Freedom.

His fingers, once locked in an eternal reach, curled into a fist. A jerk of a leg, and he felt his eyebrows gather over his nose in a frown. The muscle twitched in his left cheek. And best of all, he breathed.

The air was soft, cool, a soothing caress to his skin and a miracle to his expanding lungs. He knew he could never get enough of that sweet air to satisfy his craving lungs. Still, his breathing was easy, relaxed, and he settled comfortably against the darkness wrapped tightly all around. Voices floated across his perception, growing and fading, familiar voices, friendly voices. He understood he was safe, for she had come. After the hours of agonized waiting and hoping, she--had--come.

Of course, he realized, he had dreamt this all before.......

The Return of Han Solo

by Linda Bindner

for Meggie

``Your Highness.'' The medical droid paused, then leaned closer over the form curled up and sleeping in the chair. Its soft, airy voice repeated, ``Your Highness. Please wake up.''

Leia sensed the machine hanging over her, and she inhaled sharply, her head jerking up before her eyes were fully opened. The round, gleaming head and glowing eyes of Too-Onebee hovered directly over her chair, and for a moment she couldn't remember where she was. ``I'm sorry,'' she muttered, wiping the sleep out of her eyes. She yawned. ``I must have fallen asleep.''

Too-Onebee's voice gave a convincing imitation of fond amusement as it said, ``You've been asleep for several hours.''

She glanced up in surprise. ``I have?''

If the droid could have smiled, he would have. Instead, he announced in his soothing, melodic voice, ``I wish to inform you that Captain Solo is coming around.''

Captain Solo! Han!

Leia jumped up, her heart stopping entirely as she ungracefully tripped over Onebee's foot in her scramble to get out of the chair and over to the medical bed, the only occupied bed in the ward. All those months of hoping and waiting, and then the tortuous period before Luke's arrival prior to the furious battle to escape.... Now it was her turn to hover in breathless anticipation.

Slowly Han's eyes blinked open.

And just as quickly squeezed tightly shut again. ``Whoa, that's bright!'' he croaked and struggled to extract his hand from the twisted blanket so he could shade his eyes.

``Turn the lights down one quarter,'' a voice ordered to his left.

At the sound of those words, the breath stopped in Han's chest and his heart froze in mid beat.

The soft, overly soothing tones of one of those annoying medical droids interrupted his frozen heartbeat, saying, ``His eyes will adjust in time.''

There was a low, though decidedly feminine growl and an irritated sigh. ``Just humor me, Too-Onebee.''

The droid made disapproving clicking noises, but only said, ``As you wish, Princess.'' Then the explosion of white receded to a nominally revolting yellowish glare.

Han dropped his hands and licked his dry lips. She was here, right now, standing so close to him his skin tightened in prickles along his scalp. Even if she hadn't spoken, he would have recognized the smell of her skin anywhere. That smell and the memories that accompanied it had kept his mind just this side of insanity for so long.... But now it was real, and strangely enough, reality was not as comforting as his thousands of dreams had been. Infinitely more interesting, perhaps, but not as pleasant.

Since when, he questioned himself, did Han Solo go for comfort over a little risk? He turned his head towards her voice and forced his eyes open.

Squinting and blinking rapidly, he looked up. She's awful blurry, he thought, then said aloud, ``Is the galaxy a bit out of focus or is it just me?''

Too-Onebee said, ``The effects of the hibernation sickness will wear off in time. Is your eyesight improving now, Captain Solo?''

Han ignored the droid and continued to squint. Then he blinked; his vision was clearing. ``Yeah. Yeah, I can see a lot better already.'' He glanced slowly around the room as he leaned up on his elbows. The lights gleamed off Too-Onebee's metallic body, creating glaring flashes in his slowly returning vision. But no doubt about it, he could see for the first time in...?

He sat up with a jerk, the blanket falling to his waist. He recognized the beds and units of a Rebel cruiser's medical center. The center's air felt cold as it filtered through his thin white medical-issue tunic. He felt his muscles start to shake and shiver, but he fought the sensation, turning his attention instead to the woman standing beside his bed.

So beautiful... shorter than he remembered... large, luminous eyes... high cheekbones... flowing dark hair pulled back from her small face and left free to form a cloud around her shoulders....

Han looked at her in confusion, momentarily unable to collect his scattered thoughts. Then he managed to ask, ``How...how long have I been here?'' He glanced hastily around the unit again. ``What happened? I thought....''

Leia took his hand. ``It's okay. Nothing happened. Everything's fine.''

Han felt the pressure of her tiny fingers curled around his larger hand, and he suddenly realized that her touch felt awfully good. He squeezed her hand in return. ``Then why am I here? The last thing I remember is...um...climbing aboard the Falcon, saying goodbye to Luke.... Hey, is Luke all right?''

The princess smiled indulgently and nodded. ``Luke's fine,'' she insisted. ``He's taking care of some unfinished business before meeting the fleet at the rendezvous point.'' She took his other hand and calmly explained, ``You fell asleep.''

Han leaned back a bit. ``I fell asleep?''

Too-Onebee interjected his own form of calmness into the conversation. ``A perfectly natural reaction to such an extended period of hibernation. Now that you are awake, your body will return to normal functioning within a day. There should be no lasting side effects from your ordeal.'' The droid seemed almost proud of this last fact, as if he had personally managed to pull Han away from the grip of the carbonite.

Too bad he couldn't pull away the memories just as easily.

But Han paused, blinking rapidly as what the droid had said began to sink in. ``Extended hibernation? Uh, exactly how extended are we talking about here?''

Leia grimaced, her smile leaving her oval face as her eyes left his. She sighed. ``Six standard months,'' she admitted reluctantly.

Six months? Six months?! It had taken Luke and the others that long to infiltrate Jabba's establishment securely enough to attempt a rescue? For a moment, Han thought he might be sick. But for all he knew, he hadn't eaten anything recently enough to be sick with. He glanced from Leia to Onebee. ``You're saying that after sleeping for six months, I decided I needed another snooze?''

The medical droid lifted an arm with a mechanical whir. ``You must understand, Captain Solo, while under the influence of the carbonite, you did not sleep. Your body functions slowed, yet you remained marginally alert. It is only natural that you wished to sleep after so long.''

``Marginally alert?'' Han snorted. So that's what the professionals called that harrowing sense of almost being able to draw a breath, but not quite, of almost having a grasp on where he was, only to have the feeling slip away at the last moment and his mind to continue spinning eternally out of his control. ``And all that time I thought I was just having a nightmare,'' Han quipped, then he sobered. Yeah, a nightmare. An endless fear that he might never be rescued, that he might never see her again.

Solo shook his head to rid himself of the chilling memories. He was alive, and there was no point in looking back. Though he admitted that it was disconcerting to discover that he was six months behind on everything. Hell, an awful lot could have happened in the war over six standard months! ``I don't suppose we've won the war or killed Vader or anything, have we?''

Leia's face dissolved into a slow smile.

Too-Onebee said, ``I will leave you now to your readjusting. If you need anything, Captain, do not hesitate to ask. It is my pleasure to serve you.'' The droid turned and retreated to a monitoring station at the far end of the room.

Han's expression turned shy as he realized that he and Leia were alone. He hesitated, not knowing what to say to her. At last he blurted, ``Your hair's gotten longer. I like it.''

Leia glanced teasingly at him from the corners of her eyes before pulling her chair close to the medical bed. She sat down thoughtfully and arranged her skirt across her legs. ``Where would you like me to begin?''

She has such pretty eyes, he was thinking, and missed the implication of her question. ``With what?''

``Don't you want to know what's been going on? You asked about the war and....'' The intercom beeped twice, cutting her off. She sent a glare at the communications unit attached to the wall beside Han's bed, but rose obediently to answer the summons. ``Go ahead.''

``Princess?''

``Yes, General. What is it?''

Han recognized General Rieekan's voice with ease and he felt more confident about being able to jump back into his old life right where he'd left off. His glance took in Leia's form and the snug, flowing white dress she wore, and his pulse quickened as he recalled exactly where his life had left off.

Rieekan continued. ``I'm afraid we have some bad news.''

``Not the Ridland expedition?'' Princess Leia held her breath as Rieekan hesitated ever so slightly.

``You'd better come to the command room. It'll be easier to explain it here.'' The general's tone held something close to a sense of doom.

Leia sighed and bit her lip. ``I'll be right up, General.'' She switched off the comm unit and faced Han.

He stopped her imminent apology with a wave of his hand. ``Mind of I come along?'' he inquired.

She wrinkled her forehead. ``Too-Onebee said another day yet. Do you think you should get up so soon?''

``Why not? I'm awake, right? I guess my body has decided I'm healed enough.'' He was about to throw aside the clinging thermal blanket that still covered his legs when at the last moment he thought to make sure he had pants on. He could never be too careful in a medical unit; those droids were apt to pull anything if they thought it might help their patient recover.

Han discovered that yes, he was wearing trousers matching his medical tunic. For a second he couldn't remember if it mattered if he wore pants around Leia or not, and it was only after a flurry of sorting through a sudden jumble of disconnected memories that he knew it definitely mattered that he wore something to cover his backside. She was a princess, after all! Their relationship was at a rather delicate reunion stage, and certain things could not be taken for granted. Not if he wanted to remain alive, at any rate.

Han easily swung his legs over the side of the bed and slid to the floor. Damn, that floor was cold on his bare feet! He steadied himself, then grinned. ``See. No problem. Now if I could just find my boots....'' He took a step away from the bed and his leg instantly collapsed under his weight.

Leia caught him, her shoulder propped under his arm. ``Your brain's awake, but I don't think the rest of your muscles have quite caught up yet.'' She helped him settle back against the edge of the bed, groaning a little with the effort.

``Guess I haven't lost any weight lately.'' He grunted and eased his right leg a bit into the air. The whole leg, every muscle and nerve ending, was asleep. Maybe he wouldn't wake it just yet--it was sure to hurt like a bugger when the feeling returned. ``Thanks, but I think I'll sit this one out,'' he said and grimaced.

``I'll stop by the lower hangar to tell Chewie that you're awake,'' the princess suggested. ``This is practically the first time he hasn't been here, hovering over you like an anxious mother. I would never hear the end of it if I didn't let him know that you're okay.''

A lock of her long hair had slipped over her shoulder and the ends tickled his arm as she spoke. ``So why isn't he here, bellowing at me and in that affectionate way he has?'' He reached out and tugged playfully on the lock of hair.

Leia smiled mischievously. ``For one thing, the Falcon needed some repairs. Some minor repairs,'' she said at his look of instant dismay. ``And besides, I wanted a free minute or so to talk to you, just to see....'' She stopped, the playfulness leaving her expression and her eyes lowering to the floor.

She's shy about this too, Han realized, and he felt kind of pleased that she cared enough about their future relations to be this concerned. ``Just to see what?'' he prompted.

For a moment her eyes met his and he saw her indecision as plainly as if she had written it out for him. Fear struck through him, so strong that he broke out in a sweat under all the medical clothing he was wearing. Something must have happened during the last few months or she wouldn't be looking at him like that, almost as if she was afraid of him. No, not afraid, he decided, or at least not of him, but afraid of...what?

Then she lowered her eyes again, refusing to look at him. ``Nothing,'' she said, shaking her head. ``I need to go; the general's waiting for me. I'll send Chewie, if you like.''

She started to move away, and Han felt something vital to his entire being leaving with her. The last time he'd had that feeling, he'd spent the next six months frozen in carbonite, living his final moment over and over again while the rest of his body remained `marginally alert.' He didn't intend for this chance to escape him like the last one had. ``Leia, wait.''

Princess Leia paused, and Han reached out his arms to her. ``Hey, I just got back. I'm not sure I want to turn you over to any general just yet.''

Leia relaxed, and the look of fear left her features. She sank willingly into his embrace, a tiny sigh drifting up to him as she settled her head comfortably on his shoulder. ``I missed you,'' she whispered.

Han's eyebrows rose and he grinned at her admission. His arms tightened around her a little bit more. ``Good.''

``Good?'' Leia raised her head to stare at him. ``Why is that so good?''

Han smiled down at her. ``I wouldn't want to think that I was missing you like crazy if you weren't doing the same.'' He softly kissed the top of her head and continued, ``The hope of seeing you again is what kept me going all those long--what was it, six months?'' He grunted pensively. ``A man can do a lot of thinking to fill up that much free time.''

Curious, she asked, ``What did you think about?''

Han licked his lips, noticing how dry they still were. He wondered if that annoying medical droid would bring him a glass of water. Or maybe something a little stronger. ``Most of the time I was kicking myself for trusting Lando enough to take you within a parsec of Cloud City. That was the stupidest thing I think I've ever done.''

``Now, you couldn't have known that the Empire had beaten us there....''

``No,'' he protested mildly. ``You ask Chewie, see what he thinks. I should have known better. I should have known Lando better. Even if Vader and his henchman Fett hadn't been there, I doubt that Lando would have been particularly pleased to see me. We had a rather rough falling out a long time ago, and he's not one to forget and forgive very quickly.'' His voice took on a hard edge. ``In fact, if he were here right now, I might blast him straight through the hull.''

Leia took a step back, a shrewd look clouding her brown eyes. ``What is this, Han? We all did what we thought was best at the time. It's not like you to second guess yourself.''

Han shrugged. ``Well, I suppose I'm not exactly the same person who led you so confidently right into the waiting hands of your worst enemy. It makes me wonder what could have happened to you and Chewie because of what I did. For all I knew, Vader was having you for dessert and Chewie had become his new floor rug!''

Leia laughed. Her chuckling carried over to Too-Onebee, who looked curiously at them over his silver shoulder.

His anger dissolved. Han was as confused by her laughter as he had been by her soberness. ``What? Did I miss something important?''

``I'll just say that Lando isn't what you think, but I'll let him explain himself. Now I really have to be going.''

Han looked at her, a grim frown creasing his face. Finally he nodded, reluctantly agreeing with her for the moment. He would simply have to wait to hear the rest of the activities of the Rebel Alliance. ``But you're coming back, right?'' he asked, his hand still clinging to hers.

She stood on her tip toes and kissed his cheek. ``I wouldn't miss your `adjustment' for anything. See you around, flyboy.''

Han grinned. ``You bet, Your Holiness.'' He winked at her.

To his surprise, Leia winked back. Then she was gone.

Han sighed, gazing around the empty Medical Center. The droid was still in the corner, pretending to play around with his scanning instruments while secretly listening in on the humans' conversation. Han hadn't been fooled for a minute. Intent now on relieving his rapidly growing boredom, he hoisted himself back on the medical bed, careful not to jar his right leg, and lay back, preparing to enjoy his forced confinement. He took one last look at the door, and with relish let out his first demand.

``Hey, what does it take to get a drink around here?''

* * *

Han looked at Chewbacca in amazement. ``You're kidding!''

Chewie growled.

``You're not kidding.'' Han leaned back against the wall again and considered. ``You really went to all that effort just to rescue me?''

The Wookie woofed a laugh at his partner's incredulous face and batted him on the arm.

Han almost fell off the medical bed with Chewie's friendly gesture. When he had regained his balance, he continued, ``I mean, there was a lot of time and resources put into that little plan of Luke's. And Leia! I can't believe what she did! Are you sure it happened that way?''

Chewie nodded sagely.

``Too bad I didn't see that dancing outfit she had on,'' Han muttered. From what Chewie had been saying, the princess had definitely been a sight to behold while wearing Jabba's skimpy little slave costume. ``But what I don't get is her spending all that time getting support for the whole thing. She really had to go before the Rebel council?''

A polite rumble answered his question. This was at least the second, maybe the third, round of questions Chewbacca had patiently answered for Han's benefit over the past day. It took a lot to catch up on six months worth of information and goings on. Unfortunately, Chewie was just beginning to realize this. He wished someone had told him when he decided to visit Han in the medical center.

Han shook his head, amazed. He knew Leia had done all she could to form a rescue team, but he had never expected her to go to so much trouble, just for him. He had never expected anybody to care about him so much. It was...well, it was almost...humbling.

Another grunt from Chewie brought Han's wandering attention back to their discussion. The captain's face hardened at the Wookie's words. ``Now that I have a hard time believing! I saw what he did--he sold you and Leia right over to the Empire. Don't try to tell me anything different. I was there for that part at least.''

Chewie shook his head in resignation. It was hopeless trying to convince such a hard headed man that he might, for once, be wrong about something. Instead, he growled menacingly, his patience wearing thin.

``Yeah, yeah, you told me all about Lando helping in the rescue and what a great guy he is and that I should be grateful and.... Chewie! Are we talking about the same person here? I....''

The Wookie rose, angry at last. He stabbed a finger at Solo and roared a string of stinging reprimands that made even Lord Vader look like a pushover.

The strength of the rebuke was enough to make Solo push himself closer to the wall he was resting against. ``Whew, Chewie, all right, all right! I get the picture!'' He sighed, still shaking his head, not able to understand. ``I guess some things about this new life I've dropped into will be harder to accept than others. But I want you to know that I'm glad you got out of that mess on Cloud City okay.'' He reached out to ruffle his partner's already prickling fur. ``I'm damn glad.''

Chewbacca growled one last time, then let his anger dwindle away. It was hard to stay mad at Han for very long. He was too happy about having him back to yell at him too much.

``I have an idea. Why don't we get out of here and go down to the hangar; we can go over the Falcon, you can show me those modifications on the hyperdrive that you were telling me about. No more talk of Lando and the Rebellion and Luke. I tell you, my mind's one big mess of memories and information and other people's opinions. I can't keep it all straight anymore.'' He reached down and slowly drew his boots on. Getting dressed an hour earlier had wiped him out, and the pain caused by his rejuvenating right leg had nearly been the end of him, but now he refused to rest any longer until he had seen his ship for himself.

``You know,'' Han commented after they had successfully eluded Too-Onebee and were ambling slowly down the corridor outside the medical center, ``what I don't get is why I had so much energy while we were on Tatooine, and the minute I get on a ship, I'm zonked. I think Vader put some sort of drug in that carbonite; in case he missed his mark, I'd still be asleep.''

Chewbacca's howling guffaws followed them in rolling echoes down the Rebel cruiser's stark corridor.

All the readjusting in the galaxy didn't prepare Han for what was waiting for him in the cruiser's large hangar bay. The Millennium Falcon rested serenely off to one side, boxed in by a plethora of X-wings, small strike cruisers, B-wings, Y-wings, freighters of all shapes and sizes, and even some Imperial ships sandwiched between the Rebel crafts. It would have looked like a mess to an untrained eye, but to Han it looked beautiful. Every ship was positioned for instant flight in case of an attack, and were in a constant state of readiness. Only the Falcon was arranged so that it wouldn't be immediately available: as usual, Han's notorious ship was on downtime for repairs.

But what was even more amazing was the reaction of the pilots and tech crews upon Solo's unexpected appearance in the hangar bay. The minute he walked in, he was aware of the stares and gestures in his direction. He slowed, elbowing Chewie in the side, his glance inquiring what the hell was going on. Before Chewie could rumble an answer, a man approached them.

He was young, little more than a kid really, with thick black hair and distinctive, striking blue eyes. He wore the grungy jumpsuit of a technician, and though Han frantically searched his unorganized memories, he was fairly certain he had never met the man before. So he was doubly surprised when this complete stranger gave him a sharp salute and offered his hand to shake.

Han shook the proffered hand, giving the man a strong look. ``Do I know you?''

The man's sober face relaxed until he almost smiled. ``No, sir. I simply want to say it's good to have you back.''

Han said, ``Oh. Well, thanks. It's good to be back, believe me.'' A smile grew out of his initial confusion. He hadn't expected a welcoming party, though that's what it seemed was happening as more women and men and aliens clustered around him and Chewie, waiting to give their own congratulations.

The man continued, retrieving Han's attention. ``It's not every man who survives carbonite,'' he said, his tone of voice insinuating just how fortunate he thought Han was. Then he gestured at the towering hulk of Chewbacca. ``Or has such loyal friends.''

Han began enjoying the impromptu party descending on the lower hangar bay. ``Well, thank you. I certainly wouldn't be here without their help. I do appreciate them, that's for sure.''

``Indeed. Good friends are very hard to come by, especially in times like these. It's hard to know who to trust, isn't it?'' the man intoned warningly before his voice took on a more formal inflection. ``If you will excuse me, Captain, I'll return to my work.'' He turned and was quickly lost in the crowd.

Han would have puzzled over the man's odd words, but he was soon besieged by other well-wishers, who at times were people he actually knew from the destroyed Echo Base on Hoth, and he put the stranger out of his mind.

By the time Chewie and Solo made it to the Falcon's lowered ramp, he'd shaken more hands and patted more backs than any Imperial politician. He was once again exhausted, but he felt good. ``I never knew I was so popular,'' he said, cracking his most cocky grin and socking his copilot playfully on the arm.

But his lighthearted mood vanished the minute he walked into the forward hold of his ship. There he found Lando Calrissian, the traitor to beat all traitors, up to his elbows in spare parts, tinkering with his booster cables. The uncontrollable anger flared instantly, before Lando even had the chance to rise and say,

``Han, you old friend! Is it ever good to see you....''

At that moment, Han's fist plowed into Lando's jaw with so much force that Lando went flying across the hold to sprawl in an undignified heap on the gaming table. Han fared little better than his opponent, however. His energy sapped by asking questions, adjusting to his new surroundings, and greeting half the tech crew on board the star cruiser, he didn't have the strength to halt his own momentum. He followed Lando to the floor, landing in a pile of cables and deflated animosity.

Lando rose on his elbows, groaned, and rubbed his already swelling jaw. ``Nice homecoming, buddy.''

Han looked over at Lando. At least I had the energy to clobber him a good one. ``Yeah, it is now,'' he said and glared at him across the hold. ``I can't believe you even have the nerve to come on board my ship. I've been hanging on a wall the past six months because of you!''

Lando held up a placating hand. ``Look, I'm sorry for what happened to you at Cloud City, I really am. But I had no choice! The original deal I struck with Vader....''

Han's face distorted in anger, ``You should know better than to trust the Empire! None of those Imperials will stick to their word if it means ending the Rebellion.'' He shook his head while flailing his arms in an attempt to work free of the twisted cables. ``No, you had a choice back there, pal, and you made it! Saying you're sorry doesn't change anything in this galaxy.''

Lando sat up, holding his head to ward off the effects of Han's attack. ``Will you listen for a minute, you moron! The deal I made when Vader showed up in my office never included capturing Chewie and Leia or having you carbonized. I had no idea what I was getting into. My main concern at the time was protecting my customers, and keeping the Empire out of Cloud City would have insured their safety. I never intended to trade your lives for business deals! You have to believe me!''

``Like Hell I will! You were just looking out for number one. Admit it, Lando, all you cared about was your own precious hide and the little pile you could make off....''

Calrissian interrupted, ``And you're so different? Get off your pedestal, Han! The last time I saw you, you and Chewie were smuggling spice and causing plenty of trouble for others while you made a handsome profit. The Han Solo I knew would never have joined up with the Alliance. You've changed, Han. You've changed a lot.''

Han paused, still glaring at Lando, but his anger began dying slowly as he considered the other man's words. It was true; he had changed, and he knew it. It had never been his style to sell people out to the Empire, as it appeared Lando had done, but he had to admit that there had been times when he and Chewie had made large profits on others' misfortunes. It had always been every ship for itself before they joined up with Luke and the princess. Helping the Rebels establish that new base on Hoth was the first nonprofit, unselfish thing he and the Wookie had ever done. He supposed they had both changed because of the last few years spent in the company of hopeless idealists. He had to admit that it was conceivable, however unlikely, that Lando had also changed. Maybe his bitter resentment wasn't allowing him to see the entire picture here.

Lando went on. ``Lord Vader used me just like he used you and Leia. You've got to believe that, Han.''

A tense silence followed as both men remained where they were, gauging each other across the empty hold. Finally Solo relaxed and lay his head back on the cold metal deck plates. Lando was right, he admitted to himself, and arguing the point was never going to change it. Damn, I hate being wrong! He returned his gaze to Lando and, not wanting to lose too much face all in one day, said, ``I'll think about it. I still don't like it, but I'll think about it.''

``I would appreciate that,'' Lando said, massaging his aching jaw.

Han lifted an arm encased in the twisted booster cables, willing to think all he needed to, only later. ``So are you gonna help me up or do I have to wait for another rescue party?''

Lando smiled and struggled over to him, crawling as much as walking. ``Whoa! You pack quite a punch! Honestly, I'm on your side now, you know,'' he admonished.

``That's what everybody keeps telling me.''

``Well, please, from now on listen to what you hear!'' He and Chewie began untangling cables from around Han's legs.

``So what have you been doing the last six months? Trying to be `on our side'?'' Solo jeered sarcastically, frustrated with the fact that once the adrenaline had worn off, he was too tired to help his companions disengage the jumbled wiring.

Lando snorted. ``You are a hard one, aren't you? No, I was working with Leia on rescuing you, though now I'm not sure it was such a good idea. We were better off when you were in Jabba's capable hands.''

``Careful,'' Han growled warningly. ``I might find the energy to punch you again.''

Lando laughed. ``Not likely. You look worse than a baby, lying there all bundled up in booster cables.''

Han jabbed a finger at Calrissian's nose. ``And that's another thing. You stay away from my ship. She's mine now, got it? Mine.''

Lando's laughter continued. ``Will you relax, you pirate! I'm just helping Chewie with another one of the Falcon's famous special features.'' He cautiously untwisted one last cable, then pulled Han to his feet. ``Trust me.''

Han glared at him. ``I think I've heard that line before.''

Lando sympathetically patted his friend's shoulder. ``Hey, you've probably said that line before. Now, come on, Han, forget the past. I can't say I'm proud of what happened to you and the others at Cloud City; it was my fault, I admit it.''

Chewie barked and Han said, ``Yeah, you got that right, Lando.''

``But I helped rescue you,'' Lando pointed out. ``That makes us even.''

Han glanced back at the Wookie. ``I guess you've got a point.''

``And I managed to get Leia and Chewbacca out of the city alive, and pulled Luke off a weather vane, plus....''

Han waved a hand in protest. ``Stop! There's no need to start gloating about it. Now, I told Chewie earlier that I was tired of all these explanations of the past and I meant it. So why don't you wise guys just show me what you've done to my ship and we'll forget about the rest.''

``That's more like it!'' Lando exclaimed, a smile creasing his face. ``Leia said you'd listen to reason if I had a chance to talk to you.'' He led the way towards the cockpit, his step jaunty, followed by a much subdued, limping Han and the lumbering Wookie.

Han jabbed Lando in the shoulder. ``Listen here, pal, we may be on friendlier terms, but I want to make one thing clear. I'm the only one who can call her Leia. To you, she's still Princess Leia, you got that?''

Calrissian stopped at the door to the darkened cockpit and faced Han. ``Solo, don't get me wrong, 'cause I'm glad you're back. But shut up.''

* * *

Han ran into Leia on his way back to the medical center an hour later. She was staring fixedly at the white floor as she walked, her brow furrowed in preoccupation. He had to yell down the corridor to get her attention.

``Hey, Princess! You planning on visiting me again, or will I have to hunt you down just to say hello?''

Leia stopped and turned, her frown lifting to a radiant smile that made several passersby pause in order to stare. ``Hi!'' she exclaimed in her most informal tone of voice, her smile growing, if that were possible. She managed to compose her expression to one more befitting a princess and Rebel leader, but still she took Han's hand in hers the minute he caught up with her.

Han grinned back. She looked mighty beautiful standing there in a corridor full of curious people, waiting just for him. His day was definitely improving, even if his right leg ached a little more with each step he took.

``I was on my way to see if you were ready for some time away from Too-Onebee,'' Leia continued, appreciatively eyeing him up and down, taking in his characteristic white shirt, black vest, and striped pants. ``I see that Chewbacca beat me to it.''

Han did not miss the direction of her gaze, or the look in her eyes that indicated she liked what she saw. To his horror, he found himself blushing under her scrutiny. Hoping she wouldn't notice, he cleared his throat and began a slow walk down the corridor in the direction she had been heading. ``Uh...yeah, Chewie was showing me some of the improvements he's made on the Falcon. We met up with Lando and....''

``You talked to Lando?'' she asked, choosing not to refer to his crimson cheeks, though by the way she was glancing at him, he knew she'd noticed anyway.

Han shrugged a nod and tried to sound nonchalant. ``We had a bit of a heated discussion, exchanged a few unpleasant words, a punch or two. You know, the usual.''

Leia's face now looked regretful. ``You punched him?''

Han stared her straight in the eye as defensiveness replaced his previous embarrassment. ``I did, and it felt damn good, too.'' He watched her face fall in disappointment and he immediately wished he'd kept his mouth shut. One thing he definitely didn't want to do was give Leia any more worries than she already had. ``Oh, I didn't hit him that hard...well, yes, I did hit him pretty hard, but he understood why I had to do it. He was a pirate once too, you know.''

``It doesn't look like he got a poke at you. What happened, did Chewie defend you?'' Her voice held sarcasm and worse yet, disgust.

``Now, don't be mad at me. It wasn't like that. He landed on the game and I fell into a pile of booster cables. You will be happy to know that I was very embarrassed, especially when I was too tired to get up again.''

At the mention of his ongoing ``readjustment,'' her face softened, as he knew it would. ``Then what happened?''

``We yelled a lot and I forgave him, then I fell asleep while he and Chewie were explaining the new scanning system to me, so everybody's happy now.'' He stopped in the hall to rub his tingling right leg. ``There, satisfied?''

Leia bit her lip, trying to maintain her disapproving glare, but at last she laughed, and had to cover her mouth with her hand to stop herself from attracting attention in the crowded corridor. ``Still falling asleep, huh? Serves you right, Solo.''

They rounded a corner and the hallway opened to a large observation lounge full of humans and aliens. Some were standing at the large windows to take in the panoramic scene of stars as the cruiser floated serenely through deep space while others relaxed in the comfortable furniture decorating the spacious area. It seemed to be a mix of official business in an informal atmosphere, but Han would have felt better if he and Leia had managed to slip past the lounge unnoticed. Already the princess was being hailed by a group standing detached in an isolated corner of the room. She reluctantly started forward.

Han held back. ``Can't we just run the other direction?''

``No,'' she answered, her grip firm on his hand. ``You might as well get it over with.''

``Get what over with?'' he asked suspiciously, but she was already weaving through the crowd, dragging him along behind her. Briefly he wondered when he'd become Leia's official puppy dog, but by then they had reached the group of uniformed officers.

``Princess Leia, it's good that we caught you!'' a blond man exclaimed as he grasped her left hand, thus forcing her to release Han's hand before taking his. Han didn't miss the subtle snubbing on this Rebel's part, and neither, he believed, did Leia.

``General Madine, is there any news?'' she asked, her tone of voice doing nothing to express the sudden anger that flared in her brown eyes.

He shook his head while Han surreptitiously sized the man up. He was stocky and muscular, and a well-trimmed beard lent his face an older, dusky look that barely hid the smugness in his smile as he in turn cast his gaze over Han. The feeling of being a guinea pig selected for study suddenly washed over Solo, reminding him of the uncomfortable time he'd spent under Darth Vader's evil eye. He wished he could have thought of some other analogy, but for the moment, the comparison stuck, and he found himself taking a quick dislike to the general.

Madine took one last look at Han and, as though he'd found the captain lacking in some way, summarily dismissed him from his attention. Bureaucrat, Han thought in disdain. But the man was all smiles for Princess Leia. ``No news yet, which can only be interpreted as good.''

Leia sighed. ``Well, that's something, at least.'' She forcefully retained her hand from the general's grasp and turned to indicate Han. ``May I introduce Captain Solo to you? Han this is General Madine. He joined us several months ago when....''

``So this is the infamous Captain Solo?'' Madine interrupted her. ``I've heard a great deal about you.'' Now his smiles showered on Han as he extended his hand.

Han dutifully shook it, all the while knowing the entire show of friendliness was only for Leia's sake. ``I'm glad my reputation precedes me,'' he said.

The skin around Madine's eyes crinkled. ``Are you? I would think....''

Another interruption halted the unforeseen animosity between the two men and General Rieekan stepped forward. His graying hair was a familiar and welcome sight to Han. ``Solo! I see you've stuck around this crazy group of Rebels a little longer. What's the matter, can't get away?'' His teasing tone released some of the building tension caused by Han's and Madine's meeting.

Han happily transferred his handshake to Rieekan. ``General, I tell you, I've tried to leave but things keep coming up, this sentry marker, that battle.... The odds seem to be against me.''

``What's wrong, that price on your head slowing you down?''

Han's smile showed his relief. ``Not any more, thanks to Leia.'' He indicated Rieekan with a wave of his hand. ``And I see you made it off Hoth fairly undamaged.''

``Yes, I made the last transport off planet. We slipped right between the Imperials' hands. It was luck, plain and simple.''

Leia interposed, ``What he means is the Star Destroyers were too busy chasing the Falcon to worry about a simple transport ship.'' Her tone belied her low opinions of the Imperial commanders.

Rieekan's features became grim at the mention of the Empire. ``If only we'd known what lengths Darth Vader and the Emperor were willing to go to just to capture Commander Skywalker, we wouldn't have been so hasty to leave the system without checking on the Falcon's whereabouts first.''

Han shook his head at Rieekan's regretful tone. ``Oh, a lot of things could have been different. But we're all here, so there's no point in second guessing ourselves.'' He glanced at Leia as he spoke, noticing her raised eyebrows and amused look.

Then a tall woman wearing flowing white robes and an austere expression stepped over from a nearby group of rowdy pilots and immediately a sense of solemnity fell over the officers. ``This, I believe, is Captain Han Solo, the man whom Leia spent so much time and energy convincing the rest of us to help rescue. It is a pleasure to finally meet you. I am Mon Mothma.'' Her thin hand was cool in Han's fingers and only a little warmer than her regal voice. ``I've known Princess Leia since she first became a member of the senate for Alderaan, and I'm very curious to know more about this man she has so forcefully championed all this time. Perhaps you would like to join us for a light meal and fill us in on the details of your escape,'' she invited.

``Well...uh...I....'' Han spluttered, looking at Leia. Personally, he preferred spending some quiet time alone with Leia. The idea of eating with a bunch of strange Rebel leaders while they discussed events he knew nothing about was not particularly appealing to him. Yet he didn't know how to tactfully deny this obviously high-ranking woman's request.

The princess quickly seized control of the situation. ``Maybe later,'' she said. ``Han still has a lot of catching up to do. I would like to explain our situation in more detail before we throw him in among us more knowledgeable orators.'' She sent Madine a warning look that added volumes to her polite words.

Mon Mothma nodded in understanding. ``Perhaps next time.'' Then she turned her back to them, thus offering a perfect avenue of escape without offending any of the officers.

She's good, Han thought appreciatively as he and Leia headed from the group, only to be intercepted at the front of the lounge by Threepio. The droid was frantically trying to catch their attention, managing to bring all other eyes in the lounge to bear on him as well. Han groaned.

``Mistress Leia! Mistress Leia, thank goodness I found you.''

``What is it, Threepio,'' Leia said with a great deal of patience. Now that they were on their way, it was obvious she wanted to leave the lounge as much as he did.

Threepio huffed to a stop in front of them, the lights gleaming off his recently shined golden plating. ``I have succeeded in attaining all that you asked for, though it was not easy persuading the food preparation droid to take the time from his schedule to prepare a separate meal just for you and....''

Leia said, ``I appreciate your effort, Threepio.''

But the protocol droid was not to be denied his explanation. ``I knew you would, Princess Leia, and that is what I told that malfunctioning MD droid. You are a very important personage in the Rebellion and it would be a shame if you were inconvenienced by an unimportant server droid such as himself.''

``But it's all taken care of?'' she questioned, urging the conversation to a conclusion before Han had a chance to say anything.

``Oh, yes, of course, though Artoo's presence would have been extremely helpful in this situation,'' Threepio said. ``He always knows exactly what to say to droids like that MD unit.''

``I'm sure he and Luke will return soon, Threepio. Thank you for your efforts.''

Threepio bowed and would have smiled proudly if droids could smile. He should get together with that medical droid, Han told himself. They could have a great discussion on protocol. ``It was my pleasure, as always, Your Highness. If there is anything else I can do for you, just let me know. And I hope you enjoy your dinner.'' Taking the hint for once in his mechanical life, Threepio turned and plodded off in the other direction.

``What dinner? What was he babbling about?'' Han asked.

Leia merely shrugged and resumed their interrupted journey down the cruiser's passageway.

``Well, since you're not going to tell me your secret eating plans, would you mind letting me in on a few other things? Like, where the heck is Luke? I haven't seen him once since we got back.''

``I told you. He had some kind of unfinished business to take care of. He's meeting us....

``...at the rendezvous,'' Han finished for her. ``Now that tells me a lot,'' he said sarcastically. ``Either you're not telling me everything, or you don't know where he is.''

Leia slipped her hand into his again and squeezed his fingers, stopping his bid for sudden enlightenment as other, more compelling images began filling his mind. ``I don't know where he is,'' she admitted in a low voice. ``He wouldn't tell me anything before we left Tatooine.''

``What's the secret?''

Leia was silent for a moment, contemplating. At last she said, ``I think he's protecting something. Or maybe someone. A lot of time passed between our last talk on Hoth and when we rescued him at Cloud City.''

``Yeah, Chewie told me all about him dangling from a weather vane with only one hand left attached to the rest of him. What happened?''

``Vader,'' she replied simply. ``But a hand isn't all he lost in that fight,'' Leia mused. ``He's different somehow, Han.''

``Different?'' Han slowed and stepped behind Leia to allow a large crowd of fresh-faced pilots and technicians pass by in the narrow corridor. ``You mean because he's a Jedi? That makes sense, though. Being a Jedi must be quite a change from farm life.''

She nodded slowly. ``I guess that's it. He's certainly more self assured than he used to be. To be honest, Luke was the one who convinced the council to go after you, not me. I talked until I didn't have a voice left, and Luke said ten words and the council changed their vote, just like that. Even Mon Mothma was impressed.''

Han retained his position beside her in the passageway and his fingers tightened on hers. ``That's good, though, isn't it? I suppose having a Jedi in the ranks isn't bad for the Rebellion.''

``No,'' she admitted. ``I just wish he were happier, that's all.''

``Luke can take care of himself. You'll see. Besides,'' Han stepped aside again to let another loud group pass by, ``there seems to be plenty of happy people on board this ship. What happened, did the war suddenly go into recess or something?''

Leia gave a glance at the group too. ``No, but I'll tell you that something certainly is brewing. We've been preparing every ship we can get our hands on for imminent battle and Madine has been looking awfully smug for weeks.''

``I don't like him,'' Han groused immediately as they stepped into an empty lift and the princess requested level 10.

``I'm not surprised.'' She stared fixedly at the lift's lighted operating panel.

``What's that supposed to mean?'' Han bent over to rub his leg again in frustration. Would his body ever completely wake up? Then a thought made him pause. ``Hey, you and this guy Madine aren't, I don't know, involved or anything, are you?'' He'd wanted to sound politely interested in his request, but the suddenness of the thought made it come out more accusatory than curious. In all the time he'd spent hanging on Jabba's wall, he'd never considered the possibility that Leia would have other interests when and if he ever got back. Which of course was ludicrous on his part. Naturally she would have plenty of opportunities to form some kind of an alliance of her own with practically any man of her choice. Only he'd never even thought of that possibility. How could he have been so stupid? His heart began pounding a strong, irrational fear through his veins.

Leia raised her eyebrows. ``You're jealous.''

Han immediately took a step back, putting some space between them and between his emotions and her remark. ``I am not.'' She looked at him knowingly. ``Okay, so what if I am? Big deal. Are you going to explain yourself this time or not?''

Leia laid her hand soothingly on his arm and chided, ``Han, didn't you hear what Mon Mothma said? All I've done since we were in Cloud City is work at getting you rescued. I didn't have time for, or want, liaisons with other men.''

Her words made his fear instantly subside. Relieved and feeling a little foolish, Han returned to massaging his leg. ``Somehow I get the idea that Madine has been trying to convince you otherwise.''

Leia rolled her eyes. ``Trying is an understatement.''

``He can try all he wants, just as long as he doesn't succeed.'' At her indignant look, he went on lightly, ``I would hate to have to go after him like I did Lando. After all, you might not approve.''

When she realized he was teasing her, her anger at his dictatorial words relented. ``I would love to see that. Madine is an accomplished warrior in both hand to hand and ship to ship combat. You'd be fried before you could blink.''

``He'd have to catch me first.'' Han laughed at their bantering and wrapped his arm companionably around her shoulders. ``It doesn't matter because I'm not letting him anywhere near you. He'll just have to get used to the fact that I'm here to stay.''

Leia turned under his arm to look up at him. Her face was sober now, devoid of any teasing. ``Do you mean that, Han?''

At her look, his heart gave a little jump and he too grew serious. Now his toes were tingling, but he suspected it had nothing to do with his tendency to fall asleep without warning. He sighed and lifted a hand to cradle her cheek. Of course he could never leave. He wondered how she could even ask. How was it possible for her not to realize that he was in love with her?

Before he could stop himself, he had tilted her face with gentle hands and was kissing her deeply, his fingers entwined in her hair, his every sense keenly awake now and aware of the surging emotions coursing through him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and threw herself into their shared embrace, obviously ignoring any inborn inhibitions that might have kept a princess from kissing a base smuggler like Han Solo.

Han's stomach did a little flip as he became more carried away on an uncontrolled tide of emotion. He was beginning to comprehend how long it had been since he'd felt this way about a woman. He wasn't precisely sure he'd ever felt this way before, but he knew that nothing from the past several years came remotely close to the strength of his sudden desire.

He was also belatedly understanding that the little turn of his stomach wasn't necessarily caused by Leia's kiss, but by the fact that the lift had settled unsteadily at their destination and the door was standing innocently open. Several crew members were thoroughly enjoying the spectacle of their renowned leader recklessly kissing an equally infamous space pirate. Later he kicked himself for not choosing a more private and secure place than an elevator to rekindle a romance, but at the time he'd taken the opportunity with his usual flair; without thinking.

Leia looked down, unable to hide the burning red in her cheeks, and she quietly tried to strangle a laugh. To his relief, her embarrassment was not as great as her amusement at the situation, and with as much gallantry as he could muster given the circumstances, he motioned for her to precede him from the lift.

The five crew members, three women and two men, parted to let them through, and Han couldn't stop himself from saying, ``Nice atmosphere in there. You should try it some time.'' At least they waited until Han and Leia had rounded a far bend in the corridor before they let their raucous laughter burst out in one big explosion.

They made it to the crew quarters on level 10 with no further interruptions, though the echoing laughter chased them down the hall to Leia's quarters. The apartment was spacious considering they were traveling on a Rebel cruiser with a full complement of pilots and support crews. Han was impressed.

``Nice place,'' he commented, looking around with interest, noticing the efficiency of the furniture and the lack of material decoration. A small, narrow couch was the largest piece of furniture in the room, cradled on both ends by tiny tables covered in miscellaneous items and what looked like parts to a tiny hand blaster. A cushioned chair faced the couch, and a table with two straight-backed metal chairs stood alone in the corner closest to the door. He'd never seen Leia's living quarters at Echo Base -- well, naturally he hadn't seen them since he was far from being on such friendly terms with the princess back then. Now he was surprised to realize how sparse the room looked. He suspected she didn't spend much time on level 10 except when she needed sleep, and probably not much even then. ``Not too cluttered. I like that.'' He managed a glimpse through a shadowy archway to another tiny room that must have held a bed, but the smell of food laid out on the table caught his attention.

``Stop teasing,'' she said with a smile and indicated the meal. ``I thought you might like a quiet dinner without too many questions and strange Rebel officers staring at you.''

``Ah, this is what Threepio was talking about,'' Han said in sudden understanding. ``Pretty clever, getting him to take care of the details. I always knew he was good for something.'' He grinned and picked up what looked like a piece of fried meat and popped it in his mouth. He savored his first taste of real food in months. ``Now this is a far cry from watered-down medical rations!'' he exclaimed.

``Well, don't broadcast it to Too-Onebee that I'm corrupting your recovery. He might not understand,'' she warned.

Han only smiled wickedly and rebelliously reached for another piece of meat. ``I don't suppose you managed to reclaim any of your things from Hoth after the evacuation?'' he asked once they were both comfortably seated in the metal chairs.

``There wasn't much time to go back for it,'' she remarked. ``It was months before the system was safe and by then the tunnels had caved in. We got some of the medical equipment and a few of the big console grids out, but the Empire didn't leave much intact. What they didn't destroy, the cave-ins did.''

``Don't tell me, you lost your tiara?''

She patiently explained, ``Han, your idea of ruling governments is extremely outdated.'' Then she laughed. ``You know very well that I never had a tiara.''

Han just smiled. ``I always wondered.'' He negligently slouched in his chair and indulged in the luxury of simply watching her. A single wisp of brown hair had escaped the simple combs she'd used to hold her hair back from her face, and she unconsciously pushed it back out of the way. His eyes followed her movements like a man who was starved solely for the sight of a princess smoothing back her hair. Her gaze met his and she paused, her hand still raised to her forehead.

``What was it like, Han?'' she asked softly.

``What do you mean?''

Leia looked down and toyed with some dried vegetables heaped on a plate. ``What was it like being carbonized? Was it as horrible as I always imagined?''

Han's eyebrows rose in grim consideration. The memories he'd managed to hold off for more than a day crowded in now, demanding his attention. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead, and he closed his eyes to ward off the feeling of nausea that threatened to overpower him. Suddenly he discovered he'd lost his appetite.

Leia hurried to say, ``I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked.''

``No, it's all right.'' He pushed the food away from him before he continued. ``Well, horrible is as good a word as any, I guess. It's not much fun, that I can tell you.'' Her look of sympathetic curiosity prompted him. ``There just wasn't anything there,'' he finally explained. ``Like Too-Onebee said, I had some idea of things, but not nearly enough to understand what was happening. I could feel, but there was nothing to touch, nothing to smell, no air to breath, nothing to see -- like being in a vacuum. One big nothing.''

She nodded wordlessly, picking absently at her food. ``I had dreams about it, while you were gone,'' she admitted at last. ``It wasn't so much terrifying as simply...awful. Every time the council refused to lend the support we needed to launch a rescue mission, I would dream of being trapped, sometimes in water, sometimes in a roomful of air. It didn't matter where, but it was always the same; nobody could hear me, nobody came to help. I was completely alone, just left there, floating around.''

Han leaned his elbows on the table. ``Are you sure you've never been frozen before?'' he joked, attempting to lighten the dreary mood the conversation had created. ``'Cause that's pretty close. I just floated and waited until you came.'' He stared blankly at the tabletop, thinking. ``I floated for a long time.'' He closed his eyes and sighed. When he looked at her again, he had regained control and once more banished the sickening recollections to the back of his mind. He could only be thankful that he had escaped the hell.

His voice was as somber as hers when he said, ``I haven't exactly thanked you yet for coming after me.''

``Don't,'' she quickly responded. ``There's no need to say anything.''

``Yes, there is,'' he stubbornly insisted. ``You didn't have to come after me. I'm sure there were plenty more important things for you to be doing, rallying the Rebellion, planning the Empire's funeral, whatever.'' Han drew a deep breath. ``In fact, I was pretty amazed that you showed up at all.''

Leia's forehead wrinkled in surprise. ``Why? Why is it so incredible for us to want to rescue you?''

Solo shook his head. ``I'm not talking about any groups here. I'm talking about you. Now Luke I can understand; he owes me a few. And Chewie never did like piloting the Falcon by himself. I suppose Lando was dying of guilt and needed something to do. But you? Come on, I'm not your typical fellow that a princess hooks up with.''

Leia gave him a grimace and a little smile. ``No, I don't suppose you are.''

Han looked down and toyed with his food. ``Let's face it, I'm just a gambler, a pirate. I don't even own anything except the Falcon, and that's no prize possession in anybody's books.''

``Han....''

He interrupted her, intent on voicing his ideas before he lost the nerve to speak at all. ``I mean, we may have had some fun in a trash compactor a time or two, and you can't beat the thrill of flying through asteroids on you're second date, but still....'' His voice became sober and gentle. ``Thanks, Leia. The fact that you were there to...well, to rescue a worthless smuggler means a lot to me.''

Obviously touched by his uncharacteristic burst of humility, she reached across the table and wrapped her fingers tightly around his hand. A tiny smile tugged at her lips as she simply answered, ``You're welcome.''

He found himself too overwhelmed to look her straight in the eye, so he glanced down, and his eyes rested on their entwined fingers. Hers fit so perfectly in his, he discovered in amazement, and he gave a helpless shake of his head. Yep, there was no doubt about it: Han Solo was caught.

``I only hope that bringing you here wasn't a mistake. You were probably better off in relative safety with Jabba.''

Her words were like a dash of freezing water thrown in his face. ``I recognize that tone of yours. What is that supposed to mean?'' he managed to ask.

Leia rose, pulling him up with her, and led him to the small couch. She sighed heavily. ``I admit it, Han, I'm afraid. I have the feeling that something will happen again, that there will always be some danger of sudden destruction for you or the Rebellion.....'' She stopped while she tried to gather her thoughts, and after a moment plopped down on the uncomfortable couch, defeated, curling her legs up under her. ``I begin to wonder why anybody even bothers.''

This was an all time low for the princess, and seeing her so depressed was a little unnerving to Solo. Princess Leia was famous for her fortitude and her strength of character. It was interesting to see her in one of those rare, private moments when she wasn't such a confident, fearless leader. Han scooted close to her on the couch and wrapped his arm around her slim frame. ``Don't worry; nothing's going to happen,'' he said, trying to reassure her.

She shook her head then. ``I always did think you were too cocky for your own good. The war is not over yet,'' she insisted.

Han sighed in exasperation. ``Well, if I'm cocky, it's for a good reason. Didn't the Empire throw just about everything they had at us back at Hoth half a year ago? And didn't we all cope with it perfectly fine? I'm here, aren't I? Luke's coming back, isn't he? See, nothing to worry about.''

Leia gave another hopeless shake of her head that made Han think that he had suddenly turned into a complete idiot.

``What?''

``I keep forgetting that you don't know what's been going on lately. Or what's likely to happen.''

Solo almost didn't want to ask what the heck she was talking about. The day and night spent peacefully on the Rebel cruiser had given him a sense of freedom and security that had been slowly evolving into the festive mood of a constant holiday. Now he had the feeling that the holiday was about to be cut short. ``Why do I get the feeling that I'm not gonna like this?'' He groaned in resignation. ``Okay, Princess, fill me in, let me have the dirty details, and before you start, give me a kiss to remind me that you make this all worthwhile.''

``Ah, that little spurt of humility didn't last long at all, did it?'' she observed, but softened and obligingly kissed him tenderly on the cheek.

Han shook his head in mock sorrow. ``Sweetheart, somebody needs to teach you how to kiss.''

Her attitude was not as flippant as his when she said, ``Maybe somebody will have the time later. Or we'll all be dead and it won't matter any more.''

Han's features fell into grim lines. ``This already doesn't sound good.''

``It's not,'' she agreed with a sigh. ``We're on our way to Sullust.''

The way she announced that news made Han think that once again he'd missed something of major importance. ``I hate to ask this, but so what? What's at Sullust?''

``Hopefully the rest of the Rebel fleet.''

This made Han pause for a moment. The rest? He had never been under the impression that the Rebellion was anything large enough to scream about, but her tone gave him other ideas. He raised his eyebrows. ``How big is this rest of the fleet?''

``Big enough, we hope.''

Han groaned, ``Big enough for what?''

Leia absentmindedly picked at the hem in her dress. ``Do you remember that first day in the medical center, when General Rieekan paged me over the intercom?''

``How can I forget it? It was the day I finally got to see you again,'' Han ran a finger down her cheek and grinned mischievously.

His bluntly honest answer made her cheeks redden, and she scowled at him. ``Han, stop flirting and listen. He had received news of one of the other Rebel bands, a small one led by a man named Ridland. They were originally scheduled to meet us for a prearranged rendezvous at the Angora system, but they were cut off.''

``Destroyed?''

Leia looked bleak. ``Every last ship, down to the smallest b-wing fighter.'' She shook her head in deep regret. ``Still, he managed to transmit a coded message just before he died.''

Solo glanced around the room in frustration. ``Leia, will you just tell me and get it over with?''

``He gave us the location of the new Death Star,'' she said.

He'd known he wasn't going to like her news. ``The new Death Star?''

She continued explaining. ``We only received news of it ourselves two days ago. The Empire has organized a ship yard off the moon Endor, and we're certain that's the construction sight. The reason Madine looks so smug is that he somehow managed to pull in an Imperial shuttle which we plan to use to penetrate and destroy the station's shielding, thus leaving the Death Star wide open for an attack.''

``Can the Rebellion handle another one of those monster stations?''

``Not a completed one,'' she said. ``We were lucky we managed to find a weakness in the first one's design. There's no telling how much damage it could have done had we not stopped it at Yavin.''

``Yeah, I was there, remember? I don't exactly have any desires to repeat that experience.''

``I doubt the Empire will make the same design mistake twice, and it's quite possible that this one will be virtually invincible when it's completed. So you understand why we have to take it out now, before it's operational.''

Han whistled. ``That's not going to be easy, even though you know where to go hunting for it.'' He gloomily thought, So much for my holiday. He leaned his head back to stare up at the white ceiling of her room, hoping some of the blandness might sink into him and calm his fluttering heart. ``Well, I guess we wouldn't want to get bored or anything. It's nice of the Empire to keep us on our toes like this.''

Han's banter hid a deeper dread, however. It had occurred to him that though Leia had given him some details of the Alliance's plan, she'd mentioned nothing of her own part in it. Knowing her as he did, he fully expected her to be smack in the middle of the fiercest fighting, hence in the most likely position to be swiftly killed by Imperial minions. He was beginning to formulate irrational fears of losing her so soon after finding her again. He had scoffed when she'd voiced similar fears, but as images of a future empty of Leia's presence invaded his mind, he found he could no longer brush the fears aside. And naturally he had no intention of telling her not to do what she felt she had to. Telling Leia Organa to do anything was a contradiction in terms. He grimaced at the princess' innate stubbornness, but knew at the same time that he wouldn't want her to be any other way. All I do is kiss a girl and life suddenly gets complicated! he groused silently.

Resignedly he rested his hand on her shoulder and quietly asked, ``Where do you fit into all this?''

Leia reached up to clasp his fingers tightly in her own and rest her cheek on his arm. ``That depends....'' she started to say, but stopped when Han suddenly jerked his hand away from her.

``Damn! That hurt!'' he yelled.

``Han!''

Solo ignored her irate glare and instead concentrated on rolling his sleeve back to show a thin line of blood already trickling down his wrist to drip on his trousers. ``How the hell did that happen?'' He looked at Leia. ``Maybe Vader is already taking us out, a piece at a time. I never really did trust that Force stuff, you know.''

Leia didn't comment. She had seized his wrist and was looking intently at the cuff of his white shirt. ``You might be right,'' she said at last.

Behind as usual, Han could only grunt, ``Huh?''

The princess worked her fingernail under the cuff's seam and gave a quick yank on the material. The shirt ripped apart just enough for her to pull something out of the tight weave. She held it up for him to inspect. ``See?''

He took the tiny object from her and almost dropped it from his large, clumsier fingers. Cradling it in his palm, they both leaned in for a closer look.

A listening implant, no doubt about it, and one so small as to be almost impossible to detect. The device was obviously constructed out of metal, but it was so thin and delicate that Han had easily missed it until Leia leaned on his arm in just the right way to push its sharp point through his shirt and into his wrist. With another flick of her nail, Leia quickly dismantled it, making it possible for them to talk now in relative freedom.

Han shook his head. ``Just when you think things are safe and you can relax...BOOM, they make their move.''

``Could it have been on you already when you were carbonized?'' she asked, her brow wrinkling in concern.

Han shook his head. ``Before I could stop him, Chewie threw those old clothes out the garbage chute. He thought the fewer reminders I had, the better. This shirt came right off the Falcon. No, my guess is this little present came from someone on this ship. Someone who is obviously not on our side.''

``If that's the case, then whoever it is just heard everything that I've been telling...you....''

Han and Leia sat suspended for a moment, looking at each other with wide uncomprehending eyes. Then Princess Leia jumped up and punched the intercom. ``Command Room! This is Princess Leia. Stop any transmissions going out! Repeat, halt any outgoing transmissions! This is an emergency! Do you copy?''

The static of communication was instantly replaced by a reassuring voice piped in from the cruiser's command center. ``This is General Rieekan. We copy, Princess, and all channels are jammed. What's going on?''

``I'll explain later, General. Alert all commands to be on the lookout for a spy on board. It could be anybody, doing anything.''

``Doesn't give us much to go on.''

``I know.''

Han interrupted, ``If we cut off a transmission, then our spy knows we're on to him. Tell Rieekan to lock all the hangar bays. I'll check out the lower hangar myself, see if I find anything suspicious.''

Leia nodded once, her attention bent on repeating the message to the general. Before she could look up again, Han was out the door and racing down the winding corridors of the Rebel command cruiser.

Fortunately, his little snooze aboard the Falcon and sitting around with the princess had rested him sufficiently for a marathon to the hangar bay. His leg didn't even tingle much as he sprang out of the lift and rounded the last corner, slowing only when he finally reached the maze of ships and crews and droids milling together in seeming chaos.

It hadn't occurred to him that he had no idea who or what he was looking for, and that the spy quite possibly wasn't even near the hangar bay. But Han paused at the bay's wide entrance, glancing back and forth, trying to discern any unusual movements in the sea of ships. Not surprisingly, nothing caught his eye. Everything looked perfectly normal to him. He was beginning to suspect that they had all jumped the gun and the spy was holed up in some dark recess aboard the cruiser, waiting for a more opportune moment to make an escape. That, of course, was not what Han himself would have done -- he would have made a run for it, trusting in the Falcon's overly modified engines to get him away to safety. But naturally, the spy didn't have a ship like the Millennium Falcon at his or her or its disposal.

However, there were several Imperial crafts sitting ready for the taking. Ripe for the plucking. Primed and gassed and ready to go. Boy, are these Rebels idiots. Han couldn't believe that the Rebellion had so conveniently made the cruiser accessible to any Imperial agent wily enough to hide in any secret nook on any one of the Empire's small craft and shuttles captured by the Alliance. It was a situation too perfect to be passed up. Deep in his guts, Han knew he had stumbled onto something worth investigating. Now if he only knew what to do about it. If the information Leia had so willingly filled the spy in on made it to the Emperor's ears, the Rebellion would be lost for good. Once that second Death Star became operational, the Rebels might as well forget about trying to fight it off. He at least had enough experience to know that! It was imperative to stop the individual responsible for planting that device on him.

Eyes narrowed, Han ambled slowly across the bay, acting nonchalant yet managing to wander close to as many Imperial ships as he could immediately pick out of the hangar's crowd. But despite his efforts, he had crossed the entire hangar without discovering anything of value. His winding path took him towards his own dilapidated ship, and when he reached the Falcon, he found his partner diligently at work on one of the three landing claws. Han called out, catching Chewie's attention, and he hurried up. Maybe the Wookie had seen something worth mentioning.

But when Han explained his personal mission in the hangar bay, the hairy Chewbacca growled and shook his head, affirming Solo's initial observance that nothing even remotely interesting was happening in the lower hangar. Han sighed in disgust. ``Well, whoever this spy is, he's certainly keeping a low profile.''

Chewbacca laughed and gave a derisive bark at his partner.

Han looked hurt. ``I know that, you furball! This fella might be intelligent as well as careful, but at least my methods have a little more flair! I hate all this waiting and not knowing what's going on.''

Chewie knowingly growled again.

``I am not impatient! Look, fuzzhead, will you just keep your eyes open and your mouth shut for once? I'm gonna take another look around. Hey, we can cover more territory if you take one direction and I take the other. You go that way,'' and Han pointed to his right, ``and I'll mosey on over that way. Check the ships, inside and out, keep it quiet, and keep those big browns of yours peeled for anything that looks funny.''

``WOOOOOOFFFF!!!!!!''

Han glared at his friend. ``How would I know! You're the one who can see better in the dark -- you tell me what qualifies as funny! Just get moving. And Chewie,'' he paused as he began moving away again, ``If Lando's around, get him to help. It'll give him another chance to having something to gloat about later on.'' Chewbacca rumbled an affirmative before the two parted, each moving stealthily in their assigned directions.

It didn't take long for Han to make the circuit of his half of the hangar, and once again he failed to turn up anything of significance. The notion that he was on a pointless chase was beginning to take on firmer substance in his mind. He'd checked every ship no matter what the model and where it came from, but had found nothing more than dust under the operating seats, empty storage lockers, and a general lack of activity from the few technicians working during these hours typically set aside for eating. Everybody seemed to be doing their thing somewhere other than the hangar bay.

Solo emerged from the last ship he planned to inspect, a shuttle of some make he didn't recognize, and paused on the loading ramp, his hands on his hips as he stared across the bay in grim frustration. It definitely seemed like his spy was enjoying a good game of hide and seek on some other part of the Rebel cruiser.

``Are you looking for anything in particular, Captain Solo?''

Han whirled around at the voice and watched as a technician appeared from beneath the shuttle, dirt covering his clothes and an extension welder in his hands. Han instantly recognized him as the stranger who had first welcomed him home while he and Chewie were checking on the Falcon. He could never forget such blue eyes.

``Uh, no, no, I'm just wandering around,'' Han awkwardly assured the man. ``Taking a look at some of the new ships we've added to the ranks.''

The man proudly ran his hand across the shuttle's underbelly. ``Yep. This one's one of the best in my opinion. Deceptively fast and the special hull design makes it hard for common sensors to detect. She's a real ally, if you know what I mean.'' He stared straight into Han's eyes and didn't blink.

Han, on the other hand, had the sudden need to blink rapidly several times. That word `ally' had struck off warning bells in his suddenly confused mind. He had half-finished thoughts of someone saying something important about allies to him just recently.... Or maybe it had been months ago. It was hard to be sure when all his memories had the infuriating tendency to mix in with conversations he'd had only an hour before. And just as he had a grasp on the reference, it was whisked away by other less important recollections.

The younger man continued, cutting into Han's tight concentration. ``People aren't always what they say they are, but a ship -- well, you can always trust your ship. Don't you think so, Captain? They're real friends,'' he added slyly.

Not allies; friends! Good friends are hard to come by. That was it! Han sighed in relief at finally remembering the plaguing reference. It wasn't until this inauspicious moment that Solo thought to glance beyond the technician to see the supplies and spare parts bundled neatly together near the shuttle's small cargo hatch. His expression of relief crumbled to one of surprise. Him...the man...he was the...the....

Han didn't have time to complete his thoughts before the young technician gave a magical flick of his wrist and the welder dropped to the floor, replaced by a much meaner looking Bazi 45 hand blaster. The blaster wavered minutely in the man's hand, aiming more or less for Han's head, and all Han could do was stare at it in stunned surprise.

The man's arrogant chuckle was unmistakable. ``Looking for me?''

How many times had he found himself in similar situations, Han wondered as he warily eyed the barrel of the weapon. You'd think I'd learn, he growled silently to himself, and with an impossibly fast move, he reached for his own blaster.

Unfortunately, he just remembered that he had never bothered to strap his familiar blaster to his thigh since his return to the Rebel fleet. Come to think of it, he didn't even know what had happened to his blaster back at Bespin. The sense of security the cruiser offered had encouraged him to grow careless.

The man chuckled again, shaking his head back and forth in mock pity. ``No blaster? You're getting soft, Solo.'' His grin transformed to a sneer and the blaster lifted a fraction further up. ``You were a perfect font of knowledge and I'm truly sorry I can't stick around to chat. Since you managed to jam the communication channels, I need to take my business elsewhere in the galaxy. So long, Captain. Thanks for the information.''

The blaster fired, thrusting a searing hot laser bolt straight at Han.

At the last possible minute, Han dropped like lead ball to the shuttle's tilting ramp. He kicked out his leg at the same time, and even though his wild plunge to the deck drove the wind right out of him, the toe of his boot caught the Imperial completely unaware and the blaster went spiraling across the shiny metal floor of the hangar bay. The shot went wide, scarring the side of an innocent X-wing parked nearby.

``CHEWIE!'' Han yelled across the hangar. It was all he managed to say before the man was on him. A fist plowed into his mouth in a desperate bid to force him to silence.

Arms thrashing and legs entwined like a mess of pasta noodles, the two men rolled off the edge of the ramp and dropped the few feet to the hangar's metal floor. With a whoosh Han lost his breath for the second time in less than ten heartbeats and it was all he could do to keep the man's powerful fists away from his face. There was no thought of fighting back until he could regain some equilibrium, but the pummeling of the well-aimed blows made it hard for Han to even collect his thoughts.

The quiet battle wore on, broken only by occasional grunts and slaps. Then suddenly Han's nameless adversary closed in with a death grip on his neck and slowly began to squeeze. Han gasped for breath and desperately tried to find some sort of foothold on the polished floor, but the man twisted back, dragging Han with him. It was impossible to do anything more than claw at the hands wrapped like steel girders around his throat.

The Imperial glared down at Han and grinned maniacally. ``I only regret that I had to settle for you rather than getting closer to that princess of yours. Now that would have been a story to tell my friends back home!'' He laughed and squeezed even harder.

It was the last insult Han could take. The next time the man twisted back, Han threw all his weight in the same direction, throwing the man just a fraction off balance. It was all Han needed.

Solo brought his knee up in a swift lift, connecting with his opponent's unprotected groin, and the fingers loosened on his throat. Now he managed to get his entire leg into the spy's stomach and heaved him back with all the strength he could find. It was a pitifully feeble move, but Han found himself free at last and he tottered to his feet. The spy recovered immediately and rolled easily onto his knees in the convenient vicinity of his previously lost hand blaster. With a cry of triumph he snatched the weapon from the floor and trained it once again on Han.

``You put up a good fight, I admit,'' the man said and grinned wolfishly. ``But I have to be going now. I'll give your inestimable regards to my superiors.'' And with that he pulled the trigger.

But it was only in reaction to the laser bolt that suddenly ripped through his chest from behind. The power from the close range blast threw the young man into the air and he smashed into the bulkhead of his escape shuttle like a rag tossed aside in a windstorm. The bolt from his own blaster zipped harmlessly into the floor where he'd been standing.

Han looked across the bay in surprise. There stood Lando, his modified 8047 miniature hand rifle still smoking slightly. Princess Leia was poised for battle just behind him. Chewbacca finally rounded the shuttle as Leia reached Han's side.

``That was a close one,'' Han muttered. He lowered his tired, battered body to the cold floor and leaned against the shuttle's ramp as Lando and the Wookie joined them.

Lando gave him his best pirate grin. ``You bellowed?''

Han sighed. ``Thanks, Lando,'' he said simply.

``Anytime, my friend.''

Han gave him a smile. ``Friends,'' he repeated with a nod and threw one last glance at the dead spy. ``Yep, that's what this is all about.''

Lando socked him warmly on the shoulder. ``You better sit there and rest. You look like you need it. I'll call security and have them take care of our spy over there. Be right back.'' He loped away while Chewie trundled over to guard the lifeless form of the Empire's most recent failure. He immediately fell to examining the man's intricate blaster, giving Han the opportunity to recuperate after the brief but savage fight.

Leia knelt beside Han and brushed his hair back from his eyes. ``You never could resist a fight,'' she commented with ironic affection.

Han grunted and gingerly probed his eye where the spy had clobbered him. ``Yeah, well, it's a good thing Lando came when he did, or it might have been my last fight.'' He stopped exploring his injuries long enough to look pointedly at her.

Suddenly the princess leaned in and kissed him tenderly on the lips. Han forgot all about his aches and pains as she sent his emotions into an unexpected spin. He sighed and pulled her closer. With a tiny laugh he said, ``I guess no one needs to teach you how to kiss after all.''

Leia gave him a disapproving glare, but eventually chuckled with him. She laid her head softly on his shoulder and wrapped her arms securely around his waist.

Han settled himself more comfortably on the hard floor and groaned. He couldn't forget about his aching body for too long, and he recalled the reasons for his present condition. ``I don't suppose you have an extra blaster just lying around, do you? I seem to have misplaced mine somewhere on Cloud City....''

* * *

``Well, Solo, it seems that some things haven't changed a bit.''

General Rieekan smiled broadly to soften his abrupt remark as he came to a stop beside one of the Millennium Falcon's landing claws. At his comment, Han Solo had paused in his work on the battered freighter's hull to give him a nod and a grin. The general's smile grew. ``I see that you're still trying to fix up this junk pile,'' he bantered lightly.

Han smiled a lopsided grin. ``Those last few missions on Hoth were a bit hard on her. But Chewie's been taking good care of her, and Lando claims that he worked real hard to keep her out of trouble while I was on ice. Still....'' He stopped and glanced fondly at the scarred outer shell of his ship.

Rieekan laughed. ``I know. You still can't help tinkering.''

Laughing too, Han slid lightly to the floor beside General Rieekan. ``It's not often the upper brass makes its way down here. What can I do for you, General?

Called back to his original purpose of seeking the smuggler out in the unlikely realms of a dirty hangar bay, Rieekan stood silent and frowned, staring thoughtfully across the bay to the shuttle that the spy had attempted to use in his escape the day before.

Not liking the look of concern etched on the older man's lined face, Han interrupted his thoughts. ``Still on our way to Sullust?''

The general nodded and eyed Han carefully, as if he were sizing him up in order to make some kind of important decision. ``Yes. We should arrive in a little over ten hours, though it may no longer do us any good.''

Han shook his head. ``I don't think that spy managed to get a message sent to anybody before Leia stopped all the transmissions. And he certainly didn't escape. My guess is you're still pretty safe from the Empire.''

Rieekan slowly turned again to face Han. ``If it hadn't been for Princess Leia's fast thinking and your quick action, our entire mission could easily have been just another trap laid by the Empire. We owe you a lot, Solo.''

Han felt uncomfortable under the general's praise. He fidgeted, resting his weight on one foot, then the other. ``Forget it,'' he advised. ``I'm glad that I happened to be there at the right time.''

Rieekan's scrutiny turned even more serious. ``Yes, you do have the habit of jumping in right when we need your help the most. You completed many dangerous missions for us while we were attempting to establish that move to Hoth. Somehow you managed to get Princess Leia out of Echo Base alive -- Madine and I are still trying to discover how you pulled that one off, by the way -- and now you've assisted us again by catching that spy.''

Embarrassed, Han held up his hand to stop the list of his achievements. ``Look, General....''

Rieekan ignored him. ``Which brings me to why I wanted to talk to you.'' His eyes darted from Han to the hulk of ship behind them and back again. ``How would you like to lead the mission to destroy the Death Star's shield generators?''

Han stood for a moment, too stunned to speak, his right hand resting idly on the grip of the newly acquired Bazi 45 hand blaster strapped firmly to his thigh. He was numbly aware that his left arm was falling asleep as a million thoughts and objections crammed into his mind. Another mission? Another chance to be blown to smithereens for the sake of the Rebellion? What about Luke? What about Leia? His hands on his hips, Han looked up at the uncaring ceiling of the bay and said, ``Uh....''

``We only received the specifics of the generator's location this morning, and it's going to be much harder than we had anticipated,'' Rieekan continued, not giving Han much of a chance to think. ``Of course, it will be a dangerous mission and needs a leader with a cool head and an ability to get the job done despite the odds.''

With an effort Han gathered his thoughts and was able to meet Rieekan's gaze. ``Just how dangerous are we talking about?''

The general sighed. ``Very, I'm afraid. The plan is to take the Imperial shuttle Madine captured straight through the existing shield to the moon Endor....''

``Right, Leia mentioned Endor.''

Rieekan raised his eyebrows. ``Yes, I know.''

Remembering the listening device planted on his sleeve, Han nodded, feeling a little stupid. ``Sure. Of course you know that. Sorry.''

``Then the team must deactivate the shield. We don't care how it's done, we just need it down by the time the remainder of the fleet emerges from hyperspace and prepares to attack the station.'' He crossed his arms and sighed again. ``The strike team is already assembled. It's a good team of the best men we have.''

Solo drew in a deep breath while General Rieekan waited for his answer. Finally Han asked, ``What about Lando? He's a fair pilot. Why haven't you asked him to take this mission?''

``Let's just say that Lando has other business to handle,'' the general explained.

``There's nobody else available?''

Rieekan's eyes widened. ``Oh, we have plenty of competent people. I would just prefer that you be in charge.''

Han's objections halted in surprise. Well, this was a first. In the past, Han had always taken that much safer, unofficial part in the Rebellion's fight against the Empire. Now, here was General Rieekan, a warrior that Han respected perhaps above any other, finally asking him to join them in an official capacity. And he found himself giving the offer serious consideration. Suddenly he realized that he actually wanted to become a part of this group. He found himself believing for the first time in what they stood for, in what they were desperately trying to do. And it was an undeniable fact that the Rebellion had helped him when he needed it. Now he wanted to join them and assist in the coming attack on the Empire. He wanted to pay back that evil group of power hungry men for what they had done to him, to Luke, to Chewie, to Lando, to Leia. And he wanted to do something big, in a place where it hurt.

But still he hesitated; he couldn't make his promise just yet. There was something holding him back.

Slowly he leveled his gaze on Rieekan. ``General, I need to ask you something.''

Rieekan heard the solemn overtones in Han's voice and in calm anticipation said, ``Go ahead.''

``I need to know what Leia's part in all this is.''

The general narrowed his eyes and stared hard at Han, almost like a doting father greeting a young man who had come to call on his daughter. He looked as if he might say something, then thought better of it. But he nodded in understanding. ``As far as I know, she plans to stay aboard the command ship. She won't be in any more danger than the rest of us.''

Solo accepted the stare from the older man, and gave him a look of his own. ``Good,'' he said, and continued his explanation with a nervous jerk of his head. ``It makes it easier if I don't have to...worry,'' he ended lamely.

Rieekan laughed, a long, loud guffaw that echoed in the vastness of the hangar bay. ``I'm glad to see that you accept defeat with grace, Solo.'' At that remark, Han frowned in horror. ``Don't be so terrified, young man. I bet you'll find that there's a certain amount of sweetness in a conquest of this nature. As long as you can both keep your tempers.''

Han's expression of aversion relaxed with Rieekan's teasing comments. ``Something to look forward to, I hope,'' he joked in return.

``I should know, I guess, if anybody should.''

``Stories you'd like to share someday, sir?''

The general shook his head in good-humored reluctance, grinning. ``Someday,'' he promised vaguely. ``Do you accept the mission then?''

Han paused, savoring the offer for a moment. But only for a moment. ``Yes, General, I do.'' He reached out to shake Rieekan's hand, sealing the bargain.

General Rieekan clapped Han on the shoulder. ``Of course, you realize I'll have to give you an official standing in the Alliance, sort of an honorary officer's commission.''

``Honorary?''

``Keep it or drop it, it's up to you. Unlike the Empire, we don't force our members to stay any longer than they want to.'' He gave Han the once over again, deciding what title to bestow on the newest Rebel. ``What do you think, something befitting a princess, perhaps?'' He chuckled at Han's look of disgust. ``I know how you dislike titles, General. But I suppose you'll get used to it.'' With that he turned and walked away, denying himself the pleasure of watching the expression on Han Solo's face.

The look of supreme shock was certainly something to behold. But Han managed to get his features under control before anybody had the chance to pass his way and inquire about Rieekan's visit. General, Han thought to himself, rolling the word around in his mind. General Han Solo. Not bad if I do say so myself.

Han stopped his daydreaming in time to catch the strange look from a passing technician. He glared back, turned towards his ship, and bellowed, ``Chewie!''

Oblivious to his partner's new standing in the Rebel Alliance, the Wookie poked his head around the corner of the lowered loading ramp. He grunted and barked a string of words.

``I am not standing here daydreaming!'' Han replied. ``But I bet you've been in there the last hour reading one of those gaming programs on the communications computer.''

Chewie menacingly growled a negative.

``Yeah, right. I'll believe that when I see it! What do you think this is, a vacation? Now come here, I need your help with the outer sensors array.''

Chewbacca rumbled down the ramp, looking as unhappy as a frozen Wampa.

Han socked him on his furcovered shoulder. ``Cheer up, pal! You can read all you want once Vader's a smoking lump of metal. For now, let's get this bucket purring. We have a war to win!"


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