"Turn on full power to the rear shields!"
Leia Organa quickly adjusted the shielding as Han Solo took the Millennium Falcon on another steep, banking turn.
"The shields aren?t going to hold much longer," Leia said. "You?ve got to get us out of here!"
"There?s an asteroid field all around us in case Your Worship hasn?t noticed," Han said, unable to keep the slight sarcasm out of his voice. "I?m working on it!"
"Well, whatever you do, do it a little faster!" Leia snapped, as she bent over the controls trying to adjust the shielding some more. "Damn it! Where?s Artoo when you need him?"
Han shook his head and took the Falcon on another sharp swerve, just narrowly avoiding an asteroid.
They had just completed their mission on the mid-Rim planet of Renalo, where Leia had met with underground resistance workers and organized them into a new Alliance cell; upon leaving Renalo, they had made a brief stop on Cijex where Leia contacted one more Alliance cell, and then planned to head to Kashyyyk to pick up Chewbacca who was enjoying a brief trip home to see his wife, Mallatobuck.
Just after leaving the Cijex gravity well, the Millennium Falcon was attacked by an Imperial Star Destroyer and its partial contingent of a dozen TIE fighters. With his retreat into hyperspace blocked, Han fled toward Cijex?s neighboring planet of Sajex, an enormous gas giant surrounded by an inhospitable asteroid ring.
The Star Destroyer was unable to follow the Falcon into the asteroid field, but the TIE fighters continued to chase them maniacally. The chase was becoming desperate, although in their fanatical pursuit of the Millennium Falcon, ten of the TIE fighters had already crashed. The Star Destroyer remained outside the asteroid field tracking the Falcon?s progress and firing in large laser pulses whenever it could.
Two more TIE fighters remained. As Han continued skimming the Falcon close over the surfaces of the larger of the asteroids, one more TIE fighter, unable to control the spin, also crashed.
"Rear port shield is down to ten percent," Leia reported.
Han was starting to get a little desperate, although he would die before he would admit this to Leia. Another laser blast hit the Falcon, and a light flashed on the control panel.
"What?s that?" Leia asked.
"Rear stabilizer is out. Damn!" Han guided the Falcon toward another of the larger asteroids. This one was hollowed out through the center and almost the size of a moon. The Falcon shot into the tunnel, which had innumerable twists and turns. They could not see the TIE fighter behind them, and the solid iron makeup of the asteroid made it difficult for the sensors to detect the fighter through the tunnel walls. Even so, both Han and Leia knew the TIE was behind them.
Around one turn in the tunnel was a branched alcove. From this segment they could see the exit end of the tunnel. Han flipped the Falcon into the alcove, and set the ship against the alcove wall, quickly extinguishing all but the emergency and defense systems.
As the TIE flashed past them, Han sent out a neutrino missile, which shot out and caught the TIE fighter just beyond the exit site of the tunnel. The TIE exploded in a brilliant shower of light. Watching it, Leia released a small sigh of relief. The Falcon would no longer appear on the sensors of the Star Destroyer and with that explosion it would give the Destroyer?s captain a good reason to believe that the Falcon had been destroyed.
"You think they'll be fooled?" she asked.
"We?ll have to wait and see," Han replied.
"How long do we have to wait here?"
"I would wait at least overnight."
"They?re going to send out more TIEs to look for us."
"I told you to leave the planet from the night side," Leia snapped, beginning to feel the strain from the chase. And now to have her return to Echo Base delayed by one more day?
"That Star Destroyer was waiting for us!" Han replied, hanging grimly onto his temper. "It would have come for us no matter where we exited."
"It would have bought us a few more seconds."
"Listen, Your Worship, if you hadn?t suddenly decided to make that stop on Cijex, we?d be on Kashyyyk already."
"No one twisted your arm and made you decide to take on this mission in the first place!"
"No? With you sitting there making those rongo-pup eyes at me?"
"I did not make rongo-pup eyes at you, Captain!" Leia snapped. "For your information, you were my last choice of escort."
"You just keep telling yourself that, sweetheart," Han said as he unstrapped himself from the crash webbing and left the cockpit to evaluate the rear stabilizer.
Alone in the cockpit, Leia gave an impotent, "Augh!" and clenched her fists.
During the night, two squadrons of TIE fighters had been launched from the Star Destroyer and searched through the asteroid field for the Millennium Falcon, but none of them sensed the ship hidden inside the small alcove inside the tunnel; although from its vantage point, the Falcon?s crew could easily see the TIE fighters. The last TIE fighter made its sweep past the Falcon near oh four hundred hours standard time by the ship?s chronometer.
By late morning, Han was sufficiently confident that the Star Destroyer was convinced that the Falcon had been destroyed. No new TIE squadrons had been launched in over six hours and Han cautiously fired up the engines of the Falcon and eased the ship out of the asteroid tunnel.
Once outside the asteroid, Han scanned the surveillance screens carefully, but could find no evidence that there were any Star Destroyers or other ships nearby.
"What?s the matter?" Leia asked, worried by the concerned look in Han?s eyes.
"The rear stabilizer," Han muttered. "It?s still acting funny. When we came out from that asteroid I could feel that the ship was shimmying. We can?t go into hyperspace like this. I want to go to Sajex IV?" Han pointed to the Sajex moon on his screen, "?to work on the stabilizer."
"How long is this going to take?" Leia asked.
"At least a day ? maybe two," Han said, as he unstrapped himself from the crash webbing.
"Two more days!" Leia groaned.
"What? You don?t think you can resist my charms for another two days?" Han teased.
"I?m not sure I can resist the impulse to deck you for that long, Captain," Leia snapped back.
Han gave her a grin that set all of Leia?s teeth on edge and headed toward the doorway of the cockpit. "Hey," Han said, in a milder tone of voice, "you think you can bring the ship down to Sajex IV?"
Leia paused for a moment, trying to calm herself down and then nodded. "Where are you going?"
"I?m going to check out that rear stabilizer. I?ll be right back."
Alone in the cockpit, Leia looked around and permitted herself a small smile. For all his scoundrel-like ways, Han was sometimes a real softie at heart. He knew that she had wanted to have more practice in handling the ship herself, and was giving her a chance to fly. She leaned forward and pulled back on the throttle. The ship started gliding slowly toward Sajex IV, gaining speed as Leia became more comfortable with the controls. She noticed there was a bit of pull, which she attributed to the faulty rear stabilizers. At sublight speed, this was a problem that could be compensated, but in hyperspace, an unfixed faulty stabilizer would be enough to tear the ship apart. She adjusted her grip and movements to try to compensate for the stabilizer and entered the gravity well of Sajex IV.
Once she started sensing the moon?s gravitational pull, Leia began adjusting the landing thrusters as well as the throttle. She frowned, a little worried. There was a high amount of turbulence over the moon?s surface. A small voice of pride told her she could handle this, but the practical voice of caution stopped her. "Han," she called over the intercom, "can you come up front? I think you need to handle this."
"I?ll be right up."
The ship shook violently, and Leia lost momentary control of the throttle. An involuntary shriek escaped her lips as the ship rolled over twice before she could right the ship again. The crash webbing was all that kept her from flying toward the ceiling of the cockpit. Pulling as hard as she could with both hands on the throttle, Leia managed to guide the ship down closer to the surface. "Han! Hurry up!" she called, worried over the delay in Han?s appearance. "Han?"
Still no response.
Damn it! Leia thought, feeling a sudden welling of panic in her throat. Trying to concentrate as much as she could under the circumstances, Leia guided the ship down to the surface of Sajex IV. The Falcon landed in a more bumpy fashion than usual, but Leia barely began the power down process before she unstrapped herself from the crash webbing and sprinted through the cockpit toward the lounge.
She found Han sprawled unconscious on the floor of the lounge close to the Dejarik table.
"Han!" Leia gasped, feeling the blood drain from her face as she bent over him. "Han!"
Han was alive. For that much, at least, Leia was thankful. She quickly ascertained that he had a pulse and that he was breathing. She examined him quickly and found a nasty concussion on the back of his head. Examining further, she found that when she pressed on the right side of his chest, this elicited a reflex moan, although he did not wake up. Leia pulled up Han?s shirt and saw a nasty bruise starting to form on his right lower chest and wondered if he had cracked the ribs underneath. She thought briefly about moving him toward his cabin in the back, but paused, worried that he might have injured his neck or spine. As Leia wondered what to do next she suddenly remembered the first aid kit that Han kept in the back compartments.
Leia raced toward the back of the ship and reached the small compartment where the first aid kit was located. The kit was in a large durasteel tempered case, and was well stocked. As she opened the kit, she blessed Han?s foresight and organization as she quickly catalogued the contents. She took out the scanner first and returned to the lounge. Moving the scanner over Han, she saw that he definitely had a concussion with a hematoma forming near his left occipital region but there was no subdural or subarachnoid bleeding, which could have been fatal; two of his ribs were cracked but they were uncomplicated fractures and the ribs were each only fractured in one place. Further evaluation revealed a broken left ankle as well. Otherwise, there were just varied bruises over the rest of his body.
"Where are the damned Two-One-Bees when you need them?" Leia muttered irately, feeling almost shrewish in her relief that there were no more serious injuries. She looked down at Han and her brow puckered into a worried frown. She reached out and gently brushed a stray lock of Han?s hair off his forehead. It was something she would not do to save her life if Han had been awake, but she found herself doing it instinctively now, and with tenderness.
A few moments later, Leia caught herself, abruptly. What was she doing sitting here acting like a sentimental schoolgirl? She had work to do! She reached for the scanner and began to study the readouts on the screen, which gave her instructions on what to do for Han?s injuries. Following the instructions, Leia quickly went to work.
Two hours later, she sat down next to Han?s bunk inside his cabin and checked on him one more time. She was exhausted but felt a sense of relief and some accomplishment. She leaned back tiredly in the chaise lounge next to Han?s bed, and felt the tension ease out of her back. How she had managed to drag eighty kilos of adult male across the lounge and get him into his bed, she was not sure, but somehow she had done it. She had taken off Han?s shirt, profoundly grateful that he remained unconscious during this entire procedure. Then, with the bitter regret and wish that she had learned more of the healing arts when she was younger, she read through the instructions on the scanner; she wrapped the back of Han?s head and chest in bacta bandages, fashioned a crude bacta cast around Han?s ankle, and inserted an intravenous line into Han?s arm to give him hydration, struggling to control her squeamishness as she punctured the vein. She had to do this three times before she could successfully cannulate the vein and she was ready to cry in despair before she finally had a successful line placed and secured.
Now, Han was lying peacefully on his back. His breathing, which had been more ragged and uneven when she had found him in the lounge, had now evened out into smooth, slow breaths. He had been moving a little while Leia administered to him, and had actively jerked his arm away from Leia during her botched attempts to place the intravenous line, but he never awakened.
Leia leaned forward and looked at him. As she gazed at Han?s sleeping form, from his bandaged head to his handsome features, which looked so peaceful in sleep, down toward his broad, smooth chest, Leia felt herself suddenly blushing. She realized that this was probably the first time she?d ever had a chance to gaze at Han as long as she wanted, unreservedly, without worrying that he?d notice and give her some smart-aleck remark that would set her temper completely on edge.
Now that she had the chance, Leia took full advantage of the opportunity. She looked up toward his closed eyes, knowing that under the lids, were two mesmerizing eyes of a glorious hazel color, which could change toward blue or green depending on his mood. His nose was very handsome, but it was his lips where her gaze lingered the longest. They were full and sensual; Leia had always privately thought they were too sensual for a man and bespoke experience with women that no decent man should have. Leia felt her heart beating rapidly, and felt somewhat breathless as she let herself wonder, briefly, what those lips would feel like on hers.
I?m going crazy, Leia told herself. I have to stop thinking these things!
But even as she reproved herself, Leia felt her gaze drifting down toward Han?s chest, to the smooth skin she had felt under her fingers when she had dressed his wounds. She wondered, with a self-conscious smile the uproar that would occur on Base Command if it was ever known what she had done for Han in the last two hours.
Leia stopped herself and shook her head, trying to shake loose the traitorous thoughts from her mind, knowing that to let her thoughts go down this path was the way to disaster. For some time, she had been aware that Han?s presence wreaked havoc on her senses; and when she was alone at night, there were times when she admitted to herself that she was attracted to him. Even in her private thoughts, however, she would not allow herself to go one step further and to make the admission that she felt more than attraction to his roguish charm and his rakish good looks.
But this can go nowhere, she told herself severely, feeling the treacherous thoughts reassert themselves in her mind, feeling her resolve faltering as she took in his splendid form. I?ve got to stop thinking this way! There can be no future with Han. He?s leaving. He?s been saying this for years?and I?ve always relied on the fact that he?s stayed instead?but this won?t last. There will come a day when he?ll leave. And if I let myself care for him?No! Stop thinking like this! The only way to protect myself is to not give in!
Abruptly, Leia stood up and left the cabin heading toward the cockpit to check up on the ship.
The moon of Sajex IV where they had landed was a barren, nearly featureless rock. It was devoid of life forms and its atmosphere was comprised of noxious gases that buffeted the surface turbulently. The Falcon had been set down in a pockmarked asteroid-pummeled crater of nearly a kilometer in diameter. It was on a stable surface, and it was somewhat sheltered from the winds that swirled over the moon. Consequently, the ship had been quiet since landing. Leia ran the ship through the diagnostics schemata and then frowned as she realized that they were trapped on the moon until the rear stabilizer could be fixed. With the Imperial presence elsewhere in the system, it was too dangerous to send a message asking for help, and with the way the ship had landed, part of the landing thrusters had also been damaged, which meant a walk in EV to fix the thrusters. Without these repairs the ship would not be able to land anywhere else. All this would have to wait until Han was better, and even though Han had been stabilized, Leia did not know with any certainty when Han would awaken. Leia thought about all her work in the Alliance ? all impossibly delayed for an indeterminate amount of time, and Han ? Leia tried to ignore the clenching sensation of worry that gripped at her chest when she wondered if and when Han would get better. Blast, blast, blast! Leia let loose a string of curses within the empty cockpit, and sat down, burying her face in her hands.
Han woke up a day and a half later. He was very groggy and felt dizzy and headachy. As he slowly opened his eyes, feeling very disoriented, he wondered what he?d been drinking that could have given him such a severe hangover.
He tried to raise his head but felt so dizzy and nauseous that he quickly lay back down again, trying to calm the sensation that the room around him was spinning out of control.
"Don?t move. You?re not well enough."
The voice was low and gentle with dulcet undertones. Han felt more confusion. It was a familiar voice. Very familiar?and yet, something was so different about the voice. "Wh ? whu?"
"You took a nasty tumble, Han."
Han. She had said his name. It was a woman, and she knew him, and he should know her, too, but somehow he couldn?t quite place her from her voice. Above his head he could see the familiar paneling of the upper bulkheads of his cabin. Han realized he was on board the Millennium Falcon, and in his own bed, but how he had gotten here, he couldn?t quite remember. What was he doing on board the ship in the first place? He tried to roll his eyes around and take in the field of vision allowed to him in his recumbent position, but the movement made his eyes hurt and he quickly closed them. "Who?"
The voice was sharper, more strident this time. Now he suddenly felt he could place it. It was Leia?s voice.
"Leia?" Han asked, so disoriented that he spoke her name out loud for the first time since he?d met her. "What happened?" The words came out thickly and with difficulty. Despite the intravenous line that was dripping maintenance fluids into his arm, he felt so thirsty his throat was raw.
Leia must have noticed the difficulty he had in speaking. Almost immediately, she had a cup of water at his lips and she was supporting his head as she helped him drink it. It was cool and infinitely refreshing. Han took a long, grateful swallow, gulping down all the water in the cup at once. After two days with no water though, Han?s stomach rebelled, and as soon as he drank down the water, he suddenly felt sick. He began to splutter; coughing, gagging and retching.
In a flash, Leia was holding his head over the side of the bed, as he gagged and dry-retched for a few moments, and then she helped him to lie back on the bed, wiping his mouth down as he lay back.
"You okay?" Leia asked.
Han nodded, or tried to, feeling that he was living in a twilight zone. His head ached as though a clamp had been placed around it, and the same went for his chest. When he had been retching, it felt as though someone had stuck sharp pincers into the ribs on his right side. His left foot felt as though it had been weighted down with a ferrocrete block. What had happened to him? And what was going on with Leia? Why was she being so nice? "What happened?" he managed to ask.
"You don?t remember?" Leia asked.
Briefly, Leia outlined his accident and the fact that he had a concussion, fractured ribs and two fractured anklebones. Han?s memory of the events leading up to his accident was gone and he wanted to ask her why they were still on board the Falcon, but then a wave of dizziness and nausea swept over him, and he lay back, closing his eyes. Before he realized what had happened, he had drifted off into a deep slumber again.
Han did not awaken until the next morning, when Leia entered the cabin with a small tray. His head still ached, but already felt much better than it had before. He tried to sit up, but again he felt the pain in his side and his leg as he tried to move.
Almost immediately, Leia was at his side again. Swiftly, she put the tray on his desk and helped him to sit up, propping a couple of pillows for him.
"How are you feeling?" Leia asked.
Han looked up and saw the concern in her eyes and felt a wave of confusion roll over him. Gods, would he ever understand this woman? One moment, she was biting his head off, insulting him with every weapon in her formidable verbal arsenal, and now she was playing tender nursemaid to him. "I?m okay," he mumbled, and then looked down. His shirt was gone, and around his lower chest was a large white, bandage. He put his hand up to his head and felt another bandage on his head. Investigating further, he pulled back the bedclothes and found a very crudely fashioned cast around his left ankle. It looked like it had been created by a child who failed primer class at school, but Han knew better than to make any comments about it. He couldn?t quite hide the amused smile that touched his lips.
"What?s so funny?" Leia asked.
Han shook his head, immediately regretting the impulse. It felt as though wooden splinters were shooting down his neck every time he moved his head.
"You did all this?" Han asked, indicating his bandages and cast. He wondered at the extent of his injuries. Every part of him hurt like hell, but he guessed that there was nothing life threatening, and that had he been close to a medical facility, he would likely be back on his feet already. Still, he knew he would have been far worse off without Leia?s care and he felt a surge of surprised gratitude toward her.
"Yes," Leia said.
Han looked up at her, but Leia had turned away and was busying herself rearranging the contents on the tray. She turned around and placed the tray on his lap. Han looked down at the contents of the tray and his eyes widened. It appeared that she had attempted to make breakfast, but the result was terrible. There was something lumpy and bluish in the bowl, and he tried to think what he might have on board the Falcon that could make such a frightening looking glop. Next to that was some over burnt Ithorian grain bread and then a cup of Weequee fruit juice. Han quickly decided that the juice was likely the safest item. He picked it up and took a cautious sip.
The juice tasted fine, and Han drained it.
"Are you hungry?" Leia asked.
Han caught the expression on her face and his eyes widened in involuntary surprise. It was the first time he had ever caught her looking apologetic. She was sitting on the chaise lounge next to the bed and nibbling on a piece of burnt toast, and every once in a while, she looked down at the charred piece of carbon in her hands with some distaste.
"Uh?yeah, a bit." He looked down at the tray. "Just a little confused by what?s in the bowl?"
Leia?s lovely face suddenly turned red. "It?s supposed to be Parini porridge. I just don?t know how it turned?blue?"
Feeling a stab of sympathy for her since Leia seemed to be trying so hard; and in fact, Han realized gratefully, that she had never been so nice to him before, he attacked the porridge with an enthusiasm he didn?t feel. It tasted like industrial glue, but he gamely swallowed a few bites before he finally gave up. "Mmmph. Tastes great," Han said, lying unconvincingly. "I ? I guess I?m just not so hungry, after all."
Leia?s lips twitched and Han could see she hadn?t been fooled by what he?d said. She took the tray away and moved it to his desk. Leia opened the first-aid kit that was on the desk and brought over some bandages and supplies.
As Han watched her working, the realization came over him that she was doing everything in a very practiced and experienced manner. He wasn?t sure how long he?d been out but she?d obviously dealt with his wound care more than once. Leia stood over him, taking the bandages off his head. She pushed his head forward and he could feel her slender fingers cautiously probing the back of his head. Where she touched, he was tender, and he winced a little.
Han nodded, feeling that the back of his head was tingling where she had touched him. As she withdrew her hands, though, Han wished she could have kept them there, as his stiff neck felt much better.
Leia clucked but said nothing as she replaced the bandages swiftly and efficiently. She finished that job and then sat down on the bed next to him and then moved down to the bandages around his chest and waist. She needed to reach all the way around him to pull off the sero-gauze, and the top of her head brushed against his bare chest a few times as he worked.
Han wondered if he was really hallucinating or having a delirium-induced dream. This was Princess Leia, the Princess of Alderaan, the same woman who had sniped at and insulted him for three years; strangely, the same woman who had somehow managed to steal his heart during the years he had spent with the Rebellion. Han wasn?t sure when he had fallen in love with her, although the realization had come to him quite some time ago.
A year before the Alliance had relocated to Echo Base, he had made the decision to leave the Rebellion. While he had thought of leaving nearly every day since the Battle of Yavin, this was the first time he had actually taken steps to prepare for his departure. When he told Leia of his decision to go, she had turned ice-cold. Her comments to him were so vicious and sharp, with such wounding, spot-on insights into all the flaws of his character that it had given rise to the most damaging argument they had ever had. Furious, Han had loaded up the Falcon, and gotten ready to leave the next morning; then, Luke had had that accident with the hangar bay car that kept the kid incapacitated for a week in a bacta tank.
Han decided to postpone his departure and stayed to be sure the kid would recover. The week in which both he and Leia stood vigil over Luke?s bedside was probably the most uncomfortable in his life. He and Leia had taken turns staying with Luke, and whenever they had encountered each other in Luke?s room, there was no conversation, only cold glances and unspoken words. Han had said quite a few unforgivable things to Leia during their argument, too, and although he had wanted to apologize to her, he had kept quiet once his quick-tempered fury had passed, afraid of what her response might be.
At the same time he had realized that despite his dread whenever she appeared in Luke?s room, the reason for his quickened pulse whenever she came near him was not dread. It wasn?t just attraction. And it wasn?t something that would pass. During that week, Han had realized, to his despair that he loved her. And that this was serious.
He never made the conscious decision to stay, but he kept postponing the move. First it was to watch over Luke, then there was a short mission he accepted, and then another, and the days just drifted into months and years. With the passing of time, his relationship with Leia had gotten better. Neither of them had ever apologized to the other, but they came to some sort of unspoken truce. Their relationship had never quite been smooth, but it had evolved into a sort of bait and banter in which neither of them spoke their true feelings to the other. Han suspected that she might feel something for him as well, but Leia was swiftly capable of turning as cold as ice, and freezing him out with one wrongly spoken word or gesture, and he could never be sure of where he stood with her.
He wished he had the courage to come straight out and ask her if she reciprocated any of his feelings or to find a way to make her admit she cared, but he found he was terrified of the possible consequences. Much as it tortured him to go on in this emotional limbo with Leia, Han knew he preferred it infinitely to the possibility that he might discover she didn?t care for him at all. Or worse, that she cared for someone else. Like Luke, for instance.
Leia finished taking off the bandage. Han looked down and saw a very nasty bruise over his right lower ribs that was black toward the center and violet and yellow around the edges. Over the bruise was a clear-colored goo. Bacta gel.
"You did all this?" Han asked, and then berated himself for the stupid question.
"But?" Han looked down again. He was shirtless and wearing loose trousers, and?there was nothing on underneath!
"You?you put me in these clothes?" Han couldn?t quite hide the disbelief in his voice, nor the sensation of heated embarrassment that suddenly crept into his face.
"You were unconscious for two days, Han," Leia said shortly, although she was blushing as well. "Someone had to take care of you."
"What ? what exactly did you do?"
"I took pictures to display over the holonet."
Leia laughed. "Han! I did what was necessary! You know you weigh a lot more than I do. It was hard for me to move you! I had to get you changed so that I could keep you cleaned."
Cleaned! "What do you mean, ?cleaned??" Han asked, his eyes narrowed.
"I had to clean you off to make sure none of your wounds would get infected," Leia answered.
She?d cleaned him as well! Han?s mind reeled at the thought. Of course, he understood that he had needed the care, but this wasn?t an impersonal nurse he met in some meditech center. This was Leia. The thought of her taking care of him so?thoroughly unnerved him. There was a sort of intimacy in what she had done that made him feel more vulnerable than he?d ever felt in his life. This was the sort of thing a wife might do for her husband.
Seeing the nonplussed look on Han?s face, Leia suddenly gave a mischievous smile. It was so rare that she had the great Han Solo at her mercy. With a spark of her rarely expressed, but innate playfulness that had been dampened since the destruction of Alderaan, Leia grinned and added, "Did anyone ever tell you that you?ve got the cutest little dimple on your?"
"You didn?t!" Han growled, his eyes widening in shock.
Leia?s smile broadened. "I did!"
"Well then, Princess?" Han said, his voice changing to a smooth drawl, as he leaned back, now challenging her with his eyes. "I gather you liked what you saw there? Perhaps I could return the favor someday?"
Leia stood up from him abruptly, feeling her heart rate shoot up alarmingly at the sudden heat in Han?s eyes. Even with Han injured, she had been a fool to think she could play this game with someone like him, who was a master at tormenting her with this sort of evocative wordplay. Her face now burning with embarrassment, she turned to rinse out a washcloth in the small basin she had left on the desk earlier. "I need to clean that bacta gel off."
Han?s features softened as he took in the delicate flush on Leia?s cheeks, and he said, gently, "Hey?Leia?thank you."
Leia looked up and presented Han with a startled expression. She gave a small smile and looked back down at the washcloth she held in her hand. "I only did what anyone else would have done for you."
"Well, thanks, anyway."
Leia approached Han and reached up to wipe off the old bacta gel on his chest. Han?s abdominal muscles leapt instinctively at her touch.
"Did I hurt you?" Leia asked.
"No," Han said, in a strangled voice, wishing he?d been able to control his reaction to her touch a little better.
Leia paused in the act of wiping and looked up at him for a moment, her gaze contemplative. Suddenly, she laughed. "Oh, I understand," she said. "You?re ticklish!"
She wriggled her fingers toward him menacingly, and Han couldn?t suppress the grin that formed on his face.
"Don?t you dare, your Worship!"
Leia laughed and she darted her hand out to make good on her threat, but Han quickly caught her by the wrist.
"I wouldn?t do that if I were you," Han warned softly, pulling her toward him.
Leia?s eyes widened enormously in her face. Those beautiful brown eyes. And Han could see the pulse quickening in her throat. She gave a quick gasp and abruptly pulled herself away from him. She looked down, and then leapt up from the bed. "I have to finish wrapping that bandage," Leia said. She reached into the first aid kit for the rest of the supplies she needed, and with a series of practiced, clinical, impersonal movements Leia finished her ministrations. She did not meet his eyes the entire time. As soon as she finished, she headed for the door, taking the tray with her, and negating any reason she would have to come back into the cabin again.
She paused at the doorway. "Just get me with the intercom if you need any help."
Han leaned back against the pillows and winced again from the ache in his side. He put his hand up to his side, still able to feel the cool touch of her hand on his skin, and with a groan, closed his eyes again.
In the afternoon, Leia returned with another tray of something completely unpalatable. Han supposed that whatever she brought to him was soup, but he wouldn?t risk any credits in a casino over it.
"I can?t cook," Leia admitted with some difficulty, as she disconnected the intravenous line from Han?s arm.
"Oh, really?" Han asked. "I guess it wasn?t part of your Princess training, was it?"
"Hey! At least I?m trying here!" Leia said, hotly setting the tray down with a resounding thump next to the bed. "You might not be alive if it wasn?t for?"
Han reached forward and touched her hand. "I was teasing. I?m sorry," he said, gently.
Leia swallowed suddenly, and the anger seemed to drain out of her face. She sat down next to him. "I?m just a little tired, I guess," she admitted. "Just makes my nerves on edge."
"Hey, listen, I know you?ve done the work of three people. Thanks?"
Leia nodded, and then gestured to the soup. "Do you want some?"
Han reached out for the bowl and took a sip. It was so salty he felt his mouth pucker, but he refrained from any comments, instead asking for a glass of water. Leia left the cabin and returned with the water, which Han promptly poured into the soup. Diluted, it was suddenly tolerable. Leia saw what he had done and laughed.
Han responded with a grin and finished the soup. "Thanks. Have you had any?"
Leia nodded and made a face.
"How about if you help me into the galley, and I?ll make dinner?" Han suggested.
"How are you going to get around in there?"
"I?ll just sit on the stool and cut and mix. You can be my assistant and hand me things."
Leia considered this for a moment. "Do you feel up to it? Maybe you should rest in bed a little longer."
"I feel better than I did yesterday," Han said, truthfully. "You?ve done a great job, so far, but ? sweetheart, you?re just somewhat culinarily handicapped."
Leia giggled. "All right. If you think you?re up to it. I?ll let you get some rest and I?ll come back to help you to the galley later."
Three hours later, Han was ensconced on the high stool in the galley, cutting and chopping away. Leia moved about the galley handing him the items he requested. Within half an hour, Han had produced something that smelled wonderful and mouth watering.
"So, where did you learn how to cook?" Leia asked.
Han shrugged. "I grew up with a Wookiee cook named Dewlanna. She taught me, and I was her helper."
"I thought you were part of Garris Shrike?s organization," Leia said. She saw a brief flash of pain over Han?s features and instantly regretted her words. They had just been sharing the most comfortable, amicable time they had ever spent together, and she had to go ruin things with her big mouth.
"Dewlanna was Shrike?s cook," Han clarified.
"Well, she?s obviously taught you well," Leia said.
"What? Excuse me? I think I?m still suffering from that concussion. For a moment there I thought you complimented me."
Leia laughed and pelted him with a leaf of the Gyndine lettuce. Han grinned back, and Leia wondered why their encounters couldn?t be like this all the time. This was perhaps the most pleasant afternoon she had ever spent with him. He had been charming and amusing, and Leia felt her chest aching a little as she pondered on the domesticity of their actions together.
The past few days when she had cared for him had not actually seemed like a chore to her. Despite the fact that it had been hard work, and she was constantly worried over whether or not Han would recover, she found an almost proprietary pleasure in attending to all the details of his care. After the first day, when she got over the embarrassment of seeing more of him than she ever thought she would, she secretly enjoyed the feeling of closeness she had when she was tending his wounds. It was something that a spouse or a lover would do.
Now, sitting in the galley and watching him cooking, she caught herself wondering what it would be like to spend more time with him like this, and then berated herself, silently. You?re imagining a future with him. And you might as well wish for Alderaan to return.. There?s no possible future with Han Solo. He?s just like a bright, dazzling comet that?s come across your path?and one day he?ll just streak away.
She looked up and saw the concerned look on his face.
"You all right, your Highnessness?"
Leia?s lip twitched in annoyance. Highnessness. The scoundrel was back, despite the concern on his face. "I?m fine," Leia answered.
"So?how long have we been here and what?s keeping us in this charming, exotic locale?" Han asked.
Relieved that the conversation had returned to technical subjects, Leia explained the results of the diagnostic schematics she had run on the ship. She had been attempting to work on the rear stabilizers while Han had been unconscious, but she admitted that she wasn?t sure what she was doing.
"Well, I could take a look at the stabilizers. As long as you keep my tools nearby, I could work on it even with my leg immobilized."
"What about the landing gear?"
"From what you?ve said about the diagnostics, I think the problem with the landing thrusters is the clamp capacitors. I?ve been meaning to work on those for a while. The replacement modules are in the hold. That would actually be a quick trip in the EV to take care of that. Why don?t I take a look at the rear stabilizer tonight?"
Leia gave Han a sharp look. "You don?t want to push yourself too quickly. You?ve improved a lot with the bacta ointment, but that stuff is nowhere near as good as a dip in a bacta tank would have been. Why don?t you get some rest tonight and start dealing with it tomorrow?"
"I gave an estimate that it might be a couple of days for me to fix things. I may be wrong. It could take even longer, you know."
"There?s no point in you pushing yourself into collapse. What?s a couple more days?" Even as she said it, Leia wondered at this statement. She should be much more upset about being trapped here on the Falcon in the middle of nowhere with no one but Han; before the accident, she would have been frantic to return to Echo Base, but now she was surprised to realize she was in no hurry at all.
"Am I hearing you correctly? You should be shouting at the top of your lungs by now worrying over all the problems that you aren?t taking care of back at Base Command."
"Well, I blame myself for not being able to set the ship down properly. You wouldn?t have had that accident if the?"
"You can?t think that way," Han interrupted. "From what you told me about the accident, I think you didn?t compensate the lower rear thrusters when you were fighting the turbulence ? look, that?s something that you won?t find in a text book. You just have to learn from experience. I should have been there with you in the cockpit, but I wanted to get those stabilizers taken care of, and I left the cockpit too soon. It?s not your fault."
"Well, anyway, me being in a frenzy won?t make you get well sooner or fix this ship faster," Leia said.
"That?s why I?m surprised you don?t want me to get to work on it right away."
"I just spent the last three days putting you back together again! I?d hate to have everything fall apart. That?s why I?m telling you to take things slowly."
"All right, since you?re so enamored of my company," Han said with a roguish grin. "I guess I could bear to hold off?"
"Han Solo!" Leia threw another lettuce leaf at him. "You?d better hope this dinner lives up to my expectations or you might be in traction tonight."
"With such a beautiful nurse as you to minister to my every need?"
"Shut up and check the nerf steaks."
For the next three days, things went surprisingly well between them. Leia brought Han?s breakfast every morning. She had given up trying to cook and just brought him a cup of Caf and a piece of fruit or cold Ithorian grain bread. She waited for him to finish his breakfast and then checked on his wounds. The swelling under his concussion went down fairly rapidly, and Leia stopped wrapping his head in the bandages. The ribs were healing slowly, and the ankle even more slowly. With access to a medical bay, Han would have received intra-articular bacta injections into his ankle, and he would likely have been able to walk within seventy-two hours. Without the benefit of modern medical science, Han?s ankle was forced to heal the old-fashioned way, and Han secretly hoped that Leia hadn?t set it wrong when she placed the cast.
Leia would then help him get into the fresher where he would take a quick sonic shower, and then waited outside to help him when he was done. Han fought down the embarrassment he felt when he needed Leia?s assistance to get dressed, but any sort of bending made his ribs feel they would splinter apart and he was having trouble moving about the ship hobbling or hopping around on his broken ankle. As he was getting dressed, Leia also renewed the bandages and bacta ointment around his ribs.
After the medical care had been given, Leia would help Han hobble out toward the main hold where Han went to work on the rear stabilizers. He found that Leia had taken care of the frayed cryo-module, but she hadn?t rewired the magnetic chargers before she placed in the new modules. The only way to take of that problem was to disassemble nearly everything Leia had put together and to start all over again. This set back the repairs by another two to three days, but Han wisely held his tongue and went to work. Leia stayed with him as his assistant, handing him equipment as he worked, and learning from him how to do the repair work properly herself.
They took a break in the early afternoons for a light lunch. Even Leia was able to put sliced meat between two pieces of bread, and pour something to drink. Then she would assist Han back into his cabin to rest. Despite his protests, Han tired out much more quickly than he?d ever done in his life. The morning sessions in the hold drained him and he usually fell asleep as soon as he returned to his cabin.
In the late afternoon, after Han woke, Leia would assist him to the galley where he made dinner with her help. After dinner, they sat around the Dejarik table playing desultory games against each other and joking over a cup or two of Caf before Leia helped him back into his cabin to sleep for the night and then went down the corridor to her own cabin.
While they worked, they talked, and for the first time in all the years they had known each other, their conversation was just that. Conversation. There was still light banter and badinage, but there was none of the acrimonious quarreling that marked their former verbal encounters.
For the first time since they had known each other, Leia told Han bits about her childhood on Alderaan and her memories of her mother. Memories that were so precious she had never spoken of them to anyone, not even her father. She told Han amusing anecdotes about her experiences in the Senate, and regaled him with interesting and sometimes scandalous stories about the other high government officials she knew.
In return, Han told her some stories of his childhood, things he had also never shared with anyone else before; some of them even things he had never told Chewbacca. He told Leia some stories of his early adventures with the Wookiee and about some of the more exotic planets he had visited on his extensive travels throughout the galaxy.
As they talked, Leia felt more and more that she had been wrong about Han. He wasn?t just the selfish scoundrel who cared only for himself. Somehow, she realized that, deep down, she had always known this about Han, but that it had been easier for her to think of Han as the scoundrel still. It had made it easier for Leia to hold herself aloof, to keep herself from examining her feelings for him or even admitting that she might have feelings for him. Hearing about Han?s past though, she saw more clearly that despite Han?s protests that he cared for nothing, for some things Han cared and he cared intensely. She could see that a loyal heart beat under his chest, and that his soul was far more tender and gentle than he had ever let on. She also guessed that Han would be horrified if he knew that she suspected these things in him, these beautiful qualities that he tried so hard to hide under his carefree and selfish exterior. She sighed a little, as she handed him the hydrospanners he had requested. Again, she found herself wishing that this interlude with Han might last beyond the few days until the Falcon was repaired and they returned to Echo Base. Get a hold of yourself, Organa, she told herself. Caring only leads to pain, and you?ve had more pain in your life than anyone should have in ten lifetimes.
For Han, as well, the days he spent with Leia were a revelation. She had kept up that ice-cold, hard exterior for so long that he frequently forgot that there was a lovely, tender woman underneath.
More than ever, this time he spent with Leia made Han wish he could figure a way out of his dilemma. During the three years he had spent with the Alliance, Han had made many friends and felt that he belonged more than he ever had in his life. The thought of leaving the Alliance forever had troubled him, but the thought of leaving Leia was sometimes agonizing. On the other hand, Han knew that he had to leave, soon. That bounty hunter they ran into on Ord Mantell a month back was a sign if there ever was one that his time was running out. If he didn?t square things with Jabba on his own terms, soon he might not get the chance to square anything at all.
As he watched Leia fit the shield over her face and bend her head over the panel she was welding, Han felt his heart contract painfully. He would have to leave soon. He had to get out, now. If things continued the way they had been going the past few days, Han could only see himself falling more deeply in love with her; something he hadn?t believed possible before his accident. It was bad enough that he was wrestling with his feelings for Leia. What if he could make her care for him in return? Would he be able to leave Leia under those circumstances? Could he afford to take the chance to find out? He hardened his resolve. He had to leave; that was his paramount obligation. And as soon as he brought Leia back to Echo Base, this time, he would leave. It was time.
"How are you feeling now?" Leia asked, coming into his room to change his bandages. She greeted him with a dazzling smile that nearly took his breath away.
Han smiled back at Leia. "Better."
"Well, time for your daily bandage change," Leia said, sitting down next to him. She reached forward to help him pull his shirt off, and then his bandage and then paused for a moment, staring at his chest.
"See anything you like there, Princess?" Han had been unable to resist teasing her.
Leia?s response surprised him. Instead of snapping angrily at him, she said, softly, "Yes." With the tips of her fingers, Leia gently traced the edges of his shrinking, rainbow colored bruise. Again, Han felt his muscles twitch reflexively. She pointed to a small scar that was just above his bruise. "Where did you get that?"
"A fight ? years ago. I couldn?t afford the medical treatment."
"And it left a scar," she commented.
Han nodded in agreement, and then sucked his breath in surprise as Leia leaned forward and planted a light kiss over the scar. As she looked up at him, Han grasped the wrist of her left hand.
"What made you do that?" He asked, still holding his breath in for the answer.
"Because it seemed like the right thing to do."
Han groaned, and pulled Leia in closer to her. With her face only inches away from him he could see the clearly the silky texture of her hair and the flecks of gold in her expressive brown eyes, and he could smell the faint fragrance of Alderaanian night jasmine that always seemed to cling to her. "That?s a dangerous thing to do, Princess," he said, softly.
"I?m not afraid of danger," Leia answered, with a challenge in her eyes. Looking more closely at her, Han could see that she was tense, despite her bravado.
"Maybe we should find out," Han said, as he leaned forward to capture her lips in his own. As he kissed her, his arms tightened around her back and her waist and he felt he was drowning. Her lips were soft as flower petals and tasted of nectar. He felt his heart beating in his chest thundering painfully through his ribs, and he just wanted to stay with her in his arms forever.
Han silenced her words with his lips again. She was so lovely, so soft, so enticing.
Han opened his eyes to see her more clearly and realized that he was alone in his cabin and it was pitch black. There was no Leia. There was nothing but his empty hopes and desires. He looked over at the chronometer next to his bed and groaned. Four more hours until she came in with his breakfast. Feeling a lump of near-despair well into his throat, Han rolled onto his side and closed his eyes, knowing that sleep would evade him for a long time to come.
Han was in a foul temper when he awakened the next morning. He had spent most of the night tossing and turning (or trying to toss and turn with his lame ankle); unable to fall asleep as he wrestled with the thoughts on his mind ? and when he had finally fallen asleep, his dreams had been tortured by more visions of Leia.
At some point in the night, he had awakened and needed to go to the fresher. There was no power in the galaxy that would make him call Leia for help, though. He thought desperately that he had to lessen his dependency on her. He had to keep his distance from her or else pretty soon he would not be able to keep himself from making a move on her. These last few days had been wonderful, and he knew that he would cherish them forever. But they also made him wish he could stretch out this interlude indefinitely, and this longing was becoming so intense it was frightening him.
Han sat up, feeling his head reeling. Despite the improvement in his condition over the last few days, he still felt dizzy when he sat up too quickly. Trying to wait until the room stopped spinning, he took several deep breaths and then pushed away the blankets. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, and stood up, gingerly trying to test his weight on his feet. He stood on his good foot first, and then he tried to put some weight on the left foot.
The pain shot up from his ankle through his lower leg and knee; it was so rapid and so intense, that Han was unable to control his reaction to the pain. He crumpled to the floor grasping the uneven plasticene cast and gasping for air through the waves of pain that seemed to make him see red. The deep breaths he was taking made his ribs hurt and now he had two foci of pain to torture him.
After a few moments, the pain, while not gone, was less intense and he was able to move again. Not wanting to tempt fate, Han did not attempt to stand; he crawled toward the fresher instead, dragging his injured leg behind him.
Nearly twenty minutes later, he had dragged himself back to bed. He was sweaty and exhausted and his ankle and ribs continued to throb, reminding him that he still had a long way to go to recover. He wished he?d had the foresight to bring the bottle of painkillers back with him before he went to sleep, but he?d left it in the galley. The distance down the corridor to the galley, barely meters away from the fresher, seemed impossibly far now, and he knew he?d never make the trip.
When Leia arrived in the cabin later that morning with Han?s breakfast, she stopped short on the threshold of the doorway and eyed him with a look of dismay.
"Han! Are you all right?"
Han groaned and opened his eyes, wincing at the sudden pain from the light in the cabin. He closed his eyes down to mere slits. "I?m all right." He closed his eyes again.
Leia approached the bed and set the tray down next to it. "Well, I?ve brought you some breakfast."
"Thanks. Just leave it there."
A few moments passed and Han did not hear any movement. He opened his eyes slightly again and saw Leia still standing over him. She looked concerned. And confused. And so beautiful. And she had never looked more unattainable to Han than she did that moment. She was so far above him; she was sublime, wonderful, idealistic, and persevering. She was the Princess of Alderaan and a leader of the Rebel Alliance. What was he? He was nothing but a directionless ex-smuggler with a checkered past and no future. What could he offer her? Nothing. What was she doing here with him? He had to get her away from him for her own good. It?s for her own good, he repeated to himself, although he admitted truthfully, and it?s for my own good.
"I?m not very hungry right now."
"Are you feeling sick again?" Leia?s brow furrowed in concern. She leaned over him assessing him more carefully. "You look terrible, Han! Did you have trouble sleeping? Would you like me to bring you something? A painkiller or?"
"No!" Han cut her off. "I just want to be left alone."
"I understand," Leia said, continuing to look sympathetic. "Maybe you?ve been pushing yourself too hard ? you just need a rest. Are you sure you don?t need me to help you with?"
"No!" Han said again. "I don?t need your help. I just want to be left alone." Gods help him if she didn?t get out of here soon. He felt he was about to lose his mind. He desperately wanted her to stay with him, but his instinct for self-preservation told him that he had to get her away from him as quickly as possible.
Leia leaned down and pressed her hand against his forehead, assessing him for fever. He certainly looked feverish. There was a strange glitter to Han?s eyes and he was acting peculiarly. She worried that somehow she had overlooked something in her care of him. Oh, please don?t let him have a major relapse, Leia thought, fearfully. He doesn?t feel warm, though, he?
Han pushed Leia?s hand away from his forehead. "Are you deaf!" he shouted. "I said I don?t need your help! I don?t need you to play nursemaid for me, I just want to be left alone!"
Leia recoiled from him as though she had been struck. After all she had done for him ? she bit her lip, and tried to be objective. He was sick. He looked as though he hadn?t slept well. She told herself she needed to be understanding.
"Your breakfast is on the table next to you," she said softly as she left the cabin. The door slid shut behind her.
Alone in his cabin, Han pressed his hand against his head. He had a throbbing headache, his ribs ached and his ankle was another, separate agony. He did need pain medication. But now, having driven Leia out of the room with his churlish behavior, he didn?t feel he could very well call her back in here to bring him the medicine.
Smooth going, Solo, Han thought to himself, as he lay back against his pillows with a groan.
Leia returned an hour later, and found that his temper had not improved in the interim. He had taken a couple of bites of his breakfast and wordlessly handed the tray back to her. In taciturn silence, he let her help him into the fresher, but he insisted on doing as much as possible for himself, despite the fact that he was clearly in pain.
Afterward, she assisted him into the galley and gave him some painkiller medication, which seemed to dispel some of his foul temper, although he remained silent and withdrawn. They entered the hold together and started on their repair work again, but the easy camaraderie that had existed between them had vanished without a trace. They sat at opposite ends of the hold, and each did their own work; conversation was stilted and awkward, and generally confined only to necessary communications.
At her end of the hold, Leia tried to continue her repair work on the Falcon. In her agitated state, though, she felt her hands were not steady and she was unable to do the fine welding work that she had done the last few days. Worse, while she sat across from Han in this uncomfortable silence, she was reminded more vividly than ever of the last few days when she had worked and talked and laughed with Han.
She tried to convince herself that it was merely illness and bad temper that was responsible for his outburst that morning. She understood that his convalescence took a lot more out of him than he cared to admit. It?s not personal. He?s just not feeling well, she tried to tell herself.
But another voice that would not be silenced kept creeping into her thoughts: He doesn?t want you around. He?s tired of your company. He would rather be with anyone else but you. He?s getting ready to leave as soon as the ship is repaired and he can get you back to Echo Base and out of his hair?Maybe he even blames you for the accident. After all, you were flying the ship and lost control of the throttle. If the ship hadn?t rolled like it did, we?d already be back on Echo Base, and he?d probably be on his way out of there?out of your life?
At noon, they had a silent lunch together, but instead of returning to his cabin for a nap, Han insisted on returning to the hold to continue working. Bewildered, Leia continued to work across the hold from him until Han asked for her to help him into the galley where he started preparing dinner. Hesitantly, Leia offered to make the dinner in his stead, but he only cast her an annoyed look and said nothing.
Leia left the galley, biting her lip in exasperation. She was confused and frustrated; for the first time since she had known Han, she found herself unsure of what to say to him or how to behave before him. Despite the fact that their former relationship had been marked by vociferous, sometimes even bitter arguments, Leia had always sensed an undercurrent of warmth in Han?s words ? had always sensed perhaps subconsciously, that if she relented, if she surrendered just once, that Han would be willing to offer more than just friendship. It was the exact nature and quality of what he might offer that had worried her, and perhaps she had sensed deep down, that if Han Solo broke her heart, she would be left with a wound that would never heal.
Now, however, that undercurrent of warmth ? perhaps affection? ? was gone. He had withdrawn from her completely, and she couldn?t begin to guess what was going on behind Han?s impassive and remote features.
What happened? We?d been getting along so well. He was being friendly, and charming?I thought after all these years we might now finally become friends instead of antagonists. I thought there was a rapport between us. That there was something between us. Why does he want to push me away now? Is it really just because he doesn?t feel well? She sighed, looking back toward the galley. Maybe it?s better this way. He?s going to leave you, eventually, anyway, and the less time you spend with him now, the less likely you?ll be hurt when he?s gone.
Dinner was a very simple affair, although Leia acknowledged to herself that she could not even have produced that plain repast. As she was clearing the dishes away, Leia turned back and asked: "Would you like a cup of Caf?"
Han shook his head in response, but then said, "There?s a bottle of Whyren?s Reserve in the cabinet on the left. Could you bring me that?"
Leia cast Han a worried glance. "Are you sure you should be having that? I mean in your?"
"Look, Princess, for once, can you stop being such an obsessive authoritarian and let a couple of rules slide? I?m not asking you to commit a crime or to bring me spice ? I just want a damn drink!"
Leia?s lips compressed in exasperation and anger. She brought him the bottle, which was nearly full of an aquamarine-blue colored liquid, and an empty glass. "Is that all, Han? Do you need anything else?" Leia asked stiffly.
Han shook his head. "Thanks." He poured out a glass and drank it in one gulp. When he looked up, Leia was still standing there with a frown of disapproval on her face. "What?" Han asked bluntly, and somewhat churlishly.
"Would you like me to put the bottle back?"
"No, your High Holiness, I would not like you to put the bottle back. I had one drink, and I?m going to follow it with another, and maybe another after that. Hell, I may just finish the whole damn bottle."
Leia rolled her eyes with barely suppressed anger. "Let me know if you need anything else, then." Biting her lip in confusion and exasperation, Leia left the lounge. He couldn?t be more dismissive and contemptuous if he hated me, she thought, once the door closed behind her. What happened?
Han watched Leia leave the lounge, but the relief he expected to feel did not come. His mood turned fouler than ever, and now he was starting to feel pain in his ribs and ankle. He realized he had forgotten to ask Leia for some painkillers before she left, and now he didn?t feel up to making the trip into the galley where the medication was stored. After a few moments, he realized that Leia was not going to come back out again, and he was stuck in the lounge.
Well, it?s what you wanted, he berated himself. You wanted to push her away, and now she?s staying away and you feel like a petulant little boy who wants his mommy.
The door to Leia?s cabin slid shut, and Han looked back down at the bottle before him. Time to get good and drunk, Solo, Han thought to himself. It had been a long time since he?d had more than a couple drinks at a time. Occasionally, he would kick back a couple of drinks at the end of the day with some of the pilots of Rogue Squadron, or even have a beer in the officers? lounge of Echo Base with Luke; however, he hadn?t gotten drunk since ? Han thought back, trying to remember ? since before the Battle of Nar Shaddaa. Back in the days when he had just been cashiered from the Imperial Navy, when he was trying to persuade a certain stubborn Wookiee that they?d be better off without each other.
Man, if only Chewie was here, Han thought wistfully as he reached for the bottle of whiskey before him. Chewie would have been manning the ship and you might not have had that accident.
But then, you?d never have gotten to know Leia like you?ve done the last few days, another voice whispered.
Maybe things would be better that way, Han thought stubbornly, as he poured out his second glass of whiskey.
You?ve had the best time of your life with her these last few days, the voice insisted.
It?ll only make things harder when I have to leave, Han thought irately, downing the glass of whiskey. It burned on its way down and he spluttered a little.
You could always come back to her.
What for? Han thought. She?s never given me a reason to think she?d want me back. He poured out a third glass.
You could give her a reason to want you back. You love her.
So what? She thinks I?m a lowlife slug?she said that to me the last time I told her I was leaving. Han downed the third glass. The alcohol was starting to kick in and the pain in his ribs and ankle was lessening to a dull ache that was infinitely more bearable.
Would the Princess of Alderaan do all the things for you that she?s done the last few days if she thought you were so unworthy?
She said anyone would have done the same. That doesn?t mean a thing. Han started to pour the third glass.
You love her.
Well, she doesn?t feel the same way back. How do I know she?s not really carrying a torch for Luke?
You?ll never find out if she really cares if you just hide and skulk in here like this, the voice insisted.
Shut up, shut up, shut up.
Three hours later and with less than a fifth of a bottle left, Han could no longer feel the pain in his ankle or ribs; the alcohol had done a good job anesthetizing him. However, he was nowhere near the oblivion he was seeking.
He stood up trying to return to his cabin, and promptly collapsed on the floor. The crash was loud enough to be heard throughout the ship. Moments afterward, Leia entered the lounge.
Her eyes were wide with disbelief and anger and some disgust as she took in the scene before her. "I leave you alone for a few hours and this is what happens when I come back?" Leia knelt down to help Han up.
"I didn?t ask you to come back," Han retorted, feeling his head spinning again as Leia assisted him down the corridor toward his cabin.
"Don?t be stupid! You?re so drunk you?re walking like a Gungan. I hope you at least enjoyed yourself."
"Yes, in fact, I had a great time, your Worship," Han?s sarcastic reply was slurred.
"You want me to just drop you onto the floor or do you want my help?" Leia hit the controls and the door to Han?s cabin slid open.
Han pushed her away. "I can do this by myself!" Holding onto the bulkheads for support, Han entered his cabin and then tottered a few steps before he collapsed onto the floor less than a meter from his bed.
Leia looked down at Han?s body sprawled on the floor and she frowned in a mixture of consternation, annoyance and sympathy.
"You?re a stubborn nerfheaded idiot!" Leia reached an arm around and under Han?s shoulder, helping him up. She maneuvered him toward his bed but was unable to support his weight any longer and they ended up collapsing onto the bed together. "What the hell has gotten into you today?"
"Why are you doing this?" Han asked.
"Why have you been doing this? All of this?"
"All of what? Han ? I don?t understand what you?re talking about." Leia?s brow furrowed in confusion.
"All that you?ve done for me these last few days. Why have you been doing it?"
Leia focused her eyes onto Han?s face more clearly. She could smell the alcohol clearly on his breath, but his eyes were steady. Her breath caught. What was he fishing for? Was he just asking a rhetorical question because he was drunk? Or was there something else behind all this?
"Han?you had an accident. Do you remember this or are you too drunk to remember your own name? You were unconscious for nearly two days. I was out of my mind with worry that you might not make it. I only did what anyone with a gram of compassion would do in the same circumstances. I took care of you. And now ? look at you! You?re doing your damnedest to undo all my work!"
"You were out of your mind with worry for me?" Han asked, lifting his head
Leia gasped. Out of her entire diatribe was that the only thing Han had heard? "Lie back down," she ordered, sternly.
"Did you worry, Princess?" Han would not be diverted.
Trying to make her heartbeat slow down a little from the tone of Han?s voice, Leia paused. She tried to collect her thoughts enough to speak coherently. "Of course I worried about you, Han. How would I have gotten back to Base if you died?"
Leia?s jocularity fell flat. Han didn?t grin as she hoped he would. He continued to gaze steadily at her for several moments but said nothing.
"What?s the matter, Han?" Leia asked finally.
"For once, Princess?you couldn?t admit that you might have done this because you cared?"
"Of course I care for you," Leia said quickly; perhaps a little too quickly. "You?re one of my best friends. I ? I know we?re always at each others? throats, but I?ve always thought of you as my friend."
"A friend?" Han gave a bitter sounding laugh. "Is that all I am to you?"
"What are you talking about?" Leia was suddenly acutely conscious that she was lying on Han?s bed with her arm around him. She lurched away from him with a feeling akin to panic.
"Why are you asking me this, Han? What am I to you, then?"
"I think you know," Han said softly.
With her breath suspended, Leia searched Han?s face carefully, afraid to believe he was saying what it sounded like he was saying. Was he saying that he saw her as more than a friend? That he cared for her? Faced with Han?s bluntness, she found herself swiftly re-evaluating her relationship with Han and her own views of where they stood with each other. She admitted to herself that she cared for him. After all they had been through together, he was definitely one of the most important people in her life. But she also admitted to herself that she had been through just as much with Luke, and she didn?t feel this same ambiguity with Luke. While she saw clearly that Luke had some romantic feelings toward her, she knew she didn?t reciprocate those feelings. She saw Luke as a good friend and she felt only sisterly affection for him.
With Han, on the other hand, her feelings were confusing and frequently volatile, and she was never sure exactly what she felt for him. She admitted to herself that was because she had never had the courage to ask herself exactly what she felt for Han. She certainly cared for him, but did it extend any deeper than friendship? She remembered, fleetingly, the stark terror she had felt when she found Han on the floor of the lounge, and her fear that he might be taken away from her, along with a blinding flash of regret ? that regret which faded as soon as she felt his pulse and realized he was still alive ? disappearing too soon for her to analyze the feeling.
So?here he was, alive, and asking her the one question she feared the most. Could she admit even to herself that she might have fallen in love with him? If she could admit that possibility, then what was she hoping that Han was now implying? Could he love her in return? Did she dare hope that much? Did she dare to bare her soul and take the next step with him?
Leia looked into Han?s eyes, and she started to tremble. I ? I can?t ask him what he meant, Leia thought desperately. I?m not ready for the implications of what he said. She opened her mouth to respond to him, but ended up saying: "I think you?ve had too much to drink, Han. I?m going to get you a cup of Caf." She stood up and headed toward the doorway of the cabin.
"I don?t want a cup of Caf. I want you to look me in the eye and tell me there?s nothing more than friendship here."
Leia stopped cold in the doorway, facing into the corridor, and feeling profoundly grateful that Han could not see her face, or the unbecoming blush that covered her from her forehead to her shoulders. Her mouth worked soundlessly to answer him, but she found she could not articulate a reply. Taking the coward?s way out, she ran swiftly down the hallway toward the galley.
Once inside the galley, she stood for several moments, helplessly trying to still the shaking in her hands. He?s drunk, he has to be, Leia thought desperately. He doesn?t mean any of that. It?s too unbelievable that he would see me as anything but a workaholic shrew. He?s told me that often enough ? that I?m a relentless fanatic, that I?m a pain in the ass, that I wouldn?t know what a good time was if it sat on top of me, and that he could have more fun with a comatose sha?ak than with me. Why in the galaxy should I think that I mean anything to him? He could have half the women in the Alliance if he wanted them ? I?ve seen how the recruits and the female pilots have looked at him. People like Han Solo don?t love ? they just leave a trail of broken hearts behind them.
Leia started fixing the Caf, and her mind continued to wander. But ? I do love?and I ? I do love him, Leia finally admitted to herself. Damn and blast it all! In near despair, Leia slammed the cup she was holding onto the countertop. Hot water splashed out onto her hand and she gasped. She quickly ran some cold water over her hand and then fixed herself a bacta bandage before returning to the task of fixing the Caf.
I?ve tried so hard to keep this from happening. I can?t afford to fall in love?it will only lead to pain and grief. And ? with Han ? any heartbreak from losing him or being rejected by him would kill me. But ? I love him. And?why not admit this to myself, but I?ve loved him for years. Him. Han Solo. Despite everything we?ve been through?all the arguments and the insults? underneath it, I?ve loved him. He?s made me feel more alive in these three years than I?ve ever felt in my life. Do I take a chance on that love and admit it to him?
Leia picked up the steaming cup of Caf and returned down the corridor toward Han?s cabin. What do I say to him? How do I answer him? she wondered desperately. She paused outside the door. It all depends on how he looks when I walk in there, she finally decided.
She hit the controls and entered Han?s cabin.
Han was asleep, still sprawled awkwardly on the bed where she had left him.
Leia set the cup of Caf down on Han?s desk and turned to watch him, feeling simultaneous relief and deep disappointment.
Figures, Leia thought.
The background lights on the Millennium Falcon were timed for a normal circadian rhythm. With the black emptiness of space as the only view from the cockpit windows, it was usually difficult to keep track of time without this function.
Consequently, at 0700 Standard Time, the lights went on everywhere on the ship, Han?s cabin included. Han opened his eyes to the gentle glow, but felt as though pincers were lancing through his eyes. He shifted in the bed and his pillow fell to the floor. The soft umph the pillow made as it landed sounded as loud as a ton of boulders crashing down around Han?s ears.
This is why I stopped getting drunk.
Han groaned and slowly tried to get reacquainted with wakefulness. As he lay in the bed trying to remember why he was drinking again, he suddenly remembered yesterday, and he brought his hands up over his eyes, wincing. Memories of the previous night flooded his mind. At first, they were disjointed and disorienting, spinning along with the dizziness in his head. After a few minutes, they started settling into coherent order. He thought of the things he?d said to Leia before he started drinking, and he thought of the things he?d said afterward. He remembered most of it until she left to make him Caf, and then his memory faded to black.
I might as well have just come right out and told her I loved her, he thought, horrified.
But then, as he replayed the memories in his head, he thought of the way she had looked and the things she had said. She had been angry but she hadn?t rebuffed him or laughed at him.
Leia had also seemed to be responding to him. Something had been there in her eyes. Could she have been on the verge of confessing her own feelings? Was I just imagining it? Did I only see something in her eyes because that?s what I wanted to see? Or was this something I dreamed up in some alcoholic delirium?
Leia chose that moment to enter Han?s room. She brought in a tray with some Caf and fruit for Han. "How are you doing?" she asked.
Han opened his eyes cautiously, squinting against the light. "Don?t shout at me."
Leia grinned. "I brought you some medicine for your head. I thought you?d need some."
As Leia approached the bed, Han sat up and watched her carefully. She didn?t look angry or upset. In fact, she looked somewhat serene and was speaking casually. Han started to relax a little and then felt the tension suddenly return. Leia. Serene. Casual. That wasn?t like Leia at all. He looked more closely at her and realized that Leia was carefully trying to keep her features composed.
Leia set the tray down near Han, and handed him the Caf and some medicine. He took both and then said, "Thanks."
"Are you hungry?"
"Mmm?yes," Han said. He picked up the cirrini fruit that Leia had sliced for him, and then looked up. Caught off guard by Leia?s sudden appearance in his cabin, Han wasn?t sure how he should behave. He remembered his resolve to keep his distance from Leia, but on the other hand, he was also intensely intrigued over how she viewed their last encounter. "I ? uh ? I?m sorry I shouted at you, yesterday."
Leia gave him a startled look, but said only, "I know."
"Look?" Han paused, trying to think of the right way to phrase his next question. "When you came in?after I?d been drinking?did I do or say anything I shouldn?t have?"
Leia?s head reared back. Did I do or say anything I shouldn?t have? A sudden feeling of bitter disappointment rose in Leia?s throat. He didn?t remember what had transpired between them last night. Leia had spent most of the night tossing and turning restlessly, examining and re-examining her feelings for Han. It had been a revelation to her to realize and to admit to herself that she wasn?t just attracted to Han. I love him, the thought had reverberated through her thoughts all night long; but the epiphany had not brought her happiness. Long ago, as a child, she had believed that the day she fell in love would be the happiest of her life. She?d been raised on tales of happily ever after; even after becoming a Senator and seeing the destruction of her world, Leia had still clung to that childish illusion of perfect love and happiness. A part of her had still believed it was possible.
But it wasn?t happiness to fall in love with Han. There was only a sharp ache and a stirring of fear. Although she told herself that Han was her friend, that Han cared for her ? the practical, cynical part of her refused to believe that there could be anything in Han?s questions other than his usual teasing and baiting. While she would have been able to accept the teasing with equanimity before, now that she admitted to herself that she really did love him, the questions he asked now seemed to be a cruel form of torture.
This should never have happened! I hated Han when I first met him! We?ve got nothing in common! He?s a cynical rogue who?s best at taking care of himself. I?ve dedicated my life to the Alliance and galactic freedom. He thinks that I?m overly high-minded, uptight and self-righteous ? and I?ve always thought of him as someone who flies by the seat of his pants, someone who was immoral, decadent?and yet utterly charming, charismatic, and irresistible?and whenever he gives me that look I just want to dissolve into a puddle.
Leia?s thoughts continued to torment her throughout the night. He?s not all those terrible things I believed when I first met him. He does have a heart; he does care; and he is loyal. Look at what he did for Chewbacca ? for Luke ? for me! He?s stayed around to help the Alliance for all these years, when he had no need to stay. I?ve always known these things about him ? I just never admitted it to myself.
But ? he?s also leaving. You know this?you?ve always known this. He?s got to pay back Jabba the Hutt one day, and when he goes?
But Leia?s thoughts shied away from that eventuality. She couldn?t imagine carrying on day after day within the Rebellion without Han. Surprised, she realized that just his presence, even frequently exasperating as it had been, was what gave her life spice. She admitted to herself the quickening of her pulse and the sudden jumps her heart had always made whenever she saw Han were proof of her feelings for him, and wondered in surprise how she could have mistaken that feeling for detestation and anger.
I?ve deluded myself for years, she thought in astonishment, as her heart twisted painfully before her thoughts turned: But then, maybe it was better this way. Maybe it was better not to know ? and not to wonder what he thinks of me.
What does he think of me? Leia wanted so desperately to believe that Han could love her, when all the evidence in her tortured mind told her otherwise. She believed that Han was her friend and that in some way he did care for her ? but only as a friend, someone he watched over in some strange sense of obligation, a perpetual thorn in his side.
As far as a woman he could love ? Leia had seen the kind of women that Han fancied. Tall, voluptuous, and very entertaining. Dozens of women had practically thrown themselves at Han?s feet during the years he had been in the Alliance, and, although he never seemed to care for any of them, Han had certainly been no saint about them, either. A bitter sensation of bile rose in her throat as Leia thought of those women: Pradine, Calana, Tarisse, Rali, Saryt, Meredila?and the most recent one, Franka. Tarts, Leia thought contemptuously, remembering the gathering in the officers? lounge that had taken place a week before this most recent mission. Between Han and Leia there had been another of their acrimonious arguments just prior to and during the gathering, and Han had airily left the lounge not long afterward with young Lieutenant Franka Adlen hanging off his arm.
Leia?s reaction had been to commit herself to another mission almost immediately, although she had been exhausted from a succession of assignments that had taken her back and forth across the galaxy gathering support and resources for the Alliance. She had been planning to take a week off to rest and regroup while doing some light data disc review, but now she was committed to traveling halfway across the galaxy again to visit the systems of Renalo and Cijex.
To Leia?s surprise, Han had offered himself as her escort. Luke was away on a mission with Rogue Squadron, and most of the other available pilots in the Alliance were tied up in other duties. Reluctantly, Leia had accepted Han?s offer. Despite her grudging acceptance of Han?s offer and her avowed disinterest in him, she was surprised at how dismayed she had felt when she discovered that Han had been planning to go to Kashyyyk along the way to give Chewbacca a chance to visit with his family. So that?s the reason he wanted to undertake the mission, Leia had thought, gritting her teeth when she heard of Han?s plans, although she was happy for Chewbacca.
It wasn?t until after witnessing Chewbacca?s joyful reunion with his wife and son that it dawned on Leia that she?d be stuck with Han alone until the mission ended and they could return to Kashyyyk to pick up the Wookiee.
The journey through Renalo and Cijex had been uncomfortable to say the very least, although, as Leia reminisced through the awkward silences and stilted conversation that had taken place between her and Han, she also remembered several small things that made her heart beat a little faster: she remembered Han?s concern for her when she agreed to meet with the Renalan Councilor alone, and his insistence that he accompany her ? at the time she had been infuriated, worried that Han?s attitude would be insulting to the Renalans ? but now she wondered?
No. No. No! It means nothing!
But then, what about the dinner he prepared for her after she finished meeting with the prickly Rodian head of the Cijex cell? Leia had a difficult meeting with the Rodian who was not prepared to believe Leia?s claims that the Alliance was short on the supplies he demanded ? afterward, feeling tired and discouraged, she had returned to the Falcon with Han and gone to her cabin to blow off steam. An hour later, the chime had sounded at her door. Leia was in no mood to take on Han at that time, and had reluctantly opened the door. Wordlessly, Han had led her down the corridor toward the galley where a hot dinner was sitting on the counter. Leia had stared at the steaming plate of food before her in surprise and gratitude, but when she had turned to thank Han, he had already left the galley.
Don?t read that much into it. He?d do the same for Luke or Chewie. He thinks of you as an old comrade-in-arms.
What about all those things he?s said to you over the years? Those hints he?s made? the voice of hope whispered.
Those weren?t hints. All those risqu? jokes and sexual innuendos are nothing more than his way of riling you because he knows it drives you completely crazy.
Or is it?
And so Leia had allowed herself to dare to hope. She was still awake when the lights had come on in her cabin, but she hadn?t felt tired. The thought of seeing Han again and tending to his wounds had enervated her. She wondered how Han would look and what he would say.
And now this.
Did I do or say anything I shouldn?t have?
Leia gathered her composure for a moment as she tried to tamp down the bitter disappointment she was feeling, and then with a forced lightness in her voice, responded: "You were drunk, Han. I didn?t take too much notice of what you said."
Over the next eight days, the atmosphere on the Falcon was charged and tense. Conversation became stilted and awkward again. While he continued to work on fixing the Falcon, Han started to decline Leia?s help, insisting that he do what he could for himself, although he was still clearly in pain and far from well. One of the first things Han did after his bout with the whiskey was to piece together a makeshift crutch from some pieces of scrap metal rods to help him get about. It was rather crude, but did the job well
Several times Leia found herself biting back snappy comments when Han said something that got on her nerves or when she watched him doing something that she knew would exacerbate his injuries. Aware of the cause for her bitterness and ill-temper now, Leia struggled to control herself, to keep from raging at him.
It?s not his fault, she told herself, as she watched him holding onto his crutch to steady himself as he made his way into the galley, It?s not his fault if he doesn?t love you back.
Han made his way into the galley and immediately collapsed his weight onto the stool behind the counter, letting the crutch fall to the ground with a clatter. Away from Leia?s sharp eyes, he allowed himself to wince over the pain in his ribs and ankle, breathing slowly to allow the pain to subside. He tugged futilely at the plasticene cast over his ankle. He wanted another painkiller in the worst way but would not admit it before Leia.
Only someone in an insensible coma could fail to notice the strained atmosphere on board the Falcon during the last eight days. The easy camaraderie between them had vanished like mist before the sun, and it wasn?t until it had disappeared that Han realized how much he regretted his actions. He kept telling himself it was necessary to push Leia away, to save them both pain when he eventually left; but he didn?t have the courage to look too closely at the expression in her eyes. When she spoke so casually the morning he woke with his hangover, refuting everything that had gone between them the days before, Han heard the undercurrent of sadness she tried unsuccessfully to hide. For three years he had been listening to her through all their arguments and bantering, learning the nuances of her speech ? and until now he had never realized he had been waiting to hear the suggestion that her feelings for him might have changed.
Until his convalescence.
In the wonderful three days they had spent together, Han had finally heard that note in her voice ? despite her laughter and the shedding of her reserved exterior, which Han felt to be wonderful, it was the change in her tone of voice that had secretly delighted him the most.
And now it was gone, washed away in an undercurrent of sadness and bitterness that Leia didn?t even know she projected through her careful words and guarded expression.
Did he only imagine the soft look on her face, and the gentleness in her voice those few days? Had he only hallucinated the candid revelations told to him on the intimacy of the lounge sofa when they sat together sharing a cup of Caf after dinner? Was the tenderness of her touch as she cared for his wounds a delirium-induced dream?
Han almost wished those few days had never happened. It would have been so much easier for him to continue his former antagonistic relationship with Leia if he hadn?t had a glimpse of the real person underneath the foe.
"Damn it, why are things always so complicated when a woman is involved?"
The throbbing pain from Han?s ankle woke him in the middle of the night. He looked up at the chronometer and groaned. It was just an hour past midnight. He switched on the lights and sat up in bed. Looking at the table next to him, he saw that he was out of painkillers. He?d been trying not to take the medication, hoping to lessen his dependency, but the pain he was feeling now was just too unbearable.
Leaning onto his crutch, Han slowly made his way out of his cabin and into the galley where the medication was kept. He took two tablets and washed them down with some water before leaving the galley. He just started making his way back toward his cabin when a sound behind him made him stop.
He looked back toward the closed door to Leia?s cabin. There it was again; that muffled sound. Moving as swiftly as he could, Han made his way back along the corridor toward Leia?s cabin. He hit the controls and the door slid open silently.
Standing in the doorway, with the light from the corridor spilling into Leia?s room, Han was able to see her huddled on the bed with her back facing him.
Leia gave a horrified gasp and sat up in bed. She was wearing a light, silky shift, which he?d never seen her wear before, and which showed off her figure very admirably. "What are you doing here?"
"I heard a noise," Han said, feeling a wave of tenderness for her as he looked down at her. There were traces of tears on her face, and she sniffed a couple of times.
"Did you want something?" Leia asked, futilely trying to wipe the tears off her face.
You, Han thought, and then recoiled a little bit from the unruly direction his thoughts had taken. "I got up because my ankle?s been hurting."
"Do you need me to get you a painkiller?"
"I already got one." He crossed the short distance from the door to Leia?s bed and sat down next to her, placing his crutch down on the floor. "You okay?"
"I?m fine," Leia said, shifting away from him in the bed. She pulled her blankets up over her chest, trying to cover herself.
Han?s lips twitched. "It?d be a shame to hide that lovely figure."
Leia suddenly looked furious. "If you?ve come here to start this with me?"
"Hey?calm down," Han said, gently. "I?m not here to start a fight with you. I just wanted to make sure you?re okay."
"I?m fine," Leia repeated, looking down away from Han.
"Did you have a nightmare?" Han persisted.
For several moments, Leia did not answer, and then she said in a low voice, "Yes."
Leia looked up uncomfortably. "Han ? I think you should just go back to bed."
"What happened?" Han was inexorable.
Leia sighed. "I was dreaming about the Death Star again ? and about Alderaan."
"You dream about that a lot?"
Leia shook her head. "No?I haven?t had this dream in a while."
"What happened in your dream?" Han asked, reaching for her hand. He held her hand in his right hand and covered it with his left. Leia trembled at bit at Han?s touch, but she said nothing, and she didn?t attempt to remove her hand, either.
"I was dreaming about the control room ? and Tarkin ? and Vader ? and I saw Alderaan exploding again ? oh, Sith! I?ll never be able to get that vision out of my head!" Leia jerked her hand away from Han and covered her eyes.
Swiftly, Han settled himself closer to her and pulled Leia into his arms letting her sob herself out. In all the time that he had known her, he had never seen her cry. He realized now, that while she kept up that ice cold exterior in public, that Leia hid her intense feelings for these times when she was alone. Feeling a little helpless in the face of her pain, Han said nothing, just kept her cradled in his arms rubbing her back lightly with one hand while he pressed his lips into her rumpled hair, murmuring soothing sounds.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" Han asked, when he saw that she was starting to become calm.
Still not moving from the circle of Han?s arms, Leia considered Han?s words and then nodded. Slowly, and with halting words, she told the story of the horror and pain she had witnessed that day aboard the Death Star ? telling the tale she had never told anyone before. Her debriefing before the Alliance High Command had been nothing more than a recounting of the dry facts of the encounter. In Han?s arms, Leia was finally able to let go of the anguish she had carried inside for over three years.
"Why was I allowed to survive when they all died?" Leia finally asked the question that had nagged at her conscience all those years.
Han pulled back away from her a bit. "What do you mean? Do you think it?s your fault?"
Leia couldn?t meet Han?s eyes as she confronted the worst demons that had haunted her all the years since Alderaan?s destruction. What could she have done to prevent it? How had she failed her people? "I didn?t stop it from happening," Leia said, in a low voice.
"Stop it from happening? Just how were you supposed to do that? You were on board an Imperial base! The most formidable weapon in the Empire. Do you think for one minute that Tarkin hadn?t planned on destroying Alderaan all along no matter what you said?"
Leia shook her head. "But ? if I?d given in even a little; if I?d given some of the smaller Alliance secrets without mentioning the actual base location, maybe ? maybe Vader and Tarkin would have been satisfied or at least willing to hold off on firing?"
"Leia, look at me," Han?s voice was insistent, and Leia found herself obeying. She looked up at Han. "Have you been carrying around this load of guilt all these years? You lived ? but you didn?t pull the trigger! It was Tarkin and Vader and the Emperor who did this."
"But I was responsible for Alderaan!"
"Did you ever stop and think how egotistical that sounds?" Han asked. Leia made an indignant noise, but Han silenced her. "Listen to me for just one moment, your Worship. Look, you represented Alderaan in the Senate. Your family governed the planet. But the Alderaani were not your children or your pets. The planet wasn?t your personal property. It was your responsibility to do whatever you could to protect them, but no one expected you to perform miracles. You did what you could ? and all this guilt that you?re feeling just implies that you believe you?re some superhuman creature who could actually perform the impossible ? and it?s wrong!"
Leia said nothing for a few moments as she considered what Han had said. On one level, it made a lot of sense, but on another level, the thought of surrendering her load of guilt frightened her ? she wondered if by following Han?s advice would she be acting sensibly or just selfishly? She had disciplined herself to ignore her own desires and to assume responsibility for all those around her for so long that the very thought of letting go terrified her.
After a few moments, she suddenly realized that she was in Han?s arms; she became aware that Han?s lips were brushing the top of her head, and that he was giving her little nuzzling kisses with his lips while his hand was gently rubbing her back. And as she turned her cheek, she realized he was shirtless, with only the fine cloth of the bandage wrapped around his waist, and he was wearing loose trousers. A little voice inside was telling her that she should be horrified, that being held by Han like this was the last thing in the galaxy that she should be doing. But she didn?t move. The larger part of her didn?t want to leave the feeling of utter security and belonging that she had in Han?s arms.
She sighed. She was a little surprised at herself for recounting the painful experience on the Death Star. She had never thought to tell that story to anyone, but somehow, it seemed so right to tell Han. And he had been so comforting and understanding. So devoid of mockery.
She shifted her head to look up at him, and swallowed past the lump that suddenly appeared in her throat as she took in Han?s handsome, chiseled profile.
What am I doing? Leia thought in a brief spurt of panic.
She started to pull out of his arms and then his gaze slid down toward hers; he gave her the slow smile that made her heart flip flop unsteadily in her chest. She stilled, breathing in his comforting masculine scent, and before her common sense could reassert itself, she felt Han?s lips on hers. His power of charm and seduction should be illegal. The notion flittered briefly through her mind before all her thoughts were swept away by a sea of longing and desire. Han?s lips were drugging her and she kissed him back hungrily. She was starting to feel faint, but at the same time, she was more alive than she ever remembered being before.
Han?s lips moved down along the side of her face toward her neck, nuzzling in the hollow just below her jaw, and making every nerve shiver awake in her body. He began moving even lower down along her neck and then kissing her down toward her collarbone. Leia?s hands moved along Han?s back, trailing lightly over his smooth skin and bunched muscles and reaching instinctively toward his head where she buried her fingers in his hair, and then she felt her universe tilt as he lowered her slowly down toward her pillows.
Han reached for one of the straps on her shift, and his lips moved down under her collarbone. Everywhere he touched her he left a trail of fire under her skin, and Leia moaned softly.
Leia felt the pressure of Han?s hands pulling the strap off her shoulder; she brought her arm down to let Han pull off the strap?
?and then accidentally elbowed him in the ribs.
Han let out a strangled, "Argh!" and promptly fell off the bed. Fortunately, the bunk was low to the deck, but when he landed, Leia heard another agonized howl.
Swiftly, she pulled back the blankets and leapt out of bed.
A vibroblade fight couldn?t hurt worse than this, Han thought as he held his right hand on his injured ribs and grabbed at his left ankle with his other hand.
"Han! Are you all right?" Leia was kneeling at his side with a mortified look on her face. "I?m so sorry! Here, let me take a look!"
"Sweetheart, there are other ways to kill the mood if you wanted to stop," Han gritted out, although through his pain-induced haze he noticed that the shift Leia was wearing came only halfway down her thighs; it was a light pink colored silky shift edged in fine lace and it clung to her body in a way that generally left very little to the imagination. Her long, dark hair was also unbound, and pooled down around her back and shoulders. I?m gonna fantasize about this for years, Han thought irrelevantly.
Leia sighed. "Maybe it?s better this way." She reached for the bindings on Han?s bandage. "Did you hurt your ankle, too, when you fell?"
"Yes," Han said, lifting his left leg a little. "Maybe what?s better?"
"You said ?maybe it?s better this way?. What?s better? That you re-injured me? I know you?ve been waiting for years to deck me, but don?t you think this is a little too cruel?"
A startled laugh escaped from Leia?s throat.
"Or you?re saying it?s better that we stopped? Is that it?"
Leia sighed as she began to unwrap the bandage, and said nothing.
Han waited several moments for her reply, and then he spoke, trying to keep his voice low and deliberately steady: "Is there someone else?"
Leia shook her head quickly. "No ? no, there?s no one?"
"What about Luke?" Han asked, looking directly into her eyes.
"Luke? Luke?s just ? just a friend, Han!"
The look of utter amazement on Leia?s face was too genuine for Han to doubt. The relief he felt was so immediate and palpable that he was surprised at himself. Until he heard it straight from Leia?s lips, he had no idea how much the thought that Leia might care for Luke had really bothered him.
But if Luke wasn?t the problem then?
"So, you just think it?s wrong for a princess and a guy like me to?" Han?s words trailed off and he reviewed the last few moments that had passed between him and Leia and wondered at how his resolve was so shaky in Leia?s presence. Didn?t I promise myself this wouldn?t happen? I was supposed to stay the hell away from her ? And now I?ve kissed her, and I don?t want any of this to stop.
"What are you talking about?" Leia asked as she finished taking off the bandage. She stood up to switch on the lights. Everything in the cabin was suddenly clearly visible compared with the hazy views provided by the dim illumination of the corridor lights that had spilled into the room before.
Han wrestled with his conscience a little longer; he knew he should stop now ? he was really playing with fire this way, but the question rolled off his tongue, seemingly of its own volition: "Am I just a friend to you, too?"
Leia looked away from Han and said nothing for several seconds before she answered haltingly: "Han ? you know you?re ? I mean I?ve always thought of you ? I ? well ? since we first met, I?" and then her voice faltered completely, and she found that she was now clasping her hands together convulsively. When it came to actually confessing her feelings for Han, she found she was too frightened to allow the words past her mouth ? she was terrified of the implications if she found he didn?t reciprocate her feelings and even more if he did.
As she stared miserably at Han, Leia found to her surprise that she was regretting that things hadn?t progressed further in her bed ? she found herself wishing that she could have found surcease and comfort in Han?s arms and that she could have finally known what it felt like to be a woman, to have a lover. And now it was too late.
"I ? I can?t! I just can?t! Han, please ? what do you want from me?"
Leia chose that moment to kneel down and to press her hand against his ribs, and Han hissed from the pain.
"Sorry. I didn?t hit your ribs that hard ? I think it?s just bruised," Leia commented, touching his chest lightly. "But I can get the scanner to take a look."
"Forget it, Princess," Han said, swiftly pulling away from her and reaching for his crutch.
"Han, let me finish taking a look!" Leia protested.
"No. You?re right, it?s probably nothing," Han said. "Nothing that a good night?s rest won?t cure."
With an effort, He stood upright. Immediately, his left ankle protested, but Han forced himself not to reveal his pain. He swallowed a few times. She won?t answer my question because she doesn?t feel the same way; she certainly responded like she did care, but?but maybe it?s better this way. She?s made the decision for me, maybe, but it?s the right one. If she?d let me go on ? it would have changed everything ? and I don?t know if I could ever leave her if we made love.
"Han?" Leia stood up as well.
"I?ll be all right," Han said quietly. He smoothed away a stray lock of Leia?s hair off her forehead. "Get some rest."
A glint of something like sadness showed in Leia?s eyes. "I should be telling you that."
"Good night." Han headed toward the open doorway to Leia?s cabin.
Han turned swiftly on hearing Leia?s call. Leia hesitated, bit her lip, and then said in a low voice, "I ? it?s nothing, Han. Good night."
Han nodded curtly and entered the hallway. The door slid shut between them.
Han ached all over when he woke the next morning. Both his ribs and his ankle were throbbing painfully, and he found he was helplessly twisted within the sheets of his bed.
What the hell happened?
Han turned and felt pain shoot through his side. With that pain, memories of the previous night returned, and Han groaned in a mixture of frustration and confusion. What had he done? And what was he supposed to do now?
He had kissed her. After three years of bickering and fighting, he had finally done the one thing he had longed to do from the beginning. And after fantasizing about her for so long, finally having Leia in his arms was even better than anything he?d ever imagined. And still nothing was resolved between them.
"Maybe it?s better this way."
Leia?s words to him echoed in his mind and left a bitter taste in his mouth.
I?ve just been torturing myself all this time, and it doesn?t look like things are ever gonna get better. She?s not putting on an act. She just doesn?t see me that way. And why would she love me back? She kissed me back, but kept denying us ? and I guess I can see why. She?s a highborn princess and I?m just ? Well, Mothma and Dodonna have certainly made it clear over the years how wrong I am for her. Maybe deep down inside she feels the same way, whether she owns up to it or not.
So, I know this. I?ve always known this. Why can?t I get her out of my head?
Damned fool! I should have left after the Battle of Yavin. I?ve always known I had to leave to pay back Jabba. The sooner the better. As soon as I can get her back to Echo Base, I?m hightailing it out of the damned Alliance. I have to get away from her.
What was really holding him back ? what had really held him back all these years? He had always known this was a dead-end relationship. So why was he so unwilling to pull away? He?d never had this problem with any other woman he had fancied ? but even as the thought went through his mind, Han knew that this comparison was not valid. Leia wasn?t like any other woman who?d ever caught his eye, and what he felt for Leia was like nothing he?d ever felt for any other woman. Although he hadn?t fully admitted it to himself, Han was already starting to suspect that his feelings for Leia were for life.
These suspicions terrified Han more than anything had in his life. He was used to being alone, to relying on himself. Chewbacca?s friendship and life-debt were an exception, but Han found it impossible to trust anyone else with his closely guarded innermost-self. The thought that this tiny, snippy, bossy woman had managed to entrench herself in the deepest part of his soul rattled him, and infuriated him ? but he could no more cut Leia out of his heart than he could cut off his right hand. If she didn?t care for him, the only way out of this painful situation was to get away.
I was right when I made the decision to avoid her. I have to leave her to pay off Jabba the Hutt. Even though it?ll hurt like hell to leave her the way things are, how much worse would it be to leave her if she loved me? And why even bother thinking of this? She?ll never love me.
Han kicked his sheets off with an oath, cursing fate and the gods and whoever else was responsible for putting that beautiful, infuriating, unreachable Princess in his path. Reaching down onto the floor for his crutch, Han slowly eased himself out of bed.
Leia woke as the simulated lights came on in her cabin and lay for a long time looking up at the ceiling. She had spent the night dreaming of Han ? dreaming that their kiss had progressed into something more, and she had awakened in a twist of desire. Every molecule of her being had longed to traverse the few meters down the corridor to Han?s cabin and to finish what had started the night before.
Even as her body was remembering Han?s touch, her mind was reeling in horror.
I?m acting like I?ve been drugged! Leia thought in dismay. In helpless confusion, Leia tried to sort through her thoughts about Han, but was assaulted by a montage of memories from infuriating to amusing to passionate.
Get a hold of yourself, Organa! Leia finally told herself, sternly. You were the Senator of Alderaan, a leader in the Rebel Alliance, you chaired over a hundred Alderaanian charities, coordinated the Alderaanian Defense League and sat in Alderaanian Council meetings with your father before you were twenty. You were able to juggle a hundred conflicting ideas and responsibilities at once. Why can?t you sort out what to do about one exasperating scoundrel like Han Solo?
Because I love Han Solo.
The thought had lost none of its poignancy in repetition. Every morning since Leia had finally admitted her love for Han to herself, she had awakened with this same thought on her mind. Every morning she had desperately tried to refute the notion, but she could not deny to herself what she felt for Han.
The difference was that this morning she finally realized how uncharacteristic her behavior had been during the past two and a half weeks since Han had awakened from his coma:
I?ve completely let down my guard. I?ve let Han Solo seep into the crevices of my soul.
Leia recoiled in panic at the thought.
What does Han think of me? Leia?s thoughts churned helplessly. Could he possibly love me or was last night just something for his amusement? Han Solo, trapped on board the Millennium Falcon with his arch-nemesis for weeks and weeks?wouldn?t it be a triumph if he could make her fall to his feet?
No. Han?s not like that. He?s not petty and small-minded.
He cares ? but how seriously?
I wanted him so badly last night it was on the tip of my tongue to beg him to come back ? to hold me ? to kiss me again. I was ready to risk my heart, my mind, my very sanity for him. Another kiss and I would have been lost.
What kind of insanity possessed me to let him kiss me in the first place? His kisses made me want to turn into a shameless wanton ? they made me want to surrender myself completely.
I can?t do this any more.
I love Han and I want to believe that Han is the perfect man for me.
I want to believe that I could be safe and loved and cherished by him.
I couldn?t bear it if my beliefs were shattered. And besides, he?s leaving. He has to go pay off Jabba the Hutt. I would be willing to wait for him, as long as it took, if I believed he would come back for me. But, he?s never given me any indication to believe this was possible.
I can?t take the chance on this.
Things were so much easier and clear cut when we were at each other?s throats. I have to distance myself from him. I have to guard my heart.
He might be amusing himself, or this might be for real, but I can?t play along with him.
I have to make things go back to the way they were.
Her mind made up, Leia sat up in bed, feeling saddened. Tears welled into her eyes and she wanted nothing more than to sob out her frustrations and loneliness. But Leia Organa wasn?t a woman who gave in easily to tears. After a few moments, she collected herself, and slowly climbed out of bed to start her day.
Leia emerged from her cabin feeling a strong sense of resolve. Even though her decision to revert to her former reserved self had saddened her, she still experienced that same sense of purpose she felt whenever she believed she had solved a problem. And she firmly believed that this was the only way to guard her heart.
It was hard to hold on to that resolve when she saw Han. Those few days when they had been friendly and candid with each other had opened her eyes to a whole other side of the Corellian scoundrel, and Leia wanted to return to that pleasurable camaraderie so badly that it felt like an aching void in her chest when she entered the galley and saw him.
Han was sitting on a stool at the counter when Leia entered. Her breakfast was also waiting for her. Usually, Leia was the one who made breakfast and she could only produce a simple meal. Fruit, bread and Caf. Today, Han had made a sumptuous breakfast of Banja cakes, scrambled terriki-egg omelettes, and traladon sausages with sliced fruit.
"Morning," Han grunted in greeting. He seemed to be somewhat reserved this morning, and although Leia told herself this was for the best, a part of her couldn?t help feel a sensation of regret that this was the way things would probably be for the rest of their time together.
Leia sat down on the stool opposite Han and looked down at her plate. Her stomach gave an appreciative growl, and she said, "Wow, you were very industrious this morning."
"I was hungry."
The tone of Han?s voice made Leia bristle defensively. "I?m sorry I didn?t get up earlier, but I was a little tired!"
"Pipe down, Princess," Han snapped. "No one?s accusing you of slacking off or anything!"
Slightly mollified, Leia picked up her trident and started eating. This is really good, Leia thought ruefully, wondering if she would ever be able to learn to successfully boil water.
"Why couldn?t you sleep last night?" Han asked, breaking into Leia?s thoughts.
Leia shrugged. "No reason."
"No." Leia was beginning to feel very uncomfortable with the subject, wincing as she thought of how much of her inner soul she had bared last night. She took a bite of the traladon sausage and changed the topic. "How?s your side?"
Han shrugged. "Not in the best shape, but it?s all right."
"No, you?re not."
Han?s tone was light, but Leia?s reaction was not. "It was really no more than you deserved."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Han slammed his cup of Caf down. "What the hell did I do to deserve that? Are you mad that a lowly guy like me would dare to kiss the high and mighty Princess of Alderaan? Or are you just really mad that I didn?t finish what I started?"
"How dare you?" Leia rose from her chair with fury and indignation quivering in every line of her slender body. "You rotten, laser-brained, scruffy-looking?"
"What?s the matter, your Royal Highness? You?ve never been kissed like that before?"
"I should have known better than to expect you to have the breeding not to bring up that topic!"
"Breeding? Princess, I?m a smuggler, remember? I was never trained in this diplomatic nonsense."
"That?s certainly plain to see."
"So?none of the pretty boys calling at the palace ever dared to sneak a kiss when your father wasn?t looking?"
Leia found herself grimacing involuntarily as she remembered the young potential suitors who had come to Alderaan to ask for her hand. Princes, kings, viceroyals, and noblemen from dozens of other star systems had started visiting the Royal Palace in Aldera from the time Leia had turned sixteen. She had been much more interested in her diplomatic and political work at the time, and suffered through the few dates she had been forced to accept with the air of a martyr. The strict protocols which governed the Alderaanian Royal Family?s day to day functions did not allow Leia anywhere without strict chaperonage. Consequently, her dates began and ended with nothing more than the polite and ceremonial handshake, and there was never anything but correct conversation in between.
Later, when Leia became a Senator and moved to Coruscant, she had reluctantly accepted occasional invitations to dinner ? it would have been too politically awkward for her to refuse all the time ? but even these unchaperoned dinners tended to end chastely. Even at a young age, Leia had always been formidable. A rare, intrepid suitor or two had managed a light peck on her cheek, and one had even managed to plant a wet, sticky, thoroughly disgusting kiss on her lips, but Leia had never experienced anything like Han Solo?s mind-numbing sensual kisses before. "No," she murmured.
"They must have all been fools."
Leia drew her breath in sharply at that remark and its implications. She stared up at Han in some gratified surprise, but his next remark drew a scowl from her.
"Then again, maybe they were the smart ones ? if they knew what a shrew you really were?"
"Shrew! Just because I don?t fall at your feet like those fools back at Base Command?"
"Paying attention, were you, Princess?" Han grinned, suddenly.
Leia?s lips thinned in a grim line of anger. "It was so revoltingly, glaringly obvious, only a blind person could fail to see the way they threw themselves at you?"
Han?s grin broadened at that, but then faded to anger as Leia concluded: "?although just what they find attractive in you is beyond me!"
"You found me plenty attractive last night," Han reminded her.
"Only in your delusions!" Leia snapped. She slammed her trident down on the countertop and stood up again. "I?ll be in the hold if you need me. You?d better pray you don?t need me to fetch you any painkillers any time soon."
Frowning, Han watched as Leia fled into the hold. Things were going further and further downhill. And they were trapped together for weeks more. With Han?s limited physical condition, the repairs were taking much longer than he?d initially expected and even if they were completed, the Falcon could not fly until Han could make the trip out EV to replace the clamp capacitors on the landing thrusters. Han swiftly calculated how much longer this would be. According to the medical information on the Falcon?s medical scanners, Han needed at least a total of eight standard weeks for his ankle to heal. It had been three standard weeks since his accident. Another five standard weeks, Han thought suddenly, groaning. I don?t know if I can take this?
Han Solo sometimes did things recklessly, even insanely as his friends liked to say, but over the next few days with Leia, he moved slowly and cautiously. He was careful not to rouse her ire, knowing this was the surest path to confrontation and more trouble.
He continued working in the hold with Leia, exchanging occasional harmless comments about their mutual repair work. Leia was very withdrawn and tense and her responses to his questions were terse. She continued her work on welding the crosshatched circuits on the microfuser panels. There were thirty-eight panels that needed to be dealt with, and the work was tedious and complicated. She had nimble fingers and was able to manipulate the fine circuit wires very well, but the work strained her eyes as well as her back and neck. Frequently, Han would catch her leaning back to stretch or to rub the back of her neck but she never complained.
In the evenings, as before, Han made dinner. However, now that Han was more mobile with his crutch, Leia stopped helping him. After their work sessions in the hold ended, she would invariably escape to her cabin to do some reading while Han was making dinner. During their dinners, in fact, during all their meals together, Han noticed that she kept her head down and tried to say as little as possible. To facilitate this, she started turning on the screen for the holonet as they ate. Han could understand that she was avid for galactic news, but to Han?s quiet amusement and exasperation she appeared to evince the same fascination with the screen when the newscasters discussed shockball results or the latest bizarre fashions created by the Coruscanti designers.
One evening, he noticed that as she was watching the news, Leia had leaned back from the table and was rubbing at her neck. From the unself-conscious way she was doing it, Han suspected that she didn?t even realize what she was doing.
Han shook his head sympathetically, but continued eating his dinner. As the meal progressed, however, he saw her repeatedly stopping to rub her neck. She grimaced as she tried to massage the tension out of her neck, but said nothing. Finally, Han put down his trident, slid over toward her, and put his hands on her shoulders.
Leia?s reaction was as swift as it was violent. She jerked away from him and hissed, "What the hell do you think you?re doing?"
Han rolled his eyes. "You looked like you were in some pain. I just thought I?d give you a little massage."
"I?m fine," Leia said, shortly. "Why don?t you finish your dinner?"
Leia gave him a startled look and then glanced down at Han?s empty plate. "You eat too fast," she chided.
"I eat too fast? A guy could fall asleep waiting for you to finish cutting your food into precise geometrical shapes that take you forever to eat!"
"At least I take out the time to chew my food, unlike you who breathes your food down."
"Hey!" Han said, defensively, "You try spending the last ten years of your life with Chewbacca! You don?t eat fast around him, you might not get to eat at all!"
Leia tried unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh, which came out as an inelegant snort. Han joined her with a chuckle, feeling a sudden gladness to see a smile on her face again. Tempting fate, Han leaned and reached for her shoulders again. Leia tensed, but then gave in and allowed Han to massage out some of the tension from her neck and shoulders.
Ignoring the alarm bells that were ringing in her mind, Leia leaned back against Han?s hands and allowed herself to enjoy the sensation of having the knots massaged out of her neck and shoulders. During the past several days, the toll of sitting hunched over the microfuser board was starting to wear on her and she often lay down on her bed at night aching and tossing and turning for quite some time as the tension eased out of her muscles. Han?s hands were strong and firm, and there was something so comforting about sitting there with him, allowing herself to be tended by him ? something she instinctively felt so elemental and right about it that she had a hard time summoning up more than a token resistance to what Han offered.
Leia closed her eyes. "That feels really good," she murmured, surprising herself with that admission.
"Like that, Princess?" Han asked.
Leia was feeling too liquid and boneless to reply. She just wanted to stay like this forever. A treacherous tide of warmth was going through her body. "Ummm."
Han chuckled and then reached out to the table for the controls to the holovid screen. He clicked the controls and the image on the screen vanished, replaced by music.
"Why?d you do that?" Leia asked suddenly, turning around.
Han rolled his eyes. "Princess, stop multi-tasking for one moment of your life, will ya? I?m giving you a massage. The point is to take the tension out of you. Listening to the Galactic Holonet News is just going to make you all crazy again. Just relax for once, all right?"
Leia faced forward again, but could not relax. After a few more minutes, Han finally said exasperatedly, "Are you always this tense? It?s like trying to massage durasteel."
Leia?s temper flared up, and she turned around sharply. "Hey! No one held a blaster to your head and told you to do this!"
Han looked amazed. "Your Worship! I?ve never seen anyone who riles up quicker than you! I was just teasing you. Calm down for a?" Han paused as a new song came on in the background. "?Hey, Princess, you remember this song?"
Leia stilled, listening for a moment, and then an unwilling smile spread over her face. She grinned at Han. "Zalopine. Two years ago, right after we completed our ionium fuel mission. I?m surprised you?d bring this up."
"It was the first time I danced with you," Han said.
"It was the only time we?ve danced," Leia corrected. "I really doubt you want a repeat performance. You remember what happened at the end?"
"You knocked me down," Han admitted.
"You deserved it!" Leia said, emphatically. "That?ll teach you to put your hands where they didn?t belong."
"My hand just slipped," Han said defensively.
"You obviously need to be a little more careful then," Leia retorted unrepentantly.
Han stopped his kneading for a moment. "You?d do that to me after you spent all this time putting me back together again? Don?t you think you owe me a little for clocking me in the ribs like you did last week?"
"My elbow slipped!"
"Exactly." Han pronounced the word so archly that Leia was startled into a laugh.
"I?d say we were even, then, Han."
"I?d say you still owe me a dance?" Han said softly, whispering the words against the back of her neck as he continued to massage her shoulders.
Leia shot up off the lounge seat. This conversation was getting way too risky for her, and she was having too much of a hard time trying to ignore the feeling of heat that was snaking its way through her belly. She was committing emotional suicide with him. She had sworn to keep herself detached. How was Han so easily able to make her forget herself? "I?m tired, Han," Leia said, too distraught to care if her cowardice was fodder for Han?s amusement. Avoiding Han?s eyes, she headed out of the lounge toward her cabin.
Once inside her cabin with the door safely shut between her and Han, Leia leaned back against the door, and slowly stilled her trembling body. She could still feel the vibrations from the husky timber of Han?s voice on the back of her neck, and she closed her eyes in confusion. She thought again of that night when she kissed Han and wondered what madness had possessed her to behave with such impulsive abandonment.
And what was going on with Han today? Why was he being so nice again? Even though the atmosphere had been uncomfortable over the last few days, it was still easier on Leia?s equilibrium to keep the coldness and reserve between the two of them. This sudden kindness of Han?s, which had surfaced periodically during their years together, had always thrown her off balance; kindness from Han frightened and upset her more than their arguments, bitter and nasty though they were. Again, she felt that longing in her mind that left an ache in her heart. If I could only believe that he could ever truly love me?but I can?t! I just can?t!
She crossed the room and lay down on her bed without changing her clothes. But she knew that she would get no sleep that night.
When Leia left her cabin the next morning, she was even tenser than she had been the night before. She entered the galley and glared balefully at Han. "Say the wrong word to me, Solo, and I?ll blast you out of the airlock."
"?Morning, your Worship," Han said, pushing Leia?s breakfast toward her.
"You?re pushing your luck," Leia snarled in response.
Han raised an eyebrow toward her but said nothing, leaning back on his stool to continue eating his own breakfast.
Leia sat down before the plate of food and ignored the grilled air cakes and the poached terriki eggs. Instead, she reached for a slice of Ithorian bread and ate that, washing it down with a cup of Caf. "I?ll deal with the dishes later," Leia said, as she slid off her stool and left the lounge, heading for the hold.
Han put his trident down and leaned back on the lounge sofa. Next to him, Leia was still finishing her dinner, while watching the holonet news that was playing out on the screen. During the last few days the atmosphere on board the Millennium Falcon had been crackling with explosive tension. They barely spoke more than a half dozen words to each other in the course of a day, and all speech was limited to the bare necessities of communication for repairs on the ship. Han had never been more uncomfortable in his life. He imagined that slavery in the spice mines of Kessel would be more fun than this purgatory with a haughty, silent princess, and frequently found himself cursing under his breath at his lame ankle that hampered his repair work.
Han gave a silent, inward sigh as he glanced over toward his silent companion. Nearly three years with her, and Leia was still as enigmatic and incomprehensible as ever. He was sitting right next to her, close enough to touch her, and she might as well be on the other side of the galaxy.
"?and now on to other news: On Selonia, two Togorians were arrested and summarily executed under the Emperor?s Treason Edicts. Mrrov and Muuurgh, two Togorians accused of belonging to a cell of the Rebel Alliance, were captured in the Selonian city of Kurasa two standard days ago in a sting operation conducted by the regional Moff Capto Lessinti. For more on this, let?s go to our Corellian correspondent?"
"No!" Han shouted the word involuntarily as he stared unbelievingly at the holovid screen. "Damn and blast it!"
"What?s the matter?" Leia asked, looking startled.
Han groaned, as memories of his months on Ylesia returned. Han?s first job was as a pilot for the t?landa Til on Ylesia. Muuurgh, a male Togorian ? one of a felinoid species ? had been assigned as Han?s personal guard and keeper during the months that Han had worked on Ylesia. Han and Muuurgh had great mutual respect for each other during the months they worked together, but their relationship had deepened into true friendship after Han had helped Muuurgh uncover a deception that had kept him apart from his betrothed, Mrrov. Han had even gone with the pair to Togoria and witnessed their wedding. It had been many years since Han had last seen the pair, but he still thought of them with great fondness. Han remembered vaguely that the pair had cubs, as well.
"Han?" Leia asked, sounding alarmed.
Han continued gazing unseeingly at the floor for a few more seconds, and then looked up at Leia. He focused his gaze on Leia. "They were friends of mine," he said, somberly.
Leia put down her trident, and slid closer to Han on the lounge sofa. "Are you all right?"
Han looked away from her. "I?m okay."
"Who were they? Do you want to tell me about it? How you knew them?"
For the first time in several days, the angry edge was gone from Leia?s voice. She gazed up at Han?s rigidly set face, and her heart twisted with concern. Han?s hands were clenched in his lap, and Leia gently took his hand in hers. "Hey?"
Han turned to her, and Leia winced from the look on his face. At the same time, she found herself wondering just how little of Han she really knew. Muuurgh and Mrrov? She never remembered hearing him mention them, yet their deaths seemed to have affected Han strongly. As she pondered further on this, Leia also thought of how little Han spoke of himself. Of his past, Leia only knew patchy, sporadic bits: He was orphaned at a young age, and apparently his youth was not one of his favorite topics of conversation. She remembered that he had been cashiered from the Imperial Navy for rescuing Chewbacca from a life of slavery, which had incurred the Wookiee?s life-debt. She remembered that he had worked for the Hutts at some point and that it was a deal gone sour that had landed Han in his present predicament of having a bounty on his head.
But what did she really know about him? What was the motivation that got him out of bed in the mornings? What millions of myriad secrets were buried beneath those heart stopping hazel eyes? On some primitive level she understood that her fascination with Han stemmed from the unacknowledged belief that Han had such a complex and multi-layered personality underneath the reckless scoundrel persona.
Muuurgh and Mrrov. The names suddenly filled Leia with an avid curiosity. Who were the people who filled out Han?s past and haunted his dreams? What ghosts lived in Han?s psyche? Had any woman ever broken Han Solo?s heart?
"Do you want to talk?" Leia asked again.
Han grimaced for a moment, and then to Leia?s amazement, he began to talk. Departing completely from his usual laconic answers to questions about his past, he told her about the first job he had ever taken as a free man, when he was employed as a freighter pilot by the t?landa Til for their spice shipping business, and how it led to his partnership with Muuurgh. He left nothing out in recounting the story of those months he spent on Ylesia, including ? but Leia?s thought shied away as she thought of Han with another woman. Yet, as she considered further, there was no passion or even sorrow in Han?s voice when he told Leia of the young, enslaved pilgrim with whom he?d had his first affair. It seemed that over the years, she had faded into the shadow of a memory for Han. The thought both comforted and saddened her. Leia?s lip quirked as she thought of all the women who had come after that first girl?
?Abruptly, Leia wrenched her thoughts back to the present and to Han?s pain. He had kept his face averted from her the entire time he was talking, his eyes focused on something only he could see as he stared down at a spot on the floor past the Dejarik table. Now, he had moved on past Ylesia and told her of meeting with Muuurgh and Mrrov again years later when they joined forces with the Red Hand to destroy the Ylesian colony. Han gave a mirthless chuckle. "I haven?t seen them in years?but Muuurgh was one of the first people I?d ever met who I could trust ? really trust?"
Instinctively, and without realizing it, Leia had inched closer to Han as he talked, and now she reached her arm up around his neck, pulling him into her embrace. As he buried his face into her shoulder, he swore, "Damned Imp bastards! Who else do they have to kill?"
Leia shuddered suddenly at those words, but forced her voice to remain steady: "Shhh?Han. I?m so sorry?"
"I just wish Chewie was here," Han muttered.
"I know," Leia murmured soothingly, as she kept one arm wrapped around Han?s back and with the other one stroked his hair. "Han?I know how you feel?sometimes it just feels like you?re all alone in the galaxy. And that every time you let yourself get close to someone ? they?ll be taken away, or turn out to be unreliable?but Han, there are still good people out there?still things and people worth the effort to believe in?"
Han pulled away from Leia abruptly, and stared at her with an expression of disbelief on his face. "You really believe that? After all that you?ve been through?"
Leia?s gaze was steady. "If I didn?t believe it, I wouldn?t be in the Rebellion. I would have just killed myself long ago ? right after Alderaan. I have to believe that I?m fighting for good. I?m fighting for something worth fighting for. Worth dying for."
Han shook his head in amazement. "And here I always thought of you as the Ice Princess," Han said dryly, and then his expression became somber again. "Hey, Princess. Thanks for listening ? and being there."
Leia was momentarily speechless, stunned by the emotion she heard in Han?s voice. Before she could recover her powers of speech, Han turned away from her and picked up his crutch. He stood up.
"What?s the matter?" Leia asked.
Han shrugged. "I want to be alone for a while." He headed down the corridor toward his cabin, leaving Leia in the lounge to wrestle with her confused thoughts.
Every time I think I?ve got him pegged he always manages to surprise me. Every time I peel away another layer of Han thinking that I?ve seen him to his core there?s always something new to learn. And with everything I learn about him, I just find that I love him more, Leia thought in despair as she looked around unseeingly at the empty lounge. And sometimes I think he?s the only man I?ll ever love?
Han threw the hydrospanners down into the tool kit and wiped his hands down with a dirty rag. He straightened up and winced a little, although the pain in his side and ribs was definitely more bearable now than it had ever been before. Across the hold from him, Leia looked up from her welding.
"Are you all right?"
Han?s answer came out prefaced with a groan. "Yeah, I?m okay."
Leia put down her face shield and her welding torch and stripped off her heavy gloves before crossing the hold toward Han?s side. "Let me take a look."
"I?m all right," Han repeated.
"Don?t be a stupid idiot!" Leia snapped. "If you?re in pain and need help like a painkiller I?d expect you to have to brains to ask."
"Lay off for a moment, your Worship, all right?" Han returned. "I?ll ask for medicine when I need it!"
Leia glared daggers at Han but said nothing for a few moments. When she spoke again, her voice was calmer, "What?s the matter, then?"
Han gave Leia a startled glance, surprised at her perspicacity. "I?m finished with the cryo-modules and the rear stabilizer units. I have to go out to check up on the clamp capacitors, next."
Leia gave Han a look of undisguised dismay. "That means a trip out in EV!"
Han shrugged. "We knew I?d have to do this sooner or later."
"But your ankle?"
"It?s better." He glanced down involuntarily at his ankle. Leia had taken off the cast the day before and now he wore an elasticized bandage around the ankle that gave him support.
Leia?s lips were compressed. "You can?t put all your weight on it yet! I know you?re stubborn and Gamorrean-headed about this, but I?ve seen you try to get around the ship, and you?re hobbling, even with that crutch! You?re just going to destroy that ankle with the way you?ve been going at it."
"Thanks for the concern, your Grand Highness, but it is my ankle."
"You need to give it time to heal."
"The capacitors aren?t going to fix themselves."
Leia was starting to lose her patience. "Don?t be an idiot, Han! Your scanner readouts show that you?re still far from healed. If you?re not going to listen to me, at least take some expert medical advice."
"Look, I can read the scanner as well as you can, but do you really want to stay here for three more weeks until this ankle heals? I don?t know how long it will take me to finish repairs even after my ankle is healed." Han knew he could delay this EV trip, but in the two weeks since they?d kissed, the tension and strain between them had been worsening by the day. Each time they had done something to break out of the cycle of strained silences and awkwardness, such as when he had given Leia that massage, or when Leia tried to comfort him over the loss of his friends, things grew inevitably worse between them the next day. For the first time in his life, Han was experiencing cabin fever on his own ship, and he was dying to get off that barren rock and to get Leia back to Base Command.
"What?s your rush?"
Han had not been planning on answering her question but when he saw the furious glare that Leia was giving him, he suddenly couldn?t suppress his wicked grin. "I was just thinking of you, your Worship. Three more weeks on this ship with a gorgeous guy like me ? you think you can keep your hands off me that long?"
"The breadth and scope of your delusions really never ceases to amaze me. Just because some misguided women find you attractive, don?t lump me in with them!"
"Attractive? Is that how you find me?" Han asked, deliberately twisting her words around.
Leia threw her hands up in exasperation. "Only in your imagination!"
"Really?" Han asked, moving closer to her. "Is that so?"
Leia?s eyes narrowed with fury. "For one minute of your life, could you just stop being such a scoundrel?"
"Scoundrel? Scoundrel?I like the sound of that." The irrepressible gleam was still in Han?s eyes.
"All right. Truce." Han held up his hands. "But going back to what you?ve said about the scanner readouts, we both know it?s going to be at least another three weeks before my ankle is back to normal. I?ve got the food and supplies to last that long, but I don?t think it?s a good idea to tempt fate. The sooner we?re out of here the better. Even if we have the supplies there?s always the possibility that some TIE unit will end up patrolling the neighborhood and see us. I should at least go out to take a look and see what I can do."
"Then I want to go with you," Leia offered.
"What do you mean, ?no??"
"Look, your Worship, it may be the first time in your life anyone?s ever said that to you, but ?no?! Have you ever gone EV before?"
Leia looked furious, but replied truthfully, "No, but?"
"Well, you?re not going to start here with me."
"It?s too dangerous for you to go alone."
"It?s easier for me to go alone than to have to worry about what you?re up to while you?re out there."
"I can handle myself," Leia insisted.
"I said ?no?," Han said softly, but with a finality that made Leia pause.
"Then ? I think you should wait until you?re better," Leia said, switching back to her original argument.
"I?m going out in the morning."
Leia?s brows snapped together into a frown of pure frustration. "I?ve told you what I think. You do whatever you damn well please, Han. Just don?t expect me to be here to pick up the pieces afterward." She turned away from him and left the hold.
Something was terribly wrong. Leia tried to readjust the camera to see better but the only visual she could get was of dust and rock and blackness. "Han? Han!"
She adjusted the cameras again, and then changed the channel on the intercom. Where the hell was he?
"Han, can you hear me?"
Still no reply.
"Blast it, Han! Where the hell are you?"
Leia?s voice sounded preternaturally loud in the otherwise empty cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. She gritted her teeth and continued readjusting the angles on the outboard cameras, cursing slightly under her breath.
Leia looked away from the video screens to check the chronometer. Han had left the ship nearly two hours ago. Over breakfast, she tried again to talk him out of the EV walk, but Han steadfastly refused to listen to her. Again, he also refused to entertain the idea of Leia accompanying him. Leia?s legendary temper flared up and she finally told him he was a bantha-headed dolt and she washed her hands of him. Furious, she had stalked out of the galley into the hold where she attempted to continue finishing the wiring on the circuit fuser panels she?d been repairing.
Although she was worried over the dangers Han faced when he went into EV, she had been more upset by the implications of what Han was doing. During the past several days she had seen him spend his down time poring over Galactic navigational charts. While he never said anything, she knew that Han was planning on leaving the Alliance as soon as he brought her back to Echo Base. He was going to pay back Jabba the Hutt. The fact that he was trying to speed up his departure even by these few days disturbed her on a fundamental level that she hadn?t even acknowledged to herself.
Han?s voice came over the intercom as Leia was trying to force her trembling fingers to obey her commands and crosshatch the wires on the circuit board properly.
"I?m heading out in EV," Han announced. "You should be able to get me on channel nine."
Ten minutes after Han?s announcement, Leia had headed into the cockpit to check on him through the video monitors, too worried to continue her wiring. Going EV was dangerous enough when things were well, but with Han?s dicey ankle and strained ribs?
Han spent a fair amount of time outside evaluating the clamp capacitors and the landing thrusters without actually doing any repair work. He hadn?t brought out the modules, but had brought his tool kit. For a while, Leia watched him as he inspected the lower rear of the ship. After a while, she started feeling foolish, having worried so much over him when clearly nothing was wrong. Still, she couldn?t stop watching him, worried over how he was managing to get about with his lame ankle. The EV suit was somewhat bulky; he hadn?t brought his crutch ? his ankle was much more stable now, although it wasn?t fully healed. He was moving a bit clumsily as he tried to keep his weight off the injured ankle.
Leia looked away from the main video feed to check a couple of the meters on the control panel, adjusting the oxygen recycler flow a little, and then she checked some of the electrical output meters before returning to check the video monitor.
At that point, she suddenly sat up straight in Han?s chair, and gazed wildly at the monitor screen. Han was no longer on the screen. She quickly adjusted the channels, running though all the outboard camera views and then started adjusting the focus on the cameras, but there was no Han. She switched to the intercom channel and tried to raise Han on the intercom but got no response.
Worry rapidly morphed into panic. Visions of Han?s EV suit being ripped open, of him gasping for non-existent air as his blood boiled from decompression rose up before Leia?s mind. She winced in horror, and then finally, could no longer take the anxiety. "Han! Han! Do you hear me? Answer me!" She tried the intercom one more time, and then leapt off the chair, racing out of the cockpit down through the hold into the EV antechamber. Three suits hung on the rack. Two of them were enormous, and obviously made for Chewbacca?s massive proportions. The other one appeared to be Han?s spare suit.
Unhesitatingly, Leia stepped into Han?s spare suit and zipped it shut. The suit was too big for her and the arms and legs were very loose. Her mind went blank for a moment as she tried to remember how she was supposed to run the compression and oxygenation checks. After a few false starts, Leia finally saw the light on the control panel over her chest turn green. She hit the button for the door and stepped through the airlock. The airlock door shut behind her and she hit the controls for the outer door.
Outside the ship, Leia was unprepared for the sudden darkness, the very emptiness and the feeling of aloneness. The Sajex moon had a very thin, methane-filled atmosphere with treacherous winds that swirled around her as she stood just outside the airlock, buffeting her body. Worse, the gravity outside the Falcon was very low. Leia took a step forward and fell almost immediately, not realizing she had to compensate for the higher inertia she generated in the low gravity environment. She pushed herself to her feet, tapped on the intercom and tried to reach Han again, but again, there was no response. She switched on her flashlight and started looking around.
Cautiously, she began walking around the ship. She headed toward the back where the clamp capacitors were, keeping one hand on the side of the ship to steady herself. The very stillness and darkness around her was eerie and it was stirring up atavistic fears and half-remembered childhood superstitions. Every step she took made her bounce and she had a sudden, horrified vision of bouncing off the rock altogether. What made her knees even weaker was the thought that Han might have fallen off this gods-forsaken rock.
"Blast it, Han, where are you?"
Something clamped on her wrist, and Leia whirled around, wrenching her arm away as nameless panic overtook her. Through the airlessness of space, her scream was inaudible, but it reverberated at treble volume inside her helmet. She looked up blindly for a moment before she realized it was Han who had her arm. She couldn?t hear what he was saying, but through the tinted transparisteel of his helmet she could see that he was shouting angrily at her.
Before Leia knew what was happening, she was facing the opposite direction and being hauled back into the airlock of the Millennium Falcon. Han closed the outer door behind them and then hit the controls for the inner door, shoving her inside before she had a chance to react.
The airlock doors closed behind them. Han set down his toolkit with a loud thump and then, holding onto the bulkhead to support himself, removed his helmet at the same time Leia was dazedly removing hers.
"Just what in the hell do you think you were doing?" Han was furious, and his hazel eyes were blazing.
Leia recoiled a little from the look in his eyes. "You didn?t return for such a long time."
"What was so urgent that you needed me back here? What? Were you suffering withdrawal from not having someone to boss around for a couple of hours?" Han snapped as he started unzipping the suit. He had to sit down on a packing crate to take the weight off his lame ankle.
"No! I just couldn?t see you on the screen and I couldn?t raise you on the intercom."
Han rolled his eyes. "I thought you said you washed your hands of me. What the hell were you doing watching me on the monitor?"
"I just checked to see that you were okay!" Leia unzipped her EV suit.
"I?m fine!" Han started stepping out of the suit, although he was having some difficulty pulling the boot off over his bulky ankle bandage.
"But I couldn?t see you!" Leia bent down to help pull off the boot of Han?s EV suit.
"The camera on that part of the ship got knocked out when the ship crashed. I?ll have to replace that at a later time."
"That doesn?t explain why you didn?t you answer me on the intercom." Leia pulled the leggings off her EV suit and hung it back on the hook.
Han sighed. "I took the wrong suit. This one has a faulty transmitter."
"Doesn?t anything work on this damned ship?" Leia asked in exasperation.
Han ignored the outburst. "I thought I told you to stay out of EV."
"I couldn?t see you or raise you on intercom! What was I supposed to think?"
"You don?t know what the hell you?re doing!" Han roared furiously, as all the dangers of EV ran through his mind. "You?ve never been out in EV before! The closest you?ve ever come is a couple of training simulations, although why you even bother to take the training is beyond me ? it?s not as though Alliance High Command would ever send your Holiness out there to fix something in EV. Don?t you realize how dangerous it is?"
"If I remember correctly from those training simulations, no one is supposed to go EV alone," Leia retorted, shaking a little as reaction to the strain set in.
"I should have just shot you when I met you on the Death Star," Han muttered, feeling his annoyance mount. He had that same, familiar, irritating sensation he experienced every time he argued with Leia ? that he wasn?t sure if he wanted to strangle her or to kiss her into insensibility. "It would have saved me a lot of trouble."
"I never want to see you pull such a damn fool stunt again!" Han snapped the order and picked up his crutch ? he didn?t need to use it much any more, but still kept it out of habit. Leaning slightly on the crutch, he made his way out of the hold.
"Don?t tell me what I can and cannot do!" Leia retorted angrily, almost trotting to keep up with him.
"I?m captain of this damned ship! And I gave you a direct order to stay out of EV! For once in your life have the common sense to do what you?re told!"
"Common sense! That?s a bit rich coming from you! And I don?t know why you should be so upset that I stepped out into EV in the first place."
"What the hell would I have done if something had happened to you out in EV? If you accidentally ripped your suit or hurt yourself out there? And don?t say anything ? I saw you fall when you came out of the airlock. You didn?t know the first thing you?re supposed to do out there! For someone always lecturing me on how insane I am, I?ll have you know that for you to rush out there blindly without a guide the first time is craziest, most stupid thing I?ve ever heard of!" Han reached the corridor just outside his cabin, and turned around to continue his argument with Leia.
"It?s not worse than you going out there with all your injuries!"
Han slapped the controls and the door to his cabin slid open. "I know how to handle myself with my injuries! It was insane, stupid and just like you to be more stubborn than a balky sha?ak?"
"I was worried about you, all right?"
The words seemed almost torn out of Leia?s mouth. She turned red almost immediately after she said it and then looked away from Han.
Han hesitated as he gazed down at Leia?s profile. A feeling of unreality settled over him as the implications of Leia?s words sank into him. He placed his crutch against the bulkhead and said, "Look, thanks, your Worship, but I can take care of myself."
"It doesn?t seem like it from the way you?re behaving."
"Can you stop being such a control freak for just one second? I don?t need you to be on my case about what to do with my ankle!"
"Control freak! You could do with some self-control and common sense for once, Captain. I spent all that time trying to help you get better! The least you could do would be to cooperate!"
"Well if it wasn?t for you flying the ship like a maniac I probably wouldn?t be in this position in the first place!"
The blood rushed to Leia?s face and she looked furious. "How dare you!" she shouted. Before Han had a chance to apologize for the words he was already regretting, Leia slapped him across the face.
"That?s enough!" Han had reached the end of his tether as well. "I?ve had all I can take of you! You?ve had this coming to you for a long time, your Worship!" With his left hand, he caught her right wrist and pinioned it against the wall. As Leia was struggling to free herself, and before she could think what was going on to protest, Han?s lips had descended on hers in a hard, punishing kiss that left her breathless and defenseless. And that was only the beginning.
The lights in the cockpit were off, save for the ones on the control panel, which emitted a dim, ghostly, multicolored glow. Sitting in Chewbacca?s chair, which was so large that she was completely engulfed within its cushions, Leia drew her knees up toward her chest and rested her arms on top. She gazed out unseeingly at the panorama of stars visible from the cockpit windows, trying to marshal her thoughts into some sort of coherent order.
Han and her.
Han making love to her.
A shiver seemed to sweep through Leia?s entire body. Through her confusion in the aftermath, she felt a slow blush spreading over her face and shoulders, and finally, she gave in and let herself remember everything:
She had been so angry when she slapped him that she hadn?t been thinking straight. Han?s reaction caught her off guard. For one infinitesimal moment after she slapped him, she had thought he would strike her in return. She had tensed for that response, and had been shaken and confused to the core of her being when Han kissed her instead.
The kiss, however, had been brutal. Han?s lips were punishing and savage, and when his arms came around her, his fingers bit deeply into her flesh through the thin shirt she was wearing. And Leia?s instinctive response had been shocking; while she wanted to push him away, to stop the bruising kisses that were making her dizzy and weak, the deeper, more elemental part of her reveled in the sensation, exulted in the hunger he was showing her and wanted it to go on and on.
Had this desire existed all along? Had Han only been hiding this passion? A sudden thought came to Leia that sent thin slivers of apprehensive electricity coursing through her nerves; that Han Solo was a very dangerous man to cross. And Leia was aware that she had pushed him just one time too many. The consequences of her actions and where this kiss would end flashed through her mind. He?s going to make love to me, she thought. Instead of being frightened, however, Leia?s response was to kiss him back just as fiercely, careless of her own bruised lips, almost in a frenzy to match his passion.
Han broke off the kiss and grasped her by the shoulders, holding her away from him as he gazed down on her. For once, his expression was completely unguarded and there was a naked hunger in Han?s eyes that swept away every last ounce of resistance she had toward him. He wanted her and Goddess help her, she admitted to herself with a sensation akin to relief that the circle of Han?s arms was the only place in the galaxy she wanted to be.
Han bent his head down and kissed her again, but this time he was gentle, almost teasing as he explored the contours of her lips, first the upper then the lower lip, and then his tongue probed gently into her mouth, startling her and making her suddenly wild with desire. Her axis tilted, and Leia found herself lying on Han?s bed. The cabin was dark, with only the dim light from the corridor filtering in through the doorway for her to see him. When had they entered Han?s cabin and how had she landed on his bed? Leia felt she was swimming in a haze, a dizzying and surreal universe where the only bedrock of stability was Han, and his arms around her.
As he had done the last time, Han was now kissing her along the side of her face, and then to that sensitive little hollow just under her jaw, making her feel simultaneous waves of hot and cold roll off her. His lips moved a little further down, and Leia was aware that Han had neatly undone the buttons of her blouse while she was so caught up in his kisses.
"You?re so beautiful," he murmured, with a note of awe in his voice. Even in her haze of sensual confusion, Leia heard that note and felt a thrill rush through her system. She had been tugging futilely on Han?s shirt before, but now her hands grasped convulsively at the cloth of his shirt as she forgot what she had been doing.
However scorching his own desire for her was, Han still retained his expertise. He knew what he was doing and Leia could barely keep up, could barely understand what was happening and how Han knew exactly where to touch her and to kiss her that could awaken such a passionate hunger within her. He did he know how to make her body respond so willingly and eagerly? She was amazed to discover moment by moment all the places on her body where such erogenous responses were possible, and before she realized he had undressed her completely, she was already trembling from his slightest touch.
Han?s lips returned to kiss her again and he was now covering her with his body, his strong arms anchored on either side of her. With one hand, he was caressing the side of her face, while the fingers of his other hand were entwined within the heavy masses of her dark hair. Another fleeting wonder slipped through the transom of Leia?s consciousness ? when had the pins come out of her hair? Had she done it or had Han or had they both?
Before Leia could pursue that thought, there came another awareness, this time of Han?s body and the fact that his shirt was gone. She was responding to the heat that radiated off his skin as well as the smooth texture, and the exquisite sensation of his skin on hers. Leia?s arms lifted and wrapped around Han?s back and she ran her fingers over his skin, trailing lightly over the bunched muscles of his back and shoulders, moving almost not of her own volition. All her movements were instinctive. Reactive. For perhaps the first time in her life, Leia found herself completely out of control. She was helpless under Han?s ministrations, and being guided where he wanted her to go. And there was a heady excitement in being led by someone as experienced as Han.
He?s done this hundreds of times, maybe even thousands.
For a moment, Leia went cold, feeling a sudden stab of fear and anxiety as she thought of this. Another notch in Han Solo?s belt. Hadn?t she sworn that was the one thing she would never be?
The stark reality of what was about to happen finally caught up with her senses. Leia stilled suddenly as an overwhelming fear of the unknown gripped her.
"Han," she whispered, terrified that he would go on and more terrified that he would stop.
Sensing her fears, Han paused and pulled his weight off her by leaning onto his elbows. He was still covering her body completely, leaving her no room to escape, but as he had pulled away, Leia had felt a sudden rush of cold air come between them, and she swallowed convulsively.
"What is it, sweetheart?"
The whispered endearment, spoken so tenderly made tears gather in the corners of Leia?s eyes. She wanted him to make love to her so badly now she was actually aching, but she needed some sort of reassurance from him that she meant something to him. That he was making love to her, Leia Organa, and that their lovemaking was as poignant and meaningful for him as it was for her.
"I?" Leia began, and then she looked up into Han?s eyes. In the semi-darkness of the cabin, she couldn?t see the hazel color of his eyes, but she could see the warmth and the tenderness, and the passion within their depths. And she could see that it was all for her. "Please," she whispered, although she wasn?t sure if she was pleading for more reassurances or for him to continue.
"What?s the matter?" Han asked again, covering her again with his body, and now cupping her face in his hands as he smoothed away stray tendrils of hair from her forehead.
"I?" Again, Leia found she could not go on.
"Trust me," Han said with a slow smile.
Leia sighed, and looked deeply into his eyes. And then she took the biggest leap of faith in her life, trusting Han to make the experience beautiful; to make everything perfect.
And he did.
Afterward, lying in the circle of Han?s arms, Leia was still unable to fully accept the reality of what had happened.
"Are you all right?" Han asked, kissing her cheek softly.
"Umm," Leia sighed, contentedly. "I ? I had no idea that it could feel so good." She looked up at him and saw a smile of such smug satisfaction on his face that it made her grin. Under normal circumstances she would have been furious over his cockiness, but now she had to admit he had every right to look so contented with himself.
She turned in his arms and laid her head down on his broad chest. Then, sliding her hand down along Han?s chest, Leia touched his right flank, trailing her fingers over his ribs, marveling at her sudden freedom to touch him at will. "Are you all right?"
Han smiled. "I forgot that it was even injured." He turned slightly, and brought his hand up to her face, tracing back some of her hair, and grinned. "That was the best painkiller ever. Did I ever tell you what a good nurse you are?"
Leia laughed. "I don?t remember reading about this type of therapy on the scanners." She snuggled deeper into his arms, breathing in his scent and reveling in the sudden feeling of euphoria that suffused her system. Happiness. Pure joy. It was something she hadn?t remembered feeling since?Leia frowned slightly. She hadn?t remembered feeling this good in so long she could barely remember the last time it had happened. Even the destruction of the Death Star had been tempered by her sorrow and guilt over Alderaan.
Leia sighed, supposing that the last time she had been this happy had been when she had been a small child on Alderaan. When her mother had been alive. She recalled the gentle glow of the sunlight on the fields and meadows of Alderaan, and the utter security she had felt when she was still young enough to believe that this happy, carefree existence would go on forever.
Being in Han?s arms, she felt the same sense of utter security and happiness she had known then; and more than that, lying in his arms she realized that for the first time since she had boarded Tantive IV and had her last look at Aldera all those years ago, she finally felt she was at home again.
She felt she was at home in Han?s arms. And she wanted to stay there forever.
But nothing good lasts forever.
Leia?s own life was definitely proof of that. A brief chill settled over her as she thought of that, but she resolutely pushed the thought away from her, and turned her head slightly to look at Han.
He was asleep. Leia smiled a little, sleepily, and leaned up on her elbows to get a better look at him. He was asleep on his back, and his mouth was slightly opened. Leia took in his handsome features, so peaceful in repose, and then her gaze traveled downward along his chest.
There was something so elementally sensual about the way Han looked when he was sleeping, that Leia realized suddenly why she had always slightly distrusted him. She had been drawn to that predatory sexual magnetism from her first meeting with him aboard the Death Star, but with her straight-laced, conservative upbringing, any notion of a casual liaison with him was out of the question. And yet, she admitted to herself that, deep down inside, she had wanted him from the beginning. But too many factors conspired to keep her from acting on her impulses: her upbringing, her ingrained habits of self-denial, her deep seated fear of becoming one of Han Solo?s casual conquests.
And now she was one. The latest in a long string of many, the dark voice in Leia?s head pointed out.
No, no! Leia thought as her eyes widened, trying to refute it. It?s not true! He loves me!
But the seeds of doubt had already been planted in her mind. He?s never said it ? even now, he still hasn?t said it.
Suddenly, Leia was wide-awake, and the last bit of euphoria she had been feeling fled from her. What have I done? This changes everything!
Glancing up at Han?s closed eyes, Leia slowly eased her way out of bed and then reached down into the tangled pile of clothes before her. Without looking carefully, she grabbed something white and fled out of Han?s cabin.
Entering the corridor, she realized she had taken Han?s shirt. She looked back toward the now-closed door to Han?s cabin and suddenly, she realized she couldn?t bear to go back there; at least not yet.
The shirt was inside out and Leia paused for a moment to pull the sleeves right before she pulled it over her head. She padded silently and barefoot down the corridor toward the fresher and turned on the light. Once inside, she stopped before the small mirror and looked at herself. Her long hair was loose and somewhat mussed, and her lips were slightly swollen, but the rest of her looked the same. Leia was amazed. She felt so different that she would have expected her face to have undergone a complete change.
She touched her cheeks and looked at her face a little longer in the mirror before she looked down at the rest of her body. Han?s shirt ended in mid-thigh, and as her eyes traveled down the length of the well-worn shirt, another, sudden thought made fear grip her heart.
I could be pregnant.
An enormous bubble of panic welled up in her chest, and Leia backed out of the fresher. She raced down the corridor into her cabin and frantically rooted through her luggage for her medical kit. The kit was the standard unit distributed to every member of the Alliance and everyone was expected to pack his kit whenever he left base.
Leia opened the kit and looked over the items. She had been through the drill like everyone else on Echo Base and she was acquainted with all the items that the medical kit held. She quickly rummaged through the case, pulling out the bandages, tape, bacta spray, bacta ointment, small intravenous fluid bags of blood and volume expanders, intravenous tubing, painkillers, glucose and salt tablets, the small vial of poison pills (provided to all soldiers to give them a quick, painless way out of any untenable situation), and finally pulled out a small package at the bottom of the case. Inside it were four hypodermic needles.
The needles were provided to all the female members of the Alliance. Each tube held an injection of birth control medication that would last for three months. Leia had never paid much attention to these hypodermics before, but as she pulled out the first syringe, she recalled the words of the instructor concerning the needles:
"The hormonal mixture in the syringes is very powerful. If it?s used inadvertently by a pregnant woman it could induce a miscarriage."
She pulled the cap off the needle and held it against her arm.
I can?t have a baby. It would be the worst thing in the world right now. I?m fighting against the Empire, and I have no idea how many years more this fight will take or what missions I?ll be required to undertake. And?Leia?s lip trembled as the thought came to her?and what about Han?
Leia shivered. She wasn?t even sure how Han felt about her ? how much would a baby complicate the situation between them, especially in light of the fact that she fully expected Han to leave the Alliance one day to take care of his business with Jabba the Hutt?
This is the right thing to do. If it happens again I have to be prepared?
She readied her fingers against the plunger.
And then, suddenly, Leia began to tremble. In her agitation, she dropped the hypodermic onto the floor tiles of the deck.
I can?t do it.
Just the infinitesimally small chance that she could be carrying Han Solo?s child ? whether he loved her or not ? Leia couldn?t take the chance of hurting it ? even the idea of it.
She put her face into her hands. She had championed female rights to control their own reproductive destinies, and had been relentless in pushing for these rights throughout the galaxy during her tenure as Senator of Alderaan. She had always believed in her own right to choose ? in fact, had counted on it as a safety net. Now, faced with the possibility that she might need to give herself the shot, she knew she could not do it.
Slowly, Leia picked up the needle, recapped it and replaced it inside her medical kit. This means nothing. I can always change my mind and give myself the shot later, Leia told herself as she replaced the items in the kit one by one ? although she knew she was lying to herself.
She sighed, feeling that she was drowning in a morass of confusion. Putting the medical case away, Leia left her cabin, walking slowly down the corridor past Han?s cabin, past the galley and lounge until she reached the cockpit. Without turning on the lights, she walked up to Chewbacca?s chair and climbed up. Alone with her thoughts, Leia closed her eyes.
Han was alone when he woke. For one brief moment, he stared at the rumpled pillow next to his head, disoriented, and then he sat up swiftly as memories of lovemaking with Leia flashed through his mind.
They had done it.
They had made love.
This changes everything.
Han leaned back against the headboard of his bed and tried to assimilate the incredible fact in his mind. He had loved her and fantasized about her and burned for her for so long ? actually holding her in his arms, and having her respond to him was the most amazing experience he?d ever had. Rather than feeling satisfied, or triumphant, he felt curiously grateful and felt a strange sensation of lightness, which took him a while to interpret as happiness.
Barely had this realization taken hold, than Han became aware of the fact that Leia had been gone too long just to have gone to the fresher. He slid on a pair of his shorts, found his crutch just outside the doorway to his cabin and went to look for Leia.
He found her sitting in Chewbacca?s chair in the unlit cockpit. She was so dwarfed by the enormous chair that at first glance, Han missed her; only when he turned away and saw her reflection in the cockpit windows lit by the lights on the control panels did he realize she was there.
Silently, he entered the cockpit and approached the chair. "Hey."
Leia looked up and her initially grave expression gave way to a smile. "Hey, yourself."
Han settled himself down in his chair, dropped the crutch and swiveled the chair around to face her. "You okay?"
"What?s going on then?"
Leia bit her lip. "I ? I just wanted a little time to myself to sort things out in my mind."
Han waited for her to elaborate, and the seconds ticked by uncomfortably. A cold feeling settled in the pit of his stomach. She?s having second thoughts. Finally, he asked, "You regretting what happened?"
Leia hesitated, trying to get her thoughts into coherent order. When she had looked up to see Han standing before her, her first reaction was a physical one as she took in the magnificence of his body, clad only in a thin pair of shorts, with his injured ankle encased in an elasticele bandage. She fought down the urge to reach out and touch him, and was amazed with herself. Just yesterday, she would not even allow herself to think these thoughts, but now, having made love to him, she suddenly looked upon Han?s body with a proprietary feeling, as though it now belonged to her.
That doesn?t mean he feels that way, Leia reminded herself. You start acting like you own him and he?ll be off to the Corporate Sector or Kathol Space before you can say ?Chewbacca?.
When Han asked her about regrets, her first response was to say ?yes?. The conflicting thoughts and worries that were now going through her mind were driving her crazy.
But as she looked up into his handsome face, and remembered their lovemaking in all its glory, she suddenly found herself unable to lie. She didn?t regret it for a moment. No matter what problems this would bring in the future or what heartache might result from giving in to passion, Leia did not regret one second spent in Han?s arms. "No," she said, finally. "No regrets."
Han cocked his eyebrow at her and looked unconvinced.
Leia felt her heart twist a little. "You made it beautiful. And perfect."
"But?" Han prompted.
"Come on, your Worship. You didn?t come all the way out to the cockpit out of some overwhelming urge to sit in Chewie?s chair and star gaze. With you, it?s never something simple. Your mind is always going a hundred directions at once. I?m sure you?ve thought up a dozen other things to worry you."
Leia?s lips twitched at the accurateness of his assessment. "Well, you?re obviously more experienced in this than I am. I guess I was feeling a little overwhelmed. I never thought it would happen between us ? and now it has, and I guess I was trying to get used to that fact."
Han reached forward and took Leia?s hand in her own. "Hey?if it means anything, I?m not sure I?m used to it, either."
Leia looked down at Han?s hands, reveling in the warmth of his touch, and said nothing, trying to get used to the feel of Han?s hands on hers. Han?s next words, spoken in a slyly suggestive tone of voice had her struggling between a pleasurable shock and indignation: "I know what we could do to get more used to it."
Han grinned. "How about I go easy on you, you Worship? I?m starving. Why don?t we make some dinner first?"
"Dinner?" Leia?s jaw dropped open in surprise. Was it dinnertime? And then she thought back to the day. Han had gone out EV after breakfast and he had returned in the late morning. The rest of the day had been spent?Leia realized suddenly that she was hungry.
Leia looked up into Han?s eyes, and was caught, momentarily mesmerized. They were as beautiful as ever, but there was something ? some unexplained spark visible deep within their hazel depths. Leia bit her lower lip as she wondered if she?d ever understand what went on in that enigmatic, fascinating mind behind those eyes. I love you. The thought crashed through her mind, and hovered on the tip of her tongue; but even though she wanted to speak the words, she found herself suddenly swamped by fears. Everyone she had ever loved before had died. She thought of her mother and she also thought of that enormous inferno of Alderaan?s destruction. A superstitious fear kept the words bottled inside and she tried to marshal her thoughts into coherent order.
Before Han had come into the cockpit, she had been telling herself that their lovemaking could only be a one-time thing, that she should find a way to tell Han that they had made a mistake ? that it must never happen again. But, as she looked at Han sitting before her, and felt the pressure of his hands on hers, Leia suddenly made the conscious decision to be selfish. For once, she would reach out with both hands and try to grasp what happiness she could.
As she gazed on Han, the confusion that had whirled in her mind suddenly settled into coherent facts:
First, she loved Han more than ever.
Second, she was sure Han would leave her. She had told herself he would be leaving for months, but now she realized that she had been using that as an excuse to tell herself why she should not give in to her emotions; now, however, she truly believed that he was going to leave to pay back Jabba the Hutt. Perhaps not right away, but she was sure that it would happen before long. How she was so sure of that, she did not know, but she was sure.
Third, she was trapped on board this downed ship with him at least three more weeks until they could finish repairs. Why not push aside all her fears and doubts for once and enjoy her time with him? He still had not said he loved her, but she was sure he wanted her. And he enjoyed being with her. Their return to Echo Base and the reality of missions and meetings and politics would come soon enough. Why not live her fantasy now? She loved him. She wanted him. Once in his arms had not been enough. Was it so selfish to snatch a few moments of happiness for herself?
Leia squeezed Han?s hand back. "That?s a great idea, Han. I?m starving."
Han pulled Leia to her feet, and ran his hands slowly up and down her shoulders. She had never looked more beautiful to him. For a moment, he had thought she was going to tell him she regretted what they had done; with the smile she gave him, he felt an overwhelming sense of relief and let out the breath he hadn?t realized he had been holding. As he looked down into her smiling, dark brown eyes, he felt the sudden uplift of joy that was so acute that it was painful. She hadn?t said she loved him, but she wasn?t pushing him away, either. A part of him was still struggling to believe it all. The Princess of Alderaan and a guy like him. He bent his head down to kiss her soft lips, and then bent down to pick up his crutch.
With his arms around Leia?s shoulders he made his way out of the cockpit, through the lounge and into the galley.
This changes everything.
The thought came to Han again.
I can?t leave her. Han?s thoughts warred in his head. He knew it wasn?t just a matter of choice to deal with Jabba the Hutt, but the thought of consciously walking away from Leia now, knowing there was a good chance he might never return was too agonizing to contemplate. As he and Leia started cooking their dinner together, Han watched Leia handling the simple, domestic tasks, and knew that he wanted to stay with her. Forever.
Hell, I?ve hung around with the Alliance for so long because of her. And that was when she wouldn?t even admit she cared. How can I leave her now?
Leia leaned forward in Chewbacca?s chair and adjusted the screen. The display showed Han in his EV suit replacing the clamp capacitor units. It wasn?t difficult work but it was somewhat tedious. Even having watched him for the past two hours, Leia still couldn?t dispel her anxiety. Anything could happen in EV.
There had been a minor argument between them before Han had left for EV, but for once Leia backed down. Han was adamant that she stay inside the Falcon for her own safety ? something that Leia had a million ready arguments against ? however, he also argued that he needed someone in the cockpit to monitor the capacitors once they were changed. Finally, Leia acquiesced to that logic and consequently ended up biting her nails as she watched Han and periodically checked the computer displays to make sure the alignment of the capacitors was going properly.
As Leia settled back into the chair again, she sighed. So it had all come to this. The past seventeen days ? three standard weeks plus two days ? the happiest days of Leia?s life. She closed her eyes for a moment savoring the memories. For the first time in her life she had let go. She allowed herself to be Leia, not the Princess of Alderaan, or Senator Organa or leader of the Rebel Alliance. She allowed herself to be uninhibited as she savored the days and treasured the nights with Han. More importantly, she allowed Han to teach her how to laugh again.
It had been one of the things about Han Solo that had charmed and attracted her the most. Leia knew that Han?s life had not been easy, but he had somehow always retained his ability to laugh. With Alderaan?s destruction, Leia had forgotten about laughter, and she had been so focused on her guilt and repentance that she had not allowed herself to enjoy much of anything in the past three years. Han swept her along with his infectious laughter and his roguish sense of humor, and Leia found herself transported to a place of nearly unbridled joy during the interlude she had with him.
Some nights after she heard Han?s breathing even out into deep sleep, Leia would turn and lean her back against his side, luxuriating in the feel of being held by him and she would look out the tiny porthole of his cabin toward the stars in the distance and feel utter contentment sweep over her, and she wished that their time alone together would never end.
In the daytime in between sessions working on the Falcon there were a thousand new things she learned about Han, and she loved every bit of it ? the way he would hum a little when he was shaving in the mornings, the way his tousled hair looked when he came out of the sonic shower, the way he would rifle through his pockets whenever he changed or got undressed and then shake out his clothes before folding them neatly away.
As she watched him, Leia found herself hoarding away these little nuggets of information in her mind. Despite the passion he showed her and the evident enjoyment he had in her company, Leia still could not shake off the conviction that he would leave her. After they returned to Echo Base. After reality intruded on their lives again. She found herself studying his face when he didn?t know she was watching ? desperately trying to imprint his features on her mind. She remembered to her despair how over the years the faces of all her loved ones had faded from her memory ? her mother, her foster-mother, her father, her friends, the servants ? only the few precious holos that Leia still had allowed her to remember what they looked like.
In the evenings when the work was done, they would enjoy a leisurely dinner together, and then relax in the lounge talking, or playing Dejarik, or watching the news or holodramas on the holovid screen. Han even started teaching Leia how to play Sabacc, although he declared early on that she was fairly hopeless at it. They talked and they reminisced and they laughed. There was a sort of comfort and domesticity in what they did together, although every once in a while Leia would look up to see Han?s eyes on her and he would flash her that slow smile that always made her breath catch in her throat as heat would suffuse through her veins. And she would always realize anew that there was nothing really domesticated or tame about Han Solo.
In the nights, Leia found herself constantly learning new things about Han and about herself ? and she marveled how she could have denied herself ? denied them both this happiness for so long, bitterly regretting the wasted years when they had been at each others? throats. Every night in his arms Leia found the words "I love you" rising in her throat ? but desperate as she was to declare how she felt about him, Leia found herself unable to say the words. The same superstitious fear would rise up to haunt her each time ? If I say the words I?ll lose him for sure ? Everyone I?ve ever loved has died?I?ve lost everyone I?ve ever loved. I can?t lose Han, too.
A clicking over the intercom caught Leia?s attention. She quickly looked down at the screen. "The last module is in. Check the readout."
Leia clicked in acknowledgement and checked the control panel for the diagnostic schemata. She turned on the cycling mechanism and waited. After a few moments, she heard a rhythmic whirring noise and saw lights on the control panel turn green. "It?s working," Leia said. "All the readouts are green."
Leia watched as Han headed away from the back of the ship and switched the camera feeds to track him as he returned to the EV bay. She sighed a little. So that was that. The Falcon was fixed. There was nothing to keep them from leaving this barren rock and going back to civilization again.
Get a hold of yourself, Organa, she berated herself severely. You always knew that this was just an escape from reality. You?ve had seventeen days with the man of your dreams ? Han even delayed this by two days after you took off the elasticele bandage from his ankle to give us more time together, no matter what his excuses were about allowing his ankle some time to adjust ? it?s more happiness than you ever expected to have. Now it?s time to go back to your duty.
She climbed out of Chewbacca's chair and headed out of the cockpit through the lounge and down into the hold where she waited for Han to return from EV.
Han entered from the EV bay and the door closed behind him. He pulled off the EV helmet and Leia was struck by the look in the depths of his hazel eyes. For a moment, she thought she had glimpsed sadness and a sort of resignation, but when she looked again, there was only the familiar, cocky gleam.
"Missed you, Princess," Han said, in a husky voice.
"You?ve only been gone a few hours!" Leia accused, as she came forward to help him out of the EV suit.
"Too long," Han said as he leaned forward to kiss her.
Leia breathed in Han?s scent as she kissed him back, feeling that she would have this same quickening of her heartbeat for Han if they were together for a hundred years.
"When?" she asked, when Han released her.
Han hesitated. "Tomorrow morning."
Leia bit back the words, So soon?
As if he heard her unspoken plea, Han continued, "We could delay a little longer. I?ve got the stocks on board, but I think it would be better to leave now in case there are problems; we don?t want to run out of supplies in the middle of nowhere."
Leia bowed her head to his logic. "Let?s go make lunch."
Han shifted slightly and then lifted his hand to run his fingers through Leia?s hair. Every night he would do this as he held her, finding himself mesmerized by the long, silky tresses, and finding an almost irresistible urge to twirl the locks around his fingers. He glanced down at Leia and saw that she was asleep, her breathing even and regular, and he tilted his head slightly to press a kiss on the top of her head.
In his arms.
By tilting his head back again, he could see her pure profile, so serene and lovely in repose. As always when he watched her as she slept, he found himself struggling against a surge of emotions: awe, disbelief, happiness and fear.
A princess and a guy like him. How was it possible? What did she see in him? For all Han?s surface cockiness and bravado, he still found himself in shock over his good fortune. Although he had never admitted it, deep down, Han believed her to be superior to him in every way: birth, breeding and character. She was so spirited and intelligent ? and Han knew she could have had her pick of great and powerful men. He found the fact that she came to his arms willingly every night to be inexplicable.
How could she love him?
And then, the cold thought settled in his chest.
Did she love him?
She had never said that to him. She certainly acted like she loved him. These last three weeks she had been tender and affectionate during the day and passionate ? with an ardor and enthusiasm that secretly shocked and delighted him ? at night.
But she had never said those words to him.
To be fair, Han had never said that he loved her, either. A certain cagey fear had held him back, although he had been so close to telling her so many times. But ? there had been times when he had caught her looking at him with a peculiar expression on her face. An expression that was enigmatic and worrisome, and he had held back from speaking out. Han knew her better than to think that she didn?t care for him, but he wondered how strong her feelings for him really were. Would they stand the test of time? What would happen when they returned to Echo Base and reality intruded on them again ? reality being in the form of the Alliance High Command with its patent and blatant disapproval of the idea of Leia lowering herself to the level of a lowly smuggler? What if Han really did leave to pay off Jabba the Hutt? Would she be willing to wait for him, provided he was able to work out a way to pay off Jabba and leave with his neck intact?
These last three weeks had been the happiest of his life ? he had thought he loved Leia when they were at each other?s necks. Now, having her respond to him and open herself up to him ? slowly learning about the million and one things about her that had always intrigued him ? had made him realize that her love was an even greater prize than he had thought.
But all good things, it seemed, had to end. In the morning, they would do a final test on the clamp capacitors, and then they would leave this rock ? they would travel to Kashyyyk to pick up Chewbacca and then it was back to Echo Base. Han sighed as he thought about returning to Echo Base. As Leia had suspected, Han had deliberately delayed fixing the clamp capacitors over the last two days, unable to let go of the brief happiness that he had finally found. You knew this wouldn?t last. But, damn and blast?only seventeen days!
Leia turned in his arm, snuggling her face into his chest. "Han," she murmured sleepily, and then fell silent again.
Han smiled at the thought that Leia would call to him from her subconscious.
I don?t want to leave her, Han thought. I have to find a way to be able to stay with her.
"The ship is secured," Han announced and he started un-strapping himself from the crash webbing.
Next to him, Leia started doing the same thing, and she looked out the cockpit windows toward the concrete walls of the docking bay. "How long are you planning on staying here?"
"Just overnight," Han said. "I thought we could stock up on supplies this afternoon, get something to eat and leave in the morning. Once we?re out of Tachi airspace I?ll send a message to Chewie."
Leia nodded, and then brightened a little. Han?s answer was casual, but Leia sensed that Han was deliberately dragging things out to give them more time ? another night ? delaying the inevitable return to Echo Base. For once in her life, Leia found she had no complaint against dragging things out. She, too, viewed her return to Hoth with dismay. Every morning, Leia had wakened with a pounding sensation in her throat and the thought: He?s leaving, he?s leaving, he?s leaving. Now that they were returning to Echo Base for real, the fears continued to chase her throughout the day as well.
Their departure from the Sajex moon three days ago had been uneventful, and both had breathed a sigh of relief that the Falcon was working again. There were still two more days before they would reach Kashyyyk. Leia knew that they could have stretched their supplies and fuel long enough to last until they saw Chewbacca again, but she did not protest when Han proposed stopping at Tachi along the way.
"Come on, sweetheart," Han said, taking her hand as they left the cockpit, on their way out to get the supplies for the ship. "We?ve got work to do."
Leia stepped out of the shower into the drying space of the fresher, feeling cleaner than she had in weeks. During their weeks trapped on the Sajex moon, they had not dared to take water showers, afraid to waste what supplies the Falcon had, and had relied on sonic showers, which cleaned just as well, but certainly didn?t provide the feeling that a hot water shower could. Now that they had returned to civilization, so to speak, and could refill their tanks before departure, Leia quickly availed herself of this little luxury. She dried her hair and then, wrapping a towel around herself stepped out into the corridor on her way to her own cabin where her clothes were stored.
Han entered the corridor at the same time. He had just finished getting all the new supplies secured in the Falcon?s hold and he grinned impishly when he saw Leia in such a delicious state of undress. "You didn?t wait for me?" he asked accusingly.
Leia blushed a little. "It?s going to take me a while to get dressed." Han had planned to take her to one of the trendier restaurants in the Tachi capital city of Liouna, and Leia wanted to dress up for once.
Han whistled. "If you look too hot we may not get off this ship at all."
Leia laughed as she opened the door to her cabin. "Just get washed up."
An hour later, Leia emerged from her cabin and went to the lounge where Han was waiting for her.
Han?s admiring glance told Leia all she needed to know as she took his arm. She was wearing a slim, sheath dress of a deep rose color. The dress had a high collar but was essentially backless down to the small of her back. It was floor length with slits to her knees. Leia wore a matching pair of rose slippers and her hair was pulled back into an elaborate coif piled on top of her head with long, jeweled pins to keep the tresses in place.
Leia blushed a little at Han?s silent, admiring assessment. "I brought this dress along in case we?d need it for any diplomatic functions," she explained.
"You look beautiful, Princess," Han said.
Leia gave him a glance of surprise. She had expected some smart-aleck comment or some sexually appraising remark, but Han?s words seemed to be heart-felt and genuine. Han himself was looking very nice ? he?d dug up a nice jacket that Leia had never seen before and his trousers and shirt had been neatly pressed by the auto valet.
"Let?s go," Han said.
The city of Liouna was like any number of fairly prosperous cities on any number of planets along the edge of the Mid-Rim ? it was bustling and busy and there was a large assortment of people of various species along the streets. The Tachi system was at the junction of two trade spines and functioned as a distribution center for several businesses. It had no indigenous species or cultures ? all its inhabitants had come from elsewhere, and it was mainly a hodgepodge of species drawn together by their interests in making money. Therefore, the buildings were of a generic architectural style popular throughout the galaxy at the time, with a lot of gleaming transparisteel and durasteel. Like other cities of the galaxy, there were several levels to the streets and buildings. The uppermost levels were for the wealthy, while the poor and criminal elements survived down at the ground levels.
As they went through the city, Leia thought wistfully of the beautiful architecture of Aldera and how it had given her home city such character. Busy and crowded though the streets of Liouna were, it seemed very soulless to her. And, strangely, Leia thought, even the mid and upper levels of the city seemed to have some undesirable elements. Leia shook her head. Perhaps she had just been away from civilization a little too long.
They took a speeder taxi from the spaceport to the restaurant. Han had traveled through Tachi a few times on some spice runs and he knew Liouna fairly well.
They entered the restaurant. It was a very well appointed and luxurious and Leia raised an eyebrow at Han as they were lead to their seats. "I know you said you were taking me someplace nice, but how are we going to pay for this?"
Han took out a credit data card from his pocket. "I have a few credits salted away?don?t worry."
"Han?" Leia bit her lip. She had started to say, "You need this money to pay back Jabba," but then realized that the last thing she wanted to do was to bring the topic of conversation around to Han?s possible departure.
"Don?t worry, sweetheart. This was a little cash I had for emergencies. I figure that after being stuck in the middle of nowhere for over eight weeks we deserve a little treat."
"Han, it?s too much," Leia protested. "Let me take care of this?when we get back, I can?"
"But, Han, you need this money to?"
"I said ?no?!"
Leia wanted to protest more but from the tight-lipped expression on Han?s face, she realized she had probably insulted him. She bit her lip and quickly glanced down at the electronic menu placed by her plate.
For several minutes, a mildly uncomfortable silence ensued and then their waiter ? a live waiter ? came to their table to take their order. "Good evening, Sir and Madam. How may we serve you tonight?"
The meal was excellent, and the wines complemented the food perfectly. The service was punctual and precise. The atmosphere and ambiance were very relaxing and comfortable. And yet, Leia could scarcely eat a bite.
All through the meal, her stomach kept jumping nervously. Added to her misery when she calculated that they would reach Echo Base in seven days: two days to travel to Kashyyyk to pick up Chewbacca, and then five from Kashyyyk to Hoth, Leia kept sensing that something was wrong. It had started with a niggling sensation of doubt when she had left the Millennium Falcon, but was slowly blossoming into an undefined, yet distinct sensation of worry.
Something?s wrong, Leia thought as she speared her krellrish fillets with her trident. She looked up at Han and saw that he was almost finished eating his Traladon tendersteak. Despite Han?s attempt to be relaxed and casual, Leia could sense that Han was uncomfortable as well. What was wrong? Was it Han? Was he going to tell her something that she really, really didn?t want to hear?
The waiter took away their plates and Leia stood up, needing to get away from the table for a few moments. That feeling of impending doom was stronger than ever, nearly choking her. "I need to ? um ? powder my nose," she said delicately, and then quickly left the table.
Alone, Han looked around the restaurant. It was a very upscale place, and no doubt Leia had been to hundreds of them, but for Han, it was always a treat to have a meal in a place like this. Usually, he was in no position to pay for dinner in this type of restaurant, and in fact, the money he was using for this dinner was really money better spent toward paying off Jabba the Hutt, but Han was still unsure what to do about Jabba.
As he drank down the rest of his Paqi wine, Han struggled against the dilemma he was facing. Despite his reckless tendencies and casual attitude toward things, Han was a grown man who was used to facing grim realities. He knew what he had to do. He had to take care of the situation with Jabba. He couldn?t keep running forever ? although it was definitely a tempting idea. For a moment, he let his fantasies take him away: He and Leia and Chewie, exploring the galaxy from one end to the other, doing the odd shipping job for a few credits?and then he shook his head and sighed. Leia would never be able to give up her rebellion. Even in a fantasy he could see that it would never work.
Han put his glass down, looked up and then stiffened. Four humans dressed appropriately for this restaurant had approached his table. Despite the refinement of their attire, nothing could disguise the burly, sinister appearances of their faces. They had been sitting at a table on the other side of the restaurant with two others, and Han remembered seeing them come in after he and Leia were seated, although he had been much more preoccupied with Leia?s nervousness and too worried over her state of mind to give them more than a passing glance.
"Solo," one of them said. He was a tall man with dark hair and an impressive scar running from his right temple to his jaw. Two of the others appeared to be identical twins with long white-blond hair, blue eyes and a pinched expression to their faces. The last one was short and had light brown hair and an extremely pugnacious look on his face. Han did not recognize any of them, although he knew very well why they were here. So it had come to this. His worries and his indecision had been useless. There was no longer an option about paying back Jabba the Hutt?s henchmen had come for him. They had no weapons on hand because all weapons had been checked at the door; however, Han knew his odds were poor against four of them. Han?s only consolation was that Leia had left the table. His relief, however, was short lived.
"How lucky for us that we happened to see your ship at the spaceport," Scar-face said in a pleasant tone of voice. "Still flying that junkheap, eh? Where?s Chewbacca?"
"None of your damned business."
The pleasantness vanished. "Get up slowly, Solo," Scar-face said. "Dinner is over."
Casually, Han leaned back against his chair, his movements slow and deliberate. "I?m not so sure about that. I?m still feeling hungry."
"Your pretty lady friend said she?d had enough."
Han did not betray by a flicker on his face the stark terror that shot through his system at the mention of possible harm to Leia. "What do you mean by that? Did you hurt??"
Scar-face and his friends laughed. "What a gallant gentleman, Solo. No. She hasn?t been hurt ? yet. But I?d suggest you come with us if you don?t want to see anything like that happen."
Han stood up. Just at that moment, an anxious appearing waiter approached. "Is anything amiss, sir?"
"No," Scar-face said. "Captain Solo was just leaving." He turned to Han, smirking. "Did you forget to pay for your meal?"
Rolling his eyes slightly, Han pulled out his data credit card and tossed it on the table. "By all means, let?s go," he said.
Han?s elegantly dressed abductors appeared strangely out of place and incongruous in the ramshackle warehouse where they brought him. It was a sprawling building set on the lower levels of Liouna?s commercial district.
The building was gray and dimly lit, while the streets around it were wet with recent rainfall and muck that dribbled down from the upper levels of Liouna. The white-blond twins stood at either side of the door, while the short, pugnacious one opened the door. And then, Scar-face urged Han into the warehouse with a none-too-gentle shove. As Han stumbled into the darkened room, his healing ankle gave way and he crumpled to the ground, clenching his teeth in sudden agony, but determined not to give his abductors the satisfaction of hearing him cry out in pain.
"Get up, Solo!" Scar-face commanded as the twins grabbed Han roughly and pulled him up.
Han struggled to his feet in silence, wondering what these miscreants were up to. Why hadn?t they killed him already? Or were they planning to take him to Jabba the Hutt for his final punishment? He felt his insides grow cold at the sudden thought of what was in store for him, and then spared a brief thought: At least Chewie?s safe on Kashyyyk. And then he thought of Leia, and was no longer able to keep silent. "What did you do with her?" Han asked.
The four ruffians laughed, and it was not a pleasant laugh. They marched Han through the main antechamber toward a back door, past rows of stacked boxes and rusting equipment. One of the twins activated the door controls and the door slid open.
There was a stairwell behind the door and Han was marched up to the top. The other twin opened the door at the top, and they entered.
Inside, Han was confronted with the stuff of his worst nightmares. The room was large and lavishly appointed with purple and white upholstered furniture trimmed with durachrome and glass. The other two thugs that Han had seen at the restaurant were inside ? with Leia.
Leia was lying on one of the purple upholstered couches in the room and she was struggling against one of the thugs, while the other one held down her arms. Her hair was in disarray, with the jeweled pins hanging askew, while her rose-colored dress was torn at the shoulder and hem. Even pinned down as she was, Leia was fighting like a wildcat. The creep who was on top of her tried to plant a kiss on her lips and was rewarded with a vicious bite. He retaliated by slapping her hard across the face.
At the sight of Leia being harmed, Han forgot everything except for a feeling of all-consuming rage. He forgot the fact that six men were holding them. He forgot the fact that he was unarmed. He forgot the fact that he was recovering from a broken ankle and broken ribs. All he could think of was Leia, and his absolute fury that anyone would dare to harm her.
The bounty hunters? big mistake was their arrogance. They had not bound Han?s hands before they brought him upstairs. And now, watching these creeps abusing Leia, Han let out a bellow of pure outrage and charged into the room like a maddened bantha.
The brute on top of Leia was slammed to the floor. The other one, who had been holding Leia?s hands let go and leapt after Han. The four who had escorted Han upstairs started forward, but before they could reach Han, Leia had rolled herself upright, and had pulled out one of the sharp, jeweled pins from her hair.
Swift as a nexu, she lunged across the sofa, and stabbed the long pin into the thug who had been holding her down, jabbing it through the base of his skull. Instantly, he fell over ? dead. Leia barely paused as she reached down and pulled the blaster from the dead thug?s holster and she quickly trained it on the four advancing miscreants.
They halted, confusion and anger written on their faces at what was happening. However, one of the twins, unable to believe that Leia could hold her own against four, reached down for his own blaster.
The blaster never got out of its holster. Leia?s aim was deadly and she killed him.
The time it took for Leia to fire on the ruffian was enough for Scar-face to reach her. With a well-aimed blow, he was able to knock the blaster out of Leia?s hands and he grabbed her around the waist, hauling her to her feet. The other twin, enraged over his brother?s death, pulled out his blaster and pointed it toward Leia. Scar-face pulled out his own blaster and held it against Leia?s temple. The pugnacious gangster also pulled out his blaster but he pointed it toward Han.
Han, meanwhile, had won his fight with the brute who had attempted to rape Leia, and was now rising to his feet with his unconscious opponent?s blaster in his hands.
"Drop it or she?s dead!"
Han froze as he realized Scar-face was holding Leia with a blaster at her temple. Slowly, he straightened up and dropped his blaster.
"Kick it away!" Scar-face ordered.
Satisfied, Scar-face put his blaster back into his holster. With one arm around Leia, he reached into his pocket and pulled out binders. He snapped the first one onto Leia?s right wrist, but before he could snap on the second one, Leia suddenly ducked down. He reached down to pull her upright again, but once he had his hands on her shoulders, Leia twisted her shoulder, and used her hip as a pivot to throw him over her back.
Taking advantage of this melee, and the distraction it provided for the pugnacious gangster, Han made a flying leap for his blaster. He reached it just as the pugnacious gangster turned back toward him, and reflexively, Han pulled the trigger, killing his opponent.
The white-blond haired twin fired on Leia. His blaster shot went a little wide, grazing Leia?s arm and then tore into Scar-face, who fell over, dead. Leia gave an involuntary shriek at the blaster burn on her arm.
Rolling to his feet, Han fired one more time on the twin, and without a sound, their last opponent slumped over.
Han swiftly crossed the room to Leia?s side, and then stumbled a little as his ankle gave way again. She was sitting hunched over on the floor, grasping her injured arm. Han sat down on the floor beside her.
"You all right?"
Leia looked up, and nodded. At the sight of Leia?s disheveled hair, and the bruise that was forming on her cheek as well as the bleeding cut at the corner of her mouth, Han felt that rage rise through him again, and a sudden, overwhelming fear. They came for me, and they hurt her. "Did they ? are you??"
"You got here in time," Leia said, in a flat, tired voice.
Han expelled a sigh of relief, then gently pulled Leia to her feet. "I?m so sorry, sweetheart."
"It wasn?t your fault," Leia said.
"They were after me. You shouldn?t have had to go through this."
"I?m all right," Leia insisted, although she suddenly leaned all her weight onto Han for support. She looked around at the carnage in the room and shuddered. Trying to keep her voice steady, she said: "Let?s get back to the ship."
Leia kicked off the high-heeled shoes and tucked her feet under her as she sat on the lounge sofa beside Han. He had finished cleaning her wound and was now applying bacta ointment to her arm. She watched him as he worked, and felt her heart contract over his grim, set features. Every time he looked up toward her and saw the bruise on her left cheek, his nostrils would flare in fury again, but he said nothing.
Finally, he finished wrapping the bandage around her arm. "You should get some rest." He kissed her softly on the cheek.
"I?m too wound up to sleep," Leia said, as she reached her hand up toward Han?s face, but he stood up away from her before she could make contact. "I ? I think I?ll grab a sonic shower," she said.
Han nodded wordlessly and headed toward the cockpit.
"What are you doing?" Leia called after him.
"They said they saw this ship. I?m going to go over it with some diagnostics to check for bugs or homing beacons." Han?s voice trailed off as he disappeared into the cockpit.
Leia swallowed a few times, and then slid off the lounge sofa and made her way down the corridor toward the fresher. She took off the ruined dress, took a quick sonic shower and then wrapped a towel around herself and crossed the corridor toward Han?s cabin.
Inside, she pulled on her shift and crawled into Han?s bed, which seemed enormous without Han. She felt herself start to shiver a little as the reaction from the day?s events set in. In her mind?s eye, she saw the looming face of the brute as he bent over her, recalling the sour smell of his breath and the leering, malicious look in his eyes. She remembered the feeling of utter helplessness she?d had as she was pinioned onto the couch ? it was different from the fear she?d had when she?d been on board the Death Star and Vader had been torturing her. It was a different type of violation that this creep was attempting.
Nauseated, Leia got out of the bed and went back across the corridor toward the fresher, where she crouched down and retched into the fresher bowl, feeling her body spasm violently, feeling her head reeling with dizziness, feeling sweat beading out along her forehead. The bruise on her cheek was throbbing in time to the cut on her lip and the blaster burn on her arm. For several minutes, she did not move, and then the feeling of disorientation and queasiness subsided. Gingerly, she raised her head and turned on the tap in the sink for water. She dashed some cold water across her face, and then rinsed out her mouth.
She thought of Han, and then started feeling some of the tension leaving her body. She remembered the sudden sensation of hope tempered by fear that she had felt when Han had entered the room, and she shuddered as she thought of how easily Han might have been killed in that brawl. With difficulty, she got to her feet and left the fresher, crossing the hallway toward Han?s cabin again. As she crawled back into bed, she suddenly felt a wave of exhaustion sweep over her. Before she could pull the blanket over herself, she had already succumbed to a dreamless slumber.
Han headed back up the boarding ramp into the ship. After he had finished checking out the diagnostics in the cockpit he had spent another two hours crawling over the ship to visually inspect for any bugs or homing devices on the hull.
The entire time Han had been checking the outer hull of the Falcon, he kept hearing the thought in his head: It?s my fault, it?s my fault, it?s my fault. A nearly overwhelming sensation of guilt was weighing on him, almost paralyzing him as he did his evaluation, almost by rote, thankful that he knew the Falcon like the back of his hand ? at least well enough to notice any changes without having to concentrate too much. He covered dozens of places on the hull where the paint needed to be retouched, found some areas of superficial damage that looked mynock-related, and found a score of new dents in the hull, but no bugs or homing devices.
Finally satisfied that the ship was bug-free, Han closed the boarding ramp and re-entered the cockpit. He sat down in his chair and started the pre-flight sequence. It was a little difficult to get the ship started without a co-pilot, but Han felt cheered at the thought that soon Chewbacca would be sitting in his extra-large chair again as soon as the Falcon reached Kashyyyk. Although Han had originally planned on leaving in the morning, the abduction attempt had spooked him to the extent that he decided it would be too dangerous to delay his departure any longer than necessary.
When the stars in the sky finally elongated into the surreal patterns of hyperspace, Han checked the flight status one last time and then headed toward the back of the ship. As he entered the corridor behind the lounge, he realized for the first time that he was feeling a lot of aches and pains related to the fighting that had gone on earlier in the evening. He went into the ?fresher, took off his shirt and assessed the damage: a slowly blackening eye, a cut near his left temple and various multicolored bruises over his body. He shrugged off the injuries as superficial, and took a quick sonic shower before crossing the hall toward his cabin.
As Han stepped inside his cabin, he saw Leia asleep in the bed and felt another surge of guilt and anger. She looked so delicate and vulnerable as she lay curled up in the bed. She looked like a young girl ? a child. He paused as he thought of this. With all of Leia?s strength of character and accomplishments it was sometimes easy to forget just how young she really was.
Han got into his side of the bed and Leia moaned slightly. By the dim light of the chronometer at his bedside, Han could barely make out Leia?s outline, and he couldn?t see the bruise on her cheek, but the memory of it still cut him to the heart as he slid down under the sheets and cradled Leia into his arms. "I?m so sorry, sweetheart," he murmured as he closed his eyes, holding her tight against him.
Leia opened her eyes not sure why she had awakened. She turned and looked at the chrono on Han?s side of the bed. It was three AM, hours before morning. And then she realized that Han was awake. He was sitting propped up against the headboard and he was looking out the porthole, while with one hand he was gently caressing her hair.
"Hey," she said.
Han turned toward her. "I woke you?"
Leia shook her head. "What?s the matter?"
For a moment, Han said nothing, and then he shrugged. "Can?t sleep."
Leia reached out to turn on the light. Then, she sat up and adjusted her position so that she, too, was leaning against the headboard, but was settled into the crook of Han?s arm. For several moments, she was silent, and then asked the question that was most central to her thoughts: "You?re leaving, aren?t you?"
Han sighed and looked back out the porthole again.
"Are you?" Leia persisted.
Han looked down toward her and gave her a wry smile, but said, "You were really handy with that hairpin of yours."
"My Aunt Sab? was once a queen?s bodyguard. She taught me self defense," Leia explained, and then added, "Stop trying to change the topic."
Instead of answering Leia?s question, Han said: "I love you."
Caught off guard, Leia?s jaw dropped and she stared wordlessly at him, trying to read the expression in his hazel eyes. For once, his eyes were unguarded, and as Leia looked into them, she felt her heart contract sharply. Just as he?s leaving me, he tells me this. This is love, and it?s the most painful thing that?s ever happened to me. She tried to return the words of love, but found herself suddenly trembling. I want to tell him, but I can?t ? I can?t! If I say those words ? it?s like a magic spell, I?ll just lose him like I?ve lost everyone else I?ve ever loved.
"Then why do you have to go?" Leia whispered.
With his free hand, Han gently rubbed her bruised cheek. "Look what happened to you tonight. That was all my fault. Jabba?s bounty was on my head. I can accept that. If he kills me one day, that?s my problem. But it would be worse than death for me if anything happened to you."
"That?s not true!" Leia argued. "What do you mean it?s your problem if he kills you? If Jabba ever tracks you down he will kill you ? and then what would I do? At least if you stayed with us ? you could do work that didn?t require you to go out into the field or ? "
Han shook his head. "I couldn?t spend my life hiding like that. I just can?t. Look, Leia, I want more than anything to be with you. But until I can be sure that this threat is gone ? I ? when I saw those monsters with you in that room and I thought they were going to ? I couldn?t take seeing something like that again. Not with you."
"I?m willing to take that risk."
"I?m not," Han said, flatly. "It?s my responsibility to take care of this."
"Oh, so now he decides to become responsible," Leia said, sarcastically.
Han hesitated, and Leia could see that he was working his way up to saying something that was difficult for him: "Look, Leia, would you be willing to wait for me?"
Frustration and fear made Leia answer roughly, "And what would you do if I said no?"
Han looked her straight in the eye. "If you don?t care enough to wait for me then there?s no point in me hanging around with the Rebellion anyway."
Instantly, Leia felt contrite. "I didn?t mean it like that, Han. You know I?d wait forever. I?" Again, the words I love you strangled in Leia?s throat. Finally, in despair, she turned and kissed him, trying to tell him with her lips the words that she was unable to speak.
Han stiffened at Leia?s touch at first, and then he had his arms around her, and was kissing her as passionately as ever. In one dizzying moment, Leia felt herself slowly being lowered down into the pillows. And then Han stopped, and pulled away from her abruptly.
"What?s the matter?" Leia asked opening her eyes, bewildered.
"I ? I didn?t want to?" Han?s voice was rough with emotion, and in the depths of his eyes Leia could see the passion that he was trying to control. "After what you?ve been through tonight you need your rest."
Feeling that she wanted Han and the reassurance of his lovemaking more than ever, Leia shook her head. "Please, Han. If I lie here I?ll just think about it over and over again. I want you to make me forget."
Han swallowed. "Are you sure?"
"Yes." Leia?s answer was barely a sigh. "Please."
Han groaned and then lowered his head, bringing his lips down toward hers, letting his lips and his hands blot out all the horrible memories from her mind.
Echo Base, which once seemed to be a deserted outpost in the middle of nowhere, now seemed very busy and crowded after all those weeks on the Falcon. Han leaned back in his chair waiting for Chewbacca to finish eating and looked around at the others in the mess hall who were talking and eating and trying to relax. A good portion of Base Command had stopped by at Han?s table to welcome him and Chewbacca back. Although Han would never have admitted it out loud, he was really enjoying the sensation of welcome and belonging he had with these men and women who?d become his friends over the past three years.
"Mind if I join you?"
Han looked up at the sound of that voice. "Luke!" Han?s face creased into a smile. "Have a seat! Great to see you!"
Chewbacca seconded Han?s greeting.
Luke put his tray down on the table and sat down next to Han and opposite from Chewbacca. "I was out on airspace surveillance patrol last night. I didn?t even know you guys were back until I got in an hour ago."
"Have you seen Leia?" Han asked. Knowing that Luke harbored feelings for Leia made Han a little nervous as he asked this question, but he knew it would be better to get things out in the open right away.
Luke?s face was neutral. "From a distance. She seemed to be surrounded by a bunch of bigwigs."
Han grimaced a little. "Still debriefing her, I guess." He had been debriefed by General Rieekan right after they had arrived that morning ? it had been a short session considering the amount of time that they had been away, but still lasted four hours. Then, Han had eaten a quick lunch before going to the medical bay where he had his wounds evaluated. He was basically healed, although he was given some more bacta treatment just for good measure.
"What happened?" Luke asked.
"Ship was damaged out in the Sajex system, and I got a few bumps and bruises?hell, I broke my ankle and I couldn?t get the repairs finished until my ankle healed."
Luke nodded. "So that?s why you guys were so long."
Han nodded. Luke?s statement didn?t give him much of an opening, but Han felt he needed to come clean. "Look, Luke, about Leia and me?"
Luke?s voice was flat. "She loves you."
Han smiled mirthlessly. I wish I could say ?yes?, he thought. "Let?s just say some things have changed between us."
Luke nodded, and Han noted there was no surprise on the younger man?s face, although it was a little stony.
Across from them, Chewbacca gave a soft murmur. Han grimaced, wishing that telling Luke could be as easy as telling Chewbacca had been. Actually, with Chewbacca there had been nothing to say. The Wookiee had known from the moment he saw them together, his only comment being a laconic, Took you two long enough, which had made Leia blush.
Chewbacca had, in fact, been very nonchalant about the whole thing, something for which Han was profoundly grateful. He knew that the Wookiee could have teased him and Leia mercilessly during the trip back to Hoth. Leia was skittery as a hopperoo around Chewbacca at first, but as Chewbacca was unfailingly deferential around the Princess and never mentioned the new status quo again, she slowly began to relax and to act naturally in front of the Wookiee.
Luke took a couple of bites of his food and then said, "I could see this was coming ? I?m actually surprised it took this long for you two to finally stop being so stubborn."
There was an undercurrent to Luke?s voice that bothered Han, and Han?s conscience was very uncomfortable. "Hey, Luke?"
Luke looked up at Han and smiled. "She loves you, Han. She?s loved you for a long time. You?ve got nothing to feel guilty about. Look, Han, I?m happy for both of you."
Han was still skeptical ? he knew Luke well enough to know that the younger man was trying to be brave and mature about what must be a very crushing disappointment. Whatever Luke said about predicting this development in advance, Han was sure that Luke had harbored secret hopes that there might still have been a chance for him.
"Just?" Luke paused as though he was trying to find a way to word his next statement delicately, "Just take good care of her ? she?s been through so much."
Han?s features softened from worry to gentleness. He wanted to reassure Luke that he wouldn?t do anything to hurt Leia, but knowing that he was planning on leaving soon, he said, instead: "As far as taking care of her, I was going to ask you to do that."
"What? Why?" Luke?s eyes widened in surprise.
"Why? Why now?"
Han sighed. "Jabba?s bounty hunters. I?m starting to run into them everywhere. We stopped in Tachi on our way back to Kashyyyk, and ran into a few more of them there. Leia ? well, I mean, it?s one thing if they go after me, but?" Han?s voice broke off as he remembered that nightmarish night on Tachi.
"You?re leaving to protect her," Luke said.
"But your chances of dealing with Jabba and getting away with it alive are about slim to none," Luke pointed out. "You know if you go anywhere near him he?ll kill you."
"Better me than her," Han said, softly.
Luke gave Han an assessing look, which was somewhat out of character for the youngster, and then said, "I?ll take care of her like she was my own sister."
"When are you planning on going?" Luke asked.
"A few days at most. I just want to make sure the Falcon is in good shape, get it stocked, and then I?m going to get going. I already told Rieekan."
"I hate to see you go. You and Chewie are my best friends."
"Get out of here," Han said, although he was secretly, inordinately pleased by Luke?s declaration. "You?ve got all of Rogue Squadron."
Luke shook his head, seriously. "It?s not the same thing. They?re ? I mean they?re great friends, but you and Chewie and Leia ? you?re all really more like my family."
"Hey, Luke?" Han paused, as always having a difficult time saying what was in his heart. "Same here, you know?"
Chewbacca corroborated with a series of barks and growls.
"Thanks, Luke," Han said, finally.
Leia returned to her quarters and tiredly glanced at the chrono by her bedside. She had spent most of the day being debriefed by the Alliance High Command regarding her activities on Renalo and Cijex. She tried to gloss over the weeks she was stranded with Han on the Sajex moon, but some of the High Command, especially Mon Mothma and General Dodonna repeatedly asked for more details about her weeks on the Sajex moon until finally Leia had lost her temper and told them that the debriefing session was at an end.
The rest of her day was spent catching up on the latest Alliance news and discussing strategic issues. The discussion was intensive, and the leadership did not even pause for dinner, which was delivered to the conference room. Now it was far past midnight Standard Time, and Leia was exhausted. She had not seen Han all day, and missed him terribly.
She had been carrying a stack of data-discs when she entered her quarters and she placed them on her bedside table. She pulled off her outer jacket and headed toward her fresher for a quick sonic shower before returning to her bedroom.
She glanced down at her data pad, which was on her bedside table. A light was blinking, indicating that she had messages. She sighed, thinking of the hundreds of messages she had waiting for her after such a prolonged absence, and idly clicked on her message box. I?ll just look at a couple and then I?ll see if Han?s still awake.
She sat down and started reading.
"Mistress Leia! Mistress Leia!"
Leia sat up with a start. "Wh ? what?"
"Mistress Leia!" the metallic, unmistakable voice of C-3PO floated toward her through her intercom.
"What?s the matter?" Blearily, Leia tried to focus her eyes on the chronometer as she realized that she had fallen asleep with her data pad in her lap. How did that happen? No matter how tired or overworked she was, Leia had never fallen asleep that easily, and certainly not while she was working.
"Mistress Leia! General Dodonna asked me to remind you that you have a meeting scheduled this morning at 0800 hours Standard Time."
Leia?s eyes finally focused onto the chronometer. It was 0730 Standard Time. I was here all night? Leia groaned, wondering what Han must have thought.
I?m going to smash that droid one day, Leia thought as she struggled to get out of bed. "Coming, Threepio. I?ll be at that meeting on time."
Leia looked at the chronometer again. I have to see Han.
Han had dinner in the mess hall with Chewbacca and Luke for the third day in a row. Nearly three full days since returning to Echo Base, and Han had barely had more than a glimpse of Leia in the hallway. A large entourage of the Alliance High Command and their aides had surrounded her and she appeared harassed ? but then, Han wondered if he just imagined that look. Not a word in almost three days. Was the High Command deliberately keeping her away from him or was Leia staying away because she was truly having doubts about him?
Han had spent the days stocking the Falcon, and going over the ship?s status with Chewbacca, but his mind was not on his work. He kept thinking of how every night he had gone to sleep alone and had woken alone. Leia had barely acknowledged him since she had stepped off the loading ramp of the Falcon into the waiting arms of the Rebel leadership. Han wanted to believe that she hadn?t been given a chance to see him, but his doubts kept gnawing at him.
Han did not deal well with uncertainty, and his temper grew steadily worse during the day. Chewbacca, who knew Han?s moods well enough stayed away from the temperamental human and worked quietly at the other end of the ship from Han, communicating only when necessary.
By dinnertime, Han was no longer in doubt that Leia was deliberately avoiding him. She just doesn?t care the way I wanted her to, Han thought to himself. In that case, there really is nothing stopping me from leaving?
"?and so, any other suggestions?" Mon Mothma asked.
None in the committee meeting spoke, and finally, Mothma adjourned the meeting. It was past seven, and Leia was exhausted. She wondered if her weeks away from Echo Base had made her unaccustomed to these long days and long meetings, which didn?t used to bother her at all.
Leia folded her data pad and stood up, stretching a little.
"Your Highness, would you care to join us for dinner in the officers? lounge?" Mothma asked, coming to Leia?s side.
Before Leia could answer, General Rieekan approached her from the other side. "I?m sorry to interrupt you ladies, but your Highness, may I have a word with you?"
Leia nodded to Rieekan and gave a last, distracted glance at Mon Mothma before following the General to the other side of the room.
"What?s the matter?" Leia asked.
"I just haven?t had the chance to welcome you back," Rieekan said. "How have you been?"
Leia narrowed her eyes. Tired though she was, she wasn?t fooled by Rieekan?s words. He was never one for pleasantries and small talk. "I?m a little tired, but I?m well. What?s the matter?"
"Just glad to see you back. We were very worried about you all those weeks you were gone and we couldn?t communicate with you."
"Did you think we?d suddenly deserted the Alliance?"
"No," Rieekan shook his head. "I know you well enough. But now, Solo tells me he?s leaving."
Leia felt her heart turn ice cold. So it was real. "Did he say when?"
"I understand tomorrow."
"Tomorrow!" Leia suddenly felt a pounding in her ears. Was he going to leave without telling her? "Please excuse me, General, I ? I have to take care of some business?" Before she finished her sentence, Leia had already left the conference room and was sprinting down the corridors and passageways of Echo Base. She checked Han?s quarters, which were unoccupied and then the hangar bay, but the Millennium Falcon sat silent and empty. Finally, she headed down the hall to the mess hall where she spotted the familiar trio of Han, Chewbacca and Luke.
Almost weak with relief, she entered the mess hall and headed toward their table.
Luke saw her first. "Leia!"
Leia, who had been thinking only of reaching Han, had her attention diverted as she turned to look at Luke. "Luke!" her face creased into a smile and she ran to hug him. "How have you been?"
"Good," Luke said, returning the embrace, although not as whole-heartedly as Leia. "I?ve gotten to do a lot of surveillance missions and training sessions these past few weeks. Artoo and I have logged a lot of hours together in that X-wing."
Leia broke away from Luke. She sat down next to him and looked at him critically. Despite the joviality in Luke?s words, Leia could tell that there was a difference in his tone of voice, and she noticed that he hadn?t asked her what she had been doing during those weeks she was away. She glanced briefly at Han. Of course. Luke knew.
Leia swiveled a bit in her seat. "Hello, Chewie. Han."
Chewbacca growled in reply, and Han said in a guarded tone of voice, "Princess."
Leia stiffened. So Han was in a temper. Before she could say anything else, Han turned to Artoo, who was standing behind Luke?s chair. "Artoo, get her Worship a tray."
"I?m not hungry," Leia protested, as Artoo rolled away.
"Why? Have you already eaten?" Han?s voice was still carefully composed, which set off alarm bells in Leia?s mind.
"No, I haven?t eaten, yet," Leia said.
"Look, I?ve got to get going," Luke said, rising from the table. "It?s great to have you back again."
Leia smiled. Chewbacca growled a goodbye, and Han waved briefly. "Goodbye, kid. See you around."
Once Luke had left, Leia turned toward Han. "You told him?"
Han shrugged. "Why? You didn?t want him to know?"
Leia bit her lip. "I wanted to tell him myself." She had wanted to break things gently to Luke, and she could only wonder how he was feeling now. Add guilt over Luke to the ten thousand and one things on her mind now.
Artoo returned with a tray of food, which he set down in front of Leia. She looked down at the grey-brown mess and her stomach turned.
"What?s the matter?" Han asked.
"Is this cartolo stew?"
"I think so," Han said. "I?m not sure."
Leia looked across at Han?s plate, which was empty. "But you ate the whole thing!"
"I know. Frightening, isn?t it?"
Leia smiled in reluctant amusement and looked down at her plate again. It was a far cry from the wonderful dinners that Han had produced in the Falcon?s galley over the past several weeks.
Staring down at Leia?s plate was too much for Chewbacca, who stood up and announced he was going back for seconds.
"You mean thirds," Han called after the Wookiee.
How Chewbacca could have managed to finish one plate much less be on his way to a third was a mystery to Leia. Gingerly, she picked up her trident and started eating, but she gave up the attempt after the first few bites. Finally, she put down her trident and looked up at Han.
"Rieekan told me you?re leaving tomorrow."
Han?s laconic, almost lazy response made Leia suddenly furious. "You were going to leave without telling me?" she asked, with her voice starting to rise.
"When was I supposed to tell you, your Worship? I haven?t seen you since the moment you stepped off the ship."
"I?ve been busy!" Leia protested. "I was being debriefed most of the first day and then yesterday there were three emergency meetings on top of everything else that didn?t adjourn until nearly midnight. And today, they scheduled six more meetings which only just ended!"
"And you couldn?t spare me five minutes to give me a call with your communicator? Not even, ?Hi, how are you doing??"
"Why didn?t you call me, then?" Leia challenged.
"Oh, and interrupt your high level meetings? How the hell was I supposed to know I wouldn?t see you until now? What brings you here, anyway?"
"Rieekan told me you were leaving."
"You knew I was planning on leaving."
"But ? tomorrow?"
"Keep your voice down, sweetheart," Han said, smoothly. "People might think that you were getting upset."
Leia spared a glance around her and saw that the others in the mess hall, while not looking directly at her, were still carefully monitoring her dialogue with Han. She lowered her voice a little. "Couldn?t you postpone it by a couple more days?"
"The longer I stay, the longer this thing goes unresolved. Next thing you know, I?ll be offered another assignment, something else will happen, and I?ll just get delayed more and more."
"But we need you."
"We need? What about you?"
"I need you, too," Leia admitted quietly.
"We talked about this," Han said, sounding slightly mollified by Leia?s response. "You know I have to go."
"I know," Leia bit her lip and looked down at the unappetizing congealing mess on her plate. "I just didn?t think it would be so soon. I thought ? I thought we might have a couple more days?"
"To do what?" Han asked. "What were you planning on doing over the next couple of days besides going to more committee meetings and sub-committee meetings?"
"It?s not as though I planned this all on purpose!" Leia was defensive. "You make it sound like I?ve been trying to avoid you."
"Haven?t you?" Han challenged. "Admit it, your Worship ? it was all good and fine when we were alone for eight weeks, but in front of the whole Rebel Alliance, being paired up with a guy like me isn?t such a glamorous thing, is it?"
"Are you saying I used you?" Leia was now furious although she kept her voice low for the benefit of those around her. "Are you saying that you think I?m ashamed to be around you?"
"Just look at how you came into the mess hall tonight ? acting as cold as this planet," Han?s voice was quiet, but there was a furious undercurrent. "Where?s my hello kiss? Of course, that wouldn?t look too good to the Alliance High Command, would it?"
"How dare you?" Leia stood up, no longer bothering to hide her fury. "I don?t have to take any of this from you!"
Angrily, she pivoted on her heel and stalked out of the mess hall. Ten meters down in the corridor beyond the mess hall, however, she stopped as she registered Han?s words. He was right. She had been giving him the cold shoulder. Was she afraid of what the Rebel Alliance would think of her if she openly declared her affection for Han? Was she afraid of the ridicule she might receive once the rest of Base Command saw that she had finally given in after all those months of arguments and verbal sparring? Her spine stiffened. Of course not. She didn?t regret those weeks they had spent on the Sajex moon together for a second. Han meant more to her than all of the Alliance.
Leia turned and went back into the mess hall. Chewbacca had returned to the table and was hungrily attacking his third plate of food, while Han was sitting back in his chair looking absolutely furious. She marched past the astonished onlookers straight up to Han.
"Here?s your hello kiss, Captain," she said, clearly, before she leaned down and kissed Han with every ounce of passion she had shown him in all their weeks together.
Leia stopped pacing and glanced at herself in the mirror. Despite standing in the cold that was Hoth, her face was still a little hot and red from embarrassment. How could I have done that in front of the whole Rebel Alliance? she thought, still mortified over her own audacity in kissing Han in the mess hall.
Remembering Han?s instantly gratified reaction, though, Leia smiled wryly. Again, she had been foolish to think she could have the upper hand over Han in any situation like this. After his first instant of shock, Han had responded by deepening the kiss so seductively, that soon Leia found she was no longer breathing. By the time the kiss ended, Leia had to lean her weight heavily on a nearby chair to remain standing. She glimpsed the expression on his face, and her desire was suddenly replaced by amusement and chagrin. Han had the satisfied look of a vornskr that had caught a brace of hopperoo, and it wasn?t lost on Leia that the entire room had stilled to watch the tableau she had created.
Leia wasn?t sure how she got out of the mess hall, but she had never been more grateful to be alone in her quarters as she was when the door to her bedroom finally slid shut behind her. Han was still in the mess hall when she left, and she could imagine the sort of banter that probably went on in the hall after she left. Strangely, despite her embarrassment at having made a spectacle of herself, Leia didn?t begrudge him a moment of the adulation he would receive from the others in the mess hall. She loved him and she wasn?t ashamed of their relationship or of having others know ? her only objection was that her private affairs were none of anyone else?s business.
What bothered her more than anything else was the thought of Han leaving. He had made it clear he was leaving and she knew him well enough to know that he meant it this time. But, he can?t leave until I let him know I love him! Leia?s mind cried out.
She looked at her reflection in the mirror and took a deep breath. I?ll tell him tonight, she thought. She pulled back a stray lock of hair, and opened her mouth to practice. "Han, I?"
But again, the word just strangled in her throat.
Leia felt the blood rush to her face again. This couldn?t be happening. How was it possible she couldn?t even practice saying the word? "Han, I wanted to tell you that I?"
Still, she felt a choking sensation in her throat and the rest of her words just bottled themselves down into her chest. It?s at the front of my mind, Leia thought in despair. Why can?t I say the word out loud? "Han, I?"
And then, it was as if a veil had been lifted. Leia gasped and reeled back, sitting down on her bed. It was one of the few double beds on Echo Base, and Leia remembered Han teasing her about it on more than one occasion, which had always annoyed her immensely. She had never asked for the special treatment, but she certainly wasn?t about to turn anyone down if they gave her that bed to use, either.
As Leia sank down into the mattress, the memory came to her of the last time she had said those words:
"I worry about you every day."
"I know, Father, but I need to do this. The Alliance needs me."
"Be careful, my daughter."
"I love you, Father."
Those had been the last words Leia had ever said to her father. Less than two standard weeks later, she was a prisoner aboard the Death Star and Alderaan had been reduced to a pile of cosmic rubble.
"Slow down, Leia! Don?t run, sweetheart!"
"Mama! Mama! Come look at this ? isn?t this beautiful?"
"It?s the Emerald Falls?" Padm??s voice faltered and Leia turned to look at her mother.
"What is it, Mama?"
"It ? nothing, sweetie. It ? it just reminds me of ? of a place I used to know."
"Are you all right, Mama?"
Padm? smiled. "I?m fine, my darling. I love you."
"I love you, too, Mama."
A little more than a standard week later, Padm? was dead. Her death had been a mystery, and Leia never learned the true cause, although at the time, the only relevant fact that mattered to the five year old had been that her mother was gone ? gone forever.
It?s nothing more than a stupid superstition, Leia scolded herself. It?s ridiculous! Everyone dies eventually. There?s no reason to believe that I?ve jinxed anyone. I can do this!
She looked at herself in the mirror again. "Han ? I can?t let you leave without telling you that I?"
And then an image of Han?s bloodied and bruised face lying slack in death rose before Leia and she felt her heart squeeze in panic. I ? can?t! I just can?t! Every time I?ve said those words to someone ? I?ve lost them. Leia sighed in despair. A feeling of nausea rose in her chest at the thought of anything happening to Han, and she swallowed down the bile in her throat as she tried to block her imagination from sending her any more images of Han being killed.
Han chose that moment to come to her door. Leia answered the door chime and then stared blankly at him for a moment as her thoughts raced haphazardly through her mind. For a moment, she couldn?t summon up a coherent thing to say.
"Are you all right?" Han asked. The amusement that had been on his face faded to a look of concern.
"Wha ? oh!" Leia stepped aside to let Han enter. "I ? I?m fine."
The door slid shut behind Han, and he came forward, pulling Leia into his arms. "You look a little peaked and tired."
Leia nodded. "I am." She buried her face in his chest, savoring his smell, and trying to come to terms with the fact that within a standard day, he might be gone from her life forever. Han?s arms came around her enfolding her in a sense of utter comfort and security, and Leia swallowed back a sob.
"Hey?." Han?s voice was soothing.
"Don?t go!" Leia could no longer hold back the tears.
"Shhh?" Han pulled back a little from her and looked down into her face.
At the sight of the tenderness and concern written on his handsome face, Leia swallowed hard, trying to control herself. The last thing he needs to see at this time is me crying like a baby, Leia told herself. I might as well push him up the loading ramp of his ship if I carry on like this. "You don?t have to go, Han," Leia plead again.
"We went over this, Leia," Han said patiently. "Jabba and his bounty hunters aren?t going to go away. The only way to end this is for me to leave ? to take care of things."
"You make it sound like you?re just going out to run an errand! You ? you might never come back from this!"
"Listen, your Worship, I don?t think it?ll be that easy for you to get rid of me," Han said, with a wry smile.
Instead of laughing at his joke, Leia winced as tears came into her eyes again.
"Hey?sweetheart, I?m sorry. It wasn?t supposed to be that bad a joke," Han said, as he bent down, giving her tender, nibbling kisses along her face.
Leia opened her mouth to tell him that she loved him, but found that he had captured her lips in his own. His kiss was enough to wipe her thoughts from her mind, and Leia suddenly felt herself overcome with a feverish urgency to feel his hands on her bare skin, to feel him possess her body as he already did her mind. Han did not seem to need her to tell him any of this as he lowered her onto the bed and made love to her until she was weak and trembling from passion.
Leia did not speak again until the morning.
Leia sprinted down the corridors at top speed, heedless of the droid behind her calling out, "Wait! Your Highness! My report is not ready, yet! Come back!"
Leia entered the hangar bay and her heart gave a little thud of relief as she saw the battered old hulk of the Millennium Falcon sitting with its loading ramp open. She skidded to a halt and tried to compose herself. The hangar bay was surprisingly empty. Except for a few droids who were moving equipment and doing maintenance work on a few nearby ships, there was no one else around. As she was still steadying her breathing, she saw Han come down out of the loading ramp. And then her jaw hardened.
"Were you going to leave without saying anything?" Leia asked, her voice suddenly as cold as the planet.
Han stopped with one foot still on the loading ramp. "Is that what you thought, Princess?"
"Well, what was I supposed to think when I got that message?"
Han rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Luke," he muttered. He came forward toward her.
"Were you?" Leia repeated.
"Was I going to leave without saying goodbye? I admit, the thought had occurred to me, and it was sort of tempting for a while, but no."
Leia let out the breath she hadn?t realized she?d been holding, and her features softened. "Well, what did Luke mean by his message, then?"
Han raised his eyebrow sardonically. "Well, since I don?t know what Luke said to you, I can?t really respond to that, can I?" He took her hands gently in his.
Leia smiled unwillingly. "He called me on the communicator. He said that it looked like you were leaving soon."
"Well, ?soon? is a pretty relative term," Han said. "Yeah, Luke dropped by a few minutes ago. You just missed him. He and Rogue Squadron just left on a drill. He came to say goodbye?and he seemed a little surprised that you weren?t here."
"What did you say to him?"
Han seemed a little chagrined. "I ? uh?well, I was still a little angry. I just said you were at another of your meetings, and I didn?t know when you?d be back."
Leia sighed. They had parted that morning on rather bad terms. It had been a terrible letdown after the ecstasy of their night together. As she looked down at Han?s hands again, she blushed, thinking of the night and what Han had done to her with those hands. The heat that had emanated from them as he had touched her ? as he had made love to her with an urgency and passion that made her feel he was trying to imprint himself onto her ? she shivered as she remembered and then her memory moved forward to their argument in the morning.
As Leia was getting dressed, Han had asked her if she would come down to the hangar bay while he finished loading up the Falcon. Leia had hesitated as she buttoned up her snow jacket.
"Something you have to do?" Han sounded incredulous as he read the expression on her face. "Another meeting?"
It was the tone of Han?s voice more than anything that set Leia?s teeth on edge. She did have an appointment scheduled that morning, and had been on the verge of canceling it, but she took umbrage what Han had said, and answered: "Yes! I have an appointment! There are things I?ve got to do, much as I would love to just take off and leave, I can?t."
Han?s jaw had hardened and his hazel eyes turned green as he narrowed them. "Even you can get out of a meeting now and then. But then again, we always knew where your priorities lay, didn?t we?"
"That?s not true!"
"Oh, really? If you loved me, Princess we wouldn?t even be having this conversation!"
"I?ve never heard anything so ridiculous!"
"So ? do you?"
"Do I what?"
"Do you love me?"
"Of course I do!"
"Then say it," Han goaded.
Leia opened her mouth: "I?" and then she suddenly felt her heart pounding rapidly in her throat, and felt a sudden rise of dizziness and nausea. She bolted for the fresher.
As she rinsed her mouth out afterward, she felt a wave of despair roll over her. I?m almost ready to believe I?ve been hexed. How is it possible I can?t tell him the one thing I want to say the most?
Leia came out of the fresher, and found Han standing outside. Instead of appearing concerned or contrite, he had never looked more forbidding or remote than he did at that moment. "Well?" he asked.
Leia?s thoughts of regret and dismay faded as she suddenly felt a rush of anger. "Go to hell, Han!"
"That may be where I?m going, your Worship. At least it?ll be warmer there than it is around you!"
Furious, Leia had said nothing, stalking out of her suite into the corridor beyond. As she stepped out into the bustling hallway, Leia had to take a moment to still her trembling. It can?t end like this, she thought. I can?t let him leave here hating me! I ? a beep on her communicator reminded her of her appointment, and sighing, she headed down the hallway.
Now, as Leia stood in the hangar bay and stared down at Han?s hands, she steeled herself to try again. She looked up into Han?s eyes, wanting to melt into their hazel depths. She took a deep breath?
?and then her communicator beeped, breaking her concentration. Exasperated, she hit the button on her communicator, to stop the beeping, not looking away from Han. "Han, I?"
Both Han and Leia turned at the sound of that growl, to see Chewbacca coming down the loading ramp of the Millennium Falcon. Leia fought down her chagrin as she moved away from Han toward the shaggy Wookiee.
"Chewie," Leia said, feeling suddenly glad for the reprieve. She reached the loading ramp and found herself engulfed Chewbacca?s hairy embrace. As the Wookiee hugged her, it suddenly hit Leia harder than ever before that Chewbacca and Han were really leaving. A feeling of desolation arose in her chest. "I?ll miss you, Chewie," Leia said.
Goodbye and walk with the gods, Chewbacca replied.
"You, too, Chewie," Leia said. "Take care of yourself."
Chewbacca gave her another hug that made Leia feel her ribs would crack and then pulled away, and returned up the loading ramp back into the ship.
Leia turned back toward Han. He had come up behind her while she had been saying her goodbyes to the Wookiee, and now he pulled her into his embrace. Leia suddenly felt that her heart was about to be ripped out of her chest. She could not even begin to contemplate her life without Han. As these thoughts were going through her mind, Han?s lips came down and he kissed her. Leia melted into him as she kissed back, wishing that she might never leave his arms. She concentrated on the feel of his arms around her, the sound their snow jackets made rubbing against each other as Leia shifted slightly in his arms, the texture of Han?s lips and the way his aftershave smelled. She tried to savor every second he held her, willing herself to remember, knowing that many lonely nights of remembering would be all that she would have left after Han left.
Their kiss ended, and Leia looked back into Han?s eyes.
"I love you, Leia," Han said. Leia saw the love and the regret in his eyes. Love for her. Regret that he had to leave.
Leia closed her eyes for a moment as the rumble of Han?s voice died away. This might well be the last time she would ever hear him say those words. Once he left Echo Base, he would not be able to communicate with the Alliance again. The Alliance High Command could not waste a secure broadcast channel for Han once he no longer worked for them, and it would be otherwise too dangerous for him to try to contact the base. Leia had left her personal communication channel for him, but they had agreed he would not use it until and unless he was ready to return to her.
She tried to speak again. "Han ? I?" but suddenly, she found herself saying, "Han ? don?t go! Please! Stay with us! Please!"
Han looked as though he was being tortured. "You know I have to go. You know why."
The finality in Han?s voice told her that there was nothing she could say to convince him to stay. "Then promise me you?ll come back! If you love me you?ll come back to me!"
"Leia, you know I?ll do everything I can?"
"No!" Leia?s voice held a tinge of urgency. "I don?t want you to try! I want you to promise! Promise me you?ll come back!" Her voice broke, and she whispered, "I can?t ? if you don?t tell me you?re coming back I won?t be able to take it! I have to hear you promise me! Promise me!"
Han swallowed. "I promise."
Leia sighed and relaxed her tensed muscles. "Then I?ll wait for you forever."
"I know," Han said. He kissed her again. A brief, hard kiss sealing their pact, and then turned away from her. She swallowed convulsively as she watched Han?s tall, handsome figure walk away from her, taking her heart with him as he headed up the loading ramp.
"Fire up the ship, Chewie," Han said, and then turned toward her. He gave her one last look and his usual cocky smile and then turned away again. The loading ramp closed behind him.
Alone in the hangar bay, Leia tried to control the tears that were threatening to spill down her face. She heard the roar of the Falcon?s engines as the ship came to life, and within moments, the ship sped out of the hangar bay, soaring away from her view.
The Millennium Falcon made the jump into hyperspace and as the stars in the cockpit windows elongated into the lines of hyperspace, Han undid the straps on the crash webbing and stood up from his chair.
"Call me if there?s a problem," he said tersely to Chewbacca and then strode out of the cockpit.
Chewbacca gave a sympathetic nod, but said nothing.
Han crossed through the lounge toward the back corridor and then into his cabin. As the door to the cabin opened, and the lights came on, the sudden emptiness hit him like a wave and he stood before the neatly made double bed for a long, painful moment before he entered the cabin. The door slid shut behind him and he crossed the room to sit down on the bed.
Disjointed memories of all the wonderful nights he had spent with Leia came to him as he plucked idly at the blue coverlet spread over the bed. He thought back to his last vision of Leia, as she had stood in the hangar bay ? despite his promise, he knew it would be the last time he would ever see her. Jabba the Hutt would never let go his vendetta, and Han would never be free of Jabba?s bounty hunters until he died ? or Jabba did.
Han turned back to look at the two pillows placed side by side at the head of the bed. He had always occupied the right side where he sat now, while Leia had slept on the left. Suddenly, he turned and sprawled himself across the bed so that he could reach Leia?s pillow. He pulled the pillow toward himself sat back up again, holding it in his lap. The pillow felt a little lumpy, and as he investigated, he found that Leia?s shift had been folded neatly inside the pillowcase.
He pulled out the silky shift, which was nothing more than a scrap of satiny cloth in his hand and held it against his cheek. It still retained a trace of Leia?s scent ? Alderaanian night jasmine. He turned again, pulling his legs up on the bed, oblivious to the fact that he was putting his dirty boots on the clean counterpane, and leaned back against the headboard, holding the shift in his hands.
She never said those words. Even in their last moments, Leia had never said she loved him. He had left and would likely never see her again. To the end of his days he might never know the real answer to that burning question. And all he had left to show for their wonderful weeks together was a thin scrap of cloth that he now held in his hands.
Leia stood motionless for a few moments, still trying to make herself believe that Han was really gone. She barely heard the droids who were moving around her, intent on their tasks. The thought kept running through her mind. I never said those words. Those words he wanted to hear more than anything else: I love you! Now that she was alone, and Han was gone, she was no longer able to maintain her façade of bravery. Tears began to spill down her cheeks, almost freezing before they reached her chin. Futilely, she wiped them away as she continued to stare unseeingly out the entrance of the hangar bay.
Suddenly, a beeping noise caught her attention.
She looked down at her communicator. She had forgotten that it had beeped before. She unclipped it from her belt and then looked down at the message.
For a moment, Leia thought she had read wrong. She closed her eyes and then looked again. The message was still the same:
"Test results confirmed: Pregnancy test positive."
Pregnant! She had been worried about those bouts of nausea that had dogged her since they had left the Tachi system; at first, she had thought it was worry over Han that made her stomach so delicate, but the nausea had persisted. Finally, she started worrying that something was really wrong with her stomach. Her appointment that morning had been at the medical bay, and she had wanted to go there before most of the rest of the base had awakened. It was while the medical droids were completing their tests on her that Luke had called her on the communicator, and she had not waited around for the test results.
She started shaking, unable to believe the irony of the situation. She was pregnant. This was the one thing that might have made Han stay. And now with the communications blackout between Echo Base and the Millennium Falcon she might never be able to tell him. For a moment, she was torn, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
She looked up toward the open entrance to the hangar bay. A light swirl of snow blew in toward the hangar bay, obscuring her vision of the sky outside. Han was gone. But suddenly, the desolation and pain she was feeling lifted a little and she felt an immeasurable amount of relief as she realized she was not alone. She had Han?s child. She spread her hands over her still flat abdomen and shivered as she remembered that night six weeks ago when she had held the contraceptive syringe in her hand. Back then, the thought of becoming pregnant had been the most frightening thing she could contemplate, but now she saw this child as a gift from the Goddess. Han was gone but she still had a bit of him left. It might be months or years before she would see him again ? she refused to let herself contemplate the words ?never again? ? but now with his child coming, she knew she would be able to bear their separation with equanimity, however long it took.
And as she thought about their child, imagining how a baby of theirs would look, the fears and dread that had dogged her for so long fell away. She began to see a ray of hope for the future. And suddenly, she found the words that had been so hard to say coming to her lips with unbelievable ease:
"I love you, Han."
Original cover by Lady Padme. HTML formatting copyright 2004 TheForce.Net LLC.