Title: A Hope in Hell
Author: Mina
Rating: PG.
Luke/Vader AU, H/C, Angst.
Summary: 13 years after her death, Vader finally locates his wife's grave in the rubble of a decimated Naboo. Doubting his master and doubting his own convictions, he travels to Naboo to discover the truth about her death. But he finds more at that grave than just memories. Waiting for him are the angry survivors of Theed's destruction... and the son he'd assumed dead.
Disclaimer: No infringement upon the rights of Lucasfilm is intended by this story. No copyright to the characters is claimed, and no money is made.
Archiving: Please ask first.
Notes: Many, many thanks to the people who've helped me with this story – Melpemone, Rynne and MJ Mink. It was a complex and lengthy affair, and I would have shelved this story without your help.

This is the first part of eight.

A Hope in Hell
by Mina


"...Anakin? ...Anakin? ...Anakin!"

The whispered words seemed to slide into his mind, cutting deep, slicing right into his soul. Vader knew, logically, that she was not there, and that he should not let a dead woman haunt him. But that knowledge couldn't stop the ghost of Padmé from calling to him, echoing through his mind.

It is your imagination,Vader chided himself. And it was. Just the memories of thirteen years ago tearing through his mind as he knelt at her grave, his armoured knees digging into the damp, muddy ground.

I would have surrendered my soul for you, he thought angrily, unable to tear his gaze away from the crude headstone that marked the spot where she lay. Perhaps I did. And what was my reward? Only your revulsion.

Ire rose in him then, a cold fury that him from any of the more soul-shaking emotions he might have felt at that moment. It was a familiar anger, an anger that had become a part of him during those long, empty years following his transformation from Skywalker to Vader. But it wasn't as overpowering as it used to be; it no longer seemed potent enough to quench the pain. In truth, it hadn't felt enough for weeks, perhaps even months - not since his agents had finally located his wife's grave, thirteen years too late for Vader to mourn her.

His gaze moved from the headstone to the earth beneath his knees. Almost impossible to believe her empty body lay here, beneath this frozen ground, unheralded and uncelebrated - marked by a crude, simple gravestone with only a name and date carved into it.

Even now, kneeling here, feeling the echo of the past pressing against his hands, his knees, it still seemed unreal that she had been buried here, on the first planet to feel Palpatine's wrath after the purges. Kenobi should have known better than to bring her here.

It wasn't the fact that she was laid here, in a dark corner of a damp catacomb, that disturbed him. It was the fact that this was Theed, the capital of Naboo and Padmé's home city, and he wondered why he had never before thought to look here. If he had ever contemplated investigating Naboo for her burial place, he must have rejected the idea so quickly that he couldn't even recall considering it. Naboo had been dead by then, reduced to rubble.

Reaching out a gloved hand, Vader scraped at the lichen obscuring the headstone, thinking, numbly, that it was probably fitting that she lay here. The whole planet was a grave - a grave dedicated to the Separatists. When Palpatine had taken his fury out on the Naboo, using them as an example to any remaining Separatists with ideas of rebellion, he had decimated the planet. The prototype lasers, which were even now being improved upon for Palpatine's pet Death Star project, had proved more effective than their designers had hoped for. The north continent was all but inhabitable now. The polar caps had melted, the seas had risen; all the other continents were steadily drowning.

Vader had seen none of it; he had not witnessed the extent of Palpatine's fury at the Naboo for harbouring dissenters - and at nearly losing his newest apprentice.

At the time, he had been... incapacitated, undergoing his transformation. All he had known upon waking in his suit was that Padmé was dead - and presumably by his hand.

But the story of his part in her death, the story he had held as a bitter cloak around his heart for so long, was little more than a savage lie by his treacherous master. Padmé had not died on Mustafar - Vader had not killed her. The headstone in front of him confirmed that, the numbers etched into the damp stone proclaiming a date over four months after the formation of the Empire.

Palpatine had merely smiled thinly when Vader had confronted him with his betrayal. He had smiled and chuckled, aware that the damage was already done, that Vader was in no position to retaliate. Because it was too late now - far, far too late.

And it wasn't just anger Vader felt towards the old despot. It was grief, horror, regret... emotions that he had thought had long since deserted him. But he felt them now, nonetheless - and they were spiteful and terrible.

He did not know what to do with them, yet he knew he must deny them purchase on his soul. For Palpatine was right: it was far too late. Vader would be a tower; he would be made of steel and silver. He would be untouchable, unfeeling, unreachable, un-

- and then, between one indignant thought and the next, Vader's mind was lit with a sudden fire that brought him crashing back to the present.

His thoughts exploded. Pain shivered through him, and he grunted in shock, collapsing to the ground even as he attempted to stand, to reach for his lightsaber, to defend himself from the unexpected attack.

He curled his hands into the dirt and hauled himself to his feet, searching for the source of the sudden agony ripping through his head. But he couldn't see, couldn't hear - violent colour swamped his mind, swaddled his reactions, and his vision screamed at the abuse. Sounds tore at his ears, and he was reaching instinctively - foolishly - to cover them when the first blaster shot ripped through his upper arm. Another shot came on the heels of that one, slamming into his thigh.

For a moment he lost all sense of reality, falling to his knees with a hiss of pain. Crimson flooded his vision, pain tugging him towards unconsciousness. He was reaching for the Dark Side to support him, help him, but for the first time in years it was sluggish to respond - too slow to beat back the pain of the blaster wounds, too slow to prevent his mind from sinking towards unconsciousness.

There was a sound ringing in his ears, like a bell was chiming in his mind, tolling his failure. He concentrated on it even as his vision grew so dull that the stocky figure who walked into view was just a wavering shadow against the darkness. The man grinned down at Vader with savage pride, and a flash of light glinted off the charged hypodermic in his grimy hand.

Vader's danger instincts flared. He was ordering his body to its feet, ordering his hand to reach for his saber, but nothing was happening. With a paralysed body, a paralysed mind, he watched as the needle sank into his shoulder and liquid was forced into his muscles, bitingly cold.

How is this possible? What attacked me? Not this pathetic little man, surely? Vader wondered sluggishly, though he could barely think past the sting of the needle. Even as he struggled with his confusion, his mind began a quickening spiral down towards nothingness.

But not before he saw the boy.

The boy, standing off to the side, his hands curled tight with fraught strength, brilliant blue eyes watching Vader with an unreadable expression. Vader tried to hold on to the tatters of his consciousness, but they slipped through his grasp and he slid towards unconsciousness with an incessant image winking in his mind's eye: the boy's blue eyes, burning him - branding him.

Chapter 1

Vader's vision shivered, wavering between a terrible darkness and hazy images that filled his mind with uncharacteristic trepidation. The places he saw as he was transported on a barge down Theed's swollen river should have been at least vaguely familiar to him - but they were not.

Darth Vader had been to Theed before - two times: no more, no less. He was quite capable of describing the details of each visit with keen recollection, and quite as capable of stubbornly avoiding the emotions that welled up with each memory. As it was, his third visit was turning out to be the least pleasant of them all.

He knew this city well. Or rather, he had knownthe city well. Because it was changed, was now only a faint likeness of the Theed Vader recalled. The atmosphere, once warm and welcoming, now felt cold and bitter - hostile and ailing, like the city was waiting to take its final breath.

Because Theed was dying, fallen from the podium of her glory days and rotting in the fetid waters left behind by over a decade of war and death. The crystalline rivers were choking on algae, and lichen pocked the once-grand stone walkways. Tattered canopies fluttered in the wind, the fabrics faded and the ends ragged and burnt black, snapping crisply at the darkened sky.

And the people had changed, too. Once they had been gentle, passive - now they were vicious.

"… kill him! Kill the murdering bastard, Jandon!" someone screamed, and the words lanced through Vader's brain with the wicked sting of a blade. A raucous cheer went up at the shout, and the barge beneath Vader's back jostled as if a hundred feet pounded their approval of the suggestion.

Vader's sense of preservation demanded he get up and fight back, but his body would not respond. The blaster wounds were deep and they were ugly: shattered machinery in his right arm and shattered bone and skin in his thigh. All he could do was lie still, pained and breathless, nausea twisting his gut.

His anger was worse than the pain, though - and Vader was angrier with himself than with his captors. They had managed to take him by surprise, a feat that should not be possible against a Dark Lord. And now he lay on the barge, weak as a baby and as vulnerable.

The Force barely responded to his touch. It was beyond his reach, beyond the sting of thoughts that bordered dangerously on the morose. Whether the block was from the blaster wounds or from the drug he had been injected with, or even an after-effect of the Force-attack that had assailed him, he did not know.

Approaching footsteps rocked the barge, and water seeped into the burning wound on his thigh, making his breathing hitch. Blurred faces appeared at the limit of his hazy vision - a raggedy band of youths, all bearing a starburst tattoo that cut across one cheek. All grinning - all celebrating his capture.

"Is he awake?" one of them asked, and poked Vader in the ribs with his foot. Vader grimaced but made no sound. "He's not awake."The boy sounded disappointed.

They're barely adults, Vader thought. They must have been children during the 'Wars. Children.

But children were not exempt from being the victims of war. Naboo had chosen sides, as they all had, and chosen badly. War was cruel on many levels, and the people living here suffered no worse than he had as a child growing up in the dusty hell of Tatooine. Let them understand misery - the Nubians had languished in riches long enough. All things full-circle eventually. Even if that retribution fell upon the young, paying for their parent's errors.

Another boy - an older one, perhaps in his early twenties - snorted at his friend. "How would you know?He could be doing anything behind that mask."Then the youth paused, considering. "Let's get it off him," he said suddenly, and his fingers snaked down, reaching for Vader's faceplate.

Vader's breathing hitched in irate indignation, and they must have heard, because the boy stilled. His eyes went comically wide and he shot upright, turning to the front of the barge. "Hey, Jandon - he's awake!"

More footsteps approached, the vibration jarring Vader's injuries. A man appeared - a vicious looking man, eyes small and deep-set, looking at Vader with malicious amusement. This was the man who had shot him with the hypodermic, Vader realised, and he ground his teeth in helpless frustration.

"Well, well," the man said. "Welcome to Theed, Lord Vader. I hope you're enjoying your trip so far."

Vader grimaced. "Not thus far," he said, attempting to sound defiant, but he was shocked and dismayed by how weak he sounded.

The man - Jandon - laughed. "Oh dear, I am sorry to hear that."The gathering crowd of youths and young men laughed, and the sound made Vader's injuries throb. Jandon turned his head into the wind and took a deep breath. "You smell that?" he asked. All Vader could smell was decay. Jandon lowered himself to his haunches. "That," he said, "is failure. Your failure. And it is sweet."

Vader's anger was at the very edge of his self-control. "What do you want?" he demanded.

"What do I want?I want you die. Painfully... slowly." Jandon grinned a disconcerting smirk. "And soon."

"Tonight!" someone shouted. And someone else - "Do it now, Jandon!"

Jandon ignored them. "No, not now," he said, apparently to Vader. "I'll let you run it through your mind a bit first."There was no smile now, as he struck a thoughtful pose and said, "But there is someone here who's just dyingto meet you." He turned his head into the wind and called,"Luke! Boy!? Get over here!"

Vader was frowning in confusion even as a quiet, nervous voice answered Jandon. "I'm already here," the voice said, and a young boy stepped around Jandon.

It was the boy Vader had noticed earlier, just before he had lost consciousness during the attack. Vader stared at him, fascinated by the youth's desperate dignity. It was hard to judge his age, but the boy couldn't be any older than twelve or thirteen. He was too thin, too small. Yet the boy's gaze blazed with an inner fire and a pain that threatened to drown Vader before the rivers of Theed ever managed to claim their once-saviour.

With a dirty scrap of fabric wrapped around his blond head and tatters of clothing faded by dirt and age clinging to a wiry body, he should have fitted in with the merry band of Vader's erstwhile kidnappers.

But he didn't.

He was also familiar, but in a way Vader couldn't capture with words.

"Ah, there you are. I thought you'd run off," Jandon chuckled, but the good nature of the words was shattered by the uncaring violence with which the man pulled Luke towards Vader and by the flash of fear that appeared in those arresting blue eyes. The boy said nothing.

"What is this?" Vader asked, confused and not a little unnerved. To be threatened with pain and death he might have expected, but to force this boy to face him made no sense. And Vader's lack of knowledge irritated him.

Jandon gave the boy a condescending shake and ran a hand through the raggedy blond hair. "This is Luke. Our little Force-user. I thought you two might like to meet - you've got so much in common," he said, with humour in his voice. Vicious, malicious humour. The crowd snickered at a joke Vader couldn't hope to share.

But one thing he now understood.

"You directed the Force-assault on me?" he asked the boy.

The boy's gaze brushed Vader's briefly, and something flared to life in the depths of his eyes before it puffed out like a spent candle. "Yeah, I did," he said, quietly, and grimaced as he turned his gaze aside stubbornly, to face the ruins of the flooded city.

And what, Vader wondered, did that mean?

"Our Luke is full of surprises," Jandon said, and the boy flinched. Vader felt anger burning in his chest. The boy was being played with, he knew, just as Vader himself was.

"What do you want?" he demanded, but Jandon just laughed.

"Make him tell!" someone shouted. "Make the boy tell 'im!"

Tell me what? Vader wondered, as his heart kicked at his chest in anxiety. Tell me what?

But he couldn't find the words to ask. He studied the boy for a moment. He looked intelligent, though weary. And sad. The grief of the whole world might have rested on those slight shoulders. The frown line that bisected his forehead might have been a permanent fixture, over-scoring eyes that seemed to be searching for something they never found.

Vader watched as the boy resolutely refused to turn back to face him, fascinated by the different emotions that chased across the boy's face, as if he couldn't quite decide how he felt… or perhaps because he felt too much of everything.

"Tell him, Luke!" someone called.

Something must have snapped at the sound of his name, and Luke made an attempt to back away, trying to push Jandon's hands off him. But he couldn't get past Jandon's thick chest and was held in place by a hand holding a fistful of his hair.

"Let me go," the boy said, sounding desperate. The sound seemed to drag pain across Vader's nerve endings, though he couldn't say why. The boy was held firm, Jandon watching Vader with undisguised amusement as the other youths jeered loudly. The boy absorbed it all with a quiet, anxious composure Vader struggled not to admire.

A stalemate appeared to have been reached - everyone was watching Luke, who was steadfastly staring at his feet, saying nothing. "Ah, pathetic!" the leader eventually snorted in disgust. He gave the child a shake before letting go of him. "You'd better pull yourself together, boy, and tell him, or I could get... irritated." The threat was indefinite but the boy flinched just perceptibly. "It'll be priceless," Jandon smirked, glancing at Vader with spite in his eyes.

A collective groan of dissatisfaction rolled across the barge. "No, make him tell!" one gang member called. "Make 'im -"

The barge jolted suddenly, and the crowd swayed and struggled to stay upright. Jandon looked aside. Someone shouted, "Nice docking, you idiot - you want to wreck the quay?!" and Vader realized they'd arrived at their destination, though he still couldn't take his eyes off the boy to look around.

Luke's fists clenched and unclenched spasmodically. He looked up, briefly, and opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. His gaze settled openly on Vader, just for a moment, and Vader had the unpleasant sensation of being stripped to the bone by that gaze. Luke's mouth remained open, as if he were about to speak, but still - no words.

And just what, Vader wondered, was so very difficult for him to say?

Then the boy was swallowed from Vader's view by a mass of the youths who reached forward and grasped at him. He was unceremoniously hefted onto the shoulders of a half-dozen men, his grunt of pain drowned out by the complaints of the gang at having their game cut short. Vader felt nothing but a bitter sense of disappointment, and he couldn't say where it came from.

They carried him like that, as if he were already a corpse, already counted amongst the dead buried beneath the wet streets. Cracked marble crunched under their feet, the shattered remains of the main thoroughfare spread out in front of them like a mocking welcome. Welcome back, the Hero of Naboo. Welcome back Anakin Skywalker, saviour and destroyer, man who freed us and Dark Lord who doomed us. Welcome back.

Just once Vader glimpsed the boy again, walking in the midst of the group.

Vader concentrated, and -

Wait, he sent, or at least tried to. It was difficult to know whether his call had reached into the Force or not.

But perhaps it had. The boy turned slowly, painfully slowly. His fists clenched and unclenched again. "Who are you?" Vader asked, his voice sounding hoarse.

Blue eyes locked onto Vader's mask, and through his damnably weak Force-sense Vader felt a hesitant probe at his mind. Still, despite everything, the boy remained stubbornly dignified.

"Nobody," Luke said, turning away from Vader. "I'm nobody."