“Hey, are you still awake?”
Somewhere past the Horns of Waryl constellation, a little less than 302 parsecs to Bespin, Han Solo breathed out a wordless grumble and buried his face deeper into his pillow.
Soon after, his breathing returned to a soft snore, followed by the furrows on his forehead smoothing out. That’s when a small but determined index finger poked him in the ribs, this time eliciting a groan.
His right eye — the one not buried in the pillow — half-opened to consider the source of his annoyance: two brown eyes, unmistakably open and awake, staring at him. Staring at him expectantly, he thought drowsily.
He closed his eye, and with another groan turned onto his back.
“ ‘m now…” he sighed, blindly reaching out with his left arm to let it rest loosely around the shoulders of the princess lying next to him. He felt her lift her head to allow his movement, and place it back down over his arm. Eyes still shut, he gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze and felt her shuffle a tiny bit closer.
They had been sharing his bunk for almost a week. Nothing beyond sleeping. Not even really touching, not yet — that was still reserved for stolen kisses when their day clothes afforded them some kind of distance. They lay next to each other at night, each on their own side. On more than one occasion though, he’d woken up to her hand curled around his bicep. Once he’d even found her sound asleep with her forehead and the bridge of her nose tightly pressed to his shoulder, the rest of her curled up further away — only two points of contact between their sleeping bodies, he’d noted. He’d wondered whether she’d been fully awake when she’d reached for him, whether she thought he’d notice. For her sake he’d hoped that the move hadn’t been triggered by a bad dream; for his sake he also hoped that her search for proximity had been a conscious one.
Han didn’t know that Leia also had nights when she awoke to his arm resting on her waist or his hand on her upper arm. She didn’t know if these gestures were meant to comfort her or him, but they had resulted in the most restful sleep she’d had in years — since the destruction of Alderaan, if she was being honest with herself. The warmth in his touch had extended beyond her skin, spread from his hands into her, filling her chest with a sense of peace before moving to — other areas of her body. Although she’d never tell him that last part. Not yet, at least.
Just the night before, she had even pretended to be asleep when she’d felt him pull the blanket up to keep her warm. His arm had stayed there, its weight a grounding presence in the dark bunk room that was slowly also becoming hers.
Her last conscious thought, as she’d drifted off to sleep to the soft whirring of the air conditioning, had been that maybe this was exactly what they had both been secretly hoping for on Hoth. Either way it certainly wasn’t what they’d have expected to happen, had they known they would be spending weeks together in the close quarters of the Falcon.
She would have expected the two of them to come up with creative ways to occupy themselves at opposite ends of the ship, only interacting when forced to do so by an angry Wookiee with cabin fever and in dire need of distraction.
So this new truce had been a surprise for them both, an unspoken accord to stop antagonising or running away from each other. They had nowhere to run off to, anyway. And this new dynamic between them was proving… enjoyable. The proximity felt comfortable. Comforting, even. Almost relaxing, in the same way Han had originally seen the dim blue light over the bunk as an obstacle to a good night’s sleep, until one day it dawned on him that its unwavering presence in the dark had felt like home all along.
Rubbing his sleepy eyelids now, Han suddenly realised that he’d heard Leia open her mouth and click her teeth, but not say anything yet.
“Lay it out, princess.”
“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Her voice was uncharacteristically hesitant.
"You jab me in the ribs in the middle of the night, then ask me if I mind?" he grumbled gently, and gave her shoulder another squeeze. "Talk."
He felt her shuffle a bit closer again, still careful to keep some distance between them, and he couldn’t help the slight rise at the corner of his mouth. Her eagerness to nudge him awake to talk, without a trace of her smooth, political facade, this unusually wavering tone… These were facets of her that he had only recently uncovered, glimpses that revealed a softness and humanity that he’d always known were there, buried deep underneath her warm skin, pulsing veins and polished layers of senatorial education.
“Well.. It’s…” She paused, perhaps searching for her next words or waiting for some encouragement on his part.
He quietly offered a drowsy “Hmmm?” and kept his eyes closed, still unsure which direction this would take.
“How well do you know this Lando?”
“Sweetheart...” he sighed, giving her shoulder another squeeze.
“I know we don’t have much of a choice. And you said he hated the Empire. I just..”
“…have a bad feeling?” His tone was gentle, devoid of the sarcasm that had overshadowed most of their interactions on Hoth. Han opened his eyes and turned to face her, his gaze kind.
“I can’t help it. I know, I know we don’t have a choice.” She looked down at her hand, the one responsible for jolting him awake, and swallowed. “I don’t know who to trust. And I guess I don’t like… I don’t like that we don’t have a choice and that our hands are tied,” she finished and pressed her lips together in a tight line.
“Well I wouldn’t mind having my hands tied by you, as long as you promise to be gentle with—OW!” Laughing quietly, he grabbed the guilty finger she’d jammed between two ribs and kissed it lightly. “Look, I get it. Lando isn’t the most reliable person I know, I told ya. But he wouldn’t betray me to the Empire. He might try to seduce you,” he added, using her own index finger to point at her, “or win you at Sabacc…” he quipped with a wink, softly stroking her finger once more. “I know you’re usually in charge of making sure every mission is safe, and here we’re stuck with this. You’re stuck with this — this.…” His voice trailed off and he looked down, apologetic, his features suddenly overcome with something akin to guilt.
“Han, no — that’s not what I…” He let go of her hand and rolled onto his back, although his arm remained around her shoulders. “Han. I probably wouldn’t be alive right now if you hadn’t come back for me.”
She could sense from the tension in his jaw that he was thinking of his inability to breathe life into the ship’s hyperdrive, and their resulting risky escape from the Imperial fleet. Sometimes, so rarely now, she almost missed the icy days of Hoth where he was so mad at her she couldn’t hurt his feelings even when she tried — or so she thought. She took in the gap between their bodies, the crumpled bedsheets and the lingering silence, and swallowed a sad smile.
“Tell me about Cloud City. What is it like?”
He quirked an eyebrow at the unexpected question, quietly accepting her change of topic. Stretching his legs into a more comfortable position, he brought his right arm underneath his head, looking up at the cerulean light above.
“It hovers just above Bespin. Floats in the clouds. Haven’t been there, but people say the light’s real pretty. Lotsa orange and gold.” He pondered for a few seconds. “Woulda been nice to feel real ground, but so long as we get real food…”
“Here I was, hoping for exotic beaches and museums...”
He grinned at this. “Is Her Highness missing palaces and those little tiny porcelain cups for her mornin’ kaffe?”
“I hate those. I broke so many of them by accident,” she laughed.
“But you’re not denying the palaces..?” He heard her snort.
“I do miss the summer palace on Alderaan,” she said after a moment. Han knew Leia rarely mentioned her home planet; he remained silent, both because he was careful not to press her and because he was kicking himself for inadvertently bringing up memories she’d rather have kept buried. But to his surprise, she offered more. “I used to go swimming in the river at night,” she murmured.
“Were princesses allowed to do that?”
“Oh, no one knew about it. Well. Hmm... My parents probably did, I guess. They probably had someone follow me to make sure it was safe.” He looked down at her and saw her lost in the recollection, a wistful smile playing on her lips. With the hand still on her shoulder, he grabbed a strand of glossy hair and started softly twirling it around around his index finger, stroking it with his thumb as he went. “The night air was always sweet with gingerbells and t’iil. I loved to float on my back and look at the stars.”
She felt his fingers stop and a shudder spread through his arm. Her eyes flicked to his face just in time to catch his wince.
An grunt of discomfort came from the back of his throat.
She was silent for a beat.
“Kinda icks me out, y’know?”
“Well — sure, you might get in a river to cool off during the daytime when it’s hot. But why would you want to swim at night when you can’t see what’s in the damned water that could get ya?”
“And then you feel all the weird plants but you don’t know if it’s a creature and how clean this damn river is anyway. And who’s gonna know if you drown or get eaten in the middle of the night? I mean, sure they might say the river is safe, but you never really know...”
He stayed silent.
“Have you actually ever gone swimming at night?”
Han shuffled uncomfortably under the covers and kept his gaze resolutely fixed on the blue sleeplight.
The mattress shifted from the sudden movement when she propped her head on her hand to stare at him. Han brought his now-abandoned arm back to his side, and for a second he tried to recall how his peaceful night had suddenly turned into this slightly awkward-for-him conversation.
“Uh-un. Ain’t my thing.”
“Are you saying that the Great, Bloodstriped Captain Han Solo, Hero of the Battle of Yavin, is afraid that a troupe of yobshrimps is going to ambush him in the dark?” Leia couldn’t hide her glee as she punctuated each adjective with an increasingly stronger jab to his stomach, and Han mockingly hugged himself tight to brace against it.
“Hey!” He laughed. “Ok, yeah. But you can’t tell anyone.”
“Like hell I’m not telling Luke, and Wedge, and...”
“Language, Princess! Where did you learn those words?”
Her laugh turned into a snort. The awkwardness of the earlier discussion finally dissipated, she placed her head back on the pillow and he returned his arm to her shoulders.
“Tell you what would convince me to give it a try?”
“Shhh. Nah. A princess in a bathing suit swimming next to me…” He paused abruptly. “Unless you’re a skinny-dipper?”
“Hmm — I’d let you find out,” she smirked at him, “ except sadly, Bespin doesn’t have any rivers…”
He grinned at this and they fell into a comfortable silence, enjoying the soothing whir of the air conditioning and the peaceful atmosphere of the cabin.
Han’s gaze returned to the blue glow over them, and he raised his free hand to idly circle the cast-plast rim with his fingers. He followed the smooth edges of the plastiglass, rubbed the old crack in the fitting, felt for the slightly warmer area where the light of the bulb hit the glass. Leia’s eyes followed his movements and caught on the blue glow. It suddenly occurred to her that she hadn’t seen that specific shade of cerulean blue since their ill-fated mission on Ord Mantell. She still remembered the view from their terrace, the light the full moon had cast on the sea, and the spice and woodsmoke aroma of his aftershave, now present on his pillow.
The memory felt so vivid now, and Leia adjusted her head closer to his to breathe him in. He caught a whiff of their intermingling scents — the lingering, floral fragrance of her shampoo and the clean, herbal aroma of his aftershave. Somehow both scents mingled into something that already felt oddly familiar, and he recalled that night on Ord Mantell when he had kissed the crown of her head and smelt that same shampoo on her hair. Things had felt so simple then — how she’d leant her forehead against his chest in the minute before the bounty hunter had shown up. He shifted his legs uncomfortably on the mattress and winced slightly at the memories that had sprung back uninvited. That had been the first and only time she had allowed herself that kind of open vulnerability with him — until now. At the time, all it had taken was a few seconds of blaster-fire to undo all that trust, and he was painfully reminded the same could easily happen to their new... well, whatever it was between them.
His throat was so tight he had to force the words out — “Leia, we’ll be ok. Lando won’t let us down.”
She mustered a shy little nod, offering him the reassurance she didn’t have for herself, and a few seconds later Han suddenly felt her scoot closer.
He shifted slightly to his side, and Leia didn’t try to avoid contact this time. Surprised, he felt her press her cheek against his chest, right underneath his clavicle, huddled tighter than a loth-cat in the dead of winter. A tiny bundle of warm skin and silky hair, soft breath and eyelashes that tickled his chest and made his throat constrict painfully. He wrapped his arms tight around her — what else was he supposed to do? — and slowly exhaled the breath he didn’t realise he’d been holding.
There were many things that he couldn’t, hadn’t been able to control in this galaxy. Bespin wasn’t going to be one of them. He wouldn’t let her down this time, no matter what Lando did.