"I can't believe we have to go back in there," Lando complained, glaring somewhat sullenly toward the entrance to the dank tunnel they'd exited not five minutes earlier. He spared a moment to glance down regretfully at his midnight blue vinesilk suit and brushed ineffectually at mud spatters. While not quite as obscenely expensive as the now tattered cape, it had been one of his favorite suits, his lucky suit, up until today. He lifted each foot in turn to critically examine his shoes, irreparably scuffed and stained from splashing through the puddled, debris-laden subterranean passage.
Definitely time to reconsider the annoyance factor of Luke's droidsArtoo in particular. Blasted machine had wandered off at some point during that trek through the tunnels and no one had noticed his absence until they were well on their way. The astromech droid was as close to delusional as a mechanical could be, with that crazy hero complex. Almost worse than Luke. Almost.
Han strode to the crumbling edge of the hole in the ground, neatly sidestepping the protective grille Chewie had literally ripped loose from its duracrete frame and tossed aside in an amazing display of Wookiee strength. It hadn't taken long to discover why this particular tunnel wasn't maintained as well as the others. At some point in time it had caved in, and they'd found themselves at a deadend. They'd been standing there in a forlorn bunch, looking up at the grated opening two meters above their heads and debating the merits of climbing through the grille or retracing their steps when Chewie's head had appeared in the aperture. He'd complained their voices carried far enough to alert the law on Pont Kes and demanded to know why they couldn't use the front door like anybody else. No one had been particularly surprised to discover the tunnel ended only a few meters from where Chewie and Threepio waited with the speeder, and they'd all been greatly relieved to learn that there'd been no sign of any heavily-armed Wookiee-hunting patrols. The lieutenant probably hadn't had time to dispatch the team before all sith broke loose.
Lando had watched the happy reunion between Han and Chewbacca with a certain amount of nervous anticipation, but the Wookiee obviously understood now was not the time to bring up personal matters. Either that, or maybe he was taking some vindictive pleasure in letting Lando hang in the breeze. Chewie was a very compassionate fellow in many ways, but not when he suspected actions injurious to Han.
"You don't have to come, pal. Stay here with Chewie 'n ride herd on Risco. I'll help Luke figure out where Artoo disappeared to." The Corellian flashed one of those irritating smirks in Lando's direction as he sat down and eased his legs over the lip of the cavity in preparation for the long drop to the tunnel floor. " 'Sides, Cleres might be more likely to listen to you more'n he'd hear out Goldenrod by himself."
"I beg your pardon, Captain Solo," Threepio said, "but I believe Elder Cleres would be far more likely to accept an explanation from a truly unbiased source such as myself rather than Ambassador Calrissian, whose credibility has already been questioned by the local authorities. Elder Cleres has said on more than one occasion how impressed he was with my programming and abilities. I'm quite sure I'll have no difficulty convincing him to come to his offices in the Assembly House as Master Luke requested."
Lando'd always said these two droids were more human than most humans, and Threepio's smug, self-important assertion only proved the point. Behind him Chewie chuckled ominously. Although the thought of having a brief respite from the night's madness was more than a little appealing, he knew it would be a mistake to leave this particular flank unprotected. Yeah, Han, just what I want to do. Leave you and Luke together to sort out my little joke and have plenty of time to plot your revenge, while I have to listen to Threepio's 'I told you so's' and worry whether Chewie's gonna rip my head off for lying to you.
"Nah, I'm coming along. Somebody's gotta keep you two in line. Threepio's got this end taken care of." Much as he resented the implication that a droid could be as brilliantly persuasive as he, accompanying Han and Luke was definitely in his own best interests here. Let Han frown all he wanted and leap to all the wrong conclusions as only a Corellian could, Lando wanted to be present to turn the inevitable accusations aside and justify his actions. He couldn't quite isolate why all this should matter so much to him; he just knew it did.
"Sure you're up to it?"
Lando scowled at the insinuated insult disguised as concern. "I'm fine," he snapped.
"Suit yourself." Han shrugged and flashed another one of those grins. "What's the matter, Lando? Don't trust Luke? Or is it me?"
Chewie guffawed out loud but said nothing.
Han leaned over to peer into the darkness beneath his swinging feet. "Hey, Luke, heads up!" And then he shifted his center of gravity and vanished from sight.
Lando looked up at the sky, barely flush with pre-dawn light, and sighed. He edged closer to the gaping hole and decided he'd fulfilled his quota of stubborn foolishness for one lifetime.
[You'll only postpone the inevitable, you know.]
"I don't know what you're talking about," he found himself muttering, and wondered again at his own strange defensiveness.
[You're being foolish. You're in no condition to accompany them, and you will only earn further resentment when they learn the truth. As they will eventually.]
Lando winced as he overbalanced and had to catch his weight on his right arm.
"Really, Ambassador, Chewbacca is entirely correct. You're in no condition to accompany Master Luke and Captain Solo."
He wondered what Threepio made of the Wookiee's vague allusions to 'the truth' and blessed whatever gods might still spare a random consideration for the unfortunate lifeform called Calrissian that the droid at least wasn't asking interminably nosy questions.
"Come on, Lando," Han called up from below. "Or we're leavin' without you." He heard footsteps splashing away and had to grin at the obvious prompt. Han was as subtle as ever.
"Yeah, yeah, throttle back." Han had a point, though. That stun gas wouldn't hold Rothu for very long, and then he'd be after all of them with a vengeance. And he definitely had nothing to lose this time around. Escaped prisoner, suspected murderer and smuggler, renegade Jedi… nobody'd blame the guy if they all ended up dead. Rothu'd be a godsdamned hero, in fact.
Lando checked out the vague shapes below him, closed his eyes and hoped he wouldn't break a leg. "Here I come." Something caught his fall and eased him to the ground with only the gentlest of jolts. When he opened his eyes, he saw Luke, smiling at what was probably a rather dazed expression on his face.
"You used the Force on me, didn't you?" he accused, visually checking that his feet were actually on the ground and not floating in the air.
"Guilty." He gestured Lando forward. "Let's go. Han's itching to move."
The sight of Han shifting impatiently from foot to foot brought back a memory of that night on Endor, when they'd celebrated their victory over the Death Star and Imperial fleet. He'd seen Luke come toward them, exhausted but smiling, and paid little attention to the joyous reunion between Leia and Luke until Han's odd behavior caught his eye. The Corellian had stood a few paces behind Leia, smiling awkwardly, almost… shyly… and jittery with undisguised eagerness. Anxiously awaiting his turn to welcome the returning hero home. One of those elusive fragments of memory that had meant little at the time, and only gained significance in the light of later developments.
"'Bout time," Han grumbled and set off as quickly as he could, lighting their way with the hand luma they'd appropriated from the speeder. They walked in silence, Lando in the middle and Luke behind him, picking their careful way over uneven flooring and around chunks of fallen ceiling. The trip back seemed shorter than their first journey down this same stretch, and Lando estimated it had taken them less than ten minutes to reach the main branching. Little more than half an hour had elapsed since they'd fled the security offices, but it was a pretty safe bet somebody was stirring by now. He wondered just how many people knew about this little bolthole, and how many of them they might encounter down here.
"What do you figure, Luke? Artoo went back to Rothu's office to slice into his files?"
Luke nodded. "That's definitely my first guess. You know he can't resist a challenge."
Toddling trustfully back into Rothu's lair to rescue a straying droid seemed like a pretty damned foolhardy venture to Lando, yet one glance at Luke's determined expression confirmed they would walk right into the rancor's den. Of course he'd already known there was no way in all hells Luke would ever abandon his faithful companion. Not only would Artoo would be a mine of information for unscrupulous slicers, if there was anything in this galaxy guaranteed to make Luke Skywalker furious, Lando figured tampering with his beloved droid would be it. The way Lando saw it, Artoo was the only confidant Luke had.
Jealous? Of a droid? Nah, not a chance.
Han laughed shortly, obviously interpreting his apprehensive expression correctly. "If you're nervous, ol' buddy, you can always head down that tunnel."
Typical Han, always pushing the boundaries. The game dated back years, those subtle and profound bluffs mortared into the foundation of their friendship. "I'm being smart, friend. Somebody needs to protect our backs." And you'd know it, too, if you weren't so damn busy trying to score one over me. But much as he resented Han's attitude, to be fair he knew it only resulted from his own earlier impulsive words.
"Hate to admit it, Luke, but Lando's right. This is a really bad idea," muttered Han, switching off the now unnecessary luma and looking down the passage leading back to Rothu's office.
Luke shot him an irritated glance. "Nice time to bring that up, Han. I can't leave Artoo behind. Just not an option for me." He started down the corridor. "If you think it's such a bad idea you can stay here or run for cover. I'll get Artoo."
Lando was not all that surprised to hear the poorly veiled note of disappointment in Luke's voice. No doubt that the tension resonating between Han and Luke was fast winding up tight, a giant spring ready to either release or break under the strain. Either way, an explosion was coming. He'd seen more emotion from Luke in one evening than he'd seen in the past year, thanks to Han.
Han grabbed Luke's arm as he brushed past. "That's nothin' I ever wanna hear from you again, Luke," he said roughly, his voice betraying the thin edge of anger. "I don't quit in the squeeze 'n I don't turn my back on my friends. That's just not an option for me."
The two men faced off, and Lando fervently hoped there wasn't any sewer gas or anything like that circulating in the tunnel, because surely the sparks flaring between Han and Luke would set it off in that case.
"You don't turn your back on your friends, huh?"
Luke had to know this was neither the time nor the place for a detailed discussion about past resentments, and the simple fact that he couldn't let the opportunity pass was a pretty strong indicator of intense feelings.
"No, I don't. I'm here, aren't I? I coulda just lifted and not given you any warning about Risco."
"I'm not talkin' about that, Han. What happened last year? You left without a word, never even tried to contact me. I had to hear about it from Leia after the fact."
Luke was nothing if not honest; raw grievance resonated in every word. When Han dropped his gaze, Lando knew the words had struck a nerve in the Corellian's conscience.
"Yeah, well… I guess I wasn't thinkin' straight back then."
Whoa! Since when does Han Solo admit to error?
"No, I don't think you were. You could've sent a message, at least. Then, or any time since then."
Luke relaxed his aggressive posture and laid a hand on Han's arm. "I was worried about you, Han. We all were. Leia said you hadn't been yourself for a while before you broke it off." It was Luke's turn to lower his eyes, and in that subtle shift of expression Lando recognized an admission of fear and loneliness, a swing from universal to personal concerns. "I didn't even know if you were still alive. It's hard to live with that kind of silence."
Han stared down at the hand resting on his jacket sleeve as if that touch was the only thing anchoring him to the moment. And when Han covered Luke's hand with his own larger one, Lando blinked at the astonishing, unprecedented tenderness in the gesture.
"I'm sorry, kid. Never meant to hurt you. I just had some things to work out."
Han's voice had softened as much as his expression, and the touch lingered just a few seconds too long to be merely apology.
The only reason Lando heard Luke's whispered response, doubtlessly intended for Han's ears alone, was his intense focus on the scene playing out in front of him.
"Did you get them worked out?"
"Yeah. I figured everything out. Too damn late." The words broke the spell of the moment and Han straightened, dropping his hand and shrugging off Luke's touch. He assumed a business-like attitude and glanced over at Lando, resentment clearly flaring across his face.
"You figured everyth" Luke caught back his own words with a soft gasp as he studied Han's expression. "Too late?"
Luke frowned, brows drawn together in concentration while he obviously tried to bridge the gap between words and expressions. A sharp pain twisted in the pit of Lando's belly when Luke exhaled shakily and he knew they both saw the same emotion shining in the Corellian's eyes, leaking into the abrupt, restless attempt to mask his sudden vulnerability.
"Too late?" Luke repeated, and shook his head. "Not necessarily, Han." Then he grinned hugely, the first genuine smile Lando had seen since this entire fiasco had started. The grin lit up the tunnel like a small novaburst and Lando's heart cramped in his chest at the transformation from somber, controlled Jedi to a barely recognizable, breathlessly happy and eager youth.
Jealous? Of Han? Hell, yes!
Han shrugged his shoulders again, and Lando figured if he wasn't having any trouble reading the Corellian's thoughts and the way he was trying to distance himself from his emotions, Luke wasn't either.
"I'm not interested in threesomes, kid."
Oh, kraat. There was no way in Sith's hells that Luke was gonna leave that alone.
Luke's grin faded with Han's words, his forehead creasing in apparent shock at the crude comment. Or maybe it was confusion from all the mixed signals Han was sending
Lando knew it wouldn't take him long to figure it out, though. Ten. Nine. Eight. He gave Luke until five to add everything up. Seven. Six. Come on, Luke, it can't be that hard.
Luke caught his lower lip with his teeth. "Are you" His voice thickened and he had to stop to clear his throat. Five. Right on schedule.
Great Jedi Ghosts, was Luke blushing?
"That joke's getting pretty lame, Han," he finally groused, his tone precisely balanced on the fulcrum of anger, hope, embarrassment and apprehension.
"Yeah, well, I'm sorry if that offended your finer sensibilities."
Whatever retort Luke had plannedand it must've been a pretty hot one from the expression on his facewas lost in Artoo's cheerful whistle. They all turned to watch the little droid roll toward them.
Nice timing, Artoo.
"Artoo! You know better than to wander off like that. What were you up to?" Despite the scolding tone, Luke dropped to his knees to give the droid a quick, hands-on going over. "Are you all right?"
Lando could make no sense out of Artoo's lively chirps and bleeps, but he didn't need a direct translation to recognize the droid was just as smug and pleased with himself as Threepio had been a few minutes earlier. Really, it was preposterous to be upstaged constantly by one droid or the other, but he couldn't summon much resentment. He remembered too many times when Artoo had saved the day because of his independent action, and grinned. Considering that the little fellow had managed to postpone the inevitable moment of ugly exposure he supposed he ought to feel grateful. Although the moment of truth couldn't be very far off at all by now…
Over Luke and Artoo's heads he tossed a glance in Han's direction and found the smuggler studying him thoughtfully.
Threesome? he mouthed to Han and nearly laughed at the pained expression he received in response. The glare in those dark eyes said as clearly as words, 'you'd better be damned good to him or you'll regret it'. Oh, yeah, Han had it bad.
Luke straightened up, apparently reassured as to Artoo's condition and seemingly oblivious to the silent exchange of hostilities between Han and Lando.
Han crossed his arms across his chest and frowned. "Don't tell me, let me guess. He sliced into Rothu's personal files and found the evidence we need to prove this is all some kind of twisted plot to discredit the Republic and grab personal power, right?"
Luke didn't even glance at him, but addressed his answer to Lando. "I don't know precisely what he found, but apparently the backup power has been restored and he managed to pull Rothu's protected files and communication logs. We'll have to find a safe terminal so he can download the files, but that shouldn't be too hard. Probably lots of interesting things in those files."
Lando wondered briefly how Luke justified such an invasion of privacy in his own mind. Personally, he had no problem with any of this, but Luke tended to interpret issues of consent a little more stringently.
Luke still refused to look at Han. "Artoo confirms that tunnel leads to the Assembly House like we thought. With any luck Chewie and Threepio have already gotten in touch with Cleres and we can meet him and turn over all this evidence. And then you can be on your way."
"Luke…" Lando hadn't seen an expression like that on Han's face in a very long time, maybe never… Vulnerable. That was the word he wanted.
"Yeah?" Damn the eager anticipation in Luke's voice in spite of that angry expression.
"Ah, forget it." Han waved away whatever he'd planned to say. "Let's get goin'."
Luke finally looked at him, his jaw set. "That's twice you made it sound like Lando and I are lovers, you know."
"Yeah, so?" Han's voice and expression tightened up just enough to be noticeable.
"You really think…" Luke's voice trailed off.
Prompted only partially by a desire to postpone exposure of his careless words, Lando interrupted. "Why don't you two talk about this later? We really should get out of here. No telling how soon Rothu or somebody else will figure out how we got out of the building and come after us." Artoo swiveled his dome and burbled an emphatic agreement.
Luke patted Artoo's dome absently, as he might a beloved pet dog. "It's all right. I just wanna get something straight here."
Lando supposed Luke's preternaturally heightened senses would warn him of any presence other than their own within the tunnel system, but still, the sensation of defenselessness made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
Han scowled. "If this is gonna take a while, maybe we should get comfortable." But he remained standing, arms folded protectively across his chest, clearly bracing himself to hear unwelcome news. "Say what you gotta say, then, so we can haul jets."
Luke glanced at Lando as if to ask for assistance and Lando spread his hands apart in a 'don't look at me, you started it' gesture. Really, if it weren't for the fact that his two closest friends were going to tear him limb from limb over this misunderstanding, he'd be enjoying himself. Matter of fact, they ought to thank him for bringing the situation to a boil. Who knew how long they might've stumbled around in the dark, pining away after each other, without his little lie to serve as catalyst?
His entrepenurial spirit briefly contemplated a matchmaking service: Lando's Lonelyhearts. Umm, maybe not. Calrissian's Connections?
So why did he feel so blasted guilty?
"If it's that gossip…"
Han shook his head.
"It's all right, kid. I know what you're tryin' to say. I understand. I'm all right with it. Can we go now?"
Lando barely managed to stifle a snort. Yep, it sure was obvious that Han Solo was just fine with the notion that he and Luke might be lovers. And it was almost painful to see Luke awkwardly fumbling for words to resolve such a simple situation, as if Lando needed further proof of Luke's feelings. Aw, to hell with both of you! You're both foolsprobably deserve each other.
"I don't think you understand, Han."
Had he not lived at the heart of this misperception, Lando decided he would've been hugely amused at the sight of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker carefully averting their eyes from one another and sidestepping direct admissions of mutual interest. Like a pair of love-struck and awkward teenagers…
"I understand perfectly, kid. Lando made it real clear just what he is to you."
Well, there it is. He met Luke's startled gaze and shrugged his shoulders.
"Lando?" For a split second Luke seemed entirely disoriented, with an almost child-like expression of betrayed trust that pierced straight through Lando's conscience.
"Can I help it if Han leaps to conclusions?" Pretty lame defense, but it was actually close to the truth. It had been Han's own interest in Luke that led him to assume Lando would share that same desire.
"You told him" Oh gods, another priceless expression, that serene Jedi countenance buried under a tidal wave of confusion and shock. Where's an imager when you need one? He wondered briefly which bothered Luke more: the nature of the joke, or the misdirection itself.
He lifted his hands in a gesture of discharging blame and winced at the throb from his shoulder. "I told him nothing, Luke, except that you and I had been spending a lot of time together on diplomatic missions. He drew his own conclusions."
Of course, his intent had been to push Han into making just such an assumption, but that was neither here nor there.
Han pushed away from the wall, his body strung tight with tension. "You" His posture clearly conveyed a mixture of anger, relief and wonder.
Lando couldn't help it. He laughed at Han's helpless spluttering and Luke's shocked expression, and knew he'd pay dearly for his amusement. But it'd be worth whatever punch Han was about to throw, simply to have reduced him to such an inarticulate state.
The Corellian surprised him. No punch landed. No blistering, angry words followed. Instead, Han stood there, a grin spreading across his face as he greedily checked Luke out from head to toe.
"No, ah, no…" Han lifted his left hand and waggled it in a questioning gesture.
Luke shook his head, the same relieved grin spreading across his face. Totally focused on Han to the exclusion of Lando, Artoo, or even their hazardous circumstances.
Again Luke shook his head, his grin growing wider by the instant. The tension sparking between them mutated almost instantly into something far more dangerous, in Lando's opinion, than anger.
Lando felt a momentary irrational surge of irritation that his interference had been so quickly dismissed.
Almost as if he'd read his mind, Han glanced at him. "I ain't done with you yet, pal. But there's more important things right now."
There certainly were, but Lando realized his definition of urgency differed vastly from Han's when Han took a long step forward, wrapped his arms tight around Luke and kissed him. Hard.
And it hurt. Far more than he ever dreamed it would, to see the frantic, heedless desperation fueling that kiss on both sides; to recognize on a visceral level the depths of passion here. It hit Lando like a blow to his kidneys, a surge of envious resentment that begged for violent release. He wanted to hit something… someoneanything!to relieve the pressure.
Luke held tight to Han, clung to him in the manner of someone given his heart's desire and yet terrified that he will wake up to find it all just a dream.
Lando couldn't watch and turned away, his own cheeks hot fromwhat? Embarrassment at such an unabashed display of need? Shame at his own inadvertent cruelty?
But turning away didn't help, for the image of their fervent kiss stayed with him, imprinted on his optic nerve, recurring like a brilliant flash of lightning.
He supposed it wouldn't have bothered him quite so much if he hadn't been the unwitting agent of this entire, ridiculous circumstance. Maybe.
Then again, maybe not.
Somebody made a soft sound of utter satisfaction, he wasn't sure who, and his own knees nearly buckled at the answering, demanding growl. So much passion there, eclipsing everything else-his presence, the threat of pursuit, their goal of escape…
Artoo beeped thoughtfully, and when the kiss continued on… and on, the beeps turned to annoyed whistling.
It took foreveronly slightly less than an eonbefore Han and Luke eased apart far enough to turn their heads toward the impatient droid.
Lando had a feeling the image of Han and Luke pressed close together, cheek to cheek, identically dazed and dreamy expressions on their faces, was going to stay with him for a very long time. He cleared his throat experimentally.
"Not that I want to be a wet blanket or anything, but do you suppose we could get out of here before thirty justifiably angry and well-armed security officers come pouring through that tunnel and slaughter us?"
Artoo swiveled and started for the tunnel leading to the Assembly House, tooting a peremptory command to follow.
Han grinned and pulled away from Luke, slowly, reluctantly. "I guess we can finish this later, kid," he murmured.
Luke loosened his grip on Han's collar even more reluctantly. "If we have to."
Unless Lando did something quick, these two were obviously going to stand there staring at each other with entirely too much hunger showing in their eyes until it was too late to retreat.
"No, no, that's quite all right. You can thank me later. Wardrobe replacements will be particularly welcome." He physically took hold of Luke's shoulders and shoved him after the disappearing droid.
Han's glare warned him off touching either of them again, but he obediently turned in the proper direction. "Oh, yeah, I'm definitely gonna thank you later, Calrissian. Soon as I figure out what to do."
"Cash is always useful," he quipped, not letting Han's threat faze him in the least. He knew Han too well; the guy couldn't carry a grudge to save his life. If he hadn't reacted by now, he wouldn't. And he'd done them a favor anyway. All's well that ends well, Han.
Which reminded him that if they didn't hustle to get their evidence to somebody who could use it, they might just end up not-so-well on this Force-forsaken planet.
Luke had caught up to Artoo and strode past him, moving quickly, as if only now recalling the urgency of their circumstances. Han and Lando followed.
This tunnel was in good condition and even Artoo was able to keep up with their pace. The passage ended at a sealed, heavy door, with two more tunnels branching right and left.
"What'cha think?" Han inspected the touch pad panel by the door. "Is the prize behind Door Number One?"
"Definitely." Luke laid a hand over the touch pad.
"I could probably hot wire it."
Lando nearly laughed at Luke's dubious expression. "Um, Leia told me about the Endor bunker. Let's try this first."
Luke's expression grew blank, the way it did when he was concentrating deeply with the Force. He'd seen that expression only a few times, like when Luke was meditating or practicing with his lightsabera look that seemed to entirely dissociate Luke from his surroundings, although nothing could be further from the truth. Lando had discovered that purely by accident one morning, when he could've sworn Luke was at least a million miles away from him in meditation. He'd come to Luke's room to remind him they were running late for the morning session and turned away, unwilling to disturb an apparent trance. Without opening his eyes, Luke had suggested he wipe the evidence of his breakfast from his mustache before leaving their suite. Ever since then he'd had a healthy respect for Luke's Force-enhanced abilities.
A draft of cool air touched the back of his neck and he instinctively turned to face the tunnel they'd just traversed. He shivered, drawing Han's attention.
"I think somebody's coming. There's air moving in the tunnel."
The door slid open at their backs.
"Come on, you two, stop wasting time."
He never would've expected the light, teasing note to Luke's voice. As if what had passed between him and Han had altered the situation from desperate to merely inconvenient.
"We can block the door from the other side. That should give us some breathing space to see what Artoo found. Rothu'll have to go around to another entrance and that'll take time."
Han nodded. "I'll take care of that." The Corellian waited until they were all in the basement, then casually blasted the control panel into slag. The heavy door slammed shut.
He looked at Luke, an incredibly self-satisfied smirk playing about his lips. "Um, Leia told me about the Death Star."
Lando felt the snicker rising in his throat and tried hard to choke it back. And failed. He, too, had heard about the infamous miscalculation, although Leia had certainly made the daring swing-across sound very exciting and dramatic.
Luke obviously attempted to control a smile but Lando could see it lurking at the corners of his mouth. "And me without my handy-dandy stormtrooper utility belt, too. Let's just hope we don't encounter any unexpected bottomless pits."
Before the Jedi turned away, Lando caught a glimpse of something darkening those blue eyesa promise to deliver on pay back, in private. A quick sideways glance at Han confirmed he'd not only received the silent message, but answered it with one of his own.
That sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach came back and Lando began to wonder what he'd managed to stir up here, and just where it would take all of them.
And how Leia was going to react. He wondered again if she knew, or suspected, the direction of Han's feelings, and found himself cursing geometry. No matter how firmly scientists asserted that triangles were the strongest and most balanced of structures, when it came to human emotions they were flimsy constructions indeed.
At least he already had a handle on Chewie's feelings.
Avoiding the lobby guard had been a simple matter. The Assembly House was deserted and silent at this early hour of the morning, the guards sleepy and even the cleaning crews had long ago completed their efforts. By unspoken agreement, they headed for the executive offices on the third floor via the back stairs, and Lando discovered he was absurdly grateful not to have to cross that open forecourt space again. Superstitious as only a gambler can be, he knew he'd stared infinity in the face there and didn't care to try his luck again.
Han spent most of the climb cursing his inability to contact Chewbacca. He clearly chafed with impatient frustration, grumbling over the Wookiee's infinite variety of possible fates. A few steps behind the Corellian, Lando dismissed the grumbling as Han's more-or-less transparent attempt to cope with some transformed expectations; he spent most of the climb worrying over the ramifications of this new, perplexing situation. Han and Luke. Together. Not just as friends, although they were certainly that. Lovers.
If he'd learned one thing in life, it was that passionno, lovewas fragile. Love demanded delicate handling. Was Han capable of such delicacy, such commitment?
Lando examined the topography of the relationship between Han and Luke. Yes, it was true that Han had unmatched instincts where Luke was concerned, but Luke was unlike anyone Lando'd ever met before. Unlike anyone else, period.
In many ways he felt sorry for the young man so penalized by a vengeful roll of the genetic dice. Thousands of Jedi had been stewards of the Old Republic, and unfair though it was, the identical obligation for a New Republic now rested on a single pair of shoulders. Jedi. The word alone became a curse of servitude.
Lando knew the significance the Alliance had assigned to the potential Jedi; he worried about the additional pressures levied against the trained adept. Far too many would define the man by the role, grateful to depend upon him for guidance and reassurance, but where could a weary Luke go for comfort?
Now he knew where Luke hoped to find solacebut Han had lived too much of his life as a citadel of self-protection; rejecting intimacy and camouflaging his feelings beneath multiple layers of defensive, ironic humor. Sometimes Lando wondered about the need for such a masquerade, and most especially about the source of that defensiveness.
He doubted Luke would ever make open and specific demands of Han, but Luke was almost frightening in his intensity. He threw himself completely into everything he did and Lando was sure he had the same approach to love. Surely Han had to know that, had to know that Luke's expectations would be extraordinarily high. Han's romance with the princess hadn't worked out. Was he ready to tackle the even more challenging Jedi?
"What're you lookin' at?"
Lando realized Han had stopped at the top of the stairs and caught him staring thoughtfully. Last night I figured you were wondering if I was good enough for Luke, now I'm wondering if you're good enough.
Puffing a little with exertion and trying not to show it because their relationship had always had a competitive edge to it, he nodded toward Han's belt. "Just wondering why you're not using that comlink I see hanging on your belt, if you're so damned worried about Chewie."
Han snorted, eyeing him with an expression which clearly conveyed the Corellian's awareness of the distracting technique. "Because it's too easily monitored. Rothu had his hands on it long enough to figure out our frequency and security codes."
He still wondered just how, in all that confusion in the PonSec building, Han had ever managed to retrieve his own possessionsbut that was the luck of the Corellians. They were famous for being lucky, as well as for those passionate natures and vendettas.
And he had a feeling at least one Corellian was going to be famous for capturing the heart of the last Jedi, too.
With a wink and a grin for Lando, Han leaned over the banister and looked down. "Luke, you think you'll get up here any time this millennium?" Han pitched his voice low, with the obvious expectation that Luke's super-sensitive hearing would pick up the comment.
It was a nicely pre-emptive strike on Han's part, neatly claiming his position as the man-in-charge. Lando wondered what it said about his changing priorities, that such moves no longer threatened his ego the way they once had.
Luke looked up from his position nearly a full flight of stairs below, where he was using the Force to levitate Artoo up the stairs. Good gods, but he looked young and vulnerable like that, and incredibly beautiful, too. Lando heard Han catch his breath and knew they were making the same connections.
"Artoo and I can still leave you here, you know," Luke threatened, entirely too playfully for Lando's preference.
Stop being so damned jealous, he commanded himself, and wasn't a bit surprised when his gut refused to obey.
"I'll scout ahead," he muttered, feeling the need to escape from the charged looks arcing between Han and Luke. And maybe they'd want a moment's privacy anyway. Not that he was charitably disposed at the moment, but he didn't care to witness another sizzling kiss.
Wasn't that he wanted Luke for himself, at least not the way Han did. But seeing the ease with which Han assumed a central position in Luke's affections only underscored his own inability to bridge the distance between himself and Luke.
If there was one thing Lando Calrissian wasn't comfortable doing, it was admitting failure.
By the time Han, Luke and Artoo joined him, he'd already bypassed the lock on the door leading to Cleres' offices. Some of the old skills hadn't deserted him entirely, he was pleased to note.
"Thanks, Lando." Luke flashed a smile as he entered the office, and one quick glance confirmed his suspicions: Luke was definitely sporting a flushed, just-been-kissed-breathless look, while Han appeared… smug. And more than a little disheveled, like someone's fingers had been playing in his hair.
Artoo went right to work, plugging into an interface outlet and chirping softly to himself every few seconds. Han headed straight to the companel to contact Chewie and that left Lando and Luke staring at each other. Almost uncomfortably.
He wished he had some mechanical task to occupy himself right now, in order to avoid what would surely be a most awkward conversation.
"So you 'n Han"
He and Luke spoke at the same instant, voices overlapping, and broke off again at the same instant.
He laughed, a little self-consciously and tried to fill the abrupt silence. "So it was Han all this time? And here I was thinking it was Leia." He wasn't entirely sure if Luke's heightened color was still due to whatever had happened in the stairwell, or if the Jedi were blushing a little.
Luke shook his head. "I suppose most people have that impression, that I'm carrying a torch for Leia." He seemed a little amused by the idea. "But it's far from the truth. I think of her as… a sister."
Although he'd only thrown Leia's name out as a quick ruse to disguise his own feelings, the way Luke hesitated over his choice of words reminded him of a similar difficulty back in the tunnel. It implied a secret significance to his expressed thought. Behind him, Lando heard Han's chuckle and he guessed the Corellian was privy to the subtext.
Not that it mattered. He'd recognized long ago he was out of this particular loop.
"I'm still not sure why you misled Han about our relationship, though. The gossip wasn't enough?"
Well, Luke, if you can't figure it out on your own, I'm sure not gonna help you.
Actually seemed rather funny that Luke, for all his insight and intelligence, couldn't figure out such a simple little matter.
Damned if he'd betray his feelings, because pity wasn't anything he needed or wanted, especially from these two.
"Like I said, Han leaped to some conclusions."
"Encouraged by you." Luke neither looked nor sounded particularly forgiving, with his arms folded across his chest and a sharp note in his voice.
He shrugged, aiming for snubbed honesty. "It was a joke, Luke."
Luke studied him intently. "A joke?"
"Sure. Payback for Han scaring the half-life outta me. Never occurred to me it'd be such a big deal." That much was certainly true.
"Maybe it was a little out of line," he admitted, softening Luke up. "But how was I to know? It turned out to be a good thing in the end. Brought you two together, and that's what you wanted in the long run."
Best defense is always a good offense.
The methodology had worked for the Rebel Alliance, after all.
Han snorted but said nothing.
Although Luke shook his head, a smile started in his eyes and twitched the corners of his lips. "Somehow I don't think that was your original intention."
He grinned back. "Maybe not. But as long as you got the results you wanted… "
The smile broke out and washed across Luke's face with the brilliance of starshine. "I have the feeling I shouldn't let you get away with this"
The small pressure change of air being displaced as the office door opened gave them only a second's warning that someone had entered.
"What are you doing here?" demanded an angry voice.
Cleres. Didn't the guy need sleep? He looked quite fresh and energized now, in contrast to their weary, grimy appearances.
"What is the meaning of this illegal activity, Jedi Skywalker?" Cleres scowled as he glanced over at Artoo, humming contentedly and still connected to the interface. "Tell your droid to disconnect from my computer immediately."
Luke nodded. "Artoo, you heard Elder Cleres."
The shift from blushing, love-struck youth to composed Jedi was almost startling, and Lando wondered if Cleres had caught the transformation, too.
"We were just going to contact you, Elder, to bring some new information to your attention," he interjected smoothly, drawing the administrator's attention away from Luke and Artoo. Behind him Han had melted into the shadows, no doubt hoping to remain unnoticed.
"Indeed? Did you think I would override Prefect Rothu's authority in your foolish attempt to rescue your accomplice?"
So Rothu had notified Cleres already. Lando's heart slammed into his ribs and rebounded sharply. He'd hoped to get to Cleres first with their version of what had happened, so the elder would listen with as open a mind as possible.
"I fail to understand your participation in this, Jedi Skywalker."
Lando interpreted Cleres' expression as hovering somewhere between disappointment and confusion.
"We have some evidence we hoped you would review."
"If you have evidence, it should be presented to the Prefect of Security, not to me. I'm a member of the legislative branch of our government, not law enforcement."
"The evidence concerns Prefect Rothu."
Lando had to give Cleres full points for courage. He wasn't cowering or running for help, despite the fact he was facing someone (or perhaps several someones) he considered possible murderers. He could describe Cleres as contentious, rude and arrogant, but cowardly sure didn't apply.
The crackle of an open com frequency drew Cleres' attention and Lando knew the Pontradan would quickly draw an appropriate conclusion. It didn't take long; an instant later Cleres pointed over Lando's shoulder. "You. Corellian. Come here."
Yeah, the Pontradan definitely knew how to wield power and authority, because Han stepped forward, a small lopsided smile quirking his mouth.
"Name's Solo. Han Solo."
The com connection Han had been attempting suddenly went through and Chewbacca's throaty bass rumble boomed into the tense silence.
"Your Wookiee companion?" surmised Cleres. "Why don't you invite him to join us? That way Prefect Rothu won't have to waste his time searching for him." The Elder surveyed the room briskly. "Where's the other droid?"
Han shrugged. "On his way here with Chewie. With some evidence about what happened tonight" He glanced out the window and amended his statement "last night you'll wanna hear." Cleres obviously wasn't intimidating Han at all. "They were tryin' to get hold of you, tell you to meet us."
Cleres lifted an eyebrow, expressing disbelief, and glanced at Luke. "Is this true? You sent the Wookiee to summon me?"
Luke nodded silently.
The Pontradan locked eyes briefly with Han, as if taking his measure, then Cleres crossed to his desk and gestured to the chairs grouped around it.
I guess I'm invisible again, Lando groused to himself.
"Sit. I will hear your evidence, but you must understand I am obligated to pass everything you tell me to Prefect Rothu."
At least they had the opening they needed. All he had to do now was convince Cleres.
Lando was tired and shaky enough that he took the proffered seat, not caring if it surrendered control over the proceedings to Cleres. The power games were beginning to lose their allure for him anyway. Luke also sat, probably in a gesture of conciliation and courtesy, but Han remained defiantly standing.
After a moment's reflection to order his arguments, Lando began. Knowing that Cleres would be swayed by a bare recitation of the facts far more than rhetoric, he spoke simply, holding his emotions in tight check. Han paced impatiently as Lando detailed the night's activities but Luke remained impassive and attentive, occasionally tossing a warning glance over his shoulder toward Han.
Lando wished mightily he had eyes in the back of his head, to see the kind of reaction those reproving looks prompted.
Those black, black eyes stared impassively at him, neither encouraging nor discouraging, and Lando realized he couldn't predict which way Cleres was going to jump. He finished up his explanation and waited for a telling response of some kind.
Again Cleres looked to Luke for confirmation. "Is this true, Jedi Skywalker? Your word as a Jedi?"
Not that Pontradans had ever set much store by Jedi honor to begin with, but the Elder was astute enough to know Luke held himself to rigid ethical standards.
"It is," Luke admitted. "Everything Ambassador Calrissian has told you is as it happened."
"And that is why you authorized the theft of private records?"
Lando was aware of Han's abrupt movement behind him, quickly checked, and saw Luke's lips tighten into a firm line. "I didn't authorize it. Artoo has a history of independent action."
Cleres shot a swift glance at Artoo. "Unprecedented in a droid of Pontradan manufacture."
A little smile played around Luke's mouth; Lando noted that Han's gaze lingered on that mouth just a shade longer than most people would find reasonable.
"Artoo is pretty unique by anybody's standards."
Cleres swiveled his chair around to stare out the window while he considered his options. Lando tracked the motion then looked back at Han and Luke just in time to see Han trace the outline of Luke's mouth with his right index finger.
This could prove downright embarrassing if Cleres turned around and caught these two in the act. Fortunately, by the time Cleres swung around to face them again, Han had retreated a safe distance from Luke, as if only by putting space between them would he be able to keep his hands off the younger man.
"I have difficulty giving your allegations any credence. I've known Rothu Temlo for many turns and he is as loyal a son of Pont Gollo as anyone could ask. He has served long and faithfully and been a model, law-abiding citizen. He has never permitted politics to interfere with his work, not even under Imperial rule."
Lando knew he was going to get burned for this suggestion, but he had to say it anyway. "If you would just listen to some of these log records"
"These records were not legally obtained and without the owner's permission I will not hear them."
Not a hint of what this might mean to Cleres personally, or to the Accord and his hopes for Pontradan admission to the New Republic, crossed his face. It occurred to Lando that, in his own way, Cleres was as honorable and ethical an individual as Luke.
The Elder tapped a finger against his pursed lips. "But this is a highly awkward situation, and I'm afraid our news and gossip grids are most efficient. Prefect Rothu must be given the opportunity to counter your accusations or his honor and career could suffer damage. With your consent I will ask him to join us."
Han lunged forward so aggressively Lando thought he was going to grab Cleres by his neat lapels and shake him, but all he did was place both hands flat on the desk and go nose-to-nose with the Pontradan. Cleres didn't so much as twitch, only stared fearlessly back at Han.
Lando gave an involuntary shiver at the thought of looking into those disconcerting eyes at such close range.
"Sounds to me like an excuse to throw us back in jail and forget the lock code."
"Physical violence will only help the case against you, Captain, not for you."
"Release Elder Cleres or suffer the consequences, Corellian!"
Sith! Rothu. Where'd he come from?
As Lando turned toward the door, he caught a glimpse of Luke's startled expression. The prefect's sudden appearance had even taken a Jedi by surprise. Concentrating on Han to the exclusion of everything else, no doubt, Lando thought disgustedly.
Two armed guards appeared in the doorway behind Rothu, weapons leveled. Lando could see several more guards littering the reception area. Han eased back slowly, keeping his hands in plain sight.
"Are you unharmed, Elder?"
"I am. I actually wasn't in any danger, Prefect. Captain Solo was merely emphasizing a discussion point."
Emphasizing a discussion point. Huh! He had to give Cleres double points for coolness under stress. Couldn't have been easy to watch somebody twice his size and obviously angry come at him.
"Thank you, Elder, for detaining these criminals. Once the lobby guard called in a report of a large, suspicious creature trying to gain access to this building I thought perhaps the Wookiee was trying to join his compatriots."
The quick rankle of irritation at being called a criminal was swallowed up by the hot wave of fear that clutched at his belly.
"Chewie!" Han tensed up again, and Lando thought the only thing that kept Han from launching himself at Rothu was Luke's restraining hand on his arm. "If you've hurt him"
Chewie wouldn't have gone easily, of that Lando was positive. Especially not if he were trying to protect Risco, their sole witness to Han's innocence.
One of the guards laughed as he moved in closer to disarm them, a low, ugly sound. "He'll have a few sore spots when he wakes up."
Han made a strangled sound deep in his throat, very similar to one of Chewie's ruder rumbles. Lando wasn't entirely certain, but he thought Han had just insulted the guard's ancestry and religious convictions.
If Chewie was down and out, what had happened to Threepio and Risco?
"Guards, escort the prisoners back to the detention center and prepare for immediate transport to the maximum security facility. I'll take no more chances with them."
Cleres held up a hand in a delaying gesture. "A moment of your time first, Temlo. If you would, please, ask the guard detail to wait in my outer office."
Rothu's expression was so outraged as to be humorous. "I will not!"
Luke spoke soothingly, accompanied by a familiar, small hand motion. "There is no harm in hearing what the Elder has to say. The guards will wait in the other room."
Rothu blinked and nodded his head. "A few moments won't hurt. Troopers, wait in the outer room."
The guards exchanged bewildered looks and stepped back, closing the door behind them.
My, what a handy trick that is. But I'm none too sure that was the smartest thing you could've done just now, Luke.
"Thank you for agreeing, Temlo." Cleres looked hard at Luke. "Ambassador Calrissian has just related his version of what happened tonight in the security center, and has made some rather disturbing allegations in connection with those events. Were you able to retrieve any visual recordings during the period of power failure?"
"No, Nysos, the failure was complete. Even our backup systems were shut down. What disturbing allegations?"
"I thought the systems were specifically designed to avoid that problem."
Rothu looked over at Luke and spoke slowly and thoughtfully, as if an idea had just occurred to him. "They were. But deliberate sabotage could explain that. The stun gas canisters were triggered while the power grids were off."
Like we didn't see that one coming? First rule of betrayalalways have fallback plans.
Between Luke and Lando, Han blew out his breath explosively at Rothu's implication and took a threatening step forward before Luke yanked him back.
Rothu aimed his blaster at Han.
"Watch where you point that thing," Han muttered, but let Luke pull him into position close to his side.
Where he belongs. Now where did that thought come from?
"Again, I ask what kind of allegations have been made?"
"That you conspired to commit murder of both New Republic and Pontradan citizens, and that you deliberately arranged to place the blame elsewhere, for political motives."
Rothu laughed and Lando had to admire the fellow's aplomb. He was trying to decide if duplicity was a natural ability for all Pontradans, or if he'd merely encountered some exceptional specimens when Rothu spoke again.
"Whatever kind of lies these criminals say, I wouldn't believe any of it, Nysos. Especially that wizard Jedi. They're obviously only trying to avoid their due punishment."
Cleres nodded. "That's the likeliest explanation, of course, but it's difficult to imagine their motivations."
"Outsiders are always difficult to predict, Elder, but their actions speak to their motives. This New Republic is no better than the Empire. They deceive us with pretty lies, bring their Jedi sorcerer to cloud our minds and then take what they want. They flout our laws and use our people for their own purposes."
Rothu's scorn had betrayed him, Lando saw in an instant, when Cleres' expression tightened.
"They claim to have evidence to prove their statement. Perhaps we should hear it, Temlo." Although the words were courteous, Cleres' command was unmistakable. Reminded Lando of that moment in the conference room when he'd called for a final vote on the proposal.
Rothu frowned. "Evidence?"
"Confidential records from your office terminal."
Rothu made a choking sound; the wildly contorted expression on the prefect's face made Lando shiver. The guy was a hairsbreadth away from killing them all in that instant, their futures poised on the Pontradan's dubious self-control. He shifted his weight and tensed up for actionany kind requiredand knew without looking that Han and Luke had done the same. They wouldn't go down without a fight, that was for sure. Let Han and Luke handle Rothu, he'd fling himself across the table to protect Cleres because the way things were looking now, Cleres was their only ticket off this planet.
But Rothu contained his rage. "You see what they truly are, then. Liars, thieves and murderers. They will stop at nothing to achieve their goals of total domination. We invite them to our world with open arms and this is how they repay our generosity!"
"But they have raised some issues which must be addressed quickly, before the grids catch scent of them. Will you authorize releasing random"
Rothu's chin jutted angrily, a stubborn, almost child-like warning sign. "I will not! Not even to you. My confidential files are just that: confidential, dealing with aspects of my official responsibilities and are not subject to public review."
Cleres nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "If that is your decision, there's nothing I can do." He glanced significantly at Luke and his companions.
Almost like he's asking for some kind of intervention. But Lando simply couldn't summon anything to mind fast enough.
Artoo whistled shrilly, demanding attention and then rattled off a rapid series of rather agitated sounding tweets and hoots.
Han snorted at Luke's intent expression and whispered to Lando, "How much you wanna bet the tin can's gonna save our skins?"
"No takers here, Han," he whispered back, grinning.
Luke looked up. "Artoo says he has additional information to present which would not betray any confidential or official matters. It's something he directly observed and recorded."
That feral, dangerous gleam was back in Rothu's eyes, and Lando was reminded of a Dantooine teslat, just before it attacked its prey. And he's got the only blaster in the room.
Han was edging around the chairs, probably readying himself for a direct attack on Rothu.
Cleres seized the opportunity, eyeing Rothu cautiously. "Display your recording, droid."
Ten seconds later all hell broke looseagain. Artoo projected a hologram onto Cleres' desk, Rothu fired his blaster at the droid, and suddenly everybody was in motion.
Lando felt a shock course through his bones like a lightning strike. Damnit! They were all about to be served up to Rothu's personal brand of justice. He'd known he couldn't keep one step ahead of the law forever; another reason he'd shifted courses in mid-life. Not that it was such a big deal for him, but he sure as all hells regretted taking everybody else with him. Especially Han and Luke, when they were on the verge of
His heart pounded out a syncopated rhythm in counterpoint to his morbid thoughts, the room whirled around him, and the next thing he knew somebody was picking him up off the floor.
And laughing. Had to be Han.
"Huh? Wha' happened?"
"Have a nice nap?" Yep, definitely Han.
"Are you all right, Lando?" That was Luke, on his other side. "Can you sit up?"
"Sure." He struggled to an upright position and clutched Luke's arm when the nausea hit. "Whew! What happened?"
"Rothu blasted Artoo, and that discharged his electrical system. And you"
"Got caught in the discharge nimbus." Of course. Why would he expect anything else? He glanced over at the droid, hunkered down quietly, looking a little charred around the seams but still functional.
"You were a good distraction, though, Lando. Rothu wasn't expecting you to fall on top of him. Gave us a chance to overpower him." Han, of course, not in the least repentant of enjoying Lando's situation.
Now that his vision had cleared and he was up in the chair, he could see Rothu cuffed to another chair with his own wrist binders, and guarded by a blaster-toting Cleres. The door to the outer office remained closed and it occurred to Lando there must be some mighty good soundproofing if blaster fire hadn't brought Rothu's troops at a run.
"Ah, Ambassador. My apologies for yet another indignity suffered at Pontradan hands."
Rothu snarled something obscene in guttural Low Pontrashi but Lando didn't bother to try to translate it.
"Before I call in the guards to take the prefect into custody, I want to view some of these confidential files your droid obtained. Now that there is sufficient cause to suspect criminal, even treasonous, action on the prefect's part, any such records are considered admissible under Pontradan law."
"Sufficient cause?" Obviously he'd missed something while napping on the floor.
"Artoo recorded that entire confrontation in Rothu's office. We watched it while you were out."
Now he was really glad he hadn't taken Han's bet.
"Go ahead, Artoo," Luke encouraged. "Let's see what you have."
The records were damning to Rothu, just as Lando had expected and he caught himself wondering why Rothu had been so careless to keep such incriminating evidence.
The prefect's com log detailed conversations between Rothu, Muya and Campion, marking the extent of the conspiracy to derail the Accord and restore political supremacy to the Separatist movement. Additionally, the protected personal files they randomly selected to play clearly profiled Rothu's even less appealing private plans to rid himself of his accomplices and levy the blame on Cleres.
"Artoo, play the last entry Rothu made in his protected log." The droid instantly obeyed his master's request.
Playing a hunch, Luke? Lando glanced at Luke and realized Han had drawn in close, standing behind Luke and resting both hands on his shoulders.
"Muya Sadika's faith in the intelligence and foresight of our citizens is her greatest failing," Rothu's voice stated. "Unlike her, I cannot trust our people to know what is in their best interests. Too many years under the Empire's rule has sapped us of our initiative. Muya's confession today only proves this-she is infected with this same lack. She confirmed she failed to achieve our goal through political means and that acceptance of the Accord within the next few days is inevitable. She promises to continue her efforts through further legislation, but I doubt her ability now. She is not strong enough to guide our people. We need a bold leader, one with proper values who is willing to command and not compromise. I've come to the conclusion that I must do this myself and have notified Campion to put our secondary plan into motion. I must remember to leave offerings to the gods for sending this Corellian smuggler our way. One should never ignore divine intervention."
Divine intervention. So that's it. Rothu is delusional on top of everything else. That probably explained why he'd maintained all those logshe'd been documenting historical decisions for future generations.
Han chuckled, the sound incongruous in the aftermath of revelation. "I don't think your gods liked you very much, if I was the answer to your prayers."
The wry comment drew an answering smile from Cleres. "Perhaps not our gods." Lando could see the Elder take note of Han's protective posture over Luke, flick a quick glance in his own direction and come to the obvious conclusion. "But I think perhaps this Force of yours likes you very much."
Lando watched the last of the porter droids trundle down the access ramp of the Lady Luck and sank back into a well-cushioned lounge chair with a sigh of relief. Unpacking could wait for a while; right now he needed a drink. Maybe several drinks.
But he didn't stir from his seat and instead just looked around the lounge with an immense feeling of mingled pride and security. Actually he was a little surprised at how grateful he was to be on board his own ship again; it felt like coming home.
He was tired. Physically, mentally, emotionally. The kind of tired that meant nothing less than the privacy and reassurance of one's own home would do. Lady Luck might not be his home, but she was as close as he'd gotten since Cloud City. Peace and quiet wrapped around him, warm and comforting like a thick, soft blanket…
He'd spent the last hour on the Millennium Falcon, helping Han, Chewie and Luke ensure the spaceworthiness of the battered freighter. The Wookiee had been adamant on inspecting every circuit and function with the possessive attention to detail one usually reserved for newborn infants. He supposed he couldn't blame Chewie or Han for their concern; those Pontradan troopers hadn't treated the old lady very gently during their search and seizure procedures. From the cockpit where he manned the controls Lando had watched the others swarm over the hull and later, listened to the banging and clanging while they worked on the inside maintenance bays.
No, he hadn't minded being offered the easy chair this time around; considered it his due, in fact. Normally they'd waste precious time squabbling in a competitive frenzy over who got the soft job, with the loser sitting in the cockpit, but he'd gotten the worst end of the last two days and was quite ready to take it slow. Besides, the solitude had given him a little time to sort through some of his feelings and reactions to recent events.
Not only that, the pilot's chair had afforded him a front-row seat to Han's wistful, longing expression every time the Corellian glanced over at Luke. And the joyfully eager looks he received in return.
The day's events would probably stay with him for a long time, not just Han and Luke releasing their passion, their love, but everything else as well. How the representatives had squirmed uncomfortably at the long table in Cleres' office while they watched the holos and vids, especially Muya Sadika. He'd felt for her, then, as the blood drained from her face until the only way he'd known she was still alive were those wounded black eyes. The hard, lost expression on her face when she'd silently written out that bill of sale for Han's cargo, exonerating him from the only remaining concern, the only apology she could offer.
His profound satisfaction in seeing Rothu hauled off to his own detention facility and charged with half a dozen major crimes had been undone by his first glimpse of Chewie, unconscious in his cell, fur matted with sticky blood from what fortunately proved to be a minor gash. Watching Han waver between murderous rage toward Rothu and tender solicitude toward his partner had certainly been an unnerving moment, not one he cared to repeat. For a moment he'd wondered if they might end up saddled with another attempted murder charge, before Han's innate loyalty and practicality overwhelmed that infamous Corellian tradition of vendetta.
He'd been mildly relieved that Cleres and the new prefect took Luke's recommendations to heart and reduced the charges against Risco to minor infractions. Hell, maybe he'd end up getting that statue anyway. Just not posthumously. Which had to be an improvement any way you looked at it.
The biggest issue of the day had been finding Threepio and Risco; a worrisome detail that had to wait on Chewbacca's recovery. Of course, once they'd been found, rather late in the day, Threepio hadn't hesitated to enumerate the multitude of inconveniences he'd suffered while 'protecting' his charge; finally Han and Lando resorted to gleeful comments regarding droid dismemberment within Threepio's auditory range. Miraculously, the litany of complaints had quickly ceased.
That had probably been the high point of his day, now that he thought about it. Except for the hastily arranged public announcement and conference with representatives of the local news grids, carefully scripted into a masterpiece of obfuscation and misdirection. Lando considered it one of his finest performances to date. He closed his eyes to savor the memory… and inevitably drifted into that nebulous state between asleep and awake. From somewhere far off he heard Han and Luke's voices.
" …'n after a while I just didn't know what to say, kid. How could I just pop back into your life after six months an' say, oh by the way, I made a mistake. I finally figured out it wasn't your sister I wanted after all. It was you."
"Because… hell, just because."
"It's strange, Han, I always thought you stayed because of Leiaand that you left because of your nature. Because freedom has always been the only truth you recognized. And not even love can hold a free spirit."
"And then today I found out it was me, always me. I"
"Kinda turned everything upside down for ya, didn't I?"
"You did that a long time ago, Han."
"Hells, I'm sorry. It took me a while to figure things out and by then I figured it was too late."
"This from the man who swore he had no regrets in life?"
"Yeah. How 'bout that?"
"I don't understand. You left because of me. Why couldn't you come back because of me?"
"I dunno. I just couldn't."
"You were scared"
"Maybe. Just goes to prove how wrong you are."
"Wrong? Han, wrong about what?"
" 'bout freedom bein' the only truth I know."
"No. You are, Luke."
"Lando, you asleep at the controls?" Han nudged his foot.
Now he had one more thing to blame Han for. "Leave me alone, friend. You've caused me enough trouble for one lifetime." He opened one reluctant eye and glared at the Corellian before heaving himself to his feet. "Ready to do the pre-flight?"
Luke swiveled his lounge chair around to face him. "Look out the porthole, Lando," he suggested. "We left Pont Gollo orbit an hour ago, on course for Corellia."
It took a moment for the words to percolate through Lando's exhaustion-fogged brain. The landslide of weeks of unremitting pressure, sleepless nights and the last day had settled with full impact, and he simply had no more physical or mental reserves to draw upon.
"Well, I guess you'd better get over to the Falcon then, Han. Chewie's probably wondering where you are by now."
Han's condescending grin told him far better than any words just how inane his comment had sounded.
"Chewie's halfway to Kashyyyk by now."
Luke's grin perhaps wasn't quite as condescending, but still amused. And damned if he wasn't wearing that just-been-kissed look again. Although now that he thought about it, so was Han. "We've been sitting here talking for the past hour over your snores, Lando."
A vague recollection of their voices talking about love and freedom and… sisters? drifted across the wasteland that resembled his brain at the moment, but he couldn't summon the energy to chase the memory.
Threepio tottered in from the narrow forward passage with a metallic clatter that set his teeth on edge. "Dinner is ready, Master Luke. Oh, Master Lando, you're finally awake! I've moved your things into the largest guest cabin and prepared the bed for you. You should be quite comfortable in there during the voyage."
Now that effectively vacuumed a few cobwebs from Lando's mind. He glared at Threepio. "What? Why did you move my things out of my cabin?"
Han crossed his arms in a cheerfully challenging manner. "'Cause I told him to, right, Goldenrod?"
"Er, yes, sir, Captain Solo."
Lando had the feeling he was missing something that was obvious to everyone else. His thoughts still retained the muddled disorder of exhaustion and the sense that something precious had slipped through his fingers unheeded.
A look passed between Han and Luke, the kind of silent communication Lando had occasionally fantasized he would one day share with Luke; the kind that comes only from synchronization of souls and alignment of purpose. And that ship had already cleared atmosphere without him.
Damn Han's arrogance. "Why?"
"Because your cabin has the biggest bed."
"I think Master Lando needs to go to bed," Threepio suggested helpfully.
"I think Luke 'n I need to go to bed, too," muttered Han.
"But I've prepared a wonderful dinner!"
Oh great. Han gets Luke and I get the consolation prizedinner with Threepio. Who's probably put ground glass into my meal because I threatened to deactivate him.
Suddenly Artoo was underfoot as well, squealing out his own indecipherable defense of his counterpart's efforts and generally getting in the way.
"Well, I'm starved, Threepio," Luke announced, patting the droid on his shoulder and reducing Han to simultaneous glowering.
"You would be." But Han didn't quite pull off the disgruntled act. The grin gave him away. "Let's go eat. It better be edible, Threepio, or you're in big trouble."
Luke shook his head at Han. "You'll never learn, will you?" he teased affectionately. "If you complain about his cooking then he'll refuse to do it anymore, and we'll be pulling galley patrol."
Lando couldn't help but snicker at Han's sheepish expression, then instantly thought better of his reaction when Han turned and pointed a finger at him.
Sith! He'd learned long ago to cover his head when Han Solo smiled like that.
"Told you I wasn't quite through with you, Lando." Han pulled a small, greasy object from his pocket and waggled it gleefully.
Warily, he took the bait. "What is that?" He squinted, trying to identify the object before Han dropped it back in his pocket.
"The hyperdrive accelerator linkage pin."
"Han!" So maybe he wasn't the galactic expert on mechanical things, but he did know that without the damned linkage pin his twin hyperdrive engines wouldn't push the Lady Luck any further than point one past lightspeed. And that meant a very long voyage back to Corellia.
He hoped they had enough consumables to last the entire trip.
A few hours later Lando Calrissian lay on his bunk, fretfully cursing the sleep that continued to elude him, and tried not to listen to the muffled sounds emanating from the adjacent cabin. His cabin, damnit. He shifted restlessly as a particularly loud burst of laughter was quickly hushed. And decided as soon as he had adequate funds he would re-soundproof the captain's cabin. Maybe he'd ask Cleres who'd soundproofed his office.
He heard another laugh, lower this time, accompanied by the murmur of conversation. All hells, just what were they doing in there? Talking? He'd expected to spend the night doomed to eavesdrop on Han and Luke's lovemakingwasn't that why Han had commandeered the captain's cabin in the first place? And they'd done that, in fact, with considerable enthusiasm as far as he could tell. But this! This was torture of the worst kind. Further evidence of the distance between his fantasy and his reality.
Typically subversive of Han, he decided, to be so contrary. Flouting convention by talking instead of falling asleep.
Lando pulled his pillow over his head in a feeble attempt to block out further noise. He would definitely have to consider suing the previous owner of the yacht for misrepresentation. Privacy guaranteed, my Wookiee's fur!
Delusional. He must've been delusional to ever imagine Luke Skywalker was uninterested in physical or emotional intimacy. And Han… hell, the man hadn't been running away from Leia or responsibility or anything else. He'd been running toward a truth he was afraid to admit to himself.
The moment condensed down to that simple kernel of truth. Lando tried to breathe around the slicing edge of reality twisting in his chest.
A truth he'd have plenty of time to get used to…
Oh, gods, but it was going to be a long voyage back to Corellia.