By Kate Birkel
see You Could Use Another Good Kiss home page
(Appeared in Wookiee Rendezvous #1, 1999)
It was very late in the evening when Senator Leia Organa left her office and headed for home. She had purchased a small apartment in the residential building across the park from the New Republic Senate Building, so she did not need to summon a hack for the trip home. It was little enough exercise she got these days, except perhaps for her vocal cords, and she enjoyed the leisurely stroll through the park. It gave her a chance to unwind and relax after another long day of infighting and political log rolling. A sardonic smile lit her finely boned face under the corona of braided brown hair. There were times--like today--when she could almost wish the rebellion had not succeeded. There was a certain amount of satisfaction to be gained from out smarting some greedy senator from a rich Core world to protect the rights of the poorer, less populated Rim worlds she represented in the Senate, but it had been simpler a few years back when a blaster could eliminate annoyances in a lot less time.
Getting a little blood thirsty in our old age, aren't we? Leia asked herself wryly. That's why we fought so hard for so long--so problems wouldn't be solved with blasters. Remember? Freedom--dignity--happiness? All those noble concepts of what the good life was all about? We were going to do things the right way--everyone has the right to voice their opinion and control their own destiny. But--there were a few people she could wish who had not been given the right to voice their opinions.
Leia gave the scent-laden air an appreciative sniff. Spring again. Her third spring on Devon as Senator-at-Large for the Sector Five Rim Worlds. (Silly title was almost bigger than she was!) One of these days, she was going to have to arrange a small vacation for herself. She'd take a few days off, hide out in the country somewhere and do nothing but loll in the sun. There was that lovely little resort tucked away in the foothills of the Silvina Mountains that her office assistant liked so well.
Leia sighed, then looked around. The Senate Park Gardens were lit discretely at night. There was enough illumination to keep strollers from barging into trees or other obstructions, but little more. The Park provided more than enough shadowy spaces for couples seeking privacy. Leia passed one such couple huddled together on a park bench. They were totally engrossed in each other, with eyes for no one else. An indulgent smile crossed Leia's face. Once, a long, long time ago, she had . . .
"Damn," Leia muttered under her breath. Spring. It was making her maudlin again. It's been ten years, she reminded herself. But the memories conjured up by the sight of that happy couple refused to go away. Those first couple of years, it had hurt so much. Hope that Han would be found had teased her, tormented her. But, gradually the pain had faded away into a less disturbing emotion. She could now think of the long gone Han Solo with affection and amusement, rather than bitter heartache. She had had no other choice than to come to grips with reality: the Corellian pilot was just one more of the millions of casualties in the long war between the Rebel Alliance and the evil Empire it had battled, and, ultimately, conquered and replaced. Boba Fett's ship had simply vanished somewhere between Bespin and Tatooine. Someone had suggested that the ship might have malfunctioned in hyperspace, someone else had said something about pirates, and there had been a few other speculations. But nothing had ever been proved one way or another in the intervening years. As far as anyone knew, Boba Fett, his ship and his cargo had dropped off the rim of the galaxy.
Leia stopped at the curb, and glanced up and down the street separating the park from her apartment building. Traffic at night was usually light, but just weeks ago she had been sent flying by some hot shot kid trying to show his girl friend how fast his speeder could go. The kid had been properly contrite, even more so when he realized just who he had nearly run down, but she didn't want to risk it again. The street looked safe enough, though, and Leia hurried across, then angled over the sidewalk to the steps leading into the building. But as she reached the stairs, she saw a shadowy figure sitting there, rising as she drew closer. Instinctively, she reached for the blaster she never carried any more, then gaped in wondering shock.
The person waiting on the steps was a young man, not more than about twenty two or twenty three, Leia estimated. He was dressed in a pair of dark blue trousers with a red stripe running down the sides, a white shirt with a high standing collar and a black flight jacket. A blaster rode easily on his slim hips, and his thumbs were hooked into the belt in a familiar way. The cant of his shoulders was also familiar. But it was his face that came in for Leia's closest inspection. He had chestnut colored hair and wore it collar length, trimmed shorter around his ears and parted loosely down the middle, a few vagrant wisps straggling across his forehead. Hazel eyes sparkled at her over a nose that was straight rather than pushed a little to one side. His cheekbones were more prominent than Han's, the face a shade broader, but it tapered down to the same graceful jaw line and firm chin, minus the scar. His mouth was just a little fuller than Han's had been with a less pronounced twist. There was warmth and good humor in that face, a younger, softer version of Han Solo without the other's harsh lines and cynicism.
"Uh," Leia gulped. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to stare. It's just that you remind me of someone I once knew. Uh, can I help you?"
Wry amusement settled on the young man's face. "If I remind you of Han Solo, then I think you're the person I'm looking for." Even his voice was almost an exact duplicate of Han's rich, dark baritone. He shook his head. "Story of my life: no matter where I go, Han was there first."
"Captain Solo traveled a lot," Leia explained inanely. "Ah??"
"Jenin. Taz Jenin." The youngster executed a gallant half bow. "And before you ask, yes, I am Han Solo's kid." There was a note of exasperated pride in his deep voice. "Are you Senator Leia Organa?"
"Uh, yes, I am."
"Great! I'm looking for Chewie and the Falcon. The boys down port had no idea where Chewie took off to, so I thought you might be able to tell me. I know Chewie stops in frequently to visit you."
"Uh," Leia said again. That seemed to be the most she was capable of at the moment. Damn Han! Why hadn't he ever told her he had a son? Then she chuckled softly to herself. He probably had any number of off spring scattered around the galaxy if half the tales he had told were to be believed. The laugh released the spell she was under. "Chewie and the Falcon left for Bespin and Cloud City about two weeks ago. He said he had a cargo for Cloud City, then he had an errand or two to run. I expect him back in another day or so. Is he expecting you?"
Tax shook his head. "Nope. I just escaped Corell a week ago. He thinks I'm still back there with my mother's family and their business." He grimaced. "What a bunch of dead heads. I never could understand what Han saw in Neila. Oh, well, no accounting for taste."
Jenin. Leia turned the name over in her head. It sounded familiar, just outside the reaches of memory. Jenin. Corell wasn't one of the Rim worlds, so she had never taken any great interest in it, but it did occasionally impinge on Rim affairs because of its vast trading interest. Trade? Ah! That was it! Jenin--business. Again, Leia laughed softly. Han never did do anything by halves, and always went for the best. If Taz' mother was one of those Jenins. . .
Taz was lifting a rucksack to his shoulder. "Thanks for the information, Senator, and it was a pleasure to meet you at last. I'll leave you alone now. I need to find a hotel room for the night."
Leia surrendered to an impulse. "Wait a minute, Taz. If you don't have a room yet, you can sleep on my sofa tonight."
Taz laid his rucksack down in a corner of Leia's living room, and sat down in a chair, stretching his long legs out. "Nice place you have here, Senator. Sort of small, though, isn't it?"
"It's big enough for me. I don't take up much space." Leia curled up in one corner of the sofa where she had a clear view of her visitor.
Taz grinned in a way that made Leia's heart quicken with memory. "Han mentioned a few times that you were a little on the short side."
"Oh," Leia said. She thought for a moment. "Ah, Taz, if you don't mind me asking, why are you looking for Chewie now?"
Taz grimaced. "Like I said, I just escaped Corell. I graduated from the University of Corell a week ago. Chewie and Lando were supposed to attend, but they weren't there, so I packed up and came here looking for them."
"University of Corell?" Leia was impressed. Corell boasted several top educational facilities, but the University of Corell was rated the best on the planet and one of the best in the entire Republic. Students who couldn't cut it at UCo were rapidly dismissed. It also took massive amounts of hard cash to attend UCo. "What was your major?"
"Well, actually, I have a triple major ? business administration, accounting and engineering. I'm a few hours short of a fourth--law--but I would have had to stay an extra semester, and something came up I didn't want to wait on."
Bemused, Leia stared at the young Corellian. "Law?"
An answering grin spread across Taz's face. "I know, I know. Han's specialty was violating any law he could find. It's kind of ridiculous for his kid to study law at university."
Leia laughed. "Actually, it's kind of ridiculous to think of anything connected with Han being respectable."
"Yeah," Tax agreed. "I want to see Han's face when he finds out just how respectable his kid turned out. It's his own fault though. He insisted I should stay with the Jenins rather than the Solos after the divorce. He wanted me to have all the benefits of their money and position. Yc-c-ch!" He pulled a disgusted face.
Leia gave Taz a troubled look. "Taz, you're not going to see Han's face again. You know we never found him, don't you?"
Taz nodded, then leaned forward. "That's why I need to find Chewie and the Falcon. It would have saved us a little bit of time and trouble if he'd come to Corell the way he was supposed to, but I guess he either ran into something unexpected or he didn't want to tangle with my mother again."
In spite of herself, Leia could not help but ask, "Tangle with your mother?"
"Oh, boy," Taz said with an expressive sigh. "After her little fling with Han, Neila turned respectable. She didn't want her precious little boy contaminated by that spacer bum, his family or his low life friends. The Jenins are big names on Corell, and they do not associate with riffraff." A note of bitterness crept into the young man's voice. "Of course, now that the rebellion's over and the New Republic is running things, the Jenins are ready enough to trade in on Han's Alliance activities. War hero, and all that, you know." He snapped his fingers. "That! for the Jenins. I did what I promised Han I'd do--I got the best education Jenin money could buy, but that's all over now. I'm never going back to them and their godsbedamned respectability ever again." Suddenly he looked sheepish. "Sorry, Senator. I'm sure you're not interested in the Solo-Jenin family feud."
"Solo-Jenin family feud?" Leia wondered if Taz rattled off this way about his background to everyone he met. Well, if nothing else, it was certainly a far cry from his father's closed mouth policy. Why hadn't Han told her about this kid? she asked herself again with some exasperation. Then she smiled. "Knowing Han, I'm certain the Jenins came off the worst in any disagreement."
"You better believe it," Taz said with great relish. "Even when Han wasn't around to make their lives miserable in person, they couldn't get away from him." He pointed to his own face. "Han Solo, Jr. wouldn't let them. I think that irritated them more than anything else he ever did to them."
Looking at Tax, Leia had to agree. Never in a million years could anyone dispute his paternity. "Maybe you shouldn't be telling me all this. After all, I'm not a member of either family."
"Close enough," Taz retorted with an unconcerned shrug. "You know, I've been dying to meet you for years. Last time I saw Han--eleven years ago--he told me all about how he and his new friend, Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi Knights, had rescued a real princess in distress, and how he was going to bring her to Corell someday so I could meet her. The way he talked about you, the things he said, well, I kind of got the impression he was planning to add you to the Solo clan ? he just didn't get it done soon enough."
There was a sudden lump in Leia's throat. "I'm sorry, Taz. If any one had told me about you, I would have come to see you. You--you really loved Han, didn't you."
Taz' expression became solemn and he nodded. "Han did his best for me, Senator, no matter what other people think." His darkling look left no doubt as to who "other" people were. "Maybe he wasn't the greatest father there ever was, and maybe he could have spent more time on Corell with me when I was a kid, but he did try to do what he thought was right. That's why he let Neila have custody. He didn't have any money. Typical Solo! Every last one of them--the greatest pilots Corell ever produced, and Han was the best of them--and none of them ever have two credits to rub together. A few of them have been able to scrape up the money to buy their own ships, but most Solos have traditionally worked for the big companies like Jenin. Han was lucky he won the Falcon from Lando. That was the only way he would ever have owned a ship outright. Brilliant pilot--lousy money manager." Leia had to agree with Taz's assessment of Han's financial acumen. "And Chewie's just as bad, although what do you expect since he's been crewing with one Solo or another for nearly a century. But at least he's let me handle the Falcon's accounts for the past four years. I've also been doing the books for some of my uncles, aunts and cousins. I may get one or two of them solvent yet." He made it sound like the coup of the millennium, and Leia stifled a giggle. "Anyway," Taz got back to the point from which he had wandered. "Neila divorced Han when I was less than a year old. I think the thrill of defying her parents had worn off by then, and she couldn't stand the social and financial come down of being married to a Solo any more. Han gave her custody, and even agreed that her family could legally change my patronymic to Jenin, but he did it for my good. He didn't want his son to be a freighter bum like himself and the rest of the Solo clan. He came to see me as often as he could." A malicious grin lit his face. "Neila turned ten shades of green every time he turned up on the doorstep, then she'd moan for days afterwards about That Man and what he was doing to her reputation. But there wasn't anything she or her parents could do. Han had given up just about everything else, but the law said he had visitation rights. He'd haul me off across town to spend a couple of weeks with him and his family, and then it was back to the Jenin mansion again until the next time he showed up." This last was said with obvious regret. "Things improved, though, once I was older. Han was gone by then, but I started spending more time with my Solo relatives and out on the docks messing around with the pilots and mechs. That drove Neila wild, too, but it was something else she couldn't do much about."
I'll just bet, Leia thought grimly. This kid was pure Han Solo through and through. In a way, should could almost find some sympathy for Taz' mother, although she sounded like a first class bitch.
"When I was fifteen, I started crewing with the Solos. Han's oldest brother, my uncle Jir, taught me how to pilot. Jir's not anywhere near as good as Han, but he's no slouch, either." There was a look of pride on Taz's face. "Nobody is as good as Han, not even great-uncle Sepp. I want to be, though. I've got all the basics down, and I earned perfect grades in all my engineering courses. I just need the experience. I don't have nearly enough hours, or the right teacher. I plan on spending a few months with Han and Chewie, then going out on my own. Han's going to finally get some real competition."
Leia shook her head. "Han's gone, Taz. There's no chance of ever finding him. We searched for years. He's gone."
Taz grinned again. "I wouldn't bet too heavily on that, Senator." There was utter confidence in his husky voice. "I know where Han is. And as soon as Chewie gets to Devon, we're going to go get him."
Leia collapsed back against the sofa, staring at Taz. "You're insane," she said at last. "Just like your father."
Taz maintained the triumphant grin. "Sorry, Senator, but I'm just as sane as the next person, and a lot richer. They're not going to like it one little bit, but Jenin money bought me Han's whereabouts."
"We offered a huge reward for Han," Leia protested faintly.
"I know, but it was tainted money," Taz said. "It was government money. And no matter how desperately poor some beings are, they're even more afraid of drawing the attention of some government or another. You're the Senator from a Rim world sector; you should know how terrified some of those worlds out there are of any outsiders, especially someone claiming to be from the government."
From harsh personal experience in her electoral territory, Leia had to admit Taz was right. Half her job representing her district was convincing her constituents that she wasn't out to rob them blind or steal their children to serve in the New Republic's armed services.
"I told you I've been crewing with my uncle Jir for a few years now during vacations? He does mostly short hops because he has a family and doesn't like to be away from home more than he has to. But two years ago, he had a run out to the Palla system. That's in the Eighth Rim Sector. Light centuries away from your district. He had a time sensitive cargo for a little rock of a place called Kalibria, the real back of beyond."
Leia smiled to herself, remembering how Luke Skywalker had once described his home world in similar terms.
"It took Uncle Jir a couple of weeks to find a cargo worth taking back to Corell, so I spent a lot of time listening to cantina gossip. Buy some beings enough booze, and they'll tell you not only their own life story, but that of all their friends, family and anyone they've ever heard of. Did you know that Boba Fett hailed from the Pallas system."
Leia swallowed, then shook her head. "We tried to find that out, Taz, but we always drew a blank," Leia said. "Nobody admitted knowing anything about the man. He just suddenly appeared one day, armor and all, as a bounty hunter. The name could have originated from any number of places. A lot of people moved around the Empire, especially after the Clone Wars."
"Yes, I know," Taz agreed. "But I ran across a second cousin of his in a dumpy little cantina. The guy was a dirt farmer from the hinterlands of Kalibria, which is about as far away from civilization as you can get. The whole family immigrated to Kalibria about sixty, seventy years ago from some other farmed out little dirtball called Nessel. About twenty-five years ago, the family hit real bad times. Kalibria went into an economic slump due to both dramatic climactic changes and the Clone Wars. Some of the Fetts left Kalibria to try and make money elsewhere. The big success of that group was the one who turned bounty hunter and sent money home to support the rest of the clan. The bounty hunter disappeared about ten years ago, which really annoyed the family because that was the money that paid the mortgage."
Leia forced down the sense of excitement trying to grow inside her. "You just said that the Palla system is in the Eighth Sector; that's on the opposite side of the galaxy from Tatooine. There would have been no reason for Fett to have gone that way."
Mirth sparkled in Taz' eyes. "You're going to love this, Senator," he promised. "Suppose your mother died, and you had to attend the funeral. Your cargo wasn't going to run away from you while you were at the funeral because it was frozen solid."
Leia's mouth opened, then closed. "That's impossible," she said firmly, as much to herself as to Taz. "Why would Fett have gone to a funeral first, even if it was his mother. Han was worth a lot of money to him, especially if, as you say, he was the main support of the entire family left back on Kalibria."
"Because according to the Fetts' religious beliefs, a proper funeral and burial are vital if the soul of the departed is to reach the afterlife. If all the rites are not followed just so, the soul will hang around the family for an indeterminate amount of time, causing all kinds of trouble, then gradually fade away into nothingness. The oldest son, which Boba Fett was, has a special part to play in these rites," Taz explained. "The second cousin remembered everything. At great expense, the family had the body put in stasis to give the offworld relatives time to get home for the rites, hoping that the soul would go into stasis with the body. The bounty hunter sent the family a message that he had received their message that his mother was dead, but that he was too busy to leave for Kalibria right away. He would get there as soon as possible, though. The Fetts waited until their money ran out, then finally buried the old woman with the next oldest son substituting for the missing bounty hunter. Their luck hasn't been any worse than it was before, so they think the old woman made it safely into the afterlife."
"But it still doesn't make sense," Leia protested. "Fett would have wanted to get his money from Jabba the Hutt as quickly as possible."
"But he was needed at home desperately, his cargo was frozen, and Bespin is a lot closer to the Palla system than Tatooine," Taz said patiently. "The price on Han would have been the same whether he delivered him right then and there or six weeks later."
"So you think Fett and Han vanished somewhere between Bespin and Kalibria," Leia said softly. Her mouth tightened. "That's a great deal of territory to cover, Taz. In any case, we sent tracers out that way, just like we sent tracers everywhere. It was ten years ago. Anything could have happened." Her hands twisted in her lap. It isn't fair, she thought angrily. It wasn't fair for this--this kid to walk in here, tell her he was Han's son and then say he knew where to find Han. She had put those ideas behind her many long years ago. Han was dead. They had all accepted that. All of them except this starry eyed kid who refused to give up his dream of finding the man he had idolized and idealized in his childhood.
"That's what I thought, too, Senator," Taz agreed. "It was just too much of a long shot. I didn't even mention it to Jir, even though he wants Han back as much as anyone else. Could be for the two hundred credits Han owes him, though." He winked merrily at Leia. "I didn't tell Chewie either; it would have cut him up too badly. But just in case there might be something, I hired some agents to travel around the Bespin-Kalibria corridor offering a substantial reward for any information about Han or Fett or Fett's ship. About four months ago, one of those agents stumbled across a rumor on a world named Helva." He made a face. "I thought Kalibria was isolated. Helva makes it look like a major trading center. And backwards! The Helvans have a long way to go just to be stupid. There's nothing on Helva that isn't available elsewhere, closer to the Core worlds, so they see outsiders maybe once or twice a decade. They don't have a real space port, and absolutely no facilities for any ship that might actually go there. My agent almost didn't go there, and when she did, she had a horrible time finding out anything. The natives kept thinking she was from the government, no matter how many times she told them she wasn't. Helvans are terrified of the Empire, Senator. The few times an Imperial ship actually visited Helva, the natives were treated pretty brutally."
"So you believe they wouldn't have talked to any of the Republic's agents?"
"Not a word," Taz said with utter conviction.
Leia looked away from the eager young face across from her. Stop it! She told herself firmly. You're getting as bad as he is. Han's dead! "Taz…"
"I told you the Helvans were not overly bright," Taz went on. "Very ignorant, very isolated. Something strange like a space ship crash landing in some farmer's north forty would be remembered because it happens so seldom--not even once in a lifetime."
Leia was fighting very hard not to take hope from Taz's words. "I…Taz…"
Taz hitched himself forward in his chair. "My agent found something interesting about the Palla system, Senator. Up until the New Republic cleaned them out a few years back, there was a nest of space pirates operating or at least trying to operate in that sector. They were kind of like the Helvans--not too bright. They couldn't handle anything bigger than a one man ship, and even that they regularly botched up."
Leia found one more objection. "But how would they be able to attack a ship in hyperspace?"
Taz nodded. "Good question, Senator. I asked myself that a million times, but I think the answer is that Fett was a lousy mechanic. I suspect that while he knew how to fly his ship, he didn't know much about making repairs or understand the necessity of regular maintenance." A smug smile appeared on his face. "There's no two ways about it: Han's on Helva, and Chewie and I are going to fetch him back here just as soon as--"
The door buzzer interrupted him, and Leia jumped to her feet, more to escape Taz's craziness than a desire to see who her visitor could be. "Excuse me a minute, please," she mumbled, practically running from the room.
Out in the tiny foyer, she opened the door to be enveloped in a large, furry embrace.
*My apologies for the intrusion this late in the evening, Princess,* Chewbacca said quickly. *However, I am looking for someone, and I thought he might be here.*
Leia stood back to allow the Wookiee to see into the living room. "If you're looking for Han's son, you just found him."
Chewbacca ducked his head to get through the doorway and rushed to Taz, who leaped to his feet to return his enthusiastic hug.
*Taz! What are you doing on Devon?*
In Chewbacca's wake, a young woman drifted into Leia's living room. She was dressed in the same type of trousers, white shirt and jacket as Taz, and also carried a blaster strapped to her slender thigh, leading Leia to wonder wildly if there was some factory somewhere that specialized in stamping out that particular get-up. She had short cropped red hair that sort of flopped carelessly in any direction it chose, and warm green eyes with long, thick black eyelashes under delicately arched eyebrows. Her face was sharply triangular with high cheekbones, a long, straight nose and a wide, generous mouth. She was much taller than Leia--not that that was any great feat--very slender, and obviously another member of the Solo clan. She nodded once to Leia, then leaned back against a convenient wall and crossed her arms over her chest to watch the Wookiee and Taz.
Taz managed to untangle himself from Chewbacca. "Waiting for you. You never came to Corell for my graduation, Chewie. That wasn't very nice, you know."
*I had engine problems. I arrived on Corell the day you left. Jir told me where you had gone. The Jenins are very upset with you, especially your mother.*
Taz stuck his thumbs in his gun belt, and gave the Wookiee a smug grin. "Let them be upset. It's my life now. I promised Han I'd get an education, and I did. Now, I'm on my own."
*Good. Then you will be taking over the Falcon,* Chewbacca stated.
"Nope," Taz said with a shake of his head. "I've told you before, the Falcon's Han's. I've got my own ship, the StarLord. You knew that, too." He looked past Chewbacca and noticed the Wookiee's companion for the first time. "Tai! What are you doing here?"
"I co'ed for Chewie from Corell," she said in a husky contralto.
Taz laughed. "Come on, Tai, be serious. You're just a kid."
Leia snorted to herself. Taz Jenin accusing someone else of being just a kid?
A slow, good-natured smile lit the young woman's thin features. "I'm nineteen, Taz, just a couple years younger than you. And Sepp's been training me for the past eight years. I've had my papers for a year. I would have started a year ago except I took an extra year's work at the Institute to get the extra Tech's rating. It means I can charge more."
Taz shrugged. "Okay, Tai. I guess I kind of forgot just how old you are. Ah, this is Senator Leia Organa. Senator, this is Tai Deyn. She's a Solo, too, although you can't tell it from the hair. No self respecting Solo ever had hair that color." There was a note of affectionate teasing in his voice.
Tai kept her smile. "God ahead, Taz, laugh it up. Doesn't bother me in the least." She pushed herself away from the wall, and held her hand out to Leia. "Nice to meet you, Senator."
Leia was surprised by the strength in Tai's slender hand. "It's nice to meet you, too, Tai."
Tai looked over to Chewbacca and Taz. "Looks like you two've got business to talk over. Chewie, I've got to go find a berth. I'll be out to the Falcon in the morning to collect my gear. G'night, all." She slipped out the door again.
Chewbacca turned back to Taz. *Why did you not remain on Corell with the Jenins?* he demanded. *You had a good future with them. As a son of the House, your position was assured. Han would have liked you to do this.*
Taz shook his head, a familiar obstinacy stamped all over his features. "Han can't tell me what to do any more, Chewie. I'm twenty-two now. He was free lance piloting when he was only eighteen, a year younger than Tai." A sudden grin split his face. "Are you going to argue with me all night over what I can and cannot do, or are you going to help me find Han?"
The Wookiee stepped back a pace, and Leia could see sadness in his expressive brown eyes. *Taz, I have told you over and over these past ten years: Han is gone. We will not find him this side of the Veil. You must accept that. You stand here before me and say I must accept you as a man in charge of his own destiny. I say to you, you must put away your childhood dreams of Han. No one wants Han back from the dead more than I, but I have accepted Han's loss. You must do likewise. You should take possession of the Falcon and I will be your co-pilot as I was Han's.* He sighed. *It will not be the same, but we will manage. I have co-piloted for too many Solos not to manage.*
Taz laughed. "You make it sound like a fate worse than death."
Chewbacca growled softly. *I am never bored with the Solos.*
Leia came to touch Chewbacca on the arm. The Wookiee looked down at her. "Chewie, why didn't any one tell me about Taz before," she asked severely. "You, Han, Lando?"
Chewbacca patted her on the head. *Han kept putting it off,* he explained with a chuckle. *I believe he was planning to tell you all about Taz and Neila once he returned to Hoth from paying off Jabba the Hutt. That incident on Ord Mantell scared him very badly. No for his own sake, mind you, but for your sake and young Skywalker's. He spoke several times of taking you to Corell to meet the rest of the Solo clan. He told me he thought you would fit in perfectly. But, then, there was no time.*
A regretful half smile appeared on Leia's face. "No time," she agreed softly. She glanced at Taz, who was showing great curiosity. "Half the time, Han and I weren't on speaking terms." Her smile warmed. "Your father was a smart ass who couldn't keep his mouth shut to save his soul. I lost track of the number of times I wanted to smack him up along side of the head just on general principles. Luke--Luke Skywalker, that is--was always caught in the middle, trying to play mediator." She turned back to the Wookiee. "Then why not, Chewie? It's been ten years. You've had plenty of opportunity."
Chewbacca sighed. *It was impossible at first. I did not want you hurt any more. The boy looks so much like his father. I thought it would upset you.*
Looking at Taz, Leia had to agree with Chewbacca's logic. It would have hurt so much to have to look into those bright hazel eyes and see the laugh on the boy's face when the original was still such an open, aching wound. It would not have been fair to either Taz or herself.
*Later, I saw no purpose to it,* Chewbacca continued. *I believed he would remain with the Jenins, become one of them.*
"Uh-uh!" Taz broke in with a vigorous protest. "I told you that was never going to happen. Every time I saw you, I told you that. No matter what my legal name might be, I'm still a Solo. I'm Han's kid--not the Jenins's son."
*Then you will take the Falcon?*
The obstinacy returned to Taz's handsome face. "Chewie, I'm telling you: I know exactly where Han is, and first thing tomorrow morning we're taking the Falcon to bring him back. If you won't help me, I'll get Tai to help me pilot."
Leia could see the indecision on Chewbacca's face. "Chewie, it's worth a try," she said softly. "Taz has some new leads that are no worse than some of the other rumors we've chased before."
Chewbacca looked down at the Princess he had promised Han to protect. *Do you believe Taz's foolishness, too?*
"I believe Taz should give it a try," Leia responded firmly, then smiled. "Besides, you know you're not going to win this one. I have the feeling Taz is every bit as stubborn as Han ever was."
The Wookiee exhaled a gusty sigh. *You are all too correct. I have tried to deal with the boy before, but he is just like his father and all the other Solos. They do not know the meaning of the word "no".*
"You'll do it then?" Tax demanded, eagerness shining in his hazel eyes.
Chewbacca nodded reluctantly. *I curse the day I first co-piloted for a Solo,* he grumbled. *It has brought me nothing but aggravation since then.*
Pain. Fear. Tears. Steam.
Terror forced the involuntary cry from Han Solo's throat. But it was cut off by the soul shattering cold along with his heartbeat, lung power and thinking processes.
*Han!* An anxious voice spoke in his ear. *Do not move so much. You will do yourself an injury!*
Han Solo's hand lashed out and fastened onto a fistful of fur. Chewie. Chewie was here. It was okay, then. Chewie would take care of him. Chewie wouldn't let them kill him again. Han released a sigh of relief and his struggling body relaxed against the soft warmth that cushioned him. Pain. Orange-red hell. Clanging noises. Wookiee howls of defiance. "I love you!" Han began to thrash around again. Agony surged through his brain. "No-o-o!" he shrieked. "Chewie! Don't! Leia!"
*Taz! Summon the doctors!*
Taz? Were they going to kill Taz, too? Han's body arched against the restraining hands holding him down. "Put him in." "No-o-o! Gods, no! Please! No-o-o!" Something touched his shoulder, and once more Han Solo's terror stricken cry was cut short.
Bits and pieces. Half remembered snatches of what? Dreams? Memories? chased and danced through the swirling orange-red. "Keep an eye on the kid for me, huh, Jir? I've got a bad feeling about this one." "Never tell me the odds!" "That crazy kid's down there in that trench with no air cover! Punch it, Chewie!" "I'll bring you a Princess, Taz, next time I come home." "There'll be another time, Chewie!" "C'mon, kid. Don't do this to me." "I've got to go, Taz. There's people depending on me. But I'll bring the Princess to Corell for you." "The Princess. You have to take care of the Princess." "I"ll be back in a few months, Taz. Me and Chewie and the Falcon." "What's going on, buddy?" "No-o-o!"
*Lie still, Han.* A gentle hand stroked his forehead. *It is over. There is nothing left to fear. You are safe.* Singsong words, almost a lullaby crooned in a language that was almost as familiar as his own. *There is no one left to hurt you. Lie still. It is over. You are safe.*
The orange-red faded into darkness, and Han drifted thankfully into it. "I love you." Leia loved him. All the pain, all the suffering, all the fear became as nothing as Han clutched those words to himself.
Han yawned and stretched, then rolled over onto his side and curled into a tight knot of suffering misery. Damn all hangovers to the eight hells! It must have been a hell of a great party, though. The last time he'd let himself get so blasted was the victory party after the Death Star. It was just a shame he couldn't remember this one. He grimaced. He'd never had a blackout from drinking before. But undoubtedly Chewie would remember the whole thing in perfect detail and wouldn't hesitate to recite those details at great, great length.
Han rolled onto his back again, mumbling a protest as the top of his head threatened to explode.
"Chewie?" he croaked, hoping for an answer.
"Chewie'll be back in a few minutes, Han," an unfamiliar male voice responded immediately. "He went to get something to eat."
Food? Han's stomach flip-flopped and he made a gagging sound deep in his throat. Hands abruptly lifted his shoulders from whatever he was lying on and helped him to a sitting position. His head was turned to the side.
"Watch that stuff!" Han protested, flailing out against his assailant. The movement triggered a small detonation behind his eyes. "Aw, hell, I'm gonna die!" he moaned.
"Oh, no you're not," the voice said firmly. "Not after what I've been through."
"It's my hangover," Han growled. Han heard a rustling noise.
"Hey, Chewie!" the voice called. "Han says he has a hangover."
"Keep it down, please," Han pleaded as the words reverberated through his mushy brain. Risking everything, he cracked his eyes open to find he was in complete darkness. "Somebody turn the lights up real low."
*Your eyes are bandaged,* Chewbacca said softly. *They are still light sensitive. Do not pull at the wrappings.*
Han reached up to touch any way, and Chewie clamped his huge hand around his wrist.
*The doctor will soon be in to examine you.*
"Examine me?" Han was bewildered. Gods, that must have been a better party than he thought.
*You do not remember?* Chewie's voice became anxious.
"Did I get into a fight with someone at the party?"
"You might say that," the other voice said wryly. "You lost to Darth Vader."
"Vader?" Han stiffened. "Where?" Frantically, he turned his head from side to side, disregarding the waves of pain crashing through him. "Chewie, I can't see him! I can't see anything! Help me!"
*Vader is dead, Han!* Chewbacca growled. *He cannot hurt you any more. There is no one to hurt you!* There was the sound of a soft blow.
"Ow-w-w!" the other man yelped. "What'd you do that for, Chewie?"
*Your stupidity!* Chewbacca snarled. *Go tell the doctor he is awake and somewhat rational.*
"You didn't have to hit me, Chewie. I'm not a kid any more."
*Then stop acting like one and do as you were told.*
"You're not my father!"
*You do as I say!* Chewbacca roared in exasperation.
Han winced. "Will you two please stop yelling?" He held his hands to his aching head, touching the bandages Chewie had warned him away from.
*The boy is going for the doctor.* Han felt Chewie's hand settle on top of his head in a gesture of apologetic comfort. He heard the sound of heavily placed footsteps retreating.
"Who's the kid?" Han asked as Chewie forced him to lie down again.
"I don't recognize his voice." Chewbacca chuckled.
*Then your ears deceive you. But do not worry about it now.*
Han sighed and relaxed back against the pillows. "This isn't a hangover, is it? What's really wrong with me?"
There was an instant's hesitation before Chewbacca answered. *You have hibernation sickness. You have been delirious for the past three days. You are getting better, now, though. The doctor mentioned that there might be a memory lapse at first. He says it will not last long, however.*
"Hibernation sickness?" Han examined the term. Something danced just outside of his consciousness, something that he should know. But the pain was too intense and kept him from delving into it further. "Where are we?"
*In a hospital.*
"Which base?" Again that slight hesitation. *No base. It is a civilian hospital.*
"Oh." Han frowned. "Where's Luke and Leia? Are they okay?"
*The Princess is in excellent health. She is waiting for you. She is very anxious for your return.*
"Needs a scratching post for her spiteful little claws," Han grumbled. He grinned suddenly. "One of these days though… And Luke?"
More hesitation, longer this time. *Skywalker is … elsewhere.* There was sadness in Chewbacca's gruff voice.
"He's not hurt, too, is he?"
Two pairs of footsteps kept Chewbacca from replying.
"Good afternoon, Captain Solo," a brisk new voice said. "How do you feel?"
"Terrible," Han snapped back.
"Hm-m-m." Han felt a presence by his head, and then heard a soft whirring noise. "Hold still a moment, please." A pinprick of cold touched against his shoulder. "That should ease the headache, Captain. Hibernation sickness is a tricky thing. It sometimes takes a few days for the nerve cells and synapses to start making the proper connections. The headache is your brain struggling to reestablish the proper pathways. Your young friend here says that you do at least remember your name and some other things. The rest will come." Fingers touched the bandage covering his eyes. "Close your eyes, Captain, until I tell you. Ah, you there, turn the lights off please." Han heard quick footsteps and squeezed his eyes hut. The wrapping was removed from around his head. "Now, Captain Solo, open your eyes very slowly."
Han cracked his eyes open, gasping as the lightening of the blackness assaulted them. The bed under him lurched, and he grabbed out, his hand encountering a clothed arm.
"Give it a minute, Captain," the doctor advised.
Han clutched the arm for balance, and gradually the pain and the lurching stopped. He opened his eyes a little more. He could see three shadows, two human and one Wookiee, poised over his bedside. He blinked several times and Chewie's worried face swam into focus. He grinned. "Hi, Chewie." He released his hold on the doctor's arm and reached out to touch the Wookiee.
"Very good, Captain." The doctor straightened. "How does your head feel now?"
Han shook it experimentally. "Almost bearable."
"Excellent. You are making a swift recovery." The doctor jotted something down on a clipboard he held in the crook of his arm. "I'll leave you in darkness for the rest of today and tonight. Starting tomorrow morning, I'll have the light programmed to brighten a little every three hours. You should be able to withstand full intensity within forty-eight hours. Should it become too uncomfortable for you, however, I'll back it down a little. I won't do a full scan of your eyes right now because that would be too painful. I am reasonably certain, however, that you have sustained no retinal or nerve damage."
"When can I get out of here?" Han demanded.
The doctor glanced between Chewbacca and the other man. "You should plan to be here at least another five days, Captain." Something--pity?--underlaid his words. "Your friends will be permitted to stay with you, and I will be no more than a few minutes away."
Again, Han had the sensation of something just out of his reach, something vitally important. Words that had meanings beyond the surface were being exchanged by the doctor, Chewbacca and the man Chewbacca insisted was a friend . Han yawned. He was too tired to hunt for it now. The doctor handed his clipboard to the man, and brought something out of his pocket. There was the small "snick" that reminded Han of the safety being released from a blaster and he tensed.
"Relax, Captain. I'm simply giving you something to help you sleep." The doctor's hands moved to Han's shoulder and he felt another cold, small pressure. He wanted to protest this rude invasion, but his eyes suddenly closed and his mouth would not move to form the words.
"That should hold him for a few more hours, Sa Jenin." The doctor's voice came from a great distance. "I would suggest that you and Chewbacca get a good night's sleep yourselves. All hell's going to break tomorrow."
Jenin? What the hell was that bunch doing here. On that query, Han drifted off to dreamless sleep.
Heart pounding and sweat drenched, Han jerked upright in bed. "Chewie?" he called into the dimly lit room. "Chewie? You there?"
*Here, Han.* A reassuring shadow loomed out of the dark, and a huge, leathery palm was resting on his bare shoulder. Han didn't even have to squint very hard to pick out the Wookiee's features.
"Where are we?" Han demanded urgently. "Not at Jabba's?"
*No, Han. Not at Jabba's. Jabba is dead.*
"Where's Leia? Where's the Princess?"
*Safe. I took care of her like you said. She is waiting for you.*
Han relaxed against the huge furry arm. "Then everything's okay," he sighed in relief.
*You remember now?*
Han smiled crookedly. "Yeah. Everything in my brain must have reconnected while I was sleeping." He shivered. "Gods, that was close. I thought I was a goner."
"You and everybody else," a sour voice came from across the room.
Han strained to see the speaker. "Who are you?"
*A small child with an uncontrollable mouth,* Chewbacca snorted.
"You can't hit me this time, Chewie," the voice taunted. "I'm out of even your reach."
*That can be remedied,* Chewbacca threatened.
"How are you feeling, Han?" The voice changed tenor, becoming more concerned. "Do you need the doctor or anything."
Han shook his head. No explosions this time and his stomach was not roiling. "Nah, I'm okay. I just wish you two would tell me where we are." A stray thought went through his head. "Hey, how long've I been out of it any way? Chewie, you said Vader's dead and so is Jabba?"
Tension suddenly filled the room. The other man materialized out of the darkness to stand at Chewie's side. Han stared at the shadowy face for what seemed like an eternity. If that wasn't a Solo gazing back at him, he'd lost what little sense he'd had before Vader had stuffed him into that Forceforsaken carbon freeze unit. But the doctor had called him Sa Jenin, not Solo. And there was only one Jenin who would care if Han Solo lived or died.
"Chewie!" Han's panicky voice filled the little room. "How long?"
*Ten years, Han,* the Wookiee replied softly.
Han gaped at his partner. "Ten years!" he yelped indignantly. "That's impossible! Hell, I could have flapped my arms and flown to Tatooine faster than that!"
"Why didn't you then?" the stranger quipped. "It would have saved everyone a lot of time and grief."
Determinedly ignoring the other man in the room, Han drew a deep breath and focused on Chewbacca. "This is a joke, right? You're pissed at me for something and this is your way of getting even. You always had a sadistic streak in you, Chewie."
Chewbacca shook his head. *This is no joke, Han. It has been just a little over ten years since we lost you.*
"Lost me?" This was getting worse by the minute. "Chewie, this isn't funny any more."
"It never was funny," the younger man said softly.
Han's gaze swung back to him. His mind was making suggestions his heart did not want to hear. Finally, hopelessly, he ventured, "Taz?"
Han felt like he was going to throw up. "It's not a joke, is it."
*I wish it was,* Chewbacca said heavily.
Han's eyes darted back and forth between the two standing at his bedside. As close as he could tell in the dim light, Chewie looked the same. But Wookiees had a long life span, and it was virtually impossible for non-Wookiees to guess an adult Wookiee's age. The other one, though, the one who said he was Taz… That's impossible! Han thought wildly. Taz was just a skinny little kid, not this full gown man. But if this really was Taz ten years older, then Luke and Leia… Leia.
"Oh, hell," Han said softly. "I've lost her, haven't I?"
Not for nothing had Chewbacca been Han's partner for many years. *No, Han. It is as I told you. The Princess is waiting for you.*
"Chewie's telling you the truth, Han," Taz added. "We talked to her less than a month ago. She's okay and she's waiting for you. Just as soon as the doctor says you can leave, we'll bundle you up and dump you on her doorstep."
Han's mind was spinning. "Where's Luke? Vader's trap didn't work, did it?"
*Skywalker escaped that time,* Chewbacca explained slowly. *He and Vader fought, and he lost a hand. He helped with the raid on Jabba's. We killed that bloodsucker for you, Han. Canceled the debt.* Pride filled his voice. *I personally choked the life from him while Her Highness and Skywalker watched.*
"You took Leia on a raid like that!" Han protested. "I told you to take care of her--not drag her into a hellhole like Jabba's palace."
*Her Highness organized the raid,* Chewbacca said with great dignity. *I had to go to protect her. Calrissian, Skywalker and I. We brought her safely through the war for you.*
"Lando?" Han queried in tones of loathing.
"Lando worked his tail off to find you, Han," Taz said rapidly. "He and Chewie spend two years scouring the galaxy for you. Besides, Jir's already pounded him flat for you."
"Doesn't make me feel one bit better, kid," Han growled. "I wanted the pleasure."
*You can't,* Chewbacca explained gently. *Calrissian is in a powerchair. He was badly injured in the final battle, and has been paralyzed from the neck down since then.*
Han shuddered. "You're right, Chewie. I'll just yell at him." He paused. "The rebellion's over? Did we win?"
*We won. It has been four years since that last battle. There is a new government, the New Republic. The Princess is the Senator-at-large representing the Fifth Quadrant of the Rim Worlds.*
"What's Luke doing?"
Chewbacca hesitated. *Skywalker is dead,* he said at last. *He fought Vader again in the last battle. They both died.*
Han's shoulders sagged. "Luke's dead?" It was like hearing that a member of his own family had died.
*It was necessary. In order for the Alliance to truly win, both the Emperor and Vader had to be destroyed. A very powerful Jedi, Skywalker's Master, battled the Emperor while Skywalker battled Vader. Skywalker made the sacrifice gladly.*
Biting his lower lip, Han stared at Chewbacca's shadowy head for a long moment, struggling to deal with this newest piece of bad news. "Damn," he commented finally.
*It was Skywalker's choice. He made it in full knowledge that it would undoubtedly cost him his life. His Master made the same choice.*
Han closed his eyes, trying not to imagine that final confrontation. Then he swallowed. "Okay, you two, start from the beginning…"
Legs stretched out in front of him, arms resting on the arm rests, Han slouched in the hospital's only chair, morosely staring at the nearly bare white wall. There ws enough light now for him to see clearly without squinting. Some idiot had hung a print of the galactic Core on the wall, and he occasionally flicked his eyes over to it when his thoughts threatened to spin out of control.
Ten bloody, stinking, rotten years gone! And with them, Han Solo's place in the galaxy.
Han folded his hands over his stomach and slid another two inches down in his chair. Taz was a grown man, the age difference between father and son more like an older and younger brother--the same age difference that had existed between himself and Luke Skywalker. The kid didn't need a father any more. Chewbacca and Jir had discharged that duty for him. The kid was quite capable of standing on his own two feet--more so, probably, than Han himself right now. Taz had his course mapped out quite thoroughly--there was a ship two months from completion in the Jenin dockyards on Corell, a ship he had designed himself as part of his graduate courses in engineering and design. Taz was going into business for himself as a freight hauler and as a business advisor. Hell, he'd already had the second half of his career off the ground even before graduating. Han snorted to himself. A financial establishment devoted solely to furthering the fortunes of the Solo clan. Where had Taz come up with that ambition? The funny thing was, the kid was already well on his way to doing it, too. Chewbacca had surrendered control of the Falcon's accounts to him four years ago and there was actually money in the bank waiting for Han. Jir and Beran, too, had let the kid take over the accounting for their business, and were already doing better than they had ever imagined.
Han's thoughts took a jump. Chewie had brought the Millennium Falcon through the war undamaged, had even reworked a lot of her so that she was in near perfect flying shape. With a succession of co-pilots, the Wookiee was struggling to reestablish Han's cargo business, had managed to turn a profit even. All Han had to do was walk out of the hospital and slip behind the helm as if he had just left his great bird days ago instead of years ago. But the rules had changed.
Han's fists knotted. The melange of Imperial rules and regulations he had known so well had been swept aside by the New Republic and replaced by a new code. The first thing he would have to do was forget everything he had known in favor of this new system that both Chewie and Taz swore worked great, but was boring as all get out. Worse than that, though, was that the old spacers' network had fallen apart as the conflagration of war had spread through the galaxy. Men had died, planets had fallen and risen, the cards had been reshuffled several times and now there was a different network. There were still some old faces around, Chewie had told him, but they were overwhelmed by new faces and names and places. And Han Solo had no place in this new scheme of things. The universe had gone on without him, and the doors were slammed shut to him as if he were once more a youngster just starting out in the business. The best he could hope for was that there were enough of the old names left who remembered him to give him a chance to jam his toe in the door. But what would he find behind those doors even if he could get in? He was full circle again. The galaxy he had closed his eyes on ten years ago was gone. Everything had been turned upside down, shaken thoroughly and put back together in patterns that bore scant resemblance to the ones he had once ordered his life about. From the sound of what Chewie and Taz had been saying, only the furthest reaches of the Rim had been left relatively untouched. The Empire had never been able to bring law and order into those hell holes, and the New Republic was not faring any better. The problem was that as little as Han wanted to face the topsy turvy galaxy wairing for him outside the hospital, the far Rim held even less appeal. The far Rim was a cold and lonely place, harsh and cheerless, the last refuge of beings who had no place else to go and nothing left to lose.
Han stirred restlessly, then sprang to his feet to stride over to the print of the Core. Unerringly, his fingertip found the sun of the Corellian system, then traced radiating spokes to Kessel, Yavin, Hoth, Tatooine, scores of worlds, the paths as familiar to him as the back of his hand. Then his finger circled in until it rested on a small sun almost dead center of the Core. Devon. Chewbacca and Taz said that Leia was on Devon waiting for him to return. Han's shoulders bunched under the thin hospital garment he wore. Leia. His mind summoned up a picture--Leia curled up in his arms, drowsy and sated with their love making, her dark hair fanned out over both of them. Once more his finger touched the print. Corell to Yavin to Hoth to Cloud City to Devon. Ten years was a lot of time for a woman to wait for a man.
Quick footsteps came toward him, and he turned to espy his son holding out a pile of clothes.
"Chewie'll be back in a few minutes," Taz said.
Han nodded to the clothes. "Where'd you get those?"
"Chewie packed all your stuff away in a couple of trunks and shoved them into one of the Falcon's holds. He just never got around to doing anything more with them and we dug out the trunks this afternoon while you were finishing up your breathing therapy. I'm afraid your cabin's a mess." Taz grinned. "It kind of became the junk room. Anything nobody knew what to do with got tossed in there. Chewie's thrown everything into boxes for the time being so you've got a place to sleep."
Han brightened. "They're letting me out of here?"
Taz nodded. "The doctor doesn't see any reason to keep you any longer. Your eyes are fine, your lungs are fully functional, and he can't find anything else wrong with you, although he wants you to take it easy for a couple of weeks or so. Soon as you get dressed, me and Chewie'll take you out for a real meal--not this hospital crap--and then we'll go hunt up the Princess. She should be done for the day by then."
Han drew himself up straight and fixed his son with a fulminating eye. "Where the hell are we, kid?"
"On Devon," Taz grinned, not in the whit fazed by his father's wrath. "You would have done something stupid if we'd told you before."
Han snorted, then stalked off to the bathroom.
When Han emerged from the bathroom several minutes later, dressed and his hair neatly combed, Chewbacca was waiting with Taz. The Wookiee's eyes lit with pleasure when he beheld his pilot dressed and apparently back to normal.
*You look half naked, Han,* he joked.
Han's hand brushed self consciously across his thigh. "I feel half naked," he admitted.
The Wookiee held out his hands. *This should make you feel better.* He was holding a blaster belt wrapped carefully around a holster and blaster.
Han's face lit up. "Those're mine!" He snatched them from Chewie.
*Calrissian found them when we retook Cloud City,* Chewbacca explained with a toothy grin. *We were saving them for the boy, but he had a set of his own made.*
Han glanced at Taz, but saw nothing.
"I don't live in it, Han," Taz said archly. "It's bad for my business man's image. Stock brokers tend to get nervous if I trot into their office with my portfolios and a blaster."
Han strapped the belt around his waist, then tied the thongs around his thigh. Now he was fully dressed. "Anything else we have to do here?"
"Nope. The bill's paid, and you're all checked out. We've got about four hours to kill. Anything you want to do besides have supper?"
Han's stomach growled at the thought of real food. "Forget food. I want to see my ship."
Chewbacca threw back his head and laughed. *I told you, Taz. No fancy restaurant tonight.* He took three giant steps across the room and threw his arms around the older Corellian. *The Falcon is waiting for you, Han.* His arms tightened until Han thought his ribs would crack. *I thought I should never see this day,* he added softly.
"Well, if you don't quit squashing me, you won't!" Han gasped. "Let's go. I want out of here!"
Han shifted restlessly on the park bench, once more casting his eyes on the Senate building doors so tantalizingly close.
"There was an important debate today, Han," Taz explained for the twentieth time since the three of them had arrived at the Senatorial Gardens.
*Her Highness works late almost every night,* Chewie added, also for the twentieth time.
Han stood up and stretched in a vain attempt to dissipate the tension that had been building in him for the past half-hour. No matter how much Taz and Chewie tried to assure him Leia was still loved him, he couldn't quite let himself hope for that much. Ten years was a long time, almost a full third of her life. Anything could happen in that amount of time. Chewie and Taz weren't around her every day; maybe she was keeping company with a man they were unaware of. She was young, attractive and powerful--an almost irresistible combination for any man.
He stared at the Senate doors again. One was opening. He stiffened, his eyes straining to see clearly. A figure walked into the pool of light formed by the floodlights trained on the Senate front. The door closed, and the figure slowly crossed the top landing to stand poised at the head of the stairway. It was Leia. She was too far away for him to clearly pick out her features, but he could see her head turn as if she was studying the gardens below her. Then she bowed her head, and she began the long descent down the stairs.
Panic seized him. What was he supposed to say or do? "Chewie?" he croaked.
The Wookiee chortled, clearly enjoying his partner's discomfiture. *Relax, Han. Everything will be just fine.*
Leia had reached the pavement as the base of the stairs, and her head still bowed, was moving quickly toward them.
Han drew a deep breath.
Another long, frustrating day. Wearily, Leia turned out her office lights and locked the door behind her. She walked slowly down the corridor to the elevator, waited for it, stepped into the gondola, endured the breathtaking plunge to the main lobby, then dragged herself across the vast floor to the doors leading out. The guard nodded respectfully to her and held the door open as he wished her a good evening. The door closed behind her and she paused on the landing at the top of the stairway descending to the Senate Park Gardens. It was a lovely night with Devon's twin moons silvering and softening all their light touched, crating a fairyland of dark and shadow and light. She should have been delighted by the prospect of the walk home through the sweet smelling beauty of the park. Instead, she was depressed. Chewbacca and Taz had left Devon a month ago this morning, and even though she had known better after all these years, she had started hoping against hope again, ticking the days off in her mind. Taz had seemed so certain that he knew exactly where his father was. In the past two days, though, her dream castle had begun to crumble. How could she have been so gullible, she asked herself bitterly. The entire Alliance had searched for Han for well over two years, not to mention any number of rumors they'd checked since the original hunt had fizzled out.
At last, head bowed, Leia started down the stairs to begin the walk through the enchanted park. Tonight, her steps were hasty, her eyes fastened firmly on the ground in front of her feet. Tonight was truly a night for lovers, and if she had to look at one more couple kissing in the magical moonlight, she'd scream. Out of the corner of her eye when she was only a few steps into the park, she saw a dark figure separate itself from two others. Was she going to be mugged?
"Hey, Princess," a husky voice drawled out of the dark and light.
Leia stopped dead in her tracks, the blood draining from her cheeks. Slowly, she turned to her right. "Han?" she whispered, afraid to believe, certain that her ears were playing tricks on her mind. She wanted this so much, her mind was finally creating delusions.
A whirlwind seized her, wrapping her in strong arms and lifting her off her feet. Leia clutched desperately at a flight jacket. "Han, is that really you?"
"You bet, sweetheart."
Lips met hers in a passionate kiss, and then Princess Leia Organa, Senator-at-large for the Fifth Rim Sector, burst into tears.
"I told you you'd scare her half out of her wits if you jumped her in the middle of the park, Han." Taz stood next to his father, shaking his head.
"A little more respect here, kid," Han growled back.
"Right, Han," Taz said dryly.
Han swung Leia up into his arms and carried her to a nearby bench. He sat down with her on his lap. Leia buried her face in his shoulder, hands still gripping his flight jacket as if that alone could keep the mirage from dissolving. One of Han's arms was around her back, pressing her to him, the other stroking her head.
"You trying to melt me?" Han asked softly.
Leia's sobs became a watery chuckle. She lifted her head to study the face poised over her. Just as she remembered, she noted with amazed satisfaction. Ten years hadn't changed him in the least. Not that it had actually been ten years for him. But still… She smiled as he wiped the last of her tears away with his thumb.
"Say, Han." Taz loomed over them, Chewbacca behind him. "Chewie and I've got a few things to do yet tonight. How about we come back and get you in the morning?"
"Sure," Han agreed.
"Okay," Taz said. "Good night, Senator."
"Good night, Taz, and--and thank you," Leia said.
"That's okay, Senator. I'll bill you for my finder's fee in the morning."
"Beat it, kid," Han growled.
"Rotten kid," Han muttered under his breath as Taz and Chewbacca walked away.
Leia chuckled again. "But, Han, he's your kid. And he did find you after--" There was a lump in her throat. "After the rest of us had given up," she finished in a constricted voice.
"Oh, Leia." Han's arms tightened around her, and he kissed her again. Leia threw his arms around his neck, and returned the kiss with desperate fervor.
Finally, they broke apart again, breathless and both a little flushed.
"Oh, gods, Han," Leia murmured. "I thought I'd never see you again. I still can't believe it's actually you."
"Well, here I am, and here I'm staying--if you want me to." Han's voice was rough with emotion. "I know it's been ten years for you, and--and things can change a lot in ten years."
Leia grabbed hold of his flight jacket again. "Some things don't, Han. I loved you ten years ago, and I love you just as much today."
"I was hoping you'd say that." Han's lips brushed across her forehead. "And there's something I never got around to telling you--I love you, too."
An impish grin lit Leia's features. For ages after Cloud City, she'd plotted this moment, turning it over in her mind, clinging to it as more and more time passed without new of Boba Fett and his priceless cargo. "I know."
Han grimaced. "Somehow I knew you were gong to say that." He kissed her again. "But after ten years, you've earned it." His voice deepened. "I love you."
Leia slipped her hands under his flight jacket and pressed herself against his hard, muscular chest, the beating of his heart thudding in her ear. "I--I-- " The tears started again, cutting her words short.
Tucking Leia's head firmly under his chin, Han held her close, murmuring soft sounds in her ear. At last the flood slowed to a trickle, and Han pulled his shirt free of his trousers to dab at her eyes with a dry spot.
"Taz said your apartment is close by here. Why don't we go there so we can talk in private," he suggested.
Leia slipped off his lap, then with his arm around her shoulder to hold her close, and her arm wrapped around his waist, they set off through the gardens.
Leia palmed on the light in the living room, then turned to Han, who was right behind her. "It's not much," she said inanely. "But I wanted something close to the Senate building. This was the only thing open at the time."
"Looks okay to me." Han bent to kiss her, not even looking at his surroundings. Then he straightened to gaze down into her face, lightly framing it with his big hands. "You've grown up," he said softly. "I--I didn't know what to expect. I've been lying in that damn hospital bed for four days scared to death."
Han Solo admitting he was afraid of anything? That admission cut Leia deeper than almost anything else he could have said. "What hospital bed?"
"Chewie and Taz had me thawed in a hospital here on Devon. I had hibernation sickness for a few days." Han grinned wryly. "They both say I was completely off my rocker during that. I wanted out three days ago once my eyes were okay, but they kept me tied down. Gods, that kid has a mouth that won't quit."
"He comes by it honestly," Leia retorted. She wrapped her arms around him again simply to make sure she wasn't dreaming, that this really was Han Solo, alive and breathing. "You're all right now, though? The sickness is gone? I would have come to see you if I'd known. They didn't tell me."
"Chewie said you were okay. He told me where you were and what you were doing." His hands around her face tightened. "He told me about Luke, too. I--I don't know what to say except I'm sorry. He was my friend, too. I don't know if I could have helped him any, but…"
Leia shook her head. "None of us could have helped him. It was a Jedi battle, nothing any of us understood. He knew exactly what he was doing when he took on Vader. It was the only way. He won the final battle for the Alliance, him and his master, Yoda, by killing Vader and the Emperor. I miss him so much, but it was the only way." Sadness darkened her eyes.
"You loved Luke, didn't you, Leia? Han asked, understanding in his expression.
Leia nodded. "Yes, I loved Luke. Not the way I love you, but Luke was so special, too. He was brave, he was there when I needed him the most, and he--he was a lot of things. He grew up so much after Cloud City. He was nearly as crazy as I was when we found out you were gone." She squeezed her eyes shut. "So many nights," she whispered. "So many nights neither of us could sleep. The rebellion was failing, so many people were dying and it seemed like nothing we did was right any more. It was almost as if by losing you at Cloud City, we'd lost our good luck charm. Or maybe it was losing Hoth. I don't know. Luke was so afraid of Vader for a while. He didn't know if he was strong enough to keep Vader from turning him to the Dark Side of the Force. And we were both upset about how you'd vanished. I lost count of how many nights we just sat somewhere and talked. We both finally got back on our feet again, but, oh gods, it was hard." Fresh tears sparkled on her eyelashes, but she drew a deep breath and forced the sobs back.
Han steered her over to the sofa, sitting down with her resting against him. "Go ahead and cry if that's what you need." His voice was husky in her ears, his body strong and warm under her.
So long, Leia thought whimsically, so many years since the last time I did this, the last time I felt so secure and protected. Those two weeks before Cloud City. Just two short little weeks. How many times after that did I curse myself for my blindness and arrogance? It could have been more than two weeks. All the time it was right there in front of my face, and I was too stubborn to open my eyes. Her hands crept under his jacket to hold him close, to feel the beat of his heart, his aliveness. "Oh, Han," she said thickly.
Gentle hands lifted her face, hazel, eyes shone into hers and eager lips kissed hers.