Renewal: Chapter Eighteen Rated PG

After a late breakfast, their transport arrived to take them to pick them up. Though the sun was bright and the skies were clear, the day promised to be colder than yesterday, a damp sort of cold that soaked right down to the bone and lingered all day. Han copped out, saying heíd be of better use checking the city center and their landing records. Neither Luke nor Leia had argued with that.

Theyíd gotten little accomplished during the previous day. Theyíd had a full tour of the estates, including refreshments and visited three museums and a school. The Jedi ship ended up being a replica, much to both menís disappointment, and as far as replicaís went, there were at least twenty visible flaws Han had been able to see that made the ship un-spaceworthy. The gods only knew what they would have found in the engine room, but that had been closed to the public. For Leia, the day had been one long adventure in being seen and not heard, though the restrictions had not been so overbearing in their tiny circle.

Women could not speak to a Yashuvhi male without first being addressed, or introduced by a relative. They could not wander in the city alone, though they could together. They didnít even speak amongst themselves on the streets; at least not the groups were groups of women and children she'd seen so far. Although they were extremely well-educated and versed on any number of subjects, they were encouraged to marry and tend to their families, not apply themselves to careers, and then, if they wished a career they were forced to acquire permission from their relatives again.

However, beyond the quasi-enforceable restrictions, they were cherished. They were loved. There were statues and murals of women everywhere, artworks, and carvings. Beautiful women, with flowing locks and swollen bosoms, knee-high children, tools in hand. They obviously romanticized the role of mother, of the family ideal, of the family unit as it was aspired to by so many cultures.

Moreover, like so many worlds, Yashuvhu was not without its unique idiosyncrasies. In light of the fact that it was a male-dominated society, in light of the fact that women were not allowed to rule, a women could be convicted of no crime, no punishment could be meted out against her. Nor could she be imprisoned unless it was to prevent self-inflicted damage, and then, there were alternative facilities for that. If she killed her husband -- they said he had not loved her well enough, and then, Leia didnít understand how love factored into arranged marriages in the first place. But she supposed it was a very convenient manner to dispose of an unwanted husband to begin with, and suspected it ultimately impacted the choices their families made.

Liberties existed for them, then. Bearing all that she learned in mind, she didnít understand why women keep their silence, why they never fought to live as equals among the men, when they could be penalized for nothing. What stopped them? Sheíd discussed it with Han, laying in bed late last night, and he agreed it was odd, but pointed out often societies like this had invisible freedoms an offworlder couldnít discern at first study. Alternatively, heíd suggested, perhaps being able to serve oneís husband a ĎTogorian hangoverí without fear of reprisal had an even greater appeal. Leia wished sheíd printed off more of the anthropological reports when sheíd done her research.

This morning was the first occasion she and her brother had had to be alone in days. Thankfully, there was no mention of the kitchen, for which Leia was grateful. The mortification was washing away slowly. They had been on their way to their room and they had detoured for a glass of water. And well, stang, Luke had already said good night.

Luke didnít hedge his way around the other topic she hoped to avoid.

"Are you going to tell me what had you so panicked the other night?"

"He would have insisted on checking the smashball scores and then we would have been late," she replied. It tumbled freely from her lips so facilely, she almost wondered if part of her brain had secretly planned the response for her. She cursed herself for not having used it yesterday. Of course, it was a lie. And of course, Luke knew it, but she wasnít facing him -- she was peering out the window at the reddish leaves and deep violet landscape bearing the fruit of the seedstorm like a heavy winter blanket. Eligel Proper reminded her of Alderaanís North Thon in late autumn.

He said, "Uh huh."

"You know how he can be?" she added.

"I guess so," he replied, sounding less than satisfied with her answer.

It was no longer a question of guarding paternity, and it wasnít that her conscience wasnít clean. It was. But he would ask why, and how, and though she and her brother had grown a lot closer, though sheíd been open with him about many things, they still had a lot of work ahead, a lot of unresolved issues that he wasnít going to forget. More than that, there were parts of her life she preferred to keep to herself.

Luke's voice, repeating, "fifty million credits," echoed like the beat of an automatic drum. Hanís reaction in their quarters on Baskarn had been much the same, and she knew, now matter what she did or said, that they would draw conclusions that werenít true, that they might believe sheíd been willing to go to any lengths to obtain those funds for the Refugeeís Fund.

She hated thinking about it. It paved the way for moral quandaries she never wanted to face. People based alliances and political marriages on less than credits and honor every day across the universe.

They grav-sled deposited them at a small dwelling in the rear of the market district, and were greeted by a solemn-faced girl she was certain sheíd seen at the dinner, though they hadnít spoken. They might have been the same age, or within a few years of each other either way. It was difficult to discern. Her straight shoulder-length hair was gathered untidily behind her shoulders. She wore skirts of the same kuba wool Leia had grown so fond of over the past few days. Without saying a word, she waved her arm and bid them to enter.

"Good morning." Luke said.

Apparently, restrictions did not apply within oneís own home. Like so many others, her Basic was flawless. Clacking her heels hard against the floors, she replied, "Itís actually nearer to afternoon."

"Afternoon, then," her brother amended, his tone normal though those that knew him well would have recognized the forced pleasantness. "This is my sister, Leia Organa."

They werenít welcome. That much was immediately apparent. Animosity hung thickly in the air.

"I know whom you both are," she stated coolly, seating herself in the only single chair, at the head of the low table. Leia followed suit and sat on the dual sofa. Luke sat beside her. A table was already laid out for them, cups and tiny saucers, bowls with scattered herbs, a pot of water tiered above a flame in the center, two flasks. "And I donít care. I didnít want you to come. However, Iím stuck with you here in my home. You can have your yammansk, as His Majesty wishes it, and leave. Tell him whatever you like. It wonít make a difference to me."

Her brotherís face flickered with confusion. "Have I missed something? Iíd be happy to leave if thatís what youíd like, but Iím unclear on ..." He shrugged. "Well, firstly, I have no idea why Iím here or why your Tas asked me to come, and secondly, I have no idea what Iíve done to insult you. It didnít escape my notice the other evening either."

Their hostess found this amusing. "How intuitive? Did your enhanced senses supply you with all of my emotions or does a dirty look say it?" She snorted. "As for His Majesty, what did he tell you."

"He wanted me to meet you. And your uncle. He said youíre his cousin."

"Oh, barely," she scoffed. "Our lineage is so distant I could throw a stone from my end of the family tree and it wouldnít land anywhere near him. Not that I would mind," she muttered viciously, "If it hit him in the head and did some major damage."

Luke practically tipped out of his seat, coughing. "Youíre not close then, I take it?"

A swift, startling laugh sounded. "What do you think, Jedi?" But upon seeing that her guests looked completely flummoxed, she mellowed, unexpectedly. "No. Not while I live and breathe. Never." She lifted a bowl of dried leaves and sifting them onto a trivet, breaking the larger pieces with her fingers. "And I suppose the sooner we begin the sooner this will be over with. I donít know about you but Iíd prefer it be over sooner."

"Well then," Luke replied, perfectly platonically. "In that case we may as well be practical"

"Practical, yes," the girl returned.

Weíll toss civility to the duuvhals, Leia thought, paying close attention, curious as to whether the preparations were ritualistic or religious. Hataj lifted a fist-sized pestle and pounded viciously at the tealeaves. When the mixture was pulverized to her satisfaction, she bowed her head and said a quick prayer over the leave ashes, then lifted a flask and drizzled the contents over the trivet. Then she lit a potent smelling incense and said another prayer, before lifting the trivet and spilling the contents into the pot of boiling water. Throughout the process, Leia made several game attempts at conversation for her brotherís sake, but her queries were dismissed.

The first cups of yammansk were served and the afternoon droned on.

The drink had a tangy aftertaste to it, a blend of exotic spices and sweeteners, which contained, Leia ascertained quickly, a mild calming agent. It was enough to make her feel on the verge of relaxing, in a languorous way, and sleepy from the lack of conversation. Maybe the beverage was used to facilitate conversation, communication, though she suspected their hostess had developed something of an immunity to it during her lifetime. It had little or no effect on her. Nor on Luke, Leia noted, who periodically asked when she expected her uncle to arrive.

"Soon," was her constant reply.

After an hour, the awkward scenario had yet to lessen and the uncle had yet to appear. After three cups she needed the fresher and was feeling quite lethargic. She asked for directions and excused herself, washed her face to try and shake off the sleepy feeling. Then she lingered in the hall, hoping perhaps that alone her brother would be able to sort out whatever reason it was the Tas had arranged this meeting.

While examining the two-dimensional portraits lining the mantles, she missed her turn. It was simple enough, in the stone labyrinth of narrow arching halls, which retracted in all directions like the tentacles of a sea serpent. The inside of their home was, curiously, not unlike the ringed layout of many ships, and then she didnít know if it was another architectural variation on the circle or strictly a coincidence. Curiosity, fatigue, and absent-mindedness were all to blame. When she realized she was lost it was only because she was staring into what appeared to be an office, and straight through a line of double doorways, she could see Luke and Hataj in the main room. Supposing she may as well cut across to them rather than go back around, she stepped inside.

Not quite clear headed to begin with, her surroundings mutated into an untamed whirl of colors and movements and voices, out the corner of her sight, of her hearing. Lightheaded, she rubbed at her eyes and took a deep breath.

When she opened them the room had settled again but it had all changed. It was no longer an office with a desk and chairs, with volumes of handheld books adorning the shelves along the walls, but a bedroom, with an oval shaped vanity, and cushions piled in the corners. A woman was sleeping on a bed, curled on her side; her sparse hair scattered like abandoned cobwebs across her pillow.

Oh no, Leia thought, backstepping quietly, mortified to have stumbled into this womanís bedchamber. Someoneís asleep here. The door through which sheíd entered was no longer behind her, and though she spun full circle, her egress had vanished. Wall after wall after wall ... and the woman on the bed was staring, panicked, eyes bolted wide.

"Pardon me. Iím lost," Leia ventured. "I thought ..."

The woman didnít answer, though her mouth gaped wide and her legs flailed beneath the heavy blanketing, tearing the sheets, reaching for her stomach.

Maybe she canít understand you, Leia thought, spinning again. The door was still mysteriously absent. By her second pivot, she could plainly see that the woman appeared downright leukemic ... Ill. Extremely ill. Her lips were bluish, her skin flushed, and spittle dribbled over her lower lip into her hair. She bridged the distance to the bedside, abruptly more worried than concerned about the accidental intrusion. "Shall I call someone for you?" she asked, reaching over to touch her. "You donít look well --"

The sentence was never finished.

Her hand encountered nothing. No flesh, no body.

Yet she could still see her, gasping and choking and drooling.

"Who ... who ..." she stammered, swishing her hand through the body, through air, through nothing. The woman lay there still.

I need help, I need help, was all she could think.

"Luke! Hataj!" she shouted.

Something loud and awful sounded through her body like electricity, like a thousand nails dragged across slate, only the slate was buried beneath her flesh, deep in the marrow of her bone. The sounds tore at her eardrums as though the air pressure in the chamber had bottomed out.

The woman kept screaming inside her head.

They werenít alone. There was no other explanation, for the words didnít match her mouth. And she knew the voice. She knew what was so familiar to her on Yashuvhu was in the chamber with them both.

"Tolíhiídenata krdíss essa alíryn ryallenush. Chalíhah krdíss essa alíryn ryallenush ..."

* * * * *

Han finished milling about the landing field outside the portmasterís office and snooping before midday. There wasnít much to unearth. Since theyíd arrived, not a single, solitary, vessel had landed or taken off.

Imagine that. He couldnít.

On the pretense of searching for a dropped credit pouch, heíd taken a quick stroll around the yard. There should have been fresh scorch marks in the grasses from the repulsors firing down, just as there were beneath the Falcon. Or grease puddles. Leaking coolant fluids. Compressed vegetation. Any or all of the above. Bribery never failed. According to the portmaster (and thankfully, it was not the same clerk theyíd dealt with two days ago), this was the only government sanctioned landing field on planet. Vessels were allowed to continue on to other intercontinental destinations, but they first had to check in through Eligel Proper, so Ďnoí, if no one had been through here, no one new had come to Yashuvhu.

He wasnít lying. That there were any surviving patches of grasses to begin with proved his point. No one came here. The landing field was in near pristine condition.

It was truly amazing, if one considered that the regular air traffic of even a planet such as Tatooine reached a thousand landings and take-offs a day, a million on Coruscant. But one a week? Han thanked his lucky stars he hadnít been born out here and decided make his way back to town on foot. Thinking that their whole trip here was beginning to seem a complete waste of his time, and thinking that no planet was worth leaving without a little culture absorption, he ventured to one of the downtown tapcafs and seated himself by the window, ruminating cynically.

Okay fine. Leia had him.

No Imperial factions were waiting to salute or assassinate Kadannís Ďsupposedí replacement for Palpatine. The local politburo was eager to show him off and host dinners in his honor, but not exactly tripping over itself to provide a helping hand to his information gathering. If the Jedi had ever lived here, heíd yet to see a shred of evidence to prove it. Luke Skywalker wouldnít give up yet though, not by a long shot. Of course, Han considered that more of a culmination of the last few years. The young man obviously believed that if he kept looking, heíd find a battalion of mystic Force users dumped on any alien world, far from the civilized parts.

It wasnít going to happen. The Empire had been too thorough. Soon it would be time for someone to seize Luke by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. If they were here much longer, he figured heíd be the one to do it. Not that he wanted to rain on the younger manís prognostications, but he wasnít so optimistic about all this.

Han ordered an ale and then, because it was better than most of the semi-clear distilled sludge spaceports were passing off as ale these days, he ordered a second, forgetting all about Luke and his quest. Instead, he thought about Leia. In the space of a few scant hours, he was finding he missed her. Used as he was to being on his own, he rather wished sheíd come with him instead of going with Luke. Then they might be sitting here having a drink a together, as though they were two normal people, on a normal afternoon out. They never got to be them. Before heíd left for the Sumitra Sector, before heíd left her, the publicity hounds had been getting bad. Going for lunch on Coruscant meant scouting for holo-takers in the bushes first if they wanted a patio seat. It made him crazy.

The tapcaf even had an ancient foam buffered fuse-ball table, as well as a partitioned off area for photon darts. Leia was sharp at both, and as he watched the few customers playing, he began imagining their shocked pasty faces if they were to play a woman and be beaten by her. Anything to ruffle feathers, especially since, Han noted midway through his daytime fantasy, since there wasnít a woman in sight here.

His commission would be up again soon if they successfully sorted out the mess. It meant that, at best, he had a month to make sure the past four were straightened out and then he would be gone again.

As was his custom, he resorted to people-watching when his mind became so thickly clotted with weighted seriousness he needed to give it a rest. There was only one patron on his side of the bar, standing sideways a few meters away, with snowy white hair twitching on his shoulders. The man flicked the edge of his caftan, back and forth, back and forth, over his feet -- perhaps trying to keep it from touching the soiled floors, and spoke with the man tending the counter.

What if it took them a year to clean up Zsinjís mess? What if he was gone that long? Knowing that Leia had turned to someone else while he was away ... it was going to make it hard for him to leave.

Then again, Han much preferred the fight to running supplies in backwater sectors for the higher ups. Part of him had even missed the comradeship of a crew, of the team, on his last assignment. Dispassionately, he pictured Rieekan and Leyíkelís faces, running his fingers lightly across the blaster hidden under the folds of his oversized great cloak and wondered how many subordination charges heíd wracked up.

Outside, the tubule streets were bustling; the paved walkways cracked with white stains spilling like dry puddles of frost. The man with the snowy white hair suddenly materialized outside his window, waving at the grav-sleds passing by. He dropped something small and silvery, and when he stooped to pick it up, Han got a good look at his boots.

Danger sense trickled up and down his spine. He knew the style by heart from days that seemed as though they belonged to a past lifetime, to someone elseís life. They were well polished and cared for, with thick kerridum soles that by themselves cost more than five hundred credits on the black market.

I knew it, was all he could think.

Fortuitously, the stranger hadnít so much as blinked in his direction, so Han hunched over his drink, scrounged in his pocket for a more than enough credits to cover his bill, then surreptitiously slipped out of his seat.

The target of his pursuit was pulling the hatch of a grav-sled closed just as he made it outside. Swearing, Han pursued the vehicle for two blocks, dodging his way through pedestrians until his lungs were burning. He lost sight of it just as it turned North off the market area hub.

He caught his own transport back to the guesthouse and walked in on a crowd. Leia reclined against the loungeís bolster, wrapped in a blanket looking very wan and pale. The front of her dress bloodstained. On the other side of the caf table, perched on the footstool sat a native woman, pretty in a fresh-faced way, but looking as though she too was in the process of overcoming a shock. Luke stood within a few paces of the doorway, clutching his elbows and speaking anxiously with a man flanked on either side by their designated guards. His first thought was that theyíd been attacked. Though heíd anticipated being the one to walk in and say, Ďguess what?í it was he saying instead, "What the hell happened?"

Luke came over to him swiftly. "Everyoneís all right, Han."

"Nose bleed," she said quickly.

"More than that," Luke added.

Leia made a face. "It only ever happens when youíre around." She gestured to the guards, to the man standing with them. "This really isnít necessary. Thereís nothing wrong with me. You said you felt it, too."

"I did. But it didnít affect me that way."

"Luke, it had to be a vergence of some kind within the Force. The woman wanted my help. She was pleading for help, begging me."

Felt what? Woman? Vergence? "Iím not following any of this?"

Glancing at the party inside their common room, Luke flicked his chin toward the foyer doors and asked if they would mind waiting outside. When they were gone, he said, "Leia had a vision Han, at Hatajís home."

"Is was more than a vision," she countered, waving him toward her. "It was almost real." Leia stopped to shake her head. "No, she was real. I know she was real."

Vision? He went to her, and she was winding her slight fingers serpentine-like through his. Trying not to wince, because she was squeezing with that superhuman Leia-strength of hers that defied physics, he allowed himself to be dragged down to waist level. "Okay. I think youíre gonna have to start at the beginning for me."

"We found her passed out on the floor of her uncleís office, disorientated, and unsure of where she was," Luke explained. "And as soon as we sat her up the nose bleed started -- it stopped soon enough. She wanted to come back here before we called a medic."

"I think I smacked myself when I fell," Leia explained, gingerly touching the bridge of her nose.

Ascertaining that the mystery man with the guards was the medic, Han reached over and pressed an index finger on either side of her nose forward and back. There was no swelling and no sign that it was broken. But sheíd fainted. That worried him. And the disorientation. "If you fainted --"

"The Force," she replied simply, as if that explained everything. "It was like tapping into a major power source and being overloaded, short-circuited. Thatís it. Remember ..." She tipped her chin forward a centimeter and poked his side, her anxiousness disappearing long enough to recall past events. "Remember what happened to you that time you decided to reboot the coolant feed generator without first cutting the power to the rear panel like I told you to?"

"Yes," he sighed. "Youíre fond enough of reminding me." That incident had been extremely unpleasant, indeed. Coming to under an odiferous siege of singed hair crossed with melted wiring and Leia saying, "I told you that was going to happen," had been even less pleasant.

"Well, there. Thatís my best comparison for you. It was like that, only it was --"

"The Force. Okay. And you know what, you told me you werenít going to let me forget about it. Iím not going to forget about this either."

"Right," she challenged, arching her adorned eyebrow at him. "I didnít suggest that you should. Ask Luke if you donít believe me. He knows exactly what Iím talking about."

The Jedi sighed, as if beaten, tugging at the hem of his cloak and shaking his head. "Well, there was a powerful vergence in the Force in that room."

"I didnít think the Force could reach out and bite you back," Han muttered, remembering when he and Leia had destroyed the Korriban base on Baskarn. And Leia had stood in the old cell shivering and terrified. Sheíd felt something, but it hadnít hurt her, hadnít knocked her unconscious and left her ashen faced, with her distress sequestered beneath an air of exaggerated normalcy. Han could tell. And his fingers were killing him. "Donít tell me the laws of the Force and nature are different here."

"Theyíre not," Luke interjected. "I donít know what happened."

Beyond their cloistered discussion, a low voice broke her silence. "I do. Itís happened before."

All eyes turned toward the woman.

"I would have warned her if I thought sheíd go that way. Iím so sorry I didnít think to tell you. It simply doesnít affect ordinary people, and itís been so long since weíve had a visitor with the gift ... But I should have warned you both, knowing who you both are."

"Itís not your fault," Luke assured her. "You didnít know that would happen."

Leia grew even more ashen. Two of his knuckles cracked against her palm but she failed to notice. "She asphyxiated in her own bed."

"No one really knows if she asphyxiated or not." The woman stated it matter-of-factly, with enough emotional detachment that it was difficult to tell if thereíd been a personal connection between she and the woman who died over twenty years ago. "Her husband awoke and found her the next morning. There were no marks, no signs of a struggle. They thought perhaps there was something wrong with her heart. There was a ... virus plaguing us back then. In the olden days the healers would have known, would have been able to help her, but she died during the transition -- between the times when our healers went into hiding and the lay medical persons began practicing."

Leia murmured softly. "She was pregnant, wasnít she Hataj?"

With a shudder plainly visible even from a distance, she replied, "Yes."

A chilling sense of dťja-vu swept through him, harkening back to the conversation theyíd had that night after escaping Baskarn, their first real Ďtalkí.

It was choking me ...

I couldnít breathe

Han continued asking all the logical questions, barely able to imagine what it must be like to see events, people -- in the past or in the present. The Force had provided Luke with amplified screams, anguish, suffering -- his suffering, of his torture on Bespin. Distaste and dread filled the pit of his stomach. He wasnít sure he was missing out on anything and Leia wasnít exactly ecstatic about it. "So, does this mean sheíll have them all the time now?" he wondered aloud to Luke, the nearest to an expert present.

"I donít know," Luke answered, skirting an anxious glance toward his twin. "I donít have them that often. Iíve never seen the past before, never ... I never have, only the future or ..." He glanced up at the yawning skylight and blinked rapidly as though a lash were caught beneath his lid, or a speck of dirt. "Iíve never been able to stop anything Iíve seen so far. Iíve never been able to help. They donít do me any good."

"Han, Iím going to wash up," Leia said, shifting suddenly and finally releasing the bone-crushing grip. Her expression clearly intoned, Ďcome with me.í

"In a minute," Han answered. He waited while her footsteps dimmed down the hall and until he heard their bedroom door close before turning to Luke. "You definitely have a look I hate to see you wear."

"I do?" he asked, unperturbed, calm as ever.

Han preferred people around him to react than to be so reaction-less. "Yes, I do. And thereís a non-answer if Iíve ever heard one." Irritation sinking in, he kicked up one heel and rested it on the edge of the caf table. "Spill it out. You will eventually. I donít want to play guessing games. Even Iím not missing the funny coincidences."

Luke was shaking his head vehemently. "I think it was the surge, not anything else. It was pretty powerful. Iím trying not to do the overprotective brother thing, but itís sort of hard. She told me a thousand times on the way here that her health is fine, that sheís fine ... but still ..."

Han tamped back his urge to rush after her, trying not to feel overly alarmed about where this conversation was going. All he needed was for Luke to say, I feel like sheís hiding something from me? His stubborn streak ran nearly as long and as wide as her own. Fortunately, it wasnít where he was going with this.

"But that the woman was carrying a child -- thatís bothering me. Itís bothering me a lot. I mean, the night it happened, I almost didnít even believe her," the Jedi confessed quietly. "I wanted to believe her, but I couldnít feel it, not whatever it was."

Han adjusted his blaster. "But you felt this today?

"By the time I got there ... it was as though the light was burning out. I didnít see anything."

He told them about sighting the Imperial.

"Boots," Luke kept saying afterwards, as though Han had just informed him he had x-ray vision and could see through duracrete. "Not that I donít believe you but ... youíre basing this on some guyís boots?"

"Boots?" Hataj echoed.

"You two werenít in the Academy," he reprimanded, waving away their disbelief. "They owned the patent on those soles, had them privately manufactured. You were issued a pair the day you enter and that pair would practically last you a lifetime." By now they were both staring at his own non-military style boots, and he felt compelled to add, "If you take care of them properly, which I obviously didnít. Anyway, he wasnít local and I donít know whether heíd been following me beforehand. For all I know he just happened in there accidentally."

"So you donít think he was tagging you?"

"No. No ... Iím not sure he even saw me." Han mentally reviewed the events. "Iím pretty sure he didnít. By the time I went after him, he was gone. The street broke up in ten directions at least -- it was the center of the damned weird downtown circle." He thought for a moment. "No one has landed at the dry dock recently, so unless theyíve been here waiting for us for a long time ... That or heís an ex-Imp who thought this was a great place to retire."

The humor slipped over Hataj. "Iíve never heard of anyone coming to retire here," she assured them, very seriously. "Yours was the only ship I know of thatís landed in the past month. Before that ... we had a supply ship from Kuat a month ago."

"Yet the Tas claims youíre completely self-sufficient," Luke commented.

"He has a penchant for foreign wines and finery. Plus we do import medical supplies and technology, foodstuffs."

"I see." Luke touched his fingertips together and brought them to his lower lip. "Weíve been on guard, we stay on guard. From the way youíre describing it, it sounds like running across you wasnít in the plans ..."

"My thoughts too," Han added. "He was almost too relaxed. However from what Iíve seen of their onworld security ..." He paused and pointed. "No offence to our guest here, but I canít imagine it would be too difficult to land elsewhere and bypass it. Iíve landed illegally on a hundred worlds with better security. I could do it blindfolded here."

Mental images of Leia fainting in the fresher and drowning in the massive sunken tub erupted. He lurched to his feet. "Iím going to go check on her."

Their bedchamber was empty so he shoved aside the screen that served as the fresher divider. Leia stood beside the oversized bathtub, idly watching it fill up, with her complimentary robe wrapped tight around her, the bloodstained clothing piled by her feet. Her hair was a glossy mass of auburn against the light fawn cloth. With the water running, she didnít sense his presence until he touched her, and then she jumped, still on edge. "Oh, itís you."

Han released her arms and regarded the bathtub water creeping upward behind her. "Uh huh. Itís me."

"Is the medic still here?"

"In the foyer."

"Can you please go back out there and do me a favor? Send him back wherever he came from."

"Luke wonít go for that and weíre both worried. And your tubís about to overflow."

"Oops." She spun back and fidgeted with the water controls. It took her a moment to deactivate them. When she finished she was smiling, sunnily, or trying to. "I feel fine, Han."

He settled a hand across the base of neck, digging his fingers into the muscles around her right shoulder blade with only the fabric of her robe between them. They were rock hard, bunched up and rigid. "You feel pretty tense."

"I am tense," she retorted defensively. "I see things, I hear people who arenít there. You of all people must think Iím crazy ..."

"Me, of all people? You donít think I believe you? Sweetheart, this sort of thing has happened before and Iíve always believed you?"

"You said so yourself last week -- that you didnít believe Luke really still saw Ben Kenobi."

Han shook his head. "Aw, come on. As much as I periodically take perverse pleasure in claiming to be a complete atheist when it comes to this stuff, we all know Iím not. I never doubted you on Bakura, I never doubted you when you told me about the night you went wandering through the touch-knots."

"But not like this. It wasnít like this on Bakura. It was the same voice I heard on Baskarn, the same words."

The Corellian froze. "Did you tell your brother that?"

"Not yet. Iím waiting to tell him alone, when Hataj is gone." Clenching her eyes shut, she brought her hands up to her ears. They opened wide, luminous pools of confused fear, the darker side of oblivion lying in wait. "I know hatred when I hear it. I know evil. I didnít need to understand what was said." She tucked her hair behind her ears, set her soap on the ledge and leaned her tremulous form against his for comfort. "Maybe coming here was a bad idea, Han."

Han hadnít even told her about sighting an Imperial yet. "Then maybe we should leave," he prompted.

"No. We have to let Luke try. Heís barely had a chance to begin. And with what happened to me ... Coming here was the right thing to do. I know that now. Itís all woven together Han -- what happened to me down there, what happened to Luke." She slipped out of her robe, handed it to him, then climbed into the tub, and sucked in her breath, steam rising around her like the rising mists of an Endor dawn. "I know this was the right choice," she repeated, settling herself on the bathís lower ledge, her hair a streaming fan on the surface of the water. "And Hataj is wrong. It wasnít a virus that killed her."

Not knowing what to believe anymore, Han set her robe on the counter, grabbed two towels and set them on the spiraling tiles beside the tub. Then he sat down with his legs outstretched, rolled up his sleeves, and reached down to massage her shoulders. "Try and relax," he said.

"I could see her as clearly as I can see you. I wanted to help her and I couldnít." Leia continued, sucking half of her lower lip between her teeth, as though she was trying to find a more cohesive language. "I keep imagining what it must have been like for her husband to wake up and find her dead beside him. And his unborn child."

"I know," Han replied slowly. The whole incident, the way she was talking, was beginning to rattle him. Massaging the slippery warm living flesh beneath his hands, he abruptly pitied the man, the husband, the father-to-be who had awoken and discovered his wife a lifeless form in his bed. No, he hadnít seen it, but he could imagine and he didnít want to.

Squirming slightly away, but not far enough that he was no longer touching her, she turned so that was facing him and asked, "Are you going to go tell the medic to leave or not?"

"Leia --"

"Han." She took a deep breath, on the verge of bursting with indignation. "Let me put it this way. If anything male from Yashuvhu so much as tries to take my pulse, Iím going to scream. You, on the other hand, can run whatever tests you want with the sensors and equipment you have on your ship."

It occurred to him then that he wasnít inclined to trust anyone coming from the Tasí residence. If they had Ďold friends hereí distrust was a good thing, and she seemed to be suffering no ill affects from fainting or the nosebleed. Reluctantly, he said "Only if you take it easy for the rest of the day."

"I will." Launching herself and a small tidal wave against the tubís side, she stretched over onto his knee and rested her chin there, heedless of soaking him. "I promise."

* * * * *

Night came. Sleep came to her in fits and starts.

The panic of the vision overwhelmed her repeatedly, and the image of the womanís face, of the gruesome rictus destroying the delicate features and transforming her into something ugly and terrifying loomed in the darkness. Han evaded her subtle hints to come to bed with her, not the least bit tired. He and her brother were talking in the common room; she could hear their voices but not make out what they were saying, though she wished she could. Leia left the 'fresher light on the way she would have when she was a child.

Luke had not known what to say when she told him about the voice. Somehow, by his acknowledgement that he didnít understand, a superstitious vestige of security had crumbled.

When Han did finally come to bed, she was vaguely aware of his hands on her body, of his warmth, but slumbering too deeply to do more than roll away from the disturbance. And then everything was black, black and dark and cold and the father she shared with Luke was there and she was screaming ...

To Chapter Seventeen | To Chapter Nineteen

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