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Leia threaded her way through the bustling, overcrowded hangar that currently housed the Rebel fleet and went over her mental checklist one more time before breathing a tired sigh. She had more or less accomplished the bulk of her contribution to the ongoing evacuation procedures, and soon, there would be nothing left to do but wait. And worry. She was more than a little apprehensive about the imminent move, largely due to the ice planet that scouts had determined would be a suitable location for the Rebels’ next hidden base. Extreme climates posed too many variables, as far as Leia was concerned. Unfortunately, it had not been her decision to make, and the Rebel Alliance was decidedly short on options these days, in any case.
Pressing more heavily on her mind at the moment was the side trip that would come first: a small portion of the fleet would be making a stop at the trading planet of Ord Mandell to requisition supplies. Which brought her to her final duty of the day, the one she had purposely put off for as long as possible. She just hadn’t been able to refuse General Rieekan’s request that she personally ask Han Solo to take the Millennium Falcon to Ord Mandell as part of the foraging contingent. The general had hoped the request would be better received if presented to the pirate by a friend.
That was the word he had used. Friend. And Leia had bitten the inside of her mouth to prevent a snide remark from escaping and merely acquiesced with a nod of her head.
In all fairness, her reaction had been somewhat unjustified, she mused, wincing as she massaged a tight nerve at the base of her neck. Han was her friend, albeit one with whom she shared an increasingly bizarre relationship. In a way, she supposed, she trusted him more than anyone, save for Luke.
And in another way she didn’t trust him as far as she could throw him. And definitely not as far as Chewbacca could throw him.
She shook her head ruefully. The fact of the matter was simply that Han Solo was just about the last person in the galaxy she wanted to see at the moment. Their latest fight had been…oh, a whole six or seven hours ago. She couldn’t even remember all the gory details anymore. She vaguely recalled suggesting he copulate with a Bantha, but beyond that, it had been relegated to that special mental file she reserved for Fights With Han. The file that was invariably deleted moments after it was stored since it wasn’t worth wasting precious brain cells.
She snapped out of her reverie when she realized she was standing like a dolt in front of the Falcon, whose battered hulk stood silent guard over a small section of the hangar. She eyed the ship uneasily, then took a deep breath and made her way up the extended boarding ramp, fighting the nagging sensation that she was about to head into armed combat.
She found him in the cockpit, sitting in the pilot’s seat, running through some sort of systems check or another. Was he ever not doing something related to the Falcon? Leia racked her brain, but was only able to come up with a handful of instances offhand.
“What is it, Your Worship?” he asked without looking around.
She hesitated, nonplussed. “How did you know it was me?”
He spared her a backwards glance. “The Force,” he said, his voice dripping sarcasm.
“Hmph. A regular Jedi Knight.” A few more choice comments leapt to mind, but she resisted. Just stick to business, and nobody will get hurt, she told herself firmly. “Han, I’m here with a…request. From General Rieekan.”
“You mean this wasn’t a pleasure visit? I’m hurt, Your Highness,” he said dryly. He forcefully punched a few more keys on the console, then leaned back in his chair and gave her his full attention.
She ignored his comment and took the co-pilot’s seat, her gaze wandering absentmindedly over the activity in the hangar below before she continued. “He’s hoping you’ll join the supply run to Ord Mandell. You have a lot of cargo space, and the more smaller vehicles we can use as opposed to large freighters the better. We’ll attract less attention that way.”
“There’s a certain logic to that,” Han acknowledged. “And what’s in it for me?”
She bit back a retort and reminded herself that she was asking him a favor. “You’d receive a small commission on any negotiations you personally conclude,” she said stiffly.
“Hmm.” He tapped his finger thoughtfully against his chin, and Leia uncomfortably realized that his eyes were now roaming over her body in an all too familiar manner. Suddenly acutely aware of the close quarters of the cockpit, she forced herself to refrain from squirming under his scrutiny. There was a glint in his eyes that she wasn’t sure she wanted to deal with at the moment. If ever. “Are you going?” he asked abruptly.
She raised an eyebrow at him, not sure where his train of thought was heading. “Yes. I’ll be the supervisory officer on the trip.”
“Hmm.” His mouth spread into an irksome grin as some internal decision was made. “Tell you what, Your Highness. I’ll go on one condition.”
Leia sighed. A catch. With Han, there was always a catch. “What is it?” she asked, dreading his response.
“You have a drink with me. I just pulled out this expensive bottle of Corellian whiskey,” he said, his eyes lighting up, “and I hate drinking alone.”
She blinked. Twice.
“You want me to have a drink with you?” she asked stupidly. “Now? Here? Whatever for?” Just when she thought she might be even a tiny bit close to figuring this man out, he threw her for a loop all over again.
He shrugged. “That’s my price, is all. You got anything better to do?”
Her jaw dropped. “Of course I have better things to do. I…” She trailed off as she realized there was no point in arguing. One quick drink, and she could be on her way, mission accomplished. Play his stupid little game and get on with her life. She’d be getting off easy. “Fine.”
“This way,” he said, rising from his chair and gesturing for her to follow.
She trailed after him hesitantly, just waiting for him to pull some sort of trick out of his sleeve. “Where’s Chewie?” she asked as a sinking thought occurred to her.
“Not here,” he said brusquely. She waited, but no additional information was forthcoming.
So they were alone on the ship. The idea made her uneasy, although she wasn’t sure why, exactly. It wasn’t like she couldn’t handle being alone with him, right?
The aforementioned bottle was waiting patiently for them on the chess table in the rear of the ship, along with two glasses. Leia eyed them with suspicion. “Were you expecting someone?”
He sat down and smiled sheepishly, motioning for her to do the same. “Well, to tell you the truth, I was going to come find you later, with this. As a…peace offering.”
Peace offering? “Really?” She had to admit she was—almost—moved. It was rare that Han was willing to take the first step toward reconciliation. Extremely rare. She narrowed her eyes at him as she sat down, searching for a deeper truth. “Come on, Han. You must have had some other motive.”
He poured a generous amount of the dingy brown liquid into each glass before responding. “Nah. Like I said, I’ve been itching to try this new bottle, and I hate drinking alone, and we fought so bad this morning…I’d thought I’d surprise you.
“And then get you drunk and have my way with you,” he added as an afterthought, leering.
“Captain Solo, there are numerous ways to castrate a man, and I’m quite adept at every one of them,” she said smoothly, slipping back into their familiar territory.
He sneered good-naturedly. “Charming as always.”
Charming to the last. The voice echoed in her brain and the hatchet-faced visage danced before her eyes and then the explosion and the silent screaming as she fought to hold on to some shred of sanity as her world flared with brilliance and then disintegrated into nothingness—
“Hey. Princess. Princess, you okay?” Han’s voice penetrated the fog that had enveloped her, and she shook her head frantically, trying to chase away the demons.
“I’m fine,” she said automatically, forcing her eyes to focus and taking the glass from his outstretched hand. Her fingers brushed his and the warmth of his skin helped to pull her back to reality.
“Are you sure?” he asked, unconvinced.
She looked up at him and was shocked to see worry and concern in his hazel eyes. She tried to smile, managed a slight one. “Yes.” His answering smile of relief sent a pleasant tingle through her, and she looked away before a blush could creep over her cheeks. Awkward silence reigned as she desperately sought a change of subject, anything to deflect the topic away from herself. “You said this is Corellian whiskey?”
He nodded. “It, ah, does things for you.”
She grimaced, remembering. She, Han, and Luke had gotten blitzed on the stuff a few nights after the destruction of the very same hatchet-faced bastard’s space station. Well, in her defense, she hadn’t meant to get drunk. Royalty didn’t get drunk. Han had lied to her about how strong the alcohol was. Damn pirate. “I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t plan on repeating that experience.”
He shrugged. “I’ll take my chances.”
She knocked some of the liquid back, shivering at the resulting fire that spread through her throat and chest. “Is this from your private supply?”
“Nothing but the best for exalted ones, Your Highnessness.”
“I’m touched,” she said dryly.
That ubiquitous leer returned to his face. “Not yet. But you could be…”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Don’t you ever get tired of listening to yourself?”
“Nope,” he said gleefully. He finished off his glass with a gulp and poured himself another. “So what were you up to before you came here?”
“Unlike some people, I was doing something productive,” she said coolly.
His hackles rose, predictably. “Look, Your Worship, working on my ship is ‘productive.’ Don’t give me that high and mighty crap.”
“Han, could we please try to not fight for one minute?” she asked, exasperated. She was still reeling from her unwanted flashback, and their constant bickering was suddenly all too tiring.
“Sure,” he said, taken off-guard. He scratched the top of his scalp and eyed her appraisingly, obviously wanting to say something. She could practically see the rusty wheels turning in his head.
“You know, you should give yourself a break once in a while, Sweetheart,” he said softly, and her heart stopped at the surprising tenderness in his voice. “Sometimes you just…well, you act like you’re running the Rebellion all by yourself, and no one asked you to.”
Startled, she searched his eyes, looking for irony or sarcasm, but found none. Her insides twitched at what she did see there: concern, friendship, and something else…she ruthlessly thrust the notion aside and covered her reaction. “I’m sorry if my dedication offends you, Captain. Some of us are here because we believe in what we’re doing.”
His sharp exhalation of breath was tinged with frustration. “I’m not trying to start something, here. All’s I’m saying is, you could use more fun in your life. When’s the last time you had any fun?”
She knit her brows, considering, then wrinkled her nose when the answer occurred to her. “The time you, Luke, Chewie and I stayed up all night playing sabacc on the Falcon.”
He grinned, sharing the memory. “I gotta hand it to you, Princess. You were one hell of a student.”
“That’s because I had such an unscrupulous teacher,” she retorted. She took the bottle from him and poured herself more whiskey. “Luke still owes me 100 credits.”
He barked a short laugh. “I’ll remind him next time I see him.”
“You do that.”
He leaned back in the seat, stretching out his legs and suppressing a belch. His knee popped, but he ignored it. “What about before the Rebellion? What did princesses do for fun on Alderaan?”
Her throat closed up and she silently cursed him for his unfortunate timing. Through sheer force of will she steered her thoughts clear of the fiery death of her home, and instead traced the patterns on the chess board with her fingers, avoiding his eyes, and cast her memory back to happier, simpler times. When she finally spoke her voice sounded distant to her own ears.
“I used to…sometimes my father would take me to the Capital Observatory, and we’d sit, and talk, and look up at the stars, and he’d tell me stories of all the different worlds I could see shining in the sky. He’d tell me about places he’d been, and places he hadn’t, and others that he made up on the spot purely to entertain me. It would just be the two of us, then. It was so rare I had him all to myself, he was always so busy…I remember…I remember being happy, with him, watching the stars.” Damn. She could feel the tears burning in her eyes and she blinked them away furiously. She would not lose control in front of the cocky smuggler.
“Aw, Sweetheart…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to…shit.”
She could hear the unease in his voice, which didn’t surprise her. He was exactly the type to get uncomfortable around an ‘emotional woman.’ Jerk.
“Don’t worry about it.” She managed to blink back all the tears, and turned her attention instead to draining the rest of her glass, forcing the liquid through the lump in her throat. What was wrong with her today? She was crumbling right and left, and she didn’t like it. She would not allow it.
Plastering the semblance of a smile on her face and taking a deep breath, she said, “What about you, Captain? Or, on second thought, do I not want to know your definition of fun?”
He grinned in his usual manner, but Leia didn’t miss the grateful look that passed over his face at the change in direction of the conversation. “Well, Your Worship, I’d have to say that when it comes down to it, nothing beats traveling through deep space. Just you and your ship, no rules, no place you gotta be…just the stars for company.” He studied her face for a reaction. “Maybe our ideas of ‘fun’ aren’t all that different, huh?”
She smiled a small smile, conceding the point. “The eternal traveler, Captain Solo?” she asked.
“I guess that’s me,” he said, pouring himself yet another glass.
“And for how much longer will you be traveling with…us?” she asked, relieved that her voice didn’t tremble as she voiced the question. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she fervently hoped that he would attribute the flush on her cheeks to the whiskey.
“I, uh…” He studied his drink before meeting her eyes. “I don’t know. I got debts to pay…why? Are you giving me a reason to stay?”
Now she knew her cheeks were flaming. “If you don’t have one by now, there’s no point in my trying, is there.”
He closed off from her. The shields fell into place over his eyes and the familiar sardonic grin curved his mouth. “I wouldn’t want you to waste your energy, Your Worship.”
She stiffened -- insulted, confused, and hurt, all at the same time, and unable to let it show. Damn nerfherder. Here she was, trying to open herself up to him, just a little, and what did she get in return? The same old mercenary song and dance. “Do you care about anything, Han?” she found herself asking quietly. “Besides money? Besides yourself, or Chewie?”
To his credit he seemed to give the matter serious thought. “I’ve never claimed to be anything more than I am,” he responded slowly. “But…to say I only care about me, or money…you gotta know by now that that’s not true.”
“Do I?” she whispered, more to herself than to him at this point. “When everything you say, or do, suggests otherwise?”
“Look, I…” He was suddenly closer to her on the seat, and she forced herself not to move, not even when one calloused hand reached up to tentatively brush a strand of hair away from her face, then rested against her cheek.
She turned her head slightly, looked at him, challenging. The air crackled between them as their eyes held and didn’t let go and his hand burned against her skin.
An eternity passed.
He finally broke the connection, his mouth working as he tried to form words. “I…I have to do what I have to do.”
She flinched away from him. “Fine.”
“Princess…” She could see his internal struggle manifested in his tormented expression. “I’m here, now. And I’m not going anywhere, not yet. And that’s gotta be enough. That’s all I can give.”
A flicker of hope inexplicably kindled in her breast. Not going anywhere yet, then.
Not yet. There was still time for…for what? She didn’t know. Didn’t want to know. Not yet.