Clouds on the Horizon

by Linda Bindner

Luke Skywalker took a bite out of the last guber stick remaining on his plate and promptly made a sour face at it. He would have liked to throw it back on his plate and later, into the garbage, but food was scarce at Echo Base, and the Alliance could afford to waste nothing. Like a good Rebel, he forced himself to chew and swallow before saying, ``So I was thinking that we might move the heavier indoor equipment, like the monitors and grid screens, later on and spend our time right now in fitting the ion cannon into the south glacier. I'd certainly feel a lot better knowing that we have some planetary laser power to defend us. What do you think?''

He glanced up expectantly, hoping that his idea would be met with an amount of positive feedback, but his dinner companion remained silent. ``Leia? Should I talk to General Rieekan about it?''

But Leia still wasn't listening. She wasn't even looking at him. Luke turned his head, following her gaze, and found himself focusing on his friend, Han Solo, who had just entered the base cafeteria. Unlike the princess, Luke's attention was arrested more by the woman holding Han's arm than by the captain himself. She was petite, very thin, and very beautiful. Marina Collins, he said appreciatively to himself. The one woman on base besides the Princess Leia that everybody knew, and here she was, walking in to dinner with the most eligible man on the planet. And Leia was scowling at them so heavily she looked like one of Hoth's famous storm clouds.

``Look at that!'' Leia exclaimed. ``Just look at him, Luke.''

Luke's eyebrows rose. He wondered what had made Leia so angry all of a sudden. ``I'm looking. Is there something wrong?''

Leia slid her gaze back to Luke and picked up her Rebel issue knife, gesturing wildly with it as she answered. ``Half the day he followed me around, complaining that he didn't have enough time to fix that trash heap he calls a ship after his last mission before the general assigned a new one. He said he couldn't possibly take off with the Falcon only half wired and running on two boosters. But apparently he found the time to squeeze other, more important, matters into his busy schedule.'' She jerked her thumb sharply in Han and Marina's direction and angrily narrowed her eyes.

Luke, who would have liked a conversation with the alluring Marina as much as every other Rebel soldier, only grinned. ``Oh, Han's just worried. He doesn't like it when the Millennium Falcon isn't working up to specs.'' He bravely took a second bite of his high energy, low tasting dinner supplement. ``I guess I don't blame him. I get just as antsy when my fighter needs repairs.''

Leia grimaced. ``That's just it. The Falcon is working fine. Never better, Chewie said.'' Pointing with her utensil, she continued, ``You know what he's doing?'' She didn't wait for a reply. ``Planning on ripping out the electrical components, that's what. If he tinkered less and spent more time on what needed his attention, he wouldn't have so much trouble with his blasted ship.''

Luke had to concede her point. ``That is a little strange. Maybe he doesn't want to take this next mission. What's Rieekan got for him?''

The princess looked down at her plate and suddenly became very interested in her dinner of boiled meat and emergency rations. ``He's going to Ord Mantell.''

Luke paused. ``I must be missing something here. What's the problem with Ord Mantell?''

``No problem,'' Leia busily assured him. ``Just a meeting with the council about some speeders we might buy.''

``But that's your jurisdiction,'' he protested before stopping himself, finally understanding. ``Oh, I see. You're his next mission.'' He watched her blushing and he fought a losing urge to laugh. ``I'm sorry, Princess,'' he exclaimed at last. ``General Rieekan has quite a sense of humor, that's all I can say.''

``It's not funny, Luke!'' she hissed across the table at him. ``I don't know what the general is up to, but whatever it is, I don't find it very amusing. Han has not bothered to keep it a secret that he doesn't want to have anything to do with me. I've never been so embarr....''

``That's not true,'' Luke protested mildly. ``Han likes you just fine.'' Leia glared at him. ``Come on, Leia. Hey, at least he finally decided to stick around for awhile longer. He told me last week that he and Chewie were holing up with us. That's something, you have to admit.''

``Only if I want to be tortured on a more permanent basis,'' she said with a sense of reluctant acceptance. They'll help us a great deal, she thought uncomfortably to herself. But she honestly didn't know what to think of the notorious smuggler's decision to stay with the band of outlaws living in the glacier caves of Hoth. She would not confess even to herself that she was secretly glad Han and Chewie had decided to stay with the Rebellion.

To combat the unusual change in her feelings towards Han, she glanced in the captain's direction again, noticed how he seemed to be enjoying his much admired company, and scowled.

Marina's echoing laughter slowly quieted as she lifted her eyes to look around. ``She's staring at us again.''

Han's smile died as well and he wrinkled his brow. ``What?''

The woman across the table cautiously tilted her head to the right, indicating somebody. Solo turned just as casually to discover Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia deep in conversation together at a table across the mess hall. And sure enough, Leia had quickly whirled her head away, as if she'd been caught staring in his general direction. The princess didn't look happy.

``Oh, her,'' Han grumbled. Seeing her reminded him of their forthcoming mission, and he suddenly felt his mood turning sour. ``Just ignore her. Maybe she'll go away.''

Marina was surprised at his cavalier attitude. ``Han! Do you know who she is?''

Han grunted. ``Yeah, to my great misfortune.'' Trying to change the subject, he began stirring the food on his plate and said, ``Well, let's see what the cooks are poisoning us with today.''

Not distracted, she continued, ``Leia Organa is practically the reason we're here. The pilots in Rogue Squadron say she's the Rebellion's personal hero. What do you think?''

Taking a large bite of the meat, he muttered around his mouthful, ``I try not to.''

Marina giggled and hunched forward amiably in her chair. ``That I believe.''

Han pointed again towards Luke and Leia's table. ``That's her problem. She's always thinking too much. Thinking for the Rebellion, thinking for the Empire, thinking for and nagging at every damn puppy in this entire base.''

Marina nodded, oblivious to his biting tone. ``I suppose she has a lot on her mind.''

``I suppose she's just a shrew...d woman....'' Han wisely adjusted his words, then trailed off as Luke's hand suddenly descended on his shoulder with a sharp slap.

``Hi, Han. Marina.'' Luke nodded at both as he took a seat next to his friend, relieved that he'd halted Han's tirade before it was too late.

Han only growled a greeting and buried his attention in his dinner, doing his best to become invisible. But in an awed voice, Marina was saying, ``Hello, Princess. We were just talking about you. Won't you join us?'' Despite his attempts to remain unnoticed, Leia had stopped behind him.

Princess Leia probed the back of Han's head with an icy glare, but politely replied, ``I'm sorry, I can't. I have a mission planned for tomorrow and I need to confer with General Rieekan before we leave.''

Han hunched his shoulders, feeling her gaze crawling in an uncomfortable twitch across his back. Without looking at her, he commented, ``I hope you're going to suggest that Rieekan do something about the food in this place. We'll all freeze if we keep eating this stuff.'' He contemptuously left his own rations uneaten on his plate.

With a great show of patience, Leia turned her attention to Han. ``I'm sure he'll do everything he can to accommodate you, Captain Solo,'' she said sarcastically, giving Luke an I told you so shake of her head.

Luke grimaced, but he didn't get a chance to steer the conversation in a safer direction.

``Oh,'' Solo said and turned around to face her. ``Did you get those cables and wire components I asked for?''

Leia crossed her arms and regarded him with an irritated expression. ``We've already been over this today, Han. There are no more components, for you or anybody else.''

Han tightened his lips to a thin line. ``I don't know how you expect me to get the Falcon half way across the quadrant with no wiring and ten blown components.''

``You wouldn't have so many useless parts if you stopped playing technician with them all the time,'' she suggested. ``How do you expect a ship as old as the Millennium Falcon to...?''

``Ok, now you're insulting my ship.'' With an indignant slap on the tabletop, Han stood up, towering over Leia. Pointing a finger at her nose, he yelled, ``For your information, Princess, the Falcon is not old!''

She glared up at him and mockingly asked, ``Oh really? What would you call her then, well seasoned?'' Her scornful tone carried clear across the crowded dining hall.

Han's face turned red. ``I don't have to take this.'' His fingers curled to a fist and his cheeks were drawn tight as he swiveled on Luke. ``Tell her, Luke, how stupid it is to go traipsing across the quadrant on only two boosters. Tell her how pigheaded she's being just because she's royalty!'' he roared.

Luke grinned pleasantly at them both and calmly sang, ``You're making a scene.''

Han and Leia swiftly looked around, simultaneously noticing the interested stares of half the Rebel band as every soul in the cafeteria witnessed the argument. Most were smiling, enjoying every minute of the spectacle.

Angry at being forced into another confrontation with the infuriating smuggler, Leia quelled her next retort with a supreme effort and managed to quietly say, ``If you will excuse me, gentlemen, I have important matters to take care of, on the other side of the base!'' With her teeth clenched and her eyes narrowed to furious slits, she turned and managed a dignified exit amid a multitude of staring, snickering soldiers.

``I think I'll go with her,'' Marina said, stunned at Han and Leia's seething anger, willing to snatch at any easy escape from the explosive situation she found herself sharing in. She stood and followed Leia, glad to slip away from all those scrutinizing eyes.

Hands on hips, Han glared after them both. ``She always has to get the last word!'' he snarled and turned back to Luke.

Luke sighed, then grabbed Han's glass of water and took a long, cooling drink while the other diners went back to their own meals, disappointed that the excitement was over.

``I tell you, she's impossible,'' Han went on.

``I think you're both pretty impossible,'' Luke concluded and dropped his chin in his hand in surrender.

The cold winds of Hoth whipped over the top edge of the south glacier like icy talons, joyfully attacking the little hillocks and mounds that pockmarked the glacier's gentle downhill slope. A chunk of meteor suddenly hurtled through the sky to land with a thud on the frozen land, and billows of loose snow scuttled freely from the new crater's edge across the frozen lower ice fields. The late afternoon sun slanted oblong shadows from one mound to another, making a checkerboard of the otherwise blinding whiteness.

Han Solo squinted through his protective goggles at the increasing length of the shadows and pulled his parka tighter about him. ``Better hurry up, Luke. Not much light left.''

Luke glanced up, agreeing with Han's assessment. ``Just a few more adjustments here....'' He carefully extended the probe and lifted a fleck of ice off the delicate wires inside the ion cannon's durasteel base. Then he proceeded to connect two wires together.

``No, not those two,'' Han cautioned, leaning over his shoulder. ``You don't want to melt the insides with the first burst we fire.'' He indicated two different wires. ``Connect these together, and then splice them to the mains, right here.'' He pointed with his own probe, but stepped back to let Luke finish the job on his own.

Shaking his head in admiration, Luke said, ``How do you know all this stuff, Han? Wedge says you know more about wiring and electrical elements than even he does.''

``Oh, you pick up a bit here, a bit there. Adding all my gadgets on the Falcon has played its part. Chewie knows his share, too. You just learn what you can, and guess the rest of the time.''

Luke chuckled. ``I wouldn't want to guess now, with the entire base breathing down our necks to get this stupid thing working.''

Han grinned. ``This was your idea, kid.''

``Don't remind me.'' He bit his lip in concentration as he painstakingly untwisted his mistake and proceeded with the correct loose wires. ``I'm glad you had some extra time today since yourmission to Ord Mantell was postponed, or it might be Chewie out here, grunting at me in frustration at my ignorance.''

Surreptitiously watching Luke from behind, Han explained, ``Chewie never gets mad at ignorance, just stupidity.''

``Oh, is that why he was tossing his tools around the other day while you fine-tuned the Falcon's hyperdrive?''

``It needed to be rewired,'' Han argued defensively.

Luke glanced back at his companion. ``Chewie was roaring that it didn't need to be unwired in the first place.''

Han was taken aback. ``How did you understand what he was saying?''

``Threepio translated for me.''

``That two-bit tin can! Can't a guy have any privacy anymore?''

``Not while you're screaming in the open hangar bay. Or in the main dining area,'' Luke hazarded to add.

``Now don't go into that, Luke. I don't want to talk about it.'' Han moved a little away from the younger man to give him the full benefit of the waning sunlight.

Not one to take a hint, Luke persisted. ``Do you have to be so hard on her, Han? Leia's not so bad, you know.''

``She's royalty,'' Han answered, as if that statement adequately explained his complex behavior towards Princess Leia.

``She can't help that.'' Luke stopped his splicing and turned to look at Han in exasperation. ``You might try being nice to her once in awhile.''

Han leaned in again, examining Luke's work. ``Look, just because you and half the men in base have extreme cases of puppy love for Her Royalness doesn't mean I have to join the ranks. I have better things to do with my time.''

``Like mess up newly installed systems on your ship?'' Luke bantered lightly. ``It would have been mighty hard to get to Ord Mantell on sublight engines.''

``What is this? I want to fine-tune my ship and suddenly I need permission first?''

``That's not what I meant....'' Luke held up the probe in an appeasing gesture.

Han sighed and stepped back again, letting the frigid wind cool his suddenly burning cheeks. ``Oh, forget it. Chewie already read me the riot act in the hangar bay. Like I told you, he hates stupidity.''

Luke contemplated Han's words, glad that the smuggler at least had the decency to admit his own mistakes. That's what he liked about Han, he decided. Even if he was determined to keep it a secret, he was more than the crass smuggler that he pretended to be; underneath all the bluster and bravado, he had a good heart. Luke wondered why he went to so much trouble to hide it. Maybe he'd grab Threepio some day and ask Chewbacca about it. I bet it makes a good story, he thought with a hidden smile, and went back to work.

They were silent while Luke carefully finished connecting the wires to the main lines in the ion cannon's base and prepared to close the hatch. Han's comlink crackled just as he stooped to help Luke lift the heavy shielded door into place. He crouched out of the wind to catch the message coming across.

``Echo Base to Echo Seven. You two about finished out there?''

Luke gave a wry grin at Han. It was Princess Leia calling to check up on them. ``Now be nice!'' Luke commanded with a stern look.

Han quietly said, ``Oh, shut up,'' before answering the summons. ``Echo Seven here. Yeah, Luke just finished playing electrician and we're preparing to close her up for the night.''

``Good,'' came Leia's slightly distorted voice over the channel. ``It's getting late and the temperature is dropping.''

``Is that what my problem is?'' Han said jokingly. ``And I thought I just wasn't enjoying Luke's company like I used to.''

There was a pause while Leia either laughed or tried to control her anger at Solo's flippancy. Whatever her reaction, her tone was only mildly annoyed as she replied, ``When can we expect your return to base?''

``Give us another half hour. We should be done by then.''

``Make it quick. You don't want to be caught outside after the sun sets.''

``You don't have to tell us twice; I don't plan on being Hoth's next icicle. Echo Seven out.''

Luke laughed, then jumped up and down to restore the circulation in his booted feet. Just standing still for a few minutes had let the cold take its toll on his limbs. ``Boy, she wasn't kidding about the temperature. I feel half frozen already.''

Han grabbed his end of the maintenance hatch while Luke took hold of the other. ``It's time for dinner anyway. Let's get this thing on and head back inside. I can hear that revolting food calling to me from here. It may not taste good, but at least it's hot.''

Luke amended, ``Well, it is most of the time.''

They grunted under the shared weight of the hatch, and forced it into place only after several minutes of wriggling and cursing. Han leaned into the metal, holding it steady while Luke bolted it securely onto the base. Sweating now, Han said, ``Don't say anything to Her Holiness, but I might be able to get some extra food supplies for the base while we're on Ord Mantell.''

Luke looked up, surprised again. ``How will you manage that?''

Han grunted and shifted his weight. ``Let's just say I have friends in many places. Low places, where the Empire won't notice too much activity. I talked it out with Rieekan, so everything's in order.''

Luke laughed as he screwed, pounded, and coerced the bolts in place. ``You got permission,'' he answered.

``Yeah, permission. Right. I can't promise anything, but,'' he leaned back and breathed with relief as Luke fixed the last bolt, ``it never hurts to try,'' he finished and grinned.

``Even I admit it would be nice to have something besides emergency rations for dinner,'' Luke said as they scuffled around in the snow surrounding the cannon's base, uncovering buried tools. ``It's all I can do to force down those guber sticks anymore.''

Han snorted. ``I don't even try, my friend. Wow! It's getting darn frigid out here!'' He pulled his fur lined parka closer about his body. ``If the Empire doesn't kill us first, this damned planet might just finish the job for them.''

Luke looked at his friend from the corner of his eyes. ``There is one thing that Hoth does offer, though,'' he said casually.

``Oh yeah? What's that?'' Han stood still, several tools in each hand.

``Snow!'' Luke threw a perfectly aimed snowball right at Han's face. It splotched directly across his goggles and face mask.

Han sighed dramatically, spitting snow from his mouth. He glared at the younger man. ``Funny, Luke. Very funny.''

The command center was a buzz of activity when Han and Chewbacca entered several hours after another frigid Hoth sunset. Solo shivered in the center's cool air and shrugged his shoulders inside his black pilot's jacket, wishing he'd thought to throw on his parka before leaving the hangar. But as usual, Chewie was in a hurry to discover the reason behind a summons issued only a few minutes before by General Rieekan and wouldn't wait even for his partner's comfort. Sometimes Han believed that his Wookie copilot was too enthusiastic towards the Alliance for his own good.

Skirting groups of milling pilots, technicians, and personnel, Han managed to catch sight of Luke sitting near the relay stations and gave a halfhearted salute in his direction. He and Chewie carefully wove their way through the jumble of machines and spare computers cluttering the room, and by the time they reached Luke, the general and Princess Leia had joined the young lieutenant-commander.

``Good evening, gentlemen!'' General Rieekan greeted them as he pulled up a sturdy chair and moved over to make room for Chewbacca's considerable bulk. Chewie woofed hellos to each person in turn, patting Luke on the head in a show of Wookie affection.

``Chewie!'' Luke laughed and attempted to straighten his tousled hair.

Leia looked up from the small hand held grid screen she was studying and smiled. ``It's a good thing you don't bother to comb your hair, Luke,'' she teased.

Luke looked sheepish, but generally pleased at the attention he was getting, and he grinned widely.

Han groaned to himself. Luke couldn't be more obvious about his crush on the princess if he broadcasted it over the base intercom system. And Solo noticed that his friend seemed to be sitting mighty close to Her Worship. Getting pretty cozy in here, he thought. Then with a mischievous grin of his own, Han took the last vacant seat on the other side of Leia.

Rieekan didn't miss the flirtatious gesture on Han's part, even if Luke and the princess remained oblivious. With a twinkle in his eye, the war-battered general said, ``Captain, you and Chewbacca are just the men I want to see.''

``What do you need, General?'' Solo scooted his chair around a bit for more leg room and lounged back, his arms up and fingers laced behind his head.

Rieekan settled comfortably in his seat, relaxing for a change against the back of his formfitting chair. ``Well, I need a favor, specifically from Chewbacca.'' Han raised his eyebrows and Chewie gave a short bark of surprise. General Rieekan continued, ``We received some new bowcastors in the last shipment from Omicron, and you're the base expert on propellant weapons, Chewbacca. Our foot soldiers could certainly use some pointers before they're sent into the field for maneuvers in forty-eight hours. If you would lead a small session tomorrow, it could be a great help to us.''

Luke sent an appreciative look at Chewie, and had to agree with the general: the Wookie was the best bowcaster marksman in the Rebellion. And since the blasters had such a tendency to freeze after only short periods of time in Hoth's frigid winds, the bowcastor was the most adaptable weapon the Rebels had on hand.

Solo grinned. ``Well, what do you know. The Rebellion has finally discovered your inestimable talents, my friend.''

Rieekan raised a cautious hand. ``Now Chewbacca, before you agree, I want to remind you that this means you won't be able to accompany Captain Solo and the princess to Ord Mantell.'' He glanced at Han. ``Will that be a problem, Captain?''

Han straightened up and looked at Leia. Travel to Ord Mantell - with the princess - alone? A queasy feeling suddenly stirred in Han's stomach, and he realized he was sweating. But the general was waiting expectantly for an answer, so he burst out, ``No. No problem. Of course Chewie can do what he wants. That is, if Your Worship here can copilot the Falcon.''

All eyes turned to Leia. She looked up, aware of a touch of hesitation on Han's part. Her own heart gave a decidedly strange flip as she considered how long she would spend with Solo as the unassuming freighter made the trip across the quadrant. For the first time that night she noticed how her chair was sandwiched between the two younger men and how close the captain was sitting to her. Then the moment ended and Han had buried his initial reaction behind his infuriating, cocky half grin.

She responded to his silent challenge. ``I can fly anything you can, Solo. Just clean the cockpit first so I can find the controls.''

Han chuckled provokingly. ``For you I'll even clear out the hold for a ride in comfort.''

She tilted her head in his direction and gave him a lilting smile. ``Why, Han, that would be such a pleasant change,'' she said politely before the smile disappeared. ``Of course, I'll believe it when I see it,'' she added sarcastically.

Chewbacca laughed.

Han looked offended. ``I'll have you know that my ship is as clean as anybody's.''

``Forget it, Han. Remember, I've seen your ship.'' Leia shot him a look of exasperation from the corner of her eyes and shook her head.

Han grunted. ``Sorry if she disturbs your sensibilities, Your Holiness, but the Falcon will get you to Ord Mantell faster than anything else the Rebellion has in the hangar. Don't you forget that!'' He leaned back in his seat again, satisfied that he had successfully defended the honor of his prize possession.

``He's got you there, Leia,'' Luke pointed out, smiling.

General Rieekan interrupted, halting the banter between Han and the princess. ``I wouldn't have any other ship on so delicate a mission as this one,'' he said, his voice somber. ``I have every confidence that the two of you will complete this job with intelligence and a minimum of fuss. At this point, we don't want to draw any attention to ourselves.''

``I'll agree with that,'' Han exclaimed heartily, adding, ``And the Falcon's all gassed and ready to go.''

``Still planning to leave before sunup?'' Leia asked, her tone implying that Han could never roll out of bed early enough to beat the sun.

Han spread his hands. ``Hey, if you want to leave later, that's fine. Just don't blame me when an Imperial spy ship sees the sunlight reflecting off the hull like a beacon sent through space.''

``Yes.'' Rieekan nodded his head. ``An early departure is the wisest thing in this case. I agree with Captain Solo's assessment of the situation.''

``See?'' Han's expression gloated his small victory. ``You can catch up on your beauty sleep after we leave.''

Leia's eyes narrowed to slits. ``Got the hyperdrive rewired yet, Solo?'' she mocked, glaring.

Chewie barked and Luke stood up. ``I'm with you, Chewie. Let's go take a look at those bowcasters in the armory before our friends start shooting at each other. Unless there's something more we need to hear?'' he implored the general.

Rieekan halted their escape with a lifted finger. ``Can I assume you agree, Chewbacca?'' Chewie woofed an affirmative. Rieekan continued, ``Then go ahead. I'd like Chewbacca's expert opinion on the new equipment. Besides, there's a bit more I need to go over with Solo and Princess Leia. I'll see you both tomorrow.''

``Thanks, General,'' Luke said, then added, ``But can I have a quick word, Leia?'' At her surprised nod, he pulled her aside as Han and Chewie took advantage of the meeting's pause to talk to Rieekan. Luke hesitated a moment.

``What is it, Luke?'' she prodded, eyebrows raised questioningly.

Luke let out his breath in a rush. ``Are you sure you'll be all right with Han on this trip?''

Leia rolled her eyes. ``Don't worry, Luke. I've been handling men like Han since I was twelve.''

Eyes widening in sudden distress, Luke shook his head. ``That's not what I meant! I just wanted to suggest that you...well, take it easy on Han. He's kind of confused right now.''

``Confused?'' Leia strangled a laugh in her throat. ``That's saying it politely. I just assumed he had a loose connection in his head, so I take his behavior for granted.''

``Well, try to be nice to him. It might make the mission go a bit smoother,'' he suggested, hoping she wouldn't take his words the wrong way and get angry with him.

Leia looked over her shoulder at Han talking earnestly to Rieekan. She sighed. ``You're probably right. I can't promise anything, Luke, but I'll try.''

Relieved, Luke breathed easier. ``Thanks. I feel better knowing that you guys at least try to be friends.''

Leia smiled up at him. ``You're a goodhearted man, Luke.'' She squeezed his arm. ``I'll try,'' she said again.

Luke smiled. ``Thanks, Leia,'' he replied simply.

Han noticed that Luke and the princess were winding up their conversation, so he leaned in closer to Rieekan and hurriedly asked, ``Are you sure that it's okay about the free parts for the Falcon?'' he continued in a low voice, ``I'll do it without, if that's a problem, but I have to admit that complimentary parts would come in mighty handy about now.''

``Budget getting thin, is it?'' Rieekan laughed. ``The parts are yours, Solo. After all the times you've helped us out, you deserve them. I know you can use them. Consider it a token of appreciation from the Alliance. It's the least we can do.''

``Thanks, General. This helps us out of a tight spot of our own.'' He gestured at Chewie, who stood patiently waiting for Luke. As Luke came forward again with Leia, Han quickly added, ``Oh, and don't mention this to Her Highness; she might not understand.''

Rieekan silently nodded, his lips fighting off a grin.

Looking like they'd just been let out of school early, Luke and Chewie hastened away, broad smiles on both their faces.

Resuming her seat, Leia settled down to official business. ``I've been going over Mantell's shipping laws and codes, and I don't foresee any problems, General. But it wouldn't hurt to inform the captain one last time what's expected of us.'' She sent Han another death glare from behind the strands of loose hair that shielded her eyes. Then she remembered her promise to Luke and hastily looked down, realizing suddenly how hard it might be to keep her pledge. If only Han didn't always bring out the worst in her!

Rieekan rubbed his chin, ignoring the animosity between his two companions with good humor. ``I think discreteness is the key above all else here. Get on the planet, get the council to sign the deal, pick up the smaller supplies, and get off as quickly and as quietly as you can. Princess, I'm trusting that you can handle any problems that may arise with the council.''

Leia nodded once, a serious expression creasing her small face. ``It's not something I haven't dealt with before,'' she reminded him.

``Keep them at ten-thousand if you possibly can. We can't afford any more than that for those speeders.'' The general looked grave as he turned to Han. ``And keep your eyes peeled for trouble, Captain. You've had a lot more experience with smuggling worlds like Ord Mantell than the princess has. You know what to watch out for.''

Han grudgingly cast his eyes over Leia, for once noticing how tiny she was. Formidable though she might be, he understood where they were going far better than she did. ``You have nothing to worry about, General. I'll bring her back.''

Feeling like a prize rug being sent to the cleaners, Leia said in an astonished voice, ``I can take care of myself, thank you very much.''

``Not where we're going, Sweetheart,'' Han said.

Angry now, Leia growled, ``You are so damned cocky, Solo. I hope somebody takes you down a peg someday, and I hope it's me!''

``Only if you're willing to come down off your royal pedestal to do it!'' Han responded, enjoying the angry flush in her cheeks. He liked nothing more than to see her loose her calm reserve.

Leia rose, her eyebrow arched and her lips drawn tight at Han's gloating demeanor. ``Han Solo, if you think th....''

A sudden loud crash cut off Princess Leia's comment in mid word, followed by a growing rumble. The walls of the command center shook and a crack appeared at one corner of the iced ceiling. Han rose, simultaneously pushing his chair out of the way and reaching a protective hand for the princess. But the noise and shaking slowed, then ceased altogether almost as quickly as it had begun.

Leia looked warily at the ceiling. ``What was that?'' she asked in amazement. She hadn't noticed Han's gesture, but now she used his arm to steady herself.

``A meteor maybe, impacting on the base,'' Rieekan hazarded to guess.

The blaring of the intercom system confirmed his supposition. ``Alert! Cave-in, sector twelve, corridor three. All personnel to their rescue posts. Repeat, corridor three in sector twelve has collapsed. Personnel require immediate rescue!''

``Sector twelve?'' Rieekan asked rhetorically. ``That's near the armory.''

Leia met Han's eyes. ``Luke!'' they both said at the same time and dashed together out of the command center, General Rieekan and several others following close on their heals.

Personnel scrambling to get to their posts impeded their progress once they gained the icy corridor leading to sector twelve, and they had to defer their race to save their friend to highly trained rescue teams running in the same direction. Thus a large group of frantic Rebels arrived on the scene of the cave-in at the same time, clogging the narrow hallway and creating more havoc. Ice crystals and flakes of snow hung like a thick dust in the air, making it hard to see and even to breath. Heavy chunks of ice and packed snow occasionally fell from the ceiling and walls, crashing to the pile of debris already collecting on the cavern floor, shooting ice slivers in every direction. Fortunately, the rescue teams wore helmets and transparent face masks as part of their basic uniform, a safety measure put to good use in the rain of ice-shards and dusty snow. But Han, Leia, and the general had no such protective equipment and they found themselves cowering against the wall to avoid being struck by flying chunks of what used to be corridor three.

Han shielded his eyes and looked frantically through the melee for any sign of Chewbacca and Luke Skywalker. It wasn't until the snow settled slowly from the air that he distinguished the Wookie's towering form over to one side, just short of the pile of ceiling ice. He seemed to be looming near the wall, trying to paw a section of the debris away even as more fell around him.

``Luke!'' Leia suddenly yelled. She pointed at a single figure standing in what Han instantly recognized as first position for a lightsaber duel. The kid's blue-green saber was extended forward, the blade shining dully against the white snow, easily slicing through any chunk of ice that came close to Chewie's desperately pawing form. Even as Han and Leia watched in suspended surprise, an unseen hand lurched Luke forward, bending the young man at impossible angles to reach a large section of ceiling falling directly towards Chewie's head. The glowing energy blade cut neatly through the ice until there were five much smaller sections tumbling well away from the Wookie.

But Luke had overextended his balance and suddenly lost his footing on the slick floor. He fell with a hard crash to the floor, an ignominious tangle of boots, legs, and lightsaber. The blade came dangerously close to cutting off Chewbacca's right leg, but Luke managed to pull it back at the last minute and bury it in the snow beside his head. Steam hissed up as a hole the exact shape of the blade appeared in the snowpile. Luke lay where he had fallen, panting, sweat dripping into his eyes.

Han darted forward, yelling, ``Enough, Chewie! Let the rescue teams handle this!'' He tugged on the Wookie's furry arm, dodging more small ice chips sliding down the side of the pile. ``Come on, pal, help me with Luke.''

At the mention of Luke's name, Chewie turned around as if noticing his young friend for the first time. He barked roughly, then hauled Luke to his feet and steadied him. The three moved quickly back to Leia and the general even as the rescue teams set to work on the pile of constantly shifting debris with large snow removal equipment.

Leia offered a hand to help support Luke just as he gasped, ``Wedge! And Hobby...other pilots, cut off!'' He gestured tiredly at the blocked corridor.

Rieekan instantly whipped out his communicator and spoke into it. ``Wedge! Can you hear me? This is General Rieekan.''

A response came quickly over the crackling channel. ``General, boy, is it ever good to hear your voice!''

``How many you got back there? Any casualties?''

``Too dark to tell. My leg's pinned and I can't move around much. I hear voices, though. I think most of us are conscious at least. But it's getting mighty cold back here. You'd better hurry if you don't want all of Rogue Squadron suffering frostbite.''

``Don't worry, we'll get you out,'' Rieekan answered firmly. ``You just hang on and try to stay awake.''

``Will do.'' Wedge groaned over the communicator, then added, ``Please don't take too long.''

Just then one of the rescue technicians exclaimed, ``We're through!'' They had started working in the area Chewbacca had cleared and taken only moments to do what would have taken the Wookie an hour to accomplish. Quickly the team thrust a hose forcefully through the hole, pumping pure, warm air into the cavity holding the men prisoner.

A man bearing the designation of major came forward to report to the general. ``That should keep them alive until we can get to them,'' he said, indicating the hose and pump. ``We're working on fitting a second one through now.''

``Do your best, Major,'' Rieekan answered crisply. ``Keep me informed.''

``Yes, sir.'' The man saluted and returned to bark new orders to his team. ``Get that other hose through, boys! The more air they have, the better. We don't know how many men we have back there. Tompkins, start on the middle, top first.''

Another man nodded and set an agile, high powered shoveling machine to work on the uppermost regions of snow blocking the corridor. Secure that he had done everything in his power to encourage the rescue of his men, General Rieekan gave his attention to Luke.

Luke wheezed, ``They were in front of us. I yelled....''

``Keep quiet, Luke,'' Leia said soothingly. ``Just catch your breath.''

Luke shook his head. ``I'm all right. Just winded.'' He suddenly realized his lightsaber was still activated, and he flicked the button to off. The blade disappeared with a snap.

Han pointed at the weapon. ``You're getting pretty good with that saber of yours,'' he said appreciatively.

``Good thing, too, huh Chewie?'' Luke grinned at Chewbacca.

Leia thoughtfully observed, ``I've never seen you so concentrated, Luke.''

Luke's grin widened as he regained his strength. ``I've been practicing in my spare time. I just wish I knew more about how the Force works.'' He hefted the saber in his hand. ``It's like I'm not quite in control yet, even when I can feel the Force.'' He shook his head in discouragement.

``Ah, don't get too down on yourself, Luke,'' Han advised, patting him reassuringly on the shoulder. ``Even Obi-Wan wasn't perfect.''

Luke laughed raggedly. ``At this point I don't think there's even grounds for comparison with Ben yet. You saw him in that cantina.''

Han scoffed, ``Oh, he was probably faking it so he'd look good for Chewie here.''

Luke gurgled his surprise, too tired with his struggle to control the Force to get angry. But Leia was not so restrained.

``How can you say that?'' she demanded. ``Ben Kenobi saved our lives on that Death Star!''

Han clamped his lips shut, realizing too late that his remark, meant to hearten Luke, had been taken in a completely different way. He found himself once again in the unenviable position of defending his words to the sharp-tongued princess. ``Well I didn't see him do it,'' he argued. ``He probably disconnected the tractor beam just like any other normal guy, by shutting it off.''

``Obi-wan Kenobi was a noble man and a noted Jedi Knight,'' she explained patiently as if to a three-year-old. ``You wouldn't be here if it weren't for him.''

Han wrinkled his nose. ``Yeah, right. And you wouldn't be here if it weren't for me, so how 'bout we call it even, huh?''

``Even?'' In her growing disgust, Leia released her hold on Luke. ``I wasn't the important one to rescue on the Death Star. The tapes of the plans stored in R2-D2 were what really mattered. You're the one who volunteered to barge into the detention center with no forethought about how to get back out again.''

``Oh, there's gratitude for you!'' Han snorted. ``Well I'll have you know that rescuing you was Luke's idea!''

``I'm surprised you managed to build up enough courage to go along with him!''

``Well, maybe I should have just left you there to rot in your cell!''

``Anything would have been better than a trip to Yavin on that flea trap you call a ship!'' Leia shot back, glared at Han, an astonished Luke, and the amused general, then turned on her heals and marched down the corridor.

``Just a minute, there, Your Most Holy of Highnesses, I'm not through with you yet!'' Han thought to turn quickly and ask Luke, ``You gonna be okay?'' At Luke's stunned nod, Han strode briskly after the princess, yelling, ``That's the last time you can count on me to rescue the likes of you, that's for sure! And my ship does not have fleas!''

Luke and Rieekan didn't catch Leia's scathing reply, but heard Han cry, ``What's that supposed to mean?'' before the noise of the rescue machinery drowned out their voices.

Breathing easier now that he'd rested, Luke turned to Rieekan. ``Are you sure it's safe to send them on a mission by themselves? They might kill each other.''

General Rieekan chuckled, that knowing glint once again in his eyes. ``They might do just that,'' he agreed, gazing in the direction the princess and the captain had gone. ``Then again, they might not. I suppose there's hope, even for that pair.'' He chuckled a little louder and crossed his arms in pleased satisfaction on his chest.

Puzzled, Luke glanced at General Rieekan, wondering what he was missing in the man's scheming expression. Somehow he got the feeling that Rieekan knew something he just hadn't figured out yet. He surmised that maybe later, with the help of the Force, he might discover the hidden secret behind Han and Leia's explosive relationship. Of course, he conceded, even with help, that might take a long time!


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