Into the Fire

By Susan Zahn

useakiss@gmail.com

 

see You Could Use Another Good Kiss home page
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Chapter 27

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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 27 — The leaving  

He’s alive…

Brutal hands gripped Leia’s upper arms, hauling her up the flight of grated metal steps, across the catwalk that bridged a series of massive pipelines, and then down the other side. Barely registering the rough treatment, or Threepio babbling in the background about modern carbon-freezing technology, neither did she notice the distinct taste of copper in her mouth from when she’d bitten her lip as the solid slab of carbonite containing Han Solo was tipped over and slammed onto the deck with a mighty crash. What did seep into her awareness was that the numbness she wished for was incomplete—that she was all too aware of the agony of her soul ripped in two, of her head throbbing, of her eyes burning from carbonite fumes and unshed tears.

As they emerged back out into the antiseptic white corridor, leaving the hellish steam and vapors behind, Leia hesitated and squinted up into the sudden wash of blinding sunlight.

…and in perfect hibernation.

This was worse than any nightmare because nightmares didn’t last this long. She awoke from nightmares more or less back to normal, but this unbearable day stretched on and on, and she knew nothing would ever be the same again.

He’s alive…

One of the soldiers shoved her from behind with the broadside of his blaster rifle, hard enough that she stumbled and almost collided into the Imperial commander ahead of her, his dark grey uniform like a wall blocking her path. With a curt gesture, he began leading the squad of stormtroopers down the hallway.

“[Touch her again and I will rip your head off,]” Chewbacca snarled at the offending trooper. To occupy his time while waiting in his cell, Chewie had tried his hand at repairing Threepio, but he’d managed little more than reattaching and reactivating the head and one arm before their captors had returned to take them to the carbon-freezing chamber. The golden droid was now gathered up in a cargo net slung over the Wookiee’s strong shoulders, getting a backwards view of the events unfolding, and fretting as Chewie tested the restraints around his brawny arms, muscles bulging beneath his long hair.

The fact that Calrissian was the only person who reacted to Chewbacca’s threat made it obvious that none of the others understood the Wookiee. “Tell your men to ease off,” Lando warned while giving her a renewed look of concern.

Leia wished him death.

No, not death. Worse.

“I don’t need your sympathy.” Her voice felt flat and cold, frozen like a Hoth glacier. Lando was leading them through the city toward Vader’s shuttle, while the bounty hunter had already taken away Han’s body…

He’s alive!

…to his own ship, to be delivered up, like some frozen commodity, to Jabba the Hutt.

“She’s an enemy of the Empire and a terrorist. You’re in no position to make demands,” the Imperial commander responded in a superior tone. “And shut that Wookiee up before I do.”

Calrissian’s expression turned into a silent plea for all of them to stay calm. “Unless you want a berserker Wookiee on your hands, I’m warning you to control your men. I know him.”

The officer sneered at Lando. “You’re lucky Lord Vader hasn’t arrested you for associating with these traitors. We know you’re siphoning off a percentage to sell on the Black Market to this kind of scum. The Mining Guild and their lot will not protect you.”

Lando blanched, but Leia had stopped caring about any of that; instead she tried to focus on calming the whirlwind of emotions threatening to overwhelm her, knowing she needed to rein in the pain that was only serving Vader’s purposes. Recognizing now that what he’d said was true—she could feel it even though she didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand, but it was there, surrounding her, vibrating through her. She could almost see it, like heat waves rippling the air on a hot summer day.

Luke was here already, in the city with them, and growing closer—she could sense that as well. Part of her rejoiced at the confirmation that he was alive, at feeling his vibrant presence once again, so familiar and comforting, but she suspected he felt their connection as well, and she feared it was drawing him deeper into Vader’s trap.

Luke, go away! Please, leave now!

The fear of losing her best friend, along with Han, threatened to consume what little calm she had left. Why wouldn’t the men in her life listen to her? Was she doomed to lose them all to their own chivalry?

Desperation made her reach out with those same senses in an attempt to find Han, to feel his essence as well, but there was nothing; no recognizable signature, none of the radiant aura might have associated with him. Why could she sense Luke and yet be denied…?

He’s alive…and in perfect hibernation.

Still struggling to understand, Leia marched with the rest in tense silence as they headed toward a bank of turbo lifts. Without warning, the sharp whine of a blaster bolt echoed from the corridor behind them, and a part of their entourage of troopers dropped back to engage in battle, while the officer swung around to grab her arms before she could make a move. Frantic, Leia resisted and tried to see beyond the backs of the line of soldiers, knowing it was Luke at the other end, just as sure as she’d known it was Han earlier in the detention block.

“Luke! Luke, don’t—!”

The commander almost yanked her off her feet as he pulled her into the closest open lift. Despite his clear advantage in height and muscle, desperation gave her new strength as she let out a roar of her own. Throwing out her hands to grab the threshold of the lift doors, she pulled herself out far enough to catch a glimpse of khaki overalls and familiar blond hair through the sparks and smoke from flying laser bolts. “It’s a trap! It’s a trap!”

Multiple hands seized her this time and she was hauled back inside the lift, then the troopers slammed her back against the inside wall with a jolt hard enough that she failed to stifle a cry of pain when her shoulder and head connected with the surface.

With a deafening roar, Chewbacca flung his arms up in an attempt to break free from the bonds around his wrists; it was enough to make everyone trapped inside the confines of the lift—including her—cringe away in mortal fear. As the Wookiee reared back, Threepio banged against the wall with a loud clang and let out his own wail of distress, adding to the din. Leia had come to know Chewie well over the years, seeing him under pressure during countless heavy fire fights and hazardous flying conditions, but she’d never seen him like this. At this rate he would get himself killed out of hand, all because of her, and she was certain she couldn’t bear that on top of everything else.

Clutching her bruised shoulder, head suddenly throbbing, it took all Leia’s resolve to fight back tears of hopelessness as she pleaded, “Chewie, stop! Please! Don’t do this.”

“[Han expects me to—]”

“You can’t if you’re dead! Please, just stop! I’ll be okay.”

His huge frame trembled with rage as he strained against his arm cuffs, but those sky-blue eyes had found hers now, and she could sense him beginning to ease away from the edge of madness. With a deliberate breath, Leia willed him to breathe along with her, and was mildly surprised when he did just that.

“Fucking Wookiees,” the officer muttered, eying them both with contempt. “They aren’t worth the trouble.”

Ignoring everything else, she had found a purpose and stayed locked on Chewie’s gaze like a tractor beam. “Do you remember Ord Mantell?”

Chewbacca took another deep breath, and then nodded. “[I remember. I had to rescue you both.]”

“That’s right. You kept a cool head and saved us just in time. Remember Thertur Major?”

His massive shoulders drooped as he began to relax. “[Yes, I had to rescue you both as well, before—]”

“Shut up, the both of you!”

Leia did shut up, and while she directed her most lethal gaze at the officer, she had achieved what she’d set out to do, creating an eye within the storm in which she could clear her head and calm the tempest of emotions radiating from her companion.

Although he was no longer close, she could also still sense Luke, and could only hope her warning had been enough to keep him from falling into Vader’s snare.

Please, not Luke, too.

The lift slowed to a stop and the doors slid open.

“Out,” the commander ordered.

As they moved followed him into a foyer, Leia noticed Calrissian lingering in the elevator, letting them all leave first before falling in behind. No doubt he intended to slink off and disappear before these soldiers made good on their threat to arrest him. It was entirely possible he would take the Falcon and run while he could, and maybe that had been his plan all the long; it would explain why he’d assigned his best technicians to do real repairs to the ship, all gratis. He’d already known from the beginning that a means of fast escape might be necessary, and this allowed him to reclaim the Falcon in the bargain—and there it was, the con they’d all suspected he was working.

The bitter irony of the scheme made her ache all over again. What she wouldn’t give to be locked up in the Falcon’s cabin at that moment, kidnapped by a better class of scoundrel determined to steal her away to the farthest reaches of…

I love you.

I know.

The flashback caused Leia’s entire body to twitch, but it didn’t stop there: the last stolen moments of wordless intimacy as they’d held one another in the detention cell; Han’s desperate last kiss; his valiant attempt to be brave for them both; the instant when his expression has changed into something like resignation as he’d gazed up at her from the dropping platform, as if satisfied to know she would be the last thing he ever saw.

Feeling her body begin to tremble, Leia sucked in a harsh breath and tried to quell her nerves. The minutes were running down for her as well, draining away with each step she took, and once aboard Vader’s ship, for better or worse, it would be over. But at least she did have those memories of better times, however fleeting, something no one could take away from her. At least she’d known real happiness for a little while; she’d known and shared someone’s love, which was more than anything she’d come to expect in this life, and that would provide the strength she needed now to be ready for what came next.

“Wait, you’re taking the long route,” Lando called out from behind them.

The commander glowered, bringing them all to a halt. “I know where the shuttle is docked, Calrissian.”

Passing the group, Lando joined him at the front of the procession. “But that’ll take us through the busiest part of the city, right when the evening traffic is picking up. There’ll be crowds, and we don’t want the attention.”

“Very well. But it’d better be fast. Lord Vader is not a patient man.”

“Don’t worry. My men have cleared the hallways.”

As Lando led them down an adjoining passageway, it was true that the halls were vacant of curious bystanders, and the wide intersection they approached was lined by at least a dozen of Cloud City’s guards, all standing at attention and blocking the alternate routes. Sparing no more than a cursory glance as she passed by, Leia saw there would be no opportunity of escape—every avenue was cut off.

Without warning, the native guards drew their blasters and closed in from all sides. Outnumbered and surprised, the stormtroopers surrendered without firing a shot, handing over their blaster rifles to Lando as he moved through the squad collecting weapons. Lobot, his cybernetic headpiece blinking red in the white-washed hallway, stepped forward for further instructions as Lando passed the arms to men within his own guard.

“Well done,” Lando said in a tight whisper. “Hold them in the security tower—and keep it quiet! Move.”

Stunned, Leia watched as Lobot led the guards and their new prisoners away at a quick march, leaving her, Chewbacca with his chattering passenger, and Calrissian behind.

Wasting no time, all business, Lando shoved the two remaining blaster rifles into her hands and turned to start working at undoing Chewie’s cuffs.

Juggling the heavy weapons, her head hurting terribly now and making it difficult to think, she stared in bafflement. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“We’re getting out of here.”

“I knew all along,” Threepio exclaimed in unwarranted relief. “Had to be a mistake.”

Stepping around to glare at him, Leia didn’t bother hiding her distaste and skepticism. “Do you think that after what you did to Han, we’re going to trust you?”

Calrissian’s severe miscalculation regarding the measure of their gratitude was revealed a moment later when he unlocked Chewbacca’s restraints; the Wookiee let out an ear-ringing bellow before surging forward, his massive hands grabbing the man by the neck. Lando fumbled in a futile attempt to pry them away, but Chewie’s arms were sturdier than tree trunks; throbbing veins grew visible on Calrissian’s forehead as his eyes bulged, while Leia observed, devoid of any sympathy.

“What are you doing? Trust him, trust him!” Threepio wailed.

“I had no choice—” Calrissian croaked out in a desperate attempt to plead his case as he fell to his knees, his face purpling.

“[I’m going to enjoy this.]” The fact that Lando was still alive enough to struggle, that his neck wasn’t already snapped, was evidence that Chewie was taking his time.

Giving in to her own wrath, Leia glared at Han’s old ‘friend’. “Oh, we understand, don’t we, Chewie? He had no choice.”

“[We always have choices, Princess,]”Chewbacca replied, his cool response at odds with his actions.“[Wouldn’t you agree? I’m making one right now.]”

“—just trying to help—”

“We don’t need any of your help,” Leia spat back.

Much as she wanted to let Chewbacca enjoy his revenge, they didn’t have the luxury of dragging this out much longer. Straightening up and glancing around, Leia redirected her attention to assess their new situation. This was just the sort of opportunity they needed. All the guards were gone and the city was not occupied by Imperial forces, not yet; with most of the Imperial shore detail secreted away to the brig and Vader already preoccupied, they could very well pull this off. But she had no clue where they were in relation to the Falcon or any other mode of escape. What they needed was a fast way off the mining colony before the alarm went out and more troops could land.

If only she knew for sure that Luke would be okay, that he had heeded her warning. A desperate part of her wanted to use that mysterious link to track him down and bring him along, but she also knew Vader waited at the other end of that link as well, like a spinner lying in wait for his prey, and to follow that thread would only land them all back in his deadly grasp.

Lando was straining for air. “H-a-a-a…H-a-a-n.”

Leia swung back, her anxious train of thought shattered. “What?”

“It sounds like Han,” Threepio supplied, his twee voice anxious.

Chewbacca’s grip must have eased off just enough to allow Lando to choke out between gasps for air. “There’s still a chance to save Han…at the East Platform…”

A chance to save Han?

While a part of her didn’t trust this man any further than she could levitate him, it was that damned sixth sense of hers that suddenly chimed in, and a flood of hope and adrenaline surged through her, although tempered by reality. Managing an escape would be challenging enough, but turning it into a rescue mission could jeopardize what little advantage they had. Looking up at Chewbacca, Leia searched his reaction, needing his input, and found the answer she was looking for—they had to try.

“Chewie,” she said. It was the simplest of orders, but he understood and obeyed in an instant by releasing Calrissian. They both turned and ran down the corridor, not bothering to assist Lando as he fell forward onto his hands, panting.

Handing one of the rifles to Chewbacca before they reached the end of the hallway, Leia emerged from the passage and found herself standing on a curved balcony outside the building. It wrapped around the tall tower, offering a vertigo-inducing view of the city below as a stiff wind washed over her. The sun had finally begun to set, the long day ending as the reds and oranges took over in a dramatic swath of color.

Leia stopped, not knowing which way to go. “East platform?” she asked, unable to hide her desperation, knowing each delay cost precious seconds they couldn’t afford.

Chewbacca hesitated as well, glancing around. “[I’m not sure. Do you think he meant this building or another?]”

Lando caught up just then, still massaging his throat. “It’s this building. Come on, this way.” He sprinted down the walkway and they fell in behind him.

Moments later, as they raced past another entrance, Leia heard a familiar whistle that made her skid to a halt and turn back, heart thudding.

“Artoo! Artoo! Where have you been?” Threepio cried out in joy before Chewbacca spun around to join her.

Rolling toward them from down another abandoned corridor was the lone, squat, well-known astrotech droid.

“Luke!” she cried out, feeling a surge of optimism as she searched the empty corridor behind the droid, but her emotions crashed an instant later when he didn’t appear. In all the confusion and her headache, the tenuous connection she’d felt with Luke had faded, the sensation of life around her dimming to little more than a dull buzz in the background, and she had no time to wonder why or try to find it again. Frustrated to lose that link just when she needed it most, Leia clutched at her weapon and returned to the task at hand.

There was a choice to be made and she had to go with the option most likely to succeed. It was clear that Luke was on a collision course with Darth Vader—Vader was on the hunt and maybe Luke had even come here seeking a confrontation. If she could still sense that darkness pulsing around them, even now, then surely Luke could as well. Having witnessed the ease with which Vader had dealt with Han’s lethal blaster fire, there was little assistance she could offer Luke at this point, other than to pray he knew what he was doing. Han, on the other hand, was helpless and no longer of any interest to Vader…

He’s alive…

With a deep ache in her chest, Leia made her decision and swung away to chase after Calrissian, with Chewbacca close on her heels.

They rounded a bend on the balcony and passed under an overhanging roof that took them back inside the building. The new corridor was lined with windows, and through them she spotted a circular docking platform in the distance, similar to the one they’d landed on that morning. There was a battered and scored Firespray-31-class gunship perched on the landing strip, hunch-backed and lethal-looking, like some menacing predator waiting to pounce, and then she saw the familiar Mandalorian armor of Boba Fett, mounting the entrance ramp as it began rising to seal up behind him. He was leaving.

No, no, no!

“We have to hurry!” she cried as they ran past the last windows and entered another wide foyer, only to find a massive blast door blocking her way. “Come on!” she demanded as Lando stopped to punch in a code on the door controls.

It only took a few seconds before the door began to rise, but it felt like an eternity. Not waiting until the shield door was up all the way, Leia ducked under and dashed out onto the walkway that led to Fett’s ship.

But time had run out. The engines were already flaring, sending waves of heat rolling toward her, distorting the air as the ship began to lift up and rotate above the platform. Whether it was pure instinct or sheer frustration that made Chewbacca fire his blaster rifle at the ship, the effort was wasted; the ship’s shields deflected the diminutive energy bolts with ease. Engines glowing hot orange, the craft turned away, threatening to incinerate them with its backwash exhaust before, with a mighty shuddering rumble, the bounty hunter’s ship blasted off into the darkening sky.

Numb hands falling to her sides, blaster forgotten, Leia stared up in mute disbelief as the ship shrank away to little more than a pinpoint of bright light, like a star in the night, before winking out as it left the atmosphere.

Just like that, he was gone. She was too late.

Han

Bolts of blaster fire sizzled past her, but she didn’t flinch, didn’t even register them. Irrational fear—an absurd terror that if she turned her back, she might lose Han for good—kept Leia from moving. If she refused to move, she could still trace that invisible flight path and follow them somehow, could still…

“Leia!” It was Lando yelling behind her, his voice a desperate plea. Their escape was no longer a secret as a handful of stormtroopers had arrived to lay down fire.

For just the briefest of moments, despair threatened to take over; the sort of despair that had made her ignore the evacuation order on Hoth, when she’d believed both Han and Luke were gone forever from her life. She’d been wrong then because Han had reappeared to save her from her own demons.

He’s alive…and he needs you now.

“Leia, come on!”

Red blasts of lethal energy ripped through the air around her.

Maybe that kernel of hope, the one planted so long ago by Han when there had seemed little reason to fight on, had indeed germinated and taken hold—refusing to be uprooted now, it instead bent like a sapling with the maelstrom and snapped back just as strong.

Han was still alive, and that meant there was still hope of rescuing him somehow. This was nothing more than a setback, another challenge to overcome, and what Han needed most was for her to be strong, to charge in to the rescue like he’d done so many times, and save him from the very real demons that held him now. This was not the time to fall apart or give up.

Breathing hard, filled with a new determination, Leia swung the laser rifle up to grip it in both hands once more.

She knew what she needed to do.

 

END

 

 

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