to fight for her, for them.

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