Coruscant - Ten days after the wedding
Leia woke up as the early morning light streamed in the bedroom window. She shifted on to her side, looked at the sleeping form of her husband and smiled. Husband. It seemed to Leia she could not say that word enough. She touched the growing mound of her belly and used the Force to reach inward to sense her babies. They were so alive, so full of the Force. Her entire being tingled with happiness just knowing her babies were healthy and strong. In a strange way, she wished she would be able to protect them by keeping them forever inside her womb.
Feeling a bit guilty, she continued her reach with the Force and caressed Han's sleeping presence, lending him the confidence and support he still so badly needed. Han had been right about the holo-nets view on their marriage of less than two weeks. Headlines had screamed about the 'inappropriateness' of the union of the Princess and the blind smuggler. It had infuriated her, and deeply upset Han, and she tried her best to shield him from the snide holoshills.
Luke had been the steadying influence during the turmoil. It had been Luke that had calmed Han's misgivings, and bolstered his self confidence. Leia knew she would forever be in her brother's debt for his support during the hectic weeks leading up to the wedding.
Luke had confided in Leia that he was spending many hours in the Jedi history room, much to Leia's chagrin. She'd not been happy that he had gone down into the dangerous underworld of Coruscant so many times alone, but the beings living down there had allowed him to pass. All Luke had to do was turn on his lightsaber, and they quickly disappeared. He had been able to locate the library easily, since he'd left a tracking device inside the room the first time they'd been there. But Luke had been disheartened that the strange Force-feelings had simply vanished from the area when he returned a second time. Still, the history cubes held his interest for hours on end. There was one thing that bothered Luke - he could find no mention of Anakin Skywalker. This had been deeply disappointing to the young Jedi. Even the cube discussing Obi-Wan had abruptly stopped shortly after mentioning the death of his Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn.
Luke and Leia had discussed Han's abduction by the bounty hunter in detail. Chewie worried that the Hutt would not give up so easily, and the twins knew this was undoubtedly true. Leia didn't know how to solve this dilemma. Keeping someone constantly by his side would help ensure Han's safety, but at what cost to his self esteem? He needed his independence, the ability to move about on his own. Leia didn't know how to resolve this problem. But first they would be tackling a different problem. Today, they would be leaving to make the rendezvous with the two smugglers Chewie and Lando had contacted two months ago.
They would first meet with Talon Karrde, on Ylesia. Leia sincerely hoped they would be able to convince Captain Karrde to become a legitimate shipper. Success would not only help the New Republic, it would give Han a much needed moral boost, and make him feel he could contribute to the future of the New Republic.
It was the second contact that bothered Leia - Salla Zend. She was insisting on meeting them on Nal Hutta, which was the first bad sign. And the fact she was a former girl friend of Han's was the second bad sign. Han hadn't wanted to set up this meeting at all. When Leia heard the details of exactly how Salla became an ex-girlfriend, she was inclined to agree with him. Based on Lando's insistence that Salla was serious about becoming a legal shipper, Leia pressured Han to set up the meeting. Han hadn't been happy about this, especially when last week Lando abruptly announced he was resigning from the New Republic to purchase a "..unbeatable business deal". ".. a once in a lifetime opportunity." Or so Lando had declared. "I can't pass this up - this deal is worth millions!"
So it would be the four of them, Han, Chewie, Luke and Leia, heading off for Ylesia today, just like old times. Well, almost like old times. Han would no longer be at the control of the Falcon - Luke would be acting as the Captain. Of all aspects of his blindness, this is what hurt Han the most, and it hurt Leia that she could do nothing to help him.
Han stirred beside her and instinctively opened his eyes. Since he couldn't see her, she had quickly learned to substitute touch for sight. Reaching over, Leia stroked his cheek with the back of her fingers. "Good morning, Han," she said softly.
Han smiled and covered her fingers with his own hand. "Morning, sweetheart." Leia nuzzled up to his side, kissing his neck and jaw line. "This is a nice way to wake up," Han murmured as he wrapped his arms around his new wife.
"Today is the big day," Leia said as she nibbled his earlobe. "Chewie probably has been up for hours waiting for us."
"Let him wait," Han said huskily as he gently rolled Leia onto her back. Leia smiled at how careful he had become of her abdomen. She shut her eyes and gave a soft sigh as Han trailed kisses down her neck and shoulders, stroking her body with light fingertip touches. Her worries about how blindness would change him as a lover had been answered a long time ago.
Han, Leia and Threepio headed up the ramp of the Millennium Falcon loaded with suitcases. Han and Threepio carried the suitcases, anyway. Han refused to let Leia carry anything "in your condition" as he'd put it. Leia had tried to argue, but Han wouldn't hear her protests. But he still could not stop himself from complaining. "I don't know why we have to take all these clothes!" Han protested as he hoisted up a long strapped bag that was slipping down off his shoulder.
"Because, Han," Leia explained patiently. "I have no idea how long we are going to be gone, and my clothing size seems to change by the day. Besides, now that you're my husband, you have to look presentable. I have an image to maintain, you know."
Han just shook his head in mock dismay and carted the baggage into the Falcon. Once inside, he dumped the bags on the floor at his feet and rubbed his sore arm.
"Beep breeb," the small Artoo unit greeted his protocol partner.
"Artoo!" exclaimed Threepio, "Just don't stand there! I need help putting Master Han's and Princess Leia's clothes away."
Artoo made an indignant raspberry beep and extended his 'arm' to pick up the nearest bag. R2-D2 spun away from Threepio and led the way to Han's room, without waiting for the tall droid. "I just do not understand where you ever learned your manners, Artoo!" Threepio called after the little droid as he followed down the corridor.
"Do the droids have to come?" Han griped.
"Yes, dear," Leia said smiling. "If you don't stop complaining, I'm going to tape your mouth shut."
"About time you two got here," Luke said as he came down the hall. "I thought I was going to have to send out a search party."
"Blame your sister," Han answered. "She thinks it's necessary to take twenty bags of clothes."
"It's only six bags, and you're the one who spent half an hour in the shower!" she shot back.
Luke laughed. "You two sound like you've been married ten years instead of two weeks!" The young Jedi picked up the remainder of the luggage on the floor. "Why don't you go to the cockpit? We have clearance to leave in less than ten minutes."
Luke entered the cockpit a few minutes later as Chewie was starting up the engines. Han sat behind the pilot's seat, and Leia sat behind Chewie. Like Leia, Luke felt a deep sadness that Han was no longer at the controls of the Falcon, but life had not been kind or fair to any of the occupants of the small freighter. Despite that, each of them had survived the pitfalls and adjusted. Those that could not adjust to the problems of life withered and died, but the three humans and Wookiee inside the Falcon were fighters. Pushing aside feelings of pity for his friend, Luke clapped Han's shoulder as he stepped past and sat down in the pilot's seat. "The droids are strapped in," he announced. "Everybody ready for our next adventure?"
Chewie gave an affirmative roar, and Han said with a rueful smile, "Ready as we'll ever be, kid!"
The Millennium Falcon rose gracefully into the Coruscant sky and headed for space.
The Falcon dropped out of hyperspace over the planet of Ylesia three standard days later. Luke and Leia had spent the travel time to continue training with lightsabers, and Leia had spent time helping Han practice his finger-reading. At first, Han had been reluctant to stumble over his sentences with everyone listening, but when Luke had gently asked him, "If it isn't Leia or Chewie you're embarrassed to practice in front of, then is it me?"
The question had taken Han aback as he realized the three people he trusted most would never laugh at him or insult him. "I'm sorry, Luke. I ... I didn't mean to imply.."
"It's alright, Han," Luke quickly reassured him. "Just don't forget, we're family now." After that small problem, the trip passed with very little tension.
"There she is, Ylesia," Luke declared. "Lots of space traffic. I'm surprised."
"I'm not," Han replied. "This planet always was a busy place. I have a lot of not-too-fond memories of this place."
Leia shot Han a look. "Did you met Salla here?"
Han squirmed uncomfortably. "Ah, no... not Salla."
Chewie turned in his chair to face Han and growled. "No, I haven't told her," Han answered his friend defensively. "I didn't think it was necessary." Chewie shook his shaggy head and turned his attention back to the controls.
Leia groaned. "I suppose you have another ex-girlfriend that lives here?"
"Not anymore," Han replied tightly, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the side of his seat. "Do you want a list, Leia?"
"No, Han." The Princess sighed. "I have a feeling I'd die of old age before you would be able to complete it."
Chewie woofed in laughter, and Luke chuckled. "I thought you two would argue less when you got married."
"Whatever gave you that idea, Luke?" Han asked with a lopsided grin, relieved the conversation had taken a less dangerous turn.
"Oh, I don't know," Luke said with a sigh. "Wishful thinking?"
The discussion of Han's many former flames was dropped as they landed on the surface of the planet. "The meeting with Karrde isn't for about four hours. We should get to the hotel and check in," Luke said. "I'll go tell Threepio and Artoo to get ready."
The group gathered the luggage, and made certain they were well armed. Even Han wore his blaster, tied down to his thigh. At Leia's insistence, Han also had a small locater hidden inside his boot. The Princess was still not ready to take chances with his safety so soon after the incident with Dengar.
Once they arrived at the hotel, the group found that the room had been prepaid. It turned out that Captain Karrde had arranged for them to stay at a very nice hotel, and also paid the tab, which surprised Leia. It was a large, well appointed room with two separate bedrooms. Luke and Chewie would share the one room, which had two beds. Han and Leia took the other room, with one larger, single bed. As Luke started toward his bedroom, Han called over to him, "I have to warn ya kid, the Wookiee snores."
Chewie gave a howl of protest before Leia addressed Han, "So do you, dear."
The three humans and Wookiee took time to clean up and rest from the journey. The change of scenery was nice, and Leia always appreciated non-recycled air after traveling in space. Leia lay down on the large bed and looked over at Han, who was sitting in a chair by an open balcony window. His eyes were shut and his head resting against the back of the cushioned chair, hands folded in his lap. "Are you worried?" she asked him.
"About Karrde?" Han replied without moving. "Nah. He has a decent reputation. I don't think he'll stab us in the back."
"You said the same thing when we landed on Bespin."
Han turned his head toward her and grinned. "Had to remind me, huh?"
"That's my job."
A knock on the bedroom door interrupted them. "Come in," Leia called.
Luke opened the door and stuck his head in. "We should get going. The restaurant where we're meeting Karrde is about half an hour drive."
"Master Luke!" Threepio asked worriedly, having followed him into the bedroom. "What would you like Artoo and me to do while you are gone?"
Luke rolled his eyes and told the droid patiently, "Just wait here, Threepio. We'll be back before you know it."
"I just hate being left behind. One never knows what kind of problems are going to happen when no one is around to help us droids," Threepio protested.
"Nothing is going to happen, Threepio," Leia tried to reassure the nervous droid.
"And if it does," Han put in helpfully, "you can just jump off the balcony. We're only on the third floor."
Leia gave Han a jab in his ribs and led him out of the room behind Luke and Chewbacca.
Luke knew immediately which table belong to Captain Karrde. He sat, with an associate on either side, at the back of the expensive restaurant. The table was large and round, and Karrde had his back to the wall, his view of the vast restaurant unobstructed. Luke didn't sense deception from the man, only wariness and curiosity. Leia insisted that she and Han greet Captain Karrde first, and Luke had concurred. Han and Leia would be the ones doing the negotiations. Luke and Chewie were merely backup in case of difficulties.
They arrived at the table where Karrde and his two people, a balding, pasty-skinned short human male, and a tall fur-covered female from a feline species, sat waiting. When the former Rebels arrived at the table, Karrde stood up. Like the four New Republic representatives, Karrde and his people were well-armed.
"Captain Karrde," Leia began formally. "My name is Leia Organa-Solo. I am very glad to meet you." She held out her hand, and Karrde took it politely. "This is my husband, Han Solo," she continued, "my husband's partner, Chewbacca, and Jedi Luke Skywalker."
"Nice meeting you, Princess," Karrde replied smoothly. "And you as well, Captain Solo. I believe we met briefly, years ago."
Han held his breath and put out his hand, hoping the man would take it. He was relieved when Karrde grasped his outstretched hand and shook it. "Nice meeting you again, Captain Karrde."
"I hear congratulations are in order Solo," Karrde said with a smile. "A new marriage and babies on the way. You are a very lucky man."
Leia's assessment of Karrde immediately went up. Instead of mentioning Han's blindness, the man was choosing to focus on the good that was happening in Han's life. The Princess felt immensely grateful to Captain Karrde.
Karrde then turned his attention to Luke and Chewie. "Nice seeing you again as well, Chewbacca," he said. "And I have heard a great deal about you too, young man." He shook both Luke and Chewie's hands and indicated they should all have a seat. "This is one of my favorite places to dine while on Ylesia," Karrde said. "I hope you find it as enjoyable as I do."
Once seated, Karrde suddenly slapped his forehead. "How impolite of me, I did not introduce my co-workers. This is my navigator, Aspey Plue." Karrde indicated to the short, pudgy man. "And my first mate, Taqi Shareij," Talon Karrde held his hand toward the slinky feline. Karrde's crew nodded reservedly at the former rebels.
The human waiter approached the table, and Karrde suggested they order a well known local wine. He assured them it had low alcohol content, and was quite good. Since no one wanted to have their judgment impaired with strong alcohol, Leia placed the order, even though she did not drink any of the wine herself because of her pregnancy.
Small talk went on during the course of the meal until Plue, who had spent the entire dinner alternately staring at Han and leering at Leia, could no longer resist asking, "So, Solo, how does it feel to be blind?"
Han stiffened and opened his mouth to reply when Karrde interrupted. "I'm sorry for my Navigator's remark, Solo. He sometimes has a severe lack of tact."
"That's okay, Karrde," Han remarked. "I'll answer his question. Try putting on a blindfold, Plue, and walk around for an hour wearing it. Then you'll have a very small idea of what it's like, except I can't take my 'blindfold' off. Ever." Plue only gave a twisted smile in Solo's direction, pleased he had drawn attention to Han's handicap.
Han felt Leia grasp his fingers and give him a soft squeeze. Karrde cleared his throat in the uncomfortable silence that followed, then suggested, "Why don't we discuss the terms your new government would like to offer me to become a legitimate shipper?"
The foursome walked down the hall of the hotel to their room. "That went fairly well," Luke remarked. "No blasters, no lightsabers, no threats."
Leia laughed, "That's always a sign of a successful evening, Luke." Chewie woofed his agreement and patted Han on the top of his head. "What did he say, Han?" Leia asked cheerfully.
Han sighed and translated. "Chewie said he only worried one time that I was going to break the wine bottle over that jerk Plue's head."
The group laughed and opened the door to the suite. Instantly, Luke, Leia and Chewie became silent. "What's wrong?" Han asked in the sudden quiet.
"Our room's been ransacked, Han," Luke answered. "And I don't see any sign of Artoo and Threepio."
Han stood behind the sofa while his wife and friends searched the room and picked up the overturned furniture. After listening to them moving furniture for a few minutes, he wandered out to the balcony, carefully reaching his hand forward to grasp the railing. His fingers found dangling loose rails instead. "Luke?" Han shouted back at the room.
Luke quickly came out on the balcony and noticed the broken railing immediately. "You don't suppose Goldenrod actually thought I was serious and jumped, do you?" Han questioned his brother-in-law. The young Jedi looked down over the edge. Three floors down, lying flat on his back in bushes, was Threepio. His photoreceptor eyes were dark.
"He's down there, Han," Luke informed him. "Tell Leia I went to get him." With that, Luke leaped off the balcony, using the Force to slow his descent.
His sudden disappearance startled Han. "Luke!?" Han shouted. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Han" Luke yelled up to his friend. Han jumped slightly when Leia stepped behind him and put her arm around his waist.
"He's a Jedi, Han," she said to her husband. "The Force can help him land softly from distances that would break another person's bones."
"Ah." Han nodded. "I think that's very unfair, you know. You and Luke get extra senses, and I get one of mine taken away." He said it lightly, but Leia knew, deep down, he did feel a certain sense of injustice. She couldn't truly fault him for feeling that way.
Smiling up at him, she put a finger over the scar on his chin and teased, "Are you talking about the common sense you seem to have been born without?"
"Hey!" he protested with a laugh, then admitted, "You're right. That's two I don't have!"
Down below the balcony, Luke switched the 'on' switch behind Threepio's neck. The golden droid sat up, startled. "No! Don't push me off...." the droid said as he flung his arms up protectively.
"Threepio," Luke said. "It's all right. Who pushed you?"
"Master Luke!" the droid cried. "It was terrible! It was awful! They were evil people, throwing things around, threatening helpless droids!"
"Threepio!" Luke said firmly. "How many were there?"
"Two, Master Luke." Threepio swiveled his head toward Luke. "They pushed me off the balcony! Why would they do such a terrible thing?"
"I don't know, Threepio," Luke said gently. "Do you know what happened to Artoo?"
"Artoo is missing?" Threepio wailed. "Oh dear! Poor Artoo! In the evil clutches of those bounty hunters!"
Luke took the droid by the arms and held him still. "How do you know they were bounty hunters?"
Threepio stopped his whining for a moment and considered. "Well, they did mention a reward and Hutts, so I must have assumed they were speaking about Master Han."
Luke stood up and helped Threepio to his feet. "Come on, Threepio," Luke said with a sigh. "We need to get upstairs and figure out how to find Artoo."
The small group sat around in the living area of the hotel room. "I don't like this Luke," Leia said. "I know we need to find Artoo, but the idea of you going off alone bothers me. It's almost like they want us to separate."
"I agree, sister," Luke replied. "But I think Chewie should stay with you and Han. I can handle myself."
Han bit his lower lip. He was unable to stop himself from thinking, And I can't handle myself. I need Chewie and Leia to protect me! He felt like pounding his fist on a table in frustration, but restrained the impulse. "You can take Chewie with you, Luke," Han said evenly. "I don't need both of them to baby-sit me."
The twins exchanged a knowing look. They could not remain so overprotective of Han, or he would feel like he was a burden. "He's right," Leia responded aloud. "Either Chewie or I should go with you."
Luke pondered the options. Walking around with Chewie would make himself too obvious. With Leia, they would just appear to be a couple. Finally, Luke agreed, "Then you should come with me, Leia. We need to get going right away."
Leia gave Han a quick hug and kiss. "Stay with Chewie, and don't leave the hotel room," she instructed her husband.
"Yes, mommy," Han said with a teasing grin. "I'll behave myself."
Artoo wandered around in circles. He was locked in a hold on a small ship, parked so close to the Falcon it seemed if he beeped loudly enough, he would have been heard. That is, if someone was actually onboard the Falcon. Artoo knew that was unlikely. Fortunately, his kidnappers had not thought to put a restraining bolt on the small droid. Artoo decided if he was going to get rescued, he was going to have to rescue himself.
He extended his 'arm' and plugged himself in to an outlet in the hold of the ship. Quickly, he ran through the ship's schematics, determined his best option, and took action.
Up in the cockpit, two dirty humans sat and waited for instructions from their employer. Lights began flashing on the console, and they looked at each other, puzzled. Their puzzlement changed to shock when billows of white smoke started pouring from the air shafts, and alarms began sounding.
"Quick, Smiy, grab the extinguisher!" the older man cried. Both men stumbled out into the corridor, trying to locate a fire extinguisher. They were so busy with the crisis, they did not even notice the small droid rolling quietly past, and down the exit ramp that he had surreptitiously lowered minutes earlier.
Leia was trying to keep up with her fast moving brother. "Luke! Will you slow down?" she asked. "We don't even know where we're going!"
Luke slowed, but didn't stop. "I think we should go the spaceport, Leia."
"Because if he was taken by bounty hunters, they have a ship, and if they have a ship, that's where Artoo will be."
The idea made sense to Leia, so she continued to follow her brother until they got to the spaceport. The docking area seemed to be in chaos. Hovercrafts with fire equipment apparatus sat parked around, and humans and non-humans alike milled about in confusion. Smoke hung low, like fog, in the docking area. It was obvious that a ship had been on fire. Instantly, both Luke and Leia became concerned about the Falcon and tried to make their way to the berth where the battered old freighter was parked.
A security guard attempted to block their way. "I'm sorry. Fire personnel only allowed past this point," the local said firmly, holding his arms out to stop them.
"But our ship is parked right here!" Leia snapped at him.
"Doesn't matter," he declared with an air of superiority. "You'll have to wait until the area is declared safe."
"We can pass," Luke said calmly. "It won't be a problem."
"You can pass," the guard declared smugly. "It won't be a problem."
Leia's mouth dropped open, and Luke grabbed her by the wrist and quickly pulled her past the guard. "How did you do that?" she asked in awe.
"Jedi mind trick." Luke grinned. "I need to teach it to you."
"I guess you will," she agreed. "Does it work on stubborn husbands?"
Luke laughed. "I wouldn't recommend it."
They both felt relief when they got to the Falcon and saw she was intact and untouched. A smaller ship, parked not far from the Falcon, appeared to be the one with the problem. Wisps of white smoke still rose from the ramp, and the apparent owners stood not far from their ship, waving their arms frantically at the harried firemen. Leia punched in the access code and they both wasted no time hurrying inside the safety of the ship. Luke turned on the ship's comlink, and scanned the entries. "Here's a message from Artoo!" Luke nearly shouted.
Leia leaned over his shoulder, and read the message. "I am returning to our hotel. Please use caution around our smoking neighbors."
Leia and Luke looked at each other in surprise. "I guess we should never underestimate Artoo," Luke said finally.
C-3PO was getting on Han's last nerve. His constant babbling about "poor Artoo" and how terrible it had been falling off the balcony tempted Han to push him off into the bush a second time. The Corellian was starting to wonder just how mad Leia would be if he used the droid for target practice when the room buzzer rang. Chewbacca leapt off the sofa, and holding his bowcaster ready, went to the door. Chewie opened the video/audio link to the outside hall, let out a roar, and opened the door. The little blue and white droid rolled into the room, beeping happily.
Han stood up. "Artoo? Where did you go?" he asked, rather surprised the small droid had returned alone. "Luke and Leia are out looking for you!"
"Artoo!" Threepio scolded. "I should have known you would do something like this just to scare everyone! You should be ashamed of yourself, you little trouble maker!"
"Threepio!" Han snapped. "Will you shut your trap for half a second? Let Artoo tell us where he has been."
Chewie woofed his agreement with Han and took a threatening step in the direction of the golden droid. C-3PO backed away worriedly. "Of course..... Artoo, tell us where you went."
The small droid gave a lengthy series of beeps and buzzes. When he was done, Threepio stood next to his partner and nodded in sympathy, "How terrible for you!"
"What....Did....He.....Say.....Goldenrod?" Han asked through clenched teeth.
"Oh, dear me," Threepio said. "I apologize, Master Han. Sometimes I seem to forget humans can't understand Artoo."
Chewie threw his head back, gave a huge roar of frustration and started stalking toward C-3PO, fully intending to shake the droid until he heard parts rattling inside the gold head. "Oh no!" Threepio squealed, throwing his arms up to protect himself from the towering Wookiee.
"Are we having a problem in here?" Leia asked as she stepped into the room, trying to sound stern.
Han turned his head in Leia's direction. "No, sweetheart... no problem," he replied sheepishly. "I just love spending quality time with the droids."
Aspey Plue stood in the gloomy bar, glaring at his employees. "You lost the droid? Was that such a hard assignment? Keeping a little droid from escaping?" he snarled at the two men.
"He overheated the main power couplings," the older man tried defending himself.
Plue slammed his fist down on the table, rattling the glasses so hard they sloshed the drinks on to the table. "Get the ship fixed, NOW!" he ordered his men. "You are going to have to follow them to their next destination. My partner is not going to be happy!"
En route to Nal Hutta
Han sat crossed legged on the floor above the open hatch where Chewie was working inside the Falcon. He could hear the hiss of lightsabers as Leia and Luke practiced in the hold, and smelled the ozone tang that resulted from the sabers striking each other. It made Han nervous to think of Leia using one of those ancient weapons. One wrong move, and you could be maimed or dead. *Han, are you listening to me?* Chewie called up from the hatch. *I need a Type Four socket wrench, if you are not too busy.*
Han drew his attention back to the repair job. "Sorry, pal," he apologized. "My mind was elsewhere." He heard Chewie give a snort as the Corellian moved his fingers lightly over the tools laid out in front of him until he located the appropriate wrench. He picked it up and turned it over in his hand several times to be certain it was the correct tool before leaning over and handing it down to his partner. Chewie was flat on his back, and had been holding his hand up for the tool. The Wookiee grasped the wrench and continued to work, thinking, This space is too tight for Wookiees. No wonder Han was always the one down here! Unfortunately, since Han could no longer do the work, the Wookiee was forced to do the job. Chewie supposed he could ask Luke to get down in the access tube, but he trusted no one to work on the Falcon but Han and himself - not even Luke or Lando. Few people would be able to make sense out of the jury-rigged wires and circuits that Han and Chewie had installed over the years.
*I think I have the circuit board better re-connected, Han,* Chewie informed his friend as he squirmed out of the tube.
"Good," Han said as he began putting the tools back into the box. "Now maybe the damn lights will stay on in the cockpit when we power up."
"Master Han!" Threepio said as he came up behind the Corellian. "Mistress Leia asked me to tell you we will be arriving at Nal Hutta soon, and wonders if you are about finished."
"It's a really bad idea for annoying droids to come up behind me when I have heavy tools in my hand," Han commented to Chewie.
Chewie laughed and stood up, brushing the dust off his fur. *Do you think Luke would notice a new dent?* he growled at Han.
"Mercy me!" C-3PO declared indignantly. "I am only passing on the message, sir."
"Are you being mean to Threepio again, Han?" Leia appeared from behind the droid and asked as Han was standing up.
He gave his best innocent look in her direction, and grinned, "Who, me?"
Leia shot a look at the Wookiee. "You just encourage his bad behavior, Chewie," she admonished lightly. Leia looped her hand through her unrepentant husband's arm and started toward the cockpit.
"Are you gonna punish me?" Han asked his wife hopefully as she began to lead him away. Leia took her hand off his arm and gave her husband a loud swat on his rear. "Ow!" he howled in protest as they rounded the corner. "That hurt!"
Chewie heard Leia reply, "You big baby...." before her voice faded away. The Wookiee shook his shaggy head and wondered exactly how long he was going to have to put up with their newlywed antics.
No hotel arrangements had been made for them on this crime-riddled planet, controlled by the Hutts. Han was pleased they would be staying on the ship, since he did not want to leave the Falcon unattended. He was very unhappy that they were here at all. To make matters even worse, Salla Zend had sent them a message as soon as they left hyperspace, stating she had been unavoidable detained and would be about thirty hours late. So they waited nervously as the hours passed.
"I don't understand why we agreed to meet Salla here," he griped as he put on his jacket. "It's the Hutts that are gunning for us, and now here we are, presenting ourselves to them on a platter."
"The Hutts aren't going to be coming after us personally, Han," Luke reasoned with his brother-in-law. "They'll just send bounty hunters after us no matter where we are."
"And Letti the Hutt is on Tatooine, anyway," Leia pointed out to her husband.
Han sighed. He knew he wasn't going to win this argument, but he still hated being on this planet.
"You aren't planning on leaving me and Artoo alone again, are you Master Luke?" Threepio asked worriedly as he watched the group get ready to depart. "You do remember what happened last time, don't you?"
"No, Threepio," Han shot back sarcastically. "We don't remember a thing. Total mass amnesia"
"Then allow me to refresh your memory, sir," the droid started to say, totally oblivious to Han's sarcasm. "When the four of you left last time...."
"Threepio," Luke interrupted. "We remember. Chewie is going to be staying with you this time, alright?"
The fact that Chewie was staying on the Falcon was at Han's insistence that the ship needed guarding more than any concern the Corellian had over the droids. But that fact wouldn't bother C-3PO. He was just relieved he was not going to be left alone with Artoo. "Thank you, Master Luke!" Threepio gushed. "I cannot even begin to express my gratitude that you are concerned about my welfare!"
Luke just sighed and asked Leia and Han, "Are you two ready?"
Nal Hutta was a steamy, hot world that the slug-like Hutts would love. Humans found the humidity repressive, and the general filth of the planet repulsive. The trio walked through the streets, with Han between his wife and brother-in-law. Luke reached out with his Force-sense. Most of the beings surrounding them reeked of hate, lust and distrust. The Jedi would have preferred not to sense all these negative emotions, but he needed to stay on-guard. The only question was whether he would be able to sense imminent danger, since all the nasty feelings swirling around could cloud an individual threat. By the time they reached the address they had been given, the three were soaked with sweat, their clothes sticking to them as rivers of perspiration ran down their backs. The blast of cold air as they entered the dingy bar instantly chilled them.
"I think they're trying to send us into cold-shock," Leia complained as her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. The bar was nearly empty, with a few patrons sitting at the counter, as well as one small table, occupied by a pair of Bith. "I don't see any sign of your girlfriend, dearest," Leia said.
"Don't call her that, please," Han requested in an annoyed tone.
"I'll go ask the bartender," Luke quickly put in before an argument could ensue. He walked up to the nasty looking Duros, who stood behind the bar glaring at the newcomers. "Hello," Luke began as politely as possible. "We are supposed to meet a woman here. Her name is Salla Zend - she's a human female, dark hair, about thirty years old. Have you seen anyone matching that description?"
"Do I look like a pimp to you, sonny?" the bartender snarled at Luke. "Either buy drinks or get lost!"
Luke cleared his throat. He didn't want to get into a confrontation with this man, so he ordered two glasses of Corellian whiskey and a cup of iced caf. The bartender glared at Luke and made no move to fill his order.
"Is there a problem with my order?"
"I have to make some caf, spacehead," the bartender snapped back. "Go sit down, and I'll bring over your drinks when it's done." He turned away from Luke, effectively dismissing him.
Luke shook his head and went back to the small table were Leia and Han had sat. "Don't touch the surface of the table, Han," Leia warned. "It looks like an entire colony of germs has taken up residence."
Han just grinned at his wife's warning and asked Luke, "Did you get any information?"
"No," Luke said morosely. "He isn't exactly the friendly type. I guess we'll just have to wait and see if she shows up."
"Well," Han mused, "It would be just like her to not show. I warned you she hates me."
"Shh," Leia whispered as the bartender walked to their table, carrying the three drinks.
They watched as he slammed the whiskeys and the caf down in front of them, hard enough that some of the drink sloshed out of the glasses. "That'll be twenty credits," he sneered at Luke.
"Twenty credits?" Han sputtered. "For three drinks?"
The bartender turned his attention to the Corellian. "Ya got a problem with my prices, no-eyes?"
Han's face flushed red with anger, and his hand went to his blaster. Leia quickly reached under the table and stayed her husband's hand, silently willing him to remain calm even though she was furious with the bartender's comment herself. "Luke, pay the man," Leia ordered her brother. Luke withdrew the credit chips and handed them to the bartender.
"You're an awfully pretty thing to be hangin' around with these two losers, missy," the bartender smiled at her, showing a mouthful of yellowed and missing teeth. "Ditch the blond boy and blind guy. We could have a good time, you an' me."
"I would rather be covered with honey and tied to a Tatooine fireant sandhill than walk two feet with you, sir," Leia said sweetly.
The bartender snorted. "Enjoy your drinks," he snapped, before turning and leaving.
Luke breathed a sigh of relief and shared a worried look with his sister. The nasty comment about Han's blindness had upset the Corellian. Han's fingers sought, and found the drink and he downed it in one gulp. Leia touched Han's sleeve. "That man isn't worth getting upset about, Han," she pleaded softly. He didn't answer her. For lack of anything better to do, the Princess picked up the iced caf and tentatively tasted it. The chilled and sweetened caf wasn't bad at all, she decided, and drained her cup.
After a few moments, Luke sipped at his whiskey and made a face. "I don't know how you can drink this stuff, Han. It makes my eyes water."
"Only the first taste," Han replied. "It gets better after that." Leia was glad Han at least answered her brother, and smiled as she watched Luke take a large swallow and shut his eyes tightly as the liquid burned his throat.
"Hello, Han," a silky voice said from behind Leia. The trio turned to the voice. An elegant, dark skinned human female stood behind Han's chair. Leia immediately knew this was Salla Zend. She could be beautiful, except her eyes are so hard, Leia thought, instantly sizing her up.
"Salla," Han said neutrally. "Nice of you to show up. This is my wife, Leia Organa, and my.. friend Luke Skywalker."
"Hello," Salla said politely. "It's very nice to meet the woman who finally caught the 'great' Han Solo." She returned her gaze to Han. "If I had known this is what it would take to snare you, I could have arranged for you to lose your sight, too."
Han's expression closed off and he turned his face from her, his mouth tight with anger. "Would you like to have a seat?" Leia said formally, uncertain whether she should try to salvage the situation. She didn't like this woman. Han had been right when he ran away from marrying her.
"No, I don't think that will be necessary," Salla said with a smirk.
"You don't wish to negotiate with the New Republic?" Luke said surprised.
"Why would I want to do that?" she said, laughing. "The Hutts will be making me a rich woman in a few days."
Leia and Luke instantly stood up and reached for their lightsabers. At least Leia tried to reach for hers. The room began spinning, and her fingers missed the hilt of her saber. She lurched forward a step, and dropped awkwardly to her knees.
"Leia!" Luke cried as he moved to his sister's side, igniting his lightsaber. He looked at Salla Zend and distantly realized she was laughing, but he couldn't focus on her face. Luke's fingers went numb and his saber clattered to the floor, leaving a burn mark before automatically turning off. A second later, Luke dropped next to his sister. By this time, Han was struggling to get to his feet, his blaster already in his trembling hand. He waved it unsteadily in Zend's direction. Salla moved out of the line of fire, stepped past the prone body of the Princess, and snatched the blaster from the swaying Corellian.
"You.. you drugged us!" Han spat at his former lover. "Leia's pregnant! You could injure our children!"
"She'll be fine, and so will your half-breeds, Solo, if she gets to a decent medical clinic quickly," Salla shot back harshly. "I can't say the same for you, however."
Han's legs gave out, and as he collapsed to the floor his awareness left him.
Chewbacca was becoming more than a bit concerned. His friends had been gone far too long, and he had made numerous, unsuccessful attempts to reach them on their comlinks. Finally, the Wookiee could wait no more. Grabbing his bowcaster, he roared instructions to C-3PO and R2-D2. Without waiting to hear Threepio's arguments, Chewie stalked out of the ship, locking the ramp behind him. Threepio turned to his companion. "Why do these things always happen to droids?" he keened.
It didn't take Chewie long to reach the address of the dingy bar. He entered the run-down establishment with great caution, sniffing the smoky air. His humans had been here, although their scent was weak. The Wookiee eyed the wasted patrons sitting in the bar. Eight humans and humanoid beings sat around in small groups. Chewie looked over at the bartender and felt his fur stand on end. The bartender was leaning over the far side of the bar, showing one of his patrons a silver cylinder object, and comparing it to a second silver object. Lightsabers! Chewie's eyes went to a gunbelt with a holstered blaster lying on the bar. It was unmistakably Han's. Chewie was unable to restrain himself. Letting out a huge, angry roar, he pointed his bowcaster at the bartender. Pandemonium broke out. Humans and other beings that had appeared half-dead suddenly found the strength to move, and move swiftly. Those closest to the door fled, while others dove down under the tables where they had been sitting, as if somehow the thin wood might protect them from a Wookiee with a bowcaster. The patron on the barstool jumped over the bar, pushing the bartender aside. Glass shattered as the drunken customer crashed into the shelves of bottles stacked behind the bar. The ugly bartender dropped the lightsabers and reached for the blaster, but he was unable to pull Han's gun quickly enough from the holster. By the time he looked up, the enraged Wookiee was standing across the bar, pointing the bowcaster directly in his face. The color drained from the man's face as he dropped the blaster and slowly raised his hands above his head. "Please, please don't kill me," he stuttered. "I don't have many credits, but take 'em!" He indicated to a small cash box at the end of the bar.
Chewie gave a deep, threatening growl, and without taking his eyes from the bartender, put Han's blaster back into the holster and draped the belt over his shoulder. Chewie then stooped down and picked up both lightsabers that had fallen to the floor in the turmoil. Chewie placed one saber in his pouch, and held the other under the nose of the bartender. *Where are the owners of these?* he demanded.
"I don't understand you," the bartender pleaded with the giant Wookiee. "Someone gave me those things! I didn't steal them!" Chewie gave a roar of frustration, placed the second saber in his pouch and held up three fingers. When the bartender just shook his head in fear, Chewie drew back his fist and pounded it directly into the human's nose. The man's nose made a sickening crunch and he dropped to the floor behind the bar with a thud. Chewbacca stalked out of the bar, snarling at the people still cowering under the tables.
Luke regained consciousness in a dark alley. He sat up quickly, which made his head spin. Leia was laying next to him, moaning. "Leia," Luke said softly, touching her face. "Are you all right? Wake up!"
Leia's eyes opened. "Han!" she said softly. "They have Han."
"We'll get him back, sister," Luke replied. "But first we need to get you to a doctor."
Leia looked up at Luke, for a moment confused. Then she understood. "My babies! Something is wrong with my babies!" she whispered in fear.
"They're alive, Leia," Luke tried to reassure her. Luke stood and picked his sister up, not wanting her to walk. With his Force-senses still clouded by the drug, it was difficult for Luke to carry Leia. He staggered out of the alley, and down the dark street.
Leia wrapped her arms around Luke's neck and tried not to cry. "He didn't want to come here," she murmured against Luke's shoulder. "I should have listened to him. This is all my fault."
"No, Leia," Luke argued adamantly. "You can't see into the future. No one can - believe me, I have tried." The Jedi was beginning to worry about his ability to carry Leia much farther. He hadn't recovered from the drugging, and his legs and arms were trembling. He rounded a corner, and in the process nearly collided with a very large, very worried Wookiee.
Salla Zend watched out of her viewport as Nal Hutta grew smaller and smaller. Sitting in the cockpit with her were her two employees, a pair of dirty human men that her lover had hired for this job. Her 'cargo' was locked safely away. Soon she would be rid of them and her lover would rejoin her. Together, they would be rich. Together, they would own a fleet of ships. She smiled, reached over and flipped the 'send' switch on the console. Within hours, the Wild Karrde would receive this private signal, and soon they could begin their life of ease.
The cell was freezing cold, and Han lay curled on his side trying to preserve body heat. He was dressed only in his slacks - his jacket, shirt and boots had been removed before he had regained consciousness. His wrists were shackled to a chain around his waist and his ankles were also bound together. Other than a bottle of stale water, the only other object in the tiny room was a bucket so he would not have to soil the floor. All in all, Han was miserable. The only thing that gave him hope was the words Salla said before he lost consciousness - "She'll be fine if she gets to a decent medical facility." Han hoped those words meant Leia and Luke were safe.
The door slid open, letting in a small amount of warm air. Even that was a relief to his frozen body. Han struggled into a seated position. "Who's there?" his hoarse voice demanded.
"Just your jilted ex-lover, Solo," Zend sneered. "Do you like your accommodations? All the comforts of home?"
"Salla," Han said. He knew his only chance was trying to appeal to the person she used to be, the Salla he remembered. "You don't have to do this. If you need money, I can get it for you. Whatever the Hutt is paying you, Leia will double it."
Salla crouched down next to the man she once wanted to marry. "How does it feel to be a pet for a Princess and a Jedi, Solo? Someone they can parade around and feel superior to - just so they can show the galaxy what good people they are for taking care of a blind smuggler?" she taunted him.
"It's not that way, Salla," Han said carefully. He didn't want to antagonize her, but he still added, "Leia and I love each other."
"Sure you do, Solo." She laughed. "You have her completely fooled, I can tell. All that sabacc playing has really paid off for you."
"You have it all wrong," Han said evenly. "I wouldn't marry someone I didn't love."
"You mean like me?" she shot back angrily.
"You never loved me, either," Han replied. "If you were really honest with yourself, you could admit that."
Salla laughed and grabbed Han's face in a hard, painful grip, her fingernails digging into his jaw. Her lips found the Corellian's, even as he tried to wrench his head aside. Once she was satisfied that she had made him submit to her intimate kiss, she pulled back. Whispering softly into his ear she said, "You shouldn't be so opposed to kissing me, Solo. Believe me when I say this is the last time you will feel a woman's lips on yours." She stood and left.
Leia was laying on the cot in Han's room while Luke held her hand. The Millennium Falcon was in hyperspace, headed full speed to Coruscant. Chewbacca was pacing the hallways, agitated, knowing they were going in the opposite direction of Tatooine and there was nothing he could do about it. He felt like he was being torn in two. Ultimately, Chewie knew what Han would want - Leia and his children would be more important to him than his life. So, despite his desire to head to Tatooine immediately, Chewbacca had conceded to Luke's decision to get Leia medical attention first.
Luke sat with his eyes shut, trying to find a way to help both his sister and his friend. While he could still sense the presence of the twins inside Leia, she was spotting blood. When they reached Coruscant, they might very well be too late to save the babies. Luke knew if Leia lost both her children and Han she might not recover from the emotional blow. Desperately, Luke pushed himself deeper into his Force trance, trying to find a solution.
Talon Karrde was furious. His new navigator, Aspey Plue, had stolen a small but very expensive hyperspace capable shuttle and taken off from the Wild Karrde hours earlier. I should never have trusted that little slimy worm, Karrde fumed. I really fell for his bragging and so-called credentials. The buzzer on his desk sounded. "Yes?" he snapped.
"Sir," his young communication expert said crisply. "I have traced the encrypted signals sent to Plue's quarters, like you requested."
"The signals were coming from a private freighter, directly outside the Nal Hutta system."
Karrde frowned. The Nal Hutta system was the next destination of the Millennium Falcon. "Who was it from, and what did it say?"
"It was from someone named Zend," the communication officer stated. "The exact words were...'Solo in custody, meet me on Tatooine'."
Talon Karrde shook his head. You sure live up to your reputation, Solo, he thought wryly. Karrde returned to his bridge and ordered a call placed to the Millennium Falcon.
En route to Coruscant
Luke sat next to Leia's bed in deep meditation. Stop the ship, Luke. Leave hyperspace, now. The young Jedi's eyes snapped open, uncertain what he had 'heard'.' Stop the ship? They were in the middle of nowhere. Chewie was already beside himself with worry over both Leia and Han. If he told the Wookiee to stop, Chewie might just decide to rip him in two out of frustration. Still, the intense feeling persisted. Luke rose from the floor, kissed his sleeping sister on her forehead, and went to the hold of the ship.
"Chewie, we need to stop the ship," Luke said, watching the Wookiee worriedly.
*Stop?* Chewie growled. *We are not near any system with a medical facility. Why do you wish to stop?*
Threepio helpfully translated the Wookiee's words to Luke. The young Jedi didn't know how to tell Chewie the truth. "Chewie, I just have a feeling," he said tentatively. "I think the Force has told me to stop."
*A feeling?* Chewie roared at Luke. *You think the Force has told you to stop? This is nonsense! We cannot stop in the middle of nowhere - it is wasting precious time. Time we do not have!*
Threepio backed nervously away from the angry Wookiee and translated. "I don't believe Chewbacca thinks it is a good idea, Master Luke," Threepio added helpfully.
"I understand," Luke tried to reason with Chewie. "Please? I can't explain it any better. Do you think I would ask you this if I didn't think it was important? Han and Leia mean just as much to me as they do to you, Chewie."
Chewie gave a bark of frustration. *I hope you know what you are doing, Young One.* He left for the cockpit, to do as Luke requested, despite having grave misgivings.
Luke followed the Wookiee to the cockpit. "Thank you, Chewie. I know this is taking a huge leap of faith on your part."
They sat down at the controls, and Chewie pulled the Falcon from hyperspace. The stars became clear and sharp. Once stopped, Chewie turned in his seat and looked expectantly at the young Jedi. *Now what?*
Luke shrugged. That always seemed to be the problem with Force feelings. They were so vague. "I guess we wait for a while, okay?" he looked at Chewie. Chewie gave a deep sigh, borne of frustration. They waited.
Salla Zend's ship arrived on Tatooine, and she put her ship down near the palace that had once belonged to Jabba the Hutt. She knew Aspey would soon be arriving. Together, they would take Han Solo to his fate, and become rich in the process. She had dreamed of this day of revenge for years, and carefully planned it ever since Lando Calrissian contacted her over three months ago. It had been all too easy to fool Calrissian into believing she wanted to join the New Republic. His excursion to find smugglers to help the fledgling government had not been going well, and he had been pleased to hear she was interested.
Everything was working perfectly, but suddenly the idea of sending Han to his death depressed her, and she got angry at herself for having second thoughts. He deserves this, she told herself. He deserves this, and don't you ever forget it!
Chewie sat drumming his clawed fingers on the cockpit console. He was about to tell Luke to forget the Force, he was not waiting any longer. Luke was still sitting next to him, in the pilot's seat. The seat that should be Han's. Would still be Han's if not for Darth Vader, Luke's father. Before Chewie could express his dark thoughts, Luke turned to him and said sadly, "I guess I was wrong. There is nothing here. Let's go."
Chewie nodded, and reached for the controls when the communication board lit up. His hand changed direction and he turned on the message. "This message is to Luke Skywalker or Princess Organa-Solo. This is Captain Talon Karrde. My navigator has betrayed your friend, Han Solo. I am on my way to Tatooine, and I will meet you there to assist in his rescue. Karrde out."
Chewie looked over at Luke. *What about Leia?* he questioned softly. Luke did not have Threepio behind him to translate, but he still understood Chewie's question.
"Karrde has a huge ship and a large crew. He runs a top-notch organization," Luke told the Wookiee confidently. "He'll have a state-of-the-art medical ward, I'm sure of it."
Chewie nodded his agreement. The two worked quickly to lay in a course for Tatooine.
Aspey Plue's stolen shuttle set down next to his girlfriend's ship. He quickly exited and caught her up in a kiss of celebration. "We're rich!" he shouted at her. "After today, everything we want is ours! I just don't know why we had to leave the other two behind. Letti would have paid good money for them, too."
Salla glared at Plue and then said calmly, "We couldn't handle all three of them. And Skywalker is supposedly a Jedi. We didn't need to take chances. Solo will make us rich enough, darling."
"Us, too," Smiy, their hired hand, put in. "We're in this with you, don't forget." The older man standing next to him nodded eagerly.
"Of course you will get your payment. You have been invaluable to us," Salla said with a forced smile. "Haven't they honey?" Salla turned to ask Plue.
Plue nodded, all the while thinking how good it was going to feel to finally dispose of the two bumbling idiots he had the misfortune to hire. He was certain no one in the galaxy would miss their worthless hides. Plue smiled congenially as he told the two men, "Go get the Hutt fodder, we have a business deal to wrap up."
Moments later, a chained and bedraggled Han Solo was pushed down the ramp. It was all Han could do to keep from falling. His legs were cramping and he was light-headed from hunger. He was roughly led to stand in front of Plue and Zend. "This is it, Solo," Plue smirked. "The Hutt will have you executed long before your friends get here. I just wish I could stay around long enough to be a witness."
"You're too much of a coward to wait around for my friends to show up," Han spat at his captor. "Good luck trying to spend the rest of your life hiding from a revenge-driven Wookiee!"
Plue's face got red with rage, and he made a fist and drove it into the Corellian's stomach. Han let out a gasp, and went down on his knees. "That's better," Plue laughed harshly. "You belong on your knees in front of me, slime."
He drew back his fist a second time, prepared to drive it into Han's face, when Salla stopped him. "We need to hurry, Aspey," she said, firmly grasping his arm. "This is wasting time."
Plue glared at her for a moment, then ordered his employees, "Bring him, and don't worry about how many times he falls."
Han fell down many times before the group finally made it before the throne of Letti the Hutt. Standing sightless before the Hutt was like a nightmarish flashback for Solo. Only this time he knew he was truly alone, with no friends to help him escape.
"We've brought you Solo, Oh Great Letti the Hutt," Salla intoned, trying to make the smallish Hutt feel more important than he was. "We ask only that you pay us the reward of five hundred thousand credits that you have posted for his capture."
Five hundred thousand credits? Han could barely believe his ears. Where did this distant relative of Jabba's get that kind of money? And why would he think it was necessary to put that kind of price on Han's head?
The Hutt began laughing. "I think you misunderstood me, human female." The Hutt laughed louder. "The reward is fifty thousand credits, not five hundred thousand!"
Zend and Plue exchanged worried looks. Salla knew Plue had promised their employees twenty-five thousand credits each, which would leave them with nothing. Plue was not in the least bit concerned about the empty promise to his employees, but he was furious at the Hutt. Letti the Hutt was looking greatly amused.
"I don't think we misunderstood you, you fat slug," Plue shot back at the Hutt. "You think you can cheat us? We'll take Solo and sell him to the Imperial regions! They'll pay more than a measly fifty thousand!"
If Han were not in such imminent danger, he would've found this exchange funny. He grinned in Plue's direction, and goaded his captor, "Guess you're not gonna be as rich as you thought, huh?"
"Shut up, Solo!" Plue growled and took a threatening step toward Han. He stopped when the two dozen guards surrounding the Hutt brought up their laser rifles and aimed them directly at the small group.
"You will take the fifty-thousand credits, or die," Letti informed Plue. He was becoming bored with these people, and wanted to move on to a more pressing matter - torturing and executing Han Solo.
Plue and Zend knew they couldn't win. Reluctantly, Salla told the Hutt, "Fine, give us the fifty-thousand." She hoped Plue would be able to renegotiate the fee with their employees.
Letti the Hutt gave orders to his guards. A credit voucher was produced, and the four humans were quickly, and unceremoniously, escorted from the palace.
The Hutt turned his attention to Solo. "Finally we meet, Solo," he said casually.
"You really did have a reward of five hundred thousand credits out there, didn't you?" Han asked.
The Hutt began to laugh again. "Greed works every time," he agreed with Han. "I like you, Corellian. Too bad I have to kill you."
"You don't have to kill me, you know," Han tried to bargain, while at the same time knowing he was wasting his breath. "The New Republic is trying to recruit people away from crime, and let them make an honest living. You could start a trend among Hutts - becoming an honest businessman!"
The Hutt roared in laughter. "Yes, Solo, I do like you!" He turned his head to his guards. "Chain him up and bring the neural flays out. No sense in wasting time!"
Luke was sitting in the cockpit, staring out at the blur of stars when Han's pain hit him. Not just pain, but agony. A second later, Leia screamed. Luke ran to his sister's side, and found Chewie already in the room, holding her. She was sitting up in bed, trembling. "They're killing him," she gasped.
"We'll be there in less than twelve hours, Leia," Luke said shakily.
"Too late," she wept. "It'll be too late."
The first time the crackling flay struck Han's back, he could only gasp in shock at the pain. The second stroke across his abdomen had brought a scream of agony from his throat. His torturer had taken great care to make certain Han didn't lose consciousness. He was an expert at what he did, and while Han longed to allow his awareness to fade into oblivion, specialized and highly illegal drugs, expertly administered by the torturer, ensured he did not. Eventually Solo's voice lost the ability to make any sound, and his mind could no longer register the amount of pain his body was forced to endure. When the Hutt was finally satisfied, he ordered the flaying stopped. Han was barely aware of dropping to the ground after being released from hanging by his chained wrists. He dimly felt himself being hoisted up, and brought before Letti the Hutt.
"Watching you scream has given me great pleasure, Solo," the Hutt informed him. "I am sure my uncle, the Late, Great, Jabba is well pleased in his afterlife. I now wish to inform you that you will be executed tomorrow morning, at dawn. I have decided on an old-fashioned style execution, my friend. I have built a gallows in the old pod-racing arena. There, you will hang by your thin neck, slowly suffocating, until you are dead. Then all my invited guests will have a celebration around your dead body. Tables will be set up around the gallows and much food and alcohol I will serve to everyone!" The beings in the audience wildly applauded this proclamation from the Hutt, and Letti clapped his small hands together in glee.
Han was dragged off to the dungeon, and thrown carelessly into a dank cell to wait for sunrise.
Dawn, over Tatooine
The Falcon dropped out of hyperspace, and docked with the Wild Karrde. Medical personnel immediately rushed the Princess to Captain Karrde's medical facility, with Luke, Chewie and the droids following closely behind.
Captain Karrde greeted Luke and Chewie as they entered the medical wing. "I'm sorry we are meeting again under such terrible circumstances," he told Luke. "I feel partially responsible for all this."
"It isn't your fault, Captain," Luke assured him, as he watched his sister disappear from view. "We appreciate what you are doing to help us."
"My medical staff is truly state of the art, Luke," Karrde said quietly. "If there is a way to save her babies, they will."
"I know. I just wish I could be in two places at the same time. Han's in terrible danger. I need to get down to the surface as soon as possible."
"How many people do you need to assist you?" Karrde asked. "I plan on going with you, if it's all right with you."
"I think the three of us should be able to handle a rescue," Luke replied. "Can the droids stay onboard the Wild Karrde?"
"Of course they are welcome to stay onboard. I understand the Wookiee language, so I should be able to be of some assistance," Karrde said. "Tell your sister we need to go. She'll want to say goodbye to you."
Luke nodded and went into the small room where the medical personnel worked over her, running scans and connecting IV's into her arm. Leia looked up into her brother's blue eyes. "Save Han," she said softly. "I want my babies to grow up with their father."
Luke bent over and kissed Leia's cheek. "If it's in my power to save him, I will."
The Sail Barge and the smaller hovercrafts accompanying it made their way to the old stadium that once, long ago, thousands of beings used to watch pod-racers. The gallows had been built at the center of the stands weeks early, when Letti the Hutt was certain Dengar would bring him Solo. Denger may have failed, but the Hutt still had won.
Han was standing, arms tied upright, spread eagle at the front of the Sail Barge between two posts. He was facing forward into the hot wind and sand, his face and bare chest becoming blistered in the early morning suns. His head was slumped down to his chest since he no longer had the strength to hold it upright. The nerves in his body still twitched from the flaying he had received only hours earlier. Even if he did have the strength to hold his head up, it would have been foolish. The blowing sand stung his hypersensitive body, and made his blind eyes water.
A young Twi'lek approached Letti the Hutt. "Sir," she began, her head bent submissively, "Could I give the prisoner some water? If he is not awake for his hanging, your comrades will feel cheated."
Letti looked at the young Twi'lek. She wore a loose brown robe and her skin was a pale orchid color. He frowned at her, trying to remember who she was and where she came from. "What is your name?" he demanded.
"Oonala, sir," she responded. "My father is a spice shipper, and I am learning his trade."
"Ah." The Hutt nodded in understanding. "A young smuggler. Give Solo water, then. We do want him wide awake when he hangs."
Oonala bent her head in agreement. "That is a very good idea, sir," she murmured, as if the idea came directly from Letti. She retrieved a bottle of cool water from a server droid and quickly walked over to the limp form of the Corellian. Carefully she touched his cheek. Han moaned and his eyes opened slightly, but he did not speak. "Captain Solo," Oonala said quietly. "I have water for you. Please drink." She lifted the cool bottle to his mouth and poured a small amount over his cracked lips. Han opened his mouth and greedily swallowed as much as he was able.
"Why are you giving me water?" he rasped, barely able to talk. "What does it matter to you?"
"I am here to avenge my sister Oola's death," she whispered. "And, hopefully, help you escape." With that, Oonala pressed a small button hidden under her robe. Far off in the distance, barely heard over the noise of the happy party-goers on the Sail Barge, the palace that once belonged to Jabba the Hutt blew up into a million tiny pieces of rusty durasteel and stone. Oonala felt a great satisfaction sweep over her. No one would ever suffer and die inside the terrible Hutt Palace again.
The Falcon landed next to the smoldering hole that used to be Jabba's Palace. The three occupants of the cockpit could only stare in disbelief at the ruins. Chewie threw back his head and roared in grief, pounding his fist on the console. *We are too late!* he yelled at the top of his powerful lungs. *My cub is dead! Those that brought him here will die, I will kill them personally!*
Luke shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. Again he understood Chewie. Not his exact words, but the feelings of grief emanating from his friend were intense and frightening. "Chewie, please!" Luke begged. "I need to concentrate."
*Concentrate? * the Wookiee roared. *On what? We should have come here right away! This is your fault!*
Luke flinched from the accusation in the tone. "I don't think Han is dead," he insisted slowly, trying to reach the Wookiee. "I would have felt his death, I'm sure of it." Luke looked directly into Chewie's blue eyes, trying to make him see the truth in the words he spoke.
Karrde had been sitting silently behind Luke during this exchange. Finally he said, "Do you see that shuttle over there?" he pointed a short distance away. "That's the one Plue stole from my ship. I think we should check it out."
The three left the Falcon and went over to the deserted shuttle. Karrde punched in the entry code and the ramp lower obediently.
The putrid smell of death hit them in the face. Trying not to gag, they entered the small ship. Two bloated bodies lay around the corner, both face down, arms stretched out stiffly in front of them. The first body, a pasty bald man, had been shot in the back. Karrde turned the body over. "Plue," he said flatly as he identified his former navigator.
Luke turned over the second body. This one had been shot in the upper chest. Death must have been instantaneous. "Salla Zend," Luke stated. He looked at Chewie. "I guess they must have turned their backs on their associates a second too long."
*Their associates are dead, too,* Chewie growled. *They just don't know it yet.*
Leia stared at the ceiling of her hospital room. She felt numb from the knowledge of how much Han was suffering and she could not - would not - block his pain from her spirit. Leia shut her eyes as tears once again threatened.
Leia, do not despair, a soft voice spoke. Her eyes shot open, and she found herself staring at a shimmering apparition.
"Who.. who are you?"
My name is Anakin Skywalker. I am your father.
"No!" Leia cried as she sat up. She would have leapt from the bed, but the IV's prevented her from doing so. "You will never be my father! You killed my father when you destroyed Alderaan. And now you have destroyed Han! You blinded the man I love!"
The form bent his head for a moment and then looked up. I cannot change the past, or the evil I did as Darth Vader. But you must forgive in order to be able to move forward with your life. The future of your children depend on this. Hate does not destroy the hated, but the hater.
"Earn my forgiveness then," she wept. "Save Han's life!"
I cannot save his life, or restore his sight, Anakin Skywalker said quietly. His blindness has not destroyed him. Please, Leia, you must forgive me. If you search your heart, you will know I speak the truth.
"Leave me alone," Leia shouted at the image of Anakin Skywalker. "You don't deserve my forgiveness!"
Anakin Skywalker gave a sad sigh, and his ethereal form faded away.
The Sail barge reached the stadium and the occupants poured out to find the best seats, the ones closest to the gallows. Han was the last one removed from the barge, and when his arms were released from their upright position it felt like a thousand needles were jabbing at him as his circulation began returning. He briefly wondered what happened to the Twi'lek woman. He figured she had probably decided against trying to help him since the odds were so overwhelming. Han decided he was not going to be led meekly to his death. Once his arms were down, he swung the chain, still attached to his wrist manacles, wildly. One of the guards gave a cry of pain and fell. Han dropped to his knees, groping for the weapon he heard clatter to the ground when the guard fell. His tingling fingers found the weapon, and he rolled, bringing the weapon up and firing randomly, not knowing whether he was hitting anything or anyone. Screams of pain rang out as the bolts found targets. Then the remaining captors took action. One hit Han on the back of his neck with a rifle butt, and another kicked him viciously in his side.
Two others then jumped on the Corellian, beating him with their fists until the rifle fell from his hands. "Don't knock him out!" a guard yelled over the confusion. "Letti wants him awake!" The captors obeyed the shouted orders. Han was quickly shackled, his arms wrenched painfully behind his back, and his ankles held together with only a short length to allow him room to hobble. He was thrown from the Sail barge ramp, the sand burning his bare feet as he limped along. Han found himself wishing he could have one last chance to tell Leia how much he loved her. He could only pray the drugs Salla gave her had not harmed the twins she carried.
As Han was pushed and prodded into the arena, he heard a large roar well up from the crowd. These losers must really have dull lives, Han thought numbly as he was led to the foot of the gallows. The guards roughly grabbed his arms and hoisted him up the hot metal stairs to the top of the platform. Once at the center of the stage, Letti the Hutt began his speech. "My dearest and closest friends," he announced grandly. "You are about to witness the execution of Han Solo, the human responsible for my dear uncle Jabba's demise." The crowd let out a mighty cheer. "For your enjoyment, I will endeavor to draw out his death as long as possible!" Again the crowd roared its pleasure. "I have instructed the executioner to make certain he does not die immediately, but rather struggles as he hangs, and suffocates slowly!" The crowd cheered again raucously. "Let the entertainment begin!" Letti ordered once the cheers had died down.
Han was pushed over to the Niktoan executioner, who grabbed him by his hair and forced a coarse rope over his head. "The rope will go in front of your head, Solo," the humanoid being snarled. "right under your chin. That way it will allow you a tiny amount of air, at least long enough to keep the crowds happy while you kick and fight to breathe." He adjusted the noose and stepped back.
I love you, Leia, Han thought desperately as he felt the platform give way under his feet.
Han was not sure if the roaring he was hearing was the crowd cheering his impending death, or the blood rushing to his ears. He was distantly aware that he was struggling, and that by struggling he was giving the crowd the entertainment it desired. He couldn't help it. His need for oxygen was too great.
An explosion rocked the stadium, and then another and another. The crowd went from cheering to screaming as bodies flew through the air, and the rocks that made up the seating area shot into the sky. Letti the Hutt was among the first casualties, his worm-like body splattering the shocked onlookers.
The guards and executioner were tossed like rags from the platform, where the hanging Corellian was still gasping as he struggled to breathe. Han was not aware of the explosions, nor of the precisely aimed blaster bolt that hit the rope directly over his head. He dropped to the soft sand beneath him, and lay unmoving as the rope still cut off life-giving oxygen.
A land-speeder roared up to the prone Corellian, arms reached out and pulled his limp body into the passenger seat, then tore away at breakneck speed. Once outside the confines of the arena, Oonala stopped the speeder long enough to cut the tightened rope from the human's neck using a vibroblade. She stared at Solo for a moment, wondering if she would need to pump air into his lungs with her mouth when he coughed and groaned. Satisfied the human was still alive, she turned her speeder to the distant, jagged mountains and sped off.
Luke had taken the Falcon in the general direction of the nearest town. The three pair of eyes swept the surface of the Tatooine desert as best they could, but the Falcon was unable to fly too slowly or low enough to make out small features below. There was no sign of life until they neared the town. A scene, eerily similar to the one that had greeted them when they landed by Jabba's Palace, now greeted them at the outskirts of Mos Espa. Black smoke billowed out of three holes blasted in the center of an ancient stadium. Humans and humanoids ran in panic and confusion. Luke and Chewie set the Falcon down as close as safety permitted. They left the ship to investigate, locking the hatch behind them. Chewie grabbed the arm of a human male who was covered in blood and soot, stopping him from leaving the area.
"What went on here?" Luke demanded.
"The Hutt, the Hutt..." he stuttered in fear.
"Go on!" Luke snapped.
"Letti the Hutt was having a hanging party," the man quickly answered, his eyes wide with fear. "Then bombs! Someone set off bombs!"
Hanging party. The shocking words set Chewie off into a rage. With a roar of anger that Luke had never heard come from the Wookiee, Chewie picked the man up and whipped him like a doll across the desolate landscape. When Luke's eyes returned to Chewie, he saw the Wookiee was still holding the man's arm. Chewie snarled at Luke and dropped the bloody limb. Luke didn't know what to say to Chewbacca, and Karrde could only stare in shock at the severed appendage. The enraged Wookiee turned, looked at the small platform in the distance, and understood immediately what it was. Chewie started running toward the gallows, and left Luke and Karrde with no choice but to follow.
Chewie stopped at the base of the platform, looking up at the open trap door. His blue eyes, wide with grief and fear, turned to Luke. Luke ran to the top of the gallows. The rope, with no noose, dangled from the overhanging support. Frowning, the young Jedi looked closer. "Chewie," he called down excitedly. "This rope has been shot through with a blaster. Someone took Han down!"
*That still doesn't mean he was alive when they took him, Skywalker!* the Wookiee snarled.
Luke ran back down the steps. "He isn't dead, Chewie!" Luke repeated his earlier claim. "Someone beat us to the rescue! I know it!"
*Then it's a good thing they did, Young One,* Chewie said softly, rage still radiating from him. *For we would have been too late.*
Luke felt a chill when Karrde translated. He knew that Chewie spoke the truth. They would have been too late.
Oonala drove like a madwomen, heading to the distant mountain range that held her home. She heard the Corellian slumped over in the passenger seat give a moan and start coughing. He was regaining consciousness and attempting to sit up. "Just try to relax, Solo," she instructed him, and brought the speeder to a stop. "Turn around and let me cut the manacles off."
Once the metal binders were removed from Han's wrists and ankles, she opened a small compartment and took out a bottle of water. Carefully taking his bloody wrist, she placed the cool container in his hand. "Drink slowly, or you will not be able to hold it down," Oonala told him. She restarted the speeder and continued her journey.
Han nodded and took a sip. It hurt to swallow, but the water brought relief to his parched lips and mouth. "Thank you," he was able to say in a whisper. He put his hand to his neck and rubbed it. His throat had never felt so raw and sore in his entire life. "You sure like cutting things close." She gave a light laugh at his feeble attempt at humor.
"Where are you taking me?" Han croaked out.
"To my home, in the Sarlacc's Peaks," she replied.
Oonala smiled and answered, "The range appears as jagged tall teeth from a distance, thus the name."
"Ah," Han said. "You have family there?"
"Yes," she replied. "My grandmother, my husband and my niece. My niece is the child of my sister, the one Jabba murdered." Her voice grew hard. "Her name was Oola, and he fed her to his pet rancor. When Jabba kidnapped my sister to use as a slave, he murdered her husband. I am now raising my eight-year-old niece." She glanced over at the human. "I will give you food and medical attention when we reach my home. You appear to be in need of both."
Han smiled in the direction of the Twi'lek. His curiosity prompted him to ask her, "Why did you rescue me? I doubt I was part of your original plan."
"No, you most definitely were not," she said. "You made things a bit more difficult, since I did not intend to destroy the arena. I guess it worked out. I would have felt bad leaving you in the dungeon when I blew up Jabba's palace."
"But you would have left me?"
"Probably," she admitted. "My plans had taken too long to put into place. Another opportunity would have been unlikely. At least my way you would have been dead instantly, and no longer made to suffer for the amusement of the Hutts."
Han continued to sip at the water, pondering how close he had come to death - again. After a while, the Twi'lek spoke. "My grandmother will not be pleased I am bringing you home," she stated.
"She doesn't like humans?" Han asked hoarsely.
"No, not that," she said slowly. "Once you are in our home, your friends will come for you. She may be unhappy to meet Luke Skywalker."
Han immediately thought of Darth Vader, and then dismissed the idea. No one knew Vader was Luke and Leia's father but him and Chewie. At least he hoped that was still the case. "Why would she not want to meet Luke?"
"My grandmother, Oloppa, used to be a Jedi, long ago. Before the Clone Wars."
"Used to be?" Han questioned. "I didn't know it was something you could turn off."
"She didn't 'turn it off,'" Oonala said. "She was forced out of the Order."
"Can I ask why?"
"She disagreed with their methods," Oonala answered him. "Her own mother, my great-grandmother, killed herself in grief because Oloppa was taken from home by the Jedi at a very early age. My great-grandmother never was able to recover from the loss. And my grandmother found out over the years that many families did not ever recover from their child being taken away. When she brought these problems up to the Jedi Council, they grew upset that she would dare to question the ways of the Jedi."
"That seems cruel to me, too," Han agreed. "Why would parents let their children be taken? Were they given a choice?"
"The Jedi claimed it was always 'free will,' but they put a great deal of pressure on the parents. Parents were made to feel as though they were failing not only their children, but the galaxy itself, if they did not release their Force-sensitive child to the care and training of the Jedi," she answered. "Once they had the child, the Jedi never gave another moment's thought to the grief and loss they left in their wake."
"So they made her leave, because she questioned this?"
"No," she replied with a smile. "They made her leave when she married my grandfather. The final straw, I believe."
Han laughed, and then coughed violently. "Good for her," he finally choked out. "But that doesn't explain why she doesn't want to meet Luke. He never did anything like that."
Oonala sighed. "She is afraid he may start up the old ways. This is especially a concern because Olatrella, my young niece, is very strong in the Force."
"Luke would never steal children from their parents," Han said firmly. "I can guarantee it."
"I hope you're right," she replied. "My grandmother is very ill and if her great-granddaughter were taken from her, she would die."
Luke and Chewie sat at the table in the hold of the Falcon, undecided where to search next. Luke stood up and was about to inform Chewie he needed to meditate when Talon Karrde came in the room. "Your sister is on the comlink, asking about Han," Karrde informed Luke. Luke nodded and walked to the cockpit, trying to decide how much to tell Leia.
"Luke," Leia's voice came over the speaker. "Have you found anything?"
"Han's been rescued already, Leia," Luke started to tell her, but she interrupted.
"Already? That's great! How come you didn't let me know? I've been sick with worry! Is he OK? Let me talk to him." The words spilled so fast from Leia, Luke was unable to find a place to interrupt her until she ran out of questions.
"Leia," Luke tried again. "There's more. We're not the ones who rescued him."
Silence filled her end for a long moment as Leia pondered the possibilities. "Who did, then?"
"We don't know," Luke admitted slowly. "We don't know where he was taken."
"Then he could be in just as much danger now!" she shouted as her fear returned. "You have to find him!"
"I need to meditate to locate him, sister," Luke tried to calm Leia. "But I'm sure he's no longer in danger. I feel he's safe."
"I wish I had as much practice with this meditation stuff as you do, Luke," Leia sighed. "Just find him, okay?"
"How are you doing?" Luke switched the subject to his sister.
"The doctor told me my babies are out of danger, but I need to rest," Leia replied. She hadn't decided whether she should tell her brother about the visit by Anakin Skywalker. The appearance of her father had upset her more than she cared to admit, and she was finding it impossible to ignore his words of advice. The notion that Anakin Skywalker might be right was not sitting well with her. "I'll be able to rest when you bring Han back," she added pointedly.
Luke smiled at his sister's persistence. "I'm working on it, Leia. I'm working on it."
Oonala arrived at her home in the middle of the night. Han had gone from sweating to freezing in the course of a few hours. Fortunately, the Twi'lek had a small blanket that Han had been able to wrap around his shoulders. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing. He stumbled out of the speeder and with Oonala's help made it inside the warm home. Oonala's husband greeted them at the door. "Where have you been?" he asked, looking suspiciously at the human. "You were supposed to be back before dark."
"I had an unexpected complication," Oonala replied, waving a hand at Solo. "Han Solo, meet my husband, Uninarlle. Uninarlle, this is Han Solo. He was a prisoner of Letti the Hutt, and the cause of my delay."
The male Twi'lek carefully took in Solo's appearance, and noted his lack of eyesight. "You appear to have had a difficult day, Solo," he said. "Would you like some food?"
"That would be wonderful," Han whispered hoarsely. "But it needs to be soft food. I'm afraid I can't swallow anything too hard for a while."
While Oonala prepared something for her guest to eat, Uninarlle led Han to a refresher. "Do you need assistance?"
"No, thank you," Han said politely. "Just describe the layout. I'll be fine."
The Twi'lek did as Han requested and gave him clean towels and a loose tunic to wear over his burned torso. Before leaving the refresher, Uninarlle placed a jar in Solo's hand. "This is for burns. Apply it liberally to your skin."
Han nodded his thanks, and gratefully began cleaning himself up.
Uninarlle went to the kitchen. "You should not have brought him here."
"It was the right thing to do," she replied to her husband. "I feel it."
"I only hope your grandmother feels the same thing."
When Han came out of the refresher, he felt much better. Uninarlle offered Han pain medicine, which the Corellian refused. Han believed that pain medication took away his edge and the ability to defend himself properly, and he wasn't prepared to allow himself to drift off into a drug-induced stupor.
The smell of food made his stomach growl. Since he hadn't eaten in days, Han was famished. Oonala guided the Corellian to a table and placed soft, bland food before him. After what he had just been through, she knew he needed to be careful what he ate, and how much. Despite the mild flavors, lack of texture, and the difficult time he had swallowing even soft food, Han thought he had never eaten a better meal. When he was done, he thanked her profusely.
"You are welcome, again, Captain Solo," she smiled. "My grandmother has requested to meet you. Do you mind?"
"Of course not," Han replied, puzzled that a Jedi would want to meet him. Oonala led Han by his hand to a small bedroom and guided him over to a chair. He sat down and said tentatively, "Hello Jedi Oloppa, it's nice to meet you."
"Hello to you, Captain Solo," a shaky old voice replied. "I am pleased my granddaughter was able to save you from the Hutt. I sense you have much to do yet in your life." She reached over and took his hand in her frail one, grasping his fingers tightly.
Han didn't know how to reply to that, so he said simply, "Thanks." All this Jedi stuff was far beyond his comprehension.
"You will have a great role in helping re-establish the Jedi," the ancient Twi'lek woman said after a long pause.
"How?" Han questioned politely. "I'm not a Jedi, and I can't use the Force."
She gave a tiny laugh. "Just because you cannot use the Force, does not mean the Force cannot use you. I see you with many children, Captain, all of them Jedi."
"Many? How many?" Han asked nervously. Sure, he had always wanted a family, but now he was a bit worried - how many was 'many?' Solo felt the old Twi'lek's fingers slowly release his own.
When the old lady did not respond, Oonala said quietly to Han, "She needs sleep now. She is old. Come." She led him from the room. "I think you need to sleep now, too. The hour is late, and I am very tired, also."
"I'm so exhausted, I could sleep on a pile of rocks," Han admitted to his hosts.
"Rocks won't be necessary," Uninarlle said. "I will get blankets and you can use the sofa. It is very comfortable. I should know this.... I have used it on occasion after my wife and I have had disagreements."
Han laughed. Once his head hit the soft cushions, he was asleep instantly.
Luke meditated alone in Han's private cabin. A vision of jagged mountains came to him. Luke knew those mountains. Sarlacc's Peaks. Another vision followed rapidly. This one was of Han, asleep on a sofa - bruised, battered, but alive and safe. Luke opened his eyes and smiled. He rose and went to the hold where Chewie and Karrde sat, drinking caf.
"Go to sleep everyone," Luke grinned. "I know where to find Han."
*We should go now, then!* Chewie said as he stood.
"No," Luke pressed firmly. "We'll need to land in the mountains, and there are too many dangerous creatures roaming the mountains at night. Han's safe. He's asleep, and that's exactly what we need to be doing, too. Sleeping."
Chewie sighed and reluctantly agreed. The three went off to their beds to try and rest.
Han woke up in the morning by the touch of small fingers on his eyelids. He slowly opened them and felt the fingers pull back. "Hello," Han said with a smile. "You must be Olatrella. My name is Han."
"Yes, that is my name," the child said. "You can't see, Han." It was a simple statement of fact, said without malice.
"Olatrella!" her aunt called over to her. "You must not be rude to our guest."
Han sat up slowly, stretching his aching muscles. "That's okay, Oonala," Han replied. "She isn't being rude." He turned his attention back to the child. "Yes, I amblind."
"How did it happen?"
"I was put in something called carbonite," Han explained. "And it put me to sleep by freezing me. When my friends found me and woke me up, I couldn't see anymore." Of course, Han mused, he wasn't really sleeping while in carbonite, but he didn't care to go into those details with a child. He'd never discussed how terrible his ordeal in carbonite had been with anyone - including Leia and Chewie.
"Who put you in that freezing stuff? It sounds bad," Olatrella said, appalled.
"It was bad. But the people who put me in it aren't alive anymore, so you don't have to worry about them, okay?" Han replied, not wanting to scare her.
"Okay," she said happily. "Do you want breakfast? My aunt is a great cook. I like breakfast best of all!"
Han was relieved at the change of subject. "Yes, I would love breakfast. But first, will you lead me to the refresher?"
The young Twi'lek girl cheerfully complied with his request. As she skipped back to the kitchen she glanced out of the window. An object in the sky caught her attention. "Auntie, someone is coming," she announced.
"Yes, dear," her aunt replied. "Those are Captain Solo's friends. We are expecting them. Please go tell your uncle they are here."
Moments later the Falcon set down near the small stone house. Luke, Chewie and Captain Karrde exited the lowered ramp and were greeted by a tall blue male Twi'lek. "Hello," the man said. "My name is Uninarlle. I believe you must be friends of Captain Solo."
Chewie gave a excited bark and the Twi'lek smiled. Luke stepped forward and shook the man's hand. "You must be the person who rescued Han."
"No, actually that would be my wife," he replied. "She is the adventuresome one of the family. Please come inside. We have breakfast prepared."
The group entered the small house. Inside the front door, Luke greeted a child and took in the homey, comfortable surroundings. And Luke noted something else - the Force was strong in this home. Before he could thank the woman working in the kitchen for rescuing Han, or focus on the Force-sense he felt, Han stepped out of the refresher rubbing his face with a damp towel. Chewie gave a happy roar and rushed up to the startled Corellian, lifting him off his feet and turning in circles. "Chewie!" Han cried out in happy surprise. "Put me down you, furball!"
Chewie reluctantly obeyed, and set his friend on his feet. Luke came up to Han and hugged the Corellian. "We almost lost you - again," he said with affection.
Han smiled. "You have no idea how true that statement is, kid," he replied, touching the deep rope burn around his neck.
"I think we do have an idea," Karrde put in. "I can't decide if you are the luckiest man in the galaxy, Solo, or the unluckiest."
Han turned his head in Luke's direction. "Leia? Is Leia alright? And the babies?" he questioned worriedly.
"The babies are fine, Han," Luke reassured his brother-in-law. "Leia is on the Wild Karrde, getting medical treatment."
Han grinned and then answered Karrde, "Karrde, I would have to say I am the luckiest man alive."
"Please come and sit," Oonala requested. "Breakfast is ready, and I am sure everyone is hungry."
The breakfast was tasty and filling. The small group spent over an hour filling each other in on what had happened. Chewie was shocked at the torture Han had endured, although Luke knew through the Force just how much pain Han had suffered. Luke was upset, however, when Oonala told him how close Han had come to death by hanging. "Leia is never going to let you out of the apartment again, Han," Luke half-joked.
"Well, she did once mention locking me up in a padded cell, so maybe I won't tell her all the details," Han said with a laugh.
The Twi'lek child had been silent during all this talk, listening carefully. She had barely taken her eyes from Luke since he entered the home. The young Jedi was slightly unnerved by her intense stare. "Grandmamma wants to see you," she said, speaking for the first time.
Luke looked surprised. He turned to Oonala. "Grandmamma?"
The Twi'lek woman smiled at the Jedi. "Actually she is my grandmother, and yes, she would like to see you," Oonala said. "Oloppa used to be a Jedi Healer, back before the Clone Wars."
Luke rose and followed Oonala to a back room. To actually be able to meet a living Healer thrilled Luke. A very old Twi'lek lay covered in blankets, her eyes misty with age. Luke walked over to her quietly. "It's a privilege to meet a Jedi Healer," Luke began respectfully. "My name is Jedi Luke Skywalker."
"I know who you are, young Jedi," the old woman answered him harshly. "You have a large task ahead of you, Skywalker. Rebuilding the Jedi will not be easy. Do not make the same mistakes they made the first time," she warned him, her dim eyes glaring at the young man.
"Mistakes?" Luke asked defensively. He immediately thought of his father, but said nothing further, not wanting to provoke her.
"Forbidding marriage, stealing Force-sensitive children from their homes," she said quietly. The expression on her lined face became sad and contemplative, as if a long buried memory surfaced. Then her demeanor changed and her face grew hard. "Thinking they are infallible, and that no one should dare question them. Those mistakes." The old lady suddenly sat up and shook a gnarled finger in Luke's direction. "Do not repeat them, or you, too, will fail."
Luke did not know what to say to the old Twi'lek woman. None of those issues had even been addressed by Yoda. Finally he said to her, "I will take your advice and follow my conscience and my heart. That is all I can promise you."
She nodded slowly, and seemed to accept his words as she lay back down. When she did not speak again, Luke tentatively approached a different subject. "Your granddaughter said you are a healer. Can you heal my friend's vision? Return his eyesight?"
"I am too old, my powers too weak," she answered sadly. "My great-granddaughter has much potential to become a Healer, stronger than I ever was. If she agrees, you can train her in the ways of the Force. Maybe someday, when she is well trained and strong, she will be able to help your friend. I cannot foresee the future. Perhaps the Force does not wish your friend to see."
"Why would the Force want Han to stay blind?" Luke asked with a frown.
"You are too close to your friend to see this truth," she stated. "He has no abilities in the Force himself, but Force-sensitives are drawn to him. His blindness only enhances this gift. If you wish to find Force-sensitives and re-establish the Jedi your friend can be of great assistance, simply by accompanying you during your travels."
The old woman's words startled Luke, but somehow he understood and felt that perhaps without her pointing out this truth to him, he never would have seen this in Han. It would certainly explain much of Han's so-called 'luck.' Had Obi-Wan been drawn to Han by the Force? Maybe it even explained the Jedi history room, and why the initial, strange Force sensations Luke experienced in the room had never returned when his brother-in-law left the area. It gave Luke a great deal to think about.
"Thank you for your wisdom, Jedi Oloppa," Luke bowed his head to her. The old lady nodded and turned her head away from Luke, dismissing him from her room.
After walking their guests to the ramp of the Falcon, the Twi'lek family said farewell to their unexpected company. Han turned to Oonala. "Thanks again for saving my life," he said sincerely. "If there's anything I can ever do to help you or your family, please let me know."
Oonala smiled. "You're welcome again, Captain Solo. Who knows - someday we may meet again."
"I hope someday in the future you will consider bringing your niece to Coruscant," Luke added. "I believe your grandmother is correct. She has great potential in the Force."
Oonala looked at her young niece. "Perhaps someday she will decide to go to Coruscant to become a Jedi. That decision will be entirely hers, right 'Trella?"
The child nodded at her aunt, and impulsively ran up to Han and hugged him before turning and running back to her house. The Twi'lek couple turned and followed their niece back home.
Han stood speechless for several long moments. "Trella?" he asked softly. "Did she just call her niece Trella?"
Luke looked at his brother-in-law's shocked expression. "It's a coincidence, Han," he said uncertainly. "Olatrella has never been to Coruscant. She has been living on Tatooine with her relatives for over a year."
Han nodded his agreement with a sigh of relief and Chewie put his arm around his partner, guiding him to the Falcon's ramp.
It didn't take long for the Falcon to return to the Wild Karrde. Han had been overjoyed that Leia and the babies were healthy. Leia had been less pleased at Han's condition, even though he insisted he was fine. Still, he had reluctantly submitted to a physical exam, and tests on his nervous system to ensure no lasting damage had been done by the neural flay.
The next day they left for Coruscant. The group sat around the table in the hold, while Leia put more bacta gel on Han's neck, and listened to all the stories. "So I suppose you intend to drag my husband from one side of the galaxy to the other looking for Force-sensitives," Leia asked her brother, glaring at him through narrowed eyes.
"Well...," Luke said hesitantly.
Han laughed at Luke's discomfort. "You don't want me to get bored, do you?"
"I don't mind boredom, Master Luke," Threepio put in. "You don't think it will be necessary for a droid to help you locate Force-sensitives?"
Luke shook his head fondly at the golden droid. "No, Threepio," he said. "I think Leia will be needing your help more than I will."
His sister shot him a look that said Thanks a lot! "I'm coming with you while I can," Leia's tone told them there would be no arguing. Putting her index finger on the bridge of Han's nose she added, "Once I get in my eighth month, you are staying home with me until the babies are born. Understand?"
"Yes, dear," Han said with mock meekness, trying desperately not to grin since Leia seemed so serious.
"And don't get any ideas about having dozens of kids," she said with a laugh to lighten her words. "I'm the one that has to have them, nerfherder!"
"Hey!" he protested. "I just repeated what the old lady told me."
Leia turned her attention back to Luke. "Do you really think this Twi'lek child can someday restore Han's eyesight?"
"I don't know, sister," he replied truthfully. "Olatrella is very young, but she has great potential to be a strong Healer. I truly believe there will be a chance for her to Force-heal Han when she grows up and becomes a Jedi, and that's more hope than what the doctors have given. And who knows... maybe, somewhere, there is another Jedi Force-Healer, already trained. All we can do is search."
"Ya know," Han put in. "I would love someday to be able to get my eyesight back, but until then, everything I really need is right here on this ship."
Leia leaned over and kissed her husband. Luke watched them, feeling a deep sense of peace. This blindness could have aged him and made him bitter, Luke thought, instead it matured him and gave him wisdom. Han has more than most people have, even without his sight. Luke was startled when a clear Force-vision came to him showing Han and Leia, surrounded by five children of various ages. Whether or not Han could see was not clear in his vision, but Han was happy, as were Leia and the children. He shook his head to clear the image from his mind and grinned at his inside knowledge.