Merry Days, My Lovely
By Kate Birkel
see You Could Use Another Good Kiss home page
(Originally appeared...? Can anybody help me?)
Merry days, my lovely,
Merry years, my lovely;
Don't come quite so close, love
They were merry days, my lovely.
— as sung on the soundtrack ROBIN AND MARION,
Night had fallen on the port city of Shandu, but the closely spaced street lights made the sidewalk as bright as high noon. To the man making his solitary way to his hotel room, the street lights were a symptom of the decay that had rotted away the entire Rim quadrants. But, after many years of watching the New Republic chip away at the 'once lawless and uncivilized Rim, he was resigned to it. In fact, earlier that day, he had tendered his formal surrender to the relentless advance by applying for a government issued pilot's license, master's papers and registration for his ship. He had paid eighteen years' worth of fines and penalties that had been levied against him for one reason or another for the privilege of being a legally recognized citizen of the New Republic. The clerk at the registry had raised her eyebrows several inches when he'd settled the account, a lengthy process since there had been a number of them under different names.
"I thought you were dead, General Solo." But his money was good and the clerk had promised to have his papers ready the day after tomorrow. In less than two days, he would be free to travel anywhere in the galaxy he wanted without fear of arrest and confinement. The only problem was that he couldn't think of any place he really wanted to go except one, and there was no welcome for him there.
Even though the hotel was the plushest one on the strip, the room he'd rented still felt cold and cheerless to Han Solo. He could have raised the temperature, but that wouldn't ease the loneliness, nor would turning on the vid. He had learned a long time ago that drinking himself sodden in one cantina after another was just as futile; it only made doing his job the next day all that much harder.
Han stripped out of his clothes, dumped them into the cleaner, then went into the bathroom for a long soak in the tub. The moist heat helped when his nailed-together leg acted up like it had been doing ever since he'd touched down on Shandu. The last doctor he'd talked to about it had told him it was due to stress and/or atmospheric pressure. Either one would set the bones to aching and exaggerate the otherwise slight limp. She had advised painkillers and hot soaks.
Bath over, Han applied a depilatory cream to his lower face and wiped it off with a damp wash cloth. He studied his image in the mirror. Time to get a haircut. He'd been telling himself that for two weeks now and simply hadn't gotten up the ambition to do anything about it. He touched one shaggy sideburn. It had taken a long time for the first few gray hairs to appear, but those few had opened the floodgates. There were lines etched around his eyes and mouth that hadn't been there five years earlier, either. Not too long ago, some little snip of a girl had told him they added character to his face. Character! Han snorted at his image. Any more *character* and he'd look like a candidate for the Old Spacers' Home.
Han laid his receipts down at the window. "I'm here to pick up my papers."
"Of course, General Solo." It was the same clerk who'd taken his application two days earlier. "Just a moment, please." She reached down to some unseen cubbyhole for a small envelope and poured three disks out onto the counter. "Your pilot's license, your master's papers and your ship's registry. That'll be two hundred and forty-five credits, please."
"But I've already given you better than twelve thousand," Han protested.
"That was for the outstanding fines. You're paying the standard fees now."
Han grimaced, then dug down into his pocket for the money. He filled out the credit voucher for the amount, signed it and pushed it over to the clerk, then put his thumb print to yet another receipt. "Is that it?" he asked hopefully.
"Not quite, sir," the clerk replied. "Are you planning to stay on Shandu for a few days or are you leaving?" She gave him a reassuring smile. "I'm only asking just in case some minor glitch comes up that I missed. I'm certain you'd want to get it settled right away without a warrant being issued for you."
"What's one more?" Han grumbled.
The clerk waited patiently.
"Oh, all right." The pilot gave in with a sigh. "I'm leaving Shandu in two hours * I've got a cargo to deliver on Derain and I'll probably be there a few days or so."
The clerk made a notation on a piece of paper. "Thank you, General Solo," she said in bright tones. "Now you're done."
The clerk waited until the spacer had left her office, then she inserted his receipt into her computer to compare the thumb print against the special information request that had been in his file. The two were a perfect match. She punched up a new form and began filling it in for dispatch to the central registry at Harbin, capital world of the New Republic.
The ship waiting for Solo in docking bay twenty-five wasn't the Millennium Falcon. There had been a freak accident five years back, the type that every professional pilot dreamed of in his worst nightmares. A young kid out fooling around in the flitter his folks had given him for his birthday the week before had disregarded the frantic warnings of the local air controller. Han and Chewbacca tried to jerk the Falcon out of the kid's path to no avail. The kid had been killed instantly. Chewbacca died three hours later in the hospital while Han was unconscious in the operating room. A month later, Han emerged from the hospital with a few new scars, a leg that would never really work right again, and no ship. With the money that the kid's insurance company had shelled out, Han had been able to buy a one-man transport and give Chewbacca's grieving family a hefty sum.
The Krisla D'vore was only one-third the size of its predecessor, but it had been built for just one purpose -- speed. Its lean, sweeping lines hid engines that could have served a vessel four times its bulk with power to spare. With just a little tinkering on Han's part, it had been brought up to where it would do point eight past light speed, more than held ever coaxed out of the Falcon on the best day of either of their lives. The cargo holds were small, but Han specialized in quality over quantity these days. Right now, even those small holds were empty, but the papers he was carrying in his private safe were worth millions to the private industrial developer on Derain who didn't trust the usual routes of communication to protect his secrets against theft. Han had filed his intent of acting courier with the local Port authority. There would be no playing hide and seek with customs cutters like in the old days, no threat to life and limb and no thrill from another narrow escape. It would be a boring take-off and an equally boring landing.
The vast Skywalker estates on Harbin served many purposes. Jedi Master Luke Skywalker maintained the central registry and library of the revived Jedi Order there as well as a branch of the Jedi Training Center which he presided over. Other branches were scattered throughout the galaxy, but Luke preferred to remain close to the seat of government where he could monitor their daily doings. Senator-at-Large Leia Organa-Skywalker (she had dropped the "Solo" many years previous) made frequent use of the main house for political purposes, staging several dinners and receptions throughout the months when the Senate was in session. Other weekends, the Senator might invite just one or two of her colleagues to plan strategies or even just relax after a harrowing political battle. There was also a special garden on the estate, open to the public, that had been created as a memorial to the Senator's home world of Alderaan. At the center of the garden was a stone sculpture of the planet flanked by two sweeping walls on which were inscribed the achievements of the Alderaani people and their contributions to galactic culture before it had been destroyed in the great war to restore liberty and freedom.
Senator Organa was eating a solitary late meal in the small, informal dining nook she and Luke used when there were no guests to entertain. Business had kept her in the Senate building later than usual and she was still reading the papers pertinent to tomorrow's session. She had discarded her Senatorial robes for a pale green lounging suit and her hair was brushed out and caught at the nape of her neck with a simple gold clip.
At the sound of her brother's voice, the Senator set her papers down. "I thought you were busy in town tonight."
A smile touched Luke's mouth. "Something came up I thought you might be interested in." He sat down next to her.
"You mean that you might be interested in." Leia said tartly, pushing her plate to the other side. "What bill is it this time?"
"None right now." Luke reached inside his black tunic to pull out a computer flimsy. "This is...personal."
Leia accepted the flimsy and began to skim over it. Then, once its import struck her full force, she started from the beginning again with great intensity. "Oh, my god," she said softly when she was through. The flimsy trembled in her hands and she set it down before it betrayed her any further.
Luke picked it up, folded it and put it back into his pocket. "I told you not to give up."
Leia closed her eyes. Long ago, she had decided that Han Solo, her husband, was dead. Too many years had gone by with no word from or about him. She'd grieved, accepting her share of the blame for the rift that had driven him away. Two not-very-nice people who loved each other but couldn't live together. Many sleepless nights she had wondered if Han would have stayed if she had been less demanding, more tolerant of his free-wheeling ways. But Han, too, could have been more understanding. She hadn't been in a position to drop everything every time he decided to go jetting off for the hell of it. Even if the Emperor were dead, there were still years of work ahead before it could truly be said that the rebellion was a success. The arguments had escalated and then one day he had gone. Pride had gotten Leia through those first few years, even if her dreams were filled with unspeakable terrors one night and desperate longing the next. Gradually, she had learned not to jump at the sound of heavy footsteps behind her, nor did she paw eagerly through a stack of mail for one special letter. And finally, she had accepted that Han must be dead. It was better to believe he was dead than to think he cared so little that he had never bothered to return.
"I think I'm going to take a few days off to find him," Luke said quietly.
Leia opened her eyes. "If Han was the least bit interested in either of us, he could have found us anytime these past twenty years. We haven't been skulking from one hiding place to another."
In his hotel room on Derain, Solo carefully inspected his caller before opening the door. Part of the new regulations was an ordinance against carrying lethal weapons, but he was a cautious man. He'd spent too many years dodging gunfire. The visitor was a man, tall and slender, and dressed in a jumpsuit that revealed nothing suspicious.
"Pardon my intrusion, Captain Solo," he began as Han opened the door to him, "but I have a very valuable cargo to be transported and your name was given to me as one who is trustworthy."
Han motioned him to the room's single chair. "I wasn't really planning to leave here for a while."
"Would a fee of twenty thousand credits change your mind?" the man queried.
"It might," Han allowed. "But only if the cargo's legal. I gave up smuggling a while back."
"Oh, it's entirely legal," the young man assured him. He withdrew a business card from his breast pocket. "I am here as the representative of Madame Genna Ildico. Madame Ildico, as you may not know, is --"
"I've known Genna Ildico longer than you've been alive," Han interrupted.
The visitor's composure did not slip. "Ah, well. then perhaps that will make my task easier, Captain. Madame Ildico has just secured ownership of an entire estate of jewelry. She wishes to have it delivered to her personally on Harbin, where our firm has its main branch."
Han had been half inclined to take the load until its destination was mentioned. Now, he shook his head. "Sorry, kid, but I don't go to Harbin. Find someone else."
The man smiled tightly. "Would an extra ten thousand credits make Harbin more acceptable as a port of call?"
Han folded his arms over his chest. Thirty thousand for one trip. Money like that didn't fall into his lap every day of the week. On the other hand, though, Harbin... "Make it another five and you've got yourself a deal."
Luke Skywalker strolled into Ildico's showroom to be immediately greeted by a senior clerk.
"Jedi Master Skywalker," she murmured with just the right tone of deference. "It is a pleasure to welcome you to Ildico's. How may we serve you?"
"I have an appointment with Madame Ildico."
"Yes, sir. Right this way."
Genna Ildico was talking on the communit when Luke entered her lavish office. She waved him to a chair, then finished her conversation. That done, she notified her secretary that she wanted no interruptions for the next twenty minutes.
"Your man's not cheap," she said briskly to Luke.
Luke grinned wryly. "That depends on your point of view."
Genna snorted. "On the best day of his life, Han Solo was never worth thirty-five thousand credits, and that's counting that fancy bounty Jabba the Hutt had out on him."
Luke had been expecting a hefty figure, but its actual size made him wince. It's all in a good cause, he reminded himself. "How much do I owe you?"
Genna pursed her lips. "Say ten thousand. I was willing to go as high as twenty-five myself to get that cargo to Harbin. Plus another thousand for the time and aggravation it took to track him down. Derain's a pretty big place, you know."
Luke put a credit voucher down on the desk, filled it out and slid it over to her. Genna folded it and put it in her drawer.
"It's always a pleasure doing business with a man who believes in paying his debts promptly." She folded her hands on the desk. "By the way, Luke, I should tell you Solo's travelling by himself these days and he's got a new ship. I don't know what happened to the Wookiee or the Falcon. My man didn't dare ask too many questions in case he smelled a rat."
"Thank you. Genna." Luke walked around the desk to plant a warm kiss on her mouth, then perched on the side of her desk. "I've got one more favor to ask you."
Genna pouted. "I knew it!" she proclaimed in fatalistic tones. "Nothing's ever simple with you."
Luke grinned. "I think you'll like this one. I want you to take Han out for dinner when he arrives. Spin him some sort of yarn about wanting to hire him full time or something like that. Make it Westerbee's and keep him busy until I show up."
Genna's expression turned to one of horror. "Me con Solo? You've got to be joking."
Luke nuzzled the back of her neck. "It's only for a couple of hours, Genna," he promised throatily. "Then I'll take you over to Therian's for an evening of fun and dancing. I'll even pick up the tab for Westerbee's."
Genna twisted until she and Luke were face to face. "I don't know why I let you get away with this sort of crap, Luke Skywalker."
Luke teasingly kissed the end of her nose. "Because you just can't resist my good looks and charm." Genna made a derisive sound that was cut short by Luke kissing her full on the mouth.
Han's receiver was waiting when the Krisla D'vore touched down on Harbin. Under Genna Ildico's sharp eyes, the sealed strong boxes were loaded onto a van, each box checked for signs of tampering. When the last box of jewels was placed inside the van and the massive doors secured, the jewel merchant produced Han's fee.
"You have no idea how relieved I am to discover you're still an honest rogue, Han."
Han shrugged. "I've got no ambition to spend the rest of my life on the run for a lousy load of gewgaws." He hefted the credit voucher she'd just given him. "This'll do me for quite a while."
A calculating look appeared in Genna's gold eyes. "Perhaps you would have dinner with me this evening. I have a proposition for you."
Han quickly shook his head. "No, thanks. I don't plan to stay around here that long."
"You haven't heard my proposition yet."
Han allowed his eyes to slide over her. Genna Ildico was a very attractive woman and a shrewd business person. A few years younger than himself, she had parleyed a small jewelry shop into a leading house by knowing instinctively when to buy, when to sell and which jewel would fetch the highest price on what market. In the final years of the rebellion, she had bought to the point of near insanity from Imperial supporters who had heard the death knell to their way of life. In the last ten years, the jewels she had bought for hundreds had become worth thousands as the economy stabilized and people became willing to spend vast sums of money on trivialities once more. It wouldn't do him the least bit of harm to spend an evening in the company of such a woman.
"What time?" he asked abruptly.
"I'll pick you up at seven-thirty."
Han's first stop was a bank. Armed with his new papers and several other documents, he spent an hour consolidating the accounts held scattered over half the galaxy under various pseudonyms. Coupled with Genna Ildico's pay voucher, the final total was impressive. Han grinned to himself. Crime *did* pay, no matter what certain people had said about the subject. With that amount, he could settle down any place he wanted and pass what remained of his life in complete idleness. He could get drunk and screw himself blind every day of the week without worrying about money ever again. Twenty-eight years ago, he would have thought he'd died and gone to heaven.
His next stop was the barber's for a trim, then on to a men's clothing store. He browsed through the racks for several minutes. grimacing. No way was he going to rig himself out in the fancy suits the clerk was touting as the height of this year's fashion. He finally settled on a simply cut two-piece suit of dark brown corduroy and a warm gold silk pullover. The clerk wrapped his purchases and he was on his way again.
On the spur of the moment, he stopped in at Ildico's main showroom. With a clerk at his elbow, he peered at several trays of rings, necklaces and bracelets, not certain if he really wanted to buy something or not. Held never been one for that kind of flash and it seemed kind of silly to start this late in life. But as he was turning to leave, his eye was caught by a set of hair bobs. Made of glittering gold, each pin supported a small flower cut from bloodstones. There was a matching pendant and earrings. He asked the clerk to put them on the counter. Touching the set, he thought how well they'd look on Leia. They were small and delicate like her and wouldn't overpower her with their size.
"I guess I'll pass on them," he said to the clerk.
"Very good, sir. Is there anything else you wish to examine?"
"No. Not today."
Dashing into the house, Leia nearly collided with Luke, who was standing in the foyer. He had discarded his Jedi Knight's uniform and was dressed in a dark green body suit and matching jacket. A light green cummerbund was wrapped around his waist.
"You better hurry." he advised his sister. "We've only got ten minutes."
"I know, I know!" Leia said crossly. She wasn't looking forward to Senator Milletta's dinner party, but she hadn't been able to turn the old scalawag down. One of those political perennials who seemed to survive any storm, Milletta had been voted into the Senate by his home world which had conveniently overlooked his less than inspiring role in the Imperial Senate. Once there, Milletta had inveigled his way onto the budget committee where he wielded what Leia felt was an inordinate amount of influence.
Moments later, she was in her bedroom pulling on a three-piece outfit of russet and cream.
Genna's car drew up alongside the Krisla D'vore promptly at seven-thirty. It was a massive vehicle that flaunted the fact that its owner was wealthy beyond most people's dreams. The chauffeur held the door open for Han and he sank into the luxurious cushions.
"Good evening, Han." Genna was dressed in a shimmersilk gown that clung to her every curve, amply demonstrating that she did not believe in letting her body go to pot simply because the first blush of youth was gone. Her face was perfectly made up and there wasn't a hair out of place in her elaborate coiffure.
The vehicle pulled up in front of an impressive, but discreetly lit. edifice. Once more. the chauffeur held the door open for Han. then went to the other side to open it for Genna. After arranging her wispy wrap, Genna laid feather-light fingertips on Han's waiting arm and they ascended to the door which was being held open by a liveried attendant who murmured polite greetings. Once inside, they were immediately met by the maitre d'.
"Good evening, Madame Ildico. This way, please."
"Welcome, Leia." Senator Milletta met the Princess and her brother at the door of the private dining niche held reserved for the evening. "And Jedi Master Skywalker." He straightened to give Luke an oily smile, then escorted Leia to her seat at the table.
Surreptitiously, Leia wiped her palm on her pant leg, feeling vaguely contaminated by Milletta's touch.
The table was set for eight and three other people were already seated. Leia greeted each in turn, as did Luke who was next to her.
"Good evening, dear Leia. Jedi Master Skywalker." From the foot of the table, Jesta Lain, Milletta's chief of staff and confidential secretary, fluttered her eyelashes in Luke's direction.
Leia returned a sweet smile. "Good evening, Jesta. " Jesta's relentless bedhopping was one of the conversational mainstays of the cocktail circuit and Luke was one of the most eligible bachelors on Harbin. Somehow, in spite of the efforts of countless ladies, he'd never found the time to settle down with a wife and family. Leia wondered occasionally if the Skywalker line wasn't destined to die out with her and him.
Senator Milletta was greeting two newcomers. Leia's heart sank as she recognized Senators Izmar and Dalgleith. Both of them wore intelligent and well-meaning, but boring beyond description. It was going to be a longer night than she had thought.
Leia's attention was caught by movement beyond Dalgleith's shoulder. A couple were making their way through the main room of the restaurant in the wake of a stately maitre d'. Leia recognized the woman and immediately dismissed her of no concern. Genna Ildico was often to be found in Harbin's best restaurants. But the man with her!
"Luke!" Leia hissed at her brother. "Don't stare, but look over there."
Luke craned his head. "I don't see anything."
Leia searched the outer room as much as her limited perspective would allow, but the couple had vanished. Returning her attention to her table companions, she scolded herself. Ever since Luke had brought her proof that Han was still alive, she had been jumping at shadows.
The meal was superb, just as Han had expected it to be, and ended with a flaming bowl of brandied fruit. Nibbling on a peach, Genna smiled.
"Now, Han, shall we discuss business?"
Han shrugged his shoulders. "I'm at your disposal."
"I hope you will say that once more when we're through talking."
"You never can tell."
"Very well." Genna placed her fork on her plate and leaned forward, all business. "You're an honest man, Han, and I'd like to hire you on a permanent basis. A shipment like what you brought me this morning comes up maybe only once or twice a year, but I'd like to have someone I can trust carrying it. I'll pay you a modest retainer, then for each run you make, the same as you were paid for this one."
Han sat back in his chair and regarded his wine glass with a frown. It was a nice offer. He could work once or twice a year, live comfortably and never have to dip into his savings. On the other hand, though... "I don't think so," he said slowly.
Genna's eyebrows arched. "Is it the money? Quite frankly, I think thirty-five thousand for a single run is more than adequate compensation."
"No, it's not the money," Han explained. "I just don't want the job."
Genna's expression turned even more puzzled. "Is it that you don't want to work for me? I'd heard that you Corellians can be quite chauvinistic in that regard but I'd never pegged you as one of them. Or is it that you don't want to be associated with Ildico's? We're very respectable these days, you know. My agent reported that you told him you were out of the smuggling business. There would be none of that. Everything Ildico's does is completely legal and above board."
"No, it's not Ildico's and it's not you, Genna." Han was beginning to feel hemmed in and out of sheer desperation, he gave her the real reason. "Look, this is my first trip to Harbin, and I'd just as soon make it my last."
Genna gave him an incredulous look. "You don't like Harbin? I'm surprised at you. Harbin is the center of the galaxy now. I'd think you'd find your most lucrative runs in and out of Harbin. May I ask why you want to avoid it?"
Han shrugged. "Personal reasons. Nothing you'd be interested in." He tossed back his wine. "But the answer's still no."
Most people would have taken that refusal as the final answer. Genna Ildico, however. was made of sterner stuff. She sat up straight in her chair. "I'll be honest with you, Han; I'm very disappointed. Up until now, Ildico's has been relying on commercial flights to transfer our merchandise -- a few pieces here and there. But we've really outgrown that method. I'd hoped to establish our own private courier system with you in charge." She paused to smile. "You see, it was no accident that you were approached on Derain. I have a dossier a meter thick on you. It just worked out that you showed up on Derain rather than one of my agents having to chase you all over the Rim."
"I'm sorry you wasted all that effort." And that was the truth. If Genna had been located on any other planet than Harbin, he would have jumped at the offer in a trice. But even the short time that he had spent here on Harbin was proving to be a trial. Half a dozen times since returning to the Krisla D'vore, he'd stood with his hand poised over the communit to call Leia just to hear her voice one more time.
Genna chewed on her lower lip for a moment. "Are you sure there isn't some way I can persuade you to come to work for me? I'm afraid that the job is not one of those to which we can attach stock options; that privilege is reserved for the board of directors."
"I'm not interested in owning stock."
The dickering went on, Genna coming up with one reason after another why Han should sign on permanently with Ildico's and Han turning each offer down. He had to give the woman points for persistence, but she simply did not seem to grasp that he wasn't interested.
Enough was too much. After better than two straight hours of Senators Izmar and Dalgleith expounding the benefits of a bill Leia had already decided to vote against, Jesta Lain unabashedly trying to snag Luke for an evening's pleasure, Senator Milletta's attempts to enroll her aid in passing a bill that would do nothing except prove to his home constituents that he was still alive, and a rabid anti-Sith harangue from another woman at the table, Leia was ready to scream. Pleading that she had a deskful of work and an early appointment the next morning, she managed to extricate both herself and Luke.
"I need a drink," she said wearily to Luke once they were out of the main room of the restaurant.
"You've already had three glasses of wine."
Leia threw him a disgusted look. Luke grinned cheerfully. "Tell you what, Westerbee's finally acquired that Monard etching he's been drooling over for the past five years. Let's take a look at it and then we'll go some place quiet for a drink or two. Okay?"
Without waiting for her response, he headed for the back of the restaurant where the owner kept his justifiably famous collection of art work.
Abruptly, Genna surrendered. "Very well, Han. I can see that your mind is made up. Shall we forget about business now and enjoy ourselves? I've made reservations for Therian's. It's the place for dancing."
"I'm not the greatest dancer, Genna, but if you want to risk your toes..."
Genna laughed. "I'm sure you're much better than that." She drew her wrap through her arms and settled it on her shoulders.
Genna clinging to his arm, Han turned around to escort her to the door, only to find his path blocked by a small, dark-haired woman with hands on hips and murder in her eyes.
"You louse!" Leia Organa-Skywalker hissed. "You double-bedamned. gold-plated bastard!"
Shocked beyond speech, Han could do nothing except gape at his wife.
Luke Skywalker materialized at his sister's side. "Leia, I don't think this is either the time or the place," he warned her quietly, putting his hand on her arm. "Hi, Han. Long time, no see." His smile was warm and untroubled.
Han managed to find his voice. "Uh, hi, Luke. Uh, what brings you here tonight?" He became aware of Genna Ildico standing next to him regarding Leia with slightly upraised eyebrows. "Madame Genna Ildico, this is Princess Leia Organa and her brother, Luke Skywalker."
Genna inclined her head. "The Jedi Master and I have met before, Han." She held her hand out. "Good evening, Luke." Her eyes moved to Leia. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Senator Organa. Your brother's told me so much about you. Captain Solo and I were just leaving for Therian's. Perhaps you and your brother would care to join us?"
Leia's gasp of outrage covered Luke's choke of laughter. She stepped back a pace, her eyes never leaving Han's face. "You -Ð you --" Her voice trembled. Abruptly, she spun away and started for the exit.
In a fluid movement, Genna transferred herself from Han's arm to Luke's.
"You better go talk to her," Luke said gently.
The trance that had held Han from the moment his gaze had landed on his wife shattered. "Yeah. Thanks for the dinner, Genna, but maybe you can take Luke dancing instead of me."
Watching Han Solo dash after Leia Organa. Genna chuckled. "You owe me for this one, Luke Skywalker. What took you so damned long? I thought I was going to be stuck with that man for the rest of the night."
Luke slid his arm around her waist and took an appreciative sniff of her perfume. "It took Leia longer to get us out of there than I figured. She must be mellowing in her old age." Genna's eyes traveled to the exit again and she snickered. "Maybe you ought to tell her she's mellowed before she rips Solo's heart out and feeds it to the alley rats."
Han burst from the restaurant to find Leia hailing a cab with the assistance of the doorman. "Leia! Leia, I want to talk to you!"
Leia turned around, her face cold and withdrawn. "There's nothing to talk about, damn you."
A cab drew up to the curb and the doorman held the door open for her.
"Wait a minute!" Han grabbed her arm.
Just as quickly, Leia shook free. "Let go of me!" She dove into the cab.
But before the doorman could close the door for her, Han pushed by him and jumped in next to her.
"Get out!" She gave him a shove.
Han hung on grimly. "Not until you give me a minute to explain. It isn't what you think." There had been a few times in the past twenty years when Leia could have caught him in flagrante delicto, but he was damned if he was going to take the rap when he was innocent.
Leia opened the door on the other side and hopped out, slamming the door behind herself.
"Where to, sir?" the cab asked in a pleasant, mechanical voice.
"Nowhere!" Han snarled. rushing after Leia who was striding rapidly down the street.
Leia's head was spinning and her stomach churning. All she wanted to do was put as much distance between herself and Han as possible. For three weeks now she had been tormenting herself with the knowledge that Han cared so little that he had never once tried for some sort of reconciliation. How many times, she was now asking herself bitterly, had he come to Harbin without so much as a vidcall to see if she was all right? And to meet him face to face tonight with another woman! Leia spat out an oath that would have shocked her colleagues in the Senate.
Heavy footsteps pounded on the sidewalk behind her and she tensed.
"For god's sake, will you stand still and listen to me!" Han whipped around her and planted himself directly in her path.
Leia drew a deep breath. "What you do and with whom is none of my business. Now. I want to go home. Will you please get out of my way?"
A car horn sounded. Both Leia and Han jerked around to see Genna Ildico's limousine sweep past. Luke waved to them from the back seat. a smug grin plastered over his face. Genna was snuggled up against his shoulder in a fashion that suggested past intimacies. Leia found herself watching the vehicle depart with a feeling of astonishment that quickly turned to wrath as she added two and two and came up with an infuriating total.
"I'm going to kill him," she said between clenched teeth. "Wanted to see Westerbee's new etching, my foot!"
Han's eyes narrowed. "That little sneak -- both of them." A note of reluctant admiration crept into his voice. "I knew that damned clerk was asking too many questions and having me fill out too many forms."
"What clerk?" Leia asked in spite of herself.
Han shrugged. "The one on Shandu when I turned myself in." He turned his gaze back on her. "How you been, sweetheart?"
That was too much. Leia squeezed her eyes shut for an instant. "How have I been?" she repeated in a tight voice. "How have I been?" The floodgates opened. "Now's a fine time to ask, you doublecrossing, two-timing pirate!"
She took a step closer and drilled a finger into Han's stomach just above his belt buckle. noting with one corner of her mind that he wasn't wearing his blaster, one of the few times she could recall him not doing so out in public.
"Just where the hell have you been these past twenty years?!" She poked him again, forcing him back a pace. "I worried myself sick about you for years. I thought you were dead!"
Han smirked. "A lot of people have been saying that lately."
"Ohhhh!!" Leia ground her teeth in rage. "I ought to wring your goddamned neck!"
Han shook his head. "You don't want to do that, not here in public. Your new government's got real strict rules about murder."
"I can always plead extenuating circumstances! There isn't a judge alive who'd convict me!" Leia poked her finger further into his stomach. Han backed away again, teetered uncertainly on the edge of the curb, then went down in an ungainly pile.
"Yeow!" he yelped. "Watch that stuff, would you?"
Arms akimbo, Leia surveyed the sight of Han Solo in his natural element -- the gutter. The strong streetlight showed a face that was thinner than she remembered, with harsh lines etched around his mouth and eyes. His hair was liberally sprinkled with gray and she suddenly realized that he was no longer the young spacer she'd married. "Oh, get up," she sighed.
"Thank you, Your Worshipfulness. Anything you say." He rose to his feet and brushed his trousers off. Leia watched his hands. They were still graceful in motion, but she noticed an awkward limp as he returned to the sidewalk.
"Where's Chewie?" she asked abruptly.
Han's face closed over. "Dead."
Leia made a choking sound. "I'm sorry, Han." she said sincerely.
He shrugged. "It happens. I'll find you a cab and send you home."
Impulsively, Leia touched his arm. "Han."
"Yes?" There was a wary look on his face.
"Let's go out to the Falcon and talk."
If anything, Han's face became even more withdrawn. "The Falcon's gone, too."
Leia bit her lip. It seemed no matter what she said, it was the wrong thing. "Well, we can still talk if you want."
"This is it." Han held his hand out to assist Leia from the cab.
Standing next to him, but not touching him, Leia studied the sleek, deadly ship in the docking bay's floodlights. Even though Han had told her that the Falcon was gone, it was still incomprehensible to her. For as long as she'd known him, Han had been inextricably connected to his own portable backdrop—the Millennium Falcon and Chewbacca. To think of Han Solo was to see him poised against the Falcon with the Wookiee at his side.
"It's beautiful," she said at last.
"She'll do point eight past light speed."
Leia noted that there wasn't the same note of possessive pride in his voice as when he used to extol the Falcon's virtues.
The Krisla D'vore's common room was much different than the Falcon's, Leia discovered. It was a long narrow room. Carpeting covered the deck plates and several heavy pieces bolted to the deck filled it. The far wall was covered with the instruments of the auxiliary helm above a small shelf that held a computer terminal. Most of the remaining wall space was covered by cabinets except for two hatchways.
"Where's your copilot?"
"I don't carry one," Han said curtly. "This is just a one-man operation."
That was another revelation. Han, for all he projected the image of a loner, had always been a very social man. The conviction that the past twenty years had been no bed of roses for him grew stronger in Leia.
"You want a drink?"
Leia sank down in a convenient chair. The Falcon's furniture had been covered in durable plastic. This was upholstered in a luxurious cloth fabric. "Yes, thank you."
The chair swiveled, so Leia could watch him palm open one of the cabinets and extract a bottle and two glasses. He poured the pale gold liquid, then brought her a glass. He sat down across from her. Leia couldn't think of a thing to say.
"I've watched you on the news services," Han said abruptly. "You and Luke both. You've done a good job as a Senator."
"Thank you," Leia murmured. She took a slip of her drink. It was subtly spiced and slid down her throat with very little alcoholic bite. Han, she saw, wasn't drinking his. He only rolled the glass between his hands. "Where'd you go, Han? You never taped, you never did anything."
A wry smile twisted the corner of his mouth. "I've been out on the Rim. Where else could a self-respecting smuggler ply his trade? Only the Rim kept moving further and further out. Your new government's done a real neat job of cleaning up out there. Ended a lot of promising careers." The smile became a frown. "The Rim's gone. Everyone's either turned respectable or else gone out beyond."
"Why didn't you go out there with them?" Leia asked.
Han shrugged. "I'm not as young as I used to be. Beyond's for the kids with good reflexes and the stomach for killing. I'd've been dead inside of a year."
Leia looked down at her drink. Han always did have the knack for telling the brutal truth. "Han, I --"
"'s okay, Princess," Han interrupted. "I've done all right." He set his glass down. "You want the ten-credit tour as long as you're here?"
The ten-credit tour turned out to be another surprise. There was a small galley off to the side of the main room and a head, but no other cabins. Han ate, slept and lived in that one single room. The sofa pulled out to be a bed and the cabinets contained all his worldly goods. The cargo holds were small, too, but when Leia saw the engines and the massive sensor systems, she understood why there was so little room left for anything else.
"This thing is nothing but engine," she marveled.
"You're going to have to look a long time to find anything faster than her." Han grinned. "Not even your new government can catch up to her, and, believe me, they've tried."
Leia grimaced. "You seem to have a personal vendetta against the New Republic."
The pilot shook his head. "Not really. It's my own damn fault. I should have let Vader and Tarkin blow you guys up. If I'd known this was going to be the result, I sure as hell would have."
Leia looked into his face and saw no laughter. "You would have, at that, wouldn't you?"
Back in the common room, there seemed nothing left to say. Neither Han nor Leia seemed inclined to venture out into the minefield of past history. They chatted about inconsequentials as she finished her drink, then he offered to drive her home.
"Oh, you rented a speeder?"
"Nope. I bought one a couple years back."
Han backed the sporty little runabout out of the Krisla D'vore's hold, locked the hatch, then motioned for Leia to get in.
"What do you do? Carry it with you everywhere?" Leia asked, settling down beside him.
"Sure." Han gunned the engine. "I don't need half that cargo space, and I like it."
He drove with his customary recklessness, and Leia found herself clutching the door handle for moral support more than once as he swerved to avoid near-wrecks. Once they were out of town and on the road leading to the estate, Leia sent several curious glances in his direction, but he was apparently all wrapped up in his driving and his own thoughts. She cursed her inability to find some topic of conversation that wouldn't explode in her face. Fine politician you are, she thought, when you can't even start a dialogue with your own husband.
"This is some place you've got here." Han commented as he turned the runabout up the long drive to the main house.
"It's not all mine," Leia said quickly. "Luke lives here, too, and we use it for more than just living quarters."
The runabout stopped in front of the main door. Leia waited a moment for Han to say something—anything—but there was only silence. She twisted around in her seat.
"Han, what are you planning to do now?"
He turned his head to look at her, his lands locked around the steering wheel. "That dinner I had tonight with Genna Ildico was just business. She wanted to put me on retainer to carry a couple of loads a year for her. I turned her down. I'm shipping out in the morning. I'd leave tonight except I'm too tired."
Leia's hands clenched in her lap. "Where are you going?"
"I don't know. Maybe Corell. I haven't been home in so long I don't know if I've even got a family left there."
"I see." There didn't seem to be anything left to say except the one thing she was determined not to. "Well, good night, Han, and good luck."
He had turned his face once more so all she saw was his profile in the moonlight. His jaw was clenched and there was a muscle twitching along his jawline. "G'night, Princess."
After driving aimlessly up and down the streets of the capital city for half the night thinking, Han finally returned to his ship. He wasn't particularly surprised to find Luke Skywalker parked on his boarding ramp. As he put the runabout away, he gave a moment's thought to entering the ship through the inner hold door and leaving Luke to shiver the rest of the night through, then decided against it. Luke was just mean enough to lean on the buzzer until Han either went insane from the noise or opened the hatch to kill him. He locked the hatch and went toward the boarding ramp.
"I took your sister home," he said in a neutral voice. "I'd stay away for a couple of days if I were you. She's looking to string you up by your thumbs."
There wasn't a single hint of contrition in Luke's manner. "Sorry, Han, but I had to get you two together somehow. You'd've turned me down flat if I'd gone out to Shandu or Derain and asked you to come back."
Han opened the hatch and Luke followed him in. "It didn't work. I'm leaving in the morning and that's all there is to it. There's nothing left between Leia and me."
In the full light of the main cabin, Han turned around to study Luke. The Jedi looked a good ten years younger than his true age of forty-five and there was a serenity about his person that made Han feel envious. Luke Skywalker had found his place in the galaxy, and was at peace with it and himself, something Han could never claim. His blue eyes shone with the same calm intensity that Han remembered in Ben Kenobi thirty years ago.
"You want a drink?"
Accepting the glass, Luke sat down in the same chair Leia had used earlier. Han overcame his urge to pace and sat down on the divan again, not quite certain what to say. Han snorted to himself. Few and far between were the occasions when Han Solo found himself at a loss for words, but Luke and Leia had both done it to him this night.
Luke watched quietly for a moment before speaking. "Want to tell me about it?"
"What's there to tell?" Han replied quickly. "Leia and I... Well, it was a mistake and we both realize it. We never should have gotten married in the first place."
Luke made a small gesture of dismissal. "I wasn't talking about that; I was asking about Chewie and the Falcon."
Han rubbed his jaw. "They're gone -- both of them," he finally said with great reluctance.
Luke waited. "And...?" he prompted at last.
"And that's all there is to it." Han's face tightened.
"I think I deserve to know what happened to Chewie." Luke did not raise his voice, but there was an underlying crack of command that was impossible to ignore. "He was my friend, too."
Han's eyes fell and he shifted around in his chair. "Yeah. I suppose you do," he admitted, proceeding to tell the story in as few words as possible.
Luke listened intently, his eyes never leaving Han's face. Han had intended to stop with Chewbacca's death, but somehow he found himself going on, telling Luke where he'd been and what he'd done since then. It was only after Han reached the point where he had decided to become a law-abiding citizen of the New Republic that Luke spoke.
"You should have told us when it happened, Han," he said gently, but without condemnation. "We could have helped you."
Han made a quick gesture with his hand. "I told you a long time ago I didn't believe in that nonsense," he said in a harsh voice. "Nothing's changed about that."
"You don't have to believe." The corner of Luke's mouth curled into a wry grimace. "And I wasn't planning to 'do' anything to you. I just think you'd've done better with friends than trying to work through it on your own. That's not Jedi 'magic,' just plain common sense. But then you always did have to do things the hard way."
"Not anymore," Han quipped, trying to break the solemnity of the moment. "I take it real easy these days. I'm an old man now with a bum leg. Everything's legal, safe and above board."
For the first time, Luke laughed. "Come on, Han, I know better than that. Use that con on some other sucker." He sobered then, and leaned forward, capturing Han's eyes with his own. "Don't run away again. Stay on Harbin for a while and give things a chance. I'm sure you and Leia can work something out."
Han shot to his feet and paced some steps away from Luke. "Don't you think I haven't thought about that? Gods, Luke, if you only knew how many times I wanted to turn tail and crawl back to her!" He shook his head. "But it won't work. We've got nothing to say to each other, nothing in common. She's where she belongs and I'm doing what I do. I couldn't fit in twenty years ago, and I sure as hell ain't gonna fit in now."
"I think you're wrong about that." Luke set his drink down, got to his feet and walked over to stand in front of the Corellian. "For my sake, for Leia's sake, you've got to stay here on Harbin and try to make a go of it. For your sake! Haven't you had a belly full of kiting about on your own? Don't you want to have people around you that you love and trust?" His voice hardened. "My sister deserves some happiness, Han. Any time these past twenty years she could have filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion. Hell, she'd been thinking herself a widow half that time, but she still won't find anyone else. I've seen good men come and go, men who would sell their souls to have her, but she won't give any of them the time of day."
Stiffly, Han turned away. "I didn't ask her to stay faithful. If she won't marry again, that's her doing, not mine."
"The hell it isn't!" Luke grabbed the smuggler by the arm. "If you didn't have the guts to come back and try to make the marriage work, why didn't you at least have the common decency to tell her you don't love her anymore and you're cutting her loose?"
Han pulled away from his brother-in-law. "Get out of here," he said stonily.
On cat's feet, Luke crept into the house he and Leia shared, but he didn't even reach the stairs before his sister descended on him like an avenging whirlwind.
"That was a filthy, rotten trick to play on me!"
Luke sighed. He should have known that he wouldn't be able to delay this confrontation until morning. Even if Leia was for the most part untrained as a Jedi, she was able to pierce any of his tricks with ease. Very few people, including the majority of his own students, would have detected his presence.
"Can't it wait until morning?" Luke asked plaintively, trying one last tactic. "I'm tired."
"Then you haven't talked to Han?" she demanded.
Luke grinned wryly. "Why do you think I'm so tired?"
Leia whirled back to the darkened living room in a flutter of nightgown and peignoir. "What did he say?"
Luke followed her, pausing to turn the lights up. "He's planning to leave Harbin in the morning."
"I already knew that!" Leia flung herself down on a chair. She took a deep breath, then asked in a much quieter voice, "Why did you do it, Luke? Why didn't you just leave well enough alone? I was a lot happier knowing Han was dead. Why didn't you leave him that way?"
Luke stared down at his sister in silence for several moments. It had taken him a long time to puzzle out why Leia had been so much more carefully hidden away than he from their father's and the Emperor's questing gazes. Any time during Luke's youth, Darth Vader could have come to his brother Obi-Wan, and his sister, Beru, to demand custody of his son. The thought of what could have happened still sent a thrill of horror down Luke's spine. But while he had been consigned to the backwaters of the galaxy to openly flaunt his father's surname. Leia had been raised as a daughter to one of the most respected rulers in the galaxy, thrust into the center of the galactic political stage and given a name that no one would link to Anakin Skywalker. It was a geneticist who had given Luke the answer to his questions.
The Jedi genetic trait was a female carried gene. Luke could sire as many offspring as he desired with only a small chance of passing on his Jedi abilities. Leia's sons, however, were almost assured to be born Jedi and her daughters would carry it down to the next generation. If there were to be anymore Jedi of the line of Skywalker, Leia would have to bear them. Only Leia refused to cooperate. Luke's hopes had been raised, then dashed more times than he cared to remember. Leia was one of those individuals who, once their heart had been given, would never give it to another. But time was running out; soon Leia would be past childbearing age.
So Luke had determined on this insane course. If Han Solo was what his sister wanted. then Han Solo was what she would have -- no matter how recalcitrant the main performers in this little drama proved to be. Sometimes, though, he wondered if the final result would be worth all the maneuvering and plotting. The idea of mating Leia's stubbornness to Han's was enough to give any sane man second thoughts. "I want you to be happy, Leia," Luke replied at last. "And I want Han to be happy. too."
"Happy?" Leia's voice rose.
Luke sat down on the arm of her chair and put his arm around her shoulder. "Han wants to come back, Leia, but he thinks you don't want him anymore."
Leia's shoulders slumped. "What am I going to do?" she whispered.
Luke's face softened. Leia had always been strong and decisive. Self-doubt was not a luxury she had ever permitted herself. Her decisions always had to be the right ones and the responsibility for making them hers. She would ask for opinions, but always came to her own conclusions. Leia Organa-Skywalker did not ask others to tell her what to do. "It's your life, Leia. You have to decide what to do. " He patted her shoulder. "Although I will say that I'd like to see you and Han make a go of it. He may be your husband, but don't forget, he's also my friend."
Morning found Han groggy after a sleepless night of tossing and turning. From sheer force of habit, he made the bed up and folded it back into a couch, then shaved, showered, and dressed. Breakfast, though, was beyond him. With hunched shoulders, he sat at the small table and drank several cups of strong tea, hoping that would make him feel a little more like a living being. All the tea did, however, was make him feel hyped up and jumpy. Finally, he pulled a jacket on and went to pay his port fees and file for flight clearance.
Midway through the first speech of the morning, Leia gave it up as a bad job. Her mind was on everything but business that morning. After double-checking that her recorder was working, she slipped out of the Senate chamber and returned to her office. No messages awaited her there. On an impulse. she put a call through to the local port authority. Yes, Captain Solo had applied for flight clearance. His scheduled departure time was fifteen minutes away.
After she disconnected, Leia stared at the communit with unseeing eyes. Fifteen minutes wasn't nearly enough time to drive over to where Han had his ship docked, especially not in daylight traffic. But even if she did, what could she say to him? In spite of Luke's assertion that Han was ready for a reconciliation, she wasn't completely convinced. Last night, Han had been so very withdrawn and distant and had said nothing to indicate that he was the slightest bit interested in a reconciliation.
Han sat in the Krisla D'vore's pilot's chair, one eye on the chronometer, one on his preflight checklist. The ship's engines were humming softly and each system came on in turn as he activated it in readiness for takeoff.
The communit buzzed.
"Krisla D'vore," he responded crisply, expecting the caller to be the flight controller confirming his take off status.
Instead, the reply voice was his wife's. "Han, this is Leia. Could you please delay your departure? I think we should talk before you leave Harbin."
Han hesitated, his finger tapping nervously on the send switch without actually activating it as he analyzed her request. There was nothing in her calm voice to indicate that she was interested in anymore more than a talk. On the other hand, Luke was right; he did owe it to her to tell her that he saw no future in their relationship and that she was free to go ahead with divorce proceedings. He flicked the send switch on. "Where?"
"I'll come out to you."
Once Leia had disconnected, Han rang through to flight control, explaining that there would be a delay in his departure, then set about shutting the ship down again.
It was nearly half an hour before Leia brought her speeder to a stop before the tiny space ship. The ramp was down and Han met her at the hatch, a reserved expression on his face that did not bode well for what Leia had in mind. But she gave herself a mental shake, reminding herself that she had nothing more to lose.
In the common room, Han indicated two chairs drawn up to the small table. There was a pot of tea and two cups laid out with some packets of sweetener and spoons. A few moments were taken up by Leia pouring the tea for both of them, then sugaring hers. Han took a drink of his, then stretched his legs out, fingers laced over his stomach.
"Okay, Leia. what is it you want to talk about?"
Instantly, Leia's air of composure fled. She clasped her hands on the table and stared down at them. Now that she was here, she had no real idea where to start. Han was watching her with half-closed eyes, his face giving no clue to what he might be thinking. "Oh, gods, Han!" she exclaimed in exasperation. "You're not making this any easier for me."
The pilot's eyebrows rose a fraction of an inch. "I'm here and I'm listening, aren't I?" he asked in that voice of sweet reason she remembered all too well. He'd listen all right, but more likely than not held go off on a raging tirade when she was done -- if he didn't simply toss her off his ship and blast off.
Leia sighed and rubbed her hand across her eyes. She was defeating herself before the battle even began by thinking negative thoughts. Twenty years was a long time. Maybe Han had mellowed out. From what Luke had told her the night before, Han had been through enough in the last few years to take the starch out of anyone. But then, Han had never operated by the normal laws of existence. What should have beaten any other man to his knees usually had little effect on him except to make him angry. The word "surrender" simply didn't exist in Han Solo's vocabulary.
"Han," she began again, "do you want a divorce? This business of being married but not is getting old."
Han met the question with a question. "What do you want?"
Leia raised her eyes to face him squarely. "I don't know. I thought I did an hour ago, but I'm not so sure now."
"Why don't you tell me what you wanted an hour ago?"
Leia's fingers gripped each other in a white-knuckled knot under the merciless assault of his word games. "You're a cold-blooded bastard," she suddenly snarled, her voice going shrill with rage. "I don't know why I even tried to talk to you. Goodbye!" She jumped to her feet.
In a flash, Han was on his feet and blocking her way to the door. "You started this, Leia, and you're not leaving here until it's finished. Got that?" His hands grabbed her shoulders in a painful grip. "We've both wasted too many years running away from each other. I'm sick of it!"
Leia gasped with outrage. "How dare you?"
Inflexible hands forced her back to her chair. But instead of sitting down opposite her again, Han dragged his chair around to where he was sitting next to her. Leia felt a wild tremor of fear at what she had unleashed. Then Han took one of her hands in both of his with a gentleness that surprised her. She raised her eyes to his face. There was no anger in his expression, just a faraway look that caused her fear to evaporate.
"Leia," he started in a soft voice, "the first time I saw you was twenty-eight years ago, and I've never looked at another woman like that since then. From the very beginning, I knew I wanted you like no one else. No matter how bad it got between us, I never gave up hope because I believed you felt the same way, except that you were just too damned stubborn to face up to it. I was a pirate, a smuggler, a gunfighter, everything a princess was taught to despise. I couldn't live with you and I couldn't live without you. It was hell and I couldn't break free."
Leia felt heat rising in her cheeks. "Han, I—"
Han squeezed her hand. "Let me finish, then you'll get your turn."
Leia nodded, not trusting her voice.
Han turned her hand over and began tracing patterns on her palm. "When we got married, I thought everything was gonna be okay. But it didn't work out that way. You still couldn't accept what and who I was. You wanted to change me into something I wasn't. That's why I finally left. Much as I loved you, I couldn't be the man you apparently wanted. And to be perfectly honest. I didn't want to change. I was willing to meet you part-way, though, but that didn't seem to satisfy you. either." His mouth curved into a crookedly cynical grin. "I'm a selfish man, Leia. I like to have things go my way. And you're a selfish woman."
Leia looked down at the hands holding hers. His hands were huge, dwarfing hers, and their warmth made her shiver. "I know," she said quietly. "And I've paid for it, too." She paused. "You asked me what I wanted an hour ago. I wanted you to stay with me as my husband, the way it should have been all these years again." She brought her eyes up to his again, seeing the gold flecks shimmering against green and brown. "But there would be a difference this time, Han. I won't try to strangle you with my demands. Your life is yours." She gave him a half-smile. "But in return, you'll have to accept that my life is mine. I can't and I won't leave the Senate—at least not until I'm voted out or they carry me out on a stretcher, whichever comes first."
Han inclined his head gravely. "That sounds fair to me, Princess."
Leia closed her eyes, her shoulders sagging in relief. Then she felt herself being encircled by strong, warm arms.
"I love you," Han whispered huskily.
Leia gave a half-strangled sob and raised her mouth for a kiss.
Ruefully, Luke Skywalker surveyed the havoc that his nephew and niece had created in the once sedate and spotless living room of his home and wished that he had bought those earplugs he'd seen a couple of weeks back. The noise that Tande and Mart were generating in their squabble over who got to play Uncle Luke and who got stuck with the role of the Emperor was ear-shattering.
"How can you stand it?" he asked his wife wistfully.
Stretched out on the sofa, Genna Ildico Skywalker smiled serenely.
"They're just children, Luke. It'll get better once they're older. Besides, it's good practice." She patted her round stomach with a complacent air. "Something tells me this one is going to be a perfect match for those two little hellions. It must be the way she keeps trying to kick her way out."
At that moment, Han Solo appeared in the doorway to the living room, home from one of his periodic cargo runs. Immediately, the quarrel between the two children was forgotten and they hurled themselves at their father, shrieking, "Papa!"
Tande, a year older than her brother, and tall like her father, managed to crawl up into Han's arms while little Mart clung to one long leg with a grip of iron. "What'd you bring us, Papa?" he demanded.
Han gave Tande a kiss. put her down on the floor and lifted Mart for a kiss, too. "What makes you think I brought you a present?" he asked gruffly.
"You always bring us a present when you make a trip for Aunt Genna," the boy replied promptly. "Mama says you spoil us dreadfully, but we don't mind, do we, Tande?"
Watching Han search through his pockets, Luke had to smile. His gamble of seven years ago had paid off—twice. Neither child was old enough to begin serious training as a Jedi, but the Force ran strong in both of them—much to their father's disgust—and from Tande would come the future generation of Skywalker Jedi. He still hadn't admitted to Leia or Han why he had taken a hand in their muddled affairs, but since everything had apparently worked out for the best, no one had asked him any embarrassing questions.
"Where's Leia?" Han stepped over to hand Genna her receipts and cargo manifest.
Genna stuffed the disks into her pocket. "Out," she replied. "Senator Milletta's holding another one of his command performances. Luke and I volunteered to baby-sit so she could go." This last was said with a wicked smile to explain that Luke had seized the opportunity to avoid escorting his sister.
Han shook his head. "Well, I suppose if I hurry, I can catch up to the party before the real fireworks start."
"Hey, now wait a minute here!" Luke protested. "I've had about as much as I can take for one night."
Han grinned cheerfully. "They'll be going to bed soon. Just make sure you clean up the mess. I hate coming home at three in the morning and killing myself on toys left around."
With a casual wave, Han ducked out of the living room again, leaving Luke to gape discouragingly after him. "I'll remember this!" he yelled, then turned as a new noise assaulted his ears. Tande and Mart were each holding toy blasters that were emitting high-pitched whines that were getting higher and higher. "Oh, my god," Luke muttered. Leave it to Han to find the most inappropriate and loudest toy on the market. "Stop it!" he yelled.
The two children looked at him, but kept their fingers on the triggers.
"Stop it!" Luke yelled again. "Stop it and I'll tell you a story," he pleaded. "All about a crazy old wizard and a dumb kid who didn't know when he was well off."