A Shuffle of the Deck

By Deb Durkee

Art by Liz


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Part 1

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Leia pulled out of the protective circle of Luke's arm even as the skiff swayed beneath them, making the footing uncertain at best. Han was leaning against one of the side railings, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the sandy ground was getting farther and farther away as Lando guided the skiff to a higher altitude. Han looked tired and pale, and he had a white-knuckled grip on the railing behind him. She had never seen him like that, so worn, so weak...but, she reflected quickly, he was the best thing she had seen in nearly a year.

She crossed the deck to him, pushing past the droids as she did, unaware of their inquisitive looks. Han glanced up as she approached, his calm, dark eyes causing her racing heart to miss a beat or two as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him to her.

Deep down she had prepared herself for the possibility that she would never see him again, that she would never feel his rough, strong hands on her bare back as she did now. At least for now, she knew that was an eventuality that she could thankfully dismiss.

"Han, I--" There had been a thousand things she had wanted to say to him, that she had thought of during those long nights. A thousand things she had hoped she would get the chance to tell him, things she had never told anyone before. But now, as she finally looked up into his deep, seemingly bottomless eyes, his rugged, handsome face, she found herself unable to think of any one of them. For the first time in her life as a senator, princess, and diplomat, she found herself speechless.

Han grinned, his lopsided smile that had stolen her heart the first time she had seen it, so many years ago. "Now there's a switch," he said softly. "Everyone's happy to see me."

She bit down on her lower lip, in an attempt to hold back a flood of emotion. The last time she had cried was in her cell in the detention block of the Death Star--not after her torture at the hands of Darth Vader, but after the destruction of Alderaan and the deaths of her adoptive family. She had even refused to cry after Han's capture, knowing that crying for him would be akin to mourning him. But now a single tear ran down her cheek, cutting a clean path through the dust and the sand on her face. In one smooth, almost casual gesture Han reached up to brush it away, then took her face in his hands and kissed her. He took her hands in his, grasping them tightly.

"It's okay, sweetheart," he said, his voice soft and husky as though his throat were coated with sand. "I'm not going anywhere."

Luke and Chewie seemed to have faded into the background, along with the droids. Han closed his eyes, resting his cheek against the top of her head, letting her soft hair caress his dry, raw skin. After he-didn't-know-how-long trapped in the nothingness of that living hell, to find out he'd had not only friends, but also a lover searching for him, risking their lives for him...it was overwhelming. And now she was in his arms, someone who confessed to loving him; a young, intelligent, strong-willed, beautiful...and yes, he amended silently, scantily clad, princess.

The chain was still around her neck, one end singed and broken, the other still fastened tightly to the collar that had kept her tied to Jabba the Hutt. The thought of the slug with his greasy, money-grubbing paws all over her made his stomach turn again, as it had been doing since his release, with frustrating unpredictability. His nausea must have been evident from an unconscious gesture he made, for Leia loosened her grip on him. She looked up at him, the expression on her face one of concern.

"How do you feel?" she asked, pressing the back of her hand to his forehead.

He shrugged. "I feel like I've just spent three months in an X-wing with no artificial gravity that's just been sucked into a black hole, but besides that, I'm fine. You?" He could feel his hand trembling as she took it; he knew she noticed.

Leia slipped an arm around his waist. "Sit down before you fall down," she told him gently, in a tone that brooked no argument. Han sat down on a heavy metal crate, reluctantly, and Leia knelt before him. He reached out to pick up the chain around her neck, and she looked momentarily startled when his fingers brushed the bare skin of her torso.

"Chewie," he said, without looking up at his Wookiee copilot. "Get me a vibroblade. I've got to get this chain off her."

Waiting patiently as someone noisily searched a tool chest, Han caught a fuzzy, blurred movement out of the corner of his eye. He was given a vibroblade, but it wasn't Chewbacca who handed it to him. He looked up to see Lando Calrissian standing over him. He thoughtfully turned the vibroblade over; it was a simple, basic military issue knife. Lando still stood close to him; close enough that he could lunge to his feet and repay all Calrissian had put him through, with interest. Instead, he lifted the knife to Leia's throat.

He willed the blade to stay steady as he gripped the metal collar between the fingers of his other hand. The metal was still new and shiny, and probably slippery as well. It would only take one slip, one split second for the trembling in his hands to get worse, and the knife would go into Leia's throat. He had a lot of blood on his hands, more than even those who told stories about him knew, but Leia's was not about to be added to that.

Han jammed the tip of the knife into the join where the collar closed, trying not to pull on her throat any more than he already was. He snapped the lock off, and the collar dropped away.

Leia's hand went to her neck, a gesture that made Han want to reach out, take her in his arms again, and kiss her. Instead, he folded his hand over hers, his fingers brushing lightly against the reddened skin of her neck. He suddenly found himself more worried about her than himself; her ordeal, being chained to the slug of a gangster, seemed more harrowing somehow than his torture and his imprisonment.

Leia couldn't believe that even after everything he had just endured, Han was more concerned about her welfare than his own pain.

"I'm all right," she replied to his unvoiced question, her voice a whisper, barely audible over the sound of the skiff's engines. He didn't have to say anything--the anxiety in his eyes spoke volumes. She wanted to tell him not to worry about her, not to ever worry about her, but the words were simply not there.

Late one night, not long after her return to the rebel fleet, she had lain awake, her mind racing with the possibilities for the future. Even if he didn't die, there had been the question of what he would be like when he was freed. He might no longer be himself, might not be the same Han Solo who was lowered into the carbon-freezing chamber, whose last words to her had been a feeble stab at confidence. She had no doubts about his strength, but to what limits could that strength be pushed? How much would it take to push him over the edge? Would a year in suspended animation break not only his body, but his mind as well? There was a chance he would be a broken man, nothing similar to the one she had fallen in love with. And then what? Almost worse than the gamble that they had risked so much, used so much time, to perhaps retrieve only a corpse, was the possibility that they might find even less.

She'd had nightmares in which she'd freed him to find nothing but an empty shell, unable to talk, unable to think.

At that moment, Leia felt that she must be the luckiest woman in the galaxy.

A loud, rather happy Wookiee growl interrupted the quiet moment. They all looked toward the bow of the skiff as the welcome sight of Luke's X-wing and the Millennium Falconcame into view. The ships had been positioned for the most part under a rocky outcropping then draped with camo-cloth, which would hide them from most sensor and visual detection. Even under the sand-colored draping that covered it, Han still found he knew every line, every crevice, and every outcropping of the battered old freighter. He had hoped he would see her again, but as the length of his imprisonment seemed to lengthen into eternity, he had come to terms with the fact that he probably never would see the old ship again. The sight brought Han to his feet, one hand gripping the railing and the other on Leia's shoulder as he steadied himself against the sudden change in altitude.

"Now if that isn't a sight," Han commented. The relief in his voice was evident. The Falconwas home for him, had been for years.

"Just in time, too," Luke said from Han's side. "There's a sandstorm coming."

Han rolled his eyes. "Don't start with this Jedi stuff on me already."

Luke glanced over his shoulder, grinning. "No Jedi stuff this time. I lived the first twenty years of my life on this dust ball, remember?"

"Hmm," Han said thoughtfully. "Yeah, I've heard that some native animals can tell when a storm is coming."

"Hey, watch it, Solo. We could have left you in there, you know." Han raised a hand in mock surrender, keeping his other arm around Leia's waist.

Chewie skillfully guided the skiff in next to the Falcon,as close as he could get without scratching the hulls of either vessel. He cut the power to the engines, and the silence was nearly deafening. The only sound was in the distance--the faint, almost dream-like howl of wind. It was only then that Han noticed that the wind was, indeed, picking up. As he moved to the skiff's narrow boarding ramp, he saw a gust lift a handful of sand from a nearby dune, swirling it into a dry, brown whirlpool.

"Where to next?" he asked as Leia helped him down the ramp of the skiff.

"We're going to meet up with the rest of the rebel fleet," Leia told him. "Not long before we left, Ackbar and Mon Mothma set up a rendezvous point at which we could meet them."

"Fine by me." Han shrugged. At least the fleet was still together; last he knew, they had been scattered to the corners of the galaxy. "You followin' along, kid?" He knew the answer before he had even asked the question. Something in Luke's face suggested he'd be leaving them. He couldn't say he was surprised. It seemed like there was never any time for all of them to be together, and do nothing but enjoy the company. That would have been too easy, and things were never that simple.

Luke shook his head. "Not right away. I've got some things to tie up. I shouldn't be far behind you. Go on, get going," Luke said, reaching out to grip Han's arm. He seemed surprised when Han stepped forward to embrace the younger man. "It's good to have you back in one piece, Han," Luke added.

"It's good to be back," Han said.

"Come on, Han, let's get you on board," Leia said as Chewie pulled part of the camo free, reaching under it to enter the pass code that would allow them up the ramp.

Han nodded, letting her lead him into the cool, welcome depths of the ship he had thought he would never see again.

"Mistress Leia?" There was something in the protocol droid's voice that brought Leia to her feet. She had been sitting at the tech station when she had heard Threepio's metallic footsteps echoing their way down the hallway as he came from the direction of Han's bunk.

"What is it?" she asked, starting toward him already.

"Captain Solo. He is--"

She didn't give him the chance to finish, but brushed past him and ran the short distance down the corridor. She palmed the door open and was through it before it had the chance to open all the way.

He had thrown back the blanket, and it lay on the floor beside his bunk. She stepped over it as she knelt on the bunk beside Han. His face was flushed, his skin bright with a thin sheen of sweat. When Leia pressed a hand to his forehead, he moaned and twisted away from her.

"He's burning up," she said. She slid off the bunk, shouldering her way past Threepio and opening the door to the head. She grabbed a towel, soaked it with cool water, and returned to Han's side. When she pressed it against Han's face, he swatted at her once, halfheartedly, before settling down. He began to speak, low, unintelligible words that Leia couldn't hear, much less understand.

"It is a rather little-used dialect of Corellian Basic," Threepio volunteered. "This particular version is spoken mainly on the streets. I cannot imagine why my programmers insisted that I be familiar with it, it is hardly one of the languages that a protocol droid like myself would need..."

"Threepio, I don't care!" Leia had the urge to yell at him, but she managed to keep her voice at a regulated volume if only not to wake Han. She didn't want to know that he was speaking the bastardized Basic he had learned so young, the gutter talk that was all he had known until his entrance to the Academy. It was only one more thing that set them so far apart.

Princesswas more then a title for her; it was the way she had been raised. Banquets and evening gowns had been a way of life for her, and she had been educated at the most prestigious Alderaanian university. But Han had never been given anything. She remembered the first meal she had eaten with him. She had been amazed. Her lessons in deportment had always demanded a certain brand of etiquette at table, but Han had barely chewed his food before swallowing. She hadn't said anything to him then--it had only occurred to her a year later that a smuggler such as he could not afford to take the time to eat leisurely. On an even sadder note, later she realized that even as a child Han had probably done the same thing, for he had always been afraid that his meal would be taken from him.

In an attempt to make her short-lived childhood as happy as it could be, her father had given her everything she had ever wanted. Han had been forced to beg for money in the streets. It was nothing he'd ever mentioned, of course. For him, there was no jealousy, or even bitterness; he simply accepted each of their realities.

"Go see if Chewbacca needs any help in the forward compartment," Leia told the golden droid, who was still hovering near the door. She had no doubts that she'd catch hell from Chewie for dumping the droid off on him, but it didn't matter now.

Threepio inclined his head toward her. "Of course, Mistress Leia," he replied, and hesitated before turning and leaving her with Han.

Han stirred, mumbling something to himself. She reached out and put a hand on his forehead. It was warm, and his hair was damp with sweat. As far as she knew, no living being had ever endured the carbon-freezing process. She didn't know how long it would be before he would be well again, before the effects wore off. She could only hope it was soon. Thinking back, she could never remember seeing him ill. Wounded, yes, some times worse than others, but never sick. Not like this.

Seeing him sleep, overwhelmed by sickness, was in many ways worse than seeing him awake and aware of it. He moaned, a soft sound deep in the back of his throat. She felt her own heart rise, threatening to choke her. She tried to drive back the rising emotion she felt forcing its way up her throat, trying to escape her.

She had done so much preparation for the possibility that she might never see him again, she hadn't considered how horrible it would be to watch him in pain or unwell. It was an eventuality she had forced herself not to focus on. For the last year she had walked a fine line between hope and despair. She had hoped, even prayed to the gods she had been raised to believe in--gods to whom she hadn't spoken since she lost everything all those years ago. But she hadn't completely allowed herself to be ready for getting him back. To be so presumptuous would be to tempt fate.

So there had been no bowing to emotion for her. She had pushed back her feelings before they could consume her, before they could undermine the focus she knew she would need to find him. She loved him; the last words she'd said to him were true. But nevertheless it wouldn't do to let her emotions overcome her; they could make a person vulnerable, after all.

And she was not in a position to be vulnerable. The rebellion would not wait for him, so she was forced to resume her duties even while she waited for news of Han. It had been so difficult. After all, he could not help himself now; this man who had always been so confident, so self-assured, needed her to be strong for him. And so she had been. She had not allowed herself to be overcome, or to fall apart. Not even Luke had seen her true feelings.

She reached out and touched Han's cheek, letting her fingers trace the line of his jaw, trailing over the scar on his chin. It was still unreal, but the reality for which she had been secretly hoping all this time was here. Han was back, he was safe...but somehow she knew that it was far from over.

Leia pushed herself to her feet and off of his high bunk, dropping silently to the floor. She didn't want to disturb him, but she found herself unable to move, rooted to the spot, as she turned her back on him. She had not made it three steps toward the bulkhead door when tears came fast and unexpectedly, streaming down her cheeks--a torrent of pent-up grief. Only now that the long search was over had she finally reached her breaking point.

She pressed a tightly clenched fist to her mouth in an attempt to muffle her sobs. The strength seemed to flow out of her, and she wavered uncertainly as she struggled to keep her balance. She couldn't even drop to her knees as sobs wracked her shoulders, and sent a dull, throbbing pain through her stomach and her ribs as she still tried to contain them.

It was only when she felt Han's large, strong hands on her shoulders that she realized her outburst had drawn him from his feverish sleep. Whether he had heard her, or whether he had simply sensed something wrong didn't matter. He was there. He didn't say anything as his hands lightly caressed her unbound hair. She trembled as he gathered it back away from her face, away from her tears. His fingers brushed her neck in an oddly sensual gesture as he gently cupped her chin in his hand and turned her face up to his. She tried to pull away from him at first, but she knew that she couldn't run from him. And running from him was the only way to keep him from seeing her like this. So she turned to face him.


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