Into the Fire

Chapter 9

Leia wasn’t sure which came into her awareness first, the bright overhead light or the lingering odor of stale kaffe. The fact that it wasn’t her morning alarm or a nightmare was an agreeable change of affairs that allowed her the rare pleasure of a sleepy limbo that included a full-body stretch—a long, slow, wonderful process as each limb and muscle awakened at its own pace. However, the idle was broken when her hand whacked against something hard and unyielding. Eyes snapping open, she found herself staring up in confusion at the underside of a holochess table.

Oh Goddess, did I really drink that much again?

The panicked thought dissipated as various facts trickled in: she didn’t feel hung over; she wasn’t back at the university; it wasn’t the day after her Majority party; and those were the distinct sounds of the Millennium Falcon’s sub-light engines as the ship trundled her way toward a distant oasis in the desert of open space. At first, all Leia could recall was collapsing onto her cot in the number three hold, and it took a few moments more before the rest snapped into place—woken by nightmares to wander the corridor and find Han here at the table lost in his own thoughts. She’d been so tired, so physically and emotionally drained, that she must have fallen asleep at his side.

That thought generated a mixture of embarrassment and guilty pleasure.

You’ve always wondered what it would be like to fall asleep in his arms….

With a long yawn, she sat up and scratched her head, then craned her head around until there was a rewarding pop. The dregs of kaffe in the abandoned mug on the table made her look over with longing toward the tiny galley. Without natural sunlight, she had no clue what time it was, but a glance over to the engineering station answered that. It took another long moment to process the chrono display.

“Oh, Kreth!”

The Corellian curse, surely picked up while associating with the criminal element, was out of her mouth in a harsh exhalation. Suddenly wide awake, she shot off of the bench, up the step, and down the stretch of corridor toward the cockpit.

Apologies began tumbling before she’d even cleared the open hatch. “Chewie, I’m so sorry! I can’t believe I just slept through my shift. Somebody should have woken me up!”

Chewbacca swiveled his chair around to look at her as if she were a madwoman, then gave a big shrug. «No worries, Princess. We did not want to disturb you.»

“What? No, no, that won’t do. I’m part of the crew. I messed up and I’m sorry. I can take over right now and—”

«There is no need. I am fine and there is still time remaining before the next change. You will take the next shift.»

Mortified that she’d already committed a breach of shipboard etiquette little more than a day into their journey, Leia had trouble believing he was this cavalier about it.

«This is not a military ship,» Chewie elaborated in a clear attempt to relieve her worries. «We are flexible. We often cover for each other when necessary and that is what I did.»

Despite his statement, Leia couldn’t help feeling derelict in her duties. A glance over at the alarm on the communication’s display confirmed she still had about twenty minutes before it went off again.

«Did you sleep better?»

Looking back, Leia felt embarrassed that he knew of her troubles. Han must have told him. “Yes, thank you. I’m sorry, Chewie. I’m not sure how to make this up to you….”

«There is no need. I am happy to have your help and your company.»

Mollified somewhat, she ducked her head. “Thanks. I promise it won’t happen again.” Debating what to do next, she realized there was one pressing matter that demanded her attention. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, okay?”

Exiting the cockpit and heading for the galley, she berated herself.

This is not a good start, Leia. This is what happens when you allow distractions and exhaustion to mix. You’re not on a pleasure cruise and this is not a vacation.

After pausing to start up a new pot of kaffe, she headed for the crew’s quarters to use the fresher. Just as she was about to palm open the door, she froze in place, realizing that Han was probably still asleep in that hedonistic bunk in Goddess only knew what stage of undress. Hand dropping, she stared at the door.

What if he wakes up? Do I want him to wake up?

Leia shook her head. No, he needed his sleep more than any of them. But she needed the fresher—that was no longer an issue up for debate.

You can stand here in the hallway arguing with yourself or you can just go in.

Now embarrassed by her own indecision, Leia gently touched the hatch plate as if that might somehow make it open with a quieter hiss. The door whisked aside and she stood still in the hatchway as her eyes went straight to the occupied bunk at the opposite end. His large form was hidden in the shadows of the sleep shelf, not stirring, and it occurred to her that he was likely accustomed to the door opening for the same reason she was there now. The room was lit only by a sliver of dim red light coming from the open fresher door to her right, plus the bright swath of white light spilling in from behind her. Realizing it wasn’t the most polite thing to do, dithering in the doorway, she stepped inside to let the hatch close then walked into the fresher. Closing the door, she switched the overhead light to normal and then paused in front of the small mirror mounted above the sink.

Hair down and a bit wild from sleep, any traces of makeup long gone, she looked quite different from the way she preferred to present herself. In her everyday attempts to look older for credibility’s sake, it was easy to forget her real age, a little more than a year beyond Majority.

Sometimes she felt old with all the responsibility and guilt weighing down on her soul. Only one person seemed capable of lifting that burden on a consistent basis, calling back the real Leia, and that man was sound asleep on the other side of the door. Han not only reminded her of better times and happier emotions—paradoxically, from before she knew him—but he also emphasized the fact she was a woman in ways no one else could or dared. At some point in her life, she’d skipped right over romance and relationships in her quest to serve a greater cause, but Han threatened to reintroduce all those things, ignoring her protests and drawing her back to her humanity, her individuality, and her emotions. For a long time, she’d resented him for this, for making her feel again, but lately, she’d come to see that he was one of the few people who even cared if she were a whole person. Rieekan, Luke, Chewbacca, Kristin…and Han. For someone taking on the evils of a mighty Empire, that was an awfully small circle of friends and growing smaller….

Recognizing that she was taking too long, Leia hurried through her ablutions. For a fleeting moment, she considered another hot shower—she didn’t think she could ever take too many, not after Hoth—but there was no time. Instead, she grabbed her hairbrush and some pins from the storage cabinet behind the mirror where she’d permanently transferred them after accepting the reality of their predicament. She could braid her hair later while on watch.

More mindful of the light this time, Leia switched it back to the night-vision-friendly red and waited for her eyes to adjust before cracking open the door and stepping out. Her eyes better accustomed to the dark cabin this time, she could make out more details as her gaze once again settled on the occupied bunk.

Han lay on his side, his back to her, with his sheet and light blanket offering just a glimpse of bare shoulders. There had been numerous times when she’d seen him without his shirt—while working in the stifling heat and humidity of the Rebel base on Serricci, when he’d had a tendency to strip it off in front of her to provoke a reaction, although almost never the one he hoped, or to dress a wound. Seeing him this way now, though, gave her the strongest urge to lie down beside him and run her hand along the smooth plane of his back, feeling the skin and muscle there. Her next natural thought was to wonder what he wore beneath the covers, if anything, and that gave her a nervous thrill.

Blinking back to reality, she spun on her heel and headed toward the door. Chewie would not let her get off so easily if she was late again. Once out in the corridor, she hurried back to the galley to pour a mug of kaffe and assemble a plate of some cheese and fruit to take with her.

Finally entering the cockpit once more, she announced, “Okay, I’m ready. Anything I should know?”

«All clear, Princess. She is all yours.» Chewbacca stood and stretched as best he could beneath the low clearance of the cockpit ceiling. «I will be back in the engineering bay if you need anything.» With that, he reset the alarm and exited.

She set the plate and mug on the seat he’d just vacated and glanced around the cabin. Still amazed that Solo trusted her enough to hand the Falcon over like this, Leia never would have imagined being at the helm at all, let alone for hours on end. The ship might once have been just another obsolete and nondescript Corellian YT-class freighter that had seen better days, but there was a lot more beneath the scored and pitted surface. The Falcon was Han’s ship and his spirit seemed to inhabit the fast spacecraft, quirky personality and all.

Chewbacca’s statement from the day before, about the faith Han had in her, returned to mind and she mulled over that. She’d always qualified her confidence in him—not in his loyalty or abilities but in his motives. But maybe it was time to show a little more faith as well.

With a wry grin, Leia shook her head and reached down to retrieve her drink. Remaining on her feet but feeling relaxed, she sipped her kaffe and watched the stars. It was amazing what a good night’s sleep could do for one’s perspective.

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