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in a bar, where the band plays the blues
all night long, to an audience of two
lost, lost, lost in an empty room
i was thinkin', instead of drinkin',
when thinking's just as bad for you.

13 Engines, Throttle Open Wide

Awakening... but without light. Only a jolt of sickening vertigo, like dropping out of hyperspace and into the mouth of a black hole, swirling gravity taking hold and dragging him down. Shivers chasing themselves over feverish skin, pain exploding somewhere deep in his gut. But--not alone. Somehow he knew, without understanding why, and he reached out blindly.

"Who's there?" His voice sounded hoarse in his ears, unrecognizable.

A pair of hands caught his own, lean fingers sliding through his and locking tight. A voice came from somewhere close by--a voice he knew well, though it, too, seemed changed in some undefinable way. Its tone was hushed--and Han thought he caught a tiny hitch, a swift catching of breath.

"Someone who loves you."

He felt himself lifted then, his pain and disorientation ebbing as a pair of arms cradled him into sheltering warmth. He reached out, drawn by an instinctive need to touch, palms sliding up over rough, heavy material until they came in contact with bare skin. His fingertips traced a quickening pulse, the smooth contours of throat and jawline. He opened his mouth, wanting to speak the name--and firm, gentle lips came down, hungrily covering his own.

Han closed his eyes, a soft groan rising in his chest. He found he wanted nothing more than to melt into that touch, to fill his body with healing breath. He slipped his hands forward, fingers tangling in a fall of soft hair before brushing through short, downy fuzz at the nape of a bowed neck. He locked his hands there, holding the heated mouth tightly against his own as he returned that kiss with his full being, his final strength.

You. It was you, all along, and I just never knew...

A harsh bleeping sound threaded its way into his consciousness. Jabba, he thought irrationally, and then rolled, groaning, legs tangling among twisted sheets. He stumbled off the bunk and across the Falcon's small cabin, fumbling for the controls of the wall comlink. Mercifully, he managed to find the right button and put a stop to the racket. The screen brightened, the unexpected glare making him squint.

"Morning," Leia said cheerily. "Good to see you're up and at 'em."

Han rubbed his eyes. He'd been dreaming--he was sure of that, though the images had already faded to a blurry haze at the back of his mind. Only a light giddiness in his stomach remained--and now there was also a creeping sense of alarm, of wrongness... of loss. Of something missing.

Leia looked fresh and relaxed, her slim figure swathed in a flowing white tunic. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head, shining ringlets falling loosely to frame her face. "Not that it's really morning any more," she added, brown eyes sparking mischievous affection. "You must've been pretty tired. I called you when my ship landed, but you weren't answering your com."

Han reached groggily for the lighting controls, his head pounding. "What time is it?"

"Just about noon."

"Damn." He'd been sleeping way too much--especially for someone used to getting by on almost no sleep at all, often for days at a stretch. An after-effect of the carbon freeze, maybe, though that was weeks ago and he was supposed to be over it by this time... why the hell hadn't Chewie wakened him? He shifted restlessly, irritation starting to creep up.

"You know that you and General Madine are reporting before the Provisional Council in less than an hour, right?" Leia added after a moment.

"Uh... yeah." Actually, he'd forgotten completely. His annoyance deepened a further shade.

"Okay good--I'll see you here in a while, then." She winked at him, reaching for the controls on her own com pad.

"Leia?"

Her hand hesitated.

"Have you heard from Luke? Is he here yet?"

She shook her head. "He's not expected until late this afternoon. Mon Mothma wants to talk with him privately, so chances are he'll be tied up--but he did say he'd try to make it for the reception tonight. Maybe the two of you can catch up then." Leia reached for her com button again, then hesitated. "Mothma wants to talk to us in private too."

"You and me? Why--what about?"

Leia shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine." She flipped her switch, and Han's screen went dark again.

"Mon Mothma--damn." A formless sense of apprehension tightened his stomach.

He lurched into his cabin's tiny bathroom cubicle to splash cold water on his face. His bloodshot reflection stared back at him out of the mirror. "You look like hell, Solo," he muttered, fumbling about for his shaving equipment. No chance of putting it off another day--a five o'clock shadow really wasn't part of the Alliance dress code.

Han was smearing lather on his face when black stars erupted across his vision. He sagged forward and clutched the edges of the sink for balance, pulling in a few sharp breaths as he willed the dizziness to pass. The floor gradually re-stabilized underfoot, but a sick churning lingered in his gut. He studied himself in the mirror--a pale, exhausted version of himself, and let out a growl of irritation.

Just a few more days...

A few more days, and the cleanup would be over with, the Alliance forces would be regrouped and ready for action--and he and Chewie could go on their scheduled leave. Somewhere. Anywhere but here... Scintillia, they'd talked about, and Chewie had mentioned Kashyyyk several times as well. It didn't matter. Any place where the air didn't smell like carbon fumes would do just fine. Wouldn't hurt to get checked out by med-droids again before he went, though. Whatever the carbon freeze had done to him, he decided he really couldn't get over it fast enough. He pushed upright, shaved hastily, and finger-combed his shaggy dark hair into a reasonable semblance of decency. It would just have to do.

Midday heat washed over him as he stepped down the ship's ramp and into muted, yellow-gray sunlight. He winced and tugged at the stiff collar of his dress uniform, sweat already beading on his forehead. A haze of pollution veiled Coruscant's Imperial City, trapping solar heat here in the upper levels. Outdoor temperatures could easily reach the limits of endurance by early afternoon, and they were already getting there now.

The Falcon sat perched on a wide platform bridging the dizzy span between two of the city's dun-colored ferrocrete towers. The area had been designated as a makeshift open-air hangar, and ships were dotted everywhere. Most still exhibited scars from the preceding weeks of battle, and crews and tech droids were scurrying about, scrambling to effect repairs as quickly as possible.

It had been over a week since the Alliance had declared victory here, but no one had really relaxed yet. Anything could be hiding in the depths of the planet-wide city's urban canyons, and Han agreed with Madine's assessment that all forces needed to be ready again as soon as possible. The Imperials had buckled faster than either of the two Generals expected, and the takeover had gone smoothly from there. So smoothly that it made them both nervous--another reason why sleeping late seemed like a bad idea.

Chewie was crouched on top of the Falcon, laboring to mend some damage to the old freighter's exterior hull. Han shot him a resentful look. In spite of his thick coat of reddish fur, the Wookiee seemed completely untroubled by the heat--and that, in Han's opinion, just wasn't fair.

"So pal," he started by way of a greeting, "when, exactly, were you gonna wake me up?"

Chewbacca extinguished his welding torch, pushing a dark plexisteel shield back from his furry face. I tried to wake you--twice, he rumbled, a note of defensiveness creeping into his tone.

"Oh yeah? And how hard did you try?"

Hard enough--and it is not as if I couldn't have used your help out here. The Wookiee glared at him--an expression that would have struck fear into the hearts of most life-forms, though the effect had long since worn off with Han. You sleep like a Brulle-slug, he added.

"Thanks a lot, gruesome," Han snapped, irritated by concern that flickered behind his co-pilot's gaze. "Looks like you missed your chance, 'cause now I've gotta go and--"

Sit up real straight while a bunch of politicians and diplomats and gods-know-what-else ramble on and on about nothing, Chewie quoted smugly, his grunts and snarls echoing Han's irascible tones with remarkable accuracy.

Han scowled. "Think you're pretty smart, don'tcha? You've been spending too much time with Luke, that's what it is."

Chewie let out a short bark of protest. Not enough--I am saddened by his absence.

"Yeah." Han dropped his gaze to the deckplates, wishing he hadn't brought up the topic. Luke's absence felt like a broken tooth, an empty space you just couldn't stop thinking about. Ironic that he'd disappeared right after Endor, just when it'd seemed that the three of them were finally going to be together. Him, Luke and Leia--a family.

Did you use the fusion-torch yesterday? asked Chewbacca.

Han glanced up, startled by the abrupt change of topic. "No--why?"

It is missing. You should put tools back in the storage compartment when you're done with them. As it is, I am left using this. He held up his antiquated welder, fixing Han with a reproachful stare.

"Hey--don't look at me, pal. Like I said, I haven't seen it."

Chewbacca let out a quiet snort of disbelief, lowering his visor back over his features as he reactivated the torch.

"Think we could talk him into joining us for some Rn'R after all this crap is out've the way?" Han asked suddenly.

Chewie glanced up sharply. Who...?

"Well--Luke, of course. Maybe that trip to Scintillia--"

He will not come.

"Aw, c'mon, you can't know that! We'll see him tonight, we'll all talk about it then." Han grinned, absurdly cheered by the notion of the three of them running wild on the infamous gambling station. "M'sure *you* can help me persuade him," he added. Wookiee methods of persuasion were legendary, and widely feared.

Chewbacca shook his head and bent over his task, visibly declining the invitation to further banter. Sparks leaped from the tip of the welder, spilling over the Falcon's hull in a bright shower. Better go now, or you will be late, he growled.

"Yeah, yeah..." Han turned and plodded toward a marked-off section at the edge of the hangar platform where a row of transpo-cabs hovered waiting, their round black shells gleaming in the sun. He had an unpleasant feeling that Chewie was right. Luke was different these days. The bright-eyed kid had disappeared, leaving behind a grim, quiet stranger who wore Luke's clothes but bore no other clear resemblance to the friend he'd known for years.

But tonight he'll be here... and I'll ask him.

Han chose one of the cabs at random, sinking down into the wide, self-forming bench seat and reaching to slide his card through the console's payment slot. The doors whooshed closed, sealing him in a spheroid bubble of solar-tinted transparisteel. He punched his destination coordinates into the keypad and leaned back as the vehicle lifted off the platform, swooping into the giddy heights between the forest of towers.

And not just about Scintillia, either...

Cool air flooded the passenger compartment, and Han tilted his head back with a sigh of relief, closing his eyes. Scintillia was the least of it. The questions he wanted to ask, the ones he truly needed answers to, remained stubbornly formless at the back of his mind. A familiar ache settled in behind his breastbone.

"You could've told me, kid."

The cab's control console let out a questioning bleep, startling him with the realization that he'd spoken that last thought aloud. "Never mind," he muttered. The machine fell silent, reassured that he hadn't been issuing a vocal command. He slouched deeper into his seat, the sound of his own words ringing mockingly through his thoughts. It was what he'd said to Luke the last time they'd spoken--over a comlink, moments before Luke took his X-Wing into hyperspace.

"You could've told me."

There'd been a moment of crackling silence over the channel, informing Han more eloquently than words that Luke knew exactly what he was talking about. The hand he'd lost, now replaced by a bionic contraption that looked and felt just like the real thing, but wasn't. And his father--Vader. Things that Han had found out in other ways, through the small silences and slipped phrases of those around him, until he'd finally cornered Leia and dragged the story out of her. She hadn't wanted to tell him. Said that he should really be asking Luke... but he couldn't. Couldn't ask Luke anything, anymore.

Finally, Luke's voice had come back over the com. "Yeah," he'd said quietly. "I could've." And then the channel had snapped closed, sealing their conversation with the silence of finality.

If you want me to give her up, if she's what this is about...

Han let the thought trail off, already knowing the answer. He'd give anything for Luke, including his own life.

When he opened his eyes again, the cab was weaving through a throng of air traffic. It dropped abruptly to dart between two gigantic towers, skimming low above the brown, blanketing haze that covered the city. The pyramid-shape of the Imperial palace loomed ahead, its sheer, green-gray walls shading into tan as they receded in the dirty mist. His craft swept around the palace in a long, smooth curve.

Once on the far side, it was possible to see the jagged scar that sliced diagonally across the face of the pyramid. A burning Alliance ship had scraped along that wall, cutting a blackened path into the hard, slick surface before it skittered off again, plunging into the city's fathomless depths. Han had known the pilot, a young Chandrilan named Dynn. He could still hear the man's final, panicked transmission crackling over the Falcon's com, and his jaw clenched involuntarily at the memory. He looked away from the scar, firmly focusing his gaze on the approaching landing pad. The cab set down with a soft hiss of anti-grav brakes, and the hatch slid open to release him in front of the palace's grand entrance.

The massive stone doors stood open, guarded by a heavily-armed assemblage of soldiers. No need to flash his identification at them--the group snapped to attention, saluting him as he hurried up the steps. "At ease," he muttered, nodding at them as he passed through the doorway. This was one thing about being a general he knew he'd never get used to. All the deference and protocol just made him edgy.

The palace interior was half-hollow and bisected by a wall of polished green glass, rising from the center of the floor to the pyramid's apex. Beyond the wall lay a maze-like complex containing offices, living quarters, a sumptuous banquet hall, and a lavishly equipped entertainment gallery. The level directly below the foundations had been occupied by the Imperial palace guard, while on deeper levels still, the Alliance forces had discovered a sprawling warren of slaves' quarters and a high-security prison facility.

Han passed along the Grand Corridor, a lane formed by twin rows of trees. They were supposed to be some rare variety, though he couldn't remember what they were called. They were pretty enough, he supposed--long rows of straight, silver-colored trunks, greenish-purple leaves constantly in motion, as though stirred by an intangible breeze. They filled the lane with moving shadows and subliminal whisperings, like a strange, distant music.

At the end of the lane, a multi-tiered flight of steps led up to the Grand Balcony--the spot from which Emperor Palpatine had broadcast his rare public addresses. Han climbed slowly, not wishing to invite another dizzy spell. The balcony was a sweeping expanse of gray granite, large enough to have landed the Falcon on it, with room left over for Wedge's Rogue Squadron of X-Wings besides. He hurried across, passing into the vaulted corridor that led toward Palpatine's throne room.

Here, the signs of battle stood out clearly, laser burns etched deeply in the smooth dark stone. The palace was eerily quiet now, as if the walls had simply absorbed the violence of the past weeks. Walking into it was like entering a tomb, which was what this corridor had literally become for far too many of Madine's ground forces. The fighting had become surprisingly intense near the throne room, as though the Imperials were trying to keep it safe. Perhaps they expected their dead Emperor to come back and reclaim it.

Han shivered, sweat-damp skin clammy in the cool air.

The doors of the throne room were sealed, guarded by a second throng of ingratiatingly polite Alliance soldiers. Han waved off a flurry of salutes as he turned right, heading down a smaller hallway towards the briefing room.

Crix Madine was waiting at the far end of the hallway, the very image of military decorum in his crisp uniform, though his restless fidgeting managed to spoil the effect. A tall, pale-haired woman stood beside him, a black leather case tucked under her arm.

"Solo," Madine said, nodding his head by way of greeting.

Han saw the woman glance over sharply at the sound of his name. "I don't believe we've been introduced," she said, extending her hand and giving his a firm shake. "You are General Solo?"

"Yeah, that's me." He managed his charming smile, though he was slightly unnerved by the curious and frankly appraising look she was giving him. "And yourself?"

"Winter."

"Oh, so you're--" Leia's closest friend. Practically her sister. And evidently not impressed, if her expression were any indication. "--the one who managed to crack the planetary defense codes."

She inclined her head, modest and dignified. "I certainly didn't do it alone," she replied. "I had a great deal of--"

The meeting chamber doors swung open, and a small gathering of distinguished beings rose in silent, formal greeting. Mon Mothma presided at the head of the table, stately in her sweeping gray robes. Commander-in-Chief Admiral Ackbar was on her immediate right, while Leia stood at her left. Glancing around the table, Han also recognized General Jan Dodonna and Bothan Councilor Borsk Fey'lya. The latter was perched in a chair specifically designed to compensate for his short stature, bringing him up to the same height as the other Council members. A trio of seats had been left conspicuously empty at the near end of the granite table. Han and Madine took their places, while Winter paused to set the black leather case on the floor before she sat down.

Mon Mothma remained on her feet for a moment after the rest of the Council had resumed their seats. "Greetings Generals Madine and Solo; Lady Winter. Several of us have seen your written reports, but I hoped that you would quickly summarize for the assembled Provisional Council. General Madine?"

Madine rose again, launching into a condensed account of the ground battle. Having heard most of it already, Han only half-listened until Madine motioned to Winter, who picked up the leather case and set it on the table.

"As I've already mentioned," he was saying, "we were not expecting such a vigorous defense of the Imperial Palace or, particularly, of the throne room. Accordingly, we later conducted a thorough search of the throne room and discovered this."

Winter opened the case and drew out a sphere of translucent, golden material, roughly the size of a human head. "Our tests have determined it to be a specimen of pure amber," she said, placing it carefully on the table.

Han shot Madine an incredulous look. "A big chunk of sap? That's what they fought so hard to protect?" All gazes swerved in his direction. He ignored them.

The corners of Madine's mouth puckered in a tiny smile of amusement. "It would seem that way, General Solo."

Han rose and circled the end of the table, examining the object from various angles. "But... why?" he finally asked.

"Well, that's the real question, isn't it?" Madine lifted the amber globe so that it caught the light, spilling geometric patterns of yellow radiance over the table's polished surface. "Our readings tell us that it's derived from the sap of the indigenous, nearly extinct ch'hala tree--the same species that can be seen in the Grand Corridor."

"So--it's worth a lot?" Han suggested.

"Actually, no," said Winter. "Certainly not compared to the contents of the Imperial treasury, which were left relatively undefended. Our holographic resonance scan *did* reveal an unusual crystalline matrix structure within the amber, though."

"Meaning what?" asked Dodonna. He raised a grizzled eyebrow, tilting the object an inquisitive look.

"Well, we don't know yet--no one has managed to decode it," Winter replied.

"Decode," interjected Mothma. "Are you implying that this matrix structure is not naturally occurring?"

"It's very complex and highly regimented," the pale-haired woman explained. "The pattern is almost certainly a repository for some kind of information, though what that might be is anyone's guess."

"Could it be a weapon?" Han wondered.

"It could be almost anything," answered Madine, though his nod indicated that his thoughts had been running along similar lines. "Whatever it is, it was obviously very important to the Imperials, as well as to the Emperor personally."

"Perhaps it's some kind of a religious artifact," Leia suggested. "Palpatine was a Sith, after all, and the amber could be connected to his beliefs in some way."

Fey'lya twitched impatiently in his high seat. "All this is very interesting," he cut in, "but it hardly seems like a matter of pressing importance."

"Perhaps not urgently pressing," agreed Mon Mothma, "but certainly worthy of sober investigation. General Madine, I would ask that you guard this object carefully until we can determine what it is."

"There's a security containment lockup on the third floor below the palace's foundations. I think that would be the safest place for the time being."

Mothma nodded. "That sounds very satisfactory. Thank you." She turned her clear, pale-blue gaze on Han. "General Solo?"

Both Madine and Winter sat down, the latter carefully replacing the amber sphere in its case. Han saw Leia's gaze lock with that of her childhood friend, an unreadable glance passing between them. Great, he thought, with a sort of grim amusement. So much for impressing the in-laws.

Remaining on his feet, he delivered a digest account of the neutralization of the Imperials' satellite defense grid and the series of strategic air-strikes that followed. When he was done, Fey'lya rose, clearing his throat.

"The reclaiming of Imperial City has been a pivotal step in driving back the Imperial forces and paving the way for the dawn of a New Republic," said the Bothan Councilor. "I would therefore urge the Provisional Council to strike now, while the iron is hot, and push for ratification the proposed constitution. With Coruscant now secure--"

"Not secure," Madine interrupted. The Bothan Councilor's head snapped in his direction, fastening on him with a look of displeasure. "The constitution is a political matter, and is therefore beyond my range of expertise," Madine went on quickly, "but I must emphasize that Coruscant is far from secure. The nature of this planet's terrain is such that any number of hostile forces could be waiting--"

"Forgive me, General," Fey'lya purred, "but it seems to me that it's very much the role of our military forces to *make certain* that the planet is secure."

Madine stiffened slightly. "That's true, but it's just not possible in this case--definitely not so soon after the invasion. I would strongly caution against an attitude of complacency."

"I agree with Madine," Han broke in before Fey'lya could respond. "Not only could there be some nasty surprises waiting for us here on Coruscant, but the same's true in any number of systems. Our position within the galaxy as a whole is hardly secure."

Admiral Ackbar gave a slow nod of his heavy, amphibious head. "I believe that the point made by the two Generals should be well-taken. I support ratification of the constitution also, but at the same time, we must guard against the notion that our victory is complete."

Fey'lya's cream-colored fur lifted in rows of angry bristles. "Nonsense," he retorted. "The death of Palpatine has demoralized the Imperial forces, as evidenced by their half-hearted defense of Coruscant. In re-taking this planet, we have stolen the very jewel from the Empire's crown." He faced Mothma, visibly turning his back on the two generals. "Now is the time to consolidate our position--time to restore Coruscant to its former glory, as a symbol of the Alliance's triumph and of the dawning New Republic."

"A symbol?" Han snapped. "If this place 'symbolizes' anything to anyone right now, it's the number of people who've died to get us this far--at Yavin, and Endor, and here--"

"I am sure that Councilor Fey'lya intended no disrespect to the sacrifices made by our courageous Alliance forces," Mothma interrupted mildly.

Fey'lya inclined his shaggy head toward her. "Indeed not. I am merely asserting the self-evident fact that this constitution will bolster the Alliance's morale, and--more importantly, it will garner support from worlds that remain as yet undecided."

"I would agree with Councilor Fey'lya on that last point," said Leia. "On the other hand, if it's true what Generals Madine and Solo are saying, that the planet isn't yet secure--"

"Then it simply means that our forces must be vigilant, particularly in assuring the security of the delegates who will shortly be arriving to witness the formal Declaration ceremonies," Fey'lya finished, darting Han and Madine a pointed look from beneath his bristling eyebrows.

Leia looked as though she were about to say something, but at that moment, Mothma rose to her feet. "I would like to thank you all for your time," she said quietly, nodding to the assembled beings. "Unless there are other issues of pressing importance, I would like to adjourn the meeting at this time in order that preparations can be made for the diplomatic reception tonight. The Provisional Council will meet again tomorrow afternoon to further discuss these matters."

Everyone rose and started to file towards the door. Han got up too, but Leia caught his gaze, giving a quick shake of her head. "Oh, right," he muttered, sinking back down in his chair.

With only the three of them left in the room, Mothma glanced over at Han. "General Solo, why don't you join us at this end of the table?" She nodded to the seat that Admiral Ackbar had recently vacated. Han crossed to it and sat down warily, giving Leia a questioning look. Her shoulders lifted in an almost imperceptible shrug.

Mothma folded her hands on the table in front of her. "This has been a difficult time," she began quietly. "Collectively, we have lost so much--and you must understand I have nothing but the deepest respect for the sacrifices that have been made. But," she went on, "I also think that we must look to the future and celebrate our victories. We have made tremendous gains in a very short time." She paused for a moment, glancing from Leia to Han, then back again. "For this reason, and for those already stated, I concur with Councilor Fey'lya. The constitution is an important step in solidifying the position of the New Republic."

Leia inclined her head. Han waited, stonily silent, while Mothma continued. "The formalization will take place in two days, allowing the assembled delegates to return to their homeworlds with news of this. I have asked that Commander Skywalker be present, since he may also wish to announce the commencement of the new order of the Jedi--something I plan to discuss with him tomorrow morning. The Jedi served as guardians to the Old Republic, and the re-establishment of their tradition would bode well for our future."

More symbols, Han thought, and felt a sudden flash of anger. They're trying to turn Luke into some kind of goddamn--

Leia was nodding, and Han felt his silent rage turn against her. He fought it down as well as he could. "I can't say whether he will agree," he heard her saying. "He's been through a lot, and..." Leia stopped. Han could guess what she was thinking. Vader's son. And, her brother, though that part was known only to a select few.

"He is the last of the Jedi. If their order is to return, it must be through him," Mothma said gently, clearly guessing Leia's thoughts as well. "Your brother has more than proven his allegiance, and it would please me to honor him in this small way."

More than proven his allegiance... Han felt his anger wind up another notch. To think that Luke would have to prove anything to people who already owed him so much...

Mon Mothma leaned forward a little in her seat. "Councilor Organa, General Solo--there is another reason I wished to speak to you both. It would give me great pleasure to honor the two of you, as well. In so many ways, we are celebrating new beginnings. It seems a fitting time for the galaxy to witness the beginning of your new life together."

"What?" Han blurted. "You mean--"

Leia shot him a chilling stare. "We will need to discuss this in private," she cut in.

Mothma rose. "Of course. I certainly do not expect an immediate answer." She inclined her head in a gracious bow and strode from the room.

Han rose explosively as soon as the doors swung closed. "How long have you known about this?"

Leia stiffened. "What makes you think I've known any longer than you have?"

"Because it's all part of the same big political show--Coruscant, the Jedi order, the gods-damned New Republic, this... I can't help thinkin' that you and Mothma--" he bit the sentence off.

"Go on," Leia prompted, her voice dangerously quiet. "You can't help thinking Mothma and I, what?"

"Planned this."

"Our wedding?" She continued before he had a chance to interrupt. "You and I have been planning a wedding--or so I was led to believe."

"Yeah? Well sweetheart, this sure wasn't part of my plan. I wasn't figuring on being turned into some kinda 'symbol' for your New Republic."

Leia's mouth tightened. "Don't give yourself too much credit, Han--you're not the symbol, the wedding is. And you can't say that I didn't warn you about it, either."

"What're you talking--" but then he remembered.

They'd been walking among the trees of Endor, the drumbeats of the victory celebration far behind them. She'd turned to him with that look in her eye, the one that warned him when she was dead serious. "I am a princess, you know."

"Yes, your worship--I know," he'd answered. He'd had a few drinks too many by that time, and the words came out as a slurred drawl.

"You'll have to marry me," she returned then, a note of challenge entering her voice. Like a dare.

"Yeah? Well, I'll have you know that I don't have to do anythin' unless I want--"

Leia burst out laughing.

Han stopped in his tracks. "What's so funny?" he'd demanded.

"You're scared, aren't you? That's what it is." It was all part of their game, a constant upping of the ante.

"Scared? I ain't scared of--"

"Sure you are. Scared of committing yourself to anything, or anyone."

"I'm not scared."

"Prove it, then."

He'd hesitated for a split second--but the wild, distant drumming, the euphoria of victory, and the potent Ewok wine singing in his veins all coalesced into a mood of recklessness. This was what he'd wanted--what he'd been pushing Leia towards. Her dare was really a concession, and for him to surrender now would only prove that he'd won.

"Sure, why not, let's get married," he'd said. And at that moment, for reasons he could neither count nor name, it had seemed the right thing to say. Now, facing her across the conference table, he couldn't shake the feeling that Leia had known more than she'd ever told him. The game wasn't over at all, and suddenly it seemed that everything was stacked against him.

"So. You didn't actually mean that I'd have to marry you because you're a princess, did you? More because I'm--what, a commoner? A criminal..? Is that--"

"No, that's not it," snapped Leia. "I have to represent the Alliance, and I don't mean just here in the Core, but everywhere. I can't afford for my personal integrity to appear... compromised."

"Compromised...?" It took him a moment to work through the meaning behind her words, but then he choked out a bitter laugh. "So that's it--you can't be seen shackin' up with a former smuggler. You really think that marrying one is gonna look better?"

"Your 'crimes' were against Imperial laws which no longer apply, and in any case, it's agreed that you've more than proven--"

"My allegiance? Damn--you and Mothma even talk alike!"

Leia took a deep breath and folded her arms. "All right," she said with forced calm. "I can see what you're saying--this wasn't exactly what I had in mind for our wedding either. But ultimately, what does it matter?"

"What does it matter--?" Han stared at her, and suddenly wondered if they were even speaking the same language. "We're being pushed to do this before we're ready because of some archaic notion about appearances--"

"Before we're ready?" Her chin lifted defiantly. "I am ready, and if you're saying that you're not--"

"Look, I was thinking in a couple of years, not a coupla months!"

"So right now you're not sure you want to get married, but you 'll be sure in two years--is that it?"

"No--that's not it! I'll be ready when I say so--not when a bunch of diplomats n' politicians think I should be!" He turned on his heel, striding for the door. "Not even you, sweetheart," he flung back over his shoulder.


"And so, it seems very clear to me, as well as to the people of Bliiyes and the surrounding systems, that what's needed now are powerful legal and, if need be, military initiatives, in order to..."

Han shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The Bliiyesian ambassador, a thin, blue-haired humanoid, gestured continuously with very long fingers while he spoke, his voice rising and falling in an almost hypnotic cadence.

Han sipped at his drink, making sure to nod politely every time the ambassador came to a pause in his rambling monologue. Small-talk had never been his thing, and the political variety struck him as particularly tedious. He glanced around, wondering if everyone was as bored as he was.

Apparently not. The Grand Balcony was crammed with beings of almost every conceivable description, all talking at once. Leia had introduced him to quite a few of the delegates, but he was damned if he could remember most of their names now. They'd been arriving in small groups throughout the day, representatives from perhaps two dozen different systems.

He glanced over to where Leia was standing near the balcony's edge, a silver goblet poised in one hand. Beyond her, he could see the palace's vast interior chamber and the topmost branches of the Grand Corridor's ch'hala trees. Leia was talking quietly to a tall, striking-looking man with a neatly trimmed beard and a shock of jet-black hair--prince something-or-other. The dark-haired man was saying something to her in a low voice, and Leia's laughter carried above the crowd in a long, quiet ripple.

This is her moment, Han reminded himself. Gotta behave. He'd reached a tentative reconciliation with her that afternoon, though the look she darted at him over the rim of her goblet made it obvious that their earlier discussion was hardly over.

"...and I certainly think that the ratification of this new constitution is a step that augers well for the upcoming process of negotiation between the Alliance and my own people. Would you tend to agree with that, General Solo?"

"Hmmm?" Han realized he hadn't heard a word the Bliiyesian had been saying. "Uh, of course."

The ambassador launched back into whatever it was that he'd been on about, and Han tried not to fidget. The pounding in his temples had intensified to skull-splitting proportions over the course of the day, and this conversation definitely wasn't helping.

He scanned the crowd for familiar faces, but no luck. Chewbacca had declined his invitation--nay, entreaty--to attend the reception, giving little more than a shrug and a sulky growl by way of an excuse. Artoo and Threepio were arguing over in the corner, but that was one conversation Han wanted no part of--less, even, than the one he was currently snared in.

Finally he muttered something about needing another drink and excused himself. Ridiculous, considering the number of server-droids weaving through the crowd with trays of cocktails, but he stuck to his story, heading resolutely for the bar. He was halfway there when a riveting sense of presence stopped him, raising hairs in a tingling line along the back of his neck.

He turned, and fond himself looking right at Luke.

Han stood frozen for a second, staring dumbly. Finally he took a hesitant step toward the slim, black-clad figure, racking his brain for some kind of sensible greeting. Only belatedly did he notice the willowy, copper-haired woman standing by Luke's side. He stopped, jolted by something ugly and undefinable, a feeling he really didn't want to be having. Squelching the reaction fast, he groped around for a more acceptable emotion.

"...said that the Jedi order was important to the Old Republic," the woman was saying, "so of course one of the questions everyone's asking is whether you're going to try and revive it now that Coruscant is secure?" She was twirling a stylus between her thumb and index finger, her electronic datapad poised to record Luke's reply--and then Han understood his own instinctive response. Reporters. Security had done everything they could to keep them out of the palace for the night, but somehow hey always wormed their way in.

He took an angry step towards the pair, then stopped again--because Luke was looking at him, studying him with a quiet, unconscious intensity. Han saw something flicker behind the blue eyes, a sweep of anguish that was gone almost the moment it appeared--controlled so quickly, so completely, that he immediately doubted he'd seen it.

It struck him that he must look ridiculous just standing there, so he took another awkward step forward. A hand caught the crook of his elbow.

"Hey there." Leia had materialized at his side. "What'd you say to a short walk?"

"Uh, sure," he answered quickly, only too eager for an excuse to leave. "Let me just ask Luke if he wants to--" He glanced around. The red-haired woman was talking to an Ithorian now, and Luke was nowhere to be seen. "Damn! Where'd he go?"

Leia gave an impatient shrug. "Never mind--I'm sure he'll turn up."

Han followed her through the crowd and down the steps toward the palace's grand reception hall. Leia walked quietly, her gaze fixed on the main entrance at the far side of the enormous chamber. Imperial City's metallic vista stretched beyond the open doors, rows of towers rising to fill the dark brown, starless sky. When they reached the foot of the steps, she started along the lane of ch'hala trees. Silver branches met in a canopy high overhead, sealing them in a vaulted tunnel of shadows.

Han fell into step beside Leia, waiting for her to speak. She didn't, and he wondered if this was yet another game--a test to see who would break the silence first. He decided he was tired of games.

"Any idea where Luke's been these past weeks?"

Leia gave a quick shake of her head.

"Probably off on another mysterious Jedi mission," he speculated.

"I wouldn't know."

Han sighed. "Well, I'd like to know why he took off like that just now, like he was avoiding us or something."

"Maybe you can ask him tomorrow?"

"Yeah, if Mothma lets him out of her clutches long enough," he growled.

Leia stopped walking, and folded her arms around herself. "Han, I need to ask you something serious."

"Yeah?" He paused, waiting. That creeping sense of apprehension was back.

She hugged herself tighter, her face a pale oval against the shadowy backdrop of tree trunks. "I need to know if you're having any doubts."

"Doubts..." He pondered the word, finding that it didn't quite match what he was feeling, though he could think of none that came closer.

Misreading his hesitation, Leia shot him an exasperated look. "We're supposed to be getting married--remember?"

"How could I forget?" he snapped.

Leia started walking again, her strides quick and angry. When he didn't follow, she stopped and turned around, studying him in the half-light. "I know that all of this is a lot to get used to," she said carefully. "All these functions, and diplomats, and ceremonies..." she paused. "Look. I guess this took you by surprise today, and I probably could've done a better job of warning you about it."

"Yeah--you could've." He wasn't going to deny it.

"Han, I understand if you feel rushed, and--I don't mind waiting. Maybe not two years, but we can talk about that. I just need to hear from you that this is what you really want."

"I--" he stopped, realizing that he didn't have an answer to that. "I... guess I need some time. Couple days. Okay?"

Her features tightened, but she gave a small nod. "Sure." She turned and started back toward the steps.

"Leia, I--" he felt like he owed her something more, some kind of explanation. "Guess it's all been a bit much since Endor, haven't really had a chance to think things through... and there's been all these changes in Luke. He just doesn't seem like himself any more, and--"

Leia spun to face him again, and even in the dimness, he saw that the last trace of color had drained from her features. "You know something?" Her voice was brittle with fury. "Just once, once, I'd like us to have a conversation that's not about Luke."

"What? What the hell are you--"

"You don't even know you're doing it, do you?"

"Doing what--?" He stared at her, thinking he should be angry. Instead he found himself holding his breath, as if she were about to tell him some tremendous secret.

"He's all you ever want to talk about. Your messages to me, our conversations--all you ever seem to do is worry about him."

"Well... yeah!" And then, suddenly, he was angry. "Damn it, Leia--don't you worry about him? Don't you see how much he's changed...? He's your brother, for gods' sakes!"

"Yes--he's my brother. Exactly." She spun around, climbing the steps in swift, efficient strides.

Han watched in numb bewilderment as she vanished back into the crowd. Finally, he turned back toward the shadowy lane with an angry shrug. "What the hell was that all about?" He kicked at the steel pavement, sending a fallen twig skittering. It didn't seem to matter where he started out with Leia, they always managed to end up in a fight.

He paused, leaning against a tree-trunk. The whispering of the leaves was oddly soothing, as was the pungent sap aroma that rose from the silvery bark. Amber, he thought vaguely, and remembered the chunk of it that he'd kept on his window-ledge as a boy. That piece had been filled with primordial insects--shapes floating in the golden depths, tiny bodies simultaneously trapped and exposed.

Now, all he could think of was carbonite. Of being trapped himself, frozen and placed on display in Jabba's palace. He wondered if there would ever be a time when he didn't dream about it, when his nightmares wouldn't be filled with blind sensations of drowning in metallic ice.

A wave of dizziness washed over him. He closed his eyes, leaning his head against the tree. It occurred to him that he felt just as trapped now. Just as exposed--only in a different way. Ahead of him stretched a future filled with formalities, uniforms, small-talk, political games he'd never cared about and didn't want to play. And none of it should matter--not if you really loved someone.

Except...

There was something, some truth that kept slipping from his grasp every time he got near it. He shook his head in frustration--and a tiny movement captured the corner of his gaze. He turned, peering into the gloom between the rows of trees, making out the vague outline of a figure. A slender humanoid, dressed all in black, standing about a hundred paces further along the lane. He couldn't make out the face, but somehow sensed that it was watching him.

"Luke...?"

He took a step toward the dark shape. The figure turned away, vanishing between the tree trunks. Han caught the impression of fluid, athletic grace, the swirl of a black cloak trailing behind slim shoulders. "Luke, wait!" He hurried to the spot where he'd lost sight of the figure, but no one was there.

"Damn!" Makes it twice in one night he's disappeared on me...

A flicker of movement drew his attention upward, and he saw the same figure high overhead, scaling the pyramid's sheer inner wall with impossible speed.

"What the--" his voice dried up in his throat. Jedi tricks notwithstanding, he doubted even Luke could pull off a stunt like that. He unhooked his comlink from his belt and keyed in Madine's number. "Yeah--get some people down here now. Think we've got ourselves some uninvited company." Even as he said the words, the intruder slipped into a narrow vent and was lost to view.

Madine arrived moments later, a small troop of soldiers in tow. Han couldn't help but suspect that the other General was as pleased as he was to be excused from the reception. They split into groups and searched the area surrounding the palace until a couple of hours past midnight, but no trace remained of the mysterious figure. What was more, the palace's securiNet grid hadn't picked up the intruder's life-signs, a feat Madine swore to be impossible for anyone but a droid. What was more, the outdoor radar sweeps hadn't picked anything up all night either, and even a droid would have shown up on those.

"Looks like you saw a ghost," Madine said finally, a glint of understated humor in his serious gray eyes. By this time, they were standing on the landing platform outside the palace's main entrance, hot night-winds gusting clouds of grit into their faces.

"Yeah, that's very funny," Han growled back at him. "You won't object if I have extra guards posted for the night?"

Madine shook his head. "It's already done--a wise precaution anyway, ghosts or otherwise."

"Yeah," agreed Han. So far in their working relationship, he and Madine had managed to see eye-to-eye on most things. It was something Han was grateful for.

Madine opened the hatch of his twin-seater flyer and gestured to the passenger side. "Want a lift back to your ship? It's on my way."

"Thanks, but no. Think I'll stay n' poke around a bit longer."

"Suit yourself." Madine tilted him a jaunty salute as he slid behind the controls, firing up the engines. Han stepped back as the small craft lifted off, its outlines swallowed almost instantly by the soupy darkness. He turned and trudged back through the palace's main entrance, ignoring the frenzy of salutes the guards snapped in his direction.

The Grand Balcony was deserted except for a few boxy maintenance droids. They hummed back and forth, polishing the granite floor of whatever imperceptible scuffs it had suffered during the reception. Han leaned on the balcony's edge and stared out over the tops of the trees, his latest argument with Leia resurfacing.

He sighed.

Nothing made sense. More than anything, he wished he could recapture that clarity, the sense of direction that had gone awry the morning after the victory celebration. Starting when he told Luke. Granted, he could've shown more sensitivity for the kid's feelings. Perhaps it was unfair to expect him to start feeling all brotherly towards Leia overnight, just because he now knew about the blood relationship.

But Luke's reaction had startled him just the same. Han hadn't expected the tightened posture, the frost rising behind the blue eyes, the silent withdrawal.

They'd argued.

Well--Han had argued.

Any kind of reaction. The more he'd said, the less they seemed to have to talk about, and finally, he'd taken refuge in a silence of his own.

By the time he found out about Luke's hand, and about Vader being his father, it was too late.

He pushed away from the balcony's edge with a groan of frustration, crossing to the wall com. Maybe it was too late for their friendship, but there really was only one way to find out. Keying in his security clearance-code, he found the location of Luke's assigned quarters.

A short lift ride later, and he was knocking on the door--quietly, because Luke was quartered on the same floor as most of the delegates.

"Luke! C'mon, it's me--open up." No answer. He thumped his fist on the door, repeating the summons as loudly as he dared. Silence again.

"What're you doing, Han--trying to wake up the whole palace?"

He wheeled, startled.

Luke was behind him, leaning against the corridor wall with his arms folded. At some point the kid had developed a strange talent for just appearing like that--silently, in the blink of an eye. And disappearing in the same way. A Jedi thing, perhaps, though that shy smile belonged more to the farmboy he'd met in Mos Eisley all those years ago.

"Luke? What're you--"

"Didn't quite expect to find you breaking down my door." Amusement shimmered behind the bright gaze, and Han felt some of his apprehension melt at the sight of it.

He took a step back, gesturing to the door's numeric keypad. "Well," he growled, "if you'd just open it n' let me in..."

Luke seemed to think about that. "No," he said after a moment. Just like that--no explanation, nothing.

Han suddenly felt foolish. "Uh, if this is a bad time--" He cut himself off. Of *course* it was a bad time, it was practically morning. What the hell had he been thinking?

Luke shook his head. "I didn't get dinner earlier, how 'bout you?"

Han shrugged. There hadn't been much food at the reception, and the thought of eating repulsed him anyway--had for days. He'd been subsisting on nutri-tabs instead, which was what his 'dinner' had consisted of. "I'm okay."

"Well, I'm starving. I was thinkin' of swinging past the kitchen for a midnight snack--you want to join me?"

"Sure," Han said quickly. He fell into step as Luke started along the corridor. "So--you couldn't sleep either, huh?"

Luke slanted him a look of exasperation. "Looks like you were personally going to see to that anyway." He flashed a quick, unexpected smile. "Just as well."

"Yeah?"

Luke answered with a silent nod, but didn't elaborate. Han decided not to press for details. He could imagine that the Imperial palace must hold its share of lingering nightmares, particularly for Luke.

The palace kitchen was pitch dark, but Luke managed to find the glowpanel controls almost immediately. After a moment of experimentation, he left them all off except for one mounted above a small metal table in the corner of the room. "Don't want too much light in here, or someone'll notice," he explained.

Han nodded, looking around. So this, he supposed, was where meals for Emperor Palpatine and his highest-ranking officials had been prepared. The room seemed suitably appointed for such a purpose--black granite and brushed steel, gleaming pots and pans hanging alongside implements that looked more like they belonged in a torture chamber.

If Luke was troubled by the room's decor or by its implications, he gave no sign. Throwing Han a conspiratorial smile, he crossed to the rear of the kitchen and heaved open an enormous sliding metal door. Inside was a walk-in pantry at least four times the size of Han's cabin aboard the Falcon.

Luke paused just inside the doorway and let out a quiet snort of disgust. "Used to do better raiding my aunt's larder."

Han crossed to his side. Apart from a few boxes and jars, the shelves were bare. If there had been any leftovers from the reception, they'd obviously been stashed somewhere else.

"You're an old hand at this, I take it?"

Luke answered with a noncommittal shrug, smiling at Han as he slid past him and started rummaging.

"Guess no one thought to stock up... Okay--here." Han tugged the lid off a wooden crate. "You like pana-fruit?"

"Sure."

"Catch." Han tossed a few of the fist-sized, fuzzy globes in Luke's direction. "How 'bout these?" He moved to the doorway, holding up another find.

Luke was already setting the fruit down on the table. He glanced back to see what Han was holding--a transparent jar full of twitching, gelatinous tentacles.

"I think I'll let you eat those."

"Yeah, but I ain't hungry."

Luke threw a fruit at him, aiming to miss.

Han ducked, laughing. "Okay, okay. There's gotta be something else in here..."

Further exploration turned up some stale bread, a partial round of exotic-looking dark blue cheese, and a chunk of smoked x'ar fish that didn't smell too much past its prime. Han was emerging from the pantry's chilly confines, prizes in hand, when a small whoop of triumph echoed from the far side of the kitchen.

Luke came to join him at the table. He was grinning, holding up two bottles of chilled ale. "Looks like they're stocked up on the things that count." He paused and cast a critical eye over Han's offerings. Finally he gave a slow, grave nod of approval. "Not bad, for a beginner."

"Oh yeah?" Han took a swat at him. Luke ducked--and Han took advantage of the movement to relieve him of one of the bottles. He settled into a chair, propped his feet on the table and took a long sip, watching in amusement as Luke hungrily fell to. Anyone would think the kid hadn't eaten in days. And, depending on where he'd been during the weeks since Endor, that might not be so far from the truth.

Wherever he'd been, Luke had definitely caught some sun. His hair had lightened a bit, and his skin had taken on a honey-brown cast. Han watched the quick, unconsciously graceful movements of his lean hands as he cut slices off the cheese. His left hand was a few tones darker than his right, and Han supposed it was possible that the cloned skin didn't tan quite as readily.

He flicked his gaze elsewhere before Luke could notice him staring. It was the last thing he wanted to remind him of--his lost hand, his parentage, or, for that matter, their conversation over the X-Wing's com.

"How've you been?" he asked softly, letting the question slip without thinking. Luke glanced up, vague light from the glowpanel slanting across a sharply defined cheekbone. Too thin, Han thought. Wariness was creeping into the sky-blue eyes, and it struck Han that there was a pinched look underneath that vibrant tan.

"Fine," came the cautious answer. "I'm fine, Han."

"Uh-huh. So if I asked where you've been for these past weeks--"

"Tatooine."

Well, that made sense, Han supposed. "And if I asked--"

"What I was doing there?" Luke smiled. "If you asked, I'd tell you that I was looking for some datatapes that Ben left for me there."

"Yeah? So--did you find them?"

Luke shook his head. "He hid them pretty carefully. He set up a trail of clues that he must've thought I'd recognize, but I haven't had much luck figuring them out. I'll have to go back."

"So you're gonna head out again after your meeting with Mothma?"

Luke fixed him with an unreadable stare. "I was planning on sticking around for a few days, maybe. Depends..." he stopped.

"Depends," Han echoed. "So--you're thinking about re-opening the Jedi temple? That is what she's gonna talk to you about, you know."

"I was there... tonight, after I left the reception." He shivered visibly. "I don't know if I can explain it, but--it's a dead place. Terrible things happened there, and... it's all still there, Han. In the walls, in the air..." he trailed off again and reached for one of the pana-fruit, biting deeply. A trickle of juice ran down his chin. He swiped at it with the back of his hand, giving Han a look that was almost a challenge.

Daring me not to believe him?

Han picked up his bottle and took another slow sip. "Go on," he prompted quietly.

Luke glanced down at the table. "I don't feel ready anyway."

Han nodded. "Yeah. Well don't let them push you into anything you're not ready for, okay?"

"I won't."

The warm certainty in Luke's tone was immediately reassuring. Han felt a surge of relief, and below it, a tiny stab of envy. Of course he won't do anything he's not ready for--he knows what he wants... And then, he realized that it was his turn to be scrutinized.

"How 'bout you?" Luke asked, his tone hushed. "How've you been?"

Han shrugged. "Okay, I guess..."

"Just okay? I heard you're getting married in a few days."

"That's what you heard, is it?" He felt himself starting to bristle. "May I ask who told you that?"

"At the reception--it was pretty much all anyone wanted to talk about."

"That a fact?" Han picked up his beer, pounded down the last of it in a few gulps, and got up to hunt for more. He found a cold-cabinet filled with ale at the far end of the kitchen, alongside a goodly stash of other intoxicants. He appropriated an expensive bottle of Corellian brandy and stalked back to the table with it. Luke watched curiously as he opened the bottle and took a deep swig.

"Something wrong?"

Han banged the bottle on to the table and sat down, scowling. "Oh, nothing's wrong--unless, of course, you count the fact that a bunch of politicians are trying to run my life for me! And Leia--I'd have thought she'd at least have the decency to wait 'till I said yes."

"But you did say yes," Luke said, surprised. "On Endor--"

"Yeah, well..."

Luke dropped his gaze, staring down at his hands, and Han suddenly wanted to kick himself. He was in love with her, you stupid-- He launched into a stumbling, abbreviated explanation of the day's earlier events, concluding, "m'just having a hard time with all this..." he waved his hand vaguely, "...respectability."

A grin flashed across Luke's face. "Aw, you'll get used to it."

Yeah, but do I want to? Han took another gulp of brandy, swallowing his retort along with it. When he put the bottle down, he realized that Luke was watching him intently. He almost jumped when a strong, slim hand closed over his own on the neck of the bottle, fingers squeezing with gentle pressure.

"I want you and Leia to be happy," Luke said softly. "Means a lot to me."

"Yeah...?"

"You're my friend, Han--yeah." Luke let go of his hand, sinking back in the chair.

Han realized that his mouth was hanging open. He closed it, but found he couldn't quite stop staring at Luke. Somehow he'd managed to see right through him, answering the question that couldn't be asked.

"...Thanks," he muttered awkwardly. That strange feeling had returned, that sense of having lost his way. "I just wasn't expecting--so soon," he said lamely. "I figured maybe in a coupla years... guess the powers-that-be wouldn't think that's proper."

Luke nodded. "Good thing I was on Coruscant, then."

Han frowned. "Why...?"

"Well--for the wedding, of course." Luke chuckled.

"You'd be there--really?" He couldn't hide his surprised relief.

There was amusement, and only the tiniest hesitation, in Luke's reply. "Yeah. I'll be there." He stood up and drained the last of his ale. "G'night," he said softly, and headed for the door.

"Luke?" Han hurried after him, catching his arm.

Luke stopped and turned, looking up at him in surprise--and Han pulled him close, clasping him into a tight hug. "Good thing you're here anyway," he muttered. He scrubbed his hand affectionately through ruffled, sun-bleached hair, then stepped back, still holding Luke's shoulders.

Luke was smiling--his real smile, the smile Han hadn't seen in such a long time. He was suddenly, fiercely reminded of the moment their gazes had met in the hangar on Hoth. Luke had that same expression then, his eyes filled with...something. Something too big for words. Then the blue gaze clouded, sand-colored lashes sweeping down to hide his thoughts.

He said he wants us to be happy, Han thought. Wants to know we're gonna be okay. But... what do I want? He thought of the expression he'd seen flash through Luke's eyes at the reception, and suddenly all he wanted was to soothe away that lingering pain. If I marry Leia now, he'll know. He can stop worrying about us, start healing... and he won't be alone any more. We'll be a family. Brothers.

"'Night," Luke repeated. He stepped back, gently breaking out of Han's grasp.

"'Night, kid," Han said quietly.

Luke turned toward the door--and froze, as an ear-splitting siren went off, shattering the night.

Han grabbed his comlink, reaching to key in the code for Security. The instrument beeped before he got the chance. He flicked open the channel. "Solo here."

The voice on the other line was broken by interference. Irritated, Han banged the instrument against the heel of his hand. "Say that again?"

"Lockup... breached..."

Madine's amber. The thought cut across the noise and static, driving adrenaline into his bloodstream. "Seal off the building," he shouted. "Call Madine, tell him what happened. I'll be--" the static cleared abruptly. "I'll be down in a sec."

He threw a questioning glance at Luke, who simply nodded and fell into step with him as they started down the corridor. Inside the lift, Han selected the palace's lowest level, the level where Palpatine had kept more than two dozen prisoners locked up. "Security," he said into the comlink, bringing a suspiciously drowsy voice on to the other line. Luke watched Han quietly as he explained the situation, ordering a level-three search of the palace.

"Yeah, that's what I said--a big, round chunk of amber." He practically had to shout to be heard over the bone-jarring wail of the alarm. "Could be inside a black leather case. Yeah."

The lift doors snapped open, releasing them into a narrow corridor lined with black steel doorways. A cluster of armed soldiers stepped back to let them pass, some angling curious glances in Luke's direction.

"Amber?" Luke asked quietly.

"Madine found it in Palpatine's throne room. No one knows what it really is, but there's a chance it could be a weapon--it's got some kinda data coded inside it. If the Imperials have it..." He let the sentence hang--there was no need to finish it.

Han had been down here a couple of times and knew his way around well enough to navigate by memory rather than the number-plates on the cell doors. The prison level was climate controlled, but even so, it sent prickles of cold over his skin. The prisoners in those cells had been half-starved, evidence of torture clear on their bodies and minds.

The security lockup's heavy shield-doors were standing half open, and a handful of soldiers were milling in the corridor outside, speaking in agitated tones. They snapped to attention as Han and Luke approached.

"General Solo, sir!" A soldier stepped forward, saluting, and Han recognized his voice as the one he'd heard over the comlink.

"Never mind. The black case--where is it?"

The man gave a tiny shake of his head. "We can't explain it, sir. Somehow, the doors were forced, and--"

"Who was guarding it?"

"I was." A second man stepped forward, speaking so quietly that Han had to lean forward to hear him over the din of the alarm. The name Treal was stitched on to the breast of his uniform, and he wore the stripes of a Lieutenant. Though tall and impressively built, he was deathly pale and shook like a leaf as he spoke. "I'm... sorry, sir, I--"

"Never mind that," Han cut the apology short with an impatient gesture. "What happened?"

"Can't explain it. One moment everything seemed normal--I was here, standing guard--and then the doors were open and the alarm was going off. No in-between."

Han heard a sharp intake of breath and turned to see that Luke's shoulders had stiffened. "What?" he asked softly, but Luke's attention was on the guard.

"What did you... feel?" he asked.

The man's eyes hazed over as though he were staring into the distance. "Like the floor moved under me. Like... everything kinda shifted."

Luke nodded and reached out, resting a hand lightly on his arm. "It's okay--it's not your fault," he murmured. The man's body relaxed abruptly, as if a string of tension had been cut. Color began to creep back into the white face. Luke stepped around him, moving towards the lockup's open doorway.

"Uh, Luke, there's nothing--"

Luke gave a tiny shake of his head. He walked to the center of the small room and turned slowly, eyes closed. Han stepped into the doorway, watching in awkward silence. "Hey," he said finally. "What is it?"

Luke completed his circle and turned back to him. His eyes opened gradually and refocused, their gaze settling on Han's face for a moment before drifting upward. "Han?" He pointed to a spot above the door.

Han looked up. A pouch made of dark gray cloth hung suspended, hovering in midair above his head. He took a step back, startled. Luke crossed to stand in front of him and held out his hand, palm up. The pouch dropped and he caught it, reaching to unfasten the cord that held it closed.

Han caught his wrist. "You crazy?" he hissed. "You don't know what's inside!"

Luke glanced up at him, his mouth curving into the faintest smile. "It's okay." He pressed the pouch into Han's palm, and Han took it gingerly. The material was heavy and felt like silk, and the bundle made an unmistakable clanking sound when his fingers closed around it. His eyes widened.

"Open it," Luke prompted.

Han tugged at one end of the cord. The folds opened to reveal a handful of silvery coins. "What the--" He trailed off, staring at Luke. "What is this--? Where'd it come from...?"

"I'm not sure... but I think someone left it here for us."

"Whoever took the amber?"

Luke nodded. "You said they found it in the throne room?"

"Yeah."

"Show me."

Han stared at him for a moment. "The throne room...? There won't be anything--" He stopped. "You think there might be some sort've--"

"Yes."

"Oh." The coldness he'd felt earlier solidified around him, condensing over his skin. Crazy, he thought. To be chasing after ghosts when there's a search goin' on... But then, he found himself nodding. "Yeah, all right, let's go."

Han sifted through the pile of coins as they rode the lift back up to the main level. "Never seen money like this before." The coins were bright silver and felt curiously light to the touch, more like game pieces than actual currency. Even so, their sheer beauty and craftsmanship contradicted that impression. Clearly, they were meant to be of value.

"Me neither." Luke picked a coin up and turned it to the light. "A tree," he said softly, tracing the abstracted design on the face with his fingertip. He flipped it over to reveal a reverse side covered in strange, delicate lettering.

"Maybe we can get that decoded," Han suggested.

There were no guards posted outside the throne room doors, and Han guessed that they'd all been called off to join the search. The heavy stone doors swung inward at the command of his pass-card, revealing a dark, circular expanse of polished granite floor. Luke stepped through ahead of him, his figure wraithlike in the bluish, flickering glow of cold-burning torches.

It was like walking across the floor of a well. The throne room was a vertical cylinder, its floor about two hundred paces in diameter. Polished walls soared straight up, losing themselves in distant shadows overhead. The throne itself dominated the room from atop a monstrous structure of carved granite, a long flight of stone steps leading up to it. Rows of torches stood like sentinels, marking the edges of the stairway.

"Old Palpatine must've been a real cheerful guy," Han muttered, fingers tightening on the hilt of his blaster. He'd never been inside the throne room, and decided he hadn't been missing much. Luke paused near the foot of the throne, and Han drifted to stand beside him. "I dunno where exactly they found that thing," he said, more loudly than necessary. The room seemed to all but demand that he speak in whispers, and that he simply refused to do. "Doesn't seem to be much in here--"

"I can feel him. He's here."

Something in Luke's tone sent chills crawling up Han's spine. He fought the urge to glance back over his shoulder. "Palpatine's dead," he countered.

"No. My father."

Vader. He's dead too, Han almost said, stopping himself in time. "Kid--" He reached for Luke's shoulder, but Luke stepped away from him, climbing the steps toward the throne. Han shrugged helplessly and started after him, following a few steps behind.

The throne itself sat on a flat, curving granite platform. Luke moved to stand before it, staring down at the seat from which Palpatine had presided over his Empire. Blue torchlight danced on polished surfaces of chiseled stone, and Han was suddenly struck by the mental image of the Emperor hunched there, a wizened form in black robes... and just behind him, the towering figure of Darth Vader. The air froze in his lungs. For a moment he could hear labored breathing from behind the gleaming black mask, could smell fumes gusting up out of the carbon-pit...

Luke trailed his fingertips along the arm of the throne and drew his hand back again, studying it. His right hand. Han's chest tightened. "Hey," he managed. "You okay?"

Luke turned after a moment and looked up at him. "Wish I could've known him..." His voice was quiet, laden with distant grief.

Han suppressed a shudder, but saw his reaction register in Luke's gaze. "I--can't..." he started lamely, and felt a hand touch his arm, squeezing lightly.

"It's all right."

Absurd, he thought, that Luke should be comforting him and not the other way around. But then the moment passed, and Luke dropped to one knee at the base of the throne.

"I can see it," he said after a moment. "This is where Palpatine kept it."

Han crouched beside him and saw the faint outlines of a trapdoor in the smooth granite. Right under his feet, Han thought, and his gut clenched for no reason at all. Luke traced a series of parallel gouges in the stone with his finger.

"They forced it open," he observed, and then hooked his fingers under the edge of the trapdoor, pushing it open. It slid noiselessly to one side. The cavity below looked just big enough for the leather case to have fit inside.

Luke extended his hand toward the dark opening--and blue lightning spat up from the cavity to coil itself around his arm. He gave a stifled cry as fire engulfed his body, rippling over him like snakes. Han lunged and caught his shoulders, dragging him back. The fire melted from Luke's form, withdrawing into the opening.

"Luke!" Han felt for his pulse and found it beating out a strong, unsteady rhythm at the base of his throat.

Luke drew in a ragged breath. "C-cold," he whispered. "Cold fire..."

Han pulled him close, cradling him against the warmth of his body. "Just hang on, we'll get you out've here..." He reached down, groping for his comlink.

"N-no..." Luke pushed upright with a visible effort. "I'm okay." He shook himself, gathering his legs under him and waving off the hand that Han offered to help him up. He swayed a little on his feet, dazed but unhurt. "Thanks." There was a note of finality in his voice.

"Luke, you need to--"

"No, I'm all right."

Han eyed him warily, then glanced down into the cavity. "Madine never said anything about lightning comin' out at anyone."

"Probably because I'm a Force-sensitive. I must've... triggered it."

"But that's..." Han sifted through the implications, coming to conclusions that didn't make sense. "Force-sensitivity's kinda rare, isn't it?"

"As far as I know. But maybe he wouldn't expect anyone else to want to steal it."

"Like it's only useful to someone with the Force?" Strange to be talking about all of this so matter-of-factly, though Han knew he'd already seen too much to simply deny the existence of the Force. His thoughts raced ahead, adding things up. "That guard downstairs, what he said about things shiftin' over--"

"Yes," Luke confirmed.

Jedi mind tricks. Another, chilling thought struck him, something Leia had mentioned about Palpatine--but his comlink bleeped before he could put it in words. "Yeah?"

Madine's voice came on the line. "Solo! Where are you?"

"Just checkin' something out. Where're you?"

"I'm heading over to the Grand Balcony. Suggest you meet me there--sounds we've got some ruffled feathers to smooth over."

The Grand Balcony was nearly as packed as it had been at the reception, though the mood was markedly different. Delegates crowded into the corridor, peppering Han and Luke with questions as they approached. A long-fingered hand closed on Han's arm, clamping down with startling pressure. He glanced over and recognized the Bliiyesian ambassador, now bundled in a voluminous sleeping-robe and wearing an expression of pained indignation.

"General Solo, I demand to know what's going on. Has the weapon been located--or is it true what they're saying now, that it has fallen into the hands of the Imperials?" He stopped abruptly, his complexion blanching to a paler shade of blue as his gaze focused past Han. "Some say the Sith walk among us, even tonight."

After a second of delayed shock, Han realized that the ambassador meant Luke. Surprise jolted into anger. "Yeah? So who exactly's saying that?"

The ambassador stiffened at the harshness in his tone. "Many have said so, and many more have thought it since the Battle of Endor. I would suggest that his presence here is ill-advised. As a representative of the Bliiyesian system, where the Sith have long--"

"Screw the Bliiyesian system, screw the Sith, and screw your accusations! I don't have to stand here and listen to--"

"Han!" Leia's tone cut knife-like across the crowd's chatter. He looked up to see her striding towards them, Fey'lya hurrying behind her. "Madine's informed me that we are not, actually, under attack," she began sweetly, her anger betrayed only by the glitter in her eyes. "Perhaps you could do something about getting all those soldiers out of the sleeping area, so that our guests can return to their quarters?"

"I suppose so..." Han reached for his comlink.

"And General Solo, I really must point out that the military's handling of this situation could have a gravely detrimental effect on the outcome of tomorrow's talks," added Fey'lya. "Rousing diplomatic guests from their slumber, ordering them into the hall, and then ransacking their belongings is hardly--"

"Level three search," supplied Han. "Standard procedure under the circumstances." He became aware that Luke had moved to stand close by his shoulder, and that several of the diplomats had drifted back correspondingly, giving them a wide berth. Anger tightened his gut.

Fey'lya gaze narrowed, measuring both Han and Luke in a single swift, unreadable glance. "I take it that the circumstances you're referring to, General Solo, would be the disappearance of that amber bauble, am I correct?"

Han struggled to keep his tone reasonable. "Look. We don't know what that thing is, and until we're damn sure it's not dangerous--"

"Han," Leia interrupted, flashing him a look of warning, "just call the search away from the diplomatic wing and we'll worry about everything else tomorrow morning." She turned and strode to the balcony's edge, raising her arms to get everyone's attention.

"On behalf of the Provisional Council and the New Republic, I'd like to express my sincere apologies for this disruption. I can assure you that there is no immediate danger, but I hope you understand that our security measures are as stringent as they are because we place the highest possible priority on the safety of our guests."

The heartbeat silence following her statement was broken by a rapid-fire barrage of questions. Han turned from the babble of voices, activated his comlink, and ordered Security off the level where the delegates were quartered. Madine materialized out of the crowd as he was closing the channel.

"Find anything?"

"No," said Han. "You?"

Madine shook his head. "It's like your 'ghost' earlier--somehow, the intruders got out without triggering any alarms, or setting off the securiNet... And this time, no one saw them. I really don't understand it."

"Ghost? What ghost?" Fey'lya demanded. Madine's jaw clenched in scarcely controlled annoyance.

"We thought there was an intruder earlier," Han answered with studied casualness. "Turned out to be a false alarm." It wasn't quite the truth, but Han figured it was about as close as Fey'lya deserved. He caught Luke's questioning glance and responded with a tiny shake of his head. Tell ya later.

Madine gripped Han's arm, drawing him toward the corridor. "If you'll excuse us, Councilor, this is a matter of military jurisdiction." His tone lent only the faintest emphasis to the word "military," but Fey'lya's brow darkened all the same.

Han beckoned Luke with a swift motion of his chin, registering frosty suspicion in Madine's glance. He ignored the look, angling his body to include Luke in their conversation. "Tell him."

In low tones, Luke explained how the guard's mind had been manipulated through the Force and about their experience in the Emperor's throne room. Han saw incredulity spread across Madine's face, and when the story was complete, the older general gave a slow shake of his head. "You have to understand, Commander Skywalker--I've never given much credence to notions such as the Force, and I'd prefer not to start now."

"Hey, I understand what you're sayin,'" Han said quickly, "but this's something I've seen with my own eyes."

Madine turned a dubious look on him. "What you say happened in the throne room--it could've been caused by any number of things... magnetic disturbances, I don't know. There's absolutely no reason to assume--"

"Hey, c'mon, I know what I saw!" Han didn't let himself pause to reflect that he was defending the existence of something he avowedly didn't believe in.

"Whether you believe in the Force or not, the fact remains that Palpatine did," Luke pointed out. "And this is an object he guarded closely. Going by that, it's reasonable to guess that whoever took the amber must think it has Force properties."

Madine gave a slow nod. "Fair enough, as far as it goes. So it's like Councilor Organa said, perhaps--that this thing is some kind of religious artifact."

Han shot a nervous glance in Luke's direction. "Doesn't mean it can't be a weapon," he murmured. A Sith weapon, an object of unimaginable potential...

Luke gave a small, grave nod, confirming his formless dread.

Madine shifted his weight from one foot to the other, clearing his throat. "Well," he said after a moment, "You won't be offended if I look for more mundane interpretations first. Winter's working to decipher the amber's matrix structure from those scans we took. Sooner we know what that thing is, easier I'm going to breathe."

"Might wanna give her these to look at." Han dug in his pocket and handed the pouch of coins over to Madine. "Found 'em in the lockup--they've got some kinda strange writing on them."

Madine looked the coins over. "These were inside the lockup...?"

"Yeah--almost like whoever took the amber was payin' us back for our trouble."

Madine shot Han an incredulous glance.

"I'd like a look at the scans," said Luke. "I might be able to sense something..." he stopped, noticing the fractional stiffening of the older general's spine. "Maybe Threepio could help with the decoding," he added. "He's a protocol droid, knows thousands of codes and languages--"

"Your offer's much appreciated," Madine replied. "Winter's lab is on the same level as the old prison--one of the soldiers can show you, if you have any trouble finding it." He gave the coins one final, dubious glance, and held them out to Luke. "If you're on your way down there now, might as well take these with you."

Luke took the pouch with a quick nod of assent and started towards the lift. Han's gaze strayed after him, detecting a troubling unsteadiness in the lithe gait.

"Well," said Madine, hooking a thumb in the direction of the balcony. "Guess we'd better go help out with damage-control."

Han hesitated. "I'll be there in a minute." He turned to follow Luke, catching up to him just as he reached the lift. He took hold of his arm and felt a flash of subliminal tension run through the slighter man's frame.

"Hey," he said softly.

Luke turned. His chin rose a fraction, an odd expectancy entering his gaze and vanishing the next second, too fleeting to be identified. Then Han saw the sheen of sweat coating his upturned face, the dark smudges forming below his eyes.

"You look like hell, kid. Sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine--just kinda tired."

Han touched his forehead, finding the skin clammy under his hand. "No way. You need to make a stopover at sickbay, get yourself checked out. Who knows what the--that thing--in the throne room could've done to you."

Luke gave him a tiny smile. "I've been worse. Really--I'm okay." He turned toward the lift doors again.

"Yeah, well you don't look okay. C'mon, I'll show you the way."

"I can find my own way." Luke punched the wall panel.

"Sure? This's a pretty big place, y'know..."

Luke turned with a soft laugh and caught Han's shoulders, fingers digging in for a moment before he pushed him firmly back. "Han, go." The lift doors slid open. His smile was amused and exasperated--but it tightened as silence stretched on, fraying a little around the edges. Han felt a bleak distance settling between them, just as it had over the X-Wing's com. Luke seemed to sense it too, and something in his eyes softened a shade.

"Leia needs you," he said quietly. He stepped through the lift doors just before they snapped shut.

Han stared at the blank doors, feeling foolish and awkward for reasons he couldn't name.

Dizziness washed over him. He sagged against the corridor wall to wait it out, the only method he'd found for dealing with these spells. Eventually the floor stabilized, resuming its familiar relationship with the ceiling. He pushed upright with a sigh, resolving to get himself checked out... soon. Some time in the next few days.

Leia needs you.

He started down the hall toward the Grand Balcony, scarcely aware of the awkward sway that had crept into his stride. He needed to talk to Leia, find a way to put right whatever it was that had gone off-course after that night on Endor. He thought of Luke's fingers wrapping around his own, the expression in his eyes right after he'd hugged him.

I'm here for you, brother--I'll prove it to you.

The Grand Balcony was almost empty. Evidently, most of the guests had decided that the excitement was over and had retired to their quarters. Mon Mothma had arrived, and she, Leia and Madine were clustered with the remaining delegates, talking quietly. Han spotted Fey'lya exiting down the main stairs flanked by a pair soldiers, the three of them deep in conversation like old friends--an incongruous sight. A few other soldiers were huddled around one of the tables, talking in low voices. Treal, the man who'd been guarding the lockup was among them, a glass of brandy clutched in his shaky fingers. He still looked pale.

Han crossed to Leia 's side. As he approached, he realized she was listening to one of the Bliiyesian ambassador's monologues.

"Mind if I cut in?" Han interrupted. The ambassador turned a glacial stare on him and spun around, stalking wordlessly in the direction of the corridor. "Touchy," Han commented, and read his mistake in Leia's answering look of disbelief.

"What you said to him earlier wasn't enough...?" she whispered, temper rising behind her eyes.

Han bit back his sarcastic response, mentally cursing himself. Rotten timing, as usual--and why was it that everything he said to Leia came out all wrong? He took a deep breath. "Sorry," he muttered. It was a lie, but it didn't matter. "I need to talk to you."

"Oh." Leia was quiet for a moment, a variety of emotions chasing across her features in swift succession. "Let's walk, then?"

Han nodded tightly. They strolled the length of the balcony in silence, pausing when they were finally out of earshot. "'Bout the things I said earlier, about Mothma, and everything else--"

"It's okay," she said quickly. "I shouldn't have said what I said either--especially about Luke. Really, I should be glad he has a friend like you... and I worry about him, too."

"Leia..."

She lifted her head to look up at him, pale and silent, her features a mask of tense control.

"Answer's yes," he said bluntly.

"Yes...?" She stared at him, stunned.

Han grinned. "About gettin' married, remember...?"

"How could I forget?" she snapped irritably, but then the tension abated for a moment. The corners of her mouth quirked in the beginnings of a smile. "I didn't think you'd--" she cut herself off and stepped forward. He reached to catch her shoulders, meaning to pull her into his arms--and froze, fingertips scarcely grazing the material of her tunic.

It took him a moment to realize that she'd frozen too. Their faces were a breath apart, and he saw her eyes widening, darkening, filling with a wordless realization that mirrored his own. She stepped back abruptly, not breaking his gaze. "I..." she looked down at the floor tiles.

Han felt a curious tightness in his gut that unraveled again in the space of a heartbeat, a new understanding taking shape. So it's not just me. You feel it too, this wrongness...

Her eyes swept up again to meet his. "Han, I guess I..." she stopped. "Maybe I need more time, too." She turned abruptly, striding toward one of the lift entrances on the balcony's wing.

"Leia..."

She glanced back at him.

I'm sorry. He couldn't quite manage the words.

"I know," she said quietly, though the smile that flickered about her mouth didn't quite reach her eyes.

When she was gone, Han trudged into the shadows of the corridor and sagged against the wall, filling his mind with practicalities, things he could pile up like a barrier against the bottomless sense of defeat. He knew roughly where Winter's lab was, and considered that he might be of some help if he went down there now... or maybe he should stop by sickbay first and find out if Luke was okay. He immediately canceled both thoughts, knowing there was no way he could face Luke. Not right now... not tonight.

That didn't leave many options except heading back to the Falcon, though he knew he wasn't going to sleep. He was turning back towards the balcony when a small movement caught his eye. He froze.

It had been nothing. Less than nothing--the flicker of one shadow among the many that gathered at the far end of the corridor. He took a step forward, an electric prickle raising the hairs along the back of his neck. His fingers closed unthinkingly around the hilt of his blaster and he crept forward--one step, two, then three. A dark shape sprang from the shadows, fleeing along the corridor in the direction of the meeting chamber.

Han broke into a dead run, yanking his comlink from his belt and shouting an intruder alert into the mouthpiece. The instrument belched out static at him. He cursed, banging the comlink against his palm as he skidded around the corner. It was the second time it'd crapped out on him in one night.

He took off after the moving shadow again, catching only a vague flitter of movement as it slipped through the open door of the meeting chamber. He crashed through after it, blaster cocked in one hand while he reached along the wall with the other, fumbling for the glowpanel control. He snapped the lights on.

A sobbing, anguished whimper sounded from the far end of the room. He found himself staring down the long granite table at a creature unlike anything he'd seen before. It was roughly humanoid and clothed in a black, seamless bodysuit that outlined every nuance of wiry muscle. It stood pressed back against the wall, long arms wrapped around its face.

He stared at it, dumbstruck. It took him a moment to make a mental connection between its pitiful sobbing and the harsh overhead lights. He reached for the dimmer switch, lowering the ambient lighting by slow degrees. The creature straightened a little, peering at him from between long fingers.

"Don't move, or I'll shoot."

Han took a few cautious steps forward, studying his prey. Its eyes were wide and very dark in the dim lighting, a midnight shade of green. The face was narrow, the mouth thin. A scar started at the base of one ear and traced a winding path across the creature's throat, stark white against silver gray skin. It wore its pale hair pulled back from its face, twisted into an elaborate tangle of beaded braids along the back of its neck. Han supposed it was possible that he could have mistaken this being for Luke in the shadows of the Grand Corridor. Its height and build were similar, and when it shifted position slightly, he also recognized what it was that he'd taken for a cloak. The creature had a pair of dark, leathery wings folded behind its shoulders.

"Put your hands up where I can see 'em," he ordered.

The creature responded with a rapid-fire barrage of speech in a language he'd never heard, making no move to comply.

"Sorry, don't know what you're sayin.'" Han took another step toward the creature. It opened its mouth, revealing a row of small, very sharp-looking teeth, and hissed at him. Han tried a random selection of dialects with no better response, and his next step forward earned him a fanged snarl accompanied by a throaty, rattling growl. He punched a button on his comlink.

"I've got the intruder cornered in the meeting chamber--where the hell are you guys?"

Nothing but static. Damn!

"Now come on," he said conversationally, taking another step closer. "I really don't want to shoot you, so let's just--"

The creature swept its wings out into a wide fan shape, leathery membranes stretched between bones as thin as fingers. Han raised his blaster, thinking it was about to spring at him. Instead, it opened its mouth wide, and a low rumbling sound shook the chamber. He felt the whisper of faint vibrations traveling up from the floor and into his bones, building in seconds to a pitch that rattled his teeth. Bright pain flared behind his eyes, and the fingers locked around the blaster's grip went slick with sweat.

"Stop it!" he choked out. "Stop, or I'll--"

Everything shifted over. It was as if he'd been jolted out of step with the rest of the universe and had lost his bearings, drifting helplessly on unseen tides of gravity. His legs buckled under him. He grabbed the edge of the table for support, fingers sliding on the smooth granite.

The winged creature sprang.

His hand shook as he lifted his blaster and fired. The creature dug claw-like hands into the ceiling, the blaster bolt cutting a burning trail behind it as it scrambled, insect-like, towards the door. Han fell to his knees, raising his comlink again. A steady rush of static spat out at him. He cursed, levering upright and finding the floor steady again. "No way. You're not gettin' away so easily."

He lurched into the hallway. The dark, insubstantial form darted into a ventilation shaft, and he plunged in after it.

The shaft's interior was pitch black and so narrow that he had to pull himself along on his knees and elbows. Somewhere up ahead he heard a sound like the scrabble of claws against metal, and he quickened his pace until he felt the brush of a cold, bare foot against the back of his hand. He snaked his arm out and seized the bony ankle, gripping tight. A wild cry rocked back through the darkness.

He raised his blaster. "Freeze, or I shoot!"

He had no real intention of carrying out his threat, and perhaps the creature sensed that. It kicked back viciously, clawlike toenails raking his cheek. Han swore, grabbing for the flailing leg and missing. The creature launched itself forward with startling force, dragging him along with it. He gritted his teeth and held on, struggling to brace his arms or legs against the inside of the shaft. The metal was polished smooth, and he couldn't get a grip.

The shock of cold air against his face was his only warning. The creature shot from the end of the shaft like a cork from the mouth of a bottle, pulling Han with it. Gravity seized hold of him, greedily dragging his weight. He caught a brief glimpse of a dirty brown-gray cloud layer below, glittering points of ferrocrete towers poking through the mist, a swath of starless sky...

He let go of the creature's ankle, grappling blindly for a handhold on the smooth outer wall of they pyramid. His palm met smooth steelstone and he locked his elbow, bracing his weight with one arm with his legs still inside the ventilation shaft and his hip wedged against the lip of the opening. The sound of scraping claws brought his head up, and he found himself face to face with the creature. It was crouched above him with its head pointing downward, wings fanning slightly against the winds gusting up from below.

A spray of tepid rain spattered across his face.

The creature's jaws parted, revealing again the rows of gleaming teeth. A faint vibration charged the air around them. Han raised his weapon in silent warning. The stranger regarded him for a moment, and unexpectedly, it reached out and wrapped its hand around the muzzle of the blaster. Han recoiled, trying to pull the weapon free--and a sickening wave of dizziness washed over him. The hand bracing his weight slipped. He grabbed frantically at the pyramid's outer wall, but he was already falling.

He tumbled headfirst, the rush of wind swallowing his cry. His shoulder scraped hard against the wall, fabric tearing to expose skin that scraped raw within seconds. He grappled wildly for handholds, found a deep, jagged gouge in the sheer surface, and locked his hands into it--scarcely noticing the flash of pain when the rough edges bit into his palms. Bracing his legs as best he could, he narrowed his mental focus to the immediate task of holding on and not looking down. A detached part of his mind connected the gouge in the wall to Dynn's fiery descent into the undercity, noting grimly that he'd owe it all to the dead pilot if he managed to live through this.

A scraping sound brought his attention upward.

The winged creature was perched on the wall above him, crouching on the steep incline as easily as it might on level ground. Han noticed his blaster poking from the belt slung about its hips. He cursed mentally, letting go with one hand to grope for his comlink. "I'm outside on the roof, dammit--c'mon, someone--" nothing but static. He clipped the comlink back on to his belt and grabbed the fissure with both hands again, glaring up at the creature.

Childhood tales of winged devils played below the surface of his thoughts, distant terrors made real by the creature's presence. A low roll of thunder shook the air, the spatter of rain becoming a blinding torrent in a matter of seconds and obscuring the shape above him to a dark outline. His arms were shaking, muscles and tendons strained to their limit. He felt his hands slipping and tightened his hold desperately, dimly aware of the warm ooze of blood on the inside of his wrists. The thing was watching him. He couldn't see its eyes anymore, but he still felt its gaze upon him.

"Well," he snarled, words half drowned in another swell of thunder, "looks like you've got me where you want me, so what the hell are you waitin' for?"

He saw the blurred shape move, shifting very slightly towards him. A clawed hand reached out. He tensed, waiting for it to strike. Dizziness swamped him again. His stomach clenched, sour heat rising in his throat as sky and city flipped over, exchanging places with mind-numbing speed. He clawed wildly at the scar in the wall, blood and rainwater-slicked hands sliding in the cutting groove.

A faint vibration coalesced in the air around him, and the world steadied just perceptibly. He looked up to find midnight-green eyes staring down into his, saw the flash of teeth as the jaws opened--and strange music shivered through his senses, haunting and distant and wild. Words took shape from the formless sounds, resolving in his mind with stunning clarity. An entreaty, perhaps. Or a warning.

Limiyen, Limiyen--make me not your enemy.

Lights stabbed through the curtain of rain, boring down on them. The creature launched past him with a cry, wings spreading to catch the wind as it spiraled down into the darkness below. The rumble of engines became a deafening howl, and several pairs of hands took hold of him, prying him away from the wall and easing him down on to a cool, flat metallic surface.

Madine's face materialized out of the swirl of noise and color, eyes wide with stunned incredulity. "Solo! What the hell were you doing on the roof?"

"Ghost," Han managed to choke out. Madine's face blurred, darkening around the edges. And then, everything went quiet for a while.


Chewbacca was bent over a game of holographic battle-droids when Han stalked into the Falcon's lounge. The Wookiee glanced up briefly but said nothing as Han poured himself a generous glass of brandy and slouched one hip against the back of the seat opposite his.

"Your red sector-three droid's about to get stomped," Han observed.

Chewbacca shot him a glare. I do not recall asking your opinion. He let out a frustrated growl as an orange-armored battle mech rolled in, flattening the droid in question. The board lit up with flashing lights, and the words "game over" appeared above it in several languages. Chewie snarled out a series of colorfully biological obscenities.

Han grinned. "Hey, easy pal. You couldn't've had a worse night than I just did."

That brought a quizzical glance. The Wookiee looked him up and down, taking in his damp, disheveled condition and the heavy bandages on his hands. Leia?

It was probably meant as a joke, but Han felt an irrational jolt of defensiveness. "What about her?" he snapped.

Chewie's stare became sullen again. Fusion welder's still missing. He rose to his feet and started for the door of the lounge. Han moved quickly to block his path, knowing full well that Chewbacca could throw him across the room with one hand if he wanted to.

"Out with it, Chewie. What's botherin' you--something I did?"

Chewie paused, seeming to consider. Your bonding ceremony is to be held in three days, he said at last.

Han stared at him, dumbfounded. "Well," he said at length, "Nice to see that the grapevine's made it all the way up here."

It is a rumor, then.

"And what if it's not?" he shot back. "Let's just say it isn't--what then?" When Chewbacca made no reply, he continued. "You know, ever since Endor you've gone into a sulk whenever her name's come up. So--c'mon. Let's hear it." Not that it mattered much now, but he was starting to resent this constant, inexplicable tension surrounding his personal life.

Chewie gave him a thoughtful look. My friend Lys'tralla told me a wise thing, when both of us were still cubs. She said when the time was right for the bonding, I would know. I did not understand her meaning. Then I met Malla--and I knew. You, I think, do not know. You miss what is right in front of you.

"What?!"

Chewbacca pushed past him into the corridor. I have much work to do.

"No, you just wait a minute." Han strode after him, angrily catching his arm. "What the hell was that supposed to mean?"

Chewie turned a solemn look on him. I can't tell you. You must know for yourself--that's how it is. He tugged his arm free and stamped off in the direction of the cockpit.

Han stared after him, and wondered, not for the first time, if everyone around him had gone stark raving mad during the six months he'd been in the carbon freeze. He turned with a muttered curse, collecting his glass from the lounge and downing most of it as he headed for the familiar confines of his cabin. Here was sanity--or at least, some semblance of predictability. Inside, he leaned against the door to gulp down the remainder of his drink. The brandy spread a slow, comforting heat down into his chest, taking the edge off the chill.

He peeled off his clothes on the way to the bathroom, emptying his pockets before wadding the torn, bloodstained uniform into a ball and stuffing it in the recycler. Once the sickbay med-droids had finished clucking over him, scanning him and wrapping his injuries, they'd given him a bottle of sedative pills and told him that all he really needed was a good night's sleep. What a joke. He thought could fall asleep right where he was, standing in the bathroom of his cabin.

He set the pills on the edge of the sink and set about pulling the dressings off his hands and shoulder. The synskin had already bonded, hiding the cuts and scrapes. He glanced at them only briefly, firmly banishing reminiscence of the night's events as he stepped into the shower. Hot spray encircled him, and he closed his eyes gratefully. Weariness spread along his nerves like a warm, heavy fog. He dreamed briefly of sleep, knowing that there was no time; he'd have to head back over to the palace as soon as he was cleaned up. Maybe Winter had found something already...

And Luke.

He was going to have to talk to Luke... damn. A spike of anger found its way through the haze of exhaustion when he remembered the throne room, Luke sagging limply against him, skin going icy under his touch.

"You're crazy," he muttered, reaching for the soap and rubbing it along his arms in quick, savage strokes.

Luke hadn't gone to sickbay the way he'd said he would. Han had run into Wedge while he was getting his cuts treated, and Wedge had asked him if he'd seen Luke. The question had fired Han's suspicions, and after that, it hadn't taken much to bully the truth out of one of the med-droids.

Another set of images imposed themselves on his mind's eye. The cramped, freezing confines of a survival tent, the winds of Hoth shrieking viciously outside. Him with his shirt and parka open, holding Luke crushed against his bared chest in the prayer that his meager body-heat might be enough to keep them both alive. Luke's cold face, pressed to his shoulder. Han had spent the night listening to that ragged breathing, monitoring the wildly veering pulse that beat against his own heart. Luke had muttered restlessly, calling to Ben, to Leia, to Beru, to someone named Yoda... and he'd burrowed close and whispered Han's name, icy hands locking behind his waist.

The longest night of his life--and sometimes it felt like Luke was making him live it over and over. "Damn it, Luke."

He scrubbed angrily at his chest and legs, then slouched against the wall and let the spray pound over him. The anger didn't fade, but he felt some of the tension drain away. He tilted his head back, felt the water beating against his exposed throat. He closed his eyes.

Darkness. Peace. What he wouldn't give for even a few minutes' sleep.

Dizzy lightness washed through him, and he thought for a moment he was taking the Falcon up into the night, spiraling through the velvet blackness above the city. In the dark space behind his eyes, he became aware of soft breathing. Maybe his own--but he didn't question when a hand touched his, fingers interlacing and drawing him out...

Out into a charcoal gray half-world, gusts of windblown sand slicing across his vision.

He was walking--stumbling half blind, gritty winds stinging his eyes and face. And he knew he was lost. He kept going without any sense of direction, not daring to stop. Night was closing in, and he had to get to the Falcon before...

There was someone up ahead, a slender man dressed all in black. He stood poised atop a crag of red, wind-carved rock, waiting.

Waiting for him.

Han stumble forward, but the dark figure receded like a desert heat-mirage, fading into the haze of grit.

"Stop--!" The wind tore the words from his mouth. He can't hear me, he doesn't know--I've gotta tell him...

Someone yelled--Han thought it might have been him.

He blinked his eyes and found them full of water, tepid water plastering wetly about his face. An insistent bleeping cut through his confusion. He stepped from the shower and into his cabin, hastily wrapping a towel around his hips as he reached for his portable comlink. It seemed to be working just fine now; Madine's voice came through sharp and clear.

"Han."

Madine had never called him by his first name.

"Yeah...?"

"The Provisional Council needs to see you. They're convened in the meeting chamber--how soon can you get over here?"

"Uh--I'll be right there." He clicked off the comlink, hunting around for clothes. It took a moment before his mind registered the two objects sitting on his bunk. He turned his head slowly, alarm jangling. There was his blaster, laid carefully on the covers next to a small fabric pouch.

He approached cautiously, first scooping up his blaster and then, carefully, picking up the pouch. This one didn't make a clanking sound. It was heavier in his palm than the other one had been, and felt lumpy. He opened it. No coins this time; it was filled with firm, shiny, dark green berries.

"What the--Chewie?" He strode out into the corridor. "Chewie, what the hell is this?"

The Wookiee emerged from the cockpit and gave him an incredulous stare. You're dripping.

Han dismissed the observation with a curt gesture. "Did you see someone come in here?"

The hatch is locked. No one could have come in here. Chewie took the pouch from his hand and sniffed it with interest. Do not eat them, he cautioned, handing them back.

"Yeah, not too damn likely. Look, I've gotta go talk to the Council again. Do me a favor and double-check all the hatches, will ya?"

The oppressive heat of day was already starting to build as he emerged from a transpo-cab on the palace's landing platform. A faintly metallic whiff of thunder drifted up to him on the humid breeze, promising more filthy rain. Daylight revealed Luke's battered X-Wing parked at the far end of the runway, a scarred misfit among the sleek, gleaming transports of ambassadors and diplomats.

The palace's cavernous reception hall was a hive of activity. Uniformed maintenance workers hurried past him pushing supply-carts, muttering clipped exchanges over their comlinks. A squad of spider-limbed droids were at work hanging glowspheres from the branches of the Grand Corridor's trees, while up ahead, another maintenance team was busy unfurling an enormous tapestry over the balcony's edge.

Han was relieved to reach the gloom and relative quiet of the corridor, though the respite was short-lived. He rounded the corner and ran straight into a small, angry mob of delegates.

A pair of soldiers stepped up to flank him. "This way, General." Han caught a resentful stare from the Bliiyesian ambassador as the guards steered him through the crowd.

The red-haired woman of the previous night swooped in front of him, leveling a holocorder at him. "General Solo, can you confirm or deny the latest rumors of a mysterious Sith weapon falling into the hands of a group of Imperial loyalists?"

Han shot her a dark look, patently declining comment. Angry voices swelled in a gabble of protest as the guards hurried him into the meeting chamber.

Stepping inside was like walking into a solid wall of tension.

Mon Mothma rose, nodding a formal greeting at him. Ackbar rose also, as did Madine. Leia and Fey'lya were already standing, their gazes locked across the table. Leia broke the staredown when Mothma finally spoke.

"General Solo. Grave concerns have been raised regarding the disappearance of the amber. The Council has requested your presence in the hopes that you can shed some light on last night's events."

"What seems to be the problem?" Han glanced around the table and saw Fey'lya quickly avert his gaze. The Bothan's arms were folded in the faintest suggestion of insolence, and Han caught a stricken expression behind Leia's brittle composure.

"If you could simply answer our questions for now, everything will be made clear once all parties are present." Mothma's tone forbade argument.

Han slid into the nearest chair, pointedly slouching in it. "Fire away."

The silent group resumed their seats, and he saw Madine dart him a glance that might have been disapproval or apology--perhaps both. The older general looked away too quickly to be certain.

Mothma steepled her fingers. "Perhaps you could start by explaining to us exactly what happened after the alarm went off last night."

"Sure." Han described the empty lockup and how he and Luke had discovered the coins, judiciously editing out the fact that the pouch had been floating in midair.

Fey'lya stopped him.

"I believe that the General has forgotten to mention what would seem to be a salient detail, something I only discovered myself by speaking with..." he paused, making a show of consulting his portable data-keeper, "Lieutenant Treal, the soldier who was posted guard outside the lockup when the theft occurred."

Han shifted impatiently. "What detail is that?"

"It would seem that the young man's mind was manipulated in some way that we have yet to fully comprehend."

"I wouldn't know about that," Han hedged, sensing unquantifiable danger. "Only that he seemed pretty shook up when we got there."

"And the young man claims that the Jedi--Commander Skywalker--applied some sort of healing. Would that be correct?"

"I guess that's what it looked like, yeah," Han answered carefully.

Fey'lya nodded. "Thank you for clarifying. If you would continue?"

Han hesitated, suspicion mounting. "What's going on here--some kind of inquisition?"

"We are only trying to get as complete a picture as possible of the circumstances surrounding the amber's disappearance," Mothma said assuringly. "If you would continue?"

The serene condescension in her tone rankled. Han scowled at her down the length of the table before launching into a cautious description of the events in the throne room, editing his account to the bare, dry facts.

Fey'lya interrupted again. "When you speak of this strange lightning that you say 'attacked' your friend, I am led to wonder--do you, yourself, believe in the Force?"

Leia cut in. "Councilor Fey'lya, I'm afraid the relevance of your question has escaped me."

"Agreed," said Mothma. "Councilor Fey'lya, I do not see how the General Solo's beliefs pertain to this matter. If you could allow him to finish his statement?"

"Statement," Han repeated, disliking the word's edge of formality. He turned a pointed look on Madine, then transferred it to Leia. "WhatÕs going on?"

"Many of our delegates have expressed concern about the nature of this object and the implications of its disappearance." MothmaÕs tone was flat and uncommunicative. "If you could continue...?"

"If it's the delegates' upset feelings you're worried about, maybe we oughta be out looking for the thing, notÑ" Han made a sweeping gesture, indicating the room, the table, the solemn figures clustered around it. The word trial flitted uncomfortably through his thoughts, his gaze falling on an empty chair at the far side of the table. "Where's Luke?"

"In your report, you stated that you pursued and intruder into this room last night," FeyÕlya prompted, ignoring his question. "Is that correct?"

"Where's Luke?"

"General Solo, if you could simply answer the question--"

"Yeah! Yeah, I chased an intruder in here last night. Now why the hell isn't--"

"Commander Skywalker will be along shortly," Mon Mothma interrupted. "And thank you, General," she went on. "I think that was all we needed to--"

"One moment." Fey'lya held up his hand. "Request permission to ask the general a few more questions."

Mothma turned, surveying him impassively. "Be brief."

"Thank you." Fey'lya bobbed his head as he turned to Han. "You say that you were in the kitchen with Skywalker when the alarm went off. Can you tell us what you were doing there?"

"Talking."

"Talking," echoed Fey'lya. "For how long were you and your Jedi friend... talking?"

"Councilor," Mothma cut in, "I do not see the relevance of--"

"Forgive me, Madam, I will make this the last of my questions. General Solo?"

Han hesitated. Leia's gaze sought his across the table, and he saw her shoulders lift in a tiny shrug. "About half an hour," he answered levelly.

"About half an hour," the Bothan Councilor echoed again, and Han bit down hard on a sarcastic retort.

"If Councilor Fey'lya is quite finished," Admiral Ackbar cut in, speaking for the first time, "perhaps we could now hear from Commander Skywalker himself, so that this matter can be put to rest."

"I concur with you, Admiral," said Mothma. "General Madine?"

Madine rose, darting a cautious glance in Han's direction as he crossed to the door and opened it just wide enough to confer with one of the guards. Luke was escorted into the room a few moments later. The room's equilibrium shifted abruptly, all attention gravitating to the slender man in black as he moved to stand with his hands resting on the back of the empty chair.

Han realized he was staring right along with everyone else, and fear twisted abruptly behind his breastbone. Seeing Luke like this, the way strangers must see him--the enigmatic Jedi, girdled in his aura of quiet power... Dangerous, was all he could think. They don't understand him, they're afraid. They'll--

"You wanted to see me?" Luke asked softly. An invisible line of tension snapped, everyone exhaling as if on one breath.

Leia responded. "Councilor Fey'lya believes it's you who stole the amber orb."

So that's it. All Han could think was that somehow, he should have seen this coming. That political expediency would demand a scapegoat--what better choice than Vader's own son?

Luke's glance settled on Fey'lya. "What makes you think that?" His face betrayed nothing, though Han caught the tiny, convulsive tightening where his fingers dug into the chairback.

"This is not a matter of what I may or may not believe," the Bothan answered. "Considering he circumstances of the object's disappearance--the fact that the lockup doors were physically pried open rather than blasted, the manipulation of the guard's mind, and the presence of a Jedi in the palace--it's hardly surprising that many delegates have reached such a conclusion."

"Yeah?" Han rose slowly and laid both palms flat on the table, leaning forward. "Last night the amber wasn't worth getting out of bed for, and now it's some kind of a federal case?"

"My dear General." Fey'lya interlaced his fingers on the front of his embroidered tunic. "It should be quite clear that it's not my opinion of the situation that has changed, but that I am responding to the concerns of our guests. The sooner these fears can be laid to rest, the sooner--"

"The sooner you can get your blighted constitution signed! That's what this is really all about, isn't it?"

"General Solo, I think you've failed to comprehend the urgency of this situation." Mothma's tone was glacial.

"Yeah, well none of these accusations are gonna--"

"Han!" Leia hissed between her teeth. Shut up. Her expression conveyed the message more eloquently than words. Then she raised her voice, addressing the group. "I understand both the concerns of our guests and the potential danger that last night's events pose to these negotiations. At the same time, I think our reaction is premature, and the investigation of the amber's disappearance should remain in the capable hands of our military."

"The same capable hands that allowed this rumored Sith weapon to slip through their fingers?" Fey'lya's tone was silken.

"Hey, we don't know that it's even a weapon," Han objected.

"Or that it's a Sith object," Luke added quietly.

"If it is not a weapon, then I fail to see why the late Emperor kept it so closely guarded to his person," Fey'lya countered. "Or, why anyone would take such drastic measures to retrieve it."

"Well, whatever it is, there's no way Luke could've taken it--like I said, he and I were upstairs in the kitchen when the alarm went off."

"Solo--" Madine had stiffened.

The corner of Fey'lya's mouth curled up. "That may be so, but I fear that we will have difficulty convincing our guests of that."

"Yeah?" Han forced calm into his tone. "Why's that?"

"I believe that General Madine could answer that question better than I."

"Really?" Looking at Madine, Han saw the older man's face tense. "Well, let's hear it."

Madine turned to Mon Mothma. "Councilor Fey'lya has informed me that he's intercepted a source of material which properly falls within military jurisdiction alone. I strongly protest its inclusion in this discussion--"

"General Madine," Mothma interrupted him. "If this source of information is applicable, then it must be included. Did you intend to withhold a relevant source of data from this Council?" Her tone was mild, but carried an unmistakable current of threat.

Visibly unclenching his jaw, Madine reached into his uniform's jacket pocket and withdrew a labeled data-disk. He threw down on the table and FeyÕlya leaned towards it, pressing his palms flat on the table as if suppressing the urge to snatch it up.

Mothma picked up the disk and eyed it. "What is this, General Madine?"

"A recording made by this room's holographic security-cam last night. I would like to add, madam, that the contents could conceivably be explained by a simple malfunction--"

Fey'lya cut in. "I believe the General here is trying to say that while the recording shows Solo entering this room, there is no trace of the ÔintruderÕ he allegedly saw."

"What?!" Han took a step towards Mothma. "Let me just see that--"

Mothma held up her hand. "Councilor Fey'lya, even if what you're saying is correct, I fail to see how it relates."

"If there is doubt as to General Solo's accuracy in this matter, it will be difficult to convince our delegates--"

"Hey, I saw what I saw!" Han strode to the head of the table, plucked the disk from between Mothma's fingers, and shoved it into the tableÕs data-access port.

Leia grabbed his arm. "Han, this is--"

He shrugged her off. "I wanna see this thing!"

"I believe you will find the pertinent segment between 05.787 and 05.790 on last nightÕs datafile," FeyÕlya supplied helpfully.

Han shot him a venomous glare as he hit the activation key. A miniature of the room took shape above the tabletop in ghostly blue-white holo. The chamber door was standing half-open, and he saw his double enter the room after a moment, blaster poised.

"Wait a sec!" Han fumbled for the playback controls and fast-reversed the image, then played it forward again. "There should've been someone coming through those doors just ahead of me--" He strode to the end of the room, positioning himself with his back against the wall. "It was standing right here when I came into the room."

"Well," Fey'lya answered, "the recording shows you speaking in that direction, but I fail to see--"

"He was here, dammit! I know what I saw."

Han watched his holographic self fire a seemingly random shot into the ceiling and then turn, charging wildly from the room. Six pairs of eyes shifted their gaze from the holo to him, and he flinched inwardly. Shouting like a madman, firing haphazardly at nothingÉ He looked beyond the holoÕs hazy blue transparency and found Luke staring back at him, his face taut. Do you think IÕm crazy too?

He snapped off the holo. "It's been tampered with," he stated flatly, and looked straight at Fey'lya.

"I'm afraid what you're suggesting is far beyond my skills or resources," the Bothan protested mildly.

"Is that a fact?"

"It would be extremely difficult," Madine confirmed, almost under his breath. "It would take hours--perhaps days, and we checked the recording right after we dropped you in sickbay..." he trailed off.

"So what're you saying--that I hallucinated the whole thing?!"

Fey'lya's interlaced fingers tightened just perceptibly against the material of his tunic. "I believe there is an alternative explanation, one that no doubt has already occurred to many of our guests." He turned his gaze on Luke. Han felt his stomach muscles clench in helpless rage, suddenly guessing what was coming next. The Bothan smiled. "Jedi mind tricks." He paused for a beat of tense silence, letting the implications sink in.

"Of course," he went on, "there is no way to prove such a thing, one way or the other, but perhaps there are ways we can limit the potential fallout. If Commander Skywalker would sign a statement regarding his whereabouts since his arrival on Coruscant, and submit to a search of his belongings and to a limited span of detention--"

"You bastard!" Han lunged, his fist hardening. Leia grabbed him on one side, Madine from the other.

"Han--" Leia put a hand on his chest. He struggled for a moment, but then saw Luke give a tiny shake of his head. Something in the back of Luke's gaze froze him. They stared at each other, both looking away in the same instant.

I don't know how to protect you from this...

He forced his hands to unclench and turned slowly toward Mon Mothma. He pulled in a deep breath. "You can't lock a man up when he hasn't committed a crime."

"But clearly, a crime has been committed," Fey'lya said from behind him. "The amber didn't simply walk off by itself--"

"Yeah, but you can't prove Luke did it!"

"Nor can we prove that he didn't," the Bothan said reasonably, his argument directed more at Mothma than at Han.

Han kept his gaze focused on Mothma. "Is this what the New Republic is all about? You're gonna imprison people just because you can't prove they didn't do something? Where's the difference between that and--"

"'Imprisonment' is far too strong a word for what I am proposing," Fey'lya interjected smoothly. "I am not suggesting that Commander Skywalker be physically detained, only that he permit the electronic monitoring of his movements--"

"'Cause you don't trust him out of your sight?!" Han wheeled to scowl at Fey'lya.

The Bothan folded his arms, silky fur unruffled. "General Solo, you are reacting hysterically. Under no circumstances do I personally subscribe to the notion that the Commander is guilty of any crime, but until physical evidence can be uncovered that proves him innocent--"

Physical evidence. "Wait a minute..." Han thrust a hand into one of his vest's inner pockets, fumbled for a moment, and withdrew the pouch of berries. "There." He dropped it on the table. "Found it in my cabin this morning, alongside the blaster I reported missing last night." He threw a challenging glare at Madine, who simply nodded in assent as he reached to pick up the pouch.

"It's the same kinda cloth that the bag of coins was made from," Han added.

"An interesting correlation," Mothma agreed.

"But it hardly proves anything, least of all the existence of Solo's 'ghost,'" Fey'lya objected.

"Well then, what kind of physical evidence were you lookin' for, exactly?"

Luke moved to Madine's side and took the pouch, examining the dark berries with quiet interest before handing them back.

"I have nothing to hide." His tone was restrained.

"Then you would agree to the terms I've proposed--"

"Perhaps a compromise can be reached," Leia broke in. "Is electronic monitoring truly necessary, if Lu-- Commander Skywalker, agrees to sign the statement and to--"

"What the hell difference does that make?!" Han cut her off.

"Privacy, for one thing," she answered crisply.

"Makes no difference at all--the point is, you're still treating him like a criminal!"

"But this is the only way anyone'll ever be convinced--"

"Convinced of what? That he's not a thief? Or--" the word stuck in Han's throat, "a traitor? Luke doesn't have to prove anything to anyone--you know that as well as I do!"

Leia's mouth tightened. "I only wish that were true, but you have to understand. In the eyes of the galaxy, he's the son of Vader, and--"

"I'll never know how you can just stand there and say things like that, how you can even think of agreeing to this... this thing--"

"Look, if we want even a chance of ratifying the constitution--"

"Damnit!!" Han exploded, only dimly aware that everyone was staring. "The gods-damned constitution, that's all you care about, isn't it?!"

"Stop. Both of you--please." Luke's voice was deathly quiet, but it cut through their argument like a knife. They froze and turned slowly towards him, dazed like sleepwalkers. Han saw desperate pain in the blue eyes as Luke focused his gaze past them, on to Mon Mothma. "I will cooperate with whatever measures you consider necessary."

Mothma inclined her head in acknowledgment and studied him for a moment. "Your cooperation is duly noted and appreciated," she said gravely. "The compromise which Councilor Organa has suggested would be acceptable to me for the time being, if it is acceptable to you."

Luke dipped his head. "I will agree to it," he said emotionlessly.

Han stared at him, stunned disbelief careening into anger. "What--?" Fight, damn you, don't just stand there while they-- "I think I've heard just about enough."

Nausea clawed at his gut as he pushed past Mothma, Leia and Madine, casting Luke a scalding look on his way to the door. A clamor of voices swelled as he stepped out into the corridor, hands plucking at his sleeve, a bombardment of urgent questions that he scarcely heard and couldn't have answered if he'd wanted to. He dodged through the agitated crowd, blind to direction.

Once around the corner, he sagged against the wall, bright swirls of light coalesced strangely in a half-dark zone behind his lids. He heard himself groan, his empty stomach lurching rebelliously. It took a moment to register quiet footsteps following him, the sound of his name.

"You can't blame Leia for this. It's not her fault..." Luke trailed off as Han looked up. No longer so much the mysterious Jedi, he looked almost frail standing there in the corridor, a glimmer of pleading surfacing behind his gaze.

Rage uncoiled sharply in Han's gut. "Who said I blame her? " He pushed away from the wall with an angry shove. "She's just playin' the cards she's been dealt. You, on the other hand--"

Luke's chin lifted, his jaw hardening. "What about me?"

"You're letting 'em walk all over you, that's what! How can you let them poke through your life like that, makin' you account for your time here like you could be hiding something--"

"What choice do I have?" Luke's voice was every bit as controlled as before, but a spark of anger had cut through the cloudy pain--an encouraging sign, Han thought.

"What choice? Stop walkin' around like you owe 'em something, for gods' sakes! You got as much choice as you let yourself have."

Luke shook his head slowly, a stonewall of denial rising behind his gaze. "It's not like that, Han. It's not so simple--"

"It is that simple, Luke! You gotta start stickin' up for--" Han broke off with a gasp as the world skidded sideways, sharp agony piercing his chest. He bent double with a wretched groan, pain momentarily obliterating all concern for dignity.

"Han!" Luke caught his arm, trying to steady him. "What's wrong...?"

The gray flecks in the polished stone floor whirled crazily, breaking apart and reassembling themselves in dizzy patterns. His gut cramped viciously, and for a moment Han was sure he was going to throw up, never mind that he hadn't eaten in days. He spat out a choice selection of curses, and felt Luke's arm wrap around his shoulders, balancing him.

"Han you're burning up, we should get you to sickbay..."

"Yeah--right, sort've like you did last night--" Han started to laugh, choking instead on rising bitterness.

He wrenched away, and noticed that Madine had appeared, flanked by Fey'lya and a pair of guards. Great--now everyone could hear about Han Solo dry-heaving in the palace hallway. Just what he needed.

"Well, go on," he hissed under his breath. "Go n' sign your blasted life away, for all I care." He spun and started angrily up the corridor, swaying a bit, unable to look back.

Quick footsteps came after him and matched his stride. "Solo..."

Han didn't pause until Madine caught his arm.

"We have to talk."

Han stopped, turning. Madine's face looked drawn and pale above the stiff collar of his uniform. When he spoke, his words came from over a distance, dry confirmation of something already known.

"I guess there's no easy way to say this, Solo. You've been relieved of your duties, at least for the time being. The Council thought it'd be best, and... I won't lie to you, I agreed with them. Until we can be certain of your condition--"

"Hey, they gave me a clean bill of health up in sickbay."

Madine dropped his gaze. "Yes, well..." He trailed off, his silence eloquent. "I wanted it to be voluntary, but I was... overruled."

Han spread his hands, mentally testing any number of arguments against the stony resolve on Madine's features--and suddenly knew that he didn't care enough to argue with the man. The realization shocked him. He stepped back, letting his hands fall to his sides. "All right," he said at length.

"I'm sorry--"

Han silenced him with a wave. "Yeah. 'S okay."

He reached the portals before realizing that he had no idea where he'd planned on going. Beyond the open doorway, Imperial city baked in the early morning sun, towers blurring into a wash of heat-shimmers against the pearly sky. Han closed his eyes against the glare, bathing his vision in a reddish half-glow.

His life until now had been a patchwork of temporary assignments and random affiliations, taken on according to the dictates of necessity and discarded for the same reasons. Some departures had been dramatic, involving blaster fire and narrow escapes. Others had simply dawned on him, like a subtle shift in the tides warning of changing weather. Always, though, there had been the feeling, the hunger for the open sky and the stars, calling him onward.

This time was different. None of those quiet stirrings gnawed at his bones now; there was only numbness, a crushing sense of defeat. And still...

It's time.

He turned back along the Grand Corridor, letting the decision fall into place between one stride and the next. He put in a call to Chewie, and left a message for Leia while he rode the lift to the administrative level.

The process took longer than he'd imagined. There was a lengthy questioning, papers to be signed and witnessed, reports to be filed in triplicate and more, and a great deal of bureaucratic hand-wringing to be suffered through. The sun was well past its zenith by the time he made it back to the hangar platform where the Falcon waited, afloat on her own mirage reflection.

She looked... alive, he thought, the outlines of her scorched hull blurring into the breathless heat of surrounding atmosphere. A soaring predator, poised in stillness but ready to launch upward at any moment. Han paused at the foot of the ramp, drawing in a lungful of hot, foul air. The stars were close, now, waiting just beyond that opaque arch of sky. Time to find his way back to them.

"Chewie!" He climbed the ramp, passing into the dark confines of the corridor. An ill-tempered growl answered from the cockpit. He followed the sound, pausing in the doorway to watch the Wookiee slide his long body out from under the main console.

Chewbacca propped himself on one elbow and glared at him. Why?

"Why what?"

Chewbacca snorted. We are leaving.

"Yeah, we are. I figure we can make it to Eriadu in a few days, maybe pick up some work--"

An angry snarl interrupted him. What of your bonding ceremony to the princess?

Han paused and let out a sigh. He'd have to talk about it sooner or later; might as well be sooner. "It's not gonna work out between us," he answered sourly, "as I'm sure you'll be pleased to hear."

Chewbacca inclined his massive head, reserving immediate comment. I do not understand, he said finally. Yes, the bonding ceremony will not take place, but there are other obligations--

Han crossed the cockpit and opened a storage compartment, rummaging for a toolset. "Not any more--I'm a free man now." He forced a grin over his shoulder, changing the subject. "Looks like you got most've the damage fixed here. I went ahead n' ordered replacement gyros for the inertial guidance control just like you said, plus some other stuff to keep the nav from goin' haywire on us again." He paused, ticking his way down a mental list of repairs. "Everything else can probably wait 'till we've done a few runs, 'cept of course the hull damage--"

Cub of fish-hunting ancestors. A heavy paw fell on his shoulder, and Han realized the Wookiee had risen and crossed the room in the space of a heartbeat. Turn and speak with me.>

"Hey, no need to get all heavy an' traditional on me--" Han turned reluctantly, glaring up at his friend. "What d'you want me to say...?"

Chewbacca stepped back, folding his arms. You are choosing to misunderstand my question. I am not fooled.

Han crossed his own arms, defensively mirroring the Wookiee's posture. "I resigned my commission--big deal."

Chewbacca observed him gravely. There was reason for this, or is it the princess?

"What, she's not reason enough?"

She was not the reason you accepted the commission, Chewbacca replied with infuriating persistence, ignoring his attempt at flippancy. I cannot believe that she alone caused you to resign.

Han's patience slipped. "Look Chewie, this's my decision and I don't have to explain it. Not to you, not to anyone. We're outta here just as soon as the old bucket's spaceworthy, and if you don't like it, you don't have to come." He scooped up the toolset he needed and shoved past Chewbacca, stalking back to the ramp.

Mending battle-damage to the hull without the help of a fusion welder was a frustrating task. Fractures that should have mended seamlessly, bonding at a molecular level, now left ugly scars on the Falcon's outer skin. Worse, the repairs were a stopgap measure at best, and the whole job would need redoing once they could afford a replacement welder. Within an hour of working in the heat, his residual headache had mounted to blinding proportions.

Han almost jumped when a shadow fell across his work. His mental curse redoubled as he deactivated the welder, glanced up, and saw who it was.

Luke stood with the sun behind him, his blond head framed by a nimbus of hazy light. Dressed in black but seemingly untouched by the heat, he looked... ethereal. A dark angel, with something akin to murder in his eyes.

"Leia told me," he said, without preamble.

Han sank back on his haunches, the fierce glare making him squint even through his tinted face-shield. "Yeah...?" He'd expected Leia to be busy all day with preparations for the Declaration ceremony, which was the reason he'd left a message on her voicelog instead of transmitting his goodbyes from Eriadu or some other waystation. "Well--good." He reached for his box of tools, rummaging to cover his surprise.

"You could've told me--" Luke broke off.

"Yeah, guess I could've." Han shrugged. He found the tool he needed and bent again, skimming carbon deposits away from one of the remaining fractures. "So what d'you want, Luke? You here to try changing my mind?"

After a moment of silence, he looked up.

Luke was staring off towards some point on the distant horizon, his left hand locked white-knuckled around the wrist of his right arm. "No," he said at last, very quietly. "I just need to know why."

"Well I suppose Her Worshipfulness didn't mention this part to you, but she n' her cronies on the Council relieved me of duty right after they got through with their little witch-trial this morning."

"And that's why the wedding's off? Han, she did her best--"

"No, that's not why the wedding's off! Kid--" he spread his hands in a sweeping gesture of bafflement. "Look. I know what it meant to you an' all, I would've done anything to make it work out, but sometimes things just..." he trailed off, at a loss to express something he himself didn't fully comprehend. "It just wasn't... right between us. And I'm sorry," he added, meaning it. "Don't know what else to tell you."

"So you're just running away."

"Look. In case you hadn't noticed, they think I'm crazy--and I can't say I exactly blame 'em. Then there's Leia, things not working out like I planned..." He rose, shifting from the path of the sun's glare and pushing back his face-shield. He raked a hand through his sweat-caked hair. "Hell, Luke, guess I've just run outta reasons to stick around."

Luke's mouth tightened. "But you're needed--"

"No! Haven't you heard a word I've been telling you?"

"Han--" Luke paused, nameless emotions chasing across his features before he stilled them to impassivity. "We found a way of locating the amber."

Han blinked, startled by the abrupt change of topic. "Well--great! Means they'll have to stop calling you a thief, I guess." He dropped back on one knee, picking up the welder. "Look, I really wanna finish this before it gets dark--"

"Han." Luke crouched in front of him and caught his forearm. "Listen. I spent the night in the lab with Winter and Threepio. We studied the resonance scans of the amber and figured out that it gives off a certain vibrational frequency, kind of like a signal. We can modify normal scanning arrays like the ones on the X-Wings to pick it up, and I'm going up with Wedge and Rogue Squadron tonight to scan for it. If the amber's still in the city, we should be able to find it."

Han sighed. "Luke, even if it's here, s'gonna be like looking for a sand-flea on a bantha's arse."

"But we have to try," Luke persisted--and for a brief moment, he became an older, infinitely more sober version of the farmboy who'd flown against the Death Star. "And we could use your help," he went on. "Winter's rigging the scanning arrays to upload to a mainframe at the palace, but we'd have way more range if we could feed the data to a mobile source instead--like a larger ship."

"If you're asking what I think you are..." Han pulled his arm back, breaking Luke's grip. "No way. The Falcon's not available."

"But--"

"No buts!" Han gestured widely. "Half the ships on this platform can do what you're asking, and this one just happens to be leaving tonight. I've got a schedule to keep." It was a lie, but what the hell.

Luke's eyes widened fractionally. "Don't waste any time, do you?"

"Never have, never will." He lowered the heat shield over his face again, tracing the welder along the seam.

"Han... you're not going crazy."

"Yeah? Nice thought kid, but I get the impression your opinion doesn't count for much 'round here." The welder slipped out of the groove, creating an unsightly blister on the hull of his beloved ship. Han snarled a curse, re-angling the tool in an attempt to smooth out the weld. "And this amber thing's not my problem any more--period. You got that?"

"Winter thinks the patterns inside it look like DNA, and Madine thinks it could be plans for a bio-weapon. What if he's right, Han? How can that not be your problem?"

"Goddamnit, Luke--" and suddenly he could hear himself in the hangar at Yavin Four, offering a certain farmboy a place on his crew and being rebuffed in favor of a suicidal cause. Frustration boiled over. "Look--I'm gonna spell it out for you. The amber's not my problem, the Alliance isn't my problem, the gods-damned New Republic isn't, and neither--for that matter--are you."

Luke stiffened. "I'm a problem to you?"

"Yeah, and I'm sick of it!" The words came out with a bitter harshness that took him by surprise. "Stop acting like you owe 'em something! I'm not gonna be around to wipe your nose anymore, so you'll just have to start fending for yourself."

Luke paled. He opened his mouth to speak, but Han cut him off.

"Look. You've got this figured out--you don't need me. Go find the amber, go save the galaxy. Prove yourself all over again, and who knows--maybe they'll even believe you this time."

"Han..." Luke trailed off, and for a moment Han felt like a ship caught in the tractor-beam hold of those blue eyes. Then Luke averted his gaze, staring down at the Falcon's hull. "I guess you're right. Maybe you have run out of reasons to stay." He rose and walked to the ship's edge, vaulting to the deck of the hangar platform.

Han listened to the quiet, retreating footsteps, guessing he might be hearing them for the last time. He rose with a sigh. "Luke?"

Luke turned and looked up at him, his face expressionless. "Yeah...?"

"It's not a weapon," he said, and instantly felt ridiculous.

An impassive gaze measured him. "How do you know?"

Han knew he didn't have an answer for that. In shifting landscape of the past day's events, it was simply the one thing he was reasonably certain of. "I just do. Okay?"

Luke gave a slow nod. "Okay." He turned and headed for the row of waiting transpo-cabs, not looking back.

The sky had darkened to a deep orange-gold by the time Han finished on top of the Falcon. He popped another nutri-tab as he stepped through the hatch, palming the airlock control. The ramp lifted slowly. He waited until the last sliver of evening sky disappeared before turning to examine the hatch controls, checking to ensure that everything was functioning properly.

Chewie greeted him with a low, mournful growl as he stepped into the cockpit.

"Yeah, yeah... you'll thank me when we're finally out of here." Han slid into the pilot's seat and started running the requisite preflight checks. "Got the course plotted in for Eriadu?"

It's in.

"Good." He paused. "Hey Chewie, I know we were gonna go on a vacation, but--this's just until we can get some cash-flow happening again. Then we'll head for Scintillia. Or Kashyyyk. Or anywhere you want. Okay?"

The Wookiee regarded him in morose silence.

Han sighed. "Look, you made it no secret that you weren't happy about the wedding. Thing is, you don't seem much happier now that it's off. You wanna explain that to me?"

Chewbacca turned and busied himself with the nav controls. I do not wish to explain, he said at length.

"Fine." Han jabbed the ignition control. A low, vibrant hum rewarded him as the powerful engines thundered into life. Reaching over to the diagnostic console, he ran final checks to ensure that all systems were functioning to specification. Chewie's gaze prickled the back of his neck.

You are not always quite this careful.

"So what's your point?" Han shot the Wookiee a dark look as he turned back to the main console.

Merely an observation, fish-cub. Chewbacca's rumbling tone conveyed amusement.

"Yeah, well, you can just start observing those nav controls instead, fur-face."

I have observed them all ready. We are set to leave. Chewie gestured significantly to the lever on Han's console, the one that would throw the throttles wide and send them hurtling up into the sky.

Muttering under his breath, Han reached for the lever and took hold of it, fingers locking tight. His arm froze.

"Dammit, I forgot all about the inertial guidance control--" he surged to his feet, crossing the cockpit in agitated strides. A hairy arm stopped him.

Do not fret. I have seen to it.

"Oh." Han turned back, staring at his console, at the lever. Finally, he stalked back to his seat. "You sure?" He cast Chewbacca a suspicious look.

I am very sure.

"Well... thanks," he muttered awkwardly, his palm slick with sweat on the throttle lever. A simple piece of machinery, an integral part of the ship that was as familiar to him as his own body--yet it felt like an alien thing now. His arm wouldn't move.

"Dammit all to hell!" Han exploded out of his seat, powering down the engines in a rapid-fire sequence of commands. He slammed a fist against the bulkhead and swore again. A soft woof of laughter brought him spinning around to glare at his co-pilot.

Now, perhaps, you begin to see.

"Oh shaddup. I'm goin' over to The Rost to get pissed--and don't you dare interrupt me."

Enjoy yourself.


The Mynock's Roost, or "Rost," as it was affectionately known in honor of the missing "o" on its signboard, was a bar adjacent to the hangar platform. It was a favored watering hole of Alliance pilots and crews, partly due to its location and partly to the fact that it actually served real Corellian brandy, not the cheap synthetic stuff. Right now, it was almost empty. Han supposed he owed that bit of good fortune to the likelihood that the Alliance's best and brightest pilots were circling overhead in their X-Wings by now, diligently scanning the city for a chunk of tree-sap.

And I'm the one who's supposed to be crazy.

He snorted humorlessly, ordered a double of "the usual," and prowled to a table in the back. Instinct and long-standing habit dictated a position from which he could observe the entire room. A moment later, the server-droid wheeled creakily over with his drink on a tray. Han took a sip, then set the glass on the table to savor the fiery path that the liquor burned down into his belly.

Someone was blowing puffs of deep blue, sweet-smelling smoke from a hookah pipe, and high, melancholy music warbled fuzzily over the antique sound system. Wandering star... the singer chanted, and her voice seemed like an echo of infinite emptiness. The brandy-heat turned to ice in his stomach.

A whiff of pine scent drifted out of nowhere, an undercurrent in the music morphing itself into the victorious beat of Ewok drums. It was all there--the night on Endor, the sense of closeness and family, the giddy relief of seeing Luke alive after the second Death Star blew, the absurd sense of purpose that had swept him when he'd said yes to Leia's proposal. Just that one night, before everything started falling apart.

But with that thought came the deeper knowledge that it had been falling apart for a long time.

He swirled his glass, losing himself in bottomless amber depths. The frozen sweep of Hoth's landscape crystallized somewhere in the back of his mind, and with it, the beginnings of the dissolution. There'd been that terrible night, the night Luke had almost died.

That night had changed him in ways he didn't even want to think about--because he'd gone after Luke, knowing it amounted to suicide. There'd been virtually no chance of finding him in the ice storm, and less chance of finding him alive. They'd beaten the odds, somehow. He'd found Luke, they'd kept each other warm, they'd survived--and nothing was ever the same after that. Couldn't be, because the stakes had become too stark and real.

He'd die for Luke. And Luke was fragile. Vital and spirited as he was, the kid was mortal like everyone else.

Ridiculous, Solo. We all die--that's how it is.

But not Luke. With him, the notion death was somehow unthinkable. Han had run from it blindly, reaching for something--anything--that offered the promise of stability. Of permanence.

Leia.

Perhaps because she'd never seemed vulnerable.

And, he forced himself to admit, because she was Luke's sister. He'd thought that together, they could give Luke the family he'd never had. Something to live for. Another delusion. And, of course, Leia was vulnerable--without meaning to, he'd hurt her terribly.

So why're you still here, Solo? Looking for ways to inflict more damage? Perversely, as if in answer to his unspoken question, the image of Luke walking away from him across the hangar platform resurfaced before his mind's eye.

"Damn him."

Han reached for his brandy and gulped fervently, knocking it back in one go and signaling for another. The server droid trundled over on squeaky rollers. Jedi mind tricks, he thought, and laughed. The droid bleeped quizzically. He waved it away, taking a long sip and letting the booze wash through him. Sinking back in his chair, he half-closed his eyes, watching lazy, unfurling coils of blue smoke through his lashes.

He just needed a moment.

A moment to resign himself to the inevitable. There were no tricks to this--only Luke. That had been the way of it from the start. From the moment the kid dropped into his life, Han had never been able to refuse him anything. It had started with that harebrained scheme to rescue the princess, and gods only knew where it would end. He activated his comlink, remembering too late that Luke wouldn't be answering.

The channel opened on to a burst of static. Han swore. Seemed like the thing crapped out on him whenever...

"Shit." He was up and across the room in a few strides, slapping his credits on the bartop on his way to the door.

It was dark outside, the air finally starting to cool. Han slipped from the doorway and along the wall of an adjacent tower, instinctively keeping to the shadows even though it was probably pointless. The hangar platform was quiet and seemingly devoid of life. He could see the yellow flare of the Falcon's ground-lights, but most of the other ships were dark. It struck him that most denizens of Imperial City were probably congregated at the palace right now, watching Mon Mothma kick off the new regime.

He held still, eyes skimming the platform for anything out of place. Nothing. And no unusual movements overhead--just distant, moving streams of air-traffic lights. You're losing it, Solo. He pushed away from the wall with a mental growl, debating whether he should finish his drink in the bar, or head for his cabin and start a fresh one.

A Wookiee's roar shook the air.

Han took off at a dead run, yanking his blaster from his holster. Up ahead, two figures came charging from the Falcon's open hatch. One was unmistakably Chewie--and the other... there was a flutter of dark movement, wings churning the air. A figure hurtled towards the brink of the platform with Chewbacca in hot pursuit. It reached the edge and plunged over, wings spread wide to catch the air. Chewbacca came to a halt, threw his head back and roared again, every line of his sinewy body resonating fury.

Han was out of breath by the time he reached his co-pilot. "Chewie--did you see...?"

The Wookiee simply thrust out his arm. A cylindrical metallic object--the fusion welder--was clutched in his massive paw.

Han started to laugh. "So that's where it was all this time--and you thought it was me, fuzzball!"

Chewbacca's scowl deepened. This is not a matter for laughter, he admonished sternly. This is a scentless one: a spirit. My people know of such beings, and can tell you that they are not always benevolent. That it has pilfered our belongings is serious indeed.>

"Spirits, huh?" Han shook his head. "Well, that's definitely an improvement over what everyone else thinks I'm seeing." He activated his comlink again. The channel came through clear and static-free, awaiting his commands. He snorted softly, stuck the device in his belt, and started for the row of hovering transpo-cabs.

Where are you going?

Han glanced back over his shoulder. "I'm gonna prove this thing exists."

Human-cub, this is dangerous. Spirits are--

"I don't believe in spirits, Chewie." Han hoisted himself into the nearest cab. "Here, gimme that." He held his hand out for the fusion welder. Chewbacca handed it over reluctantly. Ignoring the red-blinking payment slot, he snapped the welder on to its highest setting and carved a neat hole into the dashboard. A few crossed wires later, and the cab was his.

If you must go, then I will go also. The Wookiee angled his massive shoulders, trying to wedge himself through the human-sized hatch opening.

"No you don't." Han activated the small craft's engines and darted it out of reach. "Catch!" He tossed the welder with deliberate clumsiness, counting on Chewbacca's instinct for the preservation of delicate, expensive tools. He angled the small craft around, closing the hatch as the Wookiee straightened, the welder in his paw and a frightened, resentful scowl on his face.

"Chewie--" Han lowered the airshield a few inches, just enough to speak. "If that creature meant to harm me, it'd have done it by now. B'sides, think about it--if you come along, you'll just scare it to death." He launched the tiny craft off the platform's edge, effectively preempting further argument.

He had to drop a few levels to reach the topmost level of civilian traffic. Threading between gliders and cloudspeeders with an instinctive ease born from years of piloting experience, he set the comlink on top of the console and listened for traces of static. A quick patrol of the surrounding area produced no results, so he let the cab drop a few levels.

Nothing.

"Dammit."

Impatience cramped in his gut. His chances of catching up with his quarry were getting slimmer with every passing moment, and there was no way it was getting away this time. Not if he could help it. Spurred by a subconscious impulse, he carved a path deeper into the canyons of traffic.

The commuter zone gave way to darker, more sparsely populated levels where only the bulky commercial transports and civic enforcement patrols traveled. The sporadic traffic tapered off sharply around level eighty, releasing him into a region of total darkness. Finding that the cab's runlights were no longer enough to see by, he activated the console's infrared viewfinder.

Han continued to drop, tracking a two-mile radius of the hangar platform's surface coordinates in a slow, downwardly spiraling course. Somewhere just past level thirty, a whisper of static crackled over the comlink's speaker.

"Gotcha."

Han snatched up the small instrument and cranked up the volume. The signal was faint, but there was no mistaking it. He dropped a few more levels and marked a steady strengthening of the interference, then a slight decrease as he curved deeper into the arm of the spiral. Another altitude drop and a series of course corrections intensified the static again. Han changed his strategy, patrolling the lanes in a systematic grid pattern. Increases and decreases in the level of static revealed the boundaries of a roughly elliptical area, which he was surprised to discover extended for several miles.

Not daring to speculate about what this might mean, he turned the craft and headed for the center of the ellipse. The static continued to intensify as he lost altitude, but the signal was still relatively weak, bearing no resemblance to the deafening aural assault he'd experienced earlier. Reluctantly, he extended the cab's landing gear and set down on top of the barrier of reinforced plating that marked off the city's vertical boundary, consigning the lowest fifty levels to undercity.

He paused to check his blaster before stepping out of the cab. He didn't necessarily believe the stories he'd heard about Coruscant's undercity, but he didn't particularly relish the thought of going down there, either.

A vast silence closed around him, broken only by the sharp crackling of the comlink. Han turned the volume down, stepping quietly as he moved away from the craft. The tiniest sound seem to resonate loud as blaster-fire down here, and there was no telling who might be listening. He played the beam of his glowtorch over time-blackened ferrocrete walls, straining his senses for any indication that he might not be alone.

There was nothing.

The silence rapidly took on a life of its own, beating in his ears like a slow pulse as he prowled along the narrow alleys. The ground-plating was covered with a fine layer of sooty dust, but the only tracks he could find were his own. After several minutes of wandering, he discovered a narrow fissure at the base of one of the towers. Creeping close, he beamed his glowtorch into the depths of what appeared to be an abandoned factory. His light flitted, ghost-like, over the wreckage of prehistoric industry--unidentifiable, for the most part. The building reeked of decay. He waded over heaps of discarded refuse, stepping quietly and listening for stirrings of life.

And still nothing.

It didn't make sense. The lower levels might have been abandoned long ago, but it seemed very unlikely that they were uninhabited. Every story he'd ever heard about the lower city painted it as a fearsome place, stalked by living horrors--some human, some not. Did the low-dwellers know something about this particular area that he didn't? Did they avoid it for a reason?

Thought you didn't believe in ghosts, huh?

It was toward the rear of the building that he found what he was looking for: a tarnished durasteel door sagging low on its hinges, and beyond it, a utilitarian and very old-fashioned stairwell. Looked like the factory was built long enough ago that they'd still bothered to put in stairs. He descended cautiously, his blaster in hand.

The static discharge from his comlink built steadily as he continued downward, building to a point where he was forced to readjust the volume. He'd descended about thirty levels when a wave of nausea struck. Han staggered, dropping his light as he grabbed for the stairwell's handrail.

"Not now, dammit..."

The feeling passed, leaving his knees watery as he groped for the fallen torch. He sagged against the wall, feeling a trickle of dampness that might have been sweat along the back of his neck. His heart was pounding high in his throat, and a chill swept over him, raising his skin into gooseflesh. Not enough sleep, that's all.

It took him a moment to muster his strength to descend the last twenty levels, emerging from the stairwell and on to what might once have been a moving sidewalk. The paving plates now sagged in their housing, seesawing crazily as he put his weight on them. The sound of straining metal cut the silence. He held still, listening.

A loud static-burst issued from his comlink. Han played the beam of his torch up and along the walls of the surrounding towers, seeking traces of movement. There was nothing, and the static faded back to a steady buzz. Making careful note of the stairwell's position in relation to the surrounding area, he edged along the wall to the corner of the tower. There, the narrow walkway intersected with what must have been a larger arterial corridor. The remains of several commuter craft lay scattered about, their skeletal carcasses blackened with age.

Han chose a direction at random. Noticing a decline in the static level almost immediately, he turned back and tried the opposite direction. The signal strengthened again for a while, leading him past the wrecks of ancient machinery and piles of debris. It faded again, then returned full-force when he turned once more, following a series of narrow, diagonal alleys. Then the comlink let out an abrupt, charged burst, and went dead.

A quick examination revealed that its power supply had run out. Han dug in his pocket for the spare power-cell, remembered that the one he'd been using was his spare, and swore. With his alternatives narrowed to continuing in his current direction or going back, he opted to continue.

Silence flowed in to fill the space left by the comlink's static-chatter. Han moved carefully, straining his ears for sounds of movement. Gradually, he became aware of something quite different, a subliminal murmuring that cut below the surge of pulse against his eardrums.

Water. Moving water.

Wandering in the midst of this dry, blasted landscape, the notion of water seemed preposterous, but the sound was unmistakable. His legs swayed under him, and he paused to catch his balance. Strange, that he hadn't noticed how thirsty he was. When he looked up again, someone was watching him. He couldn't see them, couldn't tell who it was, but he felt the presence like the tingle of fever-chills over his skin. He swept his torch-beam forward along the alley and saw nothing.

"Who's there?"

His voice fell flat, absorbed by the velvet blackness. No answer. He took a step on legs that were now treacherously unsteady. The water sounds seemed louder now, a lush, inviting whisper. His mouth tasted like dust. A slender shape materialized in the distance, black on black but somehow still visible, illuminated without light. Han froze, staring.

"Wait..."

The figure turned away, the dark swirl of a cloak--or wings, perhaps--obscuring its form. Han stumbled after it, breaking into a run. The figure glided soundlessly, neither quickening nor slowing its pace but always beyond reach--a shadow-mirage. His glowtorch beam fell across a trail of bright red droplets on the dusty pavement.

Blood... He stopped, staring at them.

When he looked up again the figure was gone, but the droplets remained. A detached portion of his mind noted that there were no tracks in the dust, just the crooked blood-trail.

The sound of water was louder now. He followed it, driven by thirst.

Too hot. Sweat broke on his forehead, coating his skin with clinging dust, the scent of ancient decay. Everyone's gone. I'm alone...

And then there was water.

A broad ribbon of black, rushing along a banked channel between the towers. A plume of spray drifted up to him, cool on his face. He paused at the top of the embankment, staring down. The ground tipped sideways beneath him, and the sloping duracrete incline suddenly looked impossibly steep.

Heat clawed up his throat, filling him with dry burning. He could almost taste the water, the coolness of it, faintly metallic on his lips. He took a step to the brink. His stomach clenched with unexpected violence and he dropped the glowtorch, almost losing his balance. The light winked out, leaving him blind. He thought he might have cried out, but noise from the river drowned his voice.

A voice in the darkness, a voice he knew so well. Han.

"Luke?" The dizziness ebbed a little and he turned, strangely unsurprised to meet a quiet blue gaze. Luke stood only paces away from him, swathed in black and yet visible somehow, as if light from above had followed him down here. His face was drawn and pale, almost bloodless, and he wore his cloak pulled tightly around himself, shoulders hunched over.

Han took a step closer, his gait halting--and he thought for a moment that the darkened landscape of Tatooine emerged around them, crags like shadow-sentinels against a midnight Dune Sea.

"How'd you find--" Han's voice died in his throat as he saw the stain of wetness on the dark material, blood dripping from the cloak's hem. Luke stood with his right arm clamped hard against his stomach, red stain welling between the fingers of his left hand where they locked around the stump of his other wrist. His face was taut with pain. Han took a step toward him, reaching out, his thirst forgotten. "Kid, what the hell did they--"

Luke stiffened, anguished warning flashing behind his gaze. No! His lips didn't move, but it was as if his voice spoke within Han's mind. Please no, I can't... His image shattered like a reflection on the surface of a pool.

Han stumbled and lost his footing. He reached out, falling, grasping for a handhold on dusty, crumbling duracrete. He could hear the water but not see it, tendrils of cold mist whispering icily, clinging to the sweat-dampened fabric of his shirt. From a wash of other sensations, the scent of carbon fumes emerged with sudden, sickening clarity. His gut twisted. He fought down a surge of nausea, but knew he was already falling, helpless again as blackness rushed up to meet him. The cold struck bone-deep, wrenching the air from his body and plunging his mind into a silence that felt like death.

Time held its breath.

He waited.

A voice in the darkness, known and familiar, edged with panic. "Han...?"

The hands that slipped into his were cold, fingers like ice interlocking with his own. His joints felt stiff, frozen. A short eternity seemed to pass before he was able to clamp his fingers down around those hands, two of them, an illusion of wholeness.

"Luke." His voice emerged as a rough croak.

"Han--!" The hands released his and slipped under his shoulders, Luke's arms hauling him into a fierce embrace. "Oh, gods..."

"'S okay," he mumbled, with no idea if what he was saying were even remotely true. He slid his arms forward to encircle a narrow, trembling back, felt a wild pulsebeat where his forehead pressed into the side of Luke's neck. "I'm okay..."

Luke shuddered, pulling back a little. "You'd better be," he chided, residual fear undercutting the lighter tone. "What d'you think you were doing, coming down here?"

Luke's hands moved over him, gently testing for broken bones.

It struck Han that they were both soaking wet. "The river..."

"You could've drowned, you know." A hand curved over his forehead. "Han, you're burning up."

"Yeah? I don't feel it..." He blinked, suddenly realizing that it made no difference if his eyes were open or closed. "Luke? I can't see..." He reached out, panic flaring.

A hand caught his, gently restraining his motion. Soft, affectionate laughter. "No kidding--it's dark." There was a rustling movement, and a glowtorch snapped on in Luke's hand. "It was easier to find you without this. Less distraction."

Han shook his head. "Some kinda weird Jedi thing," he grumbled, but found his voice catching in his throat. The light spilled up over Luke's body, throwing his shadow across the ceiling like a dark, immense wingspan. Softer radiance framed the side of his face and sculpted the lean curve of his cheek, transforming his damp hair to filaments of pure light.

Luke was watching him, his gaze vibrant with shifting emotion. "Chewie called me. I thought you'd left..."

"Couldn't," Han managed after a short delay, not quite trusting his voice. "I've gotta tell you--" He reached without thinking, tracing the contour of Luke's jawline. Memories returned in tiny shockwaves, breakers on a shore. Dreams of blindness, lost upon waking... but not now. He glided his thumb against a damp cheek, the movement shading into a caress. He stopped himself, startled and confused. Tell him what? What was I gonna say?

Luke's eyes hadn't left his own, and what he saw in them surprised him. Bewildered expectancy mingling with a touch of apprehension, perhaps even dread. Han knew he was staring back at Luke, taking in the familiar features as though he'd never seen them before.

You... always was you.

"Han?" Luke asked softly. "What is it?"

And I can't tell him.

Han drew his hand away, hoisting himself into a crouch. "Gotta tell ya, it's a miracle you found me." He grinned awkwardly, his voice seeming far too loud in the enclosed space. He looked around and realized that they were in a tunnel with a low, arched ceiling. The river embankment sloped away to his right, and he saw the dark water sliding past, deeper and quieter than before. "You haul me out've that?"

Luke hesitated a beat before answering. "You'd mostly hauled yourself out. You were clinging to the side--" he paused. "You gave me a real scare."

Han rubbed a sore spot on his knee. "Yeah, me too. Thanks, kid. That's--how many I owe ya?"

Luke just shook his head, returning his smile with only the tiniest hesitation. "We should get out of here. Madine's ground troops're closing in on the area, and depending on what they find here, it could get nasty. I found your cab--my X-Wing's parked next to it." He rose, brushing caked dust from his flightsuit. "Think you can make it up those stairs?"

Han was still processing the first part of Luke's statement. "Madine's on his way down? How--"

"The scan worked. We located the signal source down here--but we couldn't really pinpoint the location. It's like it's been scrambled, or diffused somehow, like maybe they were expecting us--" he darted a glance over his shoulder. "Or like they've deployed their weapon, whatever it is. Madine thinks that's what's happened..." He trailed off, his tone becoming abstracted as he watched Han straighten. "You're sick."

"You'd be amazed how often I hear that." Han cracked a grin, trying to stand up without swaying too noticeably. He held out a hand. "Lessee your comlink a minute?"

"Yeah, that's okay." He took the small instrument from Luke, startled by the rush of sensation as his fingers brushed against moist skin. He shivered, not from cold, and turned away fast to cover his reaction. He could feel Luke's eyes on him, puzzled and concerned, as he took a few steps along the riverbank with the com close to his ear. He was attuned now to even small variations in the static volume, and found his bearings easily. "It's this way," he said, glancing back. "Downstream."

Luke shook his head. "That's the wrong way. The river swept you along quite a distance--we have to backtrack to where you fell in, find some way of getting across again."

"I'm not going back."

"Han, this is--"

"Luke--" he stopped, surprised by the strangeness of saying the name, as familiar as his own but now conjuring a world of unacknowledged sentiments. Get a grip, Solo. He tried again. "Kid--" Not much better, but it would have to do. "The... 'creature' I keep seeing... I chased it on to the palace roof last night. I almost fell, but it--" he stopped again, this time lost for words to express something so alien, the way the world had steadied at the sound of the creature's voice. "--it kinda saved my life," he said finally.

"You can't--"

"I have to." He started downstream, keeping his stride as steady and even as he could. A moment later Luke fell in beside him, shining the beam of his glowtorch out into the darkness ahead.

"You were gonna go on in the dark?"

"I figured you'd see reason."

"Blackmail's more like it," Luke snorted. "Have I mentioned you're impossible?"

"I think you might've, somewhere along the way."

Luke chuckled, and Han couldn't help glancing at his profile, softly framed by liquid light-reflections from the dark river. Beautiful. Literally, breathtaking. And this was the man who trusted him, loved him like a brother--who would've been his brother, if things had worked out a little differently.

Oh, gods...

Shame curled inside him. Crazy, that he could have been so mistaken about his own feelings, that he could've misled himself, and everyone else, so badly. Brothers? What shit. He'd never had a brother of his own, but he was pretty damn certain this wasn't what it was supposed to feel like. Hell, if he'd had a brother, maybe he'd have understood sooner, could've cut his losses and gotten out of there before... before...

His mind recoiled from the thought, refusing to finish it.

Luke was watching him curiously. "It's the static, right?" he asked, tilting his chin in the direction the comlink. "You think that all this interference's being caused by your 'creature.'"

"Yeah..." his voice felt heavy in his throat. "Well--all I really know is my comlink goes berserk whenever the creature's around.

"So maybe that's why the holocorder malfunctioned," Luke suggested.

"Yeah. It could be."

Luke answered him with a short nod, and they lapsed into silence. Han could almost feel distance settling between them again. He stole another glance at the quiet man beside him, sensing the added measure of control in his reserve. Han pulled in a long breath.

"Uh... Luke. About the things I said today--"

"It's okay," Luke said quickly.

"No..." Han rubbed the back of his neck where the muscles were gathering in tense knots. "Shouldn't've said half those things, probably none of 'em, and I--"

"Han--"

"I didn't mean it when I said you're a problem," he blurted. "I'm sorry."

Neither of them spoke for a moment.

"Okay," Luke said finally, his voice low and quiet. "Thanks." His shoulders relaxed just perceptibly. Another silence followed, punctuated by their echoing footsteps and the steady drip of water.

"I didn't sign that statement."

Han almost missed a step. "You--" he stared at Luke in disbelief.

"When I went back to the meeting chamber, Fey'lya had it all ready for me--a list of everything I've done since I got here. It's like they had someone watching me the whole time, and--" he broke off. "I was gonna tell you, but--"

"But I wasn't exactly listening."

Luke smiled. "No. Not exactly." The smile deepened, warming his eyes with a glint of understated humor. "They took it better than I thought."

"Oh, yeah...?"

"Well it's like you said. They can't prove anything."

"They're tryin' to rattle your cage."

"Yes."

"Luke--what I said earlier, about wipin' your nose..." Han paused, giving himself time to to channel a surge of unruly emotion into manageable phrases, "it's just that I hate it, watching them treat you like that--"

A lean hand closed on his bicep, giving him a reassuring squeeze. "I know."

"And there's nothin' I can do--"

"I don't expect you to."

"Yeah, but--" The gentle touch was sending electric prickles up his arm, raising fine hairs against the damp cloth of his sleeve. "I guess I still want to." Han reached to scratch behind his ear, casually breaking the physical contact. "Don't know much about politics. Never really wanted to, to tell the truth."

"Maybe that's what came between you and Leia?"

"Yeah, that was part of it," he admitted.

"And the rest?"

Luke's question was scarcely audible above the murmur of the river. Han glanced over sharply, but found only friendship and sympathetic curiosity in his gaze. No jealousy, no resentment... and nothing else, either. Wishful thinking, Han thought with a jab of self-mockery.

Luke glanced away. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to--"

"Nah, it's okay," he responded with forced joviality. "Get me good n' drunk some time an' I might tell ya the whole story." Yeah, right. That was the second time he'd lied to Luke in one day. He tempered his remorse with the sure knowledge that this one was unavoidable, and certainly in Luke's best interests. Just about everyone else in the kid's life had betrayed him by now, and the last thing he needed was to find out his closest friend was hankering after him like some kind of lecherous--

"Chewie told me about the creature you saw."

"Hmm?" Relief jolted through Han at the change of subject. "Yeah, he thinks it's some kinda spirit."

Luke grinned his amusement. "I take it you don't share his opinion."

"I don't--" Han stopped himself. "You believe in that stuff, I guess."

Luke shrugged. "Just because I believe something doesn't make me a better judge of what you saw than you are..." he trailed off, eyes concerned. "Han--"

Han realized that he was shaking all over, tremors that started low in his belly and worked their way outward, carried on a wave of sickening vertigo. He stumbled against the wall of the passage. Luke caught his arm.

"Han, you're--"

"I'll be okay. Just need a bit of a breather, that's all." He slid down into a crouch to spare himself the indignity of falling. When he looked up, Luke was studying him critically.

"How long's this been happening?"

"Since Endor. It only started getting real bad the last couple days." He saw the unspoken question in Luke's gaze, and answered it. "Yeah, I've been to sickbay--they checked me out last night. According to them, nothing's wrong."

Luke gave a slow shake of his head. "Han..." he hesitated. "What happened in the throne room--Palpatine did the same to me, only worse. I needed to be alone last night, to call on the Force..."

"So you had your own, special, Jedi-approved ways of dealin' with it..."

"They couldn't have done anything for me in sickbay. They'd have told me the same thing they told you."

Han tilted his head back against the tunnel wall, breaking into a cold sweat all over again. "Yeah," he muttered finally. "Guess those med-droids don't know everything."

"Han," Luke said with quiet, careful urgency, "I might be able to help you too, if you'd let me--"

"I don't--" Han broke off with a gasp, vicious abdominal cramps bending him double. Luke reached for his arm again, and Han caught the outstretched hand, gripping it for dear life. "...Yeah," he conceded, knowing it was a mistake, though his brain was too hazed over with pain to sort out the implications. "Yeah--there's no way I can walk like this."

Luke nodded. He eased closer and took hold of Han's shoulders, then drew him into a tight, impulsive hug. Han shuddered as Luke's arms closed around him.

"Luke, I--"

"Shh."

Golden warmth flowed from beneath Luke's palms where they rested against his back. Han closed his eyes as a cocooning blanket of light surrounded him, cradling him with infinite tenderness.

"Is this okay?"

Luke's voice was soft, unsteady, and Han knew he couldn't hope to trust his own. It was something he'd felt before, startling now in its familiarity, not just its intensity. And he'd always known what it was, without ever consciously identifying it.

Luke. His... presence.

And it was more than okay. It was...

Like sunlight. Gentle fire on his skin, soaking into him.

"Luke--" He put his arms around the lean shoulders, drawing him closer, scarcely aware as his hand slid up through the soft tangle of hair. He strained towards Luke's warmth, instinctively knowing it, knowing where he'd felt it before. It had been there, sustaining him when his mind and body were frozen in carbonite. And other times, too, in his dreams...

Harrowing temptation swept him. It would be so easy to reach back into that touch and take Luke into himself, to take his mouth, now so close to his own--and that would be it. The end of Luke's friendship, his innocent trust. A final, unthinkable betrayal.

He pushed back, breaking contact almost violently. Darkness slammed down around him, cold rushing to replace warmth as the pain flared again. He clamped his arm tight across his stomach, willing it to subside.

Luke's voice reached him--startled. Confused. "Han, did I--"

"No... no." He rose with a grunt, using the wall to support himself. "'S okay... Hell, kid, that Force thing of yours is something else."

"It helped, then...?"

Han made himself stand upright, pasting on a grin as he stepped away from the wall. "Almost feel like a new man."

Luke stood, his expression of disbelief clouding briefly into hurt before his customary mask of control snapped into place. He gave a short nod. "If you're sure you're strong enough to walk--" his voice died on a ragged intake of breath, his posture going rigid.

"Luke?" Without thinking, Han moved to catch his shoulders. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"A... disturbance in the Force, very powerful--I've never felt anything like it..."

Han felt a shudder pass through the slender frame, and he tightened his grip. "Another Jedi?"

"I don't think so."

Han knew of only one other possibility, and the thought sent a prickle of fear along his backbone. "Then could it be someone... like Palpatine?"

"A Sith? No. It didn't feel... malevolent. Just--really strong." Luke straightened. "It's gone now."

"Right, and funny how I don't find that particularly comforting."

Luke answered him with a faint smile. They were face to face now, standing so close... and Han realized his fingers were moving absently, stroking hard lines of tension from the slim shoulders. He drew his hands back, consciously returning them to his sides. Luke's unguarded look of disappointment registered on him with a pang, and he jammed his hands deep into his pockets as they started walking again.

It had been so easy, just the night before--reaching out to hold Luke, to offer him a word, a comforting touch. Something he'd never questioned.

I'm gonna lose him, he realized with dry, brutal clarity. Everything we ever had. The easy friendship, gentle banter, Luke's beautiful, too-rare smile, the sound of his laughter... The mental images coalesced, telescoping forward into years ahead, years where every moment spent in Luke's company would be a private hell of anguished, pointless yearning. Because looking at him, touching him, just wasn't safe anymore.

"Hear that?"

Han jolted from his dark musings. "Hear what?"

"Sounds like music, don't you think?"

"I dunno..." but then he heard it too, a rippling pulse below the river's wash of sound.

A moment later they reached a grille fashioned from close-set truesteel bars, blocking the passage from floor to ceiling. Han reached to test the barricade, stifling a growl of annoyance when he found it solid. "Probably 'bout the only thing that still works down here." A flicker of unease settled in as he spoke. The bars looked newly made, unmarked by time.

Shadows recoiled when Luke's lightsaber blazed into life. Han stepped aside, drawing his blaster as Luke carved into the barrier in one fluid, economical stroke. Han edged forward to cover the opening while Luke shone his glowtorch into the darkness ahead. The passage continued on the far side of the barricade, the river sliding on into inky blackness.

Han shrugged, stepping carefully into darkness. His dizziness had receded, though traces of it still gnawed at the edges of his mind.

Luke clipped the 'saber back on to his belt, falling in beside him. The passage narrowed, smooth duracrete construction rapidly giving way to natural rock, until finally they were walking single-file along a shallow ledge between the river and the wall. Walking behind, Han almost ran into Luke when he stopped and snapped off the glowtorch.

"What're you--"

Luke turned to face him. "Can you see me?"

Han blinked. "Yeah," he said, his voice coming out hoarse with startlement. It should have been impossible, but he could see Luke, his face framed by hair like a mop of dark silver and his eyes shining an impossibly bright blue.

Luke held his hand up, turning it back and forth, lifting his gaze to Han's with an expression of wonder. "Strange," he said quietly, almost to himself.

Han could only agree. There was no visible source of lighting, yet the air around them was charged with pale radiance like the intense starlight of a clear Corellian night. Luke was studying him, eyes searching his face in the hazy glow. Han looked away quickly, afraid of what his own eyes might betray.

Luke turned abruptly, pushing the useless glowtorch into his belt.

Han watched after him for a moment, reading the slump of his shoulders too clearly. Time to go. He knew it now, with a simple, quiet certainty. As soon as they got back to the surface, he'd tell Chewie and they'd head off... anywhere. It didn't matter.

The passage ended abruptly, opening on a vast cavern. The river swept past them and tumbled over worn boulders in a series of short cataracts, pooling white in a foam-crusted catchbasin at the bottom. The catchbasin spilled over at the far side, releasing the river to meander the cavern floor until it disappeared through the gates of what looked like a walled city.

Han paused beside the crest of the waterfall and activated the comlink. He was rewarded by a deafening squeal of static. "Well we're here, wherever 'here' is."

"Yes." Luke's gaze was focused past the city, on something impossibly distant. "This place," he said softly, after a long silence. "It's... dying."

"Dying...? What do you--"

But Luke was already starting down over the boulders as if he hadn't heard. Han followed, balancing himself carefully against shock-bursts of subliminal dizziness. The cavern floor was covered in loose rock and dry, powdery soil. His footsteps crunched loudly against the low whisper of music, breaking the deeper silence. He hurried to catch up.

"Luke, I dunno if this is such a good idea. These things can fly, they can see in the dark, and they--" he paused, glancing around at the barren landscape. There was no way to cross the plain without being visible from the city, and no place to take cover if they needed to run. "The one that I ran into--what happened to that guard, the way he said the world went sideways on him--that happened to me, too, when I cornered it."

"It knows we're here." Luke's reply seemed to reach him over an enormous distance. "It's... waiting for us. There's something it wants us to see."

"What?"

Luke's gaze snapped back to the present, focusing for a moment on Han's face as he turned to look at him. "It's alone."

"It's..." Han trailed off.

"It won't tell me more than that. You're the one it wants to speak to."

"Oh, great."

The city rose from the plain in a long, sweeping curve, an intricate structure of interwoven latticework slung between arching support ribs. It reminded Han of the skeletonized water-stars he'd spent a long summer collecting as a boy, their arms traced out in lacelike bone filigree and their fanged undersides exposed, robbed of venom.

"This place is very old," Luke said after a while.

"Yeah." Han shivered. "I can feel that." His voice sounded paper thin in his own ears. He glanced over at Luke, suddenly feeling foolish--but Luke only nodded.

The ground sloped downward as they drew near the city, and the strange, sourceless light seemed to intensify, as if coming from the walls themselves. Studying those walls at close range, Han saw that they were made from the trunks and branches of once-living trees, looking for all the world as if the trees had decided to grow in the shape of a city. What had seemed like set of gates from the distance was actually the combined shapes of two more trees, their forms bent into a single, flowing curve to welcome the river.

Han paused uneasily, peering through the arch. The river continued its course within the city, passing along a banked channel. Streets cobbled with smooth, water-worn stone ran along both banks, and curving bridges provided crossings at even intervals. The buildings, if they could be called that, were formed from trees just as the outer walls were. The dwellings' fluid, organic shapes were composed of decorative whorls and spirals of lacy branches. Openings that might have been windows or doorways were hung with beaded hangings and forlorn strips of faded, patterned cloth. Higher up, the buildings were connected by an intricate maze of ramps and platforms that rather reminded Han of the Ewok village on Endor, though the empty, desolate atmosphere of this place set it entirely apart. And higher still, bare branches spread out to form a canopy ceiling hung with lightless glowspheres.

"Dead," he muttered, mostly to himself.

Luke's hand brushed his arm fleetingly, the comforting gesture withdrawn as quickly as it was offered. "Sleeping," he said after a moment.

"What...?"

"Not dead. Not quite yet. Can you feel that?"

Han shook his head. Crazy talk. Jedi talk. "C'mon," he said, sounding more certain than he felt.

The street was littered with drifts of blackened leaves, brittle with age and crumbling into fine dust beneath their feet. They followed the riverbank until the river curved behind a round, flat-topped hill. Craning his neck, Han saw a grove of bare, silvery trees at the summit. Cool radiance spilled between the trunks and cast eerie shadow-stripes down over the hillside.

Han glanced over at Luke. "It's here, isn't it?" It was less a question than a statement.

"Yes."

They started up the hill together, moving by silent agreement.

The trees at the summit were arranged in concentric rings to create a long, spiral-shaped path leading in towards the center. Han caught sight of a group of figures between the trees, and he left the path to cut towards them. They were seated in a circular clearing at the grove's center, their forms shrouded in bulky olive bio-suits and heavy breathing apparatus. Alliance insignia stood out clearly on their sleeves, bright red against the silvery backdrop of trees.

It took Han a moment to find a familiar bearded face behind one of the tinted face masks. "Madine!" He dropped to a crouch in front of the general, catching his shoulders. "Are you okay?"

Madine stared back at him unseeingly, his face frozen in blank shock. Han shook his shoulders and found them rigid, as if every muscle in the man's body had gone into spasm.

"He can't hear you." Luke was examining another of the soldiers. "They're--" he paused, passing his hands above the seated figure's helmet, and gave a slow shake of his head. "Someone's done this to them using the Force, but I can't--" He broke off, sinking back on his heels. "It's like nothing I've ever felt before. This whole place, the city, the river, everything--all shaped through the Force... but I can't even touch it, it's so different from anything I've known. I can't do anything for them."

Han's chest tightened at the starkness of Luke's tone, the sight of the slender back bowing once again under the weight of the galaxy's problems. He straightened without thinking, reaching out. "Luke--"

But Luke was turning, his gaze focusing on something behind them. Han turned as well, his hand straying automatically to the grip of his blaster. He noticed for the first time that one tree wasn't bare: it was decked in glossy greenish-purple leaves and clusters of dark green berries, and looked very much like the trees in the Grand Corridor. The creature sat crosslegged beneath it, the amber globe resting beside it among the gnarled roots.

The creature rose and answered the very question Han was asking himself, as if it had heard his thoughts. "You did not see Limiyen because I did not wish it." It spoke in thready, halting Standard, phrases lilting oddly as if the creature were used to a more flowing form of speech. "Do not fear. Your people have not been harmed."

"Not harmed? What exactly would you call this, then?" Han gestured angrily at the group of catatonic soldiers.

"Necessary," the creature replied. "Your warriors come to this place in aggression, Limiyen stops them in peace. This is my home, the realm of Ch'hala. It dies, yes, but I will not see it defiled."

"The realm of...what?"

"You have dishonored my people, cloud-dweller, by refusing my gift of healing and by sending your warriors here. Now you come with a Jedi beside you. Am I to see other than war in this?"

Han stared at the strange being for a moment, then glanced over at Luke, whose expression informed him that he was far from being any the wiser. All in all, it felt like being plunked down in the middle of one of Mon Mothma's diplomatic summits without any kind of prior briefing.

"Look, we don't know what you mean. Who are these cloud dwellers?"

The creature gave a slow shake of its head. "Is it true, then, that the cloud-dwellers have forgotten?"

"The--"

"Those who live in the sky, above." The creature gestured upwards with a thin, clawed hand. "The Ch'hala are not like you. We live upon the earth, as we always have done. Your people knew us once. We served the Royal Houses as your healers, sharing our gifts freely. We learned too late that you do not understand what is given freely. You took the sky for yourselves, and left our city in darkness."

"The undercity plating," Luke murmured.

"We no longer served your people then, yet we held no animosity for you. We hoped that one day the you would understand, that one day the cloud-dwellers would return to the earth and give us back the sky. But then the Dark Jedi came, and even the cloud-dwellers with their weapons and sky-ships were no match for him. Those who did not die fell under his power. The Ch'hala have always been a people of peace. We did not wish to fight the Dark One when he came for us. We offered healing, but what he wished instead was this."

The creature gestured to the group of soldiers.

One of the figures sprang up as if in answer to an unspoken command and crossed to stand beside Han, leveling the muzzle of a high-powered stun rifle at his midsection. The soldier froze in that position, silent as a statue. Han caught the name Treal stamped on the bio-suit's chest tag, and connected the pale, square-jawed face with the shaken man he'd met outside the security lockup the night before. He felt a surge of sympathetic anger.

"You don't call this harm? This is--"

"It brings Limiyen no honor to do this. I take no joy in bending the will of your people--"

"Then let him go! Let them all go and--"

"No!" The creature's wings flared in a gesture of wordless menace. "No. This time it is the cloud-dweller who will listen to the Ch'hala, and not otherwise. We refused the Dark One's wishes--we are healers, not to be used as weapons of war." It paused then, fixing Luke with a dark, lingering glance. It swept long fingers in the direction of the globe, which rose to hover above the palm of its hand. "We were punished for our defiance. He trapped my people within this, the very essence of what gives us life."

"The Dark Jedi you speak of," Luke said in a hushed voice. "Do you mean Vader?"

"I mean the one who called himself Emperor of the cloud-dwellers."

"Emperor of the whole damn galaxy," Han corrected.

The creature shrugged as if his words carried no meaning. "The Ch'hala know only the earth, the trees, the sky and the river. We have never asked for more." It made a small gesture with its free hand, as if pushing aside an unpleasant memory. "I felt the death of the Dark One, and the liberation of the cloud dwellers. And then, when this, the prison of my people, had been released from the Jedi magic, I came to the sky-cities to claim it. It was difficult. Limiyen is not strong away from this place, away from the trees of life."

It turned its gaze upon Han. "You are a great warrior, a liberator of your people. I chose you for this reason, seeking to remind you through healing that the Ch'hala mean you no harm. Cloud-dwellers do not understand gifts that are given freely, and so I took your metal-shaping tool to learn its magic."

"The fusion welder?" Han asked in surprise.

"Ch'hala are shapers of trees, not of metal. Limiyen learned much from your tool."

"The bars." Luke said, sounding startled.

Han's mind called up the image of the new, shiny, truesteel bars, and shook his head. "The welder couldn't do that."

"But Limiyen can," the creature said with the faintest touch of pride.

"Limiyen--that's your name, right?"

The winged being inclined its head. "The smallest space between leaf and sky," it said obliquely. "I am speaker for the Ch'hala. I have spoken since the times of the eleventh Royal House of your people, though the language you speak now was new to me."

"But the old Royal Houses were so long ago," Luke objected. "If Limiyen were around then, he'd be--"

"Many thousands of season-turns, yes." It observed Luke quietly for a moment. "The Dark One believed me the leader Ch'hala. He did not understand that I am only the servant of my people, and so he spared me the fate of the others. He wished me to agree to his terms in exchange for the freedom the Ch'hala, but this I could not do. I can only speak for the will of all. This angered him. He injured me." Limiyen pointed to the scar across its throat, focusing on Luke with a new expression, one of curious tenderness. "I can see that he has injured you as well, Jedi."

Luke paled visibly, crossing his arms about himself in an unconsciously protective gesture. "But--how can you--"

"We are not friends to the Jedi," the creature interrupted. "The Jedi have treated us as rivals, not as friends. They could have spoken against the theft of the sky from us, yet they did not. I can see, though, it is you who defeated the Dark One. If your wounds were within my power to heal, I would do so--but I cannot touch the Jedi magic, as you cannot touch mine. You must find healing elsewhere."

Luke's gaze had dropped. "It wasn't me--"

"But it was because of you, was it not." There was no hint of a question in the creature's inflection. "As my gifts of healing cannot help either one of you, this is all I am left with in bargaining." It gestured, indicating again the bio-suited figures.

"Bargaining," Han echoed, relieved that the creature's oddly poetic narrative was actually going somewhere. "So you want something."

"An exchange, yes, since exchanges are what you understand."

"Right, so you're gonna let these men go in exchange for--what?"

"Two things. You will return to the cloud-dwellers and tell them they must never enter this place with weapons again. We have never intended anything but peace towards you, but we will defend ourselves if we must. Your warriors cannot stand against us, when we can turn one of them against the other." It nodded towards Treal's frozen form.

Han spread his hands. "Can't help you there--m'afraid my opinion doesn't carry much weight with the 'cloud-dwellers.'"

"You are a great warrior," Limiyen said again. "How can they not listen to you?"

Han ran down a mental list of retorts and thought better of using any of them. Not much sense in antagonizing the creature by pointing out the role it had played in his loss of credibility, he supposed. "Just... trust me," he said finally. "It's the Council you wanna be talking to."

"You can secure Limiyen an audience with this... Council, then," it persisted.

"Yeah," Han said after thinking about it. "I can probably manage that. Fact, I think they'll be very interested in talkin' to you, once they catch wind of this. What's the other thing?"

"It is for the Jedi to grant." Limiyen turned to observe Luke. "I have reclaimed this, my people's prison, but I cannot reach them. I have tried, but the Dark One's magic is not the same as mine. His was much as yours is, the magic of the Jedi--and I know that his magic has also touched you."

"If you--you're asking me to draw upon the Dark Side to undo what Palpatine did to your people--"

"Luke." Han reached out and caught his arm. "No way. You don't hafta--"

"No." Limiyen held up a thin hand. "The Jedi are wrong on this. There is no Light or Dark, only the magic which can be used for good or ill intent. Reaching to my people is not without danger, but the danger is not to your c'ha."

"My--"

"What you call soul."

"What danger?" Han demanded.

"Danger that he has already faced. As have I. Limiyen awaits your decision." It turned and walked to the far side of the clearing in quick, fluid strides, its feet barely seeming to touch the earth.

"Luke, I don't like the sound of this."

"But you don't think it's lying."

"No..."

"Neither do I."

Han tightened his hands into fists at his side to prevent himself from trying to stop Luke from crossing to where the amber sphere still hovered.

Luke passed a hand experimentally above the surface, his eyes slipping shut in concentration. He opened them a moment later and looked back across at Han. "I can feel him... Palpatine."

"Kid, like I said, you don't have to--"

"What he did to them is wrong," Luke said softly. "It's wrong that they have to live down here in the darkness--"

"Yeah, well taking hostages is something else again, isn't it?"

"Why should Limiyen trust us?"

Han snorted. "Well, I don't suppose there's any reason we should trust it, either."

"You said it saved your life..."

"Yeah..."

"What did it mean, that you refused its gift of healing?"

"How should I know?" Han looked away sharply, afraid to see what might be there in Luke's eyes. "The berries, I guess," he siad finally. "That must be what it's talkin' about."

"I want to try."

"Yeah, but even he says it could be dangerous--"

"And if Limiyen said it wasn't, would you believe that?" Luke reached to take the orb in his hands, closing his eyes once again. Moments slipped by, and at first it seemed that nothing was happening. Then, pools of blue-white fire welled up around Luke's fingertips, engulfing his hands. He gasped softly, his face going taut with pain.

"Luke!" Han reached for his arm, but Luke's head snapped up, warning clear in his eyes.

"No--"

Han realized that Limiyen had materialized beside him. He turned on the winged creature with a snarl, seizing its shoulders. "What're you doing to him?"

Limiyen twisted from his grip with an easy shrug and crossed to stand by Luke. "Little Jedi," it said softly, placing its hand on the sphere. "My strength is greater than yours while we are in this place. Take my magic, and shape it with your own."

Luke gave no sign that he'd heard the creature's words, but a moment later his face relaxed and the blue fire receded, melting into a softer golden radiance. Han looked on helplessly, guessing that these changes must be positive and hoping they were. The edges of the amber faded into the growing light, dissolving into fire-colored mist around Luke's and the creature's hands. For one instant Han could see the bright core of the sphere etched in light, helix-spirals burning into his retinas.

Then the golden light spread outwards to engulf the clearing, overwhelming in its intensity. He shut his eyes against the glare. The light vanished as quickly as it had appeared, but when he opened his eyes again, the air was humming with a new vitality.

Luke was gazing over at him, his face sheened with sweat and a blinding smile lighting his eyes. "Look," he said, his voice hushed.

I am... Han didn't think he could have torn his gaze from Luke's face if he'd wanted to, but finally the sounds and scents of the clearing refocused his attention. Tiny shoots were poking up through the dusty soil under his boots, dazzlingly green against the dark ground. The shoots were growing at an incredible rate, blanketing the clearing with a thick carpet of soft grass. The trees were coming to life as well, extending fresh green twigs from the tips of age-silvered branches, sprays of purple-green leaves appearing to dapple the hazy, light-filled air with tiny moving shadows.

The music swelled like a wild pulse, so that a hundred voices hung in the shimmering air, soft and wild--and Han realized that the sounds were coming from the trees themselves, had been all along. Luke took a step towards him, his eyes bright. Han felt something heavy rise and settle in his throat, knew his voice had deserted him and that if Luke touched him now he was just going to--

Luke's step faltered. "There they are."

And they were. The grove was filled with creatures like Limiyen, standing unclothed within the outward curving spiral of trees. Their mouths opened, their voices joining with the song.

Luke took another step closer.

Han shook himself, clearing his throat as he turned towards Limiyen.

"Seems like it's time for your part of the deal now, huh?" His voice came out louder than necessary.

Limiyen inclined its head. "You will speak to this Council of yours?"

"Yeah," Han managed.

The creature nodded, and waved its hand. The soldiers stirred into life immediately, like characters in a reactivated holo-vid game. Han saw Madine rise to his feet and dust off his bio-suit, looking around in confusion.

And then, unexpectedly, a scream cut across the music.

Han caught a blur of movement, the flash of ambient radiance on the muzzle of a rifle as Treal took aim at Limiyen. Luke lunged forward with a cry, coming into the line of fire but still too far away and too late to disarm the man.

Han moved without thinking, forgetting that it was only a stunner, forgetting everything but Luke as he threw himself at Treal. He brought his full weight slamming against the other man's shoulder, spoiling his shot. The weapon's discharge went wide as Treal lost his footing. They fell together. Treal screamed again, and Han caught a glimpse of his face through the tinted shield, frozen in blind horror before he squeezed the trigger again, firing point-blank against Han's chest.

There was a shout that could only have come from Luke, a terrified, anguished cry. Hands on his shoulders, Luke's voice again, though he could no longer make out the words. Voices swirled together, echoing and blending, resonating like sounds at the bottom of a deep well. Then the sensations faded for a while, and left him drifting.

When he resurfaced, he was lying on his back with a bright white radiance shining down into his face. He groaned, lifting a hand to shield his eyes. Voices bubbled up again -- the clipped beeps and chirps of a droid, human voices in the distance, less distinct. Stiff material rasped against his bare chest as he tried to sit up. Two hands stopped him--one mechanical, one human.

"Oh, no you don't." Leia's voice cut laserlike through the muddy wash of sounds. "I'd say that was quite enough heroism for one day."

His eyes focused slowly. "Leia?" Her face resolved out of the blur of light, the angular features of a medical droid hovering near her shoulder. "Where... what happened?"

"Seems that you took a stun blast at very close range, and it affected you badly. We got you to sickbay on time--you'll be okay now."

"Treal..."

"He's in psychological evaluation--"

"Nah... nah, he's not crazy, jus' scared..." Han heard the slur in his voice and guessed that he must be up to his neck in drugs. "Where's Luke--?" He tried to sit up again. The droid restrained him, clucking anxiously.

"He's okay--I'm sure he'll be around to see you in a while."

"He told you...? The Council--"

"Yes, he explained everything. I've scheduled a meeting with Mon Mothma and Limiyen for later tonight--Luke said he wants to be in on it too. It'll be okay, don't worry--just try and rest now, will you?" She leaned forward to brush a kiss against his forehead. "I'll check in again later." She rose, her figure blurring into the light. Han heard her quick footsteps, the sound of a door closing.

The droid hummed and whirred, and Han felt something sharp jab into his arm. His eyelids sagged. Sleep slid over him like a heavy tide.

The room was dark when he opened his eyes again, traces of gray dawn filtering in from the skylight overhead. He started to roll over and froze, discovering warm fingers twined loosely through his. A slender, dark shadow rested in a chair beside the bed, head slumped back against the wall.

Han turned on his side, carefully avoiding sudden movements. The faint light revealed a dreaming face, a graceful sprawl of dark-clothed limbs. Luke had fallen asleep with his arm outstretched, his left hand wrapped around Han's right.

Han lay perfectly still, watching him.

Love you, kid.

It was the first time he'd let himself think those words. In the sheltered silence of predawn, it didn't seem to matter so much that it would also be the last. There was time--now. To watch Luke, to memorize him. The gentle rise and fall of his chest, the tiny throb of pulse in the hollow of his throat. Strength and delicacy, power cloaked in beauty.

You... Han smiled. So good to see the tension gone, to see Luke at peace. I can leave him now, like this. It'll be okay... he'll be okay.

He closed his eyes.

When he opened them again, the chair was empty and the yellow-gray light of late afternoon was slanting in from above.

Han sat up cautiously but found no dizziness, no nausea, no protest from abused muscles. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and eased his feet on to the cold tile floor, looking around. A low murmur of voices filtered in from the hall outside, along with the hum of equipment, the chattering bleeps of a med-droid. Comforting sounds of ordinary life.

His clothes lay folded on a small table next to the chair. His gunbelt, comlink, chrono, a razor, soap, and a stack of clean towels sat next to them. Grabbing a towel to wrap around his hips, he leaned over to catch the crono's readout--and then dropped the towel, scooping up his chrono to double-check the date. According to the readout, he'd been asleep for just over two days.

"Damn!" he muttered, mildly shocked by the realization.

Footsteps passed outside the door, reminding him of his nakedness. He bent to pick up the towel, an unfamiliar object catching his eye as he straightened. It lay on the tabletop a short distance from his clothes, silvery and cylindrical. He picked it up and discovered it to be a scroll of finely woven fabric, the ends wrapped tightly around two rods of smooth, light wood. He unrolled it, mystified.

It was an intricately woven tapestry, the design rendered with breathtaking artistry in tones of blue, green, silver and gold. At the top was an abstracted image of Imperial City's towers set against a sky bluer than Han could believe Coruscant's sky had ever been. A pair of trees rose from the bottom, their tall, silver trunks bordering the design, while their roots and branches entwined to create an enclosure of living, vibrant greens. His own image, and Luke's, stood side by side on top of a grassy hill, a silver-blue river flowing past their feet. Luke was holding the amber globe in his hands, his face tipped up towards Han's with a faint smile playing about his lips. Limiyen hovered behind them, dark wings outstretched in a curiously sheltering gesture.

Han stared at the image for a long time before he finally rolled up the tapestry and tucked it, carefully, in one of the pockets of his folded vest. He found shower facilities at the end of the hallway and lingered there for a long time, luxuriating in the hot spray. Once he'd shaved and dressed, he slung a towel about his shoulders and headed for the cubicle to collect the rest of his stuff.

Leia was waiting for him there, poised in the chair with her hands folded in a posture of nervous expectation. "Han!" She rose, smiling brightly. "I asked the droid in charge of your case to notify me of any changes--but I must say, I wasn't expecting you up and about quite so soon."

"No? Looks like I've been flat on my back for two solid days," he retorted, reaching for his gunbelt. "What more d'you want?"

"Well actually, you weren't on your back the whole time--you were in the bacta tank for about a day."

"Yeah...?" He paused, studying her expression. "You make it sound serious."

"It was." She opened a therma-bag sitting on the table, and brought out bowls, spoons, forks, packages of food and a number of the ubiquitous, fuzzy pana-fruit. "You took a stun blast at point-blank range--"

"Yeah," he said, remembering. "Treal--"

"Yes. It sent you into deep shock. You were comatose for several hours--we were scared we were going to lose you."

"But a stunner--"

"Shouldn't do that, no. All we can think is that it must've been an after-effect of the carbon freeze, or of being tortured. Luke said you'd been showing signs of dizziness before you were shot."

"Sure, but the droids gave me a clean bill of health just the night before--"

"Maybe they didn't know what to look for. Unfortunately, they still don't. Thankfully, you seem to be making a remarkable recovery."

"Hmph," he replied, though he had to admit that he felt better than he had in weeks. Better than he'd felt since long before the carbon freeze. Perhaps Luke's effort to heal him had some effect after all. He watched Leia, suspicion setting in. "So--you're here to welcome me back to the land of the living?"

Leia smiled, opening a vapor-locked food container. "Something like that. I stopped by the kitchen on the way here--thought you might be hungry."

"No, I'm--" he was about to tell her she shouldn't have bothered, that he hadn't been hungry in days, weeks. Then the aroma of hit him, rich and tantalizing. "I could eat a live wampa," he amended, surprised at himself.

"Well--help yourself."

She didn't have to say it twice. Han took one of the bowls and piled it up with thick meat stew and roast briy-root, reaching for a bottle of dark ale to accompany the meal.

"Hey, you got one of those too," she said suddenly, her face brightening.

"Hmm?" He glanced up in confusion and realized that she was looking at the tapestry scroll poking out of his vest pocket. "Oh yeah." He handed it over to her.

"I can look?"

"Course." Han shrugged, taking a sip of beer, then scooped up some stew with the end of a flatcake. Delicious. He couldn't remember when anything had tasted so good.

Leia nibbled absently on a piece of briy-root, unrolling the tapestry on the bed. "It's beautiful," she murmured. "Luke's is the same..." She smiled. "The one they made for me shows the Council and the Ch'hala people meeting in the Grand Corridor... I think I almost like yours better, though. The city they've built is incredible, isn't it?"

Han nodded between bites. "You were down there?"

"Yes--and they were so welcoming and generous, even though they had every reason not to trust us. I've never met people quite like them; it makes me so sad that they were trapped in the dark for so long." She paused, glancing back at Han. "To be honest, I think we owe all this to you--and to Luke. I never thought I'd say this, but you were the real diplomats--"

Han stopped her with a wave of his hand, sliding into the unoccupied chair. "Nah, it was Luke with his Jedi stuff--he did all the work."

"That's not what Limiyen seemed to think. I'd say you both made quite an impression." She turned back to the tapestry for a moment, trailing a fingertip along one of the framing tree trunks. She frowned a little, leaning in for a closer look. "You know, yours isn't quite the same as Luke's. In his, you're the one looking at him--while in yours, he's looking at you. Funny." She shrugged, wrapped the scroll carefully, and handed it back.

Han tucked it into his pocket where it would be out of harm's way.

"Maybe we should get you a wampa--or two," Leia commented, watching in amusement as he dug into his meal. "Anyone'd think you hadn't eaten in weeks."

He decided not to tell her how close that was to the truth. "So you n' the Ch'hala people worked things out?"

Leia moved to perch on the edge of the bed. "Yes. It could have been easy, too, because all they really wanted was for us to leave them alone--but I couldn't stand the thought of it, leaving them down there in the dark. We're going to find a way to change that. I don't know how yet, but I've got an army of engineers working to come up with a solution."

"How do they feel about that?"

"The Ch'hala people? Well..." Leia looked thoughtful. "They weren't expecting it. And I don't know if they quite trust that we mean what we say... but I'll find a way to convince them--I always do." She flashed a quick smile. "In any case," she added after a pause, "it looks like you're the hero again."

"As opposed to what--a lunatic?"

"Put it this way--Madine's pushing to have your commission reinstated as soon as possible."

"Yeah, maybe I'll think about it," he said without enthusiasm.

"You should. I don't like the thought of you throwing out your career with the Alliance--especially not if it's because of..." she hesitated.

Han glanced up, studying her. "What, because things didn't work out between us?" he asked softly.

She looked away. "Well--" she broke off, fingers knotting in her lap.

"Would it make you feel better to know you weren't the reason?"

She darted him an unreadable glance. "I suppose I shouldn't flatter myself," she murmured, the corner of her mouth hooking into a self-mocking smile. "No, that doesn't really make me feel any better."

"I didn't think so." A moment of silence followed. "So," Han said eventually, "how'd it go with the Constitution gettin' signed?"

Leia gave him an incredulous look, laughter suddenly threatening. "You don't have to--" she cut herself off with an abrupt gesture. "Never mind. It went all right, everything considered. The New Republic's a reality on paper, though that's just the beginning. There's still so much work to do..." she paused. "It was amazing how fast all that hysteria died out, once Fey'lya backed off with his accusations."

"He did?"

"Well he had to, after the existence of the Ch'hala people became known--he couldn't very well go on saying you hallucinated the whole thing. And you'll also be interested to know that Winter ran a scan of that holo-vid at the same frequency Rogue Squadron used to locate the amber, and Limiyen showed up clear as day. We think there's something about their physiology that affects equipment--even our comlinks go crazy when they're around."

Han nodded. "So--about Fey'lya," he persisted.

"Oh--right. You know Han, I was so angry with you when Luke came back into the meeting chamber and told us he wasn't going to sign the affidavit--"

"You were angry at me?"

"Well, who else?" she chuckled. "But it worked out for the best. Fey'lya just about lost his cool--with Bothans, you can tell a lot just by the movements of their fur--but there wasn't much he could say. And after that, he backed right off. It was great."

"Good, maybe he'll stop tryin' to yank Luke's chain, now the kid's shown it won't get to him."

Leia gave him a look of frank surprise. "It's my chain he's yanking, Han--not Luke's. Or yours, for that matter. Fey'lya's only backed off is because he's figured out he can't use either of you to get to me. He's just looking for other ways now."

"But--" Han put his fork down, staring at her. Of course, it all made sense, but... "If he was really tryin' to get to you, couldn't he just--" he stopped himself, thinking of the surveillance camera in the meeting chamber, of Luke's suspicion that he'd been followed. "Well, you know what I'm talkin' about."

Leia nodded, and he could see in her eyes that she did. Vader's daughter. "Fey'lya has to be much more careful than that," she answered in a low voice. "I'm no use to him if he discredits me."

"Scumbag," Han growled, angrily spearing a chunk of meat. "So, what're you gonna do about it?"

Leia's smile was like--and utterly unlike--Luke's: the smile of a hunter. "I can handle him," she said quietly. "Don't worry."

Han stared at her, shocked in spite of himself. "Yeah," he said after a moment's delay. "I don't doubt it." He swirled the morsel around in the stew's heavy sauce. "Politics," he muttered.

"It's my life, Han."

"Yeah..."

And there they were--not five feet away from each other, and sitting in entirely different worlds.

He set the bowl down with a sigh, getting to his feet. "Thanks. Guess I should get over to the Falcon, and--"

The rumbling voice of a Wookiee echoed from somewhere down the hall, and Leia grinned. "In here, Chewie," she called, then glanced over at Han. "Looks like he's right on time."

"Time for--" but he didn't have time to finish the question, because just then an enormous, furry bulk came bounding through the door and swept him into a bone-cracking embrace.

"Your bodyguard," Leia said, as if that explained something.

"Wha--?" Han gasped. "Easy there, pal, I'm still--"

A giant paw ruffled his damp hair. You were foolish, fish-cub. I feared for you--as did we all.

"Sure, but--"

"The medics want to keep you under observation for at least a couple weeks," Leia explained. "Chewie and I happen to agree with their opinion, but we also realized that coercive methods might be necessary to ensure your cooperation."

Han managed to disentangle himself and stepped back, giving each of them a suspicious look. "You n' Chewie talked it over, huh?"

She smiled innocently. "We decided you need a bodyguard. Isn't that right Chewie?"

We did indeed, the Wookiee answered with just the hint of a smirk in his deep voice.

"Chewbacca has promised me he'll break every bone in your body, if you show signs of trying anything stupid."

Such as leaving, for example.

Leia nodded. "Precisely."

A massive arm curled around Han's shoulders. Of course, that will not be necessary. Is that not true, my youthful friend?

Han glared at them both, and sighed. "All right, fine--I promise to behave myself. Is that good enough for you?"

The arm tightened. We shall see. Chewie pulled him into another hug, this one fractionally gentler. In the meantime, you must rest.

"Rest? What d'you think I've been doing for the past two days, you big--"

We will not speak of the past two days. Your foolishness makes my coat gray. Chewie tugged him towards the door.

Han went reluctantly, sending a parting scowl at Leia over his shoulder. She responded with a smile and a cheery wave--more relaxed than he'd seen her since... ever, probably. He shrugged, and let Chewie guide him out of sickbay. A Wookiee-sized cloudspeeder was waiting for them at the foot of the palace steps. Chewie clambered into the driver's seat with astonishing speed and agility, underlining his unspoken point by motioning Han towards the passenger side.

"I wasn't gonna argue," Han grumbled, climbing in.

Chewbacca gave a soft bark of laughter as he hit the ignition, bringing the 'speeder's nose up into a smooth climb and circling the palace to reach the trafficway beyond. Glancing at the palace wall as they passed, Han noticed that the scar left by Dynn's ship had been covered over as if it had never existed.

"That figures," he muttered sourly.

Chewie reached over and jostled his shoulder comfortingly, then switched on the onboard sound system.

"Aw, hell, not that Wookiee mating-music again!" Han grabbed the sound controls, tuning them to something more palatable for human ears.

For once, Chewbacca made no argument. He leaned back in his seat and opened the cloudspeeder's throttle an extra notch, humming along with the music in deep, rumbling tones. The sun was setting straight ahead of them, the fingers of pale gold light too weak to penetrate the tinted airshield. The hangar platform came in view a moment later, its metallic deck patterned with long shadows. Han sat forward, peering at the row of X-Wings parked along the platform's foremost sector.

"Hey, that's Rogue Squadron."

Yes. They have relocated to our platform.

"How come?"

Closer to the bar, Chewbacca deadpanned. And do not tell me you didn't request this platform for the same reason.

"'S more practical," Han retorted. "Makes for a quicker stagger back to my cabin--" he broke off as he caught sight of one other X-Wing, this one parked slightly apart from the others.

Luke...

Chewbacca landed the 'speeder beside the Falcon. He switched off the ignition and then bent over, grumbling something unintelligible as he rummaged under the seat. Han barely noticed. Staring across the platform, he caught the glint of fading sunlight on the domed head of an astromech droid--Artoo.

"He's leaving."

Han scarcely heard his own voice as he said the words, a flood of unexpected emotions rising behind them. One of us is always leaving... He hoisted himself out of the 'speeder. "I'll be back in a minute," he said over his shoulder.

Chewie straightened up, seeming to have found whatever he'd been looking for. He gave a solemn nod. I will be on the ship.

Han crossed the platform like a sleepwalker, fragments of words carrying to him on the strengthening breeze--words spoken in Luke's voice. A bleep from Artoo, followed by a quiet laugh. Luke's laugh. Ordinary things that twisted into a tangle of raw feeling behind his breastbone, clogging in his throat. Knowing that this would be the last time.

And I can't even tell him that... because then I'd have to tell him why.

Drawing closer to the lone craft, Han spotted Luke crouched beneath the wing, peering through an open hatch at something in the fighter's innards. He wore loose black coveralls, a grease-spotted rag slung over one shoulder. It took Han a moment to realize that he was staring at Luke, mesmerized by the thoughtless grace of his hands on the controls of a scanner, the drift of wind through his hopelessly tangled mop of hair.

"Luke," he said eventually.

But Luke was already turning towards him, rising to his feet, a brilliant and totally undeserved smile breaking across his lean features. "Han! You're up. How're you feeling?"

"'M okay..." Han shrugged, taking a moment to shift gears into the startling normality of this conversation. "They say I've gotta stick around for observation, n' that leaving now could be--"

"Dangerous to your health, in more ways than one." Luke pulled the cloth from his shoulder and wiped his hands with it, his smile widening.

"Yeah," Han muttered. So Luke had been in on that little scheme too--not that there was much sense making an issue out of it.

"Guess that schedule of yours is pretty much shot by now," Luke added, a hint of mischief entering his tone.

"Uh-huh." Han wondered why he'd ever imagined he could lie to Luke. The kid could see through him like a... He cleared his throat. "Guess you're going back to Tatooine, huh?"

Luke nodded. "I want to try and figure out old Ben's riddles before the season's-turn. That's when the real heat sets in."

Han thought that he didn't want to know what 'real heat' would mean by Tatooine standards.

"You know, I was so sure I'd never go back," Luke continued.

His expression shifted unexpectedly, his eyes taking on a faraway cast. "I guess I kinda need it now, for a while. Strange--it's like a whole different place, like I'd never really looked at it before, when I was growing up. There's so much sky there, it's so open, so quiet..."

He stopped with a tiny, decisive shake of his head. "I just need some time. That's all."

Time for what? But Han was afraid to ask.

"I'll be back in a few weeks. I want to talk again with Limiyen--it seems like the Ch'hala people know more about Jedi history than all the records I've found put together. And I want to ask them more about how they use the Force--I think they could teach me a lot."

"Sure." Han shifted his weight, as uncomfortable with the topic as he was with the silence that settled between them afterwards.

"Maybe I'll see you when I get back?" Luke asked the question so softly that the wind almost swallowed it.

Han looked up sharply. He knows. Oh, he knows... And there was no point in trying to deny it anyway.

"No, kid," he said after a delay. "I don't think so."

Luke's gaze dropped. "Then I guess this's goodbye..."

No questions, no argument. Just the same, quiet acceptance he'd shown in the meeting chamber when the accusations were flying and everyone was turning against him. Then, Han had wished he'd fight back--and he found himself wishing it now, that Luke would tell him to stay, give him one good reason. Even a bad one. Because I'd wait for him forever-- He halted the thought, suddenly afraid of where else it might take him.

Luke's knuckles had clenched white around the rag, but he said nothing. Finally, when the silence got too much, he turned away.

Artoo was waiting in the X-Wing's shadow, chattering to itself. Han heard its questioning bleep, heard Luke murmur something to it that he couldn't make out. Luke dropped slowly into a crouch and picked up his tools, mechanically resuming his task--and Han watched him, trying to absorb his image even as the surrounding shadows began to swallow him up.

It cost a concerted effort to wrench himself away and start back towards the Falcon. A hundred steps--maybe less, and there was a bottle of brandy in the locker next to his bunk. If he got drunk enough, fast enough, he wouldn't have to lie awake and hear the X-Wing's engines as it taxied past him in the night.

He covered five steps, maybe ten. And then... Nothing. Nothing at all... He turned again, the words rising from some place of bitter, unreasoned grief. "Hell, Luke, there's just no damn point anymore--"

Luke glanced back over his shoulder. "Han--" Sharp, bright pain tightened the muscles of his face, reflecting in his eyes, his voice, and Han remembered his own voice telling Luke that he'd run out of reasons to stay.

"No," he blurted--and then it tumbled out in a rush. "No, I mean m'gonna lose you anyway, so it doesn't matter, might as well tell you-- it's like, everything--the wedding, everything--was all about you, always was. I--"

He broke off with a curse and turned away again because there were no words for this and everything was coming out all wrong. "Luke..." he turned back and found that Luke had risen to his feet, was staring at him, unspoken questions forming in his eyes. Han took a shaky step, stopped, and realized that his hands had knotted into trembling fists, fingernails digging into his palms.

"I'm sorry," he said finally, his voice harsh. "I never meant to lie to Leia, I just... I just didn't know--guess it doesn't make much sense." He made a study of the deckplates in front of his feet, acutely aware of how ridiculous he must sound. "Don't know how you can be wrong about who you're in love with, n' that's all I can say..."

"Han--?" Luke's voice faltered, died on the gathering wind.

Han looked up.

Luke was standing a lot closer than he'd expected, and whatever it was he'd imagined he'd see on Luke's face, this wasn't it. A mixture of disbelief, hope, doubt, uncertainty--

"Han." Luke reached out with his hand, dropped it, took a step closer, paused--poised on the verge of flight. "You were--"

"Yes, goddamnit, I still am, I--" Shit, kid, I always will be, always was...

And Luke was coming towards him, a moving reflection of past and present merging into one.

Everything.

Luke sitting across the table from him in a shabby bar in Mos Eisley. Charging towards him in the Falcon's corridor, in the hangar on Yavin Four, throwing his arms around Han's neck with such force that he nearly bowled them both over. Turning to him in the Hoth hangar, his silent goodbye more like a promise.

A strong hand locked around his forearm, anchoring him in the present. "Han--" Luke's voice caught. The expression in his eyes, that quiet burning spilling over into dazzling light--it was nothing new, nothing born of this moment. It had been there in every glance, every smile--the small touches, the moments when Luke would say his name...

How could I not know?

His hand lifted to brush the curve of Luke's jaw, fingers finding a tremor beneath the skin to match his own. Luke shivered, tilting his cheek into the shaky caress, his eyes reflecting the same stunned amazement that had trapped Han's own breath.

He slid his hand forward, cradling the back of Luke's neck to pull him close. "I love you." The words escaped slowly, stirring the hair beside Luke's ear. Lean arms went around him, locking tight. He closed his eyes.

"Han..." The name came out muffled, Luke's breath hot on his skin even through the fabric of his shirt. "You thought that if you told me, I'd--" he stopped and lifted his head, eyes questioning.

"I thought--" Han broke off.

There were no words for this.

He cupped Luke's jaw, marveling at the strangeness of this moment, the impossibility of it. He saw his own thumb glide over Luke's chin and dip into the cleft, stroking upwards to trace the curve of his lower lip--and then that same mouth was straining upwards to brush against his, a tentative caress, feathery and electric.

Luke drew back a little. "I don't... I didn't know--" his voice caught. He leaned an arm around the back of Han's neck and pulled him down, the fingers of his free hand making stripes of warmth against his cheek as their mouths met.

Shy. Tender. A little awkward.

Not a dream this time.

Unquestionably real, the hesitant explorations of Luke's mouth against his own, the gentle hands stroking his face, his hair, tracing the line of his throat, his jaw--trying to be sure this was real.

That he was real.

Han gathered the slighter body against himself, cradling Luke, opening his mouth to invite deeper contact. Luke stretched up, the melting pressure of his kiss becoming a demand--and then hesitation. A tiny catch of breath against Han's lips, uncertainty. Not knowing how to ask.

Han probed the questing mouth with the tip of his tongue, pressing inward until Luke opened for him with a wordless murmur of welcoming recognition. A rush of hot, shared breath, a rising groan, trapped between them--it might have been Luke's, might have been his. It didn't matter.

Han squeezed his eyes shut and lost himself in the moment, the perfection of it, in the stunning, dizzying, impossible beauty of holding Luke this way.

Luke pulled back with a soft gasp. "Han, this is--" he stopped, words seeming to escape him.

"What?"

"I never expected--never thought you'd--"

"Yeah, I know. I've been awfully dense, 'm sorry..."

Luke's hands were moving on him unconsciously, stroking down his throat, over the triangular patch of bared skin inside his open collar.

"You really--"

"Yes." Oh gods, yes...

"I--"

Luke faltered, his eyes widening, staring at one of his hands where it had come to rest on Han's breastbone. Even flickering glare of the worklamps, Han saw his face go ashen pale.

"I can't--" Luke snatched the hand back and turned, two quick strides taking him out of reach.

"Luke..." Embarrassment crashed in to fill a blank silence. "If I did something you didn't want--"

"No--" The word formed in a dry, brittle whisper, scarcely audible. "No, I can't... Han, I'm sorry--please..." Luke crossed his arms protectively over his belly, clutching as if it hurt. "Please don't, just leave me..." He turned, his steps aimless, almost clumsy, quick strides carrying him away from Han and the waiting X-Wing, his figure melting into the deepening night.

"Luke--?" Han took a step after him, bewildered. Denial rose swiftly, a pang of anger veering off into something less clear-- no way, you want this as much as I do-- a jangling confusion of thought and emotion condensing finally into the thin current of fear that started his legs again. Fear for Luke, fear of the unknown. Of losing Luke. Not just as a friend, his heart's brother, his--lover, if he even dared to think of him as that--but in a more absolute sense. Something less tangible.

Like--watching the light go out behind his eyes.

Because he's fragile...

...and he needs--

what?

Maybe something that I can't give him.

Luke was standing among the cluster of towers near the bar's entrance, his back pressed up against a rough ferrocrete wall. Finding him was easy--like following a homing signal. Like the invisible trail that had guided Han across Hoth's ice-plain, a path that started deep in his gut and ended with Luke.

And maybe that's why I've always been restless, lookin' for something--

Luke stood with his shoulders hunched, arms wrapped about himself as if to shelter a hidden core of pain. He didn't look up at Han as he approached.

"Kid..." Han paused a few steps away, watching him. "Talk to me." The words hung in the silent air, turning back on their speaker like knives-- he won't--I'm not like him--but sooner or later you've gotta talk to someone--

"You can't understand," Luke said after a moment.

"Try me."

"I--"

A thumping bass beat drifted from the bar as the door swung open and two figures stumbled out. Their voices and footsteps faded quickly between the docked ships, the music becoming muffled as the doors closed again. A few drops of rain splattered against the bar's neon signboard and vaporized instantly, sending flickers of eerie light across Luke's face.

Luke was gazing past him, his focus lost in distant shadows. He tightened his arms around himself, gathering the pain close. "Nothing's the same, Han. I'm not the same. I can't pretend."

I know that--you can't go back like nothing's happened..." he trailed off.

Luke's eyes were measuring the distance between them, the distance between himself and an unseen nightmare. "They tore me apart," he whispered.

"Your father."

"And Palpatine, but--I can't even begin to explain what they did, it's like... " Luke stopped again, lost for words. "Han... right now, I feel like that city down there... like Limiyen's city. Remember how you thought it was dead--"

"But it wasn't. You told me--"

Luke shook his head. "But remember how you felt when you said it--like it was empty, nothing left...?"

"I guess..." Han conceded reluctantly.

The rain had intensified, spattering the deckplate like drops of neon-tinted blood--and Han thought he even smelled blood, the scent rising thick and metallic on the wind. The friendly darkness blackened into an aeons-old night, choking him in its grip, and he was following a trail of red droplets to the brink of an underground river.

"Han, this is why I couldn't tell you. I wanted you to be free..."

"Luke--"

"I'll be okay. I just need... time."

Time to be alone.

The emptiness in Luke's voice was like a desert night, a long, unbroken horizon under a dark sky.

"No--" No way. Han stepped forward and caught Luke's hand--his right hand, the one Vader had given him. "Remember what you said, and you were right, too, the city was just... sleeping." He folded the hand between both his own, stroking the cold fingers. "You're not the same--okay. But you're still Luke--"

Luke pulled away. "Han, no--"

"Shh." Han raised the hand to his lips, brushing a soft kiss over the back of it, warming it with his breath.

"Han--" the sharp protest in Luke's voice lost itself in something else, a rough intake of breath, the fine edges of control unraveling. "Han, no--you can't--"

Han turned the hand over, breathing his answer against the palm. "Course I can." He nipped playfully the fleshy pad at the base of the fingers, moved on to nuzzle the sensitive triangle of skin where the thumb joined the palm. He realized, belatedly, that Luke had ceased his struggle and was watching him, his face frozen in numb shock.

"It's okay," he whispered.

"It's--Han, there's so much--"

So much that's been torn.

"Yeah. Yeah, I know, it's okay..."

"I wanted to set you free, not... not..."

"Luke... kid." Han ran his fingers down the heel of Luke's palm in slow, soothing strokes, caressing the inside of his wrist, affirming his wholeness. "Y'know the night you fished me out of that river?" He brushed his mouth against the knuckles, punctuating his words with soft kisses. "I tried to leave that night. Had the ship all ready to go. Just wanted to be out've here... free. Get my life... back to the way it was..."

"You should've gone--"

"Couldn't." Han drew Luke's hand down to the base of his throat and cradled it against his pulse. "Wouldn't be freedom now, anyway."

"Han, you--"

"No. That's just the way it is. Can't be free without you."

Han-- Luke mouthed the name silently, swallowing hard, his eyes burning dry and bright.

Han brought Luke's hand down to his heart--where it belonged, and the contact seemed to close a circuit between them. Luke stumbled against him with a gasp, fingers clenching in the material of his shirt. Han locked his arms around him and held on tight, anchoring him in safety.

"Ahh, it's okay..." he stroked rain-dampened hair, then slipped a hand between their bodies to recapture the hand.

Luke twined their fingers together with answering pressure, leaning his head against Han's chest. A long, silent tremor rocked through him.

"'S okay. I've got you--"

The doors behind them banged open, music spilling out. Footsteps and voices drew closer, coming in their direction this time.

"Han--" Luke's voice emerged as a low, urgent rasp.

"Yeah, c'mon. Let's get you the hell out of this rain." Han slid an arm around Luke's shoulders and drew him against his side, guiding him away from the bar's haze of neon glow.

The Falcon materialized from the rain-streaked darkness, yellow light streaming from her open hatch in a path of welcome. Piping, discordant strains of Wookiee music drifted along the corridor as they boarded, and Han caught a muffled growl from behind the closed doors of the ship's lounge. It sounded as if Chewie was absorbed in one of his holo-vid games, though why he'd closed the doors was anyone's guess.

"Over here..."

As if Luke hadn't been in his cabin dozens of times over the years--but this time was different, somehow. He drew Luke inside and locked the door behind them. Luke took a few steps into the small, sparsely-furnished room and looked around, as if it were entirely unfamiliar territory. He turned back slowly, doubt already forming behind his gaze.

"Shower?" Han offered. "T's a good way to get warm--"

"Han--"

The flash of desolation, of near-panic in Luke's eyes froze Han. "Never mind," he muttered, mentally cursing himself. He reached for Luke's hand and re-linked their fingers, tugging him close.

"You're just gonna have to tell me what you need," he whispered.

"I..." Luke shivered and leaned in close, seeking warmth. "That night on Hoth, in the tent..." He pushed Han's vest away from one shoulder, the fingers of his free hand roaming over his chest, tugging at his shirt with surprising urgency. "I've never felt so safe."

"Safe?" Han couldn't quite manage to keep the incredulity from his voice.

Luke stiffened, pulling back a little. "Guess that sounds crazy--"

"Yeah, well, maybe just a little..." Han trapped him with one arm, half afraid he might try to bolt again. "Here." He shrugged his vest off and pulled his shirt from the waistband of his pants, drawing Luke against his bared chest. "This what you mean?"

"Yes..." Luke slid his arms around his waist and leaned into him, closing his eyes. Han ruffled a gentle hand through his hair, bringing a small sigh against his chest. "Just knowing you were there," Luke whispered, "that you came for me. I couldn't be scared..."

"Guess I was scared for both of us, then."

Luke's arms tightened around him. "Yeah... I'm sorry, I wanted to tell you..."

"Was too cold." Han fumbled with the front zip of Luke's coveralls and managed to unfasten it, bringing bare skin against his own.

Luke pressed closer. "Wanted to touch you," he said softly. "Would've said too much, but if we'd both died, guess it wouldn't have mattered--"

"Hey, none of that." Han shifted him decisively in the direction of the bunk. "We better get you warm..." He pushed the black coveralls down over Luke's shoulders, saw damp skin pucker into gooseflesh in the cool cabin air. Luke was wearing only a pair of loose-fitting black undershorts beneath the coveralls. Those seemed dry, so Han didn't try to remove them. He pulled the blanket off the bunk and wrapped it around Luke's shoulders. "Sit down," he urged.

Luke sat, pulling the cover tightly around himself, his shivers intensifying--and Han hesitated for a moment, wondering if there was some way he could have this all wrong. Maybe Luke just needed closeness, the comfort of someone he could trust. Maybe guys on Tatooine kissed each other all the time and thought nothing of it--

But hell, it didn't matter. Even if Luke wanted nothing more than that, he couldn't just turn away--and he didn't want to. Han took off his shirt and boots and climbed on to the bunk, easing back against the wall. "C'mere."

Luke slid over to sit beside him, wrapping them both up in the blanket. He was still shaking a little, skin still damp and cold under Han's touch. Han drew him close, cradling the blond head to his shoulder.

"Better now?"

"Mmmhm."

Han stroked his arms and back, warming him, warming them both. "Least you don't smell like a dead tauntaun this time," he murmured, and felt muffled laughter against his neck.

Shy fingers traced the line of his shoulder and collarbone, exploring cautiously. He held his breath when the hand moved up along the side of his throat, lingering above his pulse before sliding up to cradle his cheek.

"Han..."

Luke drew back a little to look at him, the laughter in his eyes giving way to more shadowy emotions. Old pain, mingling with the new. "When Treal shot you--"

"It's okay--I'm okay--"

"You were lying so still." Luke's voice carried fearful echoes, terrors rising to the surface to be spoken aloud and banished. "You went ice-cold before we could even get you to the surface--" his voice broke. "I thought we were too late, that I was too late--again..."

"Again...?" Again... "Oh, hell--"

I was so scared--thought I was gonna lose you..."

"You won't lose me. M'not going anywhere..."

Luke wrapped his arms around Han's neck, clinging fiercely. "They hurt you, because of me."

Han brushed his mouth against his temple. "That's over too."

"I felt everything. The torture, the carbon-freeze--and I was too late..."

"No, kid, wasn't your fault." Han turned to bring them chest to chest, heartbeat to heartbeat. "I was scared for you too. Thought you were finally gonna get yourself killed, and there'd be no way I could stop it--"

Luke was pressing small, burning kisses to his neck, following the line of his pulse up to his jaw and over his cheek, hands stroking his face and hair with an almost desperate tenderness. "We got here somehow... don't know how--"

"Doesn't matter how," Han whispered. "We're here. We survived."

"I wanted to be there, when you came out of it--"

'S okay. I knew you were close by."

"You--" Luke paused, drawing back to stare at him.

"Yeah. Even while I was under, I knew you weren't far."

Luke's hands slid back through his hair and trailed over his shoulders, across his throat. When the hands reached the center of his chest, Han covered them with one of his own.

"I was waiting," Luke said softly. "Waiting to set you free... couldn't help thinking of you, even when I knew I had to let go--"

"I'm here, kid."

"You could feel me..."

"Yes."

Han reached to touch Luke's cheek, finding it lightly stubbled and warm under his hand. He smiled, remembering something else. "Been havin' this dream, almost every night since Endor... that it was you who was there when I woke up. It's a good dream, y'know..." his voice dropped, a husky note creeping in. "Feels like it might be coming true."

"Yeah...?" There was the faintest tremor in Luke's voice.

Their eyes met. Silence rocked outward, gently, like ripples on the still surface of a pond.

They moved together, at once--Luke's hands sliding from under his own, arms encircling Han as he caught Luke's shoulders to pull him closer, their mouths meeting somewhere in the middle.

Distantly, Han could hear the sound of rain pounding on the Falcon's outer hull. The blanket, the bunk, the familiar confines of his dimly lit cabin seemed to form a kind of haven, an island of peace and safety away from the night.

Luke's tongue slipped softly along the curve of his mouth, stroking, questioning. He opened willingly and drew Luke inside, welcoming him with answering caresses, easing him closer, bowing his head to deepen the sharing.

Luke moaned softly, hands rising to cradle the back of his head...

...until they were fusing into each other, no boundaries here, just the sweet warmth of Luke's gentle, insistent kissing.

Time drifted.

Luke's mouth was slightly reddened when they broke apart, and Han stroked his fingers over his lips, smiling when Luke caught his hand and kissed it, bringing it down to rest against his heart. Han leaned forward and brushed light kisses over Luke's closed eyelids, trailing his mouth over his brow, his temple, along the curve of his cheekbone. Then he found the right hand again and raised it to his lips, making a leisurely inventory of the lines that criss-crossed the palm, the fine skin between the fingers.

When he looked up, Luke was watching him in rapt fascination. Han smiled, catching Luke's shaky response as he moved on to kiss the fingerpads, drawing each finger into his mouth with gentle suction.

Luke trembled. "Oh... Han--" A sigh. Pleasure, this time. Not protest.

Han slid his palms down over Luke's wrist, caressing the muscled forearm with slow, massaging strokes.

Luke's free hand rose to make a similar exploration of Han's face, fingertips tracing the small scar on his chin, the curve of his jaw, the delicate skin behind his ear. Han shivered and leaned into the hand, saw disbelieving rapture in Luke's smile.

"Trust me kid," he murmured thickly, "you're amazing."

"I've never--" Luke broke off. His eyes were burning intensely blue, a Corellian summer sky. When he bent to take Han's mouth again the shyness had melted. His kiss was firm and demanding, breaths shortened and heated with desire.

Han kissed back deeply, tasting Luke's hunger and matching it with his own. His hands drifted, charting smooth skin and hard muscle until his fingers came to rest splayed out against Luke's flanks, framing the tremors that rose through the slender form. He drew back a little to catch his breath, pushing a tumble of fallen hair from Luke's eyes.

"You're beautiful," he whispered, not meaning to say it but quite unable to help himself.

"You too--"

Luke's face had darkened a shade, and Han couldn't hold back a laugh.

"Guess no one's ever told you."

"No one's ever... anything... like this..."

"Good."

Han drew them to lie down on the bunk, belatedly realizing that his pants had become painfully tight. A matching hardness pressed into his hip through the material of the black shorts, the realization jolting him with a kind of fierce, possessive gratitude. The blanket had slipped, exposing their bodies to the cool air, but it didn't matter. Han thought he was about to burn up under his skin anyway.

Luke raised himself on his elbows, his shifting weight tugging the front of Han's trousers sharply against his aching erection. Han groaned, tangling their legs to bring them into closer contact.

Luke gasped against his mouth. "Han..." His hair was trailing softly against Han's forehead, an unconscious caress, and his voice had deepened, grown hoarse and breathless. "What I meant... I've never wanted this with anyone..."

"Yeah... well I wasn't thinkin' you never got offers..." Han pulled Luke down into another kiss, losing himself to the warm, supple mouth in spite of the throbbing urgency in the lower part of his body.

"Maybe we should get out of these clothes," he suggested eventually.

Luke smiled into the kiss. "Guess I forgot--"

"Know the feeling, junior..."

He slid his hands into the waistband of Luke's shorts, pushing away the constricting fabric to run his hands unimpeded over his buttocks. He gripped the warm flesh and drew their bodies into closer alignment, pushing his hips up in a slow, gentle grind. Luke gasped against his neck. Han caught his chin, turning his face to kiss him again. "You like?"

"Mmmph..."

"That a yes?"

"Yes..."

Luke's hands were moving between their bodies, fumbling with the fasteners of Han's pants. Han reached down and stopped him, taking care of the problem himself with the ease of long practice. Shifting over on his side, he wriggled the pants down over his hips and managed to kick them off, then helped Luke get rid of the shorts so they could lie skin to skin, pressed together full length.

Luke took hold of his face, closing the short distance between them with another of his slow, incredible kisses. "Love you," he said softly.

"Yeah. I know that, kid," Han whispered, the words still lighting small pangs in his chest. The expression in Luke's eyes was more than enough to choke his breathing and make him feel that he was flying, and falling, and drowning all at once. He stroked his hand down over the jutting ribcage, trailing over Luke's waist to caress the lean curve of his flank, forgetting himself again. Luke's hesitant, experimental grind yanked him back, raw sensation dragging a hoarse cry from his throat.

Luke gasped, biting down on his lip. "Oh--"

Han ran a soothing hand over Luke's heated face and knew there was no point in trying to take it slow, neither of them could last anyway. He trailed his palm down over Luke's chest, lingering long enough to feel his nipples harden under the lazy glide before he reached lower, fingers curling gently around his erection. Luke let out a soft cry that was almost a whimper, hands clenching against Han's shoulders.

"Han--"

"Shh, it's okay..." Han moved his hand slowly, making a reverent exploration of the hot, silky skin, mesmerized by the changing expressions on Luke's face.

"Han..." Luke trailed off on a ragged intake of breath, reaching down in mirrored gesture.

Han stopped him. "Together," he whispered, surprised that it suddenly seemed terribly important for their first time. He slid a hand between Luke's legs and lifted his thigh, draping it over his hip to lock their groins together.

"Yes--" Luke reached blindly with his right hand and Han caught it, drawing it between their bodies, between their hearts.

He held his breath, waiting--

Luke tilted his hips forward in a slow, careful thrust. Han gasped, felt Luke's fingers tighten through his own. He responded with answering pressure before freeing his hand to wrap his arm around Luke's waist, supporting him. "I'm with you."

"Han..." Luke laid his hand along the side of Han's face. "I want--"

Han turned his mouth against the hand, kissing it softly. "What?"

"I really want to touch you," Luke whispered, leaning their foreheads together. "Like in the tunnel, but you know, I'd never--" he stopped, searching for words. "Wasn't trying to invade your privacy, just--"

Han stopped him with a kiss. "Luke--" he trailed off, all possibility of explanation escaping him. He stroked his hand over Luke's hair, suddenly afraid, suddenly knowing how it was quite possible to be mistaken about who he was in love with. The way he felt here, now, with Luke, was so different from anything he'd ever known or imagined--an intensity that would have terrified him, except that he saw the same mirrored in Luke's eyes. A terrible, liberating vulnerability, a soul laid bare.

"Touch me," he whispered. "It's okay."

And he knew that it was.

He felt Luke's hand tighten against his cheek.

"You're sure--"

Han angled his head to kiss Luke, parting his lips with his own, gliding his tongue inside to taste him, their breaths merging. Luke's hips surged against his, and he felt the hard, velvety shaft slide up against his belly, his own sex trapped alongside it in explosive friction, their bodies joined--and then the delicate touch behind his closed lids, the gentle seeking, still unsure, questing for permission.

Luke.

The warmth was like gravity, drawing him in, tenuous contact briefly flowing in both directions. He reached across and drew Luke into himself, touching him, welcoming him.

Luke cried out softly.

Han felt the lean thigh clench against his hip, pulling them into tighter contact, the near-painful intensity giving way to delicious waves of rolling heat. He gripped Luke's flank and pulled him closer still, urging a faster rhythm. They were moving together now, flying, in unison. The blaze started low. Not sunlight now, more like walking into the core of a star, atomic fire rising between them--

He was standing under a hot sky, a sweep of sand underfoot, gazing up to where twin suns circled each other.

The burning rose through them, joining them at all levels until it flowed freely, an unending circle with no beginning and no end--

And he could see the shadows then. The months of living death. He walked beside Luke on the hot sand and lived with him the waiting--the desperate waiting, both of them trapped...

We're free now. Here. Together...

It was the man in black who spoke then, turning towards him at the top of a wind-sculpted rise, his gaze as impossibly blue as the sky.

Yeah, Han answered, I was following you--

You found me.

Han opened his eyes and knew that Luke saw what he saw, that they were here on the bunk and also on Tatooine, the place where they both had waited, each for the other. And this was a Tatooine that had never existed, a world assembled between them from the fabric of dreams and recollection.

A place built to end the waiting.

"We found... each other."

Luke gave a mute nod of agreement, his arms wrapped tight around his neck, face sheened in sweat, his breath coming in shuddering gasps.

Han-- the man on the crag was still waiting for him, for his answer.

Han stepped towards him, spreading his arms like wings to catch the hot updrafts. C'mon, then, we'll fly...

And Luke reached back to him from the crag, the fingers of his two whole, sun-browned hands twining with Han's as they stretched out their arms together and the wind lifted them--

Flying.

Lost together in solar heat, swooping and circling, merged with the wind--

One.

For just a moment--

Luke's mouth covered his own.

He sank into the kiss, absorbing it, absorbing the light.

His hand gripped hard on Luke's hip, his own body straining, shuddering on the verge of release--and the freezing emptiness dissolved into a wash of light and warmth--and Luke was writhing in his arms, loosing a cry, his head thrown back in abandon as slick heat spilled against Han's belly--

Yes... Luke--gods, you're so beautiful...

He pulled Luke back to him for a final kiss, the circle completing itself as they joined together in freefall.

Everything stilled, finally, the familiar, gentle dimness of the cabin reasserting itself around them. Han cradled Luke against his chest, listening to their slowing breaths and heartbeats, stroking damp hair back from his lover's face and kissing him softly. The rain was quiet now.

"Luke..." he said after a long while, "what just happened?"

Luke curled against him. His eyes opened a crack, smiling and radiant blue. "I... touched you. You touched back..."

"Yeah..." Han stretched with a contented sigh, exhaustion creeping in.

"Han?"

"Mmhm?"

"When I reached to you... was it--all right?"

"Was it..." Han laughed softly. "'Fraid I don't have much to compare it to. 'M sort of... inexperienced at those type of things--" He opened one eye and realized that Luke had propped himself on an elbow and was watching him pensively. "What, kid?"

"I mean--if I scared you--"

"Scared me?" He caught Luke's shoulder and pushed him down, pinning him on the mattress and leaning in with a mock growl. "Do I look scared to you?"

Luke smiled. "Well no, but--"

"Good." Han nipped playfully at his earlobe, then raised himself to study the questioning blue eyes. "You're thinking about what happened in the tunnel, right? That I could bail on you any second now?"

"I guess..."

"Luke..." Han reached down and found his hand, interlocking their fingers. "When I pushed you away, that wasn't about being scared. I thought if you knew how I felt, you'd--" he paused. "Well, now I guess you know more of how I feel than I could ever put in words."

"And is that..." Luke searched face. "You wouldn't have that with someone else--"

"I wouldn't want that with someone else."

"But is it--"

"Yes. Yes, Luke, it's all right. It's more than all right, it's--" he trailed off, lost for words, and finally just kissed him. Luke's hesitant response eased into passion, sinewy arms winding tight around his shoulders.

"But you must have questions," Luke said eventually, breathless.

"Well... yeah. Like--is that what's gonna happen every time we--" Han stopped, surprised that he could think of only one way to describe what they'd just done, the very expression he'd always thought so hopelessly euphemistic for a straightforward biological act. Except that it had never felt this way before. "Every time we make love...?"

Luke smiled--no, glowed. "It can if you want... but it might not always be all that... um, convenient..."

"So we got a choice about it."

"Yeah... it's just what Yoda taught me about Force healing, mostly. But I didn't expect it to be quite like that. Must be because you reached back to me, and because--"

"Because?"

"Because--" Luke's breath caught, "because..." He pushed Han over on his back and leaned into him, taking command of his mouth in a long, melting kiss.

"Mmm... I see your point," Han murmured some time later, slightly winded. "Just make sure you don't go doin' that with any old lost soul in need of healin'--"

"I'll see if I can manage to contain myself." Luke's smile widened into an impudent grin, and he suddenly looked incredibly young.

"You make sure of that," Han grumbled, reaching for the blanket to cover them both against the cool air.

Luke settled against him, twining their legs together. "Y'know..." he pillowed his head on Han's shoulder, stifling a yawn, "I guess there's no real need to get back to Tatooine just yet. I could wait a couple of weeks, make sure you're feeling better..."

"Yeah?" Han brushed a kiss against his forehead. "Or maybe you could use some help lookin' for those datatapes? I seem to be between jobs right now..."

"That schedule of yours sprung a leak?"

"Maaybe..." Han ruffled Luke's hair, making an even wilder tangle of it. "What d'you say, kid?"

A warm hand trailed through the patch of fuzz on his chest, fingers circling his nipple with new, playful knowingness. Luke's eyes slipped shut. "Yes..."

Han lay watching him for a while, absorbed by the quiet rhythm of his sleep. The dreams chasing over Luke's face left behind no trace of worry or fear, and his right hand sprawled against Han's breastbone, palm open and trusting.

Not long ago, he'd watched Luke sleep and believed that he'd never see him again. How long had it been since he'd awakened on this same bunk, jolted from a dream that evaporated seconds later, its memory returning only once it became truth in his arms?

He leaned down to kiss the dreaming smile. Covering Luke's hand with his own, he closed his eyes and let himself drift.