Into the Fire

Chapter 2

The deep canyon of the massive asteroid swiveled around outside the Millennium Falcon’s canopy with dizzying effect before it slid below view as Captain Solo righted the ship to skim along the rocky horizon.

Still in shock from the most frightening flying Leia had ever witnessed let alone experienced, she watched Solo’s hands as they moved with deft grace over the flight controls—a caress that left her in equal parts impressed and confused. Despite all the anger and heartache she felt toward him, she had to admit that he was within his rights to brag about his skill. She’d always known he was a talented pilot, but what he’d just demonstrated in their escape from Hoth left her in dumbstruck awe. How could the Alliance ever afford to lose such a valuable asset?

Because of Han, she could now say she’d flown through an Imperial Navy task force and an asteroid belt—it would be quite a story to tell, assuming she survived long enough to share it with anyone.

Fascinated by something below her field of vision, Han nudged his copilot and pointed toward the barren, pockmarked surface. “There. That looks pretty good.”

In spite of a stubborn reluctance to interact with him, curiosity made Leia shift to the edge of the navigator’s chair. Unable to see anything remarkable, she stood and stepped between Han and Chewbacca to peer out below the helm. “What looks pretty good?”

“Yeah. That’ll do nicely.”

Annoyed that he wasn’t answering, Leia was about to demand an explanation but Threepio chimed in first. “Excuse me, ma’am, but where are we going?”

Leia shrugged at the protocol droid. As if she understood this baffling man.He was a walking—swaggering!—contradiction.

The tableau before them spun again as Captain Solo executed a banking turn, then steered the Falcon toward a gaping hole in the floor of the wide canyon. Only then did it dawn on Leia what he had in mind. Nodding her head, she could see the logic now. He was a smuggler, after all—he was going to ground like a hunted Chenik in hopes the Imperials would think them destroyed along with the hapless squad of TIE fighters that had followed him into the lethal chaos of the asteroid field.

It could work.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” the princess said in a soft tone, her unease refusing to go away despite the promise of secluded shelter.

“Yeah, me too,” Han echoed her sentiment, some of his usual bravado dampened by the failure of the hyperdrive, his pride and joy, after clearing the atmosphere of Hoth.

The humbling suits him. He could do with a bit more of it before I’m satisfied.

Within minutes, Han brought the ship to a stop, setting the Falcon down on the floor of the wide cave. They had traveled deep enough within the cavern that the entrance was little more than a pinprick of light, and the exterior floodlights of the ship cast strange shadows along the curving walls around them. Something about their smooth appearance niggled at the edge of Leia’s conscience, but she was no geologist. Too grateful for the refuge to worry further, Leia let out a sigh and settled back into her seat. “What do you have planned for your next trick?”

“She calls that a trick,” Solo mumbled to his copilot.

«I’d call that a miracle,» Chewie responded.

Over time and with some effort, Leia’s understanding of Shyriiwook had improved to the point that a vindicated smile touched her lips now; she could always count on the Wookiee to help take Han’s ego down a notch into the tolerable range.

Han spared an acerbic glance for both of them. “Well, you can all thank me later. Right now we’ve got a lot of work to do, and this is the closest we’re gonna get to a docking bay for repairs.”

“How long do you think we can stay in here?” Unsettling thoughts arose as she watched them go through the procedures of shutting down the engines. Was he intending only a few hours or days, or longer? What if they couldn’t repair the damage?

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Han said. “Maybe they’ll get tired and go home if we don’t come out to play.”

“Sir,” Threepio interjected, “the sensors indicate that there is an atmosphere inside this cave. It is not breathable, but there is gravity and air pressure.”

They all gave the droid mystified looks.

Glancing back out at the cavern, Han shrugged one shoulder. “Just as well. We might need to go out there for repairs.”

“It doesn’t make sense.…” Leia wondered aloud, her eyes fixed unseeing at the spot where the Falcon’s floodlights ended in the darkness outside. Something didn’t feel right; some intuition told her the Imperials wouldn’t give up so easily.

“What doesn’t make sense?” Solo prompted, looking at her as he climbed out of his seat.

Blinking back to the present, she shifted her gaze up to meet his. “Why all this effort for one ship? This old freighter isn’t exactly the best catch of the day. Why divert three Star Destroyers and Vader’s flagship?”

Forehead creased in concentration, as though his thoughts had just become attuned with her own, Han paused as he loomed over her. “Yeah, that’s a good question.”

Chewbacca swiveled his seat and offered the sort of insight Leia often found valuable if not a bit opaque. «Perhaps it’s not just the ship they’re after.»

Everyone looked to the Wookiee, taking a second to let the words sink in.

“What are you talking about, you big dust mop?” Han chided.

«I mean, what if they believe someone in particular is aboard this ship?»

Han’s hazel eyes flicked back to Leia and she could almost read his thoughts. Self-conscious, she looked away, anywhere but at him; while his gaze was not accusing, she nonetheless felt guilty of being the reason for the Imperial hounding. If what Chewbacca said was true, their roles had reversed and now she was the one endangering them all by just being there. “They won’t give up,” she said in a small voice, finishing the notion.

“Oh dear!” Threepio fretted from the communications station behind Chewie.

“Hey, there’s no way they’d know you’re on my ship,” Han attempted to lighten the mood. “You were scheduled to leave on a transport, remember? Besides, they’ve lost too many pilots in these asteroids already. It’ll get too costly at this rate.”

Leia tipped her head to give him a dissatisfied frown, knowing him too well to assume he believed half of what he’d just uttered. “Since when has the Empire cared about cost?”

Han waved her off. “They won’t find us. We’re safe for now. You still remember how to use a fuser?”

Needing a moment to shift mental gears, Leia nodded in mute admission. As if she would ever forget—or forgive—that little lesson two years ago while they were setting up a new base back on Serricci, when he’d taught her a new skill and she’d also learned that the man was not afraid of embarrassing her for his own amusement. The memory of unwittingly sporting his large greasy handprint on her ass for the entire base to see only served to reignite her anger, momentarily forgotten in the sudden calm.

“Good. Stay here and help Chewie. First thing we need to do is fix the shield controls.” He pointed to the panel of lights and switches beside the copilot’s station. “I’ll go back and reroute them manually so they stop shorting out.” With that, he left the cockpit.

Chewbacca stood and stepped around behind his seat to better access the controls in question. «Princess, do you understand the mechanics of the shield systems?»

Leia sighed with the realization of how little she would be able to contribute. Knowing how to use instruments and systems while in flight was one thing; understanding how they worked was something entirely different. “No, not really. Just point me where you want me to go and tell me what to do.”

“Your Highness,” See-Threepio spoke up. “I will be more than happy to download and explain the schematics of a typical shielding system—although I’ve no doubt that my friend Artoo-Detoo could do a better job if he were here.”

Rising to her feet, she waved a hand in hopes of cutting off any more. “Another time, Threepio.”

“Of course, Your Highness, it would be my pleasure. Please feel free to ask me at your convenience.”

That made Leia roll her eyes as she turned away.

I think I’d rather be interrogated again.

Stripping off her thermal gloves, she tossed them into her seat and stepped up beside Chewbacca to look at the field of lights and toggles decorating the curved starboard wall of the cockpit.

Not having the first clue where to start, she waited as Chewbacca dug out hydrospanners from a pocket in the back of his chair and handed them to her. «Solo trusts you to help with repairs. That’s good enough for me.»

“He does?” Surprised, she wasn’t sure which bewildered her more, Han’s best friend telling her this news, or the very concept of Captain Solo trusting his ship to anyone other than Chewie.

«He trusts you a great deal.»

Too late she realized that Chewie was analyzing her reaction and her cheeks grew warm.

«I like you, Princess. You are a good match for Solo.»

Experiencing a spasm of doubt about her translating skills, Leia wondered if she’d heard him wrong. Whatever had triggered this unanticipated channel of communication between them was beyond her, but she couldn’t afford to go there, not about Han, not now. Still, Chewbacca was a friend and deserved a response. “I like you, too, Chewie…. I’ll miss you.”

The Wookiee nodded, offering his version of a gentle smile; his bared fangs were a sight that might have frightened most beings who didn’t know him. «We have common goals.»

Not bothering to explain his mystifying comment any further, he changed the subject by reaching up to pop off the protective paneling from the starboard cockpit wall, exposing the mysteries of the Falcon’s defense systems. Setting the paneling to the side, he folded out some sort of apparatus from within the jumble of wires. «Please grip this with the hydrospanners, turn it to the right, and hold it there until I tell you to let it go.»

“Okay.” She stepped up, fitted the tool around the part until it was snug, and then gave it the requested twist. Not only did she meet resistance, but she had to hold it in place to keep it from rotating back. No wonder this required two sets of hands. Chewie moved closer, reaching his long arms around her to begin working with the wiring.

The hatch of the cockpit slid open once more and Han moved past them to begin flipping switches on the forward dash. “I’m going to shut down everything but the emergency power systems.” As a result, the lighting in the cockpit dimmed to just the emergency panel lights and colored control indicators.

Chewie’s revelation moments earlier still threatened to throw off her concentration, but Leia didn’t dare take her eyes away from what they were doing. Ignore him. You’ve got a lot more to worry about right now than wondering what motivates Han Solo.

At the captain’s announcement, Threepio turned around within the cramped confines of the cabin to face him. “Sir, I’m almost afraid to ask, but…does that include shutting me down, too?”

Chewie barked, «Yes.»

“No,” Han countered, shaking his head, his tone condescending, “I need you to talk to the Falcon, find out what’s wrong with the hyperdrive.”

Without warning, the entire ship lurched, nearly causing everything not strapped down to go flying across the cramped cockpit. The only thing that kept Leia from losing her balance was her grip on the clamped hydrospanners and a supportive hand from the Wookiee behind her, even as he howled in alarm. When the Falcon settled, they all cast a renewed look of alarm out the canopy into the dark cave beyond.

Threepio exhibited his usual grasp of the obvious. “Sir, it’s quite possible this asteroid is not entirely stable.”

“Not entirely stable? I’m glad you’re here to tell us these things,” Han said with sarcasm so thick even the clueless protocol droid could detect it, and jerked a thumb toward the rear of the ship in annoyance. “Chewie, take the professor in the back and plug him into the hyperdrive.”

«My pleasure.»

“Oh!” Threepio protested as he was pulled out of the cockpit by the Wookiee. “Sometimes I just don’t understand human behavior. After all, I’m only trying to do my job in the most—” The rest of his indignant objection was cut off as the hatch slid closed after them.

Still standing with her back to Solo, holding the whatever-it-was in place, Leia debated what to do. Chewie hadn’t told her to let go yet. The problem was resolved a moment later as the ship lurched again, this time with enough violence that the hydrospanners slipped and she was tossed backwards. Rather than crashing against the navcomp console, she found herself landing in the far more comfortable lap of Han as they fell into the navigator’s chair together. The ship continued to rattle and his strong arms wrapped around her to form a secure circle of protection.

A few more seconds passed before Leia became conscious of the fact that Han had done more than just prevent serious bruising or outright injury. She glanced down to find his hands clasped around her midriff, his arms tightening; a wave of memories of another time when he’d held her this way, a romantic evening of dancing and dizzying emotions while on Ord Mantell, surged past her mental floodgates. Leaning forward, she tried to break free of his hold. “Let go.”

“Sshhh!” A distant tremor rumbled around the Falcon and Han held up a finger to silence her protest.

She stopped struggling and tried to join him in worrying about what was happening outside, but her mind refused to cooperate. Distress crept into her voice. “Let go, please!”

“Don’t get excited,” he said in exasperation.

Why does he insist on making everything sexual?!

“Captain, being held by you isn’t quite enough to get me excited,” she sniped.

“Sorry, Sweetheart.” In a rare display of deliberate physicality, Solo moved his hands up her sides to grip beneath her armpits, then hoisted her up off his lap and planted her on the deck with a solid thump.

Leia swung around, incensed by the manhandling, but was derailed by his wicked grin.

“We haven’t got time for anything else,” he finished with a sensual purr before exiting the cockpit.

Denied her chance to formulate a response, Leia spun away. She’d tried to bluff indifference and he’d seen right through her—and worse yet, he’d called her on it. “Right,” she mouthed in disgust, nodding her head as if any of this made sense anymore. She was out of her element and out of her depth with him, and he knew it. Pure aggravation made her punch an innocent spot of cockpit paneling, but it was a poor substitute and it hurt.

This day just keeps getting better and better.

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