Trust Fund

By Barbara Anderson
manor@worldnet.att.net

Art by Wanda Lybarger
ladymousew@bellsouth.net

 

see You Could Use Another Good Kiss home page
for applicable legal statements and disclaimers

Part 6

Home | Back to Author List | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

(Originally appear in Flip of a Coin #15, 1992)


 

A short while later on the headquarters frigate, shooting each other was exactly what Leia had in mind. She was walking down the ship's corridors, once more furiously upset with Mon Mothma and Ackbar and Madine...and Luke and Han! The latter two were never around when she needed them, and the former were never on her side.

About the only one she could count on at the moment was the Minrados ambassador! She had definitely made a friend and he actually turned out to be a half-way decent sort. Tweelzu had patterned his behavior after the Imperial officers he had seen, under the mistaken impression that that was how officials were supposed to act. Once Leia, through Threepio, had really started talking to him, she could see he was nervous and unsure of his new status and grateful for any advice she could give.

It was the ambassador, of all people, who had informed her that she was going to formally be made empress in three-days time, and let it be known that he was looking forward to the ceremony and reception afterwards. Leia had managed to stammer a 'thank you' without, she hoped, betraying her surprise and righteous indignation, but she was sure she had left scorch marks where she stood, such had been the hot flush of anger, resentment, and embarrassment on hearing the news secondhand. Those continued emotions propelled her toward what she considered a final showdown with the three Alliance leaders she held responsible.

"Your Highness! Your Highness!"

Leia cringed, shutting her eyes for an exasperated moment. She knew that voice as well as the wheep and tootle that usually accompanied it, usually delivering a politely worded summons for her to report somewhere, usually immediately. Answering was unavoidable. "Yes, Threepio," she sighed as she turned around. "What is it this time?"

The golden face almost looked breathless. "Mistress Leia, I'm dreadfully sorry, but I had the greatest difficulty keeping Captain Solo in sight as you instructed, once he left the ship..."

It took Leia a second to realize Threepio was still taking her order literally. "It's all right—" she began to reassure him, but Threepio was on a roll.

"...But he's back on board and I'm so pleased to be able to once more report his exact location!"

Her face lit up. "Well?" she demanded.

The droid straightened. "He's been placed in detention cell number sixteen," he announced proudly.

"Detentions?!" cried the princess. "Why?"

Threepio cocked his head in confusion. "Why, for crimes against the Alliance and rebellion forces, of course. Theft and treason to be specific."

While Leia reeled in semi-shock, Artoo-Detoo rocked on his feet, tootled, whistled, beeped in absolute electronic fury, and just about tried to stomp on Threepio's toes.

"What are you talking about?" chastised the taller droid. "Of course, he's a traitor. Everyone says so. And it's as I've always suspected."

Leia shot him a deadly look. "Threepio," she said menacingly, "You're going to make a wonderful pet tin! Artoo, c'mon. We'll see about this!"

The little droid dutifully dropped his third foot, eagerly following the princess. Half-way down the hall, he turned his domed head around to give Threepio the equivalent of an electronic razzberry.

The protocol droid stood in place, totally befuddled at both responses, and wailed, "What did I say?"

 


Han Solo was barely regaining consciousness, and wished he wasn't. As consciousness returned, so did feeling, and he felt like he had been trampled by a herd of overweight banthas. Everything hurt, especially his head, which like an incipient nova, was going to explode at any moment. With a low groan, he pushed himself up on his elbows to look around, groaning even more when he recognized—even with double vision—the interior of a rebel detention cell.

Congratulations, Solo, you couldn't have messed this up better even if you'd brought Palpatine back to life. Steeling himself, Han sat up and instantly regretted the move as the sound of his heartbeat pounded mercilessly in his ears and behind his eyes. In automatic defense, his head dropped into his hands for support and unfound relief.

Post-stun syndrome was not a new experience for Han, but that didn't make it any easier to bear. Depending on the weapon's setting, the afteraffects ranged from mild to incapacitating, and from the way he felt, someone had shot him with a maximum charge. Han wished a painful, lingering death on whomever it was. There were other unpleasant side effects in addition to the neural pain, and one in particular that had caused him no end of lost opportunities and embarrassment, but right now he had worst things to worry about than impotence for a few days. Right now, he had to figure a way out.

Maybe some water on his face would help clear up the fuzz in his brain, so he attempted to stand...and just as quickly passed out again. His body crumpled like an unstrung puppet, falling forward where he struck his head on the edge of the sleeping platform. It was only a glancing blow, but it nonetheless opened a long shallow trench across his temple. As head wounds will, it proceeded to profusely bleed out of proportion to the severity of the injury.

It was in that position and physical condition, sprawled on the floor with a small puddle of blood around his face and head, that Leia found him when she arrived on the detention deck like an avenging angel. At the first sight of him, her hands flew to her mouth as she cried out, "Oh, gods!" and ran to the reinforced glassite observation panel. "Han!" she called, beating the palm of her hand on the hard unyielding surface. "Han!" He didn't move. She threw a scathing look at the guard who had accompanied her. "Open this door!" she demanded.

The guard visibly withered. "But...but, Your Highness," he gasped. "He was fine. I don't understand how..."

"Well, I do!" Leia snapped with all the regal bearing and authority she could muster. "Get a med droid down here immediately!" The guard fled up the stairs to the central control area while Leia continued to stare at the still form on the floor of the cell, her hand still on the glassite, trying to feel and comfort him through the cold barrier.

How could this have happened? she thought. Where did things start to go wrong? Again and again, with each question, she kept coming up with the same three answers. By the time the quaking guard returned, assuring her that Captain Solo would be cared for, Leia no longer wanted to enter the cell. Han would be in better, more capable hands in a few minutes, and she still had a few scores to settle, now more than ever. With a last heart-wrenching look at her Corellian, Leia went up to the control center where Artoo was waiting.

"Locate Mon Mothma, Ackbar, and General Madine," she ordered the little droid. His computer arm spun into a terminal, tracking the rebel leaders' telesponders. Upon learning that the trio could be found in one of the frigate's executive lounges, she saw stars. "Artoo," she said with undisguised glee, "Let's go crash a party."

 


Without announcing her presence or requesting entry permission, Leia smacked the door contact to the conference lounge. It buzzed but did not open, flashing an ENTRY DENIED signal.

"Artoo," she instructed the droid at her side. "Open it." Then she moved aside to give him access to the computer terminal. The astromech unit tootled and rocked in dismay. "Don't give me that," threatened the princess. "I know Han disconnected your obedience module and overrides a long time ago. Open that door!"

Artoo did, with one of numerous appendages swinging up to connect with the terminal. It rotated several times, then with a hiss, the door retracted and Leia marched in. The lounge was softly lit in a pale rose color, but not for long; Leia held her hand over the light sensor, bringing the illumination to glare level, turning the room into her own personal interrogation chamber.

"Leia! What...what is this?" Mon Mothma quickly stood, a drink still in her hand. Madine and Ackbar also appeared from the conform chairs that were arranged in the sunken center area. And a fourth person stood—General Rieeken. Leia's spirits soared for a moment, joyous at seeing him again, but alomst as quickly sank even lower with dispair that Rieekan had apparently condoned the triumvirate's actions.

Unaware of the situation, Rieekan smiled warmly and began to move toward her. "Leia," he said, looking delighted and somewhat chagrined at being discovered. "It was meant to be a surprise—I just got here for the ceremony." His arms opened to embrace her.

For a second Leia considered it, but then she took a step backwards. Her hands curled into fists at her side. "How could you do this?!" she demanded with bitter anger punctuating every word.

Of the four, Rieekan was the only one to look totally bewildered at the accusation, while the other three looked nervously at each other, such had been the vehemence of Leia's words.

"Leia," Mon Mothma spoke, putting down the drink and coming forward. "We understand you're upset, but we have proof Captain Solo took funds from the Alliance accounts without permission." She was annoyed all over again at the Corellian and it came through in sharp edged voice tones. "Do you understand? He stole money to buy equipment for that...ship—money we desperately need for the fleet."

"And for that," Leia retorted, "he's thrown in a maximum detention cell and left unconscious and hurt?!"

"Wait a minute," interrupted a very confused Rieekan. "Am I to understand that Han Solo has been arrested for theft?" He looked at Leia, correctly guessing she thought him fully involved. "Princess...Your Highness...I didn't know." Rieekan tried to convey complete sincerity while emphasizing her royal title, subtlety or perhaps bluntly reminding his fellow leaders of Leia's status.

General Madine sighed, regretful quilt on his face. "A medical team has been ordered to tend to him, Your Highness, and it was one of the local authorities who shot him."

The admiral cleared his gills, addressing Rieekan as well as Leia. "Theft is not the only reason, Princess." He, as well as Madine, seemed to suddenly remember Leia's royal position. He held out a square silver wafer. "Captain Solo was carrying this when we found him." Leia eyed it with haughty suspicion. "It's an Imperial data plaque with instructions to obtain the location and coordinates of the fleet's next scheduled jump." One webbed hand tapped the plaque on the palm of the other. "We've suspected an Imperial agent on board for some time. I'm sorry to say it looks like we've found him."

"You can't be serious!" exclaimed Rieekan in disbelief. "I know Solo. There's no way he would work for the Empire."

Gods of Alderaan, cried Leia in silent, wordless mental anguish, it couldn't be, and she knew in the next breath she was right. "It's a mistake," she voice out loud, somehow totally convinced of the fact.

"It's no mistake," Mon Mothma countered. "According to the ambassador, the establishment where he was apprehended is known to be sympathetic to the Empire."

Leia stood in tight-lipped fury, feeling angrier than she had ever felt in her life. That anger started as a slow burn, its heat awakening something in her mind, something that had lain cold and dormant, something that now stirred, sensing imminent release. It coiled, waiting with restless, impatient anticipation.

"Of course it's a mistake," refuted the Hoth general. "You need more proof than that."

"General," the woman tried to explain, "you don't know the entire situation. There's more to…"

"They don't need proof," the princess from Alderaan interrupted. "They're already convinced he's guilty, prejudged him from the beginning. No other possibility has even crossed your minds, has it?" That something writhed in the passionate rage of Leia's increasing anger and resentment. "New Republic with old ideas…we might as well have Palpatine back!" Her words were a stinging rebuke. "And, yes, explain the entire situation to the general and while you're trying to do that, tell me when I was supposed to learn of the ceremony?"

This time, not only Rieeken looked totally bewildered, but Madine and the admiral as well. "Weren't you told, Your Highness?" asked the Corellian officer.

Her Highness's replay was a flat, "No. There's been a lot of things I haven't been told lately."

Three sets of accusing stares focused on Mon Mothma, who looked contritely uncomfortable. "I've been trying to tell her for days," she angrily responded, speaking as if Leia wasn't even present, "but this business with Captain Solo has made it impossible."

"Business'!?" cried Leia. "The Alliance owes its life and present existence to this business, or have you forgotten?" Her expression was one of utter contempt and the dark something stretched and flexed in the confines of her mind.

Mon Mothma paced, using one arm in the winged sleeve to add emphasis to her words. "That's the point. No one has forgotten." She looked at Leia squarely, seeing the misplaced love and remembered the heated yet cold, cruel manner in which Solo had tried to seduce her, had ridiculed the princess. It would hurt but Leia had to be made to see. "Solo has a past reputation and history that doesn't lend itself to trust or respectability. The man is an opportunist and I believe he saw in the rebellion, and in you, Leia, a profitable opportunity…one that is no longer of any use to him."

Next to her, Rieekan was wide-eyed in shock, slowly becoming aware of the deterioration of the Alliance into politics and power plays. Half the rebel fighters has a history that wouldn't stand up to even casual scrutiny. A dislike of authority was almost a recruitment prerequisite for every member of the rebellion. What has gone so wrong here? he wondered.

Leia held out a hand to steady herself, trying to control feelings that were fast slipping away from her. "How could you have any idea what the rebellion meant to Han?" Her voice was pure derisive scorn, spoken normally, making more of an impact than if she had shouted. "You weren't there. You didn't see him, see the change. Didn't see him learn to trust, to give of himself, to…"

"Love?" Mothma finished for her, in unconscious imitation of Leia's interruption earlier. Her head shook in mild rapprochement at Leia's gullibility.

"Mim," said Madine quietly. "I think she and Rieekan have a point."

But Mon Mothma ignored him, delivering instead a cruel barb. "Wasn't he paid to rescue you from the first Death Star?

It was the wrong thing to say, the reference to Leia's first meeting with the Corellian smuggler only reinforced her feelings. Feelings that had indeed slipped out of her control; feelings of betrayal and fear, frustrations, doubt, disbelief, loneliness, loyalty, and love.

Anger overran all of them, anger that blazed with a fury Leia never knew she possessed. The darkness in her mind, in her soul, fed on that anger and as Leia unknowingly mentally hurled all her pain towards Mon Mothma, that darkness struck.

It flowed through Leia, along the channels and energy lines, and before the novice Jedi's horrified gaze, the woman sank to her knees, holding her throat and gasping for air. Leia felt a rush, a hotly pleasurable surge of energy only faintly reminiscent of her previous Force exercises. They were but pale comparisons to this tremendous flow of power. For just a second, she reveled in that power, drank it in, feeling exulted and exalted, omnipotent…but then just as suddenly, it became revulsion, an abomination inside her.

With a wretched, inarticulate cry, with strength from somewhere, she broke the hold and the dark side of the Force slithered away, repelled and pushed back…but not beaten. It rested again, biding its time, retreating into the blacker, deeper areas of the mind that existed in all sentient life.

Mon Mothma was taking deep, gulping breaths, her hand still at her throat, as she was assisted to her feet. With her hand covering her mouth, Leia stared, meeting Mim's frightened eyes with a self-terror of her own at what she had done, at what she was capable of. "Oh, gods…" she whispered. "I'm sorry. I'm…" Guilty horror on her face, Leia backed up a few steps, then turned and ran blindly out of the room.

"Leia!!" Rieekan shouted after her, then turned on Mon Mothma with an angry, accusatory expression. "What have you done?"

The rebel leader found her voice, croaking, "What have I done?!"

But Rieekan didn't hear her; he had gone after Leia.

 


"Leia…no!!" Luke suddenly screamed. He leapt out of the chair in the cockpit of the Alliance shuttle, then doubled over as icy, horrible pain and fear clamped around his middle and pierced his head, feeling the dark side of the Force taking possession of his sister. His body convulsed, the connection with his twin allowing him to experience her rapturous pleasure, knowing it for the malevolent seduction it really was. "Fight it, Leia! Fight it!" he mentally and audibly pleaded, projecting with all the power at his command. His arms wrapped around his own waist in agony. "Oh, gods…please!"

At first, Lando had jumped half a foot at Skywalker's outburst, but now he could see the Jedi was in real distress. He didn't know what to do, but knew that he had to do something. Getting up, he rocked Luke against him in a tight hold. "What is it?" he demanded. "What's happened?!"

"Help…me," Luke gasped. "Help Leia…"

Unable to do either, Calrissian could only offer physical support, appalled by the violent upheaval to the Jedi's body, and afraid the bones were going to break with the forceful, wracking spasms. Then, as suddenly as it had started, Luke went limp in his embrace, all but unconscious. Swinging him into the copilot's chair, Lando tried tapping him on the cheek for a response. "Luke…Luke. Hey, c'mon, buddy." The Jedi was ghostly white and barely moaned.

An initial desperate glance around the cockpit offered nothing that could be of any use, but a return look had Lando retrieving his personal flask of jet juice and forcing a healthy gulp down Skywalker's throat. The flask contained Janver III brandy, thick and potent, and in response Luke coughed, sputtered, and flailed about as the fiery liquor left a trail of heat in its wake. "Easy…easy," Lando soothed, relieved when color and life returned to the pale face.

With bright tears in his eyes, Luke drew in a deep, shuddering breath. "Leia…" was his first wrenching word when he could finally speak. His mind reached out to touch hers, searching for the familial bond, and found…nothing. It was like smacking headfirst into an impenetrable wall and no amount of concentration on his part could get through. He knew she was alive, that she existed, but that was the extent of the connection. There was no emotional link and he felt incomplete.

Then he looked up at Lando as if noticing him for the first time. "We've got to go back to the frigate!"

"I figured that much. We'll be on the ground in fifteen and…"

Luke grabbed his arm in controlled urgency. "You don't understand. Leia…and the Force…" He shivered, still suffering from the aftershock. Though he knew Leia had forced back the Dark side, there was the overwhelming fear that it would happen again. "I've got to be there with her. Turn the shuttle around!"

"I know I don't understand," Lando stated, "but I'm trying to tell you we can change course to the spaceport and switch over to something a lot faster!"

Still dazed and deeply afraid, Luke gripped the baron's forearm in wordless gratitude, thankful that one of them could think straight. "Hang on, Leia," he whispered while Lando notified the escort leader and began communications with Minrados spaceport.

 


While Han was being transported to the frigate, QueeQuee had been giving a full report of the events to Delavan Royce. She and the colonel were once again in the tunnels where she had fled to escape the rebel soldiers. They only wanted Solo, it seemed, so there had been no pursuit. And there had been no investigation of the drop chute or where it led, not that it would have done the rebels any good, Royce thought. Minrados was very important to the Empire and no expense had been spared in the construction of the covert exits and entrances. He was confident they wouldn't be discovered, but the rebel raid upstairs unnerved him.

"You're sure," he reiterated for the third time, "that his arrest wasn't staged?"

QueeQuee sat back in a conform lounger, her tail gently and slowly flicking on the floor. The accommodations were Spartan but comfortable, at least for the officers. "Absolutely," she answered, also for the third time. "I questioned Timius," referring to the bartender, "and you yourself talked to the stormtroopers who were there. Besides, his reactions were genuine. The energy flows were instinctive, not rehearsed."

His look was skeptical. "I thought you said you couldn't probe him."

The alien lady sighed. "I said he was extremely difficult. There were strong mental barriers, which I'm sure he's developed naturally, given the line of work he's been in, but the barriers weaken when there's a more urgent signal to the mind. Solo was definitely taken by surprise and felt fear. Interestingly enough, it was not fear as in self-terror." With musing gestures, she played with one horn, tracing the spiral design with her fingers. "I think it would take quite a lot to put terror into the mind of Han Solo."

The blond Imperial officer regarded her with condescending disgust. "Solo got to you, didn't he?"

"Nobody gets to me," she answered, fangs showing. "But even you have to admit, he's a very dynamic, unique individual. A bad enemy…or as a mentor of mine was fond of saying, 'a great asset.' It's a difficult situation you have-one with many unknown factors and variables. More like sabaac than holochess. Did you beat him at that, too?"

"As a matter of fact, I did." Again, some part of Delavan's psyche wouldn't admit to losing nine times out of ten.

"What are you going to do?"

Out of habit and vanity, Royce tugged on his tunic sleeve, minutely adjusting the length. "I'm not going to make the same mistake your mentor did. Palpatine's dead because he underestimated the Alliance."

"You underestimate Solo," she crassly reminded him.

Shielding his emotions as best he could, Delavan briefly considered shooting QueeQuee as he was becoming increasingly angry with her flagrant distrespect and thinly veiled disparagement, but he held his temper in check. Alien abomination or not, he needed her services at the moment. "I don't intend to repeat myself," was uttered with finality. There was a comm.-signal from his desk console. "Yes?"

"Colonel," came the filtered, agitated reply. "We have reports that the rebel shuttle has abruptly changed course and our squadron at the factory has been discovered and is under attack by rebel forces!"

In silent shock at first, Royce then did lose his temper. "How?!" he shouted. His fist repeatedly struck the table. "How did they know?!" he ranted, demanding the information from no one in particular. "How? How?!" Blazing, murderous rage lit his eyes as his head snapped up to look at QueeQuee. "Solo! It had to be Solo!" His voice ranted on a near hysterical level. "It was always Solo!"

With dispassionate interest, the lady observed his fit of fury, realizing that there was much more behind the animosity toward Solo than he had admitted and it was clear that the objectivity needed to make rational command decisions was gone where the Corellian was concerned. It made Delavan an unpredictable, dangerous leader.

Almost as if he had come to the same conclusion, Royce's tantrum suddenly subsided. With the abruptness of a power cut-off, he was once more in control, tugging at his tunic, adjusting the insignias of rank and presenting a façade of calm detachment. QueeQuee, though, could feel the black swirling mass that seethed just below that surface veneer. He pushed the comm. Button. "I'll be right there. Have a course and destination projection ready for me."

"Yes, sir."

Royce fixed cold blue eyes on his companion. "Tell Jerash to send Solo back down here-with the offer of a face-to-face meeting."

Her tail thumped like an angry lizard. "You might lose Jerash."

"He's been of small use and I think it's time to sacrifice a pawn in order to win the game."

 


Elsewhere on Minrados IV, two others players, a Knight and a Baron, had run into a spaceblock due to a rebel officer with a case of acute conscientiousness.

"I'm sorry, Commander Skywalker," said the captain of the rebel force holding siege on the Millennium Falcon. "I can't do that." Captain Barstin was a fairly new recruit from one of the last liberated systems and took his duties very seriously. He had yet to develop the respect and loyalty that older rebels had for Solo and Skywalker. It was why Mon Mothma had personally picked him. All Barstin knew was that he had been entrusted with a very important mission.

Luke just glared at him. "What?!" He and Lando had landed the shuttle, and headed straight for the starship, knowing there was nothing faster to get Luke back to the frigate and knowing nothing was more important. Certainly not a scheme that had worked too well.

Barstin stood his ground, aware of Skywalker's status and history, but determined to prove he could follow orders. "I can't allow this ship to lift, nor let you take it back to the fleet. The Wookiee inside is under arrest and we're preparing to set up a cannon to get through the shields."

Noting the blaster cannon being maneuvered into position, Lando's question had a hard edge. "Where's Han?"

With a trace of nervousness, the rebel officer answered, "Captain Antilles' team succeeded in apprehending him a short while ago and they've taken him to the frigate."

"Sith and the Dark Side!" Luke cursed, looking up at the cockpit where Chewbacca frantically waved. "This was never supposed to go this far!" He held out his hands, fingers splayed in an almost grasping gesture. "You have got to let me take the Falcon!"

"C'mon, Barstin," Lando almost threatened, his cape billowing behind him in the wind across the spaceport tarmac. "You know us! It's important!"

The man wavered. "Even if I could…"

Enough, thought Luke, taking a calming breath. "Tell the men to withdraw," he said evenly. "You have just received new orders."

To Lando's surprise, then delight, Barstin turned around and addressed the troops. "Withdraw!" he ordered. "We've received new orders."

"The field is to be cleared immediately," Luke added. "Tell Minrados Control to give clearance for immediate lift."

"Clear the field immediately!" shouted the rebel officer, then began speaking into his wrist comm.

"How do you do that?" questioned Lando as he watched the rebel soldiers happily comply. There was not a one of them who had wanted to fire on the freighter.

A playful twinkle appeared in the commander's blue eyes. "The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded." He gave an all-clear to Chewbacca and immediately the wavering effect winked out and the ramp began descending. Upon running into the ship, Luke got a quick hug from the Wookiee while a huge but friendly paw briefly clamped down on Lando's shoulder.

"We've got to get back to the frigate!" Luke ordered. At Chewie's obvious questions and agitated manner, Luke broke the news. "Han's been captured…by our side. He's probably already on board."

At that, the Falcon's first mate wasted no more time with questions and moved like a Wookiee with a purpose. As the ramp came up behind him, Luke again mentally searched for the signature aura that belonged to his twin and again found the dark, impenetrable barrier that seemed to grow stronger the harder he tried to break it down. Then he sought Han. Though always elusive, the Corellian presence was there, yet strangely subdued. Normally, Han's aura burst like a brilliantly intense flash in Luke's mind.

"Luke!"

The youthful commander opened his eyes, focusing on Lando who was snapping his fingers at Luke's eye level and looking more than a little annoyed. "Would you warn me from now on," he scolded, "when you're going to…phase out or whatever?"

"I was trying to reach Leia and Han."

"Well, good." He grabbed Luke's elbow, guiding and propelling him quickly to the cockpit, following Chewbacca. "But 'reach' them after you're strapped in!" The vibrations of the ship increased dramatically. "Chewie is going to stand this ship on her tail at any moment. Then you're going to tell me what's going on with Han or I'm going to have a strong influence on your weak mind!"

 


Upon leaving the recreational lounge, Leia fled down the corridor, past a startled Artoo who barely had time to swivel his domed head with a "Fweet?" before she disappeared into one of the frigate's lifts. With no clear destination, she punched in instructions that would take her as far from the lounge as possible, then leaned against the wall, desperately trying to slow her panicked breathing and racing, terrified heart. Her eyes closed as she withdrew into herself, fighting the dizziness, the disorientation, and the fear that threatened to paralyze her.

Oh, Maker, what have I done? Mon Mothma's choking, helpless form reappeared in her mind and Leia's body broke out in a cold sweat, adding a physical chill to the far more icy black blight in her soul that was the Dark Side. Why hadn't Luke warned her of this, prepared her? Why hadn't he said something? How could she be capable of such horror? The only answer she could derive nearly brought her to her knees with fresh pain. Vader. What if…what if she were more like him than Luke guessed? The concept filled her with loathing and revulsion.

As the lift sped on its haphazard course, Leia wrapped her arms around her chest for false comfort against the uncontrollable trembling of her body and thought of her brother and Vader. Luke had tried to tell her about Vader, the man, who he had been before; how, in the last moments of his life, he had beaten the Dark Side and destroyed Palpatine. But Leia had not seen these things; her only memories and experiences were those of the Sith Lord's cruel tortures. She had not been able, as Luke had, to come to terms with her genetic parentage, choosing instead to bury the fact in the hopes that with time it would become a forgotten fact. But now, she suddenly had to face all that the familial tie implied.

The lift slowed and she found herself worse off than she was before. Not even when Alderaan was destroyed did she feel this emotionally devastated. This was not an outside force causing destruction; this was within her! Absolute despair threatened to overwhelm any rational thought.

Luke. She mentally grasped the name and image she had to find him. But in the next hopeless instant she remembered he wasn't even on board, having gone down to Minrados to take delivery of the fighters. Instinctively, her mind went to search for his comforting presence, but just as instinctively recoiled from the thought of using the Force, of opening the door again to that abominable energy that had take control of her. She couldn't take that chance! There had to be someone else who could help…and, of course, there was.

She smacked the lift controls, reprogramming them for the detention deck. He was always there when she really needed him; he had to be there for her now.

 


In the detention area, Han was once more awake and feeling a thousand percent better, thanks to the ministrations of Two-Onebee. Since Han's involvement with the rebellion, with one injury or another, the medical droid had become more intimately acquainted with Han's body than any lover the Corellian ever had.

Under the watchful eye of a rebel guard, the mechanical M.D. was putting the finishing touches to a strip of synth-flesh applied to Han's forehead. "Thanks," said the patient as Two-Onebee withdrew from the cell, followed by the wary guard, backing out and reactivating the door seal. Han gave him a rueful, vulnerable look as he rubbed two fingers over the new bandage, and then rubbed his temple. Though the droid had initially given him several drugs to lessen and counteract the worst aftereffects of the stun charge, Han's head still felt like it was stuffed with strega wool.

The attitude of the guard bothered him. Did they really think him dangerous? Face it, Solo, he said to himself. You did too good a job with the wrong people. Unconsciously, he started to pace. Luke would clean up the mess of misunderstandings when he returned. Maybe Leia would one day speak to him again. But then what?

He looked around the cell, feeling a familiar claustrophobia and realized with a hard, honest, soul-searching thought that when this was over, it was time for him and Chewie to leave. Not because of a bounty hunter or a death mark on his head, not because he was afraid of falling in love with a princess, but because he was a spacer and both he and the Falcon had been tethered too long. The frigate and the fleet, the rebellion, were all as much of a cell as the one he was in. But leaving would cause a whole new set of problems.

Actually, Han's problems were just beginning. There was the unexpected startling sound of blaster fire outside his cell. Distant at first, just a muffled zing, then sharper and definitely coming closer. When his door suddenly hissed open, all his senses sprang into alertness, or as alert as post-stun syndrome would allow. Confusion was added when he saw Jerash M'lan in the doorway—with a blaster—pointed in his direction. Problems, confusion, and headache not withstanding, Han still had the common sense to automatically put his hands up. "What's going on?" he asked.

"Isn't it obvious?" sneered the older man. "I'm helping you get out of here." The blaster waved. "Get out and go." There was something sarcastic and petulant in M'lan's voice and expression, the round face florid with suppressed anger. Never, in all these years of faithful, clandestine service to the Empire had Royce extended a personal invitation to him, never so much as even a thank you. He felt as if he was being used, taken for granted and that seething undercurrent of outraged fury was transferred to Solo, blaming the Corellian for the seeming lack of Imperial gratitude.

Hearing the anger as well as the bitterness, Han didn't know what to think. It stank of entrapment, and the Alliance, he knew, didn't work that way, though at this point he wasn't about to put anything past Mon Mothma, and M'lan was practically attached to her at the hip lately.…M'lan! Like a nova burst, Han had the answer and he wanted to kick himself. In hindsight, it was the only answer.

Jerash looked at him with undisguised contempt. "You're supposed to be so clever. Got it figured out yet?"

Part of Han smiled in anticipation of the look on Mim's face to this bit of news but part of him shuddered that M'lan had done so much damage for so long without arousing suspicion. Before he could answer, though, both men turned at the sound of rapidly approaching, almost running footsteps.

"Han! Han!"

"It's Leia!" hissed Solo, immediately worried by the near hysterical shrillness in her voice. "Seal the door and get out of sight! I'll get rid of her!" Such was the power and authority in Han's voice that Jerash immediately obeyed. Only after secluding himself behind a partition did he realize his subservient response.

The princess came careening down the steps, stopping her forward momentum against a ceiling-to-floor stanchion, leaning on it for a moment before stumbling over to Han's cell window. "Han!" Her upraised fist beat on the glassite panel, then on the door, smacking and punching the release mechanism, to no avail. The door remained closed, shutting her off from her last hope. She placed both palms on the clear surface. "Han, help me…"

Never had Solo seen Leia this way. Nothing the Empire could do had ever reduced her to this near out-of-control condition. Something inside him died when he realized what he had to do and prayed—as he had never prayed since he was small with the walls of his home crumbling around him—that Leia would understand and forgive. "Not much I can do in here, sweetheart," was his sarcastic answer.

Again, she beat on the contact, trying by brute force alone to make the door relinquish its magnetic hold. "I can't open the door," she was almost sobbing, "and the guards are gone with the key!" Returning to the window, she looked exhausted, distraught—beaten. "Talk to me, Han. Tell me…" Her forehead leaned against the glassite. "I need you. You don't know what I did."

He got up from the bunk. "As you can see, I've got my own problems."

Part of her was not hearing him, so sure she was that he would help and understand. Just the sound of his voice was calming, his nearness a source of strength and safety. "I nearly killed Mon Mothma." Saying it out loud did nothing to lessen the self-loathing she felt. "I was so angry with what she had done to you. I…I don't know how I did it, but…" She lifted her head to look straight into his eyes as he stood on the other side of the glassite. He might as well have been on the other side of the galaxy. "The Dark Side of the Force took over…and she was choking, unable to breathe. And I had done it! Han, I'm so afraid."

At that moment Han would've forfeited everything he held dear to tell her it would be all right, to tell her he loved her, that he would hold her and keep her safe from things like the Dark Side of the Force. There was a flash of anger, like a hot circuit spark, directed toward Luke for allowing this to happen, for not using the Force to foresee it happening. Damn energy field was more trouble than it was worth!

With all the strength at his command, he mentally projected his real feelings. Somehow she had to know, had to feel he loved her despite his spoken words. "I don't see how I can help, Princess. But too bad you didn't finish the job. That krayt dragon deserved it." Han's voice and expression were one of insolent indifference and it was slowly dawning on Leia that there was no concern, no compassion, and no warmth.

"Han, please…please," she pleaded, her voice dropping as she sagged down to her knees in front of the clear panel. Her reserves were almost gone. "Don't you understand? What if…I become like Vader! What if I am my father's daughter? What happens to me? To us?"

Han's reserves were almost gone as well. No wonder he had spent all the last years not letting anyone get close, keeping his personal shields on maximum. Not since the Academy had he endured emotional pain like this and he didn't like it. Her torment tore at his soul, but he knew he had to get her to leave, no matter the cost. She was revealing too many secrets to listening ears and Jerash wouldn't wait much longer.

Steeling himself, clenching his fist tight enough to cause pain, he delivered the cruel words he hoped would make her go. "What happens to us?" he repeated. "Look, Your Worship, it's been fun, but that's all there's been to it. And now," he indicated the confines of the cell with a broad sweep of his arms, "it's not fun anymore."

Past tears, Leia looked wide-eyed, now fully aware of the apathetic response. "I don't believe what you're saying."

He turned away to avoid seeing the added hurt, as well as appear disinterested. "Believe what you want. I've got the whole galaxy waiting out there. I don't intend to end my spacer days as a rebellion flunkie or a royal consort."

"How can you think such a thing?!" There was a rising hysteria in her voice. "After what…"

"Hey!" He whirled on her. "One royal fling in the sheets doesn't constitute a collar around my neck!" His finger pointed. "I told you, Leia, I'm not here for you or your rebellion. I still expect to get paid!"

Horrified, Leia backed away from the cell. She pressed the back of her shaking hand over her mouth. Too shocked to cry, she crushed the knuckles against her teeth, using the pain to keep her sane, to keep from falling into bottomless madness. How much was one person supposed to endure? How could she have been so wrong about him? He had used her…just like everyone else was using her. "I hate you," she said quietly. "Mim was right. Even Threepio was right. Even a droid has more feelings than you! To hell with you!"

Inside Leia's mind, the Dark Side of the Force stretched and basked in the intensity of her dark emotions, but try as it would, it found itself a prisoner. The Dark Side wasn't going anywhere. Leia knew in her subconscious that Han loved her. It was so deep and basic an emotion that it held control even when she was outwardly falling apart. And outwardly, with her life and her heart shattered into pieces, like Alderaan, Leia ran from the cell area, leaving Han devastated and positive he would never win back her love and trust.

Concentrating until it felt as though his head would burst, Han reinforced the mental image of Leia he had formed in his mind. He had to believe she knew the truth. He had never believed in much, but this was something he had to hold onto if he was to see this through.

"Shouldn't throw away women like that, Solo," came Jerash's voice as he once again revealed himself and reopened the cell door.

"Shut up," Han snapped, now taking his anger out on the elderly man. "What's the plan?"

"Plan nothing," M'lan answered. "All I'm supposed to do is get you out and tell you QueeQuee will set up your meeting. How you get there is your problem."

"What about my blaster?" he demanded.

"What about it? I haven't seen it!"

"Fine," Han answered, fed up with Jerash's continued snide animosity. "Then I'll just take this one!" His hand shot out to wrap like a vise around M'lan's wrist. The man opened his mouth in wordless pain and protest as Solo effortlessly took the weapon. Humiliated, Jerash glared at him with even more hatred than before. "Where are the guards?"

Jerash rubbed his wrists. "They're upstairs in the maintenance locker."

With a sick feeling, Han took the stairs three and four at a time. The blaster had been set on 'kill' and he dreaded what he would find. No one was supposed to die; no one was even supposed to get hurt. Dragging one of the bodies down he proceeded to change into the guard's uniform as best he could for the tunic barely closed and the arms were too short-not to mention the fit of the pants.

"I'm getting out of here," Jerash announced, heading for the stairway.

"Wait a minute." Han flocked his way. "What if I can't find QueeQuee? Who am I supposed to be meeting?"

"I can't tell you that!" M'lan tried to step around the tall Corellian.

"Somebody better tell me. I don't like surprises." The blaster, unfamiliar in weight and configuration, but nonetheless serviceable, was in his more than capable hands.

Even under that intimidating stare and implied threat, Jerash found bravado. "Don't threaten me, Solo…or the funds dry up."

"And what if I blew your set-up here?" Now was not the time to face off with M'lan, but Han had had it with this end by-product of a bantha's lunch. It rankled to have to leave him intact.

"Who'd believe you?" he countered. "Not even the princess things you're worth anything anymore." His face changed to a licentious leer. "Tell me…what was she like? Any good?"

Han, in the best of times, was not the most forgiving or tolerant of individuals, and after what he had just done to Leia, was at his worst. "M'lan," he turned a particularly vicious expression on the Imperial spy, "you're about this close…" Solo's hand twisted the man's tunic neckband until M'lan had to stand on tiptoe to breathe while the blaster appeared at Jerash's eye level. For just a moment, the agent's eyes crossed and bulged as they focused on the inner surface of the blaster's flash shield, but once again there was approaching steps. With a last cold look, Han pushed him away onto the floor, then sprinted up the steps and quickly disappeared down a corridor.

Shaking from head to foot and with a sudden need to change his pants, M'lan tried to scramble to his feet as the steps came closer. In desperation, he grabbed the dead guard's blaster, still in the hip rig that Han had left on the floor, and brought it up just as Princess Leia reappeared…and he fired.

She and Han had missed each other by the tiniest hairbreadth of time and space, her only glimpse the end of a disappearing tan leg and boot that she thought was one of the returning guards. Why she had come back, she wasn't sure, but she hadn't gone very far before deciding to return.

Han's mental efforts had been all too successful, confusing her to the indecisive point that she had stood in the corridor unable to go forward, but unwilling to go back. Even though she had walled off the Force from her conscious mind, her subconscious operated on a more visceral level and Han's true feelings had gotten through. The lure and promise of those feelings had been too powerful and she found herself going back to confront him.

Instead, she confronted M'lan. There hadn't even been time for her to look surprised or afraid before she crumpled in a sprawled heap at the bottom of the stairs.

Jerash was on his knees, aghast at what he had done. In panic, he checked the reading on the blaster, relieved that it was set on 'stun.' Okay, so he hadn't killed her, but she had seen him. For a horrified moment, he shook in fear, but only for a moment. Looking down at the still form, he realized he had the ultimate prize to present to Delavan Royce—the Princess Royal of Alderaan, future empress of the New Republic. The Empire could demand anything for her return; ransom, planetary systems, prisoners. Visions of a rich reward and Imperial accolades leaped around in his head like solar flares. But how to get her out? Will have to be with maintenance or engineering droids, he thought.

"Leia? Are you down here?"

Upon hearing the worried baritone at the top of the stairwell, Jerash hissed like a cowering, cornered animal. At this point, he didn't care who was coming down. Time and luck were running out and he couldn't afford any witnesses. Fumbling with nervousness, he spun the settings on the blaster, almost reaching the lethal mark when General Rieekan came down the well. Jerash fired again. With the unconscious princess over one shoulder, M'lan barely glanced at the smoking, blackened wound on the general's chest when he stepped over the body, nor looked back as he struggled up the steps to call a maintenance droid and cart.

 

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