Yavin IV, after the destruction of the Death Star
The celebration was a loud and raucous one and it was a long time before anyone happened to notice the Princess of Alderaan wasn't there. If they noticed her absence, they simply assumed she was elsewhere in the room.
In a room full of her friends and colleagues, it was the stranger who realized she'd disappeared.
As the unlikeliest hero of the battle, Han Solo would have been an extremely popular man at this party... had anyone figured out who he was. Most of the Rebels didn't know him by sight, and he was able to remain invisible so long as he wasn't with his taller and more easily recognized copilot.
Predictably, the Wookiee had headed straight for the buffet, and once his own plate was full, Solo was able to slip away quietly. The makeshift bar at the opposite end of the hangar was a good place to sit and be anonymous. He could drink all the ale he wanted, and his location gave him a good vantage point to observe the crowd.
Not that he was looking for anyone in particular, of course. Just checking out the scenery, and there was plenty of it. The only reason he'd been noticing her so much was that she didn't seem to sit still for more than a minute.
He was amazed to discover that she was not the only one in the room sporting that ridiculous hairstyle. There was no telling what women would put up with in the name of fashion. There was no confusing the Princess of Alderaan with anyone else at this party, though. Unless you counted the droids, she was the shortest person in the place. And the only one in white.
He'd spotted her sitting at a table with Wedge Antilles, dancing with General Dodonna, chatting politely with Mon Mothma and General Madine, going up on tiptoe to hug pilots in flight suits and uniformed personnel. And, he noticed, being trailed all the while by a determined Commander Skywalker.
Watching Luke's latest attempt to coax the Princess onto the dance floor, Han chuckled to himself at the memory of the conversation they'd had about her as they'd departed the Death Star, It didn't look like Luke was getting all that far in his pursuit of the lady. Maybe an expert ought to step in and show the kid how it was done.
Not that he was interested or anything. But it might be fun to watch what happened.
Of course that was when he lost track of her.
He hadn't consciously been looking for her before, but now that he was, he found she'd disappeared.
At first he thought she'd just slipped off into a corner somewhere, out of his sight. She was short enough that it was certainly possible.
The bartender placed a fresh bottle of ale at his side and Solo picked it up absently, wandering around the perimeter of the hangar with no particular purpose. He stopped occasionally to speak to the few people he recognized, but the more he looked, the more she wasn't there.
No Leia at any of the tables full of generals. No Princess chatting with the High Command. He spotted Skywalker in animated discussion with some of the pilots, and the petite figure in white was nowhere nearby, for once. For a moment he considered asking Luke if he'd seen the Princess, but for some reason, he didn't want the kid to know he was looking for her.
Frowning, and carrying his ale in his hand, Solo stepped out into the night. A few hundred yards from the hangar doors lay the entrance to the medical bay. Following some gut instinct, he peered through the double doors. And there, alone in the darkened triage room with her back against the metal wall, her head on her knees, sat Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Alderaan.
He watched for a moment and saw her shoulders shake. She was crying.
The thing to do was turn around and go back to the party. But Han found himself pushing the door open instead. He took three steps into the med bay, and heard the echo of his footsteps in the large, empty room.
Princess Leia looked up in surprise at the sound of footsteps on the metal floor. She took a breath and swiped hastily at her eyes with her sleeve, clearly attempting to pull herself together. He stopped after only a few steps and simply watched her.
Growing uncomfortable under the scrutiny, she broke the silence with a cold greeting. "Captain Solo."
He nodded, as if they'd just been introduced. "Princess."
When he didn't say anything else, she heaved a large sigh. "What do you want, Captain?"
"I was wondering if you'd care to dance."
His grin was lopsided but sincere and she wasn't quite sure if he was teasing her or not. "No. I would not."
He took a step closer. "Really? You're sure? It's a hell of a party back there."
"I'm sure," she said, firmly. "I've had enough party for one night, thanks."
He took another step, and it was then that he saw the bottle of whiskey on the floor beside her. "It looks to me like you brought the party with you." Before she had a chance to react, he dropped down to sit on the cold decking beside her. "I hate to see a lady drinking alone."
She saw his pointed glance, and defiantly lifted the bottle to her lips to take a long swallow. She made a show of wiping her mouth with her sleeve, hoping he wouldn't notice that she took the opportunity to dry the last of the tears from her cheeks while she was at it.
He noticed. "You know," he said, conversationally, "I wouldn't have guessed you for a weepy drunk, Princess."
"I'm not drunk," she protested, "and I'm not weeping either."
He looked sideways at her, wondering just how much of the bottle she'd put away. "Drinking to forget doesn't work, you know."
"On the contrary, Captain Solo," came her bitter reply, "it seems to be working quite well, so far. Or it was, until you showed up."
He sighed. "Trust me on this, sweetheart. Eventually you have to stop drinking and it all comes back."
She glanced over sharply. "You speaking from personal experience?"
He shrugged, noncommittally, thinking of the hazy days following his court-martial. Fat lot of good alcohol had done for him.
"I suppose you have a better suggestion?" She had trouble with the word "suggestion" and it took her two tries to get it out.
He grinned at the slight slur he heard beneath her crisp formal speech. This might be fun after all. "I might have some ideas. Helping women forget their problems is a specialty of mine." His eyes twinkled with mischief as he looked her up and down. "But I usually like my women a little taller."
She flushed and looked away. "Don't be vulgar."
He chuckled and leaned over to tap his bottle against hers in a mock toast. "You ain't seen nothin' yet, sweetheart."
"Let's keep it that way, shall we?"
"Ah, come on, Princess. Lighten up. You're not exactly my type, but I bet you clean up pretty good."
"You're not my type, either, Captain. And I'm pretty sure it'd be impossible to clean you up."
He ignored her insult. "Doesn't mean we can't have one dance. C'mon back to the party."
"I doubt you want to be seen with me tonight, Captain." A hint of bitterness had crept into her tone. "I'm the woman who, by rights, ought to be dead."
He reached over and caught her arm as she lifted it to take another drink. "Hey, what's that supposed to mean?" he demanded, suddenly finding this less funny than he had a moment before. "Ought to be dead?" Hell. Where'd she come up with that line? It occurred to him that she might have had more of the whiskey than he'd first guessed.
She shrugged and pulled her hand free. "Never mind," she muttered, sullenly. "Why do you even care?"
"Come on, you said that for a reason," he persisted. "What are you talkin' about?"
"Nothing," she repeated, anger thick now in her voice as she shoved a little harder at his arm. "Just forget it."
"I'm not gonna forget it. What'd you mean, you ought to be dead?"
"I mean," she said in a low voice, "that everyone thought I died when the Tantive IV was destroyed. Now that it turns out I was alive all that time, and they wasted their sympathy."
"You think people are mad at you for not getting killed?" He shook his head. "Didn't look that way to me when we landed the other day. Looked like they were pretty glad to see you."
"It wouldn't have mattered to anyone if I got back without those plans. It's bad enough I was responsible for Alderaan, Yavin would have been destroyed, too, and with it, all hope for the Alliance."
Responsible for what? "Back up, what the hell are you talking about?"
"You know they followed us here," she said, patiently.
"Probably," he conceded, "but that hardly makes the whole battle your fault. Wouldn't someone have gone after that Death Star even if you hadn't gotten back here with the plans?"
This gave her pause. "Well, yeah. I guess so."
"And without the plans, they wouldn't have had any idea how to blow that thing up?" She shook her head. "Well, there you go. It's good you made it back."
"No, no. If it wasn't for me, none of this would have happened. It's all my fault," she insisted.
"What's your fault?" He sighed. Drunk logic.
"Why do you think they picked Alderaan?"
"Oh, I don't know, maybe because Alderaan was the only Core planet that voted against dissolution when Palpatine tried to push it through the Senate? Because they refused to allow anyone - even Imperial troops - to bear arms in public? Because it was your father and two other Senators who pretty much created the Alliance to Restore The Republic?" He grinned at her incredulous look. "What? You think because I'm not respectable like you, I don't know from Galactic history?"
"It's not that, it's just..." She hadn't expected such an effective argument from this man. Who did he think he was, anyway, talking back to her like this? And why, exactly, did she somehow feel that it was important to convince him?
"They're all good points..." she allowed, "but none of them was the reason they destroyed Alderaan, that's all."
"How about, because I wouldn't tell them where the Rebel base was?"
"That's crazy. Why would they blow up a whole planet just because..." his voice trailed off as she looked away, swiftly, hiding her sudden tears, and he realized, suddenly, why she was so certain it was her fault.
"That's what they told you? That if you didn't tell them where the base was, they'd blow it up?" She nodded and he uttered a string of Corellian oaths under his breath.
"They made me watch," she whispered.
Appalled as he already was by what she was telling him, this was more than he could assimilate.
"They made me watch. Tarkin had me taken to the observation level, and Vader went along to make sure I was watching when it... happened."
Solo fought back his disgust and tried to be logical. Vader, he didn't know except by reputation. Tarkin, however, he remembered clearly from his time in the Imperial Navy. "Tarkin? You think Grand Moff Tarkin destroyed an entire planet, to get you to talk?"
"He did. You don't understand. I was there for days, but I didn't tell Vader anything, I swore he wouldn't break me... and then they brought me up to the observation deck, and Tarkin was there, and he said something about it being a matter of applying the right pressure. He said there was to be a demonstration, and that I would choose the planet."
Han's stomach rolled. "And you didn't tell them where the base was?"
Her voice was very small. "Of course not. I couldn't let them destroy a whole planet." Almost as an afterthought, she added, "I told them we were on Dantooine."
"Dantooine?" he echoed. "You mean you lied? To Vader and Tarkin?" He shook his head in grudging admiration. She'd been a prisoner for days, interrogated and probably tortured, and she had the wits to think up a lie, and the guts to tell it? This little girl?
Who was he kidding? This little girl had ordered him into a garbage chute in the first minute of their acquaintance, and into the chute he'd gone.
"It didn't matter, though, did it?" She was still talking. "Tarkin said Dantooine was too far away to be an effective demonstration, and then..."
"And then they blew Alderaan up anyway?" She nodded and he began to piece together what must have happened. "Leia, listen to me. If Tarkin gave the order, you can be sure he already had his instructions long beforehand. Tarkin wouldn't piss in a corner without the Emporer's permission. They told him to blow up Alderaan, and he decided to bring you in to watch the show." The Tarkin that he remembered was just about that twisted.
It didn't appear that she'd heard him. "I should have been the one who died, not them. They should have killed me."
"That's called 'survivor's guilt', Princess. It's normal to feel guilty when you're the one who's alive. But believe me, no one else thinks that."
"Don't tell me what people think. I heard them talking, all night. Conversations that stopped the instant I joined the group. Heads turned away when I came in their direction. No one looking me in the eye." She lowered her head. "I just couldn't bear it anymore."
What could he say to that? "I'm sorry."
"So'm I. Sorry doesn't do shit, Solo." She lifted the bottle to take another drink and missed her mouth completely. His lip twitched. One minute she sounded stone-cold sober, the next she was sloshing whiskey down her front. It took serious drinking talent to pull off both extremes like that.
With a sigh, he reached over and caught hold of the bottle, his hands over top of hers. "You know something? I think you've had enough. Give it here, Princess."
"That's mine," she muttered, furious. "Let go!" He pulled harder and got the bottle halfway to his lap. She kept her grip on it, though, and his tug threw her off balance. The sudden motion as she fell forward made her dizzy and she went very white, releasing the bottle in a hurry and covering her mouth with her hand. "Oh, gods..." she moaned. She leaned back against the wall with her eyes closed, trying frantically to stop the room from spinning, and bracing herself for the impact of the wisecrack she was sure was coming.
Instead, she felt a warm hand come down, very gently, on her shoulder. "Hey. You aren't gonna hurl, are you?"
Unable to speak, she shrugged her shoulders, once, not at all sure that she wasn't about to vomit. The warmth traveled from her shoulder to the nape of her neck as his hand urged her forward, until she had her head between her knees. His thumb settled in the hollow at the base of her skull. "It'll be ok. Push against my hand. C'mon." She obeyed automatically and bells clanged in her head. But in a moment the room stopped whirling.
She blew out her breath slowly and felt him ease the pressure on her neck. "Better?" She nodded. "Take it slow. No sudden moves." His hand came back to her shoulder and he guided her, slowly, till her head rested back against the wall.
Experimentally, she opened her eyes... and for the first time, she really looked at him: this stranger who'd walked into her life just a few days ago, the scarred chin, the lines around his eyes. No matter how firmly she told herself to look away, she couldn't seem to manage it.
His eyes. His eyes were a fascinating shade of green, flecked with grey and gold and brown. She was losing herself in his eyes.
And then it was there in front of her again: Alderaan.
Alderaan had been green and grey and brown, just like his eyes... and it had floated there in space, unaware that these moments were the last.
Alderaan. Father. All of them. Gone. Just gone.
Hot tears spilled down her cheeks and she made no attempt to stop them.
Han heaved another sigh. Weepy drunk, all right. "C'mere," he said, gruffly. He held out an arm and she leaned, hesitantly, against it. He gathered her closer to him, and his other arm came around her. She let her head fall into the hollow of his shoulder and felt the scratchy edge of his jaw against her temple. For a moment she thought she'd misread his offer, thought he was going to try to kiss her. She went rigid, preparing to push him away, and he released her shoulder immediately, intending to let her.
Instead, his gesture reassured her and she let herself lean in closer, her cheek pressed against the surprising softness of his well-worn shirt. Not sure how to take this, he patted her hair, carefully.
The touch of his hand was strange and unfamiliar to her, but it was warm, and unexpectedly soothing. She didn't stop to wonder why he had done it. She simply drank in the comfort he had decided to offer her.
It had been a long and tumultuous day, and she'd been riding the emotional high of their triumph for hours now, trying to avoid facing the terrifying realities that lurked just out of sight. It was easier to focus on the victory than to think about what had happened before the battle, what had happened to her on the Death Star, what had happened to Alderaan. With her friends, her fellow Rebels, even with Luke, she pushed her own pain aside, but now... now, sitting here in the dark with this man she barely knew, she found that she could, in fact, let go.
Solo felt her small frame tremble as she wept, and he tightened his hold. He didn't pretend to understand all of the reasons she was crying, although based on what he'd just heard, he figured she was entitled to a few tears. He didn't know how long she'd been away from the party before he'd found her, but from the looks of the bottle, she'd managed to drown quite a bit of sorrow tonight already.
She'd lost her home, her family, her entire planet. Who knew what sort of hells she'd endured on the Death Star, or what manner of death she'd been facing before he and Luke had showed up. And Tarkin and Vader... he couldn't begin to imagine how much damage their little "demonstration" had done to her psyche.
He was certain that any words he had to offer her would be meaningless right now, and he couldn't think of a thing to say, anyway. "I'm sorry," seemed rather inadequate under the circumstances. So he simply held her; and while his shirt grew damp from her tears, she made no sound.
At last she seemed to collect herself, and moved awkwardly against his arm, drying her face on his shirt sleeve.
He knew he ought to let her go now, but she seemed content to stay where she was. It seemed rude to just push her away. So he sat still, and continued to pat her shoulder in what he hoped was a comforting manner.
She knew she should move away, but it was warm there, in the circle of his arms, and she took a long, deep breath, trying to steady herself. For a moment, her nostrils filled with the musky male scent of him, and all at once she came back to reality.
Suddenly embarrassed, she slowly drew away from him, and he let her go without a word.
In one fluid motion, he rose to his feet, and held out his hand to her. "Come on, Leia. Let's go back to the party"
"You go on," she said, quietly. "I'll be fine."
"No," he crouched down on his heels in front of her, his hand still outstretched. "It's all right. I'll wait for you."
She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, gathering her courage again. At last, she clasped his hand and let him pull her up to her feet. Their eyes met for a timeless moment, as they stood, barely a hand's width apart.
Simultaneously, they each took a step back, and he flashed a cocky, crooked grin. "After you, your Worshipfulness."
She lifted her chin, gave a regal sniff and led the way to the door.
They stepped back into the noisy chaos of the hangar, and before she could turn around, to thank him, he was gone. Without even asking for that dance. And she knew that tomorrow, he'd be gone for good.
For an instant, she found herself wishing he was going to stay.
And then Luke Skywalker's arm dropped companionably around her shoulder and he drew her into the laughing, familiar circle at his table.
Of course, Han Solo never did quite get around to leaving the Rebellion.
Neither of them ever mentioned the incident. But neither of them completely managed to forgot it, either.
And after many years of shared adventures and bickering, the princess and the smuggler finally found their way back to the warm place they had inhabited together for those few moments, so long ago, when they were still strangers.