Alliance Avant-garde

By Susan Zahn
useakiss@gmail.com

Art by Leela Starsky
leelastarsky@gmail.com

and

Art by Wanda Lybarger
ladymousew@bellsouth.net

 

see You Could Use Another Good Kiss home page
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STAR aWARdS Best Short Story, 1994


 

"What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”
—Vincent Van Gogh

If there was one thing Princess Leia Organa hated, even more than the Empire and all its minions, it was feeling useless. Hence her mood.

Leia felt her tolerance level shrink in frightening proportions as she worked her way through the busy, narrow stone-lined corridors of the Yavin Rebel Base. Often, in the course of her journey, she was forced to make way for hurrying personnel toting a wide variety of equipment and supplies. It appeared like a well rehearsed evacuation. Though rushed, their pace was far from frantic. Any fear that normally overshadowed the abandonment of a base had seemingly been forgotten in the elation of an enormously important victory over the Empire. Only one planetary day had passed since the climactic destruction of the Empire’s most lethal weapon to date, the Death Star. The political shockwaves from that Rebel victory, and Imperial defeat, were still rippling throughout the galaxy. Soon enough, the Emperor would send out his bloodhounds to seek retribution. But for the time being the backwash and subsequent disorder among the Imperial higher ranks was allowing the Alliance a brief period in which to relocate in a relatively orderly fashion. Morale was at its peak; mixed in with the noise of shuffling feet, storage crates being filled, sealed and stacked, and orders shouted, one could hear the sounds of easy laughter and animated conversations. Even so, each able body endeavored to remove every last bit of usable equipment. Each able body, that was, except for the last princess of Alderaan. Everyone had a task to see to, a responsibility to uphold. Except for Leia.

For whatever reason, her name had not appeared on the new roster of duties. Thus forced to watch as the Rebel base around her literally buzzed with activity, Leia quickly reached the maddening conclusion that the Alliance Generals themselves, out of some misplaced sense of paternalism or sympathy, had tacitly agreed to neglect assigning her evacuation duties. As if she had served her usefulness to the Alliance by simply surviving to become their living icon. As if she had no further skills to lend, now that she was effectively exiled from public and political circulation. As if she were a child.

The only thing Leia hated more than feeling useless was to be patronized for that same reason! Granted, it was a feeling she had rarely experienced, even while a child. Having been a member of an influential monarchy, a newly appointed Senator in the lately disbanded Senate, and a secret mover within the political realms of the Rebellion, she was not accustomed to nor tolerant of being pampered. For this reason, she was making her way, however slowly considering the clogged hallways, towards the Command Center. She had every intention of telling the well-meaning Generals exactly what she thought about being coddled.

Of course she mourned Alderaan. Of course she slept little at night. Who could, when ghostly voices of loved ones infused her thoughts whenever she had a quiet moment? Work was exactly what she needed most, to help take her mind off the pain. Did the Alliance think she was utterly incapacitated with grief, or that she should be? If anything, the unfathomable loss had strengthened her determination to see the end of the Empire. The deaths of her family, her people and her world would not be in vain.

The further she walked, the more she noticed how, after warm words of greetings or “Good Morning’s”, the well wishers returned to their tasks, for all practical purposes ignoring her. A pedestrian to be maneuvered around. An obstacle. Ignored.

Leia stopped, finding herself within the stone arch threshold leading to the hanger deck. The Command Center was a little further, down another corridor from this junction. However, with her destination almost within sight, she felt her desire for a confrontation fade. After all, stomping in and demanding to know why they were treating her like a child would simply confirm their suspicions that she was in need of a rest. Better to let this particular incident pass. Perhaps wait until they had relocated and begun operations out of the new secret base on Sericci before stating what she was capable of doing. If necessary, she would then tell them what they could do with their ideas of setting her on some pedestal for the oppressed of the Empire to feel sorry for.

With a resigned sigh, Leia glanced over the scenery of the main hanger deck. It was presently cluttered with an odd mixture of star craft, storage crates of varying sizes, flight personnel, deck crew members and a universal representation of droids of diverse purposes. X-Wings and Y-Wings, all at varying stages of disassembly (many of the most serviceable had either been lost or seriously damaged during the battle) were lined up along one side of the central flight line. Across from them stood an even more motley collection of transports, shuttles, and one scarred and distinctively shaped freighter of Corellian make and questionable stability.

Despite her black mood, or maybe because of it, she could not stop the little smile which emerged upon seeing that rattletrap of a spacecraft. The Millennium Falcon’s looks were misleading, Leia admitted to herself grudgingly. She was still alive—the Rebel Alliance was still alive!—due in part to the Falcon’s hidden abilities and the considerable piloting talent of her owner. Captain Han Solo might have proven himself to be insufferably smug, inexcusably insubordinate and generally irritable, but as a pilot he was good. Damned good. And, he had yet to ignore her.

Lords, am I that desperate? she morbidly questioned herself.

The Millennium Falcon almost beckoned to her, an island of possibilities amongst the hustle of the flight deck. A mixed assembly of metallic packing crates was stacked haphazardly around the lowered entrance ramp, awaiting the accounting staff to inventory their contents and transport before being loaded aboard. Underneath the shadow of the freighter’s flank stood Han Solo, in the middle of what appeared to be a very expressive conversation with his Wookiee co-pilot. Argument, Leia amended as she watched Chewbacca throw both his hairy arms into the air in frustration, roar loud enough to cause half the deck crew to halt in their work in startled fear, then turn and trudge up the entrance ramp to disappear into the freighter without another sound. Solo bent over and picked up a metal tray full of tools, then placed it on top of a storage crate, slightly above waist height, appropriating the surface as a workbench. Chewbacca reappeared, a micro-fusing unit under one arm and what appeared to be a liberally blackened electronics panel under the other. He strode up to the makeshift desk and, resuming his angry tirade of barks, set the panel down and plopped the microfuser next to it. With a final resounding hoot, he returned to the ship.

Still unsure of her next course of action, Leia glanced to the flight line of X-Wings in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Luke Skywalker, a much more appealing option, but had no luck. She had only known Luke for less than two days, no longer than the Corellian smuggler for that matter, but she felt as if she already understood him. His open mindedness, his comfortable presence, his steadfast determination and, most of all, his predictability.

Leia looked back to the tall smuggler. He was clad in a practical black utility vest and simple white shirt. His dark blue military-cut trousers with the typical Corellian-style stripped piping down the seams were tucked into shined spacers’ boots, and he sported that low slung, custom made blaster rig as if it were a natural appendage. He cut a rather striking figure that almost demanded her attention. He was so . . . unlike Luke.

Han Solo seemed to sense her unabashed stare, for he abruptly looked up from his work, then turned sharply to zero in on her. For what grew into an immeasurable instant, they locked gazes. Eventually Solo flashed a grin and made a half serious attempt at a military salute, then turned his back to her, returning to his work.

Princess Leia blinked. The surge of unanticipated electricity, which had nailed her to the flagstone during the smuggler’s stare, expended itself. Curiosity, embarrassment, and a touch of anger replaced it. She supposed that she looked rather lost standing beneath the stone archway. Preparing herself for an unpredictable episode, Leia set a direct course for the Corellian. If nothing else, she could exercise her recruitment efforts once again. The Alliance was going to get her help, whether they wanted it or not.

Solo did not look up again until the princess stepped up to his workstation. Han had known something was up from the moment he had sensed her standing in the entrance to the hanger bay, watching him intently. He had been surprised for a moment by her physical appearance. She looked so different from the elegance of the night before, or the traditional Alderaan Senatorial gown she had worn when they had first met, back on the now atomized Death Star. She was presently dressed in a very simple pair of tan Alliance-issued fatigues, perhaps one size too big. Her hair was pulled back, almost too severely, into a carefully wound coil of braids. She looked like she would be as comfortable in the greasy service pit of the Falcon as in a royal court. She looked ready for business. What kind of princess was she anyway?

Solo had a moment to contemplate that question before she stood directly across from him, alternately eyeing him and the burnt out electronic panel between them. “Morning, Princess,” he ventured.

Leia had half expected some sort of unflattering moniker since Solo had proven predictable in at least one respect, a lack of respect, and was mildly surprised by his civil tone. She could feel his gaze once again roving over her body and tried not to feel self-conscious. “Having trouble this morning?”

“Ah, Chewie’s in one of his moods.” Han made a deprecating gesture towards the overshadowing hull of the freighter above them and, by implication, his currently defenseless co-pilot. “Good help’s hard to find.”

“Indeed.”

Solo’s hazel eyes narrowed as he easily interpreted what the ever-recruiting princess did not say. Every instinct of survival told him that if he responded to such bait, he would be letting himself in for what he already referred to as “The Battle Royal.” Instead, he simply returned her gaze.

As soon as the princess realized that he intended to do nothing more than stare, an unnerving response by itself, she attempted another tactic. “I see you survived the little celebration last night.”

Solo made a grunt of acknowledgment, then returned the majority of his attention to the blackened electronics board before him. “In my business, one doesn’t drink to excess and stay in business long. Self-preservation, Your Highness. Sans alcohol.”

That comment caused Leia to smile and reconsider her previous estimation of the smuggler. He obviously had a sense of humor, but more importantly, a grip on reality. Add that to her already having correctly guessed that he was not quite the mercenary he portrayed, and she felt as though she had gained one more clue to this new stranger in her life.

Solo rummaged through his collection of tools, found a fine pointed chrome pick and began to carefully scrape away carbon scoring from around the tiny conduits and conductors. “How was your night?” He scraped a little more carbonized metal away, then paused to look up when he heard no response. Upon closer inspection, he could barely detect the face makeup she used sparingly in an effort to hide the telltales of a sleepless night. She appeared to be debating whether or not to answer his inquiry, unsure of his intentions. Well, he would put her fears to rest on that point: he could be irreverent and sarcastic but he would never consider poking fun at the events surrounding the demise of an entire world, her people, or her emotions relating to the event. Acquainted with loss, he had a good base from which to imagine her distress. “Seriously. You’re okay?”

This new openness, the very lack of any ulterior motive that she could detect, took Leia by surprise. She nodded, remaining silent, not taking her eyes away from his until she became uncomfortably aware of their rather intimate study of one another.

When the princess finally glanced away, Han did as well, returning to his work. “Good,” he said quietly.

Solo seemed content to leave his questioning at that. Feeling grateful for his not showing pity on her like everyone else had managed to do since her arriving at the base, she tried to sound unsolicitous herself as she peered a little closer at the damaged panel between them. “How are your repairs coming?”

“Okay, considering. Nothing an open-ended bank account couldn’t improve.”

Leia watched as Solo laid aside the delicate instrument he was using and picked up the set of shielding microscopes draped over the micro-fusing unit. He donned the protective goggles, shoving the scopes into their upright position. Drawing a thin cable from the side of the unit and, using the clamp at its end, he attached it to the near comer of the electronic panel. He then picked up the stylus shaped microfuser in his right hand, nodded his head hard, and the ‘scopes snapped back down into place with a little audible click. It took him only a few seconds to gain his bearings with the magnified vision before he set about bonding metal to metal. The fizz and crackle of super-heated fusion echoing through the surrounding area of the hanger.

Leia reflexively blinked as the brilliant light flared. She squinted as she watched the blue-white flash of the welding etch create shadows across the spacer’s face, giving it an almost gunmetal sheen. As if sculptured rather that live flesh—

—and in that instant Leia suddenly experienced a sensation of dizziness, not unlike deja vu. The blue-white light suddenly turned red-orange in her mind, and she had the distinct feeling that she had seen such a face before, somehow . . . somewhere . . .

With one last sizzling pop, Solo broke the weld and stepped back, shoving the hinged, awkward goggles above his forehead once more before setting aside the microfuser. With a sigh, he began: “Chewie won’t even—” He glanced up from his repairs and stopped mid-sentence. The princess looked positively spooked. He instinctively looked over his shoulder, right hand dropping until his palm rested on the grip of his blaster. Seeing no danger, he turned back and realized with a further start that she was staring right at him.

Leia shook her head slightly, dislodging the haunting image, and avoided Solo’s eyes with some effort. She had experienced such vision-like feelings in the past. Usually, they were disturbing only in their unexpectedness. “I’m sorry. What were you saying?”

What the hell? Han wondered momentarily. Then he shrugged the feeling away, forcibly ignoring the raised hair on the back of his neck. She had certainly been under a great deal of stress recently, Alderaan and Imperial detainment and all: he could hardly blame her for acting a little wonky. Frankly, he was surprised she wasn’t curled up on the stone deck, withdrawn from reality altogether, like most humans would likely have dealt with such pressure. He had to respect that kind of strength. “I was saying that Chewie hates doing this little detailed stuff, but that’s where we sustained most of the damage.”

“I see.”

“Actually, I’m not all that much more fond of it. Time consuming, you know?” Han turned the panel slightly, studied it carefully. Then he looked back up at the princess, experiencing his own little flash of insight. Leia’s attempt at remaining inconspicuous and yet involved was just short of blatant to someone who had developed loitering into an art form. If she’d had any type of pressing matter to discuss with him, she would have done so by now—that much he already knew about Princess Leia; she was nothing if tyrannical with her time. A teasing grin finally inflected his tone as he offhandedly commented, “What’s the matter? They forget to give you something to do?”

Caught off guard, Leia debated whether to be angry by his insinuation—no matter how accurate—or continue with their more open discussion. She settled for half way. “They evidently felt everything was already in good hands.”

Solo snorted in undiluted disdain, unimpressed. “These the same ones who decided to begin evacuation of Yavin after the battle?”

“It would appear to be that way,” Leia answered, feeling no compunction, on the other hand, to defend those same generals who had ignored her usefulness. It was the least she could do, really.

Solo rested his right elbow on the makeshift workbench and, unmindful of the black grime on his hands, rubbed a knuckle against his cheek in thought. “Then you’re looking for something to do.”

Leia had trouble drawing her eyes away from the streak of black grease left behind on his cheek. And that scar on his chin was near magnetic! “Well, I was—”

“How are you with a microfuser?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never tried.”

Solo’s eyebrows rose in genuine surprise. She actually sounded willing to give it a try, which was more than he had expected from such a proposition. His estimation of her inched up a bit further. “There’s only one way to find out, sweetheart.” He reached up and removed the micro-optics headset.

Leia could not decide which disturbed her more, the new moniker, the suddenness with which she found herself on unfamiliar ground, or the smuggler’s grin. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Solo explained slowly, stepping away from the stack of crates and indicating with a wave of his hand that she should take his place, “I’ll teach you how to use a microfuser.”

“But I . . .” Leia glanced around the hanger deck in hesitation, half expecting the entire Alliance High Command to be standing there, shaking their graying heads in disapproval. “I really shouldn’t . . .”

Solo consciously tempered his brief flash of excitement, seeing that she might indeed refuse his offer after all. “You’re going to get your hands dirty, Your Worship, if that’s what you’re afraid of.” Leia’s eyes snapped back to meet his. A spark of anger was present in them, but seemed overshadowed by what Han swore was mischief.

“Captain Solo, you should seriously reassess your priorities.”

Han was pleased to realize that they were synchronized in thought. “In other words, what’s a little dirt?”

“You could say that.”

“I just did.”

Leia Organa grimaced as if in pain and rolled her eyes to the heavens, or in this case the underside of the Millennium Falcon, asking the gods for forbearance. Whether or not the gods noticed was debatable, but Han Solo did. He was definitely on his way to a full-blown infatuation. That expression was nothing if not inspiring.

With a final shrug, Leia committed herself to this new course of action and stepped around the stacked shipping crates, accepting the goggles Han handed to her as she passed. She paused long enough to fiddle with the headband adjustment before fitting it over her head. Just when she began to worry about how ridiculous she might appear wearing a set of bug eyed goggles, Solo stepped up beside her and gently grasped her right hand in his left. He placed the microfuser in her hand, then proceeded to shift her curled fingers until they were positioned properly.

Solo pointed to the fine insulated cable clamped to the panel. “That’s your grounding line. The first thing you need to do is hook this up to whatever you’re working on, so long as it’s metal. This button here,” and he gently touched her finger that rested over a small stud, “is your feed. When it’s activated and the stylus tip touches the same metal that your lead’s connected to, the circuit’s completed and you’ll get a fusion. All you need to do is touch or draw where you want a fusion. That’s basically it. Real simple, huh?”

Leia was nodding, practically glowing with this new knowledge, no matter how menial. Someone had found her to be worth their attention, even if it was a stubborn, conceited smuggler who adamantly refused to officially link himself with the Rebellion. “And the macrofuser?” she prompted. “It works on the same principle, only on a larger scale?”

Solo nearly laughed as he found her mood infectious. “Exactly. Ready to give it a shot?”

“Yes... but on this? Isn’t this panel still important?”

Solo shifted around to stand behind her and took hold of her right hand in his own right. His arm wrapped warmly around her, he watched over her left shoulder and gently guided her hand over the electronics board. “Don’t worry about it, sweetheart. I won’t let you do anything the Alliance treasury can’t refund or replace.”

“That’s reassuring,” she muttered dryly, trying very hard to ignore his loose embrace and the deep rumble of his voice in her ear. A not entirely unpleasant shiver raced down her spine.

Solo chuckled softly, tightening his arm around her slightly. “The trick is to rest the tip of the stylus on the spot where you want to start before activating the feed. Then you won’t accidentally fry something in the vicinity, and your hand will be steadier so your weld line will be straighter.” He reached up with his left hand and lowered the ‘scopes over her eyes, adding: “There’s a T shaped conduit, with four current lines leading into its tail, and one leading out each arm towards the center. There’s nothing else in the neighborhood like it, so . . .”

“I see it. Ah, it’s broken free from the mounting.”

“That’s right. You’re going to refasten it, then reconnect the leads.” Solo paused for a second, then shifted around her as he reached for another tool from the stack of instruments within the tool tray. “Here,” he mumbled, pressing it into the palm of her left hand and positioning it correctly since her view was limited by the goggles. “You’ll need this to hold that conduit in place while you work with the microfuser. Now, go ahead and find your bearings.”

Though Leia had easily found the particular micro circuit on which she was to work, it was a bit more difficult to adjust to the magnified vision and her now distorted perspective. “Umm, the trick’s in figuring out exactly where your hands are.”

“That’ll come with practice, so no hurry. One hand at a time, left one first to pinpoint your spot . . . then go ahead and fuse the conduit to its mounting.” He gradually released his steadying hold on her hand, but did not pull away, finally taking advantage of his position to appreciate being so close to the princess. Despite the ever-present odors of a hanger deck, a mixture of lubricant oils, fuels and the lingering acrid smoke of macrofusers, he noticed the faint and delicate perfume she wore. Stirred, he pulled away a little, eyeing the princess closely, unsure of his own reaction. No, that was not quite accurate. He had no doubt about the strong attraction he was feeling towards her. The mystery was “Why?”

 

For some reason, that comment he had made to Luke little more than one day ago, “A princess and a guy like me,” suddenly didn’t seem so wide from the mark. The implications of such a realization left him unsettled. Lust was a familiar feeling. What wasn’t familiar was how he felt when he thought of how she looked while wielding a blaster like a shocktrooper. Or when she was dressed in that low-cut white gown of fine satin as she draped a medal around his neck in gratitude both personal and official. Or now, as she eagerly jumped into his far from regal ship repairs. Lust was threatening to transform into something he had never considered before, did not need, and frankly was a little concerned about. Utterly ridiculous, anyway. She was still a princess, his desires and her dirty hands and Alderaan’s destruction notwithstanding. And what was he? A disowned Corellian, an ex-Imperial Naval Cadet, a smuggler and space jockey. Sounded like the plot for a terribly predictable holo-vid, when he really thought about it.

Solo reflexively blinked as the princess finally triggered the microfuser, and the blue-white light washed over them, the sharp crackle helping to clear his muddled brain a little.

When she stopped seconds later, the princess sighed, then shrugged and shoved the goggles up. “Well, it looks okay, but perhaps you should take a look to be sure.”

In wordless agreement, Han removed the goggles from her head and simply held them up to his eyes, leaning forward to quickly study her handiwork. He straightened back up, then handed the goggles back to her. “Whether you like it or not, sweetheart, you’ve just found yourself a new vocation. It looks great.”

Leia fairly radiated pleasure. “Yes, but does it pay well?”

Solo gave her a shocked look. “I thought you said money wasn’t everything?”

“That’s not what I said. I have no problem with an honestly earned reward. So long as it’s not excessive.”

“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about—you won’t get rich doing this, I can tell you that much.” Han leaned forward to rest both elbows on the crate top and studied the rest of the damaged components, then looked up. “Listen. I’m serous about the job offer. Those generals may not have a clue as to what’s what, but I do. Chewie and I could use an extra hand at getting this bird back up and flying. As for wages...” He shrugged, then met her eyes with an unwavering intensity. “Maybe we could work something out.”

Taken aback by his offer and his stare, Leia glanced away. She fidgeted with the goggles in her hands for a moment, then shook her head slightly. “I appreciate your confidence in my abilities, Captain, but I should—”

“You know,” Solo went on, ignoring her weak protest. “The sooner Chewie and I can get this old bucket back in mint condition, the sooner we can start some of those smuggling runs the Top Brass mentioned last night. Like those medical supplies from Findior.” He straightened up again and stepped around to the other side of the stacked crates, idly sifting through the collection of tools in the tray, being none too quiet about it. “But since me and Chewie can only do so much, and I don’t trust those damned service droids the Deck Officer keeps trying to push off on me, these repairs may take quite a while. Guess those arms heading for the Rebel holdout on Thertur Major will just have to wait.”

Leia regarded Solo as he went about spreading out the various tools on the makeshift table, apparently sorting them according to size: it was painfully obvious that he was waiting for her to take the bait. In fact, he was putting on such a shameless act that she was left momentarily speechless, unable to figure out what in the hell the Corellian was doing, aside from wheedling. She glanced down at her hands, now indeed sporting their own traces of black grease and carbonized soot. Then a deeper meaning dawned on her: the dirt was rather symbolic in a way. The reality of the rebellion was grit, and comradeship, and a struggle to keep one step ahead of death. Empty phrases and political acrobatics would not win a war—but hard work could. In a very profound way, this was her own initiation into the Rebellion proper. She was now an outlaw in the truest sense of the word, just like every other Rebel. Or smuggler. And there was no going back. There was nothing to go back to.

She raised her gaze to find Solo watching her, tools long forgotten. Who are you, she nearly asked aloud. He was obviously no simple freighter bum; he knew what price she had paid in reaching this point of personal commitment. “I’ll help you, Han, on one condition: You continue to help us.”

Solo’s expression turned darker and unreadable for a long moment. Then he shook his head slowly in wonder, the hint of a crooked smirk appearing. “And they call me a mercenary.”

That comment, just barely above a whisper, made Leia smile. “I wasn’t the youngest member of the Imperial Senate in its entire less-than-illustrious history for nothing, you know.”

“Indeed.” Han mimicked surprisingly well, right down to the raised eyebrow and Alderaan accent, the epitome of inflated political importance. See Threepio would have been impressed, or jealous.

Not about to let the Corellian get away with that insult, Leia aimed a thumb over her shoulder, indicating the Falcon. “There’s no question that this rusted scow of yours requires nothing short of a miracle, but just for the sake of accuracy, what else needs work?”

Han acknowledged her palpable touch in their verbal jousting with an amused snort, then pointed to the damaged components between them. ‘Just for accuracy’s sake, half that board was blown when those sentry TIE Fighters landed a couple lucky shots during our escape from the Death Star. You’ve got to track down nearly even conduit on there. Think you’re up to it?’

“Of course.”

Han took in her confident expression, his own smile growing slightly. “A princess that knows one end of a blaster from the other, bargains like a Bothan, programs a navicomputer, and masters a microfuser in one try. What else can you do?”

Leia was rescued from having to find a dignified answer to such a leading question by the sudden appearance of Luke Skywalker. She had not even noticed his approach.

“Hi, Han. Princess?” Luke glanced tentatively at her clothing and the dirty condition of her hands, unsure of how to interpret what he saw.

“Hey, kid.” Solo scooped up the tools that he had made such a show of laying out, and dumped them noisily back into their tray.

“Hi, Luke.” Still pleased with her new skill, and with what had to be the most civilized conversation she and Captain Solo had yet shared, Leia waved a greasy hand and beckoned him closer. “I see that you’ve been made permanent Flight Leader of Blue Squadron. Congratulations.”

“Thanks, Prin—I mean, Leia.” Luke corrected himself quickly, with a little smile. A great deal of his shyness while in the princess’ presence had already faded. Following the awards ceremony of the night before, Leia had personally explained to him the fact that she was just as human as he was, and because they had been through some extraordinary events together, she regarded him as a friend. Both Luke and Solo for that matter. She had made it very clear that she fully expected to be treated in the same manner. Period. ‘In other words’, as Han had pointed out quite unnecessarily, ‘no more groveling, at least not in public.’ Luke had taken her words to heart.

“I just hope I can live up to their expectations. After all, I’m not a Jedi.”

Leia pointed an adamant, grimy finger at him. “No one is asking for more than what you’re willing to give, Luke, and as far as I’m concerned, you’ve already surpassed that. You’ve earned your advancement, as much as any other flight leader. So,” she stated with a tone of finality as she retrieved the micro-scopics, “I don’t want to hear another word about not meeting someone else’s expectations.”

“In other words,” Solo felt compelled to clarify as he stepped around his workbench and reached between Leia and Luke to fiddle briefly with a setting on the microfuser, “No more whining.”

Leia forcibly withheld an audible sigh, but took advantage of Solo’s closeness to jab an elbow into his side. “Hey, I’m paid to be precise, not tactful!”

“Indeed.” No one, especially Han Solo, was going to do a ‘pompous politician’ better than herself if she could help it.

Han failed in stifling his laugh, which Leia discovered to be very contagious. Choking back her own laughter—Gods, it felt as though she had not laughed in ages! How did Solo manage to find it within her so easily?—she glanced to Luke; his expression of bafflement and not a little concern at seeing this seemingly uncharacteristic display by his two new friends was enough to set her off on a new wave of giggles.

“I don’t get it,” Luke cautiously said, unsure of whether he was supposed to be laughing as well.

“I don’t doubt that, junior.” Solo anticipated the princess’ second elbow jab and gracefully avoided it. He stepped back around her, and managed to land a friendly pat on her ass with his hand while in passing. “I’m making sure Her Highness here earns her keep.”

Taken off guard by this sudden change in Solo’s character, Leia bristled defensively. No one had ever dared touch her like that! She nearly fumbled for words. “Captain Solo, I would hardly—”

“She’s not too bad, actually.” Solo went on, tipping his head as if in honest consideration, confiding with Skywalker.

Luke knew better than to respond. His blue eyes simply shifted to witness the expected explosion.

Leia, for her part, looked at Luke, then back to Solo, locking a silently frigid glare on the Corellian. She did not understand him, not a whit! Just when she began to find him tolerable, even interesting, he had to go and act like an uncouth scoundrel! She continued to stare at him, half convincing herself that she would thus receive an apology.

Although belatedly realizing that he may have committed a huge tactical error, Han plunged ahead. “Ah, naturally she’s got lots of potential for improvement.”

“You’re too kind,” Leia responded coldly, forfeiting her last thread of hope for a truce. She set the micro-scopics down. “Thank you for your informative instructions, Captain, but I’m afraid that I do have other duties to attend to.”

“My pleasure, Your Highness.” Han bowed, ever so-slightly gallant, then added: “Just remember what I said.”

She stepped away from him, feeling quite livid by this point. “Have no fear, Captain. I’ll see that you receive all the assistance you deserve.” She hesitated, her eyes going to their still silent audience. Luke, she concluded with certainty, I can understand. He would not do an about face at the speed of light. He would not make her smile one moment, and have her fuming the next. “Luke, if you’re free, perhaps you would be interested in joining me for dinner tonight?”

Skywalker practically snapped to attention, mildly surprised to realize that she was addressing him. He had been fascinated by the interplay between the Corellian and the Alderaani. “Oh. Umm. Sure, Leia.”

“Good.” Leia paused a second longer, debating whether to say any more. Then she turned decisively on her heels and headed for the nearest hanger exit.

As soon as she did, Luke turned and glanced at his older friend, whose eyes were still fastened on the princess as she marched double-time towards the exit.

“Huh, I just don’t get her,” Han mused, shaking his head. “I teach her a new skill, and she invites you to dinner.”

Luke shrugged. “Maybe it’s your technique,” he suggested, trying not to gloat too much and honestly hoping he was earning some interest after all the naivete jibes he suffered from the smuggler. “Considering she—erk!”

Luke had meanwhile turned to join Solo in watching the Alderaani princess walk away, and instantly spotted the huge, finger-splayed hand print that graced her behind; the black smudge stood out like a suggestive beacon against the tan of her trousers. Luke looked on in morbid fascination as one after another of the deck crew along her path halted in their work. The loud, resonating clatter of dropped tools hitting stone decking followed the princess towards the exit.

Luke eventually turned back to Solo, his eyes widened in disbelief. “One war at a time isn’t enough?” he queried in a mumble.

An easy grin still graced Solo’s face as he continued to appreciate his living finger painting. Then he shrugged. “How are you with a microfuser?’

The End

 

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