There were few things Leia Organa hated more than feeling nervous. Feeling nervous in public places was one of them.
To her relief, there were none amidst the hustle and bustle of the supply hanger who openly stopped working to watch her. Even seeking to be inconspicuous, her presence caused a subtle stir. The deck hands suddenly applied themselves to their tasks at hand with newfound dedication; the officers barked their orders with terser authority; the data processors typed faster. She noticed the changes but pretended she didn't, hoping that in exchange, no one was truly noticing her. If they were indeed, they undoubtedly saw that her hands were anxiously smoothing her hair and refastening the clasps on her flight jacket, or that her attention hadn't left the figure at the far end of the walkway since she'd entered the hanger.
The source of her uneasiness was, from the looks of it, doing last minute flight checks and chatting amicably with the Twi'lek Deck Officer next to the Razion's Edge. Garbed today in the emblazoned tan uniform of a Republic General, his weapon of choice dangled below his hip in lieu of a blaster. No one could possibly mistake him for anyone else.
"General Skywalker," she called, opting to stick to formalities for the moment. The echo of her voice in the hanger made her cringe.
Luke spun at the sound of her voice and hurried forward to kiss her cheek. "Leia." The gentle brush of a warm Force greeting added a 'happy to see you.'
She smiled but didn't return the unseen gesture, hugging him warmly instead. "If we get out of here right away we'll avoid the send-off party I heard clicking behind me in the corridors."
"I'm all for that," he assured her, agreeing with the obvious logic in avoiding last-minute political entanglements. He turned back to the Twi'lek and nodded. "I guess we're all set. The supplies are loaded and," he playfully nudged her closer to the on-ramp, "my co-pilot's here."
The Twi'lek raised his palm in his traditional farewell, leku twitching like live serpents in accompaniment, "Ma-Allesh, General Skywalker, Your Highness."
"Thank you," they chimed in unison.
General Skywalker, she repeated quietly to herself, boarding the Lambda-class shuttle ahead of him. Hearing his commission spoken aloud again sounded strange, although it had been months since he'd re-accepted it. She tossed her carryall in one of the crew quarters and made her way to the cockpit, pausing between the pilot and co-pilot's seats. After so many years flying with Luke and Han, old habit made her choose the latter. He joined her a moment afterward, toggling switches and starting the engine. It whined too loudly at first to allow conversation and she waited until the C-Board was illuminated to speak.
"The shuttle's secure?" she asked. Over two and a half years since the Alliance's victory against the Empire at Endor, strict security measures were still a necessary and unavoidable reality, even at Home Fleet. Cursory checks for tampering and bugs were preformed religiously.
"All clear," he replied. The Nav-Com unit's view vid supplied the coordinates of their plotted course. Luke double checked them and buckled the polyweave g-straps across his chest. "You ready?"
The hanger doors of the New Republic flagship in orbit over Coruscant opened to reveal the vast expanse of light and darkness. There were gas clouds left behind by stars that had gone nova thousands of years ago, proto-stars, dwarf stars, neutron stars that had once reigned as supergiants, black holes whose spiraling matter gave them an eerie glow; all comprised the interstellar neighbourhood outside. The tiniest percentage of those stars had solar systems that sustained life, and even then, it was more than could be counted or categorized or even explored. They said a true spacer lived his life forever humbled, forever respectful of his insignificance in the universe, able to find novelty in every starry gaze. A being in the universe was no more than an atom or the tiniest speck of sand on the beaches of Hallomar. For the moment, that suited Leia just fine, to be a speck, a dot, anonymous out here.
Luke guided them out and gave curt replies to the port authority clearing them for a hyperspace jump, as well as tuning in to the crackling broadcasts of the METOSP communications frequency. They were pre-set to jump onto the Corellian Trade Spine once they cleared the last realspace marker. That would shave quite a bit of time off this trip, although it would still be four days until they reached the Outer Rim. It wasn't until the gravitational thrusts of the hyperdrive motivators kicked in, that she sank back into her seat and absorbed herself in the dynamic visual displays and flashing colors streaking by. Her father had always said the views from hyperspace travel were like watching a Kallakean Rainbow, although she'd never seen one herself, so it could have just been one of his many overly descriptive expressions.
Finally, she sighed inwardly. I am finally getting away.
"So," he prodded, switching them to autopilot and tilting his chair around slightly so that she had his full attention. "Since when do you address me as General? Should I start calling you Councillor Organa?"
She smirked and let her stare rest unabashed. In the six months since she'd seen him last, he'd cut his hair shorter, losing the highlights, and his face bore a fading tan, making his eyes bluer and more youthful. He was the same old Luke though, relaxed and in control, studying her back in return in search of the familiar and the new.
"Your hair's longer," he decided.
"And I haven't seen you in uniform since… I can't remember when."
He looked down at himself as though he'd forgotten what he was wearing and picked at his military decorations. "Oh. I had a meeting this morning with the aforementioned send-off party."
"Where you offered to pilot the cargo shuttle of all things," she breezed, trying to cover her skepticism. "I didn't even know you were back with the fleet until a few hours ago." The last message she'd received from him said he'd be meeting up with her after she returned from Advanced Base Baskarn.
"Are you insinuating that serving as an escort is beneath me," he teased. "Or do I need a better excuse to get you to myself for a few days?"
Along with escorting her, Luke would be leading a number of Imperial garrison raids in the Outer Sector to rescue political leaders imprisoned at the start of the war. Still, it was hardly a job that required a Jedi - any of the New Republic's top pilots and operatives was more than competent - but their government would not have been in a position to refuse his request for the assignment. His file had been dumped across her desk in recent weeks with a 'will not be renewing.' What she suspected, and Luke probably knew, was that the Inner Council had granted his last minute request in the hopes that she could change his mind. She wouldn't. They'd been through this last year, and his sabbatical, quest, search for Jedi Artifacts, whatever he called it, had been interrupted far too long. She thought much of this, then said quickly, "Of course not."
As for herself, the assignment wasn't exactly congruent with her beliefs, nor had anyone wanted her to take it. Ten other less than diplomatic want-to-be bureaucrats had fought her on it. The executive within the Alliance wanted the freed prisoners de-briefed, and if at all possible, persuaded to clamour for New Republic support when they returned to their home worlds. Many of the prisoners were natives of worlds that were reluctant to declare their allegiance to the burgeoning New Republic. In her mind, it was reasonable to say 'persuade,' was the understatement of year for what some officious representatives intended. Using innocent people, people who'd suffered, bystanders in the galactic conflict, on the pretext of working for the greater good didn't sit well with her. They weren't that desperate yet, and they'd be no better than the Empire if they resorted to coercive measures.
Being their designated emissary killed two birds with one stone; one, making sure Fey'lya didn't get his claws into these people before she'd had a chance to tactfully convince them. Secondly, and most importantly, it got her away from Coruscant. Even if Luke's unexpected presence defeated half the purpose; it was better than nothing.
Intuitive as always, he said, "I'm amazed they're actually letting you escape the take-over proceedings on Coruscant?"
The emphasis on escape made her defensive. "This mission's important, Luke."
"I didn't say it wasn't," he replied calmly. "I just thought Mon Mothma had you so entrenched in everything going on that you couldn't get away."
"The Old Republic wasn't built in a day," she replied, trying to match his tone and failing. "The new one can't be either. If it's going to collapse without me there for two weeks that doesn't say much about what we have accomplished, now does it?"
He grinned, more like the old Luke, eyes twinkling with amusement. "You need a break, eh? Why can't you just admit it?"
It was the perfect cover. She crossed her legs and spun her chair around. "Okay. Yeah," she admitted, drumming her fingers on her armrest. "Transition from military commander to pure politician is a bit unnatural I guess. I'm not used to living behind the scenes... sitting in the little backrooms making the decisions about how to win battles. I'm used to being out there. But before I bore you to death with the details, how'd it go at Folor?"
Seeing a sly grin form, she interjected before he could ask. "I had nothing to do with you being offered the guest instructor's position there. Your military record made you their top candidate before they asked me. Honest."
"I believe you," he replied, nodding his head. "I just can't believe I got issued one of the new Y-wings for it though."
"Not me either," she affirmed, hiding her smile. Not exactly true. Mon Mothma had asked her if he'd accept it, and she'd advised her not to give him a choice. "But how'd it go?"
"I think they were impressed-"
"The review said that you had them eating out your hand after two days."
"Someone's exaggerating," he modestly replied. "It flew by. It was exciting to work with the new recruits...and get a chance to catch up with Wedge. Made me remember what it was like way back when we started… and it gave me a lot of insight into what it will be like when I am teaching."
"I'm surprised they let you go."
He shrugged. "It's not that they didn't make me a tempting offer; I just had more pressing issues to deal with right now." There was a flicker of reluctance in his eyes. "We do."
Surprise, she thought cynically. What did you expect? That he would offer to escort you so you two could have tea and chat about current events?
"We'll save it for later. We don't need to get into it now. You…" He gave her another once over. "Have they been running you round the clock again? You look exhausted."
Self-consciously straightening, she willed life and color into her features. "The usual. And I was up all night… uh, packing."
"That one little bag you brought with you?"
"I had a lot of last minute paperwork to finish up before I left too."
"Doesn't Winter usually take care of that sort of stuff?"
At the mention of her friend and aide, she frowned. A thousand times over the last few weeks Winter had told her she looked pale or tired, that she wasn't eating enough, that she should lighten up her work load. It was all she could do to drag herself out of bed most mornings. "She has other duties Luke. It's not fair of me to pile everything on her, you know."
He rolled his eyes. "Anyway, I'm a little out of the loop. Why don't you update me on how it's going?"
Grateful for a topic that wasn't personal, she plunged headfirst into it. They had trade disputes, treaty negotiations, petitions to join, threats from the Imperial remnants and ruling councils spearheaded by men such as warlord Zsinj and Moff Getelles, not to mention the havoc wreaked by Ysanne Isard. Not to mention the fact that they were strapped for money and supplies, things they were all too familiar with after the past several years. By the time she'd gotten through recapping most of it, they were well onto the Corellian Trade Spine, and she was yawning every other minute.
"You should really get some sleep," he told her. "We're going to have to go on shifts once we hit the Outer-Rim boundaries."
"I need to check out the files on Baskarn too," she sighed.
"Go ahead. I'll be all right up here."
She slid to edge of her seat, poised to leave. "Are you sure?"
In the L-shaped lounge off the galley, Leia read datapads on Baskarn, dedicating herself to learning what she could about the little-known planet. Curling her legs beneath her on the foam covered couch, she discovered even the Alliance had never sent a Scout and Exploration team to the surface after setting up Advanced Base Baskarn in the mountains. Nor was there even a record of ownership filed under the Old Republic's 'Name it, Claim it' law in the database. That usually meant one thing in her experience; Baskarn was either completely inhospitable, or deemed utterly worthless. Leave it to the Alliance to always choose some variation of no-man's land for their outposts.
It was the fifth planet in the Derilyn System of the Elrood Sector. Depending on the time of the year its orbit temporarily pulled it closer to its sun than its sister planet, Takornan, so that it competed for position of fourth. Little was actually known about it, but it had been investigated at some point, because there were topographical surveys available, as well as analysis of the gravity, air, water, strange trees, and sketchy references to even stranger creatures called the Yrashu.
The hum of the fusion generators, nicknamed appropriately enough, 'the spacer's lullaby' and the ennui of reading data-pad planetary statistics put her to sleep soon enough.
"Leia, I've had it with this," he snapped.
She kept her face a blank, tried not to look at the bed, still in disarray. Maybe… if she reached out her hand she could pull him back, stop what was about to happen. No, she decided, grabbing the sheet to cover herself with, still warm from the heat of their bodies. It wouldn't do any good, not if he was this angry. Even Han had his limits.
"I really mean it," he began. "And you're not going."
"Not going? You can't tell me where I can and can't do-"
"Well someone should. And if you don't want to listen to me then maybe you'll listen to your brother."
"Leave him out of this."
"Well you've gotta do something. Normal people do not-"
"Then I'm not normal, obviously," she hissed. "I'm mentally disturbed, unbalanced… whatever you want to call it!"
"I'm not saying that. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with you. If you don't want to go to Luke, fine, we'll go away. Just the two of us. Somewhere quiet, somewhere we can be alone, where you can take some time-"
"Han, I can't leave right now."
"Can't or won't?"
He reached for his pants. "Are you still going?"
She sighed, eyeing the pile of fabric he held ready as an ultimatum. "It's the middle of the night Han. We're both tired. Can we not do th-"
"Are you still going?"
She hadn't wanted to answer that. "Yes."
He began dressing. "I know how badly he hurt you, I understand. What I don't understand is why you're letting him destroy the rest of your life. You want to work yourself to death, wait for a nervous breakdown… I love you but don't expect me to stick around and watch. All I'm doing is trying to help!"
"I don't want your help!" She watched him reach for his shirt too. "If you're threatening to leave, go right ahead. Besides which claiming you love me and threatening to leave in the same sentence makes you the biggest hypocrite I know."
He pulled it over his head and grabbed his boots. "I do love you. I'm just tired of loving someone who doesn't love herself back. And this isn't a threat." His blaster followed belt and jacket. Fully dressed, he hung on, standing by the bed, as though hoping she might change her mind. "Leia come on. I mean it. Come away with me instead, just for a little while."
"I really can't Han," she pleaded. "Maybe in a few weeks, a month-"
"You'll say the same thing. You always say the same thing!" He clenched his jaw tightly. "Well I never figured you were much for good-byes! I guess this is it, sweetheart."
This time she dreamed she went after him, let the sheet pool at her feet and wrapped her arms around him.
"Okay Han. Okay we'll go anywhere you want…"
This time he stayed, drew her back to the bed and made love to her. Only it wasn't real; memories and phantom touches left her body so wrought with tension and the need for release she begged and pleaded with him, but in her dream he pulled from her just enough to keep her from finding her own fulfillment. She awoke with a terrible sense of emptiness, aching for him in a way she hadn't allowed herself for so long, a grief as familiar as his smell on the clothes he'd left behind, in her bed, on his pillow.
I should have gone after him, she thought desolately. I should have.
She sat up and untwisted the light pasmin cloak that had been tucked over her, swearing to herself. Uneasily she eyed the datapads stacked on the desk, checked her chrono and discovered it had been six standard hours since they'd left Coruscant. She prayed whatever she'd been dreaming had not been written all over her face when Luke did that.
The dream unnerved her. It wasn't the sex she missed the most, although in her dreams her body longed for him as keenly as her heart did when she was awake. And Han was, well… Han was anything but innocent and inexperienced when it came to that area, and was exactly the type of man parents warned their daughters about. He'll leave you heartbroken and without a shred of virtue, they would say, to which Han would have replied, but sweetheart if it feels good … With a glass or two of wine in her system, he was capable of making anything he wanted to do feel good, even if it was illegal in a half dozen star systems.
"Stop it Leia," she whispered.
It was time to face the fact that those nights, all those lopsided smiles and stupid jokes that she loved and pretended she didn't, the way he made her feel like she belonged to him, the way he rubbed her back and held her – all of it, all of it, all of it was over. She'd been cut adrift from the one person who was, in a transient sense, the nearest thing she had to a home, a soul mate, the one person from whom she could hide nothing. Han saw through her all the time, and he loved her in spite of it - or she thought he had. It was time to face that maybe he hadn't after all and that hurt the most.
The line of thought depressed her. Next thing she knew she'd be pining away for his stupid ship.
Someone (though there was no actual need to guess who) was making a lot of noise in the galley, clanging and banging pots around. The thick aroma of Tockberries and an unidentifiable meat was wafting into the lounge as well. "Let me guess," she murmured to herself, heading for the doorway. "He's actually cooking."
Luke ceased poking at whatever was in the oven and peered over his shoulder. "I was just coming to get you. Are you hungry?"
"Starved," she admitted. Her melancholy took an abrupt turn at the sight of her brother in an apron. "Getting in touch with your domestic side again?"
He chuckled and slapped his hand on the counter. "At least one of us has one," he teased. "I have only two words for you… Endwa Stew."
She scowled insincerely and slid into the booth round the table.
The injustice of it all was that she had only ruined a meal once and that really hadn't been her fault. Whoever would have known that the thermic baster on the Falcon was modified to cook everything at the equivalent of lightspeed, or that the replicators used standard Corellian measurements, not Galactic? Who knew Endwa was best served this side of raw. Han had in turn, merrily exaggerated the smoky and heavily spiced disaster for Luke's amusement, and worse, Luke had believed it, demolishing her belief in brotherly loyalty in one fell swoop. Besides, that had been over a year ago.
"I scrounged through the cabins for better things to eat than the rations," he whispered, looking both ways as though someone might hear him. "Think they'll notice?"
She laughed. The cargo compartments and cabins were stocked full of medical supplies and food, good food too, not the barely palatable stuff stockpiled in the ship's galley. "They'll forgive you – or I can play with the inventory list to cover it up." The table was already set. Guiltily she scanned the counters. If the mess was any indication, he'd gone through quite a bit of trouble.
"Perfect, now I've made you an accessory after the fact."
"You could have woken me. I could have helped."
"But you said you were up all night doing paperwork, remember. Besides, how often do I get to serve royalty dinner?"
She couldn't remember the last time Luke had made her dinner, let alone the last time they had actually had dinner together, and that realization made her sad. "Not often. Were there any strange reports from METOSP or the other frequencies while I was sleeping? Sector Patrol? Channel 1?"
He shook his head, dishing out two healthy servings of his culinary creation. "No, but you can never be too careful. Sector Patrol hasn't spent much time out here lately, and there's always a good chance some fractionated Imperial activity's been going on. We don't have the most updated sources."
She'd been right about the Tockberries. Luke had also 'acquired' a fresh bunch of Balka leaves and wrapped the meat in neat little bundles, packed with spices and whatever else he'd scrounged up. She touched one with her fork and felt it jiggle. "This isn't raw is it?"
"No, it's traladon. Do you want water?"
"Yes, thank you." She remembered the Corellian fleet tended to linger this far away from their system, although they didn't generally interfere with New Republic ships outside their jurisdiction. When Luke returned with their glasses, she asked, "Any murmurs from Corellia Public Safety Service?"
"Not so far. Are we having the same problems with them?"
"You mean, is the Diktat of Corellia still refusing to deal with us, and threatening every planet in their system with embargoes if they do?"
Luke grimaced and took the seat across from her. "Adhering to their long instilled values of isolationism."
She sighed. "Well, the Merchant's Guild certainly has its men crawling through our hallways. As long as there are deals to be made, we're still getting things we need from them. Nevertheless, it would be a major coup for the New Republic to be able to announce that they're on our side - which would carry considerable weight with the colonies in the Outer Rim. On the other hand, we've recruited quite a few of Corsec's best members who didn't agree with the Diktat when he disbanded it in favour of the CPSS, but they're..."
"Self proclaimed mercenaries," Luke supplied.
"Of course. Now why that should surprise me I'll never know."
"Speaking of the reason we're not surprised," he asked casually, "Where is he? I got a crazy message a few weeks back. Nothing since."
She shrugged and tried to make light of it. "He's in the Sumitra Sector on assignment and last I heard he was making a stop at Kashyyyk with Chewie too. The Force only knows how long that'll turn into."
"Well, Chewie deserves some time at home," Luke pointed out, misinterpreting her frustration. "But haven't you talked to him lately?"
She shrugged again.
"What's going on?" he asked a second later, continuing to gaze at her inquisitively.
"You must have talked to him?"
"Well, I didn't."
He said, more softly, "Leia it's me."
She didn't want to talk about this now, particularly with Luke. Thinking about it pricked her eyes with tears. "I really just needed to get away for a while too, to clear my head. There's been a lot going on."
Luke reached over to squeeze her arm. "Did something happen between you two, some sort of fight?"
"Can we not? I mean it?"
"Ahh. Okay." He started to cut into his meat, sighed, then set his utensils down and gave her a sympathetic look as if apologizing for not being able to stop himself. "Because I know you two will work it out. You always do."
"Yeah," she muttered bitterly, the irony being that until recently she had truly hoped so as well. Luke could utter soothing assurances all he wanted but, no, they wouldn't work anything out. There wasn't any foreseeable future with things working out for her. Han had been the one who left; he'd been the one who ran way in the first place. Forlorn hopes of reconciliation just prolonged her agony. Her brother's words sounded pathetically youthful and naive. "Let's eat and talk about something else."
By the time they'd finished dinner, Leia almost felt normal, happy even. She'd updated her brother on the little she'd learned about their destination and lamented the fact that she expected Baskarn to be about as fun as the Kessel mines. Luke in turn, rambled on about the highlights of his teaching experience, most of which revolved around a student pilot by the name of Quigg.
Quigg, Luke told her, had been his greatest challenge; admitted to the Folor training program with scores scraping so hard along the minimum requirements they practically toppled them over. But he was bound and determined to be a pilot, no matter what it took, although it was clear to Luke from the beginning it would require nothing short of a miracle from day one. Day in and day out the teenager consistently was the first to die on practice runs, the first to set off sensors, missed his shots, reversed coordinates. The only thing Quigg had excelled at was the sims – he practiced on them every spare moment he had after hours. He loved to stay up late in the rec center long after his fellow students had packed it in.
Luke confessed to her that for fun, he had often stayed up and played, routinely setting sim records that his students tried to beat. Quigg was only student who ever succeeded.
Leia thought that was a bit odd. Luke's eyes twinkled merrily. Of course it was, he explained, especially since Quigg tended to break his scores late at night when no one else was around. By all accounts, based on his sim records, he should have been heading for a career as one of the Alliance's greatest pilots. Instead, he was at the bottom of his class. However, the computerized sims were used for testing, so their systems were 'splice-proof,' according to the school's technician. Thinking he was failing his student somehow, Luke had re-doubled his efforts. Repeatedly, Quigg proved unable to progress; he lacked the ability to multi-task, combine reflexes and fast thinking.
"So I decided he had to be cracking into the sim programs somehow. I tried everything else. There was simply no way he was beating my scores honestly."
"You sound pretty sure of yourself," she scoffed.
"I do, huh?"
"Well, was he?
Luke nodded, beaming openly. "My scores! I stayed up late one night and waited in the back of the rec center. Quigg played until everyone was gone, and then, sure enough, he dragged out all this high-fangled decoding equipment he'd built on his own."
"What did you do?" Tampering with Alliance codes was a serious offence, particularly in their training programs.
"What else could I do?" Luke laughed, "I sent him to Intelligence. He's been transferred to their decryption program. We made a pact that night. I agreed not to turn him in if he agreed to never re-apply for the training program on Folor. Turned out he loves the encryption program on Coruscant."
"What in the world was someone with that sort of technical genius doing in our pilot program anyway?" she wondered. "Wouldn't his marks on the entrance exams have been relayed to Intelligence regardless?"
"He flubbed that section on purpose," Luke explained. "Otherwise he would never have been there. But his brother flew with us. Quigg wanted to be the next family hero." He shrugged. "Happens a lot."
She set her elbows on either side of her plate and rested her utensils. "Why do I get the feeling Quigg has some sort of relevance to what you wanted to discuss with me? And is it good new or bad news?"
Luke speared his last bite of traladon and chewed fast. "Unexpected news."
For a heartbeat she paled. This can't possibly be about you. There's no way he would know. "Unexpected huh?"
He finished swallowing and sipped the last of his water. "Here goes. You remember that night on Endor," he began, "shortly after we got back from Bakura, when we decided it would be best for both of us if we kept our parentage secret?"
"Yes," she nodded. They'd decided it would be best for all concerned if it wasn't widely known that Vader's progeny were instrumental players in the Alliance. Not just for their safety, but also for sake of the fears that their close ties to the deceased Emperor and his successor would evoke in the populace of the worlds they were negotiating with now. It might not matter that her home had been the Empire's target in an official demonstration of the Death Star capabilities only a few years back. The close circle of friends who knew the truth extended no further than Han, Winter, Chewie and Lando.
He stretched his hands out on the table and sighed. "Quigg came to me with a few datafiles he'd recently hacked into. He's been working in the old infirmary and medical ward, in the far wing of Palpatine's old residence. Not necessarily top priority - but nonetheless they've pulled up quite a few names of people we didn't know had ties to Palpatine. Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader are cross referenced a number of times – same records. Feeling that he owed it to me over what happened on Folor, he brought them to me to ask if I knew anything about them."
Her stomach flip-flopped with apprehension. "But he will turn it in the NRI?"
"He'll have to. I asked if he'd stall the release for a few weeks, but even that stretches the limits. Trouble is... he knows. The records show them to be the same person."
"They'll know who our father became," she said flatly.
"My father," Luke corrected. "They know he was Anakin Skywalker but there's nothing right now tying the Organas or you to any of this."
"I'll go to the Inner Council before it's turned over. Probably right after we return from Baskarn."
"What about me?"
"That's what I wanted to discuss," he intoned quietly. "That's why I needed to see you. What do you want to do?"
She chewed her bottom lip. It had never occurred to her that she would have a choice. It had never occurred to her that her brother might be alone with this. When it came down to it, she didn't feel ready for the galaxy to look at either of them as reminders of what their father had done. It had always been one of those far off points in time, a speck on the horizon that never drew any farther or nearer. It was going to happen; she never had been able to see it happening.
"I'd like for you to be with me," he admitted, inserting his own opinions as if he knew what she'd been thinking. "But I won't pressure you into it. You'll remain anonymous if you wish, but you'll have to take into account that there's no telling what will turn up down the line. It might be worse for you to let it go."
"I see," she said coolly, guarding her expression, wondering if her brother's calm façade would trap her into saying the wrong thing.
"And, look, I'm not saying we have to announce it to the New Republic or on the Holonet, just... test the waters with the Inner Council and Mon Mothma. You know we can trust her."
"And if we find out we can't I'll have Fey'lya start rabble-rousing to have me ousted based on it," she interjected. "He would too, and you know it, either that or start clamouring for my resignation. And the end result would be him on the Holonet enlightening..."
"Come on Leia," he sighed. "Your position isn't that tenuous. You're one of the signers of the 'Declaration of a New Republic'. Fey'lya would be digging a grave for his own career if he did that."
"You think I'm paranoid then?" she retorted. It was bad enough that Fey'lya, Tuomi, and a few other councillors had challenged her diplomatic status, claiming there weren't enough citizens of Alderaan left for her to warrant inclusion on the Inner Council. Luke just didn't know, didn't see how much backstabbing went on. Everyone was driving for a position of influence and clout, afraid to lose an inch in the formation of rule, afraid that his or her vision might be superseded by the actions of the person sitting next to them. She was certainly no exception. The birth of the New Republic wasn't without its labour pains. At times it edged perilously close to anarchy within.
"No," he admonished. "But if you choose not to do this, don't use your political situation to hide the fact that the whole issue is personal to begin with."
"Of course it's personal too, that's the key issue here," she exclaimed.
"Leia, it's not going to go away because of that," he reminded her. "We are who we are…"
So you might as well face it.
It hung unspoken in the air between them but he might as well have said it aloud.
She sighed. This wasn't Luke's fault. None of it was. He was only trying to do the best he could for both of them. As well, not forewarning the Inner Council before the news was made public could be even more disastrous to her career than not - or whatever she would have left of one under the current circumstances. Luke was right; they might not have much of a choice and as much as she didn't want to do this, she couldn't allow her brother to stand there alone and admit Darth Vader was his father. "Okay," she replied weakly. "You're right. If it's going to come out I have no more to lose by being the one to announce it."
"We'll be together."
"It won't make it any easier."
Neither one said anything for a few moments after that. Maybe Luke too was picturing the disgusted faces of the Council. She watched his fingers twitch and fidget. It was very unlike him to let his anxiousness show. For the life of her, she couldn't imagine what else there could be. His hands kept twitching until she nearly grabbed them with her own to make them cease their irritating dance. "Is there something else?"
He caught her glaring with vexation at his hands and dropped them beneath the table. "I've been thinking... We're going to have to worry about a lot more when this gets out. Once people know, they'll also know you possess the same potential I have, that he had. You'll have to anticipate how to handle that."
And by handle that she knew what he was inferring. The thinly veiled reference to Luke's future plans to teach instinctively set her on edge and her gaze flickered to the handle of the lightsaber attached to his belt. Once upon a time, he had told her to take all the time she needed, that he'd always be ready when she was. However, over the past year, his benevolence had become tempered with criticism he never articulated, and his patience had developed a ring of falsity about it, as though he thought by assuring her of it he was working his own variation of reverse psychology. The day would inevitably come when he would slip the heavy grip of his lightsaber into her hand, and the idea sickened her.
Announcing that Vader was their father was one thing; to train would mean accepting it – at least part of it. There was no fibre of her being or soul that didn't scream with revulsion.
"Things will change," he continued. "You'll be vulnerable to people who will want to manipulate you, exploit you because of your potential, the same way Palpatine wanted to exploit mine."
"Just because I'm agreeing to come forward doesn't mean I'm agreeing to everything else. Luke, believe it or not I've made it so far quite well on my own."
"It might not be enough."
This was it then. Luke had known she would react this way. She stared at her plate, the remnants of their dinner. This dinner had been his way of softening her up, getting her attention, getting her to relax. It wasn't so much what he was proposing that fueled the ire behind what she said next as it was his subtle attempt to manipulate her, going through all the trouble of preparing a meal with the intention of springing this on her.
"Luke," she began, "Let me make this clear to you. Bail Organa was my father and I'm not going to dishonour his memory, give up his life's dream – forget what Alderaan stood for – to follow in your footsteps. You can't expect me to give that up! I won't do it! Bail will always be the person who raised me! Maybe my purpose in life is different then yours – but it doesn't make what I do, how I've chosen to live my life any less important."
"Leia, I never said you have to give up your work. You know that for several millennia the Jedi served as diplomats and peacemakers. It is part of who you are… that's what makes you good at it. Consider how much more effective you would be if you accepted the other talents you've inherited."
"Don't patronize me by cloaking this under how it would be beneficial to my work," she exhorted. "I don't care!"
Her brother closed his eyes, and ran his hands through his hair with an exasperated sigh that was all too familiar to her. "Leia… Leia…Can't we even have a civil conversation about this? I'm not saying decide today or next week, or next month."
She wished suddenly that she hadn't eaten, felt her stomach tighten into a knot that threatened to climb back up her throat. "Then what do you want?"
"Your open-mindedness, for starters," he replied. "You can't throw up walls at me every time I mention his name."
"They're not walls, Luke. I hate talking about him. I hate remembering him. I don't know what sort of delusions you've conjured up to make who he was when he died more important than who he was when he lived but they're not going to work on me."
He shook his head. "You're not the only one. I hate thinking about what he became too."
"Then you of all people should understand where I'm coming from."
"I am never going to forgive him."
"Never is a very strong word."
Her eyes narrowed. "It works for me. Would you prefer I lie to you?"
Luke flushed and slumped against the backrest. "No."
"Then-" She pushed herself up from the table. "-Thank you for dinner. If you'll excuse me."
"Way to go Skywalker," he mumbled to himself after she left. He'd intended to bring up the training question with a little more finesse, had ended up blundering through the argument instead. I should go after her… or I shouldn't… or I should... or I shouldn't?
Then again, his sister was stuck with him for another few days in hyperspace, so if there'd ever been a good time to have this out when she couldn't run away from him, this was it. A few more moments of consideration changed his mind. If he waited too long he'd be subjected to a long-winded and carefully prepared soliloquy that would make his head spin.
Her eschewal of everything force-related, which was starting to seem more like a life style choice than a phase, frustrated him to no end. The idealist in him had crashed years ago, but he was still somewhat of a realist, and like or not, she was Anakin's daughter, no matter how often she claimed she was Bail's alone. In his darkest moments of introspection he wondered if his life since Endor might have been easier if he had killed him, never seen the face of the man who was his real father, never been destined to spending his life trying to forgive him. Like it or not, he had to. It was the only chance he had at not giving into his rage, not starting down the same path that Yoda had so often warned him against. He separated the two, the evil incarnate and the man to make it bearable.
By default of fate, on his father's behalf, on Ben's behalf, on behalf of the future, he regarded her as his responsibility.
The cockpit was empty so he marched to her cabin door, rapped on it and called for her. No one answered. After a dozen rat-a-tats there was still no answer.
He palmed the door's release, finding it locked it from the inside. There was a moment of guilty hesitation before he commanded it to override, then stepped inside the room. The sparse quarters were empty but for a few scattered belongings. He could hear the modulated sound of water running inside the fresher, and picked up the few clothes draped over the cheaply covered orange couch and set them on the bed. Then he sat down to wait.
A few moments later she emerged, looking wan and red-eyed. Her face was freshly washed and the neck of her tunic was dark with water splotches. It did little to cleanse her expression of its sheer irritation. "Why doesn't this surprise me?" she clipped coldly. "I don't know what a locked door means to you but where I come from it's not an invitation to break in."
"We're not through," he reprimanded, though his tone came out softly. She looked like she'd been crying.
There was nowhere for her to sit but on the couch beside him or the bunk but she didn't take either seat. Instead she remained standing in the center of the room with her arms crossed. "Yes we are."
"Leia we need to talk, not play games."
"Oh that's funny. I'm playing a game here? What about you?"
"What about me?"
"You really don't get it, do you?"
The fight in her subsided momentarily, only to be replaced by a profound sense of loss and regret. "No. I don't suppose you would."
"Leia…" He wasn't sure if she was referring to the conversation she'd walked out on or not, but he was determined to stay on topic. "I want us to finish."
"There's no finish," she exclaimed, stamping her foot. "You have my decision. I don't know what part of 'no' you don't understand. I don't know what you think gives you the right to barge in here and demand I listen to you, to break into my room, but you don't have one!"
"You're my sister-" he began.
"Yes I am and isn't that convenient for you," she proclaimed. Finally she took the edge of her bunk. "That's all it is."
She laughed sardonically. "It is funny, actually. Bestow the title and poof," she waved her hand, "you can take everything else for granted because blood means I'm connected to you whether I want to be or not."
He leaned onto his legs and shook his head. Obviously they weren't picking up where they'd left off; this was something entirely different. "I don't take you for granted."
"Serving as my escort is beneath you. You're here because you wanted to talk about… that, not for any other reason. And that hurts."
The accusation was childish. This had been urgent. They were adults and the fact that their lives drove them in so many different directions was not solely his fault. It was on the tip of his tongue to snap that this mission didn't exactly require her expertise either, that it hadn't escaped his notice that her departure date had been two days before he was expected at Coruscant, and five before Han was due to return from the Sumitra Sector. But still, she looked hurt enough for him to soften. "Leia what exactly have I done?"
"It's not so much anything you've done," she murmured, staring at the wall. "It's more what you haven't."
He dug his nails into the couch's armrest, gouged the linty fabric. "I'm not sure what you're saying. If this had anything to do with what happened between you and Han, you never contacted me. How was I supposed to know?"
"It's not just that. It's not so simple."
Luke stared at her, a little confused, lost on exactly what it was he hadn't done. Assuming this had more to do with their tentative agreement, he tried again. "I told you I'd go alone if you wanted, if it's about the records."
"That's not it either. I said I would do it Luke and I meant it. This just isn't a good time for this to have happened. I have too many things up in the air."
"Does it have anything to do with you pulling a vanishing act the week Han and I were coming back?"
"What do you think?"
"I think you're overreacting for starters," he dared, opening himself enough to let her emotions flood his consciousness. The hostility he encountered was overwhelming. He frowned. Often her way of coping with their link was to draw his attention elsewhere, like an actress, not mentally block him the way another Jedi would have - the way he'd blocked his father. It was simple and effective, a pure Leia innovation. Usually he let it slide, feigned ignorance, but today he wasn't going to buy it. "You're not telling me something."
"Oh, stop it! Isn't breaking into my cabin enough?"
Luke closed off. "Why are you so angry with me?"
"Remember that message I sent you over the break on Folor?"
Sure he did. Are you going to be coming to Coruscant this week? He couldn't remember the dates exactly, but one of his students had invited him to Chorax, only two hours from Folor, not twenty-five, as Coruscant was. At that point he'd been itching to get off the Base, but had been spending most of his days flying, hadn't wanted to sit for another full day in his Y-Wing. "Yes?"
"Well why didn't you?"
"Was I supposed to read something else into it?" he implored, suddenly guilty because he knew where this was headed. "You asked if I would be coming to Coruscant… you never said, please do."
She stood back up. "And you couldn't read between the lines? Luke it's been six months since I saw you last…"
"And you're mad at me because I can't read your mind five systems away?"
"No. I'm angry because it never would have occurred to you to come on your own!"
He mimicked her pose, standing with her and folding his arms in the same defensive manner. "I don't know what's going on with you but if it was that bad and you told me I would have been there…"
"I know you would have been there."
"You're here now because this all is coming up, and it's urgent. You would have come during the break if I asked you and said I needed to see you. Thank you, thank you so much, Luke." Her words dripped with unbridled facetiousness. "It's great, really great, reassuring, to know that in an emergency I can count on you but on any other given day you're too busy to give a-"
"Leia, don't even say it," Luke snapped, bracing himself for another onslaught.
None came. She stormed back into the fresher. The muffled sound of sonics and running water filtered through the door a second later.
"I give up," he said aloud. He'd certainly come no closer to figuring out women over the last few years, least of all his sister. Maybe this was hormonal or she was over tired. They had not even come close to discussing anything he'd come in here wanting to talk about.
Luke was absorbed in a far away reverie that transcended all space beyond the transparisteel viewports by the time they crossed out of the Core. He'd tried to sleep but he felt too heartsick, too wound up. For the twentieth time, he asked the binary streaks of light what it was he'd done wrong. Maybe Ben or Yoda, even his father was out there listening, but they weren't answering.
Leia was extremely angry with him and her insinuation that he'd let her down wounded him to the core. The fact that his conscience was nagging at him about it made him feel even worse.
In hindsight the brevity of the message had been atypical, so it stuck out like a sore thumb amidst her usual detailed reports about what was going on. And come to think of it, Solo had vanished from her communications completely about four months back too. Now that should have caught his attention. If Han was away on assignment, and Leia wasn't speaking to him (so he assumed), there'd been some form of break. Leia's pride no doubt interfered, refused to let her tell him. Han's last message to him had said he'd be stopping off on Kashyyyk to drink Grakkyyn until he fell from the treetops, but then again, Han's messages were never serious.
He sighed. Trying to analyze their relationship was like attempting to solve a Level 10 Hapen Thought Puzzle. The Corellian was his closest friend, and Leia his sister, but more than once he'd wanted to throttle both of them when the bickering grew more annoying than entertaining. The big bang that constantly threatened to dissolve their trio had been long anticipated, but he'd hoped and prayed the day would never come.
He wished he had a better picture of what was going on, if this was temporary or permanent and hoped Leia would feel like opening up later.
The view-vid lit up on schedule for its fifteen minute update, happily bleeping out their current location in relation to the Core, trajectory, average speed, engine temperatures and the like. Info for the illiterate pilot, he supposed, who couldn't actually read the screens. Give the galaxy another century, and a pulse would be the only prerequisite for the pilot's exam.
He did a few calculations. Eighty hours to go before they exited hyperspace and hopped onto the Elrood-Derilyn Trade Route. Incognito and inconspicuousness was the name of the game once they made it there. He just hoped if anyone asked for clearance codes and a registered destination the ones they had would be convincing. Heavens forbid they were actually boarded by the Sector authority. A Y-wing could sneak into the system undetected, but not a supply shuttle such as the one they navigated now. His own Y-wing had been flown out ahead of him on a larger transport, and was probably waiting idly at the base.
He heard the pattering of footsteps, turned to see Leia making her way through the halo-lit hall to the cockpit with a mug in each hand. She presented one to him and took the co-pilot's chair.
"Thanks." It was hot Aitha, the standard protein drink always stocked on long flights. He started to search her emotions, remembered how angry she'd become in her cabin and stopped himself. He placed his mug in one of the moulded holders by the C-board for it to cool and folded his hands behind his head, wondering what to say or how to begin.
She blew on the surface of her own beverage. "I don't think our first twelve hours together have gone very well," she began. "I'm sorry."
Eyes still puffy and red from crying widened. "What are you sorry for?"
"It was my uncle's favourite way to end an argument with my aunt. Apologize, grovel, apologize, grovel, apologize-"
"I get it," she interjected. The tiniest smile appeared. "How about we compromise? I'll apologize and we'll leave the grovelling to you."
"Yeah… you're not the grovelling type. Look Leia, I hate seeing you this upset."
"I'm sorry," she said again. "I'm not usually like that. I overreacted. I just need some time to digest all of this before you start in with this whole training business. You know how I am when I feel like my back is up against a wall and it's too much all at once."
He caved. Four days of confinement with a twin whose anger could bombard him through primordial means was more than he could stand, more than he wanted to sentence either of them to. "That's fair," he decided. "How about we drop it until after the mission if you promise to at least think about it?"
A trifle suspiciously, she added, "No badgering me?"
"You'll really think about it?"
With a semblance of a truce struck, Luke reached for his Aitha and started wondering what exactly had her so bent out of shape to begin with. Six months was a long time, especially when it was reduced to dog-eared flimsiplasts printed by the Downtime recreational center's console.
Leia started chewing her nails and stared absentmindedly out the window. "I don't want you to start prying either," she announced. "When I feel like talking about it I will and yes that includes him."
He pointed to the game table behind her chair. "I'm still the undefeated holochess champion."
Leia shoved her concerns to the deepest recesses of her mind over the next few days, preoccupied with memorizing dossiers and preparing notes. It wasn't merely that thinking around Luke was like writing in a journal with someone standing over her shoulder - the imminent fear of invaded privacy was disconcerting. Working herself up into the crying jags she'd been prone to lately would catch his attention no matter where on the ship she was.
Otherwise the duration of the trip proved blissfully uneventful. They were tied 6/6 in their holochess marathon when they briefly reverted from hyperspace after crossing into the Outer Rim. Luke pointed out the Moonflower Nebula, a large cloud of swirling gases and dust located on the fringes of the Arkanis sector, which their plotted trajectory was veering by. The Nebula was one of the few spatial anomalies visible with the naked eye from Tatooine, and he told her he used to watch it move through the skies at night when he was growing up. She felt the mildest twinges of homesickness through their Force-bond as he spoke, which seemed ironic given that he claimed he never wanted to return.
The Elrood-Derilyn trade route took them alongside the Drift, a massive cloud of interstellar gas that stretched hundreds of light years across. Sensors and vision were blinded by the dense field of violet gasses, making it a certain danger to space travelers. If one were to veer off course, or flee inside the cloud to hide during an attack and get lost, a lightspeed jump from inside would most likely be the last a ship ever made. No vessels nav-com systems could plot a course outside it without fixed readings. To add to the danger, a realspace crawl in search of a way out might take days or years, depending on where one had entered.
Traveling alongside it for over a day made Leia uneasy. She wondered how many lost vessels were drifting within a kilometre of safety, with pilots who didn't know that a simple left of right would have saved them. Unfortunately, the route was the only run connecting all the Elrood, Kidron and Derilyn planetary systems.
By the time they'd entered the Derilyn System and left the Drift in their wake, she'd begun to worry about the Derilyn Space Defense Platform instead. During the early days of Imperial occupation in the Elrood Sector, the Empire had set up an interdiction field around Derilyn to drag ships from hyperspace and seize those without travel waivers. Being captured by unknown Imperial remnants this far from the Core was an unsettling possibility.
When she could see Baskarn and knew they'd made it by safely, she breathed a sigh of relief, and then exhaled a soft "wow". From space it was awe-inspiring. Heavy clouds lingered beneath the planet's thick gold atmosphere, giving it a mythical quality. "Why, it looks like a fairy world," she murmured.
"My thoughts exactly," Luke agreed, switching them over to manual for their descent.
They heard the short beep from the C-board at the same time, followed by two higher tones, and looked at each other quizzically.
"That's odd," she clipped uneasily. A quick check of the Sensor panel revealed all systems were satisfactory, but something felt off, and by the looks of it, Luke felt it too. I know that sound from somewhere. I know that sound. I know... "Did that sound familiar to you?"
"Yes." He unclipped his lightsaber and crouched to make a few broad slashes through the plasboard paneling beneath the C-board.
It came to her then. It's the sound of a detonator re-setting itself.
"We're rigged?" she whispered, not needing to see his face to know the answer. Between his chin and shoulder she could see red wires and silver orbs fused into the mainframe system below; one thermal detonator, two concussion bombs.
"Dead man's switches are locked into the landing schematics," he muttered. "And these are attached to the central core of the nav-com unit. If they're up here..."
There are more...
The shuttle had been rigged to blow this whole time. Think! They couldn't make a distress call over the public hailing frequencies – not so near the base. There wasn't time to use the classified frequencies. That left the escape pods and in order to make sure the escape pods made it to Baskarn... "Luke, how long until we're in the gravitational pull of Baskarn?"
"Two minutes," he replied grimly.
"Okay. Leave us on the approach vector until the last minute. We've got two minutes to load anything we need into the escape pod and get off the ship..."
He nodded with immediate understanding, her logic and plan the only viable one. "No automated distress calls."
"No, make one, but not on a classified channel or to the Base. Do it over the public hailing frequency and say we've discovered our ship is rigged and we're in desperate need of assistance. Say we have a thermal detonator locked into our hyperdrive and...Uh...efforts to remove it have resulted in a Korfaise gas leak. No one will board if it doesn't blow. It'll be too..."
"Got it...got it...Okay...Go! Go! Go! I'll copy the set coordinates and be back in one..."
She scrambled, nearly wiping out in the narrow hall before reaching the four-man escape pod, and slammed her hand across the slapswitch, praying the pod hadn't been tampered with. The doors opened. The storage compartment had the prerequisite survival packs inside, and she grabbed whatever she could from the galley, blasters from the supply closet, and stuffed them inside. Their cloaks were the only two personal items in the galley, but she didn't dare risk running to their cabins on the opposite side of the ship. The solitary minute stretched out interminably, and she waited outside the escape pod for Luke, her heart pounding...
...this thing could go at any second...
A strong arm shoved her inside and she heard Luke shouting at her to 'buckle up' before she found her seat. He slammed the release lever, and her ears rang with the drop in air pressure when they disengaged. At first she though the gyro-stabilizers were malfunctioning because the shrinking cruiser in the portal appeared upside down, but then she realized her straps weren't digging into her shoulders. No gravity.
"I had a better idea," he murmured, closing his eyes.
She watched in amazement as the Razion's Edge's current course altered and it dove headfirst into the planet's atmosphere. The words, you're going to destroy it, formed on her tongue before she realized that was precisely his intention. The nosedive should destroy the craft before it reached the ground; the hull would be unable to withstand the heat of the direct descent. The Lambda-class shuttle disappeared from sight, a ticking time bomb waiting...
The amber haze softened and became cloud-like. The pod shook as the gravitational pull of the planet sucked them into the atmosphere. Luke's face, when she dared to look at him again, was taut with concentration and strain. The reverse thrusters switched on automatically, and a second later the propulsion unit roared to life, groaned, screeched and fizzled. Leia knew what that meant instantaneously, though she didn't believe it. They were unable to steer, and if they didn't land right away the reverse thrusters would overheat and they would drop like a meteorite to the surface. Her frantic brain was calculating the odds and thinking absurd thoughts – which weren't going to matter if they failed to land - at the same time.
If they wanted us dead they would have disabled the escape pod.
Luke scanned the cloud coverage intensely, looking for a break. "There, there," he pointed. "Brace yourself."
She white knuckled the handgrips in response. The cloud mass broke way to reveal treetops, which began to drag against the underbelly of the craft. Her body jerked upwards against the straps, and then jerked back with a horrible crack as her head hit the side panel. Limbs, foliage and tree trunks whooshed by in a blurry and disorientating whir of colors; upside down, right side up, upside down.
This is really bad, she tried to say, but inertia, gravity, and the crash choked her.
Woostri: Sumitra Sector.
Either you loved these places or you hated them.
Han was leaning towards hating it. Woostri was, by far, among the worst of the so-called 'urbanized technopolis' spread throughout the galaxy. It was a solitary continent on a world dominated by water and winds. Glacial melting at the poles was causing the oceans to rise a few inches a year, and the geologists consistently claimed that within a millennium the entire planet would be covered in water, that the highest skyscraper would wind up fifty meters beneath the surface. What little room there was left over after the mix of species staked out or burrowed out living areas was used for breathing and trying to avoid the smog and soaring particle index. That and cater to smugglers and peddlers who needed a safe haven to unload or exchange goods.
Without enough of its own resources to survive without massive assistance and subsidies from the Empire, Woostri had gone 'soft' on most orders of business and trade when the Trade Federation fell apart years ago. Like other 'soft' worlds, it had only taken them two decades to discover that catering to soft crime encouraged harder crimes, that the black market attracted purveyors and buyers of a violent sort, and the violence crept onto its city streets and airways like a plague. The denizens of folk who were born here now either joined the corrupt ruling class of merchants or ineffectually protested against the ruling dictator. Either way, no one was winning, and anyone with credits watched their backs.
Sitting in a nondescript tapcaf, Han squirmed deeper into his corner booth, partly to make himself more inconspicuous, mainly so that the parade didn't wreak havoc with his need to relax. The constant flow of traffic near the front of the tavern was made up of miscreants, smugglers, and other forms of lowlifes he'd once been known to do business with. After dealing with the local Telox-Delcor repair facility, he needed to relax, and if the technician was right, he'd better learn to like it here a little and stay out of trouble.
The fact was hyperdrive shells were not easy to come by. Even less easy to come by was the Falcon's preferred model of titanium-chromium blend. It was the best, and being the best, it wasn't the sort of part to be found out here. Han hadn't wanted to land on Woostri for that very reason. He and Chewie had stood in the Falcon's cockpit bellowing at each other, until the Corellian pilot had reluctantly agreed that no, they didn't have much choice in the matter, that with a fissure running down the shell's side it was only a matter of hours before the hyperdrive went. If it had gone in this sector before they'd landed, chances were the first response to his distress beacon would have been an Imperial Star Destroyer.
Now here they were, a Wookiee and a Corellian, sitting in a corner booth watching the underworld and misbegotten of the universe at work.
Han meditated on recent events, on his recent turn of luck, bitterly. One more shipment to go. One more shipment to go and he would have been done, on his way to Kashyyyk for the break he'd promised Chewie, on his way to Coruscant, on his way to whatever waited for him there.
Sadly, he had no idea.
The Wookiee curled back one side of his lip again, baring pitchy gums and fangs that could crack bone and shred tendons as an afterthought. He barked that there had to be a better place than this in the city.
Admittedly, the tavern was a dump, and for a Wookiee to complain it meant conditions were verging on a quarantine from the local health inspector. The two meter giant claimed he could smell the plumbing and waste from downstairs, which Han couldn't, though he wouldn't have put much stake on his own olfactory senses. Above the bar a red holo-lit sign flickered off and on. It read, 'Woostri is sinking', and cast a florescent glow across the tables nearest the bar. The decor was hard on the eyes, all sparkles and textured surfaces that reeked of bad taste. Han figured that anyone could probably throw out painted plasboard and plastine tables and as long as you stuck glitter to it they'd think the height of civilized decor had arrived here.
But Han was in a foul mood and the dingy milieu suited him fine. There was also a small amount of perverse gratification to be culled from Chewie's visible displeasure. He shrugged. "If you really don't like it here, go. I don't need you following me around all day." A study of the above bar chrono revealed they had three more hours before they could check back at Telox-Delcor." Han leaned over and winked. "A hairy monster like yourself loitering outside the depot might encourage them to get a move on and find us a replacement shell. What do you say?"
Chewie wasted no time barking his opinion, and Han responded by telling him he didn't care what he did for the afternoon, so long as he met him back at the depot for closing. The Falcon's co-pilot acceded soon enough, though not without making a few derogatory remarks regarding Solo's character of late. On this occasion it was Han who had the final laugh. Rubbed off glitter twinkled like tiny stars on the back of Chewie's pelt.
Alone at last, Han settled for creature watching and nursing his grievances against the galaxy with his drink. Near his end of the bar, a pair of local gulped back the evening special, chatting with a human male. Woostri natives were mammalian bipeds, thickly furred and slight in stature, extremely protective when it came to personal space. To stand within arms' length of any male was tantamount to an insult or a challenge. The man they spoke with was heavily bearded and dressed in local garb, definitely in the 'too close for comfort' range. Han guessed he was either here to find something or to sell something and listened intently, old habit.
"... Fifty credits a gram... The best stuff you'll ever try..."
A spice peddler, he discerned a few moments later, trying to unload a shipment. Unfortunately, the best way to facilitate a deal was stay as far away from the main space ports as possible, and they were within a stone's throw here. Han was not at all surprised when the locals brushed him off. The dealer shrugged and moved on in search of another potential buyer.
"Thinking of making a purchase?" a deep and very feminine voice asked.
The Corellian glanced up. A tall, streaky blonde, garbed in a semi transparent bodysuit so snug he could make out every curve and every inch of her that set her apart from the other clientele, posed above him. Her hair was slicked back in a short looped braid, and her lips were an unnatural shade of red, darkest at the edges, and a shade lighter inside.
"The nervous types are the ones to avoid doing business with. Unless you're desperate," she amended. "I hope you're not. I haven't seen him before so I wouldn't be inclined to trust him."
"I wasn't inclined to trust him ever," Han assured her.
"You were interested. You were listening."
He gestured to the empty side of the booth. "Bored. My company had to go." Too late, he realized it sounded like an invitation. The woman was already sliding into the seat across from him and smiling.
"My company took off on me too," she explained, "and this is the only empty seat at a table not inhabited by types I'd rather not sit with."
Han made a surreptitious perusal of the other tables. The tavern was filled with locals, a handful of humans, and a handful of other species. There were a few empty seats actually, but he was the only human with extra seats. "Don't care for the natives?"
"I can't read them."
"You know... like I can my own kind. Being a girl on a new world can be dangerous, you know?"
Honey, dressed like that no one is going to mistake you for a girl, Han thought, almost laughing out loud. But he didn't, because he did understand what she meant. Having grown up around a variegated mix of species, he knew, for instance, that when a Woostri started stroking its fur midway through a conversation, it meant it was extremely agitated or uncomfortable. They couldn't help it and it was hard not to notice. But if he'd never seen one before, he might have thought they were happy. He might have thought they were gussying themselves up just to impress him. However, seeing that he really wasn't in the mood for company, he warned her. "I could be a slave trader. I could be anything."
"You don't look it."
"You don't know that."
And she smiled again. "Are you really or are you just putting me on? I've always wondered what a slave trader looked like."
Oh great, Han thought. Don't need this, not interested, but the server had reappeared now that he had company, eager for more orders that might equal more tips.
"Would you like another, Sir?"
The woman tilted her chin toward his empty glass, the flame crescent of her mouth splitting apart. "I'll buy two of whatever he just had."
"Look lady, you don't have-"
"Hey." She withdrew a tiny purse from a pouch along the outside of her thigh. The outfit left little room for her to carry much else, certainly not a weapon. Using her fingertip to activate the seal, she withdrew a native credit voucher and set it down. "I'm taking up your space, right. It's the least I can do."
Han's irritation at being disturbed abated, slightly. A drink. Fine. "If you insist."
He grinned for the first time since she'd appeared. Their drinks arrived within seconds and they chatted of nothing more than the latest news from the front and the New Republic. The woman, as it turned out, was a private pilot for well-to-do baron. The baron suffered from a rare form of seizures and hence could not get certified by any safety-minded bureau to fly a craft alone. As a result, she had loads of free time in the interim, days on end while he did business. She was saving to buy her own ship and go to the Core, to Balmorra. Her parents had left during the occupation. She was curious about the changes, excited about the re-establishment of a democratic government, about the rumours, about the new leaders.
Han filled her in, trying to sound like an everyday pilot who was very up to date on galactic politics, without giving away much else. He knew what was coming before long.
"I'm staying at a place not far from here," she whispered. "What do you say we go kill some time?"
Bold. Blunt. To the point. It was tempting, it really was. She smelled sweet and smiled at all the right moments, in all those ways that let a man know it would be good. Han knew her type, knew it would be. "I can't," he stated flatly.
"You have a girl waiting for you core-ward?" she sang. "Funny. You don't look the type to be attached."
Han gritted his teeth. "I have to meet my co-pilot. He's an ornery sort and trust me, he's not the type you want to keep waiting."
She slipped her hotel card into his palm. "Maybe later you'll change your mind. This is where I'm staying."
Han pinched it between his thumb and forefinger, pausing, then handed it back. "I'm not interested."
"Your loss captain," she whispered. "You won't find much else around here to keep you company."
With a final flutter of her lashes she sashayed her way across the bar. He watched appreciatively, as it was one of the few guilt-free pleasures to be had, then decided to stay a while longer after all and order one more drink.
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