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This story won an award or something. I got an autographed Barbara Hambly book out of it, so it's cool.
Princess Leia Organa stood in a dimly lit corner of the loud, smoky, overcrowded tactical center turned party room and tried to look inconspicuous. Sipping delicately at her glass of Bothan wine, she watched the activity surrounding her with a jaundiced eye and attempted to avoid being jostled overmuch by drunken revelers. One in particular, reeking of alcohol and grinning vapidly, bumped into her on his way to the bar, and she barely managed to rein in her exasperation.
“Sorry,” the hapless crewman mumbled.
“Apology accepted,” she said tightly, restraining the impulse to bop him on the nose.
As she watched him stagger off in search of his next drink, she wondered how badly it reflected on her that she’d been the only member of the Alliance’s upper echelon to protest this little celebration. The brass’ thinking had been that the first anniversary of the destruction of the Emperor’s space station was the perfect occasion for a morale booster in the form of a party, especially since the Rebellion had faced one too many setback recently.
She still wasn’t sure why she’d felt the need to resist the idea. Maybe she was just pushing her own sour mood of late onto everybody else. Or perhaps, she told herself firmly, she was simply trying to maintain some sense of dignity for the ragtag group. Not that any of it mattered now—she had been outvoted, and so she was currently witness to a large number of men, women, and assorted non-humanoid life forms gathered in the main hall of the Rebellion’s temporary base on Metko, all with no higher purpose than getting as inebriated as possible. Such noble pursuits for vagabond heroes, she thought sardonically.
She watched an animated, sweaty Luke Skywalker barrelling his way toward her, and she wearily mustered up a smile in greeting. She adored Luke, but wasn’t sure she was up to his boundless enthusiasm at the moment.
“I haven’t seen you in a few days,” he said when he reached her. “You’ve been busy?”
She nodded. “I’ve been holed up in the command center, going over the latest data from intelligence: debriefing operatives, analyzing schematics…”
Luke’s blue eyes widened. “You’ve been talking to spies? Wow, that must be exciting!”
“No, it’s actually quite dull,” she said tiredly.
His face fell. “Oh.”
She touched his arm to soften her words. “I’m sorry. It’s just…I’m not really in the mood for a party.”
“You know, Han said the same thing when I talked to him earlier. But I think he was going to stop by anyway,” Luke said. He drank deeply from his glass of what appeared to be Corellian ale.
She tipped her head noncommittally. She and Han in the same mood. How…odd.
“Anyway,” Luke continued, “I volunteered for that supply run the General’s organizing. It’ll give me a chance to flex my flying muscles, and…”
She dimly listened to him, granting encouraging smiles where appropriate, but her thoughts kept drifting back to the subject of his earlier comment.
Lately she had found it difficult to even be in the same room with Han, mistrusting the way she might react to his presence. She was consistently unnerved by the uncanny talent he had of pushing all of her buttons—probably because she’d never had to deal with anything quite like it before. For as long as she could remember, men had kept their distance from the Princess of Alderaan. The cold, distant, no-nonsense Princess. The unapproachable image of her was so pervasive that she had found herself living it, like some twisted self-fulfilling prophecy. Even Luke got all googly-eyed around her, as if she were on a higher plane than mere mortals. But Han... Han treated her the same way he treated everybody else. And she was discovering, to her immeasurable surprise, that she liked it. Even though at the most inopportune of times he reminded her of another man who had dared to treat her as an equal, as a friend, and as something more…
But that man was gone now, wasn’t he. Jonal was gone, and the whole rest of the thrice-cursed planet with him, thanks to her.
She bit her lip and poked doggedly with a mental finger at the unwelcome image, attempting to push it out of her mind, but she knew it was no use. She wasn’t sure why she even persisted in trying to ignore her constant companions anymore. May I introduce you to Regret, Despair, and Self-Recrimination? she thought bitterly.
To make matters worse, she realized that she was aware of Han the instant he entered the room. Turning her head only a fraction of an inch as she continued to half-listen to Luke, she watched as Han clap Wedge Antilles on the back in greeting, with Chewie close behind him. With a finely honed
Determined not to let him rattle her, she turned her attention back to Luke, who was now eyeing her curiously. “Everything okay?” he asked.
“Of course.” She smiled up at him, trying to remember the last time she had felt as young as Luke seemed sometimes. Hotshot of the moment, hero of the Alliance, farm boy makes good…she fleetingly hoped he never changed.
“Good,” he said earnestly. “Because I wanted to ask you—”
“Is this a private party?”
How had he crossed the room so quickly?
Luke’s initial annoyance at being interrupted was supplanted by a grin. “Depends on who’s crashing it.”
Han spread his arms expansively. “Just the greatest pilot this side of the galaxy,” he said.
Leia didn’t miss the look he shot her as he said it. She rolled her eyes, unimpressed.
“You know what I like best about you, Han? Your quiet humility,” Luke cracked.
“Please, don’t encourage him,” Leia said, hoping she sounded bored.
Han’s eyes glittered at her. “He doesn’t have to, Your Worship. You do such a good job of that on your own…”
She snorted in a highly un-royal fashion and grabbed Han’s drink from his hand. She took a swig, then handed it back to him, relishing the look of astonishment on the smuggler’s face. “You’d be surprised what I’m good at, flyboy,” she said, then turned on her heel and left them gaping after her.
Oh, he knew how to play it cool, she had to give him that. He waited close to twenty minutes before bothering her again. When she found herself momentarily alone, leaning on a wall for support, he moved in and handed her a drink. “Thought you could use a refill,” he said.
“Thanks.” She looked up at him, and had to grudgingly admit to herself that he did look almost handsome—for a change. He had foregone his ubiquitous white shirt and black vest combo and instead opted for a simple dark blue shirt with black breeches. His hair was tousled as always, with a few recalcitrant strands falling over his forehead. She vaguely wondered if he even owned a comb.
“Luke decided to go play some drinking games. And I think Chewie’s already deserted me. He hates stuff like this,” Han said. He tried to sound gruff, but Leia could hear the underlying affection for the wookie in his voice.
“Well, I can’t blame him, really. It’s not my type of thing either.”
“Strange statement, coming from a diplomat,” Han observed.
“I suppose.” She let her gaze wander over the room, taking in the revelry. She used to like parties, she reflected. It wasn’t until...well, she just didn’t seem to have a party in her anymore. The weightless joy of the people around her was a foreign concept to her, now. She felt too heavy.
Jonal, she knew, would have understood. She sighed, hearing the ghosts of thousands in the sound of her breath rushing out of her body.
“Do you wanna get out of here?” Han asked, intruding on her thoughts.
She looked up at him, prepared to make a suitable retort, then realized he didn’t intend it in a lascivious way. “No, I should really stay a while longer, for appearances’ sake.”
“See, that’s the difference between you and me, Sweetheart,” he said. “I don’t put much stock in appearances.”
“Oh? I hadn’t noticed,” she said dryly.
He smiled down at her, and a warm feeling took hold of her insides and throbbed pleasantly. She hoped it was just a side effect of the liquor. “Although, there is one appearance I like to...take stock of from time to time,” he said, leering.
“Suit yourself.” He shrugged and turned to leave.
“Han,” she said, more urgently than she intended.
He paused, raised an eyebrow at her.
“I...I’m not in the mood to mingle at the moment,” she admitted.
“So you want me to stay?”
Maybe it wouldn’t be so difficult for her to say if he wasn’t enjoying himself so damn much. “Yes,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Sure, no problem..”
She closed her eyes thankfully when she realized that he wasn’t going to give her a hard time about it. He slouched against the wall next to her, and they stood in comfortable silence, Leia gradually relaxing enough until she was leaning slightly against him. The combination of his soft warmth, the alcohol, and her busy schedule forced her eyelids to droop despite all attempts at resistance. She tried to remember the last time she’d had a full night’s sleep. When she was fifteen? Sixteen?
As she fought to stay awake, fighting the impulse to rest her head on his shoulder, she slowly became aware of Han staring down at her. His eyes were practically burning twin holes in the top of her head. She did her best to ignore it, but couldn’t.
“What’s on your mind?” she asked finally, looking up at him.
His casual expression changed abruptly, grew serious as he returned her gaze. “You.”
Her face burst into flame. Well, she had asked, hadn’t she? “And how many different women has that line worked on?” she asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
“That’s classified information,” he said, grinning.
“Good,” she murmured. Because suddenly the thought of Han with another woman made her slightly ill. Wait a minute, another woman? Maybe she did need to get out of there...
“Am I making you uncomfortable?” he asked, mock-innocent.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” she snapped.
“I don’t need to. Talking with you always does wonders for my self-esteem.”
She had to let out a small laugh at that. Jonal used to say almost the same thing whenever she teased him. I’m glad you’re around to keep me humble, Leia... His boyish grin danced before her eyes, and she blinked the memory away with an effort.
Han, for his part, seemed taken aback. “I can’t remember the last time I heard you laugh,” he said.
She sobered. “Well, laughs are pretty hard to come by, these days.”
He nodded slowly, his eyes studying her in a way that was making her increasingly...well, uncomfortable, dammit.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “You’re really out of it tonight.”
“It’s nothing,” she said quickly.
“No, no, it’s not. Do you wanna talk about it?” he asked.
She shook her head, worried that she had already revealed too much. “There’s nothing to talk about,” she insisted.
“You don’t talk to anyone, do you?” he asked bitterly, and she could hear the hurt in his voice. “Geez, Princess, haven’t you ever had any friends?”
She stiffened. Boy, did his timing stink. She could practically hear Jonal chuckle in her ear at the absurdity of it all. “Excuse me,” she muttered, and pushed her way past him, out the door, in search of a place where she could sit and think and wallow in her misery.
And try to escape what would never leave her be.
He had a few faults, and he was usually aware of about half of them, but one thing he was able to do was admit, at least to himself if not to others, when he had fucked up big time. The way he just had with Leia.
They had been getting along so well for a change, just talking, actually enjoying each other’s company, and then he had to go and make a particularly crappy remark. He couldn’t blame her for leaving.
He supposed he should go find her. He wasn’t sure he wanted to, but he knew that if he didn’t it would bug the hell out of him. Not to mention that he’d have to put up with a steady diet of cold shoulder until she decided to get over it.
So he wandered around the makeshift base for a while, ignoring random service droids and apologizing to couples who had fled the party to engage in romantic clinches. Before too long he came upon her in the command center, curled up in a cushiony black chair, her gaze drawn to the expansive viewport that looked out over the planet’s orange-hued, craggy, barren surface. The night sky was clearly visible, a blanket of darkness studded with countless stars.
She didn’t turn around at the sound of his voice, just hunched her shoulders and sunk deeper into herself.
Han let out a deep breath and sat down in the chair next to her. He followed her lead and directed his eyes straight ahead, out the viewport. The multitude of stars twinkled at him with a maddening serenity. “I, uh, didn’t mean…you know…”
“Forget it,” she said stiffly. He could feel the tension radiating off of her, and tried to squash an overwhelming desire to loosen her up. There were a few choice ways he would go about it, and they all involved her flushed and gasping beneath him, on top of him, surrounding him…watch it, Solo. Did he really want to spend the rest of the night frustrated beyond belief?
But then, it wouldn’t be the first time since he’d met her, would it?
They sat there for long moments in uneasy silence, a contrast to the comfortable quiet they had enjoyed earlier in the evening. Han took an occasional swig from his bottle of ale and Leia picked at her cuticles. He didn’t know what else to say, and he wasn’t sure she wanted to talk anymore, but something made him stick around.
When she finally spoke again he almost jumped at the sound. “Have you ever…made a decision that haunted you for the rest of your life? Something you’ve always regretted?” she asked softly.
What the…? “I guess I’ve done stupid things once or twice,” he said cautiously, “but I try not to get sidetracked by regrets. Life’s too short.”
“Must be nice, to be able to feel that way,” she said.
Her voice was so quiet, so hesitant, he barely recognized her. She had suddenly become a person with doubts, fears, moments of weakness. He wondered why she was letting him see her this way. Wondered if she even realized she was doing it.
He looked sidelong at her, hoping she wouldn’t notice his scrutiny. Her hair had been gathered back in a simple twist at the nape of her neck, and careless strands framed her face, covered her delicate ears. The silky, deep red dress she wore hugged her in all the right places, while a silver necklace complemented the graceful line of her neck. Her brown eyes glinted with the reflected light of the stars, and her lips were accentuated by a light coating of reddish-brown lipstick.
She was breathtaking.
Not that he’d ever tell her that.
“It’s enough,” he said finally, in response to her comment. “And for me that’s plenty.”
She turned and faced him then, her brow creased. “You’re so predictable sometimes.”
“So are you, Your Worship,” he countered, grinning.
“I am, am I?” She ballooned with indignation, then it all rushed out of her with a sigh and she turned her gaze back to the viewport. “I am, aren’t I.”
“Well, predictable in a good way,” he conceded.
“Thanks,” she said dryly.
He looked at her again, realization nibbling at his consciousness. “Is this about Alderaan?”
She didn’t look back at him. Her jaw clenched and she blinked rapidly. “Why would it be about that?” she whispered.
Damn. He wondered what it was like, to have everyone you loved taken from you in an instant. He had never cared about enough people to be able to imagine it.
But one thing he had discovered about Leia was that she loved as fiercely as she hated. And he had seen the depths of her hate for the Empire.
“It must be hell,” he said.
To his surprise he found himself nearly overcome, suddenly, by the want, the need, to take her into his arms and tell her everything would be okay.
But there was no guarantee that everything would be okay, ever. And he was probably the last person she’d want to hear it from, anyway.
He settled for placing his hand over hers, her skin soft against the rough callouses on his palm. She tensed slightly, but didn’t pull away.
The two of them sat in silence and looked out at the stars.