While You Were Gone: Part Eight
Leia stared blankly at the forms that sat before her.
Her brain suddenly unable to focus on the words that made up the entire page. Her thoughts seemed to whirring at such a speed, that it was nearly impossible to hold onto one for too long.
The young officer stood awkwardly before her desk, and coughed politely into his hand. "Is everything all right, Princess?"
Leia glanced up quickly, her tone distracted. "What?"
"Mon Mothma understands you've had a ..." the man paused for a moment, as if searching for the right word. "Well, that you've had a very hectic week. She wanted me to tell you, that she understood if you needed a little more time with everything."
The princess nodded in understanding. "Right." Normally, she would have been insulted at Mon Mothma implying that she wasn't capable of doing her job, but today all she could manage was a smile. "It's fine, I can handle it."
"No need to rush it."
"It won't be rushed --" Leia smoothed out the sheet in front of her, as if to demonstrate her competence, "but it will be completed. And on time. Thank you."
The officer cleared his throat meaningfully, his disapproval evident. "Very well," he replied, in a clipped voice. "I'll tell her you'll have those in as scheduled." The man then turned on his heal and walked out of her office.
Leia watched the doors shut soundlessly behind him, and had to smile wryly to herself. Her 'hectic' week? Is that how it was being referred to around the building? Have you heard the latest about Princess Leia and her 'hectic' life? She imagined herself as the new hot-topic between political meetings. Oh, yes! Her life took the most 'hectic' and unexpected turn last week ...
Leia's expression softened. Not that she was complaining. Given the choice between her neatly organized and categorized life of a month ago, or the chaotic nature of this past week, she'd choose the latter every time. Complete with it's wonderful moments and the confusing complications that came with it.
Everything on the one hand was so wonderful; Han was back -- Leia smiled wistfully at that last thought Han was back -- That alone, was enough to fill her with a rush. But there had also been all that ugliness with Simon, the sudden move to a new place, and the stress wondering how hard her husband was going to make this separation for her. And knowing Simon, he could make it very difficult indeed.
Leia sighed and shook her head.
However, the good stuff still out-weighed the bad. And even Simon couldn't tarnish the shine on what had been an incredible week. The princess felt her mouth curl up in a smile as she thought back on the past several days.
They were all staying in the Falcon. In a strange way, it reminded her of when they had been flying to Bespin all those years ago. Only different. Of course, they weren't on the run from the Empire this time. Actually, the Falcon was almost barely running at all. And there was Bailey. Who, after that horrible incident between Han and Simon, had bounced back with a resiliency that surprised even her. Now, he seemed to be back to his usual energetic self, and looked at their stay in the Falcon as some sort of exciting adventure. The ship might have been a bit cramped, but the small quarters were also a perfect opportunity for Han and Bailey to get more comfortable with each other.
Leia's smile broadened, as an image of Han trying to teach the boy Sabacc came to mind. It was fascinating to watch them get to know each other. Even the ill-fated card lesson had been something for her to behold. Han had tried repeatedly to go over the rules with Bailey. The patience he displayed with the child, was almost something she would have never expected from him. But teaching Sabacc to a six-year-old who barely grasped addition, was not a wise idea. The boy seemed to disregard everything Han had painstakingly explained to him, and after every hand was dealt, Bailey would just throw his cards down and boldly declare himself the winner. After awhile, even Han, had to lean back and admit defeat. He had thrown up his arms and declared, "I don't know what I was thinking -- here I was, trying to teach cards to the Sabacc master."
And then there were those moments when it was just her and Han. The times when they would get to know each other again. It had all been pretty innocent at first. Sneaking moments alone in the cockpit, staying up late after the others had gone to bed to talk, excusing themselves for a quick walk. Even the sleeping arrangements had been innocent. Leia smiled wryly. No, there hadn't been a hot smoldering reunion that first night back on the Falcon. The first several nights had actually seen her paired up with a drooling six-year-old, who had liked to keep his presence known by kicking her repeatedly throughout the night. The other morning, she had actually woken up to find his arm slung half-hazardly over her face.
It wasn't that the princess hadn't wanted to be with Han. She had. She really had. But yet, she had put him off. It had been a long time, she had reasoned to him, shouldn't they get reacquainted with each other? Han had been amazingly open about the whole thing. At least he had pretended to be. The princess knew he had been eager to be with her again. She would catch it in a gaze that lingered too long, in the hungry way he kissed her. It had been obvious. But he had agreed immediately. And he had kept to his word. It was as if he had been quietly waiting for her to make the first move, keeping his distance, as he had watched for her to give off that subtle sign that finally said: I'm ready.
And then last night, that moment had come.
Leia felt her face warm at the memory, and she leaned back in her seat. The overwhelming workload long forgotten.
It had been late, Bailey had long gone to bed, and even Chewie had retired for the evening. But she and Han had stayed up, as had been their habit all week. There were so few precious moments of privacy to be found on the small freighter, and they found their best chance to be alone was always after the others had gone to bed. Leia had been curled up next to him, and they had talked until the late hours. When she had finally pulled herself away from him, and they had said good night, she had begun to realize how hard it was getting to deprive herself of this man whom she loved. It began to seem like an overwhelming chore to part company, and she found herself dreading that part of the evening every night. And Leia had then realized, that she could no longer remember her reasoning for waiting.
But she had returned to her own cabin anyway. Back in that darkened room, Bailey had sprawled himself across the entire bed, the sheets a tangled mess at his feet. Leia had given the child a half-hearted nudge to get him to move, but then had just let her arms fall limply to her side in defeat. She had sat herself down on the edge of the bed, and the light whistling of Bailey's heavy breathing had provided a rhythmic back drop to her pondering. Leia had known then what she really wanted. She had stood up again, straightened the sheet over her sleeping son, and then had quietly stepped from the room.
It had taken a little bit of courage for her to slip into Han's quarters. For some inexplicable reason, the princess had felt incredibly nervous. It had been such a long time for them, and she wondered if it might be different at first. Awkward. Or strange. But Han had still been awake, and when she slipped under the sheets, and pressed up against him, he had immediately responded by putting his arms around her. Are you sure? He had whispered in the dark, as if to say, 'Don't do this just for me.' Leia had simply nodded. She was sure. And as his embrace tightened around her and his mouth found hers, all her fears and insecurities -- even those seven long years -- had begun melting away. Every caress, every intimate gesture, had brought back a little more of what was lost, until Leia was so overwhelmed with love, she had barely been able to breathe. She had just pulled him closer, with the hope that he would feel it. And that he would know it.
I love you, Leia.
Sitting at her desk, the princess felt her face warm at the memory. She had almost forgotten how wonderful it could be.
A warm breeze suddenly blew through her opened window, and lightly rattling the panes of glass. The noise brought Leia out of her reverie, and suddenly her mind was abruptly pulled back to the present. Suddenly, the ticking of the chrono was unusually loud, and the once soft murmurs that regularly came from outside her office, now surrounded her.
Leia felt her stomach clench nervously.
Maybe it was the way the air played across her face, or the light whispers of the flimsis ruffling on her desk, but suddenly the air in the room seemed different. Something felt distinctly off. It was as if the temperature had suddenly dropped dramatically, and even the warm memories of the night before had been chased from the room. Leia straightened in her seat with a start.
Something was wrong.
She knew it with a sudden urgency. It was almost like she was neglecting something. Overlooking something crucial. Her eyes scanned her desk wildly, as if the answer would suddenly make itself known; it would pop out from behind a potted plant, or become untucked from the bottom of a pile of paperwork. But no answer presented itself.
Leia shook her head. No, it wasn't work. Her heart was pounding loudly in her ears now. A creeping panic was starting to take hold of her. What, what, what, what ...She asked herself over and over again, barely conscious that she was speaking out loud. Her gaze suddenly flew to the holocube of Bailey. The same one of him clutching the stuffed Wookiee that she had stared at a thousand times before. But now she felt something catch in her throat.
She was being ridiculous. Bailey was with Han and Chewie. He was fine. As if to confirm it, her mind subconsciously reached out for the boy. She felt him. He was safe, and completely content. Leia let her shoulders sag in relief. She was just being paranoid.
The princess couldn't shake the sudden sense of foreboding that was gnawing away at her. Something is wrong. She bit her lip anxiously, and considered calling Luke. He would know what to do. He could make sense of what she was feeling.
Or there was Han. She could call him. Just for a second. Just to hear his voice. And Bailey's voice. See their faces. Then she would know that they were fine. She would know it with a certainty that she couldn't establish through the vagueness of the Force. Han would joke her out of her worry, and Bailey could cheer her with his upbeat chatter.
Yes, the princess decided with a sudden resolution, she would com the Falcon. Then she could relax.
A few minutes later, Leia cut the connection in frustration. No answer. She glanced up at the wall chrono. Lunch, she reasoned, they had obviously gone off to lunch. There was absolutely no reason to panic. Yet.
As if to suggest otherwise, another breeze pushed it's way through the window. The panes rattled in protest, as the strong gust caused several dozen sheets of flimsi to fly off her desk in a desperate flurry.
Leia barely flinched.
Her mind now stubbornly fixed on one thought that kept looping through her mind. She felt an icy grip of fear take hold of her.
Something is wrong.
* * * * *
The afternoon wore on and the sun rose higher in the sky, it's once brilliant whiteness dulled considerably by the thick haze that rested over the skies of Coruscant. Parker scuffed his boot against the grainy pavement outside the hangar, and appreciated, for once, the mildly warm weather. It was pleasant, and it gave him the perfect cover to be outside. He leaned up casually against the wall. If anyone were to look over at him, all they would see was a tired pilot, soaking up a nice afternoon and enjoying a leisurely break. Nothing wrong there. They probably wouldn't even look twice. This was Coruscant. Where civilians raced along with their heads buried in their own business, and eye contact was ill advised. Too many different types of people and species in a big city like this. You never knew what kind of creeps you were going to run into.
Parker spat on the pavement with disdain. Like that Captain Solo guy. He looked like a nice person. He certainly acted like one -- at least in public, but thanks to his new employer, the pilot knew otherwise. He was a real scum, that Solo. At least to hear Simon tell it. So, it was with no great hardship that Parker accepted the handful of credits to keep tabs on the Millennium Falcon and it's inhabitants. No, once Simon had painted the whole picture, Parker had no trouble with it at all. He had taken the job gladly.
The pilot scanned the hordes of pedestrians again. This time, his eyes caught on the sight of Solo's Wookiee friend. His large size caused him to tower over the rest of the civilians, and even at this distance, Parker had no trouble picking him out at once. He was walking at a brisk pace, right in the pilot's direction. Parker could only assume that Solo was with him, but the child was definitely there. He could see him now, riding along on the Wookiee's shoulders.
Parker watched as the three of them gradually approached. The child bobbed along with the Wookiee's gait, and occasionally patted his furry head to point out something in a passing window. They looked like a close-knit group, and that troubled the pilot. Something didn't quite mesh.
He straightened against the wall as the trio came within ear shot, careful to avoid eye contact. They were close enough now that Parker was able to pick up snippets of their conversation as they drew nearer.
"... I really don't think it has anything to do with the motivator." The smuggler was arguing, "If it did, we would've noticed it by now." The Wookiee roared something in protest, and Solo shook his head, "Chewie, I'm telling ya, that's too easy. Now, if you wanna waste another afternoon ripping it apart, then be my guest ..."
They were right up next to the pilot at this point, and Parker kept his eyes focused on the ground. He couldn't afford to draw their attention now.
Chewie apparently then said something disagreeable, because suddenly the smuggler stopped right before the entrance, and threw his hands up in frustration. He turned on the Wookiee, "And you're gonna listen to Threepio? Over me?" He turned incredulously up to the boy, as if searching for back up. "Do you believe this?" Before the child could even reply, Chewie grumbled another retort that caused Solo to snort in obvious annoyance, "A 'better track record' ... Gimme a break ..."
Bailey, who had been quietly watching the exchange, suddenly patted the Wookiee’s head impatiently. "Hey, I got an idea," he announced with enthusiasm. "Maybe we should check the engine!" He then beamed proudly, as if waiting to be congratulated for his brilliant insight.
Solo's expression softened and he chuckled. The Wookiee reached up to lift the boy off his shoulders. [The engine, huh?] He flipped the boy to the ground and ruffled his hair affectionately. [Good idea. We better get on it.]
Bailey grinned happily up at the Wookiee, pleased with his response. Then, suddenly, he turned his gaze to the pilot against the wall. Parker felt his body stiffen as the boy's eyes met his, and the pilot's cheeks reddened with an irrational flash of fear. The child's stare unnerved him. But then the boy broke into a smile and gave Parker a tentative wave. He had recognized him from the hangar.
Parker quickly averted his gaze, pretending not to notice the boy's friendly gesture. He was frustrated at allowing himself to be caught staring like that. He scanned the ground frantically, his ears burning as he felt the smuggler turn to look at him.
Parker felt his body stiffen, and his breath caught in his throat. He could feel Solo's eyes on him. Sizing him up. Perhaps trying to place him. Parker cleared his throat, the moment seeming to stretch out forever.
Parker's head snapped up at the sound of the smuggler's voice. His heart was pounding in his ears. "What?" He blurted, almost too quickly. The pilot mentally winced. He sounded defensive.
Don't blow it!!
Parker's mind reeled with Solo's alleged body count. Simon had told him how Han Solo had put the drop on a number of Imperials, bounty hunters, and even the occasional person who happened to look at him wrong. Parker swallowed. Oh, gods ...The smuggler was probably going to blast him right now on the spot.
"You called Parker?"
The pilot eyed the blaster hanging at Solo's hip, and mentally debated whether it was worth lying or not. Finally, he gave a short nod.
The smuggler surprised him by smiling. "I thought so. You got a nice ship."
Parker felt taken aback. This is not what he had been expecting at all. "Uh, thank you."
"What hyperspeed do you make with that? Point-five?"
Parker wiped a sweaty palm against the leg of his pants, still not fully convinced that the smuggler wasn't about to put a hole in him. For all he knew, Solo liked to make conversation with his victims before smoking them. "Uh, no. More like p-point-four."
"Point-four?" The smuggler nodded, seeming to digest this. Parker could've sworn the man had to stifle a quick smirk. "Not bad."
"Ours makes point-five," the child boasted, and he grinned proudly at the pilot. "That's faster."
Solo smiled wryly, "Well, actually, ours makes about zero at the moment."
Behind them, the Wookiee let out an exasperated growl, and the smuggler acknowledged the comment with a scowl. "Yeah, yeah, I know ..." Solo flashed his friend a look of irritation, then turned back to the pilot at the wall. "Ah, well. We got a lot of repairs, so we'll see ya around."
Parker nodded, and finally allowed the relief to sweep over him. He was going to get out of this just fine. He turned to give a final nod to the boy, and was surprised to find the child still gaping up at him, his face twisted in a thoughtful expression. Why this made Parker nervous, he did not know, but he tried to mask his discomfort with a shaky smile. "See ya, kid." His smile broadened slightly. And sooner than you think ...
The child's eyes seemed to widen slightly, and Parker felt his breath catch. He was being ridiculous, but it was almost as if ...You can't hear me, can you kid? Immediately upon thinking those thoughts, Parker mentally kicked himself for being paranoid. He was just being jumpy. He glanced back at the boy as if to confirm this, and was relieved to see the child's expression was decidedly impassive. The kid couldn't hear a thing. He was becoming unglued. Now, if he would only stop staring at me ...
As if to purposely break the spell, Han lightly nudged the boy in the back. "All right, kiddo. We better not let any more of the afternoon get away, if we're going to drop by that zoo later."
This immediately snapped the child back to full alertness, and he turned to his dad excitedly, the man at the wall instantly forgotten. "Know what Eriq Noonan told me," he chirped happily, reaching for Han's hand. "He said that if you touch a rancor without gloves, your hand will get all blown up and red for a week! Is that true?"
Han chuckled softly, "No."
The child's face fell. "Oh." He seemed almost disappointed by the news. "Can I try it anyways?"
[Bailey,] Chewie explained, as the three of them made their way through the hangar's entrance, [You try and touch a rancor at the zoo, and you might end up with no hand at all ...]
And then they were gone.
Parker stifled a curse and scuffed his boot at the ground in annoyance. He had been really careless. Stupid even.
And what the hell was with that kid??
The pilot blew out an unsteady breath, and tried to calm his frayed nerves. It was all right. No one suspected anything. Things could still proceed as planned.
Parker mentally shook it off. No big deal. He would just go back inside, contact Malcolm, and tell him it was time.
* * * * *
Leia strummed her fingers impatiently against her desk, her mind still restless and edgy. She should try the Falcon again. The princess threw a quick glance at the wall chrono and sucked in an impatient breath. She had tried calling the ship barely two minutes ago. This was getting ridiculous. She should just go.
But how would that look? If she showed up at the Falcon in the middle of the day, out of breath and nervous, Han might think she didn't trust him. And how would she explain it? She didn't know if she could explain it -- even to herself.
Leia bit her lip, the frantic fluttering in her stomach still working overtime. She eyed the array of flimsis that still littered her desk, and without thinking, began straightening them into piles. Five more minutes. She would give them five more minutes, and then she would just go.
She didn't care how it looked.
* * * * *
The green lights above the Hololink continued their urgent, rhythmic blinking; the three inhabitants of the Millennium Falcon oblivious to their presence. They had just returned from an extended lunch break, and Han was eager to get back to work on his ailing ship.
The smuggler grimaced as he took in all the tools that had been haphazardly abandoned around the main hold. Wires were hanging out of panels in wild disarray, like some sort of neglected electronic overgrowth. The old ship was a mess, and it was going to take some serious work to get the Falcon functioning properly again.
"Dad?" Bailey gave Han's arm an impatient tug. "What about a Rancor?"
Han blew out a tired sigh. He almost didn't know where to begin. From behind him, Chewie seemed to put a voice to his concern with a whuff of resignation. [Look at this place,] the Wookiee announced with exasperation. [Let me at least fetch the droid to lend a hand.]
Han felt affronted. "You'll do no such thing," he said, almost accusingly. "I just got used to the peace and quiet around here. The last thing I need is Threepio's incessant babbling ruining a perfectly good afternoon."
[The afternoon would be even better if we got the Falcon running again.]
Han had to suppress the urge to roll his eyes. From below, Bailey gave his arm another impatient pull. "Can you beat up a Rancor?"
Han looked down at the boy, barely registering the question. "What? Oh, yeah, sure."
Chewie gave a derisive snort. [Uh, huh....] The Wookiee shook his head in amusement as he made his way towards the cockpit.
Bailey seemed barely surprised. "Without any weapons?"
Han shot an exasperated glare at his friend's disappearing form, missing his son's question. He straightened himself for the task ahead. "All right," he said, sliding into position within the engine pit. He motioned towards the tool box. "Slide that over here, will ya?"
The boy nodded, but he wasn't ready to be sidetracked. "But without any weapons, Dad?" He pushed the tools towards Han. "Because that would be really hard."
Han gave an absent nod of agreement, and began to sort through the toolbox with one hand. "Hey, Chewie," he called towards the open cockpit, "What'd you do with the laser torch?"
[*I* didn't do anything with it,] came his muffled reply.
"Well, that's pretty amazing then, since you were the last one to use it." The smuggler shook his head and waited for a smart retort from his friend, but one never came. Another moment passed. "Chewie?" Han turned to Bailey with a questioning expression, as if the boy could explain the sudden silence.
Bailey just grinned at him. "Don't worry, Dad. We're gonna get this bucket of bolts working in no time."
Han gave the boy a look, his mouth curling up into a faint smile. "Right."
Bailey sprawled himself out on the floor just above the smuggler's head and propped his head in his hands. He began to watch patiently as his father worked diligently at adjusting and re-adjusting different parts of the stubborn ship. Han frequently pointed out what he was doing to the boy, and occasionally asked the child to pass him another needed tool. The two of them worked easily like that for the next several minutes.
"Dad?" Bailey finally asked, breaking the companionable silence.
Han stole a glance at the boy and then returned to the stubborn intake valve. "Yeah?"
"How long are we going to stay here?"
"You mean in the Falcon?"
Han looked up at the child. "Why? I thought you liked it here."
"I do," Bailey insisted, "but I was just wondering ..." The boy shrugged his shoulders, unsure how to express himself. "I mean, are we staying here forever?"
"No, not forever." He flashed the boy a comforting smile. "Don't worry."
Bailey seemed to digest this for a moment, his lips puckering thoughtfully. "So," he finally replied, "does that mean we get to go home soon?"
"Well ..." the smuggler hedged, "It's not that simple."
"Because Momma's married to Simon?"
Han couldn't meet his eyes, the child's line of questioning suddenly making him uncomfortable. "Yeah," he finally mumbled, "that's part of it."
"Can't they just get unmarried?"
"Well ..." Han cleared his throat, suddenly eager to change the subject. "Uh, pass me that tool right there, won't you?" He asked, motioning to the one resting at the boy's elbow.
Bailey handed it to him, his inquisitive expression never leaving his face. As the smuggler turned his attention back to his repairs, he could feel the boy studying him, an unspoken question on his lips. Finally, Bailey asked, "Are you going to marry Momma?"
Han looked at the boy with a start, he could feel his face redden. The smuggler let out a nervous chuckle, "What?"
Bailey sniffed, his gaze unwavering. "You love her, don't you?"
"Yeah, of course I do."
"Well, when you love someone, doesn't that mean you should marry them?"
"Sometimes it means that, yeah." Han directed his attention toward the ship with a newfound urgency, suddenly grateful that Chewbacca was out of earshot. He realized the boy was still waiting for more of an answer, and cleared his throat awkwardly. "But, uh, you know, these things can't be rushed ..."
"Why not?" Bailey was genuinely curious.
Han finally dared to look at the boy again. "Why not?" He asked with an incredulous chuckle. "I dunno, you tell me." He nipped the child playfully in the nose, eager to redirect the conversation. "What about you, kiddo? When are you getting married, huh?"
Bailey shrank away from the smuggler's hand with a whoop. "I'm six!" He wrinkled up his nose. "Besides, girls are kinda gross."
"Yeah," Bailey made a face. "Blecch!"
Han shook his head in knowing amusement, "Well, one day you'll feel differently. Trust me."
The boy seemed skeptical, but he just shrugged and asked, "Dad?"
Han drew in a breath, stealing himself for what he assumed would be another round of questions regarding his future with Leia. The boy's inquiry was beginning to feel a bit like how he imagined it would have been to face the princess' father, Bail Organa. It was as if the child was dutifully filling in for his grandfather in order to press the smuggler about his intentions.
But Bailey had apparently moved on, because he surprised his father by completely changing gears. "If you can beat up a rancor," he continued thoughtfully, "then you could also beat up any bad people, right?"
Han gave the boy a curious look. "What?"
"I mean, if you can beat up things like rancors and wampas, then the bad people would be easy." The boy raised his brow imploringly. "Wouldn't they?"
The smuggler studied Bailey quietly for a moment, searching for a clue in the boy's expression as to where this new topic had come from. "What bad people?" He finally asked.
Bailey threw a quick, cautious glance around the Falcon before answering. "The bad people," he replied in an urgent whisper. He leaned his face closer to his father. "You know."
Han was at a loss. He didn't know. "Bailey, I -- " The smuggler paused for a moment, and decided to choose his words carefully. He knew this was probably normal childhood fears, but still, he found the boy's concern a bit unsettling. "Listen," he said, "No bad people are going to get you." He promised, "Me and your mom and Uncle Chewie would never let that happen."
Bailey nodded thoughtfully, as he let that sink in. Then he smiled, clearly satisfied with the smuggler's response. "Yeah," he said, his confidence returned. "I thought so."
Han grinned tentatively. "Good," he hoped he sounded convincing. The smuggler cleared his throat, and attempted to redirect the child's attention. "Now, how 'bout we get back to this, okay?" He motioned to the innards of the flailing ship.
Bailey's mouth turned up into another smile. "Okay," he replied, and his legs kicked excitedly from behind his head. "Hey, Dad," he said, his face suddenly brightening. "Do you think they'll have tauntaun rides at the zoo?"
Han shrugged his shoulders, inwardly marveling at the speed in which the child seemed to leap from topic to topic. It was a wonder anyone could even keep up with the boy half the time. The smuggler was about to make a comment on as much, but his thought was interrupted by the sudden appearance of Chewbacca walking briskly from around the corner. The missing laser torch was in his hand. [Han,] he said, dropping the tool at his feet, [You better call the princess. She's been trying to contact us.]
Han's brow rose in concern. "Leia? What did she want?"
[I'm not sure, but she left several messages on the hololink.]
"Several?" The smuggler was getting nervous now. He propped himself up onto the edge of the engine pit. "How many did she leave?"
"Nine?" They hadn't even been gone that long.
Bailey bounced up as if on a spring. "Momma!" He shouted with enthusiasm, "I wanna talk to her too!"
Han got to his feet and put a restraining hand on the boy's shoulder. "Later," he said, curbing the urgency in his voice. "Stay here with Uncle Chewie."
"But I wanna push the buttons," he replied, his tone taking on a slight whine. "I know how."
"You can push the buttons next time." Han was in no mood for an argument. He shot Chewie a pleading look to keep the child busy, and headed off toward the cockpit.
"Be sure to tell her about the zoo!" Bailey yelled from behind him, and it was the last thing the smuggler heard before he sealed the door shut.
Once alone in the silence of the cockpit, Han didn't know what to think. He eyed the blinking lights with a mounting dread, Luke's ominous warning from a week earlier suddenly at the forefront of his mind. He had almost forgotten about that conversation, but now it was flashing itself over and over again through his brain, as if being played in fast motion.
He attempted to shake it off. "This paranoia is getting out of hand, Solo." He grumbled crossly to himself, and quickly dialed in the connection to Leia's office. He was jumping to conclusions. It might be nothing. Heck, it might even be good news.
The link on the other end buzzed for several long moments. Han could feel his newfound reasoning rapidly thinning, when the static finally dissolved to reveal an agitated princess looking back at him.
"Han?" She was out of breath. "Thank the gods, you finally called. I was just on my way out the door."
Han forced a casual grin, hoping to mask his mounting concern. "Aw, I miss you too, but nine messages, Princess?" His smile broadened slightly, "That's a bit excessive, even for you."
Leia seemed not to hear him. "Where's Bailey?" She asked urgently, her eyes eagerly searching over his shoulder. "Is everything all right?"
"Hey," the smuggler replied, holding up a soothing hand, "Everyone's fine. We were just out grabbing a bite to eat. That's all."
Leia was silent for a moment, her expression relaxing as she appeared to digest this. "Really?" She finally asked. "Are you sure? Let me talk to Bailey."
"Aw, come on, sweetheart. He's fine." Han shook his head with light exasperation. "It's babysitting, not brain surgery. Don't you think I can handle a six-year-old?"
"No, I know," she admitted, "but all afternoon I've just ..." Her voice faltered, and her gaze strayed off screen for a moment. She looked back at Han with a start, her eyes widening. "You're sure everything's all right?"
"Absolutely," the smuggler replied confidently. "Here, fine, I'll prove it to you." Han reached back to open the seal on the cockpit. "Hey, Bailey," he called into the main hold. "Come up here and say 'hi' to your mom."
Han gave the princess a reassuring smile as the boy padded excitedly towards the cockpit. "Okay, so I might have filled him up with a bit too much sugar ..." he conceded sheepishly, "but otherwise -- "
" -- Grrrrr!" Bailey growled as he bounded through the door. "I'm a rancor!"
"Whoa -- hey!" Han hooked an arm around the charging boy to stop him from crashing into the Falcon's controls. "Hey," he said affectionately, pulling the child onto his lap. "Remember, no rancor's a match for me."
Bailey giggled, his feet kicking in feeble protest. "But my teeth are very sharp," he insisted. "Sharper than most."
"I'm sure they are," Han said, straightening the boy in his lap. "Now, say 'hi' to your mom."
Bailey's face lit up as he noticed Leia on the hololink. "Hey, Momma," he greeted, enthusiastically. "We're going to the zoo later."
The princess smiled warmly from the screen. "Wow, really? How exciting." Her eyes combed over every inch of the child, as if rapidly taking a mental inventory of his health. "Are you having a nice afternoon?"
Han poked the boy lightly in the ribs. "Hold up your hands." Bailey gave his father a strange look, but then did as he was told. "See that, sweetheart?" Han teased, waving one of the child's splayed out hands at her. "He's still got all his fingers."
The princess smiled, in spite of herself. "Very funny."
"Now the feet, Bailey."
Leia rolled her eyes. "All right, Han -- I get it."
Bailey's expression had become mildly panicked. "But why wouldn't I have all my fingers?"
Leia shot Han an exasperated look. "No reason. He's just teasing."
The princess turned back to her son. "How are you, sweetie? You doing okay?"
Bailey nodded and then announced again, "I'm a rancor!" This time he bared his teeth for the benefit of his mother. "Grrrrr!"
"Oh, my," Leia gasped in mock horror, "How scary! What happened to my son?"
The child curled his hands up into claws, his mouth twisting into his best imitation of a frightening snarl. "Grrrr -- I ate him!"
Han chuckled and gently pushed the boy from his lap. "Well, I bet you're still hungry." He gave Leia a wicked smile. "Now, go attack Uncle Chewie -- he'll love it." He gave the boy a light pat on the bottom to urge him on.
"Grrr -- okay!" Bailey made as if to sprint off, but stopped abruptly at the doorway. "Wait, one more thing," he said, dropping the character of the rancor for a moment. He climbed back on the smuggler's lap and leaned toward the hololink. Leia watched as the boy's face suddenly filled up her screen, the holo slightly distorted at his quick movements. He grinned widely at her. "Just wanted to tell you to come home soon, okay, Momma?"
The princess returned his smile. "I will, don't worry."
"And also," he added as an afterthought, "tell Daddy I can press the buttons on the comlink, because I don't think he knows."
"I'll remind him." Leia studied the boy for another long moment, suddenly overwhelmed with an inexplicable urge to reach through the holofield and grab hold of him. Her throat tightened and the nervous flutter in her stomach returned. Bailey grinned back at her, oblivious to her turmoil. Leia forced a brave smile. "I love you, Bailey boy."
"Love you, too." His response was almost a reflex, as he was already climbing off of Han's lap. Bailey gave her another quick wave before disappearing from the field altogether. "Bye, Momma!" she could hear him call as he sprinted from the cockpit.
Leia swallowed. No, don't go ...
The princess straightened in her seat Her fists were now clenched nervously in her lap. She didn't think she could sit here anymore. She wanted to go home. Her apprehension must have been obvious, because when she looked up again, Han was eyeing her with curiosity. "What's wrong?" He asked, his brow knitted in concern.
"I ... I don't know," she admitted. Something's wrong, something's wrong, something's wrong ... "I've just had -- I don't know -- a strange feeling all day."
"What, like woman's intuition or something?"
Leia smiled faintly, her expression clouding over for a moment. "Or something." She looked up at him with a start, her eyes widening in concern. "What about you, Han?"
"What about me?"
"How are you? Are you okay?" The urgency in her tone suggested she wasn't making idle conversation. "You haven't noticed anything strange, have you?"
"Leia," he said, his voice relaxed. "I'm fine." His mouth curled up into a small grin, and there was a knowing shine in his eye. "Today of all days? I'm better than fine."
The princess awarded his remark with a faint quirk of the mouth. "I still think I should come home early. I know I have a lot of work to do here but I can't stay." She shook her head and her resolve strengthened. "It just wouldn't feel right."
"Well, if you feel you want to come back now, then just come back now." Han leaned back in his seat and his grin broadened. "I certainly wouldn't mind seeing you."
Leia's lips curved into a slight smile, but then her expression sobered. "Han, I ..." She faltered for a moment, the right words seeming to fail her for once. Han strummed a finger lightly against his shoulder rest, seemingly untroubled and patiently waiting for her to finish her thought. Leia swallowed. "Just -- be careful."
"Me?" Han's mouth curved up into a half smile. "Always."
* * * * *
A few minutes later, Han palmed the cockpit open, finally ready to once again resume his repairs. His thoughts reeled with the conversation he had just finished with Leia. It had been a bit strange, and it slowly dawned on the smuggler that everything had been a bit strange since he got back. And he didn't just mean all the obvious stuff that went along with being frozen in carbonite for seven years. There was something else. Something he couldn't quite put his finger on. Like he was missing a crucial piece to a bigger picture.
It's what I saw, it's what the pitcher showed ...Bailey's voice echoed in his head. Yeah, what did the kid mean by that, anyway? And now the boy was going on about 'bad people' and Leia was having strange feelings.
An image of Luke Skywalker immediately flashed through his mind, and Han stopped in his tracks. He had no idea where that connection had come from. Or if there even was one. But suddenly the smuggler felt like he was on the brink of understanding something. Something that was just starting to take focus -–
"Dad?" It was an urgent whisper.
Han turned with a start, his gaze suddenly falling on the child sitting against the wall. "Bailey?" The boy looked up at him wide-eyed, his legs curled up under his chin. He had been sitting so quiet and so still, that Han had totally missed noticing him there. "What are you doing?" He looked toward the main hold. "Where's Chewie?"
"He went to get Threepio." Bailey's voice was an urgent hush. "But I don't think we should go back in there."
Han shot an annoyed glance toward the room, completely missing the child's other statement. "He did what?"
"No, Dad. Wait." Bailey grabbed at his father's leg, his whole body suddenly wrapping itself around the smuggler's calf. "Don't go back in there."
"What? Why not?" Han made a half-hearted attempt to shake his leg free from the boy's grasp, but Bailey just tightened his hold. "Hey, what's gotten into you?"
The boy looked up at him imploringly, his gaze becoming wide and desperate. "Just please don't go in there." There was now a tremble in his voice. "Please, Daddy."
The smuggler opened up his mouth to protest, but the words never left this throat. Suddenly there was the clanging sound of footfalls climbing the boarding ramp. Han froze, and he listened as they echoed up to the main entrance of the ship and then came to a scuffled halt.
Someone was in the Falcon.
The smuggler swallowed. He felt the grip on his leg tighten. Han's right hand instinctively went to his blaster. His fingers twitched slightly as they hovered expectantly above the handle, poised for action.
The footsteps were quiet now. The faceless intruder was also keeping still. Most likely, cocking an ear, trying to listen for Han.
But who was it???
The smuggler didn't dare move. Suddenly, he was conscious of everything around him. The low whirring hum of the Falcon's main computer. The beads of perspiration taking form on his brow. The short nervous breaths of a child trying to control his panic. Bailey. Han stole a quick glance at the boy. He really needed his son to let go of his leg if he was going to have any chance against whoever was out there.
But who was out there?
Bailey whimpered soundlessly, his face pressed against the side of Han's knee. His hold on the smuggler now resembled a death grip. "Don't go in there," came his hushed plea. "Don't go."
Why not? What's there to be so scared of?
But Han knew, and the answer came to him before he could stop it.
The Bad People.
* * * * *
If Malcolm held his breath long enough, and stood absolutely still, he was almost convinced he could make out exactly where Captain Solo was hiding. If he just strained his ears enough, and listened, he could almost hear him trying to be quiet. Almost.
The sandtrader's eyes darted nervously around the mainhold of the Millennium Falcon. Every tick of the computers made his heart stop, every creak of the ship caused his breath to catch. The hand with the blaster trembled lightly with fear, the weapon suddenly feeling impossibly heavy in his grip.
Just do it. Pick a place. The cabin or the cockpit. Do it. Shoot him, grab the kid, and go ...
Malcolm swallowed, frozen in indecision. Cabin or the cockpit ... Cabin or the cockpit ... A wrong choice could prove deadly. The smuggler obviously knew he was here. It was way too quiet in here to suggest otherwise. He needed to decide fast. Solo wasn't going to sit in hiding for long, and the Wookiee would be back at any moment.
But where was he? The cabin or the cockpit, the cabin or the --
Malcolm's head jerked toward the ship corridor with a start. Something had gotten his attention and made his hackles rise, but he didn't know consciously what it was. A small thud or a panicked gasp, perhaps. The man was no longer sure, but it didn't matter. He let out a small breath of relief, and allowed himself a small smile. His concentration had apparently paid off. He suddenly knew where the smuggler and child were hiding.
* * * * *
Han Solo dropped to his haunches, his mind reeling. His senses were on high alert. He gripped the child firmly by the shoulder, and pressed his mouth up to his ear. "Listen to me," he said sternly, his voice barely audible, even to the boy. "I want you to go into the cockpit and seal the door behind you. And don't open it again until I say so, understand?"
Bailey made as if to shake his head mutely, and Han's grip tightened in frustration. "Just do it," he hissed angrily.
"But Dad -- "
The boy nodded numbly, his grip on the smuggler's leg slowly loosening. The child turned to crawl towards the cockpit, but then he paused to give his father one last imploring look. Bailey's chin quaked slightly, and he whispered, "Just don't let anything happen, okay?"
Han's heart clenched at the child's terrified expression, but tried to mask it with his best reassuring smile. He wanted to tell his son not to worry, that everything would be fine, but there was no time. He shot a nervous glance over his shoulder, and turned back toward the boy. "It's okay," he mouthed, making a shoo-ing motion with his hand, "Now, go!"
Bailey nodded mutely, and turned back around. When the smuggler was satisfied that he was really headed for the cockpit, he turned his attention back towards the source of the footsteps in the other room. Han took a moment to steady his jangled nerves, blowing out barely a whisper of a breath. The ship was quiet.
The smuggler's hand once again reached for his blaster, and this time he cautiously removed it from it's holster. Han tensed as he raised the gun to his face, careful not to make a noise. There still wasn't any sound coming from the main hold. But that only served to make the pilot even more anxious. His grip tightened on the handle in anticipation, and Han immediately tried to squelch the nervous feeling that was building up within his gut.
With a final steadying breath, the smuggler squared his shoulders, and dared to peek around the corner.
* * * * *
Leia was standing in the back of the turbolift when the sharp feeling of apprehension returned. It had eased a bit in the wake of her conversation with Han and Bailey, she had even begun to feel pretty normal again. But somewhere between the twenty-seventh and twenty-sixth level, that cold stab of panic had decided to make a return visit.
And this time it was almost paralyzing in it's ferocity. The princess threw an arm up against the wall to brace herself, vaguely aware of the alarmed glances that earned from the people around her. But she didn't care. The fear was overwhelming, and had caught her off guard. Without even thinking, she mentally called out to her brother. Luke! It was almost like a reflex. Luke! Her brother would know how to handle this. He would make sense of it for her.
And then, as suddenly as it had come, it was gone again. Like a violent wave finally pulling away from the shore, the feeling abated.
Leia's gaze flew above the doors of the turbolift, suddenly aware of how painfully slow they seemed to be moving. Nineteen ... eighteeen ...It was suddenly enough to make her want to crawl out of her skin. Her gaze darted to the other people who stood around her, trying to gauge whether they noticed how long their descent seemed to be taking. Beside the idle cough from one of the humans, everyone seemed impassive. Fifteen ... fourteen ...She had never known a more sluggish moving turbolift in her life. It was only after another passenger leaned over and asked if she was all right, that she became aware that she had been quietly counting the floors out loud.
Leia turned to the Rodian beside her and tried to force a smile. "I'm fine, thank you." She replied.
The creature looked skeptical, but said nothing.
"Really," she assured him, suddenly aware that she was still bracing herself against the wall. She dropped her arm hastily and offered him another brave smile.
The Rodian gave her a sympathetic grin. "You know, I've always hated riding in these things myself."
The princess nodded politely, unable to stop her gaze from immediately returning to the spot above the doors. She watched the numbers slowly count down, her throat seeming to tighten with every passing level.
Four ... Three ... two ...
* * * * *
The first shot was wide. It blazed just above Han Solo's right shoulder, and made a smoldering hole in the far wall of the main corridor. But it was still close enough to cause the smuggler to jump back with a start, his heart racing. Han had literally felt the heat of the blast as it passed a mere inches from his skull. That was close enough to scare even him.
The smuggler pressed himself back against the wall, his adrenaline already coursing through his veins. He tried to even out his breathing, maintain control, but an unfamiliar panic was already welling up within him. Han cursed silently to himself. He was already trapped. If he dared to get another look at where his attacker was standing, he risked being hit. And maybe the next shot would be fatal. But he couldn't just stand here. He had to know where the man was firing from.
The smuggler tried to rack his brain for a plan, but before he could even string a coherent thought together, another shot burst forth. This one hit a control panel, a few inches closer to where he stood. The panel hissed and smoked, and it was still angrily spitting out sparks, when yet another blast rang out. This one landing closer to where the first shot was fired.
The smell of burning instantly singed his nostrils. Han stole a glance at the matching pair of smoking blast points, and fleetingly noted that whoever was in the Falcon was obviously edgy, nervous -- and completely unprofessional. This thought momentarily comforted the smuggler. The guy was most definitely a novice, and someone he knew he had a chance against.
"Captain Solo," came a voice, loud in the confines of the ship. "Let's not make this harder. Come out now and I won't have to kill you."
Han almost laughed at the comment, as if the smuggler was some sort of idiot. He'd heard that line a hundred times before, and never fell for it once. "How 'bout you drop your weapon, kick it over to me, and then I won't have to kill you."
The reply was another shot. This one causing another control panel to go up in a flurry of sparks. "I mean it," said the voice above the crackling of fried wiring, "This is not a game."
Han snorted. "You mean this isn't fun for you?" But even as he said it, his mind was racing. The voice, even with his heart pounding distractingly in his ears, sounded terribly familiar.
"Please," the intruder called again, "I have orders to kill you, but it doesn't have to be that way." There was no mistaking the nervous timbre in his voice. "Just cooperate, Captain Solo."
And suddenly it clicked into place. The smuggler blew out a disbelieving breath. "Malcolm?"
There was a moment of stunned silence. Han knew he had caught the intruder off-guard, and without another thought, the smuggler swung around the corner and fired off a shot.
The blast caught Malcolm squarely in the shoulder, and the sandtrader let out a startled yelp as he stumbled back a few steps. He grabbed at his right shoulder painfully, his mouth sputtering with frustrated obscenities.
Han took advantage of the moment by firing another shot at the man's legs.
"Oh, gods!" The sandtrader fell back on the floor with a thud, as he now grabbed at the fresh wound on his right knee. "Stop it! Just stop! Oh, gods ...!"
Han was shaking now. He walked over to Malcolm, fighting to get control over his breathing. He kicked the man's now discarded weapon out of the way, as he gazed down at the fallen sandtrader. The smuggler had, regretfully, shot plenty of people in his time. In his line of work, it was inevitable. And then there was The Rebellion, which had a body count all it's own. But even through all that, Han had never quite gotten used to it. When it came to self-preservation, the smuggler could shoot without hesitation, but it didn't mean he enjoyed it. The experience had always left him a little shook up.
Malcolm let out another painful groan. "Dammit, Solo," he grumbled, "Whatcha do that for?" The sandtrader drew in an anguished hiss. "Blast it, I wasn't actually going to hit you. What's your problem??"
"What -- ?" Han shook his head incredulously, fighting to keep his temper in check. The smuggler reached down and pulled the sandtrader from scruff of his collar, until the man was sitting up on the floor. "I could just as easily put a shot through your other knee, Malcolm, unless you tell me what's going on here."
The older man shook his head feebly. "Nothing, I ..."
"Nothing?!" Han released the man's collar in frustration. Malcolm's eyes widened in horror as he watched the smuggler lift his blaster and press the cold barrel against the older man's cheek. "Don't you dare play stupid with me. Start answering some questions, buddy, or I swear I'll go completely crazy in a moment."
Malcolm didn't doubt it. He watched as Solo made a show of pulling the weapon away from his face and slowly took aim at his other leg. The older man's mouth went dry with terrified anticipation. "Listen, you don't have to do that, I -- "
But the Malcolm's pitiful plea was interrupted by the sound of another set of footfalls rapidly approaching up the boarding ramp. Han looked up with a start, expecting to see the tall form of his best friend taking shape in the entranceway.
But the figure at the door wasn't Chewbacca.
The smuggler barely even had time to register the sight of the young man aiming a blaster in his direction, before he felt the sudden blast of explosive pain erupt on his left side. Han stumbled backwards with a startled grunt, his trigger finger instinctively pulling off a few shots, all of which were way wide of their target.
Parker flinched nervously as the blasts flew past him, and without even thinking, shot the smuggler again. This time grazing the pilot's right shoulder, causing Han to drop his blaster in surprise. Parker then turned towards the wide-eyed Malcolm, still sprawled out on the floor. "What the hell's taking you so long? Where's the kid??"
Malcolm shook his head dumbly, his attention instantly turning towards the injured smuggler. Han was leaning against the holochess table, his eyes glazed over in pain. His left hand gripped his injured side, and the sandtrader could make out the dark stain of blood that was just beginning to take shape between the pilot's fingers. Han seemed eerily complacent, as if the smuggler were trying to catch his bearings. Malcolm's gaze darted back towards the young pilot. "Try the cockpit," he finally said.
Han's head jerked up, his mind suddenly brought back to full alertness as the last words of the young pilot sank in. Suddenly it all made sense. They weren't here for him. They weren't here for him at all. The realization made his blood run cold. And as Parker went to take a step towards the cockpit, Han didn't even have to think. He lunged at the young man full force, managing to knock the pilot on his back.
Parker felt the breath knock out of him as he hit the hard floor of the Millennium Falcon, his blaster skidding away from him. And suddenly the smuggler was on top of him. Parker tried feebly to block off the violent blows, but it was a pointless effort. Even injured, the man was a much stronger opponent than him. The young pilot flinched as a blow landed upside his head, causing his thoughts to become even more scrambled and incoherent. And then suddenly Solo's hand was gripping him tightly around the neck. At the abrupt pressure on his throat, Parker dared to open an eye, and saw that Han was a mere inch from his face. "You listen to me," the smuggler snarled, his breath hot and ragged with pain. "If you even touch a hair on that boy's head I will kill you. Understand?"
Parker's head nodded tightly, Han's rigid clamp around his neck not allowing much movement. He no longer even caring about the kid hiding away in the cockpit. All the young pilot wanted now was to get out from underneath the weight of the insane smuggler, and far away from the Millennium Falcon. Without warning, Solo released his grip on the young man's neck and grasped him by the shoulders instead, shaking him violently. "I mean it," Han repeated, his breath growing increasingly more shallow. "I'll kill you, and anyone else involved."
"Okay ..." the young pilot wheezed pitifully. "Okay ..."
Seemingly satisfied for the moment, Han nodded and turned his attention to the injury on his side. He touched at it tentatively, his face grimacing with each fiery jolt of pain that caused to course through his body. Parker took advantage of this momentary distraction to thrust a knee at the smuggler's gaping wound, causing Solo to fall back in sudden agony. The young pilot then scrambled furiously to his feet, not even bothering to spare a glance backwards as he stumbled through the entranceway and raced down the boarding ramp.
Terrified at the thought of letting the young man escape, Han forced himself to stagger to his feet. He sucked in another angry breath, as the sudden movement provoked a fresh explosion of pain, causing stars to dance before his eyes. Han reached out blindly for something to support him, but all his grappling fingers found was dead air. The smuggler swallowed, the room suddenly seeming to sway before him. He should really go after the young pilot. Stop him. He knew he should. But at that moment, it all seemed too overwhelming.
Maybe, if I just catch my breath for a second ...
Han blew out a haggard sigh. Yeah, I just need a moment and then I'll go ...The smuggler felt his knees wobble, his legs seeming no longer able to carry his own weight. Just one more second ...
The room seemed to spin in front of his eyes more rapidly now, and Han was becoming less and less aware of his own surroundings. He didn't even feel it when his legs finally gave away, and he landed on his knees with a thud. "Come on, this is nothing," he whispered harshly to himself. "Only a scratch ..." Han lifted a hand to his face, almost struck dumb by the sight of the heavy blood that coated his fingers. He turned to Malcolm, lifting up his hand for the older man's appraisal. "You see this?"
Malcolm watched him through heavy lidded eyes, too preoccupied with his own pain to be much concerned with the smuggler's. "You were the one who had to make things difficult," the sandtrader finally replied.
Han nodded, a sleepy smirk seeming to take over his face. "Yup," he conceded, before falling slowly on his back. "But at least I won."
Malcolm shook his head wearily. He couldn't pick out any victors in this scenario. He watched as the smuggler silently gazed up at the ceiling, clearly fighting to keep his eyes open. The older man then turned his head away, and just sat there for a moment. He listened lazily to his own shallow breathing, and to that of the pilot sprawled out on the floor. Solo was clearly more seriously injured than himself. That had to count for something. But he doubted Simon would see it that way. Malcolm scowled to himself as a mental image of the politician came to mind. Not that he particularly cared what Simon thought at this point. Right now, he would settle for just getting out of this situation without jail time.
Or at they very least, escaping the ship before that Wookiee came back.
Malcolm turned his attention back toward the smuggler. "Hey, Solo," he called weakly, his voice raspy. "Maybe we could help each other out here."
But there was no acknowledgement from the man sprawled out on the floor. Not even a flinch.
Still nothing. The only sign that the smuggler was even still alive, was the nearly silent whistle of his labored breathing.
And then, despite everything, Malcolm almost had to smile. He was still awake and Han Solo was not. "Well, Captain," he gloated silently, almost like a child, "looks like you haven't won yet."
But Han did not hear him. He had finally succumbed to the black void of unconsciousness.
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