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Physical pain is quickly forgotten. Mothers forget the pains of childbirth when their newborns are placed in their arms; once a victim has healed from an injury the agony of the wound is not remembered so much as the inconvenience it caused. Cuts and bruises fade from your skin, and then from your memory.
"Mistress Leia, please wait!"
Leia reluctantly slowed her pace through the makeshift tunnels that served as corridors in the Hoth base and allowed the protocol droid to catch up with her. "What is it, Threepio?" she asked, barely keeping the impatience out of her voice.
See-Threepio paused for a moment, as if he were out of breath from running and needed to compose himself before he could continue. "General Rieekan has been trying to locate you," he said in his clipped mechanical tones, gesturing with one golden arm. "He says it is a matter of some importance, but he hasn't been able to reach you on your communicator."
Leia wrestled with a flash of guilt. She was on her way to a psy session, and had purposely turned the comlink off so she wouldn't be interrupted. "I'm on my way," she said tightly. Knowing that Dr. Mulani would understand that something urgent had come up, she headed in the direction of the command center with Threepio at her heels, the droid chattering all the while about the fascinating reproductive habits of tauntauns. She barely managed to resist a well-placed kick to the droid's vulnerable wiring center.
"I'm glad you're here," Rieekan said when she arrived. The general's steely eyes glinted with concern beneath his graying hair, and his lined face looked grim in the bath of wan light from the surrounding monitors. "We have a situation."
Leia raised an eyebrow, raised it even higher when Rieekan shifted so that Han Solo was visible behind him. The command center was hardly Solo's favorite hangout.
"Your Highness," Han said in greeting, managing as always to make her title sound like a thinly veiled insult. She nodded stiffly in return.
"Captain Solo discovered something rather interesting while he was on Stenax," Rieekan said, either oblivious to the sudden tension in the air or choosing to ignore it. He looked to Han, signaling that the pirate should elaborate.
"A reliable source of mine's heard rumors of plans for a new cloaking device some hotshot scientist has cooked up," Han told her. "The buzz is that just one of these babies can establish a distortion field covering up to five cruisers at a time, if they fly in close enough formation. And it's strong enough that you could practically float right under a Star Destroyer's nose and they'd never know the difference. Its capabilities are unbelievable--if it works."
"And it would be a huge help to us," Leia said, following his line of thinking. "So how do we get our hands on these plans so that we can find out for ourselves?"
The two men exchanged glances. "The scientist who developed it...he's Alderaani," Han said.
Oh."So?" she asked, straining to keep her voice casual.
"Apparently he'll only speak to other Alderaanians," Rieekan said "He's hesitant to deal with anyone,but from what Captain Solo's acquaintance has gleaned, a fellow...'orphan,' as he put it, would be enough to persuade him."
Realization clicked and gave her an instant headache. "You want me to go? I'm not the only member of the Alliance who called Alderaan home." An image of her lush homeworld moments before its disintegration floated in her head, nearly making her dizzy. She rubbed her eyes in an effort to banish the vision and hoped that the gesture would pass for a sign of fatigue.
"But you are the most important personage from Alderaan we have left," the general pointed out. "And with your considerable diplomatic skills..."
"I'd be more persuasive than most," she said, finishing his sentence for him. Especially since this guy couldn't know that I'm the one responsible for the destruction of our planet,she added silently, grimly.
He nodded. "Exactly."
Leia resisted an urge to gnaw at her fingernails. "Where is this eccentric holed up?"
"Athos," Han informed her.
"Eccentrics do tend to choose the most inconvenient places," Leia said wryly, thinking of the remote planet's lava-spotted surface, then stifled a sigh. She really didn't want to do this. But what choice did she have? The Rebellion needed her.
"Fine, I'll go." An accusatory voice in the back of her head asked, And just how do you think you're going to pull this off without falling to pieces?but she squelched it through sheer force of will.
"Excellent. Captain Solo informs me he can leave first thing in the morning," Rieekan said.
Her jaw dropped. "He'sgoing with me?"
Han's grin was salt in the wound. "The general thinks I'm the best man for the job, given my...resourcefulness."
"And your instincts," Rieekan added. "If this isn't all on the level, I'm trusting you to catch on and get the princess out of there."
Hmpf. As if she'd need his help. As if their escape from Tarkin's space station hadn't been entirely her doing.
The space station...
burning burning no leave me alone please
"Princess? Princess, are you all right?"
Rieekan's voice guided her back to the present and her vision slowly came back into focus. "I'm fine," she said firmly, blinking hard. "Just tired." Maybe Dr. Mulani would be able to squeeze her in despite her missed appointment...
"I want to ask Luke to come along too," Han said. His eyes were full of questions as he studied her, but he knew to leave well enough alone. "I figure if he does have some of that Force stuff like he thinks he does, it couldn't hurt to have him on our side."
Good. At least having Luke along would make the trip a bit more pleasant. "Fine. I'll see you in the morning."
"Bright and early," Han said cheerfully. She wanted to deck him.
"So how do you feel about this trip?" Occula Mulani asked in her blandly soothing voice. She smoothed the soft fabric of her bright green caftan around her as she took her seat.
"I'm confident that we'll be able to secure the cloaking device," Leia said carefully, knowing that wasn't what the doctor meant.
The stunning Twi'lek female gazed equably at her, her pale blue skin muted in the soft light of the private chamber. "And how do you feel about seeing someone from Alderaan?"
"There are other Alderaanians in the Alliance," Leia pointed out. "I don't have any problems dealing with them."
It was a half-truth at best and they both knew it. Leia avoided the Alderaani men and women of the rebel group as much as possible, unwilling to risk accusatory glares or loosely concealed pity. She had no evidence that any of them actually felt that way about her, of course, but didn't see much point in going out of her way to find out if they did.
"But those men and women know you, understand what happened to you," Mulani said. "They are your comrades in arms. This man...you don't know how he'll receive you."
"He won't know that it was my fault," Leia said stubbornly, fixing her eyes on the vibrant Mon Calamari tapestry hanging on the far wall of the office. The multi-hued swirls and abstract patterns were almost hypnotic. She wondered if the effect was intentional. "My involvement is not common knowledge."
The shapely tentacle-like appendages that led from Mulani's head down to around her shoulders actually twitched. "You still believe the destruction of Alderaan was your fault?" The subject was well-traveled ground between them.
"Wasn't it?" Leia countered.
"I thought we had moved past this, Leia."
What did she mean, 'we'? "Will I ever?"
The doctor's dark eyes skewered her with disconcerting intensity. "You tell me."
Leia rose from her chair, actually visualizing her nerve endings starting to fray. "I have to go now. I have a lot to do before I leave in the morning."
Mulani opened her mouth as if to object, then closed it and settled for a shrug. "If you need to reach me at any point during your trip, please feel free to do so."
Leia muttered an affirmative and made a hasty exit.
Leia tried to ignore the sinking feeling in the pit of stomach the next morning as she approached the battered wreck of a spaceship that Han Solo called the Millennium Falcon.Ordinarily she wouldn't have any doubts about her ability to successfully complete a mission, but the fact was that she had been increasingly...well, fragile, lately, much as she hated to admit it. And to make matters worse, everybody knew it. It had been Mon Mothma herself who'd ordered Leia to attend psy sessions with Occula Mulani, after Leia had experienced what was delicately referred to as an "episode" during a strategy meeting.
"Episode." Mon Mothma's lovely euphemism for Leia's bursting into animal-like shrieks and then subsiding into near-catatonia when a visual of Vader had been projected onto the view screen.
Occula had tried to explain to her that such incidents were not unusual following a particularly traumatic event, but Leia still had a difficult time believing they could happen to her.She refused to allow herself to be so severely affected by her experiences. She just didn't have the time. She knew in the clear light of day, that she was above this nonsense--unfortunately, her subconscious seemed to have other ideas.
The sessions were helping, she knew that. But they also forced her to confront a lot of things she wasn't quite ready to face.
She jerked her head up to see that Luke had materialized at her side. How in space did he do that? He was quiet as a pookah-cat. "Hi, Luke. All set for the trip?"
The farmer-turned-star-pilot's blue eyes flashed a youthful excitement that was reflected in his wide grin. "You bet. One thing, though--"
"Why, Mistress Leia! Good morning!" The familiar synthesized voice was accompanied by the sound of metal heels clicking unpleasantly against the cold ground behind her. She didn't have to turn around to recognize the source, especially when a chorus of beeps and whistles joined in as well.
She groaned, and Luke shrugged sheepishly. "Threepio and Artoo are joining us," he said, finishing his sentence.
"Don't they always?" she muttered under her breath.
"Sorry," Luke said, "but there's not all that much for them to do around here right now, and I figured you never know when they might come in handy."
Threepio minced up alongside her.
"Mistress Leia, I want to assure you that all protocol relations with the residents of Athos are in my more than capable hands. Don't forget that I am fluent in over--"
"Six million forms of communication," Leia said curtly. ''I know, I know." She threw a look heavenward, cursing whatever gods saw fit to continually make her the butt of their cosmic jokes. "I'm sure your assistance will be invaluable."
The sarcasm was wasted on the protocol droid, as usual. "Why thank you!" Threepio chirped, obviously pleased beyond the boundaries of his programming. ''I am as always at your service."
"Right. Hi, Artoo," she said a bit more affectionately as the astromech droid rolled past her. Artoo gurgled what sounded like a positive greeting.
"'Bout time you guys showed up," Han called as they approached the Falcon.He was standing on the boarding ramp, hands on his hips. "Didja decide to sleep in or something? Have trouble kicking your overnight company out of bed?"
Leia merely glared and brushed past him up the ramp, trying but failing to keep her body from touching his in the process. She ignored the good-natured ribbing that ensued between him and Luke behind her.
"Hi Chewie," she called when she got on board, and heard a faint answering growl from the direction of the cockpit. She stowed her thermoseal bag in an overhead compartment and headed up there herself. As expected, Chewie was seated in the copilot's seat, running the standard preflight check.
"Everything okay?" she asked. Chewie rumbled something she assumed translated as "No problem."
She studied the massive, brown-haired Wookiee covertly as she took one of the passenger seats, amazed as always by Chewbacca's seemingly equal capacities for violence and tenderness. She hated to admit it, but she'd grown rather fond of the walking carpet.
"Typical," she grumbled to cover the sentiment threatening her inside. "Han gets angry with us for being late, and then takes forever to get his butt in here."
"If I'd known you were so fond of my butt I'd have gotten here sooner," Han quipped as he strolled into the cockpit. He moved past her toward the pilot's seat, taking great care to keep his back to her, so that as he brushed by his derriere was practically shoved in her face.
She could feel her cheeks coloring and cursed his timing. Don't let him know you're annoyed,she chanted silently. Don't let him know you're going to either kill him or throw him down on the floor and tear his clothes off...The thought shocked her for a moment, but she decided to go with it. It was admittedly a more pleasant alternative to what had been occupying her mind of late.
Luke entered close behind, shaking his head at Han's antics. "So about how long will the trip take, Han?" he asked as he took the seat next to Leia. Around them the Falconwas humming to life, whining and screeching and rumbling.
"About five hours once we go to light-speed," Han answered. "Okay, boys and girls, get ready, cause now we're flyin'..." And then they were shooting out of the Hoth base, up toward the stars and the endless night.
"Mind if I join you?"
Leia looked up from her datapad--not that she had actually been seeing anything on the screen, she was far too preoccupied--and smiled at Luke. "Not at all."
He slid in next to her behind the game table and ran a hand over the checkered surface with an almost affectionate touch. "My uncle and I used to play this game a lot. Only we had to use real figures, we didn't have the fancy holographic stuff."
Leia heard a catch in his voice, and looked at him worriedly. Sometimes it was easy to forget that she wasn't the only person in their group who had suffered great loss. "You miss him, don't you," she said quietly.
He propped his chin in his hands before replying. "Yeah, I do. We didn't always get along, but...I loved him. And my aunt. They took good care of me. I guess I did a lousy job of paying them back."
Leia looked at him in surprise. "Luke, how can you think that? You know their deaths weren't your fault, it was the Empire..." She winced, hearing Mulani's words echoed in her own. Do as I say, not as I do.
''I know. I do. But sometimes there's this guilt...it passes, though. Eventually." He grinned at her, and she was pleased when the Luke she knew so well resurfaced. ''I hope I'm not depressing you."
You're about a year too late,she thought ruefully. "It's fine, Luke. You know I'm always willing to listen whenever you want to talk."
''I know," he said sincerely. "So how are you doing?"
She looked at him steadily, meeting those innocent blue eyes of his, and debated whether or not he wanted a truthful answer to his question. Semi-truthful, perhaps? She gave him a tight smile and said, "I've been better, but I'm okay." Provided that okay could be defined as not quite throwing herself out of the nearest airlock.
"How are your...sessions going?" As soon as the words left his mouth he looked stricken, as if he had accidentally spilled diplomatic secrets. As if her 'episode' wasn't common knowledge throughout the Alliance, thanks to the ever-reliable gossip mills.
"Fine," she said curtly, not wanting to discuss it further.
Luke opened his mouth, obviously wanting to push the issue, when a small explosion resounded throughout the ship, the concussion jostling Luke and Leia where they sat and
no you can't possibly we have no weapons you can't do this
and she heard herself screaming, again and again and again and she couldn't stop. She could hear Luke yelling her name as if from a great distance, but she didn't understand what he was saying, didn't understand anything at all. She kept screaming and screaming until a tiny part of her mind wondered if she'd truly dropped off the edge into madness this time.
And then warm, rough hands were grasping her wrists, encircling her face, massaging her temples, enveloping her with warmth, and a new voice called her name firmly, insistently. She had to stop, had to... With a great effort, using every last vestige of will power, she managed to breathe finally, to fight her way out of that madness and bring her vision into focus to look at...Han. When she realized it was his hands holding her face, she stiffened.
A flicker of something unidentifiable crossed his face and was gone. He released her and tried to grin. "Thought we'd lost you for a minute, there," he said, and now she could clearly see the worry in his gaze.
"Sorry," she said quietly, feeling her cheeks redden. How long was this going to go on? She still didn't feel quite right, as if her limbs had become gelatinous. "What happened?"
"Uh, Chewie was having trouble closing a valve, and Artoo decided he wanted to be helpful. Wound up twisting the thing so damn tight it burst." Han ran a hand through his hair sheepishly. "Blew compressed air all over the place. Sounded like an explosion."
"Is the damage bad?" Luke asked nervously.
Han shrugged and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "Nah. We've flown with worse. I just need to get it taken care of when we land on Athos." He seemed to suddenly realize he was still crouched in front of Leia like a servant before a queen, and stood abruptly. "Do you want to go lie down or something?" he asked her, strangely solicitous.
"I'm fine," she insisted, knowing they wouldn't believe it for a second. She didn't believe it herself.
He jerked his thumb toward the back of the ship. "Go ahead, take the spare cabin. I'll let you know when we're about to land." She opened her mouth to protest, but he didn't give her a chance. "Go," he said in a voice that brooked no argument.
Ordinarily she would have tried to brook one anyway, but she really did want to lie down for a bit, if for no other reason than to be alone for a while. "I'll do that," she said stiffly, and made her way to the back of the ship. She could feel Han and Luke's stares crawling across the nape of her neck.
The small guest cabin was a spartan affair, equipped with the necessities: narrow bunk, closet, a small storage chest. She sat down with a sigh on the bunk and tried to pull herself back together. How could that tiny explosion have startled her so? She'd encountered enough battles and explosions since...since the Event. So why now?
Occula Mulani posited that reactions to highly traumatic situations were often delayed, even by years. She saw nothing unusual in the fact that Leia was only now having the episodes, the severe nightmares, the occasional lapses into near-catatonia. But Leia didn't like that theory; it was too abstract. She wanted a more concrete reason for her current state of mind, something she could evaluate and assess on its own terms.
She sighed again, a sigh of frustration and anger and impotence. Maybe a quick nap would help after all, assuming she didn't have another one of her brilliantly executed and horrific nightmares. If she was lucky she wouldn't be asleep long enough for one to strike.
Her head had barely touched the pillow before she sank into darkness.
Han woke her as promised, and proceeded to sit on the edge of the bunk, acting suspiciously like he wanted to Talk. She and Han didn't Talk, not to each other. In fact, they avoided it as much as possible.
"I'm not going to like this, am I,'' she said, wiping her eyes lethargically. Han's expression was sober, lending an uncomfortably attractive aspect to his rugged face. It was so rare to see him without his sardonic grin that he almost looked like a different person--a better-looking one, at that.
''I heard about what happened to you in that meeting, and I gotta say it didn't surprise me much," he said finally.
She blinked. It was just about the last thing she'd expected to hear from him. "It didn't?"
He shook his head. "Nah. It happens more than you'd think, more than people like to advertise. Stuff happens, and your brain has to deal with it one way or another. Sometimes the way it picks isn't the greatest, but what are you gonna do? You can't control it. Hell, it even happened to me once, years ago."
"What happened?" she asked, curious in spite of herself.
His hazel eyes darkened and he looked away from her. "That's not important. What is important," he continued, bringing his gaze back to her once more, "is that I got through it. Sweetheart, when we rescued you--"
--Some rescue,Leia thought automatically--
''--I didn't know about what you'd been through. I just knew you were tough. But then when I realized you were the princess of Alderaan,well, let's just say I'm amazed you didn't completely lose it before now."
"That's not all of it, Han," Leia said quietly. She paused, and she could sense that he would wait for as long as she needed until she was able to continue. In the back of her mind she was shocked with herself for wanting to tell him, but she suddenlv needed to share it with someone, someone who wouldn't analyze it to death, or judge her. And for all of his faults, one thing Han had never, ever done was judge her. She forced herself to meet his quizzical look and plunged forward. "Vader tortured me." The words were lead in her mouth, but she got them out without screaming.
Han looked at her a moment longer, then rubbed his forehead wearily. "I'd suspected as much. I'd have been surprised if they hadn't. But you didn't tell them anything."
He phrased it as a statement, not a question, and Leia knew there was no doubt in his mind as to the answer. She found herself unreasonably touched by this small faith in her. "No, I didn't," she whispered. "But I almost did. I almost--" She broke off, drew her knees up to her chest, and fought back the sting of tears. She would not cry in front of this man.
"But you didn't," Han persisted. "And that's all that matters." His hands grasped the air in frustrated gestures as he tried to put his thoughts into words. "Look, your Worship, the Empire'll bleed you dry first chance they get; they'll do it to anyone just because they can and because they get off on it. And it's just normal that you're flipping your lid a little. But if you just let people help you for a change, you'll get through it, you'll see."
"Is that what you did?" she asked. "Let people help you?"
He shrugged again. "Well, I'm not most people. Do as I say, not as I do," he said, cracking a self-aware grin.
She smiled back, hearing him echo her thought of a couple of hours earlier. ''I can't believe I'm even considering taking advice from you."
"Hey, maybe if you listened to me more often..." He trailed off as she glared at him. "Arright, there'sthe no-nonsense princess I know. We land in about ten minutes, okay?"
She nodded and watched him get up off the bunk and head for the door. "Han?"
He looked back, raised his eyebrows.
''I won't let you forget you said that," he said half-mockingly, and left her alone.