‘Now, this is interesting,’ Han said.
‘Yes,’ Leia replied.
She had no idea what he was referring to, but he was probably looking for some kind of response, and it was the best she could offer while wondering whether she could climb out the window without him finding it odd.
Leia was no stranger to doing audacious things in plain sight—it was a natural part of spying for the Alliance in the Imperial Senate—but they were usually things that could make or break a years-long effort to save the galaxy from tyranny, and not about trying to avoid an awkward situation entirely of her own making.
Perhaps it wasn’t such a problem. Han, after all, was oblivious to the awkwardness, reading with enthusiasm from a holonet page about the eighty different kinds of spiced cider one could procure from a stall at the winter market they’d be visiting tomorrow, just the two of them, alone.
And here was the issue: lately, she’d been trying very hard not to be alone with Han, because she’d found herself noticing him in ways she’d been—well, all right, to suggest she’d been previously unaware he was attractive would be fairly damning of her observational skills. But she found her eyes were lingering on him, and when he’d smile at her, her heart would beat faster. It wasn’t as easy, these days, to banter back and forth with him. She felt out of step with the natural rhythm they’d developed over the last couple of years. There was something about the timbre of his voice that made her feel too warm, and she’d find herself flushing, tripping over her words, when he’d tease her. Yet at the same time she wanted to talk with him longer, finding herself on the Falcon late into the night, ignoring the chrono that told her she’d need to be in a meeting in just a few short hours.
If it hadn’t affected her work yet then it was definitely going to sooner or later, and besides that it didn’t seem a good idea to start something romantic with one of her closest friends, even one who didn’t periodically insist he’d be leaving soon. Especially when, she told herself, it was probably hormones, or lack of sleep or… or the weather. Or something. At most it was just a silly crush that would fizzle eventually.
She’d come up with an excellent plan to put a stop to it: simple, effective, as all her best plans were. Wasn’t the winter solstice coming up on Corellia, she’d asked him? Given the number of Corellians on base, wouldn’t it be nice to celebrate? Would Han be so kind as to grab a lift on an upcoming milk run and pick up a few extras so they could make more of a thing of it?
She had no need to feel bad about the request, she told herself. The run was routine and comparatively safe. It would get Han out of her way for a few days while she pulled herself together, and beyond that she could distract herself by taking the fight for a day of festivities to High Command, who were sure to push back with concerns about expense and loss of focus and whether it was really necessary. Feeling rather self-congratulatory, Leia had raised it during their last meeting and then sat back and waited for the pieces of her plan to fall tidily into place.
‘I think that’s an excellent idea,’ Dodonna had said.
‘Look, General—’ Leia had started. Then: ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Very good thinking, Your Highness,’ Mon Mothma agreed, as everyone else around the table made general sounds of approval. ‘It’s been a difficult few months; people could use a morale boost.’
Leia, gathering herself, had tried to get things back on track. ‘I understand money is tight at the moment.’
‘Yes, I think we’d be able to spare only a small budget,’ Dodonna conceded.
‘Budget?’ Leia echoed.
Rieekan had enthusiastically entered the discussion at this point. ’Oh, Solo can sniff out a bargain at a thousand light years; that shouldn’t be a problem. You said he was already helping you?’
‘Well, yes,’ Leia said cautiously, ‘he’s picking up a few small things, but—’
‘Could we spare Princess Leia for a few days?’ Mon asked, already pulling up a schedule that Leia knew to be relatively bare. ‘Could she accompany Han?’
‘Oh,’ Leia said, alarmed, ‘I don’t think—’
‘If it’s the meeting with the representatives from Ord Velion you’re concerned about, I can take your place, Princess,’ Carlist offered. ‘I know they can be rather a dull lot.’
‘That’s kind of you, General, though let’s not get ahead of ourselves—’
It had been too late. It was decided, Dodonna proclaimed. Why simply put up a few decorations specific to Corellia when they could really make a day of it for the many beings who made up the Alliance? And why not, given they had a willing volunteer with a fuel-efficient YT-1300 light freighter, organize a run for this specific purpose? Leia could be spared. Han could be spared. The mental wellbeing of Alliance personnel was just as important as their physical needs, and Leia had very effectively argued that some kind of festivities were both necessary and achievable.
So it was that she found herself in a hotel room on Hester V, a quiet Outer Rim world, with Han Solo and one bed, because it was the middle of winter here, and his stupid, fuel-efficient ship was too cold to sleep on when fully powered down, and his stupid, time-efficient piloting skills had meant they landed twelve hours ahead of schedule, and the market was closed for the night.
‘You do realize you can’t spend all of tomorrow drinking spiced cider?’ she asked him, a little snippily.
‘Well, sure,’ Han said, still happily absorbed in the holosite. He was lounging on his back on the bed, one arm propped behind his head, legs crossed at the ankle. Leia hovered on the other side of the bed and tried not to look too closely at the long lines of his body. Or, well. Think too much about what it might be like to lie close to him. Or on him.
‘They’re selling food as well,’ Han continued, bringing her back to herself with a jolt. ‘Plus: I’m gonna get you on this big wheel thing, Princess. No arguments, all right? We’re gonna have some fun, you ’n’ me.’ He tossed her the datapad so she could look at the ride—HERE FOR ONE WEEK ONLY! warned the description—for herself.
‘Not a chance,’ she told him flatly, letting the pad fall to the bed.
Han shrugged. ‘Suit yourself.’
He was in a very good mood, which was making it hard to summon the kind of irritation she wanted to be feeling. She’d vaguely hoped, when Plan A got derailed, that Han would refuse the mission, but he seemed as cheery about it as he’d ever seemed about anything.
It was one night, she told herself. One night, and one day, and then the trip back, and then she could put the nice, safe distance between them that she needed, and in a week’s time she’d have moved past whatever this… this feeling in her chest was as she watched him reach again for the datapad.
‘You want the left side or the right?’ Han asked idly, flicking the datapad to sleep mode and setting it on the nightstand.
‘’Cause I don’t care,’ he continued. ’The bunk on the Falcon’s barely wide enough to have sides, so…’
Right. The bed. For a moment Leia considered saying she’d sleep on the floor, only she’d shared close sleeping quarters with Han before without it being a problem, before…this thing, and if she refused to now then he’d be sure to question her.
‘Right side,’ she said, if only because she thought that lying on the side that Han had already warmed might be a little too much for her to deal with, and went to give herself a pep talk in the tiny ’fresher mirror.
‘That bed wasn’t bad, I thought,’ Han said the next morning, tone bright as the crisp snow that had fallen overnight and now lay underfoot as they headed out from the hotel.
‘The bed was fine,’ Leia said neutrally. This was true. Most of her lack of sleep had been due to her awareness of the man next to her: how he dozed off the moment his head hit the pillow, how he didn’t snore, exactly, but sort of snuffled, how his face looked untroubled and soft and open. It was stupid, she’d thought to herself, stupid; she’d seen Han asleep dozens of times, and felt at most fondness and, that one time he’d fallen asleep during a meeting with Dodonna, a sort of amused exasperation. Only now did she find herself wondering what it would be like to wake up next to him every morning.
This particular morning had involved a lot of Han wandering around shirtless as he got ready for the day, which hadn’t helped matters.
But none of this was Han’s fault, so she fell into step with him as they approached their destination and said, ‘This market of yours was a good find.’
He ran a hand over the back of his neck, under the synthwool scarf he wore. ’Ah, can’t take credit,’ he said. ‘Chewie told me about it; some cousin of his makes, uh… think it’s bowls outta wroshyr bark, or something, and sells ’em at places like this.’
Leia looked up at him. He really was quite tall. ‘The Empire doesn’t bother them?’
‘Nah. An ice ball with a craft fair at the end of a barely-used hyperlane? Imps’ve got bigger things to think about.’
‘Barely used as far as they know,’ she corrected, forgetting herself entirely for a moment and nudging him with some glee as they entered the market.
Hundreds of stalls lay in a grid, parallel rows running up and down and left to right. Over the market ran a canopy of lights and bright baubles and festive foliage. The place was abuzz, beings from every sector buying and selling food and crafts and objects whose purpose Leia couldn’t begin to guess at, and while it was true there was no telling who was a friend of the Alliance, it was also true that, for once, there wasn’t an Imperial uniform to be seen.
‘Right.’ Han grinned down at her, that particular grin that made her heart twist and leap like a flutterfish. ‘Where’d’you wanna start?’
Her plan had been to suggest they split up—for efficiency’s sake!—but no sooner had Han asked the question than he caught her by the elbow and led her over to a stall selling rolls of streamers, rainbow shades cascading over the front of the table. ‘Hey, could put up some of these in the mess hall, d’you think?’
‘Those are pretty,’ Leia said, running a finger over the delicate patterns cut into the material and trying to ignore the press of Han’s fingers through her winter jacket.
Han picked up a sample and draped it with some care over her braids. Leia felt herself flushing, standing transfixed as though under a hot spotlight. Han spread his hands either side of her face when he’d finished, like some great artist beholding his latest masterpiece. ‘Real pretty,’ he agreed, and Leia felt her cheeks get hotter still but laughed, then abruptly stopped, contrite, when the woman behind the stall snapped that the merchandise wasn’t for wearing.
They bought several rolls to make up for it, then moved away, smothering their laughter like chastened children.
It was just so easy to be with him. The idea of splitting off from him for the remainder of their trip evaporated.
‘We should probably be careful about how we’re talking about… what we’re buying for,’ Leia pointed out, lowering her voice as she tucked the streamers into her rucksack. ‘“Dining room” rather than “mess”, you know?’
‘Sure.’ Han pointed over her shoulder. ‘Hey, let’s go try them fried things.’
She really had no one to blame but herself when, at the stall where a Togruta was frying sweet, spiced dough, Han slung an arm around her waist and said, ‘Hey, my wife says those are the best. You wouldn’t mind letting me have a try, see what all the fuss is about, would you?’
‘Of course not,’ the man said cheerfully, handing over a sample with a smile. ‘Your wife has excellent taste.’
Han closed his eyes as he bit into the confection. His hand tightened on her hip and Leia felt dizzy. ‘Yeah, she does.’ He smiled down at her as fondly as if she really had recommended them. ‘Think we’re gonna need a couple of these.’
She should move away, she thought; she really should put some space between them. But Han had committed them both to this little act, hadn’t he?
‘“Need”?’ she asked, letting herself lean into him.
‘For extra testing,’ he said seriously.
‘You know those aren’t going to make it through a hyperspace trip,’ she reminded him, reaching into the bag to grab one of the piping hot snacks. She closed her eyes, humming with pleasure as her teeth sank through crisp, delicate batter.
‘’Course not. Nothing wrong with enjoying ourselves while we’re here though, huh? ’Sides, planning a party’s hungry work.’ He winked at her. ‘Don’t worry, sweetheart; this one’s on me.’
Vital sustenance in hand, they wandered the stalls together, picking up decorations and slightly less perishable food from a long list crowdsourced from across the Alliance, and making occasional runs to the Falcon, docked in the adjacent small spaceport, when their bags became too heavy. Han found Chewie’s cousin on a stall close to the south entrance; he’d never met the Wookiee personally, but picked up one of the beautiful whittled bowls to give to his co-pilot, along with something else that he pocketed quickly and that Leia, examining some intricately carved tree ornaments, didn’t get a proper look at.
Throughout, they made references to family dinners, old friends flying in from the Colonies, things that, were anyone listening, would throw them off the scent. Leia picked up a laserball from a table full of retro games, noting aloud that it would be perfect for her brother, and Han smirked, so obviously was it a gift for Luke.
And in spite of her concerns about this trip, it was fun, meandering through the market at their leisure, taking in the sights and smells. Her own fried dough finished with, Leia sucked sugar off her fingertips and reached over absently to pinch a little of Han’s, laughing when he gave her an indignant look.
‘I’ll buy you something else,’ she promised. ‘That hot chocolate looks good.’
‘The kid’ll be jealous,’ Han warned, but objected very little as they made their way over to the stall, where a bored-looking Mirialan teenager filled mugs with cocoa and cream.
‘I needed this,’ Leia noted, red fingers grasping at the mug as they sat down on the bench by the stall. ‘It’s getting cold.’
‘You should’ve said something,’ he chided, fishing his gloves out of his pocket, his knee knocking against hers.
‘Those are going to look ridiculous on me,’ she said, setting her hot chocolate down next to her for a second and taking the gloves so she could prove her point. She waved giant hands at him. ‘See?’
‘They suit you,’ Han said, taking the gloves back from her and beginning to unwind his scarf.
‘I’m—’ Leia started, and swallowed. She thought he might have noticed; his eyes were lingering on the exposed skin of her throat. This time, unlike with the streamers, the seriousness with which he looped the scarf around her neck and tucked it carefully into place was genuine. It was warm from where he’d been wearing it, soft from years of use. ‘I’m really fine,’ she managed.
‘There,’ he said softly, resting a hand on the bulk of the scarf.
His eyes lifted back up to meet hers. The air was cold, and the clouds of their breath mingled in the scant space between them, the silence unspooling like ribbon.
He snapped his attention back to his drink. ‘The hells you doing, coming out without bundling up first?’ he asked her.
‘I must have been distracted,’ she said honestly.
‘Ain’t like you to be distracted.’ She was spared the trouble of responding as he nodded toward something behind her. ‘All right. Deal’s a deal, Princess.’
She glanced over her shoulder, and then back at him, arching a wry eyebrow, glad to be back on solid ground. Though apparently not for long. ‘A deal is a deal, and I’m fairly sure we didn’t make one.’
‘I said I was gonna get you on that wheel thing,’ he reminded her.
‘Would we call that a deal?’ she wondered, but she was already getting to her feet, finishing the dregs of her hot chocolate. ‘All right, flyboy. One turn on that thing, and then we’re going home.’
Leia was immediately glad she’d agreed. The big wheel was standard carnival fare, like the kind she’d ridden when she was small, lifting them slowly up into the sky until they could see the market spread out below them, and then the spaceport, and then the small town beyond. Leia could make out the hotel they’d spent the night in, a town square with shops and a cantina and people going about their lives. It was good, she thought, to spend time in a place like this, to once in a while watch people just getting to be. To be such a person herself. It was good to understand what they were fighting for through this lens.
Still, the ride was rather a sedate affair, and Leia wondered if Han had been expecting something different. But he seemed happy enough, looking out at the view, expression content. It was cold up here, icy wind biting at her cheeks and nose, and even if Operation Avoid Han hadn’t been a total bust so far, she’d have struggled to resist the warmth of him pressed against her in their metal seat, just barely wide enough for both of them.
She huddled closer to him, not sure whether she was hoping he’d put his arm around her shoulders, still feeling glad when he did. ‘You seem like you’re having fun,’ she noted.
‘I am,’ he said, and Leia caught his hesitation before he went on. ‘I’ve never done anything like this. Never had time for it. Never made time for it.’
‘For coming to a winter market?’
He shrugged. Almost absently, he reached for one of her hands, rubbing warmth into her knuckles.
‘We could stay longer,’ she ventured, watching his thumb move in circles against the backs of her fingers.
‘It wouldn’t be any trouble,’ she said. She sighed. ‘No, it would.’
‘Yeah, it would,’ he agreed. ‘But I’m glad we got to come.’ She sensed him move, and turned to find him looking at her. ‘I, uh.’ His gaze dropped. ‘I like spending time with you.’
Their seat was reaching the very top of the wheel, and maybe that explained why the hustle and bustle of the market below seemed to drop away, explained the rushing in her ears.
‘Han—’ she breathed.
‘Oh, shit,’ Han muttered.
Leia followed his gaze, and her stomach swooped for reasons that had nothing to do with the climbing ride, or the weight of what she’d been about to say. There was no mistaking, amongst all the other beings here, that familiar flash of sterile white.