Into the Fire

By Susan Zahn


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Chapter 9

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This story is rated NC-17. Please stop now if you're under 17 or sensitive to adult-themed material.


Chapter 9 — The awakening  

Leia wasn’t sure which came into her awareness first, the bright over-head light or the lingering odor of stale kaffe. The fact that it wasn’t an alarm or a nightmare was a pleasant change of affairs that allowed her the enjoyment of a sleepy limbo, including a full-body stretch—a long, slow, wonderful process as each limb and muscle awakened at its own pace. However, the idle was broken when her hand whacked against something hard and unyielding overhead. Eyes snapping open, she found herself staring up in confusion at the underside of a holochess table.

Oh Goddess, did I really drink that much again?

The panicked thought dissipated as various facts trickled in: she wasn’t hung over; she wasn’t back at the university, and it wasn’t the day after her Majority party; and those were the distinct sounds of the Millennium Falcon’s sub-light engines as she trundling her way toward a distant oasis in the desert of open space. At first all Leia could recall was collapsing onto her cot in the number three hold, and it took a few moments more before the rest finished snapping into place: wandering the corridor, haunted by nightmares, and finding Han here at the table lost in his own thoughts. She’d been so tired, so physically and emotionally drained from the long day, that she must have fallen asleep at his side.

That thought generated a mixture of embarrassment and guilty pleasure.

You’ve always wondered what it would be like to fall asleep in his arms—not quite this way, but still

Twisting around on the bench to sit up, she wondered if she should feel a bit scandalized by that image, but then gave up on it; as far as she could tell, he’d been a complete gentleman. With a long yawn, she scratched her head, then slumped back against the acceleration couch before noticing the folded blue flight jacket she’d been using as a pillow. That had been considerate of him; her neck would be even stiffer than it felt now. She craned her head around until there was a rewarding pop. The dregs of kaffe in the abandoned mug on the table made her look over with longing toward the tiny galley. Without natural sunlight, she had no clue what time it was, but a glance over to the engineering station answered that. It took another long moment to process the chrono display.

“Oh, kreth!”

The Corellian curse, surely picked up from associating with the criminal element, was out of her mouth in a harsh exhalation as, suddenly wide awake, she shot out of the bench, up the step and then down the stretch of corridor to the cockpit.

Apologies began tumbling before she’d cleared the open hatch. “Chewie, I’m so sorry! I can’t believe I just slept through my shift. Somebody should have woken me up! I promise I’ll make it up somehow.”

Chewbacca swiveled his chair around to look at her as if she were a madwoman. Then he gave a big shrug. “[No worries, Princess. We did not want to disturb you.]”

“What? No, no, that won’t do. I’m part of the crew. I messed up and I’m sorry. I can take over right now and—”

“[There is no need. I am fine, and there is still time remaining before the next change. You will take the next shift.]”

Mortified that she’d already committed a major breach of shipboard etiquette little more than one day into their journey, Leia had trouble believing he was this cavalier about it.

“[This is not a military ship,]” Chewie added, in a clear attempt to relieve her worries. “[We are flexible. We often cover for each other when necessary, and that is what I did.]”

Despite his statement, Leia couldn’t help feeling derelict in her duties.

This is not a good start, Leia.

A glance over at the alarm on the communication’s display confirmed she still had about twenty minutes before it went off again.

“[Did you sleep better?]”

Looking back, Leia felt embarrassed to learn he knew of her troubles. “Yes, thank you. I’m sorry, Chewie. I’m not sure how to make this up to you…”

“[There is no need. I am happy to have your help and your company.]”

Mollified somewhat, she ducked her head. “Thanks. I promise it won’t happen again.” Debating what to do next, she realized there was one pressing matter that demanded her attention. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, okay?”

Exiting the cockpit and heading for the galley, she berated herself.

This is what happens when you allow distractions and exhaustion to mix. You’re not on a pleasure cruise and this is not a vacation.

After pausing to start up a new pot of kaffe, she headed for the crews’ quarters to use the fresher. Just as she was about to palm open the door, she froze in place, realizing that Han was probably still asleep in that hedonistic bunk in Goddess only knew what stage of undress. Hand dropping, she stared at the door.

What if he wakes up? Do I want him to wake up?

Leia shook her head. No, he needed his sleep more than any of them. But she needed the fresher—that was no longer an issue up for debate.

You can stand here in the hallway arguing with yourself, or you can just go in.

Now embarrassed by her own indecision, Leia gently touched the hatch plate, as if that might somehow make it open with a quieter hiss. The door whisked aside and she stood still in the hatchway as her eyes went straight to the occupied bunk at the opposite end. His large form was hidden in the shadows of the sleep shelf, not stirring, and it occurred to her that he was likely used to the door opening for the same reason she was there now. The room was lit only by a sliver of dim red light coming from the open fresher door to her right, plus the bright swath of white light spilling in from behind her. Realizing it wasn’t the most polite thing to do, dithering in the doorway, she stepped inside to let the hatch close and walked into the fresher. Closing the door, she switched the overhead light to normal and then paused in front of the small mirror mounted above the sink.

Hair down and a bit wild from sleep, any traces of makeup long gone, she looked quite different from the way she preferred to present herself. In attempting to look older for credibility’s sake, it was easy to forget her real age, little more than a year beyond Majority. Plus, sometimes she just felt old with all the responsibility and guilt she shouldered weighing down on her soul. Only one person seemed capable of lifting that burden on a consistent basis, calling back the real Leia, and that man was sound asleep in the bunk just outside the door. Han not only reminded her of better times and happier emotions (even though most of those memories were from before she knew him), but he emphasized the fact she was a woman in ways no one else could or dared. At some point in her life she’d skipped right over romance and relationships in her quest to serve a greater cause, but Han threatened to reintroduce all those things, ignoring her protests while drawing her back—to her humanity, her individuality, and her feelings. For a long time she’d resented him for this, for making her feel again…but lately she’d come to see that he was one of the few people who even cared if she were whole again, and that eased her apprehension. Rieekan, Luke, Chewbacca, Kristin…and Han. For someone taking on the evils of a mighty Empire, that was an awfully small circle of friends, and growing smaller…

Recognizing that she was taking too long, Leia hurried through her ablutions. For a fleeting moment she considered another hot shower—she didn’t think she could ever have too many, especially after Hoth—but there was no time. Instead, she grabbed the brush and pins from the storage cabinet behind the mirror, where she’d permanently transferred them after accepting the reality of their predicament. She would braid it later while on watch.

More mindful of the light this time, Leia switched it back to the night-vision-friendly red and waited for her eyes to adjust before cracking open the door and stepping out. Her eyes better accustomed to the dark cabin this time, she could make out more details as her gaze once again settled on the occupied bunk.

Han lay on his side, his back to her, the sheet and blanket offering just a glimpse of bare shoulders. There had been numerous times when she’d seen him without his shirt—while working in the stifling heat and humidity of the Rebel bases on Yavin IV and Serricci, or to dress a wound, or sometimes just because he had a tendency to strip it off in front of her to provoke a reaction (although almost never the one he hoped). Seeing him this way, though, gave her the strongest urge to run her hand along the smooth plane of his back, to feel the skin and muscle there. Her next natural thought was to wonder what he wore beneath the covers, if anything, and that gave her a nervous thrill.

Blinking back to reality, she shook off the desire to step closer, and instead spun with determination toward the door. Chewie would not let her get off so easily if she was late again. Once out in the corridor, she hurried back to the galley to pour a mug of kaffe and grab a plate of some cheese and fruit to take with her.

Entering the cockpit once more, she announced, “Okay, I’m ready. Anything I should know?”

“[All clear, Princess. She is all yours.]” Standing, Chewbacca stretched as best he could beneath the low clearance of the cockpit ceiling. “[I will be back in the engineering bay if you need anything.]” With that, he reached over to reset the alarm and then exited.

Setting the plate and mug on the seat he’d just vacated, she glanced around the cabin. Still amazed Solo trusted her enough to hand the Falcon over like this, Leia never would have imagined being at the helm at all, let alone for hours on end. The ship might once have been just another obsolete and nondescript Corellian YT-class freighter that had seen better days, but there was a lot more beneath the scored and pitted surface; she was Han’s ship, and his spirit seemed to inhabit the fast spacecraft, quirky personality and all.

Chewbacca’s statement from the day before, about the faith Han had in her, returned to mind and she mulled over it. She’d always qualified her confidence in him—not in his abilities, but in his motives, and considering how secretive and contrary he was on top of his refusal to formally join the Rebellion, she felt every right to have reservations. Maybe it was time to show a little faith once more.

With a wry grin, Leia shook her head and reached over to retrieve her drink, and then settled into the seat. It was amazing what a good night’s sleep could do for one’s perspective. Relaxing, she sipped her kaffe and watched the stars.



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