Red Sky at Morning

By Susan Zahn
useakiss@gmail.com

Art by Wanda Lybarger
ladymousew@bellsouth.net

 

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(STAR aWARdS Best Short Story, 1992)


Fate works most for woe
With Folly’s fairest show
Man’s little pleasure
Is the spring of sorrow.

--Sophocles, Antigone

“I hope you’ll find these meager accommodations to your liking.” Lando Calrissian waved an arm toward the open door that led to a dazzlingly white circular lounge. “It’s the best I could arrange on such short notice.”

“Meager,” Han Solo echoed dryly, allowing himself to be ushered in. “You always did understate.”

“It keeps the other guy off balance. You taught me that, you old card shark.” The dark man’s smile widened when Leia Organa briefly made eye contact as she passed, following the Corellian smuggler. “Unfortunately I had to lose the Falcon to learn it.”

Trying to ignore the unsettling smile she was drawing from the Baron, Leia stepped toward the middle of the suite. “You needn’t have gone to so much trouble. I’m afraid we won’t be staying that long.”

She slowly pivoted to take in the rest of the spacious room. It was decorated in the center by a delicate crystalline sculpture that was circled by a sparse arrangement of couches and low tables, and lit from above by a clear skylight in the ceiling. Directly across from the entrance stood a wide transparent wall that offered a commanding view of the busy city below. Two other doors, located on opposite sides of the room, led to separate sleeping chambers. Only two? Her gaze went to Solo who gave her an odd look. She quickly glanced away.

Calrissian frowned slightly. “I’m sorry to hear that you can’t stay.”

Han had continued to stare at the princess, lost in his own thoughts; he wondered which troubled her more, an Imperial ambush or sharing a room with him. Lando’s words snapped his concentration and he cleared his throat, suddenly uncomfortable himself. “Nah, she’s right, pal. We’re on a limited schedule, you know?”

Lando seemed to miss the little interplay between his two guests. That or he chose to ignore it. He gave his old friend a conspiratorial wink. “In trouble again, huh?”

Leia literally snapped to attention. Han answered smoothly, covering her startled reaction. “No more than usual. Just a little unfinished business.”

Cloud City’s administrator nodded his head in gracious understanding. “I know what you mean, buddy. I’ve got more than my own share of that. Remember what we always said about responsibilities?”

Han laughed and nodded his head. “Yeah, and now look at you.”

Before Leia could inquire as to this old joke the two men obviously shared, a soft electronic beeping interrupted. Lando grimaced and touched the chrono-comm around his left wrist in response, then smiled apologetically at the trio. “I’m afraid I’ll have to excuse myself. You’re welcome to make yourselves comfortable; my city and services are at your disposal.”

“Thanks, pal.” Han smiled genuinely, then added, “It’s good to see you again.”

“Yes.” An undiscernibly expression flashed across Calrissian’s face before his customary smile returned. He stepped forward to once again take the princess’s hand and raise it to his lips. “It’s been a pleasure, Your Highness. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” With a swirl of blue and black cape, he disappeared out the door.

There was a long moment of silence after the Baron’s departure as smuggler, princess and Wookiee stared at one another. Leia finally shattered the palpable tension, a cold edge to her voice. “He knows who I am.”

“So?” Han wasn’t about to admit the unexpected wave of uneasiness he had experienced himself. He attempted to ignore the concerned look Chewbacca was directing at him by busying himself with a detailed exploration of the suite.

Dumbfounded at the thought that this man, of all people, didn’t realize the dangers her recognition could pose, she gave him an incredulous stare. “He knows who I am. How? He knew my title.”

“Big deal,” Han called out, having disappeared into one of the bedrooms. “He probably saw your face in a newsreel or something.” He paused in his investigation to poke his head out around the doorjamb and flash an inviting smile. “It is an easy face to remember,” he added hopefully. The effort was wasted.

“‘Or something’ is my guess,” she said with an ominous nod of her head.

Han’s smile quickly vanished to be replaced by a frown and he stepped back into the main room. “Ah, cut it out, Leia. It’s a wonder more people don’t recognize you. You’re at the top of the Empire’s Wanted List.” Han instantly regretted that slip; the last thing she needed was more fuel for her paranoid suspicions. “Anyway, you act like a princess. It was probably a natural reaction.”

Indignant, her hands went to her hips. “I hate to disillusion you, Captain, but I am a princess. It’s expected of me to--to act like one.”

“I don’t expect it, if that counts for anything,” Solo muttered under his breath and suddenly there was a new thread of tension in the air; stronger, more intimate.

Leia felt her anger fade as quickly as it had erupted and dropped her gaze to study the tips of her white boots. What do you expect, Captain? she desperately wanted to ask at that moment.

Chewbacca growled something, ending the silence.

“I know, Chewie, but hell, people change. Even Lando.”

Leia looked up, her frown deepening. There was far too much history involved here that she wasn’t privy to and she felt exposed. “I still don’t like this,” she muttered.

Han threw his arms up in disgust. “Anyone ever tell you you’re hard to please?”

“Other than you?” she retorted.

Chewbacca rumbled, shaking his head, and headed for the exit, obviously not interested in hearing any more. During the nine-day trip to Bespin, there had been relatively few arguments between the Corellian and Alderaani; he wasn’t about to get caught up in one now. He was out the door before Leia could utter another word.

She turned back to Solo, concern having once more replaced anger in her expression. “Where is he going? We should be sticking together. It’s bad enough Threepio had to wander off and--”

Han sighed in exasperation. “Will you quit being so suspicious. Stars, woman, you’ve been fighting that war of yours too long.” He gave up the timeworn lecture, made a curt gesture of dismissal with one hand, then stepped back into the sleeping chamber.

Leia found herself alone. After a long moment, she slowly sank down into one of the thickly cushioned chairs and rested her elbows on her knees, then rubbed her temples. Great job, Organa. You have succeeded in scaring everyone off. She hadn’t meant to argue with Han; it was a habit she was honestly trying to shake. At one time it might have been a personal challenge and even enjoyable, but recently she had discovered far more pleasure in a soft word or gentle touch…

If only that uneasy feeling would leave her. It was setting her on edge, and she felt doubly frustrated that Solo would not acknowledge what she knew damned well he was aware of. After all, both their lives had been spared in the past by less sure premonitions.

“Sorry I snapped at you.”

The quiet words drifted over from the separate room. Leia raised her head to see the Corellian standing in the doorway, thumbs hooked on his holster belt in a casual manner that spoke volumes: ‘You’re right but I still won’t admit it.’ He was trying his little inviting smile once more and she couldn’t help but smile back. What’s happening to us? she wondered vaguely. Han Solo offering an apology? Leia Organa accepting it with a smile? She had to admit it was difficult to stay perturbed with the smuggler when he looked like that—no mystery there. But it was still something worth considering. In the meantime, she shrugged in agreement with his truce.

Satisfied, Han’s grin grew and he motioned for her to follow. “Come here, sweetheart. I wanna show you something.”

Leia hesitated, her gaze moving past him to the room beyond and the attention-demanding bed in particular. Han took only a second to realize she had misinterpreted his intentions. He smirked. “No, you’ve got to see the view from this balcony.”

Telling herself that her fears, if that’s what they were, were unfounded, Leia stood and walked over as Han turned and led her across the room. He slid the tall transparent door aside and followed the princess out onto the balcony.

A stiff breeze swept past them; it was comfortable yet cool enough to flush Leia’s cheeks slightly. She drew a deep breath, stepping up to the waist-high wall that bordered the portico, then rested her hands on the edge and gazed out upon the exquisite beauty of Cloud City at sunset. Their apartment suite was evidently located along the edge of the city for they had an unhindered view of the wisps of white and shades of reds, yellows and oranges that slowly swirled in the not too far distance.

“It’s beautiful,” she finally said.

“So are you.” It took a moment for Leia to decide whether she’d actually heard those words or if it had simply been the wind playing tricks. She glanced up to find Solo standing motionless a few steps away, watching her intently. Or was he the one playing tricks? The wind ruffled his thick hair and she felt the strongest impulse to run her fingers through it, but pulled her gaze away, directing it back out to the colorful mixture of clouds, struggling with her thoughts. She should be thinking of ways to get back to the Alliance rendezvous as quickly as possible; researching new locations for a secret base; worrying about Luke…Not wondering if Han Solo would kiss her again.

“I meant this,” and she gestured to indicate their surroundings, attempting to change the subject. “You’ve been here before, haven’t you?”

Han sighed. Out of the corner of her eye Leia could see the smuggler turn to lean back against the railing, elbows propped on top. His gaze never left her. She could feel that. “A while ago. Back when Lando won it in a high stakes Sabbacc game.” He laughed softly, evidently amused by his memories. “Actually, I almost won the place myself Try and imagine that, huh?”

Leia smiled and glanced up, but said nothing. It wasn’t that difficult to imagine the Corellian in a position of administration. Not really.

“Yeah. I found myself with an unbeatable hand that promised not to shift, so I raised the stakes. Lando figured I was bluffing and threw in some old freighter he’d picked up along the way to stay in the game. The others called my bet and I found myself the new owner of the Millennium Falcon. I cut out after that, and Lando never did forgive me for not giving him the chance to win her back. He stayed in, though, and won this place in the next hand. Talk about luck.”

“Whose luck?” Leia asked hesitantly. “Yours or his?”

Han paused, returning her gaze, gauging her interest. “I guess that depends on who you ask. Me? When she’s in the mood, I have the fastest ship in the galaxy. Lando got snared with this place and all its responsibilities attached.”

“‘Snared.’ You make it sound so horrible.”

Han fingered the bottom seam of his dark blue jacket in silence for a long moment, his thoughts going even further back, to the last time he d seen his family. “It can force a person to do something he’d rather not.”

His words struck a chord deep within Leia; undoubtedly much deeper than he had intended, but then he wasn’t aware of the full story behind the death of her home world, and the guilt she still suffered for her unintentional influence in the Empire’s decision to test the Death Star on Alderaan. Only the princess and Darth Vader himself knew the entire truth of what had occurred in those fateful moments; no one else had survived. Leia, for her part, had decided long ago to keep it that way, at least until she felt ready to talk about it.

She obviously was not ready yet, for at hearing Han’s words she felt her chest constrict painfully as vivid memories of her lost home and family suddenly clamored for attention. She ruthlessly pushed them back, leaving Solo’s comment itself, and its simple yet profound truth. It wasn’t the first time she’d been confronted with the possibility that this man of enigmatic and often contradicting beliefs possessed a depth far greater than even she had imagined—and she had been imagining quite a bit lately. It wasn’t even the first time he had hinted at his past. What took Leia off guard were his sheer candor and the degree of emotion he was exposing. Granted, it was yet another vague reference to a jealously guarded past that made her want to grab his shoulders and shake out the rest, but it was something. Someday he’ll talk, she promised herself. Maybe someday we’ll both talk…if he stays.

“So who’s luckier?” Han finished rhetorically. He had been watching the slow, easily traceable shifts of emotion on the princess’ face, wondering what it was that kept her so quiet. After a while she glanced away, back out at the expanse of gradually darkening clouds, then closed her eyes and drew a deep, replenishing breath.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Han went on softly, not sure where the conversation was heading but willing to explore. “I’m sure this place has a lot of pluses. Lando always was looking for a lucrative outfit to set himself up for life.” He shrugged. “He’s welcome to it. I’d need a little more freedom than that.”

Leia turned to face the pilot, her expression now indecipherable, but Han hardly needed a translator. He knew her thoughts had led to the same question that had haunted her eyes since their close call with the bounty hunter on Ord Mantell—hell, since the Battle of Yavin: Would he stay?

“After you’ve cleared up matters with Jabba, will you come back?”

A part of Han thrilled at her unmistakable solicitation, but the more rational part ached, knowing better. “I’m afraid that settling my debt won’t be that easy.”

“What?” That wasn’t the type of answer she had been preparing herself for. Leia blinked up at the smuggler, suddenly feeling a surge of hope; at least he hadn’t said no. “You’ll be paying it all back, with interest. I m sure he’d be reasonable enough to see—”

Han let out a little chuckle that seemed to lack any of the real humor the princess had always taken for granted. “Jabba? Reasonable? That’s a contradiction in terms, sweetheart. He wants more than the money; he wants to make an example of me to warn anybody else stupid enough to cross him. Why do you think I’ve been putting it off for so long?”

“Well, I thought maybe…” Leia caught herself. She felt her cheeks grow warm, despite the chill that was developing in the air.

“‘Maybe’ what?”

She forced herself to maintain eye contact as she damned her better judgment and continued softly, “That you had other, more personal reasons for staying.”

There was no need to elaborate on her meaning. Han attempted to return her gaze in all seriousness. “More personal than keeping my own hide intact?”

Leia hesitated, then belatedly realized he was toying with her. Now annoyed as well as embarrassed, she cocked her head and glared at the smuggler. “You know what I mean.”

Han grinned in triumph. “Yeah, I know.” Forever the opportunist, he saw an opening and pushed away from the railing to move closer to the princess. “Who said I didn’t have more than one reason?”

Suddenly unsure of what was happening as she watched Solo close the distance between them, she felt her heartbeat flutter. “No one,” she responded, her voice much softer than she had intended. She delicately cleared her throat and straightened slightly in an effort to defend herself. “If you hadn’t been so obstinate in admitting that…”

“Me? Obstinate?” Dark eyebrows raised in mock-indignation and astonishment, Han’s smile grew again as his hands gained a purchase on her slim hips. Either she didn’t notice the touch or she didn’t mind; instead Leia laughed at his expression. It was a sound that made Han pause in appreciation. He was mildly surprised to feel her small hands settle at his own waist as she returned his loose embrace. No doubt about it, she’s got to laugh more often. He raised a hand to gently touch her cheek, brushing away the stray lock of dark hair that the wind had swept up. “Sweetheart, you never asked.”

“I did so.” She argued with little conviction. As he gazed down at her, she swore the color of his eyes had gradually changed from the usual dark hazel to a molten gold. She felt weak.

“Really? Sorry, but ‘we need you’ and ‘you mean so much to us’ just doesn’t cut it.” He shook his head, shaking her a little in the process. “I’m tired of being needed by a committee, Leia. It’s you I’m concerned about.”

Leia stared at him, eyes opening wider. He really couldn’t blame her. Granted, he had admitted the truth to himself some time ago, and had even talked it out once or twice with Chewie, but to say it right to her face, the one person that could actually say ‘Are you crazy?’ and mean it. Hell. He was a little speechless himself.

“Oh.” It wasn’t exactly the most eloquent response the princess had ever made, but it was a step in the right direction. She let her racing mind process his revelation a little more before trying again. “Han, all this time I…I thought you were teasing. If I’d said anything, you would have laughed in my face…And then you kept talking of leaving.” She paused, her expression suddenly pained as she realized where this was all leading to once again. “You still do,” she finished softly.

“What do you want to hear, Leia?” Han said with a sigh, his expression hardening slightly. “That I’ll come back and stay for good? Well, I won’t lie to you. I can’t even guarantee that I’ll come away from this mess alive. I don t know what’s going to happen when I face Jabba. But it’s something I can’t run from anymore. You came too close to becoming part of this price on my head and I won’t let that happen again.”

He paused and his eyes lightened, though his expression remained hard. During the long sub-light trip to Bespin he had gotten a tantalizing glimpse of a long suspected but seldom seen facet of Leia Organa. Not the senator or the Rebel or even the princess, but just Leia. There was no longer any doubt in his own mind what he wanted, but he wouldn’t leave her hanging on a promise he feared he could not keep. It wouldn’t be fair to either of them. He tightened his grip on her waist. “Sweetheart, I wish it could be different. Believe that.”

Leia remained quiet, reading the truth in his color-shifting eyes. Eyes she might not see again for a long time, if ever. She couldn’t imagine not seeing his swaggering form lingering around the base. Not enduring his baiting and jibes. Not feeling the rumble of his voice whenever he said her name. It wasn’t until that long, lonely night on Hoth, while Han and Luke were somewhere out on the frigid icefields and presumed lost, that it dawned on her how much this man had become a part of her life, and how truly empty it would be with him gone.

Words haunted her; something he’d said, out of frustration, earlier on Hoth during one of their traditional insult flinging matches: ‘What about you need?’ His words still echoed because she knew he had been right. Even then he’d known her too well; known what was driving her, compelling her, more than she knew herself. She wasn’t fooling anyone anymore.

“I’ll miss you,” Leia practically blurted out. She mustered a brave smile and repeated in a softer voice, “I will miss you, Han. A lot.”

Solo met her eyes and let the silence grow, enjoying the tenderness, sincerity and conscious vulnerability of the moment, then answered, “I know.”

There was a pause of stunned silence before Leia let out an indignant little squeak, hauled back her arm and drove her fist into his upper arm, hard—hardly a respectable exhibition for a princess, but highly rewarding.

Han’s chuckle was cut short by a surprised “Oww-hey!” He quickly caught her still-threatening arm by the wrist and took advantage of her temporary immobility to try and placate her with a look of hurt innocence; it was about as effective as it was believable.

She made a half-hearted attempt to break free from his grip, then glanced up to meet his eyes again. Unable to keep a straight face, her anger already dissipating, she shook her head. “Scoundrel.”

Han simply smirked. “Now what kind of incentive to come back is that?”

Leia froze. A too long ignored part of her brain suddenly snapped at her like a flag caught in the growing wind around them. He needs ‘incentive’? Only one prospect came to mind and Leia found herself torn between what years of royal upbringing had dictated improper and her heart and body screamed she deserved.

She remained snared in her own little snafu, unable to do little more than watch as the Corellian finally ended the dangling conversation by ducking his head to kiss her on the mouth. The feeling of his lips on hers proved the tiebreaker and she closed her eyes, giving in, accepting his warmth and desire. This was right.

What little she knew of such matters only reassured her: Recalled bits of information gained from eavesdropping that she’d stashed away for whenever; snatches of sensual laughter from inside jokes, with punch lines she had missed out on because her work had come first. ‘Literally,’ that part of her mind chimed, exhilarated by the off-color pun, a true ground breaker.

Her thoughts flew back to the present as Han’s large hands slid down her back, and lower, clenching in a way that made her gasp, temporarily breaking off the kiss. He allowed her the moment to catch her breath while he bent a little lower to blaze a trail of soft kisses along her graceful jaw line, then returned to her lips with a sudden yet restrained hunger, tongue gently forcing her mouth open. His body pressed closer, firmly, wonderfully.

She wavered, then boldly slipped both hands up his back, beneath the rough material of his dark jacket, feeling the smooth expanse of muscles that shifted and flexed each time the man moved. She felt the strong fingers of one hand dig gently into her shoulder, holding her securely in place as his other stroked her back with an insistent motion. Confident in his skill, Han encouraged her to deepen the embrace by periodically lessening the intensity, waiting for her to pick up the slack, daring her, testing her. And she did respond, swept along, eager now. This was definitely right; it felt like forever.

Lack of oxygen eventually forced them apart. She did feel a bit dizzy but rallied enough stamina to open her eyes. She found the smuggler grinning down at her with a look of pleasant surprise.

“Now that’s what I call incentive.” Before Leia regained her bearings enough to inflict any more damage to his arm, Han’s face sobered. “I’ll miss you, too.” He made sure she saw his seriousness and understood it, then grinned again. “Chewie’s okay to argue with, but his kissing definitely needs work.”

Leia’s eyes widened slightly, then she burst out laughing and collapsed back into the pilot’s arms, any lingering awkwardness from the unexpected intensity of their kiss instantly wiped away by his quip. “Someday, Solo…”

“Yeah, someday.” Han welcomed her new embrace, hugging her close and resting his chin on the top of her crown of dark braids. Funny how they fit so well together. He sighed at the peacefulness of the moment, rubbed her back affectionately, and then mumbled, “I don’t know about you, but I’m starved How about some food?”

Leia drew back, her incredulous glare not diluted in the least by the fact that she couldn’t remember when she’d eaten last. If she didn’t get whiplash someday from the way Han Solo switched topics. Not willing to follow any line of thought that involved their future, she grasped the moment and smirked. “Real food? Your treat?”

Han snorted. “My treat like hell. It’s going on Lando’s tab.”

“Well, in that case…”

Han laughed and stepped back in order to offer an arm. “It’s a date, then?”

“Of course. How could I resist?” The princess accepted his arm with a courtly nod, then the couple headed inside and through the suite towards the exit.

“I’ve got the perfect place in mind,” Han continued in a perfectly casual tone as they reached the door “if it’s still there. You’ll love it.” He glanced down at the young woman at his side, and her confining white jumpsuit in particular. “Of course, we might have to find something a little more appropriate for you to wear…”

“What? Me?! You should talk, you—”

Any further words were lost as they stepped through the threshold and blended into the busy stream of pedestrians beyond.

The End

 

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