Another hoarse cry escaped Aphra's lips as her body contorted in agony and she braced herself for the end. Hopefully it would be quick. Her thoughts stopped on Vader, on what they could have had and all the things they could have changed. But it seemed fate would not have it that way. A tear welled up in her eye and she screamed her lungs out as the pain intensified. Please, make it stop. And stop it did. The lightning bolts suddenly vanished and the emperor's cackle died out as his eyes darted down to the red blade that poked through his heart. Then he fell to the ground in a fresh pool of blood.
Still panting on the floor, Aphra latched onto the gloved hand that helped her up and collapsed against Vader. Hard metal stopped her fall as his arms moved to enclose her, rocking her slightly while tears of relief rolled freely down her cheeks. It was over. She was alive. They were alive. She mentally tasted the word. Alive. Aphra could hardly believe it. Her whole body was aching, but she didn't care. She was safe and she was never leaving those arms again.
Vader grasped onto the frail figure that fell limply in his arms. The emperor had been right about one thing: it was over. Sidious was dead, and for the first time in his life, Vader was free. No more bowing. No more kneeling. So there he stood, drawing out ragged breaths, his heart still thundering from the exhaustion of the battle and Aphra's tear-streaked face still buried in his chest, relishing the fact that they were both alive. They clutched at each other as if to ascertain that fact, not wanting to let go lest the illusion might fade away. But it was no illusion; they were safe – and almost sound.
"Looks like we're interrupting…" Solo's voice echoed from the lift as the door tore open with a bang.
Vader hardly paid attention to the smuggler and wrapped his arms tighter around Aphra's shaking frame, ignoring the Rebels' prying eyes. Restraint was not on the agenda. Not right after death had almost claimed them both. After what could have been seconds or hours, Luke's voice broke the silence again and pulled them out of their dazed state.
"Told you, Han," the boy whispered, but loud enough for Vader to raise his head. "That's ten credits for me."
"Yeah… did I mention I was broke?"
"Come on, it's the third time this month!"
"Hey," the smuggler shrugged. "Not my fault you never learn…"
Vader repressed the urge to shake his head. Oh, son...
"Enough of this. Both of you," Leia snapped, shooting them a death glare as she silenced them with a hand. She proudly made her way towards the entwined pair. Oh yes, that one truly was his daughter.
"What is it, your Highness?" he asked with a tinge of amusement, still cradling the weakened archaeologist.
The Princess eyed them both in disbelief, in all likelihood not expecting to witness such a scene. However, she quickly regained her composure and cleared her throat to speak.
"Senator Mothma is on her way," she stated in a businesslike manner.
"Good. We will engage the negotiations tomorrow. For now, you'll understand Doctor Aphra and I both require medical attention."
"Yeah right. Medical attention…" Solo said wryly.
Vader glowered at him behind his dark lenses.
"Yes," he spat. "Medical attention. I trust you are familiar with the concept." He barely knew the man but he hated him already.
Several hours later, Aphra exited the palace's medical facility. She had escaped her encounter with the emperor relatively unscathed – save for a few minor burns and a certain degree of nervousness that was still causing her to start a every noise – yet the medidroids had insisted to run a complete examination, fussing about her heart rate and the necessity to scan for brain and nerve damage. They had kept her in there for hours, and she was pretty sure the repairs to Vader's suit were long finished when she finally got out. With that thought in mind, she headed straight for the yacht, which was undoubtedly the only place around equipped with a hyperbaric chamber, and, therefore, the only place she would find him resting.
Vader, for one, was all at the mercy of his own anxious thoughts. Yes, they had won. But things could still go wrong. What if the negotiations failed? Then there was little doubt that this war would continue. He would take his master's place as the new man to bring down and all would have been for nothing. What would become of his children? What would become of Aphra? The memory of her writhing and screaming in pain made him wonder if she was all right. He was about to get out and check that for himself, when he felt her coming from across the ship. He put his mask on and opened the pod, trying his best to appear calm and unflustered, when he had, in fact, been worrying about her and aching for the warmth of her presence.
They spent a minute or so staring at each other in awkward silence before Aphra finally decided to speak.
"Thank you. For saving me."
"Well," he acknowledged, "you did save me first, Aphra".
"Ah, you're welcome. We're such a good team. If I'm being honest I'm almost sad this is over…"
Over? Vader visibly stiffened at the implication. Aphra seemed to notice that and went on with an explanation.
"Alright, let me reformulate. I didn't say I was leaving. First, I don't want to, and second, we both know you can't do without me."
Vader relaxed a bit and leaned back against his seat.
"What I meant," she continued, "is I'm gonna miss saving your skin and blowing stuff up."
"Then I must say, you have an optimistic view of the situation. Mon Mothma has arrived to negotiate the truce and I have no doubt she will be driving a hard bargain. And we still have enemies outside the Rebellion. We must be prepared for whatever may come."
Aphra gave him a nod but the smirk progressively forming on her face told him that her mind was elsewhere.
"Agreed. But preparation can wait until… let's say… tomorrow, maybe?" she said with a wink as she sat down on his lap.
Really, Aphra? They were talking about war and politics and all she seemed to think about was… Oh, the hell with all this. She was right, it could all wait until morning. And it would. For now let them enjoy a moment of respite.
"It most certainly can," he droned, his voice enticingly slow.
Aphra pressed herself against him and could now feel his breath ghosting over her skin. An invisible hand slid down her back and around her waist, sending tingles down her spine. She couldn't stop herself from inching a bit closer, and suddenly wanted the mask out of the way.
"How about you just take that off?" she said with a smirk, running a hand under his chin. Vader pressed a chrome button, activating the machinery that took his mask and helmet off, revealing the same face she had seen that night on the Executor. The same paleness and the same scars. The same deep and sad blue eyes. Not sad, she thought. Soulful. She gave him a soft, quiet kiss and looked at him again. And despite his disfigurements, laying her eyes on him made her smile. He didn't make a single move, staring at her as if transfixed, but she quickly heard his breath become short and strained, and knew he couldn't stay like this for long.
She took her hands off him and started fumbling with the switches and buttons on his armrest, failing to remember which one he had pressed when he had first sealed the hyperbaric chamber. A faint smile tugged at his scarred features as he watched her flounder with the controls.
"Here," he said, brushing her hand as he flipped a switch right next to it.
Gears whirred above their heads and the air became thick and velvety, like a warm, soft blanket drawing itself over them. Their lips melted again as the pod closed on them, shielding them from the world as their sore bodies met in a yearning embrace. And for the first time since she could remember, Aphra found herself hoping that this was forever.
Author's note : Oh dear. This is a lot soppier than I initially intended... Anyway, this is most likely the last chapter because I'm running out of ideas and I don't want the story to become too dragged out. I had a lot of fun writing this, so thank you for reading it and lots of hugs to you all!