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A journey of a thousand miles

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Part One: on the Millennium Falcon

The kid was seriously milking it.

Which was a terrible thing to even think, obviously. But he was laying it on thick out there, and it sure looked like the princess was buying all of it. And really, how long had he known the old man - three days? Han was observant, and despite the mentor thing they had going on it was clear that the two had barely been acquainted. But why let that get in the way of a pretty girl comforting him? And royalty, yet.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of soft footsteps - too quiet to be the kid in his cloppy borrowed trooper boots, and Chewie wouldn't come into a room without saying anything. He turned around to see the princess worrying the cuff of one sleeve with the fingers of the other hand.

"Something on your mind?" he asked.

There was a pause, but it wasn't a hesitation - she was studying him with those unsettling eyes. "Who hired you?" she asked finally. "The Alliance wouldn't have sent civilians to rescue me, especially not . . ." Her eyes darted back toward the lounge and Han mentally completed the sentence. Especially not an undergrown teen who can barely keep his own nose dry.

She probably would have been slightly more tactful.

"We weren't hired to rescue you," he admitted. "Kenobi hired me to take him and the kid to Alderaan -"

She flinched. So she did know something.

"But when we found . . . not Alderaan . . ." He gave her a stern look. "Heroics were not in my plan."

"I'm fascinated to hear you had a plan at all," she quipped, but her heart wasn't in it. She was getting pale even as he watched.

It might not have been tactful, but his curiosity won out. "Do you know what happened? It was like the whole planet had been wiped off the map, but -" He broke off because she was nodding mutely, her eyes vacantly picking out a spot on the wall and her mouth slightly open. He almost said something, but she pulled herself together to reply.

"That station is a weapon capable of destroying an entire planet with one shot."

Now he was gaping, even though Kenobi had seemed to suggest the same thing. "No single cannon could be that powerful."

"It is." Her delicate eyebrows lifted slightly as she talked. She was still gazing at the wall as though in a trance. "I saw them do it."

Icy fingers crawled up and down his spine as he remembered Kenobi at his creepiest - as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. He swallowed and tried to think of something to say other than a curse word. "What'd Alderaan ever do to the Empire?"

"Nothing. It was because of me."

He said "what?" as a reflex, because her response hadn't made any sense. One small girl and the destruction of an entire world were things that had nothing to do with each other.

"They wanted to -" Her gaze slid toward him for the first time since he'd started asking questions. "You didn't actually know I was from Alderaan, did you."

Now there was really nothing to do but swear. She didn't have to say anything else; it all fell neatly into place. They'd had a member of the system's royal family, a suspected rebel, in their hands for questioning, and a superweapon designed to threaten and intimidate and terrify the galaxy. Of course they'd used it on her own world, her own people.

She almost cracked a smile when he swore, as if it had actually been something helpful. "Exactly," she said. "They - because I couldn't . . ."

One hand drifted to her mouth and she started to bite at her thumb. Something about the gesture, and maybe the loose strands of hair drying messily around her face, made him realize she was probably even younger than he'd thought. Maybe even younger than Luke. He could see she was blaming herself for Alderaan getting blown up and he wanted to say something nice - yeah, she'd been a pain in his ass so far, but she was just a kid and this was . . . but what actually came out was, "After where we've all been today, do not put your fingers in your mouth."

She threw him a look, but dropped her hand. "Worried you won't get paid if I die of infection?"

"Yep." He jerked his head toward the crew quarters, where he'd already taken a quick minute to get the smell of trash compactor off him. "You can clean up if you want. Should've thought of it before. Computer says we're still a day or so from the Yavin system, so . . ." He shrugged awkwardly. "Between me and the kid, we should be able to find you something if you want to change . . ."

At first he thought she was going to make a snarky comment about wearing their clothes, but she just nodded and said quietly, "Thank you."

While she was washing up, Han went back out to the lounge to pour himself a drink and check on Luke (more or less in that order). He set his glass down close to the kid's morose face as he took a seat on the bench, just in case the comforting embrace of Old Rathtar rum might tempt him.

"That smells like the stuff we used to strip corrosion off the converters," Luke said, looking askance at the glass.

"But drinking it won't kill you nearly as fast." He took a sip to prove it and let the rum sink into him for a moment. "Did you know she was from Alderaan?"

Luke's forehead creased as if he were considering it for the first time. "I guess maybe Ben said - we were supposed to bring the droids to her father there, so . . . she must be, I didn't really think about it."

"She says they blew it up - the Empire. That's what we ran into - that's what Kenobi felt. Or said he - whatever."

The mention of the old man threatened a return of Luke's dark mood, but it passed in favor of incredulity. "So Ben was right? The whole planet?"

"Some kind of super cannon. She saw it happen."

Luke sat up straighter suddenly, a look of horror on his face. "Her father - her whole family must have been on that planet, everyone she . . ."

"Everyone she knew, except whoever's on Yavin 4. And us." Han took a long drink of his rum.

"What do we do?"

"Unless your Force can bring people back from the dead, I don't see there's anything for us to do about it." He took another drink, but it wasn't making him feel any better - though it was softening his feelings for the girl. "Poor little thing."

"She's so brave."

She was, but now that he knew what had happened Han thought she was also shocked and numb. "She was taking care of you." Not to mention helping them escape a squadron of TIE fighters.

"I'm such an idiot."

Han couldn't argue with that, but he heard the slam of a hydraulic door and waved at Luke to shut up. A few moments later the princess wandered almost shyly into the lounge, wearing one of Han's shirts pulled so tightly over leggings that it wrapped around her nearly twice. None of them knew what to say right away, but Han finally raised his glass in her direction and said, "Bite of the Old Rathtar?"

He'd meant it mostly as a joke, but some of the tension in her face loosened and she said, "Please."

Han raised his eyebrows but set the glass on the table and nudged it in her direction. She sat next to him and - surprising him again - didn't insist on a glass of her own but sipped willingly from his before passing it back. He watched for a reaction to the alcohol but there was only the slightest wince.

"I'm sorry. About Alderaan," Luke said quietly.

Leia nodded. She was staring at the wall again. As she moved, her right shoulder brushed Han's and she flinched away. So much for companionship.

But, he reminded himself with another sip of rum. She was scared and traumatized, and she was . . . little. He put the drink down close to her, and when she kept on just staring ahead, he picked up her hand off the table and wrapped it around the glass.

She switched it to her left hand before raising it to her lips, and this time she showed no reaction to the taste at all. Han's eyes narrowed. She had definitely been shooting right-handed back on the battle station - and her earlier reactions hadn't had anything to do with the rum, or him.

"Hey," Han said. "Anybody else notice that only one of us still smells like a trash heap?" His head rolled lazily toward Luke.

"What about Chewie?" Luke asked defensively.

"That kinda herbal-y smell, like warm pafton?" Han grinned. "That's the smell of freshly washed, slightly damp Wookiee."

Beside him, it sounded as if Leia had almost laughed.

"Go on, kid." Han nudged Luke with his elbow. "If we've got to share this ship for the next two days, you're gonna be clean."

"Going, going," Luke grumbled, but only a little, as he dragged himself to his feet and headed for the crew quarters.

When he was gone, Han pushed the remainder of the rum toward the princess. "Finish that, then come with me," he instructed.

She looked at him with an expression that had both a flash of outrage and a spark of fear in it. Too late he realized what she thought.

Giving her a half-smile that he hoped was apologetic, he touched the back of her right shoulder with his hand and watched her wince. "How long did they have you?" he asked.

She was still watching him suspiciously, but she answered his question. "Three standard days. I think. I tried to keep count, but -"

"But they made sure you couldn't." He gave the rum glass another little nudge in her direction. "So - was the chair before or after the droid?"

She took a slow, deep breath before answering. "After."

He gave a small murmur of acknowledgment, looking at his fingers on the table instead of her. "You must be tough."

"I didn't give them anything."

That pride would keep her going even without much else left to her. He smiled. "Didn't think you did, your highness."

"You don't have to -" Mid-snap she changed direction. "You know a lot about Imperial interrogation procedures."

"Yep," he said noncommittally.

"First-hand?"

"Yep."

The fingers of her left hand twitched on the table, as if she were thinking of reaching for the rum glass. "From which side?" she asked.

"Witness."

She raised an eyebrow.

"Yeah," he relented. "Yeah, I was one of them. Saw some things I couldn't accept, and - now I'm not. And that's all I'm going to say about it."

"All right," she said softly.

He cleared his throat and gestured at her shoulder, watching as she instinctively flinched even though he didn't actually touch her this time. "That's how I know you've got a bad burn there. They didn't treat it, did they?"

She gave a very small shake of her head. "They only worry about you being in good shape for execution if the execution is going to be public. They'd already announced I was dead, so . . ."

"Yeah. Also they're bastards."

"And that," she agreed, without the reprimand he'd half expected.

"It's hurting you," he said. "And if it doesn't get treated soon, it'll scar tight and you'll lose range of motion in your arm. So." He pushed the glass over until it touched the side of her hand, and repeated, "Finish that, and come with me."

She held his gaze for a few moments, but eventually did as he said and tossed back the rest of the liquid as if she spent every night in a spaceport bar.

Maybe she did. What kind of teenaged princess knew how to handle weapons like that anyway?

Somewhere along the way she'd evidently decided he was trustworthy, because she didn't protest when he led her into his cabin and closed the door behind them. She did cross her arms and stare back at him with a challenging look as he sized her up.

"Uh," he said. "Maybe if you take the shirt off and put it on backwards?"

She didn't move. They stood staring at each other for a while until finally she said, "With you watching?"

Oh. "Right." He turned his back. He'd lost count of how many times he'd already swallowed a smart remark, but even he knew there was a time and a place. And when a girl had just spent three days being interrogated by the Empire was not it, even if her whole planet hadn't just been blown up.

"Ready," she said behind him, and her voice shook just a bit.

He reached for the medkit in the cabin's locker before turning around. She was motionless facing the wall, his shirt unbuttoned and gaping open.

There was exactly what he'd expected to see, and a bit worse. The burn on her back was familiar, red and shiny with a pattern of little circles in a perfect grid that was somehow obscene in its regularity. He gently moved the shirt away from her right shoulder and said, "The chair is made for bigger people. That's why the prods got your shoulder, too."

"Is it bad?"

There was blistering, some of it already opened and raw. She must really have lasted a long time. "It's probably gonna hurt more before it feels better," he said honestly.

"I figured."

The "worse" was a matching set of purpling bruises over her hips that ran from her back around to her stomach on each side. He held out a spread hand experimentally and saw it was a perfect match, except that his hand was bigger. Someone had grabbed her, and held her, hard.

And this was a conversation he was really not prepared to have, but they were two days from her Rebel base and if she was hurt it could be . . . bad, by then. He tried to sound casual as he rummaged for some bacta patches. "You hurt anywhere else?"

"I don't think so," she said. "I expect I'll be sore tomorrow, but no worse than you'd expect after diving into a garbage chute and then running for my life."

She didn't sound as if she were hiding anything, but then a strange man she didn't know was probably the exact last person she would want to tell about something like that. "You, um." He prodded at one bruise where it must have been tender, until she hissed. "Somebody got you pretty good here," he said.

"Bruises will heal on their own." She cast him a look over her shoulder. "I'm getting kind of cold."

"Right, right." He opened a steri-pack and said in warning, "Considering the garbage chute, I think I'd better clean up at least the most . . . oozing spots. It's not going to be fun."

"Just - get it over with."

The muscles of her back tensed, and he could hear her breathing hard through her teeth, but she didn't make any other sound as he cleaned the open blisters. While she was distracted by the pain he made one more attempt. "You know - you know if anything did happen - whatever happened, it's not - there's no shame in it."

"Nothing happened," she said. Her voice was tight with threatened tears, but he thought it was because he was hurting her with the antiseptic.

"Well - good," he said.

She was quiet for a while, then, as he was opening a bacta patch, she said, "There was one, a lieutenant. He had - intentions, I think. But he didn't have enough time, he was interrupted." Her shoulders shook with a small, brief laugh. "For one very weird moment I was happy to see Darth Vader. It didn't last."

"There's all different kinds of monsters," he said, smoothing the edges of the bacta patch around the burn they'd left over most of her shoulder.

"We can always use more people who're willing to fight them," she said quietly.

He narrowed his eyes at her, although the effect was probably ruined by the steadying hand he still had on her good arm. "Listen, I wasn't kidding when I said I'm not in this for the rebellion. Soon as I get you safe to your base, I'm out of there."

"Then why help me?" she burst out in frustration.

"I'm a mercenary, sweetheart, that doesn't make me heartless." He jerked his chin in her direction as he reassembled the medkit. "You can sleep in here if you want."

There was that look again.

He rolled his eyes. "Alone. Thought you might want the privacy. I can bunk out on the bench in the lounge."

She looked around the cabin for only a second before answering. "Actually I think I've spent enough time in small, closed rooms lately. I'll sleep out in the lounge." Her face softened marginally. "But thank you."

He shrugged. "I'll get you some blankets and stuff. Also, here." He held out a small pill bottle and waited for her to extend her hand, then tipped two of the pills into her palm.

"What -"

"Painkillers. They're pretty mild but we don't have anything stronger."

She hesitated. "Is the bottle labeled?"

"Have I given you any reason not to trust me?" he laughed. It wasn't, of course; he and Chewie didn't always restock their supplies by traditional means.

He could actually see her suppressing the urge to say something sharp. He and princesses apparently had way more in common than he would have thought. Eventually she settled on admitting, "No."

"Thank you."

She sidled past him to open the cabin door, and he looked at her messy hair and the exposed bruises on her hips and said, "Hey."

She turned back, a question on her face.

He pointed a finger in her direction. "Just me. Not any other strange men who get you on their ship, all right?"

A beat passed between them, and once again he thought he saw a softening toward him. Then she drew herself up and said, "I try not to be on strange men's ships, as a rule. But you seemed like a reasonable alternative to imminent execution."

"Bet you say that to all the guys."

A corner of her mouth turned up. "Bet you've heard it more than once."

He grinned at her. "You wouldn't believe how poetic it sounds in Wookiee."

She was actually laughing as she left the cabin, so he considered his work done for the moment.

When did he become everyone's caretaker anyway?

He had no idea how long he'd been asleep - though it didn't feel like long - when he was awakened by a shout of alarm. It took him a few foggy seconds to remember who exactly was on the ship - Chewie, Luke, droids, no old man, plus one princess. The shout had been male (and human).

His thoughts cleared somewhat as he jammed his feet into his boots, not bothering with a shirt. Was it possible an Imperial, or more than one, had stowed away on the ship and waited until they all went to sleep to strike? Not likely, but technically possible. Or that they'd run into something in the hyperspace lane that shouldn't have been there?

He met the princess in the corridor, running barefoot with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, her hair in a loose braid down her back and her eyes wide. "Where is he?" Han demanded, not sure himself which "he" he meant.

"In the cabin, I think."

He ran for the crew cabin, aware of her following him. "We didn't run into something, did we?"

"What would we have run into?"

"Where are the droids?" he asked.

"Powered down!"

The door to the crew cabin was already open, Chewie standing in the doorway looking concerned. "What is it?" Han barked.

Chewie started to say something about "the young Jedi", but the princess had bolted past Han, ducked under Chewie's gesturing arm, and darted into the cabin, and at that point Han had to follow her in case she was planning to - fight hidden stormtroopers in her bare feet?

But there was no one in the cabin except Luke, frozen in a stiff and unnatural-looking posture on the middle bunk. "If we're all here . . . " Han started to say.

Leia dropped to her knees next to Luke's bunk and shook his shoulder. "Luke," she said gently, then, when that had no effect, repeated sharply, "Luke!"

Luke didn't respond, but after a few moments he cried out again, wordlessly, as if trying to warn them of something. His body twisted and one arm lashed out and nearly hit Leia, who ducked just in time.

Chewie growled worriedly, and Leia looked to Han. "He says the kid won't wake up," Han translated.

Leia grabbed for Luke's flailing hand - with her dominant right arm, and Han didn't miss the small quick groan of pain when she stretched her shoulder - and folded his arm down onto his belly. She held it there for a while, not moving or speaking, while Han and Chewie watched tensely from the doorway.

Suddenly Luke opened his eyes and rose to half-sitting, clutching Leia's hand against his chest. "They're following us!" he said. Han felt suddenly cold in a way that had nothing to do with being bare chested.

"Are you awake right now?" Leia asked, showing more presence of mind than anyone else had managed.

Luke frowned at her. "Of course, I heard you."

Heard what? Now Han frowned at Leia, too. "What did you do?"

She completed the circle by craning her head to frown back at him. "Nothing. I told him to wake up."

"Uh - no, you didn't," Han said.

"I must have. He's awake," Leia said with inescapable logic.

"The Empire is following us?" Chewie asked, and Leia and Luke both looked at Han with matching curious expressions.

"Who's following us?" Han asked for their benefit.

"The Imperials - they are tracking the ship," Luke replied. He was still holding on to Leia's hand - for some reason that annoyed Han more than the kid's certainty that his ship was being followed.

"You had a nightmare," Han said firmly.

"He's right, Luke." Leia's voice was much gentler. "We were talking earlier about the Imperials tracking the ship -"

"You thought they were!" Luke looked as if she had betrayed him.

"I - still do," Leia admitted. "But we'll deal with that when we can. Whatever you saw - I'm sure it was just a dream. You're worried - we all are . . ."

"Vader was flying his own fighter," Luke said, his face scrunched with the need for Leia to believe him. He'd apparently abandoned hope of Han and Chewie.

Leia hadn't. She threw Han a look of such desperation that he couldn't ignore it. He wandered further into the room and sat down on the edge of Luke's bunk (again, when did he get elected everybody's space dad? he was not cut out for this). "She's right," he said. "After what happened today, it's no surprise you're dreaming about being chased by the Empire, and Vader and all."

"It wasn't a dream," Luke insisted. "It felt like - like someone was telling me. Vader's looking for us."

Han realized that the princess was shaking, though she was trying hard to look calm. Without conscious thought he reached out and smoothed his hand over the back of her head, then dropped it to her good shoulder. Once his mind caught up with his body he expected her to recoil, but in fact she shifted closer to him so that her arm brushed his shin. The kid had managed to scare her.

"Well, lightspeed isn't any faster for them than it is for us," Han said. "They're not gonna catch up tonight, so let's all get some rest." He caught Luke's eye and looked meaningfully down at Leia, hoping the kid would get the message.

He did, thankfully. "Sorry," Luke said quickly. "You're right - I'm sure we're safe tonight."

Han took Leia's elbow and urged her up to her feet - she squeezed Luke's hand before letting it go - and out of the room, Chewie warbling a soft promise to keep an eye on things.

Leia met Han's eyes once they were alone in the corridor. She looked rattled, by more than the mention of Vader. "General Kenobi was training him, wasn't he?" she asked.

"You mean all the - Force stuff."

She nodded, studying him. "You don't believe in it."

He wanted to give an unqualified no, but he was old enough to remember the days before the Empire. "I know the Jedi were real, but I'm not so sure I believe they had some kind of magic power. I guess he was one of them?"

"General Kenobi?" She nodded. "There was a Jedi Skywalker, too. My tutors weren't supposed to tell us about them but they did anyway. I wonder . . ."

"His father, he says."

"I didn't think they were supposed to have families." She was rubbing her eyes absently. "Still -"

"No." She wasn't looking at him, and he took gentle hold of her arm and tugged her to face him. "No, don't - don't scare yourself like that. He doesn't know what's going to happen, any more than any of us."

She obviously thought otherwise; the dread was still plain on her face. But she nodded.

They were leaning side by side against the bulkhead. She had one bare foot crossed over the other, the edges of the blanket trailing on the floor, and loose ends of her (incredibly long) hair were in her face. And he realized, suddenly, that he liked her. She was bossy and she had a temper to match his, she was cynical and prone to suspect his motives, she was proud and tougher than she should have been, and she was also capable of being kind and patient and warm. She'd lost her whole world today, and she still heard someone shout in the night and felt responsible to do something about it. They both did.

Just like he felt responsible for her now. "You should get back to sleep," he said.

Her mouth turned up, though without humor, and she said, "I wasn't sleeping."

No, of course not. But she looked exhausted. "You should try," he said, taking a half step closer.

She looked up at him, and there was a moment. It was unexpected, heavy, and real, and he was aware that he'd gotten too close and he still wasn't wearing a shirt and she was hurt and tired and too young for him to be feeling anything like this; and if she hadn't been so tired she would probably have hit him by now.

Not to mention that she'd expected him to take advantage of the situation about six times since they'd gotten on the ship, and he'd be damned if he was actually going to do it. It might be a small moral victory, but he'd earned it and he was clinging to it.

Still, the dead of night was a really inconvenient time to figure out how much he liked her.

He patted her arm and casually leaned back away from her. "Go on. You don't want to be dead on your feet when we get to your base."

She nodded and turned to go, though she stopped once and turned to look at him in a way he couldn't decipher.