Leia stepped into her daughter's bedroom and smiled as she watched thirteen-year-old Jaina study the sparkling necklace she and Han had given her for a life-day gift.
"Do you like it?" Leia asked softly.
Jaina looked up. "It's beautiful."
"Thirteen is a special life-day," Leia noted. "You and Jacen are teenagers now." Teenagers. How in the galaxy did that happen so quickly? Leia thought in wonder.
"Mom? Can I ask you a question?"
"Of course, honey."
"Why don't we ever celebrate dad's life-day?"
The question took Leia slightly aback. "Well..." she said slowly. "Your dad doesn't know when his life-day is, so we never celebrated it."
"That doesn't seem fair," Jaina replied stubbornly. "Even if he doesn't know the date...."
"We could still pick a day and celebrate," Leia finished for her daughter with a nod. "I think that's a wonderful idea, honey."
Jaina smiled at her mother. "So are we going to throw dad a party?"
"Since he's never had a life-day party, I think we'll throw him the biggest life-day party Coruscant has ever seen," Leia replied with a laugh.
"I think it's a great idea, Leia," Luke said agreeably as he walked down the Great Hall with his sister. "I can invite the Rogue and Wraith Squadrons, and Chewie can make sure his family and friends get over here."
"And I'll invite the High Council..." Leia started to say before Luke interrupted her.
"The Council? I thought you wanted Han to have fun."
"I do want him to have fun," Leia said, frowning at her brother. "But how would that look, not inviting Mon Mothma, Dodonna, and Rieekan?"
"Fey'lya too?" Luke grinned.
"No. I want this to be a surprise, and that little Bothan couldn't keep a secret if his life depended on it."
"Well, I have to admit, if the High Council is there, Han's going to be surprised."
Two days later
"What's going on, Chewie?" Han demanded, trying to give his best glare. For some reason, it never worked too well on the people who knew him best.
Chewie looked up from under the landing ramp where he was fixing a landing strut. *Going on? What do you mean?*
"Ah, pal, don't give me that innocent look. It doesn't work on me. Something is goin' on. Everyone is whispering behind my back, and when I come in a room, all conversation stops. Do I have some fatal disease, an' everyone is afraid to tell me?"
Chewie threw back his head and gave a howl of laughter. *Not that I know of, cub.*
"Then spill it! What's going on?"
The huge Wookiee climbed out from behind the ramp and walked over to Han. *Sometimes it's best if you just don't know, my friend,* Chewie replied cryptically as he patted Han on the top of his head and walked away.
I have a bad feeling about this...... Han thought worriedly.
Han tried to ignore the odd looks everyone seemed to be giving him as he walked back to his apartment. Why was everyone staring at him? And what was worse, when he tried to make eye contact with them, they looked away as if they were guilty of something. It was disconcerting, to say the least.
Solo walked into the spacious apartment and headed to his bedroom. He stopped when he heard his wife's voice coming from the room.
"So the twenty-fifth will work for you?" she was asking.
Han couldn't hear the response, but Leia continued. "My husband can't know anything about this." She paused, listening to the answer. "Yes. He needs to be completely in the dark. I don't want him to know what hits him."
Solo leaned against the wall, his heart hammering in his ears. Hits me? In the dark?
"Thank you," Leia concluded. "My brother will forward the appropriate credits to your account, since I can't take the money out of my account without Han finding out about it beforehand."
Luke's in on this too? He's a JEDI. Han eased himself out of the hallway and sat down heavily on the sofa in the living area, desperately trying to think of a reasonable explanation. It couldn't be what it sounded like.....but Han had not felt this paranoid in a very long time. Leia loves you. She wouldn't get rid of you, part of him was thinking, while the paranoid half whispered in his other ear, Maybe I just think she loves me! Maybe Luke used the Force to convince Chewie to help them put a hit on me...
Solo jumped and turned his face to his petite wife. "Uh... h..hi."
"How long have you been home?" she questioned him, a bit sharper than she intended. Leia hoped he had not overheard her making reservations for the banquet hall. This life-day party was turning out to be a much larger party than she had first intended, and the number of guests had climbed to the point where the apartment was no longer large enough. Not only had the entire High Council accepted the invitation, but Lando had asked Talon Karrde, who in turn asked his entire crew. When Leia started adding all this up, including the families of everyone, the guest list was over two hundred. She certainly hoped Han appreciated everything she did for him.
"Only a minute," Han quickly answered, and stood up, forcing a smile on his face. Don't act like you suspect anything, Solo! Han admonished himself.
"Are you feeling alright?" Leia asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
Han swiped at the perspiration starting to form on his brow. "I feel fine, sweetheart. You? Are you feeling okay? Do you need me to help you with something? Sweep under the bed? Start dinner? Maybe we should go out to a holo-show this evening. How's Luke?" Shut up, Solo! You're babbling!
Leia stared at Han, wondering what was wrong with him, then replied evenly. "Luke is just fine. Thank you for asking. If you want to make dinner, that sounds nice."
"What would you like? I'll make you anything at all. Or should I make the kids' favorite? I could do both. Have I told you how beautiful you look today?" SHUT UP, SOLO!
"Have you been drinking?"
"No! W..what makes you think that? I haven't had a drop. I'll go start dinner right now," Han stammered and practically ran to the kitchen.
Leia stood still for a long time, listening as Han dropped several pans on the floor. Either he suspected, or he was feeling very guilty about something. Maybe Luke or Chewie would grill him later, but right now Leia had too many things to do for the upcoming event to worry about it.
"Dad? Are you listening to me?" Anakin's voice finally broke through Han's far-away thoughts.
"Uh, yeah, Anakin." Han jerked back to attention. "What did you say again?"
Anakin sighed. His dad was acting stranger than usual tonight. The first clue had been the two entire separate dinners he had cooked for the family - that had been a first. And now, while Han was reading questions from a disk for his schoolwork tomorrow, he was barely listening to the answers eleven-year-old Anakin was providing. "I said, the main export for Mimban is energy."
Han glanced down at the small readout. "Right. Energy exports."
"Anakin? It's bedtime," Leia called as she stuck her head into Anakin's room.
"Okay, mom. 'Night!"
"Goodnight, dear." Leia smiled and continued down the hall.
Han stood up and turned off the computer. "You got all those answers right, pal. You're a smart kid. Sleep good."
Impulsively, Anakin gave his dad a hug, something he had not done for quite a while, especially since he considered himself to be too old for that kind of thing now that he was eleven. "Night dad. Thanks for that neat dinner - it was almost like going to a restaurant and having choices." Anakin could barely wait for the big party they were giving dad. He was finding it very difficult to keep this secret, but if he accidentally told his dad, Jaina would make his life miserable. So he made sure to keep quiet - Jaina was not a sister to mess with.
Tightly hugging his son back, Han started to reconsider his earlier assumption that Leia wanted to get rid of him. Even if his wife stopped loving him, she would have to know he was a good father. It was just a misunderstanding.... that was all. Everything would get cleared up - he just had to come out and ask who she was talking to. Then they would both have a big laugh.
Later, in the darkness of their bedroom, Leia lay awake trying to figure out her husband of nearly fifteen years. She glanced over at him. Although he was lying on his stomach, his face buried in the pillow, she could sense he wasn't asleep. "Han?"
"Is something bothering you?"
How am I supposed to answer that? Han thought morosely. I just thought you and Luke might be trying to get rid of me earlier, but never mind. "No, nothing's bothering me," he mumbled into his pillow. He raised his head. "Have I done something to make you mad at me?"
That was a little too fast of an answer, Princess. "Do you still love me?"
Leia sat up and clicked on a light. "What have you done?"
"Me?" Han asked, incredulously. "What have I done?" Solo flung the covers off and leapt out of bed. "I can't believe you're asking that!" He started to gather his pillow and a blanket up in his arms. She's the one keeping secrets! And she asks me what I've done?
"You're acting like you've committed some crime, Han. Where are you going?" Leia asked, her puzzlement and annoyance growing by the second. "What's wrong with you? You've been acting strange all night."
"Well, I'm not the one that ..." Han stopped himself.
"That what, Han?"
"Who were you talking to earlier? On the comm when I first got home?" Han demanded. He was going to get answers, and right now, too. He thought his wife would laugh and explain the conversation she had been having. He certainly wasn't expecting the reaction from Leia that he received.
"You were eavesdropping on me? No wonder you're acting so guilty! How dare you!"
"Eavesdropping? I wasn't..."
"Yes! Yes you were!" Leia was livid. She could just see all her carefully laid plans go down the drain. Certainly, she could still have the party if Han found out, but half the fun was the surprise part. "You have no right to hide and listen to my private conversations!"
"I didn't do it on purpose!" Han quickly found himself on the defensive. "And even if I did, so what?"
"So what? SO WHAT? What exactly did you hear, Solo?"
"Not too much, just the part about making sure your husband didn't find out ..." Solo stopped, unsure of himself again. Maybe she did want to get rid of him, after all. Why else was she so mad that he overheard that call? "Never mind. I'm gonna sleep on the sofa." With that he stalked out of the room, leaving Leia sitting in bed completely dumbfounded.
In the living area, Han flung his pillow on the floor and sat down on the sofa. I'm not the one keeping secrets. I'm not the one that's whispering behind her back! Han finished the earlier incomplete sentence in his head. And she never said she still loves me.
"I just don't understand why he's behaving like that, Luke," Leia said with a shake of her head as she looked down at her morning caf. When she had discovered Han was not home very early the next morning the Princess had contacted Chewie. The Wookiee had not seen Han, nor had Solo been aboard the Falcon. Worried, Leia had called Luke over to her apartment. "He acted so strange yesterday - nervous and hostile at the same time. He overheard a little bit when I was talking to the banquet hall rental clerk and he got so upset, even though I don't think he had a clue who I was talking to. What could possibly be the matter with him?"
"Maybe he's figured out you're throwing him a surprise party."
"I don't think so. " Leia paused slightly. "If he discovered that secret, he'd say something to Chewie, and Chewie would let me know. Besides, why would he cook two dinners, ask me if I still love him before getting in a huge argument with me, and then go sleep on the sofa just because he found out about the party? That doesn't make sense."
"This is Han we're talking about. You know he doesn't react like most people."
"Well, you have to admit, he's acting even more strange than usual."
"Do you want me to talk to him and see if I can figure out the problem?" Luke asked with a smile.
"That would be nice. Can you think of a way to get him off Coruscant until the day of the party? It's only two weeks away, and if he wasn't here it would lessen the chances of him finding out more than he already has."
"I have some students due for a leave that I need to pick up on Yavin. I could ask Han to take me there, and then drop the students off on their home planets," Luke suggested. "That should take about two weeks, if I time it right."
"You'd come back with Han for the party, right?" Leia asked her brother.
"Of course. I wouldn't miss Han's first life-day for anything. Besides, I'd need to make sure he made it back in time," Luke laughed. "Don't worry so much, Leia. Everything's going to work out just fine."
"We need to get Han off Coruscant, Chewie," Luke told the towering Wookiee as he and Chewie stood inside the cockpit of the Falcon. "Leia thinks Han is getting suspicious."
*We can't have that happen,* Chewie agreed with his young Jedi friend. *Too much planning has gone into this.*
Threepio interpreted Chewbacca's words to Luke, who nodded. "I know. It would be a real shame if he found out before the party. This is costing Leia a lot of credits."
Chewie's eyes drifted out the viewport of the cockpit. *Here comes Han now. We have to be careful how we ask him.*
At the top of the ramp, Han paused. He could hear Threepio yammering away as the droid talked to Chewie. Great, just great, he thought sarcastically. That's exactly who I want to see right now - Goldenrod!
Sighing, he trudged toward the sound of Threepio's annoying, prissy voice. Rounding a corner, he nearly ran into Luke, with Chewie and Threepio trailing behind him. "Luke? What are you doing here?" He tried to smile and keep his voice light, but the fact his brother-in-law was once again talking behind his back to Chewie made Han's paranoia meter kick up several notches.
Luke wasn't fooled by Han's forced grin. Leia was right, something was bothering Han, and was coming through loud and clear. It seemed as if he was almost afraid of Luke."'Morning Han!" Luke said cheerfully. "I was wondering if you and Chewie would do me a favor?"
"What kind of ..favor?" Han asked darkly. After last night's argument with Leia, Han was in no mood to be doing anyone favors, especially since it appeared Luke was in cahoots with whatever Leia was doing behind his back.
"Would you and Chewie like to take a little trip? I need to go to Yavin and then take some students that are training there to their home planets."
*I know I sure could use a little time off from Coruscant,* Chewie woofed. *And since one of the students going on leave is Lowbacca, I could visit with Malla and Lumpy for a few hours. That would be very nice.* Actually, Chewie intended to bring his wife and child back to Coruscant to attend the party, but Han did not need to know that right now.
On the surface, this sounded very innocent, and normally Han would jump at the chance to fly the Falcon around for a week or so, but things no longer seemed so simple for Han. The ex-smuggler stood rooted to the spot, trying to convince himself that this truly was just a chance for a quick trip. Maybe when I get back, things will be back to normal again. And they don't look like they want to kill me - I guess. "Well," Han said slowly, finding that he was starting to relax a bit. "That sounds alright. When do you want to leave?"
"Whenever you're ready, Han," Luke smiled, happy that Han agreed so easily. "As long as we're back by the twenty-fifth. I have an appointment on that day I can't miss."
The Jedi and Wookiee completely missed the shocked expression that appeared on Han's face as they walked past and headed toward the cockpit. The twenty-fifth? Han thought in horror.
"I don't know why we had to take Threepio," Han groused as the stars blurred into streaks. He had been reluctant to pilot Luke to Yavin after the comment about the twenty-fifth, but after giving it some consideration, decided that he would be fairly safe until that date. At least now he wouldn't have to pretend everything was fine in front of Leia.
"I need Threepio along to interpret Chewie for me, Han," Luke sighed in exasperation, glancing over at the wisely silent droid. The Jedi was tempted to flat out ask Han what his problem was, however Leia had been adamant that Luke be subtle when questioning Han.
"Why? I'm here. I can interpret for him."
"What about when you're asleep and I need to talk to him? I don't want to have to wake you up," Luke argued. The excuse sounded pretty lame, even to his ears. The truth was, he needed Threepio in case further planning was required to keep Han off Coruscant until the twenty-fifth. Luke was getting a little tired of keeping this party a secret, and he was starting to suspect Han's "problems" were stemming from this "surprise" party.
"If it's that important, you could have woken me up. I'd rather be sleep deprived than listen to Threepio, anyway. Unless you don't want me to hear whatever it is you're saying to Chewie?" Han goaded. Huh, Skywalker? Is that the reason?
Enough was enough, and never mind what Leia wanted. "Han, what is your problem?"
"My problem? MY problem?"
"I think that's what I just asked.... let me think." Luke tapped his finger under his chin. "Yes, I'm sure that's what I asked.... What's your problem?"
"You! You're the problem! And Leia! And Chewie, of all beings! Everyone is talking behind my back, and don't try denying it," Han yelled as he spun around in his pilot's chair and pointed his forefinger at Luke.
Luke turned his face away from his friend, trying to compose his expression. Turning back, Luke shook his head. "Han, I think you need to calm down - you're imagining things," he said soothingly.
"Don't you dare try using your Force-powers to convince me I'm wrong." Han stood up, and pushed past Chewie and Luke. He spun around at the exit and shouted, "I am not, I repeat NOT, imagining things!" Then he was gone, leaving no time for Luke to deny his accusation about using the Force to influence him.
Chewie buried his face in his paws and started woofing in laughter. "I don't think this is really funny, Chewie," Luke commented, trying to keep a straight face. "It's driving Han crazy."
*I know it, Skywalker! I haven't had this much fun in a long time. And we have two more weeks to make him even crazier!*
"Chewie!" Luke said in mock horror as soon as C3PO translated. "Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting? I thought you were his honor-brother!"
*Skywalker, what are brothers for?*
En route to Yavin
Han had tried to avoid coming out of his cabin, but boredom drove him to the ship's hold. For once, the conversation did not stop when he entered the room, but that was because Chewie was busy eating and Luke was sitting on the floor meditating. Han wondered if maybe he should try to question Threepio about what was going on. Wasn't the droid programmed not to lie to humans? Solo knew Threepio had tried to use that excuse in the past when he and Leia needed the droid to cover for them in some tight situations. Come to think of it, Threepio had lied for him in the past, so maybe asking the droid wasn't such a good idea after all. Han walked up to the food dispenser and punched the heat function, not speaking or even looking at anyone. They were all traitors as far as Solo was concerned, anyway.
*Sleep well, cub?* Chewie barked happily.
Solo glared at him through blood-shot eyes. He hadn't slept at all. "Fine, thank you."
*That's good. We'll be arriving on Yavin in about eighteen hours. I think I'll get some sleep, if you don't mind.*
"Why would I mind?" You an' Luke have had hours to talk about me behind my back. You can get lots of sleep now, friend!
Chewie put his bowl in the recycle unit and headed off as Han took his dinner out of the unit and hesitated. Normally, he'd just eat at the table, but Luke was still sitting on the floor with his eyes shut. Sighing, Han started to head to the cockpit to eat.
"You can eat in here, Han," Luke said as he opened his eyes. "Unless you're still mad at me for some reason."
"I'm not mad... I'm..." Han stopped, not sure what he was. Upset? Hurt? Betrayed?
"Just sit down and eat," Luke smiled as he stood up gracefully. Han envied the ease that Luke could manage to rise after sitting cross-legged for so long. Solo knew that he'd be taking a lot longer, and his knees would be doing some serious protesting.
"Do you mind if I practice with my lightsaber?" Luke asked after Han sat down and started on his meal.
Instantly, Han's eyes narrowed. "Now?" He could chop my head clean off and say "oops, it was an accident", and no one would even question it! Leia could save a lot of credits that way.
The request to practice with his lightsaber had been completely innocent and asked without malice, but Luke instantly saw the suspicion in Han's eyes and felt the change in his mental state through the Force. Does he think we're trying to kill him? Is that his problem? the Jedi wondered in surprise. Suddenly, everything fell into place. Good stars! He DOES think we're trying to kill him! This is just too unbelievable! Luke thought. Then a wave of guilt swept over him. Maybe I should just come clean and tell him what's going on. This is cruel. But really, how could he even think that? Luke wrestled with his conscience. A good Jedi would not do this, even to keep a surprise party a secret. But Leia would be so upset if I tell him.... and how he could possibly think Leia or Chewie or I would actually plot to kill him... maybe he deserves a little bit of mental torment.... besides, Chewie wants to, anyway.
"Yes, now, Han," Luke grinned. "You don't mind, do you?"
"Good." Luke switched on the blue blade and made some careful swipes in the air in the opposite direction from where Han sat. Then the Jedi flipped on the remote and easily parried the bolts that shot out from the small globe. Hoping that Ben would forgive him, Luke used the Force to send the remote zooming over the game table where Han sat, and with astounding speed, Luke turned and swung his lightsaber directly over his brother-in-law's head, intercepting the red flash that shot out a second before it could zap Han. Quickly, Luke turned off the lightsaber and called the remote to his hand, feeling more than a little twinge of guilt at the shock and fear in Han's eyes. The humming saber had been, literally, inches over Solo's scalp.
Han swallowed hard, no longer feeling very hungry. Stumbling to his feet, he backed away from Luke. "I.... I think I need to check something in the, in the, uh, other room." He turned and fled.
I hope teasing your brother-in-law isn't a path to the dark side, Luke mused thoughtfully.
"Stop laughing so hard," Luke tried shushing Chewie as he stood inside the Wookiee's cabin. "He's going to hear you."
The Wookiee tried to contain his mirth at hearing Luke's conclusion about Han's behavior and his subsequent lightsaber "practice". *Han can be such a nerf-brain sometimes!*
"I'm feeling a little bit guilty, Chewie," Luke confessed as he listened to Threepio translate. "I really gave him a scare. You should have seen his face."
*I wish I had,* Chewie woofed. *And captured it on a holo-vid!*
Luke shook his head. "We'd better get up to the cockpit since we're about to arrive at Yavin. Maybe we should just ease up on the whispering and mind-games for a little while. I don't want Han to decide to jump into an escape pod to get away from us."
*Oh, all right,* Chewie barked out as he wiped a tear of mirth away from his blue eye. *But after we get to Kashyyyk, I'm starting up again. This is just too much fun.*
We'll be lucky if Han doesn't kill us before this is done, Luke thought with a sigh.
As far as Han was concerned, the stop on Yavin was far too brief, and soon the Falcon was back in space with the three young Jedi. The first stop was at the Hapes Cluster to drop off Tenel Ka at her home. The second stop was on Barab I for Saba Sebatyne. Six days later they were on their way to Kashyyyk to drop off Lowbacca and visit Malla and Lumpy. Han was relieved that no repeats of Luke's practice session had occurred, and no one seemed to be whispering behind his back. Maybe it had been all his imagination, Han once again tried to convince himself. And the lightsaber thing could have been a simple accident - after all, nothing bad had really happened. Not even a hair had been singed. Still, it had been a lot closer of an encounter with Luke's saber than Han wanted to ever repeat.
Chewie entered the cockpit and sat down in the co-pilot's seat. *Only two more hours until we are over Kashyyyk. I am truly looking forward to seeing Malla and Lumpy.*
"I don't blame ya, pal," Han agreed. "I miss Leia and the kids when I'm away from them, too. You should spend more time with your family."
*Maybe I will soon be able to, cub, you never know,* Chewie woofed softly.
What does he mean by that? Han wondered, trying to keep his paranoia from flaring up again.
*Can I ask you a question?*
*If something would ever happen to you, star's forbid, have you thought about what would happen with the Falcon?*
Han turned in his seat and stared at his long-time partner. Something happen? Like what? "I, uh, never thought about it."
*Would you consider putting it in writing that I could have her? I know it's a lot to ask, and I'm sure nothing will ever happen to you....* Chewie turned his eyes away from Han so his human friend could not see the laughter he was holding back.
He can't look me in the eye.... he's feeling too guilty! "I'm sure Leia will give you the Falcon for your...loyalty, if something happens to me," Han replied frostily as he stood up and stomped out of the cockpit.
Chewie closed his eyes and tried not to laugh out loud.
No sooner had they arrived on the moist jungle planet than the whispering between Luke and Chewie started again, and Solo started dreading leaving Kashyyyk to head back to Coruscant. He had thought perhaps he'd have a few days' delay while Chewie visited with his family, but that idea was quickly shot down by Luke. "Chewie has decided to have Malla and Lumpy come back to Coruscant with us, so Chewie can show them the sights. You should see how excited Lumpy is." It was at least partially the truth, Luke consoled himself. The main purpose of Malla and Lumpy visiting, of course, was the surprise party for Han.
"We could just stay here," Han mumbled as he fiddled nervously with some dials. "I sure wouldn't mind staying longer." A lot longer.
"Well, I need to get back to Courscant by the twenty-fifth, remember?" Luke snapped at Han in an attempt to rattle his brother-in-law. "It's absolutely vital we're back by then."
There was that blasted date again, and Luke was losing his temper just thinking about it! Maybe I can get Malla to help me if Luke hasn't already used his powers to influence her, Han thought, chewing his lower lip nervously. It was worth a try.
*I am certain you are mistaken, Han,* Malla spoke gently to a very agitated Han Solo. *Chewbacca owes you a life-debt, and Luke loves you like a brother, also. No one is trying to kill you, believe me. You need to rest, Han. You look exhausted.*
Han sighed in defeat, unable to convince Malla about a plot to kill him. Of course, since Chewbacca had not told his wife of the teasing he and Luke had been inflicting on their friend, Malla had no idea that the things Han told her about were really happening. Chewie knew his wife would not be amused and make him apologize, which was not something Chewie was prepared to do. It annoyed the Wookiee to no end to think about what Han's over-active imagination was coming up with. Chewie had no intention of letting Han forget about this after the party was over, either.
"I want to believe that, Malla, really," Han said while he rubbed his tired eyes. "I think I'll go for a walk. Maybe some fresh air will help me get some sleep."
*Good idea, but be careful. It's been raining quite hard, and the boardwalks are slippery.*
"Thanks for listening to me, Malla," Han smiled and headed out of the house and into the cool night air. Han took Malla's advice, and watched his step on the slick tree-top sidewalks, which had no railings. No one could have foreseen the dead wroshry branch suddenly breaking free above Solo's head, and careening downward toward the unsuspecting human. Han's recent fear of being hit in the dark became a reality as he plunged off the edge of the sidewalk toward the ground so very far below.
*Skywalker? Are you awake?* Chewie whispered as he stuck his head inside the dark room that Malla had made up for the Jedi.
"Chewie?" Luke asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "It's awfully late, is something the matter?" He sat up and turned on the light, then addressed the droid. "Threepio, can you turn on? I need you."
The golden eyes lit up. "Of course, Master Luke. I was only recharging, but since droids require very little rest, having me power up is no problem at all. As a matter of fact, I was just telling Artoo the other day..."
*I don't know where Han is,* Chewie interrupted C-3PO. *Malla said he went for a walk, but that was hours ago. I tried to find him, and no one has seen him.* It had occurred to the Wookiee that perhaps they had pushed Han too far and he had taken off on the Falcon, leaving everyone behind. But a quick check had discounted that idea. The Falcon was still sitting on the landing pad, with no Han onboard.
"I'm sure he's fine," Luke tried to soothe the worried Wookiee after the droid informed Luke of Chewie's concerns. "He's probably found some local saloon and is having a drinking party with the regulars."
*Perhaps,* Chewie concurred. *But I'd feel better if you'd help me find him.*
"Let me get dressed, and we'll go check out the bars," Luke sighed. After the past week and a half, Luke thought that if Han was somewhere getting drunk he could hardly be blamed.
*We've checked every bar within walking distance!* Chewie growled. *No one has seen a human matching his description. I am truly concerned, Skywalker.*
Luke nodded as he looked around at the tall, dark trees. Threepio had been complaining about the slippery boardwalks and the lack of safety rails as he tagged after the pair. "I agree that something isn't right. He's still on the planet, but I can't really pinpoint exactly where."
*This is all my fault - I should not have been teasing him! Is he hurt? If he's hurt, I'll never forgive myself! *
Me either, Luke agreed silently. "This isn't your fault, Chewie," Luke said. "I honestly can't tell if he's hurt. I don't think he's aware of anything - it's like he's unconscious."
*Unconscious?* Chewie's blue eyes became even more worried.
"At least he's alive," Luke said as he tried to concentrate on Han's sense. "I just wish I could tell where he is. Maybe if I could meditate, it would become clearer."
*I suppose,* Chewie woofed. *But you need to hurry. Even without the Force, I can tell something is very, very wrong.*
The first thing Han became aware of was the pounding in his skull. For a few seconds he thought he was waking up with a first-class hangover, but then the pain in his shoulder jolted him into full awareness and he remembered. Someone hit me from behind! And I fell off the walkway.... Why am I still alive? Groaning, Han tried to move, sending a shooting, hot pain down his right arm and side. He knew he was lying, face down, in a slight downward angle. Using his left hand, he felt around in the darkness, trying to determine where he was. Whatever was holding him moved a little as he shifted. He tried, and failed, to push himself into an upright position. Finally, he was able to decipher where he was - tangled up in a mess of vines. At first he was annoyed that he was so tightly wrapped by the thick, natural ropes, until it occurred to him that if the vines had not been there he would have fallen all the way to the surface of the planet. The vines had saved his life by catching him and slowing, then stopping his descent. It appeared the worst damage was to his right shoulder, and by the pain it was causing Han guessed it was broken. No fair.. it wasn't even the twenty-fifth! Han thought through his foggy brain. They probably changed the plans after I told Leia I overheard her! Then he shut his eyes, and steadied his breathing. No. No. Malla's right - Chewie would not do this, and neither would Luke. At least I don't think they would. But someone knocked me off that boardwalk! Still, if they didn't do it they're not gonna know what happened to me, and if they did, I'm as good as dead - how can I climb back to safety with a broken shoulder?
Han fumbled for his comlink, and was dismayed to realize he'd left it on the Falcon. So much for just calling for help, he thought dismally. Solo lay still for long minutes, trying to come up with a plan. From the tales Chewie had told him, he knew if he stayed very long this far down from the tree canopies, he would quickly become a victim of the many carnivores that called the surface of Kashyyyk home. Even Wookiees seldom ventured down from the tree-tops to tangle with spider-like webweavers and dangerous flame beetles. Things were not looking too good, Solo decided. He could reach the vibro-blade in his boot to cut through the vines, but then what if he was still fifty feet off the ground? It was still too dark to see how far off the ground he was hanging, and if he cut a major support vine, it would send him plummeting to his death. Finally, Han decided to wait until dawn and maybe then he'd be able to see how far off the ground he was. In the meantime, hopefully nothing hungry with sharp teeth would wander close enough to smell a good meal just waiting to be devoured.
This is taking too long, Chewie worried as he paced back and forth in front of the door of the bedroom where Luke sat meditating. Han could be hurt! He could be dying.... I need to organize a search unit. I need to...
The door opened and Luke stepped out. "Chewie? I think I know what happened to Han. He's hurt and..."
*Hurt? How badly? Where is he?* The Wookiee roared in fear.
"I think he fell off the boardwalk and..."
*FELL? If he fell, then he is dead!*
"Chewie, calm down! He's not dead!"
*How is that possible? Do you know how high off the surface we are?*
"I know, Chewie," Luke sighed, trying not to think about how badly he and Chewie had teased their friend over the past few days. "And no, I don't know how he survived, but he's alive. You have to trust me on that. We need to go find him."
*And fast!* Chewie nodded fearfully. *Even if the fall did not kill him, many, many things are waiting down there that will gladly finish the job.*
It seemed like an eternity before enough light filtered down out of the enormous wroshry trees to enable Han to see clearly where he was. His heart pounded in delayed shock when he realized how close to the ground he had come before the vines stopped his fall - only about twelve feet had separated his dangling position and the surface. Solo twisted his head and looked up, and up and up to the tops of the trees where he could barely make out branches and walkways that held homes and landing platforms big enough to park ships the size of the Falcon. Once again, his famous luck had held.
Carefully, Han removed the vibro-blade from his boot and studied the vines that held him. Then he slowly, and deliberately, cut through the smaller ones until his body was free enough that he could pull himself upright. The pain in his right shoulder flared again, causing him to grind his teeth and shut his eyes for a moment while he waited for the wave to pass. Taking a deep breath, he looked down. A twelve foot drop could break his ankle if he landed wrong. And if he fell on his shoulder, he probably would pass out. It was not a good idea to lay unconscious on the surface of Kashyyyk. Han put the knife back in his boot, and using his left hand, grasped a vine. He would try to lower himself until he was dangling by his hand - that would lessen the distance to the ground. Not a great plan, Solo told himself. But it's the best I can do right now.
It was also not easy, supporting his entire weight with one hand. Bracing himself, Solo let go of the vine and dropped to the ground, rolling onto his left shoulder. Fortunately, Kashyyyk was a very rainy planet, and the ground was soggy and fairly soft. Han lay on his side, panting and trying to assess his body for further damage. He pushed himself into a sitting position. You're lucky, Solo. No more broken bones.
A low growl came from behind him. *Human. Stand up and remove your weapons! Now!*
Very slowly, Han stood and held his left hand up. He couldn't move his right arm from the pain of his broken collarbone. Without turning, Han spoke to the Wookiee standing behind him. "I'll have to use my left hand. My right shoulder is broken."
*Throw down the blaster. Turn around slowly.*
Han did as he was told, and found himself facing a filthy, matted Wookiee with wild eyes. But what concerned him most was the wicked-looking bowcaster pointed at his chest.
"I have to ride in that?" Luke asked, his eyes growing wide.
*Yes, Skywalker,* Chewie replied with a sigh. He remembered clearly having this argument with Han a long time ago. *Even a Jedi cannot climb trees like a Wookiee, and if you do not ride in the sling, you will not be coming with us - you will only slow us down.*
"I think that slowing down Chewbacca is a poor idea, Master Luke!" Threepio informed the Jedi. "Staying up here with me is much less dangerous."
Luke spared a glance over to a very amused-looking Lowbacca. "Fine, I'll ride in the bag," he said slowly as he climbed into the burlap sack, ignoring the droid's protests. "Wait for us in the Falcon, Threepio." Chewie reached down and drew the straps over his shoulders, and tied another strap around his waist. Now firmly and safely tied to the Wookiee's broad back, Luke could only wonder what it looked like to his student to have his Jedi Master carried like a small child in a knapsack.
The matted Wookiee cautiously picked up Han's blaster and stuffed it in a makeshift leather belt he wore around his waist. *Put your hand down and behind your back, then turn around. I am tying you up.*
Han frowned but obeyed, hoping the Wookiee wouldn't wrench his right arm behind his back. It was a futile hope - after tying a piece of thin leather tightly around Solo's left wrist, the Wookiee reached around and grabbed the Corellian's right wrist, sending Han to his knees in agony. "Hey, pal!" Han gasped in pain. "Careful of my right arm. I told you it was broken."
*Do you think I care, human?* the Wookiee snarled as he bound Han's wrists together. *You can consider yourself lucky I did not shoot you on sight.* The Wookiee then took another long piece of rope and tied it around Han's neck, using the leash to pull Solo to his feet. By this time, Han's eyes were watering, not just from pain but from the strong odor emanating from his captor. Close up, Han could see the hair lay in thick matted layers, and actual mold covered the clumps giving the Wookiee a strange, fuzzy appearance. Insects hovered around the smell, and failing to find a decent meal through the thickened fur, decided Han's unprotected skin was a tasty alternative. Things are not looking too good, Han decided miserably.
*Now you will come with me,* the Wookiee ordered, as he began pushing his way through the thick underbrush while practically dragging Solo in his wake.
Han did his best to keep up and it wasn't easy. Every time he stumbled and fell the Wookiee used the rope around his neck to drag him back up. The rope was now so tight that Han could barely swallow, much less try to talk. If I don't choke to death before he gets where he's going, it's gonna be a miracle. Chewie... where are you?
Nearly two hours later the Wookiee stopped and bent over, pushing aside some sticks and leaves from the ground and revealed a crudely made wooden door. He gave the handle a pull and pointed down. *This is the cave where I live. It's your home now, human. Come.* He tugged Han forward and pushed him down a narrow, dark shaft that slanted sharply down. Given no choice, Han stepped into the dank, dripping darkness.
If Luke thought tearing an X-Wing down a tunnel over the surface of the Death Star was thrilling, it paled in comparison to the trip down to the floor of Kashyyyk on the back of Chewbacca. The Jedi was starting to regret keeping his head out of the knapsack. The Wookiees made jumping from branch to branch and tree to tree look effortless, but every time Luke looked down as they soared through the air, his stomach dropped to his boots. He kept quiet, not wanting to do anything that might upset Chewie's concentration. And the more he thought about Han falling off the boardwalk, the more worried he became about the Corellian. It just did not seem possible to survive such a drop, but Han's life-force was still very much alive. This whole thing is happening because of a life-day party! I guess I shouldn't be surprised. This is Han's life-day party, after all.
*Sit!* The Wookiee gave Solo a hard push toward the back of the cave. Stumbling and nearly falling, Han put his back to the dripping, coarse stone and sat down, exhausted from the long hike. Solo watched with parched lips as the Wookiee lit a glowrod and set it in a hole drilled into the floor. After the steaming heat of the jungle, the cave was cold - Solo found himself starting to shiver in his sweat-soaked clothes. He watched warily as the Wookiee scooped some water out of a bucket and into a wooden bowl. He placed the bowl near Han's feet. *Drink,* he ordered.
"How? My hands are tied behind my back," Han managed to croak out.
To his surprise, the Wookiee gave a harsh laugh. *Too bad, human! You vermin have treated us Wookiees like animals for years... now it's my turn! You will be my pet, now! If you want water, you will lap it from the bowl like a bantha! Or you will go thirsty. I do not care.*
The Corellian glared at his captor. This Wookiee was obviously not quite sane, and Han knew refusing to drink would only harm himself. "Can you at least loosen the rope around my neck just a little? I can barely breath, much less drink." Han didn't think that request would get him anywhere, but again the Wookiee surprised him and loosened the rope slightly. Shifting on his hip so he could lean on his left side, Han bent over and awkwardly drank the brown water from the bowl. It tasted like mud, but relieved the dryness in his throat. Sitting back up, he watched as the Wookiee started stripping raw skin from a small dead animal that had been hanging against the wall, and shoved it in his toothy mouth. After a moment, Han ventured to ask the Wookiee a question. "Why are you living down here?"
The Wookiee snarled at Han through bloody teeth. *I have been banished.* He started eating again and then stopped. *They thought I would die down here, but I fooled them. I have lived here for years. Alone.* He gave Han another snarl. *But now I am no longer alone. Now I have a pet human.*
"Why were you banished?" Han prodded, ignoring the comments about being called a pet. At least if the crazy Wookiee considers me a pet, he won't kill me, he hoped.
*For aiding the Emperor. I wanted my family safe, so I helped enslave other Wookiees. Everything was fine, and no one knew I was an Imperial spy until the Empire fell. Then my deceit was discovered.*
"Oh," Han answered. Probably not a good idea to tell him who you are, Solo. "What's your name?"
*It was Trylaccakk. But you will call me Master.* The Wookiee looked down at a piece of bloody, raw meat in his paw. *You will eat this, pet.* He tossed it at Han and it landed next to the bowl of mud water with a disgusting plop.
"I'm not hungry," Han mumbled as he looked down at the raw meat, trying not to gag at the smell. Whatever it was, it had been dead for at least a day.
The Wookiee called Trylaccakk got a pleased look on his face and went to the corner of the cave. He returned with a long, nasty looking piece of leather. *If you do not obey me, I will punish you. I will like to punish you, pet human. So please, refuse to eat.*
At long last, the two Wookiees and the Jedi reached the floor of Kashyyyk. Luke shut his eyes and concentrated. "Han was right here, not that long ago."
*I agree, Skywalker. I can still smell his scent. And someone else was here as well - a Wookiee.*
*Can you tell which direction he went?* Lowbacca indicated his question to Luke with a wave of his paw. Now that Threepio was not with them to interpret, the three would need to rely on visual signals as well as Luke's and Lowbacca's ability to simply understand each other through the Force. It helped that Luke also had spent enough time around Wookiees that most of the time he understood what was said, even before Threepio interpreted, as long as the Wookiee spoke slowly. It would not be a perfect system, but Luke was confident they could make each other understood. Luke concentrated, while the Wookiees used their fine sense of smell to discern the direction Han took. Finally they agreed to head west and started out, hacking their way through the dense forest with their lightsabers.
They had not gone far when the ground started shaking, and the roar of a huge beast filled the air.
He tried not to gag as he knelt over the raw meat and chewed off a small piece. But when Solo tried to swallow, his throat closed and he couldn't stop himself - he retched until the half-chewed bit came back up. Han shut his eyes and tensed his back, waiting for the make-shift whip to beat him. Instead, the Wookiee gave him a kick in his side, sending him rolling onto his right shoulder. The pain nearly made him pass out, and Han forced his eyes open to look up at his tormentor.
*You are an ungrateful pet, human! I will not feed you again until you are begging me for food. Then you will eat whatever I give you, and it will not be nearly as good as this food you are rejecting.* With that threat, he snatched up the uneaten piece and shoved it in his own mouth.
Uncertain whether he should be grateful that he'd no longer be forced to try and eat, or worried that the Wookiee was planning to starve him, Han watched in silence until Trylaccakk was finished eating.
*Now we will go hunting, human,* the Wookiee informed his shivering captive as he hauled Han to his feet.
"Hunting?" Han said in a whisper, wondering why he was being taken along.
*Yes,* the Wookiee nodded, pushing Solo toward the exit. *Hunting will be much easier now that I have you to tie up to a tree and use as bait.*
I shouldn't have asked, Han thought with a grimace.
"What's that?" Luke asked, alarmed at the fast approaching creature. He could hear the branches snapping and the underbrush being smashed flat.
*It sounds like a Vrayayyshu,* Chewie replied, more toward Lowbacca than Luke.
*It sounds like a lot of Vrayayyshus,* Lowie nodded, and took a defensive stance with his lightsaber held out in front of him.
*I am not sure this is the way we should deal with this,* Chewie noted as Luke also prepared for a fight.
The creatures came closer. *How would you suggest we deal with it?* Lowbacca asked.
Chewie opened his mouth to suggest that perhaps going up in the trees and out of the way would be wise, but he didn't have time to voice his opinion. The thundering herd of multi-legged Vrayayyshus with very long, sharp claws and jagged layers of teeth, was suddenly in front of the two Wookiees and one human.
Luke gave one, desperate attempt through the Force to send the huge creatures in a different direction, and wasn't too surprised when it didn't work. The Jedi also didn't wonder how they were going to defend themselves against so many, even with lightsabers. He knew it wasn't possible.
"Jump!" Luke yelled as he used the Force to vault out of the way of the dangerous creatures. Lowbacca quickly emulated his Jedi Master as he, too, leapt clear of the teeth and claws. Although Chewie did not possess the Force, his natural abilities and instincts served him well - even before Luke had yelled, Chewie was jumping for the nearest tree and pulling himself out of harm's way.
The Vrayayyshus tore past, not even noticing the two Wookiees clinging to the lower branches of several small trees. At least they were small in comparison to most of the trees on Kashyyyk, mere saplings against the backdrop of their giant parent trees. Luke had chosen a fairly deep, natural trench to hide in - unfortunately a muddy creek wound its way at the bottom. But it served the purpose for getting away from the creatures and after many long minutes the herd was finally gone, leaving a path of trampled vegetation in its wake. Climbing out of the gully, Luke tried futilely wiping at the thick mud that clung to his clothes and hair. The two Wookiees looked amused. *You wear it well, Skywalker,* Chewie woofed slowly with a toothy grin.
"I guess I should have picked a tree branch," Luke conceded. "At least no one got hurt."
The mention of the word 'hurt' turned Chewie's grin into a frown. *My cub is hurt, and we are taking too long to find him.*
*Then we should hurry,* Lowbacca agreed. *Hopefully, we will have no more delays.*
Solo's trembling legs barely carried him the entire distance to the area his "owner" decided was good hunting grounds. He was exhausted and with his hands tied behind him, walking was difficult at best. Brambles tore at his clothes, and his face was covered with deep scratches. Complaining only got him a hard cuff on his already throbbing head. Finally they arrived at a small clearing with a few small trees growing among the knee-high weeds.
*This is a good location. Many tasty creatures live near here, and they will find you to be an irresistible treat.* Trylaccakk proceeded to cut down several lengths of small vines before dragging Han by the neck into the field. The Wookiee pushed the tired Corellian up against one of the small trees, and wrapped the vines so tightly around Solo's chest and legs that the cords constricted Han's breathing and cut off circulation. *Now we will wait for your scent to bring the predators. I will eat good tonight - too bad you will go hungry.* With that, Trylaccakk stalked off toward the deep cover of the woods.
How in all the hells of Corellia do I get myself into these messes? Han wondered wearily.
The three rescuers trudged through the thick forest, with Lowbacca in the lead and Chewie bringing up the rear. Frequently the foliage was so thick the daylight did not penetrate the canopy and Luke had to rely on the glowing lightsabers for illumination. The biting insects were brutal. Luke envied Chewie's and Lowie's thick fur - it offered a great deal of protection from the hoards of swarming bloodsuckers. Even though the dried-on mud was uncomfortable, Luke realized in a strange way it was a blessing, as it formed a barrier from at least some of the stings.
*Stop!* Lowie whispered, holding up a paw. *Something strange is ahead of us.*
Luke and Chewie pushed next to Lowbacca, who was stopped on the top edge of a sheer precipice. "It's steep," Luke noted as he looked down the side. "But I think we can make it."
*It's not that, Skywalker,* Chewie growled softly. *Look carefully at the branches and the leaves going down. They are shimmering.*
Holding his saber up, Luke stared down the deep ravine. He could see that the Wookiees were correct - everything had the appearance of being covered with a fine gauze. "What is that stuff?"
*It is a spider-web,* Chewie woofed slowly so Luke could understand his words. *A netcaster's home.*
It took a few moments for Luke to decipher the Shyriiwook. Then his eyes widened in shock. "A spider? How big is this spider?"
*Remember how big banthas are?* Chewie asked casually.
"They're as big as banthas?"
*Actually, they are somewhat bigger,* Lowie said with a shudder.
"Then we'll have to find a way around this place," Luke remarked with a shake of his head. He was not in the least bit interested in fighting with a spider bigger than a bantha.
*We could use a vine and swing over the ravine. That way we won't be wasting more time,* Lowie suggested as he tugged on the dangling brown ropes.
This didn't seem like a good idea at all to Luke, but Chewbacca quickly agreed. *Yes, I do not wish to waste more time. Getting around this place could take hours.*
"Well," Luke said reluctantly. "I suppose."
Lowbacca grabbed the thick vine, and with natural grace swung over the wide berth, dropping with ease on the far side. *It was easy,* he yelled back, tossing the rope back over.
*You go next,* Chewie handed the rope to Luke.
I've done this kind of thing before, Luke told himself. Just not over a giant spider's home. The Jedi grabbed the vine and jumped into the air. Unfortunately, less than halfway across, the vine snapped.
The vines around Han's body did not make knots that stayed tight, and became loose as he squirmed to free himself. Solo worked frantically at the leather tying his wrists until they were raw and bleeding. If he could free his hands, then Han figured he could take a chance at escaping using his vibro-blade, which the Wookiee had not discovered hidden in his boot. The Corellian would not hesitate to kill his captor if the opportunity presented itself. However, if he tried and failed, Han had no doubts his escape attempt would result in the crazy Wookiee going into a berserk rage and killing his 'pet human'. Finally, Han could feel the ropes slipping. A few more minutes and his hands would be free. As it turned out, he didn't have a few more minutes. A huge, scaled beast about 15 feet tall, with a long spiked tail came crashing out of the underbrush, its nose twitching and its long red tongue guiding the beast toward the helpless Corellian.
The webcaster's net easily held as Luke fell into the sticky threads. *Skywalker!* Chewie bellowed from the top of the ridge. *Behind you!*
The Jedi twisted his torso while trying to free his hands from the web. The more he pulled, the more fibers stuck to him - the stuff was tenacious. As he looked where Chewie was pointing, Luke decided "bigger than a bantha" was an understatement. A gray spider, the size of a small transport, crawled out from a funnel shaped hole, its iridescent black eyes reflecting the trees and rocks lining the ravine. Eight very long legs reached out, tapping the web as it moved forward. But what concerned Luke the most were the fangs. Curved and thin, they looked like giant tusks pointing down at its prey. Fighting panic, Luke tried pulling his lightsaber from his belt, but the more he moved the tighter the webbing clung.
At the top of the cliff, Chewie drew his bowcaster out, aimed and fired. The projectile hit the arachnid above the eyes - with no noticeable effect.
At the other side of the ravine, Lowbacca turned on his lightsaber. Using the Force, he flung the weapon at the spider, drawing a deep slash across its side, then called his saber back to his paw. The spider turned toward the small light, hissing and spitting a thin stream of silk in an attempt to catch what it perceived as a flying insect. Green ooze dripped from the wound left by the saber.
Taking advantage of the distracted spider, Luke managed to free his own lightsaber, and slashed at the sticky strands holding him. The webbing dissolved against the heat of the glowing green lightsaber.
Unfortunately, the same glow now refocused the arachnid's attention back on the struggling Jedi, and the spider moved forward with lightning speed.
The reptile approached Solo cautiously, drooling in anticipation of fresh meat. Giving his wrists a last hard yank, Han pulled free and tried to squirm downward to reach his boot. Where is that insane Trylaccakk? I thought he was supposed to shoot the thing before it ate me! Heart pounding in terror, the Corellian's fingers found the handle of the vibro-blade and pulled it free. The creature's tongue licked at Han, tasting the human that it was about to make its next meal.
Han flicked on the blade, and cut through the vine holding him against the tree just as the reptile moved closer. With his arm now free, he slashed at the creature with his left hand, drawing the weapon across its nose. Roaring in shock, the thing drew back and brought a clawed foot up to strike at Solo. Desperately, Han pulled free of the remaining cords and threw himself on the ground, rolling away seconds before the slashing nails gouged most of the bark from the small tree. The reptile once again moved at the Corellian, this time faster, its mouth open wide. This is it, Solo, Han decided as he looked up at the reptile. You're about to end up in the gut of a big lizard.
The projectile fired from the bowcaster hit the reptile directly in its heart, dropping it instantly. Trylaccakk walked casually from his hiding place into the small field, the bowcaster at his side. He stopped at the side of the dead lizard and looked at it in disgust. *I do not care for reptile meat, it is too stringy.*
Han struggled to his feet. "That's all you have to say? You almost let me get eaten by that... that thing! And that's all you have to say! It's TOO STRINGY?"
The Wookiee turned to Han. *You did not give me all your weapons,* he remarked as he looked at the vibro-blade. *I will punish you when we get back to the cave. In the meantime, you will cut the meat off the reptile and place it in this net.* Trylaccakk removed some mesh netting from his small leather satchel. *Then you will carry it back to the cave.* To emphasis these instructions, the Wookiee raised his bowcaster and pointed it at Han. *Do you have objections, human?*
"No," Han said as he glared at the Wookiee. "I can't think of a better way I'd rather spend my afternoon."
With enough of the sticky strands cut, Luke dropped down to the rocky floor of the ravine, using the Force to control his landing. Grotesque gray sacks lined the gully floor, each containing the dried remains of the spider's previous meals. Luke could see the brown fur of some misfortunate animal sticking out from the nearest cocoon, and looking closer he saw lifeless eyes staring through the silken death shroud. The Jedi felt his stomach tighten as he looked up at the huge spider following him down the entry hole he'd cut with his saber.
The arachnid hesitated, as if it remembered the glowing stick could cause pain - meanwhile Luke held his lightsaber in front of his body in a defensive stance. The spider moved forward again and Luke swung his weapon at the part of the creature he knew was the biggest threat: the fangs. The Jedi's aim was true, and the right fang separated from the spider's body, dripping ichorous poison from the wound. Screeching, the creature pulled back, waving its front legs at its prey. Luke turned off his saber, and rolled under the belly, avoiding the dangerous flaying limbs.
Turning the lightsaber back on, Luke drew it along the underside of the spider. Thick, green mucus poured out of the creature; it swiped its remaining fang at the Jedi, who ducked and rolled behind the arachnid to get clear of the chelicerae. The spider swung around, attempting to find the small creature that was causing it so much distress. Barely avoiding the huge, hairy legs, Luke moved toward the mouth and swung the saber again, this time removing the remaining fang. The spider tucked its legs under its belly and curled into a tight ball in an attempt to protect itself. Luke knew the wounds he had inflicted were fatal, and feeling a pang of remorse, severed the huge spider's head from its body. The fight was over.
Solo dropped his disgusting burden on the floor of the cave with immense relief. The slabs of raw meat had dripped sticky blood through the mesh, soaking his shirt and attracting even more insects during the long return hike. The Wookiee ordered Han to the rear of the cave and proceeded to hang the meat on wooden posts set in the floor, while the Corellian collapsed in a corner, exhausted beyond words. Solo worried what kind of punishment the crazy Wookiee intended to inflict on him for hiding his vibro-blade.
Once the meat was hung, the matted Wookiee drank water and placed another bowl at Han's feet. *Drink.*
With his wrists no longer tied, Han started to reach for the brown water but the Wookiee sent the bowl careening across the cave with a kick. *What do you think you are doing, human?*
"Ya told me to drink," Han snapped back.
*And I told you that you are an animal!* The Wookiee roared in rage. He reached down and pulled Han off the ground by his shirt. *You will drink like the beast of burden you now are! Do you understand?* He shook Solo so hard, Han felt his teeth rattle.
"Yes," Han choked out.
*Yes? Yes what?*
Yes what? Han thought frantically. What does he mean?
*You will call me MASTER!* Trylaccakk screamed, spittle flying from his mouth. *You have not yet called me Master, pet!*
"Yes, master," Han replied through clenched teeth, trying to calm the enraged Wookiee.
Trylaccakk threw Han to the ground and refilled the bowl. *Drink!*
Han sighed and leaned over the murky water and drank. If he didn't escape from the insane Wookiee very soon, he had a feeling he never would.
*It is getting dark. We have had too many delays,* Chewie commented as he looked up at the towering trees. *If we do not find Han quickly, things will become dangerous.*
Lowbacca chuckled at Luke's comment. *It's not funny, young one,* Chewie admonished. *Every second my cub spends down here is a second too much. We must find him before nightfall.*
"We'll find him, Chewie," Luke answered the tone of the worried Wookiee. "His sense is getting closer, but wherever he is, he's frightened."
Trylaccakk lifted his head and listened. *The creatures in the forest are sounding flustered. Something is coming.* He turned his attention to Han, who sat huddled in the corner of the cave. After Solo had called him "master" and lapped up the foul-tasting water, the crazed Wookiee had calmed down, and not punished the Corellian further. *Do not move a muscle, pet,* Trylaccakk warned. *I will be right back.* Han knew that escaping during the night would be foolish and probably fatal. He did not intend to enrage his captor further, for the time being anyway.
The Wookiee went to the cave's mouth and pushed at the covering. Sniffing the air, he knew instantly - there were other Wookiees approaching, as well as a human. This was not good. If they were here, it was a good bet it was a search party looking for his human. Trylaccakk had no intention of giving up his captive companion, and if he had to, he would kill his new pet before allowing him to leave.
*I can smell Han's scent. He is close,* Chewie woofed as his sensitive nose twitched. *I smell many other things as well. The other Wookiee's odor is powerful, and I smell fresh blood.*
Luke frowned as he struggled to understand Chewbacca. The Jedi found it much easier to communicate with Lowie, simply because of the link they shared through the Force. But he still understood enough to worry him. "Blood?"
*It is not Han's blood, thank the Force,* Chewie said slowly and carefully, not wanting to be misunderstood.
*This Wookiee we smell is...* Lowbacca hesitated, searching for the proper word. *Abnormal. Unkempt.*
"Do you think Han is with this Wookiee?" Luke questioned. He had reached out with the Force to sense this Wookiee, and what he felt truly concerned him. Abnormal would not be the description Luke would use. More like demented, he thought with a frown. It would explain Han's focused fear, which seemed directed at a single object, not a general fearfulness of being alone in a deadly environment.
*I believe it is a good possibility, Skywalker.*
"Do you know of any Wookiees that live down here?" The question seemed ridiculous, for no Wookiee would ever willingly stay down on the surface for any longer than necessary. Luke knew that only males would venture down, and usually only once in their lives. In a tradition as old as time, young males would have a coming-of-age initiation by hunting on the surface of Kashyyyk. Fortunately, most young Wookiees survived this rite.
*I know of no Wookiee that lives down here,* Chewie said, frowning. *I do remember once, after the fall of the Empire, a Wookiee was sentenced to die by being sent to the surface. He could not have survived this many years.*
"Why was he sentenced to die?"
*He betrayed the Wookiees of Kashyyyk by working with the Imperials, and selling our kind as slaves.*
Despite the warm air, a chill swept over Luke.
*We have to leave. Now!* Trylaccakk order his human. The Wookiee stuffed a few pieces of meat in his bag, and made sure his bowcaster was full of ammunition.
Han knew darkness was falling, and he was completely drained from the day's events. Without getting up, Han snapped out, "Why? It's getting dark outside and we've walked miles today!" That was a mistake.
The Wookiee gave an angry roar and pulled Han to his feet by his hair. *Do not question me!* With a huge paw, he backhanded Solo across the face, slamming Han against the wall of the cave. Guess I shouldn't have argued... was his last thought before he lost consciousness. Trylaccakk gave a second roar and hoisted the limp human across his shoulder. He could make better time this way.
*Did you hear that?* Lowie asked excitedly. *That was a Wookiee!*
*And he is very near,* Chewbacca agreed.
"Chewie, we need to hurry," Luke nodded. "I think Han's been hurt again."
Throwing caution aside the three took off at a run, slashing their way through the brush.
Trylaccakk exited the mouth of the cave and headed to a well-worn trail he had used for years. A strange humming noise made him turn his head just in time to see two Wookiees and a human appear from the undergrowth. It took him a second to register that one Wookiee and the human held lightsabers. It had been decades since Trylaccakk last saw lightsabers. Dumping the unconscious man on the ground, the matted Wookiee raised his bowcaster and fired at the human. Luke easily blocked the shot with his lightsaber.
"Put down your weapon," the human shouted. "We don't want to hurt you. We only want our friend."
*Come closer, and I will kill him,* Trylaccakk snarled, aiming the bowcaster at Han. Were these Jedi he was dealing with? He had believed that Jedi no longer existed, but how else could his shot have been stopped?
The three rescuers stopped in their tracks. Cautiously, Chewie spoke. *Why? What has Han done to you?*
*Is that his name? Han?* Trylaccakk laughed. *He has agreed to stay with me. He would tell you this himself, but he is taking a nap.*
"What do you want?" Luke asked softly. "Credits?"
The crazed Wookiee laughed harder. *Credits? Can I eat credits down here? Can credits give me companionship? Keep your credits, human! Your friend is now my pet, and I do not intend to let you take him.*
Luke could feel the rage rising in Chewbacca, and saw his claws start to unsheathe. "Chewie, don't let your anger rule. We can still negotiate for Han." By this point, the Jedi knew they were not dealing with a sane being, and his concern for Han was becoming intense.
*Chewie? The mighty Chewbacca?* Trylaccakk asked in shock. *You are the cause of my banishment! If the Empire stilled ruled, I would have everything. But instead I am down here, and the Great Chewbacca is the Hero of Kashyyyk!*
*I did not cause you to betray our people to the Imperials,* Chewie roared back. *You have no one to blame but yourself. Do not try shifting the blame on me!*
Trylaccakk looked down as Han groaned and stirred. *This is Han Solo,* he whispered in awe. *My new pet is the famous Han Solo!* He grinned at Chewie. *This pleases me even more! I have stolen the Great Chewbacca's pet human from him!*
*Han is my honor-brother, he is not my pet.*
"Chewie?" Han whispered as he tried to sit up. Trylaccakk's bowcaster poked him in the chest.
"Han!" Luke yelled at his groggy brother-in-law. "Don't do anything... rash. Okay?"
Solo gave Luke a lop-sided grin. "You were gonna say stupid, weren't you?"
"Well, when you consider that you thought everyone was plotting to kill you, I guess stupid kind of fits."
*QUIET!* Trylaccakk roared in fury. Then he addressed Chewie. *If you want Solo back, you must fight me for him. To the death, with no weapons, just our strength. If I win, the Jedi must leave and I get Solo.*
*I agree to your terms,* Chewie barked back. *No weapons. To the death.*
"No!" Han yelled and struggled to stand. The insane Wookiee easily pushed him back to the ground.
*We start now!* Trylaccakk screamed and stalked toward Chewbacca.
Luke watched as the mighty Wookiees circled each other, each waiting and watching for their advantage. Despite Chewie's agreement, Luke knew he would not allow Trylaccakk to "keep" Han should Chewie lose the fight, and he suspected Chewie knew that as well. Should the fight not go Chewie's way, the Jedi would also step in and help. Luke guessed this was probably against some rules of honor in the Wookiee culture, but he didn't care - he would not let Chewie die if he could prevent it.
Trylaccakk attacked first. Lunging toward Chewie, he grabbed him around the waist and the two crashed to the ground. Twisting his wiry body, the crazed Wookiee grabbed Chewie around the neck and tried to put his forearm around the throat of his opponent. Chewie was too well conditioned, and flipped the taller but lighter Wookiee over his head. Trylaccakk rolled to prevent Chewbacca from getting his hands around his own neck.
While the fight went on, Lowie and Luke sidestepped the fight and moved next to Han. Luke knelt down next to the Corellian, who was sitting transfixed at the sight of the battle. "Han? Are you alright?"
Solo tore his eyes away from Chewie for a second. "Yeah," he said, smirking. "Just a broken bone or two. And lots of cuts and bruises. I'll heal."
Now that he was closer, Luke assessed Han's appearance. Sure, he'd heal. But not in time for the life-day party. Leia's going to kill me, Luke thought with a sigh. "How did you survive the fall?" Luke whispered, as he returned his focus to the brawl.
"Vines. I fell into vines when I was almost at the bottom and they stopped my fall. Who hit me and knocked me off the walkway?" Han asked casually, trying not to sound suspicious. It couldn't have been Luke or Chewie. Surely they wouldn't have risked their lives to come down here and save him if they were responsible.
"No one hit you, Han," Luke said tiredly. "Lowie found a branch lodged in the walkway outside Chewie's home. When he looked directly up, there was a fresh break on a limb right above it. So you can rest easy - no one is trying to kill you."
The men stopped talking as the fight grew more intense. By this time, Chewie was bleeding from the slashing claws of Trylaccakk. Trylaccakk was faring better, since his matted fur was keeping Chewie's claws from reaching the skin. They were circling each other again, and this time Chewie struck first. With speed that surprised even Han, Chewie went low and grabbed the legs of Trylaccakk and sent him sprawling on his back. Then he flipped the matted Wookiee on his stomach and forcefully jumped on his back, using his weight and strength to his advantage. The neck of Trylaccakk was now in Chewie's elbow, and Chewbacca tightened his arm, vise-like, until the other Wookiee was gasping for air. Chewie did not see his opponent reach in his belt and pull out Solo's vibro-blade, but Han saw the weapon in Trylaccakk's hand.
"Chewie! Watch out!" Han screamed.
Trylaccakk positioned his arm and turned on the blade, but before he could stab at Chewie, Lowbacca stepped forward. With a blur, the lightsaber went down and Trylaccakk's hand was severed. The paw lay on the ground with the vibro-blade still humming in its grasp. The Wookiee let out a strangled roar of agony, but the roar was cut short as Chewie snapped his neck. Trylaccakk's body went limp in death.
Chewie stood up, and stared down at the dead Wookiee. *Even in a fight to the death, he was not honorable,* he said with a shake of his head.
Luke helped Han to his feet, and in a split second Chewie went from being a killing machine to a gentle giant as he carefully hugged his partner. *I'll make you a deal, cub. You stop doing things like falling off walkways to scare me, and Luke and I will stop teasing you to make you paranoid. Well, more paranoid than you usually are, anyway. Deal?*
"Pal, that sounds like the best deal I've heard all day….and I am NOT paranoid!"
"We made it back to Coruscant by the twenty-fifth!" Luke said gleefully as he pulled the handle back on the Falcon's controls and watched the planet come into focus.
Han Solo sat in the navigator's chair, frowning. With his right arm still in a bone-knitter cast, he was unable to pilot his ship on the way home, and he had complained about Chewie's constant fussing over him the entire trip. He was not in a good mood, but until this point, no one had whispered behind his back or mentioned the twenty-fifth. Earlier, when Han had questioned Luke, the Jedi had laughed and said it was all just an elaborate practical joke. Since when did Jedi pull practical jokes? Han had wondered, annoyed and not quite believing his brother-in-law.
"The twenty-fifth?" Han snapped. "I thought this joke was over."
"It was important we get back by that date, Han," Luke laughed. "We have an appointment."
*And we have less than two hours to get to it!* Chewie added.
"You? You have this appointment, too?" Han asked his partner, his eyes narrowing. "What's going on? I want answers."
*Soon, cub, soon.*
Han sighed. "What did I ever do to deserve this?"
"You were born, Han." Luke answered with a smile.
No sooner had the Falcon set down, than Threepio, Lumpy and Malla left the ship, not even pausing to say goodbye. "Where did they go?" Han asked, puzzled as he watched them leave the ship, with the droid in the lead. "Are you sure you want Goldenrod guiding your family around Coruscant?"
*Lumpy asked Threepio to show them something. I'm sure they will be perfectly safe,* Chewie replied. *Your clothes are wrinkled.* The Wookiee pushed Han toward his cabin. *Dress in something better.*
"What?" Han asked, flummoxed at the sudden change of subject. "My clothes are wrinkled? Who cares? I'm just going home."
"No, we have an appointment," Luke insisted from inside Han's cabin. "You need to look nicer."
"What are you doing?" Han said, astounded at the fact Luke was now in his cabin, laying out clean, pressed clothes. "I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what this is all about! Who is this appointment with that I have to look nice?"
"A very important person," Luke answered as looked at Chewie. "Do you want to hold him down, while I dress him?"
Solo's eyes widened and he backed up - right into Chewie. *Get changed, Han. Now!* the Wookiee roared in a tonethat brooked no argument.
"Fine!" Han snapped. "Get out and I'll change clothes." I suppose it can't hurt to humor them, Han thought irritably. But I sure as hell can't wait until the twenty-sixth gets here.
Luke would rather have had Han wear something more formal, but he decided that just clean and pressed would have to do. Making Han put on clean clothes at all had been a worry for him, but now that they were headed toward the banquet hall, Luke decided his brother-in-law would at least look presentable, even if his arm was in a cast. Bacta had healed the cuts and bruises enough that they were barely noticeable. Barely, but still noticeable. Leia was not going to be happy, but it wasn't Luke's fault Han fell off the boardwalk. Keep telling yourself that, Skywalker, Luke told himself. Maybe Leia will even believe you. Or not. Looking over at the Corellian, Luke could see Han was not happy, either. "I guess you look okay," Luke said as he appraised Han's appearance.
"For who?" Han no longer believed his family was trying to kill him, anyway. "Why won't you just tell me who this appointment is with? Are you trying to drive me nuts?"
"Do or do not," Luke intoned solemnly. "There is no try."
"What the hell does that mean?"
Chewie woofed in laughter. *Perhaps it's a plot to drive you crazy, cub.*
Grabbing Solo by the left arm, Luke pulled him down a long, elegant corridor of a very expensive hotel. "We have to hurry or we'll be late."
"Late for WHAT?" Han yelled as he was hustled along. The only response to his question was more laughter.
As they neared a large, double doorway, Luke reached out with his Force-sense to his sister. We're right outside, he informed her as he reached for the "open" switch. The doors slid quietly apart. The interior was completely dark, and the Jedi could sense Han's growing trepidation. It's probably a good thing Han's right arm is in a cast, Luke decided. A guest getting shot by Han's blaster would be a good way to put a damper on the party.
Chewie and Luke both pushed Solo forward into the quiet room. "Chewie," Han said in a low voice. "What's going - " He got no further.
The lights came on and hundreds of people, Wookiees, and at least half a dozen different species of beings jumped out from behind chairs and tables. "SURPRISE!"
Han Solo staggered backwards in shock at the same time Chewie stepped to one side. With his arm in a cast, Solo's balance was thrown off and the Corellian went down with a thud on his backside, his eyes wide and his heart racing. "Wha...wha..."
"Han?" Leia stepped forward, since she was closest to the door. She peered down at her speechless husband. "What happened to your arm? How did you get all bruised? Why are you sitting on the floor? Get up and get in here!"
Chewie reached down and pulled Han to his feet, woofing in laughter. *Your wife said "get up".*
"What happened to him?" Leia questioned Luke softly.
"I'll tell you later," Luke whispered. Maybe the fact he got Han to the party on time and alive would count for something, anyway.
Solo stared past Leia at all the people in the room, laughing and singing a traditional life-day song - directed at him. His favorite oldies band, The Solar Flares, was on a stage playing instruments along with the loud singing. He could see Wedge, Malla, Mon Mothma, almost everyone he knew. Han tried to focus on the Princess. "Li.. life-day? Whose life-day?"
"Yours, dear!" Leia laughed. "Happy Life-day, Han!"
"You never had a life-day party, so your family decided to throw you one. A big one, to make up for all the ones you've never had," Luke explained, watching Han's expression go from befuddlement to understanding to sheepish embarrassment. All his friends and associates, with their families, were gathered in this one room... from former smugglers like Lando and Talon Karrde, to politicians and pilots of the New Republic, and most of the Jedi. Luke did not miss seeing a certain red-head among the guests.
"Were you surprised?" Leia asked happily as she pulled him further into the room. Any explanation for his injuries would have to wait for later.
"Uh.... shocked," Han replied sincerely, still trying to recover.
"See? No one was trying to kill you, Han," Luke laughed. "All the whispering was about this party."
"Kill you?" Leia asked, her eyes growing round. "You thought we were trying to kill you?"
"Thanks a lot, kid," Solo groused at Luke, feeling his face flush with embarrassment. "You didn't have to tell her that!"
"Sure I did! She's my sister... we don't keep secrets!"
Before Han could argue this obvious fallacy, people gathered around him, slapping him on the back and shaking his left hand. The Corellian was drawn into the crowd.
"Kill him?" Leia repeated in disbelief.
"Your husband has a paranoid streak," Luke said to Leia, but his eyes were focused on Mara Jade, who was making her way through the crowd over to Luke. "And I guess there was a former assassin in the crowd, after all. Excuse me, Leia. I have to mingle with the guests." The Jedi left his sister standing with Chewie to go meet Mara.
"Chewie, how could Han even consider that a possibility?" Leia questioned the Wookiee. Chewie shifted on his feet and stared at the ceiling for a moment, feeling a bit of guilt and remorse.
*Well,* he started out slowly, so she could understand. *Luke and I did encourage that notion....*
"What? Luke did that? Why?" I send Han away with Luke and then my own brother torments my husband? I swear if this wasn't such a public place, I'd... I'd...
*It was funny. Until he fell off the boardwalk on Kashyyyk and almost got killed.*
"Fell?" Leia spluttered. "He fell off a boardwalk?" Luke, you are in such deep.....
*But vines stopped his fall... so he would have been alright, except for the insane, banished Wookiee that found him and tried to make him a pet.*
Leia held up her hand, feeling a little dizzy. "Chewie. Stop. I'm sure I'll hear all about it from Han. But will you do me a favor?"
"Next time I decide to throw Han a party, lock me up and throw away the code-key."
Late that night.
Han lay in bed next to his wife, still smiling as he thought back on the wonderful evening. "That was a great life-day party, sweetheart. It's amazing you managed to hire The Solar Flares to play!"
"It wasn't too hard," Leia commented dryly. "They haven't had a hit in twenty years. Their manager practically cried when I told him I wanted to hire them."
Ignoring her jab at his taste in music, Solo continued. "And I can't believe all the presents I got! 'Course, most of 'em are pretty useless, but it was the thought that counts, right?"
Leia propped herself up on an elbow and looked at her slightly beaten-up husband. "I didn't mean to get you almost killed, Han, really. Even if you thought I was plotting your demise."
"Uh, about that, Leia." Han stopped smiling and bit his lip. Putting his uninjured arm around his wife, he said contritely, "I don't know what I was thinking. Can you forgive me?"
"Well, I suppose I can forgive you," she said coolly. "But I think you need to earn my forgiveness."
"Me? What about your brother? He hasn't been a shining angel of innocence in all this, ya know."
"Oh, Luke isn't getting off free and easy, believe me." Leia gave the type of humorless smile that always made Han worry. "I plan on having a long talk with Mara tomorrow. She'll have better ideas for getting even than I'll ever be able to come up with on my own."
Mara? Uh oh... poor Luke! Han thought, suddenly feeling sorry for his brother-in-law. At least I never have to contend with Jade.
"All right," Han agreed somewhat reluctantly. "What kind of punishment for me do you have in mind?"
"The bedroom closet needs a good cleaning. And so do the kitchen cupboards," she smiled down at him sweetly.
Han rolled his eyes. Leia had been trying to get him to clean out those cupboards for weeks already. "Oh, fine. I guess I can handle that." Especially since I was planning on doing it anyway. Eventually.
"Absolutely!" Leia agreed. "And speaking of presents, I haven't given you mine, yet."
"What do you mean? That party was a great present," Han said. "You don't have to give me anything -" His protest was cut short as his wife pressed her lips against his in a slow, lingering kiss.
After a long moment, she drew back and whispered in his ear. "Are you sure you don't want my present? I promise to be real careful with your shoulder."
"To hell with the shoulder, Princess," Han murmured softly. "You're the best life-day gift I could ask for."
"You got that right, flyboy."