Into the Fire

Chapter 19

Dinner on the sixteenth day was a grim milestone of sorts—the last of the Nerf steaks. By general consensus, Han had the honor of preparing them and he didn’t let his diners down. He almost never drank while in flight, but tonight he broke out a bottle of Corellian wine to commemorate the occasion, while the princess contributed by finding some appropriate music on the Falcon’s computer at the engineering station. The three of them now sat around the table, savoring the last of their meal as conversation lulled for a moment. He’d come to love this time, their sitting together to eat and share, like a family, and he supposed they were family in a way. Sometimes he found himself thinking that, if circumstances were different, he might have even considered asking Leia if she would be interested in making that bond legitimate.

Crazier things have happened.

There was a sound at Han’s side, from where the lady in question sat within arm’s reach, her thigh pressed against his. He noticed she was staring down at her plate, fork still in hand, but he could feel her body shaking with silent laughter.

“What?” he prompted.

Leia shook her head, her laughter no longer silent, but both he and Chewbacca kept staring at her, waiting for an explanation. When she still didn’t confess, he prodded her with an elbow. “All right. Come on, what’s so funny?”

Leia poked at the last bite of her steak before mumbling, “Nerfherder.”

Chewie choked on his mouthful, and Han had to laugh as well at the random memory. “Yeah, that was a pretty good one, Your Worship. You got a point for originality.”

“You were being such a pain.” When she looked up, the obvious affection he found in those impossibly dark eyes made his pulse quicken, as did her free hand that simultaneously found its way over into his lap. She’d learned early on that this was an excellent way to get his undivided attention, and she never passed up an opportunity. “I was inspired.”

“Glad I was there for you, Sweetheart.”

Leia’s mood sobered in an instant as her hand slid forward to stop on his knee. Looking back down to her plate, she used her fork to make a pattern in the rehydrated mashed root vegetable. “You’ve always been….”

Still in the middle of finding something witty to say, it took a moment before the deeper meaning of her words sank in and Han stopped, out of momentum.

You asked for that. Some things haven’t changed and you’d do everybody a favor by keeping that in mind.

He glanced to Chewie for support, but the Wookiee had found something new and fascinating in the recessed controls of the holochess table. Turning back, he debated what to say. Not only had they failed to discuss the future since the night she’d climbed into his bunk, but they seemed to be actively avoiding it.

“Do you remember that party the night of my Majority?” she asked suddenly, and Han felt one of his eyebrows tick up, surprised by the sudden tangent.

How could he forget?Almost from the day they’d met, he’d wanted to bunk her—he’d propositioned and teased because…well, that’s what he did. And for a little while, she’d played along, handling his flirting like the professional diplomat she was, dismissing it as inappropriate but harmless behavior. But it wasn’t long before something began to change between them, the game growing more serious as he’d started meaning it and she’d started dodging it, maybe because she’d meant it as well. Those pent-up feelings had finally manifested in some very observable behaviors the night of that party, and afterward, he’d known he’d wanted more than just a one-night fling, while she’d shifted from amused tolerance to self-conscious and overheated denial.

“Sure, I remember,” Han drawled. “You could barely stand, so I carried you back to your quarters, dumped you into your cot, and pulled your boots off. You said some interesting things and then passed out. Lieutenant Aldritch insisted on escorting us, even though I assured her I preferred my women a bit more conscious.”

“What did I say?” Cheeks reddening, her head made a demure little dip. Although she was clearly embarrassed to learn they’d had a very attentive witness that night and that she’d been the topic of such a conversation between the two, the news didn’t prevent her hand from resuming the meandering trail along his thigh. That was always a good sign in his book.

“Something about needing a personal servant and wanting to see my credentials. But I figured that was the booze talking.”

There was a definite snort from the direction of the astutely disinterested Wookiee, while Leia stared at him in cautious disbelief. “I did not say that….”

“You don’t remember?”

“No…but I did not say that.”

“Suit yourself, but I started padding my resume the next morning.”

“You are such a—” She stopped, still unsure if he was baiting her or telling the truth or if it was a mixture of both. “Fine, well, evidently I don’t remember most of that evening…. I found a holo in your locker the other day.”

“Ah, that.” It was Han’s turn to feel a little self-conscious. He hadn’t forgotten about the holo—it was something he’d watched countless times whenever in need of a fix. Then he noticed that Chewie was watching them with blatant curiosity. “The one you took that night, Buddy,” he clarified.

«Oh, that one.»

Distracted, Han frowned. “Of course ‘that one.’ What other one did you think we were talking about?”

Chewbacca rolled his blue eyes and shrugged, implying it could have meant anything.

“Pervert,” Han accused with a smirk.

Giving Han a pointed look, Chewbacca said, «I’m not the one testing out every flat surface on this ship like a pair of oversexed Zeltrons.»

Leia’s fork dropped with a clatter and her wandering hand disappeared in an instant, her look mortified. Not knowing whether to defend her honor, laugh at Chewie’s good taunt, or be annoyed by the interrupted caress, Han erred on the side of the one that kept him warm at night. “Hey! Show some respect, huh?”

“Chewie, I’m so sorry!”

“He’s just jealous, Sweetheart. Don’t—”

Pulling a discreet distance away from Han, her cheeks burning, Leia was obviously taking the comment personally. “No, no, he’s right. It’s very inconsiderate.”

Han swung back at his partner, now annoyed for real. “Oh, for Sith’s sake! Now look what you’ve started, you big mop head.”

Chewie held up his hairy mitts in supplication. «I’m sorry, Princess. Don’t worry. I still prefer this to all the arguing.»

Burying her face in her hands, Leia’s blush was radiating so hot that Han wondered if the bulkhead paint might blister. “We’ll be more careful, Chewie. I promise. It’s not fair that—”

“Not fair?” Han interrupted while jabbing a thumb at the Wookiee. “You should see what he’s like with his wife whenever we make port on Kashyyyk. It’s awkward!” With that he reached out to slide his arm around Leia’s shoulders and pull her back, despite her newfound reluctance. “Come on. Don’t pay any attention to him. I told you, he’s a troublemaker. He’s just teasing and you’re not used to it yet.”

“Still,” she said in a quiet tone before risking a slanted look up at both of them. “It is rude. You’re a bad influence.”

That made Han smile. If he knew Leia, she was already adapting. “I thought that’s why you liked me.”

“No, that’s why you think I like you. It’s all still a mystery to me.”

Chewie howled with laughter and Han shot him a dirty look as he nudged Leia’s leg with his own. “Nice. So now you’re trying to solve the mystery by snooping through my lockers?”

Tipping her head to give a very politic answer, she returned her attention to the remnants of her meal. “I wasn’t snooping. I was researching. And you did invite me….”

“Yeah, I guess I did. So, what did you find out?”

“You’ll be relieved to know that you remain a complete enigma.” Leia made a fair attempt at keeping her tone light but failed at hiding her real disappointment. This was an issue that still made her pensive, and he supposed she had a right to be.

She’s finally accepted you without knowing anything, without any conditions. Maybe it’s time you showed some faith in return.

Sighing, Han glanced over to find Chewie watching him again, no doubt thinking the same thing.

“What do you want to know, Leia?”

Looking genuinely surprised by his offer, she hesitated, which was understandable considering his usual reaction. “Do you have any family?”

Although he’d suspected this might be one of her eventual questions, the fact it was her first told him a great deal about where her thoughts had been dwelling lately. His first instinct was to say that Chewie was all the family he needed—it had been his pat answer for years and it wasn’t a lie—but she deserved the full truth. “Yeah, both parents are still around, and a younger brother and sister. They’re all on Corellia, but I cut ties a long time ago.”

As she held his gaze in silence, he could see a glint of sorrow in her eyes, some of it for his sake, but he suspected she was also thinking of her own family—all those ties forever severed and not by choice. Then he watched the most subtle of changes come over her expression as her eyes flicked toward Chewbacca. “So you weren’t orphaned as an infant and raised by Wookiees?”

Letting loose a triumphant whoop, Han flopped his hand palm-up on the tabletop in front of his suddenly sour-looking copilot. “Pay up, Pal. I told you the Kid couldn’t keep his big trap shut.”

«Circumstantial at best. I’ll need to see more proof.» Sliding out from the table in avoidance, Chewbacca started collecting up their abandoned plates.

Leia’s narrowed eyes were shifting from him to Chewie in angry disbelief, and then she shook her head. “A mystery to me….” Moving out of his reach and off the bench to stand, Leia then stopped there, both fists planted on her hips. She waited for him with what he now recognized was only mild outrage that she was happy to relinquish with a kiss; it was just another complicated step in the dance they’d started weeks ago.

“Aw, come on, Sweetheart,” Han coaxed as he followed her and got to his feet. Catching one of her hands, he used it to pull her up against him, assuming the lead in a close-dance position. “What I would’ve paid to see the look on your face when Luke told you that story….”

“Well, it certainly explained a lot,” she protested in her own defense. Sparing a glance toward the galley to make sure Chewbacca was out of sight, she gripped his belt and jerked him closer, a not-so-subtle indication that all was already forgiven.

Encouraged, he guided her toward the engineering station, dropped into the high-backed seat, and then tugged her toward him. She crawled up onto his lap to sit astride facing him, legs fitting beneath the armrests at his sides while her hands came to rest on his shoulders. This was a favorite spot for them since it was more comfortable than the acceleration couch and they could face one another. He eased a finger inside the neckline of her loose shirt and started to pull down. “I was nineteen when Chewie’s family took me in, if that counts for anything.”

Leia swatted his hand away like a coquettish date, unwilling to let him distract her—not when she was finally getting answers. Leaning further back, she laced her fingers behind his neck. “After you were kicked out of the Academy?”

“A little while after, yeah.”

She appeared to do a little mental calculating. “That would be right around the same time you suddenly started appearing on the Imperial records….”

She’s circling in like a prowling Pantera on a scent trail.

Han’s hesitation was pure instinct, as was his tendency to deflect at all costs, but he forced himself to relax. What harm could come now from her knowing the truth? “Yeah, not long after that.”

“‘Han’ is a common-enough Corellian name,” she speculated. “I imagine you didn’t bother changing that…but ‘Solo’ isn’t at all. That would explain why you’re not in any records from the Academy…. ‘Solo,’ as in ‘alone’…. You couldn’t have come up with something a little less obvious?” That last comment she added with a teasing smile.

“I was nineteen. It sounded cool.”

Giving a little shake of her head, as though she might never understand testosterone, Leia waited a beat before voicing the obvious follow-up. “Will you tell me your real name?”

Aware of the door he was about to open, Han swallowed. “Kuat.”

It had been so long since he’d felt any connection to it that the name sounded foreign to his own ears.

“‘Kuat,’” Leia echoed, as if needing a moment to let that bit of knowledge soak in, to let it bounce around in her brain a little as she recalibrated her understanding of who he was. Then other associations began clicking into place, and he could read it on her face as easily as on a comp screen. He might have laughed were it not so serious.

“Kuat…. Not the Kuats, as in the Kuat Drive Shipyards?” Eyes growing wider, she took his silent inaction for an affirmative and sat up straighter on his lap. “Goddess, that’s what Chewie meant? That’show you knew about the blind spot on the Star Destroyers…?”

“Leia, I know what you’re thinking and you might as well forget about it. We disowned each other a long time ago. There’s no use getting your hopes up.”

She opened her mouth to probably voice a protest at his conclusion, halted as if maybe realizing he was right, and then closed it as she reconsidered.

While Han knew it wasn’t necessary, he added in a quieter tone: “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell High Command. It’s none of their damned business.”

Her response was just as quiet, but a clear affirmation. “I keep secrets. This was just for me.”

A corner of his mouth eased up into a fond grin. Leia could indeed keep a secret better than most, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t be pulling up his real name in a datapad search the instant she had five minutes to herself—that was what made her who she was.

“What happened…?” she prompted him to go on.

Releasing a sigh, he ran his hands along the sides of her thighs as he surrendered to the inevitable interrogation. Then again, as one of her hands began working its way through his hair, he couldn’t imagine a more pleasant way to be grilled. “At the Academy or with the family?”

“Whatever you want to tell me.”

It was funny—now that he’d committed to this, he found himself wanting to tell her everything. “I was a massive disappointment to the family. They were grooming me to take over the business but I had no interest in sitting behind a desk. I wanted to fly.”

Her gentle smile was so beautiful that it was almost enough to make him forget what they were talking about. Why, in all the hells of Kessel, had it taken them so long to reach this point?

“It’s in your blood,” she observed. “I know the feeling.”

“Yeah, but they didn’t see it that way. I was shipped off to the Academy to drill some discipline into me. Sure, I got to fly there, but I was restless and did some really dumb stuff, too. Odd thing was, I never got into much trouble for it. Then I started moving up through the ranks faster than my buddies, getting cushy assignments and stuck behind some desk half the time anyway.”

Nodding in understanding, Leia was likely familiar with just how much influence the owners of the largest single military contractor could have within the Imperial Forces. “They were pulling strings for your advancement.”

“They already had my whole life mapped out for me: Graduate an officer, get some experience under my belt, come back a hero, take over the firm. Hell, they even had a wife picked out for me and announced our engagement before I was done with cadet training.”

He felt Leia twitch, as if she’d only just joined the conversation. Something in her reaction—Shock? Jealousy? Insecurity?—made him groan in delayed understanding. For some dumb reason, he’d thought she was immune to that sort of thing. He should have known better. Not only was she was still very new at this game, but she hadn’t exactly picked the most transparent partner or straightforward situation, either. Just because she avoided the topic of his past conquests like the Emperor avoided press conferences didn’t mean she was free of doubts about herself or him.

As if I’ve even looked at another woman in the past year….

“Engaged?” Leia’s question was timid, as if she couldn’t help herself and yet didn’t want to hear the answer.

“It was a long time ago, Leia. Her family had a lot of connections and we already knew each other, but it wouldn’t have worked for long. We were just kids.”

When she kept staring at some spot on his shirt, mind obviously far away, he waited a few moments before bouncing a leg to jostle her out of it. “Trust me, Your Worship, she wasn’t my type. I like ’em short and feisty.”

Too late Han realized his remark wasn’t the best compliment he’d ever paid her, if that change in her expression was anything to go by. Nevertheless, it did work to break her spell.

“You drive me crazy,” she said.

“I know.”

Shaking her head, appearing to fluctuate between irritation and curiosity, she conceded defeat and picked at the open collar of his shirt. “Go on. So you rebelled….”

“I guess so. That’s a nice way to put it.”

“How would you put it?”

“I committed treason and sabotage.” At her renewed look of shock, he shrugged again, feeling his voice grow more serious upon discovering that the memories still bore a bitter aftertaste. “My third assignment was on Kashyyyk, commanding a fighter escort. I watched the slavers in action and went a little crazy. Shot up some empty transports arriving for the latest shipment. That finally got everybody’s attention and I was drummed out.”

“I’m amazed you weren’t put into shackles, or worse.”

“The best lawyers the family could buy, plus a hell of a lot of bribes.”

Leia just stared at him, as if struggling to absorb it all. While she would have been too young to remember the incident, he knew she would have heard of it—the government-sponsored slave trade had not stopped, but that was the first time the dark business was brought to the public’s awareness. Although the cries of outrage were quickly silenced and the riots crushed, it had fed the surge in Rebel recruitment and activity throughout the Empire.

“The classic spoiled rich kid,” she said under her breath, a clear hint of incredulity in her tone.

Han snorted. “Do I look rich to you?”

“No…but I always knew there was more to you than money.” Her palm pressed against his chest, as if touching a cherished heirloom.

“Lucky guess.”

Leia’s smile was indulgent, content to allow him this particular delusion. “Is that when you met Chewie?”

“Nah, I didn’t run into him until a little later, after I was out on my own. I got my first job as a red-eye-shift copilot on one of those big guild freighters flying out of Coronet.” His gaze settled, without seeing, on a spot over her shoulder as he recollected. “Chewie was part of the crew. We were on this one flight out of Commenor when the drive conked out and we were jumped by pirates. It was an inside job because they were waiting for us. We were all taken away to be sold as slaves, but a few of us managed to get away.” He paused and ran his hand along the outside of her thigh as he blinked back to the present. “He’s been my shadow ever since. Can’t get rid of him.”

«I heard that,» Chewbacca interrupted as he emerged from the galley, a steaming mug of kaffe in one of his furry mitts. «You say ‘get away’ like it was nothing special, but you saved most of the crew from a miserable fate that day.»

Han swiveled the chair to face his friend. “Yeah, but you’re the only one who decided it was worth a Life Debt.”

«Maybe I was the only one who realized you needed a shadow.»

As her eyes moved back and forth between him and the Wookiee, Leia acted as though she was seeing them both in a new light.

Great, that’s all she needs—more hero talk.

He suspected the princess already had some pretty grandiose ideas of who he was, things he was sure he could never live up to. “Knock it off, Chewie, before she starts thinking I’m noble or something.”

«Don’t blame me for that.» With his usual aplomb, Chewbacca wished them a good night and headed for his cabin.

Han looked back at her, determined to make a preemptive strike. “I saw an opportunity and I took it—nothing noble about it.”

Leia tapped a fingertip on his chest, well-prepared for his dodge. “But you acted! That’s more than most people would do.”

“I’m no hero, Leia. I’ve done some things I’m not proud of.”

“We all have…. But I don’t think that necessarily cancels out the good. I think your heart’s in the right place.”

“Whatever you say.”

She gave him a look of exasperation that transformed into amusement. “That’s right. I like it when you agree with me.”

Spotting his opportunity, Han tipped his chin up toward her and dropped his voice lower than the deck plates. “Tell me what else you like.”

As a little smile animated the corners of her mouth, she hopped on his train of thought. “You know what I like.”

“I like it more when you say it.”

Leia’s playful gaze lingered on his for a tantalizing moment before she leaned forward to press her lips near his ear, her breath tickling his skin, making more than just his short hairs rise. Then she whispered something that would have made a once-proper princess burn brighter than a solar flare.

She’s right. You are a bad influence.

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