Jigsaw

Irene Heron

". . . my life's a jigsaw puzzle that's been torn all apart . . ."
('Nobody Knows', Tony Rich Project)

Tearing Apart . . .

The TIE fighter continued to gain on him--surely the pilot would have a target lock within seconds. Cocooned within his Force sense, lulled into an oddly abeyant state by the voice whispering inside his head, Luke Skywalker was only peripherally aware of danger as he continued a desperate attempt to successfully launch his deadly torpedoes. Activity registered on his scopes: a threat was removed and suddenly a voice blared in his ears. "You're all clear, kid! Now let's blow this thing and go home." Freed of the necessity for evasive maneuvers, Luke's hands moved of their own volition upon the controls of the sleek starfighter, steering a swift and true course. Possessed by the moment, unwitting conduit of the all-pervasive universal Force energy, Luke completed his task and soared out of the trench into the clear void of space.

Except the void wasn't clear at all. An immense shockwave buffeted his tiny ship and Luke saw sparks as debris met and fizzled against the protective shields of his vehicle. Shaking the last vestige of Force awareness from his mind, Luke had no time to ponder the source of the debris. The Death Star still registered on his instruments and he needed to put some distance between himself and the space station if he wanted to survive that explosion. The Millennium Falcon was not visible anywhere, yet Luke knew the dilapidated freighter and its crew had rescued him from certain death less than a minute ago. In the seconds before the battlemoon winked from existence, splintering into uncountable particles, Luke understood. Another shockwave slammed into his fragile starfighter as large fragments of debris began to pummel the ship from all directions. As he lost consciousness, Luke tasted the despair of failure.

* * *

Chewbacca's roar of triumph still reverberated around the cramped cockpit as Han Solo and his Wookiee co-pilot grinned at each other. Han wondered just what Chewie would later claim he scented at this moment. Relief? Pride? Honor? Sweat? It was always interesting to hear the Wook's interpretation of his behavior.

Solo glanced back down at the controls as an alarm shrieked. "What the . . . Chewie!" Aghast, they helplessly observed the horrifying spectacle before them, as the Death Star's superlaser fired on the vulnerable green moon turning serenely in its orbit. Faster than thought, the planet metamorphosed into a swelling cloud of rubble. Chewbacca reacted first, slapping the controls with abandoned haste.

Solo remained stiff with disbelief for an endlessly elongated split second, not breathing. He had risked his ship, his closest friend, and his own neck--for this? Impotent rage left bitterness in his mouth. The rebel base . . . ah, lords, the beautiful princess. Obliterated. Gone. He'd guessed correctly, back there on the moon. 'More like suicide', he'd said to Luke.

Luke! Where was that kid? He'd come back because of him--damned if he would let the kid die! Solo turned back to the controls to assist Chewie. The battlestation was still hanging in space, far behind them now.

"Chewie! We can't leave Luke behind. His shields'll never hold up under that kind of punishment!" Even as the words left his mouth, the space station exploded just as spectacularly as the verdant moon had bare seconds before. Already the second shockwave battered the Falcon, and both pilots were fully occupied with trying to keep their ship intact.

Long moments passed before either was able to give thought to anything other than their own survival.

"Now we go back to look for Luke," said Han firmly, in what Chewbacca had long ago labeled the captain's voice, although it was obvious his co-pilot had no intention of arguing.

Eyes on the sensor display, Chewie pointed and whuffed. "Three ships still intact, huh?" Solo's hands caressed the controls, urging infinitesimal course corrections to avoid large chunks of planet and space station. "Do we have enough power to tractor them in and extend our shields?" he wondered aloud, furiously calculating power redistributions. "It's a sure bet we won't be able to risk a ship to ship transfer with all this debris floating around."

Chewbacca snarled in frustration. Solo compressed his lips in a tight line, concentrating on reaching the nearest ship. Chewbacca rumbled admiration for the consummate piloting skills being demonstrated. "If we've got a coupla injured guys here--damn! Curse this system to all seven hundred hells!"

Captain and Mate watched in silence and sorrow as the small craft impacted against a building sized chunk of rock and was demolished instantaneously. Solo narrowed his eyes in sympathy for the pilot. Bad luck to survive the battle and end up this way. Still, a Y-Wing, not Luke.

"Millennium Falcon, do you copy? This is Red Two. Repeat, this is Wedge Antilles in Red Two. Do you copy, Solo?" The youthful voice was tight with tension. Solo tried to picture a face to add to the name and voice, and failed. He hadn't bothered to learn any of their names, had known they were all doomed. One survivor, out of . . . what, thirty?

Chewie toggled the com switch and urfed in response, nudging his companion. "Yeah, Solo here, Antilles." Han was relieved to learn Antilles was uninjured; his ship and shields adequate for travel, if not battle. One saved from the Void, at least for now. Antilles' ship threaded an awkward course out of the grisly graveyard, headed toward the agreed upon rendezvous. Grim determination etched Solo's features and steeled his soul as he guided his beloved ship deeper into the deadly cloud. One saved, but not the one I'm lookin' for. I'm not leavin' without Luke.

The com board came alive with incoherent electronic twitters. Chewbacca roared with relief. [I know that sound! That's the Magician's droid! He was flying with Luke!] A translation scrolled across the display, but Solo dared not spare a glance. [The droid is in control of the ship but is badly damaged. The cub is unconscious.]

Less than ten minutes later, one decrepit freighter and two battered starfighters departed the death littered Yavin planetary system, leaving behind only silence and debris to tell the story.

Scattered Pieces . . .

In the Falcon's lounge, Chewbacca paused in his intricate repairs of the ruined astromech droid to regard his captain and friend. [You are distracting me, Han,] grumbled the Wookiee. [This is difficult enough without your pacing.]

Solo glared sullenly across the lounge as he slumped into a seat at the auxiliary control board. "Why the hell doesn't he wake up? It's been nearly two days!" Concern for Luke resonated in every syllable.

[Be patient. Go check on him again if that makes you feel better. The medic said there were no serious injuries and he would regain consciousness in his own time.]

Solo stared at his boots for a long moment, uncharacteristically silenced by his co-pilot's amused indulgence. "If I wasn't so damn worried about that kid, I'd . . . aw, hell!"

Chewbacca's concerned gaze followed Solo's departure from the lounge. Beneath massive paws the little droid wheeped inquiry, drawing the Wookie's attention back to his repairs. With surprising delicacy, Chewie began splicing wires together, concentration and concern furrowing his face.

Solo gingerly balanced himself on the edge of the bunk, resting one hand against Luke's forehead. No fever, no broken bones or internal injuries. Not even a concussion to cause this worrisome continued unconsciousness. The Falcon's medical scanner remained as stubbornly unrevealing as it had previously. Han abandoned the useless instrument and regarded his patient. Sleeping, Luke looked even younger than Han remembered, almost an innocent child. Independent of thought, Han's fingers traced the soft contours of the youth's face from forehead to chin, pausing briefly at the desirable mouth. It wasn't difficult for Han to acknowledge to himself why he had returned to Yavin. Why'd you hafta go and make me feel so much, kid? You turned those big eyes on me and made me feel again, really feel. Nobody's done that in a long time, 'cept for Chewie, but that don't count.

Han's gentle touch roused Luke to unwelcome awareness. For a moment he lay perfectly still. Trying to gather up the pieces of himself, Han thought. Abruptly, gasping in remembered horror, the boy surged upright, eyes staring wildly, painfully, in the stark glare of overhead brilliance.

"Luke!" Relief colored Han's exclamation. "How do you feel?" Anxious hands grasped trembling arms and soothed incipient panic. "Take it easy . . . that's right. It's me, Han. You're safe."

Bewildered eyes took in the familiar face before him. "H . . . Han?" A parched tongue tried to moisten equally parched lips. "Where . . .?"

"Here, take a sip of water. It's all right. We're on the Falcon."

Gripping the cup tightly in traitorously shaking hands, Luke leaned into Han's strength as the older man slipped a comforting arm around his shoulders.

"The Falcon? What . . . how . . ."

Han hesitated, at a loss how to prepare Luke and suddenly, fiercely protective of the youth shivering under his arm. "You did it, buddy. It was a one in a million shot. Blew that godsbedamned station to atoms."

"I remember." Luke fixed Han with an uncompromising blue stare. "But when I pulled out of the trench, there was debris. A lot of debris. Like something big had exploded." Han's protective determination retreated before the grief of knowledge in those eyes.

"Yeah, there was." Their eyes locked in silent communion.

"I was too late, wasn't I?" came the ghost of a whisper, but if Luke's lips moved Han didn't see it. His arm tightened around suddenly insubstantial shoulders. "Yavin's gone. The base, all those people." Han knew that the sharply indrawn breath, raw and corrosive, burned Luke's throat. "Leia."

Perceptive dread twisted in Han's stomach, propelled an explosive "No, it's not your fault!" Regaining control, he repeated in a surprisingly gentle voice, "It's not your fault. You did the impossible."

Stony silence met his words; Luke's eyes became remote and bleak. "The Force was with me, Han. I know it. I could feel it, hear it whispering to me. It wasn't supposed to happen this way!" Solo could hear the cadence of pulse thundering under his hands, throbbing mortification with each heartbeat. "What did I do wrong?"

The slim body under Han's hands had gone rigid with tension. "Look at me, Luke! It's not your fault. You can't blame yourself for surviving. That's just the way it is." Solo nearly recoiled from the self-loathing in the short, scornful laugh. Instead he drew Luke into a tight embrace, wishing he could cradle his pain as easily as he could the body. And just why did he care so much about Luke's pain?

"She's dead, Han." The words were glittering blades of recrimination. "She believed in me, trusted me to save her again, because I have the Force." Luke's voice was choked with unbridled sorrow; strangled by spiteful revulsion. "They all did. And all I did was kill them."

Realistic expediency battled sympathy and won. "That's bantha shit, Luke! You don't think anybody besides that old man believed that crap, do you? Besides, if that Force is so all-powerful as he said, how come all the Jedi are dead, huh? Including him!"

Luke's abrupt withdrawal from Han's embrace bespoke an implicit loss of trust. Nice job, Solo. You just ripped away the last thing he had.

Han dropped his arms. The kid had retreated, closed himself off completely. At a sound, Han looked up. Chewbacca hovered in the doorway of the med cubicle, rumbling his alarm.

"Aw, Chewie, fool kid's blaming himself for what happened. I can't seem to get through to him."

[Not surprising. You humans like to take credit for everything that happens in the galaxy.] The flippant words warred with the gentle touch the Wookiee bestowed on Luke's shoulder. [He is in great pain. I will stay with him for now. You need to rest. This has been difficult for you as well.] Affection for his human partner evidenced itself in occasional paternal behavior. Chewbacca watched as Solo scrubbed weary hands across gritty, red-rimmed eyes.

"Yeah, you're right. An' I guess I'm not doing Luke much good anyway." With a last lingering look at Luke's withdrawn expression, Han headed for his cabin.

* * *

"Han?"

Jerked sharply awake from an uncomfortable doze, Solo squinted in the dim light, fuzzily trying to clear the cobweb of fading dreams from his mind. "Huh?" he mumbled incoherently. "Luke? 'S that you?" He shifted his weight, trying to straighten complaining muscles. "Luke!"

The slender figure, still clad in those oversized desert rags he'd worn underneath his flight suit, crossed the cabin hesitantly to sit beside the older man. "Yeah, it's me."

Apprehension was clearly visible in the taut figure: a penitent child with his grief, guilt and loss, Luke had come begging forgiveness. Needing an absolution which was not Han Solo's to give. Busying himself with a bottle, Han prepared for the ordeal.

"Was I the only survivor?" came the question in the smallest voice Han had ever heard.

"Not quite. Antilles is alive." And that Sith spawned Imp pilot I blasted off your tail, but I hope he mummifies in his cockpit.

"Wedge! Where is he?" Luke looked around the cabin as if expecting the other man to materialize from the bulkhead.

"Trying to get a message through to another resistance cell, let them know what happened. We stopped on Virash, repaired his ship and hid yours." Han handed a generous measure of Corellian whiskey to Luke. "Drink."

Luke swallowed without so much as a choke or gasp, evidence of his distress. He's got to be a block of ice inside. At least this'll warm his belly. Damn, wish he wouldn't gulp so fast. This is good stuff.

"Got you checked out by a medic. Just a bump on the head, knocked you out." Privately, Solo doubted so commonplace a cause for Luke's protracted insensibility. "How are you feeling?"

Luke shrugged. "Cold. Empty. Like I should be in pieces along with everybody else." Those amazing eyes only hinted at the depths of entropy invading his spirit. Alarm jangled along Han's nerves at the lethargic quality of Luke's voice.

"Antilles thought he might be able to get a message through from one of the old drops." The subtle twitch of Luke's shoulder betrayed his thoughts.

"Is there a rebellion left?" came the bitter response.

"Dunno, junior. Antilles thought it worth a try." Solo wasn't comfortable expressing consolation or sympathy, so he took refuge in simple facts. "We're on course for Corellia, my home planet. And Antilles', for that matter. He'll get in touch with us there."

Just as Han had known, Luke said, "Tell me about it, Han. I need to hear it all." And even though this would not be a pleasant experience for either of them, Solo was surprised to find himself tempering his natural impatience with compassion.

In the Box . . .

Within a tenday of the devastation in the Yavin system, Han Solo began cursing his earlier decisions in earnest. Biggest damn fool in the galaxy, Solo! Had your payment and clear skies. Could've paid Jabba off and still had plenty left over for good whiskey and willing women. Didn't hafta listen to the Wook. Didn't hafta think about the kid goin' up against something bigger 'n him.

The voyage to Corellia had been uneventful, but clearing the patrols and the subsequent inspection had been surprisingly nerve-wracking. Some of the reward money had gone for bribes. Imperial security measures were considerably more stringent than the last time he'd been here. Idly, the smuggler wondered if the Death Star's destruction had anything to do with the increased vigilance.

Solo took another long swallow of cheap whiskey, grimaced as the raw liquor abraded his throat and combusted in his belly. His eyes focused on the slight shape of the boy, huddled nearly motionless on a rock ledge overhanging the lake, the desert dweller instinctively drawn to water.

Han knew Chewbacca believed in the curative effects of nature, and this place had everything made to order: the vast silence of the mountains reflected in the mirror smooth surface of the lake; brightly plumed yellow and red darters scavenging for overlooked bounty in the autumnal bare branches of berry bushes; gentle breezes at dusk rustling the leaves and tall grasses in a soothing lullaby; and a shabby but comfortable cottage at the edge of this sun-warmed glade. It was as beautiful and peaceful a natural setting as anyone could want. So why the fuck isn't it working? Solo grimaced, resentful of wasted time and effort.

Luke had been disturbingly passive the past few days, eerily fatalistic as though accepting a terminal illness. The seemingly unquenchable spirit Han found so attractive had dissolved under this twin encumbrance of grief and guilt. The astounding vitality Luke normally radiated had vanished in the teeth of unrelenting reality and Han mourned its absence. After that first night, when Han had laid the truth before Luke in all its uncompromising brutality, Luke had withdrawn again into anguished despair. Recent events had sadly disabused him of his misplaced youthful confidence, and had admitted mortality. Nebulous outrage had taken up residence within Han's soul and he ached for his own loss as much as for Luke's.

Solo wondered once again why he hadn't taken that reward and gone directly to Tatooine. Why had he lingered in the Yavin system and finally returned to risk everything for one person's life? A kid who didn't even appreciate Han's sacrifice, who was unaware of anything beyond his own suffering. He could've headed for any of a hundred pleasant planets with enough diversions for even Han Solo. Any place but here, any company but this half-dead phantasm. This ain't Luke no more. Han doubted another drink would help, but swallowed anyway. There wasn't anything to do, except drink and watch Luke pretend to be alive.

The last vestige of warmth vanished with the disappearance of the sun, and the glade cooled abruptly. Luke stirred from his awkward, perennial post. Luke was damnably attractive and desirable; more than that he was smart, quick, loyal and foolishly courageous. A dreamer and a doer, and Solo was disgusted with Luke's wasteful self-recrimination.

In a way, Luke reminded Han of himself, back in the bad old days when he'd been young and occasionally idealistic. Before experience had branded his soul and opened his eyes.

It had been Chewie's idea for Han and Luke to stay at the cottage belonging to an old friend. With a sly grin, he had said [You would prefer being left alone with Luke. Do not pretend otherwise. You're attracted to the cub and he is attracted to you.] Solo had shot a surprised stare at the Wookiee. [I have scented it] Chewbacca replied smugly.

'You're crazy, Chewie. Anybody could see he was head over heels for the princess,' Han had sneered, trying to pretend Chewie's words hadn't jump-started a slow burn in his groin.

[But she is gone and you are still here] Chewie pointed out. [You know I do not mistake these things.]

No, Chewie was never wrong about that sort of thing, but Han supposed there was a first time for everything.

He watched Luke as the youth trudged slowly across the glade, every breath and step an obvious effort against the weight of his burdens.

He laid a comforting arm around the boy's shoulders, frail with the wasting away of spirit. "You're cold, Luke. Let's get you warmed up."

Luke's continued lethargy both alarmed and angered Han. It was something outside his comprehension. Han knew the type, all passion and loyalty, throwing himself into something heart and soul until The Cause consumed him. The kind that needed something bigger than himself to believe in, needed a place to belong to. Listen, kid, until you get it figured out, you can believe in me--belong with me. I'll see you through. Yeah, and just maybe I'll get somethin' for myself as well.

Han handed Luke a cup of hot kaf laced with the cheap whiskey he'd been drinking for days. He could see resentment at this small kindness smoldering in Luke's eyes, stoked by guilt and a sense of unworthiness.

"You're a fool to waste your efforts on me, Han. Why do you bother?" That harshly whispered question, coupled with Luke's immobile figure in the chair, pitifully small and weak against whatever internal battle was being waged, finally goaded Han beyond endurance. Forbearance was a fool's weapon when all it did was promote anguish. It was time to get tough with the kid. Sith's seven hells, Luke, I rescued you once so I guess you're my responsibility now.

Framing the Edges . . .

"Luke, 's time you stop feeling sorry for yourself and start listening to me," Han commanded, holding the blue eyes until certain Luke was paying attention. "I get the feeling you haven't heard much of anything I've said the last few days and I'm tired of it. Nobody ignores Han Solo!" Han thumped his chest for emphasis. "I didn't hear any whining outta Antilles and I'm sick of yours!"

That delectable mouth hung open in slack shock, and Solo permitted himself an inward grin. That had gotten Luke's attention, at least.

"Wedge's ship was shot up," Luke finally stammered. "He couldn't help. It was my responsibility, not his." The voice dropped to a whisper. "My fault."

Unexpectedly, Han laughed. "Sure, junior. All your damned fault. Everybody should've known you were a highly trained and experienced veteran with dozens of space battles under your belt, a real certifiable hero. What you are," Solo leaned forward to point an accusing finger in Luke's face, "is a snot nosed kid off'n some tenth rate planet, never piloted anything bigger'n a hopper, never had any training of any kind--yeah, Luke Skywalker, savior of the galaxy! Your personal fuckin' responsibility. What a joke! You still got sand between your ears, boy." As Han hoped, life surged back into those lackluster eyes, fueled by savage anger. "Go ahead and blame yourself if you want. It's just about what anybody'd expect from a jawa-brained backcountry boy without sense to hide from a sandstorm."

"Han!" The growled threat was unmistakable, as Luke leapt to his feet to loom over the seated older man. "I had the Force. It was up to me!" Fury shook the slim form as he leaned into Han's face, desperately protecting the only thing he still owned: his guilt.

"Oh, yeah, the Force," jeered Solo. "I forgot about the all-powerful Force. People say I've got a big ego, but it doesn't even begin to compare with your arrogance. Thinking everything depended on you alone. Nope, didn't need those other pilots--hell, why'd they even bother to lift? They could've just sat around and sipped tea while you saved the galaxy single handed."

"Shut up, damn you! So I'm not trained! So I'm not all powerful! I was the only chance any of those people on Yavin had! I keep thinking, if only I'd started my run just a minute sooner, or been just a little faster in the trench. They're dead because of me."

"Better them than you, Luke!" Damned martyr complex. It would get Luke killed one of these days and Solo didn't want to be around when that happened. "It's just something you learn to live with. You're alive and they're dead and no amount of 'if onlys' will bring them back. You could play that game forever, but there's no percentage in it, 'cause you'll never know and it'll make you crazy." Han knew from bitter experience it didn't matter, what was done was done. If he handled this right, Luke would understand that sad truth, too.

Han could see the argument rising in Luke's eyes and tried to forestall it.

"You bought into a cause and you have to live with the consequences. You wanted to be all noble and heroic, strike a blow for freedom and all the other romantic crap you were fed in holofilms." Luke nodded a little reluctantly, probably embarrassed to recognize himself in Han's words. "It's not like that. War's all about death and trampling the other side so hard they can't ever rise back up against you again. You don't feel guilty about the pilots you shot down or the people on the space station, do you? It was you or them. They didn't have names or faces, so it's easy to rationalize. Self-defense, a good cause and so forth. But those poor innocent bystanders on Yavin, they had names and faces you remember, and that makes it personal."

Luke swallowed, eyes nearly black with shock. "It's different, Han, and you'd know it if you had half a brain! There were non-combatants on Yavin. Mechanics and cooks and engineers and . . ."

"You think there weren't techs and cooks on the Death Star?"

"They knew what that battlestation was designed to do, what it did to Alderaan! They were guilty just by being there!" Blue eyes blazed with righteous fury.

"Just like everybody on Yavin, Luke. Think about it. Little Miss Arrogance and General Pompous sent you on a straight path to the hereafter and they thought they were doing you a favor! There wasn't a person on that moon, from the cooks on up, who would've seen it any different. Not one who didn't consider their life, or yours, or mine for that matter, more than fair trade for destroying that space station." Solo was confident of his assertion. It hadn't taken him long to see they were all of a type, crusaders one and all, every one of them a fool.

Luke's denial was instinctive, but the treacherous truth was in Han's eyes. "No one on that moon expected to outlive the day. They sent you up because taking a chance, even an impossible one, was better than just sitting 'n waiting to be blown to bits. It kept everybody busy, gave 'em something to think about besides dying."

"You don't know that," Luke managed to grit from between numb lips.

"I do know that, Luke. I overheard that general and the princess talking. Didn't you wonder why they let you go up? Because it didn't matter. You were going to die, either up there or on the moon. She said to send you up, because she knew it was one of your dreams. Better you should die in battle, with your moment of glory, than cowering groundside."

Luke dropped to his knees before Han, arms folded protectively across his belly, looking for all the worlds as though he had just been eviscerated. "No. It can't be true." Han reached down to stroke the silk of Luke's hair.

"Let it go, kid," he said softly, affectionately. "It'll be all right. Guilt's not worth owning." Luke laid his head in Han's lap and shed scalding, healing tears.

Missing Pieces . . .

As Han Solo listened to Luke talk, purging himself of culpability, he wondered if he'd ever been as young and naïve as Luke. Sure, he'd had his own share of troubles, some serious troubles, but he'd always known what was important and what wasn't. It was a talent of his, he supposed, always practical even as a child.

They lay on the bed, Han's arms around Luke in a loose embrace, blond head resting in the hollow under Han's shoulder. It was a nice fit, Han noted sourly. When the youth had begun yawning in exhaustion, Han had grinned. "Wore you out with all that nonsense, huh?" He'd pulled Luke to his feet and half-carried him to the bedroom. It was a moment's work to help Luke undress and cover him with a blanket. "You get some rest. Gods know you need it." Han's ministrations were rewarded with a small sigh as the youth nestled deeper into the pillow. As Han pulled back, Luke caught him by the hand.

"Stay for a minute, please?"

There it was, temptation staring Han Solo right in the face, although he was pretty sure Luke only wanted reassurance.

"Sure, Luke. I'll stay until you fall asleep." And then Luke had begun to talk.

"I know what you're saying is right, Han. I understand, but knowing doesn't make it any easier. I can't help feeling responsible. I keep thinking I let them down, let her down. It just isn't fair!"

Han recognized a child's impotent frustration at a galaxy refusing to bend to his will. It was painful to discover no matter how hard you tried, sometimes you just wouldn't win. And harder still when you'd had your head filled with foolish notions by some crazy old coot.

"It's sad, I agree. A fuckin' tragedy, if you want. But you'n me and Chewie--we got a gift. We're still alive, and it's a bigger tragedy to waste that particular gift."

"Wedge, too, Han. He survived, too."

Luke's protestation almost wrenched anger from Solo. Antilles survived because he's a godsdamned coward, you little fool! He took a hit but it wasn't any worse than what you took. He was scared and took the easy way out, not that that would have protected him. That imp behind you was very very good and as soon as he took you out, he would've gotten Antilles, too. And he knows he left you to die, too. I could see it in his eyes--that's the real reason he didn't come with us. He can't look you in the face. I reckon he's holed up somewhere doin' the same thing you are, trying to figure out how to live with it. Solo wondered just where this righteous indignation came from. Antilles had done exactly what Han Solo had done dozens of times; taken care of himself and let everybody else do the same. Sensible, practical methodology. A universal truth Han Solo lived by, except when it came to the youth next to him. Possessed of eyes which disturbed a slumbering conscience, a profound strength of spirit, and a slender, fragile body that he longed to sweep into an endless embrace, Luke stirred deeply suppressed needs and longings in Han.

Luke sighed. "I miss Ben. I don't know how I'm gonna learn about the Force now." He glanced down, embarrassed. "You know, I thought I heard Ben's voice a couple of times, after he . . ."

"Died?" Figures. A thousand plagues on that damned wizard. Old fool filled his head so full of crap that he's hearin' things now.

"Yeah. Once on the Death Star, when he told me to run, get away. Then during the battle. He told me to trust my feelings." Han felt a chill when he remembered the transmissions he had monitored. Luke had turned off his targeting computer and made the shot manually.

"Well, you were under stress both times. Your mind was probably just playing tricks on you."

"I heard him one other time, too. On the Falcon, before I woke up. He said I was needed now more than ever."

Luke raised confused eyes to Han's face. "It hurts, Han." Gods, the look in those eyes. Made him want to hold Luke tight, stroke his shoulders and neck and back until the knots of tension unraveled, until he coaxed little whimpers . . .

Han ground his teeth together in frustration.

Fine, this is just fine! Come on, Solo, think fast. "So maybe that Force of yours protected you back there for a reason. The old man saw something in you, some potential he was willing to die to preserve. Maybe he's not the only Jedi left. If he was hiding out, maybe others are, too." Han thought he might gag on the words he brought out, but he wasn't above using words he didn't believe himself if it helped heal Luke's wounded spirit. The kid needed to hear them, needed to believe again; strangely, the inherent hopefulness of his words comforted and soothed the speaker as well.

"You're not alone, Luke." Han gave in to temptation then, just for a moment. Eased one of his hands to Luke's neck and gently massaged the tight muscles.

Soft breath from a sigh warmly stirred the hairs on Han's arm. "I know, Han. You're here with me." He snuggled closer against Han's lean body. "That feels good."

"Roll over and I'll give you a real massage." Oh, yeah, a real massage with all the extras. Luke obediently rolled over onto his stomach, so golden and beautiful stripped down to his briefs for sleep.

"That feels good, too, but I meant it feels good to be here with you," mumbled Luke into his pillow.

Surely does, junior. Han's strong hands instinctively identified the areas of greatest need and began to ease clenched muscles and tendons with a persuasive rhythm. Paying tribute to the warm skin, watching it slip and shift under his hands was an entertainment he hadn't enjoyed in far too long. The galvanic sensation ignited Han's desire, leaping swiftly from belly to groin.

"Knowing you came back for me makes me feel warm and special." Oh, you are, Luke, you are. "And then you brought me here and looked out for me. Leia said you were selfish, but I knew you weren't."

Keeping the rhythm, Han continued easing tension and building desire with hands sliding further down the back in long strokes.

"Feeling better now?" Han leaned over Luke to lay whispers and kisses against his ear and realized the boy was asleep, breathing deeply and evenly. For a moment torn between urgent desire and consideration, Han was tempted to wake him up with more kisses and caresses. Ah, let him sleep. He probably needs that more than anything. There's always tomorrow. Luke's words threatened to split wide open the fragile stress cracks of memory--I knew you weren't selfish. Han found the child-like trust touching. He'd let the kid believe a little longer.

Pattern Revealed . . .

Han awoke to dusty sunlight highlighting a welcome sight: Luke's face wearing a genuine, if tremulous, smile. The first smile Han had seen in what seemed like eons.

"Mornin', kid," he muttered, stretching lazily. "Sleep well?"

"Yeah. I was beginning to think I'd never sleep again, but . . ." Luke shrugged slim, bare shoulders, bronze in the sun's gleam. Han spared a moment from stretching to soak up the view. "Thanks to you, Han." He edged away to allow Han to swing his legs over the edge of the bed and sit up. "I was thinking maybe we could try those swimming lessons you mentioned a couple days ago."

So Luke had been listening all that time. Han had wondered. "Sure. After breakfast. I'm starving. How 'bout you?"

Another quick flash of white teeth in a vulnerable smile. "It's lunch, not breakfast. And I'm hungry, too. Feels like I haven't eaten in days."

"You haven't!" shouted Han after the retreating back.

Han began the swimming lesson insufferably pleased with himself. Luke had eaten like a starving creature, after a good night's rest. Looked like he was on the road to recovery, all thanks to himself. Han ended the swimming lesson highly aggravated and impatient. And aroused. He'd never encountered anyone so terrified of water in his entire life. Every time he tried to withdraw his supporting hands from Luke's floating body, panic had ensued. While Han had to admit it was more than a little pleasant to have Luke's arms clinging frantically around his neck with their wet bodies pressed tightly together, it wasn't exactly moving the swimming lesson forward. After the fifth panic attack Han finally halted the lesson, in large part due to his inability to camouflage his rising desire.

"Sit on the damned ledge and stick your toes in the water, Luke," he'd finally growled. "I give up!" Luke had grinned impudently. As Han retreated to the cottage to change clothes he wondered if Luke had been faking that last panic attack or two. Had Chewie been correct after all? Reflective hazel eyes stared back at him from the wavering mirror, instinctively taking inventory. He knew exactly what he had, what he could offer. Was it possible Luke was interested?

A derisive snicker paralyzed the thrilling supposition. No, even if those were unpracticed advances from Luke, they were probably expressions of gratitude, nothing more. And Han Solo didn't take charity from anyone.

When Luke finally came back into the cottage, Solo was waiting. "Kid, throw on some clothes," he commanded. "We're goin' out."

Speed was an intoxicant for Luke as much as Han; the youth's mouth tugged in an involuntary smile as Solo pushed the speeder to its limits. By the time they reached the city and its amusements, Han was again congratulating himself and permitted Luke to coax a promise that he could drive on the return trip.

They strolled through the area known as Falcon's Lair, heart of the city's disreputable entertainment district, dodging vendors and panhandling urchins, pausing to observe the impromptu performances of street artists and keeping a watchful eye for law enforcement officials. Whether Luke was feeling better Han couldn't judge, but his own mood grew considerably more cheerful with each passing moment. Tantalizing smells and memories prompted him to steer Luke into a small, dingy club. "This place used to serve the best nerf steaks in the city, and the liquor's pretty good, too." Luke nodded in happy agreement, docilely submissive to Han's expertise. Han grinned to himself as he draped a possessive arm across Luke's shoulders while they made their way to an empty table; as blazingly aware of unsubtle, hungering glances tossed their way as Luke seemed oblivious to them.

Dinner was as delicious as promised, and Luke devoured the food with a ravenous appetite. Han found himself smiling at the resemblance to a certain Wookiee. "Pretty good, huh?" he asked, refilling both their drinks.

"Better'n your cooking, that's for sure," retorted Luke teasingly, apparently lightheaded from abundant food and alcohol. Maybe lightheaded from my company, too. A guy could always hope, right?

"I'm gonna check in with Chewie while you finish eating."

"Be sure to ask Chewie if he's finished all the repairs on Artoo. Poor little fellow took an awful blast back there." Han's sidelong glance was amused. Luke's words about the droid applied equally well to himself.

Sipping the last of his drink, Luke was distracted by the flickering vid screen perched above the bar. To his horrified surprise, he saw a representation of the Death Star battlemoon on the screen and moved closer to hear the commentary.

' . . . of the Imperial Institute for Scientific Progress today issued a statement confirming the loss of the research station, Advancing Horizons. Analysis of debris found in the Yavin planetary system, where the station had been engaged in archaeological research of the Massassi ruins, positively identified the debris as remnants of the multi-discipline scientific research station. A manifesto from the terrorist group The Alliance to Restore the Republic was received in the home office of Galactic News Services on Coruscant yesterday, claiming responsibility for the senseless destruction.'

The on-screen image switched to that of a serene blue-green planet.

'In a related story, the interdiction of the Alderaan planetary system enters into its third week. Emperor Palpatine has proscribed travel to and from the Alderaan system as disciplinary action for providing sanctuary and political asylum to various terrorist splinter factions, including The Alliance to Restore the Republic . . .'

"Not exactly the way it looked from where we were, huh?" Han whispered against Luke's ear. The youth's mouth was gaping open in shock at the commentary's duplicitous bias. "You didn't think the news was more than about ten percent true, did you?"

"How do they think they can get away with that?" Luke finally managed to stutter. "I mean, they blew Alderaan away! Somebody's gonna notice the planet's not there sooner or later."

A rough-looking Corellian at the bar overhead Luke and laughed. With a wink and a nudge for Han, he said, "Sounds like your little friend's had too much to drink. A real comedian. Hey, sonny, you get tired o' that spacer, I'm available." The man's leer was unmistakable. "Blew up a whole planet!" Obviously finding the idea hilarious, he repeated it to the next person at the bar.

All hells! Just what they needed, some bored dockclocker with a big mouth and libido to match. "Kid, time to get outta here," Han murmured softly. "Don't need to draw attention to ourselves." Besides, Corellian Security had a warrant or two out on him. A brawl now could prove inconvenient.

Han was shepherding Luke towards the entrance and just beginning to think they would make it out unscathed when a heavy hand fell on his shoulder. It was the eavesdropper.

"Don't go yet, friend. I like your boy. He's funny. C'mon back, I'll buy you both drinks." Behind the genial, drunken offer, Han sensed insolent threat. Damn and blast! He should've known better than to parade someone as young and beautiful as Luke in front of this kind of crowd. Punches would probably be thrown no matter the response, but he had to try.

"You were right the first time, friend. He's had too much to drink and I think he's gonna redecorate the floor in a minute." Surreptitious fingers dug into Luke's ribs in silent warning. Luke took the hint and moaned softly, sagging against Han.

"Don' feel so good. Need air . . ."

"Strange, he looked and sounded fine a moment ago." Uh-oh. The drunk's diction was suddenly precise.

In the same instant, Han swept a leg through Luke's ankles causing the slumping boy to drop to the floor, shouted "Stay down and head for the door" to his young companion, and threw the first punch. After that there wasn't time to think about anything else as the place erupted into a free-for-all. Twisting free of a headlock applied from behind, Han caught a brief glimpse of Luke happily whacking someone over the head with a bottle, then pivoting on one leg to thrust the other leg into an unprotected belly. Their eyes met across the heads of downed opponents and Luke jerked his head toward the exit. Han nodded in agreement: definitely time to depart, before the law arrived. Luke reached the door first, ducking as a bottle thrown after Han shattered against the wall and doused Luke with brew.

"We're outta here, Luke!" yelled Han as he yanked the blond along like a recalcitrant child. "This way!" Within seconds they were safely away from the club, hidden in the busy crowds, with only Luke's damp clothing to betray them. Breathless and laughing, Han halted just inside the entrance to a gloomy, dangerous looking gap between two buildings. "Nice job back there, Luke. The kick was effective."

Luke leaned his head and shoulders against the roughly textured wall, gasping for breath as well. "I was aiming a little lower," he confessed.

"Well, had enough excitement for one night? Maybe we'd better head back before you trash another place," grinned Han teasingly, once again immensely pleased with himself. Luke had done better than all right back there. So he hadn't obeyed Han's instructions; would've been disappointing if he had.

"Me?" Luke widened his eyes in mock irritation. "You're the one threw the first punch!"

"Yeah, but you and your big mouth caused the problem in the first place," retorted Han, aching for the opportunity to punish that guilty mouth with his own hungry lips. He had instinctively assumed a dominant position over Luke, hands on either side of his shoulders pressed against the side of the building, long body mere inches away from Luke's.

"I figured it was my big eyes," gasped Luke, breathless again for an entirely different reason.

Staring into those same big eyes, Han felt a feral grin stretch his lips. So Luke was wise to him. "Yeah, probably was your eyes, come to think of it." And apparently receptive.

"You gonna kiss me, or what?" breathed Luke.

"Definitely gonna kiss you, Luke." Han gloried in heady triumph as he claimed Luke's pliantly responsive mouth for his own, drawing the moment of victory out as long as he could.

"Nice," murmured Luke when Han finally released his lips. Impish merriment twinkled behind his eyes.

"Nice?" echoed Solo, highly insulted. "That the best you can say, kid?"

Luke took hold of Han's jaw with one hand and wrapped the other around the back of his neck with fingers that trembled with daring and excitement. "Let me show you how it's done, old man." The kiss was everything Han wanted: tongues tangling, exploring teeth and lips, Luke sucking the very breath from Han's lungs as he demanded even more, until nothing existed in the universe except the gravitic pull of Luke's eager mouth. Both were on the verge of anoxia when they finally drew apart.

After a convulsive swallow, Han nodded. "That's how it's done, all right. Sith's seven hells, Luke, where did you learn to do that?"

Luke smiled. "From you. Just now." Oddly enough, Han believed him. "I'm ready now, Han." At Han's rather confused expression, he laughed. "Ready to head back to the cottage. And don't forget, I'm driving."

Han remained silent on the return trip, trying to reconcile yesterday's dispirited youth with the exuberant kid beside him. Suspicious sidelong glances revealed a face and eyes bursting with energy and excitement. A particularly enthusiastic cornering made Han clutch the seat to avoid being tossed from the vehicle and yanked an answering grin from him. Whatever rationale had prompted this, he approved of the change.

The drive back to the cottage seemed absurdly brief and entirely too long at the same time. Luke vaulted from the speeder and anxiously tugged Han towards the cottage. Han captured him in strong arms. "Slow down, Luke. I gotta tell you something." He caught his breath at the transparent clarity revealed in crystal blue eyes. It was all there, frantic passion underlaid by loss; grief supplanted by voracious need; and the beginnings of acceptance. Han stroked the back of his hand against a heated cheek and wondered just what Luke saw in his eyes. Sweet! Mine for the taking. This isn't gratitude. But perversely, Han's disloyal mouth spoke the very words guaranteed to deny anticipated pleasures.

"Antilles contacted Chewie. He's gotten through to another cell of the rebellion. Sent rendezvous coordinates."

Relief flooded blue eyes. "Then not everybody . . ."

"Apparently not." Solo could see it in the eyes, the determination to subsume energies and enthusiasm to The Cause. As if you had any doubts about it, Solo. I almost envy that damned rebellion, 'cause it's gonna get all his passion. "That invitation to join Chewie 'n me still stands." Han expected to see betrayal eclipse all other sentiments in those eyes and primed himself to once again withstand Luke's contemptuous disillusionment.

It didn't happen. With a slow shake of his blond head, Luke said, "Too many losses to stop now. Like you said, I have to live with the consequences of my choices. I can't forget them and I can't abandon them. Remember what Ben said? I'm needed now more than ever."

Han cursed his own words from the previous night, for in trying to reassure Luke he had also renewed faith and purpose.

He damned his absurdly guilty feelings as he spoke. "Yeah, I suppose so. We can take you as far as the rendezvous point, then we'll head on to Tatooine 'n pay off Jabba."

Luke held his eyes for a long moment, silently pleading, but he did not ask for what he knew Han could not offer.

"I guess we need to get our stuff and head for the Falcon." Selfish, petulant grief stabbed for an instant, regret for the lost night.

"Did you tell Chewie we'd leave tonight?" Curious, the hoarse note to Luke's voice.

"Nah. I said tomorrow mornin', but makes no difference. Nothing left for us to do here."

Arms slid around Han's waist and tightened. "That's only one man's opinion."

Filling in the Center . . .

Han rubbed his face against gossamer strands of hair to hide astonishment. Luke's generosity of spirit took him by surprise every time. "Isn't it past your bedtime, junior?" he grumbled to hide his emotion.

"Yes," Luke agreed instantly. "What are we waiting for?"

Once in the bedroom, Han palmed the old fashioned light control, warming the small room with a cheerfully intimate glow. "I wanna see every expression on your face, Luke," he whispered. Luke nodded in agreement. There was no shame in this life-affirming act, no reason to hide in darkness.

"Come here," Han said roughly, spreading his arms wide, fevered expectation beating at him like the wings of some great Corellian falcon coasting along in the night sky, hunting its prey. The intensity of his need was staggering. "Hell, but I want you, kid." Luke came into his arms and offered his mouth, lips opening in sweet invitation. Han could feel the echo of his own enthusiastic erection in the rigidity pressed against his thigh. "You too, huh?" he murmured.

They fell back onto the bed, Han's knowing hands slowly stripping threadbare fabric from Luke's body, bestowing caresses and kisses on each section of newly revealed bronze skin. His fingers rested lightly on the exposed neck, identified the rhythm of Luke's pulse resonating with scalding desire born from simple touch. Lips teased a stiffened nipple and a large, capable hand pressed flat against Luke's shuddering belly. Inarticulate moans were compensation enough for Han: that, and the disintegrating composure in Luke's eyes.

"Don't wear yourself out, kid." Oh, but it was thrilling to travel the unexplored contours of that still softly padded young body and see supple muscles tremble and quiver under his experienced hands.

"No, don't touch," Han whispered, capturing Luke's straying hand with one of his. "Not yet." He vowed to give Luke memories worth keeping, to balance the bitter ones now littering the landscape of his mind. He laid a moist kiss in the vulnerable hollow of the palm and sucked the thumb into his mouth, swirling his tongue; an erotic hint of future pleasures. Indrawn breath was evidence of the technique's effectiveness. Han began scattering placating kisses in the wake of long scorching strokes of desire. Up the sensitive inside skin of one arm to the neck, to pause where a rapid heartbeat pulsed behind the ear and then move on again. He dropped kisses to eyelids squeezed tight against overwhelming sensation before reclaiming that provocative mouth. Luke's lips parted before Han's searching tongue, eagerly surrendering to coaxing pressure. Han's tongue thoroughly explored Luke's mouth and finally, playfully, nibbled on that pouty lower lip. They were a perfect natural fit, Han thought giddily, dazed by Luke's instinctive responses.

Luke's fingers found and interlaced with Han's, clamping down tightly against sensory overload. He moaned into Han's mouth, thrusting his hips hard against Han's, and Han belatedly realized he'd overestimated Luke's endurance. He smiled down into the innocent face, release still ricocheting across mortified features.

"I'm s . . . " Fingers to the lips silenced the apology.

"Don't apologize, Luke. Nicest compliment I've had in a long time." Too long in coming, this blessed gift which could melt even a cynic's heart. "Look at it this way, no more performance anxiety." The comment prompted startled, embarrassed laughter, as Han had hoped.

Moments later Luke was again ambushed by Han's skillful ministrations, trapped in a maze of sensual bliss, following the lure of desire. Shoes were kicked off, trousers unfastened and slowly peeled down. With effort, Han tamed his conflagration of rampant need, banked it down to a steady smolder. Slow caresses and feathery kisses again accompanied the removal of clothing, until Luke's body was finally revealed in all its bronzed glory. Starting at the toes, Han worked his way upward, kissing, licking and nibbling as seemed appropriate, until he reached the junction of hip and thigh. Luke's full arousal waited for him, just reward for a job well done. It was a relief to finally grip that hard flesh in his fist and feel the surge of expansion, all for him. Han touched his lips to the smoothness to taste the droplets of desire clinging there and lose himself in the sueded texture resting against his tongue. Luke's hands clutched in his hair as Han suctioned the length into his mouth and tenderly traced the pattern of veins with his tongue. In one hand he weighed the balls in their fleshy sac while the other held Luke firmly pinned to the mattress. Intoxicated by Luke's whimpers of imminent satisfaction and his own impatient tumescence, he left Luke teetering on the precipice of bliss.

"Now you can touch," he whispered.

Glorious, speculative touch; Luke sprinkled kisses to unexpectedly sensitive areas, dispensed deceptively gentle caresses from work callused hands until Han writhed and wriggled under him. Fire blazed a path along over-stimulated nerves, tormented by lips skimming skin already blistered with the residue of passion. Newly wise hands cradled his balls with just the right amount of pressure as a hot mouth enclosed his own hardness, presenting a challenge to self-control.

Han's pampered body quivered with repeated microshocks of newly discovered sensation, so unlike anything experienced before, his groin imploding with the energies of a birthing star. The moist sounds of suction and the scrape of a hand brushing against the wiry hairs of his leg expanded in his ears, consuming his attention. Han was snared in a universe of infinite awareness, helpless before this outrageous abundance.

Luke protested wordlessly when Han seized control to reverse their positions, but was reassured by the resumption of Han's kisses and caresses. With confident fingers Han finally stroked at the desired opening, petitioning for admission. Under his delicate caresses, Luke's tense muscles eased enough to permit penetration. Han probed with one finger, intently alert to the rasping gasps of Luke's breath, the fraying poise of his expression. Luke had propped himself up on his elbows, to better see Han's face. Their eyes met, blue eyes unfocused with need, hazel eyes almost black with rampaging desire.

"If it pleases you," said Han.

"Yes." Just the one word dangling between them, orphaned by breathless passion.

Completion . . .

Laying back down, Luke dimly heard Han rattle the drawer of the bedside table, the grunt of satisfaction when he located what he wanted. Something cooling and slippery was rubbed into him, muscles tightening up reflexively as Han reinserted his fingers. Soothing words murmured in his ear, important only in that they were Han's words. Anticipation shivered along the fault lines of his soul.

Yes. The word reverberated into infinity.

Suspended on the pendulum of aching need, Luke waited.

He wanted Han with a desire so fierce it frightened him, had wanted him from the moment of introduction in that dismal Mos Eisley cantina. Han had been a revelation to him. Magnificent. Overflowing with pure animal magnetism. So superior to those work-weary farmers and devious hustlers of the outland who had lusted after him and tried to entice him. Luke had long known some men found him desirable but had feared Han's tastes were more sophisticated.

It had been the tender touch of Han's hand and the tenor of thoughts behind that touch which had awakened Luke on the Falcon, a subconscious nexus recognizing mutual desire and need. The next connection had come with the heady disclosure of Han's return at Yavin: Han had been sitting out there somewhere, unwilling to abandon him.

It was while Luke waited for Han to make his call to Chewie that his resolution crystallized. He had looked across the room to the public com station, letting his eyes linger on the long graceful lines of that gorgeous body, all restrained power and restless energy barely held in check and hungering for release. With an arm so casually flung across his shoulders as they entered the club, Han had been announcing to anyone watching that this boy was claimed.

Yes. Han knew what he needed.

The promise in those hazel eyes had taken Luke's breath away. "Tonight, Luke, I'll do whatever you want." I want you to fill me up, Han. With your smile and your touch and your heat and your strength, so I don't feel cold and empty. I want you to claim me again. I want you to love me.

During the loving his starved flesh had greedily absorbed each touch, memorized and stored as talismans against the inevitable affliction of being alone inside his skin.

After an eternity of waiting, Han's body settled on top of his, pushing him into the mattress. Poised, suffocating; balanced between his jealously clutching past and shimmering infinities of future, on the knife's edge of the present. Han pressed into him, barriers releasing before the gentle assault, pain and pleasure cauterizing microfissures of grief and guilt, sealing them into the vault of memory.

Whispered words of concern and passion and affection were cryptic vapors rising from the heat of their joining. Han navigated their passage, charting a route uniquely their own.

Han's soft moan of unparalleled pleasure cut through the cathartic mists surrounding Luke, recalling him to the immediate rewards of Han moving inside him. Instinct demanded its due, squeezing visceral response from his groin. Luke tightened his arms and legs around Han, urging him deeper and closer; encouraging the filling. Helplessly tumbling in the vortex of Han's confident thrusts, Luke opened his eyes, stared into Han's. "I'm lost," he whispered, yielding to the older man.

Savoring the binary victories of response and surrender, Han bent his head to brush their lips together. "No, Luke. You're found."

Through the quiet gasp of relief he couldn't quite contain, Luke smiled, because it was true, it was all true. Loving acceptance healed his weary soul and in Han's eyes at the moment of transcendent orgasm, Luke found the absolution he craved.

Lying together in blissful afterglow, time and space reasserted itself in Luke. Han still lay half sprawled across him, panting gusts moving Luke's hair. The words were divulged in a hesitant whisper. "I never knew it could be like that."

Luke smiled at Han's words, grateful for the redemption rising from the ashes of spent passion.

"It won't last, you know."

"What won't last, Han?" Hands soothed down the strong back, delighting in the response of rippling muscles.

"Whatever it is we're feeling right now."

"I know," he said, wanting to comfort his lover, pierced to the core with new-found awareness. "But sometimes we just don't have a choice." Both of them reborn this night, found and found yet again.

* * *

"Hello, my lady." Han patted the Falcon's hull as he paused at the terminus of the boarding ramp. "Did you miss me?" Behind him Luke smiled broadly.

Chewbacca lumbered into the corridor, rumbling an enthusiastic greeting. Huge hairy arms enclosed both of them in a massive hug. He didn't need to ask what had happened during that fiveday at the cottage. The scent was unmistakable.

"I guess we'd better lift off, if we're ready, Chewie." A growled query. "Meeting up with Antilles first, and then we need to head back to Virash 'n get Luke's fighter. That damned rebellion of his'd probably want me to give back our reward to pay for it if we lost it."

[And after that?]

With a quick grin for Luke, Han shrugged. "Probably ought to hang around for a while, make sure he doesn't get himself into any more trouble. Just for a while, though. We've got better things to do than babysit a conscientious terrorist."

Luke nodded, managing to hide his smile with astonishing ease and fondly watching his conscientious smuggler make departure preparations.

"Oh, an' Chewie, you don't mind if Luke takes the co-pilot seat on the trip out, d'you? 'Bout time he learned something useful."
 
 

END

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