A/N: Here there be angst. Also a small line theft from Hornblower: Retribution. Part I: Thrace It started out simply enough, but then, disasters always do. Against her better judgement, Mara Jade had found herself accompanying Luke Skywalker and his rag-tag band of would-be Jedi Knights on a diplomatic mission to the planet Koli. Routine in every aspect; evidently the indigenous population wanted to join the New Republic and thus Leia Organa Solo had been sent to negotiate - with her husband in tow. Given that the Koli people were a fierce warrior race, the Jedi had been co-opted into providing protection. Or, as Mara surmised, it was Luke’s way of giving his students experience without the inherent dangers associated with actual combat. As Mara had been on Yavin IV at the time on one of her brief sojourns into Jedi training, Luke had insisted she come along. After all, how dangerous could a simple diplomatic mission be? In hindsight, Mara at least should have known better. She found herself, back to back with Luke, lightsaber drawn, facing not only the Koli army, but a battalion of stormtroopers. It had all started with that damned sphere. “They call it the Ovid,” Luke had told her earlier that day. They stood in a great, circular hall, empty save for a pedestal at the very centre, upon which a glowing ball rested, floating just a few centimetres above the platform. It was perfectly spherical and appeared to be made of some kind of glass or crystal. In any case, the contents of the sphere was clearly visible, almost like a cloudy, green gas which shone brightly as it moved within the sphere, lighting up the entire room. It was mesmerising. “Ovid?” Mara asked. “Sounds like a medical product.” Luke smiled. “It is their word for eternity.” Mara found herself unable to look away; even though the glow hurt her eyes somewhat. She reached out to touch the surface of the sphere, just to see what would happen. “Don’t do that,” Luke told her, placing a halting hand on her arm. “The Ovid contains over a million kals of apollonius radiation. Besides,” he added. “It is against their laws to touch it. Even looking upon it is a great honour, or so Leia tells me.” Mara quickly withdrew her hand and stepped backwards for good measure. “And they just leave this lying around?” she grumbled. “Why have it at all?” Luke shrugged. “It’s a religious artefact. And it’s safe as long as it’s held in that sphere” “Oh,” Mara added sarcastically. “In that case.” And she strode off, wondering at the idiocy of a race that would keep a biological weapon as a shrine. Her usually razor-sharp instincts had failed her. It had soon become apparent, during a ceremony in that very antechamber, that the Koli weren’t as stupid as she had guessed. When blasterfire broke out, the last place you wanted to be was a circular room with the enemy on every side, but that was the very situation they found themselves in. Apparently the Koli weren’t as peaceful as they claimed, in fact quite the opposite. They were in league with the local Imperial Warlord Vyper, who had clearly planned on capturing not only the Chief of State, but half of the Jedi as well. That, or killing all of them, which was always a distinct possibility. Mara engaged one of the Koli warriors in battle, her lightsaber easily slicing through his vibro-axe. He faltered, and she spun around him before aiming a decisive kick into his stomach, causing him to double over in pain and crawl away. Luke was deflecting blaster fire back towards the stormtroopers, causing some of them to retreat back out of the hall. The braver ones kept coming, however, although the Jedi students seemed to be holding them off. “A nice, easy mission, you said,” she called to Luke over the din as she parried another Koli warrior. “Maybe take in some scenery. I should have known better, Skywalker.” She swept her lightsaber at the warrior’s feet, causing him to jump back to avoid the blade and consequently topple over. Luke was easily overcoming his own warrior, and she felt his amusement through the Force. “Probably!” he called out in a voice that could almost be described as gleeful. But the blaster fire increased and it took all of their efforts to catch the bolts with their sabers, ducking and weaving, knowing which bolts the other would catch; almost like a dance they were performing. She wasn’t sure if it was a deflection from his saber, or hers, or even if it was simply a stray bolt which was way off target, but in a sickening moment they both heard the crack behind them. Mara turned, and sure enough, the Ovid had been struck by blaster fire. She could already see the cracks forming in the sphere, and a wisp of green gas begin to escape. “I thought you said that thing was safe!” she called to Luke, turning back around to catch the barrage of fire that was still being fired at them “Obviously not against blasters,” Luke grimaced. There was a long moment when he seemed to be deep in thought, even as he fought off the oncoming blaster bolts. “If it explodes, or even leaks…” he shook his head, his mouth in a firm line. “I have to do it.” “What?” “That sphere has enough radiation to wipe out the entire planet,” he cried, his eyes bright, his face determined. “If I can channel it using the Force into myself, I can stop that.” “Luke, you can’t!” she cried, swinging her lightsaber savagely as she deflected another blaster bolt. “There’s no other way,” he said simply as three stormtroopers approached him and he engaged them in battle. Mara glanced over at Leia and Han, who had taken up positions at the eastern wall and were firing expert shots into the mass of stormtroopers. She looked back at Luke, briefly allowing herself to admire his fighting style, even as she deflected further bolts of oncoming fire and dispatched a stormtrooper who advanced on her. She couldn’t allow Luke to give his life like this; not with his sister there, not when there were dozens of students waiting to be trained into Jedi and he was the only one who could teach them. Because despite her misgivings, Mara did believe in his cause. She believed in him. No other way? She thought to herself. We’ll see about that. Luke had dispatched his stormtroopers, but still more advanced on him. Taking advantage of his distraction, Mara abandoned her post and ran to the podium in the centre of the room. The sphere shone so brightly Mara wanted to look away, but she forced her eyes to remain on it even though the light stung, so much harsher than it had earlier. She noticed the hairline cracks around the edges of the sphere where the radiation was already beginning to seep out. She sheathed her lightsaber and placed her hands on either side of the Ovid, fingers covering the cracks. She winced as the radiation touched her skin; it was like fire, but somehow so much worse, agonisingly hot and yet unbearably cold at the same time. Mara gritted her teeth and closed her eyes, trying to ignore the pain even as it increased. She took a deep breath, and calmed herself like Luke had taught her, before reaching out to the Force. She focussed on the substance within the sphere, and imagined drawing it into her body. She opened her eyes a slit, and saw that it was working, her hands and forearms tinted green as the radiation was absorbed into her. She opened herself up to the Force, making herself a vessel of it, enough to hold the radiation and neutralise its effects. Pain slammed at her from every side, like thousands of pinpricks on her skin but she did not dare let go of the sphere. She was unable to stop a scream from escaping, or for burning hot tears to stop brimming from her eyes as she slammed them shut again. She vaguely heard Luke call her name, scream at her to stop, but she ignored him, for his life and the lives of everyone else depended on her resolve. There was pain, but Mara seemed to move beyond that; she could feel the Force itself as it possessed her; she could see the universe and every star within it; she could feel every sentient being on every world in the galaxy. She was one with them; their births, their deaths, their bitter sufferings and fiercest joys. It burst within her, like a star gone supernova; matter collapsing in on itself and then being recreated, over and over again as life renewed itself. She was the Force. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few seconds, Mara was compressed back into her body, and she noticed that the pain had subsided. Her eyelids felt unbearably heavy, but she opened them, and her grip loosened on the sphere as it dropped to the floor and shattered. But it was empty now – harmless – she had taken all of the radiation inside herself and sealed it there with the Force. She raised one hand level with her eye, and the green tint subsided, the skin returning to a pale flesh tone. But Mara found her legs no longer worked, and, unable to keep herself upright, collapsed. There were arms there to catch her, and lower her gently to the floor. She looked up, and saw that it was Luke who held her, looking distraught and angry at the same time. “Dammit, Mara,” he said. “Why did you do that?” “Same reason you were going to,” Mara said, although her voice was raw and cracked, and her throat burned. “Why should you have all the glory?” She tried to laugh, but coughed, and felt the warm, metallic taste of blood. Luke’s jaw visibly clenched and he shook his head. “You should have let me do it,” he said gruffly. “Oh, Skywalker,” she whispered, as her chest constricted and heart beat erratically. “So quick to give – so unwilling to accept the gifts of others.” She swallowed heavily and clamped down on her pain in her ribcage. “How many times have you been willing to give your life for others – for me?” she asked him. “Let someone else make the sacrifice for a change.” She coughed again, and she could feel her lungs go raw. “You’re needed,” she rasped, and glanced upwards to where Leia and Han stood behind Luke, and behind them, at a respectful distance, Kyp Durron and the students from the Jedi Academy – the battle was over. Leia’s hand was pressed against her mouth, her brown eyes wide and full of tears, and even Han, who had one arm around Leia’s shoulders, looked distressed. “Oh, Mara,” Luke said softly, drawing her gaze back as he tenderly brushed the hair away from her forehead. “You are needed.” She tried to smile, but found she did not have the energy. She couldn’t feel her legs, or Luke’s arms which she knew must be wrapped around her. Even her vision was going dark and fear set in. Mara tried to speak, tried to call his name – Luke – but her muscles would not obey her; her mouth would not form the words, and her voice would not speak them. Concentrating, Mara willed herself to at least make some movement and rejoiced when she was able to shift the fingers of her left hand, just barely. She could not see him, but Luke must have noticed, because his hand enveloped hers and squeezed comfortingly. That, she felt. Mara tried to tether herself to him, and to life, concentrating on the pressure of his hand, his fingers wound in hers, to pull herself back. But even the awareness of his touch faded, slowly, as everything went finally dark.