Han’s turn at watch was too quiet. He’d half-hoped that despite her agreeing to get some rest, Leia might disobey his orders and reappear to keep him company or better yet pick up where they’d left off with that kiss. Now there was a favorite fantasy of his: the sassy and haughty princess so overwhelmed with ignited passion that she sought him out in the cockpit for some extra-special attention. With everybody bunked out, there was real a temptation to revisit that fantasy now.
You’d better scuttle that idea. You know damned well that’d be the moment she walks back in and—no doubt about it—that would sabotage everything.
It wasn’t long after they’d established the base on Serricci over a year ago that Han had begun refusing the occasional offer to bunk with an interested female within the Alliance personnel. His original rationale had been to not jeopardize his noncommittal work arrangement with High Command, but soon enough he’d admitted—if only to himself—that it was really fear that rumors of his sexual exploits would leak back to the princess and ruin his chances with her. Whether or not his motive was noble, the fact remained he’d barely shared a bunk since, even while away on a mission. There was a price to pay for such restraint, however. While he’d endured the occasional dry spell in the past, this marathon left him feeling like a frustrated teenager facing only one alternative to relieve the pressure.
To make matters worse, much to his chagrin, images of Leia had come to dominate his fantasies. That fact made real life around base all the more difficult. It seemed like whenever she was around him, his libido would leap ahead to all sorts of intimate and graphic ideas, often at the worst possible moments. It had caused him to duck out early from more than one Rebel briefing, no doubt earning him yet another mark of disapproval from the very person most responsible for his condition.
Chewie’s right. You’ve got it bad. It’s been too damned long.
Letting off some steam would have to wait but there was little else to occupy his time. Out of sheer boredom, he flirted with the idea of switching Threepio back on, but then rational thought returned and he left the powered-down droid manning the unused communication station in silence. For a while, he’d picked up Leia’s abandoned datapad and begun scanning through what news the device could pick up from their remote location, but he had trouble focusing on the articles because his thoughts kept wandering back to his semi-reluctant passenger.
Daring to hope their relationship had righted course once more after the recent turbulence of bounty seekers and stupid decisions, he considered it an excellent sign that she was letting him touch her again.
Hell, the fact she didn’t run this time is progress, right?
She’d also recovered her humor, something he’d missed since Ord Mantell. Even so, he still saw reservation and trepidation in those fathomless eyes, as though she feared another reversal at any moment, and the fact it was all his fault troubled him more than he cared to admit.
Needing to move, Han stood up and stretched, arching his back until a loud popping sound emanating from his left shoulder made him wince. The movement recalled a sympathetic memory of watching Leia do the same thing hours before. While the loose clothing hid most of her feminine attributes, the sight of the ex-senator in his clothing struck an odd and thrilling chord—it wasn’t just the visual image but the implied intimacy that stirred his blood.
And that last kiss…. He was no innocent—he’d indulged in his share of portside pleasures—yet he couldn’t recall anything quite like how that encounter had felt. In a way, it was perhaps the most intimate thing he’d ever done with a woman, a concept that shocked him. He knew now that Leia wouldn’t be just another mindless pleasure romp or a fleeting moment of illicit release. She had reached inside him…a place nobody had before. She exerted an irresistible and invisible attraction like the gravitational pull of a heavenly body, her body. His own mystification had been mirrored in her kaffe-colored eyes; that craving and wonder and surrender as she’d moved toward him, as if it was out of her control, had been mutual. He could easily recall the feel of her silky soft lips again, the thrill when her eyes had opened and met his, not flinching away this time. In all his experience, he’d never called out a lover’s name in passion and yet he’d said her name in that moment, feeling it rise in response just like the rest of him.
Han expelled a ragged breath, shaking his head. Either he was going to have to spend some quality time alone as soon as his watch was over or he needed a cold shower—or both. At this rate, he was going to drive himself mad.
Four weeks, Pal. You’d better pace yourself.
The cockpit door slid open and Han turned to watch Chewbacca step in.
“Deader than the Emperor’s love life. You’ve still got some time left.”
«Yes, just wanted to see if I should start a pot of kaffe.»
“Yeah, thanks, Buddy…. Did the princess turn in?”
Chewie cocked his head to one side. «I believe so. I haven’t seen her. Why?»
Han shrugged off his partner’s teasing. “Stubborn. She doesn’t know when to quit sometimes.”
That earned him a chortle from the Wookiee. «Look who’s talking.»
“All right, all right, I get it. I’m only human.”
«Yes, but I do not hold that against you.»
Rolling his eyes at what was turning into yet another reluctant conversation about his relationship with Leia, Han got the distinct impression the Wookiee had picked a side. “Look, are you going to keep giving me a hard time about that?”
«No, I don’t think so. I think you’ve managed well enough on your own.»
Solo grunted in wordless acknowledgement; there was no need to gloat.
«So you two are back on speaking terms?»
“You could say that, I guess.”
«Good. I like her.»
“I know, Chewie. I do, too.”
«She’s not like the other mates you’ve picked in the past.»
Han threw his hands up in exasperation. “I’m so glad you approve, Dad.” Pointing back toward the main hold, he added, “Listen, do me a favor and pull the hyperdrive motivator before you come back, huh?”
Accepting the order with a nod, Chewie left the cockpit, although Han could still hear him hooting in amusement until the hatch slid closed.
Running a hand through his hair to give his scalp a tired scratch, he had to admit his friend was right. Leia was unlike any woman he’d dealt with before. Maybe that was why he felt so over his head half the time—like this had the potential to swallow him up whole and change his life. Change him.
The initial news had seemed intolerable, a prison sentence. But maybe things wouldn’t be so bad after all now that she was warming back up; he could be trapped with far less pleasurable company. He and Chewie shared a familiar and comfortable partnership, working and playing together or staying out of each other’s hair—no easy task!—with practiced ease. The princess, on the other hand, was a new and questionable element; they’d never been forced to spend such a long stretch of time together, particularly in such close quarters with few buffers.
Either we’re going to kill each other or….
The prospect made Han smile.
Or we’re going to get to know each other a lot better.
Staring out the canopy, Han thought again about the journey ahead. They were moving so slow relative to the expanse of space between their current location and their destination that the distant stars barely moved. Four weeks—it was a hell of a long time to be stuck in limbo, effectively blind and incommunicado. Even though they could technically fly on sub-light engines via autopilot and monitor the ship from the engineering station in the main hold or aft corridor, the fact that they were without functioning short- and long-range sensors meant continuing with the watch up front or risk hitting something. The dish on the upper hull had sustained damage, but without physically going outside to check, it was impossible to determine how bad or if it was reparable without an atmospheric docking bay. To do any of that, he would have to bring the Falcon to a complete stop for the duration, something that would just add more time to their trip. Attempting a spacewalk while at speed was far too dangerous, the combination of momentum and vacuum easily lethal. Sure, he’d taken that risk once or twice in his desperate youth….
You aren’t desperate now?
Well, maybe he was a little bit, but there was more to lose now.
Chewbacca was back in a few moments. «Kaffe’s in the galley. Motivator’s on the table.»
“Thanks, Buddy. She’s all yours,” Han said in relief as he headed toward the rear, glad for once to be out of the cockpit.
Sometime later, after a trip to his cabin for a long-overdue shower, Han found himself walking a tour around the ship, feeling neither refreshed nor satisfied. Pausing in the engineering bay at the rear of the ship, he stared with mixed feelings at the exposed workings of the hyperdrive engine. He was filled with a restless frustration. He needed to get on with the business with Jabba. Just when he’d finally worked up the nerve to say goodbye, he’d been stymied yet again. Now, with this new forced intimacy for the next several weeks, he faced the possibility becoming so involved with Leia that he might lose any remaining willpower to leave. While half of him rather hoped for just that, the other half was all too aware of how such a failure could doom them both.
Walking through to the open blast doors that led into the number three hold, his eyes automatically went to the closed hatch of Leia’s makeshift cabin. Over the dull and steady rumble of the sub-light engines to his right, he strained to hear anything that might indicate she was still awake. He told himself that it was because he wanted to make sure she was getting some needed sleep, but that didn’t explain his disappointment when nothing stirred.
You’re turning into a stalker.
With a frown, he left and headed to the main hold, stopped in the narrow galley to pour a fresh mug of kaffe, then walked over to the lounge alcove to stare down at the charred hyperdrive motivator on the holochess table. It didn’t look good. Some of the circuitry was only blackened while the rest was actually melted into slag. Standing there, he closed his eyes and listened to his running ship for a moment, as if she might tell him how to fix things the same way the other female in his life had done hours ago.
Nothing. It figures she’d give me the cold shoulder now.
It was nearly two days since they’d blasted out of Hoth’s atmosphere and common sense dictated he should go back to his cabin to sleep before his next shift rolled around, but instead, he set his mug on the checkered surface of the holochess table, took a seat, and contemplated while staring at the ruined motivator.
No doubt about it, the cursed thing was dead. Shorted out. Fried beyond repair. Why the hell hadn’t he stocked a spare one?The blowout was always a risk since the unit wasn’t rated for the modified power source he’d installed to over-clock the engines, all part of his efforts to squeeze that extra boost of speed out of them. It was a foolish mistake to not have a backup, and he’d nearly gotten them all killed because of it.
You’re slipping, Solo. You’re letting too many distractions get to you.
There was a scuffing sound from the ring corridor and Han looked up across the table to see his biggest distraction appear in the passageway. He was surprised to see Leia since it was only halfway through what should have been her sleep cycle. She’d let her hair down so it flowed loose over the front of one shoulder, adding to her just-awakened appearance. She stopped still upon seeing him. With her arms wrapped tight across her chest, she looked spooked. Something in her bearing set off an alarm within Han.
“Hey, you okay? Thought you’d turned in.”
Making a visible decision, Leia stepped down into the lounge to approach the table. Now that she was closer, he could see her red-rimmed eyes, although whether it was from fatigue or crying, he couldn’t tell; he just knew that neither possibility made him happy. Still silent, she sank down onto the edge of the acceleration couch across the table from him but didn’t relax and didn’t meet his gaze. Instead, she stared down at the floor, lost in her own thoughts.
She was dressed in some cut-off black fatigue pants, one of his white dress shirts, and those half-undone and rolled down blue snow boots. The way her long hair curtained her features, the princess looked a great deal younger and more vulnerable than usual. The sight tugged at yet another part of his resurrected conscience. “Can’t sleep?”
Leia finally broke her silence, her voice so quiet it was hard to make out the words over the background thrum of the engines. “I fell asleep okay….”
“Nightmares?” Sitting back, he chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment, wishing he had a solution.
With her internment on the Death Star, the destruction of Alderaan, too many close calls on past missions, and now Hoth and its aftermath, he figured she had enough source material to fuel nightmares for half the population on Coruscant. It was a demonstration of her strength of will that she could still function at all, let alone act like it didn’t get to her. Normally, she hid the fallout with makeup and deflection—as if he wouldn’t notice her haunted eyes or the lingering pain in her aura—so it was a shock to see her this way, the remnants of sleep and fear still fresh on her face. Guessing she didn’t want to dwell on it, he asked, “Want some kaffe?”
Shaking her head, Leia leaned a shoulder against the padded backrest of the bench. Although her body language still screamed tension, her glance up toward him was the invitation he needed.
“Keep me company, then. I’m just staring at this thing hoping sheer willpower will fix it.” With a gesture at the scrap heap between them, he added, “Guess the Force isn’t with me.”
A hint of a smile flickered across her pale features and she turned more toward him, seeming to unwind just a tad. “I don’t think the Force works on broken machinery, but I could be wrong.”
That’s it. Coax her out. Give her a reason to forget.
Experience had taught him that a laugh could work miracles with this complex woman, so he went with what he did best. “Looks like we’re stuck on the scenic tour. But hey, on the bright side, now I’ve got an extra hand to help clean this ship up. She’ll be spotless by the time we get there.”
“If cleaning this ship was your goal all the long, Captain, you could have just asked.” Her tone was dry, demonstrating just the sort of sass he’d liked from day one.
“Would you have said yes?”
One corner of her mouth crinkled up. “Probably not….”
He loved this part, the pleasurable duel of minds; she was such a superb sparring partner. “Exactly. That’s why I prefer elaborate schemes that mask my brilliance as a mastermind.”
That finally drew a little laugh from her and she dropped her arms so they rested at her sides. “You hide it well.”
The fact she didn’t follow up with another wisecrack was evidence enough of her exhaustion, but then she let out a heavy breath and rubbed her eyes in an obvious struggle to stay engaged. Guessing she must have come out here to escape whatever had haunted her back in her cot, Han now saw his opportunity to stage another rescue. The timing wasn’t right to push for anything like another kiss, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t offer simple comfort. Hell, it could even gain him a few points.
Dropping a hand to pat the curved seat between them and then draping the arm along the back of the banquette, Han indicated there was plenty of room. “Come over here.”
Tired though she was, she gave him a doubtful look.
“Hey, it’s me.”
That only earned him a raised eyebrow.
“Okay, I deserved that. I won’t try anything, I promise…. Not unless you try something first. Then all bets are off.” That last bit he added out of reflex but diluted it with an easy smile.
Biting her lower lip in an obvious debate over whether the benefits outweighed the risks, she let the offer hang in the air for another beat before relenting by pulling herself along the rounded table edge, scooting along on the bench until she was within reach. There was tension in her body as he wrapped his arm around her shoulders, but then she seemed to let go at last and relax against him.
“See? Not so bad.”
“Not so bad,” she echoed while shifting around to get more comfortable, bringing her bent legs up onto the seat as she huddled under his arm.
With her so warm and real in his loose embrace—even for such an innocent reason, Han marveled at how right it felt. Memories of a similar situation, their brief interlude on a hotel couch on Ord Mantell, flooded back and it was more of a struggle than he’d expected, restraining the urge to pick up where they’d left off that night.
Cool your engines. That’s not what she needs tonight.
“Is that part of the hyperdrive?” Leia asked, only seeming to notice for the first time what lay in front of them.
“I see…. It doesn’t look good.”
“Is it replaceable?”
“Sure…after we reach Bespin. I don’t have a spare.” He absently ran his fingers along the smooth exposed skin on the sharp angle of her elbow. “Once we’re there, it won’t take long to swap out, and then she’ll be good as new again.”
The question lay unspoken between them, like a giant black hole. Staring forward at nothing, he cupped her elbow and drew her a little closer, unable at that moment to imagine ever letting go.
How the hell am I going to manage that?
“Was this also part of your elaborate scheme?”
From the sound of her voice, Han could just imagine the little smile that probably decorated her lips, and then he realized she’d actually asked a question and he snapped back to the present. “What?”
“This,” she answered as she shifted her head against the side of his chest, and he assumed she was implying their embrace.
“What we’re doing right now?”
“If I said yes, would you get up and leave?”
No doubt her idea of a joke, Leia paused too long. “Probably not.”
“Good.” Reaching out his other hand to pick up his mug of cooling kaffe, he took a sip before continuing. “I love it when a plan falls together.”
Leia yawned and then prompted, “Tell me more of this elaborate plan.”
Amused, he snuck a peek down to find that her eyes were closed. “A mastermind never reveals his secrets. Let’s just say that my genius would surprise you.”
There was a soft sound that rose from the woman tucked under his arm. “You’re always surprising me.” Her tone was just tender enough that he couldn’t tell if she was still teasing or sincere now.
“I like surprising you,” he murmured, enjoying the new gentleness of their play, an affectionate banter that he could imagine them engaging in at some more luxurious time and place—a tangle of sheets and bare limbs in a sunny room on a lazy afternoon spent lovemaking and….
Han shook his head as a stab of bittersweet reality interrupted his fantasy, replacing his warm buzz with an overwhelming pang of longing.
What’s the likelihood of that scenario ever happening?
The odds were poor that they would get out of this mess alive, that he would survive Jabba’s wrath and find her again, that the war would end before it consumed one or both of them, that she would even want him in that way.
An awful lot of assumptions there, Solo.
As he peered down at Leia again, he liked to think he at least had the answer to that last point. Despite the crazy ride of highs and lows over the years, it seemed he’d grown on her. Her meltdown in the cockpit earlier had forced them both to be honest about their feelings and he was relieved by how fast the noncombative atmosphere they’d enjoyed on Ord Mantell had returned. It was a wonder he hadn’t lost her for good after the damage he’d done and it was a testament to her own feelings that she was accepting him back despite it all.
Take this any further and you’re just going to hurt her again. You know that.
The dark thought was unbidden but enough to make him question the wisdom of fanning the renewed flames between them. The opportunist in him, the part dedicated to baser urges, shrugged off that sort of guilt like a Dewback shook off water drops, but for once in his rather lonely life, there was more at stake. This was about more than just sharing a bunk for a night before jetting off to points unknown. This was about integrity and respect and….
An unintelligible little sound from Leia broke into his thoughts and Han realized she was falling asleep. Bringing his hand up to touch her check in a gentle caress, he suggested, “Hey, why don’t you stretch out right here? Go on, lie down.”
Already half-asleep, she agreed with a murmur and shifted around on the bench without opening her eyes. Arms folding up in front of her, she slid down the curve of the banquette until her head came to rest on his thigh, her young face turned away in profile.
What caused Han to gasp and his heart to leap into a gallop had nothing to do with integrity or respect and everything to do with sudden arousal. Despite the release he’d found earlier in the shower—or maybe because of it, erotic images writhed their way into his mind and he slammed his eyes shut in an attempt to block them out.
Just think about something else! Come on, you promised to be nice!
He tackled the past five-year stats of his favorite smashball team before risking another look down.
Leia was without question asleep now, her breathing slow and deep, her beautiful face smoothed out in complete relaxation. It was an unheard-of treat to study her without the risk of agitating her and he took advantage of it. One of her slim wrists rested back against his thigh, the graceful hand curled palm-up in front of her nose. His eyes roamed over the contours of her face, memorizing each attractive feature, locking it away in his mind for what would probably be less-happy moments.
You love her.
It was an unchecked thought with such clarity that it should have bothered him and yet he smiled. Why else would he find such simple pleasure in studying the shape of her exposed earlobe? He wondered how it would taste and how she would react. He wanted to give her the pleasure she deserved and drive away all those worries and fears that so obviously transformed her. He wanted to show her how it felt to be loved, both for who she was as a woman and what she meant to him. He wanted to shield her from those people who sought to use or hurt her. But above all, he wanted to have a future with her.
You love her.
Time seemed to stretch out before him as his mind wandered. The ship was quiet around them, his sanctuary. Unable to recall the last time he’d felt so at peace, despite the insanity of recent events, he decided there was no point in thinking too far ahead. Better now to just live in the present and be grateful for what had fallen into his lap quite literally.
At some point, Han dozed off, but something snapped him back awake with a start. After scrubbing his eyes and yawning, he glanced over at the large chrono at the engineering station and was surprised to find more than an hour had passed, leaving only one more before Leia’s shift would come up again.
As if in objection, the princess let out a sound of distress, drawing his attention just in time to watch her forehead crease into a frown as her breathing changed to a faster pace. Han’s hope that she might sleep nightmare-free faded.
Hating to wake her but fearing that whatever tormented her would do the job in any case, he debated only a moment before doing what he did best; he acted on instinct. He touched her face, grazing the backs of his fingers over her exposed cheek as he slipped his other hand under to cradle her head, hoping the comfort might somehow seep into her dreams. “Shhhhhh. I’m right here, Leia. Everything’s okay. You’re safe.” His voice was quiet, a deep whisper.
There was a subtle change in her unconscious expression as Leia’s breathing altered once more. He could see faint worry lines appear as her dark eyebrows drew together, and for a second, he imagined she’d said something as she shifted around, cheek pivoting in his hand.
Encouraged by his success so far, he repeated, “I’m right here. You’re safe.”
“Han…?” There was a child-like tone of surprise in her soft voice.
That was not his imagination and he froze, wondering if she’d awakened after all. But it only took a few more seconds to realize that wasn’t the case. Astounded, he straightened up.
His only concern had been to stop the nightmare, which he seemed to have accomplished. Never had he imagined being able to tap into her dreams. For an instant, a couple of less-than-noble ideas came to mind, but he rejected them without a second thought; the last thing he wanted to do was damage her trust any further than he had already.
“No,” Leia muttered, “it’s not like that…. No.”
Fascinated, he listened as she seemed to struggle with some internal conversation.
“Don’t go. Please don’t…. I can’t….”
Unanticipated, her words cut through him. Was that what she’d been dreaming about? His leaving to face Jabba? His leaving her?
You’re reading way too much into the nonsense of a dream that isn’t even yours. It could be about anything, anybody.
Nevertheless, the nakedness of her plea, free of her usual conscious filters, tore at his heart. “I’m right here, Leia.” He fumbled for more words, wondering what he could say to reassure her before the obvious struck him.
“Love you,” he said, the words tumbling out as if they’d been leaning against a locked door for too long.
It’s okay now. She won’t remember.
But he’d said the words and meant them, and maybe somehow, deep down, it might give her some comfort. “I love you, Leia.”
She moved, burrowing her face into his hand. “’s okay, I’m not hungry.” Her voice was a dreamy whisper as it trailed off, her features smoothing over once more.
Grinning at her sleepy non sequitur, Han watched as she seemed to fall back into a deeper sleep.
Not exactly the enthusiastic response you expected, was it?
Leia stirred again, this time rolling onto her back on the bench, one knee drawing up against the side of the acceleration couch. An arm rested across her middle where it gently rose and fell while the other threatened to dangle off the edge of the bench, and her face was now half obscured by the curtain of long chestnut hair, full lips parted just enough to reveal a glimpse of white teeth. That mouth drew his eyes like a magnet and it was all he could do to keep from waking her up with another kiss.
Gratified that maybe his actions had made a difference, he waited to see if the nightmare returned but her expression remained peaceful. He started dozing off again as a long quiet settled over them like a comfortable blanket.