DARK LABYRINTH by Shayne and Carolyn
Part 2 - A Corellian to the Rescue

The chaos of the Hoth evacuation, closely followed by the disaster of Bespin had left Leia Organa's patience in even shorter supply than usual. She stared at the empty sick bay bed, then looked again to Two One Bee and the med tech who had been caring for Captain Solo. "You said he would be too ill to move for at least another day, what did he do, crawl out of here? Surely you must know where he went?"

The Corellian smuggler Captain had been rescued by Calrissian and Chewbacca soon after Luke Skywalker had left for Tatooine, planning to meet them there. Lando and Chewbacca had intercepted Fett's ship as it limped toward Tatooine, damaged by an ion storm. Leia had already been frustrated and annoyed that Luke was out there somewhere unaware that Han was safe and sound, though she could appreciate the needs of security that made getting a message to him near impossible. But now.... after the terror of last night's vision, Leia was certain Luke was in deep trouble and desperately needed help. Her immediate instinct had been to get out of bed and run to the Command Centre to demand they send a rescue mission. Fortunately she had realised all that would do was earn her a stay in the Sick Bay's Psych Ward. Still, she had to tell someone, and Solo was the only person who knew of the strange link formed between her and Luke on Bespin. Where was the man?
Releasing Solo from carbonite had been an intricate, nerve-racking process even given the best the Alliance medical team could provide. But all had gone well, Solo's temporary blindness had soon been cured, leaving him only needing to regain strength and overcome persistent muscle cramping. Leia should have known better than to think he would stay put. The med tech stammered some apologetic sounding excuse, something about Solo threatening violence if they tried imprisoning him any longer. So much for gratitude!

"Never mind," Leia ground out, rubbing at the bridge of her nose where she could feel a tension headache beginning, "I think I know where to find him." She turned and left the room, heading for the Falcon which was berthed in the main hangar bay on the medical frigate's lower level.

The delay in reaching Solo might at least give her time to sort out her conflicting emotions -- worry, fear, guilt -- how could she explain to Solo that she was certain Luke had been injured, had crashed his X-wing on Tatooine? Solo had been sceptical enough when she'd tried to tell him how Luke had called to her from beneath Cloud City. Leia was frightened, she couldn't explain the link, nor could she deny it. Somehow she knew Luke's physical peril was the lesser evil, the young rebel's emotions were in turmoil, had been ever since his confrontation with Vader on Bespin. Needing someone to talk to, Leia had blurted the whole story to Han, leaving him as worried as she. Could Vader have power sufficient to twist Luke's mind, convince him to join Vader's supposed plot against the Emperor? Leia was certain Luke wasn't telling everything, wanted desperately to hide something from her. And that scared her more than anything else.

Leia hit the hatch release at the top of the Falcon's ramp, greeted by the sound of upraised voices.

"And I tell you it was wired that way before I ever touched her!!" Calrissian shouted, the words echoing from below deck in the engineering hold. "You've made such a mess of the Falcon's circuits I wouldn't be surprised if I hit the navputer and the main guns fired!"

"Mess!" Solo sounded no less indignant. "Mess?! My modifications have made her faster and more battle worthy than anything you could..."

Leia leaned down, stuck her fingers in her teeth, and gave a shrill whistle. Solo and Calrissian looked up, startled. "Time out. Han, I need to talk to you .... urgently."

Solo's lips twitched, his hazel eyes gleaming as he turned to Calrissian. "You heard the lady, she said urgent." He winked. "We had no privacy in Sick Bay, y'know."

Calrissian snorted, the argument forgotten as he watched the couple curiously. Every Rebel he approached on the subject told him the slanging matches were frequent and entertaining between the smuggler and the Princess. Lando had thought the Rebels must have their wires crossed-- but now Organa seared Solo with an icy eye contact that made carbonite a balmy paradise and gave proof to the Rebels' stories. Solo flinched but began climbing the hold ladder toward her.

Leia folded her arms across her chest and turned her back. "Maybe I should look elsewhere if I expect brains instead of hormones!"

"I got plenty of both, Your Worship," Solo drawled, unconcerned. He reached a hand to her shoulder, turning her slightly toward him, but she shrugged him off angrily. All the teasing left Solo's expression, his jaw dropping in mild surprise, brow furrowed. "Hey, is somethin' wrong?" The overhead lights reflected liquidly from Leia's eyes, her distress setting Solo's nerves to red alert, his pulse leaping.

Leia nodded. "It's Luke." Lando, climbing out of the hold, strained to hear, the words were a husky whisper. Solo wrapped his arms about her from behind and she turned into his embrace.

"They still won't give you clearance to send word to him, huh? Hey, no problem, he's bound to hear all about it as soon as he gets to Mos Eisley. The big slug has probably increased the bounty on my head."

"No, Han," Leia said quietly, lifting her head from his chest to meet his eyes. So calm, so certain, as cold as an open grave. "It's more than that." She flicked a glance at Calrissian, she hadn't trusted him on Bespin and was civil to him now only because of the successful rescue mission. "I'm tired. Can we go somewhere, have some food?"

Solo smiled. "Sure you can find anything edible in Rebel supply?" He turned, locked gazes with Lando, tilted his head toward the hatch.

Lando took the hint. "I should go make sure Chewie hasn't dismembered anyone on the hangar deck." He looked to Leia, explained, "Han sent him scavenging for spare parts."

"Oh." Leia nodded politely but was not really listening. "C'mon." Solo took her hand, began guiding her aft. "I've got a surprise for you." Leia seemed not to have heard him either, not moving to follow, lost to her worries. "Real food." Solo urged. "The absolute best Teraldek market could provide."
"Teraldek?" she blinked up at him, eyes alight. "But they supply only royal houses and the Emperor's court."

Solo winked. "Don't hold that against them. I stashed some away in the smuggling compartment forward. Figured some day I might want to put on a special spread for a Princess I knew."

"Prescient of you." Her mouth quirked up at the corners and she squeezed his hand.

"Wasn't it though?" Solo agreed cheerfully. He led her into the corridor that opened onto his small cabin, hitting the palm lock and waving her through. He indicated she should seat herself at the small table by the bed, then grabbed a towel from a shelf, draped it over his arm and bowed low. "Your Most Royal Highnessness, please allow me the honor of serving your dinner. What will be your pleasure?"

A short time later, Leia had to admit Solo knew all her favorite foods. "How did you find out about all this?" she said, taking time out from munching down another pickled sweet berry. "Oh gods, that's good. I didn't think I'd ever taste these again."
"Glad you like it." Solo returned to the table with yet another surprise, brandishing it with a proud flourish. A bottle of wine. "I made it my mission in life to learn all about your secret vices."

"So I see." Leia smiled and held up her glass -- Alderaanina crystal, a Pledge gift Solo had presented to her nervously on her second visit to him in Sick Bay, and one that had, much to his initial horror, reduced her to open weeping. "I do love you, Han," she took his hand, touched by his evident joy in pleasing her.
He leaned forward, met her eyes over the rim of the glass, and said, "I know."

She snorted and shook her head. "Some day I'll settle the score on that one, Solo."

"Threats." He kissed her. "Feeling better?"

"Much." She leaned back, sipped at her wine. "I guess we've all been shaken by events since Hoth .... you with more cause than most."

Solo shrugged. "Over and forgotten."

Leia sighed, dark eyes clouding. She knew it wasn't that easy -- as did Solo for all his attempted reassurance. Two-One-Bee had told her of his waking in terror. "There's nothing I can do to bring back Alderaan, and nothing you can do about Bespin. But, Luke ...."

"Yeah, I know. Another barrel of bolts altogether. Damn Vader, taking the kid's hand wasn't enough, he had to go for his mind too, scramble him from the inside out."

"Exactly." Leia met and held Solo's gaze, steady and determined. "I told you how I found Luke under Bespin, how he ... called to me somehow in my mind."

"Yeah." Solo looked down at the table, fidgeted with his glass. "He called to you, and -- according to Luke -- I called to him when Vader was rewiring my nervous system." He was silent a moment, his fist clenching until suddenly he seemed to realize he might break the precious crystalware. "All this Force stuff really sets my teeth on edge." Very carefully he removed his hands from the table, the right going to the familiar solid reassurance of the blaster strapped to his thigh.

"I know." Leia met his semi-apologetic glance with sympathy. "I'm not exactly comfortable with it myself. But I can't deny it. Ever since Bespin, somehow...." She drew a breath, searching for words. "Somehow I always feel linked with Luke. Aware of his presence. I feel what he feels. Han...." She met his eyes nervously, wondering if he would think her crazy, "it happened again last night. Luke's hurt, I know it. I think he must have encountered Imperial opposition, crashed somewhere on Tatooine."
Solo stared, all the color draining from his face. It took him a moment to find his voice, then he said simply, "I should go pay Jabba anyway, get him off my back once and for all. I can check on Luke at the same time."

Leia let out a breath in relief. "Are you sure you're well enough? Two One Bee says..."

"Droids!" Solo scoffed. "They make a big deal outa everything. I'm fine." Leia looked at him with absolute scepticism. "Okay, maybe I could use a little sleep, but I can catch up on that in hyperspace."

Leia leaned forward and kissed him, a fleeting, tender brush of his full, curved lips. "Thank you. I wouldn't ask, but I'm so worried." She gave a wry smile and added, "He doesn't even have Artoo with him. Said he wanted some new circuits installed and left him for me to bring to our rendezvous on Tatooine. Speaking of which, I had told Mothma I would be going to help rescue you, but now I'm needed to work with Ackbar. Damn! If there was only a little more time maybe I could have arranged to go with you."

"I'd like that," Solo said, deciding it wouldn't be prudent to tell her that he'd rather keep her well clear of trouble. Tatooine would be crawling with bounty hunters who'd jump at the chance to use her as bait in a Solo-trap. And that wasn't counting possible Imperial opposition. "Give 'em notice and we'll do it next time. But now, if Luke's hurt...."

"He is," Leia stated, her certain tone and unseeing expression making Han shiver a little.

"Hey, I'll have him back here before you know it. Then maybe Two-One-Bee can torture him instead of me!" He winked. "Luke's in for one big surprise. I mean, he thinks I need rescuing but now I get to do the honors! Can't wait to see his expression!"

Leia shook her head and leaned to give him a lingering kiss, whispering, "You are incorrigible!"

"Scoundrels always are," Solo murmured, his breath warm against the sweetness of Leia's mouth. He drew her close, thrilling to the touch of her small, soft body pressed to his, fulfilling a promise of love and life pledged at the brink of cold and death.

Part 2 - Mos Eisley

Commander Lorn Ozzell watched the ambulance skimmer docking at the hospital through narrowed eyes. Beside him his brother, Taylon, fidgeted anxiously. "Lorn, are you sure your information is correct?"

Lorn sighed. "Tay, if you ask me that one more time I'll shoot you. Yes, I'm sure. I do work for ImpSec. My sources are quite reliable. We will never get another opportunity like this." He looked down at his brother. "Get back to the ship and do your part. And make it fast - the first part of the plan is set to go this afternoon. I want you back by then. Understood?"

Captain Taylon Ozzell nodded, twitching his immaculate gray uniform jacket down at the hem. "Yes, of course I understand. I'll meet you in the Hutt's place. You can trust me, Lorn - I won't mess up."

His brother turned away as Vader emerged beside the medical hovertrolley. "You better not, little brother - because he won't give us a second chance. Any more than he did our father."

* * *

He had been in more hospitals since joining the rebellion than during the first part of his life and Luke was able to sense being in one again. The same clinically boring pale grey walls, the thin blankets that smelled of disinfectant, the gently ticking electronic equipment, the dim light. And the pleasant, drifting lack of pain caused by drugs.

He wasn't sure how long he'd lain awaking staring at the featureless ceiling before he even realised he was awake. But as soon as he did and was able to start thinking, he began looking for another door that hopefully led to a place he needed rather badly.

Before he could even come up with a way to disconnect himself from the equipment the door opened and Vader entered. He stepped across to the bed and looked down. "You are awake at last. How do you feel?"

Luke wriggled uncomfortably. "Ah, fine." He looked around his father to the door. "Is there a nurse out there anywhere?"

"I presume so. For what purpose?"

Some people could be oddly obtuse. "I need to go to the bathroom as a matter of some urgency."

"Ah." Vader sounded mildly amused. "The inconveniences of a normal body. I shall send one in for you in a moment. I came to tell you that as soon as the doctors consider you safe for transport, I will be taking you aboard my ship. That will probably be this evening. Till then, you need only rest and recover."

"A delightful prospect," Luke said with mild sarcasm, "but escape seems a more attractive plan."

"If you can escape with a fractured leg in a cast while recovering from dehydration, internal injury and intense fatigue, then you probably deserve to do so. I shall find you a nurse." Vader turn in a swirl of cloak and left.

After Luke's more immediate needs had been taken care of, he had time to think. Escape should be his first concern - but there were things he wanted, needed, to know. This might well be the only time he would ever have to learn them. Even if he was taken to Coruscant, even to the Emperor himself, Luke trusted his abilities to hold out against the Dark, to escape. He had sensed something new in Vader, a spark of something that hadn't been there before. If he could fan that ember then perhaps he could pull Anarkin Skywalker back from the darkness. He could find his father at last.

* * *

Seated in his customary position as co-pilot, Chewbacca studied the undulating, shimmering sand skimming quickly past beyond the Falcon's viewport. He emitted an unhappy growl.

"Yeah, well, I don't like the look of it either." Solo flicked an irritated glance at his partner. "But Mos Eisley is the only place he can be if he survived that wreck back there."

Chewbacca whuffed softly, his blue eyes grave and sad as he studied the flightboard.

"I heard that," Solo commented sourly. He turned away from the controls to give the wookiee a pleading stare. "Look, it ain't as risky for me as you think. And will ya quit muttering about Tuskens and krayt dragons, for Kreth's sake! I know just 'cuz we didn't find a body don't mean he made it." Solo returned to the job at hand, guiding the Falcon close over the dunes, avoiding Imperial and spaceport scans as near as possible. It was his turn to mutter to himself, "If Leia says the kid's alive, he's alive."
The Falcon banked and climbed above a series of rugged cliff-edged ridges, one folded atop another, until suddenly it all dropped away, revealing a flat, arid plain baking beneath Tatooine's twin suns. But there was life, for deep below the featureless plain ran a once rich water and mineral lode from which a city had grown. The wealth had decreased sharply in past centuries, leaving Mos Eisley more a home for smugglers and other itinerants than any legitimate business. Which was no doubt why Jabba the Hutt found it the perfect place to build a townhouse in addition to his distant desert palace.

Chewbacca rumbled a question, and Solo considered a moment. "No," he decided with evident regret, "not 94, the de Malls are probably still mad at us."

Chewbacca howled plaintively and Solo grunted amusement. "Yeah, yeah, like everybody else in Mos Eisley. I ain't a cub anymore, Chewie. I can keep a low profile when I want to, I can stay outa trouble. Quit worryin'."

That set the wookiee off into what sounded suspiciously like laughter.

True to his word to his partner, Solo avoided his usual contacts, and so it took most of the rest of that day to track down the information he was hoping for. Luke was alive and under care -- Solo snorted at that description -- at Mos Eisley's only hospital. Care was not the word Solo would have chosen for what he had experienced from the unqualified, outlawed medical staff who plied their trade at Tatooine's largest med facility. Luke would no doubt be very glad to see Solo and happy to have someone to transport him back to the Rebel medical frigate.

Solo entered the familiar dilapidated hospital building via a back exit, finding far too many Imperials about the place for his liking. He wore a cowled desert robe over his usual attire and carried false ID, though he wasn't sure how well it would stand up to close scrutiny. He knew secret passages under Mos Eisley that the Imperials would never find -- shouldn't be too hard to get Luke back to the Falcon. Silent, smooth, and fast, that was the plan.
The hospital interior was a surprise, cleaned up with new staff hired. They actually looked competent. When he got over that shock, he found a med-tech who accepted a bribe in return for Luke's room number. A private room, the kid must have some clout on this dirtball after all. Solo stood outside the door a moment, trying to decide how to play the situation for all its worth -- Luke thought he was still frozen solid, maybe decorating Jabba's wall by this time. Solo smirked, pulled the robe off and left it in a pile on the floor. He poked his head around the door, saw Luke dozing, propped up by pillows with no one else present.

One hand on his hip, the other casually touching his holstered blaster, Solo sauntered into the room, a grin slowly spreading across his face. "Hi, kid," he announced, "looking for me?" Luke's eyes flew open. "Surprise, surprise." Solo spread his arms wide in a smug 'ain't I great' gesture.

Startled, Luke almost fell out of bed. Han hurried closer to steady him, suddenly noticing the young rebel's injured leg. Maybe sneaking up on him hadn't been such a great idea - Luke lay gasping and staring as if at a ghost. "Han?" he said hoarsely. Solo's hand on his arm seemed at last to convince him this was real. "Han!" Skywalker's sun-marked face lit like a supernova, absolutely delighted. He shook the Corellian's arm, obviously wanting to jump up and hug him. "It's really you! Where did you come from? I thought Jabba would be defrosting you about now. Are you all right?"

"Me?" Solo snorted, then turned about and hunted for a chair, trying to cover just how genuinely touched he was by the warmly enthusiastic greeting. He snagged the chair, dragged it toward the bed. Eyebrow raised in mock reproof, he looked down again at Skywalker, scanning the evidence of injury. "You're the one whose all smashed up here, Junior." Luke looked comfortable enough, for all his leg was in some kind of bacta cast and he was surrounded by more medical monitors than Solo had thought Mos Eisley could afford. Luke seemed at a loss for words, but the flash of his smile brightened his bruised face and veiled a more sombre mood lurking in the shadows of his blue eyes. "I told ya to watch the throttle on those X-wings. You should take lessons from me, I never crash!"

"I'll be sure to remember that next time," Luke said dryly. There was a moment's silence, then he said seriously, "It's dangerous for you here, Han. Have you paid off Jabba? The last I heard he'd doubled the bounty."

"Double, huh?" Solo smiled self-satisfaction. "Naah, even if I had the money I wouldn't waste it on that slug." He picked up some fruit from Luke's table and took a bite, munching noisily, juice trickling down his chin.

"Help yourself," Luke said with some amusement. "There's plenty. No need to worry about me starving or anything." Luke frowned, looked toward the door. "You can't stay here, Han. There are more dangers here than Jabba." He looked back to Solo, a faint smile touching his lips doing nothing to dispel the very real concern clouding his gaze as he added wistfully, "Ben called Mos Eisley a hive of scum and villainy."

Solo choked and blinked at him. "Only since the Imps arrived." He put the half-eaten fruit back on the platter. "Speaking of which, I hear the Masked Menace himself is in town. Or rather, up there." Solo pointed at the ceiling. "Scum and villainy are way too good for him. Chewie and I spotted his Star Destroyer. We had to hold off and come in from the nightside."

"I know." Luke went quiet, lines pulling taut about jaw and mouth, making him look suddenly much older. He fidgeted with one of the tracers snaking to the monitors. "I appreciate you coming for me, really, but..."

Not wanting to hear what he sensed might be coming next, Solo interrupted with a teasing, "Chasing after you keeps me entertained while I wait for the slug to fall into a salt pit." Luke did not smile, seeming genuinely edgy as he flicked another glance to the door. Solo felt his own mood darken. "I saw what was left of your X-wing, kid. That was some landing. Someone take a potshot at you?"

Luke looked back at him, eyes narrowed, calculating, making him look like someone else other than Luke entirely. "If you saw my ship.... you must have seen... his, too."

The chair scraped back over the tiles as Solo sat bolt upright. "His? What do ya mean, 'his'? I saw a downed TIE. Are you saying ...... Vader!?" Luke nodded grimly. "You killed Vader?!" Solo'shead swivelled, his eyes wild with both joy and fear. Imps would be all over this place like Jawas at a sale. "I gotta get you outa here."

"Vader is still alive," Luke explained.

Solo snapped his fingers in disappointment. "Too bad. Then again, at least I still get my chance at him. Did he get busted up too? His troopers came and hauled him out, 'n just left you to die, huh. Figures."

"It wasn't like that, Han."

"How did you make it back here?" Solo ignored the comment. "Chewie and I took a look around but a sandstorm had rearranged everything. One of the locals find you before you cooked?"

"No. Vader carried me here on his back." Solo's head spun to stare at Luke, his jaw hanging low in a near comical expression of amazement. "Well," Luke amended, "he carried me to the nearest survival shelter, twenty spans at least."

It was several moments before Solo reclaimed his scepticism along with his voice. "You can use the Force, kid. He's only interested in saving that. Probably wants to study you like a lab specimen."

Unable to meet Solo's gaze, Luke looked down at his hands, then said quietly, "It's more than that. I could explain, but you'd never believe me."

Solo's chin lifted, his jaw tight. "Try me, I might surprise you. Leia told me what happened to you on Bespin." Luke jerked, surprised, unconsciously he flexed his right hand. "Yeah," Solo said grimly, eyes following the movement, "Your hand, and all that mumbo-jumbo stuff about how she found you." Solo looked up again, locked gazes with Luke who he noted was watching him like a wild creature hopeful of being fed and wary of being hurt all at the same time.

"Leia says Vader rattled you pretty bad, something about combining your power with his to defeat the Emperor." He snorted, "Like Vader would be any better!" Luke flinched, looked away, left Solo frowning, wondering. "Kid," he concluded softly, "Leia sent me here after you, she said she knew you had crashed, were hurt." Luke turned back, staring. Solo's lips twitched, "Yeah, it surprised her too. Now, you got anything else you wanna tell me? Leia says she was sure you hadn't told her everything that happened between you and Vader. What else did the Sithslime say to you?"
Luke hesitated, looking desperate, needing yet afraid to utter the words Solo could see hovering at the tip of his tongue. Finally, blue eyes locked with Solo's gaze as if to convince him by sheer force of will, Luke blurted, "Vader is my father."

"What!?" Solo's jaw dropped comically low, and he sat there mouth agape, staring. "You can't believe that!"

Luke sighed. "I have no choice. I know it's true. He's shown me the proof."

Solo got to his feet, paced a few steps, turned back, "Vader could show you proof that Alderaan had the plague and needed exterminating."

Sounding reproachful, hurt, Luke said, "I said you wouldn't believe me."

"It's not that, it's just..... you got a fever, your brain's frying. You need real medics. I'm takin' you back to Base. We can talk about it there."


Solo had taken a pace forward, now he froze, his head lifting, eyes locking with Skywalker's, ice snaring his heart. Never had he heard a tone of voice anything like the utter compelling command of that one word. Deathly calm, harnessed, quivering fury. Not the Luke he knew, never the Luke he wanted to know. "Hey, c'mon," Solo's throat rasped, gone dry with a fear he would expect only when trying to soothe a dangerous foe, a berserker battle companion. "Be reasonable. What goodwill it do you to stay here? Leia's real worried. I gave her my word." He tried a shaky, sickly smile, there was something gleaming dark and cold in Luke's eyes that unsettled him more than he cared to admit. "You wanna get me into trouble? Wreck my sex life?"

Luke laughed suddenly and the unnerving stranger vanished. "Never that! But I'm sorry, I can't leave just yet. Vader and I need to talk."

Solo threw up his hands. "Oh, c'mon. You mean he wants the chance to work on your head some more! Look..." He was interrupted by a loud beep from his wrist com. "Damn," he muttered, then hit the transmit button, said, "Yeah?" Even Luke could hear the complaining wookiee howls. "What!?" Solo exclaimed. "Now? But I just..." More wookiee bellows, deafening, adamant. "All right, all right! I'm on my way. I'll hit 'em from behind, then we can move her."

"Trouble?" Luke asked, leaning forward in bed, brows furrowed.

"Yeah," Solo looked up at him. "Nothing we can't handle, but it might take a while. Jabba's spies snooping around. We gotta move the Falcon someplace safer. I'll be back before dark. Do me a favour? Please? Talk all you want, get it outa your system, and leave with me before things get worse." He hurried to the door, turned and added with a wink, "Remember, it's important, life and death stuff -- my sex-life hangs in the balance."
Luke's chuckle was a reassuring sound as Solo left at a run down the corridor.

* * *

The first of Tatooine's twins hung low and shimmering red against the skyline behind Mos Eisley General as Solo made his way, somewhat breathlessly, up the steps and through the double doors. He was in no mood for argument -- Luke would leave with him now. Things were getting way too hot around the spaceport, and it had nothing to do with desert climates.

"Captain Solo, do you need assistance?" A medical droid scuttled toward him, sensors humming, "You are fatigued.... and bleeding."

"No kiddin'," Solo scowled. He lifted a forefinger and wiped at the annoying, sticky line trickling across his brow and down toward his right eye. "Just a scratch. You should see the other guy." He snorted, one less for Jabba's non-existent employee health scheme to cover. Rodians! They never learned. "I'm here to take my friend home. You wanna find a float chair?"

"Skywalker?" the droid sounded mildly shocked. "But he is in no condition..."

"He'll be a lot worse off if he hangs around here any longer!" Solo threw back over his shoulder as he hurried down the corridor to Luke's room.

The door whooshed open to reveal an empty bed. Solo blinked, decided he had the wrong room. He checked the number, no, this was it. "Hey, Tin-Dome," he called as the droid bustled after him, "you and your buddies take Luke off for some tests or somethin'?"
"Why..no, sir. Skywalker is not scheduled for any treatment at this time."

Solo's brows lowered threateningly. "Then where is he?"

"Right here, of.. course. Oh, my!" The droid came to a shocked standstill as it entered the empty room. "He's gone."

"Whaddya mean, gone!" Solo snapped. "He's got a broken leg."
Hurrying into the hall, the droid summoned Luke's nurse who reported she had given him his medication promptly less than an hour earlier. "He can't walk," she concluded. "He can't have gone far."

"Unless someone carried him out," Solo growled. "Have your people check outside." He hurried back into Luke's room, searched for signs of a struggle. He checked the window, found it sealed.
"What have you done with my son, Solo?"

The blood in Solo's veins ran cold, settled to ice. Carbon-freeze. He had last heard that voice moments before his body had been frozen solid, his breath stolen from him. Never again. Solo spun about, crouching down, less of a target, his blaster appearing almost magically in his fist. He got off just the one shot before it happened again, the nightmare revisited. His weapon torn from his hand to be claimed by that black-gloved fist.

"You never learn," Vader rumbled.

Solo lowered his head, bellowing an outraged war-whoop as he charged. He rammed full force into Vader's gut, winding himself a little too. Caught off-balance, the Dark Lord stumbled back and fell hard against the wall. Hanging on for dear life, Solo shoved and they went down together, landing in a breathless heap on the floor, Solo on top. Frantically, Solo's fingers groped for some means of finishing his prey -- a respirator control, maybe a knife blade would penetrate this armor. No, a light-saber! Solo's fingers closed about the butt of the Sith's weapon, fumbled to activate it, twisting it inward, wanting the burning blade to slice through Vader's belly.

Before he could find the switch an unseen vice sent pain flaring up Solo's arm, crushing his fingers, forcing them to release their hold. He staggered back, given impetus by a powerful kick from Vader's boot as the Dark Lord came smoothly to his feet. The increased rate of whoosh-gasps from Vader's respirator indicated Solo had at least given him a scare. Solo's eyes glittered hatred, his lips curving into a snarl. He tensed, set himself to lunge forward, try again, go for the throat... the groin? There was so much armour. The respirator, surely that must be the weak spot.

Vader towered, menacing, dark as night, bearing down, one pace, another. Involuntarily, Solo backed away, one hand flailing behind himself, seeking a weapon, finding the water jug on the bedside table. He hurled it at Vader who deflected it contemptuously, sending water droplets spraying across the room. An invisible fist slammed into Solo's chest, lifted him from his feet and threw him hard backward. All the breath escaped Solo's lungs as his spine met the solid wall with an agonising thud.

Dazed, bruised, he crumpled to the floor. He lay blinking upward, Vader's glossy black helmet as unreadable as ever as it swam into focus. But there was plenty of emotion in the voice.
"Where is Skywalker?" Rage and fear, trembling, were set to erupt in unbridled violence. Two stormtroopers and a human doctor in Imperial uniform came clattering into the room.

"Leave him to me," Vader commanded as the troopers bent to haul Solo up. "He is about to tell me where he has taken Skywalker."

Solo pushed himself to his knees, astounded...why would Vader lie.... "What are you playing at?"

Vader's immense fist clenched, lifted, and he came a pace closer, his cloak brushing Solo's boots. "A clever ruse, Corellian, but I am in no mood for it. Take me to Luke!"

Searching for some support with which to drag himself to his feet, Solo suddenly felt iron fingers closing, clawing deep into his mind. Luke had assured him Vader could not read minds, but it was possible to sense truth or deceit. Good. Solo gasped and stiffened, the pain increasing. As quickly as it crested, it receded, leaving him to fall gasping back to his hands and knees.
"You truly do not know." Vader sounded uncharacteristically shaken, stunned and fearful. He turned away, hand lowering, cloak swirling about him. "He cannot walk. Someone must have helped him... or..." He swung about once more, but this time his masked eyes were directed at the civilian medical staff hovering behind the newcomers, prevented from leaving by more stormtroopers. Vader indicated they should be brought forward. "You know what happened to him" he thundered at last, one finger levelling accusingly at the nurse.

The troopers shoved her forward. "They took him," she blurted, eyes wide with terror. "Your officers. I thought it was your order. I don't know where they went."

"You," Vader roared " betrayed my son!" There was a pause in which Vader's arm trembled and shook and he appeared to be struggling to control himself. "I cannot reach him!" He exclaimed, anguished. That failure set ablaze to the incendiary heart of Vader's rage. His fist raised, clenched, shook, and the nurse convulsed, fell limp and lay unmoving. She breathed once haltingly, then stopped.

The doctor, bending closer, said unnecessarily, "She's dead."
"Oh, fine," Solo shook his head in disgust as he staggered to his feet, remaining there only by leaning heavily against the bed. "You've killed off our only lead. Now I gotta find him the hard way."

Vader turned to stare and Solo wished he'd kept his big mouth shut. "Yes," the Dark Lord hissed, considering. "You know this city."

"Forget it." Solo's chin lifted defiantly. "I ain't helping you get at him again."

"You truly think you can refuse me?"

"Now, now," Solo lifted a hand. "You gotta watch that temper. Stop killing people before you can use them."

"I do not intend to kill you, Solo. Yet. But I will make you talk."

"Or scream?" Solo's lips twisted in an accusing sneer. "I don't handle pain well, you may recall. Luke felt what you did to me on Bespin. He's still pissed with you about that. You wanna play buddies with him, damaging me ain't gonna help."

Solo was not sure if he should be relieved or insulted, but before he'd finished presenting his argument, Vader lost all interest, his helmeted head lifting, tilting to one side, listening to something beyond Solo's range.

Vader turned to speak to his aide. "No ships are to enter of leave Mos Eisley. Place the entire planet under interdict."
"Sir!" the officer saluted.

"Hey!" Solo protested. "What about.."

Another officer, a junior naval man, came hurrying in. "My Lord," he said breathlessly. "There has been some trouble in the street. Two locals killed, another wounded. It seems they may have witnessed Skywalker's abduction."

"Where!?" Both Vader and Solo said, closing on the youngster who backed away.

"This way," he replied, turning about. "We wouldn't allow the wounded man to be removed until you had spoken to him, m'Lord."
"Well done, Ensign," Vader rumbled, pacing after him. Solo made to follow and was immediately blocked by two stormtroopers. One swung him about and the other reached to clap manacles about his wrists, pinning his arms at his waist. Vader did not pause or look back, but pointed a finger back at Solo and said, "Bring him."
"Yes, My Lord!" the troopers chorused. They grabbed at the Corellian's elbows.

Solo shook them off, his eyes round with indignation as he informed them, "I was goin' anyway!"

Outside a small crowd of interested onlookers was being held back at a corner while a Devaronian wearing a doctor's insignia bent over a young human male who lay half-propped up on a float pallet on the pavement. More troopers guarded them, two more young men lay sprawled, bloodied and still, eyes staring skyward. All three were dressed in the Tatooine rural fashion, overlapping thigh length tunics and leg wrappings above soft ankle boots.

"His name is Tosche," the Ensign introduced, "an important name in the hinterland, I believe."

"Farmers," Solo commented, craning to get closer as the troopers persisted in blocking him from the wounded man.

Vader squatted down, his masked face looming close above the boy's pallid face. "Tell me exactly what you saw. Who attacked you?"

Tosche's blue eyes glazed with fear, looking ready to pop from their sockets. His jaw dropped, he gulped and swallowed, and any remaining color drained rapidly from his face. Obviously he knew the reputation of his fearsome-looking questioner.

"What did you see?" Vader already sounded impatient.
"L - Luke," the boy stuttered. "My friend."

Solo pushed between his flanking troopers. "He must come from around Anchorhead way. Kid's so scared he can't remember anything." Solo dragged his attention from Tosche's strained face to flick an irritated glance at the Sith Lord. "You breathin' all over him ain't helpin'."

Vader stood, took a pace back . "Question him."

"Right," Solo said, his tone and expression pained. He knelt beside the boy, conversed in a deep, soothing tone, telling him he was not in any trouble and would be okay. Tosche brightened, began speaking haltingly, then with gathering confidence. He became excited and flushed, gesturing wide with his good arm as he described the fight. Finally his eyes clouded with tears and his voice trembled as he nodded toward his dead friends. "We didn't save Luke, and now I have to go home and tell everyone they're dead."

Solo reached out manacled hands to pat the boy's shoulder reassuringly, smiling grimly as he said, "It wasn't for nothin', kid. You've given me enough to track him down. I'll bring Luke back, my word on it."

Tosche nodded savage agreement but looked less confident as he spotted the chains at Solo's wrists.

"Well?" Vader rumbled as Solo got back to his feet and stood staring down the street, frowning thoughtfully.

"He and his buddies grew up with Luke," Solo answered, recounting the facts for his own reference. "They called to him when they saw him being carried from the hospital in a float chair. There were two Imperial officers and a couple of locals with him. Tosche moved closer and the Imps shoved him away. Luke tried to escape when he saw your officers wanted to load him into an old rental speeder. Tosche and his pals drew their weapons but...."
"Not of much use." Vader sounded as frustrated as Han felt.
Solo shrugged. "He's just a kid. First time he's been shot at, lost friends. He's probably in shock."

"Still," Vader hissed, "perhaps I should find a more reliable native guide than a Corellian smuggler."

"Fine by me." Solo flashed a cheeky smile. Vader must have been glaring, judging by the angle of the head and the ice chill emanating from him. Solo remained unfazed, watching as the Davaronian doctor began moving his patient inside the hospital.
Vader turned to give orders to his officers, and Solo took the opportunity of escape, edging toward the crowd of curious onlookers, his trooper guards busy holding them back as they made way for the doctorand the float pallet. He was almost clear when it suddenly seemed his legs froze beneath him.

"You try my patience, Corellian," Vader said distinctly, sounding impossibly loud and clear for all he was meters away, back turned, apparently still talking with his officers. "Come back here before I do something which you might regret."

Solo suggested Vader do something anatomically impossible with his light saber. "Oww!" Something jerked sharply at Solo's manacles, the metal pinching and bruising, pulling his arms taut and tugging him back to stand between the guards.

Vader finished giving orders, officers saluting and scattering. The Dark Lord turned to Solo. "Going somewhere?"
Solo's lips twisted and his chin lifted. "I got a dinner date, you ain't invited."

"You have many contacts here, Solo," Vader ignored the comment. "You must know where that vehicle was obtained."

Solo stared straight ahead, remained silent.

Vader took a step closer, boot-tip to boot-tip. Solo flinched but refused to back away. "You will tell me ..." Vader threatened.

Suddenly the Sith Lord gave a gasping, choking cry, stumbled, and might have fallen had he not grabbed at Solo's shoulder for support. Solo yelped, the Dark Lord's fingers closing vice-like on his flesh.

"Luke! Son!" Vader said despairingly. He let go of Solo but still looked unsteady. "What are they doing to you?"

"What did you say?" Solo jerked, shocked first by Vader's unthinking use of the word 'son', but even more afraid as he realized the import of the Dark Lord's obvious pain and further words. Solo left off rubbing at his abused shoulder. He frowned and leaned closer to study Vader, but an officer appeared and pushed him away.

"My Lord?" the Imperial queried. "Are you hurt?'

Vader seemed unable to answer, but Solo said, "Not him. Luke." The words could have been carved from ice, Solo's eyes glinting pure murderous fury.

"Yes," Vader whispered, turning to him. "You know, you understand." He stood staring at Solo a moment. "Luke felt your pain, now I feel his. You must help me find him before it is too late."