It was morning of the twenty-sixth day into their sub-light trip. Seated alone in the cockpit, curiosity had caused Han to run a search of the ship’s logs for any history of visits to Bespin. Although he’d never been there, it was no surprise when the old logs failed to call up a single entry prior to his ownership; the mining colony was too remote, the Falcon wasn’t rigged for hauling gases at any rate, and the planet held little attraction other than Tibanna gas and a recent but burgeoning tourist interest.
Could be worse. We could be stranded in the Central Core and headed for someplace where everybody knows at least one of us on sight. Consider yourself lucky.
Switching off the comp screen, he sank back into his seat and let his eyes drift up to study the large planet only now starting to appear as an angry red dot distinct from the rest of the starry field in the forward canopy. They would arrive tomorrow, their long odyssey at an end, but the fact brought him no joy. He had a multitude of reasons for wishing they could just keep flying: trepidation over seeing Lando Calrissian and begging a favor, dread of the inevitable confrontation he would soon have with Jabba the Hutt and begging yet another favor, dismay that his idyllic time with Leia was about to end, and—worst of all—the gut fear that theirs would be a final goodbye.
You could keep on flying. Stop just long enough to stock up and fix that blasted motivator unit, then steal the princess away from the rest of this ungrateful universe. Disappear beyond the fringe of the Outer Rim, where they wouldn’t know and wouldn’t care who we are. We could both start over again.
The fantasy brought a wistful smile to his face, and if he’d thought for a moment that she’d go for the idea—if she’d be willing to run away from a fight for which she’d already sacrificed so much….
I’d do it in a heartbeat, Princess. In a heartbeat.
Something had happened to him on this trip, something substantial. The idealistic youth crushed by a meddling and controlling family, the court-martial and discharge from the Academy, and the brutal realities of the resulting unsheltered life—the dreamer he’d recognized in Luke—had been resurrected. For the first time since his abrupt introduction to adulthood, he’d found a reason to look toward the future, beyond just the next run or the next score. Instead he caught himself contemplating all sorts of crazy ideas, like finding a home to share with Leia, starting a family, and enjoying a long life together. They were insane thoughts, not at all compatible with the reality of their situations, and yet he didn’t have the heart to squash them. They were vague but tantalizing dreams in his mind, so fragile that they needed protection from his own cynicism.
As if summoned by his desires—her timing always seemed in tune with his, the cockpit hatch whisked open and Leia stepped in. Dressed in the usual assortment of his clothing, her hair was up in her “style of the day,” this one a high wispy pile far more complicated than it appeared at first glance. As she moved closer to bend down and kiss him, those plush lips lingered just long enough to stir his interest before she handed him a warm mug.
“Last of the tea, Flyboy.”
The kaffe had run out a week ago, as had the reconstituted blue milk and a variety of other luxuries he’d normally taken for granted. The fact they were now running out of the basics was the only good reason the trip was about to end.
The princess moved around to stand behind his seat, and Han felt her warm hands begin to rub his shoulders and neck, thumbs working into his muscles like he’d taught her, finding the knots and kneading away the tension that seemed to plague him since Ord Mantell. Taking a sip of the tea then allowing his head to fall back as her fingers worked their magic, he noticed that her eyes weren’t on him but rather were staring out toward the planet in their path, the symbol of the end of their voyage. He didn’t need to ask how she felt about their imminent arrival—her look said it all.
The mood between them had begun to shift again over the last few days as the euphoria of their love affair had taken on a more serious tone, mellowing and deepening like the swelling harmony of a symphony as they approached the coda of their journey together. While the pleasure was heady and remarkable, there was a new sense of desperation seeping in, as if they were preparing on a subconscious level for the worst. Sometimes he was surprised to find them not speaking at all but communicating just through touch and a shared closeness, as though words no longer seemed adequate. Never having felt this sort of connection with anyone before, he didn’t understand it, doubted he could describe it if he tried, and yet the very thought that he might lose it now made him almost frantic.
Her fingers slid up his neck and into his hair, massaging his scalp, and she finally spoke again. “Chewie says he’s going back to his cabin to read the latest Flash Banigan novel on the datapad and he has no intention of coming out until lunchtime.”
“There’s a new one already?” Chuckling, Han closed his eyes. “He loves that series. It’s embarrassing…. But that means we’ve got the ship to ourselves….”
She offered no resistance as he caught one of her hands. While holding his mug off to the other side to avoid spilling, he drew her around beside him and then eased her over the arm of his chair so that she slipped into his lap crossways. Wiggling until she was comfortable, Leia leaned against his chest and sighed. He brought his mug back up to take another drink, and then surrendered it when she indicated she wanted to share.
Both hands freed, Han slipped one beneath her borrowed shirt to smooth over the skin he’d already memorized, and then caressed a breast. As anticipated, her body’s response was instant, her moan warm on his neck, making his own skin tingle.
“Han….” She said his name in a way that made him pause; it wasn’t the breathy excitement he’d come to expect whenever he touched her this way, but rather the sort of serious pitch that warned a discussion was looming and she wouldn’t be easily distracted. Instead of coming right out with it, though, she buried her face into the crook of his neck.
Realizing he needed to change his approach, Han eased his hand back down her side, offering comfort. “You okay?”
Han tipped his head to let his cheek rest against her forehead.
Well, at least she doesn’t hold back anymore. At least now you know what you’re dealing with, even if you still don’t have any solutions.
“It’s tomorrow, isn’t it?” she asked.
“Yeah…. It’ll be mid-morning ship time, early morning in Cloud City when we make planetfall.”
Nearly empty mug still cradled in her graceful hands, Leia drew a deep breath. “I’m afraid for you…. I’m afraid for us.”
Han stayed silent for a long moment, restraining the urge to blurt out his first cynical thought: I told you so. They’d both walked into this situation all too aware of reality; they knew this trip would end soon enough and they would again face an uncertain future, this time with so much more to lose than before. At one time, Han would have scoffed and questioned his sanity, but the man he was today didn’t regret an instant because she was worth all the trouble of the past, worth all the potential problems to come.
“Don’t worry. We’ll be okay. You’ll see.”
Leia’s head rocked on his shoulder. “Something’s wrong….”
Was she trying to jinx them? “Come on, Leia….”
“I don’t know what it is. It just doesn’t feel right,” she finished, her voice hushed as it glided like the finest shimmersilk against his flesh.
“We don’t have a choice,” he reminded her in a weak attempt to lift her spirits. Lando might not have much incentive to do him any favors, but neither could he have enough hatred to do them actual harm; Han had to believe that. “It’ll be fast, just long enough to fix the hyperdrive and restock. There won’t be enough time to get into trouble.”
The little sound that came from the vicinity of his neck sounded a lot like a derisive laugh, and he didn’t need to read her mind to get her gist.
Trouble tends to find us.
“Right…. I just wish…” she began.
“We could keep flying?” Han grinned, knowing he’d caught her indulging in a fantasy.
As his fingers stroked over the smooth skin of her back, he still marveled at the ability to touch her like this, his princess, without restraint whenever the mood struck. “Looks like maybe some irresponsibility’s rubbed off on you.”
“It’s from hanging out with the wrong crowd.”
“That’s a real shame. I happen to like nice women.”
“That isn’t what I heard….”
“Rumors, Your Worship. Don’t believe any of them. They were all good women before I got to them.”
She gave an amused sniff as she finished off their tea and then passed the mug back. As he set it out of the way, her freed hand found a new purpose in fiddling with the front of his white work shirt, the contact of her fingers along his exposed skin just as electric now as the first time. Maybe that was the upside of having waited so damned long to touch one another? But it made what he had to say next all the more difficult.
“I imagine High Command’s pretty worried about what happened. Gotta return you before they put a price on my head, too.”
Her body stiffened in his arms and he hated the fact that he even had to bring it up, as if he’d just willed the official end to their long holiday. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll send an encrypted communiqué tomorrow to let them know I’m all right, and then we’ll take care of your business without—”
“No, I should get you back. They’ll need their—”
“Stop it!” she snapped. The genuine anger she emitted was familiar, yet felt foreign after experiencing so little of it over the past few weeks. “Right now, you need me and I’m going to help any way I can.”
“The best way you can help me is to stay clear of this. You’d be one less thing I have to worry about when I go in.”
That was plainly the wrong tactic because she pushed away from his chest, dark eyes flashing, betraying what was going on behind that cool exterior. “I see. You don’t want me there because I might get in the way, even though you have no backup and little expectation of success. You’d rather I go back to the Alliance where I can do nothing but worry, but at least I won’t cramp your style. Am I right so far?”
This was an argument he knew neither of them could win, not like this, mixing emotions and logic when the two were incompatible. He couldn’t blame her, though—the last thing he felt like being was rational. She didn’t need to voice the rest of her thoughts because he could practically hear them: When you go in there, do you have a plan for getting out?
When he didn’t respond, Leia looked away in irritation. In fact, she looked ready to climb out of his lap and leave the cockpit, but she didn’t. Perhaps that was a greater testament to her commitment than anything. “I’m supposed to be there when you face Jabba. I can feel it.”
It was bad enough having to listen to that sort of mumbo jumbo from Luke—the last thing he needed was to start hearing it from her, too. “Don’t go turning into the Kid on me….”
“I’m serious. I have dreams….”
“Sweetheart, that’s all they are—dreams. They don’t mean anything. Besides, I’ve watched you have too many bad ones already and I’m not about to add any more.”
Leia looked shocked at his revelation, anger momentarily forgotten. While he hadn’t intended to tell her about the fact she’d awoken him numerous times, knowing it would embarrass her, the truth was out now. Reaching up to touch her cheek, his thumb nudged her chin up a little. “Forget about it. Just tell me you have good dreams once in a while, too, huh?”
Despite her embarrassment at what she clearly perceived as a personal weakness, and despite their inability to agree on the matter at hand, she gave him a little smile. “Sometimes.”
“Any of them include me?” he prompted with his best dashing grin.
She looked torn between telling him what he wanted to hear and her ingrained resolve to win. “Sometimes.”
“Good. Keep those in mind and I’ll be back before you know it,” he said with a finality that meant the decision was already made.
“Han, this is not settled.”
“Yes, it is. Chewie feels the same way, so it’s unanimous.”
“That is not unanimous!”
“You’re still outvoted, Your Highnessness.”
“But…I don’t like it!”
“I don’t expect you to like it. In fact, I’d be awfully disappointed if you did.”
Still refusing to accept his pronouncement, Leia shook her head. “What right do you have to tell me what I can and can’t do? Just because I’ve slept with you does not—”
“My ship. My rules. And for the record, sleeping with me has nothing to do with it—although now that you mention it, that’s another good reason to keep you from getting hurt.”
“That goes both ways, you know. You’re not the only one with a vested interest here.”
“I know that, but you’re still not coming along and that’s final. And it’s not just me. Chewie will pick you up and carry you off the ship if he has to. Don’t think he won’t.”
She scrutinized him for a moment, as if debating his authenticity, and he had to dig deep to maintain his stern expression. Part of him was thrilled this amazing woman cared so much that she kept fighting, even when it drove him crazy, but he couldn’t afford to cave now—she’d spot that weakness in an instant and exploit it like the consummate infighter she was.
Instead, Han settled for his most effective tactic: distraction. “Did any of your dreams involve me doing this?” He flashed his most devastating smile as his hand found its way back under her shirt with renewed purpose.
Leia’s eyebrows shot up as she registered the dirty tactic, but either she wasn’t prepared for it or she didn’t mind so much; he got the reaction he was hoping for as she arched up into his caress. Then she glared at him, visibly peeved by the fact that her eager body had just betrayed her. “That’s not fair. You are the most infuriating, obstinate—”
“Exciting. Don’t forget exciting,” he rumbled, bowing to capture her closest earlobe between his teeth before sucking on it. The shiver that ran through her was all the incentive he needed and he groaned upon feeling his own swelling interest. He still didn’t understand how she had gained such a powerful affect over him, but he was long past questioning it as her hand moved behind his neck, keeping him exactly where she wanted him.
“—exciting man I’ve ever met.”
The kiss she gave him next was languid, lush, and lingering—it was the sort of kiss that could make a man forget his own name, although in his case, he was more than eager to let that go. If this was a new tactic, a sensual attempt to outmaneuver him, then he was all for it. “Did you lock the hatch?”
He grinned against her lips, loving her bold initiative. “Of course…. That’s what I like about you. You’re always thinking ahead.”
“Somebody has to….”