Renewal: Chapter Fifteen Rated NC-17
Ivy

"You donít really mind, do you?" Leia was tailing Han from station to station on-board the Falcon while he preformed the pre-flight check.

"No," he guaranteed her, for what had to be the twentieth time that day. "I really donít mind."

"Because I do appreciate everything that youíve done. I know this could cost you your commission. I really do and so does Luke ..."

"No kidding." Luke had already been overdoing it with his thanks, and quite frankly, the gratitude was beginning to irritate in addition to embarrass him. "Thanks duly noted, appreciated and accepted. But no one put a needlebeamer to my jugular or used any Jedi mind control. Although ..." He considered his words, then ventured, "Do you suppose that High Command might buy that during my debriefing?"

She waggled her head, swishing her trailing braid back and forth behind her like a swaying serpent. "But I could tell them jabbing Tryll with the hypodermic was my idea."

"Blowing up a prehistoric Imperial base was your idea."

"True," she assented, drifting back to her quiet observation.

Oddly enough -- Han reflected, as the Fabritech ran a diagnostic examination of the ships systems (hyperdrive, shields, power and gravity generators, sensors) -- losing his commission didnít concern him that much. They way he viewed it, there wasn't a chance in hell any of the recriminations SpecForce had made against Leia were going to stick, and if they cleared her, they would be forced to clear him. It was a commonsensical chain reaction; they couldnít charge one and not the other, the left hand and not the right. Furthermore, he actually had orders from Intelligenceís Supreme Commander to protect her, and nobody was going to be able to disprove his claims that she had not been safe at Advanced Base Baskarn. Failing that, now that SpecForce knew the Jedi-hero of the Alliance was a close blood relative, he would tell them she made him do it all with a fancy mind trick and hope they had enough of a sense of humor to acquit him for originalityís sake.

Luke was the bigger problem.

He was almost used to not blaming Luke for the murders, used to viewing him as a pawn in a senseless act of annihilation none of them understood.

Almost.

They hadnít gone without Leiaís unacknowledged mediations for more than a moment here or there, not that her brother had been that communicative of late. For the past two days Luke had spent most of his waking moments sitting outside Benís and 'meditating', though Han knew very well the difference between a grown man staring off into space and a Jedi in deep reflection. "What about your brother?" he asked.

"The team," she sighed.

The shipboard console bleeped and translated the Fabritechís analysis onscreen. As expected, all systems were satisfactory, although it printed ominously:

Captain Chewbacca, your ship is 225 days overdue for its annual
maintenance check
.

If theyíd been discussing another topic, he would have chuckled at the Wookieeís equipment installation antics. "Yeah."

Leia was cogitating pensively and didnít notice, saying, in her politicianís voice, "Itís not unprecedented. There is pre-existing legislation. There are statutes dealing with crimes committed while an individual is under any sort of mind control or narcotic influence. Itís happened before. Maybe not in the same fashion, but it did, to dozens of our servicemen during the worst of the war -- sleepers."

"Not in the same fashion," he repeated dryly. "Weíre talkiní mind control by deceased Jedi. That description sounds a tad understated."

"I donít know what to say, what to call it," she avowed softly. "But Iím certain going to Yashuvhu to find answers is the right thing to do. We need answers, Han."

Han grunted an affirmative reply, switched off the Fabritech and called up the Nav-computer.

The decision to go to Yashuvhu was logical for several reasons. Skywalker desperately wanted answers to what had happened to him on Baskarn, and was hoping someone on Yashuvhu would know enough to help him. Han agreed it was a wiser choice to return to Coruscant with as much information as possible. As well, they needed information on this Niras person. Within the datapads, Kadann had prophesized the native would return to his home, that his welcome mat would be spun of the finest web-silk and adorned with jewels.

Except ...

There was no Niras.

There was only Luke.

Han couldnít figure how that was going to work out in their favor, but no matter what perspective they viewed it from, the distant planet was the only link they had to either Sarin or Niras. His suspicious nature was suffering for it. If the prophet Kadann believed his own writings, or if the Royal Imperial Guard believed his writings, there might be others awaiting them. They might be walking into a trap the size of the Dragonstar Nebula.

As Leia had put it, taking a wittily optimistic stance, at least then they might also find their link back to the sabotage at Home Fleet. Han had promptly expressed his belief that information was about as valuable to a dead man as it was to an amoeba. Luke, the ever so helpful voice in the background, had pointed out that amoeba were more intelligent than sentient beings gave them credit.

There was one sentimental reason, too. It was altogether possible that Sarin had family surviving him, who had perhaps wondered about him for decades. Leia wanted to see them, to tell them he had saved her life. This, she had confided to him quietly yesterday. It was tough to argue with her on that.

A millisecond later they were staring at a medium-sized planet located splat in the middle of nowhere, so far along the Outer Rim it was perhaps going be a new distance record for galactic limits traveled in his lifetime. Just over two standard days from Tatooine, it didnít, as heíd been hoping, swing them back through the Sumitra Sector. There was no chance he could stop off at Kashyyyk to pick up his first mate.

Leia leaned against him while she peered at the screen. "A world without edges," she murmured.

"Without what?"

"Thatís what Luke said Yashuvhu means, in their language."

"Huh," he mumbled, wishing it meant Ďwithout Imperialsí. That would have made him feel better about all this.

She pointed. "We can plot a straight course from here."

"Uh huh. When do you want to depart?"

"Tonight? If we can be ready."

"I can be ready."

"We really appreciate it," she started saying again.

"You guys can stop thanking me, then. Thatís what I would appreciate most," Han grumbled, switching off the computer and thinking, Chewie is going to be one pissed-off Wookiee, if I donít at least send him a message to let him know everything is okay.

As if Leia had heard that, she said, "I hope Chewie and Mallobotuck are having a nice vacation together."

"Iím sure they are. They were when I left."

"And you should probably message him," she suggested. "Heíll be worried about you."

"Funny," he replied, casting a dubious glare down at her. "Very funny and not so funny."

Her angelic face revealed nothing more than genuine bafflement. "What?"

There was a realistic chance he was a little paranoid, but with Luke dropping replies to her before sheíd finished a sentence half the time, and vice-versa, he was feeling slightly chary of both of them. "Iíll chalk it up to coincidence then."

"Chalk what up to coincidence?"

"Whatever it was I was thinking," he replied, artfully hitting the retraction controls for the ramp behind her. What he had been thinking was abruptly long forgotten and replaced by a better, more exciting prospect. They actually hadnít had more than five minutes alone in almost three days. Heíd spent two very frustrating nights with her; one on a rock-hard pallet on a real rock-hard floor, the second on the pile of inflatable cushions that her brother had misarranged so that they never seemed to be as comfortable as theyíd been before heíd arrived. Each night theyíd both been acutely and painfully aware that her brother was sleeping on the other side of the scrim.

"Well, what were you thinking?"

He grinned wolfishly. "Nothing important."

She rolled her eyes toward the heavens, at their blended fuzzy reflections in the overhead paneling, and muttered, "Iím confused. Iím confused and sooner or later when they lock me up Iím going to tell them itís your fault." The click of the ramp sealing sounded behind her. Leia smiled too. "I was wondering when you were going to get around to that."

It had wholly escaped his notice that throughout the flight check that sheíd been following him around thanking him with a mischievous glint in her eyes. His grin expanded as he drew a forefinger along the weak-tea colored sleeve. "You were?"

"But I thought I should let you do the check first," she explained, nodding sincerely. "I didnít want to distract you."

"Well that was very thoughtful of you," he commended, moving his forefinger to her cheek. A flush that had nothing to do with the stuffiness onboard his ship colored it. The pulse at the base of her throat was flickering rapidly. Han leaned down and kissed her hungrily.

It took them a long time to manage the ten or so steps to his cabin.

As soon as they crossed the hatchway, she broke apart, or rather bounded away from him. "You stay back," she whispered, as though someone else was on board to hear them. "Iím taking off my boots first."

"Sure," he chuckled. It had taken him forever to untangle them that one time.

When the boots were off, her fatigues followed, and soon her bare thighs gleamed in the roseate glow of the passage lights. She moved to the bunk, tossing blankets and pillows alike onto the floor. Han reclined against the hatchway, watching, with about twenty graphic images of things he wanted to do to her -Ė most that he had done to her at one time or another -- flashing simultaneously through his mind. In between flashes he tried to figure out what heíd ever done in his life to deserve a half-dressed princess, a goddess-desideratum, gallivanting around his quarters, one who considered making a bed an obsolete and utterly impractical chore and blankets an impediment to other activities.

When he couldnít bear it any longer he strode over caught her around the waist from behind, just as she was finishing tearing off the blankets. He skimmed his palms along the outer muscles of legs, over her rear end, beneath her tunic, around over her stomach, over her breasts. Leiaís skin was beautiful, warm, smooth, more tactilely pleasing than the finest Ramordian silk. Like so many qualities distinctly female, it was alien beneath his calloused hands. Of their own accord, his hands compulsively stroked and squeezed, fascinated by its softness, by its sleekness. He stroked the spot just inside of her pelvic bone, before the dark curls began. Leia squirmed and laughed, too ticklish there to endure being touched lightly.

Han spooned his palm lower, over her sex, probing with one finger, eliciting a response that was half an incomprehensible word, half a moan. Leia arched her body back against his, craned her neck upwards so that he could stoop down to kiss her. Then she slipped free, turned, and fell onto the bunk, panting and flushed. The transformation from a normally composed and serene former Princess of Alderaan to a bundle of eagerness and passion was magical. "Hurry up."

By then, Han was stripping off his own clothes shamelessly. There was barely a moment to taste her, press his tongue between her legs and suckle gently, before she was tugging at him to climb on top of her. Her mouth eagerly sought him out, while she guided him inside of her and shifted her legs around his hips. She was tight and warm, slick, causing him to gasp quietly under his breath.

With a high pitched trill, Leia closed her eyes and relaxed, as though several days worth of tension had been driven from her in the solitary motion. Resting his weight on his elbows and studying her, he pushed until she could take him in no further, pressed up against her womb. He resisted the urge to stir at first, allowing her body a momentís reprieve to adjust. "Better?"

"Yes," she breathed heavily, upon finding him watching her. The frenetic sense of urgency had subsided, though she clutched at his forearms fiercely. "Iím sorry. I couldnít wait."

Han found the admission charming. "You couldnít wait," he repeated, smiling and splaying his fingers up beneath the fabric of her tunic. It annoyed them and he much preferred the feel of bare flesh against his own. He wanted to move against her, he wanted her wanton, wanted nothing in the way. "Why are you still wearing this?"

"You distracted me. Your fault."

"Take it off."

She laughed and pulled on his hips with her ankles, deeper, tighter. "No. Make me."

The refusal spawned a tussle, which ended only when the offending garment was flung up and over a cubby unit. It was easy to encircle her wrists and pin them over her head, easy to sweep the item off. The feigned struggle, the game, ended as soon as they began making love in earnest.

They started off slowly, and gradually the entire universe beyond him condensed to Leia and her sounds, and her scent and her mouth, to the tiny space of his bunk, to every inch of his body that was touching hers. They rolled in tandem across the mattress, jockeying for top position in a tangle of limbs and energy and passion. For a time he permitted her to win, until he couldnít stand to be so compliant, so at her mercy ... and then he forced her beneath him again.

Leia gouged her nails along his side in protest initially. The evanescent fracture of pleasure was equally exhilarating, addictive, blinding. In response he caught himself digging his fingertips into her breasts and thighs, fucking her harder than he meant to, and not nearly as hard as his body was begging him to. It seemingly made no difference to her, malleable as a taris vine, bending this way and that. When he kissed his way down her throat and took her sensitive nipples between his teeth she stretched her arms out wide as though she were helpless to stop him, whimpering all the while.

Eventually they both surrendered to a rhythm. They made love until she was alternately trembling and tensing and keening under her breath. When Han knew she was near, he gave in to an overpowering need to watch her, drawing upward while pressing down on her knees. The pre-orgasmic flush ran vivid between her collarbones, and across her cheeks her dark lashes folded like wings. Briefly, he wondered what she was thinking, laying there like that, closed and separated from him, but then she cried his name once and drew him closer.

Han let her climax first, knowing she loved the feel of being driven into in those hypersensitive moments directly after orgasm. He loved it too, when she was swollen, moaning out of control, when their rutting was no longer a conscious activity but an act more primal.

All rational thoughts temporarily deserted him, the thud-thud-thud of his heartbeat roaring in his mind, Leiaís hands and mouth urging him on and pleading. The breaking pressure overcame him, lapping up the sides of his legs, through his gut, until with final bellowed groan he him let himself go into her.

Leia panted and squirmed under his weight, little aftershocks rippling inside her, little hmm sounds escaping as her breathing began resuming a normal ebb and wane. Han waited for the pulsing of his groin to cease before rolling partway onto his side.

Hugging him tightly, Leia whispered three times fast, "I love you. I love you. I love you."

"I love you," he said, meaning it from the bottom of his heart, feeling an ache he couldnít quite admit to in response to the murmured devotions. It was overwhelming almost, to think someone could love him so intensely, that she did. Squeezing her pale thigh where it lay draped over his own, he added, "You didnít imagine it."

"I know. I wanted to tell you when I hadnít had too much wine but we havenít been alone at all. Iíve been storing them up." She ran the tip of her tongue over the scar on his chin. She loved to do that.

(In Hanís experience, all women loved to do that. He really didnít get what was so fascinating about it.)

Then she murmured. "I felt like we didnít get to finish."

It took him a second to catch on. They werenít exchanging endearments so much as they were continuing where they left off the other night, though Han wasnít certain he wanted to delve into a discussion about the other night. The awful parts swung with countervailing force against the parts that hadnít been so awful: Those terrible things sheíd said, the glass shattering to smithereens, Leia cowering to avoid being cut by the splaying fragments. He would never forget that sight.

She didnít mean what she said ...

Then who was he
?

The thought was ineluctable. He should ask, force her to tell him the truth, but hadnít been able to bring himself to do it. It would undoubtedly do more damage than good, but still it hung between them on his side, invisible to her as would be a figment of his imagination, but excruciatingly real to him just the same, the whoís and the whyís. She was his Leia, not someone elseís.

Youíre being stupid and paranoid and possessive ...

Let it go
...

All this he thought while she tousled the sticky hair along the nape of his neck and trailed kisses along his shoulder. The thoughts were completely disrupted when she pressed her lips against his and swept her tongue slowly inside his mouth, a sticky exchange of saliva in a gesture that was both carnally initiatory and carnally post-coital. Han kissed her back the same, then nibbled her lower lip and drew back. How it would appear to Luke if they holed up on his ship for an hour or two didnít bother him but Leia might not view it so casually. "Your brother isnít going to come storming on board to defend your honor or anything malapropos."

"Silly," she replied, brushing a few long strands of loosened hair from her eyes and shaking her head. "Heíll probably appreciate it. I get the feeling itís a little mentally claustrophobic for him to be cooped up with us like this."

"Then Iím in favor of giving him lots and lots of free brain time." His grin was wicked as he shifted out of her. "Let me relax for a few and then Iím gonna --"

She clamped her hand over his mouth. "Gonna what? There is a difference between being subtle and being obvious. I know they donít teach you that where you grew up." Rolling out of his arms and heading for the fresher, she warned him. "Letís not be too obvious. He might wonder if we spend the whole day here."

"I donít think heíll wonder." He turned onto his back with his arms folded beneath his head, listening to the sound of water running. As naÔve as Luke could be, he doubted he would wonder a bit about what they did when they were alone. At least, he sincerely hoped he didnít. Swinging his legs over the side, he went in after her.

Leia was just finishing washing between her legs. As he entered, she set down her cloth and began unbraiding her hair. Han stole the cloth and used it to wash himself up. Then he stepped into the warmth of her body, reached around and cupped her breasts, smiling at her in the mirror, watching her undo her hair. There were patches of red mottling her chest unevenly, lower on her left side than right. To the best of his memory, they always happened that way. Whenever she blushed, he thought of the creeping flush across her breasts. It aroused him, turned him on. He liked that it took a good fifteen minutes for it to fade too. Keeping her breasts covered with his hands, Han rested his chin on her crown and studied their appearance in the mirror. He thought, "Who are we exactly?" but he was smooth, so he said, "You look beautiful."

"Naked?"

"Even better. And I love your hair down."

"Itís a mess. I have to redo it before we go back."

A vague memory tickled his inner funny bone. "Hey, what was it you used to say when we first started sleeping together?"

Leia finished unbraiding and hugged his arms against her chest. Then she tilted her head back up at him, making her, ĎI have no idea what youíre talking aboutí face.

"About your hair," he prompted. "It went, something along the lines of ... ĎIf my hair is a messí ... " When nothing came he went on, "And then ... and then ... "

"Could you possibly be referring to, itís not a quickie if I have spend ten minutes redoing my hair?"

That was it. "Yeah, right," Han nodded, devilishly. "That was my favorite Leia-saying ever, ever."

"If I recall correctly it wasnít a Ďsaying.í You never paid any attention. I gave up."

"They didnít teach us to listen either where I grew up," he commented, freshly distracted. On the far corner of the fresher counter was a tiny disk. "Aw, Sithspit," he muttered, reaching over her shoulder. "I completely forgot about this."

"What is it?"

"Itís from Harkness. You know how he and Jai were going on about that recording the Guard got their hands on. About what happened in the throne room that night?"

"Itís that? Itís on there?"

He leaned lower, regarding her expression carefully in the mirror. He and Dirk had struck a deal early the next morning, on Luke and Leiaís behalf. "Even better, Sweetheart. Itís the original and there are no other copies in the whole big bad universe."

Leia eyed him warily. "Youíve had it since Elrood? Why didnít you tell me?"

"That next day I wasnít exactly thinking about it and then we were ... a little crazy until he got here. Itís been the farthest thing from my mind. I didnít listen to it though," he added, because he felt that not listening to it would be something she respected. Though heíd considered it. He started it once even that morning on Elrood, but after five minutes of dead air heíd changed his mind.

She drew apart from him, crouched and opened a cabinet, searching until she located a hairbrush. Then she stood and said, "I donít want to either. I think my brother dying is something I donít want to hear. I know they hurt him. I know they tried to use me to turn him. I donít want to listen to it."

"Sure. Itís understandable," he agreed, watching the bristled side of her brush excoriate the flesh of her hip. He reached over and took it away from her, not sure she even realized what she was doing. "Iím gonna give it to Luke. It belongs to him."

"Okay. Thatís the best thing to do." Leia slipped out, picked up a blanket from the floor and wrapped it around her shoulders like a shawl.

Han followed her back on the bunk. Personally, the whole ship was feeling stuffy to him, stagnant after several days with the systems switched off. "Are you cold?"

She said no and lay down with the blanket drawn up to her neck. Han stretched out next to her, determined to put the disk, the recording, out of his mind and enjoy the downtime. They used to hide in his cabin from Chewie for hours, way back when. He used to do a mean imitation of a growling Wookiee that usually sent her shrieking. He hoped they could stay here for a while longer, make love again.

Leia rested her cheek on his shoulder stroked the russet curls on his chest. "You know what?"

"Whatís that?"

"I missed going to bed with you when you were gone." The admission was candid, without the slightest degree of guile. "I missed waking up with you there. I missed knowing you were there. All of it."

His insides flinched. His heart was not as intransigent as his intellectual resolve to stand by and support his decision to leave. While she was talking he swept her hair aside and began caressing her back, down over the curve of her bottom. "I did too."

"And I do appreciate your attempt to open up the other night. I know how hard it is for you."

"Huh." Han regarded her expression, which was expectant and curious. Sometimes it was better not to overanalyze these things, and he certainly had no intention of analyzing what had prompted his spiel. To her credit, she hadnít made a big deal about it yet, which suited him, and he really didnít want her to. He realized he was still holding the brush, and moved to rise. "Sit up. Iíll do this."

"Do you remember how?"

"Of course I do," he said, caging her between his legs and turning her so that her back was to him. "This is not hyperdrive mechanics."

For five minutes she was quiet while Han concentrated on coaxing her hair into a gleaming and tangle free mass, remembering to coordinate the dragging and the holding, so he wasnít accused of trying to rip the individual strands from her scalp. He did a commendable job of bringing the tresses under control, if he was to say so himself, though they tickled his knees terribly as they lifted and fell. Then he tossed the brush on the floor and gathered her tightly against him, nuzzling her collarbone and luxuriating in the feel of her against him, stroking the outside of her thighs.

"If there was a problem with the pre-flight check how much longer should it take you?" she murmured.

"Ach," he groaned in frustration. It was bothering her, after all, this whole business of outward appearances. "No rush, remember. You said that."

"No rush," she repeated, snuggling deeper. In a more subdued tone, she said, "There is one thing I need to discuss with you. Sort of a favor."

"Another one?" he teased, sliding his hands over her knees and beginning to travel back. "Hauling you and your brother across the galaxy isnít enough? You want more?"

Leia stilled his hands before they arrived at their intended destination. "Han," she sighed. "Itís important. I need to talk to you. I need you to listen to me."

"Okay. What is it?"

"You know I had to tell Luke that there was something wrong, with me, that the miscarriage wasnít his fault. And, naturally, heís very worried."

Han took a guess. Leia sounded nervous along with serious now. "You havenít told him about the test results?"

"I told him there was a problem with my auto-immune system. I left it at that."

"Well ..." Han paused uncomfortably. Shades of five months ago all over again, he thought. There was only one direction this favor could possibly be headed and wasnít sure he liked it. "What am I supposed to do here?"

"Just ... if he asks, donít tell him any more than I have." She slouched over her knees. "He may or may not ask you, I donít know, but just in case ... "

"You want me to lie to him?"

"No. Iím asking you not to volunteer new information; thereís a difference. Han, this is very personal and private. You shouldnít even know. I certainly shouldnít have to ask for permission to maintain my privacy?"

"No you donít," he agreed, albeit reluctantly. "But why is it such a big deal? Why wouldnít you just tell him the truth."

"Heís been through a lot."

"So have you." Crouched forward the way she was, the little entry points along her spine, white stars, where the narco-drugs had been injected, were plainly visible. The sight very nearly obliterated his basis for contention. He said it again. "So have you."

"Then you understand?"

Knowing full well that he was going to regret this, he said, "No."

"What do you mean Ďno?í"

"I know what you want me to understand," he clarified. "But I disagree. I think you should tell him the truth. I think he should know."

Leia was mad, spinning away from him and around so that she sat at the foot of the bunk, dark eyes flashing in an instant. "Han, this isnít about you. It isnít about Luke. Itís about me and only me. Itís not for you to decide to share."

"No, of course it isnít. Iím not saying that."

"Oh." Leiaís ire subsided slightly. "Well then what? Are you going to say anything to him or not?"

Han hadnít even thought about any of this. He hadnít even expected her to feel this way, sound so panicked. Heíd assumed, naturally, that she would want to tell Luke, that it was something her brother should know, especially considering the turning points in their relationship on Baskarn. Granted, he couldnít force her to be forthright with her brother, nor could he disagree that the matter was extremely personal and private. But he could have his opinion. "I want you to be okay. I donít want to get between you and your brother, with you keeping secrets from him. I hate that. I hated it before."

"I am okay," she muttered, sliding over the edge of his bunk and beginning to gather her clothing. "And Iím not going to wound him after everything heís gone through without good cause to do it. Look at how he is! You canít give me a single, solitary reason to make telling him worth it. It wonít happen again; Tryll was certain. It will never matter in the future. It will only hurt him to know." She looked around for her tunic, glanced up at the shelving unit where heíd thrown it and gave a long, exasperated sigh before taking another from his wardrobe.

Hanís temper stirred watching her dress. Her timing really couldnít have been any worse, he determined unhappily. Why did she have to pull this now, after theyíd finally found time alone? Why did she always have to go and make everything so... fucking conditional?

Leia hastily knotted her hair back and blurted out, "Well?"

Pretending he didnít give a damn as to whether she stormed off or not, he grabbed a pillow off the floor, punched it soundly, and lay back on his bunk, kicking one leg up over his knee. Then, with a well-practiced air of disregard, he said, "If he asks me Iíll tell him he has to talk to you, that Iím not allowed to say anything. Just like god-damned SpecForce and their gag order."

"Thatís as good as telling him," she accused bitterly. "Itís as good as going behind my back."

"Depends on your perspective, Princess."

"Oooh." She kicked at his clothing. "Fine! You want to make some big principled stand over this, donít you? Well go ahead! I wonít forgive you!"

Irritated beyond all reason now, he gestured to the bed. "Weíre done here, I take it?"

"What do you think?"

* * * * *

Luke was running through a few exercises outside Benís, trying to clear his mind and prepare for the trip to Yashuvhu. He was having trouble concentrating, again.

Leia exited the Falcon first, tramping across the desert in that uniquely tensed up fashion of hers that was indicative of her temper at its boiling point. Although Luke was viewing her from an inverted position, the barraging hustle was unmistakable. After so many years, he knew it just by hearing her footsteps. She stomped directly past him and through the open doorway, saying, "Weíre leaving as soon as weíre packed up."

Sagely, he didnít bother to answer. Not when she was in one of those moods.

He spied Solo exiting his ship a few moments later, but he made no move to approach the abode. Instead, he tossed his jacket on the ground next to the ramp and set about dragging out a section ancient scaffolding down the ramp. Then he raised the scaffolding beneath his left alluvial damper, tested its steadiness, and headed back up the ramp. A moment later he appeared with a long nozzle, which was apparently connected to something on board the Falcon. Next he hopped atop the scaffolding and stretched his arms inside the damper. The nozzle whirred, even from a distance, sucking out sand and debris.

Luke dropped his legs and fell back on his seat, wondering if he should go offer to help, but no sooner had he thought that than Han skidded off the scaffolding and began dragging the rickety apparatus around to the other side of his ship. A moment later he decided if Leiaís stomp-by was any indication, he doubted Han was going to be in a much better mood.

A pity, since Luke had thought the time alone might do them good.

His heightened senses told him there was vulnerability about both of them heíd never seen or felt. Like a bone cleanly broken, then reset, on its way to becoming stronger, only the knitting had just begun. Over the past two days, heíd clearly intuited that his presence was inhibitory to whatever they were going through. They were affectionate when they thought he couldnít see, spoke in whispers when they thought he couldnít hear. He sensed it, felt uncomfortable being aware of it, and even felt the slightest whisper of resentment. No one ever really cared to be the disturber, the outsider, the one who had the Ďalteringí effect on others, of making them self-conscious. However, there was little to be done about it than to step back and call as little attention to it as possible.

It was also altogether possible the only reason theyíd been getting along so well was because they had company -- that not only was he hampering the healing process, but the entire process in general, such as trivial bickering over who drank all the blue milk and left none for caf. He couldnít tell, and he hadnít wanted to pry further.

Still, he warned Han, when he approached as short time later. "Sheís steaming mad about something."

The former smuggler apparently thought twice about heading through the open doorway, flopping down in the sand with the grace of a one-winged mynock. "Believe me, I know." He dug his hands in, letting the grains pour between the interstices of his fingers. "And Iíve gotta go in there in pack. I donít want to go in there now."

Luke reflected for a moment, thinking. All of this was stranger still, because the last time heíd seen them together had been five months ago, and all of their time apart had passed without touching him. If it werenít for those long weeks on Baskarn with Leia, seeing how much pain sheíd been in, their reunion would have passed without touching him, entirely inconsequential. But it certainly wasnít his place to bring it up, nor did he know how to go about it. So he said, because it was a common ground, "Neither do I."

This prompted Solo to burst out laughing.

The laughter was contagious. Here they were, two grown men, a Jedi and a smuggler, preferring to hide outside rather than face a woman half their size. The two sat in a conspiratorial silence, warily peering inside and chuckling. As far as Luke could see, there was no sign of movement.

"Maybe if we sit here long enough sheíll do it for us?" Han ventured. "'Cause I really hate packing."

"Or sheíll be even madder because weíre not helping."

The pilot whistled to himself. "Now, that could be bad. Iíve got a running theory about which one of your parents she got her temper from. It could be really bad."

(The comment didnít even jar him, though Luke never could have said that with the same casualness. Coming from Han, who treated most everything with a matter of sublime indifference, it sounded innocuous and inoffensive.)

Han continued. "So are you looking forward to leaving again?"

Luke nodded. "Every time I leave here Iím positive itíll be the last time I ever see it. And sooner or later, I end up here again. The, Ďgiant dustballí, right?"

Han squirmed tensely, "Ahh ... About that --"

"The permanent residents and settlers would be mortally insulted," the younger man added. "Youíre lucky Iím not one of them." He touched his cheekbone. "That was a good shot though, Iíll give you that."

"My right surprise jab? Iíve been told itís a good one." The Corellian shaded his eyes and stared straight ahead. "Look, youíve got to know, I didnít mean it. I mean, I did then but --"

"You didnít take out any teeth," Luke interjected, clicking his molars loudly. "Youíre safe. If youíd taken out teeth Iíd be seeking retribution."

Han did a quick double-take, as if to make sure they were on the same wavelength, then realized it was a joke. "Aha ... Donít mess with my head too much. Iíll start sleeping with a faceplate on." Then he rustled around in his pocket, withdrawing a small object. "Iíve got something for you, actually." He pressed a square recording disk the size of a ten-credit chip into his palm. It was as thin as laminated flimsiplast, made of a metallic material he couldnít identify. "Itís a recording."

Luke almost activated it, wondering what it was, when Han said. "Donít play it now. Itís of ... well over Endor. Leia updated you on all that, didnít she? Itís the original. Itís indestructible. It canít be copied. Whatever you want to do with it is up to you. Itís yours."

"You ... How did you get this?"

"Iím in tight with Imperial Intelligence," Han deadpanned.

For a moment, the fair-haired Tatooine native stared at the other man with his mouth wide open, wondering if it was in any way possible. "Where did you get it, really?"

"Harkness."

Luke struggled to put a value on the disk. The information on it alone was worth thousands of credits. That Han could afford this was about as plausible as his having connections to Imperial Intelligence. "How much did this cost you?"

He flinched. "Iíd rather not say. A lot."

"I donít ... I donít know how to thank you. I donít even know what to say or think, but I know thanking you is part of it."

Han winked and struggled to his feet, shaking his pantlegs free of sand. "I thought, maybe this might even us out again. Now, I should really go in and straighten this out."

Luke tightened his fingers until the edges of the disk began to cut into his flesh. He opened his fist and stared at it. He wasnít sure he wanted to listen to it. He wasnít sure he wanted to remember that night. He wasnít sure what he was supposed to do with it. Carry it with him until the day he felt like could face what was on there. Bury it in Benís basement? Lock it in a high security safe on Coruscant?

It proved he didnít kill the Emperor. To this day, most of Command, most of the galaxy, was convinced heíd killed both Darth Vader and the Emperor. He couldnít convince them it wasnít true.

Heíd never bothered trying to convince anyone it had been Vader who saved him. But he had proof now.

The voices inside were mere whispers, and though he wasnít trying to eavesdrop, his hearing enhanced of its own volition, the way his eyes would adjust to darkness.

"I donít want to spend the entire trip to Yashuvhu fighting, do you?" Han was saying.

"No."

Silence. Stalemate.

Leia. "Iím sorry. I shouldnít have left like that on you."

"I know, Sweetheart. And I do get it."

"Do you?"

"I get a lot more than you give me credit for. Why donít you start giving me a little credit?"

Rustling followed and another silence. It was beautiful this time.

The Jedi opted to wait outside a little longer before going in to help pack up.


To Chapter Fourteen | To Chapter Sixteen

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