Renewal: Chapter Eleven
Ivy

The drumming of the shower droned on and on. Leia rolled over onto her stomach and stretched her arms languorously above her head, pointed her toes. The muscles from the cords of her neck down to her hamstrings bunched and released in an easy fluid motion. It was too hot beneath the covers so she flung them back. Sticking one toe in the band of her sock, she wriggled it off, then did the same to the other one, buried her head in her pillow and wondered why the showers were so darn loud.

You canít hear the showers in the crew quarters you dummyÖ

She pried open her sleep swollen eyes. Hanís cabin bid her good morning. That explained the noise, though not what she was doing in here.

We were sitting on the couch. We were sitting on the couch and you hugged him andÖ you must have fallen asleep. You must have fallen asleep and he put you in here and ...

She remembered what sheíd been thinking, right before she drifted off too, and slipped her palms furtively over the sheets. They werenít suspiciously warm enough to reveal whether or not sheíd slept in the bed alone unless Han had been up for a while, nor did she sincerely believe she would slept that soundly.

The running water abruptly ended. For the next few minutes she lay still, trying hard to pretend she was sound asleep, listening to the sound of him rustling through his closet and mumbling under his breath. She thought sheíd fooled him, until he unexpectedly declared there was enough heated water left for her to take a shower -- not a marathon or anything, but a rinse off.

A new peek revealed a wet-headed Han, wearing a faded pair of grey pants and one his favorite worn white shirts. It was one wash away from the recycler, fit only for bumming around in or second hand pajamas. His boots were dangling in one hand. I used to wear that to sleep in, she thought. Itís mine. "Thanks."

"Sorry if I woke you."

"You didnít," she lied.

"And ... uh ... Iím gonna go find something to eat. Are you hungry? Iím hungry. You want breakfast?"

"Sure."

"In that case ..." He grinned. "Good morning then. Hurry up."

She lingered in the shower until the water grew tepid, washed her hair, not sure what was going on save that he was being strangely nice or polite. Everything had shifted, taken a turn while she was asleep. Theyíd struck a verbal truce, though she hadnít been expecting this much of a change in him. Or, it occurred to her next, maybe the topic of possession had invoked a new Han, an alter ego. Toweling her hair off the best she could and leaving it down so it could air dry, she dressed and headed for the galley. The aroma of caf brewing reached her nostrils before she was halfway there.

All of Hanís ship time quirks came flooding back to her. Anything longer than a four hour nap qualified as a nightís sleep. The first meal he made when he woke up was always called breakfast, though more often than not it was mixed up rations or dinner. Along with the meal he always made a bitter concoction known as Corellian caf, an acquired taste in her opinion, but her taste buds had long grown accustomed to it.

True to form, Han was sitting at the hologram table, using his teeth to tear the wrapping off packages of nutricake. It was standard shipís fare, healthy if not all that exciting. "I forgot to mention weíre short on fresh supplies," he said, freeing one cake. "Next port we stop in weíll have to do some shopping or weíll be digging through the survival packs for rations."

She slid into the booth, took a deep breath to quell a wave of nausea, wondered how long it would be before the mention of survival pack rations didnít produce an instantaneous and unpleasant physical reaction. "Iíll put it on my list of things to remind you about."

"We dropped out of hyperspace while you were asleep. I sent off a message to Harkness. Hopefully when we drop out again heíll have answered."

"Okay."

"After that weíll start worrying about where your brother might be."

She opted to save her ideas for later. "Okay."

"And Iíve gotta put the sensors back the way they were."

"Okay."

"And thereís a few other repairs Iíve been putting off I should get to work on."

"Okay," she said again. This was all so logistical.

He drained the last of his caf, eyed her empty hands. "How rude of me? Would you like some caf?" The invitation was accompanied by the first genuine, trademark Han Solo smile sheíd seen in ... well ... four months. Before she could protest Han was off fetching a second mug.

Leia thanked him and hunched over her mug, inhaled the rising steam. Nonchalantly asked, "Did you sleep well?"

"Like a rock. You know me ... " He scratched the back of his head. "Except that couch is way too short and that cabin is freezing."

She stifled a smirk at the vision of Han playing musical beds. "Sorry. I could have slept on the couch."

"Another thing to fix," he grumbled absentmindedly "Add it to our list." Then he smiled again. "But first letís have breakfast. I donít do fixings on an empty stomach."

* * * * *

The amiable mood remained all day. It wasnít her imagination, or wishful thinking. Either Han had locked his green-eyed beast away and cooled off enough to digest what sheíd told him, or he was making a sincere attempt to establish a sort of working status quo. He hand delivered his tool case to her when she started on the heater, popped by to ask if sheíd mind if he finished off the pot of caf, popped in a few minutes later to ask if she wanted any more nutricake. There was even an occasional amplified whistle echoing from the hold.

She was grateful for the mundane task, grateful for anything to keep her mind off of Luke, lest her worries spiral down into the vacuum of uncertainties that was hollowing out her insides. There was nothing they could do until they found him. Accepting that was the only thing she could do, along with hope, remain receptive to him in case he reached out to her.

Increasingly however, she was certain they were on the right track. Half forgotten memories rushed her mind simultaneously. On Mimban Luke had battled Vader, defying all odds, without any formal training, and won. Iím Ben Kenobi, he had chanted, taunting and teasing. Sheíd been injured and on the verge of unconsciousness, but she remembered hearing him say it. He told her sheíd imagined it, and until recently she really thought she had. Now she wasnít so sure ...

The umpteenth time Captain Congeniality wandered by she had just coaxed the vent to resume its natural hum. The Falcon, like all ships, had a sophisticated air filtration system that constantly recycled the air they breathed. Without it, the ship would become toxic within a standard week, ripe with carbon dioxide and all the dust and debris that found its way on board. Purified air and oxygen, as well as a small amount of decontaminants, were continuously pumped throughout the ship. The catch was the intake ducts had filters that needed to be cleaned regularly. The duct inside the crew cabin was clogged with what looked like a miniature Wookiee whose fur sported bits and pieces of human hair, microfibers, dirt, bilge and clumps of mucky stuff she couldnít identify. He asked how it was going.

"I think itís fixed," she replied, holding her hand over the vent. The current of air was steady and warming. Through the loose strands of hair shielding her eyes, she could see him smiling privately to himself in the doorway as he watched her. If he knew she could see him, he seemed unconcerned.

"Thatís too bad," he murmured.

Whatís too bad? His sleeves were rolled up in a lopsided fashion, one above the elbow, one below. He was barefoot. His hair was mussed and sticking out one side, refusing repeated orders to stay tucked behind his ear. There was something disarming and comforting about seeing him so utterly himself, about being able to see his forearms and feet with their fading tan. She liked his arms. "You should keep the filters cleaned," she reminded him, trying to sound stern. "Havenít you ever heard the story about the pilot-"

The grin broadened. "Ahh ... the Slovenly Pilot."

"Who went to slee-"

"You forgot the part about the lice."

"Who-"

"And glow-in-the dark fungus."

She giggled. Theyíd been through this before, eons ago. Theyíd both been addicted to the Star Pilot series for children when they were growing up. Often the stories were hokey and absurd. Occasionally they were downright morbid. Han could do a wicked imitation of the Ďnarrator,í who catalogued the many final demises of careless pilots who brought foreign materials on-board without screening them, ignored sensor readings and coronal flare warnings, who decided to make the jump to lightspeed without waiting for coordinates. (That particular story never ended well.)

He did it now, in deep baritone, promptly. "If you have a headache, remember that nap you take may be your last if you donít run the air quality containment test. Captain Mack forgot, and now his ship is forever lost. Donít let it happen to you."

"Aha," she teased. "Your memory works! You sound like you actually learned something."

"They were Ďeducationalí enough."

"Then you should remember to keep your ducts cleaned," she advised.

He gave her a half salute. "Yes, Sir! Granted, itís just one duct out of ten. All the others are shipshape. I already checked."

"Good." Naturally, heíd inspected and cleaned nine in the time it had taken her to clean one. She added lowly shipís maintenance worker to the myriad of possible careers heíd had before they met. "How are the sensors?"

"Back to normal."

And heíd managed to reset the sensors. "Umm ... so what else needs work?"

"You notice anything?"

Sure, she thought, our fragmented relationship needs a filter the size of the Maw. She smiled sweetly, turned her chin to her shoulder. "Youíre the Captain, you tell me."

"Thatís right I am," he murmured impishly, as though the thought would never have occurred to him on his own. "In that case ... I dunno ..." He rubbed his chin, flashed his white teeth and eyed the bunk. "Iím bored."

He didnít do that! She skirted another glance at him. He was definitely going from her to the bunk. "Youíre bored," she repeated, trying to sound disinterested. No, you are NOT going to ask him what he had mind ... not after yesterday, not because heís decided to temporarily stop acting like a Gamorrean ... "You have two hands and youíre prehensile. Iím sure you can find some way to amuse yourself."

If she didnít hear it come out of her mouth she would never have believed sheíd said it. Han was laughing so hard he was using to the doorframe to keep from collapsing.

Oh, Leia ... Save that she had been picturing him playing Dejarik alone, she had no idea how it had come out sounding that way. Flustered, she packed up the remaining tools in their case and flipped the security clasps down. She didnít dare look at him lest she burst out laughing too. The floor creaked behind her.

His laughter had dissolved into low chuckles and gravelly throat clearing. "You forgot this."

A sonic screwdriver dangled in her peripheral vision. She took it without touching his fingers, kept her head down and re-opened the tool case, put it away and closed it again. "Then I guess Iím finished here."

"Uh huh."

"Since itís working." She sank back on her heels and crossed her arms over her chest, panicking and no longer finding the exchange quite so funny. The weight of her hair was magically lifting away from the back of her neck. There was definitely a mouth near her skin, a warm breath settling on her neck so gently the air scuttling from the heater felt harsh in comparison. Whatís he doing? Whatís he doing? "Uh... Seriously, what else needs to be taken care of?"

"Nothing that canít wait until later."

Whatever intrigue or invitation was intended to accompany the comment, she struggled to ignore it and talk her way around it. "Iíd rather get everything done now."

"Right," he returned.

Her next sentence never made it past a thought.

Any of the myriad of species who referred to humanoid pre-mating practices as among the most boring and limited in the galaxy had never seen Han Solo in action. Next she felt his body leaning into her. His tongue, mouth and teeth continued their journey around the back of her neck, to the curve of her shoulder. One of his hands settled on her thigh, pushing down, and with his weight pressing against her back she was on the verge of tipping forward onto the tool box.

It was electrical. It was akin to having the wind knocked out of her.

Han murmured, "Mmhmm ..." in the same moment she heard herself gasp. The breath sheíd been holding came with it, along with the one word hanging frozen in her mind. "Donít."

"Donít what?" The hand on her thigh grew bolder.

All she could think was that this was all terribly wrong. She didnít know how theyíd gotten from the scene in the cockpit yesterday to this. It wasnít fair and it wasnít supposed to happen this way. "Han I want you to stop."

"Why?"

"Because if you donít Iím going to turn around and knee you so hard whether or not youíre bored is going to be the least of your worries."

Jerking away stiffly, he snapped, "Then go."

She fled without looking back.

* * * * *

Itís One-Eye. A good friend and I will be in your sector for three
days pending repairs to my ship. Try The Pit
.

Harkness had sent Han a cryptic message via subspace radio on a rarely used standard clear frequency, forwarded through fifty different receivers to prevent it from being traced. It had been a one-time-only audio recording. A little detective work and sound reasoning dismissed his repair choice as the Berea system or anywhere the formidable Derilyn Space patrol frequented. The only ĎPití in the entertainment advertisements had been listed on Elrood in the main starport.

But rather than on the upcoming meeting, Hanís attention was focused on the looming blue and green planet rapidly eating up the view. Stray thoughts were flung to the stars. Since the fiasco in the crew quarters Leia had gone into seclusion, no small feat in two hundred square meters of space. There hadnít been a peep from her when they dropped out of hyperspace, though he was fairly certain heíd heard the showers running. She wasnít going to like this. The punch line was coming, whenever she sauntered in to find out their new destination, which if his ears were hearing correctly, was right about now. He regarded the console screen as though it was a long lost friend in need of advice. "You try to be nice, and look what happens. They bite, you bite, and they bite back harder."

"Who bites?"

"Sorry, they use knees actually, or they threaten to. Put it up there with the old classic, ĎIíve heard a well-aimed stun blast has some rather unpleasant side effectsí."

"Thatís not classic, itís downright rude."

"Compared to a few more chilling ones Iíve heard from folks who wanted me to die slowly itís a breath away from upper class mannerisms."

"Iím glad I havenít spent too much time in your shoes," she replied, sliding into Chewieís seat.

He thought he heard her add or pants under her breath. A glance sideways confirmed that she had indeed showered and changed. Her hair was knotted back in a wet pile, soaking through the collar of her shirt. Great, I touch her and she scrubs it off as though I were Jabba. "A sudden preoccupation with cleanliness?" he asked briskly.

She wrinkled her nose and peered straight ahead. "You didnít see what was in that filter. It was gross. I give up. We havenít cleared the sector and I felt us decelerate. Where are we?"

Following her lead, Han decided to pretend nothing had happened too. "Elrood System. I heard from Harkness."

"And?"

"Weíre meeting him."

"And if weíre in the Elrood system this must be ..." Her expression hardened. "Thatís not Elrood weíre coming up on, is it?"

"Congratulations. You win the eveningís prize."

She gripped the armrests and shook her head. "This is where Harkness wants to meet us?"

"Yes, and weíre already on our approach vector," he declared, as though approach vectors were unalterable and there was no help for them now.

"Look, I donít give a damn how well you know this guy or how trustworthy he is-"

"Heís very trustworthy."

"- Elrood is still under Imperial control and one of the remnant hotspots. They still refer to the New Republic as the Rebellion and the rebels as dreamers. Weíll be picked up as soon as we land, thrown in a holding cell, and turned over to whatever despot arrives first to haul us in and win a promotion. Your friend has some sort of death wish he wants to extend to us."

He shrugged in defiance and picked up a dog-eared hyperdrive manual, began flipping through the pages in search of nothing more than a way to delay arguing. "This isnít open to debate. We have to meet Harkness-"

"This is open to debate and there is only one alternative. You tell him to meet us somewhere else!"

"Iím the captain, remember." For good measure, he added, "Those were your words not more than a few hours ago."

"Then consider this a direct order from one of your superiors."

"Hmm." He pretended to think it over to spite her. "Nope. There are a few flaws in your thinking here, the least of all being that youíre on MY ship." He waved a finger in the air for emphasis, then added another. "The second being that currently, we are not working for the New Republic. Got it? Besides, if Harkness could make it down we can too. Iíve got it all figured out."

"Oh ... that reassures me," she muttered sarcastically, slapping her balled fist against her thigh and beseeching the walls over her head. "Heís a got a plan to get us through an Imperial checkpoint. Iím supposed to feel better ... "

"Is there an invisible council over there?"

"This isnít funny!" she wailed with increasing worry. "I hate to break the news to you but your track record for Iíve got it all figured out isnít that exemplary. If they identify us-"

"Itíll work. I promise. I have fake credentials for myself, a fake transponder for the Falcon. Iíll rig it up and dummy the logs-"

"That leaves me!"

He nearly fidgeted. "Right. That leaves you."

"So I what, stuff myself in a smuggling compartment and hope I donít run out of oxygen while you go meet with him?"

It wasnít such a bad idea except for Elrood Starport Commandís anal retentiveness when it came to regulations and details. They would inspect ever nook and cranny of the ship upon arrival and fumigate it to kill any bacteria or vermin. "Itíll be hazardous to your health to remain on board. Thereís another way."

"Which is what?"

He reached over and keyed a few entries into her console and pulled up the Sector Spacerís Guide. "Read this and no, itís not a joke."

Leia read aloud. "Among Elroodís many industries are the Elrood Quarry Corporation, Ganrite Shipyards Incorporated, Radell Mining, Delat Personal Electronics, Torina Electronics Limited, Imperial Mining-"

"Not the stock and trade pages. Further down."

"Hmm ... " She switched to an exaggerated impersonation of a travel agent. "The ocean climate of the port city of Elraden is described as -"

"Holidays," Han clarified. "Get to the part about their holidays."

"Going, going ..." She read the rest in silence.

What she was learning was that this month Elroodís two moons, Sharene and Lodos, had orbits that brought them very close to one another this time of year. From the surface it appeared a person could stand on one and touch the other. Local mythology had it that the two were gods separated by an ancient curse thousands of years ago. Elraden hosted a festival in honor of their coming together and it was considered good luck to be married there. The period even had name; it was called ĎThe Loverís Embraceí.

"What it doesnít say," Han went on, after ascertaining that heíd waited long enough for her to read it herself, "is that the planet offers unofficial amnesty to lovers -- particularly wayward lovers seeking refuge; they also permit forms of Intergalactic entertainment without the usual checks. Itís very bad luck for them to turn anyone away."

She glanced up from the screen and rolled her eyes. "Nice try Solo. But itís reckless and more of a gamble than we can afford."

"Iím serious. The condition was that we find him first, then look for Luke. We can float around aimlessly in space and waste time until itís convenient for him to meet us at another location or get it over and done with. All we have to do is pretend to be ... happy -- not ourselves happy but inconspicuous happy lovers, and weíre in. No checks, no, Ďhey, youíre on our most wanted list.í"

"Yeah, well ... " Sullenly sinking against the back of her seat and frowning, she said, "I see the irony."

"I figured you would."

"Han-"

"Forget it," he grunted, though he wasnít. Thereíd definitely been an opening and heíd taken it. Or, heíd thought there was an opening. It wasnít necessarily the brightest litmus test to gage anything by -- he wasnít even sure why heíd done it. He just had. Now she would drag out her worn professional and frigid persona for fresh visit. Just like old times, where relationships were regarded as floating liabilities. Or, he considered, this might be something new and equally awful. He wasnít looking forward to it one bit. Animosity colored his tone. "Even a guy like me has had some experience with being shot down and youíre rather proficient at it."

"Itís not like that at all."

"You were speaking another language then? It just sounded like what I heard you say."

"Fine then. That was ... uncalled for, I suppose. You have my apology. But the fact is you canít expect to be nice for half a day and have everything to miraculously go away. Life doesnít work that way. I donít work that way."

"I didnít think it was going to make everything go away."

"Then what were you thinking?"

He almost said, I have a weakness for women who work with tools, and then he almost said, you were flirting. Plus sheíd looked, well ... enticing with her head buried in the duct shaft and then theyíd been laughing. He ended up settling for the requisite, "I donít know." He really didnít anymore, because in all honestly he shouldnít have expected her to react any differently.

"In case it hasnít occurred to you yet, after all these months we canít pick up where we left off. Not because you snap your fingers and say so. We spent two years with a referee that was the nearest two meter horizontal surface-"

That was your favorite referee too, he accused silently.

"- but this isnít a giant argument. Itís not ... Iím ... " Her voice caught. "Iím happy youíre here. Iím grateful. Iím so grateful I probably ... Iím confused and I can barely figure out what Iím feeling from one minute to the next and ... " She wrung her hands together so fiercely the tips of her fingers went red, turned sideways in the chair so that they were facing each other. "Iím confused. I know no one would race from one sector to another, spend five days cloistered in the medcenter, and every second after spend their time making sure someone was safe just because they had nothing better to do. I said I knew you cared yesterday and I do ... "

He took the hint. "Leia, I do care."

"But youíve acted like we were complete strangers for the past two weeks -- as though you couldnít stand being in the same room with me and whenever youíve been nice afterwards you act as though you slipped up, have an internal struggle and I end up bearing the brunt of it."

All too true. There was little to say in his defense.

"So forgive me if your abrupt change of heart is being greeted with skepticism. I donít know if weíre a we or a maybe or ... a moment youíre having but I canít handle going to bed with you and having you wake up and tell me it was a big mistake. And you canít use going to bed with me as a way to vaporize recent history or what happened when you left."

"Why not", he started to say, but he was listening to the way she said you left. It lacked accusation, lacked blame, but the unalleviated hurt was crystalline clear. Unprovoked guilt backslapped him, followed by exasperation. Women were so damn impossible, claiming to be confused and managing to sound perfectly rational at the same time. He wondered how long sheíd spent preparing this little speech. "Leia, about that-"

"We ... " She sighed. "We needed a break from one another and we got one. Whatever it was. I know we havenít dug that far beneath the pile and frankly I canít handle that right now either." A tentative smile materialized. "But I like you being nice ... I donít want you to stop. Last night ... last night, feeling like I could actually talk to you was ... "

His disposition softened. "Good."

"Yeah. That was good."

He reached over and cupped her cheek, cursing his glove. Honesty, even brutal honesty from Leia was a step forward. "Thereís plenty more talking where that came from, Sweetheart."

"I know."

An unspoken victory was his, and he knew it. He couldnít resist. "An inexhaustible supply," he added, patting his knee. "You could come over here and find out."

"Um ... " Releasing her clenched fingers, she squirmed to the furthest side of the co-pilotís chair and out of reach. "Maybe you should concentrate on telling me what this plan of yours involves?"

He accepted defeat with a straight face. "We claim your fatherís hunting us down ... say if he finds us all hell will break loose, that weíre eloping. They hear it all the time. Theyíll let you in without running you through the system."

The tiniest flicker of amusement lifted the corner of her mouth. "Is this another of your inspirationís my specialty routines?"

"Iím not famous for those for nothing."

"What if they donít go for it?"

"Have a little faith," he hastened. "And maybe wear your hair down -Ė youíll look like youíre barely over the age of consent ... " He appraised the fatigues and old leather vest, combat boots. "And find something a little more appropriate to wear."

"Appropriate?"

"Appropriate," he repeated.

"As in less is better?"

He shrugged. "I didnít say it, you did. Never hurts to distract the guards."

The Falcon was converted to the Merry Nashtah and he was respectably dressed long before the subspace radio static began picking up clips of the Elroodian Planetary Communication Net. He played with the frequencies until he found traffic control, and grumbled to himself about the impending inspection by starport control if his Authority Waiver was rejected. He hoped theyíd stopped the mandatory fumigation rules for all ships. The fruity smell lingered for days.

A female voice gave them landing clearance codes and a docking number, curtly reminding them to remain on board until an agent arrived to inspect the ship.

"The shipís being inspected? I thought you said this would be piece of cake," she complained as she entered the cockpit.

"It will. You just need to play along when we go through customs." He spun around to make a leisurely appraisal. She wore a sleeveless gown of green Saava silk, gathered at each shoulder with Kelsh clasps and slit knee high along the outside of each leg. It had been worn last year to the celebratory dinner on Mrlsst, after her diplomatic assignment had led to their official pledge of allegiance to the New Republic. Her hair hung in long waves, there was a modest amount of cleavage, but she still wore her combat boots. "Youíll do."

"I couldnít find any other shoes," she said self-consciously, drawing up the filmy transparent shawl that came with the dress. It didnít cover much. "And it was this or diplomatic robes."

"Nah. You look like you belong in a ... University or something. One of those girls who mixes her thousand credit dresses with second hand stuff to how show theyíre against the upper class snobbery. It should flow with our cover perfectly."

"Maybe I should grab a jacket."

"Uh huh," he murmured, turning back to Elrood Starport as they maneuvered overhead until he sighted the main docking bay and hit the reverse thrusters. The Falcon settled on Landing Pad 14. He turned off the engines. He was anxious about getting them through. Despite his assurances to Leia earlier, the more of a distraction she provided, the better. "Did I mention itís summer here?"

Backing away from him, she tightened her shoulders and sighed uncomfortably.

The receiver lights flashed red. He keyed the comm. "Captain Sal. No cargo to declare. Standing by."

"Welcome to Elrood. Please open your hatches and descend to meet with an agent," an automated voice instructed.

She was already frowning. "I have a very bad feeling about this."

"Hey ... would you try and look happy at least. Youíre supposed to be here on a romantic vacation. And now itís too late to take off without looking suspicious and having their tractor beam nab us."

"All I can say is this had better work, Han."

"Itís Captain Nalo Sal to you until weíre cleared," he replied firmly, holding out his arm. "Who do you want to be?"

* * * * *

Blessedly it was one of those rare occasions when Hanís plans worked like a charm. Leia had to hand it to him. Her initial impression of the Elrood Starport was a gigantic shipís prison. Duracrete walls over fifty meters high sectioned off the docking bays and blocked their view of the adjoining city of Elraden and the main starport. The Imperial Customs officers wheeled their processing stations from vessel to vessel, effectively holding their passengers hostage until theyíd been approved, and should a wayward traveler decide to make a dash for it out of the hanger, several squadrons of black armored stormtroopers patrolled the exits and elongated tarmac.

Despite the breathable fabric, sweat was trickling down her back as they approached. Han slung their bag nonchalantly over his shoulder as though he didnít have a care in the world, though she knew he was probably hoping his forged I.D. and Imperial Sanction card hadnít expired, or that the forger whoíd sold them to him hadnít made duplicates. They did that sometimes, to double their profit, but if two separate individuals popped up in their file with the same number, it meant immediate detainment.

The Imperial Customs Officer gave them a once over and asked if they were visiting to join in the celebrations or part of the entertainment circuit. As soon as Han began delivering his fabricated tale he threw up his hands, told them heíd heard it all and wasnít a krillhead. Leia squished her palm against his, excruciatingly aware of the palm pads and retinal scanners at his station. Then the officer did a perimeter check, making sure no other security personnel were within earshot, and told them if they wanted to be processed expediently it would cost three hundred credits. For a bonus two hundred, he could even be persuaded there was no need to fumigate the ship, as long as the proties (Elroodian slang for droids) came up with no traces of spice. During the celebrations, he explained, the influx of spice was their number one priority. Other than that he didnít give a whim what they were up to.

Minus five hundred Imperial credits, they were safely on their way and wandering through the main strip of the starport. As far as starports went, Elroodís own facility would have qualified for the Imperial Space Ministryís Stellar Class Award. One could purchase basics, hire extra crew, order a full maintenance check of any or all systems, all while lounging in one of the ubiquitous Spacerís planetside lodging facilities.

Han hated it and deemed all such services to be a rip-off. He claimed after the unknowing pilot checked into a hotel, the hotel bribed the maintenance people to take an extra day.

None of this interested them at the moment. They were strictly in search of Harknessís rendezvous choice, The Pit, which took Han all of two minutes to find. To Leiaís relief it was a relatively upstanding bar and restaurant (despite the omnipresent prefab green decor) filled with pilots and crew taking in meals between deliveries and runs. Han ordered them both pale orange drinks which tasted of pure sugar syrup and made small talk with the humanoid barkeep, mentioning casually he was seeking an old friend.

The overweight man, whose face was splotched with broken capillaries, compulsively cleaned his glasses and countertops and claimed he couldnít assist them in an irritating raspy voice. Leiaís mental nudges to clear his throat didnít work. Hanís efforts to engage him didnít have much success either.

"I donít keep track, you know. They come they go, I see everything, and forget it all afterwards. In this business it doesnít pay to remember."

"No, it doesnít," Han agreed. "But you might remember my friend. Eye patch, with a girl -- blonde, pretty, scar on one cheek." He leaned in closer. "It might pay to remember."

"Havenít seen him," the barkeep replied. "Not a one like that. You checked the human quarters?"

"Iím on my way there, but I was hoping heíd been through here."

"Canít help you."

"Say Iím traveling with a shag," Han added under his breath. "That ring a bell?"

The barkeep glanced at Leia, then back at Han disapprovingly. "She donít look like a shag to me."

"I mean I usually am," he clarified, draping an arm over her shoulders. "My luckís taken a turn for the better."

Chewie, Leia thought, Harkness would have expecting Han and Chewie, not you.

"Sorry, I still canít help you." He gathered their empty glasses and dumped them on the conveyer belt. They slipped away into the sterilization unit. "Refill or something else?"

"Ahhh, sure." Han dropped a few more credits on the bar. "What do you say, Lelila?"

"We should get going, Captain Sal."

Han ignored her, picked up the menu and perused the beverage selection. "What do you have out back?"

"What are you looking for?"

"The good stuff, like ... " Han named an obscenely expensive bottle of wine that wasnít on the menu.

The barkeep slapped his cleaning rag down on the counter. "Iíll go see if we have any in stock."

Leia frowned at him. Theyíd spent five hundred credits merely to make it into the spaceport. They still needed accommodations for the night and supplies. "Are you trying to bankrupt us? Harkness could be anywhere in Elraden, if heís even here for one. Secondly this isnít low profile. Iím usually with a shag? Should I stick a sign on my forehead with my name and bounty? How about ĎIím usually with a brain dead Corellian who doesnít know when to keep his big mouth shut?"

Han made a shushing motion and clucked at her. "You donít know everything Sweetheart. Hang on a few more minutes."

"For what?"

"Youíll see."

"Those are famous last words."

"Smile a little, will you."

The barkeep returned in short order. "Donít get many requests for this stuff in these parts. Near about as often as my memory comes back to me."

Leia engineered a furious smile as Han asked, "Really?"

"I suppose, if I was looking for someone, I might head for the Grand Plaza. The bazaar is closed for the night, but couples like to stroll and take in the ocean air by the piers." He winked. "They say itís romantic, if youíre so inclined. Course I wouldnít keep referring to her as a shag if I was you and Iíd keep my mouth shut. Iíve heard thereís a few Baldavian Lip-readers hiding under the local black masks. They like to watch for interesting conversation, pick up the trouble makers before the riots start."

"Thanks," Han nodded. "Weíll take that to go. How much do we owe you?"

It was near dusk when they made their way into the city. Into her hair Han murmured the rules as though sheíd never been anywhere remotely multi-special. First was not to make eye contact with a species whose etiquette she was unfamiliar with. Eye contact during the Loverís Embrace -- to many species -- might be construed either as blatant flirtation or a form of aggression.

The second was to hold her breath when they passed anyone smoking and to avert her face if anyone tried to start a conversation. Many of the aliens smoked exotic spice so potent an accidental intake of second hand smoke would render a humanoid instantly high. Worse, a merry reveler staggering your way might be a sober slave trader waiting to exhale a dose of hypnocane. An unfortunate victim would laugh themselves all the way to the docking bay, onto a vessel, wake up hung over and destined for parts unknown.

Leia listened and obeyed because she knew better, not because he kept lecturing her. Save Hanís annoying over-protectiveness, Elroodís Loverís Embrace was fascinating to see.

The sidewalks were packed with beings arm and arm, trios, groups, representing every species of the galaxy, not all of whom she recognized, many whose genders were indiscernible. Languages twittered, clucked, grunted, and growled freely. Individual musicians droned out the languages, playing lute pipes, viols, drums, tambours and windblowers. Entire bands playing jizz and sparklebop drowned out the lone performers. Everywhere visitors were holding hands, tails, tentacles, appendages, dressed in elaborate costumes, feathered and furred, bearded or barely clad. On every corner, one of Elroodís numerous legal marriage centers boasted they could perform weddings for any race, in five minutes or over five days.

The downtown of the port city bordered on the tacky and the obscene, and was a circus of legal and illegal perversions. Garish lights were strung across the rooftops, aimed relentlessly onto the streets. It wasnít so much to enhance night-time visibility, Leia noted. Ultraviolet light revealed species such as the Defel who absorbed light and in daytime were no more than shadows. The flyers on the streets all advertised dinners for two or more in Basic, ĎWHATEVER YOUR CRAVINGí, hotel specials for romantic settings, vendors selling aphrodisiacs and mementos. The outdoor theaters advertised viewings of a genuine Floubettettean dance, an avian species whose complex mating ritual was a cross between erotica or an aerial ballet. For the honeymooners, there were welcome banners, ocean cruise specials, and discounted rates at the spas and hotels. For the lonely at heart or thrill seekers, pleasure houses for every species, bearing flashing signs that said ĎNAME YOUR SPECIES/ NAME YOUR SEX/ WE PROMISE TO SATISFY EVERY CUSTOMERí, or ĎLEAVE YOUR MORALS AT THE DOORí. In smaller print, beneath the signs, they added, WEAPONS TOO. The general understanding appeared to be that in Elraden, for a few weeks each year, anything went. In her entire life Leia had never seen anything like it.

The streets swam with Teltiors and Meri, blue skinned humanoids from neighboring systems whose distinctive webbed hands flapped as they chatted. There were Twiíleks, fondly caressing one anotherís leku (believed by xenosociologists to be erogenous zones), probably mating out of their respective clans. There were Ebranites, hairless Feeorins whose faces were divided by leathery folds of skin stretching beneath their eyes, nose, and mouths, oily Weequay with varying sizes of topknots, grey skinned and reeking of foul odors only their prospective mates could appreciate. A sleek furred Selonian and a Bothan strode by them, and Han commented there was match heíd never seen before. They passed a group of Rakaans, a viciously carnivorous insectile species known to regard human flesh as a delicacy. Their massive bellies tottered atop eight tiny legs, making them look like balloons on stilts. Passers-by gave them wide berth, as did they. Han proved to be his usual fountain of bizarre trivia, whispering to her that in Rakaan physiology there were five sexes, and that he no idea what these were, but that hopefully customs had forced them to drain their lower stomachs of the saliva they used to dissolve prey.

He directed her attention to a pair of Hínemtheans, gestured to the femaleís chrome-studded muzzle sagging beneath her jaw, and explained that the by nature an Hínemthean femaleís sworded tongue would ritualistically eviscerate her mate the moment they consummated their relationship. Leia caught herself involuntarily gawking as they strode by, hoping the female would open her mouth so that she could glimpse the lethal weapon.

Han promptly told her not to get any grandiose ideas, that he preferred her tongue the way it was. Leia tried to kick him and wound up catching a long hard stare from a local patrolman.

When they finally reached the human quarter cultured gardens of fruit and sweet scented blossoms gave them a reprieve from the heavy clouds of spice. The presence of Elroodian Peacekeepers dwindled too. Humans were apparently trusted to govern themselves with a modem of decorum deficient in the alien population. The buildings ranged from opulent architectural wonders for the rich, to rustic retreats for the sentimental, to the standard flat roofed and dingy, basic necessities only included. The restaurants were just as varied, advertising familiar foods and fine cuisine.

Around their fifth sharp turn it occurred to her that Han knew his way around quite well indeed. There were no directions to speak of, and if he was following landmarks he was doing so effortlessly.

They made their way to the piers on the far side of the plaza, full of closed stands and strapped down awnings that would be booming come morning. The air coming in off the ocean was salty and muggy. There were dozens of other human couples enjoying the stimulating air, as the Spacerís Guide had put it, and the magnificent view of the twin moons. None resembled the description Han had given to the barkeep. They walked and watched, while Han kept an arm tightly linked through hers and leaned over ever so often to play the affectionate lover while murmuring they probably wanted to verify who she was first, and that he would find them.

It had taken a long time for her collect her feelings and figure out what to say to him earlier. The problem with Han was that for him the idea of her sleeping with someone else registered on one fundamental level. Not the most verbal man, he regarded talking as an overrated method of resolving conflict, was more inclined to act first and talk later. Thereíd been no warning, no way to prepare for him coming on to her. For the most part it left her feeling befuddled from tip to toe. They hadnít really talked about them, not like adults, not amicably.

Hanís attentiveness now was strictly a shield. In public, when they were together, he was rarely affectionate, habitually on guard for danger, smugglerís instincts and too many close calls cultivating his well honed survival skills.

They passed numerous couples necking in the patchy shadows. Leia was beginning to question the sanity of marching themselves up and down the plaza as though they were on display when a manís voice called after them.

"Slick?"

Han stopped dead in his tracks and gazed back into the light of the pier lamps. "Aliha sel valle volgoth?"

"To see an old friend," the voice returned. A man with a frayed eye-patch and spiky black hair marched out of the darkness. An ice blonde dressed in billowing folds of sky blue shimmersilk, with a jagged scar that journeyed from nose to ear, joined him. "Enjoying your stay?"

"Itís just as insane as I remember it and then some. You?"

"It certainly lives up to its reputation. Keep moving. Our lodging isnít far from here and itís clean."

They spoke of the weather and sights on the way to the inn while she tried to get a feel for the pair. Dirk Harkness radiated a strange mixture of lethalness and light humor, as though in the direst situation he could crack a smile and a joke. Per the bio sheíd dragged out of Han (which had come about only after insisting a dozen times that if she was going to Elrood to meet with this person, sheíd damn well better know more about him), he was a native of Salliche and the former Commander of the Black Curs. The Curs were a renegade outfit known for putting personal vendettas above their loyalty to the New Republic. The group had had an uncanny ability to obtain highly confidential information from sources within the Empire, leading many to believe a number of their members were double agents. Han had tried to gloss over that point, and Leia was sincerely hoping theyíd been nothing more than rumors.

By the time they arrived at their accommodations the nightly festivities and parades were starting to get out of hand. Leia was grateful to be off the main streets and away from the noise. Jai grabbed a scanner from her pocket and made a thorough sweep of their two room suite and announced they were clear.

Han settled into one of the simple wooden chairs, regarding the pair inscrutably. Leia sat next to him. "So Harkness, what happened to your ship?"

Dirk made a disgruntled face. "I shouldíve taken your advice about naming her after a woman. My fusial thrusters were blasted off line by a deuce right before we jumped. We had to get towed into Elrood Starport by Space Rescue Corps when we came out of lightspeed, hence my rotten choice of rendezvous, not that I have anything against their imitation of Capital Season. Did you guys have any problems getting through?"

The simple question provoked a grimace. "We paid through the nose. They must make a yearís salary in a week."

Regardless of Hanís claims that they could trust him, Leiaís heart pounded a beat faster and she started scanning the room to see if there was anything sheíd missed. If the damage to his ship had been caused by a Tie-fighter, Rescue Corps should have alerted the authorities. In which case she doubted they would be sitting in the same room unless heíd struck some kind of deal. "Howíd you explain the damage?" she asked.

Harkness didnít miss her perusal, treating her to a disconcerting one-eyed wink. "Thereís one benefit to being out where the Empire still is in control. Pirates have been stealing Tie-fighters for years and impersonating sector patrol. We said we were ambushed. They couldnít prove we werenít. End of the investigation."

A perfectly plausible answer, however, she still had no idea how he had happened onto any information regarding she and Luke. "Are you working for the NRI?"

"If theyíre reimbursing me for my repairs I am." Harkness quipped, retrieving a Bellorian ale from the bar in the corner. Everyone else declined an offer. He flipped his lid back and resumed the discussion. "This last bit was unofficial and more of an accident."

Ignoring the dirty look Han was steering her way, Leia posed innocently, "You must have a knack for infiltration?"

"More like a bad habit," Jai explained, swishing folds of her gown aside and coming to stand beside her. Harknessís companion, in contrast to his laid back ease, appeared vaguely uneasy, polite and official all at once. "Donít worry. If I thought Harkness ran both sides ... "

The mercenary turned an imaginary blaster on himself. "Bang." He clutched his ale over his heart. "She would too. Sheís ruthless. But if youíre getting at what I think you are rest assured we donít deal with the unfriendlies and we have plenty of information for them and they will pay well for it."

Leia felt her tension dissipate, setting two parted fingers on her knee where Han could see it, their old, this situation checks out sign.

"Then Your Highness, Princess Leia," Dirk continued. "Our apologies for the runaround bit. We needed to be sure of who you were but since youíre here Iíll cut to the chase. The Imperials know who you and your brother are. They know youíre the offspring of Darth Vader."

No, you donít have a choice, she reminded herself, but she felt her throat tighten. At the back of her mind sheíd thought she still had a choice, didnít she, and she was with complete strangers. It wasnít as though she was gently telling Lando or Winter, people she knew she could trust in a controlled environment. The room was deathly silent.

She realized they were waiting for her to confirm it. "Yes. Nobody knows but for a few people," she said quietly.

Dirk graciously hurried to fill the void. "Not until recently. Palpatine might have played the game unethically, murdered millions, but he never feared keeping detailed records, never feared their disclosure. He had everything monitored, every meeting, all incoming and outgoing communications, even his private chambers werenít sacred. Every moment of his life was recorded and encrypted, bounced through the HoloNet frequencies to a central database. Imperial Intelligence, spearheaded by the Royal Imperial Guard, has been slicing away at the very last transmission now for years, trying to figure out what the hell happened in that throne room on the Death Star. They heard father. They heard son. They heard sister."

"Are you sure theyíve traced sister to Leia?" Han asked.

Harkness held out his hands mournfully. "I donít doubt she was the first person they checked out. Seeing how it was public knowledge on Alderaan that she was adopted, and sheíd shown an incredible resistance to Vader in the past. All they needed was a single strand of hair, or drop of blood, skin cell to run genetic screening. They probably bribed a staff member from within your office to obtain a sample for them, and they had access to Vaderís medical files to test her against. Plus if youíd heard Lukeís reaction to the mention of her, youíd guess it was someone very, very close to him. To put it mildly ... he went ballistic."

"We couldnít get through to you on Coruscant without breaking our cover so we went through Solo," Jai furthered. "This is the deal: The Royal Imperial Guard has contracts out on both of you, dead or alive, so high theyíll bankrupt themselves trying to pay it."

Leia shuddered. "Theyíve had a contract out on Luke for two years. Thatís not new."

"Except theyíve extended it to include you. That is new. Youíve only been on the Official Imperial bounty lists before."

"They may have found takers already," Han informed them. Both Jai and Dirk looked confused, so he gave a meager sketch of the recent events, closing by gesturing to Jai. "SpecForce think Luke set it up and was trying to take out the base though they have nothing more than circumstantial evidence and no motive."

"Whoís in charge?" Jai demanded.

"Admiral Rieekan ... and a guy named Leyíkel."

The blonde curled her upper lip back. "I know them. Theyíre go getters, both of them, and I donít mean the ethical kind. They play to look good in a no win situation and they donít care if the turn innocent members of the NR into the next Tycho Celchu as long as they can justify it in the end."

Dirk sighed thoughtfully, scratching the edge of his eye patch as though it irritated him. "This is why I didnít want to go through Intelligence. Youíre both too high profile, integral parts of the new government and I canít blame you for keeping this quiet. The Guard doesnít want this to go public either, because they fear if it does, you or your brother would be in a position to negotiate with a few groups who were loyal to Vader ... "

"Negotiate?" Leia burst out. "What in the world would we negotiate for?"

Jai continued. "Palpatine had a great deal of dissention within his ranks. There were those who felt that Vader would be more effective ruling the New Order, that Palpatine was too sick and ... "

Han bristled. "Are we forgetting Vader had the first project administrator on the Death Star crucified and strung up for his men as incentive to get the job done ... that half of the officers who reported to him had their necks broken."

"No one would argue that Vaderís crimes were heinous," Dirk pointed out. "But the thing is he carried out Palpatineís orders. He was the Messenger, the Dark Angel of Death. But believe me he was merciful compared to his master."

"I for one, find that hard to believe," Han clipped. "If you ask me they were both sadists ... "

Leia slashed her arm through the air. "Okay, stop. Weíre skipping the point here. We could spend hours detailing their crimes but Iím sure none of us wants to do that. Iím still not sure how Luke or I would use this? Why would our relationships to him invoke any sort of allegiance? Even if it did Luke would never use it. I would never use it. I want nothing to do with my fatherís name."

"The scenario gets a little more twisted," Jai said.

"How?"

"Are you familiar with the name Kadann?" Dirk asked.

Leia looked at Han, who was shaking his head and shook hers as well.

"Kadann is the Supreme Prophet of the Prophets of the Dark Side. He controls most of Imperial Intelligence. About ten years ago he started predicting that Palpatine would be murdered by his servant, that both Death Stars would be destroyed, that the Alliance would ultimately win. Most brushed him off as a delusional old man. As you can imagine, he garnered a fair bit of respect when these events started coming true. With Palpatine dead ... well, a whole lot of people are listening to him know. His word is law. His predictions are law. His hold over the Imperial factions is absolute. He claims the stars have predetermined that your brother is to be the new leader of the re-established and victorious New Order. Faced with Kadannís prophecies the Guard is enraged at the suggestion that he be supplanted by the son of the man who killed him."

"But they donít have people on the inside," Leia countered. "Not to pull off an act of that magnitude. Weíve done background checks, security is tight-"

Han rubbed his temple and grunted, "Obviously not that tight. And Luke has a number of fair-weather admirers-"

Dirk caught on immediately. "Exactly. Someone might have come to the conclusion theyíd be doing the New Republic a favor."

Han turned to her. "Leia, they only would have needed a few weak spined people who are as afraid of the Jedi as they are in awe of them. You were too young to remember the anti-Jedi propaganda the Empire put out. Little dramas that made the Jedi look like a bunch of corrupt and dirty old men. Find any nobody from a backwater world steeped in superstition and stone-age fears. They hear Jedi, they think major trouble. If the Guard leaked Kadannís prophecies and made them an offer ... setting Luke up isnít the same as overthrowing the government or starting a war. These are probably people we least expected to become saboteurs."

"There are always a few rotten grotberries in the barrel," Harkness finished. "And to be honest with you two if you donít think the Guard was capable of pulling off the set-up youíre underestimating them. I say whoever did it is in Intelligence."

Leia paused. It all made sense. "This is just great. Perfect. Basically the individuals responsible are investigating themselves?"

"It sure looks that way."

It explained a lot and made this whole mess more complicated. Intelligenceís search would yield nothing. They were really on their own until she contacted Airen Cracken. She said a quick prayer that he was indeed permitting the investigation to run itself as some sort of smokescreen.

"Where is Skywalker?" Dirk wondered abruptly. "If he was being investigated ... "

"Heís taken an AWOL vacation," Han informed them. "He left partway through the investigation on Baskarn, while under house arrest, and didnít tell us where he was going."

Jai frowned. "Thatís strange."

"Strange doesnít begin to cover it," Han commented dryly.

Leia glared at him. "Weíre going to find him when we leave Elrood." For good measure, lest Han actually be scheming to turn their stay here into a real vacation, she added, "tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," Han echoed, wagging a finger at her. "When did we decide that?"

"I decided."

Dirk chuckled and headed for a beat up leather bag in the corner. "Then you guys might want to catch up on your reading tonight ... see what these Prophets are all about. Not taken to heart, Kadannís writings are actually rather poetic and entertaining, quatrains laden with references to Ďthe son of the Dark One taking his rightful place at the helm of destiny,í or something like that." He withdrew several datapads.

"They sound more like nightmares to me," Han mumbled.

"Ironically enough, until recently they were the Empireís nightmares, not ours. Kadannís followers treat his texts like scriptures. Itís downright eerie. There are pages describing Lukeís fall after some cataclysmic event that causes him to doubt himself, face his own impotence in the face of darkness."

The blood drained from Leiaís face. Han choked out, "What was that?"

Harkness resumed rummaging through his bag. "What ... they treat the text like scripture?"

"No, what you said after that."

"He ... uh ... there are pages about some cataclysmic event-"

"Can we see that?"

"Sure," he said slowly, dropping all but one datapad. "I think itís this one ... um ... " He activated the pad and tabbed through the viewer. "Yeah, here it is, ah ... you want me to read it?"

"Yes."

"Here goes... In darkness the chosen will awaken and see, he is not who he is, nor who he claims to be. When the blood ceases to bless the ground and wilderness, he shall awaken thrice, reborn-"

"How do these things keep happening to me?" Han complained noisily. "How?"

"This is just Kadannís prophecy. He also predicted that the first Death Star would be destroyed by an asteroid."

The Corellian said, "What if I told you Luke left Baskarn on the verge of going nova -- that something happened down on the surface that no one, not even Leia, can explain, that this sounds familiar to us."

The mercenary passed the datapad over and began pacing back and forth. "Are we all talking about the same Luke Skywalker?

"Yes," Han and Leia said together.

"We didnít think any of this sludgenews was relevant."

Han did his best to detail what they knew had happened to the team, the physical and circumstantial evidence that left little doubt Luke was responsible, as well as his inability to remember. He concluded by outlining their only theory so far.

Dirk paused. "I bet the institute for Sentient Studies would commit us. Iím starting to feel like I should be committed for just having this conversation ... "

"You get used to it if you hang around Skywalkers long enough," Han muttered. "But if itís true ... "

It was later, standing on the patio, leaning against the rickety railing beneath the moonlightís sumac glow, trying to stave off her taciturn mood and formerly repudiated worries, that she stretched for her brother again. There was no answer. With a sigh of resignation, she conceded there was no point stressing herself out over what she couldnít control. There was nothing she could do to prevent it. It was all set in motion. What she needed to do was devise a message for Harkness to deliver to Home Fleet, on her and Hanís behalf.

Jai appeared with a glass of water while she was plotting out her thoughts. "Those two have business to sort out and are hinting that I should make myself scarce. I brought you some water."

Leia puzzled over that, thanked her for the water, and then recalled that Harknessís initial message had said something about owing Han a favor. "Business?" she repeated curiously.

"Your guess is as good as mine," the woman went on, dropping her voice to a whisper. "The old smugglers are like that. I didnít even know Harkness knew Solo until a month ago."

"I can never keep track of who Han knows," she murmured, mulling that over. Han hadnít told her Harkness was a smuggler. "Itís always a surprise." In fact, Han actually never told anything she didnít need to know unless it was intended to amuse her. It was annoying.

"Oh. And I remembered something else," Jai announced, squeezing her eyes shut in deep concentration. The long scar across was stark white against the flush of her cheek. "I donít know if it will help you but if itís true he has a name. Itís not in the datapads. I didnít manage to copy the last one but I saw Kadannís drafts."

"Who?"

"Whoever Luke becomes. Itís Niras."

* * * * *

They all overlooked it at first.

After a full meal and too much thinking all Han wanted to do was sleep. Theyíd spent hours pouring over Kadannís gloomy writings and come up with nothing more substantial than the one passage Harkness had read to them. And more questions. In hindsight Lukeís comments to him in the medcenter made terrible sense.

For instance, why did he say, I know who I am and that I wouldnít have done? It was so... strange.

Had it been a subliminal slip, meaning a distant part of Luke knew what had happened to him, or a lie? Had it been a lie? Furthermore, he did not want hear the term paradox again, as in, had the Razionís Edge not been tampered with, Kadann's visions of the future would not have been fulfilled. Luke would never have started down his Ďcataclysmic pathí if indeed he had. The pestering whispers in his brain kept going and going ...

Niras ... Sarin.

Sarin ... Niras
.

His own voice startled him in the darkness. "Spell it backwards."

"What?"

"Spell Sarin backwards."

"Oh. Oh!" He heard the sound of the cot creaking. "Oh my stars, Han ..."

Han turned on the couch and groped for the edge of her cot, which wasnít all that near the couch to begin with. His index finger barely grazed the metal frame. "What are we missing here?"

"I donít know," she said.

Harkness had said Kadann was hit or miss with his prophecies, on target only half the time. Han didnít care. He wasnít about to believe it. Wary of speaking too loudly, for he been able to hear Jai and Dirkís voices from their bedroom earlier, he stressed, "We must have missed something."

"But what?"

"I dunno," he murmured, wondering if Leia had been wrong about Sarin all along. What if Sarin had done something to Luke when heíd gone back for him. He didnít want to say it just yet though; she was so adamant that Sarin was good, that heíd saved her life. "This is all too much of a coincidence."

They traded their astonished silences, and then there came a more subdued whisper. "Donít tell them, tomorrow."

"I wasnít going to."

"I mean," Leia explained, "If I give Harkness a message for Madine or Cracken, I donít want this to come out in the debriefing, especially if weíre not sure what weíre dealing with. With everything going on the last thing we need is for them to hear about this. "

"He wouldnít tell them."

"Maybe not. But Iím thinking about what you said about fair-weather supporters. Letís not take the risk, okay?"

"All right."

After another protracted silence, she said, "I need a library ... The catalogues on Baskarn werenít that extensive and if I find a library I could try the Yashuvhi databases in their native language. If I had Threepio ... "

"Where is Threepio?" He hadnít thought to ask or wonder these past few weeks.

"With Lando."

Better him than me ... He thought for a moment. "Well, youíll have a hard time finding a place to rent you a protocol droid. Elraden probably has a library though."

"Stang. Well thatíll be better than nothing." She sighed to herself then asked, "Han, what did Harkness owe you?"

Her question distracted him from trying to envision her face in the darkness. Heíd known she would ask that, gave his pre-planned response. "Itís one of those gentlemanís agreements, over and done with."

"Oh. But youíve been here before though right? You know your way around Ė- unless you memorized the city grids beforehand."

He smiled to himself. It was good it was dark in here after all. "Yes, I have."

"Well, when?"

"Seven ... no eight years ago."

"What were you doing?"

"You mean do I have any quickie weddings and annulments in my past?" He pictured her pouting. "Itís not what your hyperactive imagination is probably conjuring up. I strictly worked the entertainment set."

"You worked the-"

"Pilot for a magician. This was her biggest show of the year."

"A she?"

"A she."

"Hmmm."

He didnít like the hmmm.

"You didnít have the Falcon then right?"

"No, she had her own ship."

"Hmmm."

He didnít like that hmmm much either.

"But you had another ship before the Falcon?"

Harkness, damn it ... Leiaís mind captured every tidbit about him without fail. "I had a Starmite cruiser. Itís in million pieces somewhere out there," he answered gruffly, flipping onto his back and cursing the makers of the couch to furniture-making hell. His feet were shoved up over the armrests, and something lumpy was digging into the small of his back. As it had turned out, the human quarters had overbooked their hotels, save a few of the priciest and most prestigious geared toward the sybaritic set. Staying with Harkness and Raventhorn had been the simplest solution. "Now Iím going to sleep so I can have nightmares about Kadann and whoever and whatever?"

"One more thing," she whispered.

"Whatís that?"

"You answered when he called you Slick?"

Tomorrow, Iím going to glue his big yap shut ... "Old, old nickname and itís a very long story."

"I bet itís a good story."

"Not at this hour it isnít. Now for real, let me go back to sleep."

She laughed softly. "What if I start calling you Slick?"

"Iíll have to kill you."


To Chapter Ten | To Chapter Twelve

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