Into the Fire

Chapter 4

Leia’s hurried walk slowed to a more respectable pace by the time she entered the short passageway that led to the cockpit. Still short of breath, she punched the hatch plate and waited for the door to slide closed behind before falling back against its unyielding surface.

“Get a grip,” she hissed aloud. Feeling as though exposed too long to binary suns at midday, she took a series of deep breaths in an attempt to calm her pulse and mind. She pressed her open palms against the cool metal door and then lifted one to her forehead.

When Solo had led her on and then suddenly rebuffed her weeks ago, she’d gone into a new level of denial of her own feelings so recently uncovered, instead actively looking for reasons to hate him. His extended absence afterward while making supply runs to the Rebel base on Sullust had allowed her the time to nurture that negativity. She’d almost convinced herself that he’d taken advantage of her momentary weakness while on Ord Mantell; that he’d never intended anything serious. Since his arrival on Hoth days ago, he’d begun flipping back and forth, alternately teasing and rejecting her like it was some cruel sport, an exasperating dance that trampled on her emotions, stinging and infuriating at the same time. Now he’d reversed course once again, as if he could just pick up where they’d left off on Ord Mantell—as though none of the hurt had happened in between.

She wanted to curse Solo’s insolence for taking a kiss like that—as if he had the right—but discovered that her outrage was muddled, diluted.

You didn’t exactly fight him off, did you?

Unable to recall ever being so at odds with herself, so out of sync with her own thoughts and instincts, she found her response to his touch terrifying because the sudden rush of passion defeated every conscious effort to cast him off. Weeks ago when he’d said he was staying, those feelings had seemed more appropriate because their situation had seemed a little clearer. But now, with their lives in immediate danger once again and with him poised to leave with no promise or likelihood of returning, her feelings were unwelcome and against her best interests.

Anger swirled within the mix. Why did he keep dragging these things out of her if he had no intention of staying? Just to torture her? Just so he could brag that he’d bedded a leader of the Rebellion, the last princess of Alderaan?

Using a shoulder to push away from the hatch, Leia moved further into the cockpit, gripped the headrest of the communication’s station in her hands, and dug her fingers into the cushioning.

It was just a kiss. Just another kiss.

She’d kissed a few men in her time—a respectable number, all respectable men…. So what if none of them stirred her like Han did? So what if he was the only one to ever kiss her?

It had been years since the last time anyone besides Han had deliberately touched her for a purpose other than medical or physical assistance. Although raised in a demonstrative family and culture in which affection was shared and encouraged, her life since the horrors of the Death Star had become devoid of that simple pleasure. Sometimes, she gave in to the instinct to hug or give an innocent kiss to Luke, but he never initiated the contact, perhaps out of shyness or propriety. No—it was as if people preferred to keep their distance. There were times when she suspected it was out to sympathy, or maybe they saw her as too unapproachable or highborn to be touched—a royal icon to be admired or pitied, but always from afar. Immersed as she was now within a community of like-minded people, the last thing she had expected was to feel so alone, so isolated, and it bothered her far more than she would ever admit.

The exception, of course, was Han. Never intimidated by her title or influence—his inventive nicknames were a ceaseless testament to that, the respect he did pay her instead seemed to stem from her individuality and abilities, bolstered by a surprising streak of chivalry. He certainly had ulterior motives and the escalating physical contact from him over the past year had made his intentions clear. And despite all common sense, she had come to crave his attention and his occasional touch….

Damn him!

It’d be just like the Corellian to be skulking about in the greasiest service pit of his beloved ship at that very moment, basking in his ability to disrupt any semblance of coherent thought she might have. Was that his goal—to drive her insane?

As if to drill home the point, Leia knew she’d made a strategic error in heading to the cockpit rather than her makeshift cabin. This wasn’t the wisest choice of sanctuaries if her intention was to avoid Han and reassemble her composure.

Sighing, she glanced over the panels of darkened indicator lights and sensor screens. It felt odd to see the controls powered down, the cabin quiet and peaceful; she rarely spent any time in the cramped cockpit unless she felt her presence was required and could probably count on one hand the number of times she’d been up here alone. Moving forward, she stood in front of the console between the pilot and copilot seats.

First instincts aside, hiding was not a viable option and she needed to be proactive. Soon enough, she would have to face Solo again. The only thing she could control—barely—was how she treated this situation. Indignation had always served her well in the past but it wasn’t a legitimate response this time; being such an enthusiastic collaborator had nullified that defense. Feigning amnesia might work in holo-dramas but this was real life. Anger, on the other hand, seemed a viable option because she was, without a doubt, sick of being toyed with.

Of course, there was one other choice….

Leia’s dark eyes drifted to the cockpit canopy and the misty asteroid cave beyond as she recalled the kiss.

Was it any wonder, really, why she felt so conflicted? Her opinions of him were as varied and contradictory as the man himself: dependable yet unpredictable, selflessly loyal yet conceited to a fault, a near-genius at times but astoundingly obtuse at others. His reassuring and energizing presence at once seemed to threaten her unflagging dedication to the Alliance and the emotional barriers shielding her from further loss, and yet because he could make her laugh, seethe, and indeed tremble with little more than a wink, he was a handsome, thrilling, challenging, and irresistible puzzle. She was right to call him a scoundrel; who else would be flattered by such a moniker? But he was also correct in pointing out how his behavior was a reason why she liked him in the first place. Of all the things he was and could be, Han Solo was never boring. Whether she liked or loathed him—and that seemed to change from minute to minute, she seemed incapable of indifference toward him.

The unexpected swish of the cockpit hatch caused Leia to jump. She turned around, expecting to meet a pair of mocking hazel eyes but instead found herself looking into glowing photoreceptors. “What, Threepio?” she snapped and then belatedly cringed.

So much for etiquette, Organa.

The droid shuffled in. “Oh, there you are, Your Highness. When I could not locate you, I inquired of Captain Solo as to your whereabouts, and he suggested looking here. I must say that he was quite rude. Of course, I have come to expect a certain lack of refinement when dealing with Captain Solo, but I do believe he has become notably worse. I feel it is my duty to inform you that he has really gone too far. He has threatened to spot-weld me to the Millennium Falcon’s outer hull in an attempt to increase its shielding.”

Unable to do little more than stare at the pompous droid throughout his tirade, Leia clapped a hand over her mouth to prevent herself from laughing out loud.

Apparently nonplussed by her reaction, Threepio voiced his concern. “With all due respect, Your Highness, I do not find this present state of affairs in the least bit humorous. He seemed quite serious and I do believe Chewbacca would assist!”

Unable to dislodge the mental image from her mind, Leia forced herself to respond. “What would you suggest I do?”

His positronic brain seemed ill-prepared for such a response, let alone solving the dilemma. The golden droid uttered an amazing imitation of a human stammer and then waved a metallic arm in a gesture of frustration, servomotors whirring in the quiet cockpit. “Might I suggest that you speak with him concerning this matter? After all, I am a very valuable and necessary companion, as I am sure you are aware. It isn’t a fault in my programming if Captain Solo is unable to realize this. Mistress Leia, I have no doubt that you can make him see reason. If only he would appreciate my efforts to help with repairs.”

Whatever gave him the impression I can make Han Solo do anything?

Nodding to reassure the droid, although she could just imagine Han’s reaction if she were to broach the subject of Threepio’s value any time soon, she switched topics. “What did you want to see me about?”

“Oh yes, I quite forgot! Captain Solo has sent me to inform you that he has succeeded in reengaging the ion flow valve you were repairing.”

“I see.” Wondering if that was a gentle dig from Han—a reminder that they still had a lot of work to do—or a dismissal from further duties, she wasn’t pleased with either conclusion. “Was that all?”

“Yes, Your Highness.” The droid paused, then continued: “Perhaps I should return to my attempts to communicate with this ship’s computer. I must say, it is most obtuse.” With that final observation, Threepio turned and disappeared back through the hatch, leaving Leia alone once again.

Spot-welded to the outer hull?

Leia chewed her bottom lip, unable to resist the hint of a smile, and reconsidered their absurd situation. Why was Han so upset over the interruption? What had he hoped to achieve if he was only going to leave as soon as they rejoined the fleet at the rendezvous point?

Maybe he’s the one more afraid of not getting that goodbye kiss.

Once more lost in contemplation, Leia ran a finger along a leather seam of the seat beside her. The sense of duty her father had drilled into her since childhood demanded she return to assisting with repairs without further delay, and Han did need all the help he could get. A frivolous excuse like brooding over an uninvited kiss was not a legitimate reason to shirk her responsibility as a passenger-cum-crew member. The only problem was that she didn’t feel like going back yet.

In all honesty, she didn’t know what she felt anymore, other than a sharp steady ache in the vicinity of her heart. A part of her wanted to run away—away from him, away with him, away from everyone who demanded something from her but never seemed to offer anything in return. Never one to avoid responsibility, she found this sudden urge to duck out now very strange. Nothing made sense anymore.

Perturbed, she flopped into Chewbacca’s oversized seat and didn’t bother to straighten her poor posture. Instead she slumped a bit further before propping an elbow on the chair’s armrest and resting a temple on her fist as she stared at the empty pilot’s position.

So what if we kissed again? Nothing else has changed.

Maybe it was easy for him to switch back and forth on a whim but it was tearing her apart.

As long as she’d known Han, she’d endured his teasing, cursed his bluntness, tolerated his irreverence, enjoyed his humor, appreciated his friendship, admired his bravery, and in general taken his presence for granted. It was the truth whenever she declared he was a major asset to the Alliance—his piloting skills were unmatched, his instinctive assumption of authority was sound, and his unconventional manner of problem solving often revealed a deft ability to assess every situation with speed and decisiveness. All of those qualities were attributes of a natural leader, and the fact that the troops respected and accepted him despite his lack of rank was confirmation of it.

But the truth didn’t end there and he clearly knew it. The reality was she’d grown to need him every bit as much as did the Rebellion, and although she knew deep down that his leaving was inevitable now, she could no longer imagine life without him. He’d provided a higher ground during the flood of tragedy after Alderaan—rocky ground, sometimes tempest-swept, yet solid and priceless. What would a day be like without regular doses of his attractive and maddening smile, without watching him swagger from one Rebel base to the next? What would it be like to no longer hear his voice, no longer feel it resonate through her entire body, leaving her senses humming and her emotions jangled?

A new sound invaded Leia’s awareness, one unlike the gentle hum of the ship’s support systems, the erratic noise of the crew making repairs in back, and the concussive thumping of the Imperial bombardment. Acting on instinct, she glanced up toward the cockpit canopy, wondering if she’d imagined a faint scraping sound coming from outside. There seemed to be a shift in the shadows created by the exterior floodlights, then suddenly, much closer, a flurry of motion that brushed past the viewport. Frowning, she sat upright and peered deeper into the foggy gloom, curiosity overriding her well-developed sense of caution.

Without further warning, something slick and disgusting splattered against the canopy pane and Leia jerked back in her seat with a start. Had something fallen from the ceiling of the cave? Baffled, she eased forward and stood to get a closer look, squinting up at the foreign object. Suddenly, two appendages appeared with large yellow eyes that blinked and then peered back at her. With a startled shriek, Leia stumbled backward, spun away, and almost smacked into the closed hatch. Slapping blindly at the palm plate, she spared a last glance back to see the creature, whatever it was, wriggling across her view and leaving a trail of slime on the transparasteel.

She’d seen enough. When the hatch slid open, Leia tore through the short corridor and into the main hold, where she skidded to a halt in the middle of the room, interrupting yet another debate between man and droid.

“There’s something out there!”

Crouched over some bit of exposed circuitry, both Han and Chewbacca paused and the blue arc of the macrofuser sputtered to a stop as they looked up at her. Han raised a hand to shove his protective goggles up onto his forehead, then stared at her as if she’d blown a fuse.

One word about that damned kiss and I’ll kill him with his own blaster. I swear I will.

But Han’s expression remained all business. “Where?”

“Outside, in the cave.”

As if to prove her point, there followed a loud banging against the outer hull that caused both smugglers to straightened up and rip off their goggles.

«She’s right, there is something out there.»

Threepio waved his golden arms in alarm. “There it is. Listen! Listen!”

Having heard enough, Han marched toward the bank of rebreathers hanging near the boarding ramp, with Chewbacca right behind. “I’m going out there,” he announced, his voice determined, as though he’d run out of patience with all the delays and troubles plaguing them.

“Are you crazy?!” She had no idea what was waiting out there, but leaving the relative safety of the ship seemed the epitome of foolishness. What did he think he was going to do—duel with whatever creature that was?

“I just got this bucket back together. I’m not going to let something tear it apart.”

Torn between her apprehension of the unknown and concern that he might need her help, she gave in. “Oh, then I’m going with you!” Snagging another breathing mask, she rushed to strap it on over her face as she strode after them.

The atmosphere was warm and humid against her exposed skin, not at all what she was expecting, as the ramp dropped and came to a rest on the cave floor. Blaster already drawn from the low-slung holster on his thigh, Han gripped a ramp strut with his free hand and then leaned out to tap the ground with a single foot, testing the surface hidden in mist. He took a cautious first step, then another.

Working up her own nerve, Leia followed suit, moving out onto the spongy surface. “This ground sure feels strange. It doesn’t feel like rock.”

“There’s an awful lot of moisture in here,” Han added. His voice was muffled by the rebreather but his puzzlement rang clear.

“I don’t know. I have a bad feeling about this.”

“Yeah.”

As Han began moving away, stepping around to inspect the Falcon, Leia trailed behind and peered out into the murky gloom beyond the reach of the freighter’s floodlights, watching his back. Something didn’t feel right about this, not at all. She still wasn’t sure how it was even possible they could be walking around like this without an envirosuit, let alone what could be living here in what they’d assumed to be a barren rock.

A sudden scurrying sound made Leia spin around.

“Watch out!” Quick as lightning, Han drew a bead with his blaster and fired. His aim was true and the creature cried out as it fell from the underside of the Falcon’s tail section. “It’s all right, it’s all right.” He stepped closer and nudged the crumpled body with his booted toe, then glanced back to the ship. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Mynock. Chewie, check the rest of the ship, make sure there are no more attached…chewing on the power cables.”

“Mynocks?” Arms wrapped around her chest as she stared down at the dead creature, Leia shuddered; she’d never heard of them. As if they’d needed one more complication. Looking back up toward the inky black of the ceiling above, she wondered if a hint of movement was just her imagination.

“Go on inside,” Han said to her. “We’ll clean them off if there are any more.”

Secretly relieved to be dismissed, Leia turned only to walk into a flurry of fluttering leathery wings that swooped past her close enough to graze her head. A basic fear of it tangling in her hair made Leia shriek and she flung her arms up over her head. Abandoning poise, she dashed back toward the ramp.

A moment later, Chewbacca fired at one of the flying creatures with the bowcaster he’d brought along, but the bolt went wide and disappeared into the darkness beyond. An instant later, the cavern rumbled with a little earthquake.

Han swung around to stare out into the blackness, his eyes betraying his new concern. “Weird….”

From the relative safety below the hull of the ship, Leia stopped to watch as Han leveled his blaster once again, this time at the cave floor, and fired.

The ground buckled beneath their feet as the entire cavern began to roil around them strong enough to make them stagger. Too late in grabbing onto the ship for support, Leia pitched backward and would have fallen if Han hadn’t arrived in time to catch her and tip her forward. She latched onto the closest ramp strut and hugged tight as the entire cave seemed to heave up in seismic complaint. Whatever reaction Han had initiated showed no signs of stopping this time and he ran past her and up the ramp. Chewbacca leapt onto the ramp a moment later as it began to rise with them still on it.

“All right, Chewie, let’s get out of here!” Han yelled, already powering up all the ship’s flight systems from the engineering station in the main hold. The whine of the ship reawakening filled the air but didn’t mask the rumbling outside or the clatter of unsecured items inside.

Leia reeled toward him as the deck below her feet lurched again. “The Empire is still out there! I don’t think it’s wise to—!”

“No time to discuss this in committee!” Han cut her off, practically dancing in his effort to keep on his feet as he raced past her toward the cockpit.

Temper reignited, Leia did her best to follow him as the ship rocked. “I am not a committee!” she yelled after him before a particularly strong jolt sent her crashing against the padded bulkhead. Gritting her teeth, she pushed herself off it and tottered in his wake. “I am not a committee.”

Staggering through the cockpit hatchway, she was just in time to watch as Han fired up the engines. “You can’t make the jump to light-speed in this asteroid field,” she pointed out, as if any of them needed the reminder.

“Sit down, Sweetheart. We’re taking off!”

Another violent shock sent her toppling into the navigator seat with opportune timing as Han grasped the controls and engaged the repulsors, and the Falcon rose off the cave floor. As the ship stabilized, he yanked back on the throttle and they rocketed forward toward the pinpoint of light in the distance.

Chewbacca stabbed an urgent, hairy finger toward what had been a circle of light ahead, the entrance to the cavern—it wasn’t a circle so much anymore as a horizontal oval. «It’s closing!»

Threepio cried out, “Look!”

“I see it, I see it.” Han strained to urge more speed from his aged ship.

“We’re doomed!” the droid wailed.

Horrified, Leia stared as they sped toward the rows of jagged white stalagmites and stalactites lining the entrance that now threatened to block their exit.

“The cave is collapsing!” she blurted out, unable to make any other kind of sense out of what she was witnessing.

“This is no cave.” Han’s voice was grim.

“What?!”

Then Leia’s mouth snapped shut in subconscious mimicry, realizing too late that what had appeared as white rocks were an incontestable reminder that they weren’t even close to the top of the food chain.

I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this is happening.

Leia slammed her eyes shut and waited for the end.


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