Into the Fire

Chapter 15

Not only did Leia stay for more than one story, but at some point, during a fit of laughter, she slid down sideways against the back of the banquette to butt up against Han. Forever the opportunist, he moved fast enough to wrap a welcoming arm around her shoulders before she could straighten back up, and she seemed content to remain there as the conversation roamed, even scooting over a little closer to be more comfortable as the hour grew late.

But it was inevitable that Leia would extract herself from his side, and as she wished them a good night and headed for the corridor, Han watched her leave, already missing her warmth and staring long after she’d disappeared around the bend.

You’ve made some damned foolish blunders in the past, but tonight I think you just made up for most of them.

When they’d been back in the galley, as he’d traced the graceful lines of her neck, he’d watched her letting go for him just as she had for those brief moments back in that hotel room on Ord Mantell. It was all he could do to keep from pushing his advantage before her brain reengaged, but he’d learned from his mistake back then and he was determined not to blow what might be his last chance by pushing her past her comfort level. She was opening up to him at her own pace and he would have to be happy with that. Rather than push, he would encourage; rather than demand, he would entice. Maybe he’d been a bit slow on the uptake, but he’d learned that leaving her wanting more was the key, and his invitation tonight had been subtle but clear. Whether or not their relationship continued to evolve would be her decision, and in this game, he’d just played his hand; now it was a matter of waiting to see if she called on his wager, upped the ante, or folded.

Leia Organa was easily the most unique woman he’d ever met, but she was still a woman and tonight he’d recognized that universal look of desire in her eyes. Maybe she was teetering on that edge of making a choice already.

«She looked happy tonight,» Chewbacca interrupted, drawing Han back to the present.

“Yeah, she really did.” The fact that such a thing was so noteworthy troubled Han more than he expected. She deserved so much more than what Fate had dealt her. He gazed across the checkered tabletop at his friend, glad that Chewie really did seem to have a soft spot for their passenger. The few women in the past that Han had bothered to introduce to Chewie had at best regarded the Wookiee as nothing more than a talented pet. At worst, they’d cowered in fear of his going berserk and mauling them. But Leia had never treated Chewie as anything other than an equal. Sure, calling him a walking carpet hadn’t exactly been a compliment, but to say that their situation on the Death Star, where they’d first met, was stressful was a huge understatement, and for what it was worth, Han had called him much worse. Instead, her snappy dialogue had helped ingratiate her into their very small circle of friends.

So much for that fearsome Wookiee facade, Pal.

In the nearly two years since that crazy day, Leia had also displayed a quick and quirky sense humor during the rare times she’d relaxed with them, something that promised an enjoyable journey now, whatever her decision regarding their relationship. He could even imagine, for a brief crazy moment, what it would be like having her around on a permanent basis.

As what? Respected leader by day and tramp navigator by night? Deckhand with portfolio? You’re space-happy. She’s got bigger dreams than bumming around on a dinged-up merchant freighter with you.

«She knows that we still plan to leave, doesn’t she?»

Han continued to sober up with the reminder. “We talked. She’s not happy about that.”

Chewie gave a mirthless hoot. «Then it’s unanimous.»

“She wants to come along.”

The tall Wookiee straightened in outrage, his howl echoing through the hold and down the corridors. «Absolutely not! You must tell her no.»

“Hey, keep it down! I did tell her no but do you think that made any difference? We’ve agreed to disagree for now but you know her. Stubborn.”

«I think you two cancel one another out.»

That observation made Han scowl. “Whatever that’s supposed to mean…. Which reminds me, you should know that she moved into the bunkroom last night.”

Chewie’s massive head tipped to the side. «I see. I assume you know what you’re doing.»

Han wasn’t sure whether to be insulted or just annoyed. “For your information, she moved into a spare bunk while I was asleep. I think she’s just lonely. If it turns into more, that’s up to her.”

«But you’ve got a death mark.»

“Do you think I forgot that? For what it’s worth, the Empire’s got a sweet little bounty out on her head, too, remember?”

«I remember.» Seeming to deliberate for a moment, Chewbacca gave up with a big shrug. «You’re right, it is her decision. As long as she understands the situation…. She is very brave for one so small. I’m reminded of my wife.»

His expression softening at his friend’s show of sentiment, Han had to agree with the assessment: bold, spirited, intelligent, determined, and beautiful.

Why the hell couldn’t we have met back when things were less complicated?

Who are you kidding? She never would’ve noticed you.

Even then, he’d been a credit-poor pilot with a questionable background, while she’d had the universe at her feet. He sometimes wondered if he was nothing more than a curiosity to her—that he’d revealed his own insecurities when he’d teased her that there weren’t enough scoundrels to liven up her life. There was a reason for the deficiency. Would she grow tired of him once the novelty wore off? Once her peers or High Command learned she was consorting with a Corellian smuggler? It was a doubt that plagued him. He had no land, little money, and no reputation worth mentioning in politer circles of society. His only possession and dubious claim to fame was a fast but temperamental ship. While he didn’t think the Princess was the type to go slumming like some socialites he’d known while back in the Academy, nevertheless, he couldn’t rule out the possibility and he hated that suspicion. He wanted to believe her interest was genuine, but what might that cost her own reputation and career in the end?

No, there would’ve always been complications. There would’ve always been sacrifices for both of us.

Until the day they’d met and she’d accused him of not caring about anything or anybody, he really hadn’t given a damn about what others thought of him. Yet for some reason, that indictment had stung coming from her, as if she’d known it would. Had she read him that easily?

Damn it, she’s good. Why does that keep surprising you?

Long overdue, Han was gaining a new appreciation of what it must be like for Chewie to be separated from his wife and family for such long stretches of time. They were in this trouble together because of his own mistakes and indecision and arrogance; the least he could do was make sure Chewie got to see the ones he loved one more time before they faced Jabba. “Hey, once we get the hyperdrive fixed, how about we swing by Kashyyyk quick before heading to Tatooine?”

Fangs bared in the equivalent of a broad smile, Chewie nodded. «I’d like that. It’s been too long. Do you think the princess will want to come along? She’s never met my family.»

And he accuses me of being a big sap?

“Yeah. She’ll probably insist on it if I can’t talk her out of her plan by then.”

«Malla can make her see reason. She is good at that…although she never had much luck with me.»

Han laughed. “It’s worth a shot, Pal. Hey, I’m thinking of overhauling the forward freight elevator motor tomorrow. I’m tired of playing nursemaid every time we use it.”

«I agree. That’s a good project.»

Scrubbing his cheeks, feeling the full-day’s stubble coming in like a cash crop, Han yawned and began pulling himself around the table to the edge, then stood. “I’m turning in. ’night, Chewie.”

Walking up into the corridor, he paid a call to the cockpit for one last check and was glad to see everything was in order. With a little trepidation, since what he wished for and what he got when it came to Leia were often at opposite ends of the galaxy, he finally headed for his cabin.

The small room was fully lit but empty when Han arrived. The fresher was still occupied and he realized with a grin that she’d probably showered yet again. Beginning with their long stint in the fetid jungles of the Serricci base, she’d been using every strained excuse possible to take advantage of his real water shower, something he was happy to encourage. More than one of his fantasies had revolved around just those scenarios.

An instant later, the door opened and Leia emerged. She stopped in surprise upon finding him standing there. Her cheeks reddened like a sunset on Corellia, and one of her hands instinctively dropped to tug down the bottom hem of the long white shirt that hung to just above her knees, revealing slender naked legs that demanded his attention. Feeling the stirrings of arousal as he recalled how the backs of those thighs had felt beneath his fingertips weeks ago, he dragged his gaze back up. He’d seen her decked out in royal finery during the propaganda stunt of an award ceremony on Yavin IV, and he’d seen her dressed to kill on that momentous night on Ord Mantell, and yet he’d never seen her sexier than she looked right now, with her brunette hair down and damp, her skin still glowing from the hot shower, and wearing what he imagined to be nothing but his shirt. He had to swallow to find his voice. “Done in there?”

“Yes.”

Still trying to curb his instincts, Han swallowed back what he really wanted to say; the last thing he wanted to do was scare her away. From the way she’d frozen in the entrance to the fresher, radiating nervousness, it was still entirely possible she’d run again. He wondered if maybe she’d hoped to be in bed and already asleep by the time he showed up, but wasn’t sure why she should be so surprised to see him. What had she expected by moving into his cabin?

“Right,” he said.

When Leia still didn’t move, he began to smile. Whatever was going through her head at that moment, it was enough to disengage her awareness of the situation and that wasn’t like her. Deciding to help out, he gestured past her shoulder. “Can I go in?”

Leia’s expression turned to one of confusion for a second before she realized she was blocking his path. “Oh! Sorry.” Flustered, she moved to stand in the center of the small cabin so he could pass.

“Find everything you need?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Good.” The temptation to kiss her right then was strong if for no other reason than to defuse her awkwardness, but the random kiss while in the cockpit or lounge was very different from here with her half-dressed and ready for bed. His vow had been to let her choose the moment and it took every shred of willpower to stick to that promise. He stepped into the fresher and closed the door.


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