‘I thought,’ Leia said under her breath, ‘you said they don’t come here?’
Han clenched his fist. He’d really thought this would be perfect, a chance for them to relax a little. And maybe some barely-acknowledged part of him had hoped for some time with Leia that went without interruption from anything to do with the Empire or the Alliance for five damn minutes. ‘They don’t.’
In tandem they angled their bodies back toward each other, Leia reaching up casually as she did so to loosen her braid, obscuring her face with silky, tumbling hair. Han forced himself to stay focused as Leia unwound the scarf he’d lent her, putting it back around his neck as he’d done for her earlier, tugging it up to cover his chin. His breath caught as her fingers brushed his scar.
‘Do you think they’re here for us?’ she wondered.
Her question gave him the mental shake he needed; insulted, Han asked, ‘Four stormtroopers?’
She smiled. ‘You think we require more firepower?’
‘Damn right we do.’ His eyes cut to the ground. ‘They don’t seem to be asking questions. And they ain’t covering the south entrance.’
‘Maybe they’re here to buy streamers,’ Leia suggested.
He barked a laugh. ‘Let’s just head for the ship without drawing too much attention, huh?’
At the bottom of the wheel she reached for his hand and cuddled into his side; it was the kind of role they’d stepped into plenty of times, but now Han found himself cursing the fact that they couldn’t keep wandering the stalls like this. Leia turned her head away from the nearest pair of troopers to pretend as if she was directing his attention to a nearby stall.
The stormtroopers didn’t seem to register them.
Han willed himself not to hurry as they headed back through the market. The exit seemed miles in the distance, and he chose to look instead at his feet, anchor himself with the feeling of Leia’s hand clasped around his, let the sales patter of the vendors fade into the background.
And then when he did glance up they were close—thirty feet away.
He looked back down, counted silently, let himself take another glance.
The other pair of troopers stepped out from a side row up ahead of them.
Han and Leia turned as one to their left, up a different aisle.
‘Split up,’ Leia said, already peeling off from him to take the next right before his answering ‘Yep.’ He carried on up the row and turned into the one running parallel to Leia’s, not wanting to be too far from her.
There were more empty stalls here, and Han thought he could hear her, walking in the row next to his, hidden behind the canvas divides, or maybe it was just the thundering of his pulse in his ears.
Han stepped into the row running across in front of him.
‘Hey, you!’ came a voice with that telltale modulated quality.
He stopped, half turning toward the two troopers. Not enough to give them a full view of his face, but hopefully enough to keep them from thinking he was hiding it on purpose. At least there was no sign of Leia, he told himself. He could no longer hear her footsteps, and forced himself not to turn his head in the direction he thought she might be.
‘Hey, fellas,’ Han said, voice a lazy drawl. ‘You guys buying last-minute gifts too, huh?’
The troopers made their way toward him, blaster rifles poised, their pace slow in a way that was probably supposed to be menacing.
‘Now, you look familiar,’ said the second stormtrooper. ‘Where’s your identification?’
Han shrugged. ’Ah, just got one of them faces—’
The troopers crumpled to the ground, stunned, almost before he registered the blaster bolts whistle past his ear. A third shot brought the overhead decorations down on top of them, baubles smashing into bright shards at Han’s feet.
He stared at them for a moment, then turned to gape at his rescuer.
‘Sweetheart—’ he started, then stopped, astonished; he’d never stop being astonished by her.
‘Come on!’ Leia said, already striding fast toward the exit. With a final awed look at her handiwork, Han hurried after her.
At the first occupied stall she stopped short, turning to the vendor and plastering her sweetest smile on her face. Han had been on the receiving end of that smile; that smile could turn entire worlds to her cause.
‘Excuse me,’ she said, the picture of innocent concern. ‘It looks like there may have been a mishap with the canopy back there; a couple of stormtroopers got caught up underneath it. You wouldn’t know if there’s a first aider around, would you?’
Han shook his head, almost amused. The woman’s eyes fell to Leia’s still-unholstered blaster and then back up to her face, where she fixed her with a cool stare.
Then, to Han’s relief, she winked. ‘Of course. I’ll get right on it.’ She settled back into her chair. ‘I’ll be sure to get the word around about the canopy, too. Must not’ve been secured properly.’
‘Must not,’ Leia agreed.
‘Very unfortunate accident.’
Leia nodded. ‘Very.’
‘Sorry we can’t stick around,’ Han put in, hands at Leia’s waist to encourage her forward. ‘Stuff to do.’
‘Understandable,’ said the woman, now reaching over to pick up a holomag.
‘Thanks,’ Leia said, and she and Han took off again.
‘I wanna buy ten of whatever she’s selling,’ Han called to her.
‘Next time!’ Leia called over her shoulder. And then collided with a tall, bulky figure.
The being let out an almost-familiar growl before Han could panic.
The complexities of Shyriiwook meant Han couldn’t follow what Chewie’s cousin was saying as easily as he could Chewie, but he could make out that there were a couple more troopers beyond the south entrance, and that the Wookiee would let them out into the spaceport through the back of his stall, where there would be less chance of them being spotted.
‘Thank you,’ Han said, as they scrambled in behind the table. The Wookiee held back the canvas for them, wishing luck to the Princess and “Chewbacca’s small ward”, which, if they made it back okay, Han would take up with Chewie later.
There was another pair of stormtroopers hovering around the main entrance, but neither looked up as Han and Leia slipped into the port, ducking immediately behind a freighter and then, out of sight, breaking into a hard run toward the Falcon.
‘We oughtta put a hole in that Imperial shuttle, stop ’em following us,’ Han suggested as they charged up the ramp.
Leia shook her head. ‘No. If there’s any chance we can keep them from figuring out there was anything amiss here…’ She trailed off as Han closed the loading door, but he nodded.
‘Think they’ll buy that the lights collapsed on ’em?’ he asked.
‘I’ve seen stormtroopers knocked out by less,’ she pointed out.
Well, that was true. ‘Still—’
‘I got it,’ she said, and headed off to the gun turret as Han dashed to the cockpit.
‘Behave yourself,’ he warned the Falcon sternly, as the engines thrummed to life. And the ship seemed to listen, rising smoothly, just another pair of shoppers leaving the port. The troopers made no rush toward their own shuttle; if they’d checked ships’ tags when they’re come in then the Falcon’s alias must have held up. They were as high as the highest point of that wheel now, where he’d held Leia not fifteen minutes ago. Then twice as high; any moment now they’d be breaking atmosphere and then—
He reached for the ship’s comm, slumping with relief into his seat. ‘We’re away, Princess.’
When Han came into the main hold about twenty minutes later, Leia was sitting at the dejarik table. She’d loosely rebraided her hair, keen eyes examining the board, and he stopped short in the entrance both at the sight of her and because he was unsure of what to say.
As these things went, it hadn’t been that bad. But it had been far from what he’d wanted. He’d wanted to come away having shaken her out of the funk she seemed to have been in lately. It had seemed like it had been working, too; he thought of how she’d laughed, leaned into him. He’d so wanted her to have a good time.
And, okay, he’d sort of hoped to… not impress her, not exactly, but at least show her that he was here for the things that were… just fun, in a gentle, normal kind of way.
He didn’t know what was making him feel like this around her lately. It was strange, given how soon he’d be taking off. But it definitely wasn’t gonna be a problem, or anything. The opportunity to have some laidback fun had presented itself, and Han Solo was nothing if not an opportunist.
Or that was what he told himself.
‘I’ve done five separate sweeps just to be on the safe side,’ he told her, striding in as if just coming from the cockpit. ‘Doesn’t look like we were followed. I’m keeping an eye on the scanners but so far no local Imperial alerts.’
She nodded. ‘Any idea what they were doing there?’
‘No, but not for lack of trying.’ He slid into the seat next to her at the dejarik table and counted off reassuring points on his fingers. ‘No arrest warrants that I can find for anyone on Hester. Nothing that would interest a bounty hunter, neither. And we’ll be outta range soon, but so far no sign of trouble back there.’
She bit her lip. ‘I don’t trust it. They don’t show up without a reason.’
‘Not every run-in with the Imps ends in a hail of blaster fire, Leia,’ he said gently, reaching out and laying a hand over hers. Her fingers flexed minutely as she looked up at him. ‘Sometimes they just go places.’ When she didn’t answer, he patted her hand and added, ‘You were right about making a quiet getaway.’
‘It wasn’t that quiet,’ she said, tipping her head back against the seat.
‘It was quiet enough,’ he insisted. ‘If you’d’ve set the blaster to kill no one on that planet would’ve got a second’s peace.’
Leia looked back at the dejarik table. ‘How can I be losing this game? I’m the only player.’
‘It’d be no fun if the computer didn’t put up a good fight,’ he pointed out, scooting closer to her to see the board better.
‘True.’ She sighed. ‘I’m sorry. That was more eventful than I’d have liked it to have been.’
‘You kidding?’ He blinked at her in surprise. ‘I’m the one who took us there; I should be sorry.’
‘It was my idea, though.’ She studied the board. ‘You really think everything’s okay back there?’
‘I do,’ he said. ‘Thanks to you.’ He examined her game pieces for a moment, then inclined his chin toward the table. ‘Move your kintan strider to C5.’
‘Is that a legal move?’ she wondered.
‘It is on this table.’
She smiled, keying in the instruction. ‘I see. Is there anything on this ship that doesn’t have “special modifications”?’
‘Not really,’ he said, watching her kintan dart forward, poised to strike. Leia let out a whoop of delight as its k’lor’slug victim fell, defeated, and Han felt warmth coil in his chest.
‘Got what we came for, at least,’ he said.
‘For the party,’ he clarified. ‘It’s a nice idea. ’S’good to have something to look forward to.’
Leia gave him a small smile, not quite meeting his eye.
‘Oh, hey,’ Han said, rifling through his pocket and putting a small package on the table before he could lose his nerve. ‘We got gifts for everyone else, so I figured…’
She peered at it and then glanced up at him, face flushing. ‘I didn’t get anything for you.’
‘You got me a drink.’
‘After I stole your pastry.’
‘Fine, so you owe me,’ Han said, waving a hand. ‘Go on, open it.’
It was a small box, sanded to a shine but showing the beautiful whorls and knots of the wood. Delicate symbols were cut into one side: a flower, a bird in flight, the sprawling branches of a wroshr tree. Symbols that Chewie, were he here, would understand to be those of devotion. Of, perhaps, something even more heartfelt than that.
But Chewie wasn’t here, and wasn’t going to see it, and besides, couldn’t a person get their friend a pretty box without it having some deeper meaning?
‘Thought you could, uh…’ He gestured vaguely at the box. ‘Put your hair ties in it or something, maybe.’
She turned the box over in her hands, thumb running along the smooth wooden hinges. ‘Thank you so much.’
‘Or, y’know.’ He shrugged, rubbing at the back of his neck. ‘Spare comlink’d fit in there, or—’
‘—a snack, or—’
‘Han,’ she said firmly. Her eyes were glinting as she looked up at him. ‘This is so beautiful.’
He felt a swooping sensation in his chest, like the moment the Falcon jumped to hyperspace. ‘Yeah, well,’ he said. ‘’S'just a little something.’ He cleared his throat. ‘We’re running late ’cause I took us on a different route just in case, but I think I can make the time up.’
‘I don’t mind,’ she said quickly. Her gaze fell back to the box. ‘I mean, I’m not in any rush. I’d rather get back in one piece.’
‘Hey,’ he said, throwing her a hurt look. ‘I’ve always got us back in one piece.’
She laughed. ‘That’s true.’
‘Anyway.’ He drummed his hands against his thighs. ‘Better go check the scanners again.’ He hesitated, then leaned in quickly to press a chaste kiss to her cheek. ‘Thanks for saving my ass, sweetheart.’
He paused in the hatchway, unable to keep from turning back and looking at her, still admiring the box, her game forgotten. Her fingers pressed to the spot his lips had touched. And maybe the day hadn’t been such a bust, because she looked lighter than he’d seen her in a long time.
No, he told himself. This wasn’t going to be a problem at all.