Irene Heron

Bespin’s Cloud City glinted golden in the distance, a gem floating gracefully in its ocean of azure skies. Upon closer approach the gem resolved itself into the modern equivalent of fantasy, a schizophrenic blend of utility and whimsy. The Millennium Falcon threaded through the perilous canyonscape of fairy-tale architecture to its designated landing site and settled to the extruded permacrete surface of the landing pad with less-than-usual grace. The ship rocked slightly as its weight equalized on the landing struts. Instant mist billowed up around the transparisteel cockpit canopy as the repulsor jets bled chill compressed air into the atmosphere.

The touchdown wasn’t perfect, not by a fast blast, but it wasn’t bad, either. From his seat at the co-pilot’s station Han Solo watched Luke Skywalker busy himself briefly with the flight board controls, executing the shut down procedures with careful precision.

Gods, but the kid was gorgeous, even with his face screwed up into a tight expression of concentration.

And smart. He wasn’t missing a trick.

Behind Luke, the navigator’s chair creaked as the big Wookiee shifted his weight and reached over to ruffle the youth’s hair. A small rumble of compliment and pride accompanied the fond gesture.

[You did well, young one. Much better than my first attempt.]

Han was pleased to see Luke had no trouble translating Chewbacca’s remark. Luke had been a quick study in many ways: he’d mastered an adequate understanding of WookieeSpeak nearly as quickly as Han had; and piloting and navigation seemed to come as naturally as breathing to him.

"Thanks, Chewie." Luke keyed in the final code to lock down the control board before swiveling in the pilot’s chair to face his companions. He didn’t even try to keep the broad grin of accomplishment off his face.

Han frowned back at him, hiding his satisfaction. No point in letting the little twitch think any more of himself than he already did.

"What Chewie ain’t telling ya, kid, is that his first planetfall had us limping in with no forward sensors, practically no thruster control, an’ no communications."

Luke settled back comfortably, obviously scenting a story. His smug grin widened.

"And where were you, Han, that Chewie had to handle touchdown alone, with all those problems?"

[He was trapped in the starboard hold thanks to shorted out circuits all over the ship,] chortled Chewbacca with undisguised delight. [He could not get the door open.]

Han turned sharply toward the Wookiee, and fixed a stern glare upon his long-time friend and partner.

"Who snapped off two struts with that landing?" Although his words carried no real bite, the memory of his beloved, wounded ship still sparked a moment’s reproach.

[Who shorted out the systems in the first place?]

Luke laughed out loud, breaking the minor tension, and Han grinned. Blue eyes, a slim body and a quick mind weren’t the sum total of Luke’s attractive features; his irreverent sense of humor had proved a welcome cargo on long flights.

Han snorted. "Bet you think your performance today shines by comparison. Don’t get cocky. You had it easy. That was a pretty serious jolt on touchdown and you damned near took out a couple of those fancy towers on your approach."

Luke tried a sober expression and failed miserably. "Yeah, so, other than that, how was it?"

[A solid seven.]

That irrepressible grin reappeared on Luke’s face.

"Seven? Old as you are, Chewie, you should have more judgment." Han amused himself with fondly insulting his friend. "Five. Five and a half, tops."

"Five!" Luke directed a well-aimed swat toward Han’s chin, and only unusually quick reflexes allowed Han to avoid the blow. He caught Luke’s left hand in his right and held on tight, pulling the younger man out of the pilot’s chair and toward him as he stood up.

"Yeah, well, five and a half, I’ll give ya."

"Huh! More like an eight, and you know it." They were pressed close together now in the narrow space between the seats. "You hardly twitched at all. Maybe even a nine…"
[Averaged with my seven, that gives you a respectable six and a quarter. Not a bad first time score, Luke. And that means tonight’s entertainment is on Han.]

"Nobody said anything ‘bout averaging scores, Chewie. Whatever happened to ‘captain’s word is law’?" Han lowered his head to claim a kiss from Luke. Fact was, he didn’t mind losing bets at all, if he got this kind of consolation prize—Luke’s mouth fitting sweetly to his, their tongues twining and weaving passionately. For kisses like this he’d make allowances.

[It went out the airlock the day you shorted the systems and locked yourself in the hold because you refused to follow my advice and insisted you knew better than a half-trained primitive.] Chewbacca’s attitude was clearly self-righteous.

The kiss ended abruptly when Luke began laughing hard at Han’s expense. "Block-headed Corellian," he teased, but there was only affection in his expression and voice.

"You owe me for that one, brat." He turned to glare at Chewbacca. "I didn’t have time to check out all the systems before-hand. You could’ve told me about that little quirk, you know."

[And deprive myself of the pleasure of watching you make a fool of yourself? I think not, Han.] The Wookiee’s glee was unmistakable.

"Damned bad timing to make your point, Chewie. Nearly killed us both with that landing." Han dropped his voice into a sullen growl in a forlorn attempt to salvage his authority. "Anyway, don’t get to thinking you’ll handle lift off, too, Luke."

"Yeah, I do think so. Can’t do any worse ‘n Chewie."

[The day will come when I remind you of that statement, Luke.] Chewbacca chuckled and rose to his feet. [First, however, we must take care of business. And then we can decide where to spend Han’s credits tonight.]

With unexpected agility for one of such physical bulk, the Wookiee strode from the cockpit and disappeared around a bend of corridor.

"So, what d’you think, kid?"

"’Bout what, old man?"

The ‘old man’ was a warning that he’d called Luke ‘kid’ once too often. Han held up a hand in a familiar gesture of pacification and watched Luke try to disguise his triumphant smile.

"About you scoring me a five on that landing? Or about you shorting out all the Falcon’s electrical systems?"

He couldn’t help the grin that spread across his face, mate to the one on Luke’s face. What was that he’d thought about wanting a lover with spirit? Sure as all hells made life more interesting to have someone so lively in (and out) of his bunk.

"’Bout being in the left-hand seat." Hadn’t been nearly as hard as he’d expected to give up that seat, because Luke had been born to fly. It came instinctively to him, just as it did to Han, and that was something you couldn’t teach and you couldn’t fake. They both heard it, that siren song of the stars, something elemental calling to the soul, and it added a dimension to their relationship Han had never known before. It felt right to have Luke at the controls of the Falcon, just as it felt right to lay down beside him at night, and that worried Han Solo. It was disconcerting the way the little twitch had assumed such a natural, inevitable place in Han’s life.

Luke’s expression turned wistful. Oh, he knew that look, knew well the longing which fueled such an expression. He remembered the first time he’d sat in the pilot’s seat himself. Hadn’t taken any time at all before he’d gone out on his own, unwilling to be anything less than captain of his own ship and master of his own fate.

Those confused feelings shuffled and realigned themselves into something resembling fear.

He slid one hand across Luke’s cheek in an affectionate, tender gesture. "Yeah. Me, too." It was all he ever dared allow himself, these carefully measured moments of sentiment.

Luke turned his face into Han’s caress and pressed his lips against the palm, expressing agreement, understanding, and something more. Han felt his breath catch in his throat at the intimate gesture, at the feeling that Luke saw through every pretence. Between Chewie and Luke, Han sometimes felt transparent.

Time to divert the kid’s attention, before they got to feeling and saying things better left unfelt and unsaid. Be a shame to waste all that excitement and energy anyway—so easy to nudge euphoria over into desire. He dropped his voice again, into a low, sexy drawl. The kind of purr that made Luke quiver and go breathless and needy. This time was no exception, to judge by the sudden smolder in those blue eyes.

"Let’s celebrate." He leaned closer and captured Luke’s waist in a firm grip.

"Chewie’s waiting on us."

Oh that gorgeous, lying mouth, saying one thing while the eyes said something entirely different. He pressed a brief kiss to that mouth and felt anticipation command Luke’s body. "Let ‘im wait."

"We have a cargo to offload."

"It’ll keep." His tongue began tracing the sharp ridges of Luke’s ear.

"What about that old friend of yours?" Entirely too much breathless desire in that whisper. Oh, yeah, too easy. Luke’s arms slid around his shoulders.

"He can wait, too."

"But you can’t."

He shook his head. "Drive’s engaged now." He nibbled on a tempting earlobe and smiled at the resulting shudder.

"Know what you mean."

This time they melted into a long, searching kiss, the kind that scorched nerve endings and short- circuited the neural synapses until logical thought was impossible.

"You’re doing this on purpose." Luke gasped his accusation into the brief pause for air.

"Uh-huh. So shut up and kiss me again."

Luke complied.

* * * *

Still surfing the waves of adrenaline and accomplishment, Luke tumbled into the bunk, yanked Han down and cajoled him into an intense, plunging kiss. Rough stubble abraded his cheek and chin, but that was part of what he wanted—the challenging strengths and subtle force of male passion. He fumbled with Han’s shirt, nearly ripping the buttons from fabric in his haste. His lips broke the kiss and lowered to fasten against Han’s neck to taste the rhythm and pulse of desire surging underneath salty skin.

"Come on," he urged as he toyed with Han’s thatch of chest hair and used his fingernails to scratch lightly at hardening nipples. Restless whitecaps of need swelled in him, driven by tectonic pressures building toward release. He slipped the shirt from Han’s shoulders but urgency made him clumsy and Han chuckled at his impatient eagerness.

"Slow down, hotshot." But those big hands were just as busy as his, shoving aside the sweater Luke wore in search of skin: confident, assured hands that knew just how to focus and pull all that flashfire heat to the surface, until he whimpered against the tidal wave of pleasurable torment. Merciless, Han moved again, to scatter small, biting kisses down his chest and belly while Luke’s hand drifted to his own groin, rubbing himself through coarse fabric.

"I can’t," he moaned, helpless within the relentless riptide of passion. "Now. I want you now." The stars, and now Han—what more could he ask of life? Perilous, greedy lust balanced on the razor’s edge of hazard and obsession, daring him to conquer or yield.

"I know." Yes, Luke supposed Han did, the way he’d deliberately fanned the addictive flames, played on the intangible ecstasies of flight, power and control and turned them to physical expression.

Luke eased back just far enough to loosen both pairs of trousers and free their erections. It was enough for his immediate need. Grinding their hips together, he captured Han’s hand and wrapped the fingers around both weeping cocks.

Han moaned low and gripped hard. Luke thrust against the dual textures pressing against his flesh, demanding more friction. His hand covered Han’s, willing him to stroke.

"Not yet, kid," Han managed to whisper between ragged breaths. "Got something else in mind."

"What?" He stilled his hand with effort and concentrated instead on nibbling on the surprisingly fragile skin covering the hollow of Han’s throat. Familiarity with scent, taste and touch had only increased, not lessened, his desire to distinguish the nuances of those sensations

"Docking maneuvers."

He busied himself with wet licks to Han’s neck, tasting the mutating flavor of passion, while Han tugged on his generous foreskin and slipped the excess skin over the head of Luke’s circumcised penis. Han’s breath quickened, from stimulation or discomfort, Luke couldn’t tell, and then they cried out in unison at the impact of connection. Both hands clamped tight around the sensitive blunt noses compressed end to end inside that snug hood

"Thought you might like that." Han’s free hand slid around his neck. "Wanted you to know how it feels."

It was possibly the most intimate and erotic moment in their relationship thus far. And Luke blinked back the hot sting in his eyes.

"C’mere, pirate." Unremitting desire fused their mouths together, tongues coaxing and teasing up even more spears of pleasurable sensations as their joined hands kept time in a rapidly increasing cadence. He echoed Han’s throaty growls of pleasure while heat washed through him, trust and affection mingling with, and heightening, physical sensation. Han held on tight, controlling their pace, guiding their passage to fulfillment, and it wasn’t long before Luke felt the tightness in his belly shift to his groin in an inexorable, welcome sequence, out of control and in control simultaneously; mind and soul accompanying body in blissful, buoyant, limitless flight. Coming home to the exclusive universe inhabited only by lovers.

He was still breathless from release when he felt Han’s equally explosive orgasm, transmitted through united hands, cocks and mouths.

Luke’s pulse slowly ebbed in his ears, synchronizing with the heartbeat he felt through the palm pressed hard against Han’s chest. His other hand, wet with excess spillage, loosened around their mated cocks, still enclosed inside that constricting foreskin.

"Maker," sighed an obviously sated Han, smiling at him, his face as relaxed as it ever got and his breath slowing into normal rhythm. "There are advantages to you being cut."

"I think you’re just jealous." It had taken him a while to move beyond viewing his circumcision as a defect and begin thinking of himself as an exotic exception to the rule. Han’s delight and pleasure in their differences had given him new perspective on many things.

He watched as Han cautiously retracted his foreskin and their cocks slipped apart, accompanied by a considerable volume of imprisoned come. "I think we need showers. And clean sheets. That was fun… but messy."

Luke scooted back to avoid the wet spot. "Doubt Chewie’s had time to hook up the umbilicals."

Han slapped his cheek gently. "I’m supposed to be the practical one, remember?"

"You’re just embarrassed you forgot that little fact."

"Brat."

"Amnesiac."

Han snorted. "Where’d you ever pick up a word like that?" He shoved the rumpled and damp bedclothes to the foot of the bunk and settled back, an arm wrapped around Luke’s shoulders.

"Uncle Owen. That was one of the nicer words he used when I forgot to do something." He traced aimless patterns on Han’s cooling, sweat-damp skin.

"I think I’m glad that uncle of yours died before I met up with you. I probably would’ve ended up knocking him down on your behalf."

"Owen was all right. Just… tired and worn out from scrabbling for a living. Angry at himself ‘cause he could never take care of me ‘n Beru the way he wanted to."

Han tightened his embrace. "’S okay, Luke. With your share of our profits these last couple of months, you have a nice sum to send back to your aunt."

"Yeah, I know. I wouldn’t mind seeing her again, though. It’s been a while since I talked to her."

Han was silent for a long moment. "Regrets?"

Luke heard the brittle awkwardness in that single word, and raised up on one elbow to study his lover’s face. "No." He leaned down for a brief kiss. "I’d be dead if I’d stayed on Tatooine. Either literally, when Sunseeker’s pals caught up with me, or from boredom. I’d’ve been a fool to turn down your offer."

Dark eyes stared levelly back at him, and Han’s expression was unusually sober.

"As long as you’re sure ‘bout things, buddy. Remember what I said? Nothing lasts forever. Just let me know when the time comes for you to go your own way."

Damn the man for wearing his independence like a challenge.

He lightly traced the outline of Han’s mouth with a fingertip. "You getting tired of me already?" Something hitched in his chest with the question, but he had to ask. Overheard conversations between Han and Chewie had alerted him to the unusual longevity of his relationship with Han, and the Corellian’s sudden, uncharacteristic gravity summoned phantom fears that he would soon weary of his present companion.

"Just making sure you ain’t, kid." Not precisely an answer to his question, but at least Han’s expression and tone reverted to familiar and reassuring irony.

Sometimes it was hard to reconcile Han’s dual nature, the way he could veer from tender sensitivity to cool self-sufficiency in the blink of an eye.

He tried to slip back into the established pattern as well. "Hey, not as long as you keep up these kinds of docking maneuvers… that wasn’t a bad substitute for what I had planned."

Han pulled him close for another quick kiss. "What’d you have in mind, huh?"

"Me on top, for a change." The provocative words slipped out before he knew it, but he couldn’t find it in himself to regret them.

Beneath him, Han chuckled. "You’re in the right position for it, junior."

Blood pounded in his throat and a stab of longing pierced his groin. He dropped a kiss on Han’s chin, tracing the shape of the little scar with his tongue.

Han laughed. "What, now? I want a shower first."

"I want you." He definitely wasn’t the same naïve boy he’d been that first time. Hesitant… shy… scared, even, unsure of both Han’s and his own expectations. Everything had altered so radically since then that those early days felt as though they belonged to someone else’s life.

"Oh, to be twenty again. Kid, save it for later."

"Just so you know what to expect." He hadn’t meant to fling the words out as a dare, with such a hard edge to them, the impulse fed by an imprecise sense of frustration.

Han laughed again. "Luke, you ever got any complaints ‘bout the way things are, you just say so. Now, c’mon. Let’s see if we got unlimited water yet."

Although the Falcon’s tanks carried an adequate supply of water for its crew, most of it was reserved for the food processors. Use of the remaining water was carefully rationed—sonic showers were the rule in-flight.

"Yeah, like I’m gonna turn that down!" exclaimed Luke, scrambling over Han. For a desert-bred fellow like himself, water showers were almost as good as sex. And maybe in the shower his indistinct concerns would morph into vapor and disperse with the steam.

* * * *

"Lando’s a nice enough guy, Luke, but you gotta watch out for him." They were strolling through the pristine and airy passageways of the city, on their way to meet Han’s old friend. Han’s arm was slung around Luke’s waist, and Chewie strode along a few paces behind them.

"How so?" Luke’s attention was obviously not on the conversation but on the spectacular vistas around them. He stepped over to an archway fronting a particularly dramatic view of domes and spires, painted in dazzling shades of copper and brass against a glorious amethyst and rose sky.

[You are afraid Lando will steal your lover from you, Han,] teased Chewbacca, softly enough that Luke wouldn’t overhear.

"I wasn’t thinking that at all, Chewie. Ain’t nothing holding Luke to me ‘cept his own decision. He’s free to go anywhere or anytime he chooses. I was thinking more along the lines of Lando trying to sell the kid a vacation timeshare on Hoth. Lando can sell a handful of nothing better’n anybody I know." Well, the words were true enough. It wasn’t like he could force Luke to stay on if he didn’t want to; and it would be just like Lando Calrissian to try and sweet-talk Luke into his bed just to prove he could, friends or no. There’d always been a competitive edge to their relationship. Han simply hoped like hell the kid liked it where he was. He’d kind of gotten used to having the twitch around.

Just then Luke turned around to smile at Han, and he caught his breath. Back when they’d first met Han had called him a golden god from ancient legend: now he saw the truth in that somewhat poetic description. Luminously young and heart-breakingly beautiful, the kid fairly glowed in the final brilliant shards of late afternoon sun. Gods, but he was more gorgeous now than he’d been months ago, probably thanks to Han Solo. Back then Luke had been innocent, adorable like an enthusiastic puppy; now, though… he absolutely radiated liberated, aware sensuality.

"This place is incredible. I learned about these floating cities back in school, but never dreamed it would all be so beautiful. And your buddy owns this place?"

The wistful look in Luke’s eyes felt like a knife through Han’s heart. This was the perfect setting for the kid.

"More or less, yeah. He’s the majority shareholder of the tibanna gas mining corporation that owns and operates Cloud City, which pretty much means when he says jump, other people ask how high. I think his title is Baron-Administrator."

"So how come I’m supposed to watch out for him?" Luke walked back over to Han and Chewie. "He gonna make a pass at me?"

Chewie chuckled and Han shot a quick glare in his direction.

Luke grinned and flicked a finger against the older man’s chest. "Nice to know I can make you jealous."

"Jealous? Don’t flatter yourself, junior. Only reason you’re still around is ‘cause the Wook’s gotten used to you." He watched Luke’s eyes narrow with anger and realized his thoughtless comment had struck a sensitive nerve.

This was why he didn’t like to keep lovers around for too long. Everything got complicated, until you had to watch what you were thinking. Beside him Chewie shifted impatiently. He was probably gonna hear about this from the Wookiee before long.

"Han! There you are. Been looking all over for you! Sorry I wasn’t there to greet you on arrival. I was tied up in meetings until just a while ago."

It was Lando, of course, with his impeccable timing. Han grinned his welcome and decided that sleek and satisfied was an appropriate look for Lando.

"Chewbacca. You’re looking well. This smuggler able to keep you in enough food? If he can’t, I could use a good foreman down in the maintenance bays… " Lando turned and smiled a wide, genuine, toothy smile at the attractive youth. "Well, well. Who are you?

Luke grinned back, deliberately wide-eyed and innocent, Han could tell, no doubt for the sole purpose of irritating him. Not that it actually bothered him, of course.

"I’m Luke Skywalker. Pretty impressive place you’ve got here, Mr. Calrissian." They shook hands, and Han swore the handclasp lasted several centuries. And since when had Luke ever been that polite? Little twitch.

"Call me Lando… Luke."

He felt the speculative sideways glance Lando shot at him, and met it squarely. "Luke’s our navigator and resident expert on hyperdrives and motivators."

Lando clapped an arm around Luke’s shoulders and drew him away from the others. "Must be very expert to rate a permanent berth on the Falcon. How long you been crewing with these losers, Luke?"

Han grimaced and fell into step with Chewie, trailing behind Lando and Luke. It wasn’t like he had anybody but himself to blame for the ridiculous situation. Chewie growled softly.

From there, the evening went from bad to worse. Lando offered them the hospitality of Cloud City: a sumptuous suite of rooms at the Bespin Stratos, a gourmet dinner and finally, a visit to the city’s premiere casino, a glittering jewel of chance and opportunity. Lando flirted outrageously with Luke, and Luke, well… he didn’t exactly seem indifferent to what was being offered.

Typical Lando, making a serious effort to be charming and attentive; too bad Luke didn’t know Lando as well as Han did. The guy made an appealing case for the obvious advantages to choosing a Baron-Administrator over a simple tramp freighter pilot, though: a life of luxury in this beautiful city; credits; power; respect; authority.

And probably damned good sex—Lando had quite a reputation in that department as well, although Han had no personal knowledge of that.

He was pretty sure Luke was too smart to buy the act.

When Lando and Luke departed to try their luck, at Lando’s expense, at the casino’s gaming tables, Chewbacca turned on him crossly.

[There are times when I wish your brain and your mouth had an open communication circuit, Han. Your careless remark wounded the cub, and this is the result. What are you going to do about it? As you pointed out earlier, I have gotten used to him and have no desire to leave him here when it is time to go.]

"Yeah, who’d laugh at your jokes then?"

[I am serious, Han. He is a valuable crewmember… and more.]

"What, should I be jealous of you too? Look, Chewie, the kid’s too blasted sensitive. He’ll get over it."

[Ah, so you are jealous.]

If a human had been wearing that expression, Han would’ve called it a smirk and punched the guy. "Like I said, he’ll get over it."

[And if he doesn’t?]

He shrugged, affecting an indifference he didn’t feel. "Then he doesn’t. Don’t make a big deal outta this, Chewie."

The Wookiee leaned closer and snarled. [I will make a big deal out of this, Han. Do not play the fool to me. He is good for you, and we both know how you feel about him.]

"All right! Look, I’ll talk to him tonight."

[Apologize, you mean.]

Like all hells he’d apologize. But maybe, yeah, maybe he should remind the kid what a good thing they had going on. Remind him what it was like to be at the controls of a ship like the Falcon and how sweet their nights together were.

"Whatever, Chewie. I’ll clear it up between us tonight."

[Good.]

Burning suns, but he couldn’t remember the last time he’d worried about a lover leaving him. It’d always been the other way around—Han Solo, the man who lived in the moment, took pleasure where he could and let it go, no regrets. What had happened to that man?

He glanced around the casino. He’d gambled here in Cloud City only once, and been superstitious enough never to force his luck a second time. He’d won his lady, the Falcon, in a tense, high-stakes sabacc game in a smoky, claustrophobic back room, from no less than Lando Calrissian himself. It was the defeat in the game, not the loss of the ship, which had stung Lando, but they’d reconciled their differences over that matter long ago; neither one of them cared to collect random grudges. Anyway, Lando had recouped his losses quickly enough, when he won Cloud City on the turn of a single card.

The kid looked so damned happy right now. He laid some chips down on the table and the wheel turned. Didn’t surprise him Lando had steered Luke to the chance wheel table—one of the easiest games to rig and control. No doubt Lando had given instructions to the dealer to let the boy win a time or two. Yeah, he won, and now it looked like they were arguing. He imagined the conversation, Lando suggesting they step away and let somebody else enjoy their luck; Luke wanting to take his winnings and let it ride. Looked like Luke out-stubborned Lando, because he nodded to the dealer and… yes, there was that surreptitious glance to the Baron-Administrator requesting guidance. Good for you, Lando, a shrug, let the kid take his knocks, right? After all, business meant credits and credits bought good-looking boys by the dozens.

Hadn’t he thought that himself about Luke just a few short months ago?

Hah! The Sacred Ones were smiling on Luke tonight. He’d won again, three in a row. Others were beginning to scent a lucky streak now and the crowd around the chance wheel deepened. By the time he and Chewie worked their way through the crowd Luke had won again, and Lando was beginning to look distinctly uncomfortable.

Luke made sixteen consecutive wins before suddenly withdrawing from the game. Flushed with victory, he stuffed the credit chips in his pockets and whooped with joy. Chewbacca lifted him clear off his feet with a big hug and let loose a roar that made several people glance nervously at the trembling crystal chandeliers overhead.

Han went to the cashier’s booth with Luke to make sure nobody cheated the kid in the exchange. "You were riding high, junior. What made you stop?" He was curious, doubted that he would’ve stopped so abruptly with that kind of winning streak.

"It just didn’t feel right all of a sudden. One minute I knew I couldn’t lose, and the next, I knew I couldn’t win." Han glanced back at the chance wheel and saw unhappy faces. Yep, the wheel had turned cold for those who stayed in the game.

What an instinct! Luke had never shown much aptitude for gambling before. He was possibly the worst sabacc player in the galaxy and had shown little interest in improving his skills. Funny how luck touched you sometimes, because of course that’s all it was. Luck. The same kind of luck he’d had in that game seven years ago when he’d won his lady. Or the luck that landed him on a dry, dusty world at just the right moment to meet Luke.

"You should send this on to your Aunt Beru, Luke. Or maybe invest it for your future. Don’t blow it on something stupid."

Luke’s smile was almost… secretive. "Thanks for the advice, Han, but I already know what I’m going to do with this." He looked at the negotiable credit card for a long moment, and then slipped it into his pocket. "If I can find the right, uh, item. And if I can afford it."

Sith’s seven hells, what could be so expensive Luke was afraid he couldn’t afford it? He had a big chunk of credits in his possession, more than Han Solo had seen in one place in a very long time. Was Luke thinking about buying his own ship? Come to think of it, those winnings would make a good down payment on a ship. A small one, not anything he’d want to fly, but he supposed he couldn’t begrudge the kid his dreams.

So. His instincts had been right this afternoon. History was repeating itself. The twitch was restless and lucky. The time had come to cut the drive. Sorry, Chewie, guess there ain’t no point to clearing things up between us. He’s ready to go, an’ I ain’t gonna stop him if that’s what he wants.

He interrupted Luke, not wanting to hear about plans that didn’t involve himself. "Ah, you’re just a crazy kid. Don’t go wasting your windfall." But he kissed him anyway, to say goodbye, and was surprised when the twitch’s arms went around him and pulled him into a lingering, teeth-rattling, eye-rolling, heart-stopping scorcher of a kiss that pulled the breath from his lungs and made time stand still.

Damned well ought to. It would have to last him for a very long time.

"All right, you two, break it up." Lando had come up beside them. "Let’s go celebrate Luke’s good fortune. There’s this great little club down on Level 37, you’ll like it, Han. They’ve got a Morlonian shazz band and a Ressini dancer that’s got to be seen to be believed."

He managed to slip away unnoticed before they reached the club.

The Falcon was unchanged, still the same classy lady she’d always been, but it would take a long while before he could feel comfortable in his cabin again. Their cabin, really. Luke had a private compartment but used it only to store his few personal possessions. Han couldn’t remember Luke sleeping anywhere other than the captain’s bunk in the months since Tatooine, and that was the way they both liked it. Correction. The way they had liked it.

The cabin, cramped though it was, echoed with vast and hollow emptiness when he entered. Too many stale memories lived in that bunk. A nervous Luke perched on the edge that first night like he was gonna raise and run at any second, clear through to last night’s confident Luke lounging back in blatant invitation, legs spread to give Han the best possible view of his hand fondling a lifting erection. And what about this afternoon’s frantic coupling, with desire coursing swift and hot through both of them? He’d deliberately kindled that desire in an effort to deflect dangerous intimacy into something less comprehensive.

Yeah, and look what it got him. A lonely bunk. A lonely life.

Sleep was gonna be impossible. Maybe he’d work on the hyperdrive. It just wasn’t compatible with the new motivator. Be nice if he could afford to upgrade; Cloud City had excellent repair facilities. Yeah, Luke’s winnings would’ve put a…

Forget that thought. Luke had won the money fair and square. It was his to do with as he pleased: put a down payment on his own ship, send it to his aunt, or even invest in one of Lando’s space-dream ideas. Not like it was any of his business anymore.

The com signal blared, but he ignored it. Chewie? Luke? He didn’t want to answer if it was Luke. Be too hard to refuse his coaxing, listen to his enthusiasm about the changes—hells, let’s be honest, improvements in his life—and his plans for the future. Luke was always enthusiastic about things. Damned if it wasn’t gonna be quiet on the old lady for a while. Not that it wouldn’t be a welcome change, of course.

He neither moved to answer the com nor work on the hyperdrive. Instead, he reached into the locker where he kept his private liquor supply and pulled out a half empty bottle. Good Corellian whiskey, the kind that would deliver him from painful memories, at least for the night.

He glanced toward the movement he caught out of the corner of his eye. Just himself in the small mirror. Familiar features to be sure, but somehow… not the same person.

"Who the hell are you?" he growled to his reflection, and lifted the bottle to his lips.

* * * *

Luke listened patiently to Lando’s glib prattle with half his mind. At least he was bored in elegant surroundings. Enduring repeated and exaggerated accounts of the rewards and benefits of the tibanna gas industry and the abundant pleasures of life in Cloud City was a small enough repayment for the kindness extended to them, he figured. He wasn’t entirely certain what Lando wanted from him—his body, his prize money, the secret to his gambling success, or most likely all three—but the guy sure was turning on the high voltage charm.

The other half of his mind was occupied with concerns about Han’s recent actions. He had walked out last night, before the celebrations even got started. Chewie had said not to worry about his absence, that the Corellian was merely sulking and would one day grow up. But Luke couldn’t help worrying; sulking wasn’t exactly Han’s style.

And just where was he anyway? Both his messages to the Falcon had gone unanswered. Chewie had been equally unsuccessful in locating the Corellian. They could’ve been mad at each other in comfort, at least. It would have been fun to make up in that whirlpool tub and self-conforming bed. Despite the luxury he hadn’t slept well. Too lonely, without Han tucked up tight against him to keep his back warm.

So here he was, mentally comparing Lando Calrissian to a Jawa, that persistent opportunist of the Tatooine desert. Must be the fifth or sixth time he’d referred to Luke’s amazing luck at the chance wheel last night. One hell of a lot smoother and more subtle than a Jawa to be sure, but definitely not to be turned aside once those gambler’s instincts had been roused.

Lando wasn’t buying his disclaimer of sheer luck, although that was what he’d have to settle for in the end, because Luke could offer no better explanation. He’d never been able to explain those odd flashes of insight, not even to himself. He certainly wasn’t about to tell anyone how it felt last night, the first time he touched that table and knew he could win at the game. Han could call it luck if he wanted, and maybe that’s all it was. Luke wasn’t exactly sure what it was, this feeling that came over him at times. Sometimes he simply saw or knew things, like himself walking away from the table a big winner. Those first two wins, yeah, the dealer had rigged it somehow, but that hadn’t mattered. He would have won anyway. Let Lando take the credit for those wins if he wanted. The rest he’d done on his own. And he’d already returned Lando’s original stake to him with interest. Not only had it been the right thing to do, he suspected the man quite capable of turning a small obligation into leverage if it suited his purposes. Liking the guy was one thing—trusting him something else entirely.

It wasn’t like he was blind to the diffuse, friendly antagonism between Han and Lando, either. Maybe the Falcon was still between them—Chewie’d told him that story a long time ago. Or maybe it was just the natural competition between two strong wills. Whatever the reason, Luke knew where his loyalties lay.

Han had his faults, sure, just as Luke did, but they were superficial. He took perverse pride in appearing rude and unreliable, but Luke had long ago discerned the unshakable core sustaining that crude façade. Han was a man you could count on. The kind of man who never gave his word lightly and never broke it once given. Lando… he was polished, all right, like one of the beautiful, bright decorative pieces scattered about this lounge. Luke had the feeling he would slide right off that reflective surface, and there would be nothing of substance to catch his fall.

Inevitably, his thoughts again circled around to Han. According to Master Flirt Lando Calrissian, Han was notoriously fickle, a statement borne out by overheard conversations between Han and Chewie. But Han wasn’t fickle. Just… independent. An untamable wild creature, he would never belong to anyone but himself.

Luke sometimes worried about making that fatal error which would cause Han to seek excuses to abandon him. Had he already done so? All he’d wanted to do last night was make a point, not ruin their relationship. He hadn’t even flirted with Lando after those first few minutes, but the Baron-Administrator apparently didn’t need much encouragement. What if Han found it convenient to dump the farm kid and move on? Leaving him here with Lando would probably ease his conscience considerably. Luke’s stomach clenched tight at the thought, even as he recognized that the very qualities which had attracted him to Han in the first place were the source of his present concern.

No. Breathe. Calm down. He was having crazy thoughts. Even if Han were selfish enough to cut and run like that—not that Luke believed him capable of it for a moment—Chewie was still here. Or was he? He’d gone in search of Han hours ago and never returned.

His throat closed up in dry panic.

"You all right, Luke?" He felt Lando’s hand on his shoulder, heard the concern in his voice.

"Uh, yeah, sure." No, he wasn’t all right, but he wouldn’t let Lando know that.

"You positive? Looked like you were going to pass out."

"I’m fine. Just this, uh, headache. Can’t get rid of the headache." It was the first excuse that leapt to mind, and he suddenly realized it was true anyway. His head was throbbing to the uneven beat of his erratic pulse.

Had he been a fool to visit Cloud City’s vast vehicle maintenance bay this afternoon and lay out most of his good fortune on an expensive upgrade for the Falcon’s hyperdrive system? When his winnings began accumulating last night, he had remembered those discussions with Chewie about upgrading the Falcon’s hyperdrive matrix. It made sense to change the configuration to one compatible with that new Finley 12 motivator they’d installed two months ago.

New drives were very costly, especially for a ship as modified and complex as the Falcon, even with him, Chewie and Han helping with the labor. Nearly as expensive as a down payment on a newer, smaller ship, but of course that was out of the question. The Falcon was their ship, tangible and visible testament to their shared ingenuity and independence. Scrambling to get by on wits, reflexes and courage wasn’t easy, but with Han and Chewie beside him it was a life he wouldn’t trade for anything—certainly not for the overindulgent, shallow privileges of a life in Cloud City. The decision was already made by the time he walked away from the gambling table.

He figured they could use the little bit that was left for living expenses while the retrofit was underway. But what if Han, Chewie and the Falcon were already long gone?

Lando grinned and signaled for a server. "I got a cure for that, Luke."

Man, but the help sure jumped when the Baron-Administrator beckoned. Looked like Lando got a real kick out of it, too.

All hells, he didn’t want to be sitting here chatting with Lando like nothing more than a headache was bothering him. He needed to find the Falcon. He needed to see Han.

Luke sipped the noxious concoction placed before him and discovered, to his genuine surprise, that it helped his head.

"Feeling better? I thought that would do the trick." Lando cocked his head and settled back in his chair. "You know, I envy Han."

"Huh?" He couldn’t help the foolish, clumsy startlement. Lando’s comment was totally unexpected. Real impressive. He definitely sounded like a dumb, never-been-to-the-big-city-farmboy, all right.

He tried again. "You envy Han? But you’ve got everything here! A good job, money, power, security…"

"I don’t deny those things are nice to have, Luke, and I do like my life here. But Han’s got something I’m not sure I’ll ever have."

Luke thought about the things Han had—not much, to tell the truth. A few changes of clothes, some mementos of past adventures, the Falcon. The freedom to go when and where he chose. Chewbacca. Oh. Oh.

"Now you get it, don’t you? Luckiest damn sonuvasith alive. Independence, loyalty and love, that’s what Han has."

Love? Well, he supposed you could call the relationship between Han and Chewie love. It was definitely a lifelong commitment on both sides.

"I heard about what you did for Han, Luke. Laying out practically your last credit for a drive upgrade on that beat up old freighter of his. That’s why I say I envy him. Wish somebody loved me that much."

"Me? You envy Han because of me?" Luke started to laugh, struck by the galaxy’s devious, ironic sense of humor and skimming the abyss of confused masochism.

Somehow he wasn’t surprised when Lando leaned forward and wrapped his hands around his neck. "Yeah, and that’s why I’m not gonna play the game any more. No point to it. Go on back to that rust bucket you and Han call home, but if the time comes when you’re free again, you know where I am."

Lando leaned in closer as if to kiss him and Luke twisted away, loosening Lando’s grip around his neck.

"Lando!" Han’s voice was sharp with anger. Composure still reeling from too many hits in the past few minutes, Luke could only watch Han and Chewie stride quickly across the lounge. He felt a wrenching relief that they were still here, but before he could say anything, Han was within arms’ reach of Lando and taking a swing at him. He heard the flat hard sound of impact after he saw Lando drop to the floor.

"Han?" Luke found himself pulled to his feet and captured in a powerful embrace.

"You’ve got a lot to answer for, junior. Don’t you know better than to go around flirting with every rich Baron-Administrator you meet? ‘N didn’t I tell you not to blow your money on something stupid?"

"But I…" Han squeezed him tighter, until he had no breath left.

"Yeah, Chewie told me. Retrofit for the hyperdrive. Damned, stupid, blind…wonderful brat. Hells, I missed you last night, kid. You ‘n me’ve been going around in circles here the last day or two, huh? Thought you were ready to cut the drive ‘n go into business for yourself, ‘til Chewie set me straight."

Head pounding again, this time with a release from tension so abrupt it bordered on pain, Luke held on tight.

"I thought…" He couldn’t finish the sentence, embarrassed to let Han know how much he’d doubted him.

"Don’t matter, Luke. It’s okay. We know where we are now. And we got as much time as we need to figure out where we’re going."

Luke began to laugh.

"What’s so funny?" They’d both forgotten about Lando, back up on his feet and rubbing what was probably a very sore jaw.

"Han." Luke’s grin broadened. "I don’t need any time at all to figure out where we’re going."

He cupped one hand around Han’s cheek and pulled him down for a possessive, claiming kiss.

* * * *

They barely made it through the door before Han swept him into an embrace and demanded his lips, tongue slipping easily into his mouth to mesh and couple eagerly with its mate.

"I’ve been a godsdamned fool, Luke," he whispered roughly, softly, when their mouths finally parted. "Shoving you away with one hand and yanking you back with the other. No wonder Lando started looking good to you."

There was no point in pretending his heart hadn’t just been delivered from life imprisonment, bequeathed sudden immunity to sorrow.

"He never looked that good to me, Han." He settled his mouth against the tender flesh just behind Han’s ear. "You’re the only one I want."

Strong arms squeezed tighter. "Foolish and lucky, that’s me. Unnnh, do that again, kid." Luke obediently bit down again and then licked the small injury by way of apology before jotting kisses down the strong jawline, while his hands charted the contours of that long, muscled back.

"Yeah, you are," he agreed before he caught Han’s lower lip with his teeth and nibbled. Luke felt rather than heard the moan when he sank his teeth into Han’s lip hard enough to bruise.

Han tasted of sweat and whiskey, and his beard felt like sandpaper against Luke’s tongue. Just the way he liked it. Unshaven, unshowered—the scent and taste of pure, undiluted Han in his nose and mouth.

"Sure am glad I corrupted you," Han muttered when Luke finally released his mouth.

"Who says it was you corrupted me?" Luke teased back, still unbalanced from the spectral fears haunting his memory and unwilling to surrender his sudden advantage. Every atom of his being sparked with rampant electricity at the wary tension in Han’s eyes.

"Nobody. ‘N that don’t matter, long as you understand you belong to me from now on."

Oh, yes, he knew where he belonged. Question was, did Han?

He placed a hand on either side of Han’s head and held fast, staring into obstinate eyes. "Just as long as you understand you belong to me from now on."

"Wouldn’t have it any other way, junior."

The next kiss was fierce and demanding and lasted a long time, until Luke had to cling helplessly to Han’s shoulders to keep from collapsing.

"Ah, kid, you keep kissing me like that an’ I ain’t gonna have the energy for anything else."

"That’s the general idea."

Han raised his head and glanced around the luxuriously appointed room. "Nice of Lando to let us keep on using this suite. Didn’t you say there’s a big, comfortable self-conforming bed around here somewhere?"

"Uh-huh. In that bedroom. Just a few steps away from the two-man whirlpool tub." He pointed to one door.

"So what’s in that one?" Han jerked his head toward the opposite door.

"Chewie’s room."

"Hope the soundproofing’s good, kid. You are gonna be making a lot of noise tonight."

Luke wiggled free from Han’s grasp. "Me? You’re the one who always yells at critical moments!"

Han pointed to himself with a ‘who, me?’ expression on his face. "Must have me confused with one of those other guys who corrupted you."

"You were my first, Han."

"I know." Han grabbed hold of the back of Luke’s head and pulled him closer. "Just so you know I’m your last." Between the words lay the promise of a future together.

Luke smiled. "If you say so, Han."

"I do say so, Luke." Han held him tightly, fiercely, claiming his mouth as though he would never let him breathe again.

He had to pull himself free, entirely winded, every muscle trembling from desire and oxygen deprivation. "I can’t stand up much longer. We better find that bed."

They moved into the bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Time to make you yell, old man." He slipped the vest down Han’s shoulders and tossed it aside.

"I keep telling you, kid, it ain’t me that makes all the noise." They shared a brief kiss while Luke unbuttoned Han’s shirt, then quickly abandoned the task in favor of gliding his hands over tawny exposed flesh. Han continued to struggle with the sleeves of his shirt, distracted by Luke’s mouth cruising his chest so that he hopelessly tangled himself up. Luke raised his head up just far enough to grin at Han, deserting the nipple he had been licking.

"You got a problem there, Han?"

"Unbutton these cuffs, will ya, so I can get it off."

Impulse beckoned. Maintaining firm eye contact, Luke reached down with one hand, grabbed the tangled sleeves and yanked Han’s hands over his head.

"I think I like this look." The bed had a decorative headboard, and it was the matter of a few seconds work to wrap the loose ends of the shirt through the cutwork and tie a firm knot. "Don’t forget I can tie a mean knot, smuggler."

Gods, that lazy, easy grin, and the smolder in those dark eyes. "Don’t see me fighting, d’you?"

"Might be more fun if you did," he admitted breathlessly.

"Didn’t know you had a taste for rough stuff, Luke. I’m gonna keep that in mind for later."

"No, no rough stuff, Han. I just wanna… make you squirm."

Han stretched, laid his head back and kept on grinning. "Do your worst, kid. I can take it."

Oh, he could definitely promise to do his worst to that smug, arrogant, gorgeous Corellian. He would use hands and mouth in a most persuasive manner, to take him to the edge and keep him there until he cried for mercy.

"Just don’t expect me to beg." Damn the man for reading his mind!

"I don’t." He let his voice drop to a low purr as he trailed one finger down the crest of that bold, strong profile, the merest whisper of a touch, insubstantial as mist in a desert, and followed the touch with light kisses. "I expect you to surrender."

"Luke…"

He silenced Han with more kisses and touches, to mouth and neck, and then everywhere, quartering that tense, bronzed body methodically and watching muscles tighten and crawl under his touch. He spared nothing, stroking the tender inner flesh of the captive arms, pressing lips to pulse points, tasting the creases and folds for the essence of Han gathered there, identifying and memorizing every flinch and quiver and arrested, throaty sound. And in every place he touched he left invisible brands of ownership.

"Aahhh…" Not quite a moan, not quite a plea as his tongue tickled Han’s navel and his fingers loosened the belt around his hips.

"Did I hear something?" he whispered, smiling into the dark curls gathering below Han’s navel.

"I’m… I’m laying on my blaster," Han gritted out, refusing to yield.

"Taken care of." Within seconds blaster and belt were laid aside and Han’s pants opened. Luke paused to remove the high boots and returned to work the trousers down and off.

"Gods, you’re gorgeous, Han," Luke whispered, struck by his own audacity in thinking to control all this raw energy and strength. He stroked up and down the muscled legs, learning anew the different textures, the rasp of coarse hair, the sharp angle of knee and ankle, the fragile skin of the instep.

Han’s hips rose and fell, once, twice. His cock, engorged and hard, lay tight against his belly, mute witness to elemental desire. Beads of moisture glistened on the head just now emerging from its protective concealment. Luke touched a fingertip to the drops hanging there and brought the finger to Han’s lips.

"Are you sure you don’t have anything to say?"

Han sucked the finger into his mouth and Luke cried out at the sheer wanton abandonment in the gesture.

"I told you it ain’t me who makes the noise."

"Maybe not all of it," he conceded. "But you’re louder."

He ducked his head again, this time to capture that hard length between his lips and swirl his tongue around the cap and under the foreskin, earning a definite writhe and gasp for his reward. He drew more of the shaft into his mouth, loving the taste and shape of Han, the familiar grain of stretched skin and glossy dome, the breadth and depth of masculine need hot and urgent against his tongue…

…Han shouted… he couldn’t understand the words, only the sweet sound of his lover’s voice proclaiming his mastery…

… on the edge, right on the edge… right where he’d promised to take him…

He yanked his own clothes off as fast as he could, careless of where they fell, and reached into the drawer of the bedside table for the item he’d placed there the previous night.

"Luke! Damn you." Han struggled against the bonds to free himself and succeeded only in tightening the knots. The fabric would fray and tear soon under the determined assault.

He held up the small tube and pressed himself against the length of Han’s lean body, both of them ready to explode. Supple fingers worked at the knots just as his mouth worked at Han’s lips, straining and demanding. Then Han was free, his hands gliding the length of Luke’s back, holding him close as he crushed their hips together.

"Take me," he whispered against Luke’s mouth.

"Han…"

"I want you to. Because I belong to you as much as you belong to me."

Han helped him, stroked the cool and slippery gel over his rigid cock and guided his hands where he wanted them. Luke slid a tentative finger within and probed carefully; added a second finger and watched Han’s expression transmute from shredding caution into fierce pleasure, until he touched the gland and saw lightning tear across Han’s face.

"Come on, Luke." He rolled over onto his belly, shamelessly eager for what was to come.

"Yes," he whispered, "I’m ready." Luke used one hand to guide his cock along the crease and into position, head pressed hard up against the reluctant entrance—and held, anticipation and wonder and fear gathering under his skin.

"Aw, c’mon, don’t ask me if this is what I really want, Luke. Just do it."

He nodded once, throat dry and tight with wanting, and pushed inside, into welcome heat and friction.

Han grunted a short, sharp sound of discomfort, but smiled encouragement over his shoulder.

Luke remembered well the day Han had first possessed him fully, that big cock stretching and filling him completely, the sharp pain lessening within moments, and the pleasure that took him by surprise. That pleasure was now doubled and redoubled, with Han beneath him, compliant and impatient.

He began to move finally, hesitantly, able to hold himself no longer, but Han refused the shallow, timid thrusts and rose to meet them aggressively.

"Don’t play games with me."

He arched up and Luke slid in deeper, fully sheathed now. He let his breath out in a hiss and reached underneath Han’s belly to wrap his fingers around the waiting cock. Han set the desperate pace, wound Luke into a tightly coiled spring with his moans and growls and cries… "More…"

He answered the plea with all the intensity and energy of youthful passion, no room for restraint and hesitation left in love’s equation…

… until Luke no longer knew where he ended and Han began, the boundaries between them blurred, fractured, obliterated…

He wanted it to last forever, buried deep within Han, riding the edge of eternity…

… and then they were over the edge, falling together… it was like flying and it wasn’t, as though the engines had cut out beneath them and they were gliding on the currents of wind and time…

Distantly he heard his own voice join to Han’s exultant roar, felt hot liquid spill over his fist, and felt the savage pulse of his own detonation.

"Oh, Maker." Part prayer, part curse. He collapsed across Han’s back, utterly spent, face pressed into a tanned shoulder.

"That about says it, kid," Han agreed between ragged breaths.

"It was… all right?" Gods, how he hated that tremor of insecurity in his voice.

"Too damned good, Luke. I’m beginning to think maybe you were already corrupted before we met."

Reassured, Luke rolled over to face Han. "You never seemed to want this before."

"Neither did you, until yesterday."

"Well, I guess we both know better now, don’t we?" He grinned and looked down at their intertwined fingers. "I was shy. What’s your excuse?"

"You never had a shy day in your life, buddy."

"Stop trying to change the subject. Answer my question."

"Must’ve had a good reason, but damned if I can remember it now. Does it matter?"

Luke looked sharply at his face and found only unparalleled openness in Han’s eyes and expression, as though the last shields of self-protection had crumbled like sandstone huts in the wastelands, leaving only the limitless horizons of unwavering certainty and the windswept desert of steadfast honesty.

He smiled at Han. "No. It doesn’t matter at all. Not any more."

* * * *

"What can I do for you, old man?" Han squinted at the two robed figures who had just interrupted his work. He slammed the access hatch plate back into position and bolted down the latches.

"We need to hire a fast ship for passage to Alderaan. I hear yours might suit our needs."

"She’s fast, all right." Good thing Luke and Chewie weren’t around. They’d probably consider it a personal mission to extol the virtues of the just-completed drive upgrade. "Cargo?" He stretched the kinks out of his back. The old fellow looked pretty harmless, wouldn’t hurt to hear him out, he supposed.

"Passengers only. Myself, this little one, two droids…and no questions asked."

"Alderaan, huh?" Not a bad destination for a shakedown cruise. Luke wouldn’t mind a detour there before going to Tatooine to visit his aunt. "Local trouble?" He sauntered over to the next hatch plate and swung it into position.

"Let’s just say we’d like to avoid any imperial entanglements."

"That’ll cost you. Ten thousand, all in advance." He tossed the absurd sum out for the sheer pleasure of hearing the amount spoken aloud. These two didn’t look like they had so much as a single credit between them anyway.

The smaller figure made a choking sound and Han looked more closely, trying to see the person inside the sheltering hood. The hand that came up to tug the hood closer was small, delicate and very human. He caught a whiff of familiar, expensive perfume, incompatible with the rough garb and drab circumstances.

The old man smiled gently. "We can give you two thousand now, and another fifteen when we reach Alderaan."

"Seventeen?" Han pretended to look thoughtful. Seventeen thousand? These two must be desperate. But the casual promise of such a large fee also raised the hackles on the back of his neck. There was something strange going on here, but he couldn’t quite define it. Still, seventeen thousand was a hefty pile of credits…

"All right. You got yourselves a ship. My crew’s on board. We’re ready any time you are."

"We’d like to depart immediately."

"Well, then, get on board." He gestured toward the boarding ramp. Two droids tagged along behind the humans, one a humanoid-shaped protocol mechanical and the other a familiar style astromech droid. Droids. Han wasn’t overly fond of droids, but for seventeen thousand he figured he could put up with them for a couple of days.

"Now why do I have a feeling I’m going to regret this?" muttered Han as he watched them board his ship.

END