By the time the unexpected presence fully registered, Lando Calrissian was already more than halfway through the door. Too far off balance to do anything other than stand helplessly, his stomach tied into more knots than a Gungan's speech, clutching his datapad in one hand and the door frame with the other, and stare at the business end of a blaster pointed directly at his head. His holdout blaster might as well have been on Tatooine for all the good it would do him under these circumstances.
"Getting soft, Lando."
He'd been thinking exactly the same thing. Too damned slow and soft by half. All this diplomacy and respectability had blunted some of his instincts dangerously. That it was very late and he was exhausted was no excuse.
The security guard was a few fatal seconds too far down the corridor; he'd yawned a sleepy greeting when Lando passed him. Lando eased into the room at the intruder's slight gesture and let the door swing shut behind him.
"You fire off that thing, and my escort'll be here within seconds."
The man sprawled across the white nerf-leather divan chuckled and lowered the blaster.
"Maybe so, but you'd be dead."
Han Solo tucked his blaster back into its holster and Lando glared at him balefully. At least this answered the question that'd been living in the back of his mind for weeks now: were Han and Chewie among the opportunists working this system?
"At least I'd have the satisfaction of knowing you'd follow in short order, Han." He stalked over to the drink synthesizer to give the adrenaline a chance to flush out of his system and punched buttons at random, still too shaken to care what he received in return. Blasted Corellian sense of drama.
The diversion gave him time to calculate a few variables. He surreptitiously touched the tiny blaster in its wrist holster, reassuring himself it was there if need be.
He supposed he was lucky it had been Han and not some other angry smuggler who'd managed to circumvent Pontradan security. He could trust Han not to shoot him without a damned good reasonhe just didn't know yet if the Corellian had a good reason. And even if he did, he'd never shoot a man in the back.
The summit committee was very close to reaching consensus on a system-wide Trade Accord, and that signaled the end of some very profitable contraband opportunities. The Pontradans hadn't come this close to an agreement in two yearseven a pirate could make the connection over who was to blame for the sudden progress. Made sense that the New Republic's delegates would be a tempting target for reprisals.
"You here on behalf of the disgruntled smugglers' association?" He tossed back the amber colored liquid the processor dispensed, and let the warmth ignite in his belly.
"Just delivering a friendly warning, Lando."
"I'm a target." Well, he wasn't surprised; it was why he had an escort assigned to him wherever he went. Han had deliberately gone out of his way to remind Lando of his vulnerability despite the stringent security measures.
"It's played out here, Lando. Chewie 'n me're movin' on. So are most of the others, but there's a few sore losers. Just keep your eyes open and your hands free." Han gazed pointedly at Lando's right arm. "That holdout blaster might do you some good then."
Yeah, same old Han. He'd taken quite a risk, coming here like this, to warn him. Lando felt a surge of affection for the man.
"So tell me something I don't know." Two more drinks splashed into cups. He handed one cup to Han and took a moment to study the other man carefully. Although Han managed to look somehow loose-limbed and alert at the same time, Lando noted subtle evidence of exhaustion and discontent in the shadowed hollows at cheek and eye, and in the way the bones of his skull showed through the flesh. He lookednot precisely ill, but as though some deep regret was wearing away at his conscience. Maybe it was guilt over walking out on all his friends the way he'd done. Served him right in that case.
He hoped it didn't have anything to do with Chewbacca. He'd grown rather fond of the big Wookiee.
"You look like hell," Lando said pleasantly, just to gauge the reaction.
Han grinned, although his eyes remained watchful. "Nice of you to say so." The Corellian wasn't giving away any clues, wearing his privacy the way Vader had worn armor.
The Corellian's silence reduced Lando to asking, "Chewie doing all right?"
"Chewie's fine. Says hello. An' in case you're thinking about sending the law after us, the Falcon's still the fastest hunk of junk in this, or any other, system."
"Wouldn't dream of it, Han." And he wouldn't. Whatever Han'd been doing, it certainly wasn't enough to deserve the Pontradan's uncompromising justice.
Han nodded toward the flickering holodisplay, the announcer's droning voice reducing the day's events to their basic elements of ego and compromise. "You're all over the local news grids. You 'n Luke."
Hell yes, they were all over the local grids. From the moment he and Luke had arrived on Pont Gollo, rumor and innuendo had circled them like carnivores scouting potential prey for an unprotected flank. He'd nearly choked on his kaffin that first morning, listening to the news grids and discovering that local speculation had already paired them up as lovers.
Lovers, my afterburners. The suggestion would have amused or flattered Lando had it involved anyone other than Luke. Han, for instancethey could've both laughed over that one, played the absurd situation for all it was worth and turned it to their advantage. Not Luke, though. There was something frightening and personal in the way so many people projected their fantasies of power and glory onto Luke; the greedy possessiveness bothered Lando in a fundamental fashion.
Perhaps it was because he had done virtually the same thing, to serve his own purposes. Although he'd obviously succeeded in presenting a public fiction of a close friendship with Luke, he knew the closeness to be precisely that… fictional. They were neither friends nor strangers, their relationship hovering on the edge of an ill-defined cordiality. To have others interpret their relationship as anything more only underscored the actual deficiencies.
Luke deliberately cultivated the distance between them for reasons of his own. At first he'd simply assumed it was a result of the Force in Luke; the Jedi of old had been infamous for their detachment from non-Force users. But Luke held others close, Leia and Han especially, not that Han deserved Luke's affection after abandoning them all the way he had, and Lando had finally been forced to acknowledge that the root cause for Luke's reserve was individual and specific.
The only thing he could come up with was Bespinand it still made no sense, like he was missing too many pieces of the puzzle to ever discover the correct pattern.
Well, Bespin hadn't been his fault, and he'd done more than most would have tried in his place, damnit! Defied Vader, of all people; risked his own neck and the lives of his loyal staffers to argue face to… mask with the manall for a friend he'd not seen in years. He hadn't been able to protect his business or his city, or the people who depended on him for their livelihood, but he'd saved Leia and Chewie at least. Cynics had noted he'd also managed to save himself, but how many had challenged Vader and lived to talk about it? He knew of only one other...
His interest had been piqued even before he pulled the wounded, shivering youth through the Falcon's emergency hatch during that insane rescue underneath Cloud City. He'd wondered who this Skywalker fellow was and why he was so important to Vader, predisposed to dislike and resent the cause of so much betrayal and suffering. Given the choice, he would not have returned, preferring instead safe retreat with his burden of guilt, protecting those he had already injured.
He had been shocked to discover Skywalker was just a boy, a small, fragile physical vessel containing possibly the most vibrant presence he had ever encountered.
They'd spoken not at all during the voyage in the Falcon, Skywalker confined mostly to the medical bunk with Leia hovering solicitously over him, while Lando had been unnerved as Chewbacca hovered most unsolicitously over him. Luke had been of little interest to him then. His concern had been with proving his trustworthinessto Han, to Chewbacca, to the princess, and to himself.
Nearly three years since the day Luke had, almost literally, dropped into his lap. As far as Lando was concerned, he'd proven himself more than enough by now. He'd openly defied the Empire and lost everything he'd worked so hard to achieve; he'd thrown in with the Alliance, distinguished himself in battle and served the second Death Star up on a platter. Even after resigning his commission he'd stayed on, willingly serving the New Republic in a capacity more suited to his particular talentsunlike Han, who'd taken off like he had a comet tied to his tail. So why did Luke's tacit disapproval make him feel like he hadn't paid his dues yet?
"Anyway, just be careful," Han said. "Don't trust anybody. There's something not right here."
"I thought ambiguous lines like that were Luke's specialty."
Han made a rude noise and grinned. "Who you callin' ambiguous? You're the politician."
The comment sparked a connection in Lando's brain. "Speaking of politicians, you got any message for Leia?"
Han's abruptly icy expression cautioned Lando to drop the subject. "Just offering a word to the wise. You still in that category?"
Oh, great. A grumpy smuggler. With a grievance, a blaster and good aim. Lando chose to lighten the mood by mocking himself. "Well, I got my Jedi to protect me."
Han's tone of voice was perfectly sarcastic, his expression exactly the correct blend of cynicism and casual amusementbut Lando hadn't spent years at the sabacc tables for nothing. Whether it was curse or blessing, he had the gift of reading people. And all of a sudden Han was giving off some kind of signal…
"It works for me."
"Tell him to be careful, too. Even Jedi make mistakes."
Nope. Whatever had changed in Han's demeanor, he couldn't quite put his finger on it yet. It would come to him, though, if he let his subconscious work on it for a while.
"Tell him yourself. He'll be back soon."
Han raked his left hand through his hair. Now that Lando thought about it, the Corellian's hair looked like he'd been doing that a lot lately, and that surprised Lando. Han wasn't given to nervous gestures of any sort. The uptight action triggered a warning shiver in Lando's muscles.
Uneasy in a way he hadn't been before, his mind drifted to thoughts of explosive devices, poisons, bribery and supposedly loyal (though underpaid) employees. Unconsciously he shrugged his shoulders, trying to dislodge the sudden itch between his shoulder blades.
"Nah. I've been here too long as it is." Han rose to his feet with the confident ease and physical grace that had always been both consequence and source of his self-sufficiency. Lando noted his boots had left a greasy stain on the white leather divanhe'd have to make that right with his hosts before departure. How should he note that on his expense report? Consulting Fee? Research Assistant? Entertainment?
Han jerked his head in the direction of the holo player. "How long you 'n Luke… ?"
So Han thought there might be some truth to the rumor? Just went to show how long he'd been away, if he'd forgotten the titillation factor in gossip. Lando decided to have a little selfish fun at Han's expense, to pay him back for that irritating sensation of having a target pinned to his back.
He shrugged. "Well, you know how these things happen. We've worked together quite a bit on various diplomatic efforts in the past year. Late night sessions, long flights together…"
Gods, if only he had one of those mini-imagers right now, to capture Han's expression. Probably thought Lando wasn't good enough for Luke. Yeah, that was it. Han was funny that wayhe'd always been protective of Luke, treated him like a kid brother. Well, Lando Calrissian hadn't been the one who'd left hurt feelings in his jet trails, and if it was just a little uncomfortable for Han to admit his mistakes, or regret he no longer had a say in his friends' lives, then that was his problem.
When Han rubbed the scar on his chin, a gesture Lando'd not seen in years, he focused on that little voice in the back of his mind trying to tell him something, something that simply refused to coalesce for him.
Certain things began to make a little more sense to Lando. Every detail of their daily schedule was relentlessly publicized: that Han would choose the one time to break into their hotel suite when Luke's absence was guaranteed suddenly seemed significant. He's too embarrassed to see Luke.
He couldn't resist playing on Han's discomfort. "Yeah, I guess we're getting used to taking care of each other by now."
Han mumbled something, moved to the door and was gone. Lando listened carefully, but the guard never raised an alarm. Probably snoring by now anyway. Fat lot of protection he'd been.
If Lando didn't know better, he'd almost say that last expression on Han's face had been jealousybut that didn't make any sense at all. And what was that Han had muttered as he left? Yeah, well, don't go getting too used to taking care of each other. What was that supposed to mean? Further indication of their immediate danger or something else? One more thing for his subconscious to chew on, he guessed.
Lando glanced across at the datapad he'd tossed on the table, stretched and checked the chrono. He had an hour before Luke and the droids would return; plenty of time to have another drink or two and take a long hot shower before they settled down to work on the latest version of the proposal. He did some of his best thinking in the shower anyway.
It wasn't until he'd taken a long pull from his third drink that it occurred to him Han's reluctance to discuss Leia might have greater significance than the obvious reasons. By the fourth drink he was wondering if he and Han had more in common than he'd thought. Maybe they both wanted more from Luke than the younger man could give.
Totally ridiculous. Of course it was. Perhaps it was the drink on top of the shock, but the half-formed idea took shape quickly, and it made more and more sense by the second. It explained everythingwhy Han Solo, the man who never ran from anything, had run like the demons of all hells were after him; why Han looked worn and frayed and why he'd stayed away for the better part of a year. His theory explained Han's expressions and puzzling comments, his jealousy and concern; and why he'd chosen this moment to reappear. It even explained why he hadn't wanted to talk about Leia.
Had the evidence been there all the time, and he'd simply never noticed? Lando shuffled his memories like a deck of cards, searching for skiftersthe ones that transformed before your eyes until the entire nature of the game had altered beyond recognition. He found them.
Endor: The wind had shifted, blowing smoke from the wood fire into his eyes, so he'd moved. And saw Han Solo not far away, holding Leia close. It would have been ideally romantic, except that Han was paying absolutely no attention to Leia at all. He was half turned, studying Luke intently, and the expression on his face clearly spoke of concern and affection.
Varalg: They'd been enjoying a leisurely lunch at one of the open-air cafes in the city center plaza, waiting for Han to join them. When he'd arrived, Leia had indicated the empty seat next to her, saved for him of course, but Han grinned and moved the chair to a spot next to Luke, citing better line of sight and less exposure. They'd all been forced to adjust their places accordingly and Leia had frowned briefly.
Corellia: Only weeks before the breakup they'd attended a diplomatic function. Leia had spent the entire evening introducing Luke to suitable femalesthe daughters of diplomats, Noble Houses and wealthy industrialistsand after each introduction Han had found fault with each female, strongly proclaiming none of them were worthy. As if anyone really expected Luke to show interest in the parade of available women anyway, Lando had thought at the time. And then Han had thrown his arm around Luke's shoulders and enticed him out into the gardens, where they finished the evening laughing and talking to each other.
Of course, every one of those incidents could be perfectly straightforward, too.
He wondered if Leia shared his suspicions, if this had been the reason for their parting. In light of his new theory, Lando felt rather ashamed of himself for viewing Han and Leia's breakup as a renewed challenge to romance Leia.
Damned if this didn't prove once and for all that the universe had an ironic sense of humor. Han had what Lando wanted from Lukegenuine friendship and open trust; and Lando had at least the illusion of what Han wanted. Somehow, Lando had the feeling that neither of them would end up getting what they wanted.
As far as he could tell, Luke focused all his energies on spiritual development and his responsibilities as a Jedi and was entirely removed from the demands of his physical self. Close observation in their shared quarters had revealed Luke required little food, less sleep, spent much of his free time meditating or performing arcane lightsaber drills, and had apparently sublimated his sexual drive into oblivion.
If what Han wanted from Luke Skywalker was something deeper than friendship, he wouldn't get it, that was for sure.
Lando could even afford to feel sorry for Han, and that made him feel much better about his own situation.
One quick sidelong glance confirmed what Lando's intuition had been telling him for a while. Daylight had fled from the windows, replaced by the harsh, artificial glare of a technologically dependent community. He shifted his shoulders, trying to release some of the accumulated tension. What he thought of as 'Han's Itch' had been between his shoulder blades the entire day, wearing away at his negligible reserves of adrenaline even faster than the tedious hours of debate and argument.
He'd double-checked his holdout blaster and practiced his fast draw last night. Lando placed a very high value on his own skinintact.
"We are all in agreement, then." It wasn't a question. Elder Cleres Nysos of Pont Gollo colony stood at the head of the table. Although Lando didn't particularly like the man on a personal level, he recognized the necessity for someone like Cleres in every political hierarchy; his clear vision of the system's future, as well as his tenacious and aggressive nature, refused to tolerate stagnation. He'd been the moving force behind the original talks and had been the one to petition hardest for Republic intervention. Without a Cleres to force the issue of a unified trade policy, Lando had no doubt the situation would have degenerated deeply into anarchy by now.
He would've sworn the Pontradan native was practically swaying with fatigue, but Cleres' voice was strong and commanding, and his gaze squarely met the eyes of each individual in turn. Lando felt the power and challenge in that glanceno doubt about what kind of results this fellow expected.
The outlined proposal was fair to all parties and Lando had talked himself hoarse on the plan. He and Luke had spent several hours the previous night working up alternative solutions to the last major hurdle. Acceptance seemed likely, but the Pontradans had been arguing these matters without resolution for two years; Lando reminded himself not to lose heart if this proposal didn't take. After all, they'd only been at this summit for six weeksnot long for this sort of thing. Success would only be a matter of time. He knew he was good in face-to-face interactions with people, had learned through the years to gauge and use minute reactions of expression and body language to fine tune his approach, and he had confidence in those unique abilities. They'd served him well at the gaming tables and in running Cloud City. His faith in his talents was one of the reasons he'd resigned his general's commission shortly after Endor and accepted this somewhat loosely defined trade liaison position for the New Republic.
Thoughtlessly, Lando raised a hand to the back of his neck and glanced toward Luke, seated slightly to his left and across from him at the conference table. He wondered what Luke truly thought of Han's brief reappearance. Although he'd immediately mentioned Han's brief visit and warning to Luke, of course he'd kept his more speculative thoughts to himself. He'd been rewarded with a glimpse of intense emotion too quickly controlled to identify before Luke made a wry comment about mysterious informants with a talent for stating the obvious. And that had been it, except for Luke's admission that he, too, had the sense of heightened danger, for as yet undetermined reasons.
He'd taken the news as calmly and dispassionately as Lando had expected, but now that he'd had a little more time to reflect on the matter, that reaction seemed strange. After all, Han and Luke had been close friends up until Han pulled his disappearing acthe had every reason to be angry over Han's callous behavior, or admit he'd missed the guy. Seemed to Lando that Luke had learned all too well to detach himself from his immediate feelings, to take the heat out of them.
Right now, though, the Jedi's expression and body language radiated confidence in the compromise before them; it was a nice show of support. Not a hint of doubt or apprehension flickered, as though Luke was entirely convinced they had found the ideal solution. Lando dropped his hand and straightened his posture, embarrassed he had permitted exhaustion and frustration to override the basic rule of bargainingnever show weakness. After all, certain delegates, particularly Onlew Ney of Pont Datar and Rium Gile from Pont Kes, had taken their direction from the New Republic representatives. It wouldn't do to give them a false bearing this time, not with Muya Sadika of Pont Sen doing her best to derail each and every suggestion. This was a good proposal, even if it had been mostly his own effort, and quite frankly, he felt they were running out of suitable options.
In the meantime, the smugglers were growing wealthy and the colonies were growing poor as a result of the Pontradan leaders' squabbling. By all the Sacred Ones, Pontradans were almost as stubborn as Corellians! In-system history and politics had everything to do with thatthe Separatists vigorously defended each colony's sovereignty, while the Consolidationists pushed for system-wide unity. Lando was confident that Cleres and Muya occupied opposite ends of that particular scale.
"Since there is no further discussion, we will now read and vote on the proposal before us." Cleres nodded toward Threepio. The Pontradans had their own droids, of course, but they had wasted two days arguing over programming biases before Luke had offered Threepio as a neutral facilitator. That was when Lando had realized these folks were pretty damned paranoid. From behind Luke Artoo wheedled what sounded like encouragement to his counterpart, and Lando was positive both droids were more than a little pleased to find themselves the center of attention.
Leia had recommended the protocol droid accompany them, and Lando had been delighted to accept the offer. Artoo was present for no apparent reason Lando could find, other than Luke's preference. They'd traveled in comfort aboard his newly purchased yacht, Lady Luck, so had no need for an astromech droid, but Luke claimed Artoo always came in handy. Although Lando didn't mistrust droids to the same extent Han did, he wasn't entirely comfortable around most of them, either.
The bronze droid droning through his proposal for what was hopefully the last time was one of two exceptions to that rule. Threepio and Artoo were as individualistic as any organic being; he'd learned to appreciate their talents early on and rather enjoyed their company.
Under cover of an outwardly attentive attitude, Lando amused himself with a brief survey of expressions and body language, mentally classifying each potential response, entirely confident of his assessments. Until he reached Luke.
For all his instincts and finely honed observation skills, Luke remained a mystery to him. So controlled, so vigilant… That oddly disinterested reaction to Han's brief appearance had taken hold in Lando's subconscious, and a desire to unravel the workings of Luke's mind had grown on him, perverse impulse though it might be.
I'm gonna figure out what it is that drives you before we leave this planet, he vowed to himself.
And with that silent promise, he was able to subdue his errant musings when Threepio called for the oral vote.
There were fifteen delegates present; as non-voting mediators Lando and Luke could only wait for the results. Lando felt tension seize his neck again and resisted the urge to rub it away. This summit looked to turn into a semi-permanent employment, and much as he'd enjoyed the time spent with Luke, he did have a life on Corellia and was eager to return to it.
The proposition passed. Unanimously, although from the expression on Sadika's face her approval had been grudgingly accorded. Sometimes it was just plain handy to have a domineering autocrat like Cleres in charge of things. Lando barely managed to soften his whoop of triumph into something more befitting a diplomatic occasion and his smile stretched his cheek muscles painfully. He felt giddy with accomplishment, the way he had when he'd won his first major sabacc tournament against more experienced opponents.
Even though the room immediately erupted into a buzz of excited conversation, he had no trouble hearing Luke.
"You do realize this'll be a tough act to top? The Council's only gonna hand you impossible jobs from now on."
"Maybe we just won't let 'em know, in that case."
"Kind of hard not to, don't you think?"
Lando decided his own smile must have been contagious, because he hadn't seen a grin like that on Luke's face in a very long time. "Nah. Between a Jedi and a gambler I figure scamming's our specialty." Truth to tell, he'd often thought if circumstances had been different and he'd met Luke a few years earlier, they'd be the team to beat on the circuits.
"Is that a dare… or an offer?"
"Whichever you're more likely to accept."
"Hey, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity!" He pretended offense, but was pleased to have made Luke laugh.
Luke shook his head, the smile fading as he lifted an eyebrow at him. "So, what's the next step?"
"A press conference to announce the delegates' agreement, Master Luke." Lando had been aware of Threepio coming up beside him, his senses preternaturally alert ever since Han's visit. Was this what it was like for Luke, to be aware of every draft of air and subtle sound, magnified almost beyond endurance?
Lando winced, and then chuckled to see a similar expression mirrored on Luke's face.
"Almost immediately, Master Lando. I have been informed quite a crowd has been gathering throughout the day in anticipation of such an announcement. Elder Cleres will make a statement."
"Maybe we can slip out the back door while he's making speeches," he grumbled softly, and then smiled sheepishly as he caught Luke's eye.
"Oh, dear me, no! That would be a dreadful breach of protocol!" Threepio sounded both resigned and affronted at Lando's suggestion.
"Just where is this to take place?" This time he did rub his neck, mostly because he couldn't shake that premonitory tickle.
"In the Forecourt of this building." Cleres approached them on Luke's side of the table.
The Forecourt. Right now, Lando couldn't imagine a more convenient setting for vengeful smugglers to take advantage of. A quick glance at Luke's frowning, thoughtful expression warned him their minds were working alike.
"Elder Cleres, perhaps it would be more prudent for you to speak from a less… vulnerable location," Luke suggested gently.
Cleres looked sharply at Luke. "You are fearful for my safety? As Jedi, are you aware of something beyond vague rumors of angry pirates?"
For a moment Lando thought Luke was tempted to reveal Han's nocturnal visit, but then Luke shook his head in the negative gesture their cultures had in common.
"In that case, I appreciate your concern, Jedi Skywalker, but without a specific reason to assume otherwise, I will follow our usual custom in these matters and trust that our security measures are adequate. But if the matter of your own safety concerns you, perhaps you would prefer not to accompany myself and the other delegates?"
Lando frowned. Cleres' abrupt manner wasn't the most tactful he'd ever encountered, but that last comment was contentious even for him. He wondered why Cleres felt the need for such an unnecessary power play at this moment, especially with Luke. He'd seen the Elder pull similar tricks with various delegates, most notably the intractable Sadika, but he'd not tried to bluff either Luke or Lando. Until now. Definitely something to keep in mind.
Luke remained unimpressed by the games playing. "Our safety is unimportant, Elder."
Thanks a lot, Luke. My personal safety is very important to me. And so is yours.
"We're concerned about your safety, and that of the other delegates. I'm not questioning your decision to make a statement, just the venue.Wouldn't a less exposed location work as well?"
"It would not. That is not our way. We speak to our citizens directly. But we do not require you abide by the same customs if you feel this ignores your safety."
Damn. Wilful misunderstanding and repeated insult.
"Security is well in hand, I promise you. You will be as safe as if you were in your hotel suite."
Wonderful. Lando considered mentioning that he wasn't particularly reassured by that guarantee or the intentional and unwarranted maneuverings. Nor could he let Luke take the heat for this objection, not when his misgivings were as strong. Time for the senior New Republic representative to make an executive decision. Not that there was a choice anyway.
"Of course we'll participate," Lando agreed.
"Excellent! You, protocol droid! I require your assistance." Cleres commanded Threepio's attention and they walked over to the door, discussing details of the proper sequence of events for the announcement.
"Did you see that one coming?" Luke smiled ruefully at him.
"Well, Cleres isn't exactly noted for his patience and tact. Let's say I'm not surprised he'd pull a trick like that. Just surprised by the timing and the target." That damned itch was back again, stronger than ever. "You… ah, you have any instincts about this?"
Luke cleared his throat. "Instincts? Other than this means trouble?"
"I was afraid you'd say something like that."
The room slowly cleared as the delegates dispersed. Cleres and his aides had left en masse, Threepio and Artoo in tow, to arrange for the public announcement.
Now only Luke and he remained, listening to the last echoes of retreating footsteps fade away, neither of them with pressing tasks or obligations. Victors of an abandoned battlefield, rendered superfluous by their very achievement.
In Lando's imagination, the silent chamber, clothed in granite floors and faded tapestries, took on the aspect of a mausoleum, with he and Luke the sole attending mourners. Lando shook his head to clear it of the morbid, bizarre impression. Just the adrenaline let-down, he reminded himself.
"Looks like we've outlived our usefulness here," Luke said softly, glancing around the room and perhaps reacting to the same melancholic ambiance.
"Speak for yourself," he shot back unthinkingly, and then barely caught himself from apologizing for the thoughtless remark.
Luke just shook his head, smiled and responded to the unsettled mood, not the words. "Leia told me once that the aftermath of success can be emotionally devastating. More painful than failure sometimes. And that the more successful she was, the worse she felt afterwards. From the look on your face I'd say you were very successful." Luke tapped his fingers on the datapad on the table before him. "Not that I had any doubts you'd be successful."
Lando couldn't help the flush of pride, and the obscure sense of gratitude that had nothing to do with his accomplishments at the bargaining table and everything with Luke's vocal appreciation.
Vaguely uncomfortable with this unsuspected insight, he instinctively resorted to humor to mask deeper sentiments. "This was a joint effort. I refuse to take all the blame."
Luke lifted his hands in a defensive gesture. "Don't blame me! It was your idea to have me come along."
And a damned fine idea it had been, too. Luke's presence had unlocked the stalemated discussions, got the delegates talking instead of shouting, and reassured the Pontradans of their importance to the New Republic.
He just wished he could absolve himself from guilt over using Luke-the-Jedi as a tool to further his own career.
The light-hearted moment almost foundered before he found the proper comeback. "All right, we'll blame the droids instead."
Pitiful attempt though it was, Luke rewarded the levity with a small grin, his briefly unguarded expression calling to mind the boy Lando had first met. Sadly, the youth he'd helped rescue at Cloud City had disappeared over a period of months; the composed, serene man sitting across from him now was more Jedi than man, to be honest.
He'd missed some of the transformation, of course, as he'd immediately been placed under arrest once they rendezvoused with the balance of the Alliance fleet. That Leia, Chewie and even Luke had intervened on his behalf, citing extenuating circumstances, certainly had helped, though. That was when he'd first learned Luke was a potential Jedi.
The idea had intrigued him, and for the first time he'd understood just why Vader wanted Luke. A Jedi, the first Jedi in an entire generation… some fluke of genetics thrown up by an uncaring universe. Lando had managed to spend a little time with Luke during those months immediately following Bespin; not all that much, but enough to see the almost daily changes. He'd never learned what it was Luke wrestled with in his mind, what kind of poisoned lies the Dark Lord had told him, but it had been obvious the damage went beyond the physical. What was worse, few had seemed to particularly care.
"Hey, you still with me, Lando?"
Embarrassed to be caught daydreaming, he took refuge in simple misdirection. Never show any weakness was a rule he'd lived by too long to abandon now… especially now. "I was considering my official remarks for the announcement."
"Naturally." Luke's unblinking acceptance of the deception suggested his attempt had failed. "I said, shouldn't you contact Leia to let her know the outcome?"
This precious moment of privacy suspended between the rush of events felt too valuable to waste. "There's no hurry. I'll wait until after the press conference, and make the call from the hotel."
Lando debated briefly with his conscience. "When I talk to Leia, I'll mention Han's reappearance to her. I think she'd like to know that at least he and Chewie are all right. Don't you?"
Confirmation and reassurance was the last thing on his mind, but for all he could see, Luke's only reaction to the question was a slight hitch in his breathing.
And what about you, Luke? Are you relieved, too? That day you found out Han'd left without a word, you looked like you'd been ripped apart by a Vegalan tiger. But now? Now it's like you can barely remember his name.
Lando wanted to breach that façadefor surely it was only a façadeof emotional disengagement and discover the man still living inside the Jedi.
Pushing for clarification might ruin what little familiarity already existed between them, but curiosity had long been his driving demon. He consoled himself that Luke's suppression of genuine feelings couldn't be healthy, and hoped he wasn't setting their relationship on a self-destruct countdown.
Not that there was much to self-destruct anyway.
The bitter thought surfaced simultaneously with Luke's deliberately bland, controlled response.
"You do that. I'm sure she'd be relieved to hear the good news."
Lando hesitated, then plunged ahead, determined to flush out some resemblance of an unshielded response and knowing subtlety wouldn't carry the day. What the hell, in for a credit, in for the pot. "Or maybe you'd rather do that yourself?"
Was that a quickly subdued flash of irritation he saw in Luke's eyes? The Jedi shifted his position fractionally, too small an adjustment to be called a squirmbut Lando received an overall impression that he was uncomfortable with the suggestion.
"I wasn't the one who talked to him," Luke pointed out.
"True, but… " In the face of Luke's rationality he strove for words that might sound more like logical reasoning and not like terminal curiosity.
"Are you asking what I think about Han's reappearance?" Luke's expression and voice remained firmly neutral, almost uninterested. Way too neutral to be anything other than artificially imposed.
No, I'm really asking how you feel about it, but I'll settle for what you think, because there's no hope in hell you'll let me in on your feelings.
A trifle embarrassed to be caught in his transparent effort, Lando mustered a grin. "I suppose I am. It was quite a shock to me, and I can't help but think it was for you, too. Could've knocked me over with a plume when I opened that door and there he was…"
Luke's small smile showed a kernel of genuine affection. "Han has a talent for doing the unexpected."
Yeah, you should know, Luke. I remember running into you the day you found out Han had pulled his disappearing act.
Come to think of it, that had been the last time he'd seen Luke display straightforward, honest emotion. Oh gods, the hurt in those eyes; the raw, open wound of abandonment. Orphaned again, he'd thought at the time, and had wondered where that irrelevant notion had come from.
The contrast between the strength of that reaction and Luke's present icy control puzzled Lando. "Yeah, I'm curious," he admitted frankly. "We've never talked about this in all the time we've worked together. Han was your friend as"
"Is. Han is my friend." The intensity of Luke's emphatic statement took Lando by surprise, because his expression and posture remained composed.
How like Luke to declare loyalty in such uncompromising fashion, though; part and parcel of what drew Lando to him. That bright flame of compassionate, unshakable integrity was what drew everyone to the Jedi. How Han could stay away from Luke was beyond Lando's comprehension.
While he considered a response, Luke pushed back his chair, and under cover of easing stiff muscles, walked over to a window.
Getting a little uncomfortable, Luke? I've never known you to turn away from something that needed to be faced.
If disquiet was Luke's instinctive reaction, Lando knew there had to be some deeply unresolved feelings involved. How in all Corellia's moons had Luke rationalized Han's departure, then?
Facing the window, Luke finally said something that sounded like there might actually be some feeling behind it.
"Did Han deliberately do his best to avoid me last night?" Nothing to betray emotion in voice or tone, but the set of his shouldersbravely squared, as if facing an unpleasant fatetold Lando everything he wanted to know, and more.
"Yes," he confessed, knowing that Luke would probably sift the core of truth from prevarication anyway.
Watching Luke's shoulders sag a trifle and the head bow wasn't easy. "I think he was embarrassed to see you," he offered in compensation.
Luke laughed, but it was without humor. "Embarrassed? Maybe so. Maybe now he just… sees too much of Leia in me."
Huh? Lando found himself wondering what kind of conclusion he was expected to draw from such an unusual comment. "What did you say?"
He had to strain to hear the response. Luke turned around, a small, sad smile on his lips, not reaching his eyes. "I said, I guess the only thing holding him to us was Leia."
No, that's not what you said at all, but at least this makes a little bit of sense.
Lando hunted for something to say, something that would draw out more of Luke's perceptions. "Yeah, that sounds like Han. Can't commit to anything for too long. Doesn't want anything tying him down."
Luke stiffened just enough to be noticeable. "No, that's not true!" he blurted out. He looked surprised at his own vehement response and repeated the denial softly. "Not true at all."
"So what is the truth, then?" Lando pressed gently, holding his breath that Luke wouldn't back away like a wary skitpup who'd had one too many stones thrown at it.
Luke looked almost puzzled, as if he couldn't quite fathom how he'd ended up in this conversation, but seemed willing to finish what he'd started. Maybe it was something he needed to work through for himself anyway; in that case Lando didn't mind serving as a convenient excuse.
"The truth?" Luke's smile was both wistful and rueful. "You can't believe Han is incapable of commitment. He's proved over and over again that he is."
Luke's expression grew distant. He had to be recalling instances of Han's demonstrated commitmentinstances Lando had not shared and would never know.
"It just has to be on his own terms. I don't think Leia understands that, even now."
But you do, Luke, you do?
"Han's soul is the most… emancipated I've ever encountered. He went through a lot for us, Lando, but it all hinged on his own choices."
He couldn't resist playing Sith's advocate, digging for the bottom line in Luke's rationale. "He chose to accept official rank. And romance Leia."
Luke shook his head. "None of that was on his own terms. He tried to be who Leia wanted and it didn't work, because it went against his nature. Could never" He drew a deep breath and abruptly flicked whatever else he'd been going to say away with a wave of his hand. "Doesn't matter anyway. No point in considering 'might have beens'."
Doesn't matter? Are you trying to convince meor yourself, Luke?
He'd stayed, loyal friend and ally, joined the Cause and kept the faithand all that obviously mattered less to Luke than one ne'er-do-well scoundrel who kept them all at bay. Worse than that, Lando found himself unable to summon much resentment or principled indignation.
He was excused from agreeing with such a patent dismissal when Artoo trundled back into the room, warbling to his master.
"Artoo thinks I should try one more time to dissuade Cleres from using the Forecourt for his announcement."
Well, the mood of the moment had been ruined anyway. "Sure, go on." Lando heaved himself to his feet, surprised at the sudden cramp in overly rigid muscles. "I guess I'll make that call to Leia after all."
An hour later they were descending the broad stonework staircase into the forecourt, two steps behind Elder Cleres and the four chief delegates. Behind them the rest of the delegates and aides trailed in a noisy clump. Below, the droids were already in place by the hastily assembled podium, thanks to sensible use of the lifts. Lando supposed the regal procession was slightly preferable to crowding into the lifts and being at the mercy of mechanical sabotage, but not by much.
Threepio had certainly been correct about the crowd. Blinking his already gritty eyes against the harsh glare of high-intensity lighting, Lando looked over Cleres' head at the wall-to-wall crowd filling not only the forecourt but spilling out through the open archways into the street and park beyond. His little holdout blaster wasn't going to be much good here.
Threepio fussed around the delegates, obviously enjoying his moment of authority as he assigned each individual a specific location appropriate to his or her relative importance throughout the summit. Lando shuffled into his indicated position with a minor grin, his adrenaline high beginning to ebb. Beside him Luke appeared as serene and composed as ever, slightly smiling, but his eyes were active, and Lando knew he had to be searching the crowd for signs of danger in less obvious ways as well.
He felt a touch on his shoulder and turned to face Muya Sadika, the youngest member of the deliberating council, and one of the last holdouts to agreement. Of all the delegates, he'd had the most difficulty in actually reading her, although he'd quickly identified the pattern of her objections. She was clearly a Separatist and loyal to the pre-Empire traditions, as unswervingly devoted to her ideals as Cleres was to his. The difference in their personal styles had thoroughly intrigued himCleres' rigid autocratic manner seemed at odds with someone who actively supported a cooperative effort and Muya had delivered every single one of her many objections with an apologetic and faintly conciliatory air.
"I am pleased you were able to support the resolution offered today, Director," he said carefully, searching her expression for a clue to her acquiescence. Although Muya was of average size for a Pontradan, which meant she only came up to Lando's ribcage, she stood on a higher tier and therefore maintained level eye contact with him.
"You are very persuasive, Ambassador."
Although his ego wanted to accept Muya's compliment, his rational mind scented misdirection. She really was a very skilled politician and rhetorician. "That's very flattering, Director, but I don't think this proposal addressed all your concerns."
"No, it did not." She met his eyes directly, a surprisingly bold, aggressive move on her part, one he felt compelled to match. Native Pontradans deviated from basic humanoid stock in several respects, including size and facial features. Their eyes lacked colored irises; a disconcerting characteristic close up. Mutual discomfort between the Pontradans and stock humans decreed very little direct eye contact and it wasn't easy to hold her gaze for very long. "None of them could, by their very nature of compromise."
"Why did you agree then?"
"Because it was obvious there would be an Accord, with or without my approval. I had no choice. My wisest course of action was to agree to this temporary solution and wait for further opportunities."
"A temporary solution only?" he echoed. Resisting the temptation to bridle a bit at the implication wasn't as easy as he'd expected. His proposal was a good solution, damnit, not just some stop-gap suggestion.
She blinked, apparently surprised. "Of course. This will at least allow our economy to recover a little until we can restore complete autonomy. I have already begun counter-measures."
"To strike down the Accord even before it has a chance to be implemented?" Her comment set his nerves to jangling, although he reminded himself her knowledge of Basic was more limited than most and the wording could be a reflection of that unfamiliarity.
"You ask this? Have I not made my position clear enough? This… is a compromise, one which obligates us to your republic and that is unacceptable to a true Pontradan."
He shook his head, exasperated. "But this obligates you to nothing"
That we required your assistance in the first place implies obligation. Too many people will feel grateful to the republic and resentful toward their own leaders. This is unacceptable."
"Don't you think you're leaping to conclusions? Public opinion seems to be running very much in favor of this Accord."
Leaping to conclusions. Like he'd figured, these Pontradans had a lot in common with Corellians.
"They are in favor because they are dazzled by the messengers and are not truly hearing the message."
"You mean me 'n Luke? We're only tryin' to help."
"Yes, that was what the Empire told us, too, before they enslaved our people and raped our worlds' resources. This must not happen again."
He really hated those kinds of comparisons. "It won't. In case it slipped your notice, that's what Luke and I and a lot of other people fought against."
"We've heard the words of Outsiders before, beautiful words of hope and promise that proved to be lies. We will not be fooled again."
The civil, placatory demeanor Muya had worn for weeks seemed to have vanished, and she now spoke with far more direct passion than she'd ever exhibited in issue debates. Was he only now seeing the real Muya Sadika?
"I think I can understand, at least a little, how it feels to be used and betrayed by someone who promised otherwise." Of course he could, but perhaps it didn't compare.
Another moment indelibly etched into his memory: standing outside a laboratory in the lower levels of Cloud City, listening to Han Solo scream. He hadn't wanted to think back then just what it took to make a man like Han scream in raw agonyand he still didn't.
Oh, yes, Lando Calrissian knew how betrayal felt.
"But the trust has to start again somewhere. Cleres trusts us."
Mentioning Cleres must've been the wrong thing to say, because the small female drew back her lips to expose those nasty jagged teeth which proclaimed evolution from carnivores and hissed rudely.
"Cleres is as much a part of the problem as you and your New Republic. There are many ways to deal with such obstacles."
Lando rocked back on his heels and nearly slipped on the slick, polished floor. What the hell? Had she just threatened him? Or was he beginning to see conspiracies everywhere he looked?
He stared at her, entirely too dumbfounded and confused to respond. Those fathomless black eyes stared back at him, relentlessly challenging. Beside him, Luke seemed blissfully unaware of the abrupt chill that seized Lando.
"Master Lando, Director Muya!" Threepio chided them softly. "Elder Cleres is about to make the announcement."
After a final exchange of glances with the Pont Sen representative, Lando turned front and center, prepared to play his role and accept the gratitude of the Pontradan System with all due sobriety.
And try to make some sense of Muya's words.
To judge by the crowd's noisy response, Cleres might have been reciting naughty limericks rather than announcing a Trade Accord; surely they were unable to hear him over their own enthusiastic cheers. The thought brought a smile to Lando's face. He rather wished Cleres would recite filthy limericks, might take some of the pressure off him and Luke.
An auto-cam hovered annoyingly close and, mindful of the possible audience, Lando favored it with a precisely calculated, charming smile. Discreetly, he smoothed the line of his tunic and shrugged one shoulder minutely to adjust the fall of his cape to a more flattering angle. The cape, the rich, deep green color of wroshyr leaves, had been an indulgence but well worth the expense, considering his present circumstances. He wished he'd had the opportunity to freshen up a bit prior to this appearance.
An anonymous voice called from the edges of the crowd. "Ambassador Calrissian, Jedi Skywalker. Would you turn this way?"
As Lando turned in the direction of the speaker, Threepio started complaining.
"Really, Artoo, it's entirely shameful the way organics simply ignore our contributions! No one ever interviews mechanicals."
Artoo responded with a clearly derisive whistle.
"I do not have delusions of grandeur! Your logic circuits are faulty."
Luke grinned at Lando over Artoo's dome. At least they could share amusement about the droids' antics, Lando reflected.
Glad to oblige yet another news service's request for comments and visuals, Lando couldn't help but think how he and Luke complemented each other in so many ways. Dark and fair, sturdy and slight, extroverted and reserved, temperate and intense; the image they projected together was striking and effective. The arm he draped around Luke's shoulders in a friendly gesture of solidarity tingled from the shock of physical contact despite Luke's spontaneous tremor at the presumed familiarity. What a shame Luke appeared determined to remain celibate and solitary.
Lando's professional smile broadened into a grin of remembrance. When he'd stumbled into the suite's common room that first morning, yawning and stretching like a veltcat, Luke was already there, alert and tidy in his formal black suit. The remains of a scant breakfast littered the small table before him, rinds of an unfamiliar fruit and a nearly empty glass of some bluish, opaque liquid. The holovid nattered away in the corner, preset to scan for mentions of the trade blockade negotiations. Lando had just taken his first sip of desperately needed kaffin when the vid image flickered and morphed into a familiar face. His own. As gossip went it was fairly innocuous, a mild insinuation that the two New Republic envoys to the Trade Summit enjoyed more than a working relationship. That was when he'd inhaled kaffin down his windpipe, not because he was offended or embarrassed, but because he was startled that anyone could think of Luke as a sexual being. Lando had never met anyone in his entire life who cultivated asceticism and projected self-denial more than Luke Skywalker. Luke had simply smiled thinly and made some comment about the lightspeed multiplier of gossip. Only later had Lando wondered what Luke had made of his reaction to the implication.
"In your opinion, Ambassador, what was the turning point of the negotiations?"
The outcome had been a foregone conclusion in Lando's opinion. He'd scented success after the initial session. The opposing factions were weary of the extended discord and its attendant complications; the resolution had merely been a matter of finding the appropriate face-saving alternative acceptable to all parties. Of course, it wouldn't do to admit as much. This was the part he enjoyed the most; meeting the challenge to balance conflicting requests, his brain hitting hyperdrive speeds to compose a suitably diplomatic response. He removed his arm from Luke's shoulders and cleared his throat, allowing a calculated pause for silence to settle and attention to focus on him.
"Naturally most of the credit for the succ"
He caught a glimpse of the flash of laser optics from the corner of his eye; instinct prompted his swift response. Luke fell away from him at his shove, but the move brought Lando himself into the line of fire. He barely had time to think, No! before the blaster bolt struck him high on his right shoulder and spun him around. The impact felt more like someone had flung one of those small marbeleine statues into his side rather than being shot, and then he went numb from neck to waist. Artoo screeched shrilly and wheeled around, bumping against Lando's legs. No longer in control of his body and unable to stop his momentum, he found himself sprawling full length onto the cool floor. He vaguely realized two things: the press of people surrounding him was gone; and Luke was deflecting laser bolts with his lightsaber. Above the frightened shrieks and shouts of the panicked crowd Lando heard the sizzle and hum of the energy weapon. And he smelled something he'd hoped never to smell again: charred flesh. His own.
Not the most pleasant of realizations to take with him down into blessed oblivion.
At least that blasted itch had disappeared.
"You were most fortunate, Master Lando."
Between his aching body and the mental disorientation induced by pain-killers, Lando didn't feel particularly lucky. Threepio handed him his tunic as the med droid trundled out of the emergency treatment area. It squeaked most annoyingly as it retreated, and Lando winced at the redoubled assault on his throbbing headache. He traced the charred edges of his tunic front with his left index finger and frowned. His extremely expensive wroshyr-green cape would surely have a matching hole in it, too large for invisible reweaving. Damn! Whoever did this was gonna pay.
On the other hand, he probably didn't have to worry about that ruined white nerf-leather divan anymore. He suspected the Pontradan government had been embarrassed enough to wash that debt clean.
He summoned a grin for the droid. "What do you think, Threepio, does taking potshots at diplomatic envoys count as a breach of protocol?"
"A random act of violence by an unbalanced individual who has no connection to the diplomatic negotiations can hardlyoh, here come Master Luke and Artoo! Perhaps they'll have some additional information on the culprit."
At Threepio's comment, Lando glanced through the clearplex partition separating the treatment area from the main room. Luke, wearing a grim expression, approached the cubicle in which Lando sat. Artoo rolled along behind his master, and Lando noted that the droid's optic sensors were rapidly shading from blue to red and back again, a sure sign of information processing on a major scale.
"Artoo appears most agitated. I wonder what could be wrong."
Lando couldn't help snorting at Threepio's naïve concern, although the mechanical's honest oblivion was refreshing after all the excitement. After all, what wasn't wrong tonight? That heady moment of victory over the agreement had evaporated with a few whispered words and the flash of a blaster. And it was beginning to look like the two had more in common than anyone might suspect.
He tugged the tunic over his head, trying not to jar his shoulder too much in the process. A mere flesh wound, already treated with a topical bacta dressing and local anesthetic, but the area would be tender and his arm stiff for a day or two.
Luke stopped just inside the entrance to the cubicle and leaned his shoulder against the doorjamb. Artoo rolled past him until he reached Threepio's side. The protocol droid rested a metallic hand on Artoo's dome in what Lando could swear was an affectionate gesture. Like some old bonded pair, Lando thought to himself, again amused by the very palpable connection between the two droids.
"How are you feeling?"
Lando stood up, too quickly, and felt the blood rush from his head. The room spun around him and before he managed to sit back down without falling over, Luke was by his side. Under any other circumstances he might have tingled from scalp to toenails when Luke slid an arm around his waist to help support him; now he only felt a numb relief that he wouldn't fall over on his face. But he definitely liked the hint of concern he saw in Luke's eyes.
"More of an inconvenience than anything," he said rapidly, forestalling Threepio's undoubtedly lengthy and unwelcome repetition of the med droid's diagnosis. "I'll be fine."
Luke frowned, and Lando knew that he'd not missed the distinction between 'I'm fine' and 'I'll be fine.'
"I'm fine," he repeated, a tad more forcefully. "Just a little tired and shaky. Decent night's rest and I'll be as good as new."
"You saved my life tonight, Lando. Thank you."
He shrugged off the gratitude and immediately regretted his rash action.
"You don't do modest all that well, Lando." Luke offered a small grin, but his next words were somber. "I'd be dead if you hadn't pushed me aside. I never saw it coming."
Even Jedi make mistakes. Han had been right all the way around.
"You're welcome, Luke." He flexed his shoulder experimentally. "But next time I'll let you take the hit, if you prefer." Sensibly, Lando took his time on his second attempt at standing up, grateful for Luke's continued assistance. His caution was rewarded with only minor and short-lived vertigo.
"Threepio will take you back to the hotel. The guards are waiting for you down the hall."
"And where are you going?" He could see Luke was uneasy and preoccupied. For once, Threepio had been right on target: something was wrong.
Luke took a deep breath and blew it out before answering. Lando recognized a deliberate calming technique, one he used himself from time to time. "The security offices."
He felt a moment's flash of irritation. Don't patronize or protect me, Luke. "They have someone in custody already?"
Lando twitched, he couldn't help it. Something definitely wasn't right here, because Luke's expression was grimmer than it had been a few moments earlier. His brain obviously wasn't functioning on all thrusters just yet, because the fact that the local authorities had captured whoever had shot him didn't seem such a bad thing to him.
"Is it a secret, or am I allowed to know who damn near killed me?"
Despite a rigidly controlled expression, very real pain surfaced in Luke's eyes and his hand tightened on Lando's arm.
He cast about for something humorous to say, to ease Luke's tangible tension. "Well, whoever he is, he owes me a new wardrobe."
Luke shook his head. "Han." He swallowed hard and then continued. "They've arrested Han for attempted murder."
Lando's breath went out of him as though he'd been gut-punched and the room whirled around him again, for an entirely different reason this time. Between Luke's revelation and his physical injuries, even his teeth began to ache, pulsing in time with Threepio's metronomic "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear."
"Maybe you'd better sit down again, Lando."
Luke's voice penetrated the hazy fog of confusion and dread premonition.
"I'm going with you." The shock focused his attention past physical discomfort. "Has to be a mistake." Maybe yesterday he could've entertained the far-fetched possibility that Han would do something this crazy, but not now. Not after last night's conversation. He couldn't disguise his frown. Pontradan justice was swift and mercilesshe could guess at the sentence for attempted assassination of a foreign dignitary. They had to get this cleared up, and fast.
Luke didn't argue.
Typical bureaucracy, Lando thought sourly as they followed the guard into the detention block. They'd wasted more than an hour trying to get permission to visit Han. Apparently prisoners weren't allowed visitors; an exception had been granted only because of the extraordinary circumstances and the courtesy hadn't extended to the droids. Lando hadn't appreciated the delay at all, for both his arm and head throbbed painfully. Perhaps he was having some kind of allergic reaction to the painkillers as well, for he felt feverish and his stomach roiled badly. More than once he'd considered returning to the hotel, but a quick glance at Luke's edgy figure stifled the impulse each time.
The guard stopped before an anonymous door. "Fifteen minutes, Ambassadors."
The door slid aside and they entered the claustrophobic cubicle. Lando couldn't help but shudder when the door closed behind them with an emphatic click. He'd been on the wrong side of cell doors too often in his life.
Han instantly checked his brief start of astonishment and relaxed back into his half-reclining position on the narrow extruded plastiform bunk, but it didn't take much insight to recognize the coiled apprehension in that lean form. The Corellian had probably been suffering agonies, wondering if any of those shots had found their targets. A bland sabacc expression stole across Han's face, but those dark eyes searched out every single detail of Luke's appearance, obviously hunting for signs of injury. Lando had the brief impression he was invisible for all the attention Han paid to him.
"Told me I couldn't have visitors."
If Luke was surprised at Han's gaunt appearance, he hid it well. "I guess you were misinformed, Han." Luke's voice caught on his friend's name, and if he'd been trying for a casual tone, Lando decided he'd failed miserably. "How are you?"
"Bored. At least they promised me I wouldn't be here for too long."
Typical Han, of course, flippant and offhand regarding his situation. Han knew, probably better than he or Luke, just how the Pontradan legal system worked.
"We'll get you out." Luke's jaw firmed stubbornly, and for just a moment Lando saw the defiant youth of years past in the slender figure.
Han slowly sat up, not taking his eyes from Luke. "Chewie?"
Luke shook his head. "He's disappeared. But they are looking for him."
The idea of a two and a half meter tall Wookiee trying to hide on a planet where the average adult only came up to Lando's chest would've been funny under other circumstances.
"Luke, you gotta promise me you'll find Chewie n' get him off this rock. He doesn't have anything to do with this. Make them believe it," Han jerked his head toward the vidtrans over the door and turned to Lando. "C'mon, Lando, this is what you do. Don't wanna take Chewie down with me."
Lando had never heard Han sound more solemn in his life. Kind of nice to know there were some things even the Corellian wouldn't abandon.
Luke reached out as if to touch Han, but dropped his hand in mid-gesture. "We'll find Chewie, I promise that. But we're not leaving without you, Han. This is all a big mistake."
Lando didn't like the sound of Han's bitter laugh.
"They find the Falcon yet?"
"Yes." From the tone of Luke's voice, Lando knew it hurt the Jedi as much to say it as it surely hurt Han to hear it.
Han looked disgruntled more than concerned or upset that his beloved ship had been impounded. "Well, we had a full cargo hold. I'm sure that went over big with the local law. Yeah, our last run. We were gonna drop it on Pont Sen and get the hell outta here." The way Han scrubbed his hands over his face made Lando recall that sabacc game so many years ago, when he and Han had played a single high stakes hand for a ship named the Millennium Falcon. Han had done the same thing then, when he'd won his heart's desirethe Corellian's way of hiding the emotion in his eyes. "Don't matter, just so long as Chewie's all right."
And you. Lando heard the unspoken words. He was now certain why Han had strained the limits of self-preservation. The proof of his theory was sitting in front of him. Well, damn. It almost made Han look noble.
He shifted uncomfortably as another wave of dizziness washed over him. When Luke grabbed his uninjured arm and steered him to the bunk, Lando wasn't so far gone that he missed the tight, resentful line of Han's mouth. He would've grinned if he'd had the energy.
"Lando took the shot meant for me," he heard Luke explain to Han. "Pushed me out of the way. Saved my life." That steadying hand stayed on his shoulder and Han grumbled something under his breath. Didn't take any imagination to guess at the suspicions stampeding through Han's mind, but Lando knew they didn't have time to indulge in that right now.
"We figured you were long gone by now, Han."
The Corellian shrugged, a rueful smile quirking a corner of his mouth.
Maybe it was the fact he'd been shot. Maybe it was the fact that his triumph at the negotiating table was about to be ground to dust as a result of this complication. Maybe it was a sudden surge of jealousy at the way Han and Luke looked at each other, ignoring him. Whatever the reason, Lando lost his temper.
"Look, pal. If you don't tell usfastwhat's going on here, these Pontradans are gonna have you tried, convicted and fried in less than a week! You either tell us what you know, or we forget we ever knew you were on this planet."
"Lando!" Luke's right hand tightened painfully on his shoulder.
"Take it easy, kid." Han Solo was the only person alive who could call Luke Skywalker 'kid' and not have it sound like the basest of insults. This was something Lando could never do, lacking Han's history with Luke. That lack of history was a regret he felt down to his bone marrow.
Han glanced significantly at Luke's hand and skipped his gaze to the hole on Lando's other sleeve. "Better ease up before lover boy's got two bad arms."
The pressure lessened immediately, but Lando could tell by the furrow between Luke's brows that questions were being postponed.
"I was planning on leaving last night," Han said, "but Risco had me worried. One of the sore losers I was telling you about. Calls himself a patriot, a Separatist. I figured it was just a front, a way of turnin' the runs into some kinda noble cause instead of admitting he's doin' it for money or thrills like everybody else. Guess I was wrong." Han shrugged, entirely unembarrassed about affirming his own motives.
"I thought he was harmless. A hothead, but no guts, just a case of brain burn, y'know? One of the guysyou remember Cassell, don't you, Landothought it'd be funny to let everybody know I'd been a general with the Alliance 'n after that Risco kept bendin' my ear about how there wasn't much dif'rence between the Empire and the New Republic."
Han's small grin didn't do much to convince Lando the Corellian had been truly amused in any way. Guess that makes two of us, then, 'cause I wasn't too happy with Muya, either.
"Maybe he figured my soul needed savin' or something. I told him there wasn't any love lost between me 'n the New Republic, an' just let him rant. He was always bragging he had inside information, 'n maybe he did, from Campion. Never paid too much attention to that sort of thing, but last night he came to the Falcon said he knew the Accord was gonna be finalized today. Went on 'n on about what a bad thing that would be. Said if the leaders couldn't take care of the problem, he would. Said he knew a way to make sure the Accord would never take effect. Asked if I wanted in on the action, since I had such a grudge against the republic."
Lando almost couldn't hear the rest of Han's words for the roaring in his ears, thinking about Muya and the fanatical fervor he'd glimpsed in her eyes. There are many ways to deal with such obstacles, she'd said. I have already begun counter-measures. The trembling in his hands had nothing to do with fatigue or pain, or even post-trauma shock, and everything to do with a very real fear that they were facing a situation where the cards were stacked against them and all the skifters were up somebody else's sleeve.
Feelings had been running high on all the associated issues for a long time. Greed and politics, especially with misguided patriotism tossed into the mixture, often bred violencehe and Luke had been aware of that from the start of this mission. They just hadn't expected it to come from this direction.
"I mighta still ignored him, but sometimes these zealots can talk themselves into action. And Chewie said he smelled different. Like he wasn't just talkin' anymore but ready to do something."
The rather obscure latter statement made perfect sense to Lando. He nodded his understanding, as did Luke. They were well aware of the Wookiee hyper-developed olfactory sense.
"We decided it wouldn't hurt to wait another day or two, keep an eye on him"
"So you dropped by the hotel for a friendly warning."
Han nodded, his gaze straying back to Luke, and Lando let a little smile creep out onto his lips. You stayed 'cause you wanted to protect Luke, didn't you, Han?
"Only we lost him in the crowd. Didn't get a fix on him until the first shot."
"That's the one I took." Lando rubbed his injured shoulder and realized he no longer felt quite so fuzzy brained or nauseous. "How many did he get off? I remember Luke deflecting several blaster bolts."
That couldn't have been an easy task, come to think of it, considering how jampacked the forecourt had been; safely deflecting those bolts away from the assembled crowd must've required amazing skill.
"Five altogether. I deflected four shots." Luke's hand dropped to the empty hook on his belt where his lightsaber normally hung. The security guard had confiscated their weapons, of course, before letting them see Han.
"Five! Now who's getting soft?"
Han shot him a murderous glare. "Neither one of us had a clear line of fire. I was closer, got to Risco just when PonSec closed in. He got away, but I'll be damned if I know how. I don't think he even knew they were there. Listen, Luke… there was something funny goin' on. They could've nabbed him easy but they didn't. And they got there too damned fast. It's like they were waitin' til I showed up to make their move."
Lando frowned, still working sums out in his head and not liking the answers. If Han's arrest hadn't been a matter of inopportune timing, then something very big was going on. And he and Luke were smack in the middle of it.
"You think you were set up?"
He wondered if Luke realized he was rubbing his right wrist with his left hand, a nervous gesture he'd seen only half a dozen times in the past three years.
Han scowled. "Played me for a fool, all right. Risco, of all people!"
Luke frowned. "Is he capable of setting you up like that? Something like that had to be carefully planned, and it doesn't sound like his style, from what you've said."
Han raked fingers through his hair. "No, it's not his style. Somebody else must've put him up to it." Hazel eyes grew distant with thought. "Come to think of it, Risco wasn't so bad 'til he took up with Campion. Now there's a pair."
"Some local Separatist leader or somethin'. Risco met up with him at a rally a few months back 'n brought him around. Risco really got worked up over things after he started hangin' out with Campion. Chewie used to compare Campion to one o' those big Latrian spiders, y'know those almost sentient ones that get the little spiders to spin their webs for 'em?"
The door slid open again. "Time, Ambassadors."
"Han, we'll get to the bottom of this, I swear."
If Lando was aware of the abrupt tension in Han's body, like he'd suddenly been plugged into a live electrical circuit when Luke laid a hand against Han's arm, he was sure Luke recognized it, too.
Han waited until they were nearly out the door to reply. "Even if you clear up this murder charge, they might still get me on smuggling. An' I know what they do to smugglers."
The door slid shut with a conclusive sigh before either of them could answer. And one glance at Luke's stricken face told Lando he'd been more wrong about Luke than he'd ever imagined. As they walked down the narrow corridor Lando began to feel the restrictive silence close in on him with a sense of finality. As though something had just come to an end.
He stole another thoughtful glance at Luke's tormented profile.
Or perhaps something was just beginning.