A raw wind whipped the hair back from Luke’s forehead. From everywhere at once, a rush filled his ears and became a roar, as if an ancient voice had been roused from the depth of the planet. Eyes narrowed against the blast, Luke walked across fine, brown sands. The sight before him was more than he could have imagined, immense, grey and wild. The Corellian sea.
He stopped where the surf lapped at his boots. Farther out, waves built and crashed into swathes of churning foam, but the wind tossed their spray far inland. Salt stung his face as he watched, gripped by the same amazement that’d seized him during his first flight into space. A stark, empty horizon cut the sky with razor precision, and the roll of waves passed under his feet like a slow pulse.
So this is where you come from. Luke smiled at the saltwater taste on his lips. Time and again, Han had described his homeworld’s oceans — imagine something ten times the size of the Dune Sea, coming alive — and promised to take him on a tour someday, once Corellia was free again. Time to take Han up on his offer.
Clear water filled his footprints as Luke retraced his steps along the shore, up the gently sloping beach. Straight ahead, wharfs of withered duracrete thrust up with rows of flat-topped towers like blunt teeth. Before long, traces of Imperial presence showed everywhere. RESTRICTED AREA announced the warning signs in dusty red capitals. Squatting silos were girdled with blackened steel barricades, and an armored landcrawler rusted away outside warped blast portals. Peace on Corellia still carried all the signatures of despotic paranoia and violent struggle.
Luke noticed how his own pace and posture changed, adjusting once more to the possibility of battle. The complex he was approaching had served as military headquarters for decades under Imperial rule. A sprawl of administrative buildings, hangars and barracks surrounded the central tower that frowned out over the capital.
“Sir.” At the inner gates, a young Alliance officer snapped to attention. “We were told to expect you, sir. But not before—”
“I got in early,” Luke offered with a smile, but instead of setting the young man at ease, it brought a flush to his face.
“The general’s office is on level E-15, 3.11,” he rattled off directions.
When Luke stepped from the lift, the fifteenth floor greeted him with a view across the ravaged west. A wasteland stretched between the tower and the fringes of the city, cast into sharp relief by the setting sun. Collapsed roofs and domes, a wilderness of broken girders, craters gaping from the landing strips where rows of cannibalized ground vehicles had been lined up — all of it chronicled the bloody battle that’d ended a siege, when Corellian brigades and Alliance forces stormed the base.
“Can I help you?” a voice asked from behind.
Luke turned to face a balding man with a drooping moustache. An Alliance commander, by the insignia on his uniform’s collar and sleeves.
“Luke Skywalker,” he introduced himself. “I’m here to see General Solo.”
Pale eyes widened fractionally, and Luke wondered at the notions his name had called up.
“Aldus Cerrick,” the Commander returned with careful courtesy, “honored to meet you. Let me show you the way.”
A long corridor ran up to plasteel slide-doors, the surface scratched and stained where an Imperial emblem had been scraped off. Cerrick raised a hand to the control panel, and Luke’s pulse performed an absurd little leap.
“Thank you,” he remembered to say as the doors slipped apart.
Several monitors flickered from the dimness within. Through drawn shutters, only feeble seams of daylight filtered into the room. A high-backed chair swiveled at the sound of the doors.
“Luke?” Reflected gleams fled across Han’s face, followed by a slow, delighted grin. “Hell, I didn’t think you’d make it before nightfall, come in!” He was out of his seat with that. “Good to see you, kid, where’ve you been all this time?”
Before Luke could answer, strong hands closed around his shoulders and pulled him into a rough embrace.
“Good to see you too,” Luke murmured into his collar, just before Han nudged him back — and then it took an effort not to let his reaction show.
Straggly dark hair fell into the high forehead, and a three-day stubble shaded Han’s cheeks. Pale and haggard, eyes bloodshot, Han looked like he’d been working at a scorching white heat.
“Tell me later,” Han waved his own question aside. “And sorry ‘bout the mess, but that’s just the natural state of things round here.” His sweeping gesture dismissed stacks of data wafers and printouts that covered every surface. “Have a seat. I still need to check patrol reports before I can cash it in.”
Luke pulled up a chair for himself. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Not right now...” Han dropped back into his seat by the main console. “I wouldn’t be stuck doing this if Mack — guy calls himself my personal aide! — hadn’t called in sick this morning. Lucky bastard.”
“Maybe you should take a few days’ leave, too.”
“Oh yeah, more than just a couple days,” Han agreed. Sparkles of text that scrolled across the screen lit his eyes. “Once things settle down again.”
“I thought they already had,” Luke murmured, but there he was drawing on secondhand news. Two months ago, Han had returned to his homeworld, in charge of the Alliance fleet that liberated Corellia — only to find himself appointed Head of Defense when his predecessor was forced into early retirement. Leia had made it sound like a vacation with a smattering of administrative duties, nothing more...
“Trouble?” Luke spelled out what the hard lines around Han’s mouth seemed to announce.
“Corellia’s no end of trouble, haven’t I mentioned that before?” Han grimaced. “The capital’s one giant catch of malfunctions, miscalculations ‘n simple bad luck. You name it, we’ve had to deal with it. Bugs contaminating our programs, computer systems collapsing, and communications were down planetwide for fifteen hours last week. Oh, and we’re running this whole outfit on emergency power since last night, ‘cause the blasted generator’s got the jitters. Cerrick swears we’re looking at sabotage, but I’m not sure about that. Still, feels like swimming upstream the whole time.” He interrupted himself with a slicing gesture. “Sorry, Luke. You come here to visit ‘n all I do is complain.”
“Don’t worry,” Luke answered with a smile. “I’m used to it.”
Han swatted at him, a flash of humor easing some of the strain aside. “Yeah, makes me wish for those glorious days when all I could grumble about was the old bucket o’ bolts falling apart under me. Or uncomfortable quarters in some unheated Rebel base.”
“Or reduced rations and moldy concentrates.”
“Food...” Han leaned back in his chair and rolled his eyes. “Shouldn’t have mentioned that, now my stomach’s bound to start complainin’, too.”
“I’ll take you to dinner when you’re done,” Luke offered.
“Now there’s something to get me goin’!” Han winked at him before he returned his attention to the screen. “But I’m buying, no argument.”
Dim stars flickered in the sky when Han threaded his hovercar into a jammed traffic lane. Corellia’s capital was a patchwork of glaring holoscreens alternating with black lightless patches where battle had torn into the cityscape. The views that reeled past, trailing streamers of grating noise, battered Luke’s senses. He’d been away from cities and crowds too long.
“Come on now...” Han tugged on the altitude lever. Several brightly painted flitters overtook them on their way to an upper lane.
“Slow guidance response,” Luke observed.
“And that’s an understatement,” Han agreed with a sigh. “Up ‘til last week, I got around in a sleek little glider, not this sluggish crate, but one fine morning something’d clogged up the motivator. Lucky that I noticed before hitting top speed, or the thing might’ve blown up around my ears.”
“Sabotage?” Luke asked, not quite serious.
“Who knows.” Han pulled up his shoulders. “Glider should’ve been fixed this morning, but Mack wasn’t around to check up on maintenance for me. I should give him a call, find out how sick he really is. He’s Corellian, you know.”
“And Corellians try to dodge their duties whenever possible?” Luke shook his head. “Going by your example, that’s nothing but gross prejudice.”
Han chuckled dryly. “I would, if I could.”
Some minutes later, he parked the ‘car outside a sprawling stone palace. A soft spill of music trickled out, and sunset-colored lights slanted across an empty terrace. Although the air was heavy with fumes and chemical smells, Luke savored the fine prickling of salt when he breathed in deeply.
“Classy place,” he commented. “So at least they pay you well.”
Han shot him a quick grin. “Not the kind of establishment I frequent as a habit. But this is a special occasion, right? We can check out the club scene next time.”
As it turned out, they had the food parlor almost to themselves. Glowspheres shed a hazy apricot gleam across tables arranged round a large fountain, but only a handful of seats were already taken.
After they’d placed their orders with the server droid, Han set his elbows on the table. “Now. Tell me where you’ve been hiding.”
His long, dark glance brushed Luke with speculation and concern.
“Dagobah,” he said.
“That bog full of slimy, buzzing creatures?” Han shook his head, a small frown forming. “Your words, not mine. And not a soul left either, from what you’ve told me.”
“That was exactly what I needed. For a while.” Luke hitched up his shoulders in silent apology. He’d never meant to stay away this long. Time just had a way of passing differently on Dagobah.
Han continued to study him with close, unsettling attention. “Yeah, you were working yourself raw for months after Endor.”
“Look who’s talking,” Luke said quietly.
Han refused to take the hint. “That doesn’t compare,” he retorted. “I don’t get called out to every crisis from here to the Outer Rim, and believe me, I’ll remember to say no thanks next time I’m offered a dirt-bound job.”
Before he’d turned his back on battles and power struggles, Luke would have taken that claim at face value. Now, he wasn’t so sure.
“Took us three days to drive the Imperials out,” Han went on, his expression darkening. “A bloody carnage. But how long’s the rebuilding gonna take, how long to set things right again? Three years, or thirty?”
Before Luke could settle on an answer, the server whirred up to deliver the first course — sautéed crabs on a bed of salad — and Han dug in like a starving man, halting their conversation for the next few minutes.
Luke watched him surreptitiously. Though the mellow lighting charmed the harsh tracks away from Han’s face, long-term tensions defined the set of his shoulders, the cant of his jaw. Like the pressure of an approaching storm front, Luke could feel it charge his own nerves.
“Did it help?” Han startled him from his scrutiny.
“Dagobah. Getting away from everything.” Han gestured vaguely. “You know.”
Luke gave a slow nod in answer, uncertain how to explain, though Han could surely guess at the reasons for his long absence. All of them maybe, except one.
A surge of recollection tightened Luke’s chest. Almost three months ago, he’d finally wrangled himself towards that difficult decision. With the restless jostle of galactic politics tearing at her, Leia had tried to argue him out of it. Unlike Han, who’d merely plied him with serious orders to take care of himself.
“I took Artoo along and had him check my message log every day,” Luke offered in defense, although no reproach had been brought to bear. “You could have reached me.”
And if there’d been serious trouble, I would have known. But he kept that to himself. Most of the time, Han’s response to Force-related notions still mixed sarcasm with unspoken disquiet.
“Hey, you haven’t answered my question.” Han’s mouth twitched with tolerant humor. “You’re so... quiet.”
“I’m still getting used to being around people again, I guess.”
“That’s not what I meant. You look rested. And a whole lot better than you used to for a long time.”
“Flattering,” Luke said dryly, to lighten the mood.
Han rewarded his efforts with a lopsided grin. “Gimme a moment, and I’m sure I can round up some suitable compliments.”
Flippant as his tone was, a fine heat started to crawl into Luke’s face, and he was grateful that their main course arrived a moment later. Platters filled with steaming pastries and grilled fish prompted Han to growl with anticipated pleasure. Good, Luke thought. High time to steer the conversation away from himself.
“I contacted Leia on the return flight,” he said as he reached for a second helping of seabream stuffed with herbs and sliced lime. “She told me about your new assignment.”
Han met his eyes across the rim of his raised glass. “How is she?”
“Permanently busy and loving it.”
“The usual,” Han translated. “Good for her.” His tone betrayed no resentment or regret. “And did she tell you why they picked me for the job?”
“Command thought you were the natural choice,” Luke answered, “to mediate between our forces and the Corellian resistance.” Leia had added some scathing remarks about Corellian mulishness to that piece of information, but he wasn’t about to repeat them.
“More like an overworked buffer between factions.” Han grimaced. “Well, I can’t claim I didn’t know what I was in for. Corellia’s all about independence — no trade restrictions, thanks a lot, and no taxes — and who needs organized military forces anyway, when everyone jumps the gun at the first sign of a scuffle, right?” He waved a hand. “We’ve set up a security force by now, but some of the resistance leaders still act like we’re trying to take over, not helping them rebuild.”
“They don’t trust you?” Luke asked.
Han grinned at his tone of indignant disbelief. “Nah, we get along well enough. Share a barrel of the good old homebrew with that lot, and you can always work things out. But some of our own people are a little stiff-necked when it comes to regulations and protocols.”
Han nodded. “He’s second-in-command, all military drills and not much leeway for... improvisation. Likes things done by the book. But he’s not the only one.” He reached for his glass again and twirled it in his fingers, gazing hard at the remaining puddle of deep red wine. “And here I am, always the odd man out.”
Isn’t that how you like it best? sat at the tip of Luke’s tongue, a notion prompted by Rebel Alliance days when Han had insisted on his right to leave at a moment’s notice. But things had changed since then, perhaps more than he could guess.
“Isn’t that ironic,” Han went on, “I walk out on Leia ‘cause I’m not ready for that much respectability ‘n order in my life — and now look at me.” A harsh, disparaging edge crept into his tone. “Seems like I can’t avoid turning respectable, no matter how I try.”
Startled by his lightning change of mood, Luke shook his head. “You’re doing what needs to be done,” he offered. “Like you have before, with the Rebellion.”
Abruptly, the dark head lifted. “Ain’t quite the same thing. It’s... hell, it doesn’t feel like it’s me anymore, know what I mean?” Han rubbed a hand over his stubbly chin. “Sorry, kid, I shouldn’t go on ranting like I’ve come out on the short end.”
“That’s all right,” Luke said gently, holding his shadowed gaze. “And I know what you’re talking about, believe me. Even if it doesn’t show that much.”
“So how d’you do it? How do you manage?” Han was dead serious now, his jawline hard, his mouth tight.
At that moment, all Luke wanted was to reach out and reassure him with a simple answer. Yet the scant answers he’d found for himself were anything but simple and they’d cost him more than he was ready to admit. “Find the time to relax,” he said slowly. “Clear your mind. Somewhere deep down, there’s a balance point you’ll need to find. And then you’ll know exactly what’s right for you.”
“Go on vacation, you mean,” Han muttered. Still, the way his glance lowered awkwardly told Luke that he’d heard more in his answer. “It’s just... wearing me out.”
The silence between them filled with clinks of glass and fine porcelain and murmurs from the fountain. When Han reached for the decanter, a bright glint snapped off the glass like a shot — and that minuscule jab caught Luke in the gut with the strangest sense of premonition. But it faded again too quickly to be sure. He shrugged it aside and held out his glass for a refill.
Closer to the beach, a drowsy background burble filled the night. Luke could feel himself tune in to the rhythm of the sea as they walked from the flitterpark to the residence where Han lived. A slow, unfamiliar ebb of energy moved all the way through him. The tide going out? he wondered.
“Tired?” Han asked from the side.
“It’s been a long flight.”
It sounded like an evasion to his own ears, and perhaps that was why Han broke his stride and reached for his shoulder.
“I’ve missed you, y’know.” He almost made it sound like a question.
“Me too,” Luke returned through a sudden tightness in his throat. Too much feeling pressed up right behind, and when he met Han’s eyes and the distant reflections of starlight catching there, he felt transparent and clumsy.
“Well, you’re back.” Han gave his shoulder a pat and turned towards the entrance of a modern apartment complex, its clean, sweeping lines and glazed bowfronts designed to meet expensive tastes.
Still distracted, Luke followed him into the dark lobby. When ambient lighting came up, Han let a string of Corellian curses fly. Someone had pasted a handwritten OUT OF ORDER sign across the lift doors. Grumbling viciously, Han started up the stairs.
By the time they’d reached the seventh floor, he was out of breath. He fumbled for his key in several pockets, and when he retrieved it, his pale face gleamed with perspiration.
“Now what...” Straightening, Han swayed on his feet for a moment.
Luke took the code-key from his fingers and slipped an arm around his waist. “C’mon, let’s get you inside.”
This close to him, Luke could feel the breath drag in Han’s chest, and the weight of exhaustion that made him relent to support for once. It’d never been like him to admit a need for comfort.
I love you, Luke thought, heart clenching as he opened the door.
It wasn’t a new thought. The feeling had crept up on him a while ago, in the middle of a war that left no room for caution or consideration, at a time when reality snapped apart into a thousand fragments, and thoughts of Han brought him back to himself like a dependable pivot. But the war ended, and there was Leia, and Luke kept the love to himself out of unquestionable necessity. Still unwilling to let something go that felt like a living light and belonged to him more than anything else he’d salvaged from a cyclone of change.
In the spacious lounge, Han rubbed his neck and worked up a rueful grin. “Hell, I’m wiped. Goes to show I’m not used to drinking anymore. Not even that.”
His chin rose with a hint of the old rebellious temper. Surrounded by sparse, elegant furnishings, he looked like the survivor of a shipwreck, battered and weary but still as stubborn as ever.
“Get yourself to bed right away.” Luke smiled at him. “That’s an order.”
“Right away. Sir.” Han tossed him a mock salute, but for the first time that day, a relaxed expression crept into his dark hazel eyes.
Luke caught himself still smiling, seconds after the bedroom door had closed behind Han. Maybe I shouldn’t have come, he told himself. Sooner or later, something will give me away. But the thought gained no purchase, and his heart beat out a slow, steady rhythm.
Luke kept his eyes closed as the first daylight seeped through his lids. On the edge of waking, he sensed the restless pull of the sea. The lifepulse of Corellia, he thought, and wondered if Han could still feel it, after all these years, like a steady beat driving his own blood.
When he got up and entered the lounge, small noises filtered from the bathroom. The rush of a water shower and snatches of a low, humming voice. Luke smiled to himself as he walked over to the food processor and tapped out an order. The kitchenette looked suspiciously pristine, but datacubes, foils and paper slips had been scattered all across the counter.
Luke’s glance caught on a rough sketch and the notes jotted down beside it. Stabilizer circuit, he read, servo actuator. So Han used his spare time to plan another round of modifications for the Falcon. Chewbacca had borrowed the old freighter for a visit to Kashyyyk, the Wookiee homeworld, and Han must miss his ship, though he’d probably refuse to admit that.
“Mornin’,” said a drowsy voice at his back. When Luke turned, Han stood in the doorway, his lanky frame wrapped in a loose robe.
“You’re up early.”
“Yeah. Can’t help it, comes with the job.” Han pulled a face and ruffled his damp hair. “How about you, sleep well?”
“Sure.” Luke drew his glance away from the wet glitters at the top of Han’s chest and looked out of the large window instead, into a stew of coming storms. Heavy clouds and the sea’s grey expanse took up the entire view, and those inky pools of night were slow to recede from sky and water. Somewhere far out wheeled a flock of birds.
“I like the view.” Han stepped up close to his side. “Only reason why I let them check me into a place like this.” He snorted. “When I was a kid, my people couldn’t afford living near the beach.”
Before Luke could reply, Han’s portable comlink whistled from his bedroom, and the processor added a less intrusive ping. But even as they took off in different directions, Luke breathed in a warm, rich scent — soap spiced with cedar and lime and something else, something that was entirely Han and teased his senses with a sting of wishing and wanting.
Leave it alone, Luke warned himself and carried the breakfast tray over to the table. He’d automatically programmed a selection of dishes they’d missed the most during Rebellion days.
“Call from HQ,” Han reported when he returned a few minutes later, now properly dressed. “The computer core’s shut itself down, must be the buckling generator or something. Anyway, Cerrick reckons it’s gonna take ‘em half the day to get it fixed.”
“Meaning you’re off duty for the time being?”
“Looks like it, yeah.” Han stretched his arms and flopped into the chair across from Luke. “The fates can be so kind.”
A mixed blessing, Luke labeled it in private. All too obviously, Han needed a layoff, and he’d looked forward to spending some time alone with his friend. But he hadn’t anticipated that his own feelings would press to the surface at every turn.
“So you grew up in the capital?” Luke picked up the ruptured thread of their conversation. Han never talked much about his past, and for all Luke knew, he hadn’t set foot on his homeworld since he’d left Corellia as a teenager.
“Uh-huh.” Han heaped fried traladon strips and grilled cheese onto his plate. “Different district though, some ten miles from here. On the other side of town.” He paused. “We could go there, take a look around... if you like. Now that we got a couple hours to spare.”
“Sounds good to me,” Luke returned easily. “What’s it like these days?”
“I haven’t a clue.” Han pulled up his shoulders. “Matter of fact, I wasn’t too sure about visiting, things’ve changed a lot round here. Damn Imperials razed half the city and drove people out into flyover country.” His glance drifted towards the window. “Wonder how they’re all doin’...”
“Family?” Luke inquired.
“Yeah, you could call ‘em that.” Han turned his attention back to his plate. “I’ve got five sisters.”
Luke stared at him in mute surprise. Up to this moment, he would have sworn that Han had grown up as an only child.
“They live on the other side of the continent,” Han explained with a dismissive gesture. “Up north. They’re a lot older’n me, got their own families, too. In fact, my oldest sister’s brat used to break my toys when I was a kid.” His mouth stretched into a strangely pained grin. “Yeah... what a big happy family we all were.”
“How about your parents?” Luke asked after a moment’s hesitation.
“Ma died shortly after I’d won the Falcon. My father...” Han spread his hands. “Hell knows where he is. Didn’t stick around long enough to see me born. My sisters’re just half-sisters really, but their father died, she took a new lover, and here I am.”
“And you don’t want to get in touch with them?”
Han’s features hardened perceptibly. “Maybe at some point I will,” he said slowly. “Though after all this time... we haven’t met in so many years, and they’ve got their own, comfortably settled lives. Last time I heard from Claine — that’s my oldest sister — she told me I’d broken our mother’s heart ‘n killed her, leaving her alone like I did.” Old grief toned his voice down, and Han caught himself with a shake of his head. “Feels like it all happened a million years ago.”
“Still.” Luke swallowed. “That’s a pretty harsh thing to say.”
Han shrugged. “Well, that’s Claine for you. She’s a tempest on legs, all by herself.” When he leaned across the table, a conspiratorial glint crept into his eyes. “You don’t wanna end up on her bad side, ever.”
For a moment, Luke thought he could see a reflection of the truculent younger brother in that look, plotting mischief. Then Han leaned back and produced an expression of exaggerated chagrin.
“Well, now it’s out, the most embarrassing of all my secrets. I’m not just the black sheep, you’re looking at the runt of the family.”
Luke chuckled. “That changes everything, of course.”
“Don’t it just!” Han cracked another grin. When he resumed tackling his breakfast, some of the subliminal tension had drained away.
From the corner of his eye, Luke watched him, a stir of gladness hunting through his chest. Nothing’s changed, he thought with an amused kind of resignation. And I don’t think it ever will.
“Look at that!” Han gestured at a huge complex of office blocks, brutally crammed in among painted brick houses, a statement of power made in glass and durasteel. Further down the road extended an abandoned building site, recently converted into a trash dump. Han snorted in disgust.
“Used to be a bazaar,” he commented. “Place where people went to trade gossip all day.” He throttled the hovercar’s engines. “Let’s walk from here, all right?”
War hadn’t touched this part of the capital, but as they wandered down a winding alley, the hard tracks of neglect and decay were visible everywhere. In one of the windows, an old woman sat with a teekabird perched on her shoulder. A whiff of smoke hovered on the air, and two small boys swerved past on outdated floater boards.
As they penetrated deeper into the old district, the morning brightened. A salty breeze scattered the clouds, diving through alleys where children played on sagging wooden porches, and vendors’ stalls added splotches of color. Han stopped in front of a squat building. All the windows on the ground floor were boarded up, red paint flaking off the facade.
“Here, this is where the local import store used to be.” Han reached out to trace faded lettering on the wall. “Sold sweets ‘n toys as well, kind of a paradise for kids.” He straightened to shake his head at himself. “Hell, listen to me, gettin’ all sentimental! All your fault, Luke.” His eyes were bright and warm when they met Luke’s.
“Sure, you didn’t want to come in the first place,” he managed. He should be used to it by now. Han smiled at him, and due to some strange alchemy, a wanton heat flashed in his nerves — it was as simple as that.
Past the bulk of a generator station, they followed a narrow lane that skirted the edge of the terrace.
“Ain’t far now.” Han gestured at a cluster of leaning old houses one level below, sheds and skips wedged into every gap. Many of the roofs had been patched up with metal sheeting. He looked around. “There used to be a lift down. Stairs are further south.”
But his pace slowed as they walked on, and he hunched his shoulders as if to fend off a growing unease. With every other step, his glance flickered towards those run-down quarters straight below.
“What is it?” Luke asked finally. “Something wrong?”
Han tossed up a hand. “Bad idea, coming home,” he said slowly, his eyes averted. “Or the place you grew up calling home, no matter how much you used to hate it. Only there’s no coming home at all, just makes you feel how much everything’s changed.”
And how much you’ve been changed yourself, Luke thought. He’d never felt that so clearly as when he’d returned to Tatooine, during those months of seclusion in Ben’s house. Aloud, he said, “We don’t have to—”
“No, it’s all right.” Han scrunched up his face, visibly exasperated. “Gotta take a look sooner or later anyway.”
They found the lift still operational: an open cage running on tracks that plunged down the steep wall of rust-colored rock. Han stepped inside, squinting against a jab of sunlight. Silver gleams brought out colors here and there, a rebellious touch to the glowering decay.
The lift had traveled only to roof level when it ground to a sudden, shrieking stop. Cursing under his breath, Han punched the controls. No response. Beside him, Luke craned his neck and tried to gauge the possibilities of climbing up from the cage. At that instant, a flash of hard brilliance caught at the corner of his eye. On the flat rooftop of a duracrete block, some twenty meters across, something glittered in the sun and snapped an icy warning through him.
“Han, watch out—!”
Too late. A gun went off with a white blaze. Han gave a rough cry, flung back by the shot’s impact, and the lift cage rocked as he reeled against its steel frame.
No! On a rush of adrenaline, Luke spun into the line of fire and aimed his blaster, but the rooftop glared empty with reflected sunlight. Fear wrenched at his stomach. A step behind him, Han slumped to the floor.
Luke crouched beside him in the cramped confines, and worked an arm round his shoulders. Blood seeped through Han’s jacket below his left shoulder where the projectile had caught him, but more blood trickled down from the back of his head.
“Han, come on,” Luke breathed. Although his fingers moved instinctively to Han’s throat, searching for pulse, all his tightly strung senses told him that Han was alive.
With shaking fingers, Luke ripped Han’s comlink from his belt and tapped in the Alliance emergency code, never taking his eyes off the still form beside him. Like a distant echo, he heard his own voice report the shooting, dangerous loss of blood, and a possible skull fracture. From lightyears away, someone answered, informed him that Security and a medical team had been alerted.
Luke dropped the comlink. Han’s fading lifesense filled his awareness, blotted out everything else with a rising darkness that chilled him to the bone. Shallow breaths, a thready, stumbling pulse, and a mind slipping deeper into unconsciousness...
“Don’t, Han, come back...” His hands framed the pale face while his inner senses strained to reach the faltering spirit. Brutal cold lashed down Luke’s spine as he brushed nothing but absence, nothing but torn and jagged edges falling away towards blackness.
No. He reached harder. You can’t leave me, Han. You can’t — do you hear me?
A boundless inner frost ate his breath and pressed in on his heart. Unreasoning rage laced through his fear.
He could almost see it now, an expanding void between Han and himself, black and frozen like the wide, empty regions between solar systems. Every muscle in Luke’s body clenched as if preparing for a wild leap, drew tight against the swirling, spinning shadows that wove through his mind.
With a long, shuddering breath, he let thought and emotion drain away from his mind, let the moment grow and fill with a vast silence, the invisible radiance of the Force.
Life. You’ll live, Han.
It poured into him, luminous, infinite, and vibrant. Like a winged creature in blind flight, he carved a path of air and light through the void. Towards Han, deeper into churning shadows, until he dipped under the numbing blanket of unconsciousness. Sharp and fast, pain assailed all his senses. He soothed the labored heartbeat, slid along torn blood-vessels, sealed scorched nerve-endings with the healing touch of the Force.
He focused the pain, took it into himself, until fierce echoes pounded through his blood, in his bones. Extended a sheltering touch to the soul trapped in twilight.
You want to live, Han. You’ve always wanted to live.
His own nerves burned with agony and protest, but his mind had become a beacon, disconnected, and the void filled slowly. With images of life, his own life — the deserts of Tatooine glowing dusky red as twin suns lowered into the dunes’ cradle, fine sands rippled by a relentless wind that scattered to reveal space jeweled with faraway suns, white starstreaks and arcing light mirrored on the surface of a nocturnal ocean, immensely quiet —
Touch me, hold on to me.
The response he felt was little more than a mental whisper, but he drew it towards himself until sparks flared wild from silent space, a hidden fire that caressed and enclosed him. For one moment that flowed, rose and ebbed like a breath, he let his soul twine with Han’s — and during that moment, every thought and feeling was shared, every secret bared and uncovered.
Wide, strong wings arched under him, and the slow rhythm of their flight passed through his body, far out into airy brightness, oxygen glitters in his lungs and white feather-silk against his skin. Then the gull gave a piercing shriek, wild wings batting harshly, and the hunting cry tore through the middle of his chest.
Waking was like being sucked up from the bottom of a green, glassy ocean, from the depth of unbreathing tranquility into hard, inquisitive light. He broke the surface gasping... Han blinked his eyes.
When he raised an unsteady hand, he brushed a thick bandage that covered his upper torso, yet the next moment, a droid’s multiple-jointed fingers closed around his own and stopped the motion. A medical droid, and it was chattering — electronic soundbites that coasted along his mind — but Han couldn’t make out a single word. A crudely designed jaw flapped while photoreceptors studied him. He felt strangely displaced, as if listening to echoes of his own thoughts in an infinite loop.
Stop. With an effort, he lifted his hand to wave the chatterbox to silence, but his muscles were too slow to obey. Slow guidance response, he thought. His eyelids were drooping, committing him to gentle twilight.
For some unfathomable reason, he could feel Luke somewhere near. Then, gratefully, he slipped back into the still, green ocean.
The next time Han woke, cloned skin covered his injuries, and Luke sat on a stool beside his bed. But he couldn’t get a fix on anything, not while the room rocked around him as if a gravity compensator was about to flunk.
“What...?” he croaked.
“You were shot. You’ll be all right.” But for all that Luke sounded totally calm, his blue eyes were intense like burning tibanna gas. “You remember?” he asked. “We were visiting the part of town where you grew up.”
Han confirmed that with a nod. His throat ached, and his vocal cords weren’t up to more than a scratchy rasp when he forced out the next question. “Who—?”
Luke gave a curt shake of the head. “They were gone too fast.”
“They?” Han mouthed.
“Someone stopped the lift. That was no coincidence.”
Inside Han’s head, the slosh of lazy waves became a dizzying swell that tried to turn his stomach. All he could do was moor himself to Luke’s gaze, and that did the trick, oddly enough. It also let him notice the tense lines of exhaustion around Luke’s eyes. From the look of him, Luke hadn’t left his side for however long he’d been out.
“Better... get a rest,” Han slurred and licked at his parched lips.
But the pale face hardened fractionally, and Han groped around until his fingers found a hand that rested on the sheet beside him. Luke’s skin was cooler than his own, and he returned Han’s grip a little stiffly.
“Luke...” Han closed his eyes again. From the back of his skull rose a ripple pattern that dislodged every thought, except one, like the echo of a second heartbeat, overtaking him — “Luke, you...” he muttered with difficulty, “wasn’t a dream, was it?”
No dream, the answering pressure of Luke’s fingers told him. Slipping and sliding, he drifted...
...into deep, stagnant green, liquid glass filling his lungs as he tried to draw in air. A gluey, unbreathing twilight. He was cold. He thought, distantly, that it had to be the blood-loss draining his body heat. A muted roar filled his ears, the green twilight shot through with sounds and sensations from the outside world. Until a calm presence called him back and breathed with him.
Every time he inhaled, a jab of pain flared up into his shoulder. Han supposed the painkillers they’d given him were finally wearing off. A reassuring sign, because it meant they expected him to heal.
Luke held a glass to his lips, and he sipped slowly, like the dazed invalid that he was, let the water run down his throat instead of trying to swallow. He tried to test his voice by clearing his throat and ended up sputtering like a broken engine coil.
“Easy.” Luke’s hand curved around his good shoulder, and that touch brought focus, if not exactly equilibrium.
Han swallowed dryly. His heartbeat went out of synch, too, when their eyes met and he finally rasped out the question that he needed to ask the most. “Tell me what happened, tell me how—”
“There was a gunman out on the roof right across from the lift.”
Han indicated a shake of the head, cautiously, so he wouldn’t scare up another round of the ripples in there. “Not that. You. I was dying.”
“But you didn’t,” Luke answered in a fierce, quiet voice. “Don’t think about it, Han, it’s over.” His glance trailed sideways to fix some invisible spot in the middle distance, yet a muscle worked in his jaw and signaled some hidden emotion. “You’re back,” he added softly.
“Back where I wouldn’t be without you.” Han lifted a hand that felt like dead weight tacked onto his wrist, but he really needed to see Luke’s face, only the door whooshed open right at that moment. When Luke raised his head, he’d schooled his expression to stillness again.
Marching in after the nurse droid, Commander Cerrick loomed into view.
“General,” he said and dipped his head in a brief, military nod.
Han kept his face in check, he’d never felt less the general. And why did Luke have to vacate his seat and make room for Cerrick anyway, as if they were all following protocol? Growing a little clingy here, are we? Han mocked his own reaction. But the truth was, he felt a lot more comfortable with Luke close by his side.
Cerrick’s features took on their strictly-duty cast as he moved to Han’s bedside. “On behalf of the command staff, let me say we were all greatly relieved to hear of your recovery.”
Recovery seemed like an overstatement when dull throbs kept time at the back of his skull, and his shoulder flared a message of protest against every breath he drew, but Han wasn’t about to argue. “Thanks, I appreciate it,” he answered instead. “How’s it going back at the ranch?”
“We’ve located the problem with the computer core and fixed the generator,” Cerrick reassured him. “And of course I’ve put a team together to investigate the assassination.”
“What makes you think it was that?” For the first time since he’d regained consciousness, Han’s brain kicked into gear and groped around for things like motive, background, and likelihood.
“The man was a professional,” Luke said instantly. “He took one shot and vanished. Like someone following very clear instructions.” His voice was taut and dry – hell, Han could almost feel the subtle tightening that gripped Luke’s frame in defense against the memory.
“What exactly did you see?” the Commander probed in cool, formal tones.
“I saw a rifle flash in the sunlight. A brief motion, a silhouette,” Luke replied. “But the sniper didn’t act on his own, I can tell you that. Whoever it was, they must have tracked our movements for some time, waiting for a chance to strike.”
“Unless the assassin simply guessed where you were headed,” Cerrick put in. “A pity that you can’t give us a more detailed description.”
His tone grew condescending, and Han opened his mouth for some snappish retort when the nurse droid interfered. “Commander, the patient is unfit for extensive interviews.”
“I ain’t taking orders from a tin can!” Han growled. A swift grin tugged Luke’s mouth, and that instantly made him feel better. “High time I started looking for my boots.”
“You had a hole punched through your thorax, and our surgeons sealed several microfissures in your cranial bone,” the droid said bluntly. “You are due another regenerative period of at least eighteen hours.”
Han scowled at the nurse — tact had never gotten anywhere near those memory circuits — but Cerrick was already on the retreat. “You should heed that advice, General. You’ll hear from me the moment we have a lead.”
With clicking joints and buzzing servos, the droid escorted him from the room. Luke sent a long glance after them. “Cerrick’s right,” he said softly. “Somebody has been hired to kill you.”
And he might try again.
Han ignored a slight flicker of nerves as he settled back against the pillows. “Not the first time. I’ve lived long enough to make a couple enemies. And next time ‘round, I’ll draw first, don’t worry.”
Luke’s tense silence told him that he did worry — like he would, in his place. Han set his jaw. Goddamnit, he wouldn’t picture how he’d deal with a vivid memory of Luke bleeding his life out right next to him...
“Hey,” Han said softly, an opening for some jaunty comment that didn’t come. Shaded blue eyes swept up to lock with his, and recollection moved through him in a slow, endless ripple. A calm voice inside his mind, and a touch as light as a breath —
“Yes?” Something unsteady showed in Luke’s eyes, slipping past his habitual control.
“You, uh, you really oughta get a rest too.” It wasn’t what he’d meant to say at all and came out in an awkward imitation of a casual tone. “C’mon, at least go grab a bite. I’m about to zone anyway.”
Convincing, he’d done better under worse conditions. Han grimaced. All he really wanted was to keep Luke near, and because of that, everything he said somehow came out wrong. But the daze clouding everything that currently went on inside his head was already thickening again.
Luke answered him with a slow nod. “I’ll be back.”
Reality was slipping, coming apart into the chaotic roil of atoms and elements it truly was. The more he struggled to keep his mind afloat, the more he felt that damnable pull, like a storm-tide building somewhere far from shore. And he’d never reach that shore now.
Come back with me. Han.
Like a stab of sunlight through water, that voice, like a current weaving through the heavy cold. But he was going under, no help for it, he’d fought and struggled long enough to know a losing battle. Been running and running and now everything stops. Here.
Don’t, Han, you can’t —
He was sinking — giving in, he thought hazily, like he’d wanted to for a long time — and those deeper ocean layers might be cold, but they worked like an anesthetic for the pain that seethed along his nerves and drilled through his backbone.
Don’t leave me!
The voice caught him deeper this time, a wash of heat that went right through him, and his own heartbeat rose to meet it in a sudden rush. Reaching, straining for a touch he couldn’t feel, for some kind of response —
— and it burned him in the middle of that quiet, boundless cold, burned him with an odd recognition that raked his chest. He tried harder now, had to answer somehow, had to know...
Just one word, in that strange underwater stillness. And that was enough, because in that same instant, the strangest thrill lanced through him, caught around him and hauled him up — up, weightless, to a touch of air and light running all over his skin.
The breath he drew felt like the very first, ever, sweet and warm and full — till he burst through the surface and found himself blinking at a shadowed ceiling. He felt every bit like some useless, brainless scrap of flotsam as he studied the pattern of shadows lying in radials across the ceiling.
Clinic, gunshot, assassination. A throb in his upper chest, and an itch spreading all the way out to his shoulder. Someone had drawn the blinds against a flare of late afternoon. Between heartbeats, Han’s glance found the quiet man by the window, and his breath caught.
Half-turned away from him, Luke peered out through a crack in the shutters. Relaxed now, stillness around him like a visible element. Daylight caught in his hair with pale gold, outlined the clear profile and the hand tracing patterns on the window-frame.
Han swallowed against the tightness that rose up his chest and into his throat. All the familiar details he might’ve sketched out blind, and it still felt as if he was looking at Luke for the first time. Like he’d looked without realizing what he saw, before. A study in bronzed light imprinting itself on every nerve.
Perhaps the near-death experience had screwed with his head, but part of it had been... real. Every bit as real as the quick pressure of Luke’s fingers round his own, a while back, the slight tremor in that grip. He hadn’t dreamed that.
Luke. So close to him that it burned, like visible radiance, simple and clear and full of... everything.
Han squeezed his eyes shut. So Luke had used the Force to haul him back from death’s doorstep, but his own responses were way out of line. A hollow sense of loss made his gut clench.
He’d never allowed anyone too close, no friend and no lover, and he’d cut himself loose each time those ties threatened to throw hooks into his life’s substance. No room for sentimental delusions, it was a matter of survival, plain and simple. But something had just ripped all those reliable patterns apart and veered him about to face the flip side. And just like that, he was staring across a landscape of bleak desolation. Blighted terrain, riddled with barriers and impact pits and glaring omissions: the life of Han Solo.
Quiet steps approached, stopped in front of the bed. His breath clogged.
“I’ll see you in the morning.”
Soft and too close, Luke’s voice eased past the troubled knots in his thinking. Han swallowed thickly, and produced a grunt in response. Couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes, not for anything. Absurd as it was, he just knew that Luke would see through to every buried place in his soul. And flinch from what he’d find.
A low hiss dislodged the tension. Doors opened, servos whirred and wheels whispered across the floor. When Han looked up, a small KX-3 droid floated a dinner tray towards him, but Luke had simply slipped from the room. As if he’d never really been there.
Right now, all it took was Han’s presence next to him, the confident rhythm of his steps set against trenchant memories, and inner balance became a remote fantasy.
Luke steeled himself with a breath as a pair of automated doors swung out of their path. Brightness flashed out of the sky, across the parked flitters and the express rail used by droid couriers. There was no hint of unusual activity anywhere near the clinic, no disturbance that his straining senses could pick up. Even so, he quickened his pace the moment they stepped out into a breezy afternoon, and gestured for Han to stay behind him. He exhaled slowly.
“What’s wrong, kid?”
What’s—? Surprise stopped that response in its tracks as Luke turned to face him. At least one attempt had been made on Han’s life, and the assassins were still at large, in all likelihood reshaping their plans at this very moment. But something about the tilt of Han’s head and the look in his eyes told Luke that he wasn’t playing blind to the obvious. The question had been aimed at something else.
“Still absorbing the shock, I guess,” Luke answered slowly and pulled up his shoulders. “I should be used to it.”
“Don’t.” Without seeming to move, Han was very close of a sudden. “Don’t get used to it. All right?”
Despite his calm tones, there was a distinct force right behind, and the demand for a promise that Luke couldn’t quite grasp. “Doesn’t look like I ever will.”
Han’s eyes searched him with single-minded attention. “Try to relax,” he said in that rare, gentle tone he sometimes used when things looked their bleakest. “Cerrick’s posted extra security here and at the apartment complex, and I’ve promised to be more... careful.”
“That’ll be the day,” Luke tried an offhanded riposte, though he couldn’t quite pull it off. At least it brought a flicker of true humor to Han’s eyes.
Try to relax, he echoed to himself as they walked towards the glider he’d parked on a pad reserved for service vehicles. Alarm and residual shock were bound to cloud his perceptions through the Force, but none of his meditation routines could block them out completely.
He’d felt Han die.
Three days after the event, the memory still took his breath with thick waves of adrenaline when he let it slip too close. Like a cut into his mind’s horizon, a threat of blackness that seared his innermost nerve.
“Uh, no, you don’t,” he said sharply, shaking his own distraction when Han headed towards the driver’s side of the glider. “Doctor’s orders.”
Han threw out both hands. “Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m supposed to take it easy for the next coupla days. Till I’m bored sick.”
“Better be glad they didn’t insist on keeping you under medical observation. Boredom’s never killed anyone.”
“There’s always a first time,” Han grumbled, likely for show’s sake more than anything. “Hey, you sure that motivator’s been properly fixed? Mack says he double-checked when he picked it up, but—”
“Perfectly sure,” Luke cut in with a smile.
“Right.” At a deliberately slow pace, Han walked round to the passenger side.
Luke stood watching him for another long second. Ironically, Han looked a whole lot better than he had on his arrival. Still pale but rested and alert, vivid speculation in those beautiful hazel eyes.
“What?” Han’s glance flashed across to him faster than he could catch himself.
“Nothing.” As he vaulted over the glider’s side and dropped into the pilot’s seat, Luke felt his face heat up with absurd embarrassment.
Don’t you know, he thought as he revved the engine, don’t you remember? He’d never touched another’s mind with so much heedless desperation, had never allowed the Force to become so imbued with his own desires. Not since —
Static burst from the com, followed by a whistling hail. Han swung the voice pickup his way.
“Solo here. What is it?” Another sharp hiss of static answered him, perhaps caused by the clinic’s override frequencies. “Cerrick — that you?”
“...trying to reach you,” Cerrick’s voice emerged from the frazzling noise. “A suspect has been arrested this morning. Would you come over and take a look at the man?”
Han pursed his lips and slanted Luke a quick sidelong glance. “Sure. Good work, Commander.”
“Thank you, sir, but we have no positive identification yet. Circumstantial evidence is somewhat ambiguous.” Cerrick hesitated, then added, “I’ll give you all the details when you get here. HQ out.”
Headquarters’ interrogation rooms and detention cells were housed in a subterranean bunker. Soundproofed walls and steelstone portals shut out every sound from the exterior world; glowtubes bathed the long corridors in a greenish white glare. Before he’d quite realized, Luke raised mental shields against the residues of terror that clogged these restricted spaces and brought back a shadow of the Empire.
Commander Cerrick had attached himself to Han’s side and was reading out notes from his datapad. “...our people discovered a whole arsenal of illegal firearms and explosives in a hidden compartment aboard the man’s shuttle. We found an assault rifle among the lot, but ballistic analysis is inconclusive.”
“Meaning you can’t tell it’s the right gun? What’s his name?” Shoulders drawn up and hands crammed into his jacket’s pockets, Han radiated a disquiet that Luke shared.
“Bergest Dorn,” Cerrick replied. “Though his papers are probably forged. Unsurprisingly, he has refused to cooperate or answer any questions.”
“Anything on record?”
“Not under this name.” The Commander clipped the datapad to his belt and stopped in front of a codelocked door. “A mercenary, that much is obvious,” he concluded. “We’ve placed him under arrest on a charge of illegal arms trade. Security will want him transferred to a civilian prison within the next twenty-four hours.”
As he entered a series of codes, locking mechanisms answered with clicks and hums that strobed apprehension across Luke’s nerves. Something’s not right here... But that was all too obvious, wasn’t it?
Manacled and grim, Dorn sat on the edge of the cell’s cot: a compact man with sallow skin, his head shaved except for two strands falling from his temples, his chin covered by a black, curly beard.
With folded arms, Han paused on the doorstep. When Luke moved to his side, the prisoner’s eyes shifted his way — and darted aside again. Along the side of his throat, partially hidden by his beard, stretched the elaborate blue ornaments of a tattoo.
“Native Corellian blockhead,” Han said under his breath, his eyes targeting that blue mark. “Sworn to serve the True-blooded Patriotic Army. Ain’t that what you call it these days, Dorn?”
The man met his eyes with a defiant stare.
“You think I’m out to undermine Corellian freedom, put an end to tax-free profit or everyone’s right to mayhem, what?” Han challenged, a grating impatience in his voice.
“Well, are you?” Dorn’s mouth stretched into a sardonic grin. “All hail to the New Republic.”
Yet something vicious glittered in his eyes, and Luke stretched towards it reflexively, driven by a pang of alarm. Reflected through the Force, his own memory became a probe — brilliant daylight sliding across rooftops, split by the biting flash of a gun’s discharge — and a charged echo struck him like a ricochet. Every muscle in his chest tightened to the impact and blocked his breath.
“Luke?” Han’s voice, close by his ear, returned only a modicum of ease.
“I request legal counsel.” Dorn crossed his arms before his chest.
“Request noted,” Cerrick said icily and resealed the door as soon as they’d stepped back. “Well, General, what do you think?”
“Good catch,” Han replied with a small shrug. “I’m sure Dorn’s earned his place in a lock-up twenty times over, but...” His glance grazed Luke with unvoiced questions. “Hard for me to give you anything more, since I never even got a look at the sniper.”
Luke breathed in deeply. “It’s him. No question about it.”
“If I recall your statement correctly—” Cerrick’s eyebrows rose towards his receding hairline, “—all you saw was a moving silhouette. How can you be so sure now?”
Luke met the taxing gaze squarely. Impossible to explain. A fleeting brush with Dorn’s memory had been enough to ascertain a connection, clear as the vector between gun-sight and target — and yet, underneath that certainty wriggled a troubling, half-formed doubt.
“If Luke’s sure, then he’s sure,” Han said brusquely. “Count on that.”
“Of course.” Cerrick’s features settled into an expression of polite impartiality. “By the time formal charges are registered, we may have additional evidence to indict the man.”
“I trust that you will,” Luke answered evenly. Something simmered beneath the Commander’s noncommittal attitude. Something too volatile to identify.
“Guess we can get outta here then.” Han tipped his head back at the narrow corridor. “Place gives me the creeps.”
“Certainly.” Cerrick led the way with brisk strides and excused himself when they stepped from the lift at ground level.
“Now that,” Han said, “is what I call a quick catch.”
Too quick, Luke thought, too quick and neat. The notion of a patriotic scheme felt like a phantom conjured to deflect questions. And only an hour ago, when he’d arrived at the clinic to pick Han up, he’d found him in conversation with three representatives of the Corellian resistance. Whatever tensions might cause political strain in public, there’d been no trace of it then, not a hint of covert animosities disturbing the mood.
“Spill it, kid,” Han murmured out the side of his mouth. “I can practically see the wheels turn in your head.”
Luke offered a small grin in return. “If you do, you know me too well. Either that, or my Jedi projection skills aren’t up to scratch anymore.”
“Guess.” Han shot him a look full of tacit amusement. “So what is it?”
“It’s just... hard to believe that there’s nothing but Corellian patriotism behind all this.” Luke gestured vaguely. He was stalling, but without so much as a tangible clue or even a hunch, it was all he could tell Han.
“Oh, you think they all gotta love me ‘cause I’m one of them?” Han chuckled roughly. “Thickheaded Corellian bastards unite, is that it?”
Luke snorted. “Not exactly.”
When they crossed the lobby, he could feel Han’s glance repeatedly, as restless as his own suspicions. Something was being hidden in plain view, and it had nothing to do with misguided Corellian loyalties.
“I am sure Dorn shot that gun,” he finally compromised as they left the building. “It’s his reasons and his... affiliation that make me wonder.”
“You and me both. But he ain’t telling.” Outside, Han paused to let his shoulders settle and lifted his face into the sunlight. “For the time being, I guess we’ll have to leave it to Cerrick to trace his connections.”
“Right.” With a moment’s delay, Luke remembered to take his eyes off Han. “Still, I think we should—”
“General Solo!” an urgent call cut in from somewhere behind. As they swung about, a broad-shouldered guard jogged across the lobby.
“General.” The man ground to a stop and offered a brisk salute, a pair of spring-loaded holsters dangling at his hips. “Lieutenant Dobson, sir. Assigned to personal guard duty until further notice.”
Han looked him over with narrowed eyes. “Is that right?”
“Just back from the briefing,” Dobson replied without batting a lash at that skeptical scrutiny. “Apologies for the delay, sir.”
“No problem.” Though Han’s face spelled stark reluctance, he gave a nod. “Got your own vehicle? We’re off to my place, and we’re out of free passenger seats right now.”
“Of course, sir.” Dobson stepped back with another salute. “And I’ll stay out of your hair as much as I can.”
That phrase must have been imprinted on his mind by someone familiar with Han’s touchier spots, Luke supposed.
“Like I need a watchdog,” Han groused, while the lieutenant marched off towards an armored hovercar.
“You do,” Luke pointed out.
“Well, I’ve got you — right?” Han retorted with a lopsided grin.
Out of words, Luke nodded. With unaccountable intensity, Han’s glance caught him squarely in the chest and lit a spark of electricity there that flickered like a falling star.
In every way, he thought helplessly. Every way that matters, and more.
With dusk came drifts of clouds that piled up over the horizon. Somewhere in a great distance, rain pelted the ocean’s stormy surface. Inside his apartment, Han turned away from the window and rubbed his forehead.
“Dinner?” he asked Luke.
“I’m not hungry.”
Han’s glance flickered to the apartment’s door. Lieutenant Dobson had assumed his post in the corridor outside, and another pair of guards kept their nightscopes trained on the building’s entrance downstairs.
“Any ideas?” Luke prompted after a few more moments of watching shadows chase across Han’s features.
“Like, who’s paying Dorn for his troubles?” Han carded his fingers through his shaggy hair. “Too many possibilities. Doesn’t have to be local trouble either. Could be a member of Jabba’s clan, or someone out to avenge our friend Boba Fett — if anybody’s stupid enough to regret his demise. Or any other guy I fell out with. Smuggling’s no friendly game.”
“I remember,” Luke said in wry tones.
“And we’ve got an unaccounted number of Imperials still loose on Corellia,” Han went on. “Functionaries, members of the military, undercover agents... If they’re looking for revenge, I suppose I’m a prime target.”
“But that’s not what Cerrick suspects, is it?”
Han shook his head slowly. “We’ve received threats from that so-called Patriotic Army for weeks. They’ve blacklisted everyone cooperating with the New Republic.”
“And you’re heading the list,” Luke guessed.
“Who else? Top-notch traitor, that’s me.” Han wandered over to the kitchen counter, picked up an empty glass and turned it in his fingers.
“It bothers you.”
“More than it should,” Han admitted without turning. “They’re nutcases, nothing personal.”
“Anything you know about their organization?” Before he could think about it, Luke went to join him, as if his mere presence could shield Han from trouble. From loneliness.
“Nothing much. They spread their propaganda on the public networks, and there’ve been a couple minor incidents—” Han straightened to gesture impatiently. “But nothing serious. Nothing like this. I used to think Cerrick was making too much of it, and we’re just dealing with some inner-city gangsters posing as freedom fighters. I dunno.”
Luke placed a hand on his arm. “You’re tired.”
“Right. From spending half the day flat on my back.” Han’s mouth curled with annoyance, and he set the empty glass back down with a thump. “I should be out there, looking into this whole goddamn business, instead of feeling like a soporific on legs!”
Luke suppressed a smile. “You’re still recovering.”
When Han turned to him, he looked ready to argue, but his expression changed midway. “Damn.”
Luke’s question faltered somewhere in his throat. The shadowed look in Han’s eyes started a flutter in his stomach and made it hard to think.
“Luke, I—” Han cleared his throat. “Haven’t even said thanks yet. For saving my life.”
“No charge,” Luke managed, but Han was already reaching for him, and his heartbeat rushed into his throat when Han pulled him close.
“Must’ve been hard on you,” he murmured beside Luke’s ear.
A shiver threaded its way down past Luke’s collar as he wrapped his arms around Han in turn, and his mind refused point-blank to work through that last statement. They’d never held each other like this before. Now every nerve in his body seemed to light up, straining to absorb the nearness, the muted rhythm of Han’s heartbeat through his shirt. One arm slung around Luke’s waist and the other around his shoulders, Han crushed the breath from his chest for one infinite moment of abandon — then he pulled back.
“I — uh, I owe you, big time.” With a sheepish grin, Han let go of him, and his glance swept aside. “You know me. Never been big on words.”
“You don’t have to be.” A husky note crept into his voice, but Luke couldn’t help it. Their contact through the Force had been too intimate for Han not to sense how he felt, even if it hadn’t filtered through to his conscious thinking... yet. He took a slow step backwards. “Get yourself to bed, Han. It’s not an admission of defeat, you know.”
With some half-hearted grumbling, Han finally retreated to his bedroom. Luke sent a mental caress after him and didn’t even try to steady his flying pulse.
A salty breeze filled his lungs, and he tasted salt on his mouth as white spray whipped up all about him. Adrift, moorless, the rhythm of the sea beating through his blood and bones. A sharp call ripped him upward — the cry of gulls riding a tough wind — and he was one of them, cradled by gales that grazed his skin like silk and fire.
Never knew I could fly. He stretched into the next blast, swooping and diving. Like this.
But you can. Fly with me, Han...
When he turned towards that voice, white feathers brushed his face and throat, and he was sinking, feather-light himself, into a gentle dusk.
Soft white sheets covered him when he looked again. Han inhaled deeply, skin alight with the pleasure of flying. The next thing he knew was the sound of quiet breathing beside him, the subtle brush of body heat. He turned, pulse stirring into an off-beat rhythm as his fingertips met warm skin, closed around a bare shoulder, and traveled up to play through dark blond hair. Luke...
Blue eyes bright, the man at his side slipped closer. A lean hand painted a swift, tender line down Han’s throat and across his chest that made his breath catch, right there, underneath the palm that curved against his ribs. Out of words and out of clear thoughts too, he breathed Luke’s scent, the warmth of his skin. At last. It all made sense now, it felt like a missing piece that’d been ripped from his life too long ago to recall when Luke leaned over him and their mouths met — simple as breathing, and startlingly electric — and his eyes slipped shut, suspending him in twilight. From it, every sensation floated up separately, like radar signals on a dark screen that kindled sparks on his skin. He brought his hands up to pull Luke closer, increasing the pressure, opening up with a breath that went so deep, he could feel it prickle right down to his toes. A bewildered sound struggled up his throat and got lost within that kiss, tongues tangling and breaths coming faster, and he’d never imagined that this might be so easy.
Easy to hold Luke, hands tracing the outlines of tensed muscles as the lithe body slid across him, and frissons of raw pleasure ignited at every point of contact. It was every bit as easy as flying had been, inside that dream, when Luke moved his hips in a slow, taunting rhythm that brought back the gales’ rush and soar. A sharp heat plunged into Han’s groin. He buried his fingers in Luke’s hair, gasped into Luke’s mouth as he pushed back, demanding more, just — more. Deep behind his breastbone, something was melting, and his heartbeat thundered against his ribs, heatwaves surging up his body each time that Luke pressed down against him, as hard as he was, and they were joined in a lightheaded dance that could go on forever — only it wouldn’t, there was something he had to know, had to say —
— and he opened his eyes to darkness.
The pang of loss felt like an impact striking echoes up his backbone.
Dazed, Han listened to his own loud breaths, the thud of his uneven heartbeat. Couldn’t remember any dream that’d felt so totally real, ever. Sure enough, the tight throbs in his groin were real, hard evidence of mind’s triumph over matter. Hot and restless, Han pushed up and fixed his eyes to the window’s dim square. A handful of stars peeked through the clouds.
Damn. He rubbed both hands across his heated face. No reason to be bothered by vivid erotic dreams — he’d gone without for an unholy long time — but there was a whole lot more to it than that, a surge of jumbled memories rushing in to fill the gaps.
Luke, swinging down from his X-wing’s cockpit, flushed and wild-eyed — then cold and barely breathing in a wilderness of ice — Luke striding towards him in that stern black outfit, a haunted light in his eyes. Fragments that shifted and swirled about to form a new pattern, trailed by desire like a twitching energy signature. And the final piece that made sense of the puzzle pierced him to the quick. Not sight but sound, a voice he’d recognize anywhere.
Touch me, hold on to me. Come back to me, Han.
Quiet as it was, that call pulled him off the bed and to his feet. Han braced both hands on the window-ledge and shook his head. No dream, that. Through the Force, Luke had reached him and pulled him back from a slicing black brink, and he’d felt —
His heartbeat stumbled. Joy, pain, passion, it was all one. Just... Luke.
Han swallowed thickly, the memory at odds with a couple of hard truths. Ever after the battle of Endor, Luke had pulled away from them all, pursuing a lonely course and a calling that set him apart. He had the Force, didn’t need anyone, didn’t want anybody too close. And now...
You love me — don’t you? Han shook his head. Was it just a trick of his own imagination, some kind of protective reflex because he’d felt so goddamn exposed?
With a snort at his unsettled state, he straightened and grabbed up his robe. A cold shower wouldn’t solve anything, but it’d take care of the more immediate problem. And then, maybe, he could start figuring things out. Too much of his life already looked like one great tangle of unfinished business. Too many times, he’d backed out to escape attachments, complications, trouble. But not this time, not anymore.
“Okay, yeah, it’s taking stupid risks,” Han agreed at once and spread his hands. “But if I’m cooped up here much longer, I’ll go stir-crazy. And let me tell you, it won’t be a pretty sight.”
“Better that than—” Luke caught himself before he could drag up another worst-case scenario that would only add tension to the frustration. “You don’t need me to tell you that a walk on the beach will make you an easy target!”
He turned back towards the food processor, giving himself a moment to let his mind settle. He’d been in the middle of tapping in an order for tea, and now a half-finished code winked blithely at him.
“That works both ways,” Han said at his back. “We’d see anyone approach long before they’re in firing range. Not much of a chance anyway, it’s a private beach, and my officially assigned watchdogs’ve got all angles covered. Only access is through this complex.”
Or by water, from the air... Luke shook his head as another frisson of alarm tightened his stomach. “What about all the windows overlooking the beach?”
“Security checked every single apartment while I was out cold.”
Exasperated, Luke slapped another key, and the food processor sounded a soft chime.
“You gotta program the temperature level, too.” Han stepped up close behind him and reached across his shoulder to complete his order.
“Right.” With a quick, tight breath, Luke fought an impulse to lean back into him. This close to Han, he caught a faint smell of soap and a fresh scent from the loose white shirt he was wearing, and his backbone tingled to the feel of Han’s body warmth.
“And don’t tell me you’re not itching for a closer look at the sea,” Han added. “It’s been in your eyes ever since you got here.”
Steaming tea dribbled into the cup, and Luke wrapped his hand around it. “Well, it’s... compelling.”
“Uh-huh.” Han’s breath slipped a fine shiver across the nape of Luke’s neck that sent his thoughts skittering off in various directions. He needed another moment to realize that Han had stepped away again.
“Finish your tea, and we’ll go.”
“For a short walk.” Luke let his features settle into a semblance of calm before he turned.
“So short you’ll hardly notice,” Han promised with a grin, but there was something else in his eyes, a glint of expectation or curiosity.
“I doubt that,” Luke said softly, “I doubt that very much.”
The returning tide flickered around their boots as they ambled along the shore. Broken shells, tangled seaweeds, and scraps of bleached driftwood littered the stretch of sand. The unquiet sea reflected a cloud-swathed sun, splintered into patches of liquid steel. After a while, Han paused to gaze out over the ocean, eyes distant.
“Never the same,” he said, almost as if talking to himself. “You can come here a thousand times, and it’s never gonna be the same. Kinda reassuring.”
Is it? Luke’s eyes wandered to those slivers of light afloat on the glistening waves. When they’d walked down the sloping beach, he’d stretched his senses to the limit, but nothing had triggered his inner alarms. Now, as he listened to the rush and swell, the faraway cries of gulls circling high in the air, and Han’s voice, the strangest sense of safety enveloped him. A promise of wholeness suggested by the sea’s deep, entrancing rhythms.
“Used to spend a lot of time out on the shore as a kid,” Han continued. “Floater barges were in fashion back then.” He stopped and smoothed a dark strand back from his face. “Used to make up stories about pirates ‘n battles, but most were about gettin’ away, I guess.”
“I know what you mean.” Before Luke’s eyes formed an image of the Dune Sea and the constantly shifting outlines of sand drifts. “I promised myself, first chance I get, I’m off this dustball. Turned out that it wasn’t quite so easy. Ben asked me to accompany him to Alderaan, and suddenly I was making up excuses...” He chuckled dryly. “I don’t suppose you ever dragged your feet like that.”
“Not then, no,” Han answered frankly. “First couple of years, I was hell-bent on proving myself, no matter what. Never look back, no regrets — all that crap. And I never really felt sorry I’d left, just...”
“What?” Luke prompted cautiously, after another moment. “You started to wonder if your family missed you, what it would be like if you came back?”
“Yeah, something like that.” Han scuffed his boot against a broken bottle and started walking again. “Too late though. By that time, I couldn’t go back anymore.” While his tone was casual enough, the lines around his mouth deepened. “Ma died, somebody else moved into her place, ‘n there was nothing left to return to.”
“But your sisters—” Luke cut himself off and shrugged uncomfortably. “So perhaps they blamed you at first, but they must have gotten over that at some point. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t be glad to see you.”
“That’s ‘cause you’ve never met Claine,” Han retorted brusquely. “She’s not Leia, I can tell you that — and Leia’s pretty good at bearing grudges sometimes.”
Startled, Luke opened his mouth to object, but whatever he’d meant to say vanished when the bitter note in Han’s voice registered. With the sudden mood shift, a shadow had settled over Han’s features. He might try to shrug it off or cover it up, but a deep sense of unrest, of churning discontent, seemed like the base frequency to all this reactions.
Ahead of them rose one of the high duracrete walls bracketing the private beach. Luke’s glance trailed across the tidemarks that showed in spotty grey and green, while he fumbled for something to say.
“No regrets,” he echoed finally. “Sure about that?”
“Oh, I got plenty by now.” Han snorted. “Paying my dues with interest, know what I mean? But — if you’re asking about Leia, no. Not in the sense that I wish I hadn’t broken it off, anyway.” Frowning at the tide wall, he turned away from the sea and headed up the slope, towards a cluster of wind-bent pines. “It wasn’t a matter of dodging respectable, I just — I couldn’t.”
So much tension laced his voice that it kicked up a troubled echo in the pit of Luke’s stomach. “Couldn’t what, Han?”
“Couldn’t let it get to me more than it already had.” Han’s mouth formed a tight line. “Her. The whole of it.”
Luke’s throat went dry, but he made himself voice the inevitable conclusion. “Me.”
“Well, that’s... a different story.” Han pulled up his shoulders.
“Yeah, back when we first met, you were the most demanding in that whole bunch of idealists.” Han threw him a crooked grin, yet mixed feelings pulled loose on his face, too fleeting to identify. “Always trying to bring out the hero in me.”
Luke swallowed and tried to summon a lighthearted tone. “Like that took a lot of hard work?”
“It did,” Han said pointedly. “Ask Chewie next time you get a chance. But the thing is, you stopped doing it.”
Dry needles rustled under their footsteps as they reached the small grove. When Han stopped again and looked up into the pines, thin shadows slid across his face. “You got me out of the carbon freeze, but you didn’t ask me to stick my neck out for the Rebellion anymore, you just let me be.”
“And that was... wrong?”
“No.” Without looking at him, Han shifted his stance. “Nothing wrong with it. In fact, I... guess I needed that more than anything at the time. Still. Made me wonder why.”
“I was trying to make up for my mistakes, that’s why.” Luke caught the note of urgency in his own voice and didn’t care. The tension in Han’s tone and posture spelled so very clearly that he needed answers to some vital questions. “All the time before,” he continued, “I wanted you to see things my way, subscribe to the same ideals — and look where it got you!” He held up a hand before Han could consider protest. “After Bespin, I had a lot of time to think about my own errors. I never... never wanted you to be different, something you’re not, just... you.” He clamped his mouth shut after that, or more would surely come tumbling out. So much more.
“Yeah,” Han said quietly. “And who’d that be?”
Baffled, Luke shook his head. “What do you mean?”
“Look at me, I’m all outta shape... in more than one way.” Han let a deep breath go and raked all ten fingers through his hair. “Can’t go back to the way I was before, can’t go forward ‘cause I don’t really know where I’m heading. There you’ve got it in a nutshell.”
It came out with a desperate kind of sarcasm that drove its barbs into Luke’s chest. “Look, I know what it’s like,” he started, his voice nowhere near as calm as he would have liked. “Maybe you just need to give yourself more time—”
“Like you did?” Han cut in. “Three months on Dagobah, and that’s all it took?”
“No.” Luke snatched a quick breath. “It just helped me level out, put some things in perspective, but...” He trailed off, abruptly certain that he wasn’t answering the real question at all, the question that had gone unspoken. “What are you trying to say?”
Han’s jaw hardened perceptibly as he stared out over the empty ocean. “When you took off that last time, I finally got the message. You’re letting me go. You’ve been doing it ever since I got dumped into the carbon pit, but I guess I just refused to see it before.”
Absurd, was Luke’s first, and for long seconds his only, thought. When he replied, his own voice drifted back to him on a note of total incredulity. “How can you think that?”
“I don’t know what to think anymore,” Han said thickly. “Now that you’re back.”
“I never meant to—” Luke broke off at a touch to his wrist, the gentle clasp of long fingers so at odds with Han’s wildly swerving mood. He could almost feel the ground shift between them. “What...” He wrapped his hand around Han’s in turn, mostly to steady himself. “What can I tell you?”
When he looked up, Han’s glance was hooded and unreadable. “Tell me if it’s real.”
Is what—? Luke’s throat tightened around the question he didn’t truly need to ask. Not when the deep, husky sound of Han’s voice chased prickles across his skin.
“Or is it just me? ‘Cause I swear I could feel—”
“It’s not just you,” Luke brought out, dazed and breathless. Static seemed to crawl up his arm, as if the air pressure had scaled up sharply.
“I missed you.” Han lowered his voice. “Didn’t even realize how much ‘til you got here.”
A hot flush of disbelief scattered the half-finished thoughts crowding Luke’s mind and trapped every part of his awareness to Han’s presence. The pressure of strong fingers, linked with his own, the rough tenderness in Han’s tone, and the muscle slanting in his throat as he leaned closer.
“And I need to know...”
But Han didn’t finish, and the world went out of focus when his free hand curled around the back of Luke’s neck — need, he thought foggily, a long ripple traveling all the way through him — and a warm mouth covered his own.
The ripple became a thrill that raced through him brilliant as lightning, and for one moment, Luke couldn’t breathe, couldn’t respond at all. Then his eyes closed, his arms locked around Han’s back, and a fierce rush of sensation turned that hesitant, searching contact into a kiss, his own mouth moving against Han’s, drawing a shaky breath from him and with him — and it was real, like a dazzling cloud that burst in on all his senses.
Han’s arm caught around his waist as they shifted together, clinging pressure making way for a gasp that deepened the kiss. Every muscle down Luke’s back tensed when Han’s tongue slipped past his teeth, sparking electric flares out of darkness, and he felt a faint tremor in Han’s fingers on his neck, one kind of tension fading and another setting in. He’d never let himself imagine anything like this, but every minor detail, the taste and heat and the slight scrape of stubble against his chin, stirred up echoes that made him hold on harder. His heart hammered in his throat.
A shrill noise broke them apart. Comlink, Luke thought, his eyes still locked to Han’s and the roil of unchecked feeling that showed there. Everything else seemed blurry and pale like a holograph.
Another whistle sounded, and Han grimaced. One hand still tight on Luke’s waist, he unclipped the comlink from his belt. “Solo here,” he snapped. “What is it?”
“Hey boss, it’s Mack,” responded a young, raspy voice. “Listen, I’ve come across something you’ll need to look at right away.”
“Yeah?” Han frowned, and his hand dropped away. “So clue me in.”
Beside him, Luke slowed his breathing and forced his mind back to the present.
“Afraid I can’t, not over an unshielded frequency,” Mack rushed out his reply. “It’s serious, Solo, honestly. Someone’s tailed me all the way from headquarters, and I couldn’t shake ‘em, so I suppose they know what I’ve been up to—”
“Hit the pause button and take a deep breath,” Han stopped him, his frown deepening. “Now, tell me where you are.”
“Back at my own place. Not sure how long I can hold out here if someone’s determined to break in, but—”
“Cut the dramatics,” Han snapped and shot Luke an exasperated glance. “Just sit tight and don’t answer the door ‘til I get there, all right?”
“Right.” Mack’s relieved sigh flooded the channel with a noisy crackle. “Thanks. Watch out for yourself, boss! And make it quick.”
“Solo out.” Heaving a deep breath, Han switched off the comlink, and his expression spelled nothing but regret. “Guess we gotta go. Mack’s a pretty excitable guy, but he doesn’t panic all that easily, far as I know him.”
“We should,” Luke agreed. Only a minor part of his brain had started to process the conversation, and his heartbeat was still far from steady.
“Luke...” Han reached for his hand again and gave it a brief squeeze. “Wish we could—”
“All right.” Han held his eyes for another moment before he turned aside. “We’ll talk later.”
Within fifteen minutes, the hovercar landed on a cushion of repulsor steams. Even before the engines’ drone subsided, Han yanked the slide-door open and directed a grumbled insult at sluggish government-issued crates. He’d wanted to race his glider to Mack’s apartment, but Lieutenant Dobson had thrust himself into their path, a living bulwark of conscientious, unbudging military discipline. Using the armored vehicle was the safer option, Luke had been forced to agree, even if Han glared at him when he said so.
“Let me check the area first, sir.” Dobson had his blaster cocked and ready as he sprinted around the craft. “Might be a trap.”
“Mack’s in trouble here, not me,” Han said through his teeth, one hand on his blaster’s butt, and shot a quick look around.
Shaped like an open triangle, a utilitarian complex spread its run-down wings to their left and right. Some of the interlocking prefab modules had been repainted while others glowered with the soot-crusts of pollution, a hybrid compound stuck somewhere between decay and renewal. Electronic drumbeats whispered from an open window somewhere high above.
“Which floor?” Luke asked, moving closer to Han’s side. There were no surveillance system in evidence anywhere, and too many dark windows stared down into the open court.
“Segment C, fifth level.” Han pointed at a lift cage that scaled the building’s facade.
“Safer to use the stairs,” Luke murmured.
They kept close to the building’s shadow as they jogged towards the side entrance. Poised like a strike team leader, Dobson waved his gun at the door sensors and swung inside. Luke could hear a faint buzz from his headset.
“Clear,” the lieutenant reported a moment later, and: “Backup’s on the way.”
“Good,” Han returned acerbically. “We’re going up.”
The stairwell retained various chemical smells and a general air of neglect, but each time they paused to listen, only the hum of air conditioning units filtered down. As they climbed towards level five, Han gripped the handrail, and his breathing shortened audibly. Concerned, Luke inched up closer, but Dobson had already reached the door on the landing, marked FIVE in faded neon paint. He cranked the handle, pulled the door open a crack — and abrupt alarm chilled Luke to the marrow.
“Don’t!” he shouted, simultaneously grabbing Han’s elbow to yank him back. “Down!”
Han stumbled back into him, Dobson froze in mid-motion, and a sickly pungent smell wafted across the landing.
“Back down!” Luke yelled, dragging Han along with him. “Now.”
As they lurched down the stairs, a clatter and a thump marked Dobson’s fall.
Some toxic gas, flashed through Luke’s mind, adrenaline driving him through a sprint across the landing below. He’d wrenched the heavy door open by the time Han caught up with him, and they plunged through. One moment, they stared up at a glimmering glowtube, and the next, everything went black. The door slammed shut behind them. Luke let himself fall against it while he stretched into the Force, probing for danger, for flickers of malicious intent.
“Frakkin’ hell—!” Han cursed on a raspy breath. “What was that?”
Luke needed another moment until jumbled impressions coalesced into linear thought. “Someone caused a power shortage to cover their retreat.”
“Don’t forget the gas. That’s gotta be—” A wracking cough cut into Han’s answer, and Luke fumbled for him in the dark.
“Breathe evenly, Han. Steady, that’s it.” He ran his hand up Han’s arm, tracing a subdued tremor.
“I’m all right,” Han mumbled after a few moments. “Smelled that stuff before. Just a narcotic, but it’ll knock you out within seconds of exposure.”
“I should’ve noticed something sooner.”
“You noticed soon enough, kid,” Han returned and covered Luke’s hand with his own. “Now what do we do?”
“We can’t access level five without breath masks.” Well, that was obvious enough. Luke set his shoulders tightly. “We’ll have to regroup with our backup before we can give it another try.”
At that moment, the glowtubes all along the corridor flared up again with a broken hum. Han blinked owlishly, his face pale and drawn in the sterile illumination. “Guess the secondary generator finally kicked in. Too damn late.”
“Yes,” Luke said softly. “They’re gone.” Whoever had staged this elaborate escape was beyond reach now, leaving only a signature of cold determination in their wake — and something else, something that sent a long chill down Luke’s back.
Mack’s apartment was a mess. Every piece of furniture had been overturned, manuals and data disks scattered on the floor, and a dark puddle seeped out between a splayed hand and a ruffle of copper hair. Han knelt beside the skinny form lying crumpled by the computer console, every line of his face pronouncing bridled rage.
He was dead by the time we got here, Luke wanted to tell him, we couldn’t have reached him in time. But Han must have figured that out by himself, and took no comfort from it.
Beside Dobson who’d staggered to the sofa once the medics had strapped a respirator across his mouth and nose, three Corellian security officers were searching the place for evidence and clues, or merely taking stock of the wreck. Their brown uniforms moved against a backdrop of iron greys, blacks, and muted blues.
Luke glanced down at Mack’s outflung hand, at the shocking pallor of his temple against the blood-streaked hair. He’d been killed by a precisely aimed blow to the head, not a gunshot. And he must have been seated at the console when his killers forced the door. The whole array of data storage units and access panels had been boiled to plastic and metal slag.
Before Luke half knew it, he crouched down next to Han, and his hand settled on Han’s shoulder. “There’s nothing you could have—”
“Yeah, but I should’ve warned him off!” When Han turned his face, his eyes were bright with fury. “Wanna bet that Mack got himself killed ‘cause he was looking for a lead to the real conspirators?”
“No bet,” Luke answered quietly. “Just don’t take it out on yourself.”
“Look who’s talking,” Han muttered, but some of the high-wired tension faded, and his shoulders slumped. “Damn, but I’ve got one whopper of a headache...”
“Might be the result of exposure to that gas.” This close to him, Luke took note of all the thin lines around Han’s eyes and mouth, the bone-deep weariness they betrayed. “And you’re still recovering from worse. Perhaps you should—”
“Mother-hen,” Han mouthed with a small grin, and shot Luke a glance that brushed him with a soft, heated tingle.
Luke breathed in sharply. He’d committed the memory of their walk on the beach to a backroom of his mind, but one look still triggered flashfire responses. Before he could frame a reply, booted footfalls disrupted the hush around them.
Accompanied by a pudgy young aide, Commander Cerrick strode in and accosted the nearest security officer to demand a report. No definite clues so far, was the upshot. Luke stepped out of the way as the Commander approached like a primed thundercloud.
“General Solo.” Cerrick’s habitual frown tightened further. “You really shouldn’t be here. Leave it to our investigators to track down the assassins.”
Han faced him with a deliberately careless expression and ignored that remark. “Whatever happened here, it couldn’t’ve been Dorn’s work.”
“Don’t be too sure. Dorn escaped during transfer to a civilian detention unit this morning.” Cerrick directed a withering glare at one of the brown uniforms. “I haven’t had a chance to review the reports yet, but...” Lowering his voice, he shifted closer. “It’s conceivable that Security let him escape.”
“Yeah? Why’d they do that?” Han’s eyes narrowed.
“Shared patriotism?” Cerrick pulled up his shoulders. “We cannot trust them fully, General, and you’d be wise to—”
“Yeah, watch my back at all times.” Han dismissed that with a curt gesture. “Right now, I need to know what Mack was up to. Whatever it was, it got him killed, and I wanna know why.”
“He didn’t volunteer any information?”
Han shook his head. “Just asked me to meet him at once.”
He didn’t, Luke noticed, add that Mack had been reluctant to discuss anything over comlink.
“There was more than one assailant involved,” Luke said aloud, diverting the Commander’s attention.
Cerrick aimed a severe frown at him. “Did you see anybody?”
“There was more than one,” Luke repeated. “Not much of a surprise, even if Dorn was involved. We already know he’s a hired gun, and certainly not the only one available.”
“True.” The Commander regarded him another moment, his features composed into a mask of impervious sobriety, but nervous energy teemed right behind that front.
Was it just the common uneasiness caused by an implication of Jedi powers, Luke wondered, or something else? Then again, a man of Cerrick’s rigid military mindset had to be alarmed by the notion of murderous schemes contrived by their own allies. He threw Han a quick glance, and the need to maneuver him away from the scene took priority.
“If you’ll excuse us now,” Luke said. “The medics are still waiting downstairs to check up on General Solo’s condition.”
Instant protest seized Han’s expression, but got no further than that when Luke met his eyes again. “Right.” Han massaged the back of his neck. “Can’t hurt, I guess.”
“Most advisable,” Cerrick concurred.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Han slowed his stride. “Out with it, Luke. You look more troubled now than you did when we got here.”
Luke hunched up his shoulders. “Too many open questions piling up. It’s like... a whole web of crisscrossing threads now, and perhaps you’re not—” The main target, he bit off. A cold frisson flew down his spine.
“You mean, they’re not after me personally?” Han quirked an eyebrow. “Now that’s a real comfort.” He shook his head before Luke could clarify. “No, I get what you’re saying. Maybe I’m just a pawn in some damn dirty game.” He stopped in front of the lift and punched the controls. “Wish to hell I knew what it’s all about.”
“Me too.” Luke paused to overcome an irrational reluctance to step into the lift cage with Han. “But until we find out who’s behind this scheme—”
“We’d better not trust anybody,” Han finished for him.
They traded a long glance as the lift rattled into motion.
“No matter which way I look at it, that was an inside job.” Han rubbed his temple with the heel of one hand. “Mack got onto something at headquarters, something that worried him so much, he didn’t want to stay around and holed up at home instead.”
“And he felt that using the military channel wasn’t safe for discussing it,” Luke added. “Whatever lead he discovered, it must have convinced him that someone in the administration is involved.”
“Yeah, but who — and why?” Han crossed his arms before his chest and stared hard at the graffiti scrawled across the lift cabin’s door. “So we’ve got a mole somewhere in our forces, and it won’t be some patriotic freak, take my word for it. That whole notion of a Corellian conspiracy is absurd.”
“I agree, and we might not get behind it unless—” Luke paused to consider what he was about to propose. “Unless we start an investigation of our own,” he went on slowly. “Can we access Mack’s office computer, find out what he was researching before he left?”
“We could... if it hasn’t been wiped meanwhile.”
“Accessing it directly might alert the mole, too.”
“There’s that.” Han chewed on his lower lip for a moment. “We’ll have to think of something...” With a distorted electronic chime, the lift ground to a halt. Han grimaced at the noise. “When my head’s working properly,” he added. “Guess I should see the medics about painkillers while they’re here.”
“You should give yourself a rest.” Luke stepped out after him. The midday sun had burned through the clouds, and the sudden brightness made Han blink again.
“Yeah, later,” he dismissed it, but when he turned to face Luke, his expression had grown thoughtful. “You know... when we were heading up the stairs and you pulled me back, I could...” His mouth twitched. “Well, I know how that sounds, but I kinda felt your alarm, like... a split second before you called out. Inside my own head.”
Nonplussed, Luke needed a moment to gather his thoughts. “Through the Force,” he managed. “I mean, I was drawing on the Force, and it seems that you caught... some kind of resonance.”
Yet nothing of the kind had ever happened unless the other party was Force-sensitive, like Leia. And Luke remembered countless occasions when Han had sneered at the notion of some all-embracing energy field, or mental manipulations. Covering profound discomfort with belligerent disbelief.
“Ah, c’mon, don’t look so shocked, it’s not that I mind. Not when—” Han cupped a hand around his shoulder, and his glance softened in a way that made Luke’s stomach jitter. “It’s you.”
“Ruling out the possibility of plain incompetence,” Cerrick was just saying, “means that Dorn must have had inside help. How could a single man possibly outwit an entire security detail and escape otherwise?”
“Benefit of the doubt, Commander,” returned the Corellian Captain of Security in equally abrasive tones. “Isn’t that one of the New Republic’s treasured principles? I recommend that you study the full report before you level unfounded accusations at my people.”
Through the crack in the door, Han could see him pace the cramped office. Ex-rebel and former head of the miners’ guild, Captain Merlow was a straightforward man with a taste for open confrontations and a hair-trigger sense of honor. Cerrick’s suspicions were bound to achieve nothing except antagonize the man. Not that it stopped the Commander.
“You, Captain,” he said pointedly, “are part of the New Republic that created the office you currently hold. And yet you seem to think of that greater organization as inherently inimical to Corellia’s best interests.”
High-class diplomacy, all right. Han’s mouth curled in annoyance. After the Imperial troops’ defeat, Corellian Security had been organized by the local resistance, while the Rebel Alliance supplied the military command staff. All the latent friction between the two groups had to erupt into fireworks sooner or later, but the timing truly stank.
“Are we about done here?” he addressed the officer huddled up behind his data screen, “I’ve got other business to attend to, so—”
“In a moment, General,” the man murmured without looking up.
Han swallowed a bad-tempered retort and realized that his hand had slipped into his pocket where he’d stashed an extra dose of painkillers. The one shot that the medics had given him was wearing off too damn fast. But swallow too many of those chemical little helpers, and they dulled your reflexes when you could least afford it.
He was still debating the issue when something less than sound drew his eyes to the outer doorway. Quiet like a shadow, Luke had returned.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said, without a hint of apology to his tone.
“No worries.” Han swung his feet off the desk. “We were just wrapping things up.”
Odd, how Luke’s presence seemed to register with him at all times, as if he’d developed some kind of inner radar that tuned in on a single energy source. And when Luke crossed over and rested a hand on his shoulder, everything else receded — including the headache that just seemed to ebb off. Han barely stopped himself from reaching back.
“Yes,” the security officer joined with delay, and finally dragged his glance away from the screen. “If you’ll just sign your statement, General...” He nudged a sensor-pad in Han’s direction and waited for him to add his electronic fingerprint. “Thank you for your time.”
“My pleasure,” Han answered with liberal irony and received only a blank stare in response.
“Anything?” he asked under his breath, as they stepped into the hallway. The bustle of binary messengers and human staff stalking along the polished floor spiked distorted echoes through his head.
“I’m afraid not.” Luke touched his elbow and steered him towards the exit. “A tech team was busy in Mack’s office by the time I got there. I had a look around once they were gone, but if he left any clues, they’re probably buried deep in the data banks.”
“Too damn likely.” Outside, Han filled his lungs with the cool, salty air. “Mack was good with computers,” he said slowly. “I’d bet he stashed backup files somewhere in the network, but I wouldn’t know where to start looking. Or how to decode his encryption.”
“Too bad I didn’t bring Artoo.”
“Yeah.” Han pulled up his shoulders. “Takes an expert slicer, to access the network from without.”
The sinking sun stabbed through the clouds, tracked brazen marks across the landing strip, and outlined the carcass of a hovertruck in sullen glints. His eyes were starting to water.
“So where would we find someone like that?” Luke asked.
“Where would we—? Oh.” Han knuckled his bleary eyes and spared another thought for the painkillers in his pocket. “I dunno, I’ve never... no, wait!”
“Yes?” Luke’s smile burned up slow and threatened to rupture that mental thread. The trenchant light played across one side of his face and throat, setting a distant fire into his eyes, and all Han wanted was to grab him right here —
“The resistance,” he remembered to reply. “They’ve got people like that. Hell, some of the best work for the government these days.”
“But not all of them?”
“No.” The need to touch tingled Han’s fingertips, and he compromised by running a hand down Luke’s arm. “They’re our best bet at this point. Let’s go home, so I can make a few calls.”
A scant hour later, he was seated by the console in his lounge, squinting at the screen while his patience ran thin. All those swirling, wriggling pixels conspired to revive the blistering headache, never mind that he’d treated himself to another painkiller on the way back.
He’d raised Elim Dohl, the grizzled resistance leader who’d come to see him at the clinic the day before, and once he’d outlined their current troubles, Dohl promised assistance with a furtive kind of glee. Probably saw a pet theory about the basic failings of Alliance military confirmed by Han’s request. Not that Han cared. Within minutes, the former head of Corellia’s Independent Recon Services had called to announce that, between Dohl and himself, they’d identified five members of his unit who met the requirements. He’d alert them through the old channels, and if they were available for a clandestine job like that, they’d get in touch.
“And if not?” Han had asked.
His answer was on the screen before him, a short list of service codes that’d winked from yellow to a dull brown one after the other. Just a single candidate left by now. Han sighed and pressed the heel of one hand to his temple.
“Still no better?” Luke handed him a cup of tea and dropped back into the chair next to him. “You’re pale.”
Han grimaced. “Feels like one monstrous hangover. Only I missed out on the fun part.” He reached for the cup and gave it a wary sniff. “What’s that, one of Yoda’s recipes?”
“Good for you,” Luke claimed, humor lighting his glance. “Drink it.”
“If you say so.” Han met his eyes across the rim of the raised cup, tangled questions skidding across the surface of his mind. Their walk on the beach seemed like a distant memory now, bathed in the glow of lost things, only half-real. We’ll talk later, he heard himself — but what could he say? And before he could frame a sensible opening to that overdue conversation, a signal on the screen caught at him. The final service code on that surreptitious list lit up in bright green.
“Guess we’ve got an applicant for the job after all.” Han set the cup back down, and massaged the spot between his eyebrows where the nagging pain converged.
“And you’re sure they’ll keep it a secret?” Luke rocked back in his chair. “You’re going to hand a lot of sensitive data to someone you’ve never even met.”
“Ain’t got much of a choice, do we?” Han pulled up his shoulders. “Gotta trust Dohl to pick someone reliable. The guy’s bound to call in shortly, then we’ll see.”
“I could talk to him,” Luke offered. “Or else, if you want me to, I could try...” He paused with an uncertain shrug. “I might be able to do something about your headache.”
“With the Force, you mean?” Han spread his hands to broadcast total unconcern, and swiveled his seat towards Luke. “Sure. Anything that works.”
“It should.” With a tight little smile, Luke leaned forward and placed his fingertips against Han’s temples. “Close your eyes. It might feel... odd for a moment, but try not to resist.”
Right. Much as he tried to appear relaxed about it, old superstitions and discomfort shot to the front the moment his eyes slipped shut. Han settled back, to focus on nothing but Luke’s confident touch, cool against his skin. There, nothing disturbing or spooky about it.
“Relax,” Luke murmured, his thumbs moving lightly against Han’s cheekbones.
Of a sudden it was easy to let go, and take directions from that gentle touch alone. At first it felt like a breeze sliding over choppy, troubled waves, then like water itself that wound here and there in silver trickles, cool and soothing. Wherever it passed, sensations uncurled, widened towards some unknown quiet.
“Whoa...” Han breathed, but didn’t open his eyes.
Like a signal traced in light, he could sense Luke’s smile, or thought that he did. No need, though, to pursue that bizarre notion, not when that bright wash passed through him like a living substance, familiar as breath and blood. A volatile pulse rose to his temples and warmed them, like conductors in an open circuit, powering up to flush him with memory.
Silver daylight bobbed on the ocean’s rim, filtered down through the pines, and his heartbeat knocked sharply against the lock of Luke’s arms over his back. Eloquent, like the pressure of Luke’s mouth under his own, yielding and commanding, until a gasp went through them both like a ripple of energy. Nerve endings caught alight, as if this was all he’d been waiting for, disintegrating every thought to replace it with pleasure.
Han felt himself shift in his seat as the memory merged through the present. Behind his closed lids, sparks danced up and fused into a fine radiance that was light and not-light at the same time. He followed a thread of pulse that twined with his own, every bit as clear as a power lead. Homing for the secret source of pleasure, a wild energy that promised flight —
His eyes flew open as Luke’s hands fell away. From the room’s neutral ambience, Luke was staring at him, cheeks flushed, his breath faster than before.
“Do you know what you’ve done?”
Slow to recover a sense of reality, Han shook his head. His skin crawled with tantalizing warmth, and the closeness of recollection made his pulse stumble.
“You—” Luke faltered with a brief chuckle. “I don’t know how you did that, but for a moment it felt as if... as if you were reaching back for me.”
“Yeah?” Han paused to get his own breathing back under control. “So what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” Luke answered quickly. “It startled me, that’s all.” But he pushed his seat back as if to draw a line against further questions. “How’s your head now?”
“Better. All clear.”
“Good.” With a tip of his chin towards the tea-cup, Luke added, “In that case, you can skip the rest of the medicine.”
“And the painkillers.” Han pursed his lips and noticed how Luke’s fingers tightened fretfully on the chair’s armrest. Trapping some wayward impulse, maybe, or was it that Luke had slipped into the same memory just now? He opened his mouth to voice that question when the comlink whistled again. Great timing, as usual.
“There’s your call.” Luke bounced from his seat as if a release signal had been tripped. “Tell you what, I’ll go and shower while you talk to the guy.”
“Sure,” Han muttered after him, a frown taking hold as he turned back towards the console. On the screen, swarming pixels solidified into the headshot of a bearded man, sporting the rugged looks of outdoor life.
“Ayat Belson from the resistance cell up at Trawler’s Cove,” he offered his credentials with a thick northern accent. “I hear you need help with some binary burglaring, General.”
Han needed another moment to push his thoughts back towards that whole blasted matter. “That’s right,” he answered slowly. “But I also need you to keep this absolutely quiet, understood?”
“Naturally.” Belson smiled. “Goes without saying, when you want somebody to break into your own system unnoticed.”
“And you’re the man for the job?” Han cut to the chase.
“Not me, but my former instructor is.”
“All right.” Han shrugged. “So get him on the line.”
“Her,” Belson specified. “Couldn’t reach her right away, she’s out fixing the sonar array up on one of our drill stations. Probably won’t be back before midnight. But don’t worry, she’ll be in touch as soon as she can.” He leaned closer to the visual pickup, a conspiratorial gleam in his eye. “Just wanted to let you know that we’re on to it. I daresay your problem’s in the best of hands.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Privately, Han wondered how the man could make such a sweeping claim for his slicer friend in her absence. “Thanks,” he added in afterthought.
“Glad to be of assistance,” Belson returned and signed off.
For a few moments longer, Han gazed at the darkened screen. A long day regrouped about him in ill-fitting fragments and raised a swarm of unanswerable questions. But the bleak truth was, they wouldn’t get to the bottom of this whole miserable affair without further clues and, most likely, outside help.
The quiet around him filled with the console’s hum, and the sound of the water-shower in the background. The large window framed growing twilight, a deep bank of clouds edged in fading copper. Han swung his seat about and stretched his legs. Took a deep breath. Memory prickled on his skin again, as if they’d only just left the windy grove by the sea. Hell, even now his heartbeat picked up speed, fired by a swarm of physical details. The way Luke had clung to him on a rush of breath, lips parting as he pressed back without hesitation or reserve...
Han cracked a grin at the flutter of muscles over his stomach. No doubt about it, that kiss had revealed a desire matching his own. And if he could tell as much, surely Luke with his Jedi abilities had to know the feeling was mutual. Question was, why had he beat such a fast retreat just minutes before, like he’d been stung by illicit temptation?
And that question couldn’t wait ‘til morning, like all the others. Couldn’t wait another minute, in fact. Han pushed from his chair and set himself on a straight course for the bathroom. A frisson of nervous anticipation hunted through his gut.
He rapped his knuckles against the jamb, a casual question at the tip of his tongue, when he noticed that Luke had left the door unlocked. Probably wouldn’t hear anything either, through the shower’s rush and patter. Hot steam curled around Han as he entered. A glass partition screened the shower off to one side, sheltered Luke’s silhouette among spray that flashed in the room’s artfully distributed lighting.
“Hey Luke, whenever you’re done here...”
Han stopped in the middle of the bathroom, his mind switching gears to inform him that of all the possible approaches, he’d picked the most unsubtle. Then again, diplomatic finesse had never been among his notorious failings. From the steaming spray, Luke swung back towards him, wide-eyed, baffled, and gloriously naked.
Wet runnels accented the lithe frame, the slant of muscles under smooth skin, snaking trails down his chest, across the flat belly, and glittered in a tawny thatch of curls further down. Han’s mind begged out at the sight and left nothing but the memory of touch, charged and clear like a homing beacon.
“Han?” Luke swept wet hair back from his face. “What’re you doing?”
“What’s it look like?” His nerve-endings tingled, close to alarm, and his hands weren’t entirely steady either, but he was already pulling his boots off and didn’t bother with the rest of his clothes. Couldn’t question what he was doing, not anymore. Heat crept up through his body even before the water started pelting his head and shoulders, and his thrumming pulse blended with the steady rush.
“I... I wish I knew,” Luke mouthed.
The wetness wove shimmers around him as if he’d walked right out of a secret dream. Han swallowed sharply and reached out.
“Tell me something...” His hands moved over sleek skin to frame the sides of Luke’s neck.
“What?” Luke breathed.
But the time for talking was well and truly over, they’d already wasted too much of it. Han tipped Luke’s head up, pulled him close, and waited just long enough to see the swift darkening in Luke’s eyes before he brushed his lips across Luke’s. Not a dream, no longer a moorless fantasy kicking loose in his head. He licked glistening drops off Luke’s mouth and chin, teased his tongue across open lips and sank into a kiss that forced him to hold his breath so he could feel more — all of Luke, skin and flesh and a searching tongue exploring him in turn. Luke’s arms wound around his back and waist, holding him steady on the slippery tiles, every muscle pulling tight with tension. And the same live current passed into him, pushing Han’s breath out with a hoarse, half-shaped sound.
Hot water drenched his hair and ran down his back, but he couldn’t let go anymore. He tilted Luke’s head back to deepen the kiss, to feel him respond with the same unchecked want, breath catching in his throat where Han’s thumbs traced a surging pulse. Instant echoes stirred in his groin. He swept one hand down over Luke’s spine, felt him arch and shift with instinctive need. His own skin prickled electric, the drag of his soaked clothes no more than a flimsy obstacle as he pressed into Luke — and if he’d needed further evidence, he found it right there, hard and heated proof outlined against his thigh. A rough gasp trembled in Luke’s throat.
Water ran into Han’s eyes when the kiss ended in ragged breaths from them both. His own cock was straining inside his pants, and it took him a long moment to notice that Luke had gripped his shoulder to nudge him back.
“Han, wait, we should—” Luke broke off with a confused shake of the head.
“You want me.” Han cleared his throat, sluggish thoughts trailing far behind.
“But?” Han echoed, though he didn’t really need any answer to that. The wild glow in Luke’s face told him enough.
“That’s just me,” Luke claimed incongruously. “You... you never felt like this before.”
“I do now.” Catching him around the waist, Han brought them back into close alignment, and tilted his hips forward. Felt himself harden further at the direct contact. Unsubtle, but sometimes that was exactly what it took. “Feel that? Real enough for you?”
A moan slipped free, and Han could hear surrender in it, coupled with disbelief. Luke’s grip on him tightened reflexively.
“Just... one more thing...” Luke’s voice was a breathless murmur. “You’re overdressed.”
And his fingers got to work instantly, unbuckled Han’s belt and pushed the fasteners of his pants out of the way. The first touch to his trapped erection shot a laser bolt through Han’s groin and drove his breath out in a hiss. He summoned enough coordination to help with the blasted undressing, pushing his pants down while Luke wrestled the shirt over his head. Blinking and spluttering, Han advanced on him again, his wet pants now a soggy tangle around his knees.
A chuckle escaped Luke. “Wait, at least let me—”
No way. Han silenced him with another kiss, this was good enough for now, and restless heat circled urgently in his gut. Everything else could wait, but not this. Not when Luke grabbed him close into liquid, seductive friction, every line of his body marking galvanic traces on Han’s skin.
Hot spray wrapped them up in glittering mists, and his hands roamed with impatient tenderness, smoothed the wet hair back to drift down over flushed cheeks and frame the jaw, then trailing across shoulders and chest while Luke’s palms painted charged trails down his spine. As the water kept beating down on Han’s bent neck and back, he thought fuzzily that all the heat building inside him ought to vaporize it in another moment. He pressed forward, his cock sliding up slickened skin and tense muscles, while velvet-covered hardness pushed up against his thigh. Luke clutched at his shoulders, his groan every bit as enticing as a physical caress.
Cradling the slim hips, Han backed him against the tiled wall. Arousal scaled the next level and beat out an impatient rhythm in his blood. Not enough time to take this someplace dry and comfortable, and no energy to spare for pragmatic considerations that would’ve demanded a break. Blinking water out of his eyes, Han trailed his thumb across the curve of Luke’s mouth, the bewildered smile that took shape to his touch.
“Believe me now?” he rasped, though he hadn’t explained much, not in words anyway.
“Guess I’ll have to,” Luke answered, the fast pulse that beat against Han’s fingertips in sharp contrast with the gentle glide of his hands, tracing shivers from Han’s shoulder blades to the small of his back.
“You’d better,” he whispered, and their mouths found each other again with thoughtless ease.
It was hot, simple, undiluted, like everything he’d ever wanted. Ignition, instant acceleration, then the rush from jangling anticipation into flight. The sound of Luke’s gasps and moans, the feel of smooth skin liquid to his touch, and the pressure of hips rocking up against him. A balance righting itself with the buzz that raced from his head to his groin at a dizzy speed, so volatile that Han had to brace against it, or it would be over in a moment. But each time he stole a look at Luke’s face, it went a whole lot deeper than that, and a small, fierce ache gathered in the middle of his chest. Flushed with passion, Luke’s features were transformed, starts of tension flickering at the corners of his eyes and mouth. A hidden power urging to the surface.
His breathing fast and shallow, Han pushed closer, gripped the lean thighs that opened for him, and Luke let his head sag against the tiles with a husky moan. Moving to the drumbeat of his heart, Han slid his hardness across the taut belly, the tightness and pressure in his groin already building towards overload. His skin burned wherever Luke touched, strong hands skimming his back and drifting lightly down his thighs before they cupped and squeezed Han’s butt. He was breathing liquid air, and electricity streaked along his nerves when Luke gave a supple writhe of his hips, demanding a tighter rhythm. Wrapped around each other, gripped by the same scalding intensity that ran free and loose between them — all too soon, Han found himself fighting for breath.
He was drowning. Sucked down into the mysterious depths of a glassy green ocean for one breathless moment of absolute stillness, he heard his own voice from far away, a wordless, rasping sound deep in his throat. And, closer than that, Luke’s urgent response, a clutching grip turned desperate between breaths. Straining and pulsing against him, Luke groaned into his mouth, seized by a tight shudder that jolted Han like a power surge. White heat coursed up through his middle and joined them in the crush of one moment, no matter how he tried to hold on, draw it out — wild tremors were already spilling through him. His throat too tight for sound, Han gasped at the dazzle of lightning in every nerve, the clench and release that rocked and shook him.
His knees went weak, and his head sagged against a wet shoulder. Over long moments, his pumping heartbeat settled and slowed. Steadied by the firm clasp of Luke’s arms around him, he felt the trickle of tepid water down his back and chased crazy notions through his head, because this was as close to overwhelmed as he’d ever come, and his only thought, more.
“Whoa, that was... quick. And clean.” He straightened with a shaky grin and reached past Luke’s shoulder to turn off the shower at last. “What d’you say, should we take this to the bedroom to make the next round long and messy?”
Still breathing hard, Luke caught hold of his arms and shook his head, but it wasn’t a no to that flippant proposal, just a final twitch of incredulous delight. Blue eyes ablaze with a surfeit of pleasure, he was a stunning sight.
“Well, we gotta get dry first,” Han murmured and, directly contradicting himself, brought their mouths together again, catching a faint tremor on Luke’s lips. “All right?”
Luke gave a small nod this time, and a smile broke free as he ran a hand back over his hair.
Good, now let go, Han issued orders to himself. Get moving. He stepped out of his pants, leaving them in a wet twist on the shower’s floor, and tossed Luke a towel.
The mood changed even as they entered his bedroom, towels wrapped loosely around their hips. While Han dropped down on the bed without further ado, Luke was slow to follow, a tight line forming between his brows.
“Come here.” Han leaned up on one elbow and patted the spot next to him. So they should have talked first — maybe — but, damnit, hanging on to common sense had become impossible the moment he’d entered the bathroom, like a switch had been thrown in his head. And he only had to look at Luke now — skin and hair still damp, a high glow across his cheekbones — to realize how easily that could happen again.
He waited until Luke stretched out next to him, not quite touching, subliminal caution in every move. Han turned onto his side and ran a hand across Luke’s arm. “What’s up?”
“Still... readjusting,” Luke offered, a transparent evasion. From the glowpanel above the bed, a soft shine glanced across his shoulder and chest, and Han had a hard time not to let himself be distracted by that alluring sight.
“Yeah, well, I’m sorry if I—” He stopped right there, because he couldn’t drum up so much as a poor imitation of regret. “Scratch that. I’ve never been less sorry, if you want the truth. How about you?”
Startled blue eyes met his for a long moment of silence. “Sorry? Why would I be? But you never—” Luke broke off, his voice not quite steady. “You never wanted me like that, before. Not until I touched your mind.”
Han pulled up one shoulder in a lazy shrug. “So? What’s it matter?”
He could virtually see apprehensions take shape as Luke raised one hand in a terse gesture. “What if I started something—”
“Now hold it, kid,” Han cut in. “You think it’s contagious, like... some sort of bug I caught when you got too close?” Ridiculous, and disturbing, that Luke could consider such a notion. “You don’t seriously mean that.”
“No...” But a pained expression fled across Luke’s features all the same.
“C’mon,” Han insisted, determined to drive his point home. “Just think about it. Has that ever happened before? Each time you touch somebody’s mind, they turn all raunchy on you?”
That fetched a dry chuckle at least. “Well, I’ve never...” Luke glanced down at his hand where it rested on the covers between them. “I’ve never been so... deeply involved when I drew on the Force to establish contact of this kind. It doesn’t compare.”
“Guess not,” Han muttered, watching him closely. Doubt and disquiet were all too vivid in Luke’s face and suddenly made him wonder. Was there some kind of Jedi rule against messy entanglements with someone from the Force-blind rank and file? Was Luke supposed to devote all his energies to the Force and never share his private needs, his heart, with anyone? Too many questions taking him off on twisted tangents. Han finally settled on, “What’s wrong?”
After a moment, Luke met his eyes and said, in dry tones of fact, “I’m in love with you.”
Not a total surprise, not anymore. Han’s breath caught all the same. “And that’s—?”
“No.” A hesitant smile stole up. “Nothing wrong about it... as such,” Luke said haltingly. “And you already knew, didn’t you? You must’ve felt—”
“Some of it, yeah, I just wasn’t sure...” Han paused to brush his fingers across Luke’s hair that dried in electric little tufts above his ears. “So you, um, thought that’d scare me off?”
Han shook his head mutely. What the hell was Luke thinking? That he’d resort to his old tactics, use independence as a flare shield to dodge responsibility? That he’d deny an attachment grown essential over the past years? You’re not the only one who’s changed, he wanted to tell Luke, but change had also left him struggling for a purpose, for directions...
“Look,” he started, pulling shreds of explanations from the muddle in his head, “I’ve been on my own since I got here, trying to figure out what the hell to do with myself. And suddenly you’re back...”
And I’m in deep water. Luke studied him intently, perhaps reading between the lines, brushing riddles he’d never managed to solve on his own. A troubled knot pulled tight in Han’s gut, mixing desire with confused misgivings.
“Past couple of months,” he went on, “I spent thinking you were on your way out to become the next Jedi Master, headed up the mountain top lookin’ for revelations. And we’d get together no more than once a year ‘n trade old stories. And now...” He splayed his hands, running out of words again. “Guess I just need some more time to catch up.”
“Sure,” Luke returned easily — and meant it, Han could tell.
But he couldn’t just leave it at that, let Luke unlock his heart for scrutiny and give nothing back.
“There’s one thing you gotta know,” he said, pursuing a fuzzy notion that’d first materialized at the clinic. “It makes a difference. What you did, to keep me alive. Heck, nobody’s ever been inside my head...” And before Luke could take that the wrong way, Han let his fingers drift down the tense jaw, wrapped a hand around his neck. “Like I got a first real look at you, and everything was just... coming together, I don’t know — can’t explain it any better.”
Perhaps Luke could read more off his face, because his expression softened, and a sparkle crept back into his eyes. He’s so beautiful, Han thought, bewildered that he’d somehow failed to notice before.
“It’s all right,” Luke said softly, leaning into his touch. “We’ll just... take it from here.”
When he turned his head to brush his mouth against the inside of Han’s wrist, a fine tingle darted up Han’s arm. He shifted closer, drawn by a subtle magnetism that swept all the unknowns aside. His fingers followed the light that sculpted Luke’s shoulder, the slight tensing of muscles down his arm. And touch brought back a spell of desire with abrupt force. All it took was a slight tilt of the head, and they were kissing again, enveloped in deepening twilight that made each sensation stand out sharply. A sound like a growl caught in Han’s throat as he pulled Luke against him. He wasn’t going to let up anytime soon, not until he’d absorbed every nuance of taste and texture — and it all went to his head at lightspeed. Felt as if he’d been reeled back fifteen years or more, when all of him was caught up in one single energy flare, only he couldn’t remember wanting anyone so bad, ever, like it was a matter of breathing. Absolutely vital.
Luke was holding on to him with the same fervor, his tongue sliding past Han’s teeth to engage him in a heated exchange, to tease and play until sparks snapped through the pit of Han’s stomach.
When they finally broke for air, Luke leaned over him, one hand wrapped tight around Han’s jaw. He breathed out shakily. “There’s so much I never told you.”
But it wasn’t regret stirring through his lowered voice, and a thoughtless smile went with it. Han slid his fingers through the soft blond hair, mussing it further. “Can’t wait to hear it all.”
Though in truth, coherent conversation was beyond him at this point, his head clouded, a rush of blood in his ears.
“Well, not right now.” Luke’s smile widened into an untroubled grin. But when Han reached to pull him back down, Luke placed a restraining hand against his chest. “Right now, you should rest, Han. Like it or not, you still need it.”
“Aw, cut it out,” Han grumbled, “I’ll show you what I—”
“I hope you will,” Luke stopped him. “Later.” His fingers traced out a gentle pattern above Han’s heart.
Han snorted. But for all the delicious heat that curled in his gut, a deep tiredness was crawling up his bones at the same time. He could fight it back down, sure he could, some rebellious impulse claimed. Still, Luke deserved his absolute attention, not some rough and drowsy groping —
“I’m not going anywhere,” Luke added, “I promise.”
“Guess you’re right.” And the slur in his voice gave him away, too. Han sighed. As soon as he lay back, his eyes falling shut, exhaustion slammed home like a physical weight. “...next round’ll have to wait ‘til morning.”
“I think I can wait that long,” Luke murmured by his ear, one arm slung loosely across Han’s chest.
Too bad, Han couldn’t help thinking, but regret didn’t stand a chance of pulling him back from the edge of sleep. The last thing he knew was the steady rhythm of Luke’s breath settling softly against his own skin.
As he padded from the bedroom, the warm scent of Han’s skin, the gentle weight and pressure of his limbs still cocooned him in sensations like the residue of some beautiful dream. He didn’t realize that he was stark naked until he’d seated himself in front of the console. Good thing the visual pickup wouldn’t capture more than his head and shoulders.
On the screen before him formed the face of a woman, dark hair streaked with grey that ran out from her temples, and she frowned at him. “Who’re you?”
“Luke,” he answered witlessly, perplexed by her sharp tone. “A friend. I’m visiting. Han is asleep at the moment, but—”
“How bad was it?” the stranger interrupted brusquely. “The shooting. Has he fully recovered?”
While Luke opened his mouth for a reassuring answer, it suddenly dawned on him who this woman must be. The strong features, the cant of her chin, the piercing directness of her eyes all revealed a kinship he should have recognized at first glance. “Yes, quite,” he remembered to say. “Are you—”
“Claine Solo,” she confirmed, her expression relaxing by slow degrees. “I was busy up north and never even heard about the assassination until I got home.”
“Han will be glad you called. I can get him for you.”
“No, wait.” A mercurial change came over her face, and suddenly Claine grinned in a way that, absurdly, made Luke’s heart beat faster. “If I know anything about my little brother, it’s that he never follows doctor’s orders. Just to be spiteful, or something. I’m sure he still needs to rest up, but instead he’s champing at the bit to get himself back into trouble — ain’t that right?”
“That’s the basic pattern,” Luke agreed, returning a grin of his own. “But it’s been tempered with, uh, reason lately.”
“I should be surprised.” Claine’s brows drew together. “Well. I’m not just paying a social call. Han talked to my husband’s cousin earlier tonight, and the word is, you guys need a first-class slicer.”
“True. We suspect that someone inside the Alliance forces hired the assassin.” Luke needed another moment to gather himself from surprise and assemble the crucial facts. He hadn’t been too sure about involving some faceless slicer from the Corellian resistance in their covert investigation, but there was no reason to mistrust Han’s sister, no matter the old grudges that might still simmer between them.
When he’d recounted recent events for Claine, right up to Mack’s death, her features spelled serious trouble.
“Sounds like the poor guy sniffed out a bad egg in your own ranks all right,” she said slowly. “Give me his codes, whatever you’ve got, and I’ll look into his research. That kind of thing always leaves a data trail, even if it’s scrambled like minced clam.”
“How soon do you think you can come up with the results and give us a lead?” Luke asked.
She scrubbed a hand across her eyes. “Hard to tell at this point. I should really catch a wink first. But even if I skip that, don’t expect miracles before daylight.”
“That’s soon enough.” Luke smiled at her. “And you should sleep.”
“Sonny, don’t start sounding like one of my brats!” Claine retorted with a scowl, but amusement gleamed in her dark eyes. “Whatever it is that you’re doing back there, make sure Han stays out of trouble for the time being. Stun him if you must.”
Laughter bubbled up in Luke’s chest, and he bit down on it to give her a straight-faced answer. “I don’t think that will be necessary.”
“Whatever works.” Claine shrugged. “Soon as I’ve got anything, I’ll be in touch.”
“Thanks, I’ll send you the codes right away.” The image on the screen was already fading when Luke added, “And I’ll let Han know.”
Leaning back in his chair, he smiled to himself. For the first time since the shooting, coincidence seemed to work in their favor. His fingers got busy on the keyboard. But even as he copied the needed data into a single file and ran it through encryption, a different kind of excitement ran cross-threads through his mind. If the discord between Han and his sister could be resolved, it would take a troubling load off Han’s mind, ease the sense of loss and disconnection that’d been bearing down on him ever since he’d accepted the post on Corellia.
Luke had just hit the button to release the message when a slight rustle sounded from behind, and he swiveled his seat back around.
“What’s up?” Han stood in the doorway, the rumpled towel riding low on his hips, and knuckled his eyes. “Thought I heard you talk.”
“I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Yeah, well...” As Han stalked towards him, the muted lighting emphasized every stretch and plane of bare skin. “Was that the slicer calling just now?”
“Yes,” Luke murmured, too caught up in the sight of him, “she’s...”
“What?” Instantly aware of his distraction, Han grinned and trailed his fingertips across the nape of Luke’s neck.
“Your sister. Claine.”
“Claine?” For a moment, Han’s mouth was hanging open. “A slicer? Her?” He threw up a hand, as if to bat off the impossible. “She’s an engineer! I never even knew she worked for the resistance.”
“The guy you talked to last is her husband’s cousin,” Luke supplied.
With a deepening frown, Han reached for the towel that threatened to drop and secured it round his waist. “Of all the bad breaks—”
“Bad break?” Luke shook his head. “Come on, Han, you know you can trust her. And she was worried about you.”
“Oh yeah,” Han muttered, “I used to be the prime pain in her butt. Not much of a change there, huh?”
“She’d be a fool not to see it.” In one resolute motion, Luke pushed from his chair. “And you can set the record straight once you talk to her yourself.”
“Can’t wait,” Han muttered and ran a long glance over his nakedness. Full of unabashed interest and speculation, that look sent a flush crawling up Luke’s neck. “But if you get a chance,” Han added, “maybe you can put in a word for me.”
His tone had changed completely. Low and suggestive, it chased goosebumps down Luke’s bare chest.
“Sure,” he managed. “But, you know... I’m biased.” His hands moved up to Han’s shoulders of their own accord. Touching came so easy now, as if a new channel had been unlocked between them. Warm palms traveled down his sides to settle on his hips.
A crooked smile grew on Han’s mouth. “Glad you are.”
When Han leaned in to kiss him, he was more than ready, their mouths moving together in thoughtless complicity, shifting, parting only to meet again with greater insistence. The slide of Han’s tongue against his own sent a swift pang into Luke’s groin, trapped and enhanced where Han’s fingers closed on his hip. Polar electric charges drawing together to generate a power overflow. Within seconds, Han reduced his breathing to uneven bursts, and the hunger for more trembled on the edge of every nerve.
“Come back to bed, Luke.” Han’s mouth moved from his temple to his ear, trailing a shiver of sound along his scalp. “You remember, second round? Long and messy?”
“It’s not morning yet.”
Han chuckled. “Then we’ll just... make it morning.”
Out of words, Luke tightened his arms around Han’s torso, lost in the feel of skin on skin. And it would be just like that, like dawn breaking over an uncharted horizon, sliding its flares into every part of him, a private kind of magic.
He would have rushed towards the core of it right away, if Han had let him. But when they dropped down on the mattress, arms and legs entangled, Han took hold of his shoulders and pinned him in place.
“Slow down, kid, we’ve got time.”
“You’re the one to talk,” Luke got out. “You wouldn’t even let me finish the shower—”
“That was an emergency,” Han claimed, the glitter in his eyes mixing humor with potent reminiscence.
Luke stilled to that look, gave himself up to the feather-light caress Han traced along his jaw, his chin, and back to his mouth. A held breath burned up his chest and brushed Han’s fingertips. Something inside him opened wide, absorbed the tenderness in Han’s touch, the desire that smoldered close behind, banked and diffused for the moment. Luke’s eyes closed as he took it into himself, pulse and motion like a light-trail that stirred up a guarded memory.
Even the most fleeting contact with Han’s lifesense brought it all back — all the things he hadn’t let himself notice while his entire being was bent on survival, and shot through with fear. But now he remembered with breathtaking clarity. Joined to Han and immersed in his presence during those desperate moments, he’d touched everything Han was. The quicksilver spirit, flashing from abrupt temper to laughter and into passion. Loss and resilience and a restless, searching power that enfolded him... Here. Now.
Trailing slow caresses across his throat and chest, Han mapped out places that’d never felt so sensitive before and raised shivers that stole Luke’s breath. A fall of thick, dark hair tickled his collarbone when Han’s mouth followed his hands, conquered him inch by inch, and stripped away the solitude that defined him. Luke’s chest tightened around a violent heartbeat. Duties and necessities had shaped his life since the Empire’s fall, and he’d worn them like a second skin, most of the time barely noticing. But now that armor came apart under Han’s hands, melting off him at every touch. And the feeling that roused ran deeper than pleasure, built beyond those unpredictable currents that crisscrossed beneath the skin.
“Han... what’re you doing?” he breathed, and realized afterwards that he was repeating himself, still mired in amazement.
Han met his eyes with a look of fond exasperation. “Makin’ love to you.”
Laughter hitched in Luke’s chest, and caught on a sharper emotion that seared up his throat. He swallowed. “It’s — you — I never thought...”
“Me neither,” Han stopped him, his voice low and scratchy. “Just tell me what you want.”
“Anything, I don’t know.” A winded laugh finally burst free and broke Luke out of his bewildered state. Rolling them sideways, he twisted his fingers into the thick tangles at Han’s nape. “But I’m sure we’ll find out...”
A hum of consent stirred against his mouth when he pulled Han into another kiss. Half-dizzy with the power of wanting, no longer trapped to circumspection and second thoughts, Luke pressed closer, searched out the warm mouth with his tongue and drew a muffled gasp. He’d been hard for a while, but the pressure in his groin leaped up sharply when his cock rubbed against Han’s hip. A hand circled over the small of his back, and between those points of contact snapped restless sparks that flew the length of his spine.
It took him a while to notice that the towel still covered Han’s loins, more or less, now caught and ruffled up between them. When he slipped a hand down to tug it aside, his fingers caught on the hard jut underneath, and Han rocked towards him with a rough gasp.
“Here, lay back,” Luke murmured, and traced the towel’s seam with his fingertips.
“Now what?” Though Han made a show of stretching lazily, the flicker in his eyes gave him away.
For a dazzled moment, all Luke wanted was to flip the towel aside and fall on him, and it took an effort to quench the impulse. Jedi training had taught him control over physical reflex, over muscles and blood pressure and breathing rate, and he had to bring it all to bear to make himself pause. His glance flew across Han’s body, sprawled on the pale sheet that heightened his skin tone, to take in every line, plane and angle, and guess at potential pleasures he had yet to discover.
“Now,” he answered, bending low, “I want to learn you, touch every part of you.”
And it didn’t matter where he started. While Han’s fingers ran lazy caresses through his hair and down his neck, taste and touch flowed together in a spellbinding current that magnified every detail. Like the pulse jumping in the soft hollow at the base of Han’s throat, echoed further down in a drumbeat under his breastbone.
Hands skating across Han’s ribs, Luke traced his tongue around a dark nipple that stiffened instantly, and a surge of breath passed under his palm in response. He nuzzled and sucked lightly, his own breath coming faster when Han gasped at the brief scrape of teeth and shifted towards him, a sheen of sweat on his chest.
“All of you,” Luke murmured, mouth trailing whispers of blood that played over into his own nervepaths, capturing sensations that stung him unprepared. Always too many of them, burned into his memory and yet fleeting as starfall.
He could feel Han turn into his touch wherever his hands roamed. Excitement clogged in his stomach, a startled kind of joy that belonged to another life, as if years of war and its aftermath had been reduced to a flutter of shadows. Everything banked and buried coming alive again. He placed his lips over the damp skin below Han’s ribcage, lapping at salt as vivid as the sea’s. His palm molded the ridge of a hipbone to slide inward and finally brush the towel aside. Drawn to a source of vibrant heat and a stronger pulse that ran up to a jolt when his fingers curled around the hard shaft. Nothing could be so intoxicating as the solid proof and feel of Han’s desire for him, and his own voice echoed the ragged sound that caught in Han’s throat. Tracing the length of him with a feather-touch, Luke jotted kisses across his abdomen where every muscle pulled tight. He’d rarely let himself indulge fantasies, and he’d never been able to imagine the full of it anyway, the different textures of Han’s skin, the way his breathing roughened and his grip grew fierce with need.
“Luke... you’d better...” Han rasped, but his instant maneuver still caught Luke by surprise. Inside one second, Han hauled him up and across himself.
“...get up here,” he finished.
From somewhere, Luke pieced his answer together. “What about... slow?”
“Gettin’ to the messy part, I guess.” Breathless and grinning, Han met his eyes. “You’ll like it, I promise.”
Luke swallowed as agreement flared rapid reports through every part of his body. “I’ll like it too much.”
“Ain’t no such thing as too much,” Han replied in a low growl that crawled on Luke’s skin.
Strong arms tightened around his waist, settling them into a charged symmetry. Luke tried to brace himself against a fevered rush that thickened in his groin. Thighs aligned with Han’s, he pressed down, the friction between Han’s cock and his own undercutting his breath. As they moved together, live flickers of electricity kindled everywhere, only to fly inward, hard and fast, at the fierce velocity of light.
Luke caught a groan behind his teeth, the fingers of one hand knotting into dark hair while Han’s palms followed a short trajectory down the small of his back. Cradling and coaxing pleasure that blazed out of bounds when Han gripped his buttocks with both hands and pulled him down hard. For a moment, Luke struggled against an overwhelming pitch of pleasure. Han surged up with his hips, holding him centered in a perfect, urgent rhythm. They were trading open-mouthed, short-winded kisses, and tension built like a tide, strung through every muscle, until Luke ached with it. Only the rise and fall of Han’s breath anchored him now. Only the touch of those strong hands, sketching a mirror image of him that he barely recognized, shaped from sensation and desire.
Han’s fingertips drew a trail of shivers as they crept up between his legs, nudged and circled playfully in a tender spot. With the twitch of provoked muscle, a wild tingle raced up Luke’s backbone, goosebumps spreading along his inner thighs. He sprawled his legs in reflex, to give Han better access, and when a circling finger pushed inward and entered him, he rocked back gasping, driving himself into a heated core of pleasure that speared up keen as a laserblast.
Ankles locked over his calves, Han trapped him to that overcharging pressure, pushed and teased in time with their joint rhythm, and it grew unbearable too fast. Each inward motion loosened a jab of pure heat and a thrill that flew from Luke’s gut to his head. Half-shaped sounds struggled in his throat, and Han strained up against him with a rasped curse. Luke squeezed his eyes shut, closing in on heatsparks flitting through the dark, and could still feel Han watch him, to capture whatever his expression might give away, what he couldn’t imagine. Han’s presence cradled him, steady and unrelenting, demanding surrender like his due. Over a distance, Luke heard himself cry out, then stumble into wrenching silence, at the crest of a single white wave that ripped through his middle.
A burst of breath caught him back, left him stranded and trembling — until Han rolled them over and pressed into him with full force, releasing himself to blind instinct. Trapped under his weight, long tremors still churning everywhere, Luke held on, arched into each forward thrust of hips, the push and throb of Han’s cock against him. Han crushed their mouths together one last time, breath spilling over into harsh, throaty sounds, and when a rough tremor broke all through him, Luke could feel it roll beneath his own skin. The thunder of Han’s heartbeat against his ribs, the long, slow ripples as tension faded. With a shaky breath, Han’s lips scaled a blurry path up his throat.
Luke turned his head and carded his fingers through sweat-damp hair. “Was that... messy enough for you?”
Han gave a sound between a gasp and a chuckle, and mouthed something like “oh yeah, pretty much, for now,” but Luke’s heart clenched for no reason. Except one.
Love you, always have.
After another moment, Han levered up with a soft groan of contentment. Affection and mischief curled in the corners of his mouth. “So, what d’you think... is it morning yet?”
Just like that, it stole Luke’s breath. He hadn’t enough of a voice left to answer and pulled Han’s hand down over his heart instead. An unfathomable change came over Han’s expression, his glance dark and liquid as he leaned down to brush a kiss against Luke’s mouth.
“I know, kid, I know...”
Luke wrapped both arms around his neck. Perhaps he’d kept his secret out of fear for so long — now it was safe with Han. Just as he was, at home inside his own body in a way he’d never anticipated.
The moment his mind stirred out of sleep, he’d been aware of Luke beside him as if Luke’s presence in his bed was the most natural thing. Long overdue. The curve of Luke’s spine against his chest, even breaths rising and ebbing beneath his arm that kept Luke close. Before Han was fully awake, he’d brushed lazy kisses against the bent neck and down Luke’s jaw. And the sparkle in Luke’s eyes when he turned, tousled and blinking and too damn gorgeous, had been something to see...
Unfortunately, Luke’s infallible sense of priorities had kicked in before Han could turn his drowsy advances into a serious distraction. Somebody out there had hired loose and lethal guns, and they’d better shape up to avoid the next brush with disaster. So get up and get dressed was the word, no more leeway left for sensual detours. Han grimaced as he turned off the shower, his skin prickling with more than the sonic scrubbing. Well, the quicker they got this blasted mess sorted out, the sooner he’d be free to focus exclusively on personal matters.
When he entered the lounge, whistling through his teeth, mouth-watering scents rose from the direction of the kitchen counter. True to his promise, Luke had programmed the food processor for something rich in proteins and healthy nutrients. But Luke himself was already seated by the console again, chewing on what looked to be a cheese stick.
“Any news?” Although Han’s stomach gave an impatient growl, he took himself over to the business side of the room.
“A text message from Claine,” Luke answered without turning. “Shall I open it?”
“Yeah, sure.” Han leaned against the console instead of sitting down and could virtually feel the day point itself downhill. One way or another, whatever his sister had dug up was bound to make him feel incompetent.
“Unfortunately,” Luke read her message out to him, “your friend was both paranoid and thorough. Working through his encryption took hours, and he ran background checks on an impressive number of Alliance staff over the last few days. The list of names and service codes and some details that seemed conspicuous is appended below.”
Crisp and to the point, that was Claine. Not a word wasted on pleasantries. Han folded his arms and sighed.
Pausing just long enough to slant him a curious glance, Luke continued with the message. “Mack’s backup files weren’t queued chronologically, and without the proper timeframe, I can’t identify his prime suspect. I’d need access to his interface to reconstruct that. Don’t think I can make it to the capital before afternoon, but I’ll let you know.”
“Wait, wait, she’s planning to come here and join the fun?” Restless discomfort took up lodging in Han’s stomach. “Just what I needed!”
“She may well be the best possible replacement for Artoo,” Luke returned, deadpan. “Every bit as stubborn and unstoppable.”
“Yeah, like a blasted midwinter squall,” Han muttered.
Luke swallowed a chuckle and ran a hand up Han’s arm instead, giving it a slight squeeze. “Let’s check out the list she sent. Maybe these names will bring something to mind...”
“Right.” Han slid a glance over his shoulder, at the breakfast tray waiting on the counter. “Guess I should refuel while we do that, huh?”
But once he’d seated himself with a filled plate in his lap, he didn’t quite notice flavors anymore. Mack’s extravagant list of suspects turned into a challenging round of mind tag right away. There were eleven names, in total, and some of them had Han flipping back through a jumble of meetings and chance encounters before he could put a face to them. In some cases, he drew a total blank.
“Tribyndol?” he echoed. “What kinda name is that?”
“Second Secretary with the Department of Commerce,” Luke read off the screen.
“All right, I remember. Everybody on the top floor calls him Tribbs.” Han frowned, plunged through a scattered handful of memories and came up with nothing conclusive. “He’s all numbers, no sense of humor but capable of quoting you statistics left and right like it’s some kinda sport. Got contacts by the plenty among the captains of industry...” He trailed off with a shrug.
“Maybe that made Mack wonder about a hidden agenda,” Luke offered.
“Maybe.” Han skewered a piece of grilled toast and popped it in his mouth. “But unless we pull up his personnel file, there’s nothing more I can tell you about the man. Goes to show that Mack was working with these people for weeks before they tied me to the executive chair.” And I couldn’t be bothered, he added for himself. Never planned to stay on anyway.
Leaning back from the screen, Luke studied him with quiet attention. “Well, the extent of his research shows that Mack couldn’t do more than follow up on a hunch or another.”
Still makes me feel incompetent, Han thought grouchily, and squinted at the next name on the list. “Cerrick? That’s absurd.”
“His position gives him a strategic advantage,” Luke pointed out. “He’s able to pull a lot of strings, and no one will question his decisions.”
“Nah...” Han let his fork drop against the plate. “Cerrick’s all military discipline, down to the bone. Takes someone devious to cook up a scheme like that, and whatever his middle name may be, it ain’t Devious.”
“Something must have made Mack wonder about him though...” Luke skimmed the paragraph attached to Cerrick’s service code. “He joined the Rebel Alliance during the year before the battle of Endor, the only survivor of a bombing on Ceelab Two.”
“A trade outpost near the Magellian Straits,” Han supplied. “Don’t see how that makes him suspect.”
“No papers, no history in the records.” Luke tapped the screen with his thumb. “I suppose that’s what got Mack onto his track.”
“Yeah, well, Mack’s Corellian...” Was, Han corrected himself with a short, bitter twinge. “Family and histories, true-blooded Corellians can’t think to live without ‘em,” he continued with some heat. “If someone doesn’t conform to that pattern, it’s bound to set their teeth on edge.”
“Well.” Luke smiled. “I left Tatooine without anything to confirm my identity. Like so many among the Rebel troops.” The placating note in his voice reached out to Han and made him aware of the bristle in his posture.
“Sore spot,” he admitted, setting his plate aside.
“And now that Claine’s involved...” Instead of finishing, Luke swung his chair sideways and curled his fingers around Han’s wrist.
Nothing short of amazing, how such a simple gesture could blow warmth all the way down to his stomach. With a rueful grin, Han linked their fingers. “One of these days, I’ll get over myself.”
“Not sure if I want you to,” Luke answered quietly. “If you know what I mean.”
And perhaps he didn’t, not exactly. But something in Luke’s eyes settled him, as if all the recent troubles could scatter and vanish like so much space dust. Han took a deep breath. On with it, he summoned himself, before his mind could veer off course again.
Next on the list was Finn Merlow, the current Captain of Security, widely known for his patriotic fervor.
“But it’s all out in the open with him,” Han argued. “If he was scheming to rid Corellia of outside interference, you’d think he’d keep a low profile.”
“He could be hiding in plain sight,” Luke proposed without much conviction. “And his ties to the resistance would allow him to recruit some of the radicals, too.”
They traded long, frustrated glances and went back to the list that refused to yield persuasive clues, right up to the end. The only feature all those suspects shared was a position somewhere high up in the new administration.
Han rose to clear the remains of breakfast away. “I think I’ll contact Merlow,” he said, indulging a hunch of his own. “He ‘n Cerrick argued about Dorn’s escape yesterday, and Merlow nearly blew a fuse over having his crew accused of collaboration. But whatever went down, he’s bound to take a good, hard look at Dorn’s connections. Maybe he’s come up with something.”
As it turned out, Captain Merlow had used the intervening hours to dig deep through the muck of Dorn’s activities. He took Han’s call in his office, datascreens flashing busily in the background, and rattled off the results with an obvious eagerness to restore his spotless professional repute.
“Here’s the most interesting thing,” he said. “Dorn opened an account with CorelCorp nine days ago and received a payment of twenty thousand credits within hours. The transfer was channeled through several exchange agencies, but we’ve been able to trace it back to Nobles Credit Union on Sullust.”
“Right in the middle of Alliance territory,” Han commented with a frown.
“And that bank is the keeper of most Alliance trusts, too,” Captain Merlow added. “We’ve filed a request for access to the transaction details, depositor’s ID and so forth, but procedures of that kind always take a while.” He paused, discomfort tightening his features. “Perhaps you’ll need to consider whether you made serious enemies within the Alliance at some point.”
“You know how it is, Captain,” Han returned with forced nonchalance. “Once they put you in charge and you try out a couple unconventional ideas, it’s gonna rub some people the wrong way.”
“I do know.” Merlow smiled thinly. “We’re looking into all of Dorn’s business contacts, of course. His stash of guns and fireworks gave us a number of leads. I’ll keep you posted.”
When he’d signed off, Han pulled a face. “Twenty thousand? Didn’t know my selling rate’d dropped that low. Times were, the tag to my name said two-hundred-fifty.”
Luke shot him a quelling glance. “Better be glad those days are over.”
“Question is,” Han returned, “who shelled out those twenty thousand?”
“Whoever it was, it’s someone with Alliance ties. Someone on the inside. Mack had it right.” Unease showed in the tense set of Luke’s shoulders. Even though they’d tackled the matter from that angle since the night before, it still went against all of his ingrained beliefs, Han could tell. “But that doesn’t mean—”
“That I’ve got it coming ‘cause I stepped on too many Rebel toes?” Han tried his level best to project unconcern and lighten the mood. “Hey, you should’ve heard our old friend Madine yell at me, last time we discussed strategies for taking Corellia.”
But of course Luke wouldn’t let him brush it off like that. Count on him to press for the truth, no matter what. “You don’t seriously think that anyone from Rebel Alliance days would harbor enough of a grudge to send a hired killer after you.”
“Nope.” Han spread his hands. “Not that I’d know, anyway.” Before Luke could contest that, he added, “I never really threw in with the Rebellion, remember? Not ‘til we got back with the Fleet, found out about the second Death Star — I volunteer for the mission, and bam! suddenly I’m a general. Not everyone who’d been struggling up the ranks cheered, I can tell you that.” Han paused, recalling the looks he’d received back in the days when the Rebel Alliance was a hybrid bred from guerilla attitudes, military discipline, and hyped-up idealism. Looks that spelled fake, intruder, and far less flattering things. “I was never one of them.”
He glanced up just in time to catch a volatile look on Luke’s face. “You’re not alone.”
Funny how that quiet statement could fold around him like a sweep of daylight, and still trigger jabs of old grief at the same time. Han pushed from his chair as if that could dislodge the feeling.
“Story of my life.” But it didn’t come out as flippant as he’d planned. Unrest worked through him again, demanding motion, and made him pace the room’s width. By an uncanny pricking at the back of his neck, he could tell Luke’s gaze followed him across to the large window.
Both hands set on the window-ledge, Han stared out at the familiar view — endlessly rolling ocean and clouds sliced into streamers by the gales — that should signal the Corellian brand of freedom, and somehow didn’t. Not anymore.
“Same thing here,” he said with a rough gesture at the vista. “I just... don’t belong.”
Only for a moment, only when he’d made planetfall, stepped out on a landing pad above the harbor and got a good lungful of the briny air, he’d fooled himself enough to believe that this homecoming could work a miracle cure somehow.
“When I got here and started talking to those resistance hotshots,” Han went on, “I could just see myself, back when. Big mouth, big claims, and no real clue.”
“Back when translates as ‘long before we met’, I suppose.” Luke’s tone held tacit humor, an attempt to take the edge off his temper. “Come to think of it, big mouth does ring a bell...”
Han threw him a quick glance over his shoulder. From here, they could ease back into friendly banter, but a fractious heat kept roiling in his gut. Ever since he’d accepted this posting, Corellia had trapped him in a welter of recognition, resentment, and false starts.
“Sometimes I look at my life,” he said before he could give it another thought, “and all that jumps out is missed chances.”
Sarcasm took an instant shot at that piece of insight. Feeling sorry for yourself, Solo? And just where was all this morose claptrap coming from, when he’d opened his eyes to a day as bright as promise, a mere hour ago? He turned around slowly.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Luke offered, his expression as quiet as his voice, screening something intensely personal from view.
Missed chances. You ‘n me. Right. Han’s shoulders settled on a slowly exhaled breath. On a stirring of misplaced hopes. No matter what Luke was thinking, no matter what might yet develop between them, there was no way he’d overtax it with an absurd identity crisis of his own making. He wouldn’t latch on to Luke and expect him to work the kinks out of his life’s fabric.
“Still got a lot of things to sort out for myself,” Han replied. The best he could offer, vague as it was.
“Sure.” Luke’s face revealed nothing but calm acceptance of facts. Prepared to wait, maybe, or prepared for a letdown. “If you’re asking me to stand back and let you face those things in your own time, that’s all right. I don’t mean to... add to the pressure.”
“Hell, you don’t,” Han shot back and heard the bite in his own voice too late. Undeserved, when Luke simply offered whatever he needed. But the thing was, he couldn’t respond in kind.
Han lowered his glance after a moment. A strained silence gathered between them. There were so many things he wanted to say to Luke, a jumble of conflicting notions he couldn’t work into anything clear-cut, not in an unsettled mood like this. And behind it all, he could feel the sting of a wish, crazy and unreliable as it was, for all things to just click into place, only because Luke was here now, because together they could —
“You know me,” Han cut the thought before it could derail any further. “You know what I am... and what I’m not.”
A flash in Luke’s eyes dispelled his practiced composure. “What’s that supposed to mean, Han?”
Right at that moment, the comlink chirped again. Saved by the bell, because he’d run out of answers again. With a disgruntled shrug, Han strode over to the console. To his surprise, the screen brightened around the ruddy features of Finn Merlow once more.
“That was quick,” Han muttered in Luke’s direction and pushed a hand through his hair. “Got news for us, Captain? Anything about Dorn’s shady contacts?”
“It seems we’ve located the man himself.” Merlow wore the glowy look of accomplishment now. “One of our informers spotted him near the old freighter bays, north of the harbor. You’re familiar with the area?”
Han nodded. “Spice Dealers’ Central, they call it on the streets. Better assemble a big strike team, if you’re planning to go in.”
“At present, we’re hoping to extract Dorn without stirring up major trouble,” Merlow answered. “I’ve already dispatched a surveillance detail to keep an eye on him and identify his contacts. But unless he turns and runs, they’ll wait for an opportunity to seize him quietly.”
“Right.” Han pictured the scene with growing unease. The warren of derelict bays provided exits and escape routes by the plenty, and if things got messy, the security team could easily end up trapped and outgunned. “Tell your people to be very careful.”
“Dorn won’t give us the slip again, General,” Merlow promised, misreading his concerns. “I’ll be in touch again as soon as we’ve got the area surrounded.” He cut the connection with a tip to his temple, sketching the traditional Corellian salute.
“What’s he doing in a drug dealers’ den?” Han voiced his first thought — and waved it aside with an impatient motion. Once they had Dorn, they might be able to wring some solid clues from him. But Security had failed once before to keep the man shackled and locked up.
Han straightened, settling one hip against the console. “Unless Merlow’s people are really sharp, they’ll lose him again. It’s not just a couple of old bays and docks out there, we’re talking about a regular maze, part of it extending underground where they used to stock cargo. You need to know your way round the place.”
“And you do?” Luke was watching him with a wary expression.
“Used to be one of my hangouts as a kid.” Han let his glance drift past him, into a hodgepodge of memories gathering on the edges of his mind. “One segment was still in use, back then.”
Blurred by distance, memory coalesced around a jet blaze carving its brilliant signature across the evening sky. Too many times, he’d plotted to stow away on one of the space-bound freight ships heading out to some exotic destination in the Outer Rim. The tug of freedom like an ache in his gut.
Han slapped a hand against his thigh and pushed away from the console. “Guess I’ll join up with Merlow’s team. You coming?”
“You can’t be serious.” Luke stared at him as if he’d proposed a cruise through the nearest black hole. “You’re a target, Han! And you’ve just described the kind of locale where anyone could take a shot at you and vanish in the crowd. What if it’s a trap?”
Han pulled up his shoulders. “Pretty elaborate trap, don’t you think? I could’ve been hustled off-planet meanwhile, for all Dorn knows.”
“True, but Merlow was on Mack’s list,” Luke countered, not giving him an inch.
“So? He never even asked me to get involved in their operation.” Han squared his jaw, refusing to discard his gut instinct that vouched for Merlow’s clean slate. “And if he’d played any part in this goddamn scheme, why would he even try to recapture Dorn now?”
“You’ve got nothing but his word for that. His claim that someone spotted Dorn.” Luke hammered out his argument with a shade of steel in his tone. “Could be a fabrication.”
Han set his teeth on a curse and turned sideways. They’d reached an impasse. Much as he wanted to shoot down all those objections, Luke had a point. And from the look he wore right now, Han knew he wouldn’t talk his way past all that stubborn determination either, might as well save his breath.
Goddamnit all... Driven by a blind need to move, he stalked back to the window. Clouds were drawing up in slate-grey billows, as they usually did before the tide’s turn at noon. Gotta get out of here, snapped through his head, and his gut tightened on that fretful instinct. Sensible, it wasn’t. But ever since he’d been shot, he’d felt caught in a seesaw of uncertainties that mixed up all his bearings and priorities.
“Han...” Luke stepped up behind him, an appeal to reason in his calm voice. “It’s possible that Security will run into trouble they don’t expect. Or it could be a setup, and Merlow and whoever he’s in league with are hoping you’ll take the bait. At present, we have no way of knowing that.”
“Yeah, so? What’re we gonna do about it?” Han swung back around — and his temper abruptly lost momentum.
Luke faced him with an unreadable expression, every private response forced from sight. He was looking at the Jedi now, not the man he’d spent the last night with, and it threw him off-stride to realize just how fast Luke could summon all that flawless detachment.
“It makes absolutely no sense for you to throw yourself into the middle of it,” Luke said evenly.
“Maybe not, but it’s driving me crazy to just sit here ‘n wait for answers like I’m some — some—”
“What, Han?” Luke’s tone softened a little.
Han gestured emptily. “Guess that’s where the phrase ‘sitting duck’ applies.”
“Shielded and heavily guarded duck would be more accurate.” The shadow of a smile stole across Luke’s mouth. “Or... bristling duck maybe? But I suppose that’s what Leia would call a skewed metaphor.”
Despite himself, Han chuckled dryly. “Yeah, sure, go right ahead ‘n have fun at my expense.”
“I’m afraid for you, and I just can’t help it,” Luke answered, serious again in a blink, but no longer armored in shock-proof dispassion. “Look, if you’re not sure Merlow’s crew can handle it, let me go and check out the situation. If there’s anything wrong, it should be easy for me to pick up any sense of—”
“While I’m cooped up here?” Han shook his head, fumbling for another rebuttal, but he’d somehow run out of steam over the past few minutes.
“Where a full detail of Alliance guards is watching over you,” Luke reminded him. “And don’t forget, Claine said she’d let you know when to expect her.”
“The joy,” Han muttered darkly. “Wouldn’t wanna miss it.”
“I won’t be gone for long.”
And that clinched the deal, even though he hadn’t strictly agreed to Luke’s plan yet.
“Call up my office, they’ll supply the coordinates,” Han made himself relent. “Might be wiser than letting Merlow know what you’re up to.”
Luke gave a curt nod, too much caution and discipline still written across his features. Han watched him fetch his jacket and weapons belt without another word, and a sinking feeling settled into his bones. Considering how he’d done his damnedest to take last night’s closeness apart, perhaps Luke needed to get away from him, too, be on his own for a while. But even as he acknowledged that, Han set himself in motion, intercepting Luke on his way to the door.
“Luke, wait.” He cleared his throat, like the first-class fool he was. “I’m sorry. The things I said...” Though he’d likely picked all the wrong words, he couldn’t disclaim the real trouble behind them. Couldn’t just leave it at that either, so he added, “Didn’t mean to push you away.”
“I know,” Luke stopped him, and reached out, perhaps intending no more than a conciliatory gesture — but it was all the opening Han needed. He slung an arm around Luke’s shoulders and reeled him into a tight embrace.
“Luke...” When he lowered his head, his mouth brushed the soft, blond hair, and remembered sensations crawled down his back. “Just... be goddamn careful, all right?”
It was all he could say for the moment, everything else put on hold once more. Luke pulled away slowly, his hands sliding down Han’s shoulders to close around his arms. “You too. Call me if there’s anything.”
Minutes later, Han was still gazing blankly at the closed door of his apartment. Now that he’d calmed down, he could see all too clearly how he’d slipped back into old patterns of defense and retreat. Luke deserved a whole lot better than that.
Better than you, pal, Han aimed a cutting barb at himself, and that’s for sure. In all rationality, a bad-tempered, driftless ex-pirate wasn’t anybody’s dream, couldn’t possibly be what Luke needed to make his life complete. But Han caught himself wishing all the same, wishing hard he could be just that.
The past night had made it all too easy to forget that Han’s life was still at stake, that a malicious intrigue was playing itself out somewhere behind the scenes. And they had no way of knowing when and where the next blow would land.
Han is as safe as he can be, right where he is, Luke repeated to himself. He’d made sure to check up on the deployment of guards before he’d left the apartment complex. There were six of them now, handpicked marksmen covering each exit and entrance from different angles. Dobson had resumed duty as well, and from his post by the front doors, he’d thrown Luke a snappy salute. He was going to make up for his blunder the day before, that gesture and the tight set of his jaw announced.
Luke checked the small navi-screen for distances again. The light-blip that marked his progress was moving ahead at a crawl, and insistent premonition was balling up in his stomach. I shouldn’t have left Han on his own... It wasn’t a warning that reached him through the Force, just a mix of private, irrational misgivings, because right now it seemed that an unexpected, blazing start had slammed into a dead end. All in the space of twenty hours.
With a deep breath, Luke threaded the glider into a lower lane. Calm. At peace. He’d learned to live with fear. He should be able to push those wild flares of hope, frustration, longing from mind, too, and much quicker than this. But his inner senses were tied up in vivid recollection, reliving a sense of freedom that had carried him through the night, like a promise. Perhaps he should have expected that Han would pull back again, that the sudden change in their relationship would add to the pressures, the loss of direction Han was struggling with. Instead, he’d thrown himself headlong into something beyond prediction and control...
No good. Luke bit his teeth together and once more focused his senses ahead. Beyond bristling towers, the wide inlet showed in silver strips, the sea flashing with distant light. He slipped on the headset, activated the comlink and tapped in Han’s clearance code. Perhaps he could gain some insight by listening in on Security’s communications.
“...Runner Three, standing by,” was the first thing he heard, the words bobbing on a surge of static. “Still clear in my sights, approaching position one-four.”
Sticking with the good old tradition of clandestine operations, all the participants related their news in code. IDs, numbers, and coordinates Luke couldn’t translate on short notice. All he gathered was that Security had started to tighten the net around their target. Which meant, at least, that Dorn’s presence around the old freighter bays hadn’t been fabricated as the centerpiece of a trap.
He could see the bays now, a cluster of structures that must have grown in layers during the years of expanding interstellar trade. Different building materials and different styles heaped on top of each other, until the entire area was overgrown with lock-slab and duracrete. Metallic reflections glanced off the Sound as Luke crossed it, nosing his glider down towards the deserted fringe between the docks and a first row of hangars. Most of the vehicles parked there looked as if they’d been left to corrode into an ancient runway, but he spotted a pristine black hull amid those metal carcasses that signaled the presence of Security.
Cutting speed, Luke cast about for an inconspicuous spot to leave the glider and threw his senses wide open. A buzz of dissolute energies rushed back at him. Totally focused now, he sifted through them, pared away swirls of troubled appetites and ambitions, to home in on a wary tension that defined the hunters and their prey.
That was when a first true warning struck, like a hard, cold glint of unfiltered starlight. And he knew at once that he’d got it all wrong.
Han grabbed a small varidriver and began working his way towards an array of filters. None of the wiring made much sense to him, and some of the components dangled precariously within that untidy web. Cheap job, for sure. Han grunted. There was a fair chance he’d end up disemboweling the processor without a result to show for his efforts, but the hell with it.
’Least I tried. His mouth curled with annoyance. So try harder.
Part of his mind picked through power leads and control units, and another was running loose with apprehensions and afterthoughts. Chains of cause and effect lashing about, like cut cables still spitting vicious sparks. He could almost feel Claine watch over his shoulder, with that disparaging look of hers. Last time they’d talked — some twelve years ago? — even the grainy visual couldn’t conceal the thunderclouds in her eyes. So stay away, Han, that’s how you want it anyway, isn’t it? Her voice edged with a deadly frost she’d perfected over the years. Kin-wrecked, Corellian tradition used to call it, when a family had disclaimed all ties to a certain individual. And if there was a way to revoke that, he’d never heard of it.
Ghosts from the past. Typical, that they’d pick a moment like this to swoop in and take digs at him. Han plucked a datacube from its wobbly mounting and turned it over in his fingers, none too sure of its function. At least he could see the filter array now, sitting right behind the heater coil. But another face swam up at the same time, escaping the strongrooms at the back of his mind.
Mack’s pale, freckled features, broadcasting enthusiasm and nervous energy by equal degrees. Mackerel, they’d called him in the military, perhaps because his eyes were too large for his thin face, and that got shortened to Mack, effacing all memory of his birthname. No one in his family had survived the Imperial takeover, and now he was gone too, because he’d been too goddamn brave and stupid thinking he could hunt down a faceless traitor unnoticed. Should’ve warned him, should’ve kept him from it...
Han scraped his hand on the heater coil and pulled it back with a curse. The darn thing had a sharp edge, and he’d better keep his mind on fixing what could still be fixed, instead of indulging a useless jumble of hindsight and regret.
Claine. Mack. And Luke.
Instinctively, Han braced against a reaction he couldn’t control. An odd tightness grabbed his throat, and a heated sting flew up from his stomach. Elation, desire, rebellion, all tangled together. He rocked back on his heels. Last night’s memory still retained that raw quality of revelation, still refused to align with the phalanx of facts.
Goddamnit, Luke, you just took me by surprise... Han paused in the middle of that thought. True enough, on the surface: he’d never expected more than friendship, had never spared a thought for a wider range of possibilities. But he also remembered his immediate response to Luke’s com-call — the first after three months of silence — announcing that he was on his way to Corellia. A dazzled kind of relief striking home far beyond all the rationalizations he’d employed to keep unease and disappointment at bay. He’s back kept running through his head like a message of deliverance. About an hour later, Mack had pointed out that he was wearing the look of a man who’d hit some legendary jackpot.
Han straightened and glanced across the mess of components, screws and clamps that now littered the kitchen counter. Too close a reflection of his own mental processes maybe. But once he’d turned back at Yavin Four, he’d never questioned the impulse that drew him to Luke’s side. Mostly because it was unique, a rogue force that didn’t require a label when its primary effect was a blazing victory. They’d shot down the Death Star together, proof enough that his instincts had been right on target. All through his uneasy attachment to the Alliance, the bond he shared with Luke had been the one steady factor. Unbreakable, no matter what.
Well, it ain’t gonna break now. Han folded his arms and tried to get a lock on too many discordant feelings. But in the middle of it all, the way he felt about Luke stood out clear and sharp, untouched by the churning rest. That big, cloudy swirl of secret hopes, discontent, and an unnerving sense of... insufficiency.
I can’t be what you want, what you need. That was the troubled backbeat running through his head. Han snorted softly. As if Luke still needed to be introduced to the shadier sides of his past, or his shortcomings? And who was he to question Luke’s choice? He shifted his glance to the window, to the grey cloud-drifts and a faint drizzle trailing patterns down the glass. All right, so he’d argued with Luke’s decisions time and again, but maybe in this one case he should back off and trust Luke’s instincts. Trust his own feelings too, for a change.
A nervous frisson chased through Han’s belly as he abandoned the gutted processor and began rummaging for a leftover bottle of Corellian ale. That was when his portable comlink whistled.
Han plunged for it, unrest blooming into full-blown tension within a heartbeat. But when he grabbed up the comlink and switched it on, it wasn’t Luke’s voice that filtered through.
“General, we’ve got an emergency here.” Cerrick, sounding oddly short-winded. “I’ve only just arrived—”
“Wait, where?” Han broke in. “Here? Place where I live?”
“Yes, sir,” Cerrick confirmed in clipped tones. “Lieutenant Dobson alerted me to some suspicious movements. We’re checking the perimeter as we speak.”
“They’re trying to access the complex from...” Cerrick’s explanations drowned in a sudden spate of static. “...guards to the beach.”
“Repeat that?” Han snapped. “I can’t hear you!” He jogged over to the window in the alcove that gave the best view over the shielded beach. Rain pattered against the window-pane and riddled the vista, but he could spot furtive motion by the clutch of pine trees.
“...trying to jam our frequencies,” Cerrick’s voice emerged again from the sputtering white noise. “They’re coming in from the sea.”
Eyes squinted, Han pushed closer to the glass. The tide was on the turn now, and the sea a roil of building waves. Far out in the distance hovered a squat shape that might be a bulk trawler. Closer to the beach, just beyond the clipping angle of the tide wall, a scatter of black rocks jutted from the waters. Waves clashed into them and gushed up, but Han thought he could see dark forms move among the whitecaps.
“...under control, General,” Cerrick was saying. “Stay right where you are until—”
An ominous sound cut him off, a background plop and sizzle that released a trickle of adrenaline into Han’s blood. Assault rifle, he thought automatically.
“Cerrick?” he barked into the comlink. “Cerrick, you read me? What’s going on?”
Nothing but static answered back. Han’s glance tracked along the tide wall, caught on shadowy movement right there, when a jab of lightning erupted beneath the trees. A second discharge answered the first and bathed the grove in lethal brilliance.
Han blinked away the afterimage. Cerrick must’ve summoned some of the guards to the beach, but surely he’d left at least two to watch the front entrance. And how many adversaries were they facing down there? Adrenaline flushed Han’s veins, accelerating his decision. Inside one breath, he’d strapped his blaster to his thigh.
Shielded duck, my aft. He’d be damned if he stayed holed up here, waiting for the troops of doom to blast their way in. Like Mack, for all the good it did him. On his way to the door, he picked up another charge pak for his blaster. And then he was heading out at full speed.
I should’ve known, should’ve known... With an angry kick to the aft thrusters, Luke tried the comlink one more time. Yet Han’s private frequency hissed with static, and the military channel had locked itself down. Please hold the line, a nasal, mechanized voice kept repeating. Please hold the line while we try to connect you. Ridiculous. Luke swore under his breath. At his push to the altitude lever, the glider plunged down and bypassed a group of hovertrucks that flashed their headlights at him. Like a visual echo to recurrent bursts of adrenaline.
Relax, he commanded himself, the sharpness of that inner voice subverting his purpose. Alarm swamped his senses with blinding intensity. Luke took a long, calming breath. No distance in the Force. You can do this. And the glacial flare dimmed, eased into familiar, radiant currents as he centered himself. From every direction, a teeming blur of energies washed up against his senses, but he brushed them aside like vapors, his innermost perception bent on tracing Han’s lifesense. A mere thread among the multitude of signatures, and yet he found it with ease, vivid and glittering like the sun-brushed sea.
Han... A thoughtless call arced out, as if he could truly hope to reach Han this way.
From one moment to the other, something stole the sights in front of him. An eruption of white fire eclipsed the cityscape, and a different reality unfolded. A gun-barrel lowered, black against the sullen sky. Whitecaps rode up a cliff. A limp hand rested pale and disconnected in a curl of seaweeds. Out of a frozen silence, the tableau pieced itself together. Alliance uniforms, moving under trees, illuminated in flashes of crossfire. A dark stain spreading rapidly on white — the white of Han’s shirt — and more blood trickled down his chin, unnoticed. The tall body wheeled, jerked with the impact of another shot, and another —
Luke gasped. Panic jolted him from the inrush of vision, and next he had to throw the glider into a sharp left turn, to scrape past a com spire that reared up in front of him. He clamped down on an anguished sound and fought to realign his focus. A deep tremor ran through him, just as it had on Dagobah, when Han’s scream had shattered through his soul. But it was the same thing now: a collision of disparate times. What he’d just witnessed need not be happening this very moment, need not happen at all.
Han, he thought, blocking everything else from mind. And like a beacon within the restless torrent, Luke found reassurance, a lifepulse as strong as before. Not now. The future. Relief took his breath away and careened into the stark knowledge of danger.
Time’s always in motion, he reminded himself as he revved the glider’s engines, speed limits be damned. He still had a chance to change the course of the future.
Nothing unusual leaped out at him when he reached the apartment complex, a few minutes later. Except for a sleek government vehicle, parked close to the entrance. Repulsor steams hissed as Luke vaulted over the glider’s side, forcing himself to cast a long glance about. He unholstered his blaster. There, by the hedge that screened off the flitterpark, a dark object contrasted sharply with the vibrant, tended green. Not an object, a body, he realized in another split second, an Alliance guard dropped by some hidden gun.
“Dobson?” Luke shouted as he sprinted past, and couldn’t spare a moment to check up on the other man’s condition, or call his name to mind. A soft drizzle cooled his face. Lieutenant Dobson was nowhere in sight.
With another burst of speed, Luke flung himself through the glistening slide doors. His bearings were clear. Drawn to the beach on the far side of the complex, he barreled down the central hallway and whipped out his comlink in mid-run. One more chance — and he tried Security this time. Like a phantom from another reality, a crisp voice answered him.
“Emergency override,” Luke rapped out, “General Solo’s residence under attack. We need backup.”
Glowpanels lit up sluggishly down the hallway, while the security officer on duty acknowledged his request. Dead ahead, a pair of transparent doors framed a section of the beach, ash-grey in the soggy daylight. Luke made himself slow down. Charging out like a wounded Gundark could too easily unbalance a volatile situation, or turn him into a target. When motion sensors unsealed the doors for him, he slipped out in a crouching run and took cover behind some spindly bushes that flanked the exit.
No sound, though shots must have been fired a short while ago. A biting whiff of ozone lingered somewhere close. At counterpoint with his racing heartbeat, a slow surge filled Luke’s senses. The incoming tide, he realized with delay. Heightened perception turned the rush of waves into a roar, salt stung in his eyes, and the patters of rain on sand inserted percussive plops like the rhythm of alarm. With a long breath, Luke let it wash and drain from his senses. His back to the wall, the cocked blaster in one hand, he stretched into the Force.
Swept up to hover with the silky rainfall, his vision ranged across the quiet beach, where a pair of bodies had fallen in a heap, waves lapping at their tangled limbs. Not Alliance guards, these men were covered head to foot in black wetsuits. Pronged metal wings hid the lower halves of their faces, gleaming like visors. Artificial gills, Luke identified these devices, and the overall picture cleared. An attack from the sea had caught the watch unprepared.
Up on the slope near the tide wall, he located the bodies of two guards, and a third — still alive — who’d taken shelter behind the trunk of a pine, but his awareness was already swerving towards the waterline. Before he quite knew it, Luke moved again, following a rough trajectory that would take him to Han’s side — and almost tripped over Dobson’s crumpled form. The lieutenant’s chest moved with slow, laborious breaths. Not dead, just stunned. The drizzle ran cold trails down Luke’s neck, joining a trickle of premonition. Why should hired killers spare a guard’s life? And how many more of them lurked nearby, preparing their next attack?
Through the screen of bushes, his eyes were drawn back to the tide wall, its massive bulk blackened by the rain. Mere steps from the restless waves, Han crouched against the wall’s lower end, the primed blaster in his fist. Guarding the slumped form of another man in Alliance uniform. Through a swell of wild relief, Luke refocused his attention. On the other side of that wall, danger amassed, segregating into the combat alert that emanated from three — no, four — hidden assassins.
Luke acted without thinking. He stepped from the bushes and fired the moment a black shape scaled the top of the wall. He felt more than saw Han whip to his feet before the body tumbled down, landing with a thud in the wet sand.
“Han! Stay where you are!” Command surged in Luke’s voice, and for the moment that their eyes locked, he caught a dark flicker of recognition in Han’s glance. Perhaps Han had felt his warning through the Force. And he might well undercut Han’s reflexes, Luke acknowledged, if he gave in to impulse like this and touched his mind with unchecked alarm.
Beside Han, the man he’d been guarding staggered to his feet — and only then did Luke recognize Commander Cerrick who stared around white-faced and fumbled with the settings of his blaster.
He muttered something Luke didn’t catch when a suspicion of movement tore his glance back up. The shot he fired blindly was echoed by a discharge from Han’s blaster, overlapping with a laserbolt that streaked out from the grove, and a hoarse cry. Luke dropped and rolled as their shots were returned from the wall’s crown. For a few moments, sizzling plasma beams and laser blasts charged the air, mad glitters refracted by the rain. Luke had just regained his feet when Han’s choked-off curse struck him like a ricochet. And a lethal frost pierced his awareness.
One attacker had been struck down atop the wall, arms dangling, and his cohorts had either been thrown back or plunged for cover, but Commander Cerrick had locked his arm around Han’s neck, and his blaster muzzle bit into Han’s unprotected throat.
“Back off!” Cerrick snarled in Luke’s direction. “Drop your weapons, both of you!”
Mouth set in a tight, pale line, Han complied. Luke let his own blaster slide to the ground and raised empty hands as he stepped towards them. The cool weight of his lightsaber brushed against his thigh, a node of dormant energy ready to ignite at a single command.
“I said, back off!” Cerrick repeated. Nudging Han with his blaster, he dragged him step by step towards the waterfront. “Come no closer, or Solo dies.”
“And then how do you think to escape?” Luke retorted. A glacial calm entered his voice as he focused his mind to probe Cerrick’s intent. The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded, Ben had told him so long ago, but he’d referred to the drill-battered minds of stormtroopers, not an iron will like the Commander’s. As he felt along the man’s defenses, Luke traced resentment, a barrier of bitter loss and prejudice hammered into place. Absolute conviction, the kind he wouldn’t overcome short of breaking Cerrick’s spirit.
“Stand back, and nobody gets hurt,” Cerrick claimed. A patent lie. No matter what his exact plans were, he’d use Han as a shield only so long as it suited him. They were knee-deep in the water by now. At their backs, waves splashed about the wall’s outer buttress. Roughly ten meters, Luke estimated the distance between them. Close enough to read the fierce regret in Han’s eyes, mixed with anger and battle alert. But still too far to save him. Quick as he was with his lightsaber, its flare and flight would still leave Cerrick enough time to pull the trigger.
“You’ll get nowhere like this,” Luke said aloud. “What is this, a private vendetta? Or has somebody bought your loyalties?”
Deliberately, he threw out suspicions that went wide off the mark. Neither greed nor personal grudges drove Cerrick. The Commander’s features steeled into an expression of scorn.
“Rebel scum.” His tone was level and finally exposed his allegiance.
“We’ve been called that before,” Luke returned, careful to betray no surprise.
What they needed was a distraction, something to jar Cerrick’s focus for a second or two. Luke spared a fleeting thought for the surviving guard among the pines, but he couldn’t possibly communicate his intentions to an unfamiliar, untrained mind at the necessary speed.
“Your Empire is gone, Commander,” he continued. “That won’t change if you kill General Solo, or myself. And make no mistake, it will be just one of us.”
Even as he spoke, certainty charged him and carried his mind outward, into the clash and clamor of a surging tide. Resounding echoes rolled back through the Force, until his senses brimmed with a deep green twilight, with the magnetism rousing the waves. He opened his mind to it, joining fear and fury to an ancient, impartial power.
“If you’re planning to take one of us down with you, why not me?” Luke asked. “I’m the last Jedi knight. My death would be a greater blow to the New Republic than any other.”
Han’s eyes narrowed, the tense set of his jaw trapping an impulsive retort.
“Are you offering yourself for an exchange of hostages, Jedi?” Cerrick didn’t lower his blaster by so much as a fraction. “A tempting proposition. But I will not expose myself to treachery and tricks.”
Luke allowed himself a thin smile. It had already begun. Far out on the ocean, waves churned and massed, imbued with the living Force that changed their rhythm. A deep pulse ran through the ground and sent a tremor up through Luke’s middle. Rise. Come. His inner sight shaped a living wall, stretching high and wide beneath the white crest.
“I will disarm myself completely,” he carried on with the feigned bargain, outlining a fantasy that pricked away at Cerrick’s pride. “I owe General Solo my life many times over...”
A strange hum filled the air, and a sound like distant thunder rode up with it. Somewhere high above, a seagull shrieked.
“I’m willing to take his place,” Luke finished.
Alarm tightened Han’s features, and his hand twitched for the blaster he’d dropped.
Wait — Han — trust me! The silent warning snapped from him unconsidered — and found its mark, too. For a short, infinite moment, Luke felt a response that carried no words yet touched him like live current, warm and bright and reckless. On the edge of his sight rose a vast shadow.
A harsh blast of wind whipped suddenly inland and tore at their clothes. Electricity prickled all over Luke’s skin. Han turned his face out to the sea. “Whoa, looks like we got a storm coming...”
Fearless in view of a giant wave that towered above them, he was bracing for impact. Luke framed a mental image of the luminous blade, awaiting his signal.
Now. The moment Cerrick craned his neck in unstoppable reflex, the lightsaber scythed towards him, Han rammed his elbow into the Commander’s ribs and lunged aside. Then everything drowned in the tumult of the breaking wave.
Swept off his feet in the crash and roar, Luke spun about in the ground swell. He’d learned how to swim years ago, but Dagobah’s muddy lakes didn’t compare to the sea’s fury. Rabid waves tossed him about, filled his eyes and mouth with salt, and he fought an old fear as receding waters ripped him away from the shore. The power he’d unleashed was more than he could harness now. As it dragged him under, a dark, entrancing beat throbbed in his ears, the voice of the sea. He stopped fighting, sinking towards the green depth that opened like a pit in his mind.
Until something reached for him, less than sound and sharp with alarm. Luke...
He flailed towards that call, and an arm caught around his middle, held fast, yanked him upwards. Blinded by the spray, Luke gulped air into his clenching chest.
“I’ve got you, kid, ‘s all right.” Han’s grip tightened as a lesser wave clashed over their heads.
“Jus’ hang on to me...” Half-swimming and half-wading, Han dragged him back. Foam lashed around their waists as he pulled Luke to his feet and against him.
For long moments they just held on hard, ragged pulse thumping though wet clothes, while the waters cradled them in their abating rage.
“How did you—?” Hands clenching reflexively around Han’s shoulders, Luke fought for breath again. His legs trembled as if he’d been flung into zero gravity. He let his forehead drop against Han’s chest.
“We’re safe,” Han murmured, running unsteady hands over his back. “Goddamnit, Luke, you—” But instead of finishing, he pulled Luke closer, “—love you.” A rasp of breath close by Luke’s ear. “Don’t ever do that to me again.”
When he lifted his head to meet Han’s eyes, spindrift wove a glittering mist about them, and a wild heartbeat kicked into his throat.
“Trust you to rouse a riptide to save my neck!” Han mustered a weak grin. “But you took one hell of a risk there.”
“My mistake,” Luke managed.
“Wouldn’t call it that.” Han touched his wet face, and he ran out of words again.
Behind the touch thrummed a secret resonance, hovering between them like a vibrant thread — but it faltered again before Luke could trace out its reach.
“My lightsaber,” he rasped finally, but it took him another long moment to redirect his attention and locate the ‘saber. Further up the beach than he’d expected, a faint glint beckoned, almost as if the sea had given it back.
“Let’s go ’n get it.” Han drew him along before Luke could try to issue a command through the Force.
Knots of seaweed and broken white shells lay scattered along the beach, marking the wave’s impact, but the waters had eased back into their natural rhythms. Down by the tide wall, they eddied around a lifeless form.
“Cerrick.” Without letting go of Luke, Han stepped up to the body and nudged him with his foot. “All hells, I never suspected him.”
“Me neither.” Luke swallowed. “Not until it was almost too late.”
Foam gushed over Cerrick’s face and neck, concealing an ugly burn, and receded again.
“I thought he’d taken a hit when I got down here,” Han said. “But I guess he faked that... along with everything else.”
“He must have.” Luke’s glance skimmed down an outflung arm, to the limp hand resting in a curl of seaweeds. From the white skin of the wrist, blurry lines stood out. “What’s that?” He knelt beside the body, peering at a code of numbers. “Look... did you ever notice that before?”
Han bent closer with a frown. “Couldn’t have.” His mouth set hard before he offered an explanation. “It’s an Imperial service number inserted beneath the skin. Invisible, so long as the wearer’s still alive. They use it to ID their dead when there’s not much left.”
“Did you—?” The question slipped before Luke could catch it back.
“Did they mark me with a number like that?” Han guessed accurately. “Nah, I got kicked out again too fast. You gotta rise to rank, to deserve that honor.”
“Cerrick must have thought of it that way...” A faint dizziness rippled across Luke’s senses as he picked up his lightsaber, and he straightened out slowly.
Up ahead on the slope, a battered form detached from the sheltering trees. Han quickened his pace. “Better sit tight ‘til the medics get here,” he called out.
The limping Alliance guard adopted a posture of attention regardless. “I’m sorry, General, I was little help. Just couldn’t get a clear shot.”
As Luke joined them, he noticed the mottling of blood down the man’s left trouser leg, the twitch of pain around his mouth.
“Couldn’t move about much either,” the guard added.
“Well, you missed a good dunking that way.” Han clapped the man’s shoulder and scanned the beach that had turned into a battlefield. “Guess we should call for backup now, make sure the rest of the hitmen are either incapacitated or gone.”
“Two of them got away,” Luke supplied thoughtlessly, and ignored the guard’s curious glance. “They must’ve used a submarine floater of some kind.”
“Sergeant Arras noticed something in the water,” the man ventured. “He was scanning the area from the top of the building. Dobson put a call through to Cerrick, but the Commander ordered us to stay at our posts until—”
“As for backup,” Luke cut in, “here they come.”
Swarming out from the back entrance, brown uniforms bobbed towards them, and Luke blinked once more to clear his sight.
“You’re sopping wet,” Han said in a lowered voice. “Let’s get you inside.”
“Oh, and you aren’t? Dobson’s over there by the doors, and we should look after—”
“Leave it to Security,” Han stopped him.
A possessive hand pressed into the small of his back and motioned him forward. Luke breathed in deeply. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the wave rise, in stark silence, to blot out the sky.
At least Luke had surrendered himself to a badly needed break now. Strung out and ready to keel over, he’d dropped off immediately after Han had peeled him out of his dripping clothes, his murmur barely audible when Han draped a blanket across him. I’ll just close my eyes for a moment. Right. Idealistic, reckless, desert-bred hotshot that he was.
Han raised both arms above his head for a slow, luxurious stretch that crackled right down to his toes. Glad to be alive, warm, and no longer plagued by underhanded homicidal schemes, he’d dropped his own clothes on the floor and wrapped himself up in the robe he’d failed to hand back at a swanky Sullustian hotel. Ever since that moment he’d done nothing but watch over Luke’s sleep — excepting only the minute it took him to answer Captain Merlow’s call and confirm that, sure, everything was fine now. And I’m takin’ the day off, he’d added, and for some reason, that’d struck Merlow as utterly hilarious.
Suit yourselves, Han gave a nod to the world at large. Tiredness crawled around his brain and his bones, but somehow didn’t gain much purchase. He felt himself sag and drift with the patterns of Luke’s breathing, floating in a green twilight that thrummed with slow pulse.
The voice of the sea, he thought drowsily, and couldn’t bother to shake his head at himself. Less than sound yet vibrant as daylight, something had guided him through the roiling waters, and he’d aligned with it, riding that strange undertow with his own desperate purpose.
Come back with me.
For one confounded moment, Han wasn’t sure if he’d heard that or said it out loud, but when he turned his face to check up on Luke, the kid was still soundly asleep. Kid. Well, he hardly deserved that moniker anymore, and Han wondered why he stuck to it, against reason and undeniable evidence. Maybe to assure himself that Luke wasn’t all Jedi yet, to remind himself of the past, too, when they’d dealt with straightforward hazards on a daily basis, nothing worse than that. Sure enough, he hadn’t seen Luke relax so completely in much longer than he cared to recall. Watchfulness usually surrounded him like an energy field — more so when he slept, in fact. Ready to snap out of it at the merest flutter of air currents.
There was none of that now. Fingers loosely splayed against the sheet, lips parted on even breaths, Luke finally looked as young as he was. Han curbed an impulse to run his hand over the smooth curve of his shoulder, or twine his fingers into the tousled hair. There’d be time for that later. He hoped. Han caught himself grinning like a fool, an odd jitter groping around his gut. Still wired on revelation.
A faint chirp from the lounge cut into the mood like a siren’s howl. The com again. With a soundless curse, Han slipped off the bed. Should’ve turned the damn thing off...
But he changed his mind as soon as he’d picked up his portable comlink and opened the channel to a teeth-jarring roar. “Chewie!”
Han took himself to the bathroom, to spare Luke the intrusion of excited Wookiee noises. “Hang on, pal, what’s all this racket about?” he tried to get a word in — and failed, until Chewbacca had given him a burning earful.
“What d’you mean, I get myself shot the moment you go on vacation?” Han grumbled back at him. “It’s not like I’d planned it that way! Besides, I’m fine. The doctors handed me my walking papers yesterday morning.”
But of course Chewie wouldn’t lay off until Han had shared all the news in grueling detail. Only the fact that Luke was around calmed the Wookiee’s mood somewhat, and prompted a string of thoughtful huffs and growls.
“Hey, who’re you calling cub?” Han interrupted. “He’s just as able to watch out for himself as I am!”
Perhaps he should’ve expected the resounding exactly! Chewbacca honked at him. Who’d ever said that Wookiees were incapable of sarcasm? Amenable to reason, they weren’t, Han knew from experience. And he soon found himself on the losing side of an argument when Chewie announced that he’d prepped the Falcon to return to Corellia, forthwith.
“No need to cancel your vacation!” Han kept repeating. “It’s all over, bagged, and sunk to the bottom of the sea.”
But the Wookiee swore up and down that neither Han nor anyone else on Corellia could guarantee that, and followed that statement of unconditional mistrust up with some unrelated questions about Luke.
“We haven’t talked about it yet,” Han replied, a frown shaping at Chewie’s prodding undertone, “but I’m sure he’ll stay around for a while. No need for you to overwork the hyperdrive, if that’s what you had in mind.”
Chewbacca’s answering bark was inconclusive. Something sly crept into his tone when he suggested that Han might want his ship back, too.
“For what, you big ape, a — joyride?” Puzzled, Han shook his head. It was only after he’d signed off that he remembered something about the obscure term Chewie had used. Joyride, honeymoon, there was no difference in the Wookiee language.
You sure get funny ideas, fuzzball... Han paused in the lounge, still wondering what he’d let slip. At the corner of his eye something flashed insistently. A red indicator light from his console signaled that the message log had just switched on, but he figured it could take care of itself and wait until later.
When he returned to the bedroom, Luke was stirring and stretching in a way that made the blanket slip down to his waist. Han stole a glance at the exposed range of lightly tanned skin, at nipples stiffening to the cooler air, and his mouth went a little dry. But he supposed they had some serious talking to do first — if Luke had recovered enough for that — and throttled every wayward impulse with an effort.
“Didn’t mean to wake you.” Han lowered himself onto the bed, confining his visual survey to the uppermost part of Luke’s enticingly sprawled form.
“Mmmh—no—you didn’t,” Luke murmured and rolled towards him. “Any news?”
Victim to irresistible distraction once again, Han didn’t answer right away, and that was enough to clear all the drowsiness from those compelling blue eyes.
“Good news all around,” Han said belatedly. “I had a call from Merlow. Dobson’s okay. Turns out that Cerrick only stunned him on arrival, along with Arras and Madicott.”
“Glad to hear it.” Luke sat up, propping himself against the pillows. Utterly alert in three seconds flat.
Should’ve taken advantage of him when I had a chance... Han swung his legs up on the bed, a quick cover-up, just in case too much of that notion showed in his face. “They’ve arrested Dorn, too.”
“Maybe they’ll be able to make him talk now that Cerrick is dead,” Luke remarked.
Something shadowed his expression and fled again quickly. Regrets for Cerrick? Somehow Han found that hard to believe. “Well, it ain’t difficult to piece it all together now,” he said aloud. “Wisdom of hindsight, and all that.”
“What Cerrick was up to,” Han clarified. “Beginning with all that talk about sabotage. The way he made sure to get Merlow riled up every other day.”
“He hoped to drive a wedge between the Alliance Forces and Corellian Security,” Luke summed it up.
“And I was just a suitable... symbol for the purpose.” Sure sounded dismal, spelled out like that. Han grimaced. “Get me killed, hang the blame on some radical patriots, and watch ‘em go for each other’s throats.”
“But he only set his plan in motion after I got here.” Trouble took shape in Luke’s glance, yet this time Han could guess at the cause and took instant countermeasures.
“He must’ve hired Dorn and the rest of the troops before. You can’t stage that kinda thing on short notice. Probably had his goons track me for days.” Han gestured expansively. “And remember that bank transaction? Back then, Cerrick had no way of knowing you’d be here.”
“I suppose not.” Luke hunched up his shoulders, but the subliminal tension didn’t fade entirely. “Still, I have a feeling that my presence here... triggered something that wasn’t supposed to happen quite like this.”
“Yeah, lotsa good things,” Han said bluntly. “Like, you were around to save my butt. Twice.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Luke reached out to touch his arm. “That’s not what I meant. Maybe—” He paused, and a faint tightening of his brows told Han that his mind had abruptly changed course. “Maybe it’s just that I should’ve known better than to head out to the docks and leave you—”
“Aw, come on!” Han broke in. “If you wanna go ahead ‘n hand out shares of the blame, look at me. We even talked about baited traps — and half an hour later, I go chasing after the bone Cerrick throws me like some pet droid!” Annoying as it was, Cerrick had played him by his unreasoning itch for action.
“Is that how he flushed you out?”
“He even told me to stay put. Said he and the guards’d handle the situation.”
“And counted on your protective instincts,” Luke concluded.
“Might as well call it my blasted habit of solving matters at gunpoint,” Han grumbled, but he rather liked the way Luke looked at him now, with an exasperated kind of affection. “Didn’t see it coming ‘til he pushed his gun up my jaw.”
“I didn’t either,” Luke repeated what he’d already admitted on the beach. “He always seemed so tied up in duty and discipline.”
“Yeah, duty to the Empire.” Han snorted. “Goes to show that all kinds of political systems thrive on that type. And—” he raised a hand for emphasis, “—that my instinct to mistrust ‘em’s justified.”
“In some cases.” Luke’s sensible tone was no match for the humor sparking in his eyes.
“Gotta cultivate that mistrust,” Han temporized, glad to see that he’d nudged Luke off his guilt-bound track. “Or I’ll lose my edge.”
“Hmm.” Luke pulled up his knees, draped one arm across them and rested his chin there, to give Han a long, upside-down glance. “A major loss for the galaxy.”
Han swatted at him, but that look started a prickle on his bare chest and unlocked some hastily shelved notions to send them batting round his head again.
“Was that Chewie trying to bridge the distance between here and Kashyyyk with a roar, instead of using the comlink?” Luke asked out of the blue. “I thought I heard you and him when I woke.”
So much for taking that conversation to the bathroom. Han supposed he should never underrate those heightened Jedi senses. “Yeah, that was him, the mother of all mother-hen. Says hello, and he had some advice for you too.” Lowering his voice to imitate the Wookiee’s growl, Han added, “Cub can’t swim to save his life, foolish of him to experiment.”
Luke laughed. “Well, I thought I had it figured out, but I’d never tried the sea.”
Unexpected as heat lightning, recollection clutched at Han’s gut. “You shouldn’t’ve,” he agreed, voice roughened by the memory’s blunt force. “I thought I’d lost you.”
They reached out simultaneously, linking hands across the uncertain middle ground between them. Confession time, Han thought, or was it wrap-up-loose-ends time? High time, at any rate.
“I meant what I said, y’know,” he started, and wished he’d cleared his throat first, to keep this from coming out so thick and raspy. “I—”
“I know,” Luke repeated, but the smile he returned didn’t relieve the cold pressure of his fingers. “And I did, too. When I told you that I’m not going to add any more pressure—”
“Hell, what pressure?” Han cut in fast. “My life’s been turned inside out couple of times during the past year, and I still need to figure out what to do with myself, and how that fits in with putting a New Republic together...” He had to pause for breath there, and start over. “Or maybe it’ll never make for a clean fit, whatever. That’s got nothing to do with you. Us.” Even if that wasn’t exactly true, his muddled prospects could hardly apply for most pressing concern right now.
Luke absorbed his explanations in thoughtful silence, a ‘but’ as plain as Han had ever seen taking shape on his face.
“Spill,” he said, a clutch of apprehensions gaining weight in his gut. “There must’ve been a reason why you weren’t gonna tell me how you feel. Why you kept it all to yourself.”
He’d caught Luke off-guard there, Han could tell by the flash in his eyes. “I just never—” Luke straightened and carded the fingers of his free hand through his hair. “You were with Leia, and I thought she’d give you what I couldn’t.”
Little sense as that made, Han’s mind was set on piecing that illogical conviction together, so he could blast it out of the way after. “Like what, political importance? Security? Purpose in life?” He felt his fingers twitch against Luke’s, temper getting the better of him again, and made an effort to shove it back down. “Or is it that you’re not supposed to share your life with someone, some kind of Jedi vow you gotta take so you won’t be—”
“No,” Luke stopped him, before he could work up any more heat. “No one’s ever asked that of me, and I don’t think I could.”
It didn’t sound like much of a concession, much less a clarifying answer.
“So if it ain’t some obscure principle,” Han dragged himself towards the obvious conclusion, “it’s gotta be me.”
“Han—” Luke squeezed his hand with sudden force and let go as abruptly. “That’s not it at all,” he added after a pause, long enough to instill a spreading cold in Han’s stomach. “But...”
It was coming out at last, and Han didn’t know how to brace for it.
“Last night...” Luke gestured helplessly. “None of it would have happened, if you hadn’t been shot. If I hadn’t reached into your mind.”
“Haven’t we been over this before?” Han grumbled, holding premature relief at bay. “You didn’t implant some kinda bug in my brain, goddamnit! And get it through your thick head, Luke, the very same things could’ve happened without any supernatural intervention if you’d just given me a clue somewhere along the road.”
“A clue.” Luke echoed that like something suspect, potentially sleazy. And perhaps his ingrained romantic notions were getting in the way there.
What, Han wanted to shoot back, you were waiting for fireworks out of nowhere, no trigger and no reason? That’s not how it generally works. And then he wasn’t so sure.
“Look,” he began, fumbling for the right words, “this... this whole thing didn’t happen for me the way it happened for you. What’s it matter?”
“Well, I... had a major head start.” Reluctant as Luke’s smile was, it eased the worst part of the tension aside. “It matters because I should give you time to consider, search your own—”
“C’mon, kid, you know me,” Han rushed the breach, and damnit if his breath didn’t rush out just as hard. Relief bursting like a concussion grenade in his chest. “I don’t operate like that. I don’t need any more time. Readjustment period’s over.”
“Just like that.” Luke’s tone was flat with suspended judgment.
“No.” Han met his eyes, unblinking, to drive his point home. “It took messing up the food processor and seeing you drown, but that’s about it.”
And before Luke could ask him irrelevant questions about the processor’s current condition, Han resorted to hands-on tactics. Nudging Luke’s knees aside and grabbing him round the neck in one motion, he brought them mouth to mouth. “What more c’n I—?”
“Nothing more.” Breath more than sound, then Luke reached back for him.
And the kiss that followed sealed something unspoken, something that went beyond clumsy confessions and stumbling pulse and felt like a joint change of direction. Han gave himself up to it without another thought. The demands of Luke’s warm mouth, the playful pressure of Luke’s tongue against his own, took out every reserve of reason and composure he’d marshaled to get them to this moment. Somewhere in his gut, relief spilled over into giddy gratitude, edged by the knowledge of a near miss. From the corner of Luke’s mouth, Han’s lips searched along his cheekbone, tasting the sea’s traces on Luke’s body. A dusting of salt on his skin, like a tidemark.
For a bizarre moment, Han’s eyes stung, but he blinked that aside and continued his survey along the angle of Luke’s jaw, where a first hint of stubble rasped against his tongue. Pulse beat hard and fast in Luke’s throat, visible proof of a breakthrough that’d finally swept his misgivings aside. Han pushed him deeper into the pillows, one hand riding the draw and release of quickened breaths. Thrums of excitement and discovery were right behind it, like new and shiny things, and challenged him with their limitless energy. Luke’s fingers trailed restless patterns through his hair, down his neck, and spread a pleasant crawl of sensations along the length of Han’s spine.
“Jackpot,” he murmured, teeth scraping gently across Luke’s earlobe.
“What was that?” A marked shiver trailed the question.
“Something Mack said.” Han tried a teasing bite and noticed how that drew another shudder. “Never mind. Tell you later.”
There were other things he needed to spell out now, with his mouth and hands on Luke’s skin, to resettle them both in an altered reality. Make Luke believe him, too. Quick as Luke had always been to commit to people and causes, his heart and soul thrown into the bargain, he’d never expected the same in return. For his ideals maybe, or his convictions, but not for himself — for the man who’d almost disappeared behind the public image of the Jedi. Time to make up for that now.
Han let his mouth cruise down the length of Luke’s throat, both hands framing his ribcage and the rapid drumbeats within. He didn’t need to think about Luke’s crazy stunt on the beach, to know the force behind that heartbeat, he could touch it right here. Love, thoughtless and unconditional, ranging out with a wild desire to fly. Han placed his mouth at the center of Luke’s chest, and his own heart lurched. Emotional overload, in all likelihood. Still unbalanced, too raw to steer him on a clear and even course, but that hardly mattered now.
He raised his head and laid one hand along Luke’s jaw, commanding his complete attention. “I love you.”
He was close enough to feel the hitch in Luke’s breath, the telltale sign of amazement. Demanding whatever he could offer to back up his claim.
“Feels like it’s been... waiting to happen a long time,” Han said slowly. “Just... scraps and pieces that never really matched before. Now they do.” He grinned openly, because Luke’s eyes showed nothing but clear skies. “There. Magic.”
Luke’s arms locked tight around his neck. “Guess it was me, needing to catch up, not you.”
The look that went with this — candid, vulnerable, and determined at the same time — carried enough intensity to jolt Han’s heartbeat, and thickened his voice again. “So long as we’re travelin’ at the same speed now...”
And it didn’t take Luke’s nod, he could trace it like power flow between them, synchronizing breath, blood and feeling. Desire curled hot and sweet in his belly when Luke pulled him back up and into a fervent kiss, and Luke’s fingers got busy slipping his robe off wherever he could reach. Good thing he hadn’t wasted a thought on getting dressed again. Without breaking the kiss, Han shifted his shoulders to let the useless garment slide down his arms. Skin-to-skin closeness was a prerogative right now, and not just because all those unlocked, thrilling notions were heating up his blood. When Luke pushed him back in turn and moved over him, staccato pulse joining in the minimal space between their chests, it felt more vital than that, like a claim to life. Like a call he’d failed to acknowledge for too long.
It went from Han’s gut to his head, stark and powerful and still totally unexpected. A gasp came loose when Luke broke the kiss and mouthed, “what?”
“Life. You. Everything,” he managed, tossing a grin after that impressive example of eloquence.
“Yes.” The cloudless joy in Luke’s eyes was worth feeling a little foolish, the pulse that pattered high in his throat nothing short of jubilant.
Han leaned up to suck on the soft skin there and lapped at the muscle that slanted in reflex, catching on a soft moan. Not enough time yet, to learn about all those sensitive spots, but no stopping now ‘til he’d compiled a full chart. Like tracing energy flows, Han caught himself thinking, while his fingers charted the flight-path of Luke’s breathing down along his spine. Like reaching out for a hidden light —
“You know somethin’...” he murmured against Luke’s collarbone before he’d quite figured out where that notion led.
“What?” Luke asked again, and brought his head up with a touch to Han’s chin.
It took one look into his eyes for the notion to come clear, but framing the right words was another matter. Han loosened his hold for a fraction and mimicked a shrug.
“I could feel you — I mean, it happened again, down there on the beach.”
Thankfully, Luke could make sense of that muddled explanation. “When I reached for your mind, to warn you?”
“Yeah, that.” The fact that Luke’s fingertips teased at the tender skin around his ear didn’t exactly untangle his thought processes. “And more,” Han added. “When that wave came crashing down ‘n I went in after you.”
A memory like a gut-punch that still made his belly tighten in response. But moving past that came easier now, and his mind zeroed in on the stranger part of his mad dive, the power that’d somehow taken him past fear and alarm. Into a deep stillness, cradling a single spark.
“I never would’ve reached you in time,” Han said, “if there hadn’t been... something else. Like a pull, ‘n all I needed to do was follow it.”
Luke stilled completely. “I know. But that wasn’t me.”
“Guess it must’ve been that Force of yours then,” Han returned, and it came out soberly enough. Things had stopped making sense within the rational spectrum anyway.
“Yes,” Luke said haltingly, “and you.”
Halfway towards objecting, Han realized that some other part of his mind was heading in the opposite direction. Stymied between the two, he managed a lame, “you sure?”
“I could feel it, Han... you were reaching back for me, even if you didn’t know what you were doing.” A thoughtful little smile grew in the wake of Luke’s answer. “Believe me, I was in no shape to guide you towards me, not then.”
Han let it sink in for a moment. “So, uh, how do you figure that worked?”
“I don’t know,” Luke admitted. “But it feels as if... what I did to keep you alive created something like an open channel between us. A link.”
“Through the Force.” Han listened after the words and pulled a face. Still felt weird, to discuss these things as if they complied with electromechanical patterns. Like re-tuning radio frequencies.
“It’s the only explanation I have,” Luke said easily. “But don’t worry too much about it. That was an emergency, and it need not happen again.”
Perhaps the recalcitrant streak in him had prompted that reply, and perhaps not. Han didn’t pause to wonder about it, because the change in Luke’s expression proved his impulse right. The glint of something wild and reckless almost breaking free, only to be checked again. Han reached up to curl his fingers round the nape of Luke’s neck.
“What I mean is, I’m not complaining. Can’t say it felt natural, but it felt... right.”
Luke’s reply didn’t come right away, though Han could sense its approach in a shiver that crawled up Luke’s spine and raced down his own. “You don’t—”
“Mind?” Han stopped him. “Look, there’s just one thing I know. It’s part of you ‘n this whole big mess that got us together—” He snatched another breath, to level out again, “—and if you think I’m gonna back off from any of it now, you’re not as smart as I thought.”
Luke shook his head with a winded little laugh, but his fingers dug hard into Han’s bicep. “You’re—”
Instead of finishing, Luke dived for another kiss. Hungrier than the last, it gave Han a chance to focus on simple, manageable things for the next few minutes. Like finding the perfect fit for their mouths, like challenging Luke to a game of conquest and surrender, and pushing the blanket off his hips without loosening his hold. Exploring every square inch of claimed terrain, the stretch of lean muscles under warm skin, made it a whole lot easier to regain his bearings. And it absorbed him so completely that he almost missed it when Luke murmured, “A blessing.”
By this time, Han was tugging on the corner of the blanket that still prevented full-body contact without much patience.
“You,” Luke added by ways of explanation.
“Never been called that before,” Han muttered awkwardly.
“So? Get used to it.” Luke’s smile was dazzling and discounted the toughening years in a heartbeat.
And just like that, Han’s throat tightened and made it impossible to produce an offhand reply. It was like watching a shell crack, like time reeled backwards, letting a gleam of something whole and timeless slip through. Crazy notions, maybe, but at least they were sky-bound.
He swallowed and grabbed Luke’s hand against his chest. “I had this dream, y’know...”
Whatever had driven him to mention that, Luke’s glance lit with instant curiosity. “About me?”
“Yeah. You ‘n the sea ‘n the sky.” Han lowered his voice for effect. “Pretty hot dream, too.” The flush in Luke’s face seemed to deepen a little more at that. Leaning closer, Han brushed his mouth across the full lips. “You showed me how to fly under my own power. An’ I can almost believe it now.”
Going by the hooded look Luke returned, there was a fair chance it could turn into a joint experience. Han claimed his mouth for a thorough kiss, and it took only another shift of balance and a quick pull to remove that obstructing blanket at last. They rolled to the side, entangled in a rising cadence of breath and motion.
“Like... my dreams,” Luke murmured when they came up for air, but Han couldn’t pause to ask about it right then, not when Luke’s cock pushed up hard and silken against his belly, and the pressure in his own groin was increasing by leaps.
Easing him back against the sheets, Han started a determined attack on all the sensitive zones he’d already identified, every gasp and shudder that he drew reminding him that Luke had lived without this far too long. The knowledge of desire rising through his body like a tangible force. Han’s mouth closed over a nipple, teasing it to hardness while his fingers trailed goosebumps along the curve of the lower ribs.
“Tell me what you want,” he mouthed, between playful flicks of his tongue, but Luke’s breaths were coming in flat, hard gasps and perhaps left no room for answers. And he’d find out on his own, no problem, because Luke’s responses gave him all the necessary clues in electric tingles that bypassed the brain.
Sailing with that current, Han skimmed his palm across the tense plane of Luke’s stomach and lapped at the soft inside of Luke’s arm that circled his shoulders. Salt of the sea mingled with the gentler salt of Luke’s skin, while roughened breaths drifted into his hair. Between his mouth and his fingertips, anticipation built in electric little waves that snapped sparks into his nervepaths. With an impatient gasp, Luke tried to pull him closer, but Han caught his hand and linked their fingers tightly for a moment. Just gimme a little more time here...
Time to tease and play, touch on a thousand possibilities — like he was drafting a catalog for later, for a thousand nights... Han grinned to himself, and let his tongue sketch the thrums of pulse that raced from Luke’s chest into his belly. When his hand skipped sideways, barely grazing Luke’s erection, and molded his hip instead, Luke groaned and pressed closer. Yeah, definitely getting impatient now — and the coiled spring deep in his own gut was sending out similar signals.
When he cruised lower, all the muscles in Luke’s abdomen were strung so tight, they formed hard ridges. Han licked at the sweat beading there, and kept moving towards his target with due attention to the thickening trail of dark blond curls down from Luke’s navel that tickled his chin, in compelling contrast to the smooth, pale skin. Further down, his palm traveled across the long muscle of Luke’s thigh, and he could feel all the fine hairs lift into his touch.
Just gimme more time — yet now the thought was aimed at the universe at large, as if their time together might be cut short, a wish made in their defense. Han let it go with a breath, to replace it with scent, touch and taste, all the pleasures that’d come within reach. Mouth skimming the length of Luke’s cock while his fingers skated back up along Luke’s inner thigh, he would’ve sworn that those cross-currents rode his own blood, predicting the exact moment of collision with a staccato pulse. Luke gave a hoarse moan that tugged sharply on Han’s gut, his breath driven up in a gasp that fanned across the hard shaft. Han leaned down again, sampling a first taste, and worked his hand up at counterpoint. Slow, circling motions of tongue and fingertips, until Luke’s breath came in bursts, Luke’s thighs fell open to his touch, and he was caught up in the spell he’d created — a skin-based kind of magic that wove galvanized shivers down the length of his back and legs. It was a sensation Han recognized, from every last moment before the jump to lightspeed, a pull that gripped tight in his belly and raised every hair on his body, same thing.
Han tried not to hold his breath when his mouth closed around Luke’s erection and his finger breached the tight entrance to Luke’s body with a determined push, couldn’t quite manage it and nearly lost his rhythm. But it got almost too much, to feel Luke tremble and strain in response, a visceral need about to snap loose. Right there with you, Han thought, and forced himself to slow down for the moment. He probed gently, with teasing little strokes, and felt the same rush of pulse around his finger and against his tongue. Tension flickered dangerously along his nerves, due payback for keeping Luke so on edge maybe, and no matter that experience warned him to watch his pace, desire kept dragging him in the opposite direction, like gravity. Han lowered his head again, but before he could take Luke in any deeper, a rough grip on his shoulder demanded a break.
Time to let up, the hoarse pressure in Luke’s voice told him. Han placed a kiss against his navel. “Too much all at once?”
“You could say that,” Luke managed. “And don’t tell me you didn’t realize...”
A contrite expression was nowhere within reach, so Han didn’t try. When he leaned up and got a good look at Luke’s face — fevered, and pretty close to undone — all the heat he’d raised lashed back at him.
“Just tryin’ to show you how much I want you.” No way to keep it out of his voice either, thickened pulse-beats were crowding in everywhere.
“Believe me. I can tell.” Luke blew out a slow, shaky breath, and his hands firmed on Han’s shoulders again. “Now come here.”
There was a quiet force behind every single word, irresistible as the fierce want in his eyes. Although Han hadn’t planned to resist direct orders, he was still surprised by Luke’s deft grip that hauled him neatly into position.
Within a heartbeat, he’d pulled Han over him, into a blaze of heat and friction when his thighs opened and his hips rose to meet Han’s. So hard and sudden that for a moment neither of them could breathe. A ragged sound got stuck in Han’s throat when Luke’s mouth found his own and breathed sweet anticipation into him.
“Yeah, like this,” Luke murmured between one kiss and the next, his hands sailing the length of Han’s spine.
The rhythm was already there, a restless force behind pulse and touch, just waiting to take over as their hips shifted, surged, and increased the pressure. Like air streams running before a storm front, Han could feel it sweep over him, raising prickles from his toes to the top of his head. And he might’ve given in to it, too, if Luke hadn’t halted the momentum with a touch to his cheek.
“Han, I want you.” Luke breathed in sharply. “Closer. In me.”
Han’s only response for the moment was a hiss of breath through clenched teeth. A sweet, scalding jolt went through him, circled about before it raced full throttle into his cock, and made it impossible to think. Shackling mindless impulse took about the same effort as calculating course corrections in the middle of hyperspeed flight.
“Have you ever—” Han cleared his throat, but his tongue kept tripping over the simplest questions. “Before, I mean, you’ve —”
“No, I’ve never done this before.” Coherence came easier to Luke than it did to him, but his smile looked a little shaky all the same. “Does it matter?”
Han shook his head. “Just means I won’t have to wring some other guy’s neck.” At the flash of surprise in Luke’s eyes, he added, “For letting you go. Not that I’m jealous or anything.”
“You wouldn’t be.” A grin twitched on Luke’s mouth.
“Shut up, junior, or I’ll show you.” But his breath escaped in a telltale rush, no help for that. Han ruffled the blond hair, a quiet admission of things he’d not yet admitted to himself.
“Oh, I’m counting on it.” Luke had the nerve to deliver a little slap to his backside. “So get to it.”
“In a moment,” Han growled at him and pushed up reluctantly.
In private, he welcomed the minute it took him to rummage through a bedside drawer: an overdue break to cool off some. And, for better or worse, that drawer had become a refuge for runaway screws, datacubes and single socks, while the small bottle he was fishing for hid stubbornly underneath all the clutter. He’d used the lubricant just once, when he’d fixed the apartment’s ambience controls, and it didn’t smell too much like engine oil either.
When he dribbled some of it across his fingers, Luke rolled onto his side and watched him with close intent. Han tried not to notice too much, tried to keep his hands steady, too, and failed on both counts. But no matter what, he was going to do this right, and he’d pace himself even if he sprained something in the process. At least Luke didn’t ask him if he was nervous. Hell, he hadn’t worried about the mechanics for a decade or more, and sure wasn’t going to relapse now.
“It’s... just...” he muttered, apropos of nothing, and trailed off when Luke’s fingers closed around his wrist.
“Yes.” And that simple reply, joined to a radiant smile, made short work of the jitters, too.
With a flustered grin, Han lay back down, facing him. More patient than he was, and all too likely more relaxed, Luke let him rearrange their positions, one knee pulled up and draped over Han’s hip. There were simpler and quicker ways of doing this, but Han couldn’t take his eyes off Luke’s face anymore, every flicker of response part of the spell laced through his bloodstream. Keeping up as much skin contact as possible, he reached around and slid his fingers back where they’d played a short while before.
Eyes half-closed, Luke shifted and moved with the probing, stretching invasion, their mouths brushing together on mingled breaths. Nothing awkward or mechanical to it, just a passage through gentler waters that rocked and carried them and whipped up flutters of unsteady pulse. A slow rhythm grew out of the friction between their hips and thighs. So easy — and easy to get lost in it too.
Pressing closer, Han ground his erection against Luke’s belly, fingers thrusting at the same pace, Luke’s ragged breathing a close echo to his own. Building drifts of pleasure dispersed all practical thinking, until Luke finally pushed him back with determined force — “Han, stop” — short breaths tearing into every word, “stop right now, I still want—”
“Yeah. Me too.”
Han swallowed. All too ready himself. About to reach combustion level, in fact, much sooner than he’d anticipated. When Luke sagged back against the mattress, sweat gleaming on the contours of every muscle, Han closed his eyes for a moment and tried hard to think of hyperdrive schematics. The result was questionable at best, nothing he’d trust outside a simulator, but it served to take the burning edge off this moment.
He positioned himself above Luke, gently nudging his knees back, and took a long, hard breath. When he pushed in, there was less resistance than he’d expected, but the blinding flare that shot all the way up his spine forced him to slow down anyway. Luke’s breath was coming in shallow gasps that scaled up to a rough sound when Han moved forward again. And he could read those small traces of discomfort in Luke’s face, too, tightening the skin around his eyes and mouth.
Braced on one elbow, Han reached up to smooth them aside, a faint tremor passing at his fingertips. A fragile balance right there, when Luke met his eyes, between wanting and wishing and blind protective instinct. Take as long as you need...
But he didn’t have to say that. Luke breathed in slowly, consciously, and when he exhaled again, a look of pure longing swept all restraint aside.
“Closer,” he whispered.
Before Han could respond, Luke pressed his hips up and took him deeper in a long, hot slide that wrenched a groan from Han’s throat. He couldn’t stop any more than he could stop breathing, not until the motion was complete, his hips pressed up hard against Luke and a wild tremor hanging suspended under his breastbone. Threatening to break loose.
Until Luke’s hands slid up his arms and steadied him, framed him within a new balance. “Han, breathe...”
Just breathe. With the inflow of air, sensation rushed in at every angle, the tightness and the heat that sheathed him perfectly, edged by the trail of shivers Luke’s fingers drew across his shoulders and neck. He let his head fall forward, mouth grazing Luke’s face — his forehead, his cheekbone, the corner of one eye — and released that sudden overflow into uneven gasps. And he let himself be pulled into a kiss that closed the circuit when Luke’s tongue played past his teeth, took possession of his mouth with absolute confidence, until they were breathing together, shifting to the upbeat of a joint rhythm. Han rocked his hips gently, hunting for promises of pleasure, the small starts of tension in Luke’s thighs that caged his torso, every catch in his breathing. Blood pounding so hard through his body that his skin picked up the slightest difference like a living radar. There, yes —
A tight, startled sound caught in Luke’s throat, and when Han pulled back, he knew he’d found the perfect angle. Luke writhed into his short thrust, tossed his head back and fought for breath ‘til it burst out with a sharp moan. A fierce thrill pierced Han’s gut that loosened several tension knots at once. One hand trailing down from Luke’s throat to his heaving chest, he started to move to an easy beat, paced by the rise of pleasure that he traced on Luke’s skin, in his face. With a long, shuddering sigh, Luke joined him in the upsurge of heat and motion, his hands stroking restless demands down Han’s chest.
It was nothing short of perfection, a reckless interplay of control and release, tension skipping from one level to the next. Braced against the rush that built in his blood and sang in his ears, Han took each thrust to the limit and paused there, holding them both in that deep connection for a breathless second — and each time, Luke returned the challenge when his hips pushed up, and his legs locked harder around Han’s middle.
“Show me,” Han rasped, and the heat in Luke’s eyes struck him with physical force.
“You too...” A smile flickered in the corners of Luke’s mouth and got lost in the next burst of breath. “Oh—gods—don’t stop...”
With a groan, Han pushed towards the core of that irresistible rhythm, let it wash through him and drive him until he was thrusting hard and deep, the race for release already drumming in his pulse. In the middle of it, their mouths clung and parted on half-formed sounds, and each time their eyes met, Han could see the sheer power of it all reflected in Luke’s glance. Pure, undaunted desire and equally perfect trust. Jolting his heartbeat, when Luke reached for his hand and drew their linked fingers to his lips.
Breathing hard, Han pressed into him and against him, forcing a pause to savor this moment, take it into himself before it could pass. And it would, too soon, it was already starting to fray like that rising, towering wave. A chill fled down his back. His teeth clenched with the need to hold on a little longer — and he caught another flash of wildness in Luke’s eyes, always just out of reach, like a lost wish.
“Luke,” he rasped out, “I want—” But he had no clear notion, only that shapeless, driving need for completion, for something that teased at his senses like a far-off searchlight, “—feel you, all of you—”
Likely the most absurd thing he could’ve thought to say, but an answer came when Luke’s fingers tightened on his own and something brushed his nerve endings from within, out of nowhere, like touch, scent, and taste combined. An answer outside words, outside anything physical. It flashed through him like a single bright beam glancing back and forth between mirrors. Like the flow of Luke’s blood and breath joined to his own. The taste of a freedom that wasn’t his own right there on his tongue. Incredible. And too intense, too much to contain.
Han opened his eyes to ground himself somehow when up and down, within and without kept switching places. Somewhere between this moment and the things he’d said, he’d slipped his hand down between them, to stroke Luke’s cock in time with his thrusts, every beat of blood aligned to the same rhythm, every nerve catching alight. Now.
They were moving together, pushing towards flight. Sailing with light, not blood or water.
Heart crashing against his ribs, Han felt his hips snap forward, his whole body strain in the grip of imminent overload, but at the heart of it all burned a wish like a comet. Luke. A call drawn from him, on vibrant strings stretched to breaking point — until it found an answer that claimed everything he was. Come with me. Come.
Sweat glittered on Luke’s chest, his face half-turned into Han’s palm as a groan ripped free, every muscle in his body clenched tight. And all the reeling, pumping pleasure scaled up to an ache in Han’s gut. No difference anymore, as if they’d made it past the skin-barrier too. Every shudder and shockpulse that raked Luke went through Han’s frame, triggered him past control, and he was falling, yanked hard and fast towards abrupt liftoff. Tension broke with the echoes of a shout that circled vaguely as he spent himself in long, jarring waves. His fingers tightened convulsively around Luke’s jaw. He’d never needed a hold so badly before.
Out of giddy, spiraling flight, his forehead dropped against Luke’s shoulder, harsh breaths spilling out to fill the small hollow between his mouth and Luke’s chest.
“I love you,” Luke’s murmur drifted against his ear, “Han...” — while all he could do was hold on, and blink some madly dancing light-specks out of his vision. Familiar enough with the swerving rhythms of pleasure — but there’d never been anything like this.
His head cleared over slow stages, and it felt like returning to himself from a different angle. When he finally shifted aside, Luke moved with him and kept one arm draped over his shoulders, sheltering him. Still out of words, Han turned his face and pressed a kiss to sweat-damp skin.
A tiny smile played in the corners of Luke’s mouth. “Was that—”
“No.” Dazed and rattled as he felt, Han could still guess where this was heading. “Didn’t I tell you last night, there’s no such thing as too much? Just lemme catch my breath...”
Stretched out on his back, he pulled Luke’s head against his upper chest and let his eyes drift shut. His body was still abuzz with sensation, no room for thought there, but visual scraps started floating into his mind. That vast wave rising ‘til it formed a shimmering halo around Luke’s frame, exposed him like some slender dark angel, his lightsaber raised. An image of Luke and himself, out in the water, seen from high above — the way this whole scene might’ve looked through the eyes of a gull — as spray lashed up white about them. Even now, Han could feel the brine prickle on his skin, every rush and clash of waves sluicing off uncertainties and misgivings. Purged by the sea.
He wanted to shake his head at that notion, and found he couldn’t muster the energy yet. Luke’s slowed breathing made a hypnotic rhythm against his side and chest, and with every slight stir, salt-clotted strands moved under Han’s fingers. All those sensations trickled in to call up strange echoes, an afterimage traced in vibrant flickers against his innermost nerve. Luke, touching him, inside and out. Never mind all the esoteric imponderables that involved — it was nothing he could question.
“That open channel of yours,” Han mouthed. “It’s workin’.”
“Ours,” Luke corrected him patiently.
When Han looked up, the blue eyes were bright and full, and a thick wave went up through his chest, countless feelings all tangled together. Hell, he’d never been this close to anyone, hadn’t missed it either, but Luke — Luke must’ve guessed at possibilities that went untried, had stifled them maybe, and made do with less. For a split second, Han could sense the shadow of a vast loneliness, a chill traveling hard on its heels.
Well, that’s over and done with, I’m here now. He leaned over for a slow kiss that lingered beyond the bounds of anything he’d planned. Luke’s arm tightened about his neck, his heartbeat drawing intricate patterns against Han’s ribcage.
Wrapped up in sensation, Han voiced the first thought that made it to the front of his mind. “That was it, right? Why you never really considered giving it a try.”
Hazy eyes met his searching glance. Luke clearly wasn’t following — a rare occurrence at that. Han cracked a small grin. “It’s what people generally do when they’re in love, y’know,” he elaborated. “Give it a try, never mind the odds.”
“Oh.” Luke sketched a shrug with one shoulder and still looked a little clueless.
“But you didn’t ‘cause you figured you’d never be able to share this kinda thing with me, of all people,” Han went on. “Can’t say I blame you.”
Protest came alive on Luke’s face with one sharp jolt. “That’s not how it was! I never even thought that far ahead.”
“Maybe not,” Han conceded. “But after all these years of hearing me mouth off about the Force and all your mystical nonsense, it must’ve held you back.” He brushed his fingertips against Luke’s mouth, halting resurgent protestations. “I know you love me, I can feel it almost like... the things I feel myself.”
An odd little tingle swept down from the back of his neck as he spelled it out. He remembered waking up blind when he’d been yanked out of carbon-frozen limbo. Waking at the clinic, a couple of days back, had been the polar opposite in so many ways. As if he’d started to see things edged in light, and something inside him had stirred, for the first time, ‘til it rearranged all his perceptions.
“I wouldn’t’ve expected it from myself,” Han said slowly, “so how could you?”
“I didn’t,” Luke answered instantly, “and I never would have asked it of you either. But—”
“No ‘buts’ now. We’re through with that, don’t you think?”
A slow, beautiful smile started in Luke’s eyes. “If you’re sure.”
Han shook his head. “Can’t you tell?”
Looking back on it now, it was easy to see how he’d lived at cross-purposes with himself ever since he’d swung the Falcon about at Yavin Four. He’d wanted to belong, and fought himself over an impulse that threatened everything he’d used to hammer his life into shape before. Oh yeah, he’d come to this over a long stretch of bumpy road, taking plenty of detours. An awkward chuckle rumbled in his chest.
“What?” Luke wore a look of mixed amusement and apprehension, and Han took a moment to kiss it off, to taste and breathe him in before he went on with what he had to say.
“Blast it, Luke, I feel whole with you. Like I’ve never felt before.” Looked like he couldn’t admit that much without a bit of bluster, a last trailing echo of his struggles to retain control. Han hitched up his shoulder. “And if you want the truth, yeah, that might’ve scared me off in the old days, but now—” He left the sentence hanging. “How about you?”
Instead of attempting a verbal answer, Luke kissed him hard, which was just as well. Han buried both hands in the soft blond hair to pull him in, to fill all his senses with a beautiful, unsettling truth that’d shifted his center of gravity. Tilting his head back, Luke deepened the kiss, and the shaky breath blown out between their mouths still tasted of raw beginnings.
Get used to it, Han told himself, and wondered instantly if he wanted to. Sure, the newness would fade, but when he shifted into the closeness of skin on skin, every sensation scaled a level of intensity that matched life in essence. A sense of living each moment to the fullest that he’d missed far too long. He arched his spine to the slow glide of Luke’s palm, his breathing deepened, and warmth spread through him like the break of day over some far-out horizon. Lucid tingles running with his bloodstream, every muscle anticipating a good, long stretch.
Without letting go, Han rolled onto his side and trailed his fingers down the curve of Luke’s neck, catching ripples of quickened pulse. Luke was plastered against him, the slide of warm skin releasing pleasant shivers that eased into his belly. Didn’t matter where he touched either, the firm ridge of Luke’s lowest rib or the softer skin-slope below, Han traced a strong heartbeat everywhere, and the desire behind it. Clear and present, like a second pulse beating under his own skin, when Luke gripped him closer: the same fierce intent that’d pulled him back to life. No more doubts or reluctance now, just reckless, heedless wanting. It was in every touch, close and bodiless and vivid as day.
Can’t get any better, Han caught himself thinking — the very type of notion he’d always shied away from, dangerous because flying so high generally preceded a long, hard fall, but it didn’t matter now. He couldn’t think past touching and holding Luke anyway, couldn’t help responding with all of himself. Pleasure hummed in his throat as his cock grew heavy and full again.
His fingers crept over the back of Luke’s thigh, and when he tightened his grip, he tasted the breathless moan that caught low in Luke’s throat. Well on the way to a slow burn, Han judged, and the constant, electric backwash between them sketched firelines like a runway to completion.
“What d’you think...” he murmured against Luke’s lips, “next round?”
“Han...” Flushed and winded, Luke met his eyes with a look of feigned innocence. “Don’t you need to recover first?” His mouth quirked, threatening some quip about Han’s advanced age.
“Hey, I’m Corellian.” Han leaned over him and tried a wolfish grin for good measure. “You know the type: quick draw, fast shooter, repeat performance.”
“Really,” Luke said dryly, but more than humor sparked in his eyes.
“Don’t believe me?” Han dashed a kiss against the corner of his mouth, and lowered his voice. “Guess that means I’ll have to prove it, huh?” His lips skated across Luke’s cheekbone and brushed his ear with a slowly exhaled breath. “Turn over...”
Smiling to himself, Luke rolled over lazily. The same hum traveled with his blood, traces of their loving still vivid in every muscle and nerve. They’d slept for maybe an hour, and when he’d drifted back awake, he’d felt at one with his body, with the present moment, before a single thought took shape. Predictably, Han had suggested a shared shower, but he’d wanted to stay right where he was for a little while longer.
Where was I, all this time? An odd question maybe, yet the answer presented itself with all the clarity of a nav-chart. Ever since the Empire’s fall, he’d pushed and scattered himself, straining to meet expectations even when they were aimed far past anything he could hope to do and achieve. Pieces of him swirled about like colored scraps inside a kaleidoscope, still waiting to settle into a unique, balanced pattern. He hadn’t found it on Dagobah, much as he’d tried, but now —
An electronic chime jolted him from his thoughts. Not the comlink this time. For a second, Luke considered ignoring it, but the jangle returned with greater insistence. With a sigh, he swung off the bed. Han had dropped all his clothes across a chair, where they’d half-dried in a crinkled heap. Pulling disheveled pants up over his hips, Luke grimaced at the feel of cool, salt-stiffened fabric on his skin.
He was about to enter the lounge when the chime sang out a third time, and the shower’s patters ceased abruptly.
“What was that?” Han called from the bathroom.
“There’s someone at the door.”
“Check who it is, I’ll be right with you.” Han’s voice was slightly muffled.
Through the open door, Luke caught a glimpse of him scrubbing a towel across his wet hair, the rest of him still bare and dripping.
“Better get dressed first,” Luke threw over his shoulder as he jogged across the lounge.
The door-com’s monitor was palm-sized, but features so distinctive would have been recognizable anywhere. Luke punched the buzzer and called, “Get dressed fast!”
“Why, who is it?” Han emerged in the doorway half-dry, wearing nothing but his briefs. Yet even before Luke answered, a look close to panic flashed across his face. “It’s Claine, right? Damn!”
When he waved a hand towards his console, Luke noticed the winking red light that signaled a logged message. “Should I get the guns?”
Han dived back into the bathroom, leaving him no choice but to open the door in his current, less than presentable turnout. Luke ran splayed fingers back through his hair — little or no improvement as that made — before he tapped the control panel. The door slid aside with barely a whisper.
“I suppose I caught you napping?” Claine said by ways of greeting and looked him over with a slow raising of eyebrows that transitioned into a frown.
“I, uh, just got up. Sorry.” Luke stepped back and wished he’d sounded a little less daunted and witless. “Please. Come in.”
She was almost as tall as Han and strode in with a familiar air of impatient purpose. “Downtown traffic’s as atrocious as it’s always been,” she remarked, while her dark eyes swept across the lounge. “Or I would’ve been here sooner.”
At this point, Han left his hideout barefoot, still tucking his shirt into his pants. The look he wore was one he generally reserved for War Council meetings and impending disasters. “Claine.”
“Han.” Her tone was as dry and flat as Han’s had been. “Fancy place you’ve got here.”
“Temporary arrangements,” Han offered. “Never planned to stay around this long.”
Claine gave a curt nod. “That sounds much like you.”
With every moment that passed, the air between them thickened with bristling tension. Luke shifted uncomfortably. “Why don’t we sit down?” He gestured towards the couch by the seaward window. “Perhaps you’ve already heard about some of the things that happened today, but—”
“Some,” Claine acknowledged, her eyes never leaving Han’s face. “You didn’t answer the com, so I tried headquarters next...” With a stiff little shrug, she set herself in motion. “Captain Merlow gave me a rundown when I got there, and I spent the last two hours digging through Mack’s files.”
“Right,” Han muttered and flung Luke a helpless glance. “Let’s bring you up to speed, ‘n then you can tell us about those files. Or vice versa, whatever.”
Some urbane interior designer had equipped the lounge with a couch large enough to shelter a security detail in its sweeping, cream-colored curve. When Claine took a seat at one end, Han headed for the far side with equal determination, and Luke found that adopting a post as buffer in the middle held very little appeal. Besides, they probably needed some time alone, to dismantle the silence that hung between them like a charged energy barrier.
“I was going to take a shower when you arrived,” he said in Claine’s direction. “If you’ll excuse me for a just few minutes...”
“Sure.” Her sharp gaze warmed fractionally, and he was already on his way out when he caught the look Han sent him, the message clear as a distress signal. Don’t. Be. Too. Long.
Years in cramped Rebel quarters, invariably governed by tight schedules, had taught Luke how to clean up and dress in under five minutes. Even including a quick detour to the guest-room where he’d left his bag and spare clothes, he managed to finish one minute short of that goal. But his pace slowed when he caught the sound of voices drifting from the lounge. Engaged in level conversation, instead of a shouting match or stonewalling silence. He paused in the doorway to appraise the mood.
Tense as a trip wire, Han perched on his corner of the couch, while Claine had eased back into the cushions, long legs stretched before her. Struck once more by the likeness, Luke took in her posture — the defiant Solo slouch he knew so well — along with the wary set of her features, and the frown only partially hidden by a fall of shaggy dark hair. But the lines around her eyes and mouth revealed a penchant for laughter, and something wistful lingered at the back of her gaze. Something, Luke guessed, that Han couldn’t let himself notice at the moment.
“Never would’ve thought that Cerrick was a plant,” Han was just saying. “Never mind that he was fairly high up on Mack’s list. Goes to show...” He trailed off, his eyes targeting Luke with relief the second he wandered back in. “That was quick.”
“And overdue.” Luke pulled up a chair for himself. “I think I just sent a pound of fresh sea salt down the drain.”
Claine eyed him with frank speculation. “So you’re the last Jedi knight? Aren’t you a little too—” She waved a hand, and several unflattering adjuncts flipped through Luke’s head. Short. Scrawny. Inexperienced. “—too young for the job?” she finished.
“My teachers thought I was too old, actually,” he answered.
Claine chuckled dryly. “Ah well, what do you know.”
A grin took hold of Han’s mouth, yet the glance he sent Luke warmed with secret pride.
“Cerrick may have been a plant to begin with,” Claine resumed their earlier topic, “but nothing in his com log suggests that he still kept in touch with his Imperial commanders. There wasn’t enough time to go over all the details, of course, so...” She gestured summarily. “Still, seems more likely that his original unit disintegrated, and he redefined his mission afterwards.”
“Yeah, in the name of an Empire that no longer exists.” Han grimaced. “And it cost Mack his life.”
“Turns out Mack started his private little investigation several weeks ago,” Claine returned soberly. “All those computer malfunctions said sabotage to him. And he kept digging ‘til he discovered that Cerrick’d used an Imperial type of coding for his bank account on Sullust. That’s what made him bolt. If he’d just shared his suspicions with you a little earlier—”
“He might be alive today,” Han cut in with white-lipped vehemence. “Damnit, I wish I knew why he didn’t trust me to keep it quiet! Once I got shot, he had to realize I’d back him up.”
“At the very latest.” Claine hitched up her shoulders and sighed. “Doggone Corellian stubbornness.” Impassive as her tone was, some of the coolness had melted off. “Sound familiar?”
Han grumbled something under his breath, and Luke felt obliged to put in, “Very.”
“You should know, of course.” Claine darted him a smile, a provocative edge to it that transformed her entire face and brushed Luke with instant recognition.
“Yeah, well, he got used to it,” Han muttered, clearly thrown off-kilter by her teasing undertone. He pushed to his feet. “And I should get us somethin’ to drink... Oh. Blast.”
When Claine cocked an eyebrow, he added, “Food processor’s temporarily out of commission. We’re down to water from the tap.”
“Maybe we could go for a bite somewhere,” Luke threw in, aiming the suggestion directly at Claine. “I don’t know about you, but it’s been a while since breakfast.”
“Same here. I’m starving.” She was on her feet with that and shook her hair back over her shoulders, relief plain in her body language. “There used to be lots of seafood stalls up along the beach. Maybe some’ve reopened by now.”
Half an hour later, they were seated on a terrace overlooking a pebbled bay. The seaside café was several notches up from those long-gone stalls, but its menu had met Claine’s approval. Between them, they shared a platter of various maritime snacks, to an accompaniment of steady surf and occasional squawks from the gulls cavorting overhead. As the day’s first custommers, they had the terrace to themselves, too.
Luke settled back in his chair and took in the vista that balanced near-cloudless azure and afternoon gold against the ocean’s brooding blue. Open sky, infinitely preferable to the stifling elegance of Han’s apartment. He trailed a covert glance from Han to his sister. Just as he’d hoped, the chafing discomfort had given way to a truce of some kind. So far, they’d kept the conversation on neutral terrain — if a ruthless killing scheme like Cerrick’s could be called that — but in every pause Luke could sense a troubled undercurrent that edged slowly to the surface.
With a satisfied grunt, Han dropped a crab-shell back on the plate and sucked juice off his fingers. “Ironic thing is,” he said haltingly, “I was hoping that Cerrick’d take my place in the administration sooner or later. Now I guess I’ll be stuck with the job for a while.”
Mixed feelings fled across his face like faint shadows, and Claine studied him closely. “Well, comes with the rank, doesn’t it? They made you a general after all.”
“That was an emergency decision,” Han claimed. “All you gotta do is volunteer for a suicide mission, and they’ll bump you up the ranks in no time. Looks good on war memorials, or something.”
“That’s not quite how it was,” Luke objected before he could think about it.
Claine snorted. “I know.” Stray blasts kept flipping long strands across her face, and she brushed them back with an edgy gesture. “Once you showed up at the top of the Imperials’ Most Wanted list,” she explained with a nod to Han, “I kept track of your... career with the Rebels.”
Han slanted her a wary glance. “Surprised you, huh?”
“You must’ve surprised yourself,” Claine retorted wryly, startling him into a rough chuckle.
“Me ‘n everyone involved.” Han shrugged. “’Xcept Chewie and him—” He leveled one accusing finger at Luke. “Between the two of them, they always figured I had hero potential.”
“And we were right.” Luke showed his most placid smile. “Best instincts in the Fleet.”
“I suppose it takes a Jedi and a Wookiee to anticipate something so unlikely.” Claine turned a glance on Luke that glimmered with oblique humor. “Sounds like you’re a most valuable source of information. Everyone in the family’s itching to hear about the sordid details behind the public hype...”
Han shifted in his chair, visibly groping for a comeback to relieve his unease, and rubbed the back of his neck. The wind carried some engine stutters in from the sea, trailed by a deep, booming noise like the call of a sonar explorer. In the far distance, Luke could make out the shapes of two or three floating vehicles, almost lost in the haze.
“So, um, how’s everybody doin’?” Han asked at length, his eyes fixed to the waterfront.
“We survived the Empire, most of us,” Claine answered tersely. “But Dyran’s marriage lasted no more than a season. Her husband got killed when the Imperials shelled our local resistance outpost into the ground.” For Luke, she added, “Dyran’s our youngest sister.”
“So she got married.” A toneless curse escaped through Han’s clenched teeth. “Anybody else—?”
“No. We were lucky, compared to some other families.” Claine raised her bottle of chilled Corellian ale for a quick pull. “I didn’t get involved with the resistance ‘til the brats were old enough to look after themselves. And produce the next generation of brats behind my back.”
“You — what, you’re a grandma?”
“Twice over,” she admitted grimly. “And before you start snickering, Han, that makes you a grunkle.”
Luke barely swallowed a laugh at the look of pure outrage in Han’s eyes. Yet right on the heels of that moment’s levity spread a different silence, one that hovered on the brink between speculation and instinctive mistrust.
“Claine...” Han leaned forward, reached for his own bottle and rubbed his thumb down its fogged side. “Look. I know I didn’t — I thought about giving you a call. More than once. I just... didn’t know how to talk to you. Not anymore.”
Bafflement gripped Claine’s features, as if she’d never expected such a candid admission. “My fault, I guess.” A dark strand had caught in her jacket’s collar and she plucked it free. “What I said, the last time we spoke...” She let her hand drop down flat on the table. “I’m sorry. That was grief talking. And anger at myself, because I wasn’t with Ma when she died.”
“Yeah, well, I should’ve kept in touch.”
Grief roughened Han’s voice, so stark and unmistakable Luke had to quench an impulse to reach out for him.
“But I was too damn busy carving my own slice off the Trade,” Han went on, “and boosting my independence.” Disparagement sharpened the lines at the corners of his mouth.
Claine shook her head slowly. When she spoke again, her tone balanced sadness with grudging affection. “She raised you to be free.”
“And she was very successful at that,” Claine cut in bluntly. “Imperial law all but throttled life on Corellia, remember? A lot of rebellious kids got killed ‘cause they wouldn’t march to that tune. Ma was glad you got away free, and alive.” She blew out a long breath. “That’s what she said to me each time I started griping about you, for running off like you did.”
Han slumped in his seat and turned his face back to the sea, exposing the pulse that beat thickly at the side of his throat. The surf’s relentless murmurs washed up all around them, like cresting, faltering sorrows.
“Thanks, Claine,” Han said after a long while, and met his sister’s eyes again.
“I owe you the truth, don’t I?” she answered with a tight smile. “It’s been too long.”
In that one word, Luke could hear regret and reluctant hope, and the full weight of prolonged silence. His own throat tightened in reflex.
“Well, once things’ve settled down around here,” Claine said firmly, “I hope you’ll come and visit us. Get reacquainted with the whole bunch, meet your grandnephews and -nieces, the works.” Her eyes shifted towards Luke again. “You too, if you like.”
Surprised that she’d included him so casually, Luke smiled at her. “Sure, I’d love to.”
“Good.” Claine sat up and cast a pointed glance at her chrono. “I should head on back now. You’ve managed to botch my schedule completely, with all your ridiculous emergencies.” Pushing briskly from her chair, she tipped her head towards the flitterpark. “Want me to give you a lift back to your place?”
“Nah, we’ll just walk up the beach...” Han trailed off to consult Luke with a sidelong glance. “Right? It ain’t that far.”
“Up to you.” Claine shrugged, and when they rose to see her off, she added, “You’ll settle the bill, won’t you, General?”
“What else?” Han summoned a look of injured pride. “’Course, we’ll be expecting a proper welcome feast when we visit, won’t we, kid?”
For a moment, Claine seemed to consider a riposte, then she paused, her glance skipping towards Luke again. “So. You two.” She flicked her hand back and forth with a small frown, but her eyes glittered. “Guess it was too much to expect that you’d follow tradition and start a family now, was it, Han?”
He flashed his teeth in an irreverent grin. “This is my version of family. Get used to it.”
“You,” Claine stabbed her index finger at him, “are a pure-blooded nuisance. And you—” Her glance framed Luke with belligerent humor, “—better make sure he lives to regret it.”
Luke bit back a smile and shook his head solemnly. “No regrets, from now on. Not if I can help it.”
“Ah. A romantic soul.” Claine aimed a smug look at her brother. “Just what you deserve, Han. Good luck with that.”
“I can handle it.” Han smirked openly. “Now get goin’ before I end up bursting all your bubbles.”
“You wish.” Claine spun on her heel and flung a grin over her shoulder. “Just make sure you stay in one piece for the time being. You’ve got a family reunion coming.”
“Tell ‘em we’re lookin’ forward to it,” Han sent after her, and simultaneously reached for Luke’s hand. Together they watched Claine stalk off towards her skyhopper, loose dark hair swinging with each stride.
“I suppose I’m not exactly the... companion she expected you to choose,” Luke said after a moment. Up ‘til now, he’d paid very little attention to the particulars of Corellian tradition, but the notion of meeting Han’s family started a twitch of apprehension in the middle of immense relief.
“Ah, she’s just cranky ‘cause we caught her off-guard.” Han pulled him closer with a quick tug and raised his free hand to Luke’s shoulder. “Big sisters like to have a say in everything, y’know.”
“I do know.”
“What, Leia figures she’s older by, uh, one or two minutes?”
“Uh-huh.” Luke cleared his throat when discounted complications pushed suddenly to the fore. Whatever Leia’s private hopes for him might have been, surely they’d never included — “She — she’ll be... surprised, too.”
“Tough luck.” Han laid a hand against his cheek. “If it’s too much to handle, they can always start a support group. Big sisters with impossible brothers.”
“They’ll be so glad to hear you suggest that,” Luke murmured, just before Han leaned down and kissed him soundly.
Reaching up, Luke wrapped a hand round his neck and returned the kiss with unchecked hunger. A brash wind fanned Han’s hair against his forehead, Han’s mouth tasted of spiced ale, and the sea beat out a slow, dependable pulse in the background. His heartbeat rushed up against it, as if trapped to the tide pulling out.
I feel whole with you, Han’s words returned to him, tossed up on a drift of amazement that widened his own chest now. I never expected that either.
His pulse outraced the ocean’s rhythms when he pulled back. Quick with breathless wishing that roused a smile before he could speak. “Impossible brothers,” he echoed. “Sounds like a perfect match.”
Han threw his head back and laughed.
Never the same, his own words looped back over a stretch of days, but like the sea itself they’d taken on a different shading. The feel of change like a magnetic force that carried him up and out.
“All that power,” Luke said quietly, “and you never know where it’ll take you” — as if their thoughts had been traveling on parallel tracks. “Beautiful.”
Like you. Han slung an arm across his shoulders and drew him closer against his side. They’d walked no more than a mile and wouldn’t reach the residence before nightfall, but he was in no hurry to get there. So peaceful, he thought, amazed. As if time itself had come out of a wild spin and leveled out, to run up to the shimmers of a far horizon. Just couldn’t see it before.
“What you said about finding a balance point...” He breathed deeply, in and out. “You were right, you know. And now—”
In Luke’s voice he caught a braced rush of emotion, and gave his shoulder a squeeze.
“Got a family now.” Han shook his head. “’S gonna take some time to get used to that.”
“I know the feeling,” Luke returned. “At least you already knew you had a sister.”
“Five of ’em,” Han corrected him. “And gods know how many kids and in-laws that I’ve never even met!” Yet the tone of exasperation he’d aimed for fell flat, and he threw out a hand, tossing old hangups to the wind. “What a waste of energy. All the time I spent pretending to myself that I’m not missing a thing...”
“That’s the only way to get by, sometimes,” Luke said soberly.
Han turned his face in time to catch the ghost of a smile, softening the tracks of solitary control. “Yeah, well — not anymore.”
Emotion thickened his voice all over again. All the choices that he’d made, some forced by necessity and some by doubtful desires, were starting to interlace, like weaving mobile threads. “High time I stopped complaining about missed chances, an’ all that.”
“You know what I am, and what I’m not,” Luke quoted his own words back at him. “Tell me what that means.”
“’Spect you already know.” The wind picked up again, and Han moved closer instinctively, to shield Luke from its needling chill. “It’s always been people that I trust ‘n rely on. Like you, like Chewie, and Leia too. Not political systems.” His palm curved around the nape of Luke’s neck as he spelled out those basic facts. “Guess we’ll find out how long I can last as a general, with that attitude.”
“I don’t care,” Luke answered without batting a lash.
“I know.” Han pulled up his shoulders.
Commitments. For the longest time he’d refused them on principle, and it’d taken a major blow like the carbon freeze to breach his defenses. But fitting himself in still hadn’t come easy, not when the Empire’s fall dragged in new power struggles by the plenty. He’d been spinning his wheels all along, waiting for a reason to stay, a reason to believe —
“What?” Luke’s gentle question eased past all those convolutions.
“A no-good drifter like me, turned general by accident...” Slivers of discarded apprehensions revived and turned over in Han’s stomach. “Didn’t think I could give you — be what you need.”
Temper flashed hot in Luke’s glance. “You didn’t think—?”
“Yeah.” He managed a lopsided grin. “Bottom line is, I was making up excuses so I wouldn’t get tied down, wouldn’t have to live up to anything. Bad old habit. Took me way too long to get over that.”
Fading daylight and soft shadows played across Luke’s face, all the radiance from the sky’s edge catching in his eyes.
“Not that long,” he said finally.
Han reached across to push some tousled strands back from Luke’s forehead. A bright frisson scooted down his chest and took up lodging around his heart. Like a miracle cure for his constant unrest, a mooring force in his switchback string of travels.
“You ’n me, that’s just so much more’n I ever could’ve guessed, that’s—”
— more than he could fit into words, and he caught himself thinking up crazy promises when a guarded feeling grew brighter in Luke’s eyes. He could put a name to it now. The one thing that must’ve drawn him to Luke from the beginning, only he’d never let himself recognize it before.
Hope, no matter what, ready to face down the blackest-looking odds. It scrabbled in his own chest, sharp and irrevocable.
“What you said...” Luke’s voice lowered, “about sharing a life. Is that what you want?”
Han reached for his shoulders on a start of flickering tension, hope and alarm at equal strength. Preparing for a final leap.
“Hell, yeah. Can’t tell you what kinda life, but—” A trapped breath burst up and stopped him short. “Yeah,” he repeated, and crushed Luke close against him.
Enough of an answer, he could tell, when Luke drew his head down and stretched up into a fierce kiss, and he opened to it with a soft groan. Within moments, heat bloomed in his nerves, as if the sun’s last rays were drawn tight about them, the shivers crawling on his skin matched by uneven breaths. Evening wind rushed in his ears and carried sharp calls in close, the chatter of gulls wheeling high above the water. He could feel the sea’s pull in his bones, the force of tireless waves that dragged at the sands under his feet.
“I kept having those dreams, y’know. Like — this, here.”
“Me too.” Luke’s smile was vibrant, as if a half-forgotten secret had finally come unraveled.
Somewhere overhead, a pair of wide wings slipped into twilight, into the fold of a dream that closed itself around Luke’s voice. Fly with me.
Han tangled his fingers into the blond hair, soft strands sliding over his skin to the rhythm of a restless breeze. Twining, faltering, and rushing up again, like the wildest wish come true.
“Fly with me,” he said it out loud. “’S all I need.”
Luke’s answer reached him without words, like a glitter on moving waters when their mouths met again, barely touching above a swell of breath. Han turned towards it like a blind man anticipating the sun’s return. A promise written in light.
When he looked up the next time, the first stars pierced those deep blue swathes in the east. He lifted their joined hands to frame the brightest between their fingers, an accidental pole star within a changed sky-chart.
“There, that looks pretty good,” he said, Luke’s chuckle a soft vibration against his side. “But for now, let’s go home.”