Into the Fire

Chapter 18

Standing in the middle of the crew’s quarters and holding a folded blanket still warm from the autovalet, Leia watched Han make the bunk, her smile no doubt a bit dopey and her mood mellow.

“Satiated” is probably the more appropriate term. You’re also besotted. Smitten. A goner.

They were just starting the second week now, only a quarter of the way into their long slog through the Anoat System, and life had fallen into a routine—if anything about the novelty of living in close quarters with Solo could be called “routine.”

She’d entered into this situation with very little idea of how things would change aboard ship after climbing into Han’s bunk. It had been a huge risk for a variety of reasons, the most glaring being that they were two strong personalities trapped in a small vessel for a long time; if her gamble didn’t work out, things could get very ugly very fast. But other than an obvious divergence from their old pattern of squabbling, little else seemed different. Their days were spent continuing with various repairs, doing basic chores, taking long breaks for meals, and sometimes just lounging around reading, playing games, and talking.

Lots of talking. That may be my favorite part. Well, almost.

Still prone to silence about his past unless Chewbacca brought up something specific, Han was quite happy to talk about anything else and many hours were spent huddled together on the acceleration couch in the lounge, on his lap in the cockpit, or reclined in his bunk as they teased and learned about one another. Staving off boredom might have been their biggest challenge before the change, but there wasn’t enough time in the day now.

The other big change, of course, was what they did when they stopped talking. The introduction of frequent groping sessions, which seemed to occur whenever and wherever the mood struck, definitely kept the dull factor down to a minimum. It came as a relief to discover that he couldn’t get enough of her, either.

Today, Leia had spent the morning helping the two smugglers replace aging gaskets around the hatches of the hidden smuggling compartments beneath the flooring of the circular corridor, meant to keep them from creaking and echoing. After lunch, she’d trailed behind Han as he conducted more mundane shipboard duties, doing her part by lending a hand.

From infancy, Leia had been surrounded by attendants and service droids to take care of such humdrum chores, and even after her immersion in the nomadic existence of a fugitive, she’d had little need to devote her time to such things. Following her arrival on the Yavin base, General Dodonna had assigned her an orderly, but no sooner had she rejected this as a waste of valuable resources than Luke had foisted Threepio upon her, his reason being that she had more use for a protocol droid who could double as a personal assistant. She wasn’t convinced his motives were altruistic, though, because every time she sent Threepio off on an errand to assist Luke (or Han, if she’d felt like irritating him), in no time she would find the obnoxious droid back in her quarters tidying up her cot, handling her laundry, or organizing her desk.

Here on the Falcon, with everyone aboard happy to leave the deactivated droid silently occupying the abandoned communications station, she found herself chipping in on a variety of menial tasks for the first time. In an odd way, she found it refreshing, although she suspected that sentiment would wear off soon enough. She’d even managed to put together a couple of meals, despite her concern over squandering precious food in cooking experiments; with Han’s guidance, the results had been passable, even though he was arguably as much a distraction as a help in the cramped kitchenette.

Just look at all the new skills you’re learning on this trip.

That thought almost made her laugh out loud.

She found endless fascination in watching Han, a man whom she’d always known to be restless, action-oriented, and anything but domestic, doing uninteresting but necessary duties like swabbing the deck plates or changing the linens on their bunk.

Our bunk.

Leia smirked at the possessive thought. She liked the sound of that.

Here was an unanticipated facet to the man she loved—seeing him fiddle with the top sheet until it was perfectly smooth and taunt. No question but this was a legacy of his drilling in the Academy.

Don’t even bother. He’ll deny any implication that he should become a military leader within the Alliance. Just be happy in knowing that he could.

Right now, she was amused by the effort Han expended on this particular task and was fighting a contrary urge to push him back onto the bunk and muss it up.

Han straightened up and turned, about to ask for the blanket, but paused when he saw her impish expression. “What are you thinking?”

“Who, me?”

Too late she realized she might as well have set off the hull-breach alarm because now she had Han’s full attention. He waited, hazel eyes narrowing at her.

Leia caved. “Why do you bother?”

“With what?”

She pointed at the bed. “We’re only going to mess it up in a few hours. It seems like a lot of work for nothing.”

For a moment, the captain gave her a look as though she’d just spoken in tongues. “Fine. Starting right now, Your Worship, you’re in charge of making the bunks.”

“Fine. And don’t call me that.” That last directive was tacked on out of pure habit as he’d demonstrated no inclination to stop using that particular title—in fact, it seemed his standard go-to whenever he wanted to tweak her.

Reaching out to grip her arm, Han pulled her up against his chest, her crossed arms and the blanket sandwiched between them. As he started a languorous kiss on her mouth that migrated to the area below her ear, her resolve began to melt.

Leave it to Han to not fight fair.

The moment she moaned, he pulled her around and tipped her off-balance, causing her to fall back onto the just-made sheets with a shriek of laughter. “No sense in waiting,” he growled as he crawled onto the bunk after her.

Leia once again stood in the center of the cabin, arms loaded with laundered clothing fresh from the autovalet as she stared at their bunk. Han was off assisting Chewbacca with something in the forward hold, trying to fix whatever was rattling in the air circulation system. While she loved every minute spent wallowing in his attention, she was glad for the occasional break alone so she could clear her mind. That, and the clattering noise really was driving her a bit mad.

Despite vague images of lingering nightmares, she felt like she was sleeping better. Whether she could chalk that up to simple physical fatigue after enthusiastic lovemaking or the reassuring feeling of Han holding her through the night was still up for debate, but she was content with either conclusion. The sensation of waking up next to him was something that made her feel richer than any of the wealth in her previous life. Her snuggling smuggler…or was that smuggling snuggler?

You are doomed to wear this foolish smile every time you think about him, aren’t you?

Never having allowed a close inspection and analysis of her feelings for Han until this trip, she wanted to explore them all now, to examine what they meant in her life and marvel at what he managed to generate within her after years of intentional emptiness. Maybe it was just her imagination, but that change seemed to show in her reflection in the mirror and she couldn’t help but wonder if this would be obvious to others once they reached civilization.

Like any other teenager, she’d indulged in the dreamy holo-vids and stories of finding a man to love and build a future with, even though she was forced to repress it out of necessity when duty called. At that time, she’d believed in the power of love and, more importantly, she’d believed it would happen to her someday.

Sadly, those dreams had seemed to die along with Alderaan. She’d resumed the fight for the Rebellion with renewed vigor for the greater good, but she no longer believed she would live to see the end of the war. There seemed little point in dreaming about some happy future when there appeared to be nothing personal left in the balance, nothing waiting for her at the other end.

The simultaneous introduction of Han, Luke, and Chewbacca into her life and their growing importance within it had helped to assuage that loss. They were like a lifeline around her waist, pulling her along, sometimes against her will, but it was Han in particular who remained single-minded in his resolve to rescue her. He’d confronted her unspoken despair as if determined to fill the vacuum where her heart had been, daring her to feel again. For the longest time, she was perplexed by why such a self-proclaimed loner cared or bothered, and yet he had. Maybe he’d sensed and sympathized with her lost dreams, or maybe he’d just been drawn to fix what was clearly broken within her. For whatever reasons, he hadn’t quit her, and now in some corner of her mind, a new kernel of hope had sprouted. To imagine that someday they could both stop running and be together like this, far longer than just a few weeks, gave her a new goal and enthusiasm.

Leia knew on some level that their situation aboard the Falcon wasn’t realistic—that they were for all practical purposes sealed away from the truths of their lives during this long trek to Bespin. Too soon it would end and they would have to face all those challenges once more, this time from a new and unfamiliar footing. She hoped they were prepared and strengthened by their evolving relationship rather than weakened by the emotional exposure. Perhaps their shared hardships over the years would temper their bond, making it that much stronger.

Standing there, arms full of the clean clothing they shared, she knew her life was altered, and while it had not come full circle—it never could, it had undergone another tectonic shift. Despite the extraordinary connection she now felt with Han, she knew he’d had plenty of sexual partners; it was obvious in his skill and confidence. She didn’t dare ask him if coupling was always like this because she was afraid he might say yes. Instead she wanted to believe this was special, different. Maybe it was because they’d waited so long while hashing out their personal hang-ups, or maybe it was because of all that shared adversity of their past and the emotional bonding that was bound to happen as a result. Perhaps it was destiny, if one was prone to believing in things like the Force.

Was Han the man she’d dreamt of in her more idealistic youth? He could be a gentleman when it suited his mood. Was theirs a romance anyone would want to watch in a holo-drama? Hardly, unless living in unpleasant conditions, barely avoiding any number of sudden violent deaths, and arguing about whether he would disappear one day for good could be considered romantic. She certainly didn’t think so and felt sorry for anyone who did. But he had saved her life a few times. He was also rakishly handsome and prone to ravishing her with little warning.

What’s not to love?

Leia grinned at that.

You’ve got it bad. You were doomed the moment he suggested going back into your cell if you didn’t like his methods. What other man would’ve said that to a princess?

Snapping out of her little reverie, Leia moved over to the side and popped open the hatch of the upper storage locker where Han stored his clothing. Conscious of his tendencies, she stowed away the various pieces in neat order, then paused. There was an unsurprising collection of brown, black, and blue trousers, most of them with that eye-catching Corellian Blood Stripe, the obsolete sign of a Spacer’s Guild member, running down the outside seams. Someday she would have to ask why he still insisted on wearing it. Was it out of a sense of tradition or just a way to thumb his nose at the Empire for disbanding the guild over a decade ago?

There was also an assortment of work and dress shirts, nondescript boxer-briefs, and mostly normal socks. None of it was out of the ordinary or anything she hadn’t seen him wear at some point, but that was just this locker and there were five others within the crew’s quarters, plus the single drawers under each bunk. Biting her lower lip, she wondered if peeking into the other cabinets amounted to prying. Hadn’t she earned the right to look a little? He had invited her to anything on the ship, hadn’t he?

Besides, we’ve explored every naked centim of each other’s bodies in the past week—you can’t get much more intimate than that.

Closing the door on the upper locker, Leia skipped the two lower cabinets, already knowing one contained bed linens, towels, and extra toiletries, while the other was where he stored his thermal clothing, jackets, and shoes. All of it was stowed away for fast and easy access. No surprise, considering the nature of his training and current lifestyle. Despite the chaos that tended to surround him, or maybe because of it, his life was orderly in here.

With a sigh, beginning to wonder if this was yet another dead end in her attempts to learn more about Han Solo, Leia reached to pull open the second upper door and was instantly glad she’d stuck with the search.

The hero’s medal she’d draped around his neck back on Yavin IV, only a day after they’d met, hung from the inside of the door and banged against the metal as she swung it open. She was surprised to see it at all, let alone displayed among his personal items. Over the years, he’d taunted her with various demises for the rather tacky award—everything from pawning it to buy a substandard bottle of Novarian brandy, to macrofusing it to the sub-light engine housing to plug up a coolant leak. Yet all this time it must have hung here, a reminder whenever he opened the locker.

With a wry smile, Leia shook her head.

Between this and the Blood Stripe, he’s much more sentimental than I thought.

Peering around, taking in the mysterious odds and ends stashed away in compartmented trays and shelves, she paused to admire an elegant man’s ring she’d never seen him wear. There were various little trinkets that must have held some memory or value to him but only generated curiosity for her. There was a second datapad, no doubt of a more personal nature than the public one out in the lounge; she wasn’t about to touch that without his permission. Besides, the Goddess only knew what might be on it. Lining the back of the cabinet were two racks of holo-disks with cryptic labels, and although those caught her attention, they were something she’d have to investigate another time. One of the disks in particular caught her eye, the label nothing more than a handwritten date—her Majority Day from nearly a year ago. Curiosity wining out over caution, she reached in and pulled it out from the stack, then hesitated a moment to glance at the closed cabin door as she experienced a twinge of guilt before triggering the holo-disk.

There was a bluish-white glow, and then they appeared—she and Han, the night they’d celebrated the coincidence of both her and Luke reaching Majority at the same time, when what had started as a small party for Luke among the pilots had swelled into a base-wide spontaneous excuse to blow off steam. There was loud music, lots of voices and laughter, and much alcohol—much more than she had suspected was authorized or available on the Serricci base. In the holo, they were both holding mess hall tumblers and sipping a sweet but potent beverage she’d never been able to identify, most likely brewed in someone’s private quarters; they must have already imbibed plenty by the time the recording was taken because they both showed that telltale glazed expression and swayed ever-so-slightly. With his arm wrapped around her waist, his large hand gripping her hip and his fingers visibly digging into her at times, while her own arm was buried somewhere beneath his black utility vest, they looked thoroughly blitzed. The big smile plastered across her face matched Han’s as they laughed at something off to her side, then suddenly, Han bent down to say something to that younger Leia, but his words were lost to the background noise. There was no missing her reaction, however—she let out a raucous laugh that would have made her court tutors blanch, swatted playfully at his shoulder, then tugged at his arm and snuggled against his side as he landed a kiss on her temple. Then they both paused to shamelessly mug for the recorder.

The holo flickered and ended, snapping Leia out of her trance. Unable to tell which was more shocking—the fact that they looked so relaxed and happy together, even back then, or that she couldn’t remember the incident, she snapped her mouth closed and triggered the holo again.

His smile. Her laugh. She strained to hear whatever it was that man had said to that faraway young woman to make her laugh like that, despite a night she remembered more as a sad milestone of the passing year and what seemed a hopeless life ahead. But here was Han, breaking through her despair for yet another rescue, and someone had captured it in a holo; it was priceless evidence of everything he had become to her.

Leia played it again.

She’d never seen them together like this, as a couple, and how others must have perceived them that night: happy, comfortable, natural. She fit beneath his arm like she belonged there, and they looked good together. No wonder the tongues on base had started wagging. No wonder she had found herself fighting a growing wave of gossip and suggestive hints. Even if there’d been nothing to it, the personnel on base were in such desperate need of entertainment that they’d latched onto the idea of a heated affair blossoming between their two most visible and heroic residents, and refused to let it die. Every moment they were spotted together, no matter how benign, had fed the rumor mill. All those fears of becoming attached to the smuggler, all her efforts to deny theirs was anything more than a business relationship or mere friendship—all of it had been undone by a tumbler of jungle jet juice.

No wonder no one believed you anymore. It’s so obvious.

Leia could do little more than shake her head. How appropriate. How typical. She was the last to see it, and that fact seemed to encapsulate their entire relationship in an ironic metaphor.

You’ve been such a fool.

Had Han watched this holo over and over again in fascination as she’d just done, perhaps wishing things could be different? It was no surprise why he’d kept the recording a secret; until now, she wouldn’t have believed him, or at best she might have passed it off as a drunken mistake, ruining his illusion.

No more denials. No more rejecting of your instincts and feelings. All that’s ever accomplished is unnecessary pain, and it fooled no one.

Lesson learned, she returned the holo-disk to the stack and closed the locker door, done with exploring. She suddenly wanted companionship again. Maybe the boys could use her help with that rattling AC system after all.

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