Into the Fire

Chapter 5

General Rieekan had once told Leia that war amounted to countless days of mindless boredom interrupted by random minutes of sheer terror. Today she was discovering the flaw in that adage because she was pretty sure all those minutes were piling up into one long horrific day.

The only possible upside to the day’s disaster so far was that terror tended to override everything else. Their hasty exit from whatever had nearly devoured them in the cave of that asteroid, followed by their reemergence into the hazards of the asteroid field, and now their renewed flight from the awaiting Imperial warships beyond had been more than enough to shove any other emotional turmoil to a remote corner of her mind. Now to top off an already-appalling day, the hyperdrive had failed again, leaving them unable to escape the Imperial battle fleet.

But Han seemed to have performed the impossible, a sleight of hand that disappeared them in the blink of an eye in the middle of a swarm of angry warships. Attached like a tiny parasite to the blind side of the bridge of one of the massive Star Destroyers, the Millennium Falcon was powered down and hidden in nothing resembling a secluded or protected spot, yet the freighter must have blended into the surrounding superstructure. It was a brilliant and unanticipated gambit, hiding in plain sight in the heart of the fleet, but it felt a bit like having an executioner’s axe hovering unseen overhead, wondering when the blade would drop and how much it would hurt.

Still recovering from her initial shock, Leia was surprised by how fast the two smugglers shut down all but the environmental systems. They managed it with a speed she wouldn’t have believed possible.

See-Threepio, on the other hand, was less than impressed. “Captain Solo, this time you have gone too far!”

«Be quiet,» Chewie growled in a threatening tone.

“No, I will not be quiet, Chewbacca! Why doesn’t anyone listen to me?”

Ignoring the protesting droid, Han waved a finger at the movement of ships around them, talking with his copilot. “The fleet is beginning to break up. Go back and stand by the manual release for the landing claw.”

«Give me two minutes.» Chewie rose from his seat and left the cockpit.

“I really don’t see how that’s going to help,” Threepio prattled on. “Surrender is a perfectly acceptable alternative in extreme circumstances.”

The moment capitulation was mentioned, Leia rolled her eyes. Obviously on the same wavelength, Han glanced over his shoulder at her and made an ushering gesture she translated to mean Shut him up before he takes a long walk out a short airlock.

“The Empire may be gracious enough—” The droid’s conciliatory speech died midsentence as Leia reached over to hit his kill switch.

“Thank you,” Han muttered in palpable relief.

Not bothering to hide her fascination in watching such a skilled smuggler in action, she rose out of her seat and leaned against the forward dashboard so she could have a clear view out the canopy and of him. “What did you have in mind for your next move?”

“Well, if they follow standard Imperial procedure, they’ll dump their garbage before they go to light-speed, then we just float away.” The last part Solo emphasized with a drifting motion of his hand.

Although nodding her head in approval, she was unable to keep herself from adding, “With the rest of the garbage. Then what?”

Although he rewarded her with a little scowl, he was too occupied with star maps on the forward console monitor to take her bait. “Then we’ve got to find a safe port somewhere around here…. Got any ideas?”

Grateful to be included in the planning this time, she leaned in closer to get a better look at the screen. “Where are we?”

“The Anoat system.”

Leia shook her head, trying to recall what she knew about the remote region that had bordered the Hoth system. High Command had ruled it out at the time as a potential location for a Rebel base. “The Anoat system. There’s not much there.”

“No.” Han paused and then straightened up as he fiddled with the controls to zoom in on one entry. “Well, wait. This is interesting. Lando.”

The sound of surprise in his voice piqued her curiosity and she risked openly studying his handsome features bathed in the blue light from the comp screen. “Lando system?”

“Lando’s not a system—he’s a man. Lando Calrissian.” As if feeling the need to elaborate, he went on with a shrug. “He’s a cardplayer. Gambler. Scoundrel. You’d like him.” He glanced back at her with a brief but triumphant smirk.

Flushing, Leia dropped her head. It was obvious that she would never live that down. “Thanks.”

Han read a bit more. “Bespin. It’s pretty far but I think we can make it.”

Curiosity returning, she squinted at the screen to read along with him. “A mining colony?”

“Yeah, a Tibanna gas mine. Lando conned somebody out of it.” He switched off the monitor and leaned back in his seat. “We go back a long way, Lando and me.”

It was a rare event when Han shared anything about his past, but something in his manner made Leia suspicious. He looked like he was trying to convince himself. “Can you trust him?”

His eyes met hers, his expression sheepish as he confessed, “No…but he has no love for the Empire, I can tell you that.”

Their quiet conversation was interrupted by new movement outside the cockpit as the massive Imperial ships began changing formation. Han double-checked his readouts and then stretched to look out the cockpit window before reaching to key open the intercom. “Here we go, Chewie. Stand by…. Detach!”

Still standing beside Solo, Leia watched as the fleet began to split up. After the nightmare of their escape from Hoth and then the asteroid field, she had trouble believing that a scheme so insane and simple could work to shake off their pursuers. For the first time daring to hope they might survive this mess, she remained silent, riveted, as one after another of the colossal star destroyers began to dump their refuse before winking out of view as they accelerated into hyperspace.

It wasn’t until the last Imperial ships disappeared that Leia realized she was holding her breath. She let it out and patted Han on the shoulder. “You do have your moments. Not many of them, but you do have them.” Telling herself it was only an act of gratitude, she bent down to press a spontaneous kiss to his cheek.

Not waiting for his reaction, she moved behind him to hide the jumble of emotions tumbling back. Only hours ago, she’d been determined to hate him for reneging on his promise to stay and taking advantage of her emotions in the meantime, and yet here she was now, rewarding his latest act of bravery. It was maddening to know he could so easily breach her defenses with one kiss, just as he’d asserted back on Hoth. Her annoyance was compounded by the fact that he really hadn’t changed at all—he was still the same provoking man she’d always known. No, this all seemed to be her own personal evolution. This was all her.

I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with you, Organa.

Relaxing back into the navigator’s chair as all the tension and fear from the day flooded out of her body in a reverse rush, the abrupt drop in adrenaline left her weak and lightheaded. Only then did she notice her trembling. She held up a hand to stare at it in detached fascination before clasping her other hand over it in an attempt to still her nerves. For one crazy moment, she didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or just collapse in a heap on the deck.

Maybe everyone’s right—maybe you need some time off. Somewhere remote and quiet. Maybe a spa resort or beach somewhere. Yes, that’s it.

With a little effort, she could imagine it now: a warm sun melting away the permafrost of Hoth, the gentle rhythmic roar of the surf providing the most soothing natural music to wash away the frantic voices and violence of the day, the cool wet sand squishing between her toes….

“You okay?”

When Leia looked up again, Han was twisted around in his seat and eying her as if she might fall over.

Embarrassed to be caught in such a state, she nodded. “I’m fine. It just takes me a while to recover from one of your rescues.”

That caused a guilty smile. “Yeah. I know what you mean.” Solo turned back to the controls to guide the ship out of the new debris field of abandoned garbage. “You know how to set in sub-light coordinates?”

“Of course.”

“Of course,” he echoed, as if any other answer would be absurd. “Set a course for four-twenty-three.”

Glad to refocus her mind on something constructive, she swiveled her chair toward the navigation console and spared a moment to become familiar with its unique controls before entering in the data; while she’d looked at it on the odd occasion during other trips, she’d never used this particular navcompuntil now.

Chewbacca returned to the cockpit a few moments later to resume his spot at the copilot station. «The shields are at half-capacity and both the close-proximity and long-distance sensors are dead.»

The status update drew a livid curse from Han that Leia silently echoed. While lucky to still be alive, their prospects without a hyperdrive or the other vital systems were grim; Bespin was a stretch but returning to Hoth was out of the question.

Finishing with her assigned task, Leia double-checked her numbers before announcing, “Coordinates are set. Do you want to check them?”

“Nah, I trust you, Sweetheart.”

Never mind that she’d faced down Darth Vader without flinching or held off squads of stormtroopers with little more than a blaster—those words made her heartbeat flutter. It was embarrassing! And how could it be that all his other nicknames irritated her so and yet this particular one had the opposite effect? Was it because he always seemed to mean it?

You’re imagining things. As soon as we reach civilization, this will all be academic. He’ll be gone.

Reaching forward to engage the sub-light engines, Han started them on their long journey. Then he settled back in his seat and swiveled it to the side so he could see them all as he blew out a loud sigh. “There’s good news and bad news.”

Exhaustion made Leia rub her eyes. Would this day never end?

“The sub-lights are working fine and should get us to Bespin in about twenty-six days—”

“Please tell me that’s the bad news,” Leia murmured. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard anything she would have classified as good; it was her sneaking suspicion that all of it was bad but just a matter of degree.

“—unless we can fix whatever’s wrong with the hyperdrive,” Han continued while directing a sour look at her. “There’s enough fuel for the trip and we replaced the water recycler and moisture reclamation unit not too long ago, so there should be no worries there, either. We restocked fresh food before reaching Hoth but that was a few days ago and now we’ve got an extra mouth to feed, so we’ll have to ration the fresh and frozen stuff or else it won’t last long. There’s plenty of dehydrated and emergency field rations to supplement it, so we should be okay.”

They all grimaced at the prospect, but it was still better than the alternative.

Going on, Han pointed a finger in the direction of the communications station. “We can’t risk sending out a distress signal. It’d probably draw the wrong kind of attention in this region and we’re not that desperate yet. We’ll have to run shifts in the cockpit since we’re flying blind with diminished shields—that’s rotating four-hours on, eight-hours off, Princess.”

Leia glanced toward the darkened and silent protocol droid seated next to her. “What about Threepio? Couldn’t he do most of the shifts?”

“I’m not letting him anywhere near the controls. Besides, do you really want to turn that chatterbox back on?”

It was a rhetorical question and she knew it; the cockpit was blissfully quiet without his constant fretting in the background. Plus, the droid’s rotten timing had done nothing to endear him to either of them. She didn’t bother with a response.

“Thought so. Chewie, you take the first shift. The Princess here is going back with me.”

Obviously thinking the same thing, Chewbacca joined her in throwing Han a suspicious glare. If he thought he could resume his romantic overtures now….

“What?” Han demanded, raising both hands in defense before pointing a finger in the general direction of the main hold to the rear. “The tools are at the bottom of the maintenance pit, remember? Nobody else can fit down there.”

“Oh,” she echoed Chewie.

Frowning at their joint insinuation, Han redirected his finger at her. “Fine, Your Worship. We’ll make this official. Until further notice, you’re now part of the crew. I only ferry paying passengers so you’re going to earn your keep. Come on.” He got out of his seat.

Unwilling to appear the unenthusiastic team player, she rose and followed him out the hatchway. They passed down the short cockpit corridor, across the ring corridor, down through the tiny lounge and into the main hold. A large piece of the grated decking was already raised up on its hinges, revealing a wide pit in the floor. Stepping up to the edge, she looked down into the confusion of crisscrossing shafts and piping. Although it was dimly lit from inside by a bank of blue-white lights around the rim, she couldn’t see the bottom.

“I’m supposed to go down there?”

“The whole tool tray fell in,” Han spoke as he stepped off to the side and opened a storage cabinet. He drew out a glow-rod, turned it on, and began snaking it down into the pit by a cord tied to one end. “Ever do any gymnastics, Your Petiteness?”

“Yes, but that was….” Not liking the sudden change in Han’s expression and reluctant to imagine or encourage where his thoughts had gone, she tapered off. Without another word, she removed her thermal vest and tossed it to the side, then sat down on the edge of the pit, letting her legs dangle down until her booted feet rested on one of the metal shafts. It was smooth and slippery, offering no purchase. Reconsidering her approach, she shifted around onto her belly, her fingers gripping the grated decking for support as she began to lower herself into the underbelly of the ship.

“Careful,” Han offered.

The space was too tight to allow a clear view of where she was going, forcing her to weave her way down mostly by feel. The dangling light cast stark shadows that danced about her as one of her feet finally touched what was probably the lower deck. “Could you try to hold that light steady, please?” she growled, unable to hide her aggravation.

Han let the glow-rod drop until it came to rest on the lower deck. “If you find anything else interesting down there, let me know, huh?”

Grunting in disgust, not wanting to contemplate what might be lurking in the bowels of the old freighter, she paused to think about her next move. Now she understood why he’d asked about the gymnastics—there was no way to reach the very bottom without using her whole body to balance and swivel around, and the grips seemed to get greasier the deeper she went. The space was so cramped that recovering the tools wasn’t just a case of bending over to pick them up. “How do you normally get tools out of here?” she called up.

“Sending down a princess is my preferred method, but they’re hard to come by, especially ones that don’t mind a little dirt.”

You expected a straight answer?

“If only there was a little dirt down here,” she grumbled. Grime already coated her hands, making her grips that much more precarious.

The first item she came to was the empty tool tray, wedged upside-down against a support strut and the last cross shaft. She righted it and lodged it back in the same spot so she had a place to collect the tools, then shifted around on her stomach before kicking a foot out against another strut for leverage. With a careful stretch, she was able to grasp the closest set of spanners below. Dropping it in the tray, she swiveled around to pick up the next one in sight.

Despite her discomfort, it felt good to have something physical to do while she tried to work through her problems, of which there were many. The most obvious one was this whole farce of an escape that left her trapped aboard a decrepit scow with the one man in the universe who seemed determined to drive her crazy.

Four weeks of this! Either I’m going to kill him or….

For the first time, the notion struck her of what could happen while living in close quarters with Han for nearly a standard month. Not daring to entertain that thought, Leia clamped down on it by reminding herself that his plan was to reach Bespin, complete repairs, return her to the Alliance—assuming the rendezvous point hadn’t been compromised and he wasn’t forced to just dump her off at the nearest port to find her own way back, and leave.

Four weeks?

“How you doing down there?” Han inquired, breaking in on her thoughts.

Overstretching while reaching for the next spanner, she answered with a loud grunt of surprise as she slipped forward. One leg swung up to hit against the next beam above her and she managed to bring her elbow around just in time to keep from sliding headfirst onto the hull below. Upside-down and struggling to regain her balance and dignity, she let out a particularly favorite Alderaani curse.

“Hey, are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” she forced out through gritted teeth.

“Is that your foot?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Okay, just checking.”

His obvious amusement did nothing to help her mood. Determined to appear as though she’d intended the slip, she reached out to grip another strut near her head, using it to brace herself as she picked up a couple more tools now within reach.

This really was an intolerable situation, playing fetch for a commitment-phobic spacer when she should be back with the Alliance where she belonged, tending to the wounded and helping with the reassembly and arranging purchases of replacement equipment and supplies….

Dying on Hoth.

Groaning with the effort, she shifted around to snatch a rephaser up off the floor.

That’s where you’d be right now. Dead in the Command Center, crushed or entombed or shot. Or worse…much worse.

The next recovered tool landed in the box with a clatter.

Instead, I’m stuck here with an enigma of a man who’s going to….

But he didn’t abandon you. He could have. He should have.

Reaching over to snag the cord attached to the glow-rod, Leia directed light into the far corners. There was one tool left but, of course, it was out of reach. In a feat of acrobatics she hadn’t tried in some time, she rocked backwards in order to right herself, and then slid herself lengthwise along the shaft until she was within reach. After depositing the last stray tool in the tray, she twisted around, puffed out her cheeks from the exertion, and then gazed up to begin planning her assent. She spotted Han’s face, haloed by the overhead lights, displaying the biggest smile she’d seen in weeks.

“You’re amazing,” he rumbled.

Something in that blasted smile, in his unanticipated compliment, threatened to stop her heart. Why did he insist on doing that when she was trying to stay mad at him? All it did was make things worse by generating a longing for something that couldn’t be. “I’m coming up,” she announced, deciding to ignore it.

Climbing was easier said than done as she now had to dedicate one hand to carrying the heavy tool tray. There wasn’t much room for maneuvering around, although at least she could see where she was going. Han lay facedown on the decking so he could reach into the pit when she got close enough to hoist the toolbox up with both hands.

“Thanks. You just saved us a couple hours of fooling around with a magnet on a line.”

So that was how they did it otherwise. She could see how difficult that would be. “Wouldn’t it be more efficient to just attach lines to the tools themselves?”

He disappeared from view for a moment as he got to his feet then reappeared in time to send her a smirk. “What, and miss that performance?”

Rolling her eyes, she debated remaining in the pit just to avoid him; she’d hidden in worse spots. Then giving up, she twisted around to begin climbing up onto the next shaft, where there was enough clearance to allow her to stand up, eye-level with the upper deck. Han tossed her a clean rag and she wiped her hands off while wondering what would be next—climbing through the ductwork, maybe, or some gross hazing chores usually assigned to new crew members?

Bracing himself at the edge of the pit, Han reached down again to offer a hand up. She eyed it for a moment before accepting in the spirit of teamwork. After grasping each other’s wrists, he hauled her up until she could step onto the uppermost cross shaft and then back onto the main deck. When he didn’t let go right away, she fretted what to do if he pulled her closer but she needn’t have bothered; he was too busy laughing.

Unable to find anything humorous about their situation, Leia extracted her arm. “What’s so funny?”

“Guess that’s one place where we won’t have to clean for a while.”

Frowning, she glanced down at herself, only now noticing the state of her all-white thermal bodysuit. From neck to toe, she was smeared with streaks and wide swaths of black grime. Worse yet, this was the only set of clothing she had—what personal items she possessed were packed on a troop transport that, with any luck, was heading toward the rendezvous point.

“I think it’s safe to say that you’ve never cleaned down there.”

“True. The job’s all yours. Looks like we’ll have to find you something else to wear, huh?” he added, his expression softening just a little.

Mustering a look of serenity she didn’t feel, she made a little nod. Could things get much worse?

Scratch that—you know better. Things could get a lot worse.

“Come on, let’s go scrounge something up.” He led her back into the ring corridor toward the bunkroom that served as his cabin and then palmed open the hatch and walked in.

The Falcon’s original configuration had a communal crew’s quarters with three bunks, accompanying lockers, and a combined sonics chamber and fresher. However, Solo had done many modifications to the ship, some having nothing to do with engines, shielding, or armament. The most significant was his revamp of the sonics, refitting and hooking it up to an oversized water recycling unit to provide real water showers, a sheer luxury on a starcraft of this size. It was a feature Leia exploited whenever possible, never mind that it probably fueled those rumors spreading around the Alliance.

Likewise, to accommodate Chewbacca, who was too tall for the bunk alcoves, Han had installed false bulkheads in a corner of the rear hold to create a makeshift cabin. Not long after the Death Star and the start of his indefinite employment with the Rebellion, he’d added a second compartment next to Chewie’s, ostensibly for Alliance-related passengers requiring extra privacy. It had once been used by an Alliance general transferring out of the Serricci base over a year ago. In practice, however, the cabin had practically become hers whenever she was onboard. The door was little more than a swinging sheet of thin durasteel with a latch, the only accommodations a cot spot-welded to the deck and a couple of crates cut up to function as a desk and locker. It wasn’t much and it wasn’t pretty, but it was an effort and sacrifice of space she would not have expected from the irritable smuggler, and now it would spare her the awkwardness of bunking next to him for a month.

While she’d been in his cabin countless times for the purposes of accessing the fresher or medical station, she hesitated at the threshold now. On the eve of a very long journey, this was not the time to set a precedent of being in his quarters, with him, for any other reason.

Han noticed her hanging back and his shoulders dropped as he pointed at one of the spare bunks. “Relax. I’m not going to attack you. Sit.”

Finally relenting, she stepped into the middle of the room. Three of the bulkheads featured recessed bunks, one of them serving double-duty as a rudimentary medical station. Knowing from past voyages that Han used the center bunk, her eyes were drawn to it as a variety of unhelpful thoughts distracted her. Then she noticed for the first time how wide the sleeping platform seemed and her eyes flicked to the other two beds for comparison; his was twice as deep and the realization dawned on her that he’d modified it to be much roomier. The only possible reason generated a flush that made the high collar of her snowsuit feel hotter than usual. Why hadn’t she ever noticed that before?

Dropping down onto the edge of the med bunk, her back ramrod straight and hands folded on her lap, Leia felt the irritation she’d cultivated for weeks start to wilt in the heat as wildly different ideas ran through her head, some of them involving that double-capacity bunk.

Relax? I haven’t relaxed in years. I’m not likely to start now.

Watching as he rummaged through the small storage lockers built into the walls between the bunks, curiosity got the better of her again and she studied the rest of the cabin, hoping to glean more of an understanding of who this perplexing man was by the artifacts around them. Considering how shielded he was about his life in general, it came as little surprise that the cabin was devoid of decoration. Tending toward fastidiousness about his appearance, that nature was reflected by the distinct lack of personal clutter in the room. She might have liked a little peek inside that cabinet he was raiding, but her view was blocked so she tried to change the unspoken topic.

“Do you still have a datapad I can borrow? If I’m going to be stuck here for the next month, I might as well try to get some work done.” Foremost in her mind was monitoring the media sources for any news—official or otherwise—of the battle they’d just survived, but it would also provide an avenue of escape, of distraction from what was clearly going to be an awkward voyage.

Han spared a glance over his shoulder. “Sure, there’s one in the cabinet under the holo-table.” He stopped, as if needing a moment to consider something, then turned to face her full-on. “Look, Leia, it is going to be a long trip so you might as well get comfortable. It’s not much but you’re welcome to whatever I’ve got. I’ll make sure you’ve got access to the ship’s computer, too…but I’ll warn you, there’s a glitch so she’s a bit flakey.”

This new level of openness, from a man who as a rule was very guarded about his ship and his life, left her mystified. Why was he letting her into his life at a time when it would be in both their interests to block any new intimacy? She couldn’t decide whether this made him a sadist, a masochist, or just plain crazy. “Thank you. Is there anything I should avoid?”

“Yeah, Chewie in the morning before he’s had his kaffe. He’s not always the happiest Wookiee.”

“Duly noted.”

For a moment, they shared a common smile, as if on the same wavelength, and then she remembered she was still mad at him. Looking down at her interlocked hands, she tried to ignore his lingering gaze.

“What’s stashed in your cabin from the last trip?” he asked.

“Nothing.”

“Come on, you’re always leaving stuff behind. I figured it was because you wanted excuses to keep using the shower,” Han said with one of his foolproof smirks. The air of confidence in his own irresistibility was as ever-present as his blaster and it never failed to vex her. She would rather take another ride through the asteroid belt than validate his theory.

He must have recognized she wasn’t giving up ground. “Anyway, it’s not much but it’s a start.” One arm full, he closed the locker, moved to stand in front of her, and then started listing items off as he handed them over. “A couple pairs of workout pants you can have, and a couple of shirts, some socks. Like I said, you’re welcome to anything else.”

“Thank you.” She paused, not sure of what to do next. Here she was, sitting on a bunk in Han’s cabin and about to share his clothing, with him staring down at her almost in anticipation. What he expected she didn’t dare guess, but a feeling akin to morbid curiosity kept her from moving. As if encouraged by her lack of action, he moved to sit down beside her.

The instant he sat, Leia realized she wasn’t ready for this yet, whatever this was. There were too many issues between them left unresolved and one kiss hadn’t erased them—all the latest kiss had done was maybe reopen negotiations. Not giving him the chance to do anything more, she stood and stepped out of reach. She turned in time to see the disappointment on his face but refused to feel sorry for him, not after the weeks of emotional injury he’d caused. She tipped her head toward the exit. “I need to clean up.”

Recognizing his cue to leave, Han rose to stand in front of her, and again there was an undecided air about him, as if he might force the unspoken subject on both their minds. His hazel gaze met hers before dropping down to her lips. She felt her heart beat faster despite her better reasoning.

Don’t do this. This is crazy and pointless—he can’t make up his mind and you’re already damaged enough.

And yet here they stood with an abyss between them, both poised to fall.

Self-conscious, she looked away first and then felt Han step around her to palm open the hatch.

“I’ll go make us something to eat.”

She nodded in agreement, almost relieved that he’d taken a different initiative.

Four weeks of this…?


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