Into the Fire
By Susan Zahn
see You Could Use Another Good Kiss home page
This story is rated NC-17. Please stop now if you're under 17 or sensitive to adult-themed material.
Chapter 13 — The debate
Working in the hostile environment of deep space was never an easy prospect, all the more so when it came to conducting delicate repairs. Corralling tools and disassembled ships components was a challenge, and the awkward gloves compounded the problem. Unlike many beings (Leia Organa included) who found the experience disorienting or frightening, Han enjoyed the sensation of weightlessness out in the endless expanse of the open stars, but even he was exhausted after working at it for most of the day.
Reminded again of that rare moment of terror in Leia’s eyes when they’d been forced to make an unorthodox departure via a deep-space construction site back on Ord Mantell, he grinned at the thought of how she’d handled the situation, and how she’d planned and executed an ambush that took out both bounty hunters to save his hide. That was no small feat, and the display of sheer guts still impressed him.
Just another reason why you like her, Buddy. Even in distress, that damsel is still dangerous.
Then again, Leia had left a lot of impressions on him lately, including her fingerprints from that last kiss. What he had planned as a little kiss, something to ponder while she manned the cockpit alone, she had hijacked and turned into—
“[Are you just going to stare at it with that stupid grin on your face, or are you going to test it so we can go back inside?]”
Chewbacca’s query echoed inside Han’s helmet, startling him out of his reverie.
“[Now is not the time to be daydreaming,]” Chewie added for emphasis.
Aware that their mikes were open and channeling through the cockpit, Han threw an irritated look at his co-pilot. “Shut up, Chewie. I’m nearly done here, all right?”
“[Good, I’m getting hungry.]”
“You’re always hungry.”
“[All the more reason to wrap this up.]”
Han finished reconnecting the power line within the exposed innards at the base of the sensor dish, and then with Chewie’s help, they remounted the hull plate. Their magnetized boots and tether lines keeping them from drifting away from the Falcon, they took a few steps back to eye their handiwork.
“Leia, you still there?”
There was a brief silence before her voice responded. “I’m here.”
“Okay, power up the short-range system.”
Holding his breath, Han watched for some indication of failure. The fact that nothing visable happened was a good sign in this case. “Any readings?”
There was another pause over the intercom before her pleased voice filled his ears again. “Yes, I’ve got both of you on the screen, and nothing else visible.”
“Great! Now try the long-range system.”
A moment later the sensor dish rotated on its pivot mount, completing a full circle. Han let out a heartfelt sigh; it was a good day when nothing shorted out or blew up.
“I’m getting long-range readings. It’s working!” There was clear relief in Leia’s tone.
“That’s it. Come on, Chewie, we’re done out here.”
Minutes later they were back inside the Falcon and stripping off the enviro suits.
“Hey, Buddy, what do you say we have a real meal, table for three?” Han asked as he began to stow away the gear in a compartment in the corridor where they stood.
The Wookiee gave a big toothy grin. “[Give me an hour. I already know what to make.]”
Laughing as his partner trotted in the direction of the galley, Han finished packing away the equipment before heading for the cockpit. When he arrived, he found Leia seated at the co-pilot’s station, still watching the readouts for any sign of malfunction. “Everything seems to be checking out okay,” she reported.
“That should make our lives a whole lot easier,” he summed up as he fell into his well-worn seat and fired up the sub-light engines. “Could’ve been a lot worse.”
“There’s some good news,” Leia granted with a smile. “I assume you’re still going to leave Threepio switched off?”
Han shot her a look of disbelief as he finished activating the autopilot. “Do you miss him?”
“No, not really,” she demurred.
While she was usually accompanied by Threepio, he swore there was a tussle going on between Leia and Luke as to who owned the obnoxious protocol droid, each convinced the other should take him.
Just my luck she had to lose the last round.
“Chewie’s gone back to make us a proper meal for a change.”
The groan Leia let out was something right out of one of his fantasies, and Han had to shift in his seat in sudden discomfort.
Oblivious, she went on. “That sounds wonderful. Does he need help?”
“Nah, he prefers cooking alone—plus he pretty much takes up that galley all by himself.”
With a smile, Leia sank back and folded her legs up to one side beneath her. Seeming to have run out of small talk, she ran her elegant fingers along an armrest, lost in thought. He loved watching when she was like this; meditative and a little hesitant, as if searching for a way to bring up whatever was on her mind, she was so beautiful at repose. While not always thrilled with the topics she broached, he nevertheless enjoyed the build-up.
Leia was a petite bundle of strengths and weaknesses that fascinated him without end; beyond her looks and sharp wit, there was this mystery of what made her who she was now. For some reason beyond his comprehension, he wanted to understand and become a part of that unknown, a part of what made her complete. He wanted to claim and keep that heart she shielded so carefully from everyone. He wanted to protect, bolster, and feed that force of character within her, just as she seemed to feed his own need for validation—a need he hadn’t even realized he’d possessed until their introduction. Yet something drove him to prove his worth to this dispossessed princess.
And that’s exactly what you’ve been doing for the past two years, isn’t it? Proving yourself to her, and yourself.
He imagined he could see it whenever he helped out with a sticky mission, or scored a bit of classified Imperial information, or when he managed to save a life; he saw her gratitude and affection, even when she struggled to express it. That was why he’d stayed.
“We need to talk…about what happens later.”
And there it was—the ultimate topic. The one he dreaded most, the one he saw haunting her eyes every time he looked into them.
“What? After we eat?”
Leia frowned, and he realized she wasn’t about to let him off that easy. “Please, Han…I need you to be serious. After we reach Bespin…”
Staring at her for a long moment, imagining his chances of sealing the deal with Leia swirling down the drain, his heart dropped somewhere in the vicinity of his boots. For years he’d patiently—well, not always patiently—worked and waited for her, and so often it seemed that just when he was ready to give up on the effort, some little hint of what he sought would emerge to revive his determination. After all that time and investment, he’d begun to see dividends while on Ord Mantell; the interest had seemed to compound when she’d moved into his cabin last night, and he’d dared to hope it would pay off with interest. But this was her test now, and he was about to fail it.
“I need to know, Han,” she prompted, and he couldn’t translate her expression because he’d never seen it before, somewhere between optimism and yearning and dread, if that were possible. “I think I deserve a serious answer.”
Han swallowed, but held her gaze. “Once you’re back safe with the Alliance, I need to take care of business with Jabba. You know that.”
“Safe,” she echoed under her breath, as if mocking the notion. “So you just drop me off and I never see you again?”
The bluntness of her wording, the brutal finality of it, made Han wince. “Not if I can help it.”
“Okay, then tell me what you mean by that, exactly.”
He’d rarely seen her like this, not with him, and certainly never about them; this was the unrelenting politician and Rebel leader he’d usually preferred to avoid.
She’s going to make you spell it out, Pal. Even the parts you don’t want to think about.
“It means I can’t make any promises, Leia. I’ll come back if I can, but there’s a deathmark on my head. I’ll be lucky to get within a parsec of Jabba before somebody starts taking potshots at me.”
Her reaction was visible: the shortened breath; the crease across her smooth forehead; the clenching of her jaw and the thinning of those full lips. At once it pained him to see her anguish, and it thrilled him to know her feelings were so strong.
“With any luck they’ll remember I’m worth more alive.”
“And then what?”
Han almost laughed. “Then I’ll have to beg the Hutt for mercy. Try to cut a deal. Find a way to make it up to him. Hope he doesn’t have me killed outright for being such a pain in his ass all these years.”
“And then what?”
This time he did laugh; it was the only way he knew how to deal with the bleakness of his situation. “Sweetheart, he’s a crime lord. They aren’t the forgiving type.”
Leia shook her head. “Everyone has their price, Han. I’m not talking forgiveness—I’m talking bargaining. What if we can get him to see reason?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t have those kinds of credits, anyway.”
Shrugging, he already knew she wouldn’t like his answer. “Maybe I’ll have to go back to work for him, pay it off that way. If that happens, I don’t know when I’d be able to come back. And it would probably mean running Kessel spice again. That ain’t exactly a blue milk run. I wouldn’t bet on any of those odds.”
He could see she was in full problem-solving mode now, her look intense and resolute, and his sense was that it did not bode well—whenever she got that look, it meant he was in for either trouble or more work—and often times both.
“Then I’m coming with you.”
Stunned, he could do little more than stare at her.
Kest, she’s as bad as the kid!
He couldn’t believe she would volunteer to do something so crazy just for someone like him. “The hell you are! You aren’t going anywhere near the Hutt. I’m dropping you off where you’ll be safe and—”
“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do, Captain.” Leia’s voice was calm and cool, as if she’d anticipated his reaction from the start. “If you think I’ll go back to the Alliance and quietly forget all about this while some gangster has you executed because he’s having a bad day, you’d better think again.”
“It’s too dangerous. You don’t know what the Hutt is like, what he’d do to you if he—”
“That doesn’t matter. And please, tell me again about how safe I am with the Alliance—I never get tired of hearing that.”
Her sarcasm bit deep. The last thing he wanted to do was argue with her, but he felt his expression hardening. “This is why I didn’t want to get involved in the first place. I was already a marked man the day I met you.”
Leia blinked at him as his first clear hit registered. Looking on the verge of either tears or fury, her face reddened in a way that gave him no pleasure, yet her voice remained ice cold, a tone he knew all too well. “But you did get involved. So you can either sit here regretting it, or you can let me help you now.”
“It’s too dangerous…” Feeling very weary of it all, he scrubbed a hand across his face in the realization that he wasn’t going to win this one. Her perseverance was a trait he’d praised as often as cursed, and he knew she’d match him on every point. “Look, I don’t want you getting hurt because of something out of my past. What good would that do anybody?”
“It could save your life…and what about Chewie? It could save his, too. That’s good enough for me.”
Stunned into momentary silence, he tried to absorb the concept of someone so important to so many people being willing to sacrifice everything for a couple of petty smugglers. It made no sense in his world. “I couldn’t live with myself if anything happened to you.” For just an instant it felt like something had clamped around his heart, saying those words aloud, as if he were giving Fate ideas. The very thought…
“How do you think I felt that night on Hoth when you went out after Luke and disappeared? They kept the shield doors open long past regulation, and then came to me for the final decision to close them. I nearly lost you both. Do you have any idea how that felt?”
He heard a crack in her voice, although it might have been his imagination. The implication of her words made him pause. “You did what you had to do. That wasn’t your fault, and neither is this. But what happened on Ord Mantell was my fault and that’s not acceptable. I need to end this before some bounty hunter comes after you again to get at me, or worse yet, recognizes you. I’ll be damned if I deliver you up for your own reward.”
“But I can help you! I have a lot of influence and resources, and I’m good with a blaster if it comes to that.”
“You’d already be in his hands if it weren’t for me,” she pointed out with the same lethal accuracy she used to wield that blaster. Her leveraging of the events of their near-disaster weeks ago was an approach he hadn’t predicted.
Idiot. There was a reason she was a member of the Imperial Senate at eighteen.
But then Leia’s expression changed, softening as he watched, and for the first time in their argument her eyes dropped away from his. “We make a good team, Han. You know that.”
And just like that, Han was abruptly disarmed in this battle of wills. That was the first time she’d ever spoken of the two of them as being anything other than acquaintances or business associates. This wasn’t the royal ‘we’ she often hid behind whenever referring to her feelings about him; this was personal, just the two of them, an acknowledgement of something more. He didn’t know whether to whoop for joy or bang his head against the console at the atrocious timing. The gods really did hate him. “Yeah, I know.”
“Then at least think about it. We can solve this problem together. We’ve solved tougher ones.”
She did it again, singling out the two of them from the rest of the universe and emphasizing the fact. He loved the resonance of it, the sound of hope in her simple statement, as if there was nothing they couldn’t handle if they did it together. Where had that come from? He didn’t know what kind of epiphany she’d experienced the night before, but it left him off guard. “I’ll think about it.”
Looking up, the hint of a smile wiped away some of her obvious discontent. “Promise me.”
It wasn’t her persistence that surprised him so much as her method.
She’s so good that I think you just lost the fight and haven’t even felt the knockout punch yet.
“I promise I’ll think about it.”
Her dark eyes narrowed for a second, as if assessing his sincerity, but then she relented, appearing to be satisfied with the truce.
Don’t kid yourself, Buddy. She’s more tenacious than a gundark. This isn’t over yet.
“How much is left to be done?” Leia shifted topics like a gust of wind shifted direction on Hoth.
“What, the repairs?”
Taking a moment to catalogue things in his head, his eyes shifted over to the clear canopy to his left. “Aside from the stuff we can’t do anything about until we’re docked in an atmosphere, or the hyperdrive, I’d say nothing vital. That’s not counting the stuff I’ve been meaning to do, but just never had the time to get around to.”
“Time probably isn’t an issue now. I guess this is your chance.”
Han liked that she was encouraging his work on the Falcon; there were times when Leia was downright insulting about his ship, but at least she seemed to accept his affection for the Falcon. That brought his thoughts around to the weeks that still lay ahead, and he realized Leia was right. This was his chance in several ways; to tinker with his first love, but more important, to enjoy the unanticipated gift of sharing Leia’s company, without interference, for what might be the last time. Maybe he was too hasty in judging the gods, and this was a big favor after all. Maybe his luck had finally changed.
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” he murmured. Their eyes met for the longest moment, and he liked to imagine she was thinking the same thing; that perhaps this was their last chance to set things right after all the misfires and wasted opportunities.