While You Were Gone: Part One
Stoned Rose

Seven Standard Years Later

The cold biting winds of the Tatooine desert were relentless in their furious trek across the desolate landscape. The expansive sky was dark and foreboding, and Mandell Malcolm tightened the wrap around his head as if to further protect himself from the storm. He raised a hand to shield his eyes as he peered across the dunes. In the distance he could make out the dark outline of his partner, Xavier Ross. Beyond him there was nothing but the continuing vast grayness of the sky.

Malcolm gave the younger man an encouraging wave, even as dark doubt began to cloud his being. The two men had been combing the desert for several weeks now in search of imperial artifacts or anything else that might be of value on the open market. So far they had had poorer luck than they had anticipated. Aside from the charred remains of an old ship a few miles back, their detectors have been unable to pick up anything else of real value. Not that the wrecked ship was a complete waste. Malcolm was sure they could get at least a few good credits from the scant pieces of scrap metal they were able to salvage from deep beneath the sand.

But it wasn't enough.

These were tough days for the desert planet. Although the Empire had been destroyed almost seven years previously, the prosperity of the rest of the systems had yet reached this dark corner of the galaxy. Poverty ran rampant across the land. Even in the once thriving cities like Mos Eisley, one could find homeless families of several species on every street. Beggars flocked to the off world spacers in wide-eyed desperation, trying to sell them useless cheap nick knacks of every size. May I show you around sir? Perhaps sing you a song? Anything for a credit. Anything for a meal.

It hadn't always been this bad. Tatooine never thrived, but it was never this low either. Malcolm estimated that the planet took a turn for the worse around ten years ago. When a sect of the Empire landed down at the spaceport in search of two droids and never left. It was as if that garrison of stormtroopers had been able to walk through the cities and small outpost towns and single handedly sap them of all their vitality and remaining wealth. For every time the troops had tightened their grip of control on the modest planet, the defeated natives had lost a little more life.

It was this extreme poverty that had now forced the two men to scope the desert in search of any remains. When the Imperial troopers were pushed off the planet six years ago, leaving absolute devastation in their wake, the peoples of the planet wasted no time in destroying all reminders of the once -- present empire. Everything was burned. Huge celebratory bon fires were held. Joyous aliens of every species would gleefully toss in tarnished trooper helmets, or used imperial packs. But of course they couldn't get rid of the greatest evidence of all: the utter impoverishment of an entire planet.

It was these artifacts of the empire that were not destroyed that Malcolm and Ross were now looking for. Old stormtrooper gear could now be worth a lot. There were certain collectors who would now offer up thousands of credits for anything that was bona-fide imperial. It in a way made Malcolm's stomach turn in disgust, but he was never one to turn away from what could be a genuine gold mine of opportunity.

In the distance, Xavier continued to comb the area with his sensor. He too was feeling discouraged. He was about to turn back around towards Malcolm when his sensor lit up and let off an insistent beep. The young man squinted in disbelief as he began to make out a small opening in the rocky ravine up ahead. As he pushed his way towards it, his body fighting the stinging wind of the desert, the loud beeping became more urgent. Xavier's heart began to pound in excitement. It looked like a dwelling of some sort. This could be big. But he wanted to be sure. He needed to be positive he had stumbled upon something of value before he alerted Malcolm. It was not worth getting his hopes up if it was going to be for nothing. With one final wave to the older man behind him, Xavier pushed onward into the black cave.

Malcolm squinted in confusion as his young partner disappeared from view. What in the worlds was that kid doing? The older man swallowed a groan of frustration. The fierce winds of the sandstorm were not letting up and it was beginning to take a toll on his blistering skin and his plunging morale. Malcolm was about to reach for his comlink and demand the young man to come back when the comm squawked to life on its own.

"... Sir, do ... copy?"

Malcolm pressed the link to his mouth, "Yeah kid, I'm here. What's going on?"

"... something. Big. Come ... quick."

The torrent winds were causing major interference and Malcolm struggled to make out the words of his partner through the deafening static. "What did you find?"

"... dwelling ... collection ... pretty valuable. You should ... over here!"

Malcolm suddenly felt his body lighten with anticipation. The kid had actually found something! They were gonna be rich! They were gonna be rolling in it! And best of all they were going to finally get off planet! The older man suddenly felt giddy as he took off in a sprint, his legs stubbornly stumbling through the deep sand. Xavier did it! He did it!

Malcolm wanted to let out a joyous whoop, and if he had still been a young man, he probably would've offered up a celebratory black flip as well. He couldn't believe his luck might actually be turning around. The mere possibility of flying off this sandtrap was enough to make him drunk with happiness.

Malcolm was almost all the way to the black opening when his com link squawked to life again. He pressed the link tightly to his ear as he tried to make out the squabbled voice of his friend. "What was that Xavier? I didn't copy."

"... gods ... body ... met ..."

Malcolm approached the cave. "Xavier," he yelled urgently, "Repeat. I didn't copy." Again, he held the comlink up against his ear, his frustration mounting as the static buzzed through the communicator.

But as Malcolm passed under the lip of the cave the garbled voice of his friend came through with sudden clarity. "Sir, I repeat, I found something." The young man's voice rang with alarm, "But I -- I don't know what to make of it."

"Calm down, Xavier, I'm on my way. What is it?"

"Well ... " he hesitated, searching for the right words, "Uh it appears to be a human being."

Malcolm's heart dropped and his pace slowed. Someone had beat them to the loot? But how? He tried to cover his disappointment as he pressed on the comlink, "Someone's there? A man? Is he alive? What?"

"That's just it sir, I don't know."

Huh? Malcolm scrunched his face in confusion. "How can you not know Xavier??"

"Sir, uh, it seems that the man ..." The apprentice swallowed, "Well he appears to be stuck in some kind of metal."

* * * * *

The former princess of Alderaan sat before a desk swamped with paper work, the heal of her hand pressed firmly against her forehead as if to physically ward off the headache she knew was brewing. While working directly beneath Mon Mothma in the building of a new government was often a great honor, and a position she usually occupied with aplomb, it could also be completely overwhelming. Leia cautiously eyed the precarious stacks and piles, as if nervous that they might actually come to life and literally engulf her. She bit her lip in frustration; it honestly felt like they might sometimes.

Suddenly her intercom beeped and Leia stifled a groan as she reached for it. She didn't know if she could take any extra demands at the moment. "Yes?" She asked warily.

"Master Skywalker to see you, Princess."

Leia immediately perked upon hearing this. She could use a good healthy dose of encouragement from her brother right about now. "Oh, by all means, send him in."

As the door slid open, Leia sat up straight, trying to regain some of the regal composure for which she was famous. Luke made his way across the room and Leia gave him a genuine heartfelt smile. It never ceased to strike her how distinguished her brother looked in his Jedi robes. So noble. Yet serene. Leia stood up and offered him a hug.

"So," Luke whispered as they embraced, "How are you feeling?"

Leia backed away and looked up at him with a curious expression upon her face. "What do you mean?"

Luke gave her a knowing smile, "I mean how are you? I had a feeling you were a little stressed so I thought I would stop by." The Jedi eyed the stacks of papers on her desk. "And from the look of things, I would say my hunch was correct."

Leia rolled her eyes at his use of the word "hunch." She was pretty sure she knew what that really was. "A hunch, huh?" She said as she made her way back to her desk.

"Yeeaaaah," Luke said cautiously as he slid into the chair across from her, "So what's going on?"

Leia smiled weakly at her brother. She appreciated his concern. She appreciated having anyone's concern these days. "Just feeling a little overworked."

Luke raised an eyebrow, "A little? I would say from your appearance you haven't gotten much sleep either."

She gave the Jedi a pointed glare, "Oh, so now on top of things I look horrible too?"

Luke stifled a chuckle. "Hey, I didn't mean it that way. But seriously, you look really tired. Are you sleeping okay?"

"Yesss mother," Leia answered in mock annoyance, although it secretly pleased her when he fussed over her. She was about to add another smart remark, but faltered as the events of last evening came back to her. "It was just, well, last night I had some trouble. But I don't normally."

"What happened last night?"

Leia shrugged and feigned a sudden interest in straightening all the piles on her desk.

Luke suddenly widened his eyes in alarm, "It's not Bailey is it? He's not sick is he?"

Leia smiled absently at the thought of her six year old son, her eyes automatically flicking over to the holocube of him sitting on her desk. She warmed with pride as she took in his appearance. In this image he was beaming crookedly up at the camera, his hazel eyes squinting in the pleasure of the moment. His expression was so endearing. So adorable. So familiar. It was enough to make Leia's heart ache. In the boy's right hand he clutched his favorite worn Wookiee doll. A present from Chewbacca on his Name Day. "No, Bailey's fine," Leia sighed, "Thank gods."

Luke's shoulders sagged with relief. "Good. So what ... is it the stress? Did that keep you up?"

Leia turned back to the task of re-organizing her desk. She tried to convey a sudden lightness in mood that she did not feel. "Yeah, I guess that must've been part of it ... "

"Part? Part of it? What else was it then?"

Leia let out an exasperated sigh as she looked at her brother, "Wow, you just don't give it a rest do you? Why don't you just pull out the interrogation droid while you're at it?"

"Hey," Luke said defensively, "I'm only asking because I care."

"I know," Leia admitted.

"So why don't you throw your dear old twin a crumb, and tell me what's going on."

The princess gave a casual shrug, "I just had some weird dreams, that's all."

Luke's brow furrowed in concern. "Nightmares?"

"No, not nightmares," she replied slowly. Leia rubbed her cheek absently with her hand. Her gaze was drawn inward, as if reliving last night's dreams in her head. The corners of her mouth were pulled down slightly into a sad frown as she continued, "They were just so ... vivid. It was disturbing."

"Leia," Luke said, trying to control the excitement in his voice, "Tell me what you dreamt."

"Why?" She asked absently, the softness of her voice making it obvious that her thoughts were still lost somewhere in the previous night.

"It's important."

"Why?"

"Because," Luke took in a deep breath, "Because maybe what you had was not a dream at all. Maybe you had a Force vision."

At the word 'Force' Leia suddenly snapped back to full alertness, and her mood darkened.. "No. It wasn't a Force vision," she snapped with conviction. As if to punctuate her certainty, Leia once again returned to sifting through her paperwork. She straightened the piles with a sudden newfound urgency.

"But how do you know," Luke asked gently. "Leia you have to begin to accept that you have this gift too and -- "

"Luke, trust me," Her gaze was unwavering as she looked him steadily in the eye. "It wasn't a Force vision. It couldn’t possibly have been one."

"It's not impossible. Nothing's impossible with the Force," Luke took a breath and Leia could tell that meant he was about to go on another diatribe about the great wonders of the ancient religion. Eventually he would get around to Leia, and her stubborn unwillingness to explore her full potential. The princess didn't think she could sit through one of his lectures at the moment. Not today. "You see, Leia," Luke said, unperturbed by his sister's lack of enthusiasm, "the Force can come upon on us in the most unexpected of ways. In some of my experiences --"

"I dreamt about Han," Leia blurted before she could stop herself.

Luke looked at her wide-eyed, his hands frozen in mid-motion. The utterly stunned expression on his face might have been humorous to Leia if she wasn't feeling so distraught. The room was eerily silent for a long moment. Finally Luke regained his speech, "Oh," was all he said.

Leia looked away towards the large window overlooking the city of Coruscant. The familiar tears threatening to overtake her once again. She cupped a trembling hand over her mouth. "I - I don't know why ..." She sniffed quietly and continued to keep her eyes steadily on the glass in front of her, but it was doubtful that she even saw the steady traffic gliding by. "It's just that ... it seemed so real. Like he was there."

Luke had made his way from his chair and now kneeled before his sister. He took her other hand into his and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Tell me."

Leia bit her quivering lower lip, her mind muddy and uncertain where to begin. She didn't know how to sort through all her thoughts and emotions. "I -- ..." Her voice faltered, "He was with me. And we were walking. Together. I was telling him all about Bailey and - " The princess stopped, her face contorting as she fought off a wave of sudden grief.

Luke could feel the emotional pain radiating from her body as if it were his own. He gave her hand another encouraging squeeze. "Leia," he prodded gently, "it's okay."

Luke kept his voice steady, although he was still reeling a bit from his sister's confession. It's not that the dream was that particularly odd in itself, it was just that he had heard Leia barely even mention Han in several years. At least not directly. It's not that Luke had believed she had forgotten about him. Bailey was a daily reminder if anything, but it was as if she had just declared the topic too painful to dwell on and so instead she tried to ignore it completely. Leia had shut the emotional door on that chapter of her past and had declared the subject closed.

Much like the subject of her home planet of Alderaan. Or their biological father.

Leia turned back towards her brother, her lips drawn in a tight line. Her eyes hardened as she consciously tried to regain her composure. "It's not okay, Luke. I shouldn't be thinking of him. He shouldn't still have this effect on me. I can't allow it."

"Leia, that's silly," Luke pressed lightly. "You can't just shut down your emotions. It's all right to let yourself feel. Han is -- "

"Dead," she said with finality. "And the past. I can't keep dwelling on him."

"And," Luke continued, "he's the father of your child. And someone you loved. You've hardly been dwelling on him. If anything you've been deliberately suppressing your memories of him for years -- "

"What do you know?" Leia snapped, her eyes fiery with indignation. "You think because I don't want to sit down with you and Chewie and exchange war stories of 'the good ol' days' then I must have totally forgotten him?"

"Of course not."

"Because I think of him everyday. Every single day, Luke. It's unavoidable." Her gaze wavered a bit, and Leia hastily turned her head back towards the window. "Every time I look at my son I see him. Every time. And it seems," Leia sniffed softly before continuing, "it seems every morning I wake up and discover that Bailey has developed another one of his mannerisms literally overnight." Leia paused, her eyes closing for a moment. "So you see," her voice was now throaty with emotion, "it's not that I don't think about Han. It's that I can't stop thinking about him." Leia turned back to her desk and suddenly began rummaging through her top drawer. "And that's really unfair of me."

"Unfair?" Luke gave Leia a quizzical look before understanding suddenly dawned. "Oh.." he said slowly, "You mean for Simon."

"Of course it's unfair to Simon!" Leia apparently found what she was looking for, as she had paused in her frantic search. Suddenly she pulled out a handkerchief and began wiping her eyes. "What kind of wife ..." she started, "What kind of wife would continuously look at her husband and silently berate him for not living up to another man? A man who's been dead almost seven years?" Leia's cheeks pinked with shame. "I am constantly holding him up to an impossible standard. Comparing him ..." She shook her head, "and it's so incredibly unfair of me. And I know it. But I do it anyway."

"Don't beat yourself up -- "

But Leia continued on as if Luke hadn't even spoken, "And he's always been so nice to me. To Bailey. He's been a terrific father to Bailey -- don't you think?"

"Yes."

"And he's just a good man. A nice man." I'm a nice man. Leia winced.

"He's a very nice man," Luke agreed, "That's why I think if you talked to him about it -- "

"Noooo," Leia shook her head insistently, "this is definitely not the time for that conversation. Believe me."

"Oh?" Luke was curious about her tone, but he didn't press.

"No." Leia finally tossed the tissue aside as if in resignation. "He's off planet at the moment anyway. Meeting with other Alderaanian refugees."

"I'm surprised you didn't go with him."

"I have a lot to do here," Leia answered shortly. "I couldn't of possibly gone. Besides there's Bailey ..."

Luke tried to give her a small reassuring smile. She knew that he could have taken the boy, or even Chewbacca would have gladly looked after him, but he dropped it. He was treading in an area that really wasn't his business unless Leia wanted to let him in on it. But he would be ready to listen, if she ever wanted to share.

Luke reached over and placed a comforting hand on her arm. "I love you, you know."

Leia smiled weakly.

I know.

* * * * *

Malcolm and Xavier stood in the dark cavern, both looking up at the frozen man in uncertainty. Xavier had been right, the cave had been a veritable gold mine of goodies. Malcolm guessed that they were looting what was once the primary residence of a clan of Tuskan Raiders. There were the tell-tale gaffi sticks and abandoned sand masks. There were also piles upon piles of what were now considered dated Imperial weaponry and old uniforms. Xavier had also pointed out to Malcolm that in the back corner there appeared to be larger remains of the same ship they had uncovered a few days before. "Why, I bet we could practically rebuild the ship ourselves," he had exclaimed excitedly to the older man.

Malcolm smiled in satisfaction, while he wouldn't exactly go that far, there was certainly a great deal of worth now packed into their land speeder. He just hoped it was enough to finally get them passage off this desolate planet. They would find out soon enough, but right now the two men paused in indecision as they studied the stony apparition.

"What do you think we should do?" Xavier asked softly, as if worried that he might actually disturb the man frozen before them. "Do we leave him?"

He watched Malcolm closely, trying to gage what the older man was thinking. Personally, he was all for leaving the man right where they had found him. As they had spent the last couple of hours pillaging the abandoned dwelling it had felt as if the man's presence hovered over them. Xavier had felt watched, as if the stony eyes were staring down and casting judgement on them. And that expression. It looked so pained, so anguished. It gave Xavier the creeps if he was going to be perfectly honest about it.

Malcolm crossed his arms and peered up at the slab of carbonite with an inquisitive glare. His brain and his conscience were working overtime. "You checked out those life readings before?"

"Yes, sir."

"And they said he was alive?"

"Well, according to them, yes -- but they could be inaccurate ..." Xavier swallowed, he could see where his boss's thoughts were heading. "And who knows how old that equipment is."

Malcolm sighed grudgingly. "Well ..." He ran a frustrated hand across his chin, "If there's even a possibility that this poor sap is still alive, then I wouldn't feel right just leaving him."

"B - but sir, we don't even know who he is -- " Xavier's mind was reeling, "He - he could be an Imp for all we know!"

Malcolm just shook his head in resignation as he looked down at the dusty floor of the cavern. His brain had been defeated by his conscience yet again. "Just wouldn't be right," he muttered softly to himself. And aside from that, there was something about that metallic face that tugged on his memory. But he couldn't figure out what it was.

"And what if this is his stuff? And he tries to demand it back from us?" Xavier seemed unrelenting in his arguing.

Malcolm chuckled softly at this and gestured up at the carbon statue. "Does this guy look like he's about to demand anything from us? Look at him for Emperor's sake!"

"I know," Xavier answered softly, his shoulders sagging with defeat, "But I ..."

"But nothing," Malcolm returned sharply, "Now let's load him up. We're taking him with us and that's the end of it."

* * * * *

Leia felt emotionally drained by the time she finally entered her apartment that evening. The day had been a trying one to say the least, and she was relieved to be home again. As the front door slid closed behind her, Leia could make out the giggles of her young son coming from the back room. The laughter abruptly stopped at the sound of the door clicking shut, and Leia smiled as she heard the sounds of padded feet bounding towards her. "Momma!" Bailey shouted gleefully, his arms outstretched for a hug. "You're home!"

Leia let out a small "Oof!" as the child leapt into her arms. "Whoa," she gasped good naturedly, "You're getting to be a big boy. I can barely hold you!"

Bailey beamed proudly, "I am a big boy you mean."

"Of course, I mean you are," Leia amended as she slid her son back to the floor.

"Guess what," Bailey said cheerfully, his broad smile revealing the gaps from missing baby teeth, "Uncle Chewie's back! And he got me this!" The boy thrust a small model spaceship in Leia's face.

"Oooh, neat." Leia looked up to see Chewbacca appear around the corner. He gave her what could only be the Wookiee version of a sheepish smile. He knew Leia hated it when he spoiled the boy. But Leia just smiled at him broadly and walked over to give him a hug.

"When did you get back on planet?" She asked, giving Chewie a tight squeeze.

[Just this afternoon.]

"Did you have a nice visit on Kashyyyk?"

[Yes, it was nice seeing the family.]

Leia gave the Wookiee a knowing look. "You could have stayed longer, you know."

[Princess,] Chewie said, his tone serious, [I had a nice time, but you know my place is here.]

Leia just gave him a small smile of understanding. They had had this conversation a thousand times before. So she just patted his arm lightly and headed towards the kitchen. "Are you hungry? Where's Threepio?"

And that was that. There was nothing else she could say to the Wookiee really. Leia had maintained to Chewbacca that he could do as he pleased until she was blue in the face, but the Wookiee was insistent. Han's last request was for him to take care of her, so that was exactly what he was going to do.

And he did. Especially in the weeks following the horrifying news. Chewbacca had stayed with the princess around the clock, attending to her every need and trying to help ease her pain in any way he could. The Wookiee held her when she cried and tried to make her laugh when she felt depressed. And Leia appreciated his company. For if there was anyone who could understand her overwhelming grief, it would be Han's best friend.

But as the weeks passed, Leia began to feel guilty for monopolizing his time. She tried demanding that he go home to his family. That she would be fine. But the Wookiee wouldn't hear of it. He had a promise to honor and he would never break it. When Leia finally confessed that she was pregnant, it just served to further cement his resolve. Turning his back on Leia was hard enough for Chewbacca to imagine, but abandoning her and Han's cub was downright unfathomable.

So the princess found herself with a permanent shadow and houseguest. Not that Leia minded having the Wookiee around. She actually enjoyed it quite a bit. Especially when Luke began immersing himself in his Jedi studies, which were a great demand of his time. Chewbacca hung around and kept Leia from feeling alone. In her very pregnant months, the two of them would just sit around and watch the holonet together. They made jokes and Chewie would tell her stories of Han from before she had met him. Stories that made Leia laugh, while at the same time causing her heart to ache in longing. The two became inseparable.

This continued on after Bailey was born as well. The birth of the child had done wonders for Chewie's spirits. Seeing Han's newborn son had been the antidote to ease his pain. His step was lighter; his smiles were wider. The Wookiee was also fiercely protective of the baby. It was as if Chewbacca had sworn to himself that he would never allow harm come to Bailey, as he felt he had to the child's father.

Leia also felt her happiness return with Bailey's arrival. Sometimes she would just look down at her son, and Leia would be filled with a wonder and joy that she didn't know was possible. That the baby strongly resembled Han was a source of both pride and pain for her, but Chewie just marveled at it. He loved pointing out their similarities at every opportunity. [Look at those reflexes,] the Wookiee would boast, [I haven't seen reactions that quick since the asteroid field!] Leia would smile weakly at these comments, and soon Chewie realized that his observations bothered her so he kept them to himself.

Chewbacca had also begun to notice that the princess was becoming more withdrawn from him. Stories from the past in which she had once reveled in, now caused her tension. Often she would excuse herself mid-tale, or interrupt in an attempt to change the subject. Han Solo was soon no longer a welcomed topic of conversation in her presence.

This realization had at first deeply hurt Chewbacca and had confused him. However, understanding soon dawned. One afternoon, when Bailey was two years old, a nervous princess sat Chewie down and softly broke to him that she was going to get married. His name was Simon; he was Alderaanian. He was fond of Bailey, and would provide a stable environment for her and her child. Simon was a nice man, she had told him.

This news had at first angered Chewie. He was upset on behalf of his lost friend, but when it came down to it he realized that Leia had every right to try to move on with her life. She needed human companionship, a father figure for her son, and he couldn't stand in the way of that. Chewbacca gave her his blessing.

It was also on this occasion that Leia had once again asked Chewie if he would like to return to Kashyyyk. After all, he shouldn't feel obligated to her anymore -- especially since Simon was going to be around. But again Chewie refused. The marriage would change nothing, he insisted, it would not erase the pledge he had made to Han.

So that was how it had been for the past several years. Chewbacca would take regular trips home to see his family, but for the most part he remained on Coruscant with Leia. Simon had felt awkward about the unusual set-up at first, but learned to adjust. He was a nice man, and Simon was not going to upset a situation everyone else seemed content with on his account. He would certainly never dream of depriving Bailey of his Uncle Chewie. Chewbacca eventually had to admit to himself that he approved of the princess' new husband. While Simon and the Wookiee would never develop a close relationship, Chewie appreciated how the man always treated Leia with consideration. And it pleased Chewbacca to see that Simon did indeed have a genuine affection for her son.

It seemed to be a fine situation. Leia had appeared to be reasonably happy in her marriage, and Chewbacca imagined that everything was as it should be. Until recently. In the last couple of months, there seemed to be a tension between Leia and her husband that hadn't been there before. On a few occasions, Chewbacca has walked in on what he was sure had been an argument. But the couple had hushed up on his arrival, and Leia certainly did not volunteer any information to him later on. For the most part though, Simon and Leia did not fight. It seemed that they barely talked much at all. Conversations that did take place felt strained and awkward, and seemed put on for Bailey's benefit, or to fill the silence. This bothered the Wookiee, but like Luke Skywalker earlier that day, he didn't feel he had the right to pry the princess about it.

Now, as Chewie stood in Leia's kitchen, he was tempted to ask if everything was indeed all right between them. He felt the need to know, but didn't want to voice his concerns in front of Bailey. He decided he would just test the waters, [So, how have things been since I've been away?]

Leia, who had hastily put on some Kashyyykian tea against Chewbacca's objections, was tending to it now over the stove. Her back was turned to the Wookiee when she answered, "Fine, I guess."

[And Simon?]

"He's fine," Leia replied evenly, her back still turned. "But I want to hear about Kashyyyk. How's Malla?"

[She's good,] Chewie answered, aware of how Leia had managed to change the subject. [Lumpa's gotten real tall.]

"Oh wow, I bet."

Chewbacca felt a tug at his arm and looked down to see Bailey smiling up at him. "I'm real tall now, too," he announced with confidence.

[Yes, you sure are.] Leia turned and smiled as she watched the Wookiee pull Bailey up off the floor and drape him over his right shoulder, the whole time the child squealing in delight. [Perfect size...for a Wookiee sandwich!]

"Whoa, no -- no," Bailey sputtered, his body heaving with laughter. "Don't eat me Uncle Chewie! Pretty puh-lease!"

[I don't know, you look awfully tasty!]

"I'm not!" The child insisted, "I'm poison! If you eat me -- ahhh!" Bailey broke out in hysterics as the Wookiee blew a friendly raspberry on his belly.

Leia watched this whole scene with warm amusement. Han would have loved this. She thought fleetingly, and her smile faltered. Leia turned back to the stove, "Bailey, why don't you go find Threepio. We should really start dinner."

"Awwww, but Mom -- "

"No 'buts' -- now scoot. I'm going to need his help with this."

Chewie lowered the child back to the floor, and whispered [You better go switch him back on, Bailey.]

The boy slapped a small hand over his mouth, "Oh yeah, oops!"

Leia turned and gave the Wookiee a look of mock annoyance as Bailey scampered off. "Oh no, why you two insist on torturing that poor droid, I'll never understand."

Chewbacca gave a sheepish shrug, [He was giving me a head ache. Besides, it was your son's idea.]

Leia rolled her eyes, but couldn't stifle the grin that took over her face. "Sometimes I forget which one of you is the six year old."

Chewbacca gave a little whuff of amusement, [Is that anyway to talk to a friend who just flew across the galaxy this morning to get back home?]

Leia shook her head at the Wookiee, the smile never leaving her face, "Why don't you make yourself useful and chop up some vegetables? And while your busy with that you can tell me more about your trip."

The two of them began opening drawers and taking out utensils and cutting boards to prepare for dinner, all the while Chewbacca filling Leia in on the details of how he spent the past week. He assured her the Falcon was running fine, and told her all about the day trip to Ithor he took with his son. [Oh,] Chewie added suddenly with excitement, [And guess who we ran into there?]

"Who?" Leia asked as she put the finishing touches on a small salad.

[Lando. Small galaxy, isn't it?]

Leia's back straightened slightly and she paused in her work. "Oh?" She replied coolly.

[Yeah,] Chewie continued, despite the princess' less than enthusiastic response. [And apparently he's fallen back into some old habits.]

"What -- you mean gambling? That's no surprise."

[That -- among other things.]

Leia had pulled out a knife and was chopping up some Endor stalks. Her hacking grew more fierce as she asked, "What? Smuggling? He's actually gone back to that?"

[Well ...] Chewie hesitated, afraid he might have said too much.

The princess threw a glance at the Wookiee her knife paused in mid -- air. Her look was hard. Chewbacca began to wonder if bringing up Lando Calrissian had really been a wise idea. "Don't worry, Chewie," Leia said, "I'm not going to turn him in." She turned back to her vegetables her head shaking in disgust, "I could really care less what that man does with his time."

[He looked in pretty bad shape actually,] Chewie continued on in a weak attempt to earn the ex-general some sympathy.

"Oh," was all Leia said. But Chewie figured what the princess really wanted to say was "Good."

Chewbacca, who had seen Lando in his unflagging effort to find and save Han all those years ago, had ultimately forgiven him. Leia, however, had been unable to be as charitable. She couldn't get over the fact that the gambler had betrayed them all, and had practically served them up on a silver platter for Darth Vader.

And then there was Han.

When it was evident that he was never going to be returned to them she had felt like the ground had been taken out from beneath her. That was the day her heart had forever hardened against Lando Calrissian. Leia tried to forgive him. In her head she knew he had had no choice and that he was truly remorseful for what he had done. But her heart wouldn't hear of it. All it knew was that now Han was gone from her forever and it stubbornly held Lando fully accountable.

Leia had only seen the gambler on a couple of occasions since that fateful afternoon in the hangar seven years ago. Once was at the funeral, where he had once again tried to offer her his apology and sympathy. Leia had listened to him in stony silence. When he was done with his desperate plea for forgiveness, Leia had coldly replied "Fine, I forgive you," and then had abruptly excused herself. The stunned gambler had pretty much stayed away from her since then; turning up only once -- to meet Bailey and give the infant some rare Corellian coins he had once won from Han in a Sabacc game. Leia had been civil. She thanked him for his thoughtfulness, and when the gambler had left she hid the coins in a box. Who needed more painful reminders? Leia had reasoned when she buried the box in the back of her closet.

Leia tensed at the memory. But her mood lightened as Bailey walked back into the kitchen, the befuddled Threepio following in his wake. "Master Bailey, I really see no reason for your -- " the droid stopped as he noticed the princess. "Mistress Leia, so good to see you home. I was hoping you would be gracious enough to talk to Chewbacca and Bailey about their habit of constantly switching me off. Why, I'm only trying to -- "

"Don't worry Threepio," Leia interrupted, "I'll have a word with them. Now why don't you two make up long enough to get the table ready?"

Leia shook her head in exasperation as she watched Threepio and Bailey start on their simple shared chore. It took all of two seconds before they began their usual bickering about which was the proper way to make a table. Leia would let them work it out for themselves, she was in no mood to play referee tonight.

[Princess,] Chewbacca said solemnly, diverting her attention from the scene in front of her. He touched her gently on the arm, [It's been almost seven years ...]

Leia bristled under his hand. She did not want to talk about this. "I know," she replied simply, "So?"

[Soooo ...] Chewie blew out a nervous breath, [Maybe it is time to let go of your anger towards Lando. He has done nothing but torture himself about this and -- ]

"I'm not angry," said Leia, her voice even. Chewbacca gave her a knowing look. The princess hastily turned away. "I'm not," she insisted.

The Wookiee was quiet for a beat. [Good,] he said finally. [Then you won't mind if he comes for a visit.]

Leia looked up at Chewbacca, her eyes wide in disbelief. "What?" she gasped.

[Lando's coming.]

Leia shook her had as if to clear her thoughts. "What -- when?"

[A few days. He just needed to make a stop over first. For...] the Wookiee hesitated, [well, for one of his jobs.]

The princess gave Chewie a hard look. "And where exactly is he stopping first?" She snapped, "I don't want him tracking any of his illegal dealings up on my doorstep."

Chewbacca shook his head. [I'm sure it's nothing as bad as that. Just a small business deal he's got set up.]

"Oh, I bet." Leia spat, "And where is this deal? The spice mines of Kessel?"

[No,] Chewbacca assured her, [It's only on Tatooine.]

* * * * *

The ex-general and once great hero of the Rebellion, now sat slumped at a bar, his head swimming from the half bottle of whiskey he'd consumed. His eyes bleary with drink and fatigue were set on the empty glasses in front of him. He didn't dare divert his gaze from them in fear that the cantina might start up that incessant spinning again.

The bartender, an overweight Bothan, stood watching Lando Calrissian with a wary look on his face. "Hey buddy," he finally said, "Do you need a ride somewhere or something?"

Lando looked up at the bartender blankly, his eyes unable to retain any focus. Did that guy just say something? "Huh?"

"A ride?" The Bothan gestured at all the empty ale glasses, "You sure can't drive anywhere by yourself. I could call a cab if you'd like."

Lando shook his head. "Nah, I'm not leaving yet." He tapped his hand against the bar impatiently. "Get me another shot of Corellian Whiskey."

The bartender stood there motionless for a moment, as if deciding whether he should really serve the man another drink. Finally he just shook his head in resignation and handed the gambler another glass. "Just don't throw up in here," the Bothan warned, "I'm sick of cleaning up after you drunks."

Lando scowled at the bartender, tossing a credit in one of the empty glasses. "Thanks for your concern," he muttered as he pushed himself up from the bar. The husky Bothan watched the gambler stumble to a table in the corner. He shook his head in disgust and quietly cursed the man under his breath. Sometimes he really hated working in this dive.

Lando slid into the empty booth, careful to not spill his precious drink. He lazily peered around the bar, but all the different species just blended together into one colorful blur. The ex-general shook his head in gruff annoyance and threw back his shot of whiskey. He was still pissed that the deal he had come here for had fallen through. He should've known better than to believe a tip from that two-faced Ithorian. What had he been thinking? Mos Eisley of all places! This spaceport was a dump! The people here didn't even have two credits to rub together, much less enough money to take some goods off his hands. Lando rubbed his forehead tiredly, cursing himself repeatedly for being so gullible.

And now he was going to have to drop by Coruscant as well. Lando's stomach tightened at the mere prospect of facing Princess Leia. He couldn't do it. The gambler groaned in frustration. Why did he have to go and promise the Wookiee that he would try to smooth things over between them? The princess was obviously not interested in making amends. That much was obvious to Lando. Even though she had been perfectly polite the last time he had dared visit her, Lando could tell that she was really fighting back the urge to spit in his face. You didn't win a ton of credits in Sabacc without learning to read people. And Lando could read the disdain Leia felt for him as clearly as if it had been printed on her forehead.

The ex-general closed his eyes and his shoulders sagged in self -- pity. No no no no no, this trip to Coruscant was definitely not something to look forward to.

As Lando sat in the back booth of the cantina, head resting heavily in his hands, two men pushed their way through the front door. The older man smiled confidently as he scoped out the room. "I don't think we'll have a problem finding a spacer here willing to make a deal."

Xavier looked around the room nervously, his eyes darting from one alien to the next. "How do we know who to ask?"

"Leave that to me," Malcolm assured him, his eyes coming to rest on the slumped human in the back, "and follow my lead." The older man pushed his way through the crowded bar his gaze never wavering from the man in the corner booth. From his body language, Malcolm could tell that the spacer had had too much to drink, and although his clothes were wrinkled and worn, Malcolm could also tell that they were made from expensive fabrics. And the cape! Only men of wealth wore garments like that. Yes, Malcolm was confident that this was a spacer who had money.

Lando massaged his temples lightly as he felt the beginning of a massive headache coming on. The throbbing pulsated through his ears, and all he could think of was the horrendous hangover that awaited in his near future. Lando was caught off guard when two gentlemen slid across from him in his booth. He shot them a glare of warning.

The older man held up his hands innocently. "I am not here to cause any trouble," he assured Lando, "just thought that you looked like a man who likes to make deals."

"Deals?" Lando asked slowly, "What kind of deals?"

The older man smiled warmly, "You're a man of great taste. Impeccable taste. If I do say so myself."

Lando gave the man a skeptical scowl. He braced himself for the inevitable con job he could sniff was coming. "Oh, yeah?" He glanced over at the younger man, who was staring at him wide-eyed. Lando shot him a disgusted look. What was his problem?

The younger man reddened with embarrassment and he hastily looked down at the table. Malcolm gave Xavier a quick look of warning and continued, "Are you a collector -- I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."

Lando peered at the man suspiciously. His head was still spinning, but the kid's gaping stare was enough to cause a warning bell to go off in his brain. "Why don't you tell me who you are first."

Malcolm smiled, "Oh, of course. Sorry about that. I'm Mandell Malcolm, and this here is my partner, Xavier Ross."

The kid called Xavier gave Lando a quick shy smile, and then looked back down at this hands. Something about the young man bothered the ex-general. Lando looked back at Malcolm coolly. "Yeah? Now tell me what you want and make it quick."

Malcolm swallowed the urge to throw an insult back at the spacer and forced a smile back on his face. "Of course," he said politely, "I don't want to take up too much of your time. Tell me, sir, what do you think of Imperial artifacts?"

Lando had to bite back a hearty laugh and spat, "Imps!" He smiled cheekily at the two men and shook his head in disbelief. The alcohol was still making him dizzy. "I think you guys have got the wrong man." He chuckled briefly. "No, in fact I know you do."

Malcolm pressed on, undeterred by Lando's flippant response. "Oh, but I'm sure you must know how much an Imperial artifact is now worth on the open market. Why a stormtrooper helmet alone could get you upwards of about 1500 credits!"

"Is that a fact?" Lando smirked drunkenly. "Well, let me just tell you -- I did not risk my life in the rebellion just so a couple of sandtraders could eventually make a few good credits on Imperial artifacts."

Malcolm was taken aback, "I'm sorry, we didn't mean any -- "

"I knew it!" Xavier interrupted with a gasp. He was once again staring at Lando openly. "You're Calrissian aren't you?"

Lando straightened up in his seat, unsure about whether to come clean. Malcolm sat there looking dumbfounded. Xavier pulled on his arm excitedly, "Didn't you see him on all the holovids sir? This is the man who blew up the second Death Star!" Xavier turned back towards Lando, his face flushed with excitement. "You practically ended the entire war with the Empire single-handedly!"

Lando smiled modestly, waving off the young man's comments. "Well ... to be honest, I did have some help with that."

"Wow," Xavier breathed, "You were amazing. Amazing." He turned to the older man in awe, "Isn't this unbelievable sir?"

Malcolm didn't respond. He peered at Lando inquisitively, his face contorted in deep thought. "Calrissian ..." he muttered softly to himself, as if searching for something. Suddenly his eyes widened slightly in recognition and he leaned forward. "You look different," he said finally.

Lando rubbed at the scruff on his chin, suddenly self-conscious of the weight he must of put on from all his drinking. "Well, it's been six or seven years," he said defensively.

Malcolm nodded slowly. "The beard is new." Suddenly he squinted his eyes and looked at Lando questioningly. "Hey," he said, "what ever happened to the Wook you were with?"

Lando raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"Yeah," Malcolm said louder now, his head nodding confidently. "I remember you now. A few years ago you were snooping around here. You and a Wookiee. Asking questions." Malcolm leaned closer, "Hey, did you ever find that friend of yours?"

Lando felt sick. It was like a cold wave had suddenly come crashing down on him. He slumped back into his seat, a heavy weight pressing down on him. "No," he finally answered. Lando desperately wanted another drink.

Malcolm shook his head in sympathy. "Aw, that's too bad. I'm sorry."

"Yeah, me too," Lando whispered, and the other men could barely hear what he said.

"What friend?" Xavier asked curiously, "What happened?"

Lando clenched his hands into fists, as if he were ready to physically beat back the memories if necessary. He shut his eyes, his head was swimming. He couldn't think. He didn't want to think. Dammit, where was a service droid when you needed one?

Malcolm shook his head at the young man, oblivious to Lando's turmoil. "Oh gods, it was some other rebel -- right? What was his name ...?"

"Solo," Lando mumbled. His head was pounding. He just wanted these two men to get up and leave. And then Lando wanted ten more drinks, so he could blot out this entire conversation from his memory.

Malcolm paused suddenly, his face growing pale. "Solo, did you say?" His mind flashed to the image of a face, a scar, a man in a black Corellian space vest. "Han Solo? The smuggler?"

Lando nodded, his expression sour, his gaze distant.

Malcolm fell back into his chair. His mind reeling. He flashed again to the face of the Corellian smuggler. Suddenly Malcolm saw that same face glossed over with a metallic shine -- his expression now contorted in pain. Frozen ... Malcolm gasped in realization; his hands were suddenly shaking. He looked up at the spacer, his gaze steady and unyielding. "Mr. Calrissian," he finally said; his voice trembling.

"What?"

Malcolm allowed a small smile to spread across his face. "I think we just may have a deal for you after all."

* * * * *

The night was warm. Almost muggy. The bench felt cool and smooth beneath her. She looked up at him. His profile was striking against the black backdrop of the sky. He seemed to be struggling with something. His hand reached tentatively for hers.

I love you ... I just wanted you to know that.

Leia sprung upright in her bed. The loud beeping of the com link piercing through the air of her bedroom. She looked around disoriented. "Han?" she called softly.

Leia blinked in confusion. The room was so dark. As her eyes adjusted she could barely make out the black shapes of her dresser and bedside table. Her apartment came into focus, and Leia felt a wave of despair as she realized that the park had been nothing but a dream.

The beeping was unrelenting, and the persistence of the shrill noise drove the last sleep from her. Leia shook her head in an attempt to clear her thoughts. It's only the transmitter. She rubbed her head tiredly as she sluggishly forced herself out of bed. Leia stumbled across the dark room, cursing silently as she stepped on something sharp. This better not be work calling, she thought crossly.

Leia slapped the pick up button in annoyance, uncaring about how she might appear to whoever was calling her. The transmission on the screen was filled with static at first, and then dissolved to reveal the sharp distinguished features of her husband. He smiled self-consciously, "Hello, Leia."

Leia momentarily averted her eyes in guilt. Suddenly she was afraid that if she looked at her husband long enough he might be able to read her thoughts. He might realize that she had just been dreaming of another man. "Simon," she answered nervously.

"Sorry to call so late. I forgot about the time difference."

Leia forced a reassuring smile. "That's okay. Sorry I look like such a wreck."

Simon grinned, "Don't be silly. You look beautiful -- as always."

Leia swallowed guiltily at the compliment. She cleared her throat. "So how is everything?" she asked, trying to keep her voice light.

"Wonderful! I feel that I am really making progress with these people."

Leia smiled wanly, "That's good. I'm glad to hear it."

"We are setting up some real beneficial programs, and I truly believe that we will have New Alderaan up and running in no time." Simon was pleased.

"Wow, that's really great." There was a sudden silence between them. It stretched out just a couple of seconds too long.

"Sooo," Simon finally said, "how's Bailey?"

"He's fine. Chewie's finally back so that's got him real excited."

"Wonderful," Simon replied and he shifted restlessly in his chair. "I trust Chewbacca had a nice trip?"

"Yes, it sounded like it."

Simon gave a tight smile. "Good," he said simply. He was running out of conversation topics. Simon's eyes flicked nervously off screen, then his gaze returned to Leia. "Well ... I'm glad all is well. I was just calling to let you know that I shall be home in a couple of days." He hesitated, "Possibly a week at most."

Leia nodded in understanding, a small part annoyed with herself for feeling relief that the conversation was ending. "Okay, well let me know when you're on your way."

"Of course. Give Bailey a hug for me."

"I will." Leia reached to cut the connection, but Simon wasn't finished.

"Oh, and Leia?"

"Yes?" she asked, her hand paused right above the hang up button.

Simon swallowed, "I miss you ..."

Leia tensed, a wave of shame overwhelming her. She forced a small smile. "Me too," she replied.

Simon gave her another sad smile and then the transmission abruptly ended. Leia sighed, her shoulders sagging in relief. She pressed the com button off and the snowy screen went black.

Leia looked around her room feeling forlorn. She was at a loss. The princess eyed her rumpled bed and knew she wouldn't be able to fall back asleep. Her thoughts suddenly seemed too chaotic, she needed to just sit alone for a minute. Leia rubbed her temples tiredly for a moment and then made her way towards the kitchen for some tea.

The tile felt cold beneath her feet and the room was eerily silent as Leia went about reheating some of the Kashyyykian tea she had made earlier. A few minutes later she was sitting quietly at the table. The darkness weighed heavily on her, but she didn't turn on any lights. Leia didn't want anyone else to know she was awake. She just wanted to be alone.

Leia's mind flashed to her dream. A lump formed in her throat as thought back to sitting on the bench. His strong hand slowly reaching for her. I love you ... I just wanted you to know that. Leia closed her eyes tightly, trying to physically ward off the tears that were welling up. "Oh gods ..." she moaned softly.

Leia's thoughts suddenly drifted to Simon. She remembered how emotionally drained she felt after the short conversation with him. Leia bit her lip in despair. That can't be normal. She felt a tightening in her stomach. Do I love him? Yes, I would've never married him if I didn't. Yet despite this reasoning, Leia couldn't shake the nagging sense of what she might find if she were to examine her thoughts honestly. No, stop that. Simon's a wonderful man. He loves Bailey. I respect and care for him deeply.

Leia wrapped her hands around the warm mug, as if to try and draw strength from it. Her blurry gaze looked past the dark liquid, her thoughts once again overpowering her.

Oh, but Han ...

Leia choked back a sob as she felt the warm tears stream down her face. She felt ashamed of her tears, and of her sudden weakness. What's wrong with me? Leia slammed a fist against the table in frustration. She had been all right. For years she had been doing fine. Just fine. And now all of a sudden ...

Leia's mind flooded with memories; they ran together like wet ink. A first look at a young Corellian pirate. That flirtatious wink. Their first kiss ... Leia sniffed, and her thoughts darkened. Red. Billowing smoke. Han. Frozen. Leia slammed her fist again. It served her right. She should have known better than to give her heart to someone -- especially in the middle of a war! Of course Han would be taken from her. Just like her family. And Alderaan. Just one more empty void in her life.

Suddenly, a wave of grief overwhelmed the princess so deeply that she could barely breathe. And in a moment of uncharacteristic self-pity and despair, Leia crumpled up against the table and began to cry. Her shoulders heaved up and down in the darkness. Warm steam rose from her cup adding a dream-like quality to the air, and the steady ticking of the chrono offered the only accompaniment to her sobs.

At this moment Princess Leia -- former great leader of the rebellion -- felt like the loneliest woman in the galaxy.

* * * * *

Half-way across the galaxy from the weeping princess, Lando Calrissian was pacing his ship restlessly; fruitlessly trying to walk off the shock and amazement that encompassed his body. His mind was reeling, all signs of alcohol pushed away by the adrenaline now pulsating through his body. Han! Alive! It was all too unbelievable. No, more than that. It was a blastin' miracle!

The two other men sat in silence, patiently waiting for the spacer to calm down. Malcolm quirked his mouth in amusement. He had never seen a man so thrown for a loop before in his entire life. Calrissian's sudden turn of face had been an amazing thing to behold. When Malcolm had first told the ex-general that he just may have some information regarding the whereabouts of his dear friend, Lando had scowled at him in disbelief. But he had been intrigued in spite of himself. Malcolm eventually got the skeptical gambler to follow him. The spacer was wary, and didn't waste any time in reminding the two men that he had killed before, so they had "better not try anything funny."

But it was that look on Calrissian's face when he first rested his eyes on the slab of carbonite that Malcolm would never forget. Lando's face had drained of all its color; his mouth gaped open in shock. He had rubbed his hands against his head in disbelief. "How -- ?" was all he had managed to utter at first.

When the men had been loading up his ship, Calrissian had been reluctant to even touch the carbonite. It was as if he was afraid he would reach out and it would dissolve before his very eyes. And after his initial shock wore off, Lando seemed to have trouble even looking at it as well. "Just put him with the med unit," he had requested softly.

The spacer's peculiar behavior had even continued during the negotiations, when Lando had abruptly gotten up from his seat and went into the backroom to sit with his friend. Perplexed by his odd departure, Malcolm had approached the doorway and saw the ex-general silently sitting vigil by the cold slab of carbonite. He looked pained. Remorseful. But what surprised Malcolm was that he also looked scared. It was then that Malcolm had realized that he had the upperhand in this situation -- and the older man had every intention of taking advantage of it.

Calrissian had since returned to the room. His energy and disbelief were once again radiating from him. Lando's brain was having a hard time processing what had occurred this evening. It was obvious to Malcolm and Xavier that the spacer was beyond shocked. Lando looked over at the two men responsible for this astonishing turn of events. His face was still wide-eyed and stunned. "What -- what should I do now?"

Malcolm's mouth tugged up in amusement. "Let him out? But only after you have finished dealing with us of course."

Lando's gaze automatically strayed in the direction of the med room, where the cold carbonite slab of his friend was presently stowed. "Do -- Do you think I should? I mean is it safe?" Lando resumed his pacing. "I mean, maybe he should have special medical attention. Oh -- gods!" Calrissian's mind was spinning at a million parsecs per minute. "What about Han's friends? Should I call them?"

Malcolm smiled. "Yes," he said evenly, "They might be interested to know that the person whom they have been mourning for several years is actually alive."

Lando paused mid-stride and turned towards Malcolm. "But what do I tell them? I don't even know where to start."

Malcolm crossed his arms and leaned back in his seat. "To be honest General Calrissian, how you work this out does not concern me. What I am most interested in is that you remember your end of the deal?"

Lando nodded numbly. He was still understandably blown away. "Of course, I'll take you anywhere you would like to go." Lando licked his lips nervously, "But I need a little time coming up with the credits you requested."

Malcolm cocked an eyebrow, "Not too much time, I hope."

"No, it shouldn't take too long." Lando's eyes darted nervously around the controls of his ship, as if searching for inspiration. Where would he get the money? The princess? While Lando was sure that Leia would be willing -- no, more than willing -- to cough up the credits to save Han, he still felt awkward with approaching her about this. Maybe it was because he still didn't even know how to break the news of Solo being alive in the first place. It was complicated. And gods forbid Han didn't survive the unfreezing process. Would it be fair to get the princess' hopes up for nothing? Or even Chewie's for that matter?

Lando turned towards Malcolm. "You have to let me unfreeze Han first."

"Excuse me?"

"In a medcenter, with a full staff of doctors and equipment." Lando took a steadying breath, "After I know he's all right, then I'll get you your money."

Malcolm leaned forward, his eyes steely with anger. "That was not part of the arrangement." The older man slammed a frustrated fist against his knee, "The agreement was that you give us the credits and passage to the planet of our choice. Then -- and only then -- could you release Solo."

Lando raised his palms up defensively, "You have to understand," he tried to remain calm, "I can't just go up to his friends and ask for this money if I am not absolutely positive that Han is really okay." Lando thought of the princess; her look of utter despair that day in the hangar. "I -- I can't do that to them," he said, "I have to be sure. For their sakes."

Xavier looked sympathetic, but Malcolm just shook his head violently, "No way." He pointed a finger at Calrissian, "You drag us to a medcenter and I know you'll have the NRI on us so fast our heads would spin. I'm not stupid."

Lando shook his head in denial, "No, I swear. You'll get your money. You have my word."

Malcolm gave him a scowl. "Oh, I'm sure your word is positively binding," he muttered sarcastically, "But you can just forget it." Malcolm was disgusted, he pointed another finger at Lando. "And let me just remind you Calrissian, that I could have just as easily sold your man to a bounty hunter for twice as much as your paying me -- so don't push it." Of course Malcolm was partly bluffing. He wouldn't have been able to hand Solo over to one of those villainous scums. The same nagging part of him that had made him take the frozen captain from the abandoned dwelling in the first place would have prevented it. Malcolm was really going to have to start doing away with that part of him. It was a real burden. But even Malcolm's conscience had it's limit. "No way, Calrissian. No medcenters."

Lando was at a loss. He didn't know what to do. And even though it was not his style, Lando found himself uttering an unfathomable word: "Please."

Malcolm looked away. It was Xavier who finally spoke up. The young man was still in awe of the ex-general who had played such a intrinsic role in the rebellion. He would not pass up this opportunity to possibly help out his hero. "Maybe we could reach a compromise," he said hopefully.

The two other men regarded him silently for a moment. "How?" Calrissian finally asked.

"Well, my father was a doctor ..." Xavier licked his lips nervously. He hated being the center of attention. "On Tatooine, before the Imperials came."

Lando got excited, "A doctor? Can he help us?"

Xavier reddened in embarrassment. "Well no," his eyes shifted to his lap, "he died a few years ago." Calrissian's shoulders sagged in disappointment. "B - but," Xavier continued, "I did pick up a few things from him. Maybe I could help with ... with the unfreezing process."

Lando looked at the young man skeptically. Was he kidding? The kid couldn't have been more than eighteen. Nineteen, tops. Lando wondered if he should really trust Han's life in the hands of some backwater teenager. Of course, then again, how old was Luke Skywalker when he took on the first death star? And wasn't he from the same desolate planet? Maybe that was actually a good sign. Lando finally gave a small nod. "Okay, I could go along with that. Malcolm?"

The older man blew out a sigh. "I don't know," he said, "What if we defrost this guy and then the two of you decide to team up and ..." Malcolm shook his head at the possibilities. He wasn't going to have the ex-general and that smuggler joining forces and preventing him and Xavier from collecting their due credits.

"But, sir - " Xavier blurted, "Solo will be in no position to offer up any sort of fight after we free him." Xavier turned his head to Calrissian, "You said that's carbonite?"

Lando nodded gravely.

The young man was alarmed. "Really?" He shook his head in disbelief, "I've never heard of a human being -- " his voice faltered as he noticed Calrissian's stern expression. "Anyway, that's not important," Xavier turned to his boss with confidence. "The important thing is that yes, he'll definitely be too weak, I assure you."

Malcolm still didn't look convinced. "How weak?"

"Well, his body would be suffering from hibernation sickness for one thing." Xavier rubbed his chin thoughtfully, a mannerism he had picked up from his boss. "And judging from the time that has elapsed since he was first frozen, I would say it would be pretty severe."

Lando's brow shot up in concern. "Hibernation sickness? How severe?!"

"Non-life threatening," Xavier quickly assured him. "Well, as long as everything else goes smoothly." Calrissian suddenly looked visibly nervous. The young man could tell by his pained expression that he was reconsidering this arrangement. "But General," he stuttered, "nothing should go wrong. I- I won't let it." Xavier knew he was making a big statement just then. He took a nervous breath and continued, "His body will be a bit of a shipwreck for awhile, but it's nothing he shouldn't fully recover from in time."

Lando winced at the use of the word 'shipwreck' -- his mind briefly flashing to the fate of the Slave I -- but then he nodded slowly. "Okay, that's good to hear."

Xavier turned back to his boss. "Sir, what do you think?"

Malcolm shook his head and gave a derisive snort, "You," he turned to Xavier, "Weren't you the one who wanted to leave that guy behind in the first place? What was all that talk about him 'demanding his stuff back', huh?"

Xavier reddened in embarrassment, and he threw a quick nervous glance to Lando. His voice was hushed as he looked back at Malcolm. "But sir," he insisted, "that was before I knew who he was!" Xavier rubbed his hands anxiously against the legs of his pants. He swallowed nervously before continuing, "I think that after all that General Calrissian has done for the rebellion, we owe it to him to at least let his friend loose."

Lando averted his eyes in shame as the kid gave him another awe -- inspired smile. If he only knew! Lando didn't deserve this open adoration. Not after what he had done. Sure, he had joined the ranks of the alliance and had helped destroy the Empire's final super weapon. But even after Lando had helped end the war it still did not remove the dark spot of guilt that weighed heavily on his heart. He had sought redemption from Han's 'death' by taking up the cause. Only, he realized too late, that he could destroy a hundred death stars and it still wouldn't erase the immense blame he felt. It would not give Han back to Leia and Chewie. It would not give a child his father.

But now. Now he may really be able to do just that. Lando couldn't suppress the pleading in his voice as he turned to Malcolm, "You have to let me do this."

Malcolm carefully studied both of the men. He squinted his eyes thoughtfully and then replied, "Here's the deal: You -- " he gave Calrissian a pointed look, "Get this ship into hyperspace. Punch in the coordinates to our planet of choice, and then you can begin to thaw out your buddy there." Lando broke out into a relieved grin. "But," Malcolm continued, "I want this ship far from this dustball before you even step near that med room. Got it?"

Lando nodded in agreement, "I'll take you anywhere you want to go. But I have to stop off someplace first to get your money."

Malcolm finally leaned back in his seat, "Where's that?"

"Coruscant. I know friends of Captain Solo there. They would be more than willing to pay what you are asking for him."

"Coruscant, huh?" Malcolm smiled thoughtfully as he imagined the thriving planet. It was a prosperous city, flourishing with the latest technology. Probably the greatest contrasting environment from Tatooine there was. The older man looked up at Calrissian, "Actually," he said, "That sounds perfect."

* * * * *

Luke's eyes snapped open as he was abruptly pulled from his Jedi trance.

He felt a disturbance in the Force. A rippling presence he had not felt since ... Luke took a deep breath as he gazed inwardly at his thoughts. Yes, the presence was strong. As if a light that had once flickered out had been magically revived to all it's glowing brilliance.

Luke opened his eyes in understanding. He needed to speak to Leia -- fast.

To the Prologue | To Part Two

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