When they returned to the reception area of the Security Offices, Elder Cleres and Security Prefect Rothu were waiting for them, wearing severely official expressions. Luke headed straight for them, outwardly controlled but evidently preparing for a confrontation. Lando, lagging several paces behind Luke and feeling uncomfortably like he was moving through some kind of heavy gravity field, tried to quicken his steps. After the palpable demonstration of mutual… whatever in that jail cell, he was none too confident of Luke's continued diplomacy. As a safety precaution, he decided to forestall whatever Luke planned to say, give him a moment to consider the propriety of his words. Whatever the situation, antagonizing the recognized authorities here wouldn't be a smart moveat least not until they knew more about the overall situationbut he didn't get the chance to speak first.
Both Pontradans stiffened their already rigid posture as they approached and Lando suppressed the instinct to swallow hard against instinctive dread. He had the uncomfortable feeling they weren't here to offer another batch of formal apologies and reassurances.
"Ambassador Calrissian." Cleres offered a courteous, if stiff-necked, nod of the head toward Lando, then bowed slightly in Luke's direction. "Jedi Skywalker. I trust you have satisfied your… curiosity in meeting with the suspect." That same stern, overpowering presence Lando had felt in the conference room definitely had center stage again.
In an effort to diffuse the palpable tension radiating from the Elder, Lando fell back on convention. "We appreciate your making an exception of your regulations in this case, Elder, Prefect." Lando gritted his teeth against another spike of pain hammering through his arm when he performed the ritual greeting gesture. Neither Pontradan returned it, and Lando's stomach sank to the region of his glossy polished shoes as he tried to decipher the discourtesy. Something was dreadfully wrong. He stole a quick, surreptitious glance toward Luke, who maintained a casually watchful posture.
"Our examination of the suspect's identidisc and ship's logs revealed some most interesting information. This… free trader," Cleres' voice held more than a little distaste and sarcasm, "one Han Solo of Corellia, also appears to be a former general in the New Republic Combined Military Forces and former Consort to Minister of State Leia Organa."
"That's correct," Luke agreed in a mild tone of voice, although Lando had no doubt he was concealing a great deal of emotion behind that bland façade.
"And yet you chose to keep this information to yourself when you asked permission to visit the prisoner. Despite the fact we openly shared everything we had with you."
Oh, great, Luke. Withholding information. What sort of penalty does that carry, I wonder?
"I wasn't entirely certain this was the same man. It could easily have been someone impersonating him for unknown reasons. The only way to make certain was to see him in person."
So much for the idea that Jedi can't lie when it suits them.
"I see. Perhaps you are unaware of this, then." Cleres nodded to the other native Pontradan.
Security Prefect Rothu Temlo, large and heavyset for a Pontradanthe perfect image of an uncompromising and dedicated law enforcement official, Lando thoughtpunched a button on his belt remote, bringing a vid player to life. In silence, the four watched the indisputable truth unreel before their eyes: video obtained from the hotel's security cams.
So that's how he managed it, Lando thought as he watched the imaged Han Solo enter the hotel virtually invisible as a member of a tourist group and subsequently disguise himself as waitstaff in order to access the security floor. Simple but effective, given the large number of standard humans living and working on Pont Gollo. No wonder the guard had been so sleepy when Lando passed him;surely there had been some sort of soporific in the kaf Han had brought to him. Still… the guard didn't appear very alert to the suspicious circumstances in the first place. Some protection. If the smugglers had really intended to harm them, there would've been no difficulty in doing so at any time. Each new development inclined Lando toward the theory that hidden agendas had been at work all along, and he'd simply been blind to them.
The thought didn't please him at all, that awareness of a deeper subtext throughout the weeks of negotiation had escaped his observation.
From the chrono markers blinking across the bottom of the screen, Lando noted very little time passed between Han's entrance into their suite and his own arrival.
At Cleres' abrupt gesture, Rothu pressed his remote again and the image froze on the screen.
"You met with Han Solo last night, Ambassador." Once again Lando was aware of the strength of will in the Pontradan's direct, accusing gaze. "To what purpose?"
He really didn't see much point in hiding the truth now. "He came to offer a warning of possible danger. That's all."
Rothu's snort of disbelief didn't do much to restore Lando's flagging confidence. Perhaps it was too many years of mistreatment by various local authorities, but Rothu raised the hackles on the back of his neck.
"You were already under the protection of our government. I find it hard to believe that he would employ such a devious approach if his only intent was to offer a warning to an old acquaintance. Why not contact you directly and openly? And why choose a time when Jedi Skywalker was known to be elsewhere? What did you and Solo discuss in your private meeting? An assassination attempt on the Jedi? Or were you perhaps partners in his smuggling ventures?"
Half a dozen rebuttals to the prefect's questions leaped to mind, but Lando knew there was little point in voicing them. From the small waiting room beyond the security grid he heard Artoo's little whistle of dismay, and caught a glimpse of artificial light bouncing off Threepio's bronzed shell in his peripheral vision.
Apparently surprised out of his equanimity by the implication of collaboration, Luke started. Lando could only assume the Jedi was still off-balance from the encounter with Han. He'd certainly seen the allegation coming.
"Are you formally accusing Ambassador Calrissian of a crime, Prefect?" Luke's voice hardened into frosty civility, and he carefully invoked a reference to their status as visiting dignitaries.
"In light of tonight's events, there is reasonable cause to suspect him of collaborating with Solo in either the assassination attempt on your life or as an associate in piracy."
Well, hell. The evening just kept getting better and better. The mission briefings had included the information that because the Pont System did not recognize the New Republic as the legitimate successor to the Old Republic, their status as representatives of an outlaw government wouldn't guarantee them diplomatic immunity under local law. Of course, such a remote possibility hadn't seemed important to Lando at the time. Part of his assignment here had been to represent the New Republic in a positive light, perhaps lure the resources-rich system into the fold of the New Republic. He thought he'd enjoyed some success… at least until tonight.
Luke frowned. "That's several unwarranted assumptions. You have no evidence that Captain Solo engaged in illegal trade practices, and neither he nor Ambassador Calrissian attempted to assassinate me."
"That remains to be seen. Until the situation can be investigated fully, we ask that Citizen Calrissian confine himself to his hotel suite. If our inquiries substantiate complicity in either crime, he will be formally charged."
Lando grimaced at the disrespectful emphasis on the form of address. Suspect in a crime or not, he was still the representative of a foreign government, and he was just insulted enough to make an issue of it.
"Elder Cleres, Prefect Rothu, I believe that, unless I am formally charged with a crime under your laws, the proper title accorded to me is Ambassador." The hostility directed toward him was unmistakable, but Cleres had the grace to nod in agreement.
Rothu picked up Luke's lightsaber from behind the desk and handed it to him with clear reluctance. "Your lightsaber, Jedi Skywalker." He then picked up Lando's small holdout blaster in its wrist holster and the knife he always kept strapped to his leg, both weapons surrendered prior to visiting Han.
"Perhaps you were not aware, Ambassador, that carrying concealed weapons is a punishable crime on Pont Gollos? As well as a breach of summit protocol?"
Lando supposed he'd never hear the end of this from Threepio. The droid had strenuously objected to Lando carrying the blasterhe hadn't known about the knifeand wailed about the repercussions of discovery. Nothing worse than a righteously validated and overly chatty protocol droid.
They had him on this issue, he had to concede, but one success inclined him to argue this as well. They'd not objected to Luke carrying his lightsaber and found it difficult to believe they hadn't at least suspected he had armed himself. And it certainly wouldn't do to let them think they had the upper hand here. "I think tonight's events prove the inadequacy of your security measures. My efforts at self-protection are entirely justifiable under the circumstances."
He knew the words were more than inflammatory and was frankly surprised when Cleres nodded abruptly. Rothu thrust the weapons at him, distinctly unhappy with the Elder's decision.
"They must be worn openly, not concealed."
Luke seemed equally determined not to be deflected. The Pontradans were about to get a lesson in Jedi tenacity.
"What about Captain Solo's situation?"
No, it hadn't taken Luke long at all to circle back around to Han's welfare. But since determining whether Han had been framed for the assassination attempt was certainly crucial to both his and Han's well being, Lando supposed he couldn't object too much.
"There's no doubt he was involved in the system-wide piracy. His ship's hold was filled with trade goods. His records will be searched thoroughly and if we do not find a legitimate receipt for the cargo, he will be charged with illegal trading. That alone is punishable by five years in a penal colony, without option of parole. As far as the other charges, he was found immediately after the incident in the area where the shots were fired from, his blaster had been recently discharged, and he certainly has ample motive"
"Motive!" By the tone of his voice, Luke had again been jarred out of his composure. "What motive?"
"His forced dismissal from the New Republic military after a failed romance with one of its principals would naturally lead to resentment of its authority. Corellians are famous for their passionate natures and vendettas. Who would be a better target for revenge than one of the New Republic's most admired and respected figures?"
Rationalization and justification were terrifyingly easy to come by, Lando thought. Humans had nothing on Pontradans in that regard, obviously. Luke regained his equilibrium and spoke calmly. "Captain Solo resigned his commission, he was not forced out. And the relationship with Minister Organa certainly has nothing to do with this situation."
You're wasting your breath here, Luke. These guys aren't going to listen. Their minds are already made up and I'd like to know why.
But Lando wasn't about to enter into the fray with his partially-considered suspicions and confused tale of private agendas and veiled threats. At least not until he'd had a chance to think all the implications through and discuss them with Luke.
"Ruined romances, Jedi Skywalker, often result in crimes. A lovers' quarrel between you two, for instance?"
He'd wondered when they'd get around to that, and saw Luke twitch as he made the connection as well. This was the first reference anyone had made directly to either of them regarding the popular gossip.
"Your incorrect perception of the relationship between Ambassador Calrissian and myself also has nothing to do with this situation."
Wonderful. Virtuous indignation. That's really gonna convince 'em, Luke. Anyway, you don't have to look so insulted at the idea.
"Are you aware that Captain Solo was following someone he suspected of possible violence, the same person he'd warned the Ambassador against last night? And that your security officers allowed the real criminal to escape and instead arrested an innocent man?"
Rothu's lips curled back into an amazingly repellent sneer. "Yes, he made that claim to us as well. I didn't find his statement particularly convincing."
"I don't find your investigative procedures very convincing either," Luke snapped, obviously at the end of his patience.
Cleres, who had remained silent during Luke and Rothu's discussion, raised his hand in an abrupt gesture.
"This will solve nothing. It's late and we're all tired. We have an escort waiting to take you back to your hotel. If you care to consider a separate suite of rooms for your own safety, Jedi Skywalker, we will make the arrangements."
Luke shook his head emphatically. "I'm not in any danger. At least not from Ambassador Calrissian." The cold gaze he turned on Cleres and Rothu indicated beyond a doubt where he thought any possible dangers might originate.
Cleres remained unperturbed. "If that is your wish. Tomorrow you may examine our evidence against Captain Solo and Ambassador Calrissian if you choose." The Elder beckoned, and a security detail stepped forward. Six men, rather blatantly well-armed.
All this just for one not-even-officially-accused prisoner? Lando grinned. They probably didn't trust Luke not to try to free his lover. Lover. The word hung up somewhere in the interstices of imagination and Lando wondered just who he'd meant by thathimself, or Han.
Luke stood his ground as the detail closed in around them. "If Ambassador Calrissian is not under arrest then we decline your honor guard."
Nicely done, Luke. Good move. Call their bluff and leave us free to figure out just what in the hell is going on.
Rothu scowled, yet another exceptionally unattractive expression in the security prefect's repertoire. Cleres stiffened and drew himself up to his full height, a gesture which should have seemed ludicrous given his stature, but wasn't, and tried to stare Luke into submission. The tactic didn't work; Lando idly wondered what it said about Cleres' self-esteem, if he thought he could succeed where the Emperor himself had failed. Luke merely waited calmly, with only the hard lines on either side of his mouth betraying his emotional state.
"If you decline protection we can hardly guarantee your safety."
Like your protection was a guarantee to begin with? Although the lack of an escort might make them more vulnerable to outside dangers, if it was a matter of merely staying alert or having to watch the people assigned to protect them, he'd choose the former every time.
"That is a risk the Ambassador and I are willing to accept."
Cleres dipped his head to acknowledge the validity of Luke's refusal. Rothu gestured to the security detail and the moment passed. From the waiting area Artoo chirped a small sound of relief and Threepio exclaimed a distinct, "Thank the Maker!"
"You are considered material witnesses at a minimum, and Ambassador Calrissian remains under suspicion. Do not attempt to leave Pont Gollo until the matter has been resolved." With a final, unrelenting glare, Cleres turned away from them and Lando breathed a silent sigh of relief.
"Let's get out of here, Luke."
Luke glanced back toward the door leading to the detention cells, an unreadable expression on his face. Then he shook his head and smiled at Lando. "Yeah, let's do that." With a single look he gathered up the droids and followed Lando.
"I guess this means our evening of delight has come to an end," Lando quipped as he stepped out into the warm night air. "Not that I'm particularly sorry"
"Jedi Skywalker, how do you feel about"
"Ambassador! Any truth to the rumor you met with General Solo"
"Is it true"
"How do you think this will"
Lando's initial reaction was surprise that reporters would be waiting for them; his second reaction was surprise at his first reaction. Behind him he heard Luke's quickly suppressed sigh of irritation.
Lando's reflexes took command, an instinct operating somewhere beyond the level of conscious thought. Fortunately, the crowd proved surprisingly well-mannered for a group of reporters. In far less time than he'd expected, the questions trailed off. Lando caught himself wondering if Luke had in some way influenced the reporters to be so agreeable; such cooperation was extremely unusual in his experience.
"I think we should visit the scene of the crime," Luke suggested, his gaze fixed on the park beyond the traffic lanes. The security offices were adjacent to the Assembly House where the negotiations had taken place.
As they passed their parked hovercar, Luke spoke to the chauffeur lounging against the vehicle. "There's no need for you to bother. We'll walk. You can wait here."
Lando blinked, again surprised, this time at the driver's amiable agreement. Bayss had been their driver since their arrival on Pont Gollos, a concerned and somewhat overprotective escort. Now Lando had no doubts he was seeing the Force at work.
What a team they would've made! Such a shame Luke had dedicated his life to good works.
"Master Luke, should we wait here as well?"
"No, you two come with us." Luke grinned at Artoo's doubtful whistle. "Don't worry. This is nothing like Endor. Plenty of paved walkways for you. And don't wander off either. I don't think we need to get separated under the present circumstances."
"Of course not, Master Luke."
"So what do you expect to find at the scene of the crime, Luke?" They left the brightly lit street behind them and entered the shadowy domain of massive trees. Out of the corner of his eye Lando saw one of the shadows move toward them and drew his holdout blaster with thoughtless ease, pleased that his practice efforts the previous night had proven useful. He probably would've been unhappy if he'd wasted all that time anyway.
Luke laughed softly. "Him." The shadow resolved itself into Chewbacca.
The Wookiee charged at them, snarling, and it took all the control Lando could muster to keep his finger off the blaster trigger. There was just something about facing an obviously enraged creature with fangs and claws and massing twice his size…
Artoo wheeped nervously and Threepio drew back in surprise. "Oh my! Chewbacca!"
[Cub! You are safe!] Chewie gathered Luke roughly in his massive arms and held him close for an instant. [I feared for you when I heard at least one bolt had found a target.]
Relieved as he was to see the big Wookiee safe and whole, Lando winced. Damn! I really must be invisible tonight. All right, so maybe it was more than a little selfish and petty to want a few words of acknowledgement, if not sympathy, from somebody tonightbut damnit
Luke stepped back from Chewie's embrace, looking a little out of breath, and shook his head. "Thank the Force you're all right, Chewie! I'm fine."
Chewbacca then focused that intense blue gaze on him; not for the first time in his life Lando was glad he had a clear conscience, because Chewie had a way of getting behind his eyes.
[It was you?] The tone was gentle, and so was the accompanying pat on his shoulder.
Now that he'd been acknowledged, Lando had no problem being gracious. "Don't worry, Chewie. Minor wound. I'll be full strength in a day or two."
[Good, because we will need your help to free Han.] Chewie turned back to Luke. [How is he?]
"He's all right for now. About what you'd expect, sitting in a jail cell for a crime he didn't commit. His main concern was for you."
Chewie growled his opinion of Han's situation. [Hardly surprising that he thinks of me. Han has a good heart. But he does not tolerate confinement well.]
Now there's an understatement if ever I heard one. Sweating out a night or two in a drunk tank was one thing, but this
Luke patted Chewie's arm comfortingly. "We'll get him out as soon as possible, I promise."
[I have a plan,] the Wookiee declared proudly. [Han will not suffer for long.]
"I hope your plan's better than most of Han's," muttered Lando, and received a stern glare from Chewbacca.
"Good, I'm glad one of us does," replied Luke. "You must have a better idea of what's going on than we do."
Lando lifted an eyebrow at the distinct warning glance Luke shot in his direction. You think I'm crazy enough to make Chewie mad, Luke? Don't you worry 'bout me, I've spent years figuring out just how far I can push Chewieand Han, for that matter.
An instant later it occurred to him that maybe Luke was reacting to his subtle slander of Han's tactical abilities, a thought that made him grin.
[Come with me.] Chewie's gesture included Lando and the droids. [I have a speeder parked near another entrance. I will tell you what I know as we go.]
Chewie turned as if to head through the woods, then abruptly stopped and whirled around. Lando tensed as the Wookiee looked long and hard at each of them in turn, so long and hard that he began to wonder if he'd miscalculated the Wookiee's tolerance level regarding Han jokes. Behind Lando, Artoo whistled a cautionary note and Threepio quickly hushed him.
Before he had time to gauge variables of responses Chewie had pulled them into a joyous hug.
[I have missed you.]
Lando didn't even mind the whiff of exhilarated Wookiee mingling with the spicy scents of native thistleberry and transplanted Coruscant heburnia trees. A knot of stifled emotion began to unravel in his chest at the undisguised affection in Chewie's grumble. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Luke close his eyes and clench his hand convulsively against the Wookiee's chest in an unconscious expression of relief.
"Me too," Luke whispered.
Yeah, damnit, I missed you too, you and that furless Corellian partner of yours. Lando didn't mind admitting it, either, at least not to himself.
"Should've at least let us known you were still all right," he griped to cover his own emotions, thinking more of the visible anguish in Luke's posture as he stood by that window than of his own concerns. From what he'd seen earlier, Luke was a man balancing on a slender margin of manufactured rationales.
[Yes, I agree. Had it been my choice I would not have left you with only silence to breed fears and questions.] Chewie released them and stepped back. [But at first the rupture was too raw. And once we arrived in this system, it was unsafe.]
Lando wanted to rage at the inadvertent admission that Han's failure to communicate had been deliberate.
Luke nodded, his tight expression accepting the apology in Chewie's eyes and voice. "I know it wouldn't have been your choice, Chewie. That's all right."
The Wookiee placed one of those large paws on Luke's shoulder. [It's not all right, young one. But Han needed time and distance to understand his heart.]
Hello, what have we here? An interesting choice of words.
Still, however much as Lando wanted to hear more about Chewie's opinions regarding Han's motivations, his primary concern now was finding a secure location to plan their next move. He cleared his throat. Somebody had to keep the priorities straight.
"Are we good to go then?" He looked over his shoulder, estimating how long it might take someone to come looking for them. "You said something about a vehicle and a plan?"
[Yes, we should go. We have no time to spare. We must find someone.]
But Luke didn't move.
Already starting to walk in the direction Chewie had indicated, Lando looked back at the two of them when he heard the change in Luke's voice. He sounded… young. Vulnerable. For a moment the distorted shadows from the moons confused the signal running along his optic nerve; he could've sworn he saw a third person standing between the two, like a living link, the three of them bound together as inextricably as the three moons orbiting this planet. He blinked, and again it was only Luke and Chewbacca.
"What's the matter with Han?" Luke asked.
[Did they beat him? If they hurt him I will rip the arms from those responsible so they can never hurt anyone again.]
Luke had shaken his head. "No one beat him, Chewie. They're treating him as well as can be expected under the circumstances. I meant… he looks like he's been sick. Has he?"
So he'd noticed Han's appearance after all.
[Ah. Sick, no. But something troubles him. Perhaps he will tell you. He won't tell me.]
Something in the way Chewie considered his words before speaking had made Lando think the Wookiee knew exactly what troubled Han.
Before Luke could ask further questions, Chewie led off through the thickly wooded park at a fast clip. While they walked Chewie sketched out a story similar to the one Han had given them, interspersed with reiterations of concern for Han's well-being.
[ …saw at once I could not help Han.]
That couldn't have been easy for Chewie to admit. Wookiees don't do helpless very well.
[There were too many officers and too many innocent onlookers. I did the only thing I could, and followed Risco to a tavern. And then I set out to find you.]
"I'm glad we managed to find each other."
Lando wondered if Chewie would take Luke's comment as an invitation to discuss their abrupt departure from Corellia.
Luke looked up quickly, words tumbling out thoughtlessly. "He was hurting pretty badly, wasn't he, Chewie?"
At the Wookieee's nod, Luke sighed. "He never let me know. I wish he'd talked to me before leaving like that. Maybe there was another way"
[There was no other way, Luke.]
Luke kicked some leaves out of his way, probably more to vent feelings than because they were obstructing his path.
[He left because he didn't want to hurt anyone more than was necessary.]
"Well, he failed," Luke said with grim humor.
And there it was, hot and bitter resentment, the raw sentiment Lando had been unable to draw from Luke.
[Han did not intend to leave pain in his wake. He did not intend to injure you.]
Luke scuffed his boots through another leaf pile, and Lando found the child-like action oddly endearing and touching. As though Luke were close enough to Chewie to let his guard down completely.
"I just wish he hadn't left so abruptly. Or at least kept in touch once in a while."
Chewie looked down at Luke with evident affection and lowered his voice to a soft rumble, obviously intending his next comment for Luke's ears only.
Lando smiled grimly at Chewbacca's precaution. Not that he wanted to eavesdrop on something Chewie obviously considered a private matter, but he couldn't avoid it without being obvious.
Besides, he was curious. It had to be about Han.
[There werearethings that need to be said between you and Han.]
Luke's steps faltered. "Like what?"
[That I cannot say. Only you and Han know that.]
Luke offered no response to that, only a thoughtful glance at Chewie. Almost as if he didn't quite know what to say.
Very interesting indeed. So Chewie has an opinion on Han's feelings toward Luke, too. Guess I'm not crazy after all.
The bond of friendship forged between Han and Luke early on had obviously been a powerful one; in those sad, endless days after Bespin, preoccupied with other matters, he'd failed to recognize just how strong the pull between them was.
Back then Chewie had been as frantic a Wookiee as Lando ever wanted to see, blaming himself for events, worrying about Han, concerned about Leia and the 'cub'. He'd startled Lando one evening as they reworked the Falcon's comm panels, with the comment that of course the cub was slowly withering, without Han to support him. According to Chewie, Han was the only person who'd been with Luke from the beginning, the bridge between his old life on Tatooine and his new experiences with the Rebel Alliance; the older, wiser, more experienced brother who served as guide and friend through some pretty turbulent years. Of course Luke had come to rely on Han.
But now, with the clarity of hindsight, Lando saw that Han had also come to rely on Luke just as much. Or maybe even more.
Definitely food for thought to last him through the short hike to the modest, nondescript sedan parked in the shadow of an enormous dark-leafed ahorn tree
An hour later, armed with Chewie's description of Risco the betrayer, his lightsaber hidden under a jacket, Luke went into a rundown tavern in the city's industrial sector alone.
[This is one of the safe locations where we conducted business,] Chewie had assured them. [We could always find him here. I think it's best you go in alone, cub.] What went unspoken was Luke's uncanny ability to disguise his appearance by means of the Force.
Lando couldn't hide his grin at Luke's sigh. Old habits seemed to die hard where Luke was concerned. Chewie still called him 'cub', and Han obviously hadn't been able to resist throwing out the occasional 'kid'.
Tempted as Lando had been to accompany Luke, he agreed to wait by the vehicle with Chewie and the droids. His injury and lack of rest was telling on him by now; if trouble developed he would most likely be a liability to Luke, rather than an asset.
"I still think we're wasting our time, Chewie." He shifted his weight to ease the stress on his bruised knee and offered another entry into their continuing mild disagreement. "If Risco's got any sense at all, he's either running or in hiding."
[He may not be here, that is true. But he is a fool and a braggart and this is as good a place to start as any.]
They stood in silence for a short while, leaning against the rear wall of the building in the deepest shadows of the litter-strewn alley. Lando coughed and turned his head aside as a stray kreedog happily scratched at a hillock of organic refuse and exposed a pocket of trapped, rancid gasses.
"Gagh! Explain to me again why we're skulking about in this nasty alley." A sentiment Threepio apparently heartily endorsed, to judge by the vigorous nod of his head and a quick retreat to the other side of the vehicle to join Artoo.
[Because Risco may not be as cooperative as we might wish, and the sight of a Wookiee threatening a Pontradan would probably draw attention on the street.]
"I'd say that's an understatement."
Chewbacca chuckled, a low rumble which didn't sound entirely good-humored to Lando's ears, and he noted that the Wookiee's position effectively trapped him in this one spot, unless he chose to step into one of the noxious piles of garbage around them. And the way Chewie remained stolidly oblivious to Lando's distress made him think the situation rather more deliberate than accidental.
He'd learned over the years that Chewbacca didn't always perceive events and people the same way humans did; a misunderstanding that endured too long might not be a good thing, especially under the present circumstances. "Is there a problem here, Chewie?" He ticked off possible reasons against a mental list: could the Wookiee be blaming him for Han's predicament? Undeserved blame had become an old companion by this point in timehe should be used to it by now.
Chewbacca bared his fangs in what was most assuredly not a smile and snarled.
[Why did you lie to Han?]
An unthinking protest rose to his lips. "What makes you think I lied to Han about anything?"
[I have scented you and Luke. You are not mates. Why did you confirm the rumors to Han?]
So that was it. Lando laughed shortly. "Because he made me itch." How to explain the complicated rush of mixed emotions living in his heart at the moment he'd let the jibe fly? Resentment, irritation, frustration, affection, worry…
[You should not have done this, Lando.] Why was it Chewie always called him by name, and never by some fond nickname? [You made a mistake. Han will not be pleased when he learns the truth.]
Yeah, tell it to your TreeMother, Chewie. However displeased Han's gonna be, it won't be half as bad as Luke's reaction. No, he didn't want to think about Luke's reaction to his little joke at all.
[Luke will not like it either.]
"It was just a joke, Chewie. A joke. You've heard of those, haven't you?"
[There are some things you cannot joke about. Even the youngest of Wook cubs know better than to jest on matters of the heart.]
"I'm not a Wook cub. I'm a human adult, and adult humans do joke about such things. Frequently. You never objected to it before."
[It never mattered before.]
The comment made Lando close his lips before a hasty retort could find its way out. It never mattered before. He snorted. Hadn't the Wook done more than his fair share of mocking Han about his romantic entanglements over the years? But now that he thought about it, he remembered the phrase matters of the heart, especially the way Wookiees used the term, implied far more than a friendly, or even physical, relationship. Did Chewie mean to suggest that Han was in love with Luke? For all his straying thoughts about sexual attraction between Han and Luke, the idea of love hadn't really occurred to Lando. At least not the kind of love Chewie meant.
He entertained the possibility that his odd little vision in the park hadn't been a trick of moonlight after all, but some kind of manifestation of a future not yet written. After all, he'd seen enough strange things with regard to Luke not to dismiss anything out of hand, and he certainly respected Chewbacca's instincts.
Ridiculous. I'm not Force sensitive in the least. No way I could conjure up an image like that. I'm probably hallucinating from the painkillers or something.
"Your imagination's working overtime, Chewie, that's all." He tried to dispel any suggestion of supernatural influences with his deliberately emphatic response, but the end result was the same. He wasn't entirely sure if he was trying to convince the Wookiee or himself.
It was on his lips to remind Chewie there was no need to reveal his little peccadillo to Luke when a rectangle of light spilling across the waste heaps signaled the opening of the tavern's back entrance.
They both tensed in anticipation, but it turned out to be a false alarm. More garbage landed with a wet splat and the kreedog whined and sniffed cautiously, its tail thumping happily against the uneven pavement.
Unrelieved apprehension sang along Lando's nerves, that itch making itself felt between his shoulder blades again. "D'you think this is taking too long, Chewie? He's been in there a good twenty minutes already."
Not that he doubted Luke's ability to discreetly and efficiently detach Risco from his companions and surroundings without arousing any suspicions, of course, but these smugglers were men and women who had little to lose by disposing of an inconvenient nuisance. Damn this ridiculous protective instinct anyway! He seemed to have had more than his fair share of that tonight. Unfortunately, Lando was relearning one of the universal truths of lifewaiting games were only enjoyable when you were the one calling the shots.
[The cub is very resourceful. We will wait a little longer.] Although Chewie's words might have been intended as reassuring, the words came out a little more clipped than usual, a good indication that the Wookiee felt as uneasy as Lando did.
Serves him right if he is. It's largely his fault I'm not in a comfortable bed by now, with a full dose of Pont Gollo's finest under my belt, instead of standing knee deep in garbage.
Of course, in that case he would've felt even more frustrated and insecure than he did now.
"Chewie, did you ever get the feeling there was something more behind Risco's threats than just his own anger over losing a good thing? Some kind of patriotic fanaticism?"
Between the Wookiee's retelling what had happened to him and Han in minute detail, and Luke's repeated assurances that Han was all right for the time being, Lando'd had no opportunity to mention his conversation with Muya Sadika to either of his companions. Suspicions hovered in the back of his mind, a haphazard tangle of confused instincts and feelings. The idea that Risco had been a conspiracy of one was certainly less bruising to his ego than the thought that someone connected to the summit had masterminded a convoluted plot. Not once had he suspected any delegate of such deadly private agendas, not even the clearly separatist Muya. He didn't want to think he'd so grossly misjudged the entire situation.
[Risco is as short on brain power as he is on height. It's possible he's someone's dupe, but it's equally possible he acted on his own. And that is why we're waiting in the back alley.]
Despite the circumstances, Lando couldn't help but grin at the quiet humor in Chewie's words. He wondered if he'd been forgiven yet. Probably not, given the Wookiee's priorities. Chewbacca would walk through fire for Han, everybody knew that. That was why Luke had spent so much time reasssuring him of Han's condition that he'd neglected to mention Lando had been shot while saving Luke's life. What the hell was it about Han anyway, that inspired such fierce loyalty? He certainly hadn't been immune to it himself, back on Bespin.
"Han mentioned somebody named Campion. Said he thought he might've had some influence over Risco."
[Some influence?] Chewie's sardonic snort yanked a reluctant grin from Lando. [Risco is completely under his spell. But Campion is far from stupid. It would be too easy to trace the connection between them. More likely the fool thought of it on his own, as a way to prove his loyalty and impress Campion.]
"Han said Risco was always hinting at having inside information about the trade embargo. What kind? And did it come from Campion?"
[Oh, it had to come from Campion, as it was all political information. The kind of gossip that only someone who attended the negotiations would know. I heard it said that Campion is distantly related to one of the representatives to the summit."
The tight feeling in Lando's stomach began to cramp in earnest. "Don't suppose you know which one?"
He wasn't sure whether to be relieved or frustrated when the door opened and put a stop to their conversation.
This time a figure, small even by Pontradan standards, stepped out into the alley, cursed loudly when he tripped over the scavenging kreedog and would have fallen into a particularly unattractive pile of refuse if the man behind him hadn't moved with supernaturally fast reflexes.
The kreedog yelped and withdrew to a dark corner.
"Chewie?" Despite the fact that his eyes must have still been dazzled by the transition from light to dark, Luke looked straight at the Wookiee, a silent, motionless shadow within a shadow.
Chewbacca rumbled low in his throat and lunged forward with amazing speed for someone so large. The Pontradan shrank back and surely would've broken and run if Luke hadn't kept a firm grip on his arm.
"I think we need to take this someplace else fast." Luke moved toward the speeder parked just beyond Lando. "A full complement of Security Department vehicles just pulled up out front. I think they're getting ready to raid the place, and I'm sure they'll be sending a team back here, too."
One look at Risco's horrified expression convinced Lando that the only reason he'd decided to cooperate with Luke was that he figured a Jedi had to be the lesser of two immediate evils, but hadn't counted on a package deal which included an angry Wookiee.
Lando felt the knot of tension in his belly twist a little tighter. The entire situation only continued to deteriorate, and he was fairly certain that if he were caught in a suspected smugglers' hangout with a probable smuggler he'd quickly become very familiar with the inside of a Pontradan detention cell. And so would Chewie, and perhaps even Luke. He silently reassured himself that things couldn't possibly be as hopeless as they'd been back in Cloud City, when his carefully structured life had disintegrated under the combined weight of the Empire and the Rebellion in full conflict. He'd come out on top then; he'd do the same now.
Chewie stopped just short of bowling over the little Pontradan, grumbled his acknowledgment and quickly wrestled the two droids into the rear cargo compartment over Threepio's indignant protests. Luke had the vehicle moving before Lando shut his door, and he had to smile at the bizarre image they doubtlessly presentedtwo fairly disheveled and grimy standard Humans, two somewhat affronted droids, an enormous, angry Wookiee and one terrified and tiny Pontradan, all jammed into a decrepit hovercar.
Risco, wedged as far away from Chewbacca as he could get in the back seat, babbled in his native tongue, a nervous, breathless and nasal invocation that resembled a cross between prayer and confession. The cerebral flashlearn language lessons Lando had undergone in preparation for this mission served him well, for he could understand most of the Pontradan's words.
"What's he saying, Threepio? He's too agitated for me to follow very well."
As far as Lando knew, Luke hadn't taken the flashlearn lessons and spoke not a word of Pontrashi. Sometimes he wondered just what the Jedi might truly be capable of. He slanted a sideways look at Luke's profile, clearly limned in the faint glow of the control panel's displays.
"Oh, certainly, Master Luke. Low Pontrashi is essentially the same as"
"Just the short version for right now, thanks, Threepio."
"Oh, of course. Citizen Risco is disclaiming responsibility for…"
Under cover of Threepio's monologue and Risco's impassioned jabbering, Lando whispered, "Mostly he's apologizing to Chewie and begging him not to rip his arms off…"
"Can you blame him?"
Lando was uncertain whether Luke meant Chewie or Risco.
"… and importuning Chewbacca to refrain from physical dismemberment."
"Thanks, Threepio," Luke called, sparing a small smile for the overly helpful droid.
[Fear is an excellent motivator.] Chewie leaned toward Risco in a threatening manner. [I'm enjoying this.]
Lando turned as far to the side as he could, and laid his left arm along the seat back. "I'd rather he didn't die from a heart attack before he tells us what he knows, Chewie. Do you mind?"
Chewbacca shot an angry glare at Lando but eased back.
"Any ideas where we should go?" Luke checked the mirrors and Lando automatically did the same. They seemed to have gotten away clean, without anyone following them.
[The detention center to free Han.]
Lando and Luke exchanged grim expressions at the Wookiee's uncharacteristic naivete. In the rush of reunion and reassurance they'd neglected to give Chewbacca some basic facts.
"We need a plan before we can do that, Chewie." Although Luke's comment was entirely sensible, his expression directly contradicted the rationality of his words.
Lando couldn't help but smile. Since when has that ever stopped us before? "What we need is information, so we can make a plan," he corrected mildly.
Chewie folded his arms across his chest. [What haven't you told me, cub? Why is this not simple?]
Lando pre-empted Luke's answer. "Because it's beginning to look like somebody very high up in the negotiations is involved."
Luke threw a startled look his way but said nothing in front of Risco; the tightening muscles in his jaw hinted at some angry questions being held back.
"Not only that, Chewie, but they found the Falcon. And your cargo," Lando added, hoping to divert Luke's attention away from his own omissions.
The distraction worked, for Chewie rumbled something obscene and guttural.
Risco managed to tear his eyes away from Chewie long enough to extend an oddly beseeching expression toward Luke.
"You are the Jedi. You promised to protect me, not hand me over to an enemy," Risco finally squeaked out in passable Basic.
[Coward,] snarled Chewie. [Now the Betrayer knows how it feels in turn.]
Luke shook his head. "I promised only to help you leave the club safely."
"You tricked me."
The hell you did, Luke. You get more interesting by the minute.
Luke remained glacially calm, splitting his attention between driving and conversation. "I hardly tricked you, Citizen Risco. I merely pointed out I had a vehicle waiting out back. You never asked if I was alone."
Lando grinned at Risco's unsubtle start at the polite form of address. Somehow, he had the feeling Risco had little experience with courtesy. And he couldn't help but admire Luke's ability to walk the fine line between truth and liesit was an odd little quirk both Han and Luke shared, come to think of it. More than ever he regretted the never-to-be-realized illicit possibilities of a business partnership with Luke.
Luke steered the vehicle into a conveniently inconspicuous parking area and turned around to face Risco. "The only reason I didn't leave you for the officers is because I think you set my friend up tonight and I want to know why. I can't help anybody if I don't know what's going on."
Risco's hand hovered over the door control, clearly scenting freedom within his grasp. He sneered. "Why should I cooperate with you? You'll only turn me over to security anyway after you get what you want."
Lando shrugged his shoulders and smoothed his expression into his most sincerely earnest mask. "Prefect Rothu strikes me as a pretty thorough fellow. Maybe that raid tonight was a coincidence, and maybe it wasn't. Somebody's bound to talk, if they haven't already. You know the type as well as we do. They'll say anything to save their own skins." He waited a moment for his words to percolate through Risco's brain and reach that visceral level of fear and self-preservation.
"Better to have Jedi Skywalker interceding on your behalf, don't you think? I'm not all that familiar with your legal system but I hear"
"I will tell you nothing!" Risco triumphantly slapped his hand down on the door control, shoved against the door and looked astounded when it refused to open.
Chewie chuckled softly, menacingly, as he pulled Risco away from the door. [Fool. I told you he was short on brain-power.]
"We found you in less than an hour, Citizen. How long d'you think it will take the security prefect to locate you once he starts looking? None of your former associates will help you. Probably not even your buddy Campion."
Lando hid his grin when Risco turned a rather sickly shade of yellow at Campion's name. "You're on your own. The only people who might be able to help you are sitting right here."
Artoo chirruped long and loud, a sound Lando would've interpreted as exasperation in a human.
Threepio translated the comments. "Artoo is correct when he points out that Master Luke is a most honorable man and his reputation for integrity is unmatched. He suggests that any justifications for your actions would be more likely to be accepted coming from him."
"Especially since he was your intended victim," the droid added, prompted by another of Artoo's indignant bleeps.
There was no doubt in Lando's mind that the astromech droid's resentment rivaled Chewie's. Artoo was fiercely protective of his master.
The Pontradan glanced at Luke's unforgiving countenance and looked back at Chewie, who lifted his upper lip to expose very unfriendly fangs and leaned closer in an unmistakably threatening move.
"If I tell you what I know, what will you do with me?"
Naturally the little womprat was concerned with his own skin first, never mind that he'd tried to kill the same person he was now appealing to for protection.
"Chewbacca won't harm you, if that's what you're worried about."
Lando met Chewie's exasperated gaze. [Don't promise what you can't deliver, cub,] the Wookiee snarled softly.
Luke ignored the interruption. "Justice can be served in many ways, and I have to know the truth of the situation first before I can make any decisions. And so do you, I think."
Risco bowed his head, and his shoulders slumped in an unmistakable sign of surrender that crossed all racial boundaries. "I suppose you're right." He shrugged. "I don't have much choice now. I'll help you. Just keep him," he nodded toward Chewbacca, "away from me. I don't trust him at all. But I guess I don't have any choice about trusting you."
Clearly gathering his courage, Risco drew in a deep breath.
Finally, Lando thought. We're finally going to get a clue or two about what's going on here.
Luke stopped the hovercar in a suitably deserted parking lot around the corner from the security centerLando figured the lot was undoubtedly filled with bureaucrats' vehicles during the dayand turned around to address the others. "Probably best if you stay put for right now, Chewie, until we get this mess straightened out. Your walking into the detention center while there's a warrant out for your arrest might spark an unpleasant reaction."
Lando suspected Luke's concern was most likely prompted by unspoken anxiety to get Han released as quickly as possible rather than any real worry for Chewbacca's awkward situation. The Wookiee rumbled his reluctant agreement and Lando didn't need to be fluent in any six million forms of communication to recognize Chewie's eagerness warring with his own common sense.
"Artoo, Threepio, you come with"
"Don't you think it would be best if I remained here with Chewbacca, Master Luke? After all, if by chance a member of the local authorities happens by before you return, Chewbacca might require my mediation and translation services."
Lando tried, and failed, to hide his smile at Luke's resigned expression.
"That's a good idea, Threepio." Lando enjoyed watching Luke validate the droid's patent excuse with a few words and soothe the Wookiee's affronted emotions with a quick head rub. "I'm sure Chewie will be glad to have your company."
Most people, he was positive, would find the effort Luke put into droid management pretty foolish.
"There's no need for you to put yourself out, Lando. Why don't you wait here with Chewie and Threepio? Artoo and I will go in with Risco. You've been through more than enough tonight as it is."
Lando shook his head as he levered himself out of the vehicle. Although returning to the security offices to face an irate Rothu ranked pretty low on his list of things to look forward to, staying behind to hear Chewie examine his violations of trust in great detail was an even less appealing option. He was certain he heard the Wook's chuckle as he closed the door and couldn't help but calculate just how quickly Luke would turn from solicitous to infuriated once he and Han started comparing notes.
Assuming a confident, nonchalant attitude was entirely instinctive on his part. "What, and miss all the fun? Can't wait to see Rothu's face when he hears Risco's story and has to release Han."
Vindication was going to feel so sweet, especially after all the unsubtle insinuations the prefect had been slinging around earlier. Receiving the inevitable apology would be sweeter still. Not that Ambassador Calrissian would ever admit to a taste for retribution, of course. The prospect of Rothu's atonement almost made him forget his sore shoulder, ruined cape and exhaustion.
"Prefect Rothu is going to arrest me as soon as he hears what I have to say," moaned Risco as they turned the corner and headed toward the PonSec building. "He'll never believe Director Muya is behind this." Already struggling to keep up with the taller humans, he deliberately slowed his steps, and quickly fell behind Luke, looking for all the worlds like he was undergoing a serious change of mind. Artoo wheeled into position directly behind Risco, rather like a herder trying to nudge a straying nerf back into the flock. Lando kept a nervous eye on the Pontradan. He trusted the guy about as far as he could throw Chewie, despite Luke's air of confidence.
In all honesty, Lando still didn't understand why Risco had agreed to cooperate, unless the Pontradan was smarter than he seemed and playing his own game. The story of greed, betrayal and misplaced loyalty Risco had described to them only proved him to be a venal, selfish fool; he'd be crazy to volunteer a tale which all but condemned him as a would-be assassin.
Chewie was right, this guy is pretty short on brain-power. Only a fool would've fallen for this Campion's line… only somebody eager to cloak his own corrupt nature with the purity of moral superiority would snatch at such thin straws.
But between Chewie's sense of smell, Luke's heightened Jedi awareness and Lando's own instincts, they were convinced they had the truth, at least as far as Risco understood it. Han's fate rode on their trust in a self-described patriot who shunned outside interference in Pontradan matters, and Lando was none too comfortable with that state of affairs.
"He will as soon as he rounds up Campion," Luke soothed, although the look he shot at Lando revealed still simmering irritation over Lando's failure to mention possible intrigue in high places.
Don't like being managed very much, do you, Luke?
"You were obviously victimized and used as a tool for someone else's political ambitions. Campion's the link between you and Director Muya. Cleres is a reasonable man and I'm sure he'll be inclined toward clemency once he hears the whole story."
Predictably, despite looking like he was tightly controlling internal turmoil, Luke was able to pacify Risco's concerns with quiet reassurances and gentle reminders of his diminished honor should he choose to renege on their agreement. Honor, hell, Lando thought rebelliously. The Pontradan was as cowardly a mercenary as he'd ever met; Luke's efforts to convince the smuggler that personal integrity was no longer out of his grasp had proven almost inspirational. Lando abstracted himself far enough from his feelings to wonder if there was a touch of envy mixed into that reaction, because he didn't think he could've managed to bring Risco around in such short order.
You're good, Luke, whether you wanna admit it or not. Funny, but I never saw you play this kind of game with so much skill beforemakes me wonder why. Han, has to be Han, because I've never known you to edge so close to manipulation before. Looks like there's a lot at stake here for you, more than just a friend's life. Would you try so hard if it was me sitting in that jail cell?
He didn't think so.
They managed to shepherd the shaky Risco into the building. The same officer was still on duty at the reception desk, observing their progress across the lobby with a frown on his face. In the area directly behind him, several officers briefed a detachment of well-armed guards. Lando wondered if this was the same security detail Rothu had tried to foist on them a couple of hours earlier. He hadn't bothered to note their individual faces at that time.
"Jedi Skywalker." The desk officer greeted Luke cautiously, if courteously. "What brings you back here so late?"
Luke appeared entirely oblivious to the air of tension radiating from the young Pontradan, but Lando knew that was most unlikely. "We have some information for Prefect Rothu and arranged to meet him here. May we speak to him?"
The guard pressed the remote that allowed them to enter the containment area and pointed down a side corridor where light spilled from an open office door. "Last door on the left."
"D'you get the feeling that fellow isn't very happy to see us?" Lando murmured, feeling the guard's stare on his back as they moved down the hallway.
Luke cast a quick, sidewaysalmost longing, if Lando had to put a word to itglance toward the locked entrance of the detention area before answering. "Yeah, lot of tension here right now. Something's going on." His hand strayed toward his lightsaber.
I sure hope we're not tempting the fates by coming back here like this, because if Risco decides to take care of himself first, we could end up in that cell with Han. And then you just might get the chance to have as many face-to-faces with Han as you want, Luke.
They heard voices as they approached the indicated office, and Lando clearly recognized Rothu's truculent tones, although the archaic variant of High Pontrashi was less familiar to him. From the hollow sound of the indistinguishable response, the prefect was engaged in a comcall. With a female, Lando judged because of the higher pitched voice. Maybe he's trying to explain to a wife just why he hasn't made it home yet. The idea of the contentious Rothu trapped in a domestic squabble definitely made him smile.
Risco clutched Luke's arm. "You will keep your promise? You will speak on my behalf?"
Luke smiled and patted the Pontradan's shoulder reassuringly. "Don't worry. As long as you do your part, I'll do mine. My word as a Jedi. This has to be pretty embarrassing for Rothu and his agency. I'm sure he's anxious to get it resolved as quickly and quietly as possible."
Risco appeared unconvinced, and Lando couldn't really blame him. For different reasons, Lando had a similar problem with relying on others. Much as he trusted Luke and Chewbacca, he'd been responsible for himself far too long to feel comfortable leaving his fate in anyone's hands but his own. Another reason why he was here in the station rather than waiting in the speeder.
Luke waved them to a stop a courteous distance away from the open door of what must be Rothu's office. The clipped words and rising volume on both ends clearly indicated an argument of some sort, although the formal language was too difficult to translate. Probably wasn't a family member after all, in that case.
[No… worry. … failure… turn to take action. Solo… escape… won't succeed… find Wookiee… taken care of… ]
The subliminal hum that always accompanied any comcall ceased, followed by an angry, particularly vile curse in Low Pontrashi. Lando grinned at the prefect's show of temper. Even securely locked up, Han could be counted on to raise a law officer's blood pressure. Risco went wide-eyed with fear and tried to sidle back toward the lobby.
Lando grabbed him with his right arm and instantly regretted the move. He felt the jolt of sharp pain clear through to his skull plates, but hung on to the Pontradan, preventing his escape. So run away, you little coward, and let a good man die just so you can save your skin.
Prefect Rothu appeared in the doorway. "I thought I heard something. Come in, Jedi Skywalker. Ambassador."
By all the gods, it was going to feel good to make that arrogant son-of-a-Sith eat that patronizing attitude.
"You're just in time to say a few final words to Captain Solo. He's being transferred to our maximum security facility." Rothu's tone sounded more than a little contemptuous. "We wouldn't want anyone to think we weren't taking the situation seriously."
There was another man in Rothu's office, perched on the edge of the desk, holding a blaster aimed at the newcomers as they entered.
Lando's heart leaped from his chest into his throat, and then dropped precipitously into his belly. He barely heard Artoo's soft whistle under Risco's horrified gasp. "You!" the Pontradan managed to say in a strangled voice.
Swallowing hard against the sudden pressure in his chest and fighting a surge of nausea at this rude reversal of fate, Lando exchanged a quick glance with Luke. That was all it took to confirm their shared suspicion, that this must be Campion. Which meant they'd been deceived all too welltaken in, used and made fools of.
Lando wondered if that said more about the Pontradans' duplicity and ingenuity or his own complacency.
Before Luke's Jedi mask of composure snapped into place, Lando glimpsed stunned shock and furyand a quickly suppressed movement, as though Luke had to restrain himself from physically attacking Rothu. And was that his imagination, or did Luke's lips silently form the word 'Han' before sealing themselves into a thin, severe line?
He supposed he ought to feel vindicated that not even Luke had suspected Rothu might be up to his sagging jowls in this convoluted political plot, but that was small comfort when their lives were on the line.
"So it wasn't just Muya after all," he muttered softly.
Rothu laughed and stepped back so Campion had a clear line of fire straight at him, and ignored the cowering Risco. Now why had he been singled out…?
"Director Muya is an idealist. An impractical idealist who believes she can achieve the goals of the Separatist Party through peaceful negotiation and political means. You see how successful her methods were."
Rothu gestured rudely toward his desktop companel. "She is… displeased at tonight's turn of events, but she failed and now it is my turn. And I can promise you that I will not fail."
So that had been her on the other end of that conversation.
"We would have preferred my House cousin succeed at her task, but only fools don't have backup plans," Campion said softly in Basic.
The prefect settled against his desk, apparently at ease, but Lando's mother hadn't raised a fool. He knew better than to assume either man would be caught off-guard by any sudden moves on his or Luke's part.
"I'm impressed how quickly you moved, Skywalker. I didn't expect you to track Risco down at least until tomorrow. And by then it would have been too late." He turned to his companion. "The Wookiee, perhaps?"
"Had to be," muttered the other man, not taking his eyes off Luke and Lando. He'd switched into the local Low Pontrashi patois, one of the flashlearn dialects Lando had studied.
"At least now we know who the stranger in the tavern was, the one who managed to slip Risco out under your nose. I told you to make sure that didn't happen. You were supposed to get him out of the way before he could talk to anyone. Just another smuggler who disappeared in all the confusion after the raid."
Rothu leaned over and pressed a button on his desk panel. "Lieutenant?" A muffled voice filtered through the link. "Assign a patrol to the immediate area. A large, well-armed patrol. We have reason to believe the Wookiee is in the vicinity of this building." Rothu studied the small group in front of him. "Possibly accompanied by a protocol droid. I want both of them."
Out of the corner of his eye, Lando saw Luke stiffen, and watched his hands ball into fists and then slowly uncurl, but otherwise show no reaction to what amounted to deadly danger for Chewbacca. Lando tried to reassure himself that a Wookiee against even a large and well-armed PonSec patrol would still be even odds.
"You're wasting your efforts, Prefect. You won't find them." Luke's voice was low and controlled, and all the more menacing because of the icy control.
Rothu disconnected the com circuit and exposed his sharp, jagged teeth in cruel imitation of a smile. "Make no mistake, Jedi, we will find them. The Wookiee is the last loose end. I'm very curious, though, to learn how he evaded our patrols earlier, in the park."
Lando recalled the clusters of enormous, ancient trees in the park. Nothing like the wroshyr trees on Kashyyyk, of course, but definitely a handy escape route for an arboreal creature such as a Wookiee. Chewie didn't have those claws for nothing.
"Ah, it doesn't matter. Even if we don't find him tonight, by tomorrow there will be no place on this entire planet where he could find refuge."
Loose end? Tomorrow? Lando didn't like the sound of that at all. His small jerk of startlement drew Rothu's attention.
"Curious, Ambassador? Wondering perhaps at your own fate?" Rothu was obviously enjoying his cat-and-mouse game; a game he played a little too well for Lando's comfort level.
Luke let out his breath explosively, hand going to the hilt of his lightsaber, and Campion interrupted, apparently edgy. He nodded toward Luke's lightsaber. "Aren't you going to disarm them?"
"No. Much as I want to see that lightsaber in action, I'm sure Skywalker knows how foolish it would be for him to draw his weapon right now. He might be able to take us but he can't fight every officer in the building and he won't risk the others. Especially not his lover, so keep your blaster on the ambassador. Calrissian will take his cue from the Jedi. Keep a sharp eye on him, though. I imagine he's pretty handy with that concealed blaster."
Damn right I am, and first chance I get I'll prove it to you. And you're a fool if you're counting on Luke's protective instincts toward me. Luke knows I can take care of myself, bum shoulder or not.
He'd watched Luke practice with his 'saber enough to know the Jedi could easily overpower Rothu and Campion without so much as a single shot fired. The only reason Luke hadn't swung into action yet was because he was waiting for the right opportunity.
"Besides, in a few moments it will be very important that they be seen to have their weapons on them." Rothu dropped his gaze to the lightsaber hanging from Luke's belt. "After your death, Jedi, I believe I will keep it as a trophy, a symbol of the dangers of Consolidation." A small smile curved Rothu's lips as he locked eyes with Luke.
Risco shrieked again.
Sith's Seven Hells! Even if Lando had half expected it, he'd learned over the years that he reacted badly to death threats. Just one of those things he'd never quite gotten used to.
Luke straightened his posture and tensed even more, if that was possible.
"Have you lost your mind?" Lando demanded, but his thoughtless, angry outburst was ignored in favor of Luke's quieter comment. How in all the worlds Luke was managing to hang on to even a shred of control was beyond himhis expression definitely conflicted with his sensible words.
"You can't hope to get away with this. There are others in your government who will"
Campion laughed. "Cleres? That incompetent fool? This will destroy his reputation before he has a chance to act."
"The New Republic will demand and perform their own investigation into our deaths."
Rothu snorted disdainfully and Lando fought the urge to wrap his hands around that thick neck and squeeze.
"Let them investigate all they want. They will find corrupt politicians and private agendas within the present administration. Looking further will only uncover collusion, personal grudges and violence on the part of their ambassador and a former general. Your republic is weakwithout proof of deliberate wrongdoing they will not act."
Lando knew Rothu was correct, as far as it went. He was all too conscious that the government might let his death alone slide by, but they'd never sit still for Luke's death under suspicious circumstances. Their sole Jedi… the man who'd faced down a Sith Lord and an emperor. They'd never stop digging. Clearly, Rothu's separatist leanings had rendered him incapable of seeing beyond his own cultural biases.
"You're wrong, Prefect." It was only by sheer strength of will that Lando kept his voice calm and his body still. "The New Republic investigators won't be fooled by provincial subterfuge. You won't succeed."
"You think not? It won't matter to either of you."
Lando was reminded of the previous night's half-joking conversation with Han, except that he'd never expected the danger to come from this direction.
Rothu turned his attention to Risco but spoke to Campion. "Having an innocent citizen killed during the escape attempt should work even better than simply having him disappear, don't you think?" He turned an evil smile on Risco, who whimpered and tried to hide behind Lando.
Although Lando knew his cape was beyond repair by this time, he really didn't appreciate those sweaty, clutching hands.
Campion's sneer was even less appealing than Rothu's worst effort. "Yes, I like that. You have the privilege of becoming a martyr to our Cause, Citizen. Even in death you will serve. Maybe we'll even put up a statue in the park, to remember our fallen hero."
Rothu's desk com buzzed. "Prefect, the prisoner is being brought out now. You wanted to be notified."
The guy sure was ugly when he smiled, Lando reflected.
"I'll be right out. Take all precautions."
Lando cursed himself silently in twelve different languages for allowing himself to be outflanked so badly and readied himself to take advantage of even the smallest opportunity, knowing without looking that Luke did the same.
Campion gestured with his blaster. "Move. Back out to the lobby."
Luke obeyed, and much as it galled Lando to admit through his actions that Rothu had predicted correctly, he followed Luke's lead. He kept his hand on Risco's arm, hoping to silently communicate that he should follow along and not try anything foolish just yet. Just as Luke had let Lando take the initiative at the negotiating table, it was his turn to let Luke take the lead now. Damn but they were a good team! He swallowed that bitter pill of regret over lost opportunities.
By the time they reached the reception area, Lando belatedly realized Campion was no longer with them. The security detail, with Han in the center of the six-man escort, emerged from the detention corridor at virtually the same moment.
"Han." Luke barely breathed the name. Any lingering doubts Lando'd had about Luke's feelings toward Han vanished in that instant.
"Hey, kid." Han called across the lobby, managing his usual, cocky grin. "Here to see me off, huh?" His eyes widened when he caught sight of Risco, half-hiding behind Lando. "Fast work, Luke."
Intent as Luke was on Han, Lando didn't think he noticed when Rothu's hand strayed to the remote on his belt and pressed a button. An instant later, the entire building fell into impenetrable darkness.
He only had a split-second of time to realize Campion had responded to Rothu's signal before someone shouted over the sounds of a scuffle, "The prisoner's loose!" and suddenly everyone was moving.
"Emergency lights!" someone else snapped simultaneously. Rothu, Lando thought, and wasn't surprised when the override command failed. The gloom was relieved only by the barest glimmers of star shine and reflected artificial light coming through the skylights.
"I've got him!"
"Where is he?"
"He's got my blaster!"
And then the darkness was interrupted by blaster fire. A lot of blaster fire, from all directions. Obviously the energy damping fields had failed along with the lighting system. Which meant the door locks and security shields were down, too.
Lando dropped to the floor, yanking Risco with him, and flicked his wrist to palm his holdout blaster. A beam strafed the spot where his head had been only an instant before. "Stay down," he said, uncertain whether Risco could hear him over ricocheting energy beams and frantic shouts. "And head for the door. Get out if you can." He didn't have time to worry about whether it was the smartest thing to do, letting their only witness escape, but escaped had to be better than dead, he figured.
Was it his imagination, or were those energy beams coming a little too close to just be random fire? He remembered seeing a pair of goggles on Rothu's belt, probably a pair of night vision goggles. No doubt the Pontradan had set them up, and they'd walked right into this tidy trap. Gods! He was tired of dodging blaster bolts. What had he done to deserve this? And where in all hells was Luke? Or Han, for that matter?
Someone yelped in pain and thudded to the floor.
"Guard the doors!" Risco again, bellowing orders. "It's a jail break attempt!"
Someone came crawling up behind Lando and he turned, every sense straining to identify the intruder.
"It's me," whispered Luke. "Han's right behind me. We gotta get out of here."
"First thing I've heard in a while that made any sense to me," Lando muttered.
Han slid into position alongside Luke, half on top of the smaller man in the snug space. "Any convenient garbage chutes around?" He reached across Luke to hand a full size blaster to Lando. "Here. This'll work better than that toy you're carryin'." Lando didn't have to see Han's face to know he was grinning.
"I'm gonna get my own back." Han cautiously rose to his feet.
"No!" Luke choked back his whispered protest because Han was already moving. And for the first time ever, Lando heard Luke Skywalker curse. Pretty impressive repertoire, actually. He'd obviously learned a lot from Han over the years.
"Lando, they got the front door covered. Can't get out that way, but I saw a disguised door behind Rothu's desk in his office. Must lead to some kind of secret passage or exit. I think that's gonna be our only chance to get out of here alive. Where's Risco?"
He didn't waste time cursing his own error. "I sent him to the front door. That must've been him I heard collapse."
Luke's answer came fast and low. "I'll send Artoo your way. He should be able to get the door open. I'll try to find Risco and cover Han's escape."
"Don't be a hero, Luke. Get yourself out, too."
"Stop worrying about me, Lando, and don't wait for me. The important thing is to get yourself clear, find Chewie"
If he's still waiting for us. Or even alive. We could be walking into an even worse mess out there…
"Yeah, I know, and find Cleres. He's the only one gonna be able to stop this mess now." He gripped Luke's shoulder. "Take care of yourself, Luke."
"I will. You, too," came the whispered response. "Now go!"
Lando suddenly remembered the young lieutenant who'd boasted about the security features of this brand-new building on their earlier visit tonightprobably one of the frenzied, half-panicked officers now trying to blow his head off.
He grabbed hold of Luke's arm before he could scuttle off.
"Why are you still here?" Luke shoved him toward the hallway leading back to the offices and began to crawl off in the opposite direction.
"I just remembered there are stun gas canisters in the walls" But Luke was already gone and it was unlikely he'd heard Lando's whisper over the appalling noise of blasters, shouts and scuffles.
Probably didn't matter anyway. If the reserve power was down, there might not be any way to set them off.
Lando took a moment to get his bearings. His eyes had adjusted to the dim light enough that he could distinguish the dark mouth of the corridor from the lighter gray of solid walls and crawled toward it on his hands and knees. Every instinct screamed to turn around and put that blaster to good use, to help protect Han and Luke, but just like on Bespin, he found himself trapped between two unpalatable options.
Once he was in the corridor he rose to his feet and moved as cautiously as he could. Behind him the reception area was still in chaos, and he didn't think anyone noticed his escape. The hallway in front of him was pitch dark, and for all he knew, Campion was waiting for him in the darkness. He leaned against the wall for a moment to catch his breath, and promised himself a week's undisturbed rest once all this was settled.
Artoo rolled toward him, his own lights dimmed to avoid attracting attention. He'd never come across a droid with such an amazing capacity for independent thought as this little astromech machine. He'd often wondered if Artoo had always been so unique, or if constant association with a Jedi had somehow altered his programming in some strange way.
"Let's go, Artoo," he said softly. "We need to find the back door."
The little droid beeped cheerfully and led the way back to Rothu's office. Lando followed the small mechanical sounds of a droid in motion and trailed his left hand against the wall, as much as for a physical reference in this void as anything. The office was empty, as it turned out, but Lando had no time to spare for gratitude. Either Campion had gotten past them in all the confusion, which Lando doubted, or he'd gone through that hidden exit. Hidden doors. Secret panels. He couldn't suppress the thought that his life had turned into some kind of romantic holo-adventure ever since Bespin.
"Luke said it looked like there's a hidden door behind Rothu's desk." He stumbled over the words, struck by an even greater sense of unreality than he'd experienced so far. "Got any idea where this mysterious door is, Artoo?"
They needed to work fast, for he could now hear the hum and clash of Luke's lightsaber, which meant he'd given up on concealment and opted for moving as fast as he could. And that meant Luke was going to be in this office and needing a way out within a minute or two, no doubt with the entire PonSec complement hard on his heels. He wondered if Rothu was enjoying the demonstration as much as he'd thought he would.
The little droid wheeled to a stop in front of a section of old-fashioned bookcaseah, hells, why not a fireplace?shone a small but powerful illumination beam on the area and wheeped in a tone clearly intended as frustration.
For the briefest moment, panic closed his throat. "Don't tell me it's electronically operated." If that were true, they were all dead… He began pulling books, real parchment books, he couldn't begin to imagine how much these antiques must be worth, off the shelves, feeling for hidden catches. "There's got to be a manual mechanism somewhere, Artoo." He talked out loud to the droid, trying to reason his way through this. "Campion must've left after shutting off the power, which means this has to operate manually. And the control has to be someplace easily accessible, because nothing's out of place that I can feel. So maybe it's"
"Come on, Lando, try the wall sconce or the statue. Didn't you ever watch the Cast a Ghostly Shadow holoseries when you were a kid?" Han sounded out of breath. "And hurry it up, will ya? Risco might be short but he's pretty solid."
Both Lando and Artoo swiveled around. He wasn't entirely certain, but Lando thought Artoo seemed just as startled as he was.
"You tryin' to blind me here, short stuff? Shine that thing someplace else, will ya?"
In the short instant before Artoo rotated his dome back so the light once again shone on the bookcase, Lando noted with relief that Han carried an unconscious Risco over his shoulder.
"Nope, I never rotted my brain with that kind of drivel, Han." He reached for the small light fixture hanging next to the bookcase. What the hell, didn't have anything to lose by trying the
The door swung open almost noiselessly, a welcome light shining in from the claustrophobic passageway. The light puzzled Lando until he noted the self-powered glow bulbs hanging on the tunnel walls at regular intervals.
"Uh huh! Least it's drier than a garbage masher." Han laughed and shouldered his way past Lando. "What'd I tell ya? Statue or wall sconce. Artoo, you wait for Luke. He might need your help jamming the door or something. C'mon, Lando." Despite the fact that Han was nearly staggering under the weight of the unconscious Risco, the Corellian retained his usual practical disposition.
Well, Lando supposed happy reunions were over-rated anyway.
He was half a dozen steps into the passage before he realized he'd surrendered control of the situation to Han. He was only a dozen steps further when he heard Artoo rolling along behind him, burbling blithely.
"Hey, what are you doin' here? You're supposed to be helping Luke."
"Luke didn't need any help," said the Jedi as he rounded the first corner. "I was able to get those gas canisters to release, so they'll all be sleeping for a while. Thanks for the reminder."
Lando hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath until this very moment. He supposed there wasn't any point to asking Luke how he'd managed to trigger the emergency system without even a glimmer of power.
They fell into step, Artoo trundling along behind them as quickly as possible.
"I couldn't risk setting them off while any of you were in the building."
"Oh, you couldn't risk setting off the gas while us poor mortals were in the building, but you didn't mind exposing yourself to the danger?" Lando asked. "If you'd gotten a lungful of that gas you'd be snoozin' right alongside Rothu, and we'd all be in a bigger mess than we are now. You especially!"
Stars above, he sounded exactly like a possessive, protective lover.
Luke smiled and kept on walking. "No, that's all right. I can hold my breath long enough to make it down a hallway. Did Han go on ahead?"
"You mind havin' your lovers' spat later, huh, kid?" Han had apparently overheard their conversation and paused to let them catch up. Despite the easy tone, Lando didn't miss the way Han's lips quickly tightened around the last word, as if the Corellian were trying hard not to let anything else slip out.
Luke looked at him, puzzled. "What?"
Han rolled his eyes, shifted the Pontradan's weight a bit and started walking again. "This guy's gettin' heavier by the second. He's all right now, but I don't think me luggin' him around like this is doin' either of us much good. C'mon, move, you two! I wanna find Chewie and get the hell off this dirtball. Oh, yeah, 'n thanks for getting' me out of there."
Luke stood his ground. "Han?"
"Now what, Luke? You need a big show of gratitude?" The Corellian sounded thoroughly exasperated, although Lando knew well enough what was driving Han's abrupt hostility. Unfortunately, Luke didn't, and Lando figured it was pretty unlikely the younger man would let Han's mood slide. "Stow it 'til we're out of here, will you? Damn! There's a warren of these tunnels down here. Your instincts tell you which is the fastest way out?" Han stood in the middle of an intersection.
Lando had the sneaking suspicion Han was as relieved as he to discover a genuine, immediate problem to distract Luke from whatever he'd been about to say.
Luke stared at Han, frowning slightly, as if he were trying to crawl inside that stubborn brain and rummage around for the truth. Then he shook his head slightly and waved them to silence. He stood at the mouth of each tunnel in turn, with the intent, withdrawn expression of someone listening to an inner voice and finally pointed to the right tunnel. "I think Rothu uses this one a lot. I get a strong sense of him in this tunnel. It heads toward the Assembly House. Maybe the two buildings are connected." He shifted to study the straight-ahead tunnel. "I smell fresh air coming from this one. I think it must come out somewhere in the park. Campion went that way not long ago, I'm sure of that."
"And this way?" Lando peered down the third tunnel, which looked in far worse repair than the other options. The walls were crumbling, it was poorly lit, and from somewhere in the distance he heard water dripping.
"Hasn't been used in a long time. But Chewie's waiting for us in that direction."
"Easy choice," Han muttered. "Come on." He started into the passage, but Luke quickly caught up with him.
Even from his disadvantaged position bringing up the rear, Lando didn't miss the tension that seized Han when Luke took hold of his arm. Or the missed step that nearly brought the Corellian to his knees.
"I'll take point. Might need this," Luke patted the lightsaber at his hip, "to light the way."
Han relented, stashing his undoubted turmoil behind a practical façade. "Good idea. Go on." He flattened himself as much as possible so Luke could slip past him.
Was it his imagination, or did that moment of body contact between Han and Luke seem to take a little longer than necessary?