Checkmate

By Susan Zahn

useakiss@gmail.com

 

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We are ashamed to admit that we are jealous,
but proud that we were and that we can be.”

—La Rochefoucauld

The sounds of happy Ewoks, celebrating their new friendship with the Rebel Alliance, followed Han Solo out into the moonlight. He stepped through the rounded portal of the Ewok lodge, then paused after clearing the low threshold to straighten up; he winced as abused vertebrae shifted back into order. As if purgatory in a carbonite block wasn’t enough, his strike team was now hooked up with a tribe of furballs half his size. For the first time he could truly sympathize with Chewbacca’s incessant complaints about low ceilings.

The night air had developed a noticeable chill. Feeling better, at least physically, he drew a deep breath before daring to look around, secretly afraid of what he might find.

His eyes, which had luckily not suffered any long-term damage from carbon freezing, followed the suspended lengths of the three bridges that branched out from the platform where he stood. They formed a small section of the web-like network of wooden catwalks, circular balconies, and lodges of the village. Built two hundred meters above the forest floor, the bridges stretched out to neighboring trees like graceful upside-down arches. Numerous dots of orange flickering light indicated torches and the rough-hewn windows of private dwellings.

Han found himself alone. The three spoke-like walkways were also empty, even of natives, and it was just as well. He needed a long moment alone to regain the equilibrium he’d lost after watching Leia Organa cast a quick, almost surreptitious glance in his direction before slipping out the door; as if, even while involved with negotiations with their new allies, he wouldn’t have noticed her abrupt departure; as if he wouldn’t have noticed a sunset, or a ten ton weight drop on his chest to crush his heart. But that’s it’d felt as he’d turned in time to watch the princess follow after Luke Skywalker. They had disappeared with the convenient timing of lovers to a rendezvous, and Han hadn’t missed the implications. Bitter thoughts, from a part of his mind that had watched with perverse pleasure as he’d fallen for Leia, now assailed with such force that Han took an unsteady step to the low guardrail that ringed the platform. You’re a fool, that voice seemed to vibrate through his entire body. His hands gripped the round wood railing until his knuckles whitened. You knew this would happen, the second you let her get to you.

Had he ever been a serious contender for her love? An exciting change of pace, probably, or maybe an experiment in preparation for greater things. Like a young, handsome, brooding Jedi Knight. The New Hope of the rebellion.

Solo leaned heavily against the railing, dangerously so, but didn’t care. He waited for the rage of jealousy — the white hot anger, the blinding fury — to take hold so he wouldn’t have to feel the rejection and inadequacy that threatened him now. He’d believed that he and Leia had begun to understand one another finally, their emotions and intuitions. Despite that growing closeness, however, what Leia had always shared with Luke seemed tighter. The two were similar in dedication, determination, and even in temperament once you got to know them. None of this was lost on Han. But had he really known that sooner or later she would choose Skywalker? “No,” Solo whispered to the invisible forest floor below. He could not accept the idea that he’d entered into this situation already knowing or expecting eventual failure — it grated against everything he believed about himself.

The memory of their time together on Ord Mantell, their close-quarters journey to Bespin, and later…the bond that had formed between them (call it love or whatever) was still vivid. Leia had stunned him by confirming it with three not-so-simple words — then renewed it when she’d freed him from the carbonite. He’d nearly choked on emotion, overwhelmed with her presence and her admission. He had not imagined that!

Solo bit his lower lip and turned away from the depthless black below the walkway, just as he attempted to tear his attention away from what seemed a bottomless pit of self-pity. He watched in a detached manner as furry little silhouettes passed by within the lodge entrance, still in celebration.

What would Chewie say? he asked himself. Had this been any other situation, any other time, any other group of people, he would have fired up the Millennium Falcon and put as much space between himself and whatever threatened to disturb his simple outlook on life. But could he do that now? Did he really want to? After all the reinforcements of friendship — everything that they had sacrificed for one another — he honestly didn’t want to.

Han snorted. Chewie would probably say: ‘Give her time, and she’ll find her way back.’ The Wookiee was good at spouting off such nonsense; he’d had two hundred years to think up that kind of wise-sounding but unrealistic advice. Han’s life span would never last so long. His lifestyle, be it smuggling or rebelling, practically guaranteed he wouldn’t even reach the half way mark. So who had the time for that kind of pain?

Han began walking toward one of the hanging bridges, splayed out like spidery fingers into the dark. He really had no idea where he was heading, but felt the need to keep walking. He tried to think about something else.

Tomorrow morning they would rejoin the remainder of his strike team, and then advance on the Imperial bunker that housed the energy shield generator protecting the partially completed Death Star. General Han Solo would then learn if his renowned but lately fickle luck would abandon him one last time. Or maybe this was fate. What had that old crackpot Kenobi said about luck?

The bridge creaked and swayed as Solo moved out above the dark abyss. He focused on the texture of the wood beneath his smooth spacer’s boots. The bark was worn away to leave an equally smooth surface, and he had to step with care so as not to lose his footing on the sloping walkway. Despite the cool air and his unpalatable thoughts, the orange glow cast by the countless torches seemed warm and unthreatening. The scent of burning wood, not as pungent now that he was outside and away from the hearth fires, mingled with the night air of the forest. Nocturnal sounds — very different from those of the day — drifted up from the lush growth far below and mixed easily with the homey murmurs of a village that did not impose itself on nature so much as exist within it.

A village that Han suspected had yet to realize the serious nature of their involvement. There was a very real possibility that their new alliance could lead to Imperial retaliation — Imperial forces that would swoop down to destroy their sleepy hamlet in the trees.

At that thought, Han halted mid way on the up swing of the bridge. So this is what Leia lives with every day. Now, having the chance to examine duty from this new vantage point — that being right in the middle — he found that he didn’t enjoy it in the least. Still, he’d been serious in his acceptance of his rank and commission; serious in his desire to crush the Empire. His motivation was a mixture of revenge, comradeship with his befriended rebels, and an honest acceptance of the need for this monumental struggle. He’d also had a serious desire to show Princess Leia — and anyone who cared to notice or dared to disbelieve — that he’d finally dedicated himself to her and her cause.

Only now, with her apparent defection from him and the very real possibility that his first major decision as a rebel general would result in a blood bath, Han’s stomach threatened a physically impossible acrobatic flip. Life had been so simple before! No decision, no responsibilities, no pain.

Human voices broke through Han’s contemplation, sounds incongruous with the night. He glanced up and pinpointed the source ahead and to his left. Dark shapes stood close together in the middle of a stouter, shorter version of the bridge he occupied.

For an instant Solo experienced a spasm of jealousy and was shamed and elated all at once; shame for the momentary flare of terrible hate toward his friend, and elation because catching them together meant that he wasn’t going crazy — that his fears and self-pity were justified.

He made no move, unsure whether to continue forward and confront them, or to forget them and go back to the main lodge to carry on with his duty, his mission, and his life. The third option, to simply leave, didn’t seem to be a choice he could consider seriously anymore. He’d given his word to help. Besides, he had finally found a place to belong within the Alliance, regardless of a princess or a Jedi Knight.

Han glanced back down in fascination when he realized that his feet had already decided a course of action. He found himself moving up the incline to the circular deck that connected his catwalk to the other. Luke and Leia disappeared momentarily as he reached the level floor and the huge body of the tree blocked his view. His steps slowed once more, but he forced his legs to keep moving until he emerged from around the dark bulk of the tree at the foot of the bridge.

He then came to a rather abrupt halt. His knees threatened to fold under him as he watched Skywalker take Leia by her hands and draw her close for a kiss, then turn on his heels to disappear into the night, his Jedi tunic an effective camouflage. Han’s eyes dropped back to Leia. She’d turned to face out over the void in unknowing mimicry of his own pose earlier. He was close enough now to see her face, despite the shadows, but her head was bowed and her long, unbound hair fell to curtain her expression from sight. She was alone.

Solo waited a moment longer, then cursed his indecision and launched himself down the slope of the bridge, determined to learn the truth. But as he drew close, he heard something frightfully wrong. His gait slowed once again, but he spoke before he could temper his thoughts. “Hey, what’s goin’ on?”

Leia looked up with a start, betraying her surprise. “Nothing.”

She turned away quickly, but not before Han caught the shiny flash of tears on her cheeks. “‘Nothing’!” he repeated, unable to help the sound of exasperated resentment and fear in his voice. He reached out to touch her arm, to pull her around to face him. His knees wobbled slightly and he reached behind with his other hand to find the catwalk railing. He propped himself on it as he searched her shrouded face for an explanation. “Come on. What’s going on?”

Leia looked up at him, finally meeting his gaze with an intensity that almost caused him to topple backwards off the guardrail. He’d believed that he’d seen the height of pain in her eyes a lifetime ago on the carbonfreeze platform in Cloud City; he’d been wrong.

She stared pleadingly at him. The mixture of pain, fear and desperation in her expression stunned him. “Han, I...” For an instant her mouth moved over words that wouldn’t come out, until she blurted out in defeat, “I can’t tell you.”

Shocked and now furious at his being totally excluded — his being ignored! — Han pointed an accusing finger in the direction that Skywalker had disappeared. “But you could tell Luke! Is that who you could tell!” His angry voice echoed through the heavy night air but he didn’t care. He hadn’t expected this! Embarrassment or denial, yes, but not silence. How the hell was he supposed to act if she wouldn’t even talk with him?

Leia spun away with a sob, and Han found himself staring in disbelief at her back. She’d cut him out of the picture that simply — her picture, whatever that had now become.

It was hurt pride that caused Solo to abruptly rise to his feet, wave his hand in a violent gesture of dismissal, and utter a final grunt of disgust; he’d finally had his fill of her games, of his entire involvement with her. She could take a flying leap over the railing, for all he cared.

For the length of three long strides, General Han Solo believed that. But the renewed sound of crying pulled him up short. Leia was not a woman to break down in — or resorted to — tears when life didn’t fit her wishes. It was one of the many reasons why he’d come to love her. Whatever had caused this display was not to be ignored.

How important is your pride? he asked himself. Is it worth this? He turned around and, this time more mindful of the slippery wood, returned to within reach at her side — an agonizing distance. “I’m sorry.”

Han wasn’t really sure how she would react to his approach, but he certainly was not prepared for what happened next. Leia spared a glance up at him before literally flinging herself into his startled embrace. “Hold me.” Her voice was flat, her words a question more than any demand, as if she feared he no longer cared to touch her. Her grip was so tight that he believed a rib or two might crack, but he did nothing to impede her. Instead, Han carefully wrapped his arms around her in return as she buried her face against his chest and wept.

To be truthful, Han no longer had the slightest idea what was going — between Skywalker and Leia, or how he fit in. All he knew was that she was clinging to him as if he were the last bit of reality left to her. It was as if she was afraid he might disappear next, and then she would wink out of existence as well. He also realized that she was gaining more than support; her tiny, trembling body pressed against his, no longer coy or afraid, as she absorbed his warmth, gaining strength from the contact. He welcomed it. No, he didn’t just welcome it — he needed it. The feel of her, the sweet, musky scent of her hair. Did the gods really expect him to give up this lady?

Tell her now! he thought again. He worked his mouth open, but before he could formulate the words, Leia broke the silence.

“I’m sorry, Han.” The princess shifted in his arms and switched the cheek she’d pressed against the smooth plane of his shirt. “I’m so sorry. I…”

“It’s okay,” Han whispered back, not really knowing what, if anything, was okay anymore.

She was still a little shaky, but the tears had stopped. “I don’t want to close you out, but Luke—”

Han’s heart, which had begun to revive at her promising touch, chilled with a swiftness that made Bespin’s carbon freezing process seem gradual. “What about Luke?”

Leia didn’t seem to notice his reaction. Her grip tightened around the ex-smuggler. “Luke thinks it best that no one else know, at least for now. Please, don’t ask any more.” Her last statement sounded remarkably like a plea.

Once again, Han felt unsure of the surface beneath his feet. What the hell kind of secret was she talking about? Feeling his anger return, he tried to hold it back. “I want you to tell me what’s—”

“Luke’s gone,” Leia interrupted, her voice again devoid of any betraying emotions.

“What do you mean, Luke’s gone?” This time Han had no doubt that the bridge beneath his feet was unstable; he fought an urge to sit down again. When she didn’t answer immediately, he released his embrace and gripped her upper arms, holding her away from him in order to see her entire face, a nonverbal demand for an answer.

“I mean, he’s gone. He’s left to face Vader.” She nearly choked on the name, then seemed rushed through the rest. “He thinks he can convince Vader to give up the Dark Side, but I know Vader will take him to the Emperor. Luke wouldn’t listen, but I know!”

Her voice was so firm in conviction that it made Han’s flesh prickle. So what did all this mean? Among other things, it meant that his team was now short one extremely important member, an absence that could very possibly endanger his entire mission. Han’s anger instantly reached the flash point. “Who the hell does he think he is! The friggin’ Maker himself!”

He released Leia completely, his fury fading quickly into indignant defeat. “He left. I’m not even in command for one whole day and one of my team — my own friggin’ best friend! — goes awol. Aw, kreth!”

Tears evidently forgotten, Leia shook her head in adamant denial of his uncharacteristic lack of self-confidence. “No, Han. This has nothing to do with you or our mission. Please, this isn’t like you.”

“You’re wrong, Princess. This has everything to do with me.” Han turned his back on the young woman, unconsciously displaying some of the very qualities a good leader would possess — traits that she’d painstakingly pointed out to him years ago. “What the kid has gone and done is jeopardize this entire offensive. You know this mission is riding on surprise. Even with the Calamari Fleet, we can’t take out that Death Star if the shield is still up. And the second Luke shows up at Vader’s door, the game’s forfeit ‘cause that black-masked bastard will know something’s wrong and—”

Leia, still slowly shaking her head, looked on the verge of more tears. “Han, Vader already knows.”

Solo could do little more than stare at her as that statement sank in.

Vader already knew.

He was vaguely aware of his unsteady sigh that escaped as he battled internally with the terror her words inspired — a nasty remnant from their holiday of hell on Bespin. He feared few things, but the Dark Lord had earned the dubious privilege of being one of them. He snapped his mouth shut and attempted to regain his composure, but his mind raced far ahead at a sickening pace.

Vader already knew. Any advantage of surprise was lost. The Imperial bunker here on Endor’s moon would be heavily guarded, all of it’s troops on the alert. His small but skilled team would fail, wiped out by sheer force. When the rebel fleet — what there was of it — emerged from hyperspace, it would smash into the still-functioning energy screen protecting the Death Star. General Lando Calrissian, now piloting the Millennium Falcon, would be the first to hit. And Luke Skywalker would probably have a front row seat.

Han normally took pride in his optimistic approach to any problem — but how, in all the hells of Kessel, was he supposed to remain optimistic now?

His mind slowly returned to the stark present, the chilly star and torch-lit night, and the small woman standing before him. He realized, with a hint of embarrassment, that she had been watching him throughout his mental calculations. She was far too young to be wearing the expression of desolation he saw now. Standing with that perfect posture of hers, arms wrapped around herself in a tight hug of attempted reassurance, it was obvious to him that she’d reached the same conclusions. Her long hair, ginger-brown and still kinked from being braided, fell over her shoulders like a cape. She was so beautiful. He ached to hold her again, to still have a future with her, to hear her say that she still loved him, especially now.

Not really knowing what else to say, Solo shook his head. “Think it’s too late to resign?”

The corner of Leia’s mouth turned up and the flicker of joyous recognition — a scoundrel in spite of everything! — lightened her eyes. “Do you really wish to?” she asked quietly.

“No, I guess not.” Han hadn’t been sure of his own answer until he said it. Only now, having heard it come from his own mouth, did he know it to be true. After all, he’d accepted this mission knowing full well there might be no exit. For some reason, that hadn’t seemed to matter at the time. He’d been the most qualified for the job, and that was that. The eerie premonition he’d experienced earlier regarding his beloved Millennium Falcon had shaken him. Combined with this latest revelation, he realized that — damn the odds! — his chances of coming out alive were slim. So maybe his good fortune had indeed run out. The least he could do now would be to take as many Imperials as he could with him. There was no point in voicing this fatalistic decision, though; Leia obviously didn’t need to hear it, and frankly, neither did he.

“Besides,” he continued, his eyes communicating his hope of sharing yet another personal joke with her. “I can’t. I already bought a uniform and the damned thing’s too ugly to sell back.”

Leia produced a sound somewhere between a sob and out right laughter. She gazed up at him with unmasked gratitude, seemingly relieved to know that some things would never change, particularly his ability to make her feel better with levity. Or at least Han chose to interpret her slightly brightened expression that way. They’d been through so much together, sharing joy as well as pain. He was happy to see her tenuous smile. Something unimaginable still haunted her eyes, but Han could see no opening through which to breech her secret.

“You have the uniform?” Leia’s question was half-teasing, half-incredulous. “Why aren’t you wearing it?”

“Like I said, it’s too damned ugly.”

Leia’s eyes rolled up in exasperation, a familiar and well loved action that Han knew signaled her capitulation. What she did next, however, caught Solo off guard. She closed the distance between them, bringing her right hand up to touch the side of his face. Her gentle fingers tracing back along the line of his cheekbone before stopping, palm pressed against his cheek in a clear gesture of endearment. Her thumb brushed his full lips, a whispy touch. Her eyes followed the progress of her hand, then shifted ever-so-slightly to meet his own.

Han found himself in an epic struggle to restrain himself. The heat of her touch, the simple nearness of her desirable body, the intimate knowledge of who he was reflected in her eyes, caused his recently overworked heart to skip into double-time. He fought against his own stirring arousal — while his body knew exactly what was happening and what it wanted, and held no doubts regarding either, his mind churned once again. What kind of game was she playing with him? Surely she knew what exquisite pleasure and agony her touch caused. Was she just trying to play the odds, taking comfort from whomever was convenient? Was she approaching him once more, now that Skywalker seemed out of the picture for good — just as he’d seemed out of the picture after Cloud City? Han ached with the desire to disbelieve that; he didn’t want to think that Leia could be capable of such intrigue. She’d rescued him, with Luke’s considerable help. If the two had become lovers in his absence, why would they have bothered with a petty smuggler who would only get in their way?

He began to realize, as the flaring warmth of the princess’s touch surged through him, that the pieces of this puzzle did not fit together. Yes, she’d been paying an unprecedented amount of attention to Luke lately, but she’d still managed to be near Han all the time since his release from carbonite — touching him as if for reassurance of his reality, watching him with studious interest, no longer so abashed to be caught in the act.

In fact, as Leia’s hand now dropped from the side of his face — he could still feel where she’d touched him, her heat lingering despite the cold night — to alight on his chest and toy briefly with the collar of his shirt, her fingertips tantalizingly warm through the white fabric and electric when they grazed the exposed skin of his neck, Han began to wonder if he’d been mistaken about the direction in which Luke and Leia’s friendship had grown. What she was doing to him at that moment certainly presented a good argument for just such a conclusion. And it would be a mistake he’d gladly admit fault for if it meant she loved him — only him, without exception.

Leia stopped her perusal of his chest and stepped into his embrace, wrapping her arms around him. Needing no further encouragement, he drew her closer, his hands sliding across her back, beneath her auburn hair. How many hours had he spent wondering just how her hair would look and feel when freed from the ever-present braids?

No longer able to ignore his need, Han loosened his hold and brought his hands up, still buried within the rich silkiness, to frame her face as she gazed up at him. She was so pliable now, his princess. He didn’t care about her Deep Dark Secret, or Luke, or the Empire’s being a day’s march away. Without a word, Han bent to press his lips against hers in an undeniable kiss. He felt a tremor course through her small body as she opened her mouth, inviting greater intimacy. Their tongues caressed, explored, all else forgotten for a timeless span. A soft, sighing moan of pleasure rose from her and Han, excited by the primal sound, responded with his own as he crushed her body against his. The necessity for oxygen brought the kiss to an end. Keeping her face turned upward, he began to survey every sweet millimeter of her lips with feather-light kisses. She responded to each, her hands moving beneath his vest in a not-quite-aimless search along his back. She then spoke softly, her voice a husky, breathless alto. “Han, I—”

“Sh-h-h-h.” Han gently kissed her closed eyelids, then paused long enough to gaze down at her beautiful face, bathed in the shadowy torch and star light, her lips parted slightly, waiting to feel his next caress, immersed in what they were doing…which was what, exactly?

He had no doubt as to the literal explanation for their current actions. He’d wanted to make love to Leia from the first day they’d met, and from the way she moved against him now, she wanted him as well. But why now? that horrid, hated little voice echoed inside his head. He’d waited an ungodly long time for just this moment, when she would come to his arms of her own volition, in search of his passion. He also knew, from her body language — Leia wasn’t so unique from other women Han had ever known — that he could have her now if he wished. Take her now, consummate their relationship, stake his claim…

But why now? Because Luke was gone, possibly for good? Because she was searching for comfort and any body would do? Or because she really did love him, and this would likely be their last chance before whatever fate awaited them tomorrow — a chance denied them on Cloud City.

With a supreme effort, Han placed a rather chaste kiss on Leia’s brow, his own unconscious mimicry of Luke’s earlier gesture, then took a small step back. “It’s late, and it’s going to be a long day tomorrow. I want you to get a good night’s sleep, understand?”

Leia Organa opened her eyes, obviously confused by Han’s abrupt inaction. He watched her expression, a mixture of smoldering arousal, uncertainty, and gradually recurring pain, as though she feared his rejection.

He still wanted her, desperately, and always would, but he did not want their lovemaking to be like this; not as a rebound, or in desperation, or as a last resort. He’d waited too long and fought too hard. To settle for less would debase the love he held for her.

Leia opened her mouth, on the verge of saying something, perhaps a protest, but hesitated, her eyes questioning and bright. Then she smiled faintly. “Yes, sir.”

That drew an unexpected smirk from Han, even as he felt his arousal cool. “Never thought I’d see the day when Her Worship took an order.”

Leia’s smile grew too sweet. “You won’t see the end of it if you call me that one more time.”

Unable to help himself, Han laughed out loud; he broke away from her before he succumbed to the temptation to kiss her again. “Insubordination will get you everywhere, sweetheart.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You do that.” Han tapped a thumb on his chest. “Look where it got me.”

“Yes.” Leia’s smile visibly faded. Her eyes darkening once again with too much knowledge. “I’m so sorry, Han. You deserve better than this.”

“Hey,” he said softly, grasping her tiny shoulders in a firm, reassuring grip. “I knew what I was getting into. Stop apologizing.” He gave her a little shake, then tugged her around, steering her back the way he’d come. “Come on, I’ll walk you back. They’re giving us the Elders Lodge to stay in. It’s no Grand Empress, but it’ll do.”

As they begin heading back toward the lodge, Leia slowed down and slipped an arm around his waist. Han dropped his glaze to look at her, then wrapped his own arm around her shoulders and hugged her in closer as they crossed the wooden bridge together.

The End

 

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