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 8 — The quiet
Han’s turn at watch was too quiet. He half-hoped that despite her agreeing to get some rest, Leia might disobey his orders and reappear to keep him company, or better yet pick up where they’d left off with that kiss. That was a favorite fantasy of his: the sassy and haughty princess so overwhelmed with ignited passion that she sought him out for extra-special attention. With everybody bunked out, there was a temptation to revisit that fantasy now.
You’d better scuttle that idea. You know damned well that’d be the moment she walks back in, and no doubt about it, that would sabotage everything.
It wasn’t long after they’d met that Han had stopped seeking the occasional romp with anonymous women, even though the opportunities were plentiful just within the Alliance alone. His reasoning bemused him—he’d refrained out of concern that word of his exploits would leak back to the princess and ruin his chances of doing the same with her. Although it wasn’t the most noble motive, the fact remained he hadn’t shared a bunk since. There was a price to pay for that, however, and while he’d had the occasional dry spell in the past, this marathon left him feeling like a frustrated teenager with only one alternative to relieve the pressure. To make matters worse, much to his chagrin, Leia came to dominate those fantasies. That fact made real life around her all the more difficult; it seemed as if every time she moved or touched him, his libido would leap ahead to all sorts of intimate and graphic thoughts, often at the worst possible moments. It had caused him to duck out early from more than one Rebel briefing, no doubt earning him yet another mark of disapproval from the one person most responsible for his condition.
Chewie’s right. You’ve got it bad. It’s been too damned long.
Letting off a little steam would have to wait, but there was little else to occupy his time. Out of sheer boredom he flirted with the idea of switching Threepio back on, but then rational thought returned and he left the powered-down droid manning the unused communication station in silence. For a while he picked up the abandoned datapad and begun scanning through what news the device could pick up from their remote location, but he had trouble focusing on the articles for long because his thoughts kept wandering back to Leia.
Daring to hope their relationship had righted onto a forward course once more after the recent turbulence of bounty seekers and stupid decisions, he considered it a good sign that she was letting him touch her again.
Hell, the fact she didn’t run after that last kiss is progress, right?
She’d also recovered her humor, something he’d missed since Ord Mantell. Even so, he still saw reservation and trepidation in those fathomless eyes, as though she feared another reversal at any moment, and it troubled him to know he’d damaged her trust so much.
Needing to move, Han stood up and stretched, arching his back until a loud popping sound emanated from his left shoulder, making him wince. The movement recalled a sympathetic memory of watching Leia do the same things hours before. While the loose clothing hid most of her feminine attributes, the sight of the ex-senator in his clothing struck an odd and thrilling chord—it wasn’t just the visual image, but the implied intimacy that stirred his blood.
And that last kiss…It stood out from all the others by its very nature, something Han wasn’t sure he could identify. He was no innocent; he’d indulged in his share of portside pleasures, and yet he couldn’t recall anything quite like that. In a way it was perhaps the most intimate thing he’d ever done with a woman, and the concept shocked him. He knew now that Leia wouldn’t be just another mindless pleasure-seeking romp, or a fleeting moment of illicit release. She had touched him inside…a place nobody had before. She exerted an irresistible, invisible attraction, like the gravitational pull of a heavenly body, her body. His own mystification had been mirrored in her kaffe-colored eyes; the craving and wonder and surrender as she’d moved toward him, as if it was out of her control, had been mutual. He could easily recall the feel of her silky soft lips again, the thrill when her eyes had opened and met his, not flinching away this time. In all his experience, he’d never called out a lovers’ name in passion…and yet he’d said her name in that moment, feeling it rise in response just like the rest of him.
Han expelled a harsh breath, shaking his head. Either he was going to have to spend some quality time alone as soon as his shift was finished, or he needed a cold shower, or both. But at this rate he was going to drive himself mad.
Four weeks, Pal. You’d better pace yourself.
The cockpit door slid open, and Han turned to watch Chewbacca step in.
“Deader than the Emperor’s love life. You’ve still got some time left yet.”
“[Yes, just wanted to see if I should start a pot of kaffe.]”
“Yeah, thanks, Buddy…Did the princess turn in?”
Chewie cocked his head to one side. “[I believe so. I haven’t seen her. Why?]”
Han shrugged off his partner’s implication. “Stubborn. She doesn’t know when to quit sometimes.”
That earned him a chortle. “[Look who’s talking.]”
“All right, all right, I get it. I’m only human.”
“[Yes, but I try not to hold that against you.]” Chewie continued laughing at his captain’s expense.
Rolling his eyes at what was turning into yet another reluctant conversation about his relationship with Leia, Han got the distinct impression the Wookiee had picked a side. “Look, are you going to keep giving me a hard time about that?”
“[No, I don’t think so. I think you’ve managed well enough on your own.]”
Solo grunted in wordless acknowledgement; there was no need to gloat.
“[So you two are back on speaking terms?]”
“You could say that, I guess.”
“[Good. I like her.]”
“I know, Chewie. I do, too.”
“[She’s not like the other mates you’ve picked in the past.]”
Han threw his hands up in exasperation. “I’m so glad you approve, Dad.” Pointing back toward the main hold, he added, “Listen, do me a favor and pull the hyperdrive motivator before you come back, huh?”
Accepting the order with a nod, Chewie left the cockpit, although Han could still hear him hooting in amusement until the hatch slid closed.
Running a hand through his hair to give his scalp a tired scratch, he had to admit his first mate was right. Leia was unlike any woman he’d dealt with before. Maybe that was why he felt so over-his-head half the time; like this had the potential to swallow him up whole, change his life…change him.
Four weeks. The initial news had seemed intolerable, a prison sentence. But things could be worse—he could be trapped with far less pleasurable company. He and Chewie shared a familiar and comfortable partnership, working and playing together or staying out of each other’s hair (no easy task) with practiced ease. The princess, on the other hand, was a new and questionable element; they’d never been forced to spend such a long stretch of time together, particularly in such close quarters with few buffers.
Either we’re going to kill each other, or…
The prospect made Han smile.
Or we’re going to get to know each other a lot better.
Staring out the canopy, Han thought again about the journey just started. They were moving so slow relative to the expanse of space between their current location and their destination that the distant stars barely moved. Four weeks—it was a hell of a long time to be stuck in limbo, effectively blind and incommunicado. Even though they could technically fly on sub-light engines via autopilot and monitor the ship from the engineering station in the main hold or aft corridor, the fact that they were without functioning short- and long-range sensors still meant they were doomed to sitting shifts up front or risk hitting something. The dish on the upper hull had sustained damage, but without physically going outside to check, it was impossible to determine how bad or if it was reparable without an atmospheric docking bay. To do any of that, he would have to bring the Falcon to a complete stop for the duration, something that would just add more time to their trip, but spacewalks while at speed were far too dangerous; the combination of momentum and vacuum was easily lethal. Sure, he’d taken the risk once or twice in his desperate youth…
You aren’t desperate now?
Well, maybe he was a little bit, but there was more to lose now…
Chewbacca was back a short while later. “[Kaffe’s in the galley. Motivator’s on the table.]”
“Thanks, Buddy. She’s all yours.”
After a trip to his cabin for a long-overdue detour to the fresher and some promised relief, Han found himself walking a tour around the ship, feeling neither refreshed nor satisfied. Pausing in the engineering bay at the rear of the ship, he stared with mixed feelings at the exposed workings of the hyperdrive engine. He was filled with a restless frustration; he needed to get on with the business with Jabba, and had finally worked up the nerve to say goodbye, only to be stymied yet again. Now, with this new forced intimacy for the next several weeks, he faced the possibility becoming so involved with Leia that he lost any remaining willpower to leave, and while half of him was eager at any cost, the other half was all too aware how such a failure could doom them both.
Walking over to the open blast doors that led into the number-three hold, his eyes automatically went to the closed hatch of Leia’s makeshift cabin. Over the dull and steady rumble of the sub-light engines to his right, he strained to hear anything that might indicate she was still awake. He told himself that it was because he wanted to make sure she was getting some sleep, but that didn’t explain his disappointment when nothing stirred.
You’re turning into a stalker.
With a frown, he left in the direction of the main hold, stopped in the narrow galley to pour a fresh mug of kaffe, and then walked over to the lounge to stare down at the charred hyperdrive motivator on the tabletop. It didn’t look good; half the circuitry was blackened, and some of it was actually melted into slag. Standing there, he closed his eyes and listened to his running ship for a moment, as if she might be able to tell him how to fix things the same way the other female in his life had done hours ago.
Nothing. It figures she’d give me the cold shoulder now, too.
It was well over a day since they’d blasted out of Hoth’s atmosphere, and common sense dictated he should go back to his cabin to sleep before his next shift rolled around, but instead he set his mug on the checkered surface of the holotable and took a seat to contemplate the level of aggravation he felt while staring at the ruined motivator.
No doubt about it, the cursed thing was dead; shorted out; fried beyond repair. Why the hell hadn’t he stocked a spare one?The blow-out was always a risk since the unit wasn’t rated for the modified power source he’d installed to overclock the engines, all part of his efforts to squeeze that extra boost of speed out of them. It was a foolish mistake to not have a back-up, and he’d nearly gotten them all killed because of it.
You’re slipping, Solo. You’re letting too many distractions get to you.
There was a soft scuffing sound from the ring corridor, and Han looked up across the table to see one of those distractions appear in the circular passage. Despite his inspection tour earlier, he was surprised to see Leia appear halfway through what should have been her sleep cycle, her hair loose and flowing over the front of one shoulder. She froze upon seeing him, looking on the verge of turning back, and something in her bearing set off an alarm within Han. Arms wrapped tight across her chest, she was clearly spooked.
“Hey, you okay? Thought you turned in.”
Making a visible decision, Leia stepped down into the lounge and approached the table. Now that she was closer, he could see her red-rimmed eyes, although whether it was from exhaustion or crying he couldn’t tell—he just knew that neither possibility made him happy. Still quiet, she sank down onto the edge of the acceleration couch across the table from him, but didn’t relax and didn’t meet his gaze. Instead, she stared down at the floor, lost in her own thoughts.
With her long hair down and curtaining her features, she looked a great deal younger and more vulnerable than usual. The sight tugged at yet another part of his conscience. “Can’t sleep?”
Leia finally broke her silence, her voice so quiet it was hard to make it out over the background thrum of the engines. “I fell asleep okay, but…”
“Nightmares?” Sitting back, he chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment. With her internment on the Death Star, the destruction of Alderaan, too many close calls on past missions, and now Hoth and its aftermath, he figured she had enough source material to fuel nightmares for half the population on Coruscant. It was a demonstration of her strength that she could still function at all, let alone act like it didn’t get to her. Normally she hid the fallout with makeup and deflection—as if he wouldn’t notice her haunted eyes or the lingered pain in her aura—so it was a shock to see her this way, with the remnants of sleep and fear still fresh on her face. Guessing she didn’t want to dwell on it, he asked, “Want some kaffe?”
Shaking her head, she leaned a shoulder against the padded backrest of the bench, and although her body language still screamed tension, her glace up toward him was the opening he needed.
“Keep me company, then. I’m just staring at this thing, hoping sheer willpower will fix it.” With a gesture at the scrapheap between them, he added, “Guess the Force isn’t with me.”
A hint of a smile flickered across her pale features and she turned more toward him, seeming to unwind just a tad. “I don’t think the Force works on broken hyperdrives, anyway, but I could be wrong.”
That’s it, Solo. Give her a reason to forget.
Experience had taught him that a laugh could work miracles with this complex woman. “Damn, that was my last Sabacc card. Looks like we’re stuck on the scenic tour.” The princess didn’t respond, but he could see disappointment emerge on her face and wanted to kick himself for reminding her of their forced absence from the Alliance right when they needed her most. He tried again. “But hey, on the bright side, now I’ve got an extra hand to help clean this ship up. She’ll be spotless by the time we get there.”
“If that was your goal all the long, Captain, you could have just asked.” Her tone was dry, demonstrating just the sort of sass he’d liked from day one.
“Would you have said yes?”
One corner of her mouth crinkled up. “Probably not…”
He loved this part, the pleasurable duel of minds, finding her to be a superb sparring partner. “Exactly. That’s why I prefer elaborate schemes that mask my brilliance as a mastermind.”
That finally drew a little laugh from her, and she dropped her arms to rest at her sides. “You hide it well.”
The fact she didn’t follow up with another crack was evidence enough of her exhaustion, but then she let out a heavy breath and rubbed her eyes in an obvious struggle to stay engaged. Guessing she must have come out here to escape whatever had haunted her back in her cot, Han now saw his opportunity to stage another rescue. The timing wasn’t right to push for anything like another kiss, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t offer some simple comfort. Hell, it could even gain him a few points to cash in later. Dropping a hand to pat the curved seat between them and then draping the arm along the back of the banquette, he indicated there was plenty of room. “Come over here.”
Tired though she was, Leia hadn’t lost her ability to question his motives as she gave him a doubtful look.
“Hey, it’s me.”
That only earned him a raised eyebrow.
“Okay, I deserved that. But it’s okay, I won’t try anything, I promise…Not unless you try something first. Then all bets are off.” That last bit he added out of reflex, but diluted it with an easy smile.
Biting her lower lip in an obvious debate over whether the benefits outweighed the risks, she let the offer hang in the air for another beat before relenting by pulling herself along the rounded table edge, scooting along on the bench until she was within reach. There was just a moment of tension in her body as he wrapped his arm around her shoulders, but then she seemed to let go at last and relaxed against him.
“See? Not so bad.”
“Not so bad,” she echoed while shifting around to get more comfortable, bringing her bent legs up onto the seat to huddle under his arm.
With her so warm and soft, so solid and wonderful in his loose embrace—even for such an innocent reason—Han marveled at how right it felt as memories of a similar situation, their brief interlude on a hotel couch on Ord Mantell, flooded back. It was more of a struggle than he’d expected, restraining the urge to pick up where they’d left off that night.
Cool your retros, Solo. That’s not what she needs tonight.
“Is that part of the hyperdrive?” she asked, only seeming to notice for the first time what lay in front of them.
“I see…It doesn’t look good.”
“Is it replaceable?”
“Sure…after we reach Bespin. I don’t have a spare.” Cupping her elbow, he absently ran his fingers along the sharp angle. “Once we’re there, it won’t take long to swap out, and then she’ll be good as new again.”
The question lay unspoken between them, like a giant black hole. Staring forward at nothing, he drew Leia a little closer, unable at that moment to imagine letting her go.
How the hell am I going to manage that?
“Was this part of your elaborate scheme, too?”
He snapped back to the present. “What?”
“What we’re doing right now?”
“If I said yes, would you get up and leave?”
No doubt her idea of a joke, the pause was a bit longer than he found comfortable.
“Good.” Reaching out his other hand to pick up his mug, he sipped the cooling kaffe. “I love it when a plan falls together.”
With a wide yawn, she settled in a little more. “Tell me more of this elaborate plan.”
Amused, he snuck a peek down to find that her eyes were closed. “I’d love to, Sweetheart, but a mastermind never reveals his secret unless he wants it to fall apart. Let’s just say that my genius would surprise you.”
There was a soft sound that rose from the young woman tucked under his arm. “You’re always surprising me.” Her tone was tender enough that it was difficult to tell if she was still teasing or serious now.
“Good, I like surprising you,” he drawled, enjoying the gentleness of their play, an affectionate banter that he could imagine them engaging in at some more luxurious time and place; a tangle of sheets and bare limbs in a sunny room on a lazy afternoon spent lovemaking and…
Han shook his head as a stab of bittersweet reality interrupted his fantasy, replacing the warm buzz with an overwhelming pang of longing.
What’s the likelihood of that scenario ever happening?
The odds were poor that they would get out of this mess alive; that he would survive Jabba’s wrath to find her again; that the war would end before it consumed one or both of them; that she even wanted him in that way.
An awful lot of assumptions there, Solo.
As he peered down at Leia again, he liked to think he maybe had the answer to that last point. Despite the crazy ride of highs and lows over the years, it seemed he’d grown on her. Whether or not it was her intention, her meltdown in the cockpit earlier had forced them both to be honest about their feelings, and he was relieved by how fast the non-combative atmosphere they’d enjoyed on Ord Mantell had returned. It was a wonder he hadn’t lost her for good after the damage he’d done; it was a testament to her own feelings that she was accepting him back despite it all.
Take this any further and you’re only going to hurt her again. You know that.
The dark thought was unbidden but enough to make him question the wisdom of fanning the renewed flames between them. The opportunist in him, the part dedicated to baser instincts, shrugged off that sort of guilt like a dewback shook off water, but for once in his rather empty life there was more at stake. This was about more than just scoring a little tail before jetting off to points unknown. This was about integrity and respect and…
Another unintelligible sound broke his thoughts, and Han realized Leia was falling asleep. Bringing his hand up to touch her check in a gentle caress, he suggested: “Why don’t you stretch out right here? Go on, lie down.”
Already half asleep, she agreed with a murmur and shifted around on the bench without opening her eyes. Arms folding up in front of her, she slid down the curve of the banquette until her head came to rest on his thigh, her young face turned away in profile.
What caused Han to gasp had nothing to do with integrity or respect and everything to do with sudden arousal as his heart leapt into a gallop. Despite the release he’d found earlier—or maybe because of it—he slammed his eyes shut in an attempt to block the erotic images jumping to mind. When that wasn’t enough, he resorted to running a stream of hyperjump logarithms through his head.
Think about something else! Come on, you can be nice, too.
Just to be on the safe side, he tackled the past five-year stats of his favorite smashball team before risking another look down.
Leia was without question asleep now, her breathing slow and deep, her beautiful features smoothed out in complete relaxation. It was an unheard of treat to study her without embarrassment or the risk of a barbed taunt, and he took advantage of it. One slim wrist rested back against his thigh, the graceful hand curled palm-up in front of her nose. His eyes roamed over the smooth contours of her face, memorizing each attractive feature, locking it away in his mind for what would probably be less-happy days.
It was an unchecked thought with such clarity that it should have bothered him, and yet he smiled. Why else would he find such simple pleasure in studying the shape of her exposed earlobe? He wondered how it would taste and how she would react. He wanted to give her the pleasure she deserved, and drive away all those worries and fears. He wanted to show her how it felt to be loved, both for who she was as a woman and what she meant to him. He wanted to shield her from those people who sought to use or hurt her. But above all, he wanted to have a future, with her.
You love her.
Time seemed to stretch out before him as his mind wandered once more. The ship was quiet around them, his sanctuary. Unable to recall the last time he’d felt so at peace, despite the insanity of the day’s events, there was no point in thinking too far ahead about what might happen once they reached Bespin and afterward. Better now to just live in the present and be grateful for what had fallen into his lap quite literally.
At some point he dozed off, but something snapped him back awake with a start. Scrubbing his eyes, he glanced over at the large chrono at the engineering station and was surprised to find more than a couple of hours had passed, leaving only one more before Leia’s shift would come up again.
As if in objection, a soft sound, a gentle shift in her position, drew his attention back down. Forehead creased in a frown, her eyelids were clamped closed as she let out a sound of protest, her breathing changing to a faster pace. As her head rocked with a jerk on his lap, his careful optimism that she might sleep nightmare-free faded.
Hating to wake her when she so clearly needed a solid night of sleep, but fearing that whatever tormented her would do the job in any case, he debated only a moment before doing what he did best; he acted on instinct. Dropping a hand to touch her face, he grazed the backs of his fingers over her exposed cheek, then slipped his other hand under her head in hopes the comfort might somehow seep into her dreams. “Shhhhhh. I’m right here, Leia. Everything’s okay. You’re safe.” His voice was quiet, a deep whisper.
There was a subtle change in her unconscious expression as Leia’s breathing seemed to alter once more. He could see some of the worry-lines change as her dark eyebrows drew together, and for a second he imagined she’d said something as she shifted around, cheek pivoting in his hand.
Encouraged by his success so far, he repeated, “I’m right here. You’re safe.”
“Han…?” There was a child-like tone of surprise in her soft voice.
That was not his imagination and he froze, wondering if she’d awakened after all, but it only took a few more seconds to realize that wasn’t the case. Astounded, he straightened up.
His only concern had been to stop the nightmare, which he seemed to have accomplished. Never had he imagined being able to tap into her dreams. For an instant a couple of less-than-noble ideas came to mind, but he rejected them without a second thought; the last thing he wanted to do was damage her trust any further than he had already.
“No,” Leia muttered, “it’s not like that... No.”
Fascinated, he listened as she seemed to struggle with some internal conversation.
“Don’t go. Please don’t…I can’t…”
Unanticipated, her words cut through him. Was that what she’d been dreaming about? His leaving to face Jabba? His leaving her?
You’re reading way too much into the nonsense of a dream that isn’t even yours. It could be about anything, anybody.
Nevertheless, the nakedness of her plea, free of her usual conscious filters, tore at his heart. “I’m right here, Leia.” He fumbled for more words, wondering what he could say to reassure her, before the obvious struck him.
“Love you,” he said. The words tumbled out, as if they’d been leaning against a locked door for too long.
It’s okay now. She won’t know. She probably won’t even remember any of this.
But he’d said the words and meant them, and maybe somehow, deep down, it might give her some comfort. “I love you, Leia.”
She moved again, rolling to burrow her face into his hand. “‘s okay, I’m not hungry.” Her voice was a dreamy whisper as it trailed off, her features smoothing over once more.
Grinning at the sleepy non sequitur, he watched as she seemed to fall back into a deeper sleep.
That wasn’t exactly the enthusiastic response you expected, was it?
Leia stirred again, shifting around on the bench to roll over onto her back, one knee drawing up against the side of the acceleration couch. An arm rested across her middle where it gently rose and fell, while the other threatened to dangle off the edge of the bench, and her face was now half obscured by the curtain of long chestnut hair, full lips parted just enough to reveal a glimpse of white teeth. That mouth drew his eyes like a magnet, and now that he’d been there, tasted and explored its sweet depths, it was all he could do to keep from waking her up with another kiss.
Gratified that maybe his actions had made a difference, he waited to see if the nightmare returned, but her expression remained peaceful and he started dozing off again as a long quiet settled over them like a comfortable blanket.
The soft pinging from the engineering station across the lounge brought Han back to wakefulness with a start. When Leia didn’t stir, he made a decision to leave her sleeping, but that still meant he had to get up and relieve Chewie. The alarm continued as he lifted her head just enough so he could slide out of the seat. Her head rolled to one side and she sighed but didn’t awaken. Taking off his dark blue flight jacket, he folded it up and then lifted her head once more to wedge the makeshift pillow beneath. A bit surprised that she continued to sleep through all that, Han straightened up and groaned as his entire body protested. No doubt he’d regret falling asleep in that position, but as he walked over to the engineering station to switch off the remote alarm, he figured maybe it was worth it. Turning to head toward the cockpit, he met Chewbacca in the corridor.
“[I was coming to see if the princess knew her shift was up next. Why are you still awake?]”
“Long story, Buddy.” He gestured back toward the petite figure sprawled out on the banquette, dressed in black fatigue pants, one of his white dress shirts, and those half-undone and rolled down blue snow boots.
Chewbacca tip-toed closer to see around the table, then nodded in understanding as he returned. “[That is the sappiest grin I have ever seen, and for you that’s saying a lot.]”
In too good of a mood to let his partner’s taunt bother him, Han shrugged. “Can’t help it.”
Looking back to their passenger, Chewie cocked his head to the side. “[Has she been asleep long?]”
“Only a few hours. Not nearly enough.”
“[That’s okay,]” the Wookiee volunteered, guessing where Han’s thoughts were headed. “[I can do another shift this time.]”
“Thanks, Chewie. I owe ya.”
“[And you’d better get some sleep, too. I’m not covering for both of you.]”