Between the Lines

By Susan Zahn

useakiss@gmail.com

 

see You Could Use Another Good Kiss home page
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Part 1

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STAR aWARdS Best Long Story, 1995

This version has been rewritten to correct mistakes, touch up some things, and bring it within my broader timeline.
The orginal draft is it appeared in print can be found at www.fanfiction.com.


Love is a warfare: sluggards be dismissed,
No faint-heart ‘neath this banner may enlist.
Storms, darkness, anguish, weary trails you’ll find
On love’s campaign, and toil of every kind.

—Ovid, The Love Poems

Ice crunched loudly as the landing pads of the Millennium Falcon settled onto the frozen cave floor of the Rebel Alliance’s new base on Hoth.

Han Solo killed the retros before casting a dubious gaze out the cockpit canopy at the carved-out ice cave the engineers had fashioned from what could best be described as a pile of rock and snow. After a silent moment, he turned to frown at his hairy co-pilot. “What have we gotten ourselves into this time?”

Chewbacca did a double take before returning his attention to shutting down the ship’s systems. “We?”

Solo stared out the viewport again as morbid curiosity made him study the ceiling of the ice cave. “Do I need to remind you that sticking around long enough to help them relocate to this snowball was your brilliant idea?”

The Wookiee shrugged. “It was my suggestion but your decision.”

Getting to his feet, Solo shook his head in exasperation. It was no use arguing with the Wookiee, especially when he was right.

Resting his hands on the Falcon’s forward control dash, Han gave their new base a closer look. Thermal-suited flight techs and other military personnel hustled throughout the base, weaving and working between the assortment of X-Wings and terrain speeders parked in double rows.

Compared to Argus, the last base they’d been forced to abandon, this place was positively claustrophobic. It was no wonder this particular cell of the Alliance had been compelled to divide its personnel yet again between two new smaller bases, the one here on Hoth and another on Sullust. There simply wasn’t enough room at either base to house the entire complement of fighters and transport craft. As a result, Hoth would be understaffed, at least until more trained personnel could arrive.

Finished with his portion of shutdown duties, Chewbacca seemed to realize that his friend was actively lingering. Unable to resist, the Wookiee settled back into his customized bucket seat and asked with a nonchalant hoot: “What, no royal welcoming committee?”

Han turned around, his frown deepening in annoyance at seeing his partner’s pseudo innocence. Chewbacca, as usual, was too perceptive for Han’s peace of mind. “Wise ass.”

“It’s been seventeen days since she last saw you. Perhaps she’s warmed up again since Ord Mantell.”

At hearing that now hated name, Solo reached above his head to switch off all the remaining systems save climate control and lighting. “On this ice ball?” he muttered as he passed between their seats on his way toward the cockpit exit. “I wouldn’t bet on it.”

Frustrated was too mild a description for how Han felt when he thought about Princess Leia Organa, sacred icon of the Alliance and all-around Propaganda Minister. She’d been growing so very friendly toward him of late. That was, until all chaos had broken loose during their recent, “simple” mission to Ord Mantell. Since their return, she’d retreated to a cool indifference at best, if not outright hostility, that Han found more maddening than her previous insistence that theirs was a business relationship only. Part of it was of his own doing, he admitted. He’d come to the painful realization that he no longer had any choice but to leave, now, and it had been his decision to push her away, just when she’d finally relented and allowed him into her barriers. He’s rebuffed her within a day after she’d willingly fallen into his arms. As could be expected, she didn’t seem to be taking the abrupt reversal well. As if that wasn’t enough, his will proved weak when it came to her; the last thing he wanted to do was hurt her, and yet he couldn’t resist teasing her, trying to draw some emotional confession out of her. It was as if some part of him needed to hear it, even if it would do neither of them any good.

He still hadn’t gotten a chance to confront her about this. They’d returned from the mission just in time to join in the forced evacuation of Argus. Since then Han and Chewbacca had been busy shuttling back and forth between there and the other newly established base on Sullust. Now feeling as if he and Leia were back to square one again, Han knew on a rational level that he should leave it at that because there was little chance he would return from a confrontation with Jabba the Hutt…and yet some part of him still wished a different outcome, and couldn’t help but continue to pursue her. With his constant flip-flopping, it was little wonder she was furious.

 


 

A short time later, after donning an under-layer of thermal clothing and dark blue flight jacket, Han stepped out of the Falcon and into the sheltered yet chilly air of the base. Before he’d reached the bottom of the ramp, however, a pungent aroma that had nothing to do with spaceship mechanics or base engineering assaulted his nose. Drawing up short on the incline, Solo dared another cautious whiff, then grimaced and glanced around with renewed curiosity. Due to its sheer unpleasantness, the rank odor had to be organic waste by-product. “Great.” He could just imagine the latest Alliance recruiting slogan: Join the Rebellion and discover all the exotic smells of the Universe.

“Captain Solo, sir.”

As the Rebel soldier neared, Han recognized the man from their previous base. He stepped down onto the white icy tarmac. “Hello, Major.”

“It’s good to see you made it here in one piece, sir.”

“No thanks to the Empire. Tell me, what in Kessel’s Hell is that disgusting smell?”

“Oh.” Major Derlin offered a little grin, his white teeth flashing beneath his thick blonde mustache. “That’s Command Personnel’s solution to the problems we’re having adjusting the speeders to the extreme cold outside.”

“What’s their plan?” Solo sarcastically ventured. “Baffle Imperial sensors with that wafting odor?”

Familiar with the spacers’ brand of humor, Derlin chuckled. “It couldn’t hurt. Actually, someone suggested using live mounts that were naturally accustomed to this type of climate.”

“Last time I heard, this place was devoid of life.”

“Far as we know, sir, it is. The tauntauns—that’s what they’re called—were shipped in from some backwater planet in the Rim. The temperature drop here at nightfall is still too severe, even for these animals, but at least we’ve got a way to run base surveillance during the day.”

“Tauntauns, huh?”

“Yes sir.” Derlin hesitated, then offered a reassuring smile. “You’ll get used to the smell. Sooner or later.”

Solo did not look convinced.

“It could be worse, sir. You could’ve been the lucky freighter to haul them here in the first place. From what I understand, Captain Schaelt’s hold still reeks of them.”

The Corellian sighed at being forced to accept yet another inconvenience in the name of freedom fighting. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He glanced around, then made a vague gesture to their surroundings. “Which way to the Command Center?”

Derlin turned and pointed. “Follow that row of flight-deck lights to the corridor hatch at the end, take a right and then your second left. You can’t miss it.”

“Thanks.” Solo waved a quick salute and headed according to the directions.

 


 

“...so I told him to stick it in his afterburners.”

“You didn’t!” Struggling not to laugh, Leia Organa almost dropped her mug of steaming kaff. She paused to set her drink down on the table and looked back up at her lunchtime companion and confidant. “What did he do?”

Lieutenant Kristin Aldritch, who while on duty occupied the commstation terminal beside Leia in the Command Center, was at the moment playing to her royal audience with a flair that should have won applause. She made a fluid shrug of her shoulders and picked up her own mug. “He left.”

Leia’s dark eyebrows rose in surprise. “Just like that?” Her expression grew into a frown as her own mind made uncomfortable comparisons with another freighter pilot under the Alliance’s hire, albeit tentatively. The princess toyed with her mug, swirling its contents; she felt more disturbed by Kristin’s lack of distress than by the abruptness of the lover’s departure. “You don’t miss him?”

“A little, I guess,” Kristin confessed in answer to Leia’s question. “It wasn’t all sweetness and light, though. He could get on a kick about some inane problem and never quit about it. Take those blasted tauntauns. If I’d had to listen one more time to his griping about how he couldn’t get the stink out of his hold, I would’ve screamed.”

The princess nodded in sympathy with her friend’s frustration. She knew too well what it was like to deal with someone who could be very obnoxious when he tried. Even though Kristin admitted from the start that she hadn’t intended Captain Wendell Schaelt to become a permanent mate, time lead Leia to believe that Kristin’s opinion had changed. Leia was thus surprised by her friend’s nonchalance. Gods knew she felt anything but casual whenever sparing with Han Solo and he was ‘just a friend.’ “I don’t know how you can be so calm about his leaving.”

“Oh, he’s a little miffed right now,” Kristin responded, “but his contract’s not up yet, so he’ll be back soon enough.” She shrugged again. “Who knows, maybe he’ll mellow out by then, and we’ll work it out.” A devilish glint entered her eyes and she winked at the princess. “The make-up sex almost makes it worth—”

At that moment, their conversation was interrupted by a loud crackle that came from the public address system and echoed within the small confines of the Officers’ Mess. An instant later, an amplified and staccato masculine voice blurted out: “Testing, one. t—ree. Testing, one—” The sequence began to break up into more static, then cut off entirely. There were a few laughs from other personnel in the cafeteria, and both women grinned at each other in amused exasperation. It was yet the latest problem to confront them in their efforts to relocate the base.

“Wish I knew what’s playing havoc with the PA system,” Kristin sighed. “It keeps cutting in and out on its own.” As a commtech, she was part of the crew responsible for maintaining reliable communications or else base operations would disintegrate from lack of coordination in orders. Naturally, she was also one of the first to hear about it when things didn’t work right. “Just when we seem to get all the bugs worked out of the system, we’ve got to move out and start over from scratch.”

“I know.” Leia gave a reluctant glance at the chronometer set in the sleeve of her thermal suit and then reached for her white gloves as she slid out of the booth. “Break’s over. You’ll have to keep me updated.”

Kristin gave Leia a knowing leer as she got to her feet. “As if you don’t have enough scandal on your hands.”

Leia knew Kristin well enough to expect such a taunt. She fielded it with the practiced finesse of a royal personage used to a prying media. “There is no scandal, but people are going to believe what they want to believe. I can’t do anything about that.”

Kristin capitulated with a chuckle. Leia sensed early on in their friendship that her companion was on a crusade to drag out of her the sordid details of her intriguing relationship with the Corellian smuggler Han Solo. Her senior by a good ten years, Kristin’s years of experience and insight put the princess at a serious disadvantage at times, but Leia was tough and wouldn’t budged a centim. Kristin also seemed to realize that something significant had indeed happened between the two on Ord Mantell because the tension between princess and smuggler had ramped up to a new pitch. However, beyond the standard answer that Solo was ‘just a friend,’ followed by a recitation of all his leadership and piloting abilities, Leia was remaining neutral. Of course, what she hadn’t said could fill a library of data diskettes.

As they began walking back towards the command center, Kristin ventured on with her prying. “So, when’s Captain Solo due back?”

“Any day, I suppose. I really don’t keep that close of an eye on his schedule.” Leia ended that statement with a look that dared any further prodding. They both knew the princess was in charge of supplies and thus of shipping as well—it was her job to know exactly when the Falcon would be returning.

“Riiiiiight.” Kristin suddenly remembered something and reached into one of the pockets of her insulated coat. “I almost forgot. Here, this is for you.”

As they walked, Leia held out her hand and watched as a golden coin was placed in her outstretched glove. “What’s this?” Upon closer inspection, Leia could see that it was an old and worn decorative token, probably of some historical value. An interesting but rather loose description of a bird in flight was imprinted on one side and a short phrase filled the other side. After a moment, Leia read aloud: “Free of spirit, free to dream.”

Mind abruptly elsewhere, Leia came to a halt and used her other hand to flip the coin over once more. She stared at the emblem, getting the distinct impression that it was as traveled as it was old. There was something familiar about it.

“Nice, isn’t it?”

Leia’s attention returned to the present and she blinked at her companion. “What is it?”

“A membership token from back when there used to be a Spacer’s Guild. Now it’s more of a lucky piece. You keep it with you all the time and it’s supposed to bring you good luck—so you never get the shakes, I’m guessing. That’s what he told me, anyway.”

“Who?”

“Wendell.”

“Oh.”

“He’s Corellian too, you know.”

Leia absorbed that little bit of information. “No, I didn’t know that...So why are you giving this to me?”

“Actually, it’s from both of us.” Kristin cocked an eyebrow in gentle amusement as she reached out to tap the coin nestled in the princess’ palm. “You obviously need all the help you can get dealing with Solo.”

Leia didn’t know whether to laugh, feel offended, or take the meaning of their gift to heart. She was sure, however, that she didn’t need busybodies arranging her affairs. “Thanks a lot,” she said in a wry tone, “but I’m starting to wonder if a big stick wouldn’t be more effective.”

The Lieutenant leaned closer as if to impart some universal secret. “Men developed stubbornness into a science. We fashioned it into an art form.”

Dark eyes wide in feigned wonder, Leia shook her head as she resumed walking. “You’re simply full of wisdom, aren’t you?”

“You laugh now,” Kristin teased as she stayed in step beside the princess, “but I’ve seen the way you two—”

Both were forced to come to a sudden halt as Han Solo swung around the approaching corner as if he had the entire base to himself. Unable to stop fast enough, the collision between smuggler and princess was unavoidable. Startled by his appearance from out of nowhere, Leia let out a little yelp as her boots slipped on the icy floor. She flung her arms out to regain her balance and the lucky talisman fell from her glove. Although also caught off guard, Solo recovered fast enough to catch Leia by the wrist and upper arm before she could fall flat on her seat. He hauled her back up so that she could replant both feet on the hard floor.

Han let out a little laugh. “Whoa, easy there, Your Worship. What’s the hurry? I’m right here.”

Leia’s initial surprise was mixed with embarrassment and growing indignation; she truly hadn’t expected him to arrive for another day or two. “You...What do you think you’re doing?! Why are you back so soon? Who do you think you are, anyway, flying around corners like some—”

Han leaned in close to cut her off in mid-rant. “One at a time, sweetheart.” He gave her a palpable once-over in obvious appreciation of the tight fit of her Alliance-issue thermal suit, a new look he seemed to approve of. He dragged his eyes back up to hers and offered his most charming smile. “Did you miss me?”

Her indignation surged to the surface as she planted her fists on her hips and ignored his bait. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be hauling equipment to Sullust, not disrupting base operations by—”

Han shook his head in patronizing disagreement and then reached out to cradle her chin in his hand. “You hired me because I’m fast, remember?” She belatedly jerked away from his touch and Han arched an eyebrow as if an idea had just occurred to him. “Or at least that’s the excuse you gave to the High Command, isn’t it?”

Leia’s glare was hot enough to burn through the thickest Hoth glacier, yet it seemed to have little effect on her target. “You’re suffering hallucinations, Captain. Perhaps you should report to the medcenter.”

Han threw his shoulders back as he straightened up to his full height. “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with me.”

“Good. Then I’ll see that General Rieekan reassigns you immediately.” Inspiration struck and her smile filled with satisfaction. “From what I understand, they’re in need of volunteers to ride the tauntauns. That should keep you quite busy.”

He coolly measured her sincerity, then leaned in close once again, his tone an intimate rumble. “Is that a threat, Your Worship? I’m a hired freighter pilot, not some farm hand. Maybe it’s time I moved on if you’re beginning to confuse the two.”

Leia stood her ground, weak knees be damned! She would not be intimidated by his close proximity, nor by his words. Not this time. “Maybe you’re right,” she answered, her chin tilted up in defiance. I’m calling your bluff, you pirate.

There was a visible shift in Han’s expression as he met her unwavering gaze. Leia normal response was a heated denial, but it seemed to dawn on him now that all bets were off after Ord Mantell. She had changed the stakes and upped the ante.

Ice crunched off to the side as Lieutenant Aldritch shifted her stance. Reminded of their attentive audience, Leia tightened her jaw with forced casualness. “Excuse me, but I’m due back at my station. I suggest you pay more attention to where you’re going before someone gets hurt.”

“I’ll do that,” Han muttered, perhaps still thrown off by her shift in tack.

She stepped around him within the narrow corridor. Good, she ruminated. Let him stew on that for a change. She marched with a purpose toward the Command Center.

“What? I didn’t catch that.” Kristin almost had to trot to keep up behind her.

Not about to repeat the curse she’d just uttered and even less inclined to stop her double-time pace, Leia shook her head in frustration. “Never mind.”

“Care to explain that little scene?”

Leia skidded to a halt just outside the Command Center door and turned a glare on her compatriot. “Gods! I would think it’s quite obvious. That was so...typical.”

Kristin scrutinized the princess for a second, but appeared to know better than admit she’d enjoyed the little confrontation. It wasn’t the first battle of wits she’d witnessed between the volatile couple, but it was one of the angriest. Any caution during their public spats was abandoned; personal agendas couldn’t be clearer if spelled out on a compscreen. “Not that it’s any of my business—” she began in a ginger tone.

Leia gave her friend an exasperated as-if-that-would-stop-you look and turned to trigger open the door.

Only half-staffed due to personnel shifts between the bases, the Command Center was quiet. The computer and scanner equipment left little room for the operators, and thick cables snaked across the floor, making maneuvering through the chamber difficult and potentially hazardous. As they approached their posts, two swivel seats along one bank of computer screens and control panels, they both frowned upon seeing what the commtechs had been up to during their mid-meal break. The Lieutenant’s computer screen had been removed, the internal electronics exposed and half disassembled.

“Great,” Kristin mumbled, gesturing at the disemboweled contents of her scanner as she flopped into her chair and reached for her comm headset. Out of habit she went to hang it around her neck, then seemed to realize the futility and tossed it on the countertop of the communication console between them. “Look at this mess.”

Leia settled into the chair to Kristin’s left. “At least you won’t get bored,” she offered with a touch of satisfaction. She hoped it would be enough to distract her from what she’s just witnessed in the corridor. “Try staring at these statistics and budget figures all day.”

It was Kristin’s turn to send a caustic glare. “That’s some comfort. I’ll remember that the next time you need any help with inventory.” She poked through the wires and circuits for a moment, but it was clear her heart wasn’t in the work. She glanced around them. Seeing no one within earshot, she looked back to the princess who’d already begun to tap keys to direct the columns of figures scrolling across her screen. “Can I ask you something personal?”

Leia debated whether or not to respond. She stared unseeing at the numbers on the screen before her, then damned her better judgment and nodded her permission.

Without further preamble, Kristin dove in. “What happened on Ord Mantell? You’ve been dodging the question for weeks. That hostility wasn’t there before and it didn’t come out of thin air. Something happened and if you don’t tell me, I will start guessing on my own…”

Leia made her own cautionary glance around them to discourage any possible eavesdroppers. Only then did she meet the Lieutenant’s steady but coaxing gaze. If there was one thing about their friendship that the princess appreciated most, it was this sort of opportunity to speak of personal matters with another woman and not worry about ulterior political, social or sexual motives.

Leia’s inexperience with matters of the heart was no longer a secret between them. Although she’d dealt with a continuous stream of suitors before and during her short tenure in the late Imperial Senate, she’d never considered any of those men seriously. There were many reasons to marry an influential woman of royal heritage, none of them having to do with true affection. Maybe she was an impractical romantic to expect more, but she’d always found the overwhelming majority of those men boring or boorish. She believed she would recognize the right man when he crossed her path. Until that spectacular, fireworks-exploding moment, she would practice the proper etiquette of flirting and keep those men at a safe distance.

Leia knew that Kristin, on the other hand, had been happily married once. Her husband had died several years ago during an Imperial raid. Now in a semi-serious relationship with another man (a Corellian at that!), she possessed a wealth of knowledge that Leia found intriguing and on occasion even inspirational. She proved more than willing to offer advice whenever Leia asked, and even when she didn’t. She also provided comfort without the usual strings attached, an invaluable friendship Leia had never enjoyed within the royal courts or senatorial halls. Even with Luke, whom she regarded as a close friend, there were taboo subjects Leia couldn’t bring herself to discuss with him, Han Solo in particular. If anyone could understand her predicament, Kristin would—wouldn’t she?

Leia drew a deep breath in grim determination, aware that she was about to let down her last shield of protection. “I told you, the mission itself went perfectly. We have a full bacta station on each base now because of it. The problem was…what happened afterward.” Kristin remained silent, patiently waiting for her to elaborate. Leia struggled to find the right words. “You were right. You were right all the long.”

“Oh,” the older woman responded in simple realization. “About Han?”

“About both of us.” Leia rested an elbow on the console and rubbed her forehead. “Waiting for the right signal. We were being very civil with one another, and then out of the blue he told me he’d decided to stay with us. I mean, stay on without a doubt anymore.”

Clearly fascinated, Kristin gave a small nod of understanding.

“I don’t know,” Leia wondered aloud. “Maybe it was the atmosphere of the place, or just our moods, or the wine, the music…You were right about that dress, too.”

“I had a feeling,” Kristin supplied in a quiet tone. “That Majority gift was from him, wasn’t it?”

Leia nodded in confirmation. In her anger following their return from the mission, she’d forced all of these other thoughts and feelings to the back of her mind. Now, however, as she drew them back out for examination, the longing and hurt returned with them. “He was charming, attentive…and I couldn’t resist anymore. I didn’t want to.” A look of surprise crossed Kristin’s face. Leia was swift enough to realize her friend was jumping to conclusions and waved a negating hand to stop her. “No, no, we didn’t…you know…but I think we came very close. I stopped it before…”

“And he’s mad at you now?”

“No, he wasn’t mad about that at all. In fact, he…” Leia fumbled again, just as befuddled now as she was then. “He was so nice.”

Kristin was smiling now, but her head tipped to the side. “And that surprised you?”

“Well, yes. No. I don’t know.” She shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. All this was starting to give her a headache.

“You’re mad at yourself for stopping,” Kristin said matter-of-factly.

Leia shook her head again, but then tempered it with a tiny shrug of doubt. “I was a little, yes, but things were moving so fast. I needed time to think.”

Kristin gave a single nod, as if now spotting the problem. “You’re not supposed to think…”

Her comment drew a snort out of Leia. “That’s what he said.”

Kristin chuckled, too. “I told you he was a smart man.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m still not seeing how we’re getting from one extreme to the other here, though.”

Elbow still resting on the console, Leia propped a cheek on her gloved fist. “It was later. We were shopping when two men started following us. They’d somehow heard about the bounty on Han and decided to try their luck.”

“Ohhh,” Kristin echoed again.

“We managed to escape, barely.” She was quiet for a long moment. Even now, she wasn’t sure how she really felt about what had happened. The range of emotions she’d experienced in that short span of two days still left her baffled. “Despite all that, I thought we had reached an understanding. I thought maybe things had changed. But he was suddenly very cold, and he refused my help. He just switched off.”

The look of enjoyment at learning of their developing relationship had slipped away from Kristin’s face. She looked sad now. “You think he’s just playing with you now…” she announced in a quiet voice.

Leia gave a slow nod of her head. “For two years he’s flirted and tugged at me, and then when I finally let my guard down, he rejected me. This was exactly why I resisted for so long—I was afraid he’d just hurt me, and now he has.” She let out a heavy sigh and sank back into her chair. She had hoped that getting this off her chest would make her feel better, but it hadn’t, not one iota. Her heart ached in a way she’d never experienced or expected.

Kristen remained quiet for a long sympathetic minute as she seemed to absorb everything. “Maybe there’s more to it, Leia. Maybe he’s feeling guilty that you were endangered.”

Leia looked up at her. The thought had occurred to her, but it still didn’t ease the pain.

“I know, it doesn’t help. You’re still attracted to him.”

Leia felt heat rise in her cheeks and her eyes dropped to gaze unseeing at her compscreen. Vivid memories of his sharp features in flattering shadows returned; quiet moments during their mission on Ord Mantell that she’d treasured. There had been times when she’d found him so handsome that she’d forgotten to breathe as her mind filled with all sorts of fantasies, some innocent and some astonishingly graphic. Several times he’d caught her staring in that mesmerized state and she’d been without a single coherent response. She’d always felt a strong physical attraction to him, but until their trip of discovery she’d never realized just how much.

Solo was so unlike any of the men she normally dealt with. He was the first person to make her doubt her ability to read people, to doubt herself. Time and again her instincts had warned against believing the image he presented to others. The fireworks she’d been waiting for all these years had exploded with breathtaking power that night on the couch in their hotel suite. There was no denying it any more. But why did she have to fall for such an unconventional and irreverent man when there was a universe of perfectly nice men out there more than willing to bow to her every wish?

“Yes, he’s gorgeous,” Leia whispered with an unexpected huskiness. “But that’s hardly enough to build a meaningful relationship on.”

“No, it isn’t,” Kristin agreed with a shrug. “That’s what you want?”

“I don’t know what I want anymore, Kristin.”

“Just my opinion here, Leia, but I don’t think he would have bothered to try for this long if he didn’t think you were worth it. If all he’d been after was another conquest, he’d have given up a long time ago.”

“Then I don’t understand.” Not sure whom she was feeling more impatient with, Solo or herself, Leia scowled. She was tired of the conflicting messages they continued to exchange. “If he’s serious, why doesn’t he act like it now? I wish he would just once…” Leia fell silent, not knowing what she wanted to say next. “This war has cost me nearly everything. I can’t invest my love in someone who’s going to walk out of my life at any moment. I can’t.” Leia closed her eyes as she realized just how eager and ready she was to do just that, if only he reciprocated. Love. She’d said it herself. It was a frightening discovery to learn how the ultimate exposure of her inner desires relied solely upon such an unstable factor as Han Solo.

Leia turned to her readout panel, desperate to immerse herself in a protective layer of duty. She didn’t want to learn just how deeply those feelings ran within her, how much influence the Corellian had acquired over her passions. She felt mortally afraid of the pain she would have to deal with if he left. Worst of all, she knew that her debate was moot; hers was no longer a question of ‘If?’ but of ‘When?’

Kristin reached out a comforting hand and squeezed Leia’s forearm, pulling her back into the conversation. “Leia, he can complain all he wants about the Alliance, but he’s still here, two years and three bases later.” She jostled the princess until she looked up. “Okay, so it’s not burned in durasteel, but I’d call that a serious commitment.”

Leia watched her companion, unable to accept that logic so easily. “Then why doesn’t he just come out and say that?”

“Maybe you haven’t realized this yet, Princess, but you aren’t the only one who’s at risk of getting hurt here.” Kristin sighed and made an offering gesture with one hand. “I mean, look at the kind of encouragement he’s gotten so far.”

Leia continued to look doubtful as Kristin’s observations sank in. The thought that Han Solo could be afraid of her own ultimate rejection had never occurred to her. He’d always seemed so self-assured and certain of what he wanted, or at least he’d been more successful than her at appearing that way. “Do you really think he feels the same way?” she wondered in a soft voice.

Kristin shrugged. “Hard to say, but it makes sense, doesn’t it? Maybe—”

Kristin was interrupted by the unanticipated appearance of General Rieekan, who stepped up between them. He rested his hands on their corresponding shoulders, then leaned down to say: “Remember that our personnel address system is malfunctioning. I would suggest unplugging that headset if you two are going to continue this line of conversation.”

 

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