Into the Fire

By Susan Zahn

useakiss@gmail.com

 

see You Could Use Another Good Kiss home page
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Chapter 26

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This story is rated NC-17. Please stop now if you're under 17 or sensitive to adult-themed material.


 

Chapter 26 — The storm  

This was another nightmare—it had to be. She needed to wake up now. Here was Han’s cue to enter her dream and make it stop; to derail the horror and take her somewhere far away from this pain as she watched as Boba Fett and a squad of stormtroopers marched him and Chewbacca away, leaving her behind with Calrissian and the worst denizen of her darkest dreams.

“Please, Your Highness. Take a seat.”

Leia stared at Vader for a long moment before something deep within her, some ingrained bit of diplomatic training, finally kicked in. After all, dignity was all she had left, so she moved into the room and along one side of the table.

Lando began to follow her in, but Vader stopped him at the threshold. “Leave us, Calrissian. You have business to attend to. I recommend you do so.”

Calrissian hesitated, as if loathe to leave her alone with this monstrosity, but Leia didn’t want him there; she would rather deal with Vader one-on-one than have to look at him anymore. As the doors slid closed following his departure, her eyes locked on the expressionless mask turned toward her. She stopped halfway down the length of the table, one hand coming to rest on the back of a chair—the gesture was meant to appear casual, but it kept her from swaying on her feet.

In surprise, she watched Vader resume his seat, and then indicate with a simple gesture that she should follow suit. “Sit down. We have matters to discuss.”

Teeth clenched, Leia remembered their last discussion—she could never forget it—but despite his best interrogation efforts, that ‘conversation’ had remained very one-sided, something she was determined to repeat. The last time, however, she’d been steadier and more fearless than she felt now, while drawing a chair away from the table and sitting straight-backed on the edge, hands folded in her lap, her heart pounding so hard that he could probably hear it from there. Last time she hadn’t guessed yet what was truly at stake. She hadn’t known what her defiance would cost.

“You should know that while I find your politics and sympathies misguided at best and extremely dangerous at worst, I respect your tenacity. You are a skilled adversary.” His reverberating voice the stuff of her nightmares.

The last thing she expected was a compliment, no matter how back-handed, but if he was expecting her to return the favor, he would have to keep waiting.

Then she felt it—a growing pressure around her, within her, as if someone were leaning into that undefined but instinctual personal space most beings possessed and respected. Vader had not moved from the head of the table, and yet it was as though he were pressing in on her, and instinct made her back away into her chair, trying to clamp down on her fright at the unanticipated, invisible sensation that threatened to smother her senses, filling the air around her.

Before embarking on her brief career in espionage, she’d learned of ways to block out pain; she’d been inoculated against certain drugs and other forms of standard torture and manipulation, and even if she did talk, she had enough misinformation to keep them chasing phantoms for years. After the destruction of Alderaan, there was little else left to leverage against her…and yet somehow this was worse than all that. This was a dark and insidious invasion that sought out wounds in her soul like her tongue would do with a lesion in her mouth, irresistibly returning to explore and prod despite the pain. It touched on her fear for Han, and for the fates of Luke and her other friends; it peeled away scabs from old emotional injuries; it reawakened the guilt and fears that had nearly consumed her at dark times throughout her life—all the insecurities of a child thrust too soon upon the galactic stage, a young woman hopelessly in love, and a leader with too many deaths already on her conscience.

The pressure grew until her head pounded with each pulse of her blood and she almost cried out—not from pain but from the foreignness of it, the sheer power and wrongness of it, for it was also a part of her. Stiffening and searching in desperation for some untapped well of strength, something to make it stop, she envisioned blast doors in her mind—the most effective imagery she could think of—slamming down around her to block out the psychic intrusion. While the effort wasn’t enough, she gasped at the small measure of relief it brought.

Vader’s helmet cocked to one side, studying her like some curious bird.

As swift as the sensation had engulfed her, it was gone, dissipating like a fine mist. Released, she reached out to grasp the table edge to keep from slumping forward, and a long moment passed, the only sounds that of their breathing, hers as labored as his assisted one.

“Once again you surprise me. This is an unexpected development, but it does begin to explain my error.”

Not attempting to disguise her confusion at his statement, she couldn’t even begin to imagine what dark thoughts went on behind that mask, or what motivated such a man to admit any sort of mistake, and yet she knew she’d just been measured and reassessed.

“You were not the person I expected to arrive this morning. I suspected you had Force-talent the last time we met, and that was why I prevented your execution on the Death Star, but Obi Wan interfered and enabled your escape before I could test you. Your talent is stronger than I imagined. It was you I sensed aboard that freighter.”

Stunned and confused, but always having suspected Vader rode the edge of psychosis, Leia wrote off his explanation as nonsense. Luke was the only Force-user she knew, and she was anything but a Jedi—the concept was absurd—but then she processed the rest of his words and almost laughed. Was he expecting her to be grateful for his sparing her life aboard the Death Star, when more often than not she’d found the guilt of surviving that holocaust the worst blow of all? As a manipulative ploy, it was surprisingly weak and clumsy.

“You’ll find the Force works in mysterious ways, Your Highness. I believe you may yet provide me that which I seek.”

Bracing herself, preparing for another mental onslaught, she watched Vader rise from his chair and walk along the other side of the table to the entrance, his black cape billowing in his wake. Opening the doors, he summoned one of the stormtroopers standing guard outside. “Take the princess back to her quarters and keep her there until further notice.”

Baffled by the entire encounter, she collected her thoughts before standing. She knew better than to believe he was finished with her, but there seemed to be an agenda she’d yet to figure out.

Within minutes Leia was escorted back into the expansive apartment, where a compliment of troopers assumed positions to guard the exit, and although she’d held out a hope of finding Han and Chewie waiting there, the only person occupying the sitting area was a woeful-looking Calrissian. Some rational part of her recognized he was likely just as much a pawn as the rest of them, but she wasn’t able to find an iota of pity within her at the moment, and so didn’t bother hiding her disgust upon seeing him again. It didn’t help that he seemed determined to hover about her like some scavenger, perhaps hoping to pluck her away from the ruins in one last act of betrayal of his friend.

“Where are Han and Chewie?” she demanded without preamble.

Lando swallowed. “Leia…”

“Where are Han and Chewie?” Neither her voice nor her inflection changed, but her dangerous intent was obvious the second time and he took a step back.

“They’re being held in detention cells. Lord Vader’s planning to…”

“He’s planning to what?”

The man looked like he couldn’t decide whether to be furious or lose his lunch. “He plans to torture them. I can’t do anything to stop that now, but we’re in negotiations to at least—”

For a reputed con-artist, Calrissian was either remarkably naïve or flat-out delusional in thinking he had any influence. “You’re a fool. Vader does not bargain. Get out.”

It was the sort of dismissal issued by someone accustomed to having orders obeyed; the sort of command she’d heard others make but had never imagined herself using; the sort that implied he was no longer worthy of her attention. Walking away without sparing him another look, Leia entering the sleeping chamber where the door slid closed behind her. Only then, when she was alone, did she loosen the death-grip she’d been holding on her emotions, and her knees threatened to buckle as her entire body began to shake.

Han

They were going to torture Han, torture Chewie. Tears threatened as she squeezed her eyes closed and pressed her face into her hands, trying to block out the anguish. This was all her fault they would suffer now, all her fault Vader had chased them to this remote outpost and to the limits of their endurance. After all, she was the main reason why they’d become entangled with the Rebellion in the first place, despite their own protests of other priorities, and then stayed on so long that their situation with Jabba became untenable. She was the danger, the curse, and now they would pay like so many others had.

Han, I’m so sorry…

It took long moments of deep breathing before her trained mind began taking over once more. Much as it pained her to admit it, Calrissian was right—there was little anyone could do now. This time there would be no help, no handsome knights to charge in to her rescue—her heroes were already either locked up somewhere or light years away, if alive at all. A sliver of hope remained that Han and Chewie might survive this disaster; if the presence of the bounty hunter meant there was a vested interest in keeping them alive, than at least they would be safe until they were delivered to Jabba, at which time he could still beg for leniency. Her fate, on the other hand…

She would die, if not today than very soon. The Emperor would want to capitalize on her recapture; he would stage a public execution to demonstrate what happened to Rebellion saboteurs and spies and traitors. In fact, the Empire would have the distinct pleasure of killing her twice, if one counted the “official” announcement of her death following her capture above Tatooine years ago. There was a certain perverse pleasure in the thought—that even in death she could make the Empire squirm at the inconvenience of having to explain why she was so hard to keep dead.

The possibility of a violent death was a reality she’d accepted the day she started down this path, but what was tougher to accept was the fact that she’d lived on borrowed time for the past four weeks—that from the fateful moment the Falcon’s hyperdrive had failed, their destination had been anticipated, their fates already planned. The short eternity spent with Han, a precious gift, had been doomed even before it started. Why hadn’t she anticipated this trap? Why hadn’t she tried a little harder to find other options?

Because there were no options, and you did anticipate it. You’ve felt it for a month.

Vader’s recent words echoed through her mind. You’ll find the Force works in mysterious ways, Your Highness.

An inexplicable chill raced through her, making the fine hairs stand at attention.

Stop it! That’s exactly how he’s manipulating you. He’s making you doubt everything you know.

Only then did she notice her old white thermal suit, now cleaned and folded, lying on a corner of the massive bed before her. Why they had bothered with all the pretense of comfort, the charade of a dinner, the repairing of the Falcon? If the Empire had arrived before them, why had it taken Vader a day to spring the trap? Was it all just to keep Calrissian compliant? Some vital bit of information was still missing, but she couldn’t find it. 

Staring down at her old clothing—the pristine snow-white uniform of a battle fought and lost a life-time ago, it seemed—she then looked down at herself, at the blood-red clothing Calrissian had provided, and her skin itched as if reacting to the fabric.

Reaching an abrupt decision, Leia tore away the white cape of lace from her shoulders. If she was going to die, she would do so as a warrior, and she would be dressed for the part. She would don the armor one last time.

***

Time slowed to a crawl and Leia didn’t know which promised to be worse, a Bespin day that seemed to never end, or the inevitable and equally long night to come, spent trapped alone in the apartment. On edge, her senses tingling as if she were some sort of tuning fork that Vader’s actions had struck upon and set off in a steady humming, she ignored her aching feet and continued pacing the length of the central lobby window in an attempt to burn off the nervous energy surrounding her.

What was Vader waiting for? That impatient nature of hers just wanted him to get on with it, to end this game. The waiting and the unending fear of what was happening with Han and Chewbacca tore at her—not knowing their fate was a form of torture all its own. That was no doubt the Dark Lord’s intention, for he knew from their previous encounter that hurting her directly achieved nothing.

The main entrance door slid open with a hiss and Leia turned to see Lando in the doorway, accompanied by a squad of stormtroopers who were clearly here to retrieve her.

When will you learn to be careful what you wish for?

“You’re to come with us, Your Highness.” It was the first time Calrissian used her title, so he must have learned who she was from Vader, or maybe he’d finally pieced it together for himself.

Silent, she walked past him and the armored troopers assumed formation around them. Fleeting thoughts of grabbing a blaster and attempting one last grand escape occurred to her, but something made her hold back; the same intuition that had kept her from acting prematurely on Ord Mantell, and on Thertur Major, and in a dozen other instances, stayed her hand once more.

Minutes later they reached the narrow corridors of a detention block, and in a moment of absurdity, she discovered there was some color to this city, after all—the walls here were a ruby red and oppressive. As their party was brought to a halt at a juncture of the hallways, Lando stepped off to the side to hold a quiet conversation with the commander of the Imperial soldiers.

That was when she heard it—a sound that seared into her heart and would haunt her until her last breath. It was a long, unchecked scream of agony that made her gasp and spin on her heel toward the desperate cry, knowing it was Han without needing to see or hear anything else—she knew as every fiber of her being cried out in empathic pain.

Perhaps they’d anticipated trouble, for the stormtroopers reacted in an instant when she tried to break away, the nearest two grabbed her arms to restrain her while the others swarmed closer.

“I thought you said they were done with him,” Lando said in a furious whisper to the commander.

The Imperial officer shrugged, barely sparing a glance at the man. “Lord Vader has his reasons.”

As if summoned by the use of his name, the towering figure of Darth Vader emerged from a few doors down the hallway and headed toward them. The screaming had stopped, but she could hear ragged gasps for breath coming from the cell before the door slid closed, cutting off the sound. It was clear now that the timing of her arrival had been no accident, and hatred welled up within her upon seeing the fiend that seemed determined to destroy every last bit of her existence before putting her out of her own misery; it was all she could do to keep from kicking out in a futile attempt to repay him in kind.

Vader moved past their little group and toward the exit, but then he stopped and turned back to her, his black helmet cocked again at a curious angle like some monstrous gargoyle. Without a word, he then resumed and disappeared around the corner.

Moments later the door opened again and two stormtroopers appeared, dragging Han’s limp body between them. His booted toes scuffed the floor as they hauled him across the passageway to another cell before dropping him into the entrance and sealing the door behind him, and then signaling down the hallway toward her group.

“Go on,” the commander indicated with a thumb. “You can put her in now.”

Leia was yanked forward and marched by force down the corridor, then jerked to a stop in front of the door and shoved in the moment it opened. Staggering to keep her balance, she found Chewbacca already in the cell, helping Han ease back onto an unpadded sleeping platform. For one of the few times in her life, words failed her as she stepped over to Han’s side and fell to her knees on the hard decking. He looked ashen, exhausted, and still in great pain. Bringing a hand up to touch his face, as much to reassure herself he was alive as it was to comfort him, she fought back sudden tears as he seemed to relax beneath her touch, his head tipping into her palm.

“Why are they doing this?” she moaned once she found her voice. Convinced she’d never see them again, the fact they were all thrown back together now made no sense and left her off-balance.

“They never even asked me any questions.”

Han’s simple admission reflected her confusion, for they both knew he was a wealth of Alliance information—the risk he presented to security had become a sore point within High Command as time passed and he’d continued to refuse a commission. Because he lacked the resistance training she’d undergone, he would have little protection if Vader pressed for answers, and she would be unable to shield him if the torture resumed. The fact Vader hadn’t bothered to interrogate her was no surprise—he’d tried and failed in the past—but she struggled to see the logic in why Vader was toying with Han like this; Vader was nothing if not a practical megalomaniac, and inflicting pain just because he could wasn’t his style. There had always been a method behind his lethal madness in the past, a clear military or political goal to justify his actions, and she searched in desperation for it now.

Combing her fingers through Han’s soft hair, Leia bowed and pressed her cheek to his forehead. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

Han took a deep breath, no doubt to protest her confession of guilt, but the cell door swished open behind Leia, making her jump and twist around to see Calrissian and two of his city guards enter their cell. Feeling Han stir, she turned back to Han and supplied, “Lando.” Although hoping the clarification would be enough to keep him still—he needed to preserve his energy—the spoken name had the opposite effect.

“Get out of here, Lando,” Han rumbled as he struggled up onto his elbows, forcing Leia to wedge herself behind him for support once she realized he wasn’t going to stay down.

Chewbacca let out a fierce roar that either was beyond her translation skills or was never meant to be anything more than intimidating.

“Shut up and listen,” Lando said in an urgent voice, abandoning any pretense of civility. “Vader’s agreed to turn Leia and Chewie over to me.”

“Over to you?” Han’s voice was hoarse and his tone bewildered.

“They’ll have to stay here, but at least they’ll be safe.”

Stay here? Safe?

Leia looked from Chewie to Han and then finally back up at Calrissian. “What about Han?”

“Vader’s giving him to the bounty hunter.”

She shook her head; the idea that Vader would leave any of them behind under some vague house arrest was absurd—they’d been annoying little stones in the Dark Lord’s boot for too long. “Vader wants us all dead.”

“He doesn’t want you at all! He’s after somebody named…Skywalker.”

“Luke?!” Han wasn’t alone in his shock and confusion.

But then, all at once, that last piece of information—the one missing all this time—fell into place for Leia: Vader’s cryptic comments; his uncharacteristic tactics; the bizarre sensations she’d been feeling since their encounter; and the reason they were still alive were all explained. In the span of one breath she’d gone from not even knowing if Luke was still alive to learning that he was on his way, being drawn toward certain death. Vader was somehow using them—using her!—as the homing beacon. She stared up at Lando in horror.

“Lord Vader has set a trap for him,” Lando continued.

“And we’re the bait,” Leia spat out, shaking with anger and grief, devastated by the sweep of it all.

“Yeah, well, he’s on his way.”

“Perfect. You fixed us all real good, didn’t you?” Han muttered. Leia felt Han tense up against her, the fury swelling through him, and he must have found some last reserve of strength because he pulled away from her and rose to stand eye-level with Calrissian. “My friend!”

She should have recognized the signs, should have done something to stop him, but was too late. Like a cornered pantera, Han launched himself at Calrissian and landed a solid sucker punch before anyone else in the cell could react. But his last energy was spent and Han fell to his knees in the follow-through, where the closest guard used the butt of his drawn blaster to strike the back of Han’s head. As he collapsed to the floor, any remaining fight gone in an instant, Chewbacca roared again, but the other guard had enough presence of mind to stand out of arms’ reach, his blaster pointed unwavering at the Wookiee’s chest.

“Stop!” Lando sucked in his breath, nursing his jaw with one hand while holding up the other to keep the guard from kicking at Solo. “I’ve done all I can. I’m sorry I couldn’t do better, but I’ve got my own problems.”

Leia skirted around Lando to reach Han on the floor, and although he let her help him up onto an elbow, he seemed incapable of doing anything more than glare up at Calrissian. She’d seen Han kill out of necessity—seen him act to protect himself and those he cared for—but she didn’t doubt he would murder for pleasure right now had he the energy or means.

“Yeah, you’re a real hero,” Han sneered.

Maybe it was the gambler in him that recognized when to cut his losses, or maybe he was catching on that his presence was not welcome, but in any case Lando gave them one last look of pity before heading for the door, his guards covering his back as they followed him out.

Han sagged back and Chewbacca was right there to keep him from falling to the floor and doing any more damage to the back of his head. Feeling ready to collapse as well, she had to settle for sitting back on her heels as there was no one left to catch her. Han groaned in pain and shrugged a stubborn shoulder, resisting their efforts to help, then his eyes found hers and he offered the most pathetic smile she’d ever received from him, but seeing it made her heart ache all over again.

“You certainly have a way with people,” she teased in a tired voice. As if their situation wasn’t bad enough, as if he hadn’t already endured enough pain, he’d also likely earned himself a concussion by punching Lando. She sincerely hoped it was worth the price.

 

 

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