Chapter Four - Excruciations

Leia groaned and her eyes snapped open. The feeling of despair and pure fear that had washed over her minutes ago still lingered in her mind and she shuddered. She groped for the nightstand by the bed and then remembered the little trick her bother had taught her so she concentrated and the light in the bedroom came on in a very low setting.

Rubbing her eyes, she could feel a headache coming on and decided to get a fresh breath of air on the balcony. Moving carefully out of bed, Leia smiled when she heard the soft snore coming from her husband.

She did not bother to take her robe as she padded barefooted into the kitchen unit and got herself a glass of water. The feelings of pain and despair still lingered in her mind and she knew it had come from Luke.

Leia checked the chrono on the far wall of the kitchen and she knew it was late, perhaps too late to check on Luke but on the other hand if he needed her help she would be there. Additionally, if he had already fallen asleep again, she didn't want to disturb him.

Making a decision she set the empty glass onto the counter and walked through her living quarters, grabbing a cloak on her way to the door.

Luke waited till Mara had exited his bedroom, then he made a mad dash for his fresher. Once inside he rummaged through a small drawer and found some work out pants which he put on immediately. Relieved, he leant against the counter, splashing his face with water.

He was still shaken from the dream and he raked his brain why a dream as exciting and forbidden as this had turned out so badly. And why did he dream about Mara and him on Myrkr?

Shaking his head he tried to make sense. And why Mara and Callista? he asked himself and watched his reflection in the mirror. Am I afraid that Mara will leave me just like Callista? But we are friends, we have known each other for more than seven years now. We have been through a lot ... He frowned at that. So why this dream now? And Callista? Had she been jealous of his and Mara's friendship? And had Mara known that?

Shaking his head as if to clear his muddled thoughts he slumped down on the floor and cradled his head in his hands.

He groped his mind for the last time that Mara had been on Yavin. Callista had been there and he had been happy to see his best friend again. Ever since the Eye of Palpatine, she had made excuses when he had asked her to visit him and Call. But then there was the birthday of the twins and Jaina and Jacen had insisted on celebrating it on Yavin with their family and friends and Mara had been invited.

Thinking back to the time, he immersed himself deeply into the Force and soon the events of those two days replayed before his mind's eye.

Luke grinned when he saw the repulsors of the Jade's Fire preparing to land and as soon as the sleek craft had settled on the landing pad, he left Callista's site and rushed forward.

He felt excited. It had been far too long that he had seen Mara, since the events on the Eye. He had been badly beaten up and when he had come out of the healing trance he had learned that Mara had already left. It had hurt at that time, not too sure why he had felt so strongly about Mara where he had Callista now.

Mara Jade walked down the ramp and squinted in the glaring sun. She had spotted the body snatcher and Skywalker and for a moment a wave of regret washed over her.

"Mara," Luke waved and came up to her. "Glad you could make it."

The woman smirked at the evident excitement and joy that was reverberating from the Jedi through the Force.

"Yeah, well, the twins contacted me three times in the last forty eight standard hours to remind me. You cannot resist Force strong children."

"Yes, Jaina and Jacen asked about their Aunt Mara twice today," Luke ribbed her and smiled when he felt Mara's mental groan at the title.

"They are waiting. Come on," Luke urged her and they walked side by side towards the woman waiting for them. Mara watched Callista and even if the woman could not touch the Force, Mara could pick up easily on her emotions as they were tinged with jealousy, fear of loss.

Or are they my own? Mara queried herself silently. Perhaps she herself felt jealous though she did not know where that should be coming from.

"Welcome to Yavin, Master Trader Jade," Callista greeted Mara and extended her hand. Jade, not too comfortable when touching even her closest friends at the best of times ignored the hand of greeting and nodded.

"Callista," Jade said and shot the woman in front of her a scrutinising look. She had known Cray Mingla only for a short time but to see her now, gave her a start. Outwardly, she looked like Mingla but there was something about the woman - the essence of what had been Cray was missing, and Mara wasn't too sure she liked what she felt.

Luke felt the troubled emotions coming from Mara and he frowned slightly. There was a mixture of suspicion and care about her but without probing deeper, he could not discern which.

They walked towards the temple, an icy silence between his lover and his best friend and for the first time since he had embraced the idea of celebrating the twins' birthdays with all of his family and friends, he was not too sure if this idea was so brilliant.

I have to watch Mara, I don't want to unleash whatever is bugging her on Callista, the reminded himself as they proceeded into the quarters of the fledgling Jedi Academy.

Luke's eyes snapped open and he exhaled softly. The memory of that day two years ago had shaken him to his deepest roots.

"Fool," he chided himself softly. At that time he had thought that Mara had been jealous. He had even thought that she might have feelings for him. "Of course, that was not true ... but perhaps Mara already sensed that Callista would leave me."

Hanging his head, he rubbed his eyes tiredly. Why did those memories have to creep up into my mind now? What use was there to them? he asked himself.

When he felt like facing Mara again, he sent forth a tendril of the Force and located her in the kitchen. Luckily for him, her mind was relaxed, only a small streak of concern showing over his nightmare but otherwise, she felt calm.

Luke exhaled softly and squeezed his eyes shut. He was glad that she did not feel too agitated. He knew that she had nightmares as well, and even more haunting than the one he had experienced just now. But what disturbed him was that the nightmare had started with something very familiar. A dream that had started to haunt him ever since Myrkr and had returned every now and then.

Shaking his head, Skywalker squeezed his eyes shut. This has to stop, he told himself sternly. If Mara ever finds out I have erotic dreams about her, she'll see to it that I never venture into erotic territory again, dead or alive.

But try as he might, he could not shake the images that had haunted him for more than seven years now and recent events, especially Mara's almost non-existent sleeping attire, did not help much to find his calm again.

"A Jedi knows no passion," he muttered softly for the second time this day and he had to grin. I have been far too long without a woman, I'm overreacting, that's all, he admonished himself and for a short time he considered taking Lando up on his offer as the Ex-Baron had once invited him to a trip to one of the more notorious night clubs on Coruscant.

"Probably not such a bad idea, Farmboy," he murmured to himself. Bracing himself, he walked back into the bedroom where he was greeted by the warm, rich aroma of hot chocolate.

Mara had moved one of the high-backed chairs beside his bed and was waiting patiently. Luke groaned inwardly when he noticed she had not bothered to change. Shapely legs were stretched out and propped up on the edge of his bed while the flimsy grey material of the camisole was hugging her breasts and the rest of the body.

Slipping into his bed he put several pillows against the headboard and propped himself up before he took the offered cup from her.

"I hope I prepared it right," Mara's voice seemed so unnatural in the otherwise quiet room.

"Did you use my recipe?" Luke asked and grinned when Mara rolled her eyes.

"Yes, three spoonfuls of chocolate powder to one cup, it's easy ... even for me," Mara replied with a smirk and watched as Luke took a tentative sip. His face lit up and Mara knew she had used the right mixture of choc and milk.

She gave him a few more standard minutes to settle in, and she in turn needed the time to sort through some of the questions that burned in the back of her mind.

"So want to talk about the dream?" Mara asked, trying not to look too eager.

Luke stared at her, debating with himself if he should tell her what he had dreamt. No one knew just how his and Callista's relationship had deteriorated before she vanished without a trace. Of course, he had loved her but somehow he had kept Callista at a distance. He had known Cray and try as he might he was always reminded of a living corpse.

It is embarrassing, Luke thought. I had everything, a woman who loved me as much as I loved her and yet ... he shook his head and looked up, meeting Mara Jade's curious gaze.

"I'd rather not, Jade, sorry," he replied and watched the brief flash of hurt crossing her face.

"I see," Mara murmured and stared down into her cup of hot chocolate. Luke groaned inwardly, and moved forward. He grasped her hand and squeezed it lightly.

"You have to understand, Jade, it's rather private. Nothing I'm really proud of."

Mara mused about his answer. Outwardly it sounded feasible, but deep down inside her she knew he was lying, and that feeling hurt.

Doesn't he trust me enough to share his nightmares with him? Why can't he reciprocate? she thought bitterly and thought back about a time when he had helped her through one of her more harrowing nightmares, those that concerned her family and how she became the Emperor's Hand. She had shared her dreams with him, hesitant at first, yes, but after a while she had told him about the nightmares she experienced in every gory and awful detail.

Silently shaking herself, she tried to focus back on the Jedi Master in front of her. Perhaps he thinks Callista is too private even for his best friend to know. Perhaps he thinks I would desecrate her memory, the thought came quick and unbidden and even though she tried to suppress it, her anger flared up, at Skywalker, at Callista, and at herself.

"What I don't understand, is that you are still mourning her. She left you, Skywalker, and that you are still having nightmares of her leaving you is ridiculous," Mara snapped impatiently before she could stop herself. Anger is better than this pain!

They stared at each other and for a moment Luke was tempted to tell her the truth. But it was too painful to relive the event shortly before Callista had left him. He was not proud of it and the attempted rape was still too painful and too embarrassing to admit. I better let her believe I still love Callista, he thought and nodded.

"I'm sorry, Jade, but I love her ... her leaving me still hurts."

Luke did not see the flash of anger and regret in Mara's eyes as she stood up.

"Well, two years is a long time, but who am I to tell you what to think or feel," Mara said through clenched teeth and with a frustrated sigh, she turned away from him.

Who am I indeed? she asked herself, while she started to push the chair into its original position. I kept my distance when Callista turned up in his life, I don't know what happened.

You don't know because you couldn't bear to see them happy together, a little voice nagged in the back of her mind. You couldn't bear to see Luke happy with another woman!

Closing her eyes, Mara tried to shut out the little voice, ignoring the Jedi Master who was still sitting on his bed behind her. She was angry at herself and for a moment she gave the chair an angry shove when it didn't budge.

"Jade," Mara jumped when she heard his voice right behind her. She whirled around and almost collided with Skywalker. She had not heard him move from the bed and she gritted her teeth.

"I understand, Skywalker, you still love her and have nightmares about her leaving you. Who am I to understand that?!"

Luke frowned at that. He didn't want to argue. He remembered a similar argument with her two years prior. The very argument that had ripped them apart, and they were still trying to overcome that gap, tried to be friends again.

"Don't belittle yourself, Jade," Luke said and tried to sent her some soothing thoughts, but Mara Jade didn't want to have any of it.

"Your words, not mine, Jedi!" she snapped and averted her face when she could not bear the intense, searching stare of the Jedi Master. Both knew exactly what she was referring to but both were too afraid to go there. They were both not proud of the last time they had argued over Callista...

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. She had even snapped at Jaina when she has asked to visit the Fire.

"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 and 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.

"Sithspit, 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 and without a final look she walked out of the academy's building, out of Skywalker's life.

Luke stared at Mara, knowing full well she was thinking about that day 2 years and he regretted that they had never talked about that time, talked it through like normal best friends would. After their quarrel Mara had left in a hurry, not even inquiring in the slightest if she had indeed broken his nose or not. She had just taken off and it had been two years before she had turned up in a secret surgery room with Lando at her side.

During their escape, they had not acknowledged their need to talk and after their return to Coruscant, he had been too out of the game as to confront her about what happened. By the time he had come out of the bacta tank, Mara Jade had taken off again ... with Lando.

He still recalled the twinge of regret and anger he had experienced when Han had told him. It had been a slip of the tongue, nothing more, but it had hurt. Mara and Lando. Despite his valiant tries to persuade himself that they matched perfectly, both ex-smugglers and with a contact or two to the Empire, his heart had screamed at the thought of them together. Lando and his Mara ...

Skywalker frowned at that ... He still could not bring himself to ask her if the rumours were true, if she indeed was or still had any intimate relations with the Ex-Baron, even if she pretended to hate him.

Mara was caught in a similar line of thinking. She still hurt from that last quarrel with Luke on Yavin Four. She had felt embarrassment and shame that she had physically struck out at him. But she knew that he had gone too far, this time the urge to actually kill him had been overwhelming and only her steely grip on her emotions had prevented her to pull her blaster from its holster and kill the Jedi Master in cold blood.

She shook her head slightly, the wild mass of red-gold curls moving around her head and shoulders like a living being. Let bygones be bygones, she thought and her head snapped up when she heard Luke's voice clearly inside her mind.

*Why? We never talked about it, and we have to, otherwise it will always pose an obstacle in our friendship!*

"I don't think so, Skywalker," Mara snapped and rubbed her eyes tiredly. "Look, I knew it was a bad idea staying with you here, and I really appreciate the offer, but I think it might be better if I return to the Fire," she raised her chin up and straightened visibly. "I didn't come here to argue with you, let alone fight with you. Your nightmares about Callista are no concern of mine, they are yours, and yours alone. Forget that I ever asked, but I thought that after you helped me through with one of my own I'd repay that debt."

Luke gawked at her. Her signature in the Force had changed considerably. Only a few minutes ago, there had been defiance, even anger in her signature, but all he could sense now was a dulling feeling of tiredness and ...

Pain? he asked himself. Feeling at a loss, he cast his eyes down. I should have told her the truth, he reminded himself, But no, you had to put on your Jedi mask!

"I'm sorry, Mara," he whispered almost inaudibly, but Mara had heard him nevertheless. He was the perfect image of someone trying to put himself at the mercy of his attacker and that really riled her up.

"Oh for Sith' sake, Skywalker, don't grovel!" she snapped through clenched teeth. "Your life is private just as mine. No excuses needed that you protect what you hold dear against strangers."

"But we are no strangers, are we, Jade?" Luke snapped back. "We are more than strangers! Well, at least I think we are!"

Mara stared at him. She knew he was right, but she could not bring herself to admit it. The evening spent with Skywalker had reminded her that her life was devoid of laughter and companionship. True, she had friends and business partners, like Talon Karrde and others, even the Jedi Master was her best friend, but she wanted more. And those two were not able to give her that. Karrde had been her boss for so long that she felt gratitude for him and a sense of respect, but to think of him as more than a friend was out of the question and Luke ...

She mentally wagged a finger at herself. Luke Skywalker was still in love with another woman, probably always will and I think more of myself than to settle for second best. Besides, he is Jedi. Jedi and Ex-Imps don't mingle well, she told herself sternly but frowned when she thought about it. Why do I even consider Skywalker? I'm certainly not interested!

But why did you have those dreams of him on Myrkr? A voice in the back of her mind whispered back.

She did not know.

"Skywalker, we are friends, but not as much as we might have thought," Mara started, almost hesitant. "We are a good team when on missions, but look at us ... this is the first time we had any down time together and we are at each other's throats most of the time."

"Well it's not my fault," Luke started but a deadly glare from Mara Jade made him stop.

"That could be questioned, Skywalker. But anyway, I better go. Thanks for the shower and the bed," Mara answered and turned.

Luke's stupor only lasted for a few seconds before he hurried after her. He caught her forearm and whirled her around.

"Is that all? Thanks for sharing but I have to go?" Luke growled and shook her slightly, his fingers digging into the soft skin of her naked arms.

Mara's defensive mechanism went into overload and her instincts took over. She twisted her arms, blocking Luke's increasing grip and she tried to shove him away, but the Jedi Master had thought she might do such a trick and held on to her as if his dear life depended on it.

They struggled with each other, both knowing where to find an opening in the other's defenses and soon the struggle had grown into a full-blown fight, with kicks and hits that would have inflicted severe wounds if the two participants had not had Jedi reflexes.

Mara felt a strange emotion coming from Luke through their Force bond and she whirled around to face whatever he was staring at. What she had not noticed was that Luke still held on to her flimsy camisole and the noise of tearing fabric was overly loud in the silence of the room.

Luke groaned when three things hit his senses at the same time: first, Mara's full body length pressed against his tall frame; second, the hand that had held on to the flimsy material earlier was now cupping an antagonizingly female and very naked breast. And third, Leia standing in the doorway, not too far away from them with a frown on her face.

"I hope I'm not disturbing anything?!" Leia's voice was clear and hard as durasteel as she watched the struggling couple with squinting eyes.

"LEIA!" both Jedi gasped and the Jedi Master blushed furiously and lowered his lids, while Mara struggled to recover some dignity by hooking the rest of her torn sleeping attire over her exposed breasts.

"Sithspit, Skywalker, let go of me!" Mara growled when his hand still held on to her, pinning her effectively against the Jedi Master's body.

Luke tried to focus, he really did, but the sensation deriving from Mara's more than half-clad body, shot through him like one of Palpatine's Force lighting bolts. And with the recently experienced first half of his dream still fogging up part of his brain, he was more than reluctant to let go of her.

Leia waited and watched her brother with an incredulous stare. She felt embarrassed to have obviously walked into a love spat between her twin brother and Mara Jade and wondered where that feeling of pain and despair had been coming from.

Well, well, well, little brother, you have a lot of explaining to do, she thought as she waited.

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