Into the Fire

Chapter 7

Han began stopping by the cockpit on a regular basis as Leia’s shift continued, making a show of checking sensors and flipping toggle switches, but Leia suspected his real goal was to check in on her. It was a sometimes annoying tendency he’d demonstrated in the past whenever he felt reason to worry.

Even so, to learn that he cared enough to bother when he already had enough burdens was reassuring. And despite the humiliation of weeping in front of the jaded spacer, she admitted that she felt a little better now. Worn out and drained, yes, but also free at last from the weight of cloaking her feelings. Most of the negative emotions that had overtaken her in the past few weeks were rendered manageable now that they’d finally admitted the truth to one another. She would cope with rest on her own terms the same way she tackled every other challenge in her life.

He’d made no effort to correct her assumption, back on Ord Mantell when she’d taken to heart his offer to stay on indefinitely, that he was doing it for her benefit; indeed he’d taken advantage of her relief. Swept up in the romantic atmosphere of the evening, she’d almost slept with him that night; if not for her own inexperienced panic at the last moment, she probably would have. The next day had brought an encounter with a pair of amateur bounty hunters followed by Han’s abrupt and cold reversal of affection and commitment. That sort of wound was bound to leave an emotional scar with her and because logic was a weak balm when it came to healing an injured heart, she knew it would take time—a commodity neither of them had in great supply. Even though their sub-light trip to Bespin would take weeks, it was finite and then their paths would diverge, possibly forever. It was a deadline she had no confidence of meeting.

On the other hand, just a few hours ago, Han had admitted he cared about her. Although no real secret, it was the still the first time he’d said it to her face. He’d stayed all this time because of her and risked his life just to come back for her; it was just enough to remind her of the brief happiness they’d discovered weeks ago. What would it be like to have that joy for longer than a day or two? What would it be like without the lingering fear that he would leave one day? She found herself longing for it despite the inner voice that still cautioned restraint. After all, he’d said a lot of things over the years when he thought it would get what he wanted.

What’s the word of a scoundrel worth?

Maybe that’s a bit harsh. He is still here.

Not only had he changed his mind during the battle above Yavin IV and again on Hoth—both times in direct conflict with his own best interests—but he’d also passed up multiple other opportunities to leave, instead remaining to take one dangerous assignment after another. He’d even volunteered his services without pay on that mission to Ord Mantell. Granted, it was for the purely personal motive of getting her alone, but he had helped on the mission nonetheless.

It wasn’t even the risks Han took that surprised her—his lifestyle was dangerous. It was because he took them for her sake. Even though General Rieekan had a soft spot for her and fancied himself a guardian in lieu of her father, he was no fool; he’s easily interpreted what motivated Han.

For someone who took pride in her ability to read and understand others, the history of miscommunication between the two of them humbled her. Why had it taken them so long to be honest with one another?

A pinging noise began to emit from the communications console, signaling the end of her time on duty. As she rose to switch it off, Han appeared at the hatch, ready to relieve her. “Hey, Sweetheart,” he said as he sidestepped the motionless Threepio to reset the alarm.

“Hey.” Body protesting from sitting too long, Leia twisted around in an effort to relieve the kinked-up muscles in her back then grabbed the closest seat headrest for balance as every other major muscle group began clamoring for attention. She stretched up toward the overhead canopy in a long, lavish movement. It wasn’t until she was mid-yawn that she noticed Han was ogling her and too late she tried to stifle it by covering her mouth. She must have looked ridiculous buried in his oversized clothing; it reminded her of when as a child she’d clomped around the palace in her father’s shoes, already trying to fill them.

When he continued to stare, lost in his own thoughts, Leia felt a different childish impulse and stuck her fists on her hips. “Why don’t you take a holo? It’ll last longer.”

It only took Solo an instant to recover. “Your Highness, I had no idea you were into that sort of thing! Let me get my recorder.” He started for the exit.

“Oh, shut up,” Leia retorted, even as a genuine smile softened her tone. Tired as she was, it seemed some of her humor had returned at last. It had been a long time since she’d found anything to laugh about, and while his inappropriate timing could be annoying, his wit kept drawing her back to him like a Jawa to shiny things.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe you do like it when he’s being a scoundrel. It’s never boring.

“You look exhausted,” he said, his expression turning more serious. “You’re off for the next eight hours. Go back and get some sleep.”

Sleep. What’s that?

When was the last time she’d had a full night’s sleep? Too tired to recall, she suspected passing out would be the more accurate term if she lay down now. Even so, it seemed an extravagance with so much work yet to be done. “What about repairs? The hyperdrive—”

“Isn’t going anywhere. We’ve isolated the problem and there’s not much we can do. Chewie’s already bunked out.” Han moved closer and she assumed he was heading for the seat she’d vacated, but instead he stopped in front of her, standing so close that she imagined she could feel his body heat. “There’ll be plenty to do when you wake up, don’t worry.”

Maybe some part of her had been waiting for just such a dismissal because at last she capitulated, her shoulders dropping. “Whatever you say, Captain.” Glancing down, expecting him to step aside so she could pass, it took another second before she looked up again, realizing he wasn’t moving.

Instead, his gaze roamed over her face as if drinking in every detail. The sudden awareness of his proximity made her flush and she really wished she could get some control over that reaction because it was a dead giveaway. But she recognized the intense look on his features, too; the fact that he wanted to kiss her again was stamped all over it, as clear to her now as the scar on his chin. Perhaps she wasn’t the only one easy to read; maybe she’d only needed the deciphering key and a willingness to translate.

Nothing was said, no clear signal given as they migrated toward a midway point, drawn together like magnets, and Leia discovered something different this time when their lips met. This wasn’t the incandescent arc of pent-up passion, self-denial, and danger like earlier while hidden on the asteroid, and it wasn’t the heady rush of astonished pleasure like back on Ord Mantell. This was gradual, the softest of caresses, an unhurried exploration; it was rediscovering territory with a new appreciation. There was unquestionable heat in what became a series of shallow kisses, but it was more like a slow burn that reminded her of eating a spicy Crathulan dish, the steady excitement building up in her system until too late she realized her entire body temperature had ramped up a few degrees. He tasted of kaffe, musky and rich, energizing and necessary.

Her hands found their way up his chest and then her arms slipped around his neck as she lost track of time. His own work-roughened hands settled on her hips as his lips continued to brush against hers, tantalizing, as if she needed any more coaxing. Her eyes opened briefly to meet his gaze in what felt an intimate sharing, a mutual breakthrough as half-hearted attempts to stop gave way to the need for just one more taste, one more affirmation.

“Leia,” he moaned, his breath mingling with hers.

Something in Han’s subterranean voice, in how he used her name like that, triggered a new surge of electricity through her, grounding her to the spot. The intensity made her gasp against his lips, and in that moment, the truth penetrated her nebulous thoughts; right there, in the middle of the cockpit, still fully clothed and with nothing more than her name spoken, they’d soared right past flirting and straight into lovemaking. And what was more, she wanted it, wanted him, without a doubt.

This is crazy! I’m not ready for this yet, not by a long shot.

They needed to stop—now—before things got out of hand, before something happened they’d both regret. Tapping into some last remnant of self-discipline, she disengaged and pushed away. He let her go but not before ducking down to steal one last kiss she didn’t attempt to avoid.

Han practically glowed in the dim lighting, his smile brighter than a spaceport beacon. That or an entire carafe of kaffe had just kicked in—and considering how long it had been since any of them had slept, perhaps one had. She rolled her shoulders to resume some level of decorum but his broad smile was infectious and in spite of her better judgment, she mirrored it as she officially handed back the helm. “It’s your watch.”

Slipping out of arm’s reach and through the hatchway before Solo could sidetrack her again, she made her way down the short cockpit passageway. Only then did she press a hand against her cheek, feeling the heat still burning there.

I’m not running away this time. I ended that encounter in a respectable way, at the appropriate time, with dignity intact…right?

Dazed, she wandered all the way into the main hold before coming to a stop, eyes wide and staring at the decking.

What just happened back there?

Every time she set a goal or limit, Han waltzed in to change it on her. Hadn’t she just decided it would require significant time to work things out—possibly more than this trip would afford them? Yet in less time than it had taken her to reach that conclusion, he’d skipped right past half those issues with another knee-wobbling kiss. She knew better than to believe their problems were resolved and she knew that shoving those troubles aside to enjoy the moment wouldn’t change what awaited them at the other end. Those kinds of difficulties tended to catch up with a person, much like Han’s history with Jabba threatened to do now, when running was no longer an option and the interest accumulated was steep.

Standing in the center of the hold, Leia’s gaze moved from the holochess table that doubled as a dining nook to the abandoned engineering station, then to the tiny galley, and finally the circuitry bay. The Falcon felt cavernous and empty all of a sudden and she sighed, recognizing that this sensation of aloneness would become a common occurrence during their journey as they worked and slept in alternating shifts. She supposed that could be a good thing if she needed an excuse to avoid becoming any more entangled with the troublesome spacer.

But that’s not what you want anymore, is it? Not if that kiss is anything to go by.

Indeed, entangling with Han suddenly held an all-new appeal.

Four weeks of this….

Despite being almost punch-drunk with exhaustion, Leia still felt as though she’d just received her own shot of kaffe straight into a vein. If she looked anything like Han had a moment ago, it was no wonder she felt wired. With a resigned shake of her head, she crossed the rest of the main hold and entered the circular passageway that wound back around the ship. Maybe walking a few laps would settle her spinning thoughts enough so she could sleep.


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