Lando found Luke in the weight room, and admired his bicep curls. The way the muscles moved smoothly under the skin, not too bulky but with such power and control …
"You could join me, you know," Luke said.
"But then I'd miss the view," Lando said. He did work out with Luke, sometimes, but Luke used exercise as a form of meditation and Lando preferred to talk or watch the Holonet. And Lando greatly appreciated watching Luke, anyway; the robes hid entirely too much.
Before too long, the only other person in the room finished with the weight machine and left.
"Just got a message from Mara," Lando said.
"Oh?" Luke asked, hopeful. She'd been in contact sporadically, but only through text messages. No holo, not even voice. And she was more likely to respond to Lando than Luke.
"She said she was available for vacation on Amshtl'e, after all," Lando said. "Said she's heard it's got some great dance floors, and was looking forward to them."
"Dancing?" Luke looked up at that. "Has she ever gone dancing with you before?"
"No," Lando said. "Turned me down hard the only time I asked her."
"Well," Luke said, "guess that means I'm not going with you after all." He lifted the weight above his head and began doing triceps extensions.
Lando could see he was disappointed, and doubted it was because he would miss out on the vacation. "I'm sure she'll stop avoiding you eventually," Lando said.
"Yeah," Luke said. "I hope it's sooner rather than later. Nobody else is quite that willing to call me an idiot when I'm being stupid. It's nice."
"Yeah, the problem with me is, I'm too nice to you sometimes," Lando agreed.
"I'd say you're just the right amount of nice," Luke said, winking at him.
Mara dancing was a sight to see. Her form and control were perfect, as far as Lando could tell, and while he was no slouch himself, she had far outstripped him a long time ago, and he'd settled in a booth with a drink to watch her take on all comers. As a pure exhibition of grace and artistry it was breathtaking; in a person he was (probably) going to have sex with that night, it was enticing.
He didn't say anything about it, though, until the next day, when after a very late start, they were wandering around the resort's extensive gardens. "You're such a great dancer, I hope you enjoyed yourself last night."
"I did," Mara said shortly.
"You shut me down the last time I asked you to dance." He kept his tone carefully neutral. An observation she could respond to or not.
"That was my cover in the Palace," Mara said. She was studying a flower planting at their feet. "And often on missions, too. His favorite dancer."
That was more than she'd ever told him before. "Ah?" he said, desperately curious but not wanting to show it or pressure her.
"When I realized … just how bad he was, what he had done to me, I tried to avoid anything that reminded me of him, even the things I used to like," Mara said, arms folded across her chest. She still hadn't looked up. "I've recently realized that's still giving him power over me. And I don't want to do that."
"Say the word, and we can go dancing whenever you want," Lando said.
Their week on Amshtl'e fell into a pattern: late night spent dancing, followed by really enthusiastic sex (Lando seemed to particularly like when she showed off moves requiring strength, Mara noted, and he really liked it when she then used those moves on him afterward). Slow morning, followed by an afternoon of sightseeing or gambling. Mara had never really cared for gambling, as being able to feel your opponent's reactions no matter how good their sabacc face took some of the fun out of things. But she didn't dislike it, and Lando enjoyed it a lot.
Their last night together, as Mara lay draped over Lando's chest, she gathered her courage. "The Emperor made me depend on him for everything," she said. "Especially emotional support. He conditioned me to care about him more deeply than anything else. And he made me feel like he cared about me almost as much. He was my entire world, and I thought I was happy. And then he died, and I was utterly alone, but at least I could comfort myself with my memories of how I had loved him and he had known and appreciated me. And then I learned that it was all lies, start to finish, manipulation and compulsion and training. And my memories feel slimy and claustrophobic, with all the things I know now. And when I start to get close to people, I feel claustrophobic. But I still crave that connection. Even knowing it was nothing but lies. And the whole thing makes me so … sick. I don't want to be alone. But I start to feel trapped very easily."
"Thank you for telling me," Lando said. "I know it must be very hard to talk about." He didn't talk for a while, and Mara certainly wasn't going to break the silence; she'd said more than enough. "You don't have to tell me why you need things, you know," he said at last. "Just tell me what you need, and I'll see what I can do. You don't owe me your secrets."
"I know I don't," Mara said. "I'm experimenting with opening up to people I trust in non-traumatic moments. It's nothing you don't already know or can't figure out."
"Still," Lando said.
They were silent for a while, Lando stroking her hair. "My life before Bespin was pretty chaotic," he said at last. "Nothing and no one lasted for long. People left—sometimes double-crossing me along the way—or they died, or whatever. I moved constantly, always looking for the new job, the new con, the new deal. The Falcon was my home base for longer than anything else had ever been, even when I was a kid, which was part of why I was so mad at Han when he won it off me. I was alone, and I just sort of assumed that the only people who weren't alone were characters in holodramas, rich people who bought their friends, and Han with Chewie's life debt. I thought it was fine."
Mara listened. It was nothing she didn't already know from his old Imperial file, which she'd read in preparation for the mission in Jabba's palace, but it was interesting to get his perspective on it.
"Then I won Cloud City off Baron Raynor," he continued, "and my first thought was to sell it and move on, as always. The problem was, he'd been an even worse manager than he was a gambler, and it wasn't producing anywhere near as much as it should. The casinos were profitable, but the mining part of it…. I thought I could do better, so I tried it. And I discovered I was good at it, and I liked it, so I stayed. And the longer I stayed, the more I got to know people. I wasn't very close to any of them, but they trusted me and I was responsible for them. It was the first place I'd ever really felt like I belonged in my life. And then Darth Vader came, with a terrible deal, and I tried to make the best of it, I tried to protect everybody I could, and in the end, nothing worked. I was on the move again, except this time I was part of a cause. I made friends, and some of them died, but nobody left. Then the war was over, and I built Nkllon, and it was like Bespin again only better, because I had a hand-picked crew and we were building it together, I wasn't stepping in to someone else's shoes.
"And then … Thrawn. And I had to start all over again. And I couldn't. I was stuck; couldn't go back, couldn't make myself go forward. And then Luke offered me a chance to go sideways, and I took it. And I'm glad I did. That's not a hint for you, by the way, saying you should make the same choice I did. I'm just saying, our issues may come from different places, but I get how hard it can be to even realize you have them, because it just seems normal to you."
Mara lay there and thought about it for a while. Lando kept stroking her hair; it was very soothing.
"Do you think Luke has abandonment issues, too?" she said eventually.
"Luke?" Lando said drowsily. "Not abandonment issues, no. Martyr complex like you wouldn't believe—"
"Seen it in action."
"—Daddy issues like I've never seen—"
"Thankfully, he doesn't talk about those when I'm around, but I can imagine."
"—and a crashing inferiority complex about the old Jedi Order—"
"—but no abandonment issues."
"Can you imagine what a trio we'd make if he did?" Mara asked.
Lando went still underneath her. "Is that something you'd like to try?" he asked carefully.
"Haven't decided yet," Mara said. "But I know I don't want my issues with the Emperor to be the reason, whichever way I choose."
A month after Lando got back, Luke got a call from Mara. He'd gotten some text-based messages from her, mostly about her day-to-day life, and responded with anecdotes about what was happening on Yavin.
This was a holo, and not even pre-recorded. He took it in one of the private comm booths, hurrying so she wouldn't have to wait long.
"Hello, Mara, good to see you," he said as he arrived. "How are things with Kellis?" Almost half her last message had been complaints about the underling's incompetence.
Mara rolled her eyes. "Don't ask. Still, I think even Karrde has finally been convinced that the appropriate reward for her undoubted services to the organization is 'job she is good at even if it's not very exciting' and not 'job she wants but is terrible at and isn't learning fast enough, or at all.'"
They chatted about how things were going for both of them for a few minutes, and then Mara got a pinched look on her face Luke recognized. She was going to say something she found difficult. He took a deep breath, and reminded himself not to crowd her or make her feel pressured.
"I've been thinking about what you said, a while back, about wanting a relationship like your aunt and uncle had, where they could absolutely depend on each other no matter what," Mara said. "And that scared me, both because it seemed overwhelming and because what would I do if a relationship like that ended and I had to start over again?"
Luke opened his mouth to apologize for pressuring her, and she held up a hand. "Please let me finish, Luke." He settled back to listen again.
"But then I realized that you and I already have that relationship," Mara said, staring at him. "Don't we? When was the last time either of us had a major crisis without the other getting involved somehow? Not day-to-day problems, I'm talking something really big. You can answer that, by the way."
Luke thought. Their scale of crisis was so much larger than anybody else. Day-to-day problems, both handled on their own (although these days, Luke had Lando for those parts). Dark Force-users, Imperial warlords on a rampage, major political turmoil … if one got involved somehow, the other usually ended up in the middle of things, too. "I don't know," Luke said. "It's been a while, though."
"Exactly," Mara said. "That thing you want? We already have that. And it was only frightening to me when I thought about it in those terms. When I consider it in the abstract, I have all sorts of issues. When I just look at how our relationship actually is in practice, I'm fine. It's great. Except for one thing." She leaned forward. "If we've already got the other things, then I damn well want the sex parts, too. We're doing the hard part; I want the fun part as well."
She sat back and spread her hands.
"I never thought about it like that," Luke said, a little taken aback. "But you might be right."
Mara snorted. "Farm boy, haven't you learned by now that I'm always right?"
"Always?" Luke said with a smile, giddy with relief that things between them seemed to be on the mend. "I'm thinking about that little incident on—"
"Anyway, I've got another call coming in soon," Mara interrupted him hastily. "Unfortunately, things are very busy right now and I don't know when I'll next be able to get out to Yavin or take time for the two of you to join me. But the next step is probably negotiating parameters that everyone can live with, which I'm telling you right now, I'm probably never going to be able to settle permanently in one place."
"That's okay, Mara," Luke said. "You can travel as much as you need. I'd just like Lando and I to be what you come home to in between."
"I think I'd like that," Mara said.