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The flying sand stung the backs of Leia Organa’s knees like finely needled teeth; it stung her calves, her forearms and all the places where she could not keep her cloak together. Still she lingered, staring into the whirling sands on the planet known as Tatooine. The young Jedi reached his X-Wing, climbed hastily inside and brought down the hatch. She waited until he waved, and then, after sending her heartfelt thanks to their savior, she started up the ramp, followed by the others.
Han Solo patted the Millennium Falcon’s side affectionately. “You’re lookin’ good, old girl. I never thought I’d live to see you again.”
The orphaned Princess pressed her lips together and tried not to give in to the emotions the idle statement evoked. Not yet, anyway. It had been six months since they’d last stood side by side. As it was, she felt as though she’d been released from six months of imprisonment along with him.
The group boarded solemnly. There was no question of the Solo’s inability to fly this occasion. As though he couldn’t bear to watch others in his stead, doing what he was unable to do, and without a single, solitary word of protest, he led her to the main hold. They settled themselves into the crash couches and fastened their safety straps. In the cockpit, the Wookiee began barking to the former Cloud City Administrator, Lando Calrissian. The man kept saying, “I know, I know, I know.”
Two days, Leia thought.
Had it been two days since she’d yanked on the decarbonization lever?
Although on the way to the ship they had babbled garrulously, everyone overlapping each other’s sentences in rapid circles, now she couldn’t remember what they’d said to one another. She said nothing now, not for the minutes it took to escape first the sandstorm, then the desert world’s forebodingly bright atmosphere.
The Corellian’s expression remained distant; he was focused on an abstract corner of the hold, listening intently. After the jump to hyperspace crushed them back against their seats, he shook his head as if to wake himself from what she imagined was the disorientating and surreal blur of the present, life moving at lightspeed compared to his time during in carbonite. Then he said, “She sounds pretty good. But I think the acceleration compensator is too low. Chewie should have felt that and taken care of it.”
Of course, it was his ship. Naturally, she suspected he was overwhelmed by the past two days, and struggling to make sense of what had happened to him. His ship was the simplest part of his life to put in order. “We’ve been busy,” she offered apologetically.
“Right,” he replied.
Leia fumbled for what to say next. She wanted to vault her arms about him and kiss him and yet, awkwardness descended upon her like a flash flood, or a solar flare, disrupting her means of communication, rendering her mute. In the quiet there were stirring doubts, dormant for the duration of his ordeal; she wanted to rid herself of all of them, but was afraid to take the risk. There had been too many risks already. She’d given everything she had to give to chance and hope.
What was she do, to say, after all this time? How did she begin?
It was an effort to stand up when she finally did. She felt as though she was being pressed back into the foam seats with heavy weights, pinioned down by sheer exhaustion. Her legs stung and she imagined that she smelled of spilled beverages, alien foods, and the foul excretions of the Hutt's skin.
“To wash up,” she told him.
Han stretched lethargically and settled back against the couch. “I’ll wait here.”
She went to his cabin, which had been essentially hers until a few hours ago. Moving to undress in the refresher, she realized she would not be able to remove the collar to which her chains had been attached. After stubbornly struggling with it for several long minutes, she resigned herself to seeking aid. As it was, she barely had the strength to try; the muscles of her arms and back screamed in protest each time she raised them. Strangling the great creature, near ten times her weight, had been more than she was physically capable of doing, yet she had managed. But alone she would not free herself of the metal strip banding her throat.
Artoo, she thought hopefully, as he’d ably cut her chains on the sail barge, but then she remembered that Artoo was with Luke.
Upon exiting the fresher she discovered that Han had not waited after all, but followed her. He perched on the edge of the bunk, twitching with a strained tenebrous energy that didn’t make sense at first. She set a finger lightly on the collar. “I need your help to get this off – If you can see well enough.”
“I can see well enough,” he returned, in a manner that intoned he was seeing quite a bit, so Leia folded her arms across her chest, feeling ashamed and almost naked in her dancing girl’s costume. The concealing cloak lay forgotten on the refresher floor.
“Your eyes are improving then,” she returned lightly. “That’s good.”
By then he had reached her and his hands caught her bare shoulders. His eyes were mantled by darkness, intense, almost frightened. “I can see. I know Jabba. Lando told me something about them giving you to Fett. What happened?”
She stilled his hands at her throat, unsure what, “I know Jabba,” meant, though she supposed it might be his penchant for displaying his newest pets to his minions, an oblique reference to the very public humiliation she’d endured. Short of breaking his cover Lando had done everything he could to protect her.
“I’m okay, Han.”
“I’d never forgive myself,” he started saying, breathing harshly. “You don’t know.”
“Fett didn’t lay a hand on me,” she reassured him, wincing. “And I promise I will tell you all of it - but don’t ask me today. Let it go. As for Jabba…” She shivered with revulsion at the memory of his fetid flesh against her own. “He was vile and disgusting but effectively harmless unless I suffered from a pronounced phobia of drool.” Knowing her face was hardening over but unable to calm herself, she said faultily, “And in the end, he got what he deserved for all of us, didn’t he?”
The words echoed inside her mind, frenetic and desperate to escape again and again.
Didn’t he? Didn’t he?
“Your voice is shaking?” As always, he saw her bluff and called her on it.
“It isn’t,” she lied, for even under the worst of circumstances she could typically control her tone. The tremble betrayed how crushing to her pride the experience had been. For the rebellious politician was a woman who was used to fighting with both her wit and bare hands, relentlessly in control, and to have been so basely sexualized while anyone present watched, chained at the throat to Jabba’s dais, had been terribly humbling for her. Degrading. Humiliating. There were worse offences that might have occurred against her person, to be sure, but she had barely moved into a frame of mind where she could be relieved that they had not occurred. She would later when it had all soaked in.
For now she was more concerned with Solo’s recovery. The worst of the hibernation sickness appeared to have passed already. The dizziness and the blindness. “Please. How are you feeling?”
“Like I’m coming off one of the worst hangovers of my life,” he grumbled. “Like I spent a night drinking Gravdinian ale, inhaling the vapors and ignoring the warning labels. But…” He sighed deeply. “Knowing we’re all safe and that Jabba’s been put out of his misery, I think I feel better.” His handsome features brightened in afterthought. “Yeah, I feel better. I feel mighty fine.”
“Mighty fine?” She almost smiled.
“Mighty fine.” His fingers explored the space between her skin and the collar and brushed aside her plaited hair. “Oh damn, Sweetheart. Let’s get this off you.”
Sweetheart. Sweetheart. Let’s hear that again and again.
He left her shortly, returning with a fusion cutter and a flimsiplast-thin sheet of metal the size of half her palm. The latter he slipped beneath the collar, just in case the cutter’s beam strayed so that it wouldn’t accidentally burn her, though Leia would have trusted him just the same without it. She was so desperate to have the collar removed that she wouldn’t have cared if he did burn her.
Seconds later, the detested ring lay scored in sections on the floor. The Princess rubbed at her aching neck and the ridged indentations caused by bending her chin against the collar, feeling words weren’t enough to express her gratitude, this feeling of joy that he was here, that he could care for her.
A study in wonder crossed his features as he sank back onto the bunk. “Did you see Luke…?” He started shaking his head, incredulous. “The kid has changed. He’s a…”
“Jedi Knight,” Leia finished, reflecting on the younger man again, praying his private journey was a safe one. The prayer was brief; she didn’t particularly want to talk about Luke yet.
“Yeah, Jedi. I can’t believe it.” He tugged at his grayed shirt, stained with traces of carbon and sweat, and wrinkled his nose with irritation. Then he began examining the bunk, running his hands across the sheets, assessing his cabin and noticing for the first time that many of her belongings were strewn about it. Distracted, he wondered aloud, “You’ve been staying here?”
“Yes.” Han was by nature territorial; she knew that and felt marginally contrite. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all. Not at all,” he hastily assured her, smiling to himself as though it pleased him to think of her staying connected to him in his absence. “Make yourself at home.”
“I can see that too.”
Now that the collar was gone she could breathe again and felt partially cleansed. It occurred to her that she should be looking after him first, not herself. “Can I get you anything?” she asked. “Hungry?”
“Nah.” He patted the bunk unobtrusively. “Come sit down.”
Empty handed and bereft of a purpose, she obeyed. “Things are different,” she said, belatedly replying to his previous comment, meaning that, like Luke, she was different, and not the same girl who’d stood by helplessly and watched him taken away. They weren’t even truly lovers yet, though they were in her heart. They were only beginning and already on their journey all at the same time. In the moment she only knew that she loved him. Taking a long breath, she wrapped her arms about his waist and pressed her mouth to his hungrily as she’d lacked the courage to do in the main hold.
Instincts played aggressively before his mind brought them into check. He kissed her back hard, encountering warm, soft skin wherever his hands traveled. Then, seeming a trifle puzzled, or pleasantly surprised, or both, he drew away without quite releasing her.
“What?” she asked.
“I just… wasn’t expecting this. You. Like this.”
She understood, distantly. He hadn’t been expecting anything other than what he had left behind; he saw the same girl who’d been uncertain about giving in, who’d played it hot and cold, indecisive and skittish to the core, telling him she loved him when it was too late. They’d been in different spaces on Bespin and now she had caught up to him, but he didn’t know or hadn’t realized yet. Those first few waking moments in Jabba’s throne room might be no more than a dream to him. “I missed you so much.”
“Ah… Leia.” His tone was uncharacteristically sentimental and soft. “Your face is the last thing I remember, you know that?”
“Yes,” she murmured, bowing her forehead limply against his shoulder, crumpling like the grasses of Alderaan’s plains during heavy winds. She didn’t want to remember his face as it had haunted her for so long, bathed in sepia coloured light; he’d said he knew. She’d take the haggard and exhausted face he wore now any day over that one.
“I’m all right,” he told her, embracing her tightly, a living vice about her ribcage. “I’m not going anywhere on you. Not again. Not again.”
This time she knew.
Relief soothed Leia’s senses, that this was good, that they were good. “Don’t you dare,” she warned. “Don’t you dare.” She was leaning up to kiss him again when another voice intruded.
“Where do you keep the medpacs? Oh, I’m sorry—”
Freshly self-conscious, Leia extricated herself from the embrace and hauled herself to her feet. Medpac? “Chewie’s leg?” she asked, berating herself for having forgotten about the Wookiee’s injury. They’d wrapped it quickly on the skiff, but it still needed to be properly cleaned and looked after.
Lando nodded. “I can handle it. Just need to know where.”
“I’ll get it,” Han amended, rising too. “You’ve never had to deal with him and hypos. Trust me. You don’t want to start today.”
The dark skinned man was quick to accept, escaping down the passageway. “I’ll take your word for it,” he called.
Han’s gaze shifted back to her inquisitively, as if asking permission to leave. Leia replied by shifting a shoulder in the direction of the refresher. There wasn’t going to be much time to be alone once they rendezvoused with the fleet at Sullust. Moreover, once there, the Alliance was staging a massive mission - what they prayed would be the turning point in the Galactic War. They would have to wait, although she wasn’t planning to let him out of her sight any time soon. “I’ll be out soon. Go ahead. Chewie needs you.”
The Corellian raised his right eyebrow suggestively and extended his hands in offering. He grinned wildly, testament to his recovery, to his unchanged self. “If you need help in there? Any help at all?”
Much to her dismay, she blushed deeply, though she suspected he was only teasing. Then she laughed and struggled to regain her composure, quell the effulgent heat dancing across her skin and giving her away. “Maybe some other time, hotshot.”
The grin broadened before he turned away from her. “I’m gonna hold you to that.”
Leia whispered into the empty cabin when he had gone, to the luminescent glow of hyperspace peeking through the portal and the streaking stars beyond. “Me too, Han. Me too.”