Into the Fire

Chapter 25

Han had known things were bad—far worse than he would have let on in front of Leia—but it wasn’t until the dedicated team of ship mechanics arrived and began evaluating the Falcon that he got a good look at the outer hull. It was luck that the hyperdrive had failed. The ship wouldn’t have withstood the extreme stresses of a hyperjump in the condition she was in and they would have most likely suffered a catastrophic implosion.

This unfortunate fact meant that, aside from a brief break for lunch with Leia back in the suite, most of his day had been spent overseeing and approving the repairs. It was sobering and satisfying work, but there was a part of him reluctant to relinquish the dwindling time he might otherwise have spent spoiling Leia. Lando had made it clear that everything was on the house, and after witnessing the gambler’s unabashed ogling of her, Han had intended to drain the coffers dry.

Moments ago, Han had used the comlink he’d given Leia to check in and let her know he was on his way back. She had sounded tense, her words clipped, and he was left with the impression she wasn’t happy stewing alone, wasn’t happy with the fact that Threepio was still missing (as if she’d once missed that damned droid over the past four weeks!),and wouldn’t be happy until they blasted back out of Bespin’s gravitational pull. Maybe it was just as well he was out of firing range most of the day; it had been a relatively long time since he’d seen her in a foul mood, but experience told him that he was often the target.

Bespin’s days were significantly longer than standard, stretching well into what his internal clock considered evening, thus daylight was still burning bright as Han stood on the docking platform, watching the repair crew wrap up their work for the day. Despite Calrissian’s tendency toward exaggeration, Han had to admit the team was skilled; his friend had not pawned off a gaggle of droids on him, as was typical of public dock services, but instead had sent talented sentient techs. He was pleased with how much they’d accomplished in the day.

Now he felt hungry and tired, and wasn’t looking forward to Leia’s reaction when he informed her they would have to stay overnight. He hoped that treating her to a gourmet meal might be enough to turn her mood and their reluctant stay into something more pleasant. Seeing her in different settings and lighting, in and out of whatever new clothing she’d picked out, held a lot of promise, and more than anything, he wanted this last opportunity to treat her in a way she deserved before he had to leave her. Maybe for this one night, they could pretend they had a normal life together.

Chewie escorted the last of the mechanics down the boarding ramp, and Han thanked them as they filed past on their way back into the city. He waited as Chewie sealed up the ship and walked over to join him. Together they paused and eyed the Falcon in the comfortable silence of longtime friends, and then Chewie glanced at him.

«What are you thinking?»

“Trust me, you don’t want to know.” Han sighed and shook himself, then turned on his heel. “They’re doing a good job.”

«Yes. That’s some of the cleanest fusing I’ve seen.»

“I figure at this rate, we’ll be done before lunch tomorrow.”

«I think so, too.» There was another long silence as they walked toward the large white doors before Chewie voiced the same doubt that had been niggling at his own conscience all day. «I don’t believe Calrissian has suddenly grown a sense of charity. He’s working some angle. He always has an angle.»

“I know, Chewie. I know. I just haven’t figured out what it is yet.” He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to dislodge the tickling along his spine; he’d been feeling like they were being watched, but had failed to spot anything out of the ordinary. “Maybe he’s just mellowed over time.”

The Wookiee woofed in gentle amusement. «Well, someone has.»

Han shot him a pointed look. “You start spreading that rumor around and you’re fired.”

«You can’t fire me if I quit first.»

“Empty threat. Your reputation is linked with mine.”

«Nonsense. I have a wife and little one. I’m respectable.»

Han felt his expression falter for a second as guilt and an inexplicable sense of longing warred within him, but he pushed those feelings back to whatever dark recess they’d come from. “Sure. That’s why you’re only third on Jabba’s hit list.”

«It’s clearly an oversight. I should be second.»

Han let out a laugh but then sobered again. “Would you mind much if I took Leia out for some dinner alone tonight?”

The Wookiee paused to give him a mystified look. «Why would I mind?»

He shrugged, not really having an answer. In all the years of their partnership, it had been just the two of them; women had never played more than cameo roles, but that old formula was changed, the dynamics altered, and he wasn’t sure how much or what to make of it yet.

«Did the princess mention if the droid has turned up yet?»

“Yeah, there’s no sign of him and she sounds pretty upset. Kreth, all these years I’ve wanted to ditch his shiny ass, and he has to go and do it now? He’s got worse timing than a Federation chrono. I’m starting to think somebody programmed him that way on purpose.”

«It wouldn’t surprise me.» Chewie glanced at the waiting lift. «Go enjoy the evening. I’ll take a walk around and see if I can find him.»

“Thanks, Buddy. I appreciate it.”

Han stepped into the lift and punched in the code for the penthouse suite while continuing to muse on possible plans. Yes, maybe a good dinner alone with Leia, followed by a quiet walk before heading back to the suite to appreciate the sunset from a more horizontal vantage point—that sounded just about right.

Han arrived to find Leia standing at the far side of the main chamber of their suite, hands on her hips as she paced in front of the expansive window. She was dressed now in the local fashion, hers an ensemble of rust-red tunic, matching slacks, and cape of sheer white lace. She’d changed her hair as well; it was pulled back into a set of double-loop braids like she’d debuted a week or two ago—a style that he’d said he’d liked before proceeding to destroy it in his enthusiasm.

However, Han only had a moment to appreciate her new appearance this time before she launched at him.

Oh, Kest. I know that look. So much for romance.

He braced himself like a man walking into a strong headwind and said, “The ship’s almost finished. Two or three more things and we’re in great shape.”

Leia marched over, wagging a finger, her expression stormy. “The sooner the better! Something’s wrong here. No one has seen or knows anything about Threepio. He’s been gone too long to have gotten lost.”

That’s what I get for leaving her up here alone all day. She’s had nothing to do but brood.

When she drew close enough, Han grasped her shoulders and bent to kiss her forehead, then ran a thumb over her cheek, a little amazed by how different—older—she looked with makeup reapplied. “Relax. I’ll talk to Lando and see what I can find out.” His effort to soothe her fears seemed to pay off as her expression softened and she relaxed beneath his hands; it was a powerful lesson, to learn he had the ability to calm her with a simple touch—when had that happened?

“I don’t trust Lando,” Leia said, her emphasis leaving no uncertainty as she stepped away and sank down onto the closest couch, an S-curved design that allowed a couple to sit facing one another. Interpreting the move as an invitation to join her, he stepped around the other side and sat.

“Well, I don’t trust him, either, but he is my friend,” Han reasoned. Considering they still had little choice in the matter, there seemed no point in stressing over it. “Besides, we’ll soon be gone.”

She paused and tilted her head a little, as if reassessing him. “And then you’re as good as gone, aren’t you?”

The question hit him like a body blow, delivered with the accuracy of someone used to wielding words like weapons. What was worse, he lacked any real defense. He’d almost convinced himself that this debate was settled but he should have known better, should have anticipated she wouldn’t give up if there was any hint of weakness in his determination.

Unable to find an answer either of them would be happy with, he glanced down, but then something made him look back up to meet her eyes—they were a beautiful warm brown in the bright sunlight, rich and striated like the finest polished wood—and he was no longer afraid to let her see whatever she might find in his.

“It’s taking every bit of self-control I have not to lock you in my cabin, set a course for the far end of the Beyond, and never look back.”

Despite her composed appearance, there was an aura of coiled energy around her, as though she were ready to spring at anything that got them away from this place.

“Why don’t you?” she asked.

Her expression remained intense, her eyes steady, and Han realized with a jolt that she was serious.

For an instant, he let that fantasy flit through his mind again, never feeling more tempted than in that moment. Jabba couldn’t live forever; sooner or later, an underling or rival would take him out or the Empire would tire of his antics. All Han would have to do is hunker down on some backwater planet, cut all ties and disappear for a while. It was the same advice his old friend and employer, Saltanos, had given him back on Ord Mantell, only—this time—Leia was proposing coming along and disappearing with him.

The fact was that for all anyone knew, they’d died above Hoth, destroyed by the Imperial Fleet or an asteroid collision. There would never be a better opportunity for both of them to vanish.

Here’s your chance, just what you wanted. Why the hell aren’t you running for the Falcon right now?

Yesterday, when he’d toyed with the idea—when it had seemed little more than a daydream, he’d been so sure he would leap at the chance, but now he found himself sighing, all certainty gone. Hell, it wouldn’t be the first time he’d reinvented himself and he supposed it wouldn’t be the first time for Leia, either, not after Alderaan. But was she really willing to go through it again—to abandon what little was left of her previous life and start over with a completely new identity and little else but the roaming life he could offer? Would they ever be able to come back? Would they ever be able to stop worrying about their past catching up with them?

You already know the answer.

“Because there’s got to be more in our lives than just each other, and the Rebellion is a big part of yours.” He moved a hand to cover one of hers that rested on the couch between them; he squeezed it, trying to find words that didn’t come easily to him. “Because you wouldn’t really be happy for long. Someday, you’d probably resent me for taking you away from what you need to do here, and I couldn’t live with that…. It doesn’t mean I’m not tempted, though. Every minute. But that’s not what you want, is it? Not really.”

Her eyes dropped away, down to their intertwined hands. “I want you.”

Hearing her say that was enough to make his heart trip up. “I think…I think maybe we both want the same things, Sweetheart. But it’s just not possible right now, and running away’s not your style.”

For the briefest second, he detected fear in her beautiful face, as though she’d been reminded of things assumed forgotten. “Is it yours?”

“Not anymore,” he said, and the answer surprised him. Chewie was right—it was obvious who had mellowed. “I just have to take care of some old business first. You know that. I can’t think about anything else until I do this.”

Not looking back up, Leia instead watched her thumb graze the top of his hand. She seemed to be working up to another question, but they were interrupted without warning by the arrival of Chewbacca, who hunched in through the doorway, his arms loaded with a crate filled with recognizable golden parts.

«I’ve found the droid! I was almost too late.»

Leia was up off the couch in an instant as she stepped over and peered down at the remains Chewie deposited on a neighboring bench. “What happened?”

«There’s blaster scoring on his chest plate. I found him in Reclamation.»

Any sense of peace Han had managed to cultivate evaporated faster than a mud puddle in Mos Eisley. “Where?”

Chewie stopped rummaging through the parts and gave him a look of disbelief, waving one of the droid’s detached arms. «Reclamation, heading for the smelter. I don’t think this was an accident.»

“Found him in a junk pile,” Han mused. There’d been countless instances when he was tempted to take the annoying droid apart via the liberal use of his largest wrench, but he couldn’t imagine what the droid could have done in such a short time to earn a blaster bolt. Well, no, he could actually imagine one or two things, but still….

«He was about to be recycled,» the Wookiee clarified, and his implication was obvious—somebody had tried to hide the evidence.

“Oh, what a mess,” Leia sighed. “Chewie, do you think you can repair him?”

«I don’t know. It’ll take a while.»

Not bothering to get up, his intention to maintain an air of confidence he no longer felt, Han gestured to their surroundings. “Lando’s got people who can fix him.”

Leia frowned back as if reading right through him. She really was too good at that. “No, thanks.”

He couldn’t blame her; she was tired of fending off Lando’s solicitations and that sort of help would just place her that much deeper into the man’s debt.

They were interrupted again by the chime from the lobby entrance, and Han groaned as Calrissian stepped down into the room. His timing couldn’t be worse.

«We’ve got company,» Chewbacca rumbled.

“I’m sorry. Am I interrupted anything?” Lando asked as he surveyed the tableau.

“Not really,” Leia answered, her voice cooling faster than a cup of kaffe in the Echo Base canteen; her change in body language was instant and palpable as she drew the lacework cape around her.

The gesture wasn’t lost on Lando, but he took in her response with grace and eased into the sort of predatory smile Han had seen him use on more than a few beguiled women over the years. “You look absolutely beautiful. You truly belong here with us among the clouds.”

Clamping a hand over his mouth, Han smothered a laugh. Lando’s repeated efforts at seduction were wasted; he was way out of his league with Leia. Hell, it had taken Han two years of steady siege work to get past her barricades, and she had liked him!

Still, the constant attention Lando kept paying her, as if she were the rich pot in some high-stakes sabacc game between them, was getting on Han’s last nerve. The fact this clearly made Leia uncomfortable solidified his own irritation.

“Thank you,” she conceded with a regal nod, now every centim the princess he sometimes forgot shared space with his Leia. It was a fascinating exercise, trying to reconcile the passionate woman he’d recently awakened with the glacially cool one standing before him now.

Was she ever that cold with me? I don’t think so.

Lando stepped closer and held out a hand. “Would you join me for a little refreshment?”

«Refreshment?» Chewbacca hooted in enthusiasm.

“Everyone’s invited, of course,” Calrissian added, realizing after the fact that he’d only invited her.

Reluctantly taking Calrissian’s proffered hand, Leia glanced back to Han. Recognizing his cue, he rose and walked over to offer a bent elbow as another option. She switched to his arm without hesitation, and he liked to imagine they’d officially become a united front in that moment, the rest of the universe be damned.

Recovering with grace, Lando sent an inscrutable look down at the remnants of Threepio now abandoned on the couch. “Having trouble with your droid?”

“No, no problem. Why?” Han hedged, as if protocol droids fell apart on a regular basis. Not waiting for a response or any more questions, he led Leia toward the door.

Traffic through the hallways had picked up as the evening progressed and there were many more people going about pleasure now as the trio followed Lando’s lead through the corridors. As their conversation returned to the business of Lando’s business, Han suspected that despite her desire to be gone from this place, the Alliance Mistress of Ways and Means was hard at work. While this single-mindedness had annoyed him in the past—most often because it meant she wasn’t paying attention to him, he enjoyed watching her in action now. Maybe it was because for once, he was pretty sure that no matter how preoccupied, she still reserved a part of that big heart just for him.

“So you see, since we’re a small operation, we don’t fall into the jurisdiction of the Empire.” Calrissian was explaining as Han tuned back in on their conversation.

“So you’re part of the Mining Guild, then?” Leia asked, and Han got the feeling she was trying to pin him down, as though he’d been avoiding a solid answer.

Good luck with that, Sweetheart.

“No, not actually. Our operation is small enough not to be noticed, which is advantageous for everybody since our customers are anxious to avoid attracting attention to themselves.”

Frowning, Han couldn’t quite square that explanation with his understanding of the business; never mind the membership fees, there were definite advantages to working within the guild…unless there was more to this operation than Lando was letting on. “Aren’t you afraid the Empire is going to find out about this little operation and shut you down?” he asked, jumping in on the conversation.

“It’s always been a danger. It looms like a shadow over everything we’ve built here, but things have developed that will ensure security.”

«Solo…» Chewbacca gave a cautious growl, subtly trying to get his attention. «Something isn’t right….»

Han had to agree with Chewie on that. Besides the dodgy answers from Calrissian, he’d begun to notice the increased frequency of the powder-blue uniformed police that peppered the corridors of the city, but before he could ask if there had been a recent crime wave or something, Lando brought their little party to a stop in front of a set of double doors.

“I’ve just made a deal that’ll keep the Empire out of here forever,” Lando continued as he reached up to thumb the entrance stud and the doors swished open.

«Look out!» Chewbacca’s deafening bellow echoed in the corridor around them.

It took Han just a second longer to react, registering his partner’s roar as he turned from Lando’s cryptic expression to peer into to the room and recognize the black visage that rose to stand at the far end.

Han was fast. Years of practice and necessity had honed his skills to near-Jedi-like speed. Without needing to think, his blaster was in his right hand even as he grabbed Leia’s closest hand in his left to pull her behind him. And yet, as quick as he pulled the trigger, Darth Vader was faster. The well-aimed bolts of energy glanced off the Sith Lord’s outstretched hand to singe the pristine white walls of the dining room, then the blaster was yanked from Han’s hand like a toy from a child. Han watched in mute disbelief, splaying his hand in a futile attempt to recapture the blaster as it flew across the length of the table separating them to land in Vader’s black glove.

“We would be honored if you would join us,” Vader spoke, his modulated voice deep and out of synch with the rasping mechanical breathing that filled the room.

Han had never met Vader in person—in fact, he’d hoped, like any other sensible being, to never do so. But it was clear his luck had run out. To drive home the fact, there was movement behind Vader as another familiar and equally frightening figure emerged from behind a service screen. It was a bounty hunter, Boba Fett, a very real nightmare of Han’s own, complete with Wookiee scalps dangling as grisly trophies from his battle-scarred body armor.

Too late, Han took a step back and turned to run back the way they’d come, but a squad of white-armored stormtroopers, led by Calrissian’s assistant, assembled to block the exit. Trapped and disarmed, he realized that the game was up and Lando had finally shown his hand.

“I had no choice,” Calrissian explained, as if anyone wanted to hear him anymore, as if anyone needed his excuses. “They arrived right before you did. I’m sorry.”

Han felt the princess move at his side and looked down to find her eyes wide and locked on him, filled with elemental fear. He sought out her hand once more, and she gripped it so tight he winced as he turned back to Lando, his thoughts turning lethal. “I’m sorry, too.”

«You miserable coward,» Chewbacca growled in disgust.

All their attentions were snapped back to the dining room by Vader’s booming voice. “Your Highness, we have unfinished business to discuss.” His black mask turned as he gestured, directing Fett forward. “Secure Captain Solo and the Wookiee, but you are not to leave until I am finished. Is that understood?”

“Perfectly,” Fett answered.

Han felt sweat break out on the back of his neck as the bounty hunter headed toward them, a heavy blaster leveled at his chest. Alarmed that they would be separated, he looked to Leia once more to find her full lips had almost disappeared into a grim line, her features pale, her eyes the darkest he’d ever seen them. This wasn’t the way things were supposed to end for them—not like this. They were supposed to have a proper goodbye and she was supposed to be far away from this sort of danger. This couldn’t be the last time he saw her, not like this, so scared that he barely recognized her. He’d sworn to protect her, to keep her monsters at bay, and he was about to fail utterly.

Although no longer caring about his fate—he’d been resigned to that since Ord Mantell, Han was sick with fear at the thought of Leia back in Vader’s clutches and, worst of all, that he was to blame for everything. It was his fault that his ship had failed, that bounty hunters and the Empire were conspiring together to capture him, and that she was now back at this monster’s mercy.

All the things he still wanted to say to her, all the good things he’d ever wished for her, clamored for priority, yet the surge of words overwhelmed him. “Leia….”

Her grip on his hand tightened. “I’ll be okay,” she lied.

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