‘Well,’ Luke said, getting to his feet and stretching his arms above his head with a loud, exaggerated yawn. ‘I’m gonna turn in.’ He smiled brightly at the group assembled around the dying campfire. ‘This was fun, though,’ he added. ‘Five nights of this, folks—I vote Wedge is in charge of entertainment tomorrow.’
‘Huh.’ Across the circle, Wedge raised an eyebrow, grinning. ‘Better go get planning.’
One by one, the small group took their leave, wishing each other goodnight and disappearing into their tents until only two people remained.
Han leaned back on braced arms, tilting his head to look up at the sky. ‘Pretty dark out here,’ he noted.
‘It is the middle of a desert,’ Leia pointed out, shuffling a little closer to the fire, and to Han.
‘Yeah, just, uh… just makin’ an observation.’ He nodded to himself. ‘Pretty dark. Pretty quiet.’
He paused as, as if to prove him wrong, a low, eerie moaning sound echoed through the small camp, sheltered among a cluster of sand dunes. His hand moved to his blaster.
‘Just the wind,’ Leia said, eyes shifting from one dune to the next. ‘Almost impossible for anyone to have found us with all the measures we’ve put in place.’
‘Sure, just the wind,’ Han said. ‘No people for…what did you say?’
‘Six klicks,’ Han echoed.
The wind picked up, whistling mournfully over the dunes. Leia wrapped her arms around her knees, catching his eye across the waning fire. The corner of his mouth quirked upward.
‘You wanna—’ Han started, at the same time Leia said, ’I think it would be useful for us to go over—’
‘I was gonna say,’ he agreed, nodding hurriedly.
‘—plans for tomorrow,’ she finished.
‘Plans for tomorrow, yes.’ He waved an approving finger. ‘Good thinking, Princess.’
‘On your ship,’ she clarified.
‘Maybe you could lock the doors,’ she suggested.
‘Definitely.’ He shot her a crooked grin in the low light. ‘You got the best ideas.’
‘All in all, not a bad job.’ Han tossed the datatape into the air and caught it, the shiny casing catching the glint of firelight with each throw.
‘Would you be careful with that?’ Leia chided, eyes on the rising and falling tape. ‘It’s day two of a five-day mission; this isn’t a victory until we’ve decoded and acted on whatever’s stored on there.’
‘Ah, c’mon; we already fed it into the comp; this thing’s just a fancy drinks coaster at this point,’ he said, but stopped, handing it to her.
‘Hey, any chance of getting outta here early if it turns out to be empty?’ Janson asked hopefully.
‘If it’s empty, then we stole the wrong tape,’ Leia reminded him.
Janson groaned. ‘Gods, you’d’ve thought recon would be more exciting, huh?’
‘You mean you aren’t enjoying the pleasure of our company, Wes?’ Leia teased.
Han nodded at the datatype as Leia turned it over in her hands. ‘What’s with the tape, anyhow? Pretty old-fashioned way to store data, ain’t it?’
‘I’m not sure the Empire are inviting feedback,’ she said dryly, sipping the last of her cocoa.
Han smiled at her, then yawned.
‘Long day, huh?’ Luke asked.
Han nodded. ‘Yeah, I’m beat.’
Leia eyed him over the rim of her mug. Over his shoulder, the very last of the sun was slipping down behind a dune, the light changing from orange to a gloomy indigo. ‘I think,’ she said, very casually, ‘that we ought to go and debrief, Han. While today’s still fresh in our minds.’
He blinked a couple of times before his eyes widened in recognition. ‘Right. Debrief. Yes. Seems important,’ he said quickly. ‘Let’s go…’ He gestured in the general direction of his ship. ‘…Do that.’
‘Good idea!’ Leia shot to her feet. ‘Night, everyone.’
The Falcon got antsy when she was grounded, Han was sure of it. These week-long missions weren’t good for her. He complained about this frequently to Chewie, but Chewie never seemed to take his concerns very seriously.
Still, what did Chewie know? If Han wanted to run daily diagnostic checks, he damn sure was gonna run daily diagnostic checks; not like Chewie was around right now to—
A thumping noise echoed round the ring corridor and Han jumped, narrowly avoiding banging his head on the roof of the crawl space. Emerging into the corridor and sitting back against the wall, he listened, his breathing shallow, reaching for his blaster. Nothing and no one was coming creeping onto his ship without—
The banging sounded again, a clang of metal on metal. Han stood, heart thudding, trying to decide whether to call out or not.
‘Han?’ came a tentative voice.
He almost sat down again with sheer relief. ’Princess?’
Her footsteps rounded the corridor, and she appeared, small and pale with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She was a little out of breath, too, like she’d hurried over here.
‘I couldn’t sleep,’ she said at once.
‘Me neither,’ he replied. ‘Uh, well, I hadn’t tried yet, but—’
She seemed content not to hear any further explanation. ’Well, if neither one of us is sleeping,’ she reasoned, ‘perhaps I should stay here. Get some work done. We could go over the…’ She trailed off, biting her lip, looking first thoughtful, and then, apparently coming up empty herself, expectant.
Han leaned against the wall. ‘Repairs,’ he suggested, tone lazy, patting the metal with the flat of one palm. ‘You could help me with repairs. Y’know. If you want.’
She waggled her fingers at him. ‘Put me to work, Captain.’
The thing about a mission to a desert planet was that if you dropped anything, it tended to be pretty difficult to find it again.
‘It’s just a comlink,’ Wedge reasoned. ‘We can remotely disable it; it won’t be traceable even if anyone does find it.’
Leia pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘It won’t be traceable by any means we know of, but the Empire’s getting better at this all the time; if they come across it they could figure out we’ve been here.’
‘They ain’t gonna be searching tonight, Leia,’ Han said. ‘We’d probably be long gone before they found it.’
Leia shook her head. ‘If they realize what we took, that data we spent so long trying to get could be useless to us.’
‘Okay,’ Wedge said. ‘How’s this, then? There’re still a couple more hours of light; the wind hasn’t picked up in a while—why don’t I go see if I can find it? I know where I’ve been, so if there’s no sign of it we know it’s probably buried somewhere the Imps’ll never find it.’’
‘I’ll come,’ Luke said.
‘Nah.’ Wedge waved a hand at him. ‘I’m the one who dropped it; there’s no need for you to—’
‘No heading out into the desert alone, remember?’ Luke reminded him.
‘Fine,’ Wedge said. ‘So a couple of people can stay on guard here, and the rest of us—’
‘I’ll stay,’ Han said at once.
‘So will I,’ Leia said.
Wedge gave them a strange look. ‘All right… All right.’ He paused, then said carefully, ‘So… you’re gonna be paying attention? To what’s going on, uh… beyond the camp?’
‘Yeah, reckon we know how to stay alert, Antilles,’ Han replied, feeling a bit insulted.
Wedge nodded. ‘Fine. Janson, c’mon; it’s me, you and Luke.’
Wes grumbled but pulled himself to his feet, and within minutes the three of them had geared up and headed out.
‘What was that about?’ Leia wondered.
‘Listen.’ Luke made an apologetic face, voice soft as he helped Han into the Falcon with a small crate of explosives—Leia had only been committed to getting in and out quietly up to a point.
‘About what?’ Han asked absently. He was sweaty and walking backward with a box that could, however stabilised it supposedly was, still in theory blow up, so he wasn’t in the best mood for chit-chat.
‘About—’ Luke sighed, eyes widening at him over the crate. ‘C’mon, Han. I’m just trying to say… look, it’s none of my business, all right? But if you two were going for subtle—’
‘Which two?’ Han wondered.
‘You know. You and Leia.’
‘What about me?’ Leia wanted to know, appearing at the top of the ramp.
‘Ah.’ Luke rubbed at the back of his head with a hand. ‘Okay, maybe this isn’t the best time—’
'Spit it out, kid. Hey—can we just—?’ He nodded at the box, and very gently they set it down on the ramp. Han huffed, frowning at Luke. ‘You holding your fair share of the weight here? ’Cause it sure doesn’t feel—’
‘It’s just,’ Luke tried again, brushing over the weight question—the answer was “no” and they both knew it—‘if the two of you are gonna go off for… privacy, you might wanna be less—well, you might wanna be a little more—’
Leia had wandered down the ramp as Luke spoke, curious little furrow forming in her brow. Luke looked desperately from one to the other, then burst out, ‘I just think you should know it’s obvious to everyone what you’re doing if you’re going to go off together at the same time, talking about… about debriefing, or whatever.’ Very red, Luke concluded, ‘And it kinda seems from all the excuses like you didn’t want people to know, and I thought you should know that, well, people know.’
It was possible Han’s brain was fuzzy from the past several sleepless nights, but he blinked at Luke once, twice, three times, before saying, ‘What?’
‘He thinks we’re sleeping together,’ Leia translated helpfully.
‘Oh,’ Luke mumbled, ‘I wasn’t—’
Han peered at her. ‘You and me?’
‘Why?’ he asked, bewildered.
‘You’ve spent every night together just the two of you since we got here,’ Luke muttered, ‘and—’
‘Oh, right.’ Han scratched at his jaw. ’Yeah, I see how you’d think that.’
‘Like I said, it’s nothing to do with me—’
‘Though we’re not, of course,’ Leia said.
Han reached down to heft the crate into his arms, turning and striding with it the rest of the way up the ramp. ’Ah, like Luke said, nothing to do with him—’
‘Oh, Han, come on,’ Leia soothed as she followed him. ‘I’m sure Luke’s not going to make fun.’
‘Well, wait, now this sounds way more interesting,’ Luke said, hurrying after the pair of them. ‘What am I not gonna make fun of?’
‘Fine!’ Han said hotly, setting the crate down and spinning to face them. ‘It’s your fault, anyway!’
It took Luke a second to register that the finger Han was jabbing was pointed at him. ’My fault? How?’
‘It’s—’cause of the—all your—’ Han drew a breath, then gritted out, ‘Telling your damn… horror stories!’
It was Luke’s turn to be baffled. ’What horror stories?’
‘The—sand creepers, or whatever it was!’ Han reminded him. ‘That story you told the first night!’
‘That’s not a horror story; it’s just meant to stop people wandering off in the desert alone!’
‘Well, it felt like a horror story to me,’ Han snapped. ‘Oughta be a rule against—Princess, get this down, all right? No horror stories.’
‘Hold on,’ Luke said, fighting back a laugh. ‘Wait a second. You’re telling me you’ve spent the last four nights together because of—because of the sand snatcher story?’
Han shuddered, but recovered himself. ‘Yeah, creeped Her Highness out somethin’ awful—’
‘Me?’ Leia squeaked, elbowing him. ‘I seem to remember you were the one who wanted to keep the light on—’
‘After you sweet-talked your way into sharing my cabin!’
‘You were jumpy as a butterbug; I thought you’d appreciate it!’ Leia turned back to Luke, flushed. ‘Anyway, that’s all there is to it. Really.’
‘Yeah,’ Luke said, a smile spreading across his face. ‘Okay. Sorry, but if you were hoping I wasn’t gonna make fun, I’m about to really let you down.’