Hokay, this is what I've been working on lately, and I think I'm satisfied enough with it to call it a day and just post it. Title: What Ails You Timeframe: post-VOTF/Union Characters: Luke Skywalker, Mara Jade Genre: introspection Summary: Musings on frailties and humility, both humorous and serious. Amidst the roiling sea of urban life that was Coruscant, Mara Jade Skywalker sought out a single beacon, and was satisfied to find its brilliance dimmed to placid neutrality. At 0250 CST, it should have been. Having been surprised by an impromptu leave by Karrde, her departure wasn't as smoothly planned as she would have preferred, but arriving in the middle of the night was a quirk Mara was more than willing to accept if it meant being reunited with her husband for the first time in seven weeks, earlier than she'd anticipated. Mirax had joked that if teleportation had been possible, she'd have opted for that instead. It did irk Mara a little that calling Karrde soft wasn't nearly as effective anymore when he could toss it right back at her. An appropriate darkness met her at the entrance to their apartment, but a low light source was flickering against the walls. Not two steps in and the soft rhythm of snoring gave her pause. It wasn't that unusual for Luke to zone out on the lounger. It happened once in a while, and he had to be thoroughly exhausted to snore, so it was sensible. She wondered what could have worn him out that much during his visit here. Politics and three young Solo terrors sprang to mind, but still... As Mara silently approached, the flickering light became apparent: the holoproj was on, tuned to a sports channel, with the audio turned down to a faint murmur. There was a second gleam in the dark, however, poised at the end of the lounger–R2-D2, who was not on standby mode. No doubt the astromech had already detected her, but hadn't made a peep. Nevertheless, Mara held a finger to her lips and watched its photoreceptor wink back at her in what she figured was an acknowledgment. Luke was still fully clothed, though his garments were loose and old, not anything he'd wear in public. A blanket covered him haphazardly, and his well-worn datapad was on his lap within his limp grasp. One corner of her mouth curled upwards at the small stain of drool on the cushion beneath his head. Then it dropped. Her brows knit together as a third, almost imperceptible sound caught her attention apart from the holo and his snoring. She bent over him, concentrating. With every breath, each exhalation was punctuated by a tiny wheeze. Mara blinked and straightened. Oh. Now I get it. Really, Farmboy? Really? So R2, devoted droid that it was, was on self-imposed sentry duty, its master's overprotectiveness obviously contagious. Contagious. Not a word she wanted to dwell on. The welcome haven of their apartment had abruptly transformed into a biohazard. She stifled an audible groan. This was not what she'd signed up for during this cherished time that was going to be over before they knew it. In spite of her ire, though, Mara found herself instinctively sweeping her senses over him to make sure that whatever was ailing him wasn't serious, even as she knew it couldn't be. Masochist that he was, Luke wasn't stupid. No, overall he was fine, his presence strong and subdued only by sleep. Unconcerned with waking him now, she brushed her fingers across his stubbled cheek and felt he wasn't feverish. His eyelids twitched and he gave a little snort at her touch, but wasn't roused. She sighed. Dawn was only a few hours away, and disturbing his rest any further would be pointless and spiteful. Instead she switched off the holoproj and carefully extricated the datapad from his hands to lay it on the caf table. He definitely had some explaining to do, though. * Steam rose from the two mugs set out on the kitchen counter. Mara softly drummed her fingers on its surface, visions of Karrde and Mirax smirking at her in her mind's eye. Shortly after her appearance, R2 had returned to its alcove, trusting that she'd carry on watching over Luke. She'd spent the rest of the night quietly getting settled in and mulling over the perplexing conundrum of why he was harboring an illness instead of having cleared it up immediately. As much as she used to resent and insult him over the years about his seemingly perverse willingness to endure severe bodily harm, she knew deep down that his sincere denials weren't falsehood. She treasured his selflessness now as the rare and precious gift that it was, even as it would never fully cease to irritate and confound her to some degree. At least their union ensured that he would always have someone to watch his back while he looked out for everyone else's. But no, Luke most certainly did not enjoy being laid up. He craved action as much as she did, and moreover, could not afford to sideline his responsibilities for long. And he simply hated it, period. Succumbing to frailties wasn't so much a matter of pride for him as it was just uncomfortable. There was some nuance to this aspect of his personality that she hadn't quite ascertained yet; it still hung at the periphery of her knowledge. So why was he indulging this moment of weakness? A few meters away, Luke shifted on the lounger. She'd deliberately keyed off the auto-screens on their sitting room windows so let maximum sunlight enter, hoping it would wake him without her having to interfere. He stirred again and sipped a deep breath that abruptly hitched, triggering a slight frown on his still somnolent features. A low noise in his throat turned into a wheeze that was much deeper that what she'd heard earlier, and then he was suddenly hacking with a wet, rattling cough. Mara stiffened, regarding him with concerned disgust at what sounded like a standard ton of phlegm knocking around. He'd just awakened and his face was already flushed red. He placed a hand against his chest, and she could see that he was in pain and possibly nauseated; the taste at the back of his throat was likely repulsive, especially first thing in the morning. Luke finally pried his eyes open once he caught his breath, squinting at the light– And froze at the sight of Mara, sitting in the kitchen and gazing dubiously back at him. She had to admit that his look of absolute shock was quite priceless. “Morning, Germy.” It did rhyme with his old nickname. He blinked repeatedly, rubbed his eyes, and coughed again before a hint of a very sheepish smile began to tug at his lips. “If it was a couple of days ago, I'd swear I was hallucinating.” His voice sounded as if he were speaking around gravel. “Yeah, about that...” Mara took a mug and brought it to him. “Here, I made you some ulmus tisane. Good thing you had an old stash in the pantry.” She'd found that odd too, though convenient. “Thanks.” He accepted it gratefully and obscured another cough behind its rim. “Mara, you're–” “Our last run finished ahead of schedule, and Karrde let me and Mirax loose early. He understands.” She let her affectionate annoyance dance through their bond. A variety of expressions passed across his face, ranging from mortification to delight, as she retreated back to the kitchen. When he coughed again, it was obvious that he was trying to suppress its full intensity. “Sorry,” he rasped, “s'not as bad as it sounds. I'm like an old engine on cold start in the morning.” Mara's hand made a circular gesture. “So, this...” “Anakin came down with it, then Jaina and Jacen. We thought it was the Cardooine Chills at first. Seemed just like it. We've all had it in the past and you only get it once, so...I wasn't that careful. Later on we noticed they weren't asking to devour everything in the conserv. I guess this is a different strain. Or maybe something completely different.” Luke's eyes were both rueful and amused as they peered at her over the mug. “I'm sorry, I didn't know you'd be back this soon.” “Otherwise you'd have nipped this in the bud? Why put up with it just because I'm not here? You look and sound terrible.” She shook her head. “I swear, I let you out of my sight for a little while...” But it only elicited a wheezing chuckle. “It'll pass eventually.” “I know, but–” “It's not a matter of life and death, you know,” he remarked gently. At her frown he added with a small shrug, “Unnecessary use of the Force and all.” Her mouth dropped open, and she leaned back in her seat, arms crossing. “Hey, I didn't mean for you to take my advice that far.” “Why not? I mean, this isn't anything my immune system can't handle in a few days. That's what it's there for.” Mara gave him a narrow stare, the one that said, You're holding out on me, Farmboy; spill it. He held her gaze for a few moments before deciding to study his beverage and take a long draught from it. She could tell from the shade of his thoughts that he wasn't really hurt...but he was, just a little. Yes, she had to admit that treating him as if he was radioactive was a bit harsh–if anything, it only showed that she was scared of a puny virus, a trivial malady that even she at this point knew how to cope with thanks to her own husband's patient and thorough training. And that just wouldn't do. Sighing again, she surrendered her post and approached the lounger, and Luke scooted aside to make room for her. She surprised him by divesting him of his mug and pulling on his shoulder just enough that he realized she wanted him to lie back against her, so he settled down with his head on her lap. Her fingers slipped through his disheveled hair. He would have opened up and told her even if she'd kept her distance; Mara sensed he was in the mood for talking regardless. But this gave him an extra incentive. “Leia told me something about Jacen once,” he began. “They were on vacation, and he was bored, so she suggested a few things for him to do; one of them was learning some fighting techniques in a Noghri children's class. He told her, and I quote, 'Jedi don't need that stuff, we have the Force.'” Luke locked eyes with Mara, and her brows arched toward her hairline. The embarrassment in his faint smile now had nothing to do with being an inadvertent personal hindrance. She could perceive his genuine regret at ever being a bad influence on his niece and nephews. “Leia did have them checked out at Orowood just to be safe. But I remembered what she'd said, and I talked it over with her and Han, and we decided it'd be better to just let it run its course.” “And then it hit you, and...you decided to take one for the team. Does Jacen know you're sick?” “Oh yeah. I was with them when I started feeling a little run down, and I've kept in touch over the comm while I'm holed up in here.” Mara leaned back, idly stroking his hair as she pondered the information. When she'd recovered from her charric burn back in the Hand of Thrawn fortress, Luke had admitted to her that healing another individual took more effort and was less effective than self-healing. Despite this, her shoulder had been fully restored, and she had no doubt that he could have easily healed the children, saving them a trip to the medcenter and a lot of dramatic juvenile misery. Perhaps he could have even used the occasion as a lesson in rudimentary healing skills. Instead, he'd let it all go as an entirely different lesson: the humility of embracing fragile, ordinary mortality. She was surprised and a bit chagrined at herself for not having thought of this when she'd spoken her mind to him on Nirauan. Maintaining health was so deeply ingrained into her self-discipline that she'd never really considered it from the perspective of Force usage. Pain suppression and basic healing techniques had gone along with the various other skills that had evaporated in the wake of Palpatine's death, and only under Luke's tutelage–briefly in the early days of his academy and once more after their engagement–had she begun to regain and hone these abilities. The privilege of being able to recover from anything ranging from blaster wounds to the sniffles was yet another advantage that the Jedi had over most other beings, and it was one that Mara had subconsciously been willing to overlook, because it suited her. Illness was something she could not risk dealing with in combat or in the midst of her demanding career. Yet she'd had to bear it during her years on the run, when she'd sometimes lacked the funds to buy simple medications, and even after being hired by Karrde, when the Force had been elusive. She knew he was aware of her understanding his intent, so her flippant response wouldn't be misjudged. Mara cast her eyes to the ceiling in mock exasperation. “I can't believe we're getting philosophical over a common virus.” “You did marry me.” “I don't remember that being in the 'in sickness and in health' part of our vows.” He winked up at her. “It was in the fine print.” They shared a mutual smile at their unspoken appreciation of this odd but enlightening circumstance. She laid her other hand on his chest, a cursory brush of the Force revealing the inflammation in his lungs. It certainly didn't feel like a party tolerating that, as much as he was downplaying it. “Are you really okay, though? Have you at least taken anything for it? Although I don't think our medkit has gundark-strength expectorant.” Luke's eyes shone with an impish glint. “Are you fretting about me, love?” “I'm your wife. It's kind of my job to care, big deal or not.” Since you so often don't. “You just don't want to hear me snore.” She chewed on her grin. “Well...all right, no, that too.” He let out a gleeful, wheezy little cackle that turned into another ugly cough, and he grasped her hand over his sternum, as if her touch could somehow dispel it. “Luke, I mean it. This better not turn into pneumonia. I'm sure you've already proven your point to the kids.” When he finally managed to gasp a full breath, he blew it out slowly to calm himself. His eyes drifted shut and she felt his humor fade as fatigue crept in to replace it. In the brilliant sunlight his pallor stood out, and his heart raced against her palm. Mara wondered if this virus had struck the children as hard as it seemed for Luke. “It was pretty rough for them too,” he whispered, picking up on her mental trail. “But I've never done well with respiratory infections.” “Oh?” She gave his hand a slight squeeze before releasing it to smooth out the blanket that had bunched around his legs. “I don't know if it's just the way I am or if it's because I caught dust fever a couple times as a kid.” “What was that?” “Nasty stuff. A spore from out in the badlands on Tatooine.” “Wait, a fungus? In the desert?” You mean there's something besides badlands over there? He opened his eyes to glance up at her. “There're stranger things. It's not in a lot of areas, but when you've got dust storms going halfway across the planet it doesn't matter. I think I was five the first time. I barely remember any of it, but...” Mara could tell he was experiencing a vivid memory. “I do remember Aunt Beru looking down at me when I woke up in the Anchorhead clinic. She was so scared but trying not to be, for my sake. I didn't understand what happened until I was older and sick again.” His voice was soft and detached. “I think I almost died.” It was surreal to think that a microscopic organism on some backwater world choked with as much poverty and harshness as it was with dust could have snuffed out the existence of the man whose life had turned the fate of an entire galaxy. Across their bond flashed the image of a woman's face, still young but already growing weathered by radiation and stress, her demeanor stretched taut with anxiety, sorrow and relief. Mara searched beneath the blanket for his hand again and clasped it tightly. Had Kenobi interfered to preserve his young charge's life? She wasn't getting any impressions from his recollection that the Jedi Master had been present, but he had just admitted that his memory was lacking due to delirium and age. Still, she found it hard to believe that Kenobi wouldn't have sensed the potential danger and lent his aid. For all they knew, perhaps that was the only reason why Luke had survived. Yet another mystery for the ages. “I was thirteen the next time, but it wasn't as bad. I managed to ride it out at home, but I was in bed for more than a week. Took another to feel like myself again. Ever since then, almost every bug I catch goes straight to my chest.” She realized that explained the presence of the ulmus tisane in the pantry. Evidently it was insurance in spite of the more reliable option of Force healing. Although Mara knew they would hopefully have a lifetime together to discover each other's hidden facets, she was a bit taken aback by this particular vulnerability. Luke always seemed the picture of health when he wasn't ravaged by another deadly mission. “It left a few scars,” he continued, mumbling. “Small ones, nothing I could feel. Could've passed an Academy physical.” She caught his fleeting irreverence of the Alliance wasn't that picky anyway. “After Bakura, um...you remember when I told you about those...things I'd had?” “The bloodthirsty bronchial worms from the ninth Corellian hell? Yes, fondly. Your perils definitely had panache, at least.” “Um...yeah. That was the first time I managed to pull off a deep healing trance, while Han flew us to a little side trip Admiral Ackbar wanted us to take before we regrouped with the fleet at Endor. Leia, being Leia, still wanted me to be screened when we finally made it back, just to make sure.” “Of course.” “The medic gave me a look like I'd sprouted a third arm or something. Then he asked if I'd gone and swapped out with a pair of new vat-spun lungs.” Mara went very still. Over the imaginary horizon she could already see where his thoughts were leading. “I hadn't even focused on them when I did it. But the lesions were gone. It was like it'd never happened. And...all I could think about was Father.” Sympathy she could give him, and empathy at having been denied her own parents. But this, his most private grief, he would always have to bear alone. Not even his own sibling shared it, any degree of personal forgiveness aside. Ironically, Mara herself could far better comprehend the inexplicable, bittersweet love that Luke held for his father, because for a split second and an eternity the Force had placed her there, amidst his innermost memories. This in particular had been too intense for her to forget, and it remained imprinted in her mind. But even then, she couldn't bring herself to feel what he felt for the man. Vader had been nothing more than a belligerent and fearsome rival. Her heart clenched for her husband, though, for the pain he would carry to the end of his life and the beauty of his compassion. “There could have been other options for him, if...it'd come to that.” She wasn't sure what to think about how she would have handled a Vader–an Anakin Skywalker–who had lived. It was likely better that he hadn't. Luke's head shifted rhythmically against her legs, a brief shake. “I doubt he would've taken them. I mean...I don't know for sure. But I think he probably wouldn't have.” He sighed with caution. “I might not have been able to do anything to help him anyway. The damage to him was so extensive, and much older. But...I tried not to dwell on it. He was gone, but...he wasn't. Even if I couldn't see him anymore. Where he is now...he's more than just whole. He's free.” His words were not vain self-appeasement; true peace and contentment were wrapped around his soul. He would always remain in this state of already-not yet, suffused with joy at his father's hard-won redemption and the promise it held for eternal reunion, while scarred and burdened with a dark legacy and the intimate suffering it had caused his family. He was only human, in the end. As he was trying to show his nephew. Luke had closed his eyes again and finally fell silent, radiating gratitude through his drowsiness. Their conversations typically played out this way. He was far more talkative and Mara would listen, adding some dry commentary throughout, and yet half of their words were never uttered, instead flowing to and through one another seamlessly through their bond. She reflected his appreciation back at him, and wondered if, in spite of their connection, Luke could truly comprehend just how strongly she loved this fellowship, this exquisite mingling of disparate personalities. Pushing the blanket aside, he lifted the back of her hand to his lips. Of course I do, my love. Then he blinked, and gave her an apologetic look. “Oh. Sorry.” “It's fine. I'm already here. My fate is sealed.” “You don't have to do what I'm doing–” “What, and be a hypocrite? I don't do anything halfway. Besides, if Han and Leia didn't catch it, I might not.” Slyness crept into his expression. “Oh, I didn't say they didn't.” Mild dread settled into the pit of her stomach. “Kreth, Han's a bigger baby than all three of his minions put together. I'll have to give Leia my regards when I see her.” Luke allowed himself to laugh and didn't care that it set off another coughing fit, until his eyes suddenly widened and he flailed, scrambling off of her and almost rolling to the floor as he fought to untangle his legs from the blanket. He made a mad dash for the bedroom, and the sound of violent heaving and spitting informed her that he'd been headed for the 'fresher. Well, between his amusement and the tisane, he was making progress, at least. Mara found him leaning over the basin, still coughing and breathing heavily, and she rubbed his back to soothe him. Feeling self-conscious, Luke ran the water and gave his face a quick wash, and she handed him a small towel to dry off. “All right, here's our agenda for today. You're going to take as hot a shower as you can stand, I'm going to ask Chewbacca if he's willing to whip up one of his spicy stews for later, and we're going to hang out in bed and watch lots of trashy old holovids.” His bloodshot eyes sparkled. “Sounds like a plan.” In an eyeblink, though, his demeanor turned wary. “Just...not the Cronal ones, okay?” She'd pulled that on him once as a particularly mean-spirited joke, and he hadn't taken it well at all. They'd been wiped from the major networks per Luke's persuasive request, but still circulated on underground channels. “Not even the Geptun ones?” “No.” She rolled her eyes, feigning disappointed annoyance. “Oh, fine.” “We'll watch the Lando ones.” Now it was her turn to look piqued. Luke literally thrust his tongue into his cheek as he grinned. Mara snatched the damp towel out of his hand and snapped it hard against his thigh before storming out of the 'fresher. Her husband's hoarse but gentle laughter rang throughout the apartment, following her.