Escape from Ord Mantell

by Linda Bindner

``Cutting to...sublight engines.''

Han Solo reached his hand across the control panel and settled his fingers on the hydraulic levers that would bring the ship out of hyperspace. The hardened Corellian pilot shot a last, quick glance out the forward cockpit window just in time to see the streaks of blue, orange, violet, and red dissolve into the typical pinpoints of stars in deep space. He also managed to catch a glimpse of the woman's silhouette cast on the window by the blue-green glow of the cockpit lights as she sat, regally still, in the copilot's seat beside his own high-backed swivel chair. Even now he could feel her presence in the close cockpit -- feel it like a hot coal dumped uncomfortably down his shirt front. Suddenly his temples burned in panic as he realized his daydreaming had nearly caused the ship to fly past the hyperspace window the nav' computer had plotted for their descent only moments ago.

Contempt and annoyance washed over Han. In reaction he slammed the lever down, dropping the stars, the ship, and his passenger peremptorily from supralight to sublight to practically a full stop in a single breath. He lurched against the controls, the edge of his panel digging painfully into his ribs. The whining sound of the protesting engine filled the cockpit. Han welcomed the pain to himself and the disgruntled engine; they, at least, were things he understood. These ever-increasing daydreams he frequently caught himself indulging in -- they were something else.

``What the hell was that?''

Han looked up to glare out the cockpit window before allowing his eyes to settle on the small figure now sprawled on the floor at his feet. ``What?'' he asked, innocence and defensiveness mixing in his voice.

``You call that a descent from hyperspace?'' came the hot question as Leia Organa slowly climbed back into her copilot's chair. ``I've been in escape pods that enter better than that.''

Han ignored her jab. Instead he sat rooted in his seat, his jaw clenched tightly against the words that strove to fly past his control. Slowly he shook his head back and forth. I knew this wouldn't work. I knew it. I even told General Rieekan. Free parts for the Falcon just aren't worth this.

Aloud he said, ``Anytime you feel that you can fly the Falcon better than I can, you just let me know. Until then, Princess, do your job as copilot and plot us an orbit course so we can get this mission over with!''

Leia brushed loose strands of hair back from her enraged eyes and said, ``Nothing would make me happier, Captain!''

Han growled low in his throat, but he turned his attention back to his own panel as Leia concentrated on hers. What I wouldn't do to have Chewie sitting in that chair, he thought and grimaced. He highly suspected that needing Chewbacca's unequaled knowledge of propellant weapons had only been a ruse by the Rebellion's upper officers. It was all a trick just to get him and the princess alone together while the Alliance continued its move to the new base located on Hoth. In fact, Han was sure this setup was simply more of Rieekan's sadistic humor. Only Han didn't find it a bit funny.

Leia's voice cut into his sour thoughts. ``Course laid out and entered into the computer. Processing clearance codes now.''

Han snorted. ``Hope the codes are right this time. Chewie and I found ourselves in quite a spot on Omicron IV when that gibberish your people called clearance codes didn't check out.''

Leia shot a cold glance at him from the corner of her eyes but continued processing in silence.

Within moments their clearance was granted.

Leia's look was a bit smug now. ``Perhaps you processed the codes backwards at Omicron IV,'' she suggested, her polite words saturated with sarcasm.

``Perhaps the phony registration your team forgot to activate tipped them off,'' he retorted, equally sarcastic.

Leia merely tightened her lips in a grim line of enmity and calmly said, ``Passing controls over to you.''

The ship banked to port in the seconds before Han could take the controls from his infuriating copilot. ``Thanks for the warning.'' He quickly steadied the Millennium Falcon and set her on course.

Impossible, he decided. She was simply impossible.

He's plain impossible, Leia said to herself as the ship regained its equilibrium after her rather quick release of the controls. She surreptitiously watched him pilot his ship with reckless caution through the changes in Ord Mantell's heavy atmosphere. He flew like a kid who had spent too much time in front of a flight simulator rather than like an experienced space pilot; Han's eyes were wide and his fingers were relaxed on the controls. Only a wrinkle encasing each eye indicated his serious concentration and evident skill.

Leia knew that General Rieekan had asked Han to transport her on this mission for more reasons than the fact that much of the Rebellion's fleet was tied up in relocating procedures. Rieekan had an unflagging confidence that Han Solo could handle any situation he came up against. He might handle it in his own particular brand of brashness and uncommon bravado mixed with a dash of dumb luck, but he invariably got the job done. He had helped the Alliance out of more than a dozen tight spots since unofficially joining the band of freedom fighters two years earlier, and he was fast becoming an unlikely hero to the younger members of the Alliance. Much, of course, to his distress.

Han, Leia knew, was more concerned with his precious freighter and his even more priceless independence than with helping the Rebellion, even for Luke's sake. His affection for the much younger pilot had been Han's downfall, and subsequently he still remained in the service of the Rebels. At least, that was the reasoning Leia used to convince herself. If she took time to examine her own emotions and thoughts more carefully, she might discover the hope that perhaps she had a hand in detaining Han longer than he planned.

But Leia rarely touched those hesitant possibilities buried deep beneath the white-hot logic in her brain long enough to contemplate their existence. And at the same time she knew that ignoring these inclinations only made them become larger and more insistent. If her father were alive, he would gently tease her into admitting her shy tendency of affection towards Captain Solo. But Bail Organa was dead, and she was unschooled in the art of understanding any part of her own psyche that didn't deal consistently with the Rebel Alliance. She had ignored her inner self so long in lieu of the Rebellion's far more urgent need of her leadership that she had forgotten what it was like to simply be Leia the person.

However, she could never forget that when all the heroship was past, she didn't approve of Han's lifestyle or methods. He was just too crass for her taste. He lacked even the remotest bit of diplomacy and deportment, and he influenced others chiefly through the art of intimidation, an art further accentuated by the blaster he always wore strapped to his thigh.

He couldn't even bother to dress decently for their arrival on Ord Mantell. How in the name of Alderaan was she supposed to convince the High Council of Ord Mantell to reduce the price of their speeders and technical equipment when her companion was obviously an uneducated, unethical space smuggler? The fact that he looked uncomfortably handsome in the simple black smuggler's coat and white shirt was beside the point. Leia busied herself with her controls to keep her face from turning an uncharacteristic shade of red.

The threat of the annoying blush diminished in seconds as her thoughts turned from Captain Solo to the Rebel Alliance. Familiar nagging worries plundered her mind. Relocating an entire base was not one of the easiest tasks she had undertaken, and hundreds of unpredicted problems arose daily. The first problem to overcome had been deciding where to move. Once the commanding officers determined that Hoth's unsavory climate was the perfect hideout for a band of outlaws, the formidable chore of removing equipment from the Yavin base had begun, and now, months later, it was just barely completed. Everything the Rebellion owned was safely stored in roughly carved caverns deep inside the icy glaciers of Hoth.

Though the location of the base was still a closely guarded secret, Leia constantly felt the insane fear tickling the back of her mind that one day the Empire would discover them again. She doubted that the Alliance could withstand another heavy battle so soon after the fight above the Death Star. Their numbers were much reduced now as it was, yet they were constantly in need of fresh supplies.

Without warning, the familiar despair engulfed her. Leia was generally an optimistic, though realistic, member of the Alliance. But there were times, when she was alone and tired, that doubts came to nag and chip away at her small reserve of energy. Now the doubts flooded her mind, bringing defeat with them. What was she doing? Why was she here, getting supplies? For what? For the Rebellion? What could she possibly do for the Rebellion? What, for that matter, could the Rebellion do against the vast, powerful, oppressive Empire? They had had one major victory, true, but at such a high cost that it had almost been the end of their resistance. And now, here she was, still playing savior to these hopeful idealists who had no chance of succeeding against such overwhelming odds. But the sense of responsibility her father had handed down to her drove her to keep trying to help, to keep leading, because she instinctively knew that, though it felt hopeless, she was the best person to handle the job. There was so much to get done, so much suffering to be stopped, so many desperate people to be saved, to be fed....

Fear again tickled her mind at the very real possibility of her eventual failure, fear that bordered on hysterical panic. But Leia refused to acknowledge that fear. She could not, would not, fail. The galaxy would become too awful to be borne if she did. So she hurried on, allowing the fear to brush her mind because it drove her to achieve more than anybody else could. Yet, even when she ignored the fact, one piece of her brain, and even her heart, remained consistently detached to concentrate primarily on Captain Solo. And there were times when her troubles piled around her in drifts and she wished she could push the deactivation switch for that part of her brain.

Such as right now, she thought sourly. There were too many important things to do to waste even a spare moment to think about Han. If only she was sure of the supply of parts and machinery promised from Ord Mantell! If only she knew that there would be enough food to keep every member of the Alliance from starving next week! If only these doubts would go away for a few hours and leave her in peace! Leia sighed raggedly into the serene quiet of the cockpit and closed her eyes for a moment, just to rest.

``Hey,'' came the oddly gentle response from Han. ``Worried?''

Rather than calming her rampaging concerns, the tenderness in his voice irritated and, perhaps, frightened her enough to make her snap, ``What do you care? All you're concerned about is receiving the free parts Rieekan promised you for this beat-up piece of scrap metal!''

Han gaped at her, his mouth frozen open and wrinkles of surprise crisscrossing his forehead. ``Now wait a minute!'' His surprise dissolved into a glare of anger. ``I was trying to be nice! I know how important that tech equipment and those ships are. If you don't get them, you might as well say goodbye to the Rebellion. And if Ord Mantell didn't need to lose so many hot ships, we could never fix a deal like this one. I thought maybe it might help to talk about it.'' Han's cheeks tightened. ``I guess that's what I get for trying to understand royalty.'' With a jerk he turned back to the controls to guide the Falcon through the last of the small planet's atmosphere.

Leia's instant desire to apologize for her remark was superseded when the Falcon entered a stream of heavy traffic heading towards Atlantis, the Northern hemisphere's capitol city. Most business and political dealings for the entire planet took place in Atlantis. In fact, after all was accounted for, there just wasn't much to offer on Ord Mantell. Which, of course, made it a perfect planet for the Alliance's rather shady dealings.

``Well, this is great,'' Han said sarcastically a moment later. ``A few hours chat with the local yokels, a quick meal of what could possibly be the worst food we'll ever taste, and no Imperials to brighten up our day. What a life, eh, Your Worship? Or aren't you used to dealing with the roughs of smuggling worlds? Want me to come along to the chambers, as a bit of... protection, shall we say?''

At his comment, Leia glanced at him from the corner of her eyes. Her desire to apologize vanished just as quickly as her thoughts of Han being even remotely handsome. ``Just fly the ship, Captain, and let me handle the politicians who lord it over you smugglers.''

``Well, that's fine because I have business of my own to take care of,'' Han answered. His gruffness covered the inexplicable hurt he felt at her swift refusal of his help.

Leia's curiosity rose. ``What business? Do you have a hot date with one of those famous Mantellian dancing girls?'' The idea of Han even having an intelligent conversation with a female seemed quite hilarious to Leia.

Han gave her a half smile in return. ``You just handle your diplomacy, Princess, and let me deal with the hard stuff.''

``Very funny, Solo.'' Leia flipped the comm switch closed and watched the green light flick off on the panel to her right. ``Preparing for docking. Comm is off, and I'm awaiting your word to disengage locking seals.''

Han laughed at her nonchalant tone. He knew very well that she was curious as hell to hear what his business was. ``Don't worry, Your Worship, it's just a little favor for Rieekan. Nothing to get your interest up.''

Leia snorted. ``Nothing you do will ever interest me.'' She smiled dourly at the cockpit window as Han maneuvered his ship between two slower vehicles, then settled it carefully in the first available docking hangar. She released the locking hatches without waiting for his approval. ``See you at the Council building in one hour. And, Solo,'' she said as she rose from her chair and glanced confidently over her shoulder. ``Do your best to stay out of trouble. We don't need any problems here.''

``Me?'' Han shut down the engines and gave one ear to the decreasing whine of his ship while still paying attention to Leia. ``You're dealing with politicians; you should be the one who's worried.''

``This is my element,'' she casually reminded him. ``I have everything under control.''

Leia didn't feel so secure or confident in herself an hour later.

The meeting had started out a disaster when the council as a whole denied the fact that they had ever made a deal with the Rebel Alliance. So Leia was forced to start from scratch, all the while knowing that she was simply being toyed with and that every man seated at the carved oval table was enjoying the show. The meeting steadily worsened as the members argued among themselves about prices and negotiations, yet were unable to come to any sort of agreement. She looked down the long table and watched the head council member, Reda Gor, sit back in his chair, a calm smirk on his lean face as he admired his handiwork.

Leia suspected that Gor had never wanted to release Mantell's speeder ships to the Rebellion in the first place and had invited her here for the negotiation merely for entertainment. From his grin and pleased expression, she assumed he was certainly enjoying himself. She massaged her pounding temples with the tips of her fingers and tried to ignore the growling in her stomach. It had been many hours since she had caught that quick piece of rationed meat and cheese before leaving the Rebel cruiser with Han. Her empty stomach made the shambles of the meeting even harder for her to bear.

``Gentlemen!'' she said at last, halting the talk around the table with her commanding tone. ``Can we please discuss this with a bit more civility?''

Reda Gor stood up, his thin body uncoiling from the high-backed, polished marble chair to his full, imposing seven feet. His oily grin became even oilier. ``I honestly don't understand what all the discussion is about. You know our price, Your Highness.''

``Fifty-thousand,'' interrupted a much shorter, plumper council member seated at Gor's right.

``But that's ten times the price you agreed to with Generals Rieekan and Dadonna,'' Leia protested, keeping her voice as calm and oily as Gor's. ``I fail to understand what kind of business you men are running. Either we have a deal or we don't.''

Reda Gor walked unhurriedly toward the princess, his hand trailing languidly along the edges of the chairs surrounding the table. The movement was supposed to remind Leia of the plain wooden chair she herself was seated in, thus subconsciously imprinting in her mind her own inferiority in this matter. Unlike the council president, she was not amused.

``Perhaps the Rebel Alliance has a problem with the payment schedule we set up?'' Gor asked when he stood beside Leia's chair.

She refused to crane her neck to look him in the face. Instead she leaned back, steepled her fingers in total lack of interest, and sighed. She knew she could not let these pompous men have an inkling of how badly the Rebels needed their ships and technical equipment, or any deal would be lost. Though at least now he was admitting to a former bargain, or intimating that some type of agreement had been made prior to her arrival. Then a comment Han had made during their arrival came suddenly to mind. Leia smiled. ``Perhaps Ord Mantell doesn't need to sell so many questionable speeders as I've recently heard?'' she probed questioningly to the other men at the table. ``Nasty rumors like that spread so quickly through the smuggling sectors of the galaxy.'' And thank the gods Han had picked up on that choice bit of information or she would have had nothing to bargain with.

Her words had the effect she desired. She saw a few worried glances pass between several of the council members. She added a little more fuel to their doubts. ``And it's amazing how the Empire so effortlessly eradicates any planet suspected of smuggling in this pristine sector of space.''

Gor took a step back. ``It is, isn't it?'' he agreed conversationally, though his eyes lacked the friendliness his tone implied. It was true that the Imperials had been troubling Mantell ships with increasing regularity of late, and that was no secret, not even to the Rebellion. One word from an anonymous source that illegal and profitable smuggling was going on right under the Imperials' noses, and that would be the end of business on this planet. Permanently. She had hit a sore spot and scored. Reda Gor whipped his robe away from his ankles in a show of bravado and grinned acerbicly. ``I always say that it is important to understand the purposes of your business partners, Princess,'' was the man's enigmatic response.

``Yes, I believe that's sound advice, Reda Gor.'' Leia smiled up at him and calmly crossed her legs while her heart pounded so hard in her chest it hurt to breathe. They simply had to agree to the Alliance's offer! Though she had been sent to Ord Mantell to reduce the suggested price, now she would count herself lucky if they agreed to any price at all. She waited with exaggerated patience to see what he would do.

The tall, powerful man raised his palms upward in a good-natured show of defeat and turned to his council. ``Gentlemen, I'm sure that we can agree on some sort of deal with such a beautiful and talented young lady as Miss Organa. Now, I suggest that we go over our original bargain and see where....''

A sudden commotion from the outer office abruptly halted Gor's voice and the door burst open, admitting a very irate Han Solo, followed closely by Gor's personal secretary, a burly, one-eyed human who looked like he would be more comfortable in a bar fight than acting as secretary to a council president. His long fingers hooked into Han's shoulder, pulling the starship smuggler to a fast stop. ``Just a minute, punk!'' he growled, his voice so low that Leia was certain she saw his chest vibrate even from her seat across the room.

Han whirled and pushed the man's arm away. ``Hands off, pal! I just came here to inquire what's taking so long. The princess is a very busy woman and has far more important things to do than twiddle her thumbs all day on a dump like Ord Mantell.''

Leia swallowed the groan that rose to her lips. Leave it to Han to insult so obviously than even these windbags would know that it was intended. She rose from her chair and said, ``Reda Gor, may I introduce Captain Solo to you? Han, Reda Gor, council president.''

Gor offered his hand to Han. ``Solo? Ah, yes, the smuggler turned Rebel, captain of the Millennium Falcon.''

``That's right.'' Han shook the offered hand, then wiped his palm on his trouser leg to remove that disgustingly soft, wet feeling he always associated with politicians. ``Am I interrupting?''

``Not at all! In fact, I'm glad you arrived when you did; it makes things much easier.'' Reda Gor indicated the chair next to Leia's. ``Please join us and we'll all try to work this out together.'' As he turned away to head back to his seat, he gave the barest of nods to his secretary.

Leia noticed the action and also understood what was meant by it. The game was up. Because of Han's insult, it was all over now. From the corner of her eyes, she saw the burly man reach for her and Han, and she swiveled as fast as she could to get out of range of the man's grasp.

But faster than any of them was Han's draw. In a fraction of a breath, he had his blaster in his hand and was aiming at the frozen figure of Reda Gor. ``Hold on, boys. You touch one hair on her head and you'll have more things to worry about than your Imperial friends diving a little deeper into your sales records. Now call him off! Or do I have to put a hole in your chest to prove my sincerity?''

The secretary's hand hovered inches over Leia's head as Gor faced Han and his threats. There was no doubt that Solo was as good as his words by the dangerous gleam in his eye.

Then Reda Gor laughed. ``Your reputation is quite accurate, Captain Solo.''

``And so is yours,'' Han countered. He jerked his head at the secretary, his eyebrows raised in question.

Gor shrugged and waved the burly man away. ``Yes, yes, enough of these theatrics. Go on, Udard, there will be more fun another day.''

Udard grunted, and his breath washed over Leia with a stench that rivaled only the sewer pits on the outskirts of the city. She grimaced, but the man rumbled away, leaving her free to become furious with Han. She strangled her anger, allowing only a tight smile to the captain to indicate her emotions.

``Of course, you understand I had to try,'' continued Reda Gor, his smile much friendlier than Leia's. ``Do we have a deal?''

``Do you have the price?'' she managed to ask.

``Ten thousand, as I agreed earlier.''

Protests rose from the men standing idle around the table, and he hushed them with a curt wave of his hand. ``Enough. There is always a price for entertainment, my fellow councilmen. And we have to admit that the princess is a very charming customer.'' His smile grew.

Han shuffled his boots against the floor as the conversation swiftly moved out of his realm to the more mundane matters of finalizing the agreement. But he didn't lower his guard or return his weapon to its holster, not even when it appeared the meeting was coming to a very friendly close. He simply could not trust Reda Gor.

``We will load the boosters and other equipment today. A transport will be here for the speeders no later than tomorrow evening.'' Leia stood up, her authority once more restored after Han's brash entrance. ``Can I expect my men to have no trouble attaining the sales release for the speeders?''

``Of course, Your Highness.'' Reda Gor smiled even more, and Han felt the blood freeze in his stomach.

``See that they don't,'' the smuggler said, that dangerous, half-crazed look still in his eyes. With no other word, he offered his hand to Leia and motioned her ahead of him from the room. A glare at Udard kept the secretary on the other side of the outer office as they quickly departed the council building and Han felt secure enough to reholster his weapon.

Once they were again in the street and away from councilors' eyes, Leia ripped her arm free of Han's guiding hand. She whirled on him, allowing her fury to show itself at last. ``What did you think you were doing?'' she demanded hotly.

Han stopped short, surprised by her outburst but knowing he should have expected it all along. ``I was trying to help,'' he explained patiently.

``I had everything under control until you barged in and....''

Han put his balled fists on his hips and confronted her. ``Did you now? You would be a roasted Rebel right now if it hadn't been for me! Reda Gor does not have a reputation for dealing fairly or humanely with anybody, not excluding the Rebel Alliance!''

Leia glared at him. ``I am perfectly aware of Gor's reputation and how to handle him! He was about to agree to the generals' bargain when you burst into the room, guns blazing and mouth shooting off faster than a laser cannon. We're lucky he didn't have us both arrested and fed to the Imperials!'' She drew a deep breath, and her face grew warm, then hot enough to compare with the rage burning inside her mind. ``I resent the way you butted in, just to be the hero again, Han. From now on, stay out of my business and stay away from me!'' Leia turned her back on him then and stomped down the crushed stone sidewalk, away from the council building and towards the docking platforms.

Honestly, what the hell was he thinking? she fumed to herself. She was still so mad, it was hard to see where she was heading. He's a little boy! A stupid, lazy, selfish, little smuggling RAT! He could have ruined the whole deal, all my work and worry gone, just like that! All on the count of his damned ego!

Leia continued a few steps further, the heals of her black boots digging holes in the sea of red stone bordering the crowded street. Han grabbed her arm and painfully yanked her to a stop. ``Take your hand off me!'' she ordered, furious.

Han's finger pointed only centimeters from her nose. ``Now hold on a minute, Sweetheart. Don't get any ideas that I ran into that meeting to save your ridiculous deals! I don't give a damn how many ground speeders the Rebellion has.''

``I don't want any more of your excuses, Solo!'' she interrupted.

``This is not an excuse! If you would shut that royal mouth of yours long enough to listen to someone besides yourself, you might learn something interesting!''

Leia clamped her mouth shut. ``This had better be good,'' she hissed.

When Han was sure she was listening, he continued, ``I just happened to be in the front office, waiting for you, as Your Holiness commanded if you can take the time to remember, and I heard a very strange beep from the direction of our friendly secretary.''

Leia's anger paused long enough for her eyes to narrow in curiosity. ``A beep? What kind of a beep?''

One corner of Han's mouth lifted into a scornful sneer. ``The kind of beep that might come from a silent security beacon.''

Leia's eyes widened, and some of her anger slipped away. ``A security beacon? You mean....''

Han gave a grim nod. ``Yeah. Somebody in your friendly little council was trying to turn the tables back in their favor. The minute things seemed to be going your way, the Council called in reinforcements to help `convince' you to rethink your offer. I figured a distraction might put a hitch in their plans. But it was just luck that I beat Mr. Muscle to the door.''

Leia's eyes widened even further, and she took a shivery breath as the full possibilities of the council's actions hit her. ``They could have taken me prisoner, maybe even turned me over to the Empire and...and Vader.''

Han's mouth tightened to an even grimmer line when he saw the stark fear exposed in the princess' eyes. He wondered what the hell Darth Vader had done to her on the Death Star to bring such a reaction from the stalwart princess. He instinctively reached out a hand to pat her arm in an awkward show of comfort, and she was so preoccupied that she forgot to tell him to get his hand away from her. ``Don't worry, Princess. I don't think the government on Ord Mantell can afford any Imperial mixups right now. But we should load those supplies, fast, so we can get out of here.''

Leia shook off the numbing effect of Han's news and said, ``We don't want to push our luck.''

``That's right. Come on.'' He turned and crossed the street, his hand still wrapped securely around Leia's arm. Her arm was tiny under his large, rough fingers, and he liked the delicate feel of it after years of touching nothing softer than Chewbacca's furry pelt. The sensation of protectiveness he suddenly felt for the princess had not diminished since he burst into that conference room, and though he was strangely reveling in this unusual role of protector, it caused a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach at the same time. Where was his fierce desire for freedom, for the open realms of space? Apparently it had temporarily deserted him. Han wasn't sure he liked these new feelings; they confused his concepts of the world. Where only a few short years ago he had been very sure of who he was and where he was going, now he didn't know anything except that he had strange, tender feelings for the spirited woman walking beside him. He didn't understand anything anymore.

Leia too was battling desires foreign to her nature. For whatever reasons he had, Han had probably saved her life in that meeting, or at least kept her from extreme discomfort as a prisoner at the hands of Reda Gor. She knew he deserved her thanks for his help. But somehow the words would not come. Of course Han had rescued her before, from the oppressive Death Star and its evil master Lord Vader, yet this time was different. As far as she knew, there was no money involved, no reward to tempt the roguish pilot to risk his life to save hers. And he was still acting the savior as he steered her safely across the street crowded with people dressed in colorful cloaks and swirling skirts, military uniforms and pilot jackets similar to Han's. He navigated through the throng and around roaring speeders and ground bikes and skyhoppers with as much skill as he guided the Falcon through battles in space. Yet his hand encircling her arm was gentle, conveying a sense of security after the close call with Reda Gor.

It had been a long time since anyone had been gentle with Leia Organa.

The gentleness compelled her to say in a faltering voice, ``Han, I guess I should...well, should...thank you for...for what you did.''

Her reluctance at such a speech was obvious, though Han realized her sincerity was genuine, and his extraordinary feelings for her intensified. He almost smiled proudly down at her and wanted to explain that he was glad he had been there to help.

He stopped himself just in time. What am I thinking? he chided himself. He was Han Solo, space smuggler, gambler, thief, the independent pilot who relied on nobody. He preferred to have his life exactly as it always had been, free of any ties. He had to stop these hideous, abhorrent sensations before they completely ran away with him! To prove his intentions to himself and to Princess Leia, he dropped his hand from her arm and roughly said, ``Forget it. Just doing my duty to General Rieekan.'' But despite his protestations, the confusion Leia unexpectedly aroused in him remained.

Leia blinked. His duty to Rieekan? Heat suddenly suffused her cheeks as she realized what a fool she was acting. Naturally he would see it as a duty he had to perform. Han Solo harbored no gentle feelings for her. She was simply another mission, an assignment from the general. The realization cut more than she thought it possibly could, though she buried the hurt deep inside. If he was going to be his typical crass self, she was damned if she would let him see a softer side of her nature. ``Well, thanks,'' Leia said shortly, like she'd expected his services all along, not caring if she did sound ungrateful.

Leia Organa was looking away, down the street, so she missed Han Solo wince at her abrupt, imperious tone. Her words wounded him as effectively as his had hurt her.

The conversation came to a halt as they gained the opposite side of the street and began walking on the outskirts of the crowd heading for the warehouses and docking hangars. Han still felt disgruntled when they passed through the main restaurant area, and the fact that they now had to battle food vendors and a milling noonday crowd did nothing to soothe his cross temper or his bruised ego. He impatiently pushed between two men who were blocking the walkway as they talked and ate their lunch, and Leia hurried to follow him. The two men called some obscenities at them, but they were lost in the crowd too quickly for a confrontation to develop.

Finally Leia had to pull aggressively on Han's coat to get him to reduce his pace. ``Han, will you slow down? Pushing and shoving your way through a crowd like this isn't exactly the way to stay out of trouble and avoid the authorities,'' she said as her eyes settled on an open vendor just ahead on their side of the busy street. ``Besides, I'm hungry. Let's at least get something to eat while we walk to the warehouse.'' She started forward, obviously expecting Han to follow. When it was obvious that standing stubbornly in the middle of the walk wasn't doing him any good, he reluctantly joined her.

Leia ordered two garaks, gave one to Han, and carefully wrapped the bottom half of hers in a thin towel the vendor offered her. The ragged man grinned, his mouth gaping with no teeth, when she handed him a semi-rare Alderaanian coin in payment for their lunch. As she suspected, the man didn't argue or haggle over the money, making for a quiet transaction that attracted absolutely no attention. Which was exactly what Leia wanted. Together Han and Leia moved back to the strolling crowd.

``You know, you're not going to like this,'' Han said, casually indicating her choice of lunch. He purposefully peeled away several layers of green crusted dough and dropped the crumbs to the ground before taking a large bite of the meats and spices that stuffed the center of the pocket of dough.

Leia rolled her eyes. ``I have eaten garaks before, Han. Though I admit these are an odd color, they're perfect for a quick meal.'' She took a bite and chewed heartily, looking around at the crowd with watchful curiosity.

The next thing she knew, her mouth was on fire and she hastily spat the bite of garak into the towel the vendor had given her. She took a gulp of air, and her face turned red.

Han laughed, his sour mood lifting at the sight of such red cheeks. ``I told you.''

``You might have warned me!'' She glared up at him, still sucking in air to cool her burning tongue. Now she wished she'd remembered to order something to drink along with her food.

``I did!'' he protested good-naturedly.

``Maybe a little more detail would have helped!'' Leia shook her head until she felt cool enough to take a closer look at the garak. ``What is this stuff?''

``Formosa,'' Han answered and pointed at the green bread-like pocket.

``Formosa?'' Leia queried with raised eyebrows.

``Yeah,'' he answered. ``Fermented beta beans mixed in the dough. Makes it turn green. Very disgusting.''

Leia snorted a laugh. ``That's the understatement of the galaxy.''

Han smiled. ``Well, I admit this is the first time I've seen royalty spit out their food,'' he joked and grinned even more.

``That's not funny. Now just how am I supposed to eat this thing?''

``Here.'' Han licked his fingers and transferred his garak to his left hand, leaving his right free to help the princess. ``Peel all this stuff off, like this.'' He quickly pulled the top two layers of green crust back from the dough. ``When you can see the meat through the dough, you can eat it.''

Leia daintily pushed at the green mess. ``It's not poisonous, is it?''

``Poisonous? Come on, Your Highness, give me some credit. I wouldn't let you eat it if it could kill you.'' Han casually glanced away as he spoke, hopefully giving Leia the impression that he was still simply doing his hired duty to the Rebel Alliance. Yet even as he spoke, he knew exactly how much he meant those words.

Leia's raised eyebrows brought his mind back to the present. ``On the other hand,'' he explained, ``I thought it might be fun to see your reaction to Mantellian cuisine.''

The raised eyebrows lowered to a crease above her eyes, and Leia scowled. ``Someday, Solo!'' she warned.

He winked wickedly, then pointed at her garak. ``Eat, before it gets cold.''

Leia sneered at his back while she finished eating the garak's not-so-spicy inside fillings. Juice dribbled down her fingers and stained the cuffs of the long-sleeved tunic she wore, but she had dropped her towel in a convenient waste receptacle after she spit her food into it and therefore had nothing to keep the juice from running to her elbows. She noticed that many passersby carried extra towels while they ate, and she wished she had asked the vendor for more. But of course, she hadn't known about the type of food that was popular on a planet she'd never visited before. ``Han,'' she asked when there was room enough on the busy walkway to walk beside him again, ``how do you know so much about Ord Mantell?''

Solo shrugged. ``Chewie and I have had some business dealings here. In fact, on our last visit, we had a rather public disagreement with the authorities. Had to blast our way off-planet. Lost a good deflector dish in that one.''

Leia blinked at him in surprise. ``And you think it's safe to come back?''

Han waved her concerns aside. ``I can't even count how many years ago it was.''

She nodded once. ``That doesn't surprise me.''

Solo gave a lopsided grimace and went on with his history of Ord Mantell. ``It's a small planet, really, pretty far beneath the notice of Imperial bureaucrats, yet still on several major shipping routes. Ideal for smuggling, eh, Princess?''

``So I can see,'' she agreed, taking another look around at the people in the crowd. ``Is everybody here involved in smuggling?''

Han glanced around as well. ``Probably, in one form or another. It's also an excellent place for any imaginable kind of shady business: gambling, slave trading, prostitution, assassination -- you name it, it's all here.''

``Hmm. Not the place I'd want to spend my vacation.''

Han smiled. ``I don't know, Princess. There's an awful lot of posh clubs here. You could have a quiet drink, talk to some questionable though undeniably handsome starship pilots, cavort with an incredibly voluptuous dancing girl whose only desire is your happiness....''

Leia cut him off. ``Solo, you make me sick.''

He laughed. Loudly. Leia sneered her disgust and looked away.

Solo's loud guffaw attracted the attention of a provocatively dressed woman leaning casually against the stones of a nearby building. The tight-fitting trousers she wore were black and shiny and left very little of her hidden legs to the imagination. Her bright red blouse barely covered her torso and contrasted perfectly with her long, pure black hair that swung freely against her back and hips. She smiled at Han, showing her snowy white teeth, and came forward, smoothly bumping Leia aside in one elegant swing of her hips.

``Hello there,'' she said, her voice low and rough, as if she'd breathed too much smoke from one too many clubs. ``You seem to be enjoying yourself, pilot. Need any help for more good times?''

Han paused, unable to resist such a promising opportunity. The woman was indeed eye-catching and was exactly what he typically looked for in a fling of her offering: tall, seductive, encouraging, and with no strings attached.

But Princess Leia was glaring at him from narrowed eyes. ``If you think I'm going to wait patiently while you chat with a local hussy, your deluded brain has finally cracked.''

The woman glanced haughtily down at Leia. ``Who are you calling a hussy, you plain little simpleton?''

One regal cheek twitched and Leia's jaw tightened. Han knew that look very well, and he braced himself.

Leia's voice was deceitfully calm as she said, ``Let me remind you, Captain, that you are working for me and we have unfinished business to take care of. As for you--" She threw her own insolent glance at the taller woman. ``Don't mess with me or I'll have you sent to the incarceration camps on Gamma Forty-nine. Your particular talents should be in great demand there.'' Her scathing glare returned to Han. ``Get moving, or you may join her.'' Then she turned and curtly walked away, her dignity prevailing over the situation. Only her tightly balled fists indicated her flaring anger.

Why did she even try? Han always had been and always would be a self-centered egotist who cared little for anybody else. And why would he bother to care about her welfare in the council chambers if he was so easily distracted by such a...a...a woman! Leia angrily clenched her teeth and continued walking away from Han and his `friend.' Not that it mattered to her what Han Solo did with himself or who he did it with, she reminded herself. She could get on very well without him. In fact, she preferred it that way.

``What's wrong with her?'' the woman asked, throwing a glance at Leia's departing figure.

Han smiled affably and said loud enough for Leia and several other people to hear, ``Oh, she's just jealous.'' He patted the woman's arm and hurried after the princess.

He couldn't believe it; Leia Organa was truly jealous! Han grinned, filled with a curious sense of delight at this discovery. He wasn't even offended by her commanding tone that he generally despised. Perhaps the princess wasn't the coldhearted woman he'd always thought her to be. Maybe there were softer spots buried under that arrogant, royal veneer. Whatever the case, Han found himself looking at Princess Leia in an entirely different light.

Leia could not help but overhear that comment. I am NOT jealous! she protested silently, even though she had known the minute the word was spoken aloud that it was true. Leia Organa was jealous -- of Han Solo! How could she live this down, especially considering the poor light she so publicly held Han in? What if word somehow leaked out to others in the Rebellion? She paused for a second at that thought, then shuddered at the image of Han telling Luke or anybody else back at the fleet. Oh, it was too humiliating to even be considered! She pretended she had not heard his latest outburst and ignored the pangs of obvious heartache that crept once, then twice, through her mind. Well, perhaps she was jealous, just a very tiny bit. However, she warned herself to fiercely guard against these emotions and the captain's intended barbs in the future; she had to keep these insidious feelings for him a secret at all costs!

Leia managed to stay one step ahead of him the remainder of the walk to the warehouse so she would have an excuse not to look at him when he spoke. And he did speak, cheerily and incessantly, all the way to their destination. Leia was glad that the spicy meats she was eating hid the fact that her face glowed red from blushing every time he addressed her. The whole situation was unbearable, even more so since she had no clue how to handle it.

She wanted to bow down and kiss the floor when they reached warehouse and storage bins #2227. The aura of command fell about her shoulders like a warm, familiar cloak, and the next hour rushed by in ordering an antigrav flatbed and supervising the loading of the boosters, consoles, computers, wiring, and sensor relays. She was definitely in her realm as she cajoled the workers to be careful yet to hurry at the same time. She noticed that Han kept a particularly watchful eye on every activity that the workers were involved in. He was taking no chances of having a repeat of the incident in the council chambers, and Leia appreciated his close scrutiny more than she cared to admit, even to herself.

Still, they had no trouble as they rode the flatbed pulled by an antiquated double-seated landspeeder from the warehouses to the docking hangar where the Millennium Falcon, securely locked against unwanted guests, patiently waited their return. Leia barely repressed a smile at the unfavorable comments from the workers on their first sight of the dilapidated freighter, but Han duly ignored their remarks. The princess supposed he had become used to such impressions of his highly prized ship.

It wasn't until most of the supplies were unloaded and restocked in the Falcon's spacious hold that Leia noticed a separate, large pile of containers in a corner by themselves. Han often carried spare parts and odds and ends with him on a mission, so she wasn't surprised until she had the chance to take a closer look at the identification markings. The cases held food, preshrunk and dehydrated for easy transportation. Vegetables, meats, carbohydrates, snacks -- enough variety to keep even the children in the Rebel Alliance content for quite some time. And all of it was appropriate for the cold storage that Hoth so freely provided.

Leia sat down on a convenient booster, too stunned to stand any longer. A brief thought that Han was smuggling something else entirely in those canisters flashed across her mind, but she discounted it instantly; Solo would never leave smuggled goods out in the open like that, even if they were disguised. He would store them in the specially constructed hidden compartments located somewhere on the freighter. So this, she decided, was most definitely food, and since Han could not possibly eat so much food in ten years by himself, she concluded that it must be food for the Rebellion. But neither Rieekan nor Dodonna had mentioned anything about collecting an order of food from Ord Mantell.

Princess Leia was still puzzling when Han entered the hold, ducking his head to keep it from banging on the hatch's low threshold.

The crease of hurry and worry eased from between his eyes at the sight of the baffled Leia. ``A gift, from my friend Jacobi and the Assembly of Retired Growers, as a show of support and encouragement to the holy Rebel Alliance.''

Leia was still too stunned to do anything but ask, ``The holy Alliance?''

A look of patient tolerance settled on his lean face. ``Yeah. They all think every person in the Rebellion is some sort of god. Heroes, every last one of them.'' The dry, sarcastic tone made Leia smile.

``How did you stand such a speech?'' she asked, lightly mocking.

``It wasn't easy,'' he admitted ruefully. ``I did my best to tell my friend Jacobi the reality of the situation, but he's too much like Luke; an idealist. He wouldn't listen, just insisted that I take as much food as we could carry back to the fleet. He would have given me more, but I didn't feel quite right imposing on him so heavily. The Assembly isn't the wealthiest group in the Empire.''

``They gave us all this food,'' she repeated softly. It never failed, she thought. Just when it looked as if the entire galaxy had gone to hell, one person did something incredible to remind her that it was worth the energy to keep fighting, to keep that degenerate chaos at bay for one day more. Aloud she continued, ``This was your little business for Rieekan, wasn't it?''

Now Han looked somewhat embarrassed, and he put his hands on his hips in a great effort to hide it. ``Well, I mentioned that I might be able to talk to my friends, to maybe persuade them to donate a canister or two. I had no idea that they would be so...enthusiastic.''

Leia recalled the scorn with which she had held Han's "business" when they had arrived on Ord Mantell. She too felt the threads of mortification sew through her sensibilities. ``Why didn't you tell me?'' she asked softly.

Solo gave his characteristic shrug, attempting to lighten the mood that had invaded his ship. ``I didn't want to get your hopes up. For all I knew, they could have laughed in my face.'' He watched her continue to sit like a frozen droid on the booster, and the relieved expression on her face practically broke his resolve to remain the independent pilot he'd always been.

In fact, he actually took a step forward before his strong common sense regained the ground lost to his rampaging emotions. What was the deal here? Was he getting soft in his relative inactivity with the Rebellion? It was that sappy, grateful look on her face, he decided. He never could bear a grateful woman.

To combat his softer feelings from a moment earlier, he spoke harshly, ``Well, don't fall apart at a little charity, Princess. Likely enough the Rebellion won't last long enough to eat it anyway.''

As he wished, the relief vanished from her eyes. The coldness that replaced it was far more familiar, though much less desired. Leia's jaw tightened, and with amazing control she said, ``The Alliance appreciates your effort, Captain Solo. We are again in your debt, as we have been for inexplicable reasons for the last two years now. As always, I'm sure the generals will find a suitable reward for you upon our return.'' She rose, her cold formality making her tall and terrible. ``I must settle accounts with the warehouse personnel; I'll do my best to keep you from waiting.'' She stormed past him and hurried from the freighter while her words hung like an icy death over Han's unmoving form.

It was better this way, he firmly told himself. She was too much of a royal pain for him to be seriously interested in, he convinced himself. He preferred that she hate him rather than see that look of repulsive vulnerability on her little face, he lied to himself.

No matter what he said to himself, he couldn't erase the sight of her as his biting words destroyed the very hope he had spent an hour that morning attaining. He had purposely hurt her. And though it was what he thought he wanted, instead of feeling pleased with himself, he felt like he'd just made the biggest mistake of his life.

Thus, with his mind preoccupied and pondering his confused emotions for the princess, he was easy prey for Bali the moment he walked down the ramp of his ship.

``Well, well, well. Look who I just happened to bump into.'' A large, concealing hood nearly covered the man's entire head, giving the impression that his deep voice rumbled out of a vacuum instead of a mouth. ``It must be my lucky day.''

Han silently reviled his lax caution that had allowed the bounty hunter to surprise him so completely. It's what he deserved, he knew, for allowing himself to dwell on a woman. As Leia crossed his mind, he glanced wildly around, expecting to see her shackled to the wall for use as a hostage, but he saw no sign of the princess, and his throbbing heart quieted enough for him to concentrate on the man standing before him. ``If it isn't Captain Bali. The last time I saw you, you were headed for swamp duty on Fenland. Was the stench too much for you?'' he asked sardonically.

Bali laughed, a guttural, mirthless vibration in his chest, and he pushed his hood back to reveal his pale blue eyes, thin lips, and large hooked nose. ``Still the same old Solo; brash to the point of either great courage or endless stupidity.''

It was the nose, Han decided, that always made him think that Bali wasn't altogether human. The nose, or perhaps the smell. ``I'm doing business here, Bali. What do you want?'' He feigned a nonchalant stance, and edged his hand a few inches closer to his blaster.

Bali's thin lips grew thinner as he smiled. ``You have the highest price on your head in this quadrant of the galaxy and you ask that question? You know what I want, Solo. First, your blaster.'' A fine example of the weapon he requested materialized from the folds of his voluminous cloak as he spoke, and the muzzle aimed more or less at Han's vital organs. Han's hand froze inches from his own blaster and he took a quick step back as Bali continued. ``I still hear stories of your excellent incineration of poor Greedo on Tatooine. I don't intend to be your next tall tale.''

Han protested, his actions displaying the innocence of a man mightily wronged. ``Oh come on, Bali, you know how stories get exaggerated! Gredo was a bit overexcited that day. I honestly had nothing to do with his death. It was a tragedy even to me'' Keep him talking, keep him talking until somebody, anybody, interrupts. A laborer, a workman, a droid for God's sake! The syrupy words flowed from Han as he wondered if the entire population of Ord Mantell had just vanished; he'd never seen a docking hangar so deserted before in his life.

Because the hangar was unusually quiet, Leia heard Han's ridiculous affirmations of innocence before she caught sight of the two men in close discussion just outside the Falcon. When she did see them, the first detail she noticed was the blaster so delicately pointed at Solo's chest, and cold tingles crept up her scalp to settle on her forehead. She gulped her astonishment and stopped just behind the wall sectioning off the hangar's administrative offices. Paying and dismissing the council's crew had cooled some of her previous anger, and now the sight of Han at gunpoint took precedence over her emotions. It created entirely new emotions, fear being the most prominent. She had to do something, and fast! Han could be a sweet-talker, she knew, but not even the famous wit of Han Solo could keep him safe forever.

Quickly she cast about for a weapon, but only the cold, shiny floor of the hangar met her gaze. There weren't any stray tools left laying around, nothing she could even throw as a distraction.

A distraction, that was it! What would distract a man? she considered fiercely, commanding her mind to think. A man, a man, a man, distract a man...a woman?

A woman had definitely distracted Han easily enough that day. But that had been a certain type of woman....

Leia glanced quickly down at her clothes. Well, they weren't exactly of the same cut as that other creature's, but they were all she had. She tucked her long tunic into her breeches, then pulled the belt tight enough to show off her slim waist, yet loose enough so she could still breath. Then she unlaced the cord holding the two sides of the tunic's front together, letting the soft gray material fall away and reveal as much of her endowments as she dared. Even then she was not, however, as voluptuous as that other woman. But if she talked smooth enough, neither man would notice.

Was that all? What else might set her apart, might convince that man that she was a woman of dubious pleasures?

A hand raised to her hair, and without thought, Leia pulled at the pins and combs that imprisoned her long dark hair in the tight, unappealing mass of braids and knots at the back of her head. Her fingers deftly threaded through the braids, freeing the strands to swing softly across her back. She fluffed it invitingly around her small face and was glad she didn't have a mirror to see her reflection. She might have begun laughing hysterically if she could see herself.

With no more than a vague notion of somehow wresting the bounty hunter's gun from him, she pushed herself away from the wall and took a few steps towards the men. Smaller steps, she ordered herself. And swing your hips! Doing her best imitation of the sleaziest woman she could imagine, Leia sidled across the twenty yards separating her from her victims.

``There you are!'' she said, her voice loud and uncertain in her ears. She winced, turned the expression to a pouting frown, and lowered her voice until in sounded huskier than Chewbacca's grunts. ``I have been looking just everywhere for you.'' Leia playfully grabbed the collar of Han's jacket and pushed him back a step to make room for her slight body between him and the edge of the other man's blaster. She smiled seductively up at him, and when her back was safely to the bounty hunter, she winked.

Han's eyes were wide as he shook her hands loose from his coat. ``What the...?'' he began while trying to move Leia out of immediate range of the blaster. He had no idea what she was up to, and he wasn't about to question his luck at her arrival; a few more moments alone with Bali and he would have been trussed up tighter than an Imperial prisoner and on his way to Jabba the Hutt. But he didn't exactly want Leia killed as a shield for him either, and Bali had a reputation for being trigger happy.

Leia glanced cattily at Han's companion but directed her next question at Solo. ``Why did you run out like that when we were having such fun? You know, you still owe me for....''

Han interrupted, ``I had urgent business.''

Bali poked his blaster negligently at Leia's arm. ``That's right, business with his old friend Bali. A small matter of payment for some ancient debts. So why don't you move along, Sweet Thing. I'll catch up to you later.''

Leia smiled smoothly at Bali, holding her breath so she wouldn't have to breathe the fetid air that issued from his grinning mouth. Didn't anybody on this planet take care of their personal hygiene? When she could breathe again, she coyly suggested, ``If you're patient, I'll get my due from our friend here and then wait for you.''

Bali's thin lips leered. ``You won't regret it,'' he promised appreciatively. ``I always said there's nothing like a Mantellian dancing girl to soothe the hardships of bounty hunting.''

A bounty hunter! Leia swallowed her surprise and ran her fingers enticingly across the barrel of the ugly blaster in Bali's hand before she turned her clinging gaze back to Captain Solo.

Had the situation not been so dangerous, Leia's look would have melted Han on the spot. As it was, her hand opened, palm up, waiting for his `payment,' and he fumbled unexpectedly at his trouser pockets. ``I'm sure I have a few coins hidden somewhere....''

Leia looked bored while she waited, her thin eyebrows arched to her regal forehead. She sighed impatiently and moved to stand directly between Solo and Bali again. Unseen by Bali, she carefully released the leather strap that kept Han's blaster securely in its holster. ``Don't tell me; no money?'' she asked to cover her actions.

Bali cackled, and Leia bit her lip to keep from gagging. ``Nothing new, Sweets,'' he said. ``Solo never could hang onto money, even when he had it. Tell you what, you help me apprehend this smuggler and I'll cut you in on the bounty.''

Han laughed then. ``You, cutting a deal? That's a new one.'' He turned on Leia, still playing along with her. ``Don't do it. He'll kill you before he ever has to pay you. Come with me instead.''

Leia archly commented, ``I make it a rule never to get involved with a man being held at blaster point.''

``Stay out of this, Solo!'' Bali rumbled. ``And keep your hands up.'' Han's hands flew up above his head in supplication. ``That's better. Now, Sweets, if you'll just step aside....'' Bali expectantly waved Leia away from Han.

Leia blinked over her shoulder. ``My pleasure,'' she practically purred and reached for Han's blaster.

Bali never saw what hit him. Leia turned and fired at close range in one beautifully fluid movement, and only the smoke curling from Han's blaster and the smell of seared flesh indicated the murder just committed. Bali's sightless eyes certainly didn't see anything, and he wouldn't be telling anybody about it any time soon.

``Dead, no question about it,'' Han muttered, flinching at the new stench of death. ``He smelled better when he was alive.'' He calmly took his blaster from the princess, noting with approval that her hand was as solid as the rock he'd always thought her to be. ``What took you so long to get here? I could have kissed you when you showed up.''

Leia dropped the dancing girl aura like it was a useless burden. Her royal eyes narrowed. ``Don't even think about it,'' she warned.

Han had an appropriate retort on the tip of his tongue, but blaster fire suddenly erupted into the floor only inches from his boot toe. He looked up to find three men fanned out in a perimeter at the open hangar doors. Reinforcements! They were pumping laser bolts at him and Leia faster than he could blink. He pulled his own weapon up and let off a few shots, more as cover than anything accurate.

``We'll discuss this later!'' Han grabbed Leia's hand and ran with her up the ramp, slapping his palm against the closing mechanism and locking the door just as a laser bolt found its mark, a microsecond too late.

``Who are they?'' Leia shouted, hurrying ahead of Han to the cockpit and, hopefully, escape.

``Men!''

``You always were master of the obvious, Solo!''

``Bounty hunters! Bali's reinforcements. I should have known he wouldn't work alone. It's not his style.'' Han threw himself into the pilot's chair and kicked the engines on with his knee as his hands flew across the controls, keying in launch commands and processing trajectories all at the same time.

Laser fire ricocheted crazily off the Millennium Falcon's reinforced outer shell, yet the freighter easily withstood the blaster bolts. But finally the entire ship shuddered as something stronger pelted it from the side, cutting off Leia's request for departure just as she finished the transmission.

``They're bringing out the heavy artillery,'' Solo muttered.

Leia glanced at him. ``They must want you bad. Out with it, Han, what did you do?''

The familiar cough-and-belch whine of the Falcon's engines filled the hangar. Leia activated the freighter's belly gun and turned it in a blaze of laser fire on the growing crowd of armed soldiers blocking the only exit from the hangar.

Han answered, ``Had to drop a shipment of spice a few years back. It was either that or get toasted by the Empire. I didn't figure Jabba would get this angry, though.''

Leia's next look was filled with astonishment. ``Jabba the Hutt?''

But Han wasn't listening. ``Hang on, Princess. This could get a bit rough.''

``But all those men! You can't just mow them down!'' she protested, pushing clinging strands of hair out of her face.

``It's either us or them. Don't worry, they'll duck.''

The Millennium Falcon shot forward, her thrusters leaving a glaring black mark on the metal floor next to Bali's inert form. Luckily, most of the men flanking the door had the foresight to throw themselves flat on the ground as the ship burst from the hangar, scorching their backs and breaking the edge of the conveniently open door in the Rebels' scramble for escape. By the time the men could climb to their feet, the Falcon was nothing but a memory.

Once on their way, leaving Ord Mantell was child's play. The scanners showed no evidence of pursuit ships, and they had not been ordered to return to the planet by Mantell authorities. Han was just starting to relax, ready to congratulate himself on yet another successful escape, when the scanners went completely berserk.

``What now?'' he barked, eyeing the console sensors. ``We're not even out of the atmosphere yet!''

Leia's voice was quiet and tense as she reported, ``One large ship, probably more bounty hunters.''

Han shook his head. ``Even Bali doesn't use this much backup. And I've never heard of a coalition of bounty hunters.''

``It's against their principles to work with anybody.''

``Exactly.''

The Falcon left Ord Mantell's green atmosphere behind and entered the serene, uncaring blackness of space. A second later a shot echoed off the freighter's port side, hitting close enough to make both Han and Leia shift in their seats in order to retain their balance.

``Well, whoever they are, they don't seem friendly,'' Han quipped as a frown puckered his forehead. ``Let's lose them.''

Leia was glad of the warning; she had just enough time to plant her feet firmly against the floor and buckle her safety belt. Then she hung on as the Millennium Falcon spiraled up, avoiding more shots fired from the other ship, shots that were meant to do more than act as a warning.

Han swung the ship around again and let off a few well-aimed bursts of his own. They struck harmlessly against the ship's shields, while the Falcon's shields slowly deteriorated with each bolt that touched its target. Solo steered his ship closer to the enemy, making it harder for them to get a solid fix on the careening freighter.

A beeping sound filled the cockpit, and Leia watched as several lights began blinking erratically on the far console. ``We're losing aft shields!'' she warned, her voice tinged with the tenseness of battle.

``What the hell are they hitting us with? Those blasts are stronger than....'' Another insistent beeping captured Solo's attention, and he flipped the switches to ready the ship for a boost of acceleration. ``The computer's plotted a course for the jump to lightspeed.''

``About time,'' Leia muttered and lurched forward as another blast reached its mark.

``Prepare for light speed.''

The Falcon flipped wildly in an arc that brought it up, around, and heading away from the attacking ship. Han thought he caught sight of Jabba the Hutt's distinctive scratchy markings emblazoned on the ship's outer hull, but he was too busy avoiding laser fire to pause for an introductory chat. His fingers curled around the hyperdrive lever, and he engaged the drive just as another bolt ripped through the shields to contact at last with the ship itself.

The sudden jump to hyperspace threw both Han and Leia back into their seats, and the laser blast threw them forward again. Sparks flew crazily from exposed wiring above them, sending little flames showering down over everything. Leia instinctively covered her head with her arms, but her actions could not completely protect her loosened hair from the hungry sparks. A small fire erupted in the bare wires overhead, and Han sprang up, a compact extinguisher in hand. Seconds later the fire was gone and globs of white foam dripped steadily to splatter on the cockpit's worn metallic floor.

Han's next quick move was to discover their trajectory, and it was only after he ascertained that the ship was still on course that he relaxed his vigilance enough to comment, ``That was a bit too close.'' He glanced over at the princess. ``You all right?''

``Of course,'' she answered immediately, though her voice shook betrayingly. Leia carefully released the restraining strap to give her time to stop shaking. The backs of her hands and fingers were red and puckered with tiny burns from the sparks, and she could discern the unmistakable smell of burnt hair mixing with the other odors of fried electrical components. She rose on unsteady legs, then pulled her hair over her shoulder to inspect the damage.

It wasn't as bad as it might have been. The once straight ends of her thigh-length hair were now choppy and uneven, some sections coming several inches short of the original length. Pin pricks of pain on her back told her that parts of her tunic had singed with her hair, though the shirt seemed to be in no danger of disintegrating in the near future.

``Are we on course?'' she asked, refusing to let Solo know how much the burns on her hands and back ached every time she moved.

``Yeah. The nav' computer must have escaped any overload from that fire. Good thing or we could be sitting on top of some moon right about now.'' Han frowned, catching sight of her injuries despite her efforts to hide them. He reached under his console to retrieve the med-kit and rummaged through it until he found some ointment. He handed it to her. ``Here. This will help with those burns until a medical droid can look at them.''

Leia eyed him suspiciously.

``Just take it,'' he ordered in exasperation.

``I don't know if I should trust you so soon after you nearly got us killed,'' she retorted sarcastically, her dignity restored now that she had control of herself again. But she took the ointment gratefully.

Solo ignored her remark. ``Guess it's time to fix that panel,'' he said, gesturing at the ceiling. Leia glowered at him from behind her curtain of hair and silently continued to doctor the burns on her hands.

Han sighed, then suddenly blurted, ``You know, you probably saved my worthless neck back there in that hangar. I, uh -- I....'' He stopped, his voice catching uncomfortably in his windpipe. He had expressed his gratitude many times in the past, to many species, for various reasons. But this was different; this was Princess Leia, the head highness herself, and his voice would not cooperate. He swiveled his chair so he wouldn't have to look at her and cleared his throat. ``Thanks, Leia,'' was all he could get out. ``I owe you one.''

The princess looked up, stunned at his simple words and sincere tone. Where was the flippant comment that she had expected? Wasn't he transgressing one of the unwritten rules governing their strange and combative relationship? Was he truly allowed to be nice? Was she allowed to be nice in return?

She was so used to retorts, sarcasm, and unending insults from him that she didn't know how to respond. Leia looked at him, found him watching her, and her heartbeat quickened. She knew without the aid of a mirror that her face exactly matched the serious, intense expression he displayed.

Han swallowed, unable to look away. She was very pretty, he realized, with her hair down like that and none of the typical haughtiness clouding her dark eyes.

Alien emotions burst on Leia's mind all at once-- fear, excitement, hope, and dread. She had never looked at Han so closely before, and she couldn't think straight while his blue eyes pierced her soul this way. She wanted to laugh, to kiss him, and to run away all at the same time.

She did the only thing she could to save herself from the frightening truth. She said, ``Someone had to save your skin-- I certainly couldn't fly this junkpile by myself.''

That ended the moment.

Han acidly retorted, ``And you're so welcome for all the help I've been on this disaster. Next time I'll remember not to offer my services.''

``That will be a relief. Maybe then we won't have to blast our way off planet!''

Solo growled and Princess Leia glared; things were back to normal. Their natural defenses against each other were again in place, and all was as it had been since they met on the Death Star. Controlled hostility.

But neither of them could forget that heart-stopping moment, and no matter how they fooled themselves, their relationship was destined never to be the same again.


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