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 19 — The tradeoff
Dinner on the sixteenth day was a grim milestone of sorts—the last of the nerf steaks. By general consensus Chewie had the honor of preparing them, and he didn’t let them down. Han almost never drank while in flight, but tonight he broke out a bottle of Fornean wine to commemorate the occasion, while the princess contributed by finding some appropriate music on the Falcon’s computer at the engineering station. The three of them now sat around the table, savoring the last of their meal as conversation lulled for a moment. He’d come to love this time, their sitting together to eat and share, like a family, and he supposed they were family in an indirect way. Sometimes he found himself thinking that, if circumstances were different, he might have even considered asking Leia if she would be interested in making that link a little more legitimate.
Crazier things have happened.
There was a sound at Han’s side, from where the lady in question sat within arm’s reach, her thigh pressed against his. He noticed she was staring down at her plate, fork still in hand, but he could feel her body shaking with silent laughter.
“What?” he prompted.
Her laughter no longer silent, Leia shook her head, but both he and Chewbacca kept staring at her, waiting for an explanation. When she still didn’t confess, he prodded her with an elbow. “All right. Come on, what’s so funny?”
Leia poked at the last bite of her steak before mumbling, “Nerfherder.”
While Chewie choked on his mouthful, Han had to laugh as well at the random memory. “Yeah, that was a pretty good one, Your Worship. You get a point for originality.”
“You were being such a pain.” When she looked up, the obvious affection he found in those impossibly dark eyes made his pulse quicken, as did her free hand, which had found its way over into his lap. She’d learned early on that this was an excellent way to get his undivided attention, and she never passed up an opportunity. “I was inspired.”
“Glad I was there for you, Sweetheart.”
Leia’s mood sobered in an instant as her hand slid forward to stop on his knee. Looking back down to her plate, she used her fork to make a pattern in the mashed root vegetable. “You’ve always been…”
Still in the middle of finding something witty to say, it took a moment before the deeper meaning of her words sank in and he stopped, out of momentum.
You asked for that. Some things haven’t changed, and you’d do everybody a favor by keeping that in mind.
He glanced to Chewie for support, but the Wookiee had found something new and fascinating in the recessed controls of the holochess table. Turning back, he debated what to say. Not only had they failed to discuss the future since the night she climbed into his bunk, but they seemed to be actively avoiding it.
“Do you remember that party the night of my Majority?”
Han felt one of his eyebrows tick up, surprised by the sudden tangent but grateful she was changing topic.
How could he forget?From the day they’d met, he had wanted to bunk her—he’d propositioned and teased because…well, that’s what he did. And for a little while she played along, handling his flirting like the professional diplomat she was. But it wasn’t long before something began to change between them, the game growing serious as he’d started meaning it and she’d started avoiding it, maybe because she’d meant it as well. Those pent up feelings had finally manifested in some very observable behaviors the night of that party, and afterward he’d known he wanted more than just a one-night fling, while she’d shifted from amused tolerance to self-conscious overheated denial.
“Sure, I remember. You could barely stand so I carried you back to your quarters, dumped you on your cot, and pulled your boots off. Then you passed out. Lieutenant Aldritch insisted on escorting, even though I told her I preferred my women a little more conscious.”
“Yes, well…” Cheeks reddened, her head made a demure little dip. While he suspected she was more embarrassed to learn they’d had a very attentive witness, and that she’d been the center of a conversation of that nature, the news didn’t prevent her hand from resuming the meandering trail along his thigh, which was always a good sign in his book.
“I also remember you slurring something about needing a personal mechanic someday, and wanting to see my credentials. But I figured that was the booze talking.”
There was a definite snort from the direction of the astutely disinterested Wookiee, while Leia stared at him in cautious disbelief. “I did not say that…”
“You don’t remember?”
“No…but I did not say that.”
“Suit yourself, but I started padding my resume the next morning.”
“You are such a—” She stopped, still clearly unsure if he was baiting her, or telling the truth, or both. “Fine, well, evidently I don’t remember most of that evening…I found a holo in your locker the other day.”
“Ah, that.” It was Han’s turn to feel a little self-conscious. He hadn’t forgotten about the holo—he’d watched it countless times whenever in need of a fix of her laugh, but since he started getting doses right from the potent source, there’d been no need. Then he noticed that Chewie was watching them with blatant curiosity. “The one you took that night, Buddy,” he clarified.
“[Oh, that one.]”
Distracted, Han frowned. “Of course ‘that one.’ What other one did you think we were talking about?”
Chewbacca rolled his blue eyes and shrugged, implying it could have meant anything.
“Pervert,” Han accused with a smirk.
Giving Han a pointed look, Chewbacca said, “[I’m not the one testing out every flat surface on this ship like some pair of oversexed Zeltrons.]”
Leia’s fork dropped with a clatter and her wandering hand disappeared in an instant, her look mortified. Not knowing whether to defend her honor, laugh at Chewie’s good taunt, or be annoyed by the interrupted caress, Han erred on the side of the one that kept him warm at night. “Hey, show some respect, huh?”
“Chewie, I’m so sorry!”
“He’s just jealous, Sweetheart. Don’t—”
Pulling a discreet distance away from Han, her cheeks burning, Leia was taking the comment way too personally. “No, no, he’s right. It was very inconsiderate. We should have thought—”
Han swung back at his partner, now annoyed for real. “Oh, for Sith’s sake! Now look what you’ve started, you big mop head.”
Chewie held up his hairy mitts in supplication. “[I’m sorry, Princess. Don’t worry. I still prefer that to all the arguing...]”
Burying her face in her hands, Leia’s blush radiated so hot that Han began to worry about the bulkhead paint blistering. “—be more careful, Chewie. I promise. It’s not fair to you—”
“Not fair?” Han stopped her while jabbing a thumb at the Wookiee. “You should see what he’s like with his wife whenever we make port on Kashyyyk. It’s awkward!” With that he reached out to slide his arm around Leia’s shoulders and pull her back, despite her new-found reluctance. “Come on. Don’t pay any attention to him. I told you, he’s a troublemaker. He’s just teasing and you’re not used to it yet.”
“Still,” she said in a quiet tone before risking a slanted look up at both of them. “It is a bit rude. You’re a bad influence.”
That made Han smile. If he knew Leia, she was already adapting. “I thought that’s why you liked me.”
“No, that’s why you think I like you. It’s all still a mystery to me.”
Chewie howled with laughter and Han shot him a dirty look as he nudged Leia’s leg with his own. “Nice. So now you’re trying to solve the mystery by snooping through my lockers?”
Tipping her head to give a very politic answer, she returned her attention to the remnants of her meal. “I wasn’t snooping. I was researching. And you did invite me…”
“Oh yeah, I guess I did. So, what did you find out?”
“Nothing much. You’ll be happy to know that you remain a complete enigma.” Leia made a fair attempt to keep her tone light, but failed at hiding her disappointment. This was an issue that still tended to make her pensive, and he supposed she had a right to be.
She’s accepted you without knowing anything, without any conditions. Maybe it’s time you started showing a little faith in return.
Sighing, Han realized that maybe they’d reached that crossroads at last, and habit made him glance over to find Chewie watching him again, no doubt thinking the same thing.
“What do you want to know, Sweetheart? Ask me anything at all. I promise I won’t get mad.”
Looking genuinely surprised by his offer, she hesitated, which was understandable considering his usual reaction to personal questions. “Do you have any family?”
Although he’d suspected this might be one of her eventual questions, the fact it was first told him a great deal about where her thoughts had been dwelling. His first instinct was to say that Chewie was all the family he needed—it had been his pat answer for years—but she deserved the full truth. “Yeah, both parents are still around. A younger brother and sister. They’re all on Corellia, but I cut ties a long time ago.”
As she held his gaze in silence, he could see a glint of sorrow hers, some of it no doubt for his sake, but he knew she was also thinking of her own family—all those ties forever severed but not by choice. Then he watched the most subtle of changes come over her expression as her eyes flicked toward Chewbacca. “So you weren’t abandoned as an infant and raised by Wookiees?”
Letting loose a triumphant whoop, Han flopped his hand palm-up on the tabletop in front of his suddenly sour-looking co-pilot. “Pay up, Pal. I told you the Kid couldn’t keep his big trap shut.”
“[Circumstantial at best. I’ll need to see more proof.]” Sliding out from the table in avoidance, Chewbacca started collecting up their abandoned plates.
Leia’s dark eyes were shifting from him to Chewie in angry disbelief, and then she shook her head. “A mystery to me…” Moving out of his reach and off the bench to stand, Leia then stopped there, both fists planted on her hips, while she waited for him with what he was pretty sure was the sort of mild outrage that she would gladly relinquish with a kiss—just another complicated step in the dance they’d started weeks ago.
“Aw, come on, Sweetheart,” Han coaxed as he followed and got to his feet. Catching one of her hands, he used it to pull her up against him, assuming a close-dance position. “What I would’ve paid to see the look on your face when Luke told you that…”
“Well, it certainly explained a lot,” she protested in her own defense. Sparing a glance toward the galley to make sure Chewbacca was out of sight, she gripped his belt and jerked him closer, a not-so-subtle indication that most was forgiven.
Encouraged, he guided her toward the engineering station, dropped into the high-backed seat, and then tugged her toward him. She crawled up onto his lap to sit astride facing him, legs fitting beneath the armrests at his sides while her hands came to rest on his shoulders. This was a favorite spot for them since it was more comfortable than the acceleration couch, and it left him with a lot of options, including a promising view as he eased a finger under the collar of her loose shirt. “I was nineteen when Chewie’s family took me in, if that counts for anything.”
Leia swatted his hand away like a coquettish date, unwilling to let him distract her—not when she was finally getting answers. Leaning further back on his knees, she laced her fingers behind his neck. “After you were kicked out of the Academy…?”
“A little while after, yeah.”
“That was right around the same time you suddenly started appearing on the Imperial records…”
She’s circling in like a prowling pantera on a scent trail.
His hesitation was pure instinct, as was his tendency to deflect at all costs, but he forced himself to relax. What harm could come now from her knowing the truth? “Yeah.”
“‘Han’ is a common enough Corellian name so I imagine you didn’t bother changing that…but ‘Solo’ isn’t. That would explain why you’re not in any records from the Academy… Solo, as in ‘alone’… You couldn’t have come up with something a little less obvious?” That last comment was said with a teasing smile.
“I was nineteen. It sounded cool.”
Giving a little shake of her head, as though she might never understand testosterone, Leia waited a beat before voicing the obvious follow-up. “Will you tell me your real name?”
Aware of the door he was about to open, Han swallowed. “Kuat.”
The name almost sounded foreign to him—it had been so long since he’d felt any connection to it.
“Kuat,” she echoed, as if needing a moment to let that bit of knowledge soak in, to let it bounce around in her brain a little as she recalibrated her understanding of who he was. Then other associations began clicking into place, and he could read it on her face as easily as on a comp screen. He might have laughed were it not so serious.
“Kuat…Wait! The Kuats, as in the Kuat Drive Shipyards?” Eyes growing wider, she took his silent inaction for an affirmative and sat up straighter on his lap. “Goddess, that’s what Chewie meant? That’s how you knew about the blind spot on the star destroyers…?”
“Leia, I know what you’re thinking and you might as well forget about it. We disowned each other a long time ago. There’s no use getting your hopes up.”
She opened her mouth to no doubt voice a protest at his conclusion, then halted as if maybe realizing he was right, and closed it as she reconsidered.
While Han knew it wasn’t necessary, he added in a quiet tone: “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell High Command. It’s none of their damned business.”
Her response was just as quiet but a clear reaffirmation. “Don’t worry about that. This was just for me.”
A corner of his mouth eased up into a fond grin. Leia could keep a secret better than most, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t be pulling up his real name in a datapad search the instant she had five minutes to herself—that was what made her who she was.
Releasing a sigh, he ran his hands along the sides of her thighs as he surrendered to the inevitable. Then again, as one of her hands began working its way through his hair, he couldn’t imagine a more pleasant way to be interrogated. “What, the Academy or the family?”
“Whatever you want to tell me.”
It was funny—now that he’d committed to this, he found himself wanting to tell her more. “I was a massive disappointment to the family. They were grooming me to take over the business, but I had no interest in sitting behind a desk. I wanted to fly.”
Her smile was so beautiful that it was almost enough to make him forget what they were talking about. Why, in all the hells of Kessel, had it taken them so long to reach this point?
“It’s in your blood.”
“Yeah, but they didn’t see it that way. I was shipped off to the Academy to drill some discipline into me. Sure, I got to fly a lot, but I did some really dumb stuff, too, and I never got into much trouble for it. Then I started moving up through the ranks faster than my buddies, getting cushy assignments or stuck behind desks half the time.”
Nodding in understanding, she was likely familiar with just how much influence the owners of the largest single military contractor could have within the Imperial Forces. “They were pulling strings for your advancement.”
“They had my whole life mapped out for me: graduate an officer, get some experience under my belt, come back a hero, take over the firm. Hell, they even had a wife lined up for me and announced our engagement before I was done with cadet training.”
He felt Leia twitch, as if she’d only just joined the conversation. Something in her reaction—Shock? Jealousy? Insecurity?—made him groan in delayed understanding. For some dumb reason he’d thought she was immune to that sort of thing, but he should have known better. Not only was she was still very new at this game, but she hadn’t exactly picked the most transparent partner or straightforward situation, either. Just because she avoided the topic of his past conquests like the Emperor avoided press conferences didn’t mean she was free of doubts about herself or him.
As if I’ve even looked at another woman in the past year…
“Engaged?” Leia’s question was timid, as if she couldn’t help herself and yet didn’t want to hear the answer.
“It was a long time ago, Leia. Her family had a lot of connections, too. We knew each other, but it wouldn’t have worked for long. We were just kids.”
When she kept staring at some spot on his shirt, mind obviously far away, he waited a few moments before bouncing a leg to jostle her out of it. “Trust me, Your Worship, she wasn’t my type. I like ‘em short and feisty.”
Too late Han realized his remark wasn’t the best compliment he’d ever paid her if the change in her expression was anything to go by, but it did work to break her spell.
“You drive me crazy.”
Shaking her head, appearing to fluctuate between irritation and curiosity, she conceded defeat and picked at the open collar of his shirt. “Go on. So you rebelled…”
“I guess so, that’s a nice way to put it.”
“How would you put it?”
“I committed treason and sabotage.” At her renewed look of shock, he shrugged again, feeling his voice grow more serious as the memories still bore a bitter aftertaste. “My fifth assignment was on Kashyyyk, commanding a fighter escort. I watched the slavers in action and went a little crazy. Shot up some empty transports arriving for the latest shipment. That finally got everybody’s attention and I was drummed out...”
“I’m amazed you weren’t put into shackles yourself, or worse.”
“The best lawyers a family could buy, plus a hell of a lot of bribes.”
Leia just stared at him, as if struggling to absorb it all. While she would have been too young to remember the incident, he knew she would have heard of it—the government-sponsored slave trade had not stopped, but that was the first time the dark business was brought to the public’s awareness. Although the cries of outrage were quickly silenced and the riots crushed, it had fed the surge in Rebel recruitment and activity throughout the Empire.
“The classic spoiled rich kid,” she said under her breath, a clear hint of incredulity in her tone.
Han snorted. “Do I look rich to you?”
“No…but I told you there was more to you than money.” Her palm pressed against his chest, as if touching a cherished heirloom.
Leia’s smile was indulgent, content to allow him this particular delusion. “Is that when you met Chewie?”
“Nah, I didn’t run into him until a little later, after I was out on my own. I got my first job as a red-eye-shift co-pilot on one of those big Guild freighters flying out of Coronet.” His gaze settled without seeing on a spot over her shoulder as he recollected. “Chewie was part of the crew. We were on this one flight out of Commenor when the drive conked out and we were jumped by pirates. It was an inside job because they were waiting for us. We were taken away to be sold as slaves, but we managed to get away.” He paused and ran his hand along the outside of her thigh as he blinked back to the present. “He’s been my shadow ever since. Can’t get rid of him.”
“[I heard that,]” Chewbacca interrupted as he emerged from the galley, a steaming mug of in one of his furry mitts. “[You say ‘get away’ like it was nothing special, but you saved more than half the crew from a miserable fate that day.]”
Han swiveled the chair to face his friend. “Yeah, but you’re the only one who decided it was worth a Life Debt.”
“[Maybe I was the only one who realized you needed a shadow.]”
As her eyes moved back and forth between him and the Wookiee, Leia seemed to be seeing them both in a new light.
Great, that’s all she needs—more hero talk.
He suspected she already had some grandiose ideas of who he was, things he was pretty sure he couldn’t live up to. “Knock it off, Chewie, before she starts thinking I’m noble or something.”
“[Don’t blame me for that.]” With his usual aplomb, Chewbacca wished them a good night and headed for his cabin.
Han looked back at her, determined to make a preemptive strike. “I just saw an opportunity and I took it—nothing noble about it.”
Leia tapped a fingertip on his chest, well prepared for his dodge. “But you acted, and that’s more than most people would do.”
“I’m no hero, Leia. I’ve done some things I’m not proud of…”
“Maybe. We all have… But I don’t think that cancels out the good. I think your heart’s in the right place.”
“Whatever you say.”
She gave him a look of exasperation, and then amusement. “That’s right. I like it when you agree with me.”
Spotting his opportunity, Han tipped his chin up toward her and dropped his voice lower than the deck plates. “Tell me what else you like.”
As a little smile animated the corners of her mouth, she hopped on his train of thought. “You know what I like.”
“I like it more when you say it.”
Leia’s playful gaze lingered on his for a tantalizing moment before she leaned forward to press her lips near his ear, her breath tickling his skin, making more than just his short hairs rise. Then she whispered something that would have made a once-proper princess burn brighter than a solar flare.
She’s right. You are a bad influence.