The Big Thaw
"And what, precisely, am I suppose to know?" Princess Leia Organa asked, suddenly irritated.
"You want me to stay because of the way you feel about me."
Flustered, Leia answered, "Well, yes. You've been a great help to us, you're a natural leader."
"No, your worship, that's not it."
"You're imagining things," Leia replied coldly.
"Am I? I think you're afraid I was going to leave without giving you a goodbye kiss."
"I'd just as soon kiss a Wookiee!"
"I can arrange that!" Han Solo yelled as he stomped off down the cold corridor. "You could use a good kiss!"
Ohh, that man! Leia fumed. Sure, she'd followed him out of the command center and asked him, practically begged him, to stay - for the sake of the rebellion, mind you. Leave it to his twisted mind to think she wanted him to stay because of her! Accusing her of having feelings for that low-down, nerfherder! Telling her she could use a good kiss! How dare he!
The Princess stalked off toward her small cabin, intent on taking a nap. She had been up for hours, directing operations from the command center, and she was exhausted. Entering her room, she sat down on the small cot. He's leaving. He's really leaving this time. A lump formed in her throat, and a sense of abandonment settled over her. I don't care, let him go, she told herself, trying to push away the sudden weariness that was threatening to overwhelm her. He was only in this for the money, anyway. He never cared about us. About the Rebellion. About Luke. About... me.
Six months earlier
"Hoth?" Han asked the Princess, not disguising the contempt in his tone. "That iceball? I'm not going there. No way."
"We need to find a base that the Empire won't think to look. Hoth is the perfect choice," Leia argued tiredly.
"Of course they won't think to look there! No one in their right mind would live on Hoth!"
"Then you should fit right in!' Leia snapped back at the Corellian.
Chewbacca woofed in laughter, and Luke turned his face away to keep Han from seeing his grin. The Princess had asked Luke to help her convince Solo to agree to take her on an advance scouting trip to the planet. Insulting the pilot was not going to help her cause. "Han, it's just a quick trip," Luke cajoled. "You just need to run some sensor scans, and find a good location to put the base. I doubt you'll even need to leave the Falcon."
"Why do I always get stuck with these trips?" Han growled. "You could take her royal painness sometimes, ya know."
"I have to stay with my squadron, and your ship already has the specialized equipment to run the scans," Luke persisted.
"Then why does she have to come with?" Han indicated Leia with a jerk of his thumb. "Chewie an' me can handle this without Miss High and Mighty along to supervise."
"It's Chewie and I, not Chewie and me, for your information," Leia said hotly. That was another thing on a long list of things that annoyed Leia about Solo - his refusal to use proper grammar. She knew he just did it to make her mad. On more than one occasion, Leia had overheard Han talking to General Rieekan when he didn't know she was listening, and his grammar had been impeccable.
"Oh, so now I don't talk good enough for ya, huh, Princess Perfect?"
"For your information, I am well aware of the fact that I'm not perfect, unlike certain pirates that have egos the size of a moon!"
"I don't need this kind of grief," Han shouted back. "Find someone else to fly your royal backside around the galaxy."
"Han," Luke quickly injected. Sometimes it seemed to Luke he was constantly playing peacekeeper between these two strong-willed individuals. "I'm sure Rieekan doesn't expect you to do this trip for free. Right, Princess?"
"Of course not," she replied, her eyes narrowing in annoyance. "I wouldn't expect Solo to do anything out of the goodness of his heart, considering he has no heart."
Han snorted. "I have no heart? Maybe I don't... but I could show you what I do have." Han leaned toward Leia, leering at her.
"That large, empty hole between your ears?"
The Wookiee laughed even harder. "Shut up, Chewie," Han groused at his partner. "Whose side you on?"
"Han, please," Luke held up his hands in a gesture of goodwill. "Will you take Leia? She needs to go with on this trip since you're not an official member of the Alliance."
"Fine. Just don't blame me if I get confused when I'm there and come back with a block of ice instead of her holiness."
"Considering your lack of brain matter, that kind of confusion on your part wouldn't surprise me either, Captain," Leia huffed and walked away.
"Tell her worshipfulness that we're gonna be coming outta hyperspace in about thirty minutes," Han told Chewie as he headed for the cockpit.
Chewie sighed and headed for the small cabin where Leia had ensconced herself for the entire trip. Any communication between the Captain and the Princess had been done through Chewbacca, which was hardly easy since Leia could not understand Shyriiwook. The Wookiee softly rapped on the door. *Princess? Are you awake?*
The door slid open. Leia looked up gratefully at the huge Wookiee. The trip would have been unbearable if not for Chewie's kindness and diplomacy. Diplomacy, Leia thought, bemused. Why is it I can handle the most annoying, foul-mouthed politician, yet I can't deal with Han Solo? "Thank you, Chewie. I'll be up in the cockpit in a few minutes." Not that I'm looking forward to getting into another argument with Solo. And she knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that as soon she entered that cockpit, the insults would once again fly. I'm going to be the bigger person this time. This time, when he baits me, I'll ignore it. Yes. That's what I'll do, just ignore it.
Leia quietly followed the Wookiee into the cockpit and sat down in the navigator's chair without making a comment. Carefully, she fastened her restraining straps, refusing to look at the ship's Captain. Not that it would make any difference. It's not like he's even acknowledging I'm alive.
The Corellian reached forward and pulled the lever back, bringing pale blue orb of Hoth into focus. "There it is," Han commented. "The winter vacation resort known as Hoth. I hear all the hotels offer free cooling units in the rooms as amenities."
Turning her attention to the navigational controls, Leia ignored Han's quip and replied, "If the scanners work correctly, we'll be finished in less than ten hours."
"If the scanners work?" Han repeated. "Why wouldn't they work?"
"Are we discussing the same equipment? The equipment on this bucket of bolts that always seems to fail when we need it the most?"
Han shot a glare over his shoulder at the Princess. "I see you've spent your time alone in the cabin sharpening your tongue, your highnessness."
Great. That resolution didn't last two minutes. And not only that, I'm the one that started it. "I apologize for insulting your precious ship, Captain," Leia said primly.
"Don't bother apologizing," Han mumbled under his breath. "Especially when you don't mean it."
"I wouldn't have apologized if I didn't mean it.." Leia started to say. Chewie interrupted with a series of growls and barks.
"What did he say?" she asked cautiously.
"He's reading a distress signal coming from the surface of the planet," Han replied as he looked at the panel, while he tried to fine tune the signal.
"Can you pinpoint the area? Do you recognize the coding?"
Solo grimaced at the bossy woman. "Yea, I recognize it. It's a variation on an old Republic code." He leaned forward, listening intently. "It's coming in weak, like it's been sending for a while. I can probably pinpoint the exact location. The question is, do you want me to?"
"What? Why wouldn't I want you to?"
"In the first place, whoever triggered the signal is probably dead. Like I said, it's been sending for a while, and no one could survive down on that iceball without proper shelter for too long. Secondly, if they are alive, you could be ruining the Rebellion's opportunity to relocate to this wonderful system."
"We can't just ignore a distress signal!" Leia snapped, wondering if she had been right when she talked about Han not having a heart.
"All right. We'll check it out, but if it turns out to be some Imp don't say I didn't warn ya, sweetheart."
It took some time for Han and Chewie to locate a safe place to land. It was high on a plateau, where frequent high winds blew enough of the snow away to reveal the ragged black surface of the rocky shelves. This landing site would prevent the Falcon from sinking too deep. Unfortunately, it was also a considerable hike from the distress signal.
After securing the landing struts to the surface, Han stood up and addressed his co-pilot. "You up for a nice long hike in some refreshingly crisp air, pal?"
"What about me?" Leia said, looking up at the tall pilot.
"You stay with the ship," Han answered briefly, still looking at Chewie.
*I can handle the cold,* Chewie informed Solo. *But I'm not looking forward to going out there."
"What about me?" Leia repeated as she stood up.
"Are you deaf? I told you to stay with the ship."
The diminutive Princess put her hands on her hips and glared at the pilot. "This is my mission. You take orders from me, not the other way around. And I am telling you that I'm going along to look for that signal. Chewie can stay with the ship."
For a moment, Leia wondered if she went too far. Han's eyes narrowed and his face got hard. "Since this is your mission, and you're the one that wanted to check out the signal, maybe you should just go out there by yourself."
Chewie's blue eyes got wide. *You can't be serious, Han!*
"I have a thermal suit," Leia replied haughtily. "So I will go myself." She stalked out of the corridor, heart pounding. What did I just do? I don't want to go out there all alone. Her footsteps slowed and stopped. Leia stood still, debating with herself. I'll go back and ask him to come with me. I may choke on the words, and I'm sure he'll make me beg, but I .... I need him, damn it.
An angry voice carried out of the cockpit. "Like hell you're going out there all by yourself, your Worship!"
Leia gave a smug smile. I guess I won't have to beg after all. "Then you'd better hurry up, laserbrains," she yelled back, "I can't wait all day." She even managed to keep the happiness out of her voice.
Solo stopped and checked the signal on the small tracker device he was holding. They had been walking down the side of the hill where the Falcon was parked for more than a standard timepart, and when Han looked back it didn't appear they'd made much progress. And the further down the hillside they went, the deeper the snow became. The drifts now came up to the top of the tall Corellian's knees - and for the Princess, it came up to her thighs. At least with Solo in the lead, Leia was able to use the trail Han had already dug as he walked.
"At this rate, we won't get to this signal for another three or four timeparts," Han panted as his breath crystallized in the icy air. "Too bad we didn't bring a wide flat piece of plasteel, we could ride it down this hill and cut our hiking time in half."
"You could get on your stomach and be the snow sled. That way I won't have to walk all the way," Leia gasped, holding her side. Maybe staying behind on the Falcon hadn't been such a bad idea, after all.
"If you're gonna ride me sweetheart, it ain't gonna be on my back," Solo shot back with a wicked grin.
Despite the chilled air, Leia felt her face get very hot. I hate him, she thought grimly. "Is your mind always in the gutter?"
Han laughed. "So now I have a mind?"
"Even a space slug has a small one, Solo," Leia returned evenly. "Get moving, or we'll never get there."
"Yes, your royal bossiness," Han grinned and started out again.
It turned out to be closer to four timeparts before they arrived at the source of the signal, a crevice in the ground barely visible through the overhanging snowdrifts. "There's a fairly decent size cave right here," Solo noted as he looked at his tracker. "But you can't tell by looking at it, that's for sure."
"Is it big enough to hold a ship?" Leia questioned.
"Yup," Han nodded. "And then some." He turned to look at the Princess. "Do you want to wait out here? What's inside that cave might not be a pretty sight."
"I think I can handle it, Solo," the Princess replied, irked. "I'm not some sensitive female that will faint at the sight of dead bodies."
Han looked over Leia's shoulder. "I hope not, 'cuz I think we're gonna be in this cave for the night. Looks like a snowstorm's coming on."
Looking back, the Princess could see Solo was correct. Ominous dark clouds were roiling up quickly over the far horizon. "Oh, that's great. Now I get to be stuck with you for who knows how many more timeparts."
"Just think, if we get desperate we might have to share body heat, Princess," Han winked at her.
"I could never be that desperate, nerfbrain," Leia growled, only to have Solo laugh in her face.
"You're right. What was I thinking?" the Corellian replied lightly. "The Ice Princess doesn't have any body heat." Without giving her time to come up with a retort, Han proceeded into the dark interior of the ice cave, glancing nervously up at the wall of ice and snow that formed a dangerous and unstable shelf above his head. The Princess hurried after him, not wanting to linger too long at the entrance, either. Once inside, however, the roof of the cavern was only rock. Looking back at the sliver of light shining in the cave, a terrible thought occurred to Leia. It might not take too much more weight, or possibly a small tremor, and that ice and snow could crash down, effectively trapping them inside the cave.
Han lit up a glowlamp and shined it around the interior. It turned out to be much larger than the scanner had been able to indicate, since it curved and disappeared around a smooth corner.
"I don't see a ship," Leia said softly, not wanting to make any loud noises that could cause avalanches.
"The signal's coming from around the corner," Han answered. "Now that we're inside, it's much stronger. This rock must be real thick."
Kind of like your head? Leia thought, but did not say aloud.
Carefully, they made their way down the sloping floor of the cavern until the floor leveled out and they could move faster. With Han in the lead, the Princess hurried to keep up with the long legged spacer. "Can you slow down?" She complained. "It's not like we have to hurry anymore, since we're stuck here until the storm blows over."
"I can't help it if you're short," Han replied without looking back or slowing down.
"I'm not short, you -" Leia crashed into the Corellian's back. "Now why did you stop so fast?" She asked, her voice rising in anger.
"Found the ship," Han said quietly, as he shined his lightbeam over the battered old transport.
"That's even junkier than your ship," Leia whispered in awe. "I can't believe it could even get here in one piece."
"My ship is not junk!" Han objected loudly as he turned to face the Princess. "If you don't like flyin' in it, why did you nag me to bring you here?"
"Oh, pardon me," Leia answered sarcastically. "I keep forgetting how hyper-sensitive you are about your precious Falcon."
"I'm not hyper-sensitive," Han answered, glaring down at her. "I just don't like people insulting my ship."
"And I don't like it when you call her junk, 'cuz she's my home and..."
Leia pointed behind the smuggler. "The ramp is lowering."
Solo spun around, and in one rapid, fluid move drew his blaster while putting himself between the Princess and the lowered ramp. "Stay behind me, " Han whispered, hoping the Princess would listen to him for a change.
A short, humanoid shape came carefully down the ramp, bundled head to toe in thermal clothing. Pushing Han to one side, Leia moved forward. "Hello? We heard your distress signal. Can we help you?" she called out.
Han gave an exasperated sigh. Would this woman ever do anything he asked her to do? "Princess," he hissed, hurrying to catch up with her. "It might be dangerous!"
The small figure reached up to his hood and pushed it back, revealing the face of a young, human boy. "Hi. My name is Bolin, and I'm sure glad to see you."
It took a few seconds for Leia to process this unexpected sight. "Bolin? My name is Leia, and this is Han. Are you alone?"
"Nah. I got my family inside waitin'," he informed her. "Do you want to meet them?"
"We'd love to meet them," Leia said with a gentle smile.
"Your worshipfulness," Han said under his breath. "Has it occurred to you this might be a trap?"
"This is a child, Solo! Whatever is going on here, it's not a trap. Stay here if you're afraid."
"I ain't afraid," Han lowered his voice even more. "Pardon me if I'm careful."
"Careful? You? Is that a joke?" Leia turned and started for the ship, forcing Han to follow.
Inside the ancient Republic-era ship, the air was slightly warmer. Bolin reached up and hit the button to retract the ramp. "Have to save energy," he explained, looking up at the pretty, dark-haired woman. "We're already runnin' on our power reserves, and the low power light's been flashin' for days."
Han started slightly as an even smaller child peered around the corner of the corridor. Bolin grinned. "That's my youngest brother, Ryno. He's five."
"Hello, Ryno," Leia said softly. The blond boy came forward shyly. Turning to Bolin, she asked, "How old are you, Bolin?"
"I'm twelve, almost thirteen," he said proudly. "I'm the oldest of all of us."
"All of you?" Han spoke to the boy for the first time. "How many of you are there?"
Suddenly, two more children came tearing around the corner, one boy chasing the other. The first boy crashed solidly into Solo's legs, nearly knocking Han off his feet. Catching the boy by his shoulders, Han looked down at his unexpected assailant. "Whoa there, kid. Slow down."
"These are my other two brothers, Cade and Colvin," Bolin said by way of introduction. "They're twins."
"I see," Leia replied, slightly stunned. "How old are you?" she asked one of the twins. She wasn't sure which one was Cade and which was Colvin since they were identical.
"Seven," one of the boys answered, showing a smile that was missing a front tooth. "My baby tooth fell out yesterday," he informed her.
"Oh," Leia said, not knowing how to answer that.
"Where are your parents? How did you get here?" Han asked, feeling more and more uncomfortable with each new arrival.
"Dad died," one of the twins answered very matter-of-factly.
"And mom disappeared," the other finished up.
"They do that a lot," Bolin said with a sigh. "Finish each other's sentences. It gets annoying sometimes."
"How long ago did your father die?" Leia asked kindly.
"Oh, almost three years ago, now. Aida wasn't born yet," he replied.
"You haven't met her yet. She mostly just cries a lot, 'specially since mom disappeared."
Another one? Han thought, beginning to feel panic. How many are there? "Is this Aida the last sibling ya got, kid?"
"Yeah, that's the last," Bolin nodded.
"How did your dad die?" Han asked.
"He was a Captain in the Imperial Navy. Captain Izzy Imach," Bolin replied, puffing up with pride. "Mom said he died fighting rebel scum over a place called Yavin."
Han and Leia exchanged shocked looks.
Solo desperately wanted to be able to say, See, I told you so. But, wisely, he refrained. "So, how did you end up on this iceberg?" he asked casually.
"We lived on Coruscant, and after mom disappeared, some people came by our apartment," Bolin replied. "They said they were gonna take us to a special home. They told us that we'd be adopted, but not all to the same people. I wasn't gonna let them break up my family, so when it got to be dark out, we ran away and stole this ship."
"You flew this piece of.. this ship all the way from Coruscant to Hoth?" Han asked incredulously. "All by yourself?"
"I'm not such a bad pilot," the boy said defensively. "My dad taught me how to fly before he died."
"Then what happened?" Leia prodded the boy.
"We crashed," one of the twins giggled.
"I didn't crash it, Cade!" Bolin argued back. "The main engine blew and I had to use the backup to get us outta hyper. But that put too big of a strain on the backup, so it started to act up, too. I had to land, and this was the only place to do it."
"How long have you been here?" Han questioned.
"About two weeks, I guess. We stole some food rations from the orphan home before we ran away, but they're almost gone," he said quietly. "I don't think we woulda lasted too much longer if you hadn't come along."
"Well, we're here now," Leia smiled. "And as soon as the snowstorm is over, we'll get Chewie to bring the ship over." Addressing Han, Leia asked, "Do you think the Falcon can fit inside this cave?"
Frowning, Han thought for a moment. "I guess so. But it'll be tight, and Chewie will have to find a way to get past that overhanging snow. I'll have to signal him and tell him to fly over here when the storm blows over."
"Our mom isn't dead," Colvin suddenly said.
"Disappearing isn't dead," Cade added eagerly as he looked at Han. "Will you help us find our mom?"
"Uh," Han stuttered. "Help you find your mom? On Coruscant?" He looked over at the Princess. Even she seemed to pale a little bit at the idea of heading into the heart of the Empire.
"Are you going to help us find mommy?" Ryno finally spoke up as he tugged on Solo's sleeve.
The Corellian's first instinct was to say no - then he raised his eyes from the small boy to the Princess. Leia stood there silently, waiting for Han to respond. Four pair of young eyes looked at him expectantly. Further inside the ship, a small child began crying, her tiny voice sounding loud in the confined ship. The Princess is right, I do have a big empty space between my ears. "Yeah, I guess I am."
At first, Leia could hardly believe what she heard coming out of Solo's mouth. He's agreeing to help these children find their mother? Han Solo, the mercenary, is agreeing to do this? The Princess wasn't sure how she felt about heading to Coruscant with five children, but she knew that she would have been unable to turn them down, either. So getting mad at Solo was not really an option. She looked at Bolin and said, "Do you mind if I go take care of your sister?"
A relieved look swept over the boy's features. "Sure! Maybe you'll know what to do since you're a lady."
Han laughed and quickly covered it up with a cough. "I'll go to the cave opening and send Chewie a message. These walls are too thick for the comlink to work properly."
Leia took the littlest boy's hand. "Ryno, can you take me to your sister?"
As the five-year old led her toward the crying, Leia looked over at Solo. "Don't take too long, flyboy."
"Afraid I'm gonna skip out?" Han said as he headed down the ramp of the ship.
The thought crossed my mind, Leia mused as she rounded the corner.
Inside a makeshift playpen sat a little girl no more than three years old, her face streaked with tears and her clothing covered with food stains.
"She's probably hunger," Cade said.
"But we ran outta toddler food yesterday," Colvin finished.
Leia's heart went out to the little girl. She reached over and picked her up, cooing gently. "Shhh, little Aida. Everything's going to be alright." Turning to the boys, she asked, "Do you have any rations I can smash up and moisten? She's hungry."
Bolin pulled out a small basket with some dry ration bars lying on the bottom. "This is all we have left. I've been trying to make it last, but it's hard. Everyone is hungry all the time."
"That's terrible," Leia agreed. "But at least it will be over soon. Han's partner will bring his ship over as soon as the storm is over." The Princess smiled, suddenly thinking of an idea. "Han's a great cook, and he has a lot more food on his ship than just ration bars. I'll bet he'll cook for you all the time."
"Really?" Cade asked excitedly.
"Will he make us all of our favorites?" Colvin continued.
"Oh yes," Leia replied, feeling mischievous. Just picturing Han frantically trying to cook meal after meal for all these children made her giddy. Now that she thought about it, it occurred to her that this trip could turn out to be very interesting. "I promise you he just loves to cook, and he'll make every one of you children whatever your heart desires."
Sitting with his back against the cool wall of the old ship, Han looked over at the five sleeping children. The lights had been dimmed, and the old power generator made a wheezing noise in the background. "It still amazes me these kids made it all the way from Coruscant in a stolen ship," Han said softly, so as not to wake the children.
"I questioned Bolin about that when you were contacting Chewie," Leia answered in a low voice. "He said this ship was actually in a salvage area, so stealing it wasn't too difficult. Who bothers guarding junk?"
"Then it's amazing this piece of garbage even made it into hyperspace. A million things could have gone wrong, and then they'd be all dead."
"That's true," she agreed. It surprised her that she was actually having a normal, quiet conversation with Solo. Sometimes, she decided, when he lets his guard down and stops acting so arrogant, he's actually nice.
"Do you think the mother is still alive? Or are we about to go on a wild bantha hunt?"
"I honestly don't know," the Princess replied. "But I think it was incredibly sweet of you to offer to try and find her."
"Sweet?" Han asked, raising his eyebrows. "I ain't sweet, sister. I just didn't wanna hear you harpin' at me all the way back to base. Hauling these brats around is gonna be bad enough."
"Fine. Whatever you say, Solo."
"Glad you finally see it that way, your worshipfulness."
The morning sun on Hoth was bright, but did nothing to assuage the constant bitter cold. Chewie was relieved to note that the storm had passed, and the Wookiee busily powered up the Falcon for a quick hop to the cave where Han and the Princess had spent the night. Five human children! Chewie thought as he shook his shaggy head in wonder. I wonder how Han managed to deal with the Princess and five cubs for almost ten timeparts. The Millennium Falcon lifted from the hilltop and swooped gracefully down toward the coordinates Han had sent over right before dark. It was a good thing Solo commed when he did, because when the storm came, Chewie had been frantic with worry.
Solo had assured Chewie that he and the Princess were safe for the night. According to Han, the cave was large enough to hold the Falcon, but the Wookiee would need to use the lasers to vaporize the snow and ice that was built up at the mouth of the cave. Pushing in without first removing the overhanging ledge of ice could damage the ship, and possibly cause an avalanche.
Hovering at the entrance, Chewie dialed the forward lasers to a narrow, low beam and slowly and carefully melted the ice until the entire cave entrance was revealed. It was a tight fit, but the Falcon landed safely just inside the opening. The ramp had barely lowered when four rambunctious human boys came running from around the bend in the cave. They skidded to a stop when the large Wookiee appeared at the top of the landing ramp.
"Whoa," Cade said loudly to his brothers. "What's that?"
"It's called a Wookiee, I think," the older brother replied, stepping back. "Dad said they were dangerous."
Little Ryno cowered behind his brother, and his lower lip started to quiver. "Don't let it eat me," he whispered.
"Hey," Solo called in a gruff voice as he and Leia came up behind the boys. "This is my co-pilot, Chewbacca. And he's a "he", not an "it". Just because he's not human doesn't mean he doesn't have feelings."
"Han's right," Leia said in a much softer voice, as she shifted Aida to her hip. "Chewbacca understands basic perfectly, even if his vocal chords don't allow him to speak it. Just like our vocal chords prevent us from speaking Shyriiwook."
"What's Shyriiwook?" Colvin asked, still eyeing the Wookiee nervously.
"It's the Wookiee language," Han answered as he walked past the boys. He turned at the base of the ramp and said, "Are you coming with us, or would you prefer to stay in this cave with a dying generator and no food?"
Leia shot Han a glare. "They're little kids, Solo. Threatening to leave them behind is cruel."
"I ain't threatening nothing. I'm giving them a choice." Solo looked back at the boys. "Well, which is it?"
"We're coming," Bolin answered sullenly. "But we still don't trust the Wookiee."
*How did you manage to survive all those children, and the Princess, for all those hours?* Chewie asked Han once they were safely in hyperspace.
"It was night, so mostly everyone slept. Except the little girl," he sighed. "She doesn't seem to stop crying."
*She's not crying now,* Chewie noted.
"That's cause Leia's back there probably coddling her. That seems to shut her up for a while."
"Han?" Leia stuck her head in the cockpit door. "The children are hungry, and I promised them you'd cook real food for them."
"You did what?"
"They've been living on ration bars for weeks," she returned sharply. "They need real, hot food. I'll take care of Aida, you can cook something for the boys." When Han just stared at her, Leia clenched her jaw. "Fine," she snapped. "I'll cook for all of them."
"No, don't do that." Han stood up. "You're right - they've been suffering long enough, and they shouldn't have to eat what you cook." He pushed past her and exited the cockpit, leaving the fuming Princess behind.
That might not have been an argument I needed to win, Han thought as he prepared a vast array of dishes for the hungry children, since they all seemed to like something different. What Cade thought sounded wonderful, Colvin declared was "gross", and the youngest stuffed Corellian sweetbreads in his mouth until he suddenly got pale and informed Han, "I think I'm gonna pook."
"Well, don't do it here!" Han said frantically, as he turned to Bolin. "Take your brother to the 'fresher."
The eldest took Ryno by the hand and lead him out of the main hold. A second later, the sound of retching came from the corridor. "He didn't make it," Bolin yelled back.
"You go clean it up," Han jabbed his finger in the direction of the serene Princess, who was quietly sitting in a corner feeding Aida and watching the pandemonium unfold without comment.
"I wasn't the one who kept handing him sweetbread slices," Leia calmly replied. "Open up, Aida. There you go... isn't this food much better than ration bars?" The little girl, now clean and quiet, looked up at Leia, her little dimpled smile made the Princess melt inside.
"I wasn't the one doing that, either," Han argued back. "Colvin was the one handin' the bread to Ryno." As soon as the words left his mouth, Solo realized he sounded like one of the children. Flushing slightly, he turned to Chewie. "Don't let the food burn." He grabbed a bucket and some towels and stomped off into the corridor.
Chewie turned his blue eyes to the Princess, woofing softly in amusement. Leia smiled back. "I'm starting to have a little bit of hope that between the two of us, we can finally get Solo to grow up," she whispered quietly to the Wookiee.
*I'm counting on it,* Chewie agreed.
Although Leia didn't understand the Wookiee's exact words, the meaning was clear enough.
"Don't they ever get tired?" an exhausted Solo asked Bolin as the twins and Ryno tore around the ship, screaming at the top of their lungs. The Corellian had spent hours cooking and then cleaning the hold from all the dirty dishes and pots. Han didn't know kids could make so much racket, and he thought his aching head felt like it was about to explode.
"After a few hours they settle down," the boy informed the pilot. "They like to play stormtroopers chasing rebel scum, and poor Ryno always has to play the rebel scum. Sometimes they lock Ryno up in a closet and pretend it's a prison, until he cries and cries. Mom used to get really mad at the twins, when they did that."
"Your mother must be a saint," Han commented dryly. Maybe she snapped and ran away on purpose, and we'll never find her, Solo decided.
"A very good person," Leia answered.
"Yeah," Bolin nodded, getting sleepy. "She's the best mom in the galaxy."
"I'm sure she is," Leia agreed. "How about rounding up your brothers so we can get some sleep?"
"Okay," the boy said with a nod. "But sometimes they don't listen to me."
Han stood up and signaled Chewie. "Oh, they'll listen today," he grumbled, looking at his partner. "Trust me on that one, Bolin."
Although the trip from Hoth to Coruscant was only four standard days long, it felt like four months to Han. If I ever get married, am never, ever havin' kids! he thought grimly as he wiped up spilled nerf-milk from the floor. Married? Where in the hells did that idea come from? I ain't never gettin' married, either. Not even to... He shook his head and forced himself to stop thinking in the direction his wandering thoughts were taking him. Oddly, despite the increased tension with the children running amok on his ship, he and the Princess were arguing less on this trip than they ever had in the previous three years. Maybe it's just 'cuz we don't have time to argue, what with taking care of all these kids.
Sticking his head into the main hold, Han informed his passengers, "Everyone take a seat and strap in. We're coming out of hyperspace in a few minutes, so I expect you to listen to me." For a change.
While Leia strapped Aida in, Han checked the belts on the boys before heading back to the cockpit. He sincerely hoped they wouldn't have too much difficulty locating the mother, but that hope seemed unlikely. Nothing was ever too easy in Han's life. He and Leia had made some loose plans during the past few days. Leia planned on posing as the sister to the missing woman. Bolin had informed them his mother's name was Shandra Imach, and he did have an aunt that lived somewhere far away. He also, helpfully, told Leia his maternal grandparents' last name was Blacksun. Han dug through his old forged identity disks, and altered several to match these details. Han was now Kallon Eaststar, and Leia was his wife, Leddy Eaststar, nee Blacksun.
Since this was not the first time they had posed as husband and wife, neither the Corellian or the Princess made a big issue out of the deception. When Han had handed Leia the identity disk, she had read it in silence. She was glad no one, especially Solo, could read her thoughts. Why is it I'm starting to feel comfortable in this persona? Maybe it's only because we've role-played like this so many times before...... Deep down, a tiny voice told her it was more than just that.
*I still don't understand why I have to stay with the children,* Chewie complained. *They don't even understand me!*
Solo grinned. "At least they're not afraid of you anymore, pal. Don't worry so much. Bolin will take care of his siblings. He just needs you to act as an enforcer."
"Just don't let them leave the ship," Leia added. "Someone might see them and know who they are."
"And don't let them tear my ship apart, either," Han said with a frown. "It's like having five mynocks living inside the Falcon the past four days."
"Han," Leia chastised mildly. "They are not that bad."
"You can say that, 'cuz it's not your ship."
*Go, before you two get into another argument,* Chewie woofed out, as he pushed the Captain toward the exit. *Be careful, and don't get into any trouble.*
"Who, me?" Han said innocently as he followed Leia down the ramp.
"It probably would be a good idea to start with her neighbors," Leia said thoughtfully as they entered the public transportation hovercraft. "Hopefully, they lived there long enough to have made some friends."
"But they'd better not have been too cozy with the neighbors," Han remarked as he sat down on a cushioned bench. "If they ever saw a holo of this sister, they might get suspicious."
"I don't think that's a problem," Leia replied as she took the seat next to Solo. "Bolin said Leddy never visits, and he did say he thinks she had dark hair."
"Still, if anything can go wrong, it usually does."
"At least you didn't say you have a bad feeling about this," Leia said with a smile.
The apartment building where the Imach's had lived was an upper middle-class complex, two thirds of the way to the top levels of Coruscant. The building was clean and well maintained, with an arboretum in the lobby, complete with a bubbling waterfall. Solo and the Princess entered the lobby and headed for the security desk. A silver-toned droid swiveled its head in their direction as they approached.
"May I assist you?"
"Yes," Leia began, frowning with a show of concern. "My name is Leddy Eaststar, and my sister lives in this apartment." The Princess took out a flimsy and studied it for a moment. "Apartment 2998, level 14, Section B." She returned her attention to the droid. "Anyway, I haven't heard from her in weeks and I'm getting worried."
"Yeah," Han added, "My wife her dragged me halfway across the galaxy just 'cuz her sister won't return Leddy's calls. Waste of time, if you ask me. I think she's probably just moved."
"Kallon!" Leia exclaimed. "Shandra would not have just left without telling me where she went." Leia looked at the droid. "Don't you agree with me?"
"I am afraid my programming does not allow me to speculate on such matters."
"Well, can you check your records? Her name is Shandra Imach," Leia prodded. "Maybe she just changed her communication's frequency."
The droid spun around and looked through a terminal display. "Apartment 2998, level 14, Section B, is no longer leased to a Shandra Imach. The apartment is currently on the market."
"What?" Leia screeched. "That just can't be!" She turned to Han. "See? I told you something was wrong! I think I'm going to faint." The Princess put her hand on her forehead, and collapsed.
"Leddy!" Han shouted. He bent down and scooped the unresponsive woman into his arms. "Security! I need to have a place to lay my wife down. Do you have a back office? Something with a sofa?"
The droid started waving his arms about in concern. "Do you need me to contact a medic?"
"No! I told you I need somewhere to lay her down! Don't you understand Basic? Where is your owner?"
"My owner, Merkii Zenith, is the landlady of this complex, sir!" the droid replied quickly. "Follow me, and I'll take you to her office."
"About time," Han grumbled as he picked Leia up and followed the droid across the lobby, down a hall, and into a large office. Ignoring the surprised older woman behind the desk, Solo placed the "unconscious" Princess on the sofa, and turned to the droid. "Do you have a wet wash cloth? I need a wet wash cloth."
"What's the matter here?" the woman asked worriedly.
"My wife fainted," Han answered. "And your droid was the reason."
"Sir!" the droid protested. "I did nothing to cause this... faint."
"I don't see you getting a wash cloth!"
"EssFour, do as the man asks," the woman instructed her droid.
"Yes, madam!" EssFour, the flustered security droid, quickly left the room.
"What did my droid say that made your wife faint?" Merkii Zenith asked as Leia started groaning and "coming around". Han turned to Leia and hovered over her with concern.
"Her sister is Shandra Imach, and the droid told her she doesn't live in this complex anymore," Han answered the landlady's question.
"Kallon?" Leia asked weakly. "Where is my sister? Where are my nephews and niece?"
"Don't worry, Leddy," Han murmured, patting Leia on the wrist. "Maybe this nice lady can help us locate them."
"Or maybe this nice lady will call in a squadron of stormtroopers," the landlady replied, her voice steel.
Han looked back at the gray haired woman, his eyes widening in surprise when he saw a large blaster in her hand, and it was pointed directly at him.
"I don't know who you are, but you're sure as hell not Leddy and Kallon Eaststar," Merkii growled as she came out from behind the desk. "So you'd better start talking real quick like, because I have a real itchy finger on this trigger."
Leia struggled into a sitting position. "Of course I'm Shandra's sister. What makes you think I'm not?'
"Because, my dear, Leddy Eaststar divorced that worthless vrelth-rat husband of hers three years ago, after he tried hitting on Shandra. And at Izzy's funeral, if you can believe it. I may have only seen Leddy and her ex that one time, but I know Kallon didn't grow six inches, lose forty pounds, and get hair implants. Well, maybe I could see him getting hair implants, but he still wouldn't turn out near as good-looking as this guy."
Oh wonderful, Leia groaned to herself sarcastically. Just what Solo needs, another woman calling him good-looking.
"Were you friends with Shandra?" Leia asked cautiously.
"As a matter of fact, I was," she snapped. "And you still haven't answered my question. Who are you?"
She's telling the truth, a tiny voice told the Princess. Leia had always relied on her instincts when it came to trusting, or not trusting, beings. It was that same inner voice that caused her to trust Han Solo. When she was alone with Han, even in the most secluded settings with the nearest human hundreds of miles away, the Princess never felt threatened or in physical danger from the Corellian. Her instincts had always told her she was safe with Han - indeed, it was when she was with him that she felt the safest, even during their most heated arguments.
"My name is Leia... Antilles," the Princess said, deciding it would not be wise to use her own last name, and Antilles was a very common last name on Corellia. "And this really is my husband, Han Antilles. She didn't need to look directly at Han to see his expression of surprise out of the corner of her eye. "We were doing ship repairs over an isolated system when we heard and investigated a distress signal. It turned out the people sending the signal were actually children. Shandra Imach's children. We're trying to locate her, since her children are convinced she's alive."
Merkii leaned back on her desk, her face growing pale. "You have her children?" she whispered. "And they're all okay?"
"Yeah, they're fine," Han replied. "If you're friends with the mother, do you have any idea where she might have gone?"
"I know where she went," Merkii answered slowly. "And I know where she is right now."
Leia felt a surge of happiness. "Can you take us to her? Is she alright?"
"She's physically fine, now. But she's been an emotional wreck since her children disappeared."
EssFour reappeared, holding a damp cloth. "I see the lady has regained awareness." He addressed his owner, "Is everything satisfactory, madam?"
"Yes, EssFour, please return to the front desk."
"Yes, madam," he replied and left the room.
The landlady returned her attention to Leia. "I don't know if I can trust you. Shandra is in hiding."
"Hiding? Why?" Han questioned.
"Shandra didn't just disappear. She would never abandon her children," the woman said, choosing her words carefully. "Someone had her arrested. They accused her of being a rebel spy, so she was taken into custody and interrogated for days on end with truth drugs. Eventually, it occurred the Imp's she wasn't a spy and they released her. But by that time the social workers had forced their way into her apartment and hustled the children away." She looked wistful for a moment, then continued. "I wish the kids would have let me know Shandra hadn't come home that first night. I would have taken them in before the authorities came for them."
"So why is she still in hiding?" Han asked, frowning.
"After she was released from custody, someone made an attempt on her life," Merkii said. "We think it's probably the same person that accused her of spying. And by that time, her kids had escaped from the social workers and no one knew where they went."
"Can she think of anyone who'd want to kill her?" Leia asked.
"Just one person. Kallon Eaststar."
"Her brother-in-law?" Leia said, her eyes wide with surprise.
"That's why your husband is very, very lucky I knew he wasn't Kallon. Or I'd have shot first and asked questions later."
Han cleared his throat nervously. "Guess it's a good thing I'm not short, bald and fat."
"True, because then you'd be short, bald, fat and dead."
"So her brother-in-law wants revenge because she rejected his advances?" Leia asked, trying to understand.
"Not only that, but once Shandra told Leddy about Kallon's attempt at seducing her, Leddy confronted her husband. He ended up confessing to years of unfaithfulness with many different women, and that was the end of the marriage. He blames Shandra for Leddy leaving him."
"That's rather twisted logic," Han groused. "He gets caught trying to cheat with his grieving sister-in-law and then blames her?"
"According to Shandra, that was the way Kallon was. And apparently still is. So that's why she's in hiding, and I've been desperately trying to find the children, with no luck."
"Your luck's changed," Han told her with a lop-sided smile. "Can you take us to Shandra?"
"I'd rather bring her to you," Merkii replied. "I think it's safer that way."
Leia nodded and told her directions to the Falcon. "Han and I will go wait for you there."
"That sounds fine. I'll should be able to be there in about three hours."
"Do you trust her?" Han asked as they rode the lift back to the docking area.
"I don't think she's lying," Leia replied softly.
"How do you know?" Solo persisted. "We might be walking right into a trap."
"I don't know how I know. I just know."
"Are you sure you're not related to Luke?" Han joked.
"Very funny, flyboy."
The Millennium Falcon sat unmolested on the platform. No stormtroopers were in sight. Still, Han held his blaster and cautiously made his way back to the ship, trying to keep Leia out of any line of fire. The ramp lowered at their approach and the two quickly entered and resealed the hatch. Chewie stuck his head around the corner.
"Yeah, too much luck, if ya ask me," Han snorted. "Whenever there's too much good luck, some bad luck has to come along to even things out."
"I thought you were so proud of your famous luck, Solo," Leia said with a shake of her head. She would never be able to figure out this man.
"Hey, my good luck always gets me outta the situations that my bad luck gets me into to start with. Evens things out, just like I told ya."
Chewie laughed. *The children have not destroyed the Falcon. So that is even more good luck.*
"Oh swell. I can already see that giant sized hydospanner dropping on my head as we speak."
Two cloaked figures walked quietly up to the ramp of the battered YT-1300 freighter, one figure kept looking back, while the other stared down at the floor. With a soft hiss, the ramp lowered and a Wookiee and a human male appeared at the entrance holding weapons. "Come up slowly, and keep your hands where I can see them," Solo growled in a low voice.
The beings obeyed, and entered the ship which then immediately closed up. "Remove your hoods," Han ordered.
The hoods dropped away, revealing the face of Merkii Zenith and another woman in her mid-thirties, with short medium blonde hair and a slight build. "This is Shandra Imach," Merkii nodded toward the tired looking woman. "Shandra, meet Han Antilles and," she hesitated as she looked at Chewbacca. "I haven't met the Wookiee yet, myself."
"This is my co-pilot, Chewbacca," Solo replied. "You can head toward the right, and stay in front of me. Don't make any sudden moves."
"Suspicious sort, aren't you?" Merkii snapped at the Captain.
"It's the reason I'm still alive."
The younger woman barely stepped into the hold of the ship when chaos erupted. "Mom!" Bolin screamed at the same time his brothers began shouting and jumping up and down.
"Mommmyyyy" Ryno yelled as he tried to pull her arms down.
Weeping for joy, Shandra gathered her youngest up and kissed him repeatedly. "Ryno, Ryno, my baby boy!" Kneeling, she gathered the rest of her sons as best she was able. "Bolin, Cade, Colvin! How I've missed you! I never thought I'd see you again."
Standing to one side holding little Aida, Leia blinked back tears and looked at Han. The smuggler was only briefly able to meet her eyes and glanced quickly away, swallowing hard. Solo, you're such a fraud, Leia thought as happiness overwhelmed her. You can barely keep from crying yourself!
Shandra stood up and approached Leia. "My baby girl," she whispered. Aida strained toward her mother, and reluctantly, Leia released the little girl into her mother's arms. "I can never thank you enough," she said, looking first at Leia, then Han.
"Your son, Bolin, did a pretty good job taking care of everyone before we got on the scene," Han said quietly. "You should be proud of him, he's quite the man."
"Yes, he is," Leia agreed as Bolin beamed with pride. "All your children are wonderful."
"Thank you," Shandra replied. The mother turned to her friend. "Merkii, I can't tell you how I appreciate helping me through these past weeks. I never would have survived without you."
"Oh, hon," Merkii gave a small smile. "You've been like a daughter to me. I'm glad I could help. I just wish I could do more, other than giving you credits to get you off Coruscant."
"Isn't that going to be dangerous?" Leia asked. "Buying passage off the planet when someone is looking for you?"
"I don't have any choice. I have to leave."
"Do you have somewhere to go? Someone to take you in?" Leia persisted, worried about the children she had grown so attached to.
"My sister, Leddy, will take me in, and she has friends that will protect us from Kallon. I just need to get to her system."
"Maybe we could take you?" Leia suggested. "That way you won't have to go out in public anymore on Coruscant."
Solo cleared his throat noisily. "Uh, sweetheart, can I have a word with you?"
"Certainly, dearest," Leia smiled tightly, and followed him into the cockpit, where Solo quickly shut the door.
"What was that all about?" he hissed out.
"What was what?"
"What? WHAT? You just volunteered me to fly that family to who knows where! This is my ship, in case that little detail has slipped your mind - again!
"I am perfectly aware that this wonderful flying machine belongs to you, and not to me," Leia shot back icily. "I don't expect you to do this free. You never do anything free, do you? I'll make sure you get your precious credits."
"It has nothing to do with the credits, your worshipfulness!" Han shouted back, then quickly lowered his voice. "Has it occurred to you that maybe this sister lives someplace even more dangerous than Coruscant? What if she lives on Cardia?"
"No place is more dangerous than Coruscant," Leia replied hotly. "And nothing happened here, did it?"
"No place is more dangerous?" Han repeated, incredulous. "Maybe you need to get out more."
"I thought you liked these children," Leia said, taken aback at Solo's reaction. "I thought you wanted to help them." I thought you were changing....
Han saw Leia's expression, and heard the sadness in her voice. I'm disappointing her, he realized. And I don't want to disappoint her. "All right," he said, bending his head to one side and hitting his ear.
"We'll take them," he replied, still hitting his ear.
"What are you doing?"
"Knocking the rocks outta my head."
"My husband thinks it's a wonderful idea to take you to your sister," Leia said with a triumphant smile as she walked back into the hold.
"Just where does your sister live?" Han asked sullenly as he entered behind Leia.
"Ord Mantell," Shandra replied, "Is that too far?"
"No, it's fine," Han answered, thinking, Ord Mantell's not so bad. It's not too likely we'll run into trouble on that system. "When do you want to leave?"
"You should leave now, Shandra," Merkii suggested. "It's not that I want you to leave...." She trailed off.
"I know," Shandra said as she embraced her friend. "Thank you again for everything you've done for me, I'd never have survived without you."
"You're more than welcome."
Merkii Zenith exited the Falcon, and watched as the old ship lifted into the sky.
One hour later Merkii entered the lobby of her building and noted with annoyance that EssFour was not at his post. I am going to have to reprogram that droid, he's getting sloppy with his duties, she thought irritably as she made her way into her office.
It took her by surprise when she realized the office had been ransacked. EssFour lay in pieces on the floor. "About time you got back here, Zenith," a male voice said from the darkness.
The light came on, and Kallon Eaststar sat behind her desk pointing a blaster at her. "We have a lot to discuss. Have a seat."
"What do you and your husband do for a living, Mrs. Antilles?" Shandra asked the Princess as she held Aida tightly to her chest.
Leia hated lying to the woman, but it was necessary for everyone's safety, especially the rebellion. "We contract out to do system surveys on unpopulated planets for a mining company."
"We were having mechanical problems when we heard your son's distress signal," Leia explained further. "I'm sure you can understand that, just by looking at Han's ship."
"Hey!" Solo's voice called from the corridor. "I heard that!"
Shandra laughed. "Men can be like children with toys when it comes to their ships."
"Yes," Leia agreed. "A big baby - that would be a very good description of Han."
"I HEARD THAT!"
Kallon Eaststar walked out of the doorway of Merkii Zenith's office, glancing back at the woman's broken, burned body. She was still alive, but it was unlikely she would survive until someone found her. Nevertheless, Merkii had told Eaststar everything she knew before she died. You weren't such a tough one after all, Merkii, Kallon laughed to himself as he turned away.
He headed toward his hotel room to contact the bounty hunter he'd hired to eliminate his ex-wife. It was very considerate of his ex-sister-in-law that she decided to head to Ord Mantell - the bounty hunter could now take care of both of his problems, and Kallon wouldn't have to take anymore chances.
The Millennium Falcon made a graceful landing in a docking bay in the capital city of Ord Mantell. Mandrello was a busy city, with well maintained streets, stunning views of high mesas, and was surrounded by vast fields of grain which lay on the outskirts of the heavily populated capital.
Leia exited the ship and went with Han to locate a hovercraft to lease. According to Shandra, her sister lived in a small town about fifty miles from the capital. It should take them less than an hour to get to her house, if everything went smoothly.
"I'm going to miss those children," Leia said wistfully. "They really are sweet."
"Except for the fact that they hate the rebellion," Han reminded her.
"I have a feeling that attitude may change quickly, considering what the Empire put their mother through."
"Maybe," Solo agreed. "But I know I won't miss cooking all those meals non-stop. They ate more than Wookiees and now we're gonna have to re-stock the Falcon before we leave here, or we'll be eating rations all the way back to base."
Leia laughed. "I know you don't like me saying this, but you were really great with the kids, Han. I have to admit I saw a part of you that surprised me."
"Yeah? Well, I've got plenty of surprises you haven't seen yet, sweetheart," Han said suggestively, trying his best to get the Princess riled up. It wouldn't do his reputation good at all if she'd thought he'd gone soft on this trip.
"If you stick around long enough, maybe I will see those surprises," Leia replied, startling Solo by playing along with his game.
"Who said I'm leaving?" Han said, hardly daring to believe what he was hearing. It actually sounded like the Princess was starting to thaw in her feelings toward him. Could she actually like him? It seemed to good to be true.
"You threaten to leave all the time," the Princess retorted, keeping her tone light.
"Maybe if the right person asks me, and asks me nicely, I will stay."
"Stay. Please?" she asked softly, holding her breath while she waited for his reply.
Han grinned down at the spunky Princess, feeling a little light-headed with happiness. "All right."
Stunned at the ease of his acquiescent, Leia said nothing further as they entered the rental building.
They drove the large, cumbersome hovercraft back to the Falcon. Han had wanted to rent something fast and sporty, but Leia pointed out that with three adults and five children, large was far more practical.
The children had grown fond of the Wookiee, and after the hugs and tears in saying goodbye to Chewie, Shandra and the five children to pile into the hovercraft. Chewie waved his paw, and woofed his farewells to the family. *Drive carefully, Han,* Chewie called out. *I will expect to see you back in no more than five time-parts.*
"Everybody bosses me around," Han said with a dramatic sigh, looking over at Bolin. "Don't ever get married or have a Wookiee for a partner, pal. Your life will never be yours again."
"Shut up and drive, husband," Leia said as she lightly hit Solo and the back of the head. After all, she reasoned, I won't be able to treat him like my husband very much longer.
"See what I mean?" Han whispered to Bolin, who nodded in understanding.
A small, dark colored hovercraft followed them as they drove away from the Falcon.
While Leia and Shandra chatted and the boys threw punches at each other in the third row seat, Han was becoming worried. Impulsively, he made several random turns which had nothing to do with getting to their destination. Finally, Leia noticed they were traveling in a large circle.
"Darling, are you lost? I thought Corellians couldn't get lost," she said in a syrupy sweet voice. Leia turned to Shandra. "Men just hate stopping and asking for directions, don't they?"
Before the woman could answer, Han spoke in a low voice. "I ain't lost, but we've got company."
"What?" Leia sat up, instantly losing her teasing expression. "Where?"
"Black hovercraft, two vehicles behind us," Han replied tightly, "Been on our tail since we left the docking bay."
"They couldn't be looking for me!" Shandra objected. "No one knows I'm here."
Han nodded in agreement. "Get the kids in the middle row of seats and down as far as you can," he instructed the woman. To Leia he said, "Your blaster charged?"
"Get in the back and get ready for some fast driving."
"All right," Leia said as she started to climb toward the back.
"And Mrs. Antilles?" Han added.
"You too, flyboy," she smiled and left the front seat.
As soon as everyone was repositioned, Han pressed the accelerator to the floor, the sudden increase in speed pressing his body against the seat. It had occurred to Solo that whoever was following them was not looking for the Imach family, but was a bounty hunter that had recognized the Falcon. The reward on his head because of Jabba had grown to the point where the Corellian expected even amateurs would take up looking for him. If this were the case, he was endangering not only the Princess, but innocent bystanders, and idea this did not sit well with Solo.
The small craft behind them swerved out from behind its cover and charged after its prey, quickly closing the distance between the vehicles. The large rental was no match for the other craft, which was built for agility and speed. A flash of blaster fire shot out from the small vehicle toward the lead vehicle. Han swerved violently to avoid the bolt, making Leia return shot head wildly into the air.
"Hey!" she yelled up at the crazed driver. "You're not helping my aim!"
"Sorry, sweetheart," Han yelled back. "Just trying to avoid getting us blasted to pieces by our new friend."
By this time, Aida and Ryno were crying as their mother tried desperately to calm her children. Bolin sat on the other side, between the twins, an arm around each of them. "Everything's going to be okay," Shandra whispered to her children. "We just have to be brave for a little while. I'm right here."
"I'm scared," Cade whispered.
"Me too," Colvin added.
"You can't be scared," Bolin replied. "Mom needs you to help with Ryno and Aida. Right mom?"
"That's right, son," she said gratefully.
"And I have to go help Han and Leia," Bolin said as he stood up and climbed over the front seat.
"Kid, get back there with your mom," Han snapped, while watching his driving. The traffic was increasing, which was helpful for cover, but bad for maneuvering.
"I can help," Bolin insisted. "I'm not a little kid."
"How can you help?"
"Two blasters are better than one," the boy said. "Let me use your gun. I can help Leia. I'm a good aim."
"Let me guess.... your dad taught you?"
"Yep," he said proudly.
Without taking his eyes off the traffic, Han reached down and unsnapped his blaster and handed it to the boy. "Don't do anything stupid, kid."
"Thanks," Bolin said as he took the DL-44 from Solo. "And I won't do anything stupid. I want to be just like you when I get old."
Han ignored Leia's loud hoot of laughter coming from the back seat.
"There are too many vehicles," Leia yelled up to Han. "I can get a clear aim, and I don't want to hit other hovercrafts."
Another shot flew past their craft. "That doesn't seem to concern our new buddy back there," Han called back. "Keep your heads down!"
"At least he can't get a clear shot, either," Leia told a very tense Bolin. "And he has to concentrate on driving while he's shooting."
No sooner had the words left her mouth than the pursuing driver leaned out of his window and fired several shots in rapid succession. A bolt shattered the back window, narrowly missing Leia and Bolin as it continued out the front window, very close to the driver - too close. The bulky hovercraft weaved back and forth wildly for a few seconds before steadying. "Hey" Leia shouted to Han. "Are you trying to overturn this thing?"
"I'm gonna turn off onto a side street," Han grunted back at her. "Less traffic. Maybe you can get a clear shot."
The vehicle swerved violently to the right, forcing the oncoming hovercrafts to veer off the road to avoid the insane driver. The small pursuit craft followed without missing a beat. But finally, there were no other vehicles behind the killer. Leia leaned out of the side window, while Bolin fired Han's blaster through the shattered back window.
The killer fired back, this time hitting the back of the hovercraft, causing black smoke to billow out of the rear. "There goes our deposit," Han said in mock dismay. "Can't you two aim any better than a couple of drunken stormtroopers?"
"We wouldn't be aiming like drunken stormtroopers if you weren't driving like one!" the Princess snapped back as she stuck her head back inside.
"Maybe you'd like to switch places and drive, sweetheart?" Han said sarcastically. "It wouldn't hurt my feelings."
"Next time." Leia bent her head back outside and fired again. This time, her shot hit the front engine compartment and sparks flew.
"Way to go!" Bolin shouted as he kept up the fire, forcing the driver to move sharply to the left. But by moving to the left, he was now directly in Leia's sight line. A blast from the Princess's weapon went through the driver's window, and the vehicle turned sharply to the right. At the high speed it was traveling, it skidded sideways and flipped over three times, coming to rest against a high duracrete embankment.
Immediately, Han slowed and stopped his hovercraft. "Stay here," he instructed his passengers as he got out. They all listened, except the Princess.
Leia jumped out and followed Han down the road. "What are you doing?" she asked, annoyed. "We need to put distance between us and this crazy person before the authorities get here."
"Then why are you going back there?"
Han didn't answer, just kept up the fast pace until he reached the overturned vehicle. Kneeling down, he put his finger on the man's sharply bent neck and wasn't surprised to find no pulse. Solo turned the man's head until he could see the face. Then he stood up and grabbed Leia's wrist and pulled her back to the parked hovercraft. "What was that all about? Why did you need to go back?" she repeated.
"I had to see if I knew who it was."
"What? Why would you know him?" When Han didn't answer, she persisted, tugging at his hand until he gasped and grabbed his arm. "Han! You're shot!" Leia said as her eyes widened in surprise. "Why didn't you say something?"
"It's not too bad," Solo answered tightly, looking down at the spreading red stain on his white shirt sleeve. It hurt like hell, but he wasn't about to admit that to the Princess. "Chewie'll patch it up when we get back to the Falcon."
Pushing aside her worry she asked, "Did you know who that was?"
"Yeah, I recognized him," he said quietly. "He was a two-bit bounty hunter by the name of Pinn Ruaunn. I remember he hired out for easy jobs, and it was real cheap to hire him. He must have decided to try and move up in the rankings. It was just lucky for us he wasn't too good at his profession." Han stopped and turned to the Princess. "I could have gotten you and all these kids killed, Princess."
"You don't know he was after you," she said with a shake of her head.
"He was after me! Shandra was right - no one knew she was coming here. That bounty hunter recognized my ship, and that was why he was after me. Maybe it was just bad luck that he saw me, but it doesn't change the facts. I almost got everyone killed."
Leia sighed. "Let's discuss this later. Right now we need to get them safely to Leddy's house."
"Fine," Han said shortly and headed back to the hovercraft.
Once they arrived at the modest home where Leddy Eaststar lived, Leia carefully bandaged Han's arm the best she could, but the Corellian would still need the bacta jel back on the ship to prevent infection and scarring. At least Solo wouldn't need immediate medical treatment, which would have created further problems with nosy medical droids and possible involvement with Authorities. Getting off of Ord Mantell, and quickly, had become a priority ever since the very visible hovercraft chase and shootings.
Shandra Imach gave Leia and Han a quick hug. "Mr. and Mrs. Antilles, I can't thank you enough for everything. My children are my life, and you gave them back to me."
"You are more than welcome," Leia replied sincerely, smiling at Shandra and Leddy. "I wish you and your children the best, and I hope Kallon leaves you alone." Bolin had been right about one thing - Leddy had dark hair. But Leddy was five foot seven inches, and no one could ever mistake Leddy and Leia for each other. It was amazing that Merkii didn't just shoot both of us before asking questions, Leia thought.
Leddy stood nearby, holding Ryno. "Kallon won't come back to Ord Mantell," she said grimly. "He knows I have too many well connected friends here. Basically, the man's a coward."
Han stuck out his hand to Bolin. "That was some mighty fine shooting back there, Bolin."
"Thank you, Captain Han Antilles," he grinned up at the tall Corellian. Cade and Colvin threw their arms around the smuggler and hugged his waist tightly.
Kneeling so that he was eye level with the twins, Han hugged them back with his uninjured arm. "You two help your brother take care of your mom and Ryno and your sister. You're big boys now, too."
"We'll miss you," Cade murmured into Han's hair.
"And your good cooking!" Colvin agreed. "Your wife was right - you're a great cook!"
"My wife said that, huh?"
"Yeah," Cade said, grinning. "She told us to make you cook all the time! And you did!"
Solo slowly turned his head and glared up at the Princess, who was busily avoiding looking at him. Leia quickly scooped Aida up and kissed her on the cheek. "Goodbye, honey," she whispered. "I'll miss you." Leia handed the little girl to Shandra and started toward the hovercraft. "Come on, darling," she called out in a sing-song voice. "We'd better get back before Chewie starts getting worried."
Hoth, three months later....
Entering her room, she sat down on the small cot. He's leaving. He's really leaving this time. A lump formed in her throat, and a sense of abandonment settled over her. I don't care, let him go, she told herself, trying to push away the sudden weariness that was threatening to overwhelm her. He was only in this for the money, anyway. He never cared about us. About the Rebellion. About Luke. About... me.
The buzzer rang, and Leia stood up. Maybe it was Han, coming back to say he was sorry, and he didn't mean it when he said he was leaving. He did promise me he'd stay.
"Mistress Leia!" Threepio said as he stood outside her door. "Have you seen Master Luke?"
"Yes. Apparently, he hasn't checked in from putting markers outside, and no one has seen him!"
Frowning, Leia reached for her comlink. "Solo?" Static. "Solo?" More static.
"Threepio, I can't reach Han since his comlink appears to be turned off. Go to the hanger and tell Captain Solo about Luke. I'll check at headquarters and see if anyone has heard from him."
"Yes, Mistress Leia."
Ten hours later...
Even though she was exhausted, Leia had not slept at all during the night. Luke and Han had spent the entire night out in the bitter cold. She knew it was very likely they were both dead by now, alone out in the vast ice plains, a slow death of hypothermia She could not imagine her life without Luke and his cheerful, upbeat attitude, or Han, with his dry wit and his sarcastic comments. They were both her friends - really her only friends, and now her life would be empty without them. What good had it done for Han to rush outside and look for Luke? Leia wondered sadly. The odds of finding Luke had been incredibly small, but since when did Han ever care about the odds? He didn't care about the odds... but he cared about his friends, about Luke and Chewie. And he cared about me. Maybe he was right - I didn't want him to leave without a goodbye kiss. But now it's too late and I'll never get that kiss.
Her comlink buzzed, and she quickly reached for it. "Princess Leia? We've found them! They're alive!"
In a heartbeat, her despair turned to joy. It wasn't too late, after all.