A/N: First, let me apologize for how long it took for me to finish this story and thank all the readers and reviewers who have read and enjoyed it. This is probably my favorite story and I really had a hard time feeling as though I could give it the ending that I thought it deserved. But as Zyra has told me, since this 'ending' leads into ESB, it is not really an ending but a beginning anyway! Still, I don't know if I have done the story justice, but I guess you guys will let me know if I didn't! Lastly (as always) many thanks to my beta reader, Zyra. Without her I might not have ever published this story - much less finished it.
Chapter Sixteen: Release
It wasn't him that she saw standing in front of her in the icy corridor. It was everything that would never be between them. He was a shattered dream of a life that she should've known better than to ever hope for. Maybe all this time had been an illusion, all her feelings just a childish crush. Even if he was everything that she had thought he was, it was becoming painfully clear that he would never be hers. Never did she think she would ever fall in love anyway and her heart ached at the injustice of it all. The overwhelming pain actually surprising her; she had thought that she wouldn't have had enough left of her heart for it to break again. But little had she known that, over the past three years, someone had been following quietly behind her and putting its pieces back together again. And what had been impossible, unthinkable, unwanted - had happened.
"Can I help you, Captain?" There was something about his name on her lips and her name on his that prevented her from saying it. It was an ownership, an intimacy that she could literally feel slipping through their fingers.
"Can I come in?"
She hesitated. Yesterday she would've worried about impropriety and what she might have allowed him to do to her behind closed doors. Today she worried the words would come to fast and too sharp if they weren't dulled by an audience. "Suit yourself." Stepping back, she allowed him to enter her room and they stood facing each other as the door slid shut.
"I came to apologize for my behavior yesterday."
"There's no need, Captain. I'm quite used to your antics by now." She felt as if she had no control over her words or her insolent attitude toward him. It was as if her only choices were to either stand defiant before him or collapse. She lifted her chin. Today was not the day that she would collapse.
Han stood in silence watching her; it was not the look of a man trying to figure something out, but of a man that had lost any idea of where he was or how he had gotten there. "Was there anything else, Captain?" She pressed.
"I was just going to…"
"I never got to thank you for everything you did for me…I mean, coming back for me…on Ord Mantell."
She hesitated at his words; they were not what she had expected. After a few heartbeats, she replied, "You're welcome, Captain." She turned and walked away from him, putting some distance between them in more ways than one. As she was walking away from him, she said, "I would've done the same for any one of our operatives." And then turning back towards him she added, "You know that."
Whether it was her words or her manner, she couldn't be sure, but she recognized the change in him immediately. She watched as every single muscle beneath his skin seem to tense and the pulse point in his neck throbbed. His only visible, physical reaction was the curling of his fingers slowly into fists. This was the power that they held over each other and played with like a Rancor toying with its prey. The power to propel emotions passed their limits, to quicken a heartbeat or stop it dead in its tracks.
"Right. Well, thanks anyway," he replied evenly.
"Was that all?"
Han drew in a deep breath and held it, his fingers uncurling from their fists. As quickly as she had watched the tension seize control of his body, she watched it shed off of him like second skin. "I guess it was," he answered as he released his breath and with it, she felt as if he had released her.
For a terrifying moment she thought that maybe she had overplayed her hand, that maybe she should shed her coolness and break down in front of him like she so desperately wanted to. She felt her own muscles quivering at the enormity of strength it now took for her to merely remain standing in front of him. She swallowed and then her mouth fell open slightly, letting him see the silent words that she could not put a voice to, hoping by some miracle he would hear them.
His gaze traveled the length of her body as if committing it to memory. When his eyes met hers again they were soft and apologetic and her heart leapt for a brief moment. If just one of them would break - if he would only take the first step – she vowed she would meet him halfway. But then his lips pressed together into a tight line and she saw a stony mask of defeat slide over his face. He suddenly no longer looked like a man that was lost, but like a man that had just made a decision.
"I should go," he whispered.
Leia cleared her throat. Inside, her arms were reaching out for him. Inside, she was screaming for him to stay. But outwardly, she only nodded her head in resignation. "I guess so."
And with that, without so much as one more word between them, Han turned around and left her quarters.
When her door slid shut it was as if a chapter of her life had just been closed. Letting Han Solo walk away from her felt like either one of the hardest things she had ever done in her entire life or the stupidest. As corny as it sounded, it felt like a piece of her had broken off and walked away with him. She was a shell of the woman she had been just days ago on Ord Mantell. She sat down on her bunk and let the disappointment and anger slowly swell within her, filling up the cracks and crevices that had been left cold and empty inside of her.
She let her stony facade slip slowly into place and to her it felt like stepping into a warrior's armor. There was a familiar, comfortable sensation that came with it. She had been here before. This had been her salvation so many years ago when her world had literally fallen apart. It was a mixture of apathy and fortitude, where she could trudge forward brazenly as if above the folly of petty human emotion. Inside of herself she saw a woman overpowered by passion, warmth and desire and it was surprising and disheartening how easy it was for everyone else to see and believe in the cold, unfeeling persona that now, more than ever, she felt compelled to wear.
She let her body collapse onto her bunk. She was tired and weary, like so many soldiers that find they have been fighting a battle that just cannot be won, their only option being to withdraw and hope their opponents do the same. Hope. It was a dangerous and provocative thing and she no longer dared play with its tempting flame. She shut her eyes against the faint lighting in her quarters and against the thoughts and unspoken words that haunted her. What could've been said and what could've been done, all empty shells of a past that could never be altered. As exhaustion began to overtake her, she vowed to awaken anew tomorrow, enveloped by a whole new resolve...
It was the next day - as she stood in the makeshift command center studying a string of radar activity - that she sensed him enter. Turning towards him, their eyes met. His - searching and contrite, hers - piercing and unforgiving. He turned away from her and headed to the other side of the room and she looked back at her screen.
She heard Rieekan's voice say, "Solo?"