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The sleepless nights were starting to become routine. Leia’s legs twisted between sheets too stifling for comfort, but when pushed aside her limbs chilled to the point of ice. A peaceful medium was impossible.
To make matters worse, in spite of Chewie’s assurances, she still felt the impression they were being followed. She turned to rest on her tummy and made a mental note to ask Han about it soon.
Eventually she stumbled into the main hold, searching through empty cabinets and crates for something to eat. She settled on a small tin with a few remaining tea bags.
As she waited for the herbs to diffuse, she alternated lifting her feet off the cold deck plates, clenching her fingers together for warmth. Her slim legs were bare beneath Han’s shirt ending around her thighs, her hair unbound, but still somewhat clumped together in their weaves.
It was an attractive picture for Han who watched her unbeknownst from the other end of the room. The comfortable companionship that had existed between the two of them had been slightly upset since their late-night reminder of his upcoming departure. The picture she presented now softened his scowl, reminding him why this struggle was so keen and personal.
She jumped when he spoke.
“You know as long as you’re borrowing my shirt, I’ve got some socks.”
“Um…” Her feet stopped the dance. “No, I’m fine. Really.”
She unconsciously shivered.
He moved quickly, moving his hands to her waist, guiding her to the table. “Here, go sit down. I’ll finish up.”
She chose the farthest end of the holochess table and watched Han’s back as he grabbed sweetener and spoons from various cabinets. He wore an old pair of baggy, ribbed pants that tied at his waist and his chest was bare. The massive bruise that had covered his back was noticeably smaller and fainter.
“How’s your shoulder?”
“As good as always.”
He came to the table, depositing her cup and a second cup for himself.
“Careful. It’s still hot.”
She picked it up regardless, blowing on the rim, watching him through her lashes. He looked warm and comfortable, smelling of sleep and thick quilts. She longed for it to engulf her.
“What?” He caught her stare.
“Oh. I was just wondering what you were doing up. Couldn’t sleep?”
“Sort of. But then I heard something.”
“Ah yes. The infamous secret sense of the great Captain Solo. No whispered conversations or sneaking around on his ship.”
He smiled. “You noticed?”
“I know it well. This ship is somewhat of an old friend.”
He looked at her with surprised affection. She could not help laughing.
“What?! I like your ship.”
“Doesn’t always seem to be the case. Especially when you’re acting the cold, hard princess.”
“Or when you’re acting the indifferent scoundrel…like the other night.”
“You started it.” He moved around the table towards her. “I was sitting here then, wasn’t I?”
She did not back down. “Yes. And as I recall, you ended the conversation rather abruptly, especially when we talked about you leaving.”
“Is that a hint for me to leave?”
“No. That’s the problem. You always want to leave and I want you to stay.”
“I’m here now. I’m not going anywhere.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Not yet.”
He leaned closer, his hand lifted to push some of her hair aside. “You want me to stay? Just you?”
“Yes,” she whispered, glancing up at his eyes before looking at his mouth.
His warm lips fell against hers and she gave herself over completely, reaching up with her hands to cradle his head, his hair between her fingertips. His hands pulled her tightly into his lap, against his chest.
Han kept his lips relaxed and sweet against hers, tasting her in an unhurried fervor that would keep her from running from him again. But her breaths, her soft lips and bare skin were testing his limits. He wanted her. He had wanted her for so long.
His hands found the bottom of the shirt around he bare thighs and she whimpered into his mouth as his hands smoothed along her legs, up to her waist. She moved her leg to the side so she was straddling his lap and he groaned deeply.
She felt lightheaded, careless, wrapped up in a tight cocoon of warmth that she never wanted to leave again. Everything he was doing, the way he was holding her, it was answering every hidden craving that had been burning beneath her skin, growing hotter and tighter since this flight had begun.
His tongue had long since sought entrance to her mouth and she welcomed his exploration, his duel with her own. At every new tighter pull or caress, her deep sighs and his soft groans only fueled the other’s passion for more.
It was when she realized how much her own body was grinding against Han’s, how hard he was beneath her, that reality seemed to creep back into her awareness. And then she pulled away.
He would not let her slip far. Keeping his arms tight, he rested his forehead against hers, breathing deep. “Leia…”
“It doesn’t make a difference, does it?”
“This. What’s between us. You still have to leave.”
“I…” He paused, catching his breath, realizing he wanted nothing untrue said between them. “Yes. I have to leave. But Leia-“
“No. You’re right. You said it’s who you are.” Her fingertips outlined his face, his jawbone. “And even though I…want this. Maybe I could-“
“I want this too.”
Leia’s heart nearly betrayed her when she saw the look of vulnerability on Han’s face as he said those words to her.
“No.” She shrugged away. “This was a mistake. Just another mistake.”
“Wait!” He jumped up after her. “Are you always going to keep running away?”
“Isn’t that what you did the other night?”
He stopped in frustration, but he kept his voice neutral, empathetic. “Don’t do this, Leia. You’ll regret this, you know. Eventually.”
“You think so?”
“What if we only have this time? You and I both know what could happen tomorrow.”
“It’s because I know exactly what will happen tomorrow.”
“So what do we do?”
And she fled, leaving the tea mug on the table. When Han reached to pick it up, it was already cold.
Chewbacca was in the cock-pit when the alarm sounded. And if the repeated high-pitched siren had failed to alert any of the crew, none of them could escape Chewie’s echoing roar that quickly brought everyone forward.
“Looks like a cruiser of some kind.” Han kept his head bent over the screen. “It’s hard to tell from the read out.”
“How far away is it?” Leia looked worried.
“Four thousand…maybe thirty-five hundred meters.”
Threepios hands went up. “We’re doomed!”
Chewie roared to Han from his seat, pointing at the screen.
“Yeah. I just noticed that, too.”
“It’s stationary. We’re the ones moving closer.”
“Can we go around?”
“Too late.” He pointed to the upper right hand corner window of the cock pit.
The vessel appeared slightly larger than the Falcon in the distance. But at such a distance, the size was deceptive. Within another three hundred meters, the size of the cruiser had already dwarfed the Falcon by three times. The cruiser was painted Empire grey with black striping peeling along the edges.
Leia paled. “Han, that’s a – “
“A Tartan crusier. I know. Chewie, can you run interference? Try to stop any transmissions?”
“It’s certainly not in good condition. The Empire should be ashamed for letting their ships fall into such disrepair” the droid commented.
Chewie growled back to Han.
“Well that’s odd.”
“All shields are down, cannons unarmed, there’s no response. I’ll bet it’s been abandoned.”
The occupants in the Falcon could only stare in silence as the ship came into close range. Apart from typical signs of aging, there were no contusions or signs of external destruction that might have thrown the ship out of repair.
Han brought his hand to his chin, stroking softly. “What’s it doing? Where did it come from? Chewie, check for life signals.”
“Sir, these kinds of ships are supplied with twenty laser cannons and more firepower available from their deflector shields than any starfighter in the Alliance. I insist we leave immediately!”
The control panel flashed. “Inconclusive? Great. That’s going to make this harder.”
“Make what harder?” Leia had risen from her seat, looking over his shoulder.
“Whether we should board it or not.”
“Board it!!” Threepio and Leia were aghast.
“Are you crazy?”
Their objections became simple white noise to Han, whose mind was eagerly working over the possibilities of potential wealth aboard the ship. He felt his heart stop as he realized the sudden implications. Whatever was on board had the potential to make up the difference of his debt with Jabba.
“There could be viruses, hazards, explosives?!”
Han looked up. “We scan that all before we board. Trust me, there’s nothing to worry about. Chewie and I’ve done this before.”
And then he let it slip. “Abandoned ships can be goldmines.”
“Goldmines?” Leia sank into the chair behind her. “I should have guessed.”
“Look, it’s nothing. We board, we check and then we’re home free. Nothing to worry about.”
She still looked terrified and Threepio shook his concerned head back and forth between the two.
But Han made the final decision. His mind already working through the possibilities, his expanded options should there be enough on this ship to close the difference for Jabba.
“Chewie, go back and stand by the connecting platform. I’ll signal you when we’re ready.”
Leia kept her gaze on the massive ship in front of them. “This is crazy. This is absolutely nuts.”
Thirty minutes later the crew stood on the extended platform bridge, ready to open the sealed entranceway of the Tartan cruiser.
Leia placed a hand on Solo’s shoulder. “Han, don’t go in there. I have a bad feeling about this.”
He looked back at her, savoring the feeling of the warmth of her hand. “A ‘bad feeling’? Like the one about us being followed?”
Her eyes widened with surprise and embarrassment. Chewie only held up his hands in silent defeat when her accusing glance swept over him.
“Tell me, Leia, what am I suppose to do with all these ‘feelings’? They’ve steered us wrong before. And who knows how many good missions we would have had if we hadn’t followed them.”
He paused. “You’re not Luke, you know.”
It was obviously the wrong thing to say, brought on more from her blow to his pride the previous night than anything else.
The irises in her eyes glowed and she dropped her hand. “Well at least he wouldn’t be doing something as insane as this.”
Chewbacca roared loudly now, impatient with the battle of wills.
“Enough said.” Han punched the controls and the door creaked and groaned much too loudly for a mission that depended on stealth. The passageway revealed an inky darkness, offset by slim maintenance lights running in parallels down the foreign hallway.
But before anyone could step in, Threepio voiced one last protest. “No, no, I cannot go in. Boarding abandoned space craft, especially an Imperial ship is unwise. Perhaps if we – “
“Stay behind, Threepio, “said Han, “Guard the ship. We’ll be right back.”
The hallway split to the left and right. Long dusty carpets, cloudy with age ran down the centers. The air was moldy and dry, with a light, putrid smell filtering through the opening of the platform. It was cold. Leia shivered, rubbing her arms briskly while keeping her body tense to what might appear in the dark. Han waved his flashlight around the cramped corridor, illuminating only further corners and turns.
“Chewie, you go down this way. Try to find the main computer systems. See what you can find out.”
As Chewie disappeared, the pair walked in silence, turning right then left, and then left again. When the last of the light from the platform disappeared entirely, Leia looked more frequently behind her back to the submerging darkness. They started passing doorways, all sealed and closed with no markings.
At a juncture the pathway split into three directions. Han abruptly stopped and Leia slammed into his back with a muffled, “Umf!”
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yes, just let me know next time you decide to suddenly stop.”
“Come here.” He touched her hand, which took hold of his. Together they walked down the middle hallway.
“Do you know where you’re going?”
“Do you know how to get back?”
“Tell me again why I shouldn’t be worried.”
Before he could reply the hallway opened up into a large room. Leia’s cone-shaped light discovered textured sofas, torn rugs, broken chairs, two large tables and a long row of shelves – empty shelves – running the perimeter of the room. Han focused on the cabinets; several of them locked behind steel encasings and waxed Imperial seals. The room was deserted, with one hallway leading to what looked like a kitchen and another one leaving the room.
Han walked over to doors of a silver cabinet and began inspecting the seal. “501 Legion, 001 BBY, By Order of Galactic Emperor Palpantine. Mmm…I wonder what’s in here.”
“Han, let’s go. There’s nothing here.”
“Hang on a second. We have to wait for Chewie anyway.”
Rough, hard footsteps and a flash of light had them both turning sharply to the furthermost exit on the opposite side of the room. Han dropped his flashlight, drew his blaster and yanked Leia behind him. The growl of a Wookiee relaxed them instantly, his furry head a welcome sight.
“What’d you find?”
Chewie grunted his observations, taking time to list his concerns.
“The power generator is still full? I wonder how long she’s been here.”
“Look guys, can we share our ideas when we get back. I want to get out of here now.”
Han remembered the seal. “Chewie, get this thing open.”
While the pair worked at the cabinets, Leia wandered further back into the kitchen area, her flashlight discovering more empty shelves, chairs and tables. She was hesitant to touch anything. Even the specs of dust filtering through the air made her want to stop breathing. Whatever was here, it was not something she wanted.
Here and there a wrinkled shirt would appear on the floor, a pair of pants, a single shoe. A few trunks, one open and one closed lined the wall to her right. The air was denser here, sour and stale. She placed the cuff of her sleeve to her nose and pressed on. Something told her the answer to this abandoned ship lay ahead.
Behind her she heard the chink of metal as Chewie managed to finally break the seal. Han’s shocked voice floated through the darkness. Apparently the cabinet was empty.
She kept walking, the hallway revealing a small alcove to the right. Her flashlight hit a blank, white wall with large black pipes jutting out to meet an enormous oven and stove along the counter. The hallway had ended.
And yet, she felt there was something she was missing. Her flashlight fell further along the walls, ending at the floor, and then she saw it.
She could not hear anything from Han and Chewie now, only the deep pounds of her heartbeat as the light uncovered a make-shift cot with layers of blankets piled on top. As she crept closer, almost pulled by some unknown compulsion, she realized the dust encompassing the entire ship was absent in this room. And as her shaky hand reached forward to grasp the pillow, she felt her breathing stop. The crease was warm.
She dropped the fabric as if she had been bitten. The impulse scream was held in check by the pain of her teeth clamping down over her lip. She started backing up swiftly, afraid something would catch her from behind. “Han! Han, we need – “
And then the laugh came. A high-pitched cackle that seemed to last forever came floating down the hallway. There were no words, just inane laughter followed by Chewie’s horrific roar.
She felt her breath go shallow. Should she keep going? Was there another way around? She was trapped in this stench-filled hallway with no weapons.
She peaked around the corner to the main room and saw them. Except instead of just Chewie and Han, a third figure loomed behind Solo, a large, dark man with wild, white hair and eyes that glowed red. He carried no light but a blaster which was pointed at Han’s neck.
His voice was raspy and high pitched and he seemed to gasp in delight as she came further into the light of Chewie’s lantern. “So there are three of you! And this one is so much better looking than the rest.”
As his laugh echoed through the nerves and bones of the Falcon’s crew, Leia thought she could detect Han shaking his head every so slightly as he met her eyes. His eyes drew her attention to his blaster, pushed ten meters across the floor in the opposite direction of their group.
“And here I thought I’d be making my journey back all by my lonesome self. Now I shall have some beautiful company.”
She stepped forward, undaunted. “What do you want?”
The blaster was pushed harder against Solo’s neck. “I want you to stop walking if you value his life. Drop the flashlight and any weapons you might be carrying in those pockets.”
She stopped, keeping her face calm.
“She doesn’t have anything, you smelly piece of slime. Let us go.”
“Oh no,“ he breathed through his clenched teeth where a large drop of spit was suspended. His hand rubbed up and down Han’s sleeve. “I’m going to enjoy her.”
Chewie roared, torn between how to rescue his friend while keeping the princess safe.
“Look,“ Leia reasoned, “You’ve obviously been abandoned out here. Why don’t you let us give you a lift to the nearest port city?”
“Don’t patronize me!” He hissed. “I know you’re just trying to distract me from the prize.”
“The Emperor’s gold! Everyone has been trying to get their filthy hands on my Emperor’s gold. But I won’t let them. I’m saving it for him. I’m the only loyal one left.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Sarscin, of the 501st Empire Legion.” His eyes pulsed with red and blue veins. “We were traveling to Anaxes with a load of acquisitions from the separatists on Kooriva. My commanding officer…he wouldn’t listen to me. He didn’t believe me when I told him they were trying to take the prize for themselves. I had to stop them. Just like I’m stopping you.”
“Please allow us to explain ourselves. We only boarded your ship to see if we might be of assistance.”
“You’re lying! I caught him.” His hands shook the blaster against Han’s jugular. “Just like I caught all of them. All those liars and deceivers, thinking they could take the Emperor’s gold away from him.”
The princess glanced helpless at Han, trying to communicate an idea for escape.
Sarscin licked his lips. “Let’s get moving. Now that you’re here I can use your ship to alert the Emperor and bring a fleet here to retrieve the treasure.”
Han’s words were raspy, coughed out with effort, but full of menace. “Over my dead body.”
“Han.” She kept her voice calm and even, worried Sarscin might actually take him at his word without delay.
Sarscin only laughed louder at Han’s threat. “That’s the idea! But it won’t be over your body alone. It will be over hers!”
A pale finger with a dirty, long nail emerged into the light and crooked at Leia. “Come this way.”
She moved slowly, cautiously, knowing any false moves could trigger his shaky hand on the blaster. Chewbacca stood helpless.
When Leia walked into arms reach, Sarscin brutally shoved Han face-forward to the ground and in the same moment snagged the princess into his chest, the blaster now flesh with her neck, his arms painfully digging into her sides. He moved his face to her shoulder line, breathing in her scent, making her flesh crawl as the smell of his body became more pungent.
Han was instantly up, moving forward with Chewie at his side. “Let her go.”
“One more step from either you or your Wookiee companion, and she dies.” His hand tightened at her neck, bringing out cuts of breath from Leia. He began slowly backing up into the darkness, towards the hallway, back to the Falcon.
As soon as Sarscin disappeared, Han retrieved his blaster and Chewie his bowcaster. The pair ran after him, keeping as close to the retreating figure as they dared without further risking his wrath and Leia’s life. As they angled their way down the dusty pathway, they could hear Sarscin’s laugh and Leia’s struggling. The rays of light were growing brighter, signaling the approaching platform.
Han rounded the final turn when he felt the singe and deafening shot of a blaster being fired in his direction, followed by Leia’s scream of warning. He and Chewie took cover behind the corner wall.
“I told you. I tried to warn you to stay put but I had a feeling you wouldn’t listen.”
Han cautiously peered around the corner to see Sarscin fumbling while Leia kicked and screamed over the lighted steps. In the bright, overhead lights, the dark, robbed figure looked even worse. His red eyes were dark and sunken around his almost white face. He looked grotesquely thin, even beneath the bulky robe. His white hair took on a grey, ethereal tone plastered and spiked around his face and ears. His sweaty neck gleamed in the light as he struggled to control his victim.
Leia’s frantic eyes met Han’s. Maybe he could rush Sarscin if she could distract him long enough. His heart pounded. It would never work. Sarscin would either have a direct shot at himself or Chewie.
They were almost to the end of the platform, just steps from the controls that would seal them off from the Falcon. Han knew he had no other choice. Death was a better alternative than what he could imagine happening to Leia. His mind was radiantly clear. He would not lose his ship.
“Leia!” He called to her, ready to run.
Suddenly a flash of reflected gold bounced off the white light and Threepio’s voice came sailing overhead. “Hello? Captain Solo? Chewbacca? Can we please leave this miserable – oh no!”
Leia seized the moment. When Sarscin turned his head to look at the droid, she threw her head back into his upper chin, knocking him several steps askew, momentarily stunned. She spun around and punched him along the narrow bridge of his nose, and then delivered a swift kick to his side. Sarscin went down, the blaster accidentally firing, ricocheting off the walls, ripping tears in the bridge. Leia dropped and covered her head to dodge the blast.
It was enough of a pause to give Han and Chewie time to close the distance between them. The Wookiee picked up Sarscin, wrenching the blaster from his hands. Han grabbed the princess and practically ran her off the platform in his haste to the controls.
“Get rid of him, Chewie! I’m closing the tunnel.”
Sarscin’s already pale face grew white with shrill begging. “No, no. Please don’t leave me! I can’t go back in there!”
Chewbacca threw Sarscin across the pathway where he landed in a heap inside the cruiser’s connecting door. Han kept one arm around Leia as he punched the controls and the platform collapsed, separating the two ships, the haunted screams of Sarscin still reverberating off the Falcon’s walls.
Han took a few precious seconds to brush his lips across Leia’s forehead.
“Are you all right?”
Her hand shook lightly, bunched against the fabric of his shirt, but her eyes were clear as she gazed back at him. “Yes. I’m fine. Go!”
The pilot’s chair shook with such intensity as Han slammed into the seat. Chewie rushed in behind him and started igniting the engines.
Han engaged the Falcon’s cannons, bringing the manual control into his palm with ease.
“Chewie, did you see if any of his laser cannons were armed?”
The Wookiee shook his head. There had not been enough time.
“Well we’re not sticking around long enough to find out. Get ready to blast out of here.”
Threepio and Leia ran into the cockpit just as the vibrations of the cannon signaled its move to position.
Han pushed two more buttons and checked his aim. “I’m going to put this guy away for good.”
“Han, don’t fire.”
He stopped cold and turned to face her. Chewie growled loudly.
“We can’t just kill him. Even if he tried to kill us.”
Both pilots were speechless.
Threepio was frantic in the background. “Sir, the Tartan cruisers have a most versatile and sophisticated defector shield. Any direct hit will give more firepower to their weapon systems.”
His hand hesitated above the button, pausing in thought.
“Just leave him. We’ll get away and leave him.”
“Are you thinking straight? You don’t want to kill him, but you want to leave him? I can’t imagine this being much worse.”
“At least we wouldn’t be responsible.”
“But we are.” Han gestured towards the cruiser through the windows. “We’re making the decision to leave him alive.”
“Maybe…maybe we can contact someone to come out.”
“Who? The Inter-Galactic Order for Rescuing Abandoned Ships!?”
Chewie roared again, anxious to set the Falcon in motion
Leia’s eyes met Han’s. “Please. Please, Han. Don’t do it.”
“Bahh.” Han threw down the controls and stomped away. “Chewie, get us out of here.” The cockpit door hissed to a close as he left.