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Three Weeks After The End of The World (And Counting)

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For almost a week it looks like they've gotten clean away. Han makes short hops from system to system, trying to think where it might be safe to stop, not coming up with anything clever. Sooner or later they'll have to stop for supplies, but somehow a couple of pallets intended for a liner ended up on the Falcon when they blasted out of Duro, so they have food enough to last them a while.

Luke and Leia spend their time endlessly trying to decide where they could go that the plague might not have touched and pacing the passenger lounge. Han stays in the cockpit, because they don't know and they can't know, and he can't stand watching people pace. Chewie doesn't say much except to point out that everywhere they go is too quiet, the shipping lanes not showing anything like the kind of traffic they should. Hardly any traffic at all.

Han tries not to think about what that means. He ought to be good at this, running without thinking, leaving everything unpleasant behind. Only he doesn't think they've outdistanced the enemy this time, not when the Inner Rim looks the same as the Core did, no traffic on the shipping lanes and no transmissions to be heard. No news of how far the plague has reached or whether any species have proved to be immune.

"Can we get the heat working in here?" he grumbles to Chewie. "Why is everything always broken?"

Chewie growls a reply.

"Yes, but you have fur," Han says. He's actually shivering, which suggests that there may be more problems with the life-support system than its usual annoying glitches. "Seriously, I think there's something wrong with the ..."

The cockpit swims in his vision as he stands up, and he reaches for the back of the seat to catch himself. His hand closes on nothing, and that's the thing that frightens him first as he stumbles. Han never misses his aim at anything, but now the cockpit is spinning wildly and he doesn't know where anything is. He turns to try to compensate for the spin and runs painfully into the back of the seat, and then Chewie catches him to steady him, raising his voice in alarm.

"Let me go," Han says, "Let me go, I'm not sick," and he knows that's a lie, but there's not anything true he can say that he likes any better.

"Han!" Luke says from the doorway of the cockpit.

"No, kid, don't get any closer," Han says, but it probably doesn't matter. They've all been in close quarters on the ship. They're all screwed.

"I've got you," Luke says, putting his arm under Han's shoulder, and Han tries to say that he can walk just fine on his own, but before he can the world goes black.

*****

Han wakes up and Luke is standing watching him. Something is wrong, though. He can see too many of Luke, like the kid is casting shadows in a mirror. The other ones of him waver and move when he moves, but not quite in unison. They're less like reflections than ghosts.

"I'm talking to you telepathically, in your head," Luke says. "So it may get a little strange."

"It already is a little strange, kid," Han says. It's dark wherever they are, with little flickers of movement in the shadows. Han isn't sure he wants to see whatever's moving there. "Why are you in my head?"

"You're still unconscious," Luke says. "You're very sick."

"I'm dying, kid. And so are you, unless you're real lucky." That's the thing that makes him the angriest. He's had as much time as he probably deserves, but Luke and Leia are practically kids. They ought to have gotten some time to enjoy winning the war. More time than a few weeks before someone blew up the wrong part of the Imperial Palace and found out the hard way just what kind of weapons the Empire had been stockpiling behind that door.

"I'm not dying," Luke says. "I'm not sick, Han. Neither is Leia."

Han frowns. "How long has it been?"

"Long enough," Luke says. "I think maybe people who are strong in the Force are immune. Or that we have some advantage in fighting it off. I'm trying to replicate that effect in you, to figure out what my body's doing and make yours do it to. It's --" Luke scrubs at his forehead with one hand. "I'm not a healer," he says. "I'm not trained for this."

"You're doing great," Han says. "I'm not dead, right?"

"I think you'd know," Luke says, with an expression that's almost a smile.

"Leia's really doing all right? And Chewie --"

The reflections of Luke waver, and one of them looks away into the shadows. "Try to rest, Han," Luke says.

"Wait a minute --"

"I can't talk to you like this and work on you at the same time," Luke says. "Just rest."

Then he's gone, leaving no hint of his reflection behind in the dark mirror. There's only Han's reflection, now, the only thing left that he can see in the dark, and he closes his eyes just so he won't have to see it anymore.

*****

Han doesn't want to open his eyes again, because everything hurts. When he does, it doesn't matter much, because it's all dark. He's still inside his own head, then. Apparently the inside of his head is a cold place; he can't stop shivering.

All at once it's all too much like that thing he tries very hard not to think about, and he tries to move to prove that he's not locked in carbon-freeze, trapped in endless wide-awake dreaming. It feels like he's moving through the darkness, but there's nothing to prove it. He can't tell the time. He could have been here for days or years.

Then there's a hand gripping his.

"Han," Luke says. "Hang on." He looks fainter than before, and exhausted, with dark circles under his eyes. Around him, faint ghosts flicker like malfunctioning holos on the verge of flickering out.

"I don't like this," Han says. He can feel the darkness tugging at him, like a current pulling him away from where their hands are joined.

"Just hang on," Luke says. "I've gotten your body to start fighting the infection. I think you can beat this thing." He smiles, but one of the ghosts is looking off into the darkness again, and the look on its face is grim.

"What aren't you telling me? Don't lie to me, kid, you don't know how to bluff."

"I tried, Han," Luke says, and Han can hear the pain in his voice and he doesn't want to know what it means. "Your body is enough like mine -- even without really knowing what I was doing I could work it out. But you're human, I know how your body is supposed to work --"

"No," Han says, because there's nothing else he can say. "No, you must have been able to do something, he wasn't even sick when I --"

"It's been eight days since you collapsed," Luke says. "Almost a day since --"

"Say it," Han snarls, even though he knows it's going to hurt Luke to say. He's not sure he cares much about anyone else hurting right now. The world is falling apart and he has to hear the words.

"-- since Chewbacca died," Luke says. Han struggles to turn away from him, out of reach of the empty comfort of his hands, and Luke looks alarmed. "Han, listen to me, you have to hang on--"

Han tears himself away from Luke, and the darkness closes in.

*****

"Han, listen to me. Han, I know you can hear me."

When Han opens his eyes, there's only one of Luke sitting by the bed, so he figures he's really awake. His eyes feel hot and it hurts to move. His throat feels like sandpaper.

"You have to fight this thing," Luke says, and Han closes his eyes again. "Listen to me."

"Go away, kid," Han says. All he wants to do is retreat back into the darkness where nothing hurts. He thinks if he tries hard enough he might be able to stay there.

"You can't die," Luke says, and for the first time in a while he sounds his age instead of much older. "Leia -- Leia needs you."

Leia. Leia watched her whole planet die, and now it's all happening again. She must think she's going to be left alone. He doesn't want her to be left alone, but it hurts too much to move, to breathe. And Luke is here. She'll have her brother. Her family.

"Han, I need you," Luke says. "We both -- damn it, Han --"

There's a long silence, broken only by the sound of Han's ragged breathing. He really wants to let the darkness drag him down.

Instead he finally opens his eyes. "You'd probably wreck the Falcon."

"I probably would," Luke says, and Han pretends to believe the catch in his voice is because he's laughing.

*****

When he wakes again, it's Leia sitting by his bed instead of Luke.

"Hey, Princess," Han says, and Leia starts and then throws herself to her knees by the bed, her hand smoothing his hair.

"I knew you were too stubborn to die," she says.

"Come here," he says, and she lies down beside him, touching him gingerly at first and then clinging to him as he wraps his arms around her. Her face is wet, but he pretends he doesn't notice. She's always afraid people will think she's weak if she cries. He can't imagine anyone who's ever met her thinking she was weak.

"You're going to be all right," she says, as if she could make it happen by sheer force of will. He can almost feel her fierce determination, as if it's bleeding through her skin wherever they touch. She's the only thing he knows he can hold onto, and he does, wrapping his arms tight around her and bending his head against her shoulder.

It's not enough. When he closes his eyes he can see planets full of empty streets and ships full of corpses. There's only the two of them left floating through empty space, hanging onto each other desperately in the darkness, and he's sure as he never has been before that they love each other, and it's still not enough.

"Han --" Leia says, and he's starting to pull away from her when Luke lies down behind him, pressing warm against him in the darkness. He can't move between them but it's a different kind of not being able to move, like -- he can hear the thought but he doesn't know which one of them thought it -- like tangling warmly together in the womb.

Luke's breath is warm against the back of his neck, and Leia's arm is around his waist.

"We're your family," Leia says, and he bends his head to hers and lets them hold him for a long time in the darkness.

*****

Luke has his feet up on the table in the passenger lounge, and Leia is leaning against Luke's shoulder, her hands curled around a cup of tea. They're all quiet, as if they've all three gotten out of the habit of speaking over the last couple of weeks.

"We really do have to decide where to go," Luke says. "If there's any chance the plague hasn't reached the Outer Rim --"

"We could bring it there," Han says. "If we're still carriers--"

"We probably aren't," Luke says. "And if there's a chance I could help--"

Han's eyes meet Leia's. He thinks they're both thinking the same thing. If they land anywhere the plague has reached and hasn't yet burned its way out, Luke will break himself trying to save everyone and hate himself when he can't. He's already too thin, like he's hardly eaten since the plague began, and his eyes look bruised. He's come close enough to breaking.

He thinks it's probably their job not to let that happen, and he figures Leia agrees, because she says, "We can't afford to risk it. We'd be better off looking for survivors somewhere nearby."

"There may be some," Luke says. "I don't know how strong with the Force you have to be to have some resistance. If it's only people who could have been Jedi, that can't be a lot, but if it's anyone who's Force-sensitive at all--" He looks at Han, a little amused. "You're not much proof either way."

"I don't need the Force to fly, kid," Han says. He supposes they'll run out of banter again sooner or later, but for now it's keeping them going.

"So where do you want to go?" Leia asks Han. She's not just telling him where they're going, which is a change. He's not sure if something's changed between them or if it's just that she's run out of ideas for once, but either way he figures this isn't the time to do what he'd usually do and pick the thing that would annoy her most.

He knows she's aching to see what's left of Coruscant, but he thinks Coruscant will be a nightmare, with all those people and so much dependent on the power staying on and the transport ships coming in every day. Scavenging in the ruins is not his idea of a life. Anyway, he's not sure even Luke could manage to cleanse the place of all traces of the Empire's pretty little biological weapon.

He's tempted himself to set a course for Kashyyyk, even knowing that there's not much chance any of Chewbacca's close family have survived. The thing that stops him is knowing that what will keep Luke and Leia going after the banter stops working is being needed, and Kashyyyk is one of the places they're needed least.

Wookies pride themselves on keeping traditional skills alive rather than depending on technology, and they've been blockaded for years anyway. The survivors will hunt and find each other in the forest and live without what starships bring until the starships start running again. Wookies are patient people, unlike Leia, who looks like the effort of keeping quiet long enough for him to answer is painful.

"Corellia," he hears himself saying to his own surprise. It's a reasonable enough choice; they grow enough of their own food there to keep from being entirely dependent on the shipping lines, and it's easy enough to get from the cities out into the country. And while it's never been something Han paid much attention to, he's pretty sure there used to be Corellian Jedi, and apparently these things run in families. There should be at least a few survivors.

Han knows all of those are excuses, on some level. He wants to go home. He looks at Leia, waiting for her to tell him why they can't do that.

"All right," she says. "Let's go to Corellia."

When Han takes the controls, Luke settles into the copilot's seat without a word. There ought to be some smart remark Han can make to keep that from hurting so fucking much, but he can't think what that would be.

"Let's just do this," Luke says, and the stars splinter apart as they make the jump to hyperspace.

*****

The spaceport is a mess, with ships abandoned all over the place and the wreckage of a couple of crashes, so Han brings the Falcon down in a field where Luke says he senses people. Han lowers the ramp with his blaster drawn -- he's dealt with panicked mobs before -- but this isn't a mob but a camp. There's a scattering of bright orange emergency tents pitched, and in the distance he can see an airspeeder landing and another taking off.

A tall woman with a blaster rifle levels it at him from the foot of the ramp.

"We're not here to rob you," Han says. "We'll share the supplies we've got."

The woman lowers the blaster rifle a little; Han thinks she's not really used to carrying one. "You're Corellian," she says, and Han knows it's unreasonable to be relieved to hear her familiar accent, but he is anyway.

"You got it," he says. "So don't shoot, okay? We're friends." There's a small crowd gathering, men and women in all different kinds of clothes, a few in coveralls that must have been part of some kind of emergency stores. One woman is carrying a small girl on her hip, and there's a boy of six or seven watching them suspiciously.

"Who are you?" one of the men asks.

Han starts to answer, but then Luke comes down the ramp behind him, robed in black with his lightsaber hanging at his side, and Han decides this is not his moment.

"This is Luke Skywalker," Han says. "He's a Jedi knight," and suddenly no one is paying attention to Han anymore.

Leia comes down to stand next to Han, and Han puts an arm around her waist. People are gathering around Luke, asking him questions Han isn't sure he has any idea how to answer. Everyone seems to want to touch him, and before long Luke has the little girl in his arms and is talking to her mother like she's an old friend.

Leia looks up at Han a little ruefully, although she's smiling. It must be a change for her not to be the one everyone wants to talk to. They will, though. Soon enough she'll be the Republic senator again, and he'll just be the guy with the ship.

The woman with the blaster rifle comes to stand beside them, looking up at the Falcon with interest. "How's her hyperdrive?" she asks. "We've been picking up some transmissions from Duro, but we haven't found any pilots."

"We can make Duro," Han says. It's the first time we has meant something different than it's meant for a long time. Han's isn't sure how he feels about that, and he thinks this is not the time to think about it. He's not sure what happens next, but at least it looks like there's going to be a next. "Hey, kid, you want to be a pilot when you grow up?"

The little boy shrugs and looks at Luke. "I'd rather be a Jedi knight," he says.

"No accounting for taste," Han says, and without looking up at him Luke smiles.