Into the Fire

Chapter 20

Leia hadn’t meant to do it. It just sort of happened.

Since their voyage had begun, she’d tried to dedicate a couple of hours each day to Alliance work—or as much as she could manage with the limited resources available. The research helped ease any lingering guilt over her absence, gave her a definable purpose, and kept her from losing all sense of reality on a trip that at times seemed too good to be true.

Dressed in Han’s white shirt and a pair of cutoffs, she sat propped up amongst the bank of pillows in their bunk, datapad and stylus in hand, with her bare knees arched over and resting on Han’s convenient legs. He was reclined at an angle from her, ankles crossed and dressed just enough to preserve his modesty, what little he still possessed—in this case, a pair of his black undershorts.

Leia was determined to work through the afternoon, even though Han had announced shortly after his arrival that he was giving up with repairs for the day. Then he’d joined her on the bunk with his own datapad, where he was proving to be a mostly innocent distraction as he made the occasional thoughtful grunt and ran an absent-minded hand along the closest patch of her exposed leg.

She tried to block him out as she scrolled through the latest business news out of Coruscant. Most of the media channels offered nothing for her purposes, but finding cash and supplies for a burgeoning rebellion required intuition, patience, and curiosity. She was no slouch with the intuition, and she freely admitted to needing practice with the patience, but a sense of curiosity was something she had in excess.

The quiet of the cabin was interrupted yet again by an amused sniff from beside her, making Leia glance up. Han was reading the schematics of the latest luxury star-yachts, or at least that was what he’d claimed when he climbed into the bunk some time ago. Now she suspected his reading material had changed—although, if anyone could find something funny about the innards of a starship, it would probably be Han. For a moment, she considered challenging him, but she settled instead for a warm smile while rubbing the sole of her foot along the top of his shin before refocusing on her own datapad screen.

Mind over matter, Organa. Mind over matter.

She was onto a lead. Stock prices of a certain weapons system computer chip were flatlined due to a sudden surplus. The part was a vital component of many of the older ships the Rebellion used, and “surplus” was the magic word. The trouble on the market was due to a recent announcement from Chempat Engineered Defenses of an upgrade, something that threatened to make obsolete all the current Imperial contracts, as well as bringing to a halt any other ongoing negotiations for new contracts, both public and private. Thus, third-party suppliers found themselves looking to dump their stockpiles to make room for the new.

It was a coincidence that Chempat was jointly owned by Corellian Engineering Corporation and Kuat Drive Shipyards.

Surplus. Computer chips. Chempat. Corellia. Kuat.

It was a pure coincidence, really.

Giving Han another quick glance, as if he might sense where her research had taken her, she looked back down at her screen but was a bit unprepared for the sheer volume of material that came up under the name “Kuat.” It required the judicial application of several filters to eliminate competition and technical data, irrelevant business and political records, and any references more recent than a decade ago, until what was left were public relations announcements, mainstream news articles, gossip columns, and opinion pieces prior to the emergence of “Han Solo” onto the scene.

Sucking on the tip of her stylus for a moment, unable to think of a legitimate Alliance reason for exploring old history, Leia admitted to herself that she just wanted to know—to bind together some of those missing pages in Han’s life. Ever since learning his real name and history the day before, she’d been unable to think of much else, but the last thing she wanted to do was be obvious in her investigation. Maybe if she snuck in a little now, just enough to satisfy some of that curiosity, then she could let it go and get back to her work. Besides, she reasoned, it wasn’t so much an urge to dig into his past as it was a desire to find holo-pics. Wanting to see what he looked like when he was younger seemed an innocent enough diversion.

It was a little extra work, but she narrowed down the search until she was left with a string of 2D images, culled from public archives, press releases, and official announcements. Due to the prominence of his family, there was a lot to peruse, but she began cycling through it.

There was an image of a teenaged Han, dressed in an Academy uniform stripped of insignia, surrounded by what must have been family and powerful attorneys as they hurried from a courtroom in an attempt to duck the media recorders. There was also a series of other images taken during the court martial, and in them his expressions ranged from insolent to angry to miserable. Clearly, the incident had played a greater role in making Han who he was today than he would ever admit; maybe that was when the cynicism had gained a foothold?

There was a formal portrait of Han, complete with close-cropped hair and the high-tab collared gray tunic of a new Academy cadet, his look serious, with a straight nose and unscarred chin. He seemed so dissimilar, so very handsome in a different way, younger in that moment in time than she had been when they’d met. There was so much promise in his appearance, hints at the type of man he might have become before fate had intervened, although she couldn’t help feeling grateful that his career with the Empire had ended there, almost before it had begun—before it had tainted him the way it had so many others.

There was an informal shot of an adolescent Han and what must have been his siblings because of the shared resemblances, lounging around in a luxurious yet comfortable living room, probably taken in their family home. He was young enough to be almost unrecognizable except for the smile and eyes. A keen curiosity shone there, the sort of youthful excitement that made her beam in empathic response. She couldn’t help wondering if some day Han might have a son to resemble the boy in the image, and if that son would have any of his better characteristics or if he’d be more like his mother….

Leia closed her eyes for a moment, torn by her stray thought and the sense of longing and loss that seemed to grow with each day as those sorts of ideas kept slipping past her control.

She moved on and pulled up the next image.

There was another teenaged Han, flashing a cocky smile and thumbs-up from the open cockpit of some Kuat-built star-fighter now long-obsolete. He looked so dashing, so sure of himself, and Leia realized she would have fallen for him no matter his age or her own. Something in that smile, that confidence, made her melt down like a fusion core.

There was Han, bare-chested on a tropical beach with another young man, both clowning around for the recorder. He was sporting an embarrassing attempt at a moustache. She shook her head with a grin, glad he’d abandoned the look; her preference was clean-shaven, or maybe just the hint of a beard to make things interesting.

Then she found it—a post-scar Han, dressed in an impeccable formal civilian suit, posed with his arm around a tall, slender blond woman dressed in a stunning red gown with gold highlights. Her golden hair hung down in a cascade of gentle waves, and she wore a radiant smile while Han’s was more enigmatic, making it easy to read into it whatever one wanted.

Feeling as if she’d just climbed to the highest peak of a mountain range, where the rarified air lacked enough oxygen to sustain life for long, Leia stared at the image and discovered too late that she wasn’t prepared for the string of emotions the image generated.

But why should she be surprised? Hadn’t this been her goal from the start, to satisfy that awakened craving to know not only what he had looked like then, but what she had looked like?

And Leia was fascinated, both by the young woman and by that inscrutable expression of Han’s. Was he happy? Had he loved her or was it really all arranged against his will? Although he’d said that they knew one another, he hadn’t indicated how well or in what context. Did he still think of her? Compare to her?

The blond was stunning, displaying the sort of elegance the Central Core touted as the epitome of human beauty, possessing all those physical attributes that Leia often felt she lacked—long legs and svelte height and ultrafeminine grace. Any man would have envied Han’s place beside her. Here was a woman who had never clambered around inside the greasy service pit of a star freighter, never plumbed the disgusting depths of a garbage chute on the Death Star, never tramped through the mud and slush and underbrush of countless backwater planets wearing stained coveralls and ill-fitting uniforms while in search of safe havens and strategic vantage points. Leia almost felt as though they were members of different species, they were so disparate. How could she even remotely compete with that? What could have been bad enough to make Han walk away from that sort of perfection? What would it take to make him leave her as well?

Stop it! Stop doing this!

She hadn’t realized how tight her grip was on the stylus until it nearly bent in half.

What were you thinking? What sort of crazy, childish, self-flagellating impulse made you—?

A large hand alighted on her knee. “Hey, get a load of—”

Leia let out a little cry that sounded very much like “Eeep!” The stylus flipped out of her fingers to land near Han’s feet as she bobbled the datapad with the other hand.

Although Han had been absorbed and amused by whatever he was reading, in an instant, all of his attention was locked on her, his look concerned. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” Struggling to recover, she rolled onto a hip and scrunched over to retrieve the stylus. Daring to sneak a peek as she straightened back up, she saw his disbelief.

“You just jumped like a Womprat on a hot engine cowling.”

She had no idea what that meant. “You startled me.”

“I startled you?”

“I was concentrating.”

Leia frowned. What the hell had she been thinking, looking at those pictures? She knew better! Some things were better left in the past, left long buried where they belonged. As if she’d needed one more thing to torment her.

“And now you’re blushing. Were you reading one of those trashy novels again?”

“What? I don’t read trashy novels!”

“Oh, yes you do. I found one archived on that datapad after our mission to Crytor.”

Opening and then closing her mouth, Leia settled for an incensed glare. “That wasn’t trashy. It was…informative.”

Han rolled his eyes. “Well, that explains a few things. And it was trashy because I read it after you.”

Now she just blinked at him, unsure of whether to cackle, ask after his favorite parts, or demand an explanation of his “few things” comment.

“What do you need romance for, now that you’ve got me?” he prodded.

Giving it up as a lost cause, Leia burst out laughing. Here she was, sealed up for a month in a stuffy, old, malfunctioning merchant star freighter with a sometimes-tetchy smuggler and his meddlesome Wookiee sidekick, reduced to survival rations and his cast-off clothing. She couldn’t think of anything less romantic…and yet here she was, thoroughly enjoying his company. Reaching out, she patted his hand where it rested on her knee. “You’re all I need, Flyboy.”

As his hand began to glide up the slope of her thigh, he waggled an eyebrow at her. “Good to hear. So read something to me. Maybe we’ll find it…informative together.”

Leia’s expression froze as her mind scrambled. It was just her luck that she didn’t have anything erotic loaded at the moment, and of course he wouldn’t let the topic drop. Maybe she could make up something on the fly?

“Come on, let me see….”

He made a grab for the reader, but she jerked it out of his reach, her flush resurging. “No, really, it’s just research. What were you going to tell me?”

Han’s gaze turned shrewd once more. Why did she keep thinking she could fool this man?

“You’re hiding something. If that wasn’t it, then….” As if a circuit breaker had been tripped, Han’s hazel eyes softened in sudden understanding as his gaze flicked down toward the datapad, then back up at her. The old Han would have been irked but now he just sighed and held out his closest arm in invitation. “Ahhh, I think I know what this is about. Come here.”

Sparing a moment to debate whether moving into his embrace meant owning up to fact she’d been caught, she decided there was little percentage in avoiding the facts. She abandoned the datapad—well out of his reach—and pivoted around to recline alongside him. Grateful as he pulled her in closer, she drew up her knees and curled against him.

His hand smoothed over her hair as he pressed a kiss to her temple. “I told you, it was a long time ago. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Head resting on his shoulder, she stayed quiet for a long moment, contemplating the texture of his chest beneath her fingertips. “I don’t know why I let it get to me. I’m not jealous….”

“Leia…I can’t change the past, but I won’t apologize for it, either. All I can say is that I didn’t know you yet.”

He couldn’t have said it any better and Leia closed her eyes, tipping her face deeper into his neck, breathing in that unique odor that was Han, with maybe just a hint of engine lubricant.

Sometimes he really does have his moments.

“You had a life before we met and I don’t expect you to apologize or make excuses for that. I know better,” she said, feeling like she was fumbling for words, a problem that rarely plagued her. “It was none of my business.”

“Nah, it was natural. Hell, I would’ve wondered what was wrong if you weren’ta little curious. I mean, I know you probably had a favorite suitor or two back in the day—some mealymouthed inbred prince with mommy issues and—”

Leia delivered a stiff finger under his ribs until she was satisfied with his yelp. Attempting to protect his flank, Han pinned her arms to her sides by tugging her closer. Revenge dispensed, she relaxed against him once more, admitting to herself that he was right—it was probably just human nature that had made her look.

“There was really only one guy while I was at the university, but we couldn’t agree on a major issue, and besides, father didn’t like him very much….”

“What was the issue?”

“He believed we should have continued with passive resistance to the Empire, while I thought that time had passed. It got heated….” She sighed. “Sometimes I wonder if he wasn’t right all the long. Maybe things would be different today.”

Han tightened his hug as he shrugged. “Probably not. The Empire would have found another excuse to test that Death Star and make their point. Maybe not on Alderaan, but somewhere, someplace just as significant. It was just a matter of time.”

“But if we hadn’t escalated—”

“You can’t live like that, Leia. Second-guessing yourself. Hell, if the Alliance hadn’t been ready to take on the Death Start when it did, it’s likely a lot more planets would’ve been destroyed. Did you think of that?”

She hadn’t, and the point he’d made struck deep. Here was one of those things about Han that Leia appreciated most—this ability of his to make her think, to see the things she’d missed.

“So your Dad didn’t like this guy. He probably wouldn’t’ve liked me, either.”

Surprised by the shift in topic, she drew away just far enough so she could meet Han’s eyes, wondering at his sincerity. There had been times when she’d speculated the same thing: What would have been Bail Organa’s reaction to his adopted daughter’s consorting with a smuggler? She supposed he would have disapproved for the obvious reasons, but maybe he would have come around after seeing some of Han’s qualities that had won her over. It was all moot now in any case. Instead, acting on a playful impulse, she gave Han a deliberate once-over while biting her lower lip. “Hard to say, but Rieekan really likes you for some reason, so that would’ve been a solid point in your favor.”

Han grunted, sounding unconvinced. “Well, that’s something.”

“Although he probably still would have ordered you thrown in the stockade for a week for deflowering his only daughter and heir….”

That comment got the desired effect—Han smirked like the inveterate scoundrel he was. Abandoning any pretense of work, he laid his datapad off to the side and reached over to toy with the opening of her borrowed shirt. “It would have been worth it. Anyway, I bet he had a lot of trouble keeping you out of trouble.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was the model of obedience and virtue.”

“Riiiiight,” he chuckled.

“All right, I might have snuck out a couple of times, but honestly, I never got into any real trouble. I was already too busy with bigger things.”

Not arguing with that, as if all too familiar with her formidable dedication, Han shifted his arm around her shoulders so his fingers could dip and clear away her hair, exposing a swath of skin underneath where he placed a lingering kiss. “So there was one hopeful beau, and then there’s Luke…” he prompted, bringing their conversation back around.

Maybe he’d meant to sound more casual, as though mentioning his best friend and potential rival were an afterthought, but it was obvious to her that he was testing the waters and probably wondering how much things would change once she returned to the fleet and he left. Giving Han another assessing look, she realized too late that he was well-versed in suspicion, and with good reason; more than once, she’d purposefully caused that doubt, like when she’d kissed Luke in the med center on Hoth. Sometimes it had been for fun, but more often than not, it was out of spite or revenge, and she felt a flash of remorse for teasing Han like that—for toying with both men’s emotions. “Luke is a close friend.”

“Yes. He is….”

Annoyed all of a sudden by the hint of jealousy in his response, she stiffened and let out a deep breath. Of course her fear and worry over the welfare of Luke still haunted her every day, but to think that Han continued harboring any suspicion or resentment over that, despite everything the two of them had been through and shared since fleeing Hoth, left her at a loss. Could he really doubt her feelings? How much more proof did he need? “But it’s different with Luke. Are you telling me I can’t have male friends anymore?”

Looking a bit surprised and frustrated by her leap in logic, Han shook his head. “No, of course not. Look, my point is that I can’t just make the past go away—Sith knows, I’ve tried! But it’s part of the package and you’re just going to have to trust me. I’m here with you, and I don’t want to be anywhere else. That’s what counts.”

Although tempted to ask just how much longer that might be, Leia had enough sense to stop before their conversation disintegrated into a real argument. “You’re not always a Nerfherder, but you’ll always be my Nerfherder.”

Leia absolutely deserved the sudden onslaught of tickling fingers that followed. She gave a little shriek and tried to escape his reach, but Han was faster and showed no mercy. There was a short frenzy of laughter and tangled limbs, and she was breathless long before he managed to pin her down, his hands trapping her wrists above her head, his magnificent body pressing her down into the mattress in a most wonderful way. The flimsy fabric of his shorts did little to hide his enthusiasm over winning their tussle, and she moved the only way left to her, tilting her hips up to tease him as her own passion flared—he might have gained the upper hand, but she wasn’t without options.

Funny how these tussles always end up this way.

Han groaned as he took advantage of her incapacitation to grind his hips into hers. Reserving one hand to keep her arms immobile, his other hand began working her shirt up and out of the way while his mouth seemed everywhere at once, wet and hot and relentless. “I’m going to ravish you like they do in those novels of yours, Princess. I’m going to do things to you that would earn me another week in the stockade. I’m going to make you—”

Knowing these were no idle threats, Leia gasped at the spike of excitement that coursed through her, and with the last of her wits, she threw an urgent glance at the unlocked hatchway to the bunkroom. “Han, we should—”

“This’ll be fast, Your Highnessness.”

Too late, her body arched up as his mouth worked a nipple to peak hardness, and without thinking, she threw a leg around his lean hips. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”

“Admit it, you like that we might get caught….” His words were muffled as his lips moved down the valley between her breasts, then continued down her belly as she whimpered. Clearly sensing she was past the point of stopping him, he released her crossed wrists and shifted lower to begin easing off her shorts with a deliberate slowness that made her squirm. He couldn’t have been more right as she gripped the edge of the bunk with one hand while the other combed through his soft hair, gently guiding his travels—the last thing she wanted to do was intervene.

“You like the danger,” he murmured.

Goddess help me, but I do. I really do.

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