“500 for cold-weather thrusters? You're out of your mind.” Leia Organa glared at the Toydarian merchant who blinked his yellow eyes and spread his three fingered hands in the approximation of a shrug. “I need thirty of them,” she snapped. “Can't you give me a discount for buying bulk?”
“You call that bulk? Buy twice that and I'll give you...five percent off each thruster. A good deal, eh? You won't find better.”
Leia knew this was probably not true, but this part of Ord Mantell was a virtual carnival of parts supplies and shipyard merchants. Comparison shopping could take months, and she'd wasted too much time already. They desperately needed new thrusters at the Alliance base on Hoth, and she was due to rendezvous with Han Solo and Chewbacca at the Millennium Falcon within the hour.
“You don't want to buy thrusters here.”
She turned, startled by the the man's voice and proximity. She mentally chastised herself for not being more alert as she gave him a closer inspection. He was average height, roughly good-looking, and wore unremarkable clothes. There was something vaguely familiar about him, and her stomach tightened with fear. “Do I know you?”
“Don't think so. One of those faces, or so I've been told.” He smiled at her, and she relaxed a little.
“Why don't I want to buy thrusters here?”
“Hey now, who asked you?” The Toydarian grumbled. “The lady and I were still bargaining.”
“Thrusters are recycled from trashed speeders. If your speeders are a few years old, you should go to the junkyards first.”
“That's a good tip,” she replied, a little abashed that she hadn't thought it of it herself. “Any particular junkyard you'd recommend?”
“One or two. Depends on your price range.”
“Hey, hey!” The merchant fluttered into their path, agitated by the man's interference. “What's the big idea? You work for some junkyard maybe, eh? It's against the law to conduct business in a competitor's shop. I'll have you jailed.”
The man was armed, like every other person on these streets, but he made no move towards his blaster. Instead he looked the merchant in the eye and spoke in a quiet, menacing tone. “Move.”
The Toydarian's little wings gave two furious flaps, and then the merchant seemed to decide it wasn't worth it.“Ahhh,” he snarled as he backed away. “Get out of my shop, you clone scum.”
Sensing that her own welcome was wearing thin, Leia hastily followed the man out into the crowded street, trying not stare. He looked so normal, could he really be a clone? Of course he could, she scolded herself for being so narrow-minded. Clones were sentient beings, just like anyone else. Maybe he was the clone of someone famous, and that was why he seemed familiar.
His eyes cut over to her, knowingly, it seemed to Leia. As if he was expecting her to say something. She held his gaze and raised her eyebrows questioningly. “So...do you work for a junkyard?”
She could see the smile in his eyes a full two seconds before his mouth twitched in response. “No.” He looked her over thoughtfully. “Thirty cold-weather thrusters, was it?”
She was actually proud of her outfit, which she'd constructed with the express purpose of fitting in while visiting Ord Mantell. She was wearing a worn leather vest over a sleeveless shirt, tight black pants and thick, no-nonsense boots. Her blaster was holstered on a thick utility belt and her hair was drawn up into a long ponytail that hung down her back. She had especially enjoyed Captain Solo's not-so-subtle double take when he saw her her new look.
“Heading to a snow world next?”
“Oh, you know,” she replied with affected carelessness. “If I told you, I'd have to kill you.”
That seemed to amuse him. “Smuggler?”
“Who's asking?” She replied, wishing with all her heart that Han Solo was here to see this.
“Just a pilot.” He smiled at her again, friendly and a little flirtatious. “Maybe I could help you find your thrusters.”
“For a percentage?” Leia asked warily.
“For a drink.” He jerked his head in the direction of a cantina across the street, it's neon sign unlit. “Have a drink with me, and I'll tell you where you can find your parts.”
As nice as he seemed, going into a seedy bar with a stranger went strongly against her cautious nature. “Thanks, but I'm not really thirsty.”
“Neither am I,” he shrugged. “Just an excuse to talk thrusters with a pretty girl.”
Leia arched her eyebrows, bemused. “You're very direct, aren't you?”
“Is that problem?”
“Not necessarily.” There was a hint of challenge in his eyes, and she found herself wanting to accept. He just a lonely pilot trying to pick her up, and she didn't see the harm in a little flirting. “One drink,” she countered firmly, putting her hands on her hips. “And you'd better not be wasting my time.”
“I wouldn't think of it.” He smiled at her again. It was a nice smile, Leia thought. Sort of playful. She pushed aside her reservations. She really needed those thrusters, and as much as she tried to deny it, she wanted to prove to certain arrogant smuggler that she could handle herself.
The bar was typical of Ord Mantell, rough, dirty and crowded. The pilot guided her to a couple of empty stools against the wall at the far side of the bar, and the Besalisk bartender lumbered over to take their drink orders. “I'm not much of a drinker,” Leia said to him. “Do you have anything here that won't render me useless for the rest of the day?”
The Besalisk flapped his jowels and said something that sounded like “Murrghack?”
“Two harbing'rr, no jolt.” the pilot turned back to her as the bartender moved away. “I see someone warned you about the drinks on this rock.”
“Oh, you know the stories that get passed around,” Leia said lightly. “A Hutt walks into a bar on Ord Mantell, and so forth.”
“I've never heard that one.”
“Really?” She kept one eye on the bartender as she talked, but she couldn't figure out what was in the bottles he was shuffling between his four hands. “All right, so a Hutt walks into a bar on Ord Mantell and asks for the strongest drink in the house. The bartender gives it to him, and the Hutt takes one sip and falls over dead. Then the bartender says-”
Two cups were set in front of them, and Leia paused to examine the dark liquid before taking a cautious sip. “That's good,” she said in surprise. “What is this, some kind of cider?”
“I think so. I'm not much of a drinker either.”
“That's sort of unusual for a pilot, isn't it?” She lifted her glass again and smiled at him over the rim. “I'm guessing you don't fly one of those big casino cruisers.”
“No, cargo transport. Used to contract out for the Empire, but I got laid off.” He made a dismissive gesture. “Damn Imps.”
“Damn Imps,” Leia agreed wryly, holding up her cup as if giving a toast.
“Transport's a boring job anyway.” Her left hand was resting on the bar, and he put his hand over hers. His hands were rough and calloused, but clean. His skin was a few shades darker than hers, and her own hand looked very pale and small by comparison. “Not really interesting to talk about. I'd rather hear about you,” he said, his thumb brushing lightly over the back of her hand. “You like your job?”
Leia was momentarily distracted by the shiver of excitement that ran up her spine. “Or we could talk about thrusters,” she suggested pointedly.
“We could.” His fingers curled around her hand and turned it palm up, stroking the creases of her palm with his fingertips. Leia decided she'd better not drink any more. The bar seemed suddenly very warm, and she knew her cheeks were flushed. What time was it? Han might come looking for her if she was out too long. He might find her here, flirting with a stranger. The thought of Han Solo getting jealous over her gave her an unexpected thrill, no matter how much she tried to suppress it.
“Thirty thruster replacements is a big job,” he said, breaking into her thoughts. “Maybe I could help you out, if there's room for one more on your secret snow world.”
Startled and a little flustered, she scrambled for a suitable response. “Uh. You're a pilot and a mechanic?”
“I've done a little bit of everything,” he said, his thumb tracing up her bare arm to the inside of her elbow. “But I like to know where I'm headed.”
Leia looked down at his hand on her arm and felt confused. As much as he seemed to applying for a job, his touch seemed to indicate he was after something else entirely. She raised her eyes and caught him looking at her intently. There was something different in his eyes now, something sharper and colder. “You're not going to tell me,” he said, less a question and more a statement.
“I told you I can't-”
“You look a little warm,” he said abruptly, tossing a credit chit on the bar. “It is hot in here. You want to go?”
Leia hesitated, unsure if she was being propositioned. “Go...where?”
“Out there,” he waved towards the back door. “Take a walk.”
“I guess so.” He was holding her hand now, guiding her through the crowd. Leia was surprised by how cool and refreshing the air felt now after the stuffy cantina. It was getting dark, and the sky had a purple tinge to it as the city's neon lights began to come alive. She looked around and realized they were in a dead-end alley now, vacant except for a few trash bins.
“Thank you for the drink,” she said politely, “but I really should be on my way. If you have the names of those-” she took a step back, intending to pull her hand away, but her back hit the rough brick wall. The pilot's hand moved up her arm, and her pulse skyrocketed in response. She shouldn't be here. She shouldn't be alone in a back alley on Ord Mantell, contemplating kissing a complete stranger.
And yet, part of her wondered what would be so terrible about doing exactly that. She'd often watched enviously as the other rebel soldiers and pilots engaged in simplistic sexual relationships and brief affairs. Someone like her, in a position of authority with a reputation to maintain, couldn't do that. This led to rumors that she was frigid, or a virgin, but the truth was far less sensational. It was just too complicated for Leia Organa, former Princess, political figurehead and rebel leader, to have relationships.
Would it be so wrong to have one little fling before she was stuck freezing her ass off on Hoth with her stature and reputation and the irritating presence of a certain smuggler?
“I'm going to be direct again,” the pilot said in a low voice, leaning towards her slightly. His hand was warm on her arm, and Leia spared a moment of regret for the things she couldn't have.
“I'm really not that kind of girl,” she blurted, and then winced at how corny it sounded. “What I mean is-”
“I know who you are.” His cold, emotionless tone cut through her like a knife. His eyes met hers, all traces of friendliness gone. “And I know who you're here with.”
Leia jerked back, realizing too late that she was trapped against the wall. She thought about her blaster, but it was on her right side, and he was holding her right arm. She couldn't reach across her body with her left hand without him noticing.
“Don't try anything stupid,” he said as if sensing her thoughts. “I'm not going to hurt you.”
She didn't believe him for a second. “What do you want?”
“I want you to give Captain Solo a message for me.”
He adjusted his hold on her arm, twisting it just slightly, and for a breathless moment Leia thought he was going to break it. “A message?” she said when she could trust herself to talk. “From who?”
“I'll write it down for you,” he said, rubbing his thumb over the skin on the inside of her arm, just below her elbow. “Captain Solo might not recognize me, but he'll recognize this.” He produced a soft-tipped marker from his pocket and drew a curving line on her skin. It tickled, and Leia squirmed.
“Hold still,” he ordered, concentrating on his work.
“Why can't you give him the damn message yourself?” She said through gritted teeth. “Unless you're afraid of him.”
He looked up at her, a flicker of amusement in his eyes. “Like you, I don't like to waste my time. The price on Solo's head hasn't been high enough to make it worth my while, but my employer is getting impatient. Tell Captain Solo that if doesn't return to Tatooine immediately to pay off his debt to Jabba the Hutt, his days as a free man are limited.”
He blew gently on her skin to dry the ink, and she couldn't suppress a shiver. The image was upside down to Leia, but it looked like a skull with downward curving horns. “Don't let it smudge,” he warned her. “That wouldn't do Captain Solo any good.”
“You're a bounty hunter,” Leia said, infusing the word with as much disgust as possible.
“That's right, Your Highness.” He held her gaze, his eyes dark and cold. “The junkyards near the Mantellian Transit Service will have your thrusters, and for a much better price. Try the Bothans first. They're known to be Alliance friendly.”
She stared at him, wondering if he actually expected her to thank him after all that. He dropped her arm, seemingly indifferent as he put away the pen and took a step back. Leia pushed off the brick wall and took a careful step back towards the mouth of alley. He made no move to stop her.
She wanted to run, but forced herself instead to turn and walk briskly out into the street. Several blocks away, she ducked behind a street vender's stand and put her hand over her racing heart. It only reminded her of the mark on her arm. She shuddered, wanting to find the strongest possible cleaning solution and scrub the image off her skin. But she couldn't, not until she saw Han.
As soon as she was aboard the Falcon she strode up to Han Solo and shoved him hard. “Why didn't you tell me you were in debt to a Hutt you stupid nerf-herder!”
“Hey, hey Princess,” The smuggler backed away, his hands raised. “What-” Then he caught sight of her arm and grabbed her wrist. “What the hell is this?”
She heard the edge in his voice, and it only confirmed what she already knew. “Some bounty hunter cornered me and told me to give you a message. If you don't pay off Jabba the Hutt he's coming after you, and then he drew this on me. Who is he?”
Chewbacca growled deep in his throat, and Han nodded to his first mate. “Yeah. Me too.”
Leia grabbed the lapels of his vest, too rattled to bear the suspense. “Who. Is. He.”
Han looked at the mark on her arm again and grimaced “It's Boba Fett. He has the same symbol on his armor.”
She was no stranger to dangerous men or dangerous situations, but thought that she'd been sitting in a bar holding hands with Boba Fett made her feel physically ill. “I'm going to wash this off right now,” she vowed. “There have to be easier ways to send a message.”
“He's making a point,” Han replied grimly. “He knows who I'm with now.”
“What are you going to do?” Before he could answer, she rushed ahead. “He'll never find you on Hoth, if you stay hidden-”
“Yeah. We'll see.”
She didn't like his tone. If he went back to Tatooine now, he might never come back. Leia was aware of how gangsters like Jabba operated. Han could pay back the entire sum owed, but there would always be one more job, one last deal to make. Or Jabba might just decide to kill him as an example to all of the other sentients who owed him money. “Don't go back there,” she said. “It's not safe.”
He smiled that crooked grin that made her heart beat faster. “Easy Your Worship, I'll start to think you care.”
Leia looked away, her heart pounding again, but this time not from fear. “The Alliance needs you.”
“Hey,” he tipped up her chin with two fingers. “I'm not going anywhere right now.”
She looked into his eyes and nodded. For a second she thought he was going to kiss her, and she wanted him to. Then Chewie made an anxious noise and Han looked away, the spell broken. “I know pal, I know. We'll figure something out.”