Into the Fire

Chapter 13

Working in the hostile environment of deep space was never an easy prospect, all the more so when it came to conducting delicate repairs. Corralling tools and disassembled ship components was a challenge, and the awkward space gloves compounded the problem. Unlike many beings (Leia Organa included) who found the experience disorienting or frightening, Han enjoyed the sensation of weightlessness out in the endless expanse of the open stars, but even he was exhausted after working in it for most of the day.

Reminded again of that rare moment of terror in Leia’s eyes when they’d been forced to make an unorthodox departure via a deep-space construction site back on Ord Mantell, he grinned at the thought of how she’d handled the situation, and how she’d planned and executed an ambush that took out both bounty hunters to save his hide. That was no small feat and the display of sheer guts had left an impression on him.

Just another reason why you like her, Buddy. Even in distress, that damsel is still dangerous.

Then again, Leia had been leaving a lot of impressions on him lately, including her fingerprints during that last encounter. What he had intended as a little kiss, giving her something to ponder while she manned the cockpit alone, she had hijacked and turned into—

«Are you just going to stare at it with that stupid grin on your face, or are you going to test it so we can go back inside?»

Chewbacca’s query echoed inside Han’s helmet, startling him out of his reverie.

«Now is not the time to be daydreaming,» Chewie added for emphasis.

Aware that their mikes were open and channeling through the cockpit, Han threw an irritated look at his copilot. “Shut up, Chewie. I’m nearly done here, all right?”

«Good. I’m getting hungry.»

“You’re always hungry.”

«All the more reason to wrap this up.»

Han finished reconnecting the power line within the exposed innards at the base of the sensor dish and, with Chewie’s help, they remounted the hull plate. With their magnetized boots and tether lines keeping them from drifting away from the Falcon, they took a few steps back to eye their handiwork.

“Leia, you still there?” Han called out next.

There was a brief silence before her voice responded. “I’m here.”

“Okay, power up the short-range system.”

“Powering up…now.”

Holding his breath, Han watched for some indication of failure. The fact that nothing visible happened was a good sign in this case. “Any readings?”

There was another pause over the intercom before her pleased voice filled his ears again. “Yes, I’ve got both of you on the screen, and nothing else registering.”

“Great. Now try the long-range system.”

“Powering up…now.”

A moment later, the sensor dish rotated on its pivot mount, completing a full circle. Han let out a heartfelt sigh; it was a good day onboard the Falcon when nothing shorted out or blew up.

“I’m getting long-range readings, and we’re all clear. It’s working!” There was clear relief in Leia’s tone.

“That’s it. Come on, Chewie, we’re done out here.”

Minutes later, they were back inside the ship and stripping off their envirosuits.

“Hey, Buddy, what do you say we have a real meal, table for three?” Han asked as he began to stow away the gear in a compartment in the corridor where they stood.

The Wookiee gave a big toothy grin. «Give me an hour. I already know what to make.»

Laughing as his partner trotted off in the direction of the galley, Han finished packing away the equipment before heading for the cockpit. When he arrived, he found Leia seated at the copilot’s station, still watching the readouts for any sign of malfunction. “Everything seems to be checking out okay,” she reported.

“That should make our lives easier,” he summed up as he dropped into his well-worn seat and fired up the sub-light engines. “Could’ve been a lot worse.”

“Finally some good news,” Leia granted with a smile. “I assume you’re still going to leave Threepio switched off?”

Han shot her a look of disbelief as he finished activating the autopilot. “Do you miss him?”

“No, not really,” she demurred.

While Leia was usually accompanied by Threepio, he swore there was a tussle going on between her and Luke as to who owned the obnoxious protocol droid, each convinced the other should take him.

Just my luck she had to lose the last round.

“Chewie’s gone back to make us a proper meal for a change.”

The appreciative groan Leia let out was something right out of one of his fantasies and Han shifted in his seat in sudden discomfort.

Oblivious, she went on. “That sounds wonderful. Does he need help?”

“Nah, he prefers cooking alone. Anyway, he pretty much takes up that galley all by himself.”

With a smile, Leia sank back and folded her legs up to one side beneath her. Seeming to have run out of small talk, she ran her elegant fingers along an armrest, lost in thought. He loved watching when she was like this—meditative and beautiful in repose as she searched for a way to bring up whatever was on her mind. While not always thrilled with the topics she broached, he nevertheless enjoyed the buildup.

Leia was a petite bundle of strengths and weaknesses that fascinated him without end. Beyond her looks and sharp wit, there was a deeper mystery of what made her tick. For some reason, he wanted to understand and become a part of what made her complete. He wanted to claim that heart she shielded so carefully from everyone. He wanted to bolster and fuel that force of character within her in the same way she seemed to drive him to prove his worth.

And that’s what you’ve been doing for the past two years? Proving you’re worth all the trouble?

He imagined he could see it whenever he helped out with a sticky mission, scored a bit of classified Imperial information, or managed to save a life; her gratitude and affection and respect, all the things she struggled to express, had made staying with the Rebellion so easy to tolerate.

Leia ended the silence. “We need to talk…about what happens later.”

And there it was—the ultimate topic. The one he dreaded most, the one that always seemed to haunt her eyes whenever he looked into them. He tried to counter it with his usual levity by asking, “What? After we eat?”

Leia frowned and he realized she wasn’t about to let him off that easy. “Please, Han…I need you to be serious. After we reach Bespin.”

Staring at her for a long moment, he felt his heart drop down somewhere in the vicinity of his boots. For years, he’d patiently—well, not always patiently—waited for her, and so often it had seemed that just when he was ready to give up on her, some little hint of what he sought most would emerge to revive his determination. After all that time and investment, he’d begun to see dividends while on Ord Mantell; the interest had clearly compounded when she’d moved into his cabin last night, and today he’d dared to hope it would finally pay off. But this was her test for him now and he was about to fail it.

“I need to know, Han,” she prompted, and he couldn’t translate her expression because he’d never seen it before. It was somewhere between optimism and yearning and dread, if that were possible. “I think I deserve a serious answer.”

Han swallowed but held her gaze. “Once you’re back safe with the Alliance, I need to take care of business with Jabba. You know that.”

“Safe,” she echoed under her breath, mocking the notion. “So you just drop me off and I never see you again?”

The bluntness of her wording, the brutal finality of it, made Han wince. “Not if I can help it.”

“Okay, then tell me what you mean by that exactly.”

He’d rarely seen her like this, not with him, and certainly never about them—this was the unrelenting politician and Rebel leader he’d usually preferred to avoid.

She’s going to make you spell it out, Pal. Even the parts you don’t want to think about.

“It means I can’t make any promises, Leia. I’ll come back if I can, but there’s a death mark on my head. I’ll be lucky to get within a parsec of Jabba before somebody starts taking potshots at me.”

Her reaction was visible: the shortened breath, the crease across her smooth forehead, the clenching of her jaw, and the thinning of those full lips. At once it pained him to see her anguish and yet thrilled him to know her feelings were so strong.

“With any luck, they’ll remember I’m worth more alive.”

“And then what?”

Han almost laughed. “Then I’ll have to beg the Hutt for mercy. Try to cut a deal. Find a way to make it up to him. Hope he doesn’t have me killed outright for being such a pain in his ass all these years.”

“And then what?”

This time he did laugh; it was the only way he knew how to deal with the bleakness of his situation. “Sweetheart, he’s a crime lord. They aren’t the forgiving type.”

Leia shook her head. “Everyone has their price, Han. I’m not talking about forgiveness—I’m talking about bargaining. What if we can get him to see reason?”

We?

“I don’t know, but I don’t have those kinds of credits, anyway.”

“Humor me.”

Shrugging, he already knew she wouldn’t like his answer. “I’d probably have to go back to work for him and pay it off that way if I can’t come up with the money. If that happens, I don’t know when I’d be able to come back. It’d probably mean running Kessel spice again, and then it’d only be a matter of time before I’m caught again. That ain’t exactly a blue milk run. I wouldn’t bet on any of those odds.”

He could see she was in full problem-solving mode now, her look intense and resolute, and that didn’t bode well. Whenever she got that look, it meant he was in for either trouble or more work, often times both.

“Then I’m coming with you.”

Stunned, Han could do little more than stare at her, unable to believe she would volunteer to do something so crazy for someone like him.

“The hell you are! Kest, you’re as bad as the Kid! You aren’t going anywhere near the Hutt. I’ll drop you off where you’ll be safe and—”

“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do, Captain.” Leia’s voice was calm and cool, as if she’d anticipated his reaction from the start. “If you think I’ll go back to the Alliance and quietly forget all about this while some gangster has you executed, you’d better think again.”

“It’s too dangerous. You don’t know what the Hutt is like, what he’d do to you if he—”

“That doesn’t matter. And please, tell me again about how safe I am with the Alliance—I never get tired of hearing that.”

Her sarcasm bit deep. The last thing he wanted to do was argue with her but he felt his expression hardening. “This is why I didn’t want to get involved in the first place. I was already a marked man the day I met you.”

Leia blinked at him as his first clear hit registered. Looking on the verge of either tears or fury, her face reddened in a way that gave him no pleasure, yet her voice remained icy, a tone he knew all too well. “But you did get involved. So you can either sit here regretting it or you can let me help you now.”

“It’s too dangerous….” Feeling very weary all of a sudden, he brushed a hand across his face. He realized he wasn’t going to win this one, not like this. Her perseverance was a trait he’d praised as often as cursed and he knew she would match him on every point. “Look, I don’t want you getting hurt because of something stupid out of my past. What good would that do anybody?”

“It could save your life…and what about Chewie? It could save his, too. That’s good enough for me.”

Stunned into momentary silence, he tried to absorb the concept of someone so important to so many people being willing to sacrifice everything for a couple of petty smugglers. It made no sense in his world. “I couldn’t live with myself if anything happened to you.” For just an instant, it felt as though voicing the thought caused something to clamp around his heart, as if he were giving Fate ideas.

“Then you know how I felt that night on Hoth when you went out after Luke. They kept the shield doors open long past regulation and then came to me for the final decision to close them, as if I had any choice. I nearly lost you both. Do you have any idea how that felt?”

He heard a crack in her voice, although it might have been his imagination. “You did what you had to do,” he said. “That wasn’t your fault, and neither is this. But what happened on Ord Mantell was my fault and that’s not acceptable. I need to end this before some bounty hunter comes after you just to get at me, or worse yet, recognizes you. I’ll be damned if I deliver you up for your own reward.”

“But I can help you! I have a lot of influence and resources, and I’m good with a blaster if it comes to that.”

“Leia….”

“You’d already be in Jabba’s hands if it weren’t for me,” she pointed out with the same lethal accuracy she used to wield said blaster. Her leveraging of the events of their near-disaster weeks ago on Ord Mantell was an approach he hadn’t predicted.

Idiot. There was a reason she was already a member of the Imperial Senate before reaching Majority.

Leia’s expression changed, softening as he watched, and for the first time in their argument, her eyes dropped away from his. “We make a good team, Han. You know that.”

And just like that, Han was abruptly disarmed in this battle of wills. That was the first time she’d ever spoken of the two of them as being anything other than acquaintances or business associates. This wasn’t the royal “we” she often hid behind whenever referring to her feelings about him; this was personal, just the two of them, an acknowledgement of something more. He didn’t know whether to whoop for joy or bang his head against the console at the atrocious timing. The gods clearly hate him. “Yeah, I know.”

“Then at least think about it. We can solve this problem together. We’ve solved tougher ones.”

She did it again, singling out the two of them from the rest of the universe and emphasizing the fact. He loved the resonance of it, the sound of hope in her simple statement, as if there was nothing they couldn’t handle if they approached it together. Where had that come from? He didn’t know what kind of epiphany she’d experienced the night before, but it left him scrambling to catch up.

“I’ll think about it,” he said.

She looked up, the hint of a smile wiping away some of her obvious discontent.

“Promise me.”

It wasn’t her persistence so much as her method that surprised him.

She’s so good that you just lost the fight and haven’t even felt the knockout punch yet.

“I promise I’ll think about it.”

Her dark eyes narrowed for a second, as if assessing his sincerity, but then she relented, appearing satisfied with the truce.

Don’t kid yourself, Buddy. She’s more tenacious than a Gundark. This isn’t over yet.

“How much is left to be done?” Leia shifted topics like a gust of wind shifting direction on Hoth.

“What, the repairs?”

Leia nodded in answer.

Taking a moment to catalog things in his head, his eyes shifted over to the clear canopy to his left. “Aside from the stuff we can’t do anything about until we’re docked in an atmosphere, or the hyperdrive, I’d say nothing vital. That’s not counting the stuff I can’t afford or the stuff I’ve been meaning to do but just never had the time to get around to….”

“Time probably isn’t an issue right now. I guess this is your chance.”

That brought his thoughts around to the weeks that still lay ahead and he realized Leia was right. This was his chance in several ways—to tinker with his first love, but, more importantly, to enjoy the unanticipated gift of sharing Leia’s company, without interference, one last time. Maybe he was too hasty in judging the gods and this was a big favor after all. Maybe his luck had finally changed.

“Yeah, I think you’re right,” he murmured. Their eyes met for the longest moment and he liked to imagine she was thinking the same thing—that perhaps this was their last chance to set things right after all the misfires and wasted opportunities.


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