Princess Leia Organa sat in the navigator's chair of the Millennium Falcon
, behind the unreliable ship's even less reliable captain, Han Solo. General Rieekan and Admiral Kriven had both insisted she fly on the Falcon
, so as to remain inconspicuous. Nothing looked less likely to be carrying someone of any kind of importance than the Millennium Falcon
. Of course, she knew Rieekan was impressed by the ship's speed, as well as the ingenuity of its captain, however reckless he might be. Truth be told, Leia actually preferred traveling on the Falcon
, although she would never admit that to the arrogant Corellian. She glanced at him, watched the intent concentration that lined his face as he went about readying his ship to drop back into subspace. When he was not being obnoxious, Leia found she actually enjoyed his company. Unfortunately, his rude, crass behavior often surfaced when least expected. As a result, she could never fully let her guard down around him.
Unlike with Luke. She glanced to her right, where Luke Skywalker was seated. His quiet companionship was comforting to Leia. They shared such common goals and beliefs, she sometimes joked about them being "soul mates", which usually caused Luke to blush and look away shyly. She knew he'd had a crush on her, once upon a time. It was sweet, and awfully flattering. But her feelings for Luke ran too deeply to ever let things between them head in that direction. If she lost him, she would not know how to go on. So she preferred to let things continue as they were between them, as a platonic, yet loving, friendship.
She wasn't entirely sure why Luke had been assigned to accompany her on this mission, but she suspected it was simply to keep the peace between herself and Han.
The mission. Leia's thoughts at last rested on the upcoming mission. Any moment now, they would come out of hyperspace, nearing the atmosphere of Fargoe. The Fargans were a race of reptilian bipeds, short and squat, with scaled hides ranging from shades of dark yellow to light brown. They were a rather eccentric species, who were normally not in favor of change. They had withstood the rise of the Empire, content to overlook galactic tyranny so long as it did not affect them directly. But as the Empire gathered more and more power, and non-humans became more and more repressed, the Fargans were finally beginning to view Emperor Palpatine's Imperial reign as a problem.
Fargoe was a huge source of weapons production, vital to the Empire. So Leia was to appeal to the Fargans for their support, as well as their weapons supply, for the Rebel Alliance. She was slated to meet with both the Fargan Senator and the owner of their largest weapons production company, SteelTech.
Leia would not let anyone know the doubts she felt about this mission. It was not often that she allowed herself to feel this way, but at times, even she questioned herself, and the Alliance. She thought of her father, and how much better he had been at diplomacy then she was. Of course, she knew that she, too, was skilled, she had been raised for this. But she was still so young. Bail Organa had had a lifetime of experience. At this point, however, she was the Alliance's most experienced diplomat, and therefore took on almost all of these missions. Thinking of Bail brought back the familiar pain, the pain she always tried so hard to push aside into the depths of her mind, where it would not affect her daily life. She sighed shakily in the quiet of the cockpit.
Han and Luke instantly turned to her. "You alright?" the tall Corellian asked sharply before Luke could open his mouth.
Leia nodded quickly, avoiding their stares. "I'm fine. Just a little tired."
Han nodded dismissively, but Luke did not look away. He studied her carefully, as Leia pretended not to notice. He reached out a hand to squeeze her shoulder. "You'll do fine," he said quietly.
Leia smiled weakly, noticing the way that Han turned back again to study her. She met his eyes and felt an uncomfortable fluttering in her stomach. Must be nerves, she told herself. When he continued to stare at her, Leia raised a questioning eyebrow. He just smirked and turned back to the instrument panel. She turned back to Luke, who still appeared concerned. How did he always seem to know what she was thinking? It was almost scary.
"I'm fine," she insisted. Out of the corner of her eye, she observed Solo, noting that this time he did not bother to look her way. "Really. I'm sure this mission will go very smoothly."
"Chewie, cut in the sublight engines," Han said.
The streaks beyond the cockpit narrowed to star points as the Millennium Falcon came out of hyperspace on course for Fargoe. Han and Chewbacca checked readings and sensors, readying the ship to enter the planet's atmosphere. They were under strict orders to maintain comm silence, having only a binary code to transmit in order to gain landing clearance. Their presence on Fargoe had to remain as secretive as possible. The Empire had a very strong presence in this quadrant, particularly in this system.
As the Falcon entered Fargoe's atmosphere, alarms suddenly began to blare, at a deafening volume, causing Leia to almost jump from her seat. Her safety restraints kept her from actually falling to the floor.
"What's that?" Luke asked over Chewbacca's alarmed bellows.
"Sensors are dead," Han replied urgently. "Dammit, Chewie, it's the shielding over the sensor array, it's failing." He sounded about as panicked as Han Solo ever sounded.
Chewbacca growled loudly, shaking a fist at his Captain.
"It's not my fault if I didn't have time to reinforce it," Solo responded angrily. He glanced at his passengers. "We're gonna have to land blind."
Leia's eyes widened. Blind. This was not good. "Do you have any idea where we're headed?"
Despite the circumstances, Solo found himself admiring the Princess' ability to maintain her cool in even the most dire situations. "The southwestern hemisphere, which is good cause it's mostly a lot of desert. If we were anywhere near where we wanted to be, we'd definitely crash and burn." He flipped some switches, manually adjusting their flight plan. "Let's just hope we don't manage to hit a lone structure stuck out here." He grimaced as he reached over to shut off the blaring alarms.
See-Threepio shuffled nervously into the cockpit hatchway. "Oh my, whatever is going on, Master Luke?"
Before Luke could respond, Han interrupted. "Threepio, get back inside and strap down," he growled. "I don't want to hear you till we're planetside." The fretful protocol droid muttered anxiously to himself as he turned and headed back to the hold, shaking his golden head from side to side.
Leia and Luke watched anxiously, their stomachs somewhere in the vicinity of their toes, as Han Solo guided the freighter towards the planet. The smell of something burning permeated the air, and Chewie roared at Han. Luke could barely grasp that the Wookiee was telling him that the sensors were melted to slag.
With expert skill, Han managed to bring them down carefully, watching through the viewport as the sand strewn desert rose to meet them. They touched ground and Han was instantly out of his seat, running out of the cockpit. Luke unstrapped and followed outside, to find Han cursing and ranting, as smoke spewed forth from the sensor array. Luke noticed with dismay that the belly gun was also fried. He knew Han was going to be ballistic about this one.
"How did this happen?" Luke asked, taking care to stand back from the smoke, and the furious Corellian.
"Blast! I was in such a rush, thanks to Her Highnessness, I didn't have time to get the shielding up to specs!" His breath was coming in angry blasts. "Dammit! I just upgraded the damn thing!"
Neither man had noticed the Princess standing at the bottom of the boarding ramp. She approached them, fists balled on her hips. "And just how is it my fault that this piece of junk is malfunctioning again?"
Han turned on her, a sneer on his lips. "You and your mission! You were in such a hurry to get going, you made such a big deal out of leaving right on schedule. I didn't want to waste your precious time, Your Worship. So I finished up as quick as I could, and didn't take the time for the details!"
Leia gaped at him incredulously. "Details? Details? This is what you call details? Now look where you've gotten us. We're stuck in the middle of nowhere with no sensor array!" Threepio and Artoo-Deetoo descended the ramp, just as Leia finished her tirade.
Artoo beeped loudly, and Threepio turned to Luke. "Sir, Artoo has determined that we are seventy-five kilometers from the nearest settlement. We are, indeed, in the middle of nowhere."
Han and Leia continued to glare at each other. Luke hated these moments. He didn't know which of them was more stubborn, but he knew that neither one of them was likely to give in.
"Listen," Luke said calmly, stepping between them, forcing Han to take a step back. "It won't help us to argue. It's happened and we have to just figure out how we're going to take care of it. Okay?"
For a long, tense moment Han and Leia continued to stare at each other with open hostility. Then Han muttered something under his breath about "that damn cantina on Tatooine", and turned towards the towering figure of Chewbacca as he lumbered towards them.
"It's a lucky thing for everyone," he announced loudly, "that I am a very smart man."
Leia snorted uncharacteristically, Artoo whistled comically, and Chewie let out a great guffaw. Uncertain of an appropriate response himself, Threepio looked to Luke, who sighed with frustration.
Han continued as if he had not heard their dubious laughter. "I happen to have the old sensor array onboard." He smiled proudly.
Leia was greatly relieved, but refused to give him the satisfaction of showing it. "How long is it going to take to replace it?" Her tone implied a terrible inconvenience.
Han ignored her and addressed his information to Luke. "It's midday now. I figure by this time tomorrow the Falcon will be up and running."
Leia stepped closer to him, refusing to be ignored. "I hope you realize, Captain, that we're going to be an entire day late."
Han looked over her head, hand shading his eyes as he looked off into the distance. "Ya know...I hear a voice. Can't imagine where it could be coming from though." He continued to look around with mock-innocence.
"You are such a child."
He shrugged and looked at Luke. "I don't know. Kinda sounds like a Filvian tree shrew. Whaddaya think?"
Leia's face flushed dark with anger. She sputtered and stammered before finally turning on her heel and stomping up the ramp into the battered ship.
Han chuckled to himself, and Luke looked at him, shaking his head. "What's the matter with you, Han? How can you treat her that way? How can you be so...so...disrespectful?"
"Just cause she's royalty doesn't mean I gotta treat her better than I do everyone else."
"You treat her worse than you treat everyone else."
"Ahhh...lighten up, Kid. It doesn't bother her half as much as she pretends it does."
"Keep telling yourself that," Luke muttered.
"Nothing," Luke said with disgust. "Let's just get to work." He walked away from Han and headed up the ramp, leaving Han to stare after him with narrowed eyes.
Luke was exhausted. He had spent many hours outside in the nostalgic desert heat, helping Han and Chewie with the sensor array. It was dark now, and no other work could be done on the array. Luke had showered and changed clothes, and now Han was in the 'fresher. Chewie was tinkering in the cockpit, and Princess Leia had not been seen since the scalding argument she and Han had forced him to suffer through earlier. He checked Han's cabin for her, but she wasn't there. Whenever the four of them traveled together, Han graciously, and surprisingly, allowed Leia to use his cabin, for privacy's sake. The only other place for her to sleep would have been the crew quarters, with Luke. Not that Luke would have minded that...
He blushed at the mere thought. So Luke shared the crew quarters with Han if the Princess was aboard. Luke checked the galley, the hold and the cockpit. Leia was nowhere to be found. He wandered outside, hoping to find her there. To the left of the boarding ramp, about twenty meters away, sat Leia. She had built a small fire, and was huddled on the ground, her arms wrapped around herself, in the cool night air.
"There you are," Luke called as he walked over and plopped down next to her. "I've been looking for you."
Leia smiled at Luke, but the smile did not quite reach her eyes. "How are the repairs coming?"
"Not too bad. The array is finished. We just have to replace the shielding and reinforce it. We'll get to it first thing in the morning. Of course, the lower gun can't be replaced till we get back to base. You can just imagine how Han feels about that." He looked at her carefully. She was staring into the fire, eyes haunted. "Are you okay?" he asked gently.
She looked up at him and smiled wryly. "Yes, I'm fine. I just.... I was just thinking about Han. He can be so damned insufferable."
"I know. I don't know why he insists on acting the way he does with you. But you have to know deep down, that Han cares about you, he cares about both of us."
She sighed loudly. "I know that. If I didn't know it, I wouldn't even bother with him. He just makes everything so difficult, when it needn't be so."
Luke smiled crookedly. "Face it, Leia, if he didn't make things difficult, he wouldn't be Han." She laughed softly, causing Luke's heart to skip a beat.
Her face grew serious again. "I suppose it's more about me than it is about Han." She paused, and Luke remained silent, uncertain of what she meant by that. "He's just being who he is, a smuggler, a mercenary." She paused. "Everything was just so different for me before..."
Luke knew what she meant. Before Alderaan.
She continued in a soft voice, "I was treated a certain way. I was never treated the way Han treats me. I think...I think he just constantly reminds me of how much my life has changed."
Luke could hear the anguish in her voice, could see the pain in her eyes, and it made him feel fiercely protective of her. He supposed this was one of the reasons he had felt so strongly about fighting in the battle of Yavin. He had seen how much she had lost, and had wanted to somehow, in some small way, make it up to her. Unable to think of any comforting words, Luke reached out to her and took her hand in his, in a fumbling, yet tender gesture. Leia squeezed his fingers gently, staring into the fire at her demons.
Han swaggered down the ramp, freshly showered and changed, his crooked smile planted firmly across his face. He stopped in mid-stride, expression faltering, when he was greeted by the sight of Luke and Leia seated by a fire, deep in conversation. The Princess was speaking quietly, while Luke stared at her in adoring, rapt fascination.
Occasionally when he was with them, Solo felt like an outsider. Luke and the Princess seemed to share a special kind of bond, one that sometimes left Han feeling the odd-man-out. They would share a smile, a glance, or a private joke, and Han would stand there dumbly, searching for a way to get Her Highness' attention. This was usually accomplished by saying something to make her mad, something sarcastic or bawdy.
This was one of those times. Han watched them quietly, wracking his brain for a method of intrusion. When one came to mind, Han's grin returned and he resumed his swagger.
He noted that Luke was holding her hand, and as he approached he said loudly, "Hey, kids, this is looking kinda romantic here."
Their heads shot in his direction and Luke's hand drew away from the Princess with lightning speed. Leia blushed darkly, eyes narrowing in that familiar, angry expression that, for some reason, set Han's blood to pounding in his veins.
Luke's face was bright pink as he looked down miserably at the fire. Leia looked at the infuriating Corellian, wondering for the hundredth time why exactly he had hung around with the Rebels for the past two and a half years. Her eyes were vicious as she ignored his rude comment and asked, "Any idea when you'll be done fixing that sorry excuse for a ship?" She knew the answer, but could not resist baiting him. He deserved it.
"Yep." He similarly ignored her jab at his prize possession.
When he did not elaborate, Leia sighed in exasperation. "Well?"
Han flashed her his most innocent expression. "Oh, would you like to know when exactly?" She just glared at him, causing a chuckle to rise from his throat. "Probably just before midday tomorrow," he answered, in something almost resembling a normal person's tone of voice.
Leia nodded absently, mentally assessing the possible damage this would do to their mission. She had spent most of the day, datapad in hand, attempting to perfect the words she was going to use to sway the Fargans in her direction. Her speech seemed strangely inadequate, at least to her own ears. She didn't normally doubt herself this much, and couldn't quite put her finger on the reason for her uncertainty. Maybe she would go over the speech with Luke later, perhaps that would help.
Leia and Luke were lost in their own thoughts until Han broke the silence. "Well, I'm starving, I don't know about you guys, but I'm gonna have some of those delicious rations." He managed to keep a straight face for a full ten seconds after he said this. Then he laughed loudly. His two friends joined in his laughter, Leia wondering how he always managed to make light of any situation. It was a charm he had, one she couldn't help but admire, even as it drove her crazy. Han stood, followed quickly by Luke, and both men bent a hand to help the Princess up. For an awkward moment, she just sat there, looking up at them both, feeling oddly torn.
"My, my," she said flippantly, to cover her unease. "Such gentlemen." Han snorted at the comment, and Leia gave a hand to each man, levering herself upright. Comfortably, thankful that she had these friends who were her only family at this point, Leia placed an arm around each of their waists as they headed to the Falcon, in a quiet moment of camaraderie.
Sleep was a commodity that was difficult for Leia to come by these days. The nightmares still haunted her, robbing her of much-needed rest. She was exhausted much of the time, existing on an abundant amount of kaffe most days. Often she could sense when a nightmare hovered in her subconscious, and she fought sleep as best she could, unwilling to allow herself to suffer through visions of Alderaan, or memories of what she had endured at Vader's hand on board the Death Star. The dreams were so frighteningly vivid, as if it were happening all over again, and she lost track of the number of nights when she awoke, shivering and screaming. Occasionally, her dreams were of her lost family, of her former life in the Palace. These dreams were even worse than the nightmares, for she would wake with such a sharp sense of longing, such a deep despair, that it was unbearable. It made her not want to go on, want to join her beloved family and friends in the escape that was death.
Tonight she could feel the dreams, ever present on the edge of her mind. She did not allow herself to sleep, hoping that if she stayed awake long enough, when she finally collapsed with exhaustion, she would be too fatigued to dream. So she had spent more time on her speech for the Fargans, wishing she had gotten a chance to go over it with Luke. But she had not found time again alone with him, and did not need to hear Han rant about her "idealistic notions". Eventually, mouth dry with anxiety, she had made her way here, to the galley for a drink. She opened the refrigeration unit, removed a small pitcher of fresh water, and poured herself a large glassful.
In the archway to the galley, Han stood quietly, observing the Princess, unbeknownst to her. He had felt stressed all day, angry with himself for the malfunction of his ship. Although he had blamed it on Leia's rushing him, he knew in his heart it had more to do with wanting to please her. That was why he had been in such a hurry, why he had not properly shielded the array. But he would never, ever admit that. Why was it that every time he tried to impress her, it went terribly wrong?
He watched her standing in the faint light. Her dark hair was down, long and flowing, cascading tantalizingly past her shoulders, down her back. She wore a long, white sleeping gown with short sleeves. Did the woman own anything that was not white? Her head was back as she drained the last of the water from her glass. Han took in the smooth lines of her throat as she swallowed, feeling an undeniable urge to slip his arms around her waist and taste that soft skin. With a sudden, mischievous lopsided grin, he decided to indulge himself, if only slightly.
He moved silently behind her and slipped his arms around her waist-
-and felt her jump from him as if scalded, turning completely around to stumble backwards into the counter. He caught her easily, but not before her cheek struck the edge of the counter.
"You idiot!" she shouted, voice hard and angry. One hand cradled her stricken cheek, while the other gripped his bare arm for support. Han noticed she was shaking and couldn't resist.
"Why, Princess, I had no idea I had this effect on you," he said in a voice filled with pleasant surprise.
Her eyes narrowed further, practically meeting above her delicate nose. Before she could bellow a suitable retort, Han's hand removed hers from her cheek and gently touched the small, red welt there. It was bright and swollen, causing him to wince slightly.
"I didn't mean to hurt you," he said softly, his deep voice seeming to resonate through Leia's already trembling form.
Surprisingly, Leia quieted at his tenderness, and the angry fire in her eyes quickly dimmed. She refused to believe that her shaky hands were caused by anything other than the scare he had just given her.
Their eyes met, and Leia found herself unable to look away. She suddenly became aware of the closeness of Han's bare chest, the tight gray sleeping shorts he wore, which she could see only peripherally. Slowly, Han bent his head to her and Leia's eyes widened, her heart pounding. She was unable to move, unable to speak. As his lips lowered, they moved to her cheek and tenderly kissed the angry bruise. As his warm lips left her skin, she felt a spark of disappointment, completely against her will.
"Sorry," he said quietly.
Leia's mouth opened a full five seconds before she found her voice. "It's alright." Her voice was a barely audible whisper. She cleared her throat loudly in an effort to regain her composure. She hid behind her most haughty air. "Honestly, Solo, what were you thinking, sneaking up and grabbing me like that?" She berated him as if he were an unruly, young boy.
He leered, leaning in to tower above her. "Well, maybe Princesses shouldn't go wandering alone at night." He rubbed a lock of her dark, silky hair between his fingers and brought his face just inches from hers. "You never know what could happen," he said in a low, seductive voice.
A warmth spread through Leia's insides, and she felt her cheeks redden, suffused with heat. Ignoring the effect his nearness caused, she covered her reaction by placing her palms against the warm, soft skin of his chest and pushing him backwards. He made a show of falling away from her, his grin never wavering.
"Please, Solo! Tell it to someone who might be impressed."
He laughed out loud, then came back to where she stood by the counter and pulled himself up to sit, legs dangling.
She turned to face him, careful to keep a decent amount of space between them, and noticed the way his eyes raked across her body, starting at her head and ending up at her bare feet. She hugged herself self-consciously, feeling suddenly exposed in the thin sleepgown.
"So what's bothering you, Princess? What are you doing up at this hour?"
In her wildest dreams she couldn't imagine telling Han that she had nightmares. She could only imagine all too well the torment she would receive over that little tidbit of information. "I couldn't sleep."
"All those dreams of me keeping you up?" Han felt heat course through his veins as she rolled her eyes. For some reason, that small gesture of frustration never failed to set his heart to pounding.
"Have you ever had even the slightest moment of humility?"
Han studied the ceiling, ignoring the urge to reach out and touch her again. He returned his gaze to Leia. "Nope. Don't think that I have."
"Why are you awake?"
He shrugged. "Too wired to sleep I guess. I get that way when I have a lot of work to do on the Falcon."
"It's a wonder you ever get any sleep at all." She arched an eyebrow at him.
Han grinned appreciatively. This was what he liked about her. He had never before met another woman who could stand up to his overzealous mouth. He looked her up and down again. Damn, she looked beautiful standing there. "I guess it keeps me hopping," he admitted. He just couldn't fight with her when she looked like this, hair free and unbound, the muted light softening her features. He could just see the young girl she must have been, before the Empire had destroyed everything that mattered to her.
An awkward silence descended upon them. Leia knew she should return to the cabin, but was strangely hesitant to leave him. Their moments of accord were so infrequent, she found herself wanting to savor this one. She wasn't going to sleep anyway; she might as well remain here with Han. She glanced up at him shyly, found him watching her with an almost wistful expression, and lowered her eyes to the counter again, studying her fingernails far too intently. She decided to push her luck.
"Han, why have you stayed with the Rebellion for so long?"
He shrugged, hopped down from the counter and grabbed the water pitcher. "I dunno. Beats smuggling spice." He reached up to a shelf above the counter, feeling Leia's eyes on him the entire time. He pulled a glass down and filled it with water. He gestured towards Leia's glass with the pitcher, but she shook her head and he returned the pitcher to the counter.
She watched his lips as he sipped from the glass, noticing the movements of his throat as he swallowed. "Beats it, how?"
He placed his cup back on the counter and turned towards her, a guarded look in his eyes. He shrugged again, uncomfortable with the turn this conversation had taken. "Less dangerous."
She laughed shortly. "Somehow, I imagine the Rebels are higher up on the Imperial most wanted dockets than spice smugglers."
He smiled at the truth of that statement. "I'm sure they are. The pace is more frantic, running spice though. Everyone wants their spice delivered yesterday. Everyone wants their money the day before." He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the counter. "And everybody's ready to stab you in the back." He realized suddenly that he might have said more than he'd intended.
She nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I see what you mean."
He thought she might be mocking him, but she seemed quite serious.
She looked up at him and smiled softly. "We Rebels are a trustworthy bunch, aren't we?" She couldn't help but notice the muscles of his chest under his crossed forearms.
He smiled back, genuinely amused. "Yeah. Damned lot of you. Makes me sick."
She laughed softly, and Han realized how much he liked the sound of her laughter. She didn't laugh nearly often enough.
"I suppose that's debatable, when you think about the fact that we're all considered outlaws. Some would call us murderers."
He could see the tension these thoughts caused in her. It reminded him that she had come from a peaceful world that had abolished warfare and abandoned all weaponry. Alderaan was so clean, in fact, the one time he had visited the planet he had been completely unable to unload a shipment of glitterstim. He had never imagined that such a place existed in this twisted galaxy.
"I guess some people might look at it that way. But those are the people you're fighting against, Princess."
She looked up at him in surprise, as if unable to believe he was trying to comfort her. His eyes held a seriousness she had never seen there before, and she found that the deep baritone of his voice was lulling her into a sense of security that she rarely felt these days.
"Sometimes you have to do things you'd rather not to accomplish something that's for the greater good."
Had she actually heard those words uttered from his lips? Was this Han Solo, self-proclaimed mercenary?
She smiled at him, feeling a sudden quickening of her heartbeat. "Why, Han Solo. Is my "idealism" actually rubbing off on you?" she asked with wonder in her voice.
His eyes shifted around them, his sudden discomfort obvious. He snorted derisively. "Don't count on it," he sneered, the usual disdain back in both his expression and his tone. When her only response was a tender smile, Han sighed and rolled his eyes to the ceiling, muttering, "Try an' be nice, look where it gets you." She laughed softly again, and Han privately thought that the damage to his image might actually be worth it. With a slight smile, he draped an arm across her shoulders and began to steer her from the galley. "C'mon, Princess, let's go to bed."
The implications of that casual statement popped into her mind, but he did not seem to be baiting her, so she said nothing, just let him lead her in the direction of his cabin. She was highly aware of the warmth of his hand on her shoulder. When they reached the door, she turned to him, suddenly nervous in spite of herself. He placed a hand on her cheek and stroked it with his thumb.
"Sorry about that bruise."
"That's okay," she replied a bit too quickly, unnerved by his proximity. She could feel his breath sighing through the loose strands of hair at the crown of her head. For a long, peaceful moment he just looked at her, and something within her chest fluttered madly, causing her breath to catch in her throat ever so slightly. Then he leaned close and kissed her forehead tenderly, his lips warm and soft. She closed her eyes against the wave of undeniable emotion that passed through her, frightening her with its intensity. What was wrong with her? This was Han. Sleep deprivation, perhaps?
She recovered herself enough to smile when he pulled away from her, despite the tingling where his lips had just been. For a heartbeat she thought she saw an uncharacteristic vulnerability in his eyes, and then it was gone. He took a deep, inexplicable breath, then whispered, "Good night, Princess."
For once, the use of her formal title did not sound disrespectful on his lips, but more like an endearment. "Good night, Captain." She was relieved when her voice left her throat sounding normal. She turned from him and activated the controls to open the door. As she went inside she was aware that he had not left, but continued to watch until the door shut behind her.
Han stood outside the door for a long time, thinking. He didn't often let his mind dwell on how important a part of his life Luke and Leia had become, but he found his mind now resting there. Indeed, why had he remained with the Alliance these past two years? Leia's casual question had taken him off guard. In spite of what he had admitted about running spice, there really were not many good reasons for him to stay. Except that Luke had somehow become a close friend. Almost a brother, he ventured, if Han could imagine what it was like to have such familial ties. And then there was Leia...
How did he feel about her? Certainly, he was attracted to her. He had been since the moment on the Death Star when she'd grabbed Luke's blast rifle and shot them an escape route through the garbage compactor. But somehow, it had recently become something more than that, something that touched him in a way that was beyond lust. He sighed noisily, unnerved by that thought. He knew it was ridiculous, he knew he had no chance with her. That was why, he finally admitted to himself, he constantly tormented her. Sure, he had seen a look of longing in her eyes on occasion, including tonight. But finding him physically attractive, and doing something about it, were two very different things. And he knew very well that someone like him, a smuggler, a mercenary, someone with nothing at all respectable in his background, could not possibly hope to have any sort of... well... relationship, for want of a better word, with a Princess like her. It was laughable, and he knew it. But it made him angry to feel so...unacceptable in her eyes. So he took it out on her, teased, flustered and angered her regularly. And it was so simple a thing to get a rise out of her. It was almost too easy.
But sometimes, like tonight, he allowed himself to push that aside and just be with her. He had teased her about wanting him, but without the nasty edge that came to him so effortlessly, like breathing. He supposed it was immature, but he never claimed to be anything else. When she dropped the haughtiness from her manner and let her guard down a bit, Han found her almost irresistible. He could see the young woman beneath the barriers she put up against the galaxy to protect herself from further hurts. He knew how to do that rather well himself, and could more than understand why she did it. But that vulnerability that occasionally surfaced was not something that came to her easily with him. With Luke, yes. When she was with Luke, Han often observed a sweetness, a comfortable affection, that was rarely present with him. He supposed he couldn't blame her. It wasn't as if he made it easy for her.
He would have to move on soon. Nothing good could come of any of this. His friendship with Luke aside, he had put off Jabba for too long already, and he was just torturing himself where Leia was concerned.
He realized with a start that he had been standing outside the door to his cabin for a ludicrous amount of time. He glanced around sheepishly, glad that Chewie or Luke had not woken up and decided to wander. He would have felt like a moron had he been caught mooning outside the Princess' door. He turned and headed back to the crew quarters, feeling disturbingly dissatisfied. He had a bad feeling that tomorrow his feud with the Princess would begin anew.
Leia slammed her fist into the bulkhead, bruising her knuckles. She winced and brought them to her mouth, scowling at the new depths that man had sunk her to. Every time she started to think that Corellian might possibly have a decent bone somewhere in that despicable body of his, he proved her wrong yet again. She supposed she should blame his ill treatment of her on a general bad mood, but he was being perfectly civil to Luke and Chewie, who kept favoring her with sympathetic glances. Luke had taken her aside to inquire about the bruise on her cheek, a protective anger blazing in his eyes. When she explained it, he looked visibly relieved.
Last night Han had been so sweet, so compassionate. At one point she thought she had seen genuine caring in his eyes, had even thought for a moment that he was going to...but no. Why did he have to be so insufferable when he was obviously capable of decent behavior? On rare occasions he had shown her that he did indeed have a soft side, why couldn't he just be consistent? If he were even consistently obnoxious, at least she would know what to expect from him, she would not need to be on edge all the time. Why couldn't he just allow her to like him? She wanted to very much, she knew that. But he made it impossible.
His last scathing comment sprung to her mind, inflaming her anger all over again.
Well, Your Royal Worshipfulness, if I wasn't hauling your pathetic ass all over the galaxy on these ridiculous mercy missions, maybe I'd have time to fix everything. And maybe I'd have made enough money to pay back Jabba by now. As it is, I'm just gonna get myself killed for nothing but your worthless cause. You know you Rebels don't have a chance, don't you? You're fighting a lost cause!
She had trembled with rage, the pure fury tightening her throat beyond reply. The urge to slap his smug, spiteful face had been almost overwhelming. But she refused to let him see how deeply he had hurt her. So she'd stormed from the room and fled to the 'fresher, the one place she knew he would not follow. Although she wouldn't entirely put it past him.
She couldn't even recall what had sparked their latest argument, not that there always need be a reason. He had simply been a bastard from the first moment she'd seen him this morning. She had expected him to be pleasant after the almost affectionate conversation they had shared the night before. It had taken her aback when she greeted him this morning and he responded with a curt, grunt of a reply. At first she had shrugged it off as his preoccupation with repairs, but his foul mood had only gotten worse as the day progressed. She didn't understand him. Not one bit. He was simply the most confusing, irrational, exasperating man alive. Not to mention abrasive and just plain old mean.
Some tiny part of her heart reminded her that he could also be considerate, brave and fiercely protective, of both her and Luke. But it was so much easier to examine his flaws rather then his virtues. He had so many more flaws, after all.
She couldn't remain in the 'fresher all day. Maybe she would go back to his cabin, try to forget that it was his cabin, and take a nap. She had barely slept the night before, and as soon as repairs were finished it would be time to finally get on with this mission.
Han examined the readouts at his instrument panel, carefully making some adjustments. He heard Chewie enter the cockpit and spoke without turning to him.
"Hey, everything is checking out so far. As soon as Luke is done reinforcing the heat shielding around the array we're all set."
Chewie growled gruffly, inquiring as to what had brought about his unusual cruelty to the Princess.
Han turned to face him and asked incredulously, "Whaddaya mean? I'm the same way I always am to her."
The Wookiee wasn't buying it. He bellowed to Han, pointing out that he was being genuinely mean to her.
Solo let out a frustrated breath, ran a hand through his hair and shook his head in disgust. What was wrong with everyone today? Chewie surprised him next, asking if something might have happened between himself and Leia the night before.
"What are you talking about? What could possibly have happened?" He was beginning to feel uncomfortable with this line of questioning. Nothing had happened. He had just realized how much he wished that something would.
Chewie growled menacingly at his Captain, causing Han to bristle. "Don't you tell me how to act." He received a sharp snarl as a reply. "Some life debt," Han muttered.
The frustrated Captain returned to his work, and Chewie sat in his huge chair, flipping switches. They worked quietly for a time, until Chewbacca could no longer hold his tongue. He barked a quiet suggestion, careful to keep his tone gentle.
Han swiveled his own seat to face his furry friend, a look of astonishment on his face. "What makes you say a thing like that?"
Maintaining his soft tone, Chewie told his friend just what he had observed to put such thoughts in his head.
Han shook his head vehemently. "Naw, it's nothing like that. I mean, sure, she's beautiful an' all, but she's just not my type."
The Wookiee remained silent, sensing that his friend needed to work this out in his own head. He had made sly comments to Han about his interest in Leia in the past, but had always kept it light, intuitively knowing Han was not ready to admit the level of his feelings.
Han continued, speaking mostly to himself. "It's not as if I'd kick her out of bed or anything..." A slow grin crept across his features, and when he realized he was smiling he quickly turned his expression to one of indifference. "But she's just not for me. Besides, she wouldn't be interested in a guy like me anyway."
Chewie let Han know, in no uncertain terms, just how ridiculous he found that notion. Han looked up sharply.
"Why do you say that?"
Chewie went off on a litany of moments when he had seen the young Princess gazing at him in a way that implied more than simple friendship.
"Well, that's understandable. I'm one good-looking guy."
And modest, Chewie reminded him with a roll of his expressive blue eyes.
Solo shook his head thoughtfully. "I don't know, Chewie. I just can't imagine..."
Chewbacca roared encouragingly, slapping Han on the back hard enough to cause him to lurch into the instrument board.
Han looked up at Chewie, ignoring the gruff display of affection to ask hopefully, "You really think Leia and I could possibly...?" He trailed off, unable to even finish the thought aloud. When Chewie growled an affirmative response, Han suddenly let go of his usual defensiveness to admit, "She is pretty amazing, isn't she?" The massive Wookiee took one look at the goofy grin on Solo's face and knew more than ever he had been completely on the mark here. Han's uncharacteristic praise of the Princess continued. "I mean, I've never met anyone with as much nerve as her. And yeah, she can be stuck-up and spoiled and stubborn as all hell, and she can drive a man crazy with that mouth of hers." He was gazing out the viewport, still smiling. His expression grew serious. "But she can be funny too. And occasionally sweet." He caught himself. "Not usually to me, but... she sure is beautiful," he finished in a whisper. He seemed to remember where he was suddenly, and sat up sharply. "She'd never take me seriously."
Chewbacca studied Han for a long moment, then made a hesitant suggestion.
Han's eyes narrowed. "Nice? I am nice." He scowled at the sound of the Wookiee's snorting laughter. He let out a long-suffering sigh. "I guess I could be a little bit nicer. You think that would really help?" Chewie barked encouragingly.
This whole thing was starting to make Han feel a little ill. Be nice to her? Not that he didn't think he could do it, of course he could. But how might she respond? And just how nice did he have to be? He recalled his time as an officer in the Imperial Navy. He had been inspired to be nice, almost gentlemanly, back then. But that had been a long time ago. He sure as hell wasn't going to be that nice!
Besides, back then he'd had an officer's rank, respect, something to offer a woman like Leia. All right, he admitted, even then he would not have considered himself worthy of a Princess. And now...
Well, he couldn't imagine her thinking him worthy of her affections. She was a Princess, a Rebel Leader. He was a smuggler. True, she no longer had an actual throne to claim, and she had certainly changed in the past couple of years. She had come down from the pedestal that had held her high above Han and the rest of the "commoners" of the Alliance, had worked just as hard in every capacity as everyone else, seeking no special consideration, no privileges. She always pulled her own weight, insisted that she be treated no better than anyone else. However, she still held enough of that haughty, regal air that she intimidated most. But Han refused to be intimidated, by her or anyone else.
Han looked at Chewie, a hint of hope in his earnest expression. "Nice, huh? I can do that."
I'm sure you can, Chewie whuffled softly.
"But if she smacks me or something, I'm holding you personally responsible."
Chewie privately thought that if the little Princess were to smack Han, it would be due to Han's own bumbling. But Solo didn't need to hear that right now. So the huge Wookiee grunted his encouragement as the Captain of the Millennium Falcon got up from his pilot's chair, squared his shoulders, set his jaw and, looking like someone about to walk into a den full of wild ren'nats, left the cockpit.
Han stood outside the cockpit for several minutes, attempting to formulate some sort of plan. What could he do that would be nice? After a lot of consideration, he went to the galley and fixed her a cup of kaffe. With a grimace, he headed off to search for her, cup in hand. Unable to locate her anywhere else, Han decided to try his cabin. He rapped on the door with his fist, a sudden gnawing in the pit of his stomach. He almost turned to go, overwhelmed with sudden anxiety, but the door slid open and there was Leia, gazing at him warily, anger evident in her expression.
He stood there dumbly, holding the cup of kaffe, unsure of what to say.
"Yes?" she asked coldly.
He finally found his voice. "Here, I brought you some kaffe." He thrust the cup in her hands, more gruffly than intended, the hot beverage sloshing around in the cup and almost spilling.
Leia held the cup, the anger in her expression being joined by confusion.
He leaned in the doorway and crossed his arms. "We're almost done with the repairs. I'd say another half hour and we can take off." His tongue felt thick in his mouth.
The Princess nodded, wondering what he was doing here, bringing her kaffe and making conversation as if he hadn't treated her like garbage all day. Feeling awkward, not knowing what else to do, she took a sip of kaffe, just to do something.
Why wasn't she saying anything? He felt burdened by the need to think of something pleasant to say. "That kaffe okay?" She gave him an odd look and just nodded. He looked past her into his cabin and took note of her ever-present datapad on his desk. "How's that speech coming?"
Reflexively, she glanced back at the desk. "Fine, I think."
He could hear the caution in her voice when she answered. Seeking to be helpful, he offered, "Want me to read it? Give you some input?"
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. Since when did he champion her cause? "I thought it was a lost cause? Why would you bother?" She raised an eyebrow.
He winced slightly at his own words being thrown back in his face. He knew what he'd said earlier had been over the line, but he hadn't been able to help himself, the words had just stumbled from his mouth. "Well, maybe it's not entirely lost." He offered her a slightly sheepish smile.
She stared at his humbled expression, wondering at his motives. Was this some strange sort of apology? With a sigh, she decided to just let it go. If he was going to be decent, she would allow him to be. But she certainly wouldn't let herself to get used to it.
"Alright." Her tone was leery. "Read it and let me know what you think."
He answered her with an enthusiastic smile and stepped past her into the cabin.
Luke Skywalker reached the top of the ramp and heard silence. He strained his ears, but that was really all there was to hear. He sighed with relief, rubbing at his filthy hands with an even filthier rag. The array was shielded, and all he wanted now was a cycle in the refresher. The silence was bliss. He had been afraid that he would again be treated to another of Han and Leia's arguments. Han was in rare form today, jumping on Leia for every little thing.
He never knew what to expect from Solo. He could be the best friend imaginable one moment, then moody and distant the next. Granted, he was usually just fine with Luke, but where Leia was concerned, the rough-edged Corellian was, more often than not, highly intolerable. Luke had no explanation for Han's behavior. Occasionally, Luke almost thought he saw a hint of something in the older man's eyes when Han watched Leia surreptitiously... but he could not be certain. He also thought that same indefinable something was sometimes present in her eyes as well, but again, it was impossible to be sure. Luke grinned wryly at the thought of his two closest friends together that way. It was, at the same time, both difficult and easy to imagine. But today certainly was not going to be the day for that sort of thing.
As he headed in the direction of the 'fresher, Luke was surprised to see Han stomp from the doorway of his cabin, followed closely by Leia. Judging by their stances, it was another of those Gods-awful times. The young would-be Jedi sighed disgustedly.
Han was stalking away from the Princess, but stopped suddenly and she almost walked right into him. "That's the last time I try to help you!" he shouted.
"Help? Help?" she yelled incredulously. "That was supposed to be help? I never would have noticed!"
"Maybe if you bothered to come down off that pedestal of yours you just might. You're too busy looking down your nose at everyone, you wouldn't notice if one of us died right in front of you!"
"Ohh, don't make me imagine that, it's too tempting a-"
"That's enough!!" Luke yelled unexpectedly, as Chewie entered the hold. All eyes turned to Luke in shock at this outburst. For a moment, he looked almost embarrassed, but he swallowed those feelings and continued more quietly. "I'm sick of this. The two of you, you're both so stubborn and unreasonable. Well, I'm tired of listening to your fighting. It's ridiculous. That's enough already, just shut up. You're giving me a headache." Han opened his mouth to speak, but Luke didn't give him the chance. "We're here for a reason, we have a mission to accomplish. Fighting won't help anything. It's just distracting. So if you can't get along, just ignore each other. If you hate each other so much, just don't even speak."
They stood in silence. Neither of them could think of a single thing to say. Luke looked from one to the other, then walked in the direction of the refresher, shaking his head sadly.
Leia met Han's eyes, saw the same shame that she felt. Chewie howled to Solo, and Han just glared back at him.
Reluctantly, Solo returned his gaze to Leia. "Well," he said in a subdued voice, "I guess we're all set to lift off. You better get strapped in, Leia."
The use of her given name took her by surprise, but she knew what he meant by it. He was calling a truce. At least for now. She gave him a slight smile then moved to seat herself at the acceleration couch. The last place she wanted to be was in the cockpit near Han. She felt Han's eyes on her for a moment before he left for the cockpit. Chewie looked after Han's retreating form, then turned to look at Leia. He shook his head, whuffled softly, then turned to follow his Captain.
Leia put her head in her hands and rubbed at the headache that had begun to throb at her temples. So far, nothing was going well at all. And they hadn't even begun the actual mission. None of this inspired much confidence in Leia.
"I don't hate you."
Those words, rumbling in the quiet surrounding Leia, sent a thrill down her spine. She glanced up to find Han in the doorway to his cabin, watching her as she smoothed the dignified lines of her white senatorial gown. She turned back to her reflection and was quiet a moment before responding.
"I never said you did."
He said nothing, and she stole a furtive glance at him. He stood in silence, staring at the floor with a troubled expression. She wondered vaguely what had brought this on. Eventually, she felt the need to break the silence. "I don't hate you either."
When she glanced at him again, she saw a small smile turning up the corners of his mouth. "Now that we've got that clear...."
She turned to face him then, and returned his smile with an affectionate one of her own. She saw him look her up and down, the familiar glance devoid of the leer that normally accompanied it.
"You look nice. Very dignified."
She might have thought he were kidding, but he looked perfectly serious. It was probably the first compliment he had ever given her. She found herself blushing slightly, much to her chagrin.
Han noticed the blush but didn't know what to make of it. He had decided that it was impossible for them to get along, much less have anything that was beyond friendship. He had come here to tell her that he had received confirmation that their contact was on his way, had found her perfecting her image in the mirror, and had felt a tug at his heart at the sight of her. He always reacted that way to the sight of her dressed up, looking more like a carefree young woman than a seasoned soldier. He had from the moment he first saw her at the ceremony on Yavin Four. He hadn't been able to take his eyes off her as she slipped that medal around his neck. He supposed that was the horrible, unavoidable moment when he had been hooked. He acknowledged it now: he was definitely interested in Leia Organa as more than a friend. And in a less-than-casual way, too.
But they were simply not suited for each other. Even when he was trying, they couldn't get along. In the past, Han had always blamed it on her lineage, his lack of lineage, the world of differences in their backgrounds. But when it came right down to it, it was none of those things.
They were incompatible. Han thought back to last night, in the galley. They had gotten along then. And they had shared moments of accord in the past. But they never lasted.
Was it him? Or her? Or both of them?
Dammit, when had this become more than a physical thing?
He cleared his throat loudly. "Well, we got a transmission, and our contact will be here soon." Her coloring had returned to normal, and she was now listening attentively, all business. "Chewie and I are gonna stay behind, work at dismantling the damaged gun. You'll have Luke with you, it should be fine."
Leia was vaguely surprised that Han was not bellowing about sticking together and needing to keep her safe. Granted, they did not expect trouble. But in the past, Han hadn't liked to let her out of his sight for too long. She felt strangely disappointed, in spite of the fact that she usually ended up angry, arguing that she could take care of herself. "That's fine," she said neutrally.
Han nodded. She obviously didn't want him along. She seemed to say it constantly on every mission they shared. She's probably afraid I'll embarrass her. I've certainly done it before. It was something that he almost enjoyed under normal circumstances. But this time the idea seemed oddly empty.
Luke chose that moment to wander over to the doorway. He looked to each of his friends, noted the lack of anger and yelling, and smiled with relief. He turned to Leia. "You ready?"
She nodded, grabbed her datapad, and followed Luke to the controls for the boarding ramp, where the droids waited for them. Han activated the controls and the ramp began to lower. When they had reached the bottom of the ramp, they turned back to Han. He watched them, a pensive expression etched across his features.
"We'll get you on the comm and let you know how it's going," Luke told him.
Han shrugged indifferently, but Leia got the strangest impression that he was fighting the urge to follow them.
"Yeah, good luck," Han called. The three friends exchanged a wave before Luke and Leia disappeared into the crowd, the droids trailing them.
Han watched until he could no longer spot them. He knew he should go with them, for safety's sake. But he couldn't bring himself to. He needed to get away from the Princess, to clear his head, and attempt to distance himself from her. She was wreaking havoc on his mind. Morosely, Han made his way back into the Falcon to grab the tools necessary for removing the lower quad gun.
All had seemed fine until they arrived here, at the main factory. The meeting with the Fargan Senator had gone well. Leia's speech had been surprisingly well received, and a meeting with an on-planet resistance group was in the works. Luke had not known that there was a resistance group here on Fargoe, and he'd wager that the Empire was equally unaware of their existence. Dusko Radon was a light-brown skinned Fargan, who had only been elected to the Senate a standard year ago. He was young for a senator, by Fargan standards, and Luke suspected that his youth was part of what allowed him to consider rebellion. Youth was often accompanied by idealism, and that idealism was less likely to stand quietly and allow the atrocities of the Imperial reign to continue than the more jaded, seasoned Senators.
The Senator had then escorted them to the factory and offices of SteelTech. Senator Radon had introduced them to the chairman of SteelTech, who also happened to be the owner. Sevv Bonto seemed nice enough, but Luke could not shake the feeling that they were merely being entertained, that Bonto had no serious interest in the Rebellion. He tried to get a sense of him through the Force, but predictably, he had no luck. He had a hard enough time reading species he was familiar with, but with a species such as the Fargans, with whom he had no prior experience, it was impossible.
They were being given a tour of the facility where the power packs that charged the small hand blasters were constructed. Normally, Luke would have found this sort of thing fascinating, but at the moment he was too preoccupied. He couldn't wait to get out of earshot of the Fargans to discuss his impressions with Leia.
Leia asked polite questions about the manufacturing process, feigning interest. In truth, she wanted this silly tour done with so they could begin negotiations. But she knew quite well that diplomacy called for just this sort of formality, exchanging pleasantries and going through the motions of establishing a relationship. She had been easily won over by Senator Radon, with his sharp wit and earnest manner. However, she was not entirely sure of Sevv Bonto. She didn't completely trust him, though she couldn't have said why. But she danced the dance of political negotiation, bowing to his need to brag about his company's assets.
At last they were escorted to a higher level, where the offices were located. Anxious to get down to business, Leia, accompanied by Luke, Threepio and Artoo, followed Bonto into a spacious conference room. The room was dimly lit and furnished in an old fashioned style, with a dark wood, rectangular table in the center, surrounded by matching chairs. Displayed on the walls were holos of the factory at work. The droids took up a place directly behind Leia and Luke.
When they were seated around the table, Leia asked, "How much control does the Empire have over your facility?"
Bonto smiled ingratiatingly. "Emperor Palpatine does not interfere, so long as we supply the Empire with the weapons they require, at a ridiculously low rate, of course." His voice held a mildly bitter edge.
"Yes, that does seem like Palpatine's style."
Bonto smiled, his sharp teeth making him appear predatory. "How might the Rebellion change things if you were to win this war?"
"We would reestablish the Republic, putting an end to this tyranny, of course." Leia maintained her calm, regal demeanor, but she had a sinking feeling that this conversation was purely a formality. Bonto seemed to simply be wasting time. Thus far, Luke and she had been treated like curious visitors, nothing more.
"Hmph," Bonto grunted shortly.
Senator Radon intervened. "I believe that the Alliance has a good chance of bringing about their goals. However, they need more systems to align with them."
Bonto looked from Radon to the Princess. "And if the Empire discovers our treachery? How are we to know that we won't suffer the same fate as Alderaan?"
Luke glanced quickly at Leia, but found that she managed to maintain her cool, in spite of the casual remark about Alderaan.
"I assure you, the Empire does not have another super weapon waiting in their ranks."
He snorted loudly. "How can you possibly know that, Princess? Even if they do not have another such as the Death Star, they certainly have other ways of retribution."
The Senator defended Leia's position. "Shall we simply stand aside and do nothing, then? Shall we allow the Empire to repress us further? They have already taken far more control over this sector than seems allowable." His voice became stern. "We can't be certain that they will not gain control over the entire system. Your company would end up in their hands, with you possibly remaining as only a figurehead. That is, if they did not kill you outright." He rested his palms flat on the table, having spoken his peace.
Leia smiled to herself, impressed with Senator Radon's rebellious fervor. She had indeed been correct about him.
Bonto stared at Radon, eyes hard. "That will not happen, so long as we are cooperative."
Leia's chin rose defiantly. "That is the same attitude that most fallen systems maintain. Until it is too late, of course."
The room was suddenly silent, hostility radiating throughout. Leia was surprised to hear Luke's gentle voice softly break the silence.
"The Empire will stop at nothing. Their ultimate goal is to control all the systems of the galaxy. They have no regard for the lives of others." He paused for effect. "Particularly non-humans."
With a measure of pride that Luke had spoken his mind, Leia jumped on his lead. "Commander Skywalker is right. Genocide is a perfectly acceptable practice to Palpatine. He has no mercy. Once a species has outlived their usefulness, he will have no trouble extinguishing them from the galaxy."
Bonto's head cocked to the side. "Then we will have to continue to be useful, won't we?"
"Do you honestly believe no one but you could run this facility?" Senator Radon asked scornfully.
"May I ask," Leia cut in before a response was possible, "why you have asked us here? You obviously have no desire to support the Rebel Alliance. What has been the purpose of this meeting?" She did not allow her disappointment to show. She'd had such high hopes that this would prove to be a fruitful assembly.
Before she could blink, a dozen uniformed security agents entered the room, blasters pointing at Luke, Leia, Senator Radon and his male aide.
"Oh my," Threepio intoned from behind Leia's chair. "We're doomed."
The Senator rose from his chair, his posture radiating pure fury. "What is the meaning of this, Bonto?"
"The meaning, Senator, is that you are a traitor. To our peoples, as well as the Empire. And your friends here are wanted by the Empire. In a few hours, Admiral Keth will be arriving to escort all of you back to Coruscant with him." He smiled triumphantly.
Leia glared at him, hiding the icy chill that ran through her at this news. "You're making a big mistake. Your people will be the ones to suffer because of your lack of judgement."
Luke glanced at her. Her eyes were as cold as he'd ever seen them.
Bonto laughed disdainfully. "Oh, yes, Princess, I'm sure. And you'll be long dead before you can see that you are wrong." He motioned to his guards. "Take them."
They rose from their chairs as the guards approached them and placed binders on their wrists. Luke fought the feeling of bleakness that threatened, attempting to comfort himself with the thought that Han would surely come looking for them. If he would find them was questionable, but he held onto that thread of hope as they were led from the room.
Han Solo was becoming increasingly concerned. He hadn't heard from Luke or Leia since they had left, and he was unable to raise them on the comm.
Damn! He should have gone with them. If he hadn't let his stubborn pride get the best of him, he wouldn't have let them out of his sight. But he had allowed his feelings to get in the way. Just another reason why he didn't welcome these close personal ties to begin with. They muddled you all up. As soon as you cared too much, you made mistakes. Emotions got in the way, and things were no longer clear.
And now Luke and Leia were missing. He hoped fervently that there was some logical explanation for this. Maybe Luke had simply forgotten to check in; maybe he had shut off the comm without thinking.
And maybe gundarks can fly.
He stood at the bottom of the Falcon's ramp, thinking, when Chewie came up behind him. He roared questioningly.
"No," Han answered morosely, "still nothing. We're gonna have to go over to the Senate building."
Chewie grunted his approval and turned to close and lock the hatch. They caught a public hovertram and made their way to the Fargan Diplomatic Building. With a determined stride they entered the building, located the Senator's chambers, and were greeted hesitantly. Han supposed they were not quite the sorts who normally called upon the Senator.
The receptionist informed them that, yes, the young man and young woman had certainly been there, and had left with Senator Radon to tour the SteelTech facility.
"Did the Senator come back here?" Han asked anxiously.
"No, sir," the young Fargan male replied. "We received a message that the Senator would be retiring for the evening. It spoke nothing of your companions."
Han set his jaw, the tendons at his neck bulging. Frustrated, he turned and left. Without discussion, they took a shuttle to SteelTech.
SteelTech was an enormous gray, stone building on a large expanse of land. There were similar, smaller structures interspersed across the lush acreage.
They entered the building and were immediately stopped by a uniformed security officer. The thick-skinned Fargan fixed the Corellian with a hard gaze.
"Have you business here?"
Han's mind warred between being demanding and being solicitous. Solicitous won out. "I'm looking for two companions of mine," he answered pleasantly. "A human male and a human female. I know they came here with Senator Radon, and I haven't been able to locate them since." He resisted the urge to tap his foot nervously.
The reptilian being eyed him suspiciously. "Give me a moment. I'll see what I can find out."
Han and Chewbacca watched silently as the security agent went into a small room with a clear door. He called someone from his comm unit, spoke briefly, then returned to them.
"Someone will be down shortly to assist you."
Han nodded as the being stepped away, but kept his eyes on Han and Chewie the entire time. It was a long time before anyone came to them, and Chewie began to grumble impatiently. Han stayed him with a gesture, not wanting to reveal anything while still under observation. At last, their patience was rewarded when an older Fargan emerged from a nearby turbolift and walked straight up to them.
"Hello there, I am Sevv Bonto, chairman of SteelTech. My man here tells me you are looking for the young humans who visited me earlier today."
Instantly, Han disliked him. He could not have said why, but the Fargan rubbed him the wrong way. "Yes, I am. They were here with Senator Radon."
"Why, yes, they were." His gravelly voice grated on Han's nerves. "They left here over an hour ago. Did they not return to you?"
"No, they didn't," Han responded dryly. Would he be asking about them if they had returned?
"Perhaps they returned to the Senate building?"
"No, I was just over there. How did your meeting go, anyway?"
"Quite well, thank you for asking. Are you their pilot, might I inquire?"
Han was about to respond that, no, he was their friend, then decided to play it differently. "Yeah, I was hired to fly them here, then back to base. If I don't find them soon I'm just gonna take off without them." He let the practiced mercenary timbre enter his voice. "They were a whole lotta trouble anyway."
Bonto laughed softly, seeming to dismiss Han was a worthless spacer. "Well, good luck to you. Clear skies. And if I hear anything of your charges I shall contact the Senator's office."
"Thanks." They turned and left the building through the lobby doors they had entered through. Once outside, they continued walking slowly up the long, narrow road towards the street. Chewie grunted a terse comment.
"I know, the guy was full of it. I'm sure he has something to do with whatever's happened to Luke and Leia." His eyes were narrowed to gray slits as his mind turned over the possibilities. He stopped suddenly and turned to his co-pilot. "One of us should stake this place out a bit."
Nearby, a bustle of astromech droids scooted past them, intent on their destination for work detail.
Chewie glanced around, taking note of the variety of species milling around. He agreed with Han, stating that if he loitered he would hardly be noticed.
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking. I think I'll check into the Senator's home, just in case he did go there. But I have a feeling I won't find him there."
Suddenly, their conversation was interrupted by a loud cacophony of beeps and whistles, breaking Han's train of thought. He looked over at the line of astromechs and noticed a familiar blue one. Artoo! It had to be! He exchanged a knowing glance with Chewie, then looked back at the droid. When the little R2 unit saw that he had gotten their attention, he quieted, but spun his dome excitedly around. Han saw the restraining bolt attached to the droid and knew that Artoo could not break stride from the rest of his group. The line of droids continued down the path.
"I don't see anyone keeping watch on them," Han whispered.
Chewie grunted in agreement, then made a suggestion.
"Yeah, if we can get him out of sight and pry off that restraining bolt." Han and Chewie watched the direction in which they headed. Solo was afraid to immediately follow, fearing their sudden interest would be noticed. He looked around, but did not see anyone watching them. After a few minutes, Han and Chewie sauntered off in the direction in which the droids had disappeared. Half a klick away, the astromechs were busy at one of the smaller buildings. Most were filing inside, but three of them, including Artoo, were plugged into circuits on the outside of the building. Artoo himself was busy at a terminal at the side of the building. As they drew near, they slowed their pace.
He listened to his first mates' idea, and had to admit, the simplicity of it would work. "Yeah, okay, c'mon."
Chewbacca walked ahead of Solo, made his way to the sealed entryway where the other two droids worked, and began asking them about the details of their orders. Han stood back a bit, smiling at the obvious confusion of the droids. Although their electronic language was unintelligible, the tone of their insistent beeping conveyed their distress. Han mused over the fact that he had once believed droids to be devoid of sentient characteristics. But the time he had spent with Threepio and Artoo had completely dispelled that notion. Those particular droids sometimes acted more human than some actual sentients he had known. He rolled his eyes at the mere thought of Threepio. If they didn't find him, Han would not lose sleep over it.
Taking advantage of the temporary confusion, Han sidled up to Artoo and whispered to the barrel-shaped droid.
"Hey, I'm gonna get you out of here." He slipped out the vibroblade he kept hidden in his boot, and with a furtive glance around them, began to pry the restraining bolt off the droid. Artoo beeped a soft tone of gratitude. As he continued to work at the stubborn bolt, Han kept an eye on Chewie's progress with the other droids. One of them was beeping indignantly, his shrill pitch increasing steadily in volume. Solo worked more frantically, grunting with impatience as the bolt strained in one direction, then the other, never quite gaining the proper leverage.
With a slight pop, the bolt finally came free, and Han grinned. "Okay, just follow me, and don't make a sound." Casually, Solo made his way behind the small building, Artoo rolling behind him in grateful silence. When they were out of sight from curious onlookers, Solo turned down and dropped to his knees in front of the small droid.
"Alright, I know I won't be able to understand you, but I'm gonna ask you some questions and-"
Before Solo could finish, Artoo began beeping wildly, keeping his volume down. Han's teeth clenched in exasperation.
"Shut up and listen!" he growled. Was it ridiculous to get angry with a droid? Artoo immediately quieted. "Now, I want you to beep once for yes and twice for no. You got that?" Artoo responded with a single beep, which Han could only interpret as comprehension.
Chewbacca came up behind Han, chuckling about his encounter with the droids. Han shot him an impatient look.
"Okay, do you know what happened to Luke and Leia?" One beep. "Great. Did that guy Bonto have something to do with it?" Another beep, this one more excited than the last. "Do you know where they are?" At this, Artoo began whistling and beeping madly, his silver dome spinning back and forth. "Yes or no?!" Han bit out.
More subdued, the droid beeped twice, paused, then beeped once. Uncertain of what to make of that, Han looked to Chewie and raised his eyebrows. The giant Wookiee shrugged, sharing Solo's confusion.
"What does that mean?" Han asked Artoo. The only response was a series of weak sounding beeps that told Han nothing. He thought quietly for a moment. "Do you mean you might know where they are?" Two beeps. Damn. Solo ran a hand through his dark hair. "Does it mean you think they're here somewhere, but you don't know where?" One loud beep. "Shh!" Artoo chirped apologetically. "Alright, that's something, at least." He stood and turned to Chewie. "I wonder what's in these smaller buildings. What do you think? Inside or out?"
Chewie thought for a long moment, then grunted that outside would be easier to check, so they might as well start there.
Han returned his gaze to Artoo. "Whaddya think? Could they be in one of these small buildings?" Artoo gave two beeps, a pause, then one. Han was beginning to hate the droid's apparent version of "maybe". He looked to Chewie. "I guess what we'll do is walk the grounds and keep our eyes open for anything unusual." The grounds were huge, and it was nearing dusk. Han hoped that the coming darkness would hide them, rather than make their presence more obvious. "We'll have to leave Artoo here." At that the astromech began beeping insistently. Han did not need to understand him to get an idea of what his problem was. "Don't worry, we'll hide you well. But they'll wonder more about us if you come along." Artoo chirped disconsolately.
Chewie waved Artoo in the direction of a garbage shed, causing an electronic shudder to pass through the little droid.
"Just go. You'll be fine, trust me." Han's last concern was the feelings of a droid. The safety of his human friends was foremost in his mind. Reluctantly, Artoo Deetoo scooted behind Chewbacca, who casually scanned the nearby beings before opening the garbage shed's one door. Han waited while Chewie went inside, then returned after a minute.
"You think he'll be alright in there?" Han wasn't sure why exactly he was even the least bit concerned. He told himself it was because Artoo was Luke's droid, and Luke would be upset if anything happened to him.
Chewbacca assured Han that Artoo was sufficiently hidden within the shed. Han nodded and turned towards the path that led around the land surrounding SteelTech.
"Keep your eyes open, Chewie. And try to look casual."
Really? What an original idea! The Wookiee snorted in quiet laughter.
Han scowled at him. "No need for sarcasm."
Luke sat on the floor in the small garbage shed. He had seen several such sheds on their way to this one, but the shed in which they had been imprisoned was far away from the main building. The only thing Luke had seen nearby was an area that appeared to be under construction. Fortunately, the garbage they were sharing the shed with was not of the smelly variety. He thought back to the garbage compactor on the Death Star. Now that garbage had stunk.
The shed contained two rooms, and Luke and Leia were locked in the empty one. Luke wondered if there was anything among the garbage housed in the next room that might aid them in escape. Not that it mattered, since they could not get to it anyway. On the way in, Luke had seen various bits of metal and what appeared to be small slabs of rock. Their room was dimly lit with emergency lighting and had no windows. There was absolutely nothing for them to work with.
He looked at Leia, who sat against the wall opposite him. She had been dozing lightly for some time now, having said very little since their imprisonment. She shifted her position, then opened her eyes and looked at Luke. Her face held that hard, determined expression he knew so well. But underneath it, Luke was fairly certain there had to be fear. Fear inspired by her last captivity by Darth Vader. If the Imperials were coming for them, they both knew she would be handed over to Vader. The desire to prevent that from happening to her was almost painful to him.
She sighed softly, a sound that was loud in the complete silence. "I'm sure Han has missed us by now."
"Yeah. I'll bet he's already been here looking for us." He gestured around them "Well, obviously not here."
She smiled in spite of herself, causing a tug to Luke's heart. "I don't suppose there's anything you can do with the Force?"
He shook his head. "Trust me, I've tried." He had indeed sat here for the longest time, trying to move the mechanisms of the lock, trying to simply push at the door, trying to get a sense of anything useful in the other room. He just did not possess the skill. "It doesn't look as if we'll be getting out of here. But I'm sure we'll find some opportunity once we're moved."
Leia smiled and crawled ungracefully across the floor to sit next to him. He placed an arm around her and she leaned her head against his shoulder. "My hero, as always," she whispered. "Do you ever give up?"
He smiled softly to himself. "No, not ever." He sobered. "Don't worry, Princess, I won't let anything happen to you."
She heard the fierce protectiveness in his contrastingly soft voice. A lump formed in her throat, making her unable to reply. His other arm went around her and she welcomed the soothing embrace. If only it were as easy as one young man's wishes to protect her. She sat quietly, contemplating her demons. Luke's hand began to softly stroke her hair, stirring long forgotten memories of comfort within her.
"I have nightmares," she whispered. Luke's hand paused for a fraction of a second, then continued the caress. "Unspeakable nightmares about the Death Star."
In a way, it surprised Luke; she always appeared so strong. But at the same time, he realized he shouldn't have been surprised; although she had never spoken of what had happened to her at Vader's hand, he had often seen the fear in her eyes at the mere mention of him. His arm tightened around her, but he said nothing.
"Sometimes it's about the torture. Sometimes it's Alderaan. As nightmarish as the torture was, those are worse. Tarkin is threatening to destroy Alderaan all over again. And I'm trying as hard as I can to get away from Vader, to reach the controls that will stop it all from happening." Her voice was filled with more than two years of private agony. "But I can't get away from his iron grip, he's too strong for me. And Alderaan explodes into dust." She shivered. "Sometimes it explodes over and over again, in slow motion, until I wake up screaming. I can almost feel the deaths of everyone I've ever loved, as if their cries of agony are ripping my soul."
"I'm so sorry, Leia," Luke whispered, his heart aching for her. He wished with his entire being that he could set things right for her. He would gladly give his own life to see her happy.
Her eyes rose to look at him as she pulled from his embrace just enough to see him clearly. "Luke, I'm not telling you this to make you feel sad for me. I just want you to know that you, Han and Chewie saved me." She noted his sudden confusion and smiled softly, cupping his cheek in her hand. "Not just from Vader, although I'm grateful for that. You've been my family when I've lost everyone that has ever mattered. If I didn't have you, I wouldn't be able to bare the nightmares. I'd have nothing in my life to make it meaningful. You ease the pain."
Luke saw tears in her eyes as she tenderly kissed his cheek. He closed his eyes tightly, trying to hold his own emotions together. She replaced her head on his shoulder and said with a soft chuckle, "If you ever tell Han I said that I'll kill you."
Han crouched low behind the bushes, motioning for Chewie to get down under cover. It was full dark now, and they were having a much easier time sneaking around. He was certain that Luke and Leia were being held in the garbage shed near the construction site. After all, who needed an armed guard to watch over garbage?
And there was just such a guard leaning against the side of the large shed. He wasn't being obvious about it, but he did have an ugly looking blaster slung low on his hip, and he was doing nothing other than leaning against the wall, eyes glancing from side to side as if he expected trouble.
Han turned to Chewie and sat on the ground to face him. Chewie whuffled softly.
"Yeah, this has to be where they are. I've got no doubt. How do you want to do this?" He was careful to keep his voice very low.
Chewbacca scratched his head thoughtfully. They hadn't seen another being in quite some time, but that didn't mean someone wasn't nearby. And there was the possibility of security holocams and sensors to think about. This would require stealth. Chewie growled at length to Han, who nodded enthusiastically.
"Yeah, that's just what I was thinking." Chewie began to rise from the cool dirt floor, but Han grabbed his arm. "Be careful," he hissed.
The Wookiee grunted and edged silently around the far side of the bush. Han watched anxiously as Chewie's tall form moved with surprising grace to the back of the shed. Solo aimed his blaster at the guard, just to be safe. He didn't want to use it; the risk of someone hearing the shot was too great, but if it came down to his partner's life, he would not hesitate.
Chewie flattened himself against the wall of the small structure, quietly closing in on the guard. Han involuntarily licked his lips, holding an uneasy breath as he watched Chewie's progress. Few things bothered Han as much as watching the action rather than participating in it. Something, possibly some sound that Han could not hear from this distance, alerted the guard to Chewie's presence, and he suddenly swung around, raising his blaster. Solo was on his feet, dashing madly towards them in an instant.
Chewie's furred arm reached out to deliver a powerful blow to the hand that held the blaster, and with a grunt of pain, the Fargan security officer dropped the blaster and drew his injured arm close to his body. He then leaped at Chewie with a low growl of fury. Chewie barely made a sound to acknowledge the fists that rammed into his midsection. With only a fraction of his brute strength, the powerful Wookiee picked the Fargan up bodily and slammed him to the ground. As Han reached his side, they both heard the thud of his head meeting the dirt floor. Surprisingly, he continued to struggle, grabbing Chewie by the leg and biting his calf with his small, sharp teeth. Chewie roared softly in pain as Han threw himself on the Fargan's back and began to pummel his face with his fists. He continued until the struggling had ceased, and the reptilian alien lay unconscious.
Han stood up and rested his hands on his knees, bending forward, slightly out of breath. "You all right?" he asked, trying to see Chewie's leg in the darkness.
Chewie shrugged it off. He grabbed the guard by his arms and dragged him out of sight, intending to get back to him after they had ascertained the safety of Luke and the Princess. Meanwhile, Han had moved to the door of the shed. It was locked securely, but Han yanked his vibroblade out of his boot and got to work pulling at the casing, exposing wires. The light of the moon was faint, and Solo had a great deal of trouble figuring out which wires were which. Cursing under his breath, he tried a number of combinations, and was beginning to wonder if he would be able to pull this off, when suddenly the door slid open. He grinned at Chewie as they entered the shed. It was filled with various debris, sheets and rods of metal, as well as chunks of gray stone. He spied a lone door at the far end of the room and hurried to it.
"Luke? Leia?" he called loudly.
The sound of sudden movement could be heard through the door. "Han? Han! I can't believe you found us!"
Han sighed with relief at the sound of the kid's voice. But a nagging thought stayed his enthusiasm. "Is Leia alright?" He could hear the tension in his own voice.
"I'm fine," she replied, and he could hear the relief in her voice, even as his own heart pounded at the sound of it. It was like music to his ears. "Just get us out of here, now."
Music? What had he been thinking? "I'm working on it," he called, his pleasure that they were unharmed too great to allow him to even argue with her. He worked on the final door with much more ease, the emergency lighting providing more illumination than the moon had. When the door slid open, Han was instantly taken aback as the Princess unexpectedly threw herself in his arms, hugging him about the waist. Han's arms went to wrap around her shoulders as a pleasant sensation ran down his spine.
"I've haven't been this happy to see you since Yavin," she breathed into his chest.
Han wasn't sure if he should take that as a compliment or an insult. For once he could think of nothing smart to say. Between his relief at seeing his friends were safe and the soft feel of Leia's body against his, his emotions were swirling too restlessly to allow his mind to function properly.
Leia stood on her tiptoes and gave Han a quick peck on the cheek before ending the embrace and stepping away from him.
Luke grinned at his friend. "I'm happy to see you too, but don't expect me to kiss you."
Han's mind had begun to calm, and he snapped his fingers in mock disappointment. "Damn. And that's all I've been hoping for the past two and a half years."
Leia put an affectionate arm around Chewie as the Wookiee barked sharply, annoyed with their humor when their circumstances were still dire.
"So, Solo, do you have a plan to get out this time?"
Han looked at the determined young woman, not faulting her sharp tongue under the circumstances. "Actually, I do. But first let's get far away from here, before someone checks on the guard."
No one, not even Leia, argued with his reasoning. Chewie went outside and dragged the downed guard into the makeshift cell, stripping him of his comlink and a small multi-tool at his belt. When the door was secured, Han led them further away from the main road that led back to the factory building.
"Wait," Leia protested, grabbing Han's arm. "Senator Radon. They still have him. And the droids"
Han had almost forgotten about Artoo. "I know where Artoo is. We can get him if you'd like, but we're sure as hell not going back for some Senator, and especially not for Threepio."
Leia's expression hardened, her eyes freezing to shards of ice. "We can't leave without the Senator. We need him to make contact with the underground resistance."
Han's face settled into an equally stormy expression. "We don't even know where he is. We're not going back, Your Worship."
Her fists balled at her hips, a stance Han knew indicated her firm resolve. "We aren't going anywhere without them."
"I don't know about you, Sweetheart, but I'm leaving now."
"Then you'll be leaving alone."
"Don't be so sure!" Without warning, Han picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder, striding in the direction opposite the factory.
"Put me down! Are you crazy? Who do you think you are?!"
With a dangerous irreverence, he smacked her lightly on the backside. "I'm the guy who's saving your life," he growled.
Leia was completely and utterly appalled. "How dare you!" she seethed.
Luke and Chewie watched this display with disgust. Chewie howled at the unreasonable Captain, and Luke finally got over his shock and chased after the Corellian.
"Han, stop it! You're being ridiculous."
Leia's small fists pounded at his back, but he turned to face Luke, seemingly oblivious to her tirade. "No, she's being ridiculous. We don't have much time here, we need to get moving."
"Put her down," Luke insisted, trying to be reasonable. Chewie roared his agreement.
With a frustrated sigh, Han set the Princess on her feet. Immediately, she slapped him across the face, glaring at him with murderous intent. His hand swung up to ease the sting, and he stepped towards her menacingly, angry beyond reason.
"Don't you ever, ever do that again," he whispered between clenched teeth.
Seeing his friend's genuine fury, Chewie stepped between him and the Princess, growling a low warning. Han glared at him, jaw clenched. Luke put a restraining hand on the infuriated Corellian's shoulder.
"Easy, Han," Luke soothed. "Leia's right. We need to go back for Senator Radon. We can't just leave him. It would just be wrong. And we do need him as a link to the resistance."
Han turned to him, but his angry stare lost its malice. Luke's genuine honesty never failed to touch something in Solo that he'd thought was dead a long time ago. He could never remain angry with him. He let out a long, deep breath, wandered away from the group muttering something about "damn idealists" and "worthless causes", then returned to them and settled a hard stare on Leia.
"Alright, Your Worshipfulness. We'll go back."
"Thank you," she said simply.
"But I have no idea how we're gonna do this, so one of you had better have a plan."
Leia looked at Luke, who bit his lip, remembering the last time he had been in charge of the plan.
"Han, you said you know where Artoo is?"
"Alright, let's start there. Take us to Artoo."
Han nodded and grunted in acknowledgement. He turned around and began the walk back to the shed they had stashed Artoo in, praying he would still be there.
They walked in silence, off the road, under the cover of the trees. Han didn't notice Leia's lithe form walking beside him until she spoke.
"I'm sorry I hit you."
He started slightly at her soft voice. Chewie and Luke were several meters behind them, out of earshot.
"It's fine, don't worry about it." Why was it that they could only be nice to each other after a major blowout?
"No, it's not fine. I shouldn't have lost control like that."
He glanced at her, found a fearful expression on her face. "Why did they take you anyway? What does a galactic corporation want with a bunch of Rebels?"
She didn't answer for a long moment, and Han was just about to repeat the question when she finally replied. "They were going to turn us over to the Empire. There's an Imperial Admiral on his way as we speak."
Han looked at her again. Now her face was a mask of steel, hiding anything she might be feeling. If he hadn't seen that frightened look in her eyes a moment ago, he would not have known it even affected her. He knew she had suffered on the Death Star. During the trip to Yavin he had come upon her as she tended her wounds in the Falcon's tiny medical unit. Purely by accident, he had caught a glimpse of the bruises and needle marks on her arms, had seen the unguarded look of pain in her eyes. He could only imagine what they had done to her. But he had seen the way she reacted to the mention of Darth Vader. For this strong, stubborn, unrelenting woman to be instilled with that sort of terror at the mere mention of a name...well, it spoke volumes about what she must have endured.
And now, here she was, willing to risk capture by that same demon, for one being's life, and for the sake of the Rebellion.
If he hadn't thought she was insane, he might have admired her.
"Ya know," he said quietly, not looking at her. "You and Luke could make your way back to the Falcon. Chewie and I can take care of this."
His offer startled her speechless. Her head shot up to look at him, but he remained staring straight ahead, seemingly impassive, hands shoved into his pockets. For some reason, she felt oddly touched by what he'd said. She knew he didn't agree with what they were about to do; they had coerced him into it. But he was willing to let her out of it, when it had been her idea. Because he knew. She wasn't sure how he knew, but he was aware of the sheer terror that Vader caused deep inside her; of the way her mouth went dry each and every time she thought of him. Her eyes misted over and her voice was full of emotion when she responded. "No. I appreciate it. But I'm in this. I have to be."
He wasn't entirely sure what she meant by that, but he was not surprised that she hadn't taken the out. Her undeniable courage always astounded him. "Okay then." He paused then whispered fiercely, "Don't worry, you'll be safe."
She couldn't look at him, couldn't answer. His words caused an unfathomable tightness in her chest and in her throat. She blinked back the sudden moisture at the corners of her eyes and wondered, not for the first time, what in the worlds went through this man's head from one second to the next.
"Oh, Master Luke! Thank the Maker! I didn't think I would ever see you again."
Artoo had lead them to one of the small buildings, where the droids were housed. Han had disabled the security holocam, wired the door open, and removed the restraining bolt from Threepio. Now, half a klick away, Luke reactivated Threepio as they waited for Han to return from reactivating the holocam. As Chewie had carried Threepio's lifeless form away, Han had all but pleaded with Luke not to turn the poor droid back on.
"Well, everything's fine now, Threepio. But we need to ask you some questions."
"Certainly, Master Luke. However I can be of service to you. You know that I am always glad to be of help. Why, I-"
His ramblings were cut off as Han approached. "Can it, Threepio. Let Luke get a word in."
Luke smiled. If nothing else, Han's interactions with Threepio were always amusing. "Threepio, do you have any idea what Bonto did with Senator Radon?"
"Why, yes, Master Luke. As you know, my auditory processors are of the finest caliber-"
"Threepio, if you don't answer the question, we're gonna leave you here. It's that simple." Han's mood was turning even more sour as he remembered in greater detail exactly why he hadn't wanted to retrieve the prissy protocol droid.
Threepio straightened indignantly. He looked from Luke to Han, then back again. "I distinctly recall hearing Sevv Bonto say that Senator Radon was to be held in his private penthouse," he said in a slightly injured tone.
Han mulled this over with some amusement, wondering why Luke and Leia had been relegated to the garbage, while the Senator rated the penthouse.
Luke thought furiously for a long moment, then an idea popped into his mind, causing his head to snap up.
"I've got an idea," he said excitedly.
Han sighed deeply. "I've got a bad feeling about this," he muttered.
Solo had to admit, the kid's idea just might work. He was a little embarrassed that he hadn't thought of it himself.
They were silently making their way across SteelTech's private landing field, where several small shuttles were berthed. The plan was to steal a shuttle, fly it to the roof of the SteelTech building with the running lights off, and find a way into the building from the roof. It had distinct possibilities.
They stopped behind a row of large packing crates to allow Artoo to scan the area. His small sensor dish extruded from his silver dome and spun quietly for a moment before the droid beeped a soft reply.
In a hushed tone, Threepio translated. "Artoo says that he detects two life forms inside the small building, and one life form at the eastern perimeter."
"Thanks, Artoo," Luke whispered.
"I'd say our best bet is that XT-471 over there." Han pointed to one of the shuttles closest to them. It was saucer shaped, with wings that fell at a forty-five degree angle.
"He's right," Leia agreed.
Luke nodded. "Alright, let's go, before that guard makes a run back in this direction."
They took off in the direction of the shuttle. Han hoped that the guards would assume they were heading off to the spaceport, at least until it was too late. At the shuttle's hatch, Han set to work wiring the door open, while Luke kept lookout and the others tried to stay out of sight. Leia could feel her heart beating a mad, nervous rhythm in her chest.
Eventually, the ramp lowered and they scrambled inside. Now the hard part was wiring the shuttle's engines. Of course, Han could do it. It was just going to take longer. As he got acquainted with the small ship's engine compartment, the others busied themselves checking the ships other systems.
Han worked as fast as he could, knowing that the longer it took, the greater the risk of discovery. At last, he thought he had it.
"Alright, Luke! Chewie!" They jogged over and peered down at Han in the engine compartment. He rubbed his greasy hands on his pants as he spoke. "I think that's it. When I get the engine running, we need to take off as fast as possible, so get in the cockpit and get ready for liftoff. We need this element of surprise."
They turned and headed for the cockpit, and Han became aware of Leia's presence.
She smiled down at him. "I never thought I would be so grateful for your less -than -respectful talents."
He was about to respond with an insult, feeling somewhat slighted, when she raised an eyebrow playfully. Instead he grinned wolfishly. "Maybe later I can show you some of my other talents."
She rolled her eyes and walked away, shaking her head, but smiling.
Han made the final connections and the engines roared to life. Within moments, the shuttle was lifting off the ground, looking very much as if it were headed towards space. Han sprinted to the cockpit, to find Luke in the pilot's chair, with Leia as co-pilot. Han took notice of the fact that both chairs were way too tiny to accommodate Chewbacca's bulky frame. Without a word, Leia gave up her seat to Han, moving to sit behind him, next to Chewie.
The comm system burst suddenly to life with a blare of static, followed by a gravelly, panicked voice.
"Shuttle Fargal, report your destination." When no response was received, the voice grew flustered. "Shuttle Fargal, who's on board?! Where are you going?!"
Han reached over Luke's shoulder and swatted the comm into silence. The shuttle gained altitude, then banked sharply to the north, towards the main building. The ship appeared to all observers as if it were genuinely heading out to space. But as it neared the sky above the building, without warning it stopped to hover, then slowly lowered to the roof of SteelTech's factory.
"C'mon!" Han shouted urgently, already halfway to the hatch. He lowered the ramp and ran down, followed closely by his companions. Threepio clanked noisily behind.
"Oh, wait for me!" He picked up his pace as much as his metallic feet would allow.
Solo whipped out the muti-tool that had been appropriated from the guard and pulled out a length of chord that had a hooked apparatus at one end, and a clip at the other. He handed the hook to Chewie, who secured it to the shuttle, pulling it taut.
Han attached the clip to his belt, wrapping the chord several times around his waist. He peered over the edge of the building to the ground far below him, wincing at the thought of falling and dying on impact. He looked at Leia, to find her staring at him with worried eyes.
"Why, Princess, I didn't know you cared."
With a wry smile she shook her head. "You will be attached to the only rope we have, Solo."
"Aw, admit it," he grinned as he began to lever himself at the edge. "You'd miss me desperately." He took one last look at her, almost certain he saw a flicker of emotion he could not quite identify cross her features. And then he was over the side, letting out more rope as he lowered himself to the second highest level. He tried very hard not to glance downward, but kept his eyes fixed on the wall at eye level, his feet moving beneath him, searching for the ledge. Eventually, he found the first ledge, pushed himself off to the side of the window, and felt a gnawing flutter in his stomach during the brief moment of nothingness before he again touched against the wall. He gulped down his nervousness as he passed the window, continuing his slow, downward plunge.
At last, teeth gritted in concentration, Han felt his foot gain purchase on the next ledge, and as he reached it, he sighed with relief when he saw that the room was unoccupied. He withdrew his blaster, aimed at the glassteel, leaned away and shielded his face.
With a deafening shot, the window exploded, a few shards flinging painfully into the flesh of Han's arm. He grimaced, climbed inside, then unhooked himself and tugged on the rope three times. Almost instantly, the rope yanked back up to the roof. He held his breath, waiting for another of his companions to descend, praying they would not be discovered until they were all safely in one spot.
Artoo came next, followed by Threepio. When they were inside, and the rope had returned to the roof, Han stuck his head out the window, looking up to see who was coming next. As he had expected, it was Leia. Han's heart was in his throat as he watched her come nearer. What if the cable snaps? What if she falls? He did not want to imagine how he would feel if she were to die.
After an eternity, Solo let out a sigh of relief as he hauled her into the room with him, her body sliding slowly against his. His breathing quickened easily after the tension of waiting for her to arrive, and for a moment she remained in his embrace. She looked up at him and he could feel her breath against his mouth, and his own body's response to it. Knowing he did not have the time to enjoy this, he placed a quick kiss on her forehead, then removed the cable from around her waist.
After the cable went back up, they stood in expectant silence as Luke began to lower. Without warning, they heard a sudden, explosive noise from the roof. Leia leaned out the window so abruptly that Han had to grab her waist to keep her from falling. She clutched his arm convulsively. Blaster fire could be heard from above. Chewbacca was the only one left up there, and Han prayed his friend could handle the trouble. As the shooting continued, Luke dragged himself inside, with helping hands from both Han and Leia. As his feet hit the floor, the shooting stopped.
The three friends looked at each other, none of them wanting to voice their fears. With a fearful heart, Solo tugged on the rope three times, then held his breath, waiting. When the rope began to rise, they all grinned with relief.
At last, Chewie arrived and they were all standing together.
"Alright," Han whispered. "We need to go one floor up. I think we should find a stairwell. We'll be too vulnerable in a turbolift."
They all agreed, then cautiously opened the door into the corridor beyond. Silence. They circled the level, finally finding the stairwell down a short corridor. Once inside, Han turned to Luke.
"I think we should split up. You and Leia take the droids down to level two, we'll get the Senator and meet you there."
Leia spoke before Luke could respond. "Absolutely not. We all go."
"Listen, Your Highnessness, the droids will just slow us down. But if we leave them alone, they'll be defenseless. Just do as I tell you for once."
Threepio turned to the Princess. "I think that Captain Solo's plan sounds perfectly reasonable, Mistress Leia." Artoo tootled his agreement. "After all, there's no reason to put ourselves in unreasonable danger."
"Han's right," Luke chimed in. The Princess' angry gaze turned to him now. "In fact, I've got an even better idea. Let's go to the landspeeder shed and steal ourselves a speeder."
Han stepped close to Luke. "Kid, how you gonna get it started?" he asked scornfully.
Artoo beeped in Luke's direction. Threepio translated. "Master Luke, Artoo says that he will be happy to aid you in that task." Artoo beeped indignantly. "Oh, Artoo, I left it out deliberately. It's simply not necessary." The little droid chirped insistently. Threepio turned back to Luke. "Artoo wishes you to know that he has done this sort of thing before." After a proud beep, Artoo went silent.
"Okay, it's settled then. Get going. And be careful." Han glowered slightly before going up the stairs behind Chewie, who took the steps two at a time.
They opened the door and Han stuck his blaster into the corridor, following it cautiously with his head. When he saw no one, he moved fully into the corridor. As they moved along, backs to the wall, Han watched their front, while Chewie watched their back. At each corner, Han stopped and peered cautiously around, blaster ready. As they neared yet another corner, they heard voices. Chewie listened intently, then motioned to Han that they were directly around the corner. Silently, Han thanked the gods for Wookiee hypersensitive hearing.
On his fingers, Solo counted to three, then together they burst out from cover, took the briefest moment to register who and where their targets were, and the shooting began. With the element of surprise on their side, Solo and the Wookiee were easily able to overtake the guards, who got off a couple of shots that went wide, then caught the blaster fire, falling to the floor. One of the two Fargans, not so badly injured, lost his blast rifle but began to pull himself in the direction where it had fallen. Just as his fingers were closing around the weapon, Chewie kicked him hard in the face, knocking him out cold.
With the luxury of stealth now lost to them, Han shot a gaping hole into the door behind the fallen guards. The door slid open and instantly, shots flashed through the doorway, narrowly missing Solo. He and Chewie took up a position on either side of the door, returning fire. Firing blindly, they continued this way for a full minute before Han finally admitted to himself that they were getting nowhere.
"Cover me!" he shouted at Chewie, then proceeded to hurl himself into a sharp roll through the doorway. With his partner firing past him, Han came to a low crouch and scrambled behind the nearest chair. Using the chair as cover, he managed to get off an effective shot, downing one of his two opponents. He grinned to himself, knowing that they were now running the show. As the other guard peered out from behind a desk to take a shot at Han, Chewie nailed him, roaring a cry of victory as the Fargan went down.
All was suddenly quiet. Han took a deep breath as Chewie entered the room and examined his handiwork.
"Good job. Let's find this Senator."
The second door they checked was locked, and Han called loudly, "Senator Radon, are you in there?"
"Yes! I'm in here!" came the anxious reply.
"I'm a friend of Luke and Leia. I'm getting you out of here. Step away from the door." After a moment, Han blasted the door open, wondering how many more doors he would have to get through tonight.
The Senator ran through the door and grabbed Han's hand, shaking it vigorously. "Who says all humans are selfish?" he quipped with a smile.
Han had no response to that, nor did he have the time to come up with one. "C'mon, we have to get out of here." He turned and led them out of the suite, hoping that Luke and Leia were having luck with that speeder.
Sevv Bonto entered the SteelTech lobby. He should never have gone home, he should have stayed here until the Admiral arrived. He had made a mistake. But it was the last one he was going to make tonight. He would show Emperor Palpatine that non-humans had their worth. Or he would die trying.
He went to the comm system, activated it, and called to all available security guards. It was a long time before he received a response.
Through a burst of static and deafening noise, the chairman and owner of SteelTech heard a vaguely familiar voice.
"Sir, we're under attack!"
"Where are you? Appraise me of the situation."
After a long silence, the noise returned. "We still have the Senator! We're in the penthouse. It's-"
The voice cut off and the noise disappeared. With a curse, Bonto hit a switch to acknowledge another call. "Bonto here."
"Sir, we're outside the building. We think the intruders are on the grounds, possibly heading back to the spaceport."
"Return to the building. We have a serious situation here. Return immediately."
With a menacing glare, he went to a turbolift and requested the sub-level, where the main security office was located, along with the weapons. If he had to take them down himself, he would undoubtedly recapture the traitors. All of them.
Jumping down the last few stairs, Han, Chewie and the Senator were finally at the lobby level. Chewie pressed his ear to the door, and softly told Han that he could hear a loud male voice within the lobby. With his jaw clenched, Han tried to think of the best way to get out of there without getting themselves killed.
With a snap of his fingers, Han reached down to his boot and pulled out a gray square about two inches in diameter. He flashed it at Chewie, who grunted in agreement, before Han palmed it.
"Just in case," Solo muttered.
"What is that device?" the Senator asked.
"Just a little insurance." He turned to Chewie. "Lemme know when it's quiet."
They stood there for several minutes, until Chewie howled that it was safe. Slowly, Han let the door slide open. He poked his blaster out first, then looked into the lobby himself. When he saw no one, he motioned to his companions, and they all stepped into the lobby. Still leery, Han walked backwards towards the door and the freedom beyond. When he had almost reached his goal, he turned around.
"Hold it!" a gravelly voice called harshly.
"Turn around slowly, weapons down," the voice ordered.
Lowering his blaster, Han slowly complied, as did Chewie and the Senator, who had no weapon. Bonto. He should have known. He had a blast rifle aimed directly at them. "Well," Han said flippantly. "Looks like the party's over."
"Where are Organa and her friend?"
"Long gone," he replied with a satisfied smirk.
"No matter. I still have the Senator. And I will enjoy watching you and your hairy friend die. Put your blasters down and kick them to me."
Han began to bend down, but in one quick motion, he flicked a switch on the device he held in his palm, then grinned as he tossed it and said softly, "I don't think so." Before Bonto could react, Han leaped for the door, catching Bonto's startled look before the explosion. Chewie had grabbed the confused Senator around the waist and was hauling him through the door behind Solo. A deafening blast roared behind them as they cleared the doorway. Just before the explosion, they heard one lone shot of a blast rifle, and then it was gone. Chewie grunted slightly as they landed hard on the ground. The bottom of one of his feet had been singed slightly by the heat of the explosion.
Shaking his head to clear it, Senator Radon looked at his two saviors in amazement. "You boys are incredible."
"Yeah, well, there's bound to be reinforcements any second now, so let's talk about our greatness later."
Han jumped to a standing position, as did the others. He wondered if he were getting old; he was actually feeling a bit achy.
"C'mon, this way. I'm sure Luke and Leia will be waiting in the direction of the exit. Somewhere." He jogged in that direction, leaving Chewie and Bonto no choice but to follow.
As they ran, they began to hear a whine approaching from the west. Han slowed his pace and saw a luxury model speeder charging in their direction, one of the occupants waving an arm at them. At the exact moment that his mind registered that the arm belonged to Princess Leia, sudden blaster fire came from behind them, missing Chewie by mere millimeters. The speeder banked sharply to run alongside them. It slowed down to match Han's pace. Chewbacca zipped ahead of Han, picked up the Senator, and tossed him inside the speeder. To Han's chagrin, Chewie then did the same with him.
"I can handle it, ya big oaf!" But he was already landing on the seat with a quiet thud. Luke slowed a bit more, and Chewie flung his massive body inside, landing heavily on Solo.
"Get off me! You're heavy as a bantha!"
The Wookiee chuckled as he removed his form from Solo's. Han sat up and glanced up front. Luke and Leia sat with Artoo between them. Threepio was crushed against the wall next to Chewie in the backseat beside Han. Leia turned to speak to the Senator, who was on Han's other side.
"Senator, it's good to see you again," she grinned.
Radon let out a sigh. "Princess, if the other Rebels are as resourceful as you and your friends here, the Empire doesn't stand a chance." He returned her grin.
Leia's expression sobered. "Let's hope that you're right about that, Senator."
Their attention returned to the road ahead of them. They were coming upon a security gate, which was closed and most likely locked. Han heard a noise behind them and turned around to see where it was coming from.
"We've got company," he yelled to Luke. Another speeder was in pursuit, about a klick away. "Luke, try an' break right through. It's our only shot."
Luke was concentrating too hard on piloting the speeder, but he wanted to tell the Corellian that he was not stupid; obviously he knew this. He picked up speed, as the gate loomed closer; Leia said a silent Alderaanian prayer; with a violent crash they hit the gate; the speeder jerked but did not stop. The occupants covered their heads as debris from the gate showered the speeder.
Leia sighed with relief as Luke adjusted their course to head for the spaceport. The other speeder was still in pursuit, firing blasts that, thankfully, were not hitting their mark. Han and Chewie twisted in their seats to return fire.
"Luke," Han called over his shoulder. "Slow down just a hair. Let them get closer so I can get a good shot."
Leia looked at him with consternation. "Let's just hope we don't give them a chance for a good shot."
Han ignored her, his full concentration on the scope of his blaster as the speeder slowed a fraction. Peripherally, he was aware of Chewie taking up a similar stance beside him, bowcaster resting on the back of the seat.
Han saw the other speeder gaining, saw the reptilian alien rise slightly in his seat and take aim. Han pulled the trigger, his shot falling just a bit too far to the right; Chewie's blast was right behind Han's and, fortunately, hit dead on. Solo saw the body jolt backwards, the blast rifle dropping to the disappearing ground. This left only the driver of the speeder for them to contend with.
Han clapped his friend on the shoulder and let out a joyful whoop.
"Beautiful shot, Chewie!" Leia shouted from the front.
Luke picked up speed, moving a good distance ahead of their pursuer, who lost some ground as he attempted to steer and shoot. His shots did not even come close to his intended target. Figuring he was too far back to be of any real threat, Han and Chewie turned back around and concentrated on where they were going.
In the front seat, Leia Organa wrung her hands nervously. She knew the arrival of the Imperials was imminent. They were probably cutting it close, and Leia wanted to be off-planet long before they had the opportunity to find out just how close.
She saw the spaceport in the near distance, the hangar entryway wide enough to easily accommodate their speeder. Luke slowed as much as he dared as they approached; then they were speeding through the arch, the many sentients skittering out of the way of the speeder that just had to be piloted by a lunatic. With precise maneuvers, Luke brought them within thirty feet of the Millennium Falcon, bringing them to an abrupt halt that jostled the passengers.
Han pulled Threepio from the speeder, as Luke hauled Artoo out. Leia started to the ramp and entered the access code. When the ramp lowered, she rushed Senator Radon inside, turning to wait for her friends.
As the droids made their way up the ramp, Leia saw the next string of events as if in slow motion. She heard the sound of a blaster bolt, then Han cried out in pain; she turned to see him as his steps faltered, then watched in horror as he tumbled forward, rolling to a heap ten feet form the ramp.
Leia's heart stopped. Her mouth opened in a wordless cry of fear and outrage, and a wave of dizziness almost overcame her, causing her to grip the landing strut she was half-hidden behind to keep her balance.
Before anyone else could react, she brought her stolen blaster up, found the female Twi'lek standing beside a small Skipray, grinning as she took aim to fire another shot at Solo. Leia's mind registered the feral, toothy grin and pure hatred burned in her heart. She could feel it pulsing through every nerve, every fiber of her being. The young Princess squeezed the trigger, and the blast struck the woman right between the eyes, surprising her and everyone else.
As Chewie scooped Han into his arms, Leia sighed with relief that the Corellian smuggler seemed to be all right.
"It's just my shoulder, I can still walk," he grunted.
When they were all inside the ship, and the hatch had just finished sealing, the persistent speeder that had followed them from SteelTech entered the hangar, shooting a few ineffective shots before giving up and tossing his blaster to the ground in violent frustration.
Luke and Chewie had seated themselves in the cockpit and were preparing for liftoff. Leia grabbed Han's arm and began to lead him in the direction of the medical unit.
"Hold on, Your Worship. I'm not going anywhere till we're clear."
She shook her head in exasperation. "Han, you've been shot. Let me tend to your wound."
"As much as I'd like to be...tended to," he leered, "I won't sit still till we're safely in hyperspace."
"So I've been told." He stepped past her into the cockpit. For the briefest of moments he considered forcing Luke from the pilot's seat, but he was sane enough to at least admit to himself that he wouldn't be up to his best piloting at the moment. So, with the anxiety of someone unused to giving control over to someone else, Solo watched as Luke and Chewie piloted the ship out of the docking bay, into the atmosphere.
An outraged voice blurted over the comm system, insisting that they return for proper clearance. Han reached over Luke's shoulder and shut off the comm, forcing himself not to grimace at the massive twinge in his shoulder. The Princess did not need more ammunition with which to coerce him into the med unit.
The Falcon shot up into the night sky and beyond, and the crew let out small sighs of relief.
The relief was short-lived however. "Uh oh," Luke said in a panicked voice. "Star Destroyer."
Out of the corner of his eye, Han saw Leia shudder. He looked at the sensors and saw the Star Destroyer dead ahead. Even as his mind registered that, Luke was changing course to head away from the large Imperial vessel.
Chewbacca growled his hope that they would not be identified. But as they flew further away from the planet's atmosphere, they knew they would have no such luck. A full squadron of TIE-fighters emerged from the Star Destroyer, on a direct course for the Falcon.
"We only have one gun," Han muttered in an anguished voice. He jumped from his seat, holding his throbbing, bloody shoulder, and left the cockpit. Leia was on his heels in an instant.
"I'll take the gun."
He didn't take the time to acknowledge her. He continued his sprint to the upper quad gun. As he reached the ladder, Leia grabbed his arm in a surprisingly vise-like grip.
"Did you hear me? I said I'll take the gun!"
He paused. "You're a hell of a shot, Princess, but even injured, I'm better."
She clenched her jaw. "You're not in any shape for this."
"Don't worry," he told her with a quick grin. And then he disappeared above her, leaving her to shake her head with wonder.
Wincing in pain, Han strapped himself in and put on his headset. "I'm in," he called into the comm.
"They're coming in fast, point three-four," Luke responded.
Han felt the ship spin as Luke aimed the top side of the ship at the incoming fighters. The bottom shields were weak. If the Imps got off a few good shots down there, they were all in a lot of trouble.
Ignoring his pain, Han focused on the TIEs, hoping he could hold them until the coordinates were set for hyperspace. He let off a burst of laser fire, catching one fighter almost instantly. Told ya, Your Highness, he thought with glee. He missed the next ship that flew past his range, then felt the Falcon rock under impact as the complement swarmed them. Another blast, and Han began to get nervous. There were so damned many of them. If only the Falcon were up to specs. He glowered at what he considered one of the biggest mistakes he had ever made, then took another shot at a passing fighter, rapidly firing, but not hitting his mark.
Luke's voice sounded in his ear as the ship lurched yet again.
"The lower shields are failing!" Chewie backed him up with an insistent roar.
"Just cover her belly as best you can," Han replied confidently. In reality, he was as nervous as Luke. Luke rolled into a sharp nosedive, and Han managed to pick off another TIE. A warning alarm blared insistently, ringing in Han's ears.
"Where's that Star Destroyer?"
Chewbacca's response only increased Han's worry. If they were caught in a tractor beam, it would be all over. His grip on the firing controls tightened, and now Han was completely oblivious to the fire of pain in his shoulder. Nothing existed beyond the laser turret and the relentless fighters.
"We've lost the lower and rear shields!" Leia shouted.
At just that moment, Chewie roared a loud, triumphant roar, and the Millennium Falcon soared to lightspeed, leaving the Imperials behind. Han slumped into his seat, now aware of the sweat streaming down his face and the sharp agony in his shoulder. He closed his eyes and swiped a hand across his brow. This hell was finally over.
The medical unit on board the Millennium Falcon was quiet as Han sat, bare-chested, on the medical bunk. Leia was readying the synthflesh to apply to his wound. Han watched her hands move with the deftness of one who had seen far too many battles. He smiled at the way she fussed over his injury. She often seemed to have lost her femininity to the war, so it was with great pleasure that Han watched it resurface just for him.
"Admit it," he said softly. "You just wanted to get my shirt off."
She was too relieved that he was okay to even get angry. She looked into his eyes and saw that he was teasing. "Don't you wish." She opened a tube of bacta gel and moved close to him. He felt a pleasurable rush as her fingertips brushed his skin.
He watched her gentle caress for a moment before speaking. "That was a damn good shot, Princess. I guess I, uh...owe you some thanks. You saved my life out there."
She gradually realized that, sitting there on the bunk, his face was level with hers. She shook her head, dimly aware that she was taking a bit longer than necessary to apply the gel. "It was nothing. If I hadn't, Chewie would have in another second. Or Luke." She spread the gel to the area surrounding the wound.
His other hand came up to cup her cheek, taking her by surprise. She unwittingly held her breath, waiting for what he would do next.
"Leia, you should enjoy this. I don't say nice things that often."
There was a hand's space between their faces. Leia looked into his eyes, seeing the seriousness behind his teasing words. "In that case, you're welcome," she said softly. They stared at each other for a long, peaceful moment, and Leia felt her face flush. His eyes...they were so unusually serious as they gazed into hers. She realized just how beautiful she found the colors that swirled there. At the moment, they were dark with an emotion she could not identify. Her breathing quickened, causing her to wonder just exactly what he was making her feel at that moment.
Han glanced from her eyes to her lips, gauging her reaction. Was she as affected by his closeness as he was by hers? He returned his gaze to her eyes and felt his breath catch as she glanced, for barely an instant, at his lips. A warm, liquid feeling coursed through his entire being, making his head spin. Time stopped for an eternity before he allowed himself to move his mouth near hers. She wasn't pulling away...he could hardly believe it...
"Well, Princess Leia, you have quite an amazing group here!" The Senator burst into the room like a blast of cold air. Leia backed quickly away from Han, reaching for a patch of synthflesh. Her face was crimson as she smiled weakly at Senator Radon.
A sense of disappointment, so acute that he almost wanted to cry, filled Han Solo. He wanted to toss the Senator, horrific timing and all, right out the airlock. Dammit all to hell!!!! The moment was gone, and he wondered furiously if he would ever be able to get it back.
Chewie wandered in as Senator Annoying continued to blabber. The Wookiee growled an interrogative about Solo's well-being. Leia assured him that the Captain would be fine. With a grunt of satisfaction, Chewie dragged the Senator from the room, intent on having nothing disturb his friend's care. If only he'd have headed him off at the pass! Solo fumed.
All business now, Leia adhered a bandage over the sythflesh, not meeting Han's eyes. "There. Good as new." She smiled up at him shyly.
"Thanks," he growled. Why did he torture himself like this?
She stepped away from him, and he rose from the bunk, intent on getting a clean shirt from his cabin. As he stepped past her, her hand pressing lightly on his arm stopped him. He looked at her questioningly.
She smiled, the shyness still in her eyes. "I'm glad you're alright." She slipped her arms around his waist and hugged him warmly, then reached up and brushed her lips against his cheek.
He was too surprised to react. Before he could recover himself, she withdrew, smiled one last, bashful smile, and left.
His heart was pounding as never before, as he stood and stared after her.
Oh yeah. That was why he tortured himself like this.
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