Author's Note: This is a fairly early story, but one I'm still pretty pleased with, which is rare--generally a year or two after I've written a story, I hate it. The inspiration for this piece, BTW, was a fannish comment that I strenuously disagreed with--that since, after all, Leia had already lost Alderaan, that losing Han (if he'd died in carbon-freeze post-TESB) wouldn't be that gigantic a deal. Hah, said I. Haven't you ever heard of a breaking point?
by Pat Nussman
"And all your graces no more use shall have
Than a Sun dyall in a grave."
-- John Donne, "The Will"
Malebolge, the Imperial center.
The slender, dark-haired young woman walked through the iron-grey cavern of Giryon Terminal with measured steps, her gaze skimming the beings, furred and scaled and skinned, who crossed and recrossed the stone floor of the spaceport, constantly coming and going, but apparently never arriving. For a brief moment, she would be part of this futile whirlwind, then, departing, she would be once more alone.
She paused outside the terminal, ignoring her fellow travelers, and scanned the frayed wanted posters peeling from the side of the ancient structure. Her glance slid over her own sun-faded face, which stared down at her so accusingly, and fastened on the ragged sheet tacked beside it.
Still there. Its deadly purpose was accomplished, but still it hung for the sun and the wind and the rain to work on until the face was obliterated, forever. She touched the faded image lightly, swiftly, then whirled away and walked on, careless of the curious glances her abrupt movements elicited from her fellow pedestrians.
Once, she would have slipped cautiously, inconspicuously, from pillar to post, fearful of discovery, of capture, of death. But now those things mattered less than nothing to her. There was nothing, nothing at all left for her to fear now (now that that face was gone, that bounty collected, that life extinguished). And only one thing left for her to do.
Find him. (He who had posted the sheet, he who had caused this agony, he who...)
She moved surely, confidently, through the streets of the port section, with its threats of casual violence, on toward the more subtle, cloying dangers embodied in the dark buildings of power and pleasure which loomed beyond the port. And with each footstep, each heartbeat, she felt the pain. Encroaching grief, sending tendrils of agony up her nerve endings, the vines winding, entwining, threatening to suffocate her very being.
Not a moment, not a word, not an action this past year had been without the pain. Even now, so close to the end of her quest, she felt it close around her soul like a vise.
She had tried to keep together her crumbling bulwarks of strength, had continued her work, her responsibility, this whole endless year, despite that nearly palpable agony which accompanied her every meeting, every decision, every scrap of paperwork, every movement around the base. She was told, and firmly believed, that the pain must fade and grow less with time. Each night, when she retired, she said to herself she'd borne it one more day, and tomorrow the pain would be gone, or at the least, lessened. But each morning the unbearable was still with her, to bear once again.
She had not thought this would be her breaking point.
Alderaan, slain before her eyes, had not broken her. Nor Imperial torture. Nor the destruction of base after base, the dying of hope after hope, the demise of comrade after comrade. But this blow, somehow, after all the countless tragedies she had borne, this blow had been the final one, the agony she could not endure, the pain she could not be strong about.
The boundless aching clutched at her, choking her, so that it was only with an effort she could put it aside enough to function. And the effort, instead of becoming less, became more difficult with every day that passed.
The thought came to her abruptly one morning, and if it didn't erase the torment, at least it eased it marginally. Instead of suffering passively, she would act. She would go to Malebolge and find the one who had caused this, who had ignited her pain. What she would or could do to him was not clear, was hidden in the recesses of her pain-fogged mind. Nor did it matter particularly. It was enough, now, to arrive here, to confront him, to fling the burden of her agony at his black-plated hulk and find release.
So now she walked dim, stone-boundaried streets openly, stalking her prey to his lair. Turn left at that corner, duck behind this building, where only the best in bodies and drugs are sold, see that landmark, the Senate buildings, where so often you walked to corridors of power...but that is not the destination, not the place you seek. There is another...
Find him. (It won't be hard. You know where to look.)
The difficulty had been in getting away, escaping her friends on the base to follow the compulsion which twined its way around her psyche. Compulsion. Yes. It had been a drive, a need, a compulsion to come here, to the scene of her youthful struggle with the Empire (had she truly been that young, that hopeful, that idealistic?), to seek the man who had checked her every scheme, who had tortured her, who had held her while her people were utterly eradicated, who had killed--
No. She wouldn't think of that now, because if she thought about that death, she would lose herself to the pain, lose her fragile strength before this task could be completed.
Find him. (What was that train of thought?)
Oh, yes. Getting away. Luke had proved a problem. The new, more knowing Luke Skywalker would not allow her to leave the base, would take her hands in his and try to reason with her, would put her under restraints if necessary, but would not allow her to leave, to come here, to find him--
But she had to leave. That compulsion...
So she trumped up a mission, far away, almost on the other side of the settled worlds. Something only a Jedi could handle. And she sent the message ("Hurry, Luke, hurry.") by droid, so he could not read her, could not see what she intended. And even then--she had watched anxiously on the comscreen--there had been that hesitation, a worried cocking of the sun-gilded head, a narrowing of the piercing blue eyes, which seemed to say: Something is not right.
But he went, which was all that mattered. For her.
Her old friend, General Rieekan, had been easier--worried about her battered, drained state. Sympathetic. It proved easy to play on his sympathies, to claim she was going to some isolated, neutral planet to think things out, to put her life back in order. But when she left base, she traveled instead toward the galactic center, slipping cannily from unmarked rebel freighter to one commercial passenger liner after another. To Malebolge. Here.
Here. In front of this unpretentiously luxurious palace which she remembered too well. How many lavish gathers had she attended here, tense, afraid, but placing smooth barriers over her fear as she dueled his quiet, deadly words? Now she was no longer afraid. Now remained neither fear nor hope, only the battered blaster in her hand, a blaster no longer in the best of condition, since it had no owner to care for it lovingly. Still, it would do.
And it seemed...appropriate.
She walked past black durasteel gates, down a walkway of polished stone to huge carved doors. When she had visited here before, the courtyard had been alive with glow-lights, and black-clad footmen had opened the doors at her approach, bowing low with a respectful murmur of "your Highness." Now the courtyard was dark, the house dim and quiet. It did not occur to her that the myriad of guards who protected her enemy were missing. Nor, if it had occurred to her, would she have cared.
She pushed at the doors. They swung inward smoothly, with not even a whisper of sound. The great hallway lay in darkness before her, the stillness almost suffocating, with only the sound of low, amplified breathing rippling out from the shadowy void.
Leia Organa turned slowly, calmly in the direction of the sound. How often had she listened, strained to hear that sound these last few weeks, the sign she neared the end of her search? The source of the amplified sound stood easily at a doorway to the right of the hall, his posture suggesting hospitable relaxation.
Turning slightly, he gestured into the room behind him. "Princess Organa?"
She smiled, the expression near cracking her petrified features, and followed him wordlessly into the chamber. She had taken off her white clothing, the Alderaani mourning, and was dressed entirely in black, an eerie echo to her host. With her high-collared black shirt, ribbed pants, leather boots, blaster held tight against one slim leg, she resembled the Sith guards now absent, as though she had taken up their task.
Her host lit a single glow on the mantle of the massive fireplace, the faint illumination casting distorted shadows over the paintings on the wall, the rare, leather-bound books, the intricately-carved furniture. Strange, civilized surroundings for this confrontation. She wrapped her fingers more tightly around the blaster, raised it carefully upward...you'll only have one chance, Organa...
Not even that.
Coolly, Vader turned from lighting the glow and extended a hand toward her. "I think not, princess."
And, as easily as that, she found herself unable to move, not even the fraction it would take to tighten her finger on the trigger.
He gazed at her intently. (Or so she thought, but how could one tell with that mask?) His hand was still half-extended, freezing her in a dramatic pose, blaster half-raised, as though a director had still-framed a holo of a cantina duel. He seemed to be watching her with amusement. Something about the angle of his body, the way he held his helmeted head, suggested it.
He didn't speak, but a thought--his--touched her mind. That's not what you came for.
Her mind felt numb, unused. The reason I came... Logic fled from her from grasp, dissolving from her mind's hold even as she tried to examine it. To kill him had been a reason to come--a foolish reason, unobtainable--but it hadn't been the true motivation. She had felt a coolness, a dimness, a sweet easy place dancing in the edges of her consciousness, a place of twilight haunting her compulsion's dreams, then slipping elusively away.
Panic bound her chest, suffocating her. "I...I..." She stumbled, searching for words. "I had to come."
A sound like a faint chuckle escaped Vader's respirator. "Yes," he agreed smoothly. He gestured. Her arm sank to her side once more and her grip loosened, allowing the blaster to fall onto the thick carpet, bouncing once, then lying still. Harmless.
"I had to find you."
He said nothing, but she felt the echo of a cool smile in her mind and she trembled as if chilled to the bone. (What had she sought here?) She raised her eyes to the enigmatic photoreceptors. He had drawn her here; she could feel the pull now, recognize it for what it was. Why?
Vader stepped forward and cupped her chin with one gauntleted hand. He brushed a leather-covered finger across her cheek. "For my own ends, of course." He lifted her chin, forcing her to gaze into the darkened disks which passed as his eyes. "The evil Lord Vader always works for his own ends, does he not, Your Highness?"
Somehow, she found the strength to jerk away from his ironic gaze, focusing her eyes on the glow he'd placed on the mantle. "And how do I fit your ends, Lord Vader?" She tried for lightness. Failed.
A moment of silence passed, then the leather-covered hand wove itself into her hair, disentangling the piled mass, demanding her attention. "You fit as a weapon, Organa. My weapon." The hand tightened. "To destroy the Alliance." And her mind echoed his next thought, half-shrouded, but too strong to be completely hidden. And to bring Skywalker to me.
The panic crushing her chest became tighter, more smothering. As a weapon. Yes. And she had brought herself to Vader's hand. She searched desperately for some of her old confidence, the assurance that had buoyed her through former confrontations. Vader couldn't defeat her, she repeated, couldn't use her as long as she herself...
Precisely. Vader's thoughts whispered in her mind. This time, Your Highness, I have you, and you won't slip away. For this time, I hold your price.
She raised her eyes again to his, half-knowing, half-fearing his next words.
"Freedom," he repeated aloud, his voice echoing and re-echoing through the dark room, through the darkness in her mind. "From pain. Do you think I haven't felt it, Organa? Your agony screamed to me from across the galaxy. The raw, mindless agony, the unappeasable grief, maddening sorrow. It doesn't have to be so. With me you'll be free. With the rebels you will be sentenced to it for a lifetime. Years of bearing the unbearable." The inexorable voice painted dark pictures in her mind.
She sagged, held upright only by the steel-like grip of the hand entangled in her hair. Gods, the temptation.
Hating him, loathing him, as she did, still all she wanted was to take what he offered. She jerked her head, trying to hide her face in protest, but his hand kept it upturned toward his dark mask. She fought his temptation desperately, keeping firmly in her mind what would happen if she gave in--the disbelief in the Alliance that their symbol had turned her face from them, the years of planning overturned.
And Luke...Luke would come after her, after them, and would fall.
She couldn't do it, couldn't let the Dark Lord who had destroyed her take yet another beloved life, couldn't forget that he had killed the man she loved. She forced her lips open to form the denying words, forced reason to her mind. "You," she said carefully. "You caused the pain."
And it was true, but all she could see was the calm, sweet twilight of oblivion he offered, like luscious fruit lying in the palm of his hand.
"Does it matter?" he asked quietly. (And in her mind, he pained beckoning pictures of darkness.) "I can release you. Only I. From sorrow, from grief, from pain. Forgetfulness, Organa, and no pain. Ever again. I can do that with the Force."
(And she saw it. He could. She felt herself drawn into the dim landscape, the country of surcease.) "With the Dark Side," she whispered painfully.
"Yes. With the Dark Side, the active side, the side which can erase your memories, your pain."
She closed her eyes. (No good. In her mind she saw the Darkness calling her to a place where Leia Organa would no longer have to bear the unbearable. No more...) "Luke--Luke said that I have to live with the pain, accept it, make it a part of me." She stumbled over the words, sagging lower, held by the coaxing hand. (How could she do that, live like that?)
"Yes," Vader acknowledged. "That is the way of the Light--passive, accepting. But when have you ever been passive, Organa? And how can you accept this legacy of pain?"
"Can't. Can't..." she whispered, shaking her head weakly. (Cool. Peaceful. Dark.)
With shaking legs, slowly, Leia stepped back a pace, the Dark Lord's hand slipping from her hair, allowing her this space. But his very presence still held her, coiling about her mind with bands of dusky silk. (No more pain. Ever.)
The choice was hers now.
The Light was her natural way, the path laid down for her from childhood. She had fought for it, sacrificed for it, believed in it. (Gods, the pain.) But what the Light given her aside from agony? And now that the one being who had touched her was gone, what was the Light but illumination of the landscape of that agony? (Gods, but I hurt--)
Vader stood silent, waiting. The persuasions were from her own mind now, murmuring promises of cool forgetfulness, sweet darkness, surcease, and the unknown, enticing pleasures waiting with him in the enclosing Night.
Which way? Back at the base waited...nothing. Nothing at all was left for her in the Light. Nothing was left for her in life, except in...
Leia Organa took a single step across wine-red carpet, her movement decisive, firm. She was taken into the Sith Lord's embrace, black against black, the hard clasp welcoming and suffocating.
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