The first time Leia kisses Luke is an impulse born from fear of impending death—do it now because if that cable snaps, you'll never do anything ever again.
"For luck," she says after she watches his eyes go wide with surprise.
He was impossible from the start, from the very first second he yanked off a stormtrooper helmet and announced that he was rescuing her. Inherent goodness radiated off him like sunlight. No one like that existed in the universe, no one could, but there he was with his ridiculous blue eyes and even more ridiculous idealism.
So she kisses him, because that was the sort of thing a princess should do for the knight that saved her.
The second time he's about to fly off on a mission so desperate that no one expects to return alive. He looks so sad—not because he's flying off to die for a cause he already believes in with all of his enormous heart—but because his new best friend isn't willing to die at his side.
That ridiculous goodness again, Leia doesn't know what to do with it. He still shines with it, but now she's fighting the increasing urge to try and tarnish him, maybe just a little bit around the edges. Ruffle his hair, shake him up, do something so he'll take her off the damned pedestal he's got her on and see her as a living breathing human woman.
In the end she can't do it though, she can't take that from him when he may be about to die to keep her safe, so she gives him a chaste kiss on the cheek and moves away before she can think too much about the utterly smitten, lovestruck look on his face.
They survive. They survive that battle and the ones that follow. Luke survives the freezing hell of Hoth, barely. Everything is falling apart. Han is leaving, but not before giving Leia a whole new set of complicated emotions that she doesn't have time for, and now Luke, the one single person she thinks she can rely on, announces that he's leaving too.
It's too much.
So the third kiss isn't as simple as the first two. It's a statement to Han: I'm not yours, I'm not anybody's. Maybe some of it is a statement to Luke: you're mine and you know it. It's pure, elemental relief that Luke survived, that he's sitting in a medbay laughing at her with Han. It is, like the other times, another chance to do something she wanted to do anyway without attaching any meaning to it.
Then she runs like a coward, but that kiss, that's the one that follows her, that haunts her.
The next time she sees him, he is scuffed and beaten around the edges, physically and emotionally. Leia doesn't know the full extent of what happened to him on Bespin, just that he'd faced Darth Vader and survived, just that he's wounded and overwhelmed.
She's barely hanging on by a thread herself. Everything is happening too fast. Suddenly she's in love with a wanted criminal but it's not the same as what she feels for the bleeding boy clinging to consciousness in the Falcon's bunk. Leia loves them both but she doesn't have the energy or the time or even the capacity to put it into words—and it doesn't matter anyway, because love never kept anyone safe.
She kisses him for comfort, for once seeking it instead of giving. She reassures herself that he's warm, he's alive, he's breathing, and that they might make it out of this war yet.
The word should have solved everything. It should have made her relieved, finally a simple solution to the increasingly impossible situation Leia has found herself in. It should have made everything easier.
"It's not like that," she'd told Han, "he's my brother."
And then she'd kissed him so he wouldn't see that she was lying. It was like that. It had always been like that. Putting a label on the nearly tangible connection that's always been between them doesn't change the shape of the connection.
Again he survives the impossible. The last four years have been nothing but Luke Skywalker surviving the impossible while she waits with her heart in her stomach.
But it hasn't been without a cost. The golden farmboy is gone for good, and Leia doesn't quite know the stranger wearing his face, not yet. He seems older than her now, sadder. When she'd thought, years ago, that she'd wanted to see him a little tarnished, this wasn't what she'd meant, not at all.
The fires burn into the night on Endor, and she finds him alone among the trees—he spends too much time alone now—watching the remnants of the last Death Star burning up in the atmosphere overhead.
Leia takes his hand and he smiles down at her, and she'd give anything to see that strangely beatific smile replaced for just a moment by an honest grin.
"I never got to say congratulations," he says. "Han's a good man." Luke pauses, and for a split second she gets the grin she wanted. "Well, now, anyway."
She doesn't want to talk about Han, although they'll have to eventually. All she knows is that Luke faced the beast of her nightmares for a second time (her father—there's a new set of nightmares in the making) and defeated him and this is the third time the knight has saved the princess and the third time pays for all.
"Luke… are you all right?"
He turns to face her and takes her other hand in his, squeezing. "I am, I promise."
She can barely see his face in the shadows, nothing but the glint of his eyes, so she can't tell if he's lying to her or not. "Are you sure?"
"I would never lie to you." It's as if he picked the thought right from her head, and for all she knows, he did. "Leia…" he trails off, and then she sees it, the aborted half-motion toward her.
It's enough. She goes on her tiptoes and her aim is probably going to be off, but it turns out that it's not, because he takes her face in his hands and meets her halfway.
The kiss starts furtive, then gathers the momentum of four years of war and fear and laughter and running and fighting and love. The labels don't matter right at that moment, the first twenty years of their lives, spent apart, don't matter. Nothing matters but this space of darkness and quiet around them and his mouth on hers, no more pedestals or princesses, just a man and a woman.
He pulls away first, starting to mutter an apology that she stops with her fingers against his lips. She wants to kiss him again, and would if she thought he would let her, but he's already pulling farther away, saying something about getting back to the party. He's gone before she can say anything.
Luke never touches her again. Not when she and Han get married, not even when Ben is born. He holds himself utterly apart. After the wedding, he retreats to his Jedi Academy and loses himself entirely. He's become a stranger to her, on a pedestal of his own now, an icon.
When she sends Ben to him, she hopes he recognizes the depth of love and trust in him that it takes, and hopes deep down to get her friend back, her brother, as well as her son.
Life happens, the unthinkable happens, and still somehow Leia manages to carry on, learning to hold herself apart as well, remembering the lessons of a princess as she becomes a general.
She remembers how to stand alone, although she never quite forgives the two men who've made it necessary for her to do so. They both left, as they promised they would all those many years ago on Hoth, and now one of them can never come home and the other one won't.
But she didn't count on the girl. It's the girl who brings Luke back. Rey, who reminds her so much of Luke before the Jedi got ahold of him. Leia will be damned if she lets Luke do the same thing to Rey. No one is tarnishing that golden girl, not while Leia's drawing breath.
After the formal greetings are done, he finds her in her quarters. He hesitates on the threshold when she opens the door, and she hesitates to let him in. The lines on his face are like cuts into her heart, scars of the time that they've lost. After a moment, she lets him in, although she isn't sure why. What is there to say, after thirty years?
Words were never what they needed to communicate. Once the door is closed behind him, they look at one another silently. Luke takes a step toward her, then does something she never imagined: he falls to his knees, his head bowed. She sees the miserable, hunched set of his shoulders, and it's more than she can bear.
She means to place her hand on his shoulder, but as soon as she extends it, he grabs her hand like a lifeline. "I'm sorry," he says, his voice cracked and rusty from disuse. "I'm sorry for everything."
Luke kisses the back of her hand then presses his forehead to it. Leia touches his head, the fair hair now overlong and streaked with silver, as uncared-for as its owner.
Perhaps there's time for forgiveness, for absolution. A second chance to figure out who they are, who the galaxy needs them to be. Now there can be time.