Fortune's Fool

By Susan Zahn

Disclaimer: Much as I'd love to be able to retire and live off the proceeds from these stories, I sadly do not own the rights to these brilliant characters. Maybe if you put in a good word for me…?

Author's Note: This story is part of a broader story arc, my "Kismet" series, that I've been developing over the past two decades—long before any of the prequels, EU books, or other materials came out. While I occasionally borrow proper names from these newer sources (for convenience' sake) I feel no compunction to make my stories conform to any "canon" other than the original saga films. I hope you can enjoy them in the same spirit of freedom that I have felt writing them.


Benvolio:
Romeo, away, be gone!
The citizens are up, and Tybalt slain.
Stand not amaz'd, the Prince will doom thee death
If thou art taken. Hence be gone, away!

Romeo:
O, I am fortune's fool!

— William Shakespeare,Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, scene 1, 132–136

In revolutions authority remains with the greatest of scoundrels.
— Georges Jacques Danton (1759 - 1794)

Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of.
— Benjamin Franklin (1706 - 1790), Poor Richard's Almanac, June 1746


Chapter 1

Han Solo had never been one to sit and philosophize on life, nor contemplate the deeper whys and wherefores of events in the universe. Even though he dealt on a daily basis with speeds that warped time and boggled simpler minds, he'd never wondered what time itself meant. Why the hyperdrive motivator of the Millennium Falcon worked wasn't so important as if it worked, and making sure it stayed that way was his primary concern. Time had only mattered when it came to how long the stretch might last between paid smuggling runs, or how quickly he could out-pace a Corellian-built star cruiser, or how long he could push the patience of crime lords and princesses.

For the first time in his life, however, Han was discovering how relative time could be and why it was significant. The revelation left him inundated in a surging tide of unfathomable questions. For instance, how was it possible that six standard months could feel like little more than a few seconds?

"Han?"

Six months? His own mind boggled at that massive warp.

"Han?"

A small hand took hold of his shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze, causing him to start. He blinked hard, looked up into the bright sunlight, and despite his blurred vision he was relieved all over again to find the beautiful features of Princess Leia Organa. She resumed her seat beside him; she was now wrapped in a heavy dark cloak to provide her some protection from the twin suns still burning hot overhead as well as to restore some sense of modesty. He couldn't recall when she'd left his side, but was glad she was back. More than anything, what had consumed him while blind and helpless in Jabba's clutches had been his fear for her safety, but now she sat close enough to bump against him as they swayed with the movement of the skiff, and each contact was a gentle reminder of what he'd come perilously close to losing forever.

Seated on the low engine housing in the center of the armored skiff they'd liberated from Jabba the Hutt's henchmen, Han drew in a deep breath and straightened up until the slipstream of hot air that buffeted them whipped his hair back. The exhilarating sensation felt at once familiar and new.

Manning the helm of the craft, Lando Calrissian redirected most of their gazes by pointing past them as he called out: "We need to make a decision pretty quick. That's not looking good."

Luke Skywalker straightened up from where he'd squatted down in front of Han. "I think we can reach the Falcon before that sand storm hits, but it really depends on how Han is feeling. Obi Wan Kenobi's homestead is closer and —"

"The Falcon!" Han blurted out, and then belatedly regretted it when he heard how desperate he'd sounded. But his first instinct was to go home and the thought of spending the duration of a storm anywhere other than on his beloved ship was motivation enough to make him not care. When he noticed they were all staring at him once again, radiating concern, he made an attempt to sound more rational. "I'm okay. Don't worry about me. Let's just get off this dust ball."

"All right, Han," Luke responded with a calm smile. "I guess this place takes some getting used to."

"No offense, Kid, but if I never set foot on this planet again, I'll be a very happy man."

"No offense taken. It's not the first time I've heard that."

"Yeah, well, this time I mean it."

Luke chuckled and reached to pat him on the back. "Glad to have you back, anyway." Then he moved aft to stand beside Lando and aid with navigating.

Leia nudged him and leaned in a little closer, drawing his attention back. "You're sure —?" she began.

"I'm okay." I'm okay. I'm just…

Still trying to absorb the enormity of it all — of all these people caring enough to risk their lives for him like that — Han sank back into his own thoughts.

As he'd spent the long night huddled with Chewbacca in that filthy palace dungeon cell, shivering and trembling through the worst of the side effects of carbon freeze, his best friend had explained the events of those six months passed while he'd been entombed in carbonite: their narrow escape from Bespin; the long months of unproductive searching before Boba Fett finally made his appearance on Tatooine; the fretful planning; Lando's conversion, Leia's dedication, Luke's transformation…

How could it be that so much had occurred — so much had changed around and because of him — in that span of time, and yet nothing had happened to him in those infinite seconds?

You mean nothing other than dying and being brought back to life?

Seated at his other side, Chewbacca's large hairy hand rose into view, holding a canteen. "[You should drink some water, Solo.]"

Han blinked hard again and waited for his vision to clear, but the effort failed and he brought up a hand to scrub his eyes in frustration, desperately trying not to think about what might happen if his sight never returned to normal. He'd only ever wanted to fly and the fact this side effect of the carbonfreezing continued to linger frightened him on a visceral level; what would become of a pilot who couldn't see clearly?

Once again he felt Leia's gentle hand, this time as she stopped him from rubbing his eyes. "I'm sorry they're still bothering you, Han, but that's probably just making it worse. Do they hurt?" Without waiting for a confirmation, she mumbled something in Alderaani that he guessed was negative from her tone. She shifted beside him and glanced out past the bow of the skiff as if willing the craft to fly faster.

Considering their audience, Han wasn't expecting what happened next and he jumped in surprise as her hand alighted upon his thigh, just above the knee, to give a reassuring squeeze; before he could move his own hand to keep hers there, it was gone and he felt a stab of disappointment.

"[We have medication on the Falcon,]" Chewbacca supplied. "[In the meantime, you should have some water.]"

"I don't want any blasted water, Chewie! Will you two stop fussing, already?" That outburst earned him another group stare of concern, which only irritated him further. "I don't need a nursemaid, I just need…" I just need time…

Leia's voice sounded huskier than he remembered, as if she were the one in need of water. "Just a few more minutes. We're almost there."

As they raced against the clock, the towering wall of blowing brown sand that angled toward them was so dark that even he could make it out as it rose high into the sky and threaten to blot out both Tatooine's suns. The vanguard of the storm arrived only moments after they reached the shallow valley of dunes where the Millennium Falcon and Luke's borrowed X-Wing were parked.

Much as Han wanted to stand there beside his ship and admire her anew, weather conditions outside were deteriorating. They'd donned an odd assortment of protective goggles and pieces of clothing stashed in a storage compartment of the skiff, in case they'd miscalculated their arrival, but it wouldn't be enough once the storm hit in full force.

Perhaps sensing why Han had stopped walking, Lando elbowed Chewbacca and said: "Let's go get her warmed up, Chewie."

Chewbacca agreed, but paused before following Calrissian up the entrance ramp. "[Solo, don't linger too long or we'll have to wait out the storm here.]"

"Right. Just give me a minute."

Han felt Leia take his arm as she stepped up beside him. "They took good care of her."

"Yeah, that's what Chewie said…"

Luke paused to look up at the Falcon as well, and then turned to face them both. "I'm afraid this is where we'll have to part ways for a little while."

"What? Why?" Leia sounded both surprised and upset. "Aren't you coming back to the Fleet with us?"

"No, I have some unfinished business first. I need to complete my training."

Just as stunned as Leia, Han grunted in disbelief. "You're not finished? All I saw was swirls of black and green, but it looked pretty good to me."

Luke chuckled and then shook his head. "Thanks, but no. Not yet. I left prematurely to…to help out with the rescue, but I need to go back now."

"Will you be gone long?" Leia asked, not sounding at all like she was satisfied with his answers.

"I don't know."

A brutal gust of wind whipped past, forcing them all to brace against it and pull the random pieces of protective clothing a bit closer.

Han squinted at his friend, finally getting a chance to really see how much Luke had changed. The last time they'd spoken had been while saying goodbye on Hoth for what they'd both suspected might be the last time. Back then Luke had still been very much the fresh-faced and ebullient fighter pilot Han had considered both a friend and charge, but the man standing before him now was different, in ways his change in hair style and black Jedi tunic could not explain; it wasn't only the uniform that had become darker.

Didn't I always tell him to be careful what he wished for?

Luke pointed at the Falcon's ramp. "Go on, you two. I'll see you soon."

Leia released Han's arm and rushed forward to give Luke a tight hug, then stood on her toes to say something in his ear that the wind whipped away before Han could hear. Luke's response was press a quick kiss to her temple before letting her go. Then he turned back to Han, and Han moved forward and stretched out a hand. Luke took it in a sturdy shake, and then they spontaneously moved together for a quick hug as well. "Thanks, Luke…Thanks for getting me out of there…" He clapped the blond on the back in comradeship before letting go. "But you still owe me one."

Luke risked a mouth full of sand when he laughed out loud. "Get out of here before I have to dig you out tomorrow."

Making up his mind for him, Leia gripped Han's arm and tugged him toward the ramp. Out of pure habit, without needing to look, he punched the controls to raise the ramp and seal the ship as they reached the top. The growing roar of the wind outside was abruptly cut off and they were left standing together, surrounded by the comforting and familiar stillness of the Falcon's central hold. It was disorienting to think that it had been six months since the last time they'd stood together in that spot when it felt like little more than a day.

Leia dropped the cowling of her cloak and peeled off her goggles, but then seemed to hesitate on whether to remove the rest, her eyes darting to the corridor that led to the cockpit.

Putting the pieces together, Han realized she was probably self-conscious about the degrading outfit she still wore underneath. The thought of what she'd endured, the humiliation and gods only knew what else, made his blood simmer; it was just as well he'd been blind when brought before Jabba for judgment, for had he witnessed her chained up and treated as a slave, he'd have likely gone berserk. Even now, just seeing the thick golden circle of metal around her neck that peeked out from the rough cloth of her cloak was enough to make his hackles rise and his breath grow short.

"Are you okay?" he demanded.

Leia looked back up to him in surprise, although whether it was more from his sharp tone or his sudden feral look he couldn't say. She gave a simple nod and smile, as if the answer were obvious. "I'm fine."

That was her standard response to everything, no matter how dire, and this time he wasn't placated. "I mean it. Are you okay? Chewie told me how… Did they…?" Han clamped his mouth shut, unable to voice his worst fears.

Her expression sobered, as if guessing where his thoughts had gone. "I'm sunburned, my legs are scraped up, my arms ache, and it'll take a week of hot showers before I even begin to feel clean again…but I'm fine."

He could feel his blood pressure ratchet up another degree with each injury and his eyes raked over her hidden form, trying to spot the signs of damage, while not even sure of what he'd do if he found them.

"Han!" Her voice assumed the sort of regal authority that left no room for debate. "I. Am. Fine. And your debt is cancelled. Permanently."

"Leia…" Words had never been his strength, and now was no exception. What she'd risked, what she'd sacrificed to find him and bring him back from death itself — it awed and humbled him. How could he even come close to deserving that high a price? "Thank you for coming after me."

Her expression lightened into that relieved smile again, and she reached up to touch his cheek, as if making sure it was flesh after all. "It's what I do. Just don't go making a habit of it."

He recognized his own words, spoken during a similar exchange after they'd escaped Hoth, and it finally brought a smile to his own lips at the shared memory. He bent forward, intending to kiss her properly, but the moment was broken by a loud Wookiee roar echoing out from the cockpit, and he had to settle for a quick peck on her forehead.

"Come on, they're ready to go," he said gruffly as he captured her hand and squeezed, then led her across the circular corridor and down the short passageway to the cockpit.

With Threepio seated at the communication station behind the Wookiee, and Calrissian occupying the pilot's seat, the tiny cockpit was already crowded when they arrived. Lando began to rise and clear the way for the ship's rightful captain, but Han waved him back down.

"Stay. I don't trust my eyes yet. You and Chewie take her up."

Lando paused in surprise, but then gave Han a relieved look before returning to the pre-flight duties. "I'll be happy to."

Han turned back to Leia and indicated she should sit in the empty navigator's position, and then he dug into the deep pocket on the back of Chewie's seat and pulled out a spare multi-tool. "Let me see that," he said as he pointed it toward her neck.

Realizing what he intended to do, she leaned toward him and pulled away enough of her coverings to expose the heavy collar still encircling her graceful neck. Han gingerly lowered himself down onto one knee to steady himself as the Falcon's engines roared and the ship shuddered before rising into the sky.

Over the years, he'd picked more locks than he would ever admit to her, but the learned skill served them well today as the slave collar proved little challenge; even in his compromised state, it popped open within moments. He caught the device before it could fall to the deck, but when he saw the red welts where the metal had chaffed her pale skin, he threw it against the cockpit hatch with a clank loud enough to make the others jump.

Getting scattered across half the Dune Sea was too good for that slug bastard.

Han twisted away to return the tool to the storage pocket. When he looked back up to meet Leia's unwavering gaze, he was shocked to discover a tear running down her cheek, the rivulet blazed a shiny trail through the grime and heavy makeup the slave handlers had forced upon her. Whether this slip in her usual self control was due to relief or gratitude or some deeper sadness he couldn't say, but the one thing he knew for sure was that she wouldn't want attention drawn to it. Without a word, he brought his hand up, gently caught the next tear with his thumb, and used it to rub away some of the dirt.

Lando's voice interrupted their silent communion. "We're about to jump to lightspeed. Better brace yourself, Han."

Reluctantly, Han drew away from the princess and used the armrest of her chair to leverage himself up. He moved behind her and leaned back against the rear bank of the nav computer, his hands gripping the headrest of her seat. Grateful for the moment of relaxed scrutiny from the others, he closed his sore eyes and listened as his co-pilot and Calrissian went through the familiar steps of initiating a hyperjump, and then relished the sound of his ship's engines as they switched over.

By Kest, but she hasn't sounded that good in years. Lando really did fix her.

The realization brought a bittersweet emotion with it, but before he could dwell much on why, the ship had stabilized in flight and the seat beneath his grip shifted. He opened his eyes and looked out the overhead canopy to see a swirling streak of stars even more blurred than usual.

"[I'm hungry,]" Chewbacca announced, to no one's surprise, but his timing was perfect and the mood instantly lightened, as if they'd all been waiting for permission to relax.

Leia was the first to her feet. She turned and stopped in front of him. "I'm going back to get cleaned up."

"Okay. I think I might stay up here a little longer."

Her expression turned enigmatic for a second and he squinted at her, wondering if it was his imagination or if he'd said something wrong, but then she leaned in, gripped his arm, and gave him a quick kiss. "All right. Chewie, don't let him do anything too strenuous," she called out in parting before disappearing through the cockpit hatch.

"More strenuous than dangling over a sarlacc pit?" Han muttered too late, which was just as well.

Chewie climbed out from his station and made for the exit, but gave Han a pointed look in passing. "[Do you think she's including you sharing your bunk with her?]"

Han flashed his friend a rude gesture in response, and Chewie hooted in ribald amusement as he left, which was also just as well. Then he watched as Lando finished double-checking the flight controls before rising from the seat and turning to face him. Han didn't move, his hands still clenching the backrest of the navigator's seat, and they looked at one another for a long moment in tense silence.

Before either could speak, Threepio piped up. "Goodness, but that was more than enough adventure for me! It's such a relief everything worked out in the end, but what a disappointment that Master Luke and my companion, Artoo, could not join us for our voyage back. I was so looking forward to —"

Reminding himself that the nattering droid had assisted, in his own way, with the rescue, Han made an honest attempt at remaining polite as he interrupted: "Threepio, why don't you go back and help Chewie put a meal together?"

"Oh, but of course, Captain Solo! While that doesn't strictly fall within my usual duties or expertise, I would be more than happy to —"

"You're still here talking, Goldenrod," Han ground out in a low growl, already giving up on patience.

"Oh!" The protocol droid fussed a little more, but got the hint and shuffled out.

The hatchway hissed closed once more, finally leaving Han alone with Lando. They continued to eye one another for a long moment, and then Han used his grip on the seat to haul himself upright once more as he released a long sigh and straightened out his aching back. Everything ached, now that he thought about it.

"Han, I want to formally apologize for —"

"Don't bother. Chewie told me the rest of what happened on Bespin. I guess I put you in a pretty rotten spot by showing up with half the Imperial fleet in tow. There wasn't much else you could do with the whole city to think about. If anything, I should thank you for getting Leia and Chewie out of there safely, and apologize for costing you that sweet gig."

Lando waved a hand and let out a little chuckle. "Never mind that. The Empire was already snooping around and making threats long before you showed up, and I was getting tired of the operation, anyway. Besides, Leia hardly needed my help. I think she was ready to out that entire Imperial landing party single-handed if I hadn't dragged her onto the Falcon… That's quite a woman you've picked up, Solo. I don't know what you did to deserve her, but I hope you appreciate what you've got."

Never mind that he'd often wondered the same thing since leaving Hoth — it was Calrissian's flippant response and his casual personal advice that made Han bristle slightly. Memories of Bespin were still too fresh in his mind, but he clamped down on the reaction by reminding himself that all this was old news to everyone else.

What you've got…

What did he have, exactly? Events had been coming at him so fast, often in a rush of adrenaline and a blur of motion while he'd tried to acclimatize and keep up, that he'd had no time to think about what might happen next in his relationship with the princess.

"I've been using the spare cabin you rigged up next to Chewie's in the number three hold," Lando supplied without prompting, and Han suspected this was meant as further appeasement, a reassurance that his friend and sometimes rival had never considered playing the role of captain as anything other than a temporary condition.

"The old girl sounds good," Han offered as a gruff thank-you.

"The least I could do. I knew we were probably going to need a fast ship to get out of that situation. We came this close to getting you out, too, but…" Lando had held up his hand, making a pinching gesture, but then dropped it back to his side, some of his energy diminished. "Time wasn't on our side."

"No…" Han trailed off, reminded once again of the inconsistency of time. A few moments too late had spelled six months too long for them but little more than an instant to him. But what if things hadn't worked out the way they had? What if it had taken years rather than months to find him? How long would they have kept looking?

"Han, old buddy, I think you should turn in. Heads will roll if Leia learns you passed out up here."

Han blinked, too late to notice he'd dropped out in the middle of their conversation. "Yeah, I think I will. Take it easy," he said in parting, then turned and palmed open the hatchway. He walked down the short passageway to the circular corridor that ringed the freighter, then headed for the main crews quarters that served as his cabin. Once there, he glanced around at the trio of empty bunks. Nothing had changed, as if no time had passed since he'd stood there last, but then he realized that with Leia's return to the fleet after Bespin, and with both Chewie and Calrissian bunking in the make-shift cabins in the rear hold, they'd had no reason to use the space other than to access the fresher.

From what he'd been told, Leia hadn't accompanied Lando and Chewie during their search, although she'd argued to come along. He could believe that — one of the few things they had exchanged heated words over while on that long trip had been whether or not she should accompany him and Chewie when they finally faced Jabba. The argument had been made moot by Lord Vader, and in the end she had gotten her way after all.

"I'm supposed to be there when you face Jabba. I can feel it."

It was something Leia had said during that exchange, and the memory made him pause. Han frowned, not sure of what to make of that eerie premonition. Then he shook it off. They'd all made announcements like that from time to time, expressing bad feelings about situations that were bad to begin with; considering the lives they led, odds were good they were bound to be right from time to time.

He glanced at the closed door to the fresher. He could hear the shower running and it brought a tired grin to his face. Long hot real-water showers, as opposed to the ubiquitous sonics onboard most military craft and within the temporary base barracks, were one of the few luxuries the princess regularly indulged in. Over the years she'd become quite imaginative in her excuses to use the Falcon's unique facility, and experience told him she would probably be in there for a while.

That's not a bad idea.

The thought of sharing a shower with Leia, of picking up right where they'd left off before the disaster on Bespin, suddenly sounded like the best thing in the world. Needing no more convincing, he reached for the door. He was already pulling the soiled shirt he'd lived in since Bespin up over his head as he entered the cramped and now steamy room, and then nearly tripped headlong into the opaque shower door before catching himself on the tiny basin. Letting out an oath, he yanked his shirt back down and looked down to find an abandoned pile of wrought metal and red fabric tangled around his boots.

All thoughts of a joyous and sensual reunion in the shower stall abandoned him, replaced by a ferocious rush of anger upon seeing the offensive outfit, a hateful symbol not only of everything Leia had suffered on his behalf, but of his utter failure to prevent it. Despite his soreness, he swooped down to scoop up all the pieces, then swung around and exited the fresher. He marched back to the cockpit, now empty, and viciously grabbed the slave collar that had been kicked into the corner like some malevolent but dead creature.

With every scrap of evidence in hand, he strode through the main hold, ignoring the curious gazes of his other passengers who had gathered there to relax, and headed for the rear engineering bay where the plasma cutter was stored. Within moments he'd slammed the slave garb down onto an old storage crate, fired up the cutting torch, and with methodical determination proceeded to break it all down into unrecognizable pieces of slag. By then the cloth portions caught fire and he belatedly scrambled to retrieve the fire extinguisher, stationed there for emergencies, but he was too late as the fire alarms began to shriek throughout the ship. By the time he'd put out the flames, a very startled-looking Chewbacca, Lando, and Threepie were gathered in the entrance and staring in at him.

"[What the hell are you doing?]" Chewbacca demanded, his blue eyes wide.

Not bothering to explain, Han gingerly picked up the now unrecognizable mass, shouldered past them, and headed for the port-side docking ring. Once there, he cycled open the inner hatch, threw the remains of the slave outfit into the airlock, resealed the blast door, and then punched the outer hatch stud. A new and different claxon joined the loud din in the corridor. It was only after he heard the outer door reseal and both sirens die that he felt satisfied.

"What?" he demanded in response as he turned around to meet the bewildered stares awaiting him.

A second later Leia came rushing up and Lando — doing a classic double-take — gave way so she could have a clear view. Looking completely alarmed and wearing nothing but a huge towel wrapped around her torso, her bare skin glistened and her long hair dripped water, creating little puddles on the metal deck plate around her bare feet. "What's going on?" she blurted out, still surveying the scene but beginning to deduce the situation. "What are you doing, Han?"

"Nothing. I just took out the trash. What are you doing?"

Only then did she seem to realize he wasn't the only spectacle at the moment and that all eyes had turned to her. Her cheeks tinted and she clutched the folded and tucked edge of her towel a little tighter. "Isn't it obvious?"

Chewbacca shook his head with a visible mixture of disgust and relief. "[Next time you want to throw something out the airlock, gives us some warning, you fool.]"

Han threw up his hands in defense. "All right, all right."

He watched the group head back toward the main hold, but Leia remained and continued to eye him as though he might be a danger to himself or others. "Are you sure you're okay?" There was an all new and very clear thread of concern in her voice.

"I'm okay." Now that his anger had dissipated, he realized how bizarre his actions might have appeared. "I had to do that. It's over now."

She didn't move for a long moment before nodding, as if she'd understood his momentary insanity. "Good. Why don't you come and get cleaned up and then get some sleep? You must be exhausted."

She was right as he felt the last of his energy drain away, leaving behind a deep weariness he'd never felt before. Without protest, he gave a single nod and started back toward the bunk room. She fell in alongside him, her bare feet squelching on the smooth deck plates.

"You're mopping that up later, Your Worship," he teased in a low voice.

"Shut up."

Once back in his cabin, he was reminded of where his thoughts had strayed, but Leia was already rummaging through a duffle bag on one of the spare bunks. He was pleasantly surprised when she pulled out one of his big shirts and a pair of workout tights, but then disappointed that his opportunity for that shared shower had passed. Then again, he was little condition to finish anything he started, anyway.

Han moved toward the fresher and closed the door behind him, then stripped. Once he stepped into the cascade of hot water, the sensation made him sigh and he put out a supporting hand to the shower wall and closed his bleary eyes while leaning into the pounding jets and letting the water wash away the sweat and grime and horror of Bespin and Tatooine. As the heat worked its way into his aching muscles, he reflected that he couldn't fault Leia at all for doing whatever it took to enjoy this little pleasure; it was why he'd done the modifications in the first place.

Despite his best efforts to hide it, he hurt all over. His eyes still throbbed, almost in time with his heartbeat, and not just his muscles but his very bones seemed to ache. The mild concussion and what felt like bruised ribs, injuries he'd received when the Bespin guards had retaliated for his sucker-punching Calrissian in that detaining cell, added to his discomfort. He felt like he'd been trampled by a herd of nerfs and then stuck in a deep freeze unit to preserve the damage.

It wasn't just the physical discomfort that bothered him, though. He wasn't used to being fawned over, and all the focused attention had begun to rub against emotional nerves still exposed by everything that had happened since Cloud City. While the others had enjoyed the benefits of time to heal their wounds, his were still fresh. His guilt from failing to protect Leia and Chewbacca was a particular raw spot, and the fact they'd risked everything to free him hurt even more.

It was a harder thing to accept the fact that time had flowed past him like a river surging around and past a solitary rock in its path. Through no fault of their own, his friends had not waited for him but had instead moved on with their lives. To suddenly be dropped back into the middle of that stream left him feeling out of sync with those he cared most about.

Reaching the waterlogged threshold, Han finished washing up, then stepped out and grabbed a towel. He was still working it through his hair as he walked back out into the bunkroom in search of some clean clothing, when a gasp made him stop and look up.

Leia was still standing near his bunk, her dark eyes widening as she gave him the once-over. "Oh Goddess…"

Unable to help himself, Han gave her of his best leers before wrapping the towel around his waist and tucking in the end to secure it. "That's always nice to hear, Your Highness, but it's nothing you haven't sampled already."

She blinked at him, then managed one of her more classic blushes and waved a dismissive hand as she walked toward him. "Very funny, Han. I meant…" She reached out a hesitant hand to touch one of the ugly bruises peppering his frame.

He watched her fingers as they skimmed over his skin, a light dance of sensation that he welcomed despite the pain. When he flinched as she explored the tender dark purple splotch on his side, she stopped in alarm.

"A parting gift from Lando's guards… or Vader's… or Jabba's. I lost track," he murmured.

"You might have some broken ribs."

"No, I don't think so. It'll be fine in a day or two. Don't worry about it."

"What about your head?"

"It's still there."

Leia gave up being solicitous and planted both fists on her hips, not bothering to hide the mix of irritation and joy at having him back, obstinacy and all. "We'll have a med droid check you out as soon as we arrive at Sullust."

"Won't be necessary," he grunted as he stepped over to the lockers and opened one to pull out a pair of clean briefs.

"No, you should really get checked out, just to —"

Turning back to face her, Han repeated, "Won't be necessary."

Her expression had grown cloudy, like a storm was threatening to roll in. "Are you really going to fight me on this?"

"Sweetheart, if you want to play nurse for me, I'll be happy to oblige because I like your bedside manner. But I'm not about to let some droid poke and prod me for the next three weeks, which is exactly what'll happen."

"I don't think —"

"Oh no? How many recorded instances are there of humans surviving carbon freezing?"

Leia went silent, clearly evaluating his question and calculating where he was going with it.

"Go on. I know you've done your homework because you're the one who told Chewie. How many?"

Although appearing reluctant to admit he'd correctly anticipated her, Leia answered in a muted tone: "Three… One died hours later from complications. One was committed to an asylum because he…" She stopped.

"And the third?"

There was an even longer pause before she continued. "That would be you, Han."

For a second he thought her eyes had watered, but his sight was still a touch blurry and she glanced away before he could confirm it. Any self-satisfaction in outwitting her died; it was a hell of an argument to win. He removed the towel and slid his briefs on. "I don't want to become part of some science project to improve the technique. I just want to put it behind me. I won't lie to you — I still hurt, but I'll be better after a good nights' sleep. I promise."

I hope.

Leia studied him, no doubt guessing he was covering up a lot more, but then she gave a little nod of capitulation and started for the door. "All right. I'll leave you alone."

"I'd rather you didn't."

The hesitation he detected as she turned back to look up at him was a surprise. To him, they'd been sharing his bunk as recently as two nights ago, and yet here was another reminder of how much time had passed between them. With a sick sensation, Han realized six months was more than enough time for her to mull things over, to examine what had happened on that trip and to have doubts or even regrets. She seemed different somehow from the woman he'd left on that steam-shrouded platform on Bespin, and it wasn't just the new shadows and sharper angles he could spot in her beautiful features. It wasn't something he could simply chalk up to exhaustion, either — he'd witnessed her being pushed to the very edge of endurance on more than one occasion and knew that look well. No, this seemed to go much deeper and darker, maybe in the same way Luke had changed, but his own exhaustion interfered as he struggled to pin it down.

Leia spared a last glance toward the bunkroom hatch. Their shipmates would eventually need the fresher as well, and no doubt she was wondering just how much privacy they truly had with Lando onboard. But then she moved past him to stand by their bunk, bent down to draw back the covers, and then met his eyes, waiting for him. "Into the bunk, Flyboy."

Now there's a royal command I can't resist.

He collapsed onto the mattress with a sigh, and it was all he could do to slide in and make room for her. "I bet you say that to all your patients."

"Only the scruffy ones."

Grinning and feeling very grateful that her sense of humor was still intact, he watched as Leia climbed in beside him, propped up a few pillows, and then leaned back, settling in alongside in a semi-prone position. She hadn't undressed and he suspected that was due more to propriety, but he could hardly complain as she drew closer and cradled his head against her chest. He felt her let out a long sigh then, and a moment later her hand rose to touch his face once again, first the scar on his chin, then slowly down his jaw before sliding up and around to brush back the hair from his forehead.

"I missed you so much…"

Her whisper was as soft as her touch, and his eyes closed as he relished the soothing sensation. He regretted all the pain and loneliness she'd endured, and wished he could say he'd experienced the same pain of long separation, but it had seemed to be no time at all. "Leia… It was just a great big nothing. One second I was on that platform, and the next…I was back in your arms."

"That's such a relief." She tucked her chin down so she could press her lips to his forehead, and then smoothed over the spot once more. "It's all over now. Go to sleep."

Han didn't need to be told twice.