TITLE: Everyone Drinks in Hell
SUMMARY: Ten years after the Alliance loses at the Battle of Endor, a man who should have been a hero finds something he thought had been lost forever.
CONTENT: AU. Angsty H/L, w/ quasi-happy ending. (Translation: no random / unexpected deaths, and I haven't yet fallen to the call of Leiacide ...)
AUTHOR'S NOTE(S): This is one of those stories that grabbed hold and wouldn't let go -- don't ya just love 'em? The premise is implied rather than directly stated -- it's not so much a story, I suppose, as an exploration of a situation and of a character. I might write a companion piece from Leia's POV, but ... well, enjoy. :)
Remember that I live for feedback -- it's the only payment I get! ;)
= = = = =
Your name is Han Solo, and you walk into the bar.
Force, you've always thought that was a stupid beginning to a joke. You've never heard one with a good punch line, at any rate, though you've heard a lot of attempts in what seems like all imaginable incarnations of the stars-damned thing.
Besides, the last time someone tried to tell you one of those jokes ("the smuggler and the Wookie walked into the bar" that time) the punch line had been crude enough (because references to hairiness in that context were just frightening) that you'd felt obliged to leave him with a few broken limbs.
(But this time it's just the smuggler and not the Wookie, so that doesn't really matter, does it?)
So ... yeah. You walk into the bar.
It takes a just few moments for your eyes to adjust to the lighting. Because bars are never brightly lit, are they? It's strange, but that's always one of the things that never changes, though stars know that damned near everything in the galaxy has changed during the last few years. Chewie's gone, the Rebellion's ashes, and the Empire's worse than ever before, but that Force-damned detail remains the same, a mocking testimony to the universe's perverted sense of humor.
Of all the things you might have kept the same, you sincerely doubt that the immutable dimness of bars across the galaxy would be on your top ten list. Or even in your top hundred, for that matter.
Still ... there's a strange sort of comfort to be had in these places, as galling as it is to be reminded that the galaxy hasn't changed all that much for some people. Somehow, you've found yourself growing familiar with just about all the bars in the galaxy (mostly because they all blend together, after a while, don't they?) and you've come to realize, gradually, that these places are the closest things to an actual home that you have. Sure, you have more permanent living quarters, but you rarely ever set foot there, with your type of business and your type of lifestyle.
So ... maybe the immutable dimness of bars would be in the top hundred after all.
You shake that thought away.
It was raining outside before you came in, a phenomenon that, you gather, is something of an unexpected occurrence on this planet. At any rate, the locals had all been huddling inside their homes as you made your lonely way down the road. The only sounds on this dark, wet night were your own decisive footsteps and the rush of the pouring rain, leaving you alone with your
thoughts for the first time in a very long time indeed. You've found that you usually stick to crowded places, perhaps to avoid situations like that -- it isn't pleasant, trying to contemplate what might have been, and surrounding yourself with noise and filling yourself with liquor seem to distract your conscience enough so that that isn't really an issue.
The nightmares still come, though, even after all these years.
You stand in the doorway for a few moments, give yourself a minute to look around. Nothing special -- it's the same as any other bar from any other corner of the galaxy, really. Yellowish, dim lighting, smoke in the air ... somehow, places like these always seem to stand outside of time: the bartender, cleaning a mug with a dirty towel as he laughed at something one of the patrons said. A young couple necking in the shadows. A fist-fight breaking out in one of the corners.
It could be any other bar in the galaxy, and no one would know the difference. Or give a damn about it, really, even if they did.
After a moment, you make your way over to the counter. The bartender -- just like all the others, Force-dammit, in all the other bars across the Sith-forsaken galaxy -- gives you a look, pausing long enough in polishing that cup with his little rag to cast a wary gaze over his newest patron.
You let him look. It wouldn't really surprise me if he turns you away -- stars know you look like a half-drowned rodent after being out in that rainstorm, and half-drowned rodents usually don't carry enough credits for a drink. Your shabby clothes and unshaven countenance probably aren't scoring many points in your favor either; though to be fair, not many of the current patrons look like they've seen the inside of a bathtub in the last year. (But hey, at least the rain washed off a few layers of the grime.)
He gives you eloquent shrug. Evidently, he's learned not to judge a potential customer by an uncanny resemblance to a half-drowned rodent. "So what'll you have?" he drawls, putting down his mug and drying his hands on the towel.
"Corellian ale," you grunt, tossing a credit chip onto the table. "And make sure it's the real thing, not one of the half-assed knockoffs," you add as an afterthought.
Almost before you can blink, the credit chip has been swiped off the table, and you find yourself staring at a tankard of golden liquor. You pick it up and take a sip, taking a moment to savor the taste (yeah, that's the real thing), then put the glass down again to continue your survey of the room.
It isn't as crowded as you'd first surmised. The bar's patrons are mostly too deep in their cups to notice or care that you're staring at them, and the rainstorm outside evidently persuaded most people to remain at home. It doesn't take you long to glance around the room and categorize the denizens (three drunks, a moderately-priced whore, a few brawlers, a pair of teenagers) and assess the danger (nil).
Heh, but there's someone in the shadowy tables on the other side of the bar who you didn't quite notice at first. You can't really make out much from this angle, other than the vaguely feminine shape, but she's about to turn her head, and --
And have to remind your heart to keep beating.
Because she look back at you. Her hair has grown grayer over the last ten years, and she's dressed in some sort of nondescript uniform you can't exactly put a name to, but you couldn't mistake her, not then and not now and not ever. She see you, too, but she's always been good at keeping her emotions from showing on her face, and you watch as her eyes just widen slightly in shock.
Because you know her eyes.
"Leia," you breathe.
It takes you less than no time at all to find your way over to the other side of the bar and sit yourself down across the table from her. You set your tankard down on the table, trying to be careful though it seems -- to you at least -- that all your muscles turned to water. Or maybe you're tenser than usual -- it's kind of hard to tell with her sitting in front of you. Hells, it's kind of hard to tell up from down when you're looking into the deep pools of her eyes -- in some distant corner of your mind, you're vaguely surprised that you're still able to keep on your feet. The point is, though, that it's been ten years since the last time you saw her. Ten years
of everything the Force-damned galaxy could ever have contrived. How do you put ten years into a words, how do you articulate ten years in a single sentence? How, above all, do you greet the only woman you've ever loved after ten years during which you thought her to be dead?
You may have been good at this sort of thing, ten years (and a few lifetimes ago, but you've just made the belated discovery that the dashing Han Solo of those days of yore has suddenly been replaced by a tongue-tied, fumble-footed teenager (and with the perfect timing, too) who happens to be wearing his skin. It isn't every day that you come upon situations like these, after all, and -- for perhaps the first time in your life -- you find that you have absolutely no idea what to say.
So it's actually quite a relief when she wrinkles up her nose and says: "You smell like a wet Wookiee."
You just stare at each other for a moment after that rather unconventional greeting (but hadn't we always been a rather unconventional couple?) before the tension shatters like a pane of glass, and you both burst into fits of laughter. You laugh until you're breathless, you laugh until you cry, and if the laughter (on your part, at least is bordering on slightly hysterical, the beauty of places like these is that no one really gives a damn about it anyway.
Because all of a sudden, the ten years are gone, at least in your mind -- that easy rapport, that friendly intimacy (that might once have been something more) is back, and nothing else matters for as long as this precious illusion can last. For the moment, you can forget about everything because you're sitting across the table from Princess Leia Organa, and that's all that really matters.
"Yeah," you manage once you've finished forcing back the laughter, "it's nice to see you again, too, Your Highnessness."
She grins at that. And if it isn't quite the smile of ten years ago, if your laugh seems rusty from disuse, it's more than you ever expected to have again all the same. "I guess that didn't quite come out the way it was supposed to, did it?" she asks wryly.
"Of course not -- because I know for a fact that Captain Han Solo of the Millenium Falcon would never smell like a wet Wookiee."
She rolls her eyes, but you'd be the Force-damned son of a bantha if her eyes aren't twinkling, under the exasperation. "Same arrogant scoundrel I knew ten years ago, I see."
"And you're the same stuck-up princess you've always been, I see," you retort, smiling. It's the scoundrel's grin again -- the crooked smile you've held in reserve this past decade. (Hells, you haven't had much reason to use that smile, have you?) "So, what's a girl like you doing in a place like this?" you ask, giving her the Solo wink.
She laughs. "Alliance business, Han," she tells you. "I'm meeting a contact here. And you?"
"Just business." (Well actually, you're here because you don't have anything better to do than sitting in the Falcon and being haunted by the ghosts of yesteryear, but she doesn't have to know that.)
The illusion of that old companionship (affection? Something more?) is strained by now, and the two of you sit in silence for a while. You take the opportunity to take a good look at her -- she's aged, more than you'd ever thought she could. The past ten years were hell for you, but for someone like her, they must have been pure torture. Force only knows what the Empire would do to get their hands on the lost princess of Alderaan, presumed dead after the Battle of Endor ten years ago ...
She's been on the run, and as much as you'd hate to admit it, her face shows it. It's not so much something that a person can see immediately -- she's always been beautiful, and ten years isn't going to change that, no matter how many gray strands are in her hair. It's something else -- maybe her face is harder, having lost the last of the youth and idealism. Or maybe it's pain of loss, because Force knows that everyone's lost someone during the last ten years ...
"I loved you, you know," she tells you after a moment. It's abrupt enough to startle you out of your musings and out-of character enough to bring a pang to your heart. (Because it's out-of-character for the Leia you remember, the politician and the princess, but you don't really know this tired Rebel at all, do you ...)
And despite yourself, despite what you've been telling yourself for these past ten years, that past tense hurts you more than you could have expected.
"Yeah, Sweetheart," you reply, because you don't really have anything else to say. "I know." Surprisingly enough, your voice is steady; you wouldn't have thought you'd be able to manage it. And if it happens to be just a bit gruff, it's just a bit more so than usual, and you can blame it on the drink.
And there isn't really anything else to say, is there?
Because it would be cruel to tell her how much you love -- loved? -- her when fate stepped in between the two of you. It would be cruel to remind her of what the two of you might have had ... and it would hurt to remember, because stars know that you do that all too much anyway. And how much more cruel would it be to tell her how much you searched for her those years after Endor, how you scoured the galaxy for any hint of survivors and how you had kept a spark of optimism alive even now ...
Even now you can't help but wonder what would have happened if you hadn't been blinded for so long, coming out of the carbonite from Jabba's palace. You know -- rationally -- that you couldn't have made much a difference; that the Rebellion would have fallen anyway, that one man couldn't possibly affect the outcome and fate of a galaxy, but that doesn't do much to assuage the guilt, not anymore. (Because rationality never had much place in your life, did it?)
"I thought you died at Endor," you tell her without really thinking about it. It isn't until you hear the words coming out of your mouth that you wince in chagrin at your own tactlessness. "Not that I --"
She cuts you off with a laugh, apparently taking it in stride, though her face betrays a bit of pain that she quickly hides away. "We lost a lot of people there," she admits. "It ... well, it was a big loss," she finishes somewhat lamely.
Before you realize what you're doing, you find that you're patting her little hand with yours. It's strange, but that's one of the other things that haven't really changed much over the years. Your hand still dwarfs hers, the calluses on your palm completely at odds with the perfection of hers. Not that her's don't have calluses -- they're there all right, from writing and shooting and half a dozen things in between ...but you've always thought of her hands as perfect, so that's just about all that matters, isn't it?
"What happened?" you ask quietly, looking up from her hands as your voice takes on a tone you would have found difficult to identify even a few minutes before. Strange, again, how she's able to evoke these emotions in you even after all these years. "I've heard all the stories, but ... what really happened on Endor?"
She sighs and looks you in the eye. "They were expecting us," she says simply, and you've never seen her look so lost. There is pain there, a deep, unimaginable suffering that you don't want to put a name to. "They were waiting for us, and we were slaughtered."
You might have imagined the glistening in her eyes before she takes her hand and savagely wipes any amount of moisture away.
"What happened to Luke?" you ask, remembering the Kid for the first time in a long time. You hadn't heard a word about him since Endor, which surprised you quite a bit -- if the lost princess of Alderaan was fetching a high bounty, surely the hero of Yavin wouldn't be worth much less ...
Her eyes harden. "He's with his father, like he always wanted," she snaps ... and you can't help but think the anger is strangely out of character. It's not like Leia to be angry at a person for dying -- she knows what the life of a soldier is like, how unpredictable it is and how easy it is to slip up. She didn't seem angry when she described the other deaths, but now ...
Nevertheless, you nod your head slowly. "I'm sorry," you say to her and Force knows that's probably never going to be enough. You know there was something between the two of them, before, and you can't help but wonder whether or not there was something else between them after you left the picture -- but you squash those feelings down. "He was a good kid."
For a moment, she holds onto the righteous anger ... and then slowly deflates. "Yeah," she agrees softly. She's not looking into your face anymore. "He was."
It takes you a moment to realize that she's not saying anything anymore. Her head is bent down and you know it's not your imagination when you see that the hand gripping her ale is shaking. And then you hate yourself for asking, but you cover her other hand with yours once more and ask her, as gently as possible, "How did you escape, Leia? How did you get out safely?"
And to your surprise, she smiles. "I didn't," she whispers, lifting her shirt sleeves. Your gaze trace line after line of scars across wrists and forearms. White and silver webbing that tattoos shoulders, chest, and now, you can see it, across the neck
So you bring up a hand to touch her cheek, only to have her shake her head, holding up a hand in protest. You drop your hand onto your lap again, and you can't deny the bitter twinge that the princess you love with all your heart won't allow your comfort.
"Well," you say finally. "That certainly was never part of the fairy tale, was it? The beautiful princess isn't supposed to be taken aboard the villain's ship and tortured, is she?"
(Not to mention the part where the princess is supposed to ride off into the sunset with her One True Love, but there are some things that don't have to be said aloud.)
She laughs, a little bitterly. "It was never much of a fairy tale to begin with, Han."
You smile, the cocky Solo grin again. That grin's a bit more world-weary than it was ten years ago, something you wouldn't have thought possible, but ... well, things change. "Yeah, what happened to all those stories where the good guys always defeat the bad, huh? About how good is always stronger than evil?"
She snorts. "Good isn't stronger than evil," she corrects with a ghost of a smile. Bitter? Maybe -- you can't tell. And that disturbs you, just a bit, because once upon a time you knew her expressions like the back of your hand. "It just has better luck."
And maybe that's what scares you, almost more than anything else. Your Leia -- the Leia of a decade before -- would never have said something like that. The sentiment, true or not, might have been something you would have said, but not Leia, not your princess. Whatever happened to her these past years left more scars than the tangible ones; something of her spirit, her optimism is gone as well, and you spare a moment to mourn it.
You open your mouth to respond before thinking better of it, lifting your glass instead, a silent question in your eyes even as you feel your patented Solo-smirk settling on your lips. She grins crookedly and raises her own glass in answer.
"To the things we've lost," she murmurs, keeping her gaze fastened on your eyes.
You touch your glass to hers with a musical clink. "And the things we still have," you add with a sad smile, tilting your drink into your mouth even as she finishes off her own.
Silence for a moment, as both of you contemplate your empty glasses.
"I didn't know you drank," you finally offer when the silence has gotten too awkward, and even you have to wince at the stupidity of that statement. ( 'Cuz after ten years, you don't know her at all ...)
She laughs. "Everybody drinks in hell, Han. Didn't they ever teach you that in school?"
You nearly laugh at that -- because, Force-dammit, that's so krathing true -- and are about to respond before hearing her sharp intake of breath.
"Damn," she hisses, looking at the door, behind your back. You know better than to turn around, so keep facing her as she gazes steadily at something you can't see. "Imps." Her face is flushed, a scowl darkening her features.
"How many?" you ask, covering your mouth a bit and keeping your voice low. Doubtful that they can see you in this dark booth, but it never hurts to be prepared.
"Seven," she answers. "Hang on a second, I'll let you see." She dives into her bag for a moment, leaving you blinking at that statement. You can't see them without turning around, and it's doubtful that you can switch seats without attracting unwanted attention --
She holds up a small compact mirror. "Hold it in your napkin," she instructs.
You smile despite yourself. "Clever," you admit, taking the mirror from her and holding it in your palm. "Nice and low-tech."
After a moment of adjusting the mirror, trying to make it look as if you're still deeply absorbed in conversation, and you're looking at the stormtroopers, now questioning the bartender.
"We've been informed that we could expect to find a fugitive here," one of the troopers informs him. "A dangerous Rebel, formerly of Alderaan. Female, slender, dark hair. Have you seen her?"
One of the things about sleazy establishments like this, though, you can't help but reflect as the bartender shrugs, not even pausing his polishing, is that no one really cares what the authorities think. If any of these people don't have at least one bounty on their heads, you're the heir to Jabba's fortune and the Dark Lord of the Sith to boot.
So, for the first few seconds, it's almost funny watching them wade through the bar, searching for their fugitive. It would be amusing in any other situation to watch stormtroopers wading through hostile territory -- the other patrons of the bar don't like the Empire any more than you do and take it upon themselves to make the search as difficult for the stormtroopers as possible. A foot accidentally stuck into the aisle one second and gone the next -- they can't prove it, after all, and watching these representatives of the Empire make fools of themselves is rather therapeutic.
But that's in Any Other Situation. Because right now both of you know that they're here searching for her -- and both of you know she can't hide for long.
They're making their way over -- slowly, granted, but they're coming -- to the more shadowy tables, making a meandering beeline towards the booth you're currently occupying. And even though you don't give a damn about the Alliance, you find the idea of them getting to your princess (though she's not yours anymore, is she?) is one that you don't even want to entertain. But there's no way to make it to the door with a pair of stormtroopers standing in the way, and it looks like you're rather stuck in this situation unless you can quickly think of a way --
Suddenly, though, you're struck with a strange idea: a laughable idea, really, because isn't that what they always do in the holos when the bad guys have them surrounded and they only have a few moments before they're caught? It's probably a bad sign that you're taking instruction from bad romance holos, but at the moment you don't really have the time to care.
You lean in and kiss her.
She stiffens for a moment before catching on, but once she does it's all you can do to stop yourself from drowning in joy. She wraps her arms around your neck, and kisses you back desperately. You let yourself get lost in the sensation -- her lips, her mouth -- and you kiss back with a fiery passion you thought had been killed long ago.
And, for the briefest of moments, you allow yourself to pretend that she's doing this out of love. Allow yourself the delusion that the ten years separating the two of you has done nothing to damage the feelings that you held, still hold for her, and that this kiss -- like the few kisses you snuck in before -- is a product of mutual and reciprocated love.
You hadn't realized until this moment how much you missed her. How meaningless your life had been without her; it's been ten years, and you haven't really lived during any of them. Your life was dead, your passions cold, your heart hardened ... it's not often someone can find their One True Love, after all, and without her you've felt
cold inside. So you kiss her with an insistence you thought long lost and a passion you thought long dead -- you would have expected ten years of mortal terror and mortal danger would have wiped these things out of your mind, but they haven't. Even after all these years, you remember this: you remember to kiss her like this, gently tracing her lips with your tongue, just how to tilt her back, just how to hold her just enough off-balance to make her giddy.
You let your hands wander, straying to her hips, the small of her back, while she winds her arms around your neck, keeping you close and pulling you closer, and, Force, you never want to let go. Your kiss full of passion and heat, a reacquainting of old lovers denied for too long
You try to put everything into that kiss -- everything from these last ten years, every ounce of everything that you cannot, will never be able to, put into words. There is so much to say, so much you can't say -- feelings and hopes and dreams and sorrows and fears that just don't translate into language ... you put them into your kiss, instead, and hope it's enough.
(I'm sorry I wasn't there, Leia -- Force, Leia, I'm sorry for everything.
I'm sorry thought you were dead after Endor, I'm sorry I didn't look harder.
I'm sorry I wasn't there when you needed me, I'm sorry I let you get hurt.
I'm sorry I couldn't give you the happy ending you deserved.)
You're not sure who pulls away first, but by the time you open your eyes, you see that hers are still closed. You take the moment to glance into the mirror (and yes, the stormtroopers are gone) before returning your gaze to her face as she slowly, leisurely opens her eyes, dark pools of chocolate meeting your own before --
-- she slaps you hard across the cheek.
"What was that for?" you gasp, a hand instinctively flying up to your face. Stars damn you if your cheek isn't crimson with the force of that blow. "I just saved your life, Your Highnessness!"
She shrugs, smiling a bit though her eyes are still smoldering with the offense, imagined or not. "It's a matter of principle. Warn me next time, Solo!"
"I didn't have time to consult a committee!"
"For future reference, I'm not a committee!"
She glares at you for a while longer before giving up, apparently tiring of the futile effort of chastening an old scoundrel. Her lips quirk up in a tiny smirk, and you can't help but laugh, now that it's safe. Or as safe as it can be, at any rate, for the lost princess of Alderaan.
"You know, the Falcon needs a copilot, if you're not busy," you offer, the words escaping from your lips before you're really sure what you're about to say.
She sighs. "Well, considering the likelihood that my contact double-crossed me and I don't have any other way to get back to the base, I guess I'll take you up on that offer, Captain Solo." She moves to get up.
You offer an arm, a mocking gesture that she nonetheless accepts. You're too old for romantic gallantry, the both of you, and those kinds of gestures, but it leaves you with a comfortable feeling of nostalgia nevertheless.
"Let's grab another drink on our way out, shall we? The Falcon's not hell, but I'm pretty damned sure everyone drinks there, too."
She stops at that. Cocks her head, as if to see you from a different angle. Looks at you carefully.
"You know," she says, a quirking her lips, "I'll bet we could have worked out together, you and I, if things had gone differently."
Dammit if that doesn't make you laugh. She looks surprised and you can't really blame her -- it's been a long time since the last time you really, sincerely laughed, after all. You'd been beginning to wonder if you still remembered how and wasn't it great how seeing again her could unlock parts of you that you'd almost completely forgotten about?
"Well, sweetheart," you tell her with a wink, slinging an arm around her shoulder in what you hope is an affectionate gesture, "who says we can't work out together now?"
She laughs, a sound that sends a not-unpleasant tingle down your spine. It's not the laugh of an innocent, not anymore, but no one's really innocent in this galaxy anymore. "We'll see, you nerfherder," she promises with a grin to match your own. And you find that your heart's thumping just a bit faster as the two of you walk out into the rain, and, stars, you feel more alive than you have in years.
So a smuggler walked into the bar -- and a smuggler and a princess walked out. And maybe that first line isn't a really good line for the beginning of a joke, but you'd be willing to listen to the second part any time.
And as you walk out, pulling your princess close and grinning for the first time in more than a decade, you feel a faint stirring of something you'd nearly forgotten. You don't really know what to name it, but if you had to choose a word for it, you'd call it hope. And maybe that's not enough to save the galaxy, but, hey, it's a start ...