Destination: Cloud City

by Linda Bindner

``Okay, no use sitting around, staring at each other.'' Han paused on his way through the rec. area to cast a glance at the three motionless figures sitting before the game board. ``We might as well do what repairs we can before we reach Cloud City.'' He lightly punched the bulkhead to hurry them on. There was too much to do to spend time sitting idle over a pointless game.

Chewbacca rose quickly, ready to take on anything, just so long as they could return to the prearranged rendezvous without needing assistance from Cloud City. Though his partner hadn't actually mentioned Bespin as their destination before now, the Wookie had a hunch that was the haven they were heading for. Not that any place owned by Lando Calrissian could ever be a haven for Han Solo or Chewbacca. And not that there happened to be any place else convenient in the Anoat system for them to take refuge. No, it was Cloud City. He grumbled at Solo as he ambled past him on his way to the hold for supplies.

Han stopped him. ``The first thing we need to do is retrieve those tools that fell down the engine shaft.'' His eyes moved to settle on the princess.

Leia looked at him suspiciously. ``What?''

``Come on, Sweetheart.'' Han offered her his hand. ``You're the only one small enough to wriggle your way around down there. And we can't do very many repairs without the tools.''

Leia grimaced, but accepted his hand. She almost smiled at his warm touch, then caught herself in time and forced it back; there were too many things about Han she needed to sort out in her mind to give him any sort of encouragement now. ``You make it sound so noble,'' she said dryly.

Han grinned. ``Hey. I don't let just anybody near the Falcon's engines. Consider yourself one of the special few.''

Leia's eyebrows met her hairline in cool appraisal, a look Han knew only too well. ``Why do I detect a double meaning in that?''

Han simply grinned his typical cocky half-grin and preceded her out of the forward hold.

Before Leia knew what had happened, she was crawling over, under, and around the beams and rotating gears that made up the hodgepodge, haphazard hyperdrive engines of the Millennium Falcon. She had traded her white combat suit and quilted vest bearing her rank in the Rebel Alliance for a pair of old breeches Han had dug up from the recesses of his cabin and a shirt that smelled faintly of the captain himself. A tool pouch was conveniently slung over her head and one shoulder. Concealed from those waiting above her on the Falcon's worn deck plates, she allowed herself a soft smile as the shirt's familiar odor combined with the general dirt and grunge of the engines. She suspected the smell would not last long among the dinginess of Han's pet ship.

Han's voice interrupted her thoughts. ``I think I dropped the hydrospanners somewhere to your left. You might look under the booster conduits - no, to your right.''

Leia did her best to squirm around the boosters without touching anything. She had no doubt that the minute she contacted any part of the engines, something would surely break. They had enough repairs to do as it was without breaking something more. But as she finally plucked the hydrospanners from their precarious resting place on the edge of a filter, she banged her head on a connecting crossbeam.

``Ouch!'' she yelled, and only her royal training stopped her from calling the other curses and expletives that instantly followed the explosion of colors and lights behind her eyes.

``Leia!'' Han was leaning so far forward in his concern for the princess that for a moment Chewie thought he might join her inside the engines. ``What happened? Are you okay?''

Chewie growled his own concerned questions down the hole, and See-Threepio hurried over from his place at the hold terminal where he'd been talking patiently to the Falcon.

``Your Highness! Say something!'' the droid shouted, worry evident even in his mechanical voice.

But Leia was too busy trying to regain her lost balance to answer the three above her. She grabbed the offending beam with her free hand and held on for all her worth until she felt sure she could stand again without its support. Gingerly she massaged her head, the pain subsiding to a simple throbbing in a few seconds.

``That's it; I'm coming down,'' Han said, his feet already on the first step of the ladder leading into the shaft.

Leia stopped him. ``No,'' she called, looking up. ``I'm all right. I just smashed my head on one of these stupid crossbeams. Nothing important.''

Her sarcasm was more reassuring to him than her words; she wouldn't have time to be caustic if she was truly hurt. ``You're sure?''

Now she was getting irritated. ``Han, just tell me what to look for so I can get out of this dingy pit.''

Han sat back on the deck plates and raised his hands in surrender. ``All right, all right. But be careful!'' he warned at last.

``I'm trying!'' she shouted back to him. What did he think she was going to do, jump heedlessly into the sublight engines? But then she caught a clear glance at Han leaning cautiously over the edge of the deck. His usually cocky expression now mirrored the concern he obviously felt, and he visibly exhaled in relief when he realized she was not going to plunge head long down the shaft. Her irritation died immediately and she felt her forehead prickling in a strange panic as her heartbeat quickened. She turned away, hiding her face and the flush that colored her cheeks from those watching above.

As the princess carefully proceeded in her search, Threepio hesitantly touched Solo's shoulder to get his attention. ``Perhaps it might prove safer for Mistress Leia if we attached a line to her waist to keep her from falling suddenly down the engines.''

Han glanced at his copilot. The droid's idea had merit, there was no doubt to that, even if he didn't like the fact that Threepio had thought of it before he had. Then Chewie growled low in his throat and Han shook his head. ``Naw, Chewie's right; any rope we tie to the princess will just get all tangled up in the gears and levers down there. Then we'd really have a mess to fix.'' He turned his attention back to watch Leia wriggle her way under the power boosters. ``Good idea, though, Goldenrod.''

Threepio straightened, taken aback by the sudden compliment. ``Oh, thank you, Sir,'' he said, slightly flustered.

Not wanting Threepio to get any ideas that his opinions about protocol droids had changed, Han barked, ``Now get back to work. Can't you see I'm busy here?''

See-Threepio took a step back. ``Oh.'' He turned, prepared to do as he'd been told. But once he believed he was out of the captain's hearing, he muttered, ``What a cantankerous man. So typically human.''

Solo didn't hear the droid's comment, which was probably just as well. He needed to concentrate all his energies on directing the princess through the maze of parts that made up the Falcon's engines. ``Okay. Do you see the welder yet?''

Leia leaned back against the wall, her boots resting insecurely on the narrow ledge that ran all around the entire shaft. ``It might help if I knew what they looked like,'' she said with as much patience as she could muster at the moment.

``Yeah, right.'' Han sent a look at Chewbacca, who merely shrugged. ``They're long and sort of `L' shaped. The handle's black. Oh, and there should be a cord attached to the end of the handle.''

L shaped and black. Leia glanced around at the dirt-encrusted engine that groaned, whirred, and clattered away at her. How am I supposed to find anything in this junk pile? Aloud she called up, ``Oh, that should help me a lot considering how much black sludge is down here. Don't you ever clean this engine?''

Han looked horrified. ``And make everything rust together? Not on this ship!''

Leia gave an angry growl from the back of her throat. ``Why am I not surprised?'' she muttered, then returned to her assigned duties. With surprising ease, she discovered the welders, lying conveniently just beyond a set of thick circular gears with teeth as big as her fists. All she had to do was get her arm around the largest disc and reach for the welder's innocent black handle. Easy. Right, she complained to herself.

She knelt and slowly extended her arm, only a few centimeters separating it from the evil-looking gears. Then her fingers wrapped around the tool's handle and she pulled them free of their resting place, cord and all.

``Watch out for the coolant belts!'' Han suddenly yelled from above.

Startled, Leia's head jerked up and with the sudden movement, her boots lost their precarious grip on the slick ledge and slipped out from under her. Luckily she landed hard on her rear end on the ledge rather than toppling helplessly forward. Leia gasped and she threw all her weight against the wall at her back to keep from losing her balance again. There she sat, breathing hard in fear of her narrow escape.

Solo chose that moment to add, ``Oh, you might be careful of all the moisture down there. It can get pretty slippery.''

Fortunately the princess was too far down inside the engines for her to get a clear throw at him with the welders. She settled for simply yelling, ``Shut up!'' as loud as she could, and thrust the tool in the pouch at her waist.

Mystified, Han looked at Chewbacca, who was equally puzzled. ``What did I say?''

Princess Leia stood on shaky feet and drew a deep breath to calm her jumpy nerves. Stray wisps of hair blocked her view and she pushed them away with an irritated swipe of her dirty hands.

``How about the bolt driver?'' Han asked next. When she didn't yell something sarcastic or give an answer of any kind, he crawled down a few more steps of the ladder. ``Hey,'' he called again, his eyes probing hers when his voice caused her to look up. His eyebrows rose questioningly. ``You all right?''

She restrained the urge to tell him exactly what she was thinking. ``Oh, I'm just... just resting.''

He nodded, satisfied.

Leia started again, her eyes peeled for the bolt driver this time. At least she knew what it looked like. She crossed to the opposite side of the shaft, fitting easily between the injectors and the gravity unit. She had the driver in her hand in a matter of moments.

Han watched from above, quiet now as Leia inched her way across the drive line to grab the second driver from atop the coolant tank. Every time she moved, he held his breath until she reached her chosen destination. He had to fight back visions of her hands being lopped off by the hyperdrive and pictures of her slipping on the uncertain footing. But she was proving to be surprisingly nimble at squeezing under the beams and between the engine and the shaft's wall to reach those tiny places that were lost to men as large as Han. He didn't think Chewie could even see those places let alone get his hand down into them. Still, he would be glad when she was finished and out of the engines. Too many things could happen to her down there for his comfort. And the fact that he cared what happened to the princess came as no surprise to Han at all.

Finally he shouted down, ``Okay, how many have you got?''

``Ten!'' she yelled back, her voice almost lost in the noise of the engines.

``You didn't happen to find the box, did you?''

Did he expect her to crawl around down there forever? ``What box?'' she asked warily.

Apparently she hadn't found it. Han shook his head. ``Never mind. Come on up.'' He supposed he'd find it when it fell in the fuel pumps and the ship stopped dead in space.

Then Leia emerged from the hole in the deck plates, struggling to lift the heavy pouch full of tools over her head to the deck before she crawled out as well. Han grabbed the bag from her, struggling a bit with it himself.

``Chewie, here, take these before I drop them again!''

The Wookie grumbled a loud laugh and effortlessly plucked the pouch from his partner's hand.

``And, hey, Chewie?'' Han continued, his voice quieter now. ``Can you keep an eye on Goldenrod for me? I don't want him isolating any more power flux couplings without my prior knowledge. Okay?''

Chewie nodded, and a knowing grin displayed his sharp teeth as he trundled away.

Han turned back to the princess. He reached a hand out to help her, and he met with a metal rectangular box.

``Found it,'' Leia said and arched an eyebrow. ``It was on the step here, right under your nose.''

Han grunted and grinned. ``Yeah? Well, I guess something else has occupied my attention the last hour.'' His grin turned rueful. ``I didn't think to look.'' Han took the box from her, laid it aside, and without another word, reached down and lifted the princess from the engine shaft. Just as carefully, he set her safely on the deck.

Leia clutched at both of his arms, momentarily surprised and flustered. She'd expected maybe a hand up, not this close contact he so casually initiated. Her heart suddenly leapt to her throat and she couldn't breathe. Was he going to kiss her again? She couldn't let him do that! They were too different, she was a princess, he was a smuggler, she had responsibilities, he hated being responsible, she had to try to rendezvous with the fleet, he had to pay off his debts before Jabba the Hutt caught up to him....

Her brain swirled with dozens of unfinished thoughts, a mosaic of panic descending over her general common sense. She automatically recoiled from the panic and from Han. The moment he released her she took several steps back and awkwardly began brushing at her borrowed clothes, hiding her eyes and, hopefully, her inner turmoil from the captain.

Han picked up on her reaction immediately, in spite of her seeming nonchalance. His brow furrowed. ``What's wrong?''

She looked at him then, her eyes wide and scared. ``Nothing,'' she assured him in a high-pitched voice that was far from reassuring. ``Your clothes are dirty. Sorry.''

Han scrutinized her closely. There was clearly something bothering her, and she was clearly not going to tell him about it. Thus proving that she didn't entirely trust him. Yet. Still, he found that the flustered, blushing young woman the princess had suddenly turned into was just as appealing to him as the sarcastic, insulting Rebel leader had ever been. He gave her a swift once-over with his eyes, took in the filthy, baggy pants and the dirty, oversized shirt, and grinned.

``Oh, the pants don't fit and I never did like the shirt all that much anyway. Just something to wear when there was nothing else clean.'' He reached into a nearby storage locker as he spoke and pulled out a rag laying on the top shelf. With deliberate slowness, he gently took her chin in his hand and carefully wiped away a streak of grime that made a path from her regal forehead, down her reddened cheek, to her stubborn jaw. ``And I have to admit, I've never seen grease and dirt look quite so beautiful before,'' he finished, his voice soft.

If anything, her cheeks turned more crimson than they already were. Again her training came to her rescue. ``Thank you, Captain,'' she managed to say, her tone cool and aloof. Nervous of his piercing gaze, she tried to draw back, but his hand was firm.

Han frowned at her. ``Okay, Miss Organa, you can stop with the princess act. I don't buy it. Now are you gonna tell me what's eating at you or do you want me to....''

``No one's ever said that before,'' she blurted without thinking.

Her words took him by surprise and his threats died away to silence even as his hand released its grip on her chin. ``Said what? You mean about that princess stuff?''

Leia gave him a look that implied just how dense she thought he was. ``No.'' She stepped back then, lowering her eyes to the metal deck. To give her mind some time to form a plausible answer for him now that she'd committed herself, she pushed the long sleeves up to her elbows with quick, nervous gestures. How much should she tell him? How much could she tell him? For that matter, how much did she know herself? She didn't want to reveal too much to him just yet, before she had time to think it all through properly.

Or did she?

Finally, quietly, though with conviction now that she'd made up her mind, she said, ``No one has ever told me that I'm beautiful.''

Han's frown vanished. His eyebrows rose in disbelief. ``You're kidding!''

Leia's eyes lifted to look straight into his. What was wrong with him? Here she was, practically baring her soul to him, and he didn't even have the decency to believe her? She noted that his astonishment was at least genuine, but that didn't do much to make her feel better. She glared at him, then yanked the rag out of his grasp. ``No, I'm not kidding!'' She energetically began rubbing at the dirt and slime covering her fingers.

Han ran a hand through his hair, started to laugh, then managed to choke it back. ``So, what have you been told?''

The princess glanced at him again, her anger cooling at the unexpected question. Here was a man who was actually asking about her rather than aspiring to her political position. Despite her intentions to remain distant from him, she felt herself softening almost against her will. At last she said, ``Every now and then I heard `What a credit to the Republic you are, young Senator Organa' or `How proud the king and queen must be of their little princess'.'' She couldn't help smiling with him now as she recalled, ``And once an ambassador from - I don't remember where he was from - said `You certainly have the same strength as Alderaan, Princess Leia'.''

Han couldn't help himself this time; he laughed. ``Only a fool would compare you to a planet!'' He dropped into a nearby console chair and leaned back to catch his breath. ``Obviously this ambassador didn't see you at that medal ceremony on Yavin IV.''

Leia continued to scrub at her hands with the rag, though the job seemed to be hopeless. It would take more than rubbing to get all that grunge off. She dared to sneak another glance at him while pretending to be engrossed in her cleaning. ``What do you mean by that?''

Han snorted. ``I mean the pilots are still talking about it.'' He punched a few buttons on the console, only halfheartedly watching the new panel readouts. Most of his attention was still on the princess. ``You have quite a following in Rogue Squadron,'' he said.

``But I have nothing to do with the squadron!'' she exclaimed, arms extended in protest.

She looks awful cute in that shirt, Han thought, but forced himself to ignore the way the sleeves slid down to her delicate wrists. ``Doesn't matter,'' he eventually proclaimed and turned to face the console. ``Let's just say they're your unofficial fan club. Led by Luke Skywalker, of course.''

Leia's shocked expression subsided at the thought of the Rebellion's newest commander. ``Luke.'' She wandered over to a second chair and lowered herself into it. Her hands rested idly in her lap. ``Sometimes I worry more about Luke than anybody else.''

A furrow cut into Han's smooth forehead. ``You worry about Luke?'' he mildly inquired.

Leia wasn't fooled by his casual tone. She had always detected a tiny sense of rivalry between the pilot and the smuggler whenever she was around. The princess felt oddly touched that they both cared enough to compete. That also had never happened before, she wryly admitted. It was ridiculous to think that anybody chose to compete over the untouchable Rebel leader that she had allowed herself to become. Yet there it was, as plain to her now as the dirt on her hands. It appeared that, at the moment, Han had a slight advantage; Luke had yet to kiss her as Han had. True, she'd kissed Luke in the medical center during his recovery from the ice creature's attack, but somehow that kiss hadn't been the same. Then she had to bite her lip hard to hold back the blush and thrill of excitement that suddenly burned through her entire body at the thought of Han's kiss.

But she needed to collect herself to answer Han's question. Thoughts of Luke soon sobered her emotions. ``He takes so many chances, Han. I think that perhaps his conviction that the Rebellion must not fail makes him do things that ordinarily he would never consider.''

Han swiveled his chair to glance at her. ``Well, you don't need to worry about that. Luke's the best pilot I've ever seen. He might even be as good as me.''

Princess Leia couldn't resist a sarcastic comment. ``Oh, surely that's not possible!''

Han teasingly raised an eyebrow, insisting, ``No, it's true.'' He paused to chuckle a bit. ``Seriously, though, Luke's got something that the others just don't have.'' When she threw a puzzled look at him, he explained, ``I agree that he takes a lot of chances. But he always manages to get out of them. It's almost like somebody, or something, is watching over him. I don't know; maybe that old man Kenobi knew what he was talking about.'' He shrugged and turned back to the console.

They were silent then. Han fiddled with the readouts on his console while Leia stared thoughtfully at her dirty hands. The dirtiest her royal hands had ever been, she thought with a sour twist on her otherwise calm face.

Her quiet voice broke the stillness. ``Do you think he got away?''

Han looked up. ``Luke?''

She nodded silently.

``Yeah, I think he made it. It takes more than a few Imperials to bring him down. To bring any of us down,'' he amended with a nod.

Leia continued, ``But what about the others? You saw the battlefield when we left Hoth. We lost so many people....'' Helplessly she shook her head. ``It wasn't even a defense of the base, just a cover so the transports could escape. Our people didn't have a chance.''

Han's sharp voice took the edge off some of her melancholy. ``Well, we're not beaten yet. Just because the Empire decided to play with their ground assault teams doesn't mean they've won the war.'' He pointed a finger at her, giving emphasis to his words. ``And don't you start second guessing your battle strategy. You did what you had to do. I don't think anybody else could have organized everybody and evacuated them as fast as you did.''

Leia realized in surprise that she'd just heard what was perhaps the first compliment Han had ever paid her. ``I did have help,'' she reminded him. ``General Rieekan is invaluable as a tactician. And even General Willis was a great help with the transports.''

Solo smiled. ``I heard about your run-in with Willis over the snowspeeders. Wedge told me, and he got it straight from Major Derlin.'' He nodded in grudging respect. ``Not bad, Leia, not bad. And all this time I thought I was the only one who resisted authority.'' He winked wickedly at her. ``I guess I owe you one.''

Leia sent him the look of death. ``I think I collected already.'' When he didn't respond to her teasing reference to his bold decision to drag her out of the base, she asked point blank, ``Han, what made you come looking for me in the command center?''

Now it was Han's turn to look uncomfortable under her watchful brown eyes. He tried to brush his previous actions off as he'd shrugged aside his talk of Ben Kenobi. ``I guess I know you too well. You're too stubborn for your own good.'' Leia's prompting look told him she still wasn't satisfied, and in exasperation he said, ``Look, I called your transport to see if you were on board and when you weren't, I suggested to Captain Forrester that I look for you. As it was, they had to take off without the rest of the ground crew when the caverns collapsed.''

Leia nodded, her eyes now focused on the air between herself and Han, seeing things he couldn't see. In a quiet, haunted voice, she said, ``I never would have made it out. We were only a few steps ahead of those stormtroopers.''

Solo agreed with her, his expression grim. ``You probably would have been captured, maybe killed. I might have been captured. And from what I've heard, I have no desire to go through an Imperial interrogation.''

For a moment, Leia's eyes widened and she gave an imperceptible shake of her head.

Han grimaced, wishing he'd learn to keep his big mouth shut. He hated to see what just a mention of interrogation sessions did to the valiant princess. ``Well, that didn't happen. I was determined to get you to your ship even if I had to drag you by the hair.''

Leia's eyes refocused on the captain. ``I was surprised to see you still on base.''

``Yeah, well, I thought I'd stick around, just to make sure you didn't decide to be a martyr at the last minute.''

She conceded that his point had been a possibility hanging in the back of her mind throughout the battle. If things had become desperate, she had planned to take a blaster and head for the access corridors to hide for as long as she could. She hadn't considered the possibility that the corridors might be blocked by cave-ins caused by the heavy Walker fire. By searching her out in the command center, Han had saved her life. Again. And she was only beginning to fathom his reasons for doing so. Tired and confused, she sighed and leaned on the console, her chin cradled in her hand.

Han broke from his own reverie and punched a few more buttons, turning some instruments on and others off. ``Try not to let it bother you; we survived and we'll fight another day.''

Leia wondered when he had started thinking of the Rebellion as 'we' instead of 'you.' ``That's a war cliche if I ever heard one,'' she scoffed lightly.

Still studying his console readouts, he replied, ``Well, that's the way war works.''

She snorted. ``What do you know about war? You've spent your whole life floating around on this derelict barge, dumping spice shipments and getting into trouble. I know if you and Chewie had it the way you both wanted it, you never would have become involved with the Alliance in the first place.''

Han glanced at her. ``Maybe,'' he acknowledged. ``But both Chewie and I have plenty of experience with war. Don't think you've got all the dibs there.'' His mouth etched in a grim line, he returned to his work.

Intrigued, Leia pressed him. ``What are you talking about?''

Han impatiently pushed his chair to a second panel and intently studied the readouts. He sounded distracted when he answered, ``Princess, there's all different kinds of wars, and all sorts of reasons to fight them. Some aren't so important in the larger scheme of the universe, but there they are.''

She sat up, suddenly understanding. ``Did you have problems with your family?''

``Hmpf,'' he grunted under his breath. ``You can call it that. Let's just say you're not the only one without someplace to go home to.'' He took his eyes off the console to look affectionately at the cross-wired panels covering the walls of the forward hold and said, ``Yep, the Falcon's my home from now on, and Chewie's for as long as he stays. We have our independence, and we like it that way.'' His voice turned fierce at the last, and Leia saw his hand curl into a tight, determined fist.

She yearned to discover the reason for the captain's strong independent streak, but she felt she didn't know him well enough. Yet. She hoped she could work up the courage to ask him someday; it promised to be an enlightening story.

The princess surreptitiously watched Han as he gazed at the electrical workings of his ship. His dark hair lay tousled on his forehead, and the muscles of his arm showed through his jacket as he clenched and unclenched his fist. Suddenly his eyes met hers across the work station. Something resembling intense denial burned in his blue eyes as he looked at her, and Leia turned away, flustered again, struggling to regain even a measure of composure. Han sighed loudly just as Chewbacca entered the hold, grumbling about the long-range sensors not functioning. One look at the panel showed that Han had somehow turned the sensors off, much to Chewie's disgust and aberration. He immediately corrected the problem.

Han glanced up. Calmer now, though obviously confused, his eyes met Leia's. ``I - uh - need to work on the...the sensors a bit. Make sure we're not missing anything.''

She nodded, equally as unsteady. ``I should probably clean myself up.''

``Yeah.''

Chewie gave them both a puzzled look, and the princess moved off, heading for the Falcon's living quarters.

``Hey, do you know where everything is?''

Leia turned at the threshold. ``I think I can manage.'' She tried to sound flippant, but her mind refused to let her think clearly.

He nodded, then for lack of anything better to do, motioned her on with his hand. ``Good.''

Leia quietly slipped from the hold.

Han watched her go, unable to fathom the emotional tailspin he abruptly found himself in. All he'd done was look into her eyes, and suddenly he felt lost and empty inside. Only one thing was sure; the light flirtation he'd started on Hoth was turning into something far bigger and more serious than he'd ever anticipated.

For the first time in years, Leia dreamed of home.

She had always thought it was odd, really, that people tended to associate her with the entire planet of Alderaan rather than with the single province where she had grown up. In truth, she had traveled throughout her homeworld, but knew relatively little about it. Her home, on the other hand was recreated now in her dream with such intricate detail that even she found it alarming. Everything was just as it should be, the house, the porch, the imposing front gates. Even the marble fountain in the front yard shone in the sun like a gleaming white beacon, calling people to the dinners and parties that were often given by Alderaan's ruling family. The child Leia had always been fascinated with the greenish tint to the fountain's water, a color she believed could perform wonderful magic on whoever dared to plunge their hands into its cool wetness. It was only after several years and countless dunkings that she understood the strange color was due to chemicals the head gardener put in the water to enhance its natural hue.

But by then Leia was growing up and had stopped believing in magic. She, a young princess already in training to replace her aging father as the next Senator Organa, had more important matters to attend to. The Imperial threat was growing, and even a sixteen year old girl could not fail to see the cloud steadily spreading across the galaxy. Openly, she agreed with her father's and Alderaan's policies of peace regarding the new rising regime, but secretly she wished to do everything in her power to stop these evil men before they destroyed all that she loved.

The feelings of fear and mounting desperation that she had frequently suffered during the first years of the Imperial takeover followed her now into her dream.

She was home, yet something was not right. The fountain stood silent in the front of the modest house, its waters a little too blue, the house a little too quiet. Leia walked through the enormous archway that led to the elegantly carved wooden doors, feeling a haste building within her to find something, or someone, inside. The ancient doors swung away with only a small push of her hand, and she was in, running across the large greeting hall, climbing the stairs two at a time. She remembered her tutors chastising her for running up the stairs in this unladylike fashion, but now there wasn't time for lessons in deportment. She must find it, and find it soon, before it was gone.

Then she entered her parents' chambers, a forbidden paradise to the young princess, yet one she knew intimately from later years. The queen's death had left the king lonely, and Leia had often spent her evenings in her father's private sitting room, discussing matters of state.

But in her dream, the queen still lived. She was there, sitting at the desk, writing in her journal as she'd done every day since Leia could remember. The quiet serenity and strength that was always associated with the queen hung over her now like a protective cloak.

Leia approached the desk, the desperation inside her growing. ``Help me, Mother! Please! I don't know where to look,'' she said, the words forced out with agonizing slowness.

The queen looked up, and she smiled a wondrous smile at the child she once knew. ``You were always so impatient, Leia. You will find what you are seeking when you need to find it.'' Then she turned back to her journal, dismissing the girl clinging to her sleeve.

``I need it now!'' Leia demanded, pulling and pulling on her mother's sleeve until she thought she might tear the beautiful material. ``If I don't find it, I will lose it.''

Again the maddeningly calm smile. ``Then I suggest you go back to the beginning and look again.'' The queen turned away, and Leia found herself in the upstairs gallery, running and running, heading for the stairs at the other end, but never quite gaining any ground. Then Elise, her last teacher and for all purposes, her mother after the queen's death, stopped her. The tall woman held out an ornate, jeweled headpiece.

``Princess, how many times must I tell you to wear your tiara to state dinners? The ambassador is coming, and he will expect to be honored accordingly.'' She effortlessly placed the heavy circlet on Leia's head, arranging her hair to hang around it just right.

Leia felt herself sinking under the weight of the head piece. She yanked the tiara from her head. ``No! This isn't what I want!'' she yelled.

Elise gazed at her, serene as a mirror. ``Then what do you want? You had better decide; time is running out.''

Elise vanished, and Leia was aware of the sound of boots, many boots, echoing loudly through her empty house. They had come to claim it before she did!

Her heart full of terror, she half ran, half slid down the wide front stairs, the echoing footsteps growing louder in her ears, roaring until she couldn't hear anything else. Even her heartbeat was lost in that cacophony of noise. Leia relentlessly surged forward, desperate to find it, to protect it, to claim it as hers before the chance disappeared like the others in her life. The roar was impossibly louder, closer, and she reached for her blaster in a final bid to save the only thing left her.

Leia blinked. Chewbacca let off another deafening roar as he carefully picked himself up off the floor. The blaster in her hand felt hot, and a hole in the far wall of the tiny cabin smoked from a recent laser bolt. Judging by the angle of the shot and the way she was crouched at one corner of the bed, she had been aiming at the door. Fortunately for Chewie's sake, she had missed.

Despite the controlled atmosphere of the Millennium Falcon, sweat trickled down her forehead, clouding her eyes, and she reached up to wipe it away. Then she noticed her trembling hands. She watched in gruesome fascination as the trembling traveled up her arm, and suddenly her entire body was shaking uncontrollably. Drenched in sweat, she felt cold, and goose bumps raised on her skin under the protective shirt she'd worn to sleep in. Han's shirt.

It all came back in one firm SWOOSH; the dream, her search, the fear, pulling out the blaster. Where in heaven had she acquired a blaster? She looked at it in her shaking hand until a frenzied Chewbacca snatched it away. Not exactly practiced in handling hysterical women, the Wookie was just finding the courage to approach the subdued princess when Solo appeared on the scene.

Han barreled into the room, punching the light sensors just in time to avoid a collision with his first mate. ``What's happening? I was on watch in the cockpit and thought I heard a blaster go off.''

Before anybody could explain, Threepio added his own brand of confusion and noise to the incident, saying upon his entry into the tiny room, ``Your Highness! Captain Solo! Sir! There are intruders aboard this ship. I distinctly heard a shot only seconds ago! Hurry, you might catch them before they kill us all!'' The droid waved his arms, one golden fist only inches from the irate Wookie's face. Chewie swatted Threepio's hand away, spinning the droid back into the corridor. ``Oh my!'' he yelled in undignified terror.

Chewie then gestured at the air, waving the blaster under Han's nose, and pointed at the hole in the cabin's wall. He bellowed again for good measure and indicated Princess Leia with a hairy paw.

``Holy...!'' Han inspected the hole from his position near the bed. ``You said Leia took a shot at you? How in the--'' He glanced from the hole, to the Wookie, to the princess, trying to understand what had happened. It was only then that he noticed the trembling princess, all curled up and crouched in the corner where the bunk met the two far walls of his sleeping quarters. Her hair was a mess, stray strands escaping from the tight braid and pointing in every direction. Most notably, her brown eyes were wide and staring in naked fear.

But even as he watched her, the look in her eyes changed. As she acknowledged him, the fear subsided, replaced by a strange sense of recognition, and suddenly she seemed to thoroughly wake up.

Chewbacca growled menacingly, thrusting the weapon into Han's hand before advancing towards Princess Leia.

Han caught hold of his friend. ``Hold on, Chewie! Calm down!''

Threepio reappeared, gesturing wildly with his metal arms. ``Stand still, you brute! Get away from the princess at once!''

Han's restraining hold had little affect on Chewie. He growled in angry bursts, saying something about hearing Leia scream in her sleep, only to be shot at when he charged in to investigate. He thought he was protecting her, not threatening her life! Chewie inched forward again, still intent on giving Leia a large piece of his mind.

But with a supreme effort and a deep breath, Leia managed to stop shaking so much, momentarily halting Chewbacca's rage. A hand went to cover her mouth while she stared in horror at the hole in the wall and at the furious Wookie. She rose from her crouching position, the shirt covering her completely to her knees. Han thought she'd lost her mind, but without hesitation, she stepped right up to the towering mountain of fur and placed a hand on Chewie's arm, as close to his shoulder as she could reach.

``Please accept my apology, Chewbacca! It was a nightmare. I wasn't shooting at you.'' Her voice was low and weak, a testimony to how badly the dream had affected her. She continued, ``Truly, I had no intentions of hurting you. Thankfully I'm not a very good shot when I'm asleep. I'm very sorry.'' Her back straightened with her apology; even wearing a man's oversized shirt with her hair an undignified mess, she was still very much a princess.

And to Han's astonishment, he saw the fire leave Chewie's eyes. The rage burned away, leaving only the gentle brown hue as he woofed a few words back at her. Han didn't need to translate as the softness of his voice and the gentle smile indicated exactly what the Wookie was saying; she had his complete forgiveness.

Han gave a small grimace of disgust. Why was it that men, human and otherwise, were willing to bend over backwards for this one woman? The grimace deepened. And why the hell was he suddenly joining their ranks?

``Oh, thank goodness no one was hurt!'' Threepio exclaimed.

``I'm sorry,'' she repeated and after a final pat, let her hand fall to her side and her eyes lower in embarrassment to the bed. She stood with her toes curled in the sheets, unmoving.

Han felt the need to end the moment of silence. Figuring Leia had done her penance to Chewbacca, he said, ``Okay, excitement's over. Threepio, go on back to the tech. station and keep a close watch on the sensors, to make sure nobody's spotted us.''

Chewie growled and nodded at Han.

Han glanced at his first mate. ``You sure? I don't mind finishing my watch.'' Chewie nodded again. ``All right, but I'll come with you and keep an eye on things for awhile longer. Give you time to collect yourself; it's not every day you almost get plastered by a princess.'' He gave his lopsided grin and ushered his partner and the droid to the door. There he muttered. ``Think I'll keep the blaster, though. That's the last time I'm leaving it under my pillow, I can tell you that!''

Chewbacca laughed, looking for all the world as if nothing had happened, and cheerfully left the room.

Leia raised her eyes to Han, catching him as he stood at the door watching her with close curiosity. ``I apologize for the damage to your ship. I'll pay you for repairs the minute we reach the fleet.''

Han frowned. Was she offering money? To him? He paused, shifted his weight to his left foot, hefted the blaster more firmly into his hand. He threw another glance at the hole. ``Naw, it adds character to my room. Think I'll keep it to remember you by.''

``No, Han, I don't mind....''

``Relax, Princess. I don't want your money.''

Then she gave a little smile. ``I guess some things do change,'' she mocked lightly and, he thought, a little sadly.

He turned to face her, the blaster resting uneasily in his hand. He indicated the weapon. ``Do you have these nightmares often?''

She shook her head. ``Fortunately, not anymore.''

Leia had nightmares? The thought surprised Han. He'd always pictured her as the indisputable master of her own destiny, not a young Rebel who suffered from bad dreams. ``Do you want to talk about it?''

Leia hesitated. It might be a relief to finally tell him and put it out in the open. Now she knew beyond any doubt what her dream had been trying to tell her; she'd been searching for Han, and she hadn't found him in time. She figured she didn't have many chances left to decide what to do about him, either. The princess considered his suggestion, her mind casting back over her recent dream. If only she could be sure of his reaction....

Threepio's voice suddenly interrupted them over the intercom. ``Captain Solo, Chewbacca wishes me to inform you that the long range scanners are not functioning properly. He suggests you take a look at them from the cockpit.'' The droid's crackling voice dissolved into the static of the intercom.

Han glared at the walls surrounding him, a symbolic glare at his ship as a whole. ``What else could possibly go wrong on this trip?'' He crossed to the intercom station standing in the one free corner of the room. ``Tell him I'll be there in a little while.''

``Thank you, Sir.'' Threepio's voice disappeared as Han severed the connection.

This new development in ship repairs made Leia's decision much easier. Though she realized she had to face her emotions soon, she still drew a deep breath of relief. ``There's no need for you to stay, Han,'' she said. Then, so she wouldn't have to see his face, she turned to rearranging the covers on the bed before climbing back under their warmth.

It was a dismissal, as clearly as if she'd told him to leave. Dismissed from my own room! he groused to himself, but turned to go like a dutiful servant. His ship needed him anyway. But at the door, he stopped. Though he'd never seen the princess cower from anything, he said, ``You know, there's nothing to be afraid of, Leia.''

He's wrong, she thought. There are always things to be afraid of. Many things frightened her, most with good reason. This was different; there was no logical reasoning to it.

Leia Organa was afraid of Han Solo.

As the trip to Cloud City progressed, Leia remained withdrawn, choosing to keep her secret thoughts to herself. Han tactfully refrained from mentioning her nightmare, and Threepio was threatened with a particularly tragic memory wipe if he so much as mumbled a word in reference to it.

But Chewbacca saw the effect so much avoidance had on his partner and the princess. Where keeping things to himself was simply an order for the golden droid, Han was unused to biting his tongue. Leia grew more preoccupied and Han became so distracted with his own thoughts that Chewie had to remind him to take care of the ship's repairs.

In fact, the Wookie grumbled to himself, if it weren't for him, nothing would ever get done. He patiently arranged the tools that Leia had retrieved the day before on the Falcon's metallic deck, a damp rag in one hand and a clean white drying rag in the other hairy paw. He grabbed the hydrospanners from the floor and meticulously began dabbing at the grime and dirt that had accumulated on the intricate tool. Two things were certain, Chewie grimly realized: the ship's engines were filthy, and it was going to take him most of the day to repair the tools to a semblance of working condition. Then he grinned his toothy grin; he had nothing else pressing his attention at the moment, or for the next month's worth of moments.

He was still laughing mildly at his humorous thoughts when his partner appeared suddenly from the corridor leading to the galley. ``Thought I'd warm up some dinner in case you get hungry later on.'' Then he noticed the tools spread out before his partner. ``Hey, good idea, Chewie. I guess it's about time to get down to repairs, huh?'' Solo joined the Wookie on the floor, sitting cross-legged and tucking his boots under his legs as well as he could. ``Ugh. I'm getting old, my friend. You got any more rags lying around? Thought I'd give you a hand.''

Chewie gave a bark of genuine surprise as he reached for the box of rags.

``Very funny. Yeah, well I guess there's a first time for everything, Pal,'' Han said curtly. When Chewie grumbled an equally sarcastic reply, the captain glared at his friend. ``Just give me the rag.''

Chewie laughed and Han quirked his half smile before they settled down to work, both of them grunting intermittently as they added muscle to the power of water to get some of the assorted tools back in order.

Han finally broke the silence. ``Good thing Leia's small enough to fit down the engine shaft. I wouldn't want to spring for a whole new set of tools right before striking out on our own again.''

Chewie lifted his head and gave Han a sharp look. He spoke in a low bark.

Han didn't return the Wookie's glance. He studiously kept his head bent over his work. ``Of course I still plan on us blowing out of here. Soon as we get this bucket fixed and unload the passengers, we're off.''

Chewie's expression darkened, not a pretty sight on a Wookie's face, and he rumbled menacingly.

That statement brought Han's head up with a snap. ``I am not a fool, you poof ball! What the hell makes you say that?''

Chewie growled and shook his furred head.

``Do you have something against being on our own again?'' Han asked scornfully. ``You gone soft or something?''

The Wookie ignored his Human friend's anger. He issued a string of condescending words to his counterpart.

``I am not avoiding her!'' Han explained. ``I'm making it easier for her to avoid me.''

Chewie ignored him.

``Look, it's obvious she doesn't want to talk to me, the way she's been leaving the room every time she sees me.''

Chewie grunted.

Han considered arguing some more, but then he paused, scratched his head, and said, ``Okay, maybe I am avoiding her. But it's for her own good.''

The Wookie remained engrossed in his work.

``Okay, maybe I don't want to talk to her. Maybe I think she's a royal pain in the neck.''

Chewbacca looked at him threateningly and growled softly in the back of his throat.

``Well, not like Goldenrod, of course, but....''

The growl deepened.

``Okay, Chewie! I admit it! It has nothing to do with her, it's me. I don't know what's going on and I don't think I like that. Next time why don't you take the faster approach and beat it out of me?''

Chewbacca's growl turned into a soft laugh.

Han wasn't sure he appreciated being laughed at when his insides were such a scrambled mess, but at the same time he felt relieved that he'd finally told his friend what was bothering him. He was amazed that he hadn't confided in Chewie long before. ``What do you think of her, Chewie?'' he asked in a hushed voice.

Chewbacca's equally soft response was ready faster than Han thought was possible.

Han's eyebrows shot up in wonder. ``The right one? You think so? But... I mean... but, we fight all the time.''

Chewie nodded and grunted.

Han dropped the cleaned corded wrench into the battered tool box with a clang. ``I am not hiding from the truth, Chewie!''

A huge breathy sigh exploded from Chewbacca, but before he could bark in aggravation at his partner's abominable stupidity, Han capitulated and quietly interrupted him. ``She's incredible, isn't she, Partner?''

Now the Wookie only glanced at his partner and silently nodded.

Han regained his wandering thoughts. Pointing the bolt driver at Chewbacca, he said, ``Don't you dare tell her I said that.'' Chewie grunted, and Han wasn't sure if it was to cover up another chuckle or not. It didn't matter; he still had no answer to his current dilemma. ``What should I do, Chewie?'' he asked.

Chewie rubbed the hydraulic wrench, considering. Finally he barked an unending streak, his eyes raised to the ceiling. He paused, rubbed his paws over his head, smoothing down this hair to help him think, enjoying his sudden role as counselor. Then in a final burst of philosophy, he sagely added a few more grunts.

Han's face became puzzled. ``Treat her like a princess? In case you've missed it, fur face, she is a princess!'' He stopped while Chewie laughed at his little joke, then plunged on, determined to air his thoughts before he lost his nerve. ``Anyway, you know what I mean. If the princess and I get... involved,'' he forced himself to say, though the connotations of that word terrified him, ``what do I do about the future? I doubt she'd leave the Rebellion even if I asked, which I won't, and I can't stick around, either. We've got that debt we have to pay off. It won't take Jabba much longer to catch up to us, you know.''

The Wookie nodded and growled in agreement.

Han continued, ``And I'm just as stubborn and independent as she is.'' He shook his head. ``No, this won't work out. We'd drive each other crazy. We'd....''

Chewie roughly interrupted Han's misgivings, then waved his hairy paw in the general direction of the cockpit where he knew Leia was sitting, staring out the forward windows, seeing nothing.

``Well, yeah, I would like to talk to her. I guess that makes the most sense anyway. Probably, it's my only hope.'' Han dropped his rags to the floor next to the tools. ``You don't mind?'' Suddenly the idea of talking to Leia seemed very appealing.

Chewie waved Han away again. Maybe if they talked, he could finally get Han to concentrate on the Falcon's repairs for once. Besides, he wanted to see his friend happy, and he had the strongest Wookie hunch that Princess Leia could make Han very happy.

Or they might kill each other trying.

Han's convictions weren't quite as strong as Chewie's, however. His pace slowed as he neared the cockpit, and he stopped altogether just outside the cockpit door. Until now he hadn't considered what reason he might have for entering the cockpit when he knew perfectly well that the princess was on watch and would call him if she noticed anything unusual. Putting the truth into words was not an option to the suddenly shy captain. He supposed he could take a look at the sensor array. Or perhaps he should play with that loose connection to the gravity coupling. Leia didn't need to know he'd fixed it before leaving Hoth. That idea at least had merit.

He was still debating what to do when the cockpit door unexpectedly swooshed open and the princess nearly ran into him on her way into the corridor.

``Han!'' she exclaimed, too surprised for a moment to do anything more than catch her breath. ``I was just coming to find you.''

``Why?'' he blurted, stunned beyond coherent thought. ``Is there something wrong?''

Instead of answering his question, she looked at him closely. ``Are you all right? You look kind of... sick.''

His eyes widened and he shook his head in vigorous denial. ``No, nothing's wrong. I was - uh - just thinking.''

She raised both eyebrows and cautioned, ``Well, don't hurt yourself.''

The insult sparked Han out of his stunned lethargy. Eyes narrowing, he said, ``Are you going to stand around insulting me or do you plan to tell me what you needed?''

Princess Leia almost smiled at his banter, but the high emotions from her dream were still too near, too real. The need to make a decision about Han was stronger now than ever, but she felt too paralyzed by the sudden vulnerability of a relationship with him to even think. Turning instead, she led him through the hatchway into the tiny, dimly lit cockpit. The door closed swiftly behind him, shutting them off from the rest of the ship. ``I noticed that there's a bad connection here, leading from the turbo to the gravity coupling. I thought you might like to take a look at it.'' Leia sat in the pilot's chair and pulled out the power board from under the front console.

``Loose connection?'' Han leaned over her and experimentally jiggled the adapter leading to the turbo port. Instantly the readouts on the console dimmed and slowed to half their normal speed. ``Damn,'' he muttered. ``I thought I fixed that last week.''

Leia pointed at the delicate threads of wire streaking across the board. ``You've got an awful lot of rerouting and crosswiring here.''

``Yeah, well I guess this is what I deserve for bypassing the gravity circuits when I installed that new enhancer.'' He knelt beside the chair, reaching across her lap to get a closer look at the problem. No longer uncomfortable now that he had something to occupy his mind, he was able to companionably rest his arm on her leg as he fiddled with the loose wires.

Princess Leia almost smiled again. Despite her best efforts to suppress it, her heart beat quickened the minute his coat touched her quilted leggings and she felt her cheeks turn an annoying shade of red. Strangely enough, with that simple act of intimacy, all the fear and indecisiveness expressed by her dream melted away like snow in a sudden thaw. To replace it was the strongest urge to familiarly ruffle his dark hair. She took a deep breath and with an effort, repressed it, but was forced to acknowledge that her unpredictable emotions had flipped to a totally different direction, and it was becoming easier to give in to her desires than to fight them.

``Here's the problem,'' Solo mentioned, unknowingly interrupting her battle of mind against emotions. ``This prong is not even close to the right size. No wonder it keeps shorting out. Here, hold this,'' and he unceremoniously dumped the board in her lap while he crossed the compartment to retrieve a portable tool kit hidden in a back locker. He fumbled around until he managed to find a small pliar set. ``These won't work as well as the 'spanners, but Chewie's still cleaning them, so they'll have to do.'' He dropped the kit on the floor next to her feet, then carefully removed the prong and began comparing it to spares he kept in the box.

Momentarily distracted from her tempestuous emotional state, Leia shook her head in disbelief. ``Han, that's never going to work. Those prongs aren't even made for a power board with this much voltage.''

``Now, you never know what I'm going to find in here. I've been hoarding this stuff since I first got the Falcon. You're looking at my very first pliar set,'' he proudly informed her.

She indulgently nodded. ``I'm sure I'm very impressed. Look, why don't you just compensate for the decrease in power by bleeding off the drive discharge, here.'' Leia plucked two wires from the adapter and spliced them directly into a second adapter. ``Now you don't have to worry about prongs, and everything is running like it should be.'' With a wave of her hand she indicated the normal, bright readouts displayed on the forward console.

``Now would you look at that.'' Impressed, Han gazed at the display of blinking lights. ``Why didn't I think of that?''

``Probably because you were too busy trying to think of an excuse to come up here,'' she dryly replied. Leia carefully restored the power board to its place under the console.

``You think you know everything,'' Han mocked to cover his surprise at her insights, and he dropped his tools quickly back in the box and put the kit in the locker again.

``That's just because I'm royalty,'' she coolly bantered, swiveling the pilot's chair around to face him.

Han paused in his routine check on the course layout to glance curiously at her from the corner of his eyes. She's flirting with me, he abruptly realized. It wasn't obvious flirting, but he could tell it was definitely sincere. Han grinned. Widely.

But Leia saw his grin and determined to keep the upper hand in the situation before Han gained control and managed to carry her away as he had when he first kissed her. In a businesslike tone, she said, ``What do you think our chances are in winning this war with the Empire?''

``The war?!'' Han grimaced, and made a slight course adjustment before throwing himself into the copilot's chair. ``To hell with the stupid war. I didn't come up here to converse on the Empire's battle strategies with you.''

She quickly observed, ``You also didn't intend to fix loose connections or make useless course adjustments.'' Her brown eyes pierced his across the small distance separating them.

Han sighed in surrender; he was caught and he knew it. ``All right. Chewie would be proud to hear me say there's no point in fighting myself anymore.'' He dared to meet her gaze though he had to swallow before he could continue. ``But I need to know what you think about a few things.''

Leia stared at him warily. Going over this conversation in her mind was one thing, but it was hard to dredge up the courage to go through with it now. Yet she settled firmly in the pilot's seat and steadied her voice to ask, ``What do you mean?''

Han gave a helpless smile and spread his hands. ``Well, I didn't exactly intend for this to happen.''

``This?'' she asked purposefully.

What, did he have to hold her hand and lead her through the entire explanation? ``Us.'' He gestured at each of them. ``You. Me. This... this mess we've somehow gotten ourselves into.''

Suddenly her forehead wrinkled. ``You think this is just some mistake?''

``No!'' Han hurried to say. He ruffled his hair in frustration. ``That's not what I meant.''

Leia took a breath and held her hands up calmly. ``I know. I know.'' They were silent as they tried to gather thoughts and the courage to go on.

He wearily rubbed his eyes and let his breath hiss out through his teeth. Finally he said, ``I guess the point is that Chewie and I have this debt we need to pay off, and we won't gain any credits sticking close to the Rebellion.''

``I won't leave the Alliance,'' Leia softly vowed.

``Of course not! But don't you see, that's the problem. You won't go, and I can't stay.'' Though he tried to sound calm and rational, desperation began seeping into his voice. ``More bounty hunters are looking for my hide every day. I'm not even safe to be around.'' He closed his eyes and gently massaged his forehead, wondering how he'd ever gotten himself into this, yet knowing he didn't want out of it either. In fact, he wanted everything: to be free of that debt and to see the princess every day. Surprisingly he even felt bad about no longer being able to aid the Rebellion. This whole relationship thing was completely changing his diehard views on everything all at once. Suddenly other people were becoming more important to him than his own immediate future, and everything was all mixed up.

Han gave another deep sigh. ``I never thought I'd ever say this, especially not to you, but - when Chewie and I come back, after we've settled that damn debt with Jabba, will you... I mean....''

Leia leaned forward to take his hands, wanting nothing more than to alleviate the painful expression in Han's eyes. ``Han, stop. Please.'' She didn't want to hear him say anything about long range commitments or empty promises that they might well be unable to honor. She wasn't even sure she could promise him a future, in or out of the Rebel Alliance. It was just too risky being a member of the most wanted group of outlaws in the galaxy to say where their allegiance would lie at any given time. ``I'm not sure there's anything we can do, Han,'' she said in a quiet, resigned, though not unhappy, tone.

Han looked at her as she leaned close to him, her brown eyes staring honestly up at him, and he suddenly bent to kiss her lovingly on the forehead. ``You know, for royalty, you're quite a lady.'' To his delight, she blushed a deep crimson and he chuckled at her reaction. And Leia was right, he knew. They couldn't say one way or another what might happen to either of them. The best thing to do was sit back, relax, and enjoy what they already had.

Suddenly their situation didn't seem so impossibly grim. Feeling more lighthearted by the minute, he playfully kissed her nose and jokingly asked, ``So, are you really a princess or have you just been pulling our legs all this time?''

``Han!''

Han chuckled. ``Come on. You could parade around, being aristocratic and we would never know the truth!''

She shook her head in aggravation. ``Sometimes I wonder why I bother with you at all!'' But Han only grinned mischievously and waited for an answer. ``Of course I am, you brainless pirate, though around you it's always been a curse!'' She tried to disengage her fingers from his grasp, but he resisted her attempts, eventually pulling her completely into his arms as he laughed harder at her display of temper.

``This is the way I like you best, Princess, all mad and ready to kill me.'' He lightly kissed her cheek, then added, ``But I think I'll keep my blasters someplace where you can't reach them, just to be safe.''

``Probably a good idea,'' she agreed sarcastically. Her anger dissipated as he cradled her in his lap, and a familiar sense of security that she instinctively associated with Han enveloped her. Still she couldn't resist raising one eyebrow and archly warning, ``But remember, I have my own blaster, and you never know when I'll get the urge to use it.''

Han chuckled at her feisty words while at the same time acknowledging the challenge she offered. One thing was certain, a relationship with Leia Organa promised to be anything but dull!

In unknowing compliance with his thoughts, she flirtatiously wrapped her arms around his neck and, with a mischievous smile, leaned closer to kiss him delicately on the lips. Unlike their first kiss, this time there was no sign of hesitation from either the smuggler or the princess. Han's arms enfolded Leia in a tight embrace, and as he threw himself heedlessly into the kiss, his stomach did a somersault and plunged to his toes.

Otherwise occupied for the moment, both Han and the princess failed to notice a silent, incessant flashing from the long range sensors on the pilot's control board. Long before they parted and Han issued a breathless, ``Wow!'' the warning had ceased, leaving the Falcon's crew utterly oblivious to the evil lurking behind them in the serenity of space. Now safely out of the freighter's sensor range, it hung back, patient and undetected, knowing it only had to wait, and follow, and strike when the time was right. It innately knew the time would come soon. Very, very soon....


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