Five hours later, Han Solo was almost in a good mood.
He had plotted a tricky three-jump route that popped them out of hyperspace near the Lijuter space station three timeparts before the Roan's supply shuttle was even scheduled to arrive. In terms of astrogational planning, it was a personal record for him, and he was feeling damned proud of it.
And Leia Organa was wearing her hair down.
He was admiring her out of the corner of his eye even though the tapcaf at the Lijuter space station was dimly lit. Grease from the adjoining space dock spotted the floors but the booths and prefab tables had been recently cleaned. Additionally, as a special attraction and of particular interest to Han, the tapcaf had a large three-sided holovid screen fixed above the central bar. Exotic passers-through could catch up on the latest smashball match, the stock of Kuati shipping supplies, and major news items from around the galaxy while eating dinner or waiting for small repairs to be completed next door. If anything of stellar interest occurred in the nearby vicinity, they would broadcast it live via the Lijuter planetary newsfeed.
Leia hunched her shoulders inward. She was saying, "We need to make sure we get our stories straight for the debriefing."
Feeling agreeable, Han said, "I'll say whatever you want me to say."
"Okay." She went ahead, suspiciously. "For starters, I feel we should leave out any mention of your friend Blix."
"That's not a problem." Blix had announced as soon as they arrived at the Lijuter space station that flying anywhere else with Han was hazardous to his health. He was roaming the decks in search of piloting work, with a fresh pair of pants and a pile of credits stuffed in his back pocket. "And?"
"As it stands, I see no reason to make Roan's sacrifice any less worthy. No one needs to know he was acting as a double agent before the war began. It will only be a source of grief to the Alderaanian survivors. As for the Alderaanian Legion itself, the Lunera faction is closed permanently and along with it, everyone involved. Roan had already arranged for that."
"I sure hope this works."
"I know him. He'll do it. He was a good man." Leia made an effort to shrug casually. "I've been trying to piece everything together. I know that Roan was married to the daughter of another of Alderaan's ruling houses and that her father served as one of the Emperor's chief advisors. They were political enemies of House Organa and devout Imperial supporters."
"Acrimonious Alderaanian family politics?"
"Didn't you ever hear..?" She let the sentence drift and shook her head. "Probably not. A decade before the Clone Wars began, my father's position as Viceroy was decided by the Jedi during an Ascendancy Contention. The bad blood between several of the Royal Houses, particularly the Organas and the Tarkanas, never dissipated, even after Alderaan established itself as a democracy and the viceroy became more of a figurehead than a position of power. Palpatine was only a Senator at the time, but when he rose to power the Tarkanas were right there with them."She lowered her voice. "When I was first elected to the Senate, there were even rumours that Rist Tarkana's daughter had briefly been Palpatine's mistress. She later became Roan's wife. My father must have heard them. He had no option but to terminate Roan's position."
Han poked his tongue into his cheek pocket. "Maybe Roan's choice of a wife wasn't that much of a coincidence."
"That's already occurred to me." She closed her eyes thoughtfully. "He told me he had a son. If there was any chance that he'd been selected by her…" She let out a slow breath and opened her eyes. "I do believe he really loved her. He was incapable of seeing that his relationship with her may have been part of a greater plan, no matter how slim."
"Everyone's life is part of a greater plan these days."
She wrinkled her brow. "Are you talking about Luke?"
"You'll definitely need to come up a better story for Luke. The kid's nosy and he has a knack for sniffing out the truth."
"I don't know what to tell High Command about the Imperials on Lunera. They need to be alerted to the Imperial presence there, but for the love of the Force, I can't come up with what to say that won't lead to more questions."
"Maybe they were just looking for a poorly kept port to sell off old syrris supplies."
"That's actually quite helpful. I'll include it in my report." Leia rested her chin on her steepled hands. "Why did the syrris make you so angry?"
"Who said it made me angry?"
"I could tell."
Han glanced over at the holovid screen. It was showing recaps of a manufacturing strike down on Duros. "They experimented with it as a crowd controller, a means to get mobs of irate Wookiee slaves to calm down without permanent neural damage."
"That's why Chewie had recognized the smell," she began, eyes widening. "Oh, I wish you had told me before."
He leaned over and lifted her hair. The swelling had gone down slightly, but she still bore a purple crescent shaped bruise beneath her eye that angled out across her cheek bone. "What about this? What will we say?"
"Turbulence during our flight?"
"Nah. It looks too much like a fist."
"What do you suggest?"
He tipped his glass toward her. "You'll just have to wear your hair down more often."
She said, deadpan, "I thought it would be best for your safety if the space station employees weren't under the impression that you beat me."
Han broke into a long, hearty laugh. He liked it when she relaxed. It didn't happen often enough. "I like it."
"Cut it out."
He leaned in a little closer and tipped his glass again. She was blushing. "Buy me a real drink and we'll call it even."
"Even?" She eyed the short drink list, snapped her fingers at the server-droid and ordered two fizzed cometdusters. Within thirty seconds the bartender slapped down two bubbling containers. Han must have covered his surprise badly, because she explained; "It's not as if Alderaan was a cloistered world."
"No. From the sounds of it your life there was rather exciting."
She fiddled with the beverage's stir-stick. "Not that it's any of your business, but nothing happened between us."
"I gathered that." Han stretched an arm across the back of the booth. "He wasn't your type.""
Leia cast him an amused look and cleared her throat. "Um, you're right. I think it would be better if we kept most of the details of this mission to ourselves."
"I thought you and Luke were close."
"He does have a knack for asking all the right questions."
"Told you so."
Leia smiled sadly. "You mean a lot to him."
Here we go, Han thought. "It's not as if I haven't stuck around a hell of a lot longer than I intended," he muttered. "You and Luke both make it so damned impossible."
"You do." He nodded to himself. "You really do."
She licked her lips and ran her forefinger around the rim of her glass. "I know we don't always see eye to eye but the Alliance needs you."
"I'd come back."
"And if you're not alive…"
Han opened his mouth as if to say something, closed it. Then he said, "Yeah. I figured we'd end up here soon enough."
"Stay," she persisted stubbornly. "You can avoid any missions that take you close to Jabba's contacts. I'll speak with Rieekan-"
"No." The lastthing he wanted was special favours from within the Alliance. In fact, he wished Alliance Command would pay a lot less attention to him than they already did. "It doesn't work that way. If I wait much longer, it's not going to matter whether or not I have the credits to pay Jabba back. And I hate to break it to you, but I can't put that kind of money together working for your Alliance."
"Think about how much sense you're making."Leia countered. "You have a death-mark on your head. It already doesn't matter whether or not you have the credits to pay him back."
Soft mumbling broke out around them. Han glanced over at the screen in time to admire recaps of an explosion beside Lijuter's second moon. From a tactical perspective, the explosion looked like an overwhelming success. Han was confident enough to bet that whatever had blown was bigger than just a star destroyer.
"I guess it worked," he said. One Imperial Star Destroyer and research station gone. It was a major hit for the Alliance.
Leia looked absolutely woozy.
"Hey." Han reached over and caught her arm. "You all right?"
"I mean it." He eyed her worriedly.
"I was just wondering…" Leia stared at the back of his hand on her elbow. "At least Roan's death today wasn't in vain. For what would you be wasting your life?"
Her honesty caught him off guard. It hurt at a dozen different levels and that caught him off guard too. "You know," he said. "Most people I know already think running with the Rebellion is just a slow way of killing myself. I've given up trying to convince them differently."
It hadn't been a good shift for Leia. They'd lost a supply ship full of medical supplies coming back from Ottega. One of the pilots had been Alderaanian and she'd had to notify his wife of his death. The Brentaalian government had rejected an invitation to an Alliance summit; they had avowed their support for the Emperor and spoken disparagingly of the Rebellion. Brentaal was an influential trading world and their support would have been a major coup for the Alliance. Leia knew they were being strong-armed and monitored by their Sector Moff, but there was little she could do about it unless someone from within the government contacted her. Additionally, their base scouts had recently returned from Hoth and it sounded like there were going to be a million logistical issues to solve in order to set up a fully functioning base.
To top it off, Han had left a message with her aide asking her to stop by the Falcon.
It had been two weeks after they returned from the Lunera Mission. Since their return, Han had managed neatly to avoid her. Or, specifically, she hadn't seen him since they got back and somehow it all felt like his fault.
That and he'd ignored her last several comm-messages
Leia found him in the Falcon's main hold tinkering with a clump of metal that probably kept his ship from falling apart when she jumped to lightspeed. "I hate you," she said.
"What did I do now?"
"You told Rieekan I asked for Corellian street-fighting lessons." Apparently, the punch-line was, "she was supposed to duck!" Luke thought it was hilarious.
"What was wrong with it?"
"I think the next time you open your big mouth you should consider how what's coming out of it might sound to High Command."
"I thought you were worried about Roan's identity as a double-agent getting out, not your own uptight regal butt being accidentally knocked to the deck. Anyway, he believed me. He didn't ask about your eye, did he?"
Leia rolled her eyes. Actually, Rieekan seemed to believe a lot more than Corellian street-fighting practice went on. "No. But that's not the point."
"What is the point?" He reached for the multi-tool. "How did the supply run to Ottega go?"
"We lost the supply ship."
"Tell me about it." Leia cleared her throat. "So what did you want?"
"I have something for you."
"I found this in the medbay." He dug around in his pocket and withdrew something small and opalescent. "I thought it might be important to you so I cleaned it up a bit. The writing's Alderaanian script."
"Oh." It wasn't what she had expected from him at all. "Thank you. Roan gave that to me. I forgot about it, I suppose, with all the… madness."
Han settled back against the holotable. "You're not the first person in the universe to have someone double-cross you."
"Does it get any easier?"
"No. But in my experience, they don't waste their time trying to set things straight."
Toward the end of the day cycle, Luke Skywalker caught up with her in the hall outside the briefing rooms. "Did you say goodbye?"
"Wha…" He didn't tell me. She caught herself just in time. "Yes," she lied. "Of course."
"He thought you'd be upset," Luke said softly. "But you do understand, don't you?"
She nodded, mutely, suddenly understanding what Luke had meant when he said she was the type of woman who needed proof of emotion to be demonstrated with devotion to her cause. Her problem was that she took everything Han Solo did personally. She was acting as though he was leaving her.
Damn it. She wasn't all that pleased about it.
Luke was saying something about Chewbacca. She set a hand on his arm. "Luke, do you mind excusing me? I need to take care of something urgent."
By the time she reached the Millennium Falcon, she was so angry that she was trembling from head to toe. She strolled up the ramp and onboard then headed down the passageway to his cabin.
Han sat up, swinging his legs heavily over the edge of his bunk. "Back already."
He'd been sleeping. That was all too apparent by the state of his rumpled clothes and hair. After a moment, when it became apparent that he had no intention of coming out, she stepped inside the hatchway. "You've got some nerve," she started. "How could say nothing to me earlier?"
"Hey." He held up his hands. "What did I do now?"
"You're didn't tell me you were leaving!"
"I'm not. I'm going with the Fleet to Hoth."
"I just saw Luke and he said you were leaving."
"That was this morning. This afternoon I changed my plans. A lot can happen in a day." He rubbed at his jaw. "Is screaming at me some form of therapy? Or is it how you get off?"
"No, it's not-" Leia bit her lip, hard. I'm not giving in to this. I'm not.
"You just came to yell at me for not saying goodbye." Han stood and shoved his feet into his boots, grinning smugly. "I'm touched. Really."
"Don't flatter yourself."
"I can't help it."
"You never think, do you?" She squeezed her eyes shut. "I didn't have the chance to say goodbye to any of the people I cared about." Ouch. She hadn't expected that to come out. And she'd just blurted to Han Solo that she cared about him.
Han said, no longer gloating, not even in the slightest, "I wouldn't do that to you."
"I know." She supposed she did know that, deep down.
"At least, not without having you tell me off one more time."
"I don't do that."
"Sometimes you do."
Somehow he'd finessed his way across the room in the span of a few sentences. In the past, his cabin had been nothing more than a vacuum of negative space behind him. Now, she was all too aware of the personal artefacts and effects, of his smell, of his bed and how he'd casually tossed his pillow. "You can be a real jerk."
"You know it."
Despite the fact that the cabin hatchway was just than wide enough for two people to pass one another, Han managed to brush up against her on his way out. Except he didn't exit, not all the way. Instead she felt his lips graze her forehead. Then he paused with his face inches from hers and his arm outstretched so that her only retreat was his cabin.
She didn't dare look up at him. She stared at his chest and thought that she longed to press her face into his neck and feel his lips against her bare skin. She wondered if her heart was pounding loud enough for him to hear it. Her woman's body was screaming about a memory that did not exist, that she had yet to possess for her own.
Maybe it won't matter, she thought.
And then she recalled clearly what Blix had said when he was picking her binders. Han Solo never stays in one place long enough to grow roots.
There was a long awkward moment that probably lasted ten seconds and felt like a thousand years. Finally she turned away. She folded her arms across her chest and stared at the floor.
"While we're keeping secrets," he said, acting as though nothing had just happened. "Chewie wants you to promise never to breathe a word of Roan dosing him with the syrris seed extract."
Leia cast him a questioning look.
"Wookiees don't react well to having their senses tampered with. It's an honour thing with them."
"Like Corellians and their ships?"
"Something like it."
"I'll never breathe a word of it." She held up her left hand. "Do I need to take the pilot's vow of honour?"
"No." Han grabbed a jacket and grinned. "Call me crazy but I trust you."