Chapter 10

Hours later Han stood in the middle of the busy flight deck, a camo duster coat draped over one shoulder, as he surveyed the traffic of soldiers and deck crews flowing around him. His assault team had already loaded their equipment onto the Tydirium, a tall tri-winged Lambda-class Imperial shuttle he and Chewie would be flying to Endor's Moon, and all of them were now milling about in the shadows of the ship, enjoying the last hour of freedom before they would pile aboard to depart on the overnight trip.

Despite all the new worries and plans occupying his mind, Han's attention kept wandering back to the familiar and beloved shape of his own ship. The Falcon rested nearby with her entrance ramp down and beckoning him to come aboard. Had there been any other way, he would have taken her on this vital mission without a second thought, but she was too familiar to the enemy and anything but Imperial in appearance, and so she'd been ruled out as an option. Instead, she was powered down, without a role or purpose, as passive as an island amidst the rushing tide of energy around her.

Han frowned, deeply troubled by the sight. The rational part of his mind knew it was unwise to anthropomorphize a ship like that, but just the same he couldn't help feeling like he was abandoning her; as if he had no use for her in this grand offensive he was about to lead, despite the many times she'd saved his hide in the past. She was a ship that, in his eyes, was still the best ship of the fleet and it was a shame to leave her cooped up like this within the docking bay of a lumbering Mon Calamari frigate, empty and powered down while the rest of the fleet prepared to engage in what would likely be a very short but epic battle, the likes of which hadn't been seen the Clone Wars. It seemed the worst sort of betrayal.

The kernel of an absurd idea began to form in Han's mind, but before he could unearth and explore it, his attention was diverted by the arrival of Luke and Leia. They appeared in the middle of a very animated conversation as they slowly strode toward him. Both carried personal backpacks, and from the helmets and other camo gear tucked under their arms, it was clear that they'd just come from Supplies. As he watched them approach, that twinge of irritation from earlier returned to catch him off guard.

Han couldn't begin to list the number of times over the years that he'd seen them just like this, standing close and talking with a casualness that often irked him because they made it look so easy. Han had never considered himself the jealous type — he'd never found other women worth the effort — and yet Luke stirred up an envy within Han because of his seemingly unfailing ability to bring out so many of the better qualities within Leia; qualities Han appreciated and conversely struggled the hardest to engender.

Even during their most intimate and tender moments on the way to Bespin, Han had sensed she was still holding back from him, never fully comfortable. Although he wanted to believe she wouldn't lie to him, he also sensed she was withholding the full truth, and so that fine thread of tension continued to weave itself between them, despite everything they'd been through and no matter how hard he tried to snap it. Their moody reunion the night before and their confrontation this afternoon had been testaments to just how hard he still had to work at this, and that fact threatened what little piece of mind he had left. Would it ever get easier? Was he just circling a Black Hole, delaying the inevitable failure? At what point would he be better off cutting his losses and admitting that a princess and a guy like him could never work?

As the two drew near, they both grew quiet, seeming to notice Han's scowl at the same time.

"What's wrong?" Leia asked, direct as usual.

Too late to realize he'd been so obvious, but not about to voice his paranoia-fueled doubts, Han shrugged and then thrust his chin out toward the Falcon in front of him. "Nothing. Just hate the idea that she'll be sitting here doing nothing while I'm flying off in this old crate," he said and jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the graceful gull-winged shuttle behind him. They followed Han's gaze toward the significantly older and battered Corellian freighter, but both had enough good sense not to point out that fact.

Luke agreed with a calm smile. "I know what you mean, Han. But I think she'd understand."

Han nodded back, not feeling very mollified. He noticed that Leia had tipped her head a little and was eyeing both of them as if they were talking in some masculine code. "It's a pilot thing," he attempted to elaborate.

She raised an eyebrow that both questioned and teased his response, but then she left it at that. Instead, she glanced around them. "Is everyone here?"

"Yeah, Chewie's already onboard and warming her up. We're just waiting for the final go-ahead." Han shoved back the sleeve of his white shirt and checked his chrono. "About twenty minutes."

With a sigh, Han dropped his arms and met Leia's eyes, feeling his throat go dry. Her usual beauty seemed tainted by new shadows — no amount of makeup could hide her strain and exhaustion — and once again Han was tempted to throw her over his shoulder, run for the Falcon, and blast out of here before it was too late. He was grateful she had volunteered to come along, and yet he desperately wished there was some place he could send her instead, far away from the dangers they were about to face. But he also knew that any such suggestion would fly like a bantha with strap-on wings.

Han swallowed hard. After all the hard work of winning this woman over, and then getting a rare second chance with her, he was about to put everything back on the line again.

Am I insane? What the hell am I thinking?

Luke made a little sound as he cleared his throat, then he reached out to take Leia's pack as he mumbled, "I'll go stow our gear on board." Without another word, he left them alone and headed for the entrance ramp of the Tydirium.

Luke's tactical departure surprised Han, but he had little time to ponder it. Instead, he stared down at Leia, thinking hard about what he had to say and hoping it wouldn't earn him a swift kick to the kneecap. "Look, Leia…"

Those kaffe-colored eyes narrowed at him as if she'd already read his mind; Leia always had that uncanny ability to anticipate people and he was no exception. "If you're about to propose that I stay here on the command ship, try again."

Han clenched his teeth, baffled by how he could love someone this exasperating. Sometimes he questioned his own tastes.

"There's nothing left for me to do here," Leia continued. "But I could make a difference on your team."

"I don't doubt you could. I just… If something happens…" He gave her an almost pleading look now, wishing he were the sort of eloquent man she probably deserved.

"Whatever happens, I'd rather be with you." There was a slight tremor in her voice, but her gaze didn't waver. Something in her tone and expression took him back to that shared moment on the carbon freeze platform in Cloud City and he felt his heart skip a beat just as it had back then.

That's why you love her. You needed a reminder?

Han mustered a smile and then gave a single nod. "All right, Princess." He rarely used her proper title anymore, but he said it and meant it now; in this moment she epitomized everything he thought royalty should be, and he loved her all the more for it.

He intended to say more, but the spell was broken and his attention drawn away as another figure approached. Calrissian was walking fast in their direction, no doubt aware that their last minutes were ticking by.

"General Calrissian?" Han called out, and was gratified to see Lando hesitate and start to glance over his shoulder to see who Han was talking to; that made two of them.

"General Solo," Lando tossed back in retaliation as he came to a stop beside them. The man gave Leia a warm smile and a gracious tip of the head. "Your Highness. Allow me to wish you luck. Keep this stubborn Corellian safe, will you?"

She let out a little chuckle. "Thank you, General. I'll need it."

"All right, all right," Han grumbled good-naturedly, interrupting their exchange.

Leia returned Han's smile, reached out to squeeze his bicep, and then said, "I'll be on the ship."

Han spared a moment to watch her leave, then turned back and grew serious once more. "You take care of yourself up there, Lando. They're playing for keeps."

Calrissian nodded. He pivoted a little on his heels to survey the distinct features of the Lambda-class shuttle behind Han, and then his gaze fell on the Falcon off to the side. After a moment, his eyes returned to the Tydirium and he asked, "How do you think she handles?"

Han recognized that his friend was searching for a way to say goodbye and was settling for comfortable territory, which was fine by Han. "Like a three-legged nerf. What are you flying to lead this parade?"

Lando gave a shrug. "I needed something big enough to carry my command crew, so they gave me a repurposed Skipray. It'll do."

Han frowned, a bit surprised by the answer. A Skipray Blastboat housed enough weaponry, no doubt, but it wasn't very fast in deep space and it wouldn't have been Han's first choice.

Hell, if I were in his shoes, there'd be only one choice…

Han's gaze shifted back over to the Falcon and stayed there. That seed of an idea from earlier suddenly germinated in his mind, and he realized with a new sourness in his stomach that there was one obvious and simple solution.

"Take the Falcon."

"What?" Lando looked as if Han had just punched him in the gut, which was funny since that was how Han felt the moment the words left his lips.

"Take the Falcon. That Skipray won't cut it. You'll need the extra shield capacity the Falcon has, and I can't stand the thought of her sitting here rotting in this docking bay with nothing to do. You know how to fly her right. Just take her."

Calrissian began to shake his head, and Han couldn't tell which Lando feared more — Han's general state of mind or what Han might do if anything happened to his beloved ship. But his own sudden conviction added fuel to his argument as he pointed at his ship. "Look! I want you to take her. I mean it. Take her! You need all the help you can get. She's the fastest ship in the fleet!"

Lando held up both his hands in defense, caving under the unexpected onslaught. From the look on Calrissian's face, Han could tell he knew Han was right. "All right, old buddy. You know, I know what she means to you. I'll take good care of her. She — she won't get a scratch. All right?"

Feeling strangely relieved, Han let out a sharp breath, but then threw a frantic glance at his ship once more as all the real implications began to sink in. "Right… I got your promise now. Not a scratch!"

Calrissian rolled his eyes, not bothering to hide his own aggravation. "Look, would you get going, you pirate!"

Sighing, Han nodded and paused as he gave his old friend a last meaningful look. Acting on an impulse, he straightened his posture and saluted. Lando's eyebrows rose in surprise before he returned the sincere gesture. "Good luck."

"You, too," Han said, and then he spun around on his heel and marched toward the boarding ramp of the Tydirium before he could change his mind. The soldiers who made up his strike team were already filing aboard, and he followed the last of them up the ramp, determined not to look back.

The main interior of the shuttle had been stripped of most accoutrements to make room for the entire team; two rows of seats with crash webbing lined the sides of the hold, and the bags of equipment, rations, weapons and sleeping kits were piled in the center. Half the men were already settled into the cushioned seats, but the rest, including Leia, were still milling around waiting for him.

Han conducted a final headcount before palming the hatch controls to seal up the ship. Everyone within the crowded hold turned to him, including Threepio and Artoo, and they grew silent as if expecting him to make an announcement. He supposed he should.

"All right, folks, we're taking this show on the road. Once we've made the jump, it's going to be about six hours until we drop back out of hyperspace, so I recommend you spread out as much as you can and get some sleep. The fresher's up front here by near the cockpit."

Han shot a quick look at Leia, wondering what else he should say — she was usually the one in charge of pep talks — but she shrugged back at him, making it quite clear that this was his stage today. Han reigned in his frustration at her questionable timing and looked back out at the rest of the bunch. "All right then. Get strapped in." With that, he turned and headed toward the cockpit with Leia in tow.

Luke was already seated in the traditional communications station behind the copilot's chair that barely contained Chewie. If they'd had more time, Han would have arranged something bigger for the Wookiee, but he would just have to make do.

"You got her warmed?" Han asked has he climbed into the pilot's station and dropped down into the padded seat.

"Yeah, she's coming up," Luke answered.

"[I don't like this ship! Why would they put the reverse thrusters here? And this chair is too small! Don't they have tall beings in the Imperial Fleet?]"

"No. I don't think the Empire had Wookiees in mind when they designed her, Chewie."

"[Their loss.]"

Han needed only a moment to familiarize himself with the standard controls of the shuttle, and then he glanced up and out the forward canopy in time to spot Lando beneath the starboard mandible of the Falcon, only now hewas accompanied by a short Sullustian, also in Alliance gear. The two were in the middle of an animated conversation, pointing at various portions of the freighter, and then they headed up the Falcon's boarding ramp to disappear inside.

The sounds of chatter from the rear compartment and Chewie's continued grumbling about inconvenient instrumentation faded into the background as Han stared out at his ship.

For most of his life Han had made an effort to keep his life simple and clutter free, just the way he'd come to like it. There had been only two constants; Chewbacca and the Falcon. Although he'd slowly added other people onto that short list, his conviction that his best friend and his ship would always be there for him never faltered. But for the first time in more than a decade, he was about to set out on an adventure without the Falcon, and Han discovered that it left him feeling far more unsettled than he'd anticipated.

Spacers were a superstitious lot by nature and Han was no different, but he'd always limited his own eccentricities to a pair of colorful socks and a well-worn blaster, happy to leave the rest to natural luck. But now, as he watched the running lights along the edges of the Millennium Falcon's hull blink to life, indicating her engines were beginning their warm-up cycle at the hands of someone else, he suddenly felt an urge to run through every single good luck ritual he could think of.

A slender hand gripped his shoulder and squeezed, snapping Han back to the present. Blinking, he glanced back to find Leia leaning forward from the navigator's position behind him.

"Hey, are you awake?" she asked in a soft, affectionate voice that reminded Han of more intimate moments, and for an instant he once again felt like the luckiest man in the universe.

"Yeah, I just got a funny feeling. Like I'm not gonna see her again."

Han's words landed in the tight confines of the cockpit like a thermal grenade; they stopped what they were doing to join him in staring in silence at the ship's scarred and scored features. Then Leia jostled him, a gentle reminder that time was not on their side. "Come on, General, let's move."

Reluctantly, Han nodded as he came back to life. "Right. Chewie, let's see what this piece of junk can do. Ready, everybody?"

"All set," Luke answered.

"Here we go again," Threepio piped up from where he stood within the cockpit hatchway.

"All right, hang on," Han said. He eased power into the lift thrusters and the shuttle rose into the air at his command.

As they headed for the docking bay's exit and the Falcon passed out of view, Han was reminded of Leia's words from earlier. She'd expressed her darker fears about being unable to escape her destiny and how maybe things had come full circle, but he decided that there were other ways to interpret why the four of them were about to face off with yet another Death Star. But wasn't it possible that they were just meant to destroy this monstrosity, too?

Then again, Han didn't believe in destiny. He believed in simple answers, blind luck, and most of all, he believed in his friends, and that would have to be enough.