Into the Fire

Chapter 6

It was amazing what a real water shower and clean change of clothing could accomplish. Leia took her time washing up, running the water as hot as she could stand it until the last vestiges of Hoth were melted away, then stayed a good while longer under the water jets simply because it felt good.

Afterward, still in the cramped fresher, she went through the clothing Solo had given her, trying to figure out a way to wear them. The shirts were simple enough to deal with—the dark blue short-sleeved ones hung to about mid-thigh and were baggy but otherwise comfortable. The long-sleeved white shirt felt more like a dress, even with the sleeves rolled up, and probably wouldn’t be good for much else other than lounging or sleeping. The trousers were a tougher challenge due to their difference in height. She was in danger of tripping over the cuffs or having them fall down around her ankles—or, Goddess forbid, both! The black workout pants had a drawstring at the waist, a small blessing since it allowed her to cinch them tight and roll up the waistband to take up the extra material, and cutting off the excess pant legs made them functional—if he complained, she’d just have to buy him new ones once they arrived on Bespin. The only items she had no options for were shoes. The thin metal deck plates were tolerably cool but walking around barefoot or in socks on the slick floor while doing repairs wasn’t a safe choice. While her blue insulated snow boots were a bit too warm, they at least offered some protection and a grip, so she would have to stick with them most of the time.

Having sorted all that out, Leia retired to her makeshift cabin to await her first shift in the cockpit. Han had been right, of course—there were several basic items she tended to leave behind in anticipation of future missions: a handheld mirror, a brush and collection of hairpins, a toothbrush, some more-feminine cleansers and lotions, and a bottle of perfume he’d given her at some point over a year ago after one of his rare smuggling runs to the Core Systems. She’d liked the gift and yet for some reason—Propriety? Convenience? His benefit?—she kept it stashed onboard.

Since their fates were set in durasteel for the next twenty-six days unless they got the hyperdrive working, there was little point in putting a lot of effort into elaborate hair arrangements. Function above fashion had become her motto as a full-time member of the Rebellion. Today, she settled for a single loose plait down her back, just enough to keep it out of her way.

By the time she’d accomplished all these things, half of Chewbacca’s shift in the cockpit had already passed. She’d relaxed on the cot for a while but was unable to stop her mind from racing over recent events. Eventually, the odor of cooking food drew her out and back into the main hold where she shared a quiet meal alone with Han, who appeared both amused and intrigued by her new wardrobe. She’d waited with trepidation for him to make some sort of innuendo about her wearing his clothes, and he clearly wanted to, but he held back and they’d finished with nothing more than idle chitchat. Somehow, that seemed worse.

It was just as well that she manned the next watch in the cockpit while Chewie went back to work with Han on repairs. Despite her increasing exhaustion, she still needed the time alone to decompress. Seated in the pilot’s chair now with legs folded up beneath her, the datapad tucked into the seat at her side and forgotten, Leia leaned heavily on one of the armrests and stared out the canopy at the barely moving stars.

Now that their own situation had calmed down somewhat, other worrying thoughts had arisen. Despite the last report she’d heard of Luke being shot down, she prayed he was okay and already at the rendezvous. Likewise for General Rieekan; her friend, Lieutenant Kristin Aldritch; and the other Echo Base personnel she’d come to know. On a practical level, she knew that worrying achieved nothing and she was certainly in no position to help even if she could, and yet she couldn’t help thinking about each of them and wondering if she’d ever see them again.

Of course, it was just as likely that they were anxious about her condition. The last transmission from Han had been to notify the last waiting Rebel transport that he was getting the Princess out on the Falcon. After that, they’d disappeared into the maelstrom of Imperial ships in orbit around Hoth. For all anyone knew, the Falcon, along with its crew and passengers, had been destroyed. They were effectively off the scanners.

Uninvited, her thoughts also kept circling back to Han—not that this was a new development but now there was little else to keep her from rehashing recent events. Back on Ord Mantell, when he’d told her he would be staying on with the Alliance, things had changed between them. They’d forged a peace, a cessation of hostilities. The pleasant compromise had given her a whole new outlook on their relationship, something she’d never taken seriously before. He couldn’t have picked a more vulnerable time to push her away, leaving her feeling manipulated and discarded, alternately agonizing over what she might have done wrong and why she’d been such a fool. His announcement to General Rieekan that he was leaving, despite his earlier promise, had proved the final insult. At first perplexed, then wounded, and then livid, she’d taken to lashing out at him with a complete disregard for propriety—a most unprincesslike behavior that appalled her and yet she’d been unable to stop.

And now, this time in a single brash act with that deliberate kiss a few hours ago, he’d tilted her world on end yet again. All the heat and desire he’d generated weeks ago on a couch in a hotel room on Ord Mantell had come rushing back like a storm surge. Dazed, she’d done exactly what she swore never to do again—she fled. Perhaps more than anything else, that’s what bothered her now; she felt at the mercy of her hormones for the first time in her life and it was more than just disturbing.

As if summoned, the cockpit hatch slid aside and Han strolled in. He reached overhead to flip on some toggle switches then grinned in satisfaction as a series of blinking red lights switched to steady blue. Only then did he finally look down toward her. “Hey, Beautiful. Thinking about me?”

And just like that, she felt her temper spike once more. “Shut up, Han,” she snapped, but an instant later, she regretted it. With a sigh, she closed her eyes and attempted to cleanse her mind. Despite wanting to stay angry with him—it was a far more comfortable and familiar emotion to deal with than the flutter in her stomach whenever he called her that, she found herself running out of fuel. If his goal was to wear her down, he had finally succeeded.

Han dropped into the copilot’s seat beside her but she refused to look at him.

“Was I being difficult there?” he ventured.

“Extremely.”

“It’s a bad habit.” He sounded a little contrite but it was so difficult to know when he was sincere.

When she didn’t respond, he sank back into the seat, his eyes scanning over the controls. “You’re still mad at me. But hey, I had no idea the hyperdrive was—”

“That’s not why I’m mad at you! I just can’t—” Stopping, she rubbed her temples and wondered where she was going with this outburst. Han’s dark eyebrows had arched up in surprise, his full attention on her now, and the fear of being made a fool yet again warred with her desire to just get it out of her system. “You make me feel like the ball at a smashball championship.”

His mouth dropped open but she couldn’t tell if it was shock at her confession or just her choice of analogy. When he said nothing, she plowed ahead before she lost her nerve.

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do anymore, Han. What do you want from me?” The sound of abrupt defeat in her own voice was a surprise but she felt lost and exposed, something so beyond her normal experience.

“What do I—?”

His look of befuddlement pushed her past the flash point and she let out a growl of frustration. “You know exactly what I mean!” Restraining the urge to pound her fist into the armrest—or, worse yet, Han’s head, she clutched the cushion in a death grip.

Why doesn’t he just leave me alone so my heart can break in peace? Why does he keep rubbing it in like this?

His mouth snapped closed as he studied her for a long moment. She found gratification in his shell-shocked expression; he was caught off guard but maybe he was finally starting to get it. “Look…I’m sorry. I never wanted to hurt you.”

“Well, you did.” She shifted in the chair to turn away, unable to look at him any longer. Not caring how it appeared, she pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around her knees, feet up on the edge of the seat. “I just want it to stop. I have enough pain in my life without this—this….” She couldn’t go on. If she opened those doors now, she feared she’d never get them closed again.

“Leia…” he began softly.

“Why did you come back?” It was more an accusation than a question.

Han’s pause was long enough that it made her look back at him. “Because I wasn’t going to let you martyr yourself.”

His insight stung, all the more so because he seemed so oblivious as to why they were having this encounter. Her response was automatic and dismissive. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Don’t insult my intelligence,” Han fired back. “You ignored the nonessential personnel evacuation, and General Rieekan told me the Command Center was hit but you were still refusing to leave. He guessed what you were planning to do and that’s why he contacted me. He knew I wouldn’t leave you in there—that I’d get you out or die trying.”

Not knowing whether to be more shocked by Han’s statement, the General’s blatant attempt to manipulate Han through his feelings for her, or the fact that the ploy had worked, she stared back at him. The implications of her fellow Alderaani’s unorthodox tactic had obviously occurred to Han as well, and that irked her even more. Wearing an angry frown, she said, “Don’t bring Rieekan into this. Staying there was my choice.”

“That’s exactly my point.”

Annoyed that he’d just won that round with sounder logic, Leia looked away again. “You’re leaving, anyway. Why do you care?”

“If you haven’t figured out why yet, then I guess I don’t know why anymore, either.”

Heat flared in her chest. Twisting around, she stabbed a finger at him. “There! That’swhat I’m talking about. What does that mean? I can’t take this constant pushing and pulling from you anymore. Either commit or leave me alone, but stop toying with me like this!”

She glared down her nose at him, daring him to say something, playing her last sabacc card. Why did they keep dancing around this issue like children taunting one another to say a forbidden word first? What did he expect her to say that she hadn’t already revealed in that embarrassing incident days ago when Echo Base’s malfunctioning PA system had made what was a private conversation all-too-public? Why was this all still her burden to bear? Han was currently displaying a mix of emotions she could only guess at and that was half the problem—she was sick to death of guessing.

Sucking in a deep breath, as if preparing to dive into the unknown depths of a whirlpool, Han’s gaze didn’t waver. “The reason that bounty on me is so high now is because I couldn’t leave you. Don’t you get that?”

Trying to unearth his point, she stared at him in disbelief. Was his whole mess with Jabba the Hutt somehow supposed to be her fault?

“Damn it, Leia, I care about you. Too much. I’ve been trying my damnedest to sabotage this because I have to leave. I thought making you hate me would make it easier. It was all damage control but it’s just made everything worse.”

Damage control.

It was a concept Leia understood too well; the last two years of her life had been little more than trying to manage the debris of a world disintegrating around her. But she couldn’t wrap her mind around this. Hugging her legs tighter, she turned away to press her cheek against her knees.

How can he expect me to believe anything he says anymore?

So he isn’t leaving because he doesn’t care—he’s leaving because he cares too much. Was that supposed to make her feel better? She rocked her head, struggling to understand it all.

If all that was true, then why wasn’t she happy? Why was she fighting back tears all of a sudden?

“Ah, Kest! I keep hurting you.” There was sudden movement at her side and she felt him peel away one of her hands from her knee, grasping it in his strong grip. Looking up, she found Han towering above her. Giving up on words and resorting to actions, he swiveled her chair and pulled her up to her feet and into his arms. Unable to summon any resistance, instead she let him gather her up.

“I’m sorry, Leia.”

His murmured apology caressed her ear and echoed through her mind, and that innate ability to read people—that sixth sense that had served her so well in politics and life—whispered that he was truthful. Pressing her face against his shoulder, she felt the tears well up.

Oh Goddess, I can’t cry! Not now, not in front of him!

The desperate thought proved the final trigger and her last defenses crumbled. Too late to stop it, she hitched up against him, grasping handfuls of his shirt as all the pent-up doubts and lingering pain from his initial rejection, the anger at the futility of it all—and then suddenly darker things as well, the multiple horrors of the day and older hurts from before she’d even known him—flowed out with each cathartic sob. She’d never cried in front of anyone since childhood but couldn’t stop now as Han’s arms wrapped tighter around her. Remaining silent, he seemed to know just the sort of comfort she needed right then; it was support that didn’t involve platitudes, a silent strength that buoyed her while her own slipped.

It felt like forever before her composure returned and she grew aware of how damp Solo’s shirt was against her cheek. Not only had she cried in front of the one man from whom she’d tried the hardest to hide her feelings—a mortifying lapse in her control—but she’d cried on him. Would he view her differently now, maybe begin treating her like some fragile hothouse flower or worse? Trying to gather up the fortitude needed to deal with her embarrassment, she pressed her forehead into his shoulder.

As if Han sensed her new distress, one of his hands moved to rub across the back of her shoulders.

Trying to mask the sniffles, she worked on calming her breath before daring to speak into the smooth plane below his collarbone. “I’ve been so horrible to you lately.”

“Wasn’t your fault. I deserved it.”

A long moment of unfamiliar silence wrapped around them as they stood in the star-marked skylight of the cockpit, and she willfully lost herself for a little while longer, relishing how it felt to have his arms around her again after weeks of nothing but cold and loneliness. In a tentative gesture, her hands dropped so she could slide them under his flight jacket and around his back, returning his embrace. Why was this so very hard for them to achieve when it seemed so natural?

“Thank you for coming back for me,” she whispered, and meant it.

His lips pressed the top of her head. “Hey, it’s what I do. Just don’t go making a habit of it, okay?”

“Okay,” she agreed with a small nod against his chest. It was clear now just how despondent she’d become that morning back on Hoth; he’d not only saved her life once more, but he’d pulled her back from the brink of fatal despair. It was enough to make her mind reel. With their real motivations out in the open for once, she had no idea where it might lead. She feared moving forward since there seemed little promise of a bright future for either of them—between his death mark and her war—and yet she had no desire to go back either.

“What happens now?” she dared to ask anyway, even though she knew it tempted fate.

His broad chest expanded with an audible breath, as if he needed a moment of his own to absorb what had just happened, or maybe just to gauge his audience. “I don’t know, Sweetheart. Give me a second and I’m sure I’ll think of—”

Before he could continue that thought or she could prepare a suitable retort, the cockpit door swished open to reveal Chewbacca. He was already mid-roar but stopped, nonplussed by what he found. Suddenly conscious of the scene they presented, Leia let go of Han and took a step back, bringing a hand up to brush her cheeks in a hasty attempt to wipe away any last evidence of tears.

«What has he done now?» Chewie’s question was directed toward her.

“Shut up, you oversized piece of flea bait,” Han snapped in annoyance.

“It’s okay, Chewie.” She sounded shaky even to her own ears.

As his sky-blue eyes shifted from princess to pilot, not looking convinced, Chewbacca tilted his head in a single nod of acknowledgement. «Very well, but if he’s bothering you, I can stuff him in a storage locker until he learns some manners.»

“You can try,” Han warned.

“I don’t think that will be necessary this time but I’ll keep it in mind,” she responded in a tired voice.

One of Han’s eyebrows arched at her and a corner of his sensuous mouth crinkled up into a little smile. “‘This time’?”

Seeming satisfied, Chewie turned his attention back to his captain. «Solo, I still need help with threading the replacement wires through the hyperdrive housing.»

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be right there.” Han turned back to her as if questioning the wisdom of leaving her alone right now.

“Go on. I’m fine.” When Leia tried to look away, he ducked a little to stay in her line of sight, as if by peering deeper into her eyes, he could find what she wasn’t saying. She hadn’t thought it possible to frown and smile at the same time but managed both and realized she probably looked a mess. “Okay, fine—give me five minutes.”

“Sure, Leia.”


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