Into the Fire

Chapter 26

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 Boba Fett and the squad of stormtrooper march Han 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. 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 as Vader resumed his seat at the head of the table and then indicated 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. 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. Last time, she hadn’t guessed yet what was truly at stake; she hadn’t known what her defiance would cost in the end. She drew out a chair and perched straight-backed on the edge with hands folded in her lap, her heart pounding so hard that he could probably hear it from across the table.

Vader’s reverberating voice, the stuff of her nightmares, finally broke the tense silence. “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.”

The last thing Leia expected was a compliment, no matter how backhanded, 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 his seat, 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, Leia had learned of ways to block out pain; she’d been inoculated against certain drugs and other forms of standard 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 feeling was worse than all that. This was a dark and insidious psychic 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 following the battle on Hoth; it peeled away scabs from old emotional injuries; it reawakened the guilt and fear 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 supernatural 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 grotesque and curious bird.

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

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

Leia 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 recognized she’d just been measured and reassessed.

“You see, 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. I thought it was young Skywalker that I’d sensed aboard that Corellian freighter, but it was you.”

Stunned, confused, and now convinced 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. As for the rest of his words, she nearly laughed aloud. 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 more a curse than a blessing? 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 as Vader rose from his chair and walked 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 outside. “Take the princess back to her quarters and keep her there until further notice.”

Baffled by the entire encounter, Leia 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 her expansive apartment, where a complement of troopers assumed positions to guard the exit, and although she’d held out 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 she 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 old 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 astonishingly naive or flat-out delusional in thinking he had any leverage. “You’re a fool. Vader does not bargain. Get out.”

It was the sort of dismissal issued by someone accustomed to having royal decrees obeyed, the sort of command that oozed contempt and implied he was no longer worthy of her attention, the sort she’d heard others make but had never imagined herself using. Walking away without another look, Leia entering her 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 that they would suffer; all her fault that Vader had chased them to this remote outpost and to the limits of their endurance. She was the main reason why they’d become so entangled with the Rebellion, despite their own protests of other priorities, and 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 or light-years away, if alive at all. A sliver of hope remained that Han and Chewie might survive this disaster; the presence of the bounty hunter meant there was a vested interest in keeping them alive, at least until they were delivered to Jabba, at which time they could still beg for leniency. Her fate, on the other hand….

She would die, if not today, then very soon. The Emperor would want to capitalize on her recapture; he would stage a public execution to demonstrate what happened to 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. Leia found 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 violent death was a reality she’d accepted the day she started down this path, but what was tougher to accept was the idea 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 along her neck 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 had they 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 from a battle fought and lost a lifetime ago it seemed, she then looked down at herself, at the blood-red clothing Calrissian had provided. 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, this Bespin day that refused to end or the coming night that would be just as long, 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 itself.

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 had used her title. He must have learned who she was from Vader, or maybe he’d finally pieced it together for himself.

Remaining silent, Leia walked past him, and the armored troopers assumed formation around them. Fleeting thoughts of grabbing a blaster and attempting one last suicidal escape occurred to her, but something made her hold back; the same intuition that had kept her from acting prematurely on Ord Mantell, 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 observed that there was some color to this city after all—the walls here were 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 Leia heard it—a sound that seared her heart and would haunt her until her last breath. It was a long, unchecked scream of agony that made her gasp and spin toward the desperate cry. She knew 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 anticipating trouble, the stormtroopers reacted in an instant when she tried to break away, the nearest two grabbing 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 obvious now that the timing of her arrival had been no accident. Hatred welled up within her. Here was the fiend intent on destroying every last bit of her existence before putting her out of her own misery, and it was all the two stormtroopers could do to keep her from wrenching away and attacking him in kind.

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

Moments later, the door opened again and two more 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. One of them signaled down the hallway toward her group.

“Go on,” the commander indicated with a thumb. “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 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 to comfort him, she fought back sudden tears as he visibly relaxed 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 suddenly all thrown back together now made no sense.

“They never even asked me any questions.”

Han’s simple admission reflected and compounded her confusion. They both knew he was a wealth of Alliance information; the risk he’d 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. 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 about to protest her confession of guilt, but the cell door swished open behind Leia, making her jump and twist around. She saw Calrissian and two of his city guards enter their cell. Feeling Han stir, she turned back to Han and simply said, “Lando.” Her hope had been to keep him still—he needed to preserve his energy—but the spoken name had the opposite effect.

“Get out of here, Lando,” Han rumbled as he struggled up onto his elbows. Leia moved to wedge herself behind him to provide 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. It was indeed rewarding to watch Lando momentarily recoil.

“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.”

“Safe”? There was that ridiculous word again, as if she’d ever been safe in her life. 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 blurted out. He 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 and together 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 his homing beacon. She stared up at Lando in horror.

“Lord Vader has set a trap for him,” Lando said, confirming her sudden enlightenment.

“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, felt the fury swelling within him. 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 she 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. The closest guard used the butt of his drawn blaster to strike the back of Han’s head, and Han collapsed to the floor, any remaining fight gone. Chewbacca roared again and the other guard had enough presence of mind to stand out of arm’s reach, but his blaster was pointed unwavering at the Wookiee’s chest.

“Stop!” Lando shouted, then 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. She helped him up onto an elbow but 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’d never suspected he was also capable of murder for revenge until that moment.

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

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

Han sagged backward and Chewbacca was there to keep him from falling to the floor and doing any more damage to his head. Feeling ready to collapse as well, Leia sat back on her heels. Han groaned in pain and shrugged a stubborn shoulder, resisting their efforts to help. His eyes found hers and he offered the most pathetic smile she’d ever received from him. Seeing his effort made her heart ache anew.

“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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