Shannon sat at the game table, swinging her legs and scowling. "I don't want to stay on this stupid ship."
Leia shook her head in exasperation. "I've already explained it's too dangerous to come with us. I should have insisted Winter take you home."
Silently, Han agreed with that comment, but it was too late at this point. Now, instead of having Chewie covering his back, like he was used to, the Wookiee was being forced - once again - to stay behind and play babysitter for Shannon. "We stocked up on all sorts of food you like before we left Glova, so Chewie will make you anything you want to eat," Han cajoled the child, ignoring the Wookiee's grumpy protest. Cooking was not Chewie's greatest talent, and neither was babysitting.
"You cook better than Chewie," Shannon whined. "You stay and make something for me."
/Yes, Han,./ Chewie woofed, giving him a sly look. /YOU stay and cook for the child./
"Luke and Mara are landing," Leia told Han. "We have to get going." She gave her daughter a stern look. "You behave, and listen to Chewie. Do you understand, young lady?"
"Yes," Shannon mumbled, not looking at her mother.
"Thank you, Chewie," Leia said, giving him a quick hug.
"If she gives you a hard time, just lock her up in the storage units," Han called out as he left the hold.
Chewie sat down across from the girl and turned on the holochess game, waving his hand to indicate they should play. Instead, she jumped down from the seat and stared at the Wookiee. "Teach me how to cook."
"I want to make my mommy a cake," she said, not too sure what Chewie was saying. "Han said you'd cook for me. So cook."
Chewie stood up and headed for the food supplies. /I plan on getting even with Han for this. Very soon./
Brother and sister gave each other a quick hug, then proceeded to head over to Han as he haggled with an owner of a land speeder rental business. "You're not upset Han is still married?" Luke cautiously approached what he assumed would be a sensitive subject.
"I've met Alli," Leia told Luke. "She's a great person, with a kind spirit. Maybe everything that happened between me and Han was supposed to happen. Alli needed Han, and I think it's wonderful he married her to help with her deal with problems."
Mara frowned. "But what about the tiny little detail that you and Han love each other?"
"Things will work out," Leia replied lightly, she watched Han give the dealer some credits. Then she looked at her brother, and with a straight face said, "Alli and I have already decided just to share Han."
Han turned around in time to see Luke and Mara's expression of shock. "See, kid? Use me as an example as the way to handle a love life. You'll have twice the woman fallin' all over ya."
"If you use Solo as an example, I really would turn to the dark side," Mara muttered as she climbed into the driver's seat.
The Corellian was about to object to the fact Mara was behind the controls when Leia pulled him toward the rear seat. "Get in, Flyboy. Let the Jedi drive."
"Twice as whipped, I'd say," Luke muttered under his breath as he climbed in next to Mara.
"What did you say?" Mara snapped.
A little while later....
/This is going to take me forever to clean up!./ Chewie moaned, looking at the sugar, flour and cake batter tossed all over the ship's tiny galley. An alarm started ringing as black smoke billowed from the cooking unit, and Chewie realized the child has set the temperature control twice as high as necessary. /SHANNON!./ Chewie let out a loud roar, pulling open the door and grabbing the pan as small flames shot up from the charred mess. /OWW!./ The hot cake pan clattered to the floor, adding burned cake to the huge mess. /SHANNON!?./
The Wookiee stalked out of the galley, determined to make the girl help him clean up the cake-making disaster. After several long minutes of searching, he paused in the corridor and realized he was smelling outside air, then hurried to the hatch. It was lowered, and it suddenly occurred to Chewie that Shannon had left the ship.
Palthos was a planet of extremes. The northern hemisphere consisted of moderate temperatures, green fields, lush forests, and sparkling lakes. Past the equator, in the southern hemisphere, the planet suddenly turned to oppressive heat, little moisture, vast stretches of rocky fields occasionally interrupted by deep canyons or towering, stark mesas. With few exceptions, the sentients lived in the northern hemisphere, and this was where Brill's associates called home.
Using the directions provided by Alli, Mara pulled the speeder into a narrow road, then drove several more miles until she was stopped by a large gate. A droid sentry stuck its orb out of the stone wall, scanning the speeder and occupants. "Please state your name and business."
"My name is Arica Jade, and this is my fiancé, err... Burt Keile." She heard Han stifle a snort, then waved her hand toward the backseat. "And sitting in the back is Burt's sister Lara and her fiancé, Ulysses DeLoudenerrogant."
The next snort came from Leia, and Mara could see Han's highly affronted expression in the rearview mirror. "Sure," he whispered. "Give me the hard to spell name."
According to Alli, Gils 'associates' dealt in the underground market of valuable and highly coveted gems that sentients, and especially humans, wanted as jewelry. Mara continued to address the droid, "We were told this was where to come to find rare lambda gems."
"Just a moment, please," the droid whined, before returning inside its hole.
"Ulysses?" Han grumbled, leaning forward and poking Mara in her shoulder. "Loud and arrogant? I'm not loud!"
"You have no one to blame but yourself, Han," Luke answered. "Mara kept warning you...."
"You'd better get used to the name, Ulysses," Mara said sweetly. "Very, very used to it."
The droid popped back out, forcing them to cut off their conversation. "Please show your credits for confirmation of financial ability."
Leia handed a small card to Mara, who held it up for the droid to scan. Although it gave no personal information, a merchant could easily see the credit balance and verify a purchase. Leia's card easily passed and the gate opened.
Shannon hadn't really intended to run away, but when the smoke alarm went off and the Wookiee started yelling, she had panicked. Now, wandering the tidy streets, she wasn't really afraid of getting lost, she was just nervous about Chewie tracking her down and telling her mother about leaving the ship.
The little girl peered into the store windows, looking at clothes, shoes, entertainment toys, and finally, a candy store. Unable to resist, Shannon wandered inside, looking around at the rows of mouthwatering treats. Backing up against a table, Shannon reached behind her torso and slid several candies into her pocket.
A short, portly lady peered over the counter, and for a second, Shannon thought she'd been caught. "May I help you?" the woman asked.
"No... my mom is next door in the shoe store and she said I could come in here."
"By yourself?" the lady questioned, frowning in disapproval. "She should know better than that. Children disappear, especially around here."
"They do?" Shannon asked, eyes wide. "Why?"
The lady leaned closer. "The mines, child. Only children work those mines."
"What's a mine?"
"Nothing," she answered shortly. "Go away and find your mother.... before it's too late."
Shannon hurried out of the store with her stolen treats, and once outside, promptly stuffed them into her mouth. That lady was just trying to scare me, she thought in annoyance. Adults seemed to do that to kids all of the time. Shannon wasn't the sort to scare that easily.
Outside the mansion, Han and Leia were forced to remove their blasters since the shiny, white droid insisted no weapons would be allowed inside. Fortunately, his photoreceptors did not recognize the silver tubes attached to Luke and Mara's belts as weapons.
Then the SE18 escorted the four humans up a wide staircase and opened a door. "This way, please."
Rows and rows of tables covered with highly polished lambda gems filled the room, and overhead lights shined down, directed at the gems. Another door, this one on the opposite side of the room and a tall, dark haired man entered the room. He smiled, extending his hand as he approached them, his fingers covered with rings that dripped with gems. "My name is Roy Creat," he said, smiling. "How can I assist you?"
"We're looking for high quality lambda gems, and we were told this was the place to find them," Luke told the man.
"You were told correctly," the man acknowledged. "Who, if you don't mind, pointed you in our direction?"
"A man by the name of Brill Gils," Luke replied, carefully watching for the man's reaction.
A pretty little park caught Shannon's eye, and she hurried across the street to go play. Now this was more like it, she decided. Why didn't Chewie just bring her here to begin with? Then she wouldn't have gotten bored and insisted they make that stupid cake. The more she thought about it, the more she decided the burned cake was Chewie's fault.
She sat on the swing, and kicked her legs out. Swinging felt like flying, and she leaned her head back, wondering why the park was so empty.
"Hey, there," a young voice said, slightly behind her.
Shannon stopped, and turned around to face a boy, about four years older than her. He looked decidedly unhappy. "Hello," she replied. "My name is Shannon. What's yours?"
"Trey," the boy answered, his eyes flickering around. "Where are your mom and dad?"
"My dad just died, and my mom's busy," Shannon said. "Where are your parents?"
"My mom just died, too," the boy replied. "So I guess we have something in common, huh?"
"Do you want to play?"
"What kind of game?" Shannon asked. She was very fussy about what types of games she liked to play.
"See those trees over there? I'll go hide, and you try and find me," Trey replied. Then he ran off, not even looking back to see if she was following.
"Gils?" Creat snapped, his eyes narrowing.
Luke could sense the man's hostility and suspicion. Perhaps throwing Gils name out so soon had been a mistake, but it wasn't one he could correct.
"Yes," Leia said, stepping forward and smiling. "We met him a few months back.... in a bar at beach where we were vacationing, and we just started talking. He was so sweet, and he kept telling us about his two sons that his mean wife wouldn't let him see anymore. That poor man..."
At this point, Mara also moved up, batting her eyes at Creat and trying to look dumb. She'd found over the years men felt less threatened by 'dumb' woman, and became much more vulnerable for attack. "And Brilly... that's what we called him... Brilly.... told us about this place. We really, really wanna own some rings and necklaces made from lambda gems... you know... wedding presents from our fiancés." She looked over her shoulder at Luke and Han. "Isn't that right, Burt?"
Luke cleared his throat. "Of course, Arica. You know I'd buy you a entire planet, if that's what you want, honeypie."
Leia grabbed Han by his arm. "Ulysses promised me he'd buy me the absolutely biggest rock you've got... didn't you, Ulysses?"
"Yeah," Han added. "And we'd like to invite Brilly to our wedding, 'cept we don't know where he took off to. You wouldn't happen to have his current address, so we could send him along an invite, do you?"
Creat smiled, but the Jedi could sense he was still wary of them. "Gils won't be able to come to your weddings. I'm afraid he had a little accident a few weeks ago."
"Oh, no!" Mara shrieked, throwing her hands up. "He's not hurt, is he? Poor Brilly!"
"Hurt?" the man said, snickering. "That's an understatement."
"That's too bad," Han muttered, putting his hands under a heavy table filled with polished gems. "I was so looking forward to seeing my buddy Brilly one more time." Han flipped the table over, sending the jewels scattering onto the floor, and tackled Creat around the waist just as the man pulled out a blaster and fired.
Shannon watched the boy as he disappeared into the trees, her own sense of danger tingling. Something wasn't right, and she didn't intend to follow Trey - not until her eyes noticed a very large, very hairy Wookiee across the street and heading toward the park. Chewie hadn't spotted her yet, and Shannon wasn't prepared to meet the Wookiee's wrath, so she hurried into the trees. Maybe finding Trey in the woods was a good game... it was certainly better than returning to the Falcon and cleaning up the mess in the kitchen.
"Trey?" she called out. "I'm coming."
Carefully, she moved further into the shadowed woods, reaching out with her untrained Force sense. The boy was here, and close. But she could also sense someone else in the woods as well. "Trey? I don't like this game. There's a candy store across the street. We can go steal some candy... I'm real good at stealing. No one ever catches me."
Her breath was knocked from her lungs as she crashed to the damp ground. Someone had pushed her down, and was holding her legs. Shannon kicked out as hard as she could without even looking back.
"Ouch!" a boy's voice yelled. "Quit kickin'!"
Shannon twisted around, staring at another boy with dark blond hair and blue eyes. "Where's Trey? Who are you?"
"I'm Trey's brother," the older boy replied, sitting up but not releasing his hold on Shannon's legs. "Trey... where are you?"
Trey appeared, holding a rope and a brown sack. "I was getting the stuff to tie her up, Rue."
"Tie me up?" Shannon yelled, hoping Chewie could hear her. "I don't like this game."
"It ain't no game, girl," the older boy replied, tying her ankles. "You're gonna be working in those mines from now on."
"I don't work! I'm rich!" Shannon started struggling, bending over and biting the older boy as he wrapped the rope around her wrists. "I don't even know what a mine is!"
"OUCH!" Rue glared at her, then turned to his younger brother. "Put that gag in her mouth before half the town hears her!"
"I hate you!" Shannon screamed. "You can't do this - " The gag slipped into her mouth, cutting off her protests.
"We don't have a choice," Rue answered, his face regretful as he tightened the ropes. "I'm sorry, rich girl. But it's you or us, and it ain't gonna be us."
Chewie turned his head, listening carefully. Had he heard a child yelling? A large, red crested bird flew out of the nearby woods, screeching as it flew overhead. So it was only the bird's cry. But where was that child? Chewie scanned the empty park, sniffing the air. He moved toward the swings, and sniffed again. She had been here, not that long ago. If he didn't find her soon, Leia would never forgive him. Perhaps it was time to contact the local authorities, but then he would blow Han's cover to locate Brill. Chewie sighed, shaking his head with indecision. Why was his life around Han Solo always so darned complicated?
Creat's blaster shot hit the ceiling as he went down hard on his back with a loud, "oof", but the man still had the presence of mind to try press his emergency signal to call security droids. Instantly, the door opened, revealing half a dozen well armed SE-18 droids, all pointing blasters at the 'guests'. "What are you waiting for?" Creat screamed. "Kill them!"
Luke and Mara ignited their lightsabers at the same moment, expertly deflecting back the incoming fire as Han continued to wrestle with Creat for control of the man's weapon. Seeing Han struggling, Leia grabbed the first thing she could see - a large, uncut rock - and bashed the fist sized object off Creat's skull. As the man gasped in pain, Han was finally able to wrench the blaster away, and still lying on his back, fired at the remaining droids. In seconds, the fight was over. The smoking, charred remains of the Security Escort Droids crackled and sparked.
Luke reached down with the Force and yanked Creat to his feet. "Now. Where were we?"
"I think we were asking about Gils," Leia said, helping Han up off the floor. "But that seems to be a sore subject around here."
Without turning off her saber, Mara waved it in Creat's direction. "Brill Gils. Where is he? Dead?"
The man trembled, and tried to back away from the humming weapon, but Luke held him tight. "He's not dead. He owed me a lot of credits for supposedly losing a pile of lambda gems he was delivering. But he never got around to paying me back... he claimed something always kept coming up."
"Sounds like you and Jabba, dear," Leia said, looking up at Han, who had the grace to look vaguely embarrassed.
"You and your Alliance was my excuse," Han argued weakly.
"So where is Gils, if he's not dead," Luke demanded, sensing the man's growing unease.
"He's working to pay me back."
"That's not an answer," Han snapped, pointing his blaster in the man's nose. "Gils has something he owes me, too, and I ain't leavin' this system without them."
"Solo, back off," Mara snapped. "Let us deal with him."
"Solo?" Creat stuttered. "Gils told me about you."
"Good," Han said, nodding curtly and ignoring Mara's order. "I like it when my reputation precedes me. It makes things go faster. Where is Gils?" The blaster jabbed harder in the man's face.
"Downstairs. Locked up."
"In a prison?" Leia questioned.
"Yes. Sort of.... he's staying put until those kids of his work off his debt."
"Trey and Rue?" Han shot back. "You're forcing them to work for you?"
The man flushed. "Making deliveries."
Mara was getting mad, and pushed Han aside. "What kind of deliveries?" she asked tightly.
"Mine slaves. They're trapping little kids to work in the lambda mines."
Trey and Rue hauled the sack containing the little girl over to a speeder, and tossed her into the backseat. "I don't like doing this," Trey sniffed, trying not to cry. "Mom and dad wouldn't want us to, either."
"We have to," Rue returned grimly. "It's the only way we'll escape from this system. We need to get back to Glova to help mom, and how can we do that if Brill is dead and we're trapped in some mine?"
"We could steal a ship," Trey suggested, climbing into the passenger seat.
"Then Creat will kill Brill anyway."
"I don't care. Brill's mean."
"He's our father," Rue argued, looking back over his shoulder before starting the engine. At thirteen, he was two years younger than legal age to drive a speeder on this planet, but he was tall for his age so no one had questioned him - yet.
"He's not my father," Trey said sullenly. "Han is my father."
"Han is our stepfather," Rue corrected his brother. "I think of Han as our dad, too. But Brill is our natural father. We can't let him get killed, even if he deserves it."
"Why not? He stole us and he killed mom!"
"Mom is not dead!" Rue yelled out. "Quit saying that! You know Dad'll take care of her until we get back. And we will get back, too."
"Fine. But if mom is alive, think of how upset she'll be about what we're doing. I can't even sleep at night I feel so bad about it."
"Creat says we only have to catch ten more kids, and then he'll let Brill and us go. After this little girl, it's only nine more." When his younger brother didn't answer, Rue continued, "Listen, Trey. Once we get back home, we'll tell Dad all about the mines and the kids that have to work in them. He won't sit still once he hears about this, because he told us how much he hates slavery. He'll make sure all the kids we caught, and all the others too, will get set free and taken home. So this little girl won't be there too long, and everything will be okay. Right?"
"I guess," Trey answered glumly.
"Slavery?" Han yelled, grabbing the man's shirt and shaking him, his face red with rage. "I should kill you right this instant!"
"Han!" Luke objected, pulling his friend away. Luke focused on Creat. "Why little kids?"
"Couple of reasons," Creat mumbled. "The lambda gems are found in small, natural tunnels formed ages ago by volcanoes. The tunnels are narrow shafts, so little kids can get in. Adults are usually too large to crawl through them. And adults give the Slave Masters more trouble, too."
"Where are these mines?" Leia questioned, looking at the tables filled with the precious stones - all located and hauled out by children.
"In the southern hemisphere, where no one lives because of the heat. That's why no one willingly works the mines."
"Why don't you just use droids?" Mara asked.
"Too dusty. The droids don't last. Kids work best down there."
Leia suddenly felt ill. "Shannon?"
"Leia... what is it?" Luke questioned, grasping her arm as she swayed unsteadily.
"Something has happened to Shannon. She's in danger."
Instantly, Luke reached outward for Shannon's Force-signature, and knew Leia was correct - Shannon was definitely in trouble. "Han, contact Chewie," Luke started to instruct his friend, then realized the Corellian already had the comlink up to his lips.
"Yeah? How long?" Han was saying. Then he frowned at the device. "Keep looking, pal. I'm on my way." He turned off the comlink, looking at Luke. "Apparently, she ran away after making a mess in the galley. Me an' Leia will head back to the Falcon, and you and Mara take our friend here and find Gils."
"No," Mara said shortly.
Han glared at Jade. "No?"
"It makes more sense that Luke and I track Shannon," Mara explained. "We can use the Force to locate her."
"She's my daughter, so there is no way I'm not looking," Leia returned, starting to head for the exit.
"So I'm supposed to handle this guy and Gils by myself?" Han objected. "It's not that I can't, I guess... but don't be surprised if I finish what Creat started...."
Luke held up his hands. "Everyone is right... unfortunately. Han needs help dealing with Creat and Gils, and we can't expect Leia to stay behind when it's her child. So Mara.... you go with Han, and I'll go with Leia."
"WHAT?" Han and Mara both yelled at the same time.
"He's right," Leia snapped out. "We don't have time to discuss this in a committee. Luke and I will go find Shannon. You two handle Gils." She disappeared out of the doorway.
"And try not to kill each other while you're at it," Luke muttered as he hurried after his sister.
"Come on, Creat," Han growled at the frightened man. "Let's go visit Gils." He gave him a push with the blaster.
"Lead the way, Ulysses," Mara said with a straight face.
The speeder pulled up to what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse, and a large outer door slid open. Rue maneuvered the speeder inside, then pulled up next to a small shuttle. A pock faced human and a Nikto materialized from behind the shuttle. "You got us another one?" the human barked out.
"Yeah," Rue shot back, trying to act brave when, in fact, he was terrified. This was the sixth child Rue and Trey had delivered to this warehouse. A total of fifteen kids...that was the number Brill had told them they had to capture in order to pay off his debt to the wicked man named Creat. Only nine more now, if Creat kept his promise. Rue wasn't too sure he would, but he didn't say that to his little brother since it would only further upset him. Only Rue had been allowed to see Brill after Creat had worked their father over, and Rue was truly scared that if he didn't obey, Creat would kill all of them. "This one's a little girl. She looks real healthy, so she should be a hard worker."
"Good," the dirt covered man grinned, watching as the Nikto easily picked up the sack with the kicking child inside. "She does look feisty."
Rue held out his hand. "Give me the receipt."
The human lashed out faster than Rue's eyes could follow him, hitting him across the face. "What did you say?"
His jaw throbbing and blood trickling from his lip, Rue tried again. "Could I please have a receipt?"
"That's better, kid. Show me respect, if ya know what's good for ya." He flicked a small silver chip on the floor, watching in satisfaction as the boy was forced to drop to his knees to retrieve it. "Nine more, and ya better make it fast, or Brill's a dead man. And you and your brother will be joining this girl if yer father's dead."
Rue and Trey watched as they took the girl into the shuttle. When the ship lifted to head to the southern hemisphere, Trey started crying. "Mom is going to be so ashamed of us," he whispered, his eyes tracking the shuttle until it disappeared.
Creat unlocked durasteel door, then pushed it open. "There," he pointed. "That's Brill Gils."
A battered man lay on a tiny cot, his eyes swollen shut, his face a mass of bruises. "Gils?" Han said, moving into the room while Mara kept watch on Creat. "Are you awake?"
Slowly, the man opened his eyes, squinting up at Han. "Wh..who..?"
"My name's Han Solo, and I'm here looking for Trey and Rue," Han said, clenching his fist. "Get up."
"Can't," the man gasped out. "Legs broken..."
Roy Creat looked nervously at the angry redhead. "He should have paid me," he said defensively. "He tried to get me to take his boys in payment, but two kids in exchange for almost seventy thousand credits wasn't enough. I figured after those boys caught enough kids, then I'd send 'em to the mines, too."
Han could barely believe what he was hearing. Reaching down, he jerked Gils upright, ignoring the man's cry of pain. "You came after your boys to sell them into slavery? To pay off your debt?"
"I've heard of some pretty lowlifes in my time," Mara said. "But this is about the lowest."
"You nearly killed Alli!" Han yelled in Gil's face. "You don't deserve to live, you Hutt slime!" Han turned to face Creat. "You both deserve to die."
Creat looked at Mara, his face pale. "You won't let him kill us, right? I mean... you're a Jedi?"
Mara shrugged. "Only a student at this point. Sometimes students make mistakes, so if he kills you, I guess I'll consider it a small slip."
Disgusted, Han pushed Gils back down, then stalked over to Creat. "Where are those boys?"
"I... I told you... working....."
Mara's comlink buzzed, and she answered it quickly, "Yes?"
"Shannon isn't close by anymore. Her Force-signature is getting weaker by the second, like she'd being taken somewhere," Luke's voice trailed off as he concentrated. "South."
"The mines," Mara replied, feeling a chill. "She's being taken to the mines."
Han could hear Leia's cry of despair in the background, and knew Mara was telling the truth. And what was worse, Han knew in his heart that his sons were undoubtedly the cause of Shannon's latest predicament.
Rue looked over at his brother as they drove away from the warehouse. "Quit crying. You're too old to cry."
"I'm only eleven," Trey replied with a sniff. "And Mom says it's okay for men to cry, anyway."
"You never see Dad crying, do you?"
Trey looked thoughtful. "He looks sad a lot. I once heard Mom tell him he should cry, and that it would make him feel better."
"But he didn't, did he?" Rue questioned sharply.
"There you go," Rue replied, looking at his brother. "Dad's too tough to cry, so you need to be more -"
"WATCH OUT!" Trey screamed, grabbing on to the front panel.
The speeder swerved violently, barely avoiding the startled pedestrian crossing the street, then smashed into a store window, sending the display of carved trinkets scattering in all directions.
The boys sat, stunned, as sparks and bits of ceiling drifted down around their heads. At first, they thought the roaring sound was the speeder's engine, until it occurred to them it was coming from the sidewalk. Trey turned his head and looked over his shoulder. "Rue.... you almost killed Chewie," he whispered to his still silent brother.
Shannon thought she was going to suffocate to death, and after a great deal of effort she finally dislodged the gag in her mouth. Her hands and feet were still tied, and she was still inside the thick sack, but she considered this a small victory. "My Mommy is going to send both of you, and those stupid boys, to Kessel!" she screamed out at the top of her lungs. "You're going to be sorry! My Daddy is... was a Senator! We're rich! You can't do this to rich people! Let me out!"
The top of the sack opened, and Shannon found herself lifted out by the back of her shirt, staring directly in the face of a very mean, leather-faced Nikto. The being growled into her face in his own language, his breath fetid.
"Ewww... you're ugly. And your breath is smelly."
This comment only made the Nikto even more irritated, and he shook her, roaring even louder.
"Put the brat down, Derfdul," the human grumbled. "She'll be someone else's problem in a few minutes, anyway."
"You're never going to get away with this," Shannon snapped as she glared at the man. "The last beings that stole me ended up all dead."
"They probably killed themselves, just so they didn't have to listen to your screeching," the man muttered.
"I do NOT screech!" Shannon screeched. "You're stupid!"
Glaring, the man grabbed a greasy rag, and forced it into Shannon's mouth before putting tying the gag back in place.
"What's that noise?" Luke asked, turning toward white smoke billowing up over the buildings from the next street over.
Leia listened for a second. "It sounded like an accident."
The twins made their way over to the scene, which was now surrounded by curious onlookers. A loud roaring could be heard over the excited chatter of human voices. "Is that Chewie?" Luke questioned, using the Force to part the crowd. Standing on the street amidst broken duracrete and shattered window panes, Chewie stood in front of two young boys, yelling and waving his paw in their faces. The two youngsters should have been frightened; instead Luke could only sense their happiness and relief as they listened to the huge Wookiee chastise them for reckless driving.
"When are the boys coming back here?" Han questioned Creat, shoving him hard against the wall and waving the blaster in his face. At this point, Han was at his limit. One wrong move, or evasive answer, and Creat was in danger of needing life-support to stay alive.
"They work the streets until dusk, when children go inside their homes," he hurriedly explained. "Then they come back, and give me any receipts they earned."
"Receipts?" Mara snapped.
Creat was starting to sweat, and he tugged at his collar. "The boys take any captures to a warehouse, and then my employees give them a receipt for each kid they catch. Then the captives are taken directly to the mines, and the boys either keep looking for prey, or if it's late, they come here and I lock them up for the night."
"And then those kidnapped children earn you a lot of credits working in the mines. Right?" Mara asked, disgusted. "You have a nice little scam going here. Who caught the children before Trey and Rue fell into your clutches?"
"My employees," he admitted. "But it was risky, and little kids trust other kids faster than they trust adults."
"The local government doesn't regulate these mines?" Han questioned.
"Sure... they have all sorts of rules and regulations. But there are only a few inspections a year, and those inspectors are really underpaid, if you know what I mean."
"Bribes," Mara said.
"Credits talk real loud," Creat muttered. "Everyone wants a nice home and expensive vacations. And if we happened to run into an honest inspector, they have accidents. Mines are dangerous places, you know."
"Those inspectors are about to take a real long vacation," Han warned Creat. "But I don't think they're gonna like the accommodations too much." He looked at Mara. "We're gonna wait here until - " His comlink buzzed, and he switched it on. "Yeah?"
It was Leia's voice. "Han, find a place to store Creat and get back to the Falcon. We've found your boys."
It didn't take Han and Mara long to lock Creat up with Gils, find a hovercar, and head out at breakneck speed - this time with Han at the controls. "Would you slow down?" Mara complained, hanging onto the edge of her seat. "I'd like to make it off this system in one piece, Ulysses."
"Do you really plan to keep calling me that?" Han asked, not slowing down one bit.
"Fine. I can take it longer than you can, Burt."
"Care to bet?"
"I'd love to bet. Betting is my second favorite past time."
Mara scowled at the Corellian. "Why second?"
Han gave her a wicked grin. "Do you have to ask? Really?"
"I swear I don't understand why Leia loves you."
"She loves scoundrels...just ask her some time. What shall we wager, Burt?"
"Hmm," Mara said, considering her options. "How about...if you're the first to lose your temper about your nickname, you have to cook me and Luke a seven course gourmet dinner? And clean up the kitchen afterwards, too. No fair pawning anything off on Threepio."
Han laughed. "Not a problem. What do I get when I win? Which, I promise you, is going to happen."
"What do you want?" Mara asked. "Within reason, of course...and keep it clean, Ulysses DeLoudenarrogant."
"How about you admitting to Luke that you're in love him?"
Mara flushed. "My feelings, or lack of feelings, for Luke are none of your business."
"But it's true you love him, right?" Han prodded. "You just can't bring yourself to let the kid get emotionally close to you. So that's what I want - an admission of your love for Luke - in a very public setting."
"I.... I won't agree to that!" she spluttered, appalled at his nerve.
"Why not? This betting game was your idea. Think you're gonna lose, Burt?" he taunted.
"I never lose."
"So you agree to my terms if - when - I win?"
"What kind of public setting?" Mara asked, worried about the nagging feeling that she was somehow getting in over her head.
Han considered this for a moment. "How about renting a hundred foot holo-advertisement screen overlooking the Senate building on Coruscant? And it has to stay in operation for a minimum of, um, seven days, just like that seven course dinner."
"I think I let you off too easy," Mara grumbled.
"Is it a bet?" Han said, holding his hand out.
"Since I never lose, it's a bet," she shot back, shaking his offered hand, even though she felt like slicing it off with her lightsaber.
Luke sat the two boys down on a bench while Leia and Chewie tried to deal with the hyperventilating shop owner. "Your stepfather is on his way," Luke told them, noting they were both excited and apprehensive about this information. "Can you answer a few questions in the meantime?"
"Sure," the older boy mumbled. "We'll try."
"Did you see a little seven year old girl today? Her name is Shannon, and she has brown eyes and light brown hair."
The boys exchanged worried looks, then Rue said, "We might have."
"Rue, listen to me," Luke said firmly. "Shannon is my niece, and I love her very much." He pointed at Leia. "Do you see that lady over there?" When the boys nodded, Luke continued, "That's my sister Leia, Shannon's mother, and she's very worried about her child. Just like your mom is very worried about you two."
"Mom?" Trey spoke up for the first time, his entire face lighting up. "You've seen her? She's okay?"
"I didn't, but Leia spoke to her. She's very sick, and is still in the hospital."
"I told you she was alive," Rue informed his brother with an air of older brother superiority, although Luke could easily sense that Rue was just as relieved as Trey.
"I want to go home," Trey said, his blue eyes pleading with the Jedi. "Please?"
"We're all going home," Luke told them. "As soon as we find Shannon."
"She's on her way to the lambda mines," Trey confessed to the Jedi, ignoring the look of dismay from his older brother. "A lot of kids are working in those mines, and Rue told me Dad - that's Han, not Brill - would help them escape once we told him about it. We didn't want to catch kids and send them down there, but we needed to get home, and if we didn't do what Creat said he'd have sent us to the mines and then we'd never get home, and Mom would die from worry." He gulped for air, looking worriedly at Luke. "Don't tell our mom... she'll be really upset about what we've been doing."
"I can't make that promise," Luke told the boy. "That will be Han's decision." He looked up as Leia and Chewie approached, and addressed Leia. "How did it go?"
"The shopkeeper agreed not to press charges when I paid him a huge sum of credits, but we'd better get going before the local version of traffic patrol shows up and complicates matters."
"I agree," Luke said, standing up. "Come on, kids. Let's get to the Falcon and go rescue those children."
Trey jumped to his feet, grinning. "Dad'll punch those slavers right in the face, won't he, Chewie?"
/I'm sure he will,./ Chewie woofed agreeably, having calmed down from his near-death experience with the landspeeder. /And you two can clean up the galley while he does./
"NO!" Shannon screamed, kicking and clawing at the Slaver, a species she couldn't place since he was wearing a filtered face mask and robes. All of the dozen or so Slavers wore the same outfit, and they stood around the perimeter holding rifles. "I won't go in there!" She eyed the dark, small tunnel that disappeared into the side of the mountain warily. "There are probably bugs, or ... or snakes in that hole!"
The Slaver pushed her forward, making the girl fall down on her knees over the jagged rocks. Her hair and cloths were plastered against her body from perspiration, and heat shimmered in dusty waves off the floor of the huge, bowl shaped crater. Other children staggered about as they exited various tunnels holding heavy sacks, wearing filthy, ragged remains of clothing. Shannon watched the children walked over to a large container, emptied their sacks into the durasteel box, then, heads hanging down, they headed back to the tunnel. "You made my hands and knees bleed," she protested, her palms stinging from the grit.
The Slaver pointed his weapon at her, then hissed out in heavily accented Basic, "You will take a sack and go into that tunnel and bring out the loose rocks. If you refuse, I'll have the other kids beat you until you can't move. Your choice, human girl."
"They... they wouldn't do that," Shannon whispered, horrified at the Slaver's threat.
"They will if they want food and water tonight," he responded without emotion. "They have learned to obey orders, or suffer the consequences."
Slowly, Shannon reached out and picked up an empty sack, then turned to look at the dark hole. Mommy! she thought in a panic. Where are you? If you find me, I'll never be bad again. Just find me, Mommy. With those thoughts, Shannon reluctantly entered the tunnel, shaking in fear.
Han and Mara arrived at the Falcon shortly after the Luke, Chewie, Leia and the boys. He had barely made it inside when two happy, enthusiastic kids wrapped their arms around his waist, pushing him back a step. "Dad! We knew you'd find us," Trey yelled out.
"Of course I'd come looking for you," Han said, laughing as he hugged them back. Then he tilted up Rue's head. "Who hit you?"
Rue averted his eyes. "The shuttle pilot."
The Corellian's face darkened with anger, and he bit back a curse directed at the shuttle pilot. Instead, he focused on Trey and Rue's recent behavior. "You've been stealing kids to work as slaves?"
"Yes," came the mumbled reply as the boy plucked nervously at his sleeve. "We had to."
"You know how I feel about slavery."
"But.... Dad, Creat said he'd kill Brill and send us to the mines!" Rue argued, trying to defend his actions. "We knew you'd rescue those other kids once you found out."
"Do you hate us?" Trey asked worriedly.
"I could never hate you," came Han's reply. How could he stay mad, when he'd done many illegal things during his younger days to stay alive. "Let's go kick some slavers all the way to Nal Hutta, okay?"
Relieved that their dad wasn't angry, the boys hurried back into the ship. Mara nodded at Leia as she walked past, leaving the Princess alone with Han in the corridor. "They were responsible for sending Shannon to the mines," Leia stated, her tight face betraying anxiety.
"They're good boys, Leia," Han started out defensively. "They've never been in a life-or-death situation before. I know they didn't make the best decisions - "
"Best decisions?" Leia interrupted, incredulous. "They kidnapped children as slaves! Who knows what's happening to Shannon right now, and it's all their fault!"
"All their fault?" Han shot back, his eyes narrowing. "Shannon ran away from Chewie. She left the ship by herself. Don't you try and pretend her actions didn't play a big part in what went on today."
"I'm not pretending at anything," Leia snapped, raising her voice several degrees. "I know Shannon isn't perfect - "
"Ha! Perfect? She's spoiled rotten, Princess. Open your eyes."
"My eyes are open," Leia replied frostily. "And I'm seeing you for exactly what you are - a no-account smuggler that married a handicapped woman just so you could live off her credits." The second those words left her mouth, Leia regretted them, but it was too late. Han's expression went from shock to hurt to fury in a heartbeat. "Han.... I -"
"That's why you think I married Alli? So I could take advantage of her?" Han asked through clenched teeth. "Once we find your daughter, I never want to see you or Shannon again." Han spun around and walked away before Leia could say another word.
Mara watched the boys cleaning up the galley, listening as Luke and Chewie gave them instructions. Han's words kept running through her mind, You're in love with him.... you're in love with him..... Was Solo right? Did she have issues with allowing herself to get emotionally close to Luke?
"Mara?" Luke's voice interrupted her musings.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. Just fine. Why are you asking?"
"You sort of look... far away."
"Far away? I'm right here, Skywalker."
"I didn't mean physically," he replied, exasperated that she was always so defensive. "Anyway," he added, deciding to alter the subject. "I've contacted Coruscant, and Wedge is sending some New Republic troops over here to handle Creat and Brill and close down the mines."
"Are we going to wait until they arrive to rescue Shannon?"
Luke shook his head. "Leia told me if we don't go after Shannon right now, she'll go by herself."
"Ah," Mara said, nodding. "I can't blame her. I wouldn't want our....err, I mean my child down in some dangerous mine." She felt herself flush over her slip, then moved out of the galley. "I have to use the refresher. Excuse me."
Watching her leave, Luke suddenly realized he was smiling.
The mine tunnel was hot, dusty, pitch black and so narrow in some places that little Shannon, squirming along on her stomach, almost got stuck. She could feel her cloths tear, and sharp stones gashed at her skin. Finally, the tunnel became wider and this was the place five other children had already gathered - one was holding small, hand-held lightbeam. The children worked in total silence, using their raw fingertips to dig the stones out of the sides of the volcanic tube. Sometimes, a larger rock became dislodged, sending a small avalanche down on their heads. "I don't want to do this, I don't want to do this, I don't want to do this...." Shannon whimpered out loud.
The five children stopped working, staring at her with wide eyes. Finally a small boy spoke, "If we don't work, we don't eat or get water."
"They can't do that," Shannon protested. "If they didn't feed us, we'd die."
"Kids have died," another little girl whispered. "I watched the Slave Masters disintegrate Jysiph's body. Jysiph was my friend, but he tried to get away last month, so they put him in a box and stopped feeding him."
"They killed him?" Shannon asked, stunned.
"Yes, and they'll kill you, too, if you don't shut up and start working," the small boy snapped out, returning to his chore.
The Millennium Falcon lifted and turned south, roaring away from the spaceport. Chewie turned his blue eyes toward his partner. /You and the Princess are fighting again./
"How do you know?"
/I heard you in the corridor./
"You have big ears."
/Not big ears. Just very good hearing./ When Han didn't reply, Chewie continued, /You need to put this right./
Han glared at the Wookiee. "Why me? She called me a mercenary! Said I married Alli for her credits!"
/After you called Shannon spoiled rotten,./ Chewie pointed out.
/The Princess is well aware of that, Han. But she is still her daughter, no matter what. The Princess has had a difficult time since her marriage to Golden, and you need to give her some time to put right what the husband spoiled. Shannon is not going to change overnight. It took me years to fix you./
"I resent that," Han groused.
/It's the truth. You may not have been spoiled, but you were stubborn and cynical. Do not lose the Princess a second time because you regress./
Han sighed, hating it when the Wookiee was right. "None of this is going to be easy. Not with Shannon or the boys, either."
/No one ever said it would./
Leia strapped on a blaster, blinking back tears as she thought about her short conversation with Han. Why did she have to insult him? Sure, he'd called Shannon spoiled, and that had made her angry - even if it was the truth. Her mind drifted to Alli, and how incredibly nice that poor woman had been to her. Nice. That was an understatement. If the situation were reversed, Leia knew she'd be fighting Alli with her last ounce of strength to keep Alli away from her husband. Husband. Han is Alli's husband. How easy it was for me to just ask Alli to come to Coruscant so I could have Han. What makes me think I have a right to him? Trey and Rue will hate me, and probably start hating Han, too. The New Republic hierarchy will have fits. The holo-press will slaughter my reputation. Shannon's grandparents will probably use my living arrangement as an excuse to sue for custody, claiming I'm an unfit parent. Even if we get married later on, will we be able to overcome the fact Han divorced his handicapped, dying wife so he could marry me? We'll probably become the most hated couple in the galaxy..... She looked up as Luke approached her.
"We'll be landing in a few minutes," Luke said, noting his sister's upset expression. "What happened between you and Han?"
"A fight. He insulted Shannon, so I insulted him." Leia looked despairingly at Luke. "I love Han, and I've just come to the realization I can't have him. I can't let him divorce Alli just so he can marry me. It wouldn't be right."
"Was that the plan?" Luke asked gently.
"Yes," she replied. "Alli was going to move into my apartment with her sons so Han and I could take care of them. Then, when my official mourning period was over, she'd file for a divorce so Han and I could marry, but she'd keep living with us, anyway. At the time, it seemed like a really good plan, but now that I'm thinking about it, I can see all sorts of problems this will cause."
"So that's what you meant by sharing," Luke said, chuckling. "I was getting worried about you, sister."
Leia gave a short laugh, but didn't smile. "He only married her so he could legally take care of her and the boys. He's spent the past seven years raising her sons, helping her with running the business and taking her to doctors. It can't be easy watching a friend slowly die, knowing there isn't anything you can do to stop it from happening. Why did I accused him of marrying Alli for her money? Just because he told me Shannon was spoiled? I know she's spoiled, but I'm so worried right now, I can't think straight."
Luke took Leia's hands in his own. "I don't know how, but I just have a feeling that things are going to work out."
"How? Do you have any idea what everyone will be saying...?"
"Things will work out," Luke repeated firmly. "Now let's go get Shannon back."
Han landed his ship a short distance from the mines, trying to fly low enough that the Slave Master's didn't see his approach. Landing far enough away not too be seen or heard also meant that they would have to hike a distance to the rim of the crater.
The Wookiee gave a tired sigh as he leaned back in his seat. /I suppose you will want me to stay with the boys. I am getting tired of this babysitting young humans./
"You can ask Mara if she'll stay behind," Han suggested. "Good luck with that."
"Look at the bright side. Think of us old humans baking in that heat and sand, while you and the kids get to stay inside a climate controlled ship and play games. Or bake a cake."
/I am not making another cake. Ever again./
"Too bad," Han said, grinning. "That cake probably would've made a good rocket missile."
Mara stuck her head inside the cockpit. "We're all ready to go, Ulysses. Quit dawdling." Then she was gone.
/She is not going to stop calling you that./
"I think she will, once I win our wager." He stood up and headed out.
Chewie let out a groan, and called after his partner, /Wager? What kind of wager...?./
Han didn't reply to Chewie's question, only stopping in the hold for a moment to give his sons last minute instructions to obey Chewie and stay put. Then he walked down the ramp into the furnace-like heat, where Luke, Leia and Mara stood waiting.
"The sun's going down, so we should be a little more comfortable in a few minutes," Luke informed the group. The Jedi handed around macrobinoculars, goggles, and dark cloaks. "Normally, light colors are better in heat, but we'll be able to fade into the darkness better with these. And once we get closer, Mara and I will use the Force to put up a shield." Luke and Mara started walking toward the ridge.
The Corellian shrugged the robe over his shoulders, and moved one step before Leia stopped him.
"Han, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. I know you didn't marry Alli for money... I'm just upset about Shannon, and when you insulted her I lashed out without thinking."
"I know you didn't mean it," Han said softly. He took her hand, and together they followed behind the two Jedi who were already fifty feet ahead. After a while, he said, "Alli doesn't have any money, Leia. Her huge medical expenses have eaten up all her savings, and we've had to get loans against her shipping business to keep the creditors from taking the house and business."
"I'll pay off any debts," Leia said.
"No, I didn't tell you that to make you feel obligated, only to tell you she's not rich," he replied, shaking his head. "I'll work off her debts. I'm not taking charity."
Leia came to a halt, forcing him to stop as well. "It's not charity when you help someone out of love. Did you ever feel like you were giving charity to Alli?"
"No. Never. She's my friend, and she needed me. I wanted to help."
"Just like I want to help you."
"Exactly like that." Han bent over and slowly kissed her.
Mara looked over her shoulder at Solo and the Princess standing a short distance away, just as they started kissing.
"Things are going to work out for them," Luke said, putting his hand on her shoulder and hoping she wouldn't push him away. "They're meant to be together."
Turning her green eyes up, she gazed into Luke's eyes. "Just like us?"
"Exactly like us." Luke was pleasantly surprised when Mara pulled his face down, pressing her lips to his.
Shannon's sack was only half full after hours of hard labor. She had cried until tears no longer could trickle from her empty tear ducts. "How long do I have to stay in here?" she asked the only child still in the mine - a little girl about five named Passlet.
The little girl holding the lightbeam regarded the newcomer. "Until our sacks are full. Then we can leave."
"There aren't enough loose rocks to fill up everyone's sacks," she protested.
"That's why we have to dig them out of the sides," the other girl responded. "All the other kids filled their sacks, and mine's almost full. So you'd better hurry, or you'll be in here alone."
"You won't leave me!"
"Yes, I will," Passlet shot back. "Why would I stay here for you? It's every kid for themselves, Shannon."
"I hate this place."
"We all do."
Shannon reached up and felt the area above her head. She could feel the stones she needed lodged tightly into the cement-like hardened lava. For a few minutes, Shannon worked her raw fingers at the stones, then she had a sudden thought. Shutting her eyes, she concentrated on loosening the rocks with her rudimentary Force skills. At first, only few smaller stones rained down, so she tried harder.
Then the ceiling of the lava tube gave a loud 'crack', and let loose.
The sun had dropped below the horizon only minutes earlier, and the sky still held the murky violet-hued remnants of light. Luke and Mara peered carefully over the edge of the crater just in time to see a cloud of thick silt billowing out from inside one of the many volcanic tubes. What looked like fifty to sixty very young children rushed toward the chamber, pointing and yelling as the robe covered guards waved their rifles around, forcing the children back toward the small camp in the center of the crater.
"At least it's getting a little bit cooler," Han remarked, struggling up the hill with Leia. Dropping to his knees beside Luke, he squinted down the steep incline inside the dormant volcano - a drop of nearly five hundred feet. Toward the bottom the ground gradually curved inward, creating the wide floor of the crater. It was like looking down in a giant-sized dusty bowl. In the very center of the crater, small cages were set up, apparently where the children were locked up for the night. A short distance away were several old Republic-class shuttles. Han guessed the shuttles were used for housing the guards, allowing them decent places to sleep and escape the heat. "What's goin' on down there?"
"Looks like one of the mines caved in," Mara replied, trying to count the number of guards. "It doesn't appear the guards care about the collapse."
"Shannon," Leia whispered, feeling lightheaded with fear. "Shannon is inside that cave-in."
Luke already had sensed this as well. "She's alive, Leia."
"She buried alive! She's hurt! And those guards aren't even trying to help her!"
The Corellian grasped Leia's hand, trying to comfort her. "We'll get her out."
"Fourteen guards, unless there are more inside the shuttles. All with high intensity blaster rifles," Mara muttered.
"Doesn't look like those shuttles are exactly space-worthy," Han commented, holding the macrobinoculars up to his eyes. "But they probably have weapons and shields to prevent attacks."
"Your ship doesn't look space-worthy, either, Ulysses," Mara muttered, which earned her a glare from the former smuggler.
"We need to destroy the ships, first," Luke said. "That'll keep them from taking cover inside."
"Then they might use the kids as shields," Han pointed out. "I doubt they'd have a problem doing that."
"We can't sit here discussing this all night," Leia hissed out, feeling panic. "We need to start digging Shannon out of that hole!"
Luke nodded. "Mara and I will keep using the Force to distract the guards. Once we're at the bottom, you and Han need to get inside the shuttles and disable the weapons. Mara and I will try to move between the guards and the children."
"Then what?" Han asked, frowning.
"Then we'll turn on our lightsabers, and you and Leia use the shuttles as cover to shoot the guards from the rear. Keep your weapons on stun, though. We don't want to accidentally hurt one of the children."
"Can you tell what type of race the guards are?" Leia asked, knowing some beings were easier to fool with the Force than others.
"Krish," Mara replied. "Not a very well known race, but they're known for being short-tempered and mean."
"So they're your relatives?" Han asked, trying to keep a straight face.
Luke sighed. "Once we've taken care of the guards, we'll put the children in the shuttles for safe keeping and contact Chewie to bring in the Falcon with equipment to remove those rocks."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Han said, shifting on his hip. "But one thing."
"It's about 'a plan'," Han said in a mock whispering voice. "Since when have we needed a plan? It worries me when we break with tradition."
"Tradition?" Mara asked. "It's your tradition to rush headfirst into danger without plans?"
"Ya don't mess with what works, Burtilla."
Shannon groaned, pushing the rubble from her body. Twisting her body, she could see the exit tube was completely blocked with large stones, then she looked back at a dim lightbeam shining under dust and debris. It was the only source of light in the cave, and it was the lightbeam Passlet had been holding when the roof collapsed. "Passlet?" Shannon yelled, coughing on the thick dust. She pushed at the rocks, until she could see the little girl's body. "PASSLET!"
With no response, Shannon frantically dug away the rubble. Finally, she freed the little girl, turning her over. The small child's eyes were closed, and she was covered with dirt, her head was sticky with blood. Shannon trembled with fear. "Wake up, Passlet. Don't be dead. I didn't mean to do that. I don't want you to die. Please.... wake up!"
The Corellian child took the lightbeam, shining it directly into the younger girl's still face. "I killed you. I made the ceiling come down, and now you're dead," Shannon said, sobbing. "Daddy died 'cuz he came to my concert, and now I killed you, too. I'm just like Grandpa Skywalker.... I'm evil and bad."
Without the use of the Force, making their way down the inside wall of the crater would have been extremely difficult. Not only was it steep, but loose pebbles made their feet slip out from under. More than once, Han and Leia nearly fell, but the two Jedi kept them upright and limited the amount of noise caused by the tumbling rocks that bounced down the incline.
Closer to the bottom, the walking got much easier. Luke touched Han's shoulder, pointing to the shuttles. After a quick nod, they split up, heading for their respective tasks.
As they approached the group of children, Luke could hear their voices. Sound carried quite well inside this natural arena. "They're not gonna even to try to help Passlet and the new girl," a little boy said, sniffing loudly. "They don't care if they're still alive or not."
A slightly older boy replied, "Why should they? There are lots of tunnels, so why waste time trying to dig them out? 'Sides, they're probably dead, anyway."
"You don't know that," a little girl argued, sipping at her water bulb.
"No," the boy answered. "It doesn't matter, though. We can't do nuthin' about it. Eat your slop and shut up. We gotta get some sleep."
The children looked up as two guards approached them, and instantly stopped talking, their faces reflecting fear of punishment. On occasion, the guards would put them in the 'punishment box', a small durasteel box with bars on one side, for the crime of talking. During the night, the box was hot, but bearable. During the day, it could result in death. Small faces looked up with apprehension as the two guards removed silver tubes from inside their robes.
With the first shuttle's weapons totally disabled, Leia helped Han to his feet. "Hurry," she cajoled. "Luke and Mara are almost in place. We have to get to the other shuttle."
"I am hurrying!"
The Princess and Solo rushed toward the exit - and found themselves face to face with four, masked and armed guards.
"Oh, kest," Han muttered.
Luke groaned as a series of blaster shots rang out in the quiet night. Both Jedi quickly ignited their lightsabers, and Luke pulled his cowl back to reveal his face. "Kids, get behind us and lay flat on the ground... Hurry!"
Taking up a defensive stance, Mara spared a glance over at Luke. "Shooting before we were ready wasn't part of this plan!"
"My plans never seem to go off without problems. Didn't I ever tell you that?"
Mara couldn't respond, since she was busy deflecting back the blaster shots from the Krish guards.
The four guards were coming inside from a long day of standing in the hot sun, and they had been looking forward to an evening meal and some relaxation. Standing just inside the doorway, they were startled enough to give Han and Leia the several vital seconds needed to kill two of the Krish before the remaining guards even raised up their rifles. Although blaster rifles had a much better long distance range than hand blasters, they had the distinct disadvantage of being rather clumsy. Only one guard managed to get off a shot after Leia's bolt hit his torso, and that shot went high and wide as he fell to the ground.
Han grinned at Leia. "Four down... ten to go."
"Luke and Mara might need some help," was her reply as she hurried to get off the shuttle, ducking back inside as heavy blaster fire sizzled past her head. "Put your blaster on 'stun' if you fire toward the children!"
"Cover me while I run to the other shuttle," Han yelled.
"What? That shuttle is a good thirty yards away...are you crazy?"
Unfortunately, the answer was 'yes', and the Corellian rushed outside and headed toward the second shuttle, trying to run erratically enough to avoid the rifle shots fired in his direction.
"What's he doing?" Mara hissed, managing to volley the blast back into the guard, sending him reeling to the surface, very dead. Now there were only six still shooting at them, since the other three were now directing their attention back toward the shuttles, and that commotion. "He's going to get himself killed!"
Luke watched in concern as the Corellian barely avoided several shots, only surviving his desperate sprint due to the cover fire provided by Leia. Another Krish fell to the ground, stunned, as he was shot by Leia's blaster. Still, a rifle blast tore past very close to Han's leg, and the Corellian stumbled briefly before recovering his footing. Using the Force, Luke flung some of the small surface stones up from the ground and into the facemasks of the guards. The distraction allowed Han to make the remaining distance mostly intact, so Leia focused her fire on the Krish shooting at the Jedi.
The eight remaining guards could see they were in trouble, with blaster fire coming from inside one shuttle, and two Jedi protecting the child slaves from the opposite side. Their only chance for survival was to head for safety inside one of the two shuttles, and not knowing how many attackers were inside the first shuttle, they quickly headed to the shuttle Han had just entered.
Back on the Millennium Falcon
/What are you two doing?./ Chewie roared, making Trey flinch and look up from the floor, a guilty expression on his face.
"It was Rue's idea," the younger boy said lamely.
Rue stuck his head up from under the open floor panel. "The holo-creatures on the game board kept fading in and out. It needed fixing. Dad sure has lots of wires under here."
Chewie dropped to his knees, peering down into the mass of wires and electronics inside the access tube. /You have pulled out half of the wires!./
"I was trying to figure out which ones went to the game board. I'll put them all back."
/You won't know which wire goes where!./ Chewie howled in a panic, grasping his head in despair. /I can barely remember which wire goes where!./ He pointed to a control board. /That is the communication panel... not the game board!./
/It's not a wonder some creatures eat their younglings at birth./
Wincing in pain from the burn on this thigh, Han glanced back at the battle, frowning in concern as the remaining guards suddenly started heading in his direction. "Great," he muttered under his breath. "Pick on me."
Rushing to the forward cockpit, Han hit the controls that raised the ramp, then spun around the top-mounted lasers, mentally urging them to charge up faster. He looked back out of the viewport, and saw the Krist guards firing at the shuttle, slowing down when they saw the entrance ramp was raising. "Come on...." Han urged. "Don't give up now...."
Luke had taken several steps forward to pursue the guards when he skidded to a stop, shouting back at Mara, "Get the kids and tell them to move back. Fast!" He waited long enough for Leia to get to his side, then grabbed her arm and pulled her along.
Without pausing to ask why, Mara spun around, shouting at the children to get up and run away from the shuttle, hoping they wouldn't be too frightened to obey. Fortunately, the children had been conditioned to obey without question. They stood and ran into the inky darkness of the night, away from the artificial lighting of the dreary campsite.
"Luke?" Leia twisted her head to look at the second shuttle and the guards rushing toward it, although they had slowed somewhat. "We can't abandon Han...."
No sooner had those words left her mouth, then the shuttle's laser weapon fired.
Luke pulled Leia down to the ground, protecting her with the Force as bits of heated stone chips flew over their heads. After a few seconds, Leia tentatively raised her head, the acrid smell of the laser's afterburn filling her nostrils. Only a smoldering blackened scorch in the ground gave any indication where the eight guards had been moments before. Out of the fourteen Krist guards, only one remained alive - the one lucky enough to have been stunned by Leia's blaster.
"How... how did you know what he was about to do?" Leia asked, still dazed by the turn of events.
Luke grinned as he stood, pulling Leia up. "I saw the laser turret moving, and I put two and two together."
"Two and two?" Leia grumbled, brushing off her slacks. "How about one lunatic Corellian with access to one high powered weapon?"
"That's what I meant." He looked over his shoulder as Mara came back into the shuttle lights. "Are the children all okay?"
"They're fine," Mara replied, glaring at the shuttle as the ramp lowered and Solo came limping out, heading in their direction. "I hope you're not looking for any sympathy from us, Ulysses. After that stunt, you're lucky you're not dead."
Han held his hand up as he got closer. "According to my count, I got ten out of fourteen. How many did you get, Burtsie?"
"You were supposed to stun them, Han," Luke said, exasperated.
"That laser didn't have a stun setting."
"We need to find Shannon, and quit talking," Leia said, her patience fast reaching the end. "Contact Chewie, and tell him to get over here."
"Already tried it," Han said, shaking his head. "Something's wrong with the communications, and it looks like the problem is on the Falcon's end."
"Surprise, surprise," Mara grumbled.
"Then I'll dig her out with my bare hands," Leia snapped, starting to head toward the tunnel.
From the edge of the light, a small voice spoke up. "We can show you another way into that tunnel, if you want us to."
"Another way in?" Luke questioned. "Are you sure?"
The little boy looked offended. "Of course I'm sure. We've been down in those tunnels for months and months. Even the guards didn't know all the ways in and out."
"Then you'd better show us."
After securing the remaining guard in one of the cages, a small group of the older children led Luke, Mara and Leia up a winding path, using lightbeams to remain on the trail. Han stayed behind with the rest because of his injured leg, claiming someone had to guard the remaining Krist, and try and get in contact with Chewie. For some reason Luke couldn't put his finger on, the Jedi suspected there was more to this than Han was saying.
Eventually, they arrived near the top of the crater, almost on the opposite side of the rim. A large boulder marked the spot, with smaller rocks piled up next to it. A boy of perhaps nine or ten pointed at the rock pile. "We hide the entrance, so the guards couldn't see it. Someday, we were gonna use it as an escape tunnel."
"And you're sure this leads into the tunnel that just collapsed?" Leia questioned, not wanting to waste time on a wild mynock chase.
"Positive," another boy added, as he bent down, tossing the stones away from the entrance. "It's right under here."
Luke, Leia and Mara helped remove the larger stones, and soon the narrow tunnel was exposed. "That's where you kids have to find the lambda gems?"
"Yeah. It's real creepy down there, too."
Leia dropped to her knees. "I'm going down there."
"No," Luke objected. "I'll go."
"You'll get stuck," a girl said knowingly. "The tunnels are real skinny."
"That's why I have to go. You're too big," Leia informed her brother.
"That's the first time I've ever been accused of that," Luke commented dryly. "Maybe one of the children should go in."
"And what if Shannon is too injured for them to move?" Leia argued. "I have to be the one to go in."
"I will," Mara spoke up. When Luke and Leia stared at her, she shrugged. "It makes sense. I'm nearly as small as Leia, and I can use the Force if Shannon is hurt to levitate her, and move her without aggravating her injuries."
Leia sighed. "Fine. You go."
Without further debate, Mara wiggled into the narrow, dark stone corridor.
Onboard the Falcon
With a final twist, Chewie reconnected the last wire to the communication board. Almost immediately, the comm panel lit up, indicating an incoming message. The Wookiee pulled himself out of the access tube, and giving one last glare at the two boys, pressed the 'on' button. /Yes?./
"Where the hell have you been?" came Han's annoyed voice.
/Fixing the communication panel that Trey and Rue decided to dismantle. Are you okay?./
"Yeah.... close enough. We've taken care of the guards, and Luke, Leia and Burt are headin' into the mining tunnels. Apparently, there was a cave-in, and guess who managed to get trapped?"
"You got it. Anyway, if the ship hasn't been destroyed, can you get your furry backside over here? These kids could use some food and water."
/I'm on my way./
"Oh.... and did you remember to buy those cases of bristleberry ice cones like I asked you before we left Glova?" Han asked, his voice sounding suspiciously innocent.
"Nothing. Just making sure. Now get over here."
The children weren't lying. The tunnel was extremely narrow, and had many twisting turns and forks. If Mara didn't have the Force to rely on, she'd have been completely lost in a matter of minutes. Instead, she concentrated on located Shannon's Force-signature, and guided herself along on her stomach while holding the lightbeam awkwardly in front of her face. Finally she heard a child whimpering. "Shannon?"
The whimpering ceased. "Who's there?"
"It's Mara." She inched forward and made one last turn, shining the light into the dirty face of Leia's daughter. "Shannon! I'm so glad you're okay."
"I'm not okay. I killed Passlet." Shannon waved her hand down to the little girl lying in the loose stones. "I used the Force to make the stones come down, and I killed her. I'm evil."
Mara reached out, touching Shannon's wrist. "Listen to me. It was an accident, and accidents, even bad accidents, don't make a person evil." Mara shined the light at the little girl, and put her fingers against the child's neck. Then she smiled. "Passlet is alive. She's just unconscious. Once we get her out, and to a doctor, she'll probably be fine." At least Mara hoped so - with head injuries it was difficult to tell.
Shannon stopped sniffing. "She's alive?"
"Yes. I'm going to back out, and use the Force to lift her. You need to follow me, okay? We'll get out of here in a few minutes, I promise."
Having used the shuttle's medical supplies to bandage his leg, and give the children extra water from the guards' supply, Han was now looking up in the night sky, watching as the Falcon swooped in for a landing. A second later, his comlink buzzed. "Yes?"
"Mara just let us know she's found Shannon, and she's alright. They're on the way out of the cave now, but she's got another little girl with her, and she's injured."
Han frowned. "How injured? Should I have Chewie call for a medical team?"
"No. She's had a bump on the head, but she woke up a few minutes ago. Mara said she remembers what happened, and I don't think she's in any serious danger."
"The Falcon is here, and I'll send Chewie up with a hover-stretcher," Han said. "Then I'll signal ahead for medics to meet us at the landing dock when we get back to town."
"Sounds good," Luke responded before clicking off.
Han turned his attention back to the forty-three children that he'd divided into two groups. Now that Shannon was found and in good shape, he could continue on with his schemes. "You kids remember what I told you to do, right?"
"We sure do, Han!" a young boy said happily as the other children all nodded in agreement.
The Corellian grinned, rubbing his hands together in glee. "Good...good. The plan is a 'go', and whichever team wins, gets all those bristleberry cones." The children jumped up and down, yelling in joy. This was turning out to be a pretty nice day, after all.
Trey and Rue made apologies to the children they kidnapped, and had gone a long way toward making amends by handing out fresh food and water. By the time everyone arrived back at the campsite, the children were well fed and hydrated. Han, meantime, was sitting on a chair with his injured leg propped up on a boulder, keeping a close eye on the single prisoner. "'Bout time you got back," he yelled cheerfully as the children ran around, playing games, making a great deal of noise, and generally enjoying their new freedom.
Holding her daughter's hand, Leia smiled at the scene. Han might complain about Shannon being spoiled, but the Princess suspected Han would be nearly as indulgent a father as Vail had been. She also knew, deep down, that the major difference would be that Han would back her up when their child needed disciplining, and not undermine her like Vail had done. Their child. The thought made Leia's heart ache. She had always wanted more than one child, but her chilly marriage had prevented that from occurring. Now, her dreams of having a big family with the man she loved seemed both tantalizing close, and light years away. "How's that terrible leg wound doing?" Leia said soothingly, trying not to laugh. "Gangrene hasn't set in yet, has it?"
"If it has, I'll volunteer to amputate the limb with my lightsaber," Mara said, snickering.
Han opened his mouth to make a protest, when Shannon let out a bloodcurdling scream. "Those boys!" she yelled, pointing at Rue and Trey. "Those are the mean boys that stole me!" She turned her eyes up to Leia. "I hate them! Send them to Kessel, Mommy!"
"Sweetheart, Trey and Rue are very sorry for what they did to you...." Leia started out.
"I don't care!" she hollered, stomping her foot. "Send them to Kessel!"
"Shannon," Han growled, waving his boys over. "These are my sons, and they'll apologize for what they did. But I expect you to apologize to Chewie for running away, too. None of this would have happened if you'd stayed on the ship."
The child's eyes grew wide with disbelief. "I'm not sorry! My Mommy won't make me say I'm sorry."
"Yes, I will," Leia said firmly. "I love you, Shannon, but you can't act like this anymore."
Chewie had watched this exchange quietly, his paw still resting on the hover-stretcher. Passlet sat up on her elbows, looking at Shannon. "I forgive you, Shannon," Passlet informed Leia's daughter sincerely. "So I think you should forgive those boys, too."
"You can consider this your very first lesson," Luke spoke up. "Forgiveness is very important if you want to become a Jedi."
For a few seconds, Shannon was quiet. Then she said, "I'm sorry, Chewie. I shouldn't have run away."
"And we're sorry, too," Rue told the little girl. "I hope we can be friends, especially since Dad told us we're moving to Coruscant, so we'll be seeing a lot of each other."
Shannon's face went very still. "No, you aren't moving by us. Tell him, Mommy."
"I think that might be happening, Shannon."
Dropping Leia's hand, the girl ran toward the Falcon, sobbing hysterically as Leia hurried after her daughter.
/You certainly have a lot of work ahead of you to make a big, happy family, Han./ Chewie woofed as his friend hobbled toward the ship.
A little while later, Leia tucked a sleeping and exhausted Shannon into the small bed as Han watched. "What are we going to do?" Leia said softly, almost to herself.
"We'll be back at the northern port in less than an hour," Han replied. "Hopefully, the local authorities can track down all these kids' parents quickly."
"I was talking about us."
Han sat down on the end of the bed, taking Leia's hand. "Don't do this to us, Princess. Shannon will come around, and so will the boys. We just have to give it time."
"It's more than just the children," the Princess said, looking down and unable to meet his intense gaze. "I love you. I always have, and I always will...."
"I feel the same about you. So what's the problem?"
Leia pulled her hand away, and stood up, pacing the small cabin. "Everything! You can't divorce Alli.... it's wrong. She's a wonderful woman and she doesn't deserve to be publicly humiliated and rejected, which is what it will appear like. The holo-press will destroy all of our lives. Shannon's grandparents will make my life miserable. We'll look like unfaithful spouses."
"You're worried about appearances?" Han asked, annoyed. "Alli won't be rejected. We'll take care of her, and as long as we know the truth...."
"No, that's not enough. Thanks to politics, I'm famous," Leia replied. "I can't escape who I am, and I can't run away from my responsibilities."
"Responsibilities? You mean the New Republic?" Han questioned, his face tight. "This was the problem last time, sweetheart. You couldn't move past your job to see there was more to life than politics!"
"The problem was your inability to see there is more to life than just what you want," Leia snapped out. Then her expression grew regretful. "What we want," she amended, then added, "I want the same thing you do. Can't you see that?"
Han stood up, facing the closed door. "I see the galaxy is once again conspiring to keep us apart."
"Things are more complicated than ever before," she told him. "Luke told me it will work out." Leia put her hand on his back. "We have to believe that, Han. I have to believe it, or I'll.... I'll..."
"You'll go on without me. Just like always."
"I've gone on without you physically, but never spiritually, Han. You are my soulmate, and you have been since the day I met you."
He turned and put his arms around her. "Then let's make this work. Somehow. Someway."
As the tightly packed Falcon made its way back to the northern hemisphere, Luke carefully watched as large numbers of children gathered around Mara, constantly asking her one question after another. That alone would have been enough to annoy her, but to make matters worse they insisted on calling her Burt. Or Burtsie. Or Burtilla......
"Burtsie.... is your hair really that color, or do you dye it? It sure doesn't look like a real color. What color is it, really? My mom calls that color 'bottle jobs'. Is your hair a bottle job, Burtsie?"
"Are you in love with Luke, Burty? You're both Jedi, and that should mean you get married and make lots of little Jedi, right?" "Will the Force make your babies, or will Luke be the daddy? Why is your face getting so red?"
"Can you teach me how to make a lightsaber, Burtilla?" "Can I play with yours, then?"
"Burt.... can you cook? If you want to be a good wife, you should learn how to cook, you know. Burt."
Mara's face was growing more flustered and upset with each question. Luke was starting to worry about her blood pressure.
"Is it true the Emperor was really a giant-sized million-year-old puppet, Burt?"
"Burtilla, how old are you?" "That's old! Can you still have Luke's babies when you're so old?"
"Do you have any sisters, Burty-Burt?" "How about brothers?" "Is Luke your younger brother, Burt?"
"I once had a cat that had your color eyes and we thought it ran away until it got hot outside but then my dad found it dead in the attic and it was really stinking up the whole house, isn't that a funny story, Burt?"
"How much to you weigh, Burtsie?" "Do you weigh more than Luke?"
"ALL RIGHT!" Mara yelled, jumping off the crate she was sitting on, surrounded by forty-three children. "This is ENOUGH! How many times, exactly, do I have to tell you my name isn't BURT?? It's MARA! Mara JADE! The next kid that calls me ......." She stopped, her eyes drifting up to the entrance, where Han Solo was leaning casually against the curved doorway, a satisfied smirk on his face.
"I'd have to say the Blue group finally did her in," Han said, still grinning widely. He held out a carton filled with ice cones. "The Blue group gets three each, but the Reds did such a good job, you can have one, too."
The children leapt up off the floor, grabbing their cone and slurping the sweet treat.
"You cheated!" Mara yelled at Han, pointing her finger in his chest. "That doesn't count!"
"Sure it counts," Han replied, unfazed by her furious glare, but backing up a step just to be on the safe side. "The bet was who snaps first, not who makes them snap."
"You bribed them!"
"So? A little competition is a healthy thing, wouldn't you agree, Luke? Competition and a reward.... always pays off."
"Bet?" Luke asked, raising his eyebrows. "What kind of bet?"
"None of your business!" Mara shouted, pushing past Han and leaving the hold.
"You'll find out," Han whispered to Luke, before turning around and heading back to the cockpit.
Back at the northern spaceport, the local Palthos officials wasted no time in thanking everyone for their assistance, and reassured Ambassador Organa-Golden they would cooperate fully with the arriving New Republic Forces in order to locate and punish everyone involved with the child slavery ring. Leia strongly suspected that at least a few of these fawning politicians were guilty of looking the other way when it came to the gem mining operations. Palthos' economy relied heavily on the valuable lambda gems, so finding an alternative method of mining was not going to be cheap or easy.
Since the vast majority of the children working in the mines had been kidnapped locally, only a few were not home within a few hours of the Falcon's landing. Those whose parents were not quickly located were taken by a social worker, with Leia's promise to them they would be home in a few days. The New Republic military would back her guarantee.
Back at the spaceport, minus the fifty-one extra passengers, Leia watched as Luke escorted Shannon into the Jade's Fire, then looked at Han. "This is for the best," she said quietly. "You need to stay on Glova with Alli until the end."
Han swallowed the lump forming in his throat. "It could be years before we're together again."
"I'll wait. You know I'll wait."
"I love you."
"I know," she said, trying to smile. "I love you, too."
When Luke entered the cockpit, Mara was watching Han and Leia through the viewport. "It's not fair," Mara said quietly. "Some people should be together."
"Like us?" Luke asked, repeating his line from the evening before. Had it only been a few hours? It seemed like much longer.
"Yes," Mara agreed. "Like us."
"Will you marry me?"
"You'd be willing to marry me without even knowing if this is my real hair color?"
"Or even your age and weight," Luke said, solemnly.
"Never ask a lady her age or weight, Farmboy."
"You haven't given me your answer."
"I have to think about it," Mara said, turning her eyes to the pre-flight warmup.
"Are you serious?" When she didn't reply, Luke gave a huge sigh. "Fine. You think about it. I just can't figure out women."
Mara bit her lip to keep from laughing.
Trey and Rue quietly left the hospital room to allow Han time alone with their mother. When the door shut, Alli turned her exhausted gaze at her husband. "I knew you'd find them."
"Brill Gils is now in New Republic custody. He'll probably be spending the next ten years or so in a prison cell," Han informed her as he held her icy cold fingers. She looked thinner and much weaker since he'd left for Palthos. It was apparent the stress of the past weeks had taken a hard toll on her already frail body.
"The boys will be adults by then," she said tiredly. "They'll be safe from Brill when he gets out."
"He didn't endear himself to them, that's for sure."
Han shifted his gaze to the floor. "Coruscant. She had second thoughts about our plans. Leia thinks a divorce will be too difficult for you, and it won't look very good. She's afraid Golden's parents could file for custody of Shannon, too."
"I never thought about that, but I don't think that we're going to be needing a divorce. I'm dying."
"Don't say that!"
Her fingers tightened around his briefly. "I love you, Han. I know that wasn't supposed to happen, and you don't feel the same way about me..."
"Alli - "
"Let me finish. I knew when we got married you loved Princess Leia and always would, but I couldn't stop how I felt. I wish things could have been different, but I'm very glad I married you. I want to thank you for everything you've done for me and the boys."
"You don't have to thank me," he said hoarsely. "You've taught me so many things, Alli. How to be a good father. How to be a better person. I've grown up since I met you. I should be the one thanking you."
Alli smiled. "You're welcome."
Alli Solo died in the early morning hours, less than one week after Han returned with Trey and Rue. Two days later, her body was laid to rest near her home under a shady tree. Han wasn't ashamed to let his sons see his tears as he placed a single pink flower on top of her grave.
Coruscant, two months later, early evening.
Dressed in his best clothes, Luke Skywalker entered 'The Heavenly Star', one of Coruscant finest restaurants. Since it was close to the Senate building many high government officials dined here, but this was Luke's first time. When Leia had invited him, her treat, he'd been pleasantly surprised.
He was even more surprised to see both Han and Mara sitting at the table with Leia. A month after Alli's death, Han and his two sons moved into an apartment building close to Leia's building. This was the first time, to Luke's knowledge, they were being seen together in public. In Luke's opinion, it was a good idea to ease their relationship into the public's eye, and perhaps a 'double date' was a careful, first step in that direction.
Luke's own relationship with Mara Jade was another frustrating matter entirely. It had been two months since his proposal, and Mara had yet to say either 'yes' or 'no'. It wasn't something Luke could understand. Why couldn't she say those three little words...'I love you'?" He'd said them to her often enough lately. What kind of answer was, 'I'm still thinking about it?' How long did she have to think, anyway?
"Hi!" Luke said happily. "I sure wasn't expecting to double date tonight." He bent over and gave Mara a quick kiss before sitting down, facing the vast window. Normally, this window overlooked hundreds of tall buildings, including the elegant Senate Building, but for some reason the thick curtains were drawn, shutting out the view. "I wonder why they have the curtains shut?"
"Maybe the duraglass got accidentally broken," Mara guessed. "If it bothers you, we can leave."
"Leave?" Luke shook his head. "I'm about to eat in one of the best places on Coruscant, with the two most beautiful women in the galaxy. And my meal is free, too. No, we're not leaving."
"Good," Mara said. "I'd like to eat here, too, since I never have before. I mean, who really cares about the curtains? Nothing but stupid buildings out there, anyway. We've already seen them a million times. We sure don't need to see them tonight." She stopped, a bit flushed, realizing she was babbling and everyone at the table was staring at her.
"It was Leia's idea to come here," Han said quickly changing the subject. "You know how women like these elegant seven course dinners. Right, Mara?" The Corellian gave a pointed look at Mara, which she ignored.
Luke frowned in puzzlement, wondering what all that meant, then asked, "Where are the kids?"
"Trey and Rue are babysitting Shannon in my apartment. Hopefully, the building will still be in one piece when we get back," Leia said with a quick smile.
Luke knew that Han's children had been getting along better with his niece during the past month, and Shannon's behavior was much improved, as well. Luke had even started her Jedi training. Without Vail or her grandparents' influence, she'd quickly accepted her abilities in the Force, and got along well with the other young people Luke was teaching. For the first time in her life, Shannon didn't feel like an outsider, and she had made friends. "I'd be just as worried about poor Threepio being in one piece." He glanced over at Han. "Your boys are terrible about taking apart everything they get their hands on."
"I'm proud to say, I've taught them everything I know," Han bragged, leaning back in his chair.
"That had to take about five minutes," Leia shot back, as Luke and Mara laughed.
The meal did not disappoint, and two hours later the waiter came out with a large cake, which he sliced and put into plates. "This is wonderful," Mara enthused, taking a bite. "I guess Chewie must not have baked this cake."
Luke pushed his plate away after two small mouthfuls. "I'm so full, my stomach hurts."
"I think I'd like to look at those boring old buildings now," Mara suddenly informed a startled Luke. "Open the curtain."
Luke looked around, wondering who she was talking to. No one was standing behind him. "Me?"
"Of course you," Mara snapped. "The button is right over there. Press it, and I'll bet those curtains swing right apart."
Why is Mara blushing? Luke wondered. "Maybe we should ask the waiter..."
"Luke!" Leia practically shouted. "Just get up and open the window."
"So we can all enjoy the fantastic view," Han added, smirking.
"Okay.... fine," Luke muttered, getting up and walking the few steps over to the button, a button which, interestingly enough, was only a few inches from Mara's chair. Why didn't she just press it herself....?
The curtain parted smoothly and silently, and Luke was suddenly staring into the largest holo-advertisement board he'd ever seen, angled so he could see the flashing, three dimensional words very clearly: LUKE SKYWALKER.... I LOVE YOU, AND YES, I WILL MARRY YOU. ALL MY LOVE, FOREVER, MARA JADE.
He stared, dumbfounded, for long seconds, until the sound of the restaurant patrons and the staff applauding forced him to turn around. Leia and Han were both grinning madly, and Mara looked like she was about to slide under the table in embarrassment.
"Do...do ...you mean it?"
"Of course I mean it. I'm not crazy enough to do that and then say, 'never mind, it's a joke', Farmboy."
"See, Burt?" Han chided. "Our bet all worked out.... you get your lifemate, and your seven course dinner. Plus, I didn't even have to cook it."
Luke sat back down, kissing Mara passionately, until Leia cleared her throat. "Okay, brother. Save it for the bedroom." Ignoring Luke's embarrassed expression, she looked at her soon-to-be sister-in-law. "When are you getting married?"
Mara glanced at Luke. "Six months sound good to you?"
"Tomorrow sounds better."
"Luke!" Leia said, exasperated. "We need at least six months to plan a wedding. And Mara can help me plan mine fortenmonths from now." Leia reached over and took Mara's hand. "This will be so much fun."
"How big are these weddings going to be?" Luke asked, his face suddenly worried.
"Really big," Mara replied. "Don't worry. All you men have to do is show up on time and sober."
Luke and Han exchanged looks of mock horror. "I'm telling you, Luke... we're doomed!" Han said, throwing his hands up in the air and doing a fairly decent imitation of Threepio. "Doomed!"