Two weeks after Courtship of Princess Leia, four weeks before Han and Leia's wedding
Coruscant, early morning
The holo-news reporter came on the galaxy-headlines holocast while Han was making his morning caf. Leia, as usual, had left the apartment very early with Winter to pick out dresses, or flowers, or centerpieces... or whatever else this elaborate wedding entailed. At first, Leia had tried to involve Han with the decision-making process, but after several hundred bored, "That's nice, sweetheart. Whatever you like, Princess," comments, punctuated by yawns, Leia gave up. And Han was just as happy to leave all the frilly details to his fiancée and her best friend. Women, he had thought to himself, after all, start planning their weddings from about age five. Men, on the other hand, avoided thinking about that day - even when that big day actually dawned. Fortunately, Han did not say these things aloud. He had spent too much time and effort to get Leia to agree to marry him to put his foot in his mouth at this point.
Pouring himself the steaming caf, he was only barely listening to the newscast when a report caught his undivided attention.
"A tragic accident over Corellia yesterday claimed the life of the galaxy's most acclaimed oil painter, Deserra Polainse. Mrs. Polainse, 56, died when her private spaceship collided with a smaller ship, that was unauthorized for liftoff. She was returning to her home on Cardia after visiting Corellia to show her works at a gallery opening.
Mrs. Polainse was a very successful landscape artist, whose work commissioned well into the six figures. Her detailed landscapes of Corellia, Naboo, and even of Alderaan are hanging in many museums throughout the galaxy. Many collectors and experts, while mourning her death, say that the value of her paintings will undoubtedly skyrocket. It is also thought that Mrs. Polainse kept many of her favorite paintings in her highly secure apartment's vault on Carida, and now that she has passed away her lawyers will be putting these unseen works of art on the market when they settle her estate. A sale of this magnitude will bring in millions of credits to beneficiaries of her will.
Mrs. Polainse was born on Corellia in....."
Han stopped listening. He looked down at his hand, and realized he was shaking so hard the hot caf was spilling on his fingers. Carefully he put down the cup and turned off the holo-news, and put in a call of his own.
Lando was still sound asleep in his apartment when the call came in. Fumbling for the "on" button, he rolled over and gave a mumbled "Hello."
"Calrissian, wake up!" Han practically shouted in the comm unit. "I'm coming over to your apartment. I'll be there in ten minutes, so get up."
Still half asleep, Lando blinked and sat up. ""What's the matter? Why do you need to see me so early?"
"I'll tell you when I get there. I'm in trouble, buddy, and I need your help more than ever."
The comm unit clicked off, leaving Calrissian staring at the quiet unit, and with a sinking feeling thought, Now what?
"Read this," Han said as he shoved a copy of the news report at Lando that he had hastily run off from the computer before rushing over.
Rubbing his face, Lando took the flimsy and read the report. When he was finished, he looked at his panicked friend. "A very tragic accident. Why should I care? Better question... why do you care?"
Han started pacing the living room. "I knew her, Lando. Sixteen years ago - several lifetimes ago."
Calrissian frowned, puzzled. "Sixteen years ago? How old were you?"
"Twenty-one. A kid, Lando. I was still a stupid kid."
"It says here she was fifty-six when she died. So she was ... forty? What did you do? Have an affair with an older woman?"
"No. Worse, Lando. It's way, way worse."
"So you didn't sleep with her? Then what's the problem?"
"It's a big problem, Calrissian!" Han yelled, still pacing.
Sighing, Lando sat down on the sofa. "Will you stop stalking around like a crazy man? You're making me dizzy."
Han collapsed into a chair across from the sofa and buried his hands in his face. "Leia is never going to marry me if she finds out. You have to help me."
"Give me a hint, Han. Just one, tiny, small hint what you did that was so terrible," Lando requested, holding his thumb and forefinger slightly apart.
"Back when I was still in the military, I answered an advertisement posted on a bulletin board at the Naval Academy, for a six week job. I really needed the money, and it sounded like easy work."
"Oooookay. Was this job for killing her husband or something?"
Han frowned at his friend. "She was already a widow. Her husband was an Imperial General that died in the line of duty, if I remember correctly. Since when do you think I'd take a job as an assassin?"
Lando jumped up off the sofa. "I was joking! If you don't tell me what you did, I'm going to punch you!"
"She was an artist, Lando."
"I know. A famous landscape artist. I've seen some of her paintings, and they're fabulous. Incredible detail. It looks like you're standing and looking out of a window. She deserved her fame and fortune."
Solo stood up and walked to a window, looking out over the lines of ships coming and going from the surface of Coruscant. "She wanted to try her hand painting a different type of picture. A... a painting of the human form. I posed for her, Lando."
At first, Lando stood there puzzled and thinking, So? Then he realized just what type of posing Han was referring to. "Oh.. blazing stars, Han! You didn't! Leia is going to kill you!"
Han spun around. "If you help me with this, I'll consider us even, and never, ever mention Bespin again."
"What do you want me to do?" he asked suspiciously.
"Come to Carida with me, break into her apartment, and steal that painting."
"What!?" Lando threw his hands into the air. "Have you finally flipped out completely, Solo? We can't do that!"
"Why...why not? The reasons why are too long to list! First off, Carida is the main military base in Imperial-controlled territory! Even if we can sneak onto the planet, how would we break into her apartment? What happens when we get caught? Because, believe me, we'll get caught! Then we'll be imprisoned by the Empire! And if, by some miracle, we do manage to break in, steal the painting, and not get caught... what do we do with the painting once we have it?"
"Destroy it, what else?" Han snapped at his friend, irritated.
"Yes! Why else do you think I'd want it? To give it as a wedding present to Leia? Hell, Lando, what's wrong with you?"
"Me? You're asking what's wrong with me?" Calrissian asked, incredulously. "How do you even know that painting is still in her apartment? Maybe she sold it."
"She didn't sell it."
"How do you know?"
"I don't know.... I just don't think she did, that's all."
Han glared at Calrissian. "The reason I think she kept the painting is that she never did another one like it... she stuck to landscapes after that. I think it wasn't something she was very good at... so she didn't want to sell it. We'd be doing her memory a favor by getting rid of it, right? Right?"
"Did you see the final work?"
"Yes," Han mumbled, looking down. "One time."
"And it wasn't any good?"
"I don't know.... I was too, um, embarrassed to look at it very carefully. And I'm not an art expert, anyway."
"Were you covered a little? Or, uh, posed so you weren't... you know.... so everything wasn't showing?"
Solo flushed and turned his face away. "Everything showed, okay?"
"Oh. Well. Too bad. And she was so into details, too."
"Shut up, Calrissian!" Han shouted at his friend. "Are you going to help me, or not?"
"Why me? It seems that Luke and his Jedi skills would be better at breaking and entering."
"Sure. Luke the noble Jedi is going to help me break and enter into a dead woman's apartment, commit grand larceny and destroy a painting of his naked future brother-in-law. I'll just hop right over to his apartment and ask him."
"Right. Okay. Then what are you going to tell Leia, leaving four weeks before the wedding?"
"I'm gonna leave her a note," Han said, deciding on the spot as he stared at the ceiling. "I'll tell her I needed to go buy her a wedding present. That'll work. I can't tell her to her face, she'll know I'm covering something up."
Lando snorted. "You should have covered something up sixteen years ago, and you wouldn't have this problem."
"Do you want to die today, Lando?"
"No, that'll happen soon as we get to Carida." He shook his head mournfully and added. "Just let me get some things packed. Are we taking the Falcon?"
"No... let's take Lady Luck. It's less recognizable. Besides, I'm gonna need lotsa luck."
Three hours later
"Sweetheart... Lando and I took a little trip. I needed to buy you a present, and I promise I'll be back in less than a week. Tell Chewie, OK? I love you. Han"
Leia frowned and reread the note. A present? He had to leave Coruscant to buy a present? And he didn't even say goodbye to her directly - he left a note, and didn't take Chewie with him. Something was very suspicious about this entire thing, and Leia intended to find out every detail when Han came back.
Onboard the Lady Luck
Han was not in a very talkative mood, and Lando couldn't decide whether to press for more details or not. Finally, unable to stand the silence he asked, "So, what did she pay you for posing?"
"Pay. You know, for the six weeks of posing. Were you standing or sitting or laying down?"
"You're too nosy, Calrissian."
"Well, if the painting is there, and by some miracle we do steal it, I'll end up seeing it anyway."
"Not if I destroy it first," Han snapped back.
"Okay then." Lando pressed on, not willing to give up yet. "What did she pay?"
"Four thousand credits."
A low whistle escaped Calrissian's lips. "Four thousand credits?"
Han stood up, his face red with anger and embarrassment. "It was a legitimate job. Nothing happened except I posed for her. People do it all the time, it's called modeling. It's not a crime, and it doesn't make me a gigolo."
"Hey, settle down," Lando said, holding up his hands. "I never accused you of that!"
"The holo-reporters are basically saying that's the reason I'm marrying Leia. It bothers me, Lando," Han said, trying to calm himself. "It bothers me, and I can't help it."
"The people that know you are the ones that count, Han," Lando said quietly. "And everyone else shouldn't matter."
Han sighed and sat back down. "That's exactly why I have to destroy this painting. So the people that matter aren't embarrassed they know me. The painting never mattered before. I just can't have Leia ashamed of me."
Princess Leia looked up from her work when Luke entered her office. "Good afternoon," she said, forcing a smile on her face.
"What's the matter?"
Sometimes having a Jedi for a brother could be a little annoying. "Nothing's the matter."
"Sister, I can tell you're upset. Did you and Han have another fight? Do you want me to go threaten him with my lightsaber?" Luke joked.
"We didn't have a fight," she said firmly. Then her shoulders slumped. "Han took off this morning with Lando, and I have no idea where he went."
"Lando? Not Chewie?"
"Yes," Leia replied. "Han left a short note saying he was going away for a week to buy me a present! A week? Something is wrong, Luke. I just feel it."
"Did he take the Falcon?"
"No, can you believe that? He went on Lando's ship! Something is wrong," she repeated worriedly.
"Do you want me to see if Lando filed a flight plan? Chewie and I can follow them on the Falcon, if they did."
Leia gave a relieved smile. "That would be wonderful! Do you think Han will get mad if you follow?"
"Do you care if he gets mad?" Luke questioned, grinning.
"No," she admitted. "He deserves to be followed, pulling this kind of a stunt a month before our wedding. A present, my eye. He's up to something."
"And Lando's an accomplice. You're right, Leia, he's up to something. Don't worry.... Chewie and I will fix whatever mess those two have made."
Although Han would never have filed a truthful flight plan, Lando Calrissian was less inclined to lie about such matters. And besides, Calrissian was convinced they were headed for a ship load of trouble, and it probably would be a good idea for Chewie and Leia to know where they were when it came time to launch a rescue mission. Lando decided it was just hedging his bets, and a good gambler always did just that.
"Carida? Are you sure?" Luke questioned the controller as Chewie stood behind him woofing his puzzlement and distress.
Threepio was also there, to act as an interpreter for the Wookiee. Of course, Threepio seldom failed to give his own opinion. "Carida? Oh dear! I hope that isn't where we are heading, Master Luke!"
"Yes, sir," the young space traffic controller said as he addressed Jedi Skywalker and as he rechecked. "Carida. It was General Calrissian that filed the plan, sir. I just assumed he was going on some top secret mission. Although, come to think of it, why would he say anything at all if it were a secret mission?"
"I have no idea," Luke said with an exasperated sigh. "Just don't tell anyone else, Lieutenant."
"No, sir! My lips are sealed!"
The Wookiee, protocol droid and Jedi walked away from the controller's office, each deep in thought. [Do you suppose Calrissian was just joking when he filed that plan? Why would Han need to go to Carida for a wedding present?]
"I don't think this has anything to do with a present, Chewie," Luke said shaking his head, after Threepio translated. "Something is up with those two, and I'd bet my last credit it's trouble."
[I doubt you'd lose that bet, Skywalker.]
"Do you think they really went to such a dreadful place, Master Luke?" Threepio asked nervously.
"For some reason, yes, I do."
"Does that mean I have to go to Carida, too?" he moaned.
[Yes, you do,] Chewie growled at the golden droid.
"But I'm not sure you should, Chewie," Luke said carefully.
"Think about it," he continued. "A Wookiee on Carida? It would be too obvious - and that's exactly why Han took Lando instead of you."
[So you are going alone? That isn't a good idea either.]
"I think I'll ask Wedge, or maybe Corran."
"Does that mean I won't have to go with you, Master Luke?" Threepio asked hopefully.
"I think I might need both you and Artoo."
"Oh, dear me."
Carida, two days later
Carida dropped into view when the Lady Luck came out of hyperspace. "There it is....." Lando trailed off nervously. "Do you think these old Imperial codes are still good?"
"How would I know?" Han replied shortly. "You're the General, remember? I resigned."
Calrissian turned in his chair to face Solo. "Well, I couldn't very well march into Rieekan's office and ask him if there were any updated codes for Carida because I was going to sneak onto the planet and steal a stupid painting of a naked crazy person, could I?"
"You don't have to be sarcastic."
"You should talk."
"Just punch in the damn codes, Calrissian!"
"I already am, and quit bossing me."
The two men waited on edge, until a signal flashed, authorizing them to land. "See? No problem!" Lando gave a wide grin to the sullen Corellian.
"I can't believe we're heading to Carida," Wedge Antilles mumbled for the hundredth time as he checked the controls. They were flying a sleek Imperial freighter the rebels had stolen years ago, with the markings and serial numbers changed to disguise the ship. "Solo had better have a good explanation, or I'm killing him myself, wedding or no wedding."
"I think Leia might be ahead of you in line," Luke said as he laughed. "You should have seen her face when I told her that's where I thought Han and Lando were going."
Wedge groaned and shook his head in disgust. They had spent hours trying to figure out any possible reason Solo would have to march into the middle of Imperial territory. They had come up with dozens of scenarios, most of which didn't make much sense, and all of them dangerous. Or perhaps it had been Lando's idea, and he had somehow talked Han into helping? That, too, remained a possibility given Solo's predilection for adventure.
"What if you're wrong, and Solo and Calrissian aren't on Carida?"
"Once we drop out of hyperspace, I'll be able to tell if Han is close," Luke replied. "I've known him too long not to be able to pick up on his presence immediately."
"Good," Wedge stated flatly. "I'd hate to get blown into space dust by Imps for no reason."
Lando and Han left the Lady Luck and walked into the busy streets of Caridalla, the capital city of Carida. Fortunately, many civilians made their living on the planet, supporting the huge base with supplies, restaurants, and shopping centers. Even after the death of Palpatine, non-humans did not live on this segregated planet.
"The place looks very prosperous," Lando commented as he watched a pretty woman walk past.
"Why wouldn't it be?" Han replied. "Just think of the billions of credits the Imperial government dumps into the economy everyday. This would be the last system to have money problems."
"Yes, you're right," Lando agreed amicably. "And I've heard the clubs and restaurants on this system are even better than on Coruscant. As long as we're here, we should try out the nightlife."
"I'm engaged, Lando," Han said dryly.
"So? I'm not," Calrissian answered with a grin. "You can be the designated driver."
"I want to locate this apartment, find the painting, and leave," Han hissed under his breath. "You can come back and live it up some other time."
"There it is.... lovely Carida," Wedge said as he pulled the lever back. "Can't say I ever wanted to come back here."
"It doesn't look so bad," Luke said with a smile.
"Is Han here?"
Luke shut his eyes and concentrated. "Yes, he is."
"Oh, lucky us."
With the droids tagging behind, Luke and Wedge strolled out of their ship and casually walked around the spaceport until they located the docked and tightly locked up Lady Luck. "Now what?" Wedge asked softly, his eyes darting nervously at the vast number of uniformed Imperials and stormtroopers.
"I think we should try and find them," Luke suggested. "And then follow at a discreet distance to see what they're up to."
"Fine," Wedge quickly agreed. "Let's just get out of this spaceport and into the city where there's less Imps. I think I'm starting to twitch."
"I couldn't agree more," Threepio put in as he stood next to his partner, R2D2. "We are surrounded by the enemy! Why would Captain Solo lead us to our doom?"
"Quiet, Threepio!" Luke whispered harshly. "Just follow and stop talking, before someone overhears you."
"Of course, Master Luke. I apologize for my inability to speak in a soft voice .... perhaps you should adjust my speakers."
"Threepio! I'm going to be adjusting more than just your speakers! Shut up!"
It took several hours for Han and Lando to locate the city library, and several more hours before they were able to tap into the right database and find the apartment complex where Deserra Polainse had lived. "This town is halfway around the planet, Han. Why didn't you say something before we landed? We could have found a closer spaceport!"
"How should I know where her home was?" Han shot back. "It's not the same place she lived when I knew her. She wasn't a millionaire back then."
Lando leaned back into the chair and stroked his mustache. "Well, it's going to take us most of the day to shuttle over there. I hope we can find a hotel room."
"So we can sleep?" Lando suggested.
"We can't waste time sleeping. Besides, you don't break into a house in broad daylight, anyway. We'll have to do it at night."
"Thank you for that lesson in burglary. And all this time I thought we could just knock on the door and they'd invite us inside." Han opened his mouth to reply, but Lando kept talking. "Listen to me, Han. First of all, we need to scope the place during the day. And secondly, we might not need to break in. There are more sophisticated ways to get things done."
"Just what do you suggest? Asking if we can buy the painting?"
"Something along those lines."
"They're moving further away, and quickly," Luke said to Wedge.
Luke turned his head to his friend. "I wish I knew."
"Can you still track them?" Wedge questioned.
"Yes," Luke replied. "But it's going to take time."
"Are you sure you don't want to talk your sister out of marrying Solo? This is just a small glimpse of your entire future."
Luke laughed. "But you have to admit, Han keeps things from getting boring."
"Hey, you there!" a filtered voice called out.
Luke and Wedge spun around, only to see half a dozen stormtroopers headed in their direction.
"Doomed, I tell you, doomed!" Threepio whimpered.
Solo and Calrissian sat glumly on a public transport headed toward the resort town of Keime, nearly 1,200 miles away from where they had docked the Lady Luck.
"Great casinos," Calrissian finally groused out.
"The brochure for Keime. It said there are great casinos in that town."
Han rolled his eyes. "We don't have time."
"Is this what marriage does to a guy?" Lando needled Solo. "Does it turn you into a little meek bantha pup? Do you have to ask your wife's permission for every little crumb?" Calrissian turned to face Han. "And to think, you're not even married yet... just engaged."
"I don't ask Leia's permission for anything!" Han growled back.
"Well, a few rounds of sabacc would only take a few hours. It's not like it's going to cause any problems."
"Fine!" Han snapped. "We'll spend a few hours in the casino! Does that make you happy?"
"Yes." Lando looked out the transport's window and grinned triumphantly. Traveling with Han could be a lot of fun, especially if you knew how to push the right buttons.
"He'll be back before the wedding, Leia," Winter soothed her friend, as they stood in Leia's bedroom picking out shoes.
"Sometimes....sometimes I just don't know why I ever agreed to marry that man! Isolder wouldn't have pulled this!" Leia threw a satin shoe across the room.
Winter smiled. "No, he wouldn't have. But you didn't love Isolder."
Leia sat down on the soft bed and sighed. "No, I didn't. I love Han, even if he drives me crazy."
"I'm sure he has a good explanation for leaving."
"He'd better, or he's going to be one sorry ex-smuggler." The Princess frowned and looked over at the stacks of boxes gathering in the corner of the bedroom. "The one thing he promised he'd do for this wedding would be to open all the presents, write down who sent what, and sort out what we would keep and what we would donate to museums or charity. The one thing! And now he's not even here to do that!"
"Well, don't do it for him," Winter advised. "Let the presents wait until he gets back home. They'll keep, anyway."
"You're right," Leia agreed firmly. "He's going to do this huge chore, whether it's now or after the wedding. And if he has to open them all at once, it'll serve to teach him a lesson about putting off responsibilities."
"Han and responsible," Winter mused. "Two words that will probably never really go together in the same sentence."
"Do you think we should make a run for it?" Wedge whispered as the six troopers marched toward them
"We can't. The droids can't run."
"That is quite correct, Master Luke," C-3PO inserted into the conversation as Artoo gave a low beep. "Artoo suggests we go in opposite directions, although I am not at all sure I agree with that idea."
"Artoo? Can you find your way back to the ship?" Luke asked, looking down.
More beeps, and then the small droid spun around and headed away. "You'd better not let him out of your sight, Threepio," Wedge told the droid.
"Of course I won't let him out of my sight, sir. No telling what kind of trouble he can get into without my assistance."
"Go, Threepio," Luke said quickly. The droid obeyed, and the two men looked at each other as the stormtroopers stopped in front of them. There was no more time to run.
"Identification, please," the modulated voice spoke.
"You don't need to see our identification," Luke said softly.
"We don't need to see your identification," the same trooper responded.
"What?" asked one of the troopers standing further back. "What are you talking about? Of course we need to see their identification."
Wedge rolled his eyes and pulled a disk from his shirt pocket and handed it to the first trooper, while Luke shrugged his shoulders and did the same. "Sometimes there's too many of them," Skywalker explained in a low tone to Wedge.
"Stop talking!" the trooper ordered. "You will have to come with us to headquarters."
"Why?" Wedge asked, pretending to be confused. "Everything is in order. We are just delivery personnel."
"Stop talking! Come with us, now."
Wedge pulled his blaster and grabbed Luke by the arm, while at the same time firing at the stormtroopers. Instantly, Luke pulled his lightsaber and deflected the return fire as the remaining troopers scattered and civilians started screaming.
Wedge and Luke used the confusion to run quickly into the milling crowd, as more stormtroopers appeared around the street corner. "Are all you Corellians alike?" Luke yelled at Wedge as they pushed their way through the people.
"Yes," Wedge shouted back. "We all have an aversion to prison cells!"
"Oh. And here I thought it was an aversion to common sense," Luke grumbled under his breath.
Six hours later
"This place is great!" Lando remarked as he shifted his luggage onto his shoulder and looked over at the glittering casinos against the night sky. When Han didn't answer, Lando nudged his friend. "Why don't you loosen up? Think of all the fun we can have here."
"How many times do I have to tell you," Han said through a clenched jaw. "We're not here to have fun!"
Lando shrugged. "We can't do anything about your little problem tonight, anyway. So let's get checked into a fancy hotel and go gamble." With that he headed off, not waiting to see if Han was even following.
I should have asked Wedge, Han thought to himself irritably as he trudged behind Calrissian. I wouldn't be having these problems if I'd have gone with him.
"Do you think they're still looking for us?" Wedge whispered to Luke as they sat in an alleyway behind boxes. "It's been six hours. They might have given up."
Luke turned his head and glared at Wedge. "I doubt they've given up. Now that we shot at them and ran away, I'm sure every Trooper in the city is out looking for us."
"Well, I'm cold," Antilles complained. "Besides, hiding in an alley is better than sitting in prison," he pointed out to the Jedi.
"I could have convinced the commander to let us go, Wedge," Luke replied with a sigh. "The Force would have worked when I had to deal with just one person, not six. But it's too late now."
"I wonder what Solo and Calrissian are up to about now. Probably already sitting in prison, if I know them."
Keime, four hours later
"Look at all these credits, Han," Lando crowed as he put down his third winning sabacc hand. "These losers wouldn't know how to play sabacc if it bit them in the backside."
"Can you just not attract so much attention?" Han returned quietly. "Are you forgetting where we're at?"
Lando picked up a drink from the tray of a pretty human waitress and gave her a generous tip along with a wink. "I haven't forgotten, but these ladies are sure taking my mind off any worries."
Han looked around the casino, feeling jittery. It didn't appear anyone was paying attention to them, so why did he have a bad feeling about this place?
"Those two - right there," the burly casino security guard said as he pointed out the two men to his supervisor. "I think they're cheating. No one's that good at sabacc, and the dandy one is winning every hand."
The casino supervisor leaned forward and looked carefully at the monitor. "What's the other guy doing? He looks nervous."
"I think he must be the spotter. Do you want me to get rid of them?"
"Yes, that's probably a good idea. Escort them out, but don't make a scene."
"I really don't think we should be trying to find Master Luke. He told us to wait in the ship." Threepio leaned down and looked at the small droid who was busy wheeling down the now dark streets.
"Beep brroop beee."
"Of course I saw all the blaster fire after we left! That's exactly why we shouldn't be out here. It's dangerous!"
Threepio clunked his hand on top of the astromech droid's head. "I am not frightened. Cautious. That's the word.... cautious."
Luke carefully peered out around the corner of the alley, then whispered back to Antilles. "I don't see any stormtroopers. Come on."
"About time," Wedge answered as he slinked along behind Luke. "Now what do we do?"
"We need to try and find out where Han and Lando went. Maybe we should head back to the ship and get Artoo so he can plug into the city computer links. And we need to be quiet about it."
"Master Luke!" a protocol droid yelled out from across the street. "We've been looking everywhere for you!" The attention of everyone on the street turned to the droids and the two men he was addressing across the street.
"Well, that's certainly quiet," Wedge commented dryly.
"How dare you accuse me of cheating!" a very indignant Calrissian shouted at the casino manager, who was flanked by two muscle-bound bouncers.
"Lando," Han urged quietly. "Just take the chips and let's go."
"No! I haven't been cheating! Prove it," he addressed the manager hotly.
"I would rather not make a scene," the skinny manager said firmly. "Please leave."
"I want to make a scene! I resent being accused of cheating - especially when I'm not!" Actually, Lando always considered it was worse to be accused of cheating when you actually were, but that was beside the point. He had won a lot of credits tonight, and the notion of leaving the table without his chips annoyed him to no end.
The manager turned to the muscular guards. "Would you please escort these two gentlemen out?"
The guards moved forward a step before Lando hauled off and struck the nearest one in the jaw, sending him sprawling across the table. Chips scattered and surprised patrons quickly backed off. The second guard got a maniacal look in his eyes as he stared at Solo, cracking his hairy knuckles loudly and showing a mouth with missing front teeth.
"Why me?" Han said as he looked up at the ceiling before lunging at the crazy guard.
All hell broke loose.
Luke and Wedge quickly crossed the street to the droids. "Why are you here? I told you to go back to the ship," Luke asked the droids, unable to keep the annoyance out of his tone.
"Artoo just wouldn't listen to me, Master Luke! I tried to tell him, over and over again. But no. He never listens to me. How would you like to have a partner that never does anything you tell him to do?"
"You're right, Threepio," Luke deadpanned. "I have no idea what it feels like to be completely ignored."
"Exactly!" Threepio went on, totally unaware of Luke's sarcasm. "Day in and day out, Artoo just does whatever he feels like doing, never once thinking about the danger he is always putting me into...."
"Threepio," Wedge interrupted.
"Why, yes, Master Antilles," Threepio remarked, somewhat surprised. "I wasn't aware I was bothering you. Generally, it's Captain Solo that...."
Luke put his hand over Threepio's mouthpiece. "Artoo, we need to find a computer terminal you can plug into. Do you think you can track Han and Lando's destination? They won't be using their real names."
Artoo beeped and rocked, happy to be of assistance. The small group set off with a highly offended protocol droid following behind.
"I think my nose is broken," Han said as he sat outside of the casino in the alley where he and Lando had been unceremoniously dumped by six security guards, minus the winnings. Solo gingerly felt his nose, and spat blood out of his mouth. "My back tooth is loose, too."
"Those sith-spawns kept my winnings!" Lando griped as he stood up, brushing the dirt off his slacks and straightening his cape. "I wasn't cheating."
Han stood up and took note of his torn shirt. "You said we were just going to have some fun. You said this wasn't going to cause any problems! You said, loosen up!"
"Oh, quit complaining. It's not like you haven't been in a fight before. Besides, we wouldn't even be on this stupid system if it wasn't for your indiscretions."
"You didn't have to come with me," Han shot back hotly. "I didn't twist your arm."
"Oh, no?" Lando yelled back. "What about...'I'll never bring up Bespin again if you help me?' That's not twisting my arm?"
"Fine! Just go back to the Lady Luck and wait for me," Han shouted back. "I don't need your help. I don't even want your help!" He turned and stalked off.
"No way, pal," Calrissian grumped as he followed Solo out of the alley. "You're stuck with me now that I'm here, so just get used to it. Besides, you couldn't get that painting without my help if your life depended on it."
Han stopped so quickly Lando nearly ran into his back. He turned and faced Calrissian. "Unfortunately, my life does depend on getting that painting," he said grimly. "If I don't destroy that embarrassment from my past, and Leia's political opponents find out about it....." Han trailed off, thinking about the repercussions to the woman he loved, and how deeply ashamed of him that she would be. "She'll have every right to leave me, and I won't blame her."
"Has it occurred to you that maybe the Princess won't be as upset as you're imagining?"
"I already almost lost her once," Han replied, shaking his head. "I can't take that chance, Lando. I can't imagine my life without her."
"I know," Lando replied softly. "That's why I'm not leaving."
"Artoo says an interplanetary shuttle left this afternoon with two gentlemen matching General Calrissian and Captain Solo's descriptions. It was headed for the city of Keime," Threepio translated politely, still slightly miffed at his earlier treatment.
"What type of city is Keime?" Wedge asked Artoo.
After some more beeps, Threepio replied, "Keime is a coastal resort community, population 368,294. The main income is tourism, and the permanent residents that live along the coast are very wealthy, with a net income on average of 562,998 credits per year. Many retired Imperial Commanders live there." The droid turned to Luke. "You don't suppose that's the reason Captain Solo is going there, do you? To look for a retired Imperial?"
"I have no idea what those two are doing, Threepio," Luke admitted with a shake of his head. "Artoo, can you get me and Wedge tickets on the next shuttle to Keime?"
"What about Artoo and me, Master Luke?" Threepio asked worriedly.
"I want you to return to the ship this time," Luke replied firmly. "And once you're there, no wandering around! And I mean it."
"That sounds like a very good idea," Threepio nodded. "Did you hear that, Artoo? And this time, you'd better obey Master Luke! He means it!"
"Are you not going to talk to me for the rest of the trip?" Lando inquired as he rested on one of the large beds in the luxury hotel room they had rented for the night.
Han sat in a chair holding an icepack against his nose. Dark circles were already forming under his eyes because of the injury. "What do you want me to say? How much fun I had tonight?" He got up and looked in a mirror. "Leia is going to kill me if I don't heal up by the wedding."
"Well," Lando jumped up and started pacing. "I have an idea on how to get into the dead woman's apartment, if you're interested in listening."
"I'm all ears," Han muttered sarcastically.
"I have lots and lots of forged identification disks, and I brought the best ones with me," Lando said happily. "Guess what one of my disks identifies me as?"
"Do I have to?" Han mumbled from beneath the icepack. "I'm really not in the mood for guessing games."
"You used to be way more fun when you were younger, Han," Lando said grinning. "But then, I guess the painting is evidence of that."
"Just tell me about the disk, or I'm gonna break your nose so we match."
"An art dealer!" Lando proclaimed with a grand flourish. "We can march right up to that house, and say we have very wealthy interested buyers and we need to see the paintings because our clients might be interested."
"So what would I be? You don't happen to have another art dealer disk for me, do you?"
"No... you'd have to be my, um, let's see." Lando walked around tapping his chin. "Not employee. You don't look like any employee I'd ever have..."
"Thanks a lot."
Han took the icepack away from his face, his eyes wide. "WHAT? No. No way."
"I know how to run a successful con game, Han, I've conned rich people dozens of times. It would fit the part perfectly," Lando declared. "It's not like you have to do anything other than stand around and look pretty. And act dumb. And mostly don't talk. Just let me do all the talking." Lando started rummaging around in his forged disks. "Here's the art dealer one... and here's one we can alter to fit your part. Your name will be Rikky Grene. My name will be Francharro D'Ogistenni." He turned to face the very quiet Corellian. "What do you say?"
"I hate you."
"Keep that icepack on your nose. You're supposed to look pretty."
The next morning
"Why did you let a droid pick the shuttle?" Wedge asked a very tired Luke as he sniffed the air. "This place smells."
"I told him to pick the first one that left for Keime. Artoo was just doing what I told him to do," Luke replied with a weary groan. "How was I supposed to know it had thirteen stopovers in between?" Luke did not mention it was also, apparently, one of the slowest and oldest interplanetary vehicles still in use, mainly catering to the poor section of the system's population.
Wedge picked up the schedule and looked at the arrival time. "The good news is we only have five more stopovers to go. We should be in Keime by late afternoon."
"And Carida security would never think to check this shuttle for criminals trying to make a fast escape," Luke added.
"Are you sure?" Wedge glanced at the dubious-looking fellow passengers, mostly sitting as far apart from each other as the seating allowed. "This might be the first place they look."
"I haven't seen any troopers since we left Caridalla, have you?" Luke asked.
"No, but I don't trust anyone."
"Another thing you have in common with Han," Luke said with a snort. "Corellians!"
"I can't move my feet. I think somebody spilled something disgusting, and now my boots are glued to the floor."
Lando, dressed in his fanciest, ruffled clothes with a matching gold and purple cape, swept down the tidy business street filled with shops and lawyers' offices. Solo was dressed in a satin white shirt and mauve-colored silk pants, picked by Calrissian only an hour earlier in an expensive boutique. Han sincerely hoped no one he knew would see ever him dressed like this, and he vowed to burn the clothes at the first opportunity. Han was beginning to wonder if keeping Leia from seeing the picture was worth everything he was going through. "Remember," Lando instructed as they stopped in front of the door to Mrs. Polainse's lawyer's office, "Keep your mouth shut, and just smile a lot. Let me do the talking."
"What if someone asks me a question, like how I was born with such great taste in clothes?"
"Very funny. Just act dumb," Calrissian replied. "That can't be too hard for you." He turned and pulled open the door, not waiting for the return insult that was sure to follow.
Inside the tastefully decorated office sat a young female secretary. She looked up and smiled politely as the two men entered. "May I help you?"
"Yes, my dear." Lando gave a wide smile and sat down on the corner of her desk, leaning over her. "My name is Francharro D'Ogistenni and this is my dear friend, Rikky Grene," Lando gestured in Han's general direction, without looking at him. "We would like to see Attorney Aristotle Phisbelle, if you don't mind."
Her eyes flicked over both men and she shifted in her seat, her smile fading. "Do you have an appointment?"
"Appointment?" Lando threw up his hands. "My dear young lady, people like me do not work well under the pressure of appointments! Sooo many little things can come up unexpectedly during the course of a day. I have never understood people that tie themselves down to clocks and calendars!" He leaned in closer to her. "I'm sure you can understand where I am coming from, don't you? My clients live such busy lives, and I have to be available day and night. It can certainly be a strain when you're in the middle of a wonderful dinner at a expensive restaurant... you know, the kind you have to wait months for a table! But my clients come first, I always say. Don't you agree, that the clients should always come first?"
"Uhh... yes, I guess. I don't really know. I only started working here last week," she explained lamely.
"Anyway, have you ever seen the epic holo-film called 'I was a Jedi's Mistress'?" he asked in a whisper. When she nodded, her eyes wide, Lando continued. "Well.... one of my clients just happens to be.. her..I'm sure you know who I'm talking about! And she just would love to have a Polainse painting! Price is absolutely no object! So, can you just let Mr. Phisbelle know we're here to see him?"
"Of course," she stammered. "Right away." The secretary quickly got up, went down a plush hallway and knocked softly on a door before entering and disappearing from Lando and Han's view.
"If that wasn't the biggest load of bantha..."
"Quiet!" Lando hissed at Solo. "Don't talk, remember? How hard can that be!"
The secretary reappeared a few moments later, somewhat subdued. "Well, Attorney Phisbelle is very busy, but he says he will give you a few minutes of his time."
"Why, thank you very much, my dear," Lando grabbed her hand and bent over it. Then he quickly straightened up and looked over his shoulder at Han. "Come along, Rikky. We mustn't keep the busy man waiting!"
Lando swept down the hall, while Han tagged reluctantly behind.
A distinguished older man sat behind a large desk. He took in the appearance of the two newcomers without comment, but nodded to a couple of chairs sitting in front of the desk. "Good morning, gentlemen," he remarked simply.
Han quickly sat but Lando walked up to the desk and stuck his hand out. The lawyer took it slowly, his eyes never leaving Lando's face. "And good morning to you, Attorney Phisbelle! My name is Francharro D'Ogistenni, and this is my friend, Rikky. But you can call me Franc."
"Have a seat, Mr. D'Ogistenni," Mr. Phisbelle replied.
Lando perched himself on the edge of his chair, flinging his cape behind him with great flair. "Did your secretary tell you why we are here?"
"She indicated you have a wealthy client, and they may be interested in purchasing a Polainse. I do have to warn you, sir, that since my client's death, the price of her remaining inventory is approaching a million credits per piece."
That bit of information startled Han, but Lando took it with easy stride. "Of course. Price is no object. Have you seen her remaining artworks?"
"Yes I have," the lawyer replied. "They are locked away in a vault in Mrs. Polainse's home."
"Could you take us there, so I could see these works? My client has given me an exact description of the type of painting she wants. You know, it has to coordinate with her color scheme and all." Lando threw back his head and laughed lightly. "You know those rich holo-stars! The masterpiece must match the divan!"
Attorney Phisbelle was not amused. "I take it you have proper credentials?"
"Of course!" Lando quickly pulled the forged disks from his pocket. "How rude of me not to offer them earlier! I am getting sooo forgetful lately."
The lawyer took the disks and nodded. "I'll have these checked. If they are valid, I can meet you at Mrs. Polainse apartment. How about tomorrow?"
"Oh my," Lando put his finger on his chin, and tapped it. "Tomorrow? I'm afraid my flight is scheduled to leave first thing tomorrow morning. I am just such a busy, busy man."
The lawyer frowned, obviously annoyed. "All right then. How would this afternoon work? About four?"
Lando jumped up and grabbed the man's hand again before he could object. "Of course! Four would be fahhbuulous! We'll see you then!"
Han stood and was about to leave the room when Mr. Phisbelle asked, "Mr... Rikky?"
Cautiously, Han turned to the man, hoping the attorney didn't recognize him from the painting. "Yes?"
"How did you get so beat up?"
"I..uh..." Han began uncertainly.
Calrissian stepped in front of Solo. "Rikky is just sooo clumsy! He fell in the shower, if you can believe it! Slammed his nose right into the faucet! I don't know how he'd make it through the day if he didn't have me to get him dressed in the morning!" Lando turned to a fuming Han. "Come on, Rikky, we have to go now." Calrissian grabbed Solo by the hand, then led him out of the room.
The gambler swept grandly down the hallway, not relinquishing his handhold as Han was forced to follow behind. Once outside, Han glared at Lando, and tightened his own grasp on the con artist's fingers until Lando's eyes widened in pain and he sank slowly to one knee. Through clenched teeth Han growled, "I'm gonna get even with you, Calrissian. Some day, when you least expect it, I'm gonna get even."
Calrissian gasped and finally snatched his hand free from Solo's crushing grip. He shook his throbbing fingers, and answered in an insulted tone, "Sure, threaten me after everything I'm doing to help you!"
Early afternoon, in a small village on Carida.
"Stupid, stupid, shuttle!" Wedge groaned. "Now we're stuck 200 miles from Keime! Engine trouble! Good stars, don't these people know how to run a public transportation system?"
"Calm down," Luke said with a shake of his head. "We can go see if there are any rental hovercrafts available."
"In this dump of a town?" Wedge replied. "How can anybody live in the middle of nowhere? How do they earn money?"
"Renting hovercrafts to stranded tourists?" Luke laughed.
"Probably if there's a rental place, it's in cahoots with the shuttle company," Wedge griped. "If we ever catch up with Solo, I'm going to kill him. And I don't care if he does have a Wookiee with a life-debt for a best friend. Chewie will understand - maybe he'll even help me."
"It's possible Han has a really good reason for coming here," Luke said, trying to keep his expression serious. "Besides, he doesn't have any idea we're following him."
"Remind me again. Why are we following him?"
"Leia asked us to."
"Oh," Wedge mumbled. "Well, that's a good reason."
"Now, here's the plan," Lando informed a still steaming Solo as they headed toward the apartment complex of the deceased artist several hours later. "Once the lawyer shows us the paintings, I'll pick out one of the landscapes and ask to see it in a different room. Different lighting and all.."
"Lando, sometimes you worry me," Han grumbled.
"Don't interrupt. Where was I? Oh, yes. Lighting. Anyway, I'll distract the lawyer, and you can cut your nudie picture out of the frame real quick...and then fold it up and stick it in your shirt..."
"What if there's more than one person in the apartment?"
"I'll think of something. At the very least we can case the place and come back tonight and steal it, if we have to. I guess."
"The picture... is really big. I don't know if I can fold it up and hide it in these idiotic clothes I'm wearing. Maybe we should take some corrosive chemicals, and just dump them on the painting. That would work."
"No, it's too big of a risk. What if the chemicals got on us? Anyway, how big is the picture?"
Han paused, trying to remember the dimensions. "Oh, about five feet high and about four feet wide. Maybe a little bigger."
That left Lando speechless for a moment. "Why didn't you say so earlier?"
"You didn't ask."
"What kind of stupid excuse is that? 'I didn't ask!'" Lando snapped.
"I had no idea what your stupid plan was until right now!" Han yelled back, ignoring the strange looks on the faces of the people passing by. "Why am I always the stupid one?"
"Who, exactly, posed for the picture, may I ask?" Lando replied calmly, not looking at Solo as he kept walking.
"Winter, will you look at all these presents?" Leia said despairingly to her best friend. "I can barely move around in my apartment anymore."
"They certainly are coming in fast," Winter agreed with a nod. Then she turned and smiled at Leia. "I guess this just shows how well loved you and Han are with all the people in the galaxy."
"Well loved?" Leia asked tightly. "Or well bribed - one or the other. In any case, I know someone who's walking on thin ice when it comes to being well loved with me."
Winter laughed. "You still love him, don't try kidding yourself. Besides, it's been only a little over four days. Didn't his note say he'd be back in a week?"
"I'm going to die in an avalanche of boxes before the week is up," Leia groaned. "The only good that can come out of this is that I'm going to have Han groveling for at least two months to get back on my good side."
"See?" Winter said cheerfully. "There is always a bright side to things!"
Eventually, Luke and Wedge located a hovercraft rental business. And although the businessman wanted an exorbitant price for renting an ancient, barely functional speeder, Luke gently convinced him to lower his price.
"I didn't know you were allowed to use the Force in price negotiations," Wedge said as he climbed into the passenger seat.
"Extenuating circumstances," Luke replied lightly. "Besides, we don't have those kind of credits to waste on this dump of a speeder."
"How long until we get to Keime?"
"I'd guess about four hours, unless this thing breaks down."
"Yep," Wedge said as he settled into his seat. "Solo's dead."
Lando Calrissian pressed the buzzer at the outside of the apartment building at precisely four in the afternoon. A mechanical voice answered, "May I help you, good sirs?"
"Yes, you may," Lando replied smoothly. "My name is Francharro D'Ogistenni, and this is my friend, Rikky. We have an appointment in apartment 4209 with Attorney Phisbelle."
"Just a moment," the droid replied.
The gambler glanced over at Solo, who was standing with his arms folded tightly across his chest, a scowl on his face. "Rikky, remember... smile."
Han bared his teeth at Calrissian in an expression that was anything but a smile. "How's this?"
"Never mind. Just look pleasant, anyway. Can you manage that?"
"Probably not," Han mumbled under his breath.
"Sirs?" the droid came back on the intercom. "You may enter. Please go directly to the elevator and it will take you automatically to the correct floor. Please do not deviate from your destination, or security will be contacted."
"Thank you very much," Lando replied as the gate swung open to admit them.
"Friendly place," Han remarked sarcastically as they entered.
"Rich people live here, Rikky," Lando replied, unconcerned. "They can afford to keep out the riff-raff."
"Well, that would be me," Han remarked with a smirk.
They did as the droid instructed them, and entered a fancy elevator that opened as they approached it, then closed behind them. Solo and Calrissian rode in silence up to the fortieth floor, and then headed left after reading the direction sign. They stopped in front of a double door with the number written in gold lettering. Lando pressed the buzzer, and they waited to see who was waiting for them behind the number 4209.
"Leia?" Winter asked her best friend as they waited for a caterer to bring them samples of desserts.
The Princess was sitting with her eyes shut, trying to relax. Never, in a million years, did she think it would take this much work, this many decisions, to put together a wedding. "Yes, Winter?"
"If you want me to, I could open some of the presents, just to get them out of the way," Winter offered. "Then at least you'd have room to walk through the living room."
Leia opened her eyes and frowned. "And then Han would be getting out of his chore. His one chore."
"I'd leave the majority of them for him to open," Winter smiled. "It would help calm your nerves if you could sit on the sofa."
"It would calm my nerves to be able to see the sofa! I'm thinking of using the boxes for chairs."
"Well? Do you want me to start organizing the gifts?"
"I guess," Leia sighed in defeat. "I'm going to kill Han when he gets back."
"I told you that land speeder was garbage!" Wedge snapped. "My feet are killing me. How many miles have we walked?"
"Only about ten," Luke replied evenly, trying to hold in his own temper.
"Ten!" Wedge yelled. "No wonder! I need sleep, Luke. We haven't slept in two days."
"Would you please stop complaining," Luke snapped back. "I'm not having any fun, either, you know."
Wedge walked in silence for almost fifteen minutes before he said, "How many more miles before we get to Keime? And I'm not complaining... just asking."
"I think about five more. We should be there in about an hour."
"I hope that's enough time."
"Enough time?" Luke asked. "For what?"
"To beat that really big storm that's coming up over the horizon."
Attorney Phisbelle opened the door. "Come in, gentlemen." A professional-looking, very attractive woman stood further in the room. She was perhaps in her late thirties, short, curly dark hair, and conservatively dressed, and she watched warily as Lando and Han entered the room.
Immediately, Lando's eyes lit up and he gave her his most winning smile - until he remembered 'Rikky', and forced himself to appear disinterested. It wasn't an easy task. "Ah, such a lovely lady!" Lando looked away from her and directed his attention to Phisbelle. "Is this your wife?"
The lawyer frowned and replied, "No, this is my law partner Miss Marrisa Nolton. She is actually the one handling the sales of the remaining artworks. Miss Nolton, this is Mr. D'Ogistenni, and his , uh, friend."
"You can call me Franc." Lando stepped toward her and stuck out his hand.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. D'Ogistenni," the woman answered without smiling and briefly shook his offered hand. Miss Nolton had not missed Lando's admiring appraisal of her appearance, which she found rather odd, considering Rikky was standing right there.
"Yes, well," Lando said as he took in the large apartment. Several landscapes hung on the walls of the living area, and the attached dining area. "Are these paintings available?"
"Yes, except for the one in the library," Miss Nolton replied with her most professional tone. "The artist has six pieces hanging throughout her apartment, and there were ten more in the vault. We have placed those ten paintings on easels in the studio, so you can view them better."
"Thank you." Lando bowed dramatically. "We would appreciate a tour."
Han had been hanging back, watching this exchange without drawing attention to himself. With his puffed eyes and swollen nose, he hoped the two lawyers would not associate him with the model in the painting, but Lando's brief flirtation worried him. He was certain Miss Nolton had noticed Lando's look of approval, and he was afraid she would now be suspicious of their motives. This lady was sharp, and if anyone could see the resemblance between the model and 'Rikky', Solo worried that it would be her.
The lawyers led Solo and Calrissian on a tour of the apartment, pointing out the large landscapes hanging in the library, bedrooms, as well as giving them ample time to look at the paintings in the living/dining area. Although Lando had seen Polainse's work before, he still was truly impressed. He turned to his hosts. "So, Mrs. Polainse only has sixteen unsold pieces left? I was under the impression there were more than that."
"In recent years, she seldom painted without an upfront commission. Her works were sold before a single drop of paint ever touched the canvas," the woman lawyer replied. "The painting in the library was sold yesterday. For a million and a half credits. So there are only fifteen available."
Lando gave a low whistle. "That's more than triple what they sold for before her death."
"Yes," Miss Nolton agreed. "And since that seems to be the market price, that will be the selling price of the remaining pieces. I hope your client can handle the price increase."
"Oh, a million here, a half a million there." Lando shrugged. "I don't think she'll blink an eye."
Han, meanwhile, was starting to sweat. A million and a half credits? What would be the prison sentence for destroying a painting worth over a million credits? Of course, if the Imperials found out who they really were, Han doubted he would have to worry about prison time. Method of execution would be a much bigger concern.
They followed the attorneys into the large studio. Five easels were set up in the middle of the room, facing the doorway. Five more were facing the opposite wall. Lando noted the five framed paintings facing them were all landscapes, and he walked up to them, staring at them and pretending to be appraising the coloring. He looked over quickly at Han, who was swallowing hard and looking at the backsides of the five unseen pictures. One of those paintings had to be the one they were there to steal. Now all Lando had to do was figure out a way to get the two lawyers out of the room, and give Han the chance to destroy a one-of-a kind painting worth millions.
"I hope we don't get hit by lightning," Wedge said worriedly from beneath the small overhang of a rock ledge where they had taken shelter.
Luke shut his eyes and leaned against the rough wall. "What else can possibly go wrong?"
"Are you starting to complain, Skywalker?" Wedge said quickly. "That's not allowed, remember?"
"Hasn't stopped you, has it?" Luke shot back.
"We could just head back to the ship. To hell with Lando and Han, I say."
"I can't do that. I promised Leia."
"Leia's better off without Solo. Trust me. Besides, I'm going to kill him when we find them."
"You can't do that."
"Are you going to stop me?"
"No," Luke replied. "I'm going to kill him first."
"These paintings are all sooooo lovely! I just am going to have a time deciding!" Lando declared as he walked around the row of paintings to view the last remaining five, with Solo almost stepping on his heels. Calrissian's eyes swept down the row of five paintings... five, beautiful, landscape paintings. Han and Lando exchanged stunned looks.
"Are you certain this is it?" Lando sputtered to his hosts, forgetting his charade for a moment.
"Why?" Miss Nolton asked, narrowing her eyes. "I told you there were only fifteen available for sale."
"Well, honey," Lando said, quickly resumed his role. "These certainly are lovely, and I'm certain my client will want one. But I was thinking about a special painting."
"A special painting?" she asked, clearly annoyed at being called honey.
"Yes, you know... a one of a kind." Lando winked at her.
"Deserra Polainse painted original landscapes, they were all one of a kind. I'm afraid I'm not following you."
"Well..." Lando paused and swept over close to her. "I'd heard rumors about a special painting. My client really, really wants that one. You know which one I'm talking about."
"No," she snapped. "I'm afraid you'll have to enlighten me."
Lando leaned close to her and whispered in her ear. "A nude. Now you remember, don't you?"
Shocked, the lady drew back. "Excuse me?"
"Oh, honey, we're all adults in here. You don't have to pretend. And art is art, after all. Museums are filled with painting of nudes."
"I am well aware of that, sir. But you have the wrong artist. Mrs. Polainse did landscapes. Not nudes. Landscapes."
"I think this tour has ended, gentlemen," Mr. Phisbelle put in firmly. "If you were looking for that type of artwork, you came to the wrong place."
For the first time Han spoke, unable to stay quiet another second. "You're the ones that are wrong! I know there's a painting like that! I've seen it!"
"You are delusional," the attorney replied. "If you two don't leave right now, I will call security."
"But..." Han persisted, trying desperately to think of where the painting could have gone. He could not believe they had come this far only to fail. The painting simply had to be here! "Are you sure there isn't a painting in the vault you overlooked? What about under the bed?"
"Ha... Rikky, come on now. We have been told to leave," Lando said as he grabbed Solo's arm and started pulling.
"In the back of a closet?" Han yelled as he backpedaled from the room, and to the front entry. Lando hit the open button on the door and yanked Han out into the hall.
"What about behind the cooler?" Han tried again, his panic rising by the second.
"Good day, gentlemen," the lawyer said icily as the door slid shut in their faces.
The beautiful coastal town of Keime came into view below them as Luke and Wedge rounded a corner hilltop. In the aftermath of the storm, the town glittered and the sea beyond the picturesque town was a shimmering shade of aqua. The view would have been breathtaking.... if they had any breath left to spare. "The elevation here must be really high," Wedge gasped out, holding his side.
"Either that, or we've been walking uphill for the past hour," Luke groused out. "At least it's all downhill from here on."
"I think it's been all downhill since we left Coruscant," Wedge snorted.
"It looks like there was a little cloudburst when we were in there," Lando commented as he noted the wet streets as they left the apartment complex.
Han just stared at Calrissian, unable to speak for a moment. Finally he yelled, "Cloudburst? Cloudburst? There was more than a cloudburst back there, Calrissian. My life is over! Do you hear me? Over!"
"I think everyone hears you," Lando said in a low voice. "Stop yelling. It's not helping."
"What would you suggest I do?" Han threw his hands up and started pacing. "It has to be back there! They're lying! We need to come back later and get it!"
"Solo!" Lando stepped in front of Han to get his attention. "I've made a living reading people's faces and reactions. They were not lying. Neither one ever saw a painting like that. Either she sold it a long time ago, and it's hanging in some rich person's house, or you were right."
"Right? About what?"
"When you said it was no good. Maybe she simply painted over it. Artists do that sometimes."
"Do you think I could get so lucky?" Han grasped at the idea.
"Maybe," Lando said slowly. "But we are not coming back here tonight. It's not in the apartment."
"So now what do we do?" Han sighed in defeat.
"We go back to the hotel, get our luggage, head back to Caridalla, and go home," Lando replied. "You know... home. Where you have a beautiful, intelligent, understanding fiancée waiting for you. So, see? You are lucky."
"I know it, Calrissian. I'd just like to keep on being lucky."
Winter was beginning to regret volunteering to organize the gifts that kept pouring in from every corner of the galaxy. She had only opened and sorted about a fifth of what was currently in the apartment, and already her handwritten flimsy of items and senders was up to four pages. Winter shook her head in dismay as she regarded most of the presents. The senders meant well, and many things were valuable. But practical? So far, only a vase and some silverware were items in the pile of things she thought Leia might actually want or need.
She sighed and opened the next square box, noting it was from Ithor. This experience certainly was opening Winter's eyes in regards to what non-humans considered beautiful and attractive. No wonder Han had fled to Carida to get out of doing this chore. Winter had decided two pages ago that Solo was going to be very fortunate if she did not hit him over the head with the bizarre-looking candlestick sent from a Bith Senator.
"What are all these stormtroopers doing wandering around outside our hotel?" Han whispered as they stood across the street.
"Maybe our attorney friends got too suspicious and reported us," Lando replied nervously. "Or maybe some important Imperial is in town, and this is his security force."
"I like the second scenario a little better, but still.." Han hesitated. "Do you think we can sneak in a back door and get up to our rooms unnoticed?"
"What do we need so badly in that room that we can't live without? I have all my credits on me, and we can buy another ticket at the terminal," Lando replied.
Han frowned at his friend. "My gun belt is back in that room. Besides, I'm not wandering around dressed like this any longer than I have to, if you don't mind."
"You and your blasted blaster," Lando replied, irritated. "You have a holdout blaster in your boot, don't you?"
"Doesn't count," Han returned quickly. "I've had that gun belt and blaster for years, and I'm not leaving it behind."
"You're too attached to that rig. It's not healthy, all these obsessions you seem to develop. I should have left it on Bespin."
"I do not have obsessions. If you're too afraid to go in the hotel, you can wait for me. I'll go get it myself."
"And miss out on more fun? Not a chance."
"I can't believe we're finally in Keime!" Wedge muttered as they trudged into town. "Are they still here? They'd better be still here!"
Luke concentrated, although it was difficult since he was so tired. "Yes, they are still here."
"Good. Because I am checking into a hotel and taking a long hot shower and then getting some sleep," Wedge declared. "And don't you dare tell me we don't have time, or use any Force tricks on me to change my mind. I can't see straight anymore."
"What?" Antilles snapped.
"Sleeping sounds like the best idea I've heard for two days."
Han and Lando had waited several hours before deciding that the stormtroopers were not in any hurry to leave the area. "Maybe we should just use the front entrance," Lando suggested as they started down the alley behind the hotel. "If they're not looking for us, we're sure to attract attention if we get caught sneaking in the back."
Han could see the logic to that argument, but strolling past a dozen stormtroopers in a hotel lobby made his skin crawl. The last time he'd seen so many of these guys in white armor was on Endor. And come to think of it, using the backdoor on Endor hadn't been such a great idea, either. "Okay. We'll use the lobby door," Han conceded reluctantly. "But let's wait until a group of people go in, and kinda try to blend in. Although, with these clothes, that's probably not possible."
"I really wish you'd stop criticizing my taste. I'll have you know I've been told by many people how great I dress."
"And are these people blind?"
"Very funny." Lando shrugged his shoulders and headed back out onto the sidewalk. When they arrived at the entrance, a boisterous family of six ran in the door ahead of them. The man and woman looked frazzled and the children, all under ten, were hyper and noisy. It was just the cover Lando and Han needed. Using the sudden appearance of screaming children tearing around the furniture and chasing each other, the two men strolled quickly and nonchalantly past the distracted stormtroopers. The elevator opened immediately when the button was pushed and they wasted no time hurrying inside and closing the door. "See?" Lando gave a relieved smile. "Your famous luck is still with you."
Han snorted. "If my luck was so great, I'd have that painting by now."
"Forget the painting. It's gone. You can quit worrying about it."
"You're probably right," Han mused hopefully. "And what are the odds that it'll show up before the wedding, or even after we've been married for five or so years? I doubt she'll divorce me on account of a picture after we've been married for a while, even if it does eventually turn up."
The door slid open, and Lando peeked out. No stormtroopers. They quickly went to the hotel room, and it appeared everything inside was untouched. While Calrissian stuffed his few belongings into the small case, Han went to the refresher and quickly changed clothes. For a moment, Han stared at the shiny pants and satin shirt. Then he shoved them into the recycler and slammed the lid. That was a con game he never wanted to repeat, and if Lando ever told Leia... well, that would be one gamble Lando better not take. Walking out into the room, he strapped the gun belt across his hips.
"You'd be less noticeable if you put it in your case instead of wearing it," Lando noted as he watched Solo, who only glared at him in response.
Outside, the sound of blaster fire and people yelling reached the window of their room. Lando and Han quickly and carefully looked out. The stormtroopers were exiting the lobby and running down the street, firing their blasters as they took off after some unseen people. Han turned to Lando and grinned. "I think that's our cue to leave."
Wedge and Luke ran down the street, finally ducking into a closed parts supply business after Luke used the Force to disable the alarm and open the door. The stormtroopers clattered past them as they crouched down behind shelves. Wedge slid down the wall and sat with a thud. "How come you didn't sense them, Skywalker? We just waltz right into a lobby full of stormtroopers and they start shooting at us!"
"I'm tired, all right?" Luke snapped back. "And I was concentrating on locating Han. I think he was in that hotel."
"Is that why the Imps were there?" Wedge snidely replied. "Because they're looking for Solo?"
"No," Luke answered, catching his breath. "I distinctly got the impression they were looking for us. They probably have been tailing us since we left Caridalla, thanks to you."
"Me?" Wedge asked, his voice rising.
"I recall that you're the one who started shooting at them. Maybe they even have us identified by now."
"We're not going to be able to check into a hotel room," Luke told him.
"No kidding. So much for my shower and a long night's sleep in a soft bed."
"This place is closed for the night," Luke pointed out. "We can sleep on the floor in here."
"I guess it's better than outside in a rainstorm." Wedge sighed and settled down on his side. After Wedge drifted off to sleep, Luke lay down a few feet away and as he shut his eyes he thought he heard Wedge mumbling something in his dream about blasters and Solo.
"This is a faster shuttle than the first one," Lando said happily. "We should be back in Caridalla by morning."
"Good," Han said agreeably as he settled back into the soft seat to nap. "The sooner we can leave, the better. This entire trip has been a disaster."
"I could have told you that before we left. Wait!" Lando snapped his fingers. "I think I did tell you that before we left."
"We didn't get arrested," Han replied, grinning. "And when we get back home, no one will ever know where we went."
"Nope," Lando said quickly, knowing that wasn't exactly true. Of course, he could just say he was joking about the flight plan once he got back to Coruscant. He'd have to remember to tell Han about that little detail... later.
"Wedge, wake up!" Luke shook his friend's arm.
"Wha...what?" He sat up, disoriented. "What time is it?"
"The sun is just coming up," Luke replied.
"We should get out of here before the store employees start arriving," Wedge said as he nodded in agreement.
"That's not all," Luke said slowly.
"What is it?" Wedge asked, his eyes narrowing.
"Han is gone."
"Gone?" Antilles was suddenly worried. "You don't think something happened to him, do you?"
"No. He's fine, I can still sense him, but he's not in Keime anymore. I think they left during the night."
"What? What?!" Wedge stood up and started yelling. "Are you kidding me? We took two days, two days straight from the Hells of Corellia to get here, and now he left?"
"Would you quiet down?" Luke hissed. "I doubt the stormtroopers have stopped searching for us."
"Of course not! Why would they stop looking for us?" Wedge started stalking around the shelves. "Now we have to figure out where they went! I'll tell you something, Skywalker! Brother-in-law or not, I'm going to get even with Solo!"
Luke started laughing.
"What's so funny?" Wedge spat out.
"At least you didn't say you were going to kill him."
"No, but when I'm done, he'll wish he were dead."
Lando and Han paid the hovertaxi droid the appropriate credits and exited the cab near the spaceport. Hoisting his bag on his shoulder, Lando commented, "That wasn't such a bad trip. I kind of had fun."
"I notice you didn't get your nose broken, either," Han huffed out.
"Oh, that was just a small problem. The gambling was fun, and actually so was conning those lawyers into seeing the paintings," Lando reflected. "I wish I had an extra million and a half lying around. I think I'd buy one, just for the investment value. She was a great artist."
"Yea, she was," Han agreed as they walked toward the dock that held the Lady Luck. "Even I could see how fantastic those paintings are. Too bad we couldn't have stolen one, anyway, as a wedding gift for Leia."
"Speaking of wedding gifts," Lando said as he grinned at Solo. "Didn't you tell Leia this trip was to buy her a present?"
"Oh kest, Lando! I have to find a present for Leia - something that I couldn't get on Coruscant." Han looked somewhat worried. "What do you suggest?"
"That's going to take some thought," Calrissian mused. "You can find almost anything at all on Coruscant, pal."
"Don't you think I know that? Leia knows that, too. I'm gonna have to...."
"Master Solo!" a very familiar mechanical voice called out. "Thank the Maker! I thought Artoo and I would be stuck forever on this planet!"
"Threepio?" Han spluttered once he managed to pick his jaw up off the ground. "How...why...?"
The golden droid, followed closely by Artoo, quickly covered the short distance between them and would have hugged Han if his metal arms could have managed it. "Master Solo!" Threepio repeated joyfully, then looked down at his short companion. "Now we have a way to get home! We don't have to stay on this dreadful system!"
"How did you get here?" Han demanded.
"Why, Master Luke and General Antilles requested our assistance, sir," Threepio replied. "But then they left us! Master Luke told us to stay with the ship, but before Artoo and I got back to the freighter, the Imperials had impounded it! Thank the stars we were not inside the ship before they came, or I'm afraid Artoo and I would already be melted down!"
"Luke is here? And Wedge?" Han asked, dumbfounded.
"Why, yes," Threepio answered primly. "Do you think I would come to this place on my own volition?"
"Why did Luke and Wedge come to Carida?" Han snapped out, addressing Threepio but glaring suspiciously at a very quiet Calrissian.
"Mistress Leia asked them to follow you and Master Calrissian," Threepio replied politely. He was much calmer now that Han and Lando had appeared, and the threat of imminent doom seemed slightly further away.
"Really?" Han mused, his mouth twisting into a sneer. He turned directly to Lando. "And how did Leia know where we were heading, Lando?"
Lando cleared his throat, and wiped some imaginary dust off his sleeve. "I might have, um, filed a flight plan that said something to the effect."
"Of course that's how we found you, sir!" Threepio added. "The flight controller was very puzzled by the fact you were going to Carida."
"You filed a flight plan?" Han asked, incredulously. "You told everyone where we were heading?"
"It's not my fault!" Lando protested. "I thought for sure we'd end up caught, and I figured we'd need some help getting rescued."
Han stared at Lando, wide-eyed and speechless. Finally, Lando continued, "Don't you think we need to find out what happened to Luke and Wedge? They could be in trouble."
"My fears exactly, Master Calrissian!" Threepio said in agreement. "They haven't contacted us for nearly two days."
"So now we have to start looking for Luke and Wedge?" Han growled in a low voice. "This is your fault, Calrissian!" Han moved close and stuck his finger in Lando's chest. "We could be heading back home, but oh noooo! Now we have to stay here even longer and try and find Luke and Wedge! And how am I going to explain all of this to Leia?"
"I'll think of something," Lando replied, worriedly.
"It had better be good, Calrissian. It had better be real good."
"Look at all the Imps!" Wedge whispered to Luke as they stood a safe distance from the Public Transportation System Terminal. "They're crawling all over the place!"
"They're thinking we might show up and try to leave town from here," Luke noted.
"How insightful of you, Skywalker," Wedge groused. "Do you have any bright ideas how we are going to get back to Caridalla?"
Luke had had enough. Turning to Wedge he started yelling, "This is not my fault! Why do you keep blaming me for everything that's gone wrong? Why don't you come up with some great plan if you're such a genius? Or is it so much easier to keep making smart-aleck remarks, and not have to take any blame if your plan falls through?"
Stepping back, Wedge held up both hands. "Geez, Luke. Calm down! Isn't it against your rules to get all riled up?"
"Rules? What rules, Wedge?" Luke shouted back. "You mean the Jedi Code of Conduct? Are those the rules you're referring to? Because if you are, then the Code never took into account Corellians! I think there should be an entire separate Code just for dealing with Corellians!"
"What? What sarcastic comment would you like to make now, Wedge? Because I can't tell you how much I enjoy listening to them!"
Wedge just pointed his finger over Luke's shoulder, and Luke turned around, still steaming mad. Standing several feet behind him were a dozen stormtroopers and a very bemused-looking Imperial General.
Sitting in the General's office a while later, Luke and Wedge tried not to appear as nervous as they felt. They had been disarmed and cuffed prior to being deposited in the large office, and now the General sat behind his desk, just looking at them and not speaking.
Wedge cleared his throat and shifted in the chair. Long moments passed, and the only sound was the ticking of an antique clock hanging on the wall. "Well?" Wedge finally said, unable to stand it a second longer. "What are you going to do with us?"
"Honestly?" The General, identified as Thormin Fessel on the name plate, replied, "I haven't quite decided. How many times does such a strange opportunity fall into a person's hands?"
"What do you mean?" Luke asked cautiously.
"You know what I mean, Jedi Skywalker." General Fessel smiled. "A Rebel General and the last supposed Jedi - here on Carida."
"We're not rebels," Wedge pointed out. "We won the war. I'm a New Republic General. I'm sure this can all be straightened out without making a galaxy-wide incident."
"Or I could just have you both executed immediately as spies," Fessel replied calmly.
Luke and Wedge exchanged worried looks. "We're not here spying."
"Then please explain. What are you doing on Carida?"
"I, uh, well...." Luke started.
"That's certainly clears things up, Jedi Skywalker," the Imperial said, smirking.
This was going to be a problem, Luke decided. He certainly couldn't say that he followed Han Solo and General Calrissian to Carida, not without being very certain that they were both safely off-planet. And Luke did not think they were gone yet, because he was still clearly picking up Han's signature. And even if Han and Lando were gone, what had they been doing here to begin with? It would sound extremely odd, to say the least, to confess his friends had come here for unknown reasons, and that Luke and Wedge were actually spying on them. It was a story Luke doubted he would believe, either.
"I can't tell you," Luke finally answered lamely.
"You can't tell me, but you're not here as a spy?"
"That's right." He sighed. "If I did tell you the truth, you wouldn't believe me, anyway."
"I'm sorry, I can't."
"Then I'm sorry, too," the Imperial snapped back.
"How long is it going to take?" Lando prodded the Artoo unit as he sat plugged into a public information terminal.
Artoo gave a series of beeps, which Threepio translated. "Artoo says it is very difficult to bypass the security codes on this system. He is working as fast as he can to tap into the Imperial computers."
"Maybe we're just being too pessimistic here," Han added. "It's possible the kid and Antilles are heading back to Caridalla right now."
"It's possible," Lando agreed with a nod. "But we still need to wait for them. They won't be able to get that freighter back without taking a big, unnecessary risk."
"Well, I didn't suggest we leave them, Calrissian," Han snapped out. "I just said - "
Artoo interrupted with some excited whistles. "Oh dear," Threepio threw up his hands. "How dreadful!"
"What is it?" Han asked quickly.
"Master Luke and General Antilles have been arrested in Keime! And they are scheduled for execution in six hours!"
Luke sat on the cold cell floor, his legs crossed and his eyes shut, as he calmly meditated. Wedge, meanwhile, lay on his back on the hard bunk staring at the ceiling. "Do you think this cell is bugged?" Wedge asked conversationally.
"Probably," Luke replied without opening his eyes.
"Are we just going to sit here and wait for them to execute us?"
"I wasn't planning on it."
"But you don't want to let me in on any thoughts you may have for escaping," Wedge said morosely.
"I don't have an escape plan."
Wedge felt like screaming in frustration.
"Sir?" Threepio asked tentatively.
"What?" Han snapped in response. Why am I always stuck with Threepio? Han wondered bitterly. If there is a Force out there controlling everything, it must be having a real good laugh at my expense. Maybe I'm Its comedy relief - the joke of the galaxy.
"Do you have a plan for freeing Master Luke?" the droid questioned politely.
"I don't know," Han replied from the co-pilots seat, and turned to Lando who was piloting the Lady Luck toward Keime, and hoping the Imperials would not intercept them before they arrived. "Tell me, Calrissian, since you're the brains, what brilliant plan have you come up with?"
"To start with," Lando said tightly, answering to the droid rather than Han, "I'm trying to fly low enough to avoid Imperial radar. If they spot us making a quick hop like this, it's going to make them very suspicious."
Lando ignored Han's derogatory snort, and continued talking. "I think if we can drop a few grenades on the outskirts of town, that'll send all the Imps running toward the trouble. Then, hopefully, we can set down inside the prison compound and blow a hole in the building so Luke and Wedge can escape."
"That is a really, really stupid plan," Han said with a shake of his head.
"Can you think of a better one?" Lando shot back, getting truly annoyed.
"Hey, you're the smart one, remember? I'm just along for the ride."
"Instead of just offering sarcasm, why don't you come up with a better idea?" Lando goaded. "Or are you afraid that any plan you think of will blow up in our faces?"
"Why should I be afraid of that? I'm sure this plan will blow up in our faces just fine."
"We need to leave," Luke whispered quietly to a very tense Wedge Antilles.
"Follow me," Luke instructed, and walked over to the door, which immediately, and obediently, slid open to reveal two very startled stormtroopers standing guard. Quickly, the first trooper raised his weapon, but it flew out of his hand and clattered on the ground toward Wedge. The second Trooper pulled up his own rifle, and fired. Luke simply held up his hand and deflected the bolt. The rifle pulled from the trooper's grip and sailed over to the Jedi, who turned the weapon toward the guards. Wedge quickly bent down and retrieved the rifle on the floor.
"It would be a very good idea if you went into the cell now," Luke indicated with a nod at the two stormtroopers. "I really don't want to shoot you, and I'm sure you'd rather not be shot."
Meekly, the pair went into the cellblock, and the door slammed shut behind them.
"How did you do that?" Wedge asked in awe.
Luke grinned. "Do or do not. I decided it was time to do."
"Never mind. We need to get out into the open," Luke urged Wedge as he started running. "Han is on his way, and I don't want to keep him waiting."
"There go the concussion grenades," Han remarked as he aimed at an open field close to the city limits of Keime. "If that doesn't get someone's attention, nothing will."
"It has their attention," Lando said excitedly as he looked at his console. "TIE fighters coming in portside."
"Oh mercy me!" Threepio cried out. "Why can't my life be boring? I'd trade this type of existence for that of a butler droid in a nano-second."
"Stifle it, Threepio," Han shot back over his shoulder. "Don't distract us, or we could end up in little pieces all over Carida."
"Of course not, sir! You just pay attention to your flying. I'll be so quiet you'll think I've turned my -"
Han sat back down, having stood up to turn off the droid. He shook his head in mock dismay. "That droid always makes me do that," he muttered under his breath.
"Firing aft weapons," Lando said quickly. The Lady Luck bucked and dodged as the TIE'S fired from behind and above. The Imperials could not take the chance of trying to get below Lando's ship, however, because the Luck was barely skimming over the treetops.
"Lando, swing around," Han instructed. "I need to get a clear shot."
"We'll be heading away from the prison," Lando pointed out.
"We can't land if we have these TIE's on our tail!"
Concentrating, Han rapidly fired at the TIE's, who were trying to follow the Luck's moves. Before they could adjust, the Corellian took out two, sending them into a fast spin into the ground. "TIE fighters just can't handle this type of fighting," Han said as he grinned, not looking at Lando. "They weren't designed for dealing with gravity."
"Should I head back to the prison?"
"Yea, but put in a couple of loops," Han told him. "I should be able to take out a few more."
Keeping the Luck as close to the ground as he possibly could, Lando looped the ship into a corkscrew. Han kept up the fire until the remaining TIE'S dissolved behind them. "That's the rest of 'em," Han crowed.
"They'll be sending more real quick," Lando warned, as he spotted the prison compound coming up over the horizon. "Hang on, because I'm hitting the braking thrusters... NOW!"
Wedge and Luke encountered few stormtroopers on the way up from the underground prison cell, and they had no problems dispatching those they did run across. "I wonder why this place seems so deserted?" Wedge questioned, puzzled at the lack of activity.
"I think the base is a little distracted at the moment," Luke replied as they cautiously stepped out of the lift and looked around. "My guess is it has something to do with Han and Lando making their usual type of appearance." The two ran down the hallway and turned down a corridor that looked very familiar.
Luke skidded to a stop in front of the Imperial General's office and opened the door using the Force.
"What are you doing?" Wedge asked running behind him. "I thought we were trying to get outside."
"This office is on the ground floor. All we have to do is jump out of the window," Luke told him. "But first I need my lightsaber."
The desk where Luke's lightsaber had been placed was locked. The Jedi tried to concentrate in order to open the drawer, but Wedge distracted him. "Luke! A ship is coming in fast, and it looks like it's about to crash into the building!"
Sighing, Luke raised the rifle and blew the top of the desk off. Sometimes, Luke had to admit, it was just faster to do things the way Han did them, and the Jedi reached inside and retrieved his weapon. Igniting the blade, Luke cut the window open and gracefully leaped through it, landing lightly on the durocrete outside. Less graceful, but just as quickly, Wedge jumped out the window and followed the Jedi across the courtyard. The fast moving ship did not crash - instead, it cut air speed and dropped down perilously close to the ground. Instantly, Wedge recognized the ship as the Lady Luck and a huge sense of relief flooded through him. The ramp was only partially lowered as Luke and Wedge jumped inside, barely avoiding the rifle fire that appeared as stormtroopers took aim at the escapees. The Luck was rising even before the ramp was completely closed, and return fire from the ship forced the stormtroopers behind cover.
Gasping for breath, Luke and Wedge lay on their backs as the Luck headed for space. "If you two can find some time, we could use a couple of gunners to hold off the TIE's that are coming in," Han's droll voice carried back from the cockpit.
Wedge struggled into a seated position and grinned as the Jedi got to his feet. "I never thought I'd be so happy to hear Solo's voice," Wedge laughed.
"See?" Luke returned with a smile. "You already forgot that you want to kill him."
"I haven't forgotten. He just bought himself a temporary reprieve."
The Lady Luck made it into space in record time, and Wedge and Luke's shooting kept the TIE's from causing any damage. When the stars blurred into streaks, Luke tiredly removed the headset and climbed out of the gunner's well. Normally, a ship like the Lady Luck did not have these types of defensive capabilities, but Lando had learned the importance of modification from the Falcon. Luke met up with Wedge as he came from the opposite well.
"Are you okay?" Luke asked his exhausted friend.
"Now that we're off Carida, I'm wonderful." Wedge grinned, then the grin changed to a frown. "Did we just leave those two droids behind? I'd feel really badly about leaving Artoo."
"I don't think so." Luke laughed. "I have a feeling they might have played a small part in our rescue."
"Good. Let's go have a heart to heart with Solo and Calrissian. I really need to hear this explanation before they die."
"I told you this plan would work!" Lando gloated as the Luck made it safely into hyperspace.
"Don't get cocky," Han shot back. "You were just lucky they were waiting outside for us, or we'd all be sitting in a cell by now waiting for execution."
"You're just jealous because it was my plan," Lando said with a grin as he glanced back over his shoulder. "I can just hear their fawning gratitude now."
"Whatever you do, don't tell them why we were on Carida!" Han whispered at Lando as he heard the approaching footsteps of Luke and Wedge.
"I won't, but don't you think... " Lando stopped and spun around to face the new arrivals. "Hello, welcome aboard the Lady Luck!"
"Why were you following us?" Han added, deciding to go on the offensive immediately.
"Leia was a bit upset that you took off a month before the wedding," Luke said slowly, as if he were speaking to a child. "And when we found out where you were going, I thought it would be a good idea if we went along as backup."
"I didn't ask you to be my backup!" Han returned hotly. "I'll have you know I can take care of myself. Just who ended up rescuing who, anyway?"
"I know, Han." The Jedi grimaced. "I'm sorry that happened."
"I just want to know why you found it necessary to go into the middle of Imperial Space, anyway?" Wedge injected into the conversation.
"I asked him to," Lando replied instantly. "I wish I could tell you the details, but I can't. It had nothing to do with the New Republic, it was a personal mission. Just blame me, all right?"
Han looked at Lando, trying to keep the surprise off his expression. Quickly he turned to Wedge and added, "I went along to help him, just like you agreed to help Luke. That's what friends do for friends, right?"
"Right," Wedge said suspiciously. Since he didn't know who was at fault, it was hard to assign blame, and given the fact that Lando and Han had rescued them took the edge off his desire for revenge. It was difficult to stay angry while feeling grateful that he was alive at the same time.
The Jedi could tell both Han and Lando were not quite telling the truth, but he decided to drop the subject for the time being. "Is Threepio turned off for a reason?" Luke asked as he looked at the dark photoreceptor eyes of the droid.
"Just the usual reasons." Han smirked. "He annoys the hell outta me."
"Do you mind if I turn him back on?"
"Go ahead," Han said with a sigh. "The silence was nice while it lasted."
Luke reached over and switched on the golden droid. ".. self off!" Threepio swiveled his head. "Oh my! Master Luke! How did you get here?"
"Han and Lando were nice enough to offer us a ride," Luke explained with a smile.
"For which I have yet to hear a 'thank you,'" Lando complained, shaking his head in mock dismay.
"Oh," Threepio said as Artoo gave a series of whistles from outside the cockpit door. "Of course not, Artoo. No one ever turns you off," Threepio replied in a huff. "Do you mind if I remove myself from the cockpit, sir?" he addressed Luke. "It seems I am most unwelcome, the vast majority of the time."
"Threepio.." Luke suppressed a grin. "That's not true. You know how valuable you are, and you can certainly go with Artoo."
"Why, thank you, Master Luke. At least you are a human that appreciates my talents." He stiffly turned and exited the cockpit.
"Good riddance," Han mumbled under his breath.
"Threepio just tries to be helpful, Han," Luke replied.
Han rolled his eyes. "Don't we all."
During the return trip to Coruscant, Han spent most of the time locked in his berth, while Lando simply changed the subject anytime Luke or Wedge tried to pry information from the gambler-turned-General. The young Jedi knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the little information Lando had provided was untrue, but he did not want to cause a scene by accusing Lando of lying. Luke also suspected the reason Han was noticeably absent during the two day return trip was that Solo, despite his claims to the contrary, knew Luke could read lies through the Force.
Sitting in the expansive lounge area of the Luck, Wedge and Lando played endless games of sabacc to try and pass the time. "Are you ever going to confess?" Antilles said conversationally, well into the fifth game.
"Why you two went to Carida."
"I told you as much as I'm telling," Lando replied, studying his cards.
"How did Solo get his nose broken?" Wedge prodded.
"That was just a little misunderstanding." Calrissian grinned at Wedge. "Solo should learn how to duck."
Wedge looked over at Luke. "Can't you use the Force and just pull the information from their weak little minds? I think they deserve it."
"That won't be necessary, Wedge," Luke said with a laugh as he leaned back into his chair.
"Why do you say that?" Lando replied, narrowing his eyes suspiciously at the Jedi.
"Come on, Lando." The Jedi started laughing even harder. "Do you really think Han is going to be able to hold out against Leia's interrogation?"
Lando sighed. "No, he doesn't stand a chance."
No sooner did the Lady Luck set down than Han left the ship and immediately went to the Falcon. He knew he should contact Leia and let her know he was safely back, but she probably already knew anyway, he reasoned. Despite two days of racking his brain, he could not come up with a reasonable excuse as to why he went to Carida. And telling her that it was Lando's idea wasn't going to fly, either. She was as good at reading him - whether through the Force or just woman's intuition - as Luke was. It occurred to him that he could tell her that he had gone to Carida to buy her an original Polainse landscape, but then the price was simply too high so he couldn't afford one. It was, after all, a tiny bit of the truth. Maybe even enough that she wouldn't be able to separate the truth portion from the lie portion. Of the few things that worried him about marriage to Leia, it was the fact that he'd never be able to get away with telling a lie that concerned him the most. Sometimes, Han reasoned, it was better to be able to gloss over the truth just a little. Han unhappily deduced he was probably going to be the only husband in the galaxy that would have to confess every time he lost too much money during a friendly sabacc game with friends. It just wasn't fair.
He hurried up the ramp of the Falcon, and nearly collided with a very angry Wookiee. [Just what, pray tell, were you thinking?] Chewie growled.
"Hi, pal." Han stepped back and grinned up nervously.
[Everyone has been worried sick about this stunt you pulled! I should pound you until you can't see straight.]
"I had a really, really good reason," Han stuttered. "Besides, the wedding is only three weeks away. Leia wouldn't want me to be in the hospital that entire time."
[Are you sure?]
"Uh, no. Is she mad?"
[What do you think?]
"I think she's probably gonna kill me," he said with a sigh.
[You can't hide here. She's waiting for you at your apartment, and if you don't go willingly, I'm going to carry you. I'm not kidding, cub.]
"Fine, I'll go," Han said softly. "It's been nice knowing ya, Chewie."
"Leia?" Han called out tentatively as he stuck his head in the apartment door. "Sweetheart? I'm home."
No answer. Han walked into the living area, and noted that many of the gifts had already been opened and sorted. The job that Leia had undoubtedly thought he had shrugged off. But it wasn't on purpose, he thought worriedly. "Leia?" he called out louder. If she wasn't home, then he'd have a few more hours to try and think up a good reason why he left Coruscant.
The soft, accusing tone made him jump. Han spun around to face his petite Princess, who was standing in the bedroom doorway, hands on hips, glaring lasers at him. The ex-smuggler forced a smile on his face, his heart pounding in fear. "Hi, sweetheart. I didn't think you were home."
"Don't you dare stand there and pretend everything is just fine! How dare you just take off without even telling me! And to go to Carida of all places." Leia's voice rose with every sentence. "What is your excuse? If you lie to me now, I'll... I'll consider calling off the whole wedding, I swear!"
Han stood rooted to the spot, knowing his future depended on his answer. He felt torn between confession, and trying one last attempt to hide the truth from her. Either way, she could decide to walk away from the relationship, and Han wouldn't be able to blame her. "I want to tell you the truth," Han started speaking very quietly. "But you might leave me anyway, once you hear it."
The Princess walked into the living area and sat down in a chair. "Why don't you have a little more faith in me than that, Han?"
Solo sank down into the sofa facing his fiancée. "Have you ever heard of an artist by the name of Deserra Polainse?"
"As a matter of fact, I have. Didn't she just die in an accident?"
"So this has something to do with her?"
"Spill it, Han," Leia snapped.
"I.. uh. .. I, well a long time ago, I.. she employed me for six weeks."
"Really?" Leia leaned back and crossed her arms, her face expressionless. "Continue."
Han put his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. "I posed for her," he mumbled.
"What? I couldn't hear you."
Lifting his head, he forced himself to look directly at Leia. "I posed for her," he repeated clearly, and rushed to continue. "Without clothes. And when I heard she had died, I talked Lando into helping me go to Carida and steal the painting so I could destroy it."
"Why would you want to destroy it?" Leia asked simply.
"Didn't you hear me? I was naked as a newborn. I didn't want you to ever see the picture, because I thought you'd be ... ashamed of me. And not want to marry me."
"How many years ago did this happen?"
"Sixteen. I was so stupid, Leia. I needed the money. I'm sorry, please forgive me."
For a moment, all was silent in the room. Then Leia started to chuckle, then the chuckles turned into laughing. She laughed so hard, tears came from her eyes, and she held her sides. When she finally settled down, Han was staring at her as if she'd lost her mind. "I don't think it's funny. I've been worried sick about you finding out about that painting." Then he finally gave a small smile. "It wasn't there, and Lando thinks she painted over it. So it was a lot of trouble over nothing."
"That's what you think, flyboy," Leia replied, and burst into a fresh peal of laughter.
"What are you talking about?" Han asked, puzzled.
Leia got up and left the room. A minute later, she came back holding a large, flat object covered with a sheet. Propping it up against the wall, she pulled the sheet back, revealing a framed painting of a very naked Han Solo. "This is what I'm talking about," she replied, still giggling.
"How? How.. did you get that?" Han jumped up, wide eyed with shock and feeling his face getting warm.
"It was sent from Corellia," Leia said between gasps of laughter. "From Deserra Polainse, as a wedding gift to us. Winter was doing your job, and opening the presents. Her expression when she called me on the holo-comm was priceless!" The Princess wiped the tears of laughter away from her eyes, and knowing she was being a little cruel, she added the next part. "If you would have stayed home and opened the presents, like you were supposed to, you would have seen it before anyone else had a chance."
For a long time, Han just gaped at the painting, speechless. Forcing himself to look at it as objectively as he was able, he could see it actually wasn't a bad painting, as he had told Lando. In fact, it was as brilliantly done as any of her landscapes - a true, one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
"Are you going to say anything?" Leia asked a bit more calmly.
"Do you still want to marry me?" he questioned quietly.
The question sent Leia back into hysterics. "Do you really think I'd cancel our wedding because you posed for a picture all those years ago?"
"The thought had occurred to me," Han replied dryly.
"Well, flyboy, rest easy. The marriage is still on." Leia grinned. "But if you think you're off the hook for pulling that dangerous stunt, forget it!" The Princess waved a finger in his direction. "For the next three weeks, when I say jump, you'd better ask how high."
"Yes, Your Highnessness." Solo smiled back in relief. "What about that?" He indicated the painting with a nod of his head. "Should we burn it, or send it sailing into the nearest star?"
"You're kidding, right?"
"Huh?" Han said, shocked. "You can't be thinking about keeping it! If we're ever gonna have kids someday, I don't want them growing up with that on the wall. It's bad enough Winter saw it!"
Leia started laughing again. "It's simply too valuable to burn, Han, and it's my painting now, too. I wouldn't worry about Winter, other than the fact you owe her an apology for leaving the presents for her to open." She smiled somewhat wistfully and continued, "Alderaanians are not prudish about the human body. Some of our greatest artworks were either paintings or statues of human nudes."
"Then what are you suggesting?" Han asked, his eyes narrowing.
"We're donating it to a museum, that's what."
"No!" Han protested. "We can't... everyone is gonna know it's me!"
"So? How can you be so nonchalant about a picture of your naked husband hanging in a museum for everyone to stare at?"
"Can't say it bothers me in the least," Leia mused. "And if it bothers you, oh well, you should have thought of that sixteen years ago. We're not burning it, and that's that."
"I'm never gonna be able to show my face in public again," Han said, groaning.
"I doubt too many people will recognize you because of the painting. It's probably not your face people are going to be staring at, darling."
Naboo, two months later.
"I'd like to thank the good people of Naboo for all their assistance in the long and dangerous war against the Emperor," Ambassador Leia Organa-Solo said to a large crowd gathered in a ornate, circular room of a Naboo museum. "In a small token of appreciation, my husband and I would like to donate this Deserra Polainse painting, the only nude Mrs. Polainse was ever known to have painted. It has been appraised at nearly five and a half million credits, and I'm sure the citizens of Naboo, as well as the many visitors to this wonderful museum, will enjoy this painting for generations to come."
Applause broke out, and the cover was pulled from the large painting. Han Solo, standing behind his wife, shifted on his feet and stared over the heads of the gathered dignitaries while trying not to sink into the ground with embarrassment. He had to make a concentrated effort to stand straight and not clasp his hands together in front of his pants. True, there were literally hundreds of nude paintings already on display in this vast museum, but none that had his face on them. Solo had tried to wiggle his way out of attending this function, but his new wife was adamant he be there with her. Han suspected this was his punishment for going to Carida, but Leia had denied this accusation. Still, Han was convinced that this was Leia's way of getting even.
The crowd broke up, and Leia went about shaking hands and speaking to individuals. Solo heard someone come up behind him and clear his throat. He turned and faced his amused brother-in-law, Lando and Wedge, all grinning from ear to ear. "Go on," Han said as he sighed. "Say whatever you want, and get it out of your system, okay?"
"What's there to say, Han?" Lando grinned. "After everything we went through, here it is.... on public display forever."
Wedge snorted into his glass of fine Naboo wine. "Something funny, Antilles?" Han glared at the General.
"Nope. The whole time we were looking for you on Carida, I told Luke I wanted to kill you. But, honestly, this is so much better."
"Sometimes, Han," Luke put in with a wide smile, "You just can't stop whatever the Force has in store for you."
Han's eyes drifted back to the painting in the center of the room. Yep, he thought with a vague feeling of despair, I hope I'm keeping you laughing, whatever you are, Force, 'cuz I'd really hate to have you mad at me.