He had spoken the same words many times over the last several days, but they had never before made her angry.
He had muttered them, almost to himself, as his hands wrenched at the steering yoke in a vain attempt to pull them out of the flat spin.
When the ground was rushing up at them, she had turned to stare at him because she wanted her last view to be of him. He, in turn, had let go of the steering yoke,, clasped her hand with his violently trembling fingers, and spoke those words with a voice that was surprisingly steady.
He spoke them again when she regained consciousness, as an excuse for why they were still alive.
"I'm sorry," he croaked. "We'll survive this."
He had angered her many times before, usually with full knowledge of the effect it had on her, so she knew exactly how to cope. A sharp retort or witty comment usually sufficed to quell her emotion and when she was feeling particularly brave, laughing in his face was the best weapon.
She, however, could barely breathe, since one lung was collapsed and the remaining one strained against cracked ribs with every movement.
"If that's supposed to be reassuring," she whispered, "you're failing miserably."
The three fingers of his right hand that the crash had not severed traced a line across her brow, since it was probably the only part of her face that wasn't bruised or battered. "It's a promise," he corrected. "We've been through too much together to let a crashed ship get the better of us."
Technically, the crashed ship was now the cause of a large crater and char mark and they had barely been able to get outside the blast radius before it decided to make that transformation, but she wasn't going to mention that.
"At least it wasn't the Falcon," she said instead.
"That's another reason why we'll survive this," he surmised, with a slight grin that exposed every lost tooth and aggravated his split lip. "You always said that the Falcon would be the death of you."
This time, the laugh escaped her before she could think to stop it and her arm moved to press against her ribcage so that the ribs that were merely cracked instead of shattered would remain relatively intact.
"All right," she gasped at last, "you've got a point there."
"Of course I do," he smirked. "You should know by now that I'm usually right about these things."
"Someday, you're going to be wrong and I hope I'm there to see it!"
"You said you wanted to be there when I made a mistake. Well, this could be it."
"I take it back!"
"I know," she conceded.
He bent with obvious difficulty, since he had problems of his own, but he would not be deterred. He managed to grit his remaining teeth against the pain of the broken collarbone and ribs and his bruised torso long enough to leave a gentle kiss on her lips.
"Don't move," he suggested. "I'll be back with some supplies."
He returned with the medical scanner and medkit, setting out an alarming percentage of the supplies.
"That bad, huh?" she quoted.
He tried a smile once again, but it was less convincing. "What makes you think they're not for me?"
"I know you too well," she explained. "You'll wait until I'm completely unconscious to even admit that you need some corephem."
"Sweetheart," he sighed, "I need something a lot stronger than corephem."
"A Corellian medkit?" she guessed.
He had once sneered at the 'fussy' contents of an Alliance-issue medkit because he claimed they would make a drug-dependent hypochondriac out of anyone. A Corellian medkit, he alleged, consisted of a good bottle of brandy and a blaster.
The expression on his face as he set out the required supplies suggested that he could live with her turning into a drug-dependent hypochondriac as long as she lived to do so.
Me, too, nerfherder.
"How many days now?"
"Five," he supplied dully as he attempted to clean the fish he had procured from the nearby river. "But we sent out the distress beacon to a base that is five days away..."
"Don't insult my intelligence," she requested. "I'm the Minister of State and I know of at least thirteen ships that could have been here within a day."
"It doesn't mean they're not coming," Han protested. "Let's keep a little optimism here."
"It's hard to be cheerful when I've got nothing to look forward to but undercooked fish and sixteen types of medicine," she retorted.
"Fourteen," he corrected. "The last two are vitamin supplements to keep your strength up."
"Right," she grunted.
Yet, when he moved to her side and deposited the makeshift plate in her lap, she found the fish was nearly burnt from the effort of not undercooking it again. The gesture didn't quite take away her appetite, but she found eating impossible for a moment because she was becoming inexplicably and inexorably choked up.
Han must have noticed this, since his good arm came up to wrap around her shoulders, pulling her gently closer as she turned in to the curve of his shoulder, her hand clutching at his shirt.
He didn't ask why she was crying--he had learned at Endor that it didn't really matter--but she could have sworn that he was following her lead just this once.
After all, he didn't always have to be the strong, stoic type. He just tended to do so because he knew how to be stronger than his fears.
They were both starting to forget.
"You would have been a good Daddy," she managed to say at last.
His chest heaved beneath her cheek at the echo of the words he'd waited so long to hear. After the escapade at Tatooine, when they had finally given themselves permission to hope for a child, she had developed the habit of letting him curl around her with his hands splayed across her flat abdomen. In those late night discussions, he would set up plans for how to interrogate his daughter's first date or how to explain women to his firstborn son.
Leia would restrain her laughter and the comment that maybe he should stop talking and work on the practical aspects of making a baby, but often, she would turn in his arms to stroke his cheek and assure him that he would make a good father.
The greatest blow in this disaster was not the crash or the first night, when she had gone into cardiac arrest for a full minute and had faced the very real possibility of having to leave him behind.
It had been when he held her close and screamed with her through the miscarriage of a child that should not have been born for another seven months.
"We'll get another chance," he insisted now, voice cracking with the effort of believing his own words.
She was starting to hate his reassurances because they were growing as empty as the medkit. The fact of the matter was that the shuttle's medical supplies had been designed for injuries that could be treated in a few days. The medical scanner was helpful enough to suggest which medicines could overlap so that they could ration the supplies, but they had enough to make them survive, rather than making them comfortable.
"I was going to tell you about her on this vacation," she mumbled. "I didn't know I was pregnant until the night of the Utapauan reception and there was just no way..."
"I know," he interrupted quietly. "We'll get another chance."
At eleven days, the first of her medicines ran out, the one keeping her kidneys functional, but Han hurriedly consulted the medscanner and increased the dosage of two of the other medicines to compensate.
He no longer asked her if she needed more painkillers; he no longer warned her when it was time for another injection. Most of the time, she wasn't conscious enough to care.
The increase in medicine, however, left her too weak for an appetite and what he managed to get down her throat came back up minutes later.
She had heard of people losing the will to live, but knew that this was not the case. She was simply losing the energy to survive.
And every time, the same words came again, perhaps because he recognized that she was too exhausted to hate him for them.
"I'm sorry. We'll survive this."
She didn't bother to argue, but she knew better.
This sort of apathetic degeneration had happened once before, on the Death Star. She knew little of what damage had been done there, but she knew that she had escaped interrogation for the last four days of her imprisonment because she had come too close to dying to continue.
She had learned then to despise waiting. Interrogation was torture enough, but the anticipation of release from the prison of mortality was worse than she could have ever imagined.
Vader had promised her that she would wish for death a thousand times before he allowed it. Though he was now long-dead, the game of waiting for enough things to run out for her to slip quietly into death reminded her too much of that promise.
She had forgotten anger because there was another pressing emotion weighing on her mind: regret.
Han would probably hold her as her last breath left, but she would not be conscious to experience it with him. She'd have finally slipped into a coma, not by choice, but because her body would have betrayed her one final time.
And he would be left alone, injured, still mumbling empty assurances to himself and dreaming of the children they would never have.
Perhaps, in a moment of irony, he would see the rescue ship enter the atmosphere as she exhaled for the last time.
Perhaps, even worse, she would last until the ship arrived, only to succumb due to complications that had been ignored for too long.
Either way, each passing day confirmed that she should harbor no delusions of survival.
Judging from the increase in the time he spent clutching her to him, words both impossible and unnecessary, Han was finally admitting that to himself as well.
"You can't tell me you don't remember Hukare."
"Of course I do," Leia teased hoarsely. "I just like the way you tell it."
His split lip had finally healed, so the smile came more easily, but the pain still lingered there, because there was no way to heal what damage was being done to their hearts.
"Tomorrow," he suggested instead. "You're already about to swoon in my arms."
"Every chance I get," she agreed with a smile of her own. "I rather like your arms."
He reached across her, careful not to jostle her, and retrieved a hypodermic, but she pushed it away. "Not tonight," she requested. "I don't need..."
"I'm the overprotective one here," he protested. "I'll tell you what you don't need."
"It's not your call to make," she retorted.
For a long moment, they were both silent and she watched a painful realization dawning on his face.
"You're not just asking for one night away from the sedative," he guessed.
She was sorely tempted to look away, but she couldn't show weakness at that moment. Instead, she reached for his hand, pulling it to her heart.
"Please," she murmured. "No more rationing, no more compensations..."
"You can't ask me to do that," he snapped.
"I'm going to die with or without this," she countered.
"Not on my watch."
The tears came again, choking her words and stinging her eyes. "Haven't I suffered enough?"
"About as much as I have," he reminded. "You may be the one suffering, but I'm the one you're making sit back and watch it."
"I don't have much of a choice," she shrilled. "I'm just asking for you to love me."
His arms tightened, but the expression on his face suggested that he was only doing that to keep himself from moving as far away from her as possible.
"I don't know who you are," he admitted, voice trembling so hard that she could barely understand what he was saying. "I thought I was looking after my wife, the mother of my child, the person I have loved since I met her and all I know is that she would never call that love."
"Then, you've never really known me," she lamented.
His grip slackened enough for him to move her into a prone position before he crawled away from the doppelganger that had replaced his Princess.
"I guess not."
By unspoken agreement, he did not administer the medicines the next day, but the jokes and teasing banter ceased. He no longer gave her any assurances that she would be fine. He barely spoke to her at all, except to ask if she wanted something to eat or drink and she allowed him that small service when the occasion arose, but he would not thank her for it.
She had, in essence, asked him to let her die and for once, he was honoring her wishes. Instead, by way of punishment, he was treating her as if she were already gone.
On day fourteen, she awoke when a blow landed on her cracked cheekbone and she rolled away instinctively, ignoring the pain that cracked through her ribs and muscles.
The night was silent as usual-this place was fairly devoid of wildlife at this time of year-except for a shrill, keening cry that she barely recognized as human, much less as a noise that Han was capable of making.
For a long moment, she was motionless, paralyzed by uncertainty and shared pain alike, but at last, she dragged herself back to his side, pinning his arms to him with her own and resting her cheek against his back.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "You'll survive this."
On the fifteenth day, he finally returned to the Han she had fallen in love with, teasing her gently over breakfast or reminding her of their various fiascos on missions for the Alliance. In return, she continued the nightly ritual of letting him fall asleep in her arms.
She was fading fast, but neither of them commented on it. Han attributed her agitation and occasional confusion to the effects of the medicine, rather than admitting that it might be a sign, coupled with the profound weakness and fatigue and swelling of her hands and feet, of acute renal failure. He didn't bother to explain the chest pains and occasional paralysis that suggested heart failure.
He simply kept his focus on what he could do in the immediate future to make her comfortable and kept his gaze on the skies when he thought she wasn't watching.
"You know what the most difficult thing is?" he said at last on the seventeenth day.
Leia managed a weary grin, but did not move. "I know it can't be my stubbornness," she observed, "because that was the first thing you loved about me."
"You're wrong," he laughed. "I fell in love with your aim."
"Typical smuggler," she snorted. "So, what is the most difficult thing?"
His arm wrapped around her waist and her hand clasped his, bringing it to rest on her abdomen.
"I keep wondering," he admitted, "if I'm saying all of the right things."
"You haven't mentioned medication in three days," she rejoined. "I'd say you're doing just fine."
"That's not what I mean," he corrected, his voice cracking. "Every time I say something stupid, I wonder if that's the last thing you'll ever hear. I'm afraid that I'll lose you before I have the chance to make amends for being an idiot."
She sighed deeply, pulling him closer. "Don't worry," she chided. "You know that I'll always have the last word."
"True," he agreed, "but I love you too much to have it any other way."
It was probably the most touching thing he'd said since the first time he'd spoken the words "I'm sorry" to her.
She knew she was dead, even though her body had not quite cooperated with the fact, so that she was separated from herself, but could still register some of the things that were happening.
So many had spoken of death as a release and a reward for a life of toil, but there was no relief to be had just yet. This was largely due to the fact that Han's trembling hands were preparing a neuro-stimulator as well as several other hypodermics.
She had not been able to regain consciousness for the last three days, so he was simply taking matters into his own hands.
"I'm sorry," he whispered to her broken body as the roar of engines from the descending rescue ship began to fill the clearing where they had made their home for so many days. "We'll survive this."
She wanted to scream at him, for all the good it would do her. She wanted to draw the last of her spirit from her mortal shell to spite his efforts and give them both release.
He loved her too little to let her go or, perhaps, giving her the choice was a more powerful expression of his love than he had ever given before. He was simply administering the medication to beg her to return the favor.
She had never known that pain would be this possible in the afterlife. The worst of it stemmed from the fact that her arms felt empty, not robbed of the opportunity to embrace him, but lacking the children that they should have created together.
Perhaps, to remove that sense of lack, she would give her frail body one more fighting chance.
"I'm never doing this again," Leia breathed heavily, slumping back against the pillows.
Han grinned, extending a squirming bundle to her as he kept their daughter for himself. "That's what my friend Erae said."
"Really?" she sighed.
"Yes," he confirmed. "She just had her thirteenth daughter last month."
She was too exhausted to laugh, but not too bone-weary to experience the overwhelming joy that seemed to have replaced the air in the room.
Tiny hands curled against her chest, as if to touch her heart, and she suddenly found her vision blurred completely.
"They're perfect," she sighed.
"Of course," Han grinned. "They're yours."
"They're what I lived for," she added. "Or, rather, you are."
"Really," he queried. "How so?"
She shook her head at his ability to overlook the obvious as always. "I lived that day because I never stopped believing that you would be a good Daddy," she reminded, "and I didn't want to give anyone else the chance to prove me right."
Original cover by Jennifer_Lyn. HTML formatting copyright 2005 TheForce.Net LLC.