Alliance Headquarters, Hoth (Twelve Weeks Later…)
Han Solo was late returning from his mission. It wasn't all that unusual of an occurrence. In the three years he had been with the Alliance, he was gone more than he was with the band of Rebels. Sometimes his missions consisted of month-long expeditions across the galaxy and his lengthy absence was expected. Oftentimes he had run into trouble with the Empire and short trips had gotten delayed. Then, more times than the proud pilot would like to admit, trouble with his beloved freighter had kept him grounded elsewhere and days could turn into weeks or weeks into months before he would finally return.
It had been a slow progression of events that had these absences weighing more and more heavily on Leia. In the beginning they would fly by unnoticed until the crazy Corellian that had rescued her on the Death Star would suddenly appear and inquire quite annoyingly if she had missed him. Oh, how she longed to recapture the aloof reply she was able to give back then. The feigned disinterest that - as time wore on - she found that she was unable to deliver very convincingly anymore.
Han seemed to take pleasure in it, as his entertainment level increased on pace with her level of discomfiture. It was one of the things that she absolutely hated about him. She found that to be one of the greatest testaments to her failing mental health, for it seemed everything she hated about Han Solo was exactly what she missed about him when he was away. He was an infuriating man that apparently, she was not prepared to live very long without.
She found that last thought terrifying.
Princess Leia had left word with the hangar crew to alert her as soon as the crew of the Millennium Falcon returned, no matter what the time or circumstances of their arrival. So it was that she was awakened in the middle of the night by a nervous communications officer over her comm.
"Princess Leia, ma'am?"
"Yes, what is it?" She snapped, not bothering to hide her annoyance at being woken in the middle of the night and certainly not remembering her request regarding Captain Solo that she had given over two months ago.
"I'm only following the orders I was given in contacting you. I apologize for the hour, but I made double sure that it had indicated to disregard the time."
"Okay, yes. What is it, then?" The fog had certainly begun to lift from her mind as she sat up and rubbed head. Han's arrival did push its way quickly to the forefront of her mind, over all other things that could possibly go wrong while hiding out with the Rebellion. She decided not to assign any particular meaning to that fact at that very moment.
"We have just granted the Millennium Falcon permission to land," the officer replied.
The fog in her brain lifted instantaneously. "Which docking bay?"
"Thank you," Leia replied, already standing next to her small cot. "Organa out."
"You're welcome, ma'am. Control out."
If only to prove her own self-control, Leia did not rush to the hangar to meet the returning crew of the Falcon. Instead she determined where his initial debrief would be held. A formal meeting would take place the next day when all necessary members were present, but returning pilots were always immediately debriefed by the on-duty commander in case they had news of the Empire's whereabouts or other important information to relay regarding their mission.
When Han finally exited the small conference room, he almost looked as if he intended to stroll right up to her and kiss her and her heart pounded at the mere possibility. The fact that she found herself wishing that he would came as not a big of a shock as she thought it should. But he stopped in front of her and looked down at her, something akin to relief and longing reflected in his expression and in his eyes.
"Go ahead, Chewie. I'll catch up," he said while looking directly at Leia.
Chewie growled his response and walked away, along with the officer-on-duty, leaving the couple alone in the icy corridor.
Even though she was the one standing in the hallway in the middle of the night for no reason, she remained silent.
"I'm glad you're here. I was worried about you," Han said.
Leia swallowed. There was no hint of teasing in his tone, no jibes about her waiting for him in the middle of the night and what that might imply. She wondered if this was what it felt like and looked like when they were honest with each other and decided that if it was, she liked it. She had had a lot of time to think while he had been away.
"I have something for you." He seemed unfazed by her silence and she watched as he began to dig into his pockets.
"Why were you so late?" She finally asked.
His only response was to hand her the item that he had fished out of his pocket.
It was an old-fashioned holo, laser-printed on a piece of flimsiplast. It was of three children. Leia first recognized the young girl, Chiara. She was wearing a dress that was the color of nerf butter. Her brother was standing next to her, holding his baby sister. It was the baby that Leia had held; she was able to hold her head up now. They were smiling and there was a large tree in the background. Leia ran her fingers over the three of them.
After a long moment she looked up to Han. She had to swallow the lump in her throat before she said, "You went back."
Han nodded his head and said, "I had made a promise."
He nodded his head but didn't say anything.
She looked down at the holo. "They're not at the orphanage."
"No, they've all three been adopted by a young couple living in Suunmun."
"They have grass," she whispered.
"And hover scooters and three square meals a day."
She looked up at him. "You did this?"
"The young couple had already made arrangements to take the baby. I talked to them and helped make it so that they could take all three."
She suddenly felt disoriented. She had wanted to talk to him, that's why she had left that message to alert her on his return. But now she couldn't remember anything that she had wanted to say. "I would've liked to help."
He was a good man, it's not like she hadn't known it all this time but these little affirmations that he gave her were like succulent treats that she cherished dearly. Although physically drawn to him for longer than she would ever admit, it was this deeper attraction that unnerved her. It was like the way he stayed with the Rebellion under a pretense of disinterest, yet fought as hard and meant as much as some of their best soldiers. Their relationship was exactly the same – on both sides.
"I would've liked to go," she finally replied.
"Maybe next time."
His voice was tender and sweet. Tears welled up in her eyes as her emotions began to bubble to the surface. She looked back down at the holo, unable decipher the children's faces any longer as she blinked furiously to try and regain her now blurred vision.
"Things are better in Tierpen. The Naran have begun to return the farmland back to the Pentas," he said.
Leia nodded until she had composed herself and then looked up to him and asked, "Is this why you were gone so long?" And then glancing down the empty hallway, she said, "What did you tell them in your debriefing?"
"We ran into some blockades around Alzoc III, so we had to lay low for a little while. We landed on Kwenn for repairs and supplies. My story will check out and that's all they need to know."
Leia Organa willingly participating and encouraging falsifying Alliance reports. It wasn't something she thought she was above - there were always extenuating circumstances – she just never thought it would ever come this easily - or this often. "Good."
He went to take the holoimage from her and she pulled back on it. "What? You want to keep this?" He asked innocently.
She nodded her head, grasping the piece of flimsiplast tighter in her hands. The vision that it held was like a life vest to a drowning man, she had no intention of letting it go.
"It comes at a price," he replied seriously.
"What price?" She waited for the jibe now, the sexual innuendo and although she had no problem fending off his inappropriate remarks on even her worst days, she didn't want him to spoil this moment with his usual humor.
He jerked his chin toward the smiling faces in the picture, "Tell me that you believe things do get better."
She eyed him curiously, letting the meaning of his words sink in as she recalled their conversation all those weeks ago. Then she tilted her chin up and said, "I believe," but then choked on the rest of the words.
"That's a very curious thing about you," he said, waggling his finger at her and smiling. "You can never say anything that you don't truly believe."
She felt her face flush. "I believe it."
"Believe what?" He pressed, lowering his face to hers and keeping his grip tight on the flimsiplast.
She breathed out, her mouth hanging open as she shook her head at him. After twelve weeks of agony waiting for him to return, nearly three years of trying to rebuild her life again and a lifetime of sacrifice. I do still believe it. The words warmed her insides, like drinking a hot cup of kaffe.
She had come precariously close to succumbing to the tantalizing pull of that abyss, that place where you can just give up. She had certainly earned that right, hadn't she? That Han Solo was about the only one that had noticed it and worked to pull her back from it…well, that hadn't escaped her.
The reasons that he turned around that fateful day to help Luke, or that he continued to hang around and help her Rebellion were still unclear. More and more she thought it might be solely for her benefit and more and more she had grown to like that idea. He had told her once that she could never change the reasons why he did things and the more she puzzled him out, the more she knew she wouldn't want to.
He had been a mercenary, an antagonist and now... "That … sometimes … things do get better," she whispered.
"That's right, Princess," he replied as he released the flimsi, his expression matched that of the winner of a Sabacc tournament.
She looked at him defiantly, still unable to allow him one moment of triumph at her expense. She hadn't changed that much. Lifting her chin up she said, "I don't see how you think this changes anything."
"Well, then…," he replied with a wink and a smirk. "Look again."
And then he turned and began to walk off in the direction of the hangar leaving Leia standing in the freezing cold, holding the flimsi clutched tightly in her hands. After several steps, he turned around, held his arm out and motioned to her. "C'mon. You alright?"
Leia smiled and began walking towards him. When she had reached him and he swung his arm over her shoulder leading her down the corridor, she answered, "Yes. I'm alright."
Thanks for everyone who read this story and especially to those that left reviews, they definitely keep me inspired! A special thanks to Zyra for beta reading for me, as always, the story wouldn't have been the same without you. Hope you all liked it.