Before they'd fled the asteroid Han kept referring to as The Worm Hole, they'd managed enough repairs to help the Falcon limp towards Bespin like a wounded Bantha. She didn't falter, though, which Han also kept pointing out, part in braggadocio, and part in hope his ship would hold together. Leia wasn't superstitious. She'd been raised with a solid education in facts and logic. Nevertheless, every time Han said the words, she found herself stroking the bulkhead, and whispering the same thing, though only inside her head.
Two more days. They would reach their safe berth with this mysterious Lando in two more days. The hull integrity would last that long.
Threepio was switched off again, victim of his own nattering. She felt an odd affection for him, remembering the golden image at her father's side during any number of Senate or Alliance missions. Threepio was a good companion and a great helper and just the wrong voice to hear when she was already on edge. She'd make it up to him later.
That left her with Chewbacca, whom she'd learned to appreciate as a calming presence in their often chaotic lives, the growl that wouldn't necessarily pull Han back from his latest bad idea but would be bang by Han's side when things went sour despite his earlier warnings. It also left her with Han.
Then she sighed.
Sharing close quarters with Han Solo had not been on her agenda when they'd written up the evacuation plans for Hoth. He pricked at her, assessing her weaknesses, then drew back and made nice until she let her guard down again. Luke was kind and straightforward, never pushing past the lines she drew. Han harried her, and teased her, and protected her, and made her dizzy with a blur of emotions that also had not been on her agenda. He'd kissed her, or she'd kissed him. Her memory flipped back and forth, claiming both.
She stared at the back of Han's head now as he and Chewie chatted, watching the viewscreen, and it was too much closeness. She stood and turned to leave the cockpit.
"Going for a stroll?" Han asked. Leia tensed for a "Your Worship" that never came.
"Sounds great." Without an invitation, he sauntered behind her towards the small galley. So much for privacy. Leia could change her mind, fake a headache and escape to her cabin. Food did sound good, though. From behind them, Chewie called out his order.
"I don't know that one," Leia admitted. She was still sketchy on her Shyriiwook.
Han shrugged. "Jodrafil tartare with sautéed shoots, hold the sauce."
"You have that on board?"
"Right." Leia was even less apt with Wookiee humor than she was with Wookiee language. She opened the cabinet. "We're low on rations bars."
"They taste terrible anyway." Han flipped open the stasis cabinet, yanking out some packages. "We should eat these up."
Leia poked at the package. "What is it?"
"Some gara steaks we picked up at that last outpost. I've been saving them. May as well enjoy them." Han unwrapped the package. Raw, red meat glistened in a large slab. Leia tried not to stare. "Can you pull out some of those tubers from the back? They go great with these."
"Sure," she said, looking for a parcel of prepared tubers. She only found uncooked ones, and removed a handful. "You mean these?"
She wasn't a fool. She knew food didn't fall off the animal or jump out of the ground fully-cooked and ready for the plate. She'd even seen the steamy, loud kitchen in the Alliance's mess back on Hoth, and once at a previous base. Items were taken there, and someone with skill turned these items into food. That had been the way back home, and that was the way in the Rebellion. The process had never really involved Leia.
Han seemed fine with the process. He flipped down a panel, and there was a hot plate, which fit a magnetic pan he found in another cabinet.
She couldn't help herself. "You're cooking it yourself?"
"Unless you're volunteering?" She shook her head. "Then yeah. Can you slice those tubers while I cut us off some steaks?"
Leia turned to the tubers. "I don't think so."
Han let out an exasperated sigh before giving her a look. "Have you ever been in a kitchen before?"
Her spine stiffened. Then she saw that he wasn't teasing, just asking. She relaxed. "No."
"That figures." He turned the heat on the pan. "The knife is in the cabinet beside you." Leia pulled it out. Han took it from her, taking the chance to touch their fingers together. She was getting used to that, to the boundary-pushing affectionate pats. He hadn't tried kissing her again. He backed off when she told him to. Her heart jumped a little when his thumb stroked across hers and was gone.
Han said, "A lot of people take the skins off these. I think they're the best part." He grabbed a tuber and placed it on the durasteel countertop, cutting it in half lengthwise. Then the placed the halves on the counter, slicing out spears. "See? Easy. Your turn."
He set down the knife. Leia picked up another tuber, setting it down the same way he had. She tried to cut through, and skidded along the side instead. She swore, and swore again when he smirked.
"You're doing fine. Give it a harder chop, and keep your fingers clear."
She almost walked out, but then he'd know and she'd know she hadn't been capable. Besides, if Han could do it, this couldn't be that hard. "Keep your own fingers clear," she said, which sounded silly even to her own ears. Her next chop was better. She placed the halves face down and kept chopping. Her spears weren't as neat as his. She was proud anyway.
"Great. Now do the rest."
Leia tried with the other tubers, watching Han take out a second knife and slice the meat into thick steaks. "What are you doing?" she asked as he began sprinkling powders on the meat. She nearly sliced her hand.
"Watch what you're doing. No one wants fried finger for dinner. This is seasoning. Makes it taste better. Here." He passed her the bottles, letting her take a sniff. These were scents she associated with food. She knew the names of dishes they appeared in, but not the ingredients themselves. The aroma of the meat soaking up the flavors now made her stomach rumble.
Han picked a bottle from the cabinet, a clear liquid. "Come here." Leia turned in the cramped galley. "Pour a little bit into the pan, enough to cover the bottom."
She took the bottle, following his instructions. "You're frying the steaks?"
"Not yet. This is for the tubers. They take a lot longer." He took a single spear and dropped it into the pan. It sizzled. He put the rest in. "You have to be careful with these. You can't leave hot oil alone, or you risk a fire. You have to turn them so they don't scorch on one side, but if you turn them too often, they get mushy." He spoke as he worked, showing her how to gently ease the pieces around the pan to cook them evenly. When they were ready to flip, he took her hand and held it under his as he used another tool to ease under a pile at a time and tip them to the other side. As soon as the green skins formed a golden crust, he took the flipper back and pulled them out of the pan, resting them on one plate.
"Put a little seasoning on these. Not too much."
Leia watched him scrape the pan down with his flipper, setting the tuber residue to one side while leaving a thin coating on the bottom. "This part goes fast. Is medium okay?"
Han picked up two of the seasoned steaks and laid them side by side on the surface of the hot pan. A minute or so later, he flipped them. Then he pulled out three more plates, dishing up the fried tubers on all three, and placing two raw steaks on one. He added a cooked steak to each of the remaining plates and turned off the pan.
"Chewie!" he shouted. "Grub's on!" There was a growl from the cockpit.
Leia picked up her own plate, "This looks pretty good," she admitted, taking a bite of a tuber spear. Hot fat and flavor hit her tongue like the best dish she'd ever eaten off bone-thin porcelain.
Han chewed a spear of his own. "Not bad for your first try. We'll have to dig through the stasis chamber and see what else in in there. We'll make something even better tomorrow."
Leia liked the sound of that.
The tight, ridiculously sparkly shoes Leia wore to match the gemmed hue of her dress clattered as she dashed up the steps. Her feet would ache later, sore from standing and more sore from this last sprint. She reached the door of the nursery school just as the head teacher reached the other side. They watched each other through the transparisteel for a moment. The teacher's eyes said this was not the first or second time this week Leia had come so late. Leia tried to put on a friendly, tired smile with a promise that it would be the last time.
"Administrator," he said, opening the door. The school's security guard waved amiably at Leia from behind his desk.
"Thank you. I'm so sorry."
"I don't mind staying. I've always got work to catch up on." The tone in his voice was not about his own late evening. They fell into step together, heading down the corridor.
"How is he?"
"Ben had a good day. He played with another boy for almost an hour. He even participated in art today."
"That is good!" Ben usually refused to join in when the rest of the class painted or used the child-safe lasers to sculpt, complaining the final result never turned out the way he saw things in his head. No amount of telling him practice would make that better convinced him. At five years old, he had already decided that either he had to be the best as soon as he tried something, or he didn't want to try ever again. As gifted as he was, this didn't often crop up as an issue. Art and music were stumbling blocks. He hated to falter.
They stepped into the classroom together. Ben sat quietly in a chair reading a datapad, just as he had the last two nights Leia had come by so late.
"Time to go, kiddo," she said, hoping the cheerful tone of her voice would forestall any complaints.
Ben didn't look up, only tapped his screen to close the book. "When is Threepio coming back?"
Her heart fell. "Another two weeks. You know that." She went to his hook to get his jacket and his bag. "Your father will be home in a couple of days." That was to the teacher. Normally, Leia didn't handle pickups. Han would drop by the school at the end of the day, waiting for Ben to run outside, and ruffling his shaggy hair as they talked on their way home. When Han was off-world, C-3PO would retrieve Ben and bring him to Leia at Central, and he would watch Ben play quietly in Leia's office until they could all go home. Threepio was needed at a diplomatic conference, and Leia couldn't trust any other protocol droid in his place, either at the conference or to pick up her son from school. She'd broken away from work as early as she could, but it wasn't early enough, not with Ben the last child left at school again.
As they headed towards the tall building where they lived, Leia said, "Master Odalla said you participated in art class today. What did you make?"
"We did sand art. We colored the sand with chalk and poured it in layers. I made clouds in mine."
"That sounds lovely. Did you bring it home?"
"We're not allowed. As soon as we move them, the sand stops staying in the layers. It's pretty and useless."
'Useless' was Ben's new favorite word. Everything he didn't like was useless. Everything he didn't want to do was useless. Pants were useless when he didn't want to get dressed. They had come down hard when he started saying various people were also useless. He huffed and argued, but enough repetitions of "It's needless cruelty and reflects badly on you as a person" got him to stop.
Leia let Ben call the lift to their floor. Her position rated an apartment on the top of the building, with roof access for a shuttle at need. The roof had a full-time guard, and the rest of their building had a small security team. Han said so many armed guards around made him itchy. Leia said one assassination attempt on her life was enough. She wouldn't let herself think about an attempt on her family. She couldn't and wouldn't stop Han from flying. She could keep her son safe.
Ben put his things away while Leia went to the replimat console to order them dinner. From the kitchen, she could see Ben pull out his datapad again, and sit down to finish reading. He spent so much time inside his own head.
"Hey, what do you want for dinner?"
Ben shrugged. He'd gone through a picky stage a few years ago. Fights over food had only been made more difficult when the toddler was telekinetic. Now he ate whatever Leia and Han ate, which wasn't always the best thing they could feed him. Threepio remembered vegetables when he was Ben's caregiver.
Leia went to the stasis cabinet. Han always kept a few things in here he liked. Leia wasn't up to grilling steaks tonight. No matter how hard she tried, they never tasted as good as the ones he made. She found a small tub of orange butter, a treat from a world he visited frequently for cargo runs.
Leia had an idea. "Ben, come here and help me."
The datapad made a click as he set it aside. He came into the kitchen, face already formed into a frown. "What?"
Leia pulled down several containers. Luke had shown her this recipe during a long, boring stint at a Rebel base Leia barely remembered. His aunt had shown him how to make this, he'd told Leia as he'd sifted the flour. She'd never met the aunt, her own aunt, but the woman's memory still brightened Luke's smiles with fond reminiscences of her love for him.
"Get the step," Leia told Ben.
"First, we mix all the things for the bottom layer." She took his little hand, helping him to cream the butter and the sweetener into a fluffy paste. She let him crack an egg in the bowl, and helped him pick out the pieces of shell. They tipped in flour and a pinch of leavening, and mixed it together until his poor little muscles were tired. Leia spooned the mixture into a pan, letting Ben spread batter in a thin layer.
"Is it a cake?"
"No. Here, now spread these on top." She pulled out nuts, mealflakes, a jar of sweet kobanut, and a large wafer of chocolate, which she broke into pieces. Ben carefully built each layer atop the others, just as meticulously as he must have poured his sand layers at school. They topped the creation with the chocolate pieces. Leia put the pan into the oven at what she hoped was the right temperature.
"Kind of fun, right?" she asked him. With the activity finished for now, Ben's eyes darkened again.
There were so many things she wanted to say to him. She'd known he would be special from the moment she'd found out she was pregnant. He'd heard plenty of times from both parents and all his uncles that he was special. She almost wished she could take the words back now. He'd inhaled that self-identity, used it to set himself apart from the other children he knew, and to excuse himself when he was still set apart after he tried to fit in. Leia couldn't always be there with him, not and keep the wheels of this galactic government turning after spending so much of her life trying to restore it. She wanted Ben to have friends he could share with and rely on, just as she'd made such good friends. Instead, he watched her through resentful eyes, and wouldn't try anything he wasn't already gifted at, and he told himself the reason he had no real friends was because he was more special than the other children he knew. Leia didn't wish she'd given birth to a more ordinary son. She only wished she'd kept the secret from him a little longer, and let him grow believing he was no different from his peers. Destiny could wait. Tonight was for ordinary.
"Why don't you show me your homework while we wait?"
There wasn't much. The five year old class was geared towards simple reading and arithmetic, which Ben had mastered long ago under his golden teacher's patient tutelage. She wondered if he felt like a genius among children still learning their letters. She wondered how he would feel if he was suddenly surrounded by a classroom full of kids smarter than he was, if the discovery would crack his self-image.
Sometimes, she worried.
There was a beep. Leia pulled the pan from the oven. She'd guessed right on the temperature, melting the chocolate into a gooey layer to seal the rest. She cut the treat into squares, reminding herself to wash Han's good knife later.
"Here you go," she said, handing Ben a plate with a large slab.
"Dessert for dinner tonight. Unless you want something else?"
Ben grinned. "No, dessert for dinner is great." He blew loudly on the square, then made a mess all over his face as he took great big bites of their layered treat.
Leia bit into her own portion, and instantly decided they had to do this more often. "I'm having a thought. I have two meetings scheduled for tomorrow morning, but I can take those from home. What do you say we stay home tomorrow together? We can watch a holo, maybe cook something."
His grin turned more shy. He chewed his bite, chocolate on his chin. Then he swallowed. "Okay."
The girl was clearly on the edge of starvation. Leia's heart numbed with grief and thickened with anger, leaving her unable to see through the bleak fog over her eyes. Still she could tell this thin girl Han had given everything to rescue was barely keeping herself alive. That was a different anger, one Leia knew from her youth. The Empire had doled out unfairness and sorrow to every world it could. The First Order was no different. As long as children had to work themselves to the bone to earn a mouthful of food, none of them were free.
Leia burned with this knowledge, warmed herself by it. When all was lost, her convictions remained.
"Come with me," she said, when Rey had been pronounced healthy by the medical staff.
"I should stay with him," she said, watching the still form of her friend.
"You can come back. He's going to be out for a while."
Guilt and sorrow filled Rey's eyes. She didn't want to look at Leia and see the faces of her own losses. That was enough for Leia to reach for the girl's hand. "I don't bite. I think you could use a meal, and so could I."
Rey let herself be led from the medical building towards the mess. Leia nodded to the cooks, who left her alone. She pulled out a large pot and filled it with water. The sight of Rey's face as Leia splashed that much water told her she'd made the right decision. Luke had been weird about water use back when they'd first met. Everything about this girl reminded Leia of him, and that felt right, felt like an unexpected comfort in the midst of the black despair she wasn't going to allow to consume her today.
"Do you like pasta?" she asked, perhaps a little late as she'd already started the water to boil.
"I'm not sure."
Han would have found an excuse to mix together fresh flour and a rare egg, then blend it with a spicy mixture of pureed vegetables Leia could never replicate. She settled for a few cold handfuls of noodles from the large stasis chamber in the back. They weren't the same as fresh. Nothing was the same.
"I didn't know how to cook anything when I met Han, you know," she told Rey, watching the bubbling pot. "I was royalty. Droids and servants did the cooking. In the Rebellion, I ate whatever the mess served. But Han was used to traveling from star to star, and Chewie loves fresh food. They're both good cooks, if you don't mind rare."
Rey didn't correct her tense with Han. Leia appreciated that.
"I'm so sorry." Her voice shook hollowly. Leia turned to see Rey's face, which looked even more ashen and wan under the harsh lights above them.
Leia said, "So am I." She was sorry Rey had to live through what she did. She was sorry that Ben had turned out to be a creature of darkness. She was sorry she hadn't contacted Han two weeks ago when she'd been thinking about him, and asked how he was doing, and asked him to stop by and say hello.
The pot boiled and bubbled. Noodles rose to the surface, not cooked with the delicate perfection of the plates from her childhood, not filled with the warm aromas from her life with Han before everything went wrong. But it was sustenance, which was life.
Leia could put together a decent sauce in a few minutes. A little cream, a little spice, a little chatter with each addition, this was how she'd learned, and this was how she taught Rey now. She ladled out the noodles with a slotted spoon, then poured the sauce over both plates. A better cook would add vegetables, and bread, and the perfect wine. Leia handed Rey a plate.
"Let's go sit."
Rey stared at the food, clearly hungry, and even more clearly astonished that Leia was spending any effort on her. Not many people did, Leia gathered, and there was always a price attached. She could see the wheels turning in the girl's head, wondering how deep her debt grew as they found a table together.
Leia's heart ached for her, which made her own aches a little lighter. She could spare gentle gestures now. She could watch with simple pride as Rey wound noodles with an unfamiliar motion onto her fork. She could take pleasure in the obvious joy on the girl's face as she ate, and filled her body with energy, and grew a little stronger. Each small joy lessened Leia's pain. It was a selfish act overall, but a kindness for both. The galaxy spun on small kindnesses.
"Tell me about yourself," Leia said, twirling her fork. After dinner, she decided, they'd bake something together.