Renewal: Chapter Twenty-Two Rated PG
Ivy

"You shouldnít have come."

Thatís what he called, as soon as he heard the forward hatch depressurize and release. Heíd forgotten that heíd drilled the Falconís access codes into her on Baskarn, and forgotten that she had a memory like whip snapping back and forth. The lights were dimmed; he hadnít bothered to replace the blown overhead panel yet, so he couldnít see precisely what it was that Leia was holding out to him. Whatever it was, his comlink promptly buzzed cheerfully.

"You know, you could have answered me when I was trying to reach you. At least I know you werenít in trouble and you were only deliberately ignoring me.

"I answered your brother." Han brushed at his knee. "What more did you want?"

"What more did I want?" Her hair was crawling free and tangled, dusted with powdery snow. She looked both worried and perplexed. "Whatís wrong with you? What are you doing here?"

"Iím having a drink," he mumbled, though that was more wishful thinking than a statement of fact. Though heíd poured himself a drink with every intention of dulling his senses, he wasnít drunk and couldnít dull an itch if his life depended on it. There was a horrible tightness in his chest, and his throat barely obeyed his command to send the liquid down. It stuck behind his tongue, burning and choking like a fire-fizzy Gamorrean brew mixed with sand.

She said, "Oh, I see," as though she actually did, adding, "And the farewell banquet is in less than two hours. Did your brain completely space the fact that we have an official engagement?" Her gaze was reprimanding, clearly saying, I expect better than this. It was the remainder of the bottle from that night on Tatooine, but she didnít recall or wasnít paying attention. She saw only the empty carafe beside the tumbler.

Han shrugged. The booth creaked sharply beneath him. "I changed my mind about going."

"All right. Whatís wrong?"

"What do you think?"

"I have no idea. I hope youíre going to tell me."

What wasnít wrong? Now he had a face. He had a name. He could picture them touching, them lying in bed together, her skin beneath his hands, her thighs beneath his mouth, his name on her tongue. The rigid codes that defined him as male were inflexible, jealous; possessed by a sense of ownership some might deem a trademark of Corellian eugenics. Filaments of anger had been coalescing for hours now, deep within him, turning into a gnawing fire of conclusions and morose suspicion. He wished she hadnít come, unwilling to believe the worst of her, yet faced with too much evidence not to.

However, it was too late to send her out, nor would she leave if he asked her to although the notion of scooping her up and evicting her briefly crossed his mind. Setting the aureate-misted tumbler and its contents on the gaming table, Han reached into his outer jacket pocket, then tossed the balled-up flimsiplast by her feet. His voice sounded unfamiliar to him. "Did you do it just for the money? Naturally, Iím somewhat curious. Where I come from, fifty million credits is a lot of money."

Leia studied the flimsiplast on the floor with a morbid fascination but did not move to pick it up. She looked ill. "The money?"

"Yeah. The money." Han watched the point of her tongue flick across her lips; he saw the awareness come over her like the flash tides of Algeron, sweeping their victims out to sea in a wave of amber seawater. Only the guilty, they said. For effect, he added, "Taskeen."

The messages had been short enough. He hadnít even realized at first that the messages were for her initially. Just that her name was at the top.

Leia.

(Not ĎCouncilor Organa,í or ĎYour Royal Highness.í There was her familiar name, plain as day, in aurabesh. The casualness had struck him before heíd processed why.)

The first two had been perfunctory and business-like, dispatching his accountantís names, lawyers, mentioning contractual obligations he wanted her to review to make sure they werenít in conflict with New Republic law. They were both several standard weeks old. Where ever heíd been when he sent them, Yail Taskeen had obviously not heard that Leia was no longer a Provisional Councilor, nor had he heard from his well paid contacts that sheíd been declared missing by New Republic Intelligence. Still, heíd had that funny feeling in his gut, before he realized about her name. Just as heíd known that Garris Shrike would kill him if he set eyes on him again. Just as Landoís proclamation that heíd made a deal to keep the Empire out of Cloud City had sounded ... wrong.

The last one had had precious little to do with financial matters.

Iíll be at Coruscant on 94426. Dinner again? I look forward to seeing you. On a more personal note, I loved the red dress. Yail.

Of course, Taskeen knew her personally — physically and personally. It all fell into place. Naturally, heíd imagined filthy rich, powerful, some polished and over-educated bureaucrat in the upper echelons of her political circle. Never been this bad, not with a man who could buy her a new Alderaan, not with a man who give her all the things he never could. Not a man whoíd lost everything she had, with whom she had so much in common.

It made what heíd wanted to offer her these last few days seem pathetically paltry and insignificant.

And then, feeling tenebrously numb, standing at the blinking screen (it kept asking him if he wanted to reply when what he wanted to do was un-holster his blaster and use it as target practice), heíd recalled their ill-seasoned conversation weeks ago in their quarters on Baskarn. Heíd been sitting on the edge of her floral printed bed while she worked at her console, when theyíd both had been so confused and hurt they hadnít known what to do with one another. Heíd been trying that day, or fighting the urge to try with her — it was all a blur. Nevertheless, he distinctly remembered commenting on Taskeen and the money, having read about it in the TriNebulon Newsjournal. In retrospect, it seemed she had been acting strangely when he brought up the name, that her discomfiture had been apparent. There was no longer any doubt

But you know her, heíd told himself a thousand times since then. You know her better than this.

Or you donít. And youíve been wrong about people before ...

"You didnít close the comm transceiver today," he explained. "You didnít sign off."

"I didnít?"

"No."

"I thought I did," she insisted feebly.

Though the fact was rather moot, Han repeated himself. "No."

"I thought ..." The Alderaanian Princess sagged into herself. "Han, I thought weíd been through this."

"Through what? You never did give me his name." The padded bench cushions felt hard against his back. The table-edge gouged where his elbow braced against it. The entire ship, full of scarred oily metals, sooty grates, patched plating and jagged corners seemed barbed to him, lethal, unfamiliar. It made him feel steeled inside, callous even, as though he had to bear up to endure it all, as though it was his veridical nature to distance himself. The woman at the center of it all wasnít saying anything, and that, perversely, angered him several degrees more. Leia always knew what to say, and yet, there she was, mouth squeezed together the way she did when she was incredibly nervous, struggling for words and looking in his general direction without meeting his eyes.

Defend yourself, he thought desperately. At least try to convince me Iím getting this all wrong.

She said, "Itís not what it looks like. I know what it looks like and itís not true. It just happened."

The reply was so woefully insubstantial, so overused in every culture that he laughed mordantly, blatantly mocking her. "Sure he didnít plan it. Now thatís something to be proud of, isnít it. You picked a player whose only intention would be to get under your skirts and you fell for it." Han flicked his thumb along the underside of his lip toward her. "Come on, whatíd he do?" he asked lackadaisically, as though they were new confidantes and he was coaxing her innermost secrets from her. "Invite you to dinner to show off his wine collection? Pull out a wad of credit vouchers and offer it to the Alderaanian refugee fund if you agreed to lie down for him? It happened and getting fifty million credits are two completely different realities."

The initial shock of his finding out began to wear off, to be replaced by livid indignation. Eyes afire, she shook her head, flinging the damp from her hair. Water dripped onto the deck. "Han, no-"

"Tell me something else, Sweetheart. "It was just sex, right? So was it part of the deal from the start? Cause it must have been great? An all-star performance in his bed."

"Donít you dare-"

"You should have told me who! You should have told me who he was!" Han realized he was shouting. Dropping his fists to the holo-table, he jerked his body out from the booth, snatching up the flimsy before she could, not wanting her to read it again. "I actually said it that day in your room," he laughed thickly. "A guy like Taskeen could buy anything. You remember that? Donít tell me you donít because I know you do. You must have been so fripping panicked, hearing me say his name when you-" It barely came out. The cold was wafting off her so close up like a living thing. "You lost his child only days before. You knew. I bet you were thinking I would put two and two together, huh? Oh, Iím sure you remember."

She nodded, letting out a taut breath and barely speaking above a whisper. "Of course, I remember. I didnít lie to you then. Iím not lying to you now."

"But you didnít tell me the truth, did you? You didnít tell me what you should have when it counted. I said he could buy anything. I didnít mean all people. I didnít mean you."

Leia let out a sigh that was more of a groan and leaned back against the bulkhead as if for support. She covered her face with her fingers protectively, then slowly tugged them down. "Donít you know me better than that?"

"I thought I knew you better than a lot of things."

"I didnít lie to you, Han. I couldnít tell you. I couldnít go through that day in the medcenter. I couldnít go through what we did when we left Baskarn. Donít think Iím not mindful of how it appears. I donít know why he did what he did; I donít even want to know."

"How can you not know?" Maybe she had spiraled along on more of a self-destructive path than he had expected when he left her.

"Iím not going to ask him. I believe he planned to make those funds available to us before me," she told him, haltingly. "As I said, I am mindful of how it presents itself to an observer." Leia reached to unfasten the top clasp of the jacket with restless fingers, then paused, as if thinking over how long she intended to stay onboard. "Beyond that, what is it youíre so angry about exactly? Youíve known all along there was someone else, once. Youíve known for over a month now! Is it that now you know his name and canít handle it, or that you actually believe this mynock-brained theory of yours?"

"Well now," Han remarked. "Itís not such a theory if even you know what it looks like, is it? And this isnít about me. Donít play the politician and spin this back me."

Frustrated, Leia railed a flat palm against the carbon-scored siding with a resounding smack. "Itís ironic, isnít it. If memory serves me correctly, you actually did sell yourself and your piloting skills to the highest bidder for years."

It took every ounce of his willpower to refrain from forcing her off the Falcon. "This is not about me," he hissed for the second time, starting for his cabin.

Leia fell into step behind him. "Moving it along, why yes, thatís right. Itís about us, isnít it? You and me. How about this then? One of these days youíre going to have to face yourself, Han. Youíre going to have to face the fact that you always assume the worst about people — that you persist in clinging to a religion where the next guy is out to burn you no matter what and no one else is watching your back. Iím not out to get you. My first thought when you walked out my door was not Ďhow can I hurt youí the most."

Han reached his quarters and slapped the control unit before she finished her last sentence. The portal sealed between them. "I donít think that."

"What do you think?" came her muffled reply.

His river-soaked clothes of two days ago were still piled on the floor. Han picked them up and dropped them the sani-steamer, trying to decide whether he believed her so far.

Leia got the point and pounded on the door. "Youíre locking me out of your cabin?"

"Yeah."

"Why?"

"Because I donít want to talk to you."

"Great."

My sentiments exactly. Han stretched out on his bunk with his boots on, determined to stay put until she gave up and left. The resolution wasn't easy to keep.

A minute later, he heard her shifting the deck-plates and mumbling something that sounded like, "I know the small explosives are in here somewhere." At least, thatís what he thought he heard. After turning the implications over a dozen times in his mind, feeling somewhat frantic, Han couldnít will himself to ignore her — if she found a half-charge that wouldnít blow more than a fiberplast panel she might just use it.

When he opened the door he found her buried waist deep in the storage compartment with (Han craned his neck to see) a crate of plasticene thermite beside her. "What do you think youíre doing?"

"I wasnít done talking," she muttered.

"Are you ever going to see him again?" he asked.

Leia peered back up at him with one brow raised, following his unspoken threat to its conclusion. "These were financial negotiations Han," she explained curtly. "Theyíll have to be re-addressed. Iím still a representative for Alderaan; Iím still the New Republic liaison for the Survivorís Fund. I canít abandon it because of my own impropriety, because you feel threatened by him."

"Oh, donít make it sound so fucking noble, Leia. No oneís handing out standing ovations for maintaining your image and upholding the archaic views of the Council of Elders. I donít want you to see him again. I donít care about the his economics, whether or not the Survivorís fund collapses, your approbatory review in the Alderaanian Free Press — whatever have you. I donít give a damn."

"Whoís being noble now? You donít give a damn about what happens to the Survivorís Fund?" Leia hoisted herself up and out of the compartment, nearly catching herself on her coat. Then she pressed herself up onto her toes. "You canít dictate to me. This is not the thirty-fifth century on Corellia, not how our relationship works. You can be paranoid and jealous and if you want to wallow in it all, be my guest, but Iíve had enough of your ultimatums to last me a lifetime. You forfeited the right to pass judgment on me the second you walked out the door. Thatís life."

The trump card had been yanked from the center deck at last. Han clapped his hands together egregiously, staring her down. She looked like she wanted to slap him and hard. "I knew this would come up. Weíre back to me leaving and Iím to blame for everything. You going to bed with him. You getting pregnant. Probably even the entire mess with your brother on Baskarn. Fabulous, honey."

"Right." Glaring at him purposefully, Leia shifted to the left, hoisted her comlink, juked her elbow back and pitched it at the siding above his head.

It was hard enough to make a fearsome thwacking sound, but not hard enough to dent the ceiling. The Falcon had been constructed to withstand more than a human femaleís temper tantrum. Still, he took the gesture for the insult it was intended and waggled a finger in her face. "Donít you dare touch my ship. No blasting the hatches, no throwing anything."

"Then you shut up and listen to me. Iíve made an effort to understand where you were coming from. You could do the same."

"Hey. I was straight up with you from the start, before I ever left Coruscant. His name came up." The finger waggling continued. "You should have told me who he was. Because you know what it feels like to find out now? Huh? Do you have any idea? Itís like a huge kick in the gut. As a matter of fact, Iíd rather be back in carbonite than think about it. Iíd rather be over the scan grid on Bespin than think about it."

The remarks hit her hard enough to elicit a physical wince. "Donít even joke that way."

"Iím not joking."

"I can see that." She wiped her hands across her features again, taking several deep breaths before she peeled them down. The effort to retrieve her bearings was seemingly for both their sakes. "This isnít solving anything."

Han agreed silently.

She checked her chrono, and then her fingers quivered between them, outstretched like the tiny sprigs of the ethereal Kerensiki tree before the rain. "Weíre going to be late. Come with me. Weíll talk about this later when weíve calmed down — before this gets any uglier and we both start saying things we canít ever take back."

The emergence of a brand new agenda rankled him. Had he not been locked on his ship alone for the better part of last hour agonizing over the messages, her other words might have made an impact, but he had no intention of acting the paladin for her at another royal affair. "I think itís best you go without me. Like I said, I changed my mind."

"Without you?" she gasped. "You canít do this — not tonight."

Han hardened the muscles of his jaw. "Watch me do it or get off my ship."

"Han-"

"Go."

"Oh fine!" She stormed down the passageway, stopping briefly by the Fabritech shipboard console. "Fine! You want to create an intergalactic incident over this, you go right ahead. You want to blow us, go right ahead too."

Han trailed just behind her, wanting to make sure she left and wanting to prevent her from leaving both at once. It was impossible to choose. "Iím not the one blowing it, Sweetheart."

"No, not yet. But youíve got your course plotted out and the coordinates locked into your brain, donít you?"

Instead of answering, he bit the inside of his cheek. Leia trudged a reluctant few steps down the ramp, hesitating, looking as though she wasnít sure she should be going either. She looked back over her shoulder, expectantly, and he could tell she was shaken upĖ by either him or them or what was happening. "Youíll be late," he warned finally. "You should go."

"One more thing."

"What?"

"I love you. I love you more than Iíve ever loved anything or anyone in my entire life. You know that. You always did. I donít want this to never die." With a weary sigh, she turned and spoke facing the darkness. "You want me to tell you I regret it. You know why I wonít, Han. You know. However, if you want me to tell you that afterwards I felt sick at myself, that I wished it was you, than you can have that? Is that what you want? Is that whatís going to make you able to live with this?"

The pressure inside him abated with sickening rapidity, like oxygen being sucked out an airlock. Her shoulders quivered even through the layers of the heavy outerwear. "Leia-" he began.

"No," she cried out, flinging her fists wide against an unseen assailant. "No! Thereís your answer and I hope you choke on it."

Then she was gone.

After a minute of steady cursing, Han went and returned explosives to the bowels of the storage compartment and refit the deck plating. Then he ventured into the cockpit and rested his hands on the padded back of his pilotís chair. Straining his eyes against the darkness, he felt his heart twist into a series of somersaults, wanting to go after her and knowing heíd be better off waiting. When it least served him, he let his anger and jealousy get the better of him: when it had the potential to be most destructive, he unleashed it.

You can be a real ass, was his persistent thought, suddenly. You can be a real-

A microsecond flash of outside light distracted him. Lightening, he thought, but it was too small a burst, too localized to the right of the cockpit. He watched and waited for another flicker, and when none came, he spun out of the cockpit. Opting not to retrieve his blaster from the common area lock-up, Han hopped down the ramp in two steps. There he promptly bumped into something solid and moveable.

Something human.

Sweetheart-

* * * * *

After Leia took the loaned grav-sled out to Eligel Properís city drydock, Luke scoured the grounds behind their guesthouse, exploring all the way to the shores of the very same river where the Falconís captain had taken his swim. In fact, had Han decided to let the currents haul him along, they would have led him home, although hypothermia would have killed him along the way.

It was there, crunching the day-old snow and sheltered by the coniferous trees, that Luke took care of a pressing task.

The young Jedi did not listen to the disk that the Corellian had given him, which he had carried nearly every day since it had been given to him. Instead, he preformed a very small ceremony, with no witnesses at all save the nacreous fishes and river creatures burrowing on their scaly bellies near the shore. Reliving that moment, assuring the galaxy his fatherís final acts had been selfless, repentant, would not redeem Darth Vader. It would not help Leia heal. In a morbid sense too, he did not want his broken voice on record pleading for his father to help him, nor did he want to hear himself suffering, screaming beneath the Emperor. The pain of electrocution flickered off and on in nightmares as it was; it would be alive on the recording.

Although heíd already planned to do this, Luke had to reassure himself that it had nothing to do with his conversation with his sister that morning. This was his own decision. It wasnít her eyes filled with hurt and hatred watching him now. It wasnít even knowing that a few months ago, she would not have asked for him in an hour of need because she felt so threatened by their fatherís legacy, by him. It wasnít the denial in her tone when theyíd spoken that morning.

With his prosthetic hand, Luke gripped the thin metallic disk and bore down until he heard the casing crackle. Then he turned it a quarter-way and squeezed again. And again. And again. In the end, the disc was a fistful of miniscule bits and dust, which he sprinkled across the water as would have cremated ashes. Opalescent bodies shivered, needle-teethed mouths opened and closed for about the remains. Luke watched for a time, letting the close of the planetís day bless the symbolic funeral like an unspoken prayer.

Then he resolved to return to the guesthouse and prepare for the dinner, prepare to face the man who had guided and nearly destroyed his life by penning fallacious prophecy — the Supreme Prophet Kadann, if he was indeed here. There would be a way to handle it, though he wasnít sure what it was yet. He only prayed a solution came in time.

Beyond these concerns, he felt terrible for abandoning Harmakhís niece the way he had.

What could he tell her? If he spoke his heart, it would bring them right back to where theyíd been when he left, and he was struggling to convince himself he was strong enough to prevent it.

Thereíd been no one for years — not since Gaerial, and again, though the similarities between the two women were sparse, the circumstances (acknowledging his feelings on the eve of his departure for both of them) were similar. The Bakuran girl had never openly offered herself to him. He suspected that Hataj was not so naive, despite her reclusive, solitary nature, though he was wholly ignorant about how sexual matters were regarded in her culture. Given the number of inconsistencies theyíd run across on Yashuvhu when it came to womenís restrictions and freedoms, it wouldnít have surprised him to learn they were extremely permissive, believing that meetings and couplings would not occur naturally as women were forbidden to move about in public alone.

The urge to discover for him self was overpowering.

There is no passion, he kept thinking, as though he could will his natural impulses to obey him. Unfortunately, it simply didnít work that way.

It wasnít merely the Code that deterred him from going to her or that deterred him from attachments. Heíd spent half of the last two years seeking guidance, adhering to his own sermonic and didactic interpretations of Jedi lore, to Master Yodaís instructions regardless of the dissension within himself. In essence, he was trying to figure out how he was supposed to be who he was, because whatever precedents he set now were going to be what guided the Jedi of the future, what they looked back upon. Additionally, over the past two years, he had grown more agonizingly conscious of the fact that the entire galaxy, which would one day would him as Darth Vaderís son, was watching patiently to see what he, as the first Jedi-hero of a new era, would do next. Essentially, he was a Jedi Knight without a mandate.

Leia had interposed herself gently between his philosophy and lifestyle choices once, informed him he was becoming increasingly solipsistic, and that it wouldnít do for him to have been so isolated. "Youíll have students one day. And what will you tell them when they ask the most basic of questions about love?" she had asked.

"I donít know," he said aloud, and his unseeing eyes returned to life. He had ventured far from their panoramic estate, although the entire walk had slipped by both his short-term memory and visual recall.

The entire city of Eligel Proper had been built on a circular grid; blocks were torus shaped — he remembered the view from the Falcon when they had first arrived. The great courtyard bearing the statues of woman and children whoíd died during the plague was at the intersection of several such blocks. Hatajís home was on one of such lesser divisions.

Immediately, his steps were heavy, those of the prematurely guilty. Had he seen the future of before and averted it? Or, was he bringing it to fruition with each footstep? Did he merely wish to make sure she was okay?

This time she was not in the kitchen preparing yammansk, nor was she inside the dwelling. No one answered when he called. Finally, Luke reached and followed his extraordinary senses, seeking out the bundle of converging Force energy that distinguished her and shunned her all at once, that made his skin crawl and tingle slightly at the alienness of it.

The girl was in the central yard she and her uncle shared with their neighbours, bundled in her heavy kuba winter cloak. She was using a spoon-shaped hydroshovel to maneuver packed violet-tinged snow (the snowfall had blanketed the offerings of the last seedstorm) into the recessed drainage pits nearer the houses. Steam rose from the melting snow within the hollows.

When her next broad sweep brought her back to his side of the courtyard, he cleared his throat. "Would you like some help?"

"I only have one peel," she returned, gesturing to her smooth-handled shovel, guarding it by her side almost possessively. Her expression was neither disappointed nor stirred by his arrival; it was calmer than he had seen it since theyíd first met. Just as Luke was considering Force-assisted means to clear the densely packed powder so that they could expedite their talk, she added, "And anyway, I actually enjoy doing it. In the deep of winter, this is my only chance to get much activity outside. Nevertheless, you donít have to wait out here. The scrolls are as you left them. Go ahead."

Luke smoothed away his flaring discontent. Heíd come to apologize to for leaving the way he had earlier (or so he kept reassuring himself), and explain why he couldnít have stayed. Instead she was freeing him of any obligation, even his own decency, and doing so without acknowledging that theyíd also not said Ďgoodbyeí. "I didnít come for them," he told her.

"Oh. In that case, I wonít be long. Go in. Iíll just be a bit."

A bit? It appeared she was cleaning the entire yard for her neighbours as well. The long snow-free patch stretched from her uncles home all the way across to the next dwelling, and the next, and then back again in a neat fashion. She was nearly half done, though far from being done in the next few minutes. "Why donít I stay in case you tire?"

"I wonít. But suit yourself."

Luke sighed and resigned himself to waiting. For half an hour, he kept quiet company while she worked, without thought as to what he might say afterwards. He was no sooner to a moral resolution when she finished clearing the snow. Afterthoughts of his earlier vision didnít help him any.

"There." Hataj lay down the peel just outside the portal and stripped off her gloves. "Now the drains can take care of it."

Ah. Luke stamped his feet, willing feeling back into his toes and appraising the wisdom of the city planners to arrange for precipitation removal via underground ducts. Now that sheíd cleared the enclosure, he could see that narrow gutters ringed the dwellings, all leading to the drainage pits. Ingenious planning to be fair, seen only in places that were not Ďbuilt upon,í but those that were built with modern technology already in place. No, in terms of settlements, Yashuvhu wasnít that old. They called the current season here pre-winter. It would worsen. "Most levels of Coruscant flood occasionally," he told her. "They lacked urbanized foresight when they built it — or they had no idea one day it would be nothing more than city for hundreds of levels."

"And you return there tomorrow."

Luke nodded. "Iíve let my responsibilities there languish long enough."

"What did you wish to discuss? You said you came to talk?"

"I did. I wanted to tell you that you were right with what you said earlier." Before she could ask in regards to what, he finished. "When you said that I donít belong to myself. I donít; not the way my sister does, or Han or you do."

"Oh." Hataj pushed past him, unfastening her cloak. She hanged it from a peg just inside the door and turned her bracelets around until they untwisted, standing in the open doorway in her sleeveless dress, exposed to the frigid air without seeming to notice or care. "Understood."

A luminous gloom settled over him anew. He stepped inside and closed the door, tightening his own clothing against his chill. "It is?"

"Yes." She moved into the kitchen to the eggshell-colored basin and activated the taps, holding her hands beneath the flow of water. Sheíd worked without gloves on; they were wind-burned and chapped. "I thought we were sharing a moment. I thought it was a mutual feeling."

And apparently, itís very obvious to everyone else. "It was — it is."

"Itís not your way. I meant no disrespect to you."

"I know."

Still washing, Hataj edged sideways a bit so that she was almost facing him, but not enough so that they made eye contact. "This is how our Jedi lived. I assumed too much, applying our old traditions to us, as though it were back then."

Now Luke had no idea if she was knowingly offering him an excuse, a validation, or this was part of her apology, but her face was turned from him.

(It was predetermined that none of it matter to him. The man would contemplate later why allowing himself to connect personally always felt so dangerous; why he could only say it was, without expressing more concrete justification.)

The days of the past two years lay barrenly behind him suddenly, decaying corpses which had never breathed life and experience, never been stirred by passion. That realization frightened him.

"Gfersh," he muttered under his breath.

She reached for a towel and began drying her hands. "Is that Basic?"

"No. Rodian."

"And what does it mean?" she asked.

"Iím not sure exactly." Granted, he might have wagered a guess based on the context in which Han Solo used it, but he didnít. Instead, Luke stepped up behind her, reached around to close the tap, and then gathered her by the hip and shoulder. She smelled of lindemorr soap and pregnant fijisi flowers, native teas. She froze at his nearness, under his touch; he could hear her breathing break, and then her body settled into the curves of both palms.

"I suspect it means weíre having another one," she whispered.

"Another what?"

"Moment." Without lifting her eyes, Hataj turned her head so that her cheek was couched on the back of his hand. Then she laughed and pulled her cheek away, twisting in his arms. "And youíre so cold."

"Actually, Iím freezing," he said. Then he leaned down and kissed her fully with no intention of going anywhere for the time being.

* * * * *

"Wake up!" Something hard and pointy stabbed him just beneath his ribs. "Damn it Solo! Wake up!"

"Mmm ..." Han grunted. Duracrete dusted with dirt and sprouting lichenous scum sprouted directly beneath his slackened mouth. His entire body felt like a massive funny bone that had been slammed down hard and it was humming from head to toe. The voice badgering him lacked the usual Imperial condescension. Arrogant and bossy, but familiar and not an Imperial.

The annoying pokes intensified. "Han, wake up before I start kicking you."

"Leia?"

"Who else do you think it is?"

"I dunno." Groaning again, Han rolled onto his back. With slitted eyes and clenched fists, Leia posed above him. Beyond her, ceiling-ward, a massive globe lamp covered with tough synthsteel mesh bore down fiercely on him. She looked larger than life, carved from the light, and angry enough to do the illusion justice. A pair of holocams flanked the globe lamp.

"This is all your fault."

"Huh? Huh?" Han struggled to recall what heíd done to deserve this or where he was. After another second, it all flooded back to him. Leia had been laying on the ground outside his ship and then ... "Fuck."

"We wouldnít be in this mess if you didnít retreat to your ship as though it was your motherís womb the second anything goes wrong." She squared her fists at both hips. "We would have been with Luke."

"Is that so?" Han replied dramatically, struggling to sit up and shaking the circulation back into his limbs. Fortunately, his tongue and mind recovered first, though it took a few good spits to rid his mouth of the duracrete taste. "Yes, the almighty Jedi would have saved us all. Donít be foolish, Sweetheart. They would have found opportunity. Theyíve been planning this for days, just as I told you two. I warned you, only no one wanted to listen to me when I said it."

Leia mumbled one of Alderaanís most filthy maledictions beneath her breath.

The entire chamber was maybe six by six meters, made of polished circumambient durasteel. There was no door but there was a meter wide break in the wall. Despite the beckoning exit, they were not going to be walking out without an escort. Han stepped up to the break, inspected the unguarded hallway and then coughed out a moist breath. Electricity crackled ominously in a small display of fireworks.

"Of course we canít waltz out of here," she snapped at him. "Believe me when I say throwing myself at an energy fence is almost preferable to being detained with you."

Han opened his mouth to remind her that theyíd always done well in tight quarters, and then remembered what theyíd been arguing about before the stun. He snapped it shut firmly in resignation. Whomever sheíd slept with four months ago had suddenly become a much less pressing, very distant memory, although she was still living in the moment of the mood. Instead he tried to ignore her and began scrutinizing their surroundings.

Compact neo-cells spaced at intervals on either side of the portal powered the screen. Tampering with them would result in a deadly jolt; heíd seen it happen once to a knobby-headed Adnerum with four arms, nearly twice his size. There was one tubule air duct about a meter above them to the right of the doorway, but it wasnít large enough for either of them to fit through, even if he managed to hoist Leia up high enough to reach it and pry off the plating.

Options for escape within the cell were nonexistent. They were only going out the way they came in.

The sub-level vibrating heíd attributed to the recent stun still hadnít dulled. It was in the floors. He swallowed dryly, crouching and pressing his palm down. Hyperdrive or sublight, he wondered. "Is that-"

"Itís some sort of generator, thank the Force. They dumped us in here about ten minutes ago — I was coming to when they brought us through the halls. Weíre on planet."

Han let out a heavy sigh of relief. Being a spaceborn captive was a thousand times worse than being planetside. Actually no, he thought briefly. Worse would be not having Leia in the same cell and worrying about what was happening to her. Granted, she looked as though she would have loved her own cell, even one with no more amenities than a hard bunk and hole in the corner. After another survey, he ascertained that the cell they were currently in wasnít designed for an extended stay.

Hoping they werenít going to be here that long, he scuffed his boot-heels against the floor and tried to imagine whom had been waiting for them at the drydock. Passes were required to enter; he had a black and gold laminated chip shoved in one pocket. The portmaster could see all activity from his office, and while it was likely the portmaster had been overwhelmed by their assailants, the voice at the back of his mind was saying the Tas of Yashuvhu had his sticky lecherous fingers all over it. As did the Imperials.

Although Leia looked as though she wanted to ask him, "How are we going to get out of here?" she seemed to think better of it, knotting her hair back at the nape of her neck. For the first time he noticed that she was clad in a loose-fitting ankle-length gown of rich teal kuba wool. It was so sheer that it might have been blended with gossamer shimmersilk. The borrowed greatcoat was gone. So was the jacket heíd been wearing — though he couldnít remember much of use being in the pockets save a few loose credit chips.

"Arenít you a trifle overdressed for this kind of place?

"I was getting ready and merely went to retrieve you and see why you werenít answering." She moved stiffly as far away as possible, although he still could have reached out and touched her.

"Huh." For the second time in as many minutes, he remembered his own words of a short time ago and stifled the urge to bang his head against the walls. He wasnít sure what kind of man drove his lover to disburse shameful secrets he had no right to know or ask. "Well you look very lovely."

Leia rolled her eyes. "Think."

"I am." The Corellian circled the room like a famished rancor awaiting his next meal, pausing beneath a holocam to make an obscene gesture at whoever was watching them. It might have been a Yashuvhi good luck sign, for all he knew. Then, still glaring at the holocam, he said, "What about Luke?"

"Iím trying."

"And?"

"I donít know if heís heard me."

"Are you sensing that heís in trouble?"

"No." More softly, she added, "I hope not."

There was movement in the corridor. Hoping the same, Han investigated, only to discover that their unexpected company was an emerald-feathered duuvhal. As soon as it saw him, it began whining and scratching outside the cell, poking its black unctuous tongue out between leathery lips. It appeared to be (and he wouldnít have believed it unless he were seeing it) flirting, and dangerously, with the energy field. "Get back before you shock yourself," Han commanded. "Back! Scram!"

Leia ventured near enough to see. Overjoyed at the additional attention, the creature promptly scuttled backward, flaring the its tail feathers and shaking its rear end from side to side. Then it began marking the walls with enviable accuracy. The scent of pungent musk drifted unhindered through the energy fence.

"Youíve got a new pet," she declared. "Another male competing for the same territory."

"I donít need a pet. I need a blaster and a disruptor to blow the energy field." Han stared at it, thinking. "But the Tas has these creatures running wild all over his palace doesnít he?"

"Oh." Her eyes widened. "You think-"

"I do. And I think the term Ďfarewell banquetí is about to take on a brand new meaning."


To Chapter Twenty-One | To Chapter Twenty-Three

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