From the Ashes

Irene Heron

I never saw no miracle of science
That didn't go from a blessing to a curse
I never saw no military solution
That didn't always end up as something worse, but
Let me say this first
If I ever lose my faith in you
There'd be nothing left for me to do

Sting, If I Ever Lose My Faith in You

The summons came late in third watch, just as the sky was lightening to gray. Not that it mattered, for rest had remained as elusive for Han Solo this sleep cycle just as it had for too many others before. He lay on the narrow cot, stripped to his shorts in the sticky Druallan night, and warily eyed the shadowed corners of his tent. Awake wasn't any better than asleep: mistakes and remorse still crowded in on him from those shadows, untamed creatures scheduling their next assault on his eroding façade of competence.

In a way, it had been better during the fighting, holding himself together on the edge of exhaustion by sheer strength of will. Petty concerns like guilt and regret had had to wait their turn, secondary to the effort to survive.

Now that the dangers were over and he had the luxury of sleep, he found he couldn't. Instead of counting nerfs at night, he'd taken to counting his mistakes.

Too many others had paid the price for his arrogance.

Drualla used to be a pretty world, too, before General Han Solo left his mark on her. Impatient with the lengthy period of inactivity after Endor, Duro and Corellia, he'd pushed to lead this mission. The campaign to retake Coruscant was still months away and his restless nature had required a more immediate challenge. He'd answered Rieekan's and Ackbar's attempts to dissuade him from the undertaking with careless good humor. I'm doing you fellows a favor, giving you a chance to get out from under the Solo umbrella 'n earn some glory of your own. Don't screw this opportunity up, 'cause you might not get another chance.

He'd never been so wrong in all his life.

It didn't help that the others—Leia especially, had been right, either.

The questions Leia had flung at him all those months ago still echoed unanswerable in the crevasses of his memory.

For more than an hour she'd tried, in her own unyielding fashion, to convince him of his error. Launching their escalating, heated arguments from opposite corners of her cramped office like prize-fighters hurling scorn at an opponent while waiting out the next round. Entirely at cross-purposes as usual.

Finally, apparently coming to the same conclusion, she'd interrupted his increasingly irritated defenses with an abrupt gesture. "Look, this isn't getting us anywhere. You can list as many reasons as you want about why our decision to concentrate on the Coruscant campaign was a bad one and why your going to Drualla is good, and we could be here arguing until Hoth thaws. Perhaps it wasn't the best decision we've ever made, but it still makes sense and you did agree to it."

She'd leaned forward across her desk then, that uncomfortable symbol of priorities he couldn't share, to touch his hand lightly. Involuntarily he'd jerked away, not welcoming her sympathetic attempt at solidarity. The day when they'd shared a renegade spirit had long since passed.

"I never promised I wouldn't—"

Anger had flared bright for just an instant before Leia resorted to the controlled rationality that had come to define her presence since Endor. "This isn't really about you being bored with datapushing or frustrated over politics, is it? There's another reason behind all this. So spill."

Trapped by her uncompromising insight, he'd remained silent, searching his heart for the intangible truths he couldn't yet catalog.

"Is it. . . us?"

"No." The disclaimer had voiced itself prematurely, propelled by a reluctance to injure her. He'd hoped to avoid this moment, for hurting Leia was something he'd never wanted to do. But denial no longer offered a safe haven for either of them.

The truth followed more slowly, reluctantly. "Maybe."

Still trying to sort out conflicting emotions, he knew his decision to lead the campaign had been partly fueled by doubts about their relationship. For a time they'd both believed—wanted to believe—that they could keep on achieving the impossible, that balancing her disciplined soul against his independent spirit would result in happiness. These few months of peace had shown him the folly of that hope, for without the challenges and pressures of constant crises their relationship had crumbled. They had too little in common, required different crucibles in which to test themselves, and could find little enough comfort in each other's arms.

White-faced, she'd sunk back into her chair, but her indomitable spirit rallied within seconds. "So you'd rather run away than talk to me about it?"

The hollow sensation that'd been building in his chest expanded. "I wouldn't call it running away, Leia. More like... giving us both a vacation."

Hadn't made him feel any better to see the ironic smile she summoned. "If this is your idea of a vacation I'd hate to see what you call a rupture."

The silence vibrated between them, an invisible wire stretched to the breaking point.

"I guess maybe I'm missing the way things used to be," he'd said slowly. "Luke 'n you, me 'n Chewie…"

Leia's burst of startled laughter bothered him for reasons he couldn't quite pin down. "Oh, Han, don't tell me you're feeling nostalgic for the good old days!"

Yeah, well, so what if he did? What was wrong with that anyway? All he really knew was that he was suffocating now, while Leia was blossoming into her true potential.

"For the first time in years we have a breather from the war effort, a little time to relax and enjoy ourselves, and you want to be off again. Volunteering without reason. I don't understand what it is you think you're missing."

"It's just something I gotta do, Leia," was all he could come up with in response, as unsatisfactory as it was.

"I wish Luke were here," she'd muttered, almost to herself. Her expression was bleak. "He has a way of getting through to you when I can't. And you always listen to him, don't you?"

Her intelligent eyes had raked over his slouched form, like she was estimating the level of Han's trust in her brother's opinions versus her own. The look had made him uncomfortable, with its suggestion he should apologize for his friendship with Luke.

"This... whatever it is you're looking for. You think you'll find it on Drualla?"

He'd shrugged again, wishing he could silence the growing certainty within himself that affirmed her suggestion.

She'd bitten her lip and looked away. "Then go to Drualla, Han. I hope you find what you need there. Maybe you're right that we need a little time away from each other. We'll talk again when you come back."

"Sure," he'd hedged, agreeing to what they both knew was only a postponement of the inevitable.

He'd carried that image of her with him ever since, her slender, tense figure haloed against the brilliant Corellian sunlight streaming in through the window. Proud, isolate and courageous. And the only comfort he took away with him was the knowledge of her personal strength and her devotion to duty, both of them ultimately more important to her than he'd ever been.

He turned restlessly, trying to erase that particular memory, and instead roused an even older, more painful one.

Maybe his mother had been right after all, so many years ago. Scolding him, warning him, trying to protect him from what she saw as a lonely, unloved future. Perhaps his need for personal freedom was the biggest obstacle between him and Leia. Independence doesn't mean you have to turn your back on trust and love, Ma had warned him over and over. You think letting someone get close to you means having to give up your freedom, but that isn't how it works at all.

But for all he could tell, love did mean sacrificing the very thing that had always defined him.

Love and trust. The two things that'd sent him off-course when he met up with a headstrong princess and an idealistic farmboy. Love and trust was what had set him straight on a collision course to today.

Sirussi, the Druallans had dubbed him. Named him after some frikkin' mythical bird and called it an honor, and looked to him to save their godsbedamned world. What'd they expect... miracles? They were looking at the wrong guy for that; Luke was the one who was supposed to do miracles.

Not that that hokey magic had helped anybody much. Including Luke.

Han glanced across at the other cot where Luke dozed fitfully, and felt his belly twist with regret. No rest for the Jedi either, that was for sure. He'd been at Han's side every step of the way, his wingman in the air and at his elbow throughout all the ground skirmishes. Always there -- ready to talk or listen or laugh or fight as circumstances dictated. Shouldering Han's burden as if it were his own.

Luke had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, damn it, although back then they'd both called it being in the right place at the right time. Flying in just hours before the task force set out, the kid had heard the news from Leia, abandoned whatever other plans he might've had and come straight to Han to offer his help. Just like old times, Han'd thought, pleased to have both Chewie and Luke along for the ride. He'd teased Luke, though, about not learning anything from his military service, not if he still kept on volunteering for hazardous duty after resigning his commission. Luke had laughed, but the expression in his eyes said far more. The kind of thing neither of them ever said aloud, but they both knew anyway—things like loyalty and commitment and never letting your friend's back go unprotected.

Luke's decision hadn't been popular with anybody else, though, from Mon Mothma on down. At the time it'd felt good to know Luke wasn't about to roll over for those musty bureaucrats who thought they had a lock on just what the last Jedi's role should be in this new government—even if one them was his own sister—and tried to dissuade him from wasting his time with a rogue general on a fool's errand. But now, with the lacerating clarity of hindsight, Han knew such loyalty had only recoiled on both of them.

Han shifted restlessly again, trying and failing once more to close his mind against memory.

Should've been perfect. Him 'n the kid 'n Chewie were supposed to be an unbeatable team. Hadn't expected things to go so wrong.

Oh, yeah, Drualla had been a pretty world: endless fields of farmland, kloms upon kloms of orchards and vineyards, sparsely populated and harvesting enough food for half a sector. Once his task force had made quick work of the standard Imperial occupation detachment, he'd patted himself on the back, authorized shore leave for his troops and visited the planet himself.

And been caught with his guard down when what seemed like an entire sector fleet came calling.

"All hells!" Impatient with the overactive workings of his mind, he rolled onto his side and listened to the early morning rhythms of the camp. The military officers were bivouacked some distance from the refugee camp; at least he no longer heard the moans of the injured or the sobs of the grieving. The Disaster Area Relief Teams had arrived and organized the bewildered and displaced survivors into camps with a grim efficiency bearing sad testimony to the number of times they'd had to perform similar tasks.

He tried to nail his mind into the moment by focusing on familiar sounds: Luke's soft breathing; the bass hum of power generators; an occasional electronic sizzle of security screens; the subdued murmur of conversations between wakeful officers; and finally, the crunch of purposeful steps approaching his tent.

"General Solo?" The voice was youthful and hesitant; he couldn't identify its owner.

He replied softly, one eye on Luke, not wanting to disturb him. "I'm awake." Grateful for any excuse that distanced him from his thoughts, Han levered himself upright and moved to the door flap.

"Yeah?" Dawn was just beginning to streak the sky, promising another scorcher of a day. He rubbed a hand across his chin, felt the scratch of coarse stubble and recalled that shaving had been pretty low on his to-do list for more than a few days.

The messenger, who must've come in with the reinforcements because Han still didn't recognize him, seemed a little bewildered, no doubt wondering if this broken-down has-been could possibly be who he claimed to be.

"Lieutenant?" He returned the crisp salute with his own sloppy version, finding a certain amount of ironic humor in the situation despite circumstances. Who would've thought he'd be returning salutes from a junior officer in public while wearing nothing but his underwear?

"Sir, the courier ship Blaze of Glory has arrived in-system from Coruscant, carrying coded orders for you."

Han stared at the data wafer the boy held out to him. Command hadn't wasted any time at all; they must've dispatched the courier immediately after he'd refused the first polite request to report in person. He felt a reluctant grin quirk at his lips, unbidden. Bel Iblis' doing, no doubt. It took a Corellian to pre-empt another Corellian. He accepted the wafer reluctantly and squeezed his fingers around it, wanting the small bite of pain—anything to distract himself from the constant chant of guilt in his mind.

The way the boy stood there, looking at him in worshipful wonder, reminded him of another kid who'd looked at him the same way, a long time ago. Just what he needed, another idealist who thought 'Han Solo' translated into 'savior' in his native language.

"Something else?"

"I just wanted to say what an honor it is to meet you in person, sir."

Ask the Druallans if they still think it's an honor. Now that their world's ruined and half their population's been slaughtered. Ask those survivors if they still think I'm Sirussi. Ask if they still believe in miracles.

"And how much I admire—"

Han flung up a hand to silence the subaltern before he even realized what he was doing. His expression must've been pretty wild, because the boy gulped and backed away without another word, before Han's frustrations had the chance to focus on the confused youngster.

As he dropped the flap and backed into the tent again, all the doubts Han had been trying to control surged up, hot and sour in his mouth. The last thing he wanted was a hero-worshipping lieutenant. He never should've pretended to be a soldier; all he had was a talent for flying and a reputation as lucky. That had finally run out, as it was bound to do. Too damned bad for everybody who'd relied on the famous Solo luck. Dead innocents measured his accomplishments here on Drualla.

Maybe he deserved this, for forgetting the basic rules he'd formulated years ago, for ignoring good advice, for being who he was, but Drualla didn't. Chewie sure as all hells didn't deserve what'd happened to him.

Neither did Luke. He tossed another quick glance toward his friend. They'd all believed in him, trusted him—thick-headed Corellian with something to prove that he was. Same old story, and he'd been a fool to ever think he could reverse a lifetime's pattern.

He bit back irritation at his bottomless well of self-pity and yanked on the same clothes he'd worn the day before while he listened to his new orders. Bel Iblis had left no room for argument this time.

"Han?" Luke's sleepy murmur sounded so young he had to smile, lifted out of his self-absorption for just a moment.

"Hey, kid, sorry I woke you. 'S early yet, sun ain't even up. Go back to sleep."

The flimsy military-issue cot creaked annoyingly as Luke struggled to prop himself up on one elbow and gestured vaguely toward Han's datapad lying abandoned on the makeshift table. "And let you sneak off to Coruscant by yourself?"

A massive yawn spoiled the severe effect of Luke's mock scowl. "I don't think so."

Feeling his mood lighten immeasurably from the teasing note in Luke's voice, Han let the smile stretch into a grin. He'd learned a long time ago that having Luke around was good for both of them. "What? And let a youngster like you tag along on my first vacation in years?"

"What good's a holiday without somebody along to spoil it?"

Han was tempted to lean over and brush the untidy fringe of sandy hair out of Luke's eyes. Despite a couple days worth of beard stubble, the hair made him look even younger than he actually was. It was that youth which made everything that had happened to Luke even more unfair. Han couldn't quite curb his initial impulse but managed to turn the gesture into a friendly hair ruffling instead.

"Hey, I don't want Leia accusing me of corrupting her baby brother."

And then he stepped back quickly to avoid the pillow Luke tossed at him.

"Baby brother? Some people are crazy enough to believe anything a beautiful woman says," Luke grumbled playfully. "Even when it's clearly wishful thinking on her part."

Han couldn't quite suppress a snort of laughter. "Yeah. Real obvious, farmboy. Anyway, just goes to show how much you know about women, junior," he scoffed cheerfully. "Haven't met one yet who wants to claim being older'n she really is."

Luke laughed and shrugged. "I may not know a whole lot about women in general, but I do know Leia. And she'd definitely prefer to be the older. Thinks it gives her an advantage in our arguments."

Han grinned broadly again. "Like she needs it?"

He'd scored with that one, because Luke had to manufacture a cough to disguise what sounded like a strangled, disgruntled grumble.

Luke gave him no time to savor his victory. "Well, I guess you'd know if anybody would," came the quick, teasing retort.

Yeah, I guess I do, at that. Memories of that final argument with Leia made his grin fade, and he seized on the first thing that came to mind, to hide his abrupt mood swing.

"I dunno, Luke. Rimworld farmboy on Coruscant—I'm not in the mood to nurse you through your first visit to the big city. You'd just get in my way."

"You never want me to have any fun," Luke complained, and then raised up a little higher to scrutinize him intently. "You get any rest at all?"

Han nearly squirmed under that uncompromising stare. Luke had always been too blasted sensitive to his moods. "Sure," he fibbed easily, not that it'd ever done him any good with Luke. Might as well be transparent for all the luck he'd ever had trying to put one past the kid.

Luke sat up and frowned at him, then reached for the light swinging from the center of the cramped tent. They both blinked in the sudden, harsh glare; caught unawares, Han didn't turn away quickly enough to hide the tell-tale evidence of yet another sleepless night.

"Liar. You look like something the dianoga dragged under."

Damned if Han's head wasn't full of memories he didn't much care to relive. He hadn't known Luke more than a few hours when that'd happened, and now the clutch of fear in his gut when the kid disappeared in the garbage masher tightened its phantom grip again after so many years. He'd felt responsible right from the start... still did, for that matter.

Uncomfortable at being caught in even a small untruth to Luke, Han took refuge in trading insults and misdirection, forlorn hope though it was. Luke didn't deflect easily. "Nah, that's still you."

At least Luke was trying, he had to give him that. Trying to keep their heads up above the ocean of failure threatening to trap them in the undertow. Using humor as the life-preserver of choice. With effort, Han scrambled to maintain the light-hearted attempt.

"Anyway, look who's talking. I'd swear you just went three rounds with a rancor."

He could tell Luke's smile had nothing to do with humor and everything to do with acknowledging his delaying tactics. Hand rubbing the back of his neck, Luke sighed in dispirited agreement. "Guess I've looked better at that."

Had Han been so inclined, he could've argued the point.

Luke softened his voice when he spoke again, and Han almost flinched at the concern expressed. "But I'm not the one being called to Coruscant to face what sounds like a formal inquiry."

Han shrugged, pretending the knot of guilt wasn't tying up tighter in his chest, and cursing Luke for going straight to the heart of the matter as always. He didn't really have to force the rude snort of derision and even ruder gesture toward his datapad. "This? This is nothing. I figured Bel Iblis would get self-important once he got back to Coruscant."

Luke grinned forgivingly back at him, a very welcome sight, and brushed ragged, overlong hair out of his face. Han's fingers twitched with the urge to help.

"You mean more self-important, don't you?" Luke picked up a pair of trousers that'd been dropped on the floor in an untidy pile and examined them from both sides before tugging them on.

Looked like Han wasn't the only one who couldn't be bothered to keep up appearances.

Luke's voice was muffled as he bent over to search for more discarded clothes, but Han had no trouble hearing the further declaration of loyalty. "Well, whatever you wanna call it, you're not going to face that alone, Han."

"Sorry, kid, not this time. You sure don't learn from experience, do you? Wasn't coming here with me enough for you?"

"Guess I'm just stubborn that way." He flashed a quick smile toward Han that easily compared with the dawn light creeping through chinks at the door flap.

"Like hell you're coming with me, Luke. This is my responsibility, not yours."

Luke sat up again, and glared at him. "I seem to remember you being there when that dianoga pulled me under. And at Yavin. And Hoth. Were those your responsibility?"

Any other time Han knew he would've been touched at Luke's determination to share his fate, by his faith, but not now... not when everything was falling apart faster than even a Jedi could fix. From the stubborn jut of Luke's chin, he was going to have to do some serious arguing to sway that already-made-up mind.

"Yeah, they were," he agreed blandly, intending to divert Luke's logic with a little unexpected conformity.

The deep, feral gleam in Luke's eyes as their gazes locked sent an unidentifiable spike of thrill chasing its tail through Han's gut.

"That so?" A brief smile lifted the corners of Luke's mouth, leaving Han with the uncomfortable feeling he'd managed to give something away with that admission.

"Yeah." All hells, he was digging himself a deep hole here, and no way to get out except through Luke's iron will.

Luke directed another wicked grin in Han's direction. "So quit your whining. This is my responsibility."

"I'm not keeping score anymore, y'know. 'S not like you owe me anything."

Luke straightened up and his lips tightened down hard. "Han. Don't do this."

He shrugged, professing ignorance. "Do what?"

"Shut me out."

"I don't know what you're talking about, kid."

"That's bantha pudu and you know it!" Blue eyes flashed angrily. "I'm your friend, remember?"

Nope, never had been any point in pretending with Luke. "Maybe they wanna court-martial me," he said abruptly, driven by some vague notion of warning Luke away from danger. "I would, if I were Bel Iblis. No point in you getting caught in the cross-fire, Luke."

"That'll hardly make any difference to the board, 'n you know it. If they decide to hand out fair shares of blame, I'll get mine whether I'm there or not."

Han folded his arms across his chest in a clear gesture of disagreement. "Hey, out of sight, out of mind. Just trying to save you some grief, kid."

Luke jerked his head up, the flare of annoyance unmistakable. "Who asked you to protect me, anyway? I thought we were equal partners."

"Isn't that what you're trying to do? Protect me?" he challenged back. He regretted the hostile words the instant they left his mouth.

Luke frowned. "No, it isn't. I'm standing with you. There's a difference." An awkward silence stretched between them, not quite sharp-edged enough to fragment Han's resolve.

"You going noble and self-sacrificial on me after all this time?" Luke finally asked in what was obviously a forced light tone, because his expression was stricken. "I thought that was my job description."

The distress in the kid's eyes wove a braid of dull grief around Han's spine. He'd damaged Luke enough for one lifetime, damned if he'd pull him down any further. He shrugged, cursing himself for his clumsy lack of subtlety and resorting to familiar bluntness.

"Hell no! That's where I start getting into trouble, when I do for others. Taking care of myself is what I do best. Like I said, you'd just get in my way."

"And you think my letting the person I—" He could tell Luke caught some words back before they had a chance to become reality, and try again. "You think letting my best friend set himself on a path of self-destruction is something I can do?"

Luke sat there on the edge of his cot, crumpling his dusty, rumpled black shirt in tight, hard fists, not quite looking at Han.

He opted for deliberate misunderstanding and snorted rudely, letting disbelief color his answer. "Listen, Luke, if after everything that's happened in the past couple months you still think I should be a general, well... I figure you must be a minority of one by now. 'Sides, there's a nice symmetry about it, don't you think? One for the beginning of my military career and one for the end of it."

"It's not just a court-martial I'm worried about, Han."

Damn you, Luke, for not letting it go. He pasted another grin on his face and hoped for the best. "You worry too much."

"Do I? I don't like what I'm hearing from you, Han. Or rather, what I'm not hearing." Those clear blue eyes stared into his own, probing for the truth of his thoughts, unraveling every last shred of resistance. "Talk to me, Han."

Familiarity with that tone of voice made him turn his back to the man who saw too much and knew him too well, to fumble blindly for his datapad. "Nothing to talk about," he grumbled, refusing to look at Luke, because surely the invitation in those eyes would be irresistible.

Only a whisper of sound warned him that Luke was standing directly behind him, before a warm hand settled on his shoulder. Simultaneously comforting and disturbing.

"Kept hoping you'd say something to me, Han. I know something happened between you and Leia. Is that part of it?"

"Leia tell you that?" Hells, if that was the reason Luke'd come along after all... if Leia had sent Luke along to babysit him— "S'pose she gave you an earful."

Luke's hand tightened on his shoulder, perhaps trying to convey reassurance. But Han found his muscles winding up even tighter at the added pressure, like his entire body was wired to some current centered on Luke's touch.

"She didn't say anything, Han."

Of course she hadn't, he'd known that all along. It wasn't in Leia's nature to offer up her personal trials for inspection, not even to her closest comrades. Always hiding behind that façade of fiercely vigilant composure. We have no time for our sorrows, she'd once said, shortly after they met. For all Han could tell, she still didn't have time. At least he'd never been able to draw it from her. Another failure.

"She didn't have to. I see it in your eyes when you say her name. What's this really about, Han?"

Leia had asked the same question. He still didn't have an adequate answer. Only an ever increasing sense of a lack in his life, some focus, some purpose he'd glimpsed out of the corner of his eye, only to have it vanish when he turned his head to meet it head on.

A hail from outside the tent spared Han from floundering for some kind of response.

"Jedi Skywalker? Team Four is ready for their briefing."

Han had been greatly relieved when the arrival of New Republic military reinforcements freed Luke from military obligations and allowed him to assume a more rewarding role, that of directing the rescue teams dedicated to locating scattered survivors. Felt right to him that Luke should be focused on life, not death. You've seen enough ugliness already, kid, enough for two or three lifetimes.

With a meaningful squeeze of Han's shoulder, a gesture that said louder than words they weren't finished with this discussion, Luke quietly acknowledged the announcement. "I'll be right there."

Han seized on the convenient interruption. "Thought you were supposed to lead that team up into the Ad'a'hla Range this morning."

"I was. Sylos Batarr knows the terrain better than anyone else, though. She's the best choice to lead the team anyway. I'll just sit in on the briefing. Won't take long."

Han fought the resentful grin roused by Luke's implicit warning: don't you dare leave without me.

"Not like you to abandon your duty, Luke." The hostile accusation hadn't come out of his conscious mind, that was for sure, but wherever it came from, Luke's insistence on sharing Han's fate was stringing his entire body tight with a new kind of tension. He felt an overwhelming impulse to flee—but from what, he wasn't quite sure.

Luke's hand dropped from his shoulder; Han took a perverse satisfaction in the rejection.

"I'm not. I've just... reordered my priorities a bit." Luke held his gaze for a long moment, that direct, steadfast stare that'd always turned Han inside out and made him question every self-protective choice he'd ever made, before heading out to the briefing.

Alone finally, Han almost laughed in frustration, a knot of anger drawing up tight and hard in his throat. Damn Luke for staying so calm and immovable. Damn his loyalty to all Corellia's seven hells. What was it gonna take to get through that thick Jedi hide? Didn't Luke realize it was for his own good?

Or was it? For a moment, Han sensed the answer, the balance he'd been searching for, dancing tantalizingly close again. He held very still, stopped breathing, so he wouldn't accidentally chase it away again, as he had so many times before... but the answer eluded him yet again.

* * * * *

Stepping out into the slightly fresher open air offered little relief from the humidity of his tent. Drualla in high summer was just plain sticky and unpleasant, and entirely too reminiscent of Yavin IV. From across the compound that same young lieutenant hurried toward him, and Han knew he'd been caught in the open, with no place to retreat.

"Good morning, General." He offered Han a large mug of steaming liquid and a datapad containing the current watch report. "Orders, sir?"

He took a sip of the liquid—military style kaffin, hot enough to burn his tongue, strong and bitter, entirely suited to his mood—and peered at the boy's nametag.

"Thanks, Tekan," he muttered. He was one of the new ones, arrived with the reinforcements in the past few days.

"Where's Colonel Aspeth?" His Mon Cal aide was nowhere in sight, but Han glimpsed an astromech droid loitering at the corner of one of the administrative huts. Artoo? Difficult to tell at this distance, and then the droid rolled out of sight before he could confirm the identity.

"In the refugee camp, sir, investigating the stolen flitter report called in by Administrator Brontier. Shall I recall him, sir?"

The lieutenant was eager, comlink already in his hand. Anxious to please.

"No. I'm heading over to the camp anyway, to visit Chewie. I'll find Aspeth myself."

"But, General—"

Han didn't wait for the rest of the statement, but at least he remembered to keep his pace to a brisk walk and not a run. He'd visited Chewie every day while he soaked in the bacta tank; he sure as hell wasn't gonna miss saying goodbye to the furry oaf now.

Tekan kept pace with him. "Captain Marron would like to know when to expect you aboard Blaze of Glory."

"When I get there, Tekan, that's when he can expect me." He'd already decided on his course of action; a fast check on Chewie's status, a quick and dirty transfer of authority to Aspeth, and then he'd invisibly slip away before that briefing ended. By the time Luke figured out what he'd done, he'd be in hyperspace. And Luke would be safe, temporarily.

"She, sir. Captain Marron is a—"

Han ground to a halt, hanging onto his temper by the smallest of margins. None of this was the lieutenant's fault, of course, but his presence was a fundamental irritant for reasons Han refused to examine too closely. "Tekan, don't you have something else to do?"

He saw a flash of resentment and disappointment in Tekan's eyes, and then his jaw firmed.

"Yes, sir."

"Then go do it. I'll let you know when I need you."

The young lieutenant stood his ground. "Begging the general's pardon, but Jedi Skywalker said I shouldn't let you out of my sight. Sir."

Already half-turned away, Han froze in position, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach reminding him that Luke could be just as devious as any Corellian when it suited his purpose. "What else did Jedi Skywalker say?"

"He asked that a glider be readied and that both your and his belongings be packed and placed in the glider. He said you would be traveling together."

Han grinned. Luke hadn't been devious enough; he'd left a hole Han could pilot a star destroyer through. The kid's essential distaste for manipulation showed. "Well, I guess you'd better take care of that first. I think I can manage to find my way to the refugee camp and back all by myself."

The lieutenant shifted his weight; by the awkward expression that flitted across his face there was more coming. "Jedi Skywalker wanted to make sure you didn't leave without him."

He didn't want to do this, undermine Luke's authority, but he'd been left little choice. "I appreciate Jedi Skywalker's concern, but since when do you take orders from a civilian?"

Damn, but it felt like a betrayal to say that. Luke was only trying to help.

"I don't ordinarily, but... Jedi Skywalker is unique. Sir. And it's not like he's countermanding any direct orders I've been given."

Han'd never heard truer words, but that wasn't the point here.

"There you go then. Pack our belongings and ready a glider, per Jedi Skywalker's instructions. For the rest of it, leave me alone. And that is a direct order, Lieutenant."

Han watched Tekan salute, turn on his heel and walk away, as stiffly military and correct as he could manage, daylight glancing off that fair colored hair. All hells but he was tired of it, tired of seeing the expectation and trust in their eyes, knowing himself for a fraud. And the things he saw in Luke's eyes were the most painful of all.

During the short walk to the refugee camp he caught glimpses of small creatures slinking furtively through the underbrush, and even heard an early bird song. He was glad to see animal life returning to this part of the forest, although he doubted there'd be enough food for the remaining wildlife in the next few winter seasons. Not after the Imperials' parting gift of incendiaries had scorched nearly a quarter of the forested lands. Recovery seemed an impossible task from here.

Beneath the acrid smells of fire and death clinging to the forest, the faint, sweet scent of vineroses still hovered like an empty promise, mocking him with yet another memory. Of Leia again, and the fragrance she'd worn the last time he'd seen her.

He'd failed her, not on purpose, gods knew he'd tried to squeeze into the mold she'd cast for him, but it had been an uncomfortable, restrictive fit at best. This mission to Drualla had been a case in point. Leia, Mon Mothma and Bel Iblis had made a strong, logical case for concentrating on Coruscant over other, more immediately realizable goals and eventually they'd worn down all the opposition. He hadn't liked the strategy he'd finally agreed to, which boiled down to waiting and being patient. Maintaining an awkward balance between action and reaction. He'd never been good at any of those things. Sitting back and letting so many planets suffer under Imperial rule when they had the means to free them simply wasn't something he could do.

It seemed to him that Leia had become too accustomed to seeing the overall picture, thinking in terms of winning systems and not worlds, not individuals. Somewhere along the way she'd gotten far too proficient in the political expediency that had become the rule of the day.

He'd said as much to her, and watched her lips tighten against what he'd known to be an unworthy aggression, but he hadn't known how else to convey the depth of his feelings about this. The sharp retort he'd expected hadn't come. Instead, Leia displayed an icy restraint eerily similar to Luke's frustrating occasional aloofness. In that instant he couldn't mistake their shared genes.

But Luke would've never required him to do something that warred so fiercely with his own conscience in the first place. Sure, the kid had a way of saying and doing things that stirred that blasted conscience to life from wherever it'd been napping, but beyond that respect for Han's independence snapped into place. Maybe it was Luke's own awareness that he couldn't comfortably slip into the role others expected of him that allowed him to step back from trying to cram Han into a similarly ill-fitting uniform.

Han tugged at the collar of his uniform jacket. Maybe it was time to get rid of it after all. Maybe a court-martial was just what he needed. Maybe it was time to go back to doing what Han Solo did best—take care of himself.

Yes, he'd failed Leia badly, and couldn't quite shake the feeling that in failing Leia he'd somehow managed to fail Luke even more completely.

* * * * *

Han's fingers were still shaking when he keyed in the small glider's ignition sequence. He'd fulfilled his obligations. Toured the refugee camp one last time, prompted by the impulse to punish himself, he supposed. Met with Aspeth, brought him up to date on everything and formally turned command over to his second.

His final stop had been the medtent, one last check on Chewie, except there'd been no Wook in the tank. The fear hadn't started to cramp in his gut until after he realized Chewie was nowhere to be found in the entire damn camp and his questions to med staffers had been met with blank stares. It'd taken long moments for him to calm down enough for rational thought, to put two and two together and come up with less than a double-digit total.

Now only one more thing remained.

The glider rose smoothly, despite his distraction. Piloting came too instinctively to him to be affected by outside factors. He glimpsed the refugee camp out of the corner of his eye. Emergency shelters bobbed their rounded domes in clusters, only slightly less haphazard than mushrooms sprouting on the damp forest floor after a good rain. Beneath him the military camp displayed the rigid, unnatural structure of formal hierarchy.

Luke would be distracted by Han's manufactured administrivia for some time, a useful byproduct of that same chain of command Han had turned to his advantage for a change. His trickery might mean he'd never see Luke again, though, a thought he tried to squash before it could take root and breed generations of even more regrets, but the effort felt like a lost cause.

By now Aspeth was firmly in charge, a far better choice for overseeing the temporary martial rule of the beleaguered planet. The Mon Cal didn't see the paradox in the situation the way Han did. He wondered if the Druallans understood they'd merely exchanged one form of servitude for another, and paid for the privilege with their own futures.

At least one Druallan did. He'd spoken briefly to her in the emergency medtent as she awaited transfer to the medical frigate. Only minor discrepancies in skin color and quantity of body hair marked native Druallans as slightly different from standard humans; the young woman Han had faced was attractive enough to draw his attention in any spaceport cantina. The close genetic relationship meant they could communicate easily without resorting to translators. It also meant Han could read the evidence of abuse left on her person, the wariness in her eyes and the way she held her body that spoke of unnatural sources for her injuries. The flash of bitterness in those all-too-human eyes when he'd introduced himself reminded him again of how badly he had managed to wrong Drualla.

Sirussi, indeed. The young woman's blaming hostility had been refreshingly honest, something he could relate to far better than the calm acceptance which seemed to be the majority reaction. For all he could tell, there was nothing acceptable about being the agent of an entire world's destruction. And make no mistake, despite his best intentions, that's what he was.

He pointed the nose of the little glider toward his destination and pushed the throttle lever forward. Don't look back, Solo, he cautioned himself. This part of your life is over.

In moments the glider traversed the same terrain it had taken them weeks to cross on foot, a panorama of error everywhere he looked. Here a forest reduced to ashes, there the skeletal remains of a burned out village. The evidence of war spread out beneath him, careless jumble of a giant child's discarded toys: AT-ATs, AT-STs, speeders, swoops, even small spacecraft come home to rest after valiant effort.

He flew over once fertile fields that had produced enough grain to feed an entire sector, and now would take years of hard work before the land could again yield a harvest. Unexpected craters pockmarked the fields and forests, legacy of debris too massive to burn up in the atmosphere. Gigantic irrigation pipelines lay scattered and broken like oversized pickup sticks.

Off to port the Ad'a'hla mountains thrust their jagged peaks skyward. Luke would soon be part of the team combing the range on foot for survivors. They'd discovered that the mountains' ore contents scrambled sensors useless the hard way, by dodging an imperial patrol at low altitude. Taken a year or two off Chewie's lifespan, he'd calculated, to judge by the agitated rumbles from his co-pilot as they'd threaded narrow canyons and skimmed the hills at treetop levels. But that flight had been a real rush in the end, pure seat-of-the-pants flying, going on instinct and determination only, and the memory conjured a smile.

Beyond the western horizon lay the capital of Bei Kope and its spaceport, his eventual destination. The Empire had been fairly kind to Bei Kope, sparing the city because of the concentrated Imperial presence and controlled spaceport; of course the city and spaceport were now under the jurisdiction of the Republic's military. What an improvement, Han thought sourly. But before he caught a shuttle from the spaceport up to Blaze of Glory, he had one stop to make. One last apology.

He nudged the throttle again, slowing the little vehicle, and made a steep descent, following the line of destruction his wounded lady had made as she fell to earth for what was most likely the last time. As he circled once, surveying the damage from above, he saw the extended boarding ramp, the small flitter parked in her shadow. Even though he'd expected to find exactly this, he felt light-headed with relief, barometer of the full measure of his concern.

Before the engine had whined to silence, Han popped the transplex canopy and vaulted from the cockpit. "Chewie!"

His irrational fears evaporated when his co-pilot appeared in the hatch. Chewie's fur was dull and matted from submersion in bacta, the wide shaved patch stretching diagonally from right shoulder to left hip looking for all the world like a reverse bandolier—and damned if he wasn't the most welcome sight Han had seen in a long time. The long scar torn in Chewbacca's flesh looked only slightly less cruel than it had before, a stark reminder of how close his partner had come to dying.


No mistaking the joyful note in Chewie's voice. Faster than Han would've Believed possible for someone straight out of the tank, the Wook leaped down the ramp and caught him up in those strong furry arms. Han hung on tight, touch grounding him in physical reality. In this moment of reunion he was even willing to ignore the overpowering stench of bacta and wet Wookiee fur.

"Went to the camp this morning 'n found out they took you outta the tank last night, and you'd disappeared soon after."

Chewie's deep rumble of laughter sounded like distant thunder.

*I didn't disappear. I checked myself out. The treatments had done everything possible, and I need to recuperate on my own. You know as well as I that Wookiees heal better in nature than in medical facilities.*

Han reluctantly let go of Chewie's reassuringly solid bulk and stepped back to check him over carefully. "Yeah, soon as I heard one of the DRT's flitters went missing I figured what had happened. I'm not big on medcenters myself." He chose not to tell Chewie about his panicked search through the camp before his customary pragmatism kicked in.

"Why didn't you come'n get me? No need to go stealing flitters 'n such." Although he put the question casually, this was something that'd been nagging at him ever since he realized Chewie's first priority hadn't been contacting him.

Leia didn't need him, that was for sure. Luke was better off without him. He couldn't blame Chewie if they'd reached the upper limits of that life debt by now, but...

Chewie's eyes narrowed, clearly responding more to his mood than his words... or maybe his scent, never could tell with Wooks.

*I went to your tent, but you weren't there and Luke was sleeping. I left a message telling you I was coming here. Didn't you get it?*

Another surge of relief washed through Han at Chewie's words. He'd been too preoccupied this morning to check for private messages. "Nope. I was kinda busy."

A sly smile lifted the corners of Chewie's mouth, exposing those fearsome looking fangs. He gestured toward the flitter. *And as you can see, I didn't steal anything. The flitter's right there.*

Han matched the grin. "So I see. Guess they just weren't lookin' in the right place."

*Careless of the rescue personnel, I think. If they don't want anyone using their vehicles, they should lock them up.*

Damn but it felt good to see one of Chewie's self-righteous smirks again. For a while there he hadn't been sure he'd ever have that pleasure again. "I agree entirely, fuzzball."

The grin faded as his gaze traveled the length of the ridged line crossing Chewie's torso. He was painfully thin. There hadn't been nearly enough rations to go around the past few months, and Chewie'd suffered more than most in that respect, even before the crash that killed the Falcon and nearly killed him into the bargain.

Han had been lucky—again. Had walked away without so much as a scratch. Survive. It was the one thing he could be counted on to do, despite impossible odds that felled everyone else.

Looking at his partner reminded Han of a day long ago and his first glimpse of a manacled, starving and still defiant slave. Anger pulsed hot and sweet in his veins at the memory, for that was the day he'd vowed to keep Chewie safe. Another promise he'd failed to keep. Only the latest in his current string of failures.

"You sure you're all right, pal?"

*You can see for yourself I'm fine. My concerns now are only you, the cub, and our ship.*

Their ship. His beloved, wounded Millennium Falcon. Grounded. His ship had been grounded for far too long, damaged beyond his and Chewbacca's ability to field repair. Not that they'd had the opportunity anyway, in the confused retreat marking a lost war. The Falcon had come to rest on the outskirts of a ruined village, injured in the same attack that'd destroyed the village.

Han's gaze swept across the jagged remnants of a small copse of trees, splintered from the Falcon's barely controlled crash landing two months previously. The sheer drop of a canyon was less than a klom behind him. He supposed that so-called Solo luck had been with him in that landing, as a few seconds one way or the other would've meant death for themselves and the load of refugees huddled inside the Falcon. Hadn't felt lucky that day, though, not after watching the X-wing dart in and draw the fire meant for the Falcon. Not after watching Luke's fighter take one too many hits and go into a deadly flat spin that took it down somewhere beyond the horizon, only a quickly dissipating trail of smoke marking the location. No pilot evac, and that could only mean one of two things. Either the mechanism was inoperable... or pilot and droid had both been incapacitated.

Han was firmly convinced that had been the worst day of his life. His ship in ruins, his partner near death and Luke... he hadn't known if Luke was alive or dead, helplessly trapped in his ship's wreckage or a prisoner of war. Bile rose in his throat at the memory.

The worst godsbedamned day in an entire lifetime of bad days. He still didn't know how he'd made it through. They'd loaded Chewie on a damaged anti-grav sled and used it as a stretcher so they could get the hell away from ground zero before they lost anybody else. Hard as it'd been to leave the Falcon out there by herself, exposed to whatever the TIES wanted to throw at her, he'd done it, because Chewie and Luke needed him.

When the Druallans looked to him for leadership and direction, he'd pointed straight at the spot on the horizon where the X-wing had vanished. And then set a pace no one else could maintain.

Somehow he managed to betray his distress, because Chewie wrapped those thickly muscled arms around him in a hug that forced the air from Han's lungs. For once, he yielded to the comfort of his friend's embrace, just long enough to choke back the fear that'd come alive again.

"I'm all right, Chewie," he said, pulling away from the embrace and firming his jaw against any further display of sentiment. "Or at least I was 'til I got a whiff of that bacta breath there."

Chewie released him and whuffed gentle amusement, along with a healthy dose of curiosity.

"Stop worrying, furface. I'm fine. Luke's fine. You're fine." Deliberately he turned his back to his co-pilot and focused on the Falcon. "So, what's the catalog of damages here?" Without a doubt the forced nonchalance in his voice wasn't fooling Chewie any more than himself, but maybe the Wook was smart enough to keep his mouth shut for the time being.

He touched the skin of his ship, swallowing hard at the sudden lump in his throat. He'd been one with the Falcon for longer than he cared to remember. Seeing her like this was more than painful, reminder of yet another failure.

*Hanso,* his partner muttered in as gentle a tone as Han'd ever heard from Chewie. Coupled with the rarely used affectionate form of his name, it could only mean it was time to brace himself against some kind of paternal advice. He shot as dark a stare as he could scrounge at Chewie, warning him off, but of course the furball ignored it.

*You can't fool me, you know. I've always known when something is bothering you.*

"You're looking straight at the Falcon 'n you're asking what's wrong?" He slapped his hand against the outer hull for emphasis, feeling the shock of contact travel clear up through his shoulder and neck. He'd put a little more energy into that slap than he'd intended. Channelling his frustrations, maybe.

Chewie threw a look right back at him that said better than any words he didn't believe Han for so much as a nanosecond. *If that were the case, you'd already be tearing into her, starting the repairs. Something else is holding you back.*

"Just making sure you're all right first, oldtimer." He deliberately used the term to distract Chewie, because his partner hated to be gibed about his age. Chewie was still considered quite youthful by his species' standards, and maintained a certain amount of vanity over his various accomplishments at such a young age. One of those intimate details Han wasn't above exploiting when it suited him.

But Chewie wasn't in the mood to be distracted, apparently. *Is it the cub? He looked all right last night, just exhausted.* There was genuine concern in Chewie's voice.

Hells, getting' nothing but backwash today, he decided, weary of being unable to strike his trademark cynical bristle with any degree of believability.

"He's fine. Really. Just worn out. Like everybody else."

Chewie folded those massive arms across his now shorn chest and glared, the essence of immovable obstinacy, taking him to task silently. *You're hiding something. Why were you so busy this morning you had no time for messages? Something happened while I was in the tank.*

He deliberately looked over Chewie's shoulder into the distance, avoiding those curious, knowing eyes. No need to get Chewie all worked up over something he couldn't do anything about.

"Yeah, well... I got my recall to Coruscant. Ignored the first one, 'cause they'd just put you into the tank 'n I wasn't about to leave you then. But this time I gotta go."

Chewie's expression softened instantly into one of understanding. Gods, how he'd missed having the furball at his side lately!

*Is it... the princess? Was it she who asked you to return?*

"Nope." He'd talked to Leia only once, shortly after the military reinforcements secured the planet, very briefly and impersonally. It'd been an open communication, of course, and he remembered feeling grateful there'd been no opportunity to say anything personal. She knew he and Luke were alive and unharmed, and beyond that he felt no obligation. And definitely no eagerness to return to her side. "Official recall for debriefing. From Bel Iblis."

'N let's just leave it at that, Chewie. No need for you to know they're threatening to conduct a formal inquiry into my incompetence and gross negligence.

Chewie nodded in that slow, significant way he'd spent years perfecting. Most humans labeled his solemn expression and grave demeanor as wisdom, and sometimes it was, Han conceded privately, but more often than not it was just plain bafflement over incomprehensible human behavior.

*But you will go to her?*

Even a blind and deaf man could've interpreted Chewie's body language as unease.

Only now did it occur to Han that this was kind of an odd question for his partner to ask. The fuzzball was fussing over something else entirely. He wasn't sure whether he should be relieved or alarmed, 'cause Chewie had an instinct for going right to the heart of a matter. Just the way Luke did.

"What's that supposed to mean?" He heard his suspicion come out as belligerence, but it sure didn't feel like much of a surprise that Chewie'd picked up on the growing rift between him and Leia. Wasn't like he'd really tried to hide it that last week before departing Corellia anyway. "'S'pect I'll see her, sure. What's it to you, anyway, who I spend my free time with?

"Something you're not telling me, now?" He tried to make it sound careless, but Chewie had a bad habit of seeing through his defenses.

*She is very persuasive. And very beautiful.*

"You're not making much sense, Chewie." Persuasive? But he suddenly felt so godsdamned cold he couldn't help shivering, there in the stifling summer sunshine. "You make it sound like you think she's gonna bewitch me or something."

Chewie's expression conveyed the unspoken message that his guess hadn't been too far off the mark, and Han didn't think he had the energy to touch that with a three-meter gaffi stick.

"'S not like she's got anything to do with a military debriefing, Chewie."

*I didn't think she did. But Luke will go with you, of course.*

That perplexing bit of logic wasn't quite as self-evident to him as it apparently was to Chewie. Grabbing on to the one idea he thought he could understand, Han deliberately dropped into his smuggler persona, folding his arms across his chest to emphasize his independence. "Luke ain't going with me. What makes you think he would?"

Chewie looked surprised at the statement; seemed like everybody except Han himself assumed Luke should accompany him.

*Why isn't Luke going with you?*

"'Cause he's got better things to do than nurse-maid me through a routine debriefing?"

Chewie's wordless snarl of displeasure was about what he'd expected. Hadn't predicted the show of teeth, though. Han mentally shrugged. So bacta immersion made Chewie less tolerant of his particular brand of sarcasm? Or was there something else behind that strange over-reaction?

"He's leading a rescue team up into the Ad'a'hla Range." He made a show of consulting the sun's distance from the horizon. "Probably halfway there by now. You got a problem with that?"

Took the furry oaf a long time to answer, with a hard look into the bargain. *Convenient circumstance, I'd say. Especially for one who is so exhausted. I'd think you'd be encouraging him to travel with you, to get away,* Chewie made a sweeping gesture that took in the desolation around them, *from all this.*

Han got the uncomfortable feeling Chewie knew he'd managed to trick Luke into staying against his will. They spoke simultaneously.

"How come you think it's so important for Luke to go with me now?"

*If Luke isn't going, then I will. I'll just get a few things from my cabin.*

"Whoa now, Chewie!" That statement sent a flare of alarm along every last nerve in Han's body, temporarily pushing his other questions below the threshold of concern. Good measure of his self-involvement, he realized, that he hadn't anticipated Chewie's expectation of coming along. And gods knew the overgrown oaf needed to direct all his energy into regaining strength and not wasting it over Han's self-made dilemmas.

Chewie patted his shoulder. He'd long ago lost any surprise over how gentle a Wookiee's touch could be. *You're concerned about how well I will manage the trip?*

Sure, that was a big part of what was sitting in a cold lump in the pit of his stomach, but wasn't all of it by a long shot. "Even Wooks need a little time to catch their breath, y'know."

Ignoring Chewie's pointedly derisive response, Han plunged blindly into refuting unborn arguments. "Look, you're fresh outta the tank. 'N remember what you said first time we went there?" Coruscant was the last place Chewie needed to go right now. They'd traveled to Coruscant together only once, and Chewie'd declared then he'd rather take his chances in Kashyyyk's deadly jungles than in Coruscant's soulless artificial cliffs and canyons, and swore he'd never return.

"Wouldn't go breaking your promises, would ya?" He gestured toward a still intact stand of conifers. "'Sides, no place on Coruscant for you to sling your hammock."

It didn't take long to figure out from Chewie's determined opposition that appealing to neither his sense of comfort nor his self-preservation instincts seemed to be working... but the Falcon was another matter entirely. Han grabbed at the perfect excuse with all the enthusiasm of a drowning man.

"You know one of us has to stay 'n get to work on the Falcon. She ain't gonna fix herself, pal. You want those by-the-regs techs workin' on her?"

Chewie whined a complaint about Han hitting him below the waist with that kind of argument, and then rumbled a grudging agreement, clearly not happy that he was making so much sense for a change.

"Aspeth'll make sure you get all the parts 'n help you need 'til I get back. Don't try to tell me you can walk off 'n leave her like this. I'd do it myself, but I can't this time. You got a choice."

Han told the little twinge of guilt at forcing his partner into choosing between him or the ship to shut up. Long as Chewie didn't get a whiff of what was really waiting for him on Coruscant, Han knew he could convince the Wook it was better to stay behind.

Han looked at his ship again, and felt the doubts seep into his soul. She'd suffered a lot of damage. Chewie would tear himself apart trying to restore the Falcon, Han knew. Just as he would too, given the opportunity, but General Solo didn't have that luxury. If anybody could save her, though, it'd be Chewie, whose patience and meticulous attention to details were far better suited to her present needs than his own brand of inspired improvisation.

He judged he had enough time to indulge his curiosity and still beat it out of the system before Luke came looking for him. "C'mon, Chewie, the shuttle'll wait on me. Let's take a quick look at her." The urge to tear into a circuitry bay was overwhelming, to bury his confusing feelings under a layer of physical action.

His first step within the confines of the Falcon's hull gave him a comforting sense of security he'd not felt in a long while, but it didn't last very long. In the end he had to force himself to pay attention to his partner's lengthy recital of essential repairs, more occupied with unraveling his personal debt of guilt. Han knew himself well enough to accept that his practical nature substituted action for introspection, but it felt like he'd hit the back wall on that strategy this time.

Pointless to expect that Chewie wouldn't notice his preoccupation, either.

The big hairball slid out from under the cockpit panel, the microluma clamped between his lips flashing accusingly into Han's eyes, spotlighting his inattention, before Chewie dropped the light onto the deck.

*That's the third time I asked you to pass me the varidriver. Your mind isn't here at all. What aren't you telling me?* Chewie's expression was sober, his tone rough.

Han shook his head, not wanting to get into a wrangle over blame and guilt with his partner. Still, he managed to yank out the expected flippant response from his reserves of self-protection, followed up with what Leia had called Ironic Grin Number Twelve. Until she'd pointed it out, he'd been blind to just how predictable and limited their interactions had become.

"Hey, I'm just making a list of Coruscant pleasures I wanna check out. Didn't get the chance to sample a fraction of those diversions last time we were there, 'cause you were too busy whining and fussing over how miserable you were."

*That's right, blame me.* The twinkle in Chewie's eyes reassured him there was no animosity behind the comment, but a second later Han wasn't quite so sure when Chewie's next comment came out as harsh as some of the things he'd said himself.

*And just think, while you're enjoying Coruscant's delights and the Princess' charm, the cub will be risking his life in the Ad'a'hla mountains.*

The warm feeling of having gotten away with something faded from Han's chest. He hadn't really thought of the situation in those terms, and now there was no way he'd be able to quiet his conscience again.

"Stop exaggerating, Chewie. 'S not like he's goin' into battle again. 'N I don't 'zactly need help telling off a buncha stuffed shirts at a debriefing."

But of course his big hairy conscience couldn't leave it like that.

Chewie rumbled deep in his throat. *I didn't say you need help. But you seem to be doing your best to keep him at a distance right now. There was a time when you would've welcomed his presence… and mine.*

Those all-too-human blue eyes invited absolution; something Han couldn't afford right now.

"I think some of that bacta must've gone straight to your brain, Chewie. There's nothing going on, 'n I ain't trying to keep you or anybody else at arm's length."

Chewie dropped his head and sighed but held his tongue, and for some reason, that was worse than any amount of angry snarls as far as Han was concerned.

He swiveled out of his pilot's chair and pushed to his feet, knowing he needed to duck out before either his traitorous tongue or the burning sensation in his eyes embarrassed them both. Hells, just what I needed. More guilt. Ain't like I'm gonna be enjoyin' myself there anyway.

"Didn't realize it was getting so late. Gotta be going. I'll check in with you once I get to Coruscant.. Anything you need, just ask Aspeth."

Chewie stopped him with a less-than-gentle paw on his forearm, eyes flashing with unusual intensity. *May the Tree Mother protect and guide you, Hanso.*

And that was how he left it, with Chewie's benediction ringing in his ears as he took the glider back up into Drualla's relentless sun-bleached sky.

* * * * *

continue to part two

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