CHAPTER 1:

Princess Leia Organa's fingers curled around the handrail as she stared at the purple waves glittering under the setting sun. The rickety boat rose and fell in rhythm with the wide river, and a warm wind whipped against her cheeks. She closed her eyes and tried to ignore the spray of water that assaulted her every time the boat hit a particularly rough patch of river. She hated boats almost as much as she hated rivers and lakes and oceans and streams for that matter, but she refrained from sharing her feelings with her present company. She had no right, in her mind. After all, she chose to join this expedition. Besides, her fear of water was irrational, as were many of her fears these days. And she would not let Fear overtake her life.

Leia inhaled the brackish air and carefully allowed it to escape her lungs. It had been eight months, twelve days, and twenty-one hours since she witnessed her home world destroyed, and a few hours less since she escaped the Death Star with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. More than half a standard year had passed. The Alliance evacuated Yavin IV and had relocated twice since then. The rebels congratulated Luke and Han for their part in the destruction of the Death Star and returned to business as usual, their victory fading against the numerous battles lost. Luke earned the rank of Commander and Han and Chewie ran various missions for the Alliance, no doubt for a price. Everyone had moved on to the next crucial assignment, for there was only the "Now" and "What's to Come" that mattered.

Eight months, twelve days, and twenty-one hours had passed and Leia had been left behind. The oppressive hiss of Darth Vader's respirator, the antiseptic stench of her cell on the Death Star, the firework show that once was Alderaan…it all clung to her as if it happened yesterday. Yes, she had managed to smile her way through the medal ceremony held moments before they evacuated Yavin, she organized the relocations of bases as well as oversaw their dismantlement, and she participated in many crucial missions. But those eight months, twelve days, and twenty-one hours remained yesterday for Leia. And she just couldn't seem to wash yesterday away.

"Almost as beautiful as the stars."

Leia's large brown eyes were drawn to the tanned arm resting centimeters away from her own. The heat from his body pulled at hers, creating a vortex between them that threatened her balance. A thrilling fright that she wanted to escape but couldn't. Couldn't? Or wouldn't?

"Not too late to turn back."

"Huh?" she looked up into Han Solo's hazel eyes.

"We can—"

The princess shook her head and straightened her posture, breaking the connection between them. She hugged an arm around herself to ward off the sudden chill. "No."

Solo pressed his lips together and leaned back against the handrail, "Me and Chewie can handle this mission without ya'. We have a good team. I hand-picked 'em."

Leia held her breath and stared at the railing, expecting it to crumble under his weight at any moment.

He crossed one foot over the other. "We don't need your supervision, Your Royalness."

"I'm not…" her large brown eyes floated to his face then abruptly narrowed. "I'm not so certain about that, Captain Solo!" she slammed a fist onto her hip.

Han snorted and shook his head, "I can't believe you! What have I done to make ya' not trust me?"

Not trust him? Leia's cheeks colored and her mouth formed a tiny 'o' as she inhaled.

"And don't give me that crap about not officially joining your suicidal cause, Your Worship!" He yelled as he pointed a finger at her.

Her brow furrowed as her eyes slipped from him. She dropped her hand from her hip and let her arm twist around her waist. "I wasn't going to say that," she grimaced.

"What then?" his eyes widened challengingly, "You don't like the way I do things!"

"Of course not!" Leia snapped unintentionally. She blinked twice before glancing at the rail supporting him. "You're reckless."

"But I always get the job done." Han spread his arms wide and sported a lop-sided grin.

And that's what scared her. Leia grabbed the rail with both hands to regain her balance. Her fingers tightened around the cold metal bar as her eyes once again found the unsteady river.

"Yes, well, reckless sometimes works," she conceded before looking up into his hazel eyes. "But sometimes isn't the same as always."

Han mischievously smirked, "That's what makes it so fun."

Leia's features pinched together, "Fun? Almost dying is fun for you?"

He shrugged and rolled his eyes, "Best way to know you're alive."

She pressed her lips together and stared at her pale fingers.

What are we gonna do if he gets himself killed?

Luke's words on the Death Star as Han and Chewie took off in pursuit of a squad of storm troopers. Courageous, yes, but what if he did get himself killed? Leia closed her eyes against such thoughts and uselessly wished to be on solid land.

The adventure-seeking smuggler adjusted his posture so that his upper body was turned toward her. "Com'n," he leaned his mouth close to her ear, "you can't tell me you're not here cos you need a little excitement in your life."

Her eyes involuntarily fluttered under the chill his warm breath incited. "As if keeping the Alliance alive while avoiding capture by Imperials isn't excitement enough."

"Maybe it isn't," he pulled away.

Leia's cheeks colored as her large brown eyes narrowed once again on the smug smuggler, "Trust me, Captain, the last thing I need is more excitement."

As she watched the playful glint in those cocky hazel eyes flicker out, she sank her molars into the fleshy part of the inside her cheek but defiantly held his gaze.

Han inhaled and slipped his hands into his pocket, "Yeah, maybe you just need a break."

Leia pushed herself off of the rail but didn't let go, "What I need is to finish the preparations for tomorrow's meeting." She pivoted away from him.

"How long did this take you?"

She stopped and partially turned back toward him to find one of her thin braids between his fingers.

"What?"

"All these little…twisty things," Han held the plaited lock up to the fading sunlight.

Leia frowned as she tried to decipher the smuggler's gentle expression. Was he teasing her? Was he attempting to engage her in small talk? Was it possible to have an ordinary-how's-the-weather conversation with Han Solo?

The princess studied the way the smuggler tilted his head as he inspected her hair then puzzled over the uncharacteristic softness in his expression. Her eyes floated from his face to the braid in his hand before she picked up another between her own forefinger and thumb.

"Too long," she stated.

No other hairstyle she donned took as long to finish as these intricate braids that mingled with spiraled curls to create a look of barely controlled chaos. It was the local style, and Leia had wondered on more than one occasion during the styling session how the women on Isise found time to fuss with their hair with their busy schedules. It had taken three standard hours and the help of several bored rebels to tame some of the disarray around her head. How she hated sitting for hours as her handmaidens twisted, pinned, and curled her hair while growing up Alderaanian royalty. She had defiantly refused to waste "precious" time getting her hair elaborately styled before…

Before no longer existed, leaving after for her to wish that she had wasted that precious time under the ministrations of her handmaidens one last time.

Leia cleared her throat, "I had help."

Han's lips stretched into a smile that was something between a leer and unadulterated approval, "I definitely like it."

Leia blinked her eyes as an unfamiliar heat flushed her cheeks. She exhaled and allowed her lips to relax into a light uncertain smile, "I dread undoing this…mess."

Han leaned against the railing and allowed the braid to slide through his fingers as the space between them increased, "I'll help you."

Leia eyed the handrail supporting him and furrowed her brow, "How? By cutting it off? I bet you'd love that!"

"Now, why would you think that?"

She opened her mouth then closed it before her countenance pinched, "Why would I think that?" Han lifted his eyebrows, distracting Leia from both the railing and her growing anger. She shook her head, "What do you know about hair?"

"A lot," a renewed glint danced in those hazel orbs. "I live with a Wookie."

"Oh yeah," she touched her fingers to her mouth as if to catch the laughter that wanted to escape. I shouldn't be laughing. "I suppose Chewie must get some terrible knots."

Han squished up his nose, "Yeah, in places I'd rather not have to…untangle."

The princess shuttered and freed a stifled chuckle, "You must really care about Chewie."

Solo sobered as his eyes drifted to the rippling water, "Never had a friend like him."

Leia nodded and looked at the deck below her feet. She wondered how he would describe his friendship with her. Would he even consider her his friend? They hadn't known each other long, so it'd be reasonable that she was nothing more to him than an acquaintance. Maybe not even that…

Her chest tightened a touch, "You're lucky. Friends like Chewie are hard to come by."

Han slowly exhaled, "Yep. Not many beings you can trust your life with in this galaxy."

Her large brown eyes shift to the smuggler's wistful mien. A hint of pain clouded the intensity in his hazel eyes as he watched the river swallow the sun. The lapping waves of the river no longer sparkled but were reluctant to let go of the setting sun. Leia wrapped her arms around herself as the distance between them increased.

What have I done to make you not trust me?

Absolutely nothing, her teeth sank into her bottom lip as she stared out at the river, trying to see what inspired the hurt in his hazel eyes.

Leia, rested her forearms against the railing, closed her eyes, and tried to ignore the unsteady deck below her and the black void of the water that made her foundation so precarious. Her trust in Han Solo was primal and unexplainable. Would he ever trust her like he trusted Chewbacca?

Once again her fingers wrapped around the cold railing, squeezing the rusted metal tight as if her life depended on it. Han's trust was like a rare qilp gem: the difficulty of mining the dull green gem was what made it so rare and priceless. Her unfounded desire to have Han's trust pricked her heart. He was a temporary presence in her life. He could leave tomorrow if he chose to do so. He could leave right now…

What are we gonna do if he gets himself killed?

"Hey," he leaned in to peer into her face. "You oh…?" Han closed his mouth then started again, "Untangling your hair could be fun."

Leia opened her mouth as her mind raced to catch up. Then one fine brow arched, "Fun? More like a challenge."

Solo reached out and brushed a few locks out of her face. "I've ne'er been one to turn down a challenge." He took a step back and pressed his lips together. "Those gonna be easy to wash off?"

The princess's fingers touched the brown freckles splattered across the bridge of her nose, "It should take a few days or so of vigorous scrubbing with the right solvent."

"Just don't go scrubbing too hard while were here," Han warned. "Wouldn't want anyone to recognize you."

She tilted her head, "Would you recognize me?"

Han inhaled and crossed his arms over his chest while his hazel eyes roamed over her body. Leia tightened her grip on the rail and pressed her toes against the deck, fighting the strong urge to retreat. She felt both vulnerable and secure under his scrutiny, throwing her more off-balance than the river's random waves. Her tongue involuntarily explored the roof of her mouth as she braced herself for whatever was about to come out of his mouth.

"Lift your chin," he commanded, and she complied.

"So?"

"Yeah, I'd recognize you," Han answered. "But I don't think any Imps would."

He'd recognize me? Leia gazed into his eyes, so serious all of a sudden, darker, and her sense of security withered away.

She bit her lip, glanced down at her faded green dress, then looked up, "I blend in with the locals."

"Sweetheart," Han shook his head and smirked, "you never blend in."

Leia pursed her lips, "That's not good."

Solo's smile widened as a twinkle sparked his eyes, "You always look good."

Her brow creased but before she could absorb his words, the boat violently lurched and bucked. Han's hand grabbed Leia's arm, securing her between the railing and his body until the boat settled.

"Now, that's not good," Solo stared toward the aft of the rickety boat. "I'm gonna see what's the problem."

Not taking even a nanosecond to look at her, Han agilely stalked down the narrow walkway without the aid of the handrail. Leia's large brown eyes watched him until he disappeared into the primitive engine room. The warm breeze wafting off the purple water had cooled as the river finally consumed the sun. Her knees weakened and had she not been so close to the lapping waves, she would have let her body fall to the ground. Instead, the princess willed her feet to carry her back to the small nook inside the cargo hold that she had claimed for herself.

The shadows in the quiet followed her as she knew they would and she shivered involuntarily. I will not let Fear control me. I will not… Leia swallowed, closed her eyes and listened. Muffled voices of the other rebels who volunteered for this mission, the clunking and spurting of the aged engine, the dark water slapping against the hull, Chewbacca's snoring... so many sounds around her but the quiet overpowered it all. Leia held her breath and closed her eyes and listened…there! Metal slamming against metal mingled with a string of Corellian curse words. Leia exhaled then dropped against the wall whispering a few Corellian curse words of her own.