Disclaimer: Not mine. I'm just playing. I'll put'em back when I'm done.

Rating: PG

Synopsis: It takes a bad infection for Luke to find love.

The landscape was desolate and bleak. A harsh, bitter wind blew over plains of exhausted soil, where only the harsh, greyish tukan-grass prevented the planet from turning into a desert. Nothing apart from the tukan-grass could grow in the soil of Agrahan any more. A world, which had once been a holiday paradise, had lost every spec of attraction it had ever possessed and was nothing but a wasteland now. A dome of dirty plexsteel-glass covered the only functioning city, providing filtered air from the outside. The outside air itself was still breathable to a certain degree, but contained so many heavy metals, that the sensitive areas like the eyes and mucus membranes in the throat and nose would be affected quickly. The atmosphere still contained a certain amount of water and when it rained, acid-filled water splashed the ground, giving the tukan-grass its characteristic burned holes.

In the shelter of the space port's dome near the port-entrance stood the lone figure of Leia Organa, looking out at this world she had heard so much about when she had been a child. Her father, Viceroy Bail Organa, had always promised to take her to Agrahan, the gem of the Galaxy. But Bail Organa was no longer alive and Agrahan was no longer a gem.

The Empire had invaded this little paradise, removed most of the local population for slave labor and emptied it of its natural resources, thereby condemning it to certain death. How long Agrahan would last had so far been an unanswered question, but Leia felt that it wouldn't take long any more. She wished that there was something she could do. One of her evolving talents in the Force seemed to be, that she was able to sense the life of a planet. Its very life cycle. And this world was suffering, rapidly nearing its final days. She had never before realized how much a world was a living thing. With a sigh, she turned her back on the depressing vista and returned to the Falcon, where Han had almost finished locking up.

He looked up when she came toward him and gave her a wry smile. "Not exactly paradise, is it," he said, glancing past her at the greyish landscape outside. The ramp of the Falcon clicked shut behind him and he briefly returned his attention to the ship to initiate the shutdown cycle and the subsequent turning-on of the alarm.

Leia glanced back over her shoulder, her arms crossed over her chest, and sighed again. "It's not a paradise. But, then again, we didn't expect to find a paradise, did we?" She wasn't really talking to him. She was voicing her thoughts.

Han eyed her for a moment, then grabbed her right hand and gave it a squeeze. "Don't worry, honey. If you think we can find what we're after here, I'm sure you're right. We'll be out of here in no time," he said, trying to cheer her up. The look she gave him made him see that she wasn't going to be easy to cheer up, though. "Come on. Let's find a place to stay while we're here."

Leia nodded, holding onto his hand with a harsh grip. This world frightened her. It reminded her of their dreadful encounter on Bespin. If friends could be as devious as Lando had been then, she didn't want to know what enemies of the present system would think of her being here. And unless she made an attempt to conceal her identity, she knew that they would find out.

Han threw the duffle bag over one shoulder and started out toward the space port office to pay their dues. Like always when he was holding Leia's hand, he got a little closer to understanding what the Force really was. Like now, he could sometimes almost sense the sadness in her. She was saddened by the state this world was in. The deeper-lying sadness had nothing and yet everything to do with the fate of this world. Being here was really the last thing she needed right now, but at the present time they had fairly little choice in the matter.

***

The hotel, in which they rented a room, was small and cramped, but the cleanest of the two present on this world. Here, no small scavengers were jumping off the bed when they entered the room, so they decided to stay there. Han wanted most of all to stay in the Falcon, but for some undefined security reason, that was not allowed. And Leia wanted to attract as little attention to them as she could, so Han had agreed to find a hotel rather than risk a fine for staying in the Falcon and thereby attracting unwanted attention.

Once in the room, Leia dropped down on the bed and looked up at Han for a moment. "This will do," she said, then glanced around the cramped room. The bed took up most of the floor space, but they

wouldn't spend much time here. This first day, maybe, but the next day they would be busy and it was Leia's hope that they would be able to leave the following day.

Han dropped the duffle bag on the bed, pulled a long coat out of it and shrugged into it. His gun would be hidden by the coat and he would not attract attention in it. Everybody in this place wore a long coat. "I'll go out and find something to eat. You want anything special?" he asked.

Leia kept staring at him. "Can you get anything special around here?" she asked back, attempting to make a joke despite her depressed state of mind.

Han pursed his lips for a moment, then smiled. "No, I guess not. I'll find something that doesn't look too gross." With those words he bent to kiss her and left.

Leia grabbed every available pillow in the room, piled them up against the wall on the bed and sank back into them with closed eyes, hugging one of them to her chest. She was so tired she could drop, but had not had time to sleep or even rest properly. The flight to Agrahan had been too upsetting in more ways than one and before that, she had not had a decent night's sleep for at least two weeks. Now, here, on this foul-smelling world, she thought she would find the peace she needed once they had found what they were after.

Finally having the time for it, she allowed herself to think about their reason for being here. The reason that had – so far – been a well-kept secret. Only Leader Mothma, Han, herself and two doctors knew about it. With a joyless chuckle, she realized that she couldn't even form the words in her mind. The thing that had happened. The reason for her being here now. She pushed herself up against the pillows and opened her eyes again, looking around the room. It wasn't cozy. It was livable. And that was really all they needed right now. Her mind again wandered back to the subject she didn't even dare to think of. Well, she did dare, but she didn't really want to. Speaking about it had been out of the question, but once Han returned, they would have to discuss it.

Another heavy sigh shook her and for a moment she expected the tears to come, but they didn't. Her eyes remained dry and her mind numb. It was like experiencing Alderaan's death all over again. Only now, it was all packed into one person. Luke. Even thinking about him made her choke back a lump that rose in her throat. Her brother, the only living relative she had left, was probably going to die. Probably. Less than three weeks ago his ailment had been discovered because he had walked into a low-hanging pipe and gotten a concussion, something he should not have been able to do. His Force-sense should have warned him about the impending danger. But it hadn't and it was only then that he revealed a well-hidden secret. He could no longer feel the Force. His state of health had rapidly decreased after that and all the doctors could say was that he was probably suffering from a mutagen. This kind of ailment was not common, but it did happen. A child was born with a dormant mutagen in its body, which would become active under the right circumstances later in life. The mutagen would then mutate cells, changing the carrier drastically. A physical mutation, which had only one cure. Death. There was no saying what the carrier would turn into and – in most cases – the subject would not survive the mutation. The doctors could slow it down to an almost-stop, but they couldn't stop it completely and they certainly couldn't reverse it. Leia had been examined for this gen as well, considering that they were twins, but had not shown any signs of it. When they had left Luke, he had been stabile, but in a bad state. His eyesight had gone the week before and his bones were already too weak to carry his weight. Leia didn't even want to think about what state he would be in when they came back. Although the doctors had told her that nothing could be done about Luke's affliction, she didn't want to give up. So she had set out with Han at her side to find the only person she could imagine could do something.

The Emperor had hired the most prominent mind in the area of gene-manipulation as his personal physician in an attempt to recreate his already failing body when he had still been fairly young. This woman had naturally vanished out of sight after the Emperor had died and it was Leia's goal to find her. Han was using his connections to find clues, but mostly they had to rely on Leia's evolving Force-senses to guide them. And they had guided them here. Still far from being able to call herself a Jedi, Leia was still a little reluctant in trusting her senses, but Luke's last words to her before they had left had been: Trust you senses, Leia. They will guide you.

The door slid open, interrupting her train of thought, and Han stepped in. He put two bags on the bed and dropped down next to her. "I found a lot of junk, but I think it's edible," he said, starting to unpack the contents of the bags. It took him a moment to realize the state of mind she was in. When he did, he stopped moving and just stared at her. "Are you okay?"

She looked at the containers littering the bed for a while, both hungry and not, then looked back at him and put the pillow she was hugging aside. "No, I'm not okay, Han. My brother is dying and I don't know why. He may already be dead," she said. The words came slowly and she was amazed that she could say them without breaking down.

Han was stunned by her words, but still managed to reply. "Well – I don't think he's dead. Luke's strong, Leia. He'll hang in there until we get back."

Leia nodded and picked up one of the containers. The contents didn't look very inviting, but it smelled good. She picked up a set of the utensils Han had brought back as well and scooped up a mouthful of the stuff. "I know. I'm just trying to imagine the worst-case scenario. Reality," she replied. "All we have to do is find this woman as quickly as somehow possible or the galaxy will be without Jedi for good."

Han started eating as well, although he didn't take his eyes off her. There was a kind of stunned realization in his eyes. As if he had only now realized how tough she actually was. "Sure. And we will find her. Don't worry."

Leia paused between two spoon-fulls, staring at him with a knowledgeable expression on her pretty face. "I think so, too, but I'm not certain. All I know is that my instincts – or whatever you want to call them – led me – led us here. I don't know if it's a subconscious notion, the Force or something else. All I know is that however unlikely this world may seem, it feels right to me to be here."

Han opened another container and frowned at the contents. "Okay, so you're pretty certain that we need to be here. I for one trust you being pretty certain a whole lot more than I would trust – say, Lando, being completely certain. But, what if she's not here? What if Jenna Ward is dead or somewhere else? Now that we're talking about reality and the worst-case scenario." He paused to close the container again and shoved it aside. "We have to take everything into consideration. Especially the fact that she might not want to help us. Providing we find her at all."

Leia poked at the food in the container she was holding. "Did you bring anything to drink?" she asked and he handed her a bottle of water. "You're right, of course. The worst-case scenario, though not a pretty picture, is usually the way things go. To be honest I don't have high hopes for finding her, but if we do, we must consider that she might not want to help us. Or she may be too old to do anything effective enough to save Luke."

Han was silent for a moment, then he shook his head. "All this reality-talk is depressing. We can't give up before we've even begun. We need to believe that we will find her. I suggest that we take a bar-round, asking the locals about her in a way that can be misunderstood."

Leia blinked in surprise. "Misunderstood?" she asked. "I don't get it. What is that supposed to gain us?" She had a vague idea of what he might be talking about, but with Han she never knew. His mind could be a million miles from hers right now.

Looking excited all of a sudden, he pushed the remains of the food out of his way and grabbed both her hands. "Don't you see? We need to pretend that we want to find her for whatever reason seems plausible when we ask about her. At the same time we can't reveal our true identities. So, what's the best way of doing that?"

Leia shrugged, wondering what came next. "Beats me. What is the best way of doing that?" she asked, knowing from experience that he needed cues to go on or he would stall and drive her crazy.

"We pretend to be some long-lost relatives. That way we can justify looking for her without revealing our identity or the true reason for this search." He leaned back a little, looking overly content with himself.

Leia hated destroying his ideas, but this one didn't sound too good. "I'm not sure that would be such a good move, Han. If we start asking questions, pretending to be long-lost relatives, we will attract more attention to ourselves than we need to. And if people start paying attention to us, they may recognize us. And you know what a problem that could pose." She paused, a far-away look in her eyes for a moment. "What we need to do is ask questions in a way that won't attract attention."

Han smiled a little, knowing that her formal upbringing had not prepared her for this. "Honey, we're dealing with people here, who get suspicious if you look wrong. They don't trust anybody and it will attract attention once we start asking questions. It can't be helped."

Leia's expression darkened at his words. "So, you're saying that we can't expect to keep our identities a secret?" she wanted to know.

Han held up his hands in a deprecating gesture. "No, honey. That's not what I'm saying. But we have to count on that it might happen. I know the type of people we're going to deal with and – believe me – you can't fool them. They wouldn't be where they are today if they were the trusting kind." He thoughtfully rubbed his chin for a moment, trying to figure out a way to deal with the problem at hand. The problem, which might very well develop into a life-threatening situation for his wife. "All we have to do is keep a low profile and not ask too many people in the same place. It would be best if we got the information we needed after asking in only one place and – preferably – after asking only one person." Leia opened her mouth, but he raised his hands again, interrupting whatever she was going to say. "I know that it is a bit too optimistic. But we should try to keep it down to a minimum. These people don't like it when you ask questions. Although most of them would sell their mother for the right price, they have a certain kind of loyalty to each other."

"I guess you have a point there," Leia said after a moment. "So, we keep a low profile and we stay out of trouble. That's the most important thing. So, don't you go shooting your mouth off if somebody provokes you. I mean it, Han."

He nodded, slightly surprised that he didn't take offence at her words. Not too long ago, it would have been enough to make him leave the room. "Sure, honey. I'll keep a grip on my ego," he said with a smile. "Just as long as you let me do the talking."

Being every bit the diplomat she had been brought up to be, there were still certain things which she had not been prepared for. Such as marrying a man like Han. "No offence, Han, but you're not a diplomat. I am. I think I know how to handle these people." Something in Han's expression told her that he didn't believe that. Not for one minute.

"No, you don't. Trust me," he said, his tone of voice telling her that he was deadly serious. "There's one thing you have to keep in mind when you're dealing with people like this, Leia. They are painfully blunt and tiptoeing around the truth is not getting you anywhere. You have to be willing to do almost anything to obtain what you want and everything has a price out here. Everything."

For a long moment she just looked at him, then she sighed. "Okay, you do the talking. As long as you know what you're doing."

***

The following evening they went out to check the bars. The light in the streets was poor to say the least and it seemed that only the lighted signs of the various shops and bars made up the street lighting. On the walls of the alleys leading away from the main street the light tubes were covered with dirt and in bad condition, not giving off much light.

The first bar gave no result at all. The humans and aliens crowding the cramped space were either very reluctant to answer any questions or just plain too drunk. As they left the establishment again, Han felt a little discouraged. He had somehow hoped that they would get positive results quickly. Heading for the next bar, he put an arm around Leia's shoulders. Despite the dome, the air was chilly at this time of night.

Once inside, Han sat down on a barstool next to a sleazy-looking human male and offered him a drink. The man didn't refuse, but made no attempt to thank Han either. "So, what's happening on a rock like this?" Han asked after a moment.

"Not much. If you're out for entertainment, I would suggest that you find another place. Agrahan ain't no enjoyment-park anymore," the man grumbled into his drink, apparently not very interested in talking.

Leia leaned forward a little, looked down the bar to get a look at the other customers and was slightly discouraged when she saw more of his kind there. Half-drunk, depressed-looking men and women, different races with bleak looks on their faces. "Does anybody interesting ever come through here?" she then asked.

The man had obviously not noticed her before, because he was suddenly staring at her with what Leia could only interpret as a lascivious look. "Naw. Not unless you count the occasional imperial run-away," he said, giving her the once-over.

Han noticed the look and leaned a little closer to the bar, thereby blocking his view. "Oh yeah? Anybody interesting?" he asked casually, not really sounding that interested. Leia had to grant him that. He was one heck of an actor.

The man gave Han a sour glance, then returned to staring into his drink. "You might try the Nebular-bar further down the street. There's this – whatever she's supposed to be hanging around down there. She's supposed to have been a real hotshot during the Empire's reign."

Leia grabbed Han's sleeve, tugging at it like a child would tug at its father's sleeve to get attention. "Listen, can we get out of here? This is boring," she said, attempting to sound like a belittled love-interest, who had been promised a great night on the town and was already fed up with it.

Han gave her a glance, winked at her and nodded. "Sure. Let's see if there's anything happening somewhere else. Or maybe we should just get out of here and take the ship to some pleasure-spot. I know a good place to go." He paid for another drink for the man and left the bar with Leia at his arm. Once outside, he grinned broadly at her. "Good acting, holiness," he said in a near-whisper, then started toward the bar the man had mentioned.

Unbeknownst to both of them, the man turned up in the door, looking after them with a sly look in his blood-shot eyes. With a grumble he headed in the opposite direction, but paused once to look after the couple before they vanished into the Nebular-bar. "That's right. Just go in there and ask questions, pal. As long as you stick around long enough for me to..." he mumbled and walked briskly down the street.

***

The Nebular-bar turned out to be a hoax. Nobody there had even heard about a so-called imperial renegade and Han and Leia had to leave again without a clue where to go next. Apart from that Han was starting to have a bad feeling about this place. And they had barely left the bar before a laser bolt melted the wall next to Han. Instinct kicked in at once as Han dropped to the ground, pulling Leia down with him. Another shot whistled over their heads and slammed into the wall of the bar. To their relief, though, it turned out to be two overly drunk Yuzzem staggering down the street, one with a bottle, the other with a gun. They took turns at the bottle and fired shots from the gun as well.

Leia got up first, brushing her dark one-piece suit off as she rose. "Talk about déjà-vu," she said, then looked down at Han, who had made no move to get up yet. "Are you going to stay down there or can we go on?" she wanted to know. The whole scene had brought back memories, which she would rather forget. The days of being hunted were over, but the fear and suspicion was still there.

"Take it easy," he replied, slowly getting up too. "Let's get on with the show." He brushed dust and dirt off his pants and his coat, never taking his eyes off the two Yuzzem staggering away from them, firing the occasional shot. "That does bring back memories, doesn't it?" he then commented.

"Yes, and not pleasant ones," Leia agreed and took his arm. "Let's go. There are still two or three bars left."

***

There were three left and when they had only one left to go, both of them were a bit apprehensive about going in. Leia couldn't help thinking that this was their last chance and that Luke might be dead already. Even if they found this woman, there was no saying what would happen. She took a deep breath and started to take a step toward the door of the bar, when her internal alarm bells went off. Han was one step ahead of her and she felt that something was going to happen to him if he took another step. Putting all her strength into the motion, she grabbed his arm and yanked him back, almost managing to pull him off his feet. He was about to retort something when another laserbolt whistled past, so close it almost singed the tip of his nose. The shot was way too correctly aimed to stem from the drunk Yuzzem and Han was shocked into immobility by it.

Leia, still holding onto his arm, yanked him back another step as another bolt of laser fire raced passed them. That got him going and they bolted out of view and into an alley leading away from the main street. As they ran, Han kept looking back over his shoulder, but it seemed that nobody was following them. It took him a second to realize why. The alley was a dead end with nothing but tall buildings all around them. As they reached the end of it, Han started having that bad feeling in his guts, which he always associated with bounty hunters. Something about the way the shots had been aimed at his head. Feeling like a caged animal, he searched the immediate area for a door, a grating. Anything that would allow them to escape. But there was nothing.

"Han!" Leia's voice was pretty sharp and forced him to look at her. She was standing at the very rear of the alley, staring past him. He turned his head the other way and saw the outline of whoever was after them.

"Solo," a deep, female voice said. "It is so good of you to wait for me."

Leia fought off conflicting feelings at the whole situation as the shadowy form slowly came closer. She was afraid and angry at the same time. "Who are you and why are you shooting at us?" she demanded, taking a step forward. Her force-sense warned her and she stopped dead in her tracks as the approaching female made a shady move.

"I have good reasons," the woman said.

Leia could distinctly sense a human mind behind this, but her abilities had not evolved enough for her to read the other person's mind. "And what reasons might that be?" she asked. She was about to say more when Han stopped her by waving a hand at her.

"I know who this is," he said quietly. "Slade. Bounty hunter." His voice was slightly unsteady when he spoke those words and Leia could understand why.

She had, however, never heard of a bounty hunter named Slade. Boba Fett had been a familiar name to her, but Slade wasn't. "Oh, I see," she said, turning her attention back to the now immobile Slade. "Let me ask you a question, then. How long have you been on this back-water planet?"

The question seemed to puzzle the woman, but she did reply anyway. "Why?" she wanted to know.

Leia glanced at Han, sensing his fear and uncertainty. "Because Jabba the Hutt is dead. There is no bounty to collect here." She moved closer to Han, taking a step sideways toward him.

Her words seemed to amuse Slade. She chuckled almost hoarsely. "Oh, is he? What a pity. But Jabba never was good with bounties, anyway. I wouldn't have come after Solo if it wasn't for that other little incident, which put a much bigger price on his head."

Her willingness to explain herself confused Leia. Something wasn't right about this woman. "What other price?" she asked, then glanced at Han. He looked completely confused for the moment.

Slade finally stepped into the pale, weak light of one of the street lights, exposing herself to be both human and rather good looking. She was dressed in black with a long, brown braid hanging over her shoulder. In one gloved hand she was holding what looked like an oversized hand blaster, which she had raised and leaning against her shoulder. Her face was slim and sharply cut, tanned and lightly made up, showing that despite her trade she took care of herself. The right corner of her mouth was curled into a pretty good imitation of Han's crooked smile. "The price that Jarred put on his head," she said calmly. "Admiral Jarred of the Imperial Navy."

Leia held her breath for a second, desperately searching her mind for an Admiral named that. The name rang no bells, so she took a chance. "There is no such Admiral. Never has been. Not in the Imperial Navy."

Slade raised an eyebrow, her expression remaining calm. "Oh? Well, that's a pity. Because, somebody claiming to be Jarred offered me the humble sum of 200,000 credits for this man's head," she said, waving her gun in Han's direction. This movement of hers instantly caused Han to duck.

Leia took another step toward him, by this positioning herself between Slade and Han. Whatever happened next, she hoped that her force-abilities would enable her to at least deflect a shot. "200,000 credits? Well, if it's the credits you're worried about, I believe I can outbid this Jarred-character." She briefly considered an offer and its lacking validation, then thought that Slade probably had no way of knowing whether she would be able to pay or not. That could be both good and bad. "I'll offer you – 500,000 to leave him be."

Han could not believe that Leia was actually trying to outbid Slade for his life. However much he appreciated this, he knew that the Alliance would never be able or willing to pay up. Not with a sum like that. But, he wisely kept his mouth shut.

Slade's eyes narrowed as she stared at Leia for a long moment. "500,000?" she then asked and Leia nodded. "That's quite a sum. Is his life really worth that much to you?"

"His life cannot be put in credit terms," Leia replied calmly. She was on a roll now, combining what Han had taught her with her diplomatic skills. It just depended on keeping a cool head and she was able to do that.

For a moment longer the female bounty hunter regarded Leia with the utmost suspicion, then she lowered her gun and straightened her slender frame to stand at attention. "I take your word as a princess and a leader of the Alliance," she then said, bowing her head with a mocking glance. "I accept your offer."

Leia was, due to her diplomatic background, quite able to suppress a sigh of relief. But Han wasn't. She reached a hand back and he grabbed it, giving it a squeeze. "Good. So, maybe you could give us a little direction, now that we're here?"

Slade looked slightly bemused by the whole situation. "That'll cost you extra," she then said.

It took Leia some effort to maintain her calm disposition at this. "Oh, I do think that I can ask you to give us a little direction for 500,000 credits. Don't you?" she asked a little sharply, meeting Slade's eyes. And her relentless stare paid off.

Slade looked away. "If you say so."

***

Back in the Nebular-bar, it suddenly turned out that everybody knew Jenna Ward. But nobody seemed to be particularly fond of her. Slade lead them through the bar toward the rear and stopped at the table of the last booth. Leia was disappointed to say the least. Jenna Ward was old and utterly drunk. A head full of tousled grey hair was resting on the table top in a pool of bluish liquid, which seemed to stem from a tall glass in front of her. She wore a dark, dirty jump suit, which was in severe disrepair with big, ragged holes at the elbows and several rips and tears in the fabric. For a moment, Leia closed her eyes, feeling Han's steadying hand on her shoulder. Then she sat down across from the old woman. "Miss Ward?" she tried. Nothing happened. She tried again, this time a little louder and it only earned her snore from the woman.

Slade watched her attempts to communicate for a moment, then shoved Ward hard in the ribs. That woke her up. With a curse the old woman raised her head, looking for whoever had disturbed her. She was slightly surprised to see she had company, but her drunk mind would not really let her respond properly to them. "What do you want?" she snapped, her voice strangely clear and lucid.

Leia leaned forward a little, avoiding to touch the dirty, sticky edge of the table. "Miss Ward. We need your help," she said.

For a moment blood-shot grey eyes regarded her with the clarity she had expected to see in this woman's eyes, then they seemed to cloud over. "Aw, go away. I don't want to help nobody," she growled, grabbed her glass and emptied it in one go.

"Miss Ward. We really need your help. We're desperate," Leia tried again, hoping that she could get through the stinking cloud of alcohol, which seemed to surround Ward.

Han grabbed her shoulder, preventing her from saying anything else. "We're not going to get anything sensible out of her, Leia. She's too drunk."

Ward turned her head, blinked once and then grinned broadly, exposing brownish teeth. "Aw, come on, sonny. I ain't drunk." Sizing Han up, she then waved a dismissing hand at him. "Go get me a drink, love."

Han shook his head in disbelief, then put his hands on the edge of the table and leaned as close to Ward as the smell would let him. "Listen to me, Ward. We need your help and we need you sober. But I don't think you can accomplish that. And you know why? Because you're a freaking drunkard, that's why."

His words had the desired effect. Ward's head snapped around and she glared at him for a second. "I ain't no drunkard, mind you. I'm as sober as the day I was born. Now, buzz off, buddy. Nobody needs you here."

Han winked at Leia, then grabbed the old woman's arms and pulled her to her feet. "I'm not likely to buzz off, Ward," he said and loaded the utterly stunned woman over his shoulder.

Her silence did not last long, though. "Set me down, you festering heap of dung. Set me down," she screamed, beating Han's back in a feeble attempt to get free.

Ignoring her completely, Han headed for the door followed closely by Leia and Slade. The patrons of the bar showed their appreciation by giving him a standing ovation for removing Ward.

Once outside, Han picked up the pace, wanting to get rid of this smelly heap of human decay as quickly as possible. Leia had no idea what he had in mind and followed him silently, slightly embarrassed by the way he treated Ward. After this she was sure not to help them. Han headed back to the hotel and caused some commotion when he went through the lobby and toward their room, ignoring the surprised and slightly disapproving stares from some of the other guests.

Inside their cramped quarters, Han turned to Leia. "Fill the tub with cold water," he told her. For a moment she stood there, just staring at him, then she realized what he had in mind. The water started flowing and when the tub was half full, Han dumped the still cursing and screaming Jenna Ward into it. The coldness of the water shocked her into silence, giving Han a chance to say something. "Okay. First of all you'll clean yourself up. You smell worse than this bloody planet. Once you're clean, we'll sober you up and then you will listen to us. Whatever you decide to do after that is your problem. We just need you to be clear-headed."

Ward stared at him through wet strands of grey hair, then slammed both hands down into the water, drenching Han in the process. "Puckernuts," she screamed at him, her voice already going hoarse. "Who are you to come here and treat me like this? What right do you have?"

Han squatted down beside the tub, looking her in the eye. "I'm General Han Solo of the Alliance of Free Planets. I know you may not want to deal with us, but I want you sober before you say no."

His words caused her jaw to drop. Looking from Han to Leia and back again, two things went through her mind. This was the enemy and they might be her salvation. With a hiss, she leaned back in the icy water, staring at Han. "How'd you find me?" she asked, her tone of voice completely different.

Han jabbed a thumb over his shoulder at Leia, who was standing in the door of the bathroom, leaning against the door frame. "She found you. She's a Jedi," he said.

The word Jedi seemed to do something to Ward. With a snort she rose out of the water, staring at Leia with an expression of conflicting feelings on her face. "A Jedi? Right! I'm not working for no Jedi ever again. No way. I've done my time in hell."

Han grabbed a hold of her, holding her back when she started to climb out of the tub. "I don't care what you think of the Jedi. Without her talents we wouldn't have found you and we need your help. So, are you going to get cleaned up yourself or do we have to help you?"

Leia watched with a renewed respect for Han. He certainly knew how to make people behave. The experience had probably been humiliating for Ward, but the way he did it implied that he would take no nonsense from her. Period. Knowing Han as she did, she knew that most of his anger was an act. If their situation hadn't been so desperate, he would never have treated Ward like this.

Ward shrugged out of his hold and glared angrily at him. "All right, already. I'll do it myself, thank you. A woman has to have some pride."

***

An hour later Ward was as clean as she could get and was sitting on the edge of the bed, wearing one of Leia's jump suits. She was still angry and still very much under the influence of the booze, but she wasn't trying to get away anymore. She just sat there, staring ahead of herself and mumbling half-hearted curses whenever she glanced at Han.

Leia had seated herself beside Ward and was waiting for her to calm down a little. After a while, however, she realized that it wasn't going to happen. "Miss Ward," she started, causing the old woman to turn her wrinkled face in her direction. "I'm sorry about the way we are treating you, but General Solo is right. We need your help desperately. It seems to me that you have very little love for the Jedi and this complicates the situation a lot. But, I think that the help you might be able to give us would do a lot for your self-esteem. Don't you want to get back on top of things?"

Ward snorted angrily, but Leia noticed that the anger was no longer so strong in her. "Very little love for the Jedi, indeed. If you had spent the best part of your life working for Palpatine, sweety, I think you would hate the Jedi as well." She regarded Leia intensely for a moment. "As a matter of fact, I don't think you would hate the Jedi, would you? You would have become like him."

Those words were a little painful for Leia. She had often wondered about just that, ever since she had realized her kinship with Luke. And with Vader. That part she didn't think about as often, though. The very thought still caused a cold shiver to run up her spine. "Miss Ward. I'm not a fully trained Jedi and if you can't help us, there never will be another fully trained Jedi again."

Ward's sharp eyes seemed to dig holes into Leia's. "And good riddance," she growled. "Are you aware of..." she began, then trailed off. "Aw, forget it. It's in the past."

Han pushed away from the wall, glanced at Slade, who stood near the entrance, and went up to the window. "We're leaving here early tomorrow morning and you're coming with us, Ward. I don't care what it takes."

Leia looked at his back for a moment, starting to wonder how much of his anger really was an act. That Luke was dying seemed to have done something to him. He seemed more angry, less cocky. Leia didn't like that change. It seemed to have turned him into someone she didn't know. "I agree. You can't wish to stay here," she then said to Ward.

Ward pursed her lips and ran a hand over her face. "I don't care what you do. But I ain't saving no Jedi. And that's final." Her ability to guess what it was they wanted her to do told the others that she wasn't as drunk as she seemed.

***

After having spent an almost sleepless night watching over Ward to make sure she didn't sneak out, Han and Leia took the old woman back to the Falcon. Slade was always one step behind them, moving like a shadow, never saying anything. Han was still a little uneasy about turning his back on her, but so far she had made no move to claim the rightful price on his head. The amount of credits Leia had promised her seemed to have done the trick, but Han was afraid that it might not take long before Slade realized that she would never see those credits and would try to make up for it. Once that happened, his life would be in severe danger. He knew Slade's reputation well enough to know that her comment about this Admiral wanting his head was the truth. Whether the Admiral was a real person or just someone he had crossed somewhere in his past was still an unanswered question.

Ward dropped down on the passenger seat behind the co-pilot seat and strapped herself in. She had said fairly little since she had woken up and it was obvious that she was having a hangover. Han had thought about giving her something against it, but eventually didn't. Her constant angry glares in his direction made him think it wouldn't hurt her to suffer a bit. Slade took the other seat while Leia dropped down on the co-pilot's seat and Han took his usual place.

The Falcon took off after receiving clearance and only then did Han realize that he was going to spend the next two days in the company of a Bounty Hunter, who was after his head. Leia seemed to have the same idea, because she always seemed to stick around, when Slade was near. Slade, however, didn't seem to be interested. She mainly kept to herself, not getting involved in a conversation unless either of the others asked her directly. Leia had been wondering about this woman and how she had ended up in this trade. She was actually a pretty woman with noble features and a posture which to Leia indicated an upbringing high up in society.

As the Falcon soared through the endless depths of space, she couldn't help but reach out mentally to touch this woman's mind. What she found startled her into revising her opinion of how people usually were. This woman seemed to be truly what she displayed. Cold, emotionless and completely in control. There was an underlying feeling of shame somewhere, which might have caused Slade's withdrawal into this state she was in now, but Leia somehow doubted it. She turned her chair as the Falcon finally zipped into hyper space and faced Slade. Slade's eyes held her gaze for a moment, then she again looked away. "Who are you really?" Leia asked her.

Han rose from his seat, gave Leia a glance she couldn't really interpret and strode out of the cockpit. Ward noted a slight change in the atmosphere and decided to leave as well. Only then did Slade make any attempt to answer Leia's question. She looked back into the Princess' eyes and this time held her stare until Leia was forced to look away. "Who I really am is of no consequence to you, highness." Her answer was short and to the point and left no margin for elaboration. Her tone indicated that there was nothing more to be said on the subject.

But Leia wasn't one to be brushed off so easily. "Oh, but I think it is. I would like to know more about you before we reach Coruscant," she said in a no-nonsense tone of voice. "I want to know if I can trust you."

Slade's painfully emotionless face crumbled into a smile. Not one that gave Leia any peace of mind. "Trust me?" she then asked and her face once again returned to its neutral state. "Your trust in me should not exceed 500,000 credits, highness," she then added and rose. "I know you're not able to pay up."

Leia looked after her with her guts turning into a cold knot in the pit of her stomach. Whatever Slade had meant by that, it was obvious that she wasn't easily fooled. Why she had agreed to let Han live was a mystery. She had no idea why, but it was obvious that this cold-hearted woman wasn't going to let him get away from her. He was worth a lot of credits for her.

Whether it was her own subconscious fear of losing him or her Jedi-senses she didn't know, but all of a sudden she couldn't get back to the common area fast enough. She more or less burst through the doors and was slightly startled when she saw Han sitting at the chess-table, playing a game of solitary chess against the computer. Ward was sitting in a chair, staring ahead of herself with what seemed like an angry glare and Slade was nowhere to be seen. "Where is she?" Leia asked, stepping into the area. She looked around for a moment, then met Han's confused stare.

"Who?" he asked. Then he realized who she was talking about. "Somewhere in the back. Why?" he said, nodding toward the door Leia had just come through.

Leia shook her head and slipped onto the bench across from Han. "I don't know. There's something wrong about her. There's just something wrong." Resting her arms on the top of the table and disturbing a game Han had suddenly lost interest in, she looked into his worried eyes. "She knows about the credits," she added.

Han's worry increased at her words. "Uh-oh," he mumbled, glancing at the door with his feelings written all over his face. "I don't think I want to spend two days with her on board, knowing that. I won't be able to sleep at all."

Leia briefly glanced over her shoulder, then met his stare again. "Don't worry. She won't do anything to you here. And back on Coruscant you'll be heavily protected. I'll call ahead," she told him. "I need to call them anyway."

Han nodded, not at all at ease. "Yeah, you need to call them anyway," he agreed, then leaned back, his eyes fixed on the door opening.

Slade came into the area, gave Han an ominous look and sank down on one of the acceleration chairs, cradling her gun as she might cradle a baby. Han met her stare for a few seconds, then quickly looked away. He had never learned to understand the drive in bounty hunters. Sure, the credits were good and most of them were set up for life after only a few hunts, but then there were those who didn't just do it for the credits. Fett had been one of them and Slade was definitely one of them. She was in it for the hunt, the game. But hunting down and killing somebody was not Han's idea of a good time. There were those who only tracked criminals and brought them back to whatever world they had committed the crime on, but those bounty hunters were few.

"So, who's the unfortunate sod you people want me to do miracles on?" Ward suddenly asked, having come to terms with her kidnaping.

Leia turned her attention to the old woman, wondering if she wasn't keeping her hopes up for nothing. "My brother. Luke Skywalker," she said.

Ward's eyebrows climbed in surprise. "Skywalker, ehe?" she then asked. "The kid who saved me from eternal damnation?"

Both Han and Leia granted Ward their full attention at that. "What do you mean, saved you from eternal damnation?" Han wanted to know.

Ward chuckled, in a much better mood now than she had been only moments before. "Oh, he fought that old bag of bones like nothing I've ever seen before. I was there, you know. When that blasted contraption hovered over that moon, waiting to be finished." She thoughtfully rubbed her chin for a moment. "At first I thought he would be a goner like all the other poor idiots before him. All those who thought they could take on Palpatine and live to tell the tale. He's destroyed more people in his throne rooms than any single Imperial has anywhere in this wretched Galaxy. He was pure evil. As deep as you can go when evil is involved." Pausing again, she looked sharply at her attentive audience. "But he was stronger, that kid. Sure he was. And curse my old bones if Vader didn't come to his aide. Never seen nothing like it before. I thought Palpatine would roast him and suck out his soul, but old tin can apparently felt a blast from the past when times were better and his mind wasn't all twisted and dark. He grabbed Palpatine and just plain threw him into the power duct. Don't know what happened after that. I got outta there as fast as these old bones would carry me," she went on, slapping her thighs with flat hands. "A spectacle for sure."

Leia eyed the old woman for a while. Luke had never mentioned anything about Vader coming to his aide. He had actually said very little about his encounter with the Emperor. "Vader helped him?" she almost whispered, realizing why her brother had been able to forgive what had in her eyes been an evil, twisted man. "He actually helped him," she repeated in wonder.

Ward nodded. "Yes, he did. Weirdest thing I ever saw. I've never seen Vader budge for anybody. Not even the Emperor. But, then again, why should he? Palpatine never had a nice word in store for him or anybody else. Except maybe his protegee."

Leia's preoccupation with these latest news was interrupted. Her brows sank into a deep frown. "His – protegee?" she asked. "Who was that?"

The old woman waved a hand at her, dismissing the subject with a yawn. "Nobody. It's not important."

Han had listened to the entire exchange without interrupting, but there was something on his mind. "So, are you going to ditch us the moment we reach Coruscant or can we count on your help?" he asked.

Ward's otherwise pleased expression changed back into the sour grimace she had worn ever since they had met her. "I'm not saving a Jedi and that's final. The chances of him turning to the dark Side and becoming another Palpatine are too great."

Leia shook her head sadly. "If you had met Luke before his illness, you would never think that way. Luke has a light shining inside him so bright it would blind you. And he knows good from evil."

Han nodded in agreement. "Yeah, the kid doesn't have a mean bone in his body. And I think it takes a certain amount of meanness to be seduced by the dark Side."

Leia gave him a glance, neither willing nor able to keep the smile at bay. She had never thought that he would stand up and defend the Force. "Han is right," she then said to Ward. "He knows what he's doing. Vader tried to seduce him when he wasn't done with his training yet, but he withstood the challenge."

Ward looked sharply from one to the other, then waved a dismissing hand at them. "Aw, I don't care," she grumbled, but her tone of voice did not hold nearly as much conviction as before.

"Without Luke I would be dead for sure today. He's saved my life more times than I actually want to remember and he did it for me. Not because it could gain him anything. He just did it because we're friends," Han went on, wanting desperately to convince this woman to save Luke. "He's a good guy."

Ward looked back at him for a moment, then glanced at the completely indifferent- looking Slade. "I'll take a look at him but I'm making no promises," she eventually said.

Han lowered his head with a smile. "Thank you," he then said.

"Yes, thank you," Leia agreed.

***

Some time later, the Falcon had become very quiet. Slade had decided to sleep for a while and as soon as she had vanished into one of the cabins, Ward did the same. Han and Leia had then decided to try and get some rest as well and Han had locked the door securely from the inside, hoping that it would be enough to keep Slade out. He just couldn't get rid of the feeling that she was going to go for his head when she saw the opportunity.

***

Back on Coruscant the weather was exceptionally bad. Rain came down like nothing Leia had ever seen before, but she had very little interest in the local weather as she hurried across the open space between the landing pad and the main space port building. She briefly wondered why she wasn't waiting for the escort from the Palace to pick her and Han up, but it almost immediately left her thoughts again. It wasn't important. She made it to the hospital in less time than she had thought it would take, but was naturally soaked when she arrived. So badly, that the nurse at the reception desk didn't even recognize her.

"Excuse me? Where are you going, Miss?" she asked, stepping out in front of Leia, blocking her way to the intensive care unit.

"I'm Leia Organa. I want to see my brother," Leia said, slightly surprised by the nurse's harsh tone of voice.

"Oh, Goodness. I didn't recognize you, Senator," she said, looking all embarrassed. "Here, let me get you a towel." She magically produced a towel from behind the reception desk and handed it to Leia. While Leia dried the worst of the water off her face and hair, the nurse didn't move an inch. "I do think you should wait until the doctor comes. He'll be here in half an hour," she then said.

Leia eyed her for a moment, then shook her head. "No, I can't wait half an hour. I want to see him now," she said, sensing something wrong. The way the nurse nervously avoided her eyes. "Now," she repeated a little harshly.

The nurse finally nodded and stepped aside. "I should warn you, Senator. He's not – ahem – a pretty sight."

With an invisible fist clenching her guts, Leia hurried down a strangely gloomy corridor and came to a halt at the only door in sight. She reached a hand out to press the door releaser, but never managed. The door slid aside on its own accord and left the former Princess standing in a doorway to a room that was dark. Except for a sickly green pulsing light that came from the only bed in the room.

At that moment Leia realized that she was dreaming. But, no matter how she convinced herself, the dream would not end. She felt herself drawn to the bed, which was surrounded by machines. A sickening bubbling sound emanated from the bed and made her steps more reluctant. When she finally reached the bed, the sight which met her made her gasp in fear and sorrow.

Before she could fully comprehend the vision she saw, she woke up with a start in the bunk she was sharing with Han. He mumbled in his sleep but did not wake up. Carefully Leia sat up, checked her wrist chronometer and sighed. No more than half an hour of sleep. And it had felt as if the dream had lasted a lifetime. She rose gently to not wake Han and silently slipped her boots back on. Then she headed for the door, intent on getting in touch with the Alliance. She needed to know if her dream had been a vision of things to come or if her imagination had just played a trick on her. The echo of the sounds of her dream still roamed her mind and she had to steady herself before she was able to leave the cabin.

The Falcon was deadly quiet and not for the first time Leia found herself missing Chewie's comforting presence. She could always sense the Wookie through the Force. His life-force was so strong that he usually overshadowed the others around her. Chewie had chosen to stay behind to guard Luke. The droids would never have left Luke's side, either, and had therefor also been left behind. As she slid into the pilot seat, she briefly glanced over at the oversized co-pilot chair, almost expecting to see Chewbacca there. She smiled a little at the feelings this brought up in her and then turned back to the console, once again serious.

***

Two days later, the Falcon had landed on Coruscant early in the morning. Contrary to her dream, they were picked up immediately and brought to the hospital, where the doctors assigned to Luke's case came to meet them.

Leia took Ward's arm and pulled her forward. She had been trying to hide behind Han, but Leia wasn't going to let her off the hook. "This is Dr. Jenna Ward. Would you please brief her on Luke's case?" she said to one doctor, who nodded in response.

"Wait a minute, sweety," Ward said, pulling her arm out of Leia's grasp. "I didn't say I was going to help him. I said I'd take a look at him."

Leia nodded once. "Of course," she said, then turned to the doctors again. "How is he?"

Dr. Sturma, a twi'lek, stepped forward. "Not good, I'm afraid," he said. "He's been fairly stabile since you left. Not much change. But I don't know what you hope this – female can achieve, Senator. She may once have been the best genealogist in the galaxy, but now – " He looked her up and down, frowning a little at what he saw.

Ward took it as the personal offence it was and stepped forward, exhaling still foul-smelling breath in his face. "I'll tell you something, my pale friend. I'm as good as I was when Palpatine hired me. So don't you start talking to me about who's good and who's not. You haven't been able to stop it, have you?" The last words she more or less spat in his face and the twi'lek recoiled a step or two to get out of her reach.

"Easy, Ward. Judging from your looks I wouldn't accredit you with much either, but I have faith in that you can deal with this," Han said, pulling the angry older woman back a step.

"You have faith in a piece of bread, sonny," she growled, sending the twi'lek an angry glare.

The twi'lek was quite uncomfortable about Ward's presence. With a nervous glance in her direction, he turned and headed down the corridor to the intensive care unit, followed closely by the four humans.

***

The sick room they entered wasn't dark like in Leia's dream, but the bed was virtually surrounded by machines. She headed up to the foot of the bed and spent a moment just staring at the frail-looking figure in the bed. She took a deep breath, stepped around the bed and took Luke's hand. "Luke, it's me," she almost whispered.

His reaction was slow, but there was a reaction. He turned his head in her direction although he couldn't see her. "Leia," he managed to say in a voice so weak it make her shiver with fear. "Are you alone?"

"No, Han is here. And we found Ward. She'll help you. I know she will." As she said the words, she didn't look at Luke. She looked at Ward, who stood just inside the door, looking a little out of place. Although she had been cleaned up and was wearing new cloths, she still looked like a bum.

A weak smile slipped over cracked lips and for a brief moment Leia closed her eyes against the sight. His face was slightly out of shape, his eyes were swollen shut and the eyelashes partially missing. Those that were left were covered in some kind of gluey substance. His nose looked like it had been broken several times and had healed wrong and his lips were dry and chapped. "That's good," he whispered.

Leia looked up again to see if Ward was responding at all and was surprised to find the old woman standing at the foot of the bed, a frown on her face. "Not in good shape, is he?" she asked thoughtfully. "And that's not the doing of a mutagen, either."

Leia almost dropped Luke's hand at that. "What do you mean?" she asked, looking down at Luke again. His hand in hers felt like the hand of a child. A sick child.

"That's not the doing of a mutagen. Never in the life of this galaxy. It's probably an artificially inserted gene-manipulator. A mutagen would take years to achieve this," she replied, making a sweeping gesture toward Luke. "I'd give my right arm to know what makes it tick," she added.

"You can find out what makes it tick," Leia pressed. "All you have to do is help him."

Ward gave her shrewd look, then her eyes wandered back to her would-be patient. Staring at him, she realized she had reached a point of no return and eventually nodded. "I'll try," she then agreed.

***

Two days and two nights she worked without rest. Ward was dedicated to her work once she got going. She made tests on the increasingly unstable frame which used to be Luke Skywalker and fought a battle against time to come up with a cure. At five in the morning of the third day, she finally thought she had it. When she eventually entered his sick room with a syringe in her hand, she found Leia sitting beside the bed with an expression of utter sadness on her face.

"What? What is it?" Ward demanded, quickly closing the distance between the door and the bed. She quickly surveyed the machinery, the bioscanners and saw what caused Leia's distress.

"He's gone," Leia whispered. "Too late. He's gone." Tears gleamed in her eyes, but she did not shed them. Eventually she looked up to face Ward and couldn't help an almost hysterical chuckle at the sight of the syringe. "You're too late," she repeated.

Ward looked at Leia for a moment, then down at the immobile caricature of a human being. The mutation had taken its toll and it was almost impossible to recognize the features of a once handsome young man. "He may not be gone completely yet," Ward said and without further hesitation she sank the needle of the syringe into the transparent, almost liquid flesh and injected the electric blue liquid. A patch formed, glowing in the semi-darkness of the room for a moment before the dying flesh absorbed it. "Now all we can do is wait," she added.

Leia's expression had changed to a surprised stupor, rendering her incapable of words for a few moments as she looked from Ward to Luke and back again. "Wait?" she then asked, her tone of voice on the edge of the hysterical. "Wait for what? He's gone. He's dead. Nothing you can come up with can revive him, Ward." Fixing her stare at Luke, she shook her head, once again overwhelmed by sadness. "Nothing. And he won't even be granted the death of Jedi."

As soon as she had said those words, the pulse rate on the monitor, which had gone flatline, suddenly picked up again. First slowly, weakly, then ever stronger. Ward watched with satisfaction while Leia gaped at the monitor, then looked down at what was left of her brother. For a long moment, neither spoke. Then Ward cleared her throat, attracting Leia's attention. "He's back on line and he will get better. I don't know how fast this works, but I know it will work. The cells I got from you combined with an estimate of what this gene- manipulator's original setup was has allowed me to reverse it. What it all boils down to now is how much damage his brain has suffered. He may have gaps in his memory and his Jedi-powers may not return. It's impossible to say since nobody has ever figured out what causes one individual to be receptive to the Force and another not to be. But, he will return to normal."

Leia shook her head, staring down at Luke. "But, how is this possible? The machines clearly indicated that he was dead," she then said, looking back at Ward.

Ward had her arms crossed over her chest and for the first time Leia saw her as she had probably looked many years ago. Her hair was pulled back from her face and gathered in a knot at the back of her head. Her sharp grey eyes took in everything without flinching. Dressed in a white coat, she looked almost youthful despite her grey hair. "Bah. Machines don't know everything," she then said. "I will prepare another dose and give it to him tomorrow morning. That should do it," she added and turned around to leave. It was only then that she realized they weren't the only ones in the room. Slade stood right next to the door and had been watching the whole thing silently. "What are you still doing here? Don't you get the point, honey?" Ward asked her brusquely. "You're not getting your credits and there's nobody on this world who will let you within arm's length of Solo." Slade merely looked at Ward with grave indifference for a moment, then returned her attention to the bed. "Aw, to hell with you," Ward grumbled and left the room.

Leia stared at Slade for a moment, then decided to ignore her for now. Her brother was alive and according to Ward he would live and become well again. That was all that matter to her.

***

After a month, Luke's recovery had put him in the remarkable state of being able to get out of bed. He was subdued, mostly tired, yet looked incredibly healthy for someone who had actually died. Leia felt as if all her troubles had disappeared with the rapid recovery of her brother and she marveled at how efficient Ward's drug had been.

On a warm afternoon of Coruscant's late summer they were sitting together in one of the few gardens which had been planted around the palace, watching the sun go down. Leia was holding his hand, hoping that he at one point would let her in. He had been very quiet and had that sad look in his eyes, which had haunted him ever since he had discovered Vader's true identity. Not that she blamed him. "Are you all right?" she asked gently after a long time of silence.

Luke glanced at her and smiled. "Yes, I'm fine," he replied, raising his right hand up to admire it. Whatever the wonder-drug had been, it had caused his right hand to grow out again. Any scare, any kind of damage he had ever had, was gone. He was as good as new and he was grateful for what Ward had done for him. But there was something about the whole business that troubled him. "I was thinking," he began, but trailed off again.

"Yes?" Leia encouraged him, wanting so desperately to know what was on his mind. "About the Force?"

He smiled again, dropping his eyes to stare at his knees for a moment. "That too. It's coming back. Slowly. I can sense it again," he said, putting her mind at ease. "But, there's something else I've been wondering about. About this gene-manipulator." He paused as he raised his head again to look up at the deeply blue sky with tinges of orange at the horizon. Then he turned to face Leia, taking both her hands in his. "Where did I get it from?" he asked. "Who hates me so much that they would want to do something like that?"

Tilting her head to the right, Leia looked into his eyes for a moment. "I don't know, Luke. We have to find out. If for nothing else than to prevent it from happening again. I thought I'd lost you," she said.

"You almost did," he agreed, looking away again. "I've never been closer to death than I was this time. I don't remember it, but something has changed. Something in my mind." He heaved a deep sigh, then looked back into her eyes with a wry smile on his lips. "But, whatever it is, it isn't bad. The Force is coming back to me and that is all that matters right now."

He had barely finished the sentence before Ward turned up. The change this whole business had done to her as well was marvelous. She was walking tall, a content look on her aged face. It had turned out that she wasn't more than sixty-one and should not have looked as old as she did. But her years with the Emperor had deprived her of so much that she had become old before her time. Now she looked younger than her sixty-one years and Leia knew that this could be attributed to the fact that she was working again. She was off the booze, back in action and happy about it. "Hello. How are you two doing?" she asked, smiling her somewhat motherly smile, which she had started out with when Luke had been able to see again.

"We're fine, Jenna," Luke replied, reaching out to take her hand. She gave his a squeeze and sat down on the bench beside him. "Jenna, there's something I've been wanting to ask you. I thought maybe you might know where this gene-manipulator came from."

Ward pursed her lips with a slight frown. "Well, whoever created it, certainly thinks you're worth the effort. The only way you could have received it would be through food or drink. Anything else would have been impossible. The other option is that it was air-related. That you inhaled it. But I doubt that. I subjected the pure form I extracted from you to air and it died within seconds. Besides, it would have poisoned anything within reach. So, I believe it's either something you ate or drank." Turning to face both of them, she looked from one to the other. "Any ideas where or when it could have happened?"

Luke started to shake his head, but Leia suddenly had an idea. "The gathering," she then said and got up. "Don't you remember? I told you I thought there was something sticky about it. I just couldn't figure out what."

Ward looked disoriented. "Gathering? What gathering?" she asked curiously.

Leia paced a little, then stopped again, looking down at the two of them. "The Kalandorians have been sworn enemies of everything that was human for centuries. All of a sudden they make a 180 degree turn and accept us with open arms. We went there for a religious gathering they have every standard year. Everybody had some of this local beverage of theirs. It's some kind of wine. Since Luke doesn't much care for wine, he asked for something else and got it. That's about two months ago. How long does it take for this gene-manipulator to take effect?"

Ward frowned a bit, then snapped her fingers. "You could be right. Something like that usually doesn't take more than a few days to activate after it's been digested. The body has to absorb it first before it can start working properly," she replied, getting up as well.

Luke watched the two of them with confusion. "Right, so now we know where I got it. But we still don't know why. Why would they do such a thing?" he asked, looking from one to the other.

Leia spread out her arms. "Isn't it obvious? The Kalandorians already saw the Jedi as a threat to them thousands of years ago. You are the only fully trained Jedi in the Galaxy. And you're human. Maybe that's why they invited us. To get rid of you. To make sure there would be no more Jedi. Ever," she said.

Luke had held his breath while she talked and now slowly let it out again. "Of course," he then said almost thoughtfully. "So, all we have to do now is convince them that we mean them no harm."

Calm again, Leia sat down beside him once more and shook her head. "No, Luke. I think Mon Mothma will agree with me that we should terminate their membership at once. Someone who wants to rob us of our only Jedi Master is not worth having. Not even for the credits."

"But, I think..." he began, but Leia interrupted him.

"No, Luke. Let it rest. We're better off without them. I don't want your life to be in danger from them again."

Ward nodded her agreement. "I agree, Luke. You should not jeopardize yourself any more than you have to. – Well, I will return to my studies. And you, young lady, should perhaps spend some more time with your neglected lover. He's wasting away."

Leia looked up at Ward with surprise. "What are you talking about?" she demanded.

Ward smiled a little wryly. "He looked utterly depressed when I saw him earlier today. You haven't spared him one moment this past month and I think you should pick up on that before you lose him to someone who's more willing to spend time with him," she said, nodded to them and left.

Luke grabbed Leia's hand and gave it a squeeze. From the corner of his eye, he saw a vague figure standing not too far away under a blooming stemma-tree. "You should go. Han needs you too and I could use some time alone," he said to Leia.

"Are you sure?" she asked and he nodded. "Okay. But I'll check in on you later," she added as she got up.

"You don't have to. I'm fine. Really," he said, his tone of voice a little pressed. Leia frowned, but decided to leave it alone.

She had barely vanished from view before the figure approached Luke. Slade had finally discarded her gun and most of the heavy gear she was usually wearing and managed to look much like any other woman. With the exception of the look in her eyes. She stopped a few feet from where Luke was sitting and watched him thoughtfully. "Are you going to sit there all day or will you accompany me on a little stroll?" she asked, sounding completely indifferent.

With a smile Luke rose. "I'd gladly accompany you," he said and together they wandered off into the vast gardens of the imperial palace.

THE END