The good news was this: things had gone a little less wrong than Leia had thought.
The bad news was that things had still gone wrong enough that she was locked in a cell—albeit a comfortable one, as cells went—and her assigned mission was nowhere close to complete.
‘Okay,’ she sighed, curling her hands around the cell’s bars and looking up at Han, who had been mirroring her pose on the other side of the door since he’d entered, fingers gripping the cool, painted metal just above hers. ‘If they’re not turning me over to the Imps, what am I in here for?’
‘Uh.’ He toed at an indent in the floor, frowning. ‘It’s kinda funny, actually. Turns out they, um—’
‘What?’ Leia asked, impatient. The fact that Han had been allowed in to visit her, and without anyone escorting him, was a good sign, too, if she was making a list, and Han looked more embarrassed than concerned. She was guessing the charges, whatever they were, were minor, but she’d appreciate it if he’d hurry up and explain them to her.
‘Think you’re a witch?’ he mumbled.
Perhaps, in fairness, there was no explanation available.
Han made a valiant effort nonetheless.
‘It’s ’cause of your datapad,’ he said as she stared, nonplussed. ‘’Cause of the technology.’ He winced, as though the bizarre turn of events was his responsibility. Leia was sure that, for once, this was not Han’s fault. ‘Like I say,’ he continued, ‘kinda funny. We’ll laugh about it later.’
‘My da—’ She cut herself off; it was too ridiculous to bear repeating. ‘Oh, for crying out loud.’
He blew out a breath, rocking back on his heels. ‘Yeah.’
Rolling her eyes, although not at Han, Leia paced away from him, directing her glare at the back wall of the cell.
Maybe she should have seen this coming. The Krivossi weren’t unfamiliar with technology, but they had an almost fanatic attachment to the notion that no other species could come up with useful ideas they couldn’t, or get something to work faster than they could. This didn’t reflect the reality of the galaxy’s technological strides in the slightest, but if the Krivossi hadn’t pioneered it, they’d rather not use it at all. Instead, they bent over backward to come up with alternatives for everything from communications to entertainment to medical supplies, most of it needlessly complicated or outright useless.
So Leia’s imprisonment, and the thin justification for it, was almost certainly due to pettiness rather than authentic fear. Even so—
‘A witch?’ she asked, turning back to face Han.
He slouched against the door of her cell, picking despondently at the paint on one of the bars. ‘I told ’em it was stupid, but they already know that.’
‘Do they realize you flew us here at thousands of times the speed of light?’ she asked.
‘Yeah, but see, you rubbed the datapad in their faces.’ His lip curled; she knew his derision was not directed at her, either. ‘Getting it out in front of them? Capital offense, sweetheart.’
She huffed. ‘What is the penalty for witchcraft here?’
‘Ah, I’m kidding. It ain’t a real crime. Probably just planning on leaving you in here until they’re done sulking and then they’ll let you out again.’
‘That sounds fun,’ Leia muttered. She closed her eyes for a moment, regrouping, her anger dissipating. This prison business was tedious, and very weird, and threw an unexpected wrench in the works. But the mission was perfectly salvageable, and the step to plan B was a short one, which meant things were going better than they did a lot of the time.
‘C’mon, Princess; it’s not like you’re actually staying here.’ Han pulled his blaster from its holster with matter-of-fact ease, pointing it at the lock. ‘Stand back.’
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
He blinked, finger freezing over the trigger. ‘Getting you out?’
‘Are you insane?’ she enquired.
‘Uh. No?’ Wary eyes on her face, he reached out to give the lock a shake. ‘’S’not exactly a sophisticated setup; it doesn’t even seem like there’s an alarm. Guess they’re still trying to invent one, huh?’
‘I’m not questioning your ability to spring me loose,’ she said. ‘I’m saying you can’t. You’ve got a mission to complete.’
‘Since when?’ he asked, brow furrowing.
‘Since I got locked up for witchcraft.’ She held up a hand, preempting his resistance. ‘You have to.’
‘No, I don’t!’ The look he threw her was a little panicked. ‘C’mon, Leia. I’m meant to be the pilot.’
‘Right, but then I got locked up for witchcraft.’ She closed her eyes briefly and opened them wide, struck again by the absurdity of the situation.
‘Right.’ Han nodded. ‘So we’d stick around ’cause…?’
‘Because,’ she said patiently, ‘they finally invented something good, and we need it, and we’re not leaving without it. It’s okay; you can come and get me out later on.’
He looked aghast, blaster hand falling limply to his side. ‘We don’t need it! We can buy bugs anywhere, Princess; hell, I know a guy who can get us bugs for half whatever this lot are charging.’
‘We don’t know what they’re charging until you go and negotiate.’
‘Like hell I’m gonna negotiate with them!’
‘Whose mission is this?’ she asked.
‘Mine, now, apparently!’ Biting out the words with surprising venom, given that this wasn’t even close to the most unreasonable thing she’d asked him to do on behalf of the Alliance, he went on, ‘And I’m not letting you sit around in a cell while I go and cozy up to the people who locked you in there!’
‘You just tell them you’ve heard their listening device is the best there is and you couldn’t imagine using any of that other garbage. Honestly, they’re very easy to flatter. You won’t even need to try all that hard.’
‘Good thing, too, since I’m not all that inclined to after they locked you in here.’
She reached out to touch his arm, but Han jerked away, not interested in being soothed. She set her jaw. Fine, then. ‘Well, I’m going to need you to fake it.’
He made an incredulous sound in the back of his throat. ‘You’re saying you wanna stay in here when I could just get you out?’
‘I know it’s not ideal,’ Leia conceded.
‘Yeah, you don’t say.’ He drew close again, and there was nothing teasing in his tone when he said, ‘Leia, this ain’t one of your smarter ideas.’
‘We can hardly try to buy from them after you’ve broken me out of jail,’ she pointed out. ‘I’ll be fine in here for a few—how long do you think it will take you? A few hours?’
‘I’m not just leaving you here on your own,’ he said, grip on the bars tightening, as though he anticipated her trying to pry his fingers away.
‘I’ll be fine,’ she repeated. Her voice softened. ‘Han. I’ve been in worse prison cells.’
He held her gaze for a moment, calculating, searching. Then, with an infinitesimal nod—reassured or resigned, she couldn’t tell—he crouched, fingers delving down into the back of his boot.
‘So no security in here at all, then,’ Leia remarked, watching him withdraw a small vibroknife.
‘Knife, blaster… I got, um…’ He dug around in his pocket, producing a length of durasteel cord and what looked like a hand grenade. ‘…These.’ As she gaped at him, he concluded, ‘No, no security. I’m starting to think this ain’t even a real prison.’
She frowned. ‘A blaster doesn’t count as off-world technology?’
‘They think they invented the blaster; I reckon it made ’em like me more.’ He reached through the bars, slipping the blade into her hand. He lingered, thumb skimming her upturned palm. ‘Like I say. Chances are they’re not gonna do anything. But if they do, sweetheart—’
‘Yes,’ she agreed, giving his fingers a brief squeeze. ‘If they try to execute me for witchcraft I’ll definitely use your boot-knife.’
‘I’m being serious.’
‘So am I!’
She looked at him expectantly, and then, when he didn’t turn to leave, she carefully removed her fingers from his and said, ‘Han? The mission?’
‘Do I really gotta—?’
‘Yes,’ she said, gentle and insistent.
‘Fine,’ he said, a muscle jumping in his jaw. ‘Fine. But only ’cause you asked.’
She leaned on the bars, unable to keep herself from smiling up at him, even if the situation was stupid. ‘Thank you.’
Han began to walk backwards, away from her. ‘Y’know, you should really carry a weapon in your boot.’
‘I’ll remember that,’ she said. ‘Go.’
‘How’s it going?’ Leia asked, when Han returned, as best she could tell from the peculiar spiraling chrono on the wall outside her cell, not much over an hour later.
He didn’t look happy. But he’d had objections to the mission even before she’d been imprisoned—Han could be stubborn, yes, but the Krivossi were beyond the pale for him—so that didn’t rule out that he’d been successful in securing the bugs.
‘Well, they’ve disassembled your datapad,’ he said. He let his hand fall hard against the bars of her cell, dull thwang echoing around the room. The other hand raked through his hair, which already stood up in wild tufts. ‘Just took the thing apart like—you believe that? Still talking some nonsense about magic even when they’re using their own crappy, knockoff—’ he gestured furiously, ‘—kriffin’ circular pads right there in front of me. They know they got no reason to keep you in here.’
She sighed and shrugged it off; she liked to take down notes on missions immediately, but she was sure Han had a spare datapad somewhere on his ship, and they weren’t all that expensive to replace. ‘That’s okay; I backed it up and wiped it before we left the base earlier. Standard protocol.’
‘Still.’ His fingers drummed against the cell bars, a rapid, agitated beat. Air hissed through his bared teeth. ‘It’s outta line. I told ’em they gotta put it back together again.’
‘Well, thank you, but I was referring to the listening devices we came here to buy,’ she said.
‘Oh.’ His eyes hardened. ‘Yeah, I kinda thought since they locked you in here and now they’re destroying your stuff—’
‘We still need the bugs,’ she said flatly.
He threw his hands up. ‘Come on!’
‘Just make the deal, and then we’ll be gone.’
‘I don’t wanna make a deal with people who chucked you in jail for no reason!’ Han said, petulance creeping into his tone. His eyes flicked over her. ‘What are they feeding you?’
Leia blinked at the swift change in direction. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘I mean—’ He gestured at her with a sort of spluttering sound, though what he was driving at was beyond her. ‘Have they even given you anything to eat?’
‘Han, I really haven’t been down here for very long.’
‘Or too long, if you look at it like you haven’t done anything wrong.’ He jabbed a finger at himself. ‘Which I do.’
‘I’m very grateful for your faith in me,’ she said, ‘but you can’t tell them that.’
‘Oh, I can, your Highness; watch me.’
‘No. Han. No.’ She reached out and grabbed his chin with her hand, forcing him to focus on her. ‘I don’t need you to protest my innocence; I need you to get about a hundred state-of-the-art bugs at a price that won’t cripple the Alliance.’
‘Urgh,’ he said, pulling free. ‘All right. I’m going. And then I’m getting you out.’
As he left, she reminded him, ‘In that order.’
‘Good news,’ Han said, some time later.
Leia was on her feet and over to the door of the cell in an instant. His time away from the prison, she saw, had indeed borne fruit, though in a strictly literal sense. Still, she took the groundapple he handed through the bars and turned a hopeful face up to his. ‘You got the bugs?’
‘Uh,’ he said. ‘No.’
She deflated. ‘Oh.’
‘But better than that—they’re gonna let you out.’
‘Oh,’ she said again, brightening, buffing the apple against her shirt. ‘Oh, that is good news; I did so much preparation for this deal—’
‘So long as we leave right now and never come back,’ Han finished.
‘Han! Did you just spend the last hour negotiating that?’
‘No.’ He paused. ‘I made the suggestion and they said yes. I told you they didn’t really wanna keep you here.’
The dull pressure in Leia’s head that often accompanied a mission gone awry turned abruptly into a full-blown headache. ‘What did you think you were doing?’
‘Rescuing you!’ he snapped. ‘Pardon me for not wanting to leave you cooped up in some cell, your Highness.’
‘Well, un-rescue me,’ she said.
‘I’m not gonna—How am I meant to do that?’
‘I don’t know.’ She waved her apple at him, inspired. ‘Tell them I tried to curse you or something.’
‘No one’s gonna believe that.’
Leia glared. ‘They might. Why do they keep letting you just walk in here, anyway?’
‘I told you, there’s not much security.’ He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, toward the exit. ‘And turns out any security there is is open to bribes.’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘With what are you bribing them?’
‘It’s not the money for this deal, if that’s what you’re thinking,’ he said hastily. ‘It’s… other money.’
‘You’re telling me you’re using your money to bribe someone to let you come in here to see me, but you refuse to use someone else’s money to buy what we came here for?’ she asked, somehow at once rather touched and completely livid.
Perhaps not wanting to explain further, Han stepped back from the bars, but his face was open, pleading. ‘Princess. Come on. Let’s just give this one up and go.’
She almost wavered, but shook her head. ‘I’m not leaving this cell until you’ve got those bugs,’ she said, sitting down on the long bench that ran along one wall of the cell and biting into the apple with an air of finality.
Leia, lying supine on the bench and examining the ceiling, didn’t even bother getting up when Han next entered, so he didn’t need to tell her to stand back when he shot at the lock, barely breaking his stride.
Scrambling upright, she spluttered, ‘I told you—’
‘I know.’ Han kicked the door open perhaps harder than warranted. ‘I got ’em. Let’s go.’
She didn’t argue, casting him a stunned look as she passed him in the doorway. ‘Did you get them for a decent price?’
‘Reckon so; I didn’t pay anything.’
‘You stole them?’
He gave her a hard grin. ‘I vanished ’em from under their noses; how’s that for some magic? Come on.’
Leia let out a sigh that seemed to roll through her entire body. ‘So our chances of leaving here peacefully are—?’
‘I like our odds; I stunned anyone who looked like they might give us trouble.’
‘What, you ran out of bribe money?’ she asked.
‘Yes.’ He let the cell door clang shut. ‘Let’s get outta here, sweetheart.’
Back on the Falcon, having safely left Krivoss’ atmosphere, Han said, ‘Catch.’
Leia reached up to pluck the pack of listening devices out of the air. ‘That’s all we need; for you to get them and then break them.’
‘Can’t be very good if they break that easy, can they?’ he retorted. His mouth set into a thin line as he studied her from the pilot’s seat, brow creasing. ‘You okay?’
‘I should be mad at you,’ she said. ‘I am mad at you. Why couldn’t you just do as I asked?’
The shift from concerned to defensive was immediate. ‘First of all, your Highness, I did—’
‘In a very roundabout way.’
‘And second, I’d do it the same again,’ he snapped, ‘’cept I’d get you out earlier.’
‘I was fine,’ she said, yet again. She closed her eyes. ‘Han, I don’t understand—you do deals with people you don’t like all the time.’
He looked at her, splaying his hands. ‘So?’
‘So what’s different?’
She watched him fidget in his chair. ‘Well, there must be something,’ she said eventually.
‘It’s just—’ He leaned forward, adjusting a dial in front of him. Leia remembered him showing her how to take the Falcon out of hyperspace a while back. That dial doesn’t do anything since I rewired the inertial compensator. He turned it one way and then the other, muttering, ‘I didn’t like that they locked you up.’
Half-joking, she said, ‘You really need to get over that.’
‘Yeah, well.’ He was still for a moment, like he’d gotten stuck. ‘Sorry, anyway,’ he muttered. ‘If I screwed anything up.’
She shook her head. ‘It’s okay.’ As she watched him flex his fingers over the controls, taking a second before he went into his practiced pre-flight routines, she figured there was no harm done. Well, an acceptable level of harm done. As far as the Krivossi were concerned, that bridge was realistically burned after they put her in prison.
She could let Han off the hook.
She tipped her head back against the co-pilot’s seat, enjoying watching him plot their course back through hyperspace. Then she abruptly sat upright, pulling her boot up onto her opposite knee. ‘Oh! I have your knife.’
‘In your boot an’ all.’ His look was one of pure pride. He nodded at it. ‘If you want, you can keep it.’
‘Oh.’ She smiled, closing her hand around it even as she offered a half-hearted protest. ‘I can’t just take it from you.’
‘You should have one, like I said,’ he said, shrugging and turning away from her to jab at a couple more buttons. It was a tendency he had, putting distance between himself and his off-the-cuff bursts of generosity.
‘Thank you.’ And then, the words riding the answering warm tide of affection that rose in her chest, she said, ‘You know, I think I’d have been hesitant, as well. To leave you. If it had been you in that cell.’
‘Ah.’ He rubbed at the back of his neck, eyes cutting to her and then back to the controls. ‘Could’ve just bewitched them into letting me go, huh?’
She snorted, tucking the knife back into her boot. ‘I’m hardly bewitching.’
‘Mm.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Want me to take you home? Or can you just wave your magic wand?’
Sighing, Leia said, ‘I assume there’s no chance our friends won’t find out I’ve added to my rap sheet?’
‘Oh, no, sweetheart.’ Han turned, finally, to give her a proper smile. ‘I don’t like your chances at all.’