Alliance Headquarters, Hoth
"She shouldn't be sent on missions," Han Solo said to General Carlist Rieekan. His voice was a low, hoarse growl.
The two men were in a small room in the heart of the High Command wing of the current Alliance military base. A large, transparisteel viewport made of one-way glass separated them from a small conference room. On the other side, Leia Organa sat across from Mon Mothma, her small hands clasped together on the table in front of her while her lips moved in the silent conversation that Han and Carlist could not hear.
Han walked up to the viewport, close enough so that his breath blossomed against the glass. His eyes were fixed on the woman on the other side. "She's not a soldier," he whispered.
He heard Carlist release a long-suffering sigh.
Tierpen – Five Days Earlier
Tierpen was a holy city on the planet Kwenn. The holy city had been in the midst of a religious war that had exploded for reasons mostly unknown or at the very least, misunderstood, nearly two decades ago. The majority of the citizens were Pentas, spiritual people who believed in the goddess Marantha, a powerful deity who promised peace to the settlers of the holy land. But it was the Naran, a small off-shoot cult of the Pentas who held power and had done so for years, keeping the Pentas in poverty and fear. The Naran ruled with an iron fist, while worshipping a vengeful, radical form of the goddess Marantha that they called Sunil.
A need had arisen to send a rescue mission to Tierpen. Two Alliance operatives had crashed on Kwenn. Missing and assumed dead they had finally contacted the Rebels via a Naran Priestess who had hidden the soldiers in a convent in the holy city of Tierpen. The Priestess had insisted on a female, wary of allowing an uninjured man or men into the convent. The fractured Alliance, which had broken up in an effort to remain hidden from the Empire, had limited options at the time of the request. High Command was splintering in several directions, some preparing to head to the Hoth System, some to Sullust and others to key Alliance friendly planets along each of the major trade routes.
In the end Princess Leia was sent with Han and Chewbacca. After they recovered the two Alliance officers they were to report to the ice planet Hoth. They landed on Kwenn at nightfall and weren't due to meet their contact until the next morning. The trio was seated in the lounge of the Falcon, enjoying dinner before going to bed.
On trips about munitions, inevitably everyone talked about weapons. Missions for bacta yielded tales of medical miracles and mysteries. This being a mission veiled with spiritual undertones, their contact being a priestess and their quarry hidden in a convent, the crew of the Falcon found themselves discussing religion.
"I'm not putting down anyone's beliefs. I'm just sayin' it seems contradictory," Han stated.
"The fighting?" Leia verified.
It was the little things like her ability to compartmentalize everything into neat little labels that sometimes drove him the craziest. "C'mon, don't sugarcoat it, Your Highness. You read the same reports that I did," Han replied around another bite of nerf steak. "It's more like…slaughter."
Han laughed and then slapped his hand against the table and shook his head in disbelief. "I just love the way you can put a fancy word on everything and make it seem-"
"I'm not trying to belittle what these people are going through. It just does not behoove our mission to take sides on something that we have no control over."
"So, a trade embargo really gets you riled up but murder in the name of a maniacal deity and you can calmly look the other way."
Leia pressed her lips together as she cut up her nerf steak with great intensity. Her reply was delivered under her breath, "There's a reason you're not supposed to discuss religion and politics in mixed company."
"Oh, now I'm mixed company? Well, you never had a problem incessantly discussing politics with my mixed company before. Of course, I realize your one way diatribes really can't be classified as a conversation." He put the tone to his voice that he knew drove her insane. He wasn't sure why his fuse was so short with her lately, but he did little to analyze it or control it.
Leia laid her utensils down. "Forgive me if I thought that a person who had been aiding and working with a cause for over two years might care about and want to know exactly what he was fighting for."
Han agreed with Chewie. For once he thought they were going to be able to fight about something new, but perhaps not. She had gotten back here, to their favorite argument, quicker than he would have given her credit for. "I am not fighting for your cause," Han replied.
"Is that right?" Leia turned to look at Chewie, sitting quietly with his attention transfixed on his heaped over dinner plate. "Chewie, have you or have you not fired and been fired upon within the last two years-"
"Now, that's not fair-" Han interrupted, pointing his fork at her for emphasis.
Leia continued, "While in service and upholding the beliefs of the Alliance to Restore-"
"Self-defense does not constitute-"
Chewie stood, cutting off Han's words as he raised his paws in what seemed to be a mixture of contempt and surrender. The Wookiee grabbed his plate of food and left the room without responding. Han ran his hand over his face. The only person who argued with him more than Leia was his copilot and he was sure to hear about this later. Chewie certainly had his own opinions about the part the Falcon's crew should play in the Alliance, not to mention his creative views of his and Leia's relationship. How the hell did I end up here?
Han looked up and found Leia studying him. It was interesting, what seemed to happen whenever they found themselves alone now. In their not-so-distant past, the absence of a third-party wouldn't have stopped them. They would fight with or without an audience. But sometime in the last several months, the fights became more of a habit for the benefit of spectators. When alone, the normally very verbal pair seemed to weigh each syllable with great care.
After a prolonged silence, Leia turned away and whispered, "It is tragic. I'm not completely without a heart."
Contrary to popular opinion. The words ran through Han's head unbidden. They were not his words or his thoughts, they were hers or everyone else's. The heartless Princess with ice water in her veins was popular rumor mill fodder throughout the Rebellion. For Leia, Han knew, they had a painful life of their own and suddenly he couldn't remember why he had been cross with her. "I never said you were," he mumbled while he moved the food around on his plate.
He felt, not saw, her eyes lift to him. "I know," she replied. Just two words but her stare bore into him and the words said so much more. At least he thought they did. He was mostly flying blind when it came to her.
"Well," Han said, lifting his head and forcing his voice to lighten. "Since religion is off the table, I could actually go for one of your infamous diatribes…"
His words drew no response, unless he counted her indignant scowl as a reply.
"What?" Han asked, exuding innocence. "They aid my digestion," he added with a wink and a teasing smile.
Leia let the muscles in her face soften; sometimes it was actually a hard-fought, conscious effort to do so. But it was usually fairly easy in Han's company, not that she would ever tell him that. She looked back down at her plate, finding it hard to match his stare. That was an anomaly for her. The art of meeting an opponent in the eye was practically taught to her since birth, a definite must-do for political positioning. But Han wasn't an opponent, not any longer. Just what he was, she wasn't sure. But an opponent he most definitely was not.
"Were you raised with any religion?" She asked, clearing her throat halfway through her sentence. She regretted that her question sounded slightly demeaning and hoped that Han didn't take it that way. She wasn't trying to start a fight.
Han heaved a heavy breath. Leia tensed, and then heard him answer, "No." And after a heartbeat or two of awkward silence, he added, "You?"
Leia shut her eyes briefly. Of course. She had asked the question. Han then answered and returned it in kind. That was only what good manners would dictate. She wondered why Han always decided to actually have manners at the most inopportune times. "Not in the traditional sense, no," she replied.
He put his fork down and granted her his full attention. His actions had been confusing since they had left the base. She was sure it was because he had fought against her going on this mission. Han fought against Leia going on any missions. In some ways, she liked that. In others, it made her feel as if she had something to prove to him. It was easier to fall victim to the latter.
"I was raised with a sense of right and wrong," she began and wondered if he could see her faltering; wondered what he would think if he knew how difficult it was for her to even think about anything that had happened before the day she had met him. She continued, "With a compassion for others. I was taught to bel-" A lump in her throat cut her off. No, no, no, no, no. She steeled herself against the storm of emotions threatening to engulf her.
She watched like it was in slow motion, as Han stretched his hand out across the table and covered hers with his. His touch was enough to set her off-balance but when he accompanied it with a gentle squeeze and a tenderness flooding in his eyes, it proved to be too much. She yanked her hand back and stood abruptly. "I'm sorry," she whispered, her head down as if speaking to her plate. Picking the edge of her plate up and setting it back down, she whispered, "Can you…?"
Han waited a minute, until she could bring herself to look at him, his eyes tinged with confusion and worry. "I'll pick up," he answered and with a tilt of his chin he added, "Go ahead."
And she fled the room as if it were on fire. If only her father could see her now, running away from…from what? She locked herself in the sanctuary of Han's cabin. She felt disoriented, scared and confused, a range of emotions that were not foreign to her. No, it was not uncommon for Leia Organa to feel, what was uncommon was for her to let those feelings show.
Controlling her emotions was something else that had been drilled into her until it was like second nature. Even before the events of the Death Star two years ago, Leia was highly skilled and trained on reigning in her emotions. And unlike etiquette and verbal restraint, it had come quite naturally. Never did she feel as if she had to work at it. Never, except in the presence of one, at times insufferable, man.
None, since her father, had ever attempted, bothered or dared to scratch the surface of her steely exterior. Her father had never expected her to be emotionless, just in control. She could laugh and cry with him without restraint. But everyone now, it seemed, only expected the controlled Princess and seemed to take comfort in her strength. Even Luke, although a dear friend to her, leaned on her for support and direction more so than the other way around. And then there was Han. And where all else had feared to tread, Han Solo had emblazoned a path through her every barrier.
The knock at the door had not surprised her, nor the concern laced around the two syllables of her name. She turned to the controls and palmed the door open.
He stood with one hand perched up against the door frame as he leaned lazily against it. Something as simple as that struck her. The body language that he exhibited; nobody else, not even Luke would be so relaxed around her.
"I'm fine. I'm sorry about that," she answered, and then waved her hand toward the lounge behind him with a polite smile that tried to suggest that it had all been nothing more than what it was.
Han simmered in front of her, his lips pursed. Why she continued to bother to try and fool him was beyond her. He has your number, Organa.
She dropped the smile, along with the act, and sighed. "I'm just tired. I'll be fine in the morning."
"We need you…focused on this mission tomorrow."
Her spine stiffened.
"If you aren't up to it, then better to come out-"
"I am ready and fit for this mission, Captain. I can assure you."
Just like his uncanny use of manners, Han's choice of timing to become professional and businesslike concerning a Rebel mission irked her. It was no wonder she questioned if she imagined half of the feelings she attributed to him. Like when she thought that fear for her safety was the reason he politicked so hard to keep her off of assignments.
Han straightened up, dropping his hand from its perch, and studied her. "Good." His eyes drifted further into his cabin and he said, "Mind if I use the 'fresher before you lock yourself in here for the night, then?"
Leia forced an obedient smile as she stepped to the side and said, "Of course."
The people of Kwenn were dark-skinned and Leia spent most of the morning rubbing a darkening pigment onto her arms and face. Kwenn was a hostile, desert planet, similar to Tatooine, so the native people wore robes covering their entire bodies, although on Kwenn their attire had religious connotations as well. Chewie, according to the plan, would stay behind on the Falcon, his towering presence proving too difficult to blend into a crowd.
The Falcon was docked in a small, primitive landing facility in an unincorporated town outside of Tierpen. It was a short hike through a thin forest to reach the outskirts of the holy city. Han and Leia set off just after breakfast. They were both dressed in white, loose-fitting robes that draped over their heads and wrapped around the lower half of their faces so only their eyes were visible.
"You know it's forbidden for men to see a woman's hair?" Han asked as they walked side-by-side through the forest. "Just her hair. Can you imagine that? I guess they'd flip out if a twi'lek dancer showed up around here."
Leia had to walk at a very brisk pace just to keep up with Han, even though he seemed to be in no hurry at all. "That's not so unusual," she replied, just a little breathless. "There are…were traditions surrounding a woman's hair on Alderaan, actually."
If Han noticed the slip, he ignored it and asked, "Like what?"
"No man is allowed to see an Alderaanian woman's hair unbound until she's married."
"And after that?"
"What do you mean?"
Han stopped. "I mean, after that can anyone see her hair, or still only her husband?"
"Oh," Leia answered and felt herself blush. "It's unusual for an Alderaanian woman to leave the house with her hair unbound, but after she's married, it's not as…strictly forbidden."
Han looked at her and Leia thought he might be imagining her with her hair down, as if learning that it was forbidden had transformed something that had been so rudimentary to him before into something entirely provocative now. But he responded only with a simple, "Huh," and began to walk again.
As they walked further and further into the town of Tierpen, the terrible living conditions of the people became more and more evident. Leia eyed the derelict shanties that the Pentas called home with a heavy heart. The day before, when the Falcon had flown over the town, the mismatched roofs of the tiny huts had looked almost beautiful, like…patchwork. Now, stripped of the forgiving illusion of distance, what had been beautiful was ugly and painful to see. And the fetid stench of filth and excrements made Leia's eyes water.
There was a native woman nursing a baby and three or four small children scrambled around about her. As Han and Leia walked passed, the woman locked eyes with her and Leia stopped. The roof of their shanty was made of an old advertisement and Leia read the slogan for fizzy punch, written in large letters above the woman's head: Always refreshing.
"C'mon, you alright?" Han asked as he tugged at her arm.
Leia shook her head, catching one last glimpse of the woman before she started walking again. She wondered if she was the only one that found the irony of starving children living under an advertisement for fizzy punch.
"There's the fountain," Han stated and Leia looked up the street and spotted their rendezvous point.
Still a few good meters ahead of them, the road widened as it curved around a large, round fountain in the middle of the street. In the center of the fountain stood a stone-carved likeness of a woman and only because their contact had named the fountain as "The Fountain of the Goddess Marantha" did Leia know who it was. The statue had been beheaded.
"We made good time," Leia replied, mission code for the fact that they were too early.
"We'll blend in fine around the fountain," Han replied and kept walking.
He was right, there were at least a dozen people surrounding the fountain. Some were dipping buckets into it and filling them with water, while several children were actually in the fountain splashing and playing in the cool water and still others just seemed to congregate around the town's centerpiece exchanging in idle conversation.
When they reached the fountain, they walked around it to its north side and Han stood with his back to the fountain and kept his eyes searching further up the street for their contact. Leia couldn't help but look around at the Pentas people gathered around the landmark. Their dark, lined skin and hard stares betrayed the terrible life that they led.
The giggling shrieks of the children caused Leia to turn and look into the fountain. A young boy and girl were running through the waist high water chasing each other and splashing. The young girl stopped and looked directly at Leia; her eyes were wide and brown, her skin free of the wrinkles that the years ahead of her would bring forth.
The stern voice of a woman jerked the girl's head to look at what must've been her mother. After exchanging a few words with the girl, the woman looked warily at Leia; she was holding a small child against her breast. Leia slowly turned away.
Han must've witnessed some of the exchange, because he leaned down and whispered, "Got visions of a couple of those in your future, do ya?"
Leia read his amused expression but refrained from responding, offering him only a roll of her eyes and a disgruntled scowl.
"Maybe a little boy with extraordinary piloting skills?" He teased as he walked around her, shifting his position around the fountain. "And a little girl with a love of spicy food?"
Leia crossed her arms and replied, "And both able to understand Shyriiwook perfectly?"
Han looked at her for a moment and then said, "Wait a minute. Is that because of me or because you and Chewie…?"
She had to work at not laughing, worried that the joyful emotion would bring attention to her. There was not much to laugh about on the streets of Tierpen. She turned away from Han and a pair of blank, empty eyes grabbed her attention. They were shimmering beneath the water from the bottom of the fountain. For a moment her breath held. It was the Goddess Marantha's head.
"Due north, is that our priestess?" Han whispered to her, his voice serious now.
Leia tore her eyes away from the goddess to look up the street toward where Han was indicating, trying at the same time to find her breath and her bearings once again.
Alliance Headquarters, Hoth
"Leia?" Mon Monthma prompted, thumbing her holorecorder on. "Are you ready to start?"
Leia looked at the reflective glass behind Mon Mothma for a long moment. "We landed on Kwenn without incident, on the outskirts of Tierpen," she replied, her voice low, but steady and matter-of-fact. "And met our contact at the rendezvous."
"Did something happen at the rendezvous?"
Leia pressed her shoulders back and lifted her chin. "No," she replied. Not at the rendezvous.