Into the Fire

Chapter 3

The next few hours were a steady exercise in multitasking for Han as he roamed from repair to repair, either completing them himself or monitoring those done by his ad hoc crew. Since the main toolbox and all its contents were scattered at the bottom of the claustrophobic maintenance pit, he and Chewie had managed to scrounge up enough spare tools stashed elsewhere aboard the ship to do makeshift repairs. All things considered, they were making progress. Despite the little royal diversion in the cockpit earlier, the shield systems were back online and he felt confident that the hyperdrive was as well; of course, there was no way to test it until the moment of truth, but everything indicated it was fixed.

In no hurry to leave their hiding spot, he’d called a break a short time ago so they could eat and regroup their energies. However, what had started as a good mood, as he’d surreptitiously watched the princess eat, had fizzled into irritation at her choice of conversation topics. She’d started by bringing up concern for Luke and while he shared her worry about their friend, a dark thought from a shadowy corner of Han’s mind whispered that she was taking another jab at him. Then she’d revived speculation as to why the Empire was pouring so much manpower into chasing down one ship—“this wired-together junk pile” was absolutely another jab at him—when half the Alliance was routed and in disorder. To make matters worse, a steady thumping and rumbling had begun to vibrate through the ship, too rhythmic to be natural on a solid rock of this size. It was enough to prove her point and the general consensus was that the Imperials were stepping up their hunt, narrowing their search, and now bombarding the massive asteroid in an attempt to flush their prey out. Those facts pretty much guaranteed Leia would remain in an unpleasant disposition and it was beginning to feel contagious.

Hands on hips, standing in the middle of the main hold as he paused in his work, Han chewed the inside of a cheek. His ship was still in desperate need of attention and yet his mind kept circling back to Leia as if she were on his check-off list of things he needed to fix. Surely all she needed was a good reminder of when they’d been on much friendlier terms—a good kiss to restart the passion he’d discovered weeks ago while on Ord Mantell.

But that’s the trick, isn’t it? Getting her into that mood sort of requires her already being prone to it.

There was a way to short-circuit her defensive systems—there had to be, but he’d yet to find a reliable method that didn’t usually backfire. What was worse, from the looks of things, he’d maybe done irreparable damage and there was precious little time left to set things right. Because he still intended to depart as soon as she was back with the Rebel fleet, any sort of regretful goodbye or even a sign that she wanted him to come back would have to start emerging pretty damned quick.

So far he’d done a fine job of botching things up between them, forfeiting much of the ground he’d gained over the past year. News of the astronomical bounty on his head, along with the concurrent events on Ord Mantell, had forced his decision to stop courting and start pushing Leia away before either of them could become any more involved, and yet he couldn’t seem to help himself. At first, he’d tried to give her up by rejecting her tentative invitation for more. Then he’d changed his mind again and tried to pull her back while on Hoth, desperate to revive what they’d started while on her mission to the space station. But it was clear now that all he’d managed to do was sabotage both efforts.

To be honest, he didn’t even know what he was trying to do anymore. There was no question that he wanted to seduce her. Convince her. Love her. But there was a nagging sense of conscience about what would probably happen afterward. He found himself worrying about leaving the princess heartbroken; it was a concern that had never even occurred to him in the past and yet it was enough to make him hesitate with Leia. Maybe it was because he was loathe to add more pain to her life, or that he cared what she thought of him even in his absence. Maybe he just respected her too much. He was probably guilty of all the above and yet he still sought her affection, as if he needed confirmation that it hadn’t been a fluke that night when she’d welcomed his advances. For two years, he’d received conflicting messages from her, but if he could be sure that she felt the same despite his past and his future…well, at least then there would be a sliver of hope, something to look forward to if he survived Jabba’s wrath and returned.

Things weren’t looking very promising at the moment, however. Responding only in clipped and impersonal answers, the princess had immersed herself in the repairs he’d assigned to her in the circuitry bay adjacent to the main hold. The tiny room was nothing more than a corner with two entrances, but it was the central nervous system for the entire ship. Whenever passing by, he couldn’t resist looking in to check on her, but she refused to pay him any attention. Even the irregular blue flash from her macrofuser felt angry.

Buddy, you really touched a nerve this time, didn’t you?

Standing in front of the Falcon’s main engineering station in the central hold, Threepio attempted to communicate with the freighter’s unorthodox computer systems with a whistling and beeping language not unlike an astrotech droid, but the series of beeps and whistles he got in response appeared to flummox the protocol droid. “Oh, where is Artoo when I need him?” he lamented.

Irritated by the interruption of his thoughts, Han resumed work and stepped next to the droid to retrieve a coil of new wire from a supply case.

“Sir, I don’t know where your ship learned to communicate, but it has the most peculiar dialect. I believe, sir, it says that the power coupling on the negative axis has been polarized. I’m afraid you’ll have to replace it.”

Han stopped, shot the obnoxious interpreter a dirty look, and then stooped to run a quick test by routing power through the circuit in question. Annoyed to have the droid point out something so obvious that he’d somehow overlooked, he snapped, “Well, of course I’ll have to replace it.”

Muttering about the relative worth of droids, Han walked back to stand under the open hatch of the overhead compartment where Chewie was replacing burned out wiring. “Here!”

Chewbacca’s shaggy head appeared in the square hatch, and Han passed up the spare wire. “And Chewie,” he cast a quick glance to see if Threepio was still watching him then added in a more subdued voice, “I think we’d better replace the negative power coupling.”

«Good idea.»

Irked by the confirmation, Han gave a moody hrmmph. Shaking his head, he found himself wandering back toward the circuitry bay and reasoned that it was time to check in on the princess again. He arrived just as she finished up welding a series of ion flow valves back into place. After hanging her set of protective goggles on a convenient makeshift hook, she began snapping closed the various safety latches. However, the main handle to reengage the system only turned halfway before jamming. There followed a battle of wills, princess versus Millennium Falcon, with neither budging.

Han was tempted to simply watch the epic struggle but then recognized his chance to reopen communications. He moved up behind her, intending to reach around and combine their strength to the task, but the instant they touched, she pushed back against him with her entire body, nearly throwing him into the circuitry behind them. Surprised by the hostility, and the angry glare she added for good measure, he held his hands up and away as if he’d been burned. “Hey, Your Worship, I’m only trying to help!”

Returning her attention to the recalcitrant lever, Leia also seemed to redirect her anger toward the frozen handle—or most of it, anyway. “Would you please stop calling me that?”

Han swore there was a new tone in her voice—amnesty—but wasn’t sure he’d identified it properly. “Sure, Leia.” Although he’d rarely used her proper name lately, he’d always liked the way it rolled on his tongue like a fine wine.

Shaking her head, she gave the unmovable lever another try. “You make it so difficult sometimes.”

Not sure now if she was more frustrated with him or his ship, but happy to let her take it out on the Falcon if it meant she kept talking like this, he nodded in agreement; it was a worthy sacrifice. “I do, I really do. You could be a little nicer, though,” he prodded, taking the risk and watching her reaction. “Come on, admit it. Sometimes you think I’m all right.”

Leia gave the handle one last frustrated twist and was rewarded by whacking a knuckle on the curved guard when her grip slipped. With a wince, she let go and sucked on the injured finger to keep it from bleeding. “Occasionally.… Maybe….”

Whether it was the conciliation in her words or just the sight of her lips wrapped around her finger, Han couldn’t be sure, but this was the opportunity he’d been waiting for and he pounced. Catching her injured hand in his own, he began to apply both a gentle massage and his best look of deep concern.

The sudden change in his tactics made Leia back away, but she ran out of room in the corner of the tiny alcove. “When you aren’t acting like a scoundrel,” she qualified, her chin lifting at a defiant and regal tilt to indicate that’s exactly what he was doing at the moment.

“‘Scoundrel’?” he echoed in disbelief. It sounded so starry-eyed, like something out of a trashy romance novel. He’d never pegged Leia as the dreamy type but, then again, he barely knew this side of her. So far, he liked what he was finding. Amused and encouraged, his voice dropped to an intimate rumble as he smiled. “‘Scoundrel’? I like the sound of that.”

Too late she seemed to realize her remark had the opposite effect of its intended purpose and she made a halfhearted attempt to retrieve her hand. “Stop that.” There was a new thread of emotion in her voice, something more vulnerable and unsure.

“Stop what?”

Flushed and confused, she glanced down to watch as his fingers worked into her palm. He could sense her conflict as her hand opened up and relaxed under his caress, even as she made one last weak effort to pull it away. “Stop that. My hands are dirty.”

“My hands are dirty, too. What are you afraid of?”

“‘Afraid’?”

For the first time, she met his eyes without wavering, repeating the word as if he’d accused her of something far worse, and Han realized he’d just found the gap in her armor. There were few things that frightened Leia Organa. He’d had the fortune—or, to be more accurate, the misfortune—of witnessing them over the years. Intimacy with anyone, but particularly with him, often seemed to fall into that tiny category, and he supposed she had some reason to be wary in his case. And yet the very mention of this fact seemed to summon the streak of courage within her that he’d always admired. With that one word, their encounter had turned into a challenge, a dare, and it was something he knew she was incapable of resisting.

As her entire forearm came to rest against his chest, thoughts of her enthusiastic response to his embrace that night on Ord Mantell compelled him to press on. “You’re trembling.”

“I’m not trembling.” Her denial didn’t negate the fact that her tone had dropped to a tremulous, intimate intensity that matched his, or that she seemed incapable of looking away.

“You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There aren’t enough scoundrels in your life.”

Leia shook her head with such a lack of conviction that he would have laughed if his own mood hadn’t suddenly grown so deadly serious. “I happen to like nice men,” she countered in a last-ditch attempt to prevent complete capitulation but her eager whisper foiled the effect.

At last in full agreement with her, he nodded. “I’m nice men.”

“No, you’re not. You’re—”

Her last protest died as their lips met in a slow, hot, undeniable kiss that melted away any further resistance. She tasted so sweet, the hint of fruit from her snack earlier adding an exotic flavor to the growing collection of kisses from her already burned into his memory. His hands dropped to her sides, pulling her closer. He was rewarded when the hand still pressed against his chest shifted and moved up to his neck, her fingers gliding into his hair to hold him there. Intense arousal coursed through him at her encouraging touch, like he’d just been hot-wired into the power grid surrounding them. She must have felt it, too, because her mouth moved against his with sudden hunger, as if starved after weeks of fasting, and there was a mutual gasp for air.

A familiar and unwelcomed whir of servomotors behind Han broke into his awareness as Threepio appeared in the doorway of the circuitry bay, his cultured voice excited and oblivious to what he was interrupting. “Sir! Sir! I’ve isolated the reverse power flux coupling.”

Han opened his eyes as he felt Leia break away, her expression indecipherable. The mood utterly wrecked, he pivoted to face the tactless protocol droid, crowding him back out of the entrance. “Thank you! Thank you very much.”

“Oh, you’re perfectly welcome, sir.”

Rotating back with every intention of picking up where they’d left off, Han’s banked excitement sputtered out upon discovering he was alone; Leia had slipped out the other exit, running away just like the last time. For a moment, he considered chasing after her, convinced this was his last chance to make things right between them, but then he sighed and let his shoulders drop. It was enough to make a guy wonder what the hell was wrong with him if he kept having that effect on her.

Muttering dire threats for useless droids, Han tried to calm his pounding heart and return his attention to the problem lever. He gave the handle an unenthusiastic crank only to have it lock up just as it had for the princess.

Will nothing on this damned ship cooperate with me anymore?!

“Chewie! Get down here and give me a hand.”

«My wife would disapprove of me doing that sort of handiwork.»

Scowling over his shoulder, Han realized too late that the Wookiee had an upside-down but otherwise clear view into the alcove and must have watched their little interlude in voyeuristic enjoyment. “Very funny. Your wife would disapprove of half the things you do if she ever found out. Just get down here and get this blasted thing back online. It’s jammed.”

Disgusted with his recent luck, Han abandoned the lever and stalked back into the main hold to tackle the next failure on his agenda. It was going to be a long day.


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