Renewal: Chapter Ten
Ivy

"This is the stupidest thing youíve ever done."

Han said nothing.

This was the fourth time Leia had told him this and the fourth time that heíd dismissed her. That didnít stop her from saying it again and again.

They had hopped, made seven brief lightspeed jumps, dropping out of hyperspace within minutes each time, and to her dismay, ended up exactly where they had started. Had she been paying attention she might have realized what he was up to, but she hadnít, and now they were parked on one of Takornanís moons, tucked into a fissure parallel to the pockmarked and pitted grey surface. The landing grapplers had been unable to claw their way into the rock, and the moon was so small gravity was nonexistent. Using what some termed genius, others insanity, Han had charged the rear and lower vector magnets and was relying on the satelliteís high metallic content to keep them stationary until it was time to go. Stationary was a loose term for incessantly rocking back and forth while the Falconís repulsors fought to prevent it from colliding with the jagged crown of the fissure. Every few minutes the ship bounced from side to side, up and down, struggling to resettle itself. The proximity alarms wailed incessantly.

Their precarious position had one benefit. They were completely obscured from vessels or sensors overhead, and for the next hour or so, until the moon turned, they had a birdís eye perspective of the planet theyíd escaped from. Granted, Baskarn no longer looked like a fairy world, no longer beautiful, inspired none of the awe she had experienced when she and Luke saw it weeks ago. The aureate atmosphere now reminded her of yellowish Cyanogen gas that was fatal to creatures who survived on oxygen, the spumescent clouds reminded her of the eerie smoke that billowed out of crematoriums, that had been life and was now shells that had contained life burning. Together they cloaked and trapped whatever existed down there, all of Baskarnís secrets, all of Palpatineís secrets.

Han was being cryptic and uncommunicative. The way heíd explained it so far, they were waiting to make sure Luke made his escape, and needed to stay out of range of the HOS scanner, which was no more than a silver dot in the far off sky, hovering just above the atmosphere.

Their argument came and went in cycles.

"What if Luke left right after us? He might already be on his way to the rendezvous point."

"Iím betting he didnít."

"How would you know?"

"I donít. Iím guessing."

They kept waiting, staring at the real life planetarium. Red hydrogen drifts floated by, casting a pink glow in the inside of the cockpit. No craft were in their field of vision, no reconnaissance vessels left to make their runs. It was quiet. Keep your eyes peeled for any sign of activity, Han had told her.

"Aha ... Aha ... There they are."

Eight vessels came tumbling out of the atmosphere, trailing fiery streaks of protoplasm. Han switched on his multiview display system, ran through the group to check their identifications. He pointed to a tiny blip on screen, tabbed for higher resolution. "Thatís Luke."

She leaned nearer to the screen. "Are you sure?"

"His was the only Y-wing right? See ... sixteen meters in length, one life form on board." He squinted. "Disc ventrals attached to the avionics. The rest are snubfighters. There werenít any others there ... and Iím guessing they wouldnít take his own ship out for a spin to get him."

"Okay." So heíd been right. She checked to make sure the Falconís communications were on -- Luke knew the frequency, though she wasnít sure he knew they were within range, and the snubfighters wouldnít jam him since they didnít know they were there. But he must ...

"Is there a master code encryption back with the Fleet to crack into their communications," he asked.

"Why?"

"Can I have it?"

After a momentís consideration, Leia decided that aiding and abetting in her own escape (destroying New Republic property to boot) reduced handing over top secret codes to Han to an inconsequential offence. She gave it to him, watched him key it into his surveillance transceiver and turn up the intercom, wondering if Luke knew they were here, if they were waiting for instructions on where to go.

"Blue Seven and Blue Eight- youíre cleared to follow him when he makes a jump. The rest of you hold your positions. Fire to disable if you can. Ion cannons."

"I canít get a lock, Blue Leader."

"Keep trying
."

Leia knew her siblingís astrogation abilities exceeded his craftís nav-computer, that he could plot a jump in a split second. She tried to relax and reach out for him ...

Just as his Y-Wing vanished from the scopes.

"Blue Leader, this is Blue Seven. Preparing to jump."

"Clear Blue Seven. Follow last known trajectory."

"Repeat message, This Blue Eight
."

They watched as two more of the crafts on his scopes disappeared. Five remained.

"Heíll lose them," Leia commented.

"Yup. He will," Han agreed. "The kidís a good pilot."

Then why are we sitting here?

A few more curt replies followed, Blue Leader ordering his squadron to hold their positions and wait for further instructions. The pilots started jabbering amongst themselves.

"They were really asleep?"

"The entire unit outside his room?"

"Like babes in their motherís arms."

"And no one saw him in the hanger
?" The pilotís voice was incredulous.

"Get this! He told him he was cleared to leave."

"And they listened?"

"Gee whiz, Mack! Do you live in some sort of media deprivation tank. Havenít you ever heard about the stuff that guy can do?"

"Rieekan must be pissed. After Organa and Solo ..."

"Well none of us wanted a head to head show with Skywalker. My brother was training under him at Folor. Heíd held all the sim records."

"Hope weíre not up here too long. I was on my way to the mess hall when we were called. My stomach is growling."

"Yeah, I can hear it over
--"

Han switched it off. "He put them to sleep, thatís all, used a little mind control."

The revelation was instantaneous. She wasnít sure whether to be furious at him for doubting her brother, or to admire his sense of civic duty to the New Republic and the base. He made no move to try and follow Luke, though at this point it would have been foolhardy. Her heart sank. "Han?"

"Uh huh."

The Falcon bumped and rocked again, the alarms squealed. She seized the armrests, feeling acutely spacesick. "There isnít a rendezvous point, is there?"

A flicker of guilt appeared. "No."

"Where is he going? Did he tell you that at least?"

Han continued watching his multiview display screen. "He actually didnít say. I asked and he wouldnít."

Her heart sank further. "Where are we going?"

"Well ..." He swallowed, gave her a minimal rendition of his famous lop-sided smile. "Where would you like to go?"

"Coruscant," she replied immediately. There she would appeal to the Senate Justice Council to review SpecForceís, handling of the investigation, although she would have a hard time explaining how she had left, and whatever credibility she might have had would be circumspect.

The smile evaporated. "Negative."

"Negative? What do you mean negative--"

"Youíre brother thinks itís too dangerous."

Then they had planned this, somehow when Han met with him. She pictured Tryllís unconscious form on the floor of the examining room again. Then she thought about the Korriban Station, watched Han move to start up his engines again. No, no, no ..."Wait."

"Wait?"

"Wait!" It was a gut instinct she wasnít sure she understood, except that they couldnít leave yet ...

Four X-wings dropped out of hyperspace over their heads, so close to their hiding spot if they were upside down they would be waving to the pilots.

"Whoa ..." Han murmured. "Impressive. You know what? I think weíll stay put after all." He craned his neck forward and peered out at them. "You think they traced us back."

"Or theyíve given up already and are returning to the base."

He swore. "And theyíre scanning but .... the metallic content should shield us."

Leia kept thinking. "How long is it until this moon is no longer in range of the HOS?"

Han checked his readings. "Seven hours ...but it doesnít matter since weíll--"

"Could we drop down to Baskarnís surface without being detected then?"

"Why would we want to do that?"

"What sort of explosives do you have on board?"

"Why?"

"Thereís something I need to do."

"Oh no," he groaned. "No way. If itís what I think youíre thinking, the only way weíre gonna be able to get there is at night. Theyíre still running searches during the day. Iíll have to go a thousand kilometers between those clouds and ridiculous trees, not to mention those floaters. Itís bad enough when thereís light."

"I thought you were the pilot who made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs?"

"Iíll let you in a little secret. That wasnít on purpose. I damn near got myself killed."

"Iíve seen you fly through asteroid fields more than once."

"Leia, itís risky and stupid!"

She had no other choice. Hastily she told him what sheíd found during her research, about the force detectors, that everything pointed to Palpatine using Jedi as test subjects and prototypes.

Hanís face was a study in grim disbelief. "I never heard of them," he replied, "but I do remember some strange tales from a few old-timers, the smugglers who were destined to spend their dying days smuggling because every time they made a profit they gambled it away."

"Not like you."

"Hey ..." He pointed his finger at her. "My winnings have saved me and you more times than I can count, havenít they? Havenít you old girl?" He reached over and patted his mismatched paneling with more affection than any inanimate object rightly deserved. "Anyway, there were places you didnít go to play if you wanted to live. Thatís what I remember a few of them saying. I thought they were superstitious and paranoid."

"They usually refer to it as a side effect of the criminal lifestyle."

"I was never paranoid," Han protested. "And I was no criminal."

Crooked illegal enterprises and honest illegal enterprises differed only as a matter of perspective. Hanís personal code of ethics was too firmly ingrained for her to make a dent in it. She had no time to bother now. "Well maybe it was more than superstitions. Maybe they had their reasons. All I know is that as it stands I canít give them the coordinates to our escape pod until I make sure thereís nothing left for them to find at the Korriban Station. And it might the only chance I have to prove that Luke didnít rig the Razionís Edge." Drawing on Sarinís analogy out of sheer desperation, she continued. If she had to beg, so be it. "Han, it would be like turning the Death Star over to our scientists and praying there was never a leak. Please donít tell me you donít understand. I know you do."

He said nothing for a few minutes, set his jaw in an all too familiar grip that meant no, even though she knew in his head he was debating it. "Why do you have to put it that way?" he sighed finally.

"I donít know what else to say. Iím trying to make a point of how imperative this is."

"Itís working."

"Is it?"

"If I adjust the underside sensors I might be able to do it."

"Thatís a yes?"

"Well Iím not gonna adjust them for fun. Plus ... plus ... well I want to see the escape pod for myself."

She resumed her observation of Baskarn and fought back tears. Luke had really left without a touch, without a reassurance, without a message for her. She wondered if heíd had to convince Han, guilt him into doing this, and then she wondered what Han was planning to do with her. Heíd made it quite clear over the past week that his support was limited to security and that she was his assignment , for lack of a better word. Every crack in his professionalism was fleeting and too insubstantial for her to analyze; occasionally genuine, more often reluctant. If only he could set everything aside for a minute.

While she was thinking he made no move to leave. Maybe he was trying remember which sensors needed the adjustments. It wasnít the time or the place, and her gut instincts told her this was a bad idea, that it would fail as it had that afternoon, but she heard herself trying anyway. "Han, can we talk?"

He peeled off his flight gloves and set them on the console. "I should really go get started."

"Can you wait a minute?"

His cheek twitched once, the way it usually did when he was irritated. "I said weíll do it. Weíll take care of the station, pick a new destination ..."

"Are you planning on dumping me off at the most convenient spaceport?"

"I do that, and youíll be on the next available transport to Coruscant. Like I said, Iím not about to let yourself get killed."

Did anything matter to him? "For old timeís sake, right. Because five years mean something to you."

"Something like that."

This is so stupid, she thought. He just slammed a sedative into the Baseís chief Medic, he just broke you out of the base. Now heís in as much trouble as you are, heís put his commission at stake and heís probably going to tell you he was bored and thought this would be fun.

"Naturally," she quipped sourly, "You came to Baskarn out of the goodness of your heart, decided to join the search for old timeís sake too. Was your initial plan to make sure I was alive and take off again?"

"What do you think?"

"I think youíre full of it. How much longer are you going to keep acting like you hate me?"

Something in him charged, or was unleashed. He swung his chair around so viciously it screeched on its bearings. "You know what Leia? Fine! Letís drop the damned charade. Whatever I expected doesnít matter! Whatever I had planned didnít matter, get it! No hypothetical games. I was gone two months Leia! Two fucking months before you were rolling around in someone elseís bed! Whatever I thought? Whatever I was expecting from you ... huh ..." He laughed sarcastically. "Oh and by the way, Sweetheart, it just occurred to me I never asked when the wedding was?"

She was on her feet instantly, storming toward the main hold, snapping, "Ooooh! Thanks for reminding me what a low class, low born, jealous ... bastard you are! I donít know why Iím wasting my time trying to talk to you! Iíd almost forgotten what you were like!"

Ten steps later she realized the emergency floor lights werenít on and she wound up stuck braced against the wall in the darkness. Han was yelling after her to get back up front. Luke was headed for the gods knew where, and if no one in the New Republic would listen to her ...

Miserably she crept back to the cockpit where Han was glowering at the disabled multi-view screen. "Do we have any lumas."

"Hanging over your head where they usually are, but I donít know where you think youíre going. You canít reconfigure the sensors. You need to stay up here and keep watch."

She reached above the stanchion and defiantly searched around for one anyway, saw Baskarn leering at her, laughing. When you first saw this, you were a mother-to-be, a representative of the New Republic, a sister ... "I never told him -- the father -- I was pregnant and I wasnít going to marry him," she said quietly. "I took the mission to Baskarn because I knew you would be back with the fleet and I was afraid to tell you, if your thick skull can wrap itself around why. Maybe that makes me a coward. And ... you might be too angry at me and hurt right now to admit it but I know you care or you wouldnít be doing this."

Silence followed. It felt like days. "Thereís no reward waiting for you this time either."

"Who was he Leia?"

"Someone ..." She took a deep breath. "Someone I was working with."

"Do I know him?"

"No." Theyíd never met in person, so technically it was true. "Heís gone."

"How long were you seeing him?"

"It was one night."

"I donít believe you," Han said softly, finally wrenching his gaze away from the screen.

"Why would I lie about this? What do I possibly have to gain by lying to you? As far as Iím concerned you donít even have the right to ask."

"I want to know who it was."

"Look! You know what, you ... you ..." A suitably despicable enough description evaded her. "If this is how youíre going to be then dump me off at the nearest spaceport. Iíd rather take my chances with the Fleet. It doesnít matter. It was one time--"

Han reached over and set his hand on her hip, lightly at first, then he dug his fingers cruelly into her flesh as though it would stop her from fleeing again. It wasnít tender or kind. "One time, one night or--"

Her cheeks flushed with fury. "Donít! Donít you dare pull this act with me. Last time I checked my I.D. it did not have Property of Han Solo stamped on it! Donít you even want to know whether I cared about him or loved him? Thatís what I would be asking you!"

"Sure you would." He stood up. The hand slid possessively up her side, grazed the curve of her breast. "So you're saying it was just sex?"

"Yes." The base affirmation barely made it out. She felt small and defenseless looking up at him, half his size, his face hidden in the shadows.

"And thatís supposed to make it okay?" He seized her by the shoulders. "It doesnít. What about us? You got pregnant. You donít ..." He started shaking her. "Leia I saw how you were in the medcenter that day. I know how much ... she meant to you."

"My daughter," she whispered. Her insides felt numb and cold, as though third degree burns had deadened not nerves, but emotions. She thought if they cut her open there would be nothing left inside, just a huge empty space. Han kept shaking her but she felt unmovable, rooted in the eye of the storm. "Mine. It was a part of me. It happened and I have to deal with it. Of course I was upset! I am still upset!"

His eyes were ice and metal. "It was also a part of him," he said hoarsely. "And you know what makes this all worse. Iím stuck biting my tongue, trying to do the honorable thing here and I canít even say any of the things to you I want without hating myself. You have no idea how that feels. So itís better if we just donít."

"Donít what?"

"Thereís no point," he countered. "And whatever I did think doesnít matter. I had my reasons for leaving and maybe in the grand scheme of things this wasnít the outcome I wanted or hoped for. All I know is ..." he dropped his hands. "Obviously youíre not the person I thought you were."

"Why? Because the Leia you know would have crawled into some hole and begged you come back? Is that what you wanted? That isnít me! It never was! Iím still the same person, Han. Yes, it changed everything and I loved her but Iím still me ... and ..." He was winning suddenly; she shouted, pointing at him, throwing out anything she could think of. "I didnít walk out on us! You did! And for the record, I shudder to imagine how many times youíve done the same thing."

His expression hardened. "Maybe you didnít know me very well then. Not with you. I would have had too much respect for you to do that so soon." His ego intervened, a touch of brash Corellian swagger. He raised an eyebrow suggestively, alluded to a memory she could only guess at. "Itís not that I didnít have my opportunities, sweetheart -Ė cause believe me I did -- but I didnít act on them. As for you ..." He slammed his fist into the stanchion so viciously she recoiled, stepped around her chair and pressed her back against the side view port. "Donít tell me this was some sort of imaginary way to even a score with me, and if it was ..." He hit the headboard again and ducked beneath it. "Iíve gotta go rework the bloody sensors. You keep watch up here!"

* * * * *

By the time dawn arrived they were safely at the scene of the crash. Han had managed to max out the belly side sensors, which enabled them to fly safely between the forests and the cloud cover.

They avoided each other until right before they left the moon, when heíd wandered back into the cockpit and found Leia staring at the waxing planetary horizon. Heíd stood behind her, looking at the crown of her head, and said, "The sensors are all set but I need your help. I have a case of thermal grenades buried in the smuggling compartments. Youíre small enough to crawl down there and find it."

It wasnít the most direct, Ďletís put everything else aside,í sort of line, but it had came out sounding half conciliatory. Screaming at each other would solve nothing. For the immediate future, they needed to work together.

Theyíd settled into speaking when needed again.

Han examined the escape pod, noticing when he lifted the camouflage netting that their maneuvering jets and the reverse thrusters had been blown out. Inside the pod crash webbing hung to the floor, one of the safety straps had torn loose. SpecForce would have to be crazy to see it and think Luke planned anything. Barring their bizarre assumption that it had been a suicidal operation, most criminals had a knack for putting their own survival first. As for the remote, there wasnít one he could see. He debated ripping apart the paneling and looking for it, but it would be important for SpecForce to find the pod as it was, not tampered with.

They left and landed in the next clearing under Leiaís direction. His sensors picked up the sub-surface inconsistencies immediately, though he doubted he would have found the odd drop shaft concealed in the tree trunk without knowing what to look for. Skywalkers apparently had some internal beacon that served as a magnet for trouble.

Leia flashed her glowrod around while he eyed the haunting scene between coughs. If he ever had the misfortune of returning to Hoth and seeing the remains of Echo Base, this was how it might look, except the freezing temperatures would have preserved the bodies. Here they were so long gone even Corellian corpse grubs would have starved. It gave him the creeps. "How did you want to do this?"

"The computers and consoles." Leia patted the satchel with the explosives. "Anything that might have decipherable data stored inside."

"Well ..." He swung his arm out. "You lead the way."

They hit the laboratories first. Though the consoles were in pieces, Han knew a few intact chips could contain a thousand kilo-trems of data. The MD-4 droids possessed a capacity to store data too, and if their memories hadnít been wiped before the attack whatever they remembered would still be in there. The New Republic was exceedingly proficient in all sorts of databank retrieval systems, though they still had a long way to go with the Imperial Records Library on Coruscant. In recent years the Imperials had taken to leaving clean up crews to demolish every last piece of equipment.

When the laboratories were set, Leia led him through a series of winding passageways, past the personnel quarters and into the storage facilities. She gestured to the crates and piles of loot. "Look ... I know youíre not getting paid for any of this and ..."

"And what?"

"If weíre going to need the credits?"

"I donít," he said, sincerely hoping they werenít going to be on the run that long. Heíd only been paid half in advance for his last assignment, and avoiding Coruscant meant he wasnít going to be collecting the rest any time soon.

"Itís okay," she assured him.

Koolach silk fetched a thousand credits a yard, Farberrie Liqueur two thousand a liter. A crate of the Hapen Wine, along with the jewel encrusted bottles would have paid for the Millennium Falcon five times over, plus every modification heíd ever dreamed of. He gulped back visions of a new Quadex Power Core, the latest Arakyd Concussion Missile Launchers, spare cryonic reserve power cells, Seinar Fleet System upgrades. But this was all blood money. He pretended to test the air temperature, held out his hand. "Trouble is Hapen wine has to be kept exactly at 28 degrees or it skunks. Itís ... Itís too warm down here."

"You think? Luke tried some wine ... he almost spit it out but ..."

"The connoisseurs will want their money back. Trust me," he lied, knowing full well the underground station was cool, a natural cellar. The stuff would literally be worth a fortune. The Dawnstar gems on the bottles would be worth a fortune even if the wine had soured.

"What about the rest of it?"

He shrugged. "None of itís easy to unload. You can buy Farberrie Liqueur on the black market from anyone -- or you could back in the day. I donít feel like lugging bolts of fabric and crystal around, do you?"

"No ..." She sounded relieved. "In that case thereís only one place we have left to go."

He checked his chrono. "We have twenty-six minutes until the fireworks begin."

"Itíll be quick," she promised. "I donít want to be there any longer than I have to."

Cell blocks most definitely werenít on Hanís list of favorite places.

He rubbed his sleeve along the ceiling of the hallway, stared up at his own reflection in the shiny streak swished through the layers of dust. Polished to perfection the black walls and ceilings were essentially mirrors. The purpose was twofold. Not only would the guards have caught the tiniest movement out of the corner of their eyes, but a prisoner would have been able to see himself reflected from every direction in his cell, lain there watching his or her deterioration. It effectively heightened the claustrophobic nature of the place.

"Luke and I both felt something here," she told him.

No, he didnít need to be force-sensitive to feel the lingering horror, nor did he need to know Leia well to see how it affected her. "I take it wasnít a good feeling."

"No ... it was ..." she shivered. "It was awful. It was like every awful feeling youíve ever had bombarding you at once ... pain, loneliness, fear, grief, guilt ... hatred." She walked over to one of the cells and peered inside. "Words donít explain it. This is where itís strongest."

Han tried in vain to feel something other than his own survival instincts urging him to flee. "You can feel it now?"

She nodded.

He flashed his light around and saw the interrogation droids, and that Leia was looking everywhere else. "So you want to just ...uh ... put everything we have left in here and blow it to smithereens." He rapped on the wall. It wasnít the standard duranium the Imperials favored for cell blocks, nor was it steelfab. "Cause I donít know what these walls are made of but Iím guessing theyíre reinforced with something ...."

"That a Jedi couldnít escape."

"Or that we canít blow up, but speaking of the Jedi, I thought there was no such thing."

"Well there must have been. They couldnít get out." She tentatively stepped across the threshold. "Luke says things that happen, in the Force they donít fade right away. Theyíre like smells ... when youíve been cooking all day."

Han stepped to the left, heard a distinctive crunch beneath his boots. The light revealed what looked like finger bones. He grimaced. "Only here whatever youíre making is simmering away on the stove."

"Yeah."

And it was worse in that cell? "Well maybe you shouldnít be in there."

"I might be able to pick something up. Just ... set the last few and give me a moment."

He kept an eye on her while he unpacked their last five grenades, activated them and rolled them down toward the droids. It was a relief to finally get rid of them anyway. One never knew when heavy artillery power might come in handy, but the idea of flying around with them in a storage compartment made him nervous. They were one of the many odd gifts heíd found stashed (and promptly appropriated) on his ship after he was released from carbonite, and heíd never exactly gotten around to asking Lando what theyíd been for to begin with. Leia remained standing with her back to him. "Anything?" he asked.

There was no answer.

He ducked inside and touched her shoulder. "Hey. Letís go."

Her breathing was frenetic by the time she turned back to him, her eyes alight with a strange fire. "Theyíre still calling for help. I can still hear them. I donít know how ... I donít know how to ..."

"Leia, thereís no one here, remember? Itís just us."

"But--"

"An echo," he tried. "Like smells or whatever you were saying a minute ago. Sarin told you they were all dead. They all died."

"They all died," she repeated, as though she was trying to understand what that meant. "Itís too late."

He caught her arm and dragged her outside the cell. "Come on. We donít have time for this. We hang around and itíll be too late for us too."

They were on the Falcon and prepared to take off within ten minutes. Han eased his ship several meters off the ground. The blasts wouldnít reach them, but he wasnít sure the roof of the underground hanger would remain stable. They spent the last seven minutes hovering in silence, watching the cockpit timer and glancing below them. The first explosion was no more than a distant rumbling off in the distance, a gentle earthquake muffled beneath the surface. It was followed by a second, and the rumbling intensified; the grenades created a chain reaction by prematurely setting off the rest. Tiny ripples spread across the clearing, the massive trees shivered, and fog rose from the beneath the grass carpet, broke apart into wisps beyond his view port.

"Itís like souls rising," Leia murmured.

"Now youíre being spooky," he replied, even though he agreed. It was kind of like watching spirits rise to the heavens.

He nosed the Falcon up, headed back for the stars beyond Baskarn. They were quiet again until they jumped, checking repeatedly to make sure SpecForce hadnít tagged and followed. Lightspeed was oddly comforting.

It had been a miracle, really. Hanís mind, woefully short of Threepioís statistical and mathematical skills, fumbled to come up with the odds for Luke managing to find a place for them to land. The Hmumfmumf trees offered no reprieve, no clearings for emergency landings. If theyíd landed on top of them and hadnít been picked up within a few days, they might have died there. After seeing the shuttle, it was very apparent that someone had been willing to go to great lengths to kill both of them. He tried hard not to think about how things might have turned out differently.

Leia broke the silence first. "I canít believe I just did that."

"Me either."

"Do you think we did the right thing?"

"I think so," he reassured her. "Not to say that having a Jedi as a friend has made me biased or anything, but if they came up with a bunch of stuff that only affected Corellians I wouldnít want it to get out."

"And knowing there are people who exist and will pose the same sort of threat to your children, how they would use whatever they found here ..."

He wasnít sure how to respond to that ...

"Thatís what scared me most," she said quietly. "I hadnít ... thought about it yet and it was a sort of wake-up call. There will be no age of renewal or rebirth for the Jedi without endurance and sacrifice and Iím part of it." She squinted her eyes and rubbed her temples. "And now I have a headache."

"Why donít you go lie down," he suggested. Theyíd been awake for over twenty hours. He was beat too, not thinking straight and he didnít want to fight any more.

"Do we have a course set?"

"Right now to the edge of the Sector," he told her. "Weíll drop out halfway to see if we can reach Harkness and dump the coordinates of the escape pod on a skip transceiver for someone at Baskarn to decipher. The sooner we find out what that message was about the better." He steeled himself for an argument -- generally Leia had some slightly altered plan than she always thought was superior to his own. Today there was none coming.

"I think I will do that."

Dumb kindness tumbled from his lips. "The heater in the crew cabin isnít working and Chewieís berth is covered in so much fur youíll suffocate so if you want--"

"I can find extra blankets."

Youíre hands and feet are always blocks of ice, he thought. "Okay. You know where they are."

* * * * *

Despite being physically and mentally exhausted, sleep was elusive. Han hadnít been kidding when he said the heaters werenít working, and although sheíd bundled herself in as many extra blankets as she could find, the frigid cold of space felt as though it were creeping through the floors, into the narrow berth. Leia prayed it was only the heater and that the Falcon wasnít finally falling apart and depressurizing after all of Hanís abuse. She thought of what Sarin had showed her, the morning before they left, the glimpses of the Light side as a sacred realm, less of a conduit for the Force, for control, peaceful and soothing.

The Force reclaims its own ...

Her awareness of the infinities of darkness and death was ruptured and fragmented, riddled with holes. Those who had perished on Baskarn ... Maybe Palpatine had sought to deny the Jedi their one respite from his cruelty, cutting them adrift of the light to which they were destined to return, to their birthright. It was too late for them, for justice, for a rescue, but it was difficult to shake off the sense that she had failed them somehow. Even Anakin Skywalker -- who did not deserve it -- had been absolved by the light, returned to its embrace upon his passing.

Maybe her daughter had too ...

The simultaneous thoughts jolted her into a state that was not conducive to rest. She lay perfectly still, listened to the sound of the broken heater hiss. Its wheezes briefly achieved a chilling rhythm ...

If Tarkin had not come up with his scheme to use Alderaanís to illustrate the Death Starís capabilities, the ensuing torture would have in all likelihood killed you. And even then it couldnít have been worse than whatever diabolical form of termination Vader was planning ... He was going to kill you ...

She broke out in a cold sweat and sat up, groped around for the lights. There were things one knew better than to think about when they were trying to fall asleep. Horrible ways your own father would have killed you were certainly one of them. In the hours after Alderaan had been destroyed, she had no longer cared what was going to happen to her. It was only in reflection, in the aftermath, that the panic and terror had set in. And later, as time went on, bits and pieces of things that did happen, long suppressed, began to surface. She climbed out of the bunk and dragged herself, blankets and all, onto the floor. The throbbing ache in her temple from the stress of the day encouraged her to unclip her braid, and moments later it cascaded free over her face, spilling onto the carpet.

The therapist sheíd been sent to immediately after the Battle of Yavin had said the recovery process from the combined traumas would take years.

Iím handling it, she remembered saying.

Sheíd wished desperately then that she was merely something that could be put back into place easily, like an ornament or a vase. An object that rested idly on a hard to reach shelf, taken out for infrequent celebrations, its absence from that one spot it claimed a glaring reminder that it was missing, that at some point in time it would have to be returned. That she even had a place to be set back would have been enough. Instead sheíd felt as though she were a glass shattered into millions of pieces, that no amount of solvent could glue together again.

It was standard procedure after Imperial capture to be red-flagged and given a psychological evaluation before resuming active duty, though she hadnít known that when sheíd gone to the medcenter on Yavin IV. Sheíd been sick. Sheíd been exhausted. Sheíd been dizzy. Her entire body had ached. The insides of her head had ached. Her heart had ached. People kept hugging her and inadvertently pressing their hands along her spine. The medics had exchanged pained looks when they saw the needle marks and bruises. She hadnít wanted anyone to touch her. She remembered feeling ashamed, seeing their faces, rolling up her sleeves to show them her arms and asking to be released to the command center during the battle.

The victory had only begun when sheíd been ordered back, but by then the adrenaline was wearing off, the pain killers, and it had been growing impossible to stand on her own two feet without swaying. Everyone had started to mourn Alderaan between the hurrahs, begun offering their apologies. She hadnít been able to take it. The medcenter had been an escape then.

The therapist repeatedly asked her if she had suicidal thoughts or felt that she was responsible for Alderaan. No and yes. If she was dead she couldnít very well make the Empire pay for what it had done, and she was willing to die to do it. Wasnít that empowering, liberating? If she was responsible for Alderaan than her lifeís purpose had been set out for her.

I live, I breathe, I fight, I will make them pay ...

It had been enough to sustain her for two years. Time slipped away from her like water in her hands, defined not by standard months or hours, but bases and battles, triumphs and losses.

When Han was in carbonite she realized her life had become much more than to her than a mission, that she had cultivated ordinary dreams, that she wanted to be happy, that she saw her life transcending the war. Searching for him had been, in a sense, her way of taking her desire to live into her own hands for the first time in years, allowing her own needs to take priority. Leaving the Alliance temporarily had been viewed as a healthy decision by her compatriots. It lumped her in with the statistics. She was young enough for her idealism to re-grow, regenerate, find fertile ground and new hope. Alderaanís younger generation was the one that moved on. The old made up the majority of those who flew blind into the graveyard, as though they expected to die and awaken in Alderaanís heavens with their loved ones.

Then Endor ...

Sheíd lost her way since then. There was no one to pray to, no fertile ground for roots to burrow, no anchor to prevent her from drifting. Denial was no longer a reprieve, a defense mechanism, a closet to hide in. Grief was a bittersweet friend whose presence she was so accustomed to she sometimes felt immune to it. Han was the only constant. When he had left four months ago it had hurt a hundred times worse than when Fett had disappeared with him, knowing it had been his choice, that maybe he didnít believe a future awaited them.

He needs time, she told herself. Heís angry and heís been bottling it up for two weeks and ... At least if heís lashing out you itís leaving his system.

Except ... he was responding to her attempts at honesty the way a Hutt would to a respond price increase mid way through a deal.

And they still needed to find Luke. Had he had so little faith in her that he feared she would have turned him away? Resentment flared within her breast, withered. It wasnít like Luke to run.

It wasnít your fault, Luke ... It wasnít and I would have done anything within my power to help you through this.

She burrowed her nose against her bare shoulder. "Where would he go?" she wondered aloud. Master Yodaís home, without a doubt, only she had no idea where it was, what system it was even located in. He had told her once it wasnít even on any of the Alliance charts, which ruled out running searches for uninhabited swampy planets. Endor, was also a possibility, but it was on the other side of the galaxy. She remembered how homesick heíd felt on the voyage out here and that Tatooine was only a day away from the edge of the Sector. If she knew him as well as she thought she did he would go there eventually, to Ben Kenobiís.

Convincing Han to go there was going to be another problem. Setting all but one blanket on the bed, she decided sheíd have a better sleep on the couch in the main hold than in a refrigerator.

* * * * *

Han couldnít sleep either. He was trying to think of sanctuaries that were devoid of both the Empire and the New Republic, old friends they could visit who he could trust to keep their silence. If only most of them hadnít prematurely retired from life altogether, or wound up at places like Akritítar sentenced to hard labor. The few prosperous grifters he knew who were still out there had made it by tossing aside morals and old loyalties, and unfortunately, he and Leia would fetch a bounty worth drooling over.

Additionally, freelancing for the Alliance, accepting a Generalship with the New Republic, meant many of his old smuggling contacts wouldnít touch him with a ten foot poll. He was too famous, too easy to recognize, too long out of the loop.

Heíd briefly considered dumping her at the nearest spaceport like she said, going pick up Chewie ...

Now that would be dumb, he thought wryly. Where would you go?

For the first time in five years he was denouncing his nostalgia for what it was; memories aged to the point of distortion. Sifted to grit, the freedom was what beckoned to him most in his daydreams, yet here he was, worrying about what this jaunt with Leia was going to cost him. He was a man who did the right things for the right reasons now, one whoíd often been accused of being exactly the opposite in the past. The sliver of introspection dismayed him. He missed his old self.

Then heíd started thinking about Leia.

Every time he closed his eyes he saw her, standing by the co-pilotís chair, fragile as a moonflower mothís wing. He remembered thinking that if he tightened his grip a little more, she would break, or he could throw her down and it would end this feeling that had to do something or it was going to kill him. Passion rooted in emotions such as jealousy and anger wasnít unknown to him, but heíd never been so near to acting on them, these emotions that had nothing to do with her and everything to do with this other man.

Everything on the Falcon made it worse; it was a hunk of metal and a stroll down memory lane combined into one. Across from the engineering station was the panel containing the valve Leia had been welding the first time heíd kissed her, where sheíd kissed him back that day with an equally raw and hungry passion that had caught them both off guard. That anyone else knew she was capable of it made him to sick to his stomach.

Theyíd made love for the first time on this ship, in his cabin.

When his and Leiaís last anniversary had rolled around it had become the longest relationship heíd had with any woman. Leia wasnít the first woman Solo had ever loved, but she was the first one who he felt truly loved him back. The one heíd trusted the most. The one he knew deep down inside was probably too good for him, and heíd marveled over what in the galaxy had made her choose him. It wasnít in his nature to trust easily. It never had been. The gritty fact was that the majority of his life experiences with people had only reinforced his conviction that he was better off alone in the long haul, though he was never sure that Leia quite got that, how much she guessed.

By the time he was thirty, his list of one night stands and brief romances had been so long he couldnít even remember all of their names. A few had caught more than his fleeting attention: Thereíd been Fiolla, Jess, Hasti, Fenig ... Others were categorized into the blondes and the brunettes, the redheads -- one green, the voluptuous and the thin, the oneís who played mind games, the oneís who would have readily confessed they were using him, the ones who bought him meaningless trinkets, the ones he wasted his credits on when it suited him, the ones whoíd tried to tie him down. Theyíd all served a purpose, a momentís pleasure, a respite from being alone but nothing more than that. He wouldnít allow it.

And then one day an old man had walked into the Mos Eisley cantina ...

The rest was history, well documented and recorded.

The first time heíd met her heíd thought she was almost babyish, the immature softness of her features were very disarming if you didnít hear her barking orders. It had faded by the time they were stationed on Hoth. The war, the stress of losing Alderaan took its toll. She'd lost weight. It had made her cheekbones more pronounced, angled out her bone structure, accentuated the curves she kept concealed under standard issue clothing that was always too big for her. Instead of being merely a pretty girl, a privileged Princess from a non-existent world, sheíd become a beautiful woman who downplayed her looks. It was hard to believe how young she was. Her lifeís experiences had balanced the scales, made her seem decades older than she was at times, more mature than the wizened people who surrounded her. But that was merely Leiaís outer surface, all part of her job.

For a long time he thought sheíd end up like Xaverri -- she and the illusionist were actually a lot alike: strong, determined, nursing wounds by the Empire so deep that only their commitment to destroying it had provided enough of a catharsis for them to go on with lives. But whereas Xaverri had been content to spend her life on a solitary path, Leia was like a hatchling whoíd been taken from her cell that day, and latched on to the first two faces she saw with a devotion that baffled those outside their circle. They were her support system behind the scenes.

Their tempers clashed unremittingly. Their arguments rang of the stereotypical verbal foreplay that made holo-romances so popular, where the heroine hated the hero, yet melted at his touch, where the I hate yous meant Iím trying not to care and itís not working. Heíd stopped trying to convince himself then that there was anything wrong with being attracted to her, that it was pent up sexual frustration and nothing more, that being torn between killing her and plotting ways to rip her clothes off was the combined product of an overactive imagination and her infinite supply of sarcastic barbs goading him on.

People fell in and out of love everyday, every second. It sneaked up on you. They were no different.

And still ... after everything theyíd been through he never would have expected her to hurt him this way. That was the thing, like heíd told her. Her miscarriage robbed him of any right to be angry, robbed him of the right to hate her, and turned an act of indiscretion into a greater indiscretion that hurt in a hundred ways he hadnít expected.

Even if she insisted she didnít love him, whoever he was ...

It was a tinny, hollow relief to hear her say it again. Deep down heíd been hoping, and although sheíd said there wasnít anyone else before, when sheíd said it sheíd been distraught, liable to say anything to keep him from going.

So Han lay sprawled on the couch, trying to forget, for the moment, pretty much everything, and drinking a bottle of TGM Protein Fruit Concentrate Refresher, though he was wondering why they wouldnít merely have given it a catchy name, like Fruit Blast or something. Then he was wondering what sort of fruit it contained, but TransGalMeg Industries was apparently more concerned with splashing the company logo over the side of the bottle than listing ingredients. Footsteps padding into the dimly lit hold jarred him from his preoccupation with liquidated fruit.

"Oh, Iím sorry," she said. "I thought you were in your cabin."

He glanced up. Her hair was unbraided and hanging in loose waves, her shirt was un-tucked. A fluffy thermal blanket was draped over her shoulders, trailing behind her on the floor. "Canít sleep?"

"I thought you hated that stuff."

"This?" He held up the bottle. "I hate the advertising. From time to time I set my hatred of the big corporation aside ... if itís cheap."

"Huh."

He obliquely tipped the bottle her way, pleasantly asked, "Did you want some?"

She canted her chin warily. "You donít want any more?"

It was his fault she was eyeing him as though he might bite, and his chance to start to acting like a human being again. "You can have the rest of it. Iíll even ..." He repositioned his frame so that he wasnít hogging the entire couch. "Iíll even make room for you."

"Okay." Ever the princess, she gracefully moved over to the couch and arranged herself so that their legs didnít touch. "How soon until we drop out and check for Harkness?"

Considering their exchange earlier and what theyíd seen today, she was remarkably subdued. He passed his drink to her. "A few hours. You all right?"

"Yes ... I donít know." She took a sip, washed her indecisiveness down. "Iím worried about Luke."

"Me too," he said, though he doubted they were worried for the same reasons.

"I keep thinking about all that Sarin told us, in relation to what I could feel inside the cell block. Whatever happened to Luke, compelled him to do what he did ... but how could something make him do something so awful? Iím missing something or I donít understand."

"They didnít attack him. Thatís what the two men who made it keep saying. And if theyíre lying the audio is backing them up. He says he canít remember ..."

"If heíd consciously surrendered to the Dark side he should remember -- he has in the past, when he faced our fath--" She corrected herself quickly. "Vader, the Emperor."

The Dark side, Han thought bleakly. The all potent antithesis of the equally mystifying Light side, which heíd stopped believing was a figment of an ancient religious cult. The way Luke described it, it was like a highly addictive drug, where emotions triggered relapses, except most beings were immune to it. Offhand, he pictured the equipment from the labs. "You said it looked like one of the things they were working on down there was mind control."

"Yes."

Not all too sure what he was getting at, save that he was opening a bag of crackpot theories, he went on. "Interesting coincidence, considering you seem to think your brother was possessed."

Her eyes widened. "I see where youíre going with this train of thought and itís crazy."

Nodding cheerfully, he said, "Thank you for stopping me. I was beginning to think I was ..."

"Or ..." She knit her brows together. "Or maybe youíre actually on to something."

"I said it was crazy. It really is." He swiped the bottle from her hands. "Thereís gotta be reason they donít list the ingredients. I think itís spiked."

"No, Han. Wait. It might not be crazy. I donít know how all of this works. I donít understand how Anakin Skywalker could appear to me when he was dead, how Luke hears Ben ... how Sarin could claim that the Emperorís death was purely physical. What if ... what if that was something his scientists were working on?"

"Weíre talking about brainwashing Jedi and controlling them?"

"Hypothetically speaking, letís say they were, or no ... Not hypothetically speaking," she amended. "What was Palpatineís primary objective while he was Emperor."

That was simple. "He wanted to control the universe, to create his own private oligarchy."

"Precisely. And Palpatine destroyed what he couldnít control, entire races and planets. Look at Flax and Ghorman, Camaasi, Yinchor, Ralltir ..."

Alderaan ...

Neither one said it.

"He spent years trying to brainwash semi-sentient species, working on his pathogen-based loyalty enhancement project."

He vaguely remembered hearing about it. "The one where he was going to unleash diseases on rebellious worlds that only the Empire had a cure for? His, Ďoh, look, weíll come to save the day and youíll thank usí. "

"That one," she answered grimly. "They tried to test it at Sedesia."

"Rings a bell." More recently there were rumors that Warlord Zsinj was dipping his greedy paws into Palpatineís archives and recycling a few discarded projects. In most of the projects subject was synonymous with expendable.

"He couldnít control the Jedi so he destroyed them, but that doesnít mean he didnít try and find a way to do it along the way."

"Hypothetically speaking, if he did try he wasnít here doing it. He never stayed any one place long enough."

"He would have needed someone who could do his dirty work," Leia murmured excitedly. "Definitely a Jedi, a ... dark Jedi. Han it does make sense. Sarin told us that whatever it was ... that his reference to Palpatine was the answer and there is some type of residual evil down there ... What if it worked? What if they succeeded?" She clutched at his hand. "That could be it. Donít you see?"

"You mean whatever was down there was capable of controlling a living person?"

"Yes."

"A living person being the operative word here," he reminded her. "Because if anything youíre saying is true whatever it is, itís more powerful than Ben Kenobi. Because according to you Sarin told you he was dead. Weíd be talking about a ghost here, right?"

"Yes." Her fingers wound their way through his and she shifted closer. "Let me ask you this. Do you believe Luke consciously killed them? Do you believe he could have done it?"

From the bottom of his heart he wanted to say no, he really did, but he couldnít. "He ... seemed genuinely confused when I saw him," he admitted. There was too much hope in her eyes, and her hand was squeezing his as though it sought a measure of reassurance. "Leia, we both want there to be some rosy hued version of the events, some straightforward reason that exonerates your brother but weíre stretching the limits. If a man drink himself into a stupor and kills another man, or an Arconan devours a bottle of salt and kills another Arconan, or a Lynuesi male breaks taboo and tries to make love to a human female, knowing itíll kill her, itís still murder, even if they black out, even if they got carried away. Just because heís a Jedi--"

"This is different and you saw him," she pleaded. "You saw him and you knew him. We went back to make sure he hadnít hurt anyone. He didnít." Tears glistened in the corners of her eyes. "He feels responsible, and yes he is, for an error in judgment, for not heeding a warning, but not for me ..."

"Donít say not for those men," he warned.

"I wasnít going to," she mumbled. "But at least concede that this might not be entirely implausible, that whatever was down there was able to influence him, control him. Letís not forget that I couldnít sense him for over a week. It was as if he were gone."

He sighed and stretched his arm out behind her. "Look, I know Luke has visions and hears voices but corporeal possession?"

She dropped her voice to a whisper. "I donít know how I wandered so far away from where we were camped, Han. I donít remember doing it. I almost crippled myself walking barefoot over the touch-knots and then it was choking me. I couldnít breathe ..."

"You didnít tell me that part before. You just said ..." Well that you heard voices too ... "That you injured yourself. Your feet."

"I thought that was it," she added dully. "My point being it was that strong and all of Lukeís senses told him it didnít exist. He couldnít pick up any trace of it. It was Sarin who intervened, not Luke, but I never had the chance to tell him. Now ..." She sagged against the back of the couch. "Now heís gone and I canít."

He had to ask. "Are you sure what you felt in your nightmare wasnít psychosomatic? Youíre prone to pretty intense dreams."

"Not like that. It hurt to swallow for two days," she replied, releasing him and slipping her hand beneath her blanket. "I didnít tell Luke that. I was never sure if he believed me, and then ..."

"Then you found Sarin ..."

"Yes." She closed her eyes. "All right. Maybe Iím grasping at thin air. I donít know. But heís my brother."

"I know." He set his drink on the floor. The request heíd been dreading since they left Baskarnís orbit hung between them, except now a million other concerns swathed a trail through logical refusals. "Leia what if itís still controlling him? Luke wanted to be left alone, and if you ask me a mentally unstable Jedi is someone Iíd prefer to steer clear of."

"Mentally unstable," she repeated tentatively. "How do you mean?"

"He seemed out of it when I saw him, lost. I didnít want to upset you so I didnít mention it."

Leiaís lovely features smoothed over inner turmoil. Her voice remained confident. "He feels guilty and heís scared. If heís on the edge we have to find him before itís too late."

The morbid implication needed no elaboration. If a doorsill existed and the galaxyís only Jedi stood with one foot on either side, Leia, the New Republic -- everything theyíd worked for over the past few years might be in jeopardy. Coruscant and the perils there would be the least of his worries. "Maybe," he heard himself say, "but only after we meet with Harkness. We do that first."

Her response was to fling herself across the couch and wreathe her arms about his neck. "Thank you. Thank you so much."

The impetuous gratitude, accidental affection completely caught him off guard. He was too worn out to not welcome her. Maybe their shouting match earlier had purged him of the need to say certain things. Maybe the idea of losing Leia, of how close heíd been to losing her with the way theyíd left things, what heíd seen today ... She hugged him hard enough to wind him, though at the same time he was conscious of her body feeling very soft and very fragile, more so than he remembered.

He waited for her to release him, thought about letting go but didnít do it, because he didnít want to, then clasped his hands together along her back so that she couldnít. An unfamiliar sting burned his eyes and nose, just as she caught herself, stiffened awkwardly and tried to pull back. Not wanting her to see his face, he said, "Letís just ... sit still here for a minute."

And not talk, he entreated. Letís not talk and screw this up and yes this is all probably crazy but ...

"Um ... okay," she mumbled, shifting positions so that she was leaning more against the back of the couch than into him. Ten seconds later she stiffened again. It couldnít last. This time he let her up. To his relief she didnít look at him directly, snuggling deeper into her blanket and reclining on the far arm of the couch, letting her gaze rest on the floor.

He heard himself talking. "I uh ... I uh ... I was being a ... low-class, low-born, bastard earlier. I lost my temper."

"I know your temper all to well, remember?" Leia looked up, winked amiably, smirking. "And to be honest I prefer it to the silent treatment."

"That right, huh?"

Looking hopeful, she set aside the gentle teasing, let out a long breath. "Are we calling a truce?"

"I think so."

"Because Iím just too tired to do this with you."

It wasnít the type of tired wrought by a long day, either. She was beaten and worn down, a different Leia than the one heíd been remembering, one whose defenses werenít working very well. Han was the same sort of tired, too. He noticed she was rubbing her neck. "Howís your headache?"

She slumped against the armrest, yawning. "Still there. Itís permanent."

"Truce," he said again, and because it seemed perfectly natural for him to do so, and because heíd used to, he reached over and set his hand along the base of her neck, rubbed his thumb along her hairline.

"You donít have to do that," she said, not wasting any time or even taking a moment to enjoy it.

"I used to be good at it."

"I know."

"Then relax."

She made an hmm sound that sounded like Ďokayí. They didnít speak again. Han massaged her neck until his fingers ached, then leaned over and discovered sheíd fallen asleep. Then he picked up her up carefully, thermal blanket and all, and carried her to his quarters. She didnít stir once.


To Chapter Nine | To Chapter Eleven

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