Title: Equally Cursed and Blessed
Category: Adventure, Drama, Alternate-Universe.
Characters: Vader, Luke, Leia, Lando, OCs.
Disclaimer: Not my characters, well most of them, and not my universe. I'd love to say I was doing this for money, but it's purely for fun.
Setting: Shortly after ESB.
Summary: Luke Skywalker, battered and bruised after his collision with destiny on Bespin, is called upon by the Rebel Alliance for a desperate rescue mission that will plunge the would-be Jedi into a world of revenge, pain and desperation until there's only one person who can save him... his father.
Acknowledgements: Many, many thanks to my brilliant beta, Thalia. I don't think I'd ever have reached the end of this without your help.
Equally Cursed and Blessed
Luke blinked the stinging tears from his eyes, the light blinding and burning him with a white-hot heat. It brushed against his skin, blistering it. When he tried to scream, no sound emerged from his parched throat. He had no voice.
Flames traced lines of fire over his body and he writhed and kicked to try and knock the fiery talons away from him. But they wrapped themselves around him, snaking up his legs, burning deep black furrows into pale skin. The flesh puckered and burst and Luke desperately needed to cry out, if only he could make a sound. Smoke danced in front of his eyes.
And he couldn't even scream.
With a sudden rush of air the flames embraced his head. His hair crackled like baking hay and his tears sizzled angrily in the heat. He tried to reach out and bat the flames away, but the stump that was all that remained of his left arm came away blackened. He reeled away from the sight, screaming silently. And the flames coursed down his throat-
The sound burst from Luke's throat as he lurched up from the bed, trying to escape the flames from his dreams. The bed sheets were wrapped around his lower legs, tangling him in them, and he fell back to the mattress as his chest heaved for breath, clawing to get air into his lungs.
He grabbed a handful of the bed's coverlet in his real, left fist and screwed it into a tight ball. He was shaking badly, breath rattling in his chest as he tried to regain control of his breathing. In the grey light that filtered through the bunkroom's viewport, the sweat that covered his body had a pale sheen, hair plastered to his head as if the imagined heat had really burnt it to an ashen streak. He reached a shaky hand out and pulled the sheets closer, shivering suddenly. A quite beeping noise broke him out of his fearful shaking.
His voice wasn't so good, it rasped a mimicry of Darth Vader's voice. Luke winced as the analogy entered his mind.
He pushed himself up to sitting on the narrow mattress. He closed his eyes. There was no flame, no fire, no searing heat eating him from inside and out. So why did he imagine he could still see flames dancing in front of him?
Artoo beeped again. Luke shook the images from his mind's eye and turned to the droid. Artoo's dome-shaped head poked around the corner of the room's computer terminal. His metallic sigh sounded almost sympathetic. Luke swallowed hard, trying to rid himself of the fear that was still accelerating through him.
"I'm okay, Artoo," he reassured the droid. He brought the sheets closer around him, realising just how cold it was now the imagined heat was receding. "Just a bad dream."
Artoo replied with a doubtful sound and rolled towards him, beeping softly. Luke didn't know what he was saying, but he was fairly sure the droid was probably trying to reassure him. He came to the bedside and Luke reached out a hand to pat his metal dome, trying to stop the muscles in his arm from shaking.
"It's okay," he said again, more to himself than to the droid.
He took a shaky deep breath and coughed. That had been a particularly vivid one. He rubbed a hand along the stubble on his chin, untangled his legs from the coverlet and sat on the edge of the bed. Despite his certainty that it really had been nothing more than a dream, he was still relieved that his skin showed no dark, tangled burn marks. He shivered again.
The droid leant towards him. It was a strangely human gesture - you can confide in me - and somehow touching. Luke smiled.
"Artoo, if you figure out how the hell I sort my head out, can you let me know?"
The droid let out a series of beeps and whistles, an electronic lecture. Luke figured Artoo was probably telling him that first he needed to let Artoo in on what was keeping Luke awake before he started asking for solutions. But Luke wasn't ready to tell anyone what was keeping him up at night, not even Artoo.
He stood and walked to the vanity unit that had been squeezed into one corner of the cramped room. He took a glass from the shelf and filled it with cool water before taking a long draw of the liquid. The glass was cold against his clammy skin. He leant back against the wall, staring at nothing.
Now he had some measure of control back, he realised that this dream hadn't followed the pattern of his usual nightmares. In those he was as dark as Vader, killing everything that stood in his way, bursting with power. But not in this dream. This dream had just been about flames.
So what was the significance of burning?
Was it a future?
Or a past?
He downed the last of the water and looked down at Artoo.
"Artoo?" The swivelled his head towards Luke. "I'm scared, Artoo."
The droid whistled and Luke guessed he was objecting to that.
Luke shook his head. "It's pretty simple, really. I'm absolutely terrified." The droid motored closer. Luke had a pretty good idea what Artoo's long, ominous warble was saying. "No, I'm not scared of Vader. Not really. I should be, but..." He considered that as he placed the glass aside. He rubbed a hand across his face. "I'm more scared of myself than I am of him."
He had expected a whistle of surprise, but instead Artoo was quiet.
"What happens if..."
... if Vader corrupts me?
The droid whistled his confusion and Luke sighed. "What if I-"
He didn't finish the sentence. From where he'd dumped his clothes and utility belt the day before, his comlink had started trilling. Luke stared at it in trepidation. It was the middle of the ship's night-cycle: there were no innocuous reasons for someone to be calling him now. Suddenly, his heart was heavy with foreboding.
He reached for the comlink reluctantly.
Luke paused to study his reflection in a smoked transparisteel panel outside the briefing room. The young man that looked back at him seemed worlds away from the one he had known only months before whilst digging the Rebels into Hoth.
You've seen a lot since then. Too much.
The reflection just stared back sadly.
He straightened the Rebel-issue grey uniform and tried not to notice the lingering effects of his nightmare in the dark circles under his eyes. Keying open the briefing room's door, he entered.
When he stepped inside, the noise of the conversation that had been in progress fell away as the Alliance's leaders turned to look at him as one. Their eyes scrutinised him silently. Luke's own gaze immediately found Leia's and he noted uneasily how agitated she looked, sitting with her hands clasped tightly in her lap. He frowned fractionally at her but she just shot him a brief look of frustration.
"Welcome, Commander Skywalker," the Mon Calamari admiral, Ackbar, finally greeted him.
"Admiral." Luke bowed and took a seat at the large, polished oval table that dominated the room, around which the Alliance Council sat. Despite his still only rudimentary grasp of the Force, the tension in the room was screaming at him.
"Thank you for coming so swiftly," Ackbar continued. "The situation is rather pressing, so I'll get straight to the point. I'm afraid we have received some disturbing news. It seems that Mon Mothma's convoy came under attack from an Imperial patrol early yesterday morning. Mothma's shuttle was disabled and the passengers taken prisoner. We believe she is being kept on an Imperial stronghold close to Coruscant."
Luke felt his heart begin to race at the news. He glanced at Leia again, unnerved by her troubled expression. Ackbar brought up a holoprojection of the Core Regions of the galaxy from the projector embedded in the centre of the table, pointing at a small system with one spindly finger. "We believe that she hasn't yet been questioned. Neither the Emperor nor Darth Vader seem to have visited the world, yet our spies suggest Mon Mothma has not been moved from it."
"Why wouldn't they question her?" Luke asked, before he could think better of speaking without being invited.
But no one bristled at his presumption. It was Leia who answered him. "We have a few ideas why, but we can't know for sure and we don't really care for the minute - we need to try and get her back before they do."
Luke nodded, a cold feeling spreading through him. "And that's where I come in?" he asked.
He took a suddenly shaky breath. "You want to do a straight swap? Me for her?"
Everyone in the room seemed to suck in the same breath. Leia blinked in surprise. Ackbar flexed his long, frail fingers. "No, Commander Skywalker... why would you think that?"
Luke faltered only momentarily. "Because the information suggests that whoever has her, he hasn't told his superiors," he said. He frowned. "Doesn't that suggest he's hoping to collect on the bounty on her head?"
Leia arched her eyebrows and smiled at his insight, but Luke stayed frowning. He wasn't sure where this was going and he didn't much like not knowing.
Ackbar nodded. "This is true, but what makes you think they would consider a swap?"
Luke swallowed and banished the suddenly intrusive memories of Vader reaching out for him. His voice momentarily left him as he paled.
"Because Luke has a huge bounty on his head. A larger bounty." Leia had sounded tired as she said it.
General Rieekan, seated next to Ackbar, sat up straighter. "Surely not larger than Mon Mothma's?"
Luke could only wince as Leia enlightened them. "At the last report we had, it was one and a half billion credits."
There was a prolonged, stunned silence.
Luke didn't know where to look. In the end he focused on his hands where they rested on the tabletop. He shifted uncomfortably as the silence continued to grow.
It was Rieekan he broke the silence. "But Mon Mothma's bounty isn't even a billion credits!"
The rest of the room - generals, commanders, captains – seemed to be struck mute by Leia's revelation.
Ackbar shook his head. "Regardless of the size of your bounty, however inexplicable, an exchange was not our plan."
A flotilla commander spoke up. "But it is a good one..."
The room was silent in consideration of that. Luke wondered if he'd just managed to dig his own grave. He felt like he might start retching at any moment and wondered how the esteemed Council Members would react to that.
Leia slammed a hand down on the table. "It's a foolish idea," she growled.
The commander paused before replying. "But if Commander Skywalker is willing... he knows far less the Mon Mothma..."
Leia shook her head furiously. Luke remained silent. Finally, it was Ackbar who ended the discussions. "There will be no swapping of captives," he declared. He fixed Luke with an unreadable gaze, but Luke remained silent. "But the offer is well said. Commander, we called you here because we need you to take command of a group to infiltrate and free Mon Mothma from her captivity."
Luke looked up in shock. A rescue mission? That was a job for a commando team, not a navy commander. "I...I'm not sure I'm the right person for the job, Admiral," he replied.
The admiral nodded but it was General Madine who explained the reasoning. "Unfortunately, we have precious little information on the military complex of the primary planet, and we are reluctant to send a team in blind for such a vital mission. However, we understand that the Jedi of old were adept at this kind of mission. We believe their... intuitions... often made up for a lack of military intelligence, did they not?"
"I'm not a Jedi..." Luke muttered. The words stung him to say. No, you're not a Jedi, his inner critic whispered. You're the miserable brat of a dark Jedi, and soon to join him too, if Vader has his way.
"But you have gained some of their skills...unless you would like to revise your explanation for your absence from the rendezvous point after Hoth...?"
Luke winced at the implication. He knew he was lucky not to have been court-marshalled, or at least demoted, for leaving the Rebellion like that, barely remembering to send a message to the Council before jumping for Dagobah. Both the reason – 'Jedi training' - and his status as a 'hero' had saved him from that.
It remained a nice hook to hang him from, though, if it looked like he wouldn't accept this mission.
He sighed inwardly. So much for having time to recuperate after Bespin.
"I'm not sure-"
Ackbar clapped his spindly hands together. "You are our best hope to recover Mon Mothma." He leaned forward earnestly. "In truth, Commander, we would like more intelligence for this, and we would like to send in a more specialised team... but there simply isn't the time. We must retrieve her before she can be interrogated. Your experience in Rogue Squadron combined with your particular... skills... makes you our best choice."
Neatly done, Luke thought. They'd simultaneously praised him and backed him into a corner. He brushed a hand through his hair - things had never seemed this complicated back before Hoth and Bespin. He tried to read Leia's expression, but all he saw was exhaustion and fear.
What choice do I have? he thought.
"Sure, I'll do it," he said, and hoped he hadn't just signed his own death warrant.