Storm Front

By Susan Zahn

useakiss@gmail.com

 

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“How strange, that so often, it all seems worth it”
—Sheldon Kopp, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him

The Millennium Falcon was running well, all things considered. For the first time in a long time, Han Solo felt content enough to let his guard down, take a deep breath, and gaze out at the swirl of star trails outside the cockpit. He’d swiveled the captain’s chair to the side and propped his booted feet on Chewbacca’s oversized seat, then sunk into a more comfortable position in order to enjoy the unusual quiet. He knew better than to expect that it would last for long.

His freighter had taken some serious hits during their run-in with the handful of sentry TIE fighters; the shields were still holding, barely, and whatever damage incurred would have to wait until he could dock and make repairs, and damned if he was going to pay for it himself! He glanced at the chrono on the control dash to his left. It would be quite a while yet before the nav-computer would signal their approach on Yavin and what the princess had revealed as the “secret Rebel Base.”

Solo’s star-tanned face suddenly creased, as a realistic thought flitted through his mind. The Empire, not to mention Jabba the Hutt, already wanted his ass. Continuing to conspire with the Rebels could only make matters worse. On the other hand, the odds were intriguing. Besides, and this thought was more than enough to brighten his tired expression, in no time he’d be collecting a very sizeable reward. After all, anyone the Empire considered worth holding in a maximum security cell had to be worth something to the Rebel Alliance. Add to that the rest of what Kenobi had promised for taking that blasted charter from Tatooine to Alderaan in the first place, and he and Chewie would be living the high life for some time to come. The fact that neither Kenobi nor Alderaan existed any longer could prove sticky, but Han remained optimistic.

He glanced at the chrono again. It was late, shipboard rime. Luke was sacked out on the floor in Solo’s cabin, and Chewbacca had turned in a short rime later (purposefully, Han suspected) leaving his captain to deal with their other passenger, the princess. Han had surprised himself by going to the trouble of cleaning out the spare cabin in order to give the princess a place to sleep with some semblance of privacy. She had struck him as the type to expect as much, and it had seemed infinitely easier at the time to make the effort rather than argue. Not that he minded trading words with her; she had already proven herself quire capable of holding her own in the verbal sparring matches that he and Chewie frequently indulged in. He wasn’t sure he liked the obvious advantage she had due to her background in politics, but her wit was refreshing. She presented a challenge, if one were so inclined.

Han cleared his throat and refocused on the matter at hand: what would be his next plan of action? His present situation had evolved from a fateful meeting in a dingy spacer’s dive in Mos Eisley, and it had only spiraled downward from there. Now he was stuck with a naive moisture farmer (whom he’d taken an unexplainable liking to) and a snooty princess (the jury wasn’t in on that verdict yet). As if that weren’t enough, he and his partner were now smack dab in the middle of the blasted civil war. Not bad for a day’s work, he thought with a sarcastic snort. What’ll you do for an encore?

Unexpectedly the hatchway to the cockpit whooshed open. Solo dropped his feet to the deck and snapped upright, reflexively reaching for the blaster at his hip. When he saw who had disturbed him, he let out an explosive sigh and collapsed back into his seat. Standing in the entrance was an equally surprised young woman, dressed in a white senator’s gown that contrasted sharply with the crimson that was quickly rising in her cheeks.
“Oh!” she exclaimed simply, a touch flustered before regaining her bearings.

“Let me give you a tip, Princess. Keep sneakin’ up on me like that and you’re liable to end up full of holes.” The princess reacted visibly to his comment, her expression hardening. Han regretted the change but didn’t dwell on. He began to say something to ease the mood a little but didn’t get far.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt, Captain,” Leia said, her speech cool and clipped. “Obviously you’re a very busy man.” She began to turn away.
“Wait,” Han blurted out before he could reconsider his actions. When the woman paused in her retreat to partially glance over her shoulder, he forged ahead. “What did you want? Something wrong?”

The honest question was enough to turn the princess back around to face him. A part of her wanted to scream, Everything in my life was just destroyed. What could possibly be wrong? She fought the impulse. She was an Organa after all, and if nothing else, she would honor her family’s passing by preserving their grace. She attempted to smooth her raging emotions. “No. No, I couldn’t sleep and—” Leia stopped and silently chastised herself for having admitted such a weakness to the smug pilot. His sincere expression of concern was very convincing, however, and Leia reasoned that maybe the truth would prove more credible than anything she could maked up at the moment. “Assuming that everyone had gone to bed, I decided to watch the stars for a while.”

She paused, involuntarily fascinated by the amazing shift of expression on the pilot’s rugged face at hearing her words. He looked pleasantly surprised, and although unable to see any connection, the sight alone was enough to stop her heart for an instant. He was rather handsome in a rustic, unfinished sort of way. A part of her mind briefly noted that fact before she shoved the incongruous thought aside. “Again, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

Han shrugged and gestured at the copilot’s chair. “Don’t worry about it. Have a seat.”

The princess hesitated before accepting his invitation with a courtly nod. She stepped forward and around the co-pilot’s chair, then perched lightly on the seat. Han appeared nonchalant as she brushed past, but he didn’t fail to notice every detail, from the slight limp as she favored her right leg to the stiff posture she maintained after sitting down. Being rather adept at reading body languages, he could sense the bone-deep fatigue that she radiated, mixed with apprehension and heavily seasoned with sorrow and loneliness, the source of which wasn’t too hard to figure out. Considering what had recently occurred, it was no mystery why she couldn’t sleep.

Han also noticed that rather than the stars, her dark eyes continued to roam over the Falcon’s controls. The princess didn’t seem baffled by the easily confusing collage of buttons, lights and levers, but instead appeared intrigued. Han found himself wondering if she knew how to fly. Granted, she had helped Chewie out as much as possible during their rather unpolished escape, but did she understand the finer points—and pleasures—of flying? Not that it matters, he clarified for himself, in case there was any confusion. Still, he couldn’t deny a certain interest. He had known her for an extremely short time, and already she had become an irresistible puzzle, made up of little bits and pieces that didn’t, and wouldn’t, fit together until he found what went in between.

Han blinked and shook his head a little. What the hell was he thinking about?

The princess seemed reluctant to break the silence. She eventually looked up from the rows of toggle switches and tiny red and blue lights that tinted the dim cockpit, focusing on the awesome display of stars now distorted by hyperspace.

Han continued to study his silent companion, then joined her in gazing out the clear canopy, his thoughts wandering once more. He could understand what Luke saw in the princess, the weariness and haunted shadows around her dark eyes notwithstanding. He had no doubt that she cleaned up quite well, and didn’t let the present state of her dress and hair affect his opinion. Besides, there was that quick wit of hers. Although he felt it a little too quick and sharp for the kid to handle, he had liked her spunk from the start. Hell, anyone with enough guts to call his partner a “walking carpet” had his admiration, if not sympathy. Han grinned at the memory and cast a quick glance at the young woman to his right. A shame he had been wearing all that stormtrooper armor during their stint in the trashmasher. The white senator’s gown she wore hid far too much from the eye, and his one chance to discover what was hidden underneath (during that quick embrace of relief they’d shared after the compactor walls had stopped moving) had been spoiled by the thick body casing. Just his damned luck that they’d probably never get an opportunity for a repeat performance.

Deciding the silence had lasted long enough, Han affected an informal air by crossing an ankle over one knee and clearing his throat; the sound seemed to echo within the hum of the cockpit. “Mind if I ask you a question?”

His query snapped her concentration and she turned to face him. She considered his proposal for a moment before consenting with a slight shrug.
Han continued, “Who taught you how to use a blaster?”

The princess frowned slightly, not expecting such an odd request. “Why?”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

Her expression was evidence that she was not accustomed to being drilled. “If you must know, my family’s security chief. My father insisted that I receive the best in self-defense training.” Leia did not feel like elaborating any further, those memories threatening to get the best of her. She watched as the Corellian nodded in acknowledgement but showed little inclination towards offering a reason for his inquiry. Curiosity had always been a weakness of hers and she succumbed rapidly. “Why? You didn’t like the way I—”

Han cut her off, shaking his head. “No, as a matter of fact, I was pretty impressed. There aren’t too many princesses that can handle a weapon like that.”

“And how many princesses have you known to reach this conclusion?”

“A few.” Han had intended his answer to be obscure and succeeded with flying colors. The valiant attempt at denying interest notwithstanding, the princess looked hooked.

Leia resisted the impulse as long as humanly possible, then suddenly assumed a casual attitude which would have been more convincing had it not clashed so blatantly with their entire conversation thus far. The self-deprecating smile was the clincher. “Things have been moving rather quickly and I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name. Who are you?”

Han couldn’t help chuckling a little. “Rather quickly” was an understatement. “I’m Solo. Han Solo.” He made a vague gesture in regards to their surroundings. “This is my ship, the Millennium Falcon, and you’ve already met my co-pilot, Chewbacca. The ‘walking carpet,’ remember?”
Leia didn’t even hear the last part of his comment, her eyes widening in surprise as recognition dawned. “Han Solo. I’ve heard of you.” The dazzling smile that graced the smuggler’s face was enough to brighten the darkened cockpit.

“Oh yeah? Well, I’m not surprised, but I’ll warn you that some of those rumors tend to be inflated.”

“The one about your ego was fairly accurate.”

“I didn’t say all of them.” I’m enjoying this entirely too much, Han thought with a grin. “Tell me which ones you’ve heard, and I’ll let you know if they’re close.” As an added incentive, he waggled an eyebrow. The almost comical look of shock that swept over her smooth features was validation that his implication had not been missed.

Leia quickly recovered her expression of well-practiced determination. If Solo thought he was the only one on board who could play word games, he was in for a rude awakening; she hadn’t been elected to the Imperial Senate because of her looks. And she never turned down a challenge. “All right, tell me about Kessel.”

Han smiled, warming to his subject. “Chewie and I made the fastest run yet, and we weren’t even—”

“No,” Leia broke in, enjoying his own look of irritation at being interrupted. “Not the Run. I want to hear about the Imperial blockade.”
Han blinked owlishly at her for a moment. “How the hell did you hear about that?”

She made a perfunctory shrug. “I am fighting against the Empire; it’s my business to hear things, particularly when they involve any type of rebellious action.”

It took Han a moment longer to assimilate her statement. Then suddenly, he straightened up in his seat. “Whoa, sister. If you’re gettin’ at what I think you’re gettin’ at, you’re wrong! I did what I had to do to save my ship, not to mention my ass. There was nothing rebellious about it, so don’t go gettin’ any wild ideas about a new recruit. I’ve got enough problems. I don’t need yours.”

Leia sighed. “Perhaps, but that’s a rather moot point now, don’t you think?”

The corner of the Corellians’ mouth twitched. He abruptly rose to his feet and stomped toward the rear of the cockpit, but then stopped before reaching the closed hatchway. He raised a supporting hand to the hatch.

Leia watched the star pilot out of the corner of her eye as he battled with his own thoughts. She was right, and she knew he knew it. The stunt he had pulled to escape the Kessel Blockade had earned him the Empire’s animosity, but assisting in the rescue of a traitor (an important one at that) would warrant their undivided and unhealthy attention. As far as the Empire was concerned, Han Solo was as much of a threat to Imperial sovereinty as any member of the Rebel Alliance, whether he liked it or not. Any further argument was inconsequential. And now Leia saw her opportunity to set her own bait. She spoke quietly, restraining any hint of coaxing from her voice. “I’ve also heard about the Kessel Run, as well as some of your other exploits. You’re an extraordinary pilot.”

That comment earned her a suspicious glance from the smuggler. “Point being?”

Leia nodded once; she’d had a feeling he would see through such flattering protocol. “Point being that the Alliance would be willing to reward you for your further services.”

“Kreth,” Solo muttered under his breath before turning to face the small woman, now nearly swallowed up within his co-pilot’s oversized chair. “You’d better check your funds before you go around promising any more rewards, Princess. The kid’s already committed a withdrawal in my name.”

“What are you talking about?” Han took a step forward to better see her shadowed face, at the same time making an all-encompassing gesture with both hands. “More wealth than I could possibly imagine, he said. How much of that do you think I’ll see?”

Leia was truly at a loss for words.

When she didn’t offer a response, he dropped his arms and nodded as if he had expected as much. “Spare me the speeches. I’ve got better things to do than volunteer for lost causes.” He turned back, and this time punched the hatch palm-plate; the door slid open with a soft hiss. “I’m not a hired gun,” he added quietly. “I’m a businessman trying to make a living. Don’t touch anything.” With that he stepped out of the cockpit and the hatch closed behind him.

Leia continued to stare at the closed portal for a long time, then slowly swiveled back to fix her gaze on the continuing swirl of starlight, her mind far from what was outside. For some reason, the fact that Solo refused to be swayed from his isolationism rankled her a great deal. That sixth sense that she had honed to a fine edge during her training and short tenure in the Senate now insisted that Solo would be a great asset to the Alliance, if offered the proper incentive. But what might that catalyst be? What would it ultimately cost?

Leia lowered her eyes to sweep across the darkened cockpit and could almost feel the energy that seemed to surge through the ship when her master was at the controls.

The princess seriously hoped they could afford such a price.

 

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